The front door of the Valentine Detective Agency creaked as Ellie Perkins swung it open. A blast of cold air hit her face and a handful of snowflakes drifted inside, where they promptly melted. Outside stood Gale Anderson—friend and recent partner to Ellie's boss, Nick Valentine—hands in pockets and somehow managing to look both vaguely threatening and lost. She had cleaned up since the last time Ellie had seen her, with freshly scrubbed tan skin and a patched brown jacket over clean corduroy slacks. Gale was a far cry now from the grubby, pale Vaultdweller who had swept into their lives some months ago and stolen Nick away to help find her missing son. Life in the wasteland had hardened her, when it could have just as easily swallowed her whole.
Gale blinked somewhat owlishly at Ellie hanging halfway out the door, staring at her. Breath puffing in the cold air, she said, "What?"
Despite the shelter of the walkway leading to the Agency's door, fallen snow had managed to swirl along the edges in small drifts. It clung to the sides of Gale's boots and dusted her shoulders with white flakes. A pile of the stuff had collected on top of her gray knit cap on her way over from the Dugout Inn. Spiky black strands of hair poked out around the edges of the cap at all angles, pushing the ends down into Gale's dark eyes.
It was all terribly cute.
"Uh, nothing," Ellie said. Doing her best to collect herself, she winked. "Guess I just thought I might see you in a dress."
"Are you kidding? It's freezing balls out here."
"Ellie," Nick called from within the office behind her, "quit flirting with Gale and let her in."
Once inside, Ellie and Gale found Detective Nick Valentine hunched over one of the Agency's two desks—this one in the far back corner—surrounded by scraps of paper, an overflowing ashtray, and a stone cold pot of coffee. The office itself was made of sheet metal, wood beams, and concrete. It was a bitch to heat or cool. The space around Nick had been quietly overtaken by an army of filing cabinets and boxes stuffed with case notes, an ancient cigarette machine which served to store holotapes, and an inexplicable pile of cinder blocks in one corner. A cork board brooded above Nick's desk, pinned with information on several of his ongoing cases. Another wall bore a painting of what Nick had told Ellie was a moose from before the war. Ellie thought it looked more like a bad one-headed Radstag buck and she had said so.
Ellie was chattering excitedly about the Christmas parade that would start later on. Next to her, Gale tipped her chin back to take in the popcorn strings hung along the walls and the many bottles of glowing blue Nuka Colas set out on various surfaces, giving the room a festive air.
"Nice," Gale said appreciatively. "Where should I put this?" Raising one hand, she showed Ellie a miniscule loaf of bread. It was one of three Ellie had seen all year and the yeasty scent slew her where she stood.
Nick unburied his nose from one of Ellie's case reports and frowned in their direction. "What's that for?"
Gale followed Ellie around a corner to the back, calling over her shoulder as she did, "They tell me it's Christmas out there."
Nick's office chair squeaked as he leaned back in his seat. "Huh."
"Yeah," Gale agreed.
In the back was a tiny kitchen crammed beneath a wooden stairwell next to Ellie's bed. Nick took the loft upstairs for his room because Ellie liked the space near the stove for the heat.
"I told Nick you were coming for Christmas," Ellie commented with a laugh. "He would forget his own appointments if I wasn't here to schedule them." She took the bread from Gale and set about slicing it up on an old, scarred cutting board.
Gale made herself comfortable against a nearby wall. Shrugging, she said, "One chaotic day bleeds into the next out in the wastes. I would've forgotten too, if you hadn't invited me over."
Ellie hadn't thought Nick and Gale would be around this year. The last she'd heard from Nick, the two of them were taking supplies up to the settlement of Sanctuary in the northwest. But restless with quiet settlement life, they'd left Sanctuary and made it back to Diamond City before snowfall had choked the roads closed. Nick had breezed in from the cold a few nights ago and made straight for the wash basin, muttering and grumbling about the vagaries of rustic life as he cleaned off the travel grime. Nick, it seemed, would always be a city boy.
"Thank you for that, by the way," Gale continued. "You didn't go see your family for the holiday this year?"
Ellie twitched her mouth to one side as the knife sliced through the final hunk of bread. "I missed the last caravan to Goodneighbor." She crouched to set a rack of the bread slices over a bed of coals in the bottom of the oven. "Got too busy working a case." At this time of year, when drifters and raiders were starving in the cold, it was too dangerous to make the day trip to her hometown alone. She told herself she would just go in the spring.
Gale dug a cigarette and a lighter out of her pockets and lit up. The warm scent of tobacco mixed with that of toasting bread. When she offered one to Ellie, she shook her head. Closing the lighter with a metallic snap, Gale said, "Did you solve it?"
Ellie smiled as she removed the toast from the heat. "Damn right I solved it. Nick takes the tough cases, but I can handle what's left over when he's gone."
Smoke curled upward next to Gale's face like a sideways grin. "You'll have to tell me the story."
So Ellie did. Or rather, she made a game of it as she set out a small feast of shoulder roast from Choice Chops, bowls of noodles from Power Noodles, baked potatoes, and honest-to-god pumpkin pie—which Ellie had made herself—along with Gale's toast. Both Gale and Nick listened closely while they helped Ellie bring the food into the office area: she told them the tale of tracking down a boy who had run away with his secret lover, a trader who regularly visited Diamond City, when he was forbidden by his father to continue seeing the older man. She brought out whiskey for herself and for Gale to drink, as well as a special, somewhat toxic coolant for Nick, which he said made him as tipsy as he could remember being as a human. They dined and drank and discussed the details of the case, Gale and Nick trying to figure it out while Ellie listened, only for her to smile and reveal they were both wrong. For some reason, the flummoxed look on Nick's face made Gale laugh harder than Ellie had ever heard her laugh.
Then Nick and Gale were sharing a cigarette, passing it back and forth while Ellie smoked her own. It amazed Ellie that those two shared but still managed to smoke more than Ellie did herself. Gale was relating her theory that Vault-Tec had really been the ones to start the war. Ellie might have been pretty drunk by then, because Gale's conclusion somehow sounded reasonable.
"Where did you come up with all that?" Nick asked Gale, voice a bit slurred. He had his feet up on his desk, crossed at the ankles, with the bottle of silvery coolant next to him.
Gale had the office's only armchair pulled up in front of the cigarette machine, where she could easily reach the ashtray on the corner of Nick's desk. She tapped ash into it as she said, "From the terminals in the vaults. They were doing all these experiments, mostly social experiments, on the people inside." She passed the cigarette over to Nick. "For example, they froze everyone in one-eleven without telling us, apparently to find out the psychological effects of going to sleep in one century and waking up in the next."
"What was that like?" Ellie asked from her seat next to her desk, the one facing the door. It occurred to her that this might have been an insensitive question, but she didn't take it back.
For a moment, Gale's jaw clenched a little. "It was a bitch," she finally said. "But also, in one-fourteen, they were testing the effects of taking privileges away from the upper class occupants. If the war never happened, Vault-Tec wouldn't have gotten their test subjects, so" —she shrugged— "they had a motive to trigger it themselves."
"Wait a second," Nick interjected, sounding affronted. "You mean when you were coming to get me out of Vault one-fourteen, you were stopping along the way to read terminal files?" He stubbed out the cigarette, yellow eyes narrowed at Gale.
Gale didn't look one bit sorry in the heat of the synth's gaze. "I was looking for programs to shut off the turrets. And anyway, that's not the point here—"
From the radio stationed on a file cabinet on the other side of Nick, Ellie heard the opening bars of "Silver Bells" begin to play. She pointed across the room at it. "Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up!"
Gale raised an eyebrow at Ellie as Nick stretched to spin the volume dial upward. "What's the big deal?" she asked as Bing Crosby crooned that it's Christmas time in the city.
But Ellie didn't respond. Instead, she began to sing along about sidewalks and holiday style as Gale looked on. This was the only day of the year when Diamond City's radio host played the one Christmas song in his collection every hour. It was also Ellie's favorite.
Ellie had launched into the chorus when Gale smiled a small smile and joined in.
Nick wasn't far behind and they all harmonized with Bing Crosby's ancient voice, as melodic as if he yet lived and the Christmases he knew still existed. For the span of one song, golden memories of an easier time filled the Agency's office. Ellie sang the last notes a bit wistfully, as she had never known Bing Crosby's world and she wished she had. But Gale whirled straight into another song, one Ellie had never heard before, this one about a red-nosed reindeer. Nick stumblingly joined her, often misremembering words forgotten over the centuries and laughing at himself when he messed up. But Gale never hesitated, singing in a clear voice about white Christmases and Santa Clause Lane and letting it snow.
It was when Gale finished up with I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams that Ellie realized she was singing these for her.
With a little catch in her voice, Ellie said, "Are those Old World songs?"
"…Yeah." By this time, Gale had her chin tilted downward, choppy black hair hiding her eyes. "Nate and I went Christmas caroling la… last year. You know, my time."
Nate: Gale's murdered husband. Her time: a couple centuries ago, before she went into cryogenic slumber. God, what a nightmare this holiday must be for her. Maybe it would have been better to let Gale forget this time, but Ellie hadn't wanted her to spend this first Christmas in the wasteland alone.
Outside, a clattering noise of many feet walking drew all of their attention. "Parade's started," said Nick, and he hauled himself out of his chair, possibly eager to break the somber mood with more festivities.
Twilight had fallen when they opened the Agency's door and shuffled down to the end of the sheltered walkway. There, the three of them leaned on the inner walls where they could watch, Gale across from Ellie and Nick. Snow still fell through the cold blue air and the scent of wood smoke reached them on the breeze. Along the wooden sidewalk between buildings, the planks groaning beneath their feet, a long procession of people filed past them, close enough to touch. An Old World war song, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," played through the grandstand speakers overhead, as it did every year.
…buy me some peanuts and cra-cker-jacks…
The parade was made up of young and old alike, mostly young, because no one lived very long in the wastes. Everyone wore ancient baseball uniforms mixed with raider leathers and fur cloaks, and some had on baseball helmets attached with Radstag horns, the effect of which served to give the paraders a wild, otherworldly aspect.
…I don't care if I never get back!
Some carried Swatters—what Gale and Nick called baseball bats—swinging them at their sides either joyfully or menacingly. Others held lit candles in front of them. These smoked and flickered in the snowfall, the light casting faces in shadows and rendering unrecognizable people whom Ellie saw every day.
…root, root, root for the home team…
No one spoke as they walked the bases to honor the stadium that was their home. Some of them might have seen Nick Valentine, a synth, and casually given the mouth of the walkway a wider berth. Ellie and Gale both glared at these individuals. Nick just lit up a cigarette, his hat brim angled low. The warm scent cut through the cold, wet air.
…if we lose that's a shame!
Ellie muttered the final words under her breath as everyone in the procession pumped their fists into the air and shouted along.
…one, two, three strikes you're out at the old ballgame!
The song started over as the last person trailed past the Agency; it would continue on a loop until the parade made it back to home base. Quiet descended in the procession's wake. Ellie's legs were freezing in her tattered pink skirt, but the other two didn't seem inclined to go back inside yet. So she stayed with them, huddling a little closer to Nick and the heat his motorized machinations gave off.
Nick handed his cigarette to Ellie with the arm she wasn't pressed against. As she took a drag, he said, "Merry Christmas, Ellie."
With a smile for him, Ellie passed it off to Gale. "Merry Christmas," she said to her.
Gale took it and drew as well. The cherry glow lit up her dark eyes as she looked thoughtfully up into the cloudy sky. "Hey, Ellie. Why don't I escort you to Goodneighbor tomorrow?" Her intense gaze dropped back to Ellie across from her. "You know, so you can see your family."
As Gale stretched to hand the cigarette back to Nick, mumbling "Merry Christmas" to him, Ellie cocked an eyebrow at her. "Really?"
"Sure," Gale said. She crossed her arms and gave Ellie a quick wink. "Think of it as my Christmas gift to you."
"'Christmas gift?'" Ellie echoed, perplexed. She'd never heard of such a thing. "What's that?"
Gale made a small noise that sounded like a whispered oh. "Nothing important," she said aloud, voice breaking a tiny bit. "Just a silly Old World Christmas tradition."