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“Even I don't need the Sight to tell you where you should start lookin',” the old woman said in her slow drawl, making Nora's skin crawl as she watched the old woman's tongue move around her stained teeth. “The great, green jewel of the Commonwealth...Diamond City. Biggest settlement around.”

“That's...vague...” Nora said once the crazy old bat wound down to a stop. She hadn't minded helping these poor people out with their raider problem, although she'd been sick twice and would likely have nightmares for weeks. Getting inside the power armor had been a revelation of sorts, too. She'd felt strangely invisible inside it. Invincible too, for that matter, considering how many punches she'd taken from that overgrown lizard thing. Something had broken in her, she knew it by how unfazed she'd been facing down that creature. She wasn't the woman who had climbed out of the Vault and looked over the ruins of her home just two days ago. Rage filled the place where fear had once been. She needed to keep that rage fueled, or it would turn to despair, she knew this too.

“Listen, you say you help your friends,” the tall handsome black man said, holding out a fistful of bottlecaps and a large box of rounds for the laser musket she'd lifted from the body outside. “Why don't you come with us to Sanctuary, the place Mama Murphy was telling us about? Then maybe we can help you too.”

“I've been to Sanctuary already,” she said. “It's a ruin.” The huddled group passed looks between them that she didn't immediately identify, but realized slowly were incomprehension. She got it then. Everything was a ruin. Everything. “Still...it's empty and it's quiet,” she added.

Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. How had she not understood when she first looked out from the top of the Vault that everything was she knew was gone, buried under rust and corrosion and rot? She just had not put it together until that moment that the whole world was likely a ruin too, and that anyone she met from here on out would know no other life. She felt tears prick at the corners of her eyes.

“Sounds perfect,” Preston Garvey said with a gentle, tired smile.

***

May 2077

“What do you think, Honoria? Will it do?” Nate stood proudly next to her in front of a blue house with an orange door, the paint so fresh she could smell it. Between that and the late spring heatwave her head swam and she leaned on him, supporting the huge curve of her belly and fighting off an urge to gag. Her feet hurt, her back hurt and her head hurt. But she couldn't spoil this for him, not after all he went through to secure it. Not after everything they'd both endured to get this far.

“Yes, Nate,” she whispered. “It will do just fine.”

“Just think, Nor, we'll get away from our families. A space just our own, and time to just...”

“Figure all this out,” she finished for him when he fell silent. He looked down at her with a sheepish expression in his eyes. She nodded, not really caring one way or the other what the house was like. Only that it was theirs, and theirs alone. “It's gonna be all right, isn't it?”

“Yes, Nor, it's all gonna be fine.”

“The perfect home, in the perfect neighborhood...” She couldn't help the bitter tone in her voice, and heard it plainly. She deliberately cut herself off from saying more.

“Hey,” Nate said, wiping the tear from her cheek she hardly knew was there. “I got you, and you got me, and we're gonna be a family.”

She soothed the kicking baby and looked back at her husband, looking over his marred features and wary expression that never really went away. There was no such thing as perfect in their lives. Perfect had walked out the door eight months ago. Perfect had left her to make the only choice she could, marriage and subservience. Perfect didn't exist anymore. She nodded again, just to stop Nate from continuing to cheer her up.

“Let's see the inside,” she said instead of wallowing in her frustrations, and felt her heart trip just a tiny bit as he smiled at her with such warmth and gleeful intention that she almost forgot how unhappy she really was.

***

Nora set the last bit of wiring into the turret and it sprang to life, the machine gun swiveling back and forth on the tripod legs. With a grunt, she heaved it up the ladder onto the roof of the central workshop and bolted it in place.

“Looks good,” the mechanic, Sturges, said from below, wiping his hands of grease as he sauntered up to her. “Maybe now Preston can get some rest.”

“Anything else?” she replied with a sigh, leaning against her roof edge for a breather. She was exhausted, but in a good way. Sanctuary had taken a lot of work to get up and running, but now there were beds, sturdy walls, fresh water and food, and security.

“Nah, that's all for now. You did real good, Nora.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, climbing down the rungs until she was on solid ground again. Sturges put a hand on her shoulder, causing her to glance up at him in surprise.

“This world is harsh, Honoria Wilcox. You better get used to it.” His eyes were kind and sympathetic, but she knew he couldn't help her any more than she could help him. She had to find Diamond City, and the only ones willing to go with her were Preston or her old Mr. Handy unit, and she just didn't think she could handle either of them right now. One was too needy by half – someone else's survivor's guilt was not something she could deal with on top of her own – and the other was too foreign. Whoever heard of a self aware robot?

There's always the dog, she thought to herself. Dogmeat. Terrible name, wonderful friend. He'll do. “I know, Sturges. I'm trying.”

“Good luck to you out there, Nora. And just remember, my door's always open to ya. Windows too.” He cracked a lopsided grin. “Some of the walls come to think of it. I should to get back to it.”

She chuckled as she supposed he wanted her to and watched him saunter back into his workshop to tinker on whatever it was he did all day when he could have been helping her build this town up from a shambles. She shook her head ruefully and scooted across the road to her old house before Preston could corner her again and ask her to take on the mantle of the General of the Minutemen. She had no idea where the man thought she was capable of leading their ragtag band, but boy was he wrong! She just wanted to find her son and live out her life in peace and quiet. The rest of this messed up world could just pass her by, thanks very much.

She packed her beat up old leather backpack with some purified water, canned goods and charred insects, swallowing down the bile that threatened to rise up her throat. She made sure her 10mm was loaded and that she had plenty of ammo. She then strapped on the mix of leather and metal armor pieces she'd collected from Concord, called the dog and walked out of the house with the orange door and right out of town.

South, they'd told her. South and to the east, across the river. High green walls, can't miss it.

Fenway Park, she suddenly realized. It was the only thing that matched that description. The baseball stadium was now a city. And all she had to do was reach it, past raiders, feral ghouls – as opposed to normal ones? – and who knew what other kinds of monsters. Despair was winning against the rage. But she couldn't let it. She had to find Shaun.

Chapter Text

When Hancock saw her for the first time, she was cowering against the outer wall of Goodneighbor, trying to fend off Finn as the asshole went through his 'insurance' bullshit. He sighed; he really didn't have the patience for this anymore.

“Finn, I told you to lay off that crap,” he snarled as Finn ignored his first hint. He took in the woman, the growling dog at her feet and the waver in the hand that had a pretty little 10mm pointed in their general direction with a quick glance. She was dirty and tired and wild eyed with panic. Not hurt, no, not like that. Her hurt was underneath the skin, behind the skull.

Hancock knew that kind of hurtin' and he acted before he could really think about it, stabbing Finn in the gut and letting him drop off his knife like so much unwanted meat.

“Your...face...you're...you're a ghoul,” the woman said, panting through her fear. Hancock wiped clean his knife, made a show of putting it away and assumed an easy going stance that wouldn't frighten her more. “You gonna attack me too?” she whispered.

“Nah, sister. I ain't feral. I take it that's all you've ever seen?” She nodded, choking a bit on her own spit as she did. “Hancock's the name, and this here little community is Goodneighbor. Sorry about the welcoming committee.”

“I'm...Honoria Wilcox...people just call me Nora these days.” She held out her hand, honest to God held out her hand to shake like he was any other person in the world, and he was so surprised he almost didn't take it in time before she dropped it back to her side. Her face was flushed red, either embarrassment or anger. He didn't think it was anger. He hastily shook her hand firmly but not too hard. “Thank you...for...um...”

“Pity about ol'Finn. We'll miss him the next super mutant attack, but hey, I meant what I said. Your first time here, you're a guest. Ain't got no patience for that kind of extortion around here.”

“May I...?” Nora of the wild eyes and breathy voice asked, her hands raised as if she wanted to touch him. Hancock admittedly didn't know much about Vault dwellers, other than the fact that he could see that she was one. She’d fallen out of a Vault and into hell. It showed in every tense line in her body. Sure, she wasn’t wearing a blue suit – pity that, she looked like she had the body for it – but that Pip-Boy was a dead giveaway and the clarity of her skin and voice and…he was getting sidetracked. He focused on her question again and stepped closer, letting her fingers touch his face with feather lightness. He didn't realize he was holding his breath until it rushed out of him. “I thought it might be...hard, like calluses. But it's not.” She sounded surprised. No more surprised than he was, to be honest.

“Lotta walkin' rad freaks around here,” he cautioned. “I would advise keeping any questions on the low burner next time. Come see me in person if there's anything else you want to know.” He tried, he really did, to keep any suggestive tones out of his voice, since her innocence radiated from her like a beam of light, but it was impossible. She was delicate and dainty and oh so lovely, and he'd be lying if he said he wasn't affected by it.

“I...I might just do that...Hancock,” she finally managed, and he wondered if perhaps she wasn't slightly affected by him too. He stepped back from her with a final nod and forcibly turned away from her to where Fahrenheit was waiting with a smirk and a taunting attitude. He ignored his bodyguard and went into the State House without further incident.

***

“So, what’s your story, Hancock?” she asked, in her small timid voice, her eyes anywhere but his. She'd shown up at his side without him even noticing while he tapped the glass of a syringe full of Med-X, getting ready to enjoy a nice soothing buzz.

“My favorite subject,” he replied, on automatic pilot. Up close he could see flecks of brown and green in the gray of her eyes. A tinge of gray in her almost black hair that he hadn't noticed the first time around. Older than she looked? Or had life worn her down more than usual for a wastelander?

“Wait…you did this to yourself…deliberately?” she asked when he was done telling her about his chem fueled change. She seemed incredulous, and almost impressed. Almost like she wished it was that easy to change who you were. Then she smirked, a rather endearing expression on her otherwise wide open face, and spit out the most sarcastic thing he’d heard her say yet. “All that chem use certainly set you up for a life in politics.”

He grinned. She might be shy, but she was sharp as a tack. He liked that he had brought some bite out of her, made her gain even the tiniest bit of snark, even as she visibly trembled under the weight of her own audacity. At his side he heard Fahrenheit make a sound, somewhere between disgust and exasperation. He didn’t know which one of them it was aimed at, but he didn’t much care. Fahr was hardened by the wasteland, hardened by a life of living in it. This girl? She seemed too fragile and naive to have seen much of the world, and yet...there was something about her, some core of steel that kept her upright and strong. She was intriguing.

By now he'd heard stories about her. She'd taken up with that merc kid hiding in his VIP room. Together the pair cleared out his warehouses, ostensibly for Charlie, but he had seen her eyes on him as he leaned on the railing of his balcony, watching her and the kid go from place to place. She’d pulled one on ol’Charlie to spill his metaphorical guts on who he was working for, he’d bet caps on it. She could be persuasive. Good thing to remember. He'd also heard that the pair of them cleared out the public library for Daisy, something he knew had been bothering the old ghoul for years. He now said something banal and droll and she cracked a hesitant grin at it. He liked the look of it and it encouraged him to keep her talking.

“So, anything else I can help you out with, sister?”

“I’m looking for work?” She must be hard up for caps, he thought. She’d been doing jobs around here for weeks, and now she’d come straight to the source. Why?

“I got reconnaissance needs,” he temporized. Pickman Gallery. Raider territory. He felt bad just having her to go there with her waifish temperament and too soft body. But she’d asked. He found himself going easy on her when she asked for more money. And before he knew it he was agreeing to pay her almost double what he'd intended.

“Check out Pickman Gallery,” she confirmed. “I’m on it.” And then she turned on her heel and practically ran from sight. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t just seen the last of her.

“Pfft, won’t make it a day,” Fahr scoffed at his side.

“I dunno. She’s made it this far,” he mused.

“You’re soft, John.”

“Only in the head.”

***

She was bleeding when she came back. Bullet through her arm, another in her shoulder. “You owe me big,” she said, and it was so very close to being a snarl that he smiled. There was definitely some grit under the soft candy coating.

“So, tell me about it,” he inquired as he prepped a Med-X and a stimpak and sat her down on his sofa for some light repairs. A pair of tweezers got the .38 out of her shoulder and the arm was a through and through. He stimmed her, bandaged her up, carefully ignored the sweep of her breast tucked modestly behind the whitest bra he’d ever seen and got out a bottle of whiskey.

“Pickman’s a serial killer,” she said with a shudder. “He was…he's…” She gagged and shook.

“Hey, easy, take your time.” He put a glass of whiskey in her hand and watched her swallow it down like a champ. She might not look like much more than fluff, but boy she could drink. On a sigh she set the glass down on the coffee table and faced him head on. He realized then that she’d never flinched at the sight of him. Not since that very first time. And she always went to Daisy. She wasn’t afraid of ghouls. Everything else seemed to scare her to death, but not the sight of his twisted, grisly features and black eyes.

“He cuts up raiders to make art,” she gritted out, derailing his musings with a lurch.

“Whoa, that’s…sorry, sister. I’ll make sure my people stay away from there. And yeah, I think I owe you more than a drink.”

“I like caps,” she said, chipper and cheeky. The Med-X had kicked in and she’d forgotten to be nervous. He grinned.

“So, did you kill him?”

“Pickman? I thought about it. But ya know what? He only kills raiders,” she stressed, eyeing the bottle in such a way that he took pity on her and he poured another one without making her ask for it. Too much more would probably not be good for her head in the morning, but hey, she deserved to take a load off and he was nothing if not generous. “I mean, I kill raiders. Does that make me a serial killer?” She shook her head and accepted the glass with a quiet ‘thank you’. Prim and proper as if they weren’t talking about the relative morality of letting a sick twisted bastard live. “I let him go.”

“I’m sure he’s, uh, grateful.”

“Yeah.” She pulled a wicked blade from her waistband and showed him. “He gave me this. Pretty sure I don’t want to think too hard about what he used it for, and I’m not likely to use it myself…” She shook her head again. “I don’t like getting that close. But…”

“A knife is always a handy thing to have around.”

“Right,” she said with a vigorous nod. “I think I’m a wee bit drunk, Hancock. You do that on purpose?”

He chuckled. “Only a little. You looked like you needed it.”

“Thanks.”

“So how ‘bout tellin’ me more about you now that we're gettin' tipsy together?”

“Not much to it,” she said, finishing her glass and looking suddenly morose. “I woke up in the Vault and found my entire world in ashes. Found some people, killed a giant mutated lizard…”

“Whoa, back up. What do you mean you woke up?”

“In a Vault.” She stroked the edge of the glass with her fingertip, surprised when it sang for her. “I was frozen.”

“For how long?” Hancock asked, stunned.

“Since…ya know…before,” she waved her good arm around.

“Shit, you’re pre-war?” Well, that explained almost everything about her, right there.

“Crazy, right?” she asked, her eyes soft and sleepy. The chems had hit her hard, but she was fighting it. The booze was hitting her harder and he figured he should get her to her bed, assuming she had one.

“Yeah, crazy. Listen, you got a room at the hotel, right?”

She shook her head. “I only had it for a couple nights. Dunno if it’s still available.”

“Never mind. You can stay here.”

“Don’t you have a reputation?”

“Sure, but I think you’ll be safe enough.” He grinned. “You need some rest.”

“This couch is comfy,” she said by way of agreement. He took the glass from her hand as she started to slip backwards into the cushions. As if his mentioning it made her body realize just how battered and exhausted it was and she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore. She closed them on a soft exhale and was asleep before he knew what had happened.

He tugged off her beat up boots and lifted her legs so she was lying across the cushions and found a blanket that wasn’t too ratty to cover her with. She looked sweet and peaceful in her sleep and he felt something tug at his heart watching her. Something less than lust but more than tenderness. It scared him a little, since he was good with the one, and not so good with the other. Any mix of the two was deadly.

“Sleep tight, Nora,” he said and closed the double doors behind him.

Chapter Text

Nora woke in the dark and remembered she was in the State House. Quietly she gathered up her things, scribbled a quick note to Hancock and made a stealthy exit, never even disturbing the Triggermen guards posted on every level. She did, however, run into Fahrenheit. The mostly rude bodyguard seemed almost nice on her own, and Nora left feeling slightly better about things between them as she headed out to meet up with MacCready. She'd promised him she'd help him out with his Gunner problem, even though she didn't really want to get involved with more killing. But he'd helped her do that job for Charlie...well, for Hancock really. And he'd gone with her to the library, keeping her steady in the face of so many super mutants. She owed the merc.

But staring up at the remains of the turnpike reminded her just how much she hated heights. Her belly cramped at the thought of it. Or maybe it just because of the issue she'd talked about with Fahrenheit. MacCready at least had had the good manners not to say anything, giving her privacy when she needed it. Having it be ignored wasn't any better or worse than what she was used to, after all. And it wasn't like there was anything he could do for her even if he wanted to.

“So, we ready to do this thing?” he asked from the cover of a huge concrete pylon, hiding them from view of the lookouts lazily keeping watch at the base. From what she could tell, the rest of them – including their two targets – were above on the highway overpass itself. They would need to ride the elevator up, and she didn't like that idea one bit. Not only would it completely give away their approach, but it was an open construction lift, with only a short guard rail to keep them from falling to their deaths.

She sighed, and pulled out her pistol. “I guess.”

***

Aside from the Assaultron – which she'd promptly hacked and shut down – she'd expected more from the Gunners, based on Mac's description of them. Winlock and Barnes had been completely caught off guard, one of them asleep and the other drunk. But MacCready was free of them now.

“Thanks for helping me with this,” he said to her as they picked over the bodies looking for ammo and caps. Nora had even decided to take some of the armor pieces that looked sturdier than her own.

“I'd say this clears up any debt between us,” she replied.

“Yeah.” The young merc looked northeast into the distance at a point she couldn't see.

She didn't like looking out over the vast view of the wasteland from this high. Even standing in the center of the overpass, she still felt too close to the edge. She hoped riding back down that elevator was going to be better than going up. Adrenaline had gotten her this far, but it was fading out of her system now and she was just tired. She figured she could keep her eyes closed if she needed to and decided that would have to be good enough. They had to get down after all.

“You heading back to Goodneighbor?” MacCready asked suddenly into the silence that had fallen between them.

“Diamond City, actually. I'm supposed to meet up with Bobbi No-Nose about this job she wants my help with.”

“Huh, I've heard things about that ghoul. I wouldn't trust her.”

“I don't. But the caps are good and...well...I'm not really doing anything else right now.”

“You given any more thought to what that Garvey guy asked you about?”

“I can't be leader of the Minutemen, Mac. Look at me, mousy and small and weak.”

“You're not weak, Nora. You're one of the strongest people I've ever met.” MacCready seemed shocked that she thought so little of herself. “You marched in here like you had no doubt you'd walk back out again. I gotta say...Gunners mean business, but you made pretty short work of them.”

“Pure adrenaline.”

“Well, whatever it was, it wasn't mousy and weak. I'd follow your lead anywhere at this point.”

“Thanks, Mac. That means a lot. But you've got your own stuff to deal with, and I don't want to keep you from it.”

“Well, I'm around if you want me at your back. Just let me know.”

“I will.”

***

He headed with her to the gate of Diamond City, and she was grateful since they'd come across a ragtaggle band of ferals, some monstrously large insects and a pack of super mutants on the way. He even kept a lookout while she had a small breakdown after the super mutants, saying nothing about her blubbering and weeping, pointedly taking no notice of her shaking and gagging as he picked over their green skinned bodies.

She didn't know what it was about them, the fact that they had once been human or the fact that they no longer were, but they made her feel more awful than anything else she'd faced. Maybe it was the number of children's toys she found on their bodies. It was as bad as the ferals, although she could see how they had happened. Super mutants didn't fit into any category of natural evolution; she could only conclude they had been manufactured somehow. And that just made it worse.

“They carry shi...crappy weapons, mostly only good for scrap, but sometimes you get lucky,” Mac said as she got herself under control. He hefted a pipe sniper rifle outfitted with a sophisticated night vision scope and began looking it over for wear and tear. “You mind if I take this?”

Nora shook her head vigorously. She couldn't understand why he took all this so easily. Why everyone did. How had the world changed so drastically in two hundred years? “How do you do it?” she managed to gasp out after her tears had subsided.

“What?”

“How do you live like this?” MacCready stopped and took a good look around them, at the broken asphalt of the road buckled around them, the half dead weeds straggling behind the rusted out guard rail, the stagnant water of the Chestnut Hillock Reservoir. The fresh corpses all around.

“We do what we have to to survive, Nora. It's...it's not a big thing.”

She gazed at him from the slumped position she'd sunk into on the side of the road. “No big thing, huh? Survival or death. No in between.”

“No, there is no in between.”

“It seems like there must be a better way to live.”

“Nora...this is what we got. Let me tell you, this is better than anything we had in DC. People are actually trying to improve things up here.”

She looked up at him sharply. “You're from DC originally?”

“Yeah. Grew up in a place called Little Lamplight.”

“What was it like?”

“It was a hole in the ground, Nora. Literally. Underground.”

“Oh.” She stood up and brushed off her backside. “Maybe I should rethink Preston's request. Sounds like I can't be any worse than anyone else.”

“For what it's worth, I think you could change this place. You actually remember what it was like before.”

“Never thought I'd end up changing the world by starting up farms, but hey, if that's what it takes to make the world better, I guess...I guess I'll need to do my part.”

“You ready to get going? I don't like being out in the open so much.”

She made a face at his back for his dismissive tone, but she thought she understood too. It was a hard life to lead as a mercenary, and he'd had his share of tragedy too. He didn't feel able to change the world any more than she did. She was in no position to judge others for their life choices, in light of her own. She let go of her aggravation with him and nodded.

“Sure, Mac. We can go. And if you're serious about staying with me...well...I could probably use someone I can trust with this whole Bobbi thing.”

“Yeah,” he nodded at her, a small smile creeping across his face. “I'll stay.”

Chapter Text

She was long gone by the time he found her note, too hazy and stupid from too many chems and not enough food to have seen it sooner.

Thanks for everything. See you around sometime ~ N

“Huh, well that’s that.” And here he'd thought she'd just run out on him. Not that he would have blamed her. Plenty of others had.

“You say something?” Fahr said as she wandered into the room. He wondered where she’d been.

“The Vault dweller. Left me a note.”

“Yeah, I saw her off the other morning.”

“Was she okay?”

“Why do you care?”

“She’s a sweet little thing.”

“Not usually your type, John.” He glanced over at his bodyguard and second in command. She wasn’t wrong. Hancock usually went for a less shy flower and more come hither. Still, she was appealing in a defenseless sort of way.

“She had a hell of a tale,” he said.

“Cryogenic freezing.” He was surprised Fahr knew. And Fahr had on a knowing look that goaded him.

“Go on.”

“Told me all about it. How she was lookin’ for her kid and how her husband got shot by some guy with a scar down his cheek. I told her to see Valentine.”

“How’d you get her to talk?”

“Women stuff. Deal with it.” His tough as nails bodyguard didn’t do women stuff, so now he was intrigued. He made a face that said so. Fahr huffed and plopped onto the sofa across from him, shaking her head and ignoring his pleading face. “That little pawn’s gonna get swallowed up whole.”

“She hasn’t yet,” he pointed out.

“You said that the last time.”

“And she came back too.”

“Just don’t make a fool of yourself over her, all right? Can you promise me that?”

“Why would I make a fool of myself over a Vault dwelling little flower?” He was more amused than affronted and Fahr laughed right along with him.

"I’ve seen you do crazier shit.”

“Well, I guess ya got a point.” He shrugged. “So, who we seein’ today?”

“Rep from the Slog.”

“All right.”

***

It was the middle of the night when he heard an explosion underground, followed by others all leading away from Goodneighbor. “You think…?” Fahr asked, standing beside him on the balcony.

“Bobbi No-Nose,” Hancock growled. “You better check it out. I’ll look at this end.”

“On it.”

There was nothing left in Bobbi’s place to give him any clues, nothing except a blasted out tunnel leading west. He shook his head. Damn that bitch for bein’ clever. He only hoped Fahr got there in time to stop her from robbing him blind.

At dawn a very tired Fahrenheit returned, followed by a very nervous looking Nora and a sheepish MacCready. Hancock frowned, both at the sight of the Vaultie and the lightness in his chest when he saw her. How was she mixed up in this?

“Bobbi’s patsy,” Fahr announced, waving a hand at Nora. Tears streaked down Nora’s face, dirty and grimy as it was. Maybe even a little bloody. “Not that she knew what she was doing.”

“I’m sorry,” Nora whispered.

“I ain’t mad,” Hancock said in a soothing tone. Fahr put on her disgusted face and he eyed her over Nora’s shoulder, a silent rebuke. The red haired bodyguard stomped off, trailing cigarette smoke and derision. Mac went with her, silently accepting Fahr's diatribe on idiocy. “Just…explain.”

“She told us it was Diamond City we were breaking into. That the Mayor was sitting on a pile of caps and supplies and we could take it all without him ever knowing.”

“Who’s ‘us’?” he asked, as he wiped down her face with a wet cloth. She didn’t fight him on it. In fact, she looked defeated, as if something had broken in her. She hadn’t liked being duped, and it probably wasn’t the first time if this was her reaction. Woman was a danger to herself out there in the ruins with no more sense than a drunken radroach. That young merc was no help, either. All he cared about were caps and his own ass.

“Mel, her…her partner. She didn’t tell him either.”

“Ain’t the first time someone’s tried to knock me down. Ya get power, ya get enemies. Hey, don’t beat yourself up over it. Like I said, I ain’t mad. But I’m thinkin’ maybe it’s time for me to get out of my comfort zone a bit. Been feelin’ a bit lazy and soft. And I think you could use someone a little less likely to stab you in the back steppin’ out with ya.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, all wide eyes and anxiety. He grinned and swiped dirt off her nose with a flick.

“How about lettin’ a dangerous and sexy ghoul watch your back out there, huh?”

“You…you want to travel with me? Why? You don’t even know me.”

“What can I say? You got me where it hurts.” She looked blank. “You need protecting, Honoria Wilcox, even if it’s from yourself. I want to help.”

“All…all right.” She didn’t sound too sure – in fact, she sounded downright sullen – and he ducked down so they were at eye level. He wasn’t that tall, he knew, but she was rather petite, and hiding to boot. “I said all right.”

“I’ll get some things together, and I gotta let everyone know too.”

“Okay, but…we don’t have to go right now, do we?”

“Why, you hurt?”

“No…not exactly.” She blushed crimson. It would have been adorable if not for the fact that she seemed genuinely upset about something.

“What is it then?”

“I…uh…I kinda want to take a few days…off?” Women stuff, Fahr had said. He looked her over with a critical eye and put two and two together.

“On your monthly?” Her head shot up like he’d slapped her.

“What?”

“Sister, you ain’t gotta be shy about it. Every woman gets one, right? You think I don’t know that?”

“Most men are…well…I’ve never known a man who wasn’t…skeeved…by it. Even Mac was...”

“Sister, for one thing, I don’t know what kind of men they had back before the war, but out here, survivin’ usually means a lack of privacy, and if all men got skeeved by the sight of some blood, they wouldn’t be worth shit. And for another thing, I ain’t most men. And don't throw Mac at me like he's some kind of shinin' example of manhood. He's barely more than a kid.” She nodded, trying to take it in. He took a step back and shook his head at her a little. Damn she was sweet. Too sweet. Fahr was right, the Commonwealth was gonna eat her up. That is if he didn’t do it first.

Well, shit, where did that come from?

“You need anything?” he asked out loud, to distract himself from his abruptly erotic thoughts.

“Um…I don’t suppose aspirin still exists, does it?”

“Never heard of it, so I'm gonna go with no, but I got Med-X. How about a hot water bottle?” Again her head shot up in shock, but this time with pleasure behind it. He grinned. “I’ll take that as a yes. Here, go lay down, I’ll bring it to ya.”

When he came back she was curled on her side on the sofa, her boots on the floor, her face covered by her arm. “Hey,” he said by way of greeting and pushed the cloth coated bladder of a Brahmin against her gut. She relaxed as soon as the heat hit her and she hissed with relief. “That bad, huh? My mother was like that too. You get headaches too? Surprised you even went down there with Bobbi if you were crampin'.”

“Is that how you know…?”

“Nora, I been around, I ain’t ashamed to admit it. And some of my best friends are women. Well, one way or the other,” he joked to himself. “There is nothing about the female form I don’t know, whether I wanted to or not.” He sank down on his butt on the floor next to her, his feet pushed under the coffee table. “You need anything else?”

“No. Thank you, Hancock.”

“No problem, sister.”

“It’s embarrassing,” she mumbled. He chuckled. “I’m serious.”

“Nora, it's natural. Ain’t nothing embarrassing about that.”

“Yeah, well, if you knew…if you knew how much women were shamed…for just…for just being women…”

“Ya know, I’ve talked to some pre-war ghouls about that sort of thing,” he said, idly twirling his knife across his fingers. “Sounds like in a lot of ways, the war was a good thing. I mean, obviously not the devastation and shit, but the social stuff. You all had a lot of nonsense rules and expectations of yourselves. And they don’t matter no more.” From the corner of his eye he saw her arm lower away from her face. He cracked a lopsided grin but didn’t turn. “Out here, every day means facing some deadly thing or other. What’s prim and proper’s got no place in it. You do what you gotta to see the next sunrise. How long you been awake outta that Vault anyway?”

“About two months.”

“So…is this the first one?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?” He sat very still and didn’t look at her, figuring it would be easier for her to talk about it if she didn’t have to look him in the eye while she did it.

She sighed. “I had a baby. He was less than four months old when the bombs dropped.” Her voice was low and soft and pained. “He was stolen from me.”

“From inside the Vault?”

“Yeah,” she breathed, so quiet he almost didn’t hear her and he was only a few inches away. He heard the water slosh in the bladder as she shifted it around and he stayed with his back to her. “A man came in, with some people in, like, hazmat suits. He…he shot my husband and took Shaun,” she finished in a rush.

“Nora…I’m sorry.”

“Fahrenheit said I should go see someone named Valentine?”

“Yeah, Nick Valentine. He’s a detective in Diamond City.”

“You know that used to be the ball park, right?”

“I did, actually.”

“I passed through there before I came here. It was too...noisy and crowded. I just...I didn't stay long enough to find him. Did manage some trading, got a haircut,” she sounded almost amused with herself, before adding in a more contrite tone, “it's where I met up with Bobbi and Mel too. It was a little chaotic when I got there the first time, too. Some reporter was making a big scene about the Mayor trying to shut down the press or something.”

“That would be Piper Wright,” Hancock said. “And that sounds about right for Guy…I mean Mayor McDonough.”

“You know the Mayor of Diamond City?” she asked. “I thought ghouls weren’t allowed in there.”

He let out a breath, wondering how much to say. Wasn’t like he tried to hide it or anything, and it was pretty common knowledge around the wasteland, although not something she'd likely picked up given her surprise. “Guy’s my brother. I grew up in Diamond City. I didn’t become a ghoul until a few years ago.”

“Oh.”

“There’s bad blood there, Nora. I don’t…I don’t like to talk about it.”

“It’s okay,” she said, as if she was the one soothing him now. “You don’t have to.” She was quiet for a while, only the sound of her breathing and the slosh of the hot water could be heard. “So, you weren’t always called Hancock.”

“Heh, yeah.”

“It’s a good name,” she said, and she sounded like she was falling asleep.

“American hoodlum and defender of the people,” he mused aloud. He heard a distinct snort from behind his head.

“That’s you all right.” Her hand groped out from her hunched position and squeezed his shoulder. “I like you much better than your brother.”

“Thanks, Nora. That means something to me.” He turned his head at last to find her drowsy eyes on him, a small smile playing on her lips. He rested his hand over hers on his shoulder and watched her fall asleep.

Shit, I'm in real trouble.

Chapter Text

She couldn’t believe she’d told all that stuff to Hancock. She barely knew him!

But he had been unfailingly kind to her, and he hadn’t been squeamish in the slightest once he realized she’d gotten her period. He was just so easy to talk to. It was one more thing to add in the plus list in her head about waking up in the new Commonwealth. For sure there were others. No more tedious parties where she had to hide her urge to cry in the corner into her drink. No more silent disapproval about her hair style, or her choice of profession – she just couldn’t handle criminal law, not after that debacle with Eddie Winter, and she’d switched to corporate – and no more pretending to be something she wasn’t.

No more Nate.

That’s not fair, she thought. Nate was a good man, a good soldier, and a good father, even if it was reluctantly. He couldn't help being what he was any more than she could and he'd sacrificed just as much as she had in order to make a life for them. They had managed to remain friends throughout everything, but she would never have gone far enough to say they loved each other...at least, not the way married couples were supposed to.

She sighed to herself as she trudged through the rubble filled streets of downtown. Once she had known these streets well – okay, maybe not these in particular. Her parents never let her down here near Scollay Square. Part of the reason she had been actually eager to explore around here was because she had never been allowed in this part of town. Parental rebellion apparently didn't end with the world, she snorted to herself.

“What’s that? A noise…” she heard as she scuffed along the narrow alley underneath a collapsed roadway. She ducked quickly into the shadows and kept still. She’d learned very quickly that any noise was probably hostile, and if she was going to make it out here from place to place, she better be quiet. The voice had been deep and growly. Super mutants. She shuddered; she'd seen enough of them recently. Raiders would be preferable. “Nothin’,” she heard after a minute and felt the lumbering steps of the super mutant as it wandered away.

She let out a breath. This world was full of monsters and she couldn't afford to forget it for a second. She remembered what MacCready had said – survival or death, no in between. She was beginning to be sorry she hadn't kept him with her a little while longer.

Once inside the gates of the ‘great, green jewel’ she took a good look around, something she really hadn't done on her previous visits. Shacks dotted the field, connected by slat pathways between bases. The market was crowded and loud and she instinctively shrank from it once more. Too many faces, too much noise. She suddenly missed Sanctuary Hills and the quiet with only a handful of people around. Preston with his knight in tarnished armor attitude, Mama Murphy who’d held her when she had nightmares, Sturges with his rough exterior and big heart, the Longs with their terrible grief. It was awful to lose a child. Or, well, it was supposed to be.

I just don’t feel that way, she mourned, knowing that she should. I didn’t really want Shaun.

It had taken a nuclear apocalypse to get her to admit it, but there it was. She hadn’t really wanted her son. One night, just one, had undone years of planning, years of expectations, and earned her the cold dispassionate scorn of her own mother. It didn’t matter that Nate had married her and given her the protection of his name, it didn’t matter that he was of an equally good family, with a stellar military career behind him and a life of probably politics ahead of him. Her mother’s eyes had turned to slate.

“Honoria, I am so disappointed,” Anna Beaufort had said.

“Screw you, mom,” she muttered now under her breath, following the directions a security guard in sunglasses had given her to Valentine’s Detective Agency. I’ll find him because I should, because no child should suffer being kidnapped, but I am free.

The realization settled into her. Even if she found him in this horrible world, even if she managed to somehow stay alive long enough to find him, that didn’t mean she had to raise him. She’d bet a million bucks – or caps, she supposed, mentally thanking Lucy Abernathy for her explanation on Commonwealth finances – that the Longs would take him and love him as their own.

She stopped in the pathway when she saw the darkened alley overhung by rickety shacks built on top of each other. There was a neon heart. This had to be the place. She crept down it until she found a door, then hesitated before she opened it. Her palms were sweating and she could feel her pulse rushing. She hadn’t said anything to Hancock, because this secret was too big even for him. She didn’t know how it happened, if it was a family name passed from generation to generation or if somehow she wasn’t the only one who’d been frozen, but really, just how many Nick Valentines could there be in the world? It can’t be a coincidence, she thought. It just can’t. It’s too unreal.

“Here goes nothing,” she muttered aloud and turned the knob.

***

August 2076

He’d shown up at her door, stinking drunk and reeking of cigarettes.

“Nick, what are you doing here?”

“She’s dead, Nor. They killed her, shot her in the back.” His voice was slurred, his hangdog expression so broken she immediately had pulled him inside her apartment and shut the door, to hell with the consequences.

“I’m so sorry, Nick. Sergeant Andle already told me. Oh Nick, I'm just so sorry.” He threw himself into her arms, sobbing like a child.

“I can’t understand…why would he kill Jenny? Why? She had nothing to do with this!” Nora didn’t reply, just held him. Finally he wore himself out and stepped away from her. “Sorry, Nor. I just…I didn’t know who else to talk to.”

“It’s all right, Nick. Want some coffee? You sit down, I’ll make it.”

“Ugh, that sludge you call coffee could wake the dead.” She’d cracked a grin, sad and lopsided, echoing the one on his rough face. He hadn’t shaved in days, and it looked like he hadn’t changed his clothes either.

“You need it, Nick,” she said softly, going to her tiny kitchenette and starting up the maker. “When did you last eat?”

“I dunno. I don’ care.”

“Nick,” she admonished. He waved a hand absently.

“You don’t have to take care of me. I’ll pull through.”

“A sandwich at least.”

“All right.”

***

The office was messy, papers strewn about on three different desks, the scent of cigarettes and stale air permeating everything. A woman with her back to her, going through a filing cabinet. Nora stood still and took it in, trying desperately to calm her breathing. The woman was mumbling to herself, something about ties and work being backed up and how was she going to find another job…

“I’m sorry, Miss…?” Nora said, making the woman jump and swing around so fast her papers fell to the floor.

“Another stray coming in from the rain. 'Fraid you're too late. Office is closed.”

“Oh, but it’s the middle of the afternoon…?”

“No, that's not what I mean. We're not just closed for the day. We're closed permanently. The detective's gone missing.”

“Missing?”

“He disappeared working a case. Skinny Malone's gang had kidnapped a young woman, and he tracked them down to their hideout in Park Street Station. There's an old Vault down there they use as a base. I told Nick he was walking into a trap, but he just smiled and walked out the door like he always does.”

“Maybe I can help. Park Street Station, you said?” The woman nodded vigorously, something like hope in her eyes.

“Nick should be easy to spot. He's always wearing that old hat and trench coat getup. You really mean you’re going to try to find him? Please, hurry!”

“I…I will. Who are you, by the way?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m Ellie, I’m his secretary.”

“I’m Nora.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ellie said, looking fatigued. “I don’t mean to pry, but why are willing to help find him?”

“Well, I sort of need him and…” He may be someone from my near but distant past, she thought but didn’t say aloud.

“Well, be careful out there, honey. It’s a rough area of town.”

“Oh, uh, thanks. I will.” Ellie turned back to her filing cabinet and Nora left the agency, wondering just what she’d gotten herself into this time.

Chapter Text

Hancock paced in front of the gate to Goodneighbor. He hadn’t liked letting her go by herself to Diamond City, but he wasn’t quite ready to take on all the security and simultaneously watch her back. She had enough troubles on her shoulders. At least they’d gotten to spend a few days getting to know each other better until she felt up to traveling. Finally the gate opened and she walked in, her head hung low, her pistol in her hands. She didn’t look hurt or anything, but she did look…well, he wasn't sure how he would put it. Despairing maybe?

“Hey, there’s my girl,” he said in relief. Her head shot up when she heard him and he could have sworn he saw a smile crease her lips before she was frowning again. “What is it?”

“He wasn’t there,” she said. She sounded more tired than anything and he steered towards the State House without thinking, guiding her up the spiral stairs and to his office where she sank onto the sofa she usually slept on. She untied and kicked off her boots before curling her legs up underneath her. She looked lost and small, tucked into the corner. He sat on the edge of the coffee table in front of her.

“What do you mean, he wasn’t there?”

“He’s missing.”

“Dammit. Did Ellie say where he had gone?”

“How…how do you know Ellie?”

“Nick and I go way back. I’ve always known Ellie. We went to school together.”

“Oh. Well, she said something about him going after a kidnapped girl named Darla? That there was some other Vault that he was going to investigate?”

“Skinny Malone,” Hancock said in a growl.

“You know who that is too?”

“Yeah, he used to run around here with a small army of Triggermen. You know, the guys I use for the Neighborhood Watch.”

“Oh.”

“So, we gonna go rescue old Nicky?”

“You still really want to come with me?”

“Yeah, I do. Like I said, you need someone to watch your back who ain’t gonna stab you in it. Or get you mixed up in their own shit. And…Nick is a friend. I help my friends.” He took one her hands in his, skimming past her initial surprise. “You’re my friend too, ya know.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah.” Her skin was soft, even after taking into account the callouses and nicks and scrapes. He rubbed his thumb over the pulse of her wrist, and noted that it was jumping. She didn't look tired anymore. “You hungry?”

“Starving.”

“Can this sexy ghoul take you out to dinner?” She giggled, honest to God giggled. It changed her whole face, brightening her eyes and bringing roses into her cheeks.

“All right,” she said softly. “Wait…is this like a date?”

“Only if you want it to be.” He let go of her hand and stood up. “Wanna shower first?”

“Oh, God, yes…I mean…”

He chuckled warmly. “I should have asked sooner. Go on, it’s just there.” He pointed to a partially closed door across the office. “There’s extra towels and real soap and everything.”

“You live in the lap of luxury, don’t you?” she teased. It was a fine thing to see, the way her eyes lit up like that.

“Heh, don’t I just?” He left her then, before he was tempted to join her.

Not gonna happen, he thought. Get your head out of your pants, John.

***

He did a quick clean up on himself while she got dressed and when he came out of the bathroom he saw her, brushing out her short hair with an old silver backed brush. She wore a soft blue dress, belted around the waist and falling almost to her ankles. Somewhere she’d found neat little red shoes to go with it. She looked delicate and feminine and…achingly lovely. He imagined this was the way she looked in her own time, tidy and pressed and perfect.

“Well,” he said. “Don’t you clean up nice?”

She tossed a shy smile over her shoulder at him. “I found this when I was traveling. I couldn’t believe it. It’s still in such good condition.” She swirled, making the skirt of the dress flare around her legs. “You like it?”

He held her at arm’s length, giving him the excuse to look her over. She was filled out in all the right places, like a pre-war pin up, although he’d never say that aloud to her. She had generous curves at breast and hip, with a trim waist that was accentuated by the red belt of the dress. Her arms were toned but slender, and no matter how many bruises he could see from life in the ruins, she was so beautiful it hurt.

“I love it,” he said at last, his voice like a purr. She glowed from his compliment.

“So where are we going?”

“I thought we’d go to the Third Rail. You been there yet?”

“Just once. I liked the singer.”

“That’s Magnolia. There’s nothing quite like her, although, I have to say, you’ll be turning the heads tonight.” He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow – like a gentleman – and headed down the stairs with her. “I’ll have to bring my shotgun with me.”

“Oh stop,” she begged, but the flush in her cheeks told him she was charmed just the same.

They settled in with some food and a couple drinks from Charlie at the bar. Magnolia sang, Nora ate and he just watched her. She kept drawing his eye. So polite and careful, so fragile and shy; qualities that seemed to have been eroded from the wasteland until he knew no one else even remotely like her. He felt a surge of protectiveness towards her that had nothing to do with offering to watch her back while she traveled.

“So tell me what you did before the war,” he said at some point when their plates were empty and their beers were finished. He’d moved on to whiskey, but she had declined, sipping instead at a Nuka Cola.

“I was studying to become a lawyer.”

“You seem kinda…young for it.”

“I’m 25,” she confessed with a laugh. “Or two hundred and some...whatever. That’s plenty old enough to be a lawyer. And anyway, I was still in school. It was expected of me, you know? My parents…they were pretty well to do, and my dad was a lawyer too. I was their only child, and they always encouraged me to follow in the family tradition.”

“That was important then, wasn’t it?”

“Traditions? Yeah. There were expectations too, like you said. Everyone had their place, everyone knew their role. Me…I never really fit that mold. I never wanted to be…” She stopped, as if even after the world had ended she couldn’t bring herself to criticize her upbringing.

“What did you want, Nora?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head, toyed with the straw in her soda. For a moment he imagined seeing her sitting in a café, clean and unbroken and not underground. The sun in her hair, sipping a soda with her pin up looks and fresh face. The world had gone cruel and ugly, but she remained, bright as a star and just as out of place.

“How did you make it here alive?” he asked gently, not wanting to give the impression that she couldn’t handle herself, although she probably couldn’t, if he had to be honest.

“I hid a lot. I mean, the trip here from Sanctuary took me nearly a week. I’m pretty good at sneaking, and I avoided most places where there seemed to be raiders. The super mutants were a surprise.”

“I'll bet.”

She gave a shudder. “Yeah, I stayed away from them.”

“Wise of you.”

“The only time I had to fight anything was when I came across these…ghouls, I guess…that look a bit like you, but were all crazy and…just…they were like zombies. Preston called them feral.”

“Yeah,” he said, a little darkly. “It happens to ghouls when the rads eat their brains. So yeah, they’re like zombies.”

“But so fast! All I had was my 10 mm pistol, and I'm not very good with it. But they just swarmed at me and….” She paused, looking sheepish. “I crawled into like a cupboard and just kept shooting until there weren’t any more of them coming at me.”

“Good tactic. Ferals are mindless, and they never stop. They’ll chase anything that moves, just about.”

“Unfortunately, it took long enough that I ran out of ammunition.”

“Are you telling me you walked here, waded through downtown Boston, totally unarmed?” He was shocked. “Nora…that’s incredibly brave.”

“Well, like I said, I hid a lot. I finally found some more ammo in an unlocked safe, but I've been trying to conserve it.” She chuckled. “Maybe I should figure out how to use that knife from Pickman. At least that doesn't need reloading.”

“I can teach you.”

She turned wide eyes on him, like she’d hadn’t even considered that he might. “You could?”

“Of course. We could start right now.”

“Really?” She shrank back into herself for a second, but then seemed to take a determined breath, as if she knew she needed to get better at this if she was going to survive. “You don’t mind?”

“Why would I mind? Nora, you gotta do what it takes to get through the day out here, anything that it takes. I would be the worst kind of friend if I sent you off into the world without knowing how to defend yourself. Jesus, when I think that I let you go to Diamond City by yourself…if I’d known I would have gone with you, and fuck any of those security types that would have said shit to me.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” she said. “And it wasn’t that far.”

“Still…”

“Hey, I made it there and back again,” she said, a little defensively.

He grinned suddenly. “You’re right, and that’s the spirit. C’mon, let me see what you can do, and I’ll see if I can’t teach you a few things.”

Chapter Text

They were on a rooftop between the Memory Den and the Hotel, the whole city laid out around them, hollowed out skyscrapers, overturned buses and burned out cars, towering piles of scrap and tumbled down brick houses in all their ruined glory. The area was laid out like a practice ring, with targets for shooting at one end of the roof, and a padded, roped off section at the other end where hand to hand combat could be tested...or melee skills.

Hancock led Nora to that side, holding up the rope so she could duck under it and onto the mats made from old mattresses. “All right, first I want to see what you can do unarmed. Come at me,” he finished with a grin and a flourish. She kicked off her shoes and grinned back at him sheepishly. Then she launched her small frame at him like a wildcat, hands outstretched. He caught her, of course, before she could impact against his chest and knock him off balance and he chuckled.

“You just wanted me to throw myself into your arms,” she accused, although her tone was teasing. He made a mental note that a little liquid courage did wonders for her spirit. She completely forgot to be shy and nervous when she'd had a drink or two.

“Yeah, but there was a reason for it,” he said, putting her back on her feet. “I wanted to see what kind of reach you had, and whether or not you would go gung ho at me. Which you did. Okay, lemme see this knife Pickman gave you.” She pulled it out from her pocket and handed it to him, and he noted that while she might not understand what she was doing with such a blade, she knew how to hold it correctly. He took the handle from her and inspected it, whistling under his breath. The blade was matte black and serrated, wicked sharp and definitely deadly. “Knife like this, you barely need to put any force behind it,” he said aloud. “Even a nick from this will bleed like crazy.”

“Why?”

“See these serrations? The teeth? This blade is for slicing and dicing. And it's been honed until it's surgically sharp.” He glanced at her pale face and worried that he had brought back memories of what she'd seen in Pickman's hideout. “To be perfectly honest, Nora, this is the perfect knife for someone like you.”

“Because I'm tiny?”

“Well...yeah, actually. You don't got a whole lot of muscle. Which ain't a bad thing, just means you can't use a machete. But this,” he hefted the blade, spinning it in his hand to see its balance, “will do all the work for you.”

“So...how do I hold it?”

“Part of using a knife the right way is standing the right way. Good posture is key. Lemme show you.” He stepped behind her, knowing full well that it was going to wreak havoc on his concentration to put his arms around her, but did it anyway, guiding her until she was in the perfect stance. He braced her back with one hand so she was standing up straight, one leg cocked in front of the other, while he held her right arm loosely in his grasp, showing her how to hold the knife in such a way that the blade wouldn't accidentally cut her as she used it. He showed her how to pivot on her lead foot, so she could spin in a circle either to hit multiple foes or go the other way to use a backhanded slash that would dig deeper with the serrations. He forced himself to step back and let her swing her arm back and forth to get a feel for the blade in her hand, her face fierce in its determination. With a dancer's grace she spun, the skirt of the dress belling around her for a moment before swirling around her legs.

He liked the look of her with that knife, he had to admit. She was so delicate in stature and nature, but put that black blade in her hands, and she was transformed. “You do that pretty well, sister,” he commented.

“Thank you...I think.” She dropped her arm and looked over her shoulder at him, and for a split second he was certain he saw a coquettish look before it was gone, and it was just her, wide eyed and anxious.

“You should wear it on your hip,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even. “That way you can reach it fast if you need it.”

“Might not go so well with a dress,” she mused and he was abruptly tortured with a mental picture of her wearing a thigh sheath...and nothing else. Get it together, John. “Oh well, it's not like I'd ever dare to walk through the Commonwealth in a dress anyway,” Nora was saying and he dragged himself away from his thoughts to focus on her words.

“I'm glad you felt comfortable enough here to wear one then. You look lovely.”

“Thank you,” she said, her face registering surprise and delight before she covered it over with her usual shy look. “You're not so bad yourself."

“Hah!” he barked. “No need to lie to my face, sweetheart. I know what I look like.”

“It's really...it's not that bad, Hancock.” She looked very determined that he should believe her, and he smiled indulgently.

“Sure.” He shook his head, bemused. “So tell me why you ain't afraid of this face, when you're afraid of everything else.”

“I guess…well…before the bombs, there was still fighting, you know? My husband was a soldier, I think I mentioned that.”

“Yeah,” he said, encouraging her to go on.

“There was a place…a convalescent home, for wounded soldiers. I used to go there…volunteer while I was waiting to hear if Nate was coming home from the front. There was a man…he’d…he’d taken a blast to his face. He was pretty mangled,” she said with a sort of helpless shrug, as if she was admitting she found his face to be mangled too, no matter what she'd said about it not being that bad. “He was missing his nose and an eye and his cheekbone was exposed…” She shook her head, remembering. “He had to heal up before they could attempt reconstructive surgery. I used to sit with him for hours, reading to him, telling him stories, letting him feel Shaun kick inside me. We got to be pretty good friends.”

“You were pregnant while you did all this?”

“Back then pregnancy wasn’t such a life or death ordeal,” she said. “There was no reason to stop doing anything I wanted to do other than my own energy level. Anyway, I got used to his scars and…malformations. When I first met all of you ghouls, I made the comparison right away. I mean, the feral ones, they’re pretty scary. But you, Daisy, Ham…you’re not. Just, I dunno, different.”

“Heh, well, I guess that explains it. Thank you for telling me. I know it ain’t easy to remember stuff from before the war.”

“It’s all right. I can’t let it fester, you know? I mean, I don’t want to turn into a psychotic mess because I bottle everything up.” She looked over at the targets longingly, and he wondered if he should offer to let her come up here to work on her aim with her pistol. Or any other type of weapon if she wanted.

The hell with it, he thought.

“Feel free to come up here, Nora. It's usually pretty quiet, and it's protected from the outside by the buildings. You can practice any time you like.”

“Okay,” she said. “I'd like that, I think.”

“If you want, maybe we could talk to KLEO, and see about getting you outfitted with something you like. Ya know, something other than a pistol. I think you could do pretty well with a combat rifle too, and that ain't too heavy or hard to use.”

“KLEO makes me nervous,” Nora admitted, twisting her hands together.

“She’s an Assaultron, she should make you nervous,” he grinned. “But don’t worry, she’s not a bad sort once you get past her sense of humor. Hey, how bout we call it, huh? It's gettin' late.”

“I never knew so many robots before,” she said as they climbed down off the roof. Hancock jumped onto a balcony and held up his hands to catch her as she did the same once she found her shoes. “I mean, they’re robots, right? Just programmed. Back home I have a Mr. Handy unit that Nate bought for us just before Shaun was born. He’s still there, after 210 years. But he’s changed. He’s become self-aware.”

Her foot went out from her under as she landed and suddenly he had his arms tight around her, totally different than helping her posture while holding a knife. Her hands were on his chest squarely and he could feel her fingers tighten in the material of his frockcoat. She went completely silent as he held her, looking up into his face as he looked down at hers. She even leaned in a little. The moment stretched. He wanted to clear that tiny distance between them, to kiss her, to lay her back and devour her. Her lips parted and her eyes grew shiny in the starlight. She didn’t know what she was tempting. Sure, she’d heard rumors but she had no idea just how many of them were true.

What a perfectly clichéd moment, he thought. But I just can’t do that to her.

“Hancock?” she breathed into the silence.

“Yes?”

“Are you…are you gonna…?”

“No.”

“Why?”

He forced himself to grin cheekily, his usual self. He even let her go and chucked a finger under her chin. “Because this wasn’t a date, remember?”

“I thought…you said…it was if I wanted it to be?”

He had no answer to that; he hadn’t actually thought she’d remember what he said, or think that this was a date. He knew he needed to say something, do something, but he was frozen. Before he could think of anything, she pulled him back to her and pressed her warm mouth against his. It was sweet and simple, no sudden movements from either of them, and when she pulled away she looked a little...stunned. Not as stunned as he was, of course. He tasted Nuka Cola on her lips and something remarkably pristine, like sunshine and fresh air and freshly laundered cotton. Something he couldn't name. Something wholly unique to her, old world and innocent. He hoped she couldn't feel the bodily reaction growing insistently under his flag. She let him go and went on blithely, as if she didn’t notice his condition, or if she did, she wasn’t going to comment on it.

“Does stuff like that really matter anymore? I’m not a little girl, you know. Didn't the end of the world change all that?”

“I know. Believe me, I know. And it matters to me.” Damn, what the fuck? How did that even drop out of his mouth? A soft smile curved her lips until she was grinning. She accepted him stepping away, breaking the moment. There was almost a gleam in her eye like he might be a challenge she wanted to accept, whether she knew it yet or not. That gleam was not helping his inner conflict. “C’mon,” rasped, “you should get some sleep.”

And I need to get really, really high.

Chapter Text

Nora felt like he was avoiding her. For days every time she wanted to see him or ask him for more melee lessons he found an excuse to put her off. He always said he had things to do, paperwork and Triggermen scheduling and one thing or another. She’d started sleeping in the attic of the State House since he was always in the office part.

And rightfully so, she thought to herself. It is his house after all.

I still can't believe I kissed him, she thought too. What was I thinking?

She couldn't believe her own audacity in doing it, or how much it had startled her heartbeat into thumping madly like she'd been running. She hadn't felt that spark in...a long time. But nothing had come of it, and she pushed it aside because she had to keep moving forward. She had firmly bolstered up her courage and talked to KLEO about weapons and found that the Assaultron wasn’t nearly as intimidating after some conversation. She ended up getting a combat rifle like Hancock had suggested and gone up to that roof again to practice with it, getting a feel for it in her hands. She felt like she’d gotten pretty good with it.

She was getting restless. She’d promised that Ellie that she would hurry, and she felt like she’d been wasting time hanging around Goodneighbor hoping the Mayor would give her the time of day. Enough, she scolded herself. Time to get moving.

So on a rainy morning two weeks after their 'date', she packed up all her things into a single container that was easily tucked into her little attic nook and left without him. She avoided the super mutants outside the walls of Goodneighbor and made her way west through the snaking ruins of downtown. She even congratulated herself on sneaking through the Commons like a shadow. The Commons had changed – of course, everything had. It was covered in danger signs and warnings about the swans, but she didn’t see anything that dangerous. Certainly the only swans she saw where the rusted out hulks of the old boats that had once paddled across the pond. Still, the unearthly silence encouraged her to get to the station doors as quickly as she could.

Down into the subway system she went, greeted immediately by hostile Triggermen. The lesson Hancock had given her on posture stuck in her memory, although it was more the feel of his breath against her neck, his arms around her, caging her in that she was remembering.

Stop it, she warned herself. You’ll get yourself killed if you don’t focus. No more shy flower, Honoria. You’ve got to survive.

Bullets flew past her head within inches but she refused to flinch. She refused to squeeze her eyes shut and block out the sight of the carnage she wreaked with the rifle too. Each shot got easier, each victim fell faster. It was all a blur of blood and shouting and flickering lights and the iron smell of death. When the upper level of the subway was cleared of that half dozen or so wannabe gangsters, she bent over and retched. She had done it; she had become a killer.

You were before this, she reminded herself. Just because killing ferals didn’t feel like murder doesn’t mean it wasn’t. And there are all the raiders you’ve taken out. How is that any different than this?

The stairs were trip wired, rather obviously in her opinion. Or maybe it was just because she was crouched so low, her senses on full alert that she saw the green wire across the floor so easily. Her nimble fingers found the trigger latch and lifted it harmlessly before a quick flick with her knife snapped the line in two. She looked all around to see what it had been attached to and found the bomb duct taped to the wall. Disarming that proved to be just as simple and she pocketed the bits and wires, knowing she would find a use for them somewhere. She liked to think she was pretty handy when it came to building things and since nothing she’d built had exploded or burned down a house she must be doing something right.

There were more Triggermen on the lower level, along the rubble filled tracks and hiding in the shadows between spotlights. It was harder to pick them off, but it was easier when she couldn’t see them bleed as they fell. She rummaged through pockets and containers that were lying about, refilling her stores of ammunition and even picking up a submachine gun to see if she liked it. And always she thought about what she was heading towards. Always she thought about whether or not this Nick Valentine was who she thought it was, and whether or not he would remember…

***

May 2076

“I brought some turkey on rye,” Nick said, twisting the chair next to hers in the police station and dropping onto it backwards, bracing his arms on the back. “Share with me?”

“Can’t today, Nick. Need to get this filed and get back to class before Marx blows a blood vessel.”

“Screw Mister Elitist Professor Marx, have lunch with me.” His soft blue eyes were pleading and she grinned in spite of herself.

“A quick one, okay?”

“Fine,” he grumped, but it didn’t last long. His mobile face lit up when she closed the file she was typing into the police terminal and stood to grab her jacket.

“How’s the weather out?”

“Bright and sunny, like May should be.”

“You’re such a romantic fool, Nick,” she laughed at him. She walked with him out of the police station to a bench out front, in the sun. “Speaking of your romantic streak, how is Jenny?”

“She’s good. She’ll be coming out to join me here in Boston in about a week or so.”

“A little love nesting going on?” she teased, bumping her shoulder into his. He smiled quietly, almost sheepishly. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

“She can’t wait to meet you, either. I think she’s a bit envious of all the time we get to spend together.”

“Well you can tell her there’s nothing to worry about,” she said with a rueful grin. “I’m just a lowly intern working my way through my final semesters until the bar exam. I don’t have the time to interfere in my friends’ love lives, even if I was so inclined.”

“Hey, you’re gonna do fine on the exam. Don’t worry so much. And then maybe you can finally get a date.” Nick slung a companionable arm over her shoulder and squeezed her briefly.

She sighed. “I know. It’s just…there’s so much riding on this for me.”

“Mommy and Daddy can stuff it,” Nick said, intuitively knowing that’s what she was worried about. Nora tried to laugh at his dour expression, but it hit too close to home for her.

“I wish we could get this whole Winter business over with though. I’m not entirely comfortable with how this is playing out.”

“I know,” he replied, suddenly serious again. He got out the sandwiches he’d brought from a paper bag and handed her one. “It’s not any easier for me, doll, and I’m just a cop. My job is mostly done already. Now it’s all in you lawyer types’ hands.”

“No pressure or anything,” she glowered sarcastically.

“Hah, none at all.” He flicked the end of her nose and dug into his food.

The time sped by too quickly and he was off again, leaving her to finish her report before heading back to her classes. She ignored the pain in her heart at the thought of Nick’s fiancée coming, told herself it had more to do with the fact that she hadn’t had a date with anyone in three years than it did because she wanted Nick for herself…

***

The shadows were plentiful in the outer edges of the Vault, and Nora was able to slip between them without drawing too much attention to herself, slain bodies in her wake. She’d gained confidence with the rifle – and decided she didn’t like the submachine gun at all – and no longer even felt that nauseous over the lives she’d taken. Each one brought her closer to her goal. She could fall apart about it later, but right now she needed to get in there and find the man she’d been hunting for.

But the gantries were a problem, and she couldn’t see where all the Triggermen were and was caught by surprise rounding the corner of one gridwork walkway to another. Face to face with a baseball bat was not something she’d planned on. She barely had time to raise her weapon to block the blow. But she managed somehow and bashed the well-dressed ghoul in the face with the butt before unloading a number of bullets into him that was not entirely necessary.

She crouched there in the cover of a sturdy support column, waiting to hear if any more were coming. She could hear voices below, but in the echoing expanse of cut out rock it was impossible to pinpoint their location. Still, she tried, moving slowly and staying low. It hampered her aim, but kept her out of their sights. She found one of them and was lining up the shot when a spray of bullets startled her into a yelping jerk, her rifle shooting off harmlessly over the Triggerman’s head. Searing pain registered in her mind at the same time and she looked down at her leg to see the welling blood. The men were close and she frantically tried to reload before they got to her. Two shots in one and three in the other took care of them, but by now her leg was going numb and she couldn’t walk. She pulled herself on her hands and knees the last few dozen feet to the Vault door and leaned against the wall, digging a stimpak from her pack. Without any regard for proper cleaning or prepping, she jammed the needle into her leg and leaned back with a hiss.

Wasn’t it just her luck to get hurt before she even got inside?

Chapter Text

The Commons were quiet and undisturbed and Hancock let out the breath he’d been holding. At least she’d made it past Swann. He felt like that had been his refrain since he went to find her in her attic space and saw she was gone. At least she made it this far

The box of her stuff neatly packed had nearly made him panic, but when he calmed down he realized that if she’d left it, that meant she was going to come back for it. He knew he’d been avoiding her, and he knew he should have said something, but time kept escaping him. And the memory of her face turned up so trustingly to his had made him remember how close she’d been standing, how sweet her lips had looked, how much sweeter they had tasted and then another ten minutes had been wasted thinking about her when he should have putting things in order so he could go with her.

He went down into Park Street Station and followed a trail of bodies towards the stairs leading to the lower level. He found the cut tripwire, saw the looted Triggermen who’d left Goodneighbor to be with Skinny when the offer of caps and thuggery had outmatched his own.

“Poor saps,” he murmured. “Ended by a dame scared of her own shadow. Heh.”

She made it this far…and damn well too.

The platform was quiet as well, dust settling over the bodies like a film. He followed the tracks, avoiding the rubble and found the entry way to the Vault with all its catwalks and gantries. It was a maze of switchbacks and stairs that made the least amount of sense for a Vault he’d ever seen. And there, at the bottom, where one dead body slumped over the legs of a slightly less dead body, he got his first solid break.

“Mayor…?” came the raspy ghoulish voice of a Triggerman too far gone for help, but not quite ready to kick it. Hancock crouched down in front of the guy, taking in the chest wound blending with the red suspenders on his shirt.

“Got’ya good, didn’t she?”

The Triggerman tilted his head to look at him, a faint smile on his face. “Got…her…too…”

“Where is she?” he growled. The dying thug laughed, a dry painful sound that didn’t even echo in the huge space it was so quiet.

“She crawled away to die, like a little bitch.” The Triggerman coughed and blood dribbled down his chin.

“She better not have, or you’ll regret it,” Hancock said, standing up again and finding the streaky trail of blood that led into the Vault entrance proper. He’d thought about being merciful and ending the man’s pain, but reconsidered at his words. If that man had killed her, he was gonna make him pay for it…slowly.

He found her slumped against the wall outside the Vault door, neck lax, leg shot to hell but no longer bleeding. He’d been worried about this exact scenario and now guilt crept in to make it worse. He should have made even just a little bit of time for her, to tell her…anything. Everything.

“Honoria,” he said aloud, and had a momentary satisfaction in seeing her eyes pop open and her head lurch as she woke. He strode quickly across the floor to her side, the heels of his boots muffled in the dust.

“You found me,” she whispered. “I was afraid you wouldn’t…’til it was too late.”

“Don’t be melodramatic. You’re not allowed to die on me.” She smirked at him, but it held no heat, only regret. “Why the hell did you run out on me?” he asked as he searched his pockets for chems. She was pale and weak. He knew how much blood she’d lost since he followed the path of it here. He dug out a stimpak, a Med-X and a Buffout and knelt on the floor to give them to her.

“You ran from me,” she replied, just as softly as before, as if she didn’t have the energy to raise her voice. “You ignored me, wouldn’t see me. Why would I stay?”

“Dammit, woman, I had shit to organize before I could walk away from it all.”

“Likely story…” She looked away as he injected the stimpak and Med-X into her leg. His hands were shaking, he saw.

I almost lost her, he thought. Because I was scared shitless of what I felt, I almost lost her completely. I made excuses and didn’t speak up and look what happened.

“Well, I’m here now,” he said when he was done.

“Yeah…you are…” There was a hopeful note in her thready voice and he let go of his anger and his fear, letting it wash away like the tears dripping off her chin. He leaned over her and placed a kiss on her forehead.

“And I ain’t leavin’, so get used to it.”

“All right,” she sighed.

“You need to eat somethin'.” He lifted her into his arms while the chems did their work and carried her through the Vault entrance to the vestibule. He looked around and found some storage lockers. There was mostly scrap but on top of a barrel he found some food and a carton of purified water. He grabbed them and let her slide down to the floor where she got more comfortable so she could eat. He stood by and watched her throat worked convulsively as she swallowed. The fear still hadn’t quite run its course. “You’re an idiot, you know that?”

“What do you mean?” She looked affronted by his tone, and he supposed he deserved it. He could have worded that better.

“You crossed the Commons by yourself. Don’t you know what’s out there?”

“No. How would I know what’s out there, Hancock? No one tells me anything.” He deserved that too.

“There’s a super mutant behemoth in that pond.”

“A what?”

“A giant. Like, he uses a lightpost as a club.” She grew paler, if possible. “How’d you get through there without wakin’ him?”

“I’m sneaky,” she whispered.

He chuckled. “Aren’t you just.”

“Hancock, I’ve been meaning to ask you…”

“Yeah?”

“Who is Nick Valentine? I mean…” she went on hastily, forestalling his immediate answer, “what kind of person is he? Is he like me?”

“Uh…” How to describe Nick? “Well, no, he ain’t.”

“So…he’s not pre-war?” For some reason this seemed to disappoint her, and he wondered why she had even thought he might be, regardless of the fact that Nick was, indeed, sort of pre-war.

“Well…parts of him are.”

“Speak plainly,” she returned sharply, nibbling away at the snack cakes he’d found. He didn’t miss the undertone of resentment she was still carrying. Yeah, he’d earned that too, since she wasn’t wrong about him putting her off.

“Nick is a synth, Nora. His programming is from before the war, and he’s been around for as long as anyone can remember. Why, you think you knew him…the real him?”

“It can’t be a coincidence,” she murmured, almost to herself. She finished eating and pushed away from the wall, testing her leg. Her color was getting better and while she was a bit shaky, she wasn’t dying anymore. Her face had turned fierce, and Hancock knew he hadn't been forgiven just yet. He absolutely deserved that too, and he owned it. It was on the tip of his tongue to start apologizing when she spoke again, sharp and clipped. “You coming or not?”

“I am. And...I'm sorry for...all this.”

She sighed, looking like she wanted to rake him over the coals, but then she let it go, nodded once and led the way deeper into the Vault.

***

She was quite proficient with the combat rifle she’d bought from KLEO, he saw. They didn’t talk much as they wound their way through the Vault. Her stealth skills kept them well hidden, and he followed her lead, staying behind her and watching her back. They had a couple close calls, but not as many as he’d feared they would. He saw the resolve in her spine as she mowed down the traitorous Triggermen that were left.

And when they reached the atrium overhang, and the Overseer’s office where Nick was being held, she deftly picked the password from Dino’s shirt pocket and logged into the terminal that would open the door. She’d barely spoken to him the whole time they made their way to this point, but just before she opened the door, just as they could hear Nick inside telling them to hurry, her eyes met his and he saw so many things flit through them, some so fast he couldn’t even interpret what they were.

“Hancock…I…”

“Ya got three minutes before they come looking for him, stranger, so I suggest you get this door open,” they heard from inside and her eyes grew shuttered and she closed them for a second, almost as if it pained her. Hancock didn’t understand and had no time to ask as she hit the keys that opened the sliding door and stepped into the room. “Gotta love the irony of the reverse damsel in distress…” the detective started off, lighting a cigarette with a hand that was just a skeleton of metal, but he stopped midsentence when he got a good look at Nora. “Jesus…Nor…how…?”

“Hello, Nicky,” she replied, choked on tears and some emotion Hancock couldn’t identify. He looked between them, feeling much like the peeling wallpaper, totally ignored. Then watched in shock as Nora flung herself at the synth, who caught her in his arms and held her tight.

Chapter Text

She couldn’t believe it. This…machine…with metal and plastic and yellow eyes…and his voice…He was taller than her Nick…the real Nick. But that slouch and that cocked head to the side, the way his lip curled around the filter of the cigarette…those were all the same. He was in there, in that machine body. Her Nick.

***

October 2076

“Look, Nor, I know it sounds crazy, but I’m going out of my mind here. I need to do something…worthwhile.”

“But, Nicky, isn’t this just some weird science project? I mean, what do you possibly hope to gain from this?”

“Forgetfulness,” he said, his sad blue eyes tracking her as she crossed the room to his side, her fingers already curling with the need to touch him. A shocking memory swept through her like fire and her fingers landed on his shoulder jittery and nervous as a butterfly.

“You can't just...forget...” she stammered.

“I just want to black out everything, just blot it out like ink,” he cried, and she couldn’t bear the anguish in his voice, the tearing pain in his throat as he held back sobs. He drew away from her suddenly, as if she'd hit him. As if he couldn't bear to be touched by her.

“Nick…”

“I’m gonna do it, Honoria. And then I’m gonna leave…for good. Better for us both that way.”

“No, please…” she pleaded. There was still a chance, right? Still a chance for them to find comfort in each other. But no, there wasn’t. There was the cold body of Jennifer Lands between them and the horror of what they’d been dragged into by a manipulative bastard. There was the single shining moment that had thrown a harsh shadow over everything she had ever known. There was the look in his eyes that told her he regretted it.

There was no chance for anything now.

***

“Hello, Nicky,” she said into his shocked silence and threw herself into his arms. His metal and plastic arms that would never feel like flesh, would never be warm under her hands. But they held her just the same, tight to his chest where no heartbeat throbbed under her ear, only the faint clicks and whirrs of his mechanical body.

“Honoria…” he breathed soft and so low she almost didn’t hear it. But it was his voice. Tears pricked her eyes. “How the hell…?”

“The Vault, Nick. We had space in the Vault.”

“I don’t understand.”

“They froze us,” she said, and felt her throat close up at the memory of it, of the cold and the ice and the steady drip after she woke and found herself alone, widowed, bereft.

“And…Nate? Where is he?”

She tipped back her head and looked into the strange yellow eyes. She looked over the rough edges where his ‘skin’ had peeled away at the seams, exposing the wires beneath. He wasn’t her Nick, but he was. He was. “Nate is dead, Nick. Someone came into the Vault and shot him. They took Shaun.”

“Who's Shaun?”

He doesn't know, she realized. No one does.

“Someone care to explain to me what the hell is going on here? I thought we needed to vamoose.” Nora looked over her shoulder, startled; she’d completely forgotten about Hancock in her shock at seeing what Nick had become.

“Easy, John,” Nick said before she could begin. “It’ s a long story, and you’re right. We need to get out of here, doll,” he said, favoring her with the same old half-cocked eyebrow. “C’mon. Plenty of time after.”

Nick led the way through the winding corridors and through locked doors that he picked with an ease she could well remember. Even with a hand that just skeletal metal, he was still the same as he’d always been. Things were going fine, the few Triggermen left fell quickly between the three of them, but then they were confronted by Skinny Malone himself, Darla at his side.

“I can’t let you leave, Nicky, old friend. This deal’s too big.”

“You always were one to try to find every angle,” Hancock said sourly. Skinny frowned at him. He seemed almost regretful.

“I’m sorry you got mixed up in this Mayor. I woulda let you go, but…my hands are tied here.”

“You mean your hands have been bought and paid for,” Nick snarled. “How much did he promise you, Darla?”

“The world,” the simpering wretch in a shimmery blue dress sneered. She wrapped her hand around Skinny’s arm, like she was going to grapple him to the floor. “I just needed to bring you in, and everything I ever wanted was mine.”

“Skinny don’t have that kind of pull,” Hancock said. The gangster frowned at him some more, but didn’t dispute the fact.

“You idiot,” Darla spat. “What makes you think any of this is for Skinny?”

Nora was thoroughly confused. But it looked like Hancock and Nick were just as in the dark as she was. None of them seemed to even have noticed she was there until she stepped in front of Nick, her rifle casually held in her hands the way she’d seen Hancock carry his shotgun.

“What is going on here? Can someone please explain?” she asked in her best imitation of her mother’s voice, cold and commanding.

“Look, lady, I don’t know who you are, but you got yourself mixed up in some serious shit, all right?” Skinny said, bluster and bravado making him sweat and flush red. “I had orders, see, to get Nicky on the inside here. All nice and safe and quiet like. I turn him over to my boss, I get a fat stack of caps, and everyone’s happy.”

“Your boss,” Nora drawled. “So there’s a third party here we don’t know about.”

“Of course there is, princess,” Darla said with a curl on her lip. “What, you think Skinny has the brains to dupe even a beat up old synth like this?” The girl laughed and it was an ugly sound. “Oh no, honey. He ain’t the brains here.”

“Darla,” Skinny protested. “What the hell?”

“Sorry, Malone. You ain’t really my type after all,” she simpered sarcastically. “You’re just the middle man.”

“But Darla…I thought we….”

“You’re not the ones paying the bills, Skinny. We both know that.”

“Who is?” said Nick, sharp and cutting, silencing the brewing argument.

Darla looked him over for a moment, as if weighing her options. Finally with a shrug of her shoulders, she spat out, “Eddie Winter.”

***

September 2076

“He turned State’s evidence, Nora. There’s nothing more we can do.”

“But…”

Professor Marx patted her on the shoulder. “Your internship taught you some hard won truths, Nora. First and foremost is that we don’t always catch the bad guy.”

“I can’t believe you’re just going to go along with this!” she shouted.

Marx just took a deep breath and slumped against his big desk in his corner office. He shrugged. “That’s how the game is played.”

“No. It’s not a game. People’s lives have been ruined here. I…I can’t do this anymore.” She began pacing. “I’m going to change my major.”

“Nora, you’re ten weeks from the bar exam. It’s too late to change now.”

She glared at her professor, rage and despair on her face. She knew she’d gotten too close for her own good. She knew she’d gotten emotionally involved. She knew she couldn’t practice criminal law.

“A man like Eddie Winter deserves to rot in hell, and you tell me there’s nothing we can do about him getting off with just a slap on the wrist. I’m not interested in practicing that kind of law, Professor. Good day.”

***

“How…?”

“He turned ghoul,” Darla said with relish, her eyes on Hancock. “Thought you were special, chemical boy? You ain’t.”

“Enough of this,” Skinny interrupted. “Look, Nick. You and I got history, and I wouldn’t have done this but…”

“Caps are king, huh, Skinny?” Nick said, nice and easy, his tone making Nora’s spine relax and her senses sharpen. His voice had never failed to bring out the best in her. If this was to be a firefight, then she was ready. From the corner of her eye she saw Hancock ease that shotgun of his out from his hip, just as ready as she was. “Sorry, old friend, but this is one delivery you won’t be able to collect on.”

Nick pulled out his revolver and shot Skinny square in the chest, the shock on his sweating face almost enough to make Nora miss swinging up the rifle to block the baseball bat that had appeared in Darla’s hands. There were two other guards that had been standing there with the pair and Nora knew Hancock was wrestling with one while the other tried to get off a shot. She kept her focus in front of her. Darla went to swing again but this time she was ready and she bashed the butt end of her rifle into the girl’s face, breaking her nose and throwing her off her feet. Hancock finished up with the guards and Nick stood over the bleeding form of Skinny Malone.

“Darla was right about one thing, Skinny,” he said, lighting up another cigarette in what looked like a long practiced move. “You sure weren’t the brains here.” He leaned down and grabbed the girl’s arm, taking away the bat and holding her in a pincer grip with his metal fingers. “C’mon, princess, you’re coming with us. Eddie wants to play, we’ll play.”

“Skinny!” Darla screeched as Nick dragged her towards the Vault door. “Do something!”

“Heh,” the gangster laughed wetly, blood dribbling down his chin. “Not likely, babe.”

Chapter Text

The single cell in the basement of the State House was damp, dirty and lit only by a lantern. The cell didn’t even have a bed, just a chair and a bathtub, of all things. Nick’s pincer grip on Darla’s arm released her into the steel cage where she stumbled and slammed against the wall, her screeching never ceasing.

“For the love of God, girl, shut up,” Nora snapped. “You’re not dying or anything.”

“Good for you,” Hancock said under his breath, proud of her gumption. She spared him a glance and he grinned at her. When she didn't return it – instead studying his face with an inscrutable expression – he let it fade. Still on the shit list, he thought. He knew she hadn't forgotten that he'd put her off and left her no other choice than to go it on her own, so he didn't bristle the way he normally would. Still, they had bigger worries, and it seemed she agreed since she didn't exactly look like she wanted to pick a fight with him over it.

“I think we should let her stew tonight,” Nick said authoritatively, sliding the door of the cell closed with a bang and interrupting his thoughts. Darla made a pathetic picture in the light of the lantern, her makeup smudged by her pointless raging, with blood dried and crusting on her chin and the edge of her sequined blue dress from where Nora had broken her nose. Already it had swelled and one of her eyes was turning black with bruising.

“You can’t leave me here,” Darla demanded. “I got connections, Nicky boy. He’ll come for me.”

“If Eddie Winter thinks he can storm into Goodneighbor without repercussions, he’s more than welcome to try,” Hancock drawled. “Have a pleasant night, Darla.”

The trio left the girl there, screeching futilely at them as they climbed the stairs. Long before they reached Hancock’s office the sound waned until it was quiet again. They supposed the girl must have at least two brain cells to rub together to realize that screaming and crying wasn’t going to get her very far with this crew.

“Okay, I need some answers, I think,” Nora said carefully, settling herself down on the same sofa she always did. Hancock sat across from her while Nick paced the confines of the room like something still caged. “How is Eddie Winter still alive?”

“Apparently, he’s a ghoul,” Hancock offered casually.

“How?”

He shrugged. “From what I can tell, same as me.” Nora looked confused and he grinned at her suddenly, all teeth. “Experimental chems, sister.”

“Right. I forgot...you…you did this to yourself…but I never thought... with chems?”

“Yeah, but I was only after the high, and man, it was so worth it.” He closed his eyes as if remembering but he was aware that his posture said something totally different to anyone who knew him. As if on cue, Nick stopped his pacing midstride and frowned over at him.

“John, don’t tell her lies.”

“What’s it to you, Nicky? And while we’re on the subject, what’s with the two of you anyway?”

“You want to tell him, doll?” Nick asked her. Something about the tone in Nick's voice made her flinch, Hancock saw.

“I…before the war I was studying criminal law and…Nick was...well…”

“I was a cop,” Nick finished for her.

She took a steadying breath. “I was an intern for the law office that was handling the prosecution of Eddie Winter. I met Nick there and we worked together until…” She trailed off, both unwilling to draw out all the details and to remind Nick of what he’d lost.

“It’s all right, Nor. I've gotten over it. Had lots of time. This old body of mine might not be the same one, but the mind is.”

She looked at him with sorrow in her eyes. All these years, and he’d never gotten away from the memories. Hancock had known Nick his whole life, but had never really thought about what it was like for the old synth to live with his past. Nora looked like a super mutant had swung at her head, like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. There was something else, something neither of them was saying.

“I changed my major to corporate after...after everything.”

“You did?” Nick asked, as if he hadn't known. She spared the detective a strange look, equal parts regret and nostalgia before she faced Hancock again.

“Eddie Winter killed Nick's fiancee. He turned State's evidence to get out of prison. I couldn't keep going in criminal law after that. I lost the heart for it.”

“He was quite the crime boss back in the day, huh? Guess that makes sense.”

“Boston had always been a battleground between the Irish and the Italians,” Nick said dryly. “We all got caught up in it whether we wanted to or not.”

“I'd hoped with the bombs...it would all be over,” Nora murmured.

“Okay, so you two were friendly back then,” Hancock said after a moment of silence between them. “Musta been some shock seein’ her walk through that Vault door, huh Nick?” He heard the edge to his voice. Jealousy? Where did that come from? It was patently obvious she and Nick had been more than just friendly, but that didn't mean he had any right to be jealous of it. He'd only known her a few weeks, after all.

“It was,” Nick confirmed, but left it at that.

“Okay, but what are we going to do with Darla?” Nora asked, seemingly just to turn the conversation away from the past.

“Information is a precious commodity, sister. It’s time we had some to call our own.”

“You aren’t going to…torture her, are you?”

“What do you take me for, a monster? Nah, I ain’t gonna hurt her. She’s been roughed up enough. Now she just needs to feel the sting of isolation and a bit of cold shoulder. She’ll talk, just so she’s not left alone.” Nora nodded, as if that made perfect sense. And in a way, it did. This wasn't the old world, where societal snubs meant something, but a girl like Darla? She wanted it to be. Hancock wondered where the girl had come from originally to have such a high opinion of herself. Upper Stands in Diamond City perhaps? They still held onto those ideals. He didn't recognize her, but then again, he'd left Diamond City ten years ago. She would barely have been a schoolgirl back then.

“I need air,” Nick announced and left the room, leaving Hancock looking at Nora with new eyes. She looked like she wanted to shrink, to disappear. He felt bad for giving her such a thorough scrutiny, but it had always served him well to be observant.

“So...” Hancock said after a moment. “Wanna tell me all of it?”

“There...there isn't much to tell,” she tried to temporize.

“See, if I hadn't seen you rush in there like you'd found a buried treasure, I'd buy that. But I did see it, and so I'm curious. He knew your husband, but not that you had a child. And he's never mentioned you once before.”

She seemed to be thinking fast, her gaze darting around the room so as not to meet his own. “Why would he? He thought I was dead.”

“All right, I'll grant you that one. But where does that leave us, Nora?”

“What do you mean?”

“You got a vibe between you. Something neither of you is admitting is there. I ain't aimin' on gettin' in the way of shit if that's how it is.”

“It wasn't like that,” she replied.

He didn't believe it for a second. Something bone deep was between them. Ain't your place, he reminded himself and ruthlessly got himself under control. He was still watching her as she continued to avoid his eyes. If she wasn't ready to tell him, he wasn't going to force the issue. No one knew better than him what it was like to have secrets and regrets. He decided to change tacks. “I offered to watch your back, keep you safe. You still want me to do that?”

“Yes, I do,” she whispered. He stood up abruptly, started pacing behind the sofa with his hands clasped behind his back. It was easier than looking at her.

“All right,” he said. “Just so long as I know what I'm gettin' into here. You let me know if I'm steppin' on any toes. You got a next move planned out?”

“Hancock...I...” She made a helpless spread of her hands, unable to keep up with his swift attitude changes, and knew she deserved something, but couldn't bring himself to say it. They were saved by Nick rushing back into the room.

“Gunners,” the synth said grimly. “At the gates.”

Chapter Text

Hancock took off after Nick, rounding up his Triggermen as he went. Nora stayed on the sofa, her hands clasped between her knees, still reeling from the overload of emotion and information. All these years, and the devil was back to haunt her. Two devils.

Oh, Nick, she thought. And, Damn Eddie Winter.

She listened to the sounds of the community coming together, preparing to face the Gunners and knew she should be out there with them too. She was part of the reason this fight had been brought to Goodneighbor's door. But she didn't move right away. She just couldn't.

How did I get here? she asked herself.

She looked around the dingy walls of the State House, a place where she'd grown comfortable and felt safe. She remembered coming here on a school field trip once. It was the single time her parents had allowed her to come to this area of Boston, backed up by the authority and protection of a dozen hand picked teachers and parents to watch out for all the kids as they traipsed through history in the red light district. Back then the windows had shone, letting in light and air. Now they were just boarded up and gray with age. The rich carpets were gone. The furniture was a mix of the mismatched and in need of repair. And yet...

And yet, she felt more at home than she had anywhere else other that her tiny apartment in Lexington, once upon a time. She heard shots being fired over the junk wall of the town, and turned her head towards the sound, trying to prime herself for the fight ahead. It never seemed to end, all this violence. For a moment she wished she was back in the Vault, where silence reigned. But that wouldn't solve anything, and she knew it. She hauled herself to her feet and slipped the rifle from her shoulder to her hands.

***

August 2076

“Nor, I'm glad you could make it.” Nick's face was solemn and sober, but Nora could see the lingering effects of his binge from the other night. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was limp and unwashed. But now Jenny had been laid to rest. Now all that was left was the grieving process.

“I would never leave you alone at such a time, Nick,” she replied. Her mother stood off to the side, sniffing disdain at the simple service and austere trappings of the too hasty funeral. Nora was ashamed of her mother's prideful snobbishness, but didn't let it show to Nick. He was her friend, and he needed her. “Are you going back to Chicago?”

“Soon enough,” Nick said with a sigh. “Need to wrap up a few loose ends, that's all.”

“I'll be sorry to see you go. I'll...I'll miss you.”

Nick smiled, that same half smile he always had now. Part sad, part sardonic, and wholly charming in a tragic way. “I'm only a phone call away.”

“I know.” She put her hand on his sleeve, feeling the tension in his arm as he struggled to keep himself under control. She knew how angry he was, how powerless he felt. He wanted vengeance for Jenny, for all of them.

“They'll nail him for this,” Nick growled.

“I hope so, Nick. I truly do.”

“Are you still interning at the firm?”

“I am. But you know I can't talk about it.”

“I do. Just...let me know, all right?”

“I will.” Anna Beaufort made an impatient sound next to her daughter and Nora looked up at Nick sheepishly. “I have to go. But...I'm there for you, if you need to talk. If you need...anything.”

“Thanks, Nor. I appreciate it.”

She hated the stilted sound of their two voices, and wished the small crowd of sympathizers would just disappear. She wished she was strong enough to defy her mother and her stringent upbringing to just take Nick her arms and comfort him. He seemed to know it too, and he cupped her cheek in his palm, his eyes gentle.

“Are you all right?”

“I'm fine, Nick.” He nodded, but his eyes were far away. Anna Beaufort made another sound, this one more warning and less patient than the one before. Nick's hand dropped from her cheek.

“Go on now. I'll be in touch.”

“Okay,” she whispered, and walked away from him. She stumbled on her way through the church door and her mother tsked her clumsiness. For once Nora ignored the sound, too heartbroken to care what her mother thought.

***

September 2076

“So tell me about this friend of yours, you seem worried about him.”

“He's going to Anchorage, Nick. He's a good soldier, but still...I worry for him.”

“Is it...that way?” She turned away from Nick's prying eyes and busied herself with the coffeemaker. He was still haggard and far too lean, but he'd come through the worst of his grief now that Jenny was in the ground. Now he was focused on taking Eddie Winter down, by any means necessary. It frightened her a little how intense his need for vengeance had become. It frightened her more how much she wished she could tell him how she felt. The overwhelming sense of that fear covered up her nerves as she hosted a single man in her apartment...again.

“No, Nate's just...a friend. We grew up together. My mother and his mother were roommates at Suffolk. I think they'd both be thrilled if we...but...I don't think it would ever happen.”

“Why not?”

“I'm not...not his type.”

“What do you mean? You're a wonderful woman, and lovely to boot. He'd be a fool if he didn't want to be with you.”

“He..uh...hmm...I'm not what he wants.”

“Ahh,” Nick said, a world of sudden understanding condensed into a single sound. “When will he be deployed?”

“His unit is supposed to head up there in December. Right now they're training with those new power suits. And some new weapon he can't talk about. He says it will change the tide of the war.”

“They always says that.” She made a sound of agreement and poured the coffee, bringing Nick a mug and the creamer.

Before she could go back for her own, he took her hands in his, pulling her down onto the sofa next to him. For a moment they just sat, but then she leaned against him, her head propped on his shoulder. He moved his arm to circle her waist and drew her close and her heart leapt into her throat. Was he going to...?

“How are your ration coupons holding out?” he asked softly, dashing her hopes even as she chided herself for having them in the first place.

“They're fine. I get extra because I'm a good student.” She fiddled with the buttons on her shirt. “And Nate has connections. He got a huge allotment and shared them with us.”

“That's good.” Nick sipped his coffee and Nora could almost feel the face he made as he grimaced. “I might give you mine. I won't need them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Once I'm done with CIT, I'll be leaving. I don't know if I'll come back.”

“Wait...what are you doing at CIT?”

“I didn't tell you?”

“No.”

“Oh, I thought I had.” He shrugged, his shoulder lifting and falling against her cheek. “They're scanning my brain, mapping it for patterns or something. I don't know what they're going to do with it afterwards but...they said something about some program that's going to become the next wave of artificial intelligence. Better than a Mr. Handy.”

“It's not like you to be so interested in anything like this, Nick.”

“Well, like I said, I don't know what they'll do with the scans. If nothing else, it gives me something to do. And it's steady money for little work, which is coming in handy now that Captain Widmark has let me go from the force.”

***

Nora shut off the memories. They couldn't help her now. She had a job to do, and friends who needed her. She made sure the combat rifle was loaded and started for the spiral stairs of the State House.

“Nor, there you are. You coming?” Nick said from just inside the doorway, the glowing yellow eyes staring up at her with no expression she could read. This synth version was both stranger and familiar friend and she wasn't sure how to reconcile that just yet.

“Yeah, I'm coming.”

Chapter Text

By the time Nora, Nick and Hancock made their way outside, the Gunners had already poured through the single door in the gate, shooting everything in sight and generally making a mess of things. KLEO had come out from behind her stall and was engaged in a hotly pitched battle with the Assaultron the Gunners had brought with them, while Daisy and the Triggermen were fighting hand to hand and across the open courtyard. The air rang with the sound of submachine gun fire and laser pistols.

Nora spared Hancock a glance before she too joined the fray. He was glad to see her overcome her anxiety over a fight and he kept an eye out for her as he swung his combat knife into guts and throats. He lost her after a while, as more and more Gunners pushed their way into Goodneighbor, but he could hear her rifle going off at measured intervals. He made a mental note to get her something nice from Daisy to thank her for pitching in to help.

He'd never seen Gunners attack so blatantly at his walls before. He didn't have time to analyze it, but he knew of no one – other than himself during his coup to become Mayor – who had stormed Goodneighbor at all. From the corner of his eye he saw Fahrenheit climb to the top of the walls, Ashmaker in her hands, mowing down the aggressors as they waited to get inside. It was clear others had had the same idea, but they hadn't fared as well as his second, if the bodies strewn about said anything. From the shouts and sudden flare of laser fire in her direction, it was a good strategic maneuver, although she was directly in their sights. She was a great fighter, and a force to be reckoned with, but she wasn't invincible.

“Get some more Triggers up on the walls! Spread out the fire!” Hancock shouted over the bedlam. He didn't know if anyone actually heard him or if they saw Fahr and decided to help her out, but several of his ghoul guards joined her at the wall, shooting down and ducking away from the return barrages.

Abruptly the carnage seemed to be over. The Gunners were running back out the gate, trailing their wounded and leaving their dead behind. He hadn't seen a signal or heard any orders, but they moved in unison, as if pre-planned. Working earpieces? he wondered.  Where'd they get the tech for that? He whirled around and looked for Nora and Valentine. He had a sudden thought that this attack might have been a diversion to take Darla back. He found Nick tending a fallen Daisy, who had a cut on her cheek and her wig was askew, but didn't see Nora immediately.

“Anyone guarding Darla?” he asked, breathless after so much exertion.

“Charlie,” Nick replied. Hancock took off at a run and found his Mr. Handy bartender still stationed outside the cell, where Darla was smirking at him through the bars.

“They came for me, huh?”

“They didn't get very far,” Hancock said.

“They was just testing you,” she sneered. “They'll be back.”

“Maybe I should just shoot you and make it easier to dump your worthless hide over the wall,” he sneered back, lifting his shotgun and resting it lightly on his arm.

“You really want that much blood on your hands?”

“Honey, you really don't know shit about me, do ya?”

Charlie made a noise that sounded much like a snort. “I'll stay 'ere, 'ancock. Keep her quiet.”

“Thanks, Chuck. I'll see that you're relieved before too long.”

He went back outside and saw his townsfolk clearing out the mess and stripping the dead for anything worthwhile. The bodies stacked up, but few seemed to be his own people. Fahr had jumped down from the wall and looked to be frowning more than usual.

“John, a word?” she snapped when she saw him.

“Yeah?”

She got close enough to whisper, her eyes darting around like she was checking to make sure they weren't overheard. Whatever it was she had to say, he had a feeling he wasn't going to like it. “They had your Vaultie.”

“Nora?” His hands tightened on the shotgun until he felt his nails dig into the wood. “You saw them?”

“Yeah, she was screechin' and hollerin' until someone decked her hard. They headed off towards the Commons. Two groups, they splintered apart at the corner. I was still busy with the leftovers, I didn't see which group had her.”

“Fuck!” He caught Nick's eye and beckoned him over. “You think they're gonna wanna trade her for Darla?”

“It's possible,” Fahr said.

“What's going on, John?” Nick asked.

“The Gunners weren't here for our friendly captive. They have Nora.”

It wasn't often that one got to see the angry side of Nick Valentine, Hancock mused as he watched all the expression bleed out of the synth's face, a notable feat considering he was covered in plastic skin. He was glad that cold anger wasn't directed at him.

“I think it's time to get some answers,” Nick growled and his eyes shifted from Hancock to Fahrenheit. Hancock knew what the synth was thinking. The two of them couldn't in good conscience beat the girl to a pulp...but they could let Fahr do it. Or at least threaten to.

The red head grinned, picking up their thoughts from their expressions. “Time for some fun with the bitchy little princess?” she almost cooed.

“Hey, we don't want to kill her,” Hancock warned. “Just need to get her to talk.”

The three of them went down to the cellar of the State House and waved Charlie back to his post in the Rail. Darla was still trying to look intimidating but failing hard as she saw Hancock and Valentine step back away from the bars of her cell to let Fahrenheit in.

“Now, this can go one of two ways, sweetheart,” Nick said. “You could tell us exactly where your boss Winter is hiding out, or you can keep your trap shut. In which case, my friend here will have to open it for you.”

“I ain't tellin' you nothing,” the girl spat.

“Suit yourself. Fahr...?”

Fahrenheit stalked towards the girl, who tried backing herself into a corner while still trying to look tough. Hancock's second in command withdrew a slim blade from behind her chestplate and seemed to thinking over where would be best to use it. Nick and Hancock pretended to walk away, getting as far as the door to the cellar when Darla screeched at them, “Fine! He's in Andrew Station. He's got a bunker down there as a base. Don't let her cut me.”

“See, that's wasn't so hard,” Hancock said softly. “Fahr, come on, we got plans to make.”

“You never let me have any fun,” Fahrenheit complained, but her face was smooth. They both knew what she was capable of, although even she wasn't particularly interested in torturing a helpless teenager whose major faults were snottiness and bad decisions. They didn't need to let Darla know that though, and he kept his grin in check until they were well away from the holding cell.

“So, how we gonna get her back?” Hancock asked as they got comfortable in his office.

“We could wait,” Nick said. “Winter will make an offer. He hopefully won't hurt her as long as we don't hurt Darla. He'll make an even swap and think he's being magnanimous about it.”

“You sure he won't hurt her?”

“There's no way to be sure, John. But Winter's an Irish boy, full of love for his mama.” Nick's voice was cold and cutting, and Hancock remembered what Nora had said about Eddie Winter having his fiancee killed. Winter would use a woman as a pawn, but he wasn't afraid to sacrifice them either. His gut burned with worry.

“I hate waiting,” Fahr commented coolly from her position at the other end of the sofa.

“Me too,” Nick agreed. “But he's got us over a barrel, and he probably knows it. Nora's...unique. Odds are good she'll be all right with him. She's a smart girl, too smart maybe. I just hope...”

“What?” Hancock pressed when Nick faltered.

The synth sighed. “I hope he doesn't remember her, that's all. Nora was an intern, like she said. It was her boss that planned to have Winter put away for good. It all fell through, since he was working both sides, but her face was plastered all over the place...just like mine.”

“Jesus, Nick. We can't just leave her there. We gotta break her out.”

“We have no idea what kind of trap we could be walking into, John.” Nick sat on the sofa and held his face in his hands – a strangely human gesture Hancock had never seen from his old friend before. “Let me think on it.”

Hancock felt the sour burn of acid in the pit of his stomach. He liked to think he was one of the good guys, an upstanding defender of the little people, but he knew he was in over his head with this. There was a history here that had nothing to do with him, and he was powerless to change that. “All right, Nick. But if you don't come up with a plan by tonight, I'll go without you.”

“Fair enough.”

 

Chapter Text

Nora opened her eyes and found she was handcuffed to a chair, her arms straining behind her back against cold metal rungs. Her head was pounding and her mouth was both dry as a bone and tasted foul like she'd been sick. She wasn’t otherwise hurt from what she could tell, and she hadn’t been too roughly handled. That didn’t stop the terror from seizing around her heart. She took a look around and saw the remains of what appeared to be a pub – stacked tables and chairs, the long counter of a bar scarred and dirty with various bottles lined up along it, some full, some empty, some in between.

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” a voice said across the room and she whipped her head around, pinpointing the face that it belonged to, mildly regretting moving fast as waves of pain rushed between her eyes.  The noir film cliche of him emerging from the shadows wasn't lost on her as she looked him over. Turning ghoul had robbed him of his Irish features, the pug nose and bright eyes, the auburn hair and rosy fair skin, but she recognized the figure just the same. He was the first ghoul she'd yet seen who still had his own hair, silver gray as it was notwithstanding.

“Eddie Winter,” she said softly. She rattled the cuffs at her wrists and looked at him questioningly. “How…why?”

“What, you think your Mayor friend is the only one with connections? Honoria Beaufort Wilcox,” he mused, stepping into the light and rubbing his chin in a gesture she remembered all too clearly from his courtroom appearances. “Ya know, I’m almost sorry you got caught up in this. Almost. Sure, I remember you,” he finished with a nod. “Ain't hard to remember a face as sweet as yours.”

“How?” she repeated.

“You think I didn't know what Vault-Tec was doing? Cryogenics. Pity. Too late for me to get in on it, I had to go the long way round.” He shrugged and sat across from her at the small table. “Still, I can’t complain. It’s got its perks. I’ve almost certainly outlived all my enemies.”

“Maybe,” she managed. Would Hancock and Nick come for her? Did they even know what happened? Were they dead already? She couldn't remember much of anything after being grabbed. She knew she'd kicked up a fuss, and someone hit her across the back of her head and someone else had dosed her with...something.  Judging by the pounding in her head, it was a lot of something. Everything else was a blank.

“Thinking of your ghoul? He's probably fine. My men were ordered not to hurt'im, if that’s what you’re worried about. Got you out quick and simple. Amazing what a nice, confusing fight and a few chems can do.”

“He's not my ghoul,” she murmured. He hadn't mentioned Nick, although he must know that the detective was still around considering Skinny Malone had been holding him, and Skinny had been paid by Winter, if Darla's word was to be believed. He gave her a long assessing look and shook his head with a smirk.

“Tell me another one, funny girl. You know, you surprise me. Never would have figured a scaredy cat little dame like you would waltz into that Vault and spring that clockwork cop. Made a right mess of Malone too...but eh,” he shrugged, “he had it comin' to him, I guess. Outlived his usefulness if he couldn't even keep a beat up old robot and a scaredy cat in line.”

“They’ll find me,” she warned.

“Let them, sweetheart. I ain’t gonna hurt you. Got no reason to. I just want my bird back.”

“Darla.”

“That’s right, even exchange.” He spread his hands as if they were enjoying a pleasant meeting on a pleasant day. He even smiled. “No harm, no foul.”

“What are you hoping to achieve, Mr. Winter?”

“No need to be all formal, Honoria…it is Honoria, right?” He looked at her again with something like cunning in his eyes. He knew who she was, all right, he was just testing her to see if she'd crumble. So she didn’t reply, falling back on the memory of her mother’s cold stare and straight spine. He didn’t have to know her heart was in her throat, or that she could barely stand to look at him after all he’d done to ruin the lives of those she’d cared about. He didn't have to know that hearing her name from his lips was as distasteful to her as hearing it from her mother. “As for what I want? Bah, that’s simple. I want to get back some of my own, keep my place on top of the world.”

“The world has changed.”

“You’re so right,” he said jovially. “What a mess. All my old enemies gone in one fell swoop, all my sins washed away with the bombs.”

“And now you want to start over.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I ain't startin’. I’ve been working this Commonwealth for years. What…you thought I’d hole up and miss all the fun stuff?” He waved a hand dismissively. “Chaos is a good leveler of the playing field. Creates a power vacuum. I intend to keep fillin' it for a long time to come.”

“You think you can get super mutants to line up for you?” she asked, surprised at how even her voice was.

Winter chuckled. “Yeah, I’m gonna have to do something about the big, green suckers, huh? Good thing I got backup.” Nora cast another look around and saw men standing at attention in the gloomy corners of the room.

Military fatigues, her mind cataloged. Laser weapons and combat armor. They looked like the same ones who'd hit Goodneighbor. “You’re the one behind the Gunners,” she said.

“Got it in one. You really should have stuck with criminal law, dollface. You were wasted on that corporate shit.”

“It was too heartbreaking,” she replied crisply. “You…”

He waved away her words. “Yeah, I know what went down. Pity about that dame too. But Valentine shoulda never stuck his nose in it.  Shoulda stayed where he belonged. I had the Boston PD under my thumb, all except that one self-righteous asshole who thought he could put me away. Called in reinforcements from Chicago and made my life real complicated for a while.”

“So you killed Nick's fiancée? Seems a bit…extreme.”

“She ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Valentine needed to be taught a lesson,” Eddie snapped. “No one fucks with Eddie Winter. This is, and has always been, my town.”

“I know a few people who would disagree, Mr. Winter,” she said, resolve plain in her voice.

“Who…you? What are you gonna do, little miss? You ain’t goin’ nowhere fast, and you got no leverage.” He was right, and they both knew it. Her bravado failed.

“So now what?” she asked, tired and defeated.

“Now we wait, sweetheart. Like I said, I ain’t gonna hurt you none. Might even let you out of those cuffs if you promise to play nice.”

“I’ll play nice, Eddie. You already have me over a barrel.”

He smiled, but it was grim. “See, you’re a smart girl after all.” He stood up and uncuffed her hands, giving her time to rub her chafed wrists before he sat back down across from her. “Now, let's talk a little about Mayor Hancock and his Triggermen.”

Nora didn't know what Eddie hoped to achieve by questioning her; it wasn't like she knew anything about how Goodneighbor operated. She tried to speak and choked on her tongue where it stuck to the roof of her mouth. She coughed to release it. “Can I get some water, please?”

“Sure, sweetheart. Med-X can make a smoothskin quite hungover, I hear.”

“Is that what they used on me? My head is pounding.” She could barely believe how chummy she sounded with this...criminal. But needs must, and she hadn't forgotten how to react like a lawyer and not a 'scaredy cat'.

Winter chuckled and hefted his substantial bulk off the chair to find a purified water for her. He even poured it into a clean glass himself, placing it in front of her like it was a fine wine. She sipped it and tried to calm her racing thoughts. She could only assume he wanted to know what kind of security was in place in Goodneighbor. Or maybe he wanted to know how open the remaining Triggermen were to being bribed. Either way, she didn't have many answers for him.

“So...” the ghoul said as he slid back into his chair. “Tell me about the friendly neighborhood guardians of Scollay Square.”

“I don't know much about them. They...patrol. They're everywhere.”

“They're loyal,” he stated, but with a slight query. She nodded.

“All except...well...the ones that were with Skinny Malone.”

“You made short work of them. Saw for myself how well you handled yourself there. Gotta say, it was nice to see from a pre-war softy like you.” She stared at him hard, willing herself not to give in to her impulse to crumble.

“I had good reason. I like being alive.”

“Hah! I like you Honoria. You got some fire in you still. You haven't been broken by this shithole yet. Too bad I'd wager you're incorruptible. You'd make a nice addition to my team.”

“Never in a million years, Mr. Winter.”

“Yeah...don't I know it. Shame.” He watched her drink her water and for a moment she wondered if he'd put something in it with the ways his eyes lingered on her. But no, she told herself. She'd watched him pour it, watched him open it. She was just getting paranoid. “I'll tell ya what, Miz Honoria Beaufort Wilcox. You get some sleep, all nice and cozy on a real bed. And tomorrow we'll march back to your little friends and see if they want to make a deal. If so, we're done. If not...” He stood up and gestured to his Gunners. They were all armed and lethal looking and Nora didn't need him to finish his threat aloud.

If not, she thought, then we're all going to get killed.

“All right, Mr. Winter,” she said compliantly.

Play the game, Nora, she ordered herself. That's the only way to get out of this.

 

Chapter Text

Hancock was ready to burst into action, to storm Andrew Station with all his Triggermen and wipe the whole nest of Gunners out, but Nick counseled patience. They needed a plan, and they needed to ensure that nothing would happen to Nora if they attacked. Which, of course, there was no way to predict.

“Sit down, John, you're wearing a hole in the floor,” Nick snapped at him when he jumped up off his sofa to pace once more. Fahrenheit stood in a corner, chain smoking and glaring at nothing in particular. Hancock caught the momentary narrowing of her eyes at Nick and he shook his head slightly. There was no need to make things worse by allowing his red headed second to let her temper get the better of her.

“This is my fault,” Hancock said.

“How exactly?” Nick asked, sounding tired. Did Gen-2 synths even get tired? Was Nick really even just a Gen-2 synth? Nick shook his head, denying Hancock's assessment. “No, this is about me. Eddie's been after my dilapidated hide for years. Curious thing though, he never made a move until Nor woke up from her Vault.”

“Thought you didn't know about anything about her bein' frozen.”

“I heard rumors of some new player in the wasteland from Skinny's Triggermen. I just never dreamt it would be her.” He sighed. “And never in a million years did I think cryogenic freezing was possible. I have no doubts about Vault-Tec's nature in experimenting with it, though.”

“We're getting off topic,” Fahrenheit murmured from her corner. Nick spared her a glance and gave a brief nod of agreement.

“If I know Eddie, he'll send his goons around with a message. It's how he always liked to operate. He'll offer a deal. The only question is whether or not we take it.”

“If we do?” Hancock asked, hearing the strain in his voice. He hated being backed into a corner, especially by a mobster with more experience and muscle than anyone else in the entire Commonwealth. If anything he'd heard about Eddie Winter was true, it made his own coup of Goodneighbor look like a small time operation, and that had nearly cost him his soul.

“If we do, we should get Nor back,” Nick said.

“And if we don't?” Fahrenheit asked very softly, almost too softly for Hancock to hear, although it was probably still plain to Nick's auditory sensors.

The synth looked at the redhead steadily and didn't answer. It was answer enough. She tossed away a spent cigarette butt with a sneer, lifting her impressive mini gun to her hip. “I'm ready for him.”

The door to the State House opened and closed then, and all three came to attention as MacCready came up the spiral stairs. “Hancock...you're gonna want to see this.”

“Eddie's messengers?”

“Yeah...”

The trio followed the young merc downstairs and out into the courtyard of Goodneighbor, where a pair of Gunners stood idly, their eyes scanning around the community while KLEO and some of the Triggermen kept their eyes on the intruders and their hands on their weapons.

Hancock stood in front of Nick and Fahr and eyed the pair of Gunners without expression, waiting for them to speak their piece and get out of his sight. He had to hand it to them, they didn't shift on their feet like they were nervous, and they didn't mutter as they told him of Eddie Winter's offer. If nothing else, they had some discipline.

“Tomorrow, noon, he'll bring the Vault dweller and you'll give him Darla,” the older one said in a raspy voice. Too many rads, chems and booze, Hancock thought. He knew that sound well. This one would turn ghoul before too long, assuming he lived long enough, anyway.

“No funny business, right?” he drawled with a smirk before the other one could say it.

“Right,” the first Gunner said. They nodded firmly and went back out the gate without a backward glance. As confrontations went it was fast and painless, but Hancock still had a knot in his gut that reminded him too much of worry. Or fear.

“High noon,” Nick said under his breath. “Winter always did have a flair for the overly dramatic.”

“Hey, if he's willing to come here for the exchange, maybe we can use that to our advantage.”

“What are you thinking, John?” Fahr asked.

“I'm thinkin' about funny business.” Nick frowned, Hancock could see it from the corner of his eye. But Fahr was nodding in agreement. “Let's go see Darla, give her the good news.”

Fahrenheit went to the upstairs office of the State House, promising to meet them down in a moment, but Hancock, Nick and Mac went directly to the cellar where they were keeping their erstwhile guest. Darla looked haggard and exhausted, which had been part of Hancock's plan. Wear down her spite with a little hard reality. This was the world she'd chosen, this was the other side of being a mobster's bird.

“How ya doin', princess?” he asked when she lifted her head to watch them come in. She was slumped against the wall, her feet bare and braced on the floor, hiking up the hem of the now filthy sequined dress. She looked young and pitiful, but Hancock was not moved. There were no innocents in the Commonwealth over the age of ten.

“Screw you,” she said, but there was no heat behind it. He chuckled.

“Nah, I'm pretty sure I know where ya been. Even I have standards.” She frowned darkly at his insult, but flinched when the expression made her broken nose hurt. “I got good news though. Tomorrow you get to go home.”

“Did you make a deal for me?”

“No, Darla, I made a deal for Nora. You do your part and be a good little girl, and I'll let ya go nice and easy. You make it hard for me, all Winter gets back is whatever is left of your sorry ass when Fahrenheit is done with you.” The girl blanched – unaware that Hancock wouldn't actually make good on any threat until he got his own back – and pushed herself to her feet.

“I'll be good,” she said in an almost demure voice. He didn't buy it, but he was willing to take it, so he nodded and opened the cell door, just as Fahr arrived to take her off his hands.

“C'mon, let's get you cleaned up all pretty for your boss,” she said.

Hancock left her in Fahr's capable hands, who took her off for a bath and maybe a meal. Nick went to keep an eye on them to make sure there was no premature action on the part of the Mayor's second. Which gave Hancock time to put together his plan with no one the wiser. “MacCready?”

“Yeah, Hancock?”

“You and me gotta have a little talk.”

***

The wind was blowing fairly hard at the very top of the State House, where Hancock had led Mac once he'd shown him how the panels in the attic moved apart to reveal the tight spiral of stairs. They looked down onto the wall that separated Goodneighbor from the rest of the Commonwealth where he'd tossed a couple mannequins into the street.

“Think you could take a shot from here?” Hancock asked the young merc. MacCready stuck out his chest like a puffed up rooster and attempted a swagger, but the wind buffeted him too hard. He stopped trying for bravado and looked down to see the mannequins. He lifted his rifle and looked through the scope, clearly able to see their mild faced heads in his crosshairs.

“I can make it,” he promised.

“Good. With any luck, we'll wipe out all our problems at once.”

“You sure about this, Hancock? I mean...”

“Having second thoughts already?”

“Not really, just...it's risky. What if he still has Nora?”

“You'll have to be quick. I figure best time is after the exchange and they're gettin' ready to leave.”

“What if he tries to double cross you before that?”

“Then I'll pump him full of lead myself.”

“He'll have Gunners with him,” Mac warned.

Hancock scoffed. “I ain't afraid of those jumped up raiders. No offense.”

“None taken. I've never been so happy I left their outfit behind me. But they do have pretty good weapons and armor. If he brings them in force, it'll be a tough fight.”

“I'll get KLEO to arm everyone planning to be at the gate. And you stock up on ammo.” Hancock passed a pair of slim syringes to MacCready. “Here, don't be afraid to use them. They'll keep you steady in this wind.”

They looked a lot like Med-X, but printed in small letters along the side of the syringe casings was the name 'Calmex'. Mac's eyes bulged. “Jes...oh man, where'd you get these?”

“Rufus had them. Worth every cap if you can pull this off.”

“Hancock, I don't like chems.” MacCready sounded almost whiny and Hancock wanted to mock him for it. He went for the sort of tough love he was known for instead, pulling the merc around to face him, his face serious.

“You're a good kid, MacCready, and I dig you. But right now, I don't give a shit what you like and don't like. I want Nora back, and I want Eddie's ghoul ass dead. You pull this off, I'll pay your way through recovery.”

Mac was silent for a moment. He looked away from Hancock's intense stare to the pair of sharp needles in his hand. Finally, he nodded. “All right, Hancock.”

“Good.” Hancock stepped back – as much as he could in the cramped space – and let out a sigh. “I know you don't wanna use'em, kid. I just want this all to go right.”

“I know. I want her back too.”

“Am I still the coolest ghoul in the Commonwealth?”

“Yeah. You'll always be.”

“All right.” The sky began to darken and turn green and Hancock sniffed the air like something sweet had caught his attention. “Get back inside. Rad storm comin'.” He waved MacCready away and stood in the wind, watching the clouds roll in. He watched the mannequins fall over in it, arms and heads rolling into the trash that accumulated outside his gate just like it did everywhere else, it seemed.

I'm gonna watch that asshole bleed, he swore to himself. I want to make him pay for every single scratch I find on her when I get her back.

 

Chapter Text

The walk from Andrew Station to Goodneighbor wasn't particularly long, Nora discovered as she walked beside Eddie Winter in the midst of a troop of Gunner support. Eddie spent the time regaling her with tales of his mercenaries' exploits and it turned her stomach.

“Ahh, but I think my best work was done years ago, Miz Wilcox,” the ghoul was saying as they turned a corner across from an old cemetery. “Gotta be almost seventy years now since I shuffled that tough towards the Institute.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, knowing that any information was better than none. Eddie had put cuffs back on her so she wouldn't try anything, but he hadn't roughed her up any other way. It wasn't his style, she knew, to use violence as long as he was getting his own way about things. It was only when he'd been crossed that he turned dangerous.

“Conrad Kellogg,” Eddie said with relish. “Killer for hire, come east from California. Well, what's left of it anyway. It's called the New California Republic now. He made a name for himself, no job too gruesome or underhanded. A little unhinged, but throw enough caps at him and he stays loyal. The Institute was happy to have him for all their dirty work.”

“What did they use him for?” she asked, almost afraid to find out. Eddie was downright gleeful as he told her about his set up with the Institute. And she had a cold sliver of fear settling into the pit of her stomach.

“What do you mean 'did'? Far's I know, they still do. They pumped that merc full of upgrades and experimental shit. Anyway, I knew about Vault-Tec, see. They didn't want me for their Vaults, but they made me the man I am today. And in turn, I got my hands on some intel that proved to be quite a commodity in my dealings with the former CIT.” Eddie put a hand under her elbow – a mockery of kindness – to help her over a pile of junk barring the street. He kept talking while his Gunners wiped out a nest of ferals nearby that had poured from an abandoned bus and the cemetery itself. “The Institute took your son, Honoria. Your baby is long gone. Sixty years gone.”

Nora tried to process what he was saying as laser fire filled the street, mixed in with the snarls of the dying ferals. The sheer brutality of it jarred a memory in her of a cold, dispassionate face with a scar, of a single shot fired in the silence of the Vault, of Shaun's cries. She couldn't breathe, couldn't form words and only stared at Eddie Winter while he grinned at her. Oh, Nate.

Finally she was able to get out a single question. “Why?”

“Payback's a bitch, sweetheart.”

“I left that law firm, I switched majors, why take out your vengeance on me?” she managed, anger finally beginning to boil away the cold fear and sudden shock. Wait, he said the Institute still used this Kellogg today. That means he's still around...he's still a threat.

Eddie made a tsking sound. “Them's the breaks, huh. I couldn't take down that damned cop Widmark who blew my whole deal into shit. That robotic copy of Valentine is barely worth the caps I paid Skinny Malone to nab him. And the law firm was too busy breaking their backs to get a murder charge out of that Lands situation. Once the bombs dropped, that took away my chance for revenge too. But you...hah, you were a sitting duck trapped there in the ice. Honoria Beaufort Wilcox, daughter of a celebrated lawyer and his socialite wife. Little miss perfect wife and mother. Why did you marry that soldier anyway? Wasn't he a player for the other team, as they say? A confirmed bachelor? I'm surprised he got a kid on you.”

“None of your business.” She narrowed her eyes at him, wondering how he even knew so much about her and Nate. She knew his resources before the war were extensive, but she had no idea how he'd managed to unearth Nate's deepest secret. It was never spoken of anywhere. That sort of information could have gotten him expelled from the military, or worse. She remembered Hancock saying how societal rules and expectations had changed and wondered if that was one of them too.

“Ah, well, guess it don't matter now. The Institute wanted pre-war DNA samples. And I knew right where to get them. Kellogg collected your kid and I got paid a hefty stack of caps and an agreement to keep outta my business. It wasn't supposed to end with your tin soldier dead, but hey,” he shrugged, “nobody's perfect.”

“You're a monster,” she gasped, feeling the hot sting of tears burn in the corners of her eyes. Every terrible thing that had happened to her could be laid at Eddie Winter's feet, and he was gloating about it.

“Yeah, yeah, so I've been told. C'mon, sweetheart, we're almost there.”

***

Of course there were super mutants. Eddie himself took out a .44 pistol and shot one down before it could reach them. Nora looked down into the alley way that served as the entrance to Goodneighbor and saw faces on the walls, watching. She saw the pale, ragged figure of Nick Valentine next to the shorter, brighter form of Hancock and her heart lifted a little. When all the super mutants were dead, Eddie and his Gunners gathered around her, herding her towards that wall and the glowing neon sign that already signified home to her.

“So, we're here,” Eddie said, gripping her upper arm pincer tight.

“We're here,” she echoed, trying desperately to sound calm and collected. A glint of light bounced around their faces for a moment and she glanced up but didn't see anything that could have made such a reflection. She knew what it was though. She knew very well how a mirrored surface cast a reflected beam of light, especially from something like a sniper's scope. MacCready was somewhere hidden in there, his sights on them. She desperately hoped he wouldn't miss.

“Mayor Hancock!” Eddie called up to the top of the wall, drawing the attention of those standing there. “You have something of mine in there. And I have something of yours.” He shook her arm a little, jostling her from her thoughts. “It's time we changed dance partners.”

“Yeah, sure you can have your bird back. She don't sing so sweet for me.”

Eddie laughed, a jovial monster, and Nora shuddered as the laugh reverberated through her. Hancock turned away and gestured for someone to join him atop the wall. After a moment, Darla's snide little face appeared, her left eye darkened with a bruise and her nose out of joint.

Eddie stopped laughing when he saw her. “What happened to your face, doll?” he called up to her.

“I did,” Nora murmured, causing him to turn to her instead. “She went after me with a baseball bat, I just defended myself.”

“Well, guess the scaredy cat has some claws, don'cha?” He looked thunderous for a moment before breaking into another grin. “Good for you, Honoria. You got spine.” Eddie turned back to Hancock. “You bring her to me, and I'll let this one go, eh?”

“Sure, Eddie. That works for me.” The two faces disappeared from the wall and an agonizing minute later the door to Goodneighbor opened, groaning and screeching on its hinges. Darla walked ahead of Hancock, her face sullen but clean, her dress far less so. It hung on her like a sack and her shoes were cracked and dirty. The pair stopped outside, within sight of all those gathered above, Triggermen and Nick and Fahrenheit alike.

“Go on, now,” Eddie said, giving Nora a shove. “You know this ain't over, sweetheart. Keep your eyes open. We'll see each other again.”

Nora turned to Winter and held up her hands so he could uncuff her. She said nothing to him, barely even met his eyes. Once her hands were free, she walked away from him, passing Darla who scowled until it must have made her face hurt.

“See ya 'round, princess,” the girl sneered. Nora merely raised an eyebrow at her, striving to do her mother's cold demeanor proud. Darla fell silent, then joined her boss at his side as Hancock opened his arms to her. She rushed into them, his body heat hitting her like a blanket.

“You're safe,” he whispered in her ear. “I got ya.”

They went back through the door, and Hancock firmly closed and locked it. He didn't move away from it, however, and Nora rested her head on his heartbeat, waiting. He didn't know that she knew Mac was in a sniper's position, and she wondered idly if anyone else did. From the looks of things, they did not. She could hear the grumbles of the Triggermen being denied a good fight, and could hear Eddie giving his Gunners orders. Hancock looked down at her, saw the knowledge in her eyes when they locked and nodded.

A single shot rang out in the silence, followed by a high pitched scream that was in no way that of a ghoul. Shortly after that was a muffled groan, and then pandemonium broke out.

“Shit,” Fahrenheit swore, raising Ashmaker into position as the Gunners began shooting blindly up at the buildings around them. The minigun spun up as she held down the trigger, spraying the Gunners with the fiery rounds.

“John, what have you done?” Nick exclaimed sourly, pulling his revolver from his pocket.

“I did what needed doing,” Hancock replied, his arms still around Nora.

“But it sounds like he missed,” Nora whispered. The world closed in around her; she alone knew what sort of vengeful consequences would likely happen if Darla died and Eddie did not. It must have been written on her face, however, since Hancock's expression turned calculating and maybe even a bit worried.

“Fuck,” he muttered.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hancock hustled Nora into the State House while his Triggermen and Fahr took care of the Gunners, although he could tell they were retreating rather than attempting to get in once they discovered the gate was locked. He'd never heard of Gunners backing down before, and wondered exactly what kind of shake up had just happened. He wasn't arrogant enough to think they were running scared.

Nora shook under his arm and he settled her on her regular sofa just as MacCready came barreling down the hidden stairs, clattering and panicking. “He turned at the last second,” the young merc panted. “The shot went wide and hit Darla right in the back.”

“She dead?” Hancock asked coldly. The look on Nora's face had him worried. It was a combination of fear of retribution and something like exultation, mingled with some grief he couldn't name. Time enough to figure out why later on, he decided.

Mac shook his head briefly. “Not from my shot, but then...he...he shot her in the head himself before they ran off.”

“Eddie Winter shot her?” Hancock exclaimed, hearing the incredulity in his own voice. What kind of monster shot a girl for being wounded? And not just some innocent bystander, but his own little bird?

“He wouldn't want her to slow him down,” Nora whispered. “And he can be...impulsive.”

“Shit, now he knows he's got a target on his back. He'll go back into hiding and we won't get another chance to off him.”

“Hancock, I'm sorry,” Mac said. He looked so young in that moment, his face stark and eyes wide, afraid the Mayor was going to be royally angry. Hancock waved a hand at him.

“S'not your fault, Mac. You did the best you could.”

Footsteps echoed up from the lower level as Nick and Fahrenheit came up the spiral stairs, Nick's torn synthetic face thunderous with rage and Fahr's looking remarkably serene despite the chaos that had erupted outside their walls.

“You wanna explain to me just what the hell you thought you were doing?” Nick ground out, the clicks and whirs of his gears audible even from a distance. Hancock straightened up from wrapping Nora in a thin blanket where she huddled silent on the sofa and faced the synth.

“I was hoping to end the reign of terror right here, right now.”

Nick turned his glare on MacCready. “Nice try, kid, but it helps if you hit the target,” he sneered.

“Nick!” Hancock snapped. “Don't blame it on him. I put him up to it, and he did his best. Sure, I'm pissed it didn't go off as planned, but let's not lose sight of what matters here. We gotta take steps to protect Nora now.”

“Which we wouldn't have needed to do if you hadn't gone off half cocked as usual!”

Hancock knew Nick was right, but he was too pent up to just take it. “You don't get to criticize my methods in my own town, Valentine. I've never pretended to be the peace lovin' sort.”

All the fight seemed to drain out of Nick and he went to Nora and held her in his arms, his face calm and placid again. Nora clung to him, burying her face in his chest and Hancock felt a pang of remorse that he hadn't thought to do that himself. He had gone off half cocked, and now it was fucked because of him. He had a feeling Nora was going to pay the price for it when it was all said and done.

“You all right, doll?” Nick asked softly and Nora nodded without looking up. Her voice was muffled against Nick's trenchcoat but they could still hear her reply.

“I'm fine, Nick. He didn't rough me up or...anything. I'm just glad to be out of there.” She took a breath that even from where Hancock was standing he could see wracked her with shudders. “I just want to go home.”

“We'll get you there, Nora,” he said into the relative silence that followed. Fahr looked suddenly mutinous, probably knowing he meant to take her there himself and he raised his bare eyebrow at her, daring her to speak. She pursed her lips and looked away. “Hey, Nick, Mac, why don't you two help Nora pack up her things? I wanna talk with my bodyguard, get things straightened away and then we'll all get some sleep and hit the road in the morning. Sound good?”

Nick eyed Hancock with something that looked like it wanted to be accusation in his eyes, but Hancock stood his ground until the detective nodded and helped Nora up from the sofa. His arm never left her as they went up the stairs to the small attic space she'd been using as her own. MacCready followed in silence, his body language both frustrated and worried. The kid was blaming himself, but Hancock knew it wasn't his fault at all. No, none of this was anyone else's fault but his own.

“Tell me this isn't about getting inside that Vault suit,” Fahrenheit demanded as soon as they were out of earshot. Hancock turned towards her mildly, hoping to stay calm.

“It ain't. I already planned on watchin' her back before this whole thing went to shit, remember?”

“Which doesn't necessarily disprove my argument.”

That was fair, and he knew it. He spread his hands helplessly. “This shit is on me, Fahr. I gotta make it right.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“I dunno. Might be a week, might be more. I want to make sure she gets back to her home safe, and that Eddie Winter's goons in green don't come knockin'.”

“Your white knight act is touching,” Fahr drawled sarcastically. “It's almost a pity I know how much shit you're full of.”

“Listen, Fahr. I know you'll have things well in hand here, and you and the Triggermen can hold Goodneighbor against nearly any attack. You proved that today. But not everybody's got walls they can hide behind. Winter's got his fingers in everyone's business. Odds are he knows where she lives. You wanna risk it? You wanna take the chance that a stray bullet takes her out before she's barely begun?”

“That's life in the wasteland, John. You know it as well as I do. What does it matter if he takes out another little pawn? She isn't anyone special.”

“She could be. You've heard the rumors. You saw that report same as I did that Kenny pulled from that Diamond City drifter. She's already started to make a name for herself, even if she don't know it.”

“Minutemen,” Fahrenheit scoffed. “Quincy just went to show how fucked up they are too. A few pitiful farms flying the blue flag again doesn't mean shit.”

“Maybe, but Quincy was Gunner action too. And now we know the Gunners are working for that gangster. He doesn't want any challenges to his authority. And no matter what else you think about the Minutemen, before Quincy they were rebuilding the Commonwealth and giving the power back to the people who live in it.”

She shook her head at him. “Still such a dreamer. Altruism is dead and burned, John. Don't get caught up in something that could come home to roost. It's bad enough you let that kid come in here and sell himself as a merc after working for them.”

“Mac has useful information on how they operate. He knows their tactics, their formations. He'll be able to help us wipe them out.”

“Is that where you think this is headed?” She sounded incredulous. Her arms dropped to her pockets and in a smooth motion he'd only ever seen himself do, she pulled out a pack of smokes and lit one with a match without even breaking eye contact with him.

“Aren't you tired of always fighting?” he countered once she'd had a few pulls from her smoke. “Sure, I fucked up. But this may also be a chance to start things over for this wasteland, and I don't intend to let it go by.”

“Mayor Hancock, Commonwealth savior,” she sneered.

“No. Honoria Wilcox, Commonwealth Minutemen.”

“You're soft in the head.”

“Maybe. Doesn't mean I'm wrong.” He left her there in her corner, smoke obscuring her expression. Probably a good thing, he thought to himself. It would only piss me off more.

***

The trip to Sanctuary Hills was suspiciously quiet. Sure, they had some run-ins with raiders and ferals, but no Gunners attacked them as they marched north across the river. Nick kept a close eye on Nora, and Hancock wanted to protest, but he knew he had no grounds. They knew each other in a way, and he could tell Nora trusted the synth with her life. He couldn't say the same for himself. Their friendship was just too new and already had holes poked in it.

MacCready took point as they hiked, with Nora and Nick in the middle and Hancock himself bringing up the rear. They left the quieter parts of downtown behind them and ended up near a few settlements trying to make a go of things on their own before turning west by the old flooded quarry. The road was empty and silent, not even insects buzzing in their faces. The raiders camped out in Concord were pathetically easy to take care of and they continued on their way up a hill where he could see the remains of a Red Rocket station.

Nora passed the station by with hardly a glance, her feet dragging as weariness settled in. It had been a long day's walk. But she began to perk up as they crested the hill and a battered wooden bridge came into view.

“Home sweet home,” Nick murmured. Hancock looked up to get his first good view of the small nestled neighborhood. There wasn't much to see, just beat up old houses and dead trees.

And smoke.

“Oh no...” Nora breathed as they crossed the bridge.

The first few houses were empty from what Hancock could tell, and the damage looked old, but as they rounded the curve in the road, he could see fresher marks and signs of attack. A turret mounted on a rooftop was a smoking pile of slag, and the air was too quiet even though he could see generators. Loose wires swung from them, but didn't spark. The flag of the Minutemen hung in tatters from a tall pole in front of a blue house and a huddle of people stood watching them approach. Some were wounded, others just looked...blank. Shellshocked.

“Tell me,” Nora asked softly when a tall man with dark skin and scar down his cheek greeted them, laser musket drawn and primed.

“They hit at dawn, just tore everything up they could find, hit every house and garden plot. There were too many of them,” the man said. Hancock saw past the grime and blood on his coat to the elegant brocade of his vest. He wore a crumpled hat much like he'd seen on Nora occasionally and he looked tired and at the end of his rope.

Preston Garvey, the last Minuteman. The rest of these folk must be the ones he'd gotten out of Quincy before Clint's crew took over the once booming settlement. They were pitifully few.

“Was anyone...killed?”

“No. Sturges got some laser burns on his arm, but he'll be all right. Marcy took a hard hit to the chest, but she'll pull through. She jumped in that old suit of power armor and it protected her from the worst of it. She's just got a couple cracked ribs.” Preston looked grave as he eyed the others before his gaze fell back on Nora. “I've had runners from Abernathy and Tenpines. They were hit too. Tenpines is wiped out, only survivor was the runner.”

“Gunners?” Nora inquired, so softly he almost didn't hear her.

“Yeah, how'd you know? We've got one of them locked up. Managed to cripple his leg so he couldn't run off with the others.”

A grim look settled onto Nora's features until she looked like a stranger. “Good,” she said. “I have some questions for him.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Nora needed to walk a bit before interrogating the captive Gunner, even though she was exhausted. She couldn't look at the devastation and destruction of her home. Not right now. Not after everything Eddie had told her on top of this attack. She went back across the ancient wooden bridge and out to the Red Rocket station where it was quiet and peaceful. It would make a halfway decent settlement, she thought, if she wanted to get more people to come under her banner. If she could manage it after what the Gunners had done to her Minutemen.

“You all right, Nor?” Nick said from behind her. She hadn't heard him approach and she jumped a bit at the sound of his voice.

“I'm fine,” she said, clipped and abrupt. She was afraid that if she started to talk, she might not be able to stop and everything would pour out of her, bombarding this Nick with more information than he could handle. She wouldn't have hesitated for a moment to unload on the human Nick, but this one...this one was...different. For as much as she could see her old friend in there, there was also too much she could not.

She watched him instead, looking for the ghost of her friend inside the machinery and wires. The way he tilted his head to look at her, the way he stood there in the last of the evening sunlight, his fedora shading his eyes. Sure, they were yellow instead of blue, but the same warmth had started to emanate from them now that she was actively searching for it. His trench coat was tattered at the edges and his tie was crooked. He wore old, cracked leather shoes that would have unbearably uncomfortable for a human to walk halfway across the city in. He was her Nick inside that shell. He should have been strange and frightening, but he wasn't. It was like being given a gift unexpectedly.

“I'm glad you're here, Nick,” she said softly, pulling off various pieces of armor so she could breathe and move around freely. She ran her fingers through her hair and wished she had enough hot water to wash it. Appearances didn't really matter anymore, but that didn't mean caring about them had changed for her.

“For what it's worth, so am I, doll.”

“How much do you remember...from before?”

Nick cocked his head at her and regarded her from beneath the brim of his fedora. “A fair amount of before the war, patchy afterwards. I have memory troubles sometimes. Like I can only store so much. But I think everything from before was...hard wired, so to speak. I can't overwrite it, or forget it.”

“So you remember...”

He turned to face her fully, his face carefully neutral. “Yeah, Nor, I remember.”

“We...we never got a chance to talk about it...”

“I know. Do you really want to dredge it up now? After all these years?”

“It hasn't been that long for me, Nick. For me it's been barely more than a year.”

“I suppose that's true.” He lit a cigarette, a human action of pocketing the pack and lighting it up that was oddly fitting with his 'new' body. Nora wondered idly if it was programmed into his circuits that he should do so, since he didn't technically have lungs. She supposed that meant that he couldn't harm himself with the filthy things either. She recalled berating him once – just before Jenny had arrived – that his dirty habit was going to cost him his life someday. “Cryogenics,” Nick said, pulling her out of her reveries. “From that day to this, like a blink of an eye.”

“Yes, more or less.”

“Tell me about Nate.”

“You want to talk about my dead husband right now?”

He shrugged. “I'm still a detective under all this programming.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything. Everything. Tell me how you ended up hanging your hat at this end of Boston. Tell me about Shaun.”

“Shaun was the reason he married me,” Nora said bluntly. “I couldn't very well show my face in polite society without a husband, now could I?”

“Huh, I suppose not.” His yellow eyes searched hers and for a moment she wondered if he was going to ask... “Tell me what happened in the Vault, Honoria.”

“It felt like we'd only been frozen for a moment when we thawed out. But the pod wouldn't open. There were people in hazmat suits, I never saw their faces. But...the man who...shot...Nate...he wasn't wearing anything protective like that. Just a leather jacket with some weird armor on it. He had a scar down his face, balding, deep voice like a ghoul's.” She shook her head and looked away from Nick's unblinking gaze. “Eddie Winter told me he's called Kellogg. And that he came into the Vault and took Shaun sixty years ago. And that he's still alive today.”

“So...what are you going to do now?”

Nora sighed. “I don't have the faintest idea. When I first woke up, I thought I could find my baby, maybe find some peace for myself, live out my life in this little corner of the new world. Now...?”

“Now?”

“My baby is an old man, older than me. The world is so much more...broken...than I could ever have dreamed in my worst nightmares, and I...” She couldn't finish, but her eyes strayed back up over the hill towards Sanctuary. Nick followed her look and his face grew thoughtful.

“And you seem to have something going on with a certain ghoulish Mayor.”

“Is it so obvious?”

“Probably not to anyone else. But Nor, I know you. I know you well.” He tossed his spent cigarette away into the brush, sparks flying off the end of it to be lost in the gloaming. Before she realized what he was doing, Nick put his hand to her cheek, turning her to face him. “You never did get that chance to date, did you? I'm sorry for that.”

“It's not like you could have changed it,” she stammered out. Her heartbeat thumped in her chest, the same feeling she had when she'd kissed Hancock. But where could it possibly go with a synthetic man? What could he offer her, or she him? Why was she even thinking about it in the first place?

“None of us got a fair deal, did we?” Nick asked, his hand still lingering on her cheek, cupping her jaw in a grip that was light and cool, the soft, pliable plastic of his coating strange and too smooth against her skin.

“No,” she whispered. “None of us did.”

***

December 2076

Nate stood next to her in the tiny chapel of the church, his parents and hers sitting behind them while what few friends they had were scattered throughout. Her stomach roiled and she knew she must look awful in her pale dress with a greenish tint to her skin. Morning sickness was a truly terrible thing she couldn't wait to be over.

“I do,” she murmured softly in response to the pastor's strident intonation of the vows. Nate squeezed her hand and she looked up at him, relief warring with worry. Yes, she would have the protection of his name, but at what cost? To both of them.

From the corner of her eye she saw Stephen, tears running down his face, his eyes closed as he sat alone in a pew. Her heart ached for the man her new husband loved. It ached for her new husband too. It ached for herself, and the future that was now totally thrown upside down.

***

“Nate and I were married just before he deployed,” she said to Nick as they walked back to Sanctuary together, the evening folding around them. It was a clear night, and the stars were beginning to show. The temperature dropped noticeably. “It was December, cold, rainy. We had a single week together before he left for Alaska.”

“When did he come home?”

“April. He had been wounded at the end of March, discharged on the first and came home two weeks later. He started house hunting immediately. There was no way we could stay...”

“He had a partner, didn't he?” Nick asked very gently. Nora nodded. “What happened there?”

“Stephen was a scientist, worked for Greentech. He would come stay with us here once we moved. Weekends, a few nights here and there. It was hard for all of us to keep up the pretense, but we managed. As far as I ever knew, no one figured it out.” Nora kicked up the dust in the road, watching it puff away in the darkness. They reached the bridge, but she wasn't quite ready to cross it yet.

There's some basic symbolism for you, she thought to herself.

“You let him have that happiness, Nor. Even if...even if there was no way to know how long it would last.”

“I know.” She leaned on the barrier of the bridge and watched the starlight on the rushing stream as it headed towards the larger pond behind them. She wished she had the courage to step into Nick's embrace, but she didn't. Besides, she didn't really know if she wanted him, or if she would have preferred a warmer pair of arms. “I just wish I could have gotten some in return.”

***

May 2077

Stephen and Nate were snuggled together on the sofa watching TV while she tried to get comfortable in the side chair. The baby was kicking her hard and her back hurt like someone was stabbing her. Stephen noticed her distress and whispered something to Nate, placing a kiss on his temple before getting up and coming over to her.

“C'mon, my girl. Sweetie, move your perfect ass so Honoria can lay down and stretch.” He hauled her out of the chair, his hand warm on hers, and for a single blessed moment she felt a connection with her husband's lover she hadn't dreamed she would. But it passed as Nate stood up, noisily breaking the moment. They both helped her get comfortable, slightly reclined, pillow under her knees and another one behind her head. Then they sat on the floor in front of her, their arms around each other, absorbed in whatever asinine show they were watching.

Nate looked at her over his shoulder and smiled, the blissful smile of a happy man for just one moment. She closed her eyes against it, knowing she would never put that look on his face. Knowing it was pointless to be jealous of a man as wonderful and loving as Stephen. She loved and hated her husband's partner and it tore her up inside every time he was there. But she couldn't say so. She could never say so.

***

Nick slung his arm over her shoulders, just like he used to when he was a human, and she hung her head before the sting of tears could blind her. This was what she'd missed, being held, being touched. The terrible irony of a robotic body being the one to offer her comfort wasn't lost on her, and indeed, just made it worse.

“Let's go,” Nick said after a few minutes. “We have a Gunner to question.”

“Yes, we do.” She sniffed hard and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Nick said nothing more, but offered her the silent consolation of his hand in hers. They left the bridge behind and walked back into Sanctuary.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hancock wandered along the single street of Sanctuary Hills, looking over the damage with a critical eye before it got too dark to see anything. It didn't appear to be a smash and grab, considering that the gardens had been destroyed but not ransacked. The tatoes and gourds and melons were ripped from the ground, but the produce remained where it was, smashed and useless and attracting flies. The turret had been slagged, but no one was seriously hurt...at least not here. He hadn't heard of the other settlement, Tenpines, but he knew of the Abernathy's, a farming family who sold their crop in Diamond City. He'd heard a rumor float around that they'd lost their eldest daughter to a raider's bullet not too long ago. And now this.

They had struck fast in Hancock's opinion. Less than 48 hours had passed since the showdown at Goodneighbor's gate. The Gunners were disciplined, organized and able to sweep through three separate settlements on the same day. That spoke of numbers too. Not to mention superior firepower. The attacks had been a demoralizing tactic, a way to discredit the blue flag of the Minutemen. If they were going to fight back, they would need more dedicated volunteers. And in order to fight back effectively, they would need more intel.

Good thing they got that wounded one, he thought. It was time he put in an appearance and showed off a little of what had earned him his reputation for being ruthless. He knew no one else would have the stomach for what needed to be done, but he did. He might lose a little sleep for it, might hate himself a little bit more, but the trade-off was worth it if he could atone for the way he'd made this mess.

Hancock found the group of settlers gathered around in the workshop. They'd shackled their prisoner to a chair at wrists and good ankle, which kept him well secured. Hancock saw that while some first aid had been provided to the gunshot wound on his thigh, no one had spared a stimpak to the unfortunate Gunner. He smiled grimly and jerked his head at Garvey, who took the hint and filed out of the room with all his little survivors in tow. That left only Nick and Nora in the room, along with an old woman sitting in a green chair.

He took off his frockcoat and tossed it onto a nearby loveseat tucked into the corner of the room. He rolled up his sleeves to the elbows and pulled his combat knife from its sheath hidden behind his back. “Now, let's have some fun,” he announced.

“Hancock...what are you going to do to him?” Nora asked, almost fearfully.

“Gonna get some information from this luckless bastard, is what I'm gonna do.” He spared her a glance over his shoulder, noting the whites of her eyes and the fierce determination in her tightly closed lips. “You sure you wanna stick around for this? Might get ugly.”

“I'm staying,” she said, and her voice was steady but soft. “I need to hear what he has to say for himself.”

“Suit yourself, sister. I ain't gonna pull any punches.”

“I understand.”

Hancock turned back to the Gunner, who was eyeing him up and down in stoic silence. He grinned, all teeth. “You hear that, Gunner? You won't get any quarter from me, and that right there is the General of the Minutemen you and your ilk just tried to fuck over. This ain't gonna go well for you.”

“Do your worst, Mayor Hancock.” The Gunner cracked a small smile when he saw how Hancock started at the fact that he knew his name. “Sure, I know who you are. There aren't that many rad freaks in fancy dress in these parts.”

Hancock tilted his head to the side, assessing the prisoner. A small black tattoo on his forehead showed that he had A+ blood, and regardless of the man's show of courage, he had turned pale enough that the ink stood out starkly against his skin. “That's true enough. If you know who I am, then you know what I'm capable of.”

“Like I said, do your worst.”

“You got a name, there, Gunner? I feel like it's only fair I'm formally acquainted with the man I'm about to carve like a radstag. 'Specially since you're already acquainted with me.”

“Lieutenant Peter Cooper,” the Gunner said. “At your service, Mayor.”

“Oh, I hope you ain't too much at my service, Lieutenant Cooper. I got a lot of anger to work off here.” Without any further warning, Hancock drew back his fist – the one wrapped around his combat knife – and smashed it across the Gunner's face, knocking him sideways in the chair, splitting his lip and putting a small slice in his skin as the blade followed through with his hand. Blood trickled onto Cooper's chin and down his cheek, but he said nothing. Hancock hit him again, aiming for the same spot. He caught Cooper's nose too this time, hearing it crunch under his knuckles. The Gunner's head snapped back and the chair lurched, scraping across the ancient floor tiles with a horrible sound.

A small gasp escaped Nora's mouth and he drew back from his third punch, settling his closed fist near Cooper's ear, the point of the blade up against his hairline.

“Well now, I think you might be softened up a little bit. Let's talk.” Cooper spat a mouthful of blood at him, spattering his throat and the ruffles of his shirt. Hancock glanced at it and smirked. “I'll be sending your a bill for that.”

“You'll get nothing from me,” Cooper wheezed.

“Oh, I'm sure I'll get something. Tell me about the numbers.”

“More than you'll ever see in your little pisspot of a town.” Cooper spat again, but there wasn't much force behind it, and he only managed to get spittle on his chin. Hancock smiled.

“Where are you based?”

Cooper was silent at that, and Hancock drew the blade across his face, from ear to jaw, not deep, just enough to bleed. When that got no reaction, he punched the Gunner in the side, right in the ribs where the tissue was soft under his arm but the bones were hard. He did it a few more times until he heard the sound he wanted. Crunch. Cooper grunted but remained otherwise quiet.

Hancock sighed. “You like it rough, eh? Let's see what we can do to accommodate that inclination.” He dropped his hand onto the wound on Cooper's thigh and squeezed, popping the skin around the crusty scab like a mutfruit. This time Cooper howled and from the corner of his eye, Hancock saw Nora flinch. She held her ground, pale and ethereally beautiful in the lamplight, and he wished she'd leave. He didn't want her to see this, no matter how much she'd earned the right to some vengeance. She was distracting him from his goal, too. Her presence held him back from the terror he knew he could inflict on this hapless asshole.

Maybe that's not a bad thing, a small voice in his head said. You aren't that monster anymore. He tuned it out.

“Your base, Lieutenant.” He increased the pressure of his fingers around the gunshot wound and watched fresh blood well up through the gash in Cooper's military fatigues.

“What's it to you, anyway?” Cooper gasped out, his teeth clenched against the fiery pain.

“We're gonna storm in there and kill all of your worthless hides stone dead,” Hancock promised. “And then we're gonna go after your boss.”

“Then why...would I tell you...anything?”

“Cuz if you tell me, I'll kill you quick and clean. If not...” he lifted the blade against Cooper's face again, the point of it just hovering on the soft skin underneath the eye, “well, I got all night.”

“Fuck...you...Mayor. And fuck your...threats. I...”

Cooper never got any further; Hancock sliced the blade hard down his cheek, from eye socket to jaw, flaying him open like a fish. The Gunner's bravado turned to screams and Hancock stepped back from the spray of blood, narrowing avoiding a mouthful of it.

“Tell me, Cooper. And I don't mean Andrew Station. We already know where that is. I wanna know where you and your men hole up when the nights get cold.”

Cooper slumped in his shackles, breathing heavily and bleeding all over himself. Hancock waited, knowing he was very close to breaking. At least, he hoped so. He had no stomach for this shit anymore and just wanted it to be over and done. His helpless rage had dissipated and he felt empty. He'd sold his soul once when he hanged Vic with his own banner; how much was there left to sell to get revenge on behalf of a woman he barely knew?

“It's south of here, almost to Quincy,” Cooper said, and he sounded tearful. Well, get enough pain in a man and even the strongest would cry like a baby, right? “Old radio tower near that school full of ghouls. Gunner Plaza.”

“Original,” Hancock commented drily. “Good boy, Lieutenant. Now I just got one more thing I wanna know.” Hancock dug the knife into the thigh wound, rooting around carelessly for the bullet he assumed was still in there. “What does Eddie Winter hope to gain?”

Cooper hollered like a man on fire, his screams punctuated with curses and threats of retribution. Hancock ignored it and kept pressing the knife, causing more blood to stream from the new cuts around the wound. The floor was a mess already, a puddle of blood pooling under the chair and Cooper's frantic head waving sending spatters of it across the rusted out walls. The coppery smell of it was everywhere, blocking out even the scent of grime and two hundred years' worth of dust and decay.

“Eddie Winter traded the Commonwealth to the Institute,” said the slow, drawling voice of the woman in the green chair. Hancock whipped around to look at her. He'd completely forgotten she was there. “He wants to use that trade to his own advantage, destroying the man behind the synths and taking the power for himself.”

Cooper had fallen silent since Hancock's knife had left his leg. He was panting heavily and from his peripheral vision Hancock saw him looking scornfully at the old woman. She returned his gaze steadily and calmly, as if the room hadn't been decorated like one of Pickman's paintings. Her pale blue eyes stayed on the Gunner and he flinched, as if she was looking through him to his soul.

“The child that was has grown to a man of means,” she continued. “But his days are numbered if Eddie Winter gets his way.”

“Fucking synths think they own the world,” Cooper spat. “Winter will come for them and all their tech. It's wasted underground.”

“What do you mean, Mama Murphy? Who is the child that was?” Nora asked. She sounded strained and Hancock wanted to go to her, but he couldn't spare himself that. If he did, he'd crumble and all his brave show of ruthlessness would be over.

“Your son,” Mama Murphy said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “He leads the Institute now.”

Nora made a sound like a wounded animal and the Gunner sneered.

“That's right, little General. Your own flesh and blood has turned this shithole into a war zone. He wants to wipe out all you useless wastelander savages and replace them with his slave race. Well, he won't get a chance. We're gonna take all that tech and put it to its proper use. We're gonna reorder this Commonwealth under one man, Eddie Winter. Every man, woman and child will look to him for authority and leadership. And we will keep the peace by whatever means are necessary!” Cooper had started out softly, but by the end of his tirade he was shouting and straining against the handcuffs holding him to the chair. Hancock stepped away from the shackled prisoner after wiping his knife off on his pant leg.

“We got enough. Nick...?” He gestured to the synth detective and heard the sound of a revolver being cocked. The shot was loud in the enclosed space, and Lieutenant Peter Cooper's face was obliterated by the blast at such close range. Brain matter and bits of bone flew off in every direction. And Nora finally fled from the room.

“Was the road to hell worth it, John?” Nick asked him.

Hancock stared off in the direction that Nora had run – out of the workshop and across the street to the mostly repaired blue house – and felt like he'd aged ten years in the last hour. “I dunno, Nick. I dunno.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Nora sat in the gloom of her bedroom, the only light the candle she kept by the bedside. Lanterns provided light in the rest of the house where they cast a warm glow over the ruins of her previous life, dulling the edges of it at night. She preferred it that way. There were too many memories in this house, too many broken glass edges she could cut herself upon. But she didn't think about leaving it. Where else would she go?

The old nightstand had still been intact – more or less – when she had first arrived back in Sanctuary, and inside it had been books. Most had moldered and disintegrated, but not the one in her hands now. The cover was faded and hard to read, but since it was only one word, it wasn't too difficult to make out.

She heard a knock at the front door but didn't get up. Whoever it was would either come in or leave; she didn't care which. A waft of cigarette smoke and the candy fruit scent of Mentats preceded the figure that leaned on the door frame. Hancock.

“Did you need something?” she asked, still running her fingers over the cover of the book in her lap.

“Wanted to make sure you were okay. That kind of thing ain't easy to watch.”

“I'm fine,” she replied and heard a huff almost like laughter from the ghoul.

“Sure ya are, sister.” She turned on the bed and looked at him standing there, flexing his hand. The knuckles were split and raw, although he seemed to have washed his hands of the Gunner's blood somewhere.

“How's your hand?”

“It'll live to fight another day,” Hancock said conversationally. Something in his tone made her look again, and even though it was mostly dark in the room, she could see the pain in his expression. She set her book aside and went over to him, cradling his fist.

“I have some stimpaks I made. You want one?”

“Nah,” he whispered low, as if suddenly realizing how close she was. But she didn't step away. He was a constant mystery to her. Too flamboyant, too brash and too quick to violence. Too...too much. But she felt safe at his side. She felt a quiet settle inside her, soothed and comforted by his presence. She should have been horrified by watching him beat a helpless man to a pulp, but she wasn't. Life was different now, and she knew that meant she had to be different too.

“Will you at least let me clean that up?”

“If you insist.”

“I do,” she said, almost forcefully.

She squeezed past him to go into the bathroom where she kept a bottle of antiseptic left over from scrapping supplies for other parts. It pleased her that medicine hadn't become primitive even if the rest of the world had. She found a rag and sloshed some of the astringent solution onto it, then went back to Hancock and pressed the rag to his knuckles. He hissed, but didn't give any other sign that he was bothered.

“What're you reading?”

“Nothing. It belonged to my...to Nate's...friend. An old book even before the war. It's called Dune.”

“Ain't that the one with the weird religion and the sand worm things? 'He who controls the spice controls the universe' or some shit?”

“You've read it?” Nora was surprised. Hancock had never before struck her as the type to read speculative fiction.

He shrugged. “Books in good condition are rare, ya read what ya find no matter what it is.”

“It's all I have left of...them.”

“Them?”

“Nate and...Stephen. They were...”

“Ah, I get it. Nate liked men. It's a wonder he married you, then.”

“He didn't have much choice. It wasn't like he could be with Stephen publicly. Our marriage helped both of us, in a way.” She dabbed the rag against Hancock's knuckles until it was as clean as she could make it. Her hand dropped away from him, but he he caught it and brought it to his shriveled lips, placing a kiss on her fingers.

“That kind of thing don't matter anymore. People can love who they love. In the dark, we all look the same, right?”

“Is that how it is now?” she whispered, tilting her head back to look at him under his tricorn. His face was all shadows in the candlelight, and his expression was hard to read. But for a moment she thought he looked scared before he covered it over with a smirk.

“Ain't no rules, and no one to enforce'em anyway.”

She wanted to kiss him again, and for a moment that stretched out like a rope, she leaned towards him. But she lost her nerve. “Nate should have lived,” she said softly. “He would be happier in this wasteland than I am.”

Hancock didn't answer, instead leaving her side to pick up the book gingerly. “May I?” he asked.

“Sure.”

He turned the pages carefully, with respect for the fragility of the spine and the condition of the pages. He may have been joking about reading whatever he could find, but it was obvious he loved books from the way he held it. He found what he was looking for quickly – giving her the idea that perhaps he had read it more than once – and tipped the book towards the candle to see it better.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

He closed the book and held it loosely in his hands, his thumbs caressing the cover, not really able to feel the shallow details of the lettering, but knowing they were there. “The litany of the Bene Gesserits. You gotta make your own happiness here, Nora. That's the way of the world now.”

“It's hard.”

“Yeah, it is.” He stared into the middle distance for a moment, and Nora couldn't even begin to guess his thoughts. Finally he turned back to her and smirked again, an expression she was rapidly coming to find attractive on his ravaged face. “What would make you happy, Nora?”

“I don't know,” she said. “At first I thought it would be finding my son, living out my life in solitude here and letting the world pass me by. Now...?” She shrugged, unable to put into words just what she wanted. “What do you know about the Institute?”

“The boogeyman,” Hancock said heavily. “They make synths. Ya know, synthetic people?”

“Like Nick.”

“Nah, not like Valentine. Not anymore. Synths so real their mother couldn't tell'em apart. Flesh and blood, and an agenda no one knows about. They come in outta nowhere in the night, replace a person with a synth copy and...poof...gone.”

“Why?”

“Hell if I know. We don't get much in the way of synth activity in Goodneighbor. Well, not that kind anyway. Everyone's welcome in my town, so long as they remember who's in charge.” He grinned in the dark and Nora saw the gleam on his teeth. It made her smile back. His bluster could be endearing, she had to admit. “Anyway, no one knows where they come from, or what they're after. But everyone's afraid of the big, bad monster under the bed.”

“And my son is their leader, according to that Gunner.”

“So he said. You think he was lying?”

“No,” she shook her head. “I don't. Eddie Winter told me he'd sold us out to the Institute. That the man who killed Nate worked for them, a mercenary like Mac, ya know?  And knew what he was after because Eddie told them. He rubbed it in my face that everything that's happened to me is because I nearly got him imprisoned before the war.” She looked Hancock in the eye and took a deep breath. “My son was just a baby when they took him, and now it seems he's an old man. Nate's killer is still out there, somewhere. Eddie told me they've done all sorts of experiments on him. If...if I can find this Kellogg...maybe I can...”

“Maybe you can what? Find out how to get to your son? Why would you bother if he's an old man? I mean, no offense.”

“Something doesn't add up here, Hancock. That Gunner said the Institute has all this technology and Eddie Winter wants to take it. And you say they make synth copies of people. Somehow my baby has become the leader of a place that everyone is afraid of, but no one can tell me why they do what they do. The only way to know...”

“Is to ask him yourself. I get it.” Hancock seemed to be thinking things over and he looked away from her while he did, allowing her an opportunity to watch his face without him noticing.

She had a hard time reconciling his warped, mottled looks against those of McDonough's, who was not unattractive in his own way. Had Hancock looked like his brother before he turned ghoul? She couldn't imagine him any other way than this. Not to mention he was charming, whereas his brother was...sleazy. Maybe she had just known too many politicians.

“It's a clever idea, Honoria,” Hancock said finally. “If you can get into the Institute, you can either take it down, or make some sorta peace, is that what you're thinkin'?”

“Something like that. Even if it's just to warn them against Eddie Winter. There's no way I want to let a man like that gain any more power.”

“You wanna fight Eddie Winter, you're gonna need a hell of a lot more Minutemen.”

She looked around the remnants of her previous life, seeing past the broken walls into the empty wasteland around them. It was an ambitious thought, getting into the Institute. A seemingly insurmountable obstacle, given how easily the Gunners had ravaged her small band of followers. But she couldn't let it go, couldn't give up. There were too many innocent lives at stake. The prospect settled into her like a lead weight, thick and heavy. This is what leadership feels like, she thought. She looked back at Hancock and nodded an acknowledgment of it.

“Yeah, I know.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Hancock saw Nora watching him from his peripheral vision – which was much better than a normal human's. He wondered what she saw in him. He was warped and twisted, his skin melted and torn in places. Turning ghoul had been an awful process, doubly so by the rapid effects of the radioactive chem. He'd never regretted it once he woke up, but he wondered sometimes what his cowardice cost him.

People came and went in his life, no one sticking around for more than a few weeks at a time. Most of them just wanted a thrill. Either from the chems he was so free with, or from the novelty of banging a ghoul with little fear of radiation poisoning. Ironic, that. The wasteland was full of ghouls, but they all had more rads than blood in their veins. Not him. He was still mostly human. And he was human enough to know that he didn't want Nora to be a passing fancy. He was human enough to wonder why he was even thinking of it...of her...that way.

You know why, John. You want her. You want her like nothing you've ever wanted before.

Shut up, brain.

“What's on your mind, sister?” he said into the silence following their talk of the Institute and her plans. Anything to get him out of his own head.

“It's all so much to take in, to understand.”

“I hear ya. Life ain't ever easy, is it?”

“Preston thinks I can rebuild the Minutemen, that I can be a leader.” She laughed and he saw self-deprecation in her eyes. He knew the expression well.

“You are a leader, Nora. Whether you think it or not. You're a damned fine one too. Look what you've done with this place. Yeah, I know, it's all beat to hell right now, but I can see where you built things, where you gave these people a shot at a better life. You got the Abernathy's to join up, and I know Blake.” He gave a snort and a quick shake of his head. “He ain't easy to win over.”

“I just...I feel so powerless still. What kind of leader lets something like this happen to her people?” She waved a hand around, encompassing the destruction around them. Hancock put down her book and turned to face her, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Just because you got hit once don't mean you have to run from the fight. Just means you need to bring more friends to the next one.”

“How do I do that?”

“Get more people on your side. Get out there and build something fresh and new outta this shithole.”

“You mean more settlements, don't you? More people under the banner of the Minutemen, more people willing to die when I ask. Or when the Gunners come calling.” Bitterness bled through her last words and he frowned. He didn't want bitterness out of her mouth; it didn't suit her.

“Doesn't need to be like that. But people need someone they can look up to, to give'em hope when it seems like the world just don't care. I ain't a sterling example of anything, unless you count chems. Still, I thought I'd done a good thing, something I could be proud of, when I took Goodneighbor back from the scum like Vic and his cronies. No better than raiders is what they were, and the drifters paid the price for that, myself included. No more. You can be the change you want to see, Nora. It's in you to do it in a way that I couldn't.”

She looked thoughtful at his words, her gaze drifting away in the low candlelight to some middle distance he couldn't see. He looked her over while her attention wasn't focused on him, and liked what he saw. She stood taller than before, her spine straighter and her voice not as meek and stuttering. He ached with how lovely she was, even grimy and scratched up and dressed in three day old road leathers. There was a core of steel at the heart of her, he just needed to help her find it. He wanted her to see it the way he did, as obvious as the nose on her face. He wanted her to turn that heart loose on him, and that was both terrifying and exciting.

“Anyway,” he said, before he did something stupid. “I wanted to make sure you were okay after...that.”

“I'm all right, Hancock. I know it needed to be done. Thank you for...”

She trailed off and he grinned sardonically at her. “For beating a man to a bloody pulp for ya? Yeah, not sure you should be thankin' me for that.”

“You got answers we didn't have before. We have a location now, something to work towards, something tangible to defend against.” She walked over to him, laid a hand on his arm. She was much too close, and the stupid was scratching harder to be let out. He needed to get away from her... “So, yes, thank you for that.”

She leaned up to him, her face shadowed by his in the candlelight, only her eyes glittering in the dark showing anything to him. He felt rooted to the spot while his heart hammered in his chest until he thought it would burst through his ribcage. She seemed to be aiming for his cheek and he knew he should let her, but the stupid broke free and he turned his head at the last second, meeting her lips with his own.

A soft sound escaped between them, a puff of air that carried the smallest moan he'd ever heard. It wasn't encouragement, but it wasn't distress either. If the sudden boil over of heat in his gut was anything like hers, it was surprise. He cupped her face in his hands to hold her close, but gently, so gently. She could escape if she wanted, she could step away, she could slap him silly and tuck the stupid back where it belonged. She did none of those things. She only stepped closer to him, she only opened her mouth under his and let just the tip of her tongue brush against his lower lip. His hands knotted into her short hair and he groaned aloud.

That shocked her enough to pull away, and he stepped away, letting his fingers trail out of her hair and across the soft skin of her neck before he let her go entirely.

“Fuck me sideways,” he muttered. Before she could speak, he let her go and strode out of the room. He kept going until he was in the street and walking away from her house altogether. He hadn't missed the expression in her eyes. Surprise, yes, but also a little fear and confusion. He didn't want to hurt her or push her further than she was comfortable going. He needed to leave before the stupid got any bigger.

He kept walking until he reached the water's edge, framed off by a crumbling wall of stone. In the dark, the water glistened and made small noises as it raced around rocks and detritus, on its way to the large pond east of the settlement. He took deep breaths and tried to calm his racing heart.

What had he been thinking? Sure, she'd kissed him before, but it was quick and innocent, a moment that should never have been repeated if she knew what was good for her. He pounded an already sore hand into the stone of the wall and hissed at the new pain. It wasn't enough.

He rifled through his pockets until he came across a tin. Mentats. He didn't need to be more brilliant at the moment and he tucked the tin away, reaching for his smokes instead. The dark surrounded him, the night sounds of insects and mongrel dogs and radstags across the water filling in the spaces where Nora's soft moan had been. He could still hear it though, and while he knew it should terrify him more than it had before he heard it, it didn't.

He just wanted to hear it again.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Oh, look at it,” Nora said, dismayed and mournful as she gazed around at the ruins of the drive-in now that she and Hancock were done killing off rabid molerats. She remembered this place from the one time she and Nate and Stephen had come to watch a movie, just before Shaun was born.

Hancock swung around to look at her and shrugged his shoulders. “Preston must know what he's talkin' about, though. This is a huge piece of real estate.”

“Still...he wants me to make a settlement here? How?”

“You got a water source in that spring, you got some dirt where gardens can go, and there's plenty of flat space to build houses on.”

She looked him over with a thoughtful eye. Who knew a chem addled ghoul could plan out a settlement so well? Well, he was the Mayor of a whole town, so she supposed he knew what he was talking about just as much as Preston. She'd seen the garden boxes on the rooftops of Goodneighbor. She knew they were pretty self sufficient there, even if they relied on trade. She took another look at the large spring burbling up from the ground in the center of the parking lot, and saw the yellow barrels in it. She frowned.

“Yeah, well that water isn't any good to us, contaminated that way.”

“I can clean that up for you,” he replied, nonchalantly. Studiously so. She glanced at him again, but only saw his shoulders hunch as his back was turned to her.

“All right,” she said briskly, clapping her hands together. She wondered if he was remembering the other night, remembering how he ran from her. She wondered if he knew just how much power he'd given her, and that she was aware. She'd had some time to think about it, and it was just the tiniest bit thrilling to know that he wanted her, or at least he had given her the impression that he did, and it was in her power to give him what he wanted if she chose to. Don't get sidetracked, Honoria, she firmly told herself. She turned back to the rusted out cars and dead molerats. “Let's get to it.”

***

By nightfall, Hancock had cleared and bottled up the radiation from the barrels, storing the containers in the shed with the main workshop. Nora had gathered up all the loose bits and pieces she could find, copper wiring from the streetlights, empty cans and ashtrays, glass bottles and crumpled newspapers. Together they'd collected the molerat bodies and butchered and skinned them. The leather came in handy, she'd discovered. All that was left were the cars themselves. The concession stand was still mostly intact, with the projector room above it. The two of them had moved the skeletal remains of the theater operator from the mattress up there and buried him off to the side of the lot. Nora had assumed that Hancock would be reluctant to give a man neither of them had ever known a final resting place, but he wasn't. He never said a word, just pushed harder into the shovel she'd found to dig a hole big enough for the bones.

Now it was full dark, the stars lighting their way back to the central building better than any torch or lantern. Nora took a deep breath and looked up at the sky, smiling slightly to see so many stars so clearly.

“Whatcha lookin' at, Nora?”

“The stars,” she replied dreamily. She felt more than saw him as he stepped up next to her. He loomed near her, a warm presence at her side, exuding the scent of chems, gun oil and leather. When she tilted her head towards him, he was gazing at her with a half smile she'd only ever seen on his face when he was high.

“Sky wasn't so bright back in your day?” he asked.

“No. Industrial pollution, too many streetlights and skyscrapers...you could barely see the sky some nights.” She spun in a circle, dizziness filling her head, making the stars dance behind her eyelids. “This...this is something you could only see if you were far away from any city, or out in the middle of the ocean.” She chuckled. “And now I get to see it every night.”

She stumbled as the dizziness overcame her ability to keep spinning. Strong arms came around her suddenly and she felt Hancock's breath against her cheek, raspy and short, as if he was the one out of breath instead of her. She smiled with her eyes closed, waiting to see what would happen next.

There was something freeing about being out there in the middle of an abandoned and ruined drive-in that made her bolder than she was wont to be. She was tempted to strip naked and make him chase her. And she was in full possession of what a terrible idea it was. She didn't have the foggiest idea of what to do with him once he caught her. But it wouldn't leave her head. The mental image of his hands on her, rough and scarred, put a tingle in her spine that radiated until her arms felt it. She didn't even want to think about what it would be like for his mouth to be on her skin...

“Nora,” he said softly, bringing her back to the present. “You need some sleep. You look exhausted.”

“What about you?”

“I'll be fine.”

She opened her eyes and looked into his. The black of his sclerae reflected the starlight and for a moment she was entranced by it before she remembered with a thump of her heart where they were. “Don't be ridiculous. You're as tired as I am.”

“You really want to share that ratty old mattress?”

“Hmm, you make it sound so inviting that way,” she teased. Bold. Too bold?

He let go of her and stepped back, his hands wavering for a second before they dropped into his pockets to find smokes and lighter. She had observed him long enough to know that it was a habit to keep his hands busy while his mind raced rather than any need for nicotine.

“Someone should keep watch,” he said instead of responding to her implied invitation. His tone made it clear that he was desperate to change the subject. She wondered why. Could he be as unsure as she was? It didn't seem likely since he had so much more experience than she did.

“Okay,” she said, letting her heart fall back into her chest. She hoped he couldn't see her disappointment. The sting of rejection made her eyes burn and her throat fill with acid, but she swallowed it down. What was she thinking anyway? Why would he want her, he could have anyone he wanted with a crook of his finger. She'd heard enough rumors to assume at least some of them were true. If he noticed her change in demeanor, he said nothing about it, just walked back towards the concession stand door, which he held open for her to pass through. “Wake me in a few hours. I can take watch too.”

“All right,” he said, and closed the door behind her, staying outside in the parking lot to finish his smoke.

Nora climbed the rickety stairs to the dark projector room with its cramped space and lone mattress. There was a lantern standing on a stack of film reel cases, but she didn't light it. She looked out the wide window instead, seeing Hancock walking slowly across the pavement, the glow of his cigarette not lighting his face enough for her to see it. She kicked off her boots and wiggled her toes in the dust. She watched him saunter back towards the shed, disappearing behind it after glancing up at the window to see if she was visible. A sudden thought occurred to her. Maybe he was...was he...?

He's taking care of it himself, she thought.

Abruptly, the feeling of rejection turned to shame, flaring hot and bright in her chest. She shouldn't be looking to see it if that's what he was doing. But she couldn't ignore the flush that spread from her gut at the thought of it.

As quickly as it rose, the shame faded into a dull sort of anger at herself, leaving her feeling hollow but heavy. Oh, Nora, her brain chided her. Leave him be. She turned away from the window and shuffled to the mattress. They'd flipped it after taking away the skeleton, even though whatever had been on it was long gone after so many years. It was dusty but firm enough, and with her head pillowed on her backpack, she closed her eyes and tried to sleep.

***

It was still dark when she woke, feeling a hand on her shoulder. Hancock had come halfway up into the projector room and when she opened her eyes, his face was on level with hers. There was no sign of his earlier tension.

“My turn?”

“If you want.” He sounded haggard and she rose with alacrity, making room for him to lay down and rest. The sky was beginning to turn gray off to the east and she frowned at him.

“You should have wakened me sooner.”

“There's nothin' out there anyway,” he sighed, tugging off the flag he used as a sash and dropping it at the foot of the mattress before taking off his boots. “Don't worry about it. Get some more sleep.”

She cocked her head at him, confused at his change of heart about sleeping next to her. He turned on his side, back against the wall and looked at her steadily. “I thought you didn't want to share?” she asked in a small voice.

“I'm tired, Nora,” he said raggedly enough to make her feel sheepish. “I just want to grab a couple hours before we get back to work. And you need more sleep too. Just...get over here.”

Gingerly she lay next to him, her back to his front. She was as close to the edge as she could get without falling over the stairs and she heard a sound of impatience behind her before his arm snaked around her waist and he hauled her back against him.

“You'll fall as soon as you roll over, and I don't feel like dealin' with Garvey if you break your neck. I ain't gonna bite.”

“I feel like there's an end to that sentence you're not saying.” Curse her wayward tongue. Why couldn't she leave it well enough alone?

Because you enjoy flirting with him.

Hush, brain.

“'Course there is. But you don't need to hear it, now do ya?” he replied, tugging at his frockcoat until he could spread it over them both, trapping their combined body heat.

Unless you want me to, she heard in her head as the frockcoat warmed her front and Hancock warmed her back.

She relaxed into his embrace, feeling foreign in her own skin. She hadn't slept next to someone since before having Shaun. She and Nate had maintained separate rooms once they'd moved to Sanctuary Hills. She didn't know she'd missed it so much. She wrapped her hand around his and closed her eyes, letting sleep claim her again.

 

 

Chapter Text

Two weeks, Hancock mused, watching Nora pack up her bag for a trip east to Tenpines. She was determined to rebuild the settlement, and her determination had added some much needed perk in her step. Which was part of his problem.

Two weeks of watching her walk all around, waving those pre-war curves of hers like no one could see them. Two weeks of seeing her hang around Nick Valentine, seeing the old beat up synth actually laughing and smiling. Seeing her eyes brighten when Nick entered a room. They reminisced together, and Nick talked about how his memories of before the war were growing clearer. Nora became more animated, less introverted and soft spoken as they recalled fondly their days as lawyer and detective. They shared a history that no one else did, and it showed in every line and gesture. Whether or not she knew it, Nora had been in love with Nick Valentine before the war, it was as obvious to him as the nose on her face. Was she still?

Hancock watched, and felt more like a third wheel than he ever had in his life. Misery, that's what this was. Two weeks of misery.

And you have only yourself to blame, you idiot, he scorned himself. You keep running from her like she's gonna take your head off.

That night at Starlight Drive-In haunted him. Her joy in seeing the stars above, the feel of her in his arms when she stumbled. The even better feel of curling into her back once he'd finally convinced himself he could do it without wanting to fuck her senseless. Waking to find her eyes on him when she'd rolled over in his arms, sunlight streaming through her hair, making the gray stands sparkle.

But the moment had passed, and they went about what became a routine while they worked there, tearing down the cars for scrap, felling trees to make planks, building four sturdy cottages. She could wire electricity, and build machine gun turrets. She knew what crops to plant where. She knew how to make a water purifier and a power generator to hook it up to. She made sleeping bags and scavenged tables and chairs for her future settlers. And when they were done, after four days of hard, back breaking labor, she'd hoisted the blue flag of the Minutemen proudly before turning on the radio beacon to bring the wastelanders home.

That night he'd held her in his arms, rubbing her back as she cried in her sleep. She had nightmares, but he could never get her to talk about them. And when she woke in the morning, she made no mention of being wrapped around him like a vine, made no comment on the throbbing erection that had pressed itself into the vee of her thighs. She didn't kiss him like she appeared to want to. Instead, she packed up her things, gave him a quick glance and a nod, and they'd hiked back to Sanctuary Hills like nothing had happened.

Where she had already done all those things too. Rebuilding the homes from spare parts, replanting gardens and repairing turrets. Getting the water running again and the lights working. There were more hands, and it took much less time, freeing them to head out to Starlight. But she was run ragged by the constant work and there was no energy left in her at the end of the day to talk about what was growing between them. She slept in her room, alone, or sometimes with the energetic shepherd dog she'd found. He slept on the sofa.

Two weeks of it, and he was worn thin with impatience with everything and everyone. He was in a foul mood from wanting her. And he knew he had no one to blame but himself.

***

“I need to go to Tenpines and see what's left,” she'd said just that morning, stuffing clothes and tools into her pack. He hadn't answered her tacit plea to come along. He really should to go back to Goodneighbor and check in with Fahr. Nora had waited, but he didn't speak. Eventually she went out of the house without so much as a huff.

He'd followed her, of course, because he was like a moth to a flame. And he came upon her talking to Nick.

“Sure, sure, I'll come with you, Nor. I'm not as dab a hand as John when it comes to building, but I can do my part.”

“Thanks, Nick. We won't have to rush. There's no one there now anyway,” she'd finished mournfully. The loss of the farmers at that settlement still weighed on her heavily. People barely scraping by, wiped out by Gunners for no other reason than they'd chosen to join her cause. He understood her grief. She had turned to him then, a flare of challenge in her eyes.

He knew he couldn't meet it, but gamely tried anyway. “You bring her back in one piece, Nick.”

Valentine had eyed him and Hancock flushed under that yellow stare, thankful that ghoul skin prevented it from showing. Nick knew him well, and knew what he was up to most of the time. He'd seen how Hancock looked at her. He'd seen how she reacted to him. Nick was her friend, the kind of friend that had been there for her before, and most likely would be again. It was plain to see that the detective programmed into the synth had cared for her just as much as she cared for him. Hancock was half expecting the current of anger flowing freely under Nick's words when he spoke.

“What's it to you?”

“We can't afford to lose someone like her,” he'd replied softly. Nick sneered at him, his plastic face crumpled at the edges where the seams had split.

“I can't promise there won't be any scuffs or dings, but I've always done my damnedest to watch over Nor.”

“Gentlemen,” Nora had interrupted, her hands on her hips. Hancock tended to forget that she knew how to read a room just like he did, and they were in the middle of the street, where everyone could see them.

“I'll pack up some things,” Nick told her, stroking a hand over her shoulder in a soothing way. It made Hancock's spine stiffen and his mood grow more sour. Nora had made an agreeable noise and smiled at the synth before turning back to him.

“A word, Hancock? In private?”

“Fine.”

He'd followed her back to the house and waited as she closed both doors to keep prying eyes and ears away. He had a feeling he knew what was coming, and he knew he'd earned it too. It wasn't the first time he'd earned her ire. They kept crossing wires and he didn't know how to untangle them now.

“What is your problem?” she had demanded as soon as she secured the house.

He was so taken aback by the tone in her voice that he'd said the first thing that came to mind. “You are.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” he'd snarled, getting into her face for no reason he could discern other than he just couldn't take it anymore, “I want what I can't have, and it's driving me insane.”

“What makes you think you can't have what you want, Hancock?” she burst out. “You think I haven't noticed you watching me? You think I don't remember you in my personal space at Starlight? You think I don't know you go hide so you can...” she trailed off, her burst of temper seemingly draining away like sand.

“Say it, Honoria. I want to hear you say it.”

What the fuck, John? Why are you torturing yourself like this?

She stepped up closer to him, her nose pointed at his, so close he could see the flecks of brown in her hazel eyes. “You run and hide and jack yourself off,” she whispered, almost growling.

With a growl of his own hearing her say the words aloud, he fisted a hand in her cropped hair and kissed her hard, bruising her lips. For a moment she'd responded in kind, her mouth opening under his onslaught, her teeth nipping into his bottom lip. But then she'd pushed him away with a cry. Before he could prepare for it, her palm had slapped across his face, the strength of anger behind it so high his head whipped sideways and he bit his own cheek.

“You blow hot and cold and then think to take it out on me. Well, no more. Go back to the mayoral duties you've been ignoring and your chems and your feckless lifestyle. I'm not a needy groupie. I'm tired of waiting around for you to make up your damned mind about what you want.”

“Maybe I will,” he'd replied, letting the sting on his face grow into pain. He'd have a good sized bruise there come morning.

“Go then. I'm not holding you here against your will. You were the one who told me to make my own happiness. I'm trying my best, Hancock. But you tie me in knots and then you leave me hanging. I can't...I just can't do it anymore.” She'd taken a few steps back and wrapped her arms around herself. He'd wanted to comfort her, to tell her everything he wanted from her, but it felt like ashes in his mouth when he tried to speak. She jerked her chin at him, knowing he had nothing. “You know how to find me. If I don't see you again, I'll know what you decided.”

She'd left him there, standing in her living room. She'd grabbed her pack and left to go off with Nick to Tenpines. He saw the tracks of tears on her cheeks and closed his eyes against the sight of them. He'd made those happen. He'd made her cry.

Two weeks, he'd mused. For two weeks he'd been the mopey one, the pitiful excuse of a man floundering through his own jealousy and self-derision and insecurities. All it took was two weeks to drive her away because he wouldn't speak up. He'd brought it on himself and already regretted it more than anything, even more than letting that drifter die in the street before he'd staged his coup.

***

And now he was walking back to Goodneighbor, alone. There was some Psycho in his pocket, leftovers from a stash they'd found in Concord, and a canister of Jet in the other one. He took them both, draining the Jet, feeling the high sweep through him like a wave of fire. The world slowed down around him – or maybe he went too fast – but it didn't matter anyway. He wasn't looking at it.

He put one foot in front of the other and waited for whatever cosmic justice he'd earned to come crashing around his ears. When the Psycho wore off, he took another...and another. The rage it created fueled him, kept him moving back to where he belonged. Yeah, he thought to himself in one of his more lucid moments, you belong in a gutter. He ignored the sting in his eyes and the burn in his blood and just kept moving until he saw the neon lights that told him he was home.

When Fahrenheit found him, he was very nearly dead, but he didn't care.

“Goddammit, John, I told you not to make a fool of yourself.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Nora closed the door of the apartment style dwelling she and Nick had spent the better part of three days building and let out a sigh. It was done. The property had been cleared of debris, the tatoes were once again lined up in rows and the bodies of the farmers caught by the Gunners had been buried. One more night to rest and they would set up a radio beacon and head back to Sanctuary. She needed to get planning with Preston on her next move against Eddie Winter.

“You hungry, doll?” Nick called, ladling something hearty into a bowl.

“In a minute. I want to change.”

“You're fine, just wash your hands.” She made a face at him, which he returned exaggeratedly, and thrust her hands into the basin he'd left out for her. As a synth, he couldn't bathe like she could. Then again, as a Gen-2 synth, he also didn't need to eat, so it probably didn't matter as much. Once her hands were dry she accepted the thick tato and radstag stew he'd made for her. He moved the cooking pot off the flames in the pit and fed some larger pieces of leftover wood into it, warming the room up.

“How come you know how to cook, Nick?”

“The real Nick actually knew how, but I've also lived around humans long enough,” he said, watching her dig in. “Diamond City has a fairly decent bar and grill in the Upper Stands. The Handy is a bit pompous, but as a fellow robot, I'm the only friend he's got.”

“You're not a robot, Nick,” she admonished.

“Oh, but I am, Nor. This body is plastic, steel and copper wires. You could probably build me yourself after what I've seen you make out all this scrap. You're good at that, didn't anyone tell you?”

Nora blushed and covered it by taking another bite. She knew he could probably tell anyway. It was perfectly clear that his synth eyes were better, not to mention his hearing. His reactions were swift too.

She ate in silence, enjoying the coziness. Once people were living there again, it would be a lively place. But for now it was quiet and peaceful. Across the field she could hear the turrets swinging every few minutes before going idle. Tenpines was isolated, and relatively free from invaders, two legged or otherwise. The Gunner attack had been premeditated and deliberate. She planned to never let any settlement of hers go so unprotected again, and therefore she'd built two turrets at each end of the squarish property.

“You about done? I'll clean up.”

“Nick, really, you don't have to. It's just a bowl.”

“I like keeping busy. And I don't get tired like you.”

“What I really want is a bath, but I don't think you can provide that.” She'd only meant to joke around, but the sudden gleam in the yellow eyes caught her attention. She ran the line through her head again, and on review caught the heavy innuendo she'd inadvertently used. She raised an eyebrow at him, both chiding and challenging.

“No, I can't,” he finally said. For a moment there was something in the air that wasn't there before, but the wind blew through the chinks in the walls and the smoke from the fire danced around and it was gone.

Ozone, she thought. Why would Nick be giving off...?

Oh.

Can he even... do that?

I don't want to know. I do not.

“That's quite the internal argument you're having,” he said presently, snapping her out of her head in a flash.

“How could you tell?”

“Your face has always been an open book, Nor. At least to me.” He stood up and brushed off his hands, the metal one catching the light from the fire. “I can't provide a bath, but I can give you some privacy so you can wash up in the basin if you want.”

“Nick...”

He stopped before he got to the door, his back to her. She didn't even know why she'd called him or what she wanted to say. She only knew she didn't want to leave things so unspoken with her oldest friend – her only friend – the way she had with Hancock.

“What is it, doll?”

“Have you ever...did you ever think about me...after...?”

He sighed, a very human sound. “Of course I did. I remember everything the real Nick knew.” He turned his head and looked at her over his shoulder, the profile so different from the one she knew, and yet just as dear to her now as then. “He hated leaving, but thought he was doing you a favor. He knew he was in no place to make you happy.”

“Because of Jenny.”

“Yes. And because Honoria Beaufort deserved better.”

“I'm not her anymore.”

“Sure you are. Under all that anxiety you carry around, the person you are now was there all along. This is who you should always have been. Confident, compassionate, clever. Wise beyond your years. You're a lot stronger than you think.”

“No. I'm scared of everything, I'm scared of failing the people who look to me for leadership. I'm scared of the killer I've become. I'm scared of how I feel in this wasteland, how alone and just...” She couldn't go on and dropped her face into her hands. She hadn't really meant to unload all of that onto Nick, but he had always been able to drag the deepest secrets from her with nothing more than a kindly eye.

His cool hands took hers from her face, cradling them in his own. “You were an assistant to the District Attorney of Suffolk County. You helped prosecute Eddie Winter. You faced down threats against your safety, ration riots in the streets, the threat of nuclear bombs. You married a man who couldn't love you and protected his secret. No one else did those things. You did.”

“I didn't really have a choice about marrying Nate,” she said softly.

“We always have choices, Nor.”

She looked into his face, the shadows thrown by the fire painting him a garish orange. She couldn't see very far into the crevice at his jawline where his skin had broken away, but she didn't need to. The words were comforting nonetheless, even if the man was not the one she remembered. “What choices am I facing right now, Nicky?” she asked.

He looked startled, and his hands spasmed on hers. “Nor...”

“If I told you I wanted Nick Valentine to be the first man to touch me in this new world, as he was the first to touch me in the old world, would it make a difference to my choices?”

“Hancock...”

“I sent him back to Goodneighbor. I know what I know about you. I know what I feel. It's never gone away. Not for a single moment.”

He stood and backed away from her, the first ungraceful move she'd seen him make. He shook his head in denial and turned away, like he wanted to escape from her sight and yet couldn't bring himself to do it. The fire snapped and crackled and it brought him out of wherever he'd gone in his head. “You don't want a beat up synth like me, Nor.”

“How do you know?”

“Why would you?”

She stood and took his hands back in hers, making him face her. It was odd that now he was the nervous one and she felt like she stood on solid ground for the first time in her life. “Nick, you are still you under that plastic. Did you think I wouldn't still care for you the same way just because you wear a different shell?” She dropped her voice until it was barely a whisper, knowing he would still hear her. “Did you think I would stop wanting you?”

“Nor...”

“Is it me? Is it that you don't want me?”

“Of course I want you, Honoria,” he practically shouted. “I've always wanted you. But there was Jenny and...I...Nick,” he corrected, “ loved her. And then she was dead, and it just felt...wrong to expect...”

“Jenny is long gone now, Nick.” She raised her hand to the intact side of his face, noting how his mechanical clicks and whirrs picked up speed within his chest cavity. “It's just you and me now. Please, don't leave me so alone...”

He held her in a crushing grip suddenly, his mouth descending on hers, stealing the air right from her lungs. She thought he'd be cold and hard, but his lips were soft and pliable, almost like real skin, and he was far warmer than she expected. He walked her backwards in his embrace until her spine hit the wall with a muffled thump, never breaking their kiss. His hands roamed over her sides and arms as if he couldn't get enough of touching her.

She pulled away at last, heaving for air. “Nick...”

“Dammit, woman, do you know how long it's been?”

“Two hundred years?”

He chuckled and rested his forehead against hers. “At least. No sane woman has ever wanted to touch this body.”

“Are you calling me crazy, Nick Valentine?”

“Quite possibly.”

She let her arms slide up and around his neck, a happy grin curving her lips. Nick stared down at her, as if marveling that she was real. Her fingers brushed the back of his head and he shuddered. It gave her some idea of how attuned his sensors were. And that made her grin turn impish. “So, Nick, what exactly will touch do for you?”

“Just about the same as for any human. I have all the parts, minus a few red blood cells.” There was a teasing glint in the yellow eyes, and a pressure against her belly that hadn't been there a moment ago.

“So if I were to do this...” and she brush off his fedora, running her nails across his bare head, “that would elicit the same response?”

“Mmhmm,” he murmured, dropping his head into the crook of her neck. It was her turn to shudder as his teeth slid along her skin. For a second she was worried – she'd seen the plates he had in place of individual teeth – but he seemed to know exactly how much pressure to exert in order to keep from cutting her. Her trailing hand slipped a little and her pinky ended up inside the jagged edges on the torn side of his face, right up against the wires and servos of his jaw. He stiffened, his posture telling her that the feeling was a good one.

“Interesting,” she said aloud.

“What's that?” he asked as he started to unbutton her work shirt to expose more skin. Maybe she was going to get that bath after all?

“Your wires seem...sensitive.” She stroked her pinky down the wire again, with deliberate slowness. Nick didn't breathe, but he made a sound that in another would have been a gasp.

“They are,” he whispered in her ear. “You keep doing that and I'll short circuit.”

She couldn't help it, she giggled. “I guess that's good to know. Maybe I'll save that for later.”

“That might be wise of you.” He bent down and circled his arm behind her knees, lifting her off the floor and into his arms. With hardly any effort he carried her to the pallet she'd made for herself by the stairs and lowered her to the sleeping bag on it.

Away from the fire it was colder, but she barely noticed. Whatever mechanical process kept his synth body running made him warm – warmer now that he was exerting himself. He peeled away her work shirt and tugged down her jeans. They were so loose on her that they didn't even need to be unbuttoned first. He left her side to unlace and pull off her boots and socks, then returned to the cradle of her thighs, his trenchcoat covering them both.

“Too many clothes on, Nicky,” she whispered. He chuckled in her ear.

“I'll get there, doll, don't worry.” He pushed up the thin tee she wore under the work shirt, baring her stomach to his mouth, raising it higher and higher as he worked his way from navel to ribcage. She held her breath in anticipation, her blood pounding through her veins. His skin covered left hand finally crested her breast, giving it a squeeze before tugging the tee up over her head. She obediently raised her arms to help him, and he pinned her there like that, arms overhead, breasts in his face. “Now there's a pretty picture.”

“Nick,” she gasped. “I never knew you had such a....a dirty mind.”

“Why, because I like seeing you spread out like a buffet just for me?”

“You don't eat...”

“Maybe not food,” he rejoined, sending a thrill down her spine. He tossed her tee shirt somewhere and slipped his fingers under the elastic of her underwear. She bucked into his touch before he could even reach between her legs and he stopped suddenly, concern etched on his face. “Am I going too fast?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head on the sleeping bag. “Too slow, Nick. Too slow.”

With a half smile, he watched her face as his hand slipped down and cupped her. Nora threw back her head and closed her eyes, not caring about the noises she made as he stroked her. His fingers were smooth and glided into her body without hesitation.

He found her clit with his thumb and she couldn't help the sound that escaped her. She remembered this feeling, this urge. But it had been so long she felt like she was going to go off like a rocket at any moment.

“You're close, aren't you?” he said. All she could do was nod. “That's good, doll. I want you to come for me.”

As if his words granted her body permission, the waves of her climax washed over her, spreading from her scalp down to her toes. She let out a keening cry that echoed off the walls of the empty dwelling, feeling herself pulse around his fingertip. Nick pulled his hand away, pulling her underwear with it until she was completely naked under his gaze. He leaned back on his knees, looking down at her as he took off his coat, shirt and tie. Dazed and sated, she watched him watching her. His eyes narrowed in concentration as he looked her over, spotting the differences between the woman she was now and the one she'd been so long ago.

His body was sculpted and smooth, with panels that interlocked around his upper arms and across his chest and belly. He shucked the raggedy trousers he always wore and she discovered what he meant about having all the parts. Equally as smooth as the rest of him, his cock jutted out from his body just as any erection would. Idly she wondered how that worked in a being who had no blood, but she wasn't interested enough to ask him now. She wrapped her fingers around it instead, noting that while he seemed to like the sensation, it wasn't the same as when she'd touched his exposed wires.

He noticed her watching his reaction and smiled. “The Institute may have given me the equipment, doll, but they were stingy on the sensors. Still...I hope you like it.”

“Now, Nick. I want to feel it in me now.”

He lined himself up with her body and pushed in slow, stretching her in a way she hadn't known since before having Shaun. It wasn't long for the sting of it to turn to discomfort, although she tried not to let him know. Still, she must have made a noise, or perhaps her body had tensed and he stopped, barely seated halfway.

“Are you all right, Nora?”

“Yes. It's just...a tight fit.”

He stroked her hair back from her face, placing sweet kisses along her jaw and cheekbones. “Oh, doll, you never had anyone else, did you?”

“No...”

He drew back and looked at her oddly for a brief second, then pushed into her hard, seating himself all the way. She yelped, but relaxed around him as he rocked inside her, hitting a spot she hadn't known was there. It was building again, a pressure that begged to be released. She tucked her legs around his hips, changing the angle of his entry and the feeling intensified until it was blinding and she was calling his name. Another sizzling orgasm swept through her, making her clench and spasm, making her legs tremble.

Nick held himself on his elbow, watching her carefully as she came down from the high of it, and she smiled at him, tracing his face with her fingers. Her smile grew sly and she let her hand trail along the exposed wires and servos at his ear. Back and forth, back and forth she stroked them and he picked up speed inside her, pumping into her body in time with her wire play. Suddenly he shouted, dropping his head out of her reach, his entire body going lax.

It took a few moments for her to realize what had happened. She blushed when she did. She'd given a robotic body an orgasm. She supposed there weren't many people who could make that boast. Nick seemed to need time to recover his circuits from it, and she giggled, tugging the trenchcoat up around them, keeping herself warm while he 'rebooted'.

“Nor,” he said finally, his face still buried between her breasts.

“Yes, Nick?”

“You're an evil, evil woman.”

“Probably,” she sighed, and drifted off to sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

2284

“Man, you realize this shit is gonna turn you ghoul, right? If it don't kill ya outright.”

“Yeah, I know.” He sat slumped over in the hard backed chair, fingers twitching around each other, his hair straggling over his face. He needed something...Jet maybe. Med-X would soothe the edges, too, right? Yeah, he knew it would. He had some stashed somewhere...he was pretty sure.

“You got caps?”

“I...uh...how many?”

The dealer sneered down at him. He knew that look. “More'n you got if ya gotta ask. What else you got on offer?”

He swallowed hard. He wanted that chem. It would kill him or change him forever. No more John McDonough either way. It was worth it. He looked up at the chem dealer, brushed back his hair and pasted a smile on his lips. “What'cha want?”

***

The room was too bright, he decided without even opening his eyes. He rolled away from the light, but it hurt too much and he groaned.

“Hey,” a soft voice said near his head. “You alive in there?”

He cracked one eye open and looked in the clear green ones of Fahrenheit. There was something in her gaze that struck him and he forced his other eye open to bring her into focus. She looked...worried.

“Hey,” he said, barely recognizing the sound of his own voice.

“You gave me a real scare,” she whispered. He'd never heard her be so quiet and gentle. He must have been pretty far gone.

“Sorry...”

“I might believe that if I didn't know you so well,” she said, leaning back away from him and reaching for something he couldn't see. A carton of water appeared in front of his face, a straw in it. “Here, you need this.”

“Dirty?” he managed to rasp out.

“Yeah.”

“Tha's m'girl.” It was hard to get his facial muscles to move around the straw, even harder to close his thin lips around it. But it was worth the effort when the first tang of irradiated water hit his mouth. He was glad she'd put a straw in the carton, it forced him to drink it slow. When he was done, he felt the pain in his joints recede to a more bearable level. The light still bothered him, though.

“Before you ask, no I ain't gonna close the windows. You stink to hell and back.”

“Where am I?”

“Your own bed, dipshit. I found you wallowing in the crud outside the gates, brought you home, cleaned you up as much as I could. But your dumb ass can't take Addictol when you're unconscious, so you've had to ride it out.”

“Imma ghoul,” he mumbled. “Can't get addicted.”

“Tell it to someone who hasn't just watched you nearly kill yourself on Psycho, from what I can gather.” He glanced at her, the worried expression she'd worn replaced with a scowl so dark it nearly mirrored his own. “You had a pocketful of empty syringes. How long?”

“Huh?”

“How long were you on a bender?”

“I dunno. Couple days.”

Fahr breathed steadily through her nose, and Hancock recognized that as her version of counting to ten. She was spitting mad and trying not to let him see it. She got up from the chair she'd been sitting in and began pacing. Her shadow moved back and forth in the bright beam of light and he didn't bother trying to roll over again to see her. He just tracked her by the shadow as it moved across him. “You know, you're lucky you're useful as a Mayor. Anyone else would have let you die out there.”

“Yeah...I know...”

“And over a woman. Jesus, John. Have some self respect.”

“I hurt her, Fahr.”

The pacing abruptly stopped and he could feel her looming presence next to him on the other side of the bed. “What did you do, John?”

The dirty water had seeped into his tissues like a sponge and the pain was flushed away. He felt sleep tugging at his elbow and gave in to it. Still, before he went, he knew he owed Fahr an answer. “I led her astray...”

***

2282

“It's wrong, Guy, you know it is.”

Guy looked at him with nearly convincing disbelief. “It's what the voters want, John.”

“Don't give me that nonsense about the voters as if you give a shit about them. These are our neighbors, our friends. You force them into the wasteland and they'll die.”

“And a mercy it will be to many of them. John,” he placed a meaty fist on his brother's shoulder, “no one should live that long. No one should suffer so. We weren't meant to become like that.”

John shook his brother's hand off. “It's murder, Guy. Don't try to sugarcoat it for yourself. You know, I'm glad Mom's gone. You would have broken her heart.”

“You're no better, baby brother. I hear the stories of you up in that drug den of a town. I hear you sell yourself for chems, John. What kind of man are you?”

“At least I ain't fake. I may not be proud of who I am, but I ain't fake. Sure, I'll suck a cock for chems, but I've just said it to your face. Can you look me in the eye and tell me you truly believe that ghouls are a threat to Diamond City?”

He waited, but Guy wouldn't look at him. Instead he stared out of the glass of his new office, looking over the whole of the city from where he stood. His gaze was rapt and hungry, as if there was more he wished he could do. Down below, armed guards were knocking on doors, throwing ghouls into the narrow passageways while the human inhabitants looked on. When Guy finally turned his face away from the scene, he was smiling. It was wide and gleaming, the perfect politician's grin. John backed away from his brother.

“I did it, John. Me, only me. I raised myself up out of the muck of the waterfront and made myself Mayor of Diamond City.” The smile faded, leaving Guy's face an empty shell with flat dead eyes. “You can leave if you want, but if you stay you'll abide by my rules. I don't want you sneaking around anymore. We have a reputation to uphold.”

“Fuck you, Guy. And fuck your rules. You ain't the same brother I grew up with. You ain't nothin' to me now.”

He left Diamond City with the ghouls and never looked back.

***

October, 2287

 

The Synthetic Truth, by Piper Wright

...the ordering and eating of noodles is but one of many shared human experiences. Or is it?
I was struck by this very question as I sat at the counter of Power Noodles last Wednesday night, just after 5:00 pm, enjoying a dinner I had so many times before. That's when I noticed our very own Mayor McDonough sidle up to a stool, and engage in the very same ritual. Right hand extending. Mouth opening. Teeth chewing. Yes, eating noodles. The shared experience of almost every Diamond City resident.

...It was never determined precisely why the synth known as Mr. Carter went on his killing spree. Some suggested he had somehow been remotely controlled by the Institute, who wanted to test his combat effectiveness. Still others felt he had simply malfunctioned (a hypothesis supported by the twitching cheek), and was never meant to kill anyone. But at that time, the "why" hardly seemed important. What mattered was that the humans of the Commonwealth had been truly infiltrated by an organization whose intentions were, and still are, a complete mystery - using a model of synth even less advanced than the ones the Institute has in service today.
Which brings us to noodles. Specifically, the noodles consumed by Mayor McDonough last Wednesday night, in the same spot that Mr. Carter the synth went haywire, and mercilessly killed several people - after spending hours sharing an experience the people of Diamond City assumed was reserved for members of the human race. They were wrong.
Are we?

Hancock crumpled and threw the pages of Piper's article aside, anger filling him as he sat there contemplating how he could have missed it. Could Guy really be a synth ?

***

The next time he woke, it was with an urge to vomit that was so strong he was able to scrabble his way from the bed to a toilet. Of course, nothing came up; he hadn't eaten in days. He dry heaved until tears ran down his face and his throat was on fire and his belly was cramped, but the spasms didn't stop. Not for a long time.

When they finally did, he lay crumpled on the floor of his bathroom, shivering and trembling like a leaf. His body was screaming for the sweet release from pain that another hit would give him, but he knew that was a one way road. There would be no coming back from it a third time. He rested there awhile. The floor felt cool against his skin, which was hot and too tight on his bones. He hadn't felt this bad since he'd turned. And what a joyful ride that had been. He was almost able to smirk at himself, but he just didn't have the energy.

Still, he had a reputation to uphold, as his memory had so recently prompted him, and it wouldn't do for anyone to see him balled up like a drunken drifter on his own bathroom floor. He was Mayor Hancock, of the people, for the people. He needed to remember that. He'd dug himself a deep enough hole once before, and nearly lost himself in it. It took him years to find his way back out. He couldn't let life do that to him again. He pushed himself onto his hands and knees and managed to get his feet under himself. The cracked mirror over the sink greeted him with a sight of his own face, pocked, torn and ravaged. Black eyes, no nose, ears like melted wax. But it wasn't his looks that he saw, oh no, it was the look in his own eyes. Vacant like an abandoned house. Like his soul had left town and didn't tell him. He needed it to come back.

“You're a fool,” he whispered to his reflection. “No woman would want this. You ain't gonna be worthy of her if you don't change that, Johnny boy.”

“You in there talkin' to yourself?” he heard Fahr say as she clomped up the stairs. In his rush to make in time – not that it mattered – he hadn't closed the door. “God, you're skinny. Put some clothes on if you're gonna walk around. No one wants to see that flat ass.”

“Fuck off, Fahr. Go see if Daisy has any Sugar Bombs or noodles or something. I need food.”

“You need to rest.”

“I plan on doin' that too. But I need food. I need to get my strength back. I have work to do.”

He shuffled back to his bed, but not before he caught a glimpse of her shaking her head at him. She clomped back down the stairs and he heard the front door of the State House open and close. By the time she got back, however, he was nearly asleep again. She put the bowl within easy reach and sat down in the chair to watch him.

“Damn fool,” she muttered.

“I've never said any different,” he said.

“You got other people who love you, John,” she said. There was genuine concern in her tone and he let his head flop over so he could peer at her. Her face was drawn and tired. As awful as he felt, she looked just as bad for having to take care of him.

He forced his arm out from beneath the covers, reaching his hand out towards her. She leaned in and took it, her grasp strong and sure, her calloused palm nearly as rough as his own. “I know that, Fahrenheit.”

“Don't forget it...Dad.”

He nodded slightly and closed his eyes. “I won't. I promise.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Nora woke alone on the sleeping bag, Nick's trenchcoat gone and a blanket covering her body instead. She lifted her head and saw it was bright and sunny outside, but there was no sign of the synth. She got up and dressed before rushing out of the house they'd built together. He wasn't outside either. But Dogmeat was. His tail thumped on the ground when he saw that she saw him. He ambled over to her, tail still wagging. He had that ratty teddy bear he loved so much with him, and he dropped it at her feet.

She knelt down and ruffled the shepherd's ears between her hands, trying hard to keep the tears from falling. “He left me again, didn't he, boy?”

Dogmeat huffed a quiet bark, his eyes far more wise than a wasteland dog's should be. Nora nodded once, determination in the set of her jaw. She gathered up her things and stuffed Dogmeat's teddy bear on top so she could reach it when he wanted it.

“So be it, Nick Valentine.”

***

In the fickle way of Boston's weather, it was raining by the time she got to Goodneighbor. She had nothing to trade, and no real need to be there when she should have gone back to Preston to tell him about Tenpines, but she wanted to feel the walls of the place surrounding her. The ghoul town felt more like home to her than Sanctuary. Besides, Hancock was there. And there were things she wanted to say to him.

Fahrenheit met her at the door of the State House. The redhead said nothing but jerked her head over her shoulder before brushing past brusquely. She seemed angrier than usual, and Nora wondered if something had happened. She'd gotten the same vibe when she saw Daisy and KLEO. Even the drifters that hung around the pair of shops had looked morose and worried. She stamped off as much of the wet as she could from her boots and waited until Dogmeat shook himself before heading up the spiral stairs. Hancock's Triggermen guards didn't speak either, but at least they didn't look at her as if she was scum under their heels.

The sight that greeted her was not one she expected, and made sense of the strange reactions everyone had had since she entered the gate of the town. Hancock sat on his sofa, bundled in a blanket, his head bare. The aged frockcoat and flag sash were nowhere to be seen. He rolled his head towards her when she came in, his face changing as he recognized her. She wasn't who he'd been expecting either.

“You look like a drowned rat,” he said. His voice was hoarse and more gravelly than usual. She took a seat across from him on the striped sofa she'd slept on so many nights when they first met. Dogmeat curled up in a corner, giving every impression that they were there for the duration and he could sleep.

“And you look like you've been ill. What happened?”

“Don't worry about it,” he said dismissively. He didn't seem very happy to see her, but she knew she could just be imagining things. She could piece together enough of the picture based on rumors she'd heard about him.

“Did you overdose?” she asked softly. He turned a self-deprecating smile on her, but it was weak. If his eyes hadn't already been black as pitch, she would have thought they were bleary. “Did you do it because I threw you out?” she asked, even more softly.

“Oh, Nora...” he sighed. His hands shook as he shifted the blanket around on his thin shoulders in order to reach for the steaming bowl on the coffee table. For the first time she noticed the table had been cleared of everything else. No chems, no bottles, not even an ashtray.

“Why, Hancock?”

He didn't answer, just sipped at the broth before maneuvering the chopsticks around so he could eat the noodles. He was so unsteady he nearly dropped the whole thing, and she crossed over the coffee table to scoop a hand under his to hold the bowl. His eyes met hers for a moment and she saw a depth to them that was endless. Abyssal, she thought. He'd sunk low, and now he seemed ashamed of it. Or at least ashamed of her seeing him like this.

“Why?” she asked again, so close she could feel his breath on her face.

“Because I'm a worthless junkie with nothing to lose,” he finally ground out. “Is that what you want to hear?”

“No,” she nearly sobbed, shaking her head, tears stinging in the corners of her eyes.

“Where's Nick?” he snapped, but it was the breaking of a twig, not a branch. She shrugged.

“I don't know, Hancock. He...he left me. Again.” The last was in a whisper so low she barely heard it herself, but she could tell that he had. His gaze sharpened on her and his hands grew still. He looked angry.

“You walked here alone?”

“I had Dogmeat.” Two thumps on the floorboards let her know that her faithful dog was listening and she nearly smiled in spite of herself.

“I'm gonna kill that fucking synth...”

“No, you won't,” she admonished, taking the bowl from his hands and putting it back on the coffee table. “No.”

She cradled his hands in hers, feeling the warmth in them. The life. They were so different from Nick's mismatched ones. That pain was still too near and she pushed it aside, not ready to face it. Instead she laid her cheek on his knuckles, rubbing her softer skin on his rumpled one.

“I'm sorry, Hancock. I was angry and confused and...no matter what else happens between us, I want you to know I would never have wanted...”

“Hey, hey,” he said, pulling his hands from hers to tilt up her chin until she looked at him. The sardonic grin was back and it looked more comfortable on his face than when she arrived. “I did this to myself, Sunshine. It ain't your fault.”

“But...”

“But me no buts. Fahr likes to say I'm impulsive and stupid and self destructive. She ain't wrong. I was hurtin' and I dug that hurt in worse, cuz that's what I do sometimes. It ain't your fault.”

“You wouldn't have done it if I hadn't pushed you away.”

“Maybe not, but you know somethin'? If you hadn't pushed me away, I'd've never faced some shit that I needed to.” She started to bristle. She wanted to shout that that was the most ridiculous pile of bullshit she'd ever heard, but he placed a trembling finger over her lips before she could part them. “I'm not as good a man as you deserve, Honoria Wilcox. I won't ever be worthy of you if I don't change that.”

“You don't need to change for me,” she said. “You should change because you want to.”

“I do want to. I want to be worthy of you.” He kept his eyes on hers, and she could see that it cost him. He seemed shrunken in the folds of the blanket. He looked like he wanted to hide desperately, but was fighting it. All the words she thought she needed to say to him drained away like sand washed off a beach. He was already berating himself something fierce. She couldn't add to it. Not now.

“Oh, Hancock, I'm hardly a prize.” She shook her head, sighing sadly. “I'm not special, no matter what anyone thinks. I'm just a scared pre-war lawyer turned housewife who got thrust two hundred years into the future. And you know what? That future sucks.”

She startled a laugh from him with that. He tucked his arms around her and pulled her into his side. She curled her legs up under her to accommodate the awkward position and leaned her head on his shoulder. He was warmer than he usually felt, or maybe it was just the lack of layers between them. He stroked her hair and held her close. “Aww, Nora,” he said. “What a pair we make, eh?”

“You know, I never had gray hair...before. When we went into the Vault, it was beautiful. And now...”

“Now it's still beautiful. It sparkles in the sunlight, ya know that? Like ya got star streaks caught in your hair.”

“I'm too young for it.”

“Nah, it ain't the years, Sunshine.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

“It's the miles?” she quipped and felt more than heard his answering chuckle.

“Yeah. I kinda like it, though. It seems right for you, out of time, out of place like you are. But you're just what this wasteland needs. Ghoul like me, I talk a big talk. But you...you've walked the walk. You've done the hard work. You've made a difference in peoples' lives, more'n I ever did. That makes you special enough.” He sighed. “I'm tired. Come to bed with me. Rest. I ain't got the strength to make any moves.”

She lifted her head from his shoulder and looked at him, his eyes plaintive, his face haggard and worn. “All right, Hancock. Just promise me you'll be there in the morning.”

“Oh, I'm really gonna kill that fucker now,” he swore under his breath. This time she smiled. It was oddly touching how angry he was on her behalf. Touching and gratifying. It made the pain recede a little.

“No, you won't. C'mon,” she said, standing up and helping him to his feet. They shuffled into his room where candles lit the space only feebly. He dropped the blanket off his shoulders and pulled his ruffled shirt over his head. His hands dropped to his waistband and he turned to look at her, bare and vulnerable, waiting to see judgment in her eyes. She crossed the space between them and placed a single gentle kiss on his lips. “You haven't promised yet.”

“I swear you to, Honoria. Ain't nothin' gonna make me leave you again.”

“All right,” she whispered.

She kicked off her boots and stripped off her wet clothes until she was just in her threadbare bra and underwear. His eyes didn't wander – not much, no more than her own – and he pulled back the covers and fell into the bed. He held up his arm to invite her in and she slid against him, skin on skin, cold against warm. He held her with far more strength than she thought he had, and his steady heartbeat lulled her to peaceful sleep as it thumped in her ear. There were plenty of things left to be said, but they didn't matter right now. All that mattered was that she was home. She was right where she belonged.

 

 

Chapter Text

“How'd it go?” Hancock asked her as she came out of her meeting with Preston. It had been a grueling couple of weeks to get his strength back, and in the middle of it she'd had her period again with the most awful cramps he'd ever seen a woman suffer through, but they were back on track now.

“He wants me to lead the Minutemen to take back a place he called the Castle.” She seemed almost in fearful awe of the request and he cocked his head.

“I know of that place. It used to be the stronghold of the Minutemen, a long time ago. They got forced out by some kind of sea monster, so the stories go.”

“That's what Preston said too.” She sighed and he brushed back a lock of hair that kept falling over her forehead and into her eyes. It had gotten longer since he first met her and was almost long enough to need clips to hold it back. She smiled at him in an offhand way and twisted her fingers together. He recognized that now as something she did when she was nervous.

“Whatsa matter? Don't think you're up for it?”

“It just...it sounds like a huge undertaking. Are we really ready for it?”

“Sunshine, you got this. You know you do.” He tucked her into his arm and planted a kiss on her forehead. “I'll be there. And Preston will be there.”

“But Nick won't.”

Ahh, there it was. No one had heard from the synth detective in weeks. At first he'd been inclined to think the old bugger had just run out on Nora, but Ellie hadn't seen him or heard from him. No one in Diamond City had heard from him. Even Piper Wright didn't know where he'd gone and she knew everything that happened under the sun. It wasn't like Nick to disappear and just leave his whole life behind. Who did you send out to find a missing detective...again?

They also hadn't heard from Eddie Winter or his Gunners. Not since that first wave of attacks on her settlements. Hancock didn't like it any more than he liked the idea of Nick being legitimately missing. But none of that was important in the face of Nora's news.

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him I'd think about it.”

“So where are we off to?”

Nora shrugged herself out from under his arm and went across the road to her old house. It had a dank, unlived in feeling since she'd spent so much of her time in Goodneighbor, but she wasn't ready to give it up just yet. He guessed she felt like it was her only link to her past. He followed her and let his fingers trail across the roughened wood of the bookshelves where she'd put a tri-folded old American flag and Nate's dog tags on a shelf. She had no pictures of him, nor of anyone. But she had those mementos, and he could understand her need to keep them. And in turn, the house itself.

“I don't think we need to be anywhere just yet,” she said in answer to his question. She'd kicked off her boots and taken off her armor. She padded around the house in a pair of ratty jeans and a flannel two sizes too big for her small frame and he smiled at the picture she made. Like a little girl playing dress up. But she was no little girl. She had won Fahr's grudging respect for the way she'd handled his recovery. She'd even taken a few watches on the wall with his Triggermen to give them a rest. She'd become part of the fabric of Goodneighbor in the weeks he was out of commission. And he would never forget that.

“You know,” he said, settling into the worn cushions of the side chair, “you've changed since we met.”

“What do you mean?” As he watched her she puttered around the kitchen area, pulling out mismatched plates and a couple boxes of Salisbury Steak from the crate she kept food in. She opened the boxes and put the plastic sealed trays on her wood stove. She stoked the flames inside, adding some larger pieces of wood to the fire Sturges had started when she went in for her meeting with Preston.

“I mean the woman I met a couple months ago was scared of her own shadow. You ain't that person anymore.”

“No, I suppose I'm not.” Satisfied that the fire would heat the meals through, she dusted off her hands and turned back to face him. “I can't be her anymore. Too many people depend on me to make things better.”

“As long as you ain't forgettin' what it was you wanted to find for yourself,” he reminded her.

She gave him a small, sad smile. “Happiness? I'm working on it.”

She crossed the distance between them and put her arms around his waist, resting her head on his shoulder. His own arms circled her and held her tight. It was by no means all he wanted from her, but he hadn't felt like he'd earned anything more. For sure she hadn't offered anything other than platonic companionship. He left the decision to take things further in her hands, content enough to be around her. If he never got to tell her just how much he adored her, well...so be it. That was his burden to bear after how he'd acted.

They ate their dinner in silence, a comfortable one. As it got darker, Nora lit the lanterns set about the house, the soft light barely pushing back the gloom. He knew she liked it that way. Too bright and it would bring back reminders. The low light allowed her to keep things hidden, keep them covered over with a layer of protective darkness. He suddenly realized he did the same thing in the State House. The rest of Goodneighbor was wired for electricity, and yet, he'd never strung up any lights inside his home, preferring to use candles and lanterns.

“Huh,” he muttered aloud at the thought.

“What?”

“Nothing, just...thinking.”

“About?”

“Shadows, candles and the way we both use them to keep our homes dimly lit so we don't have to examine our lives too closely.”

“That's an awfully deep thought over 200 year old boxed dinner.”

He smiled. “I have my moments.”

“You sure do.” She gathered up the empty plates and stacked them in the old sink she'd attached to a water pump. He watched her move around the space as if she'd never left it, shadows notwithstanding. She was graceful and comfortable and the sway of her hips distracted him. “At first I thought maybe I'd leave this place. Find a new home somewhere that had no memories. But now...” She sighed, dragging his attention from her hips to her face. She wore an expression of sadness, but it was tinged with something else. Nostalgia, maybe.

“Now?” he prompted.

“It's all I have left. I don't think I could leave it behind when everything else is already gone.”

“Time to make new memories here.”

She wiped her hands off on a towel and hung it carefully on the edge of the counter. The lantern light reflected off the polished side of the coffeemaker she kept saying she was going to figure out how to use again, throwing a small bit of light against her where she leaned on the sink. Something about the simplicity of being at home with her settled into him. He'd never known such quiet and comfort and ease. He was self aware enough to enjoy it while it lasted.

“I guess,” she said in answer to his offhand comment. He could barely follow the thread of the conversation he was so abruptly overcome with the desire to touch her, to hold her. To see if her curves reflected the light like the coffeemaker. Which was ridiculous, of course. She wasn't made of polished steel. At least not on the outside.

He stood up from the bar where they'd eaten and went into the living room, slouching himself on the sofa as if he hadn't a care in the world. It was an act, but the habit was ingrained too deep for him to give it up quickly. He was surprised when she followed, folding herself neatly into the corner of the same sofa, her small feet tucked up under her legs. The baggy flannel shirt billowed around her, disguising her shape and he hoped it would make him breathe easier if he couldn't see the curves that had him so distracted. But it didn't work. He still knew they were there, and the fact that he couldn't see them made them more enticing.

Get a grip, John. Christ, you're pathetic.

“Hancock, is something wrong?” The worry in her voice snapped him out of his head.

“Nah, Sunshine, just got things on my mind.”

“Like what?”

He looked over at her in the soft glow, her pixie face and rumpled hair making her look more like a child than anything. He had to stop thinking of her that way. She wasn't an innocent. She wasn't a child. He forced a smile to his face, feeling it crack like plaster on his lips. “Not sure you wanna know.”

“Why wouldn't I?” she asked.

For a moment he entertained the idea of telling her that what he really wanted to pull her astride him, strip her naked and fuck her until she was breathless, just to see if she reacted, but he knew he'd never get the words out without acting on them. Better to keep it inside, keep the stupid locked away. So he shook his head and said nothing. He could feel the disappointment roll off her like a wave and wondered at it. Was she fighting the same urge?

“You deserve better than what's in my head,” he managed to grind out. There, that small secret smile on her lips. He hadn't seen that since before...before he'd gone and fucked up their friendship with angry words and self castigation.

“Where do you get this idea that I can't handle your thoughts, Hancock?” she asked, her eyes wide and pleading. But there was a challenging undercurrent. She was baiting him.

“Sunshine, you ain't in a place to handle what I'm thinkin' about.” She edged away from the corner of the sofa, one of her legs sliding out from under her to land on the floor. She leaned towards him and he balled his fists to keep from reaching for her.

“Tell me,” she said softly. She was definitely baiting him, and didn't know the half of how well it was working. He watched her, the tilt of her lips in a quirked smile, the brightness in her eyes, the way her pupils were blown wide in the low light. She radiated warmth and vibrancy with every breath, and he wanted – oh, how he wanted – to have a piece of that for himself, but he knew he was a selfish bastard, and a touch would never be enough.

“Nor...” he breathed, hardly aware that he whispered, or that the sound of it was so needy. He certainly didn't expect the reaction he got. She closed the space between them in a flash, throwing a leg over his lap so she straddled him, cupping his face in her hands.

“Tell me what you're thinking, Hancock.”

He knew he didn't really need words, and judging from her actions she didn't really want them. With one hand braced on her back and the other tangled in her hair, he brought her mouth to his and kissed her with all the pent up frustration he'd been burying. He tilted his head to get a better angle, slipping his tongue against hers. She didn't pull away. Instead she pushed back with her own, her sweet taste invading his senses. His hands slid down her sides to the hem of the flannel before reaching beneath it to her bare skin. She was soft and warm and so very alive under his hands. She arched into his touch, silently urging him for more. His hands began to explore more freely as they kissed. He could feel her ribs expanding as she breathed rapidly through her mouth, could feel her pebbled nipples through her bra. She pressed herself tightly to him, overflowing his hands, overwhelming his better judgment that she deserved more than a tumble on a battered old sofa.

A sudden brisk knock at the door shattered the moment and she jumped like a scalded cat, a blush rushing to her cheeks so fast he could feel the heat of it. She got off his lap and circled around the sofa, leaving him there bemused and nearly undone until he heard her gasp as she opened the door.

“Before you haul off and slap me like I deserve,” he heard Nick say, “I can explain.”

 

 

Chapter Text

November, 2076

 

Nate regarded her with clever eyes. “So...”

“What?” Nora asked, misery in every fiber of her being. She was so tired of being afraid all the time, so tired of worrying. She'd finally broken down and told Nate what had happened. How she was disgraced.

“I'm not going to ask who it was, because I can probably guess. I have an idea, but I don't know if you'll like it.”

“I won't get rid of it,” she said firmly.

“I wasn't thinking that. No, Honoria. You should marry me.”

“What?!”

“Marry me, Nor. Your baby gets a father, you get the legal protection as my wife and...I...”

“You get the legal protection of having a wife.” She wasn't sour, or bitter. She loved Nate as a friend, like family almost. She was in a constant state of terror of him and Stephen being found out by the government. At best Nate would be discharged from the army. At worst...

There are concentration camps out there, she thought. Places no one talks about and no one comes home from. The Chinese aren't the only ones they come for.

“All right,” she said aloud. She knew it really was the best option. For both of them. “When?”

“Better sooner rather than later.” He took her hands in his. She knew hers were cold and could tell that he knew it too by the way he chafed them. “I'm supposed to be deployed next month. We should do it before then.”

“Okay.”

“I can get expedited paperwork. You pick a church, buy a nice dress and we'll do it up all formal. And if you ever...if you ever meet someone...”

“Nate, I know you're in love with Stephen and you'll never look at me that way. I know that. I don't need anyone else to. I don't want it. It just ends up hurting.”

Nate stroked back her hair from her face and smiled. “Oh, Nor, when it's right it doesn't hurt. I hope someday you get to learn that. But for now, I promise to take care of you and your baby.”

“Our baby,” she said, meeting his eyes. “You'll need to start to saying it that way.”

He nodded solemnly. “You're right. Our baby. Our family.”

***

The shock of seeing Nick hit her like a thunderclap. Not because he looked any different, but because she could see him with new eyes. What Nate had said to her so long ago as they planned to marry for convenience struck her anew as she looked at the synth version of Nick Valentine. Love wasn't supposed to hurt.

She stepped back to let him in, to let him explain where he'd gone after leaving her. But before he could get a word out, Hancock appeared at her side. In a flash of red, his arm flew past her and his fist landed in Nick's face.

“You son of a bitch,” Hancock snarled.

Nick's head snapped sideways and he grunted, but he didn't fall, and he didn't fight back. He rubbed his jaw with his good hand and regarded Hancock and Nora from beneath the brim of his fedora. “I know I had that coming, John. But, please, let me explain before you try to unravel my wires.”

Hancock didn't want to listen, Nora could tell from the tense set of his shoulders and the way his arm cocked to punch Nick again. She grabbed a hold of his sleeve, tugging his arm back. Nick's mention of wires brought a flood of memories to mind and she fought against the blush that wanted to burn her cheeks. But she wanted to hear what he had to say for himself. There had to be a reason he'd left, just as there had to be a reason he'd returned.

“Let him have his say,” she said. Hancock looked down and her and sighed, relaxing his stance. “Thank you.”

“It's your call,” Hancock said, stepping away and sitting at the bar in the kitchen. Nora leaned on the other side of it, letting Nick choose a spot in the living room. She knew she was staying between them just in case and wondered how that had become her position in life. Between the two men she...loved?

How did this even happen? she wondered.

Nick sank onto the sofa where she and Hancock had so recently been and she was grateful to the low light so Nick wouldn't see the flush on her face. Not that he was paying attention to it anyway, he seemed lost in thought.

“That...that night, there was a Gunner patrol,” he finally started. “I didn't want them to find you, or know that you were rebuilding the settlement, so I lured them away, back towards Concord. I managed to lose them while they busied themselves with the raiders there. Then I followed them.”

“And where did they go?” Nora asked when he faltered. He finally looked up at her, his face closed off and unreadable.

“Fort Hagen.”

“The old munitions facility? What for?”

“Kellogg is there.”

“Wait...” Hancock said, leaning forward on the bar. “You mean that merc sent to kill Nora's husband is at Fort Hagen right now?”

“He is,” Nick confirmed.

“You talked to him, didn't you?” Nora asked, starting to put a picture together of why he was gone so long.

“I did.”

“Heh, how'd that go over?” Hancock commented wryly.

“Well, I admit at first it wasn't...pleasant.” Nick's face twisted, and Nora wondered what he wasn't saying. Visions of Nick tied up or imprisoned went through her mind and the long stare into the middle distance he was giving the room seemed to corroborate that. “Eventually, I got him to talk about why he was here. Why he did those things. For him it was just a job, nothing personal.”

“Of course not,” she murmured under her breath. Nick glanced at her sharply.

“He knows what Winter is planning, Nor. Claims he doesn't care either way. As long as the caps roll in, he's content with his life.”

“Asshole,” Hancock muttered.

“Mercenary,” Nora retorted. “There are plenty of people in this world who will do anything for caps. Even I know that.”

“Well,” Nick continued, “he said he was willing to meet with you, just the same. Said a mother has a right to know her child. He said he admired your tenacity in making it out here, that he wished he could have had that sort of drive himself as a parent.” Nick shook his head. “That man has seen more than his fair share of hardship.”

“That doesn't excuse him,” Nora snapped. She pushed away from the bar and went over to Nick, tracing her fingers along the edges of his torn skin. “He didn't hurt you, did he?”

“No, he didn't. He just isn't very...friendly, shall we say. He could have taken me back to the Institute, but in the end he said he didn't care. He let me go.” He caught her hand in his own and drew it away from his face. “I wouldn't trust him farther than I can throw him, but we know he's the only one with information on how to get in and out of that place.”

“Yeah, I know.” Nora sighed. Here was finally a piece of the puzzle she'd been hunting for. But...Preston was right, they needed to get the Castle back if they were ever going to be a power worth respecting. “How long will he be there?”

“He didn't say. Sounds like he's using the fort as a staging area for his next job for the Institute. He didn't seem to be in any hurry, from what I could tell, though. He's made himself a cozy little hideout there.”

“And the Gunners?”

“Once they were done talking to him on their own, they left.”

“What did they want with him?”

“They wanted to see if he could be bought, if he would give Eddie Winter an 'in' to the Institute.”

“Hmm, much like we want. So what did he tell them?”

“He said he'd think about it. He didn't appear too concerned. I don't think he has any intention of selling out his employers to the Gunners.”

“But he's willing to see me...” she mused. “Why?”

Nick shrugged. “I don't know, Nor. You'll have to ask him that yourself.”

“So you gotta decide which way to go here,” Hancock said into the silence that followed. She looked back at him at the bar and nodded. He knew what she was thinking. They could talk to Kellogg, or they could get back the Castle, but they couldn't do both at the same time.

“Do you think Preston will understand? This is something I really need to do.”

“He better understand,” Hancock said darkly. “You got your own agenda, and he needs to remember that.”

“What are you two talking about?” Nick asked.

“Preston wants me to take back the Castle.”

“You mean Fort Independence? Really? That place is overrun with mirelurks and hasn't been fit to live in for nearly fifty years.”

“He says we can reinforce the Minutemen with it. Get something called Radio Freedom back up and running.”

“It's a good idea, Nor, but it's gonna be tough. 'Lurks have a hierarchy, led by a queen. She's a real monster. Think of a queen bee crossed with a lobster, and then scale that up for size.”

“Good lord,” she whispered. “You think that's what drove the Minutemen out of there?”

“Probably. I haven't been down that way in years, but last time I saw it, the fort was a nesting ground. It's a good bet.”

“Damn,” Hancock said.

Nora looked between the two of them for a moment, torn on what she should do. She wanted to help Preston get back the ancestral seat of power for the Minutemen, but she wanted to get to Kellogg before he was gone too. She tried to remember how far away Fort Hagen was from Concord, and realized that even on foot it probably wasn't that long of a journey. If everything went well, she could go and be back to Sanctuary in just a couple days.

“All right, I think I have a plan. I'll go see Kellogg and meet with him and be back here before Preston knows I'm gone. Then we'll retake the Castle.”

“I hope you ain't plannin' this excursion by yourself,” Hancock said.

“No, of course not. Nick knows the way, so he should come with me.” She looked at him to see him nod in agreement. She felt more than saw Hancock bristle behind her back and turned back to him. “I want you to come too. An extra gun is not a bad idea.”

Oddly, he looked crestfallen. “Is that all I am?”

“No, Hancock, that's not all you are. I want you there because I know I can trust you to have my back.” The ghoul's eyes trailed away from hers to meet Nick's and his face set into a serious line. Nora didn't need to see Nick's answering face to know they were communicating without words. Finally Hancock smiled, his lopsided one that she loved. And she released the breath she didn't know she'd been holding.

“All right.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Kellogg wasn't what Hancock had been expecting. Which was probably putting it mildly, once he thought about it. Nick had been right, the merc wasn't all that friendly. But his intimidation was underscored by more empathy than Hancock expected. He didn't know if he should shoot him or offer to buy him a beer and let him get all the years of killing off his chest.

“You're a fierce little woman, I'll give you that,” Kellogg said to Nora when they arrived at the heavily protected core of the fort. All around them stood Gen-1's and 2's, their weapons held ready but pointed away from them in a show of peace.

“I've fought for that,” Nora countered. Kellogg chuckled, hitching one hip onto a desk and looking them all over.

“I believe it.” He sat there, relaxed and easy. Hancock couldn't understand how she could face him so calmly when this was the man who'd killed her husband and taken her child. That thought about buying him a beer started to fade. He reminded himself that Nora called the shots here, and he had to accept it. “So, little General, what can I do for you?”

“I want to know how to get inside.”

“You know I could lose my head for this meeting, right?”

“You still might,” she rejoined, her spine held rigid. “I haven't decided yet whether to let you live.”

“You talk a lot of talk, little General, but I don't know if you've got the proverbial balls to follow it through.”

“You obviously know who I am, Kellogg. That means you know what I can do.”

“Yeah,” Kellogg said with a sigh, his eyes flicking to Hancock. “Or at least what you'll have your lackeys do.”

Hancock felt anger boil up inside and Kellogg just laughed at him. He knew he was clenching his fists to keep from upsetting Nora's plans, but it was getting harder and harder by the minute to ignore the man's taunts. Nora must have known, since she turned to him with a warning look in her eye. She turned back to Kellogg and tilted her head. Standing behind her Hancock couldn't see her expression, but he could guess at it. People underestimated Nora's ability to make tough calls and follow through on her own threats due to her appearance. Seemed Kellogg was just another sap in a long line, and he'd fallen for it too.

“Hancock is hardly a lackey,” she said, a thread of wry amusement in her voice. “He became the Mayor of Goodneighbor on his own merits, after all.”

“Sure he did, cupcake.” Kellogg sounded as if he was merely humoring her, but his posture said that he was paying more attention than he had been a moment before. “So you want in, eh? Not sure what I can tell you. They don't like me much in there.”

“I wonder why that would be?” she asked, deliberately acerbic. Hancock grinned. She really had taken her core of steel to heart. The shy flower he'd met – was it really only a couple months ago? – was gone.

Kellogg cut a sharp glance her way, and if they'd forgotten what kind of man he was for even an instant, that look reminded them. He was a hired killer, through and through. He was also more clever and experienced than anyone in the room, except maybe Nick. But Nora didn't seem fazed by the hard look in his eyes, nor did she seem overly concerned with the revolver at his hip or the fact that they were surrounded by more firepower than she had at her command in any one place. In that moment, Hancock knew he would die for her if she asked him to, no questions asked.

She still thinks she's meek, he thought. She's got more courage than the whole of the Commonwealth put together.

And I'm so in love with her.

“I guess that's fair,” Kellogg said with a huff of laughter. “C'mere, lemme show you some things.”

Nora went right up to Kellogg and was consulting with him over a map. She stood so small next to him with his leather and high tech armor, but she didn't look afraid of him. And he was more courteous to her now that she seemed to have passed his contest of wills. Hancock missed most of what was said between them until Kellogg straightened up from the map and slouched against the desk again.

“He's my mission, so I can't give you a whole lot of time.”

“Why can't you just tell me?”

“Because I don't know how exactly they do it, cupcake. They let me in for upgrades and testing. Anything else is couriered to me by Courser. I've never even been inside Advanced Systems. I can tell you that molecular relay is very precise. And dangerous if miscalculated by an inch. But if you're certain you want to do this...”

“I have to, Kellogg. I need to see my son. It doesn't matter to me how much time has passed. If nothing else, he should know that Winter will betray him.”

“And he's expecting you, too.” They all started at that.

“What do you mean?” Nick asked.

Kellogg looked away from the map and eyed them all in turn. “The little General here was supposed to off me, you know. Keep me from telling you anything at all so you'd keep hunting up clues. Sorry, cupcake,” he sneered, looking back at her, “but I like living.”

“Don't we all?” she murmured. Kellogg cracked a lopsided grin at her. There was appreciation in his eyes now that Hancock didn't like one bit and he tensed again. With preternatural accuracy, the merc turned and faced him squarely, almost as if he could read Hancock's thoughts.

“You're determined and resilient, cupcake,” Kellogg said, still facing off with Hancock. “Gotta admit, I'm sorry I don't get to go a round or two with you.”

“Maybe some other time,” Nora said breezily, as if the obvious lascivious undertone had completely passed her by, just as the intensity growing between the two men seemed to be. But Hancock saw her hands tremble before she clenched them together. She was holding it together by nothing more than the sheer determination Kellogg acknowledged she had. He made himself relax, even smile at the cold-hearted merc as if nothing was wrong at all. Kellogg acknowledged that too, with just a slight incline of his head. Nora's ability to get out of this alive and unharmed was more important to him than any imaginary dick waving contest with Kellogg.

“You'll need this,” the man himself said, pushing away from the desk and pulling something from a drawer nearby. It looked like a lightbulb, but was so small it fit in his palm. “Show this to Dr. Virgil, he'll believe any tale you concoct about how you fought me off and won. Hell, that'll make my job easier, lower his guard a bit.” He huffed a laugh to himself before continuing. “Besides, you're gonna need it for whatever machinery is gonna zap you in there.”

“What is it?”

“It's a synth component. This one specifically came from a Courser I found lying dead down in Natick. The muties got'im. It was a real mess.”

“And why would I need this?” Nora asked, gingerly accepting the small unit. Kellogg smirked at her.

“All the Gen-3's have them. It's where the programming goes.”

She looked thoughtfully at him for a moment, searching his gaze for something before looking the component over carefully too. She held it up to the light, seeing the wires and microchips embedded in the plastic. Hancock thought about how well she did at putting electronics together and recognized the look on her face as the one she used when building turrets.

“And it gives off a carrier wave, doesn't it?” she said softly.

Kellogg looked at her with respect clear on his face. “Yes, it does.”

“And that's how they do it. The carrier wave gives the relay a signal to pinpoint for teleportation.”

“Don't lose that,” Kellogg warned by way of agreement. “Unless you want to go find yourself a Courser and kill him for it.”

“Is that so difficult?”

“Coursers are the elite force of the Institute, cupcake. You're old world, think commandos with boring fashion sense. And think about where that baby is stored. You really want to wrestle a man to the ground and root around in his gray matter for it?” She paled and shook her head mutely. Kellogg chuckled. “No doubt you would if you had to, though. Pity we got off to such a bad start. I like you. Shame about your husband. Whether you want to believe it or not, that wasn't the plan.”

“I...I think I believe that.”

“You should.” He had the nerve to chuck her under her chin and Hancock nearly reached for his shotgun. From the corner of his eye he saw Nick's reach make it as far as his pocket. Neither of them had been missed in their abortive actions and Kellogg grinned wide, knowing exactly where he stood and what he was doing.

“Why are you telling me all this, honestly?”

“Honestly? Because you deserve to know the truth. Because I've forgotten more than they've every known down there about how the world works, and yet they still look at me sideways like I'm something unspeakably dirty. Because the world isn't fair sometimes, and I took something from you that I shouldn't have.” He eyed her carefully and Hancock wondered what he meant. “I have a chance to make some atonement for that, Miz Wilcox. So I'll take it.”

Nora nodded, as if she understood perfectly, and it dawned on Hancock that Kellogg probably meant the fact that he'd killed Nora's husband. Her son was still alive, and he had the ability to reunite them. He looked at the merc in a new way, trying to see if compassion or apathy lay behind his actions. In the end he couldn't decide.

“Well, if that's all you can give me, Kellogg, I'll be leaving now,” Nora said finally, after a long stretch of silence had filled the room.

“That's all I can do for you,” he agreed before dropping his head and shoulders low enough to whisper in her ear. Hancock didn't hear it, but evidently Nick did. From the way he stiffened, it seemed Kellogg's moment of cooperation had turned to something else.

“I highly doubt you'll see any of us again, Kellogg,” the synth remarked. “At least any other way than at the end of a gun.”

“We'll see, robo-man.”

“Kellogg. Thank you. I know...I know Eddie's Gunners wanted this information too. You didn't have to just give it to me.”

“Call me Conrad, cupcake. And you're right. But,” he sighed, “given the choice between a bunch of waster thugs and a mother without her child...the decision was easy to make. I don't like debts hanging over my head. No doubt we'll cross paths again.”

She went back to Hancock's side, and his arm automatically wound itself around her waist, holding her close. “Maybe, but I sincerely hope not.”

Kellogg waved them out of the room. At the end of the fenced off corridor stood an elevator to the roof and they all went through it, each of them grateful to escape unscathed, although maybe not for the same reason.

 

 

Chapter Text

The settlement at Starlight Drive-In had grown, Nora saw as they crested the hill overlooking the former parking lot. The hike from Fort Hagen had taken longer than anticipated – roving packs of both mongrel dogs and rabid molerats could do that to a leisurely walk – and they decided to stop for the night rather than attempting to return to Sanctuary in the dark. Hancock gave them a sardonic salute and wandered into the settlement to the marketplace, while she and Nick went through the inventory of the workshop to make sure everyone had what they needed. When she asked him to come up to the top of the dilapidated screen, he followed without question.

“We need to talk,” she said without preamble when they reached the top. The view was incredible from up there. She could see for miles around in any direction. She saw Concord, where she'd met Preston and the survivors of Quincy and had been introduced to her new world and all the problems that went with it. She could see the glowing towers of the Corvega Plant and into Lexington, where once she'd had a tiny apartment all to herself, and the path to her future had been laid. She saw the remnants of the railroad system, complete with broken down and looted boxcars. Looking back down into the settlement, she could see Hancock's red coat as he stood in line at the bar in the gloaming.

Nick stepped up next to her, also focusing his gaze down below them. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess we do.”

Nora sighed. This wasn't going to be an easy conversation to have, but it was necessary, and she'd already been putting it off. “Nick...where do we go from here?”

“I dunno, doll.” He nodded down to the ground, his eyes on Hancock scooping up noodles from a bowl. “You love him, don't you?”

“I...I think so... Yes, I do,” Nora shrugged helplessly. “But...”

“But you love me too. Or at least, you love the memory of me.”

“Are you really so different from the man you were before, Nick?”

Yellow eyes raked over her from under the brim of his fedora. “I am. I can't give you what you want, Nor. I can't be the man I was. This robotic body is old, and so am I. You deserve someone who can grow old with you, without such a great head start.”

“Ghouls live a long time. I'll die long before him too.”

Nick smiled sadly, acknowledging that she was right. “But you can spend the years together. Make a life together. Have a family, maybe. Honoria,” he stopped her before she could do more than open her mouth to reply, “is Shaun mine? I mean, Nick's?”

She nodded, sudden unease making her stomach flutter. This wasn't the direction she wanted the conversation to go. But he deserved to know, even at this late date. He was silent for a while, digesting the news. Eventually he cleared his throat – still a strange sound from someone who had no physical need – and spoke again.

“Why didn't you tell...? No, never mind. I know why. Nick left you behind, hoping you'd move on and find happiness somehow, just as he hoped he would. The world was crazy and getting crazier by the day. I think he knew, or guessed, that the bombs were coming. When I first woke up in a trash heap, I tried to find out what happened to him. Never could find anything. I wonder if he went back to Chicago, if he died there, never knowing what he'd left behind.”

“I'm sorry,” she whispered. She leaned on the railing of the screen and looked out into the distance, seeing in her mind's eye the neighborhood of Sanctuary, if unable to actually see it from this distance. Nick's arms went around her, pulling her in close, cutting off the cold breeze from being up so high. She felt a physical pain in the center of her chest, but it wasn't as bad as she feared it would be.

“So am I, doll.” They stood that way for a few minutes before he stood straight again. “And now Shaun is an old man too. Poor Nora, out of the timing loop on all sides.”

The wry sarcasm touched her, even though tears pricked her eyes. She swallowed the pain in her heart and smiled. “Yeah. Just my luck, huh?”

“You've done good in this wasteland. That's something to be proud of. And luck had nothing to do with it, other than landing you here.”

“I know. I wish it was as easy to fix myself as it is to fix up these ruins.”

“You'll get there. I have faith in you.”

She leaned against the warm mechanical frame of the man she'd loved for so long and shook her head sadly. Was it just two subjective years or was it two hundred? It didn't matter. She felt like she was saying goodbye, which was ridiculous since he wasn't going anywhere. But at the same time, she knew what he was telling her. He couldn't be the man she pinned her heart to. That man was wandering around in the settlement below, probably wondering where she'd gone.

“The view is pretty good from up here, isn't it?” she asked softly. Nick nodded in agreement. “Thank you, Nick. For your faith in me. For everything else, too.” She watched Hancock pay for a bottle of something before he walked resolutely away from the market, heading for the upper level of the concession stand, it looked like. “Excuse me, would you?”

***

She stopped at the top of the stairs, seeing Hancock staring out of the wide windows, the dark bottle next to his elbow. “What are you drinking?”

“Bourbon.” He sounded sour, and it took all her hard won resolve not to just turn around and flee.

“Got enough there to share?”

He turned his head and looked at her over his shoulder. His face was set in a serious line and she fidgeted in that glare before he sighed and waved an arm in absent invitation. She climbed into the projector room and tried not to remember the last time they had been here. Before settlers, before chem overdoses. Before Nick.

Spinning in the dark, watching the stars, his arms holding her tight. His heat pressed against her back as they slept, solid and comforting.

She took the bottle and swigged a mouthful straight from it, to Hancock's amused eyebrow raise. “Easy, Sunshine. Didn't know you could put it away like that.”

“I don't usually. You don't seem to have a glass, however.” The burn in her stomach was pleasant and tamed the butterflies into something less like fear and more like merely nervous.

“Ya got me there,” he said, looking back out into the night. The settlement was shutting down from the day, the shops closing, the lights going off in the cottages. Those on overnight guard duty took their posts and quiet descended. He took the bottle back and tipped it for long seconds, gulping down much more than she'd managed. He didn't even wince. “So, you and Nick have a nice chat?”

His voice had turned cold and it she stiffened at the tone. “We did,” she said, taking another fortifying swig from the bottle. The burn was less and the heat was more, and she knew if she kept this up she'd be too tipsy to say what she needed to. She probably should have eaten something to counteract the effects of the alcohol. Too late now. “Hancock...”

“Just put me out of my misery quick. I don't got it in me to be dragged along.”

“No...you don't understand. He...he says I should be with you.”

“He said...what?”

“That I should be with you. That he can't...can't be...”

Hancock turned, probably hearing the sadness in her voice the same as she did. Love shouldn't hurt, Honoria, she heard Nate's words echoing in her head. Another slug from the bottle chased the hurt and the memories away.

“Damn, Sunshine, he's a fool.” He wrapped an arm around her and drew her close, just as Nick had done. But his heat was so different, more tangible and permeating. She leaned against him, smelling leather and smoke and gunpowder. “So I'm just a consolation prize, is that it?”

She wanted to cry until the teasing quality of his words penetrated her misery. She scowled and whacked his chest with the flat of her hand, letting out some of her frustrations. He chuckled and held her hand in his own, keeping her from beating on him any more. “If that's how you want to be about it, maybe I won't bother,” she retorted.

“You don't really want to wake up this mug, Sunshine. I'd never wish that on anyone I...”

“That you what?” she asked when he stopped. He hit the bottle again, never letting his cradling arm drop from her.

“That I love.”

“How about letting me be the judge of what I want to wake up to?”

The tricorn brushed the top of her head as he tilted down to look at her. “You're crazy, you know that?”

“Hmph, Nick said that once too. Is it really so unbelievable that I can care about a man without caring what he looks...?” She didn't get any further into her tirade, because Hancock had tipped up her face so he could kiss her. His tongue swept against hers, tasting of bourbon and something sweet. Mentats, she thought. His personal preference for vice.

“Nora, if you really want me, I ain't gonna complain. I just want you to be sure,” he whispered against her lips. She curved hers into a smile.

“John Hancock, I want you like I've never wanted anyone...even Nick. You're infuriating, you're stubborn and you make stupid decisions without all the facts.” She held up a hand, forestalling his indignant response. “But you're also the only man in this wasteland that makes me feel whole, and safe and cared for. You're better and stronger than you think you are. Your moral compass is a bit crooked...but I don't mind that. Mine isn't any straighter.”

She pressed herself against him, pressed her mouth to his, cajoling him with lips and tongue to reciprocate. Both arms were around her now, holding her tight to him. When the kiss ended, he touched his brow to hers, searching her eyes with his own.

“Karma is bullshit,” he said.

“Why do you say that?”

“'Cause I don't deserve you, not after all I've done and said and done some more. I will do my damnedest not to make you regret it.”

“Oh, Hancock. Just be you, that's all I want. And maybe...promise me you won't run out on me at the first sign of trouble?”

“I won't do that again,” he said. “You deserved better than that. You still do. I still think you got some screws loose...or maybe Nick does.”

“Hancock, stop rambling.” She gave him a smirk, and saw that he liked it on her face. “Now...what are you planning to do about it?”

“This.”

He swept his hat off and tossed it down to the window sill next to the forgotten bourbon bottle. He turned with her in his arms and let them fall across the mattress. She giggled the whole way down, even when they thumped to a graceless heap on the makeshift bed. He wedged himself between her legs, bracing his weight above her so she wasn't crushed. He brushed back her hair and cupped her head, dropping feather light kisses all over her face. The room spun a little and she closed her eyes until it stopped.

“I love you, Honoria Wilcox, and I ain't gonna run from it ever again.”

“Good,” she whispered, looking up to find him so close that she could actually see the hidden irises of his eyes. She wriggled in his grasp, earning herself a darkly rewarding leer. “Now seal the deal.”

“Damn, when did you get demanding?”

She pulled him in close, lifting her legs to circle his hips. “Right about now.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Hancock undressed her slowly, taking his time between each article of clothing to kiss and caress every bit of skin he exposed. She shivered a bit as the night air hit her and he wished he had a blanket or sleeping bag or something.

“You didn't happen to bring up your pack, did you?” he asked. She shook her head at him, her eyes slightly dazed and unfocused.

“Why?”

“'Cause you're gettin' cold.”

“So keep me warm,” she said with a giggle, wiggling around trying to keep him close to her.

“Nora.” He pulled away from her suddenly, noting the comically bereft look on her face that was rather unlike her. “Are you drunk?”

She pouted as she thought, and as adorable as it looked on her, he felt himself drawing away further, his rampant need for her tempering into something less ardent. She giggled again, her arms suddenly thrown wide on the mattress. Her skin glowed like new cream in the soft glow of moonlight and he still ached at how lovely she was, but she wasn't just some random waster looking for one night's company. This was Nora, the woman he loved and didn't want to hurt or push too hard. The one who had been through hell – literally – and deserved so much better from everyone, including him.

Damn me for a sentimental fool, but I want it to mean something.

“Nora,” he said louder, catching her attention. “How drunk are you?”

“I have no idea,” she murmured. “I feel like I could fly.”

“Oh, Sunshine...” He scrubbed his hands over his face, kneeling between her legs and trying really hard to keep his nobler thoughts ahead of his lascivious ones.

“Whatsa matter, Hancock?”

“Nothin',” he replied, pulling his frockcoat off and spreading it over her partially naked body. “You should get some sleep.”

She pouted again. “You mean...you aren't...?”

He sighed and kicked his boots to the end of the mattress, laying down next to her but over the edge of his coat so that barrier was between them. “Not tonight.”

“But...why?”

“'Cause I ain't about to take advantage of you when you're drunk. We'd both hate me in the morning.”

“But...” She sat up then, holding the aged red coat to her chest like a blanket. “But I want you to.”

“C'mere,” he beckoned, opening his arms for her to curl into. She obliged, her hair tickling under his chin. He held her close, feeling the softness of her skin along her back and side. He really wished he had a blanket. It would be much cozier. “Don't think for a second that I'm runnin' or that I ain't gonna follow through. But not tonight. Not here. You should have a comfier bed, with pillows and sheets and...”

“Hancock,” she whispered. “I just want you.”

“And I want to make it special, Nor. I want it to count.”

He wondered if she understood what he meant. He'd had years of casual hookups and one night stands. Meaningless, emotionless sex. He didn't want that with her. And he wasn't a complete idiot. He'd pieced together some of her history. Between knowing her husband had been gay, and assuming her son hadn't been fathered by him, and the way she and Nick had been, well...it was pretty obvious how inexperienced she was.

“I...I guess I want that too,” she confessed softly, almost too softly for him to hear it. She shifted around in his arms so that she could see his face. “Hancock...I need to tell you something.”

“Go ahead.”

“Nick...he's...he's the only one I've been with.”

“Yeah, I kinda figured that out.”

“Before the war...his fiancee was...killed.”

“I remember you telling me this,” he prompted when she fell silent.

“After her funeral he...a few weeks after, he...he stopped by my apartment. He'd been working with CIT to get his brain scanned. Of course, now we know it was to make the synth he is today. But at the time...it was just...a paying job after the force let him go.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and stared off into the dark, seeing a past that had been obliterated with the bombs.

“What happened?”

“He told me about it, but I didn't...that is...I wasn't happy about it. I didn't see him again until it was almost done and he was getting ready to go back to Chicago. He came...he visited me at my apartment and I was so angry that he'd been let go from the police, and...and that Jenny had died...and...I was going to lose him...and he..we...”

“I take it it was only the once, and then he left because he felt like a jerk.”

“Something like that, I guess. Nick now has no memory of what happened afterwards, although he remembers...he remembers that night.”

“And Nate?”

“Nate knew, well, he suspected. He married me to give Shaun his name, and to protect himself...”

“Was it a crime or somethin' to be attracted to other men?”

“Yes, it was. He could have been thrown out of the army at the very least, or arrested and taken to a concentration camp. That happened sometimes. Or he could have just been 'accidentally' killed. We had to keep it a secret. No one knew except for a few trusted friends. Not even our families knew.”

Her hand sneaked out from under the cover of his coat and landed somewhere on his chest, her fingers clenched into the material of his shirt. Her face was streaked with tears. He wiped them away with his thumb, turning her to face him. “You said once that you thought he would have survived better out here in the ruins. And that might be so, but then we would never have met. And that woulda been a real shame.”

She smiled, watery and small, but warm. “You think so?”

“I know so, Sunshine. I would never have met the woman I love if he hadn't...”

“It's okay, you can say it.”

He rested his forehead against hers, his fingers still tracing the edges of her hairline, feeling the dampness of her tears. “Oh, Nora. What kind of bastard is selfish enough to be glad a man is dead so someone else could survive?”

“One who lives with life or death every day. It's not selfish to feel that way. I'd say it's practical. And I've learned you have to be practical out here.”

He snorted, but couldn't say she was wrong. He pressed a soft kiss to her lips and tucked himself closer to her body, cradling her. “I still really wish we had a blanket. Nights have gotten colder.”

She giggled, as he hoped she would, and rested her cheek against him. “Well, it is February, isn't it. I guess we really will have to keep each other warm, then.”

“Heh, you just still want to get me outta my pants.”

“Well...kinda.”

“So horny you'd go after a ghoul,” he teased. “Downright pitiful.”

She hoisted herself up onto an elbow so she could look into his eyes. “I love my ghoul,” she said seriously, no trace of playfulness in hers.

“We ain't in a rush to get there, Sunshine. I'm looking forward to takin' my time.” She pouted and he laughed. “You're the one who's impatient.”

“I've waited long enough to be with someone I...”

He silenced her with another kiss, this one deeper, parting her lips with his tongue and swallowing her sighs. She fell back to the mattress, pulling him with her, her arms around his neck. She didn't seem to mind his weight crushing her breasts and her legs moved restlessly against his.

“You don't really wanna know what I can do to you with all these people around, do you?” He felt more than heard her sharp intake of breath before she shook her head. “I didn't think so.”

“I'm going to hold to that, though,” she whispered, the last bit of liquid courage spurring her on. Cold sober she would probably have never said the words to his face and he smiled in the dark.

“You're on, Sunshine.” He tucked the edges of the coat around her so there were no drafts up her back and kept her close in his arms. “Now go to sleep.”

“Yes, dear.”

“Don't start.”