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Stella

 

 

 

The sight of the Goodneighbor neon sign was comforting in the thunderstorm. The h was flashing on and off, but it had pretty much always been like that as far as Stella could remember. Under it, not in neon but still slightly visible even in the darkness, the restaurant’s motto: Of the people, for the people.
She made her way to the other side of the street and hurried inside the small, old building. The bells above the door announced her arrival to exactly no one—the room was empty. Even MacCready had been too lazy to brave the storm.
“Stella, lovely, I was starting to worry,” a voice said on the other side of the wall, coming from the opening to the kitchen. Hancock. From what she could hear, he was busy making himself one of his famous tomato-bacon sandwiches.

Hancock was her boss, and Stella loved him. Actually, almost everybody loved him. He was generous, he was a good fucking human being. At the age of 24, he had bought an old diner bar and had turned it into a place where people could eat very decent food for practically nothing. And if you came in here and had no money to pay for it—no problem. Hancock had your back. You could come back another day and pay later, and if you never came back, it was okay too. John Hancock was born in a wealthy family, but he was definitely not the typical rich guy. He ran a blog that condemned the actions of large companies or corrupted politicians—including his own brother, the mayor of their city. Most people didn’t know they were brothers because Hancock’s real last name was McDonough, but if he trusted you, was most likely to tell you about his childhood, and how Mayor McDonough used to be a fun little boy and they built houses in trees. And that now he was being a racist, sexist and idiotic piece of shit.
Stella pushed the door leading to the kitchen and found her boss sitting on the counter, wearing ripped jeans and an old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, eating a sandwich.
“I didn’t get hit by lightning, if that’s why you were worried,” Stella joked, taking her jacket off. She crossed the kitchen and put her bag and jacket in her locker, didn’t lock it, and went back.
“Charlie’s not here,” Hancock said rather pointlessly. “I mean, he was gonna come in but I called him and told him to stay home. Same with Daisy.” Charlie Whitechapel was the night cook and Daisy was another waitress. Stella liked her a lot, she’d been the one training her. “Just you and I then,” Stella pointed out with a laugh. “And empty tables.”

She liked night shifts the best, because there was never really a rush, and she slept better during the day.
“I won’t mind if you nap on the couch or something,” Hancock told her after swallowing some diet coke. “I’ll still pay you.”
“I know, John. But I’ll do some cleaning around the dining room. If that’s alright.”
“Are you kidding? You don’t have to ask permission to clean, Stella. I told you. Goodneighbor’s your second home, and we’re your second family, and you do anything you want.” He paused, drinking more coke. “Except sex on the counter or the tables and especially not in my office—you keep that for the back alley if possible.”
They both laughed as Stella opened a door leading to a storage room where she found everything she needed to clean. She started immediately because she didn’t like being paid just to stand there and do nothing. Hancock could do it because he was the owner, but she wasn’t like that. Since she mostly worked nights, she’d been doing a lot of cleaning, and she was satisfied to see the place was considerably cleaner now.
She started by the windows while Hancock was infusing some coffee for her and rolling himself a joint at the same time. She took long pauses in between everything, sometimes stopping so she could serve lonely clients who most likely just wanted to stay in a dry, warm place for a few minutes. That night, with every coffee that was ordered, Hancock gave away a free dessert, or a bowl of soup. It made people smile.

What Stella liked the most about this job here was that exactly—the expression on someone’s face when she told them this piece of cake was on the house, or when she gave them a second bowl of soup and told them it was for free. When those little things happened, and bless John Hancock’s soul, they happened often, she felt happy, she felt at peace.
By four in the morning, Stella was washing the floors and the storm was mostly over, but it still rained. Hancock was just waking up from a little nap and making more coffee, stepping on the tip of his toes so he wouldn’t ruin her clean floors.
“Have plans for the day?” he asked, sticking his head by the kitchen opening to see her.
“Nah,” she replied, looking up. “I’ve got laundry to do.”
He smiled. Hancock was, and there was no denying that, an attractive man. Tall and lean, he had large brown eyes and long hair of the same color he usually wore in a bun. His face wasn’t particularly symmetric, but he had a great smile with surprisingly white teeth. He was also the kind of guy who was extremely open about sex, and at first it had made Stella not uncomfortable exactly, just, maybe… wondering about stuff. Stuff like: would I bang my boss?
And when she had come to terms with the fact that yes, she would most likely do it, and Hancock would probably had been down for it too, things had been easier. He wasn’t any flirtier with her than he was with Daisy or Kleo or Charlie or even Rufus for that matter, but Stella wasn’t used to that kind of attention, or being called nicknames like lovely or beautiful. And since she hadn’t known at first if he did it in a sexual way or not, it had unsettled her. But now she had it all figured out: Hancock was a little bit in love with everybody. He saw good and beauty in everyone. Didn’t mean he was fantasizing about fucking his employees, it just meant he cared about them deeply. She was almost sure he and Daisy had done it at least once though. But Daisy wouldn’t admit it. At least not sober.

When she was done cleaning the floor, Stella went back to the kitchen and washed her hands. As she was drying them with paper that scraped the skin off her limbs, she heard the bells on the door and looked up. Of course. Right now. She was just done making everything perfectly clean and someone had to put mud all over everything. Nice. Awesome.
And it wasn’t just someone, it was two regulars. A couple, she figured, because they were almost always together. Two big guys—could have been brothers maybe, except she was pretty sure they were banging each other. Hard. They just looked like it.
And Stella didn’t necessarily like them, but they always tipped well.
She threw the paper in the trash and looked briefly in the mirror to make sure her hair and lipstick were still in place, then she grabbed the coffee pot and went back to the other side of the wall.
“Good morning,” she said with her most pleasant voice as the two sat at their usual table. “Do I bring menus?”
“No need to,” said the one with the most hair and the dark eyes. “Same as always.”
She nodded and proceeded to fill their mugs with coffee. Sometimes, she forgot why she didn’t like them, but right now she knew exactly why—they just observed her. It was like they were spying on her or something. They checked every single of her move. And they didn’t talk very much. It was always awkward and she didn’t like awkward.
Think about the lovely tip waiting for you at the end of this, she thought, and forced a smile on her face.
“So, um, because of the weather, Charlie’s not here today,” she added. “It’ll take just a little longer. Can I offer anything while you wait? We have nice pastries.”
He’s making my breakfast, isn’t he?” shouted the one with the I-want-to-be-a-hipster haircut and the blue eyes, his head turned towards the kitchen. “Better be good, Hancock.”
“I’ll spit in your fucking eggs, Maxson,” Hancock’s voice echoed from behind the wall. The two clients chuckled and shook their heads. That kind of conversation was happening all the time in this restaurant. Nothing unusual. She didn’t know those men, but they obviously knew Hancock and he knew them, but she didn’t ask questions. Didn’t need to, didn’t want to. Hancock knew a whole lot of people.

Stella gave them some cream for their coffee and disappeared in the kitchen again to help her boss. He was already frying four eggs with onions and bacon. She grabbed four slices of bread and threw them in the toaster.
“The one on the right likes his bacon crispy,” she pointed out.
“Really? Didn’t used to when he was a kid. It’s been a while since I’ve cooked him breakfast. Alright. I’ll crisp his bacon so you get your tip, love.”
She helped him put the food in the plates but they didn’t spit on it, although Hancock did consider it for a second or two before sending her in the dining room. She put the plates in front of the clients and went to get them more coffee. As she was pouring it in their mugs, the one with less facial hair, the brown eyed one, talked to her.
“So, you’ve been working here for about what, two months now?”
“Two and a half,” she replied.
“What did you do before that?” He was spreading butter on his bread, not paying much attention to her but still waiting for an answer. Clients loved small talk, and Stella didn’t hate it, but it was the end of her shift and she was tired.
“I was a barista. Starbucks,” she said. She had hated that.
“Ah, okay. Just saying, your training with Daisy—it shows. Doesn’t look that you’re new.”
“Thanks,” she said between her teeth. She didn’t consider herself ‘new’ anymore, not after almost three months at Goodneighbor. “Enjoy your breakfast, I’ll be back soon.”

When she was in the kitchen again, she looked over her shoulder and saw the both of them using their phones from one hand and eating with the other. Hancock was gone—probably locked up in his office to either write a passionate blog post or take a nap or smoke a joint, or maybe watch Star Wars—so she started the breakfast preparations for when Kleo would get here. Preparing coffee filters and orange juice didn’t take forever, so Stella made herself go over to the two clients and offer them coffee. The hipster one shook his head, eyes on his gold iPhone, but his boyfriend pushed his mug closer to her.
“Thank you,” he said when she was done. “Can I ask for your name?”
She almost said no, but ignoring the train of mud they had left behind them on the immaculate floor, she smiled. “Stella.”
“Well. Thank you Stella. Great service.”
“Sure.” She didn’t know if they were making fun of her or something. “No problem. Thanks.”
She left them after that. Kleo arrived as they were leaving. Kent was with her too, he worked in the kitchen. Kleo was a tall, gorgeous woman with a flashy personality and Kent was shorter and shy, but she liked them both.
“Sure you don’t need a ride?” Kleo asked Stella as she was putting on her jacket. “Hancock will drive you home.”
“I’m fine, you know I like walking,” Stella said.
Before leaving, she went to the now empty table and gathered the money. It had cost the two men eighteen dollars and they had left two twenties. She took one for her and put the other one in the cash register, then she headed out.

The rain wasn’t bad, not anymore. Stella still hurried as much as she could, tired and impatient to shower and go to bed. She’d probably skip her meal just because she was that tired.
It was still a little dark so early in the morning and this part of town wasn’t very passing, so she particularly noticed the car following her. It slowed until it matched her speed, and Stella pretended she was using her phone so it wouldn’t look weird if she didn’t acknowledge the car.
She was used to that—she kept a pocket knife in her purse and was willing to use it if it ever came to that. The scratched screen of her four years old HTC phone filled with raindrops. In the silence, she heard the electric sound of a car window rolling down.
“Hey, Stella,” a male voice called. “Need a ride?”
She looked up from her phone, startled. A dark car had stopped next to her in the empty street. The man talking to her had been one of the two she’d just seen at Goodneighbor. The other one, the one with a gold iPhone, was sitting on the passenger seat, silently staring at her.
“Are you kidding me?” she replied. “Do I look stupid?”
“What?” the dark eyed man said, confused. The other one seemed amused.
“Look, thanks for the tip, really—it’s appreciated,” she started. “But I’m not getting into a stranger’s car. That’s like, rule number one for safety. Thanks though. Have a nice day.”
The guy seemed to hesitate, but his boyfriend said something she couldn’t catch. He nodded at her and rolled the window up, then the car took some speed and went past her. It was an Audi. Very recent model.
Well! Looks like her only chance in life to ever get into such car was gone. At least she didn’t have to use her knife on these guys. Not that she would stand any chance because they both looked like they visited the gym six or ten days a week. Still.

When Stella reached her apartment complex, the sun was going up behind the clouds and she was soaking wet and shaking from the cold rain. She opened her bag and looked for her keys, and when she couldn’t find them she used the light on her phone to make sure she didn’t have them. She didn’t. She had a knife but she had left her keys somewhere inside her apartment, most likely on the kitchen counter.
She sighed and allowed herself a few seconds to breathe in. Then she pressed the call button for the apartment number 4—her neighbor’s. A yellowish light was showing the complex’s name next to the door: Sanctuary Apartments.
Just a few seconds later, she was buzzed in. She heard a door being opened upstairs and she made her way up as silently as she could. In the doorframe of his apartment, Preston Garvey was looking at her with a desolate smile on his face, holding a key for her door. He was wearing a nice shirt but green PJ bottoms. He was a high school teacher and always woke up early. And since she kept forgetting her keys, he was the one that had her doubles.
“Sorry,” she whispered, taking the key to unlock her door and immediately giving it back to him. “Thanks, Preston.”
“I’ll always be there at five in the morning for you,” he smiled. “Goodnight.”
“Have a nice day at work, Preston.”
He thanked her and they got in their respective apartments. Hers smelled vaguely of coffee. Stella turned on a few lights and went directly for the bathroom where she stripped off her work clothes and jumped in a warm shower. Since she almost fell asleep standing under the water, Stella finished rinsing her hair, she got out and headed directly to bed.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

 

Stella didn’t like Halloween, at least not anymore.
After the accident, she’d spent every Halloween in her apartment with the lights off and a bottle of liquor.
This year was different, she thought, as her boots clicked on the wet sidewalk. All around her, witches and Spider Men—she even saw a few Justin Biebers. Soon enough though, there would be no children anymore, and the streets would be filled with drunk adults or worse, teenagers. The very thought of that made her walk faster so she could reach Goodneighbor as fast as possible.
When she finally saw the familiar neon sign, she sighed in relief and made her way through the passing street into the restaurant. It was full. Daisy had told her to expect a busy night, and it was exactly why Hancock hadn’t been able to give her the night off. Or maybe he just didn’t want her alone at home with a considerable amount of whiskey. Anyway. The dining room was so chaotic she barely heard the bells over the door as it closed behind her. Stella breathed deeply and reached for the inside of her purse where her fingers found a bottle of Xanax. She didn’t take one just yet, but she wouldn’t hesitate if she needed it. After all, she had insisted on not working tonight. And Hancock was stoned most of the time—he would have to take her on her anxiety pills or not at all.

She went to the back of the restaurant, into the kitchen. Both Kent and Charlie were there, cooking pasta or flipping burgers or stirring gigantic pots of soup. It smelled good.
Goodneighbor didn’t have the most distinguished cuisine, but its food was comforting and made with love. When Kent made it. Charlie, an old bitter English man with a stupid goatee, didn’t make anything with love, except complaining about sports.
“Thank God you’re here,” Daisy told her when she entered the kitchen too. “MacCready just got here with his son—would you mind taking their table right now? I’ve got a group of eight waiting on their orders.”
“Sure.” Stella took off her coat and adjusted her white dress. It had been clearly specified that she had to come in wearing a costume, and the only one she could find was an angel. Cliché, stupid, and not suiting. A shimmering white dress, too short honestly, with wings that Daisy hurriedly attached on her back before kissing her cheek and running back in the dining room. The costume came with a hair accessory—her halo. She put it on and looked at herself in the mirror of her locker. She still had her gold lipstick on and her eye makeup of the same color seemed to be holding on.
She might just take a Xanax after her first table.

Stella grabbed a handful of candy from a large bowl and went at Mac’s table. She had to slow down to breathe when she saw him with Duncan. She loved children—it just hurt her to see them. But Mac looked so happy tonight, dressed as Captain America, helping his son sitting on the bench that was too large for him. Mac wasn’t spending a lot of time with his son, not after Lucy’s—his wife—death. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. Or at least, that’s what Daisy had told her. Tonight apparently was an exception, and the both of them looked delighted. “In Odin’s name, is that—Thor?” she exclaimed, putting her hand in Duncan’s hair. “I’m so glad you’re here guys, we needed a couple of Avengers to eat that.”
Stella gave Duncan all the candy and he actually let go of his foam replica of Mjölnir to look at it.
“Hey buddy, don’t eat that before we get our food,” MacCready warned. “Hi Stella. Nice dress.”
“Thanks. So what is it gonna be?”
“Burgers I think,” Mac said. “You know how I like mine, and Duncan takes his with just ketchup in it. And apple juice.”

Stella turned around and placed her order in the kitchen. Then she went to four other tables and took their orders too. After a while though, she realized she’d stopped thinking about her pills just because she was so fucking busy. And it wasn’t all bad. Before they left, Duncan insisted on leaving one piece of candy to Stella as tip and he told her she was pretty. Stella almost cried, but didn’t, because she was in the middle of everyone and she didn’t want her gold makeup to get ruined. She would ask Mac when Duncan’s birthday was though, and she’d get him a really nice gift. Or take him to the zoo with his dad—that would be even more amazing.

Past one in the morning, things got quiet as always. Charlie left but Kent stayed along with Daisy because there was so much cleaning to be done. Daisy volunteered to do the cleaning, and Stella knew it was because she wanted her to have the tips. Stella would share with her though. Daisy was like her mom or something. In three months, she had turned Stella into a not just decent, but good waitress. She was the kindest person she’d ever seen, too. Always willing to help and just really sweet.
When the restaurant emptied itself, Stella hung out in the kitchen with Kent and Daisy for a break. She ate some of Kent’s lasagna—it was the best.

She was unwrapping a pink strawberry lollipop when the guys who had offered her a ride home two weeks ago entered. For the first time since she worked here, they were accompanied by other people. All of them wearing costumes.
“You take this one Stella,” Daisy insisted.
“You know I’ll give you half of whatever they give me, so what’s the point?” Stella sighed as the group of four sat at a long table. “And you know I don’t want to date and you shouldn’t send me to tables you feel there is a suitor there for me.” Stella was pretty sure they were gay anyway.
Daisy chuckled and added some rum to her coke. “Just go, darling. I’ll be right there.”
Stella didn’t hate them, she just didn’t like their attitude.
Hancock chose that time to come out of his office. He made himself a rum and coke and exchanged a long, meaningful stare with Daisy. He was wearing a ridiculous pirate costume.
“Stella, how much do you bet you can get one of them (he gestured towards the only clients) to either give you their phone number or give you over fifty bucks just for tip?”
“Oh my god, please,” Stella sighed, pouring rum in a glass and drinking all of it. “Guys, please.”
Daisy reached for Stella’s dress and pulled down so the cleavage was more noticeable. She risked a glance to the dining room. Stella did have a few of those rum and cokes and somehow the idea of trying to, not seduce but charm at least one person at that table was funny. With that extra money they would potentially give her, she’d get a huge bottle of liquor, get drunk on her own and cry. Another day.
Leaving the lollipop in her mouth, Stella grabbed four menus and went to the clients. The dark eyed one immediately stared at her breasts before looking away. She almost laughed, but made herself smile instead and leaned to give everyone their menu. Yep—show some of those boobs, love, she thought in Hancock’s voice.

“Hi everyone,” she greeted, playing with the lollipop in her mouth. “Had a great Halloween?”
“Sure, it was really fun!” one girl replied. She was pretty. Petite, blonde, clear eyes. She seemed to be dressed as Katniss Everdeen. There was a toy bow and arrows on the empty seat next to her. She was the only girl too. The guy Stella didn’t know had a construction worker costume.
One of the two she knew, the dark eyed one, was dressed as a character from Metal Gear Solid, although she had never really been into that series and couldn’t remember the character’s name. His boyfriend was a cop. The uniform looked good on him.
“Nice,” Stella said. “Do I get you anything to drink?”
“Coffee I think for all of us,” the blue eyed guy said. Hancock had called him Maxson last time. His last name probably. “With water, please.”
“I’ll be right back.”

Hancock, Daisy and Kent were giggling in the kitchen. Stella couldn’t help but joining them even for something so damn stupid. She was tired and she could feel the strong rum and cokes in her blood. She waited until she didn’t laugh before going back in there with a coffee pot. At the same time, other clients arrived. Three men, in generic costumes—another construction worker, a Harry Potter and a football player. The table of four all ordered the same thing, hamburgers with fries, so she gave Kent the order and went to greet the other men.
These three were drunk and probably high on something strong. She gave them their menu and they asked her to stay by their side and help them pick something. To her left, she could see the cop guy staring at her.
Two wanted nachos and one wanted a pizza. She realized Hancock and Daisy had disappeared and while she was busy not thinking about what they were doing in his office, she ditched the lollipop.
“The four burgers,” Kent announced, pushing the plates towards her. She wasn’t having fun anymore. She couldn’t stop thinking about the pills in her locker and about the accident.
Stella absentmindedly delivered the four burgers and barely heard the thanks. Mostly because the three others were being loud and obnoxious. She decided to bring them their sodas—maybe that would make them shut up.

“Hey, angel,” the football one said. “Can I ask you something?”
Stella didn’t answer, she just stood next to their table, waiting. Her face was warm.
“Do you wanna come party with us after?” the man went on.
“I’m sure angels can give head good,” another one added with a laugh.
Stella reacted instantly. She grabbed the guy’s hair—the one that had made the gross comment—and pushed his head so it would hit the table. His two friends stood up and one of them went to shove Stella, but he barely touched her before the cop guy put himself between them, quickly followed by the Metal Gear Solid guy.
“I don’t want to hit you,” the one called Maxson said. “I’m sober, and you’re not. I can fuck you up. Now just go. Just leave.”
There was some protest. Harry Potter reached for him, but Cop Maxson grabbed his collar and pushed him on his two friends, sending the three of them on the floor. He hadn’t just pushed him, it was more of a throw, really. He was really strong, and that seemed enough to show the jerk trio it was in their best interest to leave. So after a little more yelling and some insulting, they were gone.

“You okay?” cop guy asked Stella, looking intensely at her.
“Yeah. Yeah, sure.” She wasn’t sure. She didn’t feel good. She felt filthy and like she needed a shower even if they hadn’t even touched her.
Stella entered the kitchen again, distracted. She went straight to her locker, then her purse, then her Xanax. Her shaking hands opened the bottle and she swallowed two pills.
The little thing that had just happened—it made her miss Nate.
Thinking of Nate’s name was even worse, and it inevitably made her think of Shaun. Shaun. It had been a while since Stella had actually allowed herself to think of that name.
I should have stayed home with that whiskey bottle, Stella told herself. With a whiskey bottle, she would have cried for two hours, maybe three, then passed the fuck out on her sofa.
Way better than coming to work.
Behind her, Kent was talking to Metal Gear Solid guy. Snake. That was the character’s name. Or something like that. And on the other side of her, the door leading to the back alley was being opened and Hancock stood outside in the back alley with Daisy, smelling strongly of pot. Stella was feeling disconnected from reality. She needed to get out of here. She needed to go home and sleep. Tomorrow she would feel better. Probably.

Taking the halo off her hair and ripping the wings off her dress, Stella listened to the various conversations happening around her.
“I’m driving you home, love,” Hancock was saying. To her, but she didn’t reply.
“Hancock, you’re too drunk,” Daisy pointed out. “Michael, would you mind driving Stella back? She’s a little… unstable.”
They kept talking like she wasn’t there. And who the fuck was Michael anyway?
Stella looked around, but she was hearing a ringing in her ears. It came from inside her head, but at least while it was there, it was too loud to let her think about Shaun.
“We got her,” Snake replied. Michael.
Unstable. As in—a minor incident could send her into a deep, uncontainable panic attack?
“I need a drink,” Stella managed. Hancock objected at first, until Daisy poured liquor in a glass and helped Stella drinking it. She also made Stella sit down on a chair in the dining room.
“Stella, this is Michael, he’s my friend,” Daisy said. “I’ve known him for a little while now and he drives me places when I need it. He’ll take you home. You understand why you can’t go alone?”
Stella nodded. She knew that when the pills would hit, they would hit hard. She let Daisy help her putting her coat and her boots on. Daisy was still talking to the Michael person. Talking about her.
“She has… issues. Some kind of PTSD, Michael. She might cry, you just let her cry, but make sure she gets home safe. She has pills—they will do the rest.” She specified Stella’s address.
“I’ll call you when I’m on my way back,” the Michael person said. He had a soft, low voice. Then he turned to his boyfriend.
“We’ll get an Uber,” the cop guy informed him. “See you later.” He tossed a keychain to Michael.

Stella followed Michael outside and he led them to the Audi she had seen him in. He opened the car door for her and helped her fasten her seat belt. Her fingers were shaky and weak. When he was done, he closed the door and sat behind the wheel. The car roared when he started it. Stella watched the Goodneighbor neon sign disappear in the mirror. It seemed she felt better already, just by not being there.
“I’m Danse,” Michael said after a few minutes.
“What?”
“Nobody except Daisy actually calls me Michael,” he specified. “Just call me Danse. With an S.”
“Ah, okay.” Stella paused. “Is this your car, or your boyfriend’s? That’s a nice fucking car.” She was drunk, the pills were working their magic too. She didn’t even want to talk. She was tearing up and her voice was faint.
“My—what? Who?” He stopped at a red light and turned his face to look at her. She looked back. “You mean Arthur?”
“The cop.”
“Arthur’s not my boyfriend, we’re not gay,” he said as the light turned back to green. “He’s basically my brother. It is his car though.”
Ah. So they weren’t banging after all.
Stella was crying now, but she knew it was just her body reacting to all the stress she had felt during just a few seconds. She sniffed and Danse immediately took a tissue box from the glove compartment and gave it to her. He was calm. So goddamn calm. It kind of made her feel calm, too. He was a good driver.
Stella fell asleep when they were just a few blocks away from her place. When she woke up, the car had stopped and Danse had opened her door again and was undoing the seat belt. She pushed herself out of the car and lost her balance. She almost fell but stabilized herself on Danse’s arm. He didn’t even look annoyed with her.
“I can help you get inside,” he suggested. “If you want.”
She didn’t really want to, she would be embarrassed for a decade when she woke up tomorrow. But Stella wasn’t sure she would make it to the second floor. Maybe two pills AND liquor had been a little too much.

Danse held her arm and they made their way to the complex. She gave him her purse so he could search for her keys. He followed her instructions (the large, round key for the main door and the smaller, oval key for her door), and soon enough they were in her apartment.
He found the switch and the light blinded Stella. Danse put her purse and keys on the kitchen table and looked around.
“Where’s your bedroom?” he asked.
“Hallway. Second door.”
He had to hold most of her weight by now, but he didn’t seem to mind. Stella was practically asleep when she let herself fall in her bed, but she felt Danse removing her boots and softly pulling on her coat to take it off her. Then she heard the lock of her door, and the door closing and finally, that terrible day was over.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

Stella looked down the window. It was raining again and she missed summer already. She’d been born in May, and she was a summer person. Pools and shorts and green trees—that’s what she was into. Not grey skies and sad weather or even worse, snow.
She sighed, squeezing her phone in her palm. She looked at the damaged screen and opened her texts, then Hancock’s contact. The last message in the conversation had been from him, it said:
I’m sorry, love. So sorry. Take as much time as you need, just let me know when you’re ready to be back. We love you. She hadn’t replied to that when she first saw it, the very morning after her last episode five days ago. Because she didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t mad at Hancock, or at Daisy for that matter—Daisy had visited her twice since November 1st, apologizing profusely for ‘not being there when it happened’ or ‘insisting on her coming in on Halloween even if she didn’t want to’.
But Stella really wasn’t mad at them. It wasn’t their fault. She was often sucked into her past, unable to detach herself from it. Especially during her episodes.

Now, Stella’s bank account was begging her to go back to work. She knew she could borrow money from Hancock if she needed some for her rent, but she’d rather not.
She had to get over it. She had to just fucking get over it.

Stella closed her eyes, her forehead pushed against the cold glass. She breathed deeply and walked away from the window, into the second bedroom of her apartment. She didn’t use it as a bedroom, but she stored most of her belongings in there. She rummaged through the containers in the closet and found the one she was looking for. Years ago, someone had written NATE on it with a black sharpie pen. Might have been his mother. The ink was fading off now.
She opened the container and was immediately greeted by its familiar smell. It didn’t actually smell like Nate, but even after all this time, she could faintly make out the smell of their old apartment. It’d been in an aging building and everything had this familiar, typical old house odor.
On top of everything in the container was Nate’s uniform. She touched the fabric, sturdy and well-made. She pushed it away because that wasn’t what she was looking for, but an image of Nate in this uniform stuck in her head for a few seconds. He had been so proud to wear it. She could remember the tears in his eyes the moment he had to leave for his very first deployment.
She also found his dog tags, but tossed the metallic chain away too.
There were so many video games in there. Photo albums. Books. His gun, secured in a wooden box. But under all that, Stella found what she wanted. It was a smaller box, modest, plain and white. Her fingers brushed it as she hesitated, but she finally opened it.
Shaun.

Shaun had been such a small thing. A tiny ball of hope and love. Shaun was inside her as he died, killing a part of her at the same time. The small box contained just a few items.
She held her favorite one, an ultrasound photo. It showed Shaun three weeks before he died, when she was roughly six months pregnant. He was curled up on himself, his tiny hand closed in a fist. Otherwise, the picture looked like any other ultrasound, but he had been there. He had been alive. Inside her.
Nate had given his life to save both of them but it had failed. And now Shaun was dead and Nate was dead too, and Stella was all alone.
She wiped the tears off her face to look at the photo better. She also touched a small baby outfit she had kept—soft and green, with a smiling frog on it.
Nate had been murdered. Shaun had been murdered.
“I love you,” she whispered, putting all the things in their place into the containers.

Four years ago, on Halloween, Nate had been invited to a party by one of his friends. She was six months pregnant, but Stella wanted to go too. She wouldn’t drink, and they wouldn’t stay long anyway. So they both went. She had managed to craft a grandmother costume, a fat grandmother because of her belly, and it was hilarious. Nate was a rock star, with tight clothes and everything. They took pictures of themselves so they could show them to Shaun when he’d be older.
There were a lot of people in the streets so they parked somewhere and decided to walk to the party. And that’s when things got ugly. That’s when they heard the first gunshot.

Nate had immediately escorted her towards a safe place, but the guy had with the gun was pointing it anywhere and everywhere.
Nate had put himself between her and the first bullet, but he was dead by the time the second one was fired. The doctors hadn’t been able to save Shaun. She was fully awake when they cut her belly open and took him out. He was a bloody mess. She had seen the doctor’s face, too. And she had just known. That her baby was dead. His tiny body was limp and there was just so much blood. Hers and his.
They had done the funerals at the same time. Nate and Shaun now rested in a cemetery somewhere north of Boston and Stella had never visited their graves, except for when they had put her husband and her son in them. She had put flowers on each grave and never returned. That was probably the reason why Nate’s parents hated her now.

Stella pushed the large plastic container back in the closet and closed the door before going back to the living room. She grabbed her phone, reopened Hancock’s text message and tried writing to him but found herself unable to do it. She couldn’t tell him she was ready to go back to work because she wasn’t. She never had been, not since the accident. Obviously she had to work, because she needed money to live, but it cost her an enormous amount of energy every single day.
She wouldn’t text Hancock, she’d just get to Goodneighbor and see if there was anything she could do tonight. Some cleaning maybe.
She took a long shower and washed her light brown hair thoroughly. As she was brushing it and drying it in front of a mirror, she decided she missed summer even more now because in the summer her hair usually had a dirty blonde coloring. It looked good on her—maybe she should just dye it. Her hair. And feel good about it all the time instead of just a few months each year.

Yes, Stella thought as she was putting her uniform on (a black skirt with a white blouse). I’m gonna do that tomorrow. Tomorrow would be Saturday, maybe Preston could come in and help her do the back of her head if she couldn’t reach it properly. He would absolutely do that for Stella. He’d do it for anyone. And Stella would look happier and healthier. Didn’t mean she would actually be either of those things, but she’d looked as if. And it was good enough. Had she not been pretending for four years that she was okay?

When Stella was ready, she put her jacket on, grabbed her umbrella, phone and bag and went outside. It was past midnight and she didn’t meet anyone in the hallway and the sidewalks were pretty quiet to, which she appreciated. She listened to the sound of the rain hitting her umbrella and her boots clicking on the pavement. As much as she liked sunny days, she enjoyed those sounds a lot. It made her feel calm.
She turned a corner and saw Goodneighbor in the distance. The neon sign, he flashing h, a basically empty dining room because it was open four nights a week and it didn’t need to.
Instead of the panic Stella was anticipating, she felt content as she approached the restaurant.

The bells rang over her head as she closed her umbrella and pushed the door open with her shoulder. Her umbrella got stuck and she felt somebody holding the door open for her while she struggled with it.
“Thanks,” she muttered, not looking at them but pulling on the umbrella until it was all closed up.
“Hi, Stella. It’s good to see you again.” She knew that voice.
Stella looked up. Michael—no, Danse, was sitting at the table just next to the door and had passed an arm over the seat to hold the door. He was with his not boyfriend, who was also looking at her.
“Oh,” she mouthed, blushing. For some reason, now that she knew they weren’t gay for each other, she was way more sensible to the way they looked. “Hi guys.”
Danse let the door close itself as she was taking off her boots.
“Thank you,” she said. “You know. For taking me home.” Stella then looked at the other one. “And thank you,” she added, “for helping me with those three jerks.”
The Maxson guy nodded. Danse had a half-smile.
“Arthur, Stella loved your car, I forgot to tell you,” Danse said.
“Did she?” Arthur Maxson replied, slightly raising an eyebrow.
Stella cleared her throat because she didn’t know what to say. She nodded and smiled the best smile she could manage. They were both wearing their usual outfits; Danse a black t-shirt with dark jeans and Arthur (nerd name) had jeans on with a Nine Inch Nails hoodie. It wasn’t always the same hoodie so he must have many of those.

“Stella, love,” Hancock called from the kitchen. The three of them turned to look in that direction. Stella saw MacCready sitting at his usual table in a corner, earphones on and a book in his hands. Hancock pushed the kitchen door open and almost ran, hugging her tight when he got to her. She was still holding her boots and her umbrella, so it was a little awkward. Plus Arthur was staring at her the whole time.
When he let go of her though, Hancock grabbed her things and told her he was going to put them in her locker, make some coffee for her and give her some soup.
She followed him into the kitchen. Charlie was there, pouring a ton of soup in a large bowl for her.
“So, how’s it going?” Hancock asked, closing the locker.
“I’m okay,” she said. It might have been a lie. She hadn’t been okay for a while. “You’ll have me back?”
“Of course I’ll have you back!” He led her into the dining room again and put the soup at a table. “Kleo is taking a break, but you eat now. I’m so glad you’re back.”
“Thanks, Hancock.” She was going to sit down but Danse gestured her to come sit with them. She hesitated and looked around, as if she’d find answers in the empty restaurant, but ended up taking her bowl and sitting on the empty seat next to Danse.

“We need to talk,” Arthur said as soon as her goddamn ass was on that chair. “I want to offer you a job.”
Stella looked at him and then at Danse. As usual, they both had a very serious expression.
“What? I have a job.”
“We need a waitress too,” Arthur went on. “And we pay better.”
Stella decided to ignore them, just for a few seconds. It had been days since she tasted actual warm food and that broccoli and cheese cream was delicious.
Apparently, Arthur didn’t like her silence. She saw his fists closing over the table, next to where his phone was.
“Arthur owns a bar,” Danse told her. “It’s the best bar in Boston. You’d make great tips there.”
“I don’t understand,” Stella admitted. “Like, it doesn’t make any sense. You both saw me grab a drunk client’s hair and hit his face on a table.”
Arthur’s hands relaxed and he even had a faint chuckle.
“We’ve been looking at you for a little while,” he confessed. “But when I saw you fuck up that guy’s face, I knew you were the one we’ve been looking for. In my bar, no one is allowed to be disrespectful with my employees. No one.”
Stella let go of the spoon. It fell in the glass bowl with a loud noise, echoing in the dining room and sending a few drops of soup on the table.
“That’s very nice I guess, and I’m sure you’re a great boss, but I’m gonna have to pass.”
She even offered him a smile, but Arthur kept the same stern expression and his perpetual pout. Next to her, Danse shifted his weight and sighed.
“It’s the Prydwen,” Danse insisted. “The bar.”
“It could be the god fucking damn Bellagio in Vegas and it still wouldn’t make a difference,” Stella commented. She had heard of this Prydwen bar quite a lot, however. It had a great reputation. High prices, but apparently serving the best fries in the city and some great appetizers too. If some Hollywood person was in town, you might have a chance to see them at the Prydwen.
What an ugly ass name, though. But that all meant it was a really busy bar, and she just couldn’t do it. Or she could, until she died from a Xanax overdose.
“With the tips, you’d make double what you make here,” Danse said. “I’m not kidding. Maybe even more.”
“It’s far from where I live,” Stella pointed out. “And I like where I live.”
“We can arrange that,” Arthur guaranteed.

Stella grabbed her spoon again and ate a little more soup. It was very hot and burned her throat, reminding her of whiskey. She could go for a couple shots right about now.
Arthur fumbled around his pockets and found his leather wallet, from which he took a business card. It had a minimalist vibe to it, trendy but not too much. Went well with the guy’s hipsterish look and personality. It was a card for his bar.
“You should come visit us,” he invited. “As you can see, we’re open five nights a week and two afternoons.”
“Why me?” she asked.
“Because you fucked up that guy’s face, I told you,” Arthur said. “And because Daisy vouched for you. And she doesn’t do that often.”
Nothing else was said after that. Arthur got up, left some money on the table and got out. Danse went after him, only after saying goodbye to Stella and asking her again if she could visit the bar next week. She said maybe.

When they were gone, Stella finished her soup and went to her locker for her phone.
“Did you talk about me to the two muscular guys?” she texted Daisy. “They just offered me a job.”
Even at this time, the answer didn’t take long.
They said they were hiring and I told them I knew someone with skills, a strong personality and good looks….. I guess they agreed with me …. ;), Daisy sent back.
Stella sighed and threw her phone back into her locker.
She didn’t like busy nights at the restaurant because when they happened, she was more subject to to have anxiety attacks and long episodes she took forever to recover from.
But at the same time, the busier the night, the less she thought about the past, too. So it was a gamble.
So yeah, on the outside, a shiny job at a shiny bar with tons of clients looked like it might just be what she needed to keep her mind on anything but the bad things, but it was also awfully terrifying.
But even if she didn’t really want the job, and definitely didn’t want to hurt Hancock’s feelings, she was curious about the Prydwen now. She might save some money and pay it a visit next week.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

She didn’t like what the mirror was showing her. Stella normally didn’t mind her appearance that much, so why tonight? Why now?
Sighing, she took off the shirt and pants she’d been wearing and searched her closet to find something better. Yeah, maybe that outfit had been just a little too formal. After all, she wasn’t going to an actual job interview. She was just going out at a bar. Where they were hiring. For a job she had been offered. It wasn’t the same, right?

Her friend Piper was more interested in journalism than fashion, but Stella still sent her pictures of two outfits and asked for her opinion. She missed Piper—they both were really busy with work and didn’t really have time to catch up—but Stella knew she could still count on her even for little things like that.
While she waited for an answer, Stella took care of her hair. She had straightened it with her old iron, so she might braid it. Or not! She’d just let it loose because she never did that when she worked. And tonight was definitely not about work. Right.
I like the dress better, Piper wrote. Maybe with those black boots I like? You have killer legs. Show them!
A nice dress with ankle-length boots now seemed the best option to Stella. She put the dress on—it was dark green, had long sleeves and stopped mid-thigh. It made her eyes look greener. She added a long golden necklace to the outfit, with the very same boots Piper had advised, and Stella was done.
Could she manage a job like that? She figured she couldn’t. Maybe she could learn how to manage it, though, but it might require her visiting her therapist again, which she couldn’t afford. And even if she’d make more money there, she’d spend most of it crying on a sofa in front of a stranger, so maybe it wasn’t worth it.
She went outside with her coat on and walked to the nearest bus stop. It would take her forty minutes to get downtown, so Stella listened to some music. The bus was empty. It was peaceful. It was her first Thursday off since she worked at Goodneighbor, but she still was nervous.

Stella hadn’t called Arthur because she didn’t want him to know she was there. Besides, the business card he’d given her had been lost somewhere between laundry and just not paying attention. She probably would have been able to find his Facebook, but it didn’t matter because after all—she wasn’t here tonight to get a job.
The Prydwen was a nice building, recently remodeled. White and blue, it stood proudly between grey walls and streets. The bar name was written in tall, white letters on the front, and windows showed the action inside. It didn’t look too bad, mostly people coming for a drink after work, or college students enjoying some time outside campus.
There wasn’t a line to get in, which was a good thing because her legs were freezing. A large man at the door greeted her and wished her a good time.
The music wasn’t too loud, it was just enough to be pleasant. It was some pop music Stella didn’t know.
There were a few empty tables but she went for the counter seats because she was alone and wanted a drink anyway. She sat and took off her coat, waiting for a bartender to come to her.
While she waited, she looked at her phone. Nothing on Facebook, nothing in her texts. A bartender made his way to her and she recognized him as the man who was with Arthur and Danse at Goodneighbor for Halloween. He was wearing a nice uniform tonight, but didn’t mention it if he knew who she was. She awkwardly ordered a rum and coke—double.
The man prepared it for her before her eyes and slid the glass in front of her.
“On the house,” he said. “From the boss.”
She frowned. “What?”
“He told me to give free drinks to the angel waitress if she ever showed up,” he explained. “I’m Rhys by the way. You’re Stella, right?”
“Um, I mean—yes.” She took the glass and drank from it. Arthur had been expecting her. “Is Danse here?”
“He’s upstairs with the boss, probably.” Rhys showed her a tinted window on the second floor. “I can call him.”
“Don’t. It’s okay.” Stella drank more. The moment she’d be drunk couldn’t come fast enough. How did she end up in a place so full of people? With just two Xanax left in her purse? She did have codeine back home but it wasn’t the same.
“Just let me know if you need anything then,” Rhys smiled before leaving her for two new clients.

She didn’t want to just sit here and do nothing so Stella looked at her phone again. She had a friend request on Facebook from Arthur Maxson. He looked really good on his profile picture.
She looked up again to the tinted window, wondering if he was looking back. Then she accepted the request and finished her drink. Rhys immediately followed it by another one, still on the house.
Soon enough, Stella lost herself in the atmosphere. The music in the background, the people talking. A group near her appeared to be celebrating some important event related to work, like a big sale or something. Maybe it was her strong drinks but she was happy for them.
Another friend request came in about fifteen minutes later, from Michael Danse. She accepted it too. As she was doing so, a voice talked over the music, announcing a surprise karaoke night.
The declaration was greeted with several shouts from the crowds and everyone clapping. A few feet from her, Rhys was shaking his head and chuckling while stirring a drink. He made eye contact with her, finished his drink and brought it to the client, then went to her.
“You gotta stay for this,” he told her. “Seriously. You’ll want to see this.”

She very much had the intention to be gone before someone forced her on stage and Stella humiliated herself, but Arthur appeared in the bar coming from a discreet door at the back. Some people saluted him, put their hands on his shoulder or stopped him to tell him something. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was wearing the exact same thing as she’d always seen him in—jeans and a t-shirt with a hoodie over it, but he was especially appealing tonight. In this environment, his charisma was showing, and everybody looked at him like he was a god.
Arthur made his way to the small stage where an employee—Stella recognized the blonde girl that had been there on Halloween—was turning some consoles and a TV on. Arthur talked to her while she was working, and she put a microphone into his hands before jumping off the stage. The background music stopped.
“Hey everyone,” Arthur said in the microphone. He was greeted by cheers. “As usual, I’m gonna sing the first song.” He glanced at the whole room, but it was dark now and most of the lighting was focused on the stage. “So this one’s for the girl who’s been drinking on the house for like an hour now. I hope this is enough of an argument to convince her that she should accept my offer.”
Stella’s cheeks burst into flames—maybe not literally but it felt just as if. Maybe he’d been giving free drinks to other people but had he invited other potential employees tonight? No. He had to be talking about her, right? Oh my god. Stella finished the rest of her drink in one quick swig.
Using an iPad, Arthur selected his song and it started playing. She knew this one. Danse had sneaked his way onto the seat next to hers but Stella couldn’t pay attention right now. No. Her eyes, and everybody’s in the whole bar, were on Arthur Maxson.
He was singing Green Day’s She’s a Rebel. And singing the words without even looking at the screen. She’s a rebel, she’s a saint, she’s the salt of the Earth and she’s dangerous.
He wasn’t just singing, he was performing. He looked and sounded like a professional artist.
Close to her, Rhys and Danse were laughing their asses off, but she didn’t find this funny. It was disturbing, strange and—god, it was attractive. By the start of the last chorus, he unzipped his hoodie and took it off, sending a shiver down Stella’s spine. He’d been moving and rolling his hips the whole time. Shit shit shit shit fuck. No, no that couldn’t possibly be happening.
When Arthur was done and some other person took his place on stage, Danse turned to her while Rhys mixed drinks for them. She was thankful the room was still dark because she must have been bright red.

“Yeah, um,” Danse said after a few seconds. “He likes showing off.”
“Shut your goddamn mouth, Michael,” Arthur snapped, appearing behind them, a little sweat on his temples. He was holding his hoodie and threw it on the counter before taking the seat on the other side of Stella. He had tattoos on his arms. She breathed deeply.
It was simple. After Nate and Shaun had died, Stella hadn’t felt any attraction for anybody for a whole year. She was too depressed. After a few months though, it did come back, even if she didn’t it want to. Most of the time, her hands were sufficient to do the job. In three years, however, she did have a few hook ups. Mostly when she was drunk or high or both. She still liked her fingers better.
But what she was feeling right now was entirely different.
With just one song, Arthur Maxson had fucked her up. Stella knew she would be able to overcome that feeling, it would take another prescription of Xanax and some time—but she’d do it.
“It’s very nice to see you here, Stella,” Arthur said, leaning closer so she’d hear him over the music. He smelled like nice, expensive cologne. “So do you want it—the job?”
She opened her mouth, her eyes fixated on his large hands.
“Give her a break, will you?” Danse sighed. “Stella, you have to know he calls himself the King of Karaoke.”
“Am I not?” Arthur shook his head and Rhys brought him a glass filled with a yellow drink.
“I should go,” Stella managed, looking at Arthur’s lips locking on his glass. “I work tomorrow.”
“I’ve been told you only work at 8 PM,” the king said after swallowing his drink.
Daisy was officially the worst biggest snitch in the history of the universe.
“You know what, let’s go talk somewhere else,” Arthur added.
Danse and him got up, but it took Stella a few seconds to do the same and follow them through the door she’d seen Arthur get out from earlier. It led to a short hallway, then stairs, then another hallway with more doors. The last one was locked and Arthur unlocked it with a key, pushed the door open and let her get in first.

It was an office. The walls were dark, maybe not black but dark grey. The floor was black carpet. It had a large desk in one corner and a comfortable looking sofa with chairs around in another corner. He showed the sofa to Stella and she timidly sat on it, clutching her purse, wishing she hadn’t forgotten her drink downstairs. Arthur didn’t sit, he went to the window behind his desk and stared down his bar.
“I want to help you,” Arthur said, not looking at her.
“I don’t need help, do I look like I need help?” Stella retorted. She didn’t want to get mad.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Danse tensing up at the other end of the sofa. Arthur, however, was still standing in front of the window, his arms behind his back, relaxed.
“What I saw in you is great potential,” Arthur admitted. “And I’ve seen it the first time you were assigned to our table at Goodneighbor.” He finally turned to her, but still didn’t sit. “Look around you, Stella. What do you think of this place? Tell me, honestly.”
She did look around, but eventually got up and went to stand close to him so she could peer through the window. It looked like everyone was having the time of their lives downstairs.
“I think it’s a great business that you have,” she said in the end. “Your clients seem to be faithful. Your prices are high, but the drinks I’ve had tonight were good and I got great service, and I’ve only heard good things about the food you serve. And I think you’re pretty damn good at karaoke, Maxson.”
He exchanged a long stare with Danse, then looked down into her eyes.
“Then you will understand why I want the best, and only the best for my bar,” he said in a low voice. “And I believe you belong here.”
She was kind of drunk. Ugh, not again. She had a tendency of being too honest when she was drunk. Maybe she shouldn’t have ordered doubles. Or maybe she should have stayed home.
“You don’t want me here,” she muttered. “You’ve seen me. Danse saw me even more. Was I not a mess when you drove me home, Danse?”
Danse cleared his throat and joined hands. “It doesn’t matter,” he started.
“It does.” She cut him off. “I’m certain Daisy told you everything about me and my past—”
“She didn’t.” It was Maxson’s turn to interrupt her. “She told us you had a traumatic disorder but she didn’t say why. And I’m not going to ask either. What she did tell us is that you’re a great employee, never cracked or dropped even one glass or plate, that you don’t let clients talk down to you and that you have the biggest fucking heart she’s ever seen. Now do you actually need me to get on my knees and beg you or are you going to take the job?”

Stella might have been afraid of Arthur if he didn’t have a corner of his mouth raised in some kind of smirk.
“Please, for the love of god, make him kneel,” Danse called from the back of the room.
Stella giggled and buried her face in her hands. She heard laughs in the room, which reassured her.
“I gotta talk to Hancock,” she managed. “I can’t just drop my job there, he needs to find a replacement for me. It still doesn’t mean I’m saying yes.”
“Outstanding,” Danse said. “Let’s go back down and party a little.”
“No, I’m going home. And no, I’m taking the bus,” Stella added, seeing Arthur opening his mouth. “I don’t want a ride home, I’m a grown up and I have a knife in my purse.”
And I hate to owe people, she said in her mind.
It had to be the strong drinks, but Stella had the impression that this bar, the surprise karaoke nights and everything else might be exactly what she needed to maybe feel happy again.
Not that she deserved it, though. She definitely didn’t deserve it.

Chapter Text

 

Arthur

 

 

 

Arthur had been sitting at this desk for too long. He pulled away from it, closing the lid of his MacBook, and stretched his arms and neck. He could either go for a drink or a burger.
He saw from the corner of his eye his phone screen lighting up. He read the time first—past 1 AM, then his eyes shifted on the notification.
Stella Austin: Yes I’m working tonight. Why?
He hesitated just a second too much and the screen turned to black again. About two hours ago, he’d messaged her, asking if she was at Goodneighbor tonight.
She always took so long to reply to him, but he didn’t know if it was just to fuck with him or because she genuinely didn’t give a shit. Anyway, Arthur figured he would go for the burger now. He’d have a beer at home after.
He grabbed his phone, hoodie and car keys and made his way to the main room. A few clients waved at him from a distance, but Arthur nodded at them without engaging further conversation.

The air was crisp and cold outside, so he put his hoodie on as he went for his car in the parking lot. It was even worse inside the car--he could see his breath every time he exhaled, and a little ice had accumulated around the windows.
While the car was heating up, Arthur wrote Stella a quick message. When does your shift end?
She took about a minute to answer. Maybe she was taking a break. In half an hour, she replied.
At this time of the night traffic was light so he would make it in time to Goodneighbor.
It was the classical music radio station playing and he let it like that. It would relax him a little. Hopefully.
Arthur left the parking lot and engaged his car on the street trying really hard not to think about Stella. She was unsettling. She was different. She was both pretty and dangerous and he should know better than to care about her, except he couldn’t help it, could he? He had tried not to, and it had been easy at first. When he just casually mentioned to Daisy he was looking for a waitress and she told him the new girl was actually really good, it hadn’t made any impact on him. Not really. But after, he wanted to see if Daisy was right so he had started to pay attention to Stella. And yes, she was a good waitress, but she also had great legs, and a nice smile even if it wasn’t always sincere, and she had fucked up a guy’s face with no hesitation or regret.

He had a clear policy at the bar—he was not to have sex with employees. It had never happened, mostly because Arthur didn’t have time for sex, or relationships or anything of the sort.
A part of him wished she would decline the job so he could maybe try to—no. No.
“Shut up,” he actually said aloud. What was he? A sixteen year old boy with a crush on a pretty girl in history class? No. He was Arthur Maxson, and he wasn’t gonna let her, or anyone, mess up with his establishment. The Prydwen meant everything to him.

He parked next to Hancock’s blue Corolla at Goodneighbor and hurried inside before he could get too cold. At this time the dining room was empty except for RJ always sitting at the same table. When they made eye contact, RJ nodded at him and Arthur nodded back. He took a table near a window though. It was Daisy that saw him and brought a menu and water.
“Hi, darling,” she said with a smile. “Where’s Michael?”
“He’s on a day off, back home, probably playing video games,” Arthur replied. “How are you, Daisy?”
“I’m fine.” She looked around and leaned a little, lowering her voice. “Hancock just dismissed Stella, she’s getting dressed in the back and going home. I’m almost sure she’ll take it though. The job, I mean. I’m so happy for her. She’ll be perfect.”
Arthur couldn’t help a smile from forming on his face. He thanked Daisy but didn’t order right away, instead he let her go and drank some water.
When Stella appeared in the dining room, she had her head down, busy buttoning up her jacket with one hand and holding her phone with the other. Her hair had a slightly lighter color than the last time he’d seen her.
“See you, Mac,” she said absently. “Say hi to Duncan from me.”
“Sure will, Stella. Be careful out there,” RJ replied before turning his eyes on his comic-book again.
Arthur waited until she saw him but it didn’t look like she did, so he cleared his throat.
“Hey, Stella,” he called.
She looked up and stopped. He saw her jaw clenching and she quickly threw her phone into her purse.
“Hey,” she said back. It looked like she didn’t know what else to say. “I’ve never seen you alone here.”
She wasn’t wrong—when Danse had days off, Arthur normally didn’t go out after work, he headed straight back home because he didn’t particularly liked eating by himself.
“Danse is home,” he told her. “You can join me if you want. You hungry?”
Stella looked behind her back, probably searching for Daisy. But there was no one except RJ and he wasn’t paying attention to them at all. So she took one step towards Arthur, and another, until she finally sat in front of him. He watched her undoing her jacket and taking it off.
“I’m starving,” she sighed. “I can always catch the next bus, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’ll drive you home if necessary,” he assured her. “Do you know how to drive? It’s so much more practical.”
“I do. I just—I don’t have a car anymore. So, what are you eating?”
“I want a burger,” he said. “You order whatever you want, it’s on me.”
“Thanks. I mean, I’ll pay for my food, but thanks.” She didn’t look at the menu either, she obviously didn’t need to.
Daisy came back at the table with an additional glass of water and a large grin. He ordered his burger and Stella picked a grilled cheese.
“Now that I’ve seen what you do for a living,” she admitted, “and your car, and your bar and everything, I can’t believe you eat here. You should be eating at really expensive places.”
“I don’t care for expensive or sophisticated. I prefer genuine. Besides, I’ve known Hancock for a while. And we both know he can use some advertising. That’s why I’m always sitting by the window.”
She giggled and shook her head. “I talked to him,” she said, serious again. “Hancock. He called you an opportunist. And a thief. Says he can’t believe you’re gonna steal one of his newest employee.”
“He better wrap his ugly head around it. So, you’re in?”

Stella’s hand remained around her glass of water, her fingers brushing the surface, leaving marks in the condensation. Her nails were painted in a delicate shade of pink.
“Hancock gave me a chance when no one wanted to,” Stella said, her voice almost a whisper. “If I go, I betray him. You understand, Arthur? I’m sorry. I know you’re paying better and I’d make more in tips—but I can’t do this to him.”
Arthur had to admit he admired her. Not many people would pass on a better salary and conditions just because their boss was nice to them. He wondered, for a few seconds, if maybe they were fucking or something. Hancock probably didn’t have the same policy as he did. Except Stella didn’t look like she’d have sex with Hancock.
Arthur remembered how Daisy had told him she just had a really, really big heart. A rare thing nowadays.
It wasn’t long before they got their food. She started eating her grilled cheese and he pushed some of his fries on her plate. Her cheeks turned to the same color as her nail polish and she thanked him, her mouth full, her eyes puzzled.

“Wow! There he is! The thief!” Hancock had just entered the dining room. In spite of what he was saying, he was smiling.
“Fuck you Hancock,” Arthur replied. “Don’t worry, she turned down the job.”
“What? Stella? Is that true?” He wasn’t smiling anymore. Stella swallowed her fries and turned to her boss.
“Yeah, it’s true. You’re stuck with me now, aren’t you?”
“But he’ll pay you twice as much as I do!” Hancock sighed. “Are you actually insane? Is it because—you don’t have to feel bad! You can go!”
“I guess I’m insane.” She was still eating. She must have been really hungry. Or, maybe, she just didn’t give a shit. You never knew, not with Stella.
Hancock shook his head and stared at her, then at Arthur. He crossed his arms on his chest.
“Okay then,” he said. “Stella, you’re fired.”
Stella choked up with a large bite of grilled cheese and she had to drink some water to make it pass. She hit Hancock in the stomach.
“Shut the hell up, I’m staying. I don’t need his charity. Or yours, for that matter.”
“It’s not charity,” Arthur clarified. “I told you. I want the best.”
“I insist, Stella. You’re fired. Effective immediately.” Hancock smiled softly at her. “But make sure to come back once in a while.”
She didn’t look happy or relieved. Maybe it would take some time. It wasn’t hard to feel bad for Hancock—he didn’t get to live a particularly happy childhood and was devoting his life to feeding poor people while completely forgetting himself. But he could probably find another waitress that’d be very good for his business. Arthur, on the other hand, had to be picky.
Stella looked sad now. Her head was down and she was just playing with a fry in her hand. Hancock gestured him something but Arthur didn’t catch what he was trying to say.
“I do this because I love you Stella,” Hancock said finally. “Maxson’s gonna take you for a drink now and you’ll get to know each other and you won’t regret it.”

She didn’t reply anything. Actually, she didn’t say a word as they both emptied their plates. When Daisy was back, Stella opened her wallet and left some money on the table as she refused a dessert and free coffee.
“I’m going home,” she said. “Goodbye.”
Wait!” Arthur and Daisy looked at each other and sighed. “We need to talk,” he added.
He left a whole lot of money on the table too, he didn’t have time to even look at his bill. He ran after Stella, but she was already several feet away from the restaurant, walking hurriedly in the cold air.
“Do you have to make it so fucking difficult?” he asked, putting himself in front of her. “Shit.”
“This is all fucked up and none of you seem to even realize it,” she replied, trying to get past him but he wouldn’t let her. “Forcing me to take a job I’m not sure I want. I’m not good with pressure. I’m messed up. I’m all messed up in my head, okay? You don’t even know. I hate it when people make decisions for me.”
“Maybe I’m messed up too. Doesn’t mean you should turn down every opportunity that’s being offered to you. Doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of something better. And if that means forcing someone out of the past, then yeah. I’ll do it. Daisy and Hancock are helping too. It’s not charity.”
That seemed to startle her. She suddenly stopped moving, her face turned to his but her eyes lost, not seeing anything. She slowly opened her mouth, and he made himself not look at her lips.
“How about this—you take tomorrow off, but the day after that you come in. Not actually working, but just helping and meeting everybody,” he offered. “You can do that for a few days, then we’ll start assigning tables to you, and if you don’t like it, you come back at Goodneighbor. I’m sure Hancock will unfire you if he knows you at least tried.”

She finally locked her eyes on him, her hands closed in fists. “You talk like my goddamn therapist, Maxson,” she said. “Okay. Fuck, I’ll go. Are you happy? Fuck. Hiring someone based on the fact that she hit a guy’s face on a table. You’re an idiot. I’m going. But you let me walk home tonight. I need it. And, you owe me a large drink.”
“Sure,” he smiled. “Danse’s gonna be glad I finally convinced you. They’re all gonna be happy.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah that’s it,” she muttered, walking away. “See you, Maxson.”

Chapter Text

 

Stella 

 

 

 

“I’m stupid. I’m so fucking dumb,” Stella said loudly in her bedroom. She was looking at the mirror and while she really liked the way her hair looked, she wasn’t sure about her clothes. There was no official uniform, but she didn’t want to go too exposed or underexposed. Stella didn’t have the best body and she was aware of that—she never worked out, didn’t like cooking and loved whiskey. But she had a decent cleavage and nice legs, she just wasn’t sure how much of those she wanted to show. Maybe this one black dress she had… she usually wore it on the very rare nights where she went out. But the Prydwen was kind of classy, so she needed to dress for the occasion. And spend her next paycheck on new clothes.
She added a choker necklace to the outfit, as well as comfortable dark grey boots. The doorbell rang as she was finishing an easy updo in her hair. Her makeup was simple too, just a fine black line over her eye, but a lot of mascara. That would have to do.

She hurried to the living room and buzzed Danse in. He smiled when he saw her, and she smiled back. He was a Good Guy.
“Hey Stella,” he said. “You look really nice.”
“Thank you.” Stella was blushing a little, she could feel it. “I’m ready, just let me grab my purse.”
“I’ll wait for you in the car then.”
She went back inside and looked around to make sure she didn’t forget anything. Her keys. Her jacket. Her Xanax. Everything was there.
Danse was waiting for her in a black Jeep parked in front of the complex. It was old, and it was so different than Arthur’s car. She had been expecting the Audi when Danse had texted her about picking her up, but this Jeep would have to do.
It was cold outside and it smelled like winter, so she walked quickly to get in the car. It turned out to be more comfortable than it looked, and a pleasant alternative music was playing at low volume. It smelled surprisingly nice for the inside of a straight guy’s car.
“I hope you’re not too nervous,” Danse said as the car made its way in the street. “It’s all gonna be okay. You’ll be spending the night behind the bar, with Rhys, Clarke and Ingram. You know Rhys and Clarke’s another bartender. Ingram works in the kitchen. She’s funny.”
“So… what do I do exactly?”
“Tonight? You can just sit down and watch what everyone’s doing. And help a little. If Rhys or Clarke need more ice or need to get something from the storage room, you could go. I swear it’s gonna be okay. I’ll stay with you the whole time.”
If Danse was going to be with her tonight, Stella figured it wouldn’t be too bad. He always looked relaxed and calm. He was just a laid-back kind of person—the kind of person she could never understand but that she envied.

Stella had thought a lot about what Arthur had said to her. About how maybe she was worthy of better things in life. She had spent the past four years mourning her husband and her son and feeling guilty for their deaths. And while she still felt like it was her fault, Stella was tired. Of everything. Some days she felt like running in the middle of the street just to see what would happen. Just so she would feel anything other than her usual, heavy sorrow.
Arthur had been wrong. She didn’t deserve it, but Stella was hoping to start feeling better after spending a few nights listening to pop music and watching drunk people do stupid things. Maybe it work. Maybe it wouldn’t work at all, in which case she would ask Hancock to take her back. Even if her job at Goodneighbor didn’t pay a whole lot, there were nights it almost felt like home, like everything wasn’t so bad. And in her case, that was a lot.

She was very nervous as Danse’s Jeep parked at the Prydwen, but the cold air kept her focused. She followed her potential new coworker as they got in using the entrance on the side. To open that door, Danse had to use a key, and he explained it was a door exclusively for employees. And Rhys usually took his smoke breaks here.
The music could be heard from here.
“I hope there won’t be a surprise karaoke night or whatever,” Stella sighed, taking her jacket off. “And if there is, I hope Arthur won’t make me sing.”
“Can you though?” Danse asked, leading her through a hallway. “Sing, I mean.”
“I took piano lessons as a child and the teacher made me practice my voice at the same time. It’s not bad, but it’s not a great voice either. Especially not in public, you know?”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll make sure you don’t have to get on that stage, Stella. Besides, I’m basically your security guard tonight. Nothing bad can happen to you.”
Danse had a nice, reassuring smile for her and they entered what seemed to be a changing room. The floor was real wood, and dark, but the walls were white, giving the impression the room was way bigger than it actually was.
Instead of the ugly, metallic lockers she had to use at Goodneighbor, the Prydwen had nice wooden ones. They looked more like literal closets than just lockers. Danse opened one with another key. It seemed to be his, because there were pictures on the inside of the door. One of a child and his parents—the child looked like him. Thick, dark hair, with sad eyes. The other picture was recent. It seemed to have been taken during a party and showed him and Arthur laughing. But there were also a lot of clippings from magazines, all of them cars or camping scenes. For some reason, that door said a lot about Michael Danse.
“If you don’t mind,” Danse said as he hooked his jacket inside the locker, “we’ll use the same locker tonight. But if you stay, you’ll get yours. And I swear I won’t touch your stuff.”
“I know you won’t.” Stella smiled in spite of her apprehension. Danse was so nice. And she couldn’t forget what he had done for her the night of Halloween. Thanks to him, she had been able to escape the Goodneighbor dining room, almost instantly putting a stop to her anxiety attack. And the guy, a stranger at the time, had dragged her to her bed. He was a great person.

Danse took her upstairs next. There were way more clients than the last time she’d been here, but Stella breathed deeply and followed Danse. He introduced her to Clarke—Clarke seemed to be an okay guy, but he was looking at her legs just a little too much for Stella’s taste.
Then she was introduced to Ingram. Ingram was a little older than Stella was, but under just two minutes she made several jokes. Danse had been right—she was hilarious.
And she was also impressive. While waiting after Danse who was talking to another employee, Lucia, Stella watched Ingram working. She soon figured out what was so singular about the way she walked around—she had a prosthetic leg. And yet she was working a job where she had to stand all the time and run in a large kitchen every night, and she was still funny and pretty and had made Stella want to be her friend instantly. How could she even do that? Stella could barely manage getting up in the morning.
“Let’s go back in the main room,” Danse invited, pushing the door open for her. They sat near the counter and she looked around, no longer just as a guest but as a possible employee. Neriah seemed to be a really good waitress, walking swiftly and surely between tables, holding large trays or several plates, always taking some time to joke with a few clients. And she was beautiful, too.
But the methods seemed simple enough. Two waitresses, two bartenders, and it didn’t take long before Stella figured out there were invisible lines separating the bar. Each bartender had a side of the counter and each waitress had a side of the room.

Danse and her were on the left side of the counter, so it was Rhys who came to them to chat.
“How’s she, Danse?” he asked, wiping his hands.
“She’s great. Actually gave me a few tips for better organization,” Danse replied. “Stella, you want a drink? Anything. It’s on me. We could eat something too.”
Stella hesitated a few seconds, biting her lip, looking around as if answers would appear around her.
“You can drink a little you know,” Danse went on. “It’s allowed, even when you’ll work for real. Like a drink every hour and a half is allowed. Come on! Let’s get Long Island iced teas. And fries.”
Rhys left before even hearing her answer and she watched him entering their order on the iPad used for it. That’s another thing that impressed Stella at the Prydwen—the technology behind everything. Waitresses also used iPads for ordering food and drinks, and she had briefly seen the tech room while going to the bathroom and it was something. So much money had been put in everything.
“All those iPads and computers and everything,” Stella said while looking at Rhys making their drinks. “That’s a lot of money, and you guys still seem to be profitable.”
Danse laughed and shook his head.
“Arthur is all about tech,” he said. “With the job, you’ll get health care, dental care, and a brand new iPhone with a low monthly fee.” Stella raised an eyebrow. That was insane. Absolutely insane. “I’m not supposed to tell you, but Arthur already ordered your phone and he got you the rose gold one.”
They thanked Rhys for the drinks and Stella drank some of it, taking an ice cube in her mouth and playing with it, distracted.
“He’ll be disappointed if I don’t take the job then,” Stella pointed out. Then she frowned. “Danse! Goddamnit. I see your game. I’m not a fool! Of course Arthur told you to tell me about the nice phone. So I would say yes.”
Danse looked at her with a sad smile, then he emptied half of his glass in one go.
“Shit,” he chuckled. “Am I so bad at acting?”
“You are. I mean I almost believed you for one second or two.”
Danse got his own phone out and texted Arthur, probably apologizing for ruining his strongest argument to get her to accept.

But the night went on and Stella felt better. She felt lighter, too. At some point, Danse had to leave her alone because Haylen, the techie, needed help with something.
Instead of staying put, Stella finished her drink (another Long Island iced tea), ate the last mozzarella stick Danse had ordered and went behind the counter. She helped Rhys with some cleaning duties then got some more ice cubes for Clarke. She even helped Neriah carrying a few big orders to tables, and Stella had to admit it all felt… right. It felt right. Like she was supposed to be here.
Danse was so surprised and delighted when he saw that he actually took a picture of her and offered her another drink to celebrate. He didn’t drink though, because he was driving, but Stella accepted even if she wasn’t supposed to.
“You’re technically not working, so the hour and a half rule doesn’t apply,” Danse said with a wink, handing her a Jameson on the rocks.

Maybe. Maybe this all would work out for Stella. Maybe she’d get a shot at being happy again. She’d have more money, she’d finally replace that shitty mattress she had and her back might stop hurting. She’d get a great Christmas present for Preston, and for Danse, too.
Stella stayed the whole night, until it was two in the morning and the bar emptied itself. She noticed, however, that some people weren’t going for the exit, they were waiting in line and slowly going through the basement door.
Danse had left again while he was helping with the closing, so Stella took the initiative to get upstairs and talk to Arthur. She climbed the stairs and knocked on his door.
“Danse? I’ll be right there.”
“It’s me,” she said. “Stella.”
There was a pause. “Come in, it’s unlocked.”
She pushed the door open and saw Arthur sitting at his desk in front of his computer. Stella closed the door behind her and sat on a chair in front of him.
“Nice try,” she finally said. “The phone.”
He shook his head, his blue eyes closing for a brief moment. “I should’ve known better than to let Danse handle that.”
“Indeed. But it worked. I’m in. When do I start?”
Arthur looked startled by that, like he hadn’t been expecting it. Stella was starting to feel the warmth of her drinks in her body, pleasant and suppressing almost all of her worries. She watched Arthur doing something on his computer, maybe checking schedules or emails or anything, and she just noticed he had shaved. It wasn’t a radical change because he still had some facial hair, but his mouth was more visible. He could have been a model. He had full lips and white teeth, and a strong, handsome jawline. Between that, his piercing blue eyes and his muscular body, Arthur Maxson was pleasing to look at.
Too much booze, Stella told herself, but she kept looking at him anyway.

“It would be next Thursday when we open for the weekend,” Arthur said, looking back at her. “Is that okay?”
“It is.” Stella lowered her eyes. “Thank you. I’m sorry I reacted the way I did at first.”
“Stella, no.”
She heard him get up and get around his desk to sit on the chair next to her, so she raised her eyes. He seemed concerned.
“I refuse to let you feel this way. You need to be more confident. I understand that you have issues, and it’s okay. You can get better.” He smiled. Not a grin, just a soft smile that she couldn’t help but to respond to with another smile.
From his seat, he reached a drawer of his desk and extracted from it a phone and a bottle of bourbon. From another drawer, two glasses, in which he poured a large amount of liquor. They drank to her new job, and Stella thought, for just a second, of him fucking her on his desk. Right now. No. No no no, what the fuck.

“I think you’d want to see the basement tonight,” Arthur said when his glass was empty.
“Yeah, what’s up with that?”
“When the bar closes, there’s a few people, more or less a hundred, who are allowed downstairs. They dance to radio hits. They love it. People love pop music.”
“I didn’t know,” Stella admitted. “I can’t dance, though.”
“We’ll see about that. We’ll come back later for your phone.”
He led her in the hallways and then they descended into the basement.
It was just a really large room, the size of the whole bar or so, and it was exactly what Arthur had described it at—a hundred people dancing to a radio hit. The music was loud, it was a Rihanna song, and it was so beautiful to see this crowd jumping and dancing to the familiar beat, a lot of them singing the words too.

Arthur greeted a security guard near the door. He took his hoodie off and left hit with the guard, then he took Stella’s wrist and dragged her onto the dancefloor.
There was no doubt that without the Long Island iced teas and liquor she’d had, Stella would have panicked in here, surrounded by so many strangers. But while she was locked in the crowd, Arthur Maxson was in front of her and he was dancing. Still holding her hand, he was trying to make her dance too, but Stella wasn’t moving.
But then the song changed to Justin Timberlake’s LoveStoned, and she couldn’t resist anymore. She closed her eyes and forgot everything, everything except the crowd moving in waves around her, the music loud in her eyes, and Arthur’s body so close to hers.
When she opened her eyes again after the first chorus, she watched him move. Stella immediately felt heat spreading in her belly and between her legs. He pushed himself against her back, and she heard him mouthing the song near her ear, his breath warm on her neck, his hips rolling against hers, his crotch bluntly on her ass, his hands on her thighs.
Stella’s head rolled back, resting in his neck, and she reached for his hands, which he tentatively moved up to grab her hips.
The lighting, the crowd, Arthur’s smell—Stella’s head was spinning and spinning and spinning, but she was smiling and she moaned as Arthur’s hands briefly brushed her breasts. He might have heard that, because he did it again before grabbing her hips aggressively once more, grinding on her.
He was hard.
It took Stella by surprise at first, but it wasn’t long before she responded to this new contact by wrapping her arms around his neck, from behind. They were almost kissing, their mouths so close to one another, the song coming to an end. During the last notes, Arthur fondled her breasts some more. Even through her bra he could probably feel her nipples—they were as hard as he was.
But then the song was over. It was immediately followed by another song that Stella had heard before, but Arthur pulled away from her. She turned around. He stared at her for a few seconds before leaving her in the middle of the dancefloor.

Stella followed him but he went for his office and she decided it might be best if she left him alone.
Danse was waiting for her near the entrance, using his phone.
“You okay?” he asked, handing Stella her jacket and purse.
“Yeah—yeah I’m fine,” she replied, dizzy and still aroused.
“Did you like it? The basement?” Danse pushed the door open and they went outside.
Even the cold air didn’t calm Stella’s heart, and it certainly didn’t dry her underwear.
“It was cool,” she said evasively. “I’m tired though. I’m going home.”
“Let me drive you. Please.” Stella would have preferred being alone, but the sooner she was home, the sooner she would feel better. Right?
So she got into Danse’s Jeep once more but they didn’t speak very much. He left her in front of her building and she noticed he waited until he saw light in her apartment before taking off.

Stella immediately stripped off her clothes and climbed into her bed. But she was restless. She couldn’t stop thinking about Arthur and his—fuck—his hard cock against her, and the way he was dancing and whispering into her ear.
She sighed and spread her legs, but before she even touched herself, Stella heard Preston coughing from his bedroom and her legs were closed in a second. She couldn’t get herself to do it. He was her boss.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

At this new job time seemed to fly insanely fast. Before she even realized it, Stella had finished her training and was, finally, an official employee of the Prydwen. She still couldn’t believe it when she did her first official shift, or when the bar’s Instagram and Facebook accounts mentioned her and showed her in its photos. Danse was usually the one taking them. It was fun.
But when her first paycheck came in—then Stella had no other choice but to finally believe it. As promised, she spent a large portion of it on new clothes and comfortable shoes.

Tonight was a Friday, but the bar was surprisingly empty. On Fridays, it was usually full but it was only at half capacity tonight.
“Yeah, we’re gonna take it easy,” Clarke said, entering the kitchen just after Stella. “Apparently they’ve just declared a state of emergency. We’re probably closing early.” He grabbed the empty, clean glasses he’d come for and left. Stella looked outside by the small window near her and didn’t see anything but snow falling down.
She nervously went for the spot where everyone kept their phones—just a desk with a few chairs around it. She looked at it, ignored a few texts and opened Facebook.
Nothing about Arthur on there. He was supposed to leave tonight for a business trip in Toronto, but she figured his flight had to be cancelled, right? She considered, just for a second, actually texting him, but then she put her iPhone back where she took it and went back to work. She wouldn’t text him because he hadn’t talked to her since that night in the basement. She was worried about his plane crashing, but she wouldn’t fucking text him.
Well, they’d been saying ‘hello’ to each other when meeting here at work, and casually participating in group discussions, but it never went further. He avoided her. She avoided him. And it seemed to work well, so yeah—no ‘are you still alive’ text.

It didn’t take very long before the bar almost emptied itself and Danse came down to officially close it.
“Now I’m glad I’m not driving Arthur’s car,” he sighed, following her to the kitchen. Stella nodded distractedly. She was looking at her phone, where she’d gotten a text from Preston four minutes ago.
Just a heads up, he wrote. The whole neighborhood is out of power. They say it won’t be back until two, maybe three days. I have extra warm blankets if you need them. Be safe on the road.
“Ah, shit,” she groaned. “Fuck me. Fuck my dick. Fuck.”
“What?” Danse, who was also using his phone, looked at her and frowned. “Everything okay?”
“No,” she said, pouting. “My neighbor texted me. Blackout in my area, power should be back in two or three days. But what about my shower? And Netflix?”
Stella didn’t like skipping showers. Maybe she could call Hancock, his house might still have power…
“Stella, no need to fuck your dick,” Danse said with a smile. “We’ll go by your place so you can get some clothes and a toothbrush, then you’ll come with me! We have a guest room and all.”
We, as in Danse lived with Arthur. Had he been living on his own, or basically with anybody else, Stella would have accepted immediately. She didn’t like being cold and she needed electricity for basic needs like heating, wifi and long showers.
Seeing she was hesitating, he showed the window, as if it was an argument in itself.
“It’s shitty out there,” he went on. “I’d hate to know you’re on your own, unable to even cook some food. Also, we could play video games.”
She bit her lip, smiling. Besides, as far as she knew, Arthur wouldn’t even be there.

So she got into Danse’s Jeep and they drove to her place. The roads were shitty and snowy and there was very little visibility, but Danse was a good driver. It took a little longer than usual, but he parked best he could in front of her building and came in with her. As it was totally dark inside, he used his phone to light their way up.
When they reached her door, the one in front of it opened—Preston appeared and smiled. Voices could be heard behind.
“Thank God you’re safe,” he sighed. “Mama Murphy’s here, and Sturges too. You’re welcome to stay too if you want. Even Dogmeat’s here! No wonder, he would be freezing outside.”
“Oh, thanks Preston,” Stella replied. “I’ll stay with Danse at his place—he can drive me to work tomorrow. Danse, this is Preston.”
“Nice meeting you,” Danse smiled. “There isn’t much space at my place, but if you guys need anything, food or supplies, let Stella know and I’ll see what we can manage.”
“Hancock has us covered, but thank you,” Preston said. “Goodneighbor is full tonight, you should be glad you’re not working there anymore.”
Stella made up an answer, wished Preston a good night and entered her apartment with Danse. He helped her setting a few candles up and turned his phone light off.

“Are you happy? That you’re not working at Goodneighbor?” Danse asked, not unaware of her sudden silence. “It’s not too late, you know. You could keep the phone.”
Stella smiled although Danse couldn’t see her face—she was facing the window, looking at absolutely nothing because there were no lights and she couldn’t see shit.
“I like it with you guys,” she said after a while. “It’s just… you know. Hancock was so good to me. And to everyone. Not that you guys aren’t! It’s just different. But don’t worry, I’m not leaving.”
Danse seemed satisfied with that answer and he followed her into her bedroom, where she blindly grabbed some clothes from random drawers and threw them in a large bag. Then she went for the bathroom and gathered some soap and shampoo and conditioner and other essential items—even if Danse didn’t label two hair care products and three facial care products as essential—then she was mostly ready.
Back in the stairs with Danse’s phone light, they heard barking.
“That’s Dogmeat,” she explained. “He’s kind of everybody’s dog, but nobody’s as well. He’s not here all the time but I don’t know where he lives. Anyway, he’s charming. He actually helps taking grocery bags inside!”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I’ll show you someday. I’ll bet on it, real money.”
He shook his head and they went outside. The wind was stronger now, and Stella’s feet were wet and freezing when she entered the car again. Danse turned the heat on, but as they were driving out of the neighborhood, the Jeep’s heating system proved itself absolutely useless. Danse apologized profusely, promising a warm shower very soon.

They entered Quincy only forty minutes later. Stella rarely came around here, not because she didn’t want to, she just rarely had business in the neighborhood. It was really nice though.
Danse and Arthur lived in a lovely, obviously expensive waterfront house. It was surrounded by trees and looked like it had a nice backyard, at least during summer. It wasn’t extremely large, but it had the classical ‘three story beach house’ look.
Stella soon found out it was even more impressive from the inside. It had modern furniture but the house had an aged vibe to it.
“Wow,” she said. “I can’t believe I let you into my apartment. You guys have money.” Danse chuckled and let his keys on the kitchen counter. He took his coat and Stella’s jacket and put them in a closet.
“Arthur has money. Or more exactly, his parents did. That was their house,” he explained. “He inherited of it when they died.”
Stella was kind of aware of Arthur being an orphan, but she couldn’t remember where she’d heard it. Probably from conversations picked up at the bar, because it seemed people loved talking about him.
Danse brought her in the basement, where they kept a guest room with its own bathroom.
Stella showered while Danse cooked a pizza upstairs, and when she came back up wearing her best PJs, it smelled delicious. She only had shorts and a baseball shirt on, but it was the only cute outfit she had. She usually slept in whichever clothes were clean, and wore old yoga pants inside. She was a little cold, but Danse had her covered—he gave her a soft blanket and they sat in the living room, in a huge sofa, and ate some pizza.

Stella could get used to this. Danse was the first friend she visited in a long fucking time.
She adored Piper, but Stella was uneasy when she invited her at the apartment she shared with her younger sister. It wasn’t because of Nat—Nat was a lovely kid, and Stella really liked her—but she was just… lonely. Some kind of hermit. She usually saw Piper for a movie or coffee or shopping spree, or if her friend needed help with some important interview for the newspaper she worked for, but that was it.
Danse had turned his PlayStation 4 on and was loading the latest Tomb Raider. Stella liked video games, but she wanted to eat her pizza first so she just watched him play.

When Danse offered her some whiskey, she couldn’t resist. She took the controller and played while he was pouring their drinks, but gave it back when he was in the living room again. He insisted that it was her turn, but Stella was too tired right now.
Not tired, not exactly, but she was distracted for sure.
As the whiskey burned her throat, Stella looked around. She was in another person’s house. It was past one in the morning, she was being social with a coworker, having a nice drink (it must have been really expensive whiskey, because it was really fucking good), and she didn’t feel like she would be crying. At least not right now.
Was that what everybody had been telling her? That she deserved to have a life again, to laugh for real again? She wasn’t even thinking about her Xanax.
Maybe, maybe because she was always expecting sorrow to hit her right in the face, maybe that was why it kept coming back. Maybe it was time Stella started expecting better things.

By the time she was done thinking about that, her glass was empty. Danse had switched games and was in an intense Destiny level, so he told her she could fill her glass in the kitchen if she wanted to. And, yes, she did. She’d celebrate tonight.
He’d left the bottle on the counter, so she put some ice cubes in her glass and poured a generous amount of whiskey in it. It was an expensive one.
She heard a key in the lock of the door, and the door being opened then closed.
Arthur appeared in the kitchen, holding two travel bags, his head covered in snow. He stalled when he saw her, frowning.
“Stella?” he asked.
She blushed, just a little. “Oh. Hi. I’m sorry, I—Danse invited me, my neighborhood is out of power, I—he said I could stay here.” She nervously played with her hair, suddenly regretting wearing shorts. She was kind of wishing she was showing less skin. Or not. She wasn’t sure. “Couldn’t make it to your meeting?”
“No,” Arthur sighed. “My flight got delayed twice, then they just cancelled it, along with every other flight.”
She nodded, drinking a little. “That sucks,” was all she could manage.
“That’s a bit of an understatement.” He took his coat off and left it on a nearby chair, then went away with his bag. She heard him speaking with Danse then climbing the stairs. Not long after, she heard the shower and just stopped listening.

Stella quickly drank all of her second glass and poured herself another after throwing the ice in the sink. Had he been looking at his legs or was she just making shit up?
In the living room, Danse had stopped his game and was finishing his own drink. He raised an eyebrow seeing hers, a full glass. She shrugged and sat at the other end of the sofa, a leg tucked under herself. With the TV off, it was kind of dark inside, the only source of light being a small table lamp behind the couch.
They didn’t really talk until she heard Arthur coming back. He was in the kitchen, apparently making himself a drink as well.
“Did they give you another appointment?” Danse asked from the living room, his eyes on his phone.
“They’ll call me this week,” Arthur replied. Then he came into the living room, but instead of sitting right away, he stood in front of them to speak with Danse, looking for something in a drawer from one hand and holding his glass with the other.

He was wearing sweatpants. And an old Star Wars t-shirt, not that it mattered at all.
Is that… Stella wondered. Is that his dick? She pretended to be looking at the TV Danse had just turned back on, but really she was having a double take at Arthur’s pale gray sweatpants. And yes, no doubt, what she was seeing was the natural phenomenon of a dick in sweatpants.
She put her glass to her lips and drank hastily. Well. Okay. Where to go from there? Where to go from your boss grinding on you on the dancefloor—fully hard—then meeting face to face the dick he had rubbed all over your ass? He had to be meaning to do that, right? Like, everyone knew dicks were visible in sweatpants.
He sat though, right between her and Danse. They were talking about tonight’s weather and the bar’s early closing time.
I want to fuck him. It was all Stella could think about. It had nothing to do with Nate, it had nothing to do with anything except the fact that Arthur was tall, attractive, and if those sweatpants weren’t lying, his, uh, gear, was more than adequate for the job.
She let them talk, focusing her attention on the documentary on TV, which no one else was even looking at. They were showing dolphins. Hey, dolphins were pretty awesome.
You’re drunk. She knew that. And she wasn’t dead drunk, just drunk enough to keep thinking about her boss, Arthur’s, cock. In his pants, right there.

Stella basically remained silent for the rest of their long conversation. It didn’t take very long for the three of them to be affected by alcohol. And exactly while Danse was pointing it out, the power went off.
The house became instantly silent, except for the wind outside, and the ice cubes in Danse’s glass.
“At least I showered,” Stella sighed. “Maybe I’m cursed, it’s just gonna follow me everywhere I go.”
“I’m sure it’ll be back in the morning,” Danse said. “Anyway, we should go sleep.” He got up and stumbled out of the living room after wishing them goodnight. He also fell in the stairs a couple times.
“Sorry,” Arthur said after a while. “I’ll get some blankets for you. What we have in the guest room isn’t nearly enough for a house without heat.”
She used the light on her phone to light their way to a closet where he found two thick blankets and gave them to her. She turned the light off. Danse was stumbling some more upstairs.
“I’m sorry your trip got cancelled,” she whispered. “But I’m glad you’re here.”
There was a pause. “I’m glad you’re here too, Stella.” He was so close to her she could smell his whiskey breath.
She smiled, although he could probably not see it, and turned around to find her way to the basement. When she reached the door, she heard him follow her, hitting his foot on something and tripping on something else.
“Let me help,” he said, holding his phone for the light.
“You sure this is a good idea?” she asked with a smirk he could not see. “You, sir, cannot hold your liquor.”
“Screw you, Austin.” He showed the stairs, insisting. “Come on. If I fall down, you fall too, anyway. You can catch me.”
“Sure, boss. Whatever.”

They went down, and it seemed the basement was even more silent than the first floor, and it was darker in here. She found her bedroom and sat on her bed, watching Arthur disappear when he turned off the light. After a few seconds though, he sat next to her.
“Do you like your new job, Stella?” he whispered.
“I think I love it,” she admitted, too drunk.
“I know the clients like you already.” She could hear a smile in his voice. “And the other employees too. Danse… he calls you his friend, and keeps explaining in detail how and why you are such a great employee.”
Stella blushed a little more, but it wasn’t just because of Arthur now. Danse was that nice to her—behind her back? Well, he was nice to her all the time, but it was more than flattering to find out she was already so important to him. Now that she thought about it, though, Danse was also important to her. After all, he drove her to work almost every day, and they often stopped for coffee, which he always paid. Not counting the hours he stayed with her after the bar was closed and she stayed to do some preparation for the next day, and he always waited and made it seem like it was fun to wait for her.
Then—why the hell was she infatuated with Arthur so much, and not with Danse? The thought of this made Stella want to either scream, or swallow a Xanax.
She didn’t know what to say. “How long have you known him?” she asked. “Danse?”
Arthur sighed and she heard the sheets and the mattress—in the darkness she could barely see him but he appeared to have lied down.
“I’ve known him since I was, uh, 19,” he answered. “He was 20. It was just easy with him, y’know? Like, it was as if we’d always been friends. It’s pretty cool, since I grew up all alone. We only have each other”

She nodded, but since Arthur was probably not seeing her, she let out a weak ‘mhm’. Actually, Stella was just wondering about them. Arthur and Danse. Those big boys who were, in the end, some of the softest people she knew. She was appreciating the time she was spending with Arthur just now, away from the loud music in the bar, and just the two of them. It was very different, and it was almost unreal to see him so... normal. Not surrounded by people who constantly greeted him too cordially, not answering two thousands text messages or just as many phone calls—just Arthur Maxson, a young man in a geeky t-shirt and sweatpants, being friendly to her.
“Do you have siblings?” he asked her. His voice was slow, and barely a murmur. He sounded drunk, and tired. “Family?”
Oh, boy. The family question. The truth was that her family was dead. Her family had been robbed away from her.
But after four years, Stella was starting to be pretty good at dodging that question.
“My father died when I was pretty young,” she said. “I don’t really remember him. My mom raised me and my sister, but they both live in Scotland and have been for the past five years.”
“So you’re on your own, then.”
More than you know, Maxson, Stella wanted to say. But she just agreed with him and pretended it was okay.
The next thing Stella knew was that she woke up. She wondered for a few seconds where she was and why she was awake, but then she heard a soft snore coming from her feet and she remembered everything from the snowstorm and the short conversation she had with Arthur.

She leaned on the pillows next to her, sighing. At she did that, the power came back.
Several appliances beeped on the first floor, and the small light she’d left on in the bedroom came back to life. Arthur was lying down on the bed, his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open. She instantly saw that he was asleep, probably exhausted by his pointless trip to the airport and the liquor, so she watched him. And this serene face, his full lips, the inch and a half of naked skin between where his t-shirt and pants didn’t meet, and his goddamn dick she could make out in his sweatpants.
Stella almost let out a groan. Arthur made her feel helpless and frustrated. She would probably not fall back to sleep if she stayed here, so she got up. Hesitating at first, she ended up covering Arthur’s body with one of the two blankets he’d given her, and ultimately she even put a pillow under his head. Then she grabbed a pillow for herself and another blanket and went upstairs where she lied down on the big, comfortable couch, but didn’t sleep immediately, still thinking about him.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

The crowd cheered as someone ended their particularly bad performance of a popular song Stella didn’t know the title of. She also couldn’t remember who the artist was. Anyway, even if this participant had a terrible singing voice, he’d given everything he had, and the patrons had rewarded him with loud cheers and rounds of shots. Stella smiled behind the counter as she was waiting for her order. While Rhys was making her drinks, she watched the stage where Kells, the man who hosted most karaoke nights, was interacting with the crowd.
“There you go, Stella,” Rhys said, pushing the tray in front of her. “That other glass is for you, though. From table six.”
So far, in her ridiculously short career at the Prydwen, she’d been offered some drinks from clients, especially clients known here who mostly wanted to give her some kind of welcome into the family. She always appreciated it, really.
Stella looked on the other side of the counter. During special events like tonight, the lighting was dimmed, but she could see who was sitting at table six. A large smile appeared on Stella’s face as Piper and Hancock waved at her in the distance.
She took the shot glass, raised it to them, drank it—it was whiskey, her favorite.

Stella hurriedly went at table eleven to give them their orders of drinks and fries, then she made her way through the packed bar to table six.
Hancock hugged her tight and Piper did the same.
“Can you stay?” she asked.
“I’m done for the night,” Stella replied. “I skipped one of my breaks anyway. I’m so happy to see you, guys.”
“You look great, love,” Hancock pointed out. “Look at you. You belong here.”
“I belong in any establishment that has unlimited amounts of whiskey,” Stella agreed.
They turned their attention to the stage where Kells—who was usually called Captain Kells, although Stella didn’t know the backstory for this—was introducing the next performer.

Tonight was a karaoke game where Kells picked a song and asked for volunteers to come on stage and sing it. It was really popular.
“What the hell do you mean you skipped one of your breaks?” Hancock sighed after finishing his drink. “That Maxson kid is already taking advantage of you.”
“More than you think, Hancock,” Piper replied, winking at Stella.
“I’m fine, it was my decision. I just wanted to be done.” Stella raised an eyebrow at Piper. Maybe she shouldn’t have told her about that incident in the bar’s basement.
Or the sweatpants. And the three following days she had to spend at Danse’s and Arthur’s place because she didn’t have warm showers at Sanctuary.
Thankfully though, Kells called for someone to come and sing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole lotta love’, and Hancock sprang out of his seat and got on stage.
“That won’t be pretty,” Stella said. “Let me get us some really strong drinks.”
She went back to Rhys while Hancock was over performing his song. He was Hancock though, and he could make it work.
Rhys seemed to be enjoying Hancock’s time on stage a lot, and he sent her back to her table with everything she needed for Jäegerbombs. Stella and Piper prepared their drinks, laughing at Hancock but also admiring him. She had two bombs while Piper had one. Stella had to admit—she was really proud of the way she kept her alcohol. She was a good drinker.

“Ohh, Blue, look who it is,” Piper purred, showing the other side of the bar. Stella hated when she called her Blue, but she mostly did it when she was drunk, or almost drunk. All that because of the first time they’d met, Stella had dressed up in the dark and ended up wearing a light blue shirt with leggings of the same color. And drunk Piper thought that was the most hilarious thing ever.
But tonight’s drunk Piper was looking at Arthur. He was alone, tonight being Danse’s day off, and sat at the counter, talking with Rhys. Rhys gave him a large drink, though she couldn’t guess what it was from here.

“You should go over there, Stella,” Piper said. “Life is too short not to get the dick you want.”
“I don’t—Piper!” Stella gasped. “I just said he was attractive.”
“And had a huuuuge cock, and was looking so good with his glasses on. I believe you also told me about his biceps. And his ass.”
“Oh my god.” Stella buried her face in her hands, letting Piper rant on her own. Yeah, okay, she might have casually mentioned those things, but not like that. Stella loved her friend, but when Piper was drunk, she was impossible.
“I’m not gonna go over there,” Stella cut off. “He’s my boss, I can’t just… you know. Flirt.”
They’d lost Hancock. To a lovely woman very impressed with his vocals, no doubt. “What song did he just announce?” Piper asked around. “Did I hear correctly?”
“Yeah,” a guy on the table next to theirs said. “Partition, in two minutes.”
Piper slapped the table loudly, sending their empty can of Red Bull on the floor.
“Look, Blue. You get on that stage,” Piper said. “And you show that Maxson guy what you’re capable of.”
Stella chortled and shook her head. “You’re either insane or drunk. Me? Singing Beyonce? How’s that gonna help me?”
“We both know you know that song by heart. Look, Stella—I just think it would be in your interest to show Maxson you can move your ass too and make him feel things too. Or else he’ll just keep dragging you down that basement, grind his dick on your ass and go jerk it off later.”
“Oh my god, Piper, you get filthy when you drink.”
“I’m still right! Come on! I wanna see you sing this song!”
Stella involuntarily looked over at the bar to look at Arthur. He’d been staring at her, because when she turned her head, he turned his too, way too quickly for it to be natural.

Okay. That was normal, right? Two adults just wanting to have fun with each other. There was nothing wrong with that. And there was nothing wrong with sex. Stella was allowed to have it. Stella was allowed to have a life.
She didn’t believe that, but she’d have to pretend she did.
When she stood, Piper cheered and clapped and asked everyone to look at Blue, because she would be sooooooo good.
Another woman was waiting next to the stage to perform, but when Kells saw her, his face lit up.
“That’s the new girl! Stella, sweetie, come up here!”
Stella climbed the four stairs and found herself in front of a crowd. Fuck. She could see him from here. Watching her. Arthur.
“You all know Stella by now, right?” Kells called into the microphone. “She’s our newest employee! Look at her! She’ll kick ass! Let’s give her a warm round of applause because she’s singing Beyonce’s Partition!”

Stella could have been scared. Hell, she had been three seconds ago. But when the very first notes of the song echoed in the bar, vibrating inside her chest, her fear disappeared. Because she felt alive. And it wasn’t because of Arthur and his sweatpants or the drinks, it was because she was doing something.
Her voice was a little higher than Beyonce’s, but she was surprised with how she sounded. Maybe it was from the Jaegerbombs, but her voice was kind of hoarse, and the alcohol had taken care of her fear.
Next thing she knew, Stella was delivering every goddamn line of this song like she owned it, rolling her hips, flipping her hair.
But when the song went from Yonce to Partition, a crooked smile appeared on her face and she locked her eyes on Arthur.

With every single word she sang, Stella gained confidence, and Arthur grew more restless on his seat. When she sang the “handprints and footprints all on my glass/handprints and good grips all on my ass” line, she distinctly heard Piper shouting her appreciation.
Take that, Maxson. Fuck you. She was more powerful than he was. She was not going to let him win this.

By the end of the song, Stella was dancing and rolling her hips in a way that lacked decency, but she’d closed her eyes. When the music cut off, she opened them again, and her performance was followed by loud claps and shouts from everywhere around the bar. Stella laughed and bowed jokingly, then went down the stage to find Piper.
She was at the counter, not far from where Arthur had been—he was gone.
“That was great. Wow.” Piper sighed, shaking her head. “Next round’s on me, you deserve it, girl.”
“Actually,” Rhys started, making his way to them. “Boss wants to see you. He’s upstairs. I thought you were great, but he didn’t seem happy.”
Stella felt all the bliss and joy leave her body instantly. “Was it too… maybe I shouldn’t have done that, is that it, Rhys?”
“I don’t know Stella. I mean… it was, you know. Rated M for Mature content. Good luck. But don’t worry too much. He won’t fire you. Don’t think so.”
Piper squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry. I thought it’d be fun,” she said. “You can tell him I made you do it.”
Stella said goodbye to her and then made her way upstairs. This floor was surprisingly silent considering the party that was happening downstairs.

The door of Arthur’s office had been left ajar. She pushed it open, but Arthur didn’t move. He was standing in front of his tinted window, looking at his bar.
“What was that?” he asked, startling her. She didn’t think he’d heard her.
“I’m so sorry if it was too… um, explicit. And unprofessional.” She paused to catch her breath.
He turned slightly to her. “That’s not what I meant. You were looking straight into my eyes and singing those words. What was that?”
“What do you mean what was that?” She scoffed and went to him, her arms crossed over her tank top. “I didn’t even mention it when you decided to… take me downstairs and... fuck! Who the hell does that? Grinding on your new employee, with a solid hard on?!”
That made him react. He turned to her stiffly, his eyes burning. “It didn’t seem to bother you at the time,” he pointed out.
“That’s not the question!”
He looked back at the window, his body still facing her. “I don’t date,” he said with a low voice. “Especially not employees. And I don’t engage in sexual relations with them either. I just thought I should tell you.”
Stella groaned. That—fuck—that was just as bad as a slap in the face.
“Then why did you do that? In the basement?”
“I don’t know Stella. I forgot myself.”
She looked down, somewhere between sad, disappointed, and furious. Her eyes stopped before they reached the ground, though.

“Are you hard?” she asked. “Oh my god! You are! Holy shit, Arthur. That’s fucked up.”
She couldn’t stop looking at the swell in his pants, baffled.
“You can’t talk to me like that!” he groaned. He walked towards her, enraged, and she walked backwards to follow his steps. He was boiling. He was scary. It was the first time she heard him raise his voice, too, outside of when he was playing video games. It was impressive.
“Maybe I can’t talk to you like that,” she started, “but you can’t treat me like that.”
“You say that like you didn’t tease me either, Stella.”
“Tease?” She sighed, exasperated. “Are you serious?”
Well, she had been teasing him on that stage, but only because he deserved it. He had started it after all.
Arthur slowly raised his hand and put it on her cheek. She shivered, and heat spread in all of her body.
“I’m not supposed to have sex with employees,” he whispered.
He moved forwards, softly pushing her against the wall. He was very close to her now, their bodies touching.
Stella looked into his eyes, but he was staring at her mouth. Probably wondering if he should kiss her or not.

But she couldn’t wait anymore, so Stella closed her eyes and kissed him hard. He didn’t react initially, until he kissed her back and put his hands on her hips.
“I don’t have sex with employees,” he insisted, his mouth on hers.
Stella lowered her head, breaking the kiss—if he didn’t want to, he didn’t want to. But he kept his hands on her hips, and in under three seconds he was kissing her again.
“We don’t have to tell anyone,” he said, but he sounded like he was trying to convince himself, not her. She let out a ‘mhm’ in his neck, where she was kissing him.

His strong arms pushed her on the side and turned her so her ass was on his desk.
Stella sat down on, her legs wrapped around Arthur, her fingers unbuttoning his jeans. She could taste lime in his mouth.
The jeans went down and Arthur kicked them off his ankles while she was taking her shirt off. He froze, his eyes locked on her breasts, his thumbs brushing the fabric of her lacy bra. He kind of looked like he’d never seen tits before.
“What are you waiting for?” she whispered seductively, licking her lip. “Are you going to fuck me or not, Arthur?”
He groaned softly and kissed her again, fumbling around the clasps of her bra.

Stella was so very aware of how badly he wanted her. He wasn’t her first hook up, and even if her bed wasn’t the most busy, especially after Nate, Stella had rarely in her life felt so wanted. And yeah. Maybe she had been teasing him on that stage earlier, and maybe even when she was staying at his place for three days… Nothing too bad, just, wearing a lot of tank tops and showing some cleavage or legs or whatever.
Because she wanted him, too. Probably just as much as he wanted her.

Now Arthur’s mouth was somewhere over her collarbone, leaving kisses here and there, her bra undone and hanging, waiting to be pulled off. She touched him, just all over, anything she could reach. His back, strong and warm, and his chest, ridiculously muscular, with some hair but not too much. How was he so perfect? With every kiss, every bite, every flick of tongue, Stella was forgetting herself a little bit more. Her heart was racing, her breath short.
She had been watching Arthur from a distance for a while now, noticing little things like the way he smiled when he thought something was funny but didn’t want to openly laugh for some reason. Or the way he held his coffee mug in the morning—not by its handle, because Arthur Maxson did nothing like other people. She liked the way he drove his car because he liked speed, but he knew how to handle it well and she never felt unsafe with him behind the wheel.
Stella kind of wanted to drop on her knees and suck him off, but they were in a hurry, not because they’d be late somewhere, because they both had been waiting for this for way too long.

He pulled her skirt up and she let her bra fall down. He got rid of his t-shirt, but his eyes wandered on her breasts and she saw Arthur biting his lip. He kissed her lips, but moved down and took one of her nipples in his mouth, sucking on it, almost biting.
She tugged at his boxers, but they were pretty tight by now and it took a few seconds before she finally freed his cock, immediately taking it in her hands. It was big.
Not that she was surprised, but it was big, with an impressive girth, cut and already leaking with precum. She gave it a couple strokes, which Arthur followed with his hips, going back to her neck then her lips, while simultaneously reaching for a drawer on her left. He didn’t seem like he could focus on anything but her hand and the squeezing and stroking and brushing. His knees actually went limp when she went for his balls with her other hand, fondling them nicely. He moaned and rested his head in her neck, his hips thrusting to fuck her hand.
She brought a hand back to herself though, busy trying to take her panties off. She managed to do it, and her skirt as well, while Arthur was unwrapping a condom and carefully applying it. She watched the process, brushing the tip of her fingers on his thighs.

Arthur started by pushing a finger inside her, then two when he felt how wet she was. He pushed them in and out, and Stella soon figured out he didn’t have the most experience, just by the way he was fingering her. It didn’t matter. It was still good. And she was still craving it. Craving him.
“Hmm, Arthur,” she whispered, moaning. “Arthur, fuck me—please just fuck me now.”
His fingers immediately retreated, and she felt the tip of his cock on her pussy. He brushed it over her wet lips, teasing her just a second before burying himself deep inside her. They moaned together, her face in his neck and his face in her hair.
As he began thrusting with a little more confidence and speed, Stella’s head started spinning. He was everywhere inside her. He was so thick, she couldn’t give a fuck just now how much experience he had, or didn’t have—and it had been so long since anyone had fucked her.
“Fuck,” Arthur grunted to her ear.
He tossed away everything that was behind her, and the lamp even fell on the floor. But the only thing Stella could think of, could actually feel, was him inside her. The way every thrust hurt a little, and how she loved it.

Arthur pushed her down, not violently but forcefully and before she knew it she was lying on the desk. The wood was cold on her bare back, and unpleasant, but he held her against it, holding her hips and fucking her hard. She couldn’t hold her moans anymore, and apparently neither could he. But with the music downstairs, it didn’t matter. Stella didn’t give a shit. Their bodies were meeting with sounds of flesh and wetness—wetness that was now dripping down her ass. He was coarse against her soft skin. She closed her eyes again, and in under just a minute, Arthur came. Hard. She felt him twitch inside her, burying himself balls deep, moaning, air escaping his lungs.
One of his hand was still firmly holding her against the desk, but the other was around her neck. His fingers closed tightly for several seconds. Stella, choking out, was close, and while he was still in her, recovering from his own orgasm, she played with her clit. She was so wet, and warm, and she couldn’t breathe. When Arthur understood what she was doing, he thrusted a little more, and it didn’t take long until she came, too. He relaxed his hand around her neck, freeing her voice, as she jerked her hips and came and dripped all over herself and him, too.

I just had sex with my boss. That thought hit her as she heard the lid of Arthur’s small trash can opening and closing. She moved her neck just enough to see him put his boxers back over his softening cock. She sighed.
Arthur had fucked her on his goddamn desk. In his goddamn bar. He had choked her and she had liked it.
At that very moment, Stella thought of Nate, and how kind and soft he had been, in life like in bed.
It felt like cheating. Every time she had sex now, it just felt like cheating. It felt wrong. So she usually avoided it.

And there it was. The familiar feeling she had just before an ‘episode’. Tight chest, shaking hands, difficult breathing. And a crippling, excruciating feeling of guilt.
No no no no no no no.
Stella sat down and jumped off the desk, fumbling around for her clothes under Arthur’s silent stare. Ultimately he found her shirt and gave it to her.
“You okay?” he asked as she was putting it on.
She tried to speak but she couldn’t. So instead she nodded, but she knew she wasn’t fooling him. Only then Stella did realize she was crying—not a lot, but a few tears were running down her face. She had to get out of here. Now. It wouldn’t be pretty.
He couldn’t see her like that.
“Stella,” he started. “Look, don’t go now. We should talk.”
Not now, she wanted to say. She could not. Instead, she made her way out of the office, ignoring Arthur’s voice behind her who was still calling her name.

Chapter Text

 

Danse 

 

 

 

Danse pressed the button with a sun-bleached 3 on it for what had to be the 10th time. Still nothing. He tried to look at the window, but the apartment was on the second floor and the curtains were closed. Instead, he took his phone out and called Stella.
It had been three days. Three days without hearing from her. At first it hadn’t been distressing at all because he had only texted her once to ask if she could come in even if she had the night off. He didn’t get any answer for that, but Danse was used to it—whenever he texted an employee asking them to sacrifice a day off, he rarely ever got a response. That same night he had texted Stella again, just to let her know he’d found someone in the end, that she didn’t have to come in.
She hadn’t even read the messages. He had called her. Nothing. More texts. Nothing. And then last night, when she was scheduled for work and didn’t show up—without any kind of notice—that’s when Danse had started worrying for real.

The first thing he had done was, of course, go upstairs in Arthur’s office to tell him about the situation, but it just seemed like Arthur didn’t care. He was neither surprised or angry, and Danse knew that something was wrong with him because Arthur would never tolerate that kind of behavior. He told Danse that she had been feeling a little off last time he’d seen her.

So Danse had asked around the bar, only to be shown videos of Stella’s first karaoke performance. And boy, she had put on a hell of a show. Maybe she was feeling a little embarrassed by it, or something, so Danse texted her and told her it was all okay.
Nothing.
So he was here this morning, after remaining troubled and unable to sleep in his bed for several hours. If she wasn’t opening the door in one minute, he’d call the cops.
That was his last resort.

Danse looked at his phone and waited until the minute passed, but just before it did, someone on the other side of the building opened a window. Preston. Danse remembered him now, he was Stella’s neighbor. She had mentioned at some point that he was a teacher.
So instead of buzzing for number four, he went for the three.
“Yes, can I help you?” Preston’s voice said in the small speaker.
“I—uh—I’m sorry Preston, it’s Danse. Michael Danse?” he started. “I’m Stella’s friend. I drive her to work. I’ve been trying to contact her for several days because she’s missing work. And she doesn’t answer her door. Something’s wrong.”
Preston didn’t even talk back, he immediately buzzed him in. Danse entered the building and heard a door being opened on the second floor. He climbed the stairs, carefully avoiding the one spot of carpet Dogmeat loved chewing and that everyone stumbled on. He had met the dog a couple times, and even if he was adorable, he loved chewing on people’s shoes.

When Danse reached Stella’s floor, he found Preston waiting for him, looking anxious. He was holding a small keychain.
“I didn’t even know she was in there,” Preston said. “I haven’t heard anything. You sure she’s home?”
Danse frowned. Well, that was something he hadn’t thought about. But where else would she be for three whole days?
“I don’t know,” Danse admitted.
“Let’s check, just to be sure,” Preston offered, using the key he had to unlock Stella’s door. When he pushed it open, his facial expression turned to something very rigid.
Danse followed him inside, closing the door behind him. All the curtains were closed, leaving the apartment dark even at that time of the day. The only source of light came from the TV that had been left on, but with no volume. Preston found a switch and turned on some lights.
It smelled like alcohol in here. And like the place hadn’t been cleaned in a while. From here, Danse could see in the small kitchen a pile of dishes in the sink. Mostly glasses. Mugs.
“Stella?” he called. “Stella, are you here?”
He didn’t get an answer. Preston sighed. In a silent agreement, they checked the bathroom, but it was empty, so they moved on to her bedroom. The door wasn’t completely closed, and in the small crack that showed the inside, Danse could see her bed.

Stella was there. She was lying in her bed. He knocked. Nothing. He knocked harder.
She didn’t even move.
“Shit,” Preston said under his breath, and pushed him aside to get to her. He pulled the curtain to have some light, and Danse stayed in the doorframe, frozen. Stunned. He didn’t know what he had expected to find while he was driving here, but…

She was on her bed, wearing nothing but panties. Closer to the side of the bed than its center, and with her back strangely curved, one of her leg was hanging outside the bed. She looked like she had fallen there and not moved since.
Preston put one knee on the mattress and pressed fingers against her neck. He was looking for a pulse.
Danse waited, unable to take his eyes off her, even though he wanted to. He felt like he was invading her privacy and he had never been comfortable with nudity. Especially not like that. But her skin was so pale, and she had bruises—one on her left hip, one on her arm and one down her neck, close to her collarbone. “She’s alive,” Preston said after a while, obviously as relieved as Danse was. He was sweating and his hands were shaking, so Danse stepped forwards and gently lifted Stella to properly lie her down, then covered her with a bedsheet.
He noticed the empty bottle of vodka on her nightstand. Right next to it: two pill bottles. They weren’t empty, thank God, and neither was the bottle of liquor but it certainly seemed like Stella wasn’t doing great.
“We gotta get her to the ER if she doesn’t wake up,” Preston pointed out. “What if she OD’d or something?”
Danse had dealt with several passed out people at the bar, so he kind of knew how to handle this. He had seen overdoses, or people trying out drugs they didn’t know and freaking out, he had seen everything.

He cleared his throat and asked Preston to go get a large glass of water. Whenever she’d wake up, she would need to rehydrate.
Danse’s thoughts wandered on what had just happened. The way Stella had looked before he moved her to be more comfortable—her legs parted as if she were expecting a lover to settle between them, her arms resting in a graceful position, and, of course, her breasts, round and heavy, quite large, that had moved with her has he was positioning her in the bed. He had wanted so, so badly to touch them, or maybe even better, kiss them, but there were more important things now than Stella’s soft skin and her appearance.
He leaned to put his head closer to hers.
“Stella,” Danse said loudly. “Stella, wake up. It’s me, it’s Danse.”
Her eyelids were reacting, so was her mouth—her lips were severely chapped and she had a small injury on the lower one—but she didn’t wake up. When Preston came back with the water, Danse poured just a little of it on Stella’s neck, just enough to bring her back.
And, she did.

Her eyelids finally opened, but it was clear that if she was looking, she wasn’t seeing.
“Nate,” she breathed. “Nate.”
“Oh, Stella,” Preston sighed. “Stella, it’s okay.”
“Who’s Nate?” Danse asked Preston while Stella was coming back to reality.
“Uh… Like, her ex,” Preston said. “But let’s not talk about that, ‘kay? Not even to her. Especially not to her.”
Danse, frowning, didn’t insist and looked back at Stella. There was a little bit more color to her face now, and she seemed to be breathing deeper.

Preston nervously checked his watch.
“You can go if you have somewhere to be,” Danse pointed out nicely. “I don’t want you to be in trouble.”
“Yeah, I was on my lunch break but I have a class in twenty minutes,” Preston sighed. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. It’s fine.”
They still exchanged phone numbers just in case, then Preston left.

Danse sat on the edge of Stella’s bed and stared at her, her eyelids fluttering, her tongue dampening her chapped lips.
“Stella,” he said with the softest voice he could manage. “What did you take? And how much, with how much of that?”
He showed her the vodka and the pills. Her eyes found them, but she sighed and closed them again.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m fine, okay? I’m fine.” She was speaking very slowly.
“I thought you were dead. For fuck’s sake, Stella. What the hell happened? I called you like, at least thirty times.”
Stella looked into his eyes but said nothing. She raised her head a little when he helped her drink water, but then she lied flat again. Danse stood and walked around the room, taking every glass or bottle he was seeing, then he put all of that in the kitchen. Back in the room, he opened the other curtain that was still closed, and opened the window to get some fresh air in here.

Stella watched him move around, silent and still. He sat again on the bed, close enough to her that he felt her thigh brushing his. He was wishing she would either put some clothes on or cover herself up with another blanket, because her sheet was white and he could see through it. She didn’t seem to care. She was—well, the best word to describe her just now was numb.
“Did something happen?” Danse interrogated. “When did you hurt yourself?”
“What? I didn’t. I’m fine.”
“You’re covered with bruises, Stella.” Danse sighed. He hated this. He hated being lied to, especially by someone he cared about. Especially by someone he was trying to help.
“Oh, that.” She shook her head and turned to lie on her side, facing him. “It’s nothing. I fell down when I came back from work.”
“What do you mean you fell down?”
“I mean, I slipped on an icy sidewalk. It doesn’t hurt. I swear.”
“I thought—Arthur was supposed to drive you home? I asked him to.”
She hesitated briefly. “I didn’t want to. I wanted to walk. I fell down.”
That was kind of believable, but then—why ignore him for so long?
“Why didn’t you answer my calls?” He could see her phone on her desk, so it wasn’t lost.
It was Stella’s turn to sigh. She adjusted the pillow under her head. She looked like she was still high, and he couldn’t let her go back to sleep. Not now. It wasn’t safe.
“You know me well enough by now, Danse,” she replied. “You know there are moments where I just… lose it.” She was avoiding his stare now, looking up to the window behind him. He could see its reflexion in her large, greenish eyes. The bright sky and the trees. “You’ve seen it happen before.”
“I was so worried, Stella. You know you could have texted me, right?”
“I know!” she retorted, her eyes sad. “I couldn’t, okay? I know I’m a mess, and I know I shouldn’t have done what I did, but it’s too late now. Okay? I’m sorry, Danse. I’m fucking sorry.”

He hated it when she was upset. Danse needed her to calm down, because he was starting to feel upset as well. He took her hand in his, and he felt better when she squeezed it softly.
“You’re not a mess,” he breathed. Maybe she were. It didn’t matter to him, at least not anymore. Not right now. He kind of just wanted to hold her against him until she felt safe. “Listen. Why don’t you go for a shower? While you do that, I’ll go at that grocery store next block and get us food. What do you want?”
She thought about it for a few seconds, her face slowly losing its apathy. “Pasta, but with a ton of cheese on it. The cheese is the important part.”
“Sounds great. Are you sure you’ll be able to stand up?”
She nodded, but Danse helped her up while she wrapped her bedsheet around herself. She walked around the room, and when he was convinced she could stay on her own for a while, he left the apartment.

At this time of the day on a Monday, the grocery store was mostly empty except for elderly people who made their way slowly through the aisles. Patient, Danse bought everything he needed for Stella’s cheesy pasta, with some extras: milk, bread, orange juice, and other snacks. Stella’s kitchen was in poor condition, and Danse just happened to love cooking, so he was glad to help.
Back at her place, Stella was still awake and out of the shower. She was just coming out of the bathroom, a towel around her body, when he unlocked the door with the spare key. He looked away, but instead of leaving, Stella came right to him and took a few grocery bags from his hands.
“Don’t be so shy, Danse.” she went to the kitchen and put the bags on the table.
“They’re just legs. And uh, you’ve seen more of me earlier, so...”
He still avoided looking at her when he followed her in the tiny kitchen and proceeded to empty the bags. She was commenting on every item she saw. It was good to see her like that.
He made her sit in the living room while he was cooking. As the sauce was simmering and filling the apartment with a nice smell, he did some dishes and some cleaning.
Danse liked things to be clean, especially a house. When Arthur had mentioned he wanted to hire someone to clean their place, Danse had absolutely rejected that idea. If Arthur was too lazy to clean, Danse would do it, it was as easy as that.

“Danse, come look at this,” Stella’s voice called from the living room.
He went to the doorframe. Stella was sitting on her couch, legs folded under herself, wearing gray shorts and a loose tank top with Pikachu on it. Her hair, still wet, was tied in a knot on the top of her head. She seemed more laid-back. Her shoulders were relaxed.
But she hadn’t called him just to stare at her, so he looked at the TV. It showed a news report. A woman was speaking on screen.
“The crowd gathered around the city hall, hoping from answers. But the mayor has remained silent. But people want to know. What is going on? Why is an entire hospital shut down, its patients transferred to other medical facilities?”
Then the TV showed the crowd the journalist was referring to. They were in the city hall’s parking lot. Young people, angry people. Danse sat next to Stella. Frowning.
“The fuck?” he whispered softly.
“They shut down Medford Memorial Hospital,” Stella explained. “McDonough refuses to comment on the topic, but sources say the instruction came from his office.”
“That’s weird.” Medford was, after all, one of the biggest hospitals in Boston, and it didn’t seem like a very good idea to just… dislodge everyone in it, unless there was a really good reason for it. But knowing McDonough, there probably wasn’t.

He heard the pasta water boiling too much and hurried into the kitchen to calm it down. Everything was cooked, so he made them large portions of pasta and put a lot of grated cheese on top of them. Stella seemed delighted.
As they were eating, still watching TV but mostly enjoying their meal, Stella’s phone rang. She lazily looked at its screen.
“It’s Piper,” she said. Danse didn’t know who that was, but Stella took the call. She didn’t speak. She just listened for the longest time, frowning. Danse listened to Stella.
“But, Pipes—what the hell? Why? I have to get out of here at some point. (Pause) That’s insane. Where are you right now? I can’t—fuck. Are you sure? Oh my god. Sturges? Fuck. Fuck. Holy shit. Oh my god. (Long pause) Yes. Yes okay. Be safe, Piper.”
Stella ended the call with her eyes full of tears. She delicately put the phone on the table next to the couch and stared at her pasta without touching it.

“What’s going on?” Danse asked softly.
“My friend, she’s a journalist, she, uh—my upstairs neighbor, Sturges, she says he’s at Medford. That a source from inside said they emptied the whole hospital to secure it and they’re holding people like, prisoners in it.”
“But why? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know it doesn’t! The source that provided info for her newspaper, he’s not talking anymore, but the last exchange they had was that… people in there are opening the prisoners’ heads and skulls to retrieve something. The source didn’t know what or anything like that, this is purely based on what he heard from his room. He found an iPhone in that room, sent like two or three text messages, and that was it. He’s probably dead by now.”
“Holy shit. Your neighbor—fuck.”
“The source says he heard Sturges’ name, along with about six or seven names he could remember, but that there were thirty other patients. Or prisoners.”

Danse looked at the TV as Stella was putting her food away, obviously not hungry anymore. For good reasons.
What is going on? Danse wondered. Were they safe? And Arthur? If they just grabbed random people and locked them in a hospital to crack their skull open…
Danse texted Arthur, telling him everything. Telling him he should stay home. That he would be back when things would be more calm.
At this point Danse didn’t know, but everything had changed. Not just in Medford, or Boston, but in the whole world.

Chapter Text

 

FIVE MONTHS LATER


 

 

 

Stella

 

 

 

As the whole world was processing the idea of synthetic human beings—humans created in a lab, from scratch, humans that looked real, humans that, in the end, were real—Boston became ground zero for a war that was for the most part invisible, but still somehow very tangible.
It started very quietly, at least in Stella’s world. The very next day after the infamous closing of Medford Memorial Hospital, something that was neither the FBI or the CIA had come and emptied Sturges’ apartment. It had taken less than two hours and then they were gone, and Sturges’ place was completely vacant and blank. They had left nothing. And to this day, that apartment was still unoccupied, although Stella did not know why.

That war had divided the world into three groups: pro-synths, anti-synths and synths. It had also suspended time—days were still going, but they were all the same. Not many people went out anymore, and even if she managed to keep her job, the bar wasn’t as fun as it used to be. Barely any karaoke, and no open basement for those who want to dance, nothing was running normally. Arthur was one of the only bar owner in town that had enough backbone to keep his establishment open in the middle of an invisible war. But he was openly anti-synth. Very openly. And Stella was not a hundred percent comfortable with that—but she needed the job.

The world did not know much about synths except that they had a chip in their brain, and that this chip was the only thing that could distinguish them from a non-synth.
And the only way to have access to that chip was by opening people’s heads and looking.
And some people did it.
Arthur did not commit murder, but he had a lot of security in his bar and made sure that anyone who was too pro-synth to his taste was banned. For life. And all of those people ended up in the only bar in town that was known to be pro-synth—The Railroad.

But above all that—above her boss, the one Stella had sex with, above social media being a war zone just as much as the streets of Boston, even above the news everywhere of people disappearing or killed, Stella just missed Sturges. He had been a hard working man and she hardly ever saw him, but if anyone in the complex needed help with minor fixes in their apartment, he somehow always found time for them. And he could fix anything from a TV to a shower head. And he had always been so damn nice to everybody.

Stella and Arthur were on what she considered “okay” terms. They never acknowledged their one-night stand and managed to hold conversation, mostly for work purposes. Arthur knew for sure that Stella’s view on synths was much softer than his, but maybe he pretended he didn’t. Anyway, she still had her job. And she wasn’t surprised Arthur didn’t like synths. The one that had surprised her, really, was Danse.

He hated them. Just as much as Arthur did. Stella wouldn’t have guessed that Danse was like that. She had the feeling that he was a little too much under Arthur’s influence, but there was nothing she could do about it. She had tried subtly to point out how synths weren’t the worst thing to ever happen in the world, but both Danse and Arthur believed the exact opposite of that. They were abominations, and their creators had to be punished for what they had done to humanity.

Stella understood the fear synths could spawn, but to her they weren’t abominations. After all, Sturges had been a really nice person. And nothing could ever excuse the crimes people committed—killing someone they suspected was a synth to look at their brain, for example. And it was the same for governments and scientists who also wanted to look at people’s heads. It was all insane. It was crazy. The first month had been the worst.

But by now, people just rolled with it. Not that there was any other choice, but still. Stella woke up every afternoon and went to work and came back home, had a beer or something, watched a movie and went to sleep. That was it. Piper was too busy at work and they basically never had time to see each other, Hancock was also busy defending synths’ rights and feeding the homeless, and Stella had no interest in spending time with Danse anymore. She was a little lonely.

But today was a day Stella didn't particularly like—it was actually right after Halloween on her list of "worst days of the year"—today was her birthday. She was turning 26, but most of her still wished she had been shot to death. So it was not going to be a great day.

Stella lazily looked at her phone, only to find out it was barely 5:00 PM, so she looked around her apartment to find something to do. Except there was nothing to do. Of course, she could open the closet in the second bedroom and open the box that contained Nate's belongings, and then she could cry herself to sleep after getting drunk out of her mind.
As she saw a notification of a text message from Haylen, Stella got up and went into the bathroom where she swallowed a Xanax. Just one, because she figured she would take more later anyway. But then her phone rang. It was Haylen again, and if the bar had been open tonight she might have thought she was calling for work. But she was probably not. She was definitely calling her for her birthday.
Stella went to turn off her phone and she saw another text, still from Haylen. It just said: "Please Stella, can you answer the phone? I won't talk about your birthday."
Sighing, Stella called her back.

"Oh, Stella, hey, thanks for talking to me," Haylen said. "So, uh, do you have plans tonight?"
"You know I don't, why are you asking?" Stella replied, trying not to sound too annoyed.
There was a short silence. "Arthur asked me to go set up his new internet network but I don't want to go alone. I was wondering, maybe you could come along with me?"
"You're a horrible liar, Haylen. I trusted you. You said you wouldn't talk about my birthday. I know where this is going.”
“Oh Stella, come on!” Haylen sighed loudly on the other end of the line. “Arthur throws a party for each and every of his employees—regardless of them attending or not.”
“Great, then I don’t have to go.”
“Danse has been asking about you, you know. He’s worried. Let me make a deal with you. Okay? You come with me later, we hang out there for at least an hour, then if you wanna leave, we leave. You do know that Arthur’s got a large supply of alcohol, right?”

Stella grunted. She was running a little low on liquor, so she knew Haylen had won her at this point. Especially now that business around town wasn’t too good and they didn’t open the bar as many nights as before. Her paychecks were nothing like before.
“Alright Haylen, for fuck’s sake, I’m going. Happy now?”
“Yeah, I’m happy! You know, Austin, you deserve to have a normal birthday. Just saying. I’ll pick you up at 8.”

People had no idea what they were talking about. No one at the Prydwen knew why Stella hated her birthday—it wasn’t just like she didn’t want to grow up or anything like that. It was because Nate had asked her to marry him on her birthday, and she had a very clear memory of that moment, and she hated that. She hated that she remembered.
Stella jumped in the shower immediately, just to numb those thoughts a little. But since she had nothing to do, she spent a lot of time after just grooming herself, straightening her hair then braiding it, and then she did her makeup. Just as she was finishing, Preston stopped by to give her a large chocolate cake and some really nice bubblebath and other beauty products. He made her promise to eat a slice of cake in a relaxing bath this week, and she hugged him for a long, long time. If it weren’t for Preston, who had vouched for her to his landlord even though he didn’t know her, Stella didn’t know where she would be today.

Haylen was there a little before 8, so Stella invited her in to have a coffee. Haylen was really pretty tonight—the dye in her hair was fading out and it appeared more of its natural color now, like auburn, and she wore a cute shirt and leggings. Stella had pretty much always been jealous of Haylen’s legs, but it was particularly bad tonight.
But hey, Stella wasn’t going there to seduce anyone, she just wanted to get drunk and maybe steal a bottle of that excellent whiskey Maxson drank. He could afford it anyway.
Stella wore a simple dress that she had bought on sale last week—it was all white except for the thin, pink belt that was wrapped around her waist. She was hoping that a nice outfit like that would allow her to be somehow stealthier in her attempt to acquire whiskey.

At this time of the evening the streets were pretty empty. It hadn’t always been like that, and Stella had to admit she missed the busy Boston nights she had always known. But now people lived in fear—with reason—and the city looked like it was dead.
Except Arthur’s place. Of course. Stella should have known. Several cars were parked all around the street and even from inside Haylen’s little red car she could hear the music coming from the house.
“That’s not a small birthday party,” Stella pointed out. “Who the hell are those people?”
“I have no idea,” Haylen said. “Let’s go find out.”
As they made their way to the house, Stella quickly checked her bag to make sure she had her pills. She would swallow one as soon as she needed to.

The house was definitely full of strangers.
“Is this party for my birthday or someone else’s?” Stella asked, speaking loud enough so that Haylen heard her over the music.
“I thought it was yours! That’s what Arthur told me. Let’s just make sure he sees you, then I can take you home, okay?”
They pushed some people around and found a spot in the backyard that was a little more calm. At least they didn’t need to yell to hear each other, and there was a table with bottles of liquor and beer coolers.
Even though the night was quite fresh, some people were in the pool. No one talked to Stella.
She never thought she’d think something like this, but after all, being ignored on her birthday wasn’t that fun.

Danse eventually found them. He had a beer in his hand, and when he saw Stella, his face lit up and he opened his big arms. Stella found her way against him and he held her tight.
“Hey,” he said softly. “Happy birthday. You’re getting old.”
“Shut up.” It had been weeks since they had actually talked to each other outside of work. For some reason, it was as if tonight was an exception—it didn’t matter if she was pro-synth or not. Or maybe Danse was just a little inebriated. But hey, Stella would take it. She missed him. She missed them being friends.
“I’m going over there, I think I saw Rhys,” Haylen said in Stella’s back. “You can text me if you need anything.”
“Thanks Haylen,” Stella said with a smile, parting away from Danse.

They both watched Haylen walk away and join Rhys and Ingram who were with another group of people.
“How is she single?” Stella asked. “Look at her. She’s too pretty to be single, isn’t she?”
“Well, you know, she’s a little like you. Not too about relationships. She also takes her job very seriously.” Danse paused, finishing his beer. “Don’t tell anyone, but Rhys has this huge crush on her, it’s been like that for months. I think they’ll eventually find each other.”
“Oh.” Stella didn’t know what to say to that, so she just poured more tequila in her lemonade. “So, does Arthur does this thing this all the time where he throws a party for someone’s birthday and almost exclusively invite people that are complete strangers to that person?”
In the darkness, Stella saw Danse’s facial expression change. He lost the smile that he had and shook his head.
“I told him not to do that. I told him you’d come. But he was so damn sure you wouldn’t show up—he figured he’d invite all these people and it wouldn’t matter.”
“Well he is something,” Stella sighed.
“Yeah.” Danse made himself a drink that was mostly tequila and barely any lemonade and drank half of it in just one go. It didn’t look like he was having a good night. And maybe it was from seeing him outside work, but Stella found he looked jaded, and his beard wasn’t neatly trimmed as she was used to, and he had large dark circles under his eyes.
But as she was going to ask him how he was doing, Arthur showed up, leaning on the plastic table they were sitting around.

If Danse looked fatigued and worn out, Arthur’s eyes were shining and he had a smirk on his face. He looked great tonight, wearing a t-shirt but especially nice jeans, a little on the tight side.
“Happy birthday!” he said, waving a large bottle of whiskey in front of her. “Don’t drink all of it tonight.”
It was the whiskey she liked. She smiled, wrapping her hand around the neck of the bottle, brushing the cork with her thumb, distracted. She only became aware of both men staring at her hand after a few seconds, and she let go of the bottle. Boys. Like she was giving a handjob to a goddamn bottle.
“Thanks,” she managed. “And thank you so much for inviting all those people I don’t know to my birthday party.”
“Yeah…” Arthur obviously didn’t know what to do, so he made himself a drink. “I gotta go make sure they don’t trash the house, but you have fun, okay?”
Stella nodded and finished her own drink. She didn’t want to open the whiskey tonight, so she just went for tequila shots. After all, she was here to get drunk. And she had planned on stealing some whiskey from Maxson and he had given it to her.
Tonight wasn’t all bad.

Danse was still brooding though, so Stella took it upon herself to figure out what was going on.
“Let’s walk,” she told him. He followed her around the house, where she ended up opening the whiskey anyway, then they went back outside but on the side of the house, where there was absolutely no one. She drank straight from the bottle then shoved it in Danse’s hands, who drank too.
“Are you here just to get wasted?” he asked. “Did you take pills or anything?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” she said. “But you don’t look too good.”
“No, Stella, you don’t understand.” He drank some more. A lot. He would have to get her another bottle if he went on like that. “I am haunted by the sight of you lying naked on your bed, limp and… you looked like you were dead, Stella. Your skin was so cold and so pale, and, fuck. Fuck.”
She took the bottle from him, but did not drink. Instead, Stella squeezed the cork back in and left the bottle next to a window. On the other side of it, it looked like people were dancing to some sensual beat, but the curtains didn’t show much.

She sighed and wrapped her own arms around herself when a fresh breeze flew over us. In under two seconds, Danse had removed his jacket and was helping her put it on. It smelled like him. So cliché.
Stella’s head was spinning and spinning and spinning.
“You looked like you were dead,” Danse repeated in a voice so low she could barely hear him. “But you were so beautiful.”
Something shifted in Stella’s stomach. It felt like she had been kicked hard, then punched in the chest.
Nate. Nate was filling her head again, with the way he kept telling her she was the most beautiful when she just woke up, and how he liked to touch her all the time. Nate. Nate.
Stella wanted to slap Danse in the face and tell him to stop talking—she couldn’t be here with him, she couldn’t wear his jacket because the man she loved had been taken from her and her baby was dead and she was broken. She couldn’t be wearing his jacket, and she wasn’t supposed to think about how handsome he looked right now. He was staring at her in a way he had never done, his mouth slightly open, his stare sharp and piercing.

She thought of Arthur, too. And how he still sometimes messed with her head. Like when he went on stage and sang a song, or sometimes just when she walked in front of his office and saw him reading something on his laptop and he looked really beautiful. And how sometimes, when she felt lonely, she thought of him between her legs and the way she had felt when he had fucked her on his desk.
Danse had maybe turned out to be too anti-synth for her taste, but he still deserved better than her.

“Stella,” Danse breathed. He reached for her hair and then let his large hand brush her cheek.
“You’re drunk. You’re the most drunk I’ve ever seen you, Danse.”
“Maybe, but I still want to take you on a date. I’ve been thinking about this for months, Stella.”
Like it was the best moment to think about that, Stella thought about a conversation she overheard last month between Danse and Maxson, where they thought of the best way to prevent synths from entering the bar. After all, it was known that many people were synths and had no idea that they were—and Arthur did not want them in his establishment.
“You’re racist,” she managed. “You hate the synth race.”
“The synth race isn’t a thing,” Danse replied, but he seemed really confused that she was talking about this right now, just after he had basically asked her out. “They’re not natural, they’re created and programmed. Is this because of your neighbor?”

Maybe it was, Stella didn’t know. She wasn’t sure of how she would feel about synths if it hadn’t been for Sturges, a man she had known for years before finding out he wasn’t like everybody else.
“Anyone could be a synth,” she pointed out. Danse’s face was very, very close to her.
His breath smelled heavily of liquor. “What if I were a synth? Would you still want to go on a date with me?”
He didn’t answer.
“What if Arthur didn’t know about it, or didn’t hate synths as much as he did?” Stella went on. “You know Danse, I see right through you. I don’t know why you let Arthur boss you around like that, but you need to get over it.”

It looked like he was going to kiss her, but instead Danse opened his arms and nestled her against him for the second time that night. She had to admit—the feeling of his body so close to hers was surprisingly pleasant.
“He was my first love,” Danse said, breaking the silence.
“What?” What the. Fuck.
“You heard me, don’t make me say it again.” Danse let her go, leaning against the wall. “I… care about him a lot.”
You’re in love with him? What about that bullshit you told me about you guys being like brothers and totally not gay for each other?”
Danse let out a long sigh. “He’s not… he never loved me, not the way I did. And I’m not in love with him anymore. I’m sorry I lied to you. He’s still important to me, and we’re really close. Look, I understand that asking you on a date then revealing I was in love with my best friend is probably a lot to process, but I wanted you to know. I think.”
He touched her face again.
“So, uh,” Danse muttered. “Will you go? On a date with me?”
She looked into his eyes. How had she never noticed how beautiful his eyes were?
“Danse.” He frowned slightly, really just a little, looking concerned. “Kiss me,” she demanded.

It was a very slow kiss. He took her face in his hands and softly brushed his lips against her before eventually kissing her. Danse’s lips were coarse and his beard scratched her skin, but that was the most meaningful kiss Stella had experienced in a long fucking time. But it was too chaste right now—she needed the comfort of more than just Danse’s lips on hers—so she bit his lower lip and pushed her tongue against his, which surprised him, and he stopped the kiss. Stella looked up into his eyes.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“We can stop,” she replied. Actually they ought to. Stella had no idea what she was doing. She had promised herself that she would never do the exact thing she was doing right now. “Is it… because of Arthur?”
“No, well, I don’t know,” he admitted. “It has been years but I still think about him sometimes… but now I also think about you.”

They remained silent for a while. Stella grabbed her whiskey bottle and drank until she was out of breath. She needed to be numb. It was too much at once.
“I don’t know how I should react,” she said honestly. “I’m probably too drunk for this. Like, Danse, I can’t decide if it was okay to ask me out and tell me about Arthur. I don’t know.”
“It’s weird isn’t it?”
“It’s not weird that you loved him, that’s not what I meant. You’re like… bi and that’s totally fine. I’m just really not sure you and I should be together. I’m a big mess Danse, and you know it.”
“I still like you a lot.”
“You have no idea what it’s like. What I’ve been through.”
Danse’s face hardened, and instead of a tiny frown, he looked a little sad. “Is it because of Nate?”
Hearing Nate’s name coming out of someone else’s mouth was always something, but it was especially bad when it came of out the mouth she had just kissed. Stella thought of her pills in her bag and she looked down to locate said bag at her feet. When she went to reach for it, Danse stopped her and held her hand tightly.
“Stella,” he said. “Don’t get high. You’ve had too much to drink. I can’t lose you. Is that what you want? Do you really want to overdose or something? Did that Nate guy do this to you? Who is he, where is he? You can talk about me and Arthur all you want, but you’re no better as far as I know.”
Stella knew Danse regretted saying that—they both had too much to drink and they should have went separate ways a while ago—but she couldn’t take it anymore.
Nate and Shaun took all the space inside her. There was no room for anything else. She had kind of tried to make room for Arthur but no. And now Danse, but if she didn’t do anything, she would ruin this too, and end up more broken than she had been before.

“Nate and I were engaged,” Stella started, her eyes on the sky where she could see the moon. “And he is dead. He died trying to protect me and, and—and Shaun, our son. Okay? That’s it, Danse. Are you happy? I told you.”
“Trying to protect you?”
“Nate is dead. Shaun is dead. I’m the only one that’s left.”
Danse breathed in and out and put his face inside his hands. “Shit. Stella.”
“I wanna go home,” she managed, choked up. “I’ll call you okay.”
“Stella, wait, I’ll get you a ride.”
“No.” He was holding her hand, but Stella freed herself. She nudged the whiskey bottle in her bag. “I’m walking. I need some fresh air.”
She did. But she wasn’t panicking like she usually were. If anything, it felt like a relief to have someone knowing about her big secret.

Stella walked away from the party. When she reached the street, she saw that Danse had followed her but was still at a respectable distance. Maybe she could quit her job and find something else and, like… date him. It was absolutely insane, but she was really considering it. She didn’t really want to work at the Prydwen anymore, and she knew that if she wanted to try out a relationship with Danse, she had to leave that place anyway. Yes... maybe.
He was really sweet and she couldn’t wait to kiss him again.
Her sandals were loud on the sidewalk but she liked it when her shoes made noise when she walked. She had always liked it and she didn’t know why.

Stella had never been involved in a car accident before, but when she crossed the street she knew that she would get run over. The noise the car made, and the bright headlights—she just knew it. She froze instantly, unable to move probably because of fear, and when she regained control of her body it was too late.

Right before the car hit her, she saw who was driving it. It was the man who had shot Nate, and who had tried to put a bullet in her head too. Balding with a large scar on his face, and bad facial hair.
He didn’t even try to stop the car. The last thing Stella was aware of was that familiar face, the noise the car made as it accelerated towards her, and the lights that blinded her at the last moment. Then there was pain—more pain that she had ever felt in her life, and someone screamed her name. But all Stella could think about was please make it stop. Her head hurt and her back and everywhere else, too. Make it stop. Make it stop. And then, finally, she passed out.

Chapter Text

 

Danse 

 

 

 

He watched Stella walk away, standing on the front lawn in a mix of euphoria and awe. He had never really been on a date before, always too troubled with Arthur to dare make a move. But he just couldn’t let Stella go and not try, at least try, to be closer to her, and get to know her better.
Most of his life he had been the silent type of person, passive, too, but tonight he had made a change.

He sighed in relief, a faint smile on his face, as Stella was crossing the street to make her way to the nearest bus stop. She had looked amazing tonight, wearing a dress he had never seen before. He wondered if she knew how pretty she actually were.
Danse barely heard it, but in the distance, he could make out the sound of a car speeding up. The next second, Stella was in the middle of the street, a car just a few feet away from her. Danse witnessed the car hitting her body and he called her name, not that she could hear him at this point, but he still screamed. Stella rolled over the windshield, causing several cracks in it, then fell over on the pavement, her body limp and still.
Behind him, Danse heard the front door opening and several voices asking what was going on, but he was already rushing to her. The car had stopped, and it seemed like the driver was going to get out of his car. He was a middle-aged man, balding with a large scar on his face, and small black eyes. When he saw Danse in his mirror, the man immediately closed his door and fled.
“Hey, come back!” Danse yelled, but it was pointless. To his feet, Stella shifted slightly, moaning in pain. A little further he saw her bag and the whiskey bottle, shattered on the ground.

Danse knelt, his hands shaking, panicked but numb, and softly touched Stella’s shoulder.
“Stella,” he managed. “Stella, talk to me.”
She had blood on her face, but it was too dark outside to locate where the injury was. He just hoped it wasn’t her head, even if it looked like she had hit her hard on the car roof. He didn’t move her, fearing to aggravate her condition, but already, people were gathering around her.
“Come on guys, go back in the house,” Ingram’s voice said. “We already called the police. Give her some privacy, okay?”
Someone laid a hand on Danse’s shoulder and squeezed it. He looked up, only to see Arthur staring down at Stella, livid. He knelt too.
“She’ll be alright,” Ingram said as the small crowd was leaving. “Right?”
“He didn’t even brake,” Arthur muttered. “You saw it too.”
He was speaking to Danse. But Danse was scared he would throw up or cry if he talked, so he just nodded.
“He was trying to hit her,” Arthur went on. “To kill her. I bet my life on it. It was probably a synth who found out where I live and wanted to fuck with us.”
“No offense Arthur, but that really doesn’t matter right now,” Haylen’s voice said from behind Danse.

Danse agreed with that—as much as he wanted revenge for what had happened, the last thing on his mind as the war on synths. He took Stella’s wrist between his fingers and tried to get a pulse. It took a little while but he found it and breathed deeply.
“It’ll be okay Stella,” he assured, aware of Arthur’s sharp eyes on him. “I’ll stay with you.”
In the distance, they heard sirens. Danse waited with Stella’s cold hand in his.
The police came first, one officer establishing a security perimeter, the other taking Stella’s vitals and talking with them, but it didn’t take more than two minutes for the ambulance to come by too.
“Sir, you say you saw everything?” the officer told Danse as the paramedics took care of Stella. “Do you have anything for us? Car model, year, color, license plate?”
“Uh,” Danse muttered, his eyes fixated on Stella’s body. The paramedics had laid her down on her back after securing her neck in a brace, and she appeared strangely small just then, with too much blood on her dress. She was still wearing his jacket.
“It was a Focus,” Arthur interrupted. “Dark, either gray or black, of the years 2005 to 2008 or something. That’s all I can give you.”
“I saw the driver,” Danse whispered. “I saw him.”
The police officer breathed deeply and shook his head. “Alright,” he said. “Sir, I’d like you to come with me. We’ll go to the station right away and we’ll hear what you have to say. It’s really important that you tell us every little detail, even the ones you think aren’t relevant.”
“No,” Danse replied. “I can’t. I have to go to the hospital. Where are they taking her?” “Milton General, most likely,” the cop said. “Sir, listen, it would help her the most right now if you came with us, do you understand that?”

Arthur turned to him and for the second time that night, put his hand on Danse’s shoulder.
“You go with him,” Arthur said. “I’ll go to the hospital and I’ll be there if she wakes up. ‘Kay?”
Danse nodded, and Arthur gave him a soft push in the back. He followed the officer, but stopped when he saw Stella’s bag at his feet.
“Uh, sir?” he bent down and touched the fabric—it was soaked with whiskey now. “Can I take this? There’s her wallet in there.”
“Of course. Let’s go now.”

Danse soon found himself at the back of a police car. He felt trapped in there, but the officer was engaging small talk with him—also asking him more about the accident.
It seemed to be a long drive. The whole time, Danse thought about Stella, and the way she had kissed him, deeply and softly at once. Her lips tasted like tequila and whiskey, with just a dash of fruity lipstick.
As they were approaching the police station, Danse thought about what Arthur had told him. Now it seemed so obvious that what had happened wasn’t an accident at all.
They guided Danse through doors and hallways, until he was sitting in a small office with neon lights that buzzed loudly. He was still pretty drunk, and dizzy, and kind of felt like he would throw up. Before leaving him in there, an officer took Stella’s wallet so the hospital could ID her right away. Danse gave it to him, but kept the whiskey-drenched purple bag.

He waited a few minutes until the door was opened, showing a man in his mid 40’s. He had black hair except for a few spots of gray. When he entered, he brought a smell of cigarettes and coffee—he was holding two plastic cups, one he put in front of Danse before sitting at the other side of the desk.
He didn’t speak at first, giving some time for Danse to taste his coffee and evaluate the officer. He wore black pants, a white shirt and a black tie and he looked extremely professional. He also had amber eyes, almost gold. He spoke to Danse with a deep, confident voice.
“How’s the coffee, son?” he asked. “I didn’t know if you wanted sugar or not, but they told me you came right out from a party, and I needed you to sober up a little.”
Danse blinked and nodded. “Yeah. It’s fine. Sir.” He drank half of the cup in one go, burning his throat. It was bad coffee, but it was coffee all the same.
“Alright. I’m the detective they assigned to that case. The name’s Nick Valentine. How about how you begin by telling me your full name and relationship with the victim?”
Full name. Relationship with the victim. “Michael Danse. I’m like, not her boss but she works at my friend’s bar and—I mean, she’s my friend.”

Valentine nodded and even though he had what appeared to be a brand new laptop on his desk, he wrote down some notes in a worn out moleskine notebook using a BIC pen.
“Go on, son,” Valentine encouraged, “just tell me everything you can and then you can go see her. What happened in the minutes preceding the accident? How did you come to witness it?”
Danse took a moment to put everything in the right order. He finished his coffee and threw the empty cup in the metallic bin next to the desk. It was already full of the same cups. Typical cop.
“We were talking, and then Stella wanted to leave. I offered her a ride—I would have called a cab or something—but she insisted she wanted to walk. She does that a lot. Anyway—”
“Keep your thoughts, Michael, but let me ask you something,” Valentine interrupted.
“We sent cops at your house to gather more intel and two witnesses saw you and miss Austin kissing, barely a few moments prior to her getting hurt.”
Danse’s face became really warm. He shifted his weight on the chair, suddenly realizing how uncomfortable it was.
“Uh, I mean, sir,” he managed. “Yeah, but she didn’t leave angry or anything if that’s what you think. We, uh, we agreed we were a little too drunk to have a serious conversation, but kind of had a silent agreement to go on a date. She wasn’t furious or anything.”
“Alright. What about the driver? You saw him? Did he stop the car after hitting Miss Austin?”
“No—I mean, yes. For a few seconds. But then he saw that I was there too, we made eye-contact, and he left. But you need to know that he was trying to kill Stella.”
“That is a very serious accusation, son.”
“I know! But Stella was crossing a well-lit, large street and he saw her. There’s no way he didn’t see her. Besides, he didn’t brake at all—he sped up. A whole lot.”
Valentine nodded and wrote down several things. Danse looked down on the chair next to him and saw the corner of Stella’s phone shining under the neon lights. He reached for it—the screen was badly cracked and some liquor had probably spilled right into it, because Danse couldn’t even turn it on. Arthur would get her another one, but he hoped she wasn’t losing too many pictures she cherished.

“Okay, kid, let me ask you something, okay?” Valentine said. “Could it be possible that, outside of the two witnesses I just told you about, someone else had seen you—like the man who was driving the car? And if so, do you think he could have been angry at Stella for, let’s say, being very affectionate with you?”
That hadn’t crossed Danse’s mind at all. He frowned. “The guy was a little old for her,” he mentioned. “I don’t think she would have been seeing him. Uh, actually, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have. She has… like trust issues. She, uh, she doesn’t really date? I know we were kissing, but—”
“It’s alright, kid.” Valentine went to drink some coffee but his cup was empty. He threw it in the bin and ran a hand through his hair. “Did she ever mention some kind of stalker, though? Did she ever tell you that she had been followed on her way to some place, or that she was getting strange phone calls?”
“No, sir. She never told me about that.”
“You have a list of names of people I could talk to about that? People who, maybe, could know if Stella and the driver are connected in any way?”

Danse tried once again to turn on her phone but it wouldn’t. He didn’t know all of her acquaintances, so he just told Nick about the people he did know: Piper, Hancock, Daisy and Preston. He added Haylen and Ingram because he figured that she might had been talking to them about a potential stalker more than she would to him.
At that instant, when Danse realized how him and Stella had drifted away from each other lately. Because of the synths. She had been friend with a synth—but now it was very likely that one had tried to kill her. Or at least, that’s what Arthur had said.
Maybe Danse should be telling Valentine about this.
“Sir, uh, Detective?” Danse said. He was still drunk. He would need more than one shitty coffee to get back to his normal self.
“Yes, son?”
“My friend, he said he had also seen the accident, and he told me that, well, the Prydwen is… he thought running over Stella was a way to retaliate against what the bar is standing for.”
Valentine’s jaw clenched, but instead of taking notes, he went for a drawer of his desk to get a cigarette, which he lit inside the office. Danse cleared his throat, suddenly feeling very unwelcome here. The detective’s gold eyes had lost their compassion, and he just seemed very annoyed.
“Thank you for your help,” the man said with a cold voice. “I will look at that, make some calls, and we’ll see. I hope miss Austin recovers quickly. That will be it.”
Danse didn’t move immediately. “Stella isn’t—she doesn’t hate synths,” he blurted out. “Please. Whoever did this to her deserves to be punished.”
Valentine looked into his eyes for a few seconds, then nodded. Danse grabbed Stella’s bag and left the room. He was feeling sick. Tequila usually did that to him.
He would throw up later.

He waited for his taxi and breathed some fresh air outside. He hoped that if Valentine was synth-friendly, he wouldn’t slack off on his investigation now that he knew where Stella worked. Everyone in Boston knew that Arthur Maxson hated synths.
Everyone.
And even if Valentine hadn’t liked it, Arthur had been right—it was very likely that someone had wanted to make themselves heard. And since Arthur didn’t go out very much anymore, this guy had just hurt the first person he met and knew worked at the Prydwen.
Right?

It was 1:00 AM when Danse entered Milton General. He had taken the main entrance, but wasn’t used to be here and didn’t know where to go. The ER was on his left, but he decided to go ask a receptionist.
“My friend was in an accident,” he told her. “Can you tell me where she is?”
“If you give me her name, yes probably,” the woman said. She was in her 50’s and seemed very tired.
“Stella Austin. She was hit by a car.”
The woman typed something on her computer and Danse waited. The lights were excruciatingly bright here. It was awful.
“Oh, there she is.” He jumped when the receptionist talked again. “She just got out of Intensive Care! That means she’s fine. They moved her about fifteen minutes ago. She’s on the second floor now, this wing, room 2-B3. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am. 2-B3. Thank you.”
“You have a nice night.”
Danse nodded politely at her and went to the elevators, but seeing none seemed fast enough to his taste, he took the stairs. It took him a little while to find the room, but a nurse nicely gave him indications and he eventually found the room.
It was a small room. The lights were dimmed. Stella was lying on a bed, asleep, with IV’s connected into her arm. She had a bad bruise on her face, and the right side of her forehead was covered in gauze and medical tape. Her left arm was in a sling.
Danse stayed in the doorframe, watching her chest raise as she breathed. She was breathing.

On a chair next to her bed was Arthur. He wasn’t facing Danse, but he appeared to be staring at Stella. A large pot containing colorful tulips was already on Stella’s nightstand, next to a stuffed animal that might have been a dog, or a bear. It was ugly.
Arthur had bought the first thing he had seen at the souvenir shop downstairs, not putting one second of thought into it. Very Arthur-like, but still nice. At least she would wake up to the flowers, and he might find a way to sneak the stuffed animal out of the room without Arthur noticing.
“Hey,” Danse whispered.
Arthur turned his head around. “Hey. You okay?”
“I’m fine. How is she?” Danse found a chair and brought it closer to the bed as silently as possible. Arthur waited until he was seated to speak.
“She’ll be fine,” he explained in a low voice. “There’s nothing major, but a lot of little things. She has a concussion but it’s not serious. She stretched her neck, dislocated her shoulder and hurt her knee. The only fracture she has is at the shoulder, and it’s just a small one. She’ll need to keep the sling for a while is all. She had a bad cut on her leg, too, and lost a good amount of blood but they gave some to her. She’s fine.”
But Arthur’s face was pale, and his fists were closed. He was usually very skilled at pretending not to be stressed—tonight was an exception.
“She should wake up in an hour or so,” Arthur finished. “What did the cops say?”
“I talked to the detective. Seemed like an old-school kind of guy, but up to the task. Asked me questions. Wanted to know if Stella had a stalker or something.”
“Does she?”
“Not that I know of! I told him to talk to her neighbors, or that Piper girl, or Hancock and Daisy. They might know.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, which he always did when a synth or synth sympathizer was mentioned.
“Maybe tonight, just tonight, we can put that aside,” Danse pointed out, “and think about Stella for a second.” He finally let go of her bag, which he put on a small nearby desk. “Her phone’s ruined. You’ll have to order another one.”
Arthur breathed deeply and looked away. “I talked to her before they took her to do the stitches on her head and leg.” Arthur bit his lip and clenched his fists even more. “She gave me her resignation. She quit.”
“She wasn’t herself,” Danse said. “Arthur. She just had been hit by a car—she has a concussion. She didn’t mean it.”
“What were you guys doing? In that dark corner, by yourselves? Is it true what Teagan said? You guys were making out?”
Danse looked away. He couldn’t look Arthur in the eyes. Not now.

“Why does it matter?” Danse said, looking at Stella.
“Just curious.”
“She was hit by a car—most likely on purpose, and on her birthday—and you’re curious about who she was kissing?”
Arthur breathed deeply and stood up. He walked around the room a little, then stopped next to the window. Pushing the curtain aside, he stared down at what was probably the parking lot. After several seconds of silence, Arthur looked at him from the corner of his eye.
“You look like shit,” he pointed out. “How drunk are you?”
“Very,” Danse admitted.
“Maybe you should go home. I told Ingram to throw everyone out anyway. They’re gone by now.”
“I’m not leaving her.”
Arthur leaned on the wall and crossed his arms over his chest. He seemed calm and composed, but with the way his mouth was slightly twitching, and how his fists were always closed, Danse just knew he wasn’t. He didn’t like it. It made him feel uneasy even though he didn’t know exactly why.
“I’ll handle that,” Arthur said. “Listen, Danse, I’m sorry, but I don’t think Stella will appreciate seeing you like that.”
Danse grunted and went to the bathroom to look at himself. The mirror showed him a pale face with dark circles under his eyes, and lips that had been bitten hard for the past few hours. He did, indeed, look like shit. And he still felt like he was going to throw up.
“I told you,” Arthur whispered. He had appeared in the mirror, a smirk on his face. “Go to bed, Michael. You can come back later and take my place. Alright?”
“Don’t leave her alone, Arthur. Okay? Who knows if the guy who wanted to run her over will be back.”
“She won’t be alone,” Arthur assured. “Come on, go.”

Danse nodded. Before leaving, he went to see Stella again. He didn’t really know what to do, so he just squeezed her hand in his, then went downstairs to get a cab. He slept the whole time, only to be awaken by the driver when they parked in front of the house. Danse paid him and went inside. The place was surprisingly clean—empty bottles had been stacked in a corner of the kitchen, next to four big garbage bags.
There was a note on the counter:
Cleaned up a bit. Not in the backyard though. I’ll call in the morning and maybe the three of us can go visit Stella at the hospital. Ingram will probably tag along. I already took care of talking to some of her friends.
Haylen.

Danse let the note where it was and went upstairs to his room. He didn’t even turn on the light and just got out of his jeans and shoes, then he crawled into his bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

He woke up in Stella’s apartment. The sun was high in a baby blue sky. A window was open—he could feel the fresh breeze on his skin. It’s only then that he realized he was completely naked.
Danse looked back up, only to find out he was standing in Stella’s bedroom. She was naked too, lying on her bed with with sheets, gracefully moving her head to look at him. He tried turning around to go get dressed but his feet refused to move.
“Danse,” she whispered.
“Aren’t you at the hospital?” he asked. Her shoulder was fine, so was her head, and she didn’t show any bruises or injuries.
“Come with me,” she went on, completely ignoring him.
This isn’t real, he thought, but that thought was lost immediately.

Stella opened her legs a little, just enough to let her hand slide between them.
Danse, mesmerized, stared at the action. She moaned softly, her head rolling on her pillow.
He stepped forwards to get a better look. He bit his lips as she brought her hand back up, cupping both of her breasts. She was beautiful.
“Danse,” she repeated. “I want you to fuck me.”
No one had ever told him that, and Stella was the first real life naked woman he had seen.
That explained his current raging hard-on.
She stretched her arms open and waited for him. He put a knee on her bed, then the other, and climbed on the soft mattress. It was fresh because of the open windows.
Kneeling over her like that, Danse had an amazing view of her body. He went down to kiss her and she wrapped her arms around his neck to bring him closer. He felt her breasts against his chest, soft, silky, round, and her nipples hard.
“I want you to fuck me,” she said again, in his ear this time.
He straightened himself and spread her legs open. He rubbed his hard cock against her wet opening, and she moaned more than ever.

When Danse began thrusting to respond to Stella’s demands, he felt something hard in his lower back, and warmth spreading all over him. A hand firmly grabbed his cock and a hungry mouth kissed his neck.
“Hey,” Arthur’s voice said from behind. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”
A large smile appeared on Stella’s face and Danse looked to his left, only to see Arthur’s face extremely close to his. But before he could say anything, Arthur started playing with him, thumbing the head of his cock, then sliding his hand up and down, then thumbing again. He was rubbing his own erection on Danse’s back, breathing loudly on his neck.
Stella, still lying down and facing the both of them, seemed happier than ever. She was fingering herself eagerly, staring intensely at Arthur’s work on Danse.
Danse had wanted Arthur to do this to him for so long. For so long, he had wanted Arthur’s hand all over him.

Danse’s hips followed Arthur’s ruthless touch. He had his hands everywhere—sometimes he was touching Stella, sometimes he was grabbing Arthur’s hair. But soon enough, his cock twitched and Arthur turned his head to make him kiss him as he came. Arthur’s mouth was rough and tasted like liquor. He vigorously stroked his shaft three times—so strongly that he hit Danse’s stomach hard—and Danse came. Parting from Arthur’s mouth, he stared at his seed spilling on Stella’s thigh. She laughed, which seemed strangely inappropriate.

Then Danse woke up, hard in real life as much as he had been in his dream, panting and frustrated. He was also most definitely ashamed and confused.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

Stella became aware of her surroundings before she opened her eyes. She felt discomfort in her right arm, and pain in her head, like a bad headache. Her left arm was constricted in something tight—so tight she couldn’t move it. Her mouth was dry, and the smell was familiar, but she wasn’t in her room. She was lying on a bed that wasn’t hers.
She could hear different beepings everywhere, some close and some in the distance, but that only confirmed her where she actually was.
The hospital.

Her eyelids flew open in a millisecond and Stella jerked forwards. Doing so generated a great pain in her head and neck, and she groaned. Someone had been sitting next to her and jumped, taken by surprise.
“Holy shit,” Arthur sighed, his eyes still drowsy. “You can’t do that. You can’t move.”
He stood up and put a careful hand on her chest, just below her neck, and he softly pushed her back against the bed. He adjusted her pillow and made sure the IVs were still in place.
But Stella could feel panic running through her veins. All the air was leaving her lungs but not coming back, and all she could think of was the moment they had taken Shaun away from her and she had screamed in her hospital room, so loud and for so long they had given her a shot of something to make her pass out.

And today, four years later, yet another scream was forming in her throat as she remembered why she was here. Arthur sat down on her bed and put his face close to hers. His breath smelled like mint flavored gum. He took her face in his big hands and talked with his bossy voice.
“Calm down. Breathe. You hear me, baby girl? I really need you to stay calm. You can’t move too fast, especially not your head and shoulder. It was dislocated. And you have a concussion. Just… stay still.”
Baby girl?
A smile appeared on Arthur’s face and he let go of her face. “She’s back,” he said with a laugh.
“Shut up,” Stella mumbled, settling back into a comfortable position. She could breathe again, kind of at least, but her hands were shaking and she was still uneasy. All she could think about was Shaun, and Nate too.
“I’ll go get your doctor,” Arthur decided.
“No!” Stella cried. “I mean, wait, please. I’m not even sure—I mean, Arthur, why am I here? Exactly?”
“We were all hoping you would be able to answer that,” Arthur admitted, playing with her sheets distractingly. He looked really tired. “Do you not remember? At all?”
“I remember I got hit by a car, that’s for sure. But… I wasn’t that drunk. Like, I can’t believe I didn’t look before crossing the street.”
Arthur bit his lip and looked away. Stella followed his gaze and noticed a large pot containing at least thirty tulips. She loved tulips. Next to those though, sat an ugly stuffed animal. A dog, most likely. She wasn’t able to look for long because her neck hurt too much, so she sat straight.

Arthur took her hands in his, shocking her. His skin was really warm. He brushed her hand with his thumb. She had rarely seen so much softness in Arthur Maxson, especially not now that he was at war against synths.
“When I saw you on the pavement,” he whispered, “I thought for sure that you were dead. It freaked me out.”
“Arthur—”
“I’m gonna tell you something Stella, but you can’t panic. Promise me.”
“I can’t promise you that.”
He shook his head. As he was about to speak again, a nurse entered her room.

The nurse offered a nice smile as she came in and checked the IV machine.
“How are you feeling, Stella?” she asked with a lovely, rough but gentle voice.
“Uh, I don’t know,” Stella said truthfully. “Okay, I guess.”
“Being confused is entirely normal after what you went through, but your vitals look good.” She smiled again. She was really pretty, and looked very fashionable. She was dark-skinned and had beautiful doe eyes, and a trendy undercut in silverish hair. She also had colorful makeup and smelled very nice.
“When can I get out?” Stella asked.
“Woah, let’s take our time here, alright? Get some rest first. In the morning, you’ll talk to a doctor, and I think the police will want to see you too. Okay?” She turned to Arthur. “You can call me if you need anything, I’ll be at my desk just a few doors down—ask for Glory.”
She waved her goodbye and left the room.

“I don’t want to see the police,” Stella sighed. “It’s not like I’ve seen the license plate or anything, right?”
Arthur’s eyes looked sad. She had never seen him like that. “Stella,” he started. “Maybe it should be Danse who tells you about this—he saw the whole thing and I know you guys, well, anyway—but the driver, the man who ran into you with his car, I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose.”
It took a solid ten seconds for that information to be processed in Stella’s tired, slightly damaged brain. But when she realized what Arthur had said, she remembered.
She remembered very well the man behind the wheel. Not like she could never forget him. The last time she had faced him, he had pulled a gun on her and Nate.
She almost screamed, but instead remained dead silent, suddenly feeling numb and empty.
Arthur waited a few seconds, but seeing she wouldn’t respond, he just held her hand again. Part of Stella wanted to tell him everything, but she didn’t seem capable of speaking right now. Not to him, not to anyone. She wasn’t sure she could manage talking to the cops later. Except, maybe, if she asked for more morphine or something. Arthur, respecting her silence, just kept her hand in his and waited for her to go back to sleep, which she eventually did. Stella knew she slept because she wasn’t sober, but she welcomed every second where she wasn’t awake. The feeling of morphine being literally injected in her veins was the only comfort she had just then.

The first thing Stella saw when she woke up was Danse. Sunlight filtered through the generic white curtains of her room. He was standing next to the window, his leg shaking nervously, and he was checking his phone. Arthur was nowhere to be seen, but Haylen sat on a chair at the end of her bed. Stella’s head was still heavy, but her shoulder and arm didn’t hurt as much. It was, no doubt, because of more effective medicine.
“Stella,” Haylen said with a smile. “Good morning. Danse, she woke up!”
Danse jumped and almost threw his phone on a table. He was standing at her side in half a second.
“Hey,” he said softly while Haylen opened a curtain to let more light in. Danse looked tired, very tired, but she liked that scruffy look on him. She reached for his face and touched his rough beard, making him smile. “It’s good to see you awake,” he added.
Stella was awake, yes, but she felt high and her mouth was dry. “Danse, can you get me some water, please?” she asked, surprised to hear her own voice sound so feeble and weak. She hadn’t had that impression last night.
Haylen went to the bathroom and filled a glass with water, then she gave it to Stella.
Danse watched her as she struggled to even drink from it, so he slid one hand under her shoulder and slowly lifted her, just a little, and with the other hand he took the glass and helped her drink. She emptied the whole glass and Danse lowered her into her bed again.
“I’ll be downstairs, I’ll get coffee and snacks,” Haylen said with a gentle smile on her face. “Text me if there’s anything.”

When she was gone, Danse sat next to Stella, exactly where Arthur had been sitting last night when she had fallen asleep.
She remembered Arthur now, and the short conversation they had. She looked on the table with the tulips and the ugly stuffed animal. It wasn’t alone now—there was a larger, smiling turtle next to it.
“Oh, yeah, that,” Danse mumbled. “I mean… Arthur’s is pretty shitty, right? I got you the turtle.”
Stella chuckled, but if she had more energy she would have laughed louder.
“It’s awful,” she admitted. “Is it a dog?”
“I thought it might have been a bear, but I’m not sure. I didn’t dare ask him. He tends to take these things very personally.”
“He takes everything personally.”
Danse nodded, agreeing silently with her. Then he sighed.
“He did tell me he, uh, explained to you what happened,” Danse said, suddenly very serious.
Stella squeezed Danse’s hand in hers. Her own skin was especially cold and she didn’t like it. It didn’t feel right.
“Danse. It was him,” she whispered. “I mean, the man who drove the car is also the man who killed Nate.”
Danse stared down at her for several seconds, probably deciding if she was going crazy because of her concussion or medicine.
“Stella, it’s impossible,” he said. “Maybe you think it was him, but—”
“I saw him!” Stella let go of his hand and looked into his eyes. “I saw his face, both times. I know it was him. I’m not crazy. Okay? I’m not fucking crazy.”

“Okay, okay,” he shushed her. Grabbing both her wrists to stop her from moving, he bent down and held her against him. He smelled like he was just out of the shower, which might just be the case because his hair was a little damp. Stella closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “You’re not crazy, I know that. I just wonder how you could see him. He was driving fast, and—”, Danse started, but didn’t finish his sentence. He got up and walked around the room, frowning.

“You’re sure it was him?” Danse said eventually.
“Listen, there’s no way I could ever forget that face.”
“So this man tried to kill you twice. And he failed twice, too.”
“Uh, yeah, that’s about it.”
“I don’t think he wants you dead, then. Even an amateur doesn’t let that happen. I have the feeling it’s all planned. When he was getting out of his car—maybe it was to take you with him. Alive. That’s so messed up.”
“That’s even worse,” Stella pointed out. “I’d rather die than that.”

Danse sat on a chair, looking down. He was either thinking deeply or spacing out, but Stella stared at him because it was the only thing she could do that would stop her from screaming. So she kept her eyes on him, on the way he stretched his fingers, probably out of habit more than anything. The idea of a man being after her like that was too much to think about. It was much better to concentrate on Danse’s big hands for now.

Both of them jumped when someone knocked on the door. It was a man in medical uniform with tidy hair and dark eyes. On his white coat there was a label that said “Dr. Carrington” in small letters. He didn’t smile to Stella and didn’t even acknowledged Danse.
“How are you feeling, Stella?” he asked, reading notes on a clipboard at the end of her bed. “Your head, your shoulder? What about your leg?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Stella said initially. It really looked like this man didn’t want to be here right now and she didn’t like it. But she also couldn’t wait to get out of here, so she figured she had to let him know everything. “The leg doesn’t bother me. I barely feel my shoulder if I don’t move too much. And my head doesn’t feel as foggy as last night. It just hurts a little, but not everywhere. Only where I got hit.” As if to demonstrate, Stella reached for the spot on her head that was covered in gauze and tape. When she touched it, she winced a little, but tried keeping her face cool.
“That’s good news,” Carrington said. “Last night’s scan didn’t show any blood clot in your head, but I’ll have another done this afternoon just to be sure. If it comes out clean, you’ll be out of here tonight.”
“Really?”
“Yes. Now, Stella, you must know that you cannot get your stitches too wet during the first few days. That means wrapping your leg in plastic wrap, same with your forehead. Use medical tape, it works miracles.”
“And, uh, what about work?” Stella asked.
“Work?” Carrington raised an eyebrow. He seemed like he was kind of an asshole. “If I recall well, you gave your boss your resignation last night.”
“What? No, I didn’t.”
She looked over at Danse who shook his head, sorry. “You did,” he muttered. “But you didn’t mean it, didn’t you?”
“This is none of my business,” Carrington interrupted, “but all of your hospital bill is covered by the insurance provided by your employer.”
“I’ll… I’ll call Arthur,” Stella said with a low voice. “Uh, thanks, Doctor.”

Carrington wrote some more notes on the clipboard before putting it back where he had taken it.
“One last thing—Stella, how do you feel about talking to the police? They’re waiting outside until I give them my approval.”
“The police?”
“You don’t have to, I can send them away.”
“No. I’ll talk to them.” Stella breathed to calm herself. Something was wrong, and maybe the police could help her.
Carrington nodded and left the room.
“Can you give me my phone?” Stella asked Danse. “I need to call Arthur.”
“Oh—I mean, didn’t he—uh.”
“What? Danse, come on! I can’t quit the job, I can’t afford this hospital bill.”
Danse sighed and opened the locker in the room. He searched her bag and a faint smell of whiskey reached her. Eventually, he held out her phone to her.

It was ruined. There was a large crack in the screen, nothing that could be fixed. “It’s okay, Stella, the bar will provide another one,” Danse assured. “I’ll talk to Arthur while you talk to the cops, okay? I’m sure he didn’t actually accept your resignation. Besides, he hates paperwork.”
Arthur did have the habit of never filling paperwork on time, so she was probably going to be alright.

The police officer entered right after Danse had left. He was wearing a white shirt and black pants, with suspenders and all.
“Good morning, miss Austin,” he said with a deep voice. He was even wearing his badge in his neck. “I’m Nick Valentine, the detective assigned to your case.”
He did look like a proper detective, and smelled heavily of coffee. He sat next to her bed and she watched him open an old moleskine notebook and write down something.
“Good morning,” she said. “I need to tell you something. Right now.”
Valentine didn’t answer. He had stopped writing, but was still looking down at his notebook.
“Does it have anything to do with what happened four years ago, on Halloween?”
Stella almost vomited. How could he know? “Yeah,” she managed. “You know about that?”
“Miss, no offense but—it was on your record at the police station. Obviously. I didn’t need to dig really deep to find out about such tragedy.” He paused, breathed in and out, and put down his pen. “I know it’s late, but I am so sorry for what happened back then. Sorry for your loss. Or losses, to be more precise.”
“Thank you, detective.” Her hands were trembling. She didn’t like to talk about it but Valentine had obviously a lot of kindness in him, and she felt strangely safe in his company.
“You must be wondering, though, how is it that I can link these two events barely a few hours after the second one took place?”
“I do,” Stella admitted.
“After the Halloween shooting, experts determined the man had used .44 bullets. Deadly. Very deadly, as you know, sadly. Last night, we were able to locate the car that hit you. Abandoned in the parking lot of a convenience store. Abandoned very quickly, without a proper cleaning of it. They’re testing whatever they could find of DNA as we speak, but we found two shells—two bullets had been fired in that car, and they were .44 bullets. That’s not common. If it had been 10mm in both cases, I wouldn’t have noticed. But .44? That’s not a coincidence.”
“I saw him,” Stella said hurriedly. “I saw the man before he hit me and it was him. It was the same man that killed Nate and Shaun.”
Valentine didn’t even doubt. He shook his head and wrote a few words down.
“Two attempted murders,” Valentine mumbled.
“I don’t think he wants me dead,” Stella said, repeating the conversation she and Danse had earlier. “Or else, I’d be dead.”
“I also came to that conclusion,” Valentine said. He sighed deeply. “Alright, could you describe him to me? That’ll be a start.”
“I don’t know how tall he is,” Stella started. “He’s balding but I think his hair is dark. He has really dark eyes too, and they’re small. He has a pretty large scar on the left side of his face. But that’s all I can give you. I’m sorry.”

Nick nodded. When he was done writing down everything she had said, he closed the notebook and stood.
“I gotta go,” he said. “But I’ll stay in touch. It’s probably best if you don’t go out too much until we find this guy.”
Stella thanked Nick and watched him leave. Danse immediately came back.
“So?”
“So nothing. We just have to wait, but I don’t think they’ll find him.”
“Yeah. Well, if that can reassure you, I talked to Arthur and he said of course you were still an employee of the bar. He was sleeping but he said he would be there tonight when they discharge you. He’ll drive you home, set you up, everything.”
“You mean, you’ll be there too?”
“I’ll come by later, it’s just, Ingram has an appointment and I offered her to be her ride and—”
“Is she okay? Is it her hip again?”
“Yeah. She’s in a lot of pain. I promised I wouldn’t tell Arthur but she’s scared he’ll fire her if he knows it hurts her to work. He would never do that, but still.” Danse took her hand. “I’m sorry Stella. I’ll come spend the evening with you though, and I can spend the night if you want. On the couch, I mean.”
In spite of everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, Stella smiled.
“The couch?” she said. “My couch is awful.”
Danse’s cheeks slowly turned to a rosy color. “Uh, we’ll see about that,” he replied, but he was smiling too.

Later that night, after making sure Stella’s concussion wasn’t serious, they let her go. As expected, Arthur was present. They didn’t talk much but he waited in her room while a nurse helped her put some clothes on in the bathroom.
“Ready to go?” he asked as she came back near the bed.
“Yeah, let’s go. I’m starving, too.”
“We can stop somewhere and get food,” he assured, lifting the small bag containing her belongings. She grabbed the pot with the tulips in them. They smelled like summer. They were a much better gift than the atrocious stuffed bear-dog hybrid he had given her. She wondered if Arthur actually knew tulips were her favorite flowers or if it was just a coincidence.

It was a windy night, and she was trying to walk as quickly as possible but her leg hurt a little. She was also feeling limp from being in bed for so long. Arthur slowed down and put an arm around her waist.
“Don’t go too fast there, baby girl,” he said with a smirk. “You’ll rip open your stitches.”
“Fuck you,” Stella sighed. They had stopped next to an old pick-up truck, and Arthur had let go of her to find his keys. “That’s not your car,” she added.
“Oh yes it is. You’ve never met her but that’s my other baby girl. I like you a whole lot, Stella, but you have serious competition.”
“Maxson. I’ll hit you.”
The truck was red and old, but it seemed to be in good condition. Great, even.
“My other car is at the repair shop for routine maintenance,” he explained. He opened the passenger door and put her bag behind the seats. He also found a spot where the tulips would be safe, then offered her his arm so she could climb into the truck.
“I like the Audi better,” she pointed out when he sat behind the wheel.
“Well, I like this one better. And if you keep complaining, you’re not getting any food. Alright?”
“Sure, whatever.” Stella lazily waved her hand.
It was strange to feel so light, especially when sitting next to Arthur and more importantly, after having been face to face with Nate’s killer, but Stella decided it was because of the roaring of the engine and just because she was out of the hospital. She would sleep in her own bed tonight, and probably eat fries. Deep down, she knew she was in trouble, but tonight, just tonight, she’d ignore it. And, after all, even if the Audi was luxurious and comfortable, the Chevy had a lot of personality, and it felt excessively nice to roam the empty Boston streets in it.

Chapter Text

 

Stella 

 

 

 

It was Danse who took her to the doctor’s appointment that would determine if she had to keep her arm immobilized or if she would, finally, be free.
Danse was driving his Jeep—Stella found that she liked this vehicle better when it wasn’t cold outside and there was no chance they would get stuck in snow. The windows were down, the radio was on and some popular song was playing. Danse was humming softly to it, he didn’t know the lyrics but he knew the melody. That was most likely because of Arthur, because Arthur listened to the radio all the time.

She had been spending a lot of time with these two. Separately, mostly, because they had decided to keep some kind of watch over her. Not one day and not one night since the accident—that wasn’t an accident at all—Stella had been alone.
She hadn’t been going to work, obviously. Not that she didn’t want to, but two days after leaving the hospital she had begged Arthur to take her to the bar because staying in her apartment, doing absolutely nothing, was driving her crazy. So they had went and Danse had welcomed her with a frown, but after barely an hour Stella had realized how useless she were.
It was, she found, very difficult to wait tables with just one functioning arm and a limp. She didn’t know how Ingram managed to do such an excellent job in the kitchen.
So Stella had stayed home after that. A lot. Watching movies with her self-proclaimed guardians and struggling to shower properly. At least she looked kind of badass with her scars and stitches. Well, she looked terrible, but badass.

Danse negotiated a left turn and they entered the Milton General Hospital parking lot. He reached over the window to grab a parking receipt from the machine.
He stayed with her in the waiting room. It was packed, but every waiting room in every hospital was most likely packed and busy and impossible. Stella was just one tiny bit of the whole picture, of what was really going on. They had shut down the MIT, although she didn’t know why, but everyone said the synths came from the Institute. Hospitals, police stations and fire departments were overloaded with work.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Danse said, looking at his phone.
“I just want to move my arm,” Stella replied with a long sigh. “It really doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“I know, Stella.” He smiled.
Stella turned her head, pretending to be looking at the clock on the opposite wall. Her cheeks felt warm. When Danse said her name, it sounded like a husband calling his wife of twenty years ‘darling’, or ‘honey’. Danse didn’t need to repeat the words ‘baby girl’ a thousand times to make Stella like him. He just needed to be him.

They weren’t dating, but they had been sharing her bed.
With clothes on. And no sex happening at all. The closest thing to action that had happened was that one morning Stella had woken up cuddled in Danse’s arms, but that was it.
And it had been a wonderful and terrifying experience.
First, there was his warmth. Danse’s skin seemed to be a few degrees warmer than anyone else’s. And there was also his smell, and his breath on her hair. The soft strength with which he was holding her.
Stella had almost screamed, until she realized she felt good. And peaceful. Somewhere near her windows, birds were chirping noisily. Her bare legs were entwined with Danse’s. His skin there was even hotter.
They had stayed like that for a long time, even after Danse was awake, and had not talked about it after.

Stella wondered if she was being a slut. If it was okay to feel this way after what had happened to Nate. After all—fuck—their baby had been inside her. They were going to get married, buy a house and live the American dream. And everything.
Nate was gone. And she didn’t want to replace him with Danse. Or Arthur. Or anyone else.
Maybe the real reason why she didn’t want to allow herself to be kissed was because she didn’t want her lips to kill someone else. After all, someone had tried to kill her. Twice. This man with the scar in his face had successfully murdered her future husband and their future child, so Stella figured he would probably kill whoever she kissed and cared about.
Danse would definitely take a bullet for her. There was not a doubt about that. But she couldn’t let something like that happen.

Stella jumped when they called her name. Danse put a hand on her back. She could feel the warmth radiating through the fabric of her sundress.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. He brushed her back. Stella shuddered. She wanted to kiss him.
Instead, she followed a nurse through the clinic. It was the same nurse that was in charge of Stella when she had been hospitalized—the sexy one, with the cool haircut and great makeup skills.
“Uh,” Stella managed. “I love your makeup. It’s really cool. I liked it the first time, too.”
“You remember me?” Glory smiled. “Thank you. I practice a lot and watch Youtube tutorials.”
“I could never manage a cat-eye that nice.” It was true. Stella wasn’t good with cosmetics, and liquid eyeliner scared the hell out of her.

Glory walked with her into a small room of the hospital’s clinic.
“The doctor should be here soon,” she announced. “Is it weird if I offer you to, like, do your makeup while you wait?”
Stella wasn’t used to be friendly with strangers. Hell, she wasn’t used to be friendly with her friends.
She thought of Danse in the waiting room. She couldn’t shake the parasitic need to being touched by him. Maybe some nice makeup would make him touch her.
Nate. Nate always said she looked beautiful with or without makeup. Nate had died because of her.

Stella looked at the wall in front of her. It was covered in generic, medical posters. A particularly old one explained the male and female reproductive organs.
Before Stella processed everything, Glory was back with a small purse. She stood in front of Stella and gently pushed her hair back, making sure not to touch her stitches.
“Those seem to be healing well, too,” the nurse pointed out. “Close your eyes. Good. Do you still feel pain?”
“I get headaches sometimes. I’m fine. Danse—my friend—helps me when I need to wash my hair.”
There was a short silence. Glory appeared to be applying liquid eyeliner on her eyelids.
“Your friend?” Glory’s voice sounded amused, but Stella didn’t open her eyes to verify.
“The handsome one in the waiting room? I thought you two were dating.”
Stella’s face and neck became tropical hot. “Uh. Not really. A little. I don’t know.”
“I see.” Glory was done with the eyeliner, she was using a brush now. “Ask him out. Don’t wait after him, if that’s the problem.”
Glory was right. Stella knew it. Only, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, dating someone would feel like cheating on her dead husband. It was, Stella thought she was cursed.
“Does it really look like we’re dating?” Stella asked timidly.
“Yeah. Today even more, but I already thought so when he was visiting your hospital room. You guys would be a cute couple. Anyway. You look great.”
A door was opened and closed. Glory stopped applying makeup, so Stella opened her eyes.

She recognized Doctor Carrington. He looked at Glory as if he were annoyed, but not surprised.
“Are you done?” he asked with a sigh.
“Almost, doc,” Glory replied. “Just let me put some mascara on her. It’s the most important part.”
Carrington waved his hand in a way that didn’t mean anything. He put a pile of sheets on the desk and waited while Glory was finishing up.
“Thanks,” Stella said to Glory as she put her makeup back in the small, yellow purse. “Good luck for today!” Glory replied, and she was gone.
Carrington cleared his throat and asked Stella a few questions before carefully taking her arm out of the sling it was in. He held her arm for a few seconds before gradually letting go.

Less than twenty minutes later, Stella came back into the waiting room sling free. Danse’s face lit up when he noticed, and he jumped out of his chair to hug her very carefully.
“I knew it!” he said. “I knew you would—what happened to your face? I mean, it looks nice, but did you ask your doctor to do your makeup or something?”
Stella blushed. Again. It seemed she was doing a lot of that lately, especially around him. She showed him the exit. They had no business here anyway, and the longer they stayed, the more parking they’d pay.
On the way out, Stella explained how she had noticed Glory’s makeup both times she had met her in the hospital, and how the nurse had done her makeup while waiting for the doctor.
Danse was frowning, as usual. They were in the Jeep, waiting in line. He was holding his parking slip and his credit card. Stella’s arm felt free, like she could breathe again, but also a little limp. Apparently, that feeling would last no more than twenty four hours.

“You just—Stella, you have to be careful,” Danse said eventually.
She wanted to ask for clarification, but he was busy at the window paying for parking now, so Stella waited, her left hand closed in a tight fist.
“What exactly do you mean?” she questioned, her eyes on the silky fabric of her red dress. She could see one annoying hair on her thigh, too, that she apparently had missed when shaving. She pulled on the skirt of her dress a little in a lame attempt to cover it up, but it was useless. Then she thought of looking at her face.
Glory was an amazing makeup artist. In just a few minutes she had made Stella look like a doll. Or something. A doll with stitches.
“I mean, you shouldn’t trust people blindly.” Danse’s voice was deep and stiff. He wasn’t enjoying this conversation.
“I don’t think Glory could have killed me with mascara,” Stella pointed out, but she knew Danse was right.
They came to a stop to a red light and Danse looked at her. “I don’t want to lose you,” he said so sincerely it broke Stella’s heart.
Fuck.
Nate.
Nate is dead, a voice whispered in her head. He is dead, and he will never come back.

The driver behind them honked several times. The light was green.
“I’m sorry,” Danse said. “I didn’t mean to sound… like that. Besides, you look great. I mean, you always do. I think that, uh.” Danse stopped for a few seconds. “I think you look beautiful when you’re asleep. When you’re not afraid, or sad. When you’re just. Sleeping.”
He wasn’t looking at her, he was driving, but he took her fist in his hand. Stella fought internally for maybe fifteen seconds, then she relaxed her hand and tangled her fingers with Danse’s.
Ask him on a date, Glory had said.
“Let’s do something,” she offered. “Now. Do you want to go to the beach?”
“Uh. I mean, yeah? That’d be fun.”
“Drive me home. I’m getting my swimsuit.”

That seemed to please him. A lot. Stella smiled for herself and breathed the fresh air as they drove back to Sanctuary. It was just the beginning of summer, far too early to go for a swim at the beach, but she would try to get her tan going—and get Danse’s attention, too.

Instead of waiting for her in the car, Danse climbed up the stairs with her. With all the nights he had spent at her place, loyally guarding her, he said he had left shorts there that were more appropriate for the beach.
They were both in her room—she was searching her drawers because she had not worn that swimsuit of hers in forever, and he was looking into his bag to find those shorts. When Stella turned around, her swimsuit in hand, she came face to face with Danse’s bare back and came to a stop. The floral top she had been holding fell to the floor when she moved too quickly, pretending she wasn’t looking. It was just a back, for fuck’s sake.
“I’m gonna go change in the bathroom,” Stella announced with a voice she found too high-pitched to sound natural.
She didn’t wait for Danse’s answer and went to the bathroom where she took all of her clothes off, shaved that one stupid hair left on her thigh, then managed to get into her swimsuit. She looked at herself in the mirror, not too disappointed with the result. The top was floral, and the bottom was a plain fabric, a shade of pink assorted to the top.

“Should we bring food to the beach?” Stella asked, coming out of the bathroom. “Depends where we go,” Danse’s voice replied from her bedroom. “Arthur knows those upper class beaches where you can get food, and beer and stuff.”
Danse opened the door. Stella thought she saw his jaw dropping a little. At least, for sure, his eyes widened. Stella stood awkwardly in the hallway.
“You look amazing,” he said. Then he looked like he regretted saying that.

Stella thought of the plastic container in the closet, the one that held the remains of her past.
She just
Wanted
to be
happy.
Once, when she was still seeing her therapist (when she was still on Nate’s insurance, but that hadn’t lasted forever), her therapist had said that she wouldn’t feel happy again unless she jumped into life willingly. Tried things. Tasted new food. Watched new movies. That it didn’t mean she didn’t love Nate and Shaun. It just meant that she was alive, and they weren’t.

Danse took a step forwards, and another, until he was really close to her. He had changed into a white t-shirt and gray shorts, but now Stella knew they were never going to make it to the beach.
He lifted her chin with a finger and kissed her softly. His lips tasted like those mango-melon Starburst candies he ate all the time. He specifically liked this one flavor, so his office at the bar had a gigantic bowl filled with other flavors of Starburst.
His lips were soft, softer than she remembered them to be.
Her whole body was awakening, and something warm was stirring in her stomach.
Stella wrapped her arms around his neck, holding on to him, still absolutely unsure of what she was doing.
She was doing this. She was kissing a man, willingly, while absolutely sober.
She pulled Danse closer, her back hitting the wall behind her. Danse’s tongue brushed off hers, and he lifted her up.
Stella kissed his neck, vaguely aware that he was taking her to her bed.
Her back hit the mattress, delicately, kindly.
They stopped kissing.

Danse looked into her eyes, his face flushed, his mouth open, hungry, waiting. He looked more beautiful than he ever had.
“We don’t have to,” he said.
“I want to,” Stella replied, brushing her fingers in his thick, dark hair. “Do you?”
He hesitated. “Yes.” There was a silent ‘but’ after.
Danse kissed her again, stopping only when she took the t-shirt off him, and when he slipped her out of her swimsuit top.
Naturally, she hadn’t been wearing anything under it. Danse’s cheeks turned redder when her breasts were free, and he bit his lip. He was still on top of her, pressed against her.
He liked her. He thought she was beautiful. He was kind. He took care of her.
Stella thrusted her hips into his. Several times. Until she felt him get hard—which didn’t take very long.

She kissed him, she was hungry too. She moaned his name into his mouth, her hands fumbling with his shorts. She pushed them down, with his boxers, and used her feet to pass them around his ankles. This whole time, Danse was kissing her, but didn’t seem to know what he was supposed to do.
Stella knew. With her leg around his hips, she pushed him until he was lying on the bed and she was on top of him. She was getting wet, and impatient, and he was hard, really hard by now.
“Stella,” he whispered when she kissed his jawline. “Wait.”
She retreated, sitting on his thighs.
“I never, uh…” His voice was low and raspy. “I never, uh, did that.”
At first, Stella didn’t completely comprehend what he was saying, but then she did.
“Oh.” She smiled. “That’s fine.” She meant it.
“I’m sorry.” He obviously meant that, too.
“You don’t have to be sorry.” She kissed him. “Everyone’s a virgin at some point.”
He chuckled and informed her he had protection in his bag. Stella went to fetch it and put the box back where she’d taken it after finding what she wanted.
“Were you planning to have sex with me?” she asked, climbing back on the bed.

He looked guilty. And attractive. And now, Stella couldn’t take her eyes off his cock.
“I mean… when you invited me to share your bed, I, uh…” But Danse couldn’t finish his sentence because Stella’s mouth was on his shaft.
He gasped, thrusting involuntarily, and Stella put her delicate hand around what she couldn’t fit in her mouth. She licked the head of his cock, teasing him a little, but immediately sucked him off. Danse’s eyes were on her, and he was silent, his hands grabbing the sheets on either side of him.
When his grunting changed into moaning, she stopped and wiped her mouth with her wrist.
“Let me do this,” Stella said, unwrapping the condom. It wasn’t such a necessary precaution—she was on birth control because of her cramps and sexually inactive, and Danse was, well… But she applied the thin layer of latex on his erection anyway, just in case. Danse watched her fingers work. When they kissed again, she felt him taste himself in her mouth.

Stella grabbed his cock and guided it near her hole. She was wet. She wanted him. She wanted this. She was well aware of how much he wanted it, too. She was aware of Danse’s eyes on her thighs, on her breasts.
He put his hands on her hips and pushed her down. She sank onto him, the length of him making her moan. Stella allowed herself a second, then she moved.
Danse cupped her breasts and squeezed them softly. He was nice and gentle. The opposite of rough.
Stella rode his cock, without mercy.
“Stella,” Danse grunted. “Stella. God. Stella, this is so good.
It didn’t take him very long to match up her thrusting with some of his own—it was as gentle as his touches, but strong. And, fuck, could this man reach deep.
He was holding her against him now, firmly, a hand clutching her hair. Her ass was hitting his thighs, and she knew he was close.
Out of breath, Stella rolled her hips a bit more vigorously, and Danse came. It was beautiful, the way he moaned and breathed her name and didn’t let go of her, or her hair. Stella progressively came to a stop, and when he was completely done, she climbed down.
Danse removed the condom and disposed of it, but turned to her on the bed, frowning. He frowned often, she noticed.
“You didn’t finish,” he said. “I didn’t last long.” He was so blunt.
“It’s okay.” She kissed him. “I wanted your first time to be good.”
“It was amazing.” He was a little out of breath. “But it’s not fair. I want to, uh, I want to make you feel good, too.”
“You want to make me feel good, Michael?” Stella lied down, rolling on the bed so her back would face him. “Lie down.”
He did, and he pressed himself against hers. His cock was softening, but it was nice to feel it against her ass.
“Give me your hand,” she ordered, and he did.

Stella parted her legs just enough to give enough space so Danse’s fingers, guided by her, could fit. He immediately buried one inside her and fingered her pussy.
“Mm, don’t stop,” she breathed. “Don’t—yeah, yeah, right there, oh, Danse.”
Largely distracted by Danse’s long fingers finishing up the job, Stella reached for her bedside table and opened the drawer. She felt around until she found the single sex toy she owned. It was a small vibrating toy and she mostly used it when she was really drunk. She had changed the battery last week, when Danse had been in the shower and the thought of him naked had aroused her. A lot.
“You’re so—Stella, you’re amazing,” Danse said but his voice was so low it was almost drowned by the sound of the toy vibrating.
He wasn’t too bad for a virgin, and he had great fingers. When she pressed the toy on her clit, he hesitated, but gained speed. His other hand was under her neck, cupping and brushing and squeezing her breasts. His face was on her shoulder, biting it once in a while, but nicely.

He watched her roll the toy against herself. Stella was wet. Danse’s hand was dripping.
When Stella came, she opened her legs completely, or as much as she could. She felt all that wetness coming out of her, and it seemed that there was so much, and it was sticky and lukewarm and she was so tight around his two fingers. She had a long orgasm, and this orgasm was full of meaning.
She trusted Danse.

Stella turned the toy off and let it fall down the bed. She rolled again on the mattress to face her lover.
Her lover.
He was smiling. She grabbed his wrist and licked off his fingers. He watched her. He had been watching her the whole time, fascinated, learning.
“You are. So beautiful,” he repeated. “I’m sorry I couldn’t, uh, deliver more.”
She kissed him. It didn’t matter at all.
“Are we dating?” she asked. “I kind of want to be your girlfriend.” Stella feared she might realize what she was doing later and have a heart attack or something. But, right now, she meant those words.
Danse had a large smile. “I’ve wanted you to be my girlfriend for a damn long time, Austin.”

They kissed again, and they might have made love again if someone hadn’t been knocking at the door. Or, more exactly, beating up the door really loudly.
“The fuck?” Danse said. “Shit. Your neighbor. We were too loud.”
“Preston isn’t home and Mama Murphy’s hearing isn’t worth shit,” Stella replied.
She got up and quickly looked in her closet to find something. She found a bathrobe. It was white and short and she had lost the belt to properly close it, but she held it best she could, and ran to open the door.

Arthur looked at her as if she had just committed murder. His stare was shifting from her, her legs, her cleavage, and something behind her—Danse.
“Do you need anything?” Stella asked after a while.
“Yes, I wanted to talk to… him.” There was a lot of disgust in Arthur’s voice. He stepped in without waiting for Stella’s invitation.
Danse had put on his boxers but his t-shirt was backwards. There was no hiding from what they were just doing. Arthur looked around the living room, like he was searching for more evidence.
“Speak, Arthur,” Danse invited.
Arthur nodded. He was wearing his favorite Nine Inch Nails hoodie, the one with holes in it. He looked tired. And stressed.
“I can’t believe you did this to me,” Arthur finally said. “I can’t fucking believe you did this to me—after all we’ve shared. From D.C. to here. I can’t believe it. You. You lied to me.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Danse, let’s stop pretending for a second. Or should I call you by your real name, M7-97?”
That kind of combination of numbers and letters was pretty popular lately. It was a code, like a name, they found on the chip in synths’ head. It was a synth’s true name. Or designation, as they called it.
M7-97.
“All this time, you pretended to hate synths but you were one yourself,” Arthur went on. “Probably spying on me. Trying to make my life a goddamn hell. Attacking from inside.” He looked at Stella, and her legs.
“Wait.” Stella’s head was spinning. She wanted a Xanax. “What are you saying?”
“Danse is a synth, Stella. Listen to me. You fucked a synth. You had a synth cock fucking you. Do you understand, now? He was probably the one behind your accident. He’s probably looking for something.”
“Arthur, you shut the hell up!” Stella threatened. “Shut up! Danse isn’t like that, and what on Earth proves that he would be a synth?
Danse was silent.
“The list. An incomplete, but long, list of synths and their codes and shit came out today on some obscure website. It’s encoded, but it didn’t take Haylen long to find your boyfriend in it. How does that feel, baby girl?”
Stella lost it. She could only believe Arthur when he said Danse was a synth because she had never seen him so furious. But he had no right to have that kind of attitude. Danse was his best friend. They had saved each other. Stella knew that.

She hit Arthur but he didn’t even flinch, so she hit him harder. In the face, stretching her arm and shoulder doing so. She moaned in pain and tried kicking him as she walked back.
“Arthur,” Danse said, softly pushing Stella aside. “After all we’ve been through.”
“It was all… nothing. Nothing you feel is real. You think you’re my friend, you’re not. It’s just… lines of codes in your head. You think you like the way Stella looks when she sucks your cock? Not real. Lines of codes.”
“Don’t talk about her that way. Leave her out of it.”
“A long time ago, you thought you were in love with me,” Arthur went on, ignoring Danse. “You never were. Because you are unfitted for love. You are… a sick hybrid between machine and flesh, and you should never have been made. You simply should not exist. I can’t believe you did this to me. How often were you giving out information about us to your makers? What did you tell them?”
Danse didn’t move, or speak. It was Arthur’s turn to lose it, as if he had been expecting Danse to argue more than he did. Arthur attacked Danse.

The worst part is, Danse didn’t fight back. Not after the first punch, or the second, or the third, or the fourth. Stella begged Arthur to stop, and she tried pulling on his arm to end it, but it only resulted her in being hit in the face by his elbow, very close to where she had her stitches. At this point, Danse reacted, and he hit back. Hard. With the hand he had just used to make her come. He hit Arthur’s handsome face. Arthur hit Danse’s beautiful lips.

Arthur did not stop hitting until Danse was on the ground, bloody and unable to move. Stella’s wound was bleeding again, but not as much as the first time.
Before leaving, Arthur stopped in front of her. He went to touch her face but Stella moved out of his way.
“Fuck you,” she said. “Get the fuck out of my apartment.”
“You deserve better than him,” Arthur argued. He was bleeding too.
“I said, get the fuck out,” Stella repeated.
“Danse, as far as I’m concerned, you’re dead,” Arthur said. “Don’t ever set foot into my bar, or my house, ever again.”
Arthur left without closing the door behind him. Stella closed it.

She spent the next hour tending to Danse’s various injuries and bruises. He did not want to go to a doctor. His eyes were dead. Stella gave him two Xanax and put him to bed.
Everything had changed now.

Chapter Text

 

Danse

 

 

 

He was a synth. He had been betrayed. He had betrayed. Himself, and everyone else. Had betrayed Arthur, for all these years, and he didn’t even know it.
Danse did not know where his life had started. He had thought for so long that he had been born and that his mother had to get him adopted because, well, she couldn’t take care of him. She had no money, no real home. That’s what people had told him.
It was all a lie, because his childhood was most likely fake. Fake memories copied and pasted into his brain to make him think he was human. It had worked for about twenty eight years, but that was over now.
One morning he had woken up, freshly out of the synth factory, and had started to live.
He wanted to know when that was. For some reason, it was extremely important.
Danse thought of his driver license. His birth date on it. Forged.
It was all fiction. Fabricated.
He was not real.
“You simply should not exist.” Danse mouthed those words silently, his eyes still closed, but in his head they resonated in Arthur’s voice.
His face and body still hurt where Arthur Maxson’s fists had crashed.

Danse forced his eyes open. It was dawn—the sky was indigo with large spots of lilac, and he could even make out the gold of the sun, lower on the horizon—he remembered falling asleep late in the afternoon. Had he really slept all evening, then all night?
Ah, yes. Stella. She had made him take some of her pills. The pills she took when she was overwhelmed.
He was thirsty, but now that he knew his body had been assembled in a factory, it didn’t seem urgent to get up and drink.

Stella was lying next to him, deeply asleep and beautiful. She wore a loose tank top that showed most of her breasts, at least in the position she was sleeping. It had daisies on it. Her bare legs were slightly parted, and he noticed her underwear. It was very sexy, mostly lace, and Danse wanted to touch her there. He even went for it, reached with his hand for her thigh, but retreated at the last second.
It was dawn. It was crazy to think that people, normal people, were being awaken by their phones right now, and would either jump in the shower or eat breakfast. In an hour, they’d be on their way to work.
Danse didn’t have a job anymore. He had lost that, and his best friend. And his home. And everything.

Stella shifted position in her sleep, and ended up on her back. He watched as her breasts moved with her, watched as she sleepily licked her lips. When she was motionless again, he touched her breast.
Her head moved slightly, but she didn’t wake up.

He had most likely never been to school. They had put memories of school in his head. They had put memories of foster families in his head. Of movies seen as a child. Danse wanted to know when his life had started for real. What was fake and what was not.
Stella moaned softly when he touched her neck. Danse had tears in his eyes. Danse felt his cock, hard and hungry in his boxers.
She was still there. Stella was there. She had tried to beat up Arthur yesterday. For him, for his pride. To defend him.

Danse slid on the mattress, gently not to wake her up, and went for the lace of her underwear. He caressed it, brushed his fingers on the fabric, feeling her lips and her warmth. She moaned again, and she woke up.
Her eyes found his, and it seemed like she wanted to say something, but no words came out of her mouth. Instead, she kissed him briefly and brushed her thumbs over his eyes. He didn’t want to cry right now, but it was too late. She wiped a few tears away.
“Danse,” she whispered. She kissed him again, sighing when he pushed her panties to the side and shoved two fingers inside her.
They kissed, him fingering her and her rubbing her hand over the bulge in his boxers.
“Danse,” she repeated. He stopped, and she stopped, and they looked into each other’s eyes. “Do you want to talk about it?”
His gaze wandered around while he was considering his answer. The colors of the sky. Stella’s tangled hair, the curves of her breasts under the daisies on her shirt, her mouth, her set of keys for the Prydwen on her nightstand, with the distinct Prydwen keychain: a steel zeppelin with the bar’s name engraved on it in black letters.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Danse replied. He was surprised by his own voice and how coarse it sounded. He kissed Stella again, because she was the only thing that felt real this morning.

She kissed him back. Her mouth tasted like old water—a little stale, with a hint of sweetness that could probably be explained by the large bag of raspberry flavored candy right next to her keychain. She bit his lip and clutched at his shirt, pulling on it for a few seconds before letting go and sliding her hands under the fabric to touch his back. He moaned in her mouth as she worked his boxers off him, and Danse climbed on top of her. The feeling of her silky and lacy underwear against his cock would have been enough to make him come, he thought, as Stella rolled her hips to rub herself against him. She had closed her legs around him.

Danse looked at her. He loved watching her. He had loved watching her as she waited tables at the Prydwen, joking with people or sometimes exchanging annoyed looks with another employee when especially irritating clients showed up. Or the way she looked when they had just closed the bar—sitting on a stool with a tired look on her face, counting her tips and drinking whiskey. Stella was beautiful, and she was even more so this morning, her body so close to his, the silk of her undies getting wet, her mouth waiting for him, her pink cheeks.
He slid the undies off her and she opened her legs, offering a view that sent chills through Danse’s spine. The pink skin between her legs was soft and wet and inviting.
He had been so nervous yesterday, not really knowing what to do when he actually did know. He didn’t have a lot of practice but Danse knew what to do.

When he went to reach for his bag, Stella stopped him. She took his cock in her hand and guided it between her legs. Danse understood, and slowly buried himself inside her. She closed her eyes, her voice echoing in the room when she moaned. Loud. Too loud. Everyone would hear it. She had neighbors.
But it did not matter. Not this morning.
Danse softly pushed her tank top so it wouldn’t cover her breasts anymore, and gave another thrust. She put her hand on his face and wiped a few more tears.
He kissed her breasts, round and beautiful, and kissed her lips again, fucking her slowly. Gently. She was meeting his thrusts with her own, doubling his pleasure. Danse knew he wouldn’t last very long, so he put his hands on Stella’s hips and stretched his back so he would reach deeper inside her.

He did not feel human anymore, but at least he had that. Stella’s pussy, soaking wet, tight around his cock, and her voice reaching a higher pitch with every thrust he gave.
It was dawn. The sun appeared higher in the sky now, though, and Stella’s bed was banging against the wall. He was still doing it slow, only with a lot of strength.
If his speed was moderate, Stella’s wasn’t. Her hips rolled and rolled under his, her nails digging in his back, reminding him that his fake body could feel pain as much as pleasure.

When she came, Danse thought of Arthur. He couldn’t help it. He thought of that one night where both him and Arthur had too many drinks.
It was back when the bar was just a normal bar, small and empty on most nights. They were in the office, and every door was locked, and Danse had felt safe. He had felt safe as they kissed awkwardly with lips made raw and heavy by liquor.
Everything had felt right that night. It had felt right when their pants and boxers had ended up on the ground. Ten minutes of feeling right. Arthur had spilled his load on Danse’s thigh and Danse had done the same on Arthur’s stomach, and that was it.
It was just that one time, and they had pretended it had never happened, but Danse couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Stella tightened around his cock, and she gasped. She buried her face in his neck and Danse’s head spun as her pussy twitched on his cock. The wet sounds became louder, and he couldn’t help but to speed up a little.
Her orgasm eventually died out, but she was still tight, and the sight of her flushed face made him come. It seemed to him that he felt with a lot of precision every drop of cum that he shot in her.
And then it was over. Danse let himself fall next to Stella and they lied next to each other in silence. She put her head on his chest.
“I think you’re amazing, Danse,” she said after several minutes. “And you deserve so much better than this asshole if it’s how he wants to treat you. We’ll… we’ll find something. I’ll quit the job and we’ll find something else. Together. Okay?”
He tried to say something, but his voice broke before he could even make a sound.
She looked up at him with eyes filled with tears. He understood that she had lost Arthur, too, and that it was causing her pain.
“You’re beautiful,” she added, and then she closed her eyes and a tear rolled down from her cheek to her lip. She licked it off.
“He’s not an asshole,” Danse replied. “And don’t quit your job.”
Stella frowned and sat in the bed. “Of course I will. And I know how much you care about him, but it doesn’t excuse the way he treated you…”
She touched his face and ran her fingers over the several band-aids that covered his cuts.

“Are you hungry?” she eventually asked.
“No,” Danse said. It was true. Maybe he didn’t even need to eat at all. Maybe he could go forever without eating.
“We have to go out. We can’t stay here. You can’t… you shouldn’t stay here.”
“I have nowhere to go.” That was also true. After all, Arthur had been very clear about that—he didn’t want him anywhere near the house. Danse would respect that, and ask Rhys and other people to go get his things for him. What would Arthur do with that vacant room? He already had an office in the basement, but Danse’s bedroom offered a nice view of the beach…
“Danse. Don’t be ridiculous.” Stella sounded annoyed. She didn’t understand. She’d never understand.

He was a freak, a machine.
And yet. He could cry real tears, feel the soft touch of Stella’s thigh against his, breathe in the characteristic perfume of her room—the usual light and floral smell, this morning combined with the faint smell of sex. He could feel pain in his face and everywhere else. But he was not human.
“You can live here for as long as you want,” Stella went on. “But you have everywhere to go. Come, I’m taking you for breakfast. You shower first, or I do?”
Danse let her go first so she could dry her hair while he cleaned himself up. He listened to the sound of running water hitting ceramic and the occasional sounds of bottles being opened and closed. Stella had told him she usually bought whichever shampoo and conditioner were on sale, but she always smelled good to him.

She kissed him before he got in the shower, then left, and Danse turned on the hot water until it was scalding. Until it hurt. And then he left it on and stood in the steam until he couldn’t bear it anymore.
He played with Stella’s bottles and smelled them all. He decided his favorite was the bodywash, a pleasant mix of chamomile and lavender with a dash of lemongrass. It worked. He washed himself with it. Twice.

Danse felt dead, he thought as he towelled himself dry and put his clothes on. But he was still painfully alive. Under his skin, a heart that had been mass-produced was beating and pumping mass-produced blood in his body.

Stella drove the Jeep and Danse stared at the sky. He didn’t know where she was taking him until they were in the parking lot.
Goodneighbor.
Of course. It was so, so ironic.
Danse thought of all those times where Arthur and him both, and occasionally other people too, were making fun of old Hancock for being so accepting of everyone, so violently pro-synths.
The bells rang when Stella pushed the door open. It was just in time for breakfast, and a good amount of people were sitting at tables, using their phones or reading newspapers. It all felt very familiar. It all felt very foreign.
Daisy was waiting tables and she stopped in the middle of the room when she saw who had just come in. It took her a few seconds, but she eventually smiled. Danse went to the back of the room and sat at a table while Stella and Daisy were talking near the kitchen door. After a while, Hancock joined them, and made eye-contact with Danse. Hancock nodded, but Danse didn’t nod back. He tried, though, but he just couldn’t.

Soon Stella was back with two coffees and told him she had already given their orders.
“I mean, if you want something different, it’s not too late,” she added. She was trying so hard.
“It’s alright. It’s fine.” He drank coffee. It wasn’t great coffee.
“So… Hancock says that if you need anything, you can call him. He says it’s alright.”
That wasn’t surprising coming from John Hancock, but it was still remarkable considering the amount of hatred for him or his restaurant Arthur had put all over the Prydwen’s social media accounts.
Danse thought of all the synths and the synth-fucker jokes they had made. For some reason he also remembered the way Arthur had called Stella ‘baby girl’ yesterday. He didn’t know what it meant. So he just drank his coffee, and found it tasted the same as before.

Stella looked at her phone and breathed deeply.
“It’s Preston,” she said. “He texted me. Said he’s the one who buzzed Arthur in yesterday. He’s very sorry. He heard the fight.”
“Okay.” He didn’t care.
“Now, what?”
“Now nothing, Stella.” He looked around, thankful the morning crowd was too busy to pay any attention to him. He had quite a few injuries on the face, after all. “I lost my identity, I lost everything. I just need time, okay?” He didn’t mean to sound so rude, but saying that he was stressed would have been an euphemism.
Stella offered him a Xanax. Danse refused. He was numb enough as it was.
He was not Danse. He was M7-97. And he had no idea where to go from there.

Chapter Text

 

Arthur

 

 

It had been a bright sunny day. The engine of his father’s Chevy truck was roaring nicely as Arthur made his way to his house.
He parked in the driveway and climbed down the truck to retrieve his groceries, then brought the bags inside and put every item into place.
The Maxson heir sat down on a stool in his kitchen, and looked around.

Empty was the only word that came into his mind.
Danse hadn’t been the kind to be all about material possessions. He owned a limited amount of things, most of them necessary. But as Arthur’s gaze swept the interior of his beach house, he realized just how blank it seemed, now.
The sun was going down pretty fast. If Arthur twisted his neck a little, he could catch a glimpse of the beach and Quincy Bay. The sun reflected on the lazy waves. Before the beach would have been crowded on a day like this, but now he couldn’t see anyone walking on the shore. Not a single person.
The world was so much different now, and it was all the synths’ fault.
Danse’s fault.

Realistically, it wasn’t Danse’s fault if the beach was deserted tonight. But it was his fault if the house was empty, and silent, and… “Desolate, I guess,” Arthur thought. He sighed. He was tired. He hadn’t been able to get proper sleep for over a week now.
(He would never admit it to anyone, especially not himself, but he missed Danse. He missed the coffee he made every morning, the best damn coffee Arthur ever tasted, and he missed not being all alone.)
He wondered where exactly all of Danse’s stuff was right now. Even if he didn’t have a lot of belongings, there was no way even his bed would fit in Stella’s tiny apartment.
Stella.
With one last glance for the sea, Arthur stood and went for his office in the basement.
He barely ever used it—if he had work to do, he preferred to drive all the way to the bar and work from there.
He didn’t sit in front of his computer. He went for the lowest drawer of his desk and retrieved his twenty something years old whiskey bottle from it.

His father had bought that bottle on the day Arthur had been born. He had bought twenty-three years old, expensive, crazy expensive whiskey. The plan was to open it on a big day, whether it would be Arthur’s wedding or the birth of his first child, apparently it hadn’t mattered to Jonathan. It was a tradition in the Maxson family, and so he had honored it. Or rather, he had intended to honor it but he had died.

Back in the kitchen, Arthur opened the bottle. The corkscrew fell on the counter with a loud, metallic sound, and Arthur lifted the bottle to his lips. He drank. “To you, dad,” he said. His voice echoed in the room. It was getting dark.
That was the best whiskey he had ever tasted. A sad, ironic smile appeared on his face, but disappeared instantly. Stella would have loved it. He had never seen a woman love whiskey as much as Stella Austin did. And hell, she could hold her liquor better than anyone he knew. Except maybe his uncle, but Jeremy was just… something else. He was dead too, anyway.

Everyone around Arthur was either dead, or a traitor, or just gone. His entire family was dead, Danse was a traitor and Stella was gone.
He drank more. The whiskey had a faint but pleasant smoky flavor. Combined to the spices and the straight-up taste of wood in the liquor, it really, really was something.
Arthur grabbed his phone from his hoodie and texted Stella.
“We need to talk. In person. I’m still your boss.” It was true. He hadn’t fired her and she hadn’t quit. He knew she wanted to, but his desperate ass couldn’t let her go just like that, without doing anything.

He hated Danse. (The bottle hit his teeth as he gulped a large amount of whiskey.)
He hated synths. Not… not because they were synths, not really, but because they weren’t natural. He was aware that it was a controversial opinion, but, fucking hell, the MIT was building human beings out of organic matter in a laboratory. It wasn’t right. Humanity did not need this. As it did not need more artificial intelligence, and robots, and bullshit like that. Humans had done just fine without all this crap. Arthur had never used Siri even once in his life.
More whiskey burned his throat. His mouth was warm.
His lockscreen lit up as Stella’s text was being displayed. He licked his lips.
“Are you going to apologize to Danse?” she wrote. She typically took longer to answer texts, even when she didn’t hate him. Arthur was surprised she acknowledged his text at all.
She must be truly hoping he was going to apologize.
He wanted to see her regardless.
“Meet me at the bar,” Arthur typed. Then he immediately added: “Just you.”
The message was marked read instantly. He waited.
“Go fuck yourself,” she texted back.
Arthur Maxson was not someone who would let anyone tell him to go fuck himself. He grabbed his whiskey and made his way to his father’s old truck.

It had been a bright, sunny day, but the evening was dark and stormy. When Arthur parked the truck in front of Stella’s apartment building, he heard distant thunder somewhere south.
It was raining by the time he reached the building, so he carefully transported the whiskey bottle to the front porch and rang Stella’s doorbell.
He saw light shifting a few feet up so he looked—she was staring at him through the window. She raised her middle finger angrily. He rang the doorbell again and again, even after she’d disappeared.

Then she was in the hallway, running down the stairs. She was wearing comfortable clothes—short shorts and a pale mint green t-shirt. She banged the large window with her fist, then pushed the door open with more strength he thought she had.
“How dare you?” she spat at him. Her hair was tangled. There wasn’t a lot of lighting but she looked tired. “How can you even show up here, Maxson?”
“We need to talk,” he replied. She was breathing heavily. The injury on her forehead was almost healed. She was pretty. And did not wear a bra under shirt. “I brought whiskey. Good whiskey. Twenty-six years old.”
“We? We need to talk?” she pushed him and he tumbled down the two steps that separated the porch from the grass.
He opened the whiskey and drank some. He hadn’t stopped drinking while he drove here, and Stella had better hurry up or there wouldn’t be any left for her. He handed her the bottle and she ignored it.
“Yeah, we need to talk,” he replied.
“We don’t need to talk at all. Not us. You need to talk to Danse.”
“Why would I want to talk to him? Stella, you really gotta taste this whiskey.”

Stella blinked. Her shirt was wet and she looked hot. Arthur felt a pressure in his lower stomach that was difficult to ignore. His pants seemed awfully tight now.
The thunder made her jump. It was louder, closer now. When she jumped, her tits jumped with her. He drank more. A lot more. When he was too drunk, he didn’t get aroused. He’d keep drinking until he didn’t feel anything.
“Danse is still Danse,” she said in a softer voice. “I know it was shocking, but for fuck’s sake, he’s your best friend.”
“Was.”
She sighed. When Arthur looked at her window again, he saw Danse moving away from it—he didn’t want to be seen, but he probably had been listening to their conversation because the window was open. Seeing Danse’s face felt like a kick in the solar plexus. Exactly there.
Stella sighed deeply and ran a hand through her hair. “I kind of pity you, Maxson.”
“I don’t need your pity.”
“My pity is all you have left. My pity and your damn whiskey.” She looked at something behind him. “And your shitty old truck.”
“It’s not shitty,” he said through his teeth. “It was my father’s truck, and this whiskey was my father’s whiskey.”
She looked tired AND sad now. She bit her lip.

“Are you serious about this?” she asked. “I mean, hating Danse and all. Is it permanent?”
What a stupid question. “Yes. Does it look like a joke to you?”
“It looks like you’re desperate, Arthur. You look like a little boy who lost his mom at Target. You’re crying between the clothes racks because you can’t see her. You’re nothing without Danse.”
She reached for the bottle, freed it from his clenched fingers and drank. She closed her eyes momentarily, tasting the liquor, and licked her lips fondly only looked at him again a few seconds later. Her shirt was glued to her skin by the rain. He wanted to kiss her and lick aged whiskey off her lips, too.
“That’s good whiskey,” she pointed out, giving the bottle back. “Now, please, leave.”

She was walking away. He grabbed her arm to make her stay, maybe a little more vigorously than intended. She stared at his hand around her arm, and just like she had pulled the bottle out of his hand, she yanked herself free.
“What about your job? Do you quit?”
Stella shook her head. She didn’t even look mad. “Yeah.” She sighed. “I have to. I can’t work for you. Not after what you did to Danse. I thought it was obvious.”
She left, and Arthur didn’t try to make her stay this time. Instead, he watched her climbing up the stairs until he couldn’t see her anymore, and when she was gone, he got into his truck.

He was far too drunk to drive, but he started the engine and drove home. It didn’t really matter because cops were busy with synth stuff probably.
He made his way to his house but now the whiskey tasted bitter in his mouth and he couldn’t stop thinking about Stella’s wet shirt.
Was she kissing Danse right now? Were they having sex?
Thinking about Stella having sex, even with a synth, proved itself to be distracting, and Arthur barely made it home.
By the time he was inside, his pants weren’t just tight, they were uncomfortable, so he unzipped them. He didn’t want this.
He didn’t want any of this.

But he slipped out of his jeans and left them in the kitchen, then took his shirt off and threw it in the stairs as he was going up. When he reached the bathroom, he was completely naked, and hard, and he was also realizing he was drunk. Except, apparently, not drunk enough not to be turned on.
There was a proper storm outside when he got in the shower, but the water covered most of the noise.
Arthur pressed his forehead against the ceramic of the wall and let the warmth of the water surround him. He took his cock in his hand, but only barely.
He was fighting his own mind—he would much rather think about anyone but Stella. But she was the one he was seeing when he closed his eyes.

He saw her again, in short shorts and a wet shirt.
Arthur groaned when he brushed his thumb on the head of his cock. He shivered even though the water was really warm.
He remembered very well fucking Stella on his desk. It had been urgent and quick and rough, and she had left the room less than one minute after they were done, but he often still got hard thinking about it.

Arthur stroked his erection a few times, not really paying attention. It was just flesh on flesh. He just wanted the release. He needed it.
He wanted to fuck her again. Not just because she had great tits, but because she hadn’t yelled at him when she should have. Because, instead of being mad at him, she pitied him. He wanted to fuck her senseless. He wanted to push himself inside her and hear her deep moans. He wanted her nails digging in his back.
In the shower, Arthur was frantically pumping his cock—which was terribly slippery in the water. It felt good. Kind of.
He normally tried to keep it the noise down, but he was alone now, so he let a cry escape his lips when he thought of fucking Stella’s pretty little mouth, his cock hitting the back of her throat on each thrust. He stared at his cock, water rolling on his shoulders, and he thought of Stella’s lips around it, sucking, leaving lipstick stains. That pink lipstick he liked so much on her.
Arthur finally came. He looked at the cum spurting out of him, but what he was really thinking about was the discharge spilling on Stella’s pink lips, and her licking it the same way she had licked the whiskey off previously tonight. His seed disappeared in the drain. He was angry.

His cock finally softening, Arthur quickly washed himself and staggered all the way to his bed. Lying down felt better. He could see the storm from here, but he passed out.

Chapter Text

 

 

Stella

 

 

Stella was tired.
Goodneighbor used to be open almost every night, but now they had to close it more often or else there was no way the restaurant would be able to provide for every client.
She locked the restaurant’s front door from the inside, yawning, and made her way to the back of the building while stretching her neck. She needed to sleep. She was almost out of Xanax and had not been able to get any for two weeks now. Stella visited her CVS almost every other day but the employees on the other side of the counter always had the same answer: no Xanax. “There is an important drug shortage,” the lady had said this morning. “Not just one drug—almost every kind.” Apparently, she hadn’t been able to give a small child the antibiotics for his cough or something.
Anyway, it was bad. And Stella was tired but she couldn’t sleep for two reasons.
The first one was the nightmares. When she did doze off, it was only to wake up an hour later, jumping in her bed, looking around for things that weren’t there. She usually dreamt of a man without a face who broke into her old apartment and stole baby Shaun from his crib, but sometimes she would dream about sitting in a large ballroom, wearing a beautiful gown and being kissed in the neck. And the man who kissed her neck was Arthur.

However, there were other nights were Stella felt almost relaxed and ready to have a dreamless sleep, but the man who shared her bed was restless.
Danse barely got any sleep either—all he did was turn around in the bed. Sometimes he’d get up and sit outside on the stairs, and she’d hear him chat with Preston (who apparently was having sleep troubles as well).

Things weren’t great.

Stella used one of her many keys to unlock the door to the cleaning supplies closet and grabbed a broom.
Sweeping floors when the world was ending seemed illogical, but she didn’t really have a choice. Apparently, her landlord didn’t care about the imminent end of the world because he still expected her rent to be paid. Danse had money and he paid for most things now, but since no one knew exactly where they would be next month or even next week, Stella preferred to save some money. Just in case.
Preston was moving out. Taking Mama Murphy with him, too. Said he knew a place. He had offered Stella to come along but Stella couldn’t.
Even if Boston was nothing more than a shitshow lately, she couldn’t leave. Mostly because she was still waiting for Nick Valentine’s call—for an explanation to that question she had been asking herself for year now: why did a man kill my son and my husband?
Or maybe there was another reason that made Stella stay, and she wasn’t sure what it was, but she figured she would stay with Danse, right here.

At least, that was what she thought before he entered the dining room, drying his hand with a piece of rough brown paper he threw in the bin behind the counter.

He didn’t look at her yet, even though she’d stopped sweeping the floor.
Danse had been “working” at Goodneighbor. It wasn’t really “work”, because Hancock didn’t really pay him—he couldn’t afford it. Lately, Hancock could barely afford paying his real employees. But he was giving Danse free meals, an occasional pack of beers and something to do. That last part was the most important because Danse simply couldn’t stay at home and do nothing.
He was so, so depressed.

“Hey,” she said with a soft voice. They were alone in the restaurant—even Hancock had left half an hour earlier.
“Hey.” He had been cleaning the fridges in the back. Danse enjoyed keeping things tidy. Stella remembered when she’d first started to work here, and how she had enjoyed doing those things, too. Things had changed now. She had changed.
“I’ll be done in no more than ten minutes,” Stella said. “You’ll want to stop somewhere and get food before we go home?”
Danse didn’t reply. His shoulders rose and lowered as he deeply inhaled.
“I’m not going to stay,” he told her after a few terribly long seconds.
Stella didn’t quite understand what he meant. “Stay where?”
“Home.”
Did he mean home like, Arthur’s house? Surely he missed that home, not only because Stella’s apartment was tiny, but also because he had been happy back then.

He turned to her. His face was sad, and tired, and Stella could barely remember what his smile looked like.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “Tonight.”
She blinked. “What.” She didn’t even say it as a question, because now she was fully processing what he was trying to tell her.
“I’m leaving,” he repeated. “It’s what’s best for everyone. For me, because everything in this city reminds me of… before.”
Stella almost said, ‘It’s not what’s best for me’, but she didn’t want to be that selfish. She meant it, though.
“Oh,” was all she could manage. She felt as if something was obstructing her throat.
“It’s also the best thing for you. I’m no good for you, Stella. I wish I could have been, because if… things had been different, we could have made each other happy. But…”
He didn’t finish his sentence, but Stella could guess it could have ended with something like: “but I’m a synth”.

Stella frowned. She hadn’t been in many relationships in her life, and she had been engaged early, but she was being aware that Danse was breaking up with her.
She tried to breathe, but it hurt her lungs.
“You’re breaking up with me,” she said.
He nodded. “I can’t stay.”
“I could come with you. To wherever it is you’re going.”
“Stella.” He was still behind the counter, so he crossed the room to stand in front of her. She was holding the broom so tightly her knuckles were turning white, but she needed something to hold on to. “You know how much I care about you, do you?”
She thought she did, but now Stella didn’t know anymore.
“I… I need to figure out some stuff,” he explained. “I’m not even sure of who I am. I need to be alone and think about that.”

It was a very valid reason to break up, and yet Stella felt like it was unfair. It wasn’t.
She was wrong.
But she was in pain from thinking about it.
“I’ll drive you home,” he said softly. “And pack some stuff. Then, I’ll go. You can keep whatever I’m not taking with me.”
“But… you’ll come back, will you?”
He looked at the window to think about it. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

Stella didn’t fight it. There was no need. She finished sweeping the floors as if nothing had happened. She just focused on that task instead of the pain in her chest.
Danse helped her. Then they went out by the back door, which Stella locked just as she had locked the front door, and she sat in the Jeep’s passenger seat.
He often let her drive it and she found it very enjoyable, but tonight she didn’t want to. She didn’t want anything except a Xanax and a couple shots of whiskey.

It was past eleven at night and the streets were empty. People were scared, the news only mentioned murders of synths and humans, and the occasional update on whoever the fuck had decided to create “artificial” humans. People did not like to be out at night.
So Stella sat in the Jeep and watched the streetlights pass, her head against the window. The night was warm and humid.
“You have to go back to the Prydwen,” Danse said after a while.
“What the fuck?”
“I know what you’re thinking. I’m not just leaving so you can have your job back there. I just think… It’s a much better opportunity for you than Goodneighbor.” He paused. “Arthur will be there for you if you need anything. The bar is still profitable. Goodneighbor isn’t.” “No. Fuck him and fuck his bar. I hate him.”

Nothing was said after that. Danse parked in front of the apartment complex and they got in. Stella sat on the couch was Danse was packing two large bags.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I don’t even know. I might… drive to D.C., just to have a look at where I thought I came from. But I won’t stay there.”

He was done soon—all he was taking with him were clothes and essentials, plus a few books and his iPad. He went out to put the bags in his car, but said he’d come right back to say goodbye.
And that’s when exactly four tears rolled on Stella’s cheeks. She didn’t want to cry. She knew she would, but she didn’t want him to see her cry.
Because she knew he was hurting just as much, and maybe more, than she were.
She tried to dry up her tears but he was back too soon. When he saw her, he bit his lip and pulled her against him.

Stella inhaled. She wanted to remember his smell. She wanted to remember how it felt like to be embraced by his big arms.
He kissed her head and she looked up at him. He was crying too, and when they kissed for the last time, it was very wet and salty.

She didn’t want to think of Nate, not right now, but she couldn’t help it. Not because him and Danse had anything to do with each other, but because Stella was only too aware that she was kissing Danse goodbye.
And she had not kissed Nate goodbye. And except the pain from losing her boyfriend and unborn son, that had been the hardest part.

So she kissed Danse for a long, long time. His full lips kept meeting hers, and her tongue pushed into his mouth and they tasted each other’s tears.
It was a very, very sad moment, only Stella felt detached from it. Not like she didn’t care that Danse was leaving—she would miss him very much and things would never be the same now. And she was already eager to see him again. It wasn’t that.

It was just that Stella knew that this thing, breaking up with Danse and him going away, she knew it was a bomb. It hadn’t exploded yet. But when it would, she would cry, and scream, and after doing that she would drink until she passed out, probably hoping to never wake up.
Things hurt. This world hurt.

The kiss ended eventually. Danse wiped tears off Stella’s face and kissed her forehead.
“Goodbye, Stella. And be careful.”
“You too. Please… text me sometimes, okay?”
“I will. I promise.”
Then, Danse turned away and left, closing the door behind him. In the silence of the night, Stella heard the Jeep starting and driving away.

The bomb might have exploded right then—it came that close—only if Stella hadn’t decided this was all Arthur Maxson’s fault, and that she wanted to piss him off. To hurt him. Anything.

It was his fault because instead of being there for Danse, he had been the one to reject him. Things would have been so different if Arthur hadn’t been such a selfish piece of shit. At that very moment, the only thing she could focus on was him, and his pretentious smile, and his shitty old truck, and how it had felt to have his hands on her body.

Because he had been so cruel to his best friend—his only friend—Stella hadn’t been given the chance to get over him, over Arthur. Danse hadn’t been given the chance to get over Arthur either. That was the one thing Stella and Danse had in common—being haunted by Arthur’s lips, and hands, and everything else.
In a better world, a world where at least Arthur Maxson wasn’t a selfish piece of shit, Stella and Danse would have been able to heal together and move on.

But, no. There she was, standing in front of a closed door, with Danse’s smell still on her, thinking about Arthur. Danse was driving in the night and thinking about Arthur as well, she just knew it.

There was no bomb explosion that night, but Stella swallowed her last two Xanax and slept for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

 

 

Stella

 

 

 

Stella didn’t know how she had ended up here, covered in dust, ashes and blood. She was lying on the ground, on her side, curled up in a ball, and all she could actually hear was a loud ringing in her ears, but her brain was replaying the blast over and over again.
She kept her hands firmly against her ears but it didn’t help at all. The ringing was still there and somehow, it hurt. Her head hurt as well, and she was almost sure something had hit it. Something heavy. It would be her second concussion in just a few months, and she had never gotten one before.

Stella knew she ought to get the hell up and run, but instead she remained on the ground and waited for the nightmare to go away.
She felt something fall close to her, another heavy thing. She didn’t hear it but she felt it in the floor, and she screamed, but she didn’t hear that either.

A few hours earlier, she had been driving the car Mama Murphy had left to Stella’s care after going with Preston. It had been a stormy night, and Stella was wearing one of her prettiest dress because she was paying a visit to Arthur Maxson in his goddamn bar.
The bar was closed because it was Monday, but using a master key found in Danse’s stuff she’d let herself in. She was wearing that dress because she wanted Arthur to want her and to be angry and to think about her later when he would lie down in his bed, alone and hurting.

Stella had made her way to his office only to find him sitting at his desk with a half-empty bottle of whiskey in front of him. His computer wasn’t even on.
Anyway, Stella had wanted to yell at him. In the car, she had rehearsed every single thing she’d wanted to tell him—how much of a monster he was for breaking Danse the way he had done it. She might have hit him too, not a kick but more like a slap in the face or something.
She was done bottling up her anger—she had been there to unleash all of it on the man responsible for that pain.

But Arthur Maxson had been sitting at his desk, drunk and half asleep, and he didn’t look like a king on his throne anymore. He looked like a little child who had lost his dog. He looked Nate after he’d come back home from that one deployment that had been so hard on him. He didn’t look unlike Danse before he left the city.
She hadn’t yelled, she hadn’t slapped him, instead she had sat on his desk and drank some of his whiskey. It wasn’t the really, really good one he had last time, but it was just his regular overpriced liquor and she loved it anyway.
“He’s gone,” was all Stella had said, and Arthur had nodded.
“Haylen told me.” His voice was low. When he went to touch her hand, Stella had shoved him away.
“He broke up with me,” she had added. “It’s your fucking fault, Arthur. It’s all your fault.”
There had been a long silence after that.
“I know it’s wrong,” Arthur had generously admitted (it was generous coming from him anyway), “but I was glad when Haylen told me he was gone and you guys had ended it. Stella, fuck, I can’t stop thinking about you.” He was so drunk.

Then Stella had lifted her arm to hit him or something, only the bar had exploded.
Of course, at the time, she didn’t know it had exploded. She knew it now that she had been thrown at the other side of the room against the wall and her head hurt and she couldn’t hear anything but this damn ringing.

And that’s where she was now.

Something was pulling on her arm, but Stella fought the best she could to keep it in place. But whatever was pulling was much stronger than she was, and she was obligated to remove her hands from her ears.
It seemed someone was calling her name, but that person was far, far away. The ringing, the earsplitting throb in her head, that was much closer, and it felt more real.

It was hot. There was probably a fire. Stella was bleeding from her head because her hair felt sticky and lukewarm.
She opened her eyes, finally.

It was Arthur who was calling her name, but he was right there. He was bleeding too, and one of his arms was obviously injured. But he kept pulling on hers, trying to get her up.
Behind him, there was a hole. Where the wall used to be. Now she could see the streets, and a few cars stopped and people looking at what used to be the beautiful, profitable, adored Prydwen.

The fire wasn’t too close, and while Stella was distracted Arthur finally pulled her up and put her on her feet. He said something to her but she only heard that he needed to get something and searched what was left of his desk to find a pistol. That’s when the man came in.

It was the man who had killed Nate and Shaun and who had tried to kill her, too.
Somehow this did not surprise Stella at all. Maybe it was because she had hit her head but she only found that it made sense.
There was a fire nearby, Stella could smell it now. The floor was cracking dangerously. She wanted to go. She wanted to be home, in her bed.

“You weren’t supposed to be here,” the man said to Stella. “It’s just him I wanted to kill. For now at least.”
“Why?” Stella asked. “Why would you want to kill Arthur? Why did you kill Nate and why did you try to kill me?” She was hoping to get some answers, even if she’d likely get killed one second later.
“He works for the Institute,” Arthur said. “And I know that because I have, uh, resources that allowed me to do some research on the MIT. Or rather, its secret laboratories in the basement. Right, Kellogg?”
Stella’s head was pounding so she didn’t question any of it, she was just surprised to know Arthur knew this man’s name, and occupation.

Kellogg nodded and stretched the arm with which he was holding his weapon.
“Alright, I’m gonna make an offer,” he said. “Maxson, you drop the gun and the girl lives. I have a few guys downstairs. She ain’t coming out of here alive unless you give me the gun.”
“Fuck you!” Stella cried. “I’d rather die than letting you stay alive!”
“Are you sure you don’t want to live?” Kellogg asked with an ugly smile on his face. “I thought you’d want to be around to meet the Gen 4 synth we made with your son’s DNA?”

If Arthur hadn’t been holding her somehow, she would have been back on the floor. Those words—it was too much now.
Somewhere under the MIT there was a person that was… Shaun. This person was Shaun, and this person was alive.

Then Arthur shot Kellogg in the head, and blood and brains splattered on the wall behind him. He was dead before his body hit the floor.
“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?” Stella yelled, turning to face him.
Arthur put his hand over her mouth. It tasted like blood. Stella bit him hard, but he didn’t flinch.
“Shut up. Seriously. Shut the hell up. I know you want to see this synth he was talking about but it’s just not gonna be possible right now. I know you went through hell when your husband died. I know all about that because I had my people look at your name in files at hospitals and police stations. Now we need to go Stella. Or they will kill us both, and then you’ll never meet your son.”
Your son. It was a very strange word to think about when associated with a living and breathing person.

But she couldn’t think about Shaun for very long because Arthur pushed her in the hallway. She was deeply scared at the moment, scared that the roof would fall down and kill them, scared that the floor would collapse and kill them as well. Scared that she’d never hear Danse’s voice again, that one of Kellogg’s guard would shoot her in the head like Arthur had shot him.
Arthur didn’t seem to be scared at all, so she stared at his back and followed him.
They went through the staircase that led directly to the basement. But before they locked the basement door, Stella caught a glimpse of the men Kellogg had warned them about. They were looking out the large windows, probably looking out for the fire department or the police. Probably not thinking that Arthur would have shot Kellogg—they probably thought the shot was Kellogg killing either of them, or else they wouldn’t be alive right now.

It was only when they were outside that Stella realized she had been choking on smoke and maybe some gasoline or something. Anyway, the air outside was much easier to breathe, so Stella inhaled deeply.
“We’re taking my truck and going to a guy I know,” Arthur said. His arm still looked fucked up. “I knew they’d find out someday, I didn’t expect it would be so soon.”
“But—find out about what?” Stella asked, climbing into the truck. All of this felt unreal.
“Me. I’ve been investigating the Institute for a while now. My father, well, listen. Fuck. He was in the CIA, alright? So he had resources, and those resources have been passed on to me. That’s how I discovered that the Institute was somehow related to you.”
Arthur was driving with one arm, and they heard gunshots when they took a turn to leave the parking lot. Still, Arthur slowed down for a few seconds, only to watch his bar burning down. But then he floored hit.

Stella didn’t know if she had fallen asleep or passed out, but she woke up when Arthur softly touched her arm. The truck was parked in front of a nice suburban house.
“Arthur,” she said. “I want to go home.”
He sighed. “Come on, Stella. Just come with me.”
So she went with him. Her ears still hurt, but a lot less.
Arthur knocked on the door and it opened almost immediately. The man behind it was about her height, around fifty and spoke to them with a British accent. He was holding a gray tabby cat.
“Arthur. It’s been a long time,” the man said.
“Yeah. I know. I should have visited more.” Arthur turned to her. “That’s Quinlan. He used to work with my father. He’s a… lawyer.”

Something in Arthur’s voice made it very clear that the man standing in front of them was either not a lawyer at all, or a lawyer that didn’t follow the law. Stella didn’t question it. It felt like a nightmare anyway.
Quinlan gestured them to follow him and he led them through his house. It was nicely decorated and smelled like freshly baked apple pie, and cat. He left the cat on a pillow and it put itself in a ball to sleep.
They ended up in a small room that was probably an office, but looked like a living room. Stella sat on a sofa, but Arthur remained standing, mentioning he didn’t want to get blood on everything. He was covered in blood, so much that it was hard to know exactly where it was coming from.
After that, Quinlan offered him a towel and made some tea, and they talked.

“We need to disappear,” Arthur said. He wasn’t touching his tea at all.
“I don’t like asking questions, Arthur, but if we’re talking about a total disappearance, I have to know why,” Quinlan responded, looking at him from over his glasses.
“I’ll say this—it’s about the Institute and they want us.”

Quinlan nodded and lifted the lid of a nearby Macook. The desk was very tidy.

“So we are talking about a full-scale wipe out?”
“Yes.”
“Wait!” Stella interrupted. “What the fuck! I don’t want to just… disappear! That’s fucking insane!”
“It would be irreversible,” Quinlan pointed out in her defense. “Are we sure this is what we’re going for? We don’t have much time.”

Arthur grunted. He seemed tired. Blood was leaking from his hair.
“Stella. I know I hurt you. But you have to trust me. We need to go. And hide. They’re…. McDonough is going to close the city down. No one comes in, no one comes out. That means it’ll be so much easier to kill you. Okay? I’m sorry, but we’re doing this. I won’t have you dead. You’re not going to die. Fuck. Okay?” He paused there and breathed, but then turned to Quinlan. “How long is it going to take, Quinlan?”
“If we hurry, I say it can be done in twenty-four hours. First thing to do is your makeovers. New hairstyles and colors—Arthur you’ll shave—then we take pictures for your new papers. Then you wait.”

Stella didn’t want to do any of this, but something inside her just knew this was her only option right now, at least if she wanted to stay alive. She didn’t know why she wanted to stay alive though, but she did.
She gave the list of personal belongings she wanted Quinlan’s guys to retrieve from her apartment. It was very short. She wanted the blue plastic container in her closet, Danse’s PS4 and his games, the hoodie she had left on the kitchen table—it was Danse’s as well—and her laptop.

She parked Arthur’s truck in Quinlan’s garage and removed the license plate from it. When she was done, she gave it to Quinlan who joined Arthur in the backyard to burn it in a fire. She thought it was a little extreme, but moved on to look in the closet Quinlan had showed her.
There she found hair dyes, scissors and other cosmetics and accessories of the sort.

Stella didn’t know what she should be doing right now, but every option felt wrong.
It didn’t feel right to leave Quinlan’s house and just return home. It didn’t feel right to stay with Arthur either. And she didn’t know where she’d go if she were to escape on her own.
But a part of herself—and Stella didn’t know how large or deep this part was—was curious about this opportunity. As far as she knew, they’d be given a new place to live with a chance to basically start from scratch.
And had this not be the thing she had hoped for from the moment she had lost Nate and Shaun?

Chapter Text

 

Arthur

 

 

Stella smelled like summer.
Not just any time of summer, but like summer evenings—those few precious minutes where the lilac trees and the lilies of the valley, heated up in the warm sunset, released their smell in the soft breeze. Stella smelled exactly like the forty five minutes following a summer sunset, when the sky was still gold, but with patches of pink scattered in it, and birds singing their evening songs. His mother had loved birds, and it had always seemed to him that she knew all about them.

Arthur was drunk. He was lying down on the couch in Quinlan’s basement, he knew that, and he also knew what Stella smelled like but that was about it. Everything else was numb. The ceiling was spinning over his head. If he moved too quickly, he would most likely throw up.

Stella was a sunset, saturated with smells, colors and feelings, but she was also so many other things—or rather, many other kinds of weather. She reminded him of a quiet rainy day. The smell of earth and mud and rain being pushed in a cold breeze. The kind of day you were cold even if you wore a hoodie, but not too cold. Just enough. There had been a lot of those rainy days back at his father's summer house.

Alternatively, Stella was also like a storm. She was charged with electricity. She was filled with thunder and she was dangerous. And beautiful, and lethal.
He had dwelled in the Institute’s secrets and he had gone too far, just because, and for, Stella.

The Prydwen had went down in under an hour because of whatever bomb or device Kellogg had used on it. It was gone now. All of it was gone, and Arthur couldn’t even get out of here, jump in his truck and see it. See what was left of his own fucking bar.
Arthur raised his arm—it hurt. He had been thrown against the wall in the initial blast, and the arm had absorbed all the shock. It might be broken in one place, but Arthur could still drive and use it. He had been able to shave, too. So it wasn’t too bad.

Why had he raised his arm, already? He couldn’t remember. He was far beyond drunk—at least he knew that.
Ah, yeah, the time. He wanted to see what time it was, and he didn’t have his phone anymore. Quinlan had burned his and Stella’s and was in the process of replacing them. He had to look at his watch now. It was a nice watch. A Panerai. It was worth a whole lot of money, too, but he thought it looked cool with his tattoos.

While he had his arm under his eyes, Arthur looked at the ink in his skin. He didn’t have many tattoos, but those he did have all reminded him of his childhood—summer holidays, especially. Near his shoulder he had a northern cardinal. That was for his mother. Jessica had loved birds. She was long-dead, but Arthur couldn’t remember a time she was more alive than those warm mornings he found her sitting in shorts and a t-shirt on the wooden bench at his father’s summer house, and she was just listening. Waiting. Sometimes he didn’t join her, he stared until he saw a large grin appear on her face. She always smiled when she heard her favorite bird—the northern cardinal.

He also had a tattoo for his father—on his forearm, there was a small forest.
Some mornings he didn’t wait for his mother to smile to the northern cardinals, instead he went fishing with his father. They rarely ever caught any fish, and now Arthur knew Jonathan only wanted a reason to spend time with him, his only child. So they sat in the small fishing boat and looked at the sunrise. They didn’t talk a lot. His father wasn’t allowed to talk about his work really, and Arthur had nothing to say about school.
So they stared at the horizon, and on the shore of the lake was a forest.

On that arm Arthur also had a tattoo of a sword. He had gotten in on the day the Prydwen was opening, but he didn’t know why. He had wanted a tattoo and he thought swords were pretty cool. He wasn’t of those who believed every single tattoo had to mean something really deep.
He thought of the way Rhys had made fun of Haylen’s small, pretty tattoo: a wolf on her ankle. He had laughed because she explained she only wanted this design because she liked wolves. “You seen one in real life?” “I don’t know Rhys, like yeah in zoos.” “Doesn’t count.”
He would miss them.

On the other arm he had a stag with branches and leaves in its antlers. Like swords, he thought stags were pretty cool.
On his forearm, he had an e. e. cummings quote: To destroy is always the first step in any creation.
That had never been truer. It was 5:21 in the morning, and by now Arthur Maxson didn’t exist anymore—he had been wiped out by Quinlan and his team. He didn’t know what would be his new name, but he hoped he would like it. He had never liked the name Arthur when he was young, but it had crept up on him.
Anyway. Arthur Maxson was dead now. Or gone, whatever.

Well, it appeared he wouldn’t sleep tonight.
Arthur got up, grabbed the whiskey bottle he had been drinking from and exited the room. Quinlan’s basement was dark and silent, but in the distant he heard the voice of his father’s old friend—he was probably still making arrangements for him and Stella, and wouldn’t rest until they were safe.

He crossed the room, almost collapsing on the floor when the cat rushed for between his feet. Grunting, Arthur ducked to the left and went for Stella’s room.
He had expected it to be locked, but the door wasn’t even completely closed. He pushed it, and took a peek.

She was sleeping. She had been sleeping for many hours now and he hadn’t even seen her with her new look. Apparently, while he was taking her picture for her license and passport, she had asked Quinlan for anything that would have a similar effect as Xanax. He had put her to bed after a few Doxylamine pills and a couple shots of vodka.

Her sleep appeared to be deep and serene, but she might as well have been having terrible nightmares and didn’t show it at all. He noticed right away that her hair was shorter and a few shades lighter than it had been last night. Arthur squinted. The sun was just beginning to rise and the sky had a light blueish color and Stella’s hair looked like it was the same color.

A closer examination showed Stella had dyed her hair purple. Well, no. Paler than purple. The color reminded him of thistles. It was that kind of hairstyle kids got these days—pastel they called it.
He had never seen her sleep and Arthur thought she was very beautiful, especially because she was wearing a large t-shirt but no pants, and she was sleeping on her stomach, and even if the t-shirt was large it showed some of her underwear, and her panties showed some ass.

Arthur drank for a few seconds and swallowed the whiskey. It burned his throat a little and made him tear up.
He sat on a comfy armchair, but made himself not stare at Stella’s ass, even though he was thinking about an awake Stella, almost in this exact same position, but with him under her.
More whiskey.

He wasn’t devastated because the bar was gone. He had insurance and each of his employees would receive a large amount of money—more than enough to live comfortably until they found another job, even with the precarious economy—and if Arthur hadn’t been obligated to be wiped out from the surface of the Earth, he would still have been able to build a new Prydwen. A better Prydwen.

Maybe he had fucked up. Maybe he should have left the Institute do its thing, build synths and ruin the whole fucking world. Because now the world would be ruined anyway, but he had taken Stella’s life away from her.
He hadn’t been careful enough, or maybe he had just been in a hurry. Sending someone directly to the Institute to gather information had resulted in death of said agent—another of his father’s friend—and the faked, virtual death of Arthur Maxson and Stella Austin.

It really bothered him that he had to go. It really bothered him that Teagan had died because of him, even though the man had nothing in his life but liquor and an impressive collection of vinyl records. Teagan knew it was a suicide mission. But. Still.
More whiskey.

And it really bothered him that he wasn’t touching Stella right now. It bothered him that she had fucked Danse, but it bothered him more that she had cared for him—still cared for him, probably—but hated him, Arthur. He could see it in her eyes.
And now she had to spend the rest of her fucking life with him, living a lie, a life of pretend, with pretty pastel hair and a fake smile on her lips and a fake name on her passport.
Arthur fell asleep.

 

 

*

 

 

“You’re a fucking weirdo. Come on. Wake up. For the love of God, just wake up.”
Arthur woke up when Stella’s cold hand slapped his face. He blinked, blinded by the light that came from the small window. They were in Quinlan’s basement. He had a terrible migraine slash hangover. His bar had exploded. He had killed a man. He had to give up his identity. Stella’s hair was different. His arm hurt.

“What time is it?” he asked. He stretched his neck—it was sore after sleeping on a chair.
“It’s one in the afternoon,” Stella replied. She was wearing new clothes. A loose, white shirt that showed a lot of sideboob—or rather, her blue bra—and denim short shorts.
“Your hair is purple,” he said.
“It’s lavender. Pastel lavender. I worked hard on it so get it right. Come on. Quinlan said our stuff is ready. And you were right, they’re going to quarantine the city tonight at five.”
Lavender. Yes, that made a lot of sense.

He followed Stella upstairs, and they stopped so she could pick up the cat and carry it around.
“You’ve made a friend,” he pointed out.
“His name is Emmett, and he’s really nice. And he doesn’t spy on half-naked girls who are sleeping. Can you even jack off with that arm? Is it broken?”
Heat spread on Arthur’s face, but he tsked her.
“I couldn’t sleep. I don’t know. But I didn’t jack off.”
“Didn’t beat the meat? At all?” Stella laughed but there was no fun or joy in that laugh.
The circles under her eyes were purple but so much darker than her hair the purple of her hair.
“I didn’t sit there to stare at you. I didn’t want to be alone. You happy now?”

She didn’t reply anything to that, but it was probably because they had entered Quinlan’s office. She sat on the floor with Emmett and played with him using a toy mouse.
“It’s mostly done, Arthur,” Quinlan said immediately. “I’m sending you away right now. I have the new license plate for your truck, two driver’s licenses, and more than half of your money transferred.”
“And our credit cards?”
“Obviously. It’s all here, as well as your passports, births certificates and other essentials.”

Arthur leaned on the desk. There were two piles, and on top of one he saw his new driver’s license. He barely recognized himself without his beard. His new name was Thomas Langley and he was from West Virginia.
Stella was Megan Lockwood, from West Virginia as well. He gave Stella her stuff and the cat tried to eat it.
“West Virginia?” Arthur asked.
“Summersville, West Virginia,” Quinlan explained, typing something on his laptop. “A small town, but not too small, with a lot of tourists in the summer. I found a lovely house—isolated but not too much, so if something was to happen, neighbors might hear screams or gunshots—and it’s near the lake.”
“Awesome,” Stella said. “Glad the neighbors will hear me scream before I’m shot to death.”
“You won’t be,” Quinlan assured. “But I didn’t like the idea of, say, a house deep in the woods, away from everything.”
He turned his laptop to show them the screen. It showed a lovely looking, pale gray house. It had a lot of windows and was surrounded by beautiful trees.
“There’s a pool,” Quinlan added. “It was built only six years ago. Three bedrooms and as many bathrooms, a lot of light coming from everywhere, and less than three minutes away from the lake on foot.”

Arthur looked at the house, at Stella and at his driver’s license. Maybe, maybe he could get used to that new life. Find a small job just to pass the time, and get in the pool at the end of the day to watch the sunset. He wondered if there were any northern cardinals in West Virginia.
“Let’s go then,” Stella said, getting up. “West Virginia is a long way from here.”
“Twelve hours at most,” Quinlan said. “But I do suggest you make a stop somewhere in Maryland to sleep. Oh, I almost forgot.”
He pushed himself on his chair to the shelf behind his desk, and came back with two phones. Android phones. Arthur grunted, but Stella took hers without a sound.
“I know you prefer iPhones, Arthur, but—”
“It’s fine,” Arthur decided. “It’s just a phone.” He reckoned he wouldn’t have a ton of people to talk to, or text anyway. Or maybe… Maybe Thomas Langley could have a successful Instagram account and take pretty, colorful pictures that hipsters loved. They would love a shot of Stella, turning her back to the camera and staring at the lake during a sunrise. Or something like that. Yeah he could do that.

“Stella,” Quinlan said, giving her another phone. It was small and an old model. A prepaid cellphone.
“Thanks. It’ll be just one phone call,” she assured.
“That’s fine. But you destroy it right after.”
“I sure will.”
And she left the room.

“A phone call?” Arthur asked.
“Yes. If you wish to… say some sort of goodbye to someone you can really trust… I don’t necessarily approve of it, but if you wish to do so, I have another of those prepaid phones.”
He knew who Stella was calling. And under other circumstances, Arthur would have called the same person.
Hell, that person would have been here with them.

Arthur waved his hand, lost in his thoughts, but it seemed Quinlan understood he didn’t want to call anyone. He didn’t have anyone to call.

He followed Stella’s voice and found her in the backyard, near a large rose bush. “Please, take the call, take the call,” he heard her beg, tears in her throat. “Danse, come on, I just want to hear your voice…”
There was a short pause, and it didn’t seem he was taking the call, so she went on.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the news but… I’m okay. I can’t tell you more than that. I have to go away. I’ll try to contact you once in a while… Don’t come looking for me. I’ll be alright. I’m with Arthur. He… he’s helping me. And he knows about Nate, and Shaun, he knows more than I do. Don’t worry about me. We’ll be in a nice house with a pool. I’m gonna be alright. Fuck, Danse, I—I miss you, okay. Take care of yourself.”
And then she stopped. He heard her hit the phone repeatedly against the wall, so he hid in the bathroom while she was coming back inside and heading for Quinlan’s office again.

He thought of giving Danse a goodbye phone call too, but he didn’t know what he’d say to him.
Arthur Maxson had lost everybody, but at least he had the girl with the purple hair. No, lavender. Shit.

Chapter Text

 

 

Stella

 

 

 

 

“Wait, that’s not fair, besides you can’t do that.” Stella sighed and ate the last bite from her cheeseburger. She carefully put the wrapping in a bag and wiped her hands—Arthur wouldn’t tolerate greasy hands in his beloved truck—and drank some lemonade.
“How come I can’t do that?” Arthur asked. His eyes were on the road, but he was frowning. He looked so much younger now that he was cleanly shaved, and she had to admit, more handsome too. He went for the fries and grabbed a few he put in his mouth, carefully wiped his hand, and put it on the wheel again.

The sun was setting behind the trees and the road was empty. Every time Stella caught a glimpse of herself in the side-view mirrors, she jumped—it took her one or two seconds to remember the girl with the hip, cute hair she was looking at was no one but herself.
They were already in West Virginia by now and they would likely stop for the night.
They had stopped yesterday as well, in Maryland, and had slept several hours. They could keep on driving until they made it to their new house, but neither of them wished to get there by night. They knew there were no beds in the house yet, but that once they were there Arthur could make a phone call to a number Quinlan had given him, and that someone would come and deliver high-end furniture for them.
So, they’d stop soon. But for now they were driving under a darkening sky, eating fast-food and discussing their aliases.

“You can’t say that you went to Harvard,” Stella explained, “because it’s true.”
“I went for one semester before I dropped the fuck out,” Arthur retorted. “Thomas, I feel, is an artist or something. He would’ve majored and all. In… an artistic major.”
“Not at Harvard,” Stella insisted. “Thomas and Megan never even set foot in Massachusetts, alright? Or if they did, it was as tourists a long time ago.”
Arthur grumbled something she didn’t even listen to.

“How about you decide where you were born?” she added. “It’ll be easier. But it can’t be in Boston or Washington.”
“I don’t know. Anywhere. Doesn’t matter.”
“You want some prestigious college?” Stella thought for a few seconds. “How about Yale?”
Arthur nodded, a shy smile on his face. “I can do Yale. I specialized in photography. You went, too?”
“Do I look like I went to college, let alone Yale?”
He looked at her, but only for half a second.
“Why not?” he asked with a shrug.
“I didn’t go to college and neither did Megan. Megan’s passion in life is gardening.”
“That’s a good one. Thomas probably likes taking pictures of Meg’s flowers.”
“I suppose he does. Or he likes to take pictures of his own genitalia.”

They had turned it into a game. Filling their new backstory with lies. Because, if they had remained serious, neither of them would still be here right now—the things they had been through for the last thirty six hours were enough to make anyone go crazy.
So, instead of jumping out of the truck while it went at high speed, they made jokes and ate fat food.

“So, how do we approach this?” Arthur asked after a while. “I mean, why are Megan and Thomas moving in together in West Virginia? Are they dating?”
“They’re not dating, for fuck’s sake,” Stella snapped. “We don’t have to live together. I can get my own place.”
“No. I don’t want that. You don’t want that either. Listen Stella. We stick together, okay? That’s the plan.”
Stella had to admit she didn’t really want to stay on her own, at least not right now.
She couldn’t imagine living the rest of her life locked in a house with Arthur Maxson either, but she would allow herself some time before thinking of moving in her own apartment.

“How about... “ Stella looked outside, as if she had been looking for inspiration, but there was nothing to see but trees and fields.
“Listen to this. Thomas moved to West Virginia after graduating because all he wanted was to take pictures of shit. Especially nature. Not his dick. Megan met him while she was at some gardening convention. I’m sure that exists. Does it?”
Stella googled it, and found out there were a few gardening clubs in the state.
“So what? We met and figured we should move in together?”
“Why not? Do we have to provide more info than that? If people want to believe there’s more to the story, let them believe. After all the shit that’s happened to us, I’m done giving a damn about what people think about me.”
For once, Arthur was right.

Stella was tired. She had been memorizing her new birthday, new address, phone number and bank account information since they had left Boston. And even the sleep she had gotten at the Best Western they had picked for their Baltimore stop had not been enough. She felt as if she would need her entire life to fix her body from the exhaustion and stress she had been through.

*

Stella woke up some time later to the sound of Arthur’s voice. He was humming along to the music playing on his old truck’s radio. There was a bump on the road, and Stella’s head hit the window, so she sat straight.
Arthur stopped singing, and a smile appeared on Stella’s face when she realized what song was playing. She reached for the stereo and turned the volume up. Arthur looked at her for a second or two before turning his attention back on the road.
In a silent agreement, they sang the chorus to Toto’s Africa together, almost like everything was normal, like they weren’t fleeing their home state illegally, like civil wars weren’t happening everywhere around the world, like Arthur had not made Danse a broken man. Like Stella didn’t hate Arthur for it. Like she didn’t have to pretend to be a person she was not.
Like they were two normal people on a road trip, and they would stop to get ice cream and laugh if they spilled any, and take selfies and post them on Instagram.

Stella did not know the entire lyrics of the song, but Arthur apparently, did. When she let her voice die out after a chorus, he kept singing, only a little bit more softly.
It was a beautiful night out, and she did not know exactly where they were, but they were alone on a road in the middle of nowhere, and the moon was bright and beautiful. She saw Lyra in the sky, a tiny constellation, and thought of her mother, and how she had loved stars. All of them.

There was another chorus coming up, and Arthur’s hands briefly left the wheel so he could play on an invisible drum, and they sang together again, and laughed, and then the song was over. The radio host announced some other song Stella didn’t know, and didn’t care for, so she turned the stereo off. She knew very well that Arthur didn’t like it when people played with anything in his cars, especially when he was driving, and especially his father’s old pickup truck, but he didn’t say anything.
For a split second, it looked like he was going to turn the radio back on, but instead he just grabbed her hand in his.

Stella almost pushed him away, but didn’t.

She woke up again when the car came to a stop in a parking lot. She blinked and looked around.
“We’re here,” Arthur said, gathering his phone and wallet and some garbage to throw out. “We’re in Summersville. I’ll get the room. I’ll be right back.”
Stella nodded and yawned. Even though she had just woken up, she couldn’t wait to go back to sleep—in a bed.

While she was waiting, Stella took some time to look at her new home. She hoped their neighborhood would be prettier than that, because all she could really make out in the night was the Hampton Inn they were at, a gas station and a McDonald’s. She sighed.
She had never not lived in Boston, and she had never spent much time outside a city.
When she travelled, it was to another city. Not to Small Town in Minor State Covered In Trees. It wasn’t that she hated the idea of small towns, only Stella wondered what she would do, and how she would fit in. She started regretting dyeing her hair a crazy color. Maybe just dark brown would have been fine.

Her phone buzzed and she read the screen with sleepy eyes.
Thomas: They only have rooms with one bed in them. The guy is blaming the tourists like tourists are the worst thing that ever happened. He literally works at an hotel. Thomas: But there’s a really nice bath apparently, and we get free wifi and breakfast. I’ll take the couch anyway. So? Megan: Take it. I don’t care.

She really didn’t. The sooner this was all over, the better she would feel.
Actually, she wondered if it would ever feel like it was over. That thought sent a chill down her spine, but thankfully Arthur was back soon.
“I’m so tired,” Stella moaned.
“Come on, baby girl. We’re practically there, in bed already.”
Stella almost slapped him for calling her like that. Actually, she would have slapped Arthur Maxson if they had been back in Boston and if he had not been the last person she still had.
She did not want to slap the only person she knew.

She followed him in the hotel after they gathered their bags. The carpet was thick and everything was very silent. It was, after all, past one in the morning.
“Is there really that many tourists?” Stella asked while Arthur was opening their room with the keycard.
“Yeah. I think that’s why we’re here. Because it’s the summer, and new people blend it more easily,” Arthur replied, pushing the door open.
Everything in the room was beige, white and navy blue. But the bed was huge, and Stella sighed in relief.
“We can share the bed,” she pointed out. “Four people could probably fit on it anyway.”
“You sure?”
“Yes, I am sure. I’ll take a bath and sleep.”

Arthur nodded and Stella went into the bathroom. When she went to close the door, she realized that she didn’t want to. Which was weird. Because she was about to take her clothes off and hop in the bath, and Arthur was right there, sitting on the bed, turning the TV on.
She wanted him to see her. She wanted him to want her.
Had this not been the whole point of her paying him a visit at the Prydwen minutes prior its dramatic exit?
Whatever.

Stella did dim the lights in the bathroom, only because she wanted to relax. Then she proceeded to take her clothes off, and in the mirror she saw Arthur looking at her from the side.
“Stella?” he said.
“What?”
There was a long pause.
“You okay?”
“Great,” Stella answered while filling the tub with hot water.

When there was enough water, she sat in the tub and leaned her back against it.
That felt good. That felt great. Holy shit.
She heard a very distinctive moan coming from the TV.
“Are you watching porn back there? Goddamnit, Arthur,” she sighed.
“It’s Game of Thrones! I’m not—”
“Game of Thrones is porn,” Stella pointed out. “But for nerds like you. Can you even look at a naked woman without touching your dick?”
She heard a grunt, and a few seconds later he was in the doorframe.
“I’m looking at one now.” He had his hands raised in the air. “Happy?”
“I wouldn’t say I’m happy,” Stella admitted. “But this bath is great.”
She closed her eyes. Arthur remained in the doorframe for a few seconds before she heard him go away.

The moaning resumed on the TV, but it was followed by clashing of swords and other Game of Thrones things.

Here’s the problem with people who almost died, or people who had lost everything: they didn’t give a shit. They just didn’t. So Stella would probably keep walking around naked and Arthur would probably jerk off in secret. And even if Stella cherished that victory over him, it still didn’t mean anything at the end of the day. Nothing meant anything anymore. It didn’t matter. None of this mattered. She might as well have been riding Arthur’s cock and it still wouldn’t have mattered at all.

She enjoyed the bath until the water turned too cold to stay in—especially because Arthur had turned the AC on.
Stella climbed out of the bath, grabbed a nearby towel she wrapped around her body and exited the bathroom.
“How’s TV?” she asked, searching her bag for something to sleep in.
“There’s not much on, except that infomercial for socks.”
“Sounds great. Hey, do you have an extra t-shirt or something?”
She had slept in her clothes in Baltimore, but she wanted to get the best possible sleep tonight, and that meant something comfier than shorts and a shirt.
“Yeah, look in my stuff if you want.”

Stella put her bag away and grabbed Arthur’s bag. He had packed a lot more t-shirts than he needed, so she picked a white one—the fabric was nice and soft. Then she undid the towel and it fell on the floor.
“Holy shit, Stella!” Arthur exclaimed, violently turning his head away. “You’re naked!”
“And it’s nothing you haven’t seen,” Stella pointed out, keeping the t-shirt in her hand. “It’s just a body. I touched your dick once. We fucked. Listen. I decided I was done giving a shit.”
“Obviously.”
“Is it really a problem?” Stella asked, sighing. “Because, I want us to be cool about that stuff.”
“I guess it’s not a problem,” Arthur admitted. “Uh, are you okay?”
He looked at her when he asked that, and Stella noticed he had a hard time looking into her eyes, but he seemed more comfortable when she had the t-shirt on.
“I’m fine,” Stella said. “Are you?”
“Yeah.”

But then Arthur disappeared in the shower for an unusually long time, and Stella was lying in the bed, her eyes closed, with a knot between her legs, trying not to think about whatever was happening in that bathroom.

Later, Arthur joined her in the bed, but didn’t say anything or did anything. Part of Stella had been hoping he would at least try to pull her against him, but he didn’t.

*

They woke up way past breakfast time.

Stella actually woke up first. She slowly emerged from sleep, feeling warm and cozy. She opened her eyes and found the room relatively dark. The navy blue curtains were thick, but she could still make out sunshine coming from behind them. She smiled at that, which felt strange.
But, after all, it was the first day of her new life.
It took a few more seconds to realize she was huddled in Arthur’s arms. He was holding her tight, with a protective leg over hers.

She gasped, panicking at the thought, but that only lasted a brief moment. He smelled good. He smelled a little like hotel soap and shampoo, but with some of his personal perfume as well. She inhaled.
I hate him, Stella thought. But, did she really?

The clock on the desk was showing 11:46, which was way late for breakfast. Her stomach rumbled. She felt waves of another kind of hunger between her legs.
She was feeling so many things, it was a little too much for Stella, especially sober.

When she tried to get out of Arthur’s arms, she did so by carefully shifting her weight and sliding out of his grip, or tried to until she froze in the bed because she had felt something hard in his crotch.
She thought, Well, I guess we could fuck. I guess it wouldn’t mean anything. But then, he said something in his sleep, and she clearly heard her name in there, along with gibberish.

Nope.

Without bothering if it would wake him or not, Stella got out of the bed and proceeded to look for her clothes. This time, she hid behind the bathroom door to change.
“Is everything okay?” Arthur asked, his voice sleepy.
“Yeah.” She quickly put on the off-shoulder summer dress she had picked in one of Quinlan’s many closets. “It’s too late for breakfast, so I figured I’d go out and get us something to eat.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll get dressed and we can stop at a drive-thru. We have a long day ahead of us. We have to get beds in the house before tonight. I don’t want to sleep in hotels anymore.”

Stella came out of the bathroom and didn’t look at Arthur so he wouldn’t have to pretend he didn’t have an embarrassing boner.
She hated how that was exactly what she had wanted last night, and when it happened she freaked out. She had always been weak.
She had hoped Megan wouldn’t be.
I’ll work on this, Stella promised herself.
From the corner of her eyes, Stella watched Arthur put on jeans (and struggle slightly to zip them up) and a random t-shirt.

“I hope we have a nice backyard,” Stella said, mostly to forget about her fluttering heart and not one hundred percent dry undies. “I’ll need it to do my gardening.”
“As far as I know, it’s great.” Arthur helped her put their things back in their bags. “Alright baby girl. Let’s go meet our new home.”
Stop, Stella almost said, but she liked the sound of it in his mouth a little too much.

The hotel was crowded at this time, and they had a lot of trouble just to get to the main hall to give the keycards back.
They were waiting in line to reach the front desk when Stella saw him.

Just a random man. A stranger. But he looked so damn much like Nate. His hair was a little darker, and he was taller, but they looked like they could have been brothers.
She heard a gunshot, and even though she knew it was all in her head, Stella jumped.
“St—I mean, Meg, are you alright?” Arthur asked.
“Y—yeah,” she lied. Her lips were trembling, and even though her eyes were wide open and looking at the main hall of an Hampton Inn in West Virginia, she was back in Boston on Halloween night and Nate was getting shot over and over again. She could even hear the sound his body had made when it had touched the ground—a loud, heavy thump.

And when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, a small child appeared from behind the man’s legs. The boy had to be three years old and he looked a whole lot like his father. The man who looked like Nate reached for his son and held him in his arms while the woman who was his wife was looking in one of their suitcases. His smile wasn’t exactly Nate’s, but it was similar.

This man wasn’t Nate, and he wasn’t even a copy of Nate the Institute had made.
He was just a stranger who looked a lot like her dead fiance, and the fact that he was holding a child made her want to hit her head on the wall until she passed out.
“Hey.” Arthur’s voice brought her back to reality, but not quite. He took her face in his hands to make her look at him. “What did you see?”
She couldn’t say it. Arthur’s face was blurred, and it took her a good five seconds before realizing she was crying.
“I need a Xanax,” she managed.
“We don’t have any. What’s wrong?”
Arthur looked around in the direction she had been looking at, and when he saw the happy little family, he seemed to understand.
“I need to get out of here,” Stella added, but her voice was merely a whisper.
“Take the keys,” Arthur said, giving them to her. “Wait for me in the truck. I’ll be right there. Look at the mountains. Stare at the clouds. I don’t know. Just… Wait for me, okay?”
She nodded, grabbed the keys and ran out.

The air outside was heavy and warm and humid, but it seemed she could breath more easily now that she was out here.
Fearing the perfect little family would follow her, though, Stella made her way to the truck. It was parked in full sun, and the air inside was nearly impossible to breathe but it was still better than being back inside.

She did exactly what Arthur had advised to do and she looked at the clouds in the sky. There weren’t many, but there was one that looked almost exactly like a dick.
Stella was still staring at it when Arthur climbed into the truck.
“That cloud looks like a dick,” she said. “Look.”
He stretched his neck until he could see it. He chuckled. “That’s a dick,” he agreed. “Let’s go get some food, and see our house.”

She watched him drive to the nearby McDonald’s and order for her, and when he put food in her hands Stella didn’t react because all she could think about was the sound Nate’s body had made when it had fallen to the ground. It was even worse because it had been Nate’s body, not Nate as a whole, because Nate had not been whole the second the bullet had been put into him.
She looked at the large plastic container at the back of the truck and thought about Shaun. The Shaun that had been growing inside her, not the one that apparently could be found somewhere in underground Boston.
At first, after losing both Nate and Shaun, the only comfort Stella had found was in self-hatred. She spent her days and night repeating herself that she would have been a terrible wife anyway, and an even more terrible mother.
That even if things sucked, maybe it was all for the best, because she was the only one left hurting—the other two were dead and they didn’t feel anything.

And almost five years later, that was still the only comfort Stella had, because it was still true. If anything, it was even truer than it had been back then.

But then they entered the actual town. What was meant to be the downtown area, no doubt, and Stella came back to her senses for a few seconds.
“This place is shitty,” she said. “Look at it.”
“It’s not that bad for a town of like, five thousand people,” Arthur said. “Besides, we live past that, near a nice part of the lake.”

They passed in front of a bar—the only actual bar in town, it seemed—with a large sign in the window that said “NOW HIRING”. Arthur slowed down, which didn’t matter because no one else was on the street.
“Do you really want to work at a bar?” she asked.
“I was more thinking about buying it.”
“Arthur, no! Goddamnit.”
“It’s closed anyway. I’ll come back tonight. You should come with me. Don’t tell me you didn’t love working around liquor.”
She couldn’t argue with that. Stella was still feeling shaken, but it was a little better now. She still didn’t touch her food.
They drove around town for a little while, and when Arthur was done drinking his coffee they looked on Google Maps for their street.

Bluebell Drive was a small road that was surrounded by trees. They passed the house without seeing it, because it was surrounded by trees as well. Arthur backed a little on the road, then into the driveway, and they were there.
Almost as if everything was normal.
Nothing is normal, a voice in Stella’s head said, and it sounded a whole lot like Nate’s voice, but she ignored it.

It was a very large house, considering only two people would live in it. The backyard was huge. They walked around it to enter from the back door, where Quinlan had said they would find the sets of keys.
As promised, two sets of keys were waiting for them near the pool, under a large pot of marigold flowers.
Everything was beautiful, inside and outside.

The living room was large, and mostly windows. The kitchen was large, with a little less windows but luxurious countertops. All the floors were hardwood, and when Stella pointed this out, Arthur let out a laugh and added, “yeah, just like me, baby girl”. “Literally,” she said, thinking of how it had felt to feel him hard against her this morning. If he heard her, he didn’t say anything.

They both picked bedrooms on the second floor. Stella’s was very beautiful and had a large closet and a windowed corner. She decided she would put her bed in that corner and look at the sky from the windows.
From her room she could see the pool and the marigold flowers. From up here, they looked like tiny suns. They were very beautiful. She’d put more all around the yard so that when she looked at her window, she would see those little suns.
Maybe, just maybe, that would be enough to keep her sane a few more months.

Chapter Text

 

 

Arthur

 

 

 

 

The first week, Arthur took some time around the house to fix things here and there, but he spent most of his time sitting comfortably in one of their floating recliners in the pool with a beer in hand.
After all, did he not deserve that? Did he not deserve some relaxing time in his pool? He had been working hard since the age of 18, and he had almost died a week ago. Adding the fact that he had to exercise his right to self-defense and shoot a man, he really figured he was allowed some time to cool off. Or rather, heat up under the sun, with some cool ass shades he had found at a thrift store in town. He opened his third beer of the day, and used his legs to propel himself back in the middle of the pool. The chair floated back to the left, where the sun was, and closer to where Stella was.

It was six, or something like that. Stella had spent the week gardening, and he had to admit she was pretty good at it. Well. Kind of. He knew she spent her nights reading about flowers and gardens and stuff like that on her laptop. The next day, she ordered new flowers or went to get them at whatever gardening store she went to, and she spent her afternoons repotting them and planting them into the ground.
Anyway, the yard looked nice.

“How are the peonies?” he asked, lifting his sunglasses to get a better look at the flowers. Stella had planted all five bushes.
“I don’t know. I think they won’t die right away,” she replied. “Aren’t they beautiful? Those are called Coral Sunset, and those Festiva Maxima.”
“You gave them names?” Those were weird names, too.
“Goddamnit Arthur. No. It’s the name of their colors.”

Ah, that made sense. He drank some beer.
“What are you planting next?”
“I’m pretty much done after these and the forget-me-nots. I’m getting those tomorrow.”
“I gotta say, you did a tremendous job. The yard looks amazing now.”
“Does it look like the yard of a person whose only passion in life is gardening?”
“Yeah, actually. It does. Who’s gonna mow all of that lawn though? I can’t do it. I won’t risk hurting your babies.”
Stella stiffened and accidentally cut a peony from its bush while she was trimming some leaves. The flower fell in the grass, near Stella’s scraped knee.

Being around Stella was like walking on a mine field. You never knew when you’d hit one, but you knew you’d hit many as you went on.

He should have seen this one coming. Any reference to young children made her look like she had been punched in the face several times. Yesterday, while they were getting some more stuff for the house at the local Walmart, a little girl had smiled at Stella and they had to come home immediately.
She kept saying it was worse because she didn’t have her pills, but Arthur knew it wasn’t the only reason.

He wondered how often she thought about Danse.

“Stella—I’m sorry,” he said, and he meant it. They still had to learn how to dodge each other’s mines, and it would be a highly difficult task considering how many mines the both of them actually had. “I’ll do the lawn. I was kidding. I’ll do it every week.”
“I don’t care about the lawn,” Stella replied, her voice hard and cold. “And those flowers aren’t my babies. They’re just another lie I have to tell.”
Arthur nodded although she wasn’t facing him and couldn’t even see him. He watched her grab for the fallen flower, smell it, then close her fist to crush it.

“Come in the pool,” he invited. “The water’s so nice.”
“You’re not even in the water, you lazy fucker.”
“Watch me.” He finished his beer in one long gulp and slid from the chair into the pool. He swam to reach her side of the pool. “We’ve been here for a week now and you haven’t been in the pool once.”
She sighed and finished trimming some leaves before getting up and stretching.

Arthur watched in silence as Stella pulled her shirt over her head. She was wearing a see-through bra. He could literally see her nipples. Before he could regain his senses, she was kicking her shorts away, revealing assorted undies. Those weren’t see-through.
Thank God.

If Stella wanted to be naked he couldn’t stop her. And that was fine.
But, he also couldn’t stop the way he felt when he saw her naked.
“Wow, it is really nice,” Stella admitted once she was in the pool, keeping her head above the water by slowly waving her arms underwater. “Shit.”
“I know right?” Arthur smiled.

He was sad to see the old Stella go, but then he was changing a lot as well and he couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t that easy to become an entirely new person for the public eye, but remain our old self in private. Besides, it seemed they both had aliases that fit them well. Too well.

Megan wore more makeup, but a whole lot less clothes than Stella had. She swore a lot, and locked herself in her room when she had panic attacks because she didn’t have Xanax, and it turned out Doxylamine didn’t do the trick at all. She almost always had dirt under her nails from spending her entire days with her hands in it, and it had taken her exactly seven days to even put one toe in their luxurious pool.

And she was floating in it now, her eyes closed, and if Arthur hadn’t known exactly what the context was, he would have said that she looked relaxed. Content. At peace. But, he knew better than that.

He went for his phone, near a large pot of marigolds on the side of the pool. When he had it, he opened the camera and took several photos of Stella before she realized what he was doing. With the lilac trees in the background, and all the green leaves and the forest behind, it looked great. He would definitely post one of these shots on Instagram and on his blog, the still not-very-famous thomaslangleyphotography dot tumblr dot com. All the cool kids were on Tumblr nowadays, and posted aesthetic photography shit. Soon, he’d get more attention, he just had to be patient.

When Stella noticed she was the subject for his improvised photography session, her face changed. He saw her undo her bra under the water and she left it on the side of the pool. Thankfully, she kept the bottom on. Arthur’s swimsuit was starting to feel a little tight.

“At least you can’t take pictures of my face,” she sighed in relief. “My tits are better than my face.”
Arthur swallowed. “Uh, I mean, I think you have a really nice face, but I can’t take pictures of it because—”
“Because the Institute might see me and stuff. Whatever. So, what kind of pose should I go for? Do we go full tits?”
“Stella, you don’t have to do this. Really. Even with clothes on you’re a good subject for my photos.”

She looked at him straight in the eyes. She was fully standing now, in the part of the pool where the water was the lowest, and her breasts were way above the water, distracting and beautiful and distracting.
He had spent the week masturbating in the bathroom during the day, and in his bed at night.

“It makes me feel alive,” Stella said. “It’s the only thing that makes me feel alive anymore. To be naked, with somebody to see me.”
He opened his mouth, closed it and opened it again. There was, literally, nothing that would be a decent reply to that—it was too sad, and too fucking real.
“I don’t think we should go for porn,” Stella went on, now lying on the pavement around the pool. “Just, sexy stuff once in a while. Like, your Instagram account should be: trees, flowers and trees, tits, trees, a dog you met on the street, maybe some ass, maybe a full frontal occasionally but really occasionally. Then, more trees.”

Then, she laid on the hot pavement with her eyes closed, and waited. So Arthur got a few shots of her there, with her face slightly turned to the opposite direction. She had round, full breasts, and Arthur’s swimsuit was definitely uncomfortable by now. “Do you think you could, uh, like get in the water?” he asked. “I feel like, your hair wet would look nice.”
“It’ll ruin the color,” she replied, but she rolled over and fell into the pool again, and let herself sink down.

He waited five seconds.
“Stella?” he said. “It’s okay now. Seriously.”
But she didn’t come back. He grunted and put his phone away, then dove into the water. The water burned his eyes when he opened them, but he had to stop for a second and look at the scene. Stella was keeping herself at the bottom of the pool, her hair floating around her face, and she looked very beautiful. Actually, she looked a little like a mermaid.
But she wasn’t a mermaid, so he grabbed her arm and brought her back to the surface.

“The fuck was that?” Arthur asked, out of breath. “What are you trying to do?” “I don’t know.” Stella blinked, looking at him like it was the first time she ever saw him. “I couldn’t breathe.”
He sighed. Her hair was at least two shades paler than it had been just a minute ago. Not that it mattered.
“You can’t… You can’t keep hurting yourself like that,” he pointed out.

Last night, she had bought a car from a dealership and he had heard her try it out at high speed. It was a really nice car—a 1978, black and gold trans am. It was really nice as long as she didn’t crash into another car and killed herself alongside another victim. “You won’t feel alive for very long if you drown yourself or hit a fucking truck with your car.”

He was angry now. Angry at her, angry at the Institute. Angry at his dick for not letting him see half a nipple without annoying him and demanding his attention in the bathroom.
Goddamnit. He had thought today would be great.

“I’m sorry for your hair,” he added when he realized she wouldn’t say anything. “It’s not really lavender anymore.”
She touched it and looked at a strand she was holding.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I think it doesn’t look too bad. I was using cheap dye anyway. I should get something better.”
“Everything looks nice on you.” He didn’t mean for it to sound so cheesy and dumb, but it was too late, so he spoke again. “It kinda looks lilac.”

She was standing in the pool, her head down, busy looking at her hair, and he had in sight the two full-grown lilac trees Stella had had put up. In between them, she’d put a bench or something later. Now the yard constantly smelled of lilac. It was pleasant. And her hair was almost exactly the color of the small flowers.
“Lilac is cool,” she decided.
“Don’t move, okay? That’ll be our shot.”
He backed a little until he could reach his phone. He dried his hands on his t-shirt that had been let on the ground and framed the photo carefully. Stella, standing with her head down but her back straight and shoulders low, and her breasts—god, they were so nice—that was a great fucking shot.

“Man, that’s amazing,” he said with a smile. “You’re gonna make me famous someday. Do you want to do something tonight? I thought we could pay a visit to that bar in town. The one that was hiring.”
“You mean, the only bar in town.”
“Yeah. Well. Yes, that one.”

That bar was in a small building with very few windows. It was called Parker’s, and last time Arthur had drove near it, the ‘now hiring’ sign was still in place.
Stella considered it for a while.
“Alright,” she decided. “Let me shower real quick.”

Arthur waited before she was into the house to even leave the pool, and he only felt safe when he heard the water running from the bathroom window. He hurried inside, climbed the stairs and locked himself in his room.

Then he undressed, freeing his cock. Arthur immediately took it in his hand, suppressing a whimper that threatened to escape his lips. A whimper. He lied on his bed.

It wasn’t very elaborated or anything. Arthur came after exactly four strokes. He watched as his seed sprayed on his stomach, reminding him of the way Kellogg’s brain had splattered on the wall behind him when Arthur had shot him in the head.
Sometimes, Arthur wished he hadn’t killed him. Then he remembered this man was responsible for the death of Stella’s fiance, and their unborn baby.
It was strange to imagine a happy Stella, who walked around town with her hand in someone else’s, and a smile on her face, and a big, round belly that kicked her from the inside sometimes.

He reached for a tissue to clean up most of the mess, but as soon as he heard Stella’s shower end, he went into the second bathroom to shower as well.
As some shampoo ran down his eyes to torture him, he wondered if he should tell Stella about what he knew of the Institute—about her, and Nathan Collins, and everything else they were doing down there.

Everyday he had to fight to prevent her from hurting herself. How would she react if she knew even more?

“Are you done in there?” Stella’s voice asked, then the door opened. Goddamnit. He hadn’t locked it, probably too distracted by the relief of his orgasm. “I want to go and get wasted. Absolutely wasted.”
He could make out the shape of her on the other side of the window. There was enough condensation on it to hide him.
“Almost done,” Arthur replied, rinsing his hair carefully.
“Can I use your mirror for my makeup? The light is so much better here.”
He sighed. “Alright, go ahead.”

Why did it feel like they were a couple. And not a fresh new couple, no, like people who had been together for many, many years. Sharing bathrooms, not minding nudity, and general brutal honesty.
“Can you give me the towel I left near the sink?” Arthur asked, turning the shower off.
“You can come out, I won’t look at your Mini Maxson,” Stella promised.
“Don’t—don’t refer to it as miniature. It’s not.” He hesitated. “You know it’s not.”
“Have you ever heard the word joke before?”

The towel appeared above him, and Arthur grabbed it. He tied it around his waist and exited the shower.
Stella was wearing a really pretty dress. She was leaning above the counter to finish her makeup. She had lipstick on, the one he liked the most. Obsessed, she had said it was called. She seemed to think colors’ names were very important. He liked that about her. Also, one night he had been completely unable to sleep because he couldn’t stop thinking about how her Obsessed painted lips would look around his cock.
Don’t, he told himself. He didn’t feel like jerking off again. It was getting tiring, and he felt stupid.

Stella turned her head and her cat-eyed eyes on him when he grabbed another towel to dry his chest and his arms.
“Have I ever told you I really like your tattoos?” she said.
Have I ever told you how I want to push you against a wall and fuck you senseless? a voice said in Arthur’s head. He ignored the voice, and made himself smile.
“I don’t think so. Thanks.” She never complimented him. Ever.

She put down her eye pen or whatever it was called to lay a hand on his arm, where the sword had been inked into his skin.

He had seen her naked a lot, and had taken many pictures of her and touched himself while editing them, but she hadn’t really touched him.
That felt very intimate. And strange.

Arthur reached for her neck and touched her skin, then wrapped a lock of her hair around his finger. It was warm and dry, so he assumed she had blow-dried it.

It was definitely lilac, too, and for some reason it hit him at this very moment—Arthur loved her, and he knew it made him the biggest fool he had even known.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

It was only after their third visit at the town’s only real bar that Arthur spoke to the owner. Stella had been tugging at his shorts under the table, trying desperately to make him stop, fearing he would make an offer the owner couldn’t refuse.
He had more than enough money to buy the fucking place, and probably two or three other businesses around Summersville, or more.

The owner was a lovely lady in her 50s. Her name was Ann, and she had the most genuine smile Stella had ever seen on anyone.

Thankfully, when Arthur spoke to Ann, it wasn’t to buy her off.

“I noticed you were looking for employees,” he said, then finished his whiskey on ice.
“You lookin’ for a job, big guy?” Ann replied with her beautiful smile. “‘Cause I sure could use some help around here. I have Deacon, and my son Zachary, but that’s about it. Deacon’s new here too, he moved in last week.”
She lifted her chin towards the other end of the bar, where a man Stella had seen working here was currently playing cards with other regulars. He was about 35, had red-blonde hair that reminded her of Haylen, and spoke in jokes and puns. That one was Deacon.
“The tourists will be here real soon,” Ann added. “I’ll need a few more people for the summer at least.”

Arthur hit the counter with his palms. It was made of wood and very old, the paint was so chipped Stella could barely say what color it used to be. That was also partially explained by the low lighting in the bar.

“We’re in!” Arthur shouted. “Ann, we’ll do it. Even if it’s just for the summer.”
We? Stella turned her head to stare at Arthur.
“We?” Ann said, as surprised as Stella. “Both of you?”
“Yes, both of us. We used to work at a bar. Megan’s uncle was the owner. When he passed away… Let’s just say that I miss this environment. Also, I can mix a mean Manhattan.”

Ann laughed.
“That’s great, son, but nobody in this bar ordered a Manhattan in the last ten years.” “Then, I’ll be the one who does!” A voice called from the back.
A man had appeared in the bar, holding a tray with clean glasses on. Stella had seen him on her first visit here.
“Ann, may I?” Arthur politely asked, showing the liquor behind the counter.
“Sure,” Ann sighed.

She turned to Stella while the two men engaged conversation.
“That’s my son, Zachary. A good boy. Works hard and never asks for more money than he needs. Kid knows I couldn’t afford it anyway.”
This “kid” was at least of Stella’s age, possibly more.
“But, if there are that many tourists, how come the bar doesn’t make more money?” Stella asked. “I mean, if I may ask.”
“Of course you can, darling.” Ann smiled, and took Stella’s hand in hers. “You’re so pretty. You look like a proper doll. Your man is very, very lucky.”
“Oh.”

Stella thought about last night, and how she had distinctly heard Arthur moaning in his room while he thought she was in the pool. She wasn’t, and it had made her feel very strange to hear him like that.
“Oh?”
“He’s not my man,” Stella explained. “We’re just friends.”
Ann looked at her like she didn’t believe her at all, but didn’t push it.
“Even if we get more activity during the summer,” Ann went on, “we don’t get that many people. Not enough to support us for the whole year.”
“Then you should hire Thomas,” Stella said with a smile. “He knows how to make a bar work. And he makes great drinks.”

She watched him mix the drink—he did it with kindness and love, and now the whole room was cheering for him. That still wasn’t that big of a deal, because there were less than ten people in the room.

Stella wasn’t sure what made her feel not dead anymore, maybe showing some tits or speeding on a deserted road, but Arthur never looked more alive when he was in a bar, behind the counter, and mixing a drink while discussing with patrons.
He was born to do this. Not to look at life through the lens of a camera.

“Hire him,” Stella insisted.
“And what about you, darlin’?”
“Me?”
Stella thought about it. She was getting pretty bored, and she didn’t want to end up like Arthur who constantly had his dick in his hands.
“I’m in,” she decided. “Part-time, right?”
“Yes. Probably not that much for now either, if that’s okay? I could call you when I need help?”
“Of course, Ann,” Stella smiled. “That’s a perfect arrangement. I’m getting tired of doing nothing at home.”

“Doesn’t seem to me that you’re doing nothing,” Deacon said, making his way to them. “Nice to meet you, neighbor.”
“Neighbor?”
“I live in the house next to yours. Well, as ‘next’ as it can be, I suppose. When I drive home I can see what you’ve done with the yard. It’s pretty.”
“Oh, thank you.” Stella wasn’t sure if she was pleased that someone knew so much about her, even if ‘so much’ meant her fake address and her fake name, and which flowers she had put around the house.

The conversation was cut off because near them, Zachary had challenged Arthur to a drinking game he had invented. The two opponents had to arm-wrestle while two other people had to make them drink as many shots as possible.

Ann sighed, and said she was getting a little bit old for this. It was getting late too, so she excused herself, but only after taking Stella’s phone number and promising they’d fill out paperwork soon. Stella was actually excited about working at a bar again.

Deacon put some music on, and Stella watched Zachary and Arthur arm-wrestle. Arthur was definitely bigger, and stronger, but it became quite obvious that Zachary had played this game several times, and he wasn’t bothered at all by the shots of tequila that were literally poured into his mouth.
Zachary won, and Arthur was such a sore loser that he said he wasn’t going to do a second round because Deacon needed to show him around if he was going to work here.

The other customers went back to their seat with a round of free shots offered by Zachary, so Stella got her phone out of her purse, but she had nothing to look on it. Facebook was still down and she didn’t even have an account anyway, so instead she opened Instagram to check on Arthur’s account.
She saw herself standing in the pool, her face down, with the sun shining on her wet, pale hair.

“Are you a model?”
Stella jumped when Zachary planted himself next to her, holding a beer. Heat spread on her face and she quickly turned off her phone’s screen.
“Sorry,” he added. “I wasn’t stalking you or anything, I just wanted to offer you a drink. If you’d like.”
He smiled. Stella tried to do the same but she wasn’t sure if it looked like an actual smile or just like her face twisted in pain. He had large, dark eyes that reminded her of Danse.
“Yes,” she said.
Zachary laughed. “Yes to which question?”

Stella laughed too, genuinely this time. “I’m not a model, but I’ll have a drink.”
“Okay. Do you want a Manhattan too? The one your, uh, boyfriend made for me was actually really fucking good.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, and I’d rather you mix your signature drink for me.”
“You got it. Oh. By the way, I’m Zeke.”

He jumped over the counter instead of walking around it, and Stella watched him pour ice cubes in a large glass.
“Zeke?”
“That’s what everybody around here calls me. Except my mom.”
“She’s a nice lady.”
“She is. Took care of me on her own after my dad left us. So, look at this signature drink.”

Zeke got a Jameson bottle from a shelf and poured a generous amount of it in the glass. Then he added a straw, and retrieved a slice of lime from a small fridge.
He pushed the glass in front of her, a large grin on his face.
“Jameson on the rocks,” he proudly announced. “Your bartender friend can suck my dick with his fancy drinks. No offense. I meant it when I said it was good.”
“A masterpiece,” Stella said. “You should write a book about cocktails. I’m Megan.”
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Megan. So, are you going to work here, too?”
“Yeah. Ann said she’d call me if she needed help.”

Stella looked around.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she began, “I could maybe do some, uh, cleaning up.”
She remembered the night shift at Goodneighbor, the empty restaurant and hours spent cleaning the place while Hancock made sandwiches for her. She missed that.
“I’m very offended,” Zeke said with a smile. “I’m the one who cleans up here. I hate it. So much.”v “I don’t mean just sweeping floors and shit,” Stella explained. “If you let me here during the day before it’s time to open, I could repaint and decorate a bit more. Maybe that’ll attract some more customers.”
“That’s a really nice offer, but we can’t afford that.”
“I’d pay for it. I’d pay for the paint and for everything. I need something to do.”

Zeke wasn’t smiling anymore. He leaned over the counter. His face was very close to hers now, and Stella realized how much she missed intimacy.

She could, of course, sneak into Arthur’s room one night and she’d probably find him dick out and ready to satisfy her, but Arthur had been a monster to Danse, and she couldn’t just ignore that.

“That’s insane, Megan,” Zeke said very seriously. “You want us to hire you so you can provide a good amount of money to make this place less a shithole?”
“That’s exactly it,” she replied, mimicking his tone. “I inherited more money than I need, and I’m tired to spend all my days locked inside the house. If you let me do that, I’ll only ask one thing in return: a good amount of your signature drink.”
“Okay. That’s insane, but okay. Mom will be so glad.”

He gave her his phone number and she gave him his. At the same time, Arthur came back in the room with Deacon.
“Deacon’s going home, he’ll give me a ride,” Arthur said coldly. “See you tomorrow.”
And when he left the bar without even looking at Zeke, Stella sighed and finished her drink.
“Are you sure you guys are just friends?” Zeke asked.

Stella ignored that question.

But she did spend two more hours with Zeke. He was a very nice guy, and the more alcohol she drank the more she liked him, even if she knew that was wrong. He deserved better than her anyway. She was a zombie, and she was a big, walking lie. She was not going to mess with this guy.

At two in the morning, the bar was already empty and Stella helped Zeke closing it down.
“Do you want to, uh, come up?” he offered. “I live upstairs. I have coffee. I can’t let you drive like that.”
Stella didn’t want to go home, so she followed Zeke upstairs.
She sat in his living room, decorated plainly, and she fell asleep before he came back with the coffee.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Arthur

 

 

There was an entire world between him and Stella. He had lied to her for months while he had been investigating the Institute on his own account, even though he knew she was in the middle of this, and very concerned by the Institute’s activities. She was on their lists, in their files, and they had killed her son only to make a replica of him.
And he didn’t know where to begin, so Arthur had simply preferred not to tell her about it until it was necessary.

It wouldn’t make her love you anyway, dumbass, he thought as he parked into Walmart.
It was early and he had to wait a few minutes outside the store until he opened. The sky was very blue and today would be very hot, so he’d hurry and get this done as early as possible, just so he could take his clothes off and float in the pool for the rest of the day.

He bought a lawn mower, and drove home. On his way back he stopped at a small coffee shop and there he bought donuts and an iced coffee. He was on his way out when he saw a newspaper stand. There was today’s copy of the Washington Post.

On the front page they showed the Prydwen as of today. Ruins, just, ruins. But the worst part was the title of the article, in capital letters:
“THE INSTITUTE KIDNAPPED MY FRIEND” by Piper Wright.

Arthur didn’t know Wright personally, but she had been visiting Stella at the bar once in a while.
He bought the newspaper, and sat in his truck to read.

It mentioned that Wright had reached out to the Post to get that article published because of the quarantine in Boston, and because all major newspapers in the city had been shut down anyway.
Arthur tried to read all of it but he could only skim the pages, his heart beating painfully.

“My friend’s name was Stella Austin. She turned twenty-seven years old at the end of this spring, and she’s had a rough time five years ago when a man shot her and her future husband in the middle of a busy street. It was Halloween. And that night, Stella also lost the baby she was carrying in her belly.

Stella once told me that from that day, she had never been the same person. But she fought, worked the jobs she could and paid her rent and just, managed to stay alive. Which, trust me, is a big deal for Stella. You’d understand if you knew her.

Last week, a very popular bar in Boston literally exploded for no apparent reason. The investigation, led by Nick Valentine, showed no sign of electrical or gas issue in the Prydwen’s walls. So, what is it?
And why is it important?

Stella was at the Prydwen the night it went down. They found some pretty solid evidence of that—the car that she had acquired just a few days prior to the event was parked behind the bar. There was no other car in the parking lot, which is strange, because there’s evidence that Arthur Maxson, owner and manager, was there as well.

The worst is—the media in Boston are portraying this as a tragic love story. You see, the Prydwen and its employees are openly anti-synths. Not just anti-Institute like most of us, no, they genuinely hate synths. All of them.
There was, is, and never will be love between Stella Austin and Arthur Maxson. “

Arthur stopped there and a quick glance showed him he could skip that paragraph without missing anything important, because all Wright did was explaining the details of how Danse had been fired from the bar for being a synth, how Stella had followed him and how she had sent several text messages to Wright saying just how much she hated ‘her idiotic boss Maxson’ and how depressed Danse was.
He resumed his reading, his mouth dry and his hands clammy.

“The media say that Stella went to the bar in the middle of the night last week, with the purpose of killing herself and Arthur Maxson after Michael Danse left her and moved out of Boston. Because she was so depressed.
Are you f— kidding me? The woman who lost her future husband and unborn baby went into the trouble of setting obscure explosives everywhere around the Prydwen just so she could die with Arthur Maxson because, oh, she had feelings for him and didn’t know how to cope with the situation?

Let me call BS on that. I’m sorry, I know this isn’t language I should be using in a real newspaper but—I want it to be very clear.
Stella did not love Arthur Maxson. She did not visit his bar—on a night it was closed—just to pull some Romeo and Juliet thing.

First, Stella couldn’t afford explosives like the ones that were used.
Second, she wouldn’t do something like that. Period. I know her well enough to know that she’d rather make Maxson pay for the pain he inflicted her and Michael Danse than kill him. “

There were a few more paragraphs about Stella would never love a man like Arthur Maxson, and how the mayor’s office kept spreading that lie. He had always mostly agreed with Wright’s writing, but this article was a little bit too much for him.

“The Institute kidnapped my friend, the same way those people kidnapped hundreds, maybe thousands of other people before. For what purpose? Who knows. But Stella’s or Maxson’s bodies were not found in what remains of the Prydwen. And yet, in all of her files, she is declared dead. Same with Boston’s favorite synth hater.

She is most likely dead by now, that is true. If she ever returns, it won’t be her who does. It will be a copy of her, programmed to do who-knows-what.

The Institute needs to be dealt with. The rumors are true.
So please, for the love of God, spread the word. If something doesn’t seem right, talk about it. Be loud. Fight.
Because the Institute isn’t afraid to, and we can’t let them win.”

Arthur threw the newspaper in the backseat and drove away, his mind blank. He didn’t know what to think of that. He didn’t know if he ought to bother with it at all—he could just go on and live his life like he had never read that article. But what did it mean exactly?
It was, on one hand, a good thing that Wright and possibly his friends really thought that he was dead. Even better if they believed he had been taken by the Institute along with Stella.

He was very distracted on his way home and he barely noticed Stella’s car in the driveway. It was only when he got out of his truck that he saw it. A nice smell came from the window. It smelled like she was cooking bacon, with eggs probably.
While he was unloading the truck, Arthur wondered if she had fucked that Zachary guy last night. Or ‘Zeke’, as Deacon had mentioned. What a stupid ass nickname.

He pushed the door opened.
"Stella? Do you need help with something?" It smelled good in the house. No answer.
"Stella?" he said repeated, but not daring to say her name louder (especially not after learning their co-worker was also a neighbor) , he added, "MEGAN?"
He only heard silence, except for the distant sizzling of bacon frying in a pan.

So he went in.

Stella was in the kitchen, and there was no reason why she wouldn't hear him. The pan with the food was beside her on the stove.

She was standing in front of the counter, a large kitchen knife in one hand, but looking at her other arm.
Blood was pouring from her wrist, on the countertop, on herself, on the hardwood floor.

"Stella," Arthur whispered, and he launched himself forwards. As soon as he reached her, he took the blade from her, but she didn't resist. At all.
She turned her head to look at him but seemed to not quite see him.
"Stella, what are you doing?" he asked, panicking. It looked like a deep cut. It smelled like blood around her, even with the food nearby.
He looked around, searching for something, anything that would stop the bleeding.
“There was an article in the Washington Post,” she added. “Piper wrote it about me. This morning I went to get bacon for you and I… I saw the paper… “
“I know. It’s alright. I read the article too. It’s gonna be okay.”

"I'm bleeding, Arthur," Stella said. Her voice was lifeless.
"Yes, you're bleeding. You're gonna need stitches too." He opened a drawer and grabbed a handful of clean kitchen towels. He put them on Stella's wrist.
"I don't like blood," she added while he was turning the stove off.
"It's okay, baby girl. Don't look at it. Look at me instead. I'm taking you to the clinic."

He put his arm around her waist and helped her to the truck.
"I'm gonna put blood all over your dad's truck," she said, refusing to get in.
"It's okay, I don't care." He really didn't.
"Arthur. It's your dad's truck."
Why on earth was she being like this right now? He sighed and ran back inside to fetch her car keys. He also got some more towels because the ones she was holding over her wound were already drenched with her blood.

It seemed the drive to the medical center took forever. He honked more than half the people on the road while Stella sat straight in the passenger seat, saying nothing at all.

A nurse welcomed them and when she saw Stella's bloody dress, she immediately took her in an emergency room, leaving Arthur alone at the front desk, also covered in blood.
A few seconds later, another nurse came for him and asked him questions.
"She was in the kitchen, making some lunch, and when I checked on her she was looking at the cut she had just done on her wrist. Can I see her? Is she okay?"
"The doctor is taking care of her. Is your girlfriend suicidal?"
"She's not my girlfriend." Arthur put his face in his hands. "And she's not suicidal." "Then what do you suggest happened?"
"I don't know. I don't know."
"Can you think of an event that happened that would explain her trying to kill herself?" "No," Arthur said, but that was a very big lie.

The nurse didn't seem satisfied with his answers, but she showed him to a bathroom where he was able to clean some of the blood away. Most of it had stained his clothes.

He was allowed to see Stella about half an hour later. She was lying down on a stretcher, her arm wrapped in white bandages.
When she saw him, she closed her eyes and began weeping.
"I'm so sorry," she said. She was awfully pale. "I didn't want to kill myself really. I don't know why I did that. I keep telling them but they don't believe me. I swear."
"I believe you." He took Stella's hand in his. She was cold.
"Can we go home now?"
"I think they'll keep you a little longer, just to make sure you're alright."

She opened her eyes, and Arthur wanted to kiss her.
But he didn't. Instead, he wrapped his arms around her body and held her tight, but not too tight.

They went home an hour later, after Arthur spoke to the doctor. The doctor wrote a prescription for pain and anxiety meds, but he said there was no chance they’d find any around here.

When they were home, Arthur helped Stella change into clean clothes and he proceeded to clean the blood in the kitchen.
It took him three hours.

Chapter Text

 

 

Stella

 

 

 

Stella woke up to the smell of freshly cut grass. She winced—the pain in her arm was still there, and it burned like hell. It was like a papercut, but a thousand times worse.
She felt stupid. But she was off her meds even though she knew she still needed them. It wasn’t her fault the whole world had run out of Xanax.
She still felt foolish. No one believed her when she said she didn’t want to kill herself. For two or three seconds, she had wanted to be not alive anymore.
There was a huge difference.

She could hear a lawn mower very close. She frowned and dragged herself up in her bed. She had spent her entire day here yesterday, with Arthur bringing her food here while she was streaming House on Netflix. But she’d have to get out of here today because her flowers needed watering.

She looked through her window. Arthur was mowing the lawn. She didn’t even know they had a lawn mower. He was shirtless, with a towel around his neck. It looked like a hot day outside. But with her arm, she couldn’t even enjoy the pool. She really was an idiot.

She had gone mad. She was just holding a knife to cut some tomatoes and she had cut herself instead, willingly, but not at the same time.
She couldn’t explain it. She probably needed a therapist, but she wouldn’t meet with one.

She watched Arthur work while checking her phone. It was past eleven, and she had two texts from Zeke. One said that Ann would want to meet up with her and Arthur today or tomorrow to fill out paperwork, and the other just said: “I hope you're not too hungover still. I kind of am. Anyway, yeah. Have a nice day!”
Stella sighed but made herself write an answer, because she didn't want to be a bitch to Zeke—he was a nice guy, after all.

Arthur grabbed her attention again when he stopped the lawn mower and grabbed something from behind a large pot of marigolds.
It was a pair of scissors. Her gardening shears.
She watched him as he lied down on the ground to trim the grass around the forget-me-nots. It lasted a long time, but she watched him because she couldn't believe it. He was typically rough spoken and gestured, so to see him move from the forget-me-nots to the peonies to carefully cut the grass around them without hurting the flowers did something to Stella, although she didn't know what exactly.

She remembered overreacting to a joke he had made about those flowers being her babies.
She always freaked out about babies.

Stella turned away from the window, but only to change her clothes. She put on a t-shirt and shorts, and went outside.
He was working around the lupines and he didn’t even hear her, so she cleared her throat.
“Oh, Stella.” He got up, wiped the grass from his chest and shook it off his shorts. “You’re up. I’m mowing the lawn.”
“With shears.”
“I mean, yeah. I don’t want to hurt the flowers.”

She saw him look at her arm, but when he noticed she was seeing him, he looked away.
“Nevermind the shears, Arthur,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s not that important.”
“I think it’s pretty important. You spent this whole time taking care of those flowers. And they look amazing.”
“Let me help you, then.”
“Nope. No helping me. You’re not allowed to do anything except watch tv, play video games or sleep.”
“You’re not allowed?” She took a step forward and jokingly pushed Arthur. His skin was warm. “You can’t order me around. If I want to, I’ll work.”
He sighed. “Maybe you could water the flowers, then. I don’t know how anyway.”

He went where he’d left the garden hose and brought it back for her.
It would be good to do something. Stella just wished she could erase yesterday. She had lost her mind for two seconds and it had resulted into her slitting her wrist open.
It had been too much to read Piper’s article, too much to think about what was going on back in Boston, about Danse and just about… everything.

The second she reached for the hose, Arthur turned the nozzle around and sprayed water all over her. She immediately thought that she shouldn’t be putting her stitches, even under bandages, under the water.
But then she laughed.

A real laugh, not just a chuckle, nothing ironic and nothing only half-meant. It was a sincere, genuine laugh, and she couldn’t stop. She pretended her wrist didn’t hurt and she fought Arthur to get a hold of the hose, but he was spraying water in her face now.
“I’m all wet now!” she managed, water getting into her mouth.
“That’s what she said, baby girl,” Arthur replied, laughing just as much as her.

“You did not just that’s-what-she-said-me,” Stella grunted, but while Arthur was being very proud of himself, she snatched the hose from him and sprayed him back, making a point of aiming for his crotch.
“Argh!” He tried dodging but Stella followed him, so he attempted to get the nozzle back. “That’s my dick! You’re insane!”
“That’s what he said,” Stella replied, giving him a final splash of cold water in the face.

Arthur finally stole the hose from her, but instead of retaliating, he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her up.
“You deserve this,” he said.

He was going for the pool.
“Don’t!” Stella begged, still laughing. “I’m serious. I can’t—my stitches—I can’t go in the pool.”
“Oh.”
There was no point in fighting him—he was much stronger than she were—so Stella let him take her to the large modern bench they had put around the lilac trees. He delicately put her down on it.

“Stay,” Stella heard herself say when he announced he was going to get breakfast done. He had just let go of her, but she missed his arms around her body. And she hated that she even thought about it this way. “Please.”
He sat too, and she turned her whole body to face him.
Arthur was, there was no denying it, a very attractive man, but when he was shirtless, he were on a whole other level of attractiveness. He was very, ah, pleasing to look at.

“Why did you—” he started, but his voice trailed off. He put his finger against the gauze on her wrist, and caressed it softly. “Does hurt a lot?”
“It hurts,” she admitted. “I wanted to say thanks, too. Like… for taking me to the clinic and stuff.”
“You don’t have to—” he cut off in the middle of a sentence again. “I was gonna say you would have done the same for me but that’s probably not true.”
Stella shivered, and she decided it was because of the breeze and not because of how close her and Arthur’s leg were to one another.
“I’m not gonna let you die, Arthur,” she said.
“But you hate me. I know you do.”

Stella sighed and buried her face in her hands. They were still wet and fresh from the water war. Yes, she hated him. But she also wanted him to take pictures of her topless and touch her and stare at her when he thought she wasn’t paying attention.
“Did you really have to treat Danse like this?” she finally asked. She had wanted to ask him this for a long time.
Arthur shifted his weight, suddenly very tensed. She heard him swallow hard.

“To answer your question, I guess I didn’t have to.” He was looking at the forest and the mountains in the distance. “But I reacted the way I did because I couldn’t help it. I felt betrayed.”
“And how do you think he felt, Arthur? He’s going through the worst identity crisis someone could go through—and he has to do it without his best friend. He has to do it while remembering just how much you were disgusted by him.”
“It was worse because I knew you guys were fucking.” Arthur finally looked at her. “I know how that must sound. I know, okay, so please don’t lecture me. It was just so weird… To know that this guy I’ve been so close to was made and not born.”
Stella inhaled deeply.

“He wishes he wasn’t made,” she started. “He wishes he had a mom and a dad and a real childhood, but he just doesn’t! It doesn’t make him any less real, and it sure as hell doesn’t erase the friendship you guys had. You could have been so shocked you didn’t talk to him for a month and it still would have been better than seeking for him just so you could yell at him and punch him in the face—and it does not make things any less worse that you lost it because we didn’t have all of our clothes on. You made him believe he was a thing, that he didn’t have a heart with real feelings, and now he’s gone and I—”
“And you what? You loved him?”
Stella didn’t know what to say. She wiped some water that had been dripping from her hair and burning her eyes.

“You didn’t love him,” Arthur added. “Look at me in the eyes, Stella, and tell me Danse wasn’t just a band-aid.”
“Even if I wasn’t in love with him—Danse wasn’t just a band-aid. Fuck you, Maxson. Do you have any idea what love is, anyway?”
He opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out of it.
“Danse was kind to me, good to me,” Stella went on. “He fucked me really, really slowly and good, and he surprised me with the smallest things like, a flower found outside or waking me up in the middle of the night just for a kiss. And maybe I didn’t love him as much as he deserved it, but I still didn’t make him feel like less of a person because he had a small piece of metal in his brain.”
“I fucked up! I fucked up, alright? Is that what you wanted to hear? Then listen, because I won’t say it again after—I fucked up. I’m sorry I’m not Danse, sorry I don’t give you flowers and shit! I’ve never been good at that stuff! I think about what could have happened—I think about it all the time, but it’s too late now! We’re stuck here and it’s just the two of us. I lost him, too. I know it was my fault but I fucking lost him, Stella. He was my best friend.”

And on that, Arthur walked away. She heard him slamming the door when he went back inside.
Stella blinked and looked around. She had never expected Arthur to even remotely give a shit about Danse. She had never thought that it had hurt him to hurt Danse. And she had never thought that he’d want to give her flowers.
Touch her tits, yeah, but flowers?

She went looking for him. If they were stuck together for the rest of their lives, she didn’t want them to be in perpetual conflict. As important as Danse was. They’d both go mad if they constantly yelled at each other, and Stella had had enough of going mad for three lifetimes.
He didn’t answer his door, but even from the other side of it Stella could hear the music coming out of his headphones. If he needed some alone, emo time, she’d let him have some.

So she finished the lawn and watered her flowers. Then she cleaned the pool. By that time, the afternoon sun had been burning her skin and she was sweaty, so she wrapped her wrist in plastic wrap and took a long shower.

Arthur was still in his room and still giving no answer, so she got her car keys and headed for Parker’s.
Ann was there with Zeke, even though the bar would open in only an hour. She accepted a beer while doing the paperwork with Ann, and she was quite pleased with herself because she remembered her phone number and social security number.
“What happened to you?” Zeke asked, cleaning a sink behind the counter.
“Oh.” Stella’s face flushed and she started thinking at the speed of light. “I fell. It was an accident. It was slippery around the pool and I fell, and cut open my arm. It was fine. Thomas took me to the doctor. I have stitches.”
Stitches? Oh, darling, does it hurt?” Ann wanted to know.
“Just a little. It’s better,” Stella said. It was better than yesterday, and she only hoped it would keep getting better and that she could forget about this whole thing soon.

She spent the next half hour reorganizing the main room. She found the table placement too unfamiliar, so with Ann’s green light, she and Zeke tried different looks until she was pleased. Then she took pictures of every angle—tomorrow, she’d go get some paint, curtains and other accessories. Parker’s was great, but it could use some new air.

Arthur came in thirty minutes before official opening time. He was holding a very big box, and from the door Stella saw that there was an even bigger box in the back of his truck.
“Hey there, Meg,” he said. His eyes were red and he looked pale. When Ann pointed this out, he lied and said he was ‘so damn allergic to those damn flowers’.
“How did you know I was here?” she asked while he put the box in a corner.
“Because when I can’t find you, you’re always around liquor,” he joked. Zeke laughed.

It was strange to pretend that nothing at all had happened earlier today.
“What’s that?” she said instead.
“Oh. A karaoke machine. I’ve got a TV in my truck. For the bar. If that’s okay, Ann.”
“Karaoke?” Ann mumbled. “I don’t think people would like that very much.”
“I’ve been saying we need something like this forever, mom!” Zeke exclaimed. “Thanks so much, man. Let me help you with the TV.”

Arthur mentioned several times that he could lift the screen himself, but Zeke followed him outside anyway.
“Thomas is, uh, very good at karaoke,” Stella said. “He’ll get people to try it out. Tonight, we’ll blast some music and let the door open—I swear customers will run in here.”
“Zachary is a good singer as well,” Ann smiled. “He has a band, did he tell you? Named after our late cat, Atom. He didn’t tell you?”

“He didn’t, but I’m sure he’s great. I look forward to hearing him, Ann.” She hesitated. “You’re working so hard. If you don’t feel like staying around for a huge party like Thomas throws them, you can go home, you know. I’m here, Thomas is here, and there’s Zeke. You deserve a night off, too.”
“I guess I do. You are a doll, did you know that?” Ann smiled again and hugged Stella. “We’re so damn lucky that you and your friend came into our lives.”
“Thanks, Ann. Now, go home. How about you watch some Grey’s Anatomy?”

Fast forward to a few hours later—way after Ann was done watching Grey’s and had gone to bed—Parker’s had never been so packed, and loud, and lucrative.
Zeke’s friends had to help with the drinks, but several times they sang a few songs and Stella thought they all seemed very talented. She particularly liked Roxy, who had dark skin and hair, a lovely voice and would not stop complimenting Stella’s hair and outfit.

Roxy was the one singing right now and she was delivering the best rendition of ‘Everybody Dance Now’ Stella had ever heard. When she was done, though, Stella felt heat spreading from her neck to her face and back—Arthur was taking the microphone from her and looking at the screen to choose a song.

He had performed a few tonight, and he had always had a lot of success, and Stella couldn’t help but to feel a little bitter towards him and the pretty girl who was cheering for him louder than everyone else.

Now, Stella was in a good mood—largely helped by the drinks she kept having—and Arthur’s eyes didn’t look red anymore, but it felt strange. Everything felt so strange, now. One day she was Stella Austin and things weren’t too bad, the next day things were very bad and she was Megan Lockwood. One day she was gardening, the next she cut open her wrist, and the one after she partied along with strangers and had a whole lot of fun.

“Uh, I’d like to dedicate this one to a very special person,” Arthur said into the microphone, and the crowd applauded this. They were all very, very drunk.
Stella had missed that atmosphere more than she thought.
On the screen, Stella saw the title appearing on a white screen: (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.
Stella knew two things.
First, she would be very uncomfortable if Arthur dedicated this song to her.
Second, she would be very disappointed if he didn’t.
“This one’s for you, Meg,” he added, and Stella dug her nails into her palms.

He sang the first lines very modestly, but with the fine voice he always had, and Stella couldn’t stop thinking about how this song was a duet.
Apparently, Roxy shared her thoughts, because she leaned into Stella’s ear.
“You should go, too!” she said. “Go sing with him! It’s so romantic!”
Romantic.

Romantic.

Stella hadn’t done, or felt, anything romantic in several years.
Yet, she got around the counter and made her way through the crowd to join Arthur on the small, improvised stage they had put in one of the bar’s corners.
He seemed very surprised at first, but Stella grabbed the second microphone, turned it on, and joined him.
He smiled.
She smiled too.

There weren’t many fun facts about Stella, but one of them was that she did know the movie Dirty Dancing by heart, and she had watched the final dance at least a hundred times—she knew both the lyrics of the song and the choreography by heart.

And as her voice blended with Arthur’s, she let her body follow her mind, and she danced.
And for the first time in a long time, Stella felt happy.

It didn’t matter that she was singing about falling in love because maybe she was, indeed, falling in love. She could feel electricity run in her veins, but she was both aware and unaware of everything else. Nothing could hurt her, because Arthur Maxson was looking at her like she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and because they were singing and dancing together.

Arthur said something when the song ended but the crowd was being so loud Stella didn’t hear it. She went back to the counter to drink some water, but immediately followed it with two shots.
Where exactly had she found enough courage to do what she had just done?

She listened to Roxy and Zeke’s compliments, but Stella was very distracted. She decided she needed some fresh air, so she went outside.
Arthur was there already, looking at the sky.
“It’s crazy how we can see so many stars here,” he said, then he looked at her. “Ah, but this one’s my favorite.” He winked.
“You’re drunk.”
You’re drunk. You just sang, on stage, with me. You’re more than drunk. Did you hit your head? Besides, I had like, two drinks.”
“No, but I’m gonna hit yours if you don’t shut up,” she warned.

He shrugged. “There are worse ways to go,” he admitted. “But, uh, yeah. I like it when you sing.”
Stella blushed a lot, but it was dark enough that it wouldn’t show.
“You’re not too bad yourself, I guess,” she joked.

“I’m sorry for this morning,” Arthur said. “I’m serious now.”
“It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not. I know I hurt you and—I just want things to be good now. For you. Do you believe me?”
He pushed a lock of Stella’s hair away from her face.
“You went into the trouble of getting a lawn mower and using it, but cutting the grass around my flowers with scissors. Yeah. I think I believe you.”

Arthur smiled, but only for a half-second. He was looking at her mouth now, and his thumb was touching her lips, and Stella’s head was spinning and spinning and spinning. She had to say something. Something about anything. The stars, yeah.
“Look,” she said. “There’s a constellation right there—Serpens. It’s one constellation, but divided into two parts and—”

“I’m in love with you,” Arthur blurted out, cutting her off. “Fuck,” he then added. It kind of felt like a slap in the face, but not one that hurt, just… pure shock.
And he was looking into her eyes really intensely, too. This was the love declaration most teenage girls—including fifteen years old Stella—were dreaming of.
“Oh,” Stella managed.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he added. “I just had to tell you. I’m really, really tired to pretend I only care about you a little.”
“Arthur,” she said, ignoring the very clear rule not to use their real names outside their house. “I—we’re both drunk, and I don’t think you’ll still be in love with me tomorrow morning when you wake up.”
“I swear I only had two drinks. I think I’ve been in love with you for a long time now, baby girl. And I’ll still be tomorrow morning, and the day after.”
Baby girl. When she inhaled she could smell him, his perfume and the faint smell of flowers in the distance.

He pulled her closer, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, they kissed.
Timidly at first, just lips on lips. It felt like a huge wave was crashing on Stella, but she wasn’t drowning. It was just warm and nice.

Arthur was in love with her. He smelled good, and he was strong and he could lift her up and he had been an asshole and he was in love with her.
Stella spreaded her lips a little, and immediately Arthur’s tongue was brushing over them, pushing inside her mouth. It made her moan.
It made her realize just how much she had wanted him, and for how long.

She wasn’t ready to say, “I love you too”, because her heart had been burned and frozen and burned again and she did not know if she was still capable of love.
But she sure as hell could feel something stirring in her stomach—and something else a little below, too.

Arthur softly pushed her against the wall and let his lips trail down her jaw, then her neck. She grabbed his hair, just because she needed to hold onto something, anything. Her head fell back when he kissed and sucked on her collarbone.
“I’ve been waiting for this for—” Arthur began, but didn’t even bother finishing the sentence, because he kissed her mouth again, hungry and impatient.
“Art—” Stella started, but they were interrupted by two people coming out of the door at that moment.
It was Roxy and Zeke, cigarettes in hand.

“Oh shit,” Roxy said. “Sorry. We just wanted to take a break—I’m so sorry.”
“This is awkward,” Zeke added, in a spectacular mood.
“It’s fine,” Arthur said, surprisingly calm. He smiled. “We should probably go and help you guys close for the night anyway.”
“Don’t. Honestly,” Zeke said. “We’ve never made so much money in one night. We’ll take care of it tonight.”
“I’m so happy for you,” Stella smiled. “You guys deserve it. Later this week, the Atom Cats should give a big performance. I’m sure it’ll bring customers too.”
“That’d be awesome, yeah,” Roxy said. “Now, you both leave—can you drive?”
“I can,” Arthur said. He took Stella’s hand, and they left.

The car ride was silent but he held her hand in the truck too. Stella didn’t know what to expect when they’d be home, so she just looked at the sky while he drove.

They did not make passionate love in his bed that night. Instead, they curled up on the bench with pillows and blankets, and Arthur listened to Stella talking about stars, then Arthur talked a little about birds, and they both fell asleep.
And when she woke up the next morning, still on the bench and still in Arthur’s arms, feeling like an actual human being instead of a human disaster, Stella decided she was okay with this.

Chapter Text

 

 

Danse

 

 

 

Danse woke up tired. The only light in the room came from his laptop, which was on his left. The window was dark, so he moved his head to see what time it was on the screen.
It was 2:34 in the morning. With a grunt, he pushed himself up and stretched his neck and shoulders. He had been sleeping on his stomach, and that always made his back sore a little.

The computer screen still showed files Nick Valentine had generously sent him. It was a very generous gesture, but it was an illegal one as well. But Nick didn’t care, and neither did Danse.
He looked at the picture that was on the screen just now—the interior of Arthur’s office at the Prydwen, or actually just one specific part of a wall. There was blood on that wall, and dirt and burns. But blood, and a lot of it. Labs were done with the analysis and the conclusion had been both good and bad news. The good news: it was not Stella’s blood, or Arthur’s. The bad news: it was not Stella’s blood, or Arthur’s.
That meant they were both unaccounted for. That meant Piper Wright was probably correct, and both of them were somewhere under Boston, in the Institute. There was no way to tell if they were being kept alive down there or not.

The only real information he had as a phone call from Stella. A voicemail she had left him on the same night the Prydwen had exploded. The message was short, and strange, and she only told him that she’d be with Arthur and that they’d be fine. But there was no way to trust this information—for all he knew, some Institute agent had put a gun to her head and forced her to say those things before killing her and Arthur.

He searched for his phone only to find it well beneath the sheets, where it must have slipped during his accidental nap. He wasn’t getting a lot of sleep lately—half of his time was dedicated to finding out what had happened that night at the Prydwen. The other half he was just trying to find his way back in Boston.

And he was so close, his hotel being in Concord. It was close to torture to drive around the concrete fences and patrols that circled Boston. Last week, in the news, they’d shown a plane that had been put down while escaping the city. On board, a family of five.

Danse was going to call Nick but he noticed a message from Haylen, sent less than twenty minutes ago.
“Call me when you can,” was all it said. So Danse called her, and she answered almost immediately.

“Danse,” she said. “I finally found my way into Arthur’s cloud storage.” She sounded very excited, and her breath was slightly short.
There was something strangely comforting in knowing he could call her at anytime of the night like that, and that they could have a conversation and all. He could also do the same with Nick—the detective was so busy with the Prydwen investigation he barely ever slept. Especially because McDonough had shut down the official investigation, and Valentine had to keep it up during his free time.
“It was encrypted that well?” Danse replied, turning on the ceiling lamp. He squinted, blinded by the light. “It’s been almost two weeks since the incident. And you’re the best hacker I know.”
“I’m the only hacker you know,” Haylen pointed out. “Anyway, I got in. There’s a lot of stuff, but none that tells us where they are exactly.”

Danse tried seating on a chair, but realized he was too excited about this news to stay still, so got up again. The couple in the room next door was having a lot of fun, and they were loud, and two men, and the way one of them moaned reminded Danse of Arthur, so he locked himself in the bathroom where he couldn’t hear them whimper each other’s name.

“He was gathering information on the Institute. I’ve been reading a little while I waited for your call.”
“What kind of information?”
“I don’t know what he was looking for exactly. Just by looking at the folders or file names, I can’t tell. It’s all unrelated. Here. A small document about how the Institute has IKEA furniture all over it. Another, very long, with details how they… holy shit… they’re not just making humans, they’re making synth cats, and dogs, and gorillas.”

Danse swallowed hard.
“How long has he been doing that?” he asked. “Arthur, I mean.”
“The first file was created on… oh… yeah. Stella’s birthday. When that guy hit her in a car. And it says… oh. It’s like a contract. Between Arthur and a guy… Josh Teagan? Teagan was conducting the investigation for Arthur. He infiltrated the Institute. I feel like this name is familiar.”

This was all very useful information. Danse knew Teagan a little. He knew he was one of Arthur’s contacts that came from his father, which meant they came with many secrets. With years, Danse had learned better than to ask questions about any of these people.

But what Danse was mostly concerned with was how Arthur had been doing this behind his back for several weeks before they had stopped talking to each other. Of course, he often spoke negatively of the Institute and how he wanted to get revenge, but Danse had no idea he was doing that sort of thing.
Haylen asked him just that, if he knew about Arthur’s little research.

“No,” he admitted. “He never told me about it.”
There was a silence. A long silence.
“I’m sorry,” Haylen finally said. “Danse, I—”
“It’s okay.” That was a lie, but he had more important problems than Arthur’s trust, or rather, distrust in him. Had he known for a while that he was a synth?

“There’s something here about Stell—fuck. Holy—sh—”
Danse waited, but there was only silence at the end of the line.
“Haylen?” he said. “Are you still there?”
“Danse. Oh my god.” Her voice was strangled, and she sounded like she was crying. “Here it says that… Stella was engaged and pregnant?”
“Yeah, uh, but—”
“But Nathan Collins was shot to death, and Stella was shot as well, killing her baby?”

Danse breathed in, waiting, and bracing himself for what was coming.
“It was the Institute,” Haylen went on. “They willingly killed Nathan, and shot Stella to hurt her just enough, but not kill the baby right away. She was taken to the hospital, where a group of undercover Institute agents cut her open and took the baby from her.”
“But the baby died in the shooting,” Danse interrupted.
“No. No, Danse. The baby would have lived if... They took him with them, and he died on his way to the Institute. It didn’t matter to them because… wait…”
Waiting was all he could do. It was getting hot in the bathroom, so he opened the door, but when he heard banging on the wall, he closed it immediately.

“They made a synth using her baby,” Haylen said. “Like, his DNA and some of his organic matter, and brain tissue and so on. It was an experiment and she had been chosen for her good health, and Nathan’s good health.”
“A baby synth?”
“The one they made wasn’t a baby,” Haylen explained. “He’s a 35 years old male, and he’s the Director of the Institute.”

Danse’s legs weakened, so he leaned on the counter.
“What?”
“They made a synth who’s—”
“I heard you the first time,” Danse sighed. “Fuck. Shit.”
“Poor Stella. Now I understand better why she was… well… the way she was...  and she didn’t even know her son was still alive, just, not the same.”
“Is there anything about him in the files?”
He really needed to get out of here. Danse went back to the main room, where there was still a lot of action in the other room, so he hit the wall loudly to signal his presence. It didn’t help.

“His name his Shaun Austin. 35 years old male, hazel eyes, brown hair, about 6’1, Director of the Institute. They call him Father.”
“What?”
“The people there call him Father.”
“Goddamnit, like a daddy kink?”
“I don’t think so,” Haylen sighed. “Do you want to sleep?”
“I feel like I’ll literally never sleep again. Do you?”
“I’ll keep searching for something. I’ll call you if I find anything.”

Danse put his phone back on the bed and lay down. It was silent, finally, but his mind was filled with images of Stella in a hospital bed, her belly open and bleeding, and men in black suits taking her small baby away.
No wonder the woman drank herself to sleep every night. No wonder she couldn’t go one day without Xanax. No wonder she either cringed or fled at the sight of young children.

His phone rang again less than ten minutes later.
“Do you know who Piers Quinlan is?” Haylen asked. “His name is mentioned a few times in here. He helped Arthur with some legal stuff. He gave Teagan a new identity so he could infiltrate the Institute.”

Danse almost dropped his phone. That was it. That was the answer.

He did, indeed, know Quinlan. He had met the guy once, and Arthur didn’t talk about him a lot, but Danse knew Quinlan was a guy who forged papers. Birth certificates, passports, anything. Arthur had said a few times that if he was ever in trouble, he’d go to that Quinlan guy, and that he’d take Danse along. With new identities and names, they’d be free forever.

That hurt Danse to remember that, but now he knew exactly what had happened.

“They’re alive,” he said excitingly. “I’m almost sure Arthur went to this Quinlan guy, and brought Stella with him.”
“So… you mean they got themselves new IDs and just left? Like, to escape the Institute?”
“Yes! Something like that! Can you find where this guy is, exactly?”
“I’m gonna try, Danse. But don’t get your hopes up. They could be anywhere. They’re probably in Europe by now, or Australia or something like that.”

 

*

 

Haylen had found the guy and met him in person even, and the man had said he would meet with Danse outside Boston, but that he couldn’t take Haylen with him. Quinlan could only ensure safe passage through the patrols for one person, and he was risking neither his or Haylen’s safety—and now Danse was driving down a long road, his heart skipping beats and his hands sweaty on the wheel.

He was so close to seeing Stella again. He knew that if Quinlan had accepted to meet him, it wasn’t just to tell him to fuck off and not tell him something substantial.
Danse turned left after the light, as Siri told him to, and stopped the car in the Starbuck’s parking lot. Only when he had turned the Jeep’s engine off did Danse realize just how nervous he was—he couldn’t help his hands and legs from shaking, he was short of breath and he was nauseous.
But Danse was also very impatient, so he left the car and quickly entered the coffee shop.

At this time of the day, it was mostly empty, but a man sitting in the back grabbed his attention by slightly waving his hand. Danse didn’t order anything and sat in front of him.
“Good afternoon, Michael,” the man said with a british accent. “I haven’t been in Concord in a long time. It is a nice place, I missed it.”
“Thank you for meeting me,” Danse said. “I didn’t think you would.”
“Oh, I only do what our shared friend told me to do. He’s left very clear instructions.”
“Art—” Danse started, but Quinlan cut him off.
“Yes. Our friend.”

Danse nodded, showing Quinlan he got it. Arthur’s name must have been erased from official lists. Danse cringed at the thought. Arthur had always been proud of his last name.
“How is he? And how is, uh…”
“She is doing better, I’ve heard,” Quinlan replied after taking a bite of chocolate cake. “He is doing good as well.”
“He left you instructions? What kind?”
“Many kinds, but only a few are any of your business.”

Quinlan grabbed a laptop from a bag under the table and ate more chocolate cake while it was booting up. There was a small device in one of the USB ports, and when the laptop was ready for use, a green light appeared on the little black box.
“That’s just something I have to use on you,” Quinlan explained. “To make sure the Institute doesn’t have access to your head.”
“Wait. How could they?”
“The Institute has some kind of remote control over some synths, meaning they can control them at a distance, see what they see and such. We just need to make sure you’re not one of them. They’re pretty uncommon, thankfully.”

Danse swallowed and looked down. He hated the Institute for doing this to people. He still couldn’t see the point of synths, but with synths like Quinlan was talking about, the Institute could easily overthrow the government and control the country.
He shuddered.

“How does this work?” Danse asked. “Do you have to… connect this into my brain?”
“No.” Quinlan chuckled. “I’m doing it right now. Just looking for a signal that could come from your head. It looks clear so far, but we’ll wait just a few more minutes.”
“Couldn’t the Institute just shut it down if they knew you were testing for the signal?”
“No. They can’t. Trust me, I know.”

They waited in silence, but it didn’t take very long until Quinlan closed the lid on the laptop and put it back in his bag.
“We’re clear, Michael. Now, the instructions.”

Quinlan reached for the bag again, but this time he pulled out a large envelope from it. He slid it across the table.
“Thomas and Megan live in a small West-Virginian town. They have a nice house, and there’s a vacant house for you if you’ll have it. It’s very close to theirs, I believe only separated by one other house.”
“That’s impossible. Art—Thomas hates me.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Michael, but he didn’t do it because he missed you. He did it because Megan does, and because he assumed you were good for each other. If you open the envelope, it means you have to go.”
“I want to go.”
“Alright then, open the envelope.”

Danse slowly pulled on the string that held the envelope closed. Inside, he found a passport, driver’s license, birth certificate and other official papers. They had his picture on it, but a different name—Eric Fields. The address was on Bluebell Drive in Summersville, West Virginia. He had never heard of it.
“You have to go now. I know there are people you might want to say goodbye to—your friend Alicia Haylen, for example, but you can’t. And you may not contact them afterwards. At all. You might not be at great risk, but Megan is.”

Danse was now very, very excited. He had wanted to see Stella again since he had left her apartment after breaking up with her. He hadn’t come back though, because he knew that he needed some distance, and because he didn’t want to hurt her and that she deserved better than feeling like she was being played with. But things had changed now, and Danse needed to see her again.

He also missed Arthur a lot, but he wasn’t expecting him to even acknowledge him at all. He had allowed Danse to follow them for Stella’s sake, not his.
“I can pass a message to miss Haylen from you,” Quinlan offered.
“Yes. Tell her… tell her I’m going to be okay, and tell her I can’t begin to thank her for what she’s done.” With that, Danse hoped that Haylen would know the three of them were together, and safe.

Fifteen minutes later, he had given his old license plate to Quinlan and had put on a new one on his Jeep. He had given up on his phone and old papers, and his name was now Eric. He looked at Concord disappearing from the rear-view mirror. Tomorrow, he’d be reunited with Stella. He’d hold her in his arms, and he’d see her smile again.
As for Arthur, Danse would rather not think about him. He decided to focus on his destination: a bar called Parker’s, in Summersville.

Of course. Of course that’s where he’d find them, in a bar.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

Stella woke up one afternoon to a warm sun heating up her room. She had left the curtains opened especially because she wanted to wake up like this.
Almost exactly like this, she thought, not finding Arthur anywhere in her bed or even in the room. She’d stayed up late—she left the bar roughly at four in the morning, busy closing at two and making preparations for tonight afterwards. Then she had given Roxy a ride home, and basically passed out in her bed.

She stretched and considered going back to sleep. She could do it. She could just lay here, naked, and sleep until six—she wasn’t expected at Parker’s until seven.
Stella could have done that, but a noise grabbed her attention. It came from outside, and it was unusual. She knelt in her bed and looked through the window.

Arthur was working on his truck. The hood was open, and he was standing near it, holding a wrench, and looking intensely at the truck’s engine.
Also, he was shirtless.

She opened the window and knocked in it to grab his attention.
“Are you for real, Maxson?” she asked.
He looked up, and smiled when he saw her. His face was spotted with something black—oil probably.
“What?” he said. “Why are you saying that?”
“You look like the beginning of a bad porno!” She laughed with him. “I’m serious, though,” she added. “Put a fucking shirt on!”
“It’s like, 90° out here!”

Stella sighed, but she wasn’t really annoyed. She decided to hop into the pool for a little while, then she’d shower and waste time before work.
Arthur whistled at her when she showed up in her bathing suit. It was fun. It was fun just to not be serious all the time, and joke with him, and laugh, and kiss him. It was fun when he showed up in the middle of the night in her bed, hard and sleepy, and they fucked and went back to sleep. It was fun because never in her life before had Stella been able to be so careless and casual, and laid-back.

She didn’t want to compare things with Nate, but he had been her first real boyfriend and he was often gone for work. He either spent a lot of time at the base or overseas, and she had worried a lot. When they were together, Stella could not stop thinking about that—that he’d die someday, and leave her alone. So she was never laid-back with Nate, because she was too busy thinking that this might be the last time they went out together.

And, she had been right, except that he hadn’t died in combat across the world, he had died taking a bullet for her and their son.

There was none of that now. Of course, Stella was aware that an Institute courser could show up and kill both her and Arthur before they even blinked. But maybe it was because she had been through so much shit in her life, she wasn’t worrying about that.
Maybe it was because they’d both be dead, and she knew she wouldn’t be left alone without Arthur. If he went down, she’d go with him, there was no doubt about that.

And that was so goddamn comforting.

“I’ve never seen this bikini before,” Arthur pointed out, wiping his hands with an already dirty towel. “Man. You look good .”
He had never told her exactly how much money they had, but he had hinted it and Stella figured it was over two million dollars. Two millions. So when she was bored, she went online and bought cute bikinis. She was waiting on a Victoria’s Secret order now—very, very sexy lingerie she could not wait for Arthur to see.

It was hot outside, he hadn’t lied about that. She kissed him lightly on the lips, but dodged him when he tried to touch her.
“You’ll put all this gross black oil over me!” she cried, running around the yard.
“You can run, baby girl, I like to see those tits bounce!”
Stella grunted. “You’re disgusting!” She figured the best way to avoid getting engine oil all over her cute, white bikini was to jump into the pool, so she did exactly that.

“I’m not a fucking Nazgûl, I can touch water, you know?” Arthur said, unzipping his jeans. “I want to make out with you.”
“Don’t fuck up my swimsuit! I literally just got it!” Stella pleaded, still smiling. “Also, you’re such a nerd, wow.”
“Shut up.” Arthur pulled his pants down and threw them a few feet away. “I don’t know if the water and chlorine will wash away everything, so maybe it’d be safer to just get naked, baby girl.”

And he got naked. When he was done removing his jeans he also took his boxers off.
“I’m not a nerd,” he replied. “I have culture .”
“By culture you mean extensive knowledge of the Lord of the Rings lore?” Stella replied, undoing her bikini top.
“Yes. Yes that’s what I mean. But everybody knows those guys hate water. It’s not deep.”

It was probably a bit early for skinny dipping. After all, a few people knew where they lived now and Zeke or Deacon or even Roxy might just randomly show up here.

But it only made it more fun.

Arthur didn’t jump in the water, he got into the pool slowly. He was smiling, as he often did lately. Stella used to think he looked so sexy and attractive when he was frowning—which, to be fair, was most of the time—but now she liked him better when he smiled. Especially since he kept his beard very short—he maintained a stubble most of the time.

“I’m so glad our yard is surrounded by thick, dense trees,” he said, swimming to her. “Because I like you naked. I mean, I like you with clothes on too, but I also like you naked.”

When she went to wrap her arms around his neck, Stella caught a glimpse of the scar on her wrist. Her heart pinched. The memories of why it was there were still very clear in her head and she just wished she could forget about it. She wished she had never done that.

He kissed her deeply, pressing himself against her, the two pieces of her bikini floating around them. He grinded on her thigh, and it took barely no time before she could feel him swell to the contact of her skin.

She moved from his lips to his neck and collarbone, and he pushed her against the wall of the pool, rubbing with a bit more energy. He moaned when she bit him, but barely, and buried his face in her hair.

“Do you even know… Do you even realize how you make me feel, Stella?” he asked, his voice just a whisper in her ear.

She did, and she did not at once. But she knew his body became alive when she touched it, she knew he liked it when she kissed or licked or bit his neck, she knew he liked to lick and suck on her nipples, and she knew he was in love with her. She often thought about the way he had told her about it—just, very bluntly, ‘I’m in love with you’. Not ‘I think I’m in love with you’ or ‘I have feelings for you’ or some other way. No.
I’m in love with you.

The man that was once ruthless and sometimes cruel, who would not compromise and was respected or feared or both by all, the man who didn’t seem to have a heart, the great Arthur Maxson, well, Stella had turned him into jello. She wasn’t sure when it had happened—it had begun when they had fucked in his office what seemed to be forever ago.

But when exactly had she made Arthur Maxson vulnerable?

She smiled at the thought of that, and touched his thigh, moving up, her nails softly pushing against his flesh.

“Hm, baby girl,” he breathed when she took him in her hand. He kissed her, his tongue playing with hers, his hands all over her body. Sometimes he was cupping her breasts and touching them softly, sometimes he was grabbing her ass and squeezing it tightly, sometimes he was rubbing his fingers on her pussy.

Although he was being extremely distracting, Stella persisted on working his cock with her relentless stroking, squeezing and pumping. She slowed down sometimes, only to brush her thumb on his head, and he shuddered every single time.

Without any warning, he grabbed her and pushed her out of the water to have her sit on the edge of the pool. She screamed, but only because she was surprised, and laughed as he kissed her knees. Her laugh quickly transformed into a moan as he pressed his lips against her entrance, not wasting any time. Arthur never wasted time.

“Holy shit,” she managed, her ass burning on the hot pavement, Arthur’s tongue dancing between her thighs.
Using two fingers, he spread her lips apart and resumed his licking. Stella tried very hard to look at him—his head bobbing between her legs, the water shining on his broad shoulders, his cock she could make out underwater—but she couldn’t keep her eyes open. Where in the world had he learned how to eat pussy like that? Naturally, she asked him.

“Where did you learn how to do this?” she said, her voice more of a moan than anything.
“The Internet,” he replied. His chin was dripping with her juices.

He climbed out of the pool and they went for the grass, for more comfort. It was soft and thick, and Stella felt so good at that moment. She closed her eyes, making sure she’d remember it for as long as she could.

He pulled her close, and grabbing her hips he propelled her a few inches from the ground. She wrapped her legs around his neck as he pushed himself inside her. When he was eased in, she closed her legs a little, and he moaned.

“You’re so fucking hot,” he grunted, using the grip he had on her hips to thrust in and out of her.
“Where’s your phone?” she asked.
He looked around. It was on a nearby chair, so he went to fetch it, and returned to their exact position.

“We’ll put this online,” she said with a smile. “Film me. I want you to film me as I come for you.”
Stella didn’t know why she wanted that, but she did. She wanted the whole world to know he was fucking her.

“Fuck,” he breathed, and she heard the camera starting.
Steadying the both of them by putting a hand on her stomach, he resumed fucking her, his thrusts even more violent.

Stella could feel his thick, hard cock filling her and rubbing against her walls. She could also feel her orgasm, hovering somewhere in her lower stomach and slowly descending, ready to strike.

She forced her eyes open when he took her ankles off his shoulders to spread her legs and film a close-up shot of his cock stretching her hole.

When did they become exhibistionnists? When did she become so kinky? Was she really herself, or was she being Megan? Or was she some kind of hybrid between the two—and if so, what did that mean?

With her eyes open she could watch him hold his own orgasm, she could see it on his face. Still holding the phone, he thrusted into her and she rolled her hips to meet his. She reached for her clit, and traced circles with her fingers, and when she did that Arthur’s breathing became deeper. She knew he liked to see her like that.

When he angled himself slightly differently, and hit her deeper, Stella came. She couldn’t hold her moans as she felt herself locking around Arthur’s cock and gushing all over. He fucked her as well as he could, although he could barely keep up right now because he, too, was close. If the camera was there he probably wanted a cumshot.

She’d been right.

When the waves of her orgasms slowed down, he slowly pulled out, but took his cock in his free hand and rubbed it against her sensitive clit, prolonging her orgasm. Then she raised her body enough to reach for his cock and took it in her mouth, or at least as much as she could fit. She gently sucked on it and squeezed it with her hand, and it took only a few seconds before he pulled out again and emptied himself on her tits.

Stella watched as the thick, off-white seed landed on her skin. She watched as Arthur’s cock twitched, shooting a lot more cum she was used to see. She watched as he watched himself spilling his load on her, and even though it lasted only a few seconds, it felt longer than that, but for the right reasons. He stopped filming and threw the phone in the grass near them when she proceeded to lick him clean.

“Baby girl,” he whispered, gently caressing her hair. “I’m— fuck .”

He couldn’t find anything to clean her up, so when they got up he grabbed the shirt he had taken off before she was even awake and used it to wipe her breasts. She kissed him.

“I’m what?” she asked while they made their way to the house.
“Never mind,” he muttered.
“Tell me,” she insisted, putting herself in his way. “Honestly.”

He sighed and kissed her again, deeply, and Stella felt like she could fuck him again right then, at this very moment.

“I’m happy we had to do this,” he said. “Like, fleeing Boston and getting new IDs and shit. I’m happy we’re together in this. I know it’s fucked up but I don’t regret anything that happened because it put me right here, right now.”
He almost added something else, but stopped just before. Stella put a hand on his face.
“You know what?” she said. “I’m happy about that, too. I don’t think I’ll regret it.”

Arthur smiled and kissed her again. They both smelled like chlorine and sex, but he still had a faint odor of oil and car on him. She inhaled deeply. He smelled good.

Well, there was one thing she did regret. A person that she missed. But he was better without her, without Arthur, and there was nothing she could do about it. He had been Stella’s friend, not Megan’s. She had to forget him, because there was not a single chance Danse would ever come back into her life.

Chapter Text

 

 

Danse

 

 

The first time Danse saw them was a whole two weeks after moving to Summersville. Moving into a house so close to theirs he had to drive past it whenever he needed milk or eggs. In a town so small he had heard about them before seeing them in the flesh at all. But maybe that was a little because Arthur was Arthur, and wherever he went he did something magical. In this case, it was making the local pub a decent place again. More than that, if Danse believed the conversation he’d overheard at Walmart yesterday—the bar almost had to be closed down and sold, but the arrival of these two new people had turned things around.
Danse knew Arthur had a talent for bar managing. He was good at it, and he loved it. It was a natural skill he had—he knew how to make people happy.
As long as it was in a bar.

When he saw them it was at the grocery store, and Danse didn’t expect it.

His heart almost exploded and he had to hold onto his shopping cart to make sure his knees wouldn’t give in.
He heard them before he saw them, actually. He was deciding whether to choose a pepperoni pizza or one with italian sausage when he heard Arthur’s voice.

“Don’t make that face!” Arthur said. “It’s for your birthday.”
“I don’t want a birthday.” Stella sighed, and added, in a lower voice, “Besides, I already had one birthday and it literally almost got me killed.”
“Not this time. And check your license and papers, your birthday is definitely tomorrow. And we’re having a party because the bar is closed. Now let me buy get beer.”

At that point, Danse knew he didn’t want either of them to see him. Not right now. He wasn’t ready. He had waited two weeks but it was still not enough. It was pretty stupid, too, but as much as he had been impatient to see Stella again, he just couldn’t .

So he left his shopping cart and ran out of the store. Actually, he was surprised that hadn’t happened before—it was a very small town, with a very little amount of stores, and now that he thought about it Danse couldn’t believe he had just run into them, two whole weeks after being here.

He sat in his Jeep for a while, his forehead pressed against the wheel, breathing. He had to calm down. Also, now right now but later, he had to gather enough courage to talk to Stella. And maybe Arthur, but Stella first. That was the trick—if he ever saw Stella alone, Danse figured he’d just go to her and they could reunite. Have a coffee together. He just wanted to spend time with her.

After leaving Boston, Danse had thought a lot about the way things had been with her. She definitely deserved a boyfriend who wasn’t in the middle of an identity crisis and who hadn’t left her because of it, but he felt guilty. Still. He had wanted things to work out with her, but they hadn’t, and he was the only one to blame.

Today, still, things wouldn’t work—he just knew it. Even when they’d talk again, he knew that he couldn’t just… date her again. He didn’t have it in him, he didn’t think at least. It wasn’t because he thought synths couldn’t feel real love or any of that bullshit—maybe he had been through a shock so great it had removed that kind of feeling from his mind and his heart.

He heard her laugh through the small crack in the window, and he raised his head. She was not too far away, with Arthur, and they were putting their groceries at the back of his pickup truck.

Arthur looked a lot like Arthur before, but with a smile on his face and an invisible weight off his shoulders. He wore a light t-shirt and shorts, and in the many years Danse had known him he had never seen in such outfit. At the beach, Arthur wore jeans and his Nine Inch Nails hoodie, with shades, and spent the day under the shadows of trees playing games on his phone.
But now, Arthur looked like he was on vacation. He looked like the happiest man in the world, trying to impress Stella by lifting two small sized kegs of beer.
Also, his face was shaven, another rare sight. He looked great. He looked happy.

While Arthur was dealing with the beer, Stella searched through their grocery bags, looking for something. After a few seconds, he watched her open the wrapping of a red popsicle and popping it in her mouth while putting the rest of the bags in the truck.

She looked completely different.

Her hair was shorter and purple. A light shade of purple. With her tan skin it looked great. She wore a pretty dress and it made Danse wish he could still feel love. Because he was staring at the two only people he had ever loved, and they looked happier than ever, and Stella’s hair was purple and she was very pretty, and Arthur was smiling.

“There’s no way in the world we won’t have enough beer,” Stella pointed out.
Arthur took the popsicle from her hand and put it in his mouth. He cringed.
“Is that strawberry?” he asked.
“Yeah.”
“I wanted raspberry.”
“I wanted strawberry. Yours are in another box, you big fucking baby.” Stella hit Arthur’s chest with her tiny fist.

Arthur laughed and kissed her.

Arthur laughed. And kissed her.

It took Danse’s brain a solid twenty second to register what his eyes had just seen. By that time, Stella had returned the kiss, and their mouths were both smeared with the red coloring of the popsicle. He watched Arthur slap Stella’s ass, and she said something to him but he couldn’t hear, and they climbed into the truck and left.

Oh.

Well.

That settled things. Actually it made everything way easier. Because if those two were together, there was not a single chance Danse could ever be with either of them, therefore it wasn’t so much of a handicap if his heart was too frozen to feel love.

Right?

He waited five minutes in his Jeep because if he followed them, they’d be on the same road for too long and he didn’t want to raise any suspicions. So he waited, then drove back to his house. The pickup truck wasn’t in their driveway, and all Danse could think about was how Stella’s popsicles would melt if they didn’t hurry back home soon.

Danse spent the day cleaning the house. He hadn’t really put any time into it, but he had to find something to do. He had bought paint, even, because he wasn’t too satisfied with the colors in his bedroom, so he did that too. He painted his bedroom walls in a soft shade of green.

After that big cleaning and painting, it was evening and Danse was hungry. He thought about the pizza that was still at the grocery store because he had left without buying anything. His fridge was empty.

Danse showered and put some clothes on before driving back into town. He couldn’t decide where to go, but when he drove past Parker’s, he parked not too far and figured he’d go see that place. When leaving his house, he had seen Arthur and Stella through the window of their living room, watching a movie or something. So Parker’s was safe.

It was a calm night, with not too many people in. Danse sat at the counter and looked at the menu. There wasn’t a lot of food, but there was enough choice for him. A man came to take his order.

“So what will it be for you?” he said.
“Uh, I don’t know.” Danse sighed. He felt tired. Worse than that. He looked at the menu again. It was written in orange on a blackboard—he easily recognized Stella’s handwriting.
“With every order of fries you get a free beer,” the man said. “Does that help?”
“Yeah. I’ll have those fries.” He liked the way she traced her Fs.

The man nodded and left to call his order in the kitchen. He came back to pour his beer.

“You new here?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you around.”
“Uh. Yeah. I’m new.” Danse drank a generous amount of beer. It was cold and surprisingly good. “I moved in two weeks ago.”
“Cool. By the way, I’m Zeke.”
For a second, Danse forgot his new name. “Eric,” he managed. “This place looks good.”

A large grin appeared on Zeke’s face and Danse took that opportunity to drink half of his beer.
“Yeah it does,” Zeke said. “Better than ever. You should come back this Friday—we’re having a karaoke night. You gotta see those two—Thomas and Megan. They really put on a show.”
Danse almost choked on his beer, but swallowed it at the last second. “Why?”
“You know. They’re dating and shit, so they don’t mind acting all… sexy on stage, you know what I mean? People love that. We all have a good idea of what’s going on in their room at night.”

Zeke laughed and shook his head, but then Danse didn’t feel good. Everything felt surreal, and he had the strange feeling that he just didn’t belong there. It had been a mistake to seek out Quinlan and accept the deal. It was too late now, because Michael Danse was probably officially dead or something, but he just wanted to be somewhere else. Right now.

He finished his beer and paid for the fries, but told Zeke he had to go. He found his way to his Jeep and drove back home, where he lay in his bed and waited for sleep to come. It didn’t.

Two hours later, Danse, even more exhausted, got up and put random clothes on. He couldn’t stand being so close to them but not even seeing them, not hearing them. He was going to knock at their door, right now. The torture was over. If things didn’t go well, at least they’d go somewhere . He was tired of this void, of this wait. He was over it. He was going to knock at their door and—

Danse’s train of thought was brutally stopped when he reached their house. He was a few feet away from the door, honest to god ready to knock even though it was very late, when he heard Stella’s voice coming from a window. He couldn’t see anything from here, because the lights were off, but it seemed the voice came from the other side of the house.

She was moaning. And breathing. Then it wasn’t only her Danse was hearing—soon enough, Arthur’s low, raspy voice joined hers. He said something he couldn’t make out from here.

Danse ought to turn around and go home, he knew it, but instead he followed the voices. He could be arrested for this, but he followed the voices until he saw them.

They were lying on the floor of their house, with pillows and blankets all around. Actually, Stella was lying on the floor and Arthur was on top of her, straddling her, thrusting his hips into her. Every thrust was matched with Stella’s moans. It sounded almost painful.

It looked painful, too. Arthur had one hand on her hip, keeping control over her, and his other hand was on her chest, almost on her neck, apparently pushing hard.

“Keep looking at the moon, baby girl,” Arthur commanded with a lot of love. “Look at her.”
Stella’s head was angled so she could see through a window—which wasn’t hard, considering this part of the house was mostly made of windows. Danse looked up, too, and noticed the moon in the sky. It wasn’t quite full, but it was close. It shone brightly among the stars. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen such a pretty sky.

“I said look at the moon .”
Arthur’s voice brought Danse’s attention back to the action in the house. He was giving her orders . It honestly looked like he was hurting her. And yet, Danse couldn’t stop watching. Even from here, he could see their bodies, beautiful and graceful in the moonlight.
“I want you to be looking at the moon when you come, baby girl,” Arthur said, more softly this time.
Arthur ,” Stella pleaded.

She turned her head to look into Arthur’s eyes, but his hand grabbed her face and pushed it so she’d be looking at the moon again. Stella moaned very loudly at that, and it was impossible for Danse to decide if he had to intervene or not. Was she even consenting to this?

Arthur then lowered his head and kissed Stella in the neck before trailing down to her breasts. He kissed them before taking one of her nipples in his mouth. This must have been good, because Stella closed her eyes and her head rolled a little. Arthur put her back in the position he wanted her—her head looking up, straight at the moon.

Danse would never do this to Stella. They hadn’t spent a lot of time together, but whenever they had sex, he was gentle and good to her. He knew he could hurt her if he wasn’t careful—that’s why he was always careful.

But after a while, Danse kind of got used to the brutality of the thing, and he became aware of how tight his pants suddenly were. He groaned, embarrassed, but no one could see him from where he was. He was sitting behind a large bush and was watching the scene from between two leaves.

He touched the bulge in his jeans, almost jumping at the contact. He hadn’t felt arousal in a long, long time.

In the house, things kept heating up. Arthur was fucking Stella harder than ever. So hard that Danse could hear their bodies meeting—the wet sound created by his cock driving into her, the sound of his balls hitting her ass probably, and other flesh noises and wet kisses. And moans.

The two people he had ever loved and the two people he had ever been sexual with were having rough sex in their living room while he was (illegally) watching and unzipping his pants. Danse’s face was hot from embarrassment and from lust, but when he squeezed himself he forgot about everything except the two people he was watching.

Stella’s moans became louder, and Danse watched as she arched her back and wrapped her legs around Arthur’s hips. He forced her head in place, and Stella, in the end, did come while looking at the moon. It lasted a long time. Much longer than any orgasm she had ever experienced with Danse.

Then it was Arthur’s turn, and it didn’t take long before he buried his face in Stella’s neck and his thrusts became irregular and vigorous. Danse could see the spasms going through Arthur’s body.

Arthur pulled out and came on Stella’s stomach. The sight of Arthur’s thick, glistening cock made Danse come instantly, and a lot. He came on his own pants and into his own palm, watching as Arthur’s seed spilled on Stella’s skin.

There was never a time in his life where Danse had been so pathetic.

But he didn’t dare moving, mostly because he didn’t want to be seen, but also because he just wanted to see them.

Arthur kissed Stella lovingly and cleaned his mess with a kleenex. Then she kissed him, and climbed onto him when he lay on his back. She put her head on his chest and they closed their eyes.

“We should probably go up and get in bed,” Arthur said at some point. “My back is killing me.”
“I’m too tired to move,” Stella replied, so Arthur got up anyway while holding her.

Danse heard their laughs until they were upstairs, where the window was open there as well.

“Goodnight baby girl,” Arthur said.
“You’ll make breakfast tomorrow, right?” Stella asked.
“Sure. It’s your birthday after all.”
“Alright. Goodnight, babe.”

Then Danse didn’t hear anything after that, so he left his hideout to make his way back home. He was so glad he hadn’t eaten those fries, because he might have been sick if he had.

Danse couldn’t decide what hurt him more.

Was it the fact that he called her baby girl and she called him babe ? The fact that they were both stunning people, and successful, and popular? The fact that they were having the kind of sex he never had?

Or was it just because deep down he was jealous?

There was a tingle in Danse’s eyes and he blinked. He would not cry over this. He had been pathetic enough for a solid ten years.

What hurt Danse the most was the fact that they were the happiest he had ever seen them and it was without him .

Chapter Text

 

 

Stella

 

 

 

The mirror showed a beautiful woman with a great tan, shoulder-length pastel hair and the ghost of a smile on her face. She wore a pretty dress she had paid over a hundred dollars. She smelled like designer perfume but she did not know how much that bottle had cost because it was a gift from her boyfriend.

She had makeup on—black eyeliner and even blacker mascara, and lipstick that was so pink it was almost offensive.

That woman turned sideways, just slightly, and brushed her hands over her breasts. She wore her best bra, the one that made her boobs look amazing. On her hands were many rings, but none of them meant anything. They were just pretty. She had long nails, all painted in black.

The woman in the mirror stretched her shoulders a little. They were sore. She was sore between the legs as well—she smiled, remembering the way her boyfriend had fucked her the night before.

Boyfriend.

Just a few months ago, if Stella had seen that woman she would have been jealous. She would have been jealous of her beauty, of her freedom, of the way she showed her legs and her breasts carelessly. She would have been jealous of her handsome, popular boyfriend.

But today, Stella was that woman.

She looked into the mirror again. Yes. Yes, that was her, but it wasn’t.

Stella decided it didn’t matter.

She exited her room. All the windows in the house were open, and a nice breeze was filtering inside. It wasn’t cool, it was a warm, comforting breeze. Stella smiled again when she heard the music and the party going on in the yard.

In the kitchen there was a lot of silly decorations—pink balloons, large, colorful streamers and confetti everywhere.

Stella smiled, only she could not help but to wish Danse was here to see this. Every single time she saw something beautiful she wished he was right beside her to share this moment. Like the sunrise over the lake the other day. It had been so peaceful. Or the first time Arthur had heard a northern cardinal sing in the yard. Danse would have loved to be there.

But he wasn’t.

“Birthday girl! There you are!” Zeke smiled at her when Stella returned to the party. He was holding a beer. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Stella lied. She had pretended she needed to go inside for a minute, but it was only because she wanted to look into a mirror. To make sure she was real. “It’s just that heat, you know?”
“You’ll get used to it,” Zeke promised, then waved at Roxy who was with their group of friends.

Stella sat on a lawn chair and removed her shoes, letting her bare feet touch the grass. Arthur always took care of mowing the lawn now, and he did it well. He always let it long and thick enough so it would be comfortable to walk or lie on it.

She watched him, Arthur, having a discussion with Deacon. They were both holding a beer and wearing swimsuits, and she sighed a little. Arthur was very distracting when he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He seemed to be telling Deacon all about her flowers and the garden.

It had been funny at first—absolutely unable to sleep, Stella had spent her first nights here reading about flowers and gardening. Her days had been spent planting said flowers and making their yard pretty. Yes, it had been fun, and she still enjoyed watering each and every flower in the morning, but she easily got bored. She had fun at work too, where there was loud music and a crowd, but when they were home and calm it could be boring.

So they had sex and they filmed it. They never showed their faces just to make sure they remained anonymous, but they posted it online. Arthur liked it and he especially enjoyed watching their videos after.

At 6 PM, Ann came by. She absolutely refused to stay for more than five minutes, claiming this was a party for young people and she didn’t belong here. But Stella stayed with her in the kitchen while she unwrapped her gifts.

“So I made these for you, Megan darling,” Ann explained when Stella found a large container with cookies in them. “They’re delicious and Zachary loves them. You’ve been losing a little weight and I just want to make sure you’re still enjoying dessert.”
“Aw, thanks Ann,” Stella. “They look really good.”
“Now open the other box!”

Stella proceeded to undo the bows and paper on the second, smaller box. This one contained an impressive amount of jewelry.

“Ann, I can’t take these,” Stella pointed out.
“They’re all mine,” Ann said. “I don’t wear them anymore, and I don’t have a daughter to give them to. I shared some with Roxy a while ago, and the rest is yours. I’m not taking them back.”

Stella quickly looked into the box and found a cute necklace with a long chain and a rose pendant. She immediately put it around her neck, and kissed Ann on the cheeks.

“I’m gonna go now,” Ann said. “It’s a party for young people.”
“You’re not old!” Stella interjected. She had grown fond of this woman, and her infinite kindness.
“I don’t think Zachary would appreciate if I stayed around. But thanks for the offer. You and Thomas should come for dinner soon.”
“We will,” Stella promised while walking Ann back to her car. “And thanks. I love the gifts.”

Ann left and Stella returned inside. She went back to her room where she carefully put the jewelry in one of her drawers.

There, she stared at the mirror again, almost as if she was looking for something very specific. She looked the same as earlier, but her cheeks were a little more pink from Roxy’s strong daiquiris.

Maybe what she was looking for wasn’t there at all.

Stella jumped when she saw Arthur enter the room. She turned around and found him with a sorry smile on his face, and holding a box wrapped in pink paper.

“Baby girl,” he whispered. “Are you okay?”

The truth was, even though Stella had been smiling all day and singing along to the songs that played and doing silly dances in the pool with her friends, she wasn’t sure she was okay. She was feeling odd, and had a constant feeling of déjà vu. Which wasn’t surprising, considering it was her second birthday party this year.
Also, she had been through hell.

“I’m okay,” she lied. “Another gift?”
Just an hour earlier, she had opened all her gifts. She’d gotten a lot of nice things, and Arthur had given her tons of books and a huge bag of candy.

“Just a little… something,” he said. “You’ll see.”

She grabbed the box and unwrapped it while Arthur was playing nicely with her hair. He smelled like chlorine and like beer and like the warm air from outside. She put her head against him, and he leaned to kiss her hair.

In the box she found a bottle of whiskey. Not just any whiskey— his whiskey. The one she had always liked so much but that was way too expensive for her.

Now talk about déjà vu—that was the exact same gift he had given her on her last birthday just a few months ago, except this time he had taken the time to actually wrap it.

That last birthday had been something.

She had arrived at Arthur’s house and she didn’t know anybody there because he had invited dozens and dozens of strangers. Then she had spent some time with Danse and drank a lot of whiskey. When they had decided they were a little bit too drunk, he had asked her on a date and told her just how much he cared about Arthur.

Then, this Kellogg guy had tried to kill her by driving his car into her.

Stella shuddered, remembering the way Kellogg’s brain had splattered on the wall when Arthur had shot him in the head. She grabbed Arthur’s swimsuit, feeling dizzy.

“Hey, Stella, babe,” he whispered. “It’s okay. I owed you one. The one I gave you ended up breaking on the pavement.”
“Thanks,” she replied. She remembered too many things at once. Kissing Danse goodbye that night, and waking up at the hospital with Arthur at her side and the worst headache she had ever felt. And she remembered being at the hospital when she had lost Shaun, too.

Arthur knelt on the floor in front of her and wiped the tears off her face. Only then Stella realized she was crying.

“I didn’t want to make you cry,” he said. “Especially not today.”
“It’s just…” She allowed herself to sob a little, because she had been holding that inside for so long now. “I miss them, Arthur. All of them. And the bar, and my apartment and Goodneighbor…”
“I know.” He pulled her against him, very close. “I know you miss them. I’m sorry you had to go through that. I just wanted to keep you safe.”
“I know you wanted that.” She buried her face in his neck, but he slid a finger under her chin and lifted her face to kiss her.
He kissed her like that until she had stopped crying.

“Now come back outside, okay?” he said softly. “Come swim with me. The water is really nice. Then, when they’re all gone, we’ll open that bottle and drink as much whiskey as we can. Is that good?”
“I love you.”

Stella had just said it—she didn’t really mean to. But she was looking at a man that was drastically different than the one who had hurt Danse, the one she had promised herself to hate for the rest of her life. That Arthur was gone now, and the one that she was dating was funny, kind, cooked great breakfast and fucked her like a porn star.

The last man she had said those three words to was Nate, and at this moment she couldn’t help but to think of him, and his funny laugh and bad jokes. She missed him, often, and she’d miss him always, but after all those near-death experiences Stella had been through, she was glad she was alive.

Arthur blinked and a slight frown appeared on his forehead, but then he smiled.

“I love you too, baby girl.” He kissed her deeply. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Stella doubted that was true, but she decided it was best not to think about that too much. That night, they ate cheeseburgers and played games outside, and when everyone had left for Deacon’s house to spend the night, they did open the whiskey and drank almost all of it, but only because Arthur promised Stella he had another bottle for later.

 

*

 

Stella woke up late with only a slight headache. She was very thankful for that, but then she tried to find the reason why she was awake and not asleep, because she was definitely feeling exhausted .

When she heard her phone ring again, she figured that was the reason.

It was a text message from Ann, begging her to get to the bar because their food provider was going to deliver today and Zeke couldn’t be there because he was still at Deacon’s, and too hangover. And Ann herself couldn’t be at Parker’s either because she was out of town with her sister, helping her with her upcoming wedding.

So Stella got up and found random clothes to put on. In the bed, Arthur was still deeply asleep, so she left him there and wrote a note for him, in case he woke up before she was back.

She considered stopping on the way for coffee but decided it was better not to—there was no point in hurrying to the bar if she was going to miss the delivery anyway.

She got there at the same time as the delivery. The man, James, kindly helped her to store the boxes of food in the fridges and freezers and went on his way. Stella decided to do some cleaning while she was there, and then she'd go back home and maybe today they could go to the lake and be lazy all day.

But something else happened.

Stella turned the TV on, which she always did when she cleaned the floors, and saw that the news channel was talking about Boston.

“Something terrible happened last night during a gathering against the Boston Institute,” the lady said on screen.

Then they showed Haylen.

Stella dropped the broom on the floor, just out of shock. Because it felt as if it had been ten years since she had seen Haylen. Haylen almost always smelled like coconut and she smiled almost all the time.

Except now, on screen, she wasn’t smiling at all. Her face was pale and her hair was dull and tangled. She looked exhausted—she had large dark circles under her eyes, and her lips were trembling. She stood on a stage, surrounded by hundreds of people, and she was talking, reading her speech on her phone. But they didn’t have the audio, they only showed the images of it while people talked over.

“It’s… it’s awful what happened back there,” the lady said again. “Do we know more about the attack? Are we talking about terrorism here?”
“Naturally, it’s nothing we can show on TV,” a second voice said, and Stella immediately shut the TV off.

If the TV couldn’t show her what had happened, then she’d find in on her own. Facebook might still be down and Twitter on the verge to be, but LiveLeak was up and stronger than ever.

It was all over the front page. Thumbnails with Haylen’s face on it, holding her phone under a pale Boston sky, with titles like: “ANTI-INSTITUTE ACTIVIST SHOT DURING SPEECH” or “THE INSTITUTE STRIKES BACK”.

Stella just picked any of the videos, and she watched it. She finally listened to Haylen’s speech.

 

“I lost three friends to the Institute, so I wrote an eulogy to honor their memory. I thought my friends were safe. I thought they were outside the city, and together and happy, but I’ve recently been proven wrong. I’ve been proven that the Institute doesn’t have a moral code—they take people and they’re doing terrible things to them down there. Terrible things. Terrible, terrible things. I know a little too much on that topic. I wish I didn’t know just exactly what kind of torture tools and unethical practices they have.

Michael Danse was one of them—one of the friends the Institute killed. He was kind and good, and never refused to help anybody. He was hardworking and loved video games.
When he laughed it was loud and contagious. He'd have the best stories too. But our friends didn't like it when it was made public that he was a synth. I never hated him, and the only thing I can be happy about is that Michael left knowing that I deeply cared for him, regardless of his origins. Michael Danse hated the Institute just as much as you and I, and for the rest of my life I’ll be bitter about them taking him away from me, and from the life he could have had.

You all know about how the Institute is to blame for the tragedy that happened at the Prydwen a while ago. I don’t care what the official statements about it say—it was set on fire by an Institute agent.

The Prydwen went down and took with it it's leader. Arthur Maxson was a bold man. A good man, in his own ways, with his flaws. He was always trying so hard to be implacable and to show authority. He'd make a point to frown most of the time, but that didn't fool any of us. Us, the people who worked for him. With him. Together, under Arthur's leadership, we created an unique space where people could come and forget about everything that made their lives boring and sad. In this bar, they could smile, and laugh, and it would never feel wrong.
Arthur Maxson was not just his father's son, but he made the family name shine with bright lights.

Arthur Maxson was not alone when he died. The explosion took another of our friends. Arthur wouldn't like it if I didn't mention her in this eulogy, because even though he tried very hard to look selfish and self righteous, he was not. And it was unfair that Stella died. I don't know why she was there, with him, but I like to think they died as they were reconciling after their recent disagreement.

Stella Austin was colorful and skilled. Now when I think of her, all I can think of is how that woman deserved so much better than the past that was inflicted on her—a past tainted by the Institute, that left her with a fear of almost everything and a taste for whiskey. Stella was—”

Haylen’s speech was abruptly cut when she was shot in the head.

Stella’s heart skipped a beat or two, and she let out a cry even though there was nobody to hear her. On the screen of her phone, Haylen was now lying on the stage, with a considerable amount of blood coming out of a hole where her forehead had been. Half of her head was gone. The video stopped there, as the crowd was running in all directions, screaming, and a few people rushed over to Haylen.

Stella stared at the black screen of her phone, only seeing her own reflection, then rushed to the bathroom where she vomited. Haylen was dead. Someone—the Institute, definitely—had killed her in public .

Stella vomited until there was nothing left inside her, long after bile had stopped coming up, but her body was still heaving and she kept retching for a while. Then she rinsed her mouth and washed her face, but after that she sat in the middle of the bar and cried.

Haylen was dead. And if Haylen was dead while speaking about Danse being dead as well, it meant he was gone, too.

Stella's head was empty. She only wished she could go back in time and die instead of Haylen and Danse. She'd let Kellogg take her and end it right there. No one else would have had to die, just her. 

But that wasn't possible, and now she'd have to live her life knowing this was all because of her.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

At some point, Arthur showed up.

He came to a stop when he saw her in the middle of the bar, sitting on the floor. He took a deep breath, closed the door behind him and sat next to her.
They didn’t speak for a long time. After a while he took her hand in his.

At that point Stella had stopped sobbing heavily, but silent tears still ran down her cheeks. She wasn’t fighting it anymore—her brain kept showing her images of Haylen’s brutal death, and reciting parts of her speech, and at first Stella had tried to think about something else. Anything else. Arthur’s strong arms around her. The marigolds in her garden, and the way the light hit them around 6:30 every evening. The feeling of their pool’s warm water, and the smell of it.

But no—there wasn’t any space for that stuff in her head today. And Haylen’s disfigured face was slowly driving her crazy.

There was Danse, too. But when she tried thinking about him, Stella’s breathing became erratic and she felt like she was going to be sick again.

So, she didn’t fight it. She didn’t fight anything. If she was going to spend the rest of her life seeing Haylen being shot when she closed her eyes, then she would, and that was the end of it.

Stella was done fighting, period . She would let the Institute take her if they tried.

They had killed Nate and Shaun, then many years later it had been Sturges. She wasn’t particularly close to him, but she liked him a lot and he was always nice to her. She still didn’t know why exactly he had been killed, but the Institute’s constant brutal behavior was definitely to be blamed. It seemed it didn’t matter to them who they killed—one of their own creation or a brave woman who dared speaking against their practices.

In a way, she almost hoped they would find her and take her with them. Maybe she would meet the person responsible for all this. She didn’t pretend she would be able to, but she’d try to kill them. Or at least, harm them in a significant manner so they would never forget her.

“Stella.” Arthur spoke to her with a soft, broken voice.
It took Stella a long time before being able to speak.
“There’s nothing to say,” she pointed out.
“There’s so much I want to tell you.” He sighed. “I don’t know where to start.”
“Don’t start, then.” She wasn’t in a mood to hear generic phrases like ‘she didn’t suffer at all’ or ‘she died being brave’.

“Will you follow me if I take you somewhere?” Arthur asked.
“I followed you here, and look what happened.”
“I just… I want to show you something, baby girl.”
“You said I had to come with you so I did, I left Boston and I came here and—and if I had stayed, maybe, maybe Danse would still be alive, Haylen would still be alive—”

Arthur cut her out abruptly by pressing his thumb against her lips. He shook his head, and got up only to come back with two shots of whiskey. He drank one and gave her the other. She sent it down her throat, and she rose to stand on her feet.

“It’s close to our house,” he said. “Just come with me. I promise it’s… it’s a good thing.”

She followed him even though Stella felt dead inside. This feeling was horribly familiar, and she couldn’t help but to remember the long days and nights she had spent lying still in her bed after losing Nate and Shaun. She only had a vague memory of this but she did remember the despair she had felt, continuously, for several weeks.

Arthur drove them back in his truck, but they didn’t speak at all during the ride. He also turned the radio off at some point, and Stella listened to the roar of the engine. She had grown fond of this truck, and how shitty it was while also being wonderful. Arthur took care of it very well.

They drove past their house and Stella frowned. Were they visiting… Deacon? Why would Arthur want to show her something at Deacon’s place?
But, no. They also drove past Deacon’s house and stopped in front of the third and last house on their small, isolated street.

“You go knock,” Arthur said, not even looking at the house.
“What? Why the hell would I do that?”

She had noticed a few weeks ago the arrival of moving trucks around the house, but she had no wish to become friendly with that neighbor. She figured it would happen eventually, as the town was so small it seemed everybody knew everybody here.
Arthur sighed, and turned to look at her.

“Do you trust me at all?” he asked.
Stella’s eyes were sore and dry from all the crying, and her throat was hurting. She only wanted to get back home, finish the whiskey bottle and sleep for a long time.

She thought about it. Did she trust him? Their relationship had really been like a rollercoaster ride, and she couldn’t forget all the times she’d wanted to punch him in the face. But now… Now Stella loved him, despite trying hard not to. He had managed to find a way to her heart, a heart that had been crippled. She still wanted to punch him in the face once in a while, though.

“Yes,” she breathed.
He nodded. “Then you’ll get out of this truck and knock to that goddamn door. I’m going back home, but you can call me if there’s anything.”
“But—”
“I’m not kidding. Go.”

Stella sighed and made herself get out of the truck. As she approached the front door, Arthur turned the truck around and drove back to their house.

She stared at the door. It was a nice, wooden door, but the yard lacked a few flowers and decorations. She knocked.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Danse

 

Danse had imagined in his head at least a thousand times how it would happen when he’d see Stella again. He had some scenarios he liked more than others—particularly ones where they were alone. Because sometimes, he did figure he’d just come face to face with her at the town’s most busy store: the Walmart. Stella had always been a Target person but the closest Target was still too far away to visit regularly so Danse was pretty sure he’d meet her there while she was shopping for socks maybe, or whatever.

Or maybe she’d end up seeing him in or around his house while she walked a little. But Stella did not seem to walk at all, at least not on their street, so Danse had forgotten about that scenario pretty quickly.

Thing is: he didn’t think he’d see her after crying his eyes out over the tragic death of a friend. But more importantly, he didn’t think she’d just knock to his door.

She had also cried. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her cheeks were pink and her lips were raw. And as they stared at each other for many seconds, Danse couldn’t help but to notice her difficult, uneven breathing.

Her eyes filled up with tears but they only ran down her face when she blinked.

“You’re—you’re alive,” she said under her breath.

Then she looked over her shoulder, but Danse didn’t know what she was looking for—there was nothing behind her, nothing except the field their houses were facing.

But after that, Danse pulled her against him and held her close. She wrapped her arms around his neck and didn’t let go. Her face was warm against his skin, and wet.

“Stella,” he whispered. “Fuck.”

To this, she only responded with more cries. Her body slowly melted against his, and soon he ended up supporting most of her weight. For some reason that broke his heart even more, because he understood that she had seen Haylen die, too.

They were still in the doorframe, so Danse helped Stella inside and closed the door. He walked her to the couch, where they sat, but Stella immediately curled against him again. It made his heart beat a little faster.

“You’re not dead,” she finally managed, her hand in a fist on his chest. “I thought you were dead.”
“I—uh—I’ve been here for a little while,” he admitted. His eyes were burning from all the crying. “I should have contacted you before.”
“Why didn’t you?” she frowned. “And why didn’t Haylen come with you, then? I don’t understand.”
“She couldn’t,” he replied. “Also, she wouldn’t have. She was doing really important research, and nothing would have stopped her.”

Stella’s expression turned to anger.

“Well, a bullet to the head stopped her,” she pointed out, and teared up again. “I’m so confused—why… What is even going on?”

He let her cry a little while he was searching for his words, but she spoke first.

“Arthur told me to knock on your door but he didn’t tell me… that it was you,” she said. “I missed you, Michael.”
“I missed you too, Stella.” He wiped her face dry. “You look different.”
“I had to. The Institute’s looking for me.”

He nodded. He knew that. He had meant to say, ‘you look beautiful’, but at the last second had remembered the way she had kissed Arthur the other day at the grocery store, and the way she let him control her when they had sex.
He shouldn’t know that. Danse wished he didn’t know any of that. He wished he hadn’t looked for, and found, all the porn videos they posted online.

“Why did they kill her?” Stella asked. “Why kill Haylen , out of all people? She didn’t hate synths half as much as the other people in our circle.”
Danse took a deep breath.
“That research she was doing… it was about the Institute.” He looked away, but it didn’t make it easier to talk. He went on anyway. “I guess they found out, and they didn’t like it.”

Stella didn’t respond to that. Instead, she put her head on his shoulder, and when he looked at her, he saw she had closed her eyes. There had been a party at her house last night—he could hear the music from here—and she seemed really tired. Danse didn’t move, even when his arm became numb and when his neck started to hurt.

He had thought she was falling asleep, but she talked to him again.
“How did you find us?” she asked.
Danse sighed. “You… you don’t know? At all?”
“Should I know? Are we compromised in any way? I need to know that.”
“No no, you’re safe. But, I mean…” Danse paused. He hadn’t thought about that, but now he figured it made sense Arthur hadn’t told Stella about it. “Arthur made arrangements. When you guys left and all. He… made sure there was a house for me too, and an ID and everything. So I could find you.”

Stella suddenly sat straight, frowning.
“Arthur?” It looked like she might have laughed if she hadn’t been so sad. “Oh.”

There was a long, awkward pause.

“I saw you guys together once,” he said. “At the store.”
“Oh,” she said again.
“It’s okay,” Danse added. “You guys go well together.”
She didn’t say anything to that.
Stella stretched her neck and looked around his house. It was mostly empty, still. He needed to buy a lot more things.

“Does he make you happy?” he asked.
Stella was startled by that question.
“Yes, why?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Danse. I’m sure. Why? Is it… weird? Because you and I—”
“It’s not weird.” It was a little weird, for so many damn reasons. “Do you love him?”

Stella took a deep breath and buried her face in her hands.

“Danse—”
“You don’t have to tell me this, I’m sorry,” he added.
“Yeah, I love him. And he loves me. Okay? I—after you left, I was so fucking sad, Danse. But then everything happened, and… I don’t know. Arthur and I… it just works out.”
Stella looked out and stared at the field on the other side of the street.
“It’s not important right now though,” she said. “Haylen is dead.”

Haylen was dead, and even though Danse was terribly sad, it was a sign of something clear. She had found something important about the Institute—probably additional information to what Arthur had gathered—and they had wanted her dead.

Danse understood one thing about the Institute: if the Institute wanted someone dead, they killed them. If they wanted someone hurt, they hurt them. He wondered why then Stella was still here—if it had any meaning at all, or if she’d just been lucky.

Then he thought about Arthur.

When Arthur set his mind on something, he made it happen, period. And it was never out of luck—if there was something Arthur wasn’t, it was lucky. But he was hard-working, and talented, and charismatic and rich, and if he had decided he’d protect Stella from the threat that was the Institute, Danse figured he was absolutely able to do so.

“What do we do, now?” Stella asked. “I want to go back to Boston.”

Danse sighed and brushed his eyes with his warm hands. Naturally, that had been his initial thoughts as well. Not that he thought he was apt to fight the Institute, but he wanted to be there to bury his friend and say a few words for her, the same way she had talked about him when she thought he was dead.

“We have to stay,” Danse replied. “Arthur would say the same and you know it.”
“But—”
“I know, Stella. It fucking sucks. But if one of us goes back, it’ll be one of us who dies. And I’ve lost you once, I’m not gonna lose you twice.”

He thought Stella would get angry, or maybe cry again, but she did neither. Her eyes were still full of tears, but she wrapped her arms around him again.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Danse. I’m glad the Institute couldn’t get to you.”

When Danse had imagined their reunion he had always pictured it very beautiful, emotional, touching. Like, Stella sitting by the lake and him quietly approaching her, and surprising her, and Stella smiling through her tears and hugging him for like, half an hour.

Danse had been denied that.

Instead, she had randomly showed up at his house because Arthur had told her to come here, probably to comfort her about Haylen.

And yes, they had each other now—that Danse was more than thankful for that.

But there was Arthur. Who was currently alone in his big house, probably grinding his teeth at the idea of his girlfriend being in the same room as a synth.

So while Danse was excessively relieved to have been reunited with Stella, he couldn’t forget about Arthur, a man he was still in love with, a man who hated him, a man who had caused Haylen’s death by trying to protect and avenge Stella.

Danse looked at the window and stared at the field. Every time he felt stressed he looked at this field because it was peaceful. There was a beautiful tree right in the middle of it, and Danse didn’t know what kind of tree it was but it was gorgeous, but it looked lonely. The point is—even though he was staring at the field right now, and even though Stella was right by his side, her hand in his, he was stressed anyway. He was more than that but he couldn’t find a word that was appropriate to describe what was going on in his mind just now.

But he kept looking at the tree.

Chapter Text

 

 

Stella

 

 

Stella looked around the bar to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything. Everything was orderly and clean, the lights were dimmed and the money had been transferred into its designated safe.

Roxy had left an hour earlier, but only because Stella had insisted—Roxy didn’t like the idea of leaving Stella alone with so much cleaning to do, but she also knew Stella and knew very well she could clean on her own better than with any help. So she had left, making Stella promise she’d call someone to get a ride.

She didn’t have to call anyone in the end, because Arthur called her.
“Are you coming home soon?” he asked. “I hate when you’re working without me.”
“I’m done now. Did you drink? Could you give me a ride home? I don’t really feel like walking.”
“Uh, yeah, I had like three strong drinks.” He sighed. “I’m gonna see if Deacon—”
“No it’s fine. You don’t have to. I’m gonna call someone else. I’ll be home soon.”
“Okay.” He didn’t sound convinced, or pleased. “Love you, baby girl.”
“Love you too. See you soon. And leave some liquor for me.”

She hung up and texted Danse. She didn’t dare calling him in case he was asleep. She waited in the empty bar for an answer. She looked at the floor at the center of the main room, and thought about the way she had cried there for Haylen. She still thought about Haylen often, but Arthur was there to support her. Danse was there to support her.

She only wished they’d agree to be in the same building at the same time.

Danse texted her back eventually.

“Is everything okay?” he asked. Actually, he asked ‘Is evrthsnc okay?’. Even autocorrect hadn’t been able to help him on this one.
Stella sighed, fearing he might be have had a few drinks just like Arthur, and that she’d have to walk home tonight.
“I’m fine, I just need a ride home from work,” she texted back. “Are you drunk?”
The answer came immediately. “Not drunk. Just fell asleep on the couch.”
She was going to tell him he shouldn’t come get her when he added, “I’m gonna be there in 10.”

Stella dimmed the screen and put it back on the counter.

She hated that it was here she had seen Haylen die on that same phone that was on the wooden surface next to her. For some reason, she didn’t really have a problem with the phone, but she did have a problem with the bar. Just a week ago it was the place she felt the most at home, and now it was just the place where she had watched her friend be shot in the head.

She decided to wait outside instead, so she carefully locked the door and closed it behind her. The air was thick and hot, and crickets were chirping endlessly. There weren’t many crickets back in Boston, but here the nights were filled with them, and the days with loud cicadas and many birds, too.

The crickets were pretty loud themselves tonight, or rather there were many of them. In any case, it took Stella a little while to realize there was someone walking nearby. She instinctively clutched her purse, even though she knew no one was actually dangerous in this town.

Or so she thought.

A man came from behind the bar. He avoided the light coming from the incandescent lamps and leaned on a wall. He seemed very relaxed, almost too relaxed.

“Hi Stella, I’m delighted to finally meet you,” he said, his voice so low it was barely a whisper.
It took her a few seconds to react.
“My name is Megan, you have the wrong person,” she replied. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m waiting for my friend, he should be here any second.”
“Danse just left his house, which means he won’t be here before eight or ten minutes,” the man went on. “And your name is Stella Austin, I’d much rather if we didn’t lie to each other right now—it’ll save us time.”
Stella’s heartbeat was beating speed records, and she felt like she was going to be sick.

The Institute. This man had to be an Institute agent—a courser, like they called them—and he was coming to get her. They’d found her, and they’d found Danse and it meant they also knew about Arthur.

“Don’t hurt them,” she blurted out. “They won’t be a problem for you.”
“I have nothing to do with these two.” The man was tall, much taller than her. “Anyway, I should probably tell you my name. My people call me High Rise.”
High Rise was a strange ass name—it wasn’t a name at all. But that was the last of Stella’s worries.

“You’re with… the Institute, right?” she asked. “A courser.”
High Rise laughed, and she thought he shook his head but she wasn’t sure.
“No, I’m not. I’m with other people. People who hate the Institute too, like you. Now will you follow me, please? I really don’t want to have to use this.”

A hand—dark skinned, with long fingers and perfect nails—appeared under a ray of light. High Rise was holding a gun.
Stella let out a cry, but she put her hand over her mouth to suppress it. If she was too loud, he’d shoot her and run away.

“Who are you?” she asked, her voice trembling. “Who are you working for?”
“I can’t tell you that right now, but if you follow me…”
“If you kill me, are you going to kill Danse and Arthur too?”

High Rise sighed.
“I told you. I’m not here for them, I’m here for you. Just… come with me. I really don’t want to hurt you.”

Stella had never been in shape, not really. It wasn’t a weight thing, it was just that she’d never really tried to be in shape. She’d never been good with any sport, except maybe badminton back in High School, and that wasn’t going to help her right now.
But she had to try anyway, right? This guy had to be from the Institute. Her best chance right now was to run away, get her phone out of her purse and call Danse so he could turn the car around and go get Arthur while she hid somewhere.

So, she ran.

Stella turned her heels around and launched herself forwards. She’d never been a good runner. She’d never been a decent runner, actually, so it didn’t surprise her when she felt strong arms grabbing her shirt and pulling her back. She had ran barely a few feet and was now across the street, behind a vacant building that, according to Zeke, had never really been occupied. If anything, she was in a worse situation than before she tried to flee, because nobody could see her here, and she didn’t think they’d hear her if she screamed. At that time of the night, this town was dead.

But she had to try this too. Just. Yell at the top of her lungs. Stella didn’t know where it came from, but she felt a sudden will to live she didn’t know she had, and she wouldn’t let this courser get in her way.

When she screamed, one hand moved from her shirt to her mouth to cover it. She bit into the flesh as hard as she could, and High Rise grunted and instinctively hit her back with his knee. She had hurt him. Something had worked.
Yeah, maybe she could keep hurting him and get a hold of his pistol.

Stella turned around and pushed the man against the wall. She lifted her leg, aiming for his crotch, but High Rise seized her ankle and shoved Stella away.
“Please,” he said. “I hate hitting girls.”
“Fuck you,” Stella spat back, and she punched him in the face. She was aiming for his nose but she had never really punched anybody before, so she got him right under the eye—good enough, she figured.

Until he put his hands on her shoulders and swirled her around so her back would be against the building’s concrete wall, hitting her head. Stella shouted, surprised by the impact. She couldn’t help but to think about the multiple head injuries she’d suffered this year. If it kept going like that, there was going to be some serious long-term damage.

But she kicked High Rise in the legs, trying desperately to get to his crotch. When that didn’t work, she went for his bare neck where she bit him again. He flinched, freeing one of her arm, and with that arm she punched him again and again.

“I’m sorry!” he shouted before throwing her on the hard ground. Her back absorbed most of the impact, but this time High Rise didn’t let her hit him.

He hit her. But unlike Stella, he knew what he was doing. He gave her a solid punch on the cheek, and immediately went for her temple after.

She had just enough time to feel him relax over her body, and see the closest streetlight spin endlessly. Then it all turned black.

 


 

When Stella regained her senses, it took her a while to realize her eyes were actually open, but that she was in a pitch-black room.
She was sitting in something that must have been an armchair and the air smelled faintly of mold. When she tried to rise, she couldn’t, and she felt rope or something of the sort glueing her onto the armchair.

She’d been kidnapped by some weird courser, whose codename was High Rise , and now she was in some basement and was breathing air that had to be unhealthy. She couldn’t move, her face hurt and her back hurt more. By now, Danse was probably worried to death, and the whole fucking town of Summersville, West Virginia was looking for her.

Nice.

“HEY!” she shouted. Her voice wasn’t as loud as expected. She held back her tears. “HEY! HIGH RISE!” she added. “FUCK YOU!”

There was some faint noise, and she heard a door being opened, then she was blinded by light.

She was in a small room with walls painted in an ugly blue. The paint was old. The wooden floor was scratched almost everywhere, and the armchair she was sitting on was green and ugly.

A woman was standing near the door. Stella took a good look at her.

“I’ve seen you before,” she murmured. “Who are you? Am I in the Institute? What do you want from me? Are you going to hurt my friends?”
“Woah, there,” the woman said. She was holding a bottle of water. “That’s a whole lot of questions. Water?”
“Just tell me ,” Stella begged. Now she was crying, making a damn fool of herself.

The woman came closer to Stella. She opened the water bottle and placed it near Stella’s lips, who drank some even though she didn’t want to.

“You’re not in the Institute,” she said. “We didn’t hurt your friends, and won’t have to if you cooperate.”
“Cooperate?”
“Our boss wants to talk with you—nothing more. She’s almost here. More water?”
“No.”

The woman nodded and sat on the floor in the middle of the room. She seemed very calm and relax, and Stella didn’t know if that was a good sign or not.

“I love what you did to your hair,” the woman said. “I let mine grow out a little bit, but I think I’ll go back to my undercut.”

Then Stella remembered. She had seen that woman before—she had talked with her even. She was a nurse at the hospital where Stella had been treated after being hit by Kellogg’s car.

“I know you,” Stella whispered.
“You know me a little and I know you a bit more,” Glory replied. “It’s true though what I said. Your hair. It’s cool.”
Stella almost thanked her, but made herself stop at the last second.

“You did my makeup once,” Stella remembered. “Because you wanted me and my friend to date.”
Glory giggled and shook her head as if she was remembering a really sweet memory.
“Yeah I did,” she admitted. “You didn’t need the makeup though. You only needed the confidence. And it worked, didn’t it?”
“No, not really.”

Yes, right after Glory had done her makeup Stella and Danse had ended up in her bed, but for what in the end? Nothing at all.

“How are things with Maxson?”
Stella was beyond pretending she was Megan, Arthur was Thomas and Danse was Eric. Obviously, these people knew everything about them.
“That’s really none of your business,” Stella retorted. “You guys kidnapped me. This High Rise dude hit me.”
“You hit him first. But really. Tell me about him. Maxson. He always annoyed me but, you know. He’s kind of cute.”

Stella closed her eyes and breathed in. Glory respected her silence and none of them spoke until the door was opened again, and a woman that was also vaguely familiar entered the room. She was dressed nicely, wearing a plaid shirt and skinny jeans, and she was smoking a cigarette. Her shoulder-length hair had a pleasant brown-red color that reminded Stella of her sister’s.

“Good morning, Stella,” she said. Her voice was like velvet. “How are you—I mean, are you badly hurt? We have medicine we can offer you, and a doctor you can see.”
Somehow, Stella sensed that there was no point in asking any more questions. Besides, she was tired. Exhausted.
“My back hurts. My face.” Every word was making her more tired.

The woman nodded and undid the rope around Stella, and around her wrists.

“Come with me,” she invited. “We’ll see that doctor. And then we’ll speak.”
“I just want to go back home,” Stella said. “Please.”
“I know you worry for Arthur Maxson and Michael Danse.” The woman finished her cigarette and crushed it under her foot, leaving a burn on the already ruined wooden floor. “As much as I hate that smug Maxson kid, I’m not gonna have him hurt. Deacon’s keeping an eye on both of them.”
“Deacon? As in… Deacon ?”

The woman didn’t answer that but she led Stella out of the room. They seemed to be in an old house somewhere surrounded by trees.

“Where are we?” Stella asked.
“Around Richwood. Still in West Virginia. We’ve travelled all this way just for you.”
“Why?”
“I want to talk to you. But first, you’ll see a doctor. I’m sorry High Rise had to do this. But he’s even more sorry than I am, trust me.”
The woman had entered a bathroom. It was empty, but Stella grabbed the door before she closed it.

“Who are you?” she asked. “I’ve seen you before.”
“We used to be rivals.” The woman laughed. “They call me Desdemona.”

That name definitely rang a bell in Stella’s head.

“The Railroad,” she breathed. “That bar.”
“Yes. That was us. Before the Institute burned us down.”
Stella blinked. “What? They—the did it to you too?”
“We’ll speak later. Doctor Carrington will see you now.” Desdemona closed the door.

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur

 

 

 

He did hear the knocks on the door but he knew it couldn’t possibly be Stella. Because if she’d forgotten her keys she would have climbed the tree on the side of the house and came in by the window like she always did when she didn’t have her keys.
Whoever that was was knocking really hard, though.

Arthur was drunk. Really, really drunk. Whenever he moved his head, even just a little, the ceiling spinned and he had to breathe deeply to make his nausea go away.

The bottle of whiskey was empty on the coffee table next to him and Arthur felt guilty about this.

But he hated it when Stella wasn’t around. He hated it when he was alone in that house that was way too big for just the two of them. Because then his mind played tricks on him and made up reasons for the house to be less empty. Like, other people in the bedrooms instead of vacant rooms. A room all painted in pink with a pretty princess bed and drawings on the walls and—

“No,” Arthur said aloud. “Fuck. No.”
That was fucked up. So damn fucked up, and also literally impossible. As in, that would never ever happen.

More knocks on the door. Louder this time, and so strong it made the walls and windows shake. What time was it exactly anyway? Even Deacon didn’t do that kind of stuff.
He tried to yell something like, “what the fuck do you want”, but only intelligible muttering came out. Was he that drunk? Could he be that lonely without Stella? Was he that fucking pathetic?

“ARTHUR JUST—OPEN THE DAMN DOOR OKAY?”
That voice. Familiar. Too familiar. And yet…

Arthur jumped on the couch and looked at the door. He couldn’t see him from the window but Danse was there. He was right there, knocking on his door. And yelling.
What the hell was going on?

“DON’T BE A FUCKING BABY FOR ONCE!” Danse went on. Arthur heard him very well because the windows were open. “WE HAVE TO TALK.”

Yeah they had to talk. But Arthur didn’t know what he’d say to Danse. The truth was, he knew he had kind of overreacted, but he also still didn’t like synths very much. He hated the Institute and everything it stood for, and while he knew it wasn’t the synths’ fault if they had been created, it made him uncomfortable to know that Danse had been one this whole time.
(That Danse, the synth, had gently squeezed and pumped and sucked his cock until Arthur had moaned and whimpered his name, begging for release, which had finally came and splattered on Danse’s thigh, and Danse had came on Arthur’s stomach.)

(And the week after that Danse had told him he had a crush on him. Danse’s cheeks had been bright red but he had not expected an answer. That night Arthur had masturbated to thoughts of Danse, imagining his full lips around his cock, their bodies close to one another.)

“No,” Arthur said again.

His head was filled with ghosts. The relationship he’d never had with Danse because he wouldn’t admit he felt something. The way he had probably broken his Institute-built soul by shoving him away like that. The children he’d never have with Stella.

“ARTHUR!” Danse’s voice brought Arthur back to reality. “STELLA’S MISSING, AND I FOUND HER PHONE NEAR THE BAR!”

Fuck.

Arthur bounced on his feet and went for the door, only it was relatively dark in the living room and he didn’t see the pair of boots Stella had left on the floor. He tripped on it, and fell against a shelf that was almost knocked over. It stayed in place, but almost every book that was in it flew right on top of Arthur.
Swearing, Arthur got back up and kicked a dictionary away, hurting his foot at the same time but it was worth it.
Then he reached the door.

He’d forgotten the way Danse looked. Even if he was filled with worry, there was something comforting in Danse’s posture. He looked like shit right now though—his thick hair was disheveled and he was wearing pajama shorts and his old Metal Gear Solid baseball shirt, the one with the hole near the neckline.

Danse paused when Arthur opened the door. He was probably thinking the same about him right now—that he looked like shit. He was pretty drunk, had just been hit in the face by To Kill a Mockingbird, had spilled whiskey on his white t-shirt and Arthur didn’t dare looking down but he was almost sure his shorts were cumstained—he’d watched his favorite video of him and Stella because he missed her and ah, well.

Both of them were a fucking mess.

“Arthur.”
He was glad Danse spoke first, but his deep voice felt like a punch to the face.
“Is Stella here?” Danse went on. “I think she’s missing. What if the Institute got to her? Do we call the police?”
“How is she missing? She’s supposed to call someone for a ride home.” Arthur was very, very drunk. He’d told Stella he had three drinks but that had been a lie. He didn’t know how many drinks he’d had because he was drinking straight from the bottle.

“You’re drunk,” Danse sighed. “Where’s your bathroom?”
“What?”
“Where’s your fucking bathroom Arthur?” Danse grabbed his shirt.

Arthur raised his fist to hit him—he wasn’t going to allow a synth to beat him up—but missed his face by a solid foot. By the time he was ready to give it a second try, it was too late, and Danse was dragging him up the stairs.

There was no hatred in the way he was pulling Arthur by the collar of his shirt. Even drunk Arthur noticed that, and he also noticed how warm Danse’s skin was.
Danse looked inside every door in the second floor hallway until he did find the bathroom. When Arthur realized what was going on it was too late—he was shoved in the shower and cold water poured over him.

“FUCK!” he yelled. “WHAT THE FUCK!”
“I need you to fucking listen to me, Arthur.” Danse didn’t stop the water from running down. “I know you hate me but you’re gonna have to get past that right now if you want to see Stella again.”
Stella. Her bright eyes, her laugh. Her smile, that one smile she had only for him. The way she looked when he was spilling himself inside her.

Stella.

“What happened?” Arthur managed, closing his eyes. He shivered, but Danse still let the water run.
“She texted me, asking if I could give her a ride home. I was surprised she didn’t ask you but I understand now.” Danse paused, and Arthur opened his eyes just in time to see him sigh and literally grab his hair. “Anyway, I hopped in my Jeep and I drove to Parker’s. That must have taken me like, ten minutes, if that.”

Danse finally cut the water, but Arthur stayed still. He could still feel the liquor in his veins, but what he felt more was Stella’s absence, and so he listened.

“So I get there and she’s not in front of the bar,” Danse explained. “I get out of my car and I try to get in, but it’s locked. I knock there, nothing. I knock at the back door, nothing. I come back at the front and I call her phone. I hear the ringtone in the distance, so I follow the sound. I find the phone behind a vacant building, but she’s not there. She’s nowhere.”

Arthur tried to get back on his feet but slipped on water. Danse caught him and pulled him up easily. Arthur was dripping cold water on Stella’s bathroom floor.

“It wasn’t the Institute,” Arthur said while Danse opened the closet and threw a pink towel at him. “The Institute would never leave her phone behind. That’s an amateur thing to do.”
He was still drunk but Arthur felt more like himself. He exited the room and made his way to his own bedroom where he removed his wet shirt and pants.
“But—” Danse started from the doorframe. “You’re gonna tell me some random person just kidnapped her? Have you seen this town at that time of the night?”
“I’ve seen it.” Arthur entered his closet to change his boxers, too. He found a pair of jeans and another t-shirt to throw on as well. “But I’m telling you Danse, the Institute wouldn’t just leave her phone behind.”

When he came back into the room, Danse was looking out the window. Arthur came to a pause and breathed in. It was strange to be in the same room as him.
Arthur was going to say something when the doorbell rang.

Both of them sprang downstairs, fighting for first place in the stairs. Arthur almost tripped again. He should have a coffee.
Danse won the race and opened the door, and both of them let out a disappointed sigh when they saw Deacon.

“Hey guys, late night, huh?” Deacon said, getting inside without being asked. “Heard some kind of… commotion, here.”
“Meg’s missing,” Arthur replied. “She was closing the bar and when Eric went to get her, he only found her phone behind a building.” He’d almost forgotten to use their fake names.
“Eric, huh?” Deacon said with that same, not-so-natural tone. “Nice meeting you, bro. I’m Deacon. Or, the Deke. Or, handsome. But Deacon’s fine.”

Danse looked over at Arthur, a large question mark on his face. He mouthed, “who the fuck is this?”

“Would it hurt your dick so damn much to just be serious this one fucking time, Deacon?” Arthur growled with annoyance.
“Actually, yeah.” Deacon chuckled.  “Listen fellas, I’m sorry this has to be this way, but I’m gonna need you to not get out of his house.”
“What?” Danse looked at him again, even more confused.

Deacon put his hands behind his back and extracted a pistol out of his back pocket. Danse, who was the closest to him, immediately went to tackle him but Deacon shot him just below the neck. Danse halted himself, his eyes still on Arthur. That wasn’t a gun, not a real one anyway. It didn’t sound like one, it sounded pneumatic. Like…

“Hope that didn’t hurt too much, Michael,” Deacon said. “Tinker Tom’s great at making that sort of shit, but sometimes he ignores details like pain, or even death. Don’t worry though, you’re not going to die—a doctor made the tranquilizer in that dart.”

There was a dart stuck in Danse’s skin, and he pulled it out of his flesh. Arthur caught him before he fell on the floor, Deacon’s tranquilizer pistol aimed at him.

“You with the Institute?” he spat. “How do you know his real name?”
“We ain’t the Institute, Maxson. We’re the good guys. I’m even gonna let you put your friend on that couch before I shoot you too. So he doesn’t wake up sore.”
“Fuck you.” Arthur knew there was no point in fighting—best case scenario he’d be able to give Deacon a black eye before passing out too. “Where’s Stella?”
“The boss just wants to have a talk with her, is all,” Deacon replied, carelessly waving his weapon. “She’s fine and she’ll be back soon. Don’t worry, man.”

“Don’t worry ?” Arthur pulled Danse on the couch and carefully placed his head on a pillow. “You kidnapped my girlfriend!”
“Yeah, we did. So you’re gonna sit or something? You’d rather get upstairs to your bed maybe?”
“How long will that sedative be effective?” Arthur asked.
“Like, five or six hours. But I’m gonna inject you with another dose before you wake up. Sorry, man.”

Deacon shot him. The dart pinched his skin where it got in—about the same spot as Danse. Arthur grunted and tried to reach Deacon to hit him but felt dizzy within just a few seconds. He sat at the end of the couch, with Danse’s feet brushing his thigh. There was an infomercial on TV. He passed out.

 

 


 

 

Arthur didn’t wake up, but he was in his office at the bar. It wasn’t the office he had at the end, it was the shitty one he had when he had first opened the bar. Badly decorated—or rather, not at all—with loads of crap and paperwork on his desk.

The green couch was there, everything else was there. The generic, gray color on the walls, and the awful desk he’d gotten from IKEA, as well as that couch.

He’d loved that couch.

When Arthur turned around to see if his Lord of the Rings poster was next to the door as he remembered it, he saw Danse in the doorframe. He had a smile Arthur barely remembered on him—innocent, harmless. Soft. Back when things were simpler.

Arthur then became aware that he was dreaming. It had to be the most vivid dream he’d ever had. He could almost smell the fresh paint on the walls, the plastic of his desk and his rum breath. Back then he used to drink rum.

“We did pretty good tonight,” Danse said entering the office. His teeth were straight and white. “Got plenty of tips.”
“That’s because of that group of college girls, though,” Arthur heard himself say. He was fighting it—if he let go he’d live that scene again, not just as audience but as himself, past Arthur. “They liked you.”

When Danse laughed, all of Arthur’s defenses fell down and a warm feeling grew inside his stomach. As Danse comfortably sat on the couch, Arthur did the exact same thing he’d done so many years ago, he went for a small cabinet near the green couch and got from it the bottle of rum and two clean glasses.

“Uh, I don’t know,” Danse replied, his face flushed. “I mean… I think I heard them say they’d come back because they liked the music.”
Arthur tsked him and poured two glasses for them, not bothering to mix the liquor with Coke or ice. He sat next to his friend and without warning, shoved his hand in the pocket of his jeans where he found exactly what he knew was there: a piece of paper with two phone numbers on it, written in two distinct feminine handwritings.

“Give it back!” Danse grunted, grabbing the paper. “Goddamnit, Arthur.”
“They were pretty,” Arthur pointed out. “You should call them. You could use a girlfriend.

Danse looked away, swallowing a large amount of rum. Arthur’s eyes stopped on his lips, the way they were still full and smooth even if they were squeezed against the glass.
The warmth in his stomach descended a little.

“I’m not really… you know,” Danse sighed. “We’re so damn busy making this place the best bar in town. I’m not complaining though. I love working with you.”
“It’s a pleasure for me as well,” Arthur assured. “But you seem distracted, distant, Danse. Is your shoulder hurting again? Does something bother you?”

Danse finished his glass and poured himself another, from which he drank immediately. Arthur watched as he swallowed the amber liquid, his throat clenching and his Adam’s apple rising and lowering.

“My shoulder hurts but I don’t care,” Danse said. “I’m sure I’ll be fine soon. I just… I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Do you want to play some video games? I feel like it.”

Danse always felt like playing video games, so Arthur turned on the monitor in front of the couch and his Xbox and they played a little, until they both ended up too drunk to shoot straight. They turned off everything, laughing hysterically.

Somehow the dream played that last part part on fast-forward, almost as if it didn’t matter at all.

Danse put the controller down, finished his drink and stretched his back against the couch. His shirt lifted just enough to reveal his stomach, muscular and hairy, and the elastic strap of his boxers.

Danse caught Arthur watching and froze. Arthur looked away, pretending to be very busy finishing his own drink.

What happened next is a blur, both in the dream and in Arthur’s memory, but Danse’s hand caressed his neck and he was totally fine with it.

Arthur pressed his face against Danse’s palm. His other free hand slipped under his shirt, feeling Arthur’s stomach, running his fingers around the waistband of his jeans.

His face was so close to his Arthur could see just how dark his eyes were. He’d always known but now he was just admiring his large, soft eyes. Eyes that were staring at Arthur’s lips.

Danse’s mouth was already open, waiting. His lips were glistening with rum.

Arthur pulled Danse even closer and kissed him on the mouth. It sent a wave of electricity through his whole body, it made him moan, it made his cock hard.

Danse’s lips caught his in a hot, wet kiss. Arthur shoved his tongue in Danse’s mouth, but the other man was slower, kinder, yet still hurried and hungry. He held his shirt in his fist and pulled hard, and kissed Arthur with fervor.

Arthur pulled away from him only to bury his face in Danse’s neck, where his skin was even hotter and where his perfume stronger. He bit into his flesh then sucked on it, and in return Danse filled Arthur’s ears with his soft, deep moaning voice.

“F—f—fuck, Arthur.”
While Arthur was working on his neck, he unbuttoned Danse’s jeans and yanked them down. He heard Danse kicking them away as well as his sneakers, and Arthur took the initiative to push his Vans out of his feet right now.

“Arthur, oh my god. Holy shit.” Danse was trying to undo Arthur’s pants but he’d just put a hand on the large bulge forming on Danse’s boxers, and Danse had melted. Rubbing his hand on the fabric, Arthur could already feel precum wetting the underwear. He bit Danse’s neck harder and took his own pants off.

Arthur pushed himself up just enough to pass his leg over Danse’s body so he could straddle him. He pressed his crotch against his, rubbing his hard cock and Danse’s. Even with their boxers on, Arthur could feel him, hard and warm, and ready.

And it felt right.

He kissed Danse’s jaw, the beard tickling his shaven face. Danse’s hands squeezed Arthur’s ass, and he responded by more aggressive thrusts.

“W—wait,” Danse breathed. Arthur halted and pressed his lips against Danse’s. He opened his mouth and they kissed for a long time, feeling each other’s body with their hands.

Then Danse gently pushed Arthur off him, and Arthur found himself sitting on the couch again. Danse slid off onto the floor, where he faced Arthur and pulled his underwear down. When his cock was freed, Arthur watched Danse watching it, its thickness, the precum leaking down.

Danse removed his own boxers and even though he was kneeling on the floor, Arthur caught a glimpse of his manhood. Smooth and of an impressive length, it was as hard as a cock could be.

Danse took Arthur’s cock in his hand and carefully squeezed it. They both moaned.
“Come on,” Arthur begged. “Do it.”

Danse’s tongue danced on the head of his shaft for a few seconds before he parted his lips enough and descended onto him. Arthur thrusted his hips, his eyes rolling at the back of his head.

“F—fuck.” It was his turn to stutter.

Danse’s head bobbed between his thighs. His mouth was tight and wet around him, and he rolled his tongue and sucked hard. He knew what he was doing.

Danse was sucking his cock. Arthur stared down. Yes. Michael Danse was giving him a blowjob.

“My turn,” Arthur said.
When Danse let his cock go, it made a delicious, satisfying popping sound. He was glistening in saliva and precum, but Arthur wanted to wait.

Danse sat down next to him and Arthur took him in his hand, stroking him. When he felt that Danse was easing into it, he went to a faster pace, until Danse was whimpering. Only then Arthur leaned over and licked his shaft from bottom to top, fondling his balls.

“I’m gonna come,” Danse warned.
“No, you’re not,” Arthur retorted, rubbing his cheek against Danse’s cock. “Look at me in the eyes, Danse. You’re not coming until I tell you so.”

Danse nodded and Arthur returned to his sucking. Danse tasted quite good, and Arthur often returned to the head of his cock to lick the discharge and swallow it. Everytime, Danse twitched around him, but he held back.

Arthur returned to his straddling position and they both looked down to stare at their cocks rubbing on one another. That sight alone almost made Arthur come. Danse was always attractive, but when he was naked like that, and aroused, it was a whole other thing.

Danse rolled his hips and Arthur did the same, and they kept watching their shafts meeting each other until Arthur kissed Danse again.

“Arthur,” Danse breathed against his lips. “Shit.”
“Shhh.” Arthur bit his lip and put his hands against his solid, strong stomach. When he kissed Danse, he tasted himself and a little bit of blood.

Arthur wrapped his hand around Danse’s cock again and squeezed it, thumbing the head. Danse was still rolling his hips, sweat pearling on his temples.

“You can come now,” Arthur said in a low voice.

He stroke Danse as hard as he could in this position, rotating his wrist to magnify the effect.

Danse’s head flew back and Arthur felt him twitch under his palm. He stiffened and his breathing became erratic, and loud, until let out a long moan as his seed blurted out and sprayed on Arthur’s stomach. The sticky contact made his own cock twitch, and Arthur rubbed himself against Danse’s thigh, still working on the other man to let him enjoy his long orgasm.

Arthur came too, spilling himself on Danse’s thigh and the bottom of his shaft. Watching it happen gave Arthur a strong aftershock, then he lied on the couch while his cock softened.

Danse did the same, but he was the first to get up and get tissues to clean up. Arthur was the first to put his clothes back on.

The rest was a blur.

 


 

 

Arthur woke up only to be blinded by light. He stirred and realized he was in a sitting position. Something, someone was touching him to his left.

He barely turned his head to see Danse still lying, asleep.

Then Arthur remembered Stella.

“Hey, Maxson.” Deacon stood next to him, eating a sandwich with one hand, holding the damn sedative pistol in the other. “Time for your second dose.”

The dart pinched Arthur again, and he passed out.

Chapter Text

 

 

Stella

 

 

 

Stella watched the sunrise while eating a slice of pizza on a small wooden dock behind the Railroad house. It was good pizza too, brought by Glory from the small pizza place in town. There was a nice, cool breeze, just enough to make her shiver. She was still wearing her shorts and tank top from last night. There was a little bit of blood on the shorts. Or was it sauce from the pizza?

“How’s that breakfast, Stella?” Glory asked from behind her.
Stella looked over her shoulder. The woman was sitting on a patio chair in the grass, her bare feet in the water sending soft splashes around over two mud colored toads. Her rich bronze skin was glowing in the sunrise light.
She was also holding a pistol. She was there to guard Stella, to make sure she wouldn’t escape and that she wouldn’t attack anybody,  not to sunbathe with her.
“It’s pretty good,” Stella replied, focusing on the horizon again. “Thanks.”

Glory hummed softly and Stella heard her manipulating her weapon. She was bored. Stella was bored too, and she really just wanted to go home. She didn’t trust these people—after all, they had kidnapped her. Literally . And had put an actual informer in the house besides hers so he could give daily accounts of her and Arthur’s happenings. Stella wondered if Deacon had ever spied on them while they had sex. They often had sex outside. Hm. She imagined him talking over the phone with Desdemona. ‘At 11:12 tonight they initiated sexual intercourse in their backyard. Started out when Stella decided to strip naked in the pool. Arthur jerked off a while watching her float in the water, then they fucked hard on the grass, slightly damaging a nearby bush of peonies.’

She sighed. She missed Arthur—his big arms around her, his voice in her ear when she woke up against him. The feeling of them becoming slightly more intoxicated as time passed, and ending up dancing slowly in the living room, his hands on her hips, his lips on her neck.
Stella shuddered and closed her eyes, putting the pizza back in the plastic plate next to her.

She also missed Danse. His deep voice, his laugh. He didn’t laugh a lot anymore so whenever he did, it was always special. She missed just how easy it was to be around him, and how easy it was to be silent around him. In the few days after their reunion, they had spent two evening together total, and both times it was almost in complete silence. Not that they had nothing to say to each other—Danse had been on a trip before her departure and she had to built a new life, literally, so there were things to say—but being together was their way to calm down. To get away from those things. So, they ate pasta and watched movies or napped. Stella on the couch, Danse on the armchair.

And Stella missed Boston. Not the city so much anymore. She was getting used to this small town life, and how there was no way she ever visited any store without running into someone she knew, or someone who knew someone she knew. She was getting used to the sound of the trees in the wind, the big storms, the heat, the different shades of green everywhere she looked around.
She was getting used to peace.

But she missed Goodneighbor and Hancock and Daisy and Charlie and Kleo and MacCready at the back of the restaurant reading comic books. She should have offered him to take both him and Duncan at the zoo. She should have.
She missed Piper and her late, lengthy phone calls about conspirations and local politics.

She missed Preston and Mama Murphy and the Longs, and she missed Sturges. They had been the best neighbors she’d ever had.

She missed the Prydwen. She missed Haylen, who had given her life for a cause that wasn’t worth it. She missed Ingram and her bad jokes. She almost missed Rhys. No. She actually missed him.

All these people—those who were alive—thought she was dead. Maybe they missed her sometimes but not in the way she missed them. You just did not miss a dead person the way you missed one who was alive. She missed Nate. She longed for Arthur.

Stella looked behind her again when she heard footsteps on the dock. Desdemona wore a different outfit than earlier: a loose shirt with leggings. Her hair was tied in a bun on her head, and she smiled at Glory when she passed near her.

“Did you like your food?” Desdemona asked. “I told them to offer you proper breakfast.”
“”No, I asked for pizza,” Stella replied as the woman sat down next to her. “It was good. There’s a slice left if you want.”
“I’ll gladly take it.” Desdemona rolled her leggings up to her knees and immerged her feet into the water. Then she grabbed the pizza slice on the plate and took a bite from it. “Thank you, Stella.”

She almost replied, ‘you’re welcome’, but she didn’t really mean it. She only wanted to look as compliant as possible. The sooner she’d be home, the better it would be. They’d probably need to get new aliases and start over somewhere else. If the Railroad had found them, it meant maybe the Institute could find them, too.
She’d miss this place. She’d long for it. It would remain with her for as long as she was alive. The bright sun, the different shades of green, her marigolds.

“So, are we gonna do this?” Stella asked while Desdemona was devouring the pizza. “I kind of want to go home.”
The other woman nodded and quickly bit into the pizza again. She made gestures with her hands as she was swallowing it.
“Of course, Stella. Again, I’m sorry things had to be done like that… but it was for your own safety, as well as ours.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It was a precaution in case the Institute has its eyes on you. So we brought you in a neutral place. But even without that—if High Rise had just asked to speak with you in a private place, would you have followed him?”

Stella rolled her eyes and looked into the sunrise again. It wasn’t looking like a sunrise so much anymore. It was just a morning sky.

“I thought so,” Desdemona went on. “Now, let’s get straight to the point. We need you.”
“You… need me? But how? And why? And why on Earth do you know all this stuff about me anyway?”
“Oh. We’ve been looking at you for a while. Deacon has, to be more specific. He’s our best pair of eyes, and he knows how to blend in. He’s good at what he does.”
“Okay.” Stella breathed in, trying to gather as much patience as she could. “But why ?”

Desdemona was taking her time, irritating Stella. Only it was very difficult to forget Glory and her gun behind, so Stella tried to keep her cool.

“We’ve been putting our noses inside the Institute’s things for a while.” Desdemona looked up as a heron flew over them. “And, you grabbed our attention. You’re a valuable asset to them, which makes you valuable to us.”
“Because they killed my fiancé and stole my unborn baby? That’s why I’m a valuable asset?”
“Sadly, yes. I know how it sounds, and I’m sorry such terrible things happened to you. But we, the Railroad, have a clear goal—save, help and support as many synths as possible.”
“That’s a hell of an agenda,” Stella pointed out. She watched the heron turn around and land on the beach a few feet away from us. She wished she had her phone to take a picture of it, for Arthur. “There’s a lot of synths.”

Desdemona nodded and invited Stella to walk with her. It was a polite invite, and even if Stella was tired and would much rather sit, she got up and followed the woman around the beach. It would be another sticky hot day. The air was already warm and the cool breeze was completely gone.

“There are a lot of synths out there, that’s for sure,” Desdemona admitted. “And now that the truth is out about the Institute, there’s very little we can do for the synths in Boston. People are armed, people are angry , and we lost many of our best agents in that war.”
“How do I fit in that story?” Stella asked.
“The Institute holds an awful amount of synths in slavery, that we know for sure. They don’t call it slavery because they insist that synths are not like humans. That because they can be shut down at anytime, wiped out and reprogrammed, they—”
“What?” Stella froze, her eyes lost somewhere between the lake and Desdemona. She almost puked the pizza. “They can do that to synths? The rumors are true, then?”
“Yes. They do it all the time inside the Institute. If a maintenance synth doesn’t ‘work’ to their liking, they wipe his or her memory out, and program it again.”
“Could they do that to Danse?”
“Well, technically, they could.” Desdemona put her hand on Stella’s shoulder, squeezing it softly. “But you’re aware that Maxson has also been investigating the Institute, is that right?”
“Yes.”
“Well. The man he sent down there was successfully able to entirely delete Danse from the Institute’s servers, on Maxson’s orders. They don’t have his codes anymore. They don’t have anything on him anymore. He’s rogue. I thought… I thought you might know.”

Stella almost vomited again, but for an entire different sets of reasons. Arthur had done that? That seemed very unlikely. Or maybe it was back when he didn’t hate Danse?
Yeah. It had to be.
Or did it?

“Now that you know your friend is safe, would you like to know why I brought you here?” Desdemona asked.
I’ve asked you literally a hundred times , Stella thought, but caught a glimpse of Glory not that far back. She was lying comfortably on the patio chair, the pistol lazily resting on her stomach.
“Yes,” she muttered instead.

Desdemona nodded. Her red hair shone under the bright sun. She was a beautiful woman. Arthur had always referred to her as an ‘old bitch’, and she looked nothing like an old bitch. Maybe just kind of a bitch—but Stella admired that in most women.

“Don’t panic, now,” Desdemona began. “I know you came all the way here to escape them, but if the Institute does end up getting a hold of you at some point—”
“Won’t happen,” Stella cut off. “Everything I had is gone, and—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But the Institute is everywhere and they might end up finding you, Stella. And when that happens, they’ll take you in there alive, even if that means you’ll kill three or thirty coursers defending yourself. They have a very high important order to get you in alive . They don’t have the same for anyone else. It’s a special rule.”
“Why?”
“I’m not sure, but it has to be linked to your son.”

Stella decided to sit down in the sand. It was warm and a little wet, but she was past caring about that.

“Okay, so?”
“So, whenever you’re down there, I have something to ask from you. I want you to help a contact we have inside.”
“What do I get in return? And help them doing what?”
“We don’t have a lot of money and you don’t need it anyway. But should you be brought to the Institute, I promise that if you help us, it will mean you’ll be able to get out. Thing that would probably not happen otherwise. They want you alive, but people typically don’t get out of there at all.”
“What do I have to do?”
“The contact’s codename is Patriot. We don’t know his exact identity but he has provided with enough proof to show his allegiance. Patriot gave us an encrypted message to upload onto any computer at the Institute, in case one of our agents make it in there. Once uploaded, Patriot will immediately receive that notification it on his phone, and be alerted of your presence. He will give you more details—things change too often down there to make a plan in advance.”
“Okay, but what do I have to do ?”
“You and Patriot will help all the enslaved synths to escape the Institute. It will be your only escape route as well, most likely, so think about it.”

Think about it.

 

*

 

When getting into the car, Stella had thought she’d fall asleep almost immediately, but she didn’t. Not at first, and not then either. And yet she was exhausted.

High Rise was driving. He had bruises on his face and looked sincerely sorry about having to hit her. He turned out to be a nice guy in the end, asking just enough questions to be interested but not invasive. And when her answers became too short, he shut up altogether, probably to let her sleep. She did not sleep.

There was a small tote bag on her lap. It had white with flowers on it. It contained two water bottles, a few snacks and a little square box.

In the box there was the MicroSD card she had to smuggle into the Institute, with a variety of adapters to make sure she could put it into any computer.

She would have to keep that box on her at all times. If Desdemona was saying the truth, Stella did risk being found by the Institute sooner or later, and that little square box might be her only salvation. It was only with it that she’d be able to break out.

The drive back to Summersville was short even though High Rise took an alternative route. Soon enough, he stopped the car in front of her house. It felt like it was over, finally, even though it wasn’t.

“Dez added you to our database,” High Rise said with a smile that looked painful. Literally. She had hit him hard. “Codename: Charmer. Nice, right?”
“Charmer?” Stella’s eyebrow rose high. “In what honor?”
“We all thought you were pretty charming, is all. In your own way.”
“In my own way.” Stella sighed and pushed the car door open. “Well, hopefully we never see each other again, and if we do, we don’t have to beat up each other.”
“Yeah, that’d be real nice. Good luck, Charmer! Stay safe!”
“You too, High Rise.”

She watched him take off and drive away. When she didn’t see the car anymore, she made her way inside the house.
It smelled like sweat in here, and like humidity and old socks. Stella sighed. Arthur was the worst at keeping the house clean.

Deacon was in the kitchen, leaning on the counter while talking on the phone. He hung up as soon as she got in.

“They’re still asleep, but not for long,” he said. “Charmer, huh?”
“News travel fast. I need a shower and I need to sleep, so is there anything else, Deacon?” Was Deacon even is real name?
“Nope. I’m gonna see myself out.” She followed him back to the door.
The cicadas were already singing loudly. She wondered if she’d get any sleep at all.
“Ah yeah,” he added before she closed the door after him. “Doc Carrington said it’d be best if they didn’t drive for a few hours after waking up. And they should drink like, plenty of water and shit. Stay hydrated.”
“Got it.” Stella slammed the door and locked it.

She did not own herself anymore. Apparently some random organization (that also owned a bar?) had been looking at her and gathering information about her for years, and earlier this morning they had decided to kidnap her.
There was the Institute, too, who would most likely kidnap her soon enough as well.

The little square box. Carry it the way you carry your phone , Desdemona had said. Learn to make it a part of your daily life .  

She was so damn tired.

Arthur was in the living room, with Danse. He was sitting on one end of the couch while Danse occupied the rest of its space by lying on it. They were both a little pale, otherwise they seemed healthy enough. At least they were getting some sleep. Plenty of it.

“Wake the fuck up,” she said. High Rise had specified it would be safer if she looked after them while they were still sedated. But it was her turn to rest.

She was in a terrible mood.

They woke up exactly at the same time, but Arthur got to her first. His skin was warm and he didn’t smell especially good, but when he took her in his arms Stella felt instantly better. She inhaled, trying to keep her composure, but in her pocket there was the square box and it was heavy.

When she began crying, Arthur squeezed her whole body against his. Another hand touched her hair. Danse.

“Baby girl.” Arthur’s voice was a whisper in her ear. “You’re okay. You’re home. You’re okay. It’s gonna be okay.”
She thought one of them was going to ask what had happened, but instead Danse offered to clean up the house after the mess they had made last night. Arthur thanked him (he thanked him. Arthur thanked Danse, and nodded to him and said something but Stella didn’t even hear because she was so shocked) and helped Stella getting up the stairs.

“Do you still hate him?” she asked feebly, Arthur’s hand on her lower back.
“We’ll talk about this when you’re better. Did you get any sleep? Did you eat? What happened to your face? It wasn’t the Institute, was it?”
“I ate. I didn’t sleep. I punched a guy first and he hit me back. It wasn’t the Institute and we’re not compromised.” Her bathroom was a real trainwreck. Arthur apologized for that, and she got into his bathroom instead.

He helped her strip off her clothes in the kindest way he’d ever done it, kissing her neck almost the whole time.
Stella stepped into the warm shower and closed her eyes. She must have been leaning back because Arthur caught her just in time, before she could fall down and hit her head.

That would have been ironic, but not surprising. A little more or a little less brain damage—who would see the difference?

He still had his clothes on but Arthur got in the shower with her and stayed behind her so she could lean against him. With his free hand, he grabbed the showerhead and carefully let water run on her head and her body. She would have been so turned on if things had been different.

He put the showerhead back in its place and squeezed a shampoo bottle on her head. It was his and it smelled like him and that was comforting, but the best part was when he massaged her head. Stella let out a sigh of relief. He rinsed the shampoo and apologized—he didn’t have conditioner.

Then he scrubbed her body, often kissing her. It was warm and good and she almost wanted to fuck him. Almost.

After that, Stella was practically asleep. He was the one to cut off the water and get her out of the shower. He towelled her dry and carried her on his bed. The cicadas were singing. Arthur was saying something to her with a soft voice. He kissed the bruise on her face. She could faintly hear Danse downstairs.

She was alive. She was promised to be found by a courser who would take her to the Institute where she would most likely meet her son. Well, the son they had built with Shaun’s remains. In a small square box there was her way to come back alive from that. Before the Institute might attempt to kill her or something. She was naked in Arthur’s bed, and he held her as she fell asleep, finally.


Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

 

There were three bikinis on Stella’s bed. One was her sexiest, it was all white with lace and didn’t cover much. The second one was cute—it was almost the same color as her hair, with a black waistline. The last one was more plain, all black, except for blue ribbons that made it look almost innocent.

Last night at the bar she had overheard two men talking about her, and the videos she made with Arthur. Porn. It was straight-up porn, she knew that, but it was hard to say the word even in her own head. They were explaining to their friends what was going on in the videos—and she didn’t need to know it was the “videos with the purple haired slut” they were discussing. She recognized the things she did with Arthur, and apparently these men remembered every detail.

It had made her feel tired and want to go home but it was nothing to Arthur’s reaction.

He happened to be working that night as well, and for a long time he couldn’t hear what the men were saying because they were at a table on the opposite side of the room and it was a busy night. It was only when two of them approached Stella while she was making a round of rum and cokes for a table that things had gone bad.

The first one asked Stella if it was possible to hire her for services, or if she only did video. The second one said he’d like to feature in one of her videos. “I have a real big cock, honey,” he said. “And I think it’d look good filling you.”

Arthur had lost it. Before she could even reply anything—actually she was going to pour the ice-cold beverages in their pants—Arthur had jumped over the counter and it had taken Danse, Zeke and Stella to pull him away from the two guys, who were pretty strong too. They worked for the Fire Department. They were kicked out and banned from the bar with black eyes and bloody faces.

Arthur had shoved Danse away and into the wall, too. Probably a reflex more than anything, but it had hurt Stella and it had hurt Danse more than he would admit it. Even if he had apologized, Arthur obviously still didn’t trust Danse.

They’d deleted the blog and the videos, but Stella could feel everyone’s eyes on her, sticking to her skin, following her everywhere.

Stella touched the lace on the white bikini. She’d wear this one. She looked good in this one, and maybe it didn’t matter if she was the official Town Slut.

There was a brief knock on the door downstairs.
“It’s me!” Danse’s voice called from the window. “Are you ready yet?”
“Almost,” Stella replied. “Come in, Arthur’s already gone.”

She waited for Danse to come in. He was wearing shorts and a tank top with sunglasses hooked on its neck. He had a nice tan already. He looked good.

“I don’t know what to wear,” Stella sighed, lying on her bed. “I kind of didn’t want to go, but Arthur insisted.”
“It won’t help if you hide under your sheets. It’d just give too much importance to opinions that don’t matter.”
“I don’t know what I was thinking.” She put her face in a pillow. Danse tried to take it away but she resisted. “I was so stupid.”
“You were coping . Still are.” He pulled harder and yanked the pillow from her. “Women can do whatever they want with their bodies. Damnit, you went through so much shit, Stella. You can have a little fun in the pool if you want.”

Stella looked up and sat on the bed, staring at Danse with squinty eyes.
“How do you even know some videos were taken in the pool?”
The color of Danse’s face changed dramatically, and she didn’t even wait for his answer.
“How much have you seen?”
“I’ve seen enough.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think it was appropriate. I didn’t…” He sighed. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Stella got up from the bed and gathered her bikini from it, as well as a few accessories. She went into her bedroom but left the door slightly ajar while she was undressing.

“Did I look like a slut in them?” she asked. “Please be honest.”
“What do you mean by slut?”
“You know what I mean.” She paused. “I know you weren’t watching them to see me, but still. Just tell me what kind of vibe I was giving.”

Now that sometimes Arthur would allow Danse to be in the same room as him and even though they didn’t really speak, Stella was realizing just how much Danse cared about him. She felt a little stupid for not seeing something so obvious before. Danse would do anything for Arthur.

“Well, if you insist…” Danse sighed. “It was nothing bad, that I can assure you. It was more like… you were really enjoying yourself and displaying your talents. Like, you were desperate to show either Arthur or the camera what you could do. I think that’s why the guys last night said those things.”
“So you’re saying… I didn’t look slutty, I just looked like I was really good in bed and like I needed cock like I need air? Is there a difference?”
“Yes, there’s a difference. And don’t put in my mouth words I didn’t say.”

Stella looked at her naked body in the mirror and pinched her thigh. It left a white mark that quickly turned red. It hurt and it felt good.

“Do you think Arthur loves you back?” she asked, her voice steadier than she’d expected it to be.

A long silence followed her question. She listened, and it took a while before she even heard a cicada or a bird, but it took even longer before she realized it was because her blood was pumping into her ears. She put on the bikini top and fought with her breasts so as much of them would fit inside.

“I think he loves you,” Danse said with a low voice. “No. I mean, he actually loves you.”
She jumped into the second piece of her swimsuit and opened the door. “You avoided my question. Does he love you? You know him more than I do.”
“He used to.” Danse got up and walked to the window. The pool was reflecting on his face, blinding him. “He never admitted it, not even to himself. I don’t think. We got over that—dated other people and stuff. And then there was you.”

Danse turned to her with a smile on his face. A sad smile, but genuine.
“He loved you the moment he saw you at Goodneighbor. He asked Daisy to coach you into a great waitress because he knew he’d offer you a job when you’d be ready.” He touched her hair when she got closer, wrapping a lock around his finger. “I was never jealous. Not of you and not of him. Now I can see how you two work well together. I’ve never seen Arthur like that. Careless, laughing at anything, wearing shorts?” He laughed. “And you. Not constantly searching into your purse, desperate to swallow a Xanax. You sleep at night. You smile.”

He touched her under her eyes, where Stella had noticed the absence of her trademark dark circles.

“Yeah I love him. And I think I love you too a little,” Danse went on. “But I’d never want to get between you guys. I’m happy with what I have.” He paused for a few seconds, then went on. “But seriously… when I found out I was a synth, it… changed me. Like, yes, I have feelings, some for you and some for him, but it’s really difficult for me to channel them. I live in the present now and I try to keep it simple. I couldn’t be in a relationship. Besides it makes you melt when he calls you baby girl and shit.”
She pushed him away, laughing with him. “Shut up. We should go now, or we’ll be late and all the beer will be gone when we get there.”

Roxy was throwing a party for the bar employees and also almost every other person in their 20s or 30s in town. That was still not a lot of people, but it was apparently an annual thing and she always did it at her parents’ house because it had a private beach and people could swim in the lake if they wanted.
Stella had heard that one of Zeke’s friend was a tattoo artist and always brought his gear to the party. He’d spend a good amount of time indoors, inking people. She was excited about this because she was hoping to get a tattoo—she wasn’t sure what, but it just felt right to permanently alter her skin right now.

She put on a crop top and shorts over her bikini and climbed into Danse’s car.
“I’m getting a tattoo tonight,” she said when they reached town and Danse took a left turn on the road that led to the forest and the lake. “You?”
“I wanted one too, like something simple but still something.”
“Don’t say simple . Say minimalistic. It’s fancier.”
“Yeah. Maybe that cool tree in my backyard, you know? It’s pretty.”
“That’d be cool. I was thinking a marigold for me. They’re the only flowers I think I didn’t fuck up too badly in the garden.”

It turned out they were a little late to the party, which was fine, because it was better to arrive a bit late than too early at such events. A small group of people were playing volleyball on the beach while other lay lazily in the sand, drinks in hands.

Stella looked into her purse to find her phone and text Arthur, making it easier to locate him. But the little black box containing what she would need when the Institute would take her away grabbed her attention. She touched it. It was cool and smooth.

It hit her at this very moment—she was putting everyone in danger. She doubted the Institute would come for her at a party… but what if? And they’d definitely would try to get Arthur and Danse anyway.
I have to go , she thought.

It was a sad thought, but it was also an epiphany. This whole time it had been about her, and only her. She did not know why, but the Institute had chosen her and her baby and it had all started from there. Everyone around her died if they stayed for too long, all because she had been fighting. Even when, years ago, she was lying on her bed, too high to even move her fingers, she’d been fighting to stay alive, but it all meant nothing.

Stella could see it now. I have to do this . She wasn’t even scared , because it was all so clear in her mind. She wasn’t sure how exactly she’d get it done. Maybe she could sneak out one night, drive back to Boston and yell ‘I AM STELLA AUSTIN AND I AM ALIVE’ until a courser came and took her. Maybe that was a little extreme. Maybe she could hang around Goodneighbor and other places she used to be seen at. There was no way they weren’t monitoring all of them, including her old apartment and even maybe Arthur’s house. Yeah that was a start.

“Hey, baby girl, look, I got a tattoo.”
Arthur was standing in front of her but it took Stella a solid five seconds before she actually saw him. He was handsome in his gray t-shirt and assorted swim shorts. His breath smelled like liquor but only a little, just enough to bring her back to reality.

Without waiting any second, he stripped off his shirt and pointed at his shoulder. There was a new tattoo there, it was easy to notice because the skin around it was all raw and red.

It was a star. Very simple looking. Minimalistic , she corrected herself. Just outlined, and not that big, but it was there.
Arthur grinned at her.

“‘Cause, Stella , you know,” he said under his breath but no one was really listening to him, and the music was pretty loud. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her against him. “Now, you’ll always be with me.”

Stella almost cried, she almost screamed, she almost punched him in the face. What a stupid fucking thing to do. She had a plan, and it was difficult enough to leave, he really did not need to make things worse.
But when Arthur kissed her, she forgot all the pain, and she kissed him back.

“Let’s go in the lake, the water’s really good,” he said between two kisses. “I’m not supposed to put water on that new ink so be careful. Don’t try to drown me like you always do.”
Stella looked around and found Danse helping Zeke with ice bags and coolers. He smiled at her and nodded in approval.
“I want a tattoo,” she replied. “Like, you got one for me and I want one for you.” She didn’t know what the Institute would do with her body, but unless they carved her out of her skin, they couldn’t take him away from her.

An hour later she came out of the house with a sword drawn high on her left side. Arthur was grinning and he squeezed her ass as they made their way back to the beach.
“I love you so fucking much,” he said. “We have matching tattoos. It’s kinda lame, but it’s awesome. I’m really drunk.”
“It was an accident, I only like swords really. I don’t care at all for the name Arthur or the Arthurian legend and all that stuff. Also, I don’t care about your own sword tattoo.”
“Now let’s go in the water, I bet at this time it’ll already be too cold.”

It turned out the water was a bit too cold, but they stood in the lake with the water at waist level and they kissed a lot.
“How much do you love me?” she asked, her face against his chest. She was staring at the horizon. Behind the forest at the other side of the lake the sunset was all gold and pink.
“More than anything. I know it seemed like you were the person with the fucked up life, but, it was me the whole time.” He was drunk, but not too much, just enough be completely honest with her. “It’s like, loving you made me a new person.”
It was touching. It really was. Stella closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

“Do you love me enough to speak to Danse again?”
“We did talk. When Deacon—well, you know. Also he ordered a beer from me at the bar the other day.”
“You know what I mean. I mean, more than that. He’s not an actual robot. He’s a person and he has feelings, and he misses you.”

Stella looked up and found Arthur staring at Danse, who was walking around the party and offering burgers to everyone.
“Alright.” Arthur sighed and kissed her forehead. “But you tell me what really happened with those Railroad guys.”
“I told you,” Stella lied. “They questioned me about the Institute. They thought I might know something about them, since you’d been doing some research and all.”
“That’s impossible because then it’s me they should have questioned, not you.”
The water was cold and Stella was only wearing this tiny bikini, and she wasn’t drunk enough to be as creative as she needed to be to craft a full story for Arthur.

“Well, they don’t have many resources, or weapons for that matter, and you probably would have killed the agent sent to get you,” she replied, folding her arms on her chest. “Like, with your bare hands. You’re big , Arthur.”
“That’s what she said,” he added with a wink. “I had to! Baby girl, I had to! You literally say this to me like all the time. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. Okay?”

He put his hands on her hips and kissed her neck.
“Let’s go see Danse now,” she insisted. “Please?”
“Alright.”

Danse and Zeke were grilling burgers and hot-dogs. It smelled good, but Stella was too nervous to be hungry. Arthur was probably nervous too because he didn’t eat either.
“Hey,” he said with a voice that was nothing but natural. “Huh, Eric. You wanna hang out a little? Beer’s fine, but I have a special whiskey.”
Danse stared at Arthur, then at Stella, and at Arthur again. He blinked and put down the spatula he was holding.
“Okay,” he said, and he followed them.

After Arthur opened the bottle of his favorite whiskey, it was like the past months hadn’t happened at all. He listened to Danse telling him about D.C., and some old friends they had there. Apparently one of them was working at the White House and he was a special agent and everything, and even if Danse had been very happy to see him again, the dinner they had together was mostly both of them not being able to tell the other about his life because it was top secret. Arthur found that genuinely so funny that he ended up sprawling in the sand, laughing his ass off, with Danse laughing too, and both of them slapping each other’s back.

Stella smiled and watched them. When she’d be gone, they would need to trust each other and love each other. It did not matter what kind of love it was, but they’d have to protect the other. Always.

Stella barely talked until the sun was completely down and two separate bonfires had been lit. Danse was helping Zeke again with the firewood and the marshmallows. She watched him. He was always lending a hand, regardless of who was asking. Ann had gotten him a job at her brother-in-law’s hardware store and he was starting next week. He’d be great there, displaying his natural strength and his smile.

“You okay, babe?” Arthur asked. They were still in the same spot, away from everybody else. He pulled her against him.
“I’m fine,” she lied.
“Do you feel like sitting around a fire?” He was playing with her hair. “Or,  I’d really like to see you out of this bikini.”

She couldn’t stop her laugh and Arthur kissed her before leading her directly into the house. They looked into every room and found their luck at the basement, in a small bathroom. It wasn’t perfect but all the bedrooms in the house had other people’s stuff in them, and Stella didn’t feel like having sex in the woods.

She put her bag in the bathtub and sat on the counter while Arthur was locking the door behind them. He was sunburned and beautiful.
“I feel like we’re teenagers doing something really naughty,” he joked, casually undoing her bikini top.
A soft humming escaped his lips when the piece of clothing fell to the floor, and he kissed her lips while cupping and squeezing her breasts.

Stella thought, this is the last time we ever make love , and she kissed him back. It did not take long for her hands to find his shorts and yank them down. She didn’t want to wait. She knew his body by now, and she knew how it felt when he did all sorts of things to her. She wanted him one more time, but didn’t need for it to take hours.
After she put him out of his shorts he also undressed her and knelt down to kiss her thighs. She shivered when he kissed her core, and she whimpered when he spread her lips apart to lick her. Her insides instantly liquefied.

“You taste so good,” he said with his head between her legs. “God, I love you so much.”
“Don’t stop,” she whispered.

He was licking up her up and down, bobbing his head, letting a finger or two erratically wander inside her hole. Then he sucked on her clit, and Stella almost came immediately, but instead she pushed him away.

Arthur leaned against the counter as it was her turn to kneel on the floor, with a bathroom rug under her knees for more comfort. Her pussy was slick and ready for him, but she’d at least suck him off one last time.

“Don’t tease,” he begged when she squeezed him and kissed his cock. He was hard and already leaking. Not a surprise.

Stella could see it now. Arthur was madly in love with her. Passionately. He cooked breakfast for her and he helped her whenever she needed, he kept calling her beautiful. He genuinely enjoyed making her happy. Like that one morning where he ate her pussy for what had to be an entire hour. Or how he always brought back something special for her when he went for errands, whether it was a flower found in a field or one bought at the grocery store, or her favorite cookies or the ugliest stuffed toy he found. Anything.

She didn’t tease him and she took him whole immediately. Relieved, he sunk back against the counter, mumbling something she couldn’t make out. She knew what he liked. Stella started out by sliding her mouth around him, then she applied some pressure against his shaft using her tongue. Then more pressure. And more.

When Arthur’s hand found her hair and he began thrusting into her mouth a little, she rolled her tongue on the tip of his cock while pumping it using her hand.

“I love you,” he said. “I love you Stella.”
“I love you too, Arthur,” she replied, looking up. “Fuck me, will you? Hard.”

A second later his lips crashed onto hers and she found herself lying on the tile floor. It was cold, but the cold didn’t bother her when Arthur opened her legs and guided himself inside her. He pushed deeper and deeper until he couldn’t, then he pulled out and repeated.

His mouth was on her left nipple, sucking and biting, so Stella kissed his shoulder, her nails dug in the skin of his back.

They were trying to be silent, so for a long time all she could hear was the wet sound his cock made when pushing inside her. She loved that sound almost as much as she loved the feeling of him stretching her, filling her. He was everywhere.

“I’m gonna make you come,” he warned. “Come for me baby girl, okay?”
“Yes, yes, yes .” It was hard making sense of anything right now.

Arthur lifted one of her legs up, and then… Then he reached her deepest point, that angle he knew she liked so much. She was barely conscious of his other hand rubbing on her clit, she just knew that it was good, that she was in love with this man and that they were fuck ups but that it did not matter.

When her walls clamped around him and she came, he fucked her through it, and it was only when it was over that Stella realized she had been screaming. But then he came too, spilling himself inside her. He pulled out and Stella wrapped her delicate hand around his cock and stroke him. It gave him an aftershock strong enough to make his cock twitch and he shot a few more drops of cum. She licked him clean, listening to the calming sound of him breathing.

After they cleaned up, Stella watched them put their clothes back on in the mirror. They were young, and beautiful and broken, and every cell in her body wanted to stay with him. To be with Arthur and to grow old with him. But there wasn’t a future where this would happen—she had been a fool to trust that the Institute would never find them.
She wouldn’t let them hurt Arthur or Danse.

He lovingly squeezed her ass as they climbed back up the stairs. That night they slept on the beach, Stella clutching her purse against her chest.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

 

It happened one morning. She woke up early to Arthur shifting in his sleep, and she knew it had to be now.

Stella took her time. She watched Arthur sleep for as long as she could bear it—when tears began tickling her eyes she got out of bed and decided to look through the window. It was a cool morning and she found her marigolds a little pale and sickly looking. They would die soon anyway, with summer ending in a few weeks.

She put on her clothes in silence, her eyes always coming back to her sleeping lover, and the star tattooed on his shoulder. There was something excessively touching and uplifting to know someone loved her as much as Arthur did—but this morning it only made things worse, so she looked away from him once more.

Stella closed the door behind her and got into the shower. She turned the water on, it was cold at first and slowly turned very hot, burning her skin. Good , she thought, but she didn’t know why. She washed away the sweat and fluids from last night's lovemaking. It had been slow and deep, at least at first—then fast and deeper. She smiled at the memory of Arthur's body meeting hers, and his mouth all over.

She chose her clothes more randomly than not—jeans and a tank top, but she brought one of her sweaters in case the weather got too cold at night. She didn’t know where she would be tonight. She didn’t know where she would be in an hour.

Stella stood in the room, trying one last time to look at Arthur. To make sure this image would stay with her for as long as she lived—which, to be fair, might not be for a very long time, but still .

“Hey,” she blurted out, leaning over him, her damp hair barely touching the warm skin of his chest. “I have to go.”
“Baby girl,” he breathed, his eyes still shut tight. “Come back to bed.”
“I have to go,” Stella repeated, feeling like she was choking on something. “Arthur. I have to go, okay? I’m sorry.” She paused there, daring to touch him. She brushed his face with her fingers, and the corner of his lips formed a smile.
“‘Kay,” he replied, his voice only a murmur. “Love you. Stay safe.”
She was crying now, and she saw four of her tears land on his arm but he didn’t seem to notice.

“I love you too, Arthur.” She kissed him one last time. His lips were sleepy and raw.
Then Stella turned around and left the room. She didn’t stop to look at her garden one last time or to enjoy the view of the living room she had made beautiful with Arthur’s help. She grabbed her keys and her bag and she left her home.

Because that house had been her home, against all odds, even though she had thought at first that she would never be happy again, that her heart was made of stone. She didn’t know that she would smile and mean it, that she would fall in love with her former boss, that she would cut her hair short and make it purple, just because. She hadn’t known at first, she had been scared and fragile even, but now she was unafraid and bold, and she was going to do this. She was going to let the Institute finish what they had started with her, and then it would be over. Even if she had to remain in a cage for the rest of her life, she would do so knowing that Arthur and Danse would be safe.

Stella stopped her car in Danse’s driveway and got into his house using the key he’d given her.
Being happy again wasn’t just because of Arthur—although letting herself fall in love had softened her a little, there was more to it. It had been a little of everything. Danse’s warm laugh and his deep voice telling stories under the stars. Their friendship and the way she trusted him and knew he trusted her.

It had also been everything else. Maybe her therapist had been right. After Nate’s death, the therapist she’d seen had relentlessly told her to get out of the city, even for just one summer, to look at a different scenery, to smell new smells, to experience new things. She hadn’t. Instead she had never left Boston after that, not even once, and it had almost killed her.

The trees here were so green sometimes she had to stop just to look at them, at the mountains surrounding her. Mountains so high they touched the sky—a sky bluer than anywhere else. And the smells . Flowers, grass, woods—every single corner of this place smelled good.

And Arthur’s arms around her. The both of them sitting around the pool, his face in her neck, kissing her skin softly.

Danse’s house was so silent she figured he had to be sleeping still, so she jumped when he appeared in the stairs.

“Stella? What are you doing here? Everything okay? Oh my—” He was towelling his hair dry, and he threw the towel away the moment he saw her.
She couldn’t speak, and Danse got down the stairs in a hurry.
“Look at me. Why are you crying? Did something happen?”

Stella realized then she had been crying. She wiped tears off her face but they were replaced with new ones, and she repeated this process until she could kind of breathe and talk.

“I’m leaving,” she managed. “I came to say goodbye.”
“What the hell do you mean you’re leaving? Did you guys breakup? Stella, what’s going on? You’re so pale.”
“We didn’t breakup. I’m just leaving and I can’t tell you why—it’s for your safety. Both of you.”
“No.” Danse put his big hands on her shoulders, his fingers digging in her bare skin. His was warm. “You can’t.”

Stella put her own hands over his and removed them from her shoulders. Instead, she pulled Danse against her, and he held her for a long time.

“Do you trust me?” she asked in a voice that was squeakier than expected.
“Yes,” Danse replied after taking a deep breath. “You know I do.”
“Then you have to let me go. I wanted to say goodbye but you have to let me go.” She paused. “You’re my best friend, Danse. And I want you to let me do this. I want you to take care of Arthur after I’m gone.”
“But you’ll come back, right? Right?”

She didn’t want to lie to him, so she ignored his question.
“I have to go,” she whispered. “Now.”

Danse pulled apart from her and stared down at her for a long time. Eventually he blinked and nodded, but barely.
“I hate this,” he said. “Just tell me what this is about.”
“This is about something I have to do. It’s for the best.” She was going to cry again if she stayed too long. “I really have to go.”

Then Stella knew she kissed Danse’s cheek, turned around and sprinted to her car, but she couldn’t remember the details. She only realized she was gone when she reached the busiest part of the town, and she slowed down her car, but only because she didn’t want anyone to notice her. Naturally, everybody noticed her, and waved at her. She did her best to wave back and smile, but she knew she wasn’t being very convincing.

She drove past Summersville’s Applebee’s, then the Walmart, then the Hampton Inn where she had spent the night with Arthur when they had arrived here. A few minutes later, she was driving past a sign that said “GOODBYE SUMMERSVILLE WV.” She drove for an hour before getting into Charleston, the biggest city in this tiny state of mountains.

Stella had stopped crying by now, and she looked around to find a spot where she could stop. Yes. This would do. A church.

She parked in the empty lot and pulled her phone out of her bag. She hadn’t even bothered to take the cord with her and she couldn’t charge it, but she knew she had enough battery life for what she had to do.
She called Deacon first, but like always he didn’t pick up so she left him a voice message.

“Hey, Deacon, it’s me. So I’m on my way to Boston or something. I have the device Desdemona gave me. Tell her I’m gonna try, but I don’t think it’ll work. Do not tell Danse or Arthur, under any circumstances, where I am going and why. Anyway. Yeah. Bye.”

After dialing the second number, she hesitated. It was an emergency one, one Arthur had her memorize by heart, one they were supposed to use only in life-threatening situations.
She pressed the ‘call’ button and waited. A man answered, but it wasn’t Quinlan.

“Lyons & Quinlan, my name is Gavil, how can I help you?”
Stella remembered she was calling a law firm. She cleared her voice.
“Good morning,” Stella replied as naturally as she could. “I would like to speak to Piers Quinlan, please.”
“Who’s asking?”
“Megan Lockwood. It’s urgent.”
There was a pause.
“I will transfer you to Piers’ office immediately.”

Stella counted to twenty-three before Quinlan picked up.
“Are you calling from the phone I gave you?” he asked without saying hello.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m not compromised. I’m safe. I know I shouldn’t be calling, but—” She didn’t know what else to say.
He sighed, relieved. “How may I help you, miss Austin?”

She had thought about this. For a while. And she knew exactly what she wanted.
“I’m surrendering myself to the Institute. Now before you say anything, let’s make it clear that you can’t tell Arthur about this, or Danse—”
“I perfectly understand,” Quinlan replied calmly. “It’s you they want the most, and I can see why you would want to do such thing. I suppose you want a way inside the city?”
“Yes. Also, could you like, give my money to people? Give some back to Arthur and some to Danse, but also, other people?”
She heard the sound of paper, then it sounded like Quinlan was typing. Knowing how efficient he was, he was probably already transferring funds.

Stella had over two million dollars and there was no way she would let that go to waste. Or worse, in the Institute’s bank accounts.

“Keep some for yourself, for the trouble of the job,” Stella started. “Then Arthur and Danse. Also, I’d like to give money to Robert Joseph MacCready—he has a son named Duncan. Then John Hancock, previously known as John McDonough. And Daisy. Daisy Harris, she worked with me at Goodneighbor. Also Piper Wright, the journalist. And Sophie Ingram, she used to work at the Prydwen. And give some to Marcy and Jun Long, they were my neighbors. And…”
Stella took a deep breath.


“And Preston Garvey,” she went on, her throat tighter. “He’s with another of my neighbor, but I don’t know where they are…”
“Garvey is… I know news don’t travel well outside the city, but Garvey won’t be difficult to find.”
“Why?”
“He forced his way into the city and, well, let’s just say that law enforcement isn’t what it used to be,” Quinlan explained. “There’s too much crime in the streets for what is left of the police department. So Garvey reformed the Minutemen, and he is leading this group of people. They’re helping to keep the city a safer place.”

Stella smiled, but a few tears ran down her face. The Minutemen. Of course. Preston would do that. After all, he always got up in the middle of the night to buzz her in because she always forgot her key, and he never ever got mad or annoyed at her. Sometimes he invited her in for a mug of hot chocolate. At 3 AM, when he had to go to work just a few hours later.
Preston was a good man.

“Well, make sure Preston and his Minutemen get a whole lot of funds then,” Stella said. “And that’s it.”
“Very well.” More typing sounds in the background. Stella could almost see the millions leaving her bank accounts.
“How do I get into the city?”
“I will erase Megan Lockwood the same way I erased Stella Austin. Which means you’ll have to ditch your car, phone and other belongings in a pre-selected spot. Then I will provide you with a new phone—but you are not to call me or Arthur or Michael or any other person you might compromise.”
“Okay, but how do I get in ?”
“In a truck. I will get you in a truck that’s transporting supplies, make sure it’s not inspected, and then you’ll be in.”

That seemed easy enough, except Stella’s heart was beating furiously. Quinlan told her to drive all the way to a very specific mall in Washington D.C. where one of his people would wait for her.

When Stella ended this call, she looked inside her purse at the little black box containing the MicroSD card she would have to get into an Institute computer and upload into a very specific folder for a guy—whose codename was Patriot, a little lame but she’d deal—to find it and help her get out. Stella did not know how she would succeed at that, because she figured the Institute would strip her off her stuff once they got hold of her. And she was not sticking this box inside her ass to hide it. Or anywhere else for that matter.

She would have to improvise. It wasn’t a welcome thought, but it was better than anything else right now. Thinking about the Institute was better than thinking about Arthur and Danse, because if she was being honest with herself, she would cancel the whole operation and drive back to Summersville to get back in bed and sleep. They could order a pizza tonight so the three of them could share it while watching a movie.

That would not happen.

*

Early in the morning of the next day Stella woke up in her motel room just outside D.C., her mind as cloudy as the sky. She almost threw up, but didn’t. Instead she made herself some coffee using the Keurig coffee maker on the table. It didn’t taste very good, not when she was used to Arthur’s expensive coffee and even more expensive espresso machine.

She looked at her phone even though Quinlan had strongly advised her not to. She knew why exactly the moment the screen lit up. Arthur had left fourteen messages in her voicemail and sent one hundred and three text messages. But Stella couldn’t read all of them—she couldn’t unlock the phone and open Messenger to read them, because then Arthur would know that she had seen them. So she read the ones that was shown on her lock screen.

“Stella, please. Seriously. I love you so much.”
“Deacon says you’ll be fine, how on earth does he know that?”
“We could go. Just you and me. Not forever, but travel a little. Anywhere. Europe. No. Somewhere warm.”
“We could get married in secret, I’d get you a nice ring. You’d wear a light white dress and we’d get married on a beach. I’m begging you.”
“We don’t have to get married either. Like we can just stay here and stay the same. I just want you with me.”
“Danse threatened to take my phone away so this might be the last message… I love you baby girl.”

Stella stared at the screen for several minutes before turning the phone off entirely and putting it in her bag. She felt tears behind her eyes, she felt cries in her throat, but she also felt dead, so her mind didn’t allow any of those emotions. Instead, she got dressed, gathered the few things she had still with her, and went back to her car.

She drove into D.C. with the morning traffic, and by the time she reached the meeting point selected by Quinlan it was raining a little. She parked on the east side of the mall, as predetermined, and waited in her car. It didn’t take long before a man tapped on her window.

“You the guy?” she asked, rolling the window down. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“You are Stella Austin,” he replied. “I am Gavil, Piers Quinlan’s assistant. You used to have a rose gold iPhone, and if we don’t hurry, we’re gonna miss our delivery van.”
“Alright,” she sighed. The guy had an umbrella and really green eyes.
“I’ll need your current phone and your car keys,” he said.

Stella gave him what he wanted and waited. She really felt dead. She wasn’t scared, she wasn’t sad, she wasn’t even annoyed. She didn’t feel anything. At all. Except the cold rain on her skin.

Gavil made her step out of the car and handed her his umbrella.
“You’ll walk two blocks down this road, then turn right. There will be a van parked there,” he explained. “In front of a large store that sells medical supplies like uniforms, sterile gloves, all that shit. The driver will greet you and you will sit in the back of the delivery van. You’ll have food, fresh air, a pillow and a blanket, and a few stops to use the bathroom and stretch your legs. Then he’ll drop you somewhere in Boston.”
“I should be able to manage that,” Stella replied, but she wasn’t sure she meant that.
“I was forgetting something,” Gavil added, fetching something from his own car. It was a normal looking purse, and he transferred the content of her current one into it. She watched the black box go from one bag into another. “For when you’re in the city. Do not call Arthur Maxson, or Michael Danse, or anyone in Summersville.”
“Understood.”

Without saying goodbye, Gavil got into her car and drove off. She wondered what would happen to her beautiful black and gold car. It would probably be crushed until even her couldn’t recognize it, then it might be burned to ashes.

The driver of the delivery van was a little nicer than Gavil, but he didn’t give her his name. He showed her the back of the truck—between large piles of boxes, there was a little space for her, with LED lights and a few books and a pillow. It looked okay, and she hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, so Stella lied down. It wasn’t that bad.

Only after the van had started moving for a few minutes Stella actually thought about looking inside the purse. Besides the tissues, the black box and a few bobby pins Gavil had taken from her own purse to put into this one, she found a rose gold iPhone—not her old one, but it was identical. She had missed how soft, and how flashy and nice looking it was.

There was another item in the bag, and that one made her shiver. It was a pistol. Black and very standard, with a small box containing ammunition, and a quick written guide on how to use it, redacted by Quinlan personally. He had left a note at the end of it.

“Destroy this piece of paper on your last stop before Boston.
You might need this weapon on your journey. As I told you on the phone, law enforcement isn't at its best in the city.
Good luck, miss Austin. Should you come out of this adventure alive, I hope we will meet again.

Q”

 

*

 

It was dark when they stopped at one of four remaining ways into Boston. As the driver had told her on one of their stops, it was heavily guarded by the military and an other agency he wasn’t able to identify. Those guys were armed with only a strange looking gun, never spoke a word and wore dark clothes. “Coursers,” Stella had guessed. “Institute.”

It meant the Institute controlled, at least partly, the city and its surroundings. It wasn’t good news.
Actually it was terrible news, but not for her personally. The more coursers there was in Boston, the easiest it would be for her to “get caught” by one of them.
But not right now. Not here—it wouldn’t be safe. Even though she couldn’t wait for this whole ordeal to be over, she couldn’t just step out of the van, show herself and shout her real identity. She’d get the driver killed and he really didn’t deserve that. (He had gotten her a hot chocolate after she’d mentioned she was a little cold and he looked like a nice guy.)

Or, worse—if they did not kill the guy on sight, they would torture him until they could trace his their way back to Quinlan. From Quinlan, they might be able to get a hold of Arthur and Danse, and Stella wouldn’t let that happen.

So she remained still at the back of the van, rolled in her blanket, her eyes closed, listening closely. The driver was talking to a man, and she could hear paper being shifted around. After a few thank you, sirs , and goodnights , the van was in movement again, but it took a while before the driver spoke.

“You’re in now, so it’ll be alright,” he said. “I don’t know who you are and why you came back here, but you’re either batshit crazy or really brave.” He paused, drinking what was left of his black coffee. “Or maybe you’re both.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“It’s a real shipment I have back there, a real order, and my delivery point is where you’ll get off as well.”
“But is it safe?”

They were stopped at a traffic light, it was red, and it was still raining outside so she couldn’t really make out the expression on his face, not from here.
“Nowhere’s really safe anymore in this city,” he replied. “But I’m taking you to the good guys.”

Nothing was said after that, mostly because Stella was looking through the window. They were around Concord, that was for sure, but it was hard to tell because it looked like most of the electricity was out.

“Just in case, can you lie down again?” the driver asked politely. “We’re almost there, I just wanna make sure, alright?”
“Sure,” Stella breathed. It was strangely comfortable back here anyway.

The van was stopped about five or six minutes later and the driver exited only to come and open the backdoors.
“We weren’t expecting a delivery,” a voice that wasn’t the driver’s said. “Especially not at this time of the night. You got some I.D. or something?” The voice was familiar.
“It’s a donation from an anonymous person, don’t even know the name myself,” the driver replied. “Also, there’s a bonus.”
“A donation? A bonus ? Pffft. Let me show you what we do to guys like you.”

It was MacCready. The voice was MacCready’s, and in the few seconds Stella realized that she hated herself for not knowing right away. She jumped out of her hiding spot, made her way through the cardboard boxes and saw the outside.

MacCready was standing next to the driver, holding a rifle. His clothes were full of holes and he kind of looked like shit, but he was still wearing his hat and he was still alive, and right there.

“Mac!” she blurted out. “Mac, oh my god.”
“The he—” He looked at her like he had just seen a ghost. “What the—”

And then Stella remembered that she was supposed to be dead. She inhaled deeply and stepped out of the van.

“I’m not dead,” she said. “Obviously. I faked it. Oh my god, Mac, are you with Duncan?”
“Yeah, holy shit, Stella, I can’t believe it!” MacCready never used swear words so he must really be surprised. He hugged her tightly, and then Stella saw what was behind him.

They were at her old apartment complex, only it was surrounded by a wooden fence now and several people were guarding it. A large painted sign said “SANCTUARY HILLS”, and below it, “Home of the Minutemen”.

“Duncan’s here, a whole bunch of people are here,” MacCready went on. “Man, Hancock’s gonna yell when he sees you.”
Stella’s eyes filled with tears when she heard her old friend’s name. MacCready called two men to take the boxes out of the van and store them in the garage, and he took Stella by the hand.

“How are you not dead?” he asked. “ How ?”
Stella had thought about it during her long drive at the back of the van, and she had decided to be vague about that if it ever came up.
“I can’t really tell you,” she replied. “Okay?”
“Sure. There’s a lot of weird stuff going on.” They entered the apartment complex. “Hey, Hancock, you around here?”
“Robert, did I not ask you to stay silent after sundown?” A voice replied, coming from Sturges’ old apartment. All the doors were open, and it was like Stella was in a movie. It did not look real. She had spent several years of her life living here but everything was different.

Instead of the smell she’d been used to, the entrance smelled like old shoes and sweat and food that didn’t smell great. She could hear voices all around, low, mumbling. A man entered right after them, holding two of the boxes she had just spent several hours with, a gun strapped to his belt right next to a large knife.

She had so many questions, but she knew the answers would all come down to: things were bad here, food was probably scarce as well as other necessary supplies. People were dying, people were hungry and people were scared—with reason.

Stella had a look outside again, and from here she got a better view of the high fence surrounding them. They were in a camp.

There was a war in this city.

Preston came out of the door that had been Sturges’. He was wearing a colonial hat that must have been part of a costume, but in this context did not look weird or anything. It was strange. When he caught glimpse of Stella, he froze, the same way Mac had.

“Stella’s not dead, boss,” MacCready said.
“I can see that,” Preston managed. “Nice hair, Stella.”

She touched her lilac hair. It was still soft from her shower. That had been this morning, but it felt like a hundred years ago.

“Nice hat, Garvey,” she replied.
He made his way to her and embraced her, holding her against him. He smelled like smoke and like the outside, and faintly of clothes detergent.
“I knew you weren’t really dead,” Preston whispered, for her only. “Nobody believed me but I knew it.” He paused for a few seconds, and let go of her, looking right into her eyes. “Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

 

Danse

 

 

Mornings were often the worst, at least as far as Danse knew. During the day Arthur found ways to keep himself busy, or he napped, and he worked most nights. Not late though, because Ann and Zeke wouldn’t let him work for too long, because they said he was depressed and needed to rest. To be fair, they weren’t wrong—Arthur was depressed, but no amount of rest in the world would make him feel any better.

Danse cleared his throat, watching carefully the scrambled eggs in the pan, adding the right amount of cheese to them.
“So, do you have any plans?” he asked, just because he wanted to hear Arthur speak.

He did not speak at first, so Danse turned his gaze away from their soon-to-be breakfast to look at his friend. Arthur was sitting at the counter on a stool. He was pale, had not bothered with shaving his face for a while and his sunken eyes showed little to no emotion. He was staring at his phone, waiting.

“Arthur?” Danse said again, just in case he hadn’t heard.
“Uh, what?” Arthur breathed, not looking away from the dark screen in front of him.
“I said, do you have any plans?”
Arthur shrugged and finally looked up. He seemed even more tired then, and Danse felt his heart pinch at the sight.

To say that Arthur had been an asshole to him would be an understatement. After years of friendship, he had made Danse feel like less than nothing, had publicly humiliated him, had put doubt in his mind when he should have been there for him. Danse knew that, and he wasn’t sure he actually was ever going to forgive any of this, but Arthur was still his friend anyway. Right now, Danse pitied him more than he hated him, so there was that.

“No,” Arthur said. “Do you?”
“I was going for a shopping trip—like, winter gear. Shovels and such. I don’t think winters are harsh here, but I figured it might be time to get ready.”
“Oh, yeah.”
“Wanna come with? You’re more than welcome.”

Arthur shrugged again, a motion that was becoming very familiar for him. Danse figured it was because he had become speechless, and most of the time he’d much rather not pretend.

To the public eye—well, the eye of the small town of Summersville, at least, Arthur had to behave normally, or as naturally as it was humanly possible, or else it might raise suspicion and would not be any good. They didn’t need attention right now.

Except that Arthur was a terrible fraud. He used to be a decent liar back in the day, but with Stella gone, he had lost that. That, and a few pounds, and his smile, and so much more.

Seventeen days. Seventeen days since Stella had left, mysteriously, but with a lot of conviction. And even if Danse had tried to convince Arthur that she really had to go, Arthur would have none of it. He was tolerating Danse’s presence now, but his initial reaction had been to punch him in the face and text Stella maybe a thousand times. She hadn’t replied to any texts or called back. She hadn’t even read the messages either. Now that number was deactivated.

So, if at first Arthur was furious—because Stella had left them, because Danse hadn’t stopped her, because she hadn’t read his texts—now he was cold, unresponsive. Apathetic. But he always kept his phone very close, just in case she called back.

Danse jumped when the doorbell rang, but Arthur remained stoic, motionless, and kept his eyes on his phone. Danse turned off the stove and quickly put the eggs in a plate he pushed in front of Arthur. “Eat,” he said as he wiped his hands clean.

Before he could reach the front door, Deacon appeared in the kitchen. He was wearing his usual outfit—t-shirt and jeans, but with his sunglasses on his head, showing his blue eyes. He flashed a smile at the two men.

“Get the fuck out of my house,” Arthur said, surprisingly calm.
“Ah.” Deacon looked at him, then at Danse. “Hey, boys.”
“Just leave, alright?” Danse insisted.
“It’s important,” Deacon replied.

After Stella had been attacked outside the bar and taken hostage somewhere, she hadn’t talked about it a lot, she’d only said she had been with former employees of the Railroad. That they were trying to find out information about the Institute, but since Stella didn’t have much, they’d released her and no one got hurt. That part of the story was believable enough that Danse trusted Stella to be telling the truth, but she had also revealed Deacon to have been a Railroad spy for a long time, and that, neither Danse or Arthur had been okay with it. Thankfully for Deacon, he hadn’t been around for a while. And Stella had never want it to be mentioned again, so they had respected her choice.

“I will literally punch you until you pass out,” Arthur threatened. “How dare you show up here like… like everything’s fine? Like you didn’t spy on me for months? Like you’re not the reason Stella left!”
Danse looked over at Arthur. How could Deacon be related to Stella’s departure? She had left on her own free will, unlike when they’d taken her. Right?

“Calm down, big guy,” Deacon replied, raising his hands slightly. “I swear to god, I’m here in peace.”
“Well, I’m not,” Arthur spat.  

Deacon ignored Arthur and sat on a chair near the dining table. He seemed relaxed, but tired.

“Why don’t you just get to the point and tell us why you’re here?” Danse said. “Then you can leave.”
“Fair enough.” Deacon laid his arms on the table and sighed. “I think you guys are being followed. By the Institute.”
“Impossible,” Arthur retorted. “We took every precautions—”
“I know,” Deacon snapped back. “And yet. We’ve been monitoring the area—mostly because we also live around here—and there’s a lot of courser activity. We took down two undercover synths last night.”
“Here? As in Summersville?”
“Just outside town,” Deacon explained. “Last week, one of our guy came face to face with a courser but he was able to escape just in time.”

Fuck , Danse thought. He closed his eyes.

“This is why Stella left,” Arthur muttered mostly for himself, but they could hear it in the silence of the house. “She must have found out about the Institute being around, and she left because she knows they’re after her more than they’re after us.”
Deacon looked at Arthur solemnly. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Seriously. But that sounds about right.”
“I don’t believe you,” Arthur pointed out. “You’re a liar and you’re phony. You know exactly why this all happened but you’ll never tell us. I don’t need you to tell me I’m right—I know I am.”

Arthur stood with his back straight and his shoulders low, a posture so different than his recent slouching that Danse raised an eyebrow.

“I just need to figure out why and how they found us,” Arthur added, again for himself but loud enough for Danse to hear.
“They’re good at it. They’re listening to everything—phones, drones and shit,” Deacon explained. “Lots of people are starting to think the feds are siding with them, too.”
“That does not surprise me,” Danse sighed.
“Yeah. It’s a literal civil war back home.” Deacon shifted his weight on the chair and leaned against it, crossing his arms on his chest. “But the government isn’t doing anything… except helping the city to remain quarantined. That speaks for itself.”
“Sure does,” Arthur admitted. Then he turned to Deacon. “I have calls to make. Would you mind allowing us some privacy—in my own home?”
“Of course, big guy.” Deacon got up and offered a shy smile to the both of them. “Sorry about Stella and… everything. If I have more info I’ll let you know.”

Danse escorted him back to the door although Deacon knew very well where it was. When he came back into the kitchen, Arthur was dialing a number.

“I’m calling Quinlan,” Arthur started. “If Stella knew she was being followed by the Institute, then no doubt she needed his help to erase herself from existence again.”

Danse waited. He walked all the way to the large windows in the living room and watched a few birds jumping from tree to tree, chirping at each other.

Stella leaving because she wanted Arthur and him safe made sense. It made too much sense.
I should have stopped her , Danse thought.

“No one’s picking up,” Arthur said. “That’s not right.”
“Maybe the office is closed today?”
“No. Someone should be picking up the phone. It’s a Wednesday, of course the office is open. And if it’s not, they transfer the call to one of Quinlan’s associate. Someone should be speaking to me right now.”

Arthur didn’t even look angry, he looked stressed and worried. Danse grabbed his own phone.
“What’s the name of his law firm?” Danse asked. “I forgot.”
“It’s Lyons & Quinlan.” Arthur leaned over him to look at the phone too.

Danse typed lyons & quinlan law firm boston in Google. He had expected the first result to be the law firm’s website, from which he figured they would find a way to contact Quinlan—he’d been wrong.
It was a Washington Post article: “Three dead in Boston’s famous anti-Institute law firm.”
The second link was USA Today with a similar article, and so on.

“Oh, god,” Arthur breathed. “Shit. Fuck.”
Danse’s heart was aching in his chest as he was waiting for the Post’s page to be fully loaded.

The murders had happened nine days ago but no one was able to explain how. In the middle of a week day while the building was full of people, one of Quinlan’s assistant had entered his office around 10:00 AM to leave documents on his desk. At that time he was alone in the office and speaking on the phone. The woman had returned fifteen minutes later because one of those documents required a signature and it was urgent.
Quinlan was dead, shot in the head on his chair. Two other employees were also dead, lying on the floor. The police department wasn’t doing shit about it because it was virtually irrelevant by now—no one was doing anything, according to the Post. Piers & Quinlan was, at the time, one of the last businesses still in function in the city, in the last neighborhood where things weren’t a complete free-for-all.

“That’s fucked up,” Danse said.
“They’re getting closer,” Arthur breathed. “The Institute. They must have known Stella contacted him for a new wipe out. He probably wouldn’t give her up, so Quinlan ended up with a bullet in his head. He can’t help us now. We’re on our own.”

The two men stared at each other. Danse couldn’t help but to look down at Arthur’s lips. He did not want to kiss him anymore, at least not badly, but it was hard not to remember how soft his lips had felt against his all of those years ago.
Whenever Danse felt distress, he remembered Arthur’s lips. It wasn’t even intentional—if anything, he hated that habit of his, because it didn’t help anything at all. But it wasn’t something he could control, not that he hadn’t tried, so he just let it happen now.

Danse looked away but that didn’t help. He was still in the old Prydwen office, kissing Arthur, being kissed back, being touched by him.

“We have to move,” Arthur said suddenly. “Now. Before they get to us.”
Danse stared at him, speechless. He couldn’t find the right words.
“I didn’t want to leave in case Stella had to come back but now I realize she can’t ever come back,” Arthur went on. “We should have left days ago. Once we’re in a secure location, we can start looking for her again.”

So they did it. They ditched their phones (only once Arthur had looked at all his pictures one last time) and burned them in the backyard. They weren’t sure if it was best to leave the house as it was or to empty it, so they went for a middle ground—they filled their cars with as many boxes as they could, taking with them anything that might give hints to the Institute. Danse took with him the large plastic container in which Stella had put all of Nate’s stuff, and Shaun’s. He didn’t look at it though. He didn’t want to.
Arthur spent a good deal of time in her bedroom sorting her clothes. He made two piles “Stella’s favorite clothes” and “Not Stella’s favorite clothes”. He left with the pieces she cherished the most.

Since they didn’t have Quinlan’s abilities—or contacts—they couldn’t start from scratch with a brand new identity and all that, so what they did is they both visited the bank to withdraw some cash. This is when they realized a lot of the money that had been in Stella’s bank account had been transferred into theirs. It hurt Arthur more than it hurt Danse, but Danse was beyond being hurt at that point.

They were both on survival mode.

With that amount of cash they estimated they could go on for a few months if they spent it wisely.

The “safe place” they found turned out to be Alpena, a city in Michigan. Its shores bordered Lake Huron, which Danse found he liked much better than Lake Michigan, which he used to visit each summer with Arthur. They found a small cabin to rent for practically nothing, paid cash under a fake name, and that was it.

They were in the eye of the storm—for now it was calm. After fighting and death and all that bullshit, they got to spend quiet days in a cozy cabin, watching the leaves turn red, then orange then gold.

But, soon enough, the storm caught up to them. Of course. And when it did, no amount of time spent thinking about kissing Arthur or even about fucking him hard in an imaginary bedroom made things better, and it did not provide any escape from reality.

Chapter Text

 

Stella

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was MacCready who had found the boots in a newly raided store. Whoever had done the raiding had left some stuff behind, including that pair of boots. They were made from a supple, smooth black leather. Adorned with buckles, they were traditional-looking, but very fashionable combat boots, yet still sturdy. And, more importantly, comfortable.

Now that the weather was cooler, Stella had been in need of a new pair of shoes, and when Mac had come back with those, she had been delighted. Or, at least, as delighted as she could possibly be lately.

She had thought it would be quick.
Get into Boston safely.
Let the Institute find her.
But it was so much more complex than that.

For a first, there was Preston Garvey and in his Minutemen, in great need of help. Help of any kind, really. Hunting, scavenging, tending to the sick. And so much more. Stella simply could not just throw herself at the Institute while Preston was doing the brave thing—staying alive. Leaving Sanctuary to travel into the city so he could go fetch medicine or weapons. Or stranded people. Risking his life to do so, but always coming back.

So, Stella had stayed.

When she had left Summersville she was far from imagining things would go this way. She had left thinking she’d be found by the Institute within 24 hours of her arrival in Boston. She wouldn’t have time to even miss Arthur, and Danse and everything else. She’d be dead before that.

And yet there she was.

Summersville had been all green—the trees of many kinds, spruce, fir, oak, elm, sycamore, maple, birch—they all had a specific green unique to themselves. Together they were shining in harmony under the bright blue sky. Stella missed the warmth of her afternoons spent with Arthur, her gardening and him watching her gardening. The taste of ice cold beer with pepperoni pizza. A glass of whiskey in the evening. Star gazing. Playing video games with Arthur and Danse. Seeing Arthur warming up slowly to Danse’s presence, each day becoming easier.

Stella wasn’t sure what her future would be like but she knew one thing—it would never be Summersville again.

There weren’t that many trees in that part of the city, at least compared to West Virginia’s endless forests, but those that had been left between the buildings were all gold and red with fall’s colors. It was beautiful, of course, but—
No point in constantly comparing the past and the present , Stella reminded herself as she secured the buckles on her boots. There is only here and now anymore and I have to make the best of it .

She stood from the armchair she had been sitting on and slipped her coat on. Preston came into the room, putting a black beanie on his head and handing a similar one to her. As Stella was about to thank him, the power went out, silencing her.

The city wasn’t providing power constantly to every neighborhood anymore—of course not. It kind of made sense since they were in the middle of a war, really, and things were fucked up, but everytime the lights went out Stella jumped a little, still. But she was the only one here still doing that. Everyone else just kept on doing whatever they were doing as if nothing had happened, taking just a few seconds to light a candle or bring in a solar lamp.

Preston’s favorite solar lamp was the ugliest, but the brightest. It had been Mama Murphy’s before the war on the Institute, and vaguely resembled a poppy.

“You don’t need to come,” Preston repeated for the hundredth time that day, watching Stella light a few candles.
“I know that,” Stella sighed. “But I want to.” She shook the match before it burned her fingers. “You don’t have to protect me, Preston. I can protect myself.”
“But you’re important.”
You’re important, everyone here is important,” she pointed out.

They were both wearing all-black outfits. Stella had dyed her hair dark brown. Dark was pretty much the only fashion trend anymore.

Dark was the only camouflage left anymore, the most efficient weapon against raiders and coursers alike. Once the power had gone out for the day, people dressed in black and left their base to run their errands. From fetching a part for a car or making their way to a Target to scavenge for something important—you just had to wait until the sun had gone down and until the power had went out to do so. Otherwise you just got shot. There was no way around it.

You’re more important, ” Preston insisted. “You’re Stella Austin, the one left for dead in an Institute bombing! The one the Institute destroyed, but who didn’t die!”
“Yeah, thanks to Piper.” Stella put the beanie on and added thin gloves to her outfit. “She really went wild on social media. Thank god we don’t have access to it anymore.”
“You’re the face of the revolution, Stella. Whether you like it or not. You give hope to people around here.”
“I give hope to people only because most of them realize they haven’t had it as bad as I did and they can comfort themselves with that,” Stella snapped, stiffly grabbing her hunting rifle from the weapons cabinet to her right.

Preston didn’t reply to this.

“I’m sorry,” Stella apologized. “I didn’t want to be rude to you.”
“I know.” She could hear a faint smile in his voice although she could not see it. “I’m sorry Piper used your story to attack the Institute publicly. I know how much it must hurt.”

Stella looked by the window. She couldn’t see much except the reflection of Mama Murphy’s poppy lamp and the candles, but she caught glimpse of Preston getting closer to her. She felt him put his warm hand on her shoulder and squeezing it softly.

“We don’t know that media outside the city are aware of your return,” he breathed. “Maybe nobody knows that you’re here except—”
“We don’t know for sure.” Stella put her forehead against the window. It was cold even through the beanie. “Arthur. And Danse. It’s only a matter of time before they find out I’m here.”

Preston squeezed her shoulder again, but pulled her against him into a friendly hug.

“They’re gonna come for me,” Stella whispered. “They’re going to find their way here eventually, even with Quinlan dead, and the Institute will take me and them too.”

She buried her hand in the collar of her shirt, where she kept the small box that was so crucial to her being here—the device she needed to hack into the Institute’s computers. Preston was the only one who knew about that, and he was the one who had come up with the idea of turning it into a necklace so that she could keep it on herself at all times. He had said with a smile, that she was like Frodo and the box was the ring. Then he had added, so sincerely that remembering it made Stella tear up, that he was like Sam, and that if he needed to literally pick her up and walk her to the Institute, he’d do it.

“Then, go, Stella,” Preston said. “Before it’s too late. Get to the Institute, let them find you like you planned. You don’t have to stay.”
“The Institute finding me isn’t going to change the fact that Arthur and Danse are probably trying to get inside the city as we speak, or will tomorrow, or next week.”

Preston remained silent. Stella put the box back under her shirt and zipped up her coat again.
“Let’s go,” she said. “Those antibiotics aren’t gonna find themselves.”

Duncan was sick—it wasn’t an emergency yet, but the boy had been coughing severely for about three days now, and one of the nurses that lived in Sanctuary had said he might need the medication. Of course they were out of it, so they needed to find some.
The walk to the nearest hospital was a little under 3 miles. If they kept up a good pace, they could get there in about thirty minutes in daylight and fifty at night. They had gone to that specific hospital many times now, but every time they left Sanctuary, they were nervous.

MacCready was waiting for them outside. It was cold and his cheeks were bright red.
“Let me go with you,” he begged. “I’m a great shot—I’ll spot any raider from a distance and just shoot them.”
“You’re not going,” Preston cut off. “Duncan needs you now more than ever. Don’t you trust us to run this errand?”
“Of course.” Mac sighed and shook his head. “I’m just… you know.”

Once the lights were out, they illuminated Sanctuary and its fence moderately, with fire. Enough to see enemies if they came too close, but not too much to avoid drawing too much unwanted attention. Stella could still make out Mac’s face. He was looking tense and tired.

“We’ll be fine,” she assured. “We’re going to take the long road to avoid raiders.”
Mac frowned. “So you’ll be on Neon territory?”
“It’s one or the other,” Stella admitted. “But they’re not as hostile, or dangerous. We can manage.”
“I believe the Neons are my speciality,” a voice said from behind them.
Hancock. He was all dressed up in black, just as them, and was making last minute verifications on his favorite pistol.

Having Hancock back in her life was another soothing thought for Stella, as well as Preston, Piper, Mac and—well—Dogmeat. They were the reason she wasn’t dead yet. They all lived here in Sanctuary. They didn’t make things perfect, but they were her crutches as of now, and she relied on them as much as she had to.

“You are a Neon specialist,” Preston said with a laugh. “Don’t mind coming along?”
“Of course not, how else are you supposed to be entertained on that trip?” Hancock turned to Mac. “Stay with your boy. He just woke up and he was looking for you. Dogmeat’s not leaving his side.”

After the city had been quarantined, things had be relatively normal for a while, until they weren’t. Banks had been the first businesses to collapse, then the police department, then the fire department, and everything had fallen apart slowly until most people had regrouped under clans around the city. New, small clans and factions were formed and disbanded everyday, and some were more secret than others, but as of today, the main ones were the Institute, the Minutemen, the Neons and Raiders. To that, Stella mentally added the Railroad, who still operated but from outside the city.

Raiders were lawless, disorganized clans that didn’t really have one true ruler. Instead, they were scattered around neighborhoods, keeping hold of their territory with the constant and savage use of their weapons. Each raider district was managed by one or two people.

Then there was the Institute—you didn’t see a lot of them up here but it was still possible to come face to face with a courser once in a while. More often than not, the courser sprinted to the nearest hideout they could see and there was no way to find them after that, it was like they disappeared. MacCready insisted that they must have some kind of invisibility device. He was sure of it. Stella didn’t know, and she didn’t really care.

The Minutemen were the good guys—if such thing still existed. While they were slightly more organized than raiders, there was no true way to connect every single person who was loyal to Preston’s cause. This is why they were wearing the Minutemen logo on themselves, at all times—blue background, with, in white, a lightning bolt in the middle of a rifle, and three stars. They helped people—or at least they tried to.

The Railroad’s whereabouts were mostly unknown. The only thing Stella knew was that she needed to hack into the Institute’s network for them to go on their path.

Then there were minor factions such as the Triggermen. They were, literally, a bunch of dudes dressing fancy and shooting people, most likely members of some mob who hadn’t been able to leave the city in time. The Gunners were old military, armed to the teeth but not as hostile—they didn’t shoot on sight, they shot after one or two warnings. There were plenty of other groups, some nameless, who tried to stick to their territory and defended it. Survival, lately, was mostly about knowing your way in the city at night, and making sure you didn’t put one toe in an enemy’s territory or you ended up being shot in the head.

There was also the Neons. They were non-hostile, but they were still dangerous, maybe the most dangerous of all. They walked around the city at night, covered in glow-in-the-dark paint and glow sticks, most of the time blasting music from a phone or worse, a car. They were mostly drug addicts who decided the end of the world as we knew it was the perfect occasion to party constantly.

Those who weren’t nomads remained in specific locations and pretty much partied all the time. They had weapons, and only used them to capture people and force drugs down their throats or up their nose. And not just any drugs. While cocaine or crystal meth were still existing, a new world meant new drugs, such as Jet, Daddy-O, Day Tripper, Psycho and many variations of those.

And Stella was just as afraid of a good dose of any of these than she were of a bullet finding its way into her skull.

They said their goodbyes and left Sanctuary as quickly as possible. There was no time to lose.

Over time, Stella had learned the way around darkness almost by heart, at least in the neighborhood. Besides, the dark made her feel safe. It hadn’t always been like that—not just when she was a little girl, but she remembered her first weeks in Summersville, and how she had been deeply scared of how empty it was around the house after dark. There were no streetlights on the small road where they lived, and more often than not she had to sleep with the lights on. Until Arthur had noticed and bought a nightlight for her. It was a fancy one, shaped as a cute little bird with a butterfly on its head. He hadn’t said anything, just that he’d bought this for her. She still hated him at the time, so she hadn’t noticed… She hadn’t known.
She hadn’t known just how much he loved her, and worse, how she loved him back—and had the whole time.

No. Not right now , she told herself as they turned around the corner of a long avenue. It’s over, you and him. You’re going to die soon. It doesn’t matter.

From here they could see the Neon territory—this clan had established itself the neighborhood’s high school. Solar lamps and LEDs were tied to the fence around the school grounds, but the whole building was beaming with strobes and colorful neon lights. From here, they could hear, faintly, the music people were probably dancing to inside.
Stella inhaled deeply and Preston did the same. Behind them, Hancock sighed.

“It’s gonna be okay,” her former boss assured. “I’m here. They like me.”
“They like you just because you fucked their clan leader,” Stella pointed out.
“And because you’re not afraid of their drugs,” Preston added.
“Does it matter? We’re just gonna walk over there, they’ll see my handsome face and they’ll let us through.” She couldn’t see Hancock, but she could hear a smile in his voice. “And don’t worry, Garvey—I’ll remain sober for the rest of that errand. Now let’s go, Duncan won’t be getting any better if we stand here and do nothing.”

So they went on. The left side of that road had been a work in progress when the city had gone down, so they carefully crossed it to reach the right sidewalk, avoiding the giant hole in the middle of the street.

As they approached the school, Stella’s heart clenched more and more. Her breathing must have been a mess as well, because Preston put his arm around her waist for a few seconds, just to reassure her. It didn’t calm her completely, but it did help. A little. He was warm, too, which was pleasing in the cold of the night. It was getting colder and colder, and they were starting to wonder how they’d get through winter—they had a garden now, but nothing would grow when the soil would freeze. What would they do?

The music grew louder and louder until Stella recognized the song that was playing by the time they reached the school. It was a song that used to play in the Prydwen’s basement quite often. But she couldn’t afford thinking about that.

There was no avoiding the Neon checkpoint—they had the school, which was central to it, and other smaller buildings on that street. Which meant, anytime they wanted to cross the neighborhood, they had to deal with them. Or with raiders, on the other side of the avenue. Not good.

“Hancock, my man,” said the guard. He was mostly naked, except for a t-shirt, and he appeared to be masturbating to a magazine. Not that he had a choice without the Internet. But, Stella figured, he had a choice not to do it while he was on guard duty.
“James,” Hancock replied while Stella and Preston shifted around uncomfortably. Preston straight up looked behind himself not to see the guard.

The man didn’t respond right away, he finished what he was doing, which took about a minute, and only spoke after he had wiped himself ‘clean’ and was putting his pants back on. He offered them some chems, which they all turned down, not just because they didn’t want them but because they didn’t want to touch to anything that James guy had ever held in his hands.

“You don’t look like y’all here to party,” he pointed out. “You know what that means.”
“Yeah. We’re just seeking passage through here—but it has to be quick. There’s a little boy back home who’s real sick, and he needs medicine,” Hancock replied.
“Hm.”

Stella watched the man grab his radio transceiver and press the ON button. She groaned. Those bastards were pretty much the only ones to have more or less constant power. Apparently, they had hacked into the system to achieve this, and they weren’t sharing this asset with anyone.
“Yeah, James here,” he said to the other person on the radio, a woman. “Is there a car available? People want to get on the other side.”
“There is,” the woman responded. She sounded a little less high than James. “Strangers or family?”
“Uh, bit of both,” he replied. “Hancock’s with them. They have the blue Minuteguys mark.”

Preston grunted and Stella saw his fingers clenching around his rifle. If there was something he didn’t tolerate, it was the lack of respect his organization was receiving from other factions and the citizens.

“I’ll be there in two,” the woman said and the communication was cut off.
James put the radio back next to his chair and turned to them.
“I’ll be taking your weapons now, then we’ll escort you out,” he said. “As usual, you’ll get them back later.”
“Not you ,” Preston replied. “You’re not touching our guns with your nasty cum-smeared hands.”

Seeing Preston anything other than calm was a rare sight, and it meant he was deeply upset. It usually happened when he wasn’t taken seriously, or if someone’s life was endangered.

“You’re pretty gross, James,” Hancock said jokingly to appease everyone. “You’re not touching my stuff either.” He laughed. It was a little forced but the other guy was probably too wasted to notice.
“Yeah, but man, you know how it feels when you’re on jet and—”

Thankfully, he wasn’t able to finish his sentence because the car arrived. It was driven by a woman, probably the one who’d talked on the radio. She was short, had short hair and would have been pretty if her face wasn’t twisted from the abusive chem use.

She was the one who took their weapons and safely put them in the trunk of the car. Hancock sat on the passenger seat next to her, leaving Stella and Preston in the back—to their huge relief.

“Where are you headed?” she asked.
“You know I love you, Sissi,” Hancock replied. “But you also know I can’t tell you that stuff.”
“I know, love.” She smiled. Most of her teeth were broken, or gone. “But let me know to which gate you’d like me to leave you at. I don’t like having you walking like that at night.”

This Neon clan occupied a large territory. Usually, when they were asking to cross through it, they were taking from Point A to Point B without being asked where they wanted to get out.

“Near the Elm Street gate,” Stella bursted out. “Is that possible?”
“Yeah I can do that, the boss shouldn’t see an inconvenience to it,” Sissi replied. “I’ll cross the bridge and let you go there.”
“Thanks, baby girl,” Hancock said, his voice sounding like a purr.

Stella almost launched herself forwards and yelled at him to never again say the words baby girl in her presence, but of course she didn’t. She was too numb to do that. So she remained silent, looking outside but not seeing much. It was really dark.

As promised, Sissi drove across the Sudbury river and stopped the car on Elm Street. From there, they could get to the hospital in no time.

“We should be done in an hour, maybe two,” Hancock told Sissi as they recovered their guns. “We’ll get to the Thoreau Street gate once we’re done. I’d really rather not meet with raiders tonight.”
“Naturally—those beasts really don’t know how to have fun,” Sissi replied with a smile. She groped Hancock’s crotch and kissed him, then floored it and drove away.

“Well,” Preston sighed. “Let’s just get to it, okay? Emerson hospital, then Thoreau, and we just get the hell back home.”
Preston didn’t like to run errands. Hancock didn’t like to run errands, and neither did Stella, or MacCready, or Piper or anyone else.

Last week, a young girl named Cassandra had twisted her ankle and it had resulted in her getting shot by a gang of raiders. She lived in Sanctuary but Stella did not know her very well. Still. It had hurt her, and everybody else.
There was no beauty left in this world. No mercy. Nothing.

Emerson hospital was still free of raiders, at least most of the time. Mostly because it was in a part of the city that was full of Neons and Minutemen, and because raiders had better, bigger hospitals downtown, a territory that had yet to be visited by Preston and his men.

Once they were inside the hospital it was easy—they found the pharmacy and Stella just put in her bad as many antibiotics as she could. Then they walked the road back to Thoreau Street and, as promised, Sissi was at the Neon checkpoint with the car, and she drove them across the large Neon territory. Then they carefully walked back to Sanctuary, and that was it.

Preston went with MacCready to give Duncan the medicine, Hancock disappeared (he was probably hidden somewhere to get high, which he always did after an errand like that), and Stella walked behind the main building of their camp. At that time of the night, the yard was empty, so she built a fire and poured water in a bucket she put over the flames to warm it up.

She had to do it soon. She should be inside the Institute by now. She should have been the first day she came back. And yet.

“Blue?”
Piper’s voice was merely a whisper and Stella almost didn’t hear her over the noise of boiling water.
“Pipes?” She carefully removed the water from over the fire and started stripping out of her clothes until she wore only a tank top and her shorts. It was cold, and she usually brought the water back inside and used an actual bath to clean up, but not tonight.

Tonight, she welcomed the harshless bite of the cold on her skin.

“Preston said it went great,” Piper said, sitting down on a nearby bench. She was wearing a long, red coat with an assorted hat. “You guys are getting good at this—those errands and stuff.”
“I suppose. We don’t really have a choice.”

Stella dipped a towel in the hot water and began cleaning herself up, starting by her face and neck. As soon as she removed the towel from her skin, she could feel just how cold the night was.
Even down there, there was no way her marigolds were holding up. Had Arthur thrown them out or was he just leaving them there, looking at dead flowers everyday? Probably not. Danse would not let that happen.

“We need to talk, Blue.” Piper shifted her weight and sighed. “But I don’t know where to begin.”
“How about you just begin with the beginning ?” Stella suggested. She realized how rude her voice had sounded just then, when she didn’t really intended to—only she didn’t have it in her to apologize. She had done the same to Preston just earlier tonight, and she did that quite often lately.
“Yeah.” Piper chuckled. “Okay. So, you know I’ve been in contact with people from the Post, still?”
“Yeah. Leaving messages for one another in caches and shit. Your guys had something important to say?”

Piper breathed deeply and stood up to sit directly next to Stella who had removed her boots and was scrubbing her toes. She missed showers.

“They’re going to smuggle someone in here. In and out. The guy will have about an hour in the city—like you, he’ll come with a shipment of shit, and leave by the same truck. And they want to meet you. They want to interview you.”
“Interview me?” It was Stella’s turn to laugh, but it was a dry laugh with no real joy or pleasure. “I have nothing to say.”
“You have everything to say,” Piper insisted. “Think back at all the shit you went through. Think for real, Austin. And tell me this isn’t worth sharing to the whole world. You’ve heard the rumors, you know there are other ‘Institutes’ all around the country, the world maybe—and you know we’re probably going to war because of it. People need to hear what you have to say.”

Stella was done with her clean up so she poured the water in a corner of the yard. She grabbed her clothes and went back inside the main building, followed by Piper.

“I want something in exchange,” Stella said. “That interview would be priceless, right?”

There was no way Stella would do such thing for free. Money didn’t have much value here—though a lot of her money was sleeping somewhere in Preston’s bank account as she had wished—so she’d have to bargain for something else. But what was there to ask when you knew you were walking right to your death?

“They’d have to find Danse. And Arthur.” Stella watched as Piper’s eyes became big and round. “I know I didn’t tell you they were alive,” she added. “I thought it was safer. But, they are. And I want them safe—as safe as they can be. WIth our contact dead… I don’t know how they could get new IDs, passports, that kind of stuff. I want them safe.”
“I’m sure the Post can manage that,” Piper assured. “The meeting is tomorrow.”
“Where is it?”

Piper hesitated, but Stella kept climbing the stairs until she reached Preston’s apartment. Hers was now the nursery, and Duncan was there as well as Marcy, who had hurt her shoulder a few days ago.

“It’s downtown, isn’t it?” Stella guessed.
“Yeah… With the short time frame we have, he can’t get here and go back in time.”
“Alright then. Better get to bed. We’ll have a long day tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

 

Arthur

 

 

Arthur pulled up his hood over his head and turned off the Jeep’s engine.  

They had stored Arthur’s truck—for now at least. The storage did cost money, but Arthur just didn’t want to get rid of it. Of the truck. He couldn’t bring himself to. It was his father’s truck, for god’s sake. The reason they had chosen Danse’s car was because it attracted less attention. But Arthur missed his truck.

He missed a whole fucking lot of things.

Arthur got out of the car, locked the doors carefully, then made his way to the town’s busiest supermarket. He largely preferred to visit smaller stores, but those didn’t always have the food they liked, and Danse was very picky when it came to that. If Danse wanted a specific brand of tomato sauce, he wanted that specific brand of tomato sauce and that was it. He also didn’t tolerate cheap cheese. Arthur, however, didn’t really care about food anymore.

Arthur grabbed a shopping cart and went for the vegetables area. He had never liked running errands except for when he was with Stella. She used to buy the most stupid things, like three boxes of brownie mix, one apple, milk to make the brownies and a large amount of pasta. Then they’d get home, make two out of three brownies, eat as much as they could, have a drink, fuck once in the living room, then in his bed, then they’d pass out.

Thinking about it hurt him. There was a literal, physical ache in his chest, that was neither and all at once a pressure, a burning, a stinging and a pinching.

Avoiding to look at anyone, Arthur went around the store to buy everything on Danse’s list, except he couldn’t find the cookies he wanted. He picked something else instead, Oreos, because they were Stella’s favorites, then he quickly exited the store after checking out.

It usually took forty five minutes to drive back to the cabin but that was always his favorite part. The drive back. Because, even at night like that when it was dark, the roads were beautiful, and empty. Sometimes he put music on, loud, and drove fast (too fast) until he was home. But, tonight, Arthur took his time. He was allowing himself to think about Stella, which he often didn’t, except sometimes in the shower when he wanted to jerk off but was too depressed to actually get through it.

He liked to think, and remember, about fucking her. Because it was pleasant, because it was easy. It’s not that it didn’t hurt at all—it did—but it wasn’t like remembering all the other stuff, like when he had told her that he was in love with her, or better, when she had told him ‘I love you’ for the first time, or when she tried not to cry while watching a movie but was so bad at hiding her tears.

He made himself stop thinking about those things when he parked in their tiny driveway. Danse could read him. Danse would know if Arthur had been ruminating about that stuff, and he’d try to cheer him up, which Arthur hated.
Well, he didn’t hate that Danse was trying to make him feel better. Arthur just couldn’t stand the fact that it wasn’t working. That no amount of beer, or poker matches or watching their favorite movies was making him feel even a little less sad.
And that was frightening.

Danse was waiting for him on the porch. He was sitting on the top stair, in a thick hoodie and his ugly slippers (hand knitted by a local old lady and bought by Danse at the town’s fall outdoors market). He was holding a bottle of Jameson.

“Hey,” Arthur said while climbing down the car. “Isn’t it a little cold to hang outside?”
“I was waiting for you,” Danse replied. “Looking at the stars, too.”
“Oh.” Waiting for him? Arthur shrugged it off and grabbed his grocery bags. “Well let’s go inside and finish that bottle, okay? I’m not in the mood for stargazing.”

Stargazing reminded him of Stella. The Oreos in the bag reminded him of Stella. Danse’s slippers reminded him of Stella, although he wasn’t sure why. Maybe because she would have loved them as much as she would have hated them. She definitely would have wore them to run late errands at a store, making them look like proper fools.

“Wait,” Danse sighed when Arthur had reached him. “There’s something you need to know.”
Arthur came to a stop and looked down. Danse wasn’t drunk, but he looked like he had cried.
“She’s on TV,” Danse explained. “Stella. She’s doing an interview with some journalist.”
“What?” Those words didn’t make any sense.
“I rewinded it and paused it. I only saw like, the first two minutes, if that. I wanted to wait for you.”
“Stella is on TV? What the fuck?”
“I don’t know man, let’s just go watch, ‘kay?”

Arthur followed Danse indoors and he only believed what he had said when he saw the TV. As promised, it was paused, and it showed a man Arthur didn’t know. He was in the action of sitting down on a chair, and in the bottom of the screen the headline said: “MEETING THE SOLE SURVIVOR: Who is Stella Austin?”

Arthur sat on the couch while Danse went for the armchair.

“Why would she do that?” Arthur breathed. “Why would she ruin her cover like that?”
“Arthur, don’t you see? This whole thing—her running away from Summersville, remaining hidden then, I assume, this interview—is about you. It’s always been about you, and keeping you safe.”
“Danse—”
“Listen to me.” Danse hit the coffee table with his fist, sending pizza crumbs on the floor. “I’ve been trying to wake you the fuck up for months now. You felt betrayed, you felt like she had messed things up. But she wants you safe. And me too, I assume. So you will sit down and watch this interview and you will not be angry at her, no matter what she says. She deserves at least that.”

Arthur couldn’t find a good answer to this so he just grabbed the Jameson and drank a lot of it. When he put the bottle back, Danse unpaused the TV.

“... so I sat down with her,” the man on screen said, narrating. “She appeared fragile, and scared, but she turned out to be none of those things.”
Then they showed her.

She was sitting on a bench with a white wall behind her. She had lost a considerable amount of weight, her eyes had sunken right into her skull, her skin had lost all the glow from her time in Summersville, and she looked exhausted. Sleep deprived. Hurting.
Her purple hair was gone, too. It had been replaced with a modest, longer dark hairstyle.

“Hi, Stella,” the man conducting the interview said. “Thank you for accepting to meet me.”
“Sure, Alexander,” Stella replied.
“For some people at home who might not know the whole story, let me just summarize it quickly: Five years ago, your fiancé got shot and you as well, causing you to lose the baby you were pregnant with. Time passed, and when the synth crisis began, the Institute started chasing you, without you knowing why. They tried to get to you a few times again, if I’m not mistaken. So you fled Boston, faking your own death. And now—”
“And now I’m back, and I’m not dead,” Stella finished in Alexander’s place.

There was a long silence.

“Are you here to fight the Institute?” the journalist asked.
“No.” Stella’s mouth twitched. “Not really.”
“Not really?”
“I want to get inside it. The Institute.”
“I’ve heard that’s impossible—that there is no door, or entrance, to this secret Institute.”
“I don’t care. Some people obviously get in and out of that place, so I’m gonna find out eventually.”

It was only then that it hit Arthur—the overwhelming nostalgy of seeing her again. Even if she had changed, she was still Stella, and he still missed her immensely.

“Fair enough,” the man replied with a faint smile. “I want to talk about you being dead. The bar you were in did explode—or were you never inside it that night?”
Stella’s eyes darkened. Arthur’s heart exploded in his chest, or at least it felt like it.
“I was there with my b—... My boss.” She said boss, but Arthur heard ‘boyfriend’.
“Arthur Maxson.”
Her lips twitched again, but harder.
“Yes. Him.”
“What happened? A lot of rumors circulated about that explosion.”

Stella pressed her hands against her thighs and the camera made a point of showing it. Her fingers were trembling.
It was hurting her to remember all of this. It was hurting her to talk about it.

“I know about the rumors,” Stella replied. “None of them were true. It wasn’t a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing, not a suicidal pact, nothing like that. I was just… there. I was with Arthur and we were discussing my departure from the bar when it exploded and Kellogg turned out to be responsible for it.”
“Kellogg is…?”
“The man who shot Nate. My fiancé. And me. And tried to kill me by running me over with a car.”
“So he tried to kill you again by causing damage to the bar?”
“I think that was just a cover, honestly. He probably wanted me alive or something.”
“What happened, Stella? What happened that night at the Prydwen?”

It took Stella a long time to answer this, and whoever had edited the interview hadn’t cut the silence.

“He shot Arthur.” Her mouth didn’t twitch. This memory didn’t hurt her at all because it was a blatant lie. “He shot Arthur right in the head and then he pushed me on the ground, threatened me. He had one of his men get some handcuffs or rope ready, I’m not sure, but that’s when I saw the gun under Arthur’s desk.”
“So you killed him.”
“I shot Kellogg and the guy that was with him.”

Because Arthur knew her so well, and because he knew the true story, he could tell she was a little nervous about lying, but she was also very good.

“So how did you escape?”
“I knew… someone. Who can get papers, IDs. I went to him and I left.”
“Can you tell us where you went?”
“I would be compromising the people there. If the Institute were to find out, they’d get there right away.”

“Poor Stella,” Danse sighed. “She’s right. It didn’t take long before they found us. At least we went away. I just hope the others are okay.”
“Yeah.” Arthur kept his eyes on the screen.

“You must miss many, many people, Stella,” Alexander went on.
“Yes.” She bit her lip, hard.
“Nathan, and your unborn son, and, well… Michael Danse, who also died, as well as Alicia Haylen, Arthur Maxson, your family—”

“Stop!” Stella snapped. “I didn’t come here to talk about how much I miss people. Of course I miss people! Every fucking second. Every night when I go to sleep I see Haylen die, I see Arthur, I see Danse, I hear Nate’s body fall on the pavement—of course I miss them! So are we here to make people cry or are we here to discuss real business?”

Stella’s eyes were full of tears and Arthur wanted nothing more at this time than to hold her tight.

A person off-screen spoke. “Stella? Are you okay?”
“Yes, Preston. I’m fine.”

Preston. Preston Garvey. She was with Preston Garvey? Arthur remembered him. A good man. A teacher, with something nice to say all the time.
It made him feel a little better to know that Stella was with one of her former friends. That she wasn’t all alone in there, followed by coursers and by god-knows-what else.

“Don’t you have a huge news story you wanted to talk about during that interview?” Stella added, now looking back at the journalist. “Then we can just move the fuck on.”

The man breathed deeply and closed his eyes for a few seconds.
“Alright,” he sighed. “A deep research gave us frightening results—there’s the Institute, here, in Boston, but… there are other similar organizations all around the country and the world.”
Arthur heard Danse gasp and he saw him leaning closer to the TV, but Arthur couldn’t move—it was as if his blood had been replaced with ice-cold water.

“Yes,” Stella replied. “It seems so. There are other Institutes. There are dozens of them.”
“All of them creating synths.”
“All of them creating synths,” Stella repeated. “But I don’t care about that—I don’t hate synths.” Her lips twitched again, and Arthur figured she was remembering himself beating up Danse for being a synth. “It’s the why they’re doing it that matters.”

“They’re doing it because they want to create a better humanity,” the journalist said. “They seem to think it’ll help. Synths don’t get sick. Sickness isn’t written in their DNA. No cancer, no autoimmune diseases, none of that crap. Their most recent synths even come with a virtually perfect brain—no depression or mood swings, no fits of rage, allowing just enough bad but basically only joy, and relaxation, and so on.”

Stella blinked and licked her lips. Arthur felt his stomach turn at the thought of his mouth on hers.

“Isn’t that fucked up?” Stella said in a perfectly calm voice.
“I think it is, but some people might disagree,” Alexander pointed out. “After all, humanity doesn’t look too well these days. Sickness, poverty—you name it. Some people might argue that what the Institute is doing is a good thing.”


“They want to erase what makes us human in the first place. What would I be without my tendency to drink a little too much whiskey? What would I be like if I didn’t cry for no reasons sometimes, if… If I didn’t feel the pain I’ve been feeling ever since they took Nate and Shaun away? That might make me perfect , but it wouldn’t make me human. I don’t want perfect.”

Danse paused the TV.

“Do you think I’m like that?” he asked. “A seemingly perfect synth?”
Arthur was annoyed that he had paused when he really just wanted to look at Stella and hear her voice. “No offense, but no,” he replied.
“But… I don’t get sick. I don’t remember ever getting sick. Remember when the whole staff at the Prydwen caught the swine flu and we had to close the bar for two entire weeks?”
“You didn’t get sick,” Arthur agreed. “But—”
“You all coughed in my face for days and I didn’t get sick! I never get sick, I never really get hurt, never for long, I—”

“Danse,” Arthur cut off. “You’re not one of those synths they’re talking about. You’re obviously, uh, an older model.”
It was a little strange to say it like that but it was the truth.
No. It was very strange.

“You get depressed,” Arthur went on. “When you learned you were a synth you had to leave your entire life so you could figure things out. And I’m sure you still haven’t figured them out, and I’m sure you’re still depressed. You can’t get over things. You couldn’t get over Stella, or over the synth thing, or…”
Arthur’s voice died somewhere between his vocal cords and his mouth.

“Or over you?” Danse sighed, putting his face into his hands.
“Yeah.” Things had turned awfully awkward.
“You’re right,” Danse agreed, letting the TV play. “I’m too fucked up to be like those they talk about.”

There was a long silence on screen during which the journalist looked at his notes and Stella at her nails.
“Do you have any suggestions then?” the journalist asked. “What should be done?”
“I can’t speak on an international level,” Stella replied. “I don’t know. It’s too big for me to figure out. But… here, and now, I know I have to get inside the Institute.”
“And what? Convince them to stop?”
“No. But every night when the power cuts off and the city becomes silent, and we hear the low, humming sound—we know it’s them. We know it’s their… machine. Who knows how many ‘perfect’ synths they’re creating everyday? And then those synths having perfect babies, and so on... I don’t think I can convince anyone there to just drop their whole project, but I know I have to get in. It’s a start, isn’t it?”
“It is.” The man chuckled faintly. “Do you have any idea of what will happen once you’re in there, though?”

Another, longer silence. This time, another camera showed images of other people, sitting outside the main camera frame. Arthur recognized all of them. Preston Garvey, Piper Wright and Hancock himself. Like Stella, they were all skinnier than he remembered them, and they looked tensed—Preston especially.

“There is someone I need to meet inside the Institute,” Stella acknowledge. “But other than that, I don’t really know.”
“That’s reckless.”
“I don’t care.”
“People might say—”
“I don’t care what people might say. I do what I need to do to make things right—I don’t need anyone’s permission. And I know I might just end up like Haylen, with a bullet in my head, but I don’t care, because at least I’ll have tried. Those bastards down there, they think they can play god, well, we need to resist and show them the wrongs they’ve done to all of us, we need to—”

But then the screen turned black. Danse checked to see if he had pressed any button on the remote, but no, then they checked their reception and most other channels worked—except those who were broadcasting the interview.

“Are they censoring her?” Danse scoffed. “Idiots. She’s right! We can’t let that happen!”
“For all we know, the Institute itself might have cut it off. Every channel just turning into a black screen like that? It’s not a coincidence.”

But they sat and stared at the screen for a long time, waiting for it to at least return to normal even though it wasn’t Stella. It didn’t. Not after half an hour, or a whole hour. Then they went online and tried to look for it but nothing substantial came up.

So they had some more whiskey, but every time he drank it, Arthur let it roll inside his mouth, the taste being a painful, but pleasant reminder of Stella’s whiskey kisses.

 

 

*

 

 

Arthur woke up the next morning with mild pain radiating from his temples to his brows and behind his eyes. He groaned, his first thought being that he wished he could just go back to sleep and wait for his hangover to fade. He rolled on his other side, trying to find some comfort, but the couch delivered none. His neck was sore, he had a bit of nausea, and his mouth was incredibly dry.

Arthur groaned again.

“Get up,” Danse’s voice said. From the sound of it, Arthur guessed he was in the kitchen. “Arthur. Come on—just get up.”
“What time is it?” Arthur managed, still keeping his eyes shut.
“It’s almost noon. We have to talk.”

Danse was always like that—he had always been like that. The serious type, the kind of person who initiated important discussions. Also he had never had a hangover once in his life.
Arthur wondered how much of that was because Danse was a synth. The no hangover part was definitely because he was one, but his serious, mature-for-his-age part… Arthur wished it was just part of his personality, not lines of code implanted in his brain to make the human race better.

The pain got worse when Arthur opened his eyes, so Danse brought him two pills and water, and allowed him a few minutes to get used to the light.

“Shower, go get changed,” Danse said after a while.
“I’m hungry,” Arthur pointed out. “And depressed, and tired.”
“Doesn’t matter. We’re getting your truck and we’re leaving.”
Arthur scoffed. “What?”

Danse looked at him with a deadly stare that actually scared Arthur a little. He sat on the coffee table in front of him.

“The world is ending, Arthur.” Danse said that like he would have said something like, ‘There was a big storm last night.’ “The world is ending and if we’re going to die anyway, I’d rather it’d be at home.”
“Washington?”
“Boston.” Danse sighed and looked around while Arthur stared at him.

He had loved Danse. That was many, many years ago but he had been in love with him and Arthur couldn’t help but to wonder what his life would be like if he hadn’t pretended otherwise. He had melted under his hands, his lips, and he had been in love with Danse.

Maybe that was why he was so shocked when he had seen his name on the first list of synths that had become public. But now, months after the event, Arthur only felt regret and shame. It still creeped him out a little—every day, he analyzed Danse, tried to decipher the human and the synthetic in him.

He didn’t love Danse anymore, at least not like that. But things would have been so different if Arthur hadn’t been a coward about his own feelings and if they had just… dated. Maybe they’d still be dating. Then, what would Stella be doing—would she be in the same situation she were now? Possibly. After all, she had been named the Sole Survivor after what had happened to her baby and husband, and those things were unrelated to him.

And she hadn’t talked about it in the interview—or at least, it hadn’t be shown on screen—but she was going to the Institute to meet the synth they had made out of her dead baby. Arthur knew that man was the leader of the Institute now. Danse also knew it. Haylen had known as well. But Stella didn’t know.

She was going headfirst in that place and he had held so much information from her just to protect her. He shouldn’t have. He was an idiot. Just like he had been an idiot for not dating Danse and kissing him every night.

“Boston,” Arthur muttered, his head spinning with thoughts. “How are we gonna get in anyway? Quinlan’s dead.”
“The world is ending,” Danse repeated. “I went out this morning to get aspirin for you and there was not a single newspaper. I asked the lady at the counter and she said they received none. That had never happened before. So in the car I listened to the radio—almost nothing. All I got was the local radio station and they weren’t playing any music, just a recorded message that told people not to panic, to stay inside if they could, and to wait for the situation to get back to normal. The internet is down, the TV isn’t broadcasting anything. Most major cities are quarantined now, and people are talking of offensive attacks—but no one knows who’s attacking who.”

Arthur stared into Danse’s dark eyes while he was swallowing all that information. A war. They were at war.

“Okay,” Arthur breathed. “We’re going back to Boston. I don’t know how we’ll get in, and how long it will take, but we’ll get there.”

If he was going to die, he was going to kiss Stella one more time before he did.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Stella

 

 

 

After she had met with that journalist, Stella and the others were forced to stay hidden in an abandoned toy store downtown for about three days. Some raiders outside seemed to know something was up and they guarded the streets fiercely, until someone else came and shot a good amount of them while the rest ran away. Stella, Piper, Hancock and Preston were locked in the attic and it was at night so they couldn’t really make out who had been shooting at the raiders, but since they weren’t glowing in the dark it was safe to assume they weren’t Neons.

The fourth day, they gathered their things and went out. It was snowing and none of them was dressed appropriately, so it didn’t take long until they were freezing cold.
It also didn’t help that they were in a hurry.

The downtown area was definitely the most dangerous to be around—gunshots were heard at anytime of day and night, as well as screams, shouts, and other strange noises. It was also here that the humming was the strongest—the deep, low sound that came from the ground. The one that came from the Institute when they fired up their synth making machine.

At the thought of that, Stella made a face and sighed.

“The safe route means we’re home tomorrow,” Preston said to Hancock. “But we’ll get there.”
“We’ll freeze to death,” Hancock replied. “We should find a car.”
“A car is loud! And the lights, and… You know we can’t get in a car—it means they’ll see us. We’ll be an easy target.”
“Preston is right,” Stella chimed in. “We can’t use a car. It’s too risky. When the sun comes down we find shelter, light a fire and wait for morning, then we walk again.”

The city was so different now. Not just because many buildings had been burned down, or even bombed during the beginning of the quarantine, but because it was silent. And empty. The snow was accumulating now, and it was becoming difficult to walk, but Stella couldn’t look down to see where she went. Instead, she looked at the streets. She hadn’t been downtown since coming back from Summersville, and it was a shock.

Then it was there. They turned on Cambridge St, and it was there.

The Prydwen.
Or what was left of it.
Which, really, wasn’t that much.

The building was just a ruin now, with only the eastern facade remaining. The other walls were down and burned to the core, and left in a pile of black stuff on the first floor. Arthur’s office was completely gone, but from here Stella could make out part of Haylen’s office.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Piper whispered, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go, Blue. There’s no use in staying around.”
“I want to go see,” Stella replied.
“There’s nothing to see,” Hancock pointed out.
“Wait for us if you’d rather not go,” Preston said. “I’m going with you, Stella.”

Stella crossed the street, closely followed by Preston. She heard Hancock sigh behind them, then he said he was going to stay on that corner to watch around, and Piper went to another corner to do the same.

Maybe Stella was making things up but the bar still smelled like fire. Maybe it was that, or maybe it was just all of the surrounding buildings that had also been taken down by the Institute, but still.

She remembered too well being caught in the flames, and how angry she had been at Arthur at that moment. That had happened a little less than a year ago and yet, it felt like much longer than that. She was an entirely new person now, with a very dark purpose, so she had a different perspective on everything.

“It’s so fucked up,” Preston breathed.
“Hm.” Stella’s voice seemed to have disappeared for now.

She touched the wall that was still standing. The white brick was cold.

“Hey, Stella, look!” Piper said from the other side of the street. “Turn to the left and look at what’s on the wall!”

Stella dragged herself to the area Piper was pointing at. It was the parking lot, and, on the remaining wall, the back entrance. There was something on the door. Words, written in black paint.

“THE PRYDWEN 2.0
LOGAN AIRPORT
FRIENDS WELCOME, ENEMIES SHOT ON SIGHT”

“Well that’s dark,” Preston said.
“We have to go,” Stella replied, ignoring his comment. “ I have to go.”
“What? That’s insane. For all we know, it’s a trap. Of course the Institute knew you’d come back here, and—”
“Trap or not, Preston, it doesn’t matter.” Stella adjusted her messenger bag and the strap of her rifle—her shoulder was starting to her. “You know why I’m here. So even if I do get caught, I don’t care.”

Preston opened his mouth, ready to give her an answer, but he found none. After a few seconds, he nodded.
“I’m going with you,” he insisted.
“No, you can’t. If it is the Institute…” Stella paused and looked around, making sure neither Piper or Hancock were near enough to hear her voice. “What I have to do is so important. What if I can get to a computer, and hack it, and take the Institute down? What if? We can’t risk that operation—if you’re taken with me, it won’t be the same.”

Stella highly doubted she’d ever get the chance to hack into any computer at the Institute but she had to be convincing. The truth was, she wouldn’t let someone else die because of her. She wouldn’t let Preston take a bullet the way Nate had. Preston and the others deserved to live, even in this cold, wrecked world.

“I hate saying goodbye,” she breathed, looking over at Piper, then Hancock. “Besides, they wouldn’t understand.”
“I can cover you,” Preston offered, a sad smile on his face. “I’ll walk them home safely.”
“Tell them I love them, and that I just had to go, and that—”
“They know, Stella.” Preston put his hand on her shoulder. “But I’ll tell them all that stuff. They’ll understand. Now, you go fulfill your destiny, and you do your best to get out of there, alright?”
Despite everything, Stella smiled. “Alright. See you around, Garvey.”
“See you, Austin.”

Because it was cold and because she didn’t want to cry, Stella thought about her years as Preston’s neighbor as she walked away. How he always opened her door when she forgot her key. How he had heard her cough when she had been sick—really, really sick—and the next day a basket with cold medicine, luxurious bubble bath and chocolate was waiting for her on her doorstep. Preston was a good man, and he didn’t deserve to be trapped in his shithole of a city, but he was, and he was making the best of it.

Stella walked as quickly as the snow and ice was allowing it. She didn’t want to slip, but it would be dark soon and she’d get lost in the dark. She took a straight path, walking across parking lots and avoiding roads, until she saw the airport from a distance.

It was getting pretty dark by now, but she wasn’t making this up—a high wall had been built around the whole airport area. A small plane landed as she was staring—not so smoothly, but it landed all the same. They had power. Lights. Not the kind of electricity they had at Sanctuary. Nothing was flickering, there was no weak spot. It was real power, better than what the Neons had.

She was in North End, which meant she was close to the Railroad. She considered, for a few seconds, making her way to Old North Church and asking for a car to cross the 1A tunnel, but she immediately changed her mind. She’d walk. No matter how cold or dark it was, she’d walk. After all, it was the Railroad’s fault she was here in the first place. Well, kind of.
Anyway.

Stella froze when she saw two men were guarding the tunnel entrance. She ducked to hide behind a building, but it was too late.

“Come forward, please,” a loud voice said. “State your name, allegiance and intentions.”
“Fuck,” Stella breathed. She held her rifle tighter. She wasn’t a great shot. “Who are you?” she asked, louder.
“We are the Brotherhood of Steel,” the guard replied. “We mean no harm, but we don’t accept charity—no one comes in just because they want to. Please come forward, state your name, allegiance and intentions.”

She could have run, but Stella figured she had run enough for two lifetimes. Besides, those people were her friends, right? Well, the Prydwen crew had been. She didn’t know who those Brotherhood of Steel people were but she was following instructions she’d found at the Prydwen, and that had to mean something, right?
She breathed in.

“My name is Stella Austin,” she replied, coming into view. A spot was directed at her and she was instantly blinded by light. She let go of her rifle and slowly walked towards the light. “I’m with the Minutemen. I want to see my friends.”
“Oh, another one of those.” The light was turned off, but it took Stella a few seconds to see again, her eyes slow to adjust to the darkness.

The two men were wearing dark clothes, helmets and had military grade weapons. They were holding rifles but had pistols and daggers strapped to their belts. They stood behind the barricade, looking at her suspiciously.

“You’re the fourth Stella Austin this week,” one of them joked. “If you go now, we won’t have to shoot you like the others.”
“Please,” she said. “I’m the real one. I worked at the Prydwen with all of them. I won’t stay for long, I just…”

I just want to see my friends before I die , she finished in her own head. There was no point in informing the guard of that, it wouldn’t help her cause at all.
They laughed anyway.

“Tell us one thing the real Stella Austin would know,” the second guard offered.
“I don’t know you at all,” she replied. “How could you even verify that?”
“I’m the one holding the gun, so you should answer.”

She sighed. What was something she could say to verify her identity? She couldn’t think of anything that made her any special to the eyes of her old coworkers. Or maybe…

“I had sex with Arthur Maxson, my boss,” she blurted out. “We fucked on his desk one night, at the bar. He fucked me. It’s a secret but I know people talked anyway, they suspected it.”
“I certainly did not expect that,” the first guard said. “We usually get like, I miss my dead husband or I was actually never pregnant and that whole story is made up—shit that doesn’t make sense.” He grabbed something. A radio. “Yeah, Jackson? Where’s Rhys? Can you get him on the radio?”
Stella’s heart jumped when she heard Rhys’ name. She had never been happier about it.
“Wait a sec,” the voice replied on the radio.

They waited. Somewhere, Stella heard a crow—no, a raven. She hated that she could tell the difference between these two very similar birds now only by hearing them. This was all Arthur’s fault. He had spent way too much time teaching her this stuff, and now she actually remembered it.

She looked up and stared at the snow falling around a construction light. It was strangely beautiful.

“Rhys here,” Rhys’ voice said on the radio, and Stella actually took three steps forward to hear him better. “What do you need?”
“We have another Stella Austin here,” the guard explained. “She has the same height but she’s way thinner than what you described to us, also her hair is dark.”
“Did you ask her anything?”
“We asked her to prove her identity and to do so she says—”

The two guards laughed again, and Stella’s cheeks burned. She couldn’t think of another secret of hers that would validate her more than that. After all, she had nothing, so what else was there to say?

“—man, this one’s good.” The guard composed himself, then went on. “She says she fucked your boss. Like, in his office at the bar and all. She’s pretty hot, I gotta say.”
There was a long silence.
“Did this happen after she sang a song at karaoke night?” Rhys asked.
“You heard the man,” the guard said to her. “Answer.”
“Yes, I wanted to annoy him so I sang some Beyonce and—”
“And you drove him crazy,” Rhys said, finishing her sentence. “None of you actually talked about it, but we all knew.”

Another long silence.

“Test her to make sure she’s not a synth,” Rhys said. “Then bring her to me.”

Test her? Stella was aware of a device that could detect synths, because Danse had mentioned this to her. She followed the guard inside the tunnel, which was rather dark but lit by a few lights anyway, and he removed her hat and put something cold against the back of her head.

“Just need to make sure you’re not an enemy,” he said.
“You get many synths visiting you like that?”
“A few,” he admitted after the device had beeped twice and a green light was flashing on it. “Welcome home, Stella Austin.”

Welcome home. Preston had told her the same thing when she had been back in Boston and she had thought it was her home, but now she knew it wasn’t right. So the airport would certainly not be her home, but at least she’d see some of her friends.

“You shoot them?” she asked, just to stop thinking about that. “The synths?”
“Of course. Can’t risk having enemies around. The Institute can see through their eyes, you know. And we have secrets.”

Stella was escorted to a black SUV. The drive to the airport took just a few minutes, but it felt longer. Now that she was sitting here, she couldn’t help but to wonder what the hell she was doing. She should be dead by now. She should have been able to get inside the Institute by now.
It was all wrong. Why was she like this? Why was she avoiding her fate?

I don’t want to die, she told herself. That thought frightened her. She could barely remember a time in her life where she had truly wanted to be alive. Maybe when Nate was still alive—but even then. He had been deployed quite often and sometimes it was rough.

Maybe when she had been pregnant with Shaun. Not at first, of course, because it wasn’t planned and she didn’t think she had it in her to be a mom. But when she had found herself unable to end the pregnancy, and a few months into it, she had been content to be alive.

Now that she was thinking about it, and that Stella was feeling her fingertips again, she could remember very well the exact moment. It was when she had noticed her belly. Just a little swell, nothing extraordinary—she wasn’t exactly thin back then, not that she had ever wanted to be as thin as she were right now, because she was starving—but the swell had been there anyway. She had touched it again and again, until she had decided that she would embrace her new life.

Her nose, her cheeks and her fingertips were all coming back to life in the heat of the car. It would take a little longer for her toes to do the same, it seemed.

The guard stopped the car after crossing the tunnel. He got out first, then opened the door for Stella who climbed down slowly. She was tired and her legs were sore.

“You need to go through decon first,” the man said, pointing at a building that probably used to be some sort of control center.
“I thought you were bringing me to Rhys?” Stella sighed, impatient. It had been days since she had eaten or slept properly.
“I am, but no outsider gets in without decon. Decontamination,” he precised.

Stella sighed again but followed him anyway. The airport was busy with people in dark clothes, holding weapons or tools, and they all seemed to be working. This place was a thousand times more organized than anywhere else in town—not even the Neons, who had a lot of resources, were that organized.

As she walked, Stella watched a helicopter take off several feet away. She wondered where it was going, but it seemed to be equipped with heavy rifles, with people around to use them in case of emergency.

The guard pushed the door open. There was power in here. Most of the lights were on.
The entrance of the building had obviously been changed to their needs, and so Stella was led into what used to be a bathroom. It was large and white and well lit, and a person (employee? Stella didn’t know how to refer her as, even in her own mind) listened to the guard explaining her story. He saluted her then left her with the woman.

“Please undress entirely,” she said without waiting. She was wearing a latex suit, as if Stella was a nuclear weapon or something.

A while ago that would have bothered Stella, but not she didn’t really care about her body anymore, so she just removed all of her clothes and disposed of them in the large metal box they used for that. She asked if she could keep the Minutemen armband on her jacket and the woman assured she would make sure it was removed from the jacket, cleaned and returned to her.

Once Stella was naked, she was locked into a small shower cabin and hot water was poured on her. It was really warm. Scalding. It burned her, but Stella welcomed that feeling, especially after being cold for so long.

Then she realized she was in a shower.

A shower.

And she laughed, opening her eyes and looking at the water falling from three shower heads. Two were just water, one was water with soap and probably antiseptic, she guessed from the smell.

MacCready would kill for a shower , she thought, a large smile on her face.

“Everything okay in there?” the woman asked.
“It’s great,” Stella replied. “I haven’t showered in forever.”
“You didn’t seem too filthy,” the other one pointed out.
“We have baths and stuff like that. But we’re a lot of people and so the baths are pretty uncommon.”

There was no answer, so Stella just closed her eyes again and let the water burn her. When it was cut off, she actually moaned, but the woman opened the door and asked her to step out. Stella was given a towel and a hairbrush, so she brushed her hair and dried herself.

The woman then helped her into dark clothes. The underwear was white and the bra more flattering than expected, it even had lace on it, and Stella noticed it was from Victoria’s Secret. She then jumped into the black leggings, the dark gray tank top, and the black jacket.

“Someone will now take you to the ID station,” the woman said. She was nice.

Another woman came and walked her to another room where a photo of Stella was taken. They gave her an ID card, it was magnetic, had the picture and her info on it, but they also gave her tags to wear around her neck. She passed the chain around her head, remembering Nate doing the same  thing many times. They had engraved her full name, hair and eye color, and a series of ten numbers.

“You’re good to go,” the person in charge of IDs said. “Rhys will be waiting for you in his office.”
“And where is his office?” Stella asked.
“Just get out of the building by the back entrance, then find Terminal B. Ask the person at the front desk for Rhys.”

Stella followed those steps exactly, but it was rather dark outside, even with all the lights, and it took her a few minutes to differentiate Terminal B from Terminal A, and she didn’t want to ask anyone.

Soon enough, Stella was in an elevator, then in a hallway, then in Rhys’ office.

He hadn’t changed at all, except that his hair was a little longer maybe. But he hadn’t lost weight like she had, and his skin wasn’t terribly pale, and he didn’t look sickly.

He seemed to be thinking the same thing as her, but opposite, because he looked at her like he was looking at a ghost.

“Fuck, Stella,” he said. “You look like shit.”
“I’ve been through hell, Rhys,” she replied. “It’s so nice to see you again too, though.”

He walked across the room and hugged her tightly. He smelled of the antiseptic they had used while decontaminating her.

“You should have come to us faster,” he said. “I thought you were dead, but Ingram insisted that you weren’t.”
“Ingram’s here?” Stella couldn’t help but to smile. “Is she alright?”
“She is. We all are, thanks to Arthur.” Rhys escorted her to another corner of his office and helped Stella as she sat down on a comfortable couch. “Do you want coffee?”
“You have coffee?”

Rhys smiled too, but didn’t reply as he opened a cupboard with a Nespresso machine. When the smell of coffee filled the room, Stella laughed, the same laugh she’d had in the shower. Rhys didn’t mention it though, and brought to her a nice cup of coffee the way she liked it—with sugar and just a bit of cream. He sat next to her, and waited patiently until she had drank half of the warm liquid. It tasted better than anything she had eaten or drank for the past months.

“We all received an extraordinary amount of money from Arthur when he died,” Rhys explained. “We knew a storm was coming, and Ingram had the idea of buying a ton of shit with it while money was still a currency that was worth anything. So we bought guns, and food, and clothes. When the war began, we were ready, and we found this place and made it home.” He looked at the large window. It was too dark outside to see anything but the lights around the tall buildings. “Without Arthur’s money, we probably would have died like Haylen.”

Rhys’ voice broke as he said Haylen’s name, and Stella took his hand in hers.

“I miss her,” she said, then she hesitated. “Rhys… I’m not dead, but you do know Arthur isn’t either, right?”
Rhys jumped. “What?”
“We faked our deaths—had to. There was a bomb in the bar but we made it out because the Institute wanted both of us alive. We were able to escape. He’s alive, somewhere. Danse joined us later.”

Rhys’ face turned white and he had to lean against the couch for a few seconds.

“Why aren’t you three together? What happened?”

It was a long story and Stella didn’t know where to begin. She told him about Summersville and West Virginia, and the months they spent hiding with fake identities. She told him about Deacon and the Railroad (which infuriated Rhys), then she explained how she knew the Institute wanted her, and how she had to deliver something very important in there in order to, maybe, save others.

“You’re going to give back my bag, right?” she said. “The USB key is in there.”
“Of course.”

Rhys got up and made a quick call over a radio, where a woman confirmed to him that they would send her belongings to his office right now.

“Maxson and Danse aren’t fucking dead,” Rhys laughed, obviously relaxed. He poured himself a large glass of vodka. “I can’t wait to see them again, and fucking punch them in the face for faking their own deaths.”
“How do you know you’ll even see them?”
“There’s no way you’re here and Arthur won’t try to get back to you?” Rhys replied as if it was obvious. Stella already knew that, but she pretended she didn’t. “Now that you’ve given that interview and shit—he’ll find you.”

Yeah. He would. And Stella dreaded that day—so she would have to hurry and make it into the Institute before Arthur made it here.

“He won’t find me because tomorrow I go out and find the Institute,” Stella said. “Or rather, I let the Institute find me. The sooner this is over with, the better.”
Rhys looked at her for a long time and finished his glass. “You’re right. I don’t want to let you go, but you’re right.”

He took her hand in his. His skin was warm and rough. He had never been gentle to her before. It felt weird.

“Tomorrow we’ll equip you with supplies, and food, enough to last until you get inside the Institute,” he said. “But tonight, we party together—at least one last time. Everyone’s going to be so happy to see you.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Stella

 

 

She stayed at the Logan airport just long enough to get some stamina back into her. Stella knew that the next step she needed to take would drain her—most likely even until she died—so she tried to keep her mind empty.

For eight days, she went to sleep early in the improvised dormitory of a terminal and while everybody was either still sleeping or getting breakfast at the mess hall, she climbed the stairs of the control tower and meditated. She’d never done it before, although her psychiatrist had strongly recommended it after Nate and Shaun had died. But now she contemplated as the sun was rising over the deserted city.

Every morning, she tried to sort all the things in her mind. Her feelings, her purpose. Arthur’s smile—the one he had just for her. Her fears, her duty. Danse’s laugh. Her marigolds, and the pool, with the warm water and the smell of chlorine she inhaled as she took Arthur in her mouth, his fingers tangled in her lilac hair.

She closed her fist around the cube the Railroad had given her—what she needed to hack into the Institute.

Today was the ninth day, and today was the day she would leave.

Stella woke up early, as she was used to now, and made her way to the control tower to meditate. She made that session quick, because she wanted to get as much sunlight as she could today. She wasn’t sure who, or what she would meet in the empty Boston streets.

Then, she showered, and she made that shower long—with special permission from Rhys. Because it was probably her last shower, just as she had just witnessed her last sunrise, and so on. She ate a good breakfast, a sliced steak sandwich. The man who made it for her at the mess hall put extra cheese in it, and it made Stella wonder how much Rhys had told everyone about her plans. Maybe a lot, but she didn’t care. She had just spent the last eight days meditating in the morning, then working out, then doing some cleaning chores in a terminal. And at night, she went into the building they used as a bar. That was where they had recreated the Prydwen, the best they could. And it wasn’t bad. There was plenty of liquor, a karaoke machine, and dozens of people forgetting the shitstorm happening outside the high walls surrounding the airport.

That was exactly what Arthur had done with the Prydwen, Stella could see it now. She could see all the work he had put into allowing people to be in peace for a few hours. That meant picking just the right type of wood for the floors, and the best vodkas for cocktails, and the playlists, and everything. Hours. Hundreds of hours or work, with Danse, so millennials could have a safe space.

And Kellogg had burned it down.

And Kellogg had killed Nate, and their child.

Stella felt a slight hangover from last night—she’d had several drinks in preparation for today, with Ingram and Rhys, although none of them had really said anything for the whole night. They’d just sat together, sharing a bottle of bourbon, and listened to the music playing in the background.
Stella jumped slightly when someone knocked on her bedroom door.

“Come in,” she said. She knew who it was, because Rhys visited her everyday and he had this unique, short knock she had learned by now.

Rhys pushed the door open and closed it behind him, which he hadn’t done on the other days. He was holding a bag, and he appeared to be tired. Exhausted. Something even more than that, but Stella’s mind couldn’t afford to be looking for a word because it was busy thinking about her imminent death.

“So you’re actually leaving,” he said, putting the bag on her bed and sitting next to it.

“Were you expecting me not to?” she replied, her voice weaker than she’d imagined.

“I was hoping,” he admitted, his voice suggesting he might add something but he closed his mouth and remained silent instead.

Well she had been hoping too, at least a part of her was. If she stayed here, Arthur and Danse would join her soon, she was sure of it, and they could live here. This place that Rhys and everyone had made, with the big walls. They could protect them from anything.

But, no. She had to find who was responsible for all the shit in her life. She still remembered the taste of a xanax pill melting on her tongue, just a few seconds before she washed it down with whiskey. She remembered what it had been like to feel Shaun kicking inside her.

“Well, I brought a goodbye gift anyway,” Rhys said. “Open it.”

Stella finished folding a black sweater and putting it into her own bag before opening the one Rhys had brought. It contained two pistols with additional ammo, and a radio. Just straight up a walkie-talkie, but obviously taken from a military base.

“The guns, well,” Rhys started, searching for his words. “Just in case, you know? And the radio—”

“I won’t need it,” Stella said, cutting him off. “Don’t waste it on me.”

“I’m not taking it back. Just, take it, Austin. For fuck’s sake. Take it. And… when… if… if you get out of there, and you need extraction—call us. We’ll go and get you back.”

She nodded, and put the radio in her bag just to shut him off. She carefully set the guns in her coat, though.

“Stella.” She had never heard him say her name like that before. Gently. Almost lovingly. He took her hands in his, and pulled her against him. She let it happen. “They killed everyone they could. Haylen was just one of them. They’re going to kill you.”


“I know what I signed up for,” she whispered, and he held her tighter. It was nice to feel someone’s skin. “It’s alright.”

“What am I supposed to tell Arthur when he shows up here, definitely expecting to see you?”

Stella breathed deeply and let go of Rhys, getting back up. She zipped her bag closed and proceeded to put on her boots, the ones MacCready had looted for her. She loved those boots.

“Stella,” Rhys said, his voice slightly louder. “What am I supposed to tell him?”

“The truth, Rhys,” she replied. “The fucking truth. Him and Danse have each other, they’ll be fine.”

Since Rhys wasn’t responding, Stella finished lacing up her left boot and looked up. The way Rhys was holding himself, and avoiding her eyes, he obviously appeared uncomfortable. He was just staring at the floor.

“You’re not going to let Danse in, aren’t you?” Her voice echoed in the silence. “Because he’s a synth.”

“It’s in the rules,” Rhys pleaded. “We can’t. I know Danse is a nice guy but he—what if the Institute spies on us through his eyes or something?”

In less than two seconds, Stella grabbed the gun she had just put into her pocket, the very one Rhys had gifted her moments ago, removed the security off it and shot at the wall, making sure it was loaded. It was, and the sound it made in the small room was deafening.

She slammed the barrel against Rhys’ neck, and pushed it hard into his skin. He moaned. He was terrified.

Stella was tired. After everything she had gone through—all the bad stuff—she just wanted to make sure that her boyfriend and their best friend would be okay. They wouldn’t be great because the world was absolutely shitty, but if they were here they’d be safe and they’d have liquor and guns and music and food.

“You’re gonna let Danse in, yes?” Stella said.

“I don’t know what the others will say, Cade and—”

She shot another bullet at the same wall and put the gun against Rhys’ head this time. He was sweating profusely.

“I’m just going to kill you,” she said. “I don’t give a shit anymore. The dorms are empty at this time of day so it would take several hours until someone found your body. By then I’ll be long gone.”

“I’m in charge,” he pointed out. “It’s me who can make an exception for Danse, no one else will.”

She laughed, and pulled the gun away from him.

“If I don’t put a bullet into you for it now, Arthur will. There’s just no way they’ll let you run things after he’s back. It’s his money that built this place. It’s his thing. His fucking ship. He’ll kill you. And I don’t care. You always annoyed the fuck out of me anyway. At least I walk away knowing the two people I love the most will have beds, and food, and walls to protect them, regardless of your decision.”

And with that, she gathered her stuff and left the building. She walked to one of the two entrances, and men there drove her back into the city. She thanked them, and began her route. She had made a mental itinerary to follow, based on rumors of the most courser-infected roads and neighborhoods.

 

It only took fifteen minutes. The minute the airport disappeared from her view after she made a turn, there was a noise, and bright lights, and suddenly a man was standing in front of her, flanked with two others who had blank expressions. Those were synths for sure. A few months ago, Stella would have been startled, afraid—she would have found this strange. But not today. Maybe she was dissociating, but she genuinely did not care right now. She only wondered if she should have shot Rhys or not—just to have the satisfaction of doing it, and so Arthur didn’t have to kill another person.

“Stella Austin,” the man in the middle said. “My unit designation is X6-88. I believe you know why I’m here this morning.”


“Did you just appear out of nowhere?” She couldn’t help asking. The man did not respond, so she went on. “Yeah, I know why you’re here. You’re taking me to your boss?”


“If you do not resist, it will be quicker. But be warned—relaying for the first time can be painful.”


“I’ve probably seen worse,” she replied and put her gun back in her pocket.

The man grabbed her arm firmly.

“X6-88 ready to Relay with Stella Austin,” he said at nothing.

And then it felt like Stella was dying.

 

*

 

Stella came back to her senses much later, at least it seemed so. When she opened her eyes she remembered the pain—like every cell in her body was exploding, burning, freezing and exploding again, then boiling and melting down. That’s when she had passed out, in the middle of a bright white light, and now she was waking up in this strange room, alone. The man she had supposed was a courser was gone, as well as the two synth guards.

The room was circular, with dark walls and strange beams coming out of the walls. She looked around—all of her body seemed to be in one piece, and she still had her guns and her bag. The USB key was still around her neck on a chain.

She was fine.

Stella tried standing up but that operation took longer than expected. She couldn’t tell, but it felt like forever.

There was only one exit to the dark room so she went through it, her hand in her pocket, around the pistol. But no one was there. Just, absolutely nobody was waiting for her.

She went through a series of rooms, all of them had computers in it. She remembered Desdemona telling her she could put the key into any computer in the Institute and it would do the trick, but she wasn’t sure she should risk it now . If she did, she might ruin her chances of getting deeper into the Institute. But if she didn’t, she was gambling with something much bigger than herself.

As she was pondering on that, walking slowly and silently in the big, white rooms, a voice came out of nowhere. Well, after a few seconds Stella figured out it came out of speakers on the ceiling. It was the voice of a man, and it sounded almost familiar.

“Good morning, Stella,” the voice said. “Welcome to the Institute. I am… glad that you are here today, finally. We’ve waited a long time for you. I have waited a long time for you.”

She gripped her pistol harder, to the point where her hand and fingers hurt.

“Who the fuck are you?” she asked the ceiling. “Where are you?”

But the man did not answer her questions, and went on talking.

“You don’t need your weapons, but we won’t take them away from you either—just know that if you do hurt someone here, I’ll have to allow them to defend themselves and you’ll be incapacitated.”

There was a pause.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he added. “Come in, let’s meet. My quarters are at the top of the elevator.”

Stella came to a stop in front of a door, the voice becoming a buzz in her ears. The door was metallic and sturdy, did not have a handle or a lock—nothing. But it opened for her, and she saw the Institute.

It was large—larger than anything she had seen, probably. Almost all the structures were made of that white material, everything else was either steel or glass. There was a lot of it, glass, wide windows or entire walls made of it. She could see people working in labs, on fancy computers or examining blood samples or what appeared to be dead bodies. She saw people training to fight, learning attack and defense moves.

She saw classrooms, she saw offices, she saw people working on machines, and then she saw the elevator. It was in the middle of everything, all glass. Relatively small compared to the grandeur of the location, but beautiful somehow.

She walked slowly towards it, making her way through the crowd of scientists and workers. Most were busy looking at phone-like devices and ignored her, but some did take a good look at her, like they knew her already. But none were surprised or shocked. They all looked very clean, with strange, generic clothing, and perfect skin.

It took a while to Stella to figure out the elevator. It opened when she brushed the right side of the door panel with her fingers. And there was only one way, up, so that part was pretty easy. She ignored the blood pumping behind her ears, and looked around as she was being sent up the Institute, trying to gather her thoughts together.

She was underground, it was obvious. The lack of windows but also just the general feeling of something really thick and heavy lying on top of her and this place—the rumors had been true. The Institute was hidden beneath the surface.

Whoever ran this place knew about her, more than she could imagine probably. That made her feel inadequate, because she realized she didn’t know much. In this instant, she wished Arthur would have told her more, but he never really wanted to talk about what he knew of this place. He must have had his reasons, but still.

She had to find a computer. Soon. Now that she saw it, the Institute, and just how many people were here, she could only imagine how many of them were those enslaved synths Desdemona had told her about. She thought of Danse, and it hurt Stella. Maybe she could find the Railroad’s contact and make him send the freed synths to Sanctuary. Preston, Hancock, Piper and Mac would take care of them, give them a real home.

But that did not mean she would make it out alive. She had this gut-wrenching feeling that something bad was just about to happen. So once the elevator stopped, she walked out of it and tried her best to look like she was dizzy. She could see a room in his hallway that was filled with computers. She made her way there, trying to keep her act as true as she could, and let herself fall to the ground near one of those computers. The room was empty. Hancock was so good at pretending for stuff like that. She wasn’t.

“Is everything alright?” the voice asked from the ceiling. “I can send someone over you right now.”

“I’m fine,” Stella replied, turning her head to look at the computer’s tower. “The elevator is just fast, and I—”

“I know it’s been a long day, and the first relay has side effects,” the voice said. “I can provide with medicine that will settle things.”

“Thank you,” Stella said, extracting the device from her makeshift necklace.

She felt a jolt of adrenaline as she planted the memory card on the side of the computer’s tower, acting as if she were using it to get back up. If the man had noticed anything from his hidden cameras, he didn’t say anything. He would have said something, Stella figured.

Anyway, she had done her best.

Staying still for a few seconds to at least give the impression she was feeling better, Stella breathed deeply and tried her hardest to push Arthur and Danse and everyone else at the back of her head. And then she went to meet the man whose voice had greeted her into this place.

He was a few years older than she was, maybe around 35, or 37. His haircut was neat, as well as his beard, and he gave this strong impression to be very clean and methodical. He also gave the strong impression that he was so familiar she knew him well. It was strange. She wondered if he was a synth.

“Hello, Stella,” he said again. It was a little less weird to hear his real voice, not through the speakers. “Welcome into the Institute.”

“It’s not like I had a choice,” she pointed out.

The man chuckled and nodded. He seemed more relaxed then, and invited her to sit at a round table near them. She reluctantly sat at the edge of her seat, ready to bounce.

“You did have a choice” the man said after a long, awkward pause. “You let us bring you in here, and I think I know why.”

Stella thought of the device she had planted in the computer. It was tiny and was unlikely to get discovered as the computer room was empty and did not seem to be of much use. But still. Her heart rate accelerated.

“You’re here because of your son,” the man said.

“Who the fuck are you anyway?” she asked, feeling the everlasting anger she always felt at the mention of Shaun. Or babies in general.

The man chuckled and nodded, offering an apologetic smile.

“I’m sorry I forgot my manners,” he said. “I am the the Director of the Institute. I guess I have a name, but people here call me Father.”

“Father.”

“Yes. I am like a father to them.”

“To who?”

“The synths. Not all of them—the person who was in my position before I came along, a woman, was a mother to them. And so on.”

“Are you a synth?”

“Yes, but I’m one of a kind.”

Stella thought about that, and what it might imply. She had a really bad feeling about this.

“People call you Father, alright,” she said. “But you do have a name, you said. What is it.”

She didn’t ask, she gave a command.

“My designation is R-TA90C7. People call me Father, but my name would have been Shaun Collins. I am the synth they made out of your son’s remains.”

It felt as if Stella’s soul was pushed out of her body. She wasn’t seeing this with her own eyes, or hearing this with her own ears. She wasn’t really down here, no. She was back in Summersville, getting sunburnt by the pool, watching Arthur fix something on his truck and having a beer.

Shaun. She reached for him, slowly. His arm was resting on the table, and she was going to touch him. But before her fingers met with his synthetic skin, she passed out.