In pretty, careful cursive, the name was burned upon his skin, in a brilliant peacock blue, from the day he was born.
Elsinore Annabeth Woodhull.
John's luckier than most in that sense. Sometimes it's only one name, or even just a letter, or a symbol. But three full names? In the old days, that would've been more than enough to find your match; there were records and databases and services just for this purpose. And, well, with a name like 'John'? At least one of them would have a chance of picking out the other.
That he was born with the name already upon him meant that John's soulmate was older than him, that she was already out there somewhere, waiting for him. It wasn't that uncommon, but his family, his friends, teased him anyways. "You like the older ladies, eh?" "Watch out for those cougars - they'll chew you up."
He took it in stride. In the post-war world, finding your mate was a pleasant surprise, but not something you should ever really hope for. They say the world used to shrink every day, but now, the bombs had blown it wide open once more. Most folks won't travel 30 miles from the place they were born their entire lives. Finding your mate was a near impossibility, but that didn't stop the flights of fancy. Everyone with a mark hoped that they were special, that despite all odds, somehow their mate would stumble into their lives.
It was around adolescence - puberty and whatnot - that the Bond should start to form. A mild telepathic link between mates, the Bond bled emotions from mate to the other. Floods of hope, fear, joy, and sadness would echo between them.
John waited years to feel the first waves from the Bond. He imagined it as a wash of cool water down his spine, a warm glow within his stomach. When his marked playmates began to brag about the tingles of excitement, joy and even sadness they felt, he simply supposed his mate was just a very calm, collected woman: a no-nonsense gal who didn't let flighty feelings control her.
Sometimes, when alone, he spoke to her, told her about himself as best he could. The Bond didn't work that way, but maybe it would help. Elsinore. Elsie. Ellie. Elle. He had a thousand little nicknames for her. He tried to send her feelings of happiness, feelers that he hoped would bounce back to him.
But there was nothing but silence. Only ever cold, disappointing, silence.
As he grew to an age where his parents could no longer protect him from the harsh realities of the world, John came to the realization that there was a simpler explanation for her silence. That maybe she wasn't just the strong, silent type: maybe she was dead.
It happened sometimes - an ugly affair. A mate would die when the other was so young that they could not understand the hole being carved out of their souls, their infant screams of heartbreak mistaken for colic. In a Wasteland boiled in radiation and overflowing with terrors, it was just another sad part of the human story.
So, the boy lived a full life without his mate. Went off on his own. Made mistakes. Fell in with the wrong crowd. Did horrible things - really, really horrible things. Somehow found love, redemption, hope, and then lost it all again. But through it all, the Bond was silent. His mate was gone.
And then, one very ordinary day, without sign or warning, the Bond came screaming to life. The man, who now called himself Deacon, doubled over in pain. A wave of panic and fear and anger flooded down the link and crashed in upon him. He clutched at the rusted metal storm drain to keep himself from toppling over.
"You alright there, Deacon?" Desdemona ached an eyebrow and puffed at her cigarette, the closest thing to concern she would show.
He wheezed for a moment, gasping as he tried to block the emotions screaming from his mate. "Yeah, yeah, I'm good," he lied, as he always lied. "Just some bad bloatfly, you know how it is."
"Sure," Des yawned, knowing Deacon well enough to not believe any of it, and carried on without him.
It took a moment before Deacon could stand. He did his best to push down the well of his mate's emotions that rose up from his stomach and into his throat. For a moment, he had no idea what to do; he had wasted much of his youth waiting for his mate, and now what? After a lifetime of ignoring him, she was just going to come screaming into his life, demanding attention he couldn't spare?
Nope. Nope. Nope. Deacon had no time for that.
With a deep breath and a shaking hand through his hair, he pushed down the Bond until it was silent once more. He built up a wall, and shut her out for good. Then, he straightened, adjusted his sunglasses, and, as though nothing at all had happened, followed Des into the Switchboard.
Deacon would always wonder if it was his distraction that night that led to the fall of the Switchboard. Were they followed? Was it his carelessness that led the Institute into their home? Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. Either way, Deacon knew that it could never happen again.
Enough time passed that Deacon managed to convince himself that he had forgotten about his mate. Yep. He didn't think about her at all. Never. Not ever. Certainly not when he was alone in some dark hole at night. Not once in those cold early dawn moments, when a package had been lost and sleep eluded him. He definitely never ran his fingers over the slightly discoloured patched on his forearm where, every few years, Carrington lasered-off the stubbornly reforming letters. Nope nope nope.
Honestly, it was better this way. What sort of life could he offer a mate, anyways? Deacon would never leave the Railroad, and so they would be a constant liability to each other. If Fate somehow brought them together, Deacon was quite certain they would both be dead within the year. Even then, if he did find her and they somehow managed to elude the sea of Institute Coursers on their ass, what sort of bastard would he be to forget about Barbara's memory? Deacon was scum, he knew that well enough. One good thing in his life had already been much more than he ever deserved. But two? That was some karmatic debt he wasn't willing to sign-off on.
So, Deacon did everything he could to push Elsinore out of his mind. He let her be just some lady, probably on the other side of the earth, that could live her own life, do her own thing, make her own mistakes. He wished her the best, and then, he wished her away.
And then, just when he needed it most, a pleasant distraction crawled out of Vault 111 and into his life.
She showed up in the old church basement one night, mismatched armor strapped over a vault suit, dirty infantry helmet covering her dark hair, a pair of broad sunglasses hiding her eyes: a woman after his own heart. She was fire and fury and ready to burn the Institute down in rain of nuclear glory.
Oh yeah. They hit it off.
It was easy with her. She was a widow looking for her stolen son, and yeah, she had some skeletons she was trying to keep from chattering too loudly in her closet. Deacon gets her.
It helped that he'd literally read the book on her. When she first starting making waves in the Commonwealth, he had wandered up to Sanctuary in his best Caravanner disguise and nosed around a bit. In that big, creepy vault, he managed to get a terminal working and took a gander at the Vault-Tec records of one Nora Byron, née Bennet. She was some big-shot lawyer from before the war, who gave it all up to marry a good ol'soldier boy, play house, and change nappies.
Honestly, her file wasn't all that thick. Vault-Tec was mostly interested in her husband and his ol' ball-and-chain just happened to get a free ticket to Freezerville as the "Plus-One".
He took her on a test run through the Switchboard, half expecting the rumours about her to be inflated. No way someone was that good.
But yeah, she's that good. She's a crackshot shot with a pistol and she moves through a firefight so quickly and gracefully he has to wonder if she's dancing. From her file, Deacon knew she did some standard pre-military training in her youth. With the world on the edge of war, everyone had to be ready. Now, 200 years later, she was finally putting that training to damn good use.
And just like that, she was sterling in Deacon's books. Together, they headed out to Fort Hagen to take another look around Kellogg's old hideout. To their utter lack of surprise, the place was cleaned out; only a pair of spent fusion cell gave any sign that the Institute was ever there. It's a shame Wanderer hadn't come to the Railroad sooner.
So now, on the way back to HQ, they were camped out on the eighth floor of some anonymous office building. At a tiny cookfire, Deacon heated a couple radroach legs and a can of beans, poking at them now and then with a bent length of rebar.
From behind his sunglasses, he watched his new partner. She wandered about the room, picking at the ancient piles of office trash. That was her thing: she never stopped. Even in the down times, during the rest breaks and between the missions, she was always busy, always doing something. In their line of work, being so damn busy was a liability. It made you stand-out. It made you memorable. Yeah, Deacon was always watching, always on high alert, but he never let it show. From the other side of his dark glasses, he looked cooler than an Atom Cat.
For all his flaws, Deacon was a damn good spy. Even if he wasn't, he still could have figured out why it was that she was pocketing a handful of old fuses and quietly prying a rusty spring from a broken clipboard: Nora didn't just help synths, she helped everyone. She had maybe ten caps to her name, but she would gladly give them to the first sad soul they came across. It had been only months since she fell out the freezer and she'd already built a dozen settlements with the Minutemen. It didn't make her rich. It didn't make her life easier. It didn't help her find her son. But she did anyways. There was a goodness in her that had long washed out of the Commonwealth. Maybe it was just pure naivety, but it was something that Deacon found himself drawn to. Something he'd been drawn to before.
With a few rapid blinks, Deacon shook those thoughts away. He cleared his throat as he moved on to find a new distraction.
"Hey, Wanderer? ... Wanderer? Wan-der-errrrr," he groaned. "It's sooo long. Way too long. I've got important things to do: synths to rescue, Commonwealths to save - I don't have time for a name that long."
Nora rolled her eyes and kept digging through her latest mountain of trash.
"Wanda," Deacon announced at last. "I'm gonna call you Wanda."
"Really?" she groaned, standing and making a wasted effort to brush the dust from her vault suit. "Agent Wanda? 'Codename: Wanda'? "
Deacon shrugged. "Don't like it? Shoulda picked a shorter codename."
That earned him a wrinkled nose. "What? No, Desdemona picked it, I just wanted to be Nora."
"Still your own fault – you could have picked anything. Coulda been something kick-ass like 'Vengeance' or 'Fixer'. Or maybe something sexy like 'Charmer' or, ooooh, 'Whisper' or something."
With a sigh, she gave up on the scavenging and came to sit next to him at the fire side. "Seriously Deacon, can't I just be Nora? Please?"
"Nope, you're Wanda now."
She gave him a sour look which he, in turn, rebuffed. Tut, tut, Wanderer, keep those emotions in check.
"Look, Wanda, codenames are important. Keeps you - your whole life - safe from the Brotherhood and the Institute and your average Commonwealth asshole. It's the only shield we've got against them."
She shook her head as she scoffed. "Why? What could they possibly do - kill my husband and steal my son?"
And just like that, the game drained away. He had no answer for that.
Deacon had been with the Railroad a long time. He understood loss. He had lived loss. These days, he could see the everyday tragedies of the post-war world and let it wash off of him. But seeing that look of heartbreak flash across Nora's eyes was different. There was something there. Something he can't name, but was kicking up the cobwebs long gathered in that empty place in his chest. He felt her hurt.
His words were careful when he spoke. "Look, you've got a new family now. All those folks up in Sanctuary, they need General Nora Byron and Agent Wanderer to be two separate people. When we're running missions, you've gotta stop using your real name, and you've gotta stop wearing that vault suit. You need to blend in, be forgettable."
But that was the problem, wasn't it? More and more often, Deacon got the feeling that no matter what she did, no matter what she wore, she couldn't possibly ever be forgettable, that he would carry her in his thoughts even when they parted. For now, Deacon managed to shake off the feeling, packed it up and filed it under "Do Not Open".
Across the fire, he watched her weigh his words. Bringing the settlements into it had been a harsh but necessary reminder, and, from the way her shoulders drooped in guilt, she took the message to heart. Eventually, she gave a silent nod of acceptance.
Deacon gave a mental checkmark of approval. With a little time and a little guidance, she was going to be a damn fine Heavy.
He knocked his shoulder against hers in a sad attempt to lighten the mood. "So just like, shut up, eat your radroach, and be Wanda, okay pal?"
And so she was.
At least for a little while.
AN: Let's be honest here, Wanderer is a super cool spy name, but it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.