Danse did not like the upper markets of Diamond city. They were crowded, loud, and filled with far too many people who wanted to make a buck - or steal one. Unfortunately, it was the only place to get a decent meal besides the noodle stand and people generally sold for lower prices in order to compete with the more easily accessible markets in the city center. Vera always seemed far more at home that he, weaving effortlessly through the crowds. He lost sight of her often only for her to pop in from the side and grab him, towing him towards one thing or another. (Excusing one notable occasion where she had climbed onto a table and waved until he reluctantly wandered over, ignoring the looks the locals shot their way.)
Today was no exception. The sky was clear, no clouds to cover the relentless sun. It had been hot enough that Danse had been persuaded to leave his power armor locked in the station at Vera’s Diamond City apartment. Power armor saved a useful advantage when it came to almost anything else, but navigating the narrow boardwalk of the upper markets was not one of them.
He and Vera had wandered for a while, shopping and trading in preparation for tomorrow, when they’d leave the city behind. Well - Vera shopped and traded. More often than not, Danse just stood behind her with his arms crossed and glowered at anyone who wandered too close. Though he had a severe distaste for it, Danse had to admit that the upper markets had a lot more variety than the city square.
Most vendors sold junk - or repurposed junk, like one booth they passed which sold jewelry made out of silverware. A few had colourful woven scarves or shawls hanging from racks. There was even one corner of the market with a street artist. Danse had seen Vera drop a handful of caps in his collection case every time she passed.
After a while when her bags had grown full and available caps depleted, Vera turned to him and asked, “Want to get lunch?”
Danse shrugged. “You lead, I follow.”
Vera dipped her head and forged ahead. The mid level of the upper markets was a little less crowded with people but it had tables lining the boardwalk instead. Locals sat around, smoking and drinking. Vera darted forward to snag an empty table. She dumped her bag on a seat, said, “Guard this for me,” then slipped off again.
So Danse sat and waited. It had taken some getting used to, but Vera appearing and disappearing without warning seemed like a normal occurrence now. They’d been traveling together long enough that it didn’t surprise him in the least anymore. Sure enough, about ten minutes later Vera returned with two plates laden with food, which she set on the table. This, Danse could admit, was the good part about the upper markets. Actual, fresh, appetizing food, unlike the flavorless stew they had to live with on the road.
“What’s the plan for tomorrow?” she asked, grabbing her drink.
“Fallon’s,” Danse said. “There’s a super mutant hive that’s set up camp.”
Vera groaned. “God. I hate mutant hives.”
“I do too, but Maxson actually gave us orders this time. We’re to go there and clear it out.”
“There can’t be anything technologically advantageous to the Brotherhood in a department store,” Vera said.
Danse hitched a shoulder, taking a bite of his food. “Think of it as a public service,” he suggested.
“Cleansing the commonwealth,” Vera sighed. “Inch by inch, mile by mile.”
“I guess you better have all your errands done by the time we leave tomorrow because we won’t be back for a while.”
“Oh, that does remind me.” Vera set down her glass. “I want to stop in with a friend while we’re here.”
As far as he knew, the only friends Vera had in Diamond city were Piper and the synth detective, Nick, neither of whom he liked. Neither of whom liked him very much, either. “Who?”
Vera pointed down the boardwalk to the lone shop on this level. “My friend Tuck works in the Ink Spots parlor,” she said. “I wanted to drop in and say hi.”
“A tattoo parlor?” Danse asked, raising an eyebrow.
Vera grinned, reaching across the table to nudge him, mistaking his incredulity for interest. “I could probably get you a discount in case you wanted to get inked.”
Danse rolled his eyes. “No thanks.”
“What? They’re not that painful.”
“You have a tattoo?” Danse asked dubiously, looking Vera up and down. It was hard to imagine this woman, who had once cried over getting stitches, sitting in a dingy tattoo parlor while some unsavory individual marked her body for life.
“Yep,” Vera said, popping the P. She picked at her food, separating a mutfruit segment from the rest. “I’d show you, but I don’t want to drop my pants in the middle of the upper markets.”
“Knight,” Danse said disapprovingly. He sat back, crossing his arms.
Vera rolled her eyes. “Oh, relax. It’s on my leg, you prude.”
His eye twitched. Vera’s eyebrow lifted, no doubt wondering if he’d rise to the bait. When he wasn’t forthcoming, she shrugged. “If it offends you so much, you can head back to the apartment. I’ll meet you there.”
“It doesn’t offend me. I’m baffled at the thought of why anyone would want to get tattooed in a place like this.”
Vera leaned across the table. “You might not want to say that so loudly, considering we’re staying in a place like this.”
Danse rolled his eyes again and stood. “Let’s go.” Vera gathered up their mess to deposit at the cafe bar and joined him. He gestured forward for her to lead the way. The upper tier was significantly less crowded than the market below, but Danse still struggled to keep up with her as she weaved through the crowd.
She stopped next to the open parlor with a flickering red neon sign on top that read Ink Spots. and Danse took up a position outside but even he couldn’t resist a curious glance inside. The Ink Spots parlor was surprisingly clean and well kept. Bottles of ink lined the walls. Several different tattoo guns rested on the counter next to neatly wrapped bundles of needles. There was a gurney in the middle of the space where a man was currently lying on his stomach, whimpering as a detailed deathclaw skull was being inked onto his back in dark red.
The artist was bare chested. Lines upon lines of black were inked in neat rows across his brown skin. His right arm was completely covered from wrist to shoulder in lines. He bopped along to the record player in the corner, yet his hand was steady as he worked. Vera was grinning as she leaned in. “Hey, Tuck.”
The artist looked up from the man he was currently inking when Vera knocked on the counter. A smile spread across his face as he spied Vera standing by the door. “Vera Day! You finally gonna let me ink you?”
“Not today, Tuck. Don’t think my boss would appreciate it.” She jerked a thumb back at Danse, who just shook his head, snorting in exasperation.
Turning back to her friend, Vera said, “Just wanted to drop in and say hello.”
Tuck lifted his tattoo gun to his forehead in a mock salute. “Well I appreciate the gesture, miss Day.”
“You added any lines since I saw you last?”
Tuck raised an arm, showcasing the series of neat, straight lines along the bottom of his forearm. “Eighteen.”
“Business is booming.”
He grinned, lifting his chin. “I’m saving the space over my heart for you, baby.”
Vera laughed. “Some day, Tuck. Some day.”
“I’ll see you around, Day.”
“See you, Tuck.”
Vera turned back to Danse. Together, they began the walk down from the stands towards Vera’s apartment. Vera whistled along to the radio as they walked. “So,” Danse started. “What’s your tattoo?”
“Aha,” Vera said slyly. “So you are curious.”
“I never said I wasn’t,” he said. “Besides. I could tell you were dying to talk about it.”
“Was not!” Vera shoved at him with her elbow and he smiled a little. She turned her nose up when she saw it. “It’s flowers, if you must know.”
“Flowers,” he repeated, somewhat mystified. The only flowers he’d seen were the small, dull orange carrot flowers or the blue thistle heads of hubflowers, neither of which he could imagine Vera getting permanently etched into her skin. But, judging by her personality, thistles might be fitting.
Vera shot him a curious look as she unlocked the door to her apartment. “What’s that smile about?”
“Nothing,” he said.
Inside, they separated to tend to their separate chores. Vera went off to count and refill ammo while Danse grabbed his tools and headed out to work on his power armor. It needed work before they headed out in the morning. Yet something distracted him as he hammered out dents in the plates and polished them to an almost mirror shine. His mind kept straying to the mystery flowers Vera supposedly had inked on her leg. The more he thought about it the more wildly out of character it seemed. A woman who self professedly hated pain and hated violence? Sitting in that parlor?
A fist banged against the chest piece of his armor and Danse looked up, shading his eyes from the sun. “You’ve been out here for a while,” Vera said. “I made dinner. It’s inside when you’re ready.”
Danse sat back on his haunches, dropping the wrench he’d been using to tighten the bolts on his armor. He grabbed a cloth from his toolbox and began scrubbing oil and grime off his hands. “I’ll be in in a minute.”
“What are you thinking so hard about?”
Tossing the rag aside, Danse said, “Nothing.”
Vera lifted an eyebrow, pursing her lips. Her gaze seemed strangely perceptive as she straightened. “Alright,” she said. "Thinking about an awful lot of nothing today," She tossed over her shoulder as she went back inside. Danse had a weird feeling that she knew exactly what had been on his mind.
They headed out in the cool grey morning while the mist was still thick in the air. Vera forewent her usual bomber jacket in favor of something a little thicker and wrapped a scarf around her neck. Still, she shivered as they left out of Diamond City and started south.
The morning was mostly uneventful, with only a brief encounter with raiders when they had passed Hardware Town. Around noon, Vera called for a break by a truck stop. She dumped her bag next to a pickup sitting by the side of the road and untied the scarf from around her neck. She shook her jacket loose and knelt to shove it into her bag, removing a bottle of water to make room.
Danse idled, staring down the road while Vera worked. “Want anything to drink?”
“I’m fine,” Danse said, eyes fixed on the dark interior of the gas station. Something inside the truck stop rattled, disturbed by Vera’s quiet muttering and the heavy clank of Danse’s armor. He frowned and stepped towards the truck stop. “Vera,” he said.
She looked up, blowing a piece of hair away from her face. “What?”
Just as he was about to tell her to grab her rifle, a ghoul appeared in the darkened doorway of the truck stop. Danse stiffened. It squinted in the light, growling. Before it could get it’s bearings and charge them, Danse’s rifle snapped up and he shot it center mass.
It stumbled, collapsing into the dirt, dead. Vera said, “Maybe that was the only one.” But she grabbed her rifle anyway.
There was a rattle, a groan, as three more crawled out from various places around the truck stop. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Danse sighed.
He dispatched one closest to him easily enough, but the other two screeched in anger and charged him. Vera backed up across the road, the crack of her rifle echoing across the empty street as she took one in the head. It fell sideways, momentum carrying it forward even as it’s brains spilled onto the dusty soil. The other one reached Danse before he could shoot it, throwing itself bodily into his armor. He grunted, hitting it away and shooting it before it could right itself. “Easy enough,” Danse said, flicking the safety on his rifle as the ghoul withered and burned.
Whirling around, Danse found Vera grappling with a fourth ghoul he hadn’t noticed before. It was bearing down on her, scrabbling at her arms with blunt nails. Her rifle was trapped between the two of them, unreachable. Vera’s hand was pressed against its face, trying to shove it away as it’s lipless jaw clicked in anticipation. She stumbled, boot catching on a loose patch of gravel and the two of them went toppling down. The feral ghoul reared back to strike and Danse shot it three times in the spine.
The ghoul shuddered, then collapsed on top of Vera. The corpse smoked, blood burbling as it cauterized in the open air. It shivered as Vera tried to shake it off her body. Danse hurried over, grabbing the mostly ruined body and lifting it just as Vera cried, “Wait!”
The stomach of the ghoul split and slopped out in the back, landing directly in Vera’s lap - along with all it’s other organs and the vast majority of its blood. Vera covered her mouth as Danse stared at the gory mess now steaming in the afternoon air.
“How-” he started, and was interrupted by Vera.
“Because you shot it in the goddamn back!”
Danse dropped the body off to the side and helped Vera up, nose wrinkling at the smell of decay. Her clothes squelched as she moved. “We’re stopping,” she declared. He opened his mouth, but Vera held up one bloody hand. “Stopping.”
Unfortunately for Vera, the nearest river was at least half a mile away. She’d scrubbed the black blood off her face and hands with a can of purified water, but the mess was so ingrained in her clothes that a bath was the only option.
Their walk was silent, interrupted occasionally by Vera picking off bits of gore from her shirt and flicking them off to the side. Danse, to his credit, offered to hold her gear and clean it when they stopped. Vera had just nodded. When he’d asked why she wasn’t speaking, she’d muttered through gritted teeth, “I think I’ll throw up if I open my mouth."
As soon as the sound of rushing water met them, Vera dumped her bag in the shade of a tree and began stripping. "Knight!” Danse cried as she peeled off her sticky, formerly white shirt and hurled it to the side. He turned promptly around. “Put your uniform on!”
“I am not existing another moment in these clothes,” she snapped. “You can sit there with your back to me if you want. I don’t care.”
He stood there for a good thirty seconds before sighing and dropping his things. Danse disengaged his armor, sitting with his back to the river. True to his word, he began disassembling Vera’s rifle and freeing it of any and all dried feral ghoul blood. It was a welcome distraction from the sound of Vera’s clothes being shucked off.
Vera sighed from behind him. “Oh, thank god.”
Danse twitched. “Please don’t get ambushed by mirekurks,” he said as he heard her wade into the water. “Or…anything else, really.”
“You’re right there. Are you seriously telling me you wouldn’t turn around to fight if something did show up?”
Danse lifted his eyes to the sky, blood rushing to his face. It was like this woman’s personal mission was to antagonize him. “I would,” he said. “I’m just hoping I don’t have to.”
Vera sighed. The sound of her splashing resumed. Danse finished cleaning her rifle, so he set it aside and turned his attention to his own. His didn’t nearly need as much fine tuning as hers, but it was something to do other than sit and twiddle his thumbs.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“…Depends,” he said warily. “What is it?”
“I left my soap in my bag and I need to wash out my clothes. Can you hand it to me?”
Danse let out a tiny, frustrated growl. Be briefly considered closing his eyes just to avoid the awkward exchange but Vera would probably make more fun of him for that. So he heaved himself up, sucked in s breath, and turned around.
It was immediately not as bad as he had anticipated. Vera was standing thigh deep in the water, soaking wet but very clearly not naked. She’d at least had enough foresight to put on underwear first. On her hip, just barely visible, were clear, finely inked black lines. He couldn’t see the rest, hidden by the water as it was, but Danse could tell enough that there was at least one of three large flower blossoms, forever frozen in full bloom across her leg. They weren’t the small, wrinkled petals of carrot flowers or even the spiked heads of thistles. They were something else entirely. Vera cleared her throat pointedly.
Blushing, Danse rummaged through her bag until he found what she needed, then walked to the edge of the river to hand it to her. A pair of fresh clothes had been hung on a tree branch overhanging the river, her ruined ones heaped in a pile on the riverbank with little care for the mud.
“Thank you,” Vera muttered, grabbing the soap and her ruined shirt, setting to work scrubbing out the bloodstains from the fabric. After a moment, when he had not returned to sitting with his back to her, Vera glanced up. “I thought you didn’t like tattoos.”
“I never said that,” Danse said, feigning disinterest as he turned back around. “I said I wouldn’t want one myself."
"They really don’t hurt.”
“It isn't the pain that’s the problem. I don’t want someone marking me permanently. Besides, it’s hardly sanitary.”
“That’s fair.” A beat. “What if it was required by the Brotherhood?”
“That’s a ridiculous hypothetical,” Danse said. “Why would it be required?”
“The Gunners do it,” Vera said. Danse could just hear her carefree shrug. “They tattoo their blood types on their forehead.”
“The Gunners and the Brotherhood are leagues apart,” he said, almost offended. He opened his mouth to continue when he heard her quiet chuckle. Danse sighed. “You’re antagonizing me.”
“Maybe a little.”
Twisting around, Danse stared her down as she hung up her pants to dry. She shrugged when she met his eyes. “It’s so easy,” she said innocently. “I have to get back at you for dumping dead ghoul on me somehow.” Vera came wading out of the water and Danse could see the full breadth of her tattoo. It spread from the top of her right hip all the way down to her knee. Three fully bloomed flowers took up the majority of her skin, jagged leaves and thorns filling in the gaps.
“You might really want to turn around now,” Vera said dryly. She snapped the strap of her bra and Danse blushed as he caught her meaning. He twisted back around, crossing his arms over his chest. After a moment, Vera walked into view, thankfully dressed. She dropped her boots on the ground and sat next to him. “They’re roses,” Vera said as she unpicked the laces and jammed her feet inside the boots. Danse cocked his head. “I saw you looking. I figured you were curious but weren’t going to ask, so I’m telling you. They’re roses.”
“I’ve never seen one,” he said.
“I doubt they exist anymore,” Vera sighed. She glanced at him. “I…saw a picture in a book and I liked them.”
“I would hope so,” he said wryly. “Because you’re stuck with them now.”
She grinned. “No kidding. Think we should hit the road again?”
Vera stood and grabbed his hand, hauling him up. She packed up her belongings as Danse climbed back into his armor. Shouldering her bag, Vera said, “Try not to dump anymore guts on me though.”