The commonwealth has... secrets.
Most people are content to let sleeping dogs lie; but the dear, sweet, overly altruistic General?
Not a chance.
She's got this notebook, see, and he's been watching her as she's been putting the pieces together, slowly but surely.
Every time she sees a rail sign, she makes a note.
Every letter she finds on the Freedom Trail during her travels, she writes down.
Every odd little unexplained thing that happens, she scrutinizes and again, jots it down; even if it has nothing to do with the Railroad at all.
She heads down into a place only psycho'd-out raiders will touch, Dunwich Borers; when she surfaces—significantly soggier—it's with an eldritch blade strapped to her hip that looks like she'd ripped it from a demon of hell itself.
The ashen pallor and somewhat shocked and horrified expressions of her and her companions almost seem to confirm that idea, to his distinct unease.
It's after this she makes an... interestingly new choice.
She actually stops wearing vault suits.
Instead, she trades up for a plain bustier top, jeans, her—still freakishly clean, somehow—boots, a beret and her assortment of leather harnesses and bandoliers for weapons and ammo; topping it all off with her imminently practical backpack.
Just since that change, he'd come close to being caught once or twice—she's an extremely perceptive one, he'll definitely grant her that.
Hell, he'd had to stop using a few identities in Goodneighbor completely, before he was even tracking her because he'd been absolutely certain she was about to make him as one of his other covers.
She's a tricky one, for damn sure.
But, when Des says to personally follow and report on someone who's been making this many waves?
Well, it's worth the risk.
Plus, he's been curious as hell for some time, so this close-range surveillance, despite being exactly the opposite of his usual preference... well, at least it hasn't been boring.
"We're being followed."
I glance over at Charon, nodding once and adjusting my grip on Widowmaker as I keep right on marchin'. "Yep-uh, I know. He's been tailin' us for at least a week, now. Probably longer. Got some idea who he is, but I'm tryin' to make sure before I bust the cover he thinks he has."
"Care to clue the rest of the class in?" John snarks from my left, elbowing my side softly.
I chew on the inside of my cheek for a second or two, considering it, but end up shaking my head. "Not yet. If I'm right, he isn't a threat. If I'm not, he's one man; we can capture and question him easy enough."
"'Capture and question'? Why not just kill 'im?" Mac pipes up from behind, forcing me to turn around and risk walking backward on rough terrain to give him the look his question deserves.
"C'mon, little bro, think about it. He's been tailing us a week, two weeks? Why? Who sent him? If he's not just some really weird nutjob, then someone who's keen on watching us sent him to keep tabs and report back. I'd like to find out who's so interested." I turn back around and end up having to apologize and thank Charon, when he has to catch my arm to steady me after I stumble over a large chunk of loose asphalt.
I hear a sigh from behind me, but resolutely keep my eyes on the path before me. No more stumbling awkwardness for this lady-person.
"Alright fine, how you wanna nab 'im then?"
I shrug, eyes lifting to scan our surroundings as I answer, "Dunno yet. Won't know until it's closer to time. Gotta figure him out a little better first."
"Ain't that a little risky?" John hedges from my left, "What if he's from the Institute or somethin'?"
I shake my head. "He's not. I'll wager he's the exact opposite, actually."
"The Railroad you've been seeking out."
I nod toward my right. "You got it in one, Charon. Way to get it outta me anyway, guys." I scoff lightly, shaking my head in amusement. "Better hope the man doesn't have synth hearing or some shit—would be just my luck they send a synth to watch us. It'd be smart if they did, really."
Charon rolls his shoulders, wincing uneasily. "The synths who appear human do not have the superior hearing your Detective does."
I blink and peer over at him searchingly, eyebrow lifted in query. "S'that so?"
He slowly sighs and grumbles for a bit before he gives up the info. "There was a synth living in Rivet City that Lynn and I encountered on our first visit... once she found out, some time later, that he was a... well, what was called an 'android', at the time, she went back to quietly speak to him on the subject. He was... very resistant, at first. I persuaded him to hear her out. At one point during the encounter, Lynn pulled me aside to speak privately. The synth gave no reaction to any words spoken between us, despite nearly all of them regarding fabricated versions of his potential fate, at our hands."
Both my eyebrows shoot up now. "You were baiting him? Why? You suspected he had super hearing for some reason?"
Charon shakes his head. "Lynn had assumed since robots also have such upgrades, that anything robot-like would have something similar. She was slightly disappointed to discover the truth: the android was human in nearly every way, excepting some small bits of circuitry embedded in his brain."
I frown skeptically at that. "He admitted to it? Just like that?"
There's a small moment of hesitation, before Charon answers, "...I was quite persuasive."
Oh. Oh. Right. "Ah. Well, it's... good information to have, at least."
John seems to be mulling something over when I happen to look back at him during my scanning. When he notices me noticing him, he shrugs one shoulder. "Not sure I like the idea of the Railroad tagging along any more than the Institute. Goodneighbor's got loose ties to 'em, but aside from one or two of our citizens, nobody's really supposed to know about that. Don't entirely trust 'em personally, but they've never done me or mine wrong, so I let 'em do their thing around town. Figured as long as it didn't interfere with Goodneighbor business, it was cool. Them sendin' someone to personally watch our pack? That seems all kindsa fishy t'me."
I dip my head to concede his point. "You're not wrong. And I'm not sayin' it isn't weird that they're doin' it all of a sudden, but I think if they meant us harm, they'd have made their move by now."
He wobbles his head in a faint imitation of a shrug. "True. Maybe he's waitin' on backup?"
I snort, side-eying him incredulously. "For as long as he's been tracking us? Nah, he's on his own. Feels like information-gathering, not ambush prep."
"Agreed," I hear from my right now, "but that doesn't mean the information they gather won't lead to an ambush."
I heave a deep, tired sigh, nodding my assent. "Fair enough. We'll keep our wits about us, but our routines stay the same—I don't want to tip them off. Let's get this guy nice and comfy; make it a whole hell of a lot easier to get the jump on him."
"I like it." I can easily hear John's approval in his voice. "But I wouldn't say t'let him get too comfortable. Just wouldn't be proper, after all."
"Mm." I ponder his response for a moment, speaking up when a possible solution appears over the crest of the small hill we're climbing. "Actually... Charon, Mac: you two remember the backdoor trick we pulled at the candy shop?"
Mac's dark chuckle trips up my spine pleasantly, bringing a smile to my own lips. "I like the way you think, sis. You got a place lined up already, or we scopin' out new territory?"
I gesture to the boarded up but still accessible bookstore, ahead up on the left. "Seems a likely candidate. Know for a fact there's a back door in the alley behind it. It's not ideal for it, but it'll do in a pinch. Don't know of any others in the area."
"Sunshine, you know I hate repeatin' myself... unless I forget m'doin' it, but that's a whole other thing. Anyway, clue me in, what's the plan?"
I send a smirk over to him, because god damn it all, he's a complete mess, but I love this ghoul. "I'll fill ya in when we get in there, love, I promise. Normal hearing or not, I don't wanna risk this going wrong."
He's watching the back entrance from a safe spot, well away from any light sources, obscured from view by the local flora, when he gets that unsettling sensation that tells him he should probably slap a stealth boy on his wrist and get the hell outta Dodge, immediately.
Usually, he listens to that instinct, that tingling at the base of his skull, but tonight he's confident. He'd set up an early warning system at the front door—nothing harmful, but loud enough to distract them and give him time to bug out without notice.
It's a system that's worked plenty of times in the past, so he's just being mildly paranoid when his flight instinct is triggered.
Nothing to worry about.
It's a good theory, really.
Too bad, he considers, as he slumps to the ground and unconsciousness in one, that it has no actual basis in reality.
John watches as Charon drags the man who'd apparently been following them for a while now in through the back door, MacCready bringing up the rear. Up close, the guy doesn't seem so worrisome—hell, he's wearin' a fuckin' wig for Chrissakes.
He scoffs at the hairpiece, which has shifted thoroughly out of place during the man's rough handling, partially revealing a shaved head, ginger stubble coming in fairly strongly with what looks like about a week or so worth of growth.
"So, we got us a ginger snitch. Well, this just gets better n better. What's next? We find out he was a step-kid?" John smirks at his Sunshine, who returns the smile, along with a soft laugh, shaking her head gently.
She sobers and looks up to Charon, then down to MacCready. "Report. What'd you two find out there," she gestures to the captured man, "aside from this lump?"
Charon answers first, ever the soldier, "He had a good position, well hidden." He releases the scruff of the captive's shirt, in favor of slinging Shana's 50 cal from his back and handing it to her. "Your scope was sufficient for the task, but it requires alignment soon. I believe you knocked it askew on that feral yesterday."
Shana nods and accepts the gun, lifting and slotting it reverently across her own back. "You want to fix it, or want me to?"
Ah, here we go again with this... thing that's been going on for close to two months, now—some stranger-than-usual tug-o-war between these two that still don't make a damn bit of sense.
She gives him a choice.
He hems and haws.
She waits him out until he finally growls the most painful, reluctantly chosen answer on Earth, then she nods and accepts it like God's written truth or some shit.
It's a cycle they've been going at for almost ever since she got his contract, but this more recent shit just feels like... like she's tryin' to teach a grown man how to make decisions for the first time. And there's an odd weight to her insistence, like she hangs everything in her life on what answer he gives, each time. Like nothin' else matters, in those moments. Maybe to her, nothin' does.
Watchin' it happen... feels bizarrely intimate.
It's just fuckin' weird, honestly. He's not too sure what to make of it.
But—breaking the mold for once—there's no hesitation from the giant, not this time.
"I would be honored." Says it with that ridiculously straight face he always wears, but the tone of his voice tells a different story. That tone says he means it. Every word. All four of 'em.
It throws Shana for a loop, and she ain't the only one, but right now, she's what John's payin' attention to.
She's stunned—mouth just slightly open, eyes wide lookin' up at Charon as though he's just given her the key to life itself. She swallows and shuts her trap in one, lookin' down at her shotgun and checkin' it over as if she hadn't already done that twenty times in the past hour. She nods, head still down, lookin' over her ammo belt now. "Sounds g—" her voice falters, like her throat's too tight to let it through. She clears it and continues, "Sounds good. Mac?" She turns to the merc, her words rushed, "y'find anything else? He leave any surprises for us?"
MacCready shrugs, shaking his head dismissively. "Nah, just a noise trap at the front door. Already got it. Seems like he really was goin' for the non-lethal approach here."
Shana draws in a deep breath and sheaths Widowmaker in the new hip holster John'd had made for her, then carefully lowers herself into a squat by the head of their captive. Her fingers rub hastily against her thumbs, the pads striking each other as if she means to snap them, but never hitting her palm to finish the action. It's a nervous tic he's noticed her using more and more often in the past month, especially.
"Well, let's get on with it." She gestures tersely toward an old and dusty chair decorating the corner of the room. "Hook 'im up to that. Let's see if we can't get him woken up. Our little jailbird has some singin' to do."
Something wet tingles at the edges of his consciousness, pulling him up from the comfortable darkness surrounding him with unsettlingly rapid urgency.
When had he fallen asleep?
The last thing he remembers...
Well, now he's dripping, with... water? Not dirty water, either—smells cleaner than he is. Well, that's fancy.
"He's coming to. Who do you wish to have interrogate him?" A gravelly, forceful voice rumbles nearby, turning away at the midway point through the question, addressing it to someone further away.
"I will." An authoritative, cautious female voice. The General. "But stay close."
"Y'sure about that, Sunshine? Might need to get nasty here." Another rough voice, though this one's lighter, smoother, familiar—Mayor John Hancock, formerly John McDonough of Diamond City.
"Yeah Bossy, maybe let us do the dirty work?" Lighter, younger voice, also familiar—Robert Joseph MacCready; Former Mayor of Little Lamplight, former Gunner, still a mercenary for hire.
"How about you all let me decide whether to get anyone's hands dirty?" The General finally interjects, clearly flabbergasted. "Goddamn, and people call me bloodthirsty."
"Who calls you bloodthirsty?" Hancock again.
"Not now, John." The rustle of skin sliding on thick fabric. "He's awake." There's a smile in her voice. "Listening, even." Appreciation. "Smart one."
"Thanks, I try." He peels his eyes open and lifts his head, only to snap his eyes shut and gingerly shake his noggin from the dizziness. He got all the info he needed from that little slice of vision anyway. "Oh, wow. Whoever knocked me out, you are a real pro, gotta tell ya. Primo work, seriously."
A grumble from the deeper of the two ghoulish voices in the group is the immediate response, followed by a fairly unattractive snort from the General, who deigns to speak again, "That would be Charon." She still pronounces it strangely, with a 'k' sound, like she's referencing the ancient Greek mythos. "There isn't much he's not a pro at." She bends down, bracing her hands on her thighs as she lowers herself to eye level with him, which he realizes quite keenly when he risks another peek for curiosity's sake. "So, guy, since you've been such a nice guy so far, why don't you keep bein' nice and tell me your name?"
Holy blue eyes! No wonder she'd hooked two of the 'Wealth's most notoriously impossible to bag bachelors. Those are the kind of eyes someone could take a trip and get lost in. Wait, why can he see them so... ah, shit.
It's only now he realizes that his sunglasses are hooked carefully in her top, dangling perfectly over her sternum like a ripe mutfruit just dying to be plucked from the bush. And now she can see him staring at her chest.
Damn it. He's gonna have to work extra hard to control his tells now. Does she realize how much of an advantage she has right now? No, she can't possibly. Wait, what'd she ask? Oh, right.
"Well, I don't know your name either, doll."
An arched brow over a smirk that spells trouble, a throaty chuckle slipping through parted, slightly chapped but full lips. "You've got balls, guy, I'll give ya that. But I think you know exactly who my companions and I are. Introductions aren't strictly necessary on our side. But alright." She nods amicably and flashes him a brilliant smile, then straightens and points to her crew, one at a time.
"John Hancock; Mayor of Goodneighbor, and my boyfriend." The ghoul in question smirks at her inclusion of their relationship status, but stays otherwise silent, only eying Deacon with a crafty gaze.
"R.J. MacCready; mercenary, sniper, my adopted little brother." MacCready rolls his eyes and blushes slightly at the brother title, but doesn't actively object, only adjusting his grip on his truly impressive rifle in a not-so-subtle threat as he, too, eyes their captive warily.
"And last, but far from least, Charon; ferryman o'er the rivers Styx and Acheron—the escort of your soul to Hades for tonight if you prove uncooperative... so I'd suggest being nice to him." Ah, so she is using the mythological version. Interesting. Deacon cranes his neck to get a good look at the massive creature who'd somehow snuck up on him in complete silence and blackjacked him, easy as taking candy from a baby. The stone golem of a ghoul now stands guard beside the General, arms crossed, in silence.
He's never going to underestimate the stealth a humongous person is capable of again. Lesson learned; message received.
He looks to the woman of the hour, the leader of this rag-tag band of expert misfits, and cocks his head. "And you, sugar?"
She snorts, more softly this time, at his address, meeting the Mayor's eyes with an incredulous look, then turning back to Deacon with something akin to pitying amusement. She lays a hand on her chest, just above his glasses. "I'm Shana Stewart, General of the Minutemen." She crosses her arms under her chest, barely avoiding trapping his eyewear beneath them. Narrowing her eyes at him, still smirking, she finally demands, "Now, who the hell are you?"
He sighs for dramatic effect, slumping a bit like he's actually giving in. "John Grimsby."
No more than that. No occupation, no background. Not yet.
The General slides a look to her taller ghoul, then begins to gesture rapidly with her hands.
The huge ghoul responds in kind, with different motions, his expression uncertain, questioning.
She repeats her movements, more slowly this time.
Recognition dawns over his features, and he gives what's ostensibly a reply to this hand-signal communication she's... apparently in the process of teaching him.
Looking back at Deacon, she tilts her head and returns to her earlier position, hands on her thighs, just short of her knees. She doesn't say anything, just slowly looks his features over, as if searching him for something, examining him under the microscope of her scrutiny.
By the time he's fiercely tamping down the desperate desire to fidget because he feels practically naked under her careful inspection, she smiles. It's the kindest, most genuine smile he's seen in years, and it utterly unsettles him; mostly because of the intensely steady eye contact that comes with it.
"So, Johnny. Whatcha followin' us for, hmm?"
He doesn't have to reach very far for the nervous persona he needs to pull this off; she's already got him more off-kilter than he's generally comfortable with. But he's got this. "Ahh heh, well, curiosity, mostly. I mean, you're famous!" He eeks out an awkward laugh. "I just wanted to see you and your people in action, first-hand."
Her smile remains every bit as pleasant as it first was, throughout his falsified explanation. "That so? A fan, huh? Why didn't you head to one of our settlements? That would've been a hell of a lot safer. Or at least let us know you were around, so we wouldn't shoot you by accident?"
He gives her a sheepish grimace, pulling off the guilty look like the pro he is. "Shit, my bad. You're right, I probly shoulda said somethin'. I ah... I just didn't want you guys to act different, you know? People don't behave the same when they got an audience."
"Ah, I see." She nods sagely. "So you wanted to observe us in our natural environment. See what all the fuss was about."
He nods all too eagerly. "Exactly! And man, from what I seen, you guys are somethin' else. Like wow. I've seen some shit in the wasteland, but you really live up to the legend, y'know?"
She huffs one small laugh, finally breaking eye contact for more than just a blink or two here and there, pushing off her knees and standing straight again, looking down on him exactly like a large predator eyes prey. "Yeah, I bet. Too bad you're a lying sack of shit because if you weren't, we could always use someone to help out the cause."
Shit. It hadn't been the strongest cover in the world, sure; but it shouldn't have been that obvious.
She glances to the giant to her left. "We don't want any lying sacks of shit in our ranks or settlements, do we, Charon?"
"We do not."
She turns to the Mayor. "Do you want any of those in Goodneighbor, John?"
Hancock chuckles, shaking his head. "Well, we already got plenty of those, so I'd normally say sure, why not; but this particular lyin' sack a shit? Nah, I think I'll skip havin' him join the community. Thanks, all the same, darlin'."
She winks at her ghoulfriend. "Anytime, baby."
Returning her attention to her prisoner, she lets out a slow sigh, then jerks her chin at him. "How about you tell me who sent you to follow us? I've already got strong suspicions, but having them confirmed would be lovely. To be honest, it really doesn't matter who it is in the long run, but I am curious. Call it a... personal interest."
More like a personal obsession.
He rolls his eyes, playing off the caught-out fraud to a T. "Alright, alright, fine. That wasn't the best story I could've come up with, I'll admit it, but it wasn't all lies! I really am a fan. Seriously, you guys are as big as the legends of the Institute or the Brotherhood, or hell, even the Railroad. And you, lady," he focuses very specifically on her, smile full of the most genuine appreciation he can muster, "you are truly an inspir—"
"Alright, cut the crap," she interrupts. "Fan or no, you're still lying; and trying to distract me with personal flattery isn't going to work. So what say we slice right on down to the bone of this matter and be straight with each other?"
She bends over again, much closer to him now; her posture slightly more predatory this time, elbows out, stance wider. "I think you're from an organization I've been poking my nose into the business of lately, and you were sent to tail me and report back."
Sighing as if it's burdening her to even tell him all this, she continues, "Only reasons I wanted to question you myself are the following: You've never left a lethal trap or tried to attack us, and you've stayed well out of sight, meaning you mean us no actual harm, but never intended to draw actual attention to yourself." She tilts her head, simpering at him lightly. "I can appreciate that. Even respect it to a point. Hell, the only reason we noticed you is because I'm paranoid and," she hooks her thumb over her shoulder at the taller ghoul, "he's got more experience in the wasteland than all of us combined, so he's basically Death himself. Hard to put anything past Death."
She chuckles quietly and brings her hands up. "You've got two options here." She ticks one finger off. "Either you tell me if I'm right about who sent you, and I let you go unharmed, or," she ticks off another finger, "I torture the answer out of you." She grimaces, glancing to the side and shaking her head ruefully before she focuses back on him. "I gotta say, I'm really not a fan of the second option."
She draws even closer, almost nose to nose with him now. "You gonna force me to use option two, Johnny?" she asks, her tone mocking, especially when she says his name, "or you gonna use the common sense option and go on your merry way?"
He pretends to ponder his answer, weighing it carefully before he looks back up at her and asks, all candid confusion: "Which organization was it again? I wasn't clear on that part, exactly."
The slight twitch of her lower right eyelid is the only indication that she's losing any patience at all with him, but it's more than enough of a tell for him. Still, the General steels herself admirably, and answers, "The Railroad, obviously. If you were Brotherhood of Steel or Institute, we wouldn't still be talking, because you'd be a puddle of bodily fluids and mashed bone on the floor. I don't tolerate bigots, murderers or child stealers."
He frowns slightly over a tiny, crooked smirk. "Which one's which, to you?"
Her expression calms from threatening to thoughtful for a moment, as she answers, "They're both bigots and murderers. But the Institute's the kidnapper. And they'll both get what's coming to them if I have anything to say about it. I'm looking for allies."
She looks him right in the eyes, making sure he's listening. "I'll make this simple: Your people can either stand with me against those bastards or get the fuck out of my way. Their choice."
He snorts and lets his view drift behind her, slipping over her companions, then back to her. "So what, you expect me to run back home with my tail tucked, message in hand, and let you follow me to our super secret clubhouse? That how you think this is gonna work?"
That surprises a laugh out of her. She grins and straightens, folding her hands at the base of her spine in quiet confidence. "I don't give a flying fuck what you do, bub. I'm following the Freedom Trail, so I'll get there by myself, eventually. I'm not worried about it. But at least now you have something useful to report."
He tilts his head curiously. "You're assuming I didn't already have something to report?"
She gives him an incredulous smile. "Nothing as interesting as hearing the truth from the horse's mouth, Johnny."
She takes the few steps necessary to round to the back of his chair, and after a few seconds of tugging, he feels his bonds fall away.
He cautiously stays right where he is. No point pushing his luck. "I suppose you have a point, General." He watches as she comes back around to the front, giving him plenty of room to stand. He stays put. "Anything else you want me to tell them? I mean, if I'm gonna play the messenger here, may as well get it all outta the way now, right?"
She shrugs, uncaring. "I'd say 'be my ally or stay out of my way' is clear enough. I'll probably be there to deliver it myself within a month anyway, so take it there or don't, doesn't matter to me. You're free to go, but don't ever tail my people without alerting us again, or we will consider it a hostile move."
She gestures to MacCready. "Mac, his gun."
The sniper reluctantly retrieves Deacon's rifle, handing it to him.
Both ghouls draw their shotguns, keeping them pointed at the ground, but ready.
The General holds a hand out to him. "It was good to meet you, guy, even if you lied at least most of the time. I don't blame you for trying to protect your people. I'd do the same for mine in a heartbeat if it came to it."
He looks to her hand, then her, taking her extended olive branch after some considerable hesitation. "Thanks. Same to you, General."
John waits until the guy is out of earshot before he speaks. "Think he'll actually relay the message?"
I glance at him as he asks the question, pursing my lips and sucking in a deep breath as I shake my head. "Dunno. Probably. He's got nothing to lose by tellin' 'em."
"Mm," he offers, noncommittally. He nods at my chest, eyes glued to right between my ladies. "You gonna keep those shades?"
I pluck them from my top and open them, sliding them on.