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Cloak and Dagger

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Mara hated feral ghouls. Hated their jerky, not-quite-human movements, hated the crackling sound of their flesh as they moved. She even hated their horrible, lifeless remains. She couldn’t make out much detail in the dim, eerie light of the church basement, but she could still see the eyes of the ghoul she’d just stabbed to death shining back at her, black and empty, and she felt herself shiver. Dogmeat had already moved on, sniffing around in an effort to root out more enemies, but Mara remained seated on the damp cement floor, breathing heavily, chiding herself for another close call. She’d been focused on the feral in front of her, Dogmeat holding the gasping thing in place as she lined up her shot. She’d barely fired off a round before another one was on top of her, its breath hot and rancid on her face. Without the switchblade she’d picked off a raider and shoved up her sleeve earlier that day, she’d probably be dead.

“Fuck this,” she hissed into the dark. Dogmeat cocked his head at her, as if to say, This was your idea, boss. She was probably anthropomorphizing the dog way past what was healthy by this point, but company was company, and she had to keep herself sane somehow.

She rose to a standing position on shaky legs, one hand on a nearby wall to steady herself. She’d come all this way based on a rumor of a rumor, stories of some underground network out there rescuing synths and giving the proverbial finger to the Institute. She’d felt so adrift in the terrifying vastness of the Commonwealth, at times touched by the kindness extended to her by the Minutemen and even a few members of the mighty Brotherhood of Steel, but not yet fully at home with anyone. Preston Garvey was too wrapped up in his never-ending quest to shelter the wayward souls of the Commonwealth to begin to consider stomping off in search of a stolen baby. The Brotherhood had guns and troops, but even the genial Paladin Danse had left Mara cold, his talk of “cleansing” the untamed lands around them setting off distinct alarm bells, even in a naïve pre-war widow like her. This “Railroad” seemed to have a worthy enough cause, and, she hoped, some real information on the Institute. It was a blind lead, but it was all she had.

Mara resumed her slow walk through the basement corridors, eyes darting around for any sign of ferals while Dogmeat trotted ahead. She spotted a discarded old toolbox and quietly knelt to search through its contents, producing two bobby pins and a roll of duct tape. God, the number of bobby pins she’d carelessly thrown away before the war. Who knew one day she’d be crouching in a ghoul-infested basement, hoarding them like treasure?

Dogmeat let out a tiny ruff and Mara quickly looked up, scanning the hallway. He was sitting facing a wall up ahead, looking to Mara as if he were waiting for her. She sighed and quickly stashed her findings in her rucksack before heading over.

Dogmeat was staring at some kind of engraved brass circle. “The Freedom Trail. Boston,” Mara softly read aloud, her fingers tracing over the bold capital letters. Ah, Boston. She felt a sad sort of nostalgia tugging at her belly. It was a name she’d rarely come across since she’d stumbled out of her cryo pod a few weeks ago. Looking around, her eyes landed on some kind of wire connected to the engraving. A wire that seemingly led… nowhere.

“Huh. Good boy,” she said, scratching Dogmeat behind the ear. Dogmeat panted and wagged his tail.

Upon close inspection, the brass engraving seemed to be made of two distinct parts – an outer ring, and an inner circle. Curious, she pushed on the center of the circle. It fell and rose beneath her hand, like a button. She moved to the outer ring, and found it turned in both directions.

“Hmmmm. Some kind of code, maybe?” She looked down at Dogmeat, who looked patiently back. “Wait, you don’t think…” Mara turned back to the ring and began to spell. R-A-I-L…

 

The sudden noise of shifting stone startled her. Mara jumped back, one hand on her pistol, as she watched the wall beside them suddenly slide away, opening up to a cavern of pitch-black darkness. She hadn’t actually thought that would work. She waited a moment after the wall had settled into place, straining to catch any sounds, anything besides Dogmeat’s quiet panting. Nothing.

She took a deep breath and risked a few cautious steps forward, then a few more. Suddenly she heard the flip of a switch, and the room around her was immediately flooded with bright light. She winced and cupped a hand over her eyes, barely making out the three figures looming above her. One of them, she noticed with no small amount of panic, was wielding a minigun.

“Stop right there,” boomed a woman’s commanding voice. Mara froze, lowering her hand and helplessly blinking up at her greeting party. “You went through a lot of effort to arrange this meeting. But before we go any further, answer my questions. Who the hell are you?”

Christ. Mara didn’t know exactly what kind of welcome she’d been expecting from the glorious freedom-fighters of the Railroad, but it certainly wasn’t this. She tried to will her eyes to adjust to the light, slowly making out a woman with wavy brown hair and a deadly gaze. Mara’s gut told her this was someone to take very seriously.

“Um. I followed the Freedom Trail looking for the Railroad. I’m not your enemy,” Mara said. Dogmeat nosed at her hand, probably in an attempt to comfort her.

“If that’s true, you have nothing to fear.” Yeah, except the fucking minigun pointed directly at my face, Mara thought. “Who told you how to contact us?”

“I just heard a rumor about you guys in Diamond City,” Mara said. Was she supposed to come with references?

“I see,” the woman said. “I’m Desdemona, and I’m the leader of the Railroad. And you are?”

Just as Mara was about to answer, a man she hadn’t noticed enter the room slunk out of the shadows from behind Desdemona. He sported a ratty white t-shirt, sun-roughened skin, and a ridiculous jet-black pompadour hairdo. His posture was almost absurdly casual when juxtaposed against the rest of the team.

“Deacon,” Desdemona started. “Where’ve you been?”

“You’re having a party. What gives with my invitation?” the man replied, voice low and playful. Mara could almost swear he gave her a quick wink, but it was impossible to tell with his eyes carefully hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses.

“I need intel,” Desdemona said. “Who is this?”

“Wow. News flash, boss. This lady is kind of a big deal out there,” Deacon replied.

Mara raised an eyebrow. Sure, she’d adapted to the Wasteland fairly quickly. Tenacity was one of her best qualities, always had been. But she hadn’t thought her various misadventures around the Commonwealth would have already caught the attention of its more powerful players.

“Do we know each other?” she asked, suspicion coloring her voice.

“I didn’t need to meet you to hear about you. You’ve made waves,” Deacon said, the side of his mouth curling up in a smile. She couldn’t help but smile back, albeit weakly. That minigun was still prominent in the corner of her eye.

“So, you’re vouching for her?” Desdemona asked.

“Yes. Trust me. She’s someone we want on our side,” Deacon said.

Mara felt a small flutter of pride at that. She tried to imagine the look on Nate’s face if he’d been around to listen to her retelling of this moment. And then some guy in a greaser costume sidled up and said I was a ‘big deal’. Me! A big deal! Your bookish dork of a wife vouched for by radical militants. Can you believe it? Her gut twisted a little. It was getting harder to conjure Nate in her mind. To imagine what he’d think about any of this.

“That changes things,” Desdemona said. “So, stranger, why did you want to meet with us anyway?”

Lie, said a small, new voice inside her head. The voice that had kept her alive this far into her insane little journey, the voice that trusted no one and hoarded information like she hoarded found ammo and discarded junk. She probably should lie, or at least step lightly around the entire truth, but she was so tired of lying. And still so bad at it. These people were serious professionals in all things subterfuge, and she knew at her current level of exhaustion, she’d never pull it off.

“My son, Shaun, was kidnapped. I’m looking for help to find him.” It was a relief just to say it. Just to hear his name come from her lips, like speaking it solidified him more, like it could somehow materialize him in front of her if she said it enough.

Desdemona’s voice softened. “Someone stole your boy? That’s terrible. Do you know who did it? For your sake, I hope the Institute isn’t involved.”

Mara tried to form words, but couldn’t begin to explain all the loose threads she’d accumulated that, so far, didn’t amount to much. Instead she just shook her head and looked down at the ground, waiting for the sudden heat behind her eyes to pass. She wasn’t going to cry in front of these people.

“I’ll have Deacon look into this. If anyone can find a lead on your boy, he can,” Desdemona said. Mara could already see why she was the Railroad’s designated leader. Her voice possessed a thread of steely determination, one that comforted Mara to hear. She raised her head to look Desdemona in the eye.

“Thank you,” she said.

Desdemona nodded. “Now, if we’re going to be dealing with you, I need to make sure we’re on the same page. You know what a synth is, right?”

“Yeah, I know all about them.” Kind of, she added mentally. She was still trying to figure out how the kind, affable Nick Valentine she’d dragged out of a half-finished vault full of mobsters was somehow cut from the same cloth as the synths of Commonwealth horror stories, evil robots who trampled settlements and snatched up children under cover of darkness.

“Good. The Institute treats synths as property. As tools. We seek to free the synths from their bondage. Give them a chance at a real life.”

That all sounded worthy enough to Mara. “That’s good. Great.” She thought she saw Deacon give a small, approving smile.

“I have a question,” Desdemona continued. “The only question that matters. Would you risk your life for your fellow man? Even if that man is a synth?”

Mara had a heart too big for the Commonwealth; she knew that. It seemed like ever since she stumbled out of that godforsaken vault she’d been risking her life for just about everyone she’d come across. Preston Garvey and his motley crew. A captured Nick Valentine. The occasional batch of settlers. She told herself it was all just to make allies, or to get herself strong enough to take Shaun back from his kidnappers. But deep down, she knew she was too soft. She’d probably keep on taking dumb risks for humans, synths - hell, even little lost strays like Dogmeat. And it would probably be the end of her. She sighed.

“Yes. I would.”

Desdemona nodded, satisfied. “We’ll do what we can to look into your missing boy. In the meantime, talk to Deacon. We don’t have time to train up a new agent right now, but he might know of some other valuable ways you can contribute. And in turn, we can help you.”

Mara nodded. With that, Desdemona turned on one heel and strode off into the darkness behind her, exiting through some kind of door. Her two companions followed. That left just Deacon, casually leaning against a wall, observing Mara from behind those big sunglasses. She sighed and walked over to him, Dogmeat padding along next to her. It felt like she’d just passed some kind of test. She hoped this Deacon character would go a little easier on her.

“Hope you didn’t mind the reception,” Deacon said, as if reading her mind. He reached down to pat Dogmeat’s head as the dog sniffed at his jeans. “When you tango with the Institute you got to be careful when someone new gets on the dancefloor.” His tone was so friendly, even conspiratorial. She already wanted Deacon to like her, and she didn’t quite know why.

“Do you really have to be so… cagey?” Mara asked.

Deacon smiled. He smiled more than anyone she’d yet come across in the entire Commonwealth. His were mostly quick, tight-lipped little smirks, but they were smiles all the same. “The precautions are necessary. In our business, if we underestimate our enemy’s capabilities, it’s game over.”

Mara nodded, feeling a little sad. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to living in this kind of world. She didn’t know why she’d hoped the members of the Railroad would act any different from every other scared schmuck in this stupid Wasteland.

“Hey,” Deacon said softly. Mara looked up into his shades. “It’s all good now. I vouched for you, nobody got shot. Still,” he paused for another smirk, “I would consider it a close personal favor if you didn’t sell us out to the Institute. Thanks.”

“Yeah, of course,” Mara said. “Your secrets are safe with me.”

Deacon nodded. “Awesome. So. Dez wants me to make you a ‘tourist’. That’s what we call someone who helps out with the odd job here and there.” He stopped and seemed to look Mara up and down. “What a waste.”

Mara ignored the heat creeping up her neck. “Sorry?”

“Look, I’m just going to come out and say this: The Railroad needs you,” Deacon said. And there was the kicker. Wasn’t that Mara’s problem in the first place? Her inability to turn down anyone who needed her?

“You sure you need me? Desdemona didn’t seem to think so,” Mara said, trying not to sound too affronted.

“We just can’t spare anyone to train you right now, that’s all. But I’m thinking you won’t be in need of much training. Maybe a few pointers, a crash course in Railroad etiquette. Otherwise, I’m fairly certain you’ll be able to handle yourself.”

He was speaking like he knew her again, Mara realized with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. But that was impossible. Wasn’t it? Maybe he just knew how to read people well, how to size them up for their potential offerings.

“I got a job,” Deacon continued. “Too big for me, just perfect for the two of us. You help me out, we turn a few heads, and then Dez invites you into the fold. What do you think?”

Even as he was asking, Mara knew she’d already made up her mind. She liked Deacon, even with his stupid sunglasses and his ridiculous hairdo and his slight air of mystery. Whether or not the Railroad was the place for her like she’d been hoping, she wanted to know more about this man.

“Yeah, ok,” Mara said. “I’m in.”

“Perfecto,” Deacon said, smiling. “Let’s meet up at the old Freeway outside Lexington. I’ll fill you in once you get there.”

“Alright. See you there,” Mara said. Deacon nodded. She turned and clicked her tongue for Dogmeat to follow. This is all just part of the plan, she told herself. Even so, she couldn’t help but wonder if that was her only motivation here.

Chapter Text

The rain had slowed to a light drizzle as Mara made her way to the meeting point. She’d stopped by Sanctuary to get a quick rest and stock up on meds and ammo, as well as drop Dogmeat off with Preston. It was probably silly of her but she hated bringing the mutt along if she didn’t have to. There weren’t any completely safe places left in the Commonwealth, but she’d much rather Dogmeat spend his days wandering peacefully around the settlement stealing scraps of food and begging for belly rubs than rushing into a haze of bullets in his enthusiasm to protect her.

The freeway loomed closer. She saw what looked like the shell of a rusted old bus propped up against a crumbling segment of the elevated road, serving as a sort of ramp. There wasn’t much else around – some rusted bits of chain link fence, a couple feral mutts off in the distance. And a man, maybe a trader or settler by the look of him. He wore a crumpled hat atop his shaved head and a patched trench coat, his face partially concealed by a pair of sunglasses. Sunglasses.

“Deacon?” she asked as she approached. “Is that… you?”

He grinned at her. A big, genuine grin. She smiled back, unthinking. “Like the disguise? It’s Wastelander camo.”

“It’s… definitely something,” Mara managed. She kind of missed his pompadour.

He squinted his eyes and curled his upper lip. “This is my pile of garbage, asshole. Back off,” he growled, his words stilted and low. Mara laughed, and he seemed to light up at that. “Good, right?” he asked, voice returning to normal.

Mara shrugged. “Is all of this really necessary?”

“I’m the Railroad’s best spy,” Deacon said. “You don’t get this good or make it this long without taking a few precautions. You’re lucky I didn’t do one of my face swaps too.”

“Face swaps,” Mara repeated back flatly.

“Yeah, I put myself under the knife every year or two. New face, new body – you know, the full makeover. It keeps our enemies guessing.”

“Mm hmm,” Mara said, nodding. “Wiseass.”

Deacon clutched his chest. “You wound me. Alright, champ. Our first lesson is on Railsigns. Secret code stuff. I’ve heard the Minutemen communicate mostly via grunts and hand gestures so this might be a bit of an adjustment for you.”

Mara frowned. “How did you know I’ve been talking with the Minutemen?”

“I told you, you’ve made waves. You vault-dwellers kind of uh…” Deacon gestured at her bright blue vault suit. “Attract attention.”

“Uh huh. Well, at least the Minutemen didn’t greet me with guns and a surprise interrogation,” Mara said.

“Nah, they’re more the ‘shake your hand just to stab you in the back’ type,” Deacon said.

Mara snorted. “Says the spy.”

“Toosh,” Deacon said, smiling. “Alright. This-a-way newbie.” He cocked his head toward the bus-ramp and started to walk over, hands gripping his rifle. Mara followed. “We’re here to meet a tourist. They should have left us a trail, but we’ll need to look carefully for it. Keep an eye out for symbols drawn in chalk.”

“What kind of symbols?” Mara asked.

“Oh, you know,” Deacon replied over his shoulder. “X means stay away. Arrows mean follow. ‘Deacon rules’ means I got bored waiting somewhere.”

“And what are we meeting this, uh, tourist for?” Mara asked. Deacon’s long legs made easy work of a dead tree; she had to do an awkward little hop to make it over.

“Checking in on our old HQ,” Deacon said, beginning his ascent up the bus. “Until recently we had a nice little setup underneath a Slocum Joe’s. Then the Institute found us. It was…” Deacon stopped as if searching for the right words. He lowered his rifle and looked back at Mara through his sunglasses. “Bad.”

“I’m sorry,” Mara said, wishing she could see his eyes.

“Yeah, well,” Deacon said, turning back around. “If sorry were Sugar Bombs we’d have a hell of a swimming pool by now. We had to get out quick, which meant leaving something important behind. Our job is to go get it back. Long as it’s not too hot. A-ha!” He hopped onto the overpass, striding out of Mara’s sight. She jogged to catch up with him, trying to ignore the creak of old steel beneath her boots.

She reached the road and found Deacon crouching to examine a cement divider, his hand splayed out beside a small chalk drawing. Mara thought it looked a little like a firework – six lines spread out compass-like in different directions, with an arrow at the center pointing to their left, toward the road ahead.

“Railsign. Arrow says we’re on the right track,” Deacon said. He rose to his feet and strode onward, winding his way through the rusted frames of long-abandoned cars, Mara trailing quietly along.

They found their man a little further down the highway, a particularly cranky individual named Ricky Dalton who wasted no time in shouting down the two of them for taking so long. Once they’d finally calmed him down, his assessment seemed pretty clear – the old HQ was now a mess of synths, mines, and turrets. A death trap, in other words.

While Mara was still processing this information, Ricky leaned in and hissed, “Who the hell is he, by the way? HQ said they were sending just the one agent.”

“I’m new. Training. She’s just showing me the ropes,” Deacon interjected, cutting Mara off before she could reply. She turned around and shot him a pointed look but his face remained impassive.

“Fine, whatever,” Ricky said. “If that’s all, I’m getting the hell out of here.”

“Yeah, thanks Ricky,” Mara said. He nodded, and the conversation was over.

Deacon had already started walking away before Ricky had even finished speaking; Mara jogged over to catch up. “What’s your read?” he asked as she fell into step beside him. “You think he was telling the truth?”

“Yes,” Mara said, looking back at Ricky. “But you weren’t. What was that about?”

Deacon shrugged. “My job in the Railroad is intel. That job’s easier if no one knows who I am. So, I lied. I do that.”

Mara noticed his tone sounded clipped, even a little bit defensive. His rationale made sense, she guessed. She didn’t yet have a lot of experience running with underground militants, but she could see how getting comfortable with lying would come in handy in that sort of environment. But it sounded so sad. Isolating. She could never manage that kind of lifestyle for very long.

“I’m with you,” Deacon said.

“What?” asked Mara, startled.

“On your read. I think Ricky’s telling the truth. Which means a frontal assault is a no-go. We’ll have to take the secret back entrance.”

Mara nodded, her stomach turning over ever so slightly. She’d never even seen a synth before, aside from Nick Valentine. Now she was about to rush a building full of them with a man she’d just met. Who’d just told her he was a liar.

Deacon peeked down at her. “Hey, we’ve got this. Trust me.”

Mara snorted.

Deacon flashed her a small smile. “Yeah, yeah. You know what I mean.”

 

It turned out Gen 1 synths were terrifying.

Mara couldn’t imagine ever mistaking one of these early models for a real person. They looked almost skeletal, their chrome bodies shaped into walking, talking human forms but lacking any muscle or skin. Their movements were eerily smooth, their voices emotionless, booming out monotone threats whenever their sensors picked up on Mara. She’d gotten pretty sneaky over the course of her weeks above the surface, but the synths had a machine precision her skills were no match for. She was becoming a formidable sniper – she could comfortably pick off whole gangs of Super Mutants and raiders without a problem. But as she watched yet another robotic head whip around and saw those glowing yellow eyes focus on her where she knelt, she panicked. It took at least seven missed shots before she finally knocked its leg out, finishing it off once it had fallen into a heap on the ground.

“It usually helps if you aim the bullets at them, boss,” Deacon called from somewhere across the room. Mara spared a moment to grab a nearby screwdriver and throw it in his general direction.

“I am trying my best,” Mara gritted out, entirely not in the mood. She shakily reloaded her rifle.

“THERE YOU ARE,” another synth said just as she’d finished, rounding the corner and charging toward Mara. There was no time – she rose to her feet and cracked the robot in the forehead with the butt of her rifle. It stumbled backwards and she took the opening, firing a shot right between those horrible eyes. The synth fell heavy to the ground with a big metal clank. Mara’s breath sounded loud in the sudden silence.

“Awesome!” Deacon said from somewhere to her left. She turned to find him sitting at a nearby desk, carving something into it with the screwdriver she’d thrown at him. “Glad you took my advice.”

“Gee Deacon, thanks for having my back,” Mara sniped, wiping the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. She stalked over to the doorway, flattening her back against the wall and peering out into the hallway ahead for more Gen 1’s.

Deacon looked over at her. “Psh. I knew you had it under control.” Mara watched as he blew the dust off his completed etching, revealing “FART” written in big scratchy letters.

She sighed. “I hate fighting up close.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Deacon said, spinning around to face her in his chair and smiling. “I was giving you opportunities for practice. It’s… messy but you’ve got to get comfortable with it.”

“Yeah. I know,” Mara said noncommittally, returning to her reconnaissance work. The hallway looked empty enough but these synths seemed to pop up out of nowhere. She glanced back over to Deacon, who was still watching her.

“You won’t always be able to snipe your targets from across the street, you know.” He put down the screwdriver, seemingly satisfied with his work, and rose to his feet. “Sometimes… you’ll be across the room.” He took a slow step forward, then another, sauntering over as Mara watched. Soon he was right in front of her, his scuffed-up sneakers almost touching the toes of her boots. “Sometimes you’ll be nose-to-nose.” He leaned in even further.

Mara’s eyes went wide. She tried to draw herself back but the wall left her nowhere to go.

Deacon smirked, planting his hands on either side of her head, his arms trapping her in place. “Do you think you could handle that?”

Not since she’d woken up those 5 weeks and 3 days ago had Mara been this close to another person who wasn’t also trying to kill her. And this person was a man. A handsome man, she noted, examining the stubble on his jaw and the crook in his smile, which were now directly in her line of vision and therefore completely unavoidable. He was boxing her in, looming over her with his lanky frame, likely just being playful but setting off all kinds of confusing sense memories in her body. Her brain suddenly caught up, flashing images of Nate, leaning down to meet her lips in a kiss after their second date, Nate, gently angling her chin to examine a bruise she’d incurred helping him put up a shelf, Nate, holding her hips and beaming down at her as they slow-danced together in their new kitchen, her pregnant belly bumping up against his stomach.

Mara instantly went rigid, guilt and disgust flooding her body like a poison. She felt dizzy, nauseous, panicked. Deacon immediately caught on and pulled away, the smile vanishing from his face, his expression suddenly one of genuine concern.

“You ok, boss?” he asked.

Mara looked up at him. What could she even say? Oh, I’m fine, it’s just that standing this close to you simultaneously switched my libido back on and reminded me of my dead husband and now I kind of want to die.

Deacon seemed to draw some kind of understanding as the silence stretched on between them. He looked down for a moment, then back up to meet Mara’s eyes. “Listen, if-“

“YOUR ATTEMPTS AT STEALTH HAVE F-“

Deacon pistol-whipped the synth as it entered through the door beside them, knocking it down in a single blow. The robot froze in place, its head twisted around backwards, and crashed to the floor. They both stared at it for a moment as the damaged frame hissed and popped with stray sparks.

“We should, uh,” Mara said.

“Yeah,” Deacon replied.

Without risking a look at each other, they continued onward.

Chapter Text

The funny thing was, Nate never lied.

He’d been far too blunt for his own good for as long as Mara had known him. He was kind, of course, and generally got along well with people, but the small social niceties that most adults employed without thinking didn’t come naturally to him. One time, a good friend had approached the two of them to announce her engagement, and Nate had responded with a small frown.

“Do you really think Bill is cut out for that level of commitment?” Mara remembered him saying. “I’ve never known him to stay with a girl for more than a few months.”

Sally had sobbed on their living room couch for the next hour or so, Mara holding her and quietly shushing as she glared at Nate, who just poured more vodka and risked a few sheepish glances. Sometimes, it was like that.

Most of the time, Mara appreciated Nate’s honesty. He was straightforward and sincere, and she never had to second guess at his true feelings. He admired her and made sure to tell her so, offered up concerns before they were allowed to fester, asked questions instead of making assumptions. For all his talk of being a poor fit for military service, Mara always thought he seemed most at home in that kind of world, a world with boldly drawn lines and good guys and bad, where attention to detail and a clear head were what kept you alive. She had hated the war, and the men in power who had so rabidly escalated it, but she saw what it gave Nate. Purpose. Direction. Meaning.

“What if I don’t like being a father?” Nate had said to her one night as she was drifting off to sleep by his side. She was 7 months pregnant at the time, and she had scrunched her eyes up tight hearing it, wishing for once Nate wouldn’t just offer up the truth like a gift. She had wanted to shout at him, to ask him to put on a face just this once, to seem prepared and ecstatic and solid even if he didn’t feel it. Instead, she’d said nothing, pretending to already be asleep, watching the sky out the window as it changed from black to purple to blue.

 

Judging by the wide-eyed glances of the agents scattered around Railroad’s HQ, Mara guessed Deacon had beat her back to the catacombs supplied with his own version of their little adventure. Her assumptions were immediately proven right as she descended the staircase and approached a small group clustered around a couch.

“No fuckin’ way,” one woman was saying. The one who’d aimed a minigun at her, Mara dimly recalled. “There’s no way she beat a gen 1 to death with its own arm.”

“Way,” she heard Deacon reply. “Then she popped its head off and bowled down three of its friends. I mean, the artistry alone.”

Desdemona looked up as she saw Mara approach. “Ah, welcome back. Deacon here was just telling us about your mission. I’m amazed just the two of you were able to make it in and out of there alive. Tell me, did you really take out over a hundred gen 1s with just your bare hands?”

Deacon peeked over from his seat on the couch, grinning up at Mara. He was back in his pompadour. She gave him a small smile.

“Well, um…” Mara waited for inspiration to strike her, trying to draw upon all she’d seen of Deacon’s reckless chatty energy. Nothing came.

“I see,” said Desdemona dryly. “Well, regardless, you made it back with the prototype. And I have to admit, it seems you’ve made quite an impression on Deacon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lie about someone so highly before.”

Mara looked back to Deacon, who had suddenly become very interested in a stray thread poking out from the arm of the couch. She turned back.

Desdemona pursed her lips, then nodded curtly. “Welcome to the Railroad, agent,” she said, extending a gloved hand. Mara shook it and looked over at Deacon again, who was still staring determinedly at the couch but was now sporting a goofy little smile on his face. She smiled too, feeling a little flare of pride. That’s right, she told herself. Just pride. Healthy, platonic pride.

A few agents drifted over to introduce themselves. Drummer Boy, a baby-faced twenty-something in a cap and jacket, gripped her hand tightly and said he was looking forward to working with her. A sour-faced man in a lab coat she assumed was Carrington just grabbed the prototype and told her to wash her face sometime this year. A guy named Tinker Tom handed her a small metal object wrapped in wires and gave her a meaningful look. The woman who’d been talking to Deacon earlier walked up and clapped a strong hand onto Mara’s shoulder.

“I don’t know what the hell you guys got up to over there, but either way you got the job done. Name’s Glory. Thanks for joining the fight. My people could use another Heavy working to free them.”

Mara blinked. “You’re?”

“A synth, yeah,” Glory provided with a smile.

Mara couldn’t help but stare back at the woman in front of her: her beautiful dark skin, the undeniably human rows of teeth, her tiny defined eyelashes.

“Hey, lady, buy a girl a drink first,” Glory said. Mara started, mouth beginning to form an apology, but Glory just laughed. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I get it. Not every day you get to meet the genuine article.”

Mara smiled, relieved. “It’s great to meet you, Glory.”

Glory winked and strolled off.

“Well, color me a little jealous,” Deacon’s voice drawled. Mara looked over to find him alone, leaning back on the couch, his long arms stretched out beside him.

“What?”

“I wasn’t nearly as popular the first time the crew met me. It took me forever to develop the deep, abiding friendship I share with Glory.”

Mara looked over at Glory, who silently gave Deacon the finger from a workbench across the room.

“Ah, yes,” Mara said, turning back to Deacon with a smirk. “That sort of thing takes time.”

“Mm. Well, congratulations are in order. I knew you could do it.”

Mara willed her rising blush away. “Thank you. And thanks for vouching for me. Even if it was, uh. In your own special way.”

Deacon laughed and rose to a stand in front of her. “Not a problem. I wasn’t lying when I said the Railroad needed you.”

“Still. Thanks.”

The two of them looked at each other, then around the room a bit. Mara spotted Drummer Boy watching them.

“Listen,” Deacon said, pitching his voice a little softer than its normal booming volume. “That uh, thing that happened.”

“No, don’t worry-“

“No, no. I wanted to apologize.”

Mara looked up at him uneasily, wishing she could just extract herself from this conversation. “You really don’t have to.”

“No, I was… We kind of live out of each other’s pockets here. I forget that, when I’m working with someone new. Most uh, normal people like their space. So. I’m sorry.”

Mara smiled. “I’m not exactly normal people.”

Deacon grinned back. “Yeah well, either way.”

Mara nodded, and the two fell into another small silence. She felt guilty and strange. She didn’t want Deacon to think he’d done something wrong, but she didn’t know how to explain exactly what had happened back at Switchboard.

“My husband,” she said, suddenly. Deacon raised his eyebrows at her, expression still mostly inscrutable behind his sunglasses. She breathed and quietly cursed herself, quickly trying to think up a way to explain herself without explaining much. Deacon waited patiently.

“He died,” she said finally. “I saw it. Less than two months ago. So.”

Deacon looked down at the ground and nodded a few times, head moving just a little too quickly. Mara clasped her hands, needing something to do with them.

“I get it. Thank you,” Deacon said. He looked back up at her. “For telling me.”

It was Mara’s turn to stare down at the ground. She felt stupid, like she’d overstepped.

“I was married once,” Deacon said suddenly. Mara snapped her head back up, surprised. It was hard to tell with his sunglasses, but he seemed to be looking just to the right of her, avoiding her eyes.

“You were?”

“Yeah. I saw them die too.”

Mara waited for a moment but that was it, that was all Deacon was offering her. She wondered if this was just another lie of his, another facet of some constructed personality meant to make her feel safe opening up to him. She didn’t know why, exactly, but she decided she believed him. It was something about the way he said it, how the words sounded unpracticed and unwanted in his mouth. It was too undressed, too plain to be untrue.

Deacon patted her gently on the shoulder and turned away, off to crash on a spare mattress in the corner. Mara watched him and felt something small shift inside her.



“Hey, Vault Girl.”

Mara groaned and rolled onto her back, blinking up at the figure who’d just dug the toe of their boot into her side.

“I’m gonna kill you.”

“Good morning to you too, sunshine!” Deacon said.

Mara rose up onto her elbows and looked around. The catacombs were still dark, but she supposed they always were this far underground. She spotted Tinker Tom across the room excitedly pitching something to an indulgent but tired looking Desdemona. Deacon towered directly above her in a plaid shirt and jeans, smiling.

“You could just call me Mara, you know,” she said grumpily.

“Bzzt. Shhppp. No names.”

Mara squinted up at him. “What?”

“I’m not supposed to know your real name, doofus,” Deacon said.

“Oh my god. Was all that codename stuff real?”

“Yes, and very important in the whole not getting everyone killed thing, so please pretend like you care about following the rules for once in your life.”

“Hey, not fair,” Mara said, sitting up and grabbing some water from a table beside her. “I was a lawyer once. I’m extremely good with rules.”

Deacon made an impressed face. “A lawyer, huh? Didn’t know we still had any of those around. Put any bad guys away?”

Mara smirked as she swallowed her drink. “Not exactly. Public defender.”

Deacon shrugged.

“Never mind. So, what motivated you to risk an extremely violent dismembering and kick me awake?”

Deacon snorted. “Please, that was a polite nudge.”

“Kick.”

“Whatever. I have a proposition for you.”

“Oh?” Mara said, getting to her feet. Whatever this was about, she didn’t want to discuss it while craning her neck up at Deacon. It was bad enough that he had some height on her when they were both upright. It made her stomach twist a little for reasons she definitely wasn’t about to examine.

“What do you say about taking on a sidekick?” Deacon asked.

Mara blinked. “You want to travel with me?” she asked, voice a little too high.

“Yep.” He smiled.

Mara cast a glance around the room. “Don’t they need you here?”

“Well, my job’s intel. The more places I go, the better I’m doing it. And you?” He paused to look her up and down. “You are just one big, beautiful distraction.”

Mara swallowed. If Deacon saw, he didn’t respond to it. He just kept smiling at her.

“Plenty of opportunities to learn secrets moving around in your shadow,” he added, lifting one shoulder in a shrug.

His reasoning made sense, Mara supposed. And she really could use the backup. Deacon was quick, sneaky, good with a gun. He seemed to know everything there was to know about the many different characters wandering the Commonwealth. And traveling everywhere on her own was getting lonely.

But she liked him. Liked him in a way that spelt trouble, or heartbreak. He was a man made up of lies and secrets, the kind of man it wasn’t wise to get attached to. If she were smart, she’d turn him down.

Mara had never been all that smart when it came to men.

“Ok,” she said. “Yes.”

“Awesome,” Deacon said, grinning. “Give me a minute to grab some things and I’ll be good to go.”

“Right,” Mara said, nodding. “Awesome.”

Awesome.

She was screwed.

Chapter Text

“Come onnn,” Piper whined, stomping her feet a little. “I get a great story, you get the word out about your son, everybody wins here.”

Mara worried her lower lip – a bad habit she hadn’t been able to shake for, well, hundreds of years now. She’d made it back to Diamond City with Deacon in tow; he was now lounging on the couch in the Publick Occurrences office, watching through his sunglasses as Piper tried to goad Mara into giving an in-depth interview on her experiences navigating the Commonwealth. Piper had been the one to originally get her into Diamond City, and had first pointed the way to Nick Valentine’s office, so Mara thought it was only fair that she hold up her end of the deal and drop in at the first available chance. She assumed she’d be helping out with research, maybe gathering some statements for an upcoming article. But an interview?

“I don’t know,” Mara said. “What if this tips his captors off, and they relocate him or something? What if they come looking to take me out?”

“Or!” Piper interjected. “What if you become a beloved local figure and everyone adores you and you gain a hundred extra pairs of eyes to help you find your son? People like to help! Sometimes you just have to give them a little backstory.”

Deacon snorted from his place on the couch.

Piper whipped her head around to glare at him. “What, Deacon?”

“Hmm? Oh, don’t mind me. Go ahead, keep encouraging our girl to divulge all her secrets. Make sure we take away every last advantage she might have over the Institute.”

Piper rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. You know as well as I do that the Institute has spies everywhere.”

“Spies?” Deacon shouted, clenching his chest. “Here? In Diamond City?” Mara couldn’t help but smirk.

“They probably already know everything there is to know about Blue,” Piper continued, unfazed by Deacon’s dramatics. She turned back to Mara. “This would just be about taking back the narrative. Shaping your story.”

“It’s suicide,” Deacon grumbled.

“I’ll do it,” Mara said, quieting them both. Piper was right. If a tiny outfit like the Railroad already knew everything she’d been up to since the big de-frost, there was no way she’d successfully avoided Institute eyes all this time. She only had something to gain by getting her story out there.

“Great!” Piper said, rummaging around for a notebook. Deacon just folded his arms and pretended to settle in for a nap.

“Alright,” Piper said, uncapping a pen with her teeth. “Tell me about life in the Vault. Social hierarchies? Perceptions of the surface? Quality of food?”

Mara smirked. “Well uh, it was pretty quiet, actually. I was frozen the whole time. We all were.”

Piper frowned and lowered her notebook. “Come on, Blue. If you’re going to do this you have to be serious about it.”

“I am being serious,” Mara said, shrugging.

Piper’s eyes went wide. “Oh my god. Oh my god! You are, aren’t you? That’s insane! Why would you ever sign up for that?”

Mara felt Deacon’s eyes on her, but she tried to keep her focus on Piper. “I didn’t. It all happened kind of quickly. We were running from the bombs, and-“

“Stop. Hang on. You were alive back then? Before the war?”

“Yeah. I guess technically I’m over 200 years old.”

“Holy shit,” said Deacon. Mara finally snuck a glance at him. He was sitting upright now, peering at her with intense curiosity.

“Wow. The Woman Out of Time. Unbelievable,” Piper said, her pen now moving furiously.

“I guess so.”

“So, gosh, what do you think of all this? How does life in the Commonwealth compare to what things were like before?”

Mara thought a moment. “It’s like… waking up on a completely different planet. Or in another dimension. Things seem familiar… but not. It’s still all so strange.”

Piper nodded, her face open and sympathetic. “Figures. I can’t even imagine.”

“There are some things that haven’t changed, though,” Mara continued. “People, for one. Whenever I feel like things are really hopeless, the people here manage to remind me of the good. Most people are just trying to rebuild, to make lives for themselves and the people they love. It helps, focusing on that.”

“That’s really nice, Blue,” Piper said, glancing up from her notes. “So, um. Your son. Do you suspect the Institute was involved with his kidnapping?”

“I don’t know,” Mara admitted. “From what I’ve learned so far, it sounds like random kidnappings are kind of their M.O. So that’s the lead I’m following for now.”

Piper nodded. “Wouldn’t be out of character for them, for sure. Plenty of people around here have lost someone to kidnapping. But a lot of times they get too scared, or too tired to keep looking. What would you say to someone like that? Someone who’s been through what you’ve been through, but feels ready to give up?”

Mara considered her words carefully. “I would tell them to never lose hope. You have to believe that you’ll see them again, someday. Or at least… that you’ll find out what happened. That’s all that keeps me going, somedays.”

“Wow,” Piper said, scrawling down a final note. “Thank you. Really. This is going to make for an amazing story. And I really believe it’ll help you find your baby.”

“Thanks Piper,” Mara said, smiling. She felt a little shaky; it apparently took a lot out of her to actually talk about everything that had happened instead of just shoving it all down like usual. She walked over to where she’d left her rucksack by the door, crouching to rummage through its contents for her canteen of water.

“Hey,” Deacon said from somewhere behind her left shoulder.

Mara found the canteen and stood up, turning to face him. “Hey.”

“So uh, you’re old.”

Mara barked out a surprised laugh. “I am, yeah.”

Deacon nodded, looking thoughtful. “My brave little frozen entrée.”

“Alright.”

“My precious little ice cube.”

“Are you done?”

“My determined little Nuka-Cherry popsicle. Ok, yeah I’m done.”

“Thank god,” Mara said, fighting to keep the smile off her face.

“Seriously, that’s some wild shit,” Deacon said, absentmindedly scratching at his chin. “I guess it explains some things though.”

“What things?” Mara asked, frowning.

“I don’t know. Your whole demeanor. The distinct lack of radioactive glow.”

“Uh huh.”

“Forget it. Kind of hard to explain.”

“Well, I hope it’s all good things.”

Deacon smiled warmly at her. “Oh yeah. Only good things.” Mara smiled back, her stomach flipping in that now-familiar way.

They stood there for a moment, Deacon kind of gazing at her from less than an arm’s length away. Suddenly he seemed to realize himself and took a small step back, likely remembering their earlier awkward encounter at the Switchboard.

“I told Nat I was gonna, uh. Fix a thing. So.” He gestured to Piper’s little sister across the room and turned around, leaving Mara to watch him flee.

“God,” Mara mumbled to herself.

“Hmm?” Piper asked, looking up from her desk.

“Piper? How much do you know about him?” Mara asked, nodding her head at Deacon.

Piper followed the movement. “Who, Deacon?” She chuckled. “A whole lot. All lies, probably.”

“Yeah, that figures,” Mara said, feeling deflated.

“Why?” Piper asked, lowering her voice. “Do you suspect him of anything?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“Oh. Oh, dear.”

“What?”

“You’re into him.”

“I am not into him,” Mara hissed, looking up to see if Deacon had heard anything. He was thankfully distracted, showing Nat how to adjust something on the printing press with a screwdriver.

“Oh, you’ve got it bad. Look at you, your cheeks are all pink.”

Mara clapped her hands over her face. “I’m not into him. I mean, for one, it would be a terrible idea,”

“Agreed,” Piper said.

“And two, I saw my husband get murdered less than 6 weeks ago and what the hell kind of person would I be if I was already out here thinking about… things.”

“Eh, I don’t know about that,” Piper said, shrugging a shoulder. “I mean, this is the Wasteland. I know plenty of people who got engaged at their spouse’s funeral. My friend Karen got married at her late husband’s burial site.”

“Seriously?” Mara asked, eyes wide.

“Seriously. Wastelanders see a lot of death. If we stuck to some kind of formal mourning period we’d all be grieving all the time.”

“Yeah, well. I’m not from here.”

Piper sighed. “I know. Just, try to go easy on yourself, you know? Things are different now.”

“You’re telling me,” Mara said.

“Maybe pick a different guy, though.”

Mara snorted. “Any suggestions?”

“Ugh, no,” Piper said, frowning. “Well, Arturo the weapons guy is super cute. But I think he’s spoken for.”

“Bummer,” Mara said, staring at Deacon’s back as he reached over for a nearby wrench. She could see his muscles move underneath his shirt.

“You are doomed, Blue,” Piper said, turning back to her writing.

“Yeah.” She really, really was.


The first week was a little strange. She and Deacon stuck mostly to small jobs; scouting out space for future settlements like she’d promised Preston Garvey she would, clearing out mole rat infestations for caps, looting abandoned buildings for scrap to sell. At night they set up camp, laying their two bedrolls out beside each other and propping up a small patchwork tarp for shelter. Deacon always slept facing upright, his arms folded across his chest, sunglasses firmly on. Mara thought the visual pretty much summed up his approach to the world, but she didn’t tell him so.

Spending all her time in such close quarters with someone took some getting used to. She learned the raspy sound of Deacon’s voice first thing in the morning, the slow pace of his breathing when he slept, the way he smelled whenever he was close by (like cigarette smoke and sweat and something kind of spicy that she couldn’t quite identify). She learned how his eyes crinkled up at the edges when he smiled, but only when he was genuinely smiling, never when he was working an angle. He read people beautifully and always picked the perfect role to play off Mara. Sometimes he was the goofball to her sincere confidant. Sometimes he was the asshole to her compassionate ear. Sometimes he was just the quiet hired gun, projecting an air of boredom while quietly cataloguing every detail of an encounter.

Mara loved it. She loved sharing so many secrets with him, felt possessive of what admittedly little knowledge she’d been able to scrape together of Deacon’s life when all most people got were mere characters. There was something exhilarating about hearing his rough whisper in her ear as they departed a conversation, listening to him run through his read of things and propose their next steps. It was partnership in a way she’d never quite experienced before.

It didn’t take long for him to become a familiar presence. She stopped jumping when he laid his hand on her shoulder as they crept around another dilapidated factory, no longer felt her body tensing when he came near. Deacon was intensely physical, likely thanks to his years sneaking around the Commonwealth and honing his ability to effortlessly fade into a crowd. The two of them quickly developed a silent language, tapping and touching one another to warn for possible threats or point out sites of interest. She still found him handsome, of course, still caught her eyes glazing over from time to time as she watched him gracefully navigate whatever disaster they’d gotten themselves into, but he didn’t make her quite so nervous anymore.

Early one morning while it was still dark, Mara was sitting on an overturned wooden carton and tending what was left of their small campfire when Deacon shot upright on his bedroll with a stifled shout, panting heavily as he looked around, taking in his surroundings. Mara watched him slowly come back to himself.

“I get nightmares too,” she said finally, when it looked like Deacon had mostly calmed down. He just looked back at her through those sunglasses, inscrutable as ever.

After a moment, she reached out and grabbed his discarded jacket, tossing it over to him. Deacon caught it in mid-air and fished out his pack of cigarettes from the front pocket. He rose and joined her over by the fire, sitting cross-legged on the ground next to her. Mara wordlessly held out her lighter and he leaned over, cigarette hanging off his lips. The small flame momentarily brought his face into detailed view, the light reflecting off his sunglasses. Then, it was gone.

They sat next to each other in the dark, saying nothing. After a few minutes Deacon leaned into her, resting his head on her shoulder. He felt warm against her. They stayed like that until the birds began to chirp and the sun first started to peek over the horizon.

Chapter Text

They found a mostly un-picked-through storehouse just outside Natick one afternoon. Mara took her time picking through the piles of half-rusted junk inside, quietly sorting useful from useless as Deacon sat at a workbench trying to fix the front and hind legs of a Giddyup Buttercup to a torn Jangles the Moon Monkey.

“What do you think?” he asked, holding up a mess of stuffing and metal limbs. “I call it Jangles the Giddyup Monkey Cup.”

“I think you need a more productive hobby.” Mara let out a sigh from her seat on the cement floor, her breath kicking up a small circle of dust. “And I think if I spend another minute sorting through this shit my brain is going to start leaking out my ears.”

“Eugh, visual. Alright, I’ll leave Monkey Cup here as a gift for a wandering child, or a wandering, uh, chem fiend.” Deacon sat his creation upright in a small metal chair and patted its head goodbye.

“Kind of you.” Mara leaned to adjust her now considerably heavy rucksack as she stood up. Deacon just smirked at her.

They headed toward the side door she’d successfully picked open earlier to Deacon’s hummed approval. Mara made it about a step or two onto the crunchy brown grass outside before bumping right into Deacon, who’d gone still in front of her. He was looking upward.

“Ok, you’re seeing this too, right?” he asked her, voice low.

She followed his lead, gazing up at the sky. It was hard to miss. Above them floated a giant airship, a grey, blimp-like monstrosity of propellers and lights accompanied by a small fleet of helicopters. It was enormous, at least the size of a floating city block, maybe bigger. Mara realized her mouth was hanging open and quickly snapped it shut.

“People of the Commonwealth!” a male voice boomed from a radio system aboard the ship. “Do not interfere. Our intentions are peaceful. We are the Brotherhood of Steel!”

“Jesus Christ,” Mara hissed.

“Hm, you think? Never pegged him for a pilot, but he does seem like the showy type,” Deacon replied.

Mara lightly smacked his arm. “This is serious. Danse said they had backup coming, but he never mentioned… that thing.”

“Danse?”

“Brotherhood guy. The one I helped back at Cambridge police station.”

“Ah yes, the ghoul bait.”

Mara had already told Deacon the full story of her stumbling across the compound of Brotherhood soldiers just as they were fighting for their lives against a horde of angry ferals. The memories still made her a little queasy – the pack of bodies fighting their way past damaged fencing, the sound of inhuman growls hot on her ear, the panic in Danse’s voice as he barked orders to his team. It had taken a while for her to calm down after, sitting in the odd quiet of the police station as Danse rested beside her in his power armor.

“Right. Him.” Mara considered a moment while Deacon continued tracking the path of the airship, turning his head to follow as it slowly drifted away.

“We’ve gotta check in with them,” she decided. “I don’t know if he’ll tell me much, but the Brotherhood is clearly going to be a force to reckon with. I need to stay on good terms with them for now.”

“Oh, must we?” Deacon said, a slight whine to his voice. They’d so far stayed clear of most of the other Commonwealth factions, sticking to small settlements and caravaners. Mara got the feeling Deacon was most comfortable living on the outskirts like this, keeping his head down and out of any major conflicts.

She bumped shoulders with him. “Oh, come on. It’s your job to look into these things.”

“Point.”

“And who knows? Maybe we could get up on that thing and take a peek around.”

Deacon pulled a face. “God, I hope not.”

Mara ignored him, fiddling with the strap on her rucksack. “If we start now and walk until sunset, we can camp outside town and get there tomorrow morning.”

“Good thing I’ve already got some stubble growing in,” Deacon said, rubbing his chin.

“Why, what’s your cover this time?” Mara started to walk back towards the main road. Deacon fell into step beside her.

“Bodyguard with a drinking problem. He’s all you could afford but probably still ripping you off.”

“Huh.”

“Brotherhood guys are all clean-cut, militant, stick-up-their-ass types. A drunk won’t register as a threat. Or a security risk. And they’ll probably feel bad for you having to put up with me.”

“The naïve little Vault-dweller rubbing elbows with the scum of the Commonwealth.”

He pointed a finger gun at her. “Bingo.”

“You’re pretty good at this you know,” Mara said, trying not to sound too fawning.

“Pretty good? Madam, I am an artist.”





They made it to the police station not long after sunrise. Danse and the rest of his crew were already awake and suited up, joined this time by a few Brotherhood scribes, who were currently scurrying around tallying supplies. One of them seemed to be taking down a message for Danse.

“Yes, that’s good. Make sure it doesn’t sound like there’s wiggle room there. We’re already maxed out.” He looked up as Mara entered the room. “Mara, welcome,” he said with a smile, handing a clipboard back to the scribe and stomping over in his power armor. “Did you see it?”

“The ship?” Mara asked, angling her neck back to look up at him as he approached.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” Danse was practically beaming down at her, a far cry from the worried, exhausted man she’d last encountered here. “We call her ‘The Prydwen’. She’s loaded with enough troops and supplies to mount a major offensive. And if Elder Maxson…” he trailed off, suddenly noticing Deacon. “My apologies, I didn’t see you had company with you. Paladin Danse, Brotherhood of Steel.”

Deacon stared back at him. He was wearing a plaid shirt that had been half-tucked into his jeans and a cap that sat slightly askew on his shaved head.

“Why’re you wearing a garbage can?” he asked. Mara fought off a smile.

Danse frowned and straightened up a bit. “Excuse me, sir, but this is Brotherhood of Steel T-60 power armor. It designates my rank as Paladin and-“

“Yeah, whatever,” Deacon interrupted, waving a hand in the air.

Danse turned his shocked expression to Mara, who shrugged.

“Daryl’s my new hired gun. I found him in Diamond City.” She lowered her voice a bit. “I’m really sorry, he’s always like this until about noon or so.”

Danse looked at Deacon, then Mara, then back to Deacon again. “My goodness,” he said.

“Are you headed up there yourself?” Mara asked, her voice back to a normal volume.

“Not yet, I’m afraid. But soon,” Danse replied. He was still surveying Deacon, who had found an old desk chair to lounge on. After a moment he seemed to realize himself, looking back down at Mara and smiling. “And you’re welcome to come with me, so long as you accept my offer to join the Brotherhood.”

“I’m still thinking about it,” she said honestly

“I understand,” Danse said, nodding. “It’s a big decision. But I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t think you were more than capable.”

“Thank you. Really. I know you guys genuinely want to help the Commonwealth.” She knew Danse did, at least. She was less sure about his methods, or the leadership behind him, for that matter.

“We do. And we will,” Danse agreed.

“But I’m still not sure I see eye-to-eye with the Brotherhood on some things,” Mara added, trying to sound as diplomatic as possible.

“I see,” Danse said. “Are you referring to the topic we discussed during our last meeting? About, uh, helping synths? Because I have to tell you, I believe your feelings there are a bit misguided. No disrespect intended, of course.”

Danse actually did manage to avoid sounding patronizing when he disagreed with her, a trait Mara had found to be fairly rare in men on either side of her 200 years underground. It earned him a lot of credit.

“Have you ever heard the expression, ‘When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’?” Mara asked.

Danse smiled. “No, but I understand your meaning. And perhaps I’m a bit biased, but I’d like to think the Brotherhood has more than a few different tools in our repertoire. Besides,” he said, pausing to place a hand on her shoulder.

Suddenly there was a loud noise like metal scraping against wood, and both Danse and Mara turned to see Deacon standing up, his chair about a foot behind him. Mara could immediately tell this was no longer Daryl she was looking at. The affected slouch was gone, replaced by a very real tension throughout Deacon’s entire frame. She stared.

Deacon looked awkwardly back at them for a moment, before shrugging a shoulder. “Thought I saw a radroach,” he mumbled.

Danse shook his head disbelievingly. “You are paying this man to protect you?” he asked Mara, barely lowering his voice.

“Yeah. Best I could get, unfortunately” she said, trying to look sheepish. “Caps are pretty scarce out there.” She glanced over at Deacon, who’d turned his back to them, seemingly busy inspecting a nearby desk drawer. She wanted to talk to him, see what the hell was going on, but they had to keep the act going so long as they were in sight of Brotherhood personnel.

“Speaking of which, that reminds me,” Danse said. “Haylen and Rhys have work available, if you’re looking. We could certainly use the help around here. And the pay is fair.”

“That sounds great, actually,” Mara said. She was genuinely broke, and happy for the excuse to check in with her partner. “So long as Rhys has decided he’s speaking to me now.”

Danse chuckled. “Ignore him. He’ll warm up to you eventually. Rhys! Haylen!” he called, beckoning the two over. “Our civilian contact is looking for work.”

Mara smiled, trying her best to look helpful.



“What the hell was that about?” Mara hissed as soon as they’d put some distance between themselves and the police station, weaving over cracked pavement and out of Cambridge. Deacon’s shoulders visibly tensed, as if he’d been waiting for the question. She watched him quickly school his face into a smile.

“I know, right? Danse wanting you to join the Brotherhood? Has he seen you in close combat?”

Mara rolled her eyes. “You know what I’m talking about.”

“I told you. Thought I saw a radroach.”

“Bullshit.”

“Aw, come on boss,” he said, smirking. “Would I ever lie to you?”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re a liar, you lie, lies are your thing, I get it.”

Deacon let his smile fall, likely catching on to the fact that Mara was genuinely frustrated. They walked in silence for about a minute or so.

“Being around Brotherhood just gets me tense,” he said finally, not looking at her.

Mara nodded. It wasn’t the full truth, she knew, but it was probably the best she was going to get. “Hey, I hear you,” she said. “Just weird to see you off your game like that.”

“You’re telling me,” Deacon said glumly. Mara turned to look at him, curious, but his face revealed nothing.



The raider’s nest didn’t give them too much trouble, but by the time they finished clearing the place out, both Deacon and Mara were winded. They settled back to back straddling an overturned Nuka Cola machine that had been sitting in the grass for a few decades, by the looks of it. Mara smelled something strange and metallic in the air that she couldn’t quite identify. Her senses were at a loss in this new world, all her usual markers of observation now completely useless.

“So, what is it we’re supposed to be bringing them again?” Deacon asked after a moment, turning his head around.

“Some kind of… thingy. A science thingy.”

“A science thingy. They do love those, huh?”

“They sure do,” Mara said absently. She noticed her boot had come unlaced at some point; she propped it up on the rusted red metal in front of her and retied the laces.

“Do you really think you’re going to join the Brotherhood?” Deacon asked.

Mara shrugged, feeling her back move against Deacon’s. “Dunno. They’re a little… fashy.”

Deacon snorted. “A little?”

“Ok, more than a little. They’re fascists. But I like Danse. And whether I join them or not, they’re up to something big. Might as well figure out what their angle is so I can either help them or help take ‘em down.” Mara paused. “You of all people should get that.”

“Oh, I get it.” Deacon said. “I just don’t want to see you getting sucked into something…”

“Fashy?” Mara offered.

“Evil.” Deacon sounded unusually serious.

Mara swung a leg around, changing positions so that her legs hung off the side of the machine. Deacon followed suit, turning until the two of them were sitting shoulder to shoulder.

“I appreciate the concern. I really do,” she said, glancing over at him. “But I can make these choices for myself.”

“Sure ya can,” Deacon said. “But your choices don’t just impact you. They impact all of us. I’d hate to see the bloodbath that would go down if Danse ever found out I was a synth, for example. And-“

“What?” Mara snapped, getting to her feet.

“Right, we haven’t really covered that yet, have we?” Deacon said, folding his hands together.

Mara stared. “You’re a synth? Jesus, Deacon, why didn’t you tell me?”

“Don’t really like talking about it. But since I brought it up, you should probably have this.” He reached into his shirt pocket and produced a folded-up scrap of paper. Mara took it from him.

“What is it?” she asked, holding it gingerly.

“My recall code. Kind of a safety net the brain docs put in to reset me back to my old synth personality. But don’t use it unless you absolutely have to. It’ll wipe my memories. I’m not sure how much of me will even be left.”

Mara looked, horrified, at the piece of paper in her hand, then back at Deacon. It was all too much to process. What did it mean that the Deacon she knew was just a construct, an artificial personality layered on top of a previous life? It was overwhelming, it was almost unbelievable, it was…

It was…

Mara immediately went to work unfolding the piece of paper.

“No, no, it’s better if you don’t-" Deacon said, reaching a hand out.

She ignored him, a quiet fury brewing inside her. The words on the page immediately confirmed her suspicions.

You can’t trust everyone, it read, in Deacon’s scrawled handwriting.

Mara stared at the page, her ears growing hot.

“Listen,“ Deacon began.

She crumpled the paper up into a ball and shoved it in his mouth, then turned on her heel and walked away.

Chapter Text

Deacon wisely kept quiet for most of the journey back to Cambridge, trailing Mara from a comfortable distance. Mara tried her best to ignore him in an effort to calm her building irritation, but her brain had already become so accustomed to tracking his every movement that the task proved impossible. It was like a thread had formed between them, and as Deacon loped around humming to himself or inspecting an old shack or stopping to scratch a scab on his arm, she remained intensely aware of him. It was mildly infuriating.

They made it back to the police station a little after sunset. Mara ascended the stairs to find Danse leaning against the front counter, meticulously cleaning his combat knife with a rag. It was the first time Mara had seen him outside of his power armor and it was a bit of a mental adjustment. He was still taller than her, but more compact than she’d imagined, all muscle beneath his Brotherhood issue uniform.

“Ah, I didn’t expect you back so soon,” Danse said, placing the knife back down on the counter.

Mara shrugged a shoulder. “It wasn’t too bad. We got the jump on them, which made things go pretty smooth.” She held out the piece of tech Haylen had sent her out for, which she’d unceremoniously wrapped in a half-burnt handkerchief. “Here’s your, uh,”

“Flux sensor,” Danse finished, smiling. He took it from her gently. “And here are your caps, of course, as promised.” He traded her a small tin that rattled as it changed hands.

“Thanks.”

“No, thank you. You’ve been a real help to us.” His voice was warm and genuine, and she couldn’t help but smile back at him.

“Well, I don’t know,” drawled Deacon’s voice behind her. Deacon, who she’d managed to forget about for an entire 30 blissed seconds. “These little missions can’t be all that important, can they?”

Danse’s expression immediately shifted to one of annoyance, looking as though he’d forgotten about “Daryl” too. “I’m sorry?” he asked dryly.

Deacon walked over to them, placing a long arm around Danse’s shoulder. “If the top brass are all the way up there,” he said, jabbing a thumb up towards the ceiling, “And you guys are cramped down here in this shithole, I assume none of you are exactly, uh, essential personnel.”

Danse shrugged Deacon’s arm off, then pushed him back a step with a quick shove to his shoulder. Mara’s eyes flicked to the knife on the counter.

“You mind your tone, civilian,” Danse spat, face set in a deadly glare.

“Yikes,” Deacon said, holding up his hands in mock surrender. “Guess I hit a nerve.”

“Need I remind you that you are a guest in this compound?” Danse asked testily. “A guest that can be forcibly removed at my say so?”

“Compound,” Deacon repeated, snorting. He made a show of looking around the police station.

“De-Daryl,” Mara hissed. “Chill out.”

Deacon tsk’ed to himself, shaking his head. He took a step back toward Danse, straightening himself up so that he loomed over him just a bit. “Little men with big guns,” he growled. “Always the same fuckin’ story.”

Danse flinched as if to make a move towards him but Mara immediately threw an arm between the two of them, stilling his movements. “Daryl!” she shouted, trying to make her voice sound commanding. “You’re fired. Get the fuck out of here.”

Deacon looked down at her, eyes still hidden behind his sunglasses and mouth set in a mean smirk.

“If you say so, boss.”

He took one last look at Danse before sauntering out of the police station, the door slowly falling shut behind him.

Mara looked to Danse. “I’m really sorry about that,” she muttered, bending over to pick up her rucksack.

“You needn’t have, um, interfered. On my behalf,” Danse replied after a moment, face still set in small scowl.

“Yeah, well. I know you can handle yourself. He just. He’s an idiot,” Mara explained lamely.

“Right.”

“I should go,” Mara said, feeling suddenly out of place.

“No, no, it’s already dark. You should stay here, we’ve got plenty of space.” He gestured to the bedrolls already laid out around the room.

Mara smirked at him. “I can handle myself too. But thank you. Just feel like I could use open air about now.”

“Right. Well, thanks again.”

Mara gave him a small nod, then left the station, setting out into the night. The sky was dark but clear, the stars out in full view. She kept her pip boy light off, preferring to let her eyes adjust to the darkness rather than draw any attention to herself. She made it just two blocks before a garbage can whispered at her.

“Hey. Am I really fired?”

Mara stopped in place and sighed, letting her head fall backwards.

“See, that’s the thing about pretending,” Mara said, seemingly to no one. “You’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s fake. Where you stand with somebody.”

The trash can fell on its side with a loud clang; Mara’s hand immediately went to her holster, but a quick scan of the area told her the noise hadn’t alerted anyone to them yet. Deacon proceeded to slowly crawl out on his hands and knees wearing his pompadour and a dirty lab coat, his sunglasses titled at a weird angle. Mara just watched him as he awkwardly struggled to his feet.

“Am I supposed to take that as a ‘maybe’?” he asked, adjusting his sunglasses back into place.

Mara rolled her eyes. “You’re still carrying most of the food. Let’s just set up camp and eat.”

Deacon nodded. “You lead the way, boss.”



They pitched a tent by the river, their temporary campsite mostly hidden between a sloping hill and the husk of a long-abandoned bus. Mara ate her stew quietly, trying her best to avoid looking over at Deacon. To fill the silence she’d turned on her Pip-Boy’s radio, which filled the air with the sounds of a panicked DJ named Travis navigating through his playlist of pre-war songs.

“I didn’t do it to be cruel, you know,” Deacon said suddenly.

“Oh, come on,” Mara snapped, that same flare of irritation springing back to life inside her. “Danse has a lot of pride. You had to have known that shit would set him off.”

“What?” Deacon wrinkled his nose at her, then seemed to catch on, chuckling to himself. “Oh, yeah, no- that I totally did to be cruel. And because it was funny. Wasn’t it funny? His eyebrows completely take over his face when he gets mad, it’s amazing.”

“Deacon.”

“Right, no, I was talking about me uh,”

“Lying about being a synth?” Mara offered.

“Yeah, that. I mean, I told you. I lie to everyone.”

“I guess I was hoping I wasn’t everyone.” Mara immediately regretted the words; she hadn’t quite meant to put it like that. She avoided Deacon’s eyes, worrying her lower lip.

He sighed. “You’re not. You’re not everyone.” She glanced up at him across the campfire. He looked tired.

“You’re not everyone either. To me. I mean.”

Deacon smiled at her and she felt herself blush a little, grateful for the darkness around them.

“It was still a shitty thing to do,” she added. His smile disappeared, and he glanced off to the side, a small furrow appearing between his eyebrows. She immediately wished he’d turn back to her, idly wondering if she could smooth out that furrow with her thumb.

“I’m just trying to teach you to be careful,” he said, looking down at his interlocked hands. “There’s a lot of people out there who’ll try to sell you on their bullshit and use you for everything you’re worth, and I don’t want that to happen to you.”

“People like the Brotherhood?” Mara asked.

Deacon shrugged. “Sure. Or anybody, really. It’s a fucked-up world, and there’s a lot of people just in it for themselves.”

Mara felt her annoyance flare up again. “I’m not a child, Deacon. I may not be from here, technically, but I know how to think for myself. I don’t need you fucking with my head to try to instill some kind of stupid lesson.”

Deacon just shook his head, poking at the flames with a gnarled stick.

“What?” Mara asked, slightly petulant.

“Hey, who cares what I think. I’m just the guy with the stupid lessons.”

“Deacon.”

He dropped the stick into the fire and leaned forward onto his knees. She met his eyes, or tried her best to, guessing where they were hidden behind his sunglasses. “You make yourself too vulnerable too quickly,” he said. “You like people, and you know how to read them, but instead of actually using all that information, you just try your hardest to endear yourself to them. You want to be liked, and you’re lonely. Probably were even before the bombs dropped and you lost everybody. You give out information freely, partly because you feel guilty about lying, but mostly because you hope that by doing so people will want to give something of themselves in return. People will exploit that, and they’ll hurt you.”

Mara glared at Deacon, feeling somewhat like he’d just reached out and struck her. “You’re an asshole,” she said.

“Look at you, skipping ahead a whole lesson,” Deacon replied flippantly, pausing to drink from his canteen. Mara scowled and picked at a blister on her hand.

“Can I try?” she asked after a moment.

“Hmm?”

“Your game. I want to try.”

Deacon shrugged.

“You tell yourself you lie all the time because it keeps you safe, protects all those juicy Railroad secrets, but it’s mostly because you’re terrified of getting too attached to anyone,” she said. “You’re shit at dealing with loss, and even with all the walls you’ve built up over the years, you keep getting hurt. The second you think someone might have something on you, you lie to them to gain the upper hand. And your biggest fear is that someone, someday will get to know you. Because you don’t like that guy very much.” Mara had to will herself to keep looking back at Deacon, guilt already twisting her stomach.

Deacon’s face went slack for a long moment, then slowly bloomed into a grin.

“Wow. That was terrible.”

Mara couldn’t help but smirk. “That bad, huh?”

“Like you’ve never even met me.”

“Better luck next time, I guess.” She was back to feeling warmly towards him, and if the rollercoaster of emotions Deacon managed to send her on wasn’t going to kill her, that smile he seemed to save just for her surely would.

“You still want to travel with me?” he asked after a moment, a small thread of uncertainty coloring his voice.

In truth, Mara hadn’t even considering dropping Deacon. He was right, she had been lonely, and having Deacon by her side, even at his most aggravating, was a marked improvement over traveling alone.

“Of course. Just try not to be a dick so much.”

Deacon smirked. “I’ll work on it. Long as you try to be a little more careful.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Mara said. She sipped the last of the stew from her bowl. She hadn’t yet decided if Deacon’s concern for her was more touching or aggravating but in the mean time she wouldn’t be making any promises.

“You sure you wouldn’t rather travel with Captain Butthead?” Deacon asked, jerking his head back in the direction of the police station.

“Danse?” Mara asked. ‘God, what is your deal with him? He’s a nice guy.”

“Unless you’re a synth,” Deacon muttered.

“And no, I don’t want to travel with him. Weirdo,” Mara said, rolling her eyes. A small, barely noticeable smile flickered across Deacon’s lips.

They sat in a companionable silence for a while, the sounds of Diamond City radio playing on through the night. Eventually Mara clicked off her Pip-Boy and rose to her feet. She began to set out her bedroll while Deacon got up and dutifully put out the fire. She settled onto her back beneath the shelter of their tent, feeling the weight of the day already pulling her into a heavy sleep. Her eyes were drifting closed when Deacon spoke again.

“Hey.”

“What?” she asked.

“I know I might not always show it the right way, but. I’m in your corner. Always have been.”

Mara smiled to herself. “Goodnight, Deacon.”

“Yeah. Night.”

Chapter Text

H2-22’s hands were shaking. Mara held them between her own dirty palms, trying to give the synth a tangible grounding point to hang onto. They were seated facing each other on a mostly-intact couch inside Ticonderoga.

“No one followed us here, I promise,” she said softly. “We got them all. Deacon’s just checking to make sure everything looks safe out there.”

H2 nodded, his face pale. “Is it always like this?” he whispered. Mara flicked her eyes over to High Rise, who was occupied talking to another Railroad agent.

“No,” she said. “Sometimes it’s really nice. And you get used to the rest. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it gets easier.” She thought about how it felt first stumbling out of vault 111, trying to take in all the devastation around her, the paralyzing terror that gripped her whole body. She squeezed H2’s hands.

“Thank you.”

Mara smiled. “You don’t have to keep saying that.”

“But I am thankful,” H2 said, gazing back at her. “I never thought there could be people who would care about me this much.”

Mara placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You deserve to be cared for, H2. Remember that.”

H2 nodded and offered her a weak smile just as the elevator doors opened behind him. Mara craned her neck around to see Deacon stride into the room.

“Everything looks clear,” Deacon announced, all business. “How you holdin’ up, H2?”

“Good. Mara’s been sitting with me. It helps.”

Deacon looked over at Mara with a strange expression on his face. She raised an eyebrow back at him, but he just nodded at the two of them before walking over to greet High Rise.

“He cares for you,” H2 said, watching Deacon.

“Hmm?” Mara turned back to him.

“I could see it, when we were all traveling together. He never took his eyes off you. When you got between me and the raider, he looked scared.”

Mara felt a strange tightness in her chest. “He’s just used to covering my back,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “We’ve been traveling together for a little while now.” She looked over at Deacon and caught him looking back at her. Deacon immediately turned his attention to the Railroad agent beside him, asking her something Mara couldn’t quite make out.

“It’s good you have each other,” H2 said.

Mara nodded. “Yeah. It’s good.”

They said their goodbyes not long after, Mara pulling H2 into a tight hug before letting him quietly slink off into a spare room. High Rise offered her an enthusiastic handshake.

“Great meeting you,” Mara said, smiling.

“You too. Don’t let Deacon give you too much shit.”

Mara laughed. “God, I still can’t believe the face swap thing is actually real.”

“Real as anything,” High Rise said. “Well, not the part about becoming a ghoul. Or a woman. Far as I know, at least. The man tends to exaggerate, if you haven’t noticed.”

“Slander. Falsehoods. I will not have it,” Deacon said, head-butting High Rise in the shoulder. High Rise pretended to take a swing at him, ducking under Deacon’s attempt to block then hugging him around the waist and pushing him up against a wall. The two men wrestled upright for a minute or two, giggling like kids.

“Is this official Railroad business or can we pleeease start heading back to HQ?” Mara whined, half joking and half sincerely exhausted.

Deacon pulled back with a grin, his pompadour wig sticking out at weird angles. “Sorry man, my boss is relentless,” he said to High Rise, reaching up to smooth out his hair.

“You kids stay safe out there.” High Rise offered up a little salute. Mara waved back at him. Then they stepped into the elevator and watched the door close, and it was just her and Deacon again.

Deacon’s body was loose and relaxed, he slouched against the wall and smiled at her like it didn’t cost him anything.

“We did good tonight. Always like it when a mission goes smooth.”

Mara nodded, trying to resist the sudden temptation to lean in towards him. “It felt good to help H2.”

“You were great with him,” Deacon said. “Really. Sometimes people have to adjust to the whole working with synths thing, but you took to him right away.”

Mara felt that same heat on her cheeks that appeared every time Deacon paid her a sincere compliment. “I just listened, mostly.”

He stared at her, a soft smile on his lips. “I know I give you so much shit, but you really are something.”

Mara stared back at him, her eyes catching briefly on his lips. She didn’t have to wonder if he’d noticed, he shifted toward her ever so slightly. She saw his hands twitching at his sides, fingers just barely outstretched.

“Deacon,” she said, almost like a question - asking him what, she didn’t even know - and then the elevator doors opened up again.

“Yeah,” he said, walking out into the dark lobby. Mara followed him.



They made it to Railroad HQ in easy time, silently darting through the darkened alleyways of the city. Mara’s foot had barely left the last stair down to the church basement when she heard Desdemona’s voice barking out across the room.

“Deacon! Briar Rose! I have something for you.”

“Who is?” Mara started, before catching the amused look on Deacon’s face. “Oh no.”

“Well, you wouldn’t pick your own code name,” Deacon said, smirking. “Somebody had to.”

“How did you even come up with that?”

“Aw, come on. Don’t you know your bedtime stories?”

“Excellent work on relocating H2,” Desdemona interrupted as the two approached her. “Sounds like everything went as smoothly as we could have hoped.”

“Thanks, Dez,” Deacon said. Mara nodded by his side.

Desdemona looked tired, dark circles visible underneath her eyes. She rubbed her right temple. “Unfortunately, I can’t offer you much downtime. Carrington is worried about Augusta. They’ve been quiet since the attack at Switchboard, which suggests they may have been hit too.”

“Augusta?” Mara asked.

“Another safehouse,” Deacon replied.

Desdemona nodded. “I need you two to check on a dead drop for me, see if there’s any intel on their status. They might need our help.”

“Alright," Deacon said. "Do we at least get a couple hours to clock in some shut-eye?”

“Oh, right. Yes,” Desdemona said, looking as though she’d forgotten about the concept of sleep entirely. “You can stay here with Briar Rose and leave first thing in the morning.”

Mara heard a snort and turned to find an amused-looking Glory behind her.

“Briar Rose, like from Sleeping Beauty? Very clever.”

“Oh my god.” Mara smacked Deacon’s arm. “You’re not funny.”

Deacon was already shaking with laughter, visibly pleased with himself. “Aw, come on Princess. Don’t be like that.”

“Go to bed. All of you. Bed,” Desdemona said. “And maybe try to pretend for just five minutes that we’re all adults here.”

“Love you, Dez,” Deacon said, blowing her a kiss. Desdemona took out a cigarette and ignored him.



Mara picked up on the smell as soon as they entered the hospital through the side doors. She couldn’t quite place the scent, but it was heavy and persistent, made her feel a little sick. Pistol at the ready, she quietly made her way through what looked like an old maintenance wing, heading in the direction of the front lobby. Deacon stayed just a step behind her, a silent but reassuring presence at her back.

She slowly pushed open a door and the smell picked up in intensity, itching at the insides of her nostrils. There was fencing, likely the work of raiders, propped up and cordoning off the room ahead. And flames. Big flames, casting flickering shadows on the walls and ceiling, crackling with an intensity Mara could feel on her cheeks.

“Hey,” Deacon whispered, but Mara ignored him, crouching by the fence and peeking through the grating.

Suddenly she realized where she’d encountered the smell before. It came to her in a flash, a vivid memory of her kitchen at Sanctuary Hills, the way it was before the bombs. It was Nate’s birthday and though she was never much of a cook, she always insisted on making him a cake from scratch, and it always turned out a slumped mess of frosting. That day the cake was burning, she’d gotten distracted somehow, probably talking to her mother over the phone or doodling in that week’s crossword, and when she ran to take it out of the oven, forgoing her mitts, her right hand made contact with the oven coil and set off a white-hot flash of pain as it seared her skin. And her kitchen immediately began to smell something like the hospital she was in now.

It was burning flesh.

There were bodies in the bonfire, human bodies, scattered among broken furniture and scraps of wood. They lay like ragdolls, faces thankfully obscured, their flesh slowly turning black. One had a head missing.

“Boss,” Deacon whispered.

She ignored him, kicking the fence door open and stepping out into the open lobby.

“What?”

She followed the direction of the raider’s voice, turning rapidly and firing a shot into his skull from across the room. He’d barely hit the floor before she saw someone coming at her out of the corner of her eye, she spun to face them and took out a kneecap, got in a second shot to the head as they crumpled to the floor. There were more bodies she hadn’t seen, a pile of them, stacked up on a moving cart by the fire. She saw a face, a boy, young. He couldn’t have been older than 20, one arm missing, his face caved in on the side.

A ringing started up in her ears, but it didn’t matter, the raiders were loud and clumsy, and she easily rooted them out one by one. She made her way upstairs, past rusted old hospital beds and broken lab sets, felt her knife sink deep into the ribcage of a raider and didn’t remember when she’d switched to a knife, but it was better this way, more tactile. The blood ran hot down her arm and she dislodged herself, let the raider drop to the floor in front of her.

There were another 4 or 5 bodies piled upstairs, two more chopped into pieces in the old break room, some blood had dried on Mara’s left eyelid and it was sticking and bothering her but there were more raiders, shouting things she couldn’t quite make out, swarming her in bursts. She didn’t have time to stop, just kept moving, felt a hand close around her wrist and drove her elbow into the raider’s throat, slit it open as they stumbled backwards. Another knocked her down on her back, onto the rotting wood floor, and she drove her knife into their foot, pounced on them when they collapsed beside her, felt them moving underneath and kept stabbing.

“MARA!”

Her name filtered through the noise like a memory and suddenly there was an arm across her chest, a hand breaking her hold on the knife. She snarled and twisted but the grip around her was strong and she’d become so tired so quickly, her limbs heavy and uncooperative. She tried to focus on getting air into her lungs and they burned with the effort, her chest rising and falling in rapid cycles.

“Stop,” a voice was saying in her ear. “Stop.”

Mara looked down at the arm around her, studied the long fingers wrapped around her shoulder.

“Deacon,” she rasped, and the grip around her loosened.

“You with me?” he asked. Mara nodded her head.

He let go of her then and came around into her field of vision, crouching in front of her and grabbing her gently by the shoulders.

“We’re going back to HQ.” He ran a hand over her forehead, pushed back a lock of dark hair. “We shouldn’t come across any trouble if we head back the way we came in.”

Mara blinked at him. “The station update. We haven’t finished the mission.”

“Fuck the mission,” Deacon said, and nothing was making sense. Deacon always put the Railroad before everything else, his life and safety included. He didn’t talk like this. “You’re not ok right now. You’re barely even here. We get someone else to finish it.”

Mara tried to get up, but Deacon gently held her down. “No,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m not even hurt.”

“You’re not fine. See that guy over there? You stabbed him in the chest 17 times before I pulled you off of him,” Deacon said.

Mara turned and saw the body, lying in a pool of blood, a mess of cloth and flesh.

“If you keep at it like this you’re going to die.”

“Maybe I don’t care,” Mara said hoarsely.

Deacon shook her hard. “Don’t. How can you say that? Your son-“

“Is dead,” Mara said, her eyes filling up with tears.

“What?”

“This is the Institute, right? All those bodies, stacked up and chopped into pieces? That’s their fucking handiwork, right? What do you think they’d do to a baby? To my-“ she broke off into heaving sobs, remembering her son’s wails as they wrenched him from Nate’s hands. Nate’s frozen body, his skin dull and blue, eyes wide open and staring back at her.

She was shaking. A canteen appeared in her hands; she took it and started drinking, her motions slow and automatic. A hand – Deacon’s hand – was rubbing up and down one shoulder in a soothing rhythm. She focused on the movement, narrowed her world down to it.

“I think the place is mostly cleared out,” Deacon said finally. “Give me five minutes; I’ll find the tape and we can leave.”

Mara wanted to protest but she wasn’t even sure her legs could hold her, knew she would probably just slow Deacon down. She nodded, and he slunk away, disappearing into the shadows. She sipped from the canteen and tried not to think of anything at all, picking at a speck of dried blood on her boot. After a minute she heard the pop of a gun firing, then silence. Not long after, Deacon strode back into the room, holotape in hand.

“Let’s go,” Deacon said, gripping Mara by the elbow and allowing her to lean her weight on him as she got to her feet. She had a brief unsteady moment before she found her footing, stabilizing with a hand on Deacon’s shoulder. “Ok?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Mara said. He led her out of the room.

Chapter Text

Mara didn’t realize they were headed in the direction of Sanctuary until they had almost reached the settlement, the familiar abandoned Red Rocket coming into view in the distance. She hadn’t yet taken Deacon for a visit, but she’d told him enough about it, enough that he was apparently able to navigate his way there independently.

“The holotape?” Mara asked, her voice coming out hoarse after a few hours of disuse.

“Remember that caravan we passed a couple blocks from the hospital?” Deacon asked, immediately inferring her meaning. “That guard was one of ours; I handed it off to him. It’s definitely made it back to Dez by now.”

“Oh,” Mara said.

She caught sight of Preston first, perched as usual at his guard tower, laser musket strapped to his back. She watched as he grabbed for his binoculars and gave a wild arching wave, likely recognizing the bright blue of her vault suit from across the bridge. She waved back and smiled despite herself, feeling a burst of warmth in her chest.

“Mara!” Preston called when the two approached, jogging over to greet them at Sanctuary’s entrance. “Gosh, it’s good to see you. It’s been a little while.” He pulled her into a tight hug.

“Too long,” she said into his shoulder, then drew back to get a better look at him. “How’s everybody been?”

“Ah, same as always.” He grinned. “Marcy thinks one of the new settlers is stealing melons from her garden. Sturges has been working on some kind of upgraded turret that so far just catches fire a lot. And-“

There was a loud bark, followed by a flurry of brown fur, and Mara was suddenly knocked back onto the ground, Dogmeat wriggling happily in her arms and licking at her face. She laughed, struggling to avoid Dogmeat’s tongue.

“-Dogmeat’s missed you.” Preston finished. “He’s always real subtle about it though.”

“Ohhh Dogmeat, I’m sorry,” Mara sputtered in between licks. After a moment’s struggle she managed to roll to one side and sit up, hugging the dog to her. His tail thwapped happily against the ground.

“And it looks like you’ve brought a friend?” Preston asked. He nodded at Deacon, who’d been quietly standing off to the side.

“Yeah, uh,” Mara said, thinking quickly. They hadn’t prepared a cover on their way over, and she still wasn’t quite sure why Deacon had brought them here in the first place. “This is-

“Deacon,” he interrupted, extending a hand out to Preston. “Nice to meet you.”

“Preston Garvey, Minutemen,” Preston said, giving him a firm handshake. Mara studied Deacon, waiting for a smartass comment, but he just bit the side of his cheek and nodded, offering up a small smile.

“And you’ve already met Dogmeat,” Mara said from her seat on the ground.

“Dogmeeaaaatt. Love of my frickin’ life,” Deacon groaned, crouching to a kneel. Dogmeat bounded over to lick him too, almost knocking Deacon back in his enthusiasm.

“Well if Dogmeat likes you, you’re fine by me,” Preston said with a smile.

“Yes a-“ Deacon was cut off by another lick. “Discerning gentleman for sure.” He scratched Dogmeat’s head. Dogmeat nosed at his ear and managed to dislodge his sunglasses, which clattered to the ground.

Mara’s eyes went wide. Deacon immediately glanced over at her, looking trapped, and it was like staring back at someone new and familiar all at once. She quickly cataloged everything she could – the intense blue color of his irises, the small laugh lines visible at the corners of his eyes, the dark auburn eyebrows. She wanted to take his face in her hands, study him just like this, relearn all his expressions. Finally seeing his face didn’t sate her curiosity, it only made her hungry for more. She wanted to know everything about him, keep uncovering all that was Deacon.

But barely a moment passed before Deacon grabbed the sunglasses and put them back on, and the wall was firmly back in place once more. Mara tried not to look visibly disappointed. She rose to her feet, dusting dirt off her vault suit.

“Dinner should be in about an hour or so,” Preston said, unaware that anything had transpired between the two of them. “Why don’t you get settled in and come join us when you’re ready.”

“Sounds good.” Mara extended a hand to Deacon and helped pull him to his feet. He looked at her as if waiting for her to say something, but she just offered him a small smile and grabbed her pack, setting off for the house.

Sanctuary had really come a long way. The sun was low in the sky, casting a soft pink light over the handful of residents ambling about. Mara spotted Sturges sitting at his workbench and waved, he whistled enthusiastically back at her. There were new settlers she didn’t recognize, a child playing with a small toy car on a front stoop. It was a bittersweet sight; she had to look away.

She led Deacon to her old house, wondering if he would somehow intuit the significance of the place. Dogmeat trotted along beside them, nosing at Deacon’s hand.

She opened the door to the small camp she’d set up in her old kitchen – a cot, a box of old-world food, a small chest of weapons, a dresser drawer full of clothes. It probably would have made more sense for her to move into the bedroom, but it still felt too strange, like playing pretend in the ruins of her old life.

“Here’s home,” Mara said. “Kind of.”

“Was this?” Deacon asked as he stepped into the house, letting his words trail off. He was always too smart for his own good.

“Yeah,” she said. “I used to live here.” Deacon nodded, peering around. Dogmeat strode past them and hopped up onto the cot, digging his paws into the bedding for a moment before settling down onto his side.

“Why’d you take us here?” Mara asked, sitting down on the cot beside the dog.

Deacon shrugged, examining the old refrigerator. “Figured you’d want to check up on things.”

“And?”

“And what?” he asked, too casual.

“We could have checked up on things at any time. You re-routed us here.”

Deacon finally looked over at her. “You need rest. I thought this might be a good place for that.”

Mara felt a kneejerk protest building in her, but managed to stifle it. She was tired, a bone-deep kind of tired that wouldn’t be chased off with a nap or two. And she still felt the violence of Kendall Hospital thrumming under her skin, a pull that made her want to do something reckless, destructive, dangerous. To burn out in a single burst. A death wish, as Deacon probably would have put it.

“I’m sorry but your penchant for décor really sucks, boss,” Deacon said.

Mara snickered. “Nate was always better at that stuff. Much more organized than I ever was. I think it was an army thing.”

“Yeah? What were you better at?”

“Tact,” she said, smiling. “And I was better with the baby at first, but Nate came around. I think he was just nervous at the start.”

“Hmm,” Deacon said, straightening out a ripped painting. “Army, huh? Were you military too?”

“God, no.”

He pulled a chair out from the corner of the room and straddled it backwards, facing Mara. “So, where’d you learn to shoot? Can’t have all been stuff you picked up after the vault.”

Mara shook her head. “There were food riots. Things got really scarce during the war. Everything was getting funneled into defense which meant there was a lot of poverty. The cities kept running out of food, so there’d be riots on and off. Boston wasn’t as bad, but places like New York were just constant war zones. I was living just outside the city then, and Nate was deployed a lot, so he wanted to make sure I knew how to defend myself, in case things got out of control.”

“So, he taught you to shoot.”

“Yeah, he did,” she said. “I hated it at first.”

Deacon smiled. “Course you did.”

“But I got used to it. And it probably saved my life.” She felt a small tug of guilt remembering how she’s protested the idea, the eye rolls she’d given Nate every time they headed back to the gun range. “That was Nate for you, always prepared for anything.” Dogmeat yawned loudly on the bed beside her. Mara gave him a small scratch behind the ear.

“You miss him,” Deacon said, somewhere between a question and a statement.

Mara nodded. “I do. But it’s strange. I’m not the me I was when I was his wife. This place changes you, you know? And I don’t know who Nate would have become. Who he’d be, in this world. So, I miss him, but I miss me too, and I miss the place that made us who we were. And all of that’s gone now.” She sighed. “Does that even make any sense?”

Deacon gave her a small smile. “More than you know.”

Mara quietly filed that away, another scrap of Deacon to add to the puzzle. “Anyway, here I am now. The greatest sharpshooter in the ‘Wealth.”

“Pfffffttt,” Deacon laughed. “I’m not sure you’re even the greatest sharpshooter in this room.”

Mara grabbed a nearby box of BlamCo Mac & Cheese and threw it at him, laughing. Dogmeat peeked one eye open at the action, before deciding it wasn’t worth his time and closing it again.

“Hey, I’m sorry about Augusta,” Mara said, needing to address it somehow. She felt a growing sense of shame around the way she’d lost herself, how vicious she’d been.

“Nothing to apologize for, far as I’m concerned,” Deacon said seriously.

She nodded, not looking at his face.

“I’ve seen it happen before. Plenty of times. It just. Happens.”

“Maybe I’m not strong enough for this,” Mara said softly.

“Hey,”

“No, I mean it,” she said. “There’s only so much I can learn, you know? Some of it is just toughness. Inner strength, or something. Maybe I just can’t hack it.” She stared at the broken linoleum floor.

There was a dragging sound, and suddenly Deacon was right in front of her in his broken kitchen chair, expression serious.

“Look at me,” he said.

She looked up into his sunglasses.

“The things you’re doing? It’s stuff no one has ever tried to do before. You’re taking on the fucking Institute, something countless people have died trying to do. You’ve got allies in the stupid Brotherhood, the nominal leader of the Minutemen adores you, and don’t you fucking dare let anyone know I told you this, but I know Glory, and even though she’s playing it cool I know she’s completely geeking out over having you on our crew. You’ve got a whole settlement full of people here who would probably put their lives on the line for you. Can you tell me why that is?”

“Not really,” Mara said honestly.

Deacon gently reached for her face, cradling her head in his hands. “It’s because you’re strong. You’re strong and you give a shit about people and even when you’re laid flat by one horrible fucking thing after another, you keep getting back up. Do you get that?”

She nodded, her chin resting in his grip.

“Good. Don’t you fucking forget it. Or… else.”

“Or else what?” she asked, smiling. Her mouth had gone dry.

Deacon smiled back at her. “You don’t even want to know what.”

She grabbed his wrists on either side of her, held him in place. She felt a sudden burst of courage rise up inside her. “Maybe I want to know.”

He drew back a little, surprised. “Know what?”

“You know.” She wasn’t even sure what they were talking about anymore, but she didn’t think she had the words for what she wanted to ask him. They stared at each other, that same familiar heaviness settling in over them. She itched to take off his sunglasses. Deacon opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it after a moment when nothing came.

A bell rang in the distance.

Deacon’s lips twisted into a funny kind of smile. “That’ll be dinner.”

“Yeah,” Mara said. She let go of his wrists and he pulled away.



Mara heard a shriek as she approached the campfire and felt a small flash of worry before she caught sight of Piper, running towards her with her arms outstretched.

“Blue!” she cried, grabbing Mara into a tight hug. Mara laughed, her arms helplessly pinned to her sides.

“Piper! What the hell are you doing here?” she asked.

“Nicky wanted to talk with you and asked me if I wanted to tag along,” Piper said, releasing Mara. “We figured this would be the best place to find you.”

“Nick’s here too?” Mara asked, casting a look around. She spotted him closer to the fire, sharing a friendly looking chat with Preston. “Well damn, your timing is impeccable. We just got here this afternoon.”

“You look thin, you’re too thin. You,” Piper said, pointing to Deacon. “Are you making sure she eats enough?”

“Wait, she needs to eat?” Deacon asked in mock horror. “Jesus, this whole time I thought she was just an especially cranky synth.”

“Why do you even bother with him?” Piper asked, shaking her head. “Why don’t you find a nice robot to travel with or something?”

“Aw, Pipes. I’m way more fun than some old robot.” He leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek, then walked onward toward the campfire. Piper’s face bloomed pink.

“Ok, yeah, I get it now. Kind of,” she muttered once Deacon was out of earshot. She threw a curious look at Mara. “What’s going on with all that anyway? You guys have been traveling together for a while now.”

Mara sighed. “Nothing. I think. I don’t know.”

“Sounds about right,” Piper said cheerily. “C’mon, let’s get some stew.” She grabbed Mara’s arm and started steering them towards the fire. “I hear it’s Radstag.”

Chapter Text

The mood around the campfire was mostly genial, aside from Marcy sneaking a few suspicious glances at Nick throughout dinner. Piper and Mara sat cross-legged next to each other while Deacon claimed the wooden crate to Mara’s left, happily digging into his bowl of stew.

“You folks should be real proud of the work you’ve done out here,” Nick told the group. “I haven’t seen a settlement like this in quite a while.”

Preston beamed at him. “It’s no Diamond City, but it does us just fine. My hope is to establish more of these settlements around the Commonwealth, but we’d need a General to represent us, and my nominee for the job hasn’t yet gotten on board.” He smirked and directed a pointed look at Mara.

She snorted. “Trust me, Preston. You do not want me as your General.”

“Says the woman who single-handedly took on a deathclaw,” Preston retorted.

“You WHAT?” Piper cried, turning to look at Mara.

“I was in full Power Armor!” Mara said. “And I think I peed a little.”

A wave of chuckles passed through the group. “Even so,” Preston said, smirking.

“Preston, I promise I will let you know if I ever change my mind. Just don’t count on it,” Mara said.

Preston nodded. “Fair enough. Can’t blame a guy for trying. How about you, Deacon? Looking for a job?”

Deacon looked up from his meal. “Depends. Do I get to wear your hat?”

Preston laughed. “An even better one, actually.”

“Hmmm. Put me down for ‘maybe’.”

Mara laughed and turned to smack him on the leg. He smiled down at her.

“Deacon. I thought that was you,” Nick said from across the circle. “Good to see you again.”

“Nick,” Deacon replied, nodding his head in greeting. “A pleasure as always.”

Mara frowned and glanced back and forth between the two of them. No one outside the Railroad had ever recognized Deacon during their travels. Then it clicked – of course a synth, especially a synth detective for that matter, would have connections to the Railroad. Nick was probably an invaluable source of information for goings-on inside Diamond City.

“You been staying out of trouble?” Nick asked.

Deacon grinned. “Not if I can help it.”

“Good man.” Nick’s mouth curled up into a smile.

“I want to hear more about this deathclaw story!” Piper said. “How did I not know about this?”

“Oh my god,” Mara said to the night sky overhead. “I was helping out Preston and everybody in Concord, a deathclaw came out of the sewers, I killed it, end of story.”

“Helping us fight off a small army of raiders,” Preston corrected.

“WHAT?” Piper shrieked.

“We were pinned down in the old museum,” Preston said. “A dozen or so raiders had gotten in – they were right at our door and we weren’t sure how much longer the barricade would hold.”

Mara put her head in her hands, feeling her cheeks go hot.

“Suddenly we hear shouting outside, and we turn to look out the window, and tearing up Main Street with her dog in tow is this tiny little vault dweller in her bright blue suit.”

“Like a one-woman hurricane,” Sturges drawled.

“Were there raiders outside?” Piper asked excitedly.

“Tons of ‘em,” Preston said, nodding. “Nasty ones. She picked ‘em off one by one, nothing but a scrapped-up little 9-millimeter in hand.”

“Can we skip to the ending yet?” Mara asked.

“No way, it was just getting good!” Deacon said beside her. She turned to shoot him a glare. He just grinned back at her.

“When it looked like she was finished I called down to her, told her about the raiders bearing in on us. She picked up a laser musket and kicked in the front door. Not even a minute’s hesitation.”

“Ok, that is not true,” Mara said.

“Shhh!” Piper hissed, clapping a gloved hand over Mara’s mouth.

“We followed the action best as we could through the door. There was a constant stream of gunfire, raiders barking orders to each other, I didn’t know how this vault dweller was possibly going to make it through to us. And then, suddenly, silence fell. We waited maybe a full minute, straining to make out what was happening on the other side. I finally decided to risk it and crack the door open. And there she was.”

“Who?” Deacon gasped.

“Shut up,” Mara muttered.

“Our savior, the vault dweller. Nothing but a scratch on her cheek. Didn’t get half a second to celebrate before we heard even more raiders gathering up outside, looking for a fight. That’s when Sturges had the idea to grab the power armor he’d spotted in a crashed vertibird on the roof, use it to tear off the vertibird’s minigun and take down the rest of the raiders.”

“She looked like a woman who could handle a big gun,” Sturges said, winking at Mara.

“Thank you, Sturges,” Mara said dryly. She could feel Deacon shaking with laughter beside her.

“Everything goes just like we’d planned. I set up at the museum balcony and BOOM, Mara lands in front of those raiders in full power armor like something fallen from space. The looks on their faces, I’m telling you. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. She starts mowing them down, wielding that minigun like a damn pro-”

“Ok that’s definitely not true,” Mara said.

“When suddenly, there’s this rumbling noise, almost like an earthquake, or thunder. The raiders start looking around at each other, no one’s quite sure what’s happening. Then all of a sudden, BAM,” Preston clapped his hands together for dramatic effect. “A deathclaw bursts out of the sewer. Immediately grabs a raider and snaps him in half like nothing.”

“Oh my god!” Piper gasped.

“I think for sure our new friend is done for, power armor or no. I’ve seen a deathclaw open up a suit of power armor like a goddamn can of lemonade. But this vault dweller’s got brains. I watch her run into an empty storefront before the deathclaw has even glanced her way.”

“Ah, run and hide. My signature move,” Deacon said approvingly.

“The deathclaw makes easy work of the raiders, then seems to catch Mara’s scent, crawls on its hands and knees down the street. It’s poking its head into cars, turning over dead raiders, all the while getting closer to where she’s hiding.”

Piper grabbed Mara and hugged her tightly. “Piper, I make it out alive,” Mara muttered.

“Just as I think it’s gonna find her, Mara sticks that minigun out a window, aims it straight at the deathclaw’s legs and fires off a couple dozen bullets. The thing roars, starts running at her, but it stumbles; she’s got its left leg torn up to pieces. It goes down hard, but it reaches one long arm out and knocks the minigun out of her hands, sends it spinning off down the road like a crumpled-up ball of paper.”

“Holy hell,” Nick said, voice low.

“Oh my god. You too, Nick?” Mara whined.

Nick shrugged. “It’s a good story.”

“The deathclaw is still kicking, and now our vault dweller is without a minigun. It’s dragging itself across the ground in her direction, so she moves, runs out of the storefront and starts weaving down the road in her power armor. The deathclaw follows, reaching an arm out, close enough to scrape down the back of her armor in three long stripes. Mara just keeps running, gets a little bit of distance on it, then stops.”

“You WHAT?” Piper shouted.

“Right?” Preston agreed. “I’ve got no idea what she’s doing, and then I notice the car between them. The deathclaw keeps slithering towards her, and I see Mara get out a grenade. She waits for just the right moment, then tosses that thing, a perfect arc, lands it right in the front seat of the car. Just as the deathclaw reaches it, BOOM.” Preston slammed his palm down onto his knee. “The whole thing goes. I'm holding my breath. When the smoke clears, our girl is standing there surrounded by a dozen pieces of deathclaw scattered across the road.” He paused for dramatic impact. “She’s won the fight. The path is clear.”

The group burst into applause and Mara smiled, hiding her reddening face behind Piper’s shoulder. She heard Deacon whistle loudly by her side.

“That’s an amazing story, Blue,” Piper said breathlessly.

Mara pulled back to look at her. “Sure, and some of it’s even true.”

“Most of it,” Preston corrected, smiling. “I couldn’t resist embellishing just a little.”

“You’ve got talent, Garvey,” Deacon said appreciatively.

Preston tipped his hat. “Lot of nights out camping with a bunch of disgruntled soldiers will hone your storytelling skills pretty quick. Kept ‘em from murdering each other.”

“The Commonwealth’s best and brightest,” Deacon muttered, just loud enough for Mara to hear. He grinned when she threw him a glare, looking a little too delighted at successfully provoking her. He could be like a child sometimes; reveling in any and all attention whether positive or negative.

“If there’s no more requests,” Preston said, “I think I’ll be headed to bed now. Getting pretty late.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Sturges agreed.

Most of the remaining group began gathering their things and drifting off back to their homes. Mara stood up and stretched, popping her spine.

“Gross,” Deacon said, flicking her back. “200-year-old bones.”

“237-year-old bones, thank you very much.” She made a show of twisting her back, eking out another crack.

“Sheesh,” Piper said from the ground. “I hope I look that good at 237.”

Mara looked up over the dwindling campfire and almost immediately caught Nick’s eye. He looked intently at her and nodded his head. She got the cue, stepping over to him.

“It’s good to see you, Nick,” she said, squeezing his arm. He smiled at her.

“Good to see you too, kid. Glad to see you’re still in one piece after traveling with this lunatic.” Nick glanced over at Deacon as he approached them. Piper joined in, closing off their little circle.

“Your favorite lunatic,” Deacon retorted.

“Hmm.” Nick looked back to Mara. “I’ve got an update on your case, thought you’d want to know sooner rather than later.”

She felt her stomach drop. “Yes, what is it?”

“Remember Kellogg? The fellow whose house we checked out in Diamond City?”

The merc who stole Shaun and murdered Nate. Mara couldn’t have forgotten the name if she tried. It clung to her mind like a nightmare she couldn’t quite shake. “Yes,” she said, voice barely above a whisper.

Nick nodded. “I think I’ve finally tracked him down. Heard a rumor about a man matching Kellogg’s description holed up in Fort Hagen, an old army base a couple miles west of Diamond City. I checked it out. It’s heavily fortified, turrets all over the roof and a giant barricade at the main entrance. Saw a couple gen 1’s walking the perimeter. Everything points to it being our guy.”

Mara’s ribcage suddenly felt too tight for her lungs. “Ok, so we go. We go now. If we get packed and moving quick enough we can get there by daylight.”

“No way,” Deacon said.

She turned to stare at him. “What?”

“You can’t do this right now,” he said, his voice suddenly stern. “I told you, you need to rest.”

“Deacon-“

“Listen,” Nick said, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I just wanted to get the information to you. You decide how you want to go about this.” His yellow eyes flicked over to Deacon. “But whatever you do, be ready. Kellogg is going to be a force to reckon with.”

“Thanks, Nick,” she said. He nodded and drew his hand away, offering her a small smile.

Deacon turned and began walking back to the house without a final word. Mara started after him but was halted when Piper grabbed at her arm.

“Hey, everything ok?” she asked, cocking her head towards Deacon.

Mara nodded. “Yeah. We just need to. Have this out.”

Piper made a sympathetic face. “Have fun with that.” She squeezed Mara’s arm.



When Mara entered the house, she found Deacon leaning back against the kitchen counter, arms crossed and looking ready for a fight. She ignored him, tossing her rucksack on the bed and starting to rifle through its contents, working on a mental tally of what she’d need for the trip ahead.

“You can’t possibly think this is a good idea,” Deacon said. It was strange to hear his voice with all the humor stripped out of it. Mara rolled her eyes at him.

“This really isn’t an argument I’m looking to waste my time on.” She uncovered a ripped up old shirt in her bag, one of Deacon’s – he’d used it to clean the blood off her when they left Kendall Hospital. She felt a pang of guilt, followed by a rush of anger at feeling guilty in the first place.

Deacon began to pace. She tried not to watch him out of the corner of her eye, but he was hard to ignore, all tensed and coiled up like a radscorpian ready to strike.

“I can’t believe you’d even consider.” He stopped himself, took a deep breath, tried again. “After what happened at Augusta-“

“I’m fine,” Mara interrupted, her voice just below a shout. “Augusta shook me a little bit, yes, but I’m fine now.” Even as she said it she heard the tone of uncertainty in her voice, a defensiveness that suggested Deacon had more of a point than she was willing to let on.

Deacon shook his head disbelievingly. “Look, if you go off and face Kellogg now, with the state you’re in, you’re going to die. It’s as simple as that. You can’t do this.”

Mara threw a piece of her leg armor down onto the bed. “And what fucking right do you have to make that call?” she snapped, finally turning to face him. “This isn’t Railroad business. You’re not in charge here. What gives you the fucking right to tell me what I can and can’t do?”

Deacon turned from her, his shoulders hunched in a tense line. He was quiet for a long moment. “You’re right,” he said finally. “I’m sorry.”

Mara felt herself deflate, anger escaping from her body like trapped steam, leaving only that same bone-tired feeling behind. She sighed.

“Deacon-“

“I’m scared,” he said, interrupting her. He turned back to face her, looking pained. “I’m scared you’re going to die and that’s something I really, really don’t want to happen, ok? Because I care about you. And I don’t want to lose you.”

Mara sat down hard on the cot. The words sounded like they’d been wrenched out of Deacon, and she believed them, believed him. She clasped her hands together in front of her, paused to think.

“If I lose track of Kellogg after all this time…”

“We won’t,” Deacon said forcefully. “All that fortification tells me he’s not planning on moving any time soon. He might even figure you’re coming for him. If he was really concerned about staying hidden, there’d be better ways of going about it.”

Mara thought about it. An army fort covered in turrets and guarded by synths was admittedly pretty ostentatious as far as bases went. And it sounded like Kellogg had already been holed up there for some time.

“One week,” Deacon said, picking up on her hesitation. “That’s all I’m asking. We rest, load up on ammo, make repairs.”

“Three days,” Mara countered.

Deacon opened his mouth as if to argue but seemed to reconsider. “Ok. Three days.”

“And I’m going to be resenting you every moment,” Mara added.

Deacon smirked. “I can live with that.”

Mara nodded. It felt strange to have someone to run her plans by again, someone tied to her in ways that meant her choices would have an impact. She hadn’t realized how different it had been operating without a partner, and now suddenly she had one again, standing in her kitchen with a pompadour wig and sunglasses on. He wasn’t a husband, of course, but at some point he had become something to her.

They were quiet for a long moment. Deacon scratched at his stubbly chin, making a sound like sandpaper on wood.

“So, I can uh,” Deacon said, gesturing to the door. “Is there a bunkhouse somewhere or?”

“Hmm?” Mara had lost herself in thought.

“Where should I crash?” Deacon said, looking suddenly sheepish.

She put it together, about a minute later than she would have if she hadn’t been so tired. “Don’t be stupid, Deacon. We’ve camped together a thousand times. You’re welcome to stay here.”

Deacon smiled. “Good, ‘cause I don’t think I’d be able to get to sleep without you mouth-breathing next to me all night.”

Mara laughed. “I do not mouth-breathe, thank you.”

“I don’t know, I think you’re still thawing out up here,” he said, gently pinching her nose. She wrinkled her face up at him, smiling.

“There should be some extra cots in the back room. You can drag one out here if you want.”

He nodded, turning toward the bedroom. Mara reached out and grabbed his wrist, holding him in place. He froze, threw her an oddly nervous-looking glance.

“What?” he said, voice slightly hoarse.

“Three days, right?”

Deacon seemed to relax a bit. “Three days.”

Mara nodded. She could give him three days.

Chapter Text

It was past noon when Mara finally woke, startled to life by Codsworth looming over her, one big, glassy eye examining her face.

“Ah, mum! Good to see you awake. I feared you had perished in your sleep.”

Mara groaned and rolled over onto her stomach. “I appreciate the concern,” she said into her pillow. Her body still felt heavy and sore, limbs weighted down with exhaustion.

She heard the robot begin to putter around the house. She’d always told him not to bother cleaning up after her, but he tended to ignore her more often than not, likely relieved to have inhabitants to care for after so many years alone. She wondered idly if robots experienced loneliness the same way humans did. It seemed cruel to program loneliness into something where it didn’t exist before.

“Miss Wright and Mr. Valentine left earlier this morning. They didn’t want to wake you but told me to pass along their goodbyes.”

Mara turned back over and sat up, blinking at Codsworth. He was dutifully folding a pair of Deacon’s boxers. “Did you ask Deacon if you could go through his stuff? He’s kind of a private guy.”

Codsworth swung an eye in her direction. “Not to worry mum, I’m sure he won’t mind a bit of tidying.” He lifted up Deacon’s rucksack, plucking out a tattered paperback from inside. “My, you don’t see many people traveling with books anymore.”

Mara resisted the temptation to sit around while the robot dug through all of Deacon’s possessions in front of her. “Where is Deacon, anyway?” she asked, pulling on a boot.

“Last I saw he was assisting Mr. Sturges by the river,” Codsworth replied. “Hmmm. I can’t imagine what reason he might have to keep a pair of handcuffs on him.” He held his discovery out to her.

Mara mumbled her thanks and practically ran out of the house.

She found Deacon and Sturges putting up fencing on the west side of the settlement, at the very edge of the woods. Sturges was in his overalls as usual, but Deacon had stripped down to a thin white tank and jeans. Mara could see the muscles in his back move as he helped push a new stretch of fence upright. For a moment she considered how long she might be able to get away with watching quietly from a distance, but Deacon almost immediately whipped his head around and spotted her, offering up a big grin and a wave. She wondered if he’d developed that same sense awareness of her that she experienced whenever he was around.

Mara walked over to them, surveying the progress they’d made. “Look at you, being useful,” she said, smirking at Deacon. She tried to avoid looking too closely at his chest.

“A rare sight, enjoy it while it lasts.” Deacon was still grinning at her. “Sturges said they’ve been having trouble with packs of mongrels coming into the settlement through the woods, so we’re trying to close off the openings, maybe put a couple turrets along the border.”

“Yeah, and no pressure, but I’d kill for some scrap metal and a couple gears,” Sturges added, running a hand through his hair.

Mara nodded. “I’ve got you covered. I always try to pick up anything that looks useful, should have a ton of stuff for you to look through back at the house.”

“Yeah, and she makes me carry it all,” Deacon groaned, exaggeratedly stretching his back. The motion revealed a small strip of skin below the hem of his tank. She thought idly of getting her mouth on that band of stomach, biting the sensitive skin there. God, what was wrong with her? She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, trying to get the image out of her mind.

“You alright?” Deacon’s voice was suddenly right beside her. Mara opened her eyes and looked up into his concerned face. She could see herself reflected in his sunglasses.

“Yeah, just still waking up,” Mara lied. “Think I’m gonna go for a walk.”

Deacon nodded. “I could use a break. Hey Sturges, alright if we take an hour or so?”

Mara blinked at him. “No, that’s ok, you don’t have to-“

“Sure thing,” Sturges said. “Time for me to grab some lunch anyhow.”

“Perfect,” Deacon said, smiling at Mara.

“Yep. Perfect.” She wished he would put a shirt on.

Mara set out in the direction of the vault; she didn’t know why, exactly, but she figured if Deacon had already seen the old house, they might as well complete the full tour of her past life. Deacon brought his plaid button-up bunched up in one hand. They made it over the creek, crossing the rickety wooden bridge that had somehow survived all these years, and started up the hill, past the beat up metal fencing and the row of skeletons outside. She thought she sensed Deacon tense up beside her but that didn’t make any sense, there was no way he could know where they were headed.

They reached the clearing around the vault entrance. It looked just as she'd left it - she didn't imagine many of the settlers came around this way. It was essentially just a graveyard now, not much to scavenge or see.

“There it is,” Mara said, gesturing at the entrance. Deacon said nothing. They stood beside each other, staring at the vault. A crow cawed somewhere in the distance.

"Does it feel strange to come back?" Deacon asked, breaking the silence.

She shook her head. "Not really. I haven't been back inside since... leaving. But just standing out here isn't so bad."

Deacon nodded. He was being unusually quiet.

Mara continued her walk away from Sanctuary, trying to envision what these woods were like covered in healthy green leaves. She remembered walking through them sometime before Vault-Tec bought up the land, holding hands with Nate and staring up at the trees, enraptured by the sight of sunlight streaming through.

"Hey, boss?" Deacon asked.

"Weird, I never noticed that before," Mara said, gesturing to a small wooden structure she spotted on the hill. "What's up?"

"You maybe wanna head back?" He wasn't meeting her eyes, looking back in the direction of Sanctuary like he was suddenly impatient to return.

Mara nodded. "Sure. Lemme just check this out real quick." She started her climb.

"I'm sure it's nothing." Deacon's voice sounded thready and strange behind her.

"Yeah, probably," she agreed. "You know me, though. I always like to snoop." She hoisted herself up a small boulder, reaching the outcrop of rocks where she'd seen the structure. It looked like a small hideout up close, just a single chair behind some propped-up wooden boards. There was a end table beside it and a tarp draped across the tree branches overhead, she assumed for shelter. She walked around the boards, snagged some purified water that had been left behind on the table, then turned around and immediately stopped in her tracks. On the other side of the boards she spotted a railsign drawn in chalk, a small plus-sign in the middle. Mara quickly consulted her hazy memory of the Railroad's code system. Plus sign. Ally.

"What is this?" she asked Deacon, genuinely confused. He looked sad and twitchy, like he was weighing whether or not to flee. A feeling of dread began to gather in her stomach.

"The world's worst scenic vista?" He winced.

"Deacon."

He looked down at the ground. "Recon post. Abandoned."

"Yours?"

He nodded.

Mara felt her eyes begin to water, as if part of her already had already figured out what was happening even as her brain struggled to keep up. She looked out in the direction where the chair was facing, saw a perfect view of Vault 111's entrance in the distance.

"You were watching me." She meant it as a question but it came out flat and certain. Deacon said nothing.

Mara nodded, eyes welling up. She tried to fight it off, felt ridiculous crying in front of Deacon like this, but the tears were impossible to hold back.

"Were you there the day I came out?" Even her voice sounded watery.

Deacon looked pained. "Yes."

"Jesus," Mara hissed. Her first day on the surface, stumbling outside the vault entrance, calling out for her baby, the body of her dead husband still frozen beneath her feet. "You saw me? You saw me crying and screaming all alone and you just sat in your stupid chair and watched?"

Deacon pinched the bridge of his nose. "I didn't know. All we knew was that Institute personnel had been surveying the area for a couple weeks. I didn't know if you were a synth or one of their experiments or... what. My instructions were to stand clear and observe."

Mara sat down in the chair, trying to process everything. "Did you see them take Shaun?"

Deacon shook his head. "Didn't see anybody go in or out for two weeks. Not til you."

"Why should I believe you?" she snapped. She rubbed her nose on her sleeve, feeling messy.

"You shouldn't," he said, sounding miserable. "But it's true."

"Did you go inside?"

He didn't answer her.

She looked up at him. "Deacon."

"It was my job. I had to look inside." He sounded as though he was trying to convince himself.

"You saw him," Mara said. Another not-question.

"I didn't know who he was," Deacon said, his voice hoarse. "It wasn't til you told me at HQ that I knew for sure. Then when I heard you talk to Piper, the rest of it all came together."

Mara stared down at the rail sign, tears quietly running down her cheeks. Deacon held out his plaid shirt to her, she guessed to wipe her face clean with, but she shook her head.

"How long?" she asked. Her voice sounded croaky.

"Did I follow you?"

She nodded.

Deacon paused. "Til we met."

"Jesus," she said again. She briefly ran through those weeks in her head, trying her best to remember. "All those times I almost died... you just watched?"

He bit his lower lip. "Those were my instructions."

"But?"

Deacon shook his head. "I fucked up. I shouldn't have been on you so long. But I got... things got complicated. I started rooting for you, you know?"

Mara stared at him. "You helped me."

"Just a couple of times," he said, glancing around as if there might be someone nearby to overhear them. "I'd pick off a raider or two, take down a ghoul that'd snuck up on you. Nothing big, just small things I could help out with."

"The deathclaw?"

Deacon shook his head, the small ghost of a smile on his lips. "Couldn't risk giving up my position. That was all you."

Mara nodded. She wasn't even sure how she felt anymore. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"There was no good time to tell you," Deacon said. "By the time we'd gotten to be. Partners. It felt like it was too late even broach the subject." He paused, staring at the ground. "I didn't want you to hate me."

She let out a shaky sigh. The sky had become overcast, she wondered if Deacon was starting to get cold in his undershirt.

"I don't hate you," she said finally.

"Thank you," Deacon replied, sounding genuinely relieved.

"I'm angry with you." Mara looked up into his sunglasses. "I kind of want to kill you. But I don't hate you."

Deacon smiled softly. "Yeah, what else is new." He offered up his shirt to her again. She reached out a hand and took it, rubbing at her cheeks with the balled-up fabric. It smelled like him. Her mind felt all foggy and mixed up with want and fear and anger.

"I'm glad it was you," she said, twisting her hands up in the shirt.

"What?"

"That got assigned to me. I'm glad it was you."

Deacon nodded, understanding her meaning. "Yeah. I'm glad it was too."

Chapter Text

Fort Hagen was an endless string of close calls. The place was packed with gen-1's, and while Mara posed a slightly more formidable threat than she had at the Switchboard all those months ago, it took everything she had to keep on fighting through the seemingly endless waves of synths. And that was before Kellogg came on over the PA system, mocking her efforts in a horrible grease-slick voice that set the hair on the back of her neck on end.

"I hate him," she hissed to Deacon, who was checking her head for wounds as they crouched in a dimly-lit hallway together. "I fucking hate him."

Deacon nodded. "I do too. But don't let him get in your head. He's cornered and scared, he's trying to throw you off your game."

Mara knew Kellogg had already succeeded at that, could tell she'd be hearing his voice in her nightmares for months to come. If she made it out alive, that was. "How much further, do you think?"

Deacon considered. "Can't be too far now. How are you on ammo?"

"Good. You?"

"Good." He stared at her for a moment. She tried to find his eyes through the black of his sunglasses.

"Deacon. I'm fine."

He smirked, caught. "Ok. I believe you. Ready?"

She nodded.

They crept onward, picking off a few more gen-1's as they made their way. She imagined Kellogg had to be valuable to the Institute for him to command this kind of protection. Unless they were here to protect something else. A baby? She couldn't let herself hope. She had to focus.

"It's not too late," Kellogg's voice boomed from a nearby speaker. Mara cursed herself for jumping. "Stop. Turn around and leave. You have that option. Not a lot of people can say that."

She kicked the head of a nearby disabled gen-1, growling a little as she did it. It hurt her toe but she didn't care, the dull throb gave her a grounding point in all the anger. Deacon waited by her side.

There were a few stimpaks piled up in a side room, Mara grabbed them and handed off half to Deacon. She wasn't sure what kind of firepower Kellogg was working with, or how many synths he might have holed up with him wherever he was hiding. They had made it this far, at least. She had to believe they had a chance.

She led them down another corridor. Soon they weren't running into synths anymore, which had to mean they were close. After a moment Kellogg proved her right, coming back on over the PA.

"Okay, you made it. I'm just up ahead. My synths are standing down. Let's talk."

Mara froze, glancing over at Deacon. "You buy it?"

Deacon was staring off to the side, looking as though he was still processing Kellogg's words. "Yes," he said finally.

"I don't get it. Why just let us in?" Mara figured she and Deacon would be able to get through the merc's defenses eventually, but it seemed odd for him to just open his doors to her. To not even try to escape.

"Well, if I had to guess, I'd say he shares a fatal flaw with pretty much every other resident of the Commonwealth."

Mara blinked. "What's that?"

Deacon smirked. "He's curious about you."



Kellogg was hiding out in an old office, guarded by synths stationed around the perimeter of the room. The rows of burnt out computers and rolling desk chairs provided a surreal, mundane backdrop to the meeting. He looked mostly like Mara had remembered; mean, deep-set eyes, mostly-bald head, that long stripe of scar running down his face. She aimed her gun directly at his head, silently willing her hands to stop shaking.

"There she is," Kellogg drawled. "The most resilient woman in the Commonwealth."

"Fuck you," Mara spat. "Where's my son?"

The merc drew back just a fraction, his eyebrows raised. "Not here, alright? No big happy reunion today, I'm afraid."

It took everything in her not to pull the trigger. "Then where is he? Who has my baby?"

"Baby?" Kellogg repeated, smirking. "Sorry to tell you, but your baby isn't quite a baby anymore."

"What?" She couldn't even imagine what he might mean. It had only been about 6 months since she'd left the vault.

"Look, it doesn't matter. He's safe. Move on."

"Where. Is he."

Kellogg rolled his eyes. "You haven't figured it out by now? Really?"

"I strongly recommend you answer the woman's question," Deacon said from somewhere to Mara's left.

The merc sneered at Deacon, seeming to take him in fully for the first time. "And who is this? You find a replacement for hubby already?"

Mara strode forward, ignoring Deacon's startled yell, and whipped her gun across Kellogg's face. She waited for the synths to come for her but they remained eerily still, watching her from around the room with their glowing yellow eyes. Kellogg turned back to her, a small trickle of blood running from his nose. His expression was hard to read. There was anger, of course, but also something that looked like grudging respect. A man who only understood violence.

"Where is my son."

"The Institute," Kellogg said, voice low.

"Take me there."

He snorted. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't."

"Then tell me how."

"You don't get it, do you?" Kellogg said, impatient. "No one gets in that they don't want getting in. He's as good as gone. There is nothing you can do."

"Bullshit," Mara hissed.

"Look, we've been talking long enough." Kellogg took his pistol from its holster. "We both know how this has to end. You ready?"

As soon as he spoke the words Kellogg vanished in front of her. Stealth boy, her brain supplied helpfully, and she dove behind a desk just as the space where Kellogg used to be fired at her.

A synth was on top of her almost immediately, she kicked it to the ground and fired one, two, three bullets before it stopped moving. She heard Deacon fighting over by the door, hoped there weren't too many synths for him to capably handle. She thought she saw the air shimmer oddly to her left so she stumbled to her feet, barely missing another burst of gunfire. A gen-1 grabbed her elbow, she twisted them around and felt its grip go slack as it caught one of Kellogg's bullets.

Mara ran to the next row of desks, shot down a gen-1 coming toward her from across the room. She ducked behind a cabinet, trying to hold her breath as she listened for Kellogg's approach. How do you hide from something you can't see?

The gunfire suddenly went quiet, which meant Deacon had either won or lost. She tried not to imagine the worst. Tried to keep her mind firmly in the present.

Her eyes darted around the room, searching for any sign of Kellogg.There were no shimmers in the air, no stray limbs flashing in and out of existence. She waited. Her breath sounded so loud in the quiet.

Then, a strange flash of light, and Mara didn't hesitate, fired her gun and heard a shout, watched as Kellogg materialized in front of her clutching his leg. She sprang to her feet and ran at him, knocking him over when their bodies connected. He lost his grip on the .44 and it slid across the carpeting, out of reach. Mara scrambled to her knees and climbed over his body, pulling a knife out of her belt. Kellogg stared up at her, a look of genuine fear in his eyes.

She grabbed Kellogg by the collar and plunged her knife into his neck, drawing it across the skin in a long slashing motion. Blood flowed hot from the wound, down her arm, onto the floor, around Kellogg's body. He gasped once, twice, coughed up a bubble of blood that scattered in flecks across his cheeks and chin, then seemed to stop fighting and go still.

Mara released his collar, let his head drop to the floor. She was panting, her pulse pounding in her ears. She stared at Kellogg, waiting for him to blink or flinch or take a breath, but he remained still, eyes blank and fixed on the ceiling above. She dropped her knife, slowly got to her feet. Her gaze stayed on Kellogg. Blood surrounded his head like a halo.

"Mara." She turned to see Deacon, a little scratched up but otherwise intact, watching her carefully.

"I had to," Mara said, her voice hoarse. "There was no way. I had to." She held out her hands, stared at the blood starting to cake on them. There was a sudden pressure on the sides of her neck, a bitter taste in her mouth, and then she was hunched over and throwing up, emptying her stomach out onto the office floor. After a moment she felt a warm hand on her back, it remained until she was choking up nothing but air, her stomach contracting aimlessly. When that passed, she felt herself tugged over and pulled into a pair of arms, and she followed willingly, turned her face into Deacon's chest. He ran a hand up and down her back and at some point she realized she was crying, sobbing into the thin fabric of his t-shirt.

"It's ok," he kept repeating to her, voice a low rumble against her cheek. "It's ok. It's ok. It's ok."

Chapter Text

They tried to keep moving. Most days Mara felt like she was living in a dream, everything just a little fuzzy around the edges. There was no trail to pick up after Kellogg's death, or none that they'd yet uncovered anyway, so all they could do was keep their ears to the ground and hope that Nick or Piper or one of the Railroad agents came across something.

Deacon began acting strange as soon as they'd left Fort Hagen, his sarcastic edge suddenly returning in full force. His smiles weren't so open anymore, his jokes just a little too biting. Mara wanted to confront him about it, but she couldn't summon the energy, so they just sniped at each other most of the time.

They took on small jobs, tried to find caps where they could. A settlement out on the edges of the city was having problems with a band of raiders who had been picking off traders coming from the north. The encampment was easy enough to find; the raiders were apparently mid-argument, and their shouting echoed out into the surrounding woods.

They crept up on them, using the wealth of dead scraggly trees for coverage. It wasn't long before the campsite was in full view - a few mostly-upright shacks, a small campfire at the center, a collection of bodies roaming about. The leader had a bright orange mohawk and was busy screaming down a woman who was waving a bat in his face.

"I wonder," Deacon whispered as Mara looked down her sight. "Where do you think the line is between two partners taking on odd jobs together and a pair of mercenaries."

Mara rolled her eyes. "These are raiders, Deacon. They've killed people."

"We've killed people."

"You know what I mean."

Deacon chewed at the inside of his cheek. "You just seem like you've gotten pretty comfortable with this stuff. Too comfortable, maybe."

Mara glared at him. "So leave. I'm not making you do anything."

"And miss out on all this charm?" He gave her a tight-lipped smirk.

"Fuck off."

"That's the stuff."

Mara saw an opening and crept forward, knowing without having to look that Deacon was right behind her. She positioned herself behind a shack wall, close enough that she could feel the warmth of the campfire on her cheeks.

"I counted that crate TWICE," the bat-wielding woman yelled. "So don't you give me that shit. You're taking three times as much as the rest of us."

"Maybe I'm doing three times the work!" the man with the mohawk shouted back. "You ever consider that?"

Mara noticed something swinging in the breeze - a body the raiders had hung on chains for display, all bloody and mutilated. It was too small to be an adult's. She felt that familiar buzzing in her ear.

The man was wrestling with the woman for control of the bat. The moment he wrenched it away, he held it high above his head and brought it down onto the woman's skull, and her head collapsed inward with an audible crunch. Mara forced herself not to look away, holding her position.

The woman fell to the ground, motionless. The man held the bat up in the air, displaying it for the other raiders like some kind of trophy. "Anyone else have something they wanna say about UNFAIR food rations? Huh?"

He turned his body ever so slightly and Mara took the shot. The bullet exited the back of his skull in a firework of blood and brains. The raiders started yelling, scuttling around the campsite as they hurried to take cover. Mara took down one more raider before they spotted her, then she was on the move.

There were bullets whizzing by her head, breaking the air around her in short, high-pitched bursts. She stayed low, peeking out through gaps in the shack walls. A raider tried to surprise her around a corner but she immediately shot him in the kneecap, then finished him off with another through the forehead. She heard metal clinging against metal and winced. Deacon must have lost hold of his gun.

She peeked around the shack and her suspicions were immediately confirmed - Deacon's pistol was lying on the grass about 10 feet away from where he stood, fending off a raider's crowbar attacks with the bloodied baseball bat.

"Boss," Deacon grunted, catching sight of Mara. "Much as I'm, ow, enjoying myself, you mind lending a hand?"

Mara scanned the clearing, then leaped forward, sprinting over to the abandoned gun. She couldn't risk taking a shot, the men were too close to each other, so she turned the safety on and tossed the gun to Deacon, who caught it without having to turn his head. The raider with the crowbar ran for cover.

Mara aimed at his retreating back, waiting for his path to line up. Suddenly she felt an arm snake around her chest, followed by a lancing heat across her stomach. There were shouts, gunshots, the arm around her disappeared somehow. She was moving too slowly, her thoughts weren't connecting quite right. She pressed a hand to her stomach and there was blood, lots of it. Hot and sticky on her vault suit, blooming outward in a small burst of red.

Her head felt dizzy, she made herself sit down, stared at the blood on her hand like she was trying to translate something written in a different language. Then Deacon was there, safe, holding her head in his hands, staring into her eyes. She wanted to reach up to take his sunglasses off but her arm felt too heavy. He looked scared. She realized he was shouting something.

"What?" she asked.

"Stimpaks! Do we have any? Where are they?"

She tried to remember. Yesterday morning. She'd noticed they were running low, had made a mental note to stop by Bunker Hill for a resupply. And then she'd... forgotten? How had she forgotten?

She shook her head.

"Shit. Shit, shit, shit."

Mara reached for Deacon, tried to tell him it was ok, but he was standing up, lifting her body, carrying her out of the encampment and into the woods. She felt her head jostling against his chest, tried to see where they were headed but her eyelids felt heavy, she was so tired.

A loud bang, like splitting wood, and Deacon was kicking in a door, they'd made it to the edge of town, somehow. He set her down on some kind of bed and she pulled at his arm but in an instant he was gone, and it was getting dark outside, muted blue light coming through the boarded-up window. Mara closed her eyes again.

It might have been a minute or an hour before she felt a large hand grip her arm, heard Deacon's voice whispering apologies in her ear. Then, a pinch at her side.

"Come on," Deacon hissed. She wanted to apologize, felt stupid that he had to go through all this. When she'd pictured herself going down in a fight, she'd pictured something quick and easy, nothing drawn-out or ambiguous. This was too messy. Too painful.

Suddenly, she felt a warmth begin to spread, first throughout her side, then across her entire mid-section. Deacon must have seen something, he gripped her arm tighter, muttered something, to her or to himself she couldn't tell. There was a sudden tightness in her stomach, a flash of pain, then a cooling effect she recognized as a Stimpak kicking in.

She needed to know if she was going to live after all, turned to Deacon to ask him, but was overtaken by complete and immediate exhaustion.

She slept.





It was bright in the room when Mara opened her eyes again. They were in some kind of cabin, which stood surprisingly intact. A dresser took up one corner of the room. There was a desk, too, a pile of books stacked on it. She'd have to take a look at them, see if Deacon might want any.

Deacon.

She craned her neck, trying to ignore the soreness in her stomach that flared when her body moved. He was sitting in a chair next to her, arms folded on the bed, head propped on top of them.

"Deacon," she croaked, her voice thin. He immediately stirred to life, lifting his head up at the sound.

"Christ," he groaned, grabbing one of Mara's hands and squeezing it tight. He ran his other hand over her forehead, quickly scanning her face. "You ok?"

She nodded. "Thirsty."

"Shit, right," Deacon muttered. He got to his feet, barely hiding a wince as he stood up straight, his back probably sore from sleeping hunched over all night. He grabbed a canteen from his pack and handed it over. Mara gingerly rose up on one elbow to drink while Deacon hovered over her looking worried.

"It's not so bad," she told him between sips. "Now, I mean."

Deacon snorted. "Just a casual gutting."

Mara sat up a little further. Deacon stayed close, placing a hand on her back for support. She peeked down at her stomach and saw a band of raised red skin there, revealed by a jagged tear in her vault suit. She rubbed her hand over it, feeling an aching kind of soreness but nothing like the pain she'd felt the night before. The band almost went across her entire stomach.

"It was bad, huh?" She looked at Deacon, whose face had twisted up a bit.

"Uh," he said, holding out a hand to take back the canteen. Mara watched him set it on the nightstand next to her - he was shaking.

"Hey," she said, sitting up fully. He sat back down beside her, and she placed a careful hand on his shoulder.

"You almost died," Deacon choked out, like just saying it was too much to bear. He bowed his head. "There was nothing at the raider camp, I thought I remembered some houses in this direction- Jesus, what if I'd been wrong? What if I'd been too slow?"

Mara pressed her forehead to his. "You weren't."

"It didn't take, at first. I thought. I didn't know."

"It worked," she said firmly. "You saved my life."

"Mara," he said, in a soft, broken voice. Then he lifted his head and kissed her.

Mara breathed sharp through her nose, startled, but didn't pull away, fascinated by the feeling of Deacon's lips against hers, the swooping sensation in her stomach. For a brief moment she worried she'd forgotten how to do this, but then Deacon gently licked into her mouth and she met him without thinking, losing herself in the act.

She felt him take her face in his hands, gently angling her chin to get a better angle, and she reached for him, needing to touch him, feeling starved of him after so many months spent warily sharing space. Her hands settled on his chest. He was warm under the thin cotton of his t-shirt. She felt his muscles shifting underneath the fabric, wanted to tear it off, get at the skin underneath.

His mouth moved to her neck, licking and biting at the soft skin just beneath her jaw, and she wrapped her arms around him, gasping as she felt his tongue on her. She dug her nails into his back and dragged them just a little - he groaned, rolling his forehead against her chest. Mara felt a deep ache at the sound.

"Want," Deacon mumbled into her skin, his voice a low growl. "I want-"

"Yeah," she interrupted, already out of breath. "Anything."

Deacon found her mouth again, his pace picking up, and she grabbed at him, embarrassed to hear herself let out a whimper. She felt him smile against her mouth, and she pinched his side in retaliation, pleased to feel him squirm. She started to lean backwards onto the bed, pulling him with her until she was lying on her back, Deacon straddling her on all fours. She hooked her arms around his neck, kissing him as his hands found her collar and started slowly pulling down the zipper of her suit.

Mara squirmed underneath him, watching as Deacon lowered his head so he could kiss down her neck, then chest, following the trail of the zipper as it revealed more skin. He took his time, slowly mouthing at her.

"Deacon," she gasped.

It was like a switch flipped. Suddenly he was off of her and on his feet, striding over to the other side of the room like he needed to put as much space between them as possible. He grabbed the desk chair and slid it in front of him, as if building a physical barrier.

Mara quickly sat up, wincing at a small twinge in her stomach. "What's wrong?"

Deacon looked at the door, the desk, the dresser, anywhere but her. "I can't."

Disappointment welled up inside her, but she tried to stay calm, made every effort to keep her voice steady. "Ok. I'm sorry. I thought-"

"It's not your fault," Deacon said, looking pained. "God, it is the opposite of your fault. Not even in the same universe as your fault."

"Then what is it?" Mara asked. She could feel her eyes tearing up, in spite of her best efforts.

He shook his head. A flash of anger crossed his face. "I should have known. I mean, I knew. Like, the second we actually spoke to each other. Maybe even before that. And maybe it was just me, but I felt something." He looked over at her briefly, nervous.

"It wasn't just you," Mara said softly.

Deacon nodded. "Right. And I've gotten pretty good at not feeling things like that. So I should've just. Walked away, I don't know. But I told myself it was just base, lizard brain stuff, you know? I figured the more we got to know each other, the less of a problem it would be." He snorted, running a hand over his face. "Think I was just making excuses for myself."

Mara watched him carefully. "So it didn't go away?"

"Christ, no," he said, frustration coloring his voice. "But I can't - I was wrong."

"About what?"

He paused, considering his words. "If I lost you, I don't think I'd be able to keep going."

Mara felt her chest tighten. She slid to the edge of the bed, needing to be near him. "Deacon,"

"Do you understand what that means?" he interrupted, his knuckles turning white as he clenched the chair in front of him. "Do you know how long it's taken me to be ok? I don't get attached, I don't even let myself work with anyone, and then you come bursting out of your vault like some kind of primordial being and all my best interests just fly out the window."

Mara got to her feet, wobbling just a little. She caught Deacon twitching as if to come over to her before apparently deciding against it. "I know it's scary. I'm scared too, but that doesn't mean-"

"No," he said. "It's not an option."

It hurt, and Mara was too tired not to show it. She felt a tear run down her face, wiped stubbornly at it with her sleeve.

"Goddamnit," Deacon said. He looked as devastated as Mara felt.

"I don't understand," she said, voice watery.

He sighed, risked a glance over at her. “You really should be lying down.”

“I don’t care.” She tried not to wince at the petulant tone in her voice.

Deacon fixed his eyes back on the chair. "Did I ever tell you what I did before I joined the Railroad?"

Mara felt her breath catch. "No."

He nodded. "Yeah, I didn't think so. I was living over in University Point. Ran with a gang, if you can believe it. The 'UP Deathclaws.'"

The derision in his voice was palpable. "I didn't know that," Mara said.

"We went after synths,” he continued. “Thought we were protecting the Commonwealth or some bullshit. We'd pick out just anybody, convince ourselves they were a synth, and beat the shit out of them. Steal their caps, fuck up their homes. One day I watched them kill a guy. They just strung him up on a tree. Threw rocks at him til he ran out of air."

"Jesus," Mara whispered.

He glanced up at her. "Yeah. That was kind of the limit for me. So, I left. Started a whole new life. Became a farmer, if you can believe it. And I met Barbara."

"Your wife," Mara said, remembering their conversation at HQ.

"She was... incredible. Joyful. Knew how to get me out of my stupid moods. She had the most amazing laugh." Deacon paused, looking lost in himself. "We were going to have kids. We were trying for a while. But it turned out she was a synth. I didn't know, she didn't know. But uh, somehow the Deathclaws found out." His voice wavered just a little, enough to tell the rest of the story.

"Oh my god." Mara wanted to cross the room, get Deacon back in her arms, but that desk chair remained resolutely in place. She stayed still.

"I don't even remember killing them, but when I came to, all that was left… were pieces. The Railroad found out and saw a potential recruit, I guess. Someone who could sympathize with the cause." He sounded wrung out.

Mara took a cautious step forward. "I didn't know."

Deacon nodded. "I know. But now you do.” He bit his lower lip. “I'm not a good person. I’m a murderer. I'm a lying hypocrite who couldn't even keep his wife safe. I’m everything wrong with this whole fucking Commonwealth.

"No," she interrupted, shaking her head. "Deacon-"

He finally walked over to her; Mara held her breath. "You deserve so much better," he whispered, kissing the top of her head.

"Deacon, no."

But he was already out the door.

Chapter Text

Deacon didn't follow her, at first.

He was an idiot and a fuck-up, but he wasn't cruel, for Christ's sake, and when he'd told Mara goodbye he'd really meant it, like goodbye-goodbye, like see you never, if he could help it. From the beginning he'd kept telling himself he was going to leave eventually, so that part wasn't so much a surprise. It was the stupid ass-backwards way he'd gone about it.

Kissing her was never part of the plan. Falling for her was definitely never part of the plan.

No, when Deacon had imagined leaving he'd figured it would be because he'd finally worn out his welcome, maybe pushed things just a little too far. She had a temper, Mara, and it called to him like a dare sometimes. There was an insane little part of him that craved seeing her eyes light up in indignation, that longed for the full strength of her fury focused solely on him.

So maybe he was a little cruel.

But Mara happy, that was maybe even better. Much as he loved annoying her, he really loved to make her laugh. Her laugh was like a bark, like a burst of joy fighting its way out of her, like she was constantly surprised by the feeling. Those times he really got her, the dark curls around her face would shake with the force of her laughter, and he'd think about just reaching out and grabbing a lock of her hair, twirling it between his fingertips.

Either way, Mara happy was probably not a sight he'd be privy to ever again.

He couldn't believe how far he'd let things get. The second he caught himself getting attached back when he was tailing her, he should have gone back to the Railroad, found another agent to take over the job. But no, he had to take her on a mission, compulsively flirt with her like he even remembered how to flirt, slowly wriggle his way into her life until they were sleeping side-by-side every night, and god, that sure had gotten inconvenient once the sex dreams had started up. More often than not he'd finding himself lying awake and still in the early morning hours, willing his dick to calm the fuck down while images of Mara warm and smiling and naked in his arms slowly faded from mind.

Maybe that was part of it - just reckless curiosity. He'd successfully compartmentalized all his charming sexual impulses for years, getting by on rote jerk-off sessions and occasional visits to a friend of his in Goodneighbor, another agent with his own tragic backstory and low expectations who was more than happy to fool around and pretend like he didn't hear Deacon sneaking out afterward. It was simple. He had it managed.

So Mara, she was a little inexplicable. The effect she had on him. She was short, with hips wider than most Wastelander women - probably something to do with 27 years of access to a balanced, radiation-free diet - and a soft body that had slowly hardened up with muscle over the months they'd spent together. Nothing wildly distinctive about it, but he still couldn't keep his eyes off her, found himself tracking every movement with a barely restrained awe like she'd invented walking, or sleeping, or kicking (she really liked to kick things when she was pissed off). He didn't know whether to curse or build a religion around that fucking vault suit, the way it hugged her frame, left almost nothing to the imagination. And her ass.

Well.

It didn't matter anymore. He wouldn't ever see her again.

That's what he kept telling himself, when he quietly scavenged for clothes and weapons in abandoned neighborhoods, when he darted quietly through the city streets at night, when he headed out and away from all signs of civilization and found an abandoned farmhouse to bunk down in. He couldn't go back to the Railroad; he knew it was the first place Mara would check. He couldn't yet risk wandering around. So, he went to ground. He'd let himself be forgotten many times before; he could pull it off again.

He let his hair grow, went without his sunglasses more often than not. There were no mirrors at the farm but he guessed he was probably starting to look like he had back when he was with Barbara, and just the thought made him queasy, made him itch to get his face cut up just a little bit more, but he didn't have the caps for it, and wouldn't dare set foot in Diamond City just yet.

A Brahmin showed up one day, a scrawny little thing with a limp in its step, and Deacon took pity on it, fed her some corn and let her sleep next to him under the shelter of the barn that night. He spent his days chatting with her, idly ranting about one thing or another while her two heads blinked four sleepy eyes at him. The day she tottered off, her back leg finally healed, Deacon felt a weird kind of sadness, and decided it was time to visit the city for a quick supply run.

He should have known he'd see her.

She'd never even been to Goodneighbor, at least not when they'd been traveling together, yet there she was, chatting good-naturedly with KL-E-O, a pissed-off looking redhead at her side. Cait, Deacon remembered, the champion brawler of the Combat Zone. An Irish girl with a rumored chem habit, and not exactly the kind of company he'd imagined Mara taking up with.

Mara looked tired but relatively happy, that same familiar scar still visible above her right eyebrow (shrapnel from a car explosion), her hair longer now and tied back. She wasn't in her vault suit - it looked like she'd modified an old mechanic's jumpsuit somehow, maybe with that ballistic fiber Tinker Tom had showed them at HQ. She laughed at something KL-E-O said and Deacon's insides contracted. He felt like he could die right there.

He told himself he was just checking up on her, just wanted to make sure this Cait character wasn't going to cause any trouble. The two were in town to visit Dr. Amari, maybe on business for the Railroad, Deacon figured. They spent hours inside before Mara stumbled through the doors and into the night, looking pale and weak and leaning hard on Cait.

Strange.

He followed them to Cambridge, bristling when he realized they were headed toward the police station. He'd figured it wouldn't be long before Mara went running into the arms of that Brotherhood dickhead but he didn't think he'd actually be around to see it.

Danse looked concerned through the police station window as he and Mara spoke, and Deacon could feel his blood pressure rise as he watched him put a hand on Mara's arm. That was another thing, he'd never been a jealous guy, had rolled his eyes at every asshole he'd seen pouting around as his woman talked to another man but Mara had some wild chemical effect on him, had him acting like, well, an idiot.

There was a brief discussion, and then the two were headed into a different room, followed closely by Cait. The vertibird perched on the roof started up, and Deacon's stomach dropped.

They were going up to the Prydwen. Which meant Mara had finally decided to join the Brotherhood.

For almost an hour after he'd watched them depart, Deacon fought with himself, willing his body up the roof. He'd be able to get his own ride no problem, knew enough about the Brotherhood to pull off a story and a convincing disguise, but he'd always been stupidly terrified of heights and just imagining the ride up to the airship made him sick.

So he set up camp.

2 nights in a dirty alleyway dreaming about Mara and Danse fucking in full armor (on top of the Brotherhood flag?) and his appetite was pretty much gone for good, so he was just picking at a stale roll he'd taken off someone's plate in Goodneighbor when they finally returned.

The vertibird set down that afternoon, Mara hopping out and setting off down the stairs with an angry look on her face, Cait tagging along like usual. Danse looked confused, stomping along after her in his power armor.

He finally caught up to her in front of the police station and though Deacon couldn't pick up most of the conversation, he caught the words "tyrant" and "megalomaniac" and his face broke out into a smile.

So she'd met the famous Elder Maxson. God, he should have never doubted her in the first place. Mara was too smart not to see right through that asshole.

He stayed on them, from Diamond City to Bunker Hill. She was looking for something, something she needed caps for. She was taking small jobs, talking to traders. Cait stayed by her side the whole time, face hard and stony except for those small moments when it was turned on Mara. Then it softened up, became something compelling, warm, even. Cait cared for her, Deacon realized.

They started heading southwest, and it wasn't until they got to the edge of the Glowing Sea that he actually realized they were headed straight into it, didn't fully believe it until he saw Mara and Cait dutifully zipping themselves up into radiation suits.

He couldn't follow them, so he camped out on the edge of the sea, just beyond the reach of the radiation, hiding out in an old half-caved-in shack. This time he dreamed of Mara's stomach splitting open, of her reaching out to him with blood on her hands as her intestines spilled out of her. He woke up shaking and sweating, t-shirt clinging to his damp back.

Four days later the two women emerged from the pale, radioactive fog, looking exhausted but determined. Deacon felt as though he could finally breathe again.

They made their way back to Cambridge, over by the old C.I.T. ruins. He watched as Mara started tracking a signal with her Pip Boy, staring at it as she paced in small circles. Cait, meanwhile, rolled her eyes but mostly kept her mouth shut. Mara caught a trail before long, practically sprinting up the stairs of Greenetech Genetics.

Deacon couldn't follow them in; the place was packed with Gunners - he could hear the shouting and gunfire from outside. He'd either get shot or spotted, and neither of those things seemed like a great option, so he waited. Again. He'd seen her face off against Gunners before; it wasn't anything she couldn't handle.

It was nighttime when the two women exited the building, Mara with a new scrape on the side of her cheek and Cait inspecting a small metal object in her hands. He waited while they stopped and cleaned up, watched them eat by a small campfire they set up in the ruins. His eyes were fixed on Mara, he didn't see the gun, just heard a familiar click right behind his ear. He took a deep breath, hoped Mara wouldn't hear the shot and come investigate.

"Are you here to hurt them?" a woman's voice said. He slowly raised his arms up.

"No."

"Then why are you watching them?"

Deacon turned around, trying to telegraph every movement so as not to startle her. He got a good look at the girl, young, maybe in her early twenties, her brown hair cropped at the shoulder. She looked a little new at this but had a steely determination in her eyes that told him she'd shoot if necessary. That meant his best bet was honesty. Humiliating as it might be.

"I used to be her partner. Mara's. I still worry about her. I don't know."

The girl narrowed her eyes, seemed to study him for a moment.

"Are you a synth?"

Shit. That one was trickier. Too many paranoid settlers out there to know which side this girl was on.

"No," he said. "But I help save them." If he was going to die, then at least he'd die for something he actually believed in.

The girl nodded, then lowered her gun. "Just don't fuck with her, ok?"

Deacon blinked. "Uh, ok."

Then she was off, scrambling down a pile of rubble, curiosity scratching gently at the back of Deacon's mind.

They headed to Sanctuary and he had to be careful to stay downwind the entire time, hyper aware of Dogmeat and his probing little snout constantly sniffing the air. Mara and Cait rested for a few days, talked with Sturges about some project. Deacon stole a melon from Marcy Long's yard just because he could. They started building something in a cleared-out lot by the old oak tree, something with a lot of complicated machinery that he didn't recognize. At night he snuck onto the build site, found a set of plans written in a messy scrawl. He couldn't make out a single word but whatever it was, it looked high-tech. Dangerous.

It took them a week to build the platform, another week to set up the generators. Then one afternoon Mara stepped into the center of the structure, and Sturges started flipping switches.

The machine began to shake, wires coming loose, steam shooting out in small, angry jets. Mara looked nervous, Deacon began to slowly creep toward her from his position in the woods. Sturges was yelling, telling Mara to remember something, and the machine was shaking violently now, humming loudly as power surged into it. Then a flash of light, and Deacon was jogging, running over, his feet moving on their own accord, suddenly needing to grab Mara and pull her away from that thing, whatever it was, to get her to safety.

The machine shuddered to a sudden halt, and Deacon stopped in his tracks.

She was gone.

Chapter Text

Diamond City was a frenzy of activity, and it was giving Mara a headache. The early afternoon sun shone down in an unforgiving white glare, and the crowd kept jostling her from side to side, impatient traders elbowing their way through the market.

"Fuckers," Cait hissed in her ear. "Ought to give a good kick to the next one who nudges me."

Mara shook her head, glaring back at a man who'd thrown them a dirty look. "No fighting in Diamond City, we've been over this."

"Yeah, yeah," Cait muttered. "Nothing I can do about someone tripping and falling into my fist, though."

Mara couldn't help but snort at that, and Cait offered up a small smirk in return. It had been just two weeks since they'd visited Vault 95 and cured Cait of her chem addiction for good, and already she seemed a little lighter, a little quicker to smile or crack a joke. It was more than worth the trouble of getting there, worth even the awful sight of Cait's body jerking violently as the device had done its work.

Cait squinted out beyond the crowd. "Arturo is supposed to have a shipment in for me, mind if we check in with him?"

"You go ahead," Mara replied. "I need a break."

Cait nodded at her and disappeared into the throngs of people. Mara stepped off to the side, finding a quiet enclosure hidden in the shade and largely absent of passersby. She leaned against a wall and let out a breath, watched two children run by, chasing after one another. The sight was painful, reminded her of the dull ache she carried around with her, a hurt that was always there, waiting patiently for her attention to drift back to it.

She noticed a guard lurking further down the alley and something in her brain clicked. She started to slowly amble toward him, trying her best to project an air of casual indifference. He turned away from her, the line of his shoulders revealing just a hint of tension.

Motherfucker.

She was on him in 3 long steps, grabbing him by his stupid catcher's uniform and slamming him up against a wall.

"What the fuck are you doing here?"

He looked down at her through his googles. "I'm protecting the, uh, the big emerald. Great green jewel. Security. I'm securing things."

"Deacon," Mara growled.

His body sagged against the wall. "How did you know?"

She huffed. "Because I know you. And I know you've been following me, asshole." She hadn't yet managed to catch him, but she knew the feeling of his eyes on her better than anything. Everywhere she went it itched at her, kept her constantly on edge. She felt haunted. "I could kill you."

"If you do, could you hide my head somewhere in HQ? Like in Carrington's bag, or something?" He smirked. "Maybe throw an arm on Glory's pillow? Make sure you shape my hand into a thumbs up before rigor mortis sets in."

Mara let go of him, shoved at his shoulder. "They thought you were dead," she spat. They'd worried at the possibility, at least. Glory had tried to reassure her, picking up on the fact that something had gone down between them. Deacon always came back eventually, she'd told her. He didn't always look the same, but he always made it back. Even Glory had sounded less convinced as time passed.

"I tried to disappear," Deacon muttered, finally sounding just a bit remorseful.

"Bang-up job you're doing." She stared at him a moment, then reached for his helmet and goggles, tearing them off his head in one quick motion. He let it happen, wincing a bit as the goggles scraped over his forehead, but remaining otherwise still. She took him in - he was still Deacon underneath, the same stubbled chin and eye wrinkles, but his head was now covered in thick auburn hair, and the sunglasses were gone. He looked thinner, his cheekbones just a little more prominent than she remembered. She stared into his eyes and he looked back at her, quiet.

She felt herself start to tear up. "Deacon," she said, her voice low. "What are you doing?"

He looked away, somewhere above her head and to the left.

"Jesus," a voice said, and Mara flinched. It was Cait, approaching them in the alley. "Not ten minutes ago you tell me no fighting, and now I catch you jumping a guard? Is it for fun or money, and why wasn't I invited?"

Mara took a step back from Deacon, feeling suddenly sheepish. "He's not... I know him."

Cait looked at Deacon, then Mara. "Oh. Ohhhhhh. This is the guy? The disappearing act?"

"You told her about me?" Deacon asked, looking amused.

Mara rolled her eyes. "No. Kind of."

"She told me enough," Cait said. "Not that hard to fill in the rest. What was your excuse, huh? She was giving it to you regular but it wasn't enough? Maybe you wanted in her arse more often, got a little too pushy-"

"Cait! No!" Mara snapped, waving an arm in her face. She glanced at Deacon, who was studiously avoiding eye contact with either of them, his ears and cheeks bright pink.

Cait paused, taking in the response. "Ah. Well. Either way."

"Can you please give us a minute?" Mara tried not to sound too exasperated.

"Yeah, alright." Cait nodded. "But if you need me to kill him for you just say the word." She stalked off back in the direction of the market.

Mara watched her go, unsure of what to say now that she and Deacon were alone again. She wanted to kiss him, stab him, tie him up and never let him go. She didn't even want to look at him.

"I heard a rumor," Deacon said.

She turned. "What?"

He studied her face. "Yep. A weird one. Heard the famous vault-dweller actually made it into the Institute. Teleported there and back, if you can believe it."

"Deacon-"

"You didn't. How?" His eyes were wide.

"It doesn't matter," she said, beginning to cry. That big, dull hurt came crashing back to the surface.

Deacon frowned at her, confused. "What? How can it not matter?"

"It doesn't matter because I can't bring down the Institute. I can't set the synths free, I can't do anything. I can't even save my baby." Her voice broke and Deacon reached an arm out, trying to pull her into him, but she shoved him away, took another step backward. He let her go.

"They killed him?" he asked after a moment. "Your son?"

She shook her head, wiping stubbornly at her face. "They may as well have. Sometimes I think it would've been better if they had."

"What? How can you-"

"No," Mara snapped, cutting him off. "You don't get to show up after all this time in one of your stupid disguises and demand explanations like you're entitled to them."

Deacon winced, holding his hands up in an appeasing gesture. "I'm just trying to understand."

"Then you can try on your own. You don't get to do this half-in, half-out bullshit, ok?"

They stared at each other. The chatter of the market sounded far away. Mara was so tired of being disappointed.

"I'm sorry. I never meant to." Deacon scratched his chin, looking at the ground. "I never meant for feelings to develop."

Mara took a step back into his space, pointing an accusing finger at him. "No. That is not what you need to apologize for. You need to apologize for being a coward who's so fucking tangled up in his own pain that he can't take responsibility for the people he cares about."

Deacon's face crumpled. Mara had to fight off a sudden impulse to apologize, to comfort him.

"Figure your shit out," Mara said, looking away. "And stop following me."

She turned and left him in the alley, not allowing herself to risk a final look back. For all her anger it still physically pained her to leave him, to let him drift away from her after so many months spent searching. Cait immediately appeared at her side, having likely watched the rest of the conversation from some nearby hiding place. Mara didn't have the energy to snipe at her for it, and it likely wouldn't faze her anyway.

"You sure you don't need me to kill him?" Cait hissed, craning her head back in Deacon's direction. "You don't even have to say the word, you could just kind of wink and nod and I'd take care of it."

Mara sighed. "As much as I'd appreciate that, no."

Cait wrapped an arm around Mara and rubbed her shoulder. "Heard about an old apartment building nearby full up with ghouls. In case you feel like shooting things."

Mara nodded. "Yeah. I kinda do." She finally gave in to temptation and glanced behind her, but Deacon was already gone.

Chapter Text

Deacon didn't follow her.

He headed north, then east, ended up on an unoccupied stretch of shore somewhere. Found an abandoned stash of whiskey in a lock box in a half-uncovered basement and watched himself pop the cork and tilt the bottle's contents down his throat, welcomed the ensuing fog that wrapped around his brain and warmed his body. Seven years clean, streak broken in a matter of seconds, but he couldn't bring himself to care anymore. He wrapped his shoulders in a blanket and spent his evening finishing the bottle.

The next few days were a blur. Got into a scrap with a dumbshit settler who called him a trespasser and earned himself a bruise on the cheek and a scraped-up hand for it. Found an old outpost of his with a hidden collection of paperbacks, sat hunched over a tattered collection of sonnets and cried. Spent an hour on the wet sand just staring out at the ocean, feeling his ass go numb in the cold. He thought of Barbara, and he drank, and one night he dreamt of her sailing away from him, laughing and smiling from her little sailboat as he ran after her through the waves, the water around him pulling heavy at his legs. He started drinking earlier in the day, let his beard grow in, felt like a wandering animal. Drummer Boy had taken in a stray cat once - it was an old, mean fucker and barely a year had passed before it had suddenly disappeared one day. Deacon had found its body by a dead tree near the Slocum Joe's, and Desdemona explained that when a cat knew it was dying, it would try to run away, to die in solitude and spare its owner the mess. He wondered if that's what he was doing. Wished he could ask Carrington exactly how much DNA he shared with a housecat, just so he could be told to shut the fuck up one more time.

He returned to the city on a whim. The buildings felt taller, more alien, and it frightened him. Made him feel small. He rooted through buildings for food and scrap, wrapped a wound on his arm he didn't remember getting. He drank enough to stop dreaming. His head hurt all the time.

One night he turned a corner and saw a sudden spark of light, froze in place like a fucking amateur (like a doe-eyed vault dweller who'd been frozen for 200 years) but it was just the glow from a lit cigarette, and two bright yellow eyes.

"Nick," Deacon rasped, his voice sounding strange to his own ears.

"Jesus, Deacon," the synth replied, voice dripping with pity. "Just look at you." He was leaning against a wall, likely taking a moment's break from whatever case he was working on.

"Bum a smoke?" Deacon asked, trying to smirk. His face felt tight.

Nick sighed and tossed him a small packet - Fancy Lads Snack Cakes. Deacon felt his stomach turn over; he hadn't realized he was starving. He tore into the plastic with his teeth.

"Why are you doing this to her?" he heard Nick ask softly. Deacon avoided his eyes, chewing messily on a piece of cake. He felt a flare of anger building in his chest, tried to think of an easy exit. "She comes by asking about you. Every other week or so. Am I going to have to be the one to tell her when I find a body? Or are you going to let her make that discovery herself?"

"Fuck you," Deacon snapped, his mouth embarrassingly full. "You don't understand."

"Maybe not," Nick conceded, leaning back against the wall beside him. "Maybe I don't understand the point of endlessly punishing yourself and everyone who's ever cared about you for all your supposed moral failings."

Deacon glared at him. "She told you?"

"I'm a detective, shithead." Nick took another drag off his cigarette, and Deacon idly wondered what it felt like to breathe without lungs. "You're not exactly the most subtle man I've ever met. But you might be the most stubborn."

Nick turned back to Deacon, a look of genuine sadness carved into his stone grey face, and Deacon couldn't stand the sight of it. He left the city.

He went west, stole some carrots from a settlement farm, washed his face beneath a water pump. He nabbed a bottle of vodka from a raider encampment while its occupants were elsewhere, woke up passed out in the woods with dead leaves in his hair some time later. His days were no longer marked by clear lines but instead faded into one another like a dream that changed scenery.

He was walking one of the main roads one night when something hit the back of his neck, knocked him down to his knees onto the cracked pavement. He didn't black out but he was definitely woozy, felt the horizon tilt around him as he dodged the second blow, blindly grabbed at a pair of legs and bit down into the meat of a thigh, fumbled at the belt closest to his face until he produced a knife. There was a gunshot but no ensuing flare of pain so Deacon leapt up, drove his knife into the ribs of a Gunner, felt something slashing at his side. It was just a twist of bodies for a moment, screams and grunts punctuating his every move and Deacon knew he'd gotten sloppy, couldn't grab onto the map of the fight like he usually could, didn't even know if the sounds he heard were coming from him or them. Then, finally, one last slash and the bodies were all still at Deacon's feet, bleeding out onto the ground below.

Three scrawny little Gunners, able to get the drop on him. Pathetic. He spit onto the ground, tossed the knife. He felt his knees buckling, managed to stomp a small distance down the road before his legs became completely useless to him and he collapsed, let his body crumple to the ground. The sky was clear. He looked up at the stars and thought of bombs dropping from above, thought of mushroom clouds and desolation, thought of Mara. He'd been such a fucking coward.

"I'm sorry," Deacon muttered to no one.

"For what?" Deacon rolled his head on the grass and saw himself standing over him, clean shaven and back in the pompadour and shades, smoking a cigarette. "For fucking up with Mara? For getting Barbara killed? For murdering that synth?" The other Deacon chuckled. "That's a pretty full list to run through, man. And you haven't got much time."

"Why?" Deacon asked himself.

"Blood loss, dumbass." The other Deacon tutted. "Three Gunners, only one of them fully armed. You want me to go find some bodies to drag over here, make it look like more of a fight? Because this is honestly embarrassing."

"I'm dying," Deacon said.

"Yep." The other Deacon blew smoke into the air.

"How old are we again?"

The other Deacon considered. "35 last July. Not terrible, all said."

"Not terrible," Deacon agreed, closing his eyes. The night was cold. He couldn't feel his hands.

"Like a shoe with no foot in it," he heard the other Deacon drawl. "Like a suit with no man in it."

"Yeah, I get it, asshole," Deacon muttered, feeling his tenuous grasp on the world around him begin to slide.

The night grew quiet. The last sound Deacon heard was the irritated rasp of a man's voice coming from far away.

"Who the hell just called me an asshole?"

Chapter Text

"We should have just left him there."

Mara sighed, exhaustion weighing heavy on her body. She hoped this would be a relatively short and quiet rant; the sun was only just coming up on Sanctuary and most of its residents were still asleep. "I appreciate the input, MacCready, as always, but this really isn't up for discussion."

MacCready was pacing around the yard, a flurry of agitation. "Hancock told me about this guy. Says he's a liar, a con-man."

"Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly how he put it," Mara said flatly.

He shrugged one shoulder. "Well he said he has all these costumes and disguises and sh-stuff. Shady business. Plus Cait says he dumped you anyway."

"That is not what I said!" Cait hissed, as Mara turned and raised an eyebrow at her. "I only said that there were ehm, complications. Stop twisting my words."

MacCready gestured at her. "Exactly! Complications! Do we really need complications right now?"

"Who's we?" Cait huffed, sounding amused. "I thought you were just hired help."

MacCready took a defiant step toward her, wagging a finger. "I gave that money back, ok?"

"Most of it," Mara interrupted.

"I gave most of that money back. I'm a part of this community now."

"Of course you are," Mara assured him. Cait threw her a look.

"Right, so," he said, folding his arms. "As a member of this community, I am voicing my disapproval of our guest."

"And your disapproval has been noted," Mara agreed. "He stays."

MacCready shook his head disbelievingly. "I can't believe I wasted my whole night dragging him back here."

"I heard Garvey was the one who carried him," Cait replied, amusement coloring her voice.

"Well I had to spot him."

Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Codsworth hovering just behind Mara's shoulder. "Pardon me, Mum. I've been informed that our visitor appears to be waking up."

Mara felt her gut twist - with relief, anticipation, something. "Thanks, Codsworth. I'll head over."

"I say if he can walk, kick him out," MacCready muttered.

Cait pinched his side, drawing out a yelp. Mara turned away and left them to their bickering.

Mara's old-new house had seen some changes. She still slept on a cot in the kitchen, with a spare mattress on the floor for nights when Cait or Piper felt like crashing there, but the abandoned bedrooms that had formerly been used just for storage were now fully furnished, with Sean's old nursery now housing two full-sized beds, a desk, a bookshelf (with a few actual books) and a set of end tables. Piper and Curie had taken it on as a project, and their efforts had made the house feel almost homey again. Not pristine, like it had been in its pre-War days. But comfortable.

Curie was in the kitchen when Mara entered, busy sorting through a pile of medical supplies on the counter. "Bonjour, Mara!" she trilled cheerily. "I believe our patient is at last regaining consciousness! It is quite encouraging to see him with his flesh fully intact."

"Yeah, that tends to be a good sign," Mara said, managing half a smirk. The kitchen around them was still a mess; they'd laid Deacon out on the kitchen table last night to give Curie a flat surface to work on. There was still blood smeared everywhere - on the table, the walls, the floor. So much blood it was almost hard to believe they'd managed to pull him back. It was really Curie who'd done most of the work; Mara had just handed her supplies as she asked for them. Eventually she'd sat down in a chair at the head of the table, holding Deacon's head between her hands and whispering nonsense that was meant to be reassuring. She'd been too panicked to make much sense, but it wasn't like he could hear her anyway.

"You should go say hello. If you'd like." Curie was still getting used to having a face capable of human expression; her eyes were oddly wide and her smile was still just a little too big. Fortunately it came off more endearing than disconcerting on her.

"Is he, um. Are we out of the woods?" Mara asked.

Curie looked thoughtful. "I believe you are asking if the patient is in a stable condition? In which case, I can assure you, he is indeed! I expect him to make a full recovery, so long as he receives plenty of rest."

Mara nodded, tension escaping her body. "That's amazing Curie. I can't thank you enough."

"Of course," Curie replied, her smile a little less extreme this time.

Mara nodded, and began quietly walking over to the back room. The morning sky was now bright enough that bands of sun were streaming into the house. She reached the nursery door and peeked inside, found the room illuminated with a soft blue glow. Deacon was lying in the bed closest to the door, a scrawny imitation of the man who used to be her partner, his face now sporting a messy auburn beard, his hair a shaggy mess. He was shirtless - Curie had cut his worn plaid button-up to shreds to get at his injuries - and where his torso wasn't covered in bandages, the skin was scraped up or bruised. She looked back up at his face; he was staring at her.

"Hey," she said quietly, stepping into the room. She felt nervous and she wasn't even entirely sure why.

"Wow, boss," Deacon rumbled, his voice thready. "You look like shit."

Mara smirked in spite of herself. She folded her arms and leaned against the bedroom door. "Yeah? Had kind of a rough night."

Deacon nodded, pursing his lips. "Me too."

Mara glanced around the room. She could feel Deacon's eyes on her.

"I met a very nice French woman," he said, his voice a little stronger this time. "Seems very into uh, wounds."

Mara nodded. "That's Curie. Modified Miss Nanny model we helped transfer into a synth."

"Of course," Deacon said wryly, letting his eyes drift closed. Mara felt her chest ache watching him.

"What do you remember?" she asked after a moment.

Deacon worked his jaw around, thinking. "Remember getting stabbed by those fucking Gunners. Fell over, couldn't keep walking. Think I heard some guy yelling?" He opened his eyes again, looking to Mara for clarification.

"That was MacCready. He thought you called him an asshole."

Deacon snorted. "Ah."

"He was out patrolling with Preston. They were the ones who found you." Mara tried to keep her voice as even as possible. She watched him take the information in, slot it into the missing places in his memory.

Deacon opened and closed his mouth a few times, as though he was trying to find the right words. "I didn't know I was so close by," he said finally, looking pained. "I'm sorry. I would have never asked for-"

"Stop," Mara said. "You didn't have to ask. I'd do it again. I'd do it a thousand times."

Deacon stared at her. Mara felt so tired. She wished she could climb in bed next to him and just hold him to her, feel his heart beating beneath her palm.

She sighed and looked away. "I'd tell you you're a fucking moron but you probably know that already, right?"

She heard Deacon snort. "Better than anyone, I'd say."

Mara nodded, glanced back at him. He did look genuinely apologetic. "Good. Because I don't actually want to be a member of your on-call rescue crew, ok? We got lucky this time, but I'm not always going to be there to put you back together."

Deacon clenched his jaw and turned his face away, looking toward the window.

"You don't have to stay," she added. "I don't want you sticking around thinking you owe me or anything, because you don't. And I don't expect you to." The words came out harsher than she intended, but she felt better having said them.

Deacon kept his eyes fixed on the window. She wished he'd say something.

"I'll let you rest," Mara said finally, backing out of the room.

"Mara."

She paused, met Deacon's gaze.

"Thank you," he muttered, his eyes bleary.

"Yeah," Mara said. Then she walked out of the room.

Chapter Text

They didn't talk much at first, which was strange. Their entire relationship, all they'd done was banter and snipe and tease one another, and while Mara hadn't assumed that things would just go back to normal between them, she couldn't have predicted they'd be quite so different. Not bad-different. Just different.

Curie had prescribed Deacon at least a few days bed rest, so Mara took up residence on the unoccupied bed next to him, saddled with a pile of clothes in need of patching. She brought a stack of books for him but their latest haul had been mostly bibles (found while scavenging for scrap in an old hotel), so Deacon entertained himself by selectively crossing out words and passages to make his own mildly sacrilegious stories. Every now and then he'd snicker to himself and show Mara some of his work, and she'd smile indulgently and roll her eyes at him. Sometimes he'd draw a genuine laugh out of her, and his eyes would get a kind of spark to them, intense in a way that held attention, and it was starting to make sense why he'd needed sunglasses to fade into a crowd.

At night she lay in her cot in what used to be her old living room and wondered whether he was asleep down the hall, or if he was awake too, lying in bed and thinking of her.

When he was well enough, they helped him out of bed. Piper and Mara dressed him in some of Preston's old clothes, which hung a little baggy on Deacon's now-slender body, while he leaned most of his weight on Mara. She grabbed a blanket off the bed and wrapped him in it when he still looked too small, and he smiled down at her.

He ended up sitting outside on the grass while Mara weeded nearby. Dogmeat eventually trotted over to join him and the two of them fell asleep together propped up against a tree.

"Careful," Cait muttered to Mara. She had a few of her favorite guns laid out in front of her on a blanket and was cleaning them dutifully.

"Hmm?" Mara quirked an eyebrow at her.

Cait shook her head. "I see the way you're looking at him."

Piper huffed. She was in the dirt with Mara, her tank top covered in smudged brown handprints. "So what? She's allowed to look."

"I'm just saying." Cait frowned and glanced back over at Deacon. "He has a history of disappearing, right?"

"And I've got a history of making bad choices wherever he's concerned," Mara said gloomily. "Maybe we're just doomed to keep repeating this thing."

I could kill him and put a stop to that," Cait offered, smirking.

Piper rolled her eyes. "You're both so cynical. It's been a long time - maybe he's changed."

Cait huffed. She peered over at Piper, narrowing her eyes. "What's got you so sunny?"

"Nothing," Piper said, her tone oddly light.

"Right," Cait drawled. "Couldn't have anything to do with all your late-night visits to Sturges' place."

Piper's jaw dropped, a look of righteous indignation on her face, and Mara immediately burst out laughing. Cait grinned at her.

"You too?" Piper hissed. "You both knew?"

"Piper, the two of you ran out of his house the night they brought Deacon in. Strurges was in his boxers," Mara said, keeping her voice low. Cait snickered, looking delighted.

"Jesus Christ." Piper's face was bright pink. "Do you think everyone saw?"

Mara shook her head, trying to look reassuring. "Nah, I think just Cait and me. Everyone else was kind of distracted by all the blood."

"What'sa matter Piper?" Cait asked, smirk audible in her tone. "I thought you were all about spreading the truth across the Commonwealth."

Piper threw a clod of dirt at Cait, scowling. Cait just snickered again.

"Is it serious?" Mara asked, quickly casting her eyes around. Deacon was still asleep, and it didn't seem as though anyone else was listening.

Piper's face instantly went soft, the side of her lips pulling up into the barest hint of a smile. "I think so? It's all still really new."

"Good for you guys," Mara said sincerely. She'd always had a fondness for Sturges, and his friendly, even-tempered attitude made an odd kind of sense for someone as feisty as Piper. Complementary angles, and all that. It was nice, anyway. Everything had changed and nothing had changed. People still fell in love, had babies, made lives together, The world may have ended, but sometime while Mara had been sleeping underground, it had begun again.

That night, Mara was about to drift off to sleep on her cot when she heard a loud crash and immediately shot up in bed. She jogged down the hall and shook off a vivid sense memory - heading down this same hallway to check on a crying baby Shaun hundreds of years ago - and came to a halt at Deacon's doorway.

Deacon was twisted up in his blanket and sprawled awkwardly on the floor, the broken shards of a white ceramic mug scattered around him. He looked sheepish but otherwise fine, trying to pull his face into an embarrassed grin.

"Was trying to put the mug on the end table," he mumbled, struggling into a seated position. "Balance still isn't great, obviously."

Mara crouched down next to him and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. She felt him jump a bit at her touch but he sat calmly as she tilted him forward and checked his back, searching for any bumps or signs of blood spotting through his t-shirt. She could feel his lungs expanding and emptying beneath her palm and the intimacy of it left her a little breathless. She leaned him back against the bed.

"Looks ok," she said, whispering for some reason. "Anything hurt?"

Deacon stared back at her, slightly shadowed by the flickering lamplight. He looked very serious for a moment, but then his face relaxed, and a shadow of his old smirk flicked across it.

"Just my pride, I think. Should be fine."

Mara sat down next to him, close enough that their shoulders touched. She tugged at Deacon's blanket until she'd untangled enough of it to cover her own lap. Deacon smiled down at her hands.

"Never used to have a hard time getting to sleep but now everything just sounds too quiet."

Mara nodded, glancing over at him. He did look tired.

"Think I got used to your mouth-breathing," he added, smirking again.

Mara gasped and pinched his side, and he let out a small laugh, wriggling away from her fingers.

"I do not. Mouth-breathe," she ground out through her teeth, fighting a smile.

"Yeah, well," Deacon said, expression warm. "Either way. I don't sleep that well when you're not with me."

Mara felt a punch low in her gut. "And whose fault is that?" she asked, her voice instantly cool.

Deacon didn't seem fazed. "Mine," he said, short and sincere.

Mara wasn't sure what to say to that, but her anger faded almost as quickly as it had arrived, and she felt her body relax. After a moment's consideration, she let herself lean onto Deacon's shoulder. He shifted a bit to bring himself closer, easing the strain on her neck. She sighed a bit, let herself enjoy the feeling of being close to him without thinking about it too much.

"So do you think MacCready is going to try to kill me?" Deacon whispered.

Mara snorted. "I wouldn't say yes, but I also wouldn't say definitely no."

"Hmmm. What would you say my chances are?"

"In your current state?" Mara asked, looking sleepily up at him. "I mean, you just got knocked out by a coffee mug."

Deacon mock-gasped. "Mean. So mean."

"Truth hurts."

"Whatever."

They settled back into a peaceful quiet. Mara listened to the sound of crickets outside.

"You almost died, Deacon." She said it softly but he still flinched ever so slightly, as if she'd shouted it right in his ear.

He nodded, looking sad. "Yeah."

Mara closed her eyes and started to feel herself drift off. She decided she'd give herself just another minute or two, then she'd help Deacon back into bed.

"I'm sorry." He whispered it so softly that for a second Mara wasn't quite sure if she'd heard or imagined it, but then he spoke again, just a little bit louder. "I'm so sorry."

Mara turned her face into his shoulder and wrapped her arms around him. With his free arm, Deacon placed a hand on her head, holding her to him until they were tangled into each other. Just like that, they both drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Mara woke up with a pair of arms wrapped around her waist.

For one startling moment her mind supplied feral, and she'd heard enough stories of settlers getting attacked in their sleep, but these arms were steady, and still, and human, and attached to a body that was warm behind her, and a head that was currently burrowed into the middle of her back.

She lifted her head off the bit of blanket she'd been using as a pillow and looked around, taking in the warm glow of the morning sun as it lit up the bedroom. She and Deacon had apparently fallen asleep on the floor, twisted up in his blankets. Her right shoulder felt a little numb and her neck ached and she was curled at an awkward angle but it somehow still felt good (wonderful) to be wrapped up in him like this.

The realization set off a small burst of panic in her gut and Mara started to move just ever so slightly, trying to twist her way out of Deacon's embrace without waking him. She'd made it barely an inch before his arms tightened around her and he groaned awake, rubbing his face into her back.

Mara gave up on her escape plans and fell still, waiting for Deacon to fully come to. After a moment she felt his arms stiffen.

"Huh," he said, his voice muffled by Mara's shirt. "Well this is interesting."

Mara could feel the rumble of his sleep-rough voice against her back and it made her stomach flip in a not entirely unpleasant way. "Good morning, Deacon," she said, trying to sound blase. It was weird talking to him like this.

"Were you trying to get away?" Deacon asked, still muffled.

"Maybe."

"This an unpleasant experience for you?"

"That's not the point."

"Then what is the point?"

Mara tried to turn around to at least face him but Deacon tightened his grip, effectively holding her in place. Now she was turned on and frustrated, a dangerous combination.

"The point is the last time we did something like this you freaked out and disappeared for 9 months," Mara said.

She felt his grip loosen again. He was silent for a long moment.

"I'm not gonna do that to you again," he said finally. She could feel him rubbing his head gently against her back, as if in apology.

Mara sighed. She had a vivid flashback of herself sitting inside a tiny little cabin, crying silently on the bed with a still-sore wound tight across her stomach.

“Can you really make that promise?” she asked quietly.

“Want to,” Deacon rumbled.

“Well that’s a step.”

She felt Deacon moving behind her, nuzzling at her back, and realized he was pushing her t-shirt up. He started kissing her skin, his beard coarse against her. Mara squirmed.

"Deacon."

"Mm?"

"You ever going to let me go?"

"Nope," he replied. Mara felt him smile against her. "M' waiting for the Stockholm Syndrome to set in."

Mara laughed. "How do you even know what Stockholm Syndrome is?"

"Read it in a book I think." He opened his mouth against her side, gently dragged his teeth along the sensitive skin there. Mara gasped.

"Deacon," she said again, more forcefully this time.

He finally released her, withdrawing an arm and rolling over onto his back. Mara turned around to face him. His cheeks were just a little pink, his mouth curved into a smirk. She resisted the temptation to kiss him.

"Do you want to stay here?" she asked, propped up onto her elbows.

"On the floor?" He made a face as if considering. "Seems a little silly with the bed right there but I'm enjoying myself so far."

Mara rolled her eyes. "In Sanctuary. With me."

"Yes," Deacon said immediately, his tone serious.

"Really?"

"Wherever you are. If you want me." He looked up at her, eyes bright and clear.

Mara wanted to hug him, so she did, wrapping her arms around him and resting her head on his chest. He placed a hand on the side of her head, holding her.

"That a maybe?" Deacon asked.

Mara buried her smile in his shirt. "It's a yes, jackass."

"Good." He stroked her hair, brushing strands of it out of her face. "I think people are starting to get attached to me here. Wouldn't want to kill morale."

Mara snorted. "Curie definitely likes you. She told me you sang for her."

Deacon shifted and cleared his throat. "Oh? I don't -"

"In French."

"Hmm. Sounds like she's malfunctioning. Shorted a circuit, maybe."

Mara sat up, smiling down at him. "I didn't even know you spoke French."

Deacon threw an arm over his eyes. "I don't! Just a little. And like two songs."

"Two!"

"I thought she'd like it, I don't know."

Mara put a hand on his chest and kissed him gently on the mouth. It was a chaste, quick kiss, but she still felt a small pull in her stomach when their lips met. She drew back and Deacon peeked at her underneath his forearm.

"We should get up," she said.



They weren't dating, exactly. "Dating" made Mara think of Letterman jackets and shake shops (the pre-War kind that didn't serve as mutant nests) and whatever she and Deacon were doing was far from that. But they started to spend all their time together just happily occupying the same space, idly flirting with one another, shyly brushing hands or shoulders or knees, and it reminded Mara of that heady rush of first love, thick and intense and compulsive.

She tried to stay busy. There was certainly enough to do around Sanctuary - defenses to board up and reinforce, crops to tend to, complaints to hear out. Marcy Long claimed the Perez family took more than their share of water last week. Darla Robinson needed bigger beds for her children. Mama Murphy thought the melons had started tasting weird. MacCready said his ceiling leaked every time it rained.

Mara did her best to delegate, taking on whatever projects she felt she could capably handle and enlisting aid with whatever she couldn't. Deacon stayed by her side the whole time like a bigger, lankier shadow, chatting along happily while he helped Mara and Sturges weld a bed frame together, while he handed her scrap wood to patch a roof with, while she and Curie inspected the soil around the gardens. One morning he disappeared into the bathroom and emerged with a freshly shaved face and slicked-back hair - still auburn but styled almost like his old pompadour wig. He put on a pair of sunglasses he'd dug up from somewhere and it was like something clicked into place and he was comfortably, completely Deacon again. Mara pinned him against the wall and kissed him until both their lips were swollen and Deacon had to adjust his jeans and take a few deep breaths before they both headed to breakfast.

At night they shared a bed, peacefully wrapped up in each other and content to just rest in the safety of their little cocoon (she wondered if Deacon knew about cocoons). Word of their sleeping arrangement got out somehow and one night at dinner Codsworth zoomed over and excitedly asked if they were trying for a baby. Cait laughed so hard she ended up choking on her stew, and Preston had to thump her on the back while Deacon hid his pink face in Mara's shoulder and Mara tried desperately to change the subject.

"I'm glad you found each other," Piper remarked one morning while she was holding nails for Mara to hammer into a stretch of fence. Deacon was busy entertaining the kids with a game he called "Hungry Mirelurk." There were three boys and two girls of varying sizes currently running around him in a circle screaming while Dogmeat excitedly barked at them.

"Hmm?" Mara replied.

"You and Deacon," Piper said, nodding toward him. "It's like you give each other life or something. Like you're both more yourselves when you're with each other."

Mara smiled. "Yeah. It's kind of scary though, isn't it? Sometimes it feels like... having a major organ outside of my body."

"Your heart," Piper said, smirking. "Oh, blech." Mara pulled a face. "No."

"I actually saw a ghoul like that once," Piper said, her eyes going wide. "He had a big tear in his rib cage. You could see it beating and everything; it was wild."

Mara turned back to her hammering. "Ok, then yes, I feel like a ghoul with its heart hanging out of its rib cage."

Piper laughed. "Very romantic."

"How's your dangling heart, by the way?" Mara asked.

Piper shrugged. "Just letting things play out. We'll see how things go."

Mara nodded, eyes focused on the head of the nail between her fingers.

"Yeah. We'll see."

Chapter Text

Ten days later, they had a visitor.

Piper was the first to spot him. She was sitting next to Mara on the front stoop of Mama Murphy's house, recounting a story about Nat and a litter of kittens she'd somehow snuck into the Publick Occurences office, when she suddenly punched Mara in the arm.

"Ow!" Mara hissed. "What the hell!" She was still waking up and didn't appreciate aggressive physical contact so early in the day.

"It's Nick! NICKY!" Piper howled, using her gloved hands as an improvised megaphone while Mara winced. She looked up to see a smiling Nick Valentine ambling down the main road and waving back at them, Preston chatting happily at his side.

"He hasn't been up this way in a while," Mara remarked, watching Nick approach. For a time he hadn't really had any reason to; Mara had visited him almost every other week while Deacon was still missing. At first she'd pretended she was only there to give Nick updates or help him out with cases, but he was a sharp man, and she soon stopped bothering with the act. Besides, Nick was always so gentle with her, never one to judge her for showing softness or affection. Or paralyzing worry for a missing idiot.

"Nick! So good to see you," Piper said, leaping to her feet from where she'd been sitting beside Mara. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.

"Likewise," Nick said, smiling. "Haven't seen much of you around Diamond City lately." He pulled back and threw her a curious look. "Figured something up here must have captured your attention."

Piper's cheeks immediately flushed pink. "Ah, you know. Lots of work to be done. Always happy to pitch in."

Nick smirked. "Uh huh." There was a short pause. Preston looked between the two of them, clearly lost.

"Hey Nick," Mara chimed in, opting to save Piper.

"Hey kid," Nick replied warmly. "Haven't seen much of you either. Guessing that means either bad news or -"

"Valentine." Deacon had managed to quietly stumble onto the group, still dressed in a ripped-up t-shirt and patched pajama pants, donning his shades. He looked taken aback by the sight of Nick, posture tense like he was internally debating whether to flee or not.

"Deacon," Nick replied calmly. Now it was Mara's turn to glance back and forth between the two of them.

Deacon shoved his hands into his pockets and looked at the ground. "Listen, I'm. I wanted to apologize -"

Nick held up a hand, cutting him off. "Nothing to apologize for. I'm just glad to see you're well."

Deacon nodded in reply, eyes still fixed on the dead grass in front of him. Mara ached with curiosity but resisted the temptation to blurt out a string of probably-intrusive questions.

"So, what brings you to Sanctuary, Nick?" she asked. "Working a case?" She saw Deacon's body relax in the corner of her eye, could almost hear his mental thank you.

"For once, no," Nick said, smiling. "Needed a break from the city and decided it was a good enough excuse to come check up on all of you."

"Well we're happy to have you as long as you'd like," Preston said, clapping a hand on Nick's back. "Have you had breakfast yet? Curie made these amazing razorgrain muffins." He started to steer Nick over to the mess hall, ever the gracious host, and Piper tagged along beside them. Deacon walked over to Mara and quietly took a seat beside her, resting his head on her shoulder. She obliged him, grabbing onto his arm.

"You alright?" she said softly, once everyone else was out of earshot.

Deacon nodded. "Nick and I ran into each other not long before I got attacked. I wasn't right in my head. Just remember being an asshole to him when he was trying to help me."

Mara rubbed a hand up and down his back. "I'm sure he understands. It's like he said, there's nothing to apologize for."

He let out a long sigh. "I guess so. Just tired of being a fuck-up."

Mara drew back and gently held his face in her hands, turning him to face her. "Look at me. You are not a fuck-up, ok? You're strong, and you give a shit about people, and even when you're laid flat by one horrible thing after another, you keep getting back up."

A slow smile crept across Deacon's face. "Those are my lines, asshole."

Mara grinned back at him. "Yeah, well now you know how annoying you sound."

Deacon leaned forward and pressed his lips to Mara's. She startled for a moment, surprised - they'd never been this openly affectionate with each other outside of the house. After a fleeting moment of consideration she leaned into him, licking into his mouth and drawing out an appreciative groan. He broke the kiss and nuzzled his face against her neck.

"God, I like you," Deacon growled into her ear. "Have I told you that?"

Mara wrapped her arms around him. "Not enough."

"I like you," he muttered, kissing her neck. "Like you, like you, like you." He punctuated each iteration with another kiss until Mara was laughing and squirming away from him.

"C'mon," she said, standing up and pulling Deacon to his feet. "If we follow them we might be able to score seconds."

"Nice distraction," Deacon said, smirking, but he fell into step regardless.



Dinner was a noisy affair. Someone had persuaded Nick to tell some of his old detective stories, and judging by the sounds of laughter and dramatic gasps he had his small audience of listeners enthralled. Mara was half-listening from across the mess hall, content to sip her beer and watch everyone.

Cait strode over and sidled up to her on the bench. Mara bumped her shoulder in greeting.

"So I've got an idea you'll probably hate," Cait said.

"Great start though," Mara replied. She watched MacCready throw his head back and cackle at something Nick had said. Piper thwapped him on the knee to quiet him.

Cait leaned in to be heard over the noise of the crowd. "With Nick in town, and Deacon back again. Do you think it might be time to update everyone about... things?"

Mara shrugged a shoulder, an unpleasant tightness settling in around her chest. "Not much to update people about."

"I know you don't really think that," Cait said.

Mara shot her an annoyed look. "Everyone knows I've been to the Institute. And everyone knows I'm not making a move. Not much else to say."

Cait studied her, eyes narrowed. Mara often thought she looked like a fox hunting for prey. After a moment, Cait turned back to face the group, clasping her hands together.

"Whatever happens, all these people are going to have to find a way to live in this Wasteland. You've met people and seen things that, like it or not, are all going to have an impact on what's to come. Don't you think we should tell them all we can? Give them what they need to make a choice?"

Mara sighed. Deacon chose that moment to glance at her from across the room, smiling from his seat beside Preston. She offered him a weak smile in return.

"You were in a way when you first got back, which, why wouldn't you be," Cait continued, her voice low. "But people had questions, and I tried my best to answer them, but you know me, I'm not the best with details. I'm sure there's a hundred different versions of the story out there now. Just think it would be good to set things straight."

Mara turned to look at her. "They're going to want me to do something. What if they get mad when I tell them I can't?"

"I'll kill 'em," Cait said, smirking.

Mara snorted. "Great point."

"Please," Cait said, as serious as she ever got. "It's the right thing to do."

"Alright," Mara conceded. The tightness around her chest squeezed at her, but she tried her best to ignore it. "Get MacCready, Valentine, Preston, Piper, Curie, Sturges."

"And Deacon," Cait added, getting to her feet.

"Yeah," Mara agreed. "And Deacon."

Chapter Text

Mara didn't even know where to start. Everyone's eyes were on her but she felt their polite silence starting to slide into impatience the longer she stood frozen in front of them.

"Is this part of the presentation?" MacCready asked from the back of the mess hall.

Cait punched him hard in the shoulder and he squawked in pain.

He glared back at her, clutching his arm. "I was kidding, Jesus."

"Go ahead, Mara," Piper said from her seat up front.

Mara nodded at her, managing a small smile. "Um. So by now most of you probably know I've been to the Institute."

The group was silent. Piper nodded encouragingly.

"I found someone who knew a way to get in. By teleporting. It's the only way anyone can get in or out. Sturges helped me build the machine that got me in, and it worked."

"Can we try it?" Curie asked, excited.

"No," Mara said, shaking her head. "The whole thing blew once it uh, did its thing. You can actually see the scrap in a pile over by the Long's place. It's completely useless now."

"So how'd you get out?" MacCready asked.

"Great question," Mara replied. "I'll definitely get to that."

"Did you dig?"

"For God's sake MacCready, let her speak," Nick scolded. MacCready made a face but quieted down.

"I got a pretty good look around when I was down there. It's probably what you've imagined... maybe even more impressive. Like a tiny underground city. Their tech is incredible. Clean water, clean air, electricity. And synths everywhere."

She met Deacon's steady gaze. "They're horrible to them. They treat them like slaves. They're always talking down to them, or shouting out orders, or threatening to 'deactivate' them if they don't work hard enough. And they're making more all the time. They make them without even really thinking about it, without realizing they're making life."

"How do we get them out?" Piper asked.

Mara shrugged. "I don't know. I tried to talk to the head of the Institute about it but... he didn't understand." She remembered Shaun's stony, unfeeling face, the dismissive way he talked about the synths. His "children." She felt a wave of nausea hit her.

"You met the head of the Institute?" Nick asked, surprised.

"Yes," Mara said. "He was the one who let me back out. And we were able to grab some of his files - Sturges helped me load everything onto a holotape. All the experiments, the stories about people getting taken in the middle of the night, family members getting replaced by synths; it's all true. They've been experimenting on Wastelanders for years."

"Oh my god," Piper whispered.

"They've killed people," Mara continued. "Children. They say it's all in the name of scientific inquiry or some bullshit, but at the end of the day they just don't see us as human. We're all just fodder for their research."

"Assholes," MacCready hissed from the back.

Mara nodded.

"So how do we take them down?" Deacon asked.

Mara looked over at him. His jaw was clenched, arms crossed, his body slipping back into Railroad agent mode. He looked so determined. She couldn't speak.

Silence fell over the group. Someone coughed.

"It's complicated," Cait said from the back of the room. Everyone turned their heads to look back at her. "Right?" She nodded at Mara.

"Yeah," Mara said. The group turned back to face her. "I know him."

"Who?" Curie asked.

"The head of the Institute." Mara had to force each word out. "He's my son."

Everyone went quiet. She'd already told Piper, Preston, and Cait that particular detail, so the three of them mostly just looked sad or sympathetic. The rest...

"That doesn't make any sense," Deacon said, frowning. "Your son is a child."

Mara turned to him. "Remember what I told you about waking up in the vault? How I saw them shoot Nate and take my son?"

"Right, and then your cryo-pod opened."

"No," Mara replied, shaking her head. "I fell back to sleep first. For just an hour or two, I thought. Turns out 60 years had passed."

"Holy hell," Nick muttered.

"But how could Kellogg have been the one to kidnap him then?" Deacon asked.

"Remember the augmentations we found on Kellogg's body? The Institute had found a way to somehow slow down the aging process," Mara explained. "Or freeze it, basically. He was over 100 years old when we met him."

Nick leaned forward in his chair. "So the Institute took your son, raised him, and basically groomed him to become the next leader of their organization?"

"Right," Mara said. "Originally they just wanted him for his DNA, but I guess they found another use for him."

"For what purposes did they require his DNA?" Curie asked.

"They needed DNA that hadn't been corrupted by radiation. To create Gen-3 synths."

"Oh my god," Deacon mumbled.

"Wait," Sturges said. "Does that mean every Gen-3 is somehow made up of your son's DNA?"

"An altered version of his DNA, yes," Mara replied. She pulled a face. "He calls himself 'Father'."

Cait spit on the floor.

"And there's really no getting through to him?" Nick asked. "Even considering what the Institute did to his father?"

Mara bit her lip and took a moment to make sure her voice wouldn't waver. "No. He seems to think of Nate's murder as an accident. I don't think he has any real attachment to him. And he only let me out of my cryo-pod as a fun little experiment. He just wanted to see what I'd do."

"He knew you were looking for him?" Deacon asked, his voice rising in anger. "The whole time?"

Mara just nodded and looked at the floor, straining to keep her composure.

"This holotape," Nick said. "We get any useful information off of it?"

"Some," Mara admitted. "Schematics, building plans, files. But -" Her eyes flicked over to Preston, who was looking up at her.

"But we're not the only ones who have it," Preston finished glumly.

"It wasn't anyone's fault," Mara added.

"What wasn't?" Deacon asked.

"We made a copy of the holotape to hand off to the Railroad," Mara explained. "I'd promised Dez all the information I could get her. Preston and I went to hand it off but we got held up by Brotherhood soldiers."

"Shit," Nick said.

"I shouldn't have given it to them," Preston muttered, expression clouded over. "I should have done something."

"Two of them were in power armor and they were holding a gun to my head," Mara said. "There was nothing you could have done differently."

"They would have killed you both and taken it anyway, Preston," Deaon added. "You did the right thing."

Preston nodded. Piper reached over and put a hand on his shoulder.

"So we know where the Institute is, but the Brotherhood does too," Nick said. "And it doesn't sound like the Institute brass is willing to make compromises So what's our next move?"

All eyes turned to Mara once again. She folded her arms.

"There is no next move."

"What?" MacCready yelled.

"I'm not going to kill my son. I know he's evil, I know he's done horrible things, but I can't do it." Mara felt her eyes begin to water.

"We can't just let the Institute keep this up," Deacon said. "And if the Brotherhood gets their hands on Institute tech, we're fucked. We have to take them both out."

"No!"

Mara hadn't intended to shout. She took a deep breath, steadied herself.

"Why do you think I'm not working with the Railroad anymore?" she asked, looking Deacon in the eye. "It's because Dez wanted me to help blow up the goddamn Prydwen and I wouldn't do it."

"Why?" Deacon had taken a step forward, braced for a fight.

"Jesus, because there's kids up there!" Mara shouted. "Because there's people in the Brotherhood who are there because their dad was Brotherhood, or their friend told them to enlist, or because they had nowhere else to go. They're just trying to make lives for themselves, same as any of us."

"They're monsters," Deacon growled. "They want every synth dead -"

"Maxson is a monster," Mara interrupted. "The rest of them... it's more complicated than that."

There was a short pause. Preston shifted in his seat.

"So we're not gonna do anything?" MacCready asked. "We're just gonna let all these guys do whatever they want?"

Mara let out a long, shuddering sigh. "All of you can do what you want," she said carefully. "I'm not going to stop you. But I'm not helping you attack the Institute. Or the Brotherhood."

"Mara," Deacon said, impatience coloring his voice. "We have to."

"No! No. Fuck that." Mara felt a tear slide down her cheek and angrily rubbed her face. "It never fucking ends, ok? Look around you! You think it was any different back then? You think we didn't have our justifications? We blew up the whole fucking planet and it still didn't end."

She took a deep breath, tried to settle herself. The group stared at her. No one said a word.

"You can take out whoever you want, but it always circles back. No one ever gets out unscathed. I'm living proof of that. Shit, we all are." She wiped at her face again. "I'm just so fucking tired. I am. I can't do it anymore."

With that, she quietly walked out of the mess hall and shut the door behind her.