Regina Darrow was learning not to be surprised about anything that happened to her in the postwar Commonwealth. She felt she had been doing pretty well with taking things as they came… until she found the kid in the fridge.
A couple elements of the encounter surprised her.
One: This kid (Billy, the kid) had survived for 200 years in a fridge. Sure, the nuclear blast had ghoul-ified him, but he had survived.
Two: R.J. MacCready was not annoyed by the fact that Regina had chosen to forgo her current (and probably more monetarily rewarding) mission in favor of escorting Billy to his home. MacCready had also avoided informing Billy that his parents were probably dead.
Regina stole several glances at MacCready as they hiked through the swampy terrain, skirting the Quincy ruins, toward the Peabody house. Sometimes, she wasn’t sure she really knew her oftentimes traveling companion. She had hired him for the first time months ago, and for a while, he had seemed what he appeared—a hardened, cynical mercenary who was definitely in it for the caps, and maybe also for the thrill of the fight.
But slowly, another side to the merc had emerged, a side that kept surprising Regina as she wandered the Commonwealth looking for clues to Shaun’s whereabouts and helping the Minutemen stabilize the region. Sometimes, it seemed, MacCready was a good guy. Sure, he encouraged Regina to act rough and tough, to haggle her way to monetary advantage, to take what she needed from whomever she wanted. But lately, he seemed to care about what happened to her… and sometimes, what happened to other people.
Maybe it had all started when she helped him get those Gunners off his back, Winlock and Barnes. Taking them out had been a tough fight, but Regina had been willing to do it. Something about MacCready got to her, made her want to stick with him, made her care about what happened to him. She got the feeling maybe she was the only one who did, so she felt obligated to help him with the situation; after all, he had helped her survive so many dangerous escapades, seeming less and less concerned about the caps.
Regina had almost died on Mass Pike Interchange, trying to help MacCready shrug a deadly load from his shoulders. Neither of them had expected an assaultron.
The busty metal android robot had charged at MacCready, hand blades whirring, and Regina had tried to snipe it from cover. It turned its head and located her, then blasted a beam of deadly light in her direction. She had ducked just in time, but the blast set afire the car she had been hiding behind, and the car exploded, sending Regina flying. She’d hit the pavement hard on her shoulder and gone rolling toward the edge of the ramp, dazed and dizzy.
She’d heard MacCready yell, “Boss!” but she couldn’t move. Everything behind her had seemed to explode, then he was running to her, his hands sliding over her, looking for wounds, locating (painfully) her broken arm and a gash in her leg. Careful of her arm, he’d drawn her into his, cradling her against him and talking rapidly and breathlessly to her as he’d jabbed a stimpak into her arm, then another into her leg. She’d found herself feeling the most immense relief she’d ever felt as she relaxed against him and let the healing chems do their work…
Maybe it was that moment when he’d decided that he really cared about what happened to “the boss.” Maybe he’d cared before, but hadn’t known how to show it.
And now, apparently, he cared about what happened to this ghoul child… who was actually quite adorable for a ghoul.
Regina hoped against all hope that Billy’s parents were alive. It was a longshot, a very longshot. If it turned out (as it probably would) that they were dead, she planned to offer Billy a home in one of the Minutemen’s more stable settlements—Sanctuary, maybe, or Abernathy Farm. The Slog might be a good fit for a ghoul, but they tended to have a lot of trouble from both super mutants and raiders, so that might not be the best place for a kid…
“Whoa, it’s nighttime, and it’s still kinda bright!” Billy exclaimed, looking up at the stars. “It was always pitch black in the fridge.” He ran ahead, smiling up at the sky.
“Man…” MacCready shook his head and caught Regina’s eye. “No kid should have to go through something like that.”
The empathy in his eyes caught her off guard. She caught herself reaching out to touch her mercenary’s arm. “I know.”
“I mean, I liked living underground when I was a kid, but… a fridge!” He shook his head again. “I don’t think I’d care for a tight space like that.”
“Hey, Billy! Slow down, buddy!” MacCready called. “Wait for us! It’s kind of dangerous out here, pal!”
His tone reminded Regina so much of Nate’s “dad voice” that she faltered for a second, falling behind, suddenly dizzy.
“Okay, Mr. MacCready!” Billy called back, slowing down so the sharpshooter could catch up.
MacCready walked beside the boy, patting his shoulder.
Regina shook herself and hurried to catch up. MacCready threw her a questioning glance, and she shrugged.
The threesome snuck around the Gunner-heavy areas of Quincy until they reached a soggy peninsula that led to a tall, narrow house. Light glowed from its windows, warm and inviting.
“Hey, look!” Billy cried happily. “It’s my house! The lights are on!” He started to dart forward.
MacCready grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back. “Easy, buddy. It’s been 200 years. Just say your mom and dad moved—“
“They wouldn’t!” Billy insisted. “Not without me!”
“Let’s just be safe,” Regina cautioned. “Let us go first. Stay behind us.”
Billy fell in behind them, jittery with impatience.
Regina drew her pistol, which was heavily modified, with a little help from Codsworth. MacCready raised his rifle. Slowly, quietly, they approached the front porch of the house.
Regina nodded to the front doorknob, and MacCready nodded back. He grasped the knob and twisted. It turned easily in his hand.
“Should we knock?” Regina whispered.
“And let the sons of… biscuits know we’re coming?” MacCready hissed.
“What if his parents are really in there?” Regina replied.
“What if they’re not? Or what if they’re feral now?” he countered.
“Since when did ferals leave the cozy lights on?”
“Since when did anything ever go the easy way for us? Remember the assaultron? Or what about those freakin’ mudcrabs that nearly tore us apart last week? I usually keep a few stimpaks handy for patching you up, Boss, but I’m out today, so we can’t afford any bad luck right now.”
“Maybe all those disasters mean the odds are in our favor this time.”
“And maybe this kid’s parents are dead, there are raiders behind this door, and we have to be his parents now.”
Regina stared at him, her mouth dropping open.
“What is it?” Billy whispered from where he crouched near the porch. “Are they home?”
Maybe… we have to be his parents now. We. Parents.
Something fluttered in Regina’s stomach. And she could not stop staring at her mercenary companion… who was seeming less and less the mercenary part and more and more the companion part.
What did she even say to that?
MacCready cleared his throat and broke eye contact, looking at the door. “On three, Boss?”
Regina nodded, blinking rapidly. “Yeah. Ready? One, two—“
“Who’s there?” a voice called out from inside the house—a hoarse male ghoul voice, and not a feral one.
Regina and MacCready exchanged glances, eyebrows rising.
“Dad!?” Billy rushed between them, pushing the door open, light flooding out around him.
Regina and MacCready followed the ghoul boy inside to see him running into the arms of a neatly dressed ghoul couple.
“Billy!” the female ghoul cried, wrapping the boy in her arms. “It’s been so long! We thought you—We thought you were—“ She laughed joyfully. “I can’t believe it!”
“We’re all together again! It’s going be okay! We’re all together now!” the father ghoul soothed, embracing his little family.
Regina’s throat felt tight, and her eyes began to blur. A mother, a father, a son… Gladness and sorrow mingled heavily in her heart. She looked down… and saw MacCready’s fingers hovering toward hers. His hand brushed hers, his fingers playing across her palm, linking with her fingers, comforting, soothing. She looked up and met his eyes. The sheer understanding she saw there took her breath away. Somehow, this man felt her pain…
“These guys found me and brought me here,” Billy was saying. He led his parents to Regina and MacCready.
“How can we ever thank you?” Mr. Peabody wondered aloud. He spread his arms wide. “You are always welcome in the Peabody house.”
Regina cleared her throat, slipping her hand from MacCready’s. “I… I know what it’s like to be separated from family. I’m just glad to see a happy reunion.”
“Matt Peabody.” The ghoul shook her hand.
“Regina Darrow. This is my… friend, R.J. MacCready.”
“My wife, Carol.”
“Now we’re all friends!” Billy announced happily.
“It must be nearly midnight,” Carol spoke up, her hands on her long-lost son’s shoulders. “Why don’t the two of you stay here and—“
“Hey!” a voice shouted from outside. “Hey, you in there! You call yourself the General, right? Come on out! I need to speak with you!”
“Boss?” MacCready frowned and cocked his rifle.
“I don’t recognize—“ Regina started, turning toward the door.
“You’ve got a little ghoul kid in there, right?” the stranger’s voice called.
Carol gasped and pulled Billy closer.
“You guys stay inside,” Regina ordered. “MacCready and I will handle this.”
“I’m coming, too.” Matt reached into a kitchen drawer and drew out a pistol. “This is my property. I won’t leave you to defend it on your own.”
“Fine, but listen to the Boss,” MacCready told him. “She knows what she’s doing.”
His utter faith in her gave her confidence as she strode out onto the porch, flanked by the two men.
“Alright,” she called. “I’m listening.”
A man in a Gunner uniform appeared. A bandolier of ammo crossed his chest, and a heavy energy weapon was strapped to his side. He held up his hands. “The name’s Bullet. I just want to talk, lady. I think we can make a deal.”
Regina didn’t like the sound of that, or the way the man kept peering behind her toward the house.
“Want me to take him out now, Boss?” MacCready whispered.
Regina ignored him. “What kind of deal?”
“I’ll give you 200 caps. For the kid.”
“No!” Matt gasped.
“Wasn’t talkin’ to you,” Bullet snapped. “I was talking to the lady.”
“No deal,” Regina told him, shifting her grip on her pistol.
“Fine, fine. How does 500 caps sound?”
“Want me to shoot him now, Boss?”
“No deal,” Regina said firmly. She wanted to avoid bloodshed if she could, but Bullet would have to step over her dead body to get to Billy. “Now get out of here before you make us mad.”
“Already mad,” Matt ground out.
“Yep. Me, too,” MacCready concurred.
Bullet sighed heavily. “Sorry it has to be this way. We’re taking the kid.” He raised his hand and flicked his fingers.
Three other Gunners appeared out of the swamp—one with a laser pistol and two with combat rifles.
“Now, Mac! Shoot him now!” Regina yelled, raising her pistol. “Matt, get to cover!”
Then the little peninsula exploded (literally) into action.
One of the Gunners tossed a grenade. While firing at Bullet, MacCready grabbed Regina’s arm and jerked her to the ground; Matt dove for cover nearby. The grenade went off harmlessly—but loudly—behind them, and Regina’s ears rang painfully. Gritting her teeth, she fired rapidly in Bullet’s direction from the ground.
One of the Gunners—the female with the laser pistol—yelped as one of Matt’s bullets clipped her arm. Regina turned toward her and finished her off, crawling to a nearby stand of trees. She could see MacCready hiding behind the ruins of a stone fence, firing at Bullet. Matt had fallen back closer to his house, no doubt checking on his family, firing from the front porch.
Bullet turned and ran into an abandoned house nearby, dodging out of view, and Regina and MacCready turned their attention to his remaining two allies. One of the men had retreated into the water and was ducking behind a scraggly tree. The other stood in full view, firing boldly at Regina. Two of his bullets struck the tree she hid behind; splinters of wood scratched her cheek and narrowly missed her eye.
“Regina!” MacCready called.
What, not Boss?
“I’m okay! Keep going! Take ‘em out!” she shouted back.
MacCready lined up a shot, squeezed the trigger, and the Gunner who had almost shot Regina fell to the ground, his head dissolved in a shower of blood and bone.
“Where’s the other one?” MacCready yelled over the sound of the hidden Gunner’s fire and the buzz of laser fire from Bullet’s position.
“I don’t see him!” Regina cried, firing toward the doorway where Bullet had disappeared. She heard him yell and smiled. Got him. Nicked him, at least.
There was a break in fire from both remaining Gunners.
“I’m gonna move in closer,” she called to MacCready. “Cover me!” She slipped around the tree and ran toward the abandoned house, pistol raised.
“Got it, Boss!” MacCready stood and swept the barrel of his gun before him, searching through the scope for any sign of the enemy.
Regina hopped up onto the ruined porch and crouched by the door. Her heart pounded hard and fast in her chest; her pulse raced. She took a deep breath, extended her pistol and stepped into the doorway, firing in all directions. BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG! An old lamp shattered and fell. A picture frame exploded into splinters and shards. But there was no sign of Bullet.
Regina frowned. The upper floor of the house was destroyed, the stairs blocked by rubble. There was nowhere for him to hide… but wait… There was a small window on the far wall, and a scrap of leather hung from an exposed nail in its frame…
“Regina! Look out!” MacCready’s voice rang desperate and terrified in her ears.
Regina spun to see Bullet standing behind her, raising his gun to club her. She brought up her arm to block the blow; the impact was jarring, driving her to her knees, where she clutched her definitely bruised, possibly broken arm.
Bullet laughed. He raised his laser rifle and took aim at her face.
It all happened in seconds.
One: Regina realized she was about to die. There was no way she would get her gun up in time. And that laser rifle was inches from her face.
Two: Bullet laughed.
Three: Regina closed her eyes. She tried to think of Shaun and Nate, but strangely, kept seeing MacCready’s face, kept hearing his voice. “Regina!” he cried. “Duck!”
Four: Regina realized that his voice was not in her imagination, but in real life—life that could be gone in a split second if she didn’t listen.
Five: Regina ducked.
Six: Bullet screamed in pain, his body jerking, as two bullets slammed into him—MacCready’s bullet to his neck, Matt’s bullet to his side.
Seven: Bullet went down, his rifle clattering to the floor.
Regina sighed and closed her eyes, limp with shock and relief.
“Boss!” MacCready yelled, clattering up onto the porch, pushing past Matt, kneeling in front of her. “Boss… Regina… Did he hurt you? Did he--?”
“I’m fine.” Regina laughed, then winced. “My arm’s sore.”
“Broken?” MacCready was touching her shoulders, touching her face.
“Don’t think so.” She shook herself. She had to get back in the game. The fight wasn’t over yet. “Did you get the last one?”
MacCready shook his head. “I think he ran off. I can’t find him anywhere.”
Regina looked past MacCready to where Matt balanced on the crooked porch. “Did you get him?”
Matt shook his head. “No. No sign of him since I saw him swimming away from the homestead. Think he’ll bring back more of them?”
“Maybe.” Regina started to get up, and MacCready hurried to help her.
“You’re bleeding,” he said, frowning and touching her face. “Again.”
“Sorry for bleeding again,” she replied, smiling in spite of her stinging cheek. “It tends to happen in my line of work.”
“Which is what?” Matt wondered. “Wandering the Commonwealth rescuing kids? Playing wargames with the Gunners? Reuniting families? Defending homesteads?”
“It’s all of the above with this one,” MacCready said with a smile.
He sounded… proud of her.
Regina felt her smile widen… a bit painfully.
“Well come on back to the house,” Matt offered. “We could all do with some rest and relaxation and reuniting.”
“That’s some nice alliteration,” Regina complimented as they made their way down from the porch and headed back toward the house.
“Should be. I was an English teacher before the bombs went off,” Matt explained.
“Nice. I’ll bet you—“
The last Gunner seemed to come out of nowhere. He was suddenly in front of them, between them and the house, and his gun was raised. The barrel sparked before anyone else could fire.
MacCready cried out and fell against Regina.
Regina heard herself scream. She felt her whole body go hot with rage. She caught MacCready to her with one arm, and with the other raised her pistol and fired. BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG!
Silhouetted by the light of the Peabody house, the Gunner seemed to dance, his limbs flailing, body jerking. Then he collapsed in a bloody heap.
Her whole body shaking with rage and terror, Regina held him close and sank to her knees, laying him out across her lap. “Mac?” Her voice emerged high-pitch, breathless, beaten thin with shock.
MacCready stared up at the starry sky, mouth opened and gasping. She could feel his lungs spasm as they labored for air; she could feel his body tremble against the pain of his wound, blood spreading across the front of his shirt.
“Oh, no,” Matt murmured. “Oh, no…”
“Mac, look at me,” Regina demanded, setting him gently on the ground. Her throat tightened when his head tilted limply back, his hat falling back from his forehead. “Mac, look at me.”
His eyes tracked to hers, pupils wide with shock and pain.
“This will hurt, baby, this will hurt. Just hold on, okay? Hold on.” Wincing in sympathy, she placed one hand over the bloody hole in his shirt, low on his chest on the left side. Left side. That’s where the heart is. Oh, God please… Got to stop the bleeding. Have to stop it. Please… She pressed down.
MacCready choked, face twisting in pain. “Reggie… Please,” he whimpered.
“I know. I’m sorry. Hold on, I said.” With her free hand, she found one of his and grasped it, held it tight. The weakness in his grip frightened her so badly that her head spun.
“Matt, I need—“
“I’m on it. We have a medkit inside. Be right back.” The ghoul hurried into his house.
MacCready’s blood pumped against Regina’s hand, hot and fast. His chest rose and fell in jerks. Worst of all was the shuddering way he moaned… or maybe the way his eyes wandered back to the stars.
Don’t look up there, she wanted to scream. You’re not going there. You’re staying right here with me. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me!
Regina had seen many wounds since her emergence from Vault 101. She had caused hundreds, maybe thousands of terrible wounds herself, always to those deserving of such punishment. But none of her companions had ever been wounded so badly. She supposed she herself had been badly hurt before… and on several of those occasions, it had been MacCready who had taken care of her, MacCready who had stood over her and protected her from further harm, MacCready who had patched her up and once even carried her to safety when she could not carry herself.
Now he was the one badly hurt. Not dying. Definitely not dying. Most definitely not. He was the one lying on the ground, bleeding, fighting to breathe through the pain, possibly struggling to breathe because the bullet had damaged something vital. Nope. Nothing vital. That definitely did not happen. It’s just a flesh wound. He’ll be fine. But a simple flesh wound would not have stopped him like this. A flesh wound wouldn’t be pumping so much blood so fast… so much blood… leaking between her fingers and around her palm, soaking his shirt…
“Unnngh…” He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, swallowing thickly. His fingers twitched in her grip.
He’s hurting. He’s in pain. And I can’t stop it, I can’t stop it. Please stop hurting. Please, God, make it stop hurting him.
“You’re gonna be okay,” she told him. “Hang on, baby. Just hang on for me. Please, baby, please. Hang on.” She kissed his hand. Why was she kissing his hand? Why was she calling him baby, for that matter? It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but this—that he live.
She pressed down harder on the wound. She was the one hurting him now. But I have to. I have to.
MacCready groaned, choked out a sob, his body convulsing under the pressure of her hand.
Regina’s stomach turned. “Shhh, baby. It’s okay.” She kissed his spasming fingers. “It’s okay.” Liar, liar, liar.
Where was Matt? Why didn’t he hurry?
MacCready’s fingers brushed her lips weakly.
Regina’s eyes burned with tears.
I watched Nate die. I won’t watch you die, too.
Then Matt was back, finally, finally, kneeling beside her with a medkit.
“I have a couple of stimpaks here. Will that be enough?” he wondered, brandishing the chems.
“It will have to be,” Regina replied. She took a deep breath. Please, God, let it be enough. “You’ll have to inject them. I can’t… I can’t let up… can’t let go… I—“ She cut herself off when her voice started shaking too badly to be understood. I won’t let him go.
“It’s alright,” Matt said calmly, patting her back. He took one of the stimpaks and injected it into MacCready’s arm.
The medicine passed into his body with a hiss. MacCready stiffened, back arching up off the ground. He gritted his teeth. Then, gradually, his body relaxed. His fingers tightened around Regina’s. The flow of blood under her hand slowed.
But he was still trembling, and there was still blood flowing, and he was still lying there, pale, breathing raggedly.
“Give him another one,” Regina ordered.
Matt stuck the second stimpak in the wounded man’s arm. “That’s the last one,” he said solemnly.
Regina cursed herself for not packing her own. She had been so confident that they would reach a Minuteman settlement by nightfall, and then they had found Billy and gotten sidetracked, and here they were, and—
MacCready sucked in a deep breath, his ribs jerking upward under her hand, his eyes opening.
“It’s okay, Mac. You’re gonna be okay,” Regina told him, catching his eyes, praying she wasn’t lying.
“Reggie...” He winced and closed his eyes. “So tired… Let’s call it a night.”
Regina loosed a hysterical giggle, cutting herself off by pressing his knuckles to her lips. She nodded. “Okay, Mac. It’s a night.” She kissed his knuckles.
Blessedly, the wound ceased to pump under her hand. But there was so much blood—on his shirt, on the ground, on her hand. He’d lost too much blood.
“Don’t even think about going anywhere else tonight,” Matt said. “You’re both staying here until he’s fully recovered.”
“Thank you,” Regina told him, bowing her head over MacCready’s hand. She pressed her forehead to it and closed her eyes, allowing her shoulders to relax. She felt MacCready’s breath slow into a smooth, steady rhythm under her hand, and she shivered with relief.
“I’ll carry him inside,” Matt volunteered.
“Thank you,” Regina murmured again. Carefully, she peeled her hand back from MacCready’s body and released his hand.
Matt bent down and gently lifted the unconscious man in his arms. Regina stood and picked up the fallen weapons… and MacCready’s fallen hat. She held it to her heart as she followed Matt into the Peabody house.
Carol exclaimed in sympathy when she saw the limp and bloody MacCready, and she and Billy hurried to make a pallet for the wounded man in the kitchen. With great care, Matt set the mercenary down, and Regina knelt by her companion’s side.
Carol brought her a bowl and water for washing her bloody hand, and rags for washing MacCready’s bloody chest and stomach. Regina’s fingers trembled as she unbuttoned her injured friend’s shirt, but she did not want to ask for help in this. MacCready was her responsibility; she wanted to be the one to care for him. He did not awaken as she sponged the blood from his body and covered the healing wound with the cleanest rag Carol had brought. He had to be exhausted from the pain, from the struggle to breathe. She was tired enough from the battle, her arm throbbing, cheek stinging.
When she had finished cleaning and bandaging his wound, Regina touched his face and found his skin too hot, so she soaked a rag in water and set it across his forehead. It was the best she could do until she could get ahold of more chems, but that could wait until tomorrow. Her eyelids were drooping, and she felt herself swaying.
When she was close to passing out from exhaustion, the Peabodys were suddenly there, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders and lowering her to a pillow they’d placed beside MacCready. She fell asleep beside him, one hand draped over his shoulder.
She woke once before dawn, when a storm rolled in, and thunder rattled the windows of the old house. She opened her eyes to see MacCready staring back at her. He smiled slowly, and she smiled back, blushing in the dark. He fell asleep soon after, but she stayed awake for a few more minutes, her mind buzzing.
I called him baby.
He called me Reggie.
When I thought I was about to die, I thought of him.
I would not let him go.
I’ll never let him go.
Never let him go.