Nick Valentine gave a low whistle to get his companion's attention. When the Vaultdweller, Gale Anderson, looked up at him from where she was picking through a dresser drawer, he nodded down at a party of scavengers passing by below.
"Kill the light," he murmured.
Gale switched off the flashlight function of the Pipboy device strapped to her arm. The only light now came from the waxing moon and stars above and the cherry glow of Nick's cigarette. Gale came up next to Nick and the two of them watched the scavengers in silence, waiting to see if any of them had noticed the artificial light. One of the scavengers glanced up toward the top of the apartment complex and Nick and Gale's window. They both ducked back into the shadows.
"Think she saw us?" Gale whispered.
"Who knows?" said Nick on an exhalation of clove-scented smoke. "Best to keep our ears open, just in case."
Gale nodded as he handed the cigarette to her. She took a drag, the glow lighting up her haggard features—the drawn eyebrows, the circles beneath her dark eyes, the small, downturned mouth. They'd been crawling through these ruins all day and now it was late. Or early. They hadn't found much and Gale kept pushing to search the next floor and the next. It had been a hard winter so far and the survival of the settlement in Sanctuary depended on whatever they could find here.
Gale took a swift peek outside. "Looks like they're gone," she said as she handed the cigarette back to Nick. "Let's keep moving."
Nick dropped the butt on the floor and ground it out with the toe of his boot. "Don't you think we should take a break?"
"What?" Gale said over her shoulder. "Tired, Nick?"
"It's not me that's tired," Nick grumbled.
Gale either didn't hear him or ignored him as she searched a bathroom for medical supplies. Nick would have bet caps on the latter.
He and Gale continued on by the light of the moon shining in through missing chunks in walls and gaping holes in the floors above them. A few levels from the top floor, they hit gold in the form of a pantry stashed with food in a trash-strewn kitchen. They stuffed their bags with all of it, but the sacks still had some slack. So they kept going. A couple more stories above that was where Gale spotted a teddy bear.
To Nick's surprise, the toy was in pretty good condition, with soft, honey brown fur and both black button eyes. Seeming to peer curiously at the human and the synthetic, the bear sat square on a dresser set against a bedroom wall. Between it and the two of them was a wide gap in the old wooden floor. The planks around it squeaked when Nick tested them with a foot. A glance down revealed that the drop below fell four stories. He figured anyone who slipped into this hole would likely break through the next couple of floors after that.
Gale stood at the edge next to him, gazing at the teddy bear. Without turning to face Nick, she said, voice soft, "Can you imagine how much Jaycee'd love to have that?"
Nick studied Gale's profile with his night vision, saying nothing. Jaycee was one of the kids back at the settlement who'd taken a particular shine to the Vaultdweller, often following her around and chattering away when they happened to be in town. She had no parents of her own, but the other settlers there did their best to help take care of her.
Gale shifted her feet and Nick heard a river of dust cascade down onto the floor beneath them. "I think I can reach it," she said.
The gap wasn't terribly wide, but that edge caused Nick concern. Gale stretched her arm and upper body across. As her fingers touched the teddy bear, Nick said, "Wait—!"
The boards beneath Gale's foot snapped. There was a brief pause as they freefell four levels and then crashed onto the wooden floor below. In the ensuing silence, a small ripping sound echoed off the walls as Nick's metal fingers sliced into the bunch of fabric he'd grabbed on the back of Gale's jacket. Only his grip and her other foot balanced precariously on the edge kept her from following the fallen planks downward.
Pistons in Nick's joints whined and he groaned as he hauled Gale backwards. His hand sliced the rest of the way through her jacket just as he got her upright. The momentum carried them backward and they tumbled onto more solid ground, raising puffs of dust all around them. In the breathless pause afterward, they lay on their backs next to each other, staring up at the broken ceiling above.
After a moment of catching her breath, Gale turned her face toward Nick, the motion rattling the rubbish beneath her head. She said, very quietly, "Thanks, Nick."
Nick stuck a finger of his non-metal hand into Gale's face. She crossed her eyes to look at the tip of it. "You," he began, voice gravelly and rough, "need a time out!"
The synth got to his feet, agitatedly busying himself with brushing dust and muck off his tan trench coat. He wanted to give Gale a piece of his mind about unnecessary recklessness, but he didn't. Gale sat up, blinking owlishly at him, her legs sprawled in front of her. When Nick could stand to look at her again, he saw that she had the teddy bear gripped in her other hand.
Gale's expression was a mixture of confusion and concern. "Nick?"
"Just take a break, for cryin' out loud," Nick interrupted. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and resumed in a softer voice. "I can appreciate the sentiment of the teddy bear, I really can. But that's not as important as your life. Make all the sacrifices you want, just not that."
Surprised at the wave of emotion he felt, Nick withdrew another cigarette, motions jerky. It took three flicks of his lighter to get it going. As he lit the end, Nick noted that his hands were shaking. He couldn't remember the last time that simulation had happened.
Face shadowed, Gale studied her shoes at the ends of her outstretched legs. "Alright, Nick," she said, voice resigned. She scooted back until she could lean on the crumbling wall. Drawing one knee up, she draped the arm holding the teddy bear over it and tipped her chin back to let her head rest against the peeling wallpaper. "I'm going to need a new jacket. Can I have one of those?"
Nick looked away. "We'll find you another one," he said. He knew Gale wouldn't have done something so stupid if she wasn't so tired. He kind of wanted to apologize for his outburst, but he didn't want Gale take it as permission to keep pushing herself. So instead, he just handed over the cigarette he'd just lit. It was more habit than benefit to him anyway. "You can have this one."
Smoke curled upward from the tip in the still night air as Gale took it from him. She inhaled one puff of it and then rested her hand on the floor next to her, the red glow between her fingers lighting up the colorless trash nearby. Her eyes rested on some point beyond a blown out window and Nick followed the line of her gaze to a brilliant cluster of bright blue stars.
Gale sighed. "Think we got enough?"
Nick crossed his arms and stood against the wall next to her, the rough texture catching at the fibers of his coat. "It's more than we had starting out today," he said. "Er… yesterday. That's somethin', at least."
Gale laughed a tired, humorless laugh. "Ever the optimist."
Nick didn't respond. Recently he'd watched hopelessness begin to settle in his friend's eyes as Gale divided her attention between taking care of Sanctuary and struggling to find her missing son, Shaun. Preston Garvey, the leader of Sanctuary, didn't know how much he asked of the Vaultdweller, newly woken to fallout hell after two hundred years of cryogenic sleep. Or maybe the Minuteman did know and thought the cost worth it. But lately it had been setback after setback for Gale, with clues as to Shaun's whereabouts growing scarce and Garvey asking for her help more and more as winter took its toll on the new settlement. She and Nick had had to pause in their search for Shaun to make a salvaging run in Boston and Nick wanted just this one thing to go well for her.
But it wasn't.
Soon, Nick caught the scent of burning wood and a hissing crackle reached his ears. He glanced down to find the cigarette butt in Gale's hand resting against the floor, a thicker column of smoke rising up as the fire tried to catch on the damp, rotting wood. Gale's head slumped sideways and her eyes were closed, lips parted in unexpected slumber. Nick bent to retrieve the cigarette, carefully snuffing it out and putting it back into his coat pocket for later use. Waste not.
Nick settled down to wait since, as a synthetic human, he had no need for sleep. The shining yellow circles that served him for eyes roved back and forth, watchful. They were safer this high above the streets, but nowhere was completely safe in the ruins of Boston.
Some time later, a creak on the stairs they had climbed earlier caught Nick's attention. It sounded intentional, not just the incidental groans of an ancient skyscraper. The synth drew his revolver from the holster under his coat and cocked the hammer with a click. He had his arm outstretched and the muzzle pointed at the corner of the hallway when a scavenger poked her head around. She sighted down the barrel of her rifle at him.
The revolver roared and blood spattered the flowery wallpaper as the bullet took the scavenger through the eye. She smacked into the wall and slid to the ground, her rifle rattling from her grasp. Nick frowned, certain he had actually heard two gunshots. Then he felt something brush against his leg and looked down to find Gale's arm stretched past him from where she crouched on the floor. The pistol in her hand also pointed down the hall. The expression on her face was made of steel.
Then Gale rubbed drowsily at one eye with her free hand and the steeliness melted away. "How long was I asleep?"
"About ten minutes," Nick replied as he swapped out the spent casing in his receiver for a fresh round.
Gale got to her feet and hefted her bag, stuffing the teddy bear inside. "'Where there's one Scavver, there's more,'" she quoted. "Someone will have heard that."
Nick nodded, also retrieving his bag from the floor. "Time we split. Let's get back to Diamond City before we head off to Sanctuary."
Gale paused, staring longingly at the last flight of stairs to the final floor at the other end of the hall. Nick watched her consider the odds of finding more supplies up there. If she decided to go, he would follow, but he sincerely hoped she wouldn't.
Somewhat to Nick's surprise, Gale turned away. "Alright," she said. She followed this with a hard yawn.
Nick and Gale stopped at the scavenger's body to pick up her weapon and loot anything she had on her. Upon examination, Nick found two bullet wounds in the woman's eye, so close together that they looked like one enormous hole. So he had heard two shots. As the pair made their cautious way downstairs and out into the dawn-tinged streets, Nick wondered how much Gale had slept after all.