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Alarums and Advances

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When I woke up to the sound of a woman screaming in agony, I was out of bed with my gun in my hand before I’d formulated any conscious thoughts beyond “woman screaming in agony.” Hancock was awake, too, and he followed me without either of us saying anything towards the sound of the screaming, which turned out to be the med bay Melinda had set up in the southwest bastion of the Castle, where the weapon and ammunition stock had once been housed. The door was closed, and X9-21 stood with his back against it, arms crossed, face impassive.

“Dr. Achanta is in labor,” he said. “Mr. Benson and Dr. Severne are with her.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said, holstering my gun and slumping backward against Hancock. Other settlers were emerging from their beds, blinking sleep from their eyes, pipe pistols at the ready. “I thought somebody was dying. It’s OK, people. Just a routine childbirth. Go back to bed, you can see the baby in the morning. Hey, sweetheart,” I said to Emily, who’d just run in from outside, pale and alarmed. “It’s OK. Dr. Achanta’s having her baby, that’s all.”

“Is it-- does it always hurt that much?” Emily asked, eyeing the door with trepidation.

I smiled. “It did for me. I almost broke Nate’s hand. She’ll be fine, sweetheart. Women have been having babies since the dawn of forever, and-- well, Melinda’s good.”

Melinda Severne was our resident “doctorish,” as she called herself; she’d grown up in Diamond City, went to their schools, interned with Dr. Sun, left when Crocker started to creep her out and ended up at the Castle with a little clinic of her own, tending everything from gaping wounds to dislocated shoulders. And now, delivering a baby. Our first, although probably not our last, at least not if this one went well; I was predicting a baby boom once everyone around here was being exposed to an adorable infant on a regular basis.

Hancock, along with almost everyone else, slowly went back to bed, yawning, and Emily left, too, to go back to her star-watching post, but I lingered, eyeing X9-21 curiously. He eyed me right back.

“Standing guard?” I asked, after a minute.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Against what?” I asked, just as Achanta’s wailing stopped, and a baby’s unmistakable cry rang out in its place. “Oh-- oh, X9, listen--”

I hadn’t expected to go so weak at the sound of a baby’s cry. It hurt, it hurt, to remember: Shaun’s outraged howls on being born; all the nights I’d gotten up with him, nursing him and walking him until he quieted; his fussing just before the cryo-pods closed; the last time I’d heard his voice, before the end of the world.

I stood still, letting the pain wash over me; it was something I’d gotten better at doing since I resolved-- not to stop drinking, but to stop getting shitfaced to make things hurt less. Things hurt; it wasn’t all right, but I could live through it. I could live through all kinds of things.

“Are you unwell, ma’am?” asked X9-21, and I shook my head.

“I’m OK,” I said. “Just-- remembering. My baby.”

He nodded, but said nothing else, and we both stood in silence for awhile, listening to the baby cry, until Melinda came out, looking tired and pleased with herself, and drawing the door carefully closed behind her.

“Oh, hello, Nora,” she said, cheerfully, but quietly enough not to wake the whole Castle again. “Waiting up to greet the newest Minutemen recruit? It’s a girl. Healthy as a brahmin, and the mother, too. She’s resting, but you could probably go in if you want.”

“Thanks, Melinda,” I said. “You’re the greatest, you know that?”

“It’s a good night’s work, delivering a healthy baby,” she said. “Been a while.”

When she’d disappeared into the dormitory, X9 moved back in front of the door, arms still crossed. I looked at him curiously.

“Can I not go in?” I asked him.

“I am unarmed,” he said, without moving, “and you have a gun at your hip, considerable combat skills, and armed forces at your disposal.”

I rolled my eyes. “Let me rephrase that. Is there some reason why you don’t want me to go in?”

“Dr. Achanta is concerned,” said X9-21, in his usual low, measured voice, “that since the Institute requisitioned your infant against your will, you may be planning to take your revenge by separating Dr. Achanta from her infant against hers.”

“Oh, shit,” I said. “Really? Fuck. That’s fucked up, X9. When did she tell you that?”

“When her contractions began,” he said.

“And what did you tell her?”

“I told her that I did not believe you had any such intention,” he said. “But she asked that I prevent you from taking the child. I pointed out that were I to attempt to do so by force, not only would I most likely fail, but the remainder of the population of the Castle would become hostile, placing the Institute remnant in an untenable position--”

“Oh, real fucking reassuring, X9-21!”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “I was attempting to be realistic.”

“Look,” I said, “will you please go in there and ask her if I can come in and talk to her? Tell her I’m not going to kidnap her kid. Tell her I just want to come in and tell her that myself. I don’t want her freaking out about this all night when she should be resting.”

He looked at me for a moment, then nodded and opened the door, softly, slipping inside and closing the door behind him.

I waited a while before it opened again and X9 held it for me, wordlessly inviting me inside.

Achanta, sweaty and exhausted-looking, looked up at me and clutched the now-quiet blanket-wrapped bundle she held to her breast. Benson sat in a chair on the other side of the bed, his hand on Achanta’s arm, watching me.

“Hey,” I said, holding my hands up, palms out. “Look-- just-- no. Fuck no. Not in a million years. Not even if you were the one who shot my husband-- and you weren’t even born when all that happened, doc. What are you, thirty?”

“Thirty-two,” she said in a small voice.

“Did you grow up in the Institute?”

She nodded.

“Well, I don’t know what you learned in the Institute,” I said, “but I’m here to tell you normal people don’t steal babies, even from their enemies-- and you’re not my enemy. Are you?”

“No,” she said, still in that quiet, cowed voice, a voice that reminded me of Emily when she’d first come to live with us, when all she said was yes ma’am and thank you, ma’am.

I came and knelt down by the bed, and reached up, tentatively, toward her face; when she didn’t flinch away, I brushed back a sweaty strand of hair from her forehead.

“You must be so tired,” I said. “I’m sorry you were scared. But I swear to you, nobody’s ever going to take this baby away from you. Not unless they take the whole goddamn Castle out first. We’re going to take such good care of this little girl-- I mean, you guys are, you’re her parents, but everybody else here is going to help, too. I’ve got-- kind of a-- a collection--” I blushed unexpectedly; it was hard, still, to think about that collection, the one I hadn’t been able to bear to leave behind, or scrap for junk-- “I mean, when I was first looking for my son, before I knew-- what happened-- I used to sort of-- collect-- toys. Baby toys, I mean-- things Shaun’s too big for-- I still thought my-- my son, I thought he was still a baby, you know. I used to keep things I found, for when I found him, and-- but now there's an actual baby here, we can haul all that business out and put it to good use, for-- what are you going to call her?”

Dr. Achanta burst into tears.

“Oh,” I said, helplessly, looking up at Benson, and then at X9-21, and then back at Dr. Achanta. “Oh, don’t do that. It’s all right. It’s-- there’s nothing to cry about. Everything’s all right.”

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed out, breath catching, swollen dark eyes fixed on my face, still pouring tears. “I’m so sorry. For-- for what happened-- to you.”

“Yeah,” I said, and tried to smile. “Me too. But it’s not your fault. And it’s not going to happen to you, doc.”

“Why do you call me that?” she asked, laughing a little through her tears. “‘Doc’? You don’t call my husband ‘miss.’”

I grinned. “Sorry. Dr. Achanta.”

“Tanvi,” she said, and hiccuped slightly, and glanced at her husband. “And this is Beau-- and this--” She lifted the baby, slightly, towards me, “is Naveena.”

“Naveena,” I echoed, trying to replicate the lilt of Tanvi’s speech, and lifted a finger to touch her squishy little cheek. “Welcome to the world, Naveena. It’s kind of a shit mess, but you, you’re gonna be OK.”