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Cloak and Dagger

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Morgan scowled at her reflection as the radio warbled a crooning tune. A glob of pale concealer perched on her fingertips, already starting to dry. Over her shoulder, she saw Nate slow to a stop beside the bathroom doorway. She stifled a sigh as he ducked inside, padding across the bathroom floor with a meek expression.

"You okay?" He curled his arms around her middle and propped his chin onto her shoulder, meeting her eyes in the mirror.

She exhaled, and lowered her shoulders, rolling the makeup between her fingers. "I was thinking about taking Sean to the park today.” Flecks of concealer got stuck under her fingernails. "Just deciding whether or not I want to… paint them over."

Nate sighed. His grip around her tightened, and he pressed a kiss into her neck before resting the side of his head against hers. "You look beautiful. I promise. Those ladies at the Homeowner’s Association, they didn’t-"

"They meant what they said, Nate," Morgan snapped. Her eyes fell shut as she took a breath and composed herself. "I’m sorry, honey. It’s just… a lot to deal with. I’m already worried about what’s gonna happen next week."

"Sweetie, they already hired you. I don’t think they’re going to fire you on your first day."

"Maybe. Or maybe not. Everyone was so excited about having a bona fide war veteran in their neighborhood, lady vet or otherwise. But now that I’m not attending the book clubs or baking shitty cakes for my neighbors, suddenly I’m not playing nice. You don’t realize how often people change their tune when you don’t play along."

"Morgan." Nate breathed a faint chuckle, and turned the woman aside, taking her palms in his with no mind to the makeup on her fingers. "I’m an underweight nerd who needs an inhaler to do any exercise more strenuous than a brisk walk. I stayed home to finish my girly art school degree while my wife went off to war. I like my coffee with sugar in it. I know how narrow-minded people can be."

"Right, right." She shook her head. "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t-"

"You’re fine." Hands still held firmly in his, Nate leaned forward and kissed her, damming the flow of stumbling apologies and self-doubts. "Everything’s fine, okay? It doesn’t matter what people say, or what they show on television, or how many doctors we have to see. We’re fine. I’m here."

Morgan savored the kiss for a moment before releasing a bitter chuckle. "You’re such a fuckin’ romantic."

Nate’s eyes gleamed, and his lips curled in a lop-sided grin. "And that’s why you love me." He kissed her again, this time more brief and affectionate, before releasing her hands. Morgan reached for the glob of concealer on his sleeve, but he ducked down the hall before she could wipe it off.

Morgan turned back to the mirror. With her clean hand, she poked the dark bags below her eyes. Dark hair, washed but unbrushed, hung limply down to her shoulders. Cloudy gray eyes dotted with flecks of blue stood out against the jagged scars running diagonally across her eyebrow, nose, and upper lip.

How Nate hadn’t recoiled when she’d stepped off that return train, she’d never know. But she could still taste his kisses on her lips, so she bit her lower lip to hide a smile, and ran a brush through her hair.

Sean wailed in the other room, drawing her from her thoughts. Cursing under her breath, she rinsed off her hands and put the cap back on the concealer tin, wiping her fingers on her jeans as she walked to the nursery. "Hush," Morgan murmured, leaning over the crib’s edge. "Mommy’s here."

She pressed her lips to her son’s head as she held his small body to her chest, calloused hands cradling his delicate form. She’d just finished nursing him when Nate meandered in, leaning against the doorway and sipping his coffee. "We have Codsworth to do that, you know."

"Codsworth has a breastfeeding function?"

Nate rested a hand on her lower back. “You know what I mean.”

Morgan sighed, then shook her head and went on, coaxing the infant to spit up. "We got Codsworth to do the dishes and trim the hedges. And because you wanted a robot butler. I don't want my baby growing up looking to a robot for love and comfort. I'm his mother. When he cries, I should be there."

"Robot butlers are a good financial investment,” Nate defended, and wiped Shaun’s mouth with a cloth.  

"Robot butlers, underground vaults... Are you becoming one of your comic book supervillains? Is that what you're spending my government benefits on?" Morgan eased Sean off her shoulder and held him out as Nate threw away the cloth.

"I like to think I'd become a superhero, not a villain, thank you. And some of it is my money. I do get paid to draw things. Sometimes." Nate rested the baby in the crook of his arm, free hand held out to let Sean grab at his fingers.

Morgan watched them for a moment, taking in the idyllic scene of well-furnished baby's room, the sunlight filtering in through the curtains, her husband cradling her son. A cool breeze fluttered the curtains through the open window. The smell of freshly cut lawns and well-kept flowerbeds filled the air. Morgan heard the doorbell ring next door as the Vault-Tec salesmen went through the neighborhood.

Her throat choked up, and she fiddled with the crib blanket, trying to sound nonchalant despite the rapid pounding in her chest. "I haven't taken my meds in a few weeks.”

"Really?" Nate smiled. "That's great, Morgan. That's - that's so good. That's progress."

"I don't want to make a big deal of it. But, you know. It's something." Morgan smiled despite herself, and dared to meet his eyes.

“It is something.” Nate’s hazel-green eyes shone with pride and joy. Sean still held in one arm, he stepped forward to cup her cheek with his free hand, pressing kisses to her forehead and lips. He bit his lower lip, then spoke with a shy smile. "You know, once we get settled here, and you've got your job, I was thinking-"

"Sir? Ma'am?" Codsworth’s uneasy voice called from the livingroom. "I think you should come and see this!"

The couple shared an uneasy look. Anxiety prickled at the base of Morgan’s skull, and she took Sean from Nate’s arms, pressing the child to her chest for comfort as she followed Nate to the front room.

On the television, a news anchor had replaced the daytime drama onscreen. Papers clutched tight in his hands, the man avoided eye contact with the camera, staring at his desk. He looked haggard, shadows under his eyes and his hair mussed. He babbled about flashes- incoming information- confirmed reports of-

Nuclear detonation.

Her heart didn't skip a beat like she thought it would. It didn’t seem quite real. They were standing in their house, in Sanctuary Hills. They were safe here. That’s what the real estate agents had said. Sure, pundits claimed nuclear war was just around the corner, but they were trying to scare more people into enlisting. None of this could be happening. Right?

The new anchor on screen put his head in his hands. "Oh, god."

Outside, air raid sirens wailed, the sharp sound making Sean squirm and cry. Morgan, light-headed and dizzy, tried to soothe him. Nate panicked. "The sirens. Oh, oh, god , Morgan, we have to go." Morgan didn’t move, still staring at the TV with unfocused eyes. "M-Morgan, we have to go . Come on." Nate grabbed her elbow and dragged her along, fumbling with the locks and throwing open the front door. At his touch, Morgan blinked and stumbled after him.

Sean’s cries filled the air as they raced down the streets, the air raid sirens growing louder. Military trucks blocked the end of the road, guarded by armed soldiers. They passed people wearing pajamas, people starting their cars, people searching for a missing child. Morgan ignored them all and followed Nate. Atop the hill behind their house, a small crowd clustered in front of a chain-link fence. Two intimidating soldiers in power armor forced the crowd back, and a man with a clipboard stood at the gate.

Nate pushed through the crowd, fingers digging into Morgan’s skin. "We’re on the list," he gasped, skidding to a stop at the end of the soldiers’ guns. "The name is-"

"You're good," the clipboard-man said, jerked a thumb behind him. "Stop on the blue and yellow platform."

Morgan found Nate’s hand and curled her fingers through it as they ran through the gate, wailing civilians clawing at the back of her shirt as they fled. A vertibird landed some fifteen feet in front of them, blowing hot air in their faces and whipping their hair around. They caught sight of a man in a blue jumpsuit, and he directed them to the platform, where several of their neighbors already stood. Sean cried. Morgan rocked him as best she could, her breath coming in sharp, hyperventilating gasps.

Nate wrapped his arms around her, and she pressed her head to his chest, Sean held between them. Morgan heard someone shout, "Now! Do it now!" She stumbled as the platform lurched, descending into the earth with an awful, metallic screeching sound. Morgan’s stomach clenched at the sudden drop, and she tucked her head under Nate’s chin.

Then the bomb dropped. The sound, huge and terrifying, came crashing from her left. She jerked her head up and saw, saw the grand plumes of red and orange fire as it blossomed into the shape of a mushroom. She shut her eyes against the dark cloud of dust that swept over them, feeling the shockwave rumble under her feet. The platform screeched again, and dropped faster. A moment later, and some six feet below the ground, the vault entrance closed and sealed them into the elevator shaft.

The platform stopped and a gate in the wall of the shaft opened. The group huddled together, parents with children and husbands with wives, unsure where to go. It took all of Morgan’s might not to collapse where she was. The screams of the crowd that pulled at her clothes still rang in her ears, and she could see the afterimage of the explosion when she closed her eyes. Only Sean’s crying kept her on her feet.

A voice beyond the gate ordered them forward. Morgan’s neighbors shuffled into a room with a stairwell leading past a gear-shaped door. Morgan could hear people murmuring, doing as they were told, assimilating into the Vault. But she didn’t move. Cold fear wrapped its hands around her throat and squeezed, anchoring her feet to the ground and sending freezing chills up her spine. Nate moved to go after the crowd, but stopped when she didn’t follow.

"Morgan, honey," he murmured, rubbing her shoulders. "We’re safe, okay? I need you to look at me right now. Please look at me. It’s gonna be okay. We have Sean, see? Sean’s safe. If Sean’s okay, then we’re okay."

Morgan closed her eyes and took a breath, trying to control the shakes that made her nauseous and the fear that sent her spiraling into darkness. Her mental stability threatened to slip away, and she clung to the gentle, familiar sound of Nate’s voice, ignoring the tremble in her own. "Okay."

Nate gave her a tight, worried smile, and pressed his hand to her back as he helped her up the stairs. Everyone else had already disappeared into the bowels of the vault by the time they got past security. "Follow the doctor," one woman said. "He'll take you to decontamination."

"You're going to love it here," the doctor assuring them. He recited his sales pitch without looking at them, touting the virtues of state-of-the-art Vault-Tec technology. Morgan didn’t bother to listen. At the end of their tour, they stopped in a room of pods, many of their neighbors already climbing inside them.

Morgan watched, the hum of human voices and underground machinery a dull white noise as she shivered against Nate’s side. She didn’t notice the color of the walls, or the shaken faces of her neighbors. She saw the metal boxes piled up high enough to be cover. The plastic batons wielded by the guards, breakable if you could snap them over your thigh. The pipes along the walls were thick, but a gunshot or two could break them. The jumpsuits everyone wore, designed to protect from radiation, not knives or bullets. Open toolboxes littered the floor, full of improvised weapons. Sean shifted and whimpered, and Morgan pressed a kiss to his forehead.

At the end of the hall, two open pods waited for them.

"I see you’ve brought your baby with you.” The doctor’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. "I’ll hold him for you while you change into your jumpsuit."

"No." Morgan jerked back, holding Sean tighter to her breast.

The smile faltered, but stayed. He stepped forward."Ma’am, I can assure you, there’s no need to worry."

Morgan kicked at him, her heart pounding in her chest as she used both hands to hold onto her baby. "Don’t touch me ." She felt the room turn its eyes on her, and started calculating her odds. Doctors and neighbors were weak, but outnumbered her. Nate might try to stop her. Can’t drop Sean. Have to be fast. In the hall and around the corner was an unattended screwdriver. Could stab someone in the eye. Get their brain. Kill them instantly.

Nate shook his head and held out a hand to stop the doctor. "Please, let me-"

The doctor batted him away, pressing his lips together and giving Morgan a stern look. "Ma’am, I will call security if you are going to-"

"Just try," Morgan dared, eyes flashing.

"Doctor?" One of the nurses came forward, looking uneasy. "Is there-"

"No, Marie, don’t-"

One of the guards peeked in. "There a problem in here?"

Something metal glinted on the floor where one of their neighbors discarded his clothes. Morgan tucked Sean onto one arm and lunged, swiping the pocketknife from the floor and holding it out. The room stopped and stared, a dozen pairs of eyes all focused on her like sniper scopes from across a snowy valley.

What was she doing? This was insane. Everything was insane. She was miles underground, a baby in one hand and a goddamn pocketknife in the other, trying to fend off an entire vault’s worth of guards and scientists. She backed towards the corner, feeling stray hairs fall from behind her ear and cover her eyes as she shuffled back. Her hands shook, heart pounding in her chest, darkness creeping around the edges of her vision.

"Morgan." Nate stepped forward, slow but purposeful. He didn’t stop when he got within arm’s reach, just kept shuffling closer until the pointed end of her pocketknife pressed against his smooth shirt. He stared at her, eyes horribly sad behind the lenses of his glasses. “Please, sweetheart.”

She melted, heat and shame rising behind her eyes. She released her grip and the pocketknife fell into Nate’s waiting hands. Tears threatened to spill over and roll down her cheeks, but the sting of pride kept her from crying. Nate placed the knife back with their neighbor’s things, and took her back into the center of the room, keeping her beside him as he changed into his jumpsuit. By the time he took Sean from her so she could change clothes, she had gone silent, numb and disconnected from the world around her.

Nate caught her just before they stepped into their pods. "I know, love," he murmured. “But where are we going to go?”

Morgan couldn’t lift her chin to look at him, staring at the buttons around his collar instead.

Nate sighed. “We’re safe here, I promise. I need you trust me, okay? Can you do that?"

Morgan squeezed her eyes tight, pulling herself together. "I trust you," she said at last, her voice raspy. Her lip quivered. "I just don’t trust everything else."

Nate smiled, and cupped his hand around her neck, pulling her in to press a kiss to her forehead. "I love you."

Morgan softened. "I love you too."

Nate squeezed her neck. "See you on the other side."

Morgan gripped her seat tightly as the pod closed around her, all closed up save for a single fiberglass window. Nate smiled at her from the opposite pod, lifting Sean up to the window so she could see him. Morgan smiled back, then cool clouds of mist filled the pods. She shivered, and sighed, and shut her eyes against the whiteness.

And then she fell asleep.

 

At first, she thought it was a dream. Blackness, silence, no sensation. Dead? Gone? Lying in space, but no stars. She was a brain floating in nothingness, no arms or legs. She couldn’t remember anything, her name, her home, where she was supposed to be.

Then it felt cold, and she remembered that she had a baby.

As the words her baby drifted around her head, her world grew freezing, and through the cold and pain she felt what she thought was her face, and then her eyes. Opening her eyes made the cold worse, and everything was too bright, too bright. Through the ice in her ears she heard distant sounds, patterned and emotional like human voices. Morgan tried to focus, tried to will heat and sensation back to her eyes and ears until she could see and hear. Slowly, her sight returned, blurry and bright as if she'd been in darkness for too long.

"-the one. Here."

"Open it."

The sudden cry of an infant pierced the air, making her head hurt as she remembered everything all at once. Sean . She had to get up, had to get to Sean, had to get to her baby. Someone coughed, and Morgan remembered that Nate was here, too. As her vision cleared, she made out two blurry figures, the owners of the voices she heard before. They each stood beside Nate’s pod.

They were talking, words she couldn’t make out. One of the strangers lifted a gun, leveled it at Nate’s head. Gun wasn’t military issue. Private owned. Modified, unlicensed. Pistol, with .44 ammo by the looks of it. Big. Scary, and even scarier if you were skilled enough to handle it.

The stranger with the gun spoke with a voice that matched his weapon, hard and cold and merciless. Heat blossomed in Morgan’s chest, fueling sharp and protective fury. She hated the stranger’s voice, hated him threatening her husband. Wanted to claw his eyes out.

One of the strangers tried to yank Sean from Nate’s arms. Angry tears welled up in Morgan’s eyes, screams of pain and fury bottled up behind her frozen lips. She couldn’t move, couldn’t shout, couldn’t kill. Could only stare.

"I'm not giving you Sean!" Nate's voice sounded so raw, harsh and guttural, like he hadn't spoken in forever. Sean screamed.

Boom.

Nate flung back against his pod, silent and covered in red. Sean screamed again, his wails echoing off the metal walls. Morgan’s skin burned beneath the ice.

Then one of the strangers leaned close enough her struggling vision could see him. Dark, heartless eyes, a roughly shaven chin with flecks of gray dotted the dark stubble. Scars across his face, mirroring hers. Broad shoulders, straight teeth.

"At least we still have the back-up."

She hated his voice, hated him, hated his gun. Hate, hate, hate, she burned with a damning rage, and somehow he must have seen it in her eyes. The smug, cruel smile on his face faded, replaced with something almost resembling fear.

The mist came back, and the world went white.

 

When her vision cleared again, the strangers were gone, along with her baby. Ice clung to her skin, and her breaths came in bright white puffs from shaky, bloodless lips. Her hair melted and dripped freezing water down the back of her jumpsuit, and whole body shivered so hard she couldn’t sit still.

Though her hands trembled too much to be much use, she managed to open the latch on the inside of the pod, hissing when the frozen metal burned her skin. When she realized the door had been frozen shut, she braced herself against the back of the pod and kicked, over and over, willing life back into her legs. She didn’t know how long she spent like that, kicking and shaking and coughing, but at last the door creaked and gave way.

She tumbled onto the floor with a splat and a cry, like a newborn. Morgan laid there for a few moments, breathing onto her hands and quivering until most of the ice melted off her. She stumbled to her feet, and looked up.

Nate’s lifeless eyes looked back from her through the window of his pod.

Morgan didn’t gasp, didn’t sigh, didn’t cry. She slowly shuffled forward, eyes transfixed on the pod window, and fiddled with the pod controls until something clicked and the door swung open. And then there was Nate, dark red blood frozen across his chest and the back of his pod, lips parted in an unfinished cry, eyes wide and glassy.

Nate was dead.

Morgan’s breathing was suddenly too loud, echoing off the walls, thundering in her ears. Nate wasn’t dead. This was just a nightmare - a hallucination. She just needed to wake up, or take her meds, or close her eyes. Needed to do the grounding exercises her therapist had given her. Morgan shut her eyes and listened to the sound of her breathing, remembered her name, her age, her hair color, the feeling of the ground beneath her feet.

In a minute, she’d open her eyes and she’d be standing in her house, with Nate sitting on the couch, complaining about the steam of his coffee fogging up his glasses. And the wind would still be blowing through the windows. And the old lady next door would be trying to convert them to the good word of Jesus Christ, and her pills would be waiting for her behind her bathroom mirror, and then she’d ask Nate what he wanted to say before Codsworth called them to the TV.

She opened her eyes, and Nate was dead.

Morgan stilled, stretched to the breaking point like a rubber band pulled taut, then - snapped. She crumpled and fell to her knees, ignoring the sharp sting of the impact. "Nate," she croaked. Terrible, aching pain bloomed in her chest. Unbidden tears streamed down her cheeks, and she clawed at his pants, at his knees, grasped at his hand and felt how cold and clammy it was.

"Nate. Nate, please, Nate- I can't, I can't. I can't- please-"

Morgan buried her face in Nate's knees, wretched sobs rippling through her like waves. She sobbed, snot bubbling in her nose and pitiful wails tearing from her lips. She needed the pain to stop, needed Nate, needed everything to go away.

For a moment, for a brief and terrible moment, she wished her gun was in her hand and not left behind at the house.

She wept until her chest hurt from hyperventilating, then rose and staggered back to the dripping husk of her pod. The door latch jutted from the side of it, jagged and long like a knife from where she’d kicked open. She wrenched it from the door, feeling the cold metal bite into her hand. She drew the sharp end of the broken latch across her right palm, whimpering as the skin tore and red blossomed along the cut.

She dropped the metal shard with a clatter and held her wrist with a shaking hand, keeping her palm open, staring at the blood as it pooled. Her hand ached with each beat of her heart, and the pain in her chest calmed, the poison draining from her through the open gash. Her head cleared, and she stood upright.

She dug her fingernails into the heel of her palm, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth as blood dripped from her fist onto the floor. You’re wounded , her training said. Get a bandage. Get out. Find safety.

Survive.

Morgan spared one last glance at Nate. She watched him as she pressed the controls and his pod door closed over him, sealing shut and filling with a familiar white mist. The glass in his eyes turned to ice, and his blood froze again. A final resting place. A tomb.

Morgan didn’t look back again.

She used the pocketknife to shred her neighbors’ shirts for bandages. They wouldn’t need them now - a cursory glance at some terminals told her that their life support had long since gone defunct. A desk’s hidden stash of bourbon cleaned the wound on her hand. The cut was too thin to need stitching, but some tongue depressors and tied bandages made for a decent splint.

Skeletons littered the floor, telling the silent story of scientists that turned on each other once the Vault’s supplies ran out. The Overseer’s terminal said supplies had only been meant to last six months before the world would be safe to inhabit again. But obviously that wasn’t the case, and given that all the corpses had been eaten down to bone by the oversized cockroaches now infesting the Vault, this dramatic betrayal must have happened a long time ago. But that didn’t tell her how long ago, and it would have been nice to know how long she’d been under.

A Pip-Boy 3000 Mark IV, still attached to a scientist’s skeletal arm, let her open the Vault door and return to her elevator. It felt like she’d been here just an hour ago. But when she’d arrived, the metal had been warm and the machinery unrusted. Now, the Vault was cold, and the rust on its pipes and gears betrayed the passage of time.

With her uninjured palm curled around the Overseer’s pistol, Morgan walked to the elevator’s center and the gate door slid shut, the platform lurching as it rose. The journey up felt much shorter than the journey down. When the doors above her screeched open, she flung an arm over her face, squinting against the light. When her eyes adjusted, she lowered her arm and squinted over the hill.

Morgan had seen war, and death. Seen hunger written in the faces of Chinese whores who risked accusations of treason for taking American money. Seen the light die in the faces of boys sent off in the service of a country that wouldn’t even remember their names. She’d stood atop a snowy cliff, decked out in white and gray camouflage, and saw the sanguine splotches standing out against the white snow that covered Anchorage.

Yet nothing could have prepared her for standing on that hilltop, looking at what had once been the world. Skeleton houses falling to pieces, skeleton people clinging to one another with sun-bleached bones. Trees, ripped and torn asunder. Dried grass, dusty rocks. A thousand things and lives broken and left to die. The grass was faded and dry, and there were no lights or cars or children in the streets. All the world was dead, and she the sole survivor.

At first, Morgan was cold. It didn’t register - couldn’t register. Hours of therapy and assurances that it was all just a bad dream told her to take her pills. Told her to think clearly, think about her son, think about how she wasn’t in the war anymore, she was home and she had a husband and a house. This was supposed to be her happy ending. This was supposed to be her retirement, her island, her sanctuary from the horrors of the world she’d been forced to face.

And all of it was gone.

Sudden, burning rage washed over her, mixed with a horrible and debilitating grief. She wanted to scream and cry at the same time, and howled instead, sinking to her knees and burying her hands in her hair. She could feel the hard surface of her pistol pressing to the side of her skull. She screamed, over and over and over again, rocking back and forth on the platform like a deranged animal. Nothing responded to her pain. No birds beat their wings overhead, no distant sound of sirens reminded her she was in a city, no muted human voices wafted to her from the sidewalk downhill. She was alone.

Still bellowing hot, angry sobs, she grit her teeth and held out her pistol, bashing the end of the barrel into her forehead until it bruised. " Do it! " she shouted, still weeping. "Don't be a coward. Don't be a coward."

And yet her finger refused to pull the trigger. She couldn’t say why - she was already alone, in a silent world, husband and child lost and her happy ending blown away like dust in the wind. But she wouldn’t pull the trigger. She swore and shouted and sobbed, and at last stoop upright, glaring beyond the ridge at the sprawling wasteland past her old neighborhood.

"I'll find him," she breathed, voice rough from crying. "I'm going to find my son."

The people that had taken Sean - they must have come after the bombs went off. That meant people were alive, somewhere. That was reason enough to start looking.

"I'm coming, Sean."

Chapter Text

Valentine’s sign flickered as the door to his office slammed shut. Morgan ran her fingers over the glowing letters, feeling the dull warmth behind the glass. The red neon cast a dull rose tint across her face and armor, making her armor gleam and her blue-grey eyes look almost purple. She leaned against the wall beside the door, breathing a heavy sigh.

The Institute.

She ran a hand over her face, felt her gloved fingers leave traces of dirt on her already dirty skin. Another sigh. Weariness pulled at her shoulders, a sudden lack of purpose stilling her restless feet. Everyone had told her Nick Valentine would help her find her son. No - could help her, not would. Wastelanders didn't make promises. Not unless caps were involved, and even then, the promise might be broken just as quickly. Two hundred years had done little to change people.

It had been two hundred years, after all. That’s what her Pip-Boy said.

But the detective had done nothing, just left her with a theory and a polite “good luck.” Everybody blamed the Institute for everything. Blaming them was an easy cop-out, a lazy way of admitting that her trail was cold and her baby gone, probably dead. She wanted to say she was angry, but she was too damn tired and sad to be angry.

"I'm telling you, man, they exist."

A male voice rose in a sudden exclamation, and was hushed. Morgan shifted closer to the corner, one ear perked.

"-ckin ridiculous, Bobby. What do you mean, they exist? Who would be dumb enough to do somethin' like that?"

"I dunno. Look, Roger, I'm only telling you what I heard. The Railro-"

"Quiet! You want the guards hearing you?"

A pause. Then, in a lower whisper: "The Railroad is real. Not just some rumor or bullshit somebody made up to scare us. They're real. And they say you can find 'em, if you follow the Freedom Trail."

"The hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Well, I don't know what it means, Roger, if I did, I'd goddamn tell you. I'm just saying. Maybe... I don't know, pal. Maybe I should look into it. Help me with this, will ya?"

Something metal shifted and clunked, as if being pulled out with great effort. A tool rooted around in unseen mechanics. "You better put that goddamn idea out of your head. That’s above our paygrade, you hear me? Mayor'll take care of it."

"You really believe that, Rog?"

"Dunno. But Jane already lost a sister. She won’t wanna lose a husband to the same bastards. Now, come on. Mayor wants this fixed by sundown. Don't want him knowing we were delayed because you wouldn’t shut up about some dumbass Dugout gossip."

"Alright, alright."

And the alley went silent, leaving Morgan alone with her thoughts.

The Railroad. She'd heard mention of them at Bunker Hill, from an argument set-in-his-ways father figure and a hot-headed youth who wanted to “change the world.” The Railroad was a group devoted to saving synths, creatures developed by the Institute and supposedly used to kill and kidnap Commonwealth residents. At the time, she hadn’t cared either way. But now, after meeting Nick, and after her son being taken by the Institute - maybe she had more skin in the game than she thought. If the Railroad dealt with the Institute and their synths, they might know something about kidnappings. About Sean.

Morgan distantly remembered the Freedom Trail as a Pre-War tourist destination. She didn't know the route, but somebody had to.

Besides. She had nowhere better to be.

 

In any train station in Boston, racks of pamphlets for all the local tourist attractions lined every wall. It took Morgan half an hour to track down the nearest metro station, kill a few ghouls, and swipe a handful of pamphlets about the Freedom Trail. The two-hundred-year-old paper cracked and crumbled under her touch, but she got what she needed. She input a few coordinates into her Pip-Boy map and headed off.

She really did loathe ghouls, though. Ferals, at least. The sentient ones weren’t so bad - no worse than any other kind of wastelander. But the ferals, the ones truly warped and abused by the radiation, they gave her the willies. Reminded her too much of the zombies from Nate’s favorite B-movies.

Can’t think about Nate.

The pamphlets said the trail ended at the Old North Church. In the interest of being proactive, she’d head there first, to avoid all the nasties lining the Trail. But if that didn’t yield any results, she'd retrace her steps along the trail. She didn't put it past an organization of synth-saving radicals to hide some sort of important clue along the route, but no point in making undue work for herself, either.

At face value, people who claimed to protect bodysnatching non-humans sounded ridiculous. Though people seemed amicable towards Nick Valentine, who was about as synth as they got, most agreed that he was a special case, despite lacking any proof either way. In fact, no one seemed to have any proof of anything outside of "people disappear a lot and this guy killed a bunch of people in Diamond City fifty years ago."

Thus, Morgan reserved judgment. People don't risk their lives on something if there isn't some truth behind it. And, until she found out what that truth was, she’d give them a fair chance to explain themselves.

And if they were full of shit, she'd lie to them as long as she needed to get to Sean.

Her Pip-Boy had a rudimentary road map programmed into it, but half of Boston’s streets were either blocked with rubble or guarded by clusters of mutants, ghouls, or gangs. She stuck to the rooftops instead, climbing fire escapes and padding over faded shingles. One benefit to being trained as a sniper was losing your fear of heights. Plus, no one ever looked up.

Boston reveled in narrow alleyways and old buildings pressed up against each other, so travel was quick, and Morgan soon hopped down onto the roof of the Old North Church. The wood and shingles creaked dangerously under her weight, so she kept her steps soft and light. She found a small window and broke it with the butt of her gun, wrapping her weapon in cloth so to muffle the sound. She nudged away the shards to slip inside unscathed, and hopped into the interior balcony that overlooked the heart of the church.

On the ground floor, a few ghouls shuffled over and around rubble and debris. A .308 through the head did them in easily, but their dying rasps made her shiver. Room clear, she checked for traps, bugs, and security cameras, looking under the pews and underneath the balcony, keeping an eye out for tripwires or sensors. But all she found was a glowing green hallway concealed under a fallen stairwell, and a chalk lantern drawn on the wall beside it.

A good a clue as any.

Down the hallway were some stairs, and down the stairs were dark catacombs, musty and foul with grinning skulls watching her from alcoves in the walls. More ghouls waited for her here, all moaning and shuffling and making her skin crawl. She dispatched them with her pistol, praying the gunshots didn’t echo too loud in the underground passage. But soon the hall ended, leaving her staring at a wall and at the metal disc embedded in the bricks. Letters etched into the disc spelled out The Freedom Trail .

Morgan poked it. Nothing.

Tapping the stock of her rifle to the wall around the disc caused a hollow sound. Interest piqued, Morgan hammered the butt of of her gun into the wall until the bricks crumbled. Shining her Pip-Boy light inside revealed a mass of wiring and mechanics. But, she thought, nibbling her lower lip, it’d take far too long to break down the whole wall with only her rifle.

Morgan nudged one of the wheels and raised her eyebrows when it moved, giving easily and clicking like a lock's chambers. Listening carefully, she made out the sounds of gears and switches falling into place, only to reset when she guessed the wrong letter. Morgan scowled, and pulled a pen and paper out of her pack, grumbling under her breath. Through process of elimination, she went through each letter. R, then A, then I… L… R…

Oh.

Mentally berating herself, she input Railroad and the lock clicked. A thick shower of dust clouded the air as the wall opened, revealing a dark room, its shadow impenetrable even with her Pip-Boy light. Morgan lingered in the doorway, pulling out her rifle - just in case. “Hello?” No reply. “I have grenades, you know.”

The lights come on with the sound of a heavy industrial switch. Morgan jerked an arm over her eyes, left hand holding tight to her rifle. A commanding, female voice came from the light. "There’s no need for violence. Unless that is your intent."

Morgan’s eyes adjusted and she lowered her arm, squinting into the brightness. Standing atop the bricks on the other side of the room were three figures. One, white hair, thick build, fierce expression and a very large gun in her hands. Another, a stern woman with tired lines carved into her face, less muscle and more intelligence. And the third, some twenty-something in a cap, carrying a pipe rifle. Morgan ran the numbers in her head. Middle figure appeared unarmed, but that could change. White-hair looked twitchy, and the easy way she held that gun meant she had experience. Third guy was hard to read, but her armor could absorb those pipe rifle bullets if she had to. Still - too many variables. Too risky to go in aggressive.

"Not here for violence," Morgan said at last. "I’m here for answers."

"We could say the same," the stern woman replied. "You didn't follow the Freedom Trail. How did you know how to find us?"

Morgan reached for her pack, moving slow to soothe the twitchy bodyguards. She summoned the crumbling pamphlet from the metro station and held it out, displaying the page with the Trail route on it. "Proof. I heard a rumor that you could find the Railroad by following the Freedom Trail, and I knew that was a big tourist attraction Pre-War. Put two and two together."

"And you expect us to believe that?" Though she feigned disinterest, Morgan could see the sharp glint in the woman’s eye. Now they were testing the waters - looking to see who would drop their guard first. Who would reveal too much and give the advantage to the other.

Morgan shrugged, through her gaze didn’t waver. "Haven't shot at you, have I? If I was here with back-up, you would have seen them by now, and if I came to kill you, I’d have done it already. Or just blown out your door instead of taking the trouble to unlock it. Like I said. I’m here for answers."

"Why?"

Morgan frowned. "Why, what?"

"Why search for answers? I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. Most people already know how they feel about synths. Why bother talking to the people who save them?"

"But that's the point, isn't it? Saving them makes no sense, given what everyone's told me. Something doesn't fit, here, and I want to know why. Why it is you do what you do.”

Not entirely a lie. She was here for Sean, sure, though they didn’t need to know that yet. But Morgan liked having all the details before making a decision, and if she was going to go against the Institute, she needed to know what she was dealing with.

“I see.” The woman pressed her lips together, dark eyes boring into Morgan’s own. Soon she reached some unspoken decision and began her sales pitch. “The Railroad believes synths are human beings. Made differently, yes, and used by nefarious powers, but with the capacity for sentience and free will. They are human, and as virtuous or fallible as you or I. The Railroad has taken on the job of giving them a new, better life, of helping them integrate into society without fear of being reclaimed by their Institute masters or harmed by their fellow man.”

Morgan arched a brow. “How do you know which ones are programmed by the Institute, and who have free will? I heard about what happened in Diamond City.”

“That would require an explanation too complicated for the present. For now, answer me this: are you the kind of person to risk your life for someone? For a cause?”

“No.” Morgan didn’t miss the way their faces hardened. But she would not lie. “People are responsible for themselves and their own actions. I won’t throw my life away for something I don’t believe in.”

Not again.

“But if you did believe,” the woman persisted. “If you thought it was the right thing to do.”

“I don’t believe in greater goods. Either the person is good or not. Synth, human, ghoul - whatever. I help them if they’re worth helping. But don’t ask me to believe .” Morgan ran her tongue over her teeth. “I don’t appreciate pointed, recruiting questions, either. Keep your moral quandaries to yourselves.”

“Can I maybe get a word in before the shooting starts?”

From the hallway behind the trio, a stranger in a t-shirt and jeans sauntered into the room. Beneath gleaming sunglasses, a charming smile split his lips. Dark hair sticky with pomade swept up at the top of his head, and his fair skin looked fairer in the bright light. His untied shoelaces skidded across the bricks as he walked. "You're having a party. What gives with my invitation?”

The woman scowled. "Enough theatrics, Deacon. What's the intel?"

The stranger - Deacon - shrugged, and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I got nothing, boss. All we know for sure is that she showed up out of that vault up north. No other notable affiliations, except for a handful of farming towns she helped out on the way to Diamond City. And she showed up just like she said. Skipped the trail, spun the wheel of fortune. She's a real prodigy." He turned and gave Morgan a toothy smile, eyebrows waggling over his sunglasses.

Morgan stared back without blinking.

"Would you vouch for her?"

Deacon paused, thinking for a moment. "Even if she's not exactly prime do-gooder material, Des, she'd be a good asset. And she's here, after all. That's got to count for something."

The woman breathed a long sigh out of her nose, uncrossed her arms and met Morgan’s eyes. “My name is Desdemona,” she said. “I know you don’t trust the idea of a… higher calling. But you must understand, very few people think to ask your questions. Even fewer make it this far. All I ask is that you give us a chance. If you really want to make an informed decision, or learn more about what we do, then talk to Deacon. He'll tell you what you can do to help out."

Then, Desdemona vanished down the hall, her two bodyguards at her heels. That left just Morgan and Deacon, standing alone in the suddenly silent room. Deacon maintained a disarming smile, and Morgan didn’t care for it. It didn’t look unkind, but not entirely truthful, either. He smiled like a man who’d lie spare your feelings - or his - depending on the circumstances.

"Hope you didn't mind the reception," Deacon said, hopping off the bricks to meet her on the floor. "When you tango with the Institute you gotta be careful when someone new arrives on the dance floor."

“I can live without the niceties,” Morgan stated. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as he approached, and she resisted the urge to walk back, to keep distance between them.

"Much appreciated. So, I meant to ask you - what’s the deal with that vault you popped out of? We don’t get a lot of Vault Dwellers in this neck of the woods.” Again with that toothy smile.

“That’s none of your business.”

“Well, actually, it is. A little bit. I’m intel. I’m supposed to ask questions, get the ‘down low’ on everything going on around the Commonwealth.” He even did the air quotes. “Look, I’ll give it to you straight. Most people in the ‘wealth can’t read, let alone hold a gun like you do and pull off all that critical thinking. So, I think you’ve got a lot more value to us than Des wants to admit, and I don’t think it’d take much to get you up to speed on Railroad operations. Right now,   do you need some time to think, or are you up for doing some dirty work?”

“Dirty work,” she said, almost at once. She scanned the lenses of his sunglasses, trying to read through them. “I’m here for answers. Give me them.”

“Glad to hear it. The problem is that giving out answers willy nilly is like taking free candy from a white van. Lots of risk involved. Which means Des wants me to take you on a job, just to prove you’ve got the chops and the attitude for our line of work.” Deacon tapped the side of his nose. "How about this. You and I go on our merry way down to the old freeway, down by Lexington. Get to know each other. Truth or dare. Good times."

Morgan clenched her jaw. “Fine.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“Swell.” He put out his hand, the other sliding into his pocket. “Shake on it?”

Morgan looked at his hand for a moment, considering her options. She could either do this, throwing herself at the mercy of strangers, or leave the way she’d came. One option left her with no chance to find Sean. The other gave her a very small chance.

I’m coming, Sean.

Morgan shook his hand, and Deacon smiled.

Chapter Text

Lexington seemed much farther away than Morgan remembered.

"How'd you get those scars?"

"Fight."

"What fight?"

"Big one."

"Can you be more specific?"

"No."

Deacon sighed. "My job is intel, you know. I'm supposed to know more about you? And I can't do that if you keep replying in five words or less."

“You know I’m a Vault Dweller. What else do you want?”

“I don’t know. Favorite color? Food allergies? Cats or dogs, the last name of your favorite elementary school teacher?” She didn’t reply. Deacon sighed. “You know, Des should give me a raise. This job’s hard enough without the newest recruit to Grumpy Mercs and Co. never talking to anyone, least of all about herself. What am I supposed to do with someone who doesn’t talk?”

"Maybe I don't like people knowing things about me. I'm also not a mercenary."

"I thought someone who gets paid to kill things was the definition of mercenary."

"I don't get paid to kill things. I get paid to do things, and I have to kill things along the way."

"Sure seems like a lot of your jobs involve killing things along the way."

Morgan stopped in her tracks, fixing her eyes on the darkness of his sunglasses."And how much do you know about the jobs I do?"

He stilled. She saw it - that half second where he froze, caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Then it was gone, replaced by relaxed smiles and easy gestures. “I mean, it’s not hard to figure out. We saw what you did to our security ghouls, after all. That’s mercenary skill, and you handle that gun of yours a little too easy to not use it very often.” He shrugged. “Just saying.”

Her eyebrows stayed narrowed. “How did you know I came from the Vault up north?”

“That one’s easy. Too clean. Have you seen your teeth? Way too straight and bright to be a normal wastelander. Too tall, too. Most modern wasteland women don’t get any taller than five foot four, on account of not getting all their daily recommended doses of vitamins and nutrients. ”

“No. Not how I came from a Vault. How you knew which Vault I came from.” Morgan took a step forward. She’d never been any good at recognizing facial expressions, never learned how to smile and charm people like Nate always did. But she knew fear, and knew the look of someone caught in their own bullshit. She stared at him, letting him freeze under her gaze like a deer in headlights.

Something about this didn’t smell right. She didn't like his questions, his sunglasses, or the easy way he approached her. The way he acted like he had all the answers hidden up his sleeves. Something about him made her gut churn, and she wanted to know why.

“Tell me the truth,” she said at last.

Deacon stared back, face blank. The Commonwealth seemed quieter, the wildlife hushed and the only sound that of the wind rustling the high wasteland grass. “You got me," he finally admitted, corner of his mouth quirking in a weak half-smile. "We’d been watching your vault for a while, after getting wind the Institute had been around that area recently. Then one day you popped out, and… we kept an eye on things.”

Morgan blinked. “You followed me.”

Deacon sighed. “You know, I really don’t like how the tables have turned, here. I’m supposed to be the one nosing out your backstory.” He huffed. “Yes. So, maybe we didn’t tell you everything we already knew about you. Maybe I shouldn’t have followed you to Diamond City. But, to be fair, we didn’t know you’d end up seeking us out. All we knew was that you came out of an Institute hotspot. You were, as a good friend of mine might say, an “unquantified variable.”

“Look,” he said, pushing up his sunglasses. “You don’t strike me as someone who’d come to us out of the good of your heart. You want something, but you’re not going to tell us what that is, yet. I get it; we’re a cluster of shadowy figures two missteps away from turning into radroach food. But if you don’t have to trust us, we don’t have to trust you. Only fair, right?”

Morgan slowly lowered her accusatory finger. “How long did you follow me?”

“Tracked you to Diamond City. We all thought you were Institute at first, turning over that cute little suburb for some kind of nefarious MacGuffin. But that didn’t quite add up, so I kept an eye on you as you made your way to the Great Green Jewel, then decided I’d duck back and tell my boss that you were just a wayward vault dweller. Gotta say, I wasn’t expecting you to show up at our front door in the middle of my report.”

Morgan’s shoulders relaxed, through her brow furrowed darkly. The Institute was confirmed to have come to her Vault. That meant Nick was right. That meant they had to have been the ones to take Sean. It also meant that the Railroad had the resources to keep an eye on anything suspicious, and knew what was Institute handiwork and what wasn’t.

But that left the question of how much faith she ought to put in the them. Should she trust them because they were smart enough to look out for anything suspicious? Did that prove they knew what they were doing, that they had the skills and resources she could use for her own ends? Or were they paranoid CIA-esque radicals, with their fingers in everyone else’s pies and a mysterious inability to explain their own doctrine?

“So… are we cool?” Deacon’s voice brought her back to the present. “I get that this wasn’t the most… friendly, introduction. And props to you for being skeptical enough to put me on the spot, wow. Most people don’t do that. But I was being honest, before. Our organization needs someone like you. And I’m guessing you need something from us. Even if you don’t trust us… think of it as a business arrangement.” He raised his eyebrows. “Okay?”

Morgan gave him a long, hard look, tension balled in her shoulders, pale eyes lingering on her reflection in his sunglasses. “I make no promises.” She sighed. “Tell me why we’re here. What Desdemona wants us to do.”

Deacon exhaled - relieved? doubtful? cautious? - and rubbed his hands together. “Thanks for sticking it out, anyway. You and I are about to head into an old Railroad base. See, the Railroad’s only recently been using the Old North Church. Our old HQ was under a Slocum’s Joe. A Pre-War coffee place, in case you didn’t-”

“I know what a Slocum’s Joe is.”

“Cool. Well, we had a pretty sweet set-up there until the Institute found us.”

“They found you?” Morgan’s eyebrows shot into her forehead.

"Shocked?"

"A little," she admitted, frowning. "I guess I just thought once you guys were caught, you know, you were caught. The Institute doesn't seem the type to leave survivors."

"Well. Without going into detail? There used to be a lot more of us." Deacon lowered his chin, smile dimming. "We had to leave behind in a big hurry, and the people who did survive didn't have time to grab anything but the essentials. So we're here to get something important we had to leave behind.”

"What's the catch?" There was always a catch.

“Recon says the place is crawling with Institute synths. Which reminds me, I have to change. They’ll be on the lookout for returning agents, but if you and I just look like a pair of scavvers, it won’t be so bad if we die.” He smiled cheerfully. “But, for the moment, we’re going to have to go in through the back entrance. Hope you don’t mind getting wet.”

Morgan nodded. "Lead the way."

 

Deacon traded his Railroad t-shirt and jeans for a farmhand’s outfit and his pomade-slick wig for a hat. He led Morgan from the freeway’s shadow to the lake behind the Slocum’s Joe, hopping from the top of a wide drainage pipe into the muddy water and slogging into the pipe itself. Past the hanging vines that obscured its entrance, they found a metal door embedded in a cool stone wall, illuminated by a single red light.

Deacon pushed it open and stepped inside. This room seemed cooler, darker, lit by blue fluorescents that exposed the dust clinging to the brick walls and directed their attention to single locked door at the far wall. "We're in," Deacon said, sounding too much like a secret agent in a bad cop show. "This entrance is safer, but be ready for Gen 1s and 2s."

"Gens 1s and 2s?" Morgan repeated, looking around.

“Oh. Right. Geez. I forgot to tell you about those.” Deacon scratched the back of his neck. “How cool are you with heavy exposition?”

“I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Gotta love a captive audience.” Deacon wiped dust off a lifeless terminal in a corner of the room. Clearing his throat, he leaned against it and addressed her. "The synths didn't start off as nigh perfect copies of human beings. The Institute had to work up to that level of hubris. Gen 1s and 2s were stepping stones along the way. Metal and plastic prototypes, without complete free will. The Railroad's not fully united on how we feel about them.”

Morgan prompted him when he trailed off. "What do you mean, not fully united?"

Deacon sighed. "Everyone wants to liberate the Gen 3s. The human looking synths, with sentience. But some people in the Railroad think we should help earlier models, too. But Gen 1s are basically the same as, well, a Protectron. So the line gets muddy. Do we defend AI rights? Terminals? Hell, turrets? But anytime it gets brought up?" He flared his hands, making a soft exploding sound. "Fireworks. All the old arguments flare up. The upshot is some agents won't run missions like this."

Morgan thought for a moment, drumming her fingers on her rifle. "You say the Gen 3s look human. But that's the whole point. The Institute makes them to look human. What’s the difference between a cleverly made puppet and something sentient?"

“What is the difference?” He shrugged. “My vote is, puppets don’t have PTSD. Don’t try to escape their masters or seek a better life. A lot of synths don’t remember or don’t talk about their time in the Institute, which makes it hard to collect accurate intel, but they all say the same thing. Synths are slaves, doing all the dirty work the Institute doesn’t want to think about. Sweeping floors, manual labor, “entertainment,” and so on. Maybe we don’t have a lot of hard data. We do, however, have a lot of synths who have integrated safely into society. Right now, we’re just trying to do the best we can.” He raised his eyebrows, smiling. "Good?"

"For now." Morgan stilled her hand. "How do we get in?"

"Like so." Deacon turned to the terminal, tapping and muttering for a few moments before the closed door swung open. "After you."

Morgan grunted and crept into the hallway, crouching down to keep her footing as the floor sloping downwards. This room was held up by a handful of old, brick pillars held up the ceiling, tall and thick enough to provide cover. Huddling behind one of the pillars, Morgan peeked around the corner to the water pooling at the bottom of the room’s slope, and got her first look at a synth.

Pacing through the murky pools, the synth eyed the room through a strange, rusted faceplate. One leg was humanoid, encased in moldy plastic. The other was just metal bars, with creaking gears for joints and exposed cabling running down into its foot. Metal cut into the shape of teeth jutted from its top and bottom jaws. Its eyes glowed a dull gold, and exposed wires and circuits sparked around its neck. It clutched a too-clean laser pistol, fancier than anything Morgan remembered from before the bombs.

She froze, staring in morbid fascination. In her peripheral vision, she saw Deacon waving a hand at her, trying to draw her attention. Shaking her head clear, Morgan hoisted her rifle, aiming for the synth’s head and hoping. A single shot flew through its metal skull, and it staggered, then collapsed. It landed in the pool with a splash, dark fluid leaking into the water. Something popped and sparked in its chest before going dark.

Morgan stood up, rounded the pillar. They’d already passed a handful of dead bodies on their way down here, nameless corpses she’d ignored even as Deacon stopped to close their eyes. They were unknown, irrelevant, not pertaining to the job at hand. But this… creature. Something about it felt different, fresh - alien. Its lightless eyes stared up at her from the puddle.

Morgan made sure to crush its head under her boot as she walked on.

Through a labyrinth of aged brick and rusted pipes, more synths greeted them around every corner. Morgan soon learned that despite their intimidating appearance, their bodies were fragile, easily pierced or broken apart if you knew where to look. The trouble with building beasts based on human forms was that they came pre-packaged with all the same weaknesses. A bullet to the shoulder knocked out one arm, made it harder to shoot straight. Bullet in the thigh made it harder to run away. Bullet to the eye fucked up their morale something fierce.

Once, she stopped to glance back over her shoulder, and saw Deacon staring at her, expression hidden in shadow and his sunglasses reflecting her face. Her lips parted - to give excuses, perhaps. It’s how I was trained, she might say. It’s what they told me to do.

But to shift the blame is a cowardly move. It was still her holding the gun, after all.

She looked away and moved on.

Soon they found themselves at a room blocked by a double door, wide windows on either side of it revealing a military-looking chamber full of synths. The pair took cover on opposite sides of the room, behind broken electronics and empty desks. "Too many," Morgan murmured. "Have to reveal ourselves."

"I'll cover you," Deacon whispered. "Stay low. Be careful."

Nodding, Morgan lifted her rifle and peered down the sights. As soon as a synth passed through her crosshairs, she fired, shattering the window with a sharp crash. The synth staggered and crumpled, its weapon skidding across the floor. Deacon followed up a half-second later, sending the next one to the ground. In unison, the other synths moved to action, babbling protocols and falling behind cover just before blue laser fire showered through the broken windows.

The bastards had a habit of ducking behind cover just as she peeked out of it. It’s like they could predict her moves half a second before she made them, often missing bullets by inches if she didn’t pay attention. But without human survival instincts and with coordination of the living, they leaned their heads out a little too far, or took too long moving between cover. They fought like machines, not men, and sparks were shed as easily as blood.

Soon the room went quiet and Morgan stood up, shoulder aching from her gun slamming into the crook of her arm every time she fired. Hissing, she rubbed the burns in her military fatigues, felt her metal armor bubble and seethe from the heat of their lasers. She pulled a pair of stimpacks from her bag, injecting one into her ribs and tossing the other to Deacon. "Catch."

As Deacon tended his injuries, Morgan looked around the room. Place was concrete - hard to make after the bombs, especially underground and at this size. Terminals looked like Robco brand, not whatever some schmuck had thrown together with a little circuitry and a typewriter’s keys. Generators were hybrid nuclear and hydro - and not the kind sold to civilians.

“This is a military bunker.”

Deacon tapped the side of his nose. “Defense Intelligence Agency research lab. A place that never officially existed. We called it the Switchboard."

"Makes sense. An organization that's never been seen, living in a place that doesn't exist. Classy." Morgan snorted. “And now you’re living under a-” Deacon’s hand slapped over her mouth and she jerked back, sputtering and seething. “What the fuck!” She raised her weapon, gun barrel pointed up at his chin as she wiped off her mouth and staggered back.

Deacon raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry, sorry.”

“What the fuck was that for?”

Deacon gestured with one finger to one corner of the room, high above them where the wall met the ceiling. Morgan followed his line of sight and squinted, and soon made out a very small, dull green light, winking at them from the wall. “That’s new,” Deacon explained quietly.

“... Oh.”

Stupid, stupid. She should have thought to check for bugs. Always check everywhere for bugs, for cameras. And she nearly gave away the location of the Railroad’s new base. Idiot.

Morgan cleared her throat and lowered her gun, glowering sourly at the floor. “Well, don’t touch me,” she muttered. “Just warn me next time.”

Deacon nodded. “Won’t happen again, boss.” And they moved on.

Upstairs led to a hallway laced with laser tripwires, an ominous metal globe perched on the ceiling. Morgan frowned, then pointed to the wall beside the doorway. “Deacon. Stand there.” He raised one eyebrow, but obeyed. Morgan took cover on the opposite wall, so they both were hidden from anything coming down the hall. Then Morgan leaned around the corner and shouted. “ Hey!” Almost at once, she heard the alert bubbling of synth voices, all turning their attention to her voice like dogs at the word “walk.”

The synths marched to the hallway, processors occupied with finding the source of the noise and lacking the body control to avoid snagging their wire toes on a tripwire. The metal globe snapped and popped, bolts of electricity shooting from copper-wrapped bulbs jutting out from the globe. As the first synth went down, twitching and smoking, the other synths froze as their programming searched for a new solution. A few seconds later, they began systematically disarming the tripwires.

As soon as a synth reached the end of the hall, Morgan raised her arm and fired her pistol into its head, sending bits flying in a shower of sparks. The other synths tried to run, to fall back into cover, but each received a bullet in the back. Morgan and Deacon stepped around the chrome corpses and continued down the hall.

It seemed like the rest of the synths weren’t on the defensive like the others, just milling about with their guns lowered rather than standing guard. With the trap disarmed, Morgan and Deacon had the element of surprise, clearing room after room of oblivious synths. At last, they stopped in a room of overturned shelves and dark terminals, the ashes of hastily burnt records and files strewn across the floor. Morgan rested her weapon against the wall and pulled out a bottle of water, taking a long gulp.

“Feel like I need a cigarette, after that,” Deacon remarked.

“Easier than I expected it to be,” Morgan breathed, wiping water from her chin. “Got the same soft spots as humanoids. Dumber than humans, too. Don’t know how to strategize or just huddle in fear on the floor. I can see why you didn’t want to go it alone, though.” She looked up and saw Deacon staring at her, his head tilted aside like an interested dog, lips parted like a thought rested on the tip of his tongue. “What?” she scowled.

Deacon shook his head. “Nothing.” He walked to the other end of the room, stopping at a terminal beside an imposing vault door reaching from floor to ceiling. He placed a holotape into the terminal player, and after a moment the vault lock clicked and spun, and the door swung open with a heavy creak. "Open says me," Deacon grinned.

In the vault, trampled cardboard boxes dotted the ground, papers covered in coded messages blotted with dirt and dust. In the corner, a slumped-over corpse sat beside a fallen shelf. Deacon was still, then padded softly over to the corpse and knelt beside it. He murmured something under his breath, and shut the dead man’s eyes. Morgan looked away.

At last Deacon stood and waved vaguely at one of the intact shelves, feigning nonchalance. “Grab the prototype. It’s the… box, thingy. You turn that over to our boss and she'll have to let you into our merry band."

Morgan pocketed the prototype. It looked like a stealth boy, just held together by wonderglue and prayers instead of military-grade adhesive. She’d never cared for stealth boys - they always made her skin prickle, and she’d heard rumors of stealth operatives relying on the things too heavily, experiencing some unfortunate side effects.  “That all?”

“Just about,” Deacon said, hiding his hands in his pockets and standing between her and the corpse. “We'll have to head back the way we came, unless you want to fight our way out and leave via minefield."

"I'll take the long walk instead." Morgan hesitated. “You good?”

“Fine,” he chirped.

Let him lie. She didn’t need to know his secrets. Yet.

“Then let’s go.”

 

They returned to HQ at sundown, when Deacon stopped her halfway through the catacombs. "Let me go up ahead,” he said, hands up in a soothing gesture. “I’ll give Des the rundown. Butter her up and get her in a good mood, so then you can dazzle her with our success.” He flashed a disarming smile at her. “Give it ten, then come in after me.” Then he ran off. Morgan opened her mouth to argue, but he’d already jogged into the darkness. She sighed.

A coffee shop bunker, robot people, the most talkative man she’d met in months - none of it made any sense. But Deacon’s speech in the Switchboard, about the synths and the Railroad motivations. Something about that felt right. Something about it piqued an interest low in her gut, pulled her to Deacon’s words like a magnet. Something about it felt important.

“If only she were here to give her side of the story !” Deacon’s voice echoed in the catacombs. Morgan shook her head and ran forward, stumbling into the Railroad entrance room. Desdemona was there, standing on the bricks with a glower as Deacon gesticulated. “ There’s the woman of the hour!” the man declared. “See, I’m telling you, Des. Great work. Killed all the things, like-” He mimed firing a rifle. “- blam! And- blam! The mission went like a dream. You’ve got to let her aboard.”

“Sure.” Des looked dubious. Her gaze switched to Morgan. “How’d it go?” she asked, quirking a brow.

Morgan padded into the room. “It went,” she said, uneasily. “Not too hard. The synths were less durable than I expected. Prototype recovered.” She handed it over.

Desdemona gave it a glance and tucked it into her pocket. “Deacon give you a hard time?”

“Yes.”

I,” Deacon said, raising a finger, “added the element of psychological stress to the mission. My involvement was critical. Part of her training.”

"I was expecting Deacon to grab a full team, including Glory, to secure that prototype,” Desdemona said. “But instead, the two of you cleared out the entire Switchboard."

"You'd be insane not to sign her up, Des," Deacon prodded.

“You’ve certainly made an impression on Deacon,” she allowed, sounding reluctant. “I understand you still have a lot of questions. And I’m willing to assist with the ones I have answers to. But to join the Railroad, I need to know that we have your loyalty. Some of our members are here to free synths. Others want to harm the Institute in any way they can. And still others are here because they believe we are the best choice for helping the Commonwealth as a whole. I don't want you here if you are hesitant. Indecision can be dangerous in our line of work, and I want your mind to be made up."

“I said I was here for answers,” Morgan replied, after a moment. “And Deacon’s given me a few of them. I don’t know what you’ll want me to do, and if I don’t like it I won’t do it, but I’m here with an open mind. And even if I don’t know everything yet, there’s… something here that’s bigger than me.” She swallowed. “I won’t betray you.”

Desdemona and Deacon shared a look. A subtle exchange passed between them, unspoken, and too fast for Morgan to catch. “That’ll have to do,” Des said. “Welcome to the Railroad, agent. Secrecy is the lifeblood of our organization, so you’ll need an alias to survive. What would you like to be called?”

Morgan blinked. “Uh.” They stared at her, expectant, waiting for the creativity that would not come. “I can’t just use my own? Do you guys not have, any… pre-made ones?”

Deacon sputtered a giggle, and Desdemona shot him a hard look. “It has to be yours,” Des explained. “Something you’ll remember. Something that defines you as an agent.”

Morgan racked her mind for something sensible. How was this the hardest part of this whole charade? Oh, sure, she could clear out an entire military bunker of non-human life forms. But come up with a fuckin’ nickname and she gapes like a beached fish.

“Fixer,” she finished lamely.

She saw Deacon bite back a smile, but Desdemona had the courtesy to keep a straight face. “Well, Fixer. It’s time you met the rest of us.”

And so she got access into the inner workings of the railroad. Beyond the dim catacombs lay a cluster of centuries-old sarcophagi and low-hanging ceilings. Skeletons winked at her from the depths of their crumbled stone coffins, and the air smelled of stale coffee and unwashed hair. Desks and workshops filled every corner, and on rusty shelves lay piles of communal supplies, bullets and medkits and spare caps. Chalkboards and pieces of paper were nailed into the walls, covered with strange symbols and unfamiliar chickenscratch.

All kinds of people milled around the catacombs. Old, young, every race, every gender, well-dressed or armored. Desdemona introduced Morgan to each of them, code names paired with a face she forgot as soon as they moved on. Morgan tried to get a read on them, tried to force herself to think in the mind of a spy, but her brain faltered at all the unfamiliar faces, the cacophony of voices and agendas and backstories mingling in a opaque, indecipherable mental cloud.

Instead, her eyes lingered on the room itself. The medkits had one or two stimpacks inside, maybe a med-x if you were lucky. The guns looked like they’d been lifted from corpses, some still stained with blood. The ammo shelves were just tubs of bullets that you took a fistful from and moved on. Morgan noted the different rooms, the escape tunnel positioned beside the barracks. In the center of the room was the desk of operations, a large round table with a map of the Commonwealth spread across it. Yellow pieces marked areas controlled by the Institute. Blue pieces marked tourists, red pieces dangerous regions, and so on.

The map didn’t paint an encouraging picture.

At last Desdemona ended introductions and left her standing dazedly beside a ratty couch. Morgan took a breath and sat down, wincing as an exposed spring pressed into her side. She shifted, grateful that she’d been momentarily forgotten.

Well, almost forgotten. Deacon flopped onto the couch beside her, his heavy landing making the frame creak. “So?” he asked. “What do you think?”

Morgan realized she’d lost track of him during introductions. Bastard was probably watching from the shadows the whole time. “‘S fine.” She frowned, arching one unimpressed eyebrow. “What’s your deal, alright? Why’re you up my ass? I’ve proven I’m not Institute, haven’t I? Not a risk to your precious operation.”

A now-familiar smile spread across his lips. “You really wanna know?”

“If I didn’t, would I have asked?”

“Maybe.” Deacon looked out across the room, taking in the quiet atmosphere before continuing. “Back at the Switchboard, we had a lot more people, a lot more resources. Here, we’re low on everything. We desperately need new members, but we don’t have the time or resources to play the getting-to-know-you game. If you’d come out of that vault with nothing but a jumpsuit and bad mood, I might not have followed you. But.” He tapped the side of his nose. “You know what you’re doing. And, even after whatever you’ve been through, you stopped to help people on your way to Diamond City.”

“For the caps,” Morgan stated. “I needed money and a place to rest.”

“You didn’t get paid for bringing that necklace back to the family at Abernathy Farm.”

“I got some money,” she hedged.

“That was pocket change for food. Not merc money.”

“Maybe I didn’t know how much money it was. I’d just come out of the vault.”

“Maybe, except you sold some of your stuff to those same farmers. You knew the going rate for most things. And, later, you stopped by Drumlin Diner to do some more trading. Where,” he said, lifting a finger, “you helped poor mom and son fight off some displeased businessmen.”

Morgan huffed air out through her nose. “What’s your point?”

“My point is that, even being as messed up as you were, you stopped to try and do good things. You were a good person, a good shot, and just screwed up enough you might consider joining our dysfunctional little family.” He paused, then continued in a softer voice. “A lot of people come to us because they have nowhere else to go. Not just synths.”

For a moment, she almost believed him. Then she scowled. “And how do I know you’re not just telling me what I want to hear? Giving me some custom-made sales pitch?”

Morgan swore he almost smiled. A real smile, too. “You don’t!” Deacon chirped. “You don’t know a thing. For all you know, we’re a big bunch of conspiracy theorists who’re gonna lobotomize you when you go to sleep tonight. I mean, I’m definitely a liar. That one’s obvious.”

Morgan bit back a half-smile. “But that doesn’t answer my question. You’re giving me a hard time. Why?”

“Because working for us is a hard gig,” Deacon stated, going serious. “You’re expected to risk your life for people you might never see again, for a cause we’re not even sure is the right one, all while being drip-fed information so no one person knows too much.” He gestured to the room. “If you can put up with my bullshit? You stand a chance at doing a lot of good for us. But, the question is…” He tilted his head to the side. “What do you think we can do for you ?”

Morgan hesitated. “That’s still my business.”

Deacon shrugged. “Fair. Figured I wouldn’t get the whole answer out of you. Yet, anyway. But.” He clapped his hands together. “I do have a proposition for you. No, don’t raise your eyebrow like that, it’s fine, I swear. Just don’t laugh.”

“I make no promises.”

Again, with the almost-genuine smile. “What do you say to letting me tag along with you?”

Morgan drew back an inch, bristling. “Not a fan of companions.”

“Neither am I, as a matter of fact. But you’re a real diamond in the rough, I think. If you want to do more Railroad work, maybe get a better feel for what we’re doing here, it’s best if you had an experienced chaperone to go with you. Plus, my job is to wander around and listen to people, and I figure you’re gonna do a lot of wandering and listening. Think of me as your sidekick. I watch your back, get some info to bring back to Des, and offer my wisdom on being an agent. And you can say no or send me back to HQ at any time. What do you say?”

Morgan pressed her lips together, gaze flickering between his sunglasses and his outstretched palm. But, at last, she nodded. “Fine.”

“Fantastic. I’ll go get my stuff.”

He leapt off the couch, leaving Morgan to stare off into space. A small part wondered if she hadn’t made some kind of mistake, if inviting him - allowing him - to travel with her would come back to bite her in the ass. But that didn’t change the feeling she’d had. The pull, to this strange and haphazard organization.

If nothing else, it didn’t remind her of the military. There were no uniforms, no orders barked, no cruel and unusual punishments doled out. This place was quiet. Fear thrummed under the surface of it, like a rapid pulse under the skin, but still these people stood their ground. The agents cast her leery glances, probably trying to get a read on her just as she was them.

Either way, no going back now. Walking around with a bona fide Railroad agent would be the best way to get information on the Institute, and, by proxy, on Sean.

She just had to hold herself together until then.

Chapter Text

"Proust," Deacon declared, "is a very underrated poet." He tilted his half-empty bottle, watching the remaining amber liquid slosh within the glass.

The gentle hum of Bunker Hill waved around them as they hunched over the bar, sitting with their backs to the trading hub. They’d arrived around noon, after picking up a holotape - “dead drop,” Deacon called it - that gave them their next mission. This was to be Morgan’s first “synth run,” whatever that meant. So here they were, biding their time, trying to look like boring scavvers and not agents on a mission.

Deacon had changed clothes again, this time wearing the dull patchwork suit of a trader. Morgan was playing the part of his bodyguard. Being the muscle, she couldn’t call the shots this mission, but she didn’t mind. Let Deacon schmooze and pick up all the social intricacies - she’d watch the exits and talk when she needed to.

"Do people even read anymore? I'm not sure a poet can be underrated if no one even knows what poetry is. " Morgan rapped her fingers against her cola bottle as she scanned behind them, looking for signs of trouble. "I always preferred Pound, myself. And Whitman."

"Mm. Not bad." Deacon took a sip of his beer. "Shakespeare's a classic, though. You have to admit that."

"He made some good points. But he's not a literary god, whatever my high school English teacher might say."

"Not a fan of plays, boss?"

It’s been two weeks. He calls her “boss” when they’re in the Commonwealth. In HQ, he calls her “Fixer.” He remembers the names, even if she doesn’t. It occurred to her, at some point, that “Deacon” wasn’t his real name. But it sounds like a real name, a first name. Makes you think you’re friends having a conversation, instead of spies surrounded by secrecy. Morgan’s realized there’s a lot about Deacon designed to make you trust him, while offering very little trust in return.

"I like plays well enough. And Shakespeare has his merits. But he only sounds fancy 'cause that's the way everybody talked so many centuries ago.”

“I always like Shakespeare because he wrote his plays for the people, you know? Made his work for the masses, not just high-and-mighty nobility. Love, loss, dick jokes. All that good stuff.” Deacon rested one elbow on the counter, knocking back the last of his beer. “But, unless you wanted to sit here and debate ancient literature… ”

Morgan took another sip of her soda. “It’s time to go.”

Deacon stood without nodding, looking for all the world like it was his decision to move on. Morgan tossed some caps on the counter and followed Deacon into the heart of Bunker Hill. Caravan workers leaned against the pale stone, comparing guns and complaining about their pay. Inside, traders haggled over their goods, whittling down prices to friendlier numbers. Some tried to give them a sales pitch, and Deacon smiled and complimented their wares before moving on.

They stopped at the back corner of the building, at small table bearing a handful of uninteresting objects. Trinkets, trash, general scavver bait. A tiny selection most people wouldn’t look twice at. “Sir,” Deacon greeted, with another easy smile.

The old man behind the table watched them with dark, steady eyes. “Welcome, my friend. Might I ask - do you have a geiger counter?”

Deacon pretended to stare into a broken mirror. Morgan blinked. “Uh, yes. I mean - mine’s in the shop.”

Stockton’s upper lip twitched. “I see.”

Morgan scowled. Deacon, as if sensing the animosity, interrupted with a toothy grin. “She’s a new, mutual friend,” he said, holding out a handful of caps in exchange for a broken compass.

Stockton accepted the trade. “I was hoping for someone more… armed.”

“I’m plenty armed, sir,” Morgan said, scowling. “But I’d rather not have to prove it.”

Stockton arched a brow, but didn’t argue. “I have a package,” he stated, “that’s been in my possession for far too long. I'm supposed to deliver the package to somewhere nearby, but raiders have complicated matters. Perhaps you could assist me."

Morgan’s fingers twitched for the warm comfort of her gun. “I’m all ears.”

 

Morgan made a note on her map, and the pair were on their way. Stockton’s coordinates led them to a long-abandoned church, riddled with bullet holes. Morgan climbed onto the roof of a building opposite the church and set up her rifle, peering down the sights. Through one of the church’s broken windows, she caught sight of a handful of raiders, clustered around a smoking fire pit. She almost snorted. What kind of paranoid old man was scared of a couple druggies?

By the time Deacon caught up with her on the roof, she’d popped their heads and splattered bits of brain across the pews. Back to the ground they went, scurrying across the street and into the church. Morgan wrinkled her nose, looking across the long hall and up into the rafters.

“Not a fan of churches?” Deacon prodded. He poked the still-smoking meat roasting over the raiders’ fire.

“Not really, no,” Morgan admitted. “Mom was born Catholic, but had to go Protestant after marrying my dad. I remember going to church a few times when I was little, but it never stuck. Never much cared for churches. Too much time spent trying to convince you what to think.”

“Some people like that,” Deacon pointed out, as he sat on one of the bloodless pews. “It’s easier to relax and be happy if you’re using someone else’s morals.”

“Absolves you of the blame,” Morgan said, nodding solemnly. “What’re you doing?”

Deacon shuffled the deck of cards he’d summoned from his pocket. “Giving myself something to do. Stockton won’t show up for another few hours. We’ve got lots of time to waste.”

Morgan sighed. “Let me drag out the bodies. Then deal me in, I guess.”

They stowed the raider corpses in some bushes a good distance away from the church, making sure any wandering Super Mutants would be drawn towards the smell of blood and away from the drop site. Morgan insisted on cleaning most of the blood from the pews, and eating the meat on the fire pit. “No sense in wasting a meal.”

“I’m a vegetarian,” Deacon replied, thumbing through his cards.

“More like a dickitarian,” she grumbled.

“Flawless comeback, boss.”

It was a lie, but Morgan let it be. She did that with most of his lies. Deacon’s falsehoods tended to be light and innocuous, made to keep you on your toes, keep you skeptical. Or, that was Morgan’s theory. She saw the way he almost smiled sometimes, when she argued with him. The way he glanced at her when he said something particularly unbelievable, curious if she’d buy into it. The way his eyes drilled into the back of her head when she was faced with a moral choice. These past two weeks had been a series of tests. Morgan hoped she was passing.

At nightfall, Deacon took off his sunglasses, hiding his mouth behind a bandanna and his eyes beneath a wide-brimmed cap. His eyes glittered in the moonlight, color indiscernible. “Damn,” he cursed, slapping his cards on the floor. “New round?”

Morgan opened her mouth, then went still. She lifted a finger to her lips with a meaningful look, then took her gun and crept to a window. After a moment: "Stockton. And one other."

"Probably the package," Deacon whispered. "We should be good."

Morgan stepped back, gun in hand as she listened to the approaching footsteps. As the church doors opened, her shoulders tensed, trigger finger resting along the barrel just above thr trigger itself. Stockton stepped through the doors, and raised his hands with a placating nod. Beside him, a smaller, lankier figure shuffled in, shoulders balled around his ears.

"It's alright, it's us." Stockton lowered his hands, then cleared his throat and adjusted his tie. "Everything looks clear. This is H2-22," he explained, gesturing to the young man beside him. "H2, here's the person I talked to you about."

Morgan glanced at the cowering stranger. “Who’s he?"

“The package.” Stockton gave her a odd look. “Well, I suppose I can forgive the alpha for sending such a green agent. I’m sure this isn’t as pressing as some of our other endeavors.” Stockton pressed his hand to the man’s back, nudging him forward. “H2-22 is a synth. We’re transporting him to a safehouse, where he will then begin relocation.”

This time, Morgan let her eyes rest on the stranger. As far as she knew, she’d never met a sentient synth other than Nick Valentine. Certainly never a Gen 3 synth like this. H2-22 looked down at the floor, chin to his chest. Half-grown stubble protruded from his cheeks, coarse and patchy in some places. His hair was matted and greasy, his clothes ill-fitting and his fingernails dirty. His coat sleeves hung down past his wrists, slacks baggy on his thin, nervous frame.

He was so innocent.

A lonely, frightened boy, handed off from person to person with a number for a name and no title but “package.” A sudden, intangible urge pulled at her heart, pushing her to reach forward and hug him, comfort him, something. It struck her like a punch to the gut, a sudden and unexpected resurgence of something she hadn’t felt since Sean.

Morgan stayed still, stayed silent until she could be sure her voice wouldn’t crack.  She looked back to Stockton, keeping the synth in of her peripheral vision. “Where are we taking him?” she asked. She could feel Deacon’s eyes on her again.

“Another agent will be here shortly,” Stockton said, lighting the lantern he’d brought with him and setting it in the window. “He will take you where you need to go.” Then, to H2: “Remember what I told you.”

And then he was gone. Morgan avoided the incoming awkward silence by gesturing to the nearest pew. “Sit down.” The synth sat, still with his eyes down. Soon, a new set of footsteps neared the church, and Morgan placed herself between the door and H2.

The door creaked and an unfamiliar face peeked inside. "Whoa," he said, raising his hands before her weapon. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Easy. Don’t shoot. I’m just lookin’ for a geiger counter.”

“Mine’s in the shop,” Morgan said, and lowered her gun. “You our contact?”

“Sure am.” The man stepped inside, closing the door behind him. He had dark skin, almost as dark as the night outside, with kind eyes and a friendly face. Very white teeth, bald head. No scars, but strong hands. “Name’s High Rise. Haven’t seen you running this beat before.”

“Fixer.” Morgan gestured to Deacon, sprawled languidly over one of the pews. “I’m traveling with Deacon. He’s showing me the ropes.”

High Rise brightened, and gave Deacon a teasing smile. “D, my man. Why the long face? Haven't you gotten a new one by now? Been a few months. I'm surprised."

"What can I say," Deacon drawled. "I think I'm attached to this mug. Might keep it a little longer, who knows."

"You're a class act, Deeks.” He glanced at H2. “That the package?”

Morgan nodded. “How far from here to the safehouse?”

“Not very. Lotta baddies between here and then, so I’ll need you guys to cover my ass. I’m a runner, not a heavy. Sound good?”

“Sounds good.” Morgan’s jaw tightened as she looked to the synth. “You ready?”

H2 flinched, eyes wide. “U-Uh… sure. Yes.” He had a high, quavering voice, tinted with nervousness like the rest of him.

Morgan nodded, and the group went out. Their shoes scraped over concrete and gravel as they jogged through dark streets, the moon lighting their way as they slipped through overgrown alleyways. Deacon held the rear, and High Rise led the way, with Morgan and H2 side by side in the middle. High Rise dashed from building to building, playing scout and pointing them towards any bad guys in their way. Deacon checked behind them to make sure they weren’t being followed, and covered Morgan as she led the attack.

H2 kept his hands over his ears, wincing with every gunshot. He crumpled to his knees a few times, trying to curl up in a ball, but Morgan kept a firm grip on the back of his shirt. She kept ahold of him most of the way, guiding him through rustling bushes and around exposed needles littering alley floors. She kept him quiet when he got stuck in scratching weeds, picking burrs from his coat and pulling him along. Deacon was still watching her.

High Rise held up a hand to stop them, then pressed a finger to his lips. They all stopped and listened, and soon heard the low, heavy breathing and dragging footsteps of super mutants. H2’s throat tightened as he stifled a whimper. Slowly, quietly, the group crept behind a large truck in a factory yard, squished together like sardines. The mutants crept closer, sniffing and murmuring about the smell of humans.

H2 squeezed his eyes tight, curling himself into a very small ball and staying silent. Morgan kept her hand on the back of his neck, the rough warmth of her glove pressing into his skin. One hand on him, the other on her gun. The super mutant sniffed deeply on the other side of the truck, and Morgan felt the synth shiver against her fingertips.

Then gunfire erupted around the corner, and the mutants ran after it, mumbling and drooling and roaring for battle. High Rise stood, and guided them on. It didn’t take much longer before they stopped, facing a battered skyscraper. High Rise sighed in relief. "And we're here. Ticonderoga safehouse." He chuckled. "All in a night's work for you agent types, huh?"

"I guess so." As Morgan stopped to check in with High Rise, Deacon approached H2 and helped him into the building elevator. He slung his arm over the synth’s shoulders, speaking easily, coaxing a weak smile from the young man’s face. A brief pang of envy stung Morgan’s heart. No matter how much she wanted to help, she’d never have the same soothing charm Deacon did. It didn’t matter how hard she tried, she’d always be ugly, scarred, and terrifying.

High Rise didn’t seem to notice her sudden melancholy, and walked with her to the elevator. The four of them crammed inside, wincing against the creaking floors and shrill elevator cables grinding against rusted machinery. Several stories up, the elevator deposited them in a well-kept room, one that might have been a Pre-War office. Boxes of weaponry were stowed alongside dusty, fake plants and cold cups of coffee. Morgan noticed two types of people, here - those who ignored them, who were hunched over thick folders or gleaming terminals. And those who flinched at every sudden sound, dressed in haphazard “wasteland” clothing, staring dazedly out of windows with half-eaten trays of food beside them.

Someone ambushed H2 as they arrived, ushering him up the stairs with a monologue of welcomes and warnings. He met Morgan’s gaze for a second, all wide-eyed and uncertain as his chaperone nudged him upstairs. Then he was gone, and Morgan was alone.

High Rise tried to start introductions, Deacon waved him away with a smile and witty line. High Rise rolled his eyes good-naturedly, just before being called away. Deacon turned to Morgan just as H2 disappeared upstairs and Morgan lost sight of him.  “You alright?” Deacon asked.

Morgan jumped. “Fine.” She swallowed. “Fine,” she repeated, more believably. Then, in realization:  “I need sleep.”

“That would be a good idea,” Deacon agreed sagely. Morgan felt his eyes probing her behind the sunglasses. She could sense it, when he fell silent for half a second and his lips pulled together in that curious, unconscious way.

She frowned at him, too tired for a direct challenge but cranky enough to take his probing as an offense. “Can I help you?”

He leaned back, the curiosity melting from his face as he smiled. “Nope. Go catch some shut-eye, Fix. We can recap later.” He waved goodbye, and jogged after High Rise.

Morgan found herself a dark corner, absently tugging the knots from her hair as she observed the room. People here looked a little relaxed than those at HQ. People gave her tight, tired smiles when they met her eyes. People laughed and talked, huddled together in pairs or groups. It felt like somebody’s home.

Still. There weren’t nearly as many weapons or people in armor as in HQ,  and this place wasn’t nearly as secure. All they had was a rickety elevator and some half-hearted boards over the windows protecting them from the outside world. Morgan wondered how High Rise kept in such good spirits.

She blinked, and suddenly she was being shaken awake by somebody babbling about breakfast. Warm, hearty smells emanated from the break-room-turned-kitchen. Sunlight filtered in through the wide skyscraper windows, showing a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. You couldn’t even hear the shooting from up here.

As everyone else went in for sugar bombs and brahmin milk, Morgan took her chance and went upstairs. She found a hallway lined with offices-turned-bedrooms, each room contained two small cots and a dresser. None of them had any personal items. Near the end of the hall, Morgan found H2, sitting on the edge of his bed, still wearing the previous day’s clothes. She rapped her knuckles on the doorframe. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, seeing him flinch.

“N-No,” the synth replied. “It’s… It’s fine.”

Morgan rested her head against the side of the doorframe. “How are you holding up?”

H2 curled his fingers into the edge of his bed. “O-Okay, I think. They… they told me a lot of things,” he said, sounding quavery again. “M-Mostly that I shouldn’t talk much. Until they get me relocated.”

“Do you know when that’ll happen?”

“No.” He flinched. “I’m s-sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.” Morgan pressed her lips together. “Can I come in?”

"I-If you want."

Morgan stepped into the room, boots scraping lightly against the metal floor. “Where do you think you’re going to go?”

H2 pressed his lips together. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I guess I didn’t think about it.”

“When you... escaped?”

“Yeah.”

Morgan bit her lower lip and padded over to the bed, sitting beside him with a creak of the mattress springs. “... Why’d you escape?”

“W-Why?”

“Mhm.”

“I-I guess…” He frowned, brows knitting together. “I guess because I was tired of being scared.” He breathed something that might have been a laugh. “But n-now I’m not sure.”

Morgan nodded. “It’s scary, when other people are in control of what happens to you. I’ve heard stories about what goes on in the Institute. It doesn’t seem like a fun time. Like they treat you as less than human. Is that right?” H2 nodded meekly. “I haven’t been in the Railroad very long, but I don’t think we’re trying to scare you. There’s just a lot of people we have to help, and so we have to move you quickly.”

“I miss Stockton,” H2 mumbled, hugging his knees to his chest. “He was nice to me.”

I’m trying to be nice to you,” Morgan pointed out. A small, wry smile curved her lips. “I’m just not very good at being friendly.” She traced her scars. “I know I don’t look friendly.”

H2 shrunk down, shoulders balling around his ears again. “H-How…” He took a moment to muster his strength. “How do you not get scared?”

“What do you mean?”

“Last night. When we were… out, there. You weren’t scared at all.”

Morgan raised her eyebrows and exhaled, puffing out her cheeks as she sighed. “Practice, I guess. I used to be as scared as you, when I was a lot younger. Scared of people not liking me, scared of getting hurt, scared of being alone. But then I figured out how to shoot a gun, protect myself, and a lot of that fear went away. Of course,” she said, chuckling bitterly, “it got replaced by other kinds of fear, but I don’t think you’re in the same situation I was.”

“But I don’t know how to shoot,” H2 admitted quietly. “I don’t know what I’d do.”

“It’s not hard. Here.” Reaching into her boot, Morgan pulled out the simple ten-millimeter pistol she’d carried out of the Vault. “You just aim down the sights, keep your elbow bent and relaxed, and shoot. Use two hands to keep it steady.”

H2 took it, almost dropping it at the surprising weight. “W-What if I can’t do it?”

“You don’t have to kill them. Guns are good at that, but if you just need to get away, shooting someone in the leg works. You can shoot someone in the chest to do a lot of damage, without having to stick around and feel guilty.” She gently laid her hand over his, adjusting the weapon so he held it safely. “The world’s a lot safer when you know you’re not alone, too. When I was scared, I was alone for a long time. You’ve got the whole Railroad trying to keep you safe.” She pressed her lips together. “I’m trying to keep you safe, too.”

At that, H2 curled his fingers around the weapon, feeling his hand slide around the grip. He met Morgan’s eyes, daring to look hopeful. “Can you show me?”

Morgan smiled. “Sure.”

 

When they returned to HQ, Des met her eyes as she came in, but looked away just as quickly. First synth run, Deacon had said. Perhaps that meant something. Another woman - the one with white hair - murmured in Desdemona’s ear, and Morgan just caught white-hair’s fingers tracing down the other woman’s lower back. Brief, intimate, blink and you’ll miss it. Morgan looked away and focused on cutting wasteland vegetables into edible pieces.

White-hair approached her just as she sat down to eat, the bowl of chunky vegetable soup warm in her hands. “So,” she said. “You’re the new heavy.” She crossed her arms, looking fierce. White-hair was tall, slim-build, but also handled miniguns. Probably buff as hell under all that armor, could definitely knock your lights out. Morgan wasn’t built for fist fights. Knife fights, maybe. She wondered if white-hair had a knife on her.

“I guess.” Morgan reluctantly set aside her bowl. “You want something?”

White-hair pressed on. “Checked out the Switchboard for myself. Saw the work you did. Wasn’t bad - for a human, that is.”

Morgan couldn’t resist raising a brow. “You’re a synth.”

"In the artificial flesh." She smirked. "I heard you did your first Ticon run today. Met your first synth." Half a statement, half a question.

“I did. Your point?”

“That usually has an effect on people. You know. Makes them pick a side. Decide what they’re here for.”

God, this woman was unsubtle. Morgan didn’t think she was particularly tactful, but white-hair couldn’t be any more obvious if she got a forehead tattoo saying “side with synths or I’ll gut you.”

“Well, I came here for answers. Guess I got ‘em.”

And?"

“And,” Morgan amended, eyes steady. “I guess you’re right. Synths are worth helping.” She took a spoonful of soup.

“That’s it?” White-hair looked dubious. “Nothing else?”

“What else is there?” Morgan allowed some of the truth to seep through, daring to taint her response with emotion. “Kid was scared. Kid seemed like a kid. Didn’t look like he could hurt a fly. I don’t see why I can’t spend some time keeping people like him safe.” She stabbed the bowl, spearing a hunk of soft carrot on the end of her spoon. Morgan looked back up, eyes hard and challenging. “You got a problem with that?”

White-hair’s face split in a smile. “Nah. I guess we’re cool.” She gave Morgan’s shoulder a friendly push, ignoring - or not noticing - the other woman’s flinch. “That's good enough. Anybody who sides with my kind is worth keeping around, you know? Name’s Glory.”

“Uh, Fixer. I think. That’s supposed to be my name now.”

“You’ll get used to it.” Glory shrugged. “It’s a new beginning, you know? Feels a little weird at the start, but it helps you keep an open mind. Keeps you on your toes.” She pushed Morgan’s shoulder again. “See you ‘round, rookie.”

Morgan watched white-hair - Glory - walk away, and saw Desdemona’s eyes trail after her. Deacon was busy causing trouble in a different corner, hands laced behind his head as two other agents bickered in front of him. Somehow, HQ felt more homey than she remembered. She started recognizing some faces, growing comfortable with the brick walls and mismatching furniture.

Even Deacon had settled in her mind. The echo of his footsteps following hers no longer made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She liked being able to turn and have him just behind her, always willing to follow her orders or offer tactical advice. Though “I say we talk to them” got old after awhile, she begrudgingly admitted that talking did work, on occasion. It helped that Deacon had more charisma than her brand of “robot potato.”

She didn’t come to the wasteland looking for a cause, let alone a community. But - she couldn’t save Nate. Couldn’t save Sean. Couldn’t even save herself, half the time. But this place promised something else. A bed, a house, a group of people just doing whatever they thought they had to. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to try and find a place in this new world.

Maybe, if she didn’t get her happy ending, she could give someone else a chance at theirs.

Chapter Text

"Ms. Morgan?" Joe Savoldi rapped his knuckles against their door. "Radio’s askin' for you."

Morgan and Deacon shared a look. Morgan rose from her mattress, fingers curled around her pistol. Deacon closed the magazine he’d been flipping through, the end of his cigarette glowing red in the darkness. Morgan unlocked the door and opened it a crack, keeping her gun up and her head behind the door. “Who is it?”

“Dunno. Bill was doin’ his rounds when a signal came through on the radio. Told me I better come get you.”

They shared another look. Morgan opened the door all the way, pistol lowered but not sheathed. “I’m coming.” Then, to Deacon: “Grab my shit.”

They followed Savoldi into the main hall of Bunker Hill, to the radio desk in the corner before tapping the brim of his cap and giving them privacy. The world was dark around them, quiet save for the snapping of fire barrels and the muted snuffling of sleeping brahmin. Looking up, a few fireflies gleamed and the stars twinkled, bright against the darkness and too numerous to count. "It's a nice night," Deacon remarked, looping Morgan's pack over his shoulder.

"Might be about to get a lot worse," Morgan rumbled, and turned up the radio’s volume.

“This is Valentine’s Detective Agency.” a female voice said. “We are trying to reach a mercenary named Morgan, repeat, a mercenary named Morgan. Early thirties, tall, distinctive facial scarring. If she’s listening, or if you know her whereabouts, please respond. This is urgent.” The radio went quiet for a few seconds, then started again.

“I’m not a mercenary,” Morgan grumbled, and turned the radio. She sighed, shaking her head clear. “It’s Ellie. Nick Valentine’s secretary.”

Deacon nodded. "Do you know why they're looking for you?" He sounded kind, but there was something else, too. Worry? Concern? Who for? Morgan could never quite figure out his motivations. All his stories and questions had reasons , sure, but he kept those close to his chest.

"Yeah." She scratched her temple, still staring at the radio. Deacon's eyes on the back of her neck prompted her to continue. “Someone was taken from me,” she admitted at last. “By the Institute. That’s why I left the Vault. I went to Nick first, but, no dice. So I went to the Railroad.”

“I’m sorry.” He shifted, and Morgan felt his eyes move away.

"Yeah." She looked up, eyes landing somewhere around his collar. "You don't have to come with me. This isn't your problem. I can come back to HQ when it's settled."

"Sure, sure, I get it." He toyed with his hands, picking at his fingertips and running his short nails over his skin. An absent, unsure gesture, and one of the few he didn't always remember to hide. Or, maybe one she’d been around long enough to notice. "You don't want me with you." Half a statement, half a question.

Morgan breathed a quiet sigh. "I don't want to get you wrapped up in something that isn't your business. It's one thing to do some jobs as 'fellow agents.' But I know you're not big on the whole emotional intimacy thing. In fact, neither am I. I'm not telling you to fuck off, but - I figured you deserve an out."

Deacon nodded. His cheeks sagged, pulling his lips into a stern expression. He showed his age when he was unhappy, from the lines in his brow and the frowning wrinkles around his mouth. Most of the time he could pass for maybe his thirties; younger, if given a little makeup and a nice disguise. But, here, she was forcing him to speak his mind, to make a firm decision. And Deacon hated giving up his secrets.

“Or,” she said, slowly. “I guess, you could stay here with me.” She forced a shrug, turning her voice gruff and looking away, letting Deacon feel like he had the upper hand. “It’s no skin off my nose. Valentine and I aren't exactly the best of friends, and I can always use another gun. Don’t much care if you come with me or not."

In the corner of her eye, Morgan saw Deacon visibly relax, his hands going still. His stern look faded, replaced by his usual easy smile. "You sure know how to make someone feel welcome, Fix. Well,” he said, stretching languidly. “Since I've got nothing better to do, I'm willing to tag along. That, or head back to HQ and have Des drown me in reports and paperwork."

"Don't shoot me in the back, I won't shoot yours," she replied, and turned back to the radio to hide a small smile. "Now, show me how to call Nick back."

 

The detective told her to meet him on the West Stands in Diamond City. He'd know when she arrived. Now, the mid-morning sun beating down on their necks, Morgan felt anxiety prickle at the base of her skull, burning in the tips of her fingers and along her spine. What awaited her? What had Nick found? What was she going to do?

Was she really ready for this?

She noticed how Deacon took care to keep conversation light. He complimented the weather, offered to play cards, cleaned his gun and told her puns. Making sure to avoid serious topics. As time went on, Morgan found herself grudgingly growing attached to him. He had a habit of always knowing what to say. And, yes, he was a manipulative, probing bastard. But she knew better than to answer his casual questions, to rise to his bait when he told her stories.

She thought back to a few weeks ago, just after her time with H2. Deacon’d sat her down and revealed that he was a synth, gave her the whole pitch about recall codes and botched memory jobs, a smile hiding in the corner of his mouth the whole time. Then he’d handed her that piece of paper, calling it a “token of trust,” to use if they were ever in a tight spot.

“Thanks,” she said, and tucked it in her breast pocket. “I think.”

His lips twitched, somewhere between confusion and mirth. “Aren’t you going to read it?”

“Why?” Her brow furrowed.

“Because… I gave it to you. Don’t you want to know? Just in case?”

“No?” She shrugged. “Don’t think I’d use it, anyway. You’re more use to me alive than dead - recalled, whatever.” Then she’d sipped her Nuka and scowled at him when he gave her an odd look. She wasn’t used to what surprise looked like on him.

He finally gave in when she tossed his paper in the fire that night, no more dramatic a gesture than chucking away a used tissue. Then he broke down and gave her the lecture, about trust and skepticism and “you can’t trust everyone.”

“Don’t you care?” he asked, baffled by her blank expression. “I lied to you. I’m not a synth - but I could be! I gave you my recall code, and you didn’t bother to read it, verify it, just took me at my word. That kind of blind faith is dangerous.”

“It’s not blind faith. I just don’t care . Synth, liar, soldier, agent. I don’t care who you are, just what you do. How you act, how you treat me. And so far you haven’t been an asshole. That’s it. That’s all I care about. Now stop trying to educate me and go the fuck to sleep.”

By the time he got around to claiming that he was the founder of the Railroad, she’d laughed in his face. Morgan knew him well enough by then to know he didn’t have anywhere near Desdemona’s level of grit and determination, and she was just the Alpha. He’d laughed too, but she saw the sideways look he gave her. Always tests, with Deacon. Always trying to fetter out her beliefs and motivations. She couldn’t blame him - too many people had their own agendas.

And yet, even with all his nonsense, she still held a certain respect for him. Mostly because he never tried to convince her that the Railroad was the “right” faction to join, that they had all the answers. As her chaperone, she thought he’d try to give her a sales pitch. But no, if she asked, he just shrugged with that affable look on his face and admitted that the Railroad had, more than once, almost fallen to the same in-fighting as the Minutemen. And yet, here they were.

Maybe that’s why she stayed. The promise of forgiveness if she made a mistake, the unpretentious air of not knowing, but trying anyway. The Railroad didn’t need doctrines and soapbox speeches, orders and officers and the unspoken threat of punishment if you stepped out of line. You cared, or you didn’t, fought, or did nothing. Either way you could die tomorrow, so why not spend today doing something worthwhile?

“Boss?”

Morgan looked up. Deacon was waiting for her, standing beside the Diamond City gate with a quizzical expression.

“I’m coming.”

The DC market was in full swing, traders coming and going and merchants hocking their wares. The people here were cleaner than in Bunker Hill - cleaner faces, cleaner mouths. No one bitched about caps or long hours. Security stood at every corner, prepared to take down troublemakers or pickpockets. To some, it might feel comforting. To others, oppressive.

Around a corner and up the stairs deposited them at the West Stands, where Nick Valentine waited with a German Shepherd, panting at the end of its leash. Nick gave them a greeting nod. "Good. You're here."

Morgan started, narrowing her eyes at the drooling animal. “Uh, why the dog?”

“Tracking. He’s helped me out on a case or two, and I thought we’d need him. Borrowed him from a nice old woman up north.” Nick gave the canine an affectionate smile before casting Deacon a stern look. “Who’s your friend?”

"Nicky, buddy,” Deacon drawled. “You don't recognize me? Sure, the face and clothes are different, but I thought a bona fide detective would remember an old friend."

"'Friend' is putting it generously, Deacon," the detective replied, chuckling. "You manage to turn Morgan over to your side?"

"To be fair, she came to us first. I just dazzled her with my blinding smile and endearing sense of humor." Deacon grinned.

"I'm sure that's exactly how it went." Nick scratched his chin, casting Morgan a pointed look. "So, you're together on this? There anything I shouldn't say?"

She hesitated. "I don't want to talk about who we're after. That’s all."

The synth glanced between them, then nodded. "I was looking through my files when I came across something you might be interested in. A man matching the description you gave when you first came to see me. Kellogg. Deacon might recognize the name."

"Bad man," Deacon said solemnly, shaking his head. "He messes up a lot of our work. Worse than a Courser. No one knows who he works for officially , but we in the Railroad have a theory he's some kind of Institute asset."

"I wouldn't be surprised." Nick jerked a thumb to the building behind him. "He passed through here a while back. Had a boy with him, about ten years old. They stayed in this house, but disappeared a while ago. If there's any chance of figuring out where they've gone or where they came from, it'll be in here. And if we do find something good, we can use Dogmeat to narrow down where to look."

Ten years old .

Morgan didn't remember much about the Vault, or the pod. It bled together in a blur of fear and pain. But it hadn’t felt like very long, she knew that. Just a few minutes. Twenty at the most before she’d escaped the pod. If two centuries could pass in the blink of an eye, maybe a decade could go by after Kellogg put her back under.

She shook her head. Going down memory lane and drowning in self-pity would help no one. Least of all Sean. When her vision cleared, Nick was trying his hand at the lock on the front door, Deacon watching her out of the corner of his eye. Morgan busied her hands by drumming her fingers on her gun. "Any luck?" she asked, glancing around for guards.

Nick grumbled and stepped back. "Gonna need a key to get through," he admitted. "Unless one of you think you can pick it yourself."

Deacon shrugged. "I know my way around a bobby pin, but there's only so much I can do. I’m more of a people person than a burglar."

"Does it have hinges?" Morgan asked.

Valentine arched a brow. "Uh. Looks like. Why?"

"'Cause. Everybody always makes picking locks harder than it needs to be." She pulled a set of tools from her pack, kneeling beside the door. "Granted, this doesn't work on mechanical or electrical doors, but I find it's still pretty useful. Not fast, though.”

She tapped her hammer on the first hinge, testing its strength. Like most Commonwealth construction, it was old and rusted. She fitted the screwdriver into the hinge, loosening it before prying it up with the claw of the hammer. Gripping the tongs around the protruding metal, she gave it a sharp yank, pulling it from the wall with a heavy clank.

"Where'd you learn to do that?" Nick asked, as she removed the other two hinges.

"Didn't," she grunted. "Came up with it when I needed to open a door and had some tools on me. Call it critical thinking." Final hinge removed, Morgan pulled on the knob and the door lurched forward, untethered. She caught it with a wince, and her companions rushed to help, all lowering it to the ground with a quiet thump. "Stay, boy," Morgan said, pointing a finger at Dogmeat. The dog panted happily and sat down on his hind legs. "I'll take that as a yes."

The house appeared long abandoned, everything covered in a thin layer of dust. Furniture filled the rooms, pleasant, but absent of any human touch. No stains, no coffee rings, no cheerios hiding under the couch. It reminded her of a hotel room. "You sure there's gonna be something here, Nick?" Morgan murmured.

"Never sure of anything, in this business," Nick replied, golden eyes gleaming in the darkness. "Especially not with a guy like Kellogg. But nobody remembers everything."

Morgan sighed. "Let's be thorough, then."

They sifted through the house, lifting furniture and up-ending wastebaskets. Deacon kept his mouth shut for the most part, save for some smart remarks on Kellogg's buying habits. "Four flanks of Brahmin steaks from Polly?" he questioned, looking over a crumpled-up receipt. "Wow. How big is this guy? Does he drink raw eggs for breakfast and protein shakes after dinner?"

"I mean, in between kidnappings, I guess he's fond of a boys night in," Morgan murmured.

"Here," Nick interrupted. He pressed something inside the desk, and a nearby wall split in two, mechanical doors revealing a well-lit room. "Well, well. What're you hiding, Kellogg?" Morgan resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Inside the room was a pristine leather chair and some cabinets and shelves, still stacked with edible goods. "Beer and cigars," he murmured, nodding at the table beside the chair. "Interesting brands. This stuff is hard to come by."

Deacon pocketed a few cartons of Snack Cakes while no one was looking. "Gwinnett," he noted, nodding at the beer bottles. "This guy had good taste. Well, besides the murdering."

"Besides the murdering." Morgan picked up one of the cigars, rolling it between her fingers. "What does this do for us, Valentine?"

"I say we could lend them to our furry friend outside, see what he tells us," the synth replied, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat.

"Sounds good. I’ll put the door back together."

And there they were, on the Stands, the door back in its place and the Diamond City residents milling about like ants far below them. The sun heated her armor and made her cheeks warm, a bead of sweat dripping down her temple. Nick and Deacon stood behind her, waiting.

It occurred to her, cigars in hand and dog at her feet, that this was it. Finding Sean. Everything she'd done up until now, everyone she'd fought, every choice she made. It all led up to this moment. Cold fear clutched at her heart and thrummed in her chest, tension rising in her shoulders and pinching her nerves.

"Fixer?"

Deacon's voice grabbed her. She flinched, twitching for a moment before shaking her head. "I'm good. Just waiting for you to be ready." She realized how close she was to crushing the cigars in her fist. She forced herself to relax her grip, rolling her shoulders to seem casual.

"Do you want me to leave?" Nick asked, drawing her attention. "This might be your last step to finding, eh, who you're looking for. If you want to do this alone, I won't blame you."

She blinked. "Yes. Yeah. I'd appreciate that, Nick. Thank you."

The detective gave her a small, understanding smile, and tipped his hat as he walked past Dogmeat and into the heart of the city. Morgan watched his beige-and-white form bob through the alleys until he vanished back into his office. She took a breath, and with muscles coiled tight as springs, forced her arm out, waving the cigars in front of Dogmeat's nose.

She jerked when the animal barked, rubbing his wet nose against her hand and sniffing before running in the opposite direction. She shared a nod with Deacon, then they sprinted after the dog.  Dogmeat guided them out of the city, barrelling past unwary bystanders and almost knocking over a cart or two. At least he had the decency to stop at the city gate and wait for them. Then, when they got within a few feet, he barked again, and kept running.

He paused only to sniff the air or the ground before darting off again, giving both agents a sudden, exhausting workout. They raced down long and winding roads, through concrete valleys that were once roadway tunnels, across rusted railroad tracks. Every time the dog slowed down, Morgan's throat would run dry, and fear would thrum in her veins. And every time, instead of Kellogg, it would be a cold cigar or blood-brown bandages. Every so often, a cluster of wild, irradiated stags or dogs would block their journey, forcing them to slow down. Then Dogmeat would get distracted, and they’d have to give him the scent all over again.

Morgan wasn’t sure whether to be frustrated at the delay, or grateful for something to take her nervous energy out on. She detested the waste of ammo, but at least when she fired her gun, she couldn’t feel herself shaking. Her fingers trembled every time she held out the cigars.

Then, at last, they stopped.

Dogmeat halted at the front of a barricaded building, snuffling around the door and whining softly, pawing at the boards. Morgan slowly, slowly treaded up the stairs to stand beside him, legs shaking. She could feel the pressure building, a mix of damned anticipation and being trapped in her own head, dizzy and nauseous at once. Breathlessly, she whispered.

“We’re here.”

Chapter Text

She could feel it, a knot growing tighter and tighter in the middle of her chest, veins burning like strings pulled taut. She fell back against the wall, fingers twitching and curling into fists as her chin drooped to her chest. Shivers went down her spine, her vision flickering black around the edges. Her heart pounded painfully, and her eyes burned as they teared up. The sounds of the outdoors faded away, replaced by a faint buzzing that filled her ears.

Her legs threatened to give out as sweat trickled down her skin. She bit down into her lower lip, silencing the cries that choked her. She sucked in deep breaths of air, trying to steady herself, trying to outlast it. She hated the weak, whimpering exhales that escaped her. Hated the way her body betrayed her like this.

As if from a great distance, she heard Deacon stop at the base of the steps. She flinched, turning away to hide her face as she fumbled for her pack. She shoved a trembling hand through its contents, grasping desperately, and curled her fingers around smooth plastic. She pressed the inhaler to her lips and inhaled, feeling that sweet-tasting chemical warmth fill her lungs. As she leaned back and exhaled, the heat flowed down into her lungs and heart, and traveling, tingling, from her chest to her fingertips. Everything faded away in a haze of dreamy nirvana.

When her eyes focused, she saw Deacon standing off to the side, pointedly avoiding her gaze. "Done?" he asked, voice tinged with veiled distaste.

She blinked, staring at him as her thoughts cleared. Then, hot, vengeful anger sparked in her blood. How dare he judge her? After all she'd been through? She needed this, needed it to feel normal, needed it so she didn't have a nervous breakdown and do something she might regret. She already had plenty of things she regretted.

Were it not for her pleasant, chemical haze, she might’ve stomped over and given him a piece of her mind. Or fist. Either or. Instead, she threw the inhaler aside, the plastic skidding across the concrete with an unpleasant scraping sound. "Yeah," she said, spitting the words. "I'm done."

Deacon didn’t meet her eyes, just followed her, his footsteps a muted echo to her sharp, angry march. The front door of the building was boarded up, but a nearby parking deck had a side entrance, a flickering light beside the door coaxing her closer. If this place had power, she couldn’t be the only visitor. Morgan’s pulse quickened.

She busied herself with bludgeoning some of the local ghouls hiding in the parking deck, and Deacon told Dogmeat to stay beside the door and wait for them. Morgan bit her tongue when she saw the way Deacon gently petted the dog, smiling and scratching its ears. A single act of kindness towards an animal didn’t undo his bias against her. It didn’t undo his judgement.

They went into the fort. The place was broken down but well-lit, light gleaming from the dusty ceiling bulbs. But the decor wasn’t what Morgan cared about. Gen 1 and 2 synths crowded the hallways and lurked around corners, waiting for her with baleful, yellow eyes. One by one, they came tumbling down, wire muscles laced through steel skeletons clattering to the floor. Flecks of oil splattered against the wall and floor, mixing with the gore on her clothes.

Morgan tried to stay calm. Dug her nails into the heel of her palm, mentally chanted her grounding exercises. But the world around her seemed too loud, too angry, her vision swimming around the edges. It felt like the walls were closing in on her, but she didn’t dare expend another inhaler. Her supply was running low, and besides - she wasn't an addict. She wasn't .

"If it isn't my old friend, the frozen TV dinner. Last time we met, you were cozying up to the peas and apple cobbler."

Morgan stopped. She could have sworn her heart did, too. She stared at the speakers protruding from the ceiling corner, now mockingly quiet. Months had passed since she first left the Vault, but Morgan could remember that gravelly voice as clear as day. Chills trickled down her spine, making all her hair stand on end, her shoulders spasming from shivers.

"Fixer?"

Morgan shook her head, shook off Deacon’s prodding. She didn’t have time for weakness. She’d seen wars and apocalypses and childbirth and tragedy. She could face her husband's killer.

But again, her body betrayed her. Her heart yearned for the exit, pulling her back as her feet trudged forward. She inched along, dizzy and lightheaded, hands cold and her chest tight. Her grip wavered and she couldn’t shoot straight, brutalizing the walls and floors instead of the synths that greeted them around every corner. Deacon took point, protecting her, killing for her, and she didn’t know whether she should hate him or not.

Kellogg’s voice taunted her from speakers hidden in the walls.

"Sorry your house has been a wreck for two hundred years. But I don't need a roommate. Leave."

"Hmph. Never expected you to come knocking on my door. Gave you 50/50 odds of making it to Diamond City. After that? Figured the Commonwealth would chew you up like jerky."

"You've got guts and determination, and that's admirable. But you are in over your head in ways you can't possibly comprehend."

"It's not too late. Stop. Turn around and leave. You have that option. Not a lot of people can say that."

Kellogg followed her through the labyrinth of hallways and tunnels and turrets, until at last she stopped, staring into a menacing, mechanical door with no knob. Morgan had just stepped forward to break it down when it clicked, and swung open. This time, Kellogg sounded almost cautious. "Okay, you made it. I'm just up ahead. My synths are standing down. Let's talk."

Morgan went inside.

With the heavy hum of a generator, the lights flickered and burst into life, filling the dark room with pale fluorescence. It looked like some kind of library, or office, all dark woods and tall shelves and preserved Pre-War rugs across the floor. Synths emerged from around the shelves, off-white bodies and skinless faces contrasting with the beauty of the room. They all wielded their special laser rifles, pointed at Morgan’s chest.

Then, from the back, Kellogg appeared. He held his hands over his head, calm as could be. It looked like he hadn’t aged a day since he’d taken her baby. Right down to his clothes, down to the gun in his hund. The oversized, modified pistol, cold steel and cold-hearted, bearing her husband’s blood. Kellogg’s eyes were dark, so dark she couldn’t see his pupils within them.

"And there she is,” Kellogg said, his voice dry like ash. “The most resilient woman in the Commonwealth." He lowered his gun as he approached the room’s center, watching as she matched his steps and padded across the rugs. “So here we are. Funny, huh?"

The room felt too quiet, muffled by the carpets and the eerie, underground silence. Morgan’s throat was dry, her skin moist with a sheen of sweat. Yet, all her fear had drained away, leaving her pale and cold. Something about standing here, on what felt like the end of a very tall cliff, with a stone’s throw between her and oblivion; she had no reason to be afraid anymore. This wasn’t one of her nightmares. Nate was dead. Her baby, gone. All that remained was a man and a woman, standing at the end of the world, carrying very big guns.

Morgan lifted her chin. "You said your synths would be standing down," she said. Her voice cracked, but she did not falter. "They don't look very down to me."

"They didn't shoot you." He pointed out. "I imagine you're here for your son." He paused to see her reaction. She had none. "Your son. Sean. Great kid. A little older than you might have expected, but I guess you'd figured that out by now. I hate to break it to you, but he's not here."

"Where is he?"

Kellogg let out a cold, rumbling laugh. "You don't know? He's in a place nobody can reach. You won't be able to get there. I couldn't get there, even if I wanted to. Sean's safe, at home. At the Institute. Though I appreciate the determination. It's how a parent should be. How I might've been, if things had turned out... differently."

"How do I find him?"

He laughed again. "Haven't you been paying attention? You don't find the Institute. The Institute finds you. You open a closet, it's just a closet. You can never find the monster that hides inside. Not until it jumps out at you." His mirth faded, dark eyes meeting hers with a new glint of anticipation. "But I think we've been talking long enough,” he said, voice low and gravelly. “We both know how this has to end. Are you ready?"

Nate’s face, glassy-eyed and splattered with blood, flashed in Morgan’s mind. The ghost of Sean’s cry echoed off the walls. But no anxiety prickled at the base of her skull, no fear or anger or aggression. She just felt very heavy, and very tired.

But it had to be done.

“I’m ready.”

Kellogg smiled. Then the synths’ eyes shone and they opened fire, hot blue lasers pelting Morgan’s face and chest. She threw her hand up and staggered backwards, hissing as that cold heat singed her metal armor, making her sweat and sear. A few exchanged shots sent everyone into cover, Kellogg vanishing into thin air with the dull hum of a Stealth Boy. Morgan almost shot Deacon as he slid into cover beside her, having completely forgotten him.

Deacon’s mouth set in a grim line, more serious than she’d ever seen him. Still dazed, Morgan shook her head and tried to focus on the bodies attacking her, firing vaguely into the fray. Deacon took point, fending off the baton-wielding synths as Morgan struggled to keep it together. She couldn’t remember how to fire, how to aim, how to see. Trembling fear coursed through her, making her hands stiff, and visions of the past blended with her reality.

Morgan blinked, and she was sitting in the frozen trenches of Anchorage, sobbing at the mutilated corpse of the soldier beside her , blown to pieces from a grenade. She shivered from the cold winds, then saw the blood-splattered rugs of the library. The synths spoke in Chinese, and Sean was crying. She couldn’t shoot - why couldn’t she shoot? They didn’t cover this in training. In boot camp. They didn’t tell you how to wipe away tears that kept freezing to your cheeks.

Eventually the only gunfire she could hear was her own, and she found herself sobbing in a ball on the floor.

"Morgan."

Deacon sounded breathless. Morgan trembled, letting herself hyperventilate for a few moments, synth corpses still bleeding oil beside her. Then, slowly, she rose, stumbling twice as she clutched her gun close to her chest. She scanned the room, feeling the thick trails of snot and tears drying on her face. The synths were dead. Kellogg’s lifeless corpse lay sprawled across the floor, in a pool of dark blood, rolled on his side so she couldn’t see his face.

She turned, and there was Deacon, leaned back against the wall with one hand pressed to his stomach. Blood covered the floor around him, staining his clothes. His wig was disheveled and off-kilter, and one of his sunglass lenses was cracked, revealing a bright blue eye behind it.

A jolt of cold fear stabbed through her heart. “Did I shoot you?” she whispered.

“No,” he breathed, offering her a wry smile. “You shot everything else, though. Gold star.” With his free hand, he held up a plastic inhaler, stained crimson. “Need this?”

Morgan shook her head. “In a minute,” she mumbled. She knelt beside her bleeding companion, and summoned a medkit from her pack. She gently nudged his hands aside and lifted the hem of his shirt, wiping away the blood and dabbing his wounds with a bourbon-soaked rag. Her hands trembled, but in the silence, in the calm following the storm, she relaxed. By the time she finished up and applied a stimpack, her heart had slowed to a manageable beat.

Morgan’s knees were stained where she’d knelt in the pool of Deacon’s blood, and her hands were crimson after taking off her gloves to tend his wounds. They didn’t speak, marinating in the quiet as Deacon’s injuries healed smooth and Morgan stared off into space.

"I'm sorry," Deacon murmured. "I didn't mean to take that from you."

Morgan blinked. "Take what?" Her voice was raw and rasping.

"Vengeance. I should have let you kill him."

Him. Kellogg. Lying dead on the floor behind her. Morgan remembered the fight of only moments ago, but it was all so... blurry. Her mind threatened to relinquish its grip on reality, trying to disassociate so she could lay down and sleep.

“No,” Morgan whispered. "I couldn't have. I didn't want to kill him."

Deacon’s one visible eye scanned her face. “Why not?”

“I’m…” Morgan’s chin quivered. She swallowed, made it still. “I’m tired. I’m tired of being angry. Of killing. I just want to go home.” Her eyes burned, and tears gleamed in their corners. “I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

Deacon’s exposed eye looked very weary. He nodded, then extended one hand. “I know.”

Morgan accepted, taking his hand in hers and interlacing their fingers.

She could feel him trembling.

 

They didn’t stay long after that. Morgan slit Kellogg’s throat, more for posterity than out of malice. They went back the way they’d came, emerging in the parking deck where Dogmeat greeted them with a cheerful bark.

Now they found themselves clustered around a campfire at nightfall, watching the stars wink into life. Dogmeat dozed at the foot of the fire pit, head resting on his paws. The faint, musky smell of cooking flesh still lingered in the air, the bones of a wild dog tossed aside and covered with debris. Morgan had offered to let Dogmeat have the bones, but Deacon refused. No cannibal canines on my watch , he joked. Some of Kellogg's blood was still on his clothes.

Morgan stoked the fire with a piece of scrap metal, adjusting the logs and making the flames snap and bite before resuming their steady burn. Deacon drank, resting his lips against the rim of the bottle as he often did when in thought. Morgan leaned forward in her chair, firelight reflecting in the orbs of her steely-colored eyes. Her pale skin looked flushed in the dull glow of the fire, dark hair orange and gold.

“My son wasn’t the only thing Kellogg took from me,” Morgan began, unprompted. It was easier to tell the story on her terms than when Deacon was staring at her. “I… I wasn’t born in the vault. I was born two centuries ago, before the bombs dropped. The vault was… I think, a cryogenic experiment. Preserving Pre-War specimens until the world could sustain life again. But I’m from Boston. Old Boston.

“My mom was an Irish immigrant. Smoked like a chimney. She’d claim she was a die-hard Catholic, then slip me condoms whenever I said I was going out. She was from a real poor village in Ireland. I never asked her much about her life before having me. My dad was the son of some upper-middle-class businessman who moved to Boston for work. They met, my mom liked his money, my dad liked her tits, and thus I was born.

“I fancied myself a revolutionary. Wanted to become a lawyer. Take down the system from the inside. Know the world inside and out so I could enforce justice - real justice. I wanted to change the world for the better. And that’s when I met Nate. Nate was a skinny kid who liked comic books and drawing pictures. He was the first person who thought I… who thought I had value. Who didn’t laugh at my ideas, or reassure me that I’d find a good husband someday, or that I’d grow out of my rebellious phase. He thought every aspect of me was beautiful.”

Her voice wavered. “He loved me.”

She swallowed hard and continued on, voice huskier than before. “Then, just before we graduated, he got the draft. A letter in the mail, calling him to military service. We both knew that if he went, he wouldn’t come back. But, since I was a straight-A law student, I put my college education to work and fudged the papers enough that I went in his place. It wasn’t easy, but I got it done. Mostly on the promise that if I failed, at training or combat or whatever, that I’d be sent home and Nate would go in my place.

“So I didn't let myself fail."

She sighed, eyes unfocusing as she stared into the warm light of the fire.

“I don’t like talking about what the military was like. But it changed me. Broke me, I guess. It’s like there’s this… disconnect, between what I think and what I do. I get scared and I can’t stop myself from panicking. Or, I try to help people but I end up scaring them, or attacking them, because that’s all I know how to do. And I thought I was getting better. I thought we stood a chance of ending the war, of me and Nate and Sean getting to have our cozy little house with the picket fence and the neighborhood book clubs. I just... wanted my happy ending.”

Her eyes fell shut, and she turned her face away from the flames.

“But I guess that wasn’t meant to be. The bombs dropped, and I had to go into the Vault. They put me under for two hundred years, or something like that. I don’t know when they woke me up to take Sean. That’s what I’m trying to find out, now. But when Kellogg took Sean, he killed Nate. And I guess he killed me at the same time, too. I’m just still walking.”

She opened her eyes and looked at her right hand, observing the open palm as she curled her fingers. The scar tissue hidden beneath her glove flexed with her movements. “So that's why I need the drugs," she finished quietly. "I’m not trying to be a hero. I gave up being a revolutionary after going to war. I’m tired of fighting, of caring, of trying to fix other people’s mistakes. I just want to…” She released a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.”

Deacon stayed quiet for a few minutes, shifting to hide his exposed eye from her. Then, quietly: "I've lost people.” Morgan watched his profile as he stared up at the sky, one hand tucked behind his head. "At the Switchboard. And... a long time ago.” The lines around his mouth and eyes seemed deep and heavy, revealing his age.

He took another long swig of his beer, then sighed and rested the empty glass on the ground. “I’ve used,” he confessed, “in the past. I guess I know better than most how hard it is. I don’t know what works for you, but… the Railroad helped me. And I’m not trying to sell you anything, I promise. But I used to be in a similar position. Didn’t know where I was going to go, what I was going to do. Then I got to where I am now. Something about having a cause to devote yourself to - with people better than you are - it makes you feel better by association.”

"You really think the Railroad's the right thing to do? The right people to support?"

Deacon's lips twitched in a faint frown. "I do, Fix. I really do. If anyone’s got a chance at making the Commonwealth what it should be... I hope to God it's them."

"You believe in a god?"

He released a slow sigh. "Mm. Do I believe there's a magic man in the sky, judging each one of us and granting us good guys eighty-two virgins after we die?"

"Seventy-two."

"Seventy-two virgins after we die? No. Well, I mean. Never say never, but somehow I don't think that's in the cards. Not for me, anyway. But... I like to think that there is something out there. Maybe not the kind of something that sends you to heaven or hell, or gives you blessings in exchange for blood sacrifice, but maybe some kind of grand, universal karma. I like to believe that maybe, in the end, all the good things we do mean something, and that... when you die, you're forgiven." He paused, still staring upwards. Then, in a murmur: "I hope I'm forgiven."

Then he shook his head, feigning nonchalance. "If you believe anything, boss,” he said, “believe that I'm in your corner. Railroad or no Railroad. I know I'm not the most reliable guy, but I'm not an asshole. Or... I try not to be. I hope I'm not."

"You're not, Deacon." Morgan seemed about to say more, but held it back "You're not."

Then she rolled onto her side with her back to the fire. She wadded up her pack under her head as a pillow, a ratty curtain her makeshift blanket. The fire flickered and snapped, wood gradually eaten away by hungry red cinders, leaving behind nothing but black ash. Morgan’s eyes fell shut and her mind quieted, and soon her her chest rose and fell in the easy rhythm of sleep.

Deacon watched her, listening to the soothing sounds of the late-night Commonwealth, when the good guys were asleep and the monsters hadn’t yet set out on their midnight excursions. Crickets chirped, and one or two fireflies gleamed in the darkness. The moon shone bright and pale above them, half as light as the sun, and dim enough to be beautiful.

"Night, Fix," he murmured at last. "Sweet dreams."

Chapter Text

As soon as they got to the nearest settlement, Morgan sent a letter by courier to Nick Valentine.

Kellogg’s dead, in Fort Hagen. I’ll be back.

When or how or why, she didn’t say. She didn’t have the answers to those questions. In fact, there were a lot of questions she didn’t have the answers to. Nate was dead, Kellogg murdered, and Sean far out of her reach. The Institute was no closer than it had been a day before, and they had gained nothing concrete from the encounter in Hagen. Now, Morgan had to come to terms with what she wanted to do with herself.

It was freeing, in a strange way. Compared with the agony of first leaving the Vault, now she felt almost serene. Perhaps killing Kellogg had helped her psyche. Perhaps her work with the Railroad had given her a sense of purpose. Perhaps Deacon, his footsteps always echoing hers, made her feel less alone. Either way, Morgan was tired, and wanted to take some time for herself.

Deacon followed her, as he always did, with the unspoken understanding that the nature of their relationship had changed. Neither of them drew attention to it - like shining light on a shadow, too much attention and it’d disappear. Instead they kept quiet, passing food and stimpacks between them with a newfound intimacy. Deacon smiled, and monitored her drug use. Morgan’s nightmares grew rarer, and she told him not to worry so much.

Morgan wondered if she ought to start calling him her friend.

 

“Mm,” Deacon hummed. “Mhm. Yeah, no, I say we keep walking.”

“Why?” Morgan frowned at her Pip-Boy, listening to the distress signal repeat itself.

“That’s the Brotherhood of Steel,” her companion explained. “They’re not a huge fan of the Railroad. Or of synths. Or of general human decency, if I’m being perfectly honest.”

“And you’re not just exaggerating?”

“I mean, I am and I’m not, if you catch my drift.”

“I’m not catching your drift.”

Deacon sighed. “They’re an authoritarian regime with big pewpew guns who like bullying others into following their dogma. They think synths are freaks of nature that need to be culled. Same with ghouls, feral or sentient. Human supremacist types.  They’re not very nice, and the Railroad tries to steer clear of them.”

“You realize I can’t take your word for it,” Morgan pointed out.

“You’re sure?”

She shrugged. “We’re supposed to be the good guys. Have to give everyone a chance to explain themselves.”

“Of all the times you decide to have moral integrity.” Deacon sighed again. Gunfire peppered the air, distant shouts and roars coming from the cluster of buildings just up the road. “If you say so, boss. I’m right behind you.”

They weaved through the alleyways between the buildings, taking cover behind boxes and reeking dumpsters. Peering around the corner, they saw ghouls flinging themselves at the front of the Cambridge Police Station, snarling before angry laser fire disintegrated them. A man in power armor stood on the station steps, glowering from behind his barricade of sandbags, metal bars, and Pre-War military dividers. A motionless body leaned against the wall near him.

"Goddamn it."

"Hm?"

"Ghouls." Morgan jerked her chin forward. "They're pinned down at the front, ghouls breaking the front line. One wounded, unknown variables inside. I'll take point alongside Big Guy, you take to the edges and pick off the flankers. Got it?"

"Ten-four, cap'n." He waved two fingers across his brow in a wry mock-salute before dashing back the way they came.

Morgan took a breath and waited, giving Deacon time to come around through another alleyway. Then, she rounded the corner, running as fast as she could to vault the barricade and stand atop it, then throwing her hands over her head. "Hey!"

The power armored man jerked, raising his gun at her. He had tan skin, and dark eyes, sweat beading down his temples and his armor bearing unsightly dents. Dead ghouls and smouldering ashes littered the yard. Some corpses were slumped over the barricade, killed just before they’d made it over. “Step back, civilian!” the stranger called. “This is-”

"I heard your distress signal," she interrupted. "Don't shoot me, I'll help."

He frowned, lips parting to disagree. But three ghouls charged the barricade, hurtling sandbags and debris, sightless eyes shining with murderous intent as they ran. Two sharp pops pierced the air, and one fell, a bullet in the knee and through its temple. Morgan caught the next one, a single rifle shot that tore through its skull. And the stranger finished the last, searing the ghoul’s skin with his laser rifle and filling the air with foul smoke.

The man still looked dubious. “I have a friend,” Morgan offered. “He’ll watch our sides. I’ll take point - you handle the ones that get through.” Without waiting for an answer, she turned and hopped atop the barricade. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

The battle lasted only another fifteen minutes. Looked like a herd of ghouls had wandered through the area and decided to throw themselves at the police station. Their lack of ranged attacks meant Morgan could safely pick them off from atop the barricade, blowing them to pieces with her shotgun as Deacon picked off the stragglers. The man watched her back, offing the ghouls who slipped through the front line.

Soon, the street went quiet. The afternoon sunlight glittered off stagnant puddles of water filling the potholes, the smell of fresh corpses sure to attract bloodbugs. Morgan wiped sweat off her brow and turned around catching her breath as she observed the group clustered on the station steps. A woman had appeared, attending to the wounds of the limp man slumped against the wall. The power armored man looked over the yard with a scowl.

Morgan fixed her eyes on the woman. “He gonna be alright?” she asked.

The woman - blonde, short, soft-faced - nodded back. "He'll make it. It'll take a few stimpacks, but he'll pull together."

"Good." Morgan gave them a final once-over before meeting the stranger’s eyes, stifling a flinch under his intense gaze. “Soldier,” she greeted, without inflection. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and deja vu washed over her, calling to mind years of cold soldiers staring her down. How often had men challenged her as she stood beside corpses?

The stranger stuck out a hand. “Danse.”

She shook it. “Morgan. My friend’s John. He’ll catch up shortly.” John was Deacon’s preferred alias when he didn’t plan on sticking around.

Danse nodded. "Are you... reinforcements?"

"No. I'm a lone operator, who heard your distress signal and came to investigate.” She rolled her shoulders, lifting her chin and giving the soldier a wary look. “I’m not too familiar with Brotherhood operations, either. I was interested in seeing how you did things.”

"I see.” He gave her another probing look, with a vague, condescending air that hadn’t changed in two centuries. “I hate to ask for further help, but we're not out of the fire yet. If you wanted to offer assistance, we could use the extra gun on our side."

Then Deacon sauntered in, expression smooth and unthreatening, pistol sheathed. He flashed his characteristic disarming smile. “John,” he greeted. “I take it you’re our latest clients?”

Danse narrowed his eyes, sparing Deacon a suspicious glance before addressing Morgan. "We're low on people and supplies are running out. I've been trying to send a signal to my superiors, but the signal's too weak to reach them. Scribe Haylen informs me that there's a location not far from here, with the technology we need to boost the radio transmitter. With a stronger signal, we can request assistance. However, I'm hesitant to recover the technology alone. That's where you'd come in."

Something about the soldier made Morgan uneasy. He reminded her too much of men she had known before, military men who viewed the world in black and white, friend or foe. Ally or enemy - or worse, beneath their notice. Men who felt entitled to whatever they deemed worthy.

Morgan did not care for these men.

“What do I get out of it?” she asked, leaning back and crossing her arms. She quirked an eyebrow, felt a familiar glower settle in on her face.

Danse blinked. His eyes narrowed. “Mercenary. I see.” The respect in his voice drained, replaced by distaste. “Well, I can assure you. You’d be duly compensated for your efforts.”

Morgan kept her face blank. “How far to the point of interest? How big is our cargo? What kind of and how many adversaries do you expect?”

The soldier’s jaw tightened. “Not far,” he said, grudgingly. “Close enough we should be back before sundown. The transmitter will be light enough to carry on our person. I’m not sure how many hostiles will be present, but enough I don’t want to go alone.”

Morgan grunted. “Lots of variables. Two hundred and fifty caps. I supply my own ammo and stimpacks, as does my companion. We help you retrieve the transmitter and return safely. Caps paid when we return to the police station.” She stuck out a hand. “Agreed?”

Danse stared her down, dark eyes boring into her own sharp, pale ones, trying to read through the her wall of ice and hate. Perhaps he thought he could change her mind. Perhaps he thought he might guilt her into being his idea of moral. Whatever he thought, Morgan stared back, and waited for him to give in to her .

At last, he spoke. “Agreed,” he said, and they shook hands. “But I lead the way.”

Of course you do, Morgan thought. But she didn’t miss the way the tension in the air dissipated, the way Deacon relaxed, and the small sighs released by the woman and the wounded man. “We leave now? Or do you need time?” she said, instead.

“My people have it handled,” Danse said, without looking at the pair behind him. “Time is of the essence, as I wish to contact my superiors as soon as possible. Let's move."

 

Once out of the safety of Cambridge, the buildings thinned until they became sprawling plains. The trio jogged down a cracked concrete road, lined with battered, rusted cars. Danse walked with heavy stomps, his power armor creaking and clanking in a strange, scraping-metal chorus. Rounding a corner, they saw a cluster of raiders and wild dogs, battling it out beneath the overhang of a large tree. Morgan was about to suggest letting them fight it out, but Danse rushed forward, a gush of hot lasers bursting from the end of his rifle.

Morgan and Deacon shared a look. A faint, knowing smirk pulled at Deacon’s lips. “Could always walk away,” he said, voice almost drowned out by the sound of canine growls and gunfire. “Disappear. He’d never know the difference.”

Morgan pressed her lips together, weighing her options. On one hand, she had wanted to see how the Brotherhood did things. On the other, she was pretty sure she had a good idea.

Deacon yawned, stretching and lacing his hands behind his head. “‘Course, then you’d have to admit I told you so.”

Morgan narrowed her eyes. “Fuck you.” And she chased after Danse.

They offed the raiders and dogs without much trouble, a bunch of druggies and malnourished pups no match for their skills. Turning around, they saw Deacon fending off a pack of stingwings that had materialized out of nowhere. The giant, flying bugs hissed and spat, swinging their sharp mandibles at Deacon’s head. With two pops of a pistol and a swat from Morgan’s sword, the bugs lay dead in a heap.

“Are you finished?” Danse asked, irritated. Morgan bit back a sharp reply and nodded.

They arrived at their destination that afternoon. ArcJet Labs, a bulky building that screamed “science lab.” Its parking lot was littered with the remains of what had once been fancy, top-of-the-line nuclear-powered cars. Cars owned by men who’d curl their lip at all the homeless in downtown Boston, who’d change the channel if the news reported yet more food shortages. The kind of men who’d threaten a starving car mechanic with jail time if they scratched his car.

Danse stopped beside the front door, shooting them a stern look. “Listen up. We do this clean and quiet. No heroics, and by the book. Understood?"

Morgan’s face contorted in disbelief. “Excuse me?” She released a strange, choked laugh. “I’m not your rookie soldier,” she sneered. “I know how to do my job. Respect that, or I walk.”

She could hear his asshole tightening.

Danse’s eye twitched. He grit his teeth. "Understood."

Morgan bit back a smug smirk. "Good."

The interior looked no different than any other ruined laboratory, all exposed cabling and rotted furniture. Danse took it slow and checked his corners, though his power armor still creaked all to hell. Though she couldn’t deny his training, he still reminded her too much of her past. Her scars ached.

They found a room of robots deeper in the facility, security Protectrons sprawled across the floor, their charging pods lining the far wall. They bled nuts and bolts, exposed circuits where their metal exoskeleton had been torn or burned open. "Look at these wrecks," Danse murmured, stepping heavily around each robot, trying not to nudge them. "It appears as though the facility's automated security has already been dealt with."

"By who?" Morgan questioned. Behind her, Deacon held the rear, his light and careful footsteps contrasting with the paladin's brutishness. "Any ideas?”

"There's not a single spent ammunition casing or drop of blood in sight," Danse pointed out, nodding at the floor. "These robots were assaulted by Institute synths." He sounded terribly smug. So self-assured and dramatic. Did he expect her to be impressed?                         

Morgan kept her tone level. “Recent?”

“Hard to tell.” Danse gave the bodies a final once-over. “Stay on your guard.”

Deeper in the laboratory, the hallways were narrow and rusted, littered with fallen debris, pieces of jagged tile and pipe protruding from the wall. Shivers went down Morgan’s spine when she first heard the now-familiar monotone of Institute synths. Those Protectrons must not have been very old, after all. Like with the raiders and dogs, Danse rushed in at the first sign of action, barking commands and trying to start a firefight in close quarters.

It would have been easier if Morgan could sneak around and pick them off one at a time, but no, Danse insisted on staying in front, blocking her vision and attracting all attention. Deacon lingered behind them both, staying quiet and pressing ammo into her hands, lifting tech from the synths when Danse wasn’t paying attention.

The soldier seemed more preoccupied by the wealth of Pre-War files and technology scattered around the building. "Why do you care about all this?” Morgan asked, as Danse pocketed the contents of yet another filing cabinet.

"To keep it from falling into the wrong hands." Danse spoke without looking at her. "The Brotherhood works to preserve Pre-War knowledge, not to use it. Humanity's proven that they can't be trusted with the technology they have. They proved that when they killed the world. Now, we take all the knowledge we can, and make sure no one can use it again."

"So... the Power Armor. The laser rifles. Why can those be used?"

Danse stopped and faced her, looking sour. "Certain sacrifices must be made so that we can pursue our interests. We have to be able to defend ourselves and our technology, and do what is necessary to continue seeking out new knowledge."

Morgan's lips twitched. She could smell the hypocrisy, but it was to be expected - these kinds of righteous types liked to bend the rules to serve their righteousness. But she didn’t care to have this argument. She’d do the job, get paid, and leave him to his own self-important devices.

“I was just curious.”

Through a door with a busted lock was a tall, cylindrical room, the three of them standing on a metal grate platform far above the strange, ashen floor. The room was lit by a selection of bright, fluorescent lights, the kind that run on auxiliary power. Unfamiliar technology hung from the ceiling, held up by mechanical arms and cables.  

They took the provided stairwell to the bottom, noting the blackened walls and the greasy film on the staircase handrails. At the floor of the room, they found two sets of doors. One, leading into a red-lit maintenance room. And the other, an elevator, the doors pressed firmly shut and the buttons dark and lifeless. "We need to get the power back on," Danse announced. "Then we can take the elevator to the engine core and retrieve the transmitter."

Deacon and Morgan followed the red light as Danse stood in the hallway, keeping a lookout. In the maintenance room, barren toolboxes and lightless control panels were everywhere, the room’s corners crowded with shelves bearing clipboards and pens and goggles. On the far wall, there was a plexiglass window looking into the blackened chamber. On the control panel just below the window, a singular bright red button gleamed at them. “Engine Start,” the label said. Morgan pressed it. Nothing.

“Found something,” Deacon called. Around a corner, a dusty fusebox perched on the wall, wires connected to an abandoned terminal. Deacon turned on the terminal and typed into it for a few minutes. Then, the auxiliary lights blinked off, replaced by a brighter, finer light. A computer voice blared from speakers buried in the walls, confirming that power had been restored.

Danse shouted. Through the plexiglass window, they saw synths dropping from the ceiling, vaulting over the top of the stairwell and landing several stories down without taking any damage. Danse dug his heels in and fended them off from the hallway, blue and red laser fire intermingling in the air. “Deacon!” Morgan shouted. “The door!” And she ran, joining Danse at the hall and levelling her shotgun at the oncoming synths.

Deacon rushed to the maintenance terminal, typing furiously until the screen shone green and the heavy hallway doors creaked and squealed, grinding against their hinges as they swung shut. Danse and Morgan backed away from the end of the hall, watching more and more synths drop down. Their metal bodies thumped ominously against the thick doors as they charged.

One synth managed to get through the crack in the doors, beeping with menace as Morgan and Danse fired. But the doors hissed and shut, the synth still trapped between them. It made a few pathetic, electronic noises, then crumpled. Its torso cracked and splintered between the doors, and the light in its eyes faded. Its shoulder joint snapped, arm falling to the ground with a clatter, still holding the Institute laser rifle.

Danse picked up the rifle without comment.

A few seconds after the doors closed, the synths moved, now beating their fists against the maintenance window. Some used their laser guns to try and melt the window, while others hammered their fists against the plexiglass until their fingers broke off. And still more synths dripped from the ceiling with no sign of stopping. Danse, Deacon, and Morgan huddled against the wall opposite the window, the beads of sweat on their skin glinting red in the light.

"Well, this is fun," Deacon remarked, his fair skin fairer from fear. "I mean, not how I imagined myself dying, but."

"Deacon, shut up."

"I concur," Danse grumbled, curling and uncurling his hands around his weapon. "I say we set up some cover and re-open the doors, keep them pinned down in the hallway."

"And just shoot until we either run out of ammo or they outnumber us?" As Morgan spoke, more synths dropped from the walkway and hurled themselves at the window. "There has to be something we can do."

"Is there?" Danse snapped back. "The best course of action is often the simplest one. I believe I have the strength to-"

"Oh, don't fucking start with me-"

"You know this is a rocket, right?" Deacon interrupted. He stood with one hand poised over the now-glowing Engine Start button. "I read it on the terminal. They test rockets in here."

In unison, Morgan and Danse’s eyes drifted down to the button. "Deacon," Morgan said, licking her lips. "Press the button."

Deacon did. It clicked, and the lights in the blackened chamber turned yellow, flashing and spinning like sirens. The computer voice counted down, each number echoing throughout the facility. The synths stopped battering the window and turned, all their heads raising to the ceiling in eerie unison. The room thundered with the sound of heavy doors slamming shut and locking. With the creaking and grinding of moving metal, the hunk of tech on the ceiling descended.

“Three. Two. One.” The computer finished its countdown.

A hot gush of light erupted from the ceiling. They all leapt back from the window, throwing their arms over their eyes. A sweat broke out on their skin from the tremendous heat emanating through the plexiglass. After a minute or two, it shut off, and the normal white light returned. The ceiling - the rocket - returned to the ceiling, metal tinted red and gold where flame had erupted. The floor of the chamber was covered in lumps of steaming, bubbling plastic, a thin layer of ash spread across the ground. Slowly, the trio lowered their arms.

"Damn," Danse remarked.

"I concur," Deacon chirped. "Shall we?"

When they exited, the synth’s arm was still laying in the hallway, along with flecks of its skull and torso that had landed on this side of the doorway. On the other side, the metal door was covered with a steaming black gunk where the synth’s body had melted. The room was almost unbearably hot.

"The walls and floors must be thermodynamic," Danse murmured, observing their surroundings. "To sustain that amount of heat, and be functional after-"

"You can gush over that later," Morgan interrupted. "We don't know if the synths have stopped coming. We need to go in, grab the transmitter, and get out. Quickly."

Danse swallowed, the muscles in his jaw seizing. "I had the same thought myself. Allow me." And he took the lead. Again.

Power restored, they took the elevator to the engine core. They reached the bottom and the door released a warped ding and creaked open. This part of the facility was darker, more damaged, covered with broken control panels and patches where walls or pipes had busted open. Exiting the elevator, the trio caught sight of a cluster of synths, running away with a hunk of tech in their spindly arms. It only took a few shots to the back to make them crumple.

Danse went forward, kicking aside the bodies and examining their plunder. "The Deep Range Transmitter," he murmured.

“That’s what you were after? If they beat you to the punch… do you think they were trying to sabotage you?” Morgan asked.

"If that is the case, I'd be very concerned," Danse stated. "No. More than likely, I suspect them of trying to take it for their own nefarious deeds. There's no knowing what the Institute has planned." He paused, the cumbersome device filling his hands. "Who’s going to hold this?”

Morgan arched a brow. “I don’t see why you can’t.”

“I need my weapon,” Danse responded, patronizingly. “I am sure your companion is capable of carrying this. And we shouldn't be far off now from the exit. It won’t take long."

So Deacon became the pack mule, and Morgan’s glower deepened. But as Danse said, it didn’t take long before they emerged aboveground through a hidden back entrance some ways behind ArcJet. Danse punched through the rusted door with a grunt, exposing them to the late afternoon sunlight and cool Boston breeze. Morgan let out a relieved sigh, lowering her weapon and helping Deacon get the transmitter through the narrow doorway.

The back entrance was inside what looked like a particularly sturdy trailer, sitting out in the middle of a small, fenced-in yard. Danse waited for them to get the transmitter outside and into the yard before speaking. "Well, that could have gone smoother, but mission accomplished."

Morgan frowned. "I'm not sure how much smoother you expected that to go."

Danse lifted his chin, looking self-important again. “You were resistant to following orders and to falling in line, and your so-called companion contributed little to the operation. However,” he allowed, “your training is inarguable. You know what you’re doing, and you did it clean. Differences in approach can be worked out. But people with your level of calm and marksmanship are invaluable. I’m not certain I could have accomplished the mission alone."

Morgan imagined he was trying to compliment her. “Thank you,” she grumbled. “Though I can't say I asked for an evaluation." She didn’t appreciate the dig at Deacon, either.

"Accepting constructive criticism is the best way to improve ourselves both physically and mentally," Danse informed her.

Morgan bristled sharply. “And you’re so perfect that I’m the one who needs criticizing.”

Danse’s dark eyes flashed. “If you have a problem, I’m listening, mercenary.”

Hot fury gushed into her bloodstream, tinting her cheeks and making her eyes spark. “Oh, I’ve got some fuckin’ problems, pal.”

Then Deacon swept in, all smooth and soothing and smiling. “My employer has anger issues, if you didn’t notice, Mr. Paladin, sir. Her mood tends to lighten if she’s got caps in her pocket. Maybe we could speak more reasonably if all our debts were paid?”

Danse gave Deacon a displeased look, but huffed a sigh and held out a patchwork pouch, the caps within clinking together. “Two hundred and fifty caps. As agreed.”

Morgan stuffed the pouch into her pack. “Fine. We’re done here.”

She turned away, but Danse’s voice hit her from behind. “We could use people like you, you know. If you can learn to control your temper and respect authority, there’s a place for you in our organization. It would be more honorable than killing for money.”

Morgan’s hands curled into fists, the leather of her gloves creaking as her hands shook. How dare he. He had the gall to insinuate that she was just some common murderer, the gall to suggest that she needed to learn to “control herself.” Oh, she’d show him control. She’d control her hand to keep it real still and slow as she fucking slit his throat. Let him learn what true fury and righteous indignation was.

Men like him had ruined the world. Ruined her world. Danse was just like every military superior that had told her to “get it together” in the military, when she had panic attacks and cried and couldn’t bear the sight of another dead body. Danse was just like every doctor that told her she’d “adjust better” to civilian life if she had surgery to remove her scars and replace them with a prettier face. Danse was just like all those self-entitled Vault-Tec bastards who promised to capitalize on fear to turn a profit.

She knew synths more human than him.

Morgan whipped around, hand jerking for her shotgun. She could get off one or two shots, pierce the metal of his helmet, catch him off-guard. Then, hack him limb from limb, feed him to wild dogs, sell his armor for scrap and then go back and wipe the Cambridge Police Station from the face of the fucking earth. Then she’d go have a Nuka-Cola with some ghouls in Goodneighbor and save some synths for the Railroad, just to spite him.

But Deacon’s hand caught her wrist. She almost struck him, but looked up instead, glaring into his sunglasses. He stared back, face neutral. Very, very slightly, he shook his head.

Morgan yanked her hand away and swore under her breath. She allowed herself one retort. “Fuck you,” tossed over her shoulder as stalked away.

Thankfully, Danse didn’t reply, or she might have done something Deacon would regret. Morgan walked off, and Danse went the opposite way, returning to the road and the police station. Morgan marched across the field, no particular destination in mind, letting fury guide her.

Deacon respected Morgan’s angry silence for a few moments. Then, he leaned over, murmuring casually at her ear. “You know, I told you following the distress signal was a bad idea.”

Morgan rounded on him, more angry than he’d ever seen her, eyes glinting like sword steel and her lips pressed together in a grim line. “You-” She raised one hand, hand balled in an angry fist, caught between hitting him and not. At last her arm lowered, a dark look on her face. “You are lucky,” she hissed, “that I don’t beat your ass.”

Deacon raised his eyebrows, cowed and amused at the same time. “Yes, boss.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I will break you.”

“I don’t doubt it, boss.”

“I will wipe you from the face of the earth.”

“I kneel in the face of your greatness, boss.”

“I-” She closed her mouth. “Shut up, Deacon.”

“Yes, boss.”

She could feel him grinning all the way home.

Chapter Text

Morgan and Deacon kept in this comfortable pattern. Odd jobs, the occasional Railroad mission. Save a synth, do some old lady’s gardening, rescue a child’s toy from some disagreeable molerats. They enjoyed each other’s company, passing the time by talking or playing cards. They traveled. Deacon sent back dead drops and holotapes of intel. Morgan upgraded their weapons and armor. Life was almost peaceful.

Then Nick Valentine summoned them.

“The Memory Den, huh?” Deacon remarked, peering over Morgan’s shoulder. “And Amari. I wonder why he thinks we need her.”

“Amari?” Morgan lowered the letter.

Deacon gave her a noncommittal shrug. “Amari’s a brain doctor. She’s the one who does all the memory work on our synths - the ones who can’t take life on the surface but who still want to be free. She hacks into their brain, makes them think they were born human, and we send them out into the world thinking they stopped by Goodneighbor for a medical check-up.”

“That seems…”

“Unpleasant. Yeah, we know.” He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, one of his favorite fidgets when he was uncomfortable. “But we don’t have the resources for safe, intensive therapy, so it’s the best we can do.” He sighed. “At least it’s optional. More for the benefit of the nervous ones, the ones who can’t take the outside world but can’t go back.”

Morgan blinked. “Like H2.”

Deacon gave her a curious look. “Yeah.”

She looked away quickly. “So you think this is Railroad business?”

“Who knows. Just have to keep our ears and eyes open, I guess.”

“And make sure to hide our caps.”

“Good idea.”

Goodneighbor was run by the inscrutable John Hancock, a sentient ghoul who went around in colonial clothes and spouted off about anarchy and libertarianism. Morgan had earned her place in Goodneighbor by doing jobs for him, offing his political rivals in exchange for food, lodging, and discounts at the local shops. Hancock appreciated her skill and discretion, and Morgan liked a place to call home.

Morgan always called him John instead of Hancock, first name instead of his last, and refused to work unless he told her the reasons why, never working for the money alone. He didn’t always, so she didn’t always work for him. It was a relationship of mutual respect, and for that, Morgan could at least appreciate why the ghoul’s citizens loved him so dearly.

Goodneighbor was a home for misfits, freaks, and the unwanted. Families and children mingled with murderers, addicts, and sex workers. All of Goodneighbor was a red light district - anything sellable was sold there. But by that same token, no bullshit was brokered. People were free to fight or kill or settle disputes among themselves, so long as they were prepared to get a visit from the mayor if they crossed a line or two.

Morgan liked it there. The people liked and respected her, and she didn’t have to worry so much about playing nice. Nobody gave orders or tried to impose any rigid set of laws. And the bars always kept their Nuka-Cola cold. After joining the Railroad, she learned that Hancock believed in his “freedom for all” mantra enough to provide safe places for synths. More than a few of Goodneighbor’s residents were synths, too, knowing or otherwise.

Deacon was a tad too delicate for the place, she noticed. Averting his eyes when they passed a topless woman servicing someone in an alley, or getting all pouty and subdued when they passed a group of kids drawing chalk dicks on the street. But they found their way to the Den and stepped inside, letting the red light and unmistakable odor of human depravity wash over them.

Irma was there, as the figurehead. Thirty-five, unfairly busty, and all too kind to her clients. She reclined on a chaise lounge in the center of the Den, surrounded by memory pods and the dull-eyed patrons within them. She looked like the picture of sin in her feathered dress and corset. "Here for Amari?" she purred. “She's downstairs. Nick told me to expect you."

Morgan nodded, and headed down. The lighting turned from red to blue, and the creaking stairs deposited them at a small laboratory, contained two memory pods and a selection of tech. Nick was there, his back to the doorway as he murmured to a worry-faced brown-skinned woman. The woman looked over Nick’s shoulder as Morgan and Deacon entered, giving them each a once-over. "Ms. Morgan, I assume," she said.

"You must be Amari." Morgan stepped forward. "Nick tell you why we're here?"

"A bit. But he wanted you here before we began anything."

Nick came forward, hands in the pocket of his trenchcoat as all eyes landed on him. "I found something, on Kellogg," he said. "Something that might help us get into the Institute."

Morgan's pulse quickened. "What kind of thing?"

"Cybernetic augmentations. Least, that's what it said on the fine print." Nick pointed to a jar on Amari's table, where a hunk of circuits and brain matter sat suspended in clear medical fluid. "Tech, mixed in with Kellogg's... everything."

Morgan squinted at the jar before shaking her head. “Why?” she questioned, looking between the woman and the synth. "Why was that in his skull? Why were you in his skull, Nick?"

"I happened to be checking the body and saw some interesting things through the hole in his head. I'll spare you the gruesome details. Point is, this guy was at least part synth. If we're lucky, that jar of goo might be all we need for Amari to get us a look at Kellogg's memories."

"And if we're even luckier, those memories might involve the Institute," Morgan finished, and looked to Amari. "You really think this is possible?”

"I think it's mad," the doctor said, pursing her lips. "But this piece Mr. Valentine brought, it - it has everything I'd need if I were to run the procedure on a human host. And Mr. Valentine might be an older generation synth, but Institute technology tends to follow the same structure. I believe I could use his circuitry to 'host' Kellogg, so to speak. And if you were in a connected memory pod, you could travel through the memories and find what you need."

Morgan took a breath. "Where do we start?"

Amari unscrewed the jar, gingerly removing the hunk of brain with a gloved hand. "Here." She pulled some cables from a nearby terminal, plugging them into a few ports in the flesh's circuitry. Her fingers flew across the terminal keyboard, and one of the memory pods hummed alive, interior lights blinking on. "Whenever you're ready, Mr. Valentine," Amari said, and gestured to a chair beside the bright pod.

Nick leaned back in the chair, eyes on Amari as she gently popped open a panel in his skull. She prodded at his insides, shifting wires and poking circuits. Morgan stared off into space, thinking of what to do to pass the time when she remembered Deacon. She turned and found him leaned against the wall behind her, arms crossed and expression passive. “Do you... want to go?" she asked. She suddenly felt exposed, naked, caught with her hand in the cookie jar. "I don't know how long this'll take."

Deacon shrugged, pushing up his sunglasses. "I've got nowhere to be, Fix. Don't worry about me. I'll just pester Amari while you're both out of it. I'm sure she won't mind."

"Very funny, Deacon," Amari said, her back to them.

"What, I don't get a special title? Mr. Valentine, Ms. Morgan, and then just Deacon? I'm disappointed, 'Mari."

Amari ignored him, fixing her eyes on the other woman. “It's time."

Morgan took a breath and nodded, setting her pack against the wall and leaning back in the pod.  Claustrophobia washed over her, and her breath caught. A faded, vinyl cushion propped up her neck, misshapen after years of other people’s necks pushing it down. "Keep your fingers crossed," Amari muttered, and the chair shifted, leaning her back as the pod door closed over her.

Her heart pumped rapidly, a sweat breaking out on her skin. She licked her dry lips, eyes scanning the lid of the pod, desperately seeking the outside. She twitched when Deacon stepped into view, looming over her through the glass, lips pressed together in that line of worry and his brows furrowed into his sunglasses. He opened his mouth, but faltered.

Help me, she mouthed, guard lowered as she started to panic. Then she could hear Amari’s voice, and everything was dark, so dark, and there was that white mist again...

 

Help me, she mouthed, and the hairs stood up on the back of Deacon’s neck. Her eyes sought his until the windows of the pod rippled and the screens went up, so she couldn’t see out, but they could still see in. Her fingers dug into the vinyl armrests, tearing the brittle stitching and exposing ratty stuffing. Her eyes darted around, jaw clenched tight. Then, she relaxed. Her eyes unfocused, and all the tension in her limbs drained, leaving her limp and unresponsive.

Deacon never much cared for the Memory Den. He didn't like dwelling on the past, and it's not like he had many memories he wanted to relive, anyway. If you spend too much time focusing on what was, you might lose sight of what is, and then nobody can help you.

He stood over the pod for several minutes, uneasy concern beating cold in his chest, before he steeled himself and returned to the bench against the wall. He forced himself not to pace, to fidget, to look at all nervous or interested. He had to play the part of bored follower, or Amari might question him at the end of this little excursion.

He shouldn’t have stayed. Hell, he should have given this up a while ago. Weeks ago. Should have made a hasty retreat when the first rumors circulated around HQ, the first betting pool began on how long it’d take for her to drop him.

Deacon’s new partner, the voices whispered. I thought he didn’t travel with partners.

He doesn’t. Must be getting soft.

Des had given him those skeptical, eyebrow-arching, what-are-you-up-to-Deacon glances she saved for when she suspected him of having a lot more up his sleeve. Morgan probably hadn’t noticed. She didn’t notice much.

Morgan - Fixer, he reminded himself - was odd in the things she noticed. She couldn’t tell you if a tourist was being truthful or not, but she could tell you that he favored his left hand, used rifles, and had a weak right leg, probably from some childhood injury. She could formulate a battle plan, whether against an army or an individual, with just a glance. She never cared for the difference between truth and a lie, but could smell bullshit a mile off. He still felt sorry for the wastelander that tried to pull that “credit card” scam.

He shook his head. The room was quiet, save for Amari’s low voice, murmuring into the terminal microphone. Deacon wondered what Morgan was seeing in there, what horrors of Kellogg’s mind she had to endure. Somehow he didn’t think it would be all irradiated unicorns and gumdrop fairies. But she had Nick, and Amari too. They’d look after her.

So why was he still here?

Curiosity fueled it, at first. Getting that panicked dead drop from the tourist - Holy shit, some broad came out of the Vault and started setting houses on fire downhill - certainly made for a good story. But she wasn’t Institute. No contacts, no technology, just a trail of burnt out campfires and changed bandages left in her wake. He saw her help those Minutemen, insofar as it could be called “helping.” Killing some raiders and giving the survivors permission to live in a Pre-War neighborhood, provided they avoid a particular house, did not a hero make.

Between the military training, the selective mutism, the crying nightmares and the scowling way she stopped to help people on her way to Diamond City, he wanted to know why. He had just made it back to HQ to request permission to mark her as a potential asset when she arrived on their doorstep, threatening grenades and giving Desdemona a headache.

Maybe his agreement to take her off Des’s hands, show her the ropes, was not entirely selfless. Morgan was a new variable, a living antique, a bipedal time capsule who snorted at his obscure references, the ones everyone else ignored. He thought he’d find out what made her tick, maybe induct her into the secretive ways of the Railroad, then move on, because Deacon didn’t get attached. He’d had twenty years and too many non-surviving partners to not learn that.

Yet here he was, lingering in Amari’s office with a pounding heart.

Synth, liar, soldier, agent. I don’t care who you are, just what you do.

You? The leader of the Railroad? Look, I’m not an idiot.

Oh, I’ve got some fuckin’ problems, pal.

You’re not an asshole, Deacon.

Stay close.

It didn’t make sense. People like her didn’t appear often. Cynical, but not indifferent. Smart, but not pretentious. Skeptical, yet always willing to hear you out. Outcast from everything, but still stubbornly participating in what she thought was right. She was all the pieces of a perfect partner, the muscle to his mouth, brawn to his brains, a steady hand and calm eyes that never got angry when his stories turned out to be lies.

But good things in his life never lasted, and he’d decided long ago that it was better to fetter out a major weakness and end things before it ended itself in a tsunami of blood and tears. So that left the question: When was this partnership going to go south? And what weakness could he exploit to end it before Morgan turned on him?

Amari raised her voice. "Alright. I think- I think that's everything. Let's wake them up." First, she went to Nick, and his eyes turned gold again. She gave him a brief check-up, confirming that he was in one piece. Amari unplugged him and let him go, and Nick tipped his hat at them both before heading upstairs.

Amari's gaze flickered to Deacon. “Don’t mind me,” he said, with a tight-lipped smile. “I’m just the chaperone. If something goes wrong, I have to be the one to give Des the bad news.”

“Tread lightly, Deacon,” she warned, pursing her lips. “This may be bigger than anything you or I’ve encountered yet. Don’t mess it up, or it’ll be all of us who pay the price.”

Deacon ignored the shivers creeping down his spine. “Appreciate the tip, doc.”

Amari gave him a dark look, but let it be. She typed into her terminal until the memory pod hissed and the front swung up, recliner shifting so Morgan could sit up. She staggered to her feet, squinting against the light. Her hair hung in limp, sweat-soaked strands around her face, face paler than usual, her eyes struggling to focus.

It felt… wrong, to see her like this. It felt like being six years old and catching your mother on her fourth glass of wine, when she’s tipsy and cynical and not at all the kind lady who makes your lunches. Like hearing your grandparents swear for the first time when you sit at the adult table on thanksgiving, or meeting your favorite movie star in the supermarket.

Morgan wavered and wobbled as she got her feet under her, head swaying dizzily. Deacon balled his hands into fists until his fingernails dug into the heel of his palms, controlling the impulse to stand and help her. Amari was the doctor. He was the follower. It was his job to maintain a very careful, distanced relationship, his job to lure Morgan into the Railroad and keep an eye on the goings-on of the Commonwealth. Forming attachments was just creating a weakness for someone else to exploit.

Morgan steadied, though she wouldn’t look at either him or Amari, staring at the floor with an odd expression on her face. Deacon had learned to read most of her non-expressions; a purse of the lips for frustration, tension in her shoulders if she was stressed, the faintest half-smile for amusement. But now, she had… nothing. She was in neutral. Blank, empty. Eerily composed, revealing nothing, face devoid of any emotion at all.

Amari, who’d been careful not to touch her until now, stepped forward. “Alright? Take it slow, now. No one’s ever done this before. How do you feel?”

A moment passed. "Odd."

Her voice was tight, controlled. Just slightly raspy, like she needed to clear her throat or get a drink of water. She still didn’t move. So motionless it looked unreal, every muscle in her body coiled to keep her as still as possible.

"Are you ready to talk about what happened in there?"

Ah, there was the flinch. Her chin jerked to the side, shoulders curling away, her body leaning away from Amari. Her shoulders curled tight, tighter, like the spring in a game of pinball, ready to launch at any moment. Then she swallowed, took a breath, and stood up. All the tension vanished, feet shoulder-width apart, her neck and back relaxed. Face was still emotionless, but more natural than before, and she didn’t show any signs of unsteadiness.

Only her eyes gave it away. Most of the time they gleamed like knives, the color of steel and just as sharp, making note of everything and everyone around her, counting threats like sheep. Now, they were dull and glassy, slightly unfocused, so it felt like she wasn’t really looking at you when she talked. Like button eyes on a puppet - humanizing, but with no real feeling behind them.

"The Institute uses teleporters," she said. "And the boy with Kellogg was my son. They were here recently."

Amari frowned. Deacon knew she’d try to pester, try to coax her into a full medical and psych evaluation. But, right now, that was the last thing Morgan needed. "The Institute uses teleporters?" he interrupted. "Shocking. How do we know this?"

It took Morgan a minute to process the sound of his voice. "The memories,” she grunted. “Teleporters are why you can’t find them. They can go anywhere. Untraceable."

Amari huffed, but let them change the topic. "That scientist - Virgil, the one mentioned by that Courser. He may have some knowledge of how to access one of these teleporters. And if nothing else, he's the only person we know with memories and knowledge of the Institute." Her brow furrowed. "But the memory said he was in the Glowing Sea. That doesn't make sense. No one goes there. Not even if they were desperate."

"I’m going.”

“But-” Amari stared at her, lips parted with a thousand concerns and warnings on the tip of her tongue. Morgan’s glassy eyes stared back. “Very well,” the doctor acquiesced. “Just - please, don’t die. There’s too much at stake.” She paused. “Before you go, there’s… something for you. A holotape left by one of the synths before their mind wipe. He said to thank you, for everything.”

Morgan froze. Slowly, and with as little physical contact as possible, she plucked the tape from Amari’s outstretched fingers. She mumbled a thank you and ducked away, chin to her chest as she jogged up the stairs. Deacon rose, glancing after her and grabbing his things. “Thanks, ‘Mari,” he said, waving.

Amari watched him go with strange, mournful eyes. “Be careful, Deacon.”

You know, he was really getting sick of all the people telling him to be careful and to pay more attention. Des, Carrington, Amari, everyone in a twenty mile radius…

When Deacon reached the head of the stairs, Morgan and Nick had already said their goodbyes, the synth on his way out while Morgan lingered in the corner, running her fingers over the holotape. Deacon approached her carefully, keeping space between them. "Ready to go, boss?"

"Yeah." She closed her hand around the tape, stuffing it into her pocket and running her free hand over her face. When she spoke, she looked pained, like she struggled just to get the words out. "I just need a minute."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Morgan looked at him through a crack between her fingers. "Do you ?"

“Yes. Maybe.” He gave her an imploring look. “I’m just trying to help, Fix.”

"I don't need your help."

"I know that," he said, frustrated. "But it's there, if, you know... you want it."

She went quiet again, hands sliding into her pockets as she leaned against the wall and stared at the ground. She stood still like that for a few moments, then abruptly walked outside, marching to the Hotel Rexford without looking to see if he followed. She threw a handful of caps on the front desk and headed upstairs before Claire could finish telling them not to make a mess.

The room was dingy and unclean, two stained mattresses pushed together on a rickety bedframe to make something resembling a king-sized bed. A window stood at the far end of the room, letting in natural light and a glimpse of the street below, the Third Rail and Old State House just across the way. Drifters shuffled around the street, exchanging money or drugs or just shooting the breeze.

Morgan threw her pack under the bed, and with her back to Deacon, pulled the bobby pins from her hair, letting it fall to her shoulders in dark, unwashed locks.

"Are we staying here?" Deacon asked, hesitantly dropping his things beside hers.

She didn’t reply, just stared off into space. Then, she raised her forearm, popping open the tape player. Deacon opened his mouth to ask if he should leave, but it was too late.

“The doctor said I could say goodbye,” began a familiar, wavering voice. “I’ve - I've decided to have the operation. I know I'll lose all my memories. I don't want you to be sad.” He paused, an audible swallow coming through the speakers. “I... I have nightmares. And this world, the SRB, being hunted - I just can't handle it. Everyone says I'll be safer if I start a new life. I know I'll be happier. My only regret is I'll forget... Old Man Stockton. High Rise. And you.”

Morgan was as still as death.

“Looking back, there's only fear. Worse than fear. But… I’ll miss my new friends." A woman spoke, too far away the mic to pick up. "I - just one more minute, p-please?" A pause. “Okay. Well - I - I don’t-” He took a deep, shaky breath. “Thank you, Fixer. For everything.”

The tape player clicked, and the room fell silent. Deacon didn’t move, didn’t dare to breathe. The air was thin and cold, and Morgan looked so breakable, frozen like an ice statue on the edge of the bed, liable to melt or shatter at the slightest provocation. At last she rose, dropping her Pip-Boy on the bedside table and dragging out her pack, carrying it with her into the bathroom and locking the door.

Suddenly alone, Deacon exhaled, taking off his jacket and running a comb through his wig with a shaking hand. He sat back on the bed, the wood creaking dangerously under his weight, and waited. Morgan reappeared in a minute or two, holding a bundle of armor and spent toiletries. Gone were the military fatigues and battered combat armor. Now she wore a set of jeans, boots, and a dark leather jacket over a sleeveless gray shirt. Water droplets glinted on her cheeks where she’d splashed herself, hair charged with static from being brushed. The shadows under her eyes were darker, and her scars looked deeper than ever. Deacon hadn't realized she owned a change of clothes. He'd never seen her change.

Morgan dumped her things into a dresser drawer, then stuffed her hands in her pockets and went to the door. "Where're you going?" Deacon asked, standing abruptly.

"Out.” She opened the door, hand resting on the doorframe, then hesitated. She looked back over her shoulder, not quite at him. “I’ll be back.” Then she was gone.

Her steps echoed down the hall and padded down the stairs until he couldn’t hear them anymore. Deacon moved to the window, toying with his hands, feeling his wig start to itch. He observed the street, running his nails over his hands and frowning into the glass. Just before he turned away, Morgan emerged from the front door of the Rexford, hands shoved in her pockets and her head down. He watched her walk across the street, glancing from side to side, and stop beside the door of the Old State House. She knocked, then went inside, shutting it behind her.

Deacon swallowed, and moved away from the window.

Chapter Text

They brought her back in the early morning, when most residents were still knocked out from last night's festivities. Deacon almost had a heart attack the lock turned and Hancock swaggered into the room, two burly “assistants” at his heels, Neighborhood Watchmen with shiny tommyguns and unfriendly scowls. Morgan dangled from the their grasp, chin at her chest, her hair dangling in thin, greasy strands. Hancock slid his skeleton key back into his breast pocket. “Special delivery.”

Deacon briefly thanked his past self for not taking his pants off before he went to sleep. “Hey there, mayor,” he said uneasily, lowering the pistol he’d pulled out from under his pillow. “Interesting night?” He watched the two men drop Morgan facedown on the bed.

"Our friend isn't a happy tripper," Hancock rumbled. Ghouls had a natural purr to their voice, but everything John Hancock said seemed doubly as seductive. "Look after her. I'd do it myself, but Fahrenheit hates when they stay overnight, and I figured you'd be concerned." His eyebrow twitched. "I hope you're concerned."

"I am, I am." Deacon kept sneaking glances at the bed. "She's not... dead, I hope?"

"No. No overdose, nothing. I take care of my people. Even if they're technically your people." The ghoul pulled a tin from his pocket, scooping out two Mentats and knocking them back with a swallow from his flask. "I hope you guys know what you're doing. Morgan's good people. Hate to see something happen to her."

"You know something I don't, Mr. Mayor?" Deacon said, all cordial and innocent as he went to Morgan’s body. He pressed two not-trembling fingers to the curve of her neck, opening her mouth and holding his ear above her lips. A calm, steady pulse beat against his fingertips, and warm breath puffed against his skin.

Hancock gestured lazily to the comatose woman. "You don't trust me?"

"Technically, I'm not supposed to trust anyone," Deacon chirped, flashing a smile. "Railroad policy."

"Mhm." The ghoul stuffed his flask back in his coat, and gestured for his watchmen to leave. When the door shut and their heavy footsteps faded away, Hancock crept forward, black eyes meeting black shades. "Now, I've never been one to get involved in other people's business. Not without a good reason. But that agent of yours just showed up on my doorstep, took my drugs, and depressed the hell out of me. She might be your people, but she's in my town. I don't want to see your organization mistreating good people."

Deacon swallowed. "It's not us," he said, softly. "It’s… she’s had a hard time, recently.”

Hancock stared into Deacon’s sunglasses for a few seconds, then leaned back and stuffed his hands into his coat pockets. "Well, ain't we all." He raised his chin. "You need anything, just send word down to Claire. It'll go on my bill. It's my job to take care of my Neighbors, and I say Morgan counts." He tipped his hat and moved to the door. "Look after her."

Deacon’s breath hitched, a joke poised on the tip of his tongue, but the words withered under Hancock’s sharp gaze. He exhaled. "I'll try."

"See that you do." And with a swish of his coat - Hancock never could resist a dramatic exit - the ghoul left them alone. When the sound of footsteps faded away, Deacon finally gave Morgan a thorough examination.

It’s not that he expected Hancock or his people to take advantage of her. Hancock wouldn’t have done anything without her consent, and wouldn’t have let any of his people get away with it if they tried. For all his faults, the undead shadow king was a principled man.  Deacon just worried Morgan had given that consent, her grief making her agree to something she’d regret. Sex? Drugs? Murder? A mix of the three?

Deacon tentatively tugged on her shoulder, rolling her onto her back so she could breathe easier. A part of him - a big part - loathed to touch her. She was unconscious, he wasn’t, and he knew she hated being touched. A three-part cocktail of potentially serious mistakes. But at the same time, he couldn’t bring himself to just shrug and leave her be, or to leave the room and let her wake up alone. He’d been panicking for the past twelve hours, and hadn’t quite stopped.

Then, he realized she didn’t have her coat on.

Deacon had never seen her without something over her torso. Hell, he'd never seen her in any state of undress, ever . To his knowledge, she fought, pissed, and slept in her combat armor. But now he stood in solemn observation, taking in the dozens of pale lines criss-crossing her arms and chest. Some were thin and straight, others jagged and deep. Very little smooth skin remained, just thick scar-on-scar tissue that exposed the touch of a thousand knives. He wasn't sure whether to feel sick or to cry, and settled on shocked silence.

Ignoring the prickling, unsettling sensation that danced along his nerves, he retrieved her coat from the floor and threw it over her, balling up her fatigues and setting it under her head as a pillow. He paced, trying to work out the nervous energy burning in his chest and vibrating down his limbs. But he couldn't relax, and spent the restless hours fiddling with the games on Morgan's Pip-Boy and skimming magazines.

By noon she'd shifted, but still not awakened, and Deacon sent word down to Claire to send up food and coffee. Soon, a platter of fresh produce accompanied by a coffee pot and hot plate arrived at his door. Plugging in the hot plate and setting the water to boil, he paced again, back and forth in front of the window, toying with his wig. It always itched when he was agitated.

"Stop."

Her voice startled him, and almost made him trip over his own feet. Heart hammering in his chest, he swallowed past a suddenly dry throat and composed himself, plastering a calm smile across his face. "Sleep well?" he asked, trying to sound pleasant.

She responded with a wordless grumble and kept still, the stillness of someone with a headache or a hangover. Deacon swallowed again and toyed with his hands, watching the water steam from the coffee pot as he waited, with baited breath, to see if she’d say anything more. When she relapsed into silence, he exhaled, and began preparing a breakfast.

He fumbled for the chipped plates and cups, careful not to clink them together. He heard her sit up with a low groan, fabric shifting as the coat fell away from her. His head itched so bad it burned as he handed her a plate and steaming mug, grateful for his sunglasses as his eyes unwillingly lingered on her scarred arms and shoulders.

Morgan stared at the plate in her lap, watching the juice from the fresh mutfruit soak into the dry razor bread. “How long was I gone?” she asked at last.

Deacon steeled himself. “Just the night,” he said, forcing false cheerfulness. It would be so easy to smooth this all over by pretending it didn’t mean anything to him, that he hadn’t worried, that he trusted her, as his boss, to run her own errands without telling him every little detail. On the other hand, the pounding of his heart made it hard to keep his voice from shaking.

Morgan nodded. She shifted, moving her plate from her lap to the bed and wrapping both hands around her cup, letting the warm steam waft up onto her face.

Deacon fidgeted. “So… how was it?” He took a bite of bread, wincing at the faintly bitter taste of razorgrain. “Wild night? Hancock’s the one who brought you home, I don’t know if you… knew, that. Oh, and remind me to thank him for financing our breakfast. I would have asked for brahmin sausage, but. I guess even friends of the mayor only get dry molerat bacon.”

“It was fine.”

“Cool, cool, cool cool. You know, I just - I’ll bet you that Claire skimped on the sausages because she pocketed half the money Hancock gave her. I would not be surprised, not a bit. For a lay running a luxury hotel such as this place, she sure does scrimp and save. I’d say she should charge more if she’s really so worried about it, but then, I don’t think the local drifters and sex workers can really afford high-rise prices. Marowski, though, you’d think he’d alleviate some of her anxiety by giving her a cut of the business, since he works out of her back room and all. I know it’s his hotel, but you’d think he’d care a little more about his business. Still, I think-”

Deacon.” Morgan pressed her lips together, pinching the bridge of her nose and rubbing her temples with a pained look. “Stop.”

"Sorry, boss." Deacon leaned back against the dresser and stirred his cup of coffee without sipping it. He glanced up, and Morgan’s skin stuck out to him again, pale scars standing out against the dark jacket sitting across her lap. “Uh, you- your coat.”

Morgan blinked, then inhaled sharply. She slammed her cup down on the plate, oblivious to the coffee spilling over the sides, and yanked her jacket over her arms, shoulders curling in as she pulled the coat around her. She stared at him with hard eyes, anger mixed with shock, like he’d walked in on her naked. Defensive, sharp, daring him to say something, to give her a reason to lash out or banish him from the room.

“I didn’t know.” He wanted to say more, to say that he hadn’t meant to intrude on her privacy, that he didn’t touch her, that he wasn’t judging her for what had happened - or what she had done to herself. But the right words didn’t come. “I didn’t know.”

Some of the fight left her. Her shoulders relaxed, and she retrieved her cup, brown stains marring the faded white ceramic where coffee had spilled over. “I was in the military,” she said, like it explained everything.

Deacon pressed his lips together. He knew he couldn’t give her pity, but at the same time, he didn’t want to be heartless. All of this was too intimate, too close, too revealing for the both of them. “Gotcha, gotcha.” he shifted, rocking on the balls of his feet. “So, about what happened in the Memory Den.”

“I saw Nate die again,” she said, without flinching. “In Kellogg’s memories. I saw him kill my husband. And take my baby. Again.”

“Oh, god. I’m so sorry.” The words spilled out before he could stop them, and at first he thought she’d reject his comfort. But instead of stayed silent, staring into her cup, still without drinking from it. But he saw the way she drew back from him, the way she held her sleeves so they wouldn’t hitch any higher than her wrists and expose the scars, the way she turned her head so he wouldn’t see her face. Deacon sighed, his wig scraping the back of his neck like never before. “There’s no shame in it, you know,” he said, taking off his wig and tossing it on the dresser. “Lots of people do it.”

She bristled. “I don’t need your pity.”

“I’m not pitying you, I just-” He shook his head, sighing. “I don’t want you to think I’m judging you. It doesn’t matter how or why it happened. It’s not your fault, either way.”

Morgan huffed a caustic laugh. "Well, yes and no."

"You still don't owe me an explanation." Deacon hesitated, then spoke softer. "We don't have to talk about this."

At last, her fear and anger began to fade away, replaced by something resembling vulnerability. She ran a hand over her face before resting it on her knee, palm up, staring at the jagged scar running across the middle. "Maybe I don't owe you one, but... you deserve one.”

Morgan closed her eyes. "I told you I was in the military. Two years in training, four years in deployment. My last two years of deployment were in Anchorage." She flexed her right hand. "I remember. The day the bombs went off, sitting in the living room with Nate. The news was talking about the weather in Anchorage."

She shook her head and carried on, now staring off into space. "The military isn't a good place for lone wolves. You need to rely on your comrades, and have complete faith in each other. Or so they told me. I guess that's why I got switched to sniper. Don't need friends when you're alone, popping heads from a snowy cliff. But, being in the military, you don't get... you can't do things. You're at the mercy of everything else. There's nothing you can control, nothing you have power over. Just this constant feeling of helplessness.

"I used to count the days. Make it through six years, I could go home. I remember sitting in a corner, clutching my knees to my chest, doing grounding exercises. But, you know, eventually that stops working. And you feel trapped in your own head, thinking you're going to go insane, or hurt yourself, or someone else, or something. So I looked for something to give me any feeling of control.” She pulled up the sleeve of her coat, revealing the scarring along her forearm.

She sighed. “I just wanted to remind myself where I was. Keep myself grounded. Feel like I had some sort of power, or just feel something other than fear. You don’t do it too deep, but just enough so you feel, it, so you wake up a little bit. Then you have to get up, get some bandages, wash your knife… and make sure your superior doesn't know what you're doing." She laughed without mirth. "I worried that if they found out, they'd say I was unfit for duty and send me home. And I still thought... I thought they'd draft Nate if I didn't make it through my deployment. I know it sounds stupid, giving up so much of your life for a single person, but… what’s done is done.”

"Is that how you… ?" Deacon traced his fingers down his face, imitating her scars.

Morgan shook her head. "No. That happened in combat." She shrugged. "They offered to fix me all up after I was brought home, after I'd finished my term. Give me a whole new fuckin' skin. I turned them down. Much as I hated what they meant to me, I scarred myself as a... a means of rebellion. Erasing the scars would be like erasing the power I'd given myself. Even if that means I'll never really be ‘normal’ again."

A heavy silence fell between them. Morgan, still staring into the depths of her mug. Deacon, leaning against the dresser, speechless for the first time in as many years. He racked his mind for something to make it better, something to make Morgan feel better, something to change what had already come and gone. He crossed the room and sat next to her on the edge of the bed, the creak of the mattress breaking the quiet.

"I was married once."

Morgan looked up, head turned to stare at the profile of his face.

Deacon nodded, staring off into nothing. "I know what you mean. When you meet someone, who... fits you, fixes you. Someone you're not really sure you deserve, but who loves you anyway, and understands you better than you do yourself. It seems strange to give so much up for them, for one person, but... I get it."

"Dead?"

Old, almost forgotten pain welled up behind his eyes. "Yeah. It's... a long story."

The corner of Morgan’s mouth quirked up. "You don't owe me an explanation."

"I-" Deacon cut himself off, cleared his throat, and glanced at her in the corner of his eye. "You deserve one.

"When I was a kid, a hell of a long time ago, I got in with some bad people. A gang. For kicks we'd terrorize anyone we thought was a synth. It started with just some property damage, graduated to some beatdowns. Then. Inevitably. A lynching." He sounded so weary. "Our leader swore we'd caught a synth, for real this time. I still don't know for sure."

His eyes flickered to Morgan, but she said nothing. Just stared.

Deacon went on. "I couldn't take it after that. After seeing someone, strung up, with those... bulging eyes... I left my 'brothers.' Broke all contact. Became a farmer, if you can believe it. Then I found Barbara. And, well. Like you said. Sometimes you'll do anything for a person. I escaped the gang, and we made a living for ourselves. Even started trying to have kids. Then we realized she was a synth."

"Replacement, or escapee?"

Deacon stifled a flinch. He deserved her judgement. "I don't know," he confessed. "She didn't know, either. But the gang found out somehow. I don't remember much clearly after that. I know I killed most of them. I must have made a big impression, because the Railroad contacted me shortly after, figured I'd be sympathetic after my wife's death, and... after what I did.”

He swallowed. "They don't know I used to be part of the gang. They don't know what I've done. And if they did? I don't know. Everyone - Tom, Dez, you, even that asshole Carrington - they all deserve to be in the Railroad. I don't. I'm everything wrong with the whole fucking Commonwealth, and you-" His voice wavered again. He could feel his eyes welling up, but didn't dare take off his sunglasses, hiding instead behind a hollow laugh. "Anyway. Great story, I know. And I know what you're thinking. 'Hey, is Deacon, messing with my head? Again?' Maybe. I don't know. But if you believe anything else… you're my friend. Maybe my only one. So... good talk."

Now that it had all come out, fear burned up and down his spine, making him sweat. What if he condemned him? She couldn’t do anything else. He didn’t deserve anything else. This was it. His last big test. All his goofs, all his tricks, all of it designed to make sure she didn’t trust him. Because that’s all he had to protect him. If nobody believed him, if no one trusted him, it didn’t hurt when they left or moved on. Morgan was too smart to go soft on him now. After everything, he'd betrayed her. He was a liar, a fraud, everything the Railroad worked against, and she-

"I'm sorry."

"What?"

"I'm sorry. That you had to go through that." Deacon stared, unsure if he’d heard right. Morgan nodded. "We all make mistakes. And you've more than paid yours back, in my opinion anyway. Spent years of your life trying to make up for your past. I’ve just got a drug problem and lot of angst.” She chuckled bitterly. “If it makes any difference, you're the only friend I've got, too. And I - I've lost too many people to give more up. I know it doesn't matter, not really, because we're both too broken to appreciate it, but… " Her throat bobbed, the rims of her eyes turning red. "I couldn't save my husband, or my son. But I'm trying to save the synths. And you're welcome to stay with me as long as you want to."

Deacon lingered on her face, on her eyes, then turned his focus to the wall, lips parted in disbelief. Words rested on the tip of his tongue but evaded capture. Morgan wasn’t sure what he was thinking, or why. But he didn’t look tense, just… pensive. At last, he spoke. "I'm not the hugging type, but." He pushed his sunglasses back up his nose. "Good talk." Then, in a very soft murmur: "I appreciate it."

"Good." Morgan ran a hand over her face before standing, taking a deep breath. "I'm going to go get dressed," she said, voice rough. "Be ready when I come out." She turned to the bathroom, but hesitated, grabbing his wig from the dresser and holding it out to him.

Deacon offered her a faint smile, and took it. "Will do, boss."

Chapter Text

They didn’t stay long, leaving Goodneighbor as soon as they could top off their ammo supplies. There was no talking, no wondering, no lingering glances. Morgan felt more clear-headed than she’d been in weeks, and declared that the Glowing Sea was their new focus. They needed some Power Armor, and the best weaponry they could find.

They looted the biggest raider encampments, where raider bosses often fashioned their own suits of armor over antique power armor frames. It didn’t take much to kill two bosses and walk the frames back to Bunker Hill, where they asked Stockton to look after them as a personal favor. But they still had to find the actual armor. Dingy Pre-War stuff wasn't uncommon, if you were brave enough to kill a Mr. Gutsy or two and loot the military trucks they guarded. But Pre-War power armor was built to stop bullets, not radiation. They needed modern armor if they were going to head into the Glowing Sea.

Luckily, Joe Savoldi offered them a deal. He knew a guy who could get them the armor pieces they needed, but first, they had to retrieve a Savoldi family heirloom from some sinkhole up north. Trouble was, the sinkhole was right near a Deathclaw nest, meaning the few who agreed to go never returned. But, if they made it back in one piece, heirloom in hand, Joe would hook them up with a mechanic and a heavy discount. A small price to pay for the size of their project.

You know. So long as they didn’t die.

 

"I wonder how long it's been since these Deathclaws have eaten a human."

"Sooner rather than later, if you don't shut up."

"But I mean it. Sure, bloatflies are good for cleaning your teeth with, and yao guais are big, but they put up a fight. Mutants aren't very tasty - heard it from a friend - and ghouls are too dry. Radstags are good, but they're skittish and tend to stay out of Deathclaw territory. Humans are tasty, and juicy, and just dumb enough to wander into a Deathclaw nest."

"You're not being very helpful."

"I'm being comedic relief. Easing the tension." Despite his light tone, Deacon kept an eye and ear out, clutching his laser rifle and letting the warmth of its battery steady his hands. "What are we looking for, again?"

"A hat."

"Covered in diamonds, I assume."

"Nope. Just a hat. Belonged to his grandfather, some Minuteman from years ago."

"Ah, Savoldi, you sentimental bastard." Deacon stopped. "Hear that?"

They hadn't heard much of anything until now. They’d crept through the neighborhood surrounding the sinkhole, skin covered in goosebumps as battered Pre-War houses watched them with windows for baleful eyes. It was quiet. Too quiet, as Deacon gleefully remarked. No radstags patrolled the hills, no bloatflies bobbed clumsily in the air. Not even a lonely ghoul shuffled around its ancestral home.

But nearer to the small town’s center came the distant roar of rushing water. Sharing a look, the pair followed the noise, keeping a leery watch behind them. The ground loosened and grew moist, squishing under their boots and leaving tangible tracks. Here, houses were off-balance, one side or corner sunk into the ground, their walls cracked and warped from water damage.

The rapids grew louder, and soon they stopped at the rim of the sinkhole itself. It stretched several stories below them, and the remnants of a large sewage pipe lay broken and exposed at the bottom. Bits of house jutted from the dirt, hunks of brick and wood still in vague house-like shapes. Squinting, they could each see water pouring from the busted sewer pipe, falling into a broad pit at the very bottom of the sinkhole. Still no sign of a deathclaw.

"I don't like it," Morgan announced.

"What? No," Deacon scoffed, gesturing dismissively. "I love muddy murder pits with underground waterfalls and potential deathclaws lurking around every corner. It's my favorite."

Morgan nudged his side. "I'm gonna go down, see if I can't sit on one of those houses, maybe get some cover and a better look at the hole. Don't walk in front of my bullets."

Taking careful steps down the thick, muddy slope, Morgan inched her way down. The mud sucked at her boots, forcing her to step lightly or risk losing her boots. Deacon, however, went the opposite way, trekking around the breadth of the sinkhole. Deacon had a habit of wandering off and reappearing at the strangest moments, and she’d gotten in the habit of letting him go his way. He hadn’t died yet, so that was something.

Morgan stopped at a building that stuck out about halfway down the sinkhole, some rocks and debris clustered at the edge for cover. She peered through her rifle’s scope, turning the screw on the side to zoom in. The wreckage of a caravan was strewn along the bottom of the sinkhole, a few mostly-rotted corpses curled around a handful of footlockers and trunks. They looked like they'd been devoured by some kind of animal, but whatever had eaten it was nowhere to be seen.

Morgan frowned. If a deathclaw had dragged its kill down here, this must be its nest. And deathclaws didn't stray too far from the nest. Unless it was out hunting, it should be here, especially if it had young. It wouldn't-

Something moved at the edge of her scope. She looked back, increased the magnification as far as it would go. There, lurking in a shadowed building, a set of golden eyes glimmered, and black-tipped claws pierced the shadows. The beast crept from its nest, hunkering down as it prepared to pounce. She followed its line of sight, trying to find its target.

She gasped.

Based on the mud clinging to his pants and shoes, Deacon must have gotten caught in the muck and slid to the bottom. He talked to himself, flicking mud off of his weapon and looking around, nodding at the different broken buildings. In the shadows, the deathclaw moved with a deadly silence, its heavy paws unnaturally agile and quiet.

"Deacon," she hissed, dropping one hand from her rifle and flailing it above her head, trying to grab his attention without alerting the creature. "Deacon you shit, you piece of fucking shit. Look at me, please, I’m begging you." Deacon walked to one of the footlockers, nudging it open with his toe. “Deacon, some on. You can’t be this fuckin’ dumb. Please.”

The deathclaw crept closer. Morgan grit her teeth. " Deacon, you fuck! " Both man and monster jerked their heads up, staring at the woman above them. "There's a fucking deathclaw!"

Deacon froze. Then, slowly, he turned, and their eyes met. Human to deathclaw, dark shades versus shiny gold. The moment lasted maybe a second, maybe an eternity. Then the beast released a guttural, terrifying roar, and Deacon stumbled back, shooting as fast as he could. The beast lunged forward, claws raised, and swung a heavy paw at Deacon's chest. Morgan heard his cry over the gunfire, causing a cold rush of panic that gave her goosebumps.

Then, there it was. Standing proud at ten feet tall, a mix of leather and scales and nightmares. Two dark, demonesque horns jutted from the sides of its head, and a mish-mash of terrifying teeth filled its jaw. A weighty tail swished at its rear, flicking like a cat on the hunt. It loomed over Deacon like a vision of hell, murder in its eyes.

Morgan’s gaze sharpened, and her mind went quiet. The military gave her many things, most of them terrible. But, at least in this instance, the training paid off. She hunkered down and fired like a machine, loading and reloading and scouting weak spots on the creature. Deacon took point - an uncomfortable position for him, but he was fast enough to dodge when the creature got too close. But she could see the effort weighing at him, his shoulders rising and falling with heavy breaths. He couldn’t keep it up forever.

Her bullets pierced the beast's hide, but she couldn't be certain how deep. She saw Deacon's gun jam, saw him flail and curse and chuck it aside, pulling out his laser pistol instead. Morgan’s shoulder was starting to bruise from her rifle’s recoil, the stock jamming into the crook of her arm with every shot. Her hands grew stiff, sore from the effort of holding her gun so still, of making her shots so precise for so long.

But the deathclaw switched tactics. It couldn’t fend off two adversaries at once, avoiding Morgan’s attack while also pummelling Deacon. So it focused its energy on him, pinning him against the side of the sinkhole with fast, deadly swings. His space to dodge narrowed, as did his margin for error. Soon, they went below Morgan’s ledge, beyond where she could see. She cursed and picked up her weapon, vaulting over her cover and hitting the mud with a thump.

She tore down the side of the sinkhole, trying not to trip or stumble as she fired into the deathclaw’s head and chest, hoping to fend it off long enough for Deacon to get away. But it raised one meaty paw, thick blood oozing from its wounds, and prepared to deliver the finishing blow. Morgan’s world stopped as the deathclaw readied its strike.

Then it let out the worst howl yet, rattling her eardrums and making her freeze in terror. The beast stumbled, and crumpled, falling back with a landing that rumbled the ground. Morgan gathered herself and slid all the way to the bottom, everything below her waist covered in mud, her heart pounding in her chest. “Deacon?”

And there he was, pinned against the side of the sinkhole, hunched over with one arm curled around his torso. In his free hand, he held his laser pistol, the barrel still steaming. Morgan jerked towards him, but stopped herself, running to the deathclaw and pulling out her shotgun instead. She levelled the barrel against the side of the creature’s skull, and a deep, satisfying sound rang out, splattering dark red deathclaw brains across the mud.

Then she ran to Deacon. "Are you okay?" Her brow creased in worry. "You could have been killed," she snapped, pulling out a medkit. "What the fuck were you thinking?"

"I thought-"

"You thought." She pushed his shirt up, revealing three thick lines of blood where the deathclaw had torn through his armor and gouged his flesh. Deacon winced as the stimpack jabbed his sternum, but the numbing antiseptic flooded his bloodstream and his skin and bone healed smooth. "How the hell did you kill it? With a laser pistol?"

"Well, I-"

"And now I have to get you a whole new fuckin' chestpiece. Do you know how expensive combat armor is? Why did you even come down here in the first place? Why didn't you just follow me onto the ledge? Why the fuck, Deacon?" She flailed, about to jab a finger into his chest before thinking better of it. Her shoulders slumped. "Are you okay?" she asked again, calmer.

Deacon gave her a weak shrug of his shoulders, taking slow breaths to test the limits of his newly-healed skin. "I mean, my underwear’s in a shit state, but otherwise."

Morgan blinked, then released a choked noise and rose, throwing her hands in the air. "I swear to Christ, Deacon. You're going to give me a heart attack." She ran her hands over her face, staring helplessly at the sky.

Deacon chuckled and stood, putting his chestpiece back on and checking how much ammo he had left. "Can I have your stuff after you croak?" he asked, and began nosing through deceased caravan's belongings.

"You can fuck off, is what you can do," Morgan snorted. She shook her head and let him change the topic, taking deep breaths to slow her heart. "All the locks busted?"

Deacon nudged open one footlocker with his foot. A few broken needles and some dirty clothes fell out. "Yep. Some stuff's worth taking, but most of it's worthless." He lifted a dirty plaid skirt from the open footlocker. "Morgan, if I wear this, is it a skirt, or a kilt?"

Morgan ignored him and approached the lip of the sinkhole, peering into its depths. She grabbed a liquor bottle from a broken crate and tossed it in, waiting for the splash. It never came. She sighed. "We're going to have to go down there."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Get your rope, and tie it to mine." Morgan lifted a coil of rope from her pack, searching for the nearest solid thing to tie one end to.

"Gee, a little direct, don't you think?" Pulling the rope from his bag, Deacon made a sweeping gesture. "I'm a man of the road, Fix. The world's my oyster. I don't like being tied down. I have to explore, have to run, have to see what the Commonwealth has to offer before thinking about things like that."

Morgan paused. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

Deacon waggled his rope. "You asked me to tie the knot with you."

She groaned and shook her head. "I swear to God."

The man grinned and tied their ropes together, securing one end to a metal beam protruding from the mud. Standing side by side at the edge of the pit, the sound of the waterfall was almost unbearable, the roaring thunder of the water drowning out everything else.

Morgan tied the free end of the rope around her middle. "I'll go first!" she shouted, fighting to be heard above the noise. "I tug once, follow me down. I tug twice, pull me up!"

"Got it!" Deacon took hold of the rope, making sure the knot was secure, and saluted her as she descended.

The water overwhelmed her senses at first. The force of it struck her like a punch to the chest, and the cold soaked through her clothes and made her shiver. Darkness clouded her gaze, and for a moment she was terrified she couldn’t breathe. Then, she steadied herself, breathing deeply and holding tight to the rope, adjusting to the dark and cold.

She couldn't see her hands in front of her face or hear her own breathing, but she felt the damp rope under her hands, felt the bottoms of her boots braced against the slippery wall. If she lifted her head, she could see the ever-dimming light of the surface above her. She swallowed, and focused on climbing down, fumbling with her Pip-Boy to get some small amount of light.

Eventually, the wall fell away from her feet and she hit the floor with a gasp, coughing and sputtering as the rope seized her stomach. Water sloshed around her boots, and waving her forearm around made green Pip-Boy light shine off some slick cave walls. No deathclaws visible. Yet.

"Deacon!" she called. She tugged once on the rope, and a few seconds later his voice traveled down the passage, unintelligible but distinctly Deacon. Morgan untied her waist and trudged out of the water, shivering. "I better not get pneumonia," she grumbled.

She kicked away a radroach, the insect releasing a pained squeal as it splashed into the water. A few seconds later, Deacon made a similar noise of terror when his feet slipped off the wall and he hit the water pool, as she had. "Alright?" Morgan called, amused.

"Peachy," he gasped, wincing when she shone the Pip-Boy light on his face.

"Come on." She walked to the edge of the water pool, kneeling and extending a hand to help him up. "I think I found what we're looking for."

Through some winding tunnels, they discovered a raised platform illuminated by a trickle of sunlight falling through some cracks in the cave walls. A single skeleton lay in its center, clad in some mold-rotten clothes, eaten down to the bone by generations of radroaches past. A hat sat on his head, something on its side glinting in the light.

Morgan hopped onto the rocky platform, kneeling to examine the skeleton's hat. Glinting on its side was a pin, shaped in what looked like an older version of the Minuteman symbol. "Looks like our guy," she said, and gingerly plucked the hat off the skull. She blew off the dust, grimacing at the feel of the water-warped leather.

"Power Armor, here we come," Deacon remarked, wringing water out of his pant leg. "So, how do we get out?"

A beat passed.

"Fuck."

 

With some work, they escaped the sinkhole, Savoldi's hat in hand. They arrived at Bunker Hill late that afternoon, soaked through and covered in mud. As the sun set, Morgan found herself hunched over the bar while Deacon mingled with the caravaneers, dressed in new clothes and an old alias. He joked and told stories, slyly asking just the right questions to get more than your usual gossip. Stockton had already given them some intel to take back to HQ, but Deacon had survived a deathclaw attack and was feeling saucy.

Savoldi arranged for them to start work on the armor suits in the morning, after getting some rest. Morgan swirled a fingertip around the delicate rim of her soda bottle, watching the carbonation bubble inside the dusty glass. "You all get back in one piece?" Savoldi asked, creeping down the bar.

Morgan nodded. "Wasn't so hard. Got a bit soaked, but. A little cold water never hurt anyone." A few droplets of water dripped from her hair onto the counter surface. Savoldi slid his rag over and mopped them up.

"And that story your boy’s telling? About the fistfight with the deathclaw?"

Morgan huffed a laugh, lips turning up in a wry smile. "Wasn't so hard. A little deathclaw mauling never hurt anyone." She took a sip of her cola, but her expression changed by the time the glass hit the bar again. "He's not my ‘boy,’" she said, frowning.

Savoldi set down his rag, resting his elbows on the countertop and raising his hands. "Meant no offense by it. I didn't mean to assume."

Morgan let it go, forcing herself to relax and stare into her bottle again. "Well, you know what they say about assuming."

"Makes an ass out of you and me." Savoldi drummed his fingers on the bar. "I was just sayin'. He doesn't seem like the kinda man to be a real... fighter type, you know. Not like yourself." Behind her, Morgan heard Deacon describing how it felt to tear a deathclaw’s heart from its chest. He gesticulated to a rapt, slightly-inebriated audience.

"He's a real mystery," she agreed, with a snort.

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," the barman said with a shrug. "There's always more to people than you think. In my line of work, people tell you things. I don't judge another man's secrets, or problems. What's that Old World saying? Never trust a book by its... uh..."

"Never judge a book by its cover," Morgan said, taking another sip.

"That one," he agreed, snapping his fingers. "Yep. People'll always surprise you." He chuckled, and thankfully another patron came up to the bar, drawing his attention away.

Morgan brooded, good mood gone in a puff of smoke and small talk. She hadn't liked Savoldi calling Deacon her "boy." That seemed too possessive, too… something. Besides, Deacon wouldn’t approve of the title, anyhow. Wouldn’t like the insinuation that he belonged to anybody.

A wave of laughter struck her ears. Mixed in with the other voices was Deacon’s, beginning another story, one she hadn’t heard. She looked over her shoulder, watching him use some nearby junk as props for his epic tale. He was smiling, waving, occasionally sipping from a half-empty beer bottle. Deacon never finished his drinks, only went half-way and took fake swigs, pretending to be more drunk than he was.

He wasn't a liar, not really. No, Deacon was a storyteller. All the things he'd told her meant something, lies or not. Tricks and jokes and stories, all designed to see if she was trustworthy, to find out what she believed, to see if she was a good person or not. Morgan wasn’t sure where she fell on the ol’ moral spectrum, but Deacon had stuck around this long, so he couldn't hate her. They'd been through and seen too much. Told each other their darkest secrets.

It occurred to her that she trusted him over near anyone else in the Commonwealth. This human paradox, this jester, who always wraps his lies around a core truth. She'd grown fond of him. Hid smiles at his jokes, worried about him getting hurt, felt odd when he wasn't at her back, trailing her footsteps or hiding in the brush just beside her.

Goddamnit, he was her boy.

“Having a nice brood, boss?” Morgan jumped as Deacon slid into the seat beside her. "That cola's gonna go flat if you keep staring into it." His faint grin and the gleam of his sunglasses was soothing and familiar, but the sudden, calming effect of his presence made her wonder what other effects he had on her that she hadn’t noticed.

Maybe this wasn’t a bad thing. She’d come a long way since those first nightmare-ridden days when she entered the Commonwealth alone. Since killing Kellogg, she’d been almost… at peace. She’d lost her husband, her baby, everything she’d ever held dear. But now she’d found a fresh beginning. Found purpose in helping the Railroad, saving synths and doing odd jobs with Deacon at her side. Maybe - maybe given time, she could-

A wave of guilt washed over her, an ocean of mourning and memories pushing away any thoughts of a happy future. Sean was still in the Institute, and she still owed it to Nate to try and find him. She couldn’t start over. The last time she dared to hope for a happy ending, the world was obliterated in nuclear fire. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.

“Morgan?”

“I’m fine,” she said, looking away. She’d stared at him too long, let him read her too clearly. She didn’t want him to ask her, to try to comfort her. Friends, partners, people heading in the same direction - whatever they were, she didn’t have the strength to think about it right now. She had to do her job. Had to work. Had to do something to take her mind off things. "I'm gonna go get started on the Power Armor."

His smile faded, replaced by vague confusion. "Savoldi-"

"Doesn't have all the parts yet. It's fine. I'll work on what he's got." She threw a handful of caps on the bar and knocked back the last of her soda. "Entertain yourself. Don't interrupt me."

Deacon watched her walk away. What an odd mood change, especially after being so chipper. Well, chipper for Morgan. There’d been something in her eyes, though, something he wasn’t quite sure how to interpret. But then that light had died, leaving her hard and cold, and she was closed off to him again.

Deacon sighed, and ordered another beer.

 

Chapter Text

The next few days were as frosty as a nuclear winter. Morgan refused to look at him, to say anything more than a grunt, and didn’t even come back to the bunkhouse to sleep. Just holed up in the Bunker Hill workshop and hammered away at their armor suits, day in, day out. Deacon wanted to ask why, ask what had set her off so bad, but knew better than to push when she got like this. Instead, he kept passers-by from interfering, and left meals for her so she didn’t forget to eat.

Stockton was on edge, upper lip perpetually perspiring, the rim of his hat lined with dandruff. Kessler kept a wary eye on them, each passing day giving her a new gray hair. Two well-armed mercenaries building power armor might look like the beginnings of an army to go against the raiders. Kessler had no intentions of going against them - yet - but didn’t want any gangs getting any funny ideas. So Deacon had to toe the fine line of assuring Kessler they’d be gone soon, while not rushing Morgan too much.

“How’s it going?” he might ask, leaving her a fresh crust of bread and taking away yesterday’s dishes.

Silence. Then, the pound of a hammer against unwieldy steel, hot sparks flying as a faceless welding mask leaned over a hunk of glowing metal.

“Yeah, no, that’s cool. Just checking!”

Deacon was on the verge of outright asking Morgan how much longer it’d take, when he woke one morning to the thump of a heavy helmet landing on his stomach. He coughed, sputtered, sat upright and caught his breath. Morgan stood in the doorway, eyes dull. Then, she turned away and down the stairs, her command to follow unspoken.

He met her in the yard, wincing at the early morning light. Standing between the ramshackle cabins and mercantile countertops were matching sets of power armor, all shiny new. “Nice,” Deacon said, looking them up and down with a yawn. “You do all this yourself, boss?”

Morgan ignored him and pointed to one suit as she climbed into the other, internal skeleton stretching and conforming around her armor and clothes. Deacon climbed into his just as Morgan slid her pack over her shoulders, making use of some special leather straps so it hung comfortably on her armor. Deacon picked up his bag and set of straps, fumbling with it for a few moments before spreading his arms proudly. “Good?”

Morgan huffed a sigh, her breath crackling through her helmet’s speakers. She marched forward, heavy footprints embedded in the ground behind her, and adjusted the straps for him. Like a woman adjusting her husband's tie, Deacon mused, then pushed that thought away as hard and as fast as he could.

They left Bunker Hill before the first shop opened, dawn’s light glaring in their peripherals as they walked along the coast, avoiding the city in the hopes of avoiding trouble. They passed docks and old buildings, seaside factories and sewer pipes, clusters of Mirelurk eggs buried in the sand. Morgan was still quiet. Her helmet hid her facial expressions from him, and beneath the armor Deacon couldn’t tell if her shoulders were tense or relaxed.

Were her lips pressed in a tight, grim, pensive line? If she was mad at him specifically, she’d be more vocal, would rise to his bait or have a sharper tongue. If she was depressed, she’d be more melancholy, more defeated, knocking back soda at the bar or staring mournfully off into space. She wasn’t sad, or mad, or happy, or thoughtful, just… closed off. She’d flipped some kind of switch and now even he couldn’t figure out what was going on in her head. He’d only had a 70% success rate before, 75% if he was being generous. Being shoved back down to 0%, to total stranger status, agitated him more than he could quite articulate.

They stopped when the sun was more above them than beside them, their shadows stretching long across the murky sand. Morgan raised one heavy arm and pointed at one of the docks along the coast. Deacon followed her line of sight, squinting to focus his gaze on a small figure, leaning over the railing at the end of the pier. "A person?"

Morgan clung to the quiet a moment longer. Deacon could hear the gears in her mind turning, weighing the benefits of mysterious silence against clarity. "Just one." Clarity must have been more efficient.

"I'm surprised they're not hiding. Even along the coast, it’s not exactly safe."

"I want to see."

Deacon bit back a sigh. "If you say so, boss."

Deep footprints followed them along the beach, grains of sand clinging to their feet. Morgan hesitated at the start of the dock, then pulled off her helmet. Deacon did the same, fishing his  sunglasses from his pack and sliding them over his nose. He gave her as surreptitious a glance as he could manage. Bad case of helmet hair, shadows under her eyes. Then, the faintest curve of concern to her brow. Morgan didn’t often look worried.

“Hello?” Morgan called. The aged wood of the pier creaked ominously beneath their feet, the soothing slosh of the waves against the shore an eerie contrast to the tension in the air. “We’re not here to hurt anyone.” Then, they froze as rapid footsteps raced across the pier, dashing into the small shack sitting near the end of it. A door slammed shut. Morgan glanced at Deacon, then licked her lips and came forward again. “Hello?”

As they approached the shack, a rusted window creaked open and a thin rifle barrel poked through. “We don’t have anything you want,” a boy’s voice chirped. Despite the warning words, his tone made it sound more like a pleasant greeting.

Deacon’s eyes flickered to Morgan. He caught her right as her expression morphed from surprise and caution to... softness. Gentleness. The lines in her brow faded, and her eyes regained their light. “Well, we’re not here to take anything.” Morgan tapped her blank breastplate with one armored finger. "See? Not Brotherhood or raiders. Just people passing through.” She frowned. “Are you alright? It looked like you were out here by yourself.”

The rifle barrel lowered. Behind it, a skinny kid with matted red hair and freckles painted across his nose frowned at them, face screwed up in indecision. “Maybe I was,” he allowed. Blue eyes darted between them, blue like the ocean waiting at the end of the pier. His shirt was stained and one size too small, matching frayed shorts and flipflops made from two strips of leather and some string. “What’sit to ya?”

“Well, I’d just be concerned. It’s dangerous, you know, for someone to be by themselves so close to the city. If they don’t have armor and guns like ours.” When the kid still seemed unconvinced, she raised her hands. “Look. How about we leave our armor at the end of the pier, sheathe our guns, all that. Then we can talk, as equals. Sound fair?”

The boy stood upright, nodding seriously. “Okay.”

Morgan smiled - smiled - and nodded back. “Good.”

She didn’t look at Deacon as they deposited their armor at the end of the pier, consciously working to avoid any curious glances or bewildered looks. She just sheathed her rifle before knocking twice on the faded door of the shack. The boy met them there, holding the door and allowing them inside, his rifle still clutched in one hand. It felt like kids playing house, the way the boy closed the door behind them and Morgan gave him a polite, solemn nod as they came inside.

The inside of the house smelled vaguely of sea salt and wood rot. The ocean breeze spattered salt spray against the windows, and three half-empty boxes of Sugar Bombs sat on a well-worn table. Aged posters of comic book heroes perched on the walls, half-peeling off. Vintage Nuka-Cola toy trucks huddled at the foot of a ratty mattress, and a lone hot plate resided on a shelf, connected to a small hand-crank generator that looked like it could barely boil water.

Morgan sat down at the table, shooting Deacon a glare until he did the same. A moment later, the boy grabbed a bucket from the corner and turned it upside down, using it as a third chair and joining them at the table. “Hi.”

“Hi.” The corner of Morgan’s mouth quirked up in a brief smile. “What’s your name?”

“Donny.”

“I’m Morgan,” she said, then pointed at the man opposite her. “This is my friend.”

"Name’s Deacon,” he grinned. “I'm the cool one."

Donny gave them a childish, gap-toothed smile. “Nice to meetcha.” He took a breath and rested his rifle on the floor, leaning against it. “So, what’re you doin’ here?” It would have looked comical, this scrawny kid handling a weapon like he’d done it all his life. Except, he had, and that took a bit of fun out of it.

“Doing some work,” Morgan answered cryptically. “We were on our way to somewhere else when we saw you, and wanted to see what someone was doing out here by themselves.” She titled her head aside. “ Are you by yourself?”

The boy - Donny - rocked uncomfortably on his bucket seat. “Sorta.” He fidgeted for a few moments, Morgan keeping quiet until more of the truth came out. “My dad went out huntin’ lurks a few weeks ago. He’s s’posed to have come back a while ago, but… I’m on my own ‘til he does.”

Deacon saw Morgan’s jaw tighten, her throat bob with a hard swallow. But her voice betrayed nothing, tone still light and gentle. “Your mom?”

Donny shook his head, picking dirt out from under his fingernails. “My mom left me with my dad when I was born, and it’s been the two of us ever since. Dad said we had some family in Diamond city, but I never met ‘em and dad hadn’t seen ‘em in years, either.”

Morgan swallowed again. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Donny shrugged. “It’s not so bad. My dad taught me how to clean the meat off’a dead Lurks. I know how to fish, and stuff like that. And nobody comes this close to the coast, ‘cause all the good stuff is deeper in the city. I go out sometimes and get stuff to eat from the old marts when the ghouls get distracted by all the fighting.”

"You eat comic books?" Deacon asked, glancing at the piles stacked around the mattress.

Donny smiled with a mouthful of crooked, unbrushed teeth. "Naw. Those're for me."

“You like books, Donny?”

“Sort of. I like ‘em with pictures. It takes me a while to sound out the words, but with comic books it’s easier to understand what’s goin’ on.” He scratched his stomach absently, his shirt stretching around bony ribs and a too-thin belly.

Deacon could see Morgan perching on the edge of her seat, fingers resisting the urge to grip onto the knees of her pants. The worry, the concern, the need to help radiated off her in waves. “You know, I’ve got an idea,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “My friend and I have business elsewhere, but it’d be impolite not break bread before we go.”

Donny frowned, confused. “Break bread?”

“Old man slang for sharing a meal, kiddo. Say, Morgan, buddy, pal - don’t you have some carrots and corn and whatnot in that bag of yours? I thought I saw you snag some extra rations before we left.”

“I think I do,” Morgan agreed, nodding knowingly. “Not sure where we’d cook it, though. That hot plate seems a little small to make a stew.”

“A stew?” Donny perked up.

“You could always grab some dry wood from around the corner and make a fire at the end of the pier. Say, is that Blast Radius I see, Donny? It’s been forever since I played.”

“You know how to play Blast Radius?” Donny leapt from his bucket and pulled the faded cardboard box out from under the table, bonking his head on the edge of it as he stood back up. “I’ve been playing by myself and making up the rules ‘cause most of the pieces are missing.”

Morgan bit back a smile and stood, leaving her bag at the table. “I think I’ll try to get a fire going. You guys figure out how to play the game.”

“I know how to play the game! You can play it at the Tops in New Vegas. You ever been to New Vegas, Donny? I went a long time ago, and lemme tell you, those lights? Those big neon lights that make you think you’re right back in the Old World? Makes all the Cazadors worth it.”

As Deacon launched into his story, he glimpsed Morgan standing in the doorway, a strange look on her face. Almost a smile, but tinted with something else. Grateful? Melancholy? He looked up to get a better view of her face, but then she was gone.

Soon, a fire blossomed at the end of the pier, a fire pit made out of debris cradling a bundle of flaming boards. Over the pit poised a boiling cooking pot, into which Morgan had emptied several cans of purified water and some vegetables. Donny supplied some Mirelurk meat - “the fat jellies it and keeps it from going bad if you preserve it right!” - and soon the hearty smell of cooking food mingled with the salty air.

“You own the Irradiated Parking Lot now,” Donny informed her.

Morgan frowned at the cartoon car on the faded cigarette box. “Are we sure this is how this game works?”

“Positive,” Deacon deadpanned, a smile hiding in the corner of his mouth.

“What does the parking lot give me?”

“Well, if you spin a six and the raiders attack you-” Donny gestured to the number on the board. “-then you can use one of the cars on the lot and you get to roll another attack die against them. And if you succeed in killing them, then you can choose to loot their bodies and draw from the loot pile.” The loot pile was a stack of playing cards.

Morgan’s Pip-Boy chimed. “‘Scuse me.” She stood and went to the pot, waving away the steam and pushing the wooden spoon through the thick slop.

Deacon tapped Donny’s shoulder. “You were going to show me that comic you made.”

“Oh yeah!” Donny leapt to his feet and barrelled into the shack, fumbling through the stacks of comic books at the end of his bed. Deacon switched two game pieces on the Blast Radius board, then leaned back with a sigh and listened to the soothing flow of the waves.

“I’m surprised you don’t remember how to play,” he remarked, after a moment. “Since you were technically alive when this game came out.”

“Never played,” Morgan explained. “I think Nate’s cousin gave us a copy after we got married. Nate always wanted to play but we never seemed to have the time.” She wrinkled her nose at the contents of the pot. “I hope I’m cooking this right.”

“It’s a stew,” Deacon drawled. “You put stuff in it and it tastes good. Easy.”

“You’re probably right.” Morgan put the lid back on the pot and sat down, exhaling as she looked out at the ocean. Her face relaxed, the wind blowing back the strands of her hair not pinned in her usual tight bun. She pressed her lips together. “I don’t wanna leave him here, Deacon.”

Ah, there it was.

Deacon hummed and rested his chin in his hands. “What do you wanna do?”

She swallowed, taking a moment to put together the words. “I want to take him to HQ. Just for a little while," she added, when he jerked in surprise. "Let him sleep in the church or a back room, not necessarily the headquarters itself. Tom's security measures will keep him safe. And it’ll just be long enough for us to go to the Glowing Sea and back. We'll need to drop by HQ anyway if this lead turns out to have some weight behind it."

“He’ll know about the Railroad. And Des won’t like it.”

Morgan face screwed up in contempt. "Well, fuck her. He's a kid. I can't- I can't just leave him, Deacon." She looked at him pleadingly, gaze running up his lips and over his sunglasses, searching for some kind of reaction, some kind of reassurance.

Deacon’s hand flexed with the impulse to lean over and touch her. “I know, boss.” He curled his fingers into a fist and kept it firmly on his thigh. “I know. I'm not saying you're wrong. I just hope we get lucky and this works out for us, is all."

Morgan sighed and looked back at the sea.

Then Donny ran back out with an armful of papers scrawled with charcoal drawings. Each was a page for the debut comic “Mirelurk Man” who had giant mirelurk claws and the strength of a hundred crustaceans and he ate nothing but sugar bombs and snack cakes. Mirelurk Man went on such adventures as finding a really nice dog and making it his pet, or rescuing a family from some ghouls, or punching the personification of the Institute in the face.

Over steaming bowls of stew, Morgan finally broached the topic. “Donny,” she began, “do you… like this?”

Donny looked up, cheeks bulging with food. He swallowed. “What’dya mean?”

“Playing board games, having good food to eat. Not having to worry about bad people.”

“I guesso. What’s not to like?” He grinned, and inhaled another heaping spoonful.

Morgan nodded. “I just… my friend and I were thinking. We’re about to go do some very important things, but I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable leaving you here.”

The boy stopped, leaving his spoon in the bowl with a frown. “Why not?”

“Well… it’s dangerous. Dangerous being so close to the city, to the mirelurk nests. Dangerous without your dad to look after you, dangerous not to have any good food or medicine.” She set down her bowl. “It’s got to be lonely out here, by yourself and with no one to talk to. I’d like to come back and visit you, but I don’t know when we’ll be in this area again.”

Donny’s face fell slightly. “Oh.”

“Which- Which is why my friend and I were thinking. We have… a place. Somewhere we know is safe, where there’s food, and lots of people. People who could talk to you and give you lots of stuff to eat. A doctor, to make sure you’re not getting sick. I know you don’t know us very well, but… it’s our job to help people, and we’d like to help you. Maybe, if and when we come back, we could even help you track down your dad.”

Donny fell silent, scraping his spoon around the bowl and staring solemnly at the water-warped wood of the pier. His brow furrowed as he thought, mulling over his options. “And you’d come back for me?” he said at last, sounding very small.

“Of course.” The earnestness in Morgan’s voice held a hidden weight, her slight desperation conveying a deeper motivation. “Of course we’d come back for you.”

Donny nodded slowly. “I’ll leave a note for my dad,” he decided. “So if he comes back, he’ll know I’m okay.”

Morgan swallowed. “Okay, Donny. We’ll be here.”

And so they emptied their bowls and finished the last of their stew, climbing back into their power armor as Donny packed up his meager belongings, a single worn sack full of comic books and sugary cereals. “I’m ready,” he announced, rifle clutched in one hand. “Let’s go.”

“Yessir,” Morgan said, and Deacon could hear the smile on her lips, see the shining eyes hidden behind her helmet. She’d melted, treating him as her friend again. The how or why she’d turned so cold in the first place, he didn’t know, but then he’d never claimed to be a psychologist.

But he watched them, treading across the sand, Donny jogging to keep up with Morgan’s long strides. Donny said something Deacon didn’t catch, and Morgan laughed, a pleasant sound that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, sent a shiver down the upper part of his spine. Morgan slowed her steps to let Donny walk alongside her, and rested one heavy metal hand on the base of his neck, watching him talk.

Something panged in Deacon’s chest, something old and unfamiliar. Like a memory but not quite, plucking at his heartstrings and stealing the breath from his lungs. He stood there, frozen, caught between a dream and reality. Then he felt the sand shift beneath his feet, and looked down, noting the water lapping around his armored ankles. The tide was coming in, and he had to move.

Deacon shook his head, and walked after them.

 

They made quick work of the coastline, finding their way back to the church. Morgan pressed her hand to Donny's upper back, ushering him into the dark and battered building at her side. The trio stopped when the low groan of ghouls wafted to their ears, rotted feet shuffling across a dusty floor. Morgan and Deacon fell to their knees with a faint hydraulic hiss, Donny stumbling down with them, eyes wide as saucers.

"New herd," Morgan murmured, frowning. The dim green light of a Glowing One glimmered off the wall from behind a pew.

Deacon could imagine Morgan’s train of thought; they couldn't leave Donny in the upper levels, now, too much danger until the cluster of ghouls migrated elsewhere. They could kill the ghouls, but Des liked having them around as added security. Or, they could take Donny in the back entrance and keep him in HQ itself. It'd be safer for him there, but Des would definitely consider that a security breach.

Morgan's lips tightened. "Go back," she urged, and they returned to the outside.

Deacon sighed. She was really gonna piss Des off.

"What're we gonna do?" Donny asked, holding onto his rifle with a white-knuckled grip. "Are we gonna kill 'em?"

"No. We're going in the back way." Morgan paused, fixing Donny with an intense look. "Donny, you must promise not to tell anyone what you see in here. There are dangerous people out there who don’t want us to help people, and if you talk about what you see, you could put a lot of people in danger. Do you understand?"

Donny's eyes widened further. "Yes ma’am."

"And you won't tell anyone?"

"Promise." He pressed his right hand to the left side of his chest, looking very solemn.

"Good."

They went around back and into the crumbling building that housed the back entrance. Morgan input the latest password into the concealed terminal, and sighed when the screen turned red, the walls humming as the security turrets switched on. "Tom, it's me," she said, recovering the microphone hidden under the keyboard and speaking into it. "I'm here to drop off a package."

A few tense seconds passed before the terminal flickered off and the turrets went silent. The door unlocked and swung open, and Morgan covered the terminal with debris before nudging everyone inside, the tunnel closing behind them as they entered. Slogging through the escape tunnel, they emerged in the dusty brick catacombs of HQ.

Tom hovered nervously near the entryway, ambushing them as as they walked through. "You almost got my security riled up, man," he chided. "Why didn't you come in the front entrance and ask for the new password?"

Morgan pulled off her helmet, sucking in fresh air and wiping her face. "Ghouls."

"Ghouls? Since when has that stopped you heavies? You run out of ammo or- oh." His train of thought skidded to a halt when he saw of Donny, peeking around Deacon's side. "Oh man. Des is not gonna be happy."

"She'll live," Morgan said, through gritted teeth. "Where is she, by the way?"

"Giving Glory a 'mission,'" Carrington informed them, rolling his desk chair around a corner and rolling his eyes.

"Well, they'll just have to continue their conversation later." Morgan deposited her armor in an empty corner, dropping her helmet and bag of gear beside it as Deacon did the same. "Watch Donny," she ordered, and marched into Des's office, pushing back the curtain. "Des-"

Glory and Desdemona were pressed together beside one of the desks, Desdemona undoing Glory's jacket, Glory's hands creeping up Desdemona's shirt and exposing her midriff. The two jerked away from each other at Morgan's entrance. "Fixer," Desdemona said, clearing her throat and hurriedly smoothing out her shirt. "We weren't expecting you so soon. Did-"

"I'm dropping off a package," Morgan interrupted. "I need you to promise to look after it."

Desdemona arched an eyebrow, the gravity of leadership returning to her. "Glory, can you…?" The other woman nodded, clearing her throat and avoiding eye contact. Desdemona gestured to a chair, and Morgan sat down as Glory fled. "We don’t house packages," Des said, once the room was quiet. "What makes this one special?"

"It's... human."

Desdemona's expression darkened. "No."

"Too late. He's in HQ now. I brought him in with Deacon."

Desdemona pushed back off the desk, eyes sparking with anger. "How dare you-"

"It's a boy, Des. That's all. I found him alone on a pier south of here. No family. No friends. Scraping by. I couldn't just leave him there, Des."

"No. Instead you bring him here." She glowered, crossing her arms. "Without my permission, without warning, after we thought you were on your way to the Glowing Sea, to find information on the Institute. Instead, you bring us a liability."

"I bring you a child," Morgan snapped, rising from her seat. "We help people, don't we? I thought that was our whole fucking point. Helping people with no one else to turn to. That should include kids two missed meals away from sickness or starvation."

"We have limited resources, Fixer. We can't help every orphan that falls on our doorstep. If we tried to help every child in the Commonwealth that needed it, we'd be out of business in two days. We're just trying to help synths and we're struggling to get by. If you think-"

"I'm not asking you to help every child in the wasteland, I'm asking you to help this one. That's all. If things were any different I’d handle this on my own, but I can’t, and if I'm working for you then you better have my back when I ask, especially since I’m the one sticking my neck out and going to the Glowing Sea. You want me to drop him off at Goodneighbor, full of druggies and creeps? Bunker Hill, full of raiders and sketchy caravaneers? Or how about Diamond City, where there's already orphans and broken families and struggling-"

"I get your point." Desdemona raised a hand, pressing her lips together before sighing out her nose. "Fine. He stays here. You go to the Glowing Sea, you find the intel, and get what we both need. Then you come back here and move him somewhere else. He's not a synth, Fixer. Do you realize what would happen if he told someone about-"

"Yes, I do, and I don't give a shit. We have an agreement. That's all I care about. You feed him, clothe him, keep him from dying, and I'll come back for him."

Morgan made it to the doorway before Des spoke again. "Fixer, I don't enforce this often, but if you want us to have your back, we need you to have ours. I need to know that you respect my authority and our mission."

The veteran turned to the alpha, gray-blue eyes sharp and intense. "I respect Deacon," Morgan stated, sharp and cutting. "I respect the idea of helping people who need it. I don't respect being obsessed with synths because you're sleeping with one."

"Fixer- "

Morgan shoved aside the curtain and stomped out into HQ. The others agents hunched over their desks, avoiding eye contact.Glory stared sullenly into a magazine in the corner. But Deacon and Donny sat on the steps near the front entrance, playing cards as Deacon told stories.

Morgan softened, and approached them as Deacon released a melodramatic groan and set down his cards, Donny throwing up his hands with a grin. "I won!"

Morgan raised her eyebrows. "Did you? And against the card shark himself. How lucky." She glanced at Deacon, and caught him pulling cards from his sleeves and shuffling them back into the deck. "Well, I got everything sorted. You’ll stay here until we come back."

Donny’s grin faded. “You’re leaving? Already?” He looked around the room and at the strangers filling it. He seemed unwilling to be abandoned, and Morgan couldn’t blame him.

“I’m sorry,” she sighed, kneeling down to his level. “But the sooner we leave, the sooner I - we - can come back for you." She hesitated, then pressed her hand to his cheek, feeling the greasy strands of his hair under her palm, the dirt rubbed into his skin. "You'll be safe here. I promise. And if anything happens, I want you to ask to be sent to Bunker Hill. Find a man named Stockton, and tell him Fixer sent you. Tell him to get you somewhere safe. Understand?"

Donny nodded. "I understand."

Morgan swallowed and took her hand away. "Good. One of the mattresses in the back room is yours. Ask Drum- er, the man in the cap and blue coat if you need anything."

"Okay." Donny watched them re-enter their power armor and reclaim their belongings, waving after them as they trudged down the exit passage. Morgan made sure to wave back until they rounded a corner and they couldn’t see him anymore.

She suddenly felt very weary.

"Boss?" Deacon prodded, his helmet's speakers sparking with static.

Morgan shook her head. "I'm fine. Just…” She took a breath. “I'm fine. Let's go."

Chapter Text

"Ready?"

They stood on the rim of the Glowing Sea, feeling the dull hum of the storm rattle against their armor, the faint tick-tick-tick of a geiger counter coming from Morgan’s Pip-Boy. Static rippled through the air each time a lightning bolt touched down, making their hair stand on end. Dark clouds rolled and thundered overhead, and a green mist hung over the rugged landscape, tinting their vision and obscuring the sprawling expanse. The trees here had turned to stumps many decades ago, black-burnt carcasses twisted and deformed. Where the concrete road ended, no grass grew, just dry soil that kicked up dust with every step.

Somewhere in that mottled fog was Virgil, a rogue scientist and the only person who might know how to get into the Institute. What they discovered here could change the future.

Everyone’s future.

“Not yet.”

Morgan squeezed her eyes shut and sighed as Deacon began wiggling, his armor creaking obnoxiously as he rocked his hips and shook out his legs. “I swear to fucking god.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in a god. Also, protecting your boss is harder when you’ve got a wedgie. Really, I’m doing you a favor.”

“This is the most important thing we’ve ever done - possibly the most important thing in the entire history of the Railroad - and you can’t even wrangle your own ass.”

Deacon gave a weak shrug of his armored shoulders. “A wedgie’s a wedgie, boss. It’s serious business.” With that, he continued rocking back and forth, trying to unstick his clothes from his backside in the limited confines of his armor suit.

“I hope a radscorpion eats you.”

“Aww. So nice to know you care.”

The foreboding scene stretched out before them, seeming to grow longer and broader with each step they took. The ground sloped down into a valley, the rolling hills of Pre-War Boston now reduced to a flat plain of lifeless dirt, parted by glowing pools and rivers of orange-gold irradiated fluid. The pair hunkered down and walked slowly, glad for green fog that shielded them from detection, even as they struggled to navigate through it.

Morgan stood upright and tapped the side of her helmet, switching on the tactical magnification and peering across the stormy wastes. "Deathclaws," she said, voice crackling through the speakers. The sky thundered ominously. "Radscorpions. Ghouls near the fallen buildings." She tapped her helmet twice more, frustrated. "Hard to see anything out here."

"That's the Glowing Sea for you." Deacon resisted the urge to fidget, his armor suit lacking the fine motor skills to let him rock on the balls of his feet or play with his hands. "Do you have any idea where this guy is?"

"No clue. But he's here." She sighed, and her helmet clicked as the magnifying lenses turned off. "That's all we know." She turned to her companion, prompting him to fall still. "Deacon. Say you were a slippery bastard, trying to hide from something."

"Oh, gosh, boss, I don’t know if I can inhabit that character. It’s so out of my depth."

"Sure. If you were in such deep shit that you had to hide out in the Glowing Sea, where would you go?"

Deacon pondered the glowing wastes for a moment, all the hair on his body standing up as radioactive lightning struck in his peripheral vision. "There," he pointed. "On those mountains. The high ground is always best. Ghouls can't climb up that high, and radscorpions like long stretches of level dirt. Easier to move around underground and jump up under your prey."

"What about the deathclaws?"

Deacon shrugged. "Hey, I didn't say it was perfect. This is prime Deathclaw territory, boss. I think the mountains are the best you're going to get."

Morgan sighed. "It's as good a plan as any. Keep moving, and look out for signs of life. Don't get killed."

Their journey didn't go entirely unhindered. A few pockets of ghouls wandered over from time to time, and half a dozen radscorpions cornered them against the side of a fallen skyscraper. But they made their way with their extremities intact, albeit with much less ammo and many more scrapes and bruises. The mountains were farther than they anticipated, too. They walked for hours, getting more and more discouraged as the dark peaks grew no closer. But they continued on, their hopes spiking as they reached a mountain just as as the skies darkened.

"Light?" Deacon asked. Hunger gnawed low and nagging in the pit of his stomach. They'd walked this far without stopping for a meal, just taking snacks and drinks as they marched. He hadn't peed in two hours. Both of them were running on sheer adrenaline and will to survive.

Morgan hesitated, then nodded. "Keep it dimmed."

In unison they switched on their helmet lights, dimming them as the sunlight dipped below the horizon and cast long shadows across the stormy plains. The radscorpions and ghouls, like Deacon said, kept to their sprawling valleys and pools of radiation. But deathclaws lurked up in the peaks, building nests where the air was thin and plentiful prey lurked at the foot of the mountain. Beads of sweat dripped down their faces, dampening their clothes beneath their stuffy armor.

It was so dark they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, their only sources of illumination either their headlights or the periodic crackles of lightning. They were so deep in the Sea, they could no longer make out the direction they'd come from, and they were so high above the ground that a single stumble could spell out their demise. While creeping up the sheer side of the mountains, Morgan stopped and grasped Deacon's forearm. Lightning struck a half second after, followed by a wave of deafening thunder.

"Cave," she murmured.

Morgan turned her headlight down even lower and looked into the maw of a cave that gaped above a narrow but climbable slope, a path another man might have walked long ago. Looking down further, their headlights fell on the twitching, shuddering, slumbering form of a deathclaw, black-tipped claws and horns glimmering in the light.

Morgan spread a hand in front of Deacon's chest, commanding without words for him to stay. Then she crept forward, moving to the deathclaw’s side and hefting her rifle. Her armor creaked and groaned, a rush of adrenaline and terror making every small noise suddenly louder than the storm around them. She raised her gun and pointed the barrel at the side of the beast’s head. Deacon could hear her breathing, heavy pants crackling against her helmet’s speakers.

The deathclaw twitched, and so did she. She jerked back too hard, and her foot crunched in the dirt with a sharp sound. The creature groaned and opened its dark eyes, taking stock of the scene. Then, it saw her, and its face contorted in rage as it parted its lips to howl.

Morgan fired with a single, sharp sound, and the deathclaw fell over in a heap, returning almost comically to its original slumbering position. Blood dripped from its skull and slowly crept down the side of the mountain, looking like tar or oil in the darkness. Morgan swallowed, adjusting her gun so another bullet lay readied in the chamber. "In the cave. Now."

Deacon didn't need to be told twice. Leaving behind the corpse, they treaded into the cave, squeezing through in single-file to avoid being crushed between the narrow walls of the passage. The low hum of a turret met their ears. Morgan's heart skipped a beat.

Past the initial entrance of the cave, the walls widened into a small entry room, light emanating from a doorway just opposite the entry tunnel. Two turrets sat beside the doorway, blinking red as they approached and making a high, buzzing noise of displeasure, engines warming as they prepared to fire. Two rifle shots echoed through the cave, piercing their engines and making them sputter to a halt.

Then, from deeper within the cave: "Who's there?"

Both agents jumped, clutching their weapons tighter and glancing at one another before creeping through the doorway. The heavy, lumbering steps of an unknown creature mirrored their slow approach, the two parties inching towards each other in the small room. Morgan's heart thundered in her chest, a distant and irrelevant sensation compared to the vivid feeling of her gun in her hands, stock in the cross of her arm, her sights raised high.

They rounded a corner and just across from them stood a Super Mutant, leveling a battered shotgun at their chests. "Hold it!" the creature snarled. "Take it nice and slow. No sudden moves."

Morgan stopped, but kept her gun up and fixed between his eyes. "Where's Virgil?"

A human look of confusion passed over the beast's face before reverting to angry distrust. "You can't fool me. I know you're from the Institute. Where's Kellogg? Is he trying to sneak up on me while you distract me?" He whipped around, glaring at the piles of stuff behind him like he suspected a medical journal of harboring an assassin. "It's not going to work!"

Slowly, Morgan lowered her weapon. "Virgil?"

"Why do you keep saying that?" The creature sounded frustrated, pointing his gun once more at her chest. "You know damn well who I am. Now, where's Kellogg? I'm not stupid. I know they'd send him after me!"

Morgan let her rifle hang at her side, non-threatening. "Virgil, Kellogg's dead."

"Dead?" The mutant faltered. "He's... dead?" A moment passed before his suspicion returned, making him shake his head vehemently. "Don't you lie to me!"

"I'm not. I... I killed him myself. That's how I found this place. Killed him then went through his memories for information on the Institute." Morgan clicked the release button on the side of her helmet and revealed her face.  "We found you instead."

The mutant scrutinized her with his dull-yellow eyes. "Did you." He considered the prospect with curious disbelief. "Kellogg was ruthless. There's a reason the Institute used him to do their dirty work for so many years." His eyes unfocused for a minute, voice lowering as he thought aloud. "I knew they'd send him after me. Tried to prepare for it. But I still wasn't sure I'd make it." His attention returned to her. "And you killed him?"

"Unless he came back to life after we tore out his brains and rifled through his memories." She cast a glance over her shoulder, reassuring herself of Deacon's presence. He lingered just behind her left side, rifle lowered but not sheathed. "So you... are , Virgil?"

"What's left of him," the mutant grumbled. "I was working on a project,in the Institute, and when I was making my escape, the only way to safely survive in the Glowing Sea was to turn into one of these things. I was working on a serum to reverse it, but had to flee before I could retrieve it. My name is Brian Virgil, and I might not look it, but I was once human."

"Still are, I'd wager." Morgan pressed her lips together. "I need to get into the Institute."

"I... what?" Even with the limitations of his lumpy, deformed face, it was had to mistake Virgil's flabbergasted expression. "You can't be serious. You're insane."

"Insane enough to walk miles deep into the Glowing Sea, a feat that might have stumped even Kellogg, all to track down the only man in the Commonwealth who can tell me what I need to know." She let that hang in the air for a moment. "I don't have time for semantics, Virgil."

"What my less charismatic partner means," Deacon interrupted, as cold fear blossomed on the mutant's face, "is that we have no intention of using their technology for personal gain. We’ve both lost people to the Institute and are looking for justice. That is all."

Morgan jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "What he said."

Virgil remained perturbed, but calmed down enough to take a breath and give them the time of day."Fine. I'm - I'm sorry for whoever the Institute took from you. But I'll need your help in return, if you expect me to do this."

Morgan's heartbeat quickened. "State your terms."

"My serum's still in my office in the Institute. If you can get it for me, that will pay back what you owe for my help."

"Done."

Virgil seemed surprised, but didn't argue. "Then, I suppose there's nothing else but to talk details. I assume you know how synths get in and out of the Institute?"

"Some kind of teleporter." Morgan nodded.

"Commonly referred to as the 'Molecular Relay.' I don't understand all the science behind it, but it works. Like the title says, it relays your molecules across vast distances. You de-materialize in one place, re-materialize in another. It sounds crazy, but it's true."

The woman snorted. "Believe me, I've seen and heard crazier things."

"I'm sure you have. But that Relay is the only way in and out of the Institute." He rubbed his hands together. "Have you ever seen an Institute Courser?"

"I've heard of them, and know what they do, but as far as I know I've never seen one."

"Be glad you haven't. Unfortunately, you're going to have to kill one."

Morgan quirked a brow. "And… why?"

"Every Courser has special hardware that gives them a direct connection to the Relay," Virgil explained. "It's embedded in a chip in their heads. If you get into the Institute, that's your best chance. But killing a Courser is no easy task." His eyes flickered to Morgan's Pip-Boy. "You've got a radio on that thing, right? The Relay causes massive radio interference, and the primary insertion point for Coursers is in the ruins of CIT, directly above the Institute. When you get there, just turn your radio to the lower signals and wait. When a Courser shows up, you can follow the interference and track the Courser that way. Then, you just... have to not get killed."

"I assume that's easier said than done."

"Quite." Virgil nodded. "I'm not gonna lie - the odds aren't in your favor. But if you do make it, remember what I said about the serum. I need it, badly, if you hadn't noticed."

Morgan took a breath, steeling herself for the next leg of the journey. "Thank you, Virgil. I promise, if we do get into the Institute, I won't forget your serum. I pay my debts."

"That's very noble of you." Virgil nodded solemnly. "I just hope you survive long enough to find who you're looking for."

Morgan swallowed. "I just hope they’re still there."

 

Donny watched Tom's hands fly across the worktable, listening to a rapid stream of consciousness as he repaired the MILA. "See, and then you gotta - twist it three times, y’see. Get that delicious connectivity, right across these wires." Tom pressed a grimy finger to the exposed copper, yelping and jerking his hand away as a snap of electricity bit his skin. "Well - at least we know it works!" He sucked the tip of his finger and screwed the panel back on the MILA.

"And this collects... 'data'?" Donny said, the new word funny on his tongue.

"That's right, kiddo. Sees everything in the Commonwealth - in a certain radius, of course. With these babies, I'm like an eagle, soaring through the sky, got a birds-eye view of everything." He plucked the straps of his overalls proudly. "Without even leaving home."

"That's so cool." Donny stared at the box of wires and bulbs reverently, making the tinker preen. Donny almost wished he’d brought the hand-crank generator his dad had helped him with, or the radio he’d assembled himself. The boy bit his lower lip and turned to the Carrington, who was hunched over his desk and pointedly ignoring their conversation. "Carrington? Are you sure I can't get Tom's shot?"

"Quite sure, Donny," the man grumbled, hunching like he wanted to become one with his test tubes. "Battery acid does not belong in the bloodstream of a growing boy."

"And nanobots do?" Tom exclaimed. "They're in his blood, man. Collecting all sorts of data! They could be absorbing his everything right now!"

Donny's eyes widened, and he pressed his hands to his temples. "They're in my brain?" he asked, suddenly worried.

"Nah, nah, man, you gotta understand," Tom reassured, leaning down to place his hands on Donny's shoulders. "They're in your blood, absorbing your DNA. And if they can get your DNA, then they can just upload the data, and generate a clone of you, and get all your memories that way. That's how they make their replacement-"

"Tom, if I hear one more word." Des's warning voice shot across the room.

"I'm just speaking the truth, Des!" Tom shouted back, standing upright and putting his hands on his hips. He shuffled back to his worktable, sulking and grumbling under his breath. Donny's brows furrowed, still concerned, but he decided it wasn't worth worrying about. Tom would handle it, he decided. Tinker Tom was clearly the smartest person here.

Donny swiped a piece of chalk from the back room and sat in front of the chalkboards, tracing the railsigns onto the brick floor, practicing the dashes and different symbols. Remembering the names of the safehouses was harder, but writing them out helped him remember his alphabets.

"Drummer?" Donny looked up, catching the attention of the agent as he walked past. "How'd'ya spell, uh, 'compartmentalization'?"

"Uh." It occurred to Drummer that he didn't know. "Why you wanna know that word?"

"Desdemona was sayin' it when she and High Rise were talkin' about Ticonder-"

"Ticonderoga, kid. Not tick. Tie. Like tying your shoes."

"Ticonderoga."

"Mhm. Say, why don't you lay off trying to spell for now? Might make Des mad again. 'Member when she found you in the back room and thought you were listening to her debrief?"

The boy pouted. "Yes."

"Yeah. Why don't you go play with that slingshot Tom gave you? Or have Glory take you out shooting again?"

"Des said she can't do that anymore. Even though I told her how to kill Mirelurks really good and that's why we have so much food now."

Drummer wondered why they'd been having so much chowder recently. "Well, you gotta do what Des tells you."

Donny jutted his chin out and kicked at the floor, drawing a white X over his half-finished railsign. "She doesn't like me."

Drummer didn't have an answer for that one, so he just ruffled Donny's hair and went back to work, inputting his latest report into the records terminal and pulling his hat down to hide from Des's surly gaze. Desdemona had been extra cranky ever since Fixer brought the kid 'round. Sure, kids don't exactly belong around a gang of spies, but that chowder had been pretty damn good.

Heavy footsteps echoing from down the hall made everyone, including Donny, freeze. The footsteps got closer, and closer, heavy enough to be the feet of a dozen men, all stomping in unison until they thundering to a halt right outside the front door. The doorknob turned, twisting against the lock for a few seconds that felt like an eternity. The door opened, and two sets of power armor stepped inside. Banged up all to hell, but in one piece.

Donny leapt up. "You're back!"

His exclamation broke the spell, and everyone else came forward. Some stared in shock, others in pride. Many asked questions. Carrington nagged at them to get out of their suits and let him administer some RadAway. Tom was already running some kind of scan. Des waited at the back of the crowd, a small, rebellious smile on her face.

At last the two agents broke through the crowd to stand in front of her, removing their helmets to reveal sweaty faces and mussed hair. "Long time no see," Desdemona remarked.

"It's been a rough few weeks," Morgan sighed wearily, but determination shone in her eyes. "We got it. We can get into the Institute."

Des raised her eyebrows as a wave of gasps and whispers rolled through the crowd. "You got it?" she asked, growing excited. "You actually got it?"

Morgan reached into her pack and pulled out a carefully wrapped package, shrouded in layers of protective coverings. Opening it revealed a blood-stained hunk of circuitry. "I have blueprints to a teleporter. The Molecular Relay, the very thing the Institute uses to get around without detection. And this -" Morgan held out the circuits. "- has the technology to connect us right to the Institute's relay directly. We can do this, Des."

Desdemona stared at Morgan's open palm, then at Morgan, searching for the right words. The room was dead silent. No sighs, no gasps, no murmurs or whispers or noises of triumph. The crowd watched with baited breath as Desdemona stepped forward and laid one hand over Morgan’s bloody, outstretched one.

"Tell me what you need."

Chapter Text

With the Courser chip came armfuls of blueprints, sprawling masses of paper covered in Virgil’s sloppy handwriting, where he struggled to manipulate the pen in his too-big hands. Tom had the chip decoded, but turning Super Mutant chickenscratch into legible blueprints would take longer.

“How much longer?” Morgan demanded.

“I don’t know,” Desdemona repeated. “I don’t know when we’ll be able to build, but I’m not going to let you two loiter around HQ until then. There’s work to be done.”

“We’re not just agents, Des. This is important, and I-”

“I understand that, but nagging Tom every half hour helps no one. Going on a mission will be the best and most constructive way to take your mind off things. Besides,” she frowned, “you said you’d take the boy once you came back.”

“Take him where?” Morgan pressed her hands flat on the table, scowling. “Des, if you want us to do a job, we don’t have time to find him a safe place to stay. We do one or the other.”

Des huffed. “Then take him with you. PAM says the mission itself is simple enough; go in, clear out some bad guys, and rescue the Gen 3 in their possession. Then you just escort the synth to Heron safehouse. I’m sure you can find a place for Donny along the way.”

Morgan frowned. “Heron? Why so far? Wouldn’t Ticonderoga be safer?”

“Ticonderoga has its own problems to deal with at the moment, and our intel says this particular package is high-risk. A Courser might be dispatched if we don’t handle this soon. If we burn one of our smaller safehouses, we’ll survive. Losing Ticonderoga would be critical.”

Morgan sighed and shook her head. “Fine. Fine, Des, you win. I’ll take Donny, and save your synth. But you owe me. For all of this.” She swept a hand to the rest of the room, to the agents with their faces buried in terminals and Tinker Tom poring over his papers.

“We’ll tally our debts when this is over, Fixer. You have your orders. Move out.”

Morgan huffed and turned away, grumbling under her breath. “Orders, my ass.”

 

With Tinker Tom’s help, Donny had built some rudimentary armor, made from scrap leather and duct tape and molded to fit his skinny limbs. Though Railroad meals were often as cheap as possible, all radroach chunks and tato soup, regular meals alone added a little color to Donny’s cheeks. He stood taller and prouder, a pair of welding goggles dangling around his neck.

“So what’s the plan?” he asked, walking between the pair of agents. “Are we gonna sneak in through the back and take them down like the Silver Shroud? Or’re we gonna go in, guns blazing, just like the Unstoppables?” He leapt forward, waggling his gun at invisible enemies.

Morgan laid a hand on his shoulder. “You are going to hide behind Deacon as much as possible and stay as low to the ground as you can.”

Donny pouted. “That’s not fair! You said I could come with you, why can’t I help?”

“Don’t worry, kiddo,” Deacon said, yawning. “Boss lady handles most of the heavy lifting, anyway. You and I can sit back and play cards while she clears out the place.”

“But that’s boring. I want to help! I promise I know how to handle a gun. My dad taught me how to use a rifle, and- and Glory was teaching me how to shoot! She let me use her pistol and everything. It was kinda big, though, and the recoil goes like-” He mimed a gun flying up and smacking him in the face. “But she showed me how to hold it right.”

Morgan paused mid-step, giving the boy a narrow-eyed stare. “I thought you said you got that bruise on your head from tripping into a doorframe.”

Donny froze, eyes going wide. “I, uh, I did.”

“Did Glory tell you not to tell me that you bruised yourself during target practice?”

“... No.”

Morgan scowled. “I’ll kill her.”

“Now, hold on,” Deacon soothed, walking up between them. “I don’t know if homicide is really the go-to option, here. I’m sure it was just an accident.” Donny’s head swung like a bobblehead with quick, earnest nods.

“Accident or not, I swear to god.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in one of those.”

“I’m not going to enable child… child soldier-ing, Deacon.”

“He’s not a child soldier! It’s perfectly acceptable wasteland behavior. I know you still believe in kindergarten and Ms. Nanny bots and kid shows about puppets and counting and the magic of friendship, but. Nowadays most Commonwealth kids know how to use a gun as soon as they’re big enough to hold one. Donny’s a smart guy! He’ll be fine, boss, I promise.”

As Morgan maintained her surly glower, Donny perked up. “What’s a Ms. Nanny bot?”

“A robot from the Old World. Morgan’s two hundred years old, you know. She’s been around. She could tell you all sorts of stories.”

“I could?” The woman in question arched a brow.

“Really?” Donny beamed. “That’s so cool! Are you immortal? Or a ghoul? Were you cursed to live forever? Are you a cyborg? Are you a ghost? Tinker Tom says that ghosts as we know them are unscientific but that it’s possible they’re pneumatic impressions left behind by victims of the Institute to spy on-”

“I’m not a ghost, Donny.” Morgan couldn’t quite stifle a smile. “When I… was alive, a few hundred years ago. The bombs dropped, and some people put me to sleep for a while. Then I woke up when most of the radiation was gone and it was safe to come out. But… yes. I remember the Old World. I was there, and all.”

“Wow!” Donny seemed very taken with the concept, and Deacon didn’t miss the slight way Morgan’s chest puffed up, the half-smile that pulled at her lips. Then came the ultimate question: “What was it like?”

“What was what like?”

“It! Everything! What did you eat? What did you do? Were there a lot of robots before the war? Were there real superheroes? Was it just like in the comic books and on the billboards, where everyone’s happy and pretty and there’s lots of food to eat and nice clothes to wear?”

Morgan chuckled and indulged him, ruffling his hair as she told him stories until they reached their destination. They found themselves at Wattz Consumer Electronics later in the afternoon, a well-sized industrial building with a storefront on the bottom floor, all discount robots and rusty appliances. “I guess they thought they’d fit right in,” Deacon quipped.

“Intel says the package is in hiding here. Gonna want to be quick and quiet, in and out as fast as we can. Courser could show up at any moment. Lets not take any chances.”

“What do I do?” Donny asked, wide-eyed and eager.

“You,” Morgan stated, “are going to do just like we talked about. Stay right between me and Deacon, crouched down, always behind cover and as low to the floor as you can get.”

“But-!”

“No buts.”

Darkness permeated the interior, save for a few fluorescent lights still flickering on the high ceiling. You could access office space and workshops via rusted stairwells and through keycard-locked doors. Most of the floor had crumbled or fallen in, exposing a basement full of boxed-up appliances and locked shipping crates.

With the smell of must and an ominous flicker of the light above them came the heavy squealing and thumping of robot limbs moving across the floor. Protectrons staggered around the room, and around the corner they heard the warm gush of a Mr. Handy’s engine.

Morgan scanned the room. Too open. The shelves were some cover, but the room was too maneuverable for them to be of much use. Double-edged sword. The robots couldn’t hide, but neither could they. She licked her lips. “Follow me.”

They dashed to the checkout counter on the other side of the room. Donny stumbled and got his foot stuck in a shopping basket, metal slapping against the tile floor echoing through the building. Deacon helped Donny remove the basket and Morgan took out her shotgun.

Bots were a bitch to take down. You couldn’t put a bullet through their brain like everything else, so your best shot was to destroy all their guns and hope to disable their legs or jets so they couldn’t chase after you when they went into suicider mode.

Still not as bad as ghouls, though.

A Protectron ambled around one of the shelves, voicebox flashing dull red inside its fiberglass torso. “Law abiding citizens, please leave the area,” it droned, joints hissing as the antique hydraulics struggled to push it forward.

“I hate this,” Morgan muttered, and stood, firing into the Protectron’s right claw.

The robot turned to face her, all lights going red, and a shower of sparks erupted from its damaged appendage. The shotgun shell must have damaged whatever tubing directed its lasers. “Do not be alarmed,” it said, and charged her. “Order will be restored, soon.”

Morgan swore, but had the sense of mind to run around and away from Donny and Deacon. The Protectron slammed into the metal counter, and Donny clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a yelp. Deacon kept one hand on the boy’s back, the other curled around his pistol.

Sprinting into the center of the building, Morgan did a quick scan. Three Protectrons, two Mr. Handys, and what looked like a Mr. Gutsy watching her through the window of the manager’s office. But she could hear the rumble of something else starting up behind the locked door to the warehouse room. “Protect Donny!” she shouted, and bolted over a pile of debris into the fallen-in basement. “Find the key to the manager’s office!”

“Key to the manager’s office, key to the manager’s office…” Deacon murmured, feeling along the rim of the counter as he moved around it. The register contained a pile of oxidized coins and moth-bitten paper money, and the cupboards beneath it stacks of miscellaneous returned items, but no keycard. Deacon glanced behind him, considering moving to the next checkout counter.

A flash of red resounded as several robots fired into the basement, treating Morgan like a fish in a barrel, pinning her down behind shipping crates and crumbling pillars. Something shifted in Deacon’s peripheral vision, and he stuck an arm out, grabbing back of Donny’s shirt. The boy released a faint, indignant noise, and Deacon wagged a finger at him.

“Can’t let you do that, kiddo. Boss lady will be mad at me if you lose a finger or three.”

Donny opened his mouth to retort, but his gaze moved past and behind Deacon’s shoulder, eyes widening. Deacon whipped around as a shadow fell over them. “For Queen and country!” the Mr. Handy announced, and raised its sawblade with an intimidating whirr.

Deacon reacted on instinct, grabbing Donny by the scruff of the neck and leaping out from the safety of the counter, as the Handy’s sawblade swung through the air where their heads had just been. “I say!” it chirped, and flew after them.

Deacon and Donny skidded to a half behind a rickety shelf. “Don’t move,” Deacon said, and released his grip. Leaning around the corner, he fired at the charging Mr. Handy, shattering the lens of the robot’s center eyestalk. The robot stumbled and had to stop, its two other eyes adjusting to the lack of vision. “Okay, now, Donny, we’re going to-”

Gone.

Deacon swallowed. “She’s going to kill me,” he said, more resigned than anything.

A sawblade sunk into the back of the shelf, sparks flying as metal ground against metal. The Mr. Handy hovered around the corner, air warping where gas dripped from its flamethrower. “Ooh, yes, let’s all beat up on the robot,” it hissed, and then everything was fire.

From the basement, Morgan had managed to shoot down one of the Protectrons, a blackened crater marking the concrete where it had self-destructed. She’d been forced to switch to her pistol because she couldn’t get close enough for her shotgun to be of any use, but even sturdy .44 bullets didn’t do much against the resilient bots.

What she needed was the keycard to the manager’s office, where she only had one robot to deal with and then could pick off the others from a better vantage point. Morgan was just about to call for Deacon and Donny, make sure they were okay, when she caught a glimpse of dusty plastic pinned to a clipboard on the floor beside one of the crates.

She dashed out from behind her pillar, hot lasers whizzing past her ear as she ran, and took cover behind the crate as she shoved the card into her breast pocket. The basement was too dim to examine it - she just had to hope that it was the right one. Fumbling at her hip, she grabbed a grenade and took a breath. “Incoming!” she shouted, and prayed that Deacon nor Donny were anywhere near. She pulled the pin with her teeth and tossed it up.

With the explosion, everything shuddered, dust showering from the ceiling. The last thing she wanted was to be in this basement when part of the foundation gave out, so she sprinted up the debris, hoping her grenade had done enough to incapacitate or distract the remaining robots. She made it up the stairs to the door of the office and yanking the keycard from her pocket dragged it through the swiper. It buzzed and flashed red at her. Morgan’s stomach dropped.

Wrong card.

She turned around, and realized that something had broken down the warehouse door, a selection of robots in various states of disrepair floating into the room. And she was standing in the middle of it, with every one of them looking at her. Morgan grit her teeth, closed her eyes, and raised her hands to cover her face.

Silence. Then, the resounding clatter of metal bodies collapsing to the floor in unison. Morgan lowered her hands, blood thundering in her ears. Every robot had turned off. Just… gone out. Went dark. Limbs splayed across the tile and concrete, like they’d all succumbed to a bout of narcolepsy. Even the Gusty behind the door had gone quiet.

Donny barreled through the wide-open warehouse door. “I helped!” he grinned, eyes shining as sweat dripped down his face and his small shoulders rose and fell with heavy breaths.

Morgan gaped. “Donny, what- what did you do?”

Donny sauntered into the room, tucking his hands into the pockets of his shorts. “Security terminal in the back of the warehouse. You can manually override all the bots right there.”

Morgan stared, then laughed, running her hands over her face with an exhausted but relieved smile. “Thank you, Donny. You were very helpful. Now, where’s Deacon?”

“Here,” the man groaned, climbing out from under a fallen shelf. “Back’ll be sore in the morning, but I’m okay. Also,” he said, raising a finger. “I refuse to accept any blame for the child running off. It is very hard to babysit and not die at the same time.”

Donny grinned wider and jogged over to help extricate Deacon from the rubble. Morgan turned back to the keycard door and sighed before pulling some tools from her bag and setting to work on the hinges. After a minute, the door fell forward, crushing the limp Gutsy beneath it. Morgan stepped into the center of the listen, keeping an eye and ear out. She cocked her head to the side, frowning as something caught her ear. Another robot? No, maybe it was pipes whining in the walls. Perhaps a live animal making noises outside. Or, maybe...

Morgan dragged her ear along the wall until she came face to face with a tall, empty bookshelf. She ran her fingers along its side until she got a good grip, then grit her teeth and pushed it away from the wall. The unknown sound stopped abruptly as the wooden shelf squeaked against the tile, revealing a narrow door hidden behind it. She tried the knob, and though it turned, she hesitated and rapped her knuckles against the door.

“Hello?” The silence now felt conspicuous. “I’m not here to hurt you.” She rested the flat of her hand against the wood. “I’m not with the Institute.” Still nothing. “I’m going to come in. But I don’t have my guns out, and I’m not going to take you anywhere you don’t want to go.”

With that, she turned the knob and opened the door, exposing a narrow closet full of cardboard boxes bursting at the seams with coffee-stained papers. A faint whimper came from the back. Morgan lifted her arm and shone her Pip-Boy into the room, and a humanoid figure shied from the light. “It’s okay,” she said, leaning closer but not stepping in. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

She turned her Pip-Boy off, and a pale face leaned into the light pouring through the open door. A bright blue eye gleamed at Morgan from the shadows, red-rimmed from crying. “Are you… the Railroad?” a feminine voice asked, soft, but only in volume.

“Yes,” Morgan said, with a gentle half-smile. “I am.”

 

They reached Heron by evening, when the sun approached the horizon and shadows stretched long across the landscape. Safehouse Heron sat poised on the rim of a small lake, known to most others as Taffington Boathouse. An older woman answered the door when they arrived, with skin the color of ochre and a warm flush to her rounded cheeks. “This young lady a friend of ours?” she asked, gaze running over the synth wrapped in a faded, threadbare coat.

“She is, Aya. Do you have room for her?”

Ayanna’s dark eyes sparkled as she smiled. “We always have room.”

The furniture inside was soft and well-worn, Pre-War kitchen long torn out and replaced with less plastic cupboards and stoves. A restored jukebox in the corner sung Diamond City tunes, and the sound of water lapping against the shore wafted in through the windows.

Donny tugged on Deacon’s shoulder. “It smells like old people,” he whispered.

“Be nice,” Deacon whispered back.

Morgan walked alongside the synth without touching her, letting her huddle in her coat. “Do you have somewhere we can change?” Morgan asked.

Ayanna pointed at the stairs. “We just got the guest bedroom redone. Blue paint.”

Blue paint meant there weren’t any other synths here to worry about. A5-24 followed Morgan, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds until they stopped at the bedroom door. “Do you want my help?” Morgan asked, one hand resting on the knob.

A5 bit her lip, then nodded. The bedroom had the same faded, peeling wallpaper as everywhere else in the house, holes in the walls patched with wood boards and scraps of cloth and leather. There were two beds, accompanied by two footlockers, a rain barrel shower, a mirror, and a dresser. Under the dresser was a hidden cache of weapons. Just in case.

Reluctantly, A5 took off her coat. She still wore her Institute jumpsuit, but had torn off all the Institute insignias, and rolled up her sleeves and legs so they didn’t show past the hem of her coat, and smeared the whole thing in as much mud and filth as she could manage.

Still, nothing could hide her strange, unnatural beauty. She had symmetrical features, a soft and round face with full lips and dark lashes, bright blue eyes contrasting blonde hair. She was tall, taller than most wasteland women, about the height of Morgan herself. Long legs and smooth skin, wide hips and full breasts. She lacked the stretchmarks and loose skin of women who’d given birth many times, or the bone-thin look of the hungry. She looked like an Old World pin-up.

It wasn’t the sort of thing Morgan paid much attention to, most of the time. But after months of seeing hungry bodies huddle in the wreckage of society, of watching herself lose the last of her baby weight, of living in squalor and hunger and dirt, A5 stuck out like a sore thumb.

“Do you want a shower?”

“I don’t want to undress,” she murmured, sitting on the edge of the bed. She kept her head down, hands in her lap, the picture of demure femininity.

Morgan nodded. “Do you want me to help you or just stay with you?”

A pause. “I don’t know.”

Morgan looked around the room, thinking. “Why don’t we brush your hair? Start there.”

A5 flinched. “No.” Then, much, much quieter: “He brushed my hair.”

Oh.

Morgan nodded again, wiser this time. “I have an idea.” She went downstairs for a minute, then returned with one of Deacon’s razors and a bar of soap. “I’m told that when, uh… trying to move on from something, a dramatic change can help.” She took the pitcher from the washbasin and filled the basin with water, laying the soap alongside it.

A5 watched her with curious but skeptical eyes. “A haircut?”

“A shave.” Morgan ran one finger over the razor blade. “All gone, so you can start anew.”

“Okay.”

Morgan pulled up a chair from another room and let A5 sit in front of the mirror as she worked. Deacon had more experience shaving, and shaving heads in particular, but A5 seemed very unwilling to have a man anywhere near her.

A5 dampened her hair herself, soaking it until the knife would take. Scalp nice and soapy, Morgan took scissors first and cut off the hair in chunks, locks of gold pooling around the chair as A5 watched. “Are you a synth?” the woman asked, sudden and without prompting.

Morgan started as the silence broke. “No. I’m from… somewhere else.”

“I thought most people in the Railroad were synths.”

“Some. Not all. There’s not enough freed synths to power the movement on their own. We have lots of people who help. Ghouls, humans, synths.”

“What’s a ghoul?”

“Uh.” Morgan frowned. “A different kind of person. Irradiated humans.”

“Why don’t you just call them human, then?”

“It’s… hard to explain. You’ll understand when you meet some.”

Silence fell again. Morgan let A5 apply more soapy water to her scalp, then out came the straight razor. Morgan dragged the blade down A5’s head, shaving off the remaining strands.

“I hate the Institute,” the synth woman murmured.

“So do I.”

A5’s hands curled into fists. “I want everyone in it to die. I don’t care how, they just- they all deserve it. They all deserve to be killed.”

Morgan swallowed hard and kept shaving. “That might happen sooner than you think.”

The other woman froze. “The Railroad’s going to destroy them?”

“We’re… there’s no plan, yet, but we’re trying to find a way in.”

A5 sighed. “I wish the Institute didn’t have their escape failsafes. I wish I could help you.”

“You can. You help us by staying free. That’s why we do this. Your life is enough.”

“You should destroy them.” A5 turned around in her seat, staring at Morgan with wide, fierce eyes. “You should make them suffer, Fixer. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen, endured what I’ve endured. It’s- It- They are more terrible than you can possibly imagine.” Her voice trailed off into a whisper until she made a choked, weeping noise, throat tight with crying.

Morgan pressed one hand to the side of A5’s stubbled head, waiting to see if she’d jerk away or accept the comfort. The synth shook with soft, gasping breaths, and leaned into the embrace, cheek pressed to Morgan’s armor as she cried. Morgan held her until she composed herself, then they finished shaving. A5’s head was smooth and round and unblemished, and as she ran her hand over the top of her skull, Morgan headed for the door. “I’ll let you change in peace.”

A5 nodded, still staring into the mirror. Morgan went downstairs, feeling shaken, one hand on the stair rail for balance as she staggered into the livingroom. The air smelled like cooking food, and Donny raced in circles around the room, arms spread like airplane wings. No sign of Deacon.

Morgan went to the back porch, looking out at the lake. The setting sun turned the ripples on the water's surface orange-gold, the sky a pretty purple with blue shaded clouds and the distant red blob of the sun creeping closer to the earth. She pulled up a chair and sat on the edge of the porch. Exhaustion slumped her shoulders, an unseen weight pressing on her chest to deepen her sighs.

A familiar set of footsteps padded across the wood and sat beside her, dangling his feet over the side of the pier. Deacon lifted his beer and took a long swig, listening to the sounds of chattering crickets. “Nice night,” he remarked, glancing at Morgan. “You okay?”

She watched a small waterbug skip across the surface of the water, trailing tiny ripples. A frog released a warped groan somewhere on the other side of the lake. “I’m very tired.”

“I hear that.” Deacon took another drink. “Donny’s in a good mood, though.”

“Yeah?”

“Ayanna gave him some cookies. He’s bouncing off the walls because he ate six.”

“Mm.”

“I gotta say, that kid really knows how to make people like him. I think Des is the only one who’s managed to hold out this long. But she’s got that iron will, you know.”

Deacon went on about Donny, about Ayanna and Joseph, about whether or not the local beer was as good as a vintage Gwinnett, about how he’d always wanted to try a Guinness but never had the chance. Morgan listened to his voice, West Coast with a hint of Bostonian that seeped through when he wasn’t paying attention. The night was cool and dark, and the sound of the water lapping beneath the pier intermingled with the crickets and Deacon’s low, gentle chuckle.

Her breath caught. “Deacon, I…”

“Hmm?” He stopped mid-story to look at her, all the stars reflected in his sunglasses.

Morgan stared, then softened, giving him a half-smile. “Nothing. Just keep talking.”

He smiled back and leaned his head against the arm of her chair, and Morgan draped her hand over his head, fingers running over his scalp in random patterns as he talked. If he minded, he didn’t say, just leaned into her touch and told her about the time he went to the Capital Wasteland.

And everything was peaceful.

Chapter Text

Thick mud sucked at their boots as they trudged through the swamp. Donny clung to Deacon’s neck and dangled off his back, base feet covered in mud. Morgan lead the way, leaving the foliage untouched unless absolutely necessary, squeezing between trees and over bushes. And Tinker Tom followed at the rear, casting leery glances over his shoulders and wringing his hands. “H-Hey, man, are we- are we there yet?”

“Yeah, are we there yet?” Donny repeated, in a sing-song voice.

Morgan stopped and squinted, holding a hand over her eyes. "Looks like." Between the dark, leafless trees loomed the rusted carcasses of rotting construction equipment, surrounded by abandoned piles of wood and cement bags.

"Deacon, look!" Donny sat up abruptly, making Deacon grimace. "Look!"

A bulldozer and a tractor cast long shadows over the clearing, sunken several feet into the mud with vines woven through their engines. Donny wiggled from Deacon's grasp, and the two climbed into the nearest machine, Donny leaving muddy footprints on the side as he scampered in. Deacon stood on the treads and watched the boy play with the nonfunctional levers and buttons.

Morgan turned to Tom. "Will this be enough space for you?"

"Uh." The tinker reached into his pack and unfurled thick scrolls of blueprints, blinking at them before turning them ninety degrees. "Yeah. Yeah, yeah, no, that - this should do great. That looks about... " He closed one eye and wagged his finger across the length of the clearing, murmuring numbers under his breath. "Yep! All the space we need. I just need the supplies."

"There's Minutemen in the Castle, waiting for the order to bring supplies down. I'll radio them now. You get started on making some kind of base camp." Morgan waved a hand and Tom took the hint, running off to unload his supplies and get started.

The Murkwater swamp was one of the least hospitable and least populated places in the Commonwealth, on account of all the Mirelurk nests and relentless flora. So long as they kept things on the down-low and their communications coded, with a little luck they’d escape the Institute’s notice, and avoid interference from anyone else. Building the Relay too close to HQ or any other safehouses would both be obvious and endanger the people living there.

But that still left the issue of resources. A teleporter would take steel and circuits and many manhours, and the Railroad didn’t have that on hand. And the Minutemen owed her, ever since she found them in Concord and needed a place to stay, and she gave them permission to settle in Sanctuary. Not just for that but for all the times she’d scoped out new settlements, protected worried settlers, or rescued the occasional kidnapped daughter.

Deacon liked the Minutemen well enough, even encouraging her to help out more. A happy and safe populace is less likely to lash out at anything deemed “other,” namely synths. But Morgan couldn’t divorce her feelings for the Minutemen from her first experiences in the wasteland, a hazy three-month period dominated by panic attacks and sleepless nights and sudden bouts of crying. Preston Garvey’s open, kind face was permanently interwoven in her mind with resentment and pain, not least because he found hope just as she lost hers, and she hated him for it.

But here they were. Garvey, the Commonwealth darling, had strung together a militia and rudimentary government out of a handful of farming towns and a reclaimed historical site, branding themselves as servants of the people. But as Deacon often pointed out, some rifles and pretty words did not a new world make. Long before Morgan came along, the Minutemen had reached their peak and fallen from it in a now infamous power struggle. It remained to be seen if this new order could prove it was made of sterner stuff than optimism and vegetables.

Still. Right now, her focus was the Relay. She could deal with Preston when the time came.

The Minutemen showed up a few hours later, following Morgan's careful - coded - directions. They carried with them piles of electrical and metal gear, tents, food and water, and the soldiers themselves, as added security in case anyone came poking around. Morgan, armed with a clipboard and pencil, saw him when they first arrived. “Garvey.” She raised a brow. “You’re here.”

“Good to see you too, Morgan,” Preston smiled.

He had a rounded, open sort of face, with skin a dark umber, his cheeks warmed from the exertion of travel. He wore several layers of coats and vests, finely stitched by some devoted farmer’s wife, colored with dyes most wastelanders never saw outside of Pre-War curtains and rugs. He had a determined, earnest air about him, the kind that almost made you feel guilty for the vaguest non-humanitarian thought. He believed - why didn’t you?

“Normally I wouldn’t ask so much.” Morgan gestured to the hubbub of tent-raising and supply-distributing around them. "But it's important."

"Do I want to ask what this is all about?” he asked, all good-natured curiosity. “Your people told me it had something to do with getting into the Institute. Figured that was worth putting my own people behind."

"It's... big. You know I wouldn't get you involved otherwise."

"I know." Preston adjusted his hat, one hand resting on the stock of his sheathed musket. "We took the Castle recently," he remarked, in that Small Talk voice Morgan remembered from her neighborhood watch and book club days.

"I heard. How were the mirelurks?"

The minuteman gave her a strange look. "You knew?"

She shrugged. "I heard after the fact. Didn't have any reason to head up that way myself, so I didn't know ahead of time."

They watched a few more Minutemen walk past, bearing lumber and strips of metal. “You could have helped,” he said. “We could have used someone like you. Might’ve saved a few lives.”

Morgan bristled. “Well, I didn’t, did I? No reason to complain about it now.”

Preston sighed. “I’m not trying to attack you, Morgan, I promise. I just-”

“I know you’re not,” she snapped. “That’s what gets under my skin. If you were just a jerk we’d be fine, but no, you’ve got to be a better person than the rest of us.”

“Hey, are you that Garvey guy?” A cheerful voice interrupted their conversation. Deacon jogged over, wiping grease off his hands with a scrap of cloth. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” He smoothed over the tension with a single toothy grin, and slipped, almost without trying, into the role of adoring civilian.

Preston preened, tipping his hat. “All good things, I hope.” He chuckled. “That’s me, sir. Just doing my job, trying to hold everything together.”

Behind him, Morgan rolled her eyes, mocking the movement of his lips.

“Well, I sure am glad for all the good you’re doing around the Commonwealth.” Deacon reached out, and Preston shook his hand. “And I know I’m not the only one.”

“Glad to hear it. Though, there’s always more to be done. ‘Scuse me.” And he walked away, going to supervise some militiamen putting up their tents.

Deacon’s smile faded as soon as Preston’s attention was elsewhere, arching one eyebrow over his sunglasses. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Morgan glowered at her clipboard. “He was being a nice person at me.”

“And that’s a reason to start a scene?” Deacon gently tugged down her clipboard to meet her eyes. “Look, I know you resent him for moving into your old neighborhood. And the Minutemen aren’t perfect, I get it. But we need their resources. Preston’s giving us all this because he’s trying to pay you back after all your help. Without you, the Minutemen might not be here.” He pressed his lips together. “Without you, a lot of people might be dead.”

“Yeah, sure.” Morgan jerked her clipboard away. “I hate all this fuckin’ high-horse nonsense. I hate the way Preston always looks at me, with his sad goddamn puppy-dog eyes, thinking I’m some broken-hearted old woman who can be fixed if I just learn to hope again. It’s bullshit. And I don’t like him.”

Deacon sighed. “You don’t have to like him. Just… put up with him. Just until the Relay’s done.” He stepped forward, clasping one of her hands in his. “Please?”

Morgan opened her mouth to protest, but his palm was warm against her fingers, a puff of his breath shifting her hair. She set her jaw, lip curling in a grimace. “Fine.”

Deacon smiled. “You’re a peach, boss.”

 

The cool air of September dried their sweat to their skin as they worked, the exertion of construction keeping them warm as autumn approached. There were one or two incidents where some Mirelurk kings came nosing around, but they got shot down on sight, and traps were laid in case a Queen or her children got any ideas. But they worked fast, and made good time overall.

Donny loved running messages between people, or helping assemble parts, or doing odd jobs for spare caps. He could listen to Tinker Tom for hours, improved his reading skills by reading from the blueprints while everyone worked. Preston taught him how to fire a laser musket, and the other Minutemen - a few not much older than Donny - soon learned that the way to the boy's heart was through Snack Cakes and comic books.

“Hey, Morgan?”

“Mm?”

“What’s a Molecular Relay?”

She almost spat out her breakfast. “A… An important device for work. Do you remember what Desdemona said about ‘compartmentalization’?”

He groaned. “Yes.” Donny hated the compartmentalization lecture.

They hadn’t told him. In part because it was safer the less he knew, but also because Morgan couldn’t bring herself to tell him that she’d be leaving. She’d gotten too attached, and now it broke her heart to think of abandoning him. Damn latent maternal instincts.

In the back of her mind, she reminded herself that Des wanted Donny gone, that he was supposed to be living with some nice Minuteman family or with relatives in Diamond City. But, she argued, she’d been in and out of Diamond City plenty of times, and no one had ever asked her about a boy. No one would notice if she kept him for a little while longer.

Besides, she thought, watching Donny and Deacon sneak a frog into Tinker Tom’s pillowcase. He was happy here, and that’s what mattered.

Everyone stank of rank mud and oil grease, but no one minded. For once, the sun shone and Morgan felt accomplished. Every day the Relay grew taller and stronger and more intricate bits. Donny played games on her Pip-Boy and Deacon helped cook dinner. The Minutemen called her "Ma'am" and Tinker Tom stopped fearing the sun. Sometimes, she laughed.

It was September 21st, 2288, when she realized how little time she had left.

She found herself standing outside their tent late one night, staring into the trees. With the setting sun behind it, she saw the silhouette of at least a dozen black-feathered birds, staring down at the clearing. “The Watchers,” Deacon liked to joke, with that note in his voice where he wasn’t really joking. “Institute birds, here to spy on us all.”

Morgan jumped when Deacon tapped her on the shoulder. “Coming to bed, boss?”

She didn’t reply, just went inside as the night guards came out and took their places around the perimeter. The thick tent canvas kept wet mud from seeping through, and as Deacon smoked a cigarette outside she took off her boots and jacket and sat on the tent floor. In his sleep, Donny shifted closer, mouth agape in the pretty-ugliness of a sleeping child, head resting against her thigh. Morgan stroked his hair gently as she brooded.

Deacon climbed in alongside them a moment after, reeking of warm and spicy cigarette smoke. He made to lay down beside the pair of them, then hesitated, worried face illuminated by the faintly rocking light of the lantern hanging from the roof of their tent. “Everything alright?”

Morgan blinked, then whispered in a hoarse voice. “I don’t know.”

"What's wrong?"

The night seemed thick and suffocating, the lantern doing little to protect them. Morgan met his gaze. "I'm going to die."

"What?" Deacon sat up sharply. "What happened?"

Morgan shook her head. "The Relay. I'm going through it."

"... Yeah?"

"I'm not going to come back."

"Of course you will, boss," he said, with a forced, nervous chuckle. "I mean, you're... you're you , I feel like the Institute couldn't be ready for you in a million years."

Morgan didn't even crack a smile. "No, Deacon. It's the Institute. They can create life, for christ's sake. There's no telling what kind of security they've got in there. What technology, what horrors. None of us have any idea what to expect." Her voice quavered. "I don’t even know if my son’s still in there. And… we both know there's almost no chance of me coming back."

She swallowed hard. "I thought this was what I wanted. It is what I wanted, at first. I had no idea where Sean was, I didn't know who'd taken him, I didn't know anyone in this world. I hated myself for letting them be taken. I hated everything, everyone. I hated the world for moving on without me, for what it'd taken from me. I hated feeling like an outsider, again, just when I thought I'd have my happy ending. I wanted... to die.

Her face twisted with frustration. “Then I met you, and the Railroad. It wasn't the same, and I don't think it ever will be, but I had a reason to be here other than to throw myself at bullets until one of them hit me. I've got a purpose, a goal, an organization. Friends, for christ's sake. People to save, someone to talk to, places to go, things to see. I helped save the organization that might lead to the resettlement of this whole damn Commonwealth. You saw Preston. He's like a goddamn president. He looks noble, and kind, and people follow him.

"There's so much in this world that's become a part of me. And... Donny." Her hand on the boy’s head stilled, then shifted to his cheek, warm fingers brushing over it tenderly. "Suddenly I'm here, and I don't know if I want it anymore. If I want to die.

"I'm scared."

For once, Deacon didn’t have the words. Crickets sang and frogs croaked, and the black birds sat in their tree and waited until morning.

 

At sunrise, Desdemona appeared. "I got Tom's radio signal," she said, as cold and impassive as always. She hadn't brought anyone with her. She hadn't needed to. "Is it done?"

Morgan nodded, expressionless. "It's done."

"Then there's no time to waste. Gather everyone. It's time."

Morgan climbed onto the Relay platform and took her place in the center as everyone gathered around. Des paced back and forth as close to the platform as she could get, and the electricity pumping through the machinery made everyone’s hair stand up. Morgan saw Donny standing near the front of the crowd, looking concerned and unsettled, wanting to come closer before Deacon placed both hands on the boy’s shoulders to keep him still.

The Relay switched on. Morgan kept as motionless as she could, doing just as Tom had told her. Her orders, a string of secret code scrawled on a piece of scrap paper, burned in her back pocket. Contact Tinker Tom if you can. Find Patriot. Lie, or all is lost.

Desdemona barked orders over the increasingly loud humming. Sharp blue electricity danced along exposed metal, and ripples formed in the mud, pushing outward from the Relay. The Minutemen glanced at one another, uncertain and afraid. The Relay roared louder and louder, blowing everyone’s hair back, making their skin tingle with static electricity. Morgan’s hair whipped around her face, clothes flapping in the wind. Everything turned blue, the electricity crackling bigger and higher around her like lightning. Tinker Tom started shouting too, something about "millions of molecules" and "coordinates" and-

"I can't!" Morgan blurted, stepping forward. "I can't do th-"

Blinding light erupted. Everyone shut their eyes and jerked their hands up, stepping back. Thunder rolled through the ground and flung bits of mud at their shins, the ground shaking and trembling like an earthquake. Donny cling to Deacon’s side, and Deacon prayed for the first time in a long time. Black birds cawed and flew from their tree.

Then, the light vanished. The sound stopped. They looked again, and Morgan was gone.

 

Morgan staggered. Fear bubbled in her chest. The world was blue, not white, but everything was strange and wrong and new and Nate was dead and Sean was gone and she had to find him and her everything was pain and hate and tears and-

As her vision returned, she realized she wasn’t in the Vault again. This was different. She took a a few trembling steps forward, out of a dark metal chamber into something… else. This room had no trace of dirt or dust, just all white walls, all white floors, pure and unmarred, with a few stripes of primary colors to make it look less sleek and minimalist. Her boots and gloves left dark marks of mud wherever they touched, a trail of muddy footprints following her.

An older, male voice, echoed from unseen speakers. Morgan didn't register the words, only the command within them. Go . So she went, putting one foot in front of the other to avoid collapsing. An elevator floated her down through Wonderland, trees and bright green grass divided by glimmering rivers, people in white coats walking to and fro. Metal skeletons stood guard at doorways. Strangers stopped and stared at her as the elevator rode down.

Then more white hallways so bright they hurt her eyes. Then, past that, a room with a clear plexiglass cage, with a boy inside. Morgan’s mind flashed to a long-ago image of Kellogg in a Diamond City shack. The boy in the glass cage backed away as she approached, eyes widening as her gloved fingers pressed against the window, leaving a black-brown smear behind. "Hello?" His voice quavered. "W-Who are you? What are you doing here?"

The boy had her hair. Nate's face. Those delicate, soft features, with that curve in his cheeks where dimples formed when he smiled.

"You're scaring me. F-Father? Father! Father, take her away!"

Something had lodged in her throat, keeping the words from her lips. Her limbs were heavy and foreign, pulled along by other forces, a puppet on someone else's strings.

In her peripheral vision, a door hissed and opened. She couldn’t turn her head to look if she wanted to. The intruder said something and the boy’s eyes went dull, until he slumped over and broke eye contact with her. The puppeteer was pulling strings, so Morgan turned to look.

Nate's face stood out at her. Impish dimples, now hidden by lines of age. Black-brown hair turned a deathly white. A kindly brow twisted by a dark curiosity. "Hello, Morgan," Nate said. "It's good to finally meet you."

Morgan whispered as if in prayer. "You have your father's eyes."

Then she passed out.

Chapter Text

The silence was deafening.

Des spoke first. "Well?"

Tom replied after a second or two, fingers dancing over the keyboard. "That... That's it, Des. She's gone. If it worked, it worked, but there's no way to know until she contacts us."

Another, uneasy silence fell over the clearing. "Deacon?" Donny said, craning his neck to look at the man behind him. "Where did Morgan go?"

Deacon's throat bobbed. "Somewhere far away, Donny." He squeezed on the boy's shoulders. "She went to the Institute to try and save her son."

Des shouted an order, and at last the gawking Minutemen snapped to. The crowd began disassembling the Relay, taking it apart piece by piece, over a month’s worth of work torn apart so effortlessly it hurt. They had to, after all. In case Coursers came to investigate, in case something else tried to come back through their Relay. They couldn’t take that chance. Morgan knew the odds going in, knew that this was their one shot.

Preston gathered his people and gave a final lecture on secrecy and honor. Deacon couldn’t remember how much the Minuteman knew, whether Preston was kept in the dark or not. Either way, he made a good show of it. People started packing up the tents, the bags, the weapons, the outposts, all neatly put away like they were never here, like a child’s tinker toys.

Deacon caught Desdemona’s eye, saw her staring pointedly. It was time to go. Donny was still quiet, still staring at the slow un-making of the Relay. Deacon hoped that Donny’s natural cheerfulness would extend to this, too. That the boy possessed enough strength of character Deacon wouldn’t have to… parent.

All his hopes were dashed when Donny whispered under his breath.

“But what about saving me?”

 

The calendar taunted him, mocking him from its position on the wall. Each day of the month bore a bright red-marker cross, cruel reminders of Morgan's absence. Deacon sat at one of the desks in HQ, bundled in a sweater and some brahmin-hide gloves, trying to keep warm as winter dug its claws into the earth and turned everyone's breath white. An underground headquarters meant they saved caps on heating, but with no chimneys or ventilation, they couldn’t keep a fire going. Just had to shiver with dignity.

At first everyone had been quiet. Waiting, hoping, wondering what had become of their top agent, of the woman who'd killed a top Institute operative, gone into the Glowing Sea, and come back to top it all off by killing a Courser. If anyone could survive whatever lay in the Institute, it was her. But after a week or two, the tension faded, and things went back to the way they were. As far as the Railroad was concerned, Fixer was dead until proven otherwise.

Donny was hit the hardest. His almost permanent smile had disappeared, the rosiness of his cheeks fading, the light in his eyes gone. Nothing anyone said or did could help. Tinker Tom offered to let him test a prototype that could laser a hole in the wall from a mile away. Deacon vetoed that idea, but Donny said no anyway. Drummer Boy ruffled his hair and asked him if he’d like to help make dinner - Big D’s Clam Chowder, a name that amused almost everyone to no end. But Donny turned that down, too. Glory even offered to take him topside for some adventure. She just got an expressionless stare and a shake of the head.

Finally Deacon insisted on getting Donny checked by Carrington. Donny got a full check-up, quite literally from his head to his toes. “He’s physically healthy,” the doctor murmured at the end of it.  “But he’s depressed, Deacon. You need to do something.”

Do what? Deacon wanted to scream. I don’t know what do. I’ve never done this before. I never got the chance. I’m not supposed to be doing this. I don’t have any qualifications, I don’t know how to take care a kid. I can’t even take care of myself. I can’t do this alone.

But he was alone. Again.

Des hadn't said anything yet, though Deacon knew she would. She’d been giving him a free ride for too long, letting him linger in HQ with Donny while the other agents came and went. He filed papers and made smart remarks and pretended to ignore each day Des marked the calendar in bright red ink. He ruffled Donny's hair and did his best. That's all he could do.

"Deacon." The agent looked up from his papers. Des tapped two fingers on his desk. "I need you in my office."

Deacon forced a smile. "Sure thing."

Des vanished into her office, and the other agents pretended not to notice their exchange. Deacon steeled himself for the inevitable. Donny sat near Tom's workshop, the heat from the tinker's tools warm against his back, his nose buried in some book. Everything was quiet. Deacon stood and headed for Desdemona's office.

He stopped just outside her door when he heard her voice wafting, muffled, against the curtain. "Run the numbers again, PAM." She sounded tired.

The robot's innards clicked and hummed. Her voicebox started up with a familiar, feminine lilt. "It has been forty-three days since Agent Fixer left through the Molecular Relay. Based on a limited understanding of the Institute's technological capabilities and the recorded strength and speed of the units known as Coursers, odds of Agent Fixer's survival, are: five percent. These numbers are not definitive. Insufficient data to make a more in-depth analysis."

Des sighed. "Thank you, PAM."

Deacon stepped in. "You wanted to see me?"

Desdemona nodded, gesturing PAM away and crossing her arms. She waited for Deacon to get comfortable in one of the cold steel folding chairs before speaking. "I have a mission for you." Discomfort twisted her features, made her press her lips in a grim line. "I want you to take Donny to Diamond City before you start the mission."

Deacon's eyebrows rose into his forehead. "You want me to leave him there?"

“That’s what I said.”

"Des, I-" He faltered. "That's asking a lot."

"I realize that you and the boy have... bonded, during your time together. And I understand that you were particularly fond of... our most recent recruit." Des deflated, voice softening. "It's been over a month, Deacon. I can't let you sit out there any longer. You - we - have work to do."

Deacon’s wig itched. He racked his brain for any kind of defense, something to convince her to let him stay, to linger and wait without giving himself away. He couldn’t say that he cared about Donny. He couldn’t say that Morgan meant more to him than he wanted to admit. He couldn’t say that he’d broken the most important of his many rules: you can’t trust everyone.

He ignored the burn behind his eyes and took a breath, hoping to rid his throat of its tightness. “I know, Des,” he said, once he could trust his voice not to crack. "I'll take care of it. I'll drop him off at the gate before I get the drop."

Desdemona watched him stand. "It won't be a problem?" she questioned, dubious.

"Cross my heart and hope to die, boss," he said, with more plastered-on smiles. "Donny's a good kid. He'll adjust, I'm sure. With Morgan gone, he's got no real reason to stick around."

Des nodded. "Good. Leave whenever you're ready. You know where your things are."

And she turned away, content with his obedience. Deacon left, curtain fluttering shut behind him as he faced the room, dazed. The agents hunched over their desks paid him no mind. Those milling back and forth around the room didn’t even notice his presence.

Deacon scratched the back of his neck and ducked into the back room, taking deep breaths to steady himself. He scratched until his neck hurt, then finally took off his wig and threw it against the floor, running his hands over his bald head and pacing.

This was all a mistake. All of it. Running off with Morgan, talking about his past, agreeing to take Donny back to HQ. He should have known better. Why hadn’t he followed his own advice? Why hadn’t he gotten a face change months ago? He needed a new name, a new face, a new set of clothes. Needed to start anew. Run off until he’d built up his new alias, then come back to HQ with his walls rebuilt. His defenses were too thin, and his heart too close to bursting.

“Deacon?” Donny’s small voice echoed in the passage as he learned around the doorway, book in one hand, worry written into his wide eyes. “Everything okay?”

Deacon stopped, lowering his hands and leaving his lips parted as he took a few heavy breaths. “Yeah, Donny,” he breathed. His shoulders slumped. “Yeah. It’s fine. Um.” He slid one hand over his head, scratching the top of it. “You need to go pack your things, okay?”

Donny’s brow furrowed, lips curving in a small, worried pout. He stepped into the room, shoulders balled tight and rising towards his ears. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing, just-” An unfamiliar, unwanted sense of panic rested on him. He had to still his hands to keep from clawing at his skull again. “You and I are going to be leaving soon.”

“Going where?” Donny faltered, and moved back, towards the wall.

“Nowhere bad!” he assured hurriedly. He sighed. “I promise. Donny, I swear. This isn’t that bad. I shouldn’t be so freaked out. I shouldn’t…” He shook his head. “Des told me it’s time you finally got to Diamond City. See if we can’t leave you with your relatives or a good family.”

Donny blinked. The paper of his comic book crinkled in a slowly tightening fist. In a very soft voice, he spoke. “But I don’t want to go.”

Deacon exhaled. His shoulders slumped. “Donny, please.”

“No, I just-” He scrunched his eyes up tight, then looked at Deacon pleadingly. “I like it here. It’s nice. It’s more fun than being alone on the beach. Everyone’s nice to me, and there’s always something hot to eat, and-”

“Donny.” Deacon knelt, hands resting on Donny’s shoulders. “It’s not up to me. Besides. Wouldn’t you be happier, out there? Everyone’s old and tired here. You could be somewhere with- with parents, and siblings. Maybe a dog or something. Don’t you want that?”

Donny wavered. “I don’t know,” he said, voice cracking. “I don’t know what I’m s’posed to want. I was all by myself, and then- and then I wasn’t. I don’t want to be alone,” he begged, blue eyes turned red-rimmed. “I don’t want to be left behind again.”

Deacon hadn’t thought much of how quickly Donny adjusted to being in the Railroad, surrounded by kind strangers. Or of how quickly Donny trusted him and Morgan, when kids his age were raised from birth to reject outsiders for survival’s sake. Growing up, with only your dad for company, and then losing your dad… Donny might think he was too grown-up to grieve, but clinging to the first person to show you kindness was another form of coping.

It was like a punch in the gut, all the wind knocked from his lungs at once. “Your dad didn’t mean to leave you behind, Donny,” he whispered. “It wasn’t his fault.”

Fat tears welled up the boy’s eyes. “Then why are you leaving me?”

Deacon’s heart seized, and he pulled Donny into a hug. A tight one, with Donny’s head under his chin, arms wrapped tight around each other.  He hadn’t hugged anyone in a long time. Maybe years. After a moment, he relinquished his grip, leaning back and wiping tears from Donny’s cheeks. “I’m not. Donny, I promise. I’m not going to leave you alone.”

Donny’s throat bobbed. “Are you sure?”

Somewhere, deep in a part of his mind Deacon didn’t visit often, he recalled the mental image of a well-fed ginger kid, fifteen and in a leather jacket two sizes too big for him, who hadn’t seen his dad in over ten years, who’d do anything to feel loved and wanted. Including kicking the shit out of a twenty-two year old girl because a gang leader said she might be a synth.

“I swear.” Deacon slid off his sunglasses, meeting Donny’s bright blue eyes with his own. “I won’t- I’m not gonna drop you off at Diamond City. Not unless you ask me to. You and I, we’re gonna- we can get out of here. Go wherever you want to go. Morgan’s gone. It’s just the two of us.” He took Donny’s hands, clasping them between his own. “I won’t let you down.”

I won’t let you make my mistakes.

"Ho-ly shit." Drummer’s voice seemed miles away. "Fixer's back."

Deacon stood, Donny’s hand curled through his own, and the two of them walked into the main room. Deacon felt dazed, almost drugged. He couldn’t see whoever had come through  the front door, the crowd standing between them. Everyone started to clap, a few letting out enthusiastic cheers before the applause awkwardly died down into a heavy silence. Quiet footsteps shuffled across the brick floor, and the crowd parted.

Morgan’s everything was cleaner than he'd ever seen. Her hair was washed and brushed, she had no dirt under her fingernails or stains in her military fatigues, and even her armor looked like it’d been spit-shined. But Deacon hadn’t seen that look in her eye since after Kellogg. Since after the Memory Den.

He blinked and suddenly he was standing in front of her. Her eyes were unfocused, but she stopped, and he waited, terrified, for her to look at him. After a long, tense second, she did, gray-blue eyes searching his sunglasses with a pained, desperate look, like someone drowning in a vast ocean with no lifeboat in sight. She didn't hug him, she fell into him, collapsing against his chest and gripping her arms around him like a vise. She buried her face in his neck, her thick armor clunky and awkward against his body, and began to weep silently.

Fixer was back. But no one knew if Morgan had come back in one piece.

 

"So." Des took a long drag off of her cigarette. "You think you and Patriot will be able to organize a rebellion?"

"Yes."

Donny shivered. Deacon put an arm around his shoulders, shielding him from the bitter cold of above-ground Boston. Morgan had insisted on talking outside of HQ, so here they were, shivering on the coast behind the Church, listening to the slow, rhythmic roar of the ocean as it lapped against the sands. 'Talking' was a strong word, too, as Morgan hadn’t offered more than terse, few-word answers. The sky was gray and overcast. The clouds still poured rain, not snow, but that could change any day now. Donny pulled his woolen sweater tighter around him.

Desdemona gave Morgan a side-eyed look. "Did you find your son?"

Morgan's eyes turned glassy. "No."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Des took another smoke, then flicked gold-glowing ashes onto the murky sand. "Do you have any intel for us?"

Morgan reached into her bag and pulled out a holotape. "Report."

Des reached over, plucking the tape from the other woman's fingers with as little contact as possible. "Good." Her icy exterior thawed slightly. "About Donny-"

"Mine."

Des halted, waiting for further explanation, but none came. She toyed with her cigarette again. "Fixer, I… I need to know if you're still an agent."

Morgan blinked. A second passed. "I don't know."

Desdemona nodded. "Thank you, Fixer. For all you've done for us." She dropped the cigarette, and crushed it under her boot. "I'm sorry."

Then, holotape in hand, she fled, ducking back into the warmth and safety of the Church. The wind whipped against their hair and clothes, howling against the sides of the aged brick buildings. The sun approached the horizon, golden rays of fading light making shades of pink and orange wink through the clouds. Donny stepped out of Deacon's arm, padding across the wet sand to Morgan's side, reaching for her hand. He didn't say anything, just clasped it through his own, thin and grimy fingers pressed against a clean, calloused palm.

Morgan turned and hugged Donny, treasuring him for a few moments and running her fingers through his hair before retracting. Holding tight to Donny's hand, she returned to Deacon, her exhaustion aging her by ten years at least. "Deacon," she said. "Take me home."

Deacon thought. Then, with a brisk nod, he took Donny's free hand in his own, and the three walked off into the city.

They found a battered cottage along the coast, close enough they could hear the water but not see it. They put Donny's old posters on the walls with duct tape. Pushed together some ratty mattresses for a three-person bed. Donny's toys littered the floor. Deacon hung up his costumes on rusty hangers in what remained of a closet. They busted open the stove and used it as a fire pit, loading it with logs and twigs and setting it ablaze, letting it ward away the nighttime chill as the sun descended into the ground and shadow stretched out across the Commonwealth.

Donny fell asleep at Morgan's side, pressed against her as close as he could get, his feet near the fire and two blankets thrown over him. Morgan and Deacon sat together, near but not touching, enjoying the peace and quiet of the night.

"It's so loud here," Morgan said, unprompted.

Deacon raised his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"

"In the Institute. So deep underground, you can't hear anything at all. If you're the only one in a room, you might as well be in a vacuum. The only time you hear something is if you're close to the generators, and then it's such a low hum. Even the scientists are quiet. And the synths don't talk at all, unless spoken to."

"Sounds cheery." The fire snapped at the end of his sentence, its flames reflected in the lenses of his sunglasses. "Morgan?" The woman tilted her head aside, ear poised towards his lips. "Did they do anything to you?"

Morgan looked away again, staring at the fire. She listened to the gentle sound of Donny's breathing, feeling her heartbeat match the rhythm. "I don't think so," she said at last. "I saw things. Lots of things. I know why they took my son." She exhaled, the raised lines of her scars casting eerie shadows across her face. "Sixty years ago. They needed unirradiated DNA to base the synths off of. They found out a baby had been preserved in one of the vaults. So they took it. He's still alive, and now he's the leader of the Institute. I met him. He’s an old man, now."

"You met... Sean?"

Morgan nodded, staring dismally at the fire as a gust of cold wind shuddered against the side of the house. "My DNA is in every single synth ever made. Genetically, they're my grandchildren. And some are older than I am."

"Jesus." Deacon faltered. Then, after a moment: "What's he like?"

"My son?"

"Yeah."

"He's..." She fell silent as she put together the words. "He's the worst parts of me and Nate. My drive, my ambition, Nate's sense of faith and optimism. He thinks he's doing the right thing. With everything. The abductions, the replacement synths, the ruthless research. He thinks he's bettering humanity. He thinks the people in the Commonwealth aren't... worthy."

Deacon's eyes flickered down to the space between them. After a moment, he let his hand fall away from behind his head, brushing down her upper back as a gesture of comfort. "I'm sorry."

Morgan didn't react to his touch. "He knows I'm with - that I was with, the Railroad. He thinks I just used them to get to him. I don't know if he's right or wrong. I don't know how to feel, or what to do. I don't know if Des would let me remain an agent if she knew."

"Has it changed your mind about anything?"

"No. No, it hasn't. Z1 - the synth I talked to about a rebellion - he wants freedom. You can see it in his eyes. When Sean says the synths aren't human, I know he's not a liar, but willingly ignorant. He chooses to ignore the synths’ humanity, chooses to ignore anything that would upset his master plan. But… I don't know how long I can keep lying to my son."

Deacon toyed with the ends of her hair. It'd grown longer since she left, and after she'd taken out the bobby pins it dangled past her shoulders. "I know that... my word doesn't mean much. Maybe more to you than to most people, and I appreciate that. And I don't know what's going to happen. I really don't. But, like I told you before. I'm in your corner. Always."

His words hung in the air before Morgan nodded, slow but decisive. "I'm gonna go back to the Institute," she said, with an air of finality. "Their scientists put some kind of chip in my Pip-Boy, so I can go back and forth whenever I want. I have to do something about this. I owe it to the Commonwealth. To the synths. Sean's my son, my... responsibility."

Deacon dropped his hand from her back. "You really think you want to do this?"

"I think it's the only way you and I might ever be able to rest easy. I don't know what they'll ask me to do, and I don't know how long I'll be able to keep lying to them. But I have to try." Her eyes drew down, and she ran her hand over Donny's cheek. "I have to."

Chapter Text

Donny dashed through a narrow alleyway, a herd of heavy footsteps charging after him. A startled cat yowled as he barreled past, and an empty syringe clattered against the bricks. Vaulting over the fence, he landed with a thump and a cloud of dust on the center street of Goodneighbor. The angry voices at his back faded as he slipped through the crowd, pulling his cap down over his eyes. Around the corner and down a red-lit alley, Donny passed a red-faced man with a bottle in his hand, and an underdressed woman pressing him against the wall. He didn't linger.

The window to the basement was still open, and Donny breathed a sigh of relief. Sucking in his stomach, he wriggled down through the tiny window, landing with a splash in a foul-smelling puddle. He gagged, waving a hand in front of his nose and kicking off his shoes, abandoning his socks with them and kicking them into a pile of debris.

Donny crept up the basement stairs and saw the guards standing by the front door, their backs to the stairwell. Holding his breath and walking slow, he snuck into the bathroom without making the door creak. There, he scanned his fistful of papers before stuffing them into his sleeve. Chin up, he opened the bathroom door, letting it swing around and bang against the wall.

The guards started, turning and narrowing their eyes. "What took you so long?" one asked.

Donny gave them a sour look. "That's none of your business. My dad says anybody who asks about little boys going to the bathroom is a creep."

The offending guard raised his hands, machine gun still dangling from his grip. "Whoa, kid, I didn't mean it like that, geez."

The boy stuffed his hands in his pockets and glowered at them as he headed for the stairs. "Well, it kinda smells in there. I wouldn't go in if I were you." Donny wiped his hands on his faded t-shirt and felt the rough wood of the floorboards slap against his feet as he ran upstairs, hoping he wouldn’t get a splinter. He ignored the guards beside the door and walked into Tubby Malone’s office. All eyes turned to him, but he didn't flinch, instead sauntering up to Deacon's side and reaching for his hand, subtly passing the documents into Deacon's palm.

"What took you so long, kiddo?" Deacon prodded, fingers curling around the papers and slipping them into his sleeve. "Everything come out all right?"

Donny rolled his eyes and bit back a smile. "Yes, dad," he groaned, doing his best to sound snotty. "Everything's fine."

Tubby Malone - twin brother of renowned gangster Skinny Malone - leaned across the desk with a scowl on his face. The look wasn't pretty, though very few expressions looked appealing on his gaunt face. His flesh stretched around his skull like whoever made him ran out of skin halfway through. His crooked nose jutted out like a bird's beak, and his lips were a thin, colorless line dotted with dark scabs. "Where're his shoes?" Tubby asked.

Donny met his gaze innocently. "They got dirty."

"In the bathroom?" The gangster quirked an eyebrow.

"It's really nasty in there. You should have someone clean it up."

"Anyway," Deacon interjected, as Tubby's eyes narrowed. "Are we done? I've made my statements, y'all've made yours, how's about we get down to business?" His Southern accent was not historically accurate, per se, but did a fine job of confusing some tommygun-toting meatheads.

"Yeah, you've made your statements." Tubby's high, Bostonian voice dragged out the words. He was a tall, skeletal man, with a voice that sounded like he sucked off balloons for fun. It would have been comical, if not for the cluster of heavily-armed men standing around his desk. "But I want proof. Real proof. Ownership don’t mean shit if I don't see paper."

Deacon released a melodramatic sigh. "Well, I reckon you've earned it. You's a businessman, that much I can see, so I s'pose I'll afford you this courtesy." Deacon reached into his pocket as if retrieving the papers, but easily slid the crinkled document from his sleeve with a practiced flick of his wrist. "That enough proof for you?"

Tubby wrinkled his nose. "Did your Brahmin step on this? This looks like crap."

Deacon replied with an easy shrug of his shoulders.

Tubby looked the paper up and down, black irises glittering as he looked for any excuse to tell his bodyguards to open fire. But at last, he sighed, tossing the paper on his desk. "Fine. Fine, Mr. McGill, take your fuckin' property and get outta here. Give your boss my regards."

With a wave of his hand, two men unlocked a box sitting in the corner of Malone's office, wrenching a young man from inside it. The man, who couldn’t have been older than twenty, wore just a set of wasteland overalls, with black hair curling around his face in greasy tufts, tanned skin unblemished and his hazel-green eyes all wide with fear.

Donny felt Deacon's hand tighten around his. "We surely will, Mr. Malone," he sleezed, and patted Donny's shoulder. "Grab the cargo for me, will you?"

Donny nodded, then remembered to act sullen, so he shuffled over and tugged unkindly on the man's overall. The stranger flinched, then stood and followed the pair out of Tubby’s warehouse, Deacon giving the gangsters a cordial wave goodbye. The stranger kept his head down, chin to his chest like he wanted to disappear - or at least to go unnoticed.

As soon as the door closed behind them and they rounded a corner, Deacon's facade dropped. "Donny." The boy acted quickly, scrambling for the pack of supplies they'd stashed nearby. They got the man a cloak, food, and a pack full of supplies. Deacon explained the situation quickly - Railroad, Amari, safety - and snuck the man outside Goodneighbor's walls.

Waiting for them was a readied caravan, ready to return to Bunker Hill. The man climbed aboard, the driver clucked his tongue, and the brahmin lumbered away. Deacon sighed and wiped sweat from his brow. "All in a day's work, huh, Donny?"

Donny mimicked his movements, sighing and wiping in turn. "Sure is."

They shared a look, Donny giggled, and Deacon ruffled his hair. "Come on."

They slipped through their secret entrance into the Memory Den, and from there to the Hotel Redford, where they locked themselves inside their hotel room. "And now we lay low," Deacon announced, kicking off his shoes with a satisfied sigh. He scratched his bald head and moved to the mirror, baring his teeth at himself and running his hand over the ginger-gray scruff that lined his cheeks. "Bring me that razor, will you?"

Donny did as he was asked, supplying the bar of soap and well-kept straight razor, then laid back on the bed and watched Deacon shave. "Tubby Malone won't get suspicious?"

"As far as he knows," Deacon said, dragging the blade down his cheek, "Bobby McGill and his son, Bobby McGill Junior, have disappeared after recovering their boss's property. We lay low for a while, wait until Tubby leaves town to be safe, then move on to the next mission."

Donny shook his head like a dog, throwing off his blonde wig and exposing the mop of auburn hair underneath. Leaning over the side of the bed, he reached underneath for a comic book, flipping through its pages for a moment before looking up and frowning. "Hey, Deacon?"

"Yeah?" Deacon grabbed a nearby towel and wiped his face, leaning towards the mirror to make sure he hadn't missed a spot.

"What was your dad like?"

Deacon halted, frozen with the cloth still held to his cheeks, eyes staring at their own reflection. Slowly, he stood upright, then hung the cloth on the side of the basin and turned around. "Why would you ask me that?"

Donny shrugged, the comic book resting on his stomach. "You're pretty good at dad stuff. And since you don’t have any kids - I don’t think - you had to have learned from your dad."

Deacon considered this, wiping his hands on his jeans a few more times than necessary before sitting down. "Well, I... Geez, Donny." He puffed his cheeks out as he exhaled. "I haven't thought about my old man in years."

Donny rolled onto his side, listening attentively. “What was he like?”

"He wasn't around much when I was a kid. He... He wasn't a bad guy, I don't think. He never treated my mom badly. I know I got my hair from him. I think he came around when I was little, but one day he just… stopped. I don't remember enough of him to miss him." Some unseen weight settled on Deacon's shoulders, old memories pressing heavy on his heart, and he frowned.

"Oh." Donny thought for a moment. "Well, you do a pretty good job, for someone who doesn't have any experience," he said, matter-of-factly.

Deacon raised his head. "You think so?"

"Mhm. You tell me lots of stories, teach me stuff about the Old World. You buy me dinners and comic books and snack cakes. You let me come on missions and go on adventures with you.” He trailed off and looked away, fiddling with the blankets. “I’m glad you’re with me.”

That struck something deeper than Deacon wanted to admit. He gave the boy a half-smile and pushed up his sunglasses, clearing his throat. “Well, I’m glad you’re with me too, kiddo.”

Donny smiled back, then hid behind his comic book to avoid getting too mushy. Deacon stood and rinsed off his razor in the sink, and Donny rolled onto his stomach, kicking his feet in the air. After a moment, he piped up again. "Deacon?"

"Hm?"

"When do you think Morgan will come back?"

Again, Deacon’s hands stilled. He tried not to think about her absence too much. Tried to busy himself with work and missions and teaching Donny everything he could. It was a mixed success. "I… I don't know. I know it’s been a long few weeks, but she’s doing her best, I’m sure. She promised she’d come back, remember?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t worry about her. I’m sure she’s got a plan.”

“I hope so.”

 

Morgan most certainly did not have a plan.

"I'm not pleased with the way you handled that synth operation in Libertalia, Mother," Sean said, delicately sipping from his teacup.

Sean was… interesting. That’s the most definite thing she could say about him. He had her dark, thick hair, though it had grown fair and wispy, and Nate’s eyes, but none of their kindness. Morgan wondered if he’d undergone plastic surgery to put in the smile lines around his eyes, because Sean almost never laughed at anything. His chuckles were low and occasional, his smiles always a touch manipulative, like he appreciated your joke but found you more entertaining. He looked like some fit older man you might see see advertising a seniors’ vitamin. He looked like he ought to be fishing with his grandchildren, not running some villainous scientific think tank.

"Mother?"

She jolted. "Yes?"

"Yes, you agree that it's inappropriate to negotiate with property?"

"No, I mean- I didn’t hear the question." She hated this unease, this helplessness, this constant feeling of being analyzed. How did Deacon live like this, taking identities on and off as easy as changing clothes? She could maintain a poker face, sure. But this?

Sean hummed. "I asked you if you thought it was appropriate to negotiate with machines we are trying to recover as safely as possible. Imagine what might have happened if you continued your plea. It could have shot you. Its minions could have shot you. Your life is not expendable."

Morgan’s blood burned. Calling the synth an it, not a he. Dividing lives into 'expendable' or 'not expendable.' Treating sentient beings like cattle. Her scars ached.

Sean continued. "I realize that you used the Railroad's assistance to get here. But I would hope they hadn't swayed you with their 'liberty-minded' vitriol. The very fact that you're here implies you know better than they do."

So he didn't suspect her of deception. Unless he just wasn't saying it out loud. Shit. Deacon would be so much better at all this. "They served my purpose at the time. No one else was as close to the Institute. Not even the Brotherhood. I did what I had to."

"Believe me, I understand." His gentle, soothing tone made her stomach churn. "When you're as... determined, as we are, you must oftentimes make certain sacrifices or compromises in order to accomplish our goals." He took another sip of his tea. "But you must understand, Mother. The synths are not to be negotiated with. They're not capable of it, especially not when they've malfunctioned. Many of these escaped synths are simply victims of faulty programming, or insufficient training. Debating them only leads to violence."

Glory's face popped up in Morgan's mind. "I understand."

"Good." He dropped his cup again, and waved a hand. A dull-eyed synth stepped forward from a corner of the room, taking the tray and leaving the room without a word. "Tell me - how are you settling in? Are you enjoying your quarters? Your new clothes?"

After months of wearing worn leather and handmade cloth, the synthetic polyester and vinyl robes chafed her skin and gave her a rash. The weight of her weapons and armor made her feel grounded, steady, kept her muscles dense and her senses sharp. This full-body robe was too light, too distracting, too muffling to her perceptions.

"It's very clean."

Sean chuckled. "Yes, I suppose compared to the wasteland, it is." He ran his eyes over her face. "The BioScience wing informs me that you've turned down their offer for facial reconstruction. May I ask why?"

Morgan faltered, mind going blank."It... would be hard to explain, if I went back to the Commonwealth and looked entirely different."

"Then you do not plan to stay?"

"I didn't say that," she replied, frustrated. "But if I'm going to do missions for you, I may encounter people I've known and interacted with before. I'd rather avoid having to explain myself."

Sean nodded. "Why did you refuse the reconstruction when you first returned to America?" He smiled gently when her head snapped up. "Yes, I know all about that. We've got records on just about everything, and I have put some effort into learning about you and your Pre-War past. It is amazing, to think that I was born in such a world. Though I doubt it compares to anything we have here. But, please, I wish to hear your thoughts."

"I... I suppose I resented the military. Resented them for forcing me through that experience, then trying to cover it up and so I looked like nothing had ever happened.”

"As I recall, you chose the experience."

Her eyes hardened. "It was that or have Nate die. That wasn't a choice at all."

Sean stared, unfeeling. "You loved my father, then."

"Yes." What kind of question was that? Of course she'd loved him. She'd never stopped.

Sean smiled. "Good." He rose, smoothing out his robe and running his fingers through his small beard. "Then I'll leave you. In any case, the synth has been returned to us, and is being retrained with new, more appropriate programming in place. Hopefully we'll avoid future incidents." He turned his back to her as she rose.

Dismissed.

Morgan fled his office and let feet and mind wander. She felt restless, itching to run or fight or command. Anything that would grant her some kind of agency, something that would take away her looming sense of helplessness. She couldn't help but feel that Sean was pulling all the strings, and that she his marionette, forced to dance with the threat of his wrath like a knife to her throat.

She wished Deacon would appear, standing a few feet behind her as he always did, his eyebrows raised above his sunglasses as he waited for her to ask her question. Then he'd offer some smiling reassurance, coupled with unexpectedly wise advice, and top it off with a grin and a joke that would make her shake her head and hide a smile.

If only.

"Mother."

The word jerked her from her thoughts. She stopped and swiveled her head around, eyes landing on Z1. She looked away as soon as he registered, shaking her head as if clearing her mind before sitting down on a nearby ergonomic bench. Her skin prickled with unease.

Z1 slowed his pace with the mop, bringing the dirtless floor to a shine. "Did your meeting with Father go well?" he asked in conspiratorial murmur.

All the synths called her Mother. They weren't allowed to address her at all in front of the scientists, but when among fellow synths or alone, they spoke her title in hushed, reverent voices, sometimes uttered breathlessly as they stared at her in awe. It made her skin crawl.

"He's going to ask me about the Railroad soon," she murmured, trying to keep her lips still. Sean had avoided asking directly for a few weeks now, but he was getting close. She saw it in the way he wrapped his hands around his cup and leaned over the table when he brought them up. Nate used to do that, too, except he did it for things like buying a new TV, or when he was asking not-so-veiled questions about what she wanted for her birthday.

"What will you tell him?" Z1 asked.

"A lie."

Z1 had little reverence for her. Respect, yes, but he burned too brightly to worship anyone. With tanned skin, blue eyes, and shaven-down blonde hair, he had the generic appearance of a laborer synth, the kind designed and trained to be silent and submissive. Laborers were the lowest of the low in Institute hierarchy. They dusted and mopped and fetched tea for the scientists, and spoke as little as possible. Z1 had perfected the art of making his eyes dead and cold, so looking at him, you wouldn’t think him any more than a mindless android.

But he was the one who approached her first, before she even encountered Patriot, tracking her down with an intelligence network that rivaled the Railroad’s. When his facade was down, you could see the genius behind his eyes, the righteous indignation, the all-consuming desire for freedom. That alone proved that synths were more than Father - Sean - insisted.

Z1 gave her the smallest, most imperceptible of nods. "Liam has not committed."

Liam Binet. Patriot. The unnamed hero who teleported handfuls of synths out of the Institute. Instead of the impassioned hero she’d expected, Morgan found a lanky teenager who realized the system was wrong, but benefited too much from it to do more than free a few synths at a time. Disrupting or destroying the power dynamic between synths and the Institute would mean destroying Liam’s way of life, and he didn’t see the necessity in doing so.

Morgan and Z1 understood that liberty without conflict is impossible, but Liam - Patriot - was rapidly proving to be more of a liability than an asset.

"Then we move on without him," Morgan said, staring at the Institute courtyard. Only here, with the decorative trees and running streams of purified water, did the whiteness of the Institute not hurt her eyes. There was little humanity in the rest of it. No pictures of family members on desks, no traces of paint or debris where children played, no laundry hanging up to dry. Morgan could count on one hand the number of children she'd seen walking around. It was unnatural.

"We'll need to start stockpiling weapons,” Z1 murmured. “I'm still gathering forces, but we need to be prepared when the time comes."

She had to be strong. For Deacon, for Donny, for all the synths that watched her with stars in their eyes. All she had to do was buy Z1 - and Liam, if he ever made up his mind - enough time. With enough people and resources, and once the Railroad was ready, they could launch their attack. They could end this.

"I can get you weapons," Morgan said. "We'll be ready."

Z1’s thin lips curved in a humorless smile. "Good."

Chapter Text

Two months, Morgan had been in the Institute. Two months of introductions, tests, vaccinations, anxiety attacks, and everything else. Two months of sitting under Sean’s intense, near omniscient gaze, hoping and praying he wouldn’t find out the truth.

He already knew too much about her. He reveled in trotting out pieces of her past, talking about the day she met Nate, or the day she found out she was pregnant. Every so often, he asked her about the Railroad, and she fielded those questions, claiming she only knew what they told her, that all their interactions were shrouded in secrecy. If she mumbled something about how much she missed her son, Sean would always preen, and let the topic change.

He was so pleased with his level of power over her. He insisted on calling her “Mother” and dressing her in his favorite colors, insisted on having her at his side while he made his speeches or had his meetings. He would ask her what she wanted to eat or drink, then answer for her before she could reply. “I know your favorite tea, of course,” he’d say. Or, “Don’t worry, I know all about your soft spot for certain foods.” Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was wrong. Morgan never corrected him.

It seemed that, so long as she played the part, Sean was content to believe that his loving mother would never go against him. Surely, his mother must be the most loyal of his courtiers. And for now, that assumption was all that kept Morgan alive and unsuspected.

"Tell me, Mother. What do you do when someone has stolen from you?"

"Stolen?" She froze. "I don't know what you mean."

"I think it's rather clear. If someone had taken your property. What would you do?"

Morgan took a breath to keep her hands from digging into the cold plastic of her chair. "I suppose it depends on what was taken."

Sean hummed. "Then, I imagine you understand that Institute property is very valuable, and not often taken from us. We cannot react lightly if it happens."

Morgan twitched, hidden pistol burning against her thigh. "Are you accusing me of-"

"Accusing you? No, of course not.” She could hear the smile in his voice, even with his back to her as he stared out the window at the courtyard. “We've kept careful tabs on your actions here. I know you've taken nothing. No, I am referring to the Railroad. In the time since you arrived, they have acquired several synths, synths that had recently gone missing. They no doubt mean to 'free' these synths, in the delusion that they are somehow sentient beings. I was going to ask if you heard anything about this before you arrived."

Morgan's eye twitched. She wanted to be tactful, to let a lie drip from her tongue like honey, like Deacon. But the words evaded her. "I... had not. Their leader was very private and spoke in code as much as possible. They didn’t talk about their other operations. They just wanted to get the Relay working."

Sean's fist clenched before he spoke. "Usually they are a minor nuisance, but lately they have become more bold. You saw what happened at Libertalia. They're taking more synths, synths that are defective and violent, and releasing them into the Commonwealth to wreak havoc."

"I thought you didn't care for the Commonwealth." The words came out before she could stop them. "I thought the whole point of creating synths was to replace the imperfect."

Sean looked back, sharp hazel eyes meeting hers. She flinched, her heart pounding. "That is an eventuality," he said at last, and returned to the window. "Encouraging violence and depravity only furthers the damage in an already damaged world. Until we are ready to move forward with our plan, and restore the Commonwealth, allowing theft and murder to go unpunished is not viable. As it is, we know the location of the stolen synths, and need to re-acquire them before they are moved. I leave this task in your hands."

"You think that's wise?" Morgan replied, thinking quickly. "The Railroad might see me and report that I'm working for you. I wouldn't be able to return to them or interact with them again."

"And you'd do such a thing?" Sean turned to face her. "Seek them out again?"

Morgan stifled a shaky stutter. "I don't see why not. It might not be the best move at the moment, but it's... an eventuality."

Sean smiled. "I'm happy you think so. The synths are currently stored at Bunker Hill. It's important that we act on this soon, before the Railroad has any indication that we've tracked them."

"I understand."

"You'll have a contact waiting for you just outside Bunker Hill. They'll have your back if necessary. Return to CIT when you are finished.” Sean smiled again. “Good luck, Mother."

 

Something about the Coursers’ voices always disturbed her. Most synths were workers, designed for a specific purpose and pre-programmed with the necessary knowledge. But Coursers were taught. Something about their purpose being too complicated for ones and zeros. They were built to be physically flawless, but had to be molded, beaten down and built back up again. But the way they talked, and their inborn blind loyalty, left Morgan wondering if Coursers were as sentient and free-willed as the other synths. And, if so, if they could be liberated like the other synths.

But those were thoughts for another time and a better mood.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” X4-18 said.

"I can't make the Relay any faster," Morgan snapped.  "What's the plan?"

"Our targets are inside. Four synths under Railroad protection. Majority of the settlement is uninvolved, and are expected to run for cover. The situation appears to have escalated." As if on cue, a vertibird roared as it flew over them, heading towards the increasing gunfire in Bunker Hill.

"I was hoping to show up before all this went down," Morgan remarked, frowning.

"A covert approach is likely impossible at this point," X4 continued. "I suggest we take the front entrance, find the synths, and Relay back directly. No chance for a private teleport." X4 pressed two fingers to a black dot under his ear. "Requesting backup relay. Be ready on my mark."

Morgan sighed. "Let's go."

The steadying weight of her equipment made Morgan feel almost at home. Even the sound of gunshots was more friendly than the dull silence of the Institute. She’d almost forgotten the sensation of the breeze on her face, the wind in her hair. She took a moment to appreciate the way the sky stretched out above them and the sun shone against the faded brick buildings.

She never thought she'd miss the Commonwealth.

X4 walked with his laser rifle in hand, silent expressionless as he followed her. The pair crept up to the outskirts of the Hill, and Morgan scanned the scene. A handful of security synths zapped in with a burst of blue lightning, wielding more rifles and moving mechanically to cover. Brotherhood vertibirds dropped off soldiers in neat military formations. Railroad operatives weaved around the battlefield, with more agents swarming through narrow alleys to form a pincer.

X4 fired at Brotherhood and Railroad people alike, shooting with superhuman accuracy and dodging returning fire by mere inches. Morgan opened her mouth to catch his attention, maybe to form a battle strategy amidst the chaos, when two familiar faces peeked out around a corner.

Fucking hell.

Donny and Deacon had matching pairs of sunglasses, very little armor, and some dinky guns they’d probably picked up from Tom’s pile of surplus weaponry. How dare Deacon bring Donny here? What the fuck were they thinking? They were going to be killed. They were going to be killed, and then Morgan would lose her mind.

Donny peeked his head out too far around a corner. X4 turned, and aimed.

The next thing she knew, Morgan was holding a smoking shotgun and X4-18 lay, headless, on the ground, bits of brain splattered across the pavement. A pale hand reached out and grabbed Donny’s hair, dragging him behind the corner.

Morgan swore. Someone was definitely going to die.

She dashed across the street and between the buildings, stumbling through Boston's crowded crevices as the battle raged on. She tripped over a pile of rusty barrels and into a wider alleyway, startling her menfolk. Donny’s hand twitched for a pistol at his belt. He shouldn’t even have a pistol. “Deacon,” Morgan said. She wanted to growl his name, strike well-deserved fear into his heart. But just seeing the two of them made her fury melt away.

Deacon stood, shocked, as Donny made a noise of joy and rushed forward to hug her. Morgan clasped her arms around him and held the embrace before falling to one knee and frowning worriedly at him. “Are you alright? What are you doing here?” She fussed with his hair, scanning him for bruises or injuries.

"I'm great!" Donny chirped. "Deacon and I are coming to the battle 'cause Des wants all available agents on the field to protect these synths, and Deacon wanted to check it out but didn't have anywhere to drop me off 'cause we're in a hurry, so I got to come along and now we're going into this building and Deacon's gonna try to snipe some Brotherhood fuckers-"

"Language," Deacon interrupted.

"-some Brotherhood jerks, and I've got this-" Donny waved a pistol in the air. "-and I actually killed a dog with it the other day and we got to have dog for dinner but I was kinda sad because one of the kids in Goodneighbor has a dog that's really nice but the dog tasted really good so now I don't know if I should be friends with dogs or eat them but then Deacon said cats are pretty tasty but I don't know if he's lying about that because I like cats too even if they bite and scratch sometimes and-"

"Donny." Morgan clasped his shoulders with a gentle smile. "I'd love to hear all about it, but we’re kind of in the middle of something."

"Oh. Right." Donny deflated, but perked up as Morgan stood and her smile disappeared.

"You let him come along?” she asked, glaring at Deacon. “You gave him a gun?"

Deacon fidgeted. "Well, I mean - Glory and everyone's been teaching him how to shoot, and since we've been going on missions I figured-"

"You've been going on missions?"

"I did say that, didn't I."

"For christ's sake, Deacon, I thought you'd leave him at HQ or something, drop him off at a farm or go live in a log cabin. I didn't expect you to drag him along on missions and almost die."

"I mean, we haven't been in that situation so far, it's been pretty quiet- "

"Oh, sure. Sure, it's always quiet, until you get shot. What if he had gotten hurt, Deacon? I'm six hundred miles under the fucking ground, I'm trusting you to take care of him, and instead, you take him out on missions and give him a goddamn gun!”

Deacon shifted uneasily. Despite the cover of his sunglasses, Morgan could tell he was avoiding her gaze. "We didn't expect you to be here," he finished lamely.

Morgan threw a hand over her face, summoning another bout of rage when Donny sidled up to her. "Morgan, I'm sorry you were worried," he said, lacing his fingers through hers. "Deacon just wanted to take care of me while you were gone, and I feel safer with him than by myself."

Morgan opened her mouth, then closed it again. Then opened, then closed. She glanced up, and saw Deacon’s shit-eating grin, the kind of self-assured smile of someone who knows they're off the hook. She narrowed her eyes at Donny. "You spend too much time with Deacon."

Donny's innocence look vanished, replaced by a pleased smile. "Am I allowed to stay?"

Morgan looked between the pair before throwing her hands up. "Fine. Sure, whatever. But!" she interrupted, jabbing a finger at them. "You're both staying in HQ from now on."

They groaned. "And have Des get on our case again?" Deacon pointed out.

"Yes. I don't give a shit. You're not running around with no heavy to protect you, getting yourselves killed and giving me panic attacks. You stay in HQ until I say so. Are we clear?"

Deacon flashed her an assuaging smile. "Yes, boss."

Morgan wagged her finger at him. "None of that shit. I'm tired. And I have to go save these synths and then somehow explain to my son why I couldn't 'acquire' them and bring them back to the Institute. Oh, and also why a Courser’s dead. That too." Morgan ran a hand over her face, then leaned down and pressed a kiss to Donny's temple. "Don't die, Donny."

Donny smiled. Deacon raised an eyebrow. "Infiltration going well?"

Morgan sighed. "I'm just surprised I'm not dead yet."

Deacon finished unlocking the back door of the nearest building, then jiggled the handle. The door swung open. "I'll be up in a minute, Donny. Clear out any ghouls if you see any."

"On it!" Donny ducked inside and raced up the stairs, brandishing his pea-shooter. Morgan made a helpless noise and waved after him, then sighed.

As soon as the door closed, Deacon's cordial expression dissipated. "Are you okay?"

Morgan blinked. With the boy gone, the sounds of battle seemed much louder, and the anger that had given her strength faded away. Her shoulders slumped. “No,” she murmured.

Deacon sighed. "How long until you think we can go forward with the revolution?"

"Not long," Morgan admitted. "Z1 has a decent amount of followers, and he’s started preparing them for battle. I've given them all the secret supplies I can. Sean doesn't suspect me, as far as I know. Des should start gathering her resources."

Deacon nodded. "Then... it'll be over." Saying it aloud startled him. "We'll be done."

"We'll be done," Morgan repeated, nodding.

The enormity of that statement seemed too big too comprehend. Deacon grew solemn, staring into space as Morgan fidgeted in an uncharacteristic show of weakness. At last, Deacon put his hand on the doorknob. "I'll go upstairs and make myself useful, and keep Donny safe."

"Thanks." She swallowed. “Deacon?”

“What?”

“Just…” She clenched her hands into fists. “Don’t die. Okay?”

“I won’t.” He smiled, and opened the door, revealing the darkness inside. “I promise.”

Morgan watched him go, and waited until his footsteps faded away to move on.

Outside the alleyway the battle roared much louder. The flow of vertibirds and armored soldiers had stopped, but more synths had teleported in, walking past her without attacking. The Railroad agents avoided eye contact and shot around her, trying not to give her away. The Brotherhood fired some potshots at her but were preoccupied with the other two factions. If she wanted, she could stroll right into the center of the Hill and complete her mission.

So she did, walking through the front gate and to Stockton’s table, where she pushed a trunk out of the way and lifted up the rug to reveal a secret hatch. Down the hatch and rickety latter revealed a fluorescent-lighted basement, where the battle above sounded like thunder, low and rumbling and far away. In the back of the room, four synths cowered.

They whimpered as she approached, and she held out a reassuring hand. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m not going to take you back.” She looted the trunks and crates filling the basement and found pre-made supply kits, each with a week’s worth of rations, a set of wasteland clothes, and some medical supplies and caps.

Morgan helped the synths shimmy out of their Institute jumpsuits and into the fresh clothes, arming them with small guns and escorting them from the basement. She told them to run to the top of the Bunker Hill spire, where they could pose as hiding drifters. Stockton would recognize them when the fighting was over. Then, she said, they could get a ride on one of the caravans and flee.

She tipped the battle in favor of the Railroad with a few subtle shots on her way out, catching Brotherhood soldiers or oblivious synths off-guard at critical moments. The other factions began to flee, and Deacon's scope winked at her as she walked out of the Hill.

She waved goodbye, and headed to CIT.

 

A message on her radio told her to move to the roof, so she did, reaching the top as the sun hit the horizon. Sean stood, alone, on the edge, hands clasped behind his back. "You know,” he began, “in all my years, I've never set foot outside the Institute. Not once, since the day they brought me here. I've never had a reason. But now... this just confirms the truth I've always known. The Commonwealth is dead. There's no future here. The only hope for humanity lies below."

Morgan followed Sean’s gaze. The sun cast a orange-gold glow over the blue steel skyscrapers and red brick buildings, rusted cars dotting the roads and piles of rubble stacked up in the streets. As the sun went down, the world was peaceful for a while, when respectable people went to the bar or to bed, and the raiders came out and rioted under the cover of darkness.

But she also saw the pockets of civilization. Bunker Hill, recovering from the battle and putting itself back together. Over the northern hills and yellow-green grass, Sanctuary was flourishing. Across the river were an array of small settlements, who flew the Minutemen flag and had hope again because of it. Plus Goodneighbor and Diamond City, all filled with decent people trying to get by. The Commonwealth was not dead. Just not as clean as Sean might want.

"I don't think it's that bad," she said, taking a moment to enjoy the sunset.

"Perhaps not to you. But to me, this... puts things in perspective. I know that, in your mind, I was kidnapped from that Vault. But in truth, the Institute rescued me. It saved me from a life in this wasteland. Saved both of us, really."

"Hardly," Morgan stated, setting her jaw. "They didn't ask me if I wanted to give up my baby. They just took you and Nate from me."

"My father was... an unfortunate casualty. I was the ultimate source of uncorrupted Pre-War DNA, and too valuable to risk losing. Our cause demanded that I be taken by any means necessary. Though, sometimes... I wonder what it would have been like, to grow up with parents." Sean hummed. "I'll admit, when I had you released from Vault 111, I had no expectations what you'd survive out here, in all this."

What?

"What?" Morgan jerked back, brow furrowed. "You had me released?"

Sean met her eyes, arching a brow. "You didn't know? You had been kept alive as a backup in case I turned out inadequate for the project. After a while, I... wanted to see what you'd do if released, thinking that you'd lost your child. So I had you set free, and created the younger, synthetic version of myself to lure you along when you ran out of avenues to pursue me. I've been fascinated with the results."

"You… You released me? But the life support systems on all the other pods failed.” Her eyes widened, flashing with anger. “You killed them, didn’t you? The others, from before the war, you let them die. You led me on, you put me through this, you made me what I am. You let me think I had a chance at finding my son." Her breath shook, her hands balled into tight and trembling fists, her shoulders tensed beside her ears. Her voice was wrought with pain and fury, unsure whether to cry or to scream. "What kind of person would do that?"

Sean pressed his lips together. "A dying one."

Morgan’s heart skipped a beat.

"There are some things," Sean said, sighing, "that even the best of medicines cannot fix. Certain dangers, associated with living underground, causing unusual health issues. I am not young, but sixty should not be so close to death, especially here. However, I... do not have much time left. I thought, perhaps, that the person who gave birth to me would be most qualified to take my place. That they would share my personality, my values. That they'd do my legacy proud."

"Sean, what are you suggesting?"

"I brought you here to become Director," Sean said, facing her as he outstretched his hands. "I’m sorry you still resent what the old Institute did to me and my father. But I truly believe that you have the drive to guide the Institute to greatness. The synths are nearing perfection. My time is short, but you - you were driven enough to spent nearly a year in this wasteland, doing whatever it took to find me. If anyone is worthy of taking my title, it's you."

"Sean, I..." Morgan took a step back, lips parted.

"No. I know. And now that Bunker Hill has gone awry, it will be even harder to convince the others that you are worthy." He sighed. "I truly hope my faith is not misplaced."

A heavy silence hung between them for several moments. "I'll need time to think about this," she croaked at last.

"As expected." He pressed his fingers to the black dot under his ear. "One moment." He sighed. "Please, think about it. The Institute has so much to offer, even if you think it imperfect. You could accomplish so much. You would make me proud." He pressed the dot again. "Please."

Blue lightning struck, and then he was gone.

Chapter Text

Morgan stared into her sleeve, feeling her eyes strain against the unnatural shade of whiteness. More and more, she loathed the brightness of the Institute, the way the lights only dimmed when it was time to sleep, so there were no dark places to hide in. There were no nooks, no crannies, no dark and unlit corners where she could rest. It felt like she had a spotlight on her all the time. Eyes and ears hidden in the walls, always watching. Always listening.

The other scientists gathered around the table droned on. While Sean had encouraged her to sit in on his meetings before, now they were mandatory. He never used that word, of course, but the question behind his eyes was implicit. Why would you refuse me, unless you do not love me? Morgan couldn’t take that chance. So she went to every meeting, answering what was asked of her, offering her opinion when Sean requested it.

“Sean’s right. We should ready ourselves against the Brotherhood. Just in case.”

“Sean’s right. The synths need more discipline. To protect them, and us.”

“Sean’s right. The Institute really is a marvel.”

The old man preened.

Still. She hated these dull, inane meetings, full of squabbling tyrants. At this point, she’d rather be out with Coursers, “recovering” lost synths and wheedling Patriot to commit one way or the other. But the revolution was close. She just had to grin and bear it.

"Ms. Morgan. Apologies, but I have an urgent message from Z1-14."

Morgan blinked quickly to refocus her eyes. "Hm?"

"Your quarters have flooded, ma'am. There is danger of extensive damage to your personal effects." The synth didn't look at the floor or her ear to avoid eye contact, instead looking her straight on. A risky, telling move. But the scientists paid the synth no mind. They never did.

"I see. I'll be down right away." Morgan cleared her throat, tapping the table to draw the room’s attention. "Something's come up. Don't wait for me." One or two of them inhaled to express dissent, but Morgan fled before they could stop her.

"What took R5 so long to reach you?" Z1 breathed, meeting her in her bedroom. He seemed out of breath, his eyes wide, tension thick in his back and shoulders. "You must act now. The Brotherhood of Steel has discovered the location of the Railroad."

Morgan’s mouth hung open, and it took her a second to choke out a reply. "What?"

"A friend in the SRB overheard something. She smuggled the message to me. We can't get any more details - even just getting that to me put her in grave peril."

"I-" Morgan dropped her eyes from his face to his chest, trembling. "I have to warn them."

"You must." Z1 nodded. "I was hoping for more time, but it is clear we cannot delay. Once you secure the Railroad, tell your people we are ready to fight. You must go, now."

The command gave Morgan enough clarity to shake her head and take a breath, standing upright and nodding back. "Cover for me. I'll be as fast as I can."

Z1 swallowed. "Go."

 

"And that, Donny, is how you win at poker." Deacon showed his cards with a flourish.

The ten-year-old frowned. "But what if you don't have sunglasses?"

"Well, then, obviously you need to buy some." The older man shrugged, leaning back and lacing his hands behind his head.

Glory scowled, flinging her cards across the table. "Can't we ever play a normal game, for once? You know, where the rest of us stand a chance?"

"No can do, compadre." Deacon flashed a grin. "I wasn't cheating. This time. I swear."

"Having sunglasses is cheating. Poker's all about the tells, you can't just hide your eyes and expect not to have unfair advantages."

"I can't help it if you fondle your mini-gun every time you have a bad hand."

"I do not fondle my-"

"Donny!" Morgan barreled into the room, the door swinging open and slamming against the wall beside her. She searched the room with wild eyes until her gaze landed on Donny, then rushed forward to pull him into a hug. "Donny," she repeated, breathing a heavy sigh of relief.

"Fixer? What's going on?" Des emerged from her office, brow furrowed in confusion. Glory and Deacon rose from their seats, eyeing the embracing pair. The other gathered agents looked up from their work, glancing at each other curiously.

Morgan pressed kisses into Donny's hair, then relinquished him, one hand still gripping his shoulder. "Des," she gasped, "the Brotherhood are coming."

Shock and fear rippled through the room. Desdemona’s eyes widened. "Are you certain?"

"Z1 has a contact in the SRB. I don't know how much time we have, so I came as fast as I could." Morgan’s eyes flickered from person to person before resting on Deacon, lingering on him perhaps a moment too long before returning to Des. "We need to move quickly. Once we're safe, Z1 wants to go ahead with the rebellion."

"Go ahead with the-? After this, we may not have the resources. We'll need time."

"We don't have time, Des! And not- Especially not for this argument!"

Tinker Tom spoke as Morgan threw her hands up. "Des, I found something." The room fell silent. "Our surveillance along the Trail and around base says that we've got bogeys incoming. Big ones. Lots of Power Armor and big guns.” He paused. “It's Brotherhood, Des."

"Then there's no time to waste." Desdemona took a breath to summon her strength. "All of you! Grab what you can - weapons, armor, supplies. Prepare to evacuate. Move!"

As the agents rushed to action, Morgan went to Deacon, handing Donny to him and pressing a spare, silenced pistol into his hand. She rested her palm over his, the gun separating them. “Be safe.” She swallowed hard, staring into his sunglasses. "Protect Donny."

Deacon curled his hand around the weapon. "I will. Be careful."

They parted. Morgan raced to the barracks, checking the security measures and setting up cover, handing out guns and armor. Deacon took Donny’s hand and held it tight, pulling him aside. "Do you remember how to use this?" he asked, holding out the silenced pistol. Donny nodded. "I want you to hide, and if you see someone bad, you shoot them in the head or the knees. Got it?"

"Uh-huh." His voice shook, and Deacon could feel him trembling.

"We're going to be okay, okay?" Deacon brushed locks of red hair from Donny's face, pulling him into a short hug and squeezing him tight. "When you hear shooting, hit the deck and get behind cover. Just like we practiced."

Donny nodded. Together, they helped pack up everyone’s things, spreading records and documents and secret plans around the agents so no one person carried too much. Terminals and archives were destroyed or transferred to holotapes hidden in agents’ belongings. People armed themselves to the teeth. Armor was scarce, but they'd already outfitted everyone with ballistic weave. They'd be fine. They had to be.

Dust showered from the brick ceiling as explosions rang out, prompting a roar of shouts and screams. "They've blocked off the back door!" someone shouted.

"Split up!" Des called. "Glory, lead a group to the front entrance and hold out there! The rest of you, hold off the attack! If we can stop the pincer, we can make a stand!"

Then the faint, tell-tale whirr of a gatling laser gun echoed from the hall and a barrage of red heat flew through the air, taking first blood. Deacon pulled Donny to the floor with him, Morgan following a second after. The three of them cowered behind a pushed-over desk, the rumble of gunfire and cries of pain rattling the walls. Donny squeezed his eyes shut and clung to Deacon, and Morgan vaulted over the front of the desk, firing her shotgun into a soldier’s helmet. A gory gurgle erupted from the power armor’s speakers, and a hot gush of blood dripped down the armor’s torso before its wearer crumpled to the floor.

Donny curled into a ball, shielded by Deacon’s body, wincing with every gunshot. Deacon and some others held the back, defending the front-liners from the soldiers trying to creep around the edges and flank them. Morgan stood at the front alongside Glory and the other heavies, bearing back the army of soldiers crammed into that narrow hallway. If they couldn’t hold the doorway, they’d be overwhelmed in seconds.

Eventually the wave of soldiers ended. But they could still hear shouting and footsteps, the heralding cry of reinforcements. Tinker Tom pushed everyone aside and chucked a handful of explosives into the evacuation tunnel. He squeezed his eyes shut, fingers in his ears, and shouted for everyone to do the same. Two seconds later, they went off, dirt showering from the ceiling as the walls crumbled in and blocked off the tunnel.

People coughed and waved away the grime sticking to their sweaty hands and faces. A quick headcount revealed no casualties. Wounds, burns, and bullet holes, but no casualties. Yet. "Our only way out is the church," Desdemona announced. "Glory and her people were guarding the entrance, but we don't know if they've been overwhelmed. We've got to move."

Morgan wondered if everyone else noticed the quaver in their alpha's voice, how her lips faltered on Glory's name. But they marched to the front entrance, Morgan still standing at the front. “Wait,” she commanded, and creaked open the front door, peeking out. Her voice caught in her throat, and she pushed the door open completely.

Blood spattered the floors and walls. Brotherhood corpses lined the floor, some lying on top of each other like fallen-over dominos. So many lay dead, it had created a sort of barricade in the doorway. Railroad bodies lay covered with blood, theirs or the enemy’s, no one could tell. And Glory sat in the corner, minigun steaming at her side, one arm wrapped around her middle as blood seeped through her clothes. Her brown skin was rapidly turning a sickly ashen green, and strands of fair hair hung over her face, dripping beads of sweat.

Desdemona let out a faint, painted noise. Morgan saw her hands shaking, lower lip starting to quiver. And Morgan understood. She cleared her throat and started barking orders, telling the agents to go upstairs and clear out any remaining Brotherhood forces. The enemy would regroup soon, sending for reinforcements if they had any. And so the Railroad marched on, save for Deacon and Donny. Those two waited beside Morgan, Donny clinging to Deacon’s side with Morgan’s hand on his upper back, her palm warm against his trembling skin.

Desdemona stepped over and around the corpses to reach Glory’s bloodstained body. The other agents had said goodbye or wept for her on their way out. Desdemona did not cry yet. She knelt beside her lover, taking Glory’s calloused hand in her own. Above them, combat thundered, bullets riddling the walls and people shouting in pain.

A faint, cocky smile curved Glory’s lips. "None of them got past me," she said, chuckling weakly. "The rest of you should be able to clear them out and get to safety. That's what matters." Desdemona's shoulders shook with stifled sobs. Glory softened. “Des, don’t. We knew this was a risk. We knew this might happen.”

Des cupped Glory’s cheek, strands of white hair tickling her fingers.The two women whispered to each other, eyes all aglow with sadness and longing, until at last Glory called over Morgan and her menfolk. "I know I give you all a lot of shit," she began. "But without this place, I'd still be in that prison, doing grunt work for the SRB. I know I don't say it enough, but…"

Her breathing became even more labored, and a fresh gush of blood oozed from her jacket. The wound had cut too deep - injecting a stimpack now would just create more blood and prolong her death, not fix the wound. "Fix, you're... you're the best thing that ever happened to this place, to these people. Without you, we wouldn't stand a chance of getting into the Institute." She swallowed the blood creeping up her throat. "Promise me you'll free them. All of them."

"I promise, Glory," Morgan whispered. "We all promise."

She nodded, leaning back against the bricks with a relieved sigh. “Take care of yourself, Deeks. I’d hate to meet you in hell anytime soon.”

Deacon nodded. He raised two fingers to his brow, offering a small salute. “I will.”

And, at last, Glory fixed her eyes on Donny, with a faint smile. “Stay cool, big guy. Make these guys proud. Shoot some Institute fuckers for me.”

Donny, eyes welling with tears, released a choked sob. “I w-will. I promise.”

Glory smiled. Tears glimmered in the corners of her increasingly glassy eyes. But her face contorted in pain - or fear. She gripped Desdemona’s hand tighter, uttering her last words in a rasping whisper. “I love you, Des.” And she went still, the light in her eyes fading. Desdemona made a sharp, despairing noise, and clutched Glory’s still-warm hand, burying her face in it.

The four agents sat there for a few moments, letting grief wash over them as Desdemona sobbed quietly, her tears dripping down Glory's skin. Morgan was the first to collect herself, though her eyes weren’t dry by a long shot. "Des. We have to go."

"I... I..." Desdemona fought not to hyperventilate. "Yes." A shudder ran through her, until she went cold and still, rising stiffly. Morgan helped her to her feet, and they walked up into the church. Just before they entered the main hall, Des stopped, closing her eyes and taking a deep, steadying breath, emptying her expression. Save for the dried streaks of tears parting the dirt on her face, there was no sign of the grieving woman behind her mask.

The church looked much less peaceful than when Morgan first arrived. Pews had been knocked over and shot through. Corpses hung over the balconies and littered the floor. Blood seeped into the wood, staining the dusty boards a deep, unnatural red-brown.

An agent wrapped in bandages approached them. "We've cleared the church, Des," they said. "We've got enough people, enough time. We're ready to go on your command."

"Mercer," Morgan murmured, behind Des’s shoulder. "Mercer could hold us for a while."

The alpha nodded, then raised her chin and spoke. "We've killed the last of them. And... most of us, are still standing." She hesitated, but did not falter. "The Brotherhood underestimated us, badly. Their next attack will be far, far worse. So we do the unexpected."

"The unexpected?" Morgan frowned. "What do you mean? We need to get out of here, regroup, get ready to help Z1 finish the rebellion."

"We can't do that if the Brotherhood is hunting us to extinction," Des said, tone cutting, eyes cold. "There is no other option. Regrouping would be doing exactly what we did after the attack on the Switchboard. And there's a big possibility they may find us even sooner if we build up another headquarters. We're out of time. We must eliminate the Brotherhood as a threat, now. And the key to that is destroying the Prydwen."

"Des, you can't be serious," Deacon interjected, one arm wrapped around Donny's shoulders. "That was just an idea. We never even considered putting that into action."

"You never considered putting that into action," Des snapped. "As for the rest of us, we understood that sacrifices have to be made if we're going to win this war."

"Wait, hold on, what idea?" Morgan interjected. "What’s going on?"

"I’m enacting Operation Red Glare."

"What?" Tinker reeled, eyes widening. "But Red Glare requires a Brotherhood vertibird!"

"Then Fixer will get you one."

"The hell I am," Morgan exclaimed. "This was never discussed!"

"There's no time for discussion, agent. And there's no time for disobeying orders. This is necessary, and if it is not done, then you put us all in danger."

"What's necessary? Killing kids?" Deacon stepped forward, bringing Donny along for emphasis. "Red Glare was just an idea. A plan we hadn't fleshed out yet. If we were ever going to flesh it out at all! The Prydwen has kids on it, Des, is that what you want to do? Blow up that zeppelin and kill children? Innocents?"

"They chose their side!" Desdemona shouted, wild and unhinged.

"Don't you fucking yell at him!" Morgan snapped, shoving Des's shoulder.

"Are you going against my orders?" Des hissed, coming nose to nose with Morgan. "You're not a traitor, Fixer. And this isn't the time for moral dilemmas. They've killed our people. They've killed-"

"They've killed Glory." Morgan spat. "They killed Glory, and now you want to slaughter innocents to get some kind of sick revenge."

All the rage fled from Desdemona's face, leaving her pale and shocked. "I..."

"Yeah, we all fucking knew. Glory's not subtle, Des. You're the only one who tried to put some kind of pretense up about it. So, what. Now you want revenge? I've been there, and I know it's not the answer. Glory will still be gone, no matter what you do. And killing kids and innocent people will only go against our ideals."

Des curled her hands into fists. A few seconds passed, the room deathly silent while the two women stared at each other. "Sometimes sacrifices have to be made," she said at last. "What solution do you propose, then? Something needs to be done, and saving every innocent in that zeppelin will take time, and effort, and resources that we do not have."

"Then I'll do it. You already wanted me to blow the damn thing up, I'll just do it my way. It'll take longer, but at least we'll all know we're not child murderers." Morgan took a few steps closer. "I've gone to war, Desdemona. Seen good men die for stupid reasons, because people like you decided they wanted vengeance or power. Pulling the 'greater good' card does no one any favors. If you want to say we're the good guys, then we have to act like it. We're not them."

Des stared back, eyes searching Morgan’s. Then, her chin dropped. "I'll take the others and regroup," she murmured. "Do what you must. Take Deacon. If you do it your way, I don't know how much help we can give, but we can look after Donny for you until you return. If you return."

She walked away. The other agents glanced at one another, unsure what to do. But, one after another, they filed out of the church, sparing Morgan apologetic looks as they followed Des. But Donny lingered.  

"Morgan?" he asked, voice soft and unsteady. The woman bit back a sudden lump in her throat and kneeled, pulling Donny into her arms, hugging him as tight as she could. Donny trembled in her grasp, but held back just as tight, small sobs bubbling up his throat. "You're going to leave again," he said, once she pulled away.

Something ached in her chest. Morgan nodded, and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "You have to go with the others," she explained, her throat tight. "We'll come back again. I promise. We'll come get you. And you've got the others. You're not going to be alone again." She took Donny's hand, the one still clutching his pistol. "You keep this with you, always. This will keep you safe, so long as you're careful." She hesitated, about to say something she hadn’t in a long time. Instead, she just hugged him again, trying to express what she dare not say.

Donny's eyes welled with tears, and they held the embrace until Deacon padded over and the boy turned into another hug. The old man clutched the boy tight, trying to commit the moment to memory. All too soon, they separated, and Deacon ruffled Donny's hair. "Be good, okay?" he smiled, grateful for his sunglasses hiding his watery eyes.

Donny nodded, and walked away with his pistol in hand, looking back only once before turning a corner and disappearing.

 

The trio - now duo - found themselves on a rooftop as the sun set, Des and the others long gone on their march to Mercer. They sat together, leaning against each other and staring out at the Prydwen, the warmth of the sun at their backs and their shadows stretched far in front of them. At this distance, the Prydwen looked like a particularly low-hanging raincloud. They sat in silence for a while as the sun dipped below the horizon and the air grew cooler.

At last, Deacon spoke. "So. What's your plan?"

Morgan leaned forward, pulling her knees to her chest. "Months ago, Danse said I'd be welcome back at the Brotherhood if I ever learned to appreciate their cause. Or, well, something like that." She took a breath. "I think I might take him up on that."

Deacon nodded. "You think it'll work? You really think we'll be able to evacuate the good guys and blow up the Prydwen?"

Morgan looked aside, meeting his gaze. "I've made it this far, haven't I?"

"Can't argue with that." He crossed his legs. "Gonna be a hell of a ride."

"Always is."

"Have you told Sean where you're going?"

"No."

Deacon hummed. "Gonna be a hell of a ride."

Morgan huffed a chuckle through her nose. "What, are you going to back out now?"

He smiled. "And miss this? Never."

Chapter Text

"How do I look?"

Morgan looked him up and down. "Like a stranger."

Deacon grinned. "Think it'll fool the tin can man?"

"We can hope." Morgan pressed her lips together, casting a tense glance over her shoulder. "Remember. Let me do the talking."

Deacon hummed. "I still think that's a bad idea. Remember the last time I let you do the talking with the Brotherhood?" He tugged at the leather pauldron on his left shoulder.

Morgan shooed his hands away and adjusted it herself. "This time it's different. I know what I'm getting into. I've been in the military, Deacon, I know how they operate, I know how to act to gain their trust. Smartmouth smooth talkers won't do well here. Especially ones who don't follow orders well."

Deacon gave her a pleasant smile. "When have I ever not followed orders?"

"I mean it, damn it. There's too much at stake. I don't want you putting firecrackers in the toilets as a 'last laugh' and then have it come back to bite us in the ass."

"You never let me have any fun."

Morgan made sure her things were in place, then they left the alley, heading towards the Cambridge Police Station. The morning sun made the ruined buildings seem brighter, more colorful. Potholes and craters in the street contained pools of rainwater that glittered in the light, the surface of each pool covered with clumps of dark green Commonwealth moss.

Morgan's Pip-Boy picked up the radio signal from the Transmitter she'd helped Paladin Danse collect all those months ago. Come to think of it, the Prydwen had showed up not long after she'd helped him get that Transmitter. Maybe it would have been better to kill those bastards when they were weak, let the ghouls overrun them and tear them to pieces.

But you can't change the past. The future, however.

Danse stood outside the police station, still in the same set of power armor. As they approached, he raised his gun and shouted. "Halt!"

Both agents raised their hands. "You don't remember me?" Morgan asked.

Danse climbed to the top of the barricade, looking dubious before his eyes widened in recognition. "The merc. Morgan, was your name?" He sounded surprised. "I didn't expect to see you again. As I recall, we parted on unpleasant terms."

Morgan forced herself not to glower. "We did. A lot has changed since then. As I recall, you told me to come back when I was ready and willing to accept your offer."

Danse's eyebrows rose into his forehead. "You've reconsidered?"

Morgan lowered her hands and took a few steps closer to the station, Deacon padding along behind her. "I couldn't help but think about what you'd said, about devoting yourself to a higher cause. I'm tired of wandering from place to place without a purpose. I'd like to join up."

All her practice in the mirror must have paid off, because pleasant surprise bloomed on the paladin's face. "I'm glad you've changed your mind," he said, and descended the barricade, motioning for them to meet him in the station yard. "I remember your skills. You're very capable, but at the time you lacked honor, and discipline. It's good that you've taken my advice to heart."

Morgan swallowed the sharp, cutting reply that rose in her throat, maintaining her look of pleasant subservience. "Thank you, sir."

He preened at the simple honorific. His gaze shifted to Deacon. "Who's your new friend?"

Deacon wore well-tooled leather armor, and aviators instead of his usual Ray-Ban sunglasses. He kept his head shaved and a five o'clock shadow across his cheeks, enough to make him look rugged without giving away his hair color. Coupled with the weathered assault rifle at his hip, he looked like your standard hired gun. Without the wig and given all the padding to make him look more muscular, even Morgan might not have been able to recognize him.

"A new gun," Morgan explained. "My old guy got tired of having to defuse all my arguments, so he left me in the gutter. After I got beat up for pissing off the wrong people, I started re-evaluating my life choices. This guy," she said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, "is an old friend of mine, we used to run security jobs together. He’s tired of mercenary work as well, and I can vouch for his skills. I was going to ask if you'd be willing to take him on as a soldier, as well."

She and Deacon had practiced this character for hours on the journey to the police station, going over the intricacies, the body language, the facial expressions. When Morgan had first teleported to the Institute, she had no idea what to expect. Now, she was at no one’s mercy.

"I see." Danse looked thoroughly impressed. "I admit I'm surprised, but the Brotherhood welcomes anyone willing to join the cause, so long as they can follow orders. I think you show the potential of both. Come with me."

Morgan and Deacon shared a look before following him into the police station. Inside, a handful of other soldiers milled around, all stopping to stare when the group entered. "Haylen, Rhys. I believe you remember this woman."

The petite blonde woman wiping grease from her hands nodded. "She helped us get the Transmitter. What brings you back here?" she asked, addressing the pair.

"My friend and I are hoping to join the Brotherhood, actually," Morgan said, taking a breath. This was going a lot smoother than she expected.

"I extended the offer to her when she helped us retrieve the Transmitter, but at the time she was unreceptive. Now she seems to have changed her mind."

"Wow. I mean, I didn’t think you guys would take us up on it," Haylen admitted, stuffing her greasy rag into a pocket of her vest. "It's nice that you're giving us a chance."

"More like we're giving her a chance," Rhys interrupted. He gave them each a stern, probing look. "I didn't expect you to ever come back. You had a bad attitude, and I told Danse I was happy to get rid of you after you took your money. It'll take more than nice words to convince me you're devoted to the cause."

"Rhys, enough." Danse interrupted, then turned to the pair. "Though he does have a point. We're not here for greed or glory. We're an army, and we've dedicated our lives to a code of ethics. If you want to work with the Brotherhood, you have to understand its values, to obey our tenets without question. You think you can do that?"

"I was a merc, not a murderer," Morgan said, letting a little of the truth slip through. "I protected caravans, cleared out caves of ghouls or molerats for farms. I may not have been honorable, but I had ethics. Now, I'm just thinking of a better life. I'm willing to do what it takes."

"That's what we like to hear." Danse glanced at Rhys, as if he was making a point, before moving his gaze to Deacon. "And you?"

"He's a mute," Morgan stated, as Deacon opened his mouth. "Bad blow to the head when we were working together. He can still hear and take orders and think just fine, he just can't talk much. Right… Joe?"

Deacon gave the group a pleasant, false smile, gesturing to his mouth with a shrug and making nonsense gestures with his hands.

"He shares my desire for a better life," Morgan explained. "Treat him the same as me."

Danse nodded. "Then I won't waste the time giving you both a long lecture. But, I'll say this. I only ask two things of those under my command. Honesty, and respect. You fall in line, you stay in line. I give you an order, and you follow it. It's as simple as that. Given your skills, I don't think we'll need to put you through the gauntlet, but we will need to run some medical tests. We’ve got a vertibird on the roof. I'll fly you up to the Prydwen myself, to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Haylen, Rhys, I assume you can handle the station in my absence?"

The two clapped their right hands to the left side of their chest. "Can do, sir," Haylen said.

"Good." Danse radioed the airship to expect new arrivals. Then they went to the roof and the waiting vertibird, pilot at the ready. "Welcome aboard," Danse said, and helped the pair into their seats. Deacon paled, and strapped into the seat beside her, hands clenching as the propeller whirred into life before the bird lurched and rose. "Your friend doesn't seem to be taking it well," Danse shouted, over the roar of the engine.

"He doesn't like heights," Morgan shouted back.

"Give it time. There's nothing to be scared of." As he spoke, the bird swooped in a wide curve before speeding up and zooming towards the Prydwen itself. Maybe it was just the cold sparks of anxiety upsetting her stomach, but Morgan wasn't much enjoying the ride, either. Deacon's face turned a faint shade of green. He gave Morgan a rather unhappy expression, jerking a finger towards his mouth with a glare. Morgan shrugged, giving him a faint, amused smile.

As they neared the Prydwen, Danse pulled an intercom from the wall and spoke into it. A long, mechanical claw reached out from the side of the airship and pulled the vertibird close. The group waited until the vehicle stilled before descending onto the catwalk. Morgan knew not to look down, but Deacon didn't, and almost stumbled, letting out a small noise of terror.

"He's better in combat," Morgan explained.

The trio walked along the catwalk to a stern, dark-armored man waiting at the end of it, both hands held behind his back. "Permission to come aboard, sir?" Danse asked.

"Permission granted," the man said, and pressed his right fist to the left side of his chest. "Welcome back, Paladin. Who’ve you brought with you?"

"New recruits," Danse said. "Field promoted to Initiates, but I'd like to sponsor their entry into our rankings personally. I believe they're qualified enough to become Knights, sir. The woman is the one who helped us retrieve the Transmitter, and she's vouching for the skills of her friend."

"I remember the report." The man nodded, giving the pair a slow, gauging look. "I'm sure Elder Maxson will approve any request from his star soldier, though they'll be in your charge, Paladin. It's your responsibility to make them adequate soldiers."

"Thank you, sir. I'll do my best. My current orders?"

"Remain on the Prydwen and await further instruction."

"Very good, sir."

Morgan couldn't help but think of the Old World military, of the days where 'yes sir' and 'no sir' and 'will do, sir' were all she ever said, where human bodies were currency and every battle had a price. When she was told to sit down, shut up, do as she was told, when she was a million miles away from home, fighting for a war she didn't believe in, feeling her mind slip further away from her with every passing day. A shiver went down her spine, but she did not flinch.

The dark-armored man with the dark blue cap turned his gaze on them once Danse disappeared into the Prydwen. "I'm Lancer Captain Kells. Names?"

"Morgan. And this is Joe, sir. Joe can't talk, due to an injury some years back, but he can hear and think perfectly well. He'll follow your orders to the letter, sir."

The captain arched a brow. "I’m surprised a civilian would adapt so quickly to Brotherhood customs without training, Initiate."

"I've had some prior military experience, sir. I left it when I was young, and struck out on my own as a mercenary. But as Paladin Danse would tell you, I'm looking to put my skills to good use, and make something more of myself. Sir." Her military mask came back to her all at once. The neutral expression, the vocal tics, the way she stood straight with her chin up and her gaze focused. She struggled to lie any way else, but tricking her superiors was a skill she’d been forced to learn.

Kells gave her a thoughtful nod, observing her and Deacon, who had quickly adopted her body language. "Perhaps you'll make good soldiers after all. Not to question the Paladin's judgement, but some of his reports did not cast you in a totally positive light. I'm pleased to see you both making an effort." He raised his chin. "Your orders are to proceed to the Command Deck for the address, after which Elder Maxson will have words with you. Danse should have explained the situation to him by the time you arrive. Dismissed."

They nodded their goodbyes and went into the Prydwen, letting the pale white lights wash over them. They followed the signs to a wide room at the bow of the ship, where a bearded man in a thick leather coat addressed a gathered crowd. Morgan and Deacon fell into the crowd, mingling among the other soldiers and keeping their head down.

The bearded man clasped his hands behind his back. "Now that the ship is in position, it is time to reveal our purpose and our mission. Beneath the earth, there is a cancer, known as the Institute, a malignant growth, that needs to be cut before it festers. They are experimenting with dangerous technologies that could prove to be the world's undoing for the second time in recent history. The Institute scientists have created a weapon that transcends the destructive nature of the atomic bomb. They call their creation, the 'synth,' a robotic abomination of technology that is free-thinking, and masquerades as a human being."

A look of distaste passed over the Elder's face. The agents shared a look. "The notion that a machine could be granted free will is not only offensive, but horribly dangerous. And like the atom, if it isn't harnessed properly, it has the potential of rendering us extinct as a species. I am not prepared to allow the Institute to continue this line of experimentation. Therefore, the Institute and their 'synths' are considered enemies of the Brotherhood of Steel, and should be dealt with swiftly, and mercilessly. This campaign will be costly. Many lives will be lost. But in the end, we will be saving humankind from its worst enemy. Itself."

As Morgan recalled, it wasn't the common man that chose to go to war and end up destroying the world. It was reckless scientific ambition and a global thirst for power that destroyed the earth, leaving humanity to fight over what was left. Perhaps if world leaders had been less obsessed with flattering their ego and lining their pockets, the world now would be very different.

"Ad Victoriam," the Elder finished.

“Ad Victoriam,” the crowd droned, then dispersed, Maxson lingering on the bridge and staring at the sunny ocean beyond the airport. When the room cleared, Morgan approached, about to introduce herself when the Elder spoke first. "I care about them, you know," he murmured. "The people of the Commonwealth."

I'm sure you think you do, Morgan thought. She remembered the people cowering in Bunker Hill as vertibirds deposited soldiers outside the city, of Donny trembling as they invaded HQ, of the many residents of Goodneighbor who cursed the Brotherhood's name. She could recall countless Brotherhood soldiers who had extorted family farms, killed sentient ghouls, or threatened suspected synths. The only people she knew who supported the Brotherhood were the ones rich or safe enough to remain unaffected by their conquest.

"I know you must, sir," Morgan said.

Maxson stood upright from the railing, turning to face them. A scar ran over one cheek and brow, narrowly avoiding his eye. Both of his dark, brown-black eyes bore heavy shadows beneath them. His coat was pristine, his fingernails cut short, a full beard sprouting from his cheeks. His eyes looked almost like to Kellogg’s, but without the lifelessness behind them. He looked like the kind of man who believed all the dogma he recited, word for word. "You're Paladin Danse's sponsored recruits," he said, both a statement and a question.

"Yessir."

"According to his reports, your opinion of us - of our mission - has not always been the most positive," Maxson said, raising an eyebrow.

Morgan let her gaze drift to the floor, projecting uncertainty, vulnerability, a desire for approval. "As a mercenary," she began, making sure her voice cracked, "I lived from day to day. I just wanted to make enough caps to eat the next week. I let myself be convinced that the Brotherhood was just here to make life difficult for the 'little people,' and that all my low-life friends were the ones who were in the right. I'm... tired of living that way, sir. I wanted something greater in my life. I mean that, truly. And my companion shares my passion, even if he can’t speak. He lost a dear friend to the Institute not long ago. He wants a chance to make things right."

Maxson nodded, pleased with her well-researched speech. "Danse is one my most well-respected field officers, and I personally hold him in a high regard. Though I admit I had my doubts, I must say that I'm glad he - and you - proved me wrong. In light of your ambition and reported skill, I'm granting you the rank of Knight. There will be an adjustment period, but I'm confident that you'll both do well here. Now, once you're finished becoming familiar with the Prydwen and its operations, report to the Flight Deck for your new orders.

"Welcome aboard the Prydwen, soldier," he beamed. "Make us proud."

 

They found Danse in the mess hall after Maxson dismissed them. The paladin rose from his seat, looking pleased. "I take it you've been accepted?"

"We did," Morgan affirmed, forcing a faux-earnest smile. "I believe Elder Maxson approved of our enthusiasm."

"I'm glad to hear it. Have you found your way around yet?"

"Not yet. We're just going around, taking a look at things." Keeping track of security. Counting your weapons. Taking notes of weaknesses. Already Morgan and Deacon had passed a handful of young boys curled up in a corner of the ship, doodling chalk pictures on the metal floors and walls. How many more child soldiers does this place have? "Do you know where our quarters are? We were hoping to get changed and take a look at our uniforms."

"Male and female wings are that way." Danse gestured to the signs beside each hallway.

Morgan and Deacon shared a look. "Ah, Danse," Morgan began, "I... hate to ask this, but, I- I think it'd be best if Joe and I shared a room, at least in the beginning of our stay here."

Danse quirked an eyebrow. "If the two of you are... involved, I think you'll find that-"

"No! No. Not at all What I mean, is..." Morgan searched for an excuse, any excuse, something that would allow them to stick together until they could finish the mission. "He's gay," she finished, taking a breath. "And I- I don't know how the Brotherhood feels about that, but we're- he's very proud of it, and- I wouldn't want other... other men, to be uncomfortable, while he's- being in an all-male wing may not... work out, until he's... made the adjustment."

The paladin's cheeks darkened visibly and he jerked his gaze away. "I... I see," he said lamely. "I understand. That- I'm sure- I'm sure you're aware that such... behavior may not, ah, in fact, be, uh, appropriate, for a military environment. Of course there is, um, some engagement between soldiers, but ideally, we, ah-"

"I'm so glad you understand," Morgan gushed. "If we could just have some private quarters, for the first few weeks, that's all I ask. Joe’s my closest friend and I want him to feel at home here, but I don't want to make others uncomfortable."

"Well." Danse stared at the floor. "I will speak to someone about it. Feel free to take one of the empty rooms until it's settled. Excuse me."

He speedwalked back to the mess hall, leaving them alone in a hurry. Morgan didn't dare look at Deacon for fear she'd start laughing. She kept her back to him and jiggled the handles of a few doors until she found an empty room with two beds, steeling herself as Deacon shut the door.

As soon as the lock clicked, he burst into sputtering giggles. "Gay?" Morgan sat down on the bed and held one hand to her lips while Deacon ranted. "I'm a mute gay man. I can't believe I've never thought of that before. A mute, gay man, dressed like an extra in a Western B-movie.” He shook his head, running his hands over his face. “Morgan, do you even know what the Brotherhood thinks of gay people? There are some parts of the Brotherhood that outlaw homosexuality altogether. We're lucky Maxson just has a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. Though I guess we already did the telling part."

Morgan's attempts at stifling her laughter gave out, and she giggled behind her hand, cheeks tinted red and tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “I just- I figured macho men hadn’t changed in two centuries. Maybe gay men made them as uncomfortable now as they did Pre-War.” She put her face in her hands. “Oh, god, I could have ruined everything. It was the only thing- the only thing I could think of."

"Oh, well, I forgive you, obviously." Deacon let out one of his rare, genuine laughs, a deep belly laugh that ended in a drawn-out sigh. "And you said I shouldn't do the talking. I can't imagine a worse scenario." He reached to fiddle with his wig, forgetting it wasn't on his head.

"We could be dead," Morgan pointed out, smiling gently.

"Right. Forgot about that," Deacon said, fiddling with his leather jacket instead. "I mean, I'd rather be a gay, mute man than dead, but you gotta admit, this is not optimal."

Morgan batted his hands away as he started tugging at the left shoulder piece again. "We just have to last a few weeks," she assured him. "Long enough to figure out who's shitty and who's not, and get the kids out. Then we can get out of here."

"And I'm sure it'll be just that easy." Deacon grinned.

Morgan's eyes lingered on the curve of his smile, of the gleam of his sunglasses in the light, the way his face seemed to soften and grow younger when he smiled. It occurred to her that she still had her hand resting on his shoulder from where she'd adjusted his pauldron, the faint drum of his heartbeat thrumming through the leather and against the heel of her palm.

Deacon noted the easy way she approached him, touched him, so different from when they'd first met. The way her scars faded when she laughed, or the way his heart seemed to beat faster when he made her laugh. He noticed the way her hair waved around her face when she didn't brush it, how her eyes crinkled up in the corners as she giggled.

The moment lasted a second, maybe two. Then, like someone flipping a switch, Morgan’s smile dimmed and she stepped back, retracting her hand and taking a breath. Deacon took a smaller step back, lengthening the distance between them, refusing to linger on the odd sensation in the pit of his stomach. "Jokes aside," he said, smoothing over the moment with a spread of his hands, "What's the immediate plan?"

Morgan, grateful for the fast recovery, cleared her throat and crossed her arms. She looked at his ear instead of his sunglasses as she spoke. "We get into our uniforms and do the medical tests, then follow orders from there. Lots of recon and information gathering. Tom stashed some explosives just outside the airport, to blow the place when we’re ready."

"Sounds good, boss." Deacon made sure to put a little extra emphasis on the final word.

Morgan nodded, still avoiding his eyes. “Move out.”

Chapter Text

They found their uniforms in their footlockers, one-size-fits-all jumpsuits that conformed to their figures. Deacon ran off for his medical exam while Morgan followed the signs to the armory, and found a countertop surrounded by metal grating, a dark-eyed man behind them smiling at her under a head of salt-and-pepper hair. "Here for your new equipment? Don't worry - they may have locked me in this blasted cage, but I promise I don't bite."

"Cage?" Morgan frowned at the thick grating and locked doors. "Why all the security?"

"Well, we don’t want anyone getting any funny ideas. Squires like to nick small guns and take potshots at seagulls, and some hotshot rookies think they can handle a Gauss rifle without the proper training. Don’t want unnecessary injuries." He smiled again. "I'm Proctor Teagan, the quartermaster. I'm guessing you're the new Knight."

"Morgan." She looked over the armory shelves. "Do the squires often cause trouble?"

"Not if we can help it. They're not allowed to go anywhere near a combat mission until they're sixteen, but that doesn't stop them from thinking they can just 'prove their skills.' We try to keep them in line. They're plenty busy with their schooling and training. You need anything else?" he added, gesturing to Morgan’s unimpressed look as she examined the laser pistols.

"I was hoping for something a little... bigger," the woman admitted.

Teagan winked at her. "Mercs are used to ballistics, I know, but you'll get used to laser weapons after a while. Quieter, lighter, a little cleaner. Don't have to worry about cleaning a barrel so much, just replace the refraction crystals every so often." He handed her a few weapons. "Now, that stuff's free of charge, but anything else, I'll need you to show me some caps."

"It's not all free? I assumed the Brotherhood had an open inventory."

"To a degree." Teagan shrugged. "You get discounts if I'm in a good mood, but if you want free ammo and repairs, you'll have to go down to the grease pit and see Ingram. I do the business around here. Command doesn't want to confiscate the caps soldiers find around the wasteland, but they don't like soldiers walking around with heavy pockets, either. I keep things circulating."

"Oh." Morgan shook her head, hoisting the stack of weaponry. "Thank you, Proctor."

Teagan waved, and Morgan walked on, hitching her new guns to her belt and back. The Prydwen seemed to be divided into levels, with the “grease pit” being the lowest level, where engineers kept the place running. The middle level was the mess hall, quartermaster, and bedrooms. Above that was the science lab and officer rooms, and Maxson’s windowed bridge. And at the top were the support beams, where squires like to hide in the rafters and goof off.

In the science lab, a brown-skinned woman in a gray coat scribbled on a clipboard, muttering about control groups and anti-rad configurations. Lingering in a dark corner, Morgan overheard an officer giving an Initiate a stern talking-to. It seemed a rookie had taken pity on some ghouls not far from the airport, and taken to feeding them. The commanding officer seemed less than pleased with this, and was giving the Initiate a thorough, disapproving lecture.

Morgan found herself in the grease pit, having wandered down a stairwell and into the yellow-lit bowels of the ship. Scribes and mechanics milled about, trading tools and relaying orders to other workers. At the end of the hall, a red-haired head poked up at the top of a power armor frame, commanding the younger engineers and fiddling with a wide array of tools.

Morgan approached the armored woman. "Proctor Ingram?"

The woman rose from her crouched position to her full height, standing a head or so above Morgan. "That's me. What do you need?" Even without the power armor, she looked about six feet tall, thick limbs visible through the plates of her armor frame. From the knee down, she was limbless, with extra bits of metal connected to her knees to make up for her lack of calves and feet. She had dark eyes that looked tired, but not unfriendly. Her hair was unwashed and stained with grease, but overall she looked like a kind, if blunt sort of person.

Morgan introduced herself and extended a hand. "I'm a new recruit, familiarizing myself with the Prydwen's operations,” she said. “I was told you do a lot of the repair work around here."

Ingram wiped off her armored fingers and returned the handshake. “I do. I keep this ship together so it doesn't drop out of the damn air. If your power armor's too tight in the crotch, the Prydwen's about to fall out of the sky, or a robot's gone haywire, you come see me."

"That sounds like a lot to handle."

"You don't know the half of it," Ingram snorted. "There isn't a day that goes by on this tub without five or six things breaking down. And, since I'm stuck in this rig," she said, gesturing to her armor, "I'm not quite as spry as I used to be. The work keeps piling up."

Morgan nodded. "There anything I should know about the people here?"

Ingram's eyebrows raised. "You're asking me?"

Morgan replied with a genuine, sly smile. "I find that the people doing the grunt work hear more and talk plainer than the higher-ups."

The redhead mirrored Morgan's knowing expression. "Alright then." Ingram turned, and named each section as she spoke. "Teagan runs the depot. Sometimes he'll drive you up the wall talking in that dead language of his, but he’s a good guy. Neriah is the senior Scribe here, doing most of the science crap. She's nice enough, if a little fussy. Quinlan heads the research division - he's the one who goes through all the data and tells Maxson what's worth researching and what isn't. He's a bit of an airhead and loves his cat. Cade's the doc. He's a bit of a stickler for the rules." Ingram dropped her hand and addressed the other woman. "Happy?"

"Yes. Thank you, Proctor."

"Sure, sure." Ingram turned back to her workbench. "Just try not to be a pain in my ass."

Morgan hid a smile and left, venturing back into the main hub of the ship. She grabbed a drink in the mess hall, keeping her head down and eavesdropping on conversations, glancing over a few unattended terminals. She couldn’t help feeling a bit… surprised. She had expected soundless cafeterias with propaganda blaring over the speakers. Condescending smirks from the other soldiers. Children being yelled at and brainwashed into working for a ‘greater good.’

Instead she just found a bunch of bored-looking kids hunched over some desks as a Scribe gave a lecture on the importance of nuclear power in Pre-War domestic devices, how normalization of it impacted the Great War. Soldiers told raunchy or dramatic anecdotes, prompting bursts of laughter from crowded cafeteria tables. Men and women of all races fought alongside each other.

The arrogance was still there, of course. She heard a few people using slurs against ghouls and synths. Maxson still gave his speeches on the bridge. “Ad Victoriam” was still the accepted greeting and goodbye between soldiers. But this place had more humanity in it than she remembered from her time in the military. A part of her wondered, had she not found the Railroad, if she would have ended up here.

The thought was unsettling.

She bumped into Deacon in one of the hallways between wings, physically knocking together as they rounded a corner. He looked agitated, darting his head all around and clasping her by the shoulders. He opened his mouth, but changed his mind, jerking a finger to his lips and tugging her across the ship to their quarters. When the door closed, he exhaled. "I don't know how I'm going to do this if this room is the only place I can talk. He asked me if I'd slept with a ghoul, Morgan. But that's not important." The words tumbled from his mouth at a rapid, breathless pace.

"Is everything alright?" Morgan questioned, brow furrowed in worry.

"Yes. Sort of. I know who Danse is."

"I beg your pardon?"

Deacon flailed his hands and paced around the room. "I didn't remember him when we were getting the Transmitter, or even up 'til now. He looks so much different. I remember his file. He showed up with another synth, a boyfriend who’d escaped the Institute with him. They got a mindwipe as a pair, choosing a life story where they grew up in the Capital Wasteland together. DC," he added, at her look of confusion.

"Wait," Morgan interrupted. "Danse is a synth? But... he's in the Brotherhood."

"He doesn't know he's a synth," Deacon corrected. "But he is. M7-97. When I knew him, he didn't have the scar and the scruff and all that, but that's him. Swear on my life."

"Okay." Morgan considered this. "So... what do we do with this information?"

"I don't know," the other agent admitted, letting his hands fall to his sides. "But if he's a synth, I don't know if we should leave him to die here."

"We can't go picking favorites because of race," Morgan pointed out.

"Well, can't we? That's what we're here for, isn't it? To pick who lives and who dies?"

She hesitated. "I suppose we are, aren't we," she murmured. She nibbled her lower lip, then spoke cautiously. “We don’t… have to be.”

Deacon arched a brow. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, we don’t have to do this the way Des wants it. I said we’d do this my way, and if we don’t like her plan, I say we try a different one.” She chewed her lip again, sitting down with a pensive expression. "We're supposed to be the heroes. We're supposed to set an example. Blowing up an airship in retaliation was never the most intelligent move to begin with."

Deacon sighed, lacing his hands behind his head. "Blowing this up would mean losing all the information inside, too. That seems a little criminal."

"Evacuating the Prydwen and then blowing it up would accomplish nothing. Maxson would still be alive, the soldiers would still be alive. We'd wound them, but what kind of message does that send? We could kill you, but didn't?" Morgan paused. "Well, that could work."

Deacon shook his head. "The Brotherhood would probably suspect the Railroad, anyway. Or, even if we took out the Prydwen, any plan they had to eliminate us might still be in effect. They've still got the airport, unless you want to blow that all up too."

"That might require more explosives, and I don't want to stay here that long." Morgan hummed. "We could kill Maxson," she said thoughtfully.

"And then what? It's the Brotherhood. Cut off one head, two more grow back. They'll find some new leader, they'll carry on. Maxson will become an post-humous martyr. Any straightforward attack that doesn't cripple them will make them want to strike back even harder."

Morgan pressed her lips together in a scowl. "Damn them."

They fell silent, listening to the distant hum of the Prydwen’s engines, and the low rumble of human conversation through its thick metal walls.  "We could talk to him," Deacon suggested.

"Who?"

"Maxson."

Morgan snorted. "Like he'd listen."

"He might." Deacon rubbed his chin. "He might, if we could propose a peace treaty for the sake of destroying the Institute."

"You think that'd work?"

"Maybe. The Brotherhood loves honor. Maybe if we admit the truth, and ask for his cooperation, he'd give us a chance."

She snorted again. "What, say sorry and we won't get punished?" She shook her head. "I never thought I'd hear you advocating to tell the truth."

"Morgan." Deacon sat down on the bed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and wringing his hands. "Do we have a better option?"

Her dry mirth melted away, leaving her solemn. "No."

"Is there a chance we're going to die, anyway, no matter what we do?"

Grudgingly: "Yes."

"I say we at least try. Tell him we have a chance at destroying the Institute. Tell him killing us will ruin that chance. Make a deal with him. Besides, we don't have the resources to defeat the Institute any more. Not after the Brotherhood’s attack."

"We have the Minutemen for that," Morgan countered. "Or, we will."

"Why not both?" Deacon spread his hands. "Sure, a ragtag bunch of farmers turned soldiers might be useful, but people with laser guns and power armor might be a little better."

Morgan sighed. "Is this really what we have to do?" she whispered at last.

"It's the only thing we can do."

 

It wasn’t long before they got their first mission: to clear out a Super Mutant nest on a nearby peninsula. Traveling by vertibird, they arrived quickly, dark orange combat armor fitted over them and laser rifles in hand. Ingram had offered them power armor before they left, and seemed surprised when they refused. Both agents knew that turning down power armor was unusual, perhaps even a faux pas, but time was of the essence.

By the time they returned to the Prydwen, the sun approached the horizon, scattering red-gold rays of light across the rippling surface of the ocean. The airship’s lights had dimmed, signaling for the soldiers to return to their bunks and ready for lights out. But instead, they went to the bridge, where Maxson watched the sea and the setting sun cast him in an phantasmic light, an orange halo around his head. "Welcome, Knights." he said. "I trust you returned safely."

Morgan took a breath, beginning the scene as she and Deacon had rehearsed it. "Yes, sir," she said, letting her brow furrow. "There was something we wished to speak to you about."

Maxson raised his chin, frowning. "From Fort Strong?"

"Yessir. Regarding the Super Mutants." Behind her, Deacon shuffled strategically off to the side. Leading into the Command Deck was an open archway, but where Deacon stood, no one in the hallway could see him. All they would see were Morgan and Maxson talking at the bow. "We came upon some rather concerning intel, sir."

The Elder nodded, stroking his beard. "Have you reported this to Kells?"

"Yessir. He said to bring it to you at once."

"I see."

Morgan stepped forward, slow and reluctant. "Sir, may I… ?"

Maxson pressed his lips together, but acquiesced, stepping aside to let her join him at the railing. She felt herself sweat under Maxson's dark, intense eyes, and heard the subtle click of Deacon readying his rifle. In one swift motion, she pulled The Deliverer from her pocket, pointing the slim barrel at Maxson's chest. "Don't move," she murmured, and her innocence was gone.

Maxson's eyes flashed with sudden anger, beard seeming to swell in volume as his nostrils flared and he inhaled sharply, but he stayed still. His eyes flickered to Deacon, hiding in the corner with his rifle at their backs. For a few seconds, it felt like all the air had been sucked from the room. Morgan made sure no one could see her pistol from the hallway. It still looked like she and Maxson were having a normal, if tense, conversation.

"Traitors," Arthur Maxson murmured at last, dark eyes boring into Morgan's pale blue-gray ones. "You played the part well, for common mercs. Whatever they're paying you, it likely isn't enough." He stepped closer to Morgan's gun, letting the barrel press into his jacket. "Kill me, and you won't leave this airship alive."

"I'm not here to kill you." Though she met his gaze, she trembled, and shivers crept up her back. Her palm began to sweat around her weapon’s grip. "If I was, you'd already be dead."

"Money, then." Maxson didn't bat an eye. "Power. Blackmail. Revenge."

"Peace."

He blinked, then a cold, arrogant bark of a laugh cut from his lips. "You have nerve. Coming aboard my ship, lying to me, threatening me, and then asking for peace. Who sent you?"

"The Railroad, originally."

That got his attention. "And, now?"

"Just me." Morgan swallowed. "They asked me to come here and destroy the Prydwen, to kill Paladin Danse and steal a vertibird to get aboard, then to arm explosives in weak corners of the ship and set them off once my friend and I had escaped. I changed my mind."

"Guilt?" Maxson questioned, arching a brow. "I find it hard to believe that two days in my ranks would turn a terrorist into a soldier."

"I was a soldier, once, a long time ago. And I think there's a part of me that always will be, whether I like it or not. I know the horrors of war, so I convinced my leader that it was worth holding off on the attack to make sure that we saved the children. The squires." She held his eyes, feeling stronger. "Because that’s what’s important. You might be prepared to start a war, but the rest of us? The 'little people' you claim to care about? They will bear the burden of your choices."

"And what of your synths?" Maxson interrupted, lifting a finger. "They're aggressive, illogical, and violent. The civilians you claim to be protecting are at least as threatened by them as they are us. Synths are a menace to the Commonwealth, and an abomination against humanity. The Institute will replace us all with them if they have their way. When the time comes, the Institute will activate them, turn them into the living objects of destruction they are, and then we will be in a war whether you like it or not. I am trying to circumvent an inevitability."

"What if I told you there was a third option?"

Maxson narrowed his eyes. "I would say I have no reason to believe you."

“It’s true. You don’t.” Morgan glanced out the window, watching the sea ripple before returning her gaze to the Elder. "After your people destroyed our headquarters, tensions were high. People wanted revenge. I can’t blame them, but I wanted to avoid innocent bloodshed, so I lied to you to find the innocents here and evacuate them in time." She shook her head. "But playing god is for villains, for fascists, for terrorists. For the Institute. That's not what I wanted to do."

"Do you want forgiveness?" Maxson spread his hands, beard bristling as he drew himself up to his full height. "You want me to tell you that a sudden change of heart, a sudden feeling of guilt negates your deceptions and murderous intentions?"

"No. I wouldn't expect it from you, not after our history. I'm sure you'd happily see me dead, and I you. The term 'casualties of war' exists for a reason. But, for all our differences, we share a common goal. We want to destroy the Institute. My organization knows how. Your organization could make it happen. I offer you an alliance."

"And I'm just supposed to believe this?" The man crossed his arms. "That your hole-in-the-wall cluster of radicals discovered how to get into the Institute, then decided to kill me and my army, but you lost your nerve halfway through and now you're begging for mercy?"

"No. They didn't discover how to get into the Institute. I did." Morgan pressed her shoulders back. "I didn't join the Railroad to save synths. Not originally. I joined because I thought they'd help me find my son, stolen by the Institute. The Railroad kept me going as I walked to the ends of the earth to find my son. And I mean that literally. I walked into the heart of the Glowing Sea to track him down. There, I learned how to build the Molecular Relay - the teleporter needed to get into the Institute.

"We're not friends. We never will be. But I can’t just waltz in, decide you're the bad guys and put you all to death. We're all trying to play the hero, but in the end, either the Institute will fall, or all of us, both of us, will die. The Institute is everything wrong with the world. It is oppression, it is fear-mongering, it is the greed and endless hunger for power that makes our race cannibalize itself. It is the selfishness and lack of humanity that makes us oblivious to human suffering, until one day we wake up and wonder why we are unloved and alone.

"You’re no hero, Arthur Maxson. Neither am I. I just want to put down my weapons and go home. Call me a radical, call me a terrorist, say I'm a wishy-washy coward that snuck aboard your ship rather than facing you in honorable combat. Fine. But I'm giving you an opportunity to change the world. I truly believe that you think you're an honorable man, Maxson. Prove it. Show me you care more about the greater good than you do power or pride. I showed you I could have destroyed you, but I did not. Extend me the same courtesy. Put down your arms until the greatest threat is gone, and then we can talk about our respective ideals."

She exhaled. Her cheeks were wet, her vision blurry, her throat dry and her breathing uneven. At some point she must have started to cry. She held out a hand. "Please."

The young general-king stared at her for a few moments as the room settled into a heavy silence. Then, at last, his calloused palm shook hers. "Tell me about this Molecular Relay," he murmured, "and we may have a deal. If what you say is true, then perhaps it can save us all."

 

Maxson stood on a balcony near the top of the Prydwen, looking down at the black cloud of human bodies crowded in the Boston airport. Morgan and Deacon stood behind him, just out of sight. The Elder took a breath, finger hovering above a single red button. Once pressed, his voice would broadcast from every Brotherhood speaker across the Commonwealth, his words emanating from the Prydwen all the way to the most far-off camp radio.

Morgan and Deacon got to see a rare moment of vulnerability, when his intimidating veneer faded away, showing the painfully young man hidden under the thorny crown of leadership. Consternation showed in the furrow of his brow. He pressed his eyes shut, steeling himself. When he exhaled, all the tension drained from his back and shoulders. Elder Maxson, the last of a very long line of very proud men, began to speak.

"Soldiers," he began. "Paladins. Knights. Initiates. Officers. I have... an announcement to make." He paused for effect. "In light of recent developments, our initiative has changed. I am sure you all are aware of the Railroad and Minutemen. The former being radical extremists who rescue the abominations we call synths, and the latter being a collective of civilians, suited for domestic matters, but not, perhaps, for military ones.

"Up until this very moment, I truly believed that we stood our best chance against the Institute with a direct, individual attack. I thought aligning with these smaller, lesser groups would deter us from our mission, and dilute the purity and efficiency we pride ourselves on. I am a proud man. I am proud of you. I am proud of what we have accomplished. But the mark of a good leader is one who is open to new ideas, even if they conflict with his most deeply-held beliefs, if those ideas can better serve the people he leads.

"The Institute grows stronger every day. More formidable. We know that they are readying themselves for an attack, the likes of which we have not seen since the destruction of the Old World. We may, as we are, stand a chance against them. But we stand a better chance if we work together. With the Minutemen's resources, we can better supply our troops. With the Railroad's contacts and intelligence, we can learn more about the Institute. And with our combined military might, we can better defend and empower the Commonwealth as a whole.

"I am not saying that either organization is perfect. Or, indeed, that their beliefs align with our own. But in times of crisis, when a great and terrible force threatens us all, we must put aside our differences and unite. As such, I and a few of my most trusted officers will be traveling to the Castle to meet with the leader of the Minutemen and the Railroad's representatives. Together we will come up with a plan to defeat the Institute. Be strong, my friends. The greatest fight of all is yet to come." Maxson clapped his right hand over his heart. "Ad Victoriam."

"Ad Victoriam," the ground soldiers shouted, in the terrifying roar of hundreds. Maxson turned away and re-entered the Prydwen. As soon as the door closed, Maxson summoned a bottle of liquor from his desk, pouring the amber liquid into a crystal glass and taking a sip, falling into his chair with a shadowed look on his face.

"Thank you, Maxson," Morgan said, softly.

The Elder’s hand shook as he sipped from his glass. "I like to think myself a good judge of character, Morgan," he said, setting down the glass. "Your introduction was... unorthodox, but your motivations genuine. I'm almost sorry it took this long for us to meet."

"I'm sorry it took this long for an agreement to be reached," Morgan replied. "I imagine one of us had to make it to the Institute before we realized just how bad things were."

Maxson nodded, looking pensive. "Is it truly that bad?" he asked, meeting her eyes with a whisper. "Are they that powerful? That cruel?"

Morgan thought of everything she'd learned, heard, and read. Of the terminal entries about the secret labs where they infected wasteland children with the FEV virus. Of human beings who'd been kidnapped by the Institute and replaced with synths, so that their spouses and children were left wondering what happened to their loved one. Of the synths who cowered in fear under the threat of being recalled or otherwise abused. She thought of Deacon, spending twenty years trying to atone for his wife's death. Of H2 and A5, so terrified of everything. Of Danse, who didn't even know what he was. Of Nate's face when he died. Of her baby. She thought of Sean, standing on that CIT rooftop and telling her that the world wasn’t worth saving.

“They are more terrible than you can possibly imagine.”

Chapter Text

When Maxson said he was bringing a security detail, Morgan didn't expect a whole damn Secret Service. Only after persistent badgering did he agree to leave some soldiers behind, with Morgan informing him that so much firepower would be viewed as an act of aggression. "We're here for peace," she said. "Not a dick-measuring contest."

Now they were here, with Brotherhood and Minutemen soldiers pacing alongside each other along the battlements, keeping watch for synths as the two biggest leaders in the Commonwealth shook hands. Des was still on her way.

"General Garvey," the Elder greeted, sticking out a hand. "It's good to finally meet you."

"Good to meet you too," Preston said, clearly less confident but making up for it in earnestness. He returned the handshake. Both men stood like military figures - feet spread shoulder width, shoulders back, heads held high and their hands resting on their weapons. "Gotta admit, I was surprised to hear what all you said on the radio."

"Your friend, Ms. Morgan, enlightened me on the situation." He pressed his lips together. "I presume you're aware of the Railroad's information on the Institute."

"I don't know all of it, but I saw it in action." Preston toyed with his hat, running his fingers along the brim. "Some kinda teleporter. Real fancy tech. I would have called it Brotherhood if it didn't look so patchwork. Between me and Morgan's Railroad people, we got that put together, and then Morgan disappeared. This summit is the first time I've seen her since." His eyes moved over Maxson's shoulder to the woman behind it. "You’ve been busy, huh."

Morgan shrugged.

Preston nodded, and spread a hand behind him, towards the open field of the Castle. "Brotherhood and the Minutemen might not agree on everything, but I'm not about to turn down an alliance. So long as you come in peace, you're welcome here. We've got a medical center, an armory, barracks, power armor, a bar. I know it’s not as fancy as you’re used to, but I hope you'll be comfortable." He gestured. "General’s quarters is that way. We’ll have our discussions in there. You're welcome to wait there or inspect the place 'til Morgan's people show up."

Maxson nodded. A half-dozen armored soldiers marched in at his heels, two accompanying him to the General's quarters and the rest going to pace around the fort. When Maxson rounded a corner, Preston exhaled, and gave Morgan a probing look. "You have any explanation for this?"

Morgan shrugged again. "He attacked the Railroad."

"So you partnered with him?"

"Not quite. That's what these negotiations are for. After the attack, the Railroad wanted me to kill the Brotherhood, but that didn't work out so well. I figured banding together would solve our common problem. Only, I don't think Des was expecting this." She tilted her head aside. "How is leadership treating you?"

Preston chuckled, rubbing the back of his head. "It's, uh. I gotta say, today might be the hardest day yet. And I've been putting the Commonwealth back together for over a year."

"Yeah." Morgan hesitated, glancing down at the ground. "It suits you, Preston."

"You think so?"

"I do." She nodded. "Look, I'm - I'm sorry for how things have been, this past year. I'm sorry for not helping you as much as I could."

Preston shook his head. "And I'm sorry I tried to pressure you into handling our problems. You were dealing with a lot, and so was I. I wanted someone who would take command and make me feel less... at fault. You were trying to cope with the loss of your family. And, well." He glanced up at the sky. "Everything else, I guess."

"I did my best. So did you. You've accomplished a lot, Preston. You ought to be proud of it. I know you didn't think you were that great a soldier when all this started, but you've done these people proud. You've given people food and shelter, rebuilt the Minutemen from nothing. Without you representing the people, I might have nowhere for the Railroad and the Brotherhood to meet. 'Cause that's what this is all about, isn't it? Stopping the Institute from hurting people?"

"I hope so." Preston smiled. "I'll go make small talk with the, uh, Elder. You keep a lookout for your people. I'm sure we'll have lots of time to talk after all this is over."

"Sounds good."

And they parted. Morgan chose to wander outside outside the Castle, feeling the guards eyes on her as she walked down the path to a rusted car at the side of the road. The Castle sat on the edge of the coast, a good walk from the edge of the city, with a sprawling dry-grass field in between. Cold December winds sent chills down her back, making her shiver within her armor. With all the high-octane events happening recently, she hadn't noticed the weather change. She remembered it being cold at the Bunker Hill, but she’d had other things on her mind at the time. A thin layer of white frost covered the ground, clumps of ice crunching under her boots. Deacon said it'd snowed a few times already, but then a radstorm came in and melted everything again.

She heard Deacon walk out of the Castle and follow her to the car, hopping up and sitting on the hood beside her. "Hey there, stranger." He'd tossed the mercenary disguise, going back to his normal jeans and wig. He wore several thick sweaters, heavy mittens over his hands, and military boots he'd probably swiped from the Brotherhood.

"Hey." Morgan gave him a faint smile. "Sorry we haven’t had much time to talk lately."

"No, it's great." Deacon leaned back, wincing as the icy metal of the car seeped cold into his jeans. "Believe me. I live to fade into the background and watch things play out. When all this is over? I'll write a history book. It'll be in libraries, taught in schools. I'll be a legend."

"Writing history textbooks generally implies telling the unaltered truth, Deacon. Are you sure you're capable of that?"

Deacon grinned. "Well, I mean... does it all have to be unaltered? You sure I can't just sneak in a sidebar about Maxson having a tiny-"

"I don't think that's allowed, no."

"Well, who's gonna stop me?" he asked, throwing his hands up.

"Me, for the sake of historical accuracy."

"Damn." He rested his hands on his stomach, laying his head on the frame of the busted windshield and staring up at the sky. The wind howled through the trees around them. "I'm glad you went with the peaceful option," he said, after a moment. "It's good. I think we might stand a chance of getting this right."

"If Des or Maxson don’t say anything stupid and cause a war," Morgan added.

"Well, that's why we're here. With our pretty faces and bedazzling charms, we'll stop any conflict before it starts." He exhaled, watching his breath spiral up in a white plume. "I can't believe it's almost over," he murmured.

"The fight against the Institute?"

Deacon nodded. "I mean, I've... I've been doing this for twenty years. I knew people - before they died - who'd been doing it for longer than that. We almost had a chance against the Institute at the Switchboard, but once it went down? I really thought we were on a clock, that at any moment our time would be up. I guess if we hadn’t found you, the Brotherhood would have been what wiped us out. Now... Now we're so close. You've been to the Institute and back. We're negotiating an alliance between the three biggest factions. We've got a revolution at the ready. We could be just a few weeks - days - from ending it all. I don't know what I'm going to do after that."

His words hung in the air a few moments, a cold wind blowing against their cheeks. “Look after Donny?” Morgan offered, broaching the icy silence. "He'll need someone to take care of him. With the Institute gone, we don't know what will become of the Railroad, or anyone else. We've gotta look after him." The light in her eyes dimmed. "Especially if one of us doesn't come back."

Deacon opened his mouth to contradict her, but no argument came, and he exhaled another cloud of white mist as his face fell. "If one of us doesn't come back," he repeated.

"Not everyone will," Morgan pointed out, softly. "There's no chance we'll get through this without casualties. It could be you, it could be me. Could neither of us, if we're lucky, but they might target me because I'm a traitor. They might target you if they think you're close to me. Either way, if one of us dies, it falls to the other to look after Donny."

Deacon faltered, mouth screwed up like he had something on the tip of his tongue. He swallowed, shoulders curling in, some kind of earnest emotion written in his brow. "Morgan, I-"

Something shifted in Morgan’s peripheral vision, and she raised a hand. “Hush.” Her eyes traced the distant buildings before she saw it again. Two figures. One, in an oversized woolen coat, shuffling around the debris towards the Castle. The other, much smaller and faster, bouncing in circles around the first figure. Soon, a head of stringy red hair was barreling towards them.

“You made it!” Donny hit Morgan full force, making her stumble as he threw his arms around her. Morgan stopped, shocked, then smiled wide and returned the hug, running her hands over the boy’s head and squeezing him tight.

“We told you,” she murmured. Donny gave her a bright smile and switched to Deacon, who scooped him up with a big grin.

“Hey there, kiddo,” Deacon chirped, Donny’s arms around his neck. “Did you behave while we were gone?”

“Nope!” Donny replied, with a pop of his lips on the P sound.

“That’s my guy.” For a moment, they were all smiles, laughing and communing and trading embraces. But Desdemona’s footsteps stopped with a final, icy crunch, and the joy faded. She looked haggard, deep shadows under her eyes, normally smooth hair unbrushed. She held her lips in a tight, grim line, and didn’t speak. Just stared.

“Des,” Morgan greeted.

"Morgan." The alpha's eyes glimmered with intensity, borderline malice visible in her gaze.

Morgan took a breath. "It's the only way, Des. We can't do this alone, and I couldn't kill everyone. This is what it's going to take."

Des glared, then exhaled, pulling her scarf up over her nose. "I suppose it's too late, now."

"It has to be done."

"You betrayed us," the dark-eyed woman stated. "You betrayed us all."

"You don't own me, Desdemona." Morgan stepped forward. "I'm sorry I didn't discuss this with you before. Really, I am. But things have changed, and I'd rather we sacrifice our pride than more lives. You can turn around if you want, go right back to Mercer, never speak to me again. But I'm going to get this done, whatever it takes. You may have started me down this path, but it's my world. My choices. If you leave, I will give the Minutemen and the Brotherhood the plans to build the Molecular Relay, and we will end this war with or without you. Your choice."

A cold wind blew through the yard.

"For Glory," Des stated. "She wanted them free. I have to do it. For her."

Morgan nodded. "They're waiting for you."

The four of them marched back up the cold road and into the Castle. In the General’s quarters blazed a well-tended fire, warming the chill stone walls from a hearth at the back of the room. Both Minuteman and Brotherhood soldiers guarded the door, and inside the room, Garvey and Maxson shared small glasses of whiskey. Both men stood at their arrival. "You're the Railroad, then," Maxson said, expressionless.

"Their representative," Des said coldly.

“Is it a good idea to have him here?” Preston asked, gesturing to Donny. “I mean, not to be rude, but I don’t know if this is really a meeting for kids.”

Morgan and Deacon shared a look, then looked at Donny, who gave a pitiful pout. “You guys have been gone for two whole weeks, and then tell me I can’t stay for the important stuff?”

“It’s gonna be boring,” Deacon warned.

“I’ll just sit by the fire and not listen.” He held one hand to his chest. “Promise.”

“Uh-huh.”

Morgan shrugged. “He’s seen enough already. I don’t see why I should baby him now.”

“Well, it’s your decision.” Preston gestured to the table. "Let’s sit down and talk.”

When all were seated, Preston offered the newcomers alcohol. They politely refused. A brief, awkward silence descended. "I realize this is unorthodox," Morgan said. Everyone stared at her. "But we're all here, aren't we? We all want to destroy the Institute, no matter what it takes. I think everyone’s aware of the situation regarding the Molecular Relay and so on. All that’s left is to discuss how we want to attack, when and where, and what happens after.”

A beat passed as Morgan stopped speaking, the other listeners waiting for their turn. Maxson piped up first. "I'll say what we're all thinking. Our biggest hurdle is our view on synths. If we want a chance at unity, we have to make a decision."

"The synths should be set free," Desdemona stated. "After the Institute is destroyed, and no more synths are being created, then we can talk about what to do about them."

"I disagree," Maxson rumbled. "I will not see these abominations roaming free, for your people to 'rehome' as if they're unwanted animals. We make a decision now. Sentient or not, they are weapons. Leaving them alive would be leaving alive the enemy. For all we know, destroying the Institute could trigger a failsafe inside them, and start the war we're trying to avoid."

"Then what would you want to do?" Des said, glaring. "Leave them inside the Institute? It's with their help that this revolution is happening at all."

"Why make it a revolution?" Maxson shot back. "If Morgan can get my people inside, then let her. We'll fight without the help of the synths. If they are as weak as she says, then we don't need them to finish this."

"Betrayal, Maxson?" Morgan spoke up. "We promised the synths liberty. It was a fair bargain. Going against their wishes and abandoning them would be unethical."

"You can't promise anything to a machine. You can command a robot, you can wield technology, you can create artificial intelligence, but it does not have sentience ."

"They are sentient," Des insisted. "Sentience is a mix of free will and subjective emotions. If they don't have either, why would so many of them want to escape in the first place? Why would they seek freedom from their supposed masters?"

Morgan shook her head. "I don’t think we can prove through debate if they’re sentient or not," she interjected. "The only real way to decide that is with tests. Research. The Brotherhood is about collecting and preserving technology, right? Destroying the synths would be destroying one of the most critical pieces of technology ever designed, second only to the atomic bomb. Let us remove the synths from the Institute. Then we can put them to trial."

Maxson exhaled, pressing his lips together. "Fine. But I don't want them rehomed. I want them exactly as they are, for testing, for research, for examination. I will let them... live, but only if we agree to treat them as artifacts than as living, sentient creatures."

Des scowled, but Morgan nodded. "I think that's the best we can do for now."

"What about the people inside?" Preston questioned meekly. "There can't just be synths."

Morgan took a breath. "No. There's not. Altogether, I'd guess that there's a hundred humans inside. I don’t know for sure. There are some children, though not many. Some are very old. I know that some of them are sympathetic to synths, though they don't quite see them as human. I think many of them just have no idea what the Commonwealth is really like. Even the... Director, the leader himself, hasn’t left the Institute in sixty years."

"So... are we going to kill them?" Preston looked around the table, seeking an answer.

"Yes. They created and enslaved a race of sentient beings. I refuse to show mercy." Desdemona crossed her arms, glowering at the others.

"For once, I agree." Maxson pressed his hands to the table. "They replace human beings with artificial versions of themselves. They kill civilians, they steal technology and resources, and they are seeking to exterminate the human race. I say we show them no quarter."

"But that's slaughter," Preston said, spreading his hands in frustration. "That's execution. We can't just walk in and kill them. Even if they are evil, we have to be just."

"Then what do you suggest?" Des asked. "They've tried to kill my people many times over, and threatened the Commonwealth for over sixty years. We can't just let them go."

"Or, we could," Deacon pointed out. All eyes turned to him, and he quickly raised his hands in surrender. "Geez, don't kill the messenger. All I'm saying is that maybe a life in the Commonwealth wouldn't be so bad. These guys are supposed to be geniuses, right? Killing them would be a waste. Not to mention unjust, like the good General said. If they had to live among us, they’d have to learn how to play with others. If nothing else, we could put them on trial or something, like the synths, and give them an option to switch sides after they lost."

The table fell silent as they considered. "It's not a bad idea," Maxson allowed. "I know for a fact that there is at least one scientist in the Institute who defected from the Brotherhood. It would be good to get them back, along with anyone else we could convert to our cause."

"Forcing them to live as equals with the synths might open their eyes," Des admitted. "Besides, letting them walk free would leave them exposed to mob justice. Perhaps their deaths would be longer and crueler than execution." She gave Deacon a thoughtful nod. "I suppose you do, occasionally, have good ideas."

"That's... not, exactly, the point I was making, but I'll take it."

“Hey Deacon? What’s mob justice?” Donny, sitting beside Deacon, picked his nose and smeared it on his pant leg.

“Uh, later, kiddo. Later.”

Morgan bit back a wry smile. "Now, about the Institute’s technology,” she began. “It's important to destroy the Institute itself. After all that's happened, we can't evacuate everyone inside it and then just leave it there. But destroying all the data and technology within would be a waste."

"The Brotherhood would be more than happy to take control of it," Maxson piped up. Then, a little grudgingly, he added: "Though I realize that may not be a popular idea."

"Well, ah... What kind of technology does the Institute have? Specifically?" Preston asked.

"Everything, I suppose," Morgan said. "They've got the agricultural technology to plant and cultivate all the food they could ever need, and underground at that. They have power - the electrical kind - that surpasses even the Boston Airport. They have their own kind of laser weapons, medical technology that seems like miracles. And that's just what I encountered. I'm sure if you went into their logs and looked through all the experiments and research conducted, from two hundred years ago up until now, the knowledge would be worth its weight in gold."

Morgan swore Maxson was salivating. "That's exactly the kind of thing the Brotherhood exists to preserve," the Elder said, leaning farther over the table. "That could be revolutionary. We could protect the technology, keep it from falling into the wrong hands, keep it from people who would use it for villainous purposes."

"What about the people who'd use it like heroes?" Preston asked. "All that could vastly improve the quality of life for people in the Commonwealth. Medicine, food, weapons - it could keep us healthy and safe. We might even stand a chance at really making a difference, at rebuilding the world and making it green again. Maybe we could protect ourselves against radiation. Maybe we could save lives. I don't see how locking it all up helps anyone."

"Technology - and, by proxy, power - is corrupting by nature," Maxson countered. "The Brotherhood uses its knowledge only to defend itself. Without our military strength, everything we've collected would be at risk of being stolen and misused by malicious forces. Handing out free food, medicine, and defense to unvetted settlements would be asking for trouble. People would become greedy and ambitious. It would set us on the same path as our forefathers, destroying the world in their pursuit of resources. The knowledge must be preserved."

"But using the Institute's technology would make our life more sustainable," Preston insisted, frustrated. "If we could use their agricultural technology, their medical knowledge, we could bring people out of the gutter just enough to help them start sustaining themselves, without help. I'm not saying we take all of their technology and make ourselves the new Institute. But if we could use some of it to help people survive, then we could really start to rebuild."

"I say we split it," Morgan announced. "The Brotherhood gets the military technology. The Minutemen get the benign technology, like medicine and agriculture. We can duke out the fine print after everything's looted and taken care of. I'm sure there'll be an adjustment period. But we agree, then? We take and preserve the technology, and destroy the Institute itself?"

The three faction leaders observed one another for a few moments. Then: "Yes."

"Then it's settled. We evacuate the synths and the scientists from the Institute. The synths are tested to make sure they're not violent or otherwise dangerous, the scientists are put on trial and forced to live in the wasteland, and the technology we scavenge before destroying the Institute for good is divided equally. Is this fair? Can we hold to this agreement?"

Again, the trio cast wary glances at each other. But the answer was unchanged.

"Good." Morgan took a breath. "Then it's time to plan for battle."

And so the strategizing began. Rough maps of the Institute’s interior were sketched, coded radio signals sent out to ready up armor and weapons and troops. Desdemona and Maxson shot subtle barbs at one another, Donny gorged himself on Minuteman rations, and Morgan worried far more than was probably healthy.

As Preston and Maxson debated the nature of man and how power corrupts, with Desdemona adding a few pro-synth talking points, Morgan got up for a drink and breath of fresh air. She went to the window, cup of hot cider in hand, watching the ocean lap up against the shore. A few small, leafless trees swayed in the frosty wind.

Then, fluttering down from the sky, a black bird came and rested on one of the tree’s branches, talons wrapped around the wood. It looked right at her, and cawed loudly, mockingly, flapping its wings to shake off a thin layer of frost. Morgan thought it looked awfully familiar, but couldn’t quite say why. A shiver ran down her spine, and she moved away from the window.

Chapter Text

Morgan zapped into the Institute relay room, a gust of cool underground air blowing against the hot sweat on her skin. She shivered. Opposite the relay, a scientist manned the terminal, eyebrows shooting into his forehead as she appeared. "You're back," he stuttered.

"Yes," she said, expression stoic. "And I need to speak with Father. At once."

The scientist fumbled with his terminal, sending a message to Sean and watching as she walked past him and into the elevator. People stopped and stared as she floated up, some muttering amongst themselves. Even some synths dared to raise their heads. Z1 looked up from the flowerbeds he was weeding, meeting her eyes. She returned his gaze without emotion, then moved on. Evidently her disappearance had not gone unnoticed.

Sean was waiting for her in his room, pacing slowly, hands fidgeting. He looked up when she entered, sighing in relief as she approached. "Where have you been?" he questioned. "What on earth have you being doing? Have you heard?"

"I have been trying to resolve the problem," she said, reciting the lie carefully crafted by Deacon and the others. "I heard a rumor that the Brotherhood was going to be more aggressive, so I went to go check it out. That's what I've been doing these past few days - Maxson's finally putting aside his pride and banding with the other factions. He thinks we're the bigger enemy."

"And did you find anything?"

Morgan sighed, letting her shoulders slump. "Some. I know they're coordinating efforts as we speak, at the Castle. But the place was locked down, and no one let in or out of it without special clearance. I considered trying to convince them to let me in, since I knew Preston, but as far as they know, I've been missing for months. They wouldn't let me in just because I asked."

"Damn." Sean cursed under his breath, resuming his pacing. He let out a frustrated sigh, sitting down on his bed with a hand on the edge to steady himself. "Mother, I..." He tried to start a thought, but weariness pulled at him, shadows blossoming under his eyes as he labored to breathe.

A prickle of concern and confusion tingled in the pit of her stomach. "Sean?"

The old man collected himself. He took a deep breath, gripping the side of his bed so tight his knuckles went white.  "I do not know if I am ready for this fight." He met her eyes, Nate's earnest green-hazel irises looking into hers. "Every day, I lose more and more of my strength. I... I find I must pass my power to you, Mother." Morgan stared at him, lips parted in shock. Sean released a sad sigh, and extended his free hand. "Help me."

Morgan stepped forward dumbly and held his hands, lifting the sheets and propping up the end of the bed so he sit up and face her. Her son's hand seemed so small and weak in her own.

When reclining, Sean relaxed. "I have informed the other departments," he breathed, peering at her through narrow eyelids. "You shall inherit the Institute. I am not strong enough to defend us in this upcoming battle. Without a capable leader at the helm, our projects will become obsolete. Mankind Redefined needs someone with the passion to make our dream come true. And without a strong leader, the Institute may fall when the Commonwealth strikes back. I leave it to you, Mother." His eyes flickered to the desk against the left wall. "My Directorate password. Right side, second drawer. With the information on my terminal, you will have complete authority."

Morgan turned to the desk, but Sean stopped her. "Mother." His cool, skeletal hand clutched around her fingers. "I know we've had our differences. I realize you may have your misgivings, and me mine. But there is no one I trust with this but you. We are family, Mother." His thumb stroked across her knuckles in an almost affectionate gesture. "My blood made the Institute what is it today. You are a part of me. I believe you will lead the Institute to great things."

Morgan swallowed. "I'll do my best, Sean."

The light in Sean's eyes faded. "Call me 'son', Mother. Please. Just this once."

She trembled, and it took everything in her not to recoil from the old, dying, terribly earnest man clinging to her palm. "I will lead the Institute to great things, my son."

A faint smile spread across his face, and he released her. "Thank you."

Then his eyes fell shut, and he began to doze. Or die. Morgan didn't care to think on it. She crept to the desk and quietly opened the drawer, pushing through the papers and finding the unmarked holotape hidden at the back. She slid it into her pocket, closed the desk, and left.

She retraced her footsteps back to the bottom floor of the Institute, back to the elevator. She passed Z1, making sure to make it look like an accident when they bumped into each other. As their shoulders collided, she turned her head and murmured into his ear. “Saoirse. ” The hairs on the back of Z1's neck stood up.

She went back to the Relay Room after pocketing a thing of nutritional goo from the mess hall, waving at the scientist manning the Relay terminal. "Wanted some privacy," she said. "It's quiet down here." She ripped open the biodegradable plastic wrap and stuck her compostable plastic spoon inside, eating a spoonful. Banana-mango, otherwise known as flavor #91.

One by one, synths began to file in. Careful, quiet, not too many at once to be noticeable. In truth, if the terminal man had been paying attention, he might have questioned why there were now a dozen synths milling around, pretending to take inventory of the shelves nearby or repair some loose panels in the wall. Morgan's skin prickled when Z1 entered, meeting her eyes for a moment before going to the shelves, waiting for her signal.

All of a sudden she thought of that moment in the West Stands, in Diamond City, with Kellogg's shirt in her hand and Dogmeat panting in front of her. That brief, terrible moment, when the world seemed too loud and too heavy and her vision dimmed until she felt like she was staring through someone else’s eyes. She assumed that Dogmeat would take her to Kellogg, to her son, and then it would all be over. Then she'd have to accept that she wasn't a fit mother, that she was broken, that she'd missed out on ten years of her son's life, and that she had no home to return to.

Then, she had feared the future. Now…

Morgan crumpled her empty nutrition cup into a ball, tossing it aside with a faint clink as the thin plastic struck the floor. She padded across the room, stopping just behind the poor man at the terminal. "I'm sorry," she said, then slid her arm around his neck. His throat bobbed against the crook of her elbow, and she pressed one hand to the back of his head, flexing her bicep. He coughed, sputtered, clawed at her hands, then slumped forward.

Morgan made sure he was out, then released him. A few synths dragged him around the corner and hid him behind some boxes. Morgan sat down at the terminal and input the holotape bearing Sean's Directorate code. She searched for the right coordinates, counted the number of bodies to bring up. Then pressed enter.

A dozen bright blue lightning bolts burst in the Relay room, brass metal walls sparking with electricity as it brought forth the chosen targets. Preston, Des, Maxson, Deacon. Then Donny, surprisingly enough. Then three Minutemen, three Brotherhood soldiers, and Tinker Tom.

"Whoa!" Donny's eyes went wide. "Whoa! It's so clean!"

"Donny?" Morgan stood, frowning. "What are you doing here?"

The boy ran forward, giving her a wide smile. "Deacon let me come!"

Morgan shot Deacon a look as he and the others entered the room. "Donny, it's very dangerous here. You shouldn't have come. People are going to get hurt."

Donny pouted. "But everyone else is going! I got to sit in on the peace treaty, and besides - this is the only time I’ll ever get to see the Institute! I promise I’ll be good, and stay out of danger." He sighed, tugging at her fatigues and pouting harder. "I know I'll be safe with you."

As Morgan tried to combat Donny's pleading, Z1 emerged from the crowd of apprehensive, silent synths. "Are you the Railroad?" he asked tentatively.

Maxson bristled, and Des stepped forward, bearing all the gravitas of leadership. "Yes. And others. We're here to help. I take it you're Z1?"

For once, Z1 lost some of his intensity as he breathed a sigh of relief. "You have no idea how much this means to us. All of us."

And so they retrieved their weapons from their many secret caches. Guns scrounged from the corpses of raiders. Modded monstrosities Morgan bought on Bunker Hill discounts. Guns and armor pieces lifted from the Minutemen reserves. They looked too much like store mannequins, generic faces and fit bodies, covered in patchwork gear like avant-garde Pre-War fashion models.

Maxson looked ill.

"No alarms have been set off, yet, I don't think," Morgan piped up, resting a hand on Donny's head as he leaned against her. "But as soon as we go into the facility, that will change."

"I can hack some of the doors so they can't get through all at once," Tom offered.

"Good idea." Morgan nodded. "Only let them through one passage at a time, secure each room and move on to the next. We should have a separate team be relaying out with as much tech as we can, so if we... don't succeed, we can at least gain something."

"An excellent suggestion." Maxson raised his chin, clasping his hands behind his back in the regal pose he so often favored. "As discussed, my people will manage the forefront of the attack. My scribes and some Minutemen can assist with the removal of the technology."

"Sounds like a plan." Morgan knelt to look Donny in the eye. "Donny, I want you to stay here and look after Tinker Tom. You help him and give him whatever he needs, you understand?" Around them, soldiers readied for battle. "I'm not going to lose you."

Donny pressed his lips together, giving her a firm and wide-eyed nod. "Yes, Morgan."

Her throat choked, and she gave him a final hug as another wave of soldiers relayed in. They parted, and Deacon came up behind them, sweeping Donny into his arms and squeezing him tight before dropping him beside Tom. Deacon and Morgan waved, Donny took a seat beside the Tinker, and the end began.

 

No one expected it when the first Brotherhood Paladin stormed through the hallway and beheaded the nearest security synth. Humanoid synths and scientists screamed, cowering behind benches and under desks. As soon as the first shot was fired, red light replaced the natural glow of the sunlamps. The rhythmic, incessant beeping of the alarms thrummed in their ears, and previous generation synths and menacing Coursers flooded into the room, ready to fight back.

Some of the Railroad fired at the scientists in the beginning. Des let it slide, but Morgan did not. "We do not fire on civilians!" she bellowed, slapping aside the barrel of an offending agent. "You tie them up and leave them for the Scribes!" At Morgan’s insistence, Des reluctantly made in an official order. The scientists and the scientists' children, while sustaining a few bumps and bruises, were caught and carried out, held in the Relay room for security.

First, they took the main room. Tom wrenched control from the system using Morgan’s Directorate code, and one by one, the doors to each department slammed shut, going into lockdown and securing the center room. They could hear synths and Coursers trying to blow or burn through the thick metal. Donny’s voice boomed over the intercom as the main room was secured. "Head to Advanced Systems next!" he shouted, with the quaver of someone caught between anxiety and excitement. "Cut off their weapons supply!"

Morgan couldn't help a smile. Though it faded as she saw agents and Brotherhood alike get taken away on stretchers, medics yanking off bits of power armor to treat a soldier's wounds. Institute fighters flung themselves at the doors of the different facilities, voiceless but not without fury. Morgan suppressed a shiver and turned to the three leaders at her back. "Casualties?"

Maxson hissed as a Scribe plunged a stimpack into his side, blood seeping through his shirt. Desdemona wiped sweat from her brow, talking animatedly to the synths as Z1 filled her in. Preston took off his hat, pressing it to his chest and stepping forward. "A lot,” he said. “But no more than we expected. We've still got a lot more reinforcements coming in through the Relay."

"How many critically wounded?"

"Not sure. They're alternating teleports. Fifteen come in, fifteen go out. Some Railroad agents are trying to get the scientists to help."

Morgan sighed. "It'll have to do. The Relay room's crowded?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Get the Brotherhood people on the SRB room. That'll be the second hardest thing we do here, but if we can do it, it puts the odds in our favor. I want the Minutemen and the Railroad to take BioScience. They'll have a lot of medical technology, and I want as much of that taken out of here as we can." The closed door of the SRB wing let out an ominous thump, startling the room. "That’s where most of the Coursers are," Morgan breathed. "Have everyone left behind cover that door. They could take all of us out if we're not careful." She nodded. "Move out."

The factions split as requested. Minutemen stayed to guard the main room, keeping an eye on the SRB door. The Railroad, the synth, and some Brotherhood Scribes opened and invaded the BioScience wing. Morgan led the charge on Advanced Systems. The scientists there didn't give up without a fight like the others in the main room. Some had strapped on pieces of synth armor and lifted their own laser rifles. Morgan tried to fight non-lethally, with only partial success.

In the BioScience wing, Des and Z1 suppressed the gardeners and genetic researchers that cowered behind their cabbages and banana trees. But those gardeners turned on them by releasing the synth dogs and gorillas banging on the walls of their cages. From the main room, the Minutemen could hear horrible, terrifying screams, followed by roaring and barking. But they stayed. They had to follow orders. They had to cover the doors, or all would be lost.

When they took Advanced Systems, Morgan heard the commotion coming from the main hall. She gathered a squad and raced back to the others, returning to chaos as the Coursers breached the door to the SRB wing and people ran screaming from the BioScience wing with blood-covered beasts at their heels. Maxson stood at the center of it all, wearing Power Armor and wielding a gatling laser. "Fall back to the Relay!" he bellowed.

The allied forces let themselves be cornered in the Relay Room, the halls lined with wounded and suffering fighters, filled from wall to wall with and bound scientists and frantic reinforcements. "Donny!" Tinker shouted, his hands flying across the keyboard as he summoned more and more reinforcements, with no time to teleport anyone out. "New batch coming in!"

Fifteen more soldiers appeared in the Relay, but instead of calm orders and a plan of attack, they got a skinny, red-headed boy pointing in all directions. Donny was good at making himself useful, getting people supplies they needed or keeping track of who needed to go where. He was a child of the wasteland - blood and gore didn’t scare him, and he was far enough from the battle to stay chipper. "Paladins!" he said. "Head through that hallway and assist Maxson!"

The armored soldiers looked at each other, then saluted and obeyed. "Doctor!" a wounded agent wailed, bleeding on a stretcher not far from Tom. "Where's a doctor? Where's Des?"

"Oh, man." The tinker, already sweating in panic, began to tremble. He leaned over his terminals and put his head in his hands. "Oh man, oh man oh man."

"Tom!" Donny rushed over, hands full of clipboards and messages and supplies. "Tom, you gotta keep going. You can't stop now!"

"Donny, oh, kid, kid I can't, I gotta-"

"You gotta," Donny insisted, eyes wide. "We can't lose. You gotta do it for everybody. We gotta keep it together, Tom, we gotta do it!"

"Something going on, here?" The pair looked up at a rather imposing female figure, with greasy red hair, dark eyes, and a suit of modified power armor. "Proctor Ingram, here for duty."

"Uh." Tom’s eyebrows shot into his forehead, eyes wide and mouth agape. "Uh."

Donny gave the woman a wide smile. "Are you here to help? Great! I need you to give this to the guy in the white coat with the blood on him and the dark hair and the mole on his chin? What is it you do? Can you pick up a gun? We're-" An explosion went off, making everyone go still as ground shuddered. "We're having some trouble, y’see."

"I see." Ingram frowned. "Are you a squire?"

"Nope!" Donny chirped. "But you gotta go give those pills to the doctor." Someone shouted his name. "Oop! Gotta go!" And he dashed off.

Tom licked his hand and slicked his hair back, attempting a casual posture as Ingram met his eyes. Someone screamed from far away. "So, uh, are you... What's your name?"

 

Meanwhile, in the main room, Morgan’s face was half-covered in blood as she kicked away the corpse of the Courser that had just tried to strangle her. "How we doing on BioScience!" she shouted, her ears still ringing from the grenades they'd thrown at the dogs.

"We're clear!" Z1 shouted. "We can start moving and treating wounded!"

"Scribes!" Maxson bellowed. "Start transporting wounded to BioScience!"

Preston waved forward the next cluster of engineers. "Get out the food that you can! Get hard drives, get holotapes, everything must go!"

Morgan caught one of the engineers on his way into BioScience, a steely grip on his arm stopping him mid-run. "Look for someplace called the FEV Labs," she ordered. "I need you to find some kind of serum. Look for it wherever you find the name Brian Virgil, understand?"

"Can do," he said, and raced after the others.

Morgan tried to wipe the blood from her cheek, but just smeared it across her glove and jaw. She cursed. "I want a final sweep!" she said, and spat to rid the taste of blood from her tongue. "We have to push forward without losing any ground! Balanced teams of Brotherhood, Railroad, and Minutemen. Synths, focus on transport. Clear the tubes and secure the Robotics wing and the SRB. I want shit moved out. Wounded, tech, everything. Strip this place bare."

A resounding cry of "Yes ma'am!" came from all corners. The factions divided into equal groups with the direction of their leaders, racing off in all directions and pushing back the remaining Institute forces. The odds were in their favor, though they couldn’t celebrate until this place was gone for good.

Blood and craters covered the floor of the main hall. The crisp green grass that circled the elevator was now dry and unkempt, dirt exposed where it had been blown open by an explosion or bullet. Cool, clean water still ran through the decorative streams, so medics had a steady supply and soldiers could stay hydrated. Morgan vaguely remembered that Des had been carried off after the assault on BioScience. Her heart ached. She pushed on.

"Deacon-" She spoke, then realized he wasn’t behind her. She was so used to him always being near, she hadn’t thought to look for him in a while. “Deacon?” Dazedly, she spun in a circle, looking for a familiar head of dark hair and shining sunglasses. There was no one. The main room was empty. Questioning the other leaders revealed that no one else knew where he was, either.

He had just… disappeared.

 

Chapter Text

No one saw the elevator ascend amidst all the commotion. Deacon stood in the center of the platform, crossing his fingers in the hope that no one would notice and bomb the hell out of the elevator tube. He couldn’t help a small flicker of pride as Morgan gestured magnificently, giving orders and holding everything together. Donny, too, held his own against the influx of strangers and fear and fighting. But Donny had always been a strong kid. Sure, he had a lingering fear of parental abandonment, but he did good in most other aspects.

But. Something had told him to take this elevator. Something deep and instinctual. The same thing he’d felt when he met Barbara, or joined the Railroad, or saw Morgan crawl out of the Vault. It was important. He just knew.

Now, rising steadily above the raging battle, Deacon understood what Morgan meant when she said the Institute was “quiet.” The sounds of combat drifted away, leaving behind the low, unsettling hum of the generators. Everything was too white, too clean, too quiet. Too ominous, omniscient, strange and ethereal.  He couldn't imagine living here and not going insane.

The elevator stopped and opened, so he walked on. Through winding halls, past emotionless pictures and vases and color-coded mini-maps. Whatever instincts guided him pulled him through the transport tubes, up empty spiraling staircases, to a doorway facing an empty plexiglass cage. Through that, he found himself in a bedroom.

He noticed the bed’s occupant last, first seeing the white walls, the white floors, the cleanliness and the slight dabs of color where fake flowers and computer screens decorated everything. And then the intense-eyed geriatric, breathing shallowly and staring at him. "Oh hi," Deacon said, using cheerfulness to mask his discomfort. "Fancy meeting you here."

"You." The word reeked of accusation. "You're with them. You were with my mother."

Deacon blinked. "You're Sean?"

"I am the Director of the Institute. The rightful one." He lifted a hand from beneath his blanket, beckoning the agent closer with a crook of his skeletal claw. "Come here." Deacon obeyed. Sean lifted his chin and met the other man's eyes, taking in his appearance, his clothes, the grim line of his mouth. "Take off your sunglasses." Deacon did so. "You have very blue eyes," Sean said, after a moment.

"All the better to see you with, my dear," Deacon quipped, unsmiling.

Sean pressed his lips together. "Why do this? Why turn her against me? Why ruin everything good that we've done here? What gives you the right?"

"What gives you the right?" Deacon replied, hands in fists. "You kidnapped people from the Commonwealth. Parents, siblings, children. You never asked us if we wanted your help."

"You would not have understood our intentions if we offered."

"That still doesn't justify what you’ve done. I don't know what kind of person could justify that to themselves." Without his sunglasses, everything felt too white and bright and raw. He felt naked and seen, but just brave enough to stand his ground. "And she was on our side long before she met you. You just didn't see it because you thought you loved her."

Sean blinked, a glimmer of shock breaking his intensity. He looked away, staring at the ceiling. "She lied," he murmured, as if baffled by the thought. "She's lied to me, all this time."

"Ever since she went through the Relay she's been lying. As a licensed con man, I think she did a great job. I don't know if I could have done it better." He paused. "Well, probably, but by Morgan's standards of 'stare and say nothing' her deception was very impressive."

"Enough," Sean snarled, hatred rattling up his throat and dripping from his lips. "I blame you and your people for this. When the Commonwealth falls, and in hundreds of years you're still scrabbling in the dirt like mice, then you'll understand what we were trying to do."

"Maybe if you got out more, you'd see that we're not." Deacon swallowed. "We're human beings. And being human isn’t about being clean or smart or strong enough to take things from other people. It's about being free. That's the one thing that unites all of us. Our desire to live our own lives, by our own choices. And as soon as you take that from someone else, you become a monster. Mr. Sean, sir, I hate to say it, but you created a race of beings more human than you are."

Sean scowled, but exhaled. "I suppose it doesn't matter now," he said, playing the part of gracious king in defeat. "You've won. The Institute will fall."

"We haven't won yet," Deacon pointed out.

"Oh, but you have," the old man breathed. "I'm dying. With Morgan clearly unwilling to take my place, my department heads will fight among themselves like vultures over a fresh corpse, and leadership will crumble. My synths have betrayed me, and without them, without their labor, we cannot maintain the facility. And even if your people lose, you've already come here once. You will come again, and again, until we fall and you are victorious."

"Maybe you should reconsider your life choices, considering how many people seem to hate your guts, sir."

Sean opened his mouth, but exhaustion claimed him. "What is your name?"

Deacon wondered which alias he should give. Perhaps he should claim to be a synth himself. Get in one last dig at this frail old man, some kind of sick vengeance for all that he'd done. But perhaps it was the silence. Perhaps it was that this was The End and that he had nothing left to lose. Perhaps it was just for comedy value.

Deacon told the truth. "I'm Sean."

The old man's eyebrows rose, and he let out a cold, hacking laugh, where spittle flew up past his teeth and he coughed at the end of it, thin shoulders trembling with his gust of mirth. At last he slumped back against the bed, staring blearily at the ceiling. "Oh, Mother."

"She doesn't know," the agent said quickly, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "No one knows. It's an old name from a long time ago, but it was my first one."

Sean’s humor faded, and stared at Deacon - at Sean - with a new, strange gleam in his eye. "What are they going to do?" he asked.

"Bomb it all to hell," Deacon said. "They'll set the explosives once the whole facility is secured. Once everyone's evacuated, they'll pull the trigger and the Institute will be gone."

The faint light in the old man’s eyes seemed to dim even further. "Do you really think you're doing the right thing, Sean?"

"I do."

Sean sighed. He swallowed hard, grimacing as he made the effort to sit up. "Then let me rise," Morgan's son said, extending a bony hand. "And let me greet this brave new world."

 

"Deacon!"

At last she heard the low hum of the elevator and looked up, face contorting in horror as she saw the two figures inside. Deacon and Sean stood together, Sean with one hand on a white cane and the other wrapped around Deacon's neck. The elevator hit the ground and they stepped out, their footsteps a harmonious pitter-patter on the smooth Institute floor.

"What are you doing?" Morgan whispered.

"I have come for an honorable death, Mother," Sean stated, pulling away from Deacon and leaning on his cane. He trembled, and for a moment looked as if he would fall, but did not. "I will not die in my bed like a coward. If you are to take my life's work from me, at least let me do so standing. A captain goes down with his ship, and I will stay at my helm until I sink."

Behind them, all the lights in the adjacent departments went out with a heavy sound. "Lights off," Tom said, intercom crackling. "People's sayin' they got all the good stuff carried out. Oh, and Morgan, they got you your serum stuff. We're good."

"Thanks, Tom," Morgan murmured.

"I was going to make you an offer, as well," Sean continued, clutching his cane with a white-knuckle grip. "Sean - that is, the synth version of myself. I would give him to you."

Her eyebrows rose into her forehead. "Why?"

"As a peace offering. He was a tool I designed to capture you. Bait to the spider's web. But he is fully functional, if immortal and ageless like all the other synths. He would be the son you never had." He gestured to the elevator. "I could tell you where to find him."

"That's-" She faltered, and remembered, in a dreamlike sort of way, the only time she'd met that boy. The one with Nate's eyes and her hair, who recoiled from her like some kind of monster. Then, unbidden, a different face appeared in her mind’s eye. A skinny, smiling face, shining blue eyes looking up at her from under a mop of red hair. A boy who tinkered with electronics and loved comic books and who she loved more than she had ever loved the man who Sean became.

"I lost my son a long time ago," Morgan murmured. "I think it's time I moved on."

Sean stared at her, then closed his parted lips. "As you wish, Mother." For a moment, Morgan saw tears glimmering in his eyes. Pity pulsed through her. Then she turned, saw the trail of blood leading down the hall into the Relay room, saw the brown streaks where corpses had been dragged back to the teleporter for a proper burial. She decided she didn't feel very pitying after all.

"I think it's time to go," she declared, addressing no one in particular. "Deacon?"

"Got your back, boss," he said, with the same confidence as ever. He helped Sean onto one of the few still-standing benches around the main room, then followed Morgan back to the Relay.

Sean could hear the distant lull of human voices. Surviving soldiers talking amongst themselves in subdued tones. The wounded and injured wailing for pain medication. Blood-covered warriors drunk on victory congratulating one another. At last, his Institute went silent. All the lights were off except for those in the main room. The smell of blood and other bodily fluids filled the air. Cords and bits of circuits littered the floor, along with papers and spent ammo casings. Everything was quiet.

Then the elevator hummed - the last piece of machinery Morgan's army had left functioning. "You sent for me, Father?" the small boy said, stepping out of the elevator and joining him on the bench.

"I did," the old man said, wrapping his arm around the child’s shoulders. The dark-haired boy with the familiar face leaned into the touch.

"Father, where is everyone?"

"They've gone away for a little while. Don't worry. Everything will be fine."

"Oh." The boy nodded. "Father?"

"Yes, my boy?"

"Do you think I'll ever get to see my mother again?"

Morgan’s son swallowed. "Perhaps. Now, close your eyes, Sean. It's time to rest."

 

Tom relayed them onto a skyscraper miles away from CIT. Everyone was waiting for them when Morgan and Deacon showed up. Donny ran over as the blue lightning faded, shouting their names ecstatically. "You're here!" He clasped them both in a hug. "I was so worried."

As the trio exchanged embraces, Maxson, Preston, and Z1 approached. "Tom's rigged the explosives to go on your command," Preston said, his voice firm and steady. "Now it's up to you."

Morgan rose, Donny standing between her and Deacon. "Where's Des?" she asked, brow furrowed in concern. "Is she alright?"

"She's in critical care," Maxson rumbled. "When they invaded BioScience, she was at the front. The gorillas the scientists released injured her badly and took her left arm off at the elbow."

Donny clung tighter to Deacon's legs. "Will she be alright?" Morgan questioned.

"We don't know yet, I'm afraid," Z1 piped up. "But there are many who are injured. We have a more pressing task at hand," he reminded gently.

Morgan exhaled and nodded, feeling shivers creep up her spine and send tingles into her fingers. As the faction leaders rejoined the crowd, Deacon stopped her. "Do you need something?" He squeezed her hand with meaning.

Morgan shook her head. "No. I can do this." she stepped around her boys and approached the lip of the roof, a single metal railing all that stood between her and several miles of falling. From here, she could see the distant, curved dome of the CIT campus. When she closed her eyes, she could see Sean’s face, staring at her with tears in his eyes. She flipped open the top of the small plastic box, exposing the worn red button inside. An antenna jutted far out beyond the box, pointed at the campus. Behind her, the crowd fell silent.

Morgan felt her breath come in shaky, shuddering gasps, her shoulders threatening to curl in, the prickling pain that signaled the beginnings of a panic attack. But here, for once, she felt brave. She felt as though she were standing on a precipice, on a jagged cliff overlooking a vast ocean. Her fear was the natural fear of falling. Her bravery came from knowing she would not. She pressed the button.

Silence. Then, thunder. Telling, rolling thunder. They watched the CIT dome crack and split, the ground beneath it crumble and sink inward to fill the sudden hole created by the bombs. The earth shuddered and tore and sent waves of force rippling outwards in massive clouds of dirt and dust. As each explosion went off, great and terrible spirals of flame spewed upwards. Black plumes of smoke rose from CIT’s corpse, rising into the sky and blowing away in the wind. At last the smoke and flame melted away, exposing a crater where the Institute had once been.

Suddenly, Morgan was transported back to a year and a half ago, where she stood on that cold blue-and-yellow platform, her baby in her arms and Nate holding her tight, assuring her that everything would be fine. Sean wailed, and she watched that mushroom cloud rise into the pink and orange morning sky, heralding the dawn of a new era.

She blinked, and she was back, cheers booming behind her as the earth settled. People shouted and clapped and weeped with joy. Mortal enemies hugged and cried. A tear rose to Maxson's eye. Preston took off his hat and held it to his chest. Donny raised his arms over his head and cheered. "It's over," Z1 said, almost disbelieving. "At last. We're free."

"All of us are free." Preston smiled at the synth. "We couldn't have done it without you."

And so began the congratulations. The thanking, the hoping, the planning for the new world. But the loud noise was giving Morgan a headache, and all she wanted was to go someplace quiet, and dark.  Someplace she could sleep. She waved a hand behind her vaguely. “Deacon.”

And then Deacon was there, his hand wrapped around hers. “Hey, Donny!” he called. “Say goodbye to everyone. Morgan and I will meet you on the ground floor.”

Donny shouted a reply Morgan didn’t catch, and Deacon guided her to the elevator. The heavy doors shut with a creak, and they descended, the light above them flickering. But it was quiet, and Morgan breathed a sigh of relief. Soon, the elevator released a warped ding, and deposited them in the lobby of what had once been some lavish hotel. They walked past what was left of the fine couches and tables, and stood alone in the middle of the street.

Deacon squeezed her hand. He hadn’t let go the whole way down. “You okay?”

Morgan blinked. “I don’t know,” she admitted, voice soft. “I don’t know.”
“It’s over,” Deacon said, watching the thick clouds swirl above them. “It’s done.”

Morgan’s lip quivered, and she made a breathy noise. Then another. Then that breath turned into a giggle, then a chuckle, then a laugh. Heat blossomed behind her eyes and tears streamed down her cheeks, making wet lines over the grime encrusting her skin. She ran her hands over her face, laughing and weeping, face contorted in confusion. “I don’t know- I don’t know-”

Deacon moved his hand from her palm to her bicep, pulling her to his side and letting her lay her head against his shoulder, still sobbing. He sniffed, and used his free hand to wipe at his eyes. “Come on, boss, don’t get me emotional,” he tried. “I don’t want to smudge my mascara.”

She laughed, delirious and exhausted, and rubbed her wet nose on his shoulder before standing upright. “God, fuck. Fuck. Fuck everything.”

“I concur.” Deacon fiddled with his wig, one hand still around her. Morgan calmed, and they sighed, harsh winter winds whipping around them. “What do you want to do now?”

"I don't know," Morgan sighed. "Without the Railroad, you and I don't really have a home to go to." She paused. "Donny'll need someplace to stay," she amended. "We should... probably, get him into a school, or something. Get him an actual bed instead of a mattress on the floor."

"We'd need a source of income," Deacon added. "Our dirty communist Railroad paid expenses, but unless you want to be a merc again, we'll need something to keep us going."

"We should stay somewhere with doctors nearby," Morgan added. "You and I aren't getting any younger. If something happens to us - or Donny - we shouldn't be far from a clinic."

"It's got to be somewhere safe. But I don’t necessarily want to live in a big city like Diamond City or Goodneighbor, or something like that."

"Deacon, I-" Morgan’s change in tone made him look at her. "The last time something like this happened, my world blew up. Literally. I didn't get a happy ending then. What makes you think this is going to be a happy ending now?"

"I mean." He frowned. "It's not really a 'happy' ending, it's just sort of... an ending. This isn't a fairytale. I'm sure there'll be more down the line that we have to deal with. And if the Institute's gone, I don't know what I’ll end up doing. But it's like you said. We've got Donny. Maybe you and I are hopeless, but… he has a chance of being happy."

"So it’s not about us,” Morgan finished. “It’s about him." She nodded. “I can live with that.” Deacon squeezed her hand and started to move away, raising a hand to his chin and readying a smart remark. But Morgan held tight, making him look back at her. "Deacon-" The words caught in her throat, leaving her lips parted and her eyes wide and uncertain. She swallowed. “I trust you,” she finished, because she couldn’t bring herself to say what she really meant.

But it meant the same thing, in the end. Heat rose behind Deacon’s eyes, and he swallowed, pulling her into a tight hug. Morgan clung back, gripping tight to his coat, head tucked under his chin. And then, in the quiet above their lonely street, it began to snow.

Chapter Text

The sun shone bright above the beach, the sky filled with puffy white clouds and sunbeams falling through them. The ocean lapped against the shore, turning the sand cool and squishy, perfect for sinking your toes into. Desdemona crept forward, stopping when the waves brushed against her toes and soaked her shoes. Her hair blew in the cool coastal winds, faint sea spray sprinkling her skin. Distantly, she heard the obnoxious Diamond City radio being played full blast. The sound grew louder, along with the squealing of peeling tires.

Her face softened. “They’re here.”

She watched as the sound grew louder and a black convertible came around the corner, pulling to a stop alongside the road, an Old World big band blasting from its speakers. As soon as the tires slowed, a lanky figure hopped over the side. Red curls framed a skinny face, and he wore overalls over faded t-shirt, his scandals leaving thin prints in the sand. “We’re here!”

“Calm down,” came a familiar voice. “Donny, stay in the fuckin’ car. Deacon, get your-”

A small child yelled happily. Two figures emerged from the front seat of the car. One of them had a small, red-headed child balanced on his shoulders. “I’ve got it, Morgan, it’s fine.”

“It’s not fine, it-”

Their voices faded away. There was some bickering. The two figures stood close to each other, gesturing. The small child yelled again. The taller, lankier one ran over, taking the child from the tallest person’s shoulders. Then they parted, the two redheads and the tall man going to the edge of the water, and the woman wandered over to Desdemona.

“Hello, Des.”

“Hello, Morgan.” Behind them, the lanky teen helped the small child into the water, the baby giggling as the ocean washed up over its toes. The tall figure sat down on the beach, stretching his legs.

“It’s been a long time.” Morgan’s eyes flickered over her form. Des had gained some weight since they parted. No longer was she skeletal from years of poor eating and stress. Her eyes were less shadowy, but pain lurked behind them. Morgan’s eyes rested on the apparatus jutting from Desdemona’s left elbow. “How’s that been working out for you?”

Des shrugged. “Tom got it working for me. I suppose the Institute is good for something.” For emphasis, she tapped the fingers of her arm together, metal clicking and grinding against itself.

Morgan’s eyes drifted down to the sand, where a simple wooden cross stood above a grassy part of the beach. “This her?”

Des nodded. “She liked the beach,” she said, quietly. “She liked the way it went on for miles and miles, never ending. I thought it was as good a place as any.”

“It is.” Morgan sighed, glancing back at the people behind her.

Desdemona followed her gaze. “Is she yours?”

The small child had red hair, though a lighter shade and less curly than Donny’s. Bright blue eyes and a cherubic face, she toddled around in a simple dress, clinging to Donny or Deacon, chasing and fleeing the waves as they pushed and pulled against the sands. Morgan shrugged. “It’s… what we wanted,” she said. “While we still could. While I still could. We’re not getting any younger.” She ran a hand through her hair, grimacing. “I found a gray hair the other day.”

Desdemona chuckled, gray streaks already visible in her thinning locks. “Welcome to forty.”

“Yeah.” Morgan scratched her nose. “Donny’s getting so big. I just wish he’d grow width-wise instead of length-wise. He eats like a goddamn yao guai and he’s still all bone.”

“Boys that age are like that. Has he started chasing after girls yet?”

“Not that I know of. He spends all his time in the garage with Deacon, fiddling with their cars and other inventions. Saoirse is a good girl, though. She takes after Deacon.” She pursed her lips. “Though it’s sometimes trying to be surrounded by gingers.”

“That’s the Boston Irish for you.” Desdemona glanced at the ground. “Virgil went off with the Brotherhood, you know. Last I heard, they’re trying to weaponize that same serum against the mutants. Maybe even come up with a ghoul version.”

“That’s good. Well, at least the part about Virgil getting what he wanted.”

“Mhm.” Desdemona stared at the profile of the other woman’s face for a moment. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you disappear?”

Morgan exhaled, shoulders slumping. “I think we just needed time away for a while. We didn’t mean to go off the grid, really. We just wanted to relax for a little while. But then camping by a ruined house became living there. Living in the ruined house became rebuilding it. Then we wanted a garden. Then a garden became Brahmin. Then we decided we wanted a baby. Then we wanted the baby to be a little older before we went anywhere. One month becomes a year, one year becomes two, and then…” She waved a hand. “Five years have gone by.”

Des nodded. “Life sneaks up on you that way.”
They stood and watched the others play in the water. Saoirse was making mud pies with Deacon. Donny had his overalls rolled up to his knees, rooting through the beach for seashells and crabs. Morgan spoke, still staring at her family. “I don’t know if we’ll live long enough to see grandchildren,” she admitted. “I might live a while longer, but Deacon… Deacon’s older than I am. We don’t know how much time we have left. We’re just trying to make the most of it.”

“That’s all we can do.” Des swallowed, and extended a hand. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

Morgan exhaled, and returned the handshake. “I’m sorry, too.”

Then the others wandered over. Deacon said hello, making blithe small talk about how Saorise had just started shooting lasers out of her eyes and was walking by three months. He’d let his hair grow in, and sprouted a gray-ginger beard, pale orange mixed with silver, though the sunglasses remained. Donny gushed over the infant, and asked if Tinker Tom was going to be at the reunion. They all piled into the car and continued the journey, driving up the winding coastal paths to the Castle.

There had been some debate over when to hold the reunion. Some wanted it to be on Christmas, when the Institute had fallen. Others said they wanted to be with their families during the holidays and not have to travel in the cold. Others said they wanted a summertime celebration, when it would be warm instead of freezing and everyone’s crops would be planted. Eventually it was decided that the five-year reunion would occur on the summer solstice.

When they reached the Castle, they saw Minutemen and Brotherhood pacing along the battlements, walking side by side like old friends. The wide courtyard inside the Castle was full to the brim with people. Settlers, farmers, synths who’d been there during the Great Invasion. Z1 wasn’t attending - he was at the Boston Airport, protesting against the ostracization of synths even after they’d been cleared by the Brotherhood.

Maxson wasn’t at the Airport. He was in one of the corners, surrounded by his most top-ranking Paladins, nursing a glass of brandy and awkwardly flirting with a rather pretty Railroad agent. Preston and his wife were showing off their new baby to the younger recruits, while Preston regaled them with stories of what it had been like to take the Institute. Tinker Tom and Ingram were at a table in the corner, Tom eyeing her adoringly and offering to get her another drink. He’d modified her power armor in the years since the battle, so now she only wore it from the waist down, her thick torso exposed to the air.

Donny ran off to say hello to Tom. Morgan caught sight of one of the Diamond City reporters weaving through the crowd, brandishing a tape recorder and accosting anyone who’d talk to her. She had well-fitted pants and a loose white overshirt, and a mauve reporters cap balanced on a head of thick, dark hair. Morgan watched Des’s eyes follow her through the crowd, and laughed. “Maybe there’s someone you can talk to, after all,” she said, giving Des a sly smile.

Desdemona cleared her throat and avoided the topic. “I’m going to go get a drink.”

Morgan lingered near the door of the Castle, watching everyone file in and out. Carrington seemed to be flirting drunkenly with one of the Minuteman engineers, a burly man in overalls and a Southern drawl. People talked and laughed and shared stories. Some of the veterans were hunched over a bar in the corner, talking lowly amongst themselves. Morgan watched Donny follow Tom like a lost puppy, the two of them hunching over a strange bundle of tubes and fuses.

“You know,” Morgan remarked, as Deacon padded up behind her. “I can’t tell if Donny wants to be Tom, or has a crush on Tom.”

Saorise squirmed, and Deacon handed her to Morgan, the infant curling her tiny fingers into Morgan’s shirt. “Maybe he’s a narcissist and it’s both,” Deacon suggested.

“Somehow I doubt it.” The food was served, and Maxson gave a speech about how Institute technology had been repurposed to serve the people, and everyone cheered. “Pretty words from a man who wanted a start a war over some cabbage seeds,” Morgan snorted.

“Well, you know. Assholes like taking credit for everyone else’s achievements.” Deacon pressed a kiss to Saoirse’s chubby cheek.

As the celebrations went on and the sun approached the horizon, the creatures of the night emerged. Or, in other words, the residents of Goodneighbor showed up to party. John Hancock was there, giving Maxson a pleasant smile as he took a big bite of out a Brotherhood apple. Maxson’s jaw tightened, and he stalked away, glowering over to the bar.

John had been trying to claim Goodneighbor as an independent settlement, even as Diamond City and Bunker Hill agreed to join Minutemen territory. Hancock stubbornly resisted the idea of letting anyone else have dominion over his city, and proceeded to expand his borders almost out of spite. Goodneighbor had become the Good Neighborhood, and housed many of the synths that escaped the Institute five years ago. Z1 wasn’t a fan of this arrangement, however, and compared it to confining synths to ghettos rather than welcoming them into regular settlements.

This whole party was really a feeble attempt to maintain a precarious peace. The Brotherhood had been getting more uppity as the Minutemen took more and more territory. As the Minutemen became an actual political force, the Brotherhood couldn’t shake down farms and towns for supplies without putting themselves at risk of war. They’re been mollified by the military technology, but made the prospect of war with them all the more terrifying.

While the Brotherhood wanted to take back the Commonwealth and accrue more resources, the Railroad and Minutemen had somewhat combined into a singular, progressive faction. Soon, a definitive treaty would have to be written up, and both powers forced to abide by it, or a new conflict would break out.

But tonight, Morgan tried not to worry about that.

By nightfall, the fairy lights strung up around the Castle lit up, and a group was playing music for everyone else to dance to. Morgan noticed, smirking, that Des had managed to coerce the cute young reporter into dancing with her. Ingram was clumsily dancing with her lanky, adoring Tinker. Donny was still fiddling with those tubes and fuses on the battlements, though he seemed to be sneaking glances at a few of the younger Minutemen.

“Why aren’t you dancing, hero?” Preston prodded, coming up from behind the pair.

“I don’t dance,” Morgan stated, adjusting Saorise on her hip.

“My boss doesn’t dance,” Deacon explained.

“Here.” Preston reached for the toddler. “Let me take this pretty girl off your hands, and you guys can have a nice night.”

“My night would be nicer if I didn’t-”

“Come on, Morgan,” Deacon said. “Just this once. Let the nice man take the baby.”

Morgan shot Deacon a look, but acquiesced, handing Saorise to the General. “Careful, she doesn’t like being held like anyone that she doesn’t know, she might-”

Preston took the toddler and rested her on his hip with ease. Saorise settled into his grip, giving him a chipper “hi” and relaxing. The young man flashed Morgan a bright smile, one of his trademarked Prince Charming grins. “Don’t you guys worry about a thing. We’ll be right here.”

Morgan sighed and gave in. “Fine. Come on, Deacon.”

So Deacon whisked her into the courtyard, where they blended in with the other bodies rocking to the fast beat of the live music. Morgan gave it a half-hearted effort, spending most of her time hiding smiles as Deacon reenacted Pre-War dance moves. “That was out of style when I was a kid, Deacon,” she said, as he bobbed his head obnoxiously.

“It’s retro,” he quipped, and she chuckled.

“Attention! Attention!” Donny’s voice rang out over the music. The musicians quieted down and everyone looked up. Donny beamed. “We have a special surprise for you tonight! Would the children and the elderly put their hands over their ears?”

Morgan glanced over to make sure Preston had his hands over Saorise’s ears. She looked back, and Deacon had his fingers in his ears. She pulled his hands away. “Which are you?” she asked. “Child or an elderly?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Ready!” Donny boomed. He pressed the end of a burning stick to the fuses of the lined up tubes. Then, one by one, they went off, spewing colored sparks into the air and exploding in a glittering firework, contrasted against the night sky. People cheered, gasping and clapping as various patterns were formed in the sparks.

Morgan leaned back against Deacon’s chest as they watched the fireworks, his arm wrapped around her hip, her head resting against the curve of his neck. She could feel the thrum of his heart against her back as each firework whistled and popped in the sky, sparkling bits of ash falling into the ocean. The warm summer night circled her skin like a comforting blanket, and the stars twinkled. The musicians started up again, playing along as the fireworks flew.

Five years. Six and a half, since she’d entered the Commonwealth. How much things had changed. There were very few times in her life where she had been truly happy, where her joy hadn’t been tainted by fear or loneliness. Meeting Nate had been one of those times. And, now…

Now, Morgan thought, fireworks reflected in her pale eyes, I think this is a happy ending.

 

That night, Morgan sat on the porch late at night, long after Deacon and the kids had gone to sleep. The moon shone high and full above her, crickets chirping and distant frogs braying. Morgan took a blank holotape and rolled it through her fingers, observing it almost with amusement. “Ah, fuck it,” she said, and popped it into her dusty, long-unused Pip-Boy.

She pressed the Record button and leaned back in her chair, waiting a moment to collect her thoughts. She watched the stars, pretending that each smiling face her mind conjured from the sparkling dots was someone looking down on her. Maybe even Nate.

She spoke.

“Sometimes I wonder what would have happened I got to raise Sean, instead of... what did.

“I'm sorry I never got to live that life. I'm sorry my husband and my baby were taken from me. I'm sorry so many people died. I wish things could have been different. We all do. Anybody who says they're completely happy with their life is either on a lot of drugs or really dumb. I wish things could have been, but somehow, I don't wish they ended differently.

“They say war never changes. And, I guess, they’re right. I heard someone say once that a man could look in the mirror and start a fight with his reflection. But I think when people say “war never changes,” they really mean… people never change. And that’s a different statement.

“People will always fight each other. They’ll always go to war for silly reasons, always act petty, always have their immature resentments. But, by proxy, people will always try to rebuild. They will always try to protect the innocent. They will always stand up for what they think is right. And, given time, they will always stand up and fight when given the chance. When given hope.

“So, maybe war never changes. But neither does humanity. And as long as there are humans - or ghouls, or synths, or what have you - walking this earth, then by God, I think we stand a chance.

“Rest in peace, Nate. I hope you're proud of me.”