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Paradise

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The gates of Megaton were surprisingly intimidating, despite the small size of the town. The walls were composed of a ridiculous amount of scrap metal and… parts of planes? A lone protectron was waddling around in front of the gates. That was all that stood between this settlement and a gang of raiders. I hoped the people within the town were heavily armed.

Something I never would have thought before the war. Such was the way of thinking that came with living in the Wasteland for ten months now.

MacCready ignored the robot’s greeting, striding forward and shoving open the gates. I hurried after him, struggling to keep up.

It had taken us two days to prepare for our trip out of the Commonwealth and then a little over a week to make it to the Capital Wasteland. The whole journey Mac had been antsy, extra irritable whenever we came across enemies or roadblocks. Or had to sleep.

The only thing he’d allowed to slow us down was saying goodbye to Shaun right as we were leaving for our journey.

“Please take care of him,” I said, holding Piper’s shoulders and staring at her intensely.

She rolled her eyes, removing my hands from her body.

“Blue, I’ve been raising Nat for ten years now, I think I can handle another twelve year old. I am also an adult.”

I bit my lip, nodding and glancing down at Shaun who was patting Dogmeat along with Nat. The two were chatting animatedly, seeming to be conversing about the dog curled up happily between them.

“If he gets sick-”

“I will take him to Dr. Sun, whose practise is across from my home.”

“And if he won’t eat-”

“Why wouldn’t he eat?” she asked, raising a dark eyebrow.

At this question Shaun looked up at me, frowning, puzzled.

“Mom, I’m not a pet, I’m not going to stop eating because I don’t know where you are. I’ll know where you are. You told me six hundred times between two days ago and now,” he said, giving me a flat look.

“Kids got a point,” Mac said.

I sighed.

“Fine. Fine! I won’t tell Piper how to take care of you!”

“I know how to take care of him,” she muttered.

“But if you die from heat stroke or malnutrition or sleep deprivation or a virus while I’m gone, it won’t be my fault! I did my best to protect you!”

Shaun stood, an amused smile on his face and threw his arms around me, resting his chin on my shoulder. He was definitely the same height as me. How had that happened?

Was he going to be taller when we got from the Capital Wasteland with Duncan? That was going to be strange, but I suppose it came with having a son who was the only synth with the ability to age.

“Mom, you’ve done a great job at protecting me. I’m going to be fine for a few weeks.”

“Ideally, two weeks. Just stay alive for two weeks,” I said, hugging him tightly. “Then I’ll be back and you can die whenever you want.”

He snickered, pulling away from me.

“Liar. You’ll make sure I live forever.”

Next he moved over to MacCready, the two of them hugging briefly. I couldn’t be more grateful for their amicable relationship. Part of me feared Shaun would treat Mac like an unwanted intrusion in his life with me. Instead, they enjoyed spending time together, Shaun willingly seeking out Mac’s company quite often. And Mac seemed to appreciate having a son, even if he wasn’t his by blood.

Not that this Shaun was my blood relative either.

“Alright, be safe buddy,” Mac said, clapping Shaun on the shoulder.

“Will do.”

“Thank you, Piper,” I said, smiling sincerely.

We turned, waving goodbye and heading towards the gate. But at the last second before hitting the stairs out of the stadium, I ran back to where they all stood, throwing my arms around Shaun.

“Mom-”

“Please, please, please, do NOT leave the city, alright? Do not leave Piper’s house. Stay safe! Keep Dogmeat with you at all times, okay?” I looked at Piper now, releasing Shaun. “If you need backup do not hesitate to contact Deacon, he knows we’re leaving and he’ll be here in an hour if-”

Piper pointed to the exit of the city, expression agitated.

“Blue. Go.”

“Mac, wait!” I called, despite knowing there was no point in making a request of that nature. He was a man on a mission, a father about to be reunited with his son.

I knew how that felt.

He glanced at me, but continued to stride down the incline into town at the same speed.

“We’re almost there. His house is up these steps.”

He veered to the left and I stumbled after him. We reached the door to a metal shack that looked just like every other building, a little sign beside the door reading ‘Simms’.

“I left him with the sheriff,” Mac said, feet resting on a rock in front of our campfire. He was sitting with his back propped up against the wooden lean-to we’d be spending the night in, arms folded across his chest, sniper rifle lying beside him.

I was lying on my side in front of the fire, perched on my elbow, fist to my temple.

“That was smart.”

“Eh, he was only nineteen at the time. But I trusted people not to mess with someone under the sheriff’s care.” He rubbed the back of his neck, eyes drifting to the left as he thought. “Of course, his dad was the sheriff and someone shot him…”

My eyes widened and my brows furrowed.

“God, the Wasteland is a mess.”

He laughed.

“Can’t even imagine it any different.”

I rolled onto my back, staring up at the stars that seemed to shine brighter since the bombs fell. Must have been the lack of city lights. I could see the swirling marks of a distant galaxy, millions of tiny points of light freckling the sky.

“It almost seems like a dream now,” I murmured, wondering if my voice carried over the crackling of the fire. “Everything seemed so… soft… but complicated. Things are simpler now, more primal.”

“You must miss it.”

I sat up, frowning at him. He was staring into the glowing flames, orange tendrils reflected in his eyes. I stood, walking around the fire and straddling him. His lips parted in shock and reflexively his hands went to my hips, his wide eyes meeting my loving gaze.

“I used to. But not anymore. Not since I found you.”

I cradled his face in my hands, stare flickering from one eye to the other. He gave me a somber look, grip tightening ever so slightly.

“I couldn’t possibly make living in the Wasteland worthwhile…”

“You’re wrong,” I said, voice hard. “You do.”

He was silent for a moment.

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

He leaned forward, fingers flexing on my hips, his lips landing on mine. The kiss was desperate, hungry, as if he thought maybe I was going to leave him. Something he should have known was an impossibility.

Instead of scolding him, I deepened the kiss, knotting my fingers in his hair -it had become much shaggier since I’d first met him, giving him a younger look. One of his hands moved to begin unbuttoning my shirt after a minute and I broke the kiss, panting, and raising an eyebrow.

“What are you doing?”

“Well, I thought maybe…” he hugged me against him so that he could kiss my neck, his warm breath making me shudder, “that we could take this inside.”

I spoke huskily, resisting the urge to bite my lip. “‘Inside’ isn’t exactly what I’d call being under a broken wooden roof and only one wall.”

He chuckled, fingers massaging my hips.

“You know what I mean. Are you interested?”

I glanced at the barren, dark expanse around us, nervous.

“Out here? In the middle of nowhere?” I asked, biting my lip for a different reason.

He nipped at my ear, making me gasp.

“It’s just us out here, Vi. Let’s take advantage of it.”

I smirked, rolling my hips, drawing a pleasantly surprised cry from his lips.

“Good point.”

Mac raised his fist, letting his knuckles hover an inch away from the door. I gawked up at him, confused. And then it clicked. Memories of the day before I’d gone to the Institute returned. I’d been so scared to see Shaun, so terrified of disappointing him or of him disappointing me.

He was going through the same thing.

“Mac,” I said gently, lacing my fingers with his free left hand. “He’s going to be so happy to see you.”

He glanced down at me, expression grim.

“Are you sure?”

“No. But at least you know he’s still only five. You’ve got time to bond again.”

He laughed, the sound disjointed, and nodded, eyes locking on the door.

“True. Well, here it goes.”

There was another brief moment of silence before he exhaled slowly through his nose, rapping his knuckles on the metal door. At first, there was nothing. No one called out, there were no signs of stirring. Then a loud thump came from inside and a groan that was followed by sluggish footsteps.

Mac and I exchanged a wary glance as the door handle jiggled.

Standing in the doorway of the home was a man a few inches taller than Mac who was broad and dark skinned. Judging by the red rings in his brown eyes, he had been asleep. The smell of alcohol rolled off of him as if maybe he wore it as a cologne.

At the sight of Mac his tired eyes widened.

MacCready? What are you- I didn’t know you were coming,” he said, straightening his slumped shoulders.

“Hey Harden.” Mac was clearly trying to see beyond the hungover sheriff. “Where’s Duncan?”

“Hey, is now a bad time to ask you about your childhood?” I called over the sound of gunfire.

We’d made it to the Capital Wasteland but it was too dark to make any more progress on our journey. We’d been forced to take shelter in what appeared to be an abandoned theatre. Unfortunately, a few raiders had had the same idea.

“Why would you think that!?”

We’d taken cover behind the remaining red seats in front of the stage and Mac popped out, aiming for an impossibly short amount of time and managing to hit one of the last two raiders in the center of his head, the back of his skull exploding. I flinched as if it had been my head that had been obliterated, hiding behind my seat and taking in a deep breath.

Mac and I had gone out to the wooded area surrounding Sanctuary a couple of times so he could give me some shooting lessons. Sadly, we’d only done it about four times so my aim had not improved dramatically.

Still, I leaned up onto the chair, closing an eye and sticking out my tongue - a habit Mac often made fun of. I squeezed the trigger, the bullet clipping the side of the last raider’s head, sending bone and brain matter flying.

I sighed, standing and holstering my gun.

“You know, I was sure that I’d be just as skilled as you if I practised a few times. Apparently not.”

Mac grinned crookedly at me from where he’d taken cover.

“If it makes you feel better,” he said, “you’ll never be as skilled as me.”

I laughed, rolling my eyes.

“You’re so sweet.”

“Alright, you wanna scavenge this place a little bit and then get some rest?”

I nodded, striding towards the stage. During the gunfight I hadn’t taken notice of what sat in the middle of the platform. A grand piano. A surprisingly intact grand piano. My eyes widened and I stumbled up the stairs, pushing my hair away from my eyes.

“Holy shit,” I murmured, sliding my hand across the dust covered instrument.

I made it to the ivory keys that were discolored, several missing. Experimentally, I pressed down on one, wincing at the sound. It was out of tune. Of course, part of me was just happy it had made a sound at all.

“Vi?”

Mac had walked up onto the stage from the opposite staircase and I glanced over my shoulder as he approached me. “What’s up?”

“Oh, sorry… I just wanted to see if it worked.”

“This is how they made music before the war, right?” he asked.

I smiled softly, trailing my fingers across the keys lightly.

“Some of it, yeah.” I looked up at him, frowning. “Do you they have any instruments in the Wasteland?”

“I’ve heard some people have found functioning guitars before. I’m going to be honest though… I don’t know any other instruments besides guitars and whatever this thing is called. I think Magnolia might have one.”

I chuckled, giving him an amused look.

“It’s called a piano. And back in my day there were A LOT of instruments.”

A comfortable silence draped over us as I continued to examine the beast in front of me. Mac’s voice was soft when he spoke, as if he could sense the reverence I gazed at the piano with.

“Do you know how to play it?” he asked. I nodded, humming. “Wanna try and play this one?”

I made an ‘eh’ sound, tilting my head to the side.

“It’s out of tune… it would sound horrible. You’d probably beg me to stop.”

“Please?”

I huffed reluctantly, extending my arm so that both hands hovered over the piano now. My parents had stuck me in piano lessons when I was eight years old and I’d taken them all the way up until I was eighteen. I’d even performed in recitals on several occasions.

I began to play a simple but pretty piece I couldn’t remember the name of anymore, but instead of a relaxing cascade of chimes, the sound was clunky and wrong. I retracted my hands as if the keys had burned me. “Agh! I told you!”

Mac snickered and I glared up at him.

“You’re right, that sounded horrible, but somehow… it was still kind of beautiful.”

I rolled my eyes.

“What the hell does that mean?”

He rubbed the back of his neck, amused.

“Well, the way your hands moved, it was clear you knew what you were doing. I’ve never seen anyone’s hands move like that… it was like a dance.”

An incredulous smile pulled at my lips and Mac glanced down at me, turning a light shade of red. “What?”

“I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised by what a romantic you are.”

He scoffed, avoiding my gaze, raising his elbow as he continued to rub his neck so that I couldn’t see his face properly.

“No, I’m not- it’s just- I don’t-” he cleared his throat, dropping his hand to his side. “Anyway, let’s get to scavenging.”

“Who’s your friend?”

“Violet. Violet, Harden, Harden, Violet. Now where’s my son?”

“I’ll tell you all about Duncan, but first, I need a drink,” Harden said, stepping forward, forcing Mac and I to clear the way for him.

“Well, where is he?” Mac said.

We followed him as he made his way past a massive, undetonated atomic bomb. As we stormed past it, I leaned over to Mac whispering, “Should I be worried about the bomb?”

He waved at me dismissively, eyes on the back of Harden’s head.

“Nah, Zoon disarmed that ten years ago.”

“Zoon?”

“I’ll tell you later. Harden, explain to me where my son is!”

We reached a rickety metal ramp system and Harden plowed up it as if it weren’t a deathtrap. That was how I would describe this entire town. A rickety metal deathtrap. I was certain that if I got bumped into something wrong I’d end up with tetanus. Of course, Diamond City wasn’t much of a step up.

After braving the wobbling ramp that went up two stories, we arrived at a building with a giant sign reading “Gobs Saloon”. Judging by the half-hearted paint job, I guessed that this place used to belong to someone else.

Harden shoved open the creaking door, people immediately calling his name.

Was his only duty as sheriff to drink and hang out at the local bar?

Harden!” Mac repeated, coming to stand beside him at the counter.

I stood next to Mac, staring intently between the two of them. Beyond the counter was a girl with black hair and sharp features. Despite all three of us having just entered she only looked at Harden.

“Harden,” she said, irritated. “I’m not giving you more to drink.”

“Hello to you too, Maggie. Hey Gob,” Harden said, and the ghoul fiddling with the radio waved, but didn’t speak. “Anyway, come on, Maggie. It’s been a day.”

“It’s been five hours! You left here at three. You’re a mess- you’re supposed to be watching out for the town!”

With that the ghoul -Gob- laughed once, only to slam his mouth shut the moment Maggie shot him a disapproving glare.

“Maggie, you can take care of the sheriff later. He and I have business to take care of.”

Harden gave Maggie an indecipherable look and then said, “Why don’t you give both MacCready and I a drink?”

She stood there for a moment and then begrudgingly poured out two glasses of whiskey. Finally, she made eye contact with me, her dark brown eyes hiding none of her reluctance. She clearly cared about Harden a lot.

“Anything for you?”

I shook my head.

“No thank you.”

She seemed a little caught off guard by my manners, but she moved on, walking over to the cash register and pretending to do work. What she was really doing, and not all too subtly, was eavesdropping on Mac and Harden’s conversation.

“Is it going to be weird talking to everyone from the Capital Wasteland?” I asked as we trekked through the Wasteland. It was the middle of the day, the summer sun blazing in the sky, causing sweat to gather all over my body.

Mac thought for a moment.

“I don’t know. I’ve known a lot of the people in megaton since I was sixteen or seventeen, and if I didn’t dislike most of them I might say they’re like family.”

I laughed.

“Sounds like family to me.”

He quirked a brow.

“So families were dysfunctional before the war too?”

“Oh yeah. Extremely,” I said.

There was silence for another minute and I bit my lip, thinking of whether I wanted to hear the answer to the question floating around in my head. I decided that putting off conversations like this was pointless.

“Do you ever want to come back here? Permanently, I mean?”

Relief flooded through me when he shook his head almost instantly. He shoved his hair away from his forehead, sweat glistening on his brow.

“Hell no,” he said, licking his lips. “I don’t wanna try taking care of a family out here. The Commonwealth feels a little safer… and since I found you? More like home.”

I smiled, slipping my hand into his, interlocking our fingers.

“So what’s Megaton like? More like Diamond City or more like Goodneighbor? Or is this a Sanctuary situation?”

“Eh, it’s worse than all of them. Imagine a maze made entirely out of rusted chunks of metal. That’s Megaton.”

I made a face, asking, “Is all of the Capital Wasteland terrible?”

“Yeah. It is.”

Mac took a swig of the whiskey as if he’d secretly been jonesing for a drink all along, slamming the glass on the counter.

“Alright, enough stalling, Simms. Where’s Duncan?”

“Calm down and keep drinking-”

No! I don’t know if you’re trying to get in my pants or something, Harden, but you’re not going to get out of whatever’s happening by getting me drunk. Now tell me where my son is or I swear to god I’m pulling my gun out!”

Harden raised a hand in defeat, shoulders slumping, eyes on the amber liquid in his glass.

“Fine, fine. I’ll tell you.” He sighed, struggling to make eye contact with Mac. “Look… I’m sorry, but… Duncan disappeared two months ago.”

I knew how that felt too.

Chapter Text

A general rule of thumb that seemed to apply before and after the bombs fell was: Don’t punch the sheriff in the face.

That rule didn’t appear to matter when Mac pulled his fist back, clocking Harden Simms -acting sheriff of Megaton- right in the jaw. Harden’s eyes rolled back as he crumpled, a bystander reflexively catching him. Mac shook his hand, eyes still alight with fury.

Silence filled the saloon and I awkwardly looked around, meeting the eyes of all the shocked citizens. A moment passed and then people returned to drinking, some picking back up on their conversations.

“Goddammit!” Mac spat, slamming his hands on the counter.

“Don't hit me!” Gob said, throwing his hands up instinctively. When it was clear to him that was ever was happening on the other side of the counter had nothing to do with hurting him, he lowered them, looking around briefly and then continuing to fiddle with the radio.

“MacCready,” Maggie warned, eyes darting to Harden, who was beginning to come round. “I know you’re going through something, but I will kick you out of here.”

Harden groaned, leaning on the counter, holding his head in one of his hands.

“It’s okay, Maggie. I earned it.”

She rolled her dark eyes, walking into the back room, leaving Gob at the counter alone.

“Hell yeah you did! You lost my fucking kid, you goddamn piece of shit!”

My eyes bulged, snapping to look at Mac again. His face was red, a vein in his temple protruding as if maybe his head might explode at any minute. His reaction was understandable and completely warranted, but it was still so strange to hear him cursing freely like this.

I’d never asked him why he didn’t curse, even if I’d wondered for a while now. Before the war I’d only sworn behind closed doors with people I was comfortable with. Once I’d woken up from being frozen for two hundred years only to discover the world I’d known had been completely obliterated I’d become a little more liberal with swearing.

“Maybe we should have stayed at my house to talk about this,” Harden said, prodding his jaw experimentally and then wincing.

“Just tell me where you last saw Danny.”

Danny? I’d only ever heard him refer to Duncan as… well, Duncan.

“I came here to get a drink and when I woke up in the morning, he was gone-”

Mac’s hand snapped out, wrapping around the collar of Harden’s shirt and he yanked him forward so that they were mere inches apart.

“Mac-” I said instinctively, reaching out for his arm as if I going to try and stop him.

“You’re telling me you got blackout drunk while you were supposed to be taking care of my son?”

“Everyone here knows Duncan!” Harden defended weakly, holding his hands up. “People look out for him- he always makes it home!”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” Mac said.

He pulled his arm back to sock him again and I latched onto him, his eyes hitting mine like a slap. As if I’d hit a switch, his gaze softened and he blinked, coming out of his enraged trance. He clenched his jaw, turning back to Harden, releasing him. “You better pray to god that he isn’t dead, Simms. Or you’ll be reuniting with your dad early.”

Harden didn’t reply. Instead he adjusted his trench coat, glaring at Mac and storming out of the saloon.

Mac continued to scowl at the door, taking in deep breaths through his nose, his fists clenched at his side. I knew that once the adrenaline left his system the fear of the potential loss would hit him.

“It’s late. Why don’t we rent a room?” I asked.

He nodded, running his hand through his tousled hair, eyes remaining on the door.

“Yeah, yeah… you’re right. Nova?”

“Yes, slugger?” said a woman that sat at one of the tables. She was reading what was left of a fashion magazine, her muted red hair pulled back into a ponytail, leaving nothing to distract from her pretty face.

“We need a room.”

“That’ll be a hundred and twenty.”

My brows shot up.

“What!?”

Mac glared at her.

“I don’t want your ‘services’, I just want the room,” Mac said.

She let her magazine drop onto the table, her grey green eyes locking with Mac’s. She smirked, getting to her feet.

“Moriarty’s been dead for almost two years, hon, I don’t do that anymore. But Gob and I still have to get by and Maggie doesn’t work for free. So if you want a soft bed to cry into, or screw your girl on, it’ll be one hundred and twenty caps. Up front.”

I held out my arm in front of Mac, sensing that he might pull out his gun at any second and riddle Nova with bullets.

“I’ll pay. You just go to the room and relax, alright? I’ll bring you up a drink.”

“Vi-”

I gave him a disciplinary look, feeling more like his mother than his romantic partner and he deflated, nodding. “Fine.”

“You know the room,” Nova said.

Mac stalked up the rusted stairs, slamming the door to our room behind him so loudly that it carried over the chatter of the bar patrons and made me jump. What Harden had told us hadn’t quite sunk in for me yet- I was still reeling from watching Mac knock the sheriff unconscious. “Alright, gorgeous. Pay up.”

“Of course,” I muttered, pulling my caps pouch from my pockets. I counted out the caps and handed them to her. “Thank you.”

She raised an eyebrow as if she were going to comment on what I’d said, but I turned, putting my elbows on the bar. Maggie was in the backroom now, leaving only Gob to talk to.

“Hey smoothskin, can I get you anything?” he asked, sounding as if maybe he was gargling rocks. All the ghouls I’d met had rough, crackling voices, but nothing like this.

“Yeah. How much for a whole bottle of whiskey?” I asked.

He made a thoughtful rumbling sound.

“10 caps.”

“Would have been 5 in the Commonwealth,” I muttered, continuing in a drained tone, “Sounds good. One bottle then, please, my good man.”

He frowned, his dead skin wrinkling.

“Wait… you’re not going to hit me? Yell at me? Not even berate me a little bit?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“What? No. I hadn’t planned on it.”

Gob smiled, the sight mildly frightening and pulled a bottle of whiskey out from under the counter.

“Well now. That’s a surprise. I’m used to every asshole smoothskin in this town giving me shit just because I look like a corpse.”

The man who had been drinking at the bar since we’d gotten here, who had also been the one to catch Harden, looked at Gob. At least I think he did. He wore a bandana and a pair of sunglasses, almost his entire face concealed. The only defining feature of his was his dark hair that poked out from under an old, worn baseball cap.

“Hey, I’m nice to you,” he said indignantly.

“You don’t count. For all I know, you could be a ghoul as well.”

The man guffawed, gesturing to his hair.

“With hair like this?”

Gob nodded, smiling, leaning his hands on the counter in front of me.

“Good point,” he said, meeting my stare. “Anyway, don’t worry about the caps this time.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Of course. I’m just glad to see that there are a few worthwhile people around here.”

I grinned at him, swiping the whiskey from the counter.

“Thank you very much.”

With that said, I turned, hurrying up the stairs. I knew by now Mac had probably calmed down, which meant he was probably going through a serious amount of depression. I knocked on the first metal door across from the stairs, listening for his voice.

“Come in, Vi.”

I pushed the door open slowly, holding the whiskey up.

“I got booze.”

Mac was sitting on the edge of the bed, shaggy hair shrouding his eyes, an old lamp lying in pieces on the floor beside the bedside table.

“We’re going to have to pay Nova and Gob for the lamp,” was all he said, staring at the metal floor.

Silently, I crossed the room, sitting beside him. Leading by example, I wrenched out the cork from the bottle -hoping he didn’t notice my struggle to do so- and took a drink.

Living in the Wasteland where people constantly chain smoked and drank alcohol like it was water hadn’t managed to turn me into much of a drinker. I still knew that at the end of a night of ‘heavy’ drinking, I was going to end up vomiting. I decided now was a good time to pretend that wasn’t true though.

I held the bottle towards him and he didn’t react for a couple seconds.

“Are you okay?” I asked, volume barely above a whisper.

He exhaled loudly.

“No.”

He took the bottle, taking two big gulps. For a moment I wasn't sure what to say. I checked the time on my pipboy. It was a little passed 8. My gaze flickered to the date in the corner. July 4th.

It was my birthday -I’d turned twenty-five without even realizing it. I decided quickly now was not the time to bring it up. Once we had Duncan back maybe I'd let MacCready know.

“In the morning we’ll go and we’ll ask anyone if they saw him. And if they didn’t, we’ll go outside Megaton and we’ll ask caravaners,” I said, returning to the problem at hand.

Mac wiped his lips, passing the bottle back to me. He didn’t respond to my suggestion. I decided to keep drinking and let him feel whatever he needed to feel. It was probably smart for me to do the same.

Hearing that Duncan was missing had drudged up my first memories of waking up in vault 111. I could see the Institute scientist wrenching Shaun out of Nate’s arms. I could see Kellogg pointing his gun at Nate. I could feel the horrified panic spilling over from inside me as I watched helplessly as my whole life was torn apart.

At least I’d known someone had taken Shaun. It wasn’t comforting, but I was sure it was better than only knowing my five year old had wandered out into the Wastes.

“I shouldn’t be so scared,” he murmured, taking the whiskey back. “I should know that kids can survive out in the Wasteland. I did. As far as I know, I might as well have been born in Little Lamplight. But I’m still terrified, Vi.”

His blue eyes met mine, vulnerable and unguarded. Although we’d been together romantically for a month now, sometimes both of us hesitated when it came to being open with each other. We’d gone through something awful, losing a spouse was never easy. So seeing him now, his emotions unrestrained, his fear unbridled, it broke my heart and seemed to mend it all at the same time.

“We’re going to find him, okay? He’s your son, he’s strong- he’s gotta be smart.”

“He’s five. Bumble was six when she first got to Little Lamplight and she was a walking disaster!” he said, voice cracking, his gaze falling to the floor.

“I don’t know who Bumble is, but she wasn’t your kid.” I slid my hand under his chin to his cheek, turning his head. “If I could find Shaun, then you can find Duncan.”

For a moment, he just stared at me, brows furrowed, jaw clenched. Then he nodded, cupping my face in his hands and kissing me. My hands drifted to the collar of his coat and I wrapped my fingers around the leather, pressing my body against his. I wanted to comfort him, wanted to smother the feeling of hopelessness I remembered feeling when looking for Shaun.

But I was only human, I couldn’t protect him from the cruelty of the Wasteland.

Which only made my heart ache even more.

After taking solace in each others company for a while we went back to drinking the whiskey. Soon my arms were lighter, my words not as smooth as they had been earlier in the night.

“You punched her in the face?” I scoffed, choking on my newest gulp of whiskey.

Mac laughed, a lopsided grin on his face. He was laying on the bed now, back propped against the wall, his arms folded behind his head.

“Well, yeah. That was how things were in Little Lamplight. And it turned out to be a smart move, because everyone decided I was in charge after that.”

“You punch a girl in the face for dubbing herself the princess of the town and suddenly you’re more qualified?”

He shrugged.

“I said something cool too.”

I flopped onto the bed, my legs dangling over the edge, craning my head to stare at him. My vision swelled a little.

“Go on.”

His smile returned.

“I said, ‘Little Lamplight needs a leader, not a princess.’”

I giggled rolling onto my side.

“That is pretty cool, I’ll give you that, Mayor MacCready.”

He laughed, getting out of his relaxed position, reaching over and clumsily trying to tug me up the bed. I took the hint, lying next to him and he turned onto his side, eyes locked on mine. He hooked his hand under my knee, bring my leg up around his hip.
His hand drifted up my thigh, over my waist, and eventually made it to my cheek.

“Thank you.”

I frowned.

“For what?”

“Being who you are. Being so beautiful… as a whole,” he said, gesturing down my body. I snickered. “I mean it. Also, thanks for having such soft skin…”

He shoved his hand up my shirt and began to run it up and down my back.

“You can thank vault-tec for that. They preserved me well… like a turkey.”

“You guys used to freeze birds?” he asked.

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I slurred, “but the short answer is: Yes.”

He shook his head, eyebrows knitting together.

“Anyway, the point is, Violet Flynn, I love you.”

We’d said it so many times before now and yet it still made my heart flutter.

“I love you too, Robbie.”

At the sound of his nickname he smirked, grabbing my hip and slamming his lips to mine. I snaked my arms around his neck, returning the uncoordinated kiss, our teeth scraping, our mouths pressing a little too hard.

We were too intoxicated to take things further and after a while we ended up falling asleep, Mac’s arm ending up draped over my waist like it always did. At first, we slept heavily, but as the night progressed both of us began tossing and turning.

The alcohol was leaving our system too fast to dull the fear of losing Duncan. I hadn’t even met the kid but I knew I loved him. How could I not? He was a little piece of the man I loved and he meant the world to him.

And now he meant the world to me.

What was I going to do with two children? Leaving Shaun behind in Diamond City of all places still left me with a constant pit in my stomach, my mind occasionally running over all the things that could go wrong while I was gone. Now I’d have to worry about both of them.

Duncan or Danny -I would have to ask Mac about the nickname later- was only five! I had no parenting experience when it came to a child of that age. I’d taken care of a newborn for a little over a month and a half, now I’d been raising a twelve year old for a month, and that was it. There was no inbetween here.

These were the thoughts that plagued my mind when I’d wake up in the middle of the night, eyes searching out in the metallic darkness of the room we slept in.

Finally when I seemed to be in a deep sleep, there was a loud thump, and the bed shook as if someone had grabbed the end for support. Mac and I shot up, both reaching for our weapons when the room began to glow, revealing the man who I’d seen at the bar standing at the foot of our bed.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he said, clearly drunk, swaying as he tried to remain upright. “I’m sorry, my sneak is not high… thankfully, my speech is. No need for weapons. I just came to talk.”

“Who the hell are you?” Mac asked.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said simultaneously.

The man waved a hand dismissively, causing himself to stumble and catch the metal railing at the end of the bed again.

“Will you two… calm down? You’re acting like I’m a criminal...”

“You broke into our room in the middle of the night- are you wearing a pipboy?” I asked, examining where the dim light was coming from.

As if to confirm, I switched the light from my pipboy on, further illuminating the small room. The man gasped, holding his hand up to shield his covered eyes from the light, only managing to angle his own light directly at his face. God, this place already had such terrible lighting even down on the first floor, I couldn’t imagine worsening it by wearing sunglasses.

Once he’d gotten a handle on his light again, the man cheered, raising the wrist with the pipboy into the air.

“Hell yeah, it is!” He pointed at me. “I saw yours down at the bar! You from a vault too?”

Mac cocked his gun, reminding me of the fact that this man had picked the lock to our room in the middle of the night with potentially nefarious purposes.

“Did you just come to compare tech or do you have something you need to say?” he asked, tone sharp, dangerous.

The man walked around the bed, plopping himself down on the mattress at our feet. The ancient bed creaked and for a moment I worried it might collapse under our combined weight. Thankfully, each of us had the skinny, wasteland physique, so there probably wasn't much of a risk.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, pulling off his hat. “I had… some to drink. Just some. But it sure is making things harder.”

“Will you spit it out or-”

“I said calm down, MacCready! Jesus, you’re still… such a little shit.”

I frowned, looking to Mac. His eyes widened, realization washing over his features, his lips parted in shock. He threw himself to his feet, his pistol still aimed at the man sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Holy sh- crap! Zoon?”

The stranger laughed, pulling off his sunglasses clumsily, dropping them and then yanked his bandana down. This did nothing for me, I still hadn’t ever seen this man in my life now. All I saw was a mildly handsome man with brown eyes and some stubble dusting his jaw.

“You just censor yourself, kid? What happened to ‘Fuck you, you fucking Mungo shithead’?”

I laughed, my jaw dropping.

Mac glanced at me, expression a little chagrined.

“First off, I never said something that bad, second, I’m not a thirteen year old anymore, mung- man.”

Zoon laughed, catching himself before he could fall backwards.

“You almost called me a mungo!”

“Old habit, alright? I never used to call you anything else! Now, can it! What the hell are you doing here? I thought you moved on from the Capital Wasteland? Everyone said the ‘Lone Wanderer’ disappeared a few years back,” Mac said, refusing to move his gun away.

As if sensing my train of thought Zoon awkwardly swatted at the gun, fingertips brushing the barrel. Mac wrenched the gun back, giving him a disapproving and alarmed look, shoving it back into it’s holster. “Jesus- Are you an idiot?”

Naaaah, I’m just drunk, Mayor MacCready.”

“Why are you here!?” I cried, now just as frustrated as Mac had been.

Zoon’s heavy lidded gaze snapped to me.

“I’m here, Vaultie, cause I know… where this man’s son is.”

“What?” Mac stepped forward, grabbing onto the collar of Zoon’s duster. “Where? You’ve seen Duncan?”

“You called him Danny down there too, right?”

Mac nodded frantically.

“Then yeah, I know where your kid is.”

“Where is he???” Mac growled, shaking Zoon, who latched onto his wrists, the light of his pipboy blinding me.

“You’re… gonna make me… puke!”

Mac released him and Zoon fell onto his back, coughing, and covering his mouth. I got off of the bed, coming to stand beside Mac.

“I know how you feel, but you’ve got to calm down, okay?” I said.

He met my concerned stare and then nodded, folding his arms across his chest. We waited as Zoon recovered, returning to an upright position, sweat making his thick hair stick so his forehead.

“That was… not cool, kid,” Zoon muttered, arm around his stomach.

Mac reached for his gun, any chance of him staying cool, calm, and collected evaporating. I couldn’t blame him. I was lucky that when I caught up to Kellogg he didn’t torture me like this. He just tried to kill me after answering all my questions instead. Zoon held up his hands, falling onto his elbow. “Okay- Okay! Okay! God, you’re as impatient as ever, you know that?”

“Are you fu-”

“I met Danny two months back wandering around the Wasteland- alone, hungry and DIRTY. This kid was covered in dirt. Little beat up, too. No idea how he was alive if he came all the way from here.”

Horror contorted Mac and I’s features. Zoon continued as if what he was saying wasn’t making us wildly uncomfortable. “So I asked him what his name was and he said, ‘Danny’ and I said, ‘Well, Danny... where’s your family?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have a family anymore’. And when I tried asking him what happened to them he went... all quiet, so I assumed whoever they were, they were dead now. But we were only about an hour away from a place that I knew took in little kids without families- ya know, when they felt like it. You might know the place.”

Mac’s eyes widened and an incredulous smile pulled his lips into a lopsided grin.

“Little Lamplight.”

Zoon snapped his fingers.

“Bingo. Of course, I don’t know if you’ll be able to get him out of there. The new mayor’s even more of a pain in the ass than you were.”

“Doesn’t matter, I used to run that place! They’ll have to hand him over,” Mac said, turning to me and grabbing my biceps, grinning. “We’re going to Little Lamplight.”

Chapter Text

My legs were sore.

After walking for a week straight from morning until night it seemed like they’d always be stiff. So although I was beyond overjoyed to go to Little Lamplight and collect the missing piece of MacCready, my legs were not.

It had been almost five when Zoon had stumbled into our room and seeing as it was technically morning, Mac and I had decided we might as well just get going. This meant that we could be reuniting with Shaun in just a week.

There had been a quiet voice at the back of my mind that had been certain something was going to go wrong and we were going to end up stuck here for weeks.

Another symptom of the Wasteland.

It was 7:45 when we arrived at a rocky hillside covered in stringed lights, a giant, rusted metal mole sticking out of the boulders and a door set in the base of the hill. There was a shack with a banner reading ‘Little Lamplight’ that must have been where people had paid to get into this apparent tourist attraction before the war.

Mac whistled, coming to a standstill, his eyes scanning slowly across the area.

“I haven’t been here in six years.”

“Are you excited to be back?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“No one I knew when I was a kid is here anymore. And without them, this is just a cave to me. I’m excited to see Danny.”

“Have you always called Duncan Danny?”

He looked down at me, seeming surprised by my question.

“Oh, yeah. I mean, not a hundred percent of the time but… well, Lucy started calling him that when he was only a month old and it stuck,” he said, his expression suggesting that he was nervous to discuss Lucy with me.

I couldn’t deny that I was extremely curious about his dead wife. All I knew was what he’d told me a few months ago right before we’d gotten the cure for Duncan and it hadn’t been a very detailed story. Of course, I didn’t blame him for keeping it vague. I hadn’t recounted what had happened to Nate other then saying ‘he was murdered’ or ‘Kellogg shot him’.

“I like it. Danny’s cute.” He smiled, nodding, a little rigid. The nerves had returned at the idea of seeing his son again. “Now let’s go get him!”

I jogged down the uneven slope to the wooden door, managing not to trip. I allowed Mac the honor of opening the door and we ducked into the dank cavern together. The string lights continued inside, running along the peak of the tunnel, illuminating the way forward.

MacCready sighed as we wound our way through the cavern, the only sound before that being the sound of water dripping from the stone ceiling.

“So you remember how kids have to leave here once they turn sixteen?” he asked, glancing down at me. I nodded, quirking an eyebrow. “Well, the kids are real jerks to anyone older than them. ‘Mungos’.”

“That’s the word you and Zoon used last night. That’s what you guys called adults?”

“Yeah. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a good chance whoever’s in charge isn’t going to let us in immediately. And if they do let us in, they’re going to continue giving us a hard time until we leave.”

“You know this because that’s what you used to do, right?” I said, smirking.

He smiled, a little too amused by his past antics.

“Yeah.”

Soon we came out of the tunnel and entered a large open area, a stop sign planted in the ground a couple feet in front of a dilapidated and massive sign reading ‘Little Lamplight’  

Before I could get past the stop sign Mac held his arm out in front of me, forcing me to come to a halt. I frowned, about to ask why he’d stopped me when a girl's voice came from the direction of the wall.

“Stop right fucking there mungos or we’ll blow your goddamn brains out!”

Both of us looked up and to the left, spotting a girl standing on a ledge on the other side of the wall. She had a rifle that looked comically large in her little hands, and she aimed it at us as if the idea of shooting someone was not in anyway foreign to her. She was small and thin, her brown hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. She looked like she couldn’t be any older than fourteen.

“They’ve changed the script,” Mac muttered before raising his voice to speak to her. “Hey, we’re friendly, let us in!”

“And why would I do that, shithead?”

Mac released another sigh.

“I know you’re a shithead, but what am I?”

An impressed smile spread across her young face and she readjusted the rifle in her hands into a less aggressive position.

“That was pretty good, mungo. But I still can’t just let you in.”

“Look, we’re not gonna hurt anyone. We just need to talk to-”

“Doesn’t matter what you need, I can’t let you in. Mayor Ibarra would kill me,” she said.

“Is there something we could help you with? A job you can’t get done?” I asked, drawing her attention away from MacCready.

She thought for a couple seconds.

“There’s a nest of fire ants not too far from the entrance to this place. They’ve been making it hard for our scavengers to go out on runs. Kill all the fire ants and I’ll try and convince the mayor to let you in. Bring back a head to prove you got it done.”

Mac clenched his jaw, curling and uncurling his fist. I knew how frustrating this must have been for him. His son who he’d been separated from for two years now was just beyond a flimsy wall guarded by a child. I would have probably become belligerent by now. He nodded, not bothering to give a verbal response and spun around, heading back through the tunnel. I waved at the girl -who just sort of looked at me in a disapproving way- and followed Mac.

“I don’t know why I’m mad,” he said once we were near the exit. “I know how Little Lamplight works. This is the same crap we pulled with Zoon when he first showed up.”

“What’d you make him do?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“A bunch of stupid small tasks. And also had him rescue Penny and Squirrel from Paradise Falls.”

“Hmm?”

“Slaver town. They used to lure kids out away from Little Lamplight and then kidnap them.”

My jaw dropped and Mac pushed open the door, leading me outside.

“That’s awful!”

“Yeah. Zoon wiped the whole town out though, so we let him come and go after that.”

“We’re definitely staying in the Commonwealth after this.” He was silent, but his gaze shifted to me and then quickly returned forward. “What?”

He sighed, resistant.

“Well, Vi, there’s no escaping slavery.”

I opened my mouth to argue when my mind flashed to the Institute enslaving synths without a second thought. They were proof enough, and they weren’t nearly as evil as raiders or the gunners were. Of course there was slavery in the Commonwealth too.

It didn’t take us long to stumble upon the fire ant nest. After being in the Wasteland for almost a year, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that they weren’t the same size they’d been before the war.

I was a tiny bit surprised when they actually breathed fire.

“Jesus christ!” I exclaimed, hiding behind an old broken down bus, watching flames swirl about a foot away from my head. Mac was braced beside me, a determined scowl on his face. “You could have mentioned the whole ‘fire breathing’ thing!”

“I thought you knew!”

“I haven’t ever seen these things in the Commonwealth! How would I-”

Before I could finish he darted out from behind the bus, firing in the direction of the group of fire ants. There was only about six of them- as far as I could tell. From what I knew of ants before the war, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that there was thousands of millions of them hiding underground.

Deciding I was only risking MacCready’s life by cowering behind the bus, I threw myself forward, whirling around the corner of the vehicle, my gun aimed forward. I strafed, popping off shots and managing to clip one twice on it’s head, causing considerable damage judging by it’s pained shrieks.

Mac had disposed of two of them already, and I shot three more times, finally managing to kill the one whose head I’d hit. Despite the fact that I’d killed one myself, the other three were focused on MacCready, one of them abruptly leaping forward, latching onto his left arm. He cried out in surprise, reeling backwards, stumbling and I bolted forward to help, my heart pounding. He slammed it on the top of it’s head, blood spraying everywhere as it’s skull collapsed, it’s body falling to the ground.

Unfortunately, I’d let my guard down, leaving my back exposed, and a sharp pain lanced through my right calf. I released a strangled gasp, dropping to my knees, noticing fire hurtling towards me from my left.

“Vi!”

I grabbed the back of my leather jacket, yanking it over my head and folding forward so that my face was pressed into the ground, an unbearable heat closing in on me. Flames licked at my exposed hand on my left side and I bit into my cheek, wishing I could roll away or something, but the excruciating pain in my leg -which I was sure was caused by a fire ant being locked onto my calf- made it impossible to move.

There was a sickening crunch and the fire disappeared, though it was hard to tell by the pain in my hand. It felt as if all the moisture had been sapped from my skin even with the blood seeping free from the wound. More crunching reached my ears and I hissed in pain as the fire ants pincers loosened from my flesh. Mac knelt beside me, muttering something I couldn’t hear and then tried to move me.

I rolled onto my back, crying out as my blistering hand scraped against the ground, holding onto my wrist, not wanting to make it worse by touching the charred skin myself. Mac pulled me up and into his lap, cradling me against him, ash and sweat on his face.

“Violet, I’m so sorry,” he said, brushing hair out of my face, his face contorted in despair. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have been so reckless-”

“It’s okay,” I said, my voice shaking.

The pain was searing in my calf and I clenched my teeth, wincing as it flared.

“I need to get you to Megaton- you need to wait there until I get Duncan back.”

“Hell no! I’m… staying with you.”

“I can’t risk you getting more hurt, Vi! I can’t look after you when all I can think about is getting my son back. I’m gonna get you killed!” he said, hugging me tighter.

I tried to push away from him but my leg protested and I let out a choked breath.

“This isn’t a choice for you to make!” I said, gritting my teeth. “I’m a grown ass woman, and if I want to stay out here with you, despite the giant, fire breathing bugs, then I’m gonna. I didn’t come all the way out here -didn’t leave my own son- just to sit on the sidelines, you got that? Now give me a goddamn stimpak and let’s go talk to that little shit at the gate.”

He just looked at me, eyes flickering between either of my own, and then down to my burned hand that I held an inch above my stomach. I hadn’t looked at it yet but I imagined it wasn’t pretty. It still radiated with an uncomfortable brand of dryness, but surprisingly it didn't hurt as much as I anticipated. In fact, it was kind of numb.

Then he sighed, putting his other hand under my knees and getting to his feet. I bit into my cheek to avoid crying out from my leg moving. He carried me over to the bus, placing me on the ground, my back against the metal, and pulled out a stimpak from his coat pocket.

I noticed a tear in his sleeve, wet blood soaked into the green fabric.

“Is your arm okay?” I asked, returning to holding onto the wrist of my burned hand. He dug the stimpak into the flesh of my calf above the bite wound. “Ow-ow!”

“I’m fine.”

I extended my good hand, gripping his chin and forcing him to meet my hard stare.

“Stop worrying about me, Mac, and start thinking about yourself too. You can’t get Duncan back if you’re dead, okay? I know you wanted to get those ants taken care of quickly, but you’re right, you shouldn’t have been so reckless. For your son’s sake.”

It was strange, echoing the words Doctor Sun had said to me all those months ago when I’d been shot by the Courser. You said you have things you need to get done. You can’t do that if you’re dead.

Watching Mac go through such a similar situation… it was like deja vu. Thankfully his son was only somewhere in this cave system, not taken by a mysterious underground group of scientists nicknamed the ‘Boogey Men of the Commonwealth’.

He swallowed, stare equally as stoney as my own and then he hung his head, my hand dropping away.

“You’re right. I just… I don’t want to have to jump through all these hoops- Haven’t I waited long enough?” he asked.

I smiled sadly, holding his hand, squeezing lightly.

“I know it feels torturous, I do. But you just have to be patient for a little while longer, okay?”

He nodded, pulling out a second stimpak and jabbing it into his arm, flexing his jaw.

“Okay.” He dropped the stimpak onto the dusty earth, standing, and walked over to the carcass of one of the ants. He stomped on it’s back, it’s thorax cracking further under his weight. I closed my eyes, grimacing as he grabbed onto it’s head, wrenching upwards. The girl had said to bring back a head as proof. He came back, brow furrowing. “Can you stand?”

My leg and hand were filled with the familiar warmth that came with accelerated healing and of course, continuance sharp, throbbing pains. I extended my leg -having had it bent at the knee so it didn’t touch the ground- and exhaled sharply. Stimpaks weren’t magic and although I was sure my leg didn’t hurt as bad as it would have without one, I couldn’t imagine trying to put weight on it.

“No…”

He rubbed his neck, lips pursed.

“I’ll need you to hold the head then so that I can carry you.”

My eyes snapped to the decapitated ant head that he held on to by the antenna, yellow green blood dripping onto the ground. I swallowed, nausea rolling through me and my skin crawling.

“This isn’t really something I can say no to, is it?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“I mean, I could carry you inside and then come out and get it but…”

“That’s a waste of time,” I finished. I sighed, raising my good hand and he held the head out, expression apologetic. I wrapped my fingers around the antenna and stifled a horrified sound, my mouth turned down dramatically in revulsion. Mac smothered a laugh, struggling to keep his face serious. “Are you laughing at me?”

He snorted and then composed himself, lips still twitching upwards.

“I’m sorry- I’m sorry. Your face was hilarious. I’m sorry. You’re hurt, I shouldn’t find this funny.”

I jokingly glared at him.

“This shouldn’t be funny because this is disgusting. Now pick me up, you idiot.”

He snickered, bending down and scooping me up as if I were a child. I held the head away from myself, burying my face in his shoulder. He laughed again.

“You’re so cute.”

“Shut up, Mac!” I snapped, my words muffled by the leather.

He balanced me precariously with one arm and his knee, wrenching the door open and stumbling through. He made his way down the tunnel, clearly becoming more anxious as we wound our way through. “They’re going to be rude to us because I got hurt, aren’t they?”

He exhaled through his nose.

“Maybe.”

“These kids are kind of mean.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Kind of?”

“Were you mean?” I asked, gazing up at him, the twinkle lights hanging from the ceiling making his eyes sparkle. He glanced down at me, his mouth pulling up into a lopsided smile.

“I’m still mean.”

We reached the stop sign in front of the gate, coming to a halt. Mac gently placed me down at his side and I did my best not to advertise the pain it caused me.

The girl appeared in the same corner as she had before, her gaze falling to the head that I held. She grinned, leaning on the top of the wall, a sort of condescension in her expression.

“Looky what we have here. You mungos actually did it. I thought you’d just tuck your tails between your legs and leave here for good.”

“You thought some little ants were gonna scare us?” Mac asked.

The girl shrugged.

“You never know. Mungos are either fraidy cats or massive assholes. So you know what that makes you?”

Both of us released annoyed sounds.

“Massive assholes?” Mac said.

Her grin widened, her light blue eyes piercing.

“Exactly. And the mayor doesn’t let massive assholes into Little Lamplight. Sorry shit for brains!”

With that said she started walking away, her head disappearing as she went down what I assumed were stairs. Mac and I exchanged a panicked glance. Mac released me and I hopped over to the stop sign for support, dropping the ant's head on the way.

“Hey, wait! Stop! Please, you have my son! My son is living here!”

I’d only heard that level of desperation in Mac’s voice once or twice and it made my heart hurt. “Kid, please! I’ll do anything, just let me in! Let me talk to the mayor!”

She walked back up to her spot, frowning, resting her elbows on the wall again.

“You’re saying one of these kids back here is yours? That’s impossible, mungo. I aint buying it,” she said.

“Duncan- Danny! He’s my son.”

Her smug facade crumbled, her eyes widening, her tan skin taking on a more pallid shade.

“You’re Danny’s dad? But- but he said he didn’t have any family!” she cried, grabbing the wall and leaning so far forward part of me was scared she was going to fall. “You're lying.”

“I'm not, I swear. You've gotta trust me kid, I'm not like other mungos. I used to live here myself- I was the mayor too,” Mac pleaded.

At this rate it looked like her head might fall off from the mental overload.

“What's your name?” she demanded.

“MacCready. Mayor MacCready. People used to call me RJ.”

RJ? My heart fluttered at the sound for a reason I couldn't quite put my finger on. Maybe it was just due to the warmth that came with finding out more about Mac’s past. It was like someone had opened a window into a new world. The girl's jaw dropped. “Please, let me talk to the mayor.”

Wordlessly she slammed her fist on an unseen button and the gate began to lift. Mac hurried back over to me, wrapping an arm around my waist and towing me into the town. I bit into the inside of my cheek, the pace causing me to stagger on my hurt leg with every step, pain shooting up my entire calf.

He released me once we were under the gate and I finally exhaled but it came out more like a whine. Mac looked at me, eyebrows shooting up.

“Oh, shi- I’m sorry, Vi. I should have been more careful. Are you okay?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to respond but the girl cleared her throat, drawing our attention to our left. The girl stood there, wearing a green helmet with a large pair of goggles sitting on top, her hands on her hips and a smirk on her face. Gathered on either side of her was a group of kids, each of them aiming a gun at us, except for two of the youngest looking of them, who instead clutched a bat and a rusty pipe.

“You’re the Mayor,” Mac stated matter-of-factly.

“The name’s Daisy. But you can call me Mayor Ibarra. And you better find a way to prove that anything you told me is true or we’ll fucking shred both of you.”

“You’re wearing the proof that I was mayor.”

She sneered.

“Oh, yeah, Fucko?”

“Yeah,” he said, a cocky smile spreading across his face as he peered down at me and then Daisy. “You’re wearing my hat.”

Chapter Text

Daisy’s laugh bounced off of the rocks like the sound of a bell and she threw her head back, hands remaining on her hips. The children around her frowned at her, some laughing half heartedly as if they weren't sure how to respond to her behavior.

“Nice try, but this is Billy’s hat.”

“What the f- are you kidding me? Billy? As in Biwwy?” Mac asked.

“Yeah.” she laughed again. “He wanted to be mayor and everyone thought it’d be funny. That was right before I got here.”

“Well, it wasn’t Biwwy’s hat first, numbnuts, it was mine. I gave it to Bumble when I turned 16 and told her to give it to the next mayor. I wouldn’t have left it behind if I’d known it was going to be Biwwy though!”

“You can’t be MacCready!” she said, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “I’ve heard stories! MacCready swore and was tough! And short!”

I looked up at Mac, snickering. He shot me a glare.

“Look, I’m not a kid anymore. I’m an adult. I grew up. Danny’s the reason I stopped cursing! And also, I was short until I was fourteen and then I shot up a ton so stop telling people I was short!”

All the kids were giggling at him and so was I, unable to control myself. It was like the longer he was in here the more he devolved into the child he’d once been. “Look, just give me my kid and we’ll be on our way.”

“You know that isn’t how things work around here. We don’t do shit for mungos unless they give a reason and you haven’t done that yet,” she said, folding her arms.

Despite Mac’s warning that this is how things would go down, I spoke up, voicing my indignation. It was probably the throbbing in my leg and the damage to the back of my left hand that was making me so abruptly ornery.

“How have me not given you a reason!?” I cried. “We killed all the fire ants like you asked!”

Her light blue eyes that contrasted sharply with her olive skin snapped to meet my outraged stare, her amused smile vanishing.

“That was the fucking price you paid to speak to me, bitch, it’s going to take a little more than that to hand over one of the kids I’m in charge of, so why don’t you settle the fuck down and shut your goddamn mouth. Who the fuck are you anyway?”

I opened my mouth to yell back at her, reeling from the verbal abuse when Mac grabbed me, holding me to his side.

“This is Violet, and she’s my… it’s hard to explain, but the point is she’s with me and she wants Duncan back too. Where is he?”

“I’m not telling you two shit about him unless you do a job for us-”

A voice came from behind us and Mac and I looked over our shoulders, on edge. A boy who appeared to be a little older than Daisy strode towards us, coming out of a office like shack, staring sternly past us.

“Daisy! What are you doing!?”

Daisy rolled her eyes.

“Dealing with outsiders!”

Rictus, whose name I heard muttered by some of the kids, wore an oversized lab coat and kept his hair cut short. He stormed past us, coming to stand in front of Daisy. He had the same skin tone and his hair was a few shades darker than hers. As he’d gone by I’d noticed his stark blue eyes. Siblings.

“Couldn’t have told me about this? Since you have everyone here-”

“Everyone but Danny,” she said.

“What-”

She cut him off, breaking out into spanish, speaking so fast that even if I’d known the language I would have probably struggled to keep up. Rictus replied in the same foreign language, gesturing around wildly. It was obvious they were arguing. After a moment he fell silent, rubbing his eyes and turned, walking back from where he’d come.

“Fine! Fine! You’re the damn boss!” he called, the shack door slamming shut behind him.

Mac and I looked at each other, silently conveying our confusion and paranoia. Something was clearly going on.

“Just tell us the job so we can get it done,” Mac said, pretending that the whole Rictus incident hadn’t happened.

“We need stimpaks. Ten of them. And buffout. We’ve got a kid with a broken arm in the infirmary and because of the lack of sunlight we get-”

“Rickets, yeah, yeah, I know. Let’s go, Vi.”

“Uh, Mac…?” I said, hobbling after him, ignoring the kids openly mocking me.

Mac turned, running his hands through his hair, guilty.

“God, I’m an idiot. I don’t know why I keep forgetting-”

“It’s okay. I get it, I promise. But I don’t know how I’m going to go out there with you-”

“I need to get you to Megaton-”

“I told you, I’m not going back to Megaton!”

“She can stay in the infirmary!” Rictus called, peeking out of the door of the office. “I can take a look at her leg and hand.”

He hadn’t even looked at me, how had he known about my injuries? I mean, the leg was pretty apparent, what with the back of my jeans being torn open and soaked with blood and also I was limping, but still. He’d only paid attention to Daisy.

“That isn’t up to you, Rictus!” Daisy growled.

“Hey, if the other one’s out there in the Wastes all by himself there’s more of a chance that he’ll die!”

Daisy thought for a moment.

“Alright, she can stay.”

I was about to talk to Mac, say that waiting in Little Lamplight while he set off into the Wasteland by himself wasn’t much of a step up from waiting in Megaton, when I spotted a familiar red hat and coat. One that didn’t belong to Hancock.

Piper came trailing down the path to the stop sign, the gate still open from when Daisy had let us in. Walking beside her was Zoon, who still wore sunglasses but had moved the bandana down to his neck.

“Piper!?” I cried, grinning.

All the kids swivelled, moving forward, all swarming around me instead, and aiming their weapons at the two newcomers.

“Calm down, munchkins,” Zoon said, holding his hands up defensively. “We’re just here to see these two.”

“God fucking damn it, Zoon, you are really pushing your luck,” Daisy snapped.

“What are you doing here?” I asked Piper, ignoring Zoon and Daisy who began to bicker. I heard Zoon mention something about receiving his payment for directing us to Little Lamplight and Mac joined in on the argument as well.

Piper held onto my forearms, helping me stand, eyes falling to my red, waxy hand.

“Jesus, what happened to you Blue?”

“You answer my questions first, okay- Wait, Where is Shaun!?”

She winced as if I’d deafened her, rubbing an ear.

“He’s fine, Codsworth is looking after both him and Nat in Diamond city.”

“You left my son with Codsworth?”

“You let him take care of him as a baby- Look, he’s fine, do you want to know why I’m here or not?” she asked, patience wearing thin. I ignored the urge to strangle her, exhaling deeply through my nose. I nodded and she continued, “Nick found Vel and they’re both back. And safe.”

“Oh, thank god-”

Mac walked over, face slightly red and turned me to face him.

“I need to go get these stimpaks. Are you okay waiting here?”

“You shouldn’t go out there by yourself,” I said, biting my lip.

“Where’s he going?” Piper asked.

After a brief explanation, she volunteered to go with him to help speed up the process and to keep him safe. Mac argued that he didn’t need someone to protect him but knowing it would make letting him leave without me easier, he relented. Of course, that was until Zoon informed him that he would be coming too, and for a moment Mac tried to pitch going by himself again.

Then Daisy threatened to shoot all of us if they didn’t get the hell out.

And that was how I ended up lying on a collapsed gurney in the infirmary, too stressed about Shaun, and Duncan, and MacCready to nap. It didn't help that I was still struggling to cope with the lasting trauma that came with blowing up my child. Having Little Shaun was all that kept me together.

Even if I hadn't had the relationship with the real Shaun that I'd always imagined, it still hurt like there was an open wound in my chest to have lost him. Especially by my own hand.

As I prepared for my descent into the deep, dark depression that accompanied my memories of the day I blew up the Institute, Rictus came in, a stimpak in hand.

“Hey,” he said, coming to kneel down beside me. I blinked back the tears that had been forming a moment ago, attempting to compose myself. I figured someone who hated adults wouldn’t react kindly to one crying. “How’s your leg?”

I didn’t bother to move it, it still throbbed like a second heart without any experimentation.

“Oh, it’s okay. Mac gave me a stimpak outside right after it happened, so it should be closed by tomorrow-”

Without warning he shoved the needle of the stimpak into my leg, expression clinical. He removed it a moment later, tossing it into a tiny metal can in the corner across from us. His light eyes met mine and he gestured for my hand wordlessly.

It took me a moment to realize what he wanted from me and I extended my burned hand towards him, finally taking the time to really look at it. From the ridge of my knuckles to an inch above my wrist was bright pink, a web like layer of white, waxy skin branching out in thick ropes on top, along with blisters.

Rictus made a ‘tsk’ sound, holding gently to my wrist as he examined the extent of the damage.

“Could be third degree… It’s been awhile since I read my father's medical text books. How does your hand feel?” he asked, eyes flickering back to mine.

“Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt as bad as the leg. In fact… it’s more uncomfortable than anything else.”

He hummed understandingly, lips pursed and let go of my wrist.

“Probably third degree then. I’m going to go get a cloth to clean your hand with and then we’ll get you bandaged up.”

He didn’t wait for me to respond to stand and stride out of the room. His father must have been a doctor and judging by the fact that he and Daisy lived here now, his parents must have both been dead.

A few minutes later he returned with a rag that looked surprisingly clean for something in the Wasteland, even something used by a doctor, and knelt beside me once more.

“If your burns are third degree, then this probably won't hurt very much.”

He scooped up my hand, gently wiping across the skin and I braced for pain regardless of his warning. But as he’d foretold, I barely felt anything, even when small patches of my skin broke away. Once he was satisfied with his cleaning job he leaned up, placing the rag on a nearby metal tray. Next, he developed a roll of bandages from his pocket and I held up my hand as he began wrapping the gauze around my wrist.

“Your dad was a doctor?” I asked, hoping to maybe bond with him. I liked kids, it felt wrong to be hated by a whole group of them.

“Yeah. A really good one.”

“How old are you?”

He seemed bothered by the question.

“Fifteen. Sixteen in two months.”

He sighed.

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

He finished wrapping my hand and sat back on his legs, giving me a polite smile as if he were a real, prewar doctor. “You’re all set.”

“Thank you. Can I ask you another question?” I asked, keeping my tone innocuous, not wanting him to get annoyed with me and bolt. He nodded. “Why did you really offer to see my injuries? I don’t really believe you want Mac to die out there.”

He opened his mouth to respond but no words came out. He sighed again, deflating a little, shoulders sagging.

“Because I honestly wanted to help you. I know you’re a ‘Mungo’ but I don’t care. Daisy and I’s parents were mungos and they were amazing. The kids here see everything as black and white. Adults are bad and that’s all there is to it.” He gazed at me earnestly, brow furrowed. “But I know that isn’t true.”

“Why doesn’t Daisy feel that way?”

He clenched his jaw.

“Because our parents were killed by raiders. Other adults. She’s chosen to ignore all the good adults we knew in Ricket City and all the good our mom and dad did. It’s so stupid.”

He sighed, a conflicted frown gnawing at his features.

“What’s wrong?”

He hesitated.

“MacCready is really Danny’s dad?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Yes.”

“Why did he leave him? Zoon said he found him just wandering around the Wasteland all by himself.”

“He didn’t originally leave him in the middle of nowhere. You see, Duncan got sick and so Mac left him with the sherriff of Megaton while he looked for a cure. But it took him two years to find it-”

“Two years?” Rictus interjected, incredulous.

“Yeah… but he and I found it and we sent it to him and he got better. But where I’m from, the Commonwealth, well… things were really bad there. So Mac had to stay with me while I tried to fix things and so he couldn’t come get Duncan as soon as he would have liked. And it turns out Harden Simms -the sherriff- is a drunk and he didn’t watch out for Duncan like he should have and he lost him. But he never told MacCready.”

Rictus raised his eyebrows.

“What a jackass,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Our thoughts exactly.”

He nodded, brows furrowing as if he was contemplating the answer to a very important question.

“Look, you should get some rest. I need to go talk to Daisy.”

He headed towards the door.

“Rictus?” I called. He stopped, turning to look at me. “Thank you for taking care of me.”

He smiled and then darted out of the room, leaving me by myself. I slid down onto the mattress so I was no longer leaning against the wall, the straw pillow barely cushioning my head.

I closed my eyes, begging the universe to keep Mac and Piper and even Zoon safe. After a few minutes I slipped into a deep sleep, exhaustion from my injuries setting in.

******

“Vi.”

Slowly I was dragged from the thick fog of sleep. In the back of my hazy mind I registered that someone was gently shaking me. “Violet.”

My eyes cracked open and I rolled over, having ended up on my side, grimacing at the twinge of pain in my leg. Kneeling next to me was Mac, Piper and Zoon standing at the foot of the bed.

“Oh, hey guys,” I croaked, sluggishly getting into a sitting position. “How’s it going?”

“We gave ‘Mayor Ibarra’ the stimpaks and she said she’d consider letting us see Duncan. Then the doctor kid slipped me a note saying for us all to wait here so that he can talk to us. Something’s going on here, Vi,” Mac said.

“I thought so… too,” I said, yawning. “When’s Rictus supposed to show up?”

“Within the hour. People are going to sleep. Whatever he needs to tell us, he doesn’t want Daisy to find out.”

“What time is it?” I asked, caught off guard by people going to sleep. Without expecting a reply I looked at my pipboy, reading that it was 10:15 right as Zoon verbalized the fact, having consulted his own pipboy.

He continued, “You’ve been out most of the day. I think the kids were hoping you’d died.”

“How sweet,” said Piper.

Mac glanced at the two of them.

“Would you two mind giving us a few minutes alone?”

Zoon opened his mouth, smirking, his expression suggesting he was about to say something inappropriate but Piper grabbed his arm, towing him into the hallway. Had they met before? She seemed comfortable with him -not that Piper had ever been shy.

I was drawn from my thoughts as Mac tucked some hair behind my ear, sitting on the edge of the mattress now. I smiled, reaching up with my bandaged and holding his hand to my face. His blue eyes were dark, storming in the poor lighting, his expression one of self-loathing. His voice was low as he said, “I’m so sorry I got you hurt.”

“Will you stop blaming yourself for everything? It was my own fault for not paying attention and leaving my back exposed.”

“You wouldn’t have gotten hurt like this if you were in Sanctuary. You’re only out here because of me.”

“Which was a decision I made on my own! I love you, Mac, I wasn’t going to let you do this on your own.”

“But-”

“If our roles were reversed you know you would have done the same thing.”

He opened his mouth to argue but sighed instead, dropping his hand away from my face.

“Yeah. You’re right.”

I smiled, thinking of a way to distract him.

“RJ, huh?” I said. “Why doesn’t anyone call you that now?”

He shrugged, trying to act nonchalant.

“Dunno. I guess I didn’t think it sounded very intimidating. I mean, people only called me that when I was a kid.”

I bit my lip, hesitating. “What?”

“What did Lucy call you?”

Instead of becoming tense or visibly uncomfortable, he snorted, rolling his eyes.

“Robert. Robert Joseph when she was mad at me,” he said.

I laughed, all my nervousness from bringing up Lucy dissipating.

“Do you like Mac?”

He thought for a moment, rubbing his neck.

“I don't know. You're the only one who calls me that, and I liked it when you started to because it meant I was more than just “MacCready the Merc”,” he said, smiling softly and holding my hand again.

“Is there something you'd prefer?” I asked.

“I-I don't know. I hadn't really thought about it.”

I gave him a look.

“Oh come on, there's gotta be a name that when you hear it, it's pleasing to your ear. Like I know I like being called Vi and Violet and not Kenner or Flynn.”

He seemed frazzled by my insistence.

“I don't know- uh, I guess I missed being called RJ right when I changed it, but I don't know! Mac is fine,” he said.

I watched him speculatively, nodding slowly.

“Alright… RJ.”

His eyes -that had been directed at the mattress- lifted and his lips pulled up into a lopsided grin.

“I told you Mac is fine.”

“Yeah, but I want to call you RJ.”

“If that's what you want, that's fine by me.”

I shoved his shoulder lightly.

“You can act as casual as you want but your giant grin gives you away,” I said.

Immediately his smile disappeared and was replaced by a controlled, neutral mask, which only made me laugh. He cracked, laughing too and shook his head.

“Alright, alright, I like RJ.”

“Now was that so hard?”

Before he could reply, Rictus rushed into the room, followed by Piper and Zoon. Judging by the look on Piper’s face she was itching to get her notepad out.

“There's something I need to tell you,” Rictus began, looking between MacCready and I, expression determined, his fists clenched at his side. “Daisy might kick me out for this, but I don't care, in two months she's going to pretend I don't mean anything to her anyway.”

“Just spit it out, kid, is this about Duncan?” Mac said, getting to his feet, blocking Rictus from my view.

I stood as well, ignoring the twinge of pain in my leg and bracing myself on the wall. The boy sighed, seeming to mentally prepare himself for something.

“Yes. Danny-”

“What the fuck are you doing, Rictus!?”

My eyes snapped to the doorway and Piper, Zoon and Rictus all turned around to see who had just spoken. Daisy stood in the doorway, face red, hat tilted to the side as if she'd just thrown herself into the room. Her razor blue eyes were on her brother. “We talked about this.”

She broke into Spanish like she had earlier today, even harder to follow because of her fury. Rictus began talking over her, matching her anger, striding across the room to be in front of her.

“Enough!” Rictus snapped. “I'm telling them. This isn't right, Daisy and you know it.”

“Don't tell me what I fucking know!”

Mac pushed past Piper and Zoon, moving Rictus to the side as if he weighed nothing.

“Tell me where my son is. Bring me to Danny, I'm done with jumping through hoops.”

“I'm in charge here! Not you, not my brother- me!”

“I don't care-”

“Please, just tell us and we’ll go!” I said, limping over to them.

“Hell, why don't we just look for him in here? I know my way around and so does MacCready,” Zoon pitched. “I might have it in me to fight a child.”

"Where is my son?" Mac pressed, glaring at the girl standing before him.

"Listen, Mungo, you can't just come in here and start makin' demands," she said, folding her arms, seething.
“Look, I used to be the mayor of this place-"

"They took him," Rictus said, dirty face grim. "The slavers. They took Duncan."

Chapter Text

For a moment I was worried that Mac might punch Daisy just like he had done to Harden. Instead he stepped back as if maybe Daisy had been the one to hit him. A split second later he whirled around, grabbing Zoon by the shoulders, gripping so hard that Zoon let out a girlish cry, looking from one of his shoulders to the other.

“I thought you wiped out Paradise Falls?”

“I did- did you think that was going to last? It’s the Wasteland, MacCready!” Zoon said, shoving Mac off of him. “Or maybe it wasn’t people from Paradise-”

“They were from Paradise Falls,” Rictus said.

I stepped forward, pretending I wasn’t still hobbling, making hard eye contact with Daisy. Her focus shifted to me and for the first time since we’d arrived here she seemed intimidated.

“Why didn’t you just tell us?” I said, voice low.

She sneered at me, indignant.

“Why would I?”

“You knew Duncan was in danger, what did you think you’d achieve by hiding it from us?”

“I don’t have to explain anything to you, mungo,” she said, turning to leave. “Just go-”

I snatched her arm, tugging her back to look at me, not rough enough to hurt her or anything. She immediately tried to tug her arm out of my grasp, glowering up at me.

“Why did you hide it, Daisy? Tell me!”

“No!” she said, but her voice shook. She clenched her eyes shut, lips trembling.

Behind us Mac and Zoon had been arguing, but now they were silent, watching me coldly interrogate a fourteen year old. “Let go of me!”

“Not until you tell me! Did you let Duncan get taken!?”

“No! I wouldn’t ever do that! I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you guys to take him away!”

I released her and she stumbled away, her helmet falling off with a loud clatter, rolling across the wooden floor. She locked eyes with me, stare glassy, a tear dripping down her cheek that she wiped away with the sleeve of her jacket.

“What do you mean, kid?” Mac said, walking towards her.

She remained where she was, her stance offensive as if maybe she was going to start attacking us, strands of her dark brown hair falling over her face.

“I liked Danny! I took care of him- he felt like family. And I knew if you really were his dad I wouldn’t ever see him again.” She let out a shaking breath, sniffling and wiping her eyes. “But that was stupid. It was selfish.”

Her abruptly mature outlook on the situation caught me off guard and I suddenly felt guilty for pushing her. They were all orphans here, no family to speak of, except maybe siblings like Rictus and Daisy. Of course they all grew close to each other.

“I get it. I really do. We act like we don’t care about anything or anyone, like surviving and staying away from mungos is all that matters. But I know you care about the kids here. I know it’s hard to be mayor. Even if we like to make it seem easy,” Mac said, picking up her helmet from the floor.

“I knew I’d have to tell you eventually. I knew you guys were the only ones who could save Danny.” Mac handed her the helmet and she put it on, sniffing again, meeting his surprisingly soft stare. “I just want him to be safe.”

“We’ll save him,” he said.

“We should probably come up with a plan before we run off to what I assume is a slaver town,” Piper said, speaking for the first time since Rictus had come in.

“Piper, you need to go back and take care of Shaun,” I said.

She gave me a pointed look.

“You don’t really think I’m going to let you two do this without me? Shaun and Nat will be fine for a few more days.” I opened my mouth to argue with her but she cut me off. “Blue, the more of us the better. Would you rather I become Shaun’s permanent babysitter or I stay and help keep you guys safe so he doesn’t become an orphan?”

I bit into my cheek, frustrated by her logic, nodding.

“Okay. Fine. Thank you.”

“We should probably stay here the night and head over to Paradise Falls in the morning,” said Zoon, dropping his baseball cap onto the ground and shrugging off his duster, revealing a blue flannel shirt.

Mac glanced back at him.

“You aren’t coming.”

“Look, I take issue with Paradise Falls returning to it’s former, dogshit glory, and I’d like to be apart of double crossing them. Plus, I spent weeks infiltrating them last time, I can help you guys blend in.”

“That was ten years ago and you ended up killing everyone in the town.”

“After making them believe I was one of them. And doesn’t matter if that was ten years or one day ago. That shit sticks with you.”

“We could use all the help we can get,” I said.

Mac looked at me, frowning and then groaned, letting his head fall back.

Fine.”

“This is perfect, I already have a plan,” Zoon said, his enthusiasm skyrocketing, a grin splitting his unshaven face, his amber eyes flickering between all of us. “You guys tie me up and take me to Paradise falls and claim to be slavers wanting to settle in town. We stay and gain their trust. Then we buy Duncan and get out of there, or we kill everyone when they least suspect it. Either one.”

“We aren’t killing everyone, that’s way too dangerous,” Mac said, “I don’t want to do anything to risk Danny getting hurt.”

“Fine, strike the killing. We could always come back later.”

Mac shrugged.

“True.”

******

With a promise to Daisy and Rictus that we would bring Duncan round to say goodbye once we saved him, we set off in the morning, finalizing the details of the plan as we travelled.

“What if they don't want us to stay? Couldn't we just buy Duncan and leave?” I asked as we trekked across the dry earth, the sun glaring down at us.

Zoon wiped his brow, his face covered up by his bandana and sunglasses again. Why he felt the need to have his face hidden at all times was beyond me. Mac had referred to him as “The Lone Wanderer” but that hadn't meant anything to me. Was he some kind of vigilante?

“The issue with slavers is they're naturally suspicious. If they don't believe you think slavery is a-okay, they're not going to sell anyone to you. They don't want a bunch of free slaves running around all loosey-goosey, potentially planning a rebellion.”
I frowned, gripping the straps of my backpack.

“I miss the past.”

Zoon nodded, humming contentedly.

“Ah, yes, the good, old vault days. Of course, my vault was basically a prison so… anyway. How was yours?”

“My vault?” He nodded and I hesitated. “Uh, I don't miss my vault. It also had some… prison like qualities.”

My mind snapped to the view from inside my cryo pod. The small glass window, the padded door and walls. The cramped quarters. Just at the thought of it my heart started pounding and my palms began to sweat.

“Go on,” Zoon said, raising his eyebrows.

It was then that it occurred to me that Piper was really the only one who had heard the full story of my experience waking up after sleeping for two hundred years, and even then, she hadn't heard a detailed account.

Anxiously, I glanced at Mac, who was watching me with shrouded curiosity. If he’d wanted to know why hadn’t he just asked? I fought the irritation that briefly swept through me, reminding myself that I was equally as curious about his life with Lucy and had barely asked a thing.

“Uh-”

“Violet here doesn’t remember much about her time underground,” Piper said, “What she does know is that she’s the sole survivor from her vault.”

Zoon whistled.

“Sole survivor, huh? That’s a depressing achievement.”

“Isn’t it,” I muttered, half grateful for Piper and half irritated with her for even explaining anything.

“Look, Zoon, why don’t we just focus on the plan,” Mac interjected.

I quirked a brow at him. He must have picked up on my discomfort in explaining my situation. I mentally slapped myself for being annoyed with him for even a millisecond.

“Jeepers, Mister, there’s no need for this to be all business.”

“Why don’t we change the subject if it makes you uncomfortable, MacCready,” Piper said, smirking at Zoon. “Instead, let’s have Zoon recount the tale of how you two met.”

Mac immediately began to protest but it was too late. Zoon clapped his hands loudly, rubbing them together as if he were a cartoon villain.

“Yes, lets. It was ten years ago that I met a tiny boy named RJ MacCready, Mayor of Little Lamplight. He was a cantankerous boy with a foul mouth.”

“Jesus Christ,” Mac muttered.

Zoon slung his arm over Mac’s shoulder now, gazing dreamily into the distance, the bright sun reflecting in his sunglasses.

“He greeted me pleasantly, saying ‘Don't take another step, or we'll blow your fucking head off!’. Then seconds later he let me into Little Lamplight because I proved I was as immature as he was.”

I laughed and Mac threw Zoon’s arm off of his shoulders, chagrined, purposely not looking at me.

“Alright, enough, enough,” I said, barely hiding my amusement. “What I really want to know is how the hell you two ended up travelling together.”

As I spoke I gestured between Zoon and Piper who exchanged a glance that seemed far too in sync for two people who barely knew each other. I was convinced she must have met him before.

“Do you want to tell it, or should I?” Zoon asked.

“I’ve got this one, Trenchcoat,” Piper began, smirking up at him. “So after Deacon ditched me once we got to Megaton-”

“Deacon was with you?” I asked, caught off guard.

When we’d originally left Piper in charge of Shaun, I’d told her to call Deacon if she needed any help. Instead she’d left both kids and taken Deacon with her on her semi-unnecessary journey. That explained what would have possessed her to put Codsworth in charge. I mentally scolded myself for being such a worry-wart. Codsworth had been specifically designed to be able handle children, and Shaun was in Diamond City, the safest settlement in the Commonwealth. Plus, they still had Dogmeat.

“Yeah, we ran into each other in Diamond City and when I explained I wanted to go to the Capital Wasteland he jumped at the chance to visit DC’s Railroad Headquarters. Which was a relief because I didn’t want to make a week long journey to a place I’ve never been on my own -even if I am completely capable at doing so.”

I rolled my eyes at her last comment and she returned to explaining how she’d met Zoon.

“Anyway, so I was ditched at Megaton, which was where you and MacCready were supposed to be, but you weren’t, so I went to the saloon to see if anyone could tell me if you guys already left for the Commonwealth. The bartender told me the story of MacCready punching the sheriff and that ‘MacCready and the ‘quiet redhead’ left real early the next morning. So at this point I was ready to give up and go back to the Commonwealth because I wasn’t going to go stumbling around the Wasteland searching for you two.”

“But then she was approached by a handsome, wise stranger-”

“That isn’t how I would have told it,” Piper said and Zoon laughed. “Anyway, Zoon had been hanging out at the bar and so once I got done talking to the girl, he came up to me and told me he knew where you two had gone and when it was clear I had no idea where ‘Little Lamplight’ was, he offered to take me there. And now here we are.”

I frowned.

“So you two only met yesterday?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“But it was love at first sight, Vaultie,” Zoon said.

Piper shook her head, rolling her eyes and smiling.

“Keep dreaming, Trenchcoat.”

“Alright, one more question,” I said, looking pointedly at Piper, feeling more like a mother than a friend. “Why did you come all the way here just to tell us Nick and Vel were back? We probably would have found out when we got back to the Commonwealth.”

Her expression turned sheepish.

“Alright, admittedly I had some ulterior motives coming here. I wanted to see the Capital Wasteland, maybe see if there was a story to tell here. Plus, I know you, Blue, you would have started feeling guilty for not finding out whether or not Nick had died.”

I was going to protest but I knew it was futile. She was right. I’d done my best to be optimistic but by the time Mac and I were leaving the Commonwealth it had already been about three weeks since Nick had gone looking for Vel after she’d disappeared.  It was beyond relieving to know they were both alive. Even if Vel hated me.

A tall, wooden fence came into view, probably still a fifteen minute walk from us. At the sight of it Mac came to a stop, sighing, blue eyes hard like a persistent storm. We all followed suit, the sun like an invasive spotlight aimed down at us.

“That’s it?” he asked, hands limp at his side, expression inscrutable.

“You already know,” replied Zoon, sounding somber for the first time since I'd met him. “We should probably get into character.”

With that said, he delved into the pocket of his duster, producing a thin rope. He put his arms behind his back and opened his hand to MacCready. Mac took the rope, beginning to tie it around Zoon’s wrists.

“Don't make it too-”

Mac pulled the rope taut, continuing to tie the knot expertly. “Look, RJ, I know you knew I was going to say tight. I thought you'd grown up a little since I'd last seen you.”

Mac finished tying the knot, fighting a smirk, shoving Zoon forward, his clumsy feet kicking up small clouds of dirt as he tried to keep his footing.

“You thought wrong.”

We carried on our journey and I tried to ignore the fact that I was no longer sweating purely from the heat. The sense of dread swelled and grew in the pit of my stomach as we got closer, my mind conjuring up different nightmarish images of what the inside of a slaver town might be like.

“One more thing before we get there, don't call me Zoon.”

“Why not?” Mac asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Zoon’s a weird name,” Piper said and Zoon glanced back, smiling incredulously. “Where'd it come from?”

“My mother. I try not to judge her too harshly since she thought of the name while she was dying. I'm surprised she didn't name me hrrgbleh,” he said, drawing out the last word and letting his head hang, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. 

Mac released a shocked laugh, covering his mouth for a moment and then shaking his head, lips pressed into a tight line. Piper didn't ask anymore questions after that.

“So what are we supposed to call you?” I asked.

Zoon chuckled.

“Oh yeah, I guess that would be helpful to know. Call me James. In case you two ladies don’t know, I used to be kind of a big deal around here. Having a ‘weird’ memorable name doesn’t help. So call me James.”

We all exchanged a glance, clearly curious as to what the significance of such a normal name was. But we were too close to Paradise Falls to keep discussing the subject.

When we reached the front gate to the town, I noticed that the one guard was facing away from us, yelling.

“Hey, Saul, let Clover know we’ve got guests!”

Saul began to call something back, but I didn't catch it because Zoon had started cursing furiously under his breath. Suddenly he loosened the rope from around his wrist, and before I could wonder how the hell he’d gotten free so fast, he was grabbing my hand.

“Put your hands together,” he instructed, his voice lacking all the panic it had contained half a second ago.

Instinctively I did so, trusting him for some insane reason, allowing him to tie the rope around my wrists instead.

“What are you doing?” Mac and Piper hissed at the same time.

Zoon yanked Deliverer from my holster -the one thing I protested to- and pocketed it. He spun back around to face the guard just in time for him to turn to look at us.
“Alright, that's close enough,” the man said, hand resting on the handle of his holstered gun. “What do you want?”

Zoon stepped forward, which was smart, since the rest of us were too stunned by what had just happened to talk.

“This is Paradise Falls right? Slaver town?”

“Yep,” the man said, now beginning to drum his fingers on his gun.

“Perfect. Because we’re in need of a place to buy slaves and-” he grabbed the collar of my jacket, yanking me forward so that I staggered up beside him. “In need of a place to sell some.”

Chapter Text

I was starting to think trusting Zoon in any capacity might have been a mistake.

Of course, I was a little biased. After all, he had just tricked me into becoming a slave and was apparently going to try and sell me here. I might have argued with him about doing so had we not been walking into the town of slavers that we were trying to double cross.

That seemed to be what kept Mac and Piper from saying or doing anything as well. It was too late for us to fix the situation, to tie the rope back around Zoon’s wrists and continue with the original plan.

I glanced back at Mac, who made irate eye contact with me as if this were my idea.

We were being led through the town by a stocky man, Saul, who had a large mallet with a metal head strapped to his back. A person’s weapon of choice spoke volumes, and this man choosing a giant hammer was a loud warning bell ringing in my ears.

“So is this ‘Clover’ person in charge?” Zoon asked.

He still was the only one among the group who was willing to speak and despite the fact that he’d put me in this position, I was grateful to him. At this rate he was the only reason we were going to get Duncan back.

“No, she’s second in command. The boss is out on a run right now.”

“The boss goes on runs?”

Saul glared at him with such ferocity that describing his expression as a snarl might have been more accurate.

“The boss does whatever the fuck she wants, Greenie, so why don’t you shut your damn mouth until we get to her pad.”

Zoon raised his hands, expression unreadable due to his bandana and sunglasses. We kept moving through the rubble filled town whose walls were half composed of junk like old, rusted out cars and giant wooden constructs, half pre-existing cement structures from before the bombs fell.

The same went for the buildings. Some were shacks made of assorted sheets of metal with a worrisome lean to them while some were pre-war stores, with faded paint jobs, the colors seeming like they used to be bright and eye catching.

We wound our way to an old movie theatre, a sign in front reading “Palace” and I wondered if that were some kind of joke. Saul pushed through the double doors. The first room inside was poorly lit, a bar located a few feet in, facing a wall with an opening on either side leading to another area. Sitting on the bar was a massive rib cage, a few cups, and a radio.

Saul lead us into the next room, which must have been the theatre part of the theatre, judging by the scattered red, velvet chairs facing one direction. In the center of the room was a grand canopy bed that was in surprisingly good condition apart from a few patch jobs on the frame.

Lying in the bed on the mountains of discolored blankets and pillows was a woman with white hair that was shaved on one side, tan skin, and ruby red lipstick. She wore a ragged looking blue dress, the buttons up the front unbuttoned enough that a considerable amount of her cleavage was visible.

Upon hearing us enter she sat up, her white hair falling over her right eye, reaching just past her jaw. In the shadow of the canopy bed I couldn’t make out her age and now that her face was fully in view -besides the half obscured by her hair- I could see that was… actually, I still had no idea. She was like a snake, interesting to look at, maybe even pretty, but dangerous. Her skin had been weathered by the Wasteland, ruddy and sun damaged. She could have been anywhere between 35-50.

“Saul,” she purred with a hint of what I thought sounded like a southern drawl. “What treats have you brought for me today?”

“You know the boss doesn’t like people lying on her bed,” he said, not nearly as gruff as he’d been with us.

“Why don’t you worry about yourself, honey?”

Saul sighed, snatching the rope out of Zoon’s hand and tugging me forward. Clover stood, her heels causing her to tower over me, her hooded, dark brown eyes looking over me as if I were an animal.

“They say they want to sell this one and maybe find some to buy.”

“Why would you sell a slave just to turn around and buy a new one?” Clover asked, her eyes narrowing, locked on Zoon’s sunglasses. Before he could answer she shook her head, waving her hand dismissively. “Nevermind, you know where to take her while we get this worked out.”

Saul nodded, head snapping to the left. I followed his gaze, noticing a young woman, probably around my age leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Her hair was cut short, swept back the way Mac’s was when it was shorter, the color of wet sand.

“Deadeye, get over here!”

Wordlessly, she crossed the room, taking the rope from Saul and tugging me towards the exit. Reflexively I glanced back at Mac, whose expression was so statuesque that I thought he might have actually turned to stone. Piper’s concern was only mildly visible, her tell being the slight furrowing of her dark brows. Upon meeting my stare, she pursed her lips, looking away, reapplying her poker face.

 

“Hurry up, bitch,” Deadeye spat at me, yanking on the rope and I stumbled again for the hundredth time.

Accepting that there was nothing I could do, I followed her, trying my best to ignore the pit growing in my stomach. Where the hell was she taking me?

We made our through the debris covered streets, passing through a door in a chain link fence, stopping into an area that was completely fenced off by more chain link that looked to be about ten feet tall, maybe taller. The space on the other side was split down the middle by a second fence. Deadeye unlocked the door to the enclosure on the right and stepped in with me.

Immediately she patted me down, making me take off my shoes and jacket, forcing me to unbutton my shirt to prove I wasn’t hiding knives anywhere. I was grateful that there was only one person in the pen with me and no one in the one beside us. Once she was satisfied that I wasn’t armed, she pulled out a knife from her belt and cut the rope around my wrists.

She frowned, picking up my arm with the Pipboy on it. Without commenting on it, she unbuckled it, taking it off of me. I sure hoped I got that back.

“We’re gonna have to get a collar on you,” she said, drawing my attention back to her.

I didn’t reply, figuring she wasn’t interested in engaging in conversation with me. She shoved me further into the pen, opening the door and locking it again, walking away without another word. I watched her go, sighing. I turned to face the rest of the pen, buttoning my shirt back up.

Now what was I going to do?

I was trapped with no weapons, no way of communicating with the others. What if they were all killed and I ended up actually becoming a slave?

That would be disappointing.

The other person in the pen was a girl, seeming to be in her late teens, sitting on the ground, knees curled to her chest, back on the far concrete wall. I pulled on my jacket and approached her, deciding that talking to another person might help preserve my sanity in this maddening situation.

She looked up at me, getting to her feet clumsily, using the wall for support and grinned at me.

“I was worried you wanted to be alone so you wouldn’t come over here! But I’m so glad you did! Sorry, hi, I’m Beatriz!” she babbled, sticking out her hand.

I smiled, shaking it.

“I’m Violet.”

Beatriz, despite her dirty cheeks and unkempt hair, was beautiful. Her hair reached just past her shoulders in thick, caramel colored waves, the kind of hair most women before the war would have killed for. Her eyes were light brown, almost matching her hair, and her skin was tanned in a way that it seemed like she was glowing.

And around her neck was a monstrous looking collar with some lights on the front. I hated to imagine what it did.

“Nice to meet you, Violet!” she paused, frowning. “Well, I guess it isn’t nice. We are slaves.”

I put my hands on my hips, sighing again.

“That we are. How long have you been here?”

She frowned, eyes drifting to the sky while she pondered the answer to my question. That wasn’t a good sign. If she was having to think hard on it that probably meant she’d been here a while.

“Three years.”

“Three years!?” I cried, unable to hide my shock.

Her eyebrows furrowed and she began chewing on a nail, gaze falling to the ground.

“I think so… math was never my strongest subject. At least that’s what uncle- ah, sorry!” she said, almost making me jump. “I drift off in my own head sometimes. Sorry!”

I quirked a brow, smiling a little.

“That’s okay. So are you sure you’ve been here three years?” I asked.

“Well, I’m seventeen now and I was fourteen when I was taken. That’s three years, right?”

I almost choked.

“Uh, yes. Yeah, that’s three years.”

She whistled, putting her hands on her own hips.

“Sometimes I forget how long it's been.”

Her expression shifted from surprised to scared in a split second and she started to chew on her nail again, eyebrows knitting together.

“What’s wrong? Other than the obvious.”

She made eye contact with me, blinking as if she were returning to the present.

“Oh, it’s nothing… well, it’s just… I’ve already been sold twice before. I was brought back a few months ago after being owned by this guy, Samson. I’m no good with a gun and I kept breaking things around his house because I’m so clumsy so he brought me back and demanded a refund. If it happens again… they’ll probably just shoot me.”

I wanted to comfort her, tell her things were going to be okay because we’d get her out of here. But I wasn’t sure if that was true. How long before Mac was about to buy Duncan, assuming Duncan was still here? And when he did would I be able to convince him to buy Beatriz too?

God, I wished slavery wasn’t apart of my new reality.

“I came here with a group of slavers looking for new slaves. Maybe they’ll buy you. They’re really nice.”

She gave me a confused look.

“They’re slavers…”

“Yeah, but… it’s complicated.”

I didn’t see Mac, Piper, or Zoon for a few hours. I tried to stay positive, but I couldn’t help but fear that they really had been killed by Saul and Clover, someone saying something to blow our cover.

If that were the case, would they kill me as well? Or would they just put a collar on me and sell me to someone as soon as they could?

Talking to Beatriz probably would have served as a nice distraction from my dread, but I was scared that I would end up being snippy with her due to my stress. Instead I opted with sitting against the far wall in a ball, closing my eyes and pretending to sleep.
When the sun was beginning to go down I started pacing, unable to remain sitting anymore.

“Are you alright?” Beatriz asked, getting to her feet too.

“It’s hard to explain.”

She walked over to me, seeming uneasy on the uneven ground.

“We’re allowed to go into the Slave House soon, so you can get some rest. I know that sleeping always helps me… since I don’t know I’m a slave when I’m unconscious.”

I just looked at her, unsure of how to respond to that. It was my frayed nerves that lead me to speaking my mind.

“That’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.”

Beatriz tucked some of her hair behind her ear.

“It was pretty depressing, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t-”

“You don’t have to be sorry for saying how you feel,” I said, feeling guilty myself now.

“I know, but you just got here and this is going to be a miserable time no matter what, and I don’t want to make it worse. I’m sorry.” She sighed, clearing her throat, brown eyes darting from the ground to mine. “Can I ask you how you ended up becoming a slave?”

I opened my mouth and then shut it, realizing I had no idea what to tell her. Should I just confess and tell her our whole plan? She was a slave, I highly doubted she’d try and rat on us. Of course, it was still a risk.

Before I could decide I heard the chain link fence shake and I turned my head in time to hear a familiar voice hiss, “Vi!”

Mac was standing at the fence, fingers wrapped around the metal.

I hurried over, wanting to grab his hands as best I could through the holes in the fence, but I knew if anyone saw, they’d know something was going on between us. In fact, he probably shouldn’t have been acting as desperate to see me as he currently was.

“Mac-” I lowered my voice, correcting myself, “RJ, I’m a slave, remember, you probably shouldn’t be so excited to see me.”

He released the fence, clearly irritated that we were having to be discrete.

“I told them that we you weren’t for sale, that you were our personal slave, that we want to sell other slaves we have at our own compound… but you still have to stay in the slave pens while we’re here.”

Relief filled me, despite the fact that I was still going to be separated from them for the duration of our stay in Paradise Falls. They were alive and they were keeping up the charade… even if there lies were becoming a little weak.

“Where are Piper and Zoon?”

“Getting a drink at the bar. They’re trying to blend in and be a presence in the town so people hopefully don’t pay attention to how long I talk to you for.”

I glanced back at Beatriz, worried she might be listening. Instead she was pretending to be thoroughly consumed by the weaving of the chain link fence that was between our pen and the one beside us. She was far away enough that I guessed she was giving us privacy.

“Why did Zoon switch me to the slave?” I asked, voice barely audible.

The annoyance on his face intensified and he ran his hands through his hair, turning his head to glare at the wall.

“That idiot- Clover was apart of the original Paradise Falls crew. The only survivor apparently. Zoon heard her name and knew that if he were a slave they would have taken his bandana and sunglasses and she would have recognized him.”

“So? She might have just been happy he was a slave.”

“I thought the same thing. But after Zoon explained what happened… you know how she keeps her hair over one side of her face?” he asked. I nodded. “That’s to cover up the hole where her eye used to be.”

I grimaced, mind running wild with what that might look like. I understood now that there was a great chance that Clover would have killed Zoon on sight.

“Have you seen Duncan yet?” I asked, changing the subject.

He sighed, increasingly frustrated.

“No. I can’t find any of the kids. What if-”

I wanted to keep talking to him since soon we’d be separated until morning when voices started calling out in the distance.

“Boss is back!” someone cried, maybe from the front gate.

The announcement travelled around camp and Mac stepped back, conflicted, glancing between me and the fence that cut this area off from the rest of the town. A crowd came from around the corner and I backed away from the chain link, not wanting to look like I was eager to be close to Mac.

The crowd consisted of two armed men, one woman, a girl in her early teens and another girl with a rope around her wrists.

The woman was of average height, skinny, pretty with freckled, sun damaged skin and a slightly upturned nose. Her hair was the closest to bright red I’d ever seen in the Wasteland, hanging a few inches past her shoulders, and her thin lips were pulled up into a cruel smirk.

The girl beside her was small, and lithe, her mousy hair twisted into a bun on the top of her head, a prominent scar going from between her eyes, across the bridge of her nose, and ending just below her ear. She gripped a long rifle comfortably in her hands, reminding me of the way all the kids in Little Lamplight handled weapons.

But neither of them or the men were what was important. What mattered was the girl at the end of the rope in the woman’s hands, who was swearing loudly, tugging at her restraints persistently.

Daisy.

“Hey, Bumble!” The woman called, coming through the first door into the area where RJ stood. “Turns out the kids at Little Lamplight never learn-”

Her gaze ended up on MacCready and she came to a halt, her eyes widening, her mouth hanging open. I looked back to Mac, who appeared just as shocked as she was.

“Princess?”

Chapter Text

“RJ!?” Beatriz and Princess cried at the same time, the first running up to grab onto the fence, caramel eyes wide.

RJ turned his head to look at Beatriz, face going pale.

“Bumble?”

“You're a slaver?” Beatriz -or Bumble- said, disgust coloring her words, dripping off of them like toxic slime.

Princess didn't allow him to reply.

“I haven't seen you in six years RJ, what are you doing here?” She asked, a sultry smile tugging at her lips. “Miss me?”

Were the circumstances different, I would have asked RJ who she was, introduced myself and made it very clear that he and I were an item. A brand of jealousy I was unaccustomed to flared through me and it took all my strength not to show it externally. Mac glanced at me for a split second, as if he sensed my rage.

“I didn't know you were the boss they keep talking about, Princess,” he said, dodging the question. “How'd you end up with all this power?”

“Well, since I have a gun now, when people punch me in the face to try and steal my job, I can just kill them.”

Her lips parted into a devious smile as she waved her pistol, barrel aimed at the sky. RJ smiled in a way that didn't reach his eyes, but Princess didn't seem to notice. She also didn’t seem to notice Daisy still thrashing around beside her, desperately trying to slip her hands free from the rope. How had she gotten taken? We’d only left her alone this morning.

“That's good to know.”

Princess finally looked at me, seeming to examine the scar through my right eye, her face taking on a strange level of composure.

“I don’t recognize that one. She yours?”

Rj nodded.

“Yeah.”

She smirked a little.

“Didn’t take you for a pimp, RJ.”

Are you serious? Why the fuck does she think I’m a prostitute just by looking at me? Did buttoned up flannel shirt and oversized leather jacket scream ‘I have sex for money’? I did my best not to react outwardly.

Mac struggled a little.

“Oh- uh- well, ya know,” he said, “It brings in the money.”

Despite the fact that he’d clearly been caught off guard, she seemed to believe him. I kept my hands limp at my side, my irritation requesting I curl them into tight fists, which I politely declined.

God, this was a mess.

“Is it just you two or did you bring anymore friends here?” Princess asked.

“There are two others at the bar. We catch and sell slaves together.”

Princess nodded, walking forward, leading a very resistant Daisy with her. She came up to the door to the pen, eyeing one of the men in the group.

“Find Wrench and find out if he patched up the child slave house.” The man gave her a brisk nod, jogging away. She fished for a key that hung on a chain from her belt loop, unhooking it and opening the door. She threw Daisy inside and the girl stumbled but managed to remain upright. She whirled around, yelling something in spanish, darting towards Princess and the exit.

Knowing that she was only going to get herself hurt, I crossed the small gap between us, grabbing one of her arms and slamming her back to my ribs, getting ahold of her other arm as well. She thrashed against my grasp, still speaking spanish.

“Don’t be stupid,” I muttered, backing us away from the exit.

I expected Princess to leave the pen, but instead she approached us, and instinctively I took a step away from her. She grabbed Daisy’s helmet from her head, admiring it for a moment.

“This brings back memories.”

She tucked the helmet under her arm and then clawed at the collar of Daisy’s jacket, wrenching her from my grasp.

“That’s my helmet, bitch!” Daisy cried.

I reached out, wanting to be able to protect her from herself. But there was nothing I could do other than attack Princess, which might end with bullets being embedded in my gut.

“Not anymore,” Princess said, narrowing her eyes and grinning.

She shoved Daisy backwards with such force that the girl hit the ground without a chance of catching herself. Immediately Beatriz knelt down beside her, whispering something that I hoped would make her stay put.

Now Princess reached out, snatching up the collar of my jacket.

“What are you doing, Princess?” Mac asked, words coming from between his clenched teeth.

Princess towed me towards the door and I allowed her to lead me out of the pen which she locked behind us.

“Well, I should get to know my new guests, shouldn’t I? What kind of ruler would I be if I didn’t spend time with the little people.” He didn’t say anything. “Why don’t you go get your friends and bring them back to the palace?”

Because I didn’t have a rope around my wrists anymore or a slave collar, Princess chose to tangle her hand in the hair at the back of my head, dragging me over to the movie theatre that served as her ‘palace’. The girl with the scar across her face followed wordlessly. Princess lead me inside and into the large room with her bed where Clover still sat.

“Clover, I thought we talked about my bed,” Princess said, shoving me onto my knees. The girl with the scar sat on the edge of the bed, leaning her rifle against the bedpost.

“I’m sorry Princess, I just love how soft these sheets are,” Clover purred, smelling the blanket and humming, her eyes closed. “They smell like you.”

“Off the bed. Now.”

Clover reluctantly stood, her lips pulling into a dejected pout. Princess looked at Deadeye, who was leaning on the wall again as if she’d never moved. “Watch her.” She pointed at me. “If she tries to stand, stop her.”

Deadeye grinned.

“Permanently?”

Princess glanced at me. I kept my expression neutral.

“No, just cripple her. I doubt she’s determined enough to keep running once she’s got a hole in her calf,” she said. “Same to you Duchess. Keep your eyes on her.”

The girl with the scar nodded, remaining silent.

The sound of the front door opening reached our ears and Princess grinned at the doorway. Mac, Piper and Zoon strode into the room, thankfully not followed by any of the slavers. Piper and MacCready’s eyes both flickered to me before quickly returning to Princess.

“Look at that, the gang’s all here!” she said, sitting at the bottom of the bed beside Duchess, crossing her legs. “Welcome to Paradise Falls.”

“Thanks, Princess,” Mac said, “We’re happy to be here.”

“Let’s get introductions out of the way, shall we? I’m Princess and I’m in charge of this place. If you step out of line at all, I won’t hesitate to put you down, got it? I am the leader of this place. Not Clover, not Saul. Me. Are we clear?”

They all nodded.

“Still a little uncertain of your right to lead, huh, Princess?” Mac said, smirking.

My muscles tensed and I watched Princess expectantly, curious and terrified to see how she’d react to his teasing. Why had he done it in the first place?

“You little-” Clover began but was cut of by Princess laughing.

Princess gave him a pointed look, her teeth exposed in a wide grin.

“You haven’t changed a bit, have you RJ?” He shrugged. “To answer your question, no, I’m not uncertain and neither is anyone in this town. They know who their Princess is.”

Duchess rolled her eyes and I almost laughed.

“Of course,” Mac said.

“Now that you know who I am, why don’t you tell me who you are. RJ excluded.”

Zoon spoke first, merely saying, “James.”

“A man of many words, I see,” she said. “Why are you hiding your face?”

The pit from only a few moments ago returned to my stomach and I did my best not to show it outwardly. Zoon had to be prepared for this question. For someone who seemed thoughtless and… well, insane, he seemed to react well under pressure. He’d managed to untie himself and tie me up instead all while a man’s back was turned.

Maybe that came with years of hiding your identity.

“Burns. They’re not pretty and I don’t like people reacting to them. Ya see, every time someone gasps or stares a little too long, I get the urge to put a bullet in their brain. It’s a pain after a while, so I choose to cover up.”

“That means we don’t get to see, doesn’t it?” Princess said.

“It's not worth the gunfight.”

“Anyway,” Piper said, “I'm Piper Wright.”

I internally asked why Piper would use her real name, since most people would know that the do-gooder reporter would probably never become a slaver. But we weren't in the Commonwealth. The chances of her paper making it all the way to the Capital Wasteland was unlikely.

Still, if I were her I probably wouldn’t have used my last name.

“You don’t look like a slaver.”

Piper grinned.

“That’s the point.”

Princess nodded approvingly, placing a hand on her knee, her gaze shifting to meet mine. My knees were starting to protest from kneeling on the hard floor. I was nervous that if I shifted at all that Deadeye would eagerly destroy one of my legs. I was still healing from yesterday morning's ant bite, I didn’t need more injuries.

“And what’s this ones name?”

“We’ve been calling her the Sole Survivor,” Zoon said, a grin evident in his voice. “We raided her vault and by the time it was all over she was the only one left.”

I bit my cheek and then said scathingly, “My name is Violet.”

Princess stood, backhanding me and I hit the floor, barely catching myself on my hands before my face could make contact with the ground.

“Was I talking to you?”

I opened my mouth to give a sarcastic response, clearly having learned nothing from my time with Venus and also more influenced by Daisy than anticipated but thankfully MacCready spoke.

“Sorry, we only just got her a few days ago. Still haven’t broken her.”

“How long you guys thinking of sticking around?” she asked.

“It depends on a couple things. We have a much smaller compound on the eastern border of the Capital Wasteland but it’s pretty dry out there, not many people to even force into slavery. So if you’ll let us stay here and collect some slaves of our own, maybe buy some off of you, that’d be great.”

Princess gestured, drawing circles with her index finger, saying, “So how many days will all that take?”

“Well, if you let us buy some slaves we’ll be out of your hair today,” he said.

I wanted to scold him. It was clear that Princess had a thing for him, I highly doubted she was going to be eager to let him go so soon. Now she was going to be less inclined to sell us Duncan. At least not for a while.

Princess twirled a lock of her hair, pursing her lips, narrowing her dull eyes. I wished I could roll my eyes but I didn’t have the advantage of being beside her like Duchess was.

“Hmm, I’ll have to think about it RJ. I mean, we’re going through a kind of dry spell ourselves. We’ve been running this place for three years, people in the area have caught on. They’ve gotten smarter.”

Mac opened his mouth to protest but Princess continued, “Give me a few days to think. We’ll go on a run tomorrow and I'll let you have some of the goods, alright?”

There was a tense pause so short that if you weren't on edge like I was you might not have noticed it.

“It's your show, Princess. I'll let you run it however you want.”

“Perfect,” she said, a catlike grin on her face. “Make yourselves at home here. You're all welcome to sleep in the barracks. We leave here at dawn tomorrow.”

“What about- the sole survivor?” Mac asked, side glancing at Zoon.

“She’ll stay in the slave house with Bumble and the rest of the goods.”

The goods. Jesus Christ, I hated this woman. She knew Bumble, they'd grown up together and she'd captured her and forced her into slavery. Being a slaver was bad enough - hell it was horrendous. But making someone you’d known since childhood live that way? That took a special breed.

“Alright, I'll take her back.”

Mac grabbed my arm, fingers gentle and I allowed him to haul me to my feet, playing it up a little.  

“The pen’s locked. Clover, give him your key.”

The woman’s head snapped to the side, her white hair swinging wildly, almost revealing her eye -or lack of eye. Her expression was unabashedly irritated although she didn’t argue and she pulled on a chain she wore around her neck, the key appearing from beneath her dress. She took the entire necklace off, chucking it to Mac who caught it easily despite the fact she hadn’t given him any warning. “Bring it back once she’s put away.”

“Will do. See you in the morning, Princess,” he said, towing me towards the doorway, Piper and Zoon following.

“See you, RJ.”

I glared at her over my shoulder, exasperated by the sultry tone she used every time she spoke to Mac. It wasn’t that I was worried, I knew Mac wasn’t interested and even if I hadn’t been sure, I trusted him. But that didn’t mean I liked another woman openly flirting with him.

Once we were out of the building it seemed like we all relaxed, possibly visibly. Mac still had to hold onto me but he walked a little slower, his grip even becoming even looser.

“Well, this is a disaster,” he muttered.

“What the fuck are we going to do?” Piper said, voice low. “We weren’t supposed to actually help them get more slaves. In fact, I was kind of hoping we’d decide to free all the slaves here and take this place apart from the inside.”

“Me too,” I said.

“No way, too dangerous,” Mac said, clenching his jaw.

“Mac-”

“As much as I like bloodshed, I’m with the mayor,” Zoon said. “We could all die trying to overthrow this place. Most importantly, I could die. I’ve already taken down Paradise Falls before, I’m not gonna let it be the thing that kills me now.”

We were almost to the slave pens, passing through a more open area and I hung my head, letting my hair create a curtain around either side of my face so that the slavers couldn’t see me talk.

“If we leave this place with only Duncan and Daisy, it’ll stick with us forever. Well, maybe not Zoon. You know it wouldn’t be right, Mac.”

We reached the slave pens and Mac let go of me to fiddle with the key. Zoon took his place holding onto my arm. The look on Mac’s face was unreadable as he shoved the key into the lock, opening the chain link door.

“I know, Violet, I know. But if something happens to Duncan… I don’t know if I’ll be able to live with myself.”

His words made my stomach hollow, filled my veins with lead. How could I argue for something that might end in the death of his son? I of all people knew what it was like to lose a child, I knew what it was like to wake up crying, clawing the bed beside you in search of the baby you knew was gone -long gone.

I knew what it was like to be responsible for the death of your only son.

“Alright. We get Duncan and we go,” I said, hoping to keep any trace of the tidal wave of depression that was washing over me out of my voice.

I yanked my arm out of Zoon’s grasp, walking past Mac and into the pen. Bumble was at the other end of the pen like she had been earlier today but even from here I could see the resentment in her eyes that was directed at Mac. Daisy leaned on the brick wall, arms crossed.

I turned to look at them as he shut the door, locking it again.

“We’ll have you out of here soon, Blue.”

I smiled at Piper, praying no one was paying attention to us.

“I know. Now go. Remember, I don’t mean anything to you guys.”

Mac flexed his jaw, fists clenched at his side.

“I love you.”

I nodded stiffly, smiling, worried someone nearby would read my lips. Mac seemed to understand why I didn’t respond verbally, holding eye contact with me, his blue eyes pained.

“Go,” I whispered.

He sighed and Piper gave me a subtle wave, keeping her hand low. Zoon pulled up his sunglasses, winking at me and followed the two of them away from the area. I let out a heavy huff of air, backing away from the fence as if my bones were ten times heavier than they were before.

My eyes landed on the empty pen beside us and my thoughts turned to Duncan.

I whirled around, planning on talking to Bumble only to find her standing right in from of me already, Daisy beside her. I gasped, jumping, hand flying to my chest.

“Jesus Christ-”

“Sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry! I didn’t mean to-”

“What the fuck are we going to do to get out of here, Mungo?” Daisy said, cutting off Bumble. “Why are you the slave? I thought it was supposed to be Zoon?”

“It’s a long story-”

“What do you mean Zoon was meant to be the slave? Zoon’s here?” Bumble’s eyes snapped to me, her frown deepening. “Are you just pretending to be a slave?”

“All will be explained but first I need to you to answer a question. Where are the child slaves?”

Somehow she managed to look even more confused.

“They’re doing jobs around town. While they were doing repairs to the child slave house they’ve been having them do that during the day and then they sleep in the adult slave house at night.”

I nodded, grinning.

“So Duncan could be here.”

“Duncan? As in Danny?” Bumble said, smiling. “He’s here. He’s sweet.” Her gaze fell to Daisy. “He’s from Little Lamplight too.”

“I KNOW,” Daisy said.

“Oh! There he is!  They’re bringing the kids!”

Bumble pointed beyond me and I turned around in time to see Saul walking up, followed by a little boy, an awful collar around his neck. Saul unlocked the pen, shoving him inside, barking at all of us to get into the Slave House and not to try anything funny.

The little boy was small with shaggy brown hair that swooped over his eyes that were green -a shade of green just like mine, bright, intense like the canopy of a forest or a field of grass. Lucy’s eyes.

Duncan. We’d found him.

Chapter Text

I almost collapsed at the sight of him. He looked so much like Mac with his thin, bowed lips pulled into an annoyed pout, his eyes narrowed critically. I was frozen in place, eye glued to the child in front of me. He seemed to notice Daisy now and his big eyes widened, his mouth pulling into a surprised grin.

“Daisy!”

He ran forward, hugging her legs.

The girl who I had rarely seen express happiness, smiled tenderly, crouching down and hugging Duncan properly, closing her eyes.

“Hey kiddo.”

“How’d they catch you?”

Daisy released Duncan, sighing.

“I’ll explain inside. Come on.”

Bumble had already opened the door to the slave house and we all filed inside. The room was dark and dusty, stained mattresses scattered across the floor, mushrooms growing out of mounds of dirt on one side of the room. Once the door shut it was promptly locked from the outside. After a moment Daisy explained how she’d gone outside of Little Lamplight to check if  the two ‘Mungos’ she’d hired had done the job of killing the fire ants right when Princess had snatched her up.

While she spoke I just watched Duncan who was fully encapsulated by the story, eyes wide, mouth hanging open slightly. What was I supposed to do now? He was here in front of me, Mac’s son, the little boy I’d imagined a million times but never seen.

“Why won’t she stop staring at me?” Duncan whispered to Daisy, green eyes on me.

“Because,” Daisy said, rolling her eyes. “She’s here to rescue you.”

Duncan grinned, getting to his feet.

“Really!?”

I blinked, coming to my senses.

“Yes. I’m here with your father.”

The excitement on his face was quickly erased and replaced by a baffled frown. His eyes fell to the floor.

“My dad’s gone,” he mumbled.

My heart broke in that moment and I dropped to my knees in front of him so that we were the same height, fighting the urge to hold him. He didn’t know me, he didn’t know that he already meant the world to me.

“No, no, Duncan he’s not gone. He’s here, he’s come to take you home.”

“You’re lying!” he snapped, taking a step back.

Tears welled in my eyes, spawned by my inability to not project my own feelings onto the situation. I couldn’t help but think of Shaun at this age, living in the cold, unfeeling world of the Institute. Had he thought of Nate and I in this way, thought his parents had abandoned him?

“I promise, he’s here. He’s been looking for you -oh, Duncan he loves you so much, I promise, he’s here. We’ve both been looking for you.”

“It’s true, kiddo,” Daisy said, somewhat begrudgingly. “They came to Little Lamplight looking for you. They came here to get you.”

Before Duncan could respond, Bumble released an exasperated huff of air, shaking her head.

“Okay, okay, enough! What the hell is going on? Is RJ a slaver or not?” she asked.

“He’s not.”

I quickly recapped everything that had happened in the last two days, leaving out the part where Daisy purposefully didn’t tell us where Duncan had ended up. During the story Bumble had gone to lean on the wall to our left, her brows scrunched in concentration. Once I was done she met my stare, her pinched together as she chew on the inside of her cheek.

“So who are you to RJ?”

I opened my mouth and then shut it, unsure of how to answer the question. How had we managed to agree to raising each other’s children without putting a label on the relationship?

“I’m his girlfriend, I guess.”

She quirked a brow.

“You guess?”

“It’s complicated.”

“My dad’s here? For real?” Duncan said, speaking for the first time in since he’d accused me of lying.

I nodded, smiling.

“He’s going to take you home. But first… well, we gotta get out of here,” I said, “I’m going to need you to do something for me Duncan. It’s gonna be dangerous.”

His eyes lit up and he started to smile crookedly, reminding me so much of his father that it made my chest tighten.

“Dangerous!?”

I laughed, despite the thrill of fear that ran through me. Of course MacCready’s son would be excited by danger even at the age of five.

“Yeah, dangerous. When you see your dad, you need to pretend you don’t know him, alright?”

He cocked his head to the side, his chocolate hair covering one of his green eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because if the people here know that you’re his son… they might hurt you. And me and your dad. So we need to play pretend. Your dad’s gonna pretend he doesn’t know you and you’ll need to do the same… does that make sense?”

Duncan frowned, eyes on the floor as he shoved his hair out of his eyes.

“I… no.”

I laughed lightly, hanging my head, pretending the fact that I had no idea to speak to children didn’t bother me. If he were a baby or a twelve year old I’d be… slightly prepared.

I tried explaining a few more times -with the help of Daisy and Bumble- and eventually it seemed like Duncan understood what he needed to do. It probably would have been easier to keep him out of the loop. Of course if he saw Mac now there was no way in hell he wasn’t going to recognize him.

Then again, Duncan was three when Mac left for the Commonwealth. Maybe he didn’t remember what his father looked like.

I pushed back the depressing thought and soon the five of us ended up curled on our own mattresses. Not long after I’d explained the situation to Duncan two more slaves had entered into the building, neither bothering to introduce themselves. It had been two men, both looking to be about my age.

It took me a long time to fall asleep on the lumpy surface, my eyes boring into the back of the little boy lying on the bed beside my own.

In the morning I awoke to the sound of the door flying open and slamming against the wall. I gasped, shooting into a sitting position, my heart pounding. Daisy reacted the same way, releasing a high pitched squeal. The others seemed a lot more adjusted to this method of waking up.

“Come on, maggots,” Saul said, “Get the fuck up and go outside.”

We all stood, me being the slowest of the group. My back protested, my muscles tight from spending all night on such a sorry excuse for a bed. My bed in Sanctuary was actually pretty good and I’d become unadjusted to sleeping in such terrible conditions. I shuffled outside, yawning, squinting at the early morning sunlight that streamed into the pen.

Saul shoved me further away from the door, which I thought was a little unnecessary and shut the door with a loud thunk. I noticed now that in one of his hands was one of the collars Duncan and Bumble already had around their necks. He grabbed Daisy by the bicep and her head whipped up, her lips pulled back over her teeth.

“Get the fuck off of me!” she growled.

“Bumble, hold onto her for me,” Saul said, ignoring Daisy’s protests.

Bumble stepped forward, reluctantly holding onto either of the younger girls arms, saying, “I’m sorry. There’s no point fighting back.”

“Like fuck there isn’t! There’s seven of us and one of him! We can fight-”

Abruptly Saul brought his closed fist down on the top of Daisy’s head and her eye rolled back into her head, her knees buckling. Bumble struggled to keep herself and Daisy upright, her eyes popping wide. My jaw dropped and it took all my strength to not lash out at him physically.

“You didn’t have to hurt her!” I cried, clenching my fists at my side.

He ignored me. He lifted Daisy’s ponytail, slapping the collar around her neck, snapping it shut with one hand. Next he wrenched her from Bumble’s grasp, throwing her over his shoulder as if she weighed nothing. He turned, heading out of the pen.

“Bones, Tongue, Smalls, come.”

Duncan and the two men obediently followed, standing beside him as he locked the door again. He walked them over to the pen attached to this one, unlocking it and holding the door open for them. Duncan scurried inside and Saul followed them in a foot, dropping Daisy in a way that she was crumpled against the chainlink fence.

“Where’s he taking those two?” I asked Bumble, gesturing to the men that followed Saul away from the pens now.

“Work. One runs the bar, not sure what the other one’s job is.”

It was then that a large group walking around beyond the slave pens caught my eye. It was Mac, Piper, Zoon, Princess, Clover, Duchess and the same two men I’d seen with Princess yesterday. They must have been leaving to go catch more slaves.

As they headed towards the exit of town I watched them, my stomach churning. We couldn’t just take Duncan and Daisy and leave. What about Bumble? What about the two men? Hell, Daisy hadn’t even been tricked into being taken, she’d just been outside of Little Lamplight when she’d been taken.

We couldn’t allow for this to continue.

If I stood idly by now, allowed for this slave camp to keep operating it would mean there was no point to killing Shaun, no point to blowing up the Institute.

We would have to buy all three of the kids and then once they were safe in Little Lamplight we’d come back here and take out the place. Kill every last slaver, make sure none of them could get this place restarted AGAIN. Then Bumble and the other slaves would be free.

“You swear RJ isn’t a slaver?” Bumble asked.

I turned my head to look at her, nodding.

“I swear.”

Her expression was unreadable.

“You love him?”

My lips pulled up into a small smile.

“Yes. With all my heart.”

She smiled at that.

“You know I never imagined RJ as the type to settle down and have kids. Who’s Danny’s mom?” she asked.

I glanced at the small boy beyond the fence who was kicking around a pebble, just out of earshot.

“Her name was Lucy. She died two years ago.”

Bumble grimaced, eyes falling to the ground as she began to chew her nail.

“God, poor kid. Loses both his parents and ends up being forced into becoming a slave. At least RJ’s here.” Her smile returned and her hand dropped away from her mouth. “At least he’s gonna get out of here.”

I lowered my voice, facing her completely, my eyebrows pulling together as I spoke.

“We’ll get you out of here too, Bumble -Beatriz. We’ll get the kids to safety then we’ll tear this place apart.”

Her light brown eyes widened and she met my stare, her lips parted.

“No way, it’s too dangerous. You could get killed.”

I laughed.

“We’ve taken on jobs way more dangerous than this,” I said. “This’ll be cake.”

As soon as the words left my mouth the image of Bumble dying in the crossfire flashed through my mind, intrusive and unsettling. I could see her lying on the ground of the slave pen, her body riddled with bullets. Or worse, her collar is detonated and her whole goddamn head gets pulverized. “Of course, things would be a lot easier if we could get you to safety before we attacked the town… if only Mac hadn’t had to give the key back to Clover. We could have snuck out of here in the night. Found someone to get your collars off in Megaton or something.”

Bumble pursed her lips, humming thoughtfully.

“I might have a way to help.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Go on.”

She hesitated, seeming unsure of herself.

“Well, there’s a hole in the wall of the slave house, where the wall had to be repaired by wood panels. I keep the loose panels in place by wedging them between two bricks,” she said.

“Why haven’t you escaped before now!?”

She gave me a look.

“I was scared. If anyone saw me they wouldn’t hesitate to detonate my collar.”

“Fair. But you are telling me this because we could all escape through this hole in the night?”

She shook her head.

“No. Now that the child slave pen doesn’t have a hole in it they’re gonna put the kids in the child slave house at night. We’ll need a key to the pen to get them out. But again, if anyone sees us… our heads go ka-blooey.”

I sighed, leaning against the fence, tucking my hair behind my ear. I examined the light pink, webbed scar across the back of my left hand. It didn’t really hurt at all, just felt a little dry. As my eyes traced the blistered branches of skin, a plan formed in my brain.

“How long is Princess usually gone for when she goes on runs?” I asked.

Bumble thought.

“Sometime half a day, sometimes one to two days. It depends on where she goes and how gullible people are.”

I ignored the fact that that meant Mac might be spending multiple nights with her out in the Wasteland. Again, not because I didn’t trust him, but because I didn’t trust her. It wouldn’t help our situation if Mac had to reject Princesses romantic or sexual advances. It would probably get us kicked out or killed.

“She said people nearby have started to catch on, so I’d imagine they have to go further out to find new slaves,” I said.

She nodded.

“That’s a good point.”

“So what if tonight I sneak out of the slave house and over to her ‘palace’ and search for a key? Clover’s gone, there’s no reason for anyone to be in there. So once I find the key, I give it to you and when we come back to clear out this place out, you free yourself during the attack and get the fuck out of here while the slavers are distracted? No one will know to detonate your collar if they’re fighting for their lives.”

“Why don’t I just hang out in the slave house while you’re killing everyone?” she asked. “Then there’s no risk of me getting shot or getting my head blown up.”

“Because if we don’t win, you’ll be stuck here. If you free yourself during the chaos you could be in the clear even if we don’t make it.”

She pressed her lips into a thin line again, furrowing her brows.

“That’s bleak.”

I nodded, solemn.

“Yeah. It is.”

******

I removed the brick in front of a wooden panel, carefully sliding the panel out, creating a hole big enough for me to crawl through in the wall. Behind me Bumble waited nervously for me to crawl through so she could seal it back up.

We’d waited until the two men, Bones and Tongue had fallen asleep, not wanting to have to explain everything or risk them telling on us.

“Be safe,” Bumble said quietly as I slipped outside.

I turned, leaning down so I could make eye contact with her through the hole.

“Always am.”

With that said she replaced the panel and I pushed the brick on my side of the wall into it as she did the same on the other side. When I’d asked how long ago Bumble had made this hole she couldn’t answer, saying that at this point she didn’t really remember. Her best guess was two years ago.

I’d been surprised that in two years no one had moved the brick on the outside of the slave house.

Swallowing and pushing my hair out of my eyes, I began darting behind buildings, making my way towards Princess’ Palace. There weren’t many people to be seen, thank god, and it didn’t take me long to get to the back of the Palace. Thankfully there was a door on the side of the building. It looked as if someone had blown a hole in the wall and instead of repairing the damage someone had just decided to stick a door on. I quickly pulled open the door, heading inside. I was in a long hallway, a bed beside me and the back of a staircase to right.

I allowed my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room, keeping my back pressed to the wall of the hallway I was in. Holding my breath, I crept to the doorway and peeked into the room, checking for Deadeye or Saul or some slaver I hadn’t learned the name of. By some miracle it was empty, and I entered the room fully, first veering to the left side to check one of the chest of drawers against the wall.

Nothing.

I moved onto a desk that had a pencil and clipboard on top of it and nothing else. I sighed heavily, pursing my lips as I pulled open one of the drawers. Nothing. Next I headed to the other side of the room, opening an old, beat up filing cabinet. There were caps, ammo, and a few cans of spam inside but that was it. If I’d had my backpack still I might have taken some of the caps and ammo.

I was about to move over to another filing cabinet when the sound of the front door opening reached my ears. My blood ran cold, my temperature spiking and my stomach flipping. For a split second I was stuck in place, too horrified to do anything to save myself.
Fortunately, my brain switched on in time for me to sprint across the room and throw myself under Princess’ bed, the faded purple skirt of the bed frame making impossible for anyone to see me without lifting it.

Princess’ voice reached my ears, husky and soft.

“RJ, I have to say, I never thought I’d see you again. But I always hoped I would…”

Fuck. You have got to be kidding me.

“Yeah, well… same to you Princess,” he said, barely trying to sound convincing.

I bit my lip and covered my mouth with both my hands, finding it a physical struggle to keep myself from reacting verbally. Why had they gotten back so soon? And what were they doing here?

“I remember when we were kids I was taller than you.”

“I try to forget that,” Mac muttered.

Princess laughed, short and sweet. It wasn’t a natural laugh, I recognized it well as the fake laugh of a girl trying to appear cute. God, did this woman have no shame? Or was she actually this oblivious of Mac’s disdain for her?

“Well, you’re not so small anymore, are you?”

My eyes widened.

“What- uh, no. I’m taller. As you can see. Much taller. Anyway, Princess, I should-”

“Why don’t you stay here the night? My bed’s way comfier than any bed in the barracks.”

The bed creaked as she sat down on the edge. My heart stopped beating, crushed in my throat. Was this actually happening? I never should have come here. If they caught me now who knew what would happen. I didn’t have a collar to detonate but that wouldn’t stop Princess from killing me.

“That’s okay-”

“Plus, here there’s… entertainment.”

Before I could stop myself, my eyes bulged even more, my brows pulling together in a deep frown, and the word “WHAT” slipped from between my lips, muffled but loud behind my clasped hands.

As soon as the words left my lips I locked my mouth shut, my eyes snapping to the side of the bed Princess sat on.

“What the fuck!?” Princess cried.

From the doorway I heard Mac mutter, “Fu- jesus christ.”

The skirt of the bed lifted and Princess’ appeared, red hair falling around her furious face. She dropped to her knees beside the bed, clawing at me, a hand managing to get tangled in my hair. I shrieked as she wrenched on it, kicking my feet on the ground so I slid out from under the bed.

Princess hauled me to my feet, rushing towards the wall and shoving me into it with her full strength. My head cracked against the surface and I cringed, fighting past the immediate throbs of pain in my skull to focus on the woman in front of me.

“You goddamn piece of shit. How the fuck did you get in here!?”

I didn’t say anything. She pulled me forward only to slam me back into the wall. “Tell me!”

“Princess stop it!” Mac snapped, striding over to us.

“Look, I know that she’s your slave, RJ, but she broke my rules.”

“I know, I’ll deal with her, just-”

Princess shot daggers at him, her face red.

“I’m in charge! Not you! Me! I run this place! So back the fuck up, I’m not going to kill your little whore.” She looked at me again. “Tell me how you got out.”

I smirked at her, pretending I wasn’t in a massive amount of danger. Just because she said she wasn’t going to kill me didn’t mean I believed her.

“But if I tell you that, then how will I sneak out again later?”

She reeled her fist back, punching me right in the jaw. My vision washed away in a tidal wave of blackness, the wall sliding against my back as my legs gave out. I thought I heard Mac say something, but it was hard to be sure when I was losing consciousness.

When I came to, it appeared only a few seconds had passed. I blinked groggily, watching as Princess stormed towards the exit of the building. Mac knelt down in front of me, holding my head in his hands. I could taste blood in my mouth.

“Vi, what were you thinking!? Why are you out of the slave pen?” he asked, his voice oozing with concern and fear. His blue eyes searched mine, his lips pulled down in despair.

“It’s too complicated to explain. We need to free everyone Mac. We need to get everyone… out of here. It’s not right. I chose freedom for the synths over being with my son… I’m not going to throw that sacrifice away by just letting slavery happen somewhere else.”

“You can’t fix the Wasteland, Vi,” he said. “You can’t save everyone.”

I grinned, my jaw throbbing along with the back of my head.

“But I can try.”

The door slammed open loudly and Mac swiftly separated himself from me, struggling to compose himself. Princess and Saul strode into the room, Princess still seething.

“If RJ doesn’t want a collar on you then I’ll just have to think of other ways to keep you in line. Take her to the Box,” Princess said, folding her arms over her chest.

“What’s the box?” Mac said, hardly masking the panic rising in his voice.

“Don’t worry, no one’s gonna hurt your product. It’ll just make her think twice before trying to escape again.”

Saul clawed onto my arm, yanking me to my feet and towing me towards the door. I stumbled behind him, barely able to match his long legged strides, only staying on my feet because of him holding my arm.

“Where are you taking her!?” I heard Mac cry just before the doors to the palace shut behind us.

I looked up, choosing to ask him a question despite knowing it was pointless. “What’s ‘the Box’? Solitary confinement?”

He peered down at me with cold, dark eyes, his lips pulled up in a sneer.

“That’s the short answer. Now shut up.”

We were heading towards the slave pens when he veered off to the right, rounding one of the many piles of debris and garbage. In front of us was one of those single person fallout shelters that had popped up all over America a few months before the bombs fell. It was essentially just a cylindrical, metal tube big enough for someone to stand in.

I’d seen them before, not recently, but they weren’t new to me. But for some reason this time the sight of it made my stomach twist, nausea rolling through me, my heart beginning to pound so hard it made my head throb.

“No- no, please,” I said, my voice wavering in a way I’d only experienced in times of extreme stress and fear.

I was transported back to the morning I’d woken up in the vault, when I’d slowly walked the concrete halls of that underworld hellscape. I’d been all alone, everyone had died while I’d been asleep. I could see the skeletons of scientists and vault-tec employees. I could see the skeleton bent over a desk, it’s pistol curled in the bones of it’s hand.

Saul slammed a button on the fallout shelter and the door slid open.

My view from my cryotube pushed into my mind, violent and intrusive. I was stuck in there again, helpless as the world fell apart. I could see Nate crumpling, see Shaun being ripped from his grasp. I could hear myself crying out desperately, unable to do anything from within my one person prison.

“No, no, no, please don’t put me in there, please!” I cried, becoming hysterical, wrenching my arm fruitlessly, Saul’s grip too strong. “I can’t- please, please! MacCready!”

I bit my lip, through the haze of my terror barely remembering what was at risk if I blew our cover.

“Shut up!” Saul snapped, trying to force me into the tube.

Tears spilled over my cheeks as I clenched my eyes shut, the cold metal of the fallout shelter digging into my hands as I pushed myself away off of it. I was screaming, I hadn’t even realized I was doing it.

“No, no, please, no, don't make me go in there!”

Arms wrapped around my torso, lifting me off of the ground and my eyes flew open in time to watch the darkness of the fallout shelter envelope me as Saul through me inside. I hit the back wall, catching myself and whirling around. “No- no!”

Saul glowered at me, smashing his fist against the tube, the door sliding shut, leaving me all alone in the pitch black space.

Chapter Text

I was in there for a week. The only way for me to judge the passing of time was my meals and when they took me to a ‘bathroom’ sometime at night. Everyday at… some point, a dismal tray of food would be slid in through a hatch at the bottom of the door that had been clearly added after the war. This was the only time I saw light. Brief seconds in which I was momentarily blinded.

By the time my last day in “the Box” rolled around I had little to no expectations of getting out anytime soon. Yes, I assumed I wouldn't be in there forever, but I found it made it easier not to get my hopes up every time light bled into my cage from the food hatch.

What was worse than the lack of sunlight was the memories of my cryotube pounding behind my eyes any time I closed them. I kept hearing Kellogg’s voice.

Everything’s going to be fine.

I was scrunched into a ball at the bottom of the one-man fallout shelter when the door slid open, the metal grinding against itself. I gasped, shielding my eyes reflexively. Like when they took me to the shack that constituted as a bathroom, Saul snagged onto my arm, wrenching me from the capsule. I stumbled onto the hard ground, blinking violently, my hair falling over one of my eyes, creating a curtain from the harsh sunlight.

Suddenly the aggressive hands of the slaver were replaced by a much gentler, familiar touch and my head snapped up, meeting the hard stare of MacCready.

I almost sobbed at the sight of him, but knew that would seem strange if I was his slave and he was my owner. Instead, I bit into my cheek, blinking now to hold back the tears. My throat hurt so badly due to the need to cry.

“Come on,” he growled, halfheartedly forcing me in the direction of the slave house.

I tripped slightly and he held me up, but continued to tow me forward, not allowing me time to recover or steady myself. He unlocked the slave pen, shutting it and locking it behind us. Then he plowed past Bumble and kicked the door of the slave house open, pulling me inside, slamming it shut.

Before I could speak he whipped me around to face him, locking his arms around me, pulling me upwards so that I was left on my tiptoes. He buried his face in my hair, his fingers digging into my skin as if he couldn’t get close enough. His voice was hoarse, barely above a whisper as he said, “I’m so sorry.”

I returned the embrace as best I could under his tight grasp, closing my eyes, wanting to cry now for him and not myself.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.”

He tensed more, as if he were struggling to remain upright under an extremely heavy weight.

“I tried to get you out but I couldn’t- they wouldn’t let me. I wanted to kill all of them, Vi. But I didn’t want to risk them doing something to Danny. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“I understand. Mac, it’s okay, I’m alright. They didn’t hurt me.”

“I may or may not have told them that since you were a prostitute I needed them to take you to the bathroom and not beat you so that you would still be attractive and clean so I could whore you out, I’m sorry,” he said quickly.

I laughed, despite my aching body and stinging eyes.

“Thank you, I was worried they were going to give me a bucket or something.”

He pulled back, eyes slightly bloodshot, cheeks still damp from the tears he must have shed. My chest ached, heart bursting against my ribs and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. I’d never seen him cry before.

“Vi-”

I slid my hand over his cheek and he leaned into my touch, closing his dear blue eyes.

“Please don’t cry,” I said, throat closing, tears welling in my own eyes. “I’m okay, RJ, I really am.”

“We’re getting out of here, okay?” he said, gaze hardening. “I’m going to ask to buy a child slave and I’ll pick Duncan and we’ll get out of here.”

I opened my mouth to protest, unsure of what to say. Bumble came to my mind, her shaking hands, her scared brown eyes. I thought of all the other slaves working the bar and the stores here. I thought of all the potential slaves they would keep bringing here. “What?”

“I told you, we need to get all of them out of here. I won’t be able to live with myself knowing we left them all behind.”

“Vi, it’s too risky-”

“Don’t you care about Bumble?” I asked, brow furrowing. “You knew her! She seems to really care about you.”

He sighed, looking away from me in the way he usually did when he ran a hand through his hair. I thought the only thing stopping him was the fact that he didn’t want to let go of me. I decided now was a good time to pitch the plan I’d come up with with Bumble a week ago. I couldn’t believe how much time had passed… all that time in the dark. I shook my head, frowning and saying, “Look, we go buy Duncan and the other kids if we can, then once we’ve gotten them back to Little Lamplight we come back and we kill all the slavers. That way they’re not at risk.”

“No, that’s-” His lips turned down thoughtfully, his eyebrows shooting up. “That’s actually not a bad idea.”

“I know. Also, I think it’s sort of what Zoon suggested back in Little Lamplight.”

“Huh. Alright, let’s go tell Princess I’m ready to buy Duncan.”

“I'm coming with you?”

“I'm not leaving you alone again. A week was too long. I can't even imagine what it was like for you.”

“Where are Zoon and Piper?” I asked, choosing not to make him feel worse by explaining the madness and terror that I experienced being forced to sit for days in that tube.

RJ rolled his eyes.

“At the bar. They spend most of their time there. Zoon’s actually made friends here. Or at least he’s doing a good job of behaving like it. Piper hates everyone but she knows how to be undercover. We all want to get out of here.”

I nodded, sighing, and met his stare.

“We should probably get going.”

He pressed his lips into a thin line, eyes darting between my own, brows knitting together slightly. I was about to ask him what he was thinking when he spoke, saying, “Just one more thing before we go.”

He bent forward, planting his lips on mine, closing his eyes. My eyes widened for a moment, my whole body jolting like I’d been given an electric shock. My surprise only lasted for a split second, being quickly replaced by my longing for him.

It had been over a week since the last time he’d kissed me and it felt as if I was suddenly starving.

His fingers pressed into the side of my ribs and my hip, his arms snaked so tightly around me it almost hurt. I held his face in my hands, my arms trapped between our chests and I adjusted so that we could get closer, locking my arms around his neck. The kiss went from tender to heated and carnal in a matter of seconds, Mac spinning us so that he could press me against the door.

Both of his hands were on my waist now, keeping me firmly in place. He broke his lips away from mine, kissing my cheek, my jaw, the spot below my ear and then settled on my neck, his warm breath creating goosebumps on my skin.

I gasped, biting my lip, knowing that if anyone were to hear anything… suspicious we’d be in big trouble.

“Mac- RJ,” I said, pushing at him lightly, “We can’t- We’ve gotta go. What do they think you’re doing in here?”

He snickered, nibbling at my ear, which only made me have to dig my teeth back into my bottom lip, my breath hitching as he murmured in a husky voice, “Punishing you.”

My eyes widened and I giggled, covering my mouth, feeling very juvenile.

“Well, as much as I’d like this to continue, I don’t think we want to risk blowing our cover.”

He sighed, hanging his head so that it was resting on my shoulder, his grip on my waist becoming loose.

“You’re right… I just… I miss you. I was so lost without you, Vi. They put you in that stupid ‘Box’ and it felt like they’d taken half of me.”

I hugged myself to him, closing my eyes, my throat thick.

“I know. I know,” was all I could manage to say.

We stayed like that for another minute before he reluctantly released me, pulling away, eyes downcast. I leaned up on my tiptoes, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “It’s all going to end up okay.”

He looked at me through his lashes, his blue eyes vulnerable.

“I hope you’re right.”

I smiled.

“I am.”

With that said, we straightened our clothes, preparing ourselves for the outside world. RJ’s expression became abruptly nervous and he opened and closed his mouth hesitantly. I raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“We need to make it look like you’ve been having a bad time in here… But I’m not sure how to do that…”

“You could hit me?” I pitched, half joking.

His eyes widened, his brows pulling together in an alarmed frown.

“What- No! No! Jesus Christ, Vi, no!”

“Well, then I’d have a mark on my face! Right now the only reason my face might be red is because you tried to have your way with me!”

He laughed and then stopped suddenly, attempting to force a disciplinary look onto his face.

“No- No. This is a serious problem. We need a solution and one where I don’t have to hurt you.”

I exhaled loudly, folding my arms, thinking. “Quickly, Vi!”

I gave him a pointed look.

“Pressure never helps! Shut up and let me think.”

He groaned, running his hands through his hair. At the sight of that I came up with an idea. As I spoke, I began rubbing the heel of my hand roughly against my cheek bone.

“I know what we do. You grab the hair at the back of my head and throw me out the door.”

“No, I’m not-”

“Just hold me gently and make the motion, I’ll do the rest. I’ll play it up so it looks like you’re really doing it,” I said, beginning to pinch my skin in the same spot.

“Are you sure you can make it convincing?” he asked, skeptical.

“I’ve had enough practise at this point.”

He grimaced.

“That was depressing.”

“That’s the wasteland,” I said, mimicking his voice.

He rolled his eyes but couldn’t fight the smile that came to his face.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving myself a red mark so it looks like you hit me.”

I rubbed up and down my whole cheek now for good measure and then presented my face to him expectantly. “Well?”

He examined it, running his hand along his jaw.

“It looks pretty good.”

I slapped it sharply one time just to be sure and Mac jumped. “Jesus, Vi.”

“When we save your son you’ll be thankful for my commitment. Now grab my hair and throw the door open.”

Before he could respond I grabbed his hand, shoving it into my hair and screamed in a way that I prayed sounded pained. RJ’s eyes widened again, his jaw dropping and I threw my head in the direction of the door, giving him a look. Taking the cue he threw the door open loudly, reeling his hand back, his expression hard.

Once he started pushing forward I threw myself, stumbling and falling to the ground. This wasn’t hard to do since I was naturally clumsy- in fact, only the initial throw had been fake.

“If you ever pull that shit again I will have a collar locked so tightly around your neck that you won’t be able breathe!” Mac yelled, catching me off guard. “Do you understand me!?”

“Yes! I won’t do it again! I’m sorry!” I cried, letting my hair fall around me so people couldn’t see my face, just in case I wasn’t putting on a convincing enough performance.

“Good.”

He took hold of my bicep, pulling me to my feet, guiding me towards the door of the pen. As we passed by the “bar” I noticed Piper and Zoon sitting at the counter talking, Piper leaning on her elbow, knees angled towards Zoons. It almost looked like a flirtatious position.

She spotted us from the corner of her eye, jumping up immediately, a look of concern on her face. A split second later she composed herself, pulling Zoon out of his stool, the two of them heading over to us, matching our steps.

“Blue,” she hissed, “How’re you doing?”

“Fine,” I said quietly, barely moving my lips.

“What’s the plan, RJ?” Zoon asked, facing ahead. “We getting Duncan?”

RJ nodded.

“What about Daisy and-”

“We’ll come back for them after we get Danny somewhere safe,” RJ said, cutting off Piper’s question.

He pushed the doors of Princesses Palace open with one hand, towing me inside. Clover appeared in the doorway to the main room, frowning. Upon seeing that it was us she rolled her eyes, turning her back to us and heading out of view.

“It’s MacCready and his gang.”

We wheeled into the room, coming to such an abrupt halt that I almost tripped. Princess was sitting on the edge of her bed, her eyes hitting me sharply. It was a good thing that I didn’t find this petty, little girl intimidating or else her stare might have scared me.

Beside her sat Duchess, her hair out now, falling in ragged waves. She seemed just as dead inside as she had the last time I’d seen her. Why was she here? What was she to Princess? Maybe a way to lure children out?

“RJ, what a pleasant surprise, what-”

“We need to be getting back to our own compound. We need to leave today. Does your offer for taking a slave back with us still stand?” he asked. “If not, we’ll pay.”

Princess didn’t seem to know what to say and I suspected she was searching for a way to stall his departure. For a moment I thought about what a relief it would be for us to end up killing her when we returned to clear the place out. But I knew it wouldn’t really feel that way. At the thought of her body pale and streaked with blood my stomach hurt.

To think I was able to kill my own child and yet I shuddered at the thought alone of killing a remorseless slaver.

“Of course the offer still stands. I’m a woman of my word,” she said. Her gaze snapped to the white haired woman standing beside the bed, her arms folded across her chest uninvitingly. “Clover, go get the kids.”

Clover gave her a look that implied she disapproved of us waltzing out of here with free samples of the ‘product’ but did as she was told. Princess narrowed her eyes, watching me again.

“So why did you bring that with you?” she asked.

“We’re in a hurry. Wanted everyone ready to go once we picked a kid.”

She nodded thoughtfully, eyes drifting to Piper.

“Your last name is Wright, correct?”

“Yep.”

More nodding. She pinched her lips together, chewing on the inside of her cheek. There was a long minute in which no one said anything, Zoon breaking the silence by sighing heavily.

“So how you’d end up with this gig, Princess?” Zoon asked.

It occurred to me that if he’d met RJ while he was the mayor of Little Lamplight, that meant he’d met Princess as well. I wondered if he was disappointed to see the kind of person she’d become. Part of me guessed that he wasn’t that surprised.

Princess smiled. “After leaving Little Lamplight I ended up in a raider gang. That’s where I met Clover and after she got to know me she decided to tell me about her glory days working in Paradise Falls for some guy… Eugene or something-”

“Eulogy Jones,” Zoon corrected.

Princess froze, her mouth open and then cocked a brow.

“Yeah… that was his name. How’d you know that?”

Zoon shrugged.

“I’m old, kid, I remember back in the day when Eulogy ran the slaver biz.”

This seemed to satisfy her.

“Yeah, well she said I reminded her of him. We got talking about how lucrative the slave industry is and that was all the convincing I needed. She helped me find Saul and Deadeye and all the others and we came and cleaned this place up. You should have seen it there were bodies everywhere! Most were full blown skeletons, but some hadn’t finished decomposing.” She shuddered dramatically. “Anyway, that’s the story of how yours truly ended up running the biggest slaver town in the Capital Wasteland.”

The doors opened loudly and Clover barked something that I couldn’t quite make out. She appeared to our right, her hands gripped onto each of the kids slave collars. She shoved them in front of us, forcing them to face us.

Daisy craned her head to glare at her only for Clover to grab her head and turn it roughly. Duncan merely stared at the four of us, his green eyes drifting from one of us to the next. I prayed he was able to keep of the charade of not knowing RJ.

Princess stood.

“Alright, which one do you guys want? The little one’s five; people have taken to calling him ‘Smalls’, but you guys can nickname him whatever you want. The girl’s fourteen and she hasn’t had time to be given a name-”

“Her name’s Daisy,” I blurted. “And the ‘little one’ is Duncan.”

Thankfully it made sense for me to have learned their names in the time I'd been here.

“Shut the fuck up! I don't care what their names are, don't you get it, Sole Survivor? You're all nothing but livestock to me. You might as well be Brahmin.”

I glared at her openly, figuring that she wasn't going to do anything to me since I didn't belong to her and I hadn't done anything too extreme. RJ was giving me a crazy eyed look that translated to: Vi, could you not be an idiot for two seconds?

I clenched my jaw and kept my mouth closed. Princess turned towards Mac, folding her arms.

“Have you guys tried whipping her? I found it works wonders on the spirited ones. Or maybe cutting out her tongue? That's what we did to one of our boys.”

“Which one?” Zoon said.

She just looked at him silently for a moment.

“You're joking, right?”

He said nothing. She spoke slowly, sounding just as baffled as she'd been a moment ago. “Tongue. We cut Tongue’s tongue out.”

Zoon nodded, saying, “Aaah, that makes sense.”

“Anyway, pick a kid.”

“Can we take both?” RJ asked.

Princess gave him a look.

“No can do, RJ. Kids are too much of a hot commodity to just give all of mine away. You can have one.”

MacCready thought for a moment, examining the two of them intensely as if the decision hadn't already been made before we’d even arrived here.

“The little one.”

“Great. Smart choice. The younger the more time someone can get out of him. Assuming he doesn't do something stupid and get himself killed. You know kids.”

“I do. Pleasure doing business with you, Princess-”

“There's just one thing I need from you. Consider it payment,” she said, her tone becoming huskier, more predatory.

“Uh, wait-”

“I want Piper to write an article about me.”

RJ’s mouth hung open, his brows knitting together and I blinked, taken aback by what she'd said. I’d assumed she was going to try and sleep with him again. Duchess frowned, reacting for the first time since we’d come in here. Piper appeared to be equally as shocked as us, her green eyes wide.

“What? Why?”

“Because that's what you do, isn't it? You said your name was Piper Wright.” Piper was too bewildered to speak. “Some of your articles make it all the way from the Commonwealth. I recently read about your synth problem. Must be hard, not knowing who to trust.”

A pit formed in my stomach, massive and gaping. She was on to us, she had to be. Why hadn't Piper used a fake name!?

“Why do you want an article written about you?” Piper asked.

“Because who doesn’t? We don’t live forever and I want something to preserve my memory. Something complimentary. Something about the woman who rose up and created a slaver empire all by herself.”

This was exactly the conceded and petty behavior we should have all expected from Princess. Of course she wasn’t just going to let Mac go that easily. And of course she wanted an article written about her. It was the closest the people of this time had to getting on TV -other than appearing on the radio.

Finally RJ regained his ability to speak.

“Princess, that wasn’t part of the deal-”

“Yes, but don’t forget that I’m doing you a favor. I could get hundreds of caps for Smalls, and I’m giving him away for free.”

“This isn’t free-”

“Well, this is the price you have to pay. If you don’t want him you’re free to go.”

Mac’s jaw clenched, his hands curling into fists. I wanted to reach out, wanted to comfort him and let him know that it was going to be okay. He only had to wait a little while longer. But I couldn’t. I was forced to stand silently beside him and let him cope with this on his own.

He looked at Piper, who sighed.

“Alright, I’ll write it. But I’ll need to interview you.”

Princess clapped her hands together once, grinning.

“Perfect! As soon as you’re done with the article you can take Smalls and go. Until then, he’ll stay in the slave pen. Clover, take these two back.” She met Piper’s infuriated stare. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

Chapter Text

“Well, that could have gone worse,” Zoon said.

The three of them were standing in front of the slave pen, angled in a way that it looked like the conversation taking place was only between the three of them. I faced away from them, my back against the chainlink fence, my arms crossed. Bumble, Daisy and Danny stood close by, listening in.

“How?” RJ snapped, irritation evident in his voice.

“She could have killed us.”

“She’s onto us,” I said, running my hand through my matted hair. Slave life had not been kind to my physical appearance. I was filthy and unkempt, my clothes, hair and body unwashed. “She said ‘It must be hard not knowing who to trust’. She said that on purpose. She knows something’s going on.”

RJ sighed. “I think you’re giving her too much credit. Princess isn’t that much of a thinker.”

“She figured out a way to keep us trapped here,” Piper said.

“Yeah, but she doesn’t even fully understand why we’re trapped. She doesn’t even realize that there’s no way in hell we’re leaving here without Danny.”

“I’m with RJ on this one,” Zoon said. “I’ve known this girl since she was nine. She’s always been a bitch, but that’s it. She’s no criminal mastermind. She’s nothing more than a bully. Clover is the brains.”

I snorted and I noticed Bumble raise her eyebrow at his statement.

“Clover knew how to gather a bunch of assholes under one roof. That doesn’t make her a genius,” I said.

“Look, I could insult Princess and her scary pet all day,” said RJ and I could perfectly imagine him shoving his hand through his hair. “But that’s not going to solve our current problem. What are we gonna do?”

“I’m still up for taking this whole place out. It’s what the Lone Wanderer would do.”

RJ scoffed.

“I thought you weren’t the Lone Wanderer anymore?”

“I could be-”

“It’s too dangerous,” I said, interrupting them. “We have to wait until Danny’s safe.”

Piper exhaled, groaning quietly.

“I guess I’m gonna have to write an article.”

“Do it fast. I’m not sure how much longer I can go without bathing,” I muttered, grimacing.

“Oh, I’ll be fast. I know everything I need to know about Princess after just one interview with her. We could be out of here tomorrow.”

I tried not to get too excited, knowing that things rarely went right for us. After saying goodbye they all left to hang out at the bar, knowing it would look suspicious if they spent a prolonged amount of time near me.

I spent the rest of the day napping against the wall, talking to Bumble and Daisy, and playing rock paper scissors with Danny through the fence. When it was it was time to move into the slave house I was mildly excited to sleep on a mattress and not in a small, metal tube.

I flopped onto one of the beds, ignoring the dust that flew into the air around me, closing my eyes contentedly.

“That’s one nice thing about the Box. The beds always seem better by comparison,” Bumble said.

I cracked my eyes open, meeting her gaze. I could see now that her eyebrows were pulled together, guilt written all over her pretty face. I leaned up on my elbow, lying on my side, giving her a look.

“You’re not blaming yourself still, are you?”

She pursed her lips for a second before saying in a defeated voice, “It’s hard not to.”

“It should be! It wasn’t your fault, Bumble- Beatriz. I made my own choice. You’d be surprised how often I put myself in dangerous and/or miserable situations by making poor choices.”

“But if I hadn’t shown you the hole-”

“I would have tried to escape some other way. Trust me. I’m stupid like that.” I looked at her in a disciplinary way so that she knew arguing was pointless. “Now let’s think about something a little cheerier. What are you going to do once we free you from this hellhole?” I asked.

Her eyes lit up and she opened her mouth only to snap it shut as she thought. She pinched her lips together, narrowing her eyes and staring at the ceiling. It was a good thing Bumble wasn’t the one undercover because she allowed everything she was thinking to mold her features. She’d be a terrible poker player.

“I’m not sure. All I’ve ever known is Little Lamplight and here. What do you like to do?”

I made a reluctant face, sucking air in through my teeth, rolling onto my back.

“Oh man. That’s a loaded question. A lot of what I like to do isn’t even possible anymore.”

From my peripheral I could see her cock her head to the side.

“Why?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” She opened her mouth to ask a follow up question but I cut her off. “Long story short, I’m not from this time.”

“What?”

I snickered, realizing that there was no way getting around explaining my situation in more detail. I explained to her my background, how I’d ended up in vault 111; frozen in time. I left out the part about my dead family and my hunt for the son I’d eventually ended up killing anyway.

After she spent a couple minutes reacting to my story I said, “So to answer your initial question: I like to write, draw, and play piano. All activities that aren’t exactly… cohesive with the Wasteland life style. But when I’m not fighting for my life or scavenging, I’m at home spending time with my family.”

Bumble bit her lip, silent for a moment.

“Sounds like there’s not really a life for me outside of this place.”

I frowned, cocking my eyebrow.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because I don’t have any skills, especially not fighting or shooting. I wasn’t properly trained with a gun in Little Lamplight because I was such a klutz people didn’t trust me with one. And… well, I don’t have a family. I’ll be all alone once I’m free.”

My chest tightened and I rolled back onto my side so that I could meet her sad stare. I hated having this conversation with Bones and Tongue lying in beds beside us, but I took comfort in the fact that they’d already fallen asleep, saying, “Why don’t you come with us back to the Capital Wasteland? We’ll keep you safe and there’s lots of jobs in Diamond City. It’s a really safe settlement with lots of people and opportunities.”

I might have been exaggerating when it came to the ‘opportunities’ but I was sure she could find something if she stayed. Maybe I could give her the key to Home Plate and she could live there. She gave me a crooked grin, raising her eyebrows.

“Would you really do that for me? They called me Bumble for a reason, I’m really clumsy- I might drag you guys down.”

I made a pfft noise, waving at her dismissively.

“I’m clumsy too, I promise RJ and our friends will be able to keep you alive as well.”

The smile on her face became even bigger, something I didn’t think was possible.

“Then I’ll come with you. I don’t have anything keeping me here.”

I closed my eyes, barely having been able to hold back my exhaustion for the duration of our conversation. I smiled sleepily, using my bicep as a pillow.

“Perfect.”

******

“Everyone up!”

I yelped, jolting upright on my mattress, a hand immediately gripping the collar of my shirt and yanking me to my feet. I winced -the fabric digging into my skin from briefly supporting my full weight- and staggered behind him as Saul lead me to the door. “Bones, Tongue, follow me.”

I would have questioned why he was solely dragging me from the Slave house but once we were through the door I saw MacCready, Piper and Zoon gathered in front of the fence. She was already done with her article? Had she slept?

He unlocked the pen, handing me over to RJ like I were something dirty. To be fair, I was. Without saying anything he lead me towards Princesses Palace. Once we were out of earshot from Saul, he spoke, saying, “How was your night?”

“Great. Wonderful. The best night sleep I’ve had in a week.”

“Good thing you got yourself locked in a metal tube. Now every bed will seem better by comparison,” Zoon said, smirking beneath his bandana, I was sure of it.

I glared at him. It was strange how he could say something so similar to what Bumble had told me last night and yet it seemed so much meaner coming from him.

“You’re not a very nice person, did you know that?”

“I’m here aren’t I? A bad person would have just left you guys to handle this lion’s den by yourselves.”

“Pfft, like we’re supposed to believe you did this out of the kindness of your heart? You wanted some fun after ‘lying low’ for a few years,” RJ said.

Zoon was about to argue when Piper interrupted.

“Boys, rein in your dislike for each other for the next hour and then once we’re out of here you can verbally abuse each other to your heart’s content.”

They both looked at each other, pouting and then RJ sighed.

“Fine.”

Their bickering ended just in time for us to walk into the ‘palace’. Princess sat on her bed, leaning against the headboard, filing her nails. She was dressed in what once must have been a tanktop but was now half the size, revealing her midriff, and a ratty pair of pajama pants.

“Oh, hello RJ and the rest. Are you done already Piper? We only talked for a few hours yesterday. I have a lot more to say.”

“I’m sure you do,” Piper said, dropping her notepad onto the bed.

Princess sat up, reaching for the notepad greedily, beginning to read. We all waited patiently and after what seemed like an eternity -but was in actuality under five minutes- Princess sneered, tossing the notebook to the end of the bed.

“Do you think I’m stupid, Piper? This is terrible! I’ve read three of your articles, did you really think I wouldn’t be able to tell if you just didn’t try!?”

Piper snatched up the notebook, more frustrated than shocked by her outburst.

“I did try, you- I did, okay? This is the article I wrote, it’s the article you’re getting.”

“Alright, fine. If you don’t want to try again you can all leave today. But Smalls stays here.”

“What!?” RJ cried.

“You got an article, you can’t just change your mind just because you didn’t like it, you brat!” I snapped before I could control myself.

All of them looked at me as if I’d blown fire and I clamped my mouth shut. Why did I keep running my mouth in front of her? God, I was going to get myself killed at this rate. Not that Mac would allow that, but then he’d tear apart Paradise Falls to protect me and we’d be putting Danny at risk.

“Get your whore in control, RJ. At some point a woman can’t just let her guests run all over her. I am in charge here, not you,” she said, narrowing her eyes, folding her arms over her chest.

Could she be more of a child? She was worse than Venus. But I was surprised she didn’t lash out at me physically. She’d hit me several times in the week we’d been here, she clearly wasn’t opposed to it.

“Fine. I’ll write a new article,” Piper said, grabbing one of the chairs tucked under a desk along the wall of the room. She dragged it over to the bed, dropping into it, pencil trained over her notepad. “We’ll start it over right now.”

This made Princess perk up instantly.

“Great! All of you, give Piper and I some privacy. I don’t want you distracting her.”

We hesitated, exchanging unsure glances but didn’t want to risk Princess raising her voice. Not because it was intimidating but because it was so damn shrill. Per the norm, we waited until we were outside to talk, doing our best to be covert about it.

“Piper assumed Princess would be too stupid to tell the difference between a well-written article and a… well, a shitty one,” Zoon said, somber for the second time since I’d known him. “I’d agreed with her.”

RJ sighed.

“I would have too.”

“It shouldn't take her long to write a good one. This is Piper’s thing. She knows what she's doing,” I said, hoping to prevent RJ from spiralling.

“So Piper’s single, right?” Zoon asked and MacCready and I’s heads whipped to look at him, unabashed shock on both of our faces.

“You think now is a good time to ask out Piper?” I asked.

He shrugged as we reached the slave pen.

“Life expectancy in the Wasteland is pretty… fuckin’ terrible, there’s no point wasting time on formalities or ‘appropriate timing’.”

RJ opened the door to the pen and I walked inside, forgetting that I was supposed to be playing a slave for a moment as I gave Zoon a skeptical look.

“Or, you know, getting to know each other at all. You met her a week ago.”

“A week and three days,” he corrected and I could hear his smile under his bandana. “But with a girl like Piper, that’s all you need.”

I fought a smile because what he’d said had been very sweet, but at the same time, Zoon made me nervous. He was unpredictable and seemed slightly… unhinged? He struck me as the type that would abandon us at a moments notice if it meant saving his own skin.

RJ cleared his throat, drawing my attention to him. There was  a concerned mask on his face, his eyebrows pulled together ever so slightly.

“Just a little bit longer, okay?”

I smiled at him in a way that I hoped was reassuring.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m not going to cause any more trouble, which means no one’s gonna have to punish me. Hell, the worst thing about being the ‘slave’ is that I’m bored.”

He nodded, my words clearly doing little to ease his anxieties. His gaze shifted to his left and I followed it, spotting Duncan standing as close to the group as he could get. He gripped the chain link in his little hands, his big eyes wide and curious.

“Hey Smalls,” RJ said, winking and giving him a lopsided grin.

“Hey mister,” Danny said, mirroring the smile perfectly.

“It’s uncanny,” Zoon said, folding his arms. “It’s like I’m looking at a smaller version of Mayor MacCready. Anyway, RJ, we should get going to the bar. Don’t want people to get suspicious.”

RJ sighed.

“I know, I know.” He looked at both of us and mouthed ‘I love you’.

With that said, he and Zoon left, Zoon putting a hand on Mac’s shoulder only for Mac to immediately brush it off. I wondered how much he actually disliked Zoon. Was he just being cold to mask the fact that he considered the guy a friend?

Based on my experience with RJ there was even a chance he was secretly in love with Zoon. That’s how it had been with me, at least.

“I thought you guys were leaving today?” Bumble said, making me jump.

“Jesus-”

“Sorry, sorry! I thought I’d walked loud enough this time!”

I turned, laughing and shaking my head.

“You did not. Maybe you should have been the one to sneak out. You’re like a ghost.”

She snorted, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, until I trip and break something.”

“Fair point. Anyway, we were hoping for today but it turns out Princess isn’t quite as easy to trick as we were expecting,” I said with a sigh. “It’s going to be another day. Or more.”

Bumble nodded thoughtfully and then smiled.

“I know you guys will get out of here soon.”

“So will you.”

Her smile seemed a little more artificial now.

“No pressure. Danny’s the priority.”

I frowned, folding my arms, leaning against the fence.

“Getting him to safety is, yeah, but that doesn’t mean getting you and the others out of here too isn’t just as important.”

“I know,” she said, “Just don’t throw your lives away for me, alright?”

“We’ve taken down giant organization's way more threatening than the Paradise Falls gang, Bumble, don’t worry. We know what we’re doing.”

She nodded once more, still smiling rigidly and I did my best to ignore her skepticism. Did she really doubt the value of her life? Had all these years of being a ‘product’ make her think her life was worth any less than mine or Duncan’s or MacCready’s?

I’ll just have to prove her wrong, I thought to myself.

“When the fuck are we getting out of here?” Daisy said from the pen over.

I jumped again, looking around a little overdramatically, the volume of her voice making my stomach hurt.

“Lower your voice, Daisy, do you want to get your head blown up?” I hissed.

She touched the collar and looked down at it, realization on her face.

“Ah, so that’s what this thing does.”

I sighed, sinking to the ground, curling my legs against my chest.

“We’ll get out of here soon, okay? We’ll get Duncan to Little Lamplight and then come back for the rest of you.”

“Rictus is not going to be happy if you show up without me,” she said.

“Why can’t Daisy come with me?” Danny asked, also a little too loud for comfort.

“It’ll be safer if we get you out of here first, okay? I promise, we’ll get everyone taken care of. And I’ll explain the situation to Rictus. He’ll understand.”

Daisy gave me a doubtful look but didn’t argue.

The rest of the day passed slowly, lazily, no slavers coming to bother us except when we were fed. That night when I laid my head down on the mattress it took me what felt like an eternity to actually fall asleep. It was hard to get tired when you did nothing but sit around and nap.

I hadn’t been asleep long when the already familiar slam of the metal door reached my ears, drawing me from my light slumber. I jerked, making a ‘wha’ noise and my eyes snapped open. Striding into the room was Princess, her thin lips pulled up into a smirk.

I sat up, rubbing my eyes, baffled. Before I had time to question or at least think about what she was doing in here when it was clearly the middle of the night, she grabbed the collar of my shirt, pulling me to my feet.

At this rate I’d forget how to stand on my own.

“Hello Sole Survivor, sorry to wake you up,” she said as she towed me out of the room by my collar. She continued speaking as she lead me towards the exit of the pen. “You see, we have this little… well, I’ll call it a tradition. And since you decided to run your mouth earlier -no, you didn’t get away with that like you thought you had- I took that as you volunteering to participate.”

“Then it doesn’t really matter what I say now does it? I’m already getting punished,” I said as she got through the second fence. “I could call you a bitch, or an ugly piece of shit, or an idiotic, baby woman, couldn’t I?”

“Tell me, were you this gutsy before everyone you knew and loved died?” she asked.

Unfortunately, her words struck a nerve, the fake backstory Zoon had given her being too similar to my real one. I swallowed, hoping to smother the onslaught of memories that her words triggered. “That’s what I thought.”

We reached the center of town -an area distantly in front of the movie theatre and not far from the slave pens. The Slavers -between ten and fifteen of them- were in a wide circle, the center empty. That must have been where I belonged.

My stomach churned as I wondered what Princess was planning to do to me in front of a crowd. I noticed RJ, Piper, and Zoon were all absent. Were they asleep, completely unaware of what was about to happen to me?

Princess strode into the circle, shoving me forward. I managed not to lose my footing, whirling around to look at her.

“You’re probably wondering what I’m going to do to you.”

I didn’t bother to answer. She was just trying to bait me, draw a reaction out of me for her own sadistic enjoyment. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. I only held sharp eye contact with her. She closed the small gap between us, leaning in so that her lips almost touched my ear. “I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

With that she pulled back, grabbing the collar of my shirt and punched me as hard as she could.

Chapter Text

If Princess hadn’t had a firm grip on my shirt, I would have crumpled straight to the ground, her fist having made incredibly hard contact with my jaw. My vision had washed away and the cheers of the slavers had become muffled as if someone had thrown a blanket over my head.

When I came to mere seconds later I was on my knees, her hand still on my collar, and I watched with a barely conscious frown as she reeled her fist back for another hit.

Thankfully, my reaction time hadn’t been too stunted from blacking out and I raised my arms to block my face, her fist instead connecting with my forearm. Before she could try to hit me again, I stood, wrenching myself from her grasp.

“So is this tradition one where you beat the shit out of a defenseless slave in front of all the other slavers or do I get to fight back?” I asked, talking through the throbbing in my arm and jaw.

She smirked, cracking her knuckles.

“Oh, feel free to try and fight back.”

I quirked a brow, eyes widening. Seriously? What was this? The Thunderdome?

“And what happens if I kick YOUR ass?”

Her smirk grew darker.

“You get whipped.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Of course-”

She darted straight for me and I took in a sharp, high pitched breath, stumbling to the side and out of her way. Sadly, she wasn’t a bull, or any kind of animal, so she quickly spun around, closing the gap between us, locking her arms around my waist and driving me into the ground.

I landed on my back, the air being forced from my lungs, pain shooting up and down my spine.

I had a decision to make and only seconds to make it.

Was I going to fight back, take advantage of my chance to potentially cause Princess physical harm but at the cost of being whipped, or was I going to just lie down and take her beating?

She straddled me, holding onto my collar and hitting me in the cheek bone. My head snapped to the side and she raised up me an inch, grinning down at me madly.

“Did I mention that if you don’t participate, you still get whipped?”

My jaw dropped and anger raced through my veins as if I’d injected it straight into my bloodstream.

“What!?” I cried, swinging my fist into the side of her head.

She fell off of me and I took the opportunity to scramble on top of her, pinning her arms down with my knees. She gasped as my full bodyweight pressed into her biceps. I pulled my fist back, punching her in the jaw like she’d done to me at the beginning of the fight. “You bitch! How could you be this evil!?”

The words seemed to be pouring out of my mouth of their own volition, all my pent up frustration from the last week and a half boiling over.

She squirmed, attempting to free her arms and I angled my knees downward a degree, make her cry out. I hit her again and again, her blood splattering over my fist as I made contact with her nose.

“You think you can kidnap children and just get away with it!? You think that’s not going to catch up with you, Princess!?"

It was like I was in a vacuum, all I could see and hear was Princess; the sound of my fist colliding with anywhere on her face, her protests as she tried to wriggle out from under me.

“What  gives you the right to kidnap people and sell them like cattle!? People like you are the reason this world is broken, you disgusting piece of shit-”

It was then that I was yanked out of my violent trance by someone’s arms looping under my armpits and lifting me off of Princess. I realized that no one was cheering anymore, all the slavers were just watching silently, unsure of what to do.

I was breathing heavily, sweat collected on my brow, wet blood rolling down my fingers. Clover broke from the circle, helping Princess to sit up. RJ stepped forward, appearing from my right side, his expression hard.

“What the hell was going on, Princess?”

I turned my head to the left, spotting Piper beside me. It must have been Zoon that pulled me off and still now kept me locked against his chest. I was coming down from the adrenaline, my arm feeling like jelly, an ache growing in my right fist. I wanted to sit down.

For some reason I felt like crying.

Princess had spoken but I hadn’t heard a word of what she’d said. She was glaring at me, venom in her expression, blood trickling from her eyebrow, nose and lips, one of her eyes already beginning to swell.

My mind flashed to when I’d been kidnapped by Venus. I remembered the way RJ had looked at me the night he’d saved me.

“God, your face, Vi.”

“I must look pretty awful, huh?”

I was becoming just like anyone else in the Wasteland. Violent, cruel, and remorseless. I hadn’t wanted to stop hitting Princess, I was angry when Zoon had pulled me off.

Princess was getting to her feet now, swaying slightly, supported by Clover. Her head whipped around to look at all of the stunned slavers.

“Get the fuck back to the barracks! All of you! I’ll deal with the slave!”

“But we usually watch-” one of the slavers I’d never met began.

“ARE YOU UNDERMINING ME!? I WILL PUT A BULLET STRAIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES OF ANYONE WHO QUESTIONS ME AGAIN. NOW GO!”

They remained still for another brief second and then began to disperse, all silent. She met my stare. “You four, the Palace, now.”

The two women turned around and Princess shoved Clover off of her, stalking towards the doors to the theatre. Clover followed without looking back at us. Zoon released me and it was then that I noticed I had been on my tiptoes.
RJ took my arm carefully, leading me towards the doors.

I was about to ask him if he was okay, his clouded expression knotting my frayed nerves but Piper spoke first.

“Jesus, Blue, are you alright?”

It felt like I'd heard those words a hundred times from her.

“Yeah, I'm fine.”

I wiped away the blood I could taste on my lips. RJ pushed open the doors to the Palace, leading me inside silently. Was he mad at me? Did he think I was a monster? He’d never really seen this side of me, only Nick had.

Kellogg’s gaping chest flashed across my vision, the sensation of his blood coating my hands returning even though I hadn’t made Princess bleed nearly as much. I could see the dry flakes of blood floating in the creek I’d washed my hands in, see the red clouds trailing from my fingers.

“You fucking cunt!”

Princesses snarl drew me from my reverie, her hands clawing around the collar of my shirt, her nails scraping my skin as she did so. She slammed me into the wall, pulling me out of RJ’s grasp. There was no escaping what I’d done now, she was too close, her face filling my field of vision.

I could see where I’d split her eyebrow, see where her lips had been mashed into her teeth by my knuckles, see the crooked angle of her upturned nose and the drying blood around her nostrils. She shook me, seeming to become more irate from my dazed expression. “You thought you could humiliate me in front of my own crew!?”

“Princess, stop!”

RJ grabbed her, pulling her off of me, and she began batting at him pathetically. He released her almost instantly, barely managing to hide his fury.

“Your little bitch needs to be punished, RJ! Those are the rules!”

“The rules of what!? I don’t even know what the hell we walked in on out there! Why did you take V- the Sole Survivor out of the slave pens!? She’s not your property, Princess, she’s mine!” he snapped, a vein bulging in his temple.

“It’s a game we like to play here,” Clover said, glowering at him. “One of us gets to go toe to toe with a slave. It helps keep them in line, having them know that we can physically overpower them.”

“But you couldn’t overpower Sole,” Zoon said, his arms folded, his head hanging.

“There’s more to the game though,” she continued, beginning to smile wickedly, her gaze shifting to me where I stood, back still pressed to the wall. “If the slave chooses not to fight back or wins the fight, they get whipped.”

No!” RJ immediately said. “No way. You aren’t whipping my- my slave.”

“It isn’t up to you! You aren’t in charge here, I am!” Princess shrieked, her red hair that had once been in a ponytail falling in chunks over her face. “I have been nothing but good to you since you came here! I’m letting you leave here with one of the most sought after kind of slaves in the Capital Wasteland and all I’ve asked for is a goddamn well written article!”

“Look, I’m-”

“No! No! The slave knew the rules! She knew that if she won she would need to be punished! What kind of leader would I be if I didn’t follow through? Do you know how quickly we could have a rebellion on our hands? How quickly the others would turn on me and Clover? No, I don’t care if you want to treat your whore like she’s worth something. She isn’t. So here are your options. I whip her here and now instead of in front of all of my crew, and you get to take Smalls once the article is done, or she doesn’t get whipped and we keep the kid.”

There was tense silence. I knew what choice had to be made and so did MacCready. If I weren’t still in a state of shock and if my voice wouldn’t trigger Princresses rage I would have told him just to let her do it.

His stormy eye contact told me he knew that.

“Only once,” he said, voice strained.

“I’ll have to show everyone her back tomorrow, one lash isn’t going to cut it. Three. I’ll give her three lashes.”

My stomach dropped.

RJ glanced at me again and I moved my head a fraction up and down in the most subtle nod I could manage. We both knew we needed to do this. Then we could get Danny and come back to get revenge on these monsters later.

“Fine.”

Princess smirked, dried blood in the creases beside her mouth. She looked at Clover whose eyes lit up.

“I’ll get the handcuffs, Princess!”

“And Felix!”

With unfortunate speed Clover returned from the hallway to our right with a pair of handcuffs and a cat o’ nine tails, grinning madly.

“That’s not a regular whip!” Piper protested, speaking for the first time since we’d entered the building.

Princess ignored her and walked back to where I stood, guiding me by my shoulder to the corner of her bed, forcing me onto my knees. Knowing what was expected of me, I raised my arms, wrapping them around the bedpost.

Clover snapped the handcuffs around my wrists, the metal feeling almost warm in contrast to my cold and clammy hands. Hands tugged at my shirt and I felt the blunt side of a knife slide up my back as who I assumed was Princess cut my shirt open.

“You don’t have to do that!” RJ growled.

“Do you want her shirt to get stuck in her wounds?” she asked.

He was silent. Princess stood and I tried to mentally prepare myself for what was to come. I stared forward, the doorway to the hall visible from my position at the corner of the bed. Standing there in a tattered pair of pajamas was Duchess, her mousy brown hair falling around her face.

She held eye contact with me, making no sign that she had an opinion about what was happening. But as I sucked in a nervous breath, she mouthed ‘I’m sorry’, the whip cracking against my bare skin.

******

“What’s wrong with her?”

Daisy’s voice reached my ears from where she stood at the fence of the child slave pen. I was curled into a ball, leaning on my left shoulder, my forehead resting in the corner where the two walls met.

“It’s a long story. She got whipped last night.”

“Christ,” Daisy muttered. “She gets into trouble a lot, doesn’t she? And she told me to be careful.”

My mouth twitched up into a small smile at her words. She had a point. My eyes were on my bruised and torn knuckles, on the collage of reds and purples mottling my skin. It hurt to move my fingers. “So what’d she do to earn a lashing?”

“Just a little further,” RJ said, an arm around my waist, his forearm pressing into the tender, split skin of my back. He unlocked the slave house, helping me inside, Piper and Zoon on his heels. I was in too much pain to think about how this might seem suspicious. Once I was close enough to a mattress I dropped away from him, landing on all fours, wincing.

“What’s wrong with her!?” Bumble cried, coming to kneel beside me, placing a hand on my shoulder blade.

“Don’t touch her-”

Reflexively I cried out, dropping away from her touch, leaning on my elbow. I pressed my head into the moldy mattress, my eyes clenched shut, my throat thick. I’d never been in so much pain in my life.

Except for maybe the time I’d been shot by the laser.

“Violet!?” she gasped.

“Princess whipped her,” Piper said. “That goddamn bitch.”

“Oh, god, you won, didn’t you!? Why did you win!?” Bumble asked, alarmed and full of sorrow.

I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t even move. I breathed in through my nose, my mouth locked shut. How was I going to sleep? What if I rolled onto my back? What if I just couldn’t sleep through the endless bouts of fire lancing across my back?

I had been given a plain white T-shirt to wear, my old flannel split down the middle now and I could already feel the fabric sticking to my bleeding back.

“Bumble, just let her rest, okay-” RJ began.

“Because she’s a monster,” I spat, responding to Bumbles question, barely sounding like myself, the unfamiliar voice cracked and grating. “Because of what she did to you and Duncan and Daisy and Tongue and Bones and anyone else who she’s kidnapped.”

Slowly, I rolled onto my side, stifling a pained cry. It was then that I saw RJ was kneeling by my head and Piper and Zoon were standing at my feet. Bumble was beside me, her hands hovering over me as if she could help me in anyway.

RJ gently reached out, lifting my head and moving forward so he could rest my cheek on his knee. I flinched, my muscles tensing, the skin on my back stretching. I clamped down on the inside of my cheek, holding my breath.

“You goddamn idiot,” he murmured.

“I know.”

“How did I end up falling for someone so goddamn selfless?”

His voice broke as he spoke and he curled forward, resting his forehead on my temple. I placed the palm of my right hand on the back of his head, my knuckles twinging with a pain that was nothing in comparison to the lashes on my back. “I know you want to protect everyone but please don’t do it at the cost of your life, Vi. I need you. Please, I need you.”

“I’m so sorry, RJ,” I said, my lips trembling, the tears that leaked out of my closed eyes shrouded by his hair that hung over them.

“Don’t- Don't apologize. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you. God, I’m so sorry. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I tuned back into the present as Daisy said, “She broke her nose!? That’s incredible!”

“Will it grow back?” Danny asked.

Bumbled chuckled.

“It’s not gone, Danny, it’s just broken. It’ll get better. But it’ll be wonky looking,” she said.

“Good.”

It was then that we all heard the first door to the slave pen area open. I raised my head, frowning, my eyes adjusting to the morning light. It was RJ and the gang. He opened the door to the adult slave pen and I stared up at him, digging deep down within myself for the will to stand.

“Hey, RJ,” Bumble said quietly.

“Hey, RJ,” Danny echoed, smiling mischievously.

“Hey, Kiddo and Bumble,” he said, glancing at the two of them and then looking at me again. “Come on, Vi. We’re getting out of here. Piper finished her article.”

I smirked halfheartedly.

“Is it good this time?”

He returned the smile, the action equally as weak.

“She says it is, yeah. Can you stand?” he asked, becoming somber.

“They didn’t sever my spine, RJ, I’m okay.”

“Ah, yes,” Daisy said, “‘Okay’. It’s not like your back is minced mole rat meat.”

RJ shot her a glare and I snickered.

“Exactly.”

He helped me to my feet and I cringed, wishing I could mask the pain better. I knew this wasn’t easy on him either. I knew what kind of self hatred he was dealing with. I would have to work on remedying it after we were done with this godforsaken place.

Bumble wished us luck and we exited the pen, RJ assuming the position of pretending to drag me around by my bicep. Piper and Zoon walked silently behind us and I wondered if they were nervous about Princess shooting us down again.

I wouldn’t be surprised if she always claimed Piper’s articles were bad just to keep Mac around. Of course after all the trouble I’d caused I also wouldn’t be surprised if she just wanted us to get the hell out of here.

Princess was sitting on the edge of her bed, braiding Duchess’ hair, an act that seemed surprisingly affectionate. Deadeye stood against the left wall, looking bored. I still had no idea what was significant about Duchess, RJ hadn’t mention Princess having a little sister. What was a kid about the same age as Daisy doing running with a crowd like this?

Judging from her constant look of disinterest she didn’t seem to care what was happening around her. Had she just become complacent?

“Oh, goody, my favorite group of pains in my ass. Let me guess, Piper’s shit out another article?” she asked, cocking a brow and looking at the reporter, still continuing to braid Duchess’ long hair.

Princess had cleaned off all the blood from her face but there wasn’t much she could do about the swelling and bruises on the bridge of her nose and under her eyes or the scab going through her eyebrow.

I myself had a bruise across on my jaw from when she’d sucker punched me and my cheek bone was tender but that was all she’d managed to achieve during our fight.

Piper ignored the jab, offering her notepad to Princess.

“Yep. If you don’t like this one we’re both screwed. I did my best this time.”

“Forgive me if I’m a little skeptical of that.”

She tied a band around the end of the braid, stroking the top of Duchess’ head once, who in turn showed no sign of recognizing the action. The younger girl merely turned to face forward, eyes on the floor. Princess finally took the notepad from Piper, crossing her legs and resting her elbow on her knee, holding her chin in her hand as she read.

After the longest five minutes of each of our lives Princess lowered the notepad, leaning back, expression impossible to read. I suspected she was trying to play it cool. If Piper really tried she had to have liked it. Princess was too conceited not to enjoy something complimentary about herself.

“It’s good.”

The evacuation of all the anxiety in the room was practically tangible, RJ’s shoulders visibly relaxing. Princess ripped out the pages, folding them and handing them to Duchess who she instructed to put in her desk. Duchess complied wordlessly, heading over to one of the desks I’d checked when looking for the key to the slave pen.

Piper tucked her notebook back into a pocket in her red coat, pleased with herself.

“Alright, we’ll go get Smalls and be on our way then,” RJ said, barely containing his excitement.

Princess smiled in a way that made my stomach drop.

“Clover, do you have him?” she called, peering around us to the doorway.

Clover walked in, holding onto Danny’s arm, an equally concerning smile on her half covered face.

“He’s right here, Princess.”

“Why’d you bring him here?” RJ asked.

His tone had been hard and I glanced up at him, brows furrowing. Clover lead Danny over to stand between RJ and I, backing up to stand in front of the bed. What were they doing?

“I just wanted to see something... before you all left,” Princess said, standing and looking between the three of us. My curiosity was nipping at my heels like an impatient dog. I wanted so badly to ask all the questions flooding through my mind, but we were so close to being free I wasn’t going to ruin it now. Princess crouched down, getting a better look at Danny. “You know, Bones told me something interesting this morning.”

We were all silent, baffled. She turned her head up to look RJ.

“Do you want to know what he said?”

“Not unless it’s relevant to me,” RJ said, impatient.

Princess grinned.

“Oh, it is.”

She didn’t continue. I toyed with the bottom of the large white shirt I was wearing, needing some outlet so that I didn’t snap. What was she doing?

RJ breathed out loudly through his nose.

“What did Bones say?”

Princess kept smiling, eyes sliding over to mine

“What did he say Duchess? I’m having trouble remembering.”

I bit into the side of my cheek. It felt like I was unwrapping a birthday present that I knew was going to be something awful. My stomach churned and my heart beat escalated with every second of confusion.

Duchess was standing beside the bed, examining the bedpost as if it were the one who spoke to her, not Princess.

“He said that RJ called the Sole Survivor by her real name and that he told her that he loved her.”

And there it was. My stomach ached and panic washed over me, threatening to drag me under completely. I didn’t move. I remained standing exactly how I had been before the bomb had been dropped. As Duchess had spoke, Princess had straightened her back, keeping her eyes locked on mine.

“Sounds like Bones is full of crap,” RJ said, voice dripping with venom.

With lightning speed Princess grabbed the gun from the holster on her hip, pointing it right between my eyes.

“It sounded pretty convincing to me.”

Chapter Text

This wasn’t good.

“Princess, what are you doing!?” RJ snapped, side stepping slightly so he partially blocked her shot, Duncan behind him completely.

“We’ve only known this bitch for two weeks, I highly doubt RJ’s in love with her. He probably wants to fuck her, yeah, but love?” Zoon shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Smalls, will you come out? I want to ask you something,” princess said, ignoring Zoon.

“Don’t-”

Before RJ could give his son any instructions the boy crept around his legs, not even a little bit nervous in the presence of a firearm. I kept my eyes trained on the barrel of the gun, swallowing cautiously as if the tiny movement might spook her.

“Tell me, Smalls, is RJ your dad?” Princess asked, continuing to catch all of us off guard for the second time.

What the fuck were we supposed to do? Piper was frantically looking between all of us, so thrown by the sudden turn in the conversation that she could no longer pretend she wasn’t invested in my life. Zoon was perfectly still, inscrutable behind his glasses and bandana.

“No,” Danny said.

“Tell me or I’ll shoot her goddamn brains out. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’ll kill her unless you tell the truth.”

Danny’s jaw dropped and he stepped back, bumping into RJ’s legs. I almost hung my head now, knowing it was over. How could a five year old be expected to handle that kind of pressure?

“I’m not supposed to tell you…”

Princess smiled at him and if I didn’t think she was one of the most vile creatures on this planet I might have thought it looked sweet.

“As long as you tell me the truth no one will get hurt, okay?”

He hesitated.

“He’s my dad.”

“Thank you. Clover, will you come take Smalls?”

“No-”

“Move an inch, RJ, and I shoot the ‘Sole Survivor’ in the head, got it?”

He froze where he was, jaw clenched. Piper and Zoon remained motionless as well. We all knew it was over. Princess was slowly but surely going to pick apart our story. There was no point keeping up the facade.

Clover came and towed Danny away, who squirmed against her grasp feebly, both of them disappearing into the back hall.

“So what happens now, Princess?” RJ asked.

“You tell me how much of this is right. I think you two,” she began, gesturing between the two of us, “are definitely this kids parents. And I think you knew we wouldn’t let you buy a slave unless it seemed like you supported the slave trade so you came up with the genius idea to pretend to be slavers. You were going to gain my trust, buy Smalls when the time was right and then leave. How am I doing?”

That’s what she’d been doing when she was examining all three of us. She was looking for similarities. And they were all over the place! Almost everything about Danny screamed MacCready, the only thing that didn’t match his father was his eyes. His green eyes that looked very much like mine.

“You’re close. All except Violet isn’t Danny’s mom,” RJ said rigidly.

“I don’t believe you.”

“She’s not. But I do love her, Bones wasn’t lying. So please, just let us go. Put the gun down and give us Danny and we’ll go. We won’t try and stop what’s going on here, we won’t cause anymore trouble, we’ll just disappear. Please, Princess.”

His words had been laced with such earnest desperation that if I had been in Princess’ place I definitely would have complied with his requests. But Princess and I were very different.

“How about instead, I shoot her in the head?” she said, her volume rising as she continued. “Then you and Danny can stay here with me. You and I could run this place together and I could help you raise Danny!”

RJ opened his mouth but no words came. He’d have to be an idiot not to know that she had feelings for him but I don’t think he’d anticipated her wanting to raise his kid and run a business with him.

The confusion was quickly wiped from his features though, his expression darkening.

“Princess… there’s no way in hell I’d ever choose you.”

The moment the words left his lips RJ ripped his pistol from his holster, aiming at Princess’ head. There was the crack of a gunshot and I jumped, gasping, my eyes shutting reflexively. Part of me was sure I’d been shot, Princess had to have killed me in retaliation for what he’d said and done.

But instead I heard a second gunshot that smothered the sound of RJ crying out in pain. I opened my eyes in time to see his gun clatter to the ground, blood on the handle and to see Princess fall to her knees.

It took me a few seconds to piece together what had happened. Standing beside the bed was Duchess, the drawer to the nightstand open and a pistol in her hands trained at Princess. On the left side of the bed was Clover who was also holding a gun.

It all clicked into place. When RJ had pulled out his weapon, Clover had shot his left hand to stop him from hurting Princess, while Duchess had shot Princesses leg to stop her from hurting me.

And that was when all hell broke lose.

Deadeye pulled out her gun, cursing, unprepared for a shootout and Zoon turned, unloading three bullets into her chest. Princess took the opportunity to start limping towards Clover, who provided her with cover fire, clipping Duchess’ shoulder. I dropped to my knees, dragging RJ with me, taking cover behind the bed while Zoon and Piper shot towards Clover and Princess.

“Are you alright?” I asked, eyes falling to his left hand that he gripped the wrist of.

There was a bloody hole right in the center, blood trickling onto the floor at an alarming rate. “Jesus Christ!”

“I’m fine,” he said through gritted. “We need to go get to Danny.”

“RJ, you need to use a stimpak-”

“Don’t have one. Gave them all to Daisy. Jesus Christ this hurts-”

He curled into his hand, grimacing.

“I’m so sorry, none of this would have happened if I hadn’t beat her in that fight,” I murmured, self hatred unfurling within my chest.

RJ shook his head, straightening a little so he could make eye contact with me.

“Don’t blame yourself, she must have been suspicious for... a while now.”

“Violet, take this.”

I looked up and was greeted by Deliverer hovering an inch away from my face. I grinned, taking it from Zoon and getting to my feet at the same time as RJ. Clover and Princess were nowhere to be seen. Duchess was leaning on the bedpost, covering her bleeding shoulder, her eyes clenched shut.

“Duchess are you-”

“I’m fine,” she snapped, opening her eyes. “Let’s just kill these sons of bitches.”

I might have smiled if the fact that she was fourteen didn’t make my stomach hurt.

“Come on, they went back here!” Piper said, jogging towards the side hallway, gun held tightly in her gloved hands.

RJ picked up his gun in his good hand, letting his injured one hang limply at his side. We all followed Piper, RJ pushing to the front of the pack. As we poured into the small hallway we quickly discovered that there was no one to be seen. The only clue as to where they’d gone was the door leading outside that was wide open.

“Goddammit, Princess,” RJ spat, bolting outside.

I was about to run after him like everyone else was starting to when I heard someone’s voice at the top of the stairs.

“Stop strugglin’ kid!”

It was Clover. She must have had Danny up there. I called out to RJ, but he was already too far to hear me. I gripped my gun tightly, running down the hall and wheeling up the stairs. I made it to the top, turning my head frantically from left to right, searching for where Clover might be.

“Gotcha,” she said, slamming a vase on the top of my head.

Pain radiated all across my skull, my vision faltering and my legs buckling. I hit the ground, falling backwards, barely catching myself on the banister with my free hand, stopping myself from tumbling down the stairs.

Clover stood to the right of me and I raised my gun, firing at her as she kicked my fingers that held onto the banister. The bullet hit her collar and I cried out, releasing the banister but catching myself on the step below me.

Clover gasped, staggering, blood immediately flowing from the wound and staining her blue dress. Her hair swung back, revealing the crater where her eye had once been and the scar that trailed along her temple. The bullet Zoon had shot all those years ago must have just grazed her eye, destroying it but not doing any fatal damage.

“You bitch!” Clover cried, falling to her knees and reaching out to grab the collar of my shirt. She pulled me off of the stairs, winding her other fist back.

I threw myself forward, slamming the butt of my gun into the side of her head, knocking her onto her back. She grunted, head hitting the floor and I quickly climbed on top of her, hoping to pin her down like I’d done to Princess. Unfortunately she seemed to be a quicker thinker than Princess and she slapped her hand onto my back.

Pain beyond description surged through the tattered skin on my back. I gasped sharply, arching my body and she used that as her opening to get her hands around my neck, pushing into my jugular on either side with her thumbs.

I made a choked sound, head instantly feeling like it was swelling, my fingers going slack. My gun fell to the floor but Clover didn’t bother to pick it up, instead keeping the pressure up on my throat.

Fighting through her stranglehold, I shoved my palms into her jaw, pushing as her as hard as I could. She made an uncomfortable sound, her fingers losing their grip on my neck a little but not completely. Not seeing much of another option, I threw myself backwards, my back hitting her knees. I straightened my legs, kicking my heel into her sternum as hard as I could and then rolled off of her.

She coughed, shrieking, hand going to her bullet wound that was only a couple inches from where I’d kicked. I scrambled to find my gun, my heart racing, my pulse throbbing in my neck. Before I could grab it, Clover leapt onto my back, shoving my face into the floor.

I cried out, pain lancing across my back like I was being whipped all over again. I thought I’d incapacitated her for more than a few seconds. I swung my elbow back twice, catching her in the ribs and stomach but she didn’t get off of me, only kept pushing me into the hard floor.

“We shoulda killed all of you the second you stepped foot in town,” she growled, tangling her hands in my hair and yanking my head up only to smash it back into the ground.

I felt around for the gun, my nose aching and my teeth digging into my lips. My fingertips brushed the handle and I grabbed it, shoving my elbow inwards again, clipping her hip. When this didn’t make her budge either, I kicked my legs up, the toe of my boots hitting her back and knocking her forward. I sat up, aiming at Clover, who spun around, facing me on her knees.

I thought the gun in her face might make her freeze or at least hesitate before attacking me. It did not. She dove forward, the gun pressing into her abdomen as she locked her hands around my neck, knocking me over. Again.

Pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull the fucking trigger!

But I couldn’t, she was pushing so hard on my throat that I couldn’t think about anything else. My vision was already beginning to blur, my head felt like it was going to pop and my neck ached worse than any of the punches I’d received from Princess during my time here.

What was I going to do? My hands went limp, the gun dropping to its side, resting uselessly on my stomach. I tried desperately to inhale in spite of the tremendous pressure on my throat but it was impossible.

Lamely I pushed against Clover’s chest, body acting purely on the instinct to keep fighting to survive, my brain unable to come up with any plan of attack. Instead, it drifted to thoughts of my life before this point in time, clearly doubtful of me being able to get out of this.

I saw Danny’s green eyes that were so like my own and his crooked smile so like his father’s. I could see his little hands curled around the wire of the fence that kept us separate. I’d barely known him and yet I would already do anything for him.

I saw Shaun, little Shaun, the son who chose me even though I’d destroyed the only life he’d ever known. I felt his arms around me, felt his chin on my shoulder. He was so tall, so like his father. What would he do without me?

I saw MacCready, saw his beautiful blue eyes, felt him holding my face in his calloused hands. I remembered our first kiss, remembered thinking that I couldn’t die without knowing what it was like to be close to him. I remembered finally admitting to myself that I loved him.

And finally, I saw Nate.

“Nate!” I called, Shaun in my arms, eyes locked on the TV, on the grim face of the news anchor speaking.

“We seem to have lost contact with all affiliated stations… we do have…. We do have coming in, uh, confirmed reports, I repeat confirmed reports of nuclear detonations in New York and Pennsylvania.” He paused, resting his forehead in his hand. “My god…”

And the broadcast cut out.

“Oh my god,” I said.

“We need to get to the vault!” Nate said and I looked to see him standing beside me. “Now!”

Sirens began to wail in the distance, only managing to make my pounding heart gain in speed and fervor. I nodded, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape, barely able to register his words.

I was on my knees, how had I ended up on my knees? Nate dropped down beside me, gripping my head in his hands, forcing me to look at him. I could feel tears trailing down my cheeks.

“Violet, Violet baby, look at me,” he said, brown eyes searching my own for signs of life. “I know this is scary- terrifying, but I need you to stay with me, okay?”

I just looked at him. The baby began to cry in my arms. Nate brushed a stray strand of hair from my face, eyebrows pulling together, lips turned down in an exasperated grimace. “Vi, please! You’ve got to get up, we’ve got to run! I need you to get up!”

He leaned in pressing his lips chastely to mine.

“Come on, baby, I love you, we have to move or we’re gonna die!”

My fingers hit warm, sticky blood on Clovers collar and suddenly I remembered the bullet wound I’d given her. It was as if Nate had been trying to guide me there beyond the grave, trying to get me to save myself like he had hundreds of years ago.

With a renewed will to live I shoved my index finger into the wound, ignoring the fact that this might have been one of the most disgusting things I’d ever done. Clover shrieked, throwing herself backwards reflexively, head hitting a table that was against the wall. She curled in on herself, still crying out, hands pressed to the hole in her collar.

I sat up, head pounding, taking in heavy breaths regardless of the bruised numbness in my throat. I stood, swaying slightly, Deliverer clattering to the floor. Clover saw me get to my feet and then did so too, diving at me again. For the hundredth time she grabbed my throat, which was just annoying at this point.

I grabbed her shoulders, angling us so that I could back her through the doorway behind her, unsure of where it lead. I started pushing, forcing her to walk backwards, her teeth bared. I discovered that the doorway lead to a room that overlooked the foyer of the palace.

I slammed Clover’s back into the marble railing that only reached slightly above her hips and she bent back, gasping, loosening her grip on my throat. The floor of this whole building was tile, there was a chance that if she fell she might break her neck.

That would be convenient.

Unfortunately she latched onto my hair, using it to keep herself from tipping too far back. I grabbed the chunk of hair she was holding onto, taking a step backwards as I attempted to wrench it out of her grasp.

That was when a gun went off behind me, making me jump and cover my ears.

I hadn’t shot that, had Princess come back to kill me?

Clover screamed, remaining eye wide and looking down at the new wound on the opposite side of her chest from the one I’d given her. Her grip completely loosened now, I backed away from her, noticing Zoon standing in the doorway. His bandana was pulled down around his neck, his sunglasses and baseball cap gone.

“Remember me?” he asked, gun still pointed right at her.

Clover’s jaw dropped, her expression turning crazed. “Not the first time I’ve had you in this position, is it Clover?”

“It’s you! You killed Eulogy, you- you took my eye! You played us all again, you goddamn bastard-”

She took a step forward, about to throw herself at him him when he raised the gun, pulling the trigger without any hesitation. Her good eye exploded, the bullet coming out the back of her skull. I jumped, yelping, watching as she fell backwards. Her back hit the railing and she flipped over, hitting the ground below with a heavy thud.

Zoon walked over to the railing, aiming at the down at the floor below and pulled the trigger once more. Again, I jerked, still caught off guard by the loud bang of the gun. I frowned at him, confused and he met my stare with a hard one of his own.

“Just had to be sure this time.”

Chapter Text

“Are you alright?” Zoon asked.

“Yeah,” I said, heading back through the door, picking up Deliverer from where it had landed. “Where is everyone?”

“They’re out in the town. Haven’t seen Princess yet, but we managed to take out a slaver or two. Come on, the others are worried about you.”

I turned to look at him, quirking a brow, half smiling. He was standing in the doorway, face still completely exposed. It was strange, I’d only seen him without his bandana for a few minutes at a time. I barely recognized him.

“You weren’t?”

“Not really,” he said matter of factly.

Something told me it wasn’t because he believed I could take care of myself. I laughed, heading down the stairs, Deliverer gripped in front of me. I was nervous to make my way out of the building, knowing there were people like Saul out there. I was glad Deadeye had been disposed of quickly.

I bolted out the door, running along the side of the building, hugging a makeshift wooden wall.

Towards the middle of town I spotted RJ, Piper and Duchess taking cover behind a stack of tires. I darted over, Zoon on my heels and the moment we reached them a bullet whizzed over my head. I dropped into a full crouch, pressing my side into the tires. RJ immediately put a hand on the back of my head, pulling me forward into a clumsy kiss.

“Don’t disappear again, you idiot,” he muttered, brows furrowed.

“I thought Clover had Duncan, I’m sorry.”

“Is she dead now?”

“I took care of her,” Zoon said.

I glared at him over my shoulder.

“It was a collaboration.”

“How was letting her rip out your hair helpful to me shooting her in the head?”

“I’d already shot her once and-”

“Enough!” Piper snapped, leaning around MacCready to look at the two of us. “I’m glad you’re both alive, now focus!”

As if on cue, the tires we were hiding behind were launched to the side, a giant hammer barely missing me. Unfortunately, it hit Zoon in the chest, knocking him to the ground. We threw ourselves backwards, managing to stay on our feet, raising our guns at Saul, who stepped over Zoon as if he were nothing but another tire.

“Zoon!” Piper cried.

He curled onto his side, his back to us. Movement was good.

Simultaneously we all overcame our shock, firing at Saul in a symphony of gunshots. He was swinging the mallet, managing to hurl it at RJ before being riddled with bullets. The metal handle hit his ribs and he fell onto his back with a grunt.

Another bullet flew from somewhere in the distance, barely missing me.

I held my gun up, eyes scanning the roofs, spotting a slaver with a sniper rifle not too far away -close enough that I could hit them with my pistol. Closing one eye and sticking my tongue out of the side of my mouth I aimed at their chest, knowing their had was too small a target. I fired twice, hitting them in the left pectoral and missing the second shot. They collapsed forward, slipping off of the roof and landing on the earth below, a cloud of dust flying up around them.

“Nice shot, Blue!” Piper said, kneeling down beside Zoon.

“I’d like to take credit for that shot,” RJ said, hammer tossed a few feet away from where he sat.

I dropped down, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you okay? We really need to get you a stimpak-”

“I’m fine,” he said.

Duchess jabbed his ribs with the toe of her boot and he winced, putting an arm protectively around his abdomen, hunching over.

“Jesus- What the f- hell?”

“Don’t lie,” she said, “Your ribs are broken.”

“Duchess-” I began but she cut me off.

“That’s not my name, that’s just the name ‘Princess’ gave me. Now we need to keep moving.”

Deciding now was not the time to ask her real name, I helped RJ to his feet, frowning at her.

“You’re right. But next time you suspect one of us is hiding an injury, don’t poke it, okay?”

She shrugged.

Piper put an arm around Zoon, carefully getting him into a standing position. Despite his injuries, he was grinning down at her, saying something I couldn’t make out. She shook her head, smiling, and they turned to face us.

“Alright, we know Saul, Deadeye, Clover, that one guy we got before Violet got here and the sniper are dead,” RJ said, reloading his gun, taking shallow breaths. “That leaves about ten of them, maybe less. I never took the time to count.”

“There are Fifteen including me and Princess,” Duchess said.

“That leaves eight more. Not including Princess,” Piper said, sighing.

Zoon removed her arm from his waist, rolling his left shoulder, scrunching an eye closed.

“Five versus Eight. That’s not too bad.”

I looked up at RJ.

“What if we let the slaves out? Bumble and Tongue will help us,” I said.

“Let’s not forget that Bones exists. He told on us, I doubt he’ll help us. He might already be armed and working with the slavers,” Zoon said.

Duchess shook her head.

“The only reason he ratted you all out was because he was hoping it would earn him his freedom. Once he’d finished telling us what happened last night he was taken straight back to the Lock and Load.”

“Oh, wonderful. So he’s hiding away with all the weapons and ammo,” RJ muttered.

“We’re going to need those if we want to arm Bumble and Tongue,” I added. “Shit, wait! They’re wearing collars. There’s no way they can help us, the slavers will just kill them-”

“The collars don’t work,” Duchess said. “They’re completely broken. You can tamper with them all you want and they won't explode. But Princess knew that the slaves would know what they were and just assume they worked.”

I smiled incredulously.

“They’re just for show.”

Duchess nodded.

“Then let’s go get the others-”

“I’m going after Princess,” RJ said.

“That’s stupid, just let us gather some reinforcements and then-” I started.

He grabbed my face with his good hand, tugging me into a rushed kiss, releasing me a split second later. “Hey!”

He started jogging in the direction of the exit of town, left hand still hanging uselessly at his side. I glanced at the group around me, biting my lip.

“Just go after him. We’ll get Bumble and the rest,” Piper said, waving me away.

“Thank you! Be safe!”

I ran after RJ, holding my gun firmly in both hands, eyes searching the rooftops just in case there were more snipers. It was then that two slavers popped up from behind a pile of tires, shooting at us. I grabbed RJ, yanking him behind an old rusted out car, biting into the inside of my cheek to avoid squealing like a child.

“You should have stayed with the others,” he said, standing, firing twice and crouching back down. “I’m too focused on Danny to protect you.”

I leaned over the top of the car, shooting once, hitting one of the two men in the head. I dropped back behind the car, giving him a pointed look.

“Just take care of yourself, RJ.”

He quirked a brow and we both stood, popping a couple shots into the remaining slaver, hitting him in his chest and neck. I couldn’t help but think of the day we’d gone and killed the group of Gunners that had been after him.

It was fun fighting against the odds with him. “Only six more. Not including Princess.”

“Seems like your lucks working harder than usual,” he said, smirking down at me.

“Or maybe my aim’s just getting better. Don’t know why it would be though. I have a pretty shitty teacher.”

I winked at him, giving him the same cocky smile he always gave me. For a moment he seemed speechless, his lips parted slightly, a mild blush tinting his cheeks. “RJ? You functional?”

“Wha- Yeah, sorry. It’s just… you are so sexy.”

I scoffed, covering my mouth, caught off guard by his compliment.

“Thank you, but also, snap out of it. We’re supposed to be fighting for our lives.”

“Jesus, you’re right. Come on.”

We darted out from behind the car, following the curve in the path, the entrance to town on our left and the Lock and Load right in front of us. Princess was still nowhere in sight. RJ and I exchanged a look and then ran over to the store.

Guess we were going to beat Piper and Zoon there.

We came to a halt at the front of the building, both of us pressing our backs to the wall besides the doors. RJ held eye contact with me, tugging the door open an inch and then letting it fall shut again.

Bullets flew through the covered windows of the doors, sending shards of glass spraying outwards. I shielded my head with my arm, turning to look away from the door. The gunfire stopped after a couple more seconds and I watched as RJ delved into the pocket of his coat, pulling out a grenade.

I quirked a brow.

“How long have you been holding onto that?”

He pulled the pin, tossing it through the window.

“I’m gonna be honest, I forgot I had it.”

“Grenade!” Several people within the room yelled, a loud BANG drowning out their voices a second later, shrapnel zipping out of the broken windows.

RJ threw open the door, gun at the ready and I followed him, pretending I was confident that people would still be disoriented from the grenade blast. Lying a few feet away from where I assumed the grenade had gone off judging by the scorch marks on the floor, was a dead slaver.

I turned to face the right side of the room while RJ addressed the left. Sitting against the wall was a female raider whose exposed skin was littered with cuts but other than that she seemed unharmed. It was strange, based on her appearance alone she seemed like any other person.

She’s a slaver, I reminded myself, and she’s dangerous.

With that I aimed at her head, pulling the trigger, shattering the side of her skull. Blood splattered across the wall behind her and she slumped over. In the corner I noticed movement and I swivelled to aim at whoever it was in time to see him throw a large knife. It flew past me, only managing to nick where my neck met my shoulder, hitting the wall behind me. I fired at him panickedly, hitting him in the chest, stomach and shoulder. He crumpled against the wall, biting off a curse before becoming still.

I spun around to check the left side of the room. There were three dead bodies scattered across the floor. All the slavers were dead. That just left Princess.

We both turned to face the counter now. Standing beyond it was Bones, his thin arms raised. He was much taller than RJ, appearing as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks. The moment I’d heard his nickname I’d understood but I hadn’t ever taken the time to examine him.

“Bones,” said RJ.

“Please, don’t shoot,” Bones said, voice shaking.

“That’s a funny request coming from the man who sold us out.”

His lips and hands began to tremble. Instinctively he took a small step backwards. The door behind us burst open and RJ whipped around, pointing his gun at whoever had come in. I glanced over my shoulder, my reflexes not as quick, relieved to see it was Piper, Zoon, Daisy, Bumble and Duchess. Where was Tongue?

“I know, I’m sorry! I just wanted to be free! I didn’t want you guys to get hurt but I couldn’t take another day of being here!” Bones said, managing to speak.

“The slavers are dead,” I said. “Once we take care of Princess there won’t be anyone keeping you here. Oh, and your collar doesn’t work, you can take it off. You’re free.”

RJ’s head whipped to the side but Zoon was the one to respond to what I’d said.

“What!? This guy ratted us out! He saw you all bloody and broken from being whipped and after witnessing a vulnerable moment between you and RJ his first thought was, ‘Ooh, now I have something juicy to tell Princess’. And you’re just going to let him go? Aren’t you mad?”

I took a moment to respond, fully thinking through my actions. But the truth was I hadn’t been mad at Bones at all -not even for a second. I understood his motivation completely after a little over a week. I couldn’t imagine how he felt after multiple months or years of being here. No, I didn’t think I would have done the same thing if I were in his shoes, but that didn’t mean I didn’t get it.

“No, I’m not.” I looked at RJ. “What do you think?”

He clenched his jaw.

“If you’re okay with letting him go, then so am I. But he has to tell us if he saw Princess come through here.”

Bones nodded, gesturing behind him to a backdoor on the right side of the room.

“When you opened the door the first time Princess went out the backdoor with the kid. She’s going to try and circle around to get back to the Palace.”

“Perfect,” RJ said.

He turned, running out the front door without another word. I was about follow him when Bones spoke again.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I sold you out after you tried to defend us. You cared about us all so much that you were willing to take a lashing just to punish Princess for what she’d done.”

Piper and Zoon went out after RJ, leaving me alone. I needed to follow, I needed to be with him, but the sadness and guilt in Bones’ dark eyes told me that what I said to him next was important. Clearly what he’d done was weighing heavily on his psyche.

“It’s okay,” I said, smiling sadly. “There’s nothing to forgive.”

In a broken voice he said, “Thank you.”

I nodded, wishing I could continue to talk him through what he was dealing with, but my family was at stake. I bolted from the building, almost slamming into Zoon’s back immediately. I stepped to the side, coming to stand next to him, about to ask why the group of them had stopped only to see Princess standing in the entrance to the town.

RJ was just ahead of us, frozen in place.

Duncan was in Princesses arms, struggling, a gun pointed to his head.

“Don’t you move either, Sole Survivor! You missed this while you were inside, but if any of you try something I don’t like, I’ll blow the kids brains out!” We were all silent, unsure of how to proceed. “You four thought you could just roll in here and take everything I’d earned away from me?! You thought you would just get away with it?! But that isn’t how things are going to end! I’m not going to lose!”

“Then what do you want, Princess?” RJ asked, voice soft as he took a small, cautious step forward.

It was then that I noticed everyone’s weapons were at their feet. Everyone’s except mine. It was still in my hand, just at my side. But did I trust myself enough to even consider shooting at Princess while Danny was right in front of her?

“I want you to stay with me. Your friends will go and you and Smalls will stay. That’s what I want.”

That was actually fairly reasonable. Especially since I knew that even if we all left now RJ would either kill Princess once they were alone or we’d come back for them once she’d let her guard now.

“Okay,” RJ said, again stepping towards her. “I’ll stay. Just let them go.”

Princess smiled. She smiled in the way a predator did seconds before it leapt at it’s prey.

“Good. But there’s one other thing I want.”

RJ hesitated.

“What?”

“You took everything away from me. You killed my slavers, freed my slaves- I’ve lost everything! So the last thing I need… is for you to lose something too.”

She raised her gun, aiming at me, pulling the trigger twice.

Everything that happened next was a blur. Pain lanced through my shoulder as RJ yelled my name and someone simultaneously shoved me, knocking me into Zoon’s side. I whipped my head to see who’d pushed me, watching with wide eyes as blood blossomed across Bumble’s grey shirt, starting from a point a few inches below her collarbone.

Acting fully on the fresh and raw rage that clawed it’s way through me, I pointed my gun at Princess - she was still caught up in the fact that she’d only hit my shoulder and fatally shot Bumble instead- and pulled the trigger twice. The bullets hit the top of her shoulder and just below her neck.

She released Danny, stumbling backwards and Danny ran towards us. I would have collected him but Bumble collapsed, slumping into my side. I caught her clumsily, sinking into a sitting position, cradling her as best I could.

“No, no, Bumble, why did you do that!?”

“Stay back!” Princess yelled, drawing my attention.

I should have been focused on Bumble, seeing as she was currently dying in my arms, but I was too worried about RJ and Duncan -too overstimulated. Piper quickly scooped up Duncan, who protested loudly, and carried him into the Lock and Load. It was probably good he didn’t see what was going to happen next. RJ picked up his gun, stalking towards Princess, who had fallen to her knees. Blood stained her button up shirt and she was already beginning to look pale.

“I loved you RJ! I loved you and you took everything!”

“You don’t love me, you don’t even know me, Princess,” he spat.

“This isn’t fair! I was supposed to win! But you’ve stolen all my power again!” Judging by the look on her face RJ mustn't have been reacting the way she’d wanted him to and she quickly backpedalled, trying a different tactic, voice becoming shriller. “Wait- Please, you’ve known me since we were kids! Please, I’ve loved you since I was nine, doesn’t that mean anything to you!?”

RJ pulled the trigger, burying a bullet right between her eyes, blood and brain matter bursting out the back of her skull.

“No, it doesn’t.”

Chapter Text

Princess fell backwards, dust surrounding her as she hit the dry earth.

“Is she dead?” Bumble croaked.

I looked down, being drawn back to the girl I was supporting with my left arm and knee. Her tan skin was sallow, sweat gathered on her forehead, and there were tears welling in her light brown eyes.

“Yeah, she’s dead. It’s over.”

She smiled weakly and it made my chest ache, my stomach twist.

“You did it… you saved us…”

I didn’t know what to say, other than the obvious. No, we hadn’t saved them -at least not all of them. There hadn’t been an opportunity to ask but I was pretty sure Tongue was dead and Bumble… it was too late for us to be able to do anything for her. She was going to die.

She was going to die because she’d chosen my life over her own. Why did people always do this for me, why was I prioritized?

I thought of Nick choosing to take Kellogg into his mind, purely as a favor to me. I thought of RJ taking three bullets for me when I'd stupidly waltzed into a room with a Brotherhood of Steel paladin. And now Bumble had gone and done the same.

Was I such a helpless mess that people felt the need to take care of me to the point that they put their own lives at risk? Was I that much of a leech?

Bumble took in a strained, wheezing breath, clenching her eyes shut.

“RJ!” I called. I didn’t know what to do, a stimpak couldn’t save her now but it felt so wrong to just let her go without doing something. “RJ, I don’t know what to do!”

He turned, finally looking away from Princess, expression unreadable. Piper opened the door to the Lock and Load but he shook his head.

“Not yet, I don’t want him to see any of this.”

“It’s okay, Violet,” Bumble said. “I’ve never… had my own life…”

“But you could have!” I said, unable to keep myself composed. My throat was so thick it was painful -Clover crushing my windpipe was probably making it worse than usual. While I spoke, RJ came to kneel beside Bumble, seeming too overwhelmed to properly emote. Zoon went into the Lock and Load and Daisy and Duchess watched from a few feet back. I took in a high pitched breath, continuing, “I was supposed to save you! We were going to take you to Diamond City and-”

“If I hadn’t… gotten you out of the way… you wouldn’t be taking anyone… anywhere. You have a family, Violet… they need you.”

But that didn’t mean I was more important than her, didn’t mean my life was worth more!

I couldn’t speak. All I wanted to do was argue with her and that wasn’t fair. She was dying, she was seventeen and she was dying. I couldn’t spend her last few minutes scolding her.

“Thank you for saving her, Bumble,” RJ said, reaching out and taking her hand that had been resting on her stomach. “I’m so sorry I left you behind.”

She grinned.

“You’d become a mungo. I didn’t want you to stay!”

He laughed, the sound heavy.

“That’s a good point.”

Her eyes began fluttering shut and despite knowing that I was only putting off the inevitable, I put my free hand on her face, saying, “Bumble, Bumble, no, don’t close your eyes. Look at me, please, look at me.

She opened her eyes, her stare becoming increasingly glazed over as the seconds ticked by.

“I’m… so tired…”

Her face was cold under my sweating palms.

“I know, I know, sweetheart, but just look at me okay. You are so kind and so smart and so brave.” My voice began to shake, tears filling my eyes to the point that it was like we were underwater. “Thank you for saving my life. Thank you, Beatriz.”

She smiled once more, her eyes slipping shut once more.

“I…”

Her head drifted to the side, her body slowly becoming slack in my arms. I rocked her gently, as if maybe I could wake her up. But I couldn’t because she was dead. I couldn’t because Princess had killed her. I couldn’t because she’d traded her life in exchange for mine.

RJ hung his head, gripping her hand in both of his, pressing his knuckles to his mouth.

“I’m so sorry, Bumble,” he said in a strained voice. “I was so focused on saving Duncan… I barely even spoke to you the whole time we were here. I’m so-”

“Violet?”

RJ’s voice washed over me like an ocean wave, shocking me back into the present. Duncan was cradled against RJ's chest, his arms around his neck, his head resting on his shoulder. His eyes were closed, his mouth opened slightly as he slept. Oh, to be young and small enough to be carried everywhere.

It was so strange finally getting to see RJ with his son. Even after finding out that he’d secretly had a family, a wife and a son, I’d struggled to imagine RJ taking care of a child. Yes, it had been a little easier once I’d witnessed how well he handled Shaun, but I’d still had some reservations.

But now it seemed so natural, as if Duncan had always been with us.

“Yes?”

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” I lied. “Just tired.”

"How's your shoulder?" 

I looked down at my right shoulder as if I wasn't sure what he was talking about. We'd had to dig out the bullet and wrap the wound tightly with some bandages we'd found in the clinic of Paradise. Then they'd given me a stimpak and put my arm in a makeshift sling, something I wasn't enjoying.

"As long as I don't think about it, it feels fine."

We were walking through the Wasteland, hoping to stumble upon an ideal place to camp for the night. We’d spent about two hours searching Paradise for anything useful, taking ammo, food, and all the stimpaks we could find.

After that, we’d headed back to Little Lamplight, eager to return their Mayor.

“Open the fucking gate!” Daisy yelled, putting her hands on her hips.

A small girl’s head popped up from the same place Daisy had when we’d first met her.

“Daisy-”

“Yes, it’s me, we’ll celebrate as soon as I get inside.” She cupped her hands around her mouth, shouting, “Someone get Rictus!”

The little girl hit a button and the gate raised itself, allowing us entrance to the underground settlement. A boy sprinted towards the clinic, yelling Rictus’ name. The guard and two other children poured out from under the gate, racing towards Daisy, throwing their arms around her.

“Daisy!” they all cried on top of each other. One of them looked down at where Danny stood beside RJ.

“Danny! You guys really saved him!” the boy said.

Rictus’ voice could be heard in the distance, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps as he ran towards the entrance to town. He came to a screeching halt, blue eyes wide, mouth hanging open.

Then he bolted forward and the children that had already greeted Daisy scattered, allowing her brother to lift her off the ground.

“Daisy, you idiot!” he said, laughing. “You scared me to death!”

He placed her back on the ground and she scoffed.

“Yeah, yeah, it must have been so hard for you. It’s not like I was the one who was kidnapped and forced into slavery.”

I made a ‘pfft’ sound.

“It’s not like they made us do anything,” I said.

She peered at me over her shoulder and I expected her to say something snarky to me. Instead she laughed incredulously, shaking her head.

“You couldn’t have let me drag out his sympathy for just a little bit, Violet?”

Rictus raised his eyebrows.

“Violet? I thought she was just another stupid Mungo?”

At the sound of their favorite word for adults the kids began laughing and saying derogatory things directed at Piper, Zoon, RJ and I.

“Look, I’m not saying I suddenly believe mungos are alright, cause they’re not. But these ones are the exception.”

Rictus grinned, unabashedly elated by his little sisters safe return. He looked at me now, putting an arm around Daisy and tucking her against his side.

“Thank you.” His gaze shifted to each of us. “Thank all of you. When she got taken I thought I might not ever see her again.”

“As if you could get rid of me that easily,” she said.

He laughed.

“True. You are a curse.”

She elbowed him in the side and he released her, tugging her hair lightly in retaliation. Daisy didn’t care though, she just turned to address her adoring public. Rictus raised an eyebrow, looking at Duchess.

“I don’t think I’ve met you before. Were you a slave too?”

Duchess hesitated, mouth open but no words coming out.

“I was one of the first kids taken by Paradise Falls. Before you two got here.” Taking in a deep breath, she confessed, “Princess was trying to prepare me to help her run Paradise Falls. I was only ten so she thought I’d be easy to brainwash.”

Rictus blinked, taken aback by what she was saying. I think we all were. The four of us ‘mungos’ exchanged surprised glances.

“Did it work?”

“No!” Duchess cried and then snapped her mouth shut, caught off guard by own outburst. “Sorry, no. It didn’t. I hated every second I was there.”

“That must have sucked so bad,” Rictus said, shaking his head and folding his arms. His reaction reminded me that they were all still so young ‘Sucking so bad’ was an egregious understatement. “I’m sorry- What’s your name?”

She opened her mouth to respond but one of the older boys with sandy blonde hair said, “That’s Cry Baby.”

Duchesses eyes widened and her mouth hung open.

“Rodney, what the fuck!? I go missing for three years and you don’t even say hi!? And then you tell everyone my horrible nickname instead of my real name!?” she snapped.

All the kids began to laugh, as well as Zoon and RJ. Piper, Rictus and I had the decency to purse our lips and suppress our laughter.

Rictus asked, “Why’d they call you Cry Baby?”

She sighed, eyes dead, shoulders slumped.

“Take a guess-”

Rodney decided to chime in again.

“Because it was so easy to make her cry! She cried at everything! When she was tired, when she was surprised or scared! When we called her Cry Baby!”

His sentence broke off into uncontrollable cackling that Duchess -or Cry Baby- endured without bursting into tears like her old nickname suggested she would do. I supposed that was what happened when one was raised for years by a group of heartless slavers.

“I’m sorry,” Rictus said. “What’s your real name?”

She smiled, surprised.

“Annie.”

“Well, Annie, you’re thirteen, right?”

She nodded, saying, “Fourteen in a month.”

As if she’d been paying attention all along, Daisy turned, one of the younger children climbing on her back like she were a human jungle gym.

“Perfect, then you can live in Little Lamplight again.”

Annie looked up at me as if she needed my permission, her hazel eyes wide.

“Only if you want to,” I said. “You could always come to the Commonwealth with us.”

She smiled, glancing at the group of laughing and happy children in front of her.

“I think I’ll stay here. But… maybe when I’m older I could come visit?”

I grinned down at her, making sure to make eye contact with Daisy and Rictus too as I spoke. “Of course. We would love that.”

The same theatre MacCready and I had stayed the night in when first arriving in the Capital Wasteland came into view and we unanimously decided that was the best place to settle for the night.

Thankfully since RJ and I had already been inside, there were no raiders to clear out. It was just a matter of getting sleeping bags rolled out and carefully getting Danny inside one without waking him up again.

“He is an insanely light sleeper,” RJ whispered, pulling the sleeping bag up to his sons chin. “And once he’s up, he’s up. Even if it’s four in the damn morning.”

We both crept away from the back of the stage where he’d been settled, joining Zoon and Piper who were sitting at the front end, legs dangling over the egde.

“Alright, well, it’s been lovely catching up with you Zoon, but we’ve gotta head back to the Commonwealth-”

“Oh, I’m not staying here,” Zoon said, cutting off RJ. He released a pretend shocked laugh, putting a hand on his chest. “Did you think you were going to be able to just get rid of me?”

“I'd hoped.”

“And prayed,” Piper said, smirking at him.

“Well, sorry to disappoint, but I’ll be joining you.”

I raised an eyebrow, putting my hands on my hips.

“But why?”

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Zoon, in fact, I found him very entertaining, but that didn’t mean I understood his motivation. He’d been living in the Capital Wasteland for his whole life as far as I knew and he’d managed to make a name for himself. Why would he want to leave all that behind?

Zoon sighed, adjusting his baseball cap.

“Because I’m sick of the life I’ve created here. Going from a hero to a myth isn’t fun, even if it’s by choice. I want a fresh start. I want to go somewhere where there are no expectations and where I don’t have to wear a stupid bandana over my face.” He paused, brown eyes locking with Pipers. “Also, I want to marry Piper.”

Piper’s jaw dropped and she blinked violently, her eyes widening.

“What- slow down a little there, Trench Coat. You haven’t even known me two weeks.”

“With a girl like you Piper, that’s enough,” I said, echoing what Zoon had said to me when I’d had the same reaction to his abrupt interest in her.

Her cheeks turned scarlet and she glared at me furiously.

“Don’t encourage him, Blue!”

Zoon raised his hand, not ashamed of himself even a little bit.

“Alright, alright. Then I want to go to the Commonwealth so I can court Piper. Is that better?”

That was when Duncan had finally had enough. He let his head fall back and his body go limp, the only thing keeping him up was RJ’s hand that he held as he said, “Can we gooooooo??”

RJ chuckled.

“Amen kiddo.”

Zoon smiled, beginning to walk ahead of all of us.

“Then it’s settled. The Lone Wanderer’s moving to the Commonwealth.”

For the first hour in the theatre MacCready and I barely spoke, allowing Zoon and Piper’s chatter to distract us. Part of me had been tempted to just get in my sleeping bag and go to bed -take a break from real life.

But that thought was quickly shattered by the sound of the front door to the building slamming open, rushed footsteps filtering into the room from the foyer. We all stood, whipping out our guns and aiming them at the two entrances at the back of the room.

“I fucking found you!” a male voice yelled, making my stomach drop and my heart come to a grinding halt.

Who had we left alive in Paradise?

That was when Deacon came strolling in, an incredulous smile on his face, still wearing his signature sunglasses despite the poor lighting in the room. In his hand he held my pipboy. Relief flooded through all of us and then was almost instantly overshadowed by confusion. “I have been been on your heels for the last six hours!”

“I don’t want to sleep by the wall mushrooms!” Danny cried from behind us and I glanced over my shoulder in time to watch him shoot up in his sleeping bag.

RJ groaned, walking over to tend to his son.

“Ugh, good job, Deacon!”

“Sorry, Dee,” I said, grimacing uncomfortably. “We may have… forgotten you were in the Capital Wasteland.”

Deacon gestured at us accusingly.

"Clearly!"

“Look, we had a lot on our minds- we almost died!” Piper said.

Deacon continued towards the stage.

“I know, I saw the wreckage at Paradise Falls. I’d say congratulations if I wasn’t so annoyed we all of you. Also, I found this. Can’t believe you’d leave your identity behind, Charmer.”

He held out my pipboy that I took gratefully, snapping it on and sighing.

“That’s fair. How can we make it up to you?”

“Give me a sleeping bag to use- you’re lucky I didn’t bring one.”

“Use Zoon’s,” Piper, RJ, and I all said simultaneously.

Zoon’s head snapped back and forth wildly as he tried to make eye contact with all of us at the same time.

“Guys what the fuck?”

All of us chose to ignore his complaints, deciding to deal with his ire rather than Deacon’s. Deacon was a spy and a conman, he could easily spill real secrets or come up with convincing fake ones. It was better not to be on his bad side.

Two hours later we were all settled, Danny having finally fallen back asleep, Piper, RJ, Deacon and I all tucked away in our sleeping bags, and Zoon stretched across three different seats that he’d snapped the arm rests off of.

As I’d expected, it wasn’t easy to fall asleep. The events of the past week and a half played like a prewar film every time I closed my eyes.

Thankfully as the journey progressed my emotions became a little easier to deal with, sleep beginning to come a little faster every night. But of course with the dulling of the trauma we all experienced came the frustration of not being home yet. When we eventually reached the marshes that bordered the bottom of the Commonwealth I don’t think I was the only one that almost burst into tears.

“I see Diamond City!” Piper shouted when the buildings that surrounded the baseball field came into view.

“Are we home!?” Danny cried from beside RJ, tugging on his hand.

RJ beamed down at him.

“Not quiet. But Shaun and Dogmeat are here and this where Piper lives.”

“I’m gonna meet Dogmeat!? And Shaun!?”

I laughed, shaking my head. Of course the five year old’s priority would be meeting the dog. We all started walking faster, ready to be on familiar ground. RJ scooped Danny up into his arms, not wanting to have to be slowed down by his tiny child legs.

We reached the gates to Diamond City in a matter of minutes, all greeting the guards who definitely had not cared about our absence -Well, except maybe Piper’s. Having her be gone for three and a half weeks had probably been a nice break.

Subconsciously I gained speed, wanting nothing more than to see Shaun with my own two eyes, to be able to throw my arms around him and have him close to me. In all the hours of sitting in the slave pens one of the only things that kept me sane was knowing that once everything was all over I’d get to see him again.

I got to the top of the stairs, coming to a brief stop, examining the City below me as if I were reuniting with an old friend. Per the norm the town was bustling, people milling around the marketplace, eating at the bar of Power Noodle’s, completely unaware of the life altering journey we’d been on.

I spotted Nick standing at the end of the street and I raised my hand to wave at him, grinning. As soon as he made eye contact with me, his jaw dropped, and he turned around, walking away.

“That was weird,” I muttered, frowning.

Piper caught up with me now, rushing past me, excited to see her little sister and I continued forward as well. Sitting on the ‘porch’ area of Publick Occurences was Nat, Shaun, and Dogmeat, the two children talking to each other animatedly. Floating behind them, somehow looking anxious despite not having a face, was Codsworth.

I grinned, breaking into a run, coming up beside Piper. Shaun’s eyes lit up as he noticed us, and he grabbed Nat’s shoulder, pointing in our direction. She turned, grinning, calling, “Piper!”

All three of them got to their feet, barrelling towards us, grinning madly.

“Mom!” Shaun cried.

We met each other halfway down the street and he wrapped his arms around me. I was so relieved to be with my son that I didn’t even care about the slight twinge in my back as he put pressure on my healing lashes. Thankfully I'd been able to retire the sling on my arm after about two days. Why the gun shot wound healed better than the wounds on my back was beyond me. “What took you so long!?”

I laughed, holding him at arm’s length. He’d gotten taller since we’d been gone, something that still threw me. He seemed like he’d gained a whole inch on me.

“There were some complications. I’ll tell you all about it when we get home.”

Zoon and RJ reached us now, Danny squirming to be put down. RJ laughed, telling him to calm down and put his son on the ground. Shaun’s grin widened, his eyebrows shooting up at the sight of the little boy running towards him.

“Hi, I’m Danny!” he said, jumping up and down as if his small body couldn’t contain his excitement.

“Hey, Danny, I’m Shaun. It’s nice to meet you-”

Danny’s gaze landed on the dog standing beside Shaun and he giggled madly, focusing on the canine instead.

“Hi Dogmeat, I’m Danny!”

Shaun laughed, raising an eyebrow and looking at RJ.

“He’s got his priorities in order.”

RJ chuckled.

“Sure does. How you doing kid?” he asked.

“Great! Nat and I were starting to get a bit worried, but we knew you’d all make it back. Who’s the new guy?” he asked, throwing his head in the direction of where Zoon stood, unsure of where to go.

RJ sighed.

“We’ll explain him later too.”

Codsworth approached us, bobbing nervously.

“Hello mum, I’m so glad you’ve returned safely!”

“Hi Codsworth! How have the last three weeks been?” I asked. “Did you keep the kids under control?”

I could hear the frown in his voice as he said, “Well, to be perfectly honest, mum, I’m having a spot of trouble remembering-”

“Can Codsworth take me and Danny to the park to play with Dogmeat!?” Shaun cut in, smiling robotically.

I raised an eyebrow, thrown by his question.

“What? But we just got back-”

“I know, but I want to show him around! And he wants to play with Dogmeat! Look at him!”

All of our gazes shifted to where Dogmeat and Danny sat, Dogmeat licking Danny’s cheek with Danny did the same to the dog.

“Oh- No, Danny stop!” I said, voice popping up an octave. “Don’t lick him, that’s yucky!”

Danny looked up at me, puzzled.

“Why?”

“Yeah, why don’t you take him to get some of his energy out,” RJ said, suppressing laughter. “Just don’t leave Codsworth’s side, alright?”

Shaun saluted him.

“Yes, sir. Come on Danny, Dogmeat!”

He set off, Danny running clumsily after him, Dogmeat on their heels.

“Wait- You’re supposed to wait for me, Master Shaun!” Codsworth called, floating after them as fast as he could manage.

I shook my head, grinning up at RJ.

“I think they’re going to like each other,” I said, bumping him with my hip.

He smiled down at me, putting an arm around my shoulder -careful not to put any pressure on my back- and kissed the top of my head.

“That’s until Shaun turns sixteen and starts ignoring Danny.”

“No,” I protested, putting my hands on my face. “He’ll be a good big brother!”

RJ laughed.

“Of course he will! But trust me, I’ve seen it a million times. He’ll be sixteen and Danny will be nine! He’ll be an annoying little kid to Shaun!”

I made a face, seeing his point.

“I guess you’re right.”

Zoon was leaning against nearby wall now, seeming to have given up on getting Piper’s attention. I was surprised he wasn’t bombarding Nat with questions, he’d been extremely excited to meet her. Maybe he was actually feeling a little out of place. When he’d seen Diamond City from the outside he’d mentioned something about not trusting big cities.

It was then that I saw Nick walking down the street and to my extreme discomfort, his arm was around Vel’s waist. She was the same as she’d been the last time I saw her, though I thought her dark brown hair was shorter and maybe even a little less unkempt.

No wonder Nick had just turned and left when he’d seen us coming. I would have guessed he would have lead his girlfriend in the opposite direction seeing as she despised me.

But I was wrong and now as they approached my stomach flipped. I hadn’t seen this woman since she’d run off upon Nick recovering from Kellogg’s assault on his mind -something I tried not to think of for fear that the guilt would eat me away entirely.  The last and only real conversation she and I’d had, was her promising to kill me if anything happened to Nick.

I grinned at the sight of him, smothering the anxiety Vel created within me.

This would be fun.

Chapter Text

“Nick!”

Choosing to pretend that Vel wasn’t there and that she hadn’t threatened to kill me, I jogged over to where she and Nick stood, throwing my arms around his shoulders.

“Hey kid,” he said warmly, immediately calming my nerves, and wrapping his arms around me.

Unfortunately he wasn’t aware of my latest injury, his forearms rubbing against my raw skin. I’d used a stimpak while we’d been raiding Paradise falls and again the next day but still the wounds were tender, barely beginning to put themselves back together.

“Ah!” I gasped before I could get a handle on myself, reflexively stepping out of his arms.

Nick managed to look bewildered, his glowing eyes full of concern.

“I’m sorry, are you-”

I waved my hand dismissively, mentally berating myself for making him worry and said, “I’m fine, sorry.”

I might have said more, might have explained what had happened but somehow I’d ended up staring straight at Vel. Unlike a few seconds ago, she was no longer making a point not to look at me. No, no, she was glaring at me now with unrestrained hatred. In fact, her stare was so venomous, so burning hot like the heat of a thousand angry suns, that I physically recoiled, nestling myself back between Piper and RJ so I might have some protection if she decided that she was just going to go ahead and kill me.

Recovering from being non-verbally assaulted, I managed to make eye contact with Nick. “Anything exciting happen while we were gone?”

Nick expelled a drawn out huff of air, peering down at Vel affectionately, saying, “Well… sort of…”

I opened my mouth to question him but Zoon seemed to decide it was his responsibility to dig in deeper.

“That wasn’t vague at all,” he said, folding his arms.

I hadn’t noticed him slowly drift in the direction of Piper, but now he was standing immediately beside her. Vel’s glare settled on him, along with Nick’s baffled gaze, his eyebrow quirked.

“Who are you?” he asked.

Zoon shrugged, not missing a beat, replying, “Piper’s fiancé.”

I scoffed, covering my mouth and looking to Piper. Her eyes had widened, her jaw dropping while her complexion changed from tan to bright red in less than a second.

“Hey, Nat, do you wanna go talk inside!?”

She latched onto her little sister’s arm, towing her in the direction of the front door. Nat struggled against her grip, eyes big as saucers, looking as if her jaw might become unhinged.

“What did he just say!? What happened while you were gone!?” She pointed at Zoon, volume rising as well as her level of astonishment. “Who’s that!?”

“Shut up, Nat,” Piper hissed, pushing the door open and disappearing inside.

Zoon jogged after them, the door slamming in his face, and he leaned against it, undeterred.

“Is that Nat!? I love her already, let me meet her!”

He stroked the door with his palm as if maybe he could coax it into opening, his forehead thunking against the metal, dejection setting in. I noticed Vel lean over to whisper something to Nick, drawing my attention away from the scene Zoon had caused.

Now it was just RJ, Deacon and I standing across from Nick and Vel. Nick responded just as quietly as Vel had spoken and then his stare met mine.

“So what happened to you?” he asked.

Where to begin? Or to begin at all?

“That’s a long story,” I said, fidgeting nervously as if I was going to get in trouble.

Vel rolled her eyes.

“And we got shit for being vague,” she said.

“You were,” Zoon muttered, still palming the door,  just as forlorn as before.

I sighed, knowing that Vel hadn’t been wrong. I wasn’t going to do anything more to make Vel think any less of me. If she was going to give me a hard time for being vague then I would stop being vague.

“Fair point,” I said. “We went to the Capital Wasteland, found Duncan, I got whipped, we killed some slavers. The end. Now back to you guys.”

“You said something ‘sort of’ happened,” RJ said.

RJ and I watched as Nick and Vel exchanged a glance that spoke volumes, but was unfortunately written in a language I didn’t understand. The silence only lasted for a couple seconds, but it was heavy and tense.

Nick shook his head, meeting our expectant gazes, painfully reluctant as he spoke.

“Fahrenheit got shot, we tracked down the people who did it and took a trip to the glowing sea.”

Just hearing the words ‘Glowing Sea’ made me want to curl up into a ball.

“Jesus,” I said, glancing between the two of them, making eye contact with Vel for the briefest second possible. “So sounds like everyone had a rough few weeks.”

Deacon piped up from beside me, making me jump and I instantly felt guilty for forgetting about his existence again.

“I had a fine time in the Capital!” he said. “I got to go on a bonding road trip with piper, dumped her at Megaton, went to the DC Railroad H-”

Vel cut him off, sounding as impatient as ever, “Wait, what are you doing here? What is your purpose here?”

If I’d had a drink I would have spat it out. The coldness of her question seemed to catch Deacon off guard as well and he froze, still half smiling. We all looked to him, eagerly waiting to see how he would respond to what she’d said. Deacon was a wordsmith, such a strong one that it surprised me his moniker hadn’t already been ‘Charmer’.

But then he just shrugged, deflating and saying, “I don’t know and neither does the author.”

With that he turned, striding back towards the entrance to Diamond City.

What the fuck had that meant?

I looked away from him, shaking my head and focusing on the two people in front of me again. I did my best not to look at Vel, knowing that would just earn me another visual slap. She groaned, sounding like an impatient child as she said, “Can we go now?”

At the sound of her tone I was hit with an onslaught of flashbacks to our journey from the Capital Wasteland to here. The amount of times Danny had asked whether we were ‘there yet’ was almost impressive.

Nick held up a finger, silencing Vel, saying, “Wait, wait, where’s Duncan?”

I watched RJ react to the question, smiling myself as he grinned.

“He saw the dog and he decided he’d rather play with him then hang around a bunch of mungos.”

I giggled at his use of the word ‘mungos’. But my amusement was abruptly ended by Vel speaking.

“What?”

“He’s spent too much time in Little Lamplight,” he said, shrugging.

Now it was Nick’s turn to voice his confusion.

“Little Lamplight?”

RJ prepared to explain what Little Lamplight was and how it worked but Vel was having none of it.

“No, no, I don’t care about your tragic backstory, it’s time to go,” she said, looking up at Nick now.

Irritation coursed through me in a brief burst. I understood why she hated me, but did she have to lash out at RJ as well? Of course, I had no idea what their relationship was like so her dismissiveness could be totally warranted.

“Wait, uh…” Nick began, distracting me from my annoyance. “I need to, uh- Oh! Talk to MacCready!”

“What? Why?”

I almost wanted to explain to RJ what was going on seeing as it wasn’t as obvious to him. But despite my fear of Vel, I decided to indulge Nick’s clear desire for us to have some time alone to talk.

“Just come with me, you’re gonna wanna hear this,” said the synth, edging himself towards RJ as if he might drag him away if it became necessary.

“Can’t you just say it here?” RJ asked.

I almost laughed at how unhelpful he was being to Nick’s cause. Nick seemed to be truly stumped by RJ’s question and it made the situation all the funnier to see the generally collected detective so flustered.

“We need to talk about boundaries,” he said, putting an arm around RJ and guiding him towards the Dugout Inn.

I couldn’t help but notice him claw onto RJ’s coat as if he was worried RJ might try and book it away from him. I watched the two of them wheel around the corner and tried to pretend it didn’t feel like they’d just thrown me into the lion’s den.

Swallowing, I faced Vel again, forcing myself to look at her, begrudgingly willing her to make eye contact with me too. I prayed that my staring didn’t cause her to snap and lash out at me with violence.

The seconds that passed were painful and I contemplated just going inside Piper’s house to be free of this whole situation. As if he sensed my train of thought Zoon looked at me, his level of patheticness not having decreased in the span of the conversation.

Suddenly Vel muttered under her breath, “Mother fucker.”

It took all my self control not to jump. I’d honestly thought she might never speak to me. And then she continued to surprise me by making eye contact and saying, “I’m not apologizing.”

Well, that last part hadn’t really surprised me.

I held my hands up defensively, as if they would in any way protect me if she decided to attack my verbally or physically.

“I’m not asking you to!” I said, my voice shooting up several octaves.

Vel didn’t respond and taking a cue from her I decided to avoid looking at her. God, could this be more uncomfortable? It was starting to feel like I was going to explode if Nick and RJ didn’t come back to save me. I was sure she too wanted nothing more than for them to return so she could leave.

Maybe I could fix the situation. Maybe she didn’t realize how truly sorry I was, how the guilt from what I’d put Nick through constantly reared it’s ugly head. But did she care? I knew from experience that it wasn’t always possible to forgive the people who had wronged you, no matter how good their intentions might have been.

Not that I thought my intentions for putting Kellogg in Nick’s head had been pure. No, I’d known the second that I’d allowed Nick to take in Kellogg that I was one of the most selfish people on earth.

Without fully making the decision to speak, I blurted, “But I’m sorry! I had no-”

“No!” Vel snapped, stormy gray eyes slamming into mine like a force of nature. “You don’t have the right to apologize!”

She spoke with such condemnation that for a moment I was frozen. But I didn’t look away, didn’t back down, not because I was in anyway courageous, but because I was a goddamn idiot. Words fell out of my mouth before I had time to review them.

“I know, I’m sorry- I mean, uh, I know I can’t be sorry,” I babbled, wishing a meteor would come and crush me, “But I am! I’m sorry-”

“Stop talk- Just stop talking!”

I did so, closing my mouth with an audible snap. For a moment we just stared at each other, unable to speak. Part of me expected Nick to come out and defuse the situation since it was clear it wasn’t going to end with Vel and I laughing off the tension, hugging, and deciding we were better off friends than enemies.

We could both dream though. I would faint from unbridled joy if this could all come to an amicable end.

Maybe that was what drove me to idiotically mumble another, “Sorry.”

Apparently, that had been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Listen, you crying manipulative bitch!” she shouted, taking a step towards me, fists clenched at her side. She was going to kill me. This was it. I couldn’t believe I’d survived being a slave and now I was going to be taken down in the middle of Diamond City. “Nick’s forgiven you, that should be enough for me but it isn’t. I hate you. I hate everything about you. You risked his life to find your son. Well congratulations, but he’s still hurting. And that’s on your head. And I hope that guilt eats you up inside!"

“Okay, THAT’S ENOUGH!”

RJ’s voice drew both our attention and I watched him come storming over from around the corner, coming to stand in front of me. It was as if someone had dumped cold water on me. Listening to Vel blow up at me had put in some sort of trance -one I was grateful to be free from. “You said Violet didn’t have the right to be sorry, but I know what you’ve done! I know what you were. You don’t deserve an apology from her! She’s twice the woman you’ll ever be!”

That was when Nick appeared as well, voice worn and thin as he said, “Back down Macready, she wont hesitate to put an end to you.”

It was as if someone had turned me on autopilot. My gaze fell to the ground and I lost the ability to emote. What was hardest about everything she’d said wasn’t that I disagreed with her, it was that I felt everything she’d said was completely right.

Whoever was in control of my body managed to make me say, “Maybe we should go.”

“Yeah, you should,” Vel said, much quieter than before.

Nick glanced over his shoulder at her, murmuring, “Gray…”

I shook my head.

“It’s fine, I get it. We’ll see you around, Nick.”

I don’t know what I expected to happen after that. I guess deep down I hoped Vel would leave so I wouldn’t have to. I wasn’t sure if my legs functioned at this point and it would be embarrassing if I slumped into a puddle in front of the person who had just verbally destroyed me. It was now that I took notice of the silence in the street. Everyone in the immediate area had tuned in on the show.   

Against my better judgement, I locked eyes with Vel. Her eyes were steely, unrelenting in their loathing of me. I still couldn’t be mad at her though. What would I do if she’d done the same thing to RJ that I'd done to Nick?

I’d kill her. I’d absolutely kill her. The fact that I was alive right now was a testament to her self discipline.

As if she could read my mind and was annoyed by the fact that I was thinking something complimentary of her after she’d just torn into me, she spat, “I need a drink.”

With that, she stormed in the direction of the Dugout Inn, leaving Nick behind. RJ put a hand on my shoulder and I looked up at him, still a little shell shocked.

“Are you okay?” he asked, blue eyes searching mine for signs of life.

I smiled weakly, attempting to reboot the system.

“I’m fine. I deserved it-”

“Kid, stop beating yourself up,” Nick said, fatherly as ever.

“But she’s right!” I cried, suffering from an unanticipated bout of hysterics. At least I wasn’t crying. I’d hate to cry on Nick mere moments after being called a ‘crying, manipulative bitch’. “I put you at risk, Nick, I chose to have Kellogg put into your head! I was willing to do whatever it took to get my son back no matter what the cost!”

“No, you weren’t.”

I froze, mouth hanging open. His words were so baffling to me that for a moment I couldn’t remember how to speak. What the hell was he saying? Had his brain been that badly damaged by Kellogg?

“What? Of course I was-”

“I’m the one who told you to let her… smash our brains together! I told you I wanted to do it. It wasn’t because you were ruthless or willing to throw me away. Hell, if the decision had been left up to you, you probably would have opted to find a safer solution.”

I laughed sadly.

“I think you’re putting a little too much faith in me.”

“Well, I could sit here and argue with you about whether you’re a good person or not all day, but that’d probably get old fast,” he said, smiling. “I should check on Vel.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me about her, Nick?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow, hoping my expression was disapproving.

He began to back away, smirking, his hands in the pockets of his coat.

“You never asked, kid. Why didn’t you ever tell me about MacCready?”

I opened my mouth and then laughed incredulously. He had a good point. Neither of us had felt the need to disclose information about our romantic life. I’d spent so much time sneaking away from Nick and keeping him in the dark that it made sense for me not to know about his private life.

Before Nick could slip around the corner he paused, somber now. Or bored. Again, I wasn’t great at reading his facial expressions.

“Look, I’m sorry about what she said. She just needs a little more time.”

I shrugged.

“I told you, I get it.”

“Oh, and MacCready?”

RJ raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t EVER insult my girlfriend.”

With that he continued out of sight, leaving the two of us standing alone in front of Publick Occurrences. Well, that was what I thought but then Zoon cleared his throat, reminding us of his presence.

“Jesus, Zoon, what are you still doing here?” I asked, putting a hand on my chest, shocked.

He just looked for a moment, his eyebrows somehow seeming furrowed and raised at the same time.

“Vaultie, where would I go!? I’ve never fucking been here before! And I’m starting to wish I’d never come. You two are drama magnets, aren’t you?” he said, folding his arms, back pressed to Piper’s door now.

RJ laughed and I shot him a glare, though I knew there was no point in arguing.

“It’s not me, it’s Violet.”

“We were just gone for almost a month because of your drama!” I said.

“And how long did yours last? Eight? Also, you’re from the past, so your drama immediately trumps mine.”

Zoon pulled away from the wall, yelling, “What!? What does that mean? Is that code for something?”

I sighed, rolling my eyes. It was time to find the boys, spending more than a few minutes with Zoon was taxing enough and we’d just been with him for a week straight.

“Let’s go get the kids and get out of here,” I said.

RJ grinned.

“I was thinking the same thing.”

“What!? But you didn’t explain anything! Where am I going to live!?”

It didn’t take us long to locate the kids and get on our way out of the city. Unfortunately, since I didn’t have a key to Home Plate with me for Zoon -something that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to give him anyway- I extended an invitation to Sanctuary towards him, which he took mostly because he didn’t have another option.

At the sight of the minutemen statue by the bridge I almost burst into tears. We had done it. We were home. We’d travelled across the Wasteland and we’d come out mostly unscathed. This thought triggered the sight of Bumble lying in my arms. She was supposed to be here. She was who I should have been giving the key to Home Plate to.

But she wasn’t, and although that hurt and would stick with me for the foreseeable future, that didn’t mean our journey hadn’t been a victory.

“Alright, you can stay wherever you want,” I said to Zoon as we stood on the front lawn of my home. “All the houses neighboring mine and a few others have beds in them, just pick whichever one isn’t claimed already. If you want food, you can buy some from the house across the road, or you can talk to Marcy Long about tending to the crops and you’ll earn rations that way.”

“Oh, joy,” he muttered.

I gave him a look.

“You don’t have to stay here forever, but I’m sure you’d rather be here then in Diamond City.”

He pouted, folding his arms.

“How do you know?”

“Because you said so. Multiple times.”

“When?” he asked.

“You told all of us you hated big settlements three times before we even got into Diamond City. And then when we left, you said, ‘Well, I don’t wanna be away from Piper but I’d rather stay in your small settlement than in Diamond-fucking-City’. I think that was verbatim.”

He deflated.

“Alright, you’ve got me there. I’ll just… I guess I claim the house next door?”

I pointed to the house on the right.

“This one?”

He nodded. I shook my head.

“Sorry, already have a family staying in that one. But you can take the one on the left.”

He slumped his shoulders melodramatically, shuffling towards the available home. Despite the fact that I was pretty sure his sadness was serious, I laughed, watching him go. “You’re welcome!”

I turned, walking inside. RJ was currently showing Danny the bedroom he’d be sharing with Shaun and this gave me time to begin brewing a terrible cup of coffee. After a couple of minutes Danny and Shaun went running out the door to the carport, laughing, Dogmeat on their trail. Codsworth floated out from the hallway, seeming very put upon.

“Hello, miss Violet,” he said. “Would you like me to watch the children?”

I shook my head, sipping at my warm beverage.

“No, they should be fine. Would you check on the settlers though? See if there’s anything they need?”

“Of course, mum.”

As he left out the front door, RJ emerged from the hallway, coming into the kitchen and leaning against the island across from me, his hands braced on the discolored counter behind him.

“Hey,” he said, smiling.

I raised an eyebrow, looking up at him, placing my drink on the counter I was resting against. He drew me close, wrapping his arms around me, his frame blocking my view of the dilapidated kitchen around us. It was then that I realized we were alone. Finally alone.

“What’s up?” I asked, half playing dumb.

His smile softened, his eyes flickering briefly to my lips.

“I love you.”

I beamed up at him, my heart fluttering. I wondered if those words would ever stop having this kind of effect on me.

“Oh yeah?”

He laughed, leaning in, resting his forehead on mine.

“Yeah, you idiot,” he said.

I stepped out of his arms, smirking.

“Good to know.”

He grabbed my wrist, reeling me back in.

“Hey, no you don’t,” he said, arms coiling firmly around my biceps to my back, keeping me locked in place. I struggled to move my hands between us, pushing playfully at his chest, beginning to giggle like a child. As if it were a form of punishment, he started planting light kisses all over my cheeks, my nose, the top of my head.

“Okay, okay! I love you too.”

He stopped his affectionate attack, smirking at me.

“Oh yeah?” he said in a mocking tone.

I stopped resisting him, letting both my hands slide over his jaw on either side. He practically had a beard now, having been unable to shave while we’d been travelling back to the Commonwealth.

I thought back to when we’d first met. His hair had been much shorter and he’d even bothered to style it. Now it was shaggy, curling around his eyes. I think he’d gained a little weight in his month of living at Sanctuary with me. Now he looked starving instead of completely malnourished.

But the most apparent change was in his eyes.

They seemed softer, the blue waves within his iris calmed, like the storm that had been raging inside him for so long had finally come to an end. Plus, he scowled a whole lot less ever since we’d admitted we were in love with each other.

I couldn’t believe how far we’d come. When we’d met we’d both been broken, widowed parents with both our sons missing, seemingly unreachable in one way or another.

But together we’d pushed forward, we’d fought and clawed our way through the entire damned Wasteland to get them back. And now we had our little family. It might not have been what either of us had expected and it wasn’t perfect. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful and miraculous and exactly what we both needed.

I let my thumb rub small circles across his cheek, biting my lip, holding his gaze.

“Yeah. I really do.”