There's a calming rhythm created by the gentle tapping, which is a balm to his wounded soul, creating order in a life he—even now—has less control over than any other being on Earth.
Many tiny threads of metal that coil from the trigger housing under his careful tooling fall to the floor with hardly a sound, even to his hearing.
The soft grinding of grit in the turntable vice adds a deeper bass undertone to the regular beat of his chasing hammer, as he turns the piece for the proper angle.
It's a project he's been working on for the past two weeks, whenever his Mistress sleeps—now that sleeping is once again a thing she does regularly, partly at his insistence—and it brings him more satisfaction than anything he's done in quite some time.
He recalls as he brings hammer to chisel, the last time he'd worked on a piece like this; the last time he'd presented anyone with a genuine gift of any sort.
Lynn looks up from her worktable, lifting the welding mask from her face to reveal the smile she always wore for him, like a badge of pride. "What's up Char-bear?" she asks before her sight drifts down to the object he carefully holds out to her. The smile drops, in favor of an awed sort of confusion, her eyes ripping their attention from the item, back up to his eyes. "What's this then? Y'find a pretty?"
He shakes his head. "No. I made this. For you. You have long complained about your lack of a flask." He nudges it toward her pointedly. "I am remedying the situation."
Her eyes grow round as dinner plates in a blend of shock and concern, peering down at the—admittedly ornate—flask, then back up at him. She very gently rests her hand on his outstretched wrist, the pressure of her squeeze light, not the least bit restraining. "Charon, I—"
He cuts off what very much sounds like a typical Lynn response—thinking the gift too extravagant for someone so simple as her—by placing the flask in the open hand on her lap. "It is yours. I made it for you. It can belong to no other unless you yourself give it to them. If you do not like it, then do not use it." He shrugs, rebuffing her immediate objections and turning, going up to his room. He'd done what he set out to do, there was no need to remain here and listen to her denying her worthiness.
He wouldn't have made it if he hadn't considered her worthy of it.
The next time they traveled, when they settled down around a low fire to cook dinner, she drew his gift from her vest, and tipped the mouth at him, then took a smiling, grateful swig, before offering him one.
He grudgingly accepted one, before returning the flask to her and continuing to stir the insta-mash.
It'd taken an hour or so—when he initially started back up—to fall back into the rhythm of this particular art once again, after the years he'd gone not practicing, but engraving again is like a warm gun, like pockets full of ammo, like a full belly and plenty of rest. It's a comfort he'd all but forgotten—one he's glad to return to. It's also a quiet enough art that he can easily go about creating pieces in secret, as the town slumbers.
A rumbling startles him from the quiet tempo—the elevator beside him admitting one of his Mistress' apartment's occupants out into the streets. He hurriedly clears the workstation, putting his tools away and slipping the housing into a pouch. The soft lighting in the lift's cabin informs him of its contents the moment the doors slide open.
I can't sleep.
I'd been having trouble with it for weeks, really, but I didn't want to worry anyone—John always fusses over me, almost as much as Charon, bless him. Nicky often forgets a lot of things that being human entailed, so he's usually the last one to harp on me about it, but he still does, if he notices.
He hasn't exactly allowed himself back into my apartment since the whole 'Kellogg possession incident', as we've come to call it, so how could he possibly know I've not been sleeping well?
Besides, compared to the Kellogg issue, what's a little bit of lost sleep?
We'd managed to inform John about the situation a week ago. He'd taken it about as well as could be expected, seeming just as disturbed and worried over it as I am.
There're some nights when I wake and catch him watching the empty side of the bed with a far-off expression, his fingers drawing patterns on the canvas of my skin.
He never says anything, but I can tell Nicky's absence bothers him in some way.
I haven't asked him about it. This entire relationship hangs from the threads of our hearts in a delicate balance as it is; I don't want to rock the boat unless it turns out I need to.
Tonight, he's sleeping better than usual; deeply enough that I had no problem slipping out of bed and dressing to pop down for a visit with Charon.
Things have been... odd, since the night we'd both passed out together in my bed, Charon shivering and suckering himself to my back like an octopus. A... cold... octopus. Okay, maybe that's a bad analogy. He didn't actually sucker himself to my back, he was just... very close.
Anyway, that isn't even the issue, really. A cold ghoul is a cold ghoul. I don't have a problem warming one up, whether it's John or Charon or Daisy or Gob or Mozzy or any other sentient ghoul out there. It's first aid, simple as that.
The issue is in what happened the following morning, which still confuses the ever-loving shit out of me.
In waking, there are several similarities between this morning and many others I've experienced recently.
The extremely warm, clinging presence at my back, and the unavoidably stiff morning wood resting firmly in the cleft of my ass? That I'm used to. Hell, even the weight of the person holding me to him and slowly grinding his clothed erection against me isn't so odd. A little on the heavy side, but Nick is... well, 'heavy as hell' is a vast understatement.
Except, I realize, as my brain slowly surfaces from the lake of my sleeping consciousness, this is most decidedly not Nicky.
It doesn't feel like Nicky—even with the new skin, the padding between metal and skin is still different than human or ghoul; it's firmer, less giving. Not to mention that the skin against mine isn't at all velvety, it's more like a patchwork of soft kid leather mixed with something warm and almost... electric. Whatever it is, it sends a shiver racing up my spine that I'm not entirely sure what to think of.
It doesn't sound like Nicky, either—even the soft, muffled groans panting from above and slightly behind me are off, more along the lines of something John might utter, but nowhere near as smooth. A total lack of the sound of coolant pumping quickly through the body behind me solidifies this part of my realization.
I belatedly tack on the discovery, as my nose wakes up, that it also doesn't smell like Nicky—while the scent of cigarettes does linger faintly about the general vicinity of this individual, the most potent aroma is that of my personal soap, and... saliva?
Finally, I blink awake at the unusual smell—even if John or I happen to drool, it's usually mostly absorbed by a pillow, or bed clothing of some sort, so that particular scent isn't typically very strong, but damn if it isn't here—only to realize with a distinctly less pleasant shiver that the crown of my head is... wet.
Something is gingerly tugging at a large patch of my hair, the clump of hair centered perfectly in the wet spot.
I'm about to wrench myself from the bed so I can take proper stock of the situation, when suddenly, the male behind me abruptly yanks his arms from around me, and promptly rolls right out of the bed, taking all of the covers with him. Some struggling moments later, punctuated by what must be painful—judging by the volume—smacking of elbows and other parts against the floor, he frees himself from the blanket burrito and sprints to the bathroom in a blur.
Seconds later, I hear the shower's pipes sputtering and groaning to life, a steady spraying sound following a few more thumps, and two low squeaks of skin twisting against the tile.
Blinking at the progression of events, I bring my hand to the wet spot on my head, ensuring that no, I'm not bleeding; and no, I wasn't being slowly eaten by a stray feral that somehow made it into my bed without anyone noticing. When I draw my hand back, I give it a sniff, and sure enough, that's spit.
"The hell?" comes my voice, mussed with grogginess, asking the universe what in god's name this fresh fuckery is.
An explanation is needed, here.
Sadly, I haven't had a satisfactory answer yet, and shit only continued to get stranger and stranger that day.
John shifts as the sound of the elevator clanking to a rest at the bottom of the shaft wakes him. The arm he's not laying on automatically stretches out to the space Shana usually occupies, only to find a ghost of her warmth remaining on the sheets in her stead.
Gone for her nightly smoke and chat with Charon, then.
Well, nearly nightly, anyway.
He has to admit, it's become a rather frequent habit of hers, though he's far from suspecting anything untoward in it at this point.
And really, even if he were to, could anything she did really be considered untoward? The terms they'd negotiated for their little love triangle hadn't specified whether it was a closed triangle or not, exactly. It hadn't even been implied one way or another.
Honestly, he's mostly of a like mind with Nicky concerning the situation. He knows she could get someone, anyone, in a heartbeat. That scar from her ex notwithstanding, there ain't a soul in the 'Wealth that'd turn her down. Hell, half of his own Watch'd happily take a turn at her, if they weren't under the impression that he'd personally shank anyone who tried.
Not that he'd purposefully spread that rumor himself or anything. Nah, he's pretty sure that one got circulated all on its own power, and that suits him just fine.
Regardless, he trusts her to consult the other two-thirds of their triangular equation before making any changes or seeking outside... assistance. It was what she'd promised she'd do, if something like that ever came up, after all.
He rolls over and burrows into her pillow, drawing her scent deeply into his ruined nostrils and drifting off to sleep with a comforted sigh.
If there's one lesson of hers that he's learned quite thoroughly, it's that she always keeps her promises.
His Mistress steps from the lift, her fingers already plucking two cigarettes from her pack, knowing he would be exactly where he is, and wanting a smoke by now.
Everything she has already done for him, and still she persists, treating him as an equal at every possible turn; when he's done nothing to deserve or warrant such kindness, such fairness.
The sweetness on his tongue is long past overpowering, by now.
He accepts the lit coffin nail she hands him, her fingers incidentally brushing his before she retreats, the contact sparking his memory of the last time she'd touched him and he does everything he can to still the slight tremble it causes his fingers.
The dream had been hazy, up until he'd heard her voice.
"What do you want, Charon?"
Sluggishly, he'd made his way through the halls of his mind's eye, twisting and turning through corridors that make less sense than him hearing her voice in his dreams.
Had he ever heard another employer's voice in his dreams?
"What do you want?"
In nightmares, perhaps.
This does not feel like a nightmare. But he's been deceived by that feeling before.
"What do you want?"
He follows her voice, regardless of where the dream might end up.
Another set of confusing hallways, none appearing in any way similar to the previous, greet him, then finally empty him out into a room that features a soft light emitting from no visible source. Beneath that light, he sees her, in all of her bared glory.
She lifts her head, cobalt eyes opening and finding his without delay, a soft smile curving her lips as she again plies, "What do you want, Charon?"
Her hands spread gently from her sides, head tilting just so as her smile broadens knowingly.
It is an invitation his resting, unfettered mind would never willingly resist; not in a thousand years. He takes the two steps to her without thought, one arm wrapping around her waist and pulling her to him, the other cupping her jaw in its palm to angle her perfectly for his lips to come crashing down onto hers. The hungered growl he lets loose is immediately rewarded by a moan he doesn't have to imagine the sound of, because he's heard her several times before, quite clearly, through the open balcony door.
The sound both arouses a frenzy in him and begins to wake him, simultaneously shocking his lust into action, just as reality begins to assert itself on his mind.
He wakes to the furnace of her sleeping form held tightly in his arms, her back pressed to his front with absolutely no space between. His cock rests so agonizingly perfectly in the cleft of her cheeks that he nearly groans at the feeling until he realizes how utterly his sleeping mind had betrayed him.
What had been her sweet lips and lithe tongue in his dreams, turns out to be a fairly significant chunk of her hair in reality. Which he is now doing his very best to extricate from his mouth with desperate urgency.
Charon can feel her beginning to stir and stiffen with wakefulness, and he does the first thing that comes to mind in this situation: he escapes.
His conditioning immediately rejects the elevator and the balcony both, so he bolts for the only option left, seeking out the sole means in the room to cool his raging lust and shame in one.
She finds him huddled in the far corner of the shower against the wall, shivering under the cold spray, fingers digging crescents into whatever of the skin on his legs remains as he stares a horrified hole into the floor.
What had he done?
The question replaces hers in the moment, repeating on an endless loop that nothing can silence.
What had he done?!
"Charon, what—" she cuts herself off as she really takes in the sight of him, her searching, quizzical gaze turning direly concerned in an instant.
Her feet near-instantly bring her to the side of the shower, hand extending out to allow the water to fall and pebble on its scarred but still relatively smooth surface.
Almost immediately, she yanks the offended appendage back with a hiss, then reaches around the downpour and turns the knob.
The pipes rattle and complain, but eventually begin to spit out warmer water.
She crouches down and pins him with a look, cautious worry clouding eyes so blue he could drown in their depths if he were to dare to look at them right now. Slowly, carefully, she lets her fingers drift toward the arm closest to her, both of his wrapped around the knees he's bent as close to his chest as he can manage. Those eyes of hers stay on him throughout, watching him for any sign that he might reject the contact.
He gives none.
Her fingers rest lightly on his forearm, just past his elbow, but he refuses to flinch, even when the contact feels like a fire in his gut—as though she is flame and he is kindling.
Gradually, her fingers make their way up to his cheek; their feathered pressure there asking instead of demanding, hoping instead of commanding.
He gives in to their gentle request.
His eyes meet hers—and he does drown in them, just as he knew he would, but it is not the tumbling freefall into a deep, watery chasm he'd imagined; rather it is a short tumble, a soft landing, an offer of comfort, none of the chastisement he expects—through the weak spray separating them, her fingers steady on his trembling cheek.
She doesn't speak—she seems to recognize that words from either of them would be too much in this moment. Instead, she makes the most improbable move of all, stunning him out of some portion of his shamed retreat.
She takes a deep breath, then steps into the shower, under the water raining down on both of them now, quickly lowering herself to his side and drawing her arm over his shoulder, resting the side of her head on the opposite one.
There is nothing threatening about the gesture—if anything, she has made herself exceedingly vulnerable with it—there is nothing that demands his response or any action at all. It is so purely platonic that it actually helps him tame his pounding heartbeat to something more reasonable.
Eventually, he loosens the arm closest to her from its grip around his legs, settling it around her waist instead. She reciprocates by stroking the back of his head soothingly.
Once again, she has come to his rescue, in a moment of need. Though he is certain she must have some inkling of what brought him in here since she could not have missed his mauling of her hair, she has put it aside to bring him... solace.
He, who had dishonored the trust she'd shown him in allowing him into her bed, who'd all but molested her in her sleep!
She should be punishing him, not easing his discomfort.
Any employer before Lynn would've had him ground beneath the heel of their boot right now, squashed like a bug by the weight of his own contract's edicts. Even Lynn would've taken issue with his behavior.
But not… not her.
It is in this moment that he realizes exactly how undeserving of such a Mistress he is.
By the time he truly surfaces from the memory, they're quietly finishing their cigarettes, not a word having passed between them.
She's again watching him with keen, speculative eyes, though what she seeks isn't any clearer now than it ever has been. She rolls the cherry from her spent butt, then reaches for another from her pack, tipping it toward him in offering.
He eyes her for a moment, noting the flare of stubbornness that has been persistently setting down roots in her stance ever since she exited the elevator, and nods his assent.
She lifts two filters to her lips, but before she can reach for her own lighter, he brings his own up—it's dented, battered, scratched and the zippo logo has long since been rubbed away, after two-hundred years of constant use, but thanks to his careful maintenance, it still works—offering the flame freely, his eyes steady on hers. She arches a brow, eying him past the flame, but tilts her head forward and accepts the spark with two careful draws through the cotton ends.
She again hands him a lit cigarette, even as she seems to settle in more firmly to wait, for whatever event she believes she will witness.
Bracing herself in the doorway that spills into the alley, she leans against the door jamb with arms loosely crossed; the picture of lax repose. She lifts her fag and pulls from the filter, smoke curling over her features, haloing her silhouette in the light of the burn barrel just outside. She finally releases him from her sight, turning her eyes instead to what little of the sky she can see between buildings, letting the plume of smoke gust from between her lips as she turns her face up to the moon.
The light reflects dully in her eyes when she casts her stare back down to her feet, reminding him of a wolf in a carnival who looks up through the bars of her cage at the full moon and dreams of freer times. He shakes the image and refocuses, only to find her gaze upon him again.
He sighs, gesturing to her vaguely with his cancer stick. "You did not answer me, before."
Shana arches a brow at him, though whether she means to convey surprise or confusion is less than evident, as both seem to be equally prevalent in her mind's eye.
"When I asked about you watching me," he clarifies.
Her expression clears and she returns to staring at her feet, drawing another cloud of smoke into her lungs as she contemplates.
It seems, after a time, that she will not answer—but then all at once, she does, shrugging the shoulder nearest him. "Think I'm still trying to figure you out a little. Plus you're…" she hesitates, her view shifting to somewhere near his kneecaps, "you're pretty stunning to watch, in general."
Huffing a somehow appreciative laugh, she indicates him with her unoccupied hand, encompassing him in one swift vertical motion. "I mean look at you. You're incredible, even just standin' there, let alone when you're out helpin' make the Commonwealth a better place. I guess... guess I just started starin' at you that first night we met and never really stopped." She drags her eyes up his form, a soft smirk toying at the corner of her mouth, then falling with her sight, as she affixes it to the door frame.
"Not really sure how else to explain it," she concludes, rolling her cherry from the butt and tossing it in the burn barrel.
He cannot help his internal surprise at her answer. It is the most honest, unfiltered answer he thinks she has ever given him. Not to mention that he's fairly certain she meant to compliment his appearance in some way, though how isn't entirely clear.
"That answer will suffice, for now." It's an olive branch, but one he feels comfortable extending.
One he could easily retract if the need arose.
She nods and sucks in a breath as she shoves away from her perch, turning toward the lift and taking a few quiet steps. He almost expects her to pause, to say something, to shatter the peace of the moment, but she only turns once she's inside the cabin, offering him a small, weary smile.
"Goodnight, Charon. Sleep sometime before dawn, will you?"
He cocks his head curiously at the query. "You are not ordering me to?"
Her expression turns pensive as she holds the elevator doors open, shaking her head after a few long seconds. "No. I don't want to order you to do anything you don't want to. Honestly, Charon, unless we're… I don't know… in combat or something, just… do whatever you want. Try not to screw the pack over, but otherwise, do what you want. That's…" she considers, eyes turning down to somewhere near his feet, then back up to his own eyes, "that's an order."
He very nearly chokes on his tongue.
Charon braces his hand against the wall beside him, suddenly almost deliriously dizzy, even as he fights to keep staring at her in shock. His conditioning had been… exceedingly thorough, but there were things even the men who created him could not have anticipated; namely, that anyone who owned the contract of such a creature as he could ever be so careless, or so kind, as to grant him the only type of freedom he could ever have.
He shakes his head sharply, rattling his brain a bit, but amazingly the dizziness does clear somewhat, enough that he can concentrate without risk of emptying his stomach.
He has to ask.
"You… wish to grant me free will, within the confines of my contract? That is… it is what you meant?"
His Mistress gives him a sleepy smile, dipping her head once. "S'what I wanted to give you from the start. Just wanted to make sure you'd fit into the pack first. But I think you'll do just fine. Meant what I said when I got your contract. You only follow me as long as you want to. There's room at the lead with me if you feel up to the challenge at some point. Just think about it, Charon. Figure out what you want and let me know. I'll be here."
Her smile softens and rounds into a yawn just as her fingers slide from holding the door back, pressing them instead to the elevator control's buttons.
Charon is left alone, with new orders searing a warpath through his consciousness.
Despite my mid-night sojourn with Charon last night, I'm still awake before John is.
Giving Charon what little leeway I could find to grant him last night has me... well, excited, really. I'm curious to see what he'll do with his newfound quasi-freedom.
Whether it will change him at all.
In the meantime, there's a holotape burning a hole in my proverbial pocket.
Before we'd gone to bed, when we were still up in the State House, I'd plucked the thing from John's table, as we lounged together on our evening off. He'd waved it off, asking me to listen to it later, as he was in the middle of trying to get me to try jet for once. Apparently, he thought it could have useful combat applications, just like psycho does. When I explained to him how Nate had come back from the war, that sobered him a bit, but he still insisted jet could be useful and 'you can keep your brain from droolin' outta your head', unlike with psycho, if used in moderation. I'd eventually—hesitantly—conceded his point, but insisted on trying it later.
He'll probably try to get me with it again once he wakes up, but for now, I have time to sit and listen. I've been noticing these little tapes all around town for months now, but I'd never bothered to pick one of them up; always too busy with something or rather.
I tug my pip-boy from the bed stand and let it sink its claws into me, wincing at the now-familiar but still unsettling feeling. Hitting the eject button and sliding the tape into place, I stand and begin my morning stretches as I listen.
The voice that speaks from the tape is surprisingly female, her tone confident and calm.
"Wake up Commonwealth. Synths are not your enemy..."