For the second time that day, Deacon found himself more than a little surprised to be alive. He awoke in a cold concrete room. Above him, bright lights blurred his vision. To his sides, his hands were cuffed to the arms of a old steel chair.
He was also naked. Fully, completely, naked. No wig. No sunglasses. No pants. No nothing.
Naked, but not alone.
As his vision cleared, Deacon found himself in the company of three towering Coursers, their black coats cutting sharp against the grey of the otherwise barren room.
For Elisnore. For the Railroad.
Too late to feign at sleeping, Deacon flashed the trio a winning smile, but earned no reply. Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted his missing trousers (and other, perhaps, less important possessions) all laid carefully out for inspection at the back of the room. His pistol, his back-up pistol, and his back-up back-up pistol, lay in a perfect line next to his pocket knife, lockpicks, and other favourite gadgets on a cold, sterile table. He gave a wistful sigh at his sunglasses, one lens now cracked through.
"Identify yourself," the nearest Courser said.
For Deacon, that was a hard pass. He drew a wide and friendly smile, and cocked his head just a little to the side before he spoke, vowels curved hard and long. "Boy, it sure does get crazy down in them old stations, fellas. You know how it is: one minute you're lookin' for the hopper and the next you're halfway to the NCR."
But they didn't know, didn't believe, weren't biting.
Above them, the lights swung ever so slightly to the droning hum of some massive and ancient machinery. Their sway and the cold drip of a rusting pipe made clear one simple fact: just a few miles from where he started, Deacon was in a whole new world, one he would not escape. He was well and truly fucked. And from that knowledge, a comforting sort of madness washed through him.
"Identify yourself," the Courser demanded again.
Deacon made a show of scanning the trio - Dmitri, Alexei, and Ivan, he named them - up and down. With a shrug, he said, "Geez, those sure are some fancy jackets you got there, fellas. You get'em at Fallons?"
That earned him a swift punch to the guts from Ivan. An inch or two taller than his companions, Ivan had white-blonde hair and cold eyes. While an aged and wizened Deacon had found he often liked synths more than his human fellows, it quickly became clear that despite his very, very best efforts, Deacon and Ivan were not going to become friends.
Next to him, Dmitri was the talker, the first and only to speak . "Who sent you?" he demanded again, voice still and even, emotionless and dead. "Who sent you?" He leaned back against the stone walls and waited for Deacon for crumble.
But Alexei - dear sweet little Aloysha - was clearly going to be Deacon's favourite. No questions. No fists connecting to faces. Alexei stood quietly in the corner while his brothers worked. Watching. Waiting. In need of a hug and new best pal.
"What is your name?"
Deacon turned back to Dmitri and shrugged. Deacon was a deadman. And, well, that was fine, really. He'd signed up to the Railroad knowing it was a life sentence. If anything, he was surprised he'd lasted this long. Almost all the agents that had first welcomed 'John D.' into the Railroad were long, long gone. Either drifting into a shaking, twitching retirement, or lost to rot in some ditch, they had left Deacon to guide the next generation alone.
Another punch, this time to the jaw, left Deacon tasting blood. He spat the sharp taste of copper and salt on to the floor, wiping his chin against his bare shoulder. His only hope was that they would end him fast and clean, send him off with a quick bullet to the brain before his walls began to crumbled and the Railroad leaked out. It was just easier that way.
A world without John was just easier. Nora would carry on thinking that her soulmate was dead or maybe just a complete asshole. And, well, soon enough both would be true.
So they played the usual interrogation game. Who are you? Who sent you? Why are you here?
And Deacon played it right back at them: played dumb, played foolish, played silent, played crazy and round and round they went until, until...
Until, finally, the door slid open and a man - aged, distinguished, in-charge - walked into the room, and greeted Deacon with a single demand.
"Tell me what you know of Nora Byron."
Sure, hearing that name may have thrown him once already, but Deacon learned from his mistakes. Because Deacon was fast. Deacon was smooth. Deacon had it all under control.
He shrugged as well as he could with his arms still shackled, spitting blood on to the floor. "Nora Byron? Ain't never heard of her. Knew an Alice Myron growing up. She had these big buck teeth - coulda been part rad-rabbit. Nice girl though," he said, even as he thought of Elsinore, perfect in his eyes in every way, and tucked so deep inside himself that those Institute bastards would never get to her.
Another shrug and a bit a sigh, and then, Deacon added, "Got eaten by mirelurks a few years back, real shame."
"Did she send you?" the greyed man demanded.
"What? Alice? No, I just said she got eaten by mirelurks. Weren't you listening?" Deacon turned to Alexei and rolled his eyes with a wide shake of his head. This guy, am I right?
The chair was cold and hard against Deacon's more delicate regions, but all things said and done, it really wasn't so bad. His eye was a bit swollen and his ribs ached when he took more than a shallow gasp, but really, truly, it could have been worse - at least they hadn't started with the red-hot poking or fingernail-pulling. Deacon crossed his legs and smiled up at the old man; he could play dumb all day, no problem at all.
Your move, pal.
The man replied with a pull at the corner of his lips that was definitely not a smile. "Does she know you're soulmates?"
Deacon laughed like it was an absurdity - forced it fast and natural, like his heart hadn't just skipped a beat. "Soulmates? Hate to break it to you, buddy, but I ain't got a soulmate. I'm as Blank as they come," he gestured down at himself with a turn of his chin.
The man sighed as he came to stand over Deacon, never the sort to waste time waiting, always on some tight private schedule. Deacon might have all the time in the world, but the man did not. "I wouldn't expect a Wastelander to understand the finer points of bioresonant-entanglement, but, well..." he lifted a pen-sized device from his coat pocket, and with a push of a button, shone a cold purple light onto Deacon's forearm.
Elsinore Annabeth Woodhull glowed back, bright and brilliant upon his skin.
Deacon swallowed even as his heart fell out through his stomach. "Huh."
"Yes," the man sighed again. "'Huh', indeed."
The old man grew taller as Deacon fought the urge to shrink down into his chair, to huddle up and protect his soft underbelly now so viciously exposed.
"So, I'll ask again," said the man. "Tell me about Nora Byron."
And it was back to playing silent for Deacon.
"I said: tell me about Nora Byron," the words thick and heavy now.
And the time for games passed. Deacon swallowed back his smart reply, his cutting jab. He curled inwards, stuck out his spines, and when he spoke, it was as himself, no accent, no gravel in his vowels, just his own voice low and cold and with the memories of a man who had seen his wife die. "I've got nothing to say to you."
But the man was unimpressed by the honesty. "If you aren't willing to talk, then we'll have to bring Nora here for a conversation ourselves." He let that hang for a moment, let the threat spread out into the room and choke Deacon down. "Tell me, she's at her Sanctuary right now, yes? How many of her ... settlers will we have to go through to bring her here?"
Deacon tread through the silence, fought to keep his head above it.
"Ugly business, I'm sure," the man filled the space. "Lots of civilians getting caught in the crossfire. The whole settlement will probably have to come down." He shook his head as though he might actually care for the loss, before conceding, "But a dozen Coursers should do the trick."
In his years in and around the Commonwealth, Deacon had seen evil in the face of men. He'd seen madness and desperation. But this man was something else: nothing but a cold, empty void. And the way he spoke, so even and heartless, sent a note of fear crawling up Deacon's spine.
"We'll have Mrs. Byron here in no time, one way or another."
The blood in Deacon's veins stilled, went cold, and threatened to stop his heart. Sanctuary was built more on hope than actual two-by-fours. It wouldn't take a dozen Coursers to turn it to ashes - three or four would do it. He had seen the smoldering remains of more than a few settlements that had dared stand against the Institute, and there was no doubt Sanctuary would share the same fate.
Though it made his stomach churn, it left Deacon with only one play. It was something they never talked about in the Railroad, but that every agent with more than a few missions under their belt understood. Sure, 99% of the time, you kept silent, held your tongue, took the torture, and said farewell to this cruel world clutching on to your cover. But sometimes, silence was worse. Sometimes, when you were backed in that corner, when you had weighed and measured all possible outcomes, sometimes - just sometimes - when it was about far more than saving your own skin, the truth, dosed small and sparingly, was the only option.
Deacon swallowed before he spoke, his throat drying in protest at what felt like a betrayal. "She just wants her son," he said at last. "She isn't involved in any politics or whatever. She's just some lady looking for her kid." His only hope was that in telling them that small truth, in making Nora Byron just another boring wasteland sob story, they would decide she wasn't worth the effort. That they should just go ahead and shoot him, and call it a damn day already.
The man tilted his head, pleased at this new development, and nodded. "And you are?"
Deacon struggled for a moment before admitting the truth he hadn't spoken in years. "John."
"Just John." Just another worthless piece of Commonwealth trash.
And with that admission, the man almost smiled. "Well, John, let's try again: did Nora Byron send you?"
Deacon squeezed the words up into his throat, forced them out before he choked on their taste of treason "... no."
"So how is it that you came to be here then?"
And the silence stretched again.
"She built the relay that you came through and yet, you say she didn't send you," said the man. He towered now, a man well past sixty, withering and grey but somehow more frightening than the trio of Coursers. "We've already closed the radio signal, John. It was only every meant to guide one woman through. There's no point hanging on to whatever secrets you seem to think you're guarding."
He was right. God help him, he was right.
"Again: Nora Byron didn't send you, so you...?"
"Snuck in," Deacon mumbled. "Took her spot."
That earned an accepting "hmm", and maybe, just maybe, a few moments of reprieve for Deacon to gather his thoughts.
Or maybe not.
"So tell me, John, why did you have your mark removed?"
The turn in topics came fast and unexpected, striking at Deacon's carefully revealed truths. When Deacon hesitated, the man continued. "John, if we can't have a nice, honest discussion, I really am afraid that I'll have to have this conversation with Mrs. Byron instead."
Pennies and pounds, out and through, it was all collapsing in on Deacon now. "Met someone else years ago. She didn't like seeing another name on me." It was all true, if not honest. In a Wasteland where finding a mate was rarity, it was a common enough story to believe.
"And Nora? Why didn't you tell her about the mark?"
A silence and then the same unspoken threat echoed between the pair, before, "She deserves better."
It was the most honest thing Deacon had said in years.
Just a few miles away, Nora stood at the centre of the settlement she had built from the ground up, and tried her damnest not to break into tears.
Nora. Not General Bryon. Not Agent Wanderer. Just Nora. Just a woman, filled with heartbreak and betrayal.
She shouted as she kicked at the lump of scorched metal. It wouldn't matter if they managed to fix the teleporter - or even if they rebuilt the whole damn thing from scratch - the signal was gone now. The Institute had undoubtedly patched that little security breach the moment Deacon had gone through.
Deacon, her mentor.
Deacon, her friend.
Deacon, the traitor.
He was gone and he had taken her one chance of ever seeing her son again with him.
The absolute fucker.
The ... the...
"We'll figure something out, General," Preston tried to console her, but something in his voice, his eyes, just didn't sit quite right. His sympathies hung just a little too hollow.
Sturges was inconsolable with his guilt, apologizing again and again for being caught off guard. Nora had embraced him, held him close and promised that it wasn't his fault, that she didn't blame him. No one had seen Deacon's betrayal coming - least of all her.
Smoke still rose in twisting coils from the wreckage, stinging at the corners of Nora's eyes. As she stood there, trying to breathe through the knowledge that her son might be lost forever, she wondered if Preston would believe the tears she fought were brought on by the smoke alone.
A voice from behind startled her from her thoughts. "Ma'am?"
As Nora and Preston turned to address the newcomer behind them, they both considered who he might be. Perhaps a local farmer or some new trader. Maybe even a fresh new Minuteman, just recently joined up. Neither could have an anticipated that it would be a Courser standing there, having so very easily breached the heart of their Sanctuary.
The General and her Colonel staggered back, even as they drew their weapons upon the synth.
The Courser stood, arms crossed behind his back, confident, steady, at ease. "Mrs. Byron?" he addressed her as though their guns weren't trained on him. "I can take you to the Institute."
Nora gave a sharp shake to her head as though to knock loose the wool that must have gathered there. "What?!"
"You wish to enter the Institute," the Courser clarified. "I can take you there now." At her hesitation, he added, "You will not be harmed. The Director has given his word on this."
Her pistol shook in her hands, but the Courser remained concrete-steady.
A flicker of movement at the corner of her vision found a half dozen more Coursers waiting at the tree line. And the truth became obvious: they were fucked. If the Coursers wanted them dead, they would already be dead. If they wanted their supplies and their pathetic cache of collected tech, the Coursers would just take it. They would take down the settlers with such a disgusting ease that the thought sent bile bubbling up into Nora's throat.
To her side, her second-in-command recognized her distant stare. "General, no," Preston begged.
There had been foolish moments in Nora's life: the day as a young girl that she had tried to take the big jump on her bicycle and lost her front tooth in the process, the night in college she chose to go to a freshman's kegger instead of studying for her Poli-Sci midterm the next morning, that time she slept with Nate and shrugged off his lack of condom with a "what-are-the-chances" bravado.
And now there would be this.
Nora turned to Preston, holstering her gun. "I don't have a choice." She took a stumbling step towards the Courser.
"Please, Nora, don't do this," Preston called to her.
The Courser held out his hand and, god help her, Nora took it.
Some hours later Deacon found himself somehow still very much alive, cuffed to a new chair, in a new white cell, and bored out of his mind.
On the scale of 1 to Torture, it really wasn't so bad at all. After a while, the greyed man had departed without so much as a farewell, and then Deacon had been shackled and drug off to a new cell. He'd been scrubbed clean and dressed in a shockingly white smock, though without his sunglasses he still felt naked and exposed. They'd even Stimpaked him, leaving his bruises fading fast.
He couldn't be certain how much time had passed (he'd asked his best pal Alexei the time and received no reply) but from the drain, the fatigue of hours and days without rest, Deacon was sure they had passed into an artificial evening or beyond.
He was counting ceiling tiles when the door to his cell opened and Nora stumbled into the room. Deacon's heart stood still.
She steadied herself and then stood awkwardly just inside the door, a pair of Coursers looking in behind her. She wasn't cuffed or otherwise subdued. Apparently, for whatever reasons he couldn't even begin to imagine, she was a guest here.
Before he could stop himself, Deacon drank her in. In her rose-coloured dress, clean and unmarred by the wasteland, she looked as though she had just stepped out of pre-war billboard. Her skin was bright and clean, her hair curled and sprayed into a coif that threatened put the Super Salon out of business.
Luxury suited her.
Deacon dropped his gaze, set it to lock on the relative safety of the door frame behind her, before he gave it all away. Okay, so they were soulmates, the Institute had that. But that didn't have to mean much. They could still stem the tide, stop the bleeding, keep something of themselves hidden. So Deacon fixed hard on that cold metal doorframe and, and - trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking* - it didn't matter. His eyes met hers and she burned through him.
"Hello, John." She broke the silence, her voice measured.
Well, at least that answered whether they'd told her about the mark or not. "Hey Elsie," he winked at her. "You clean up nice, pal."
She put on a brave front, but Deacon could see the cracks through it: the slight twitch in her left eye, the restrained quiver of her bottom lip.
"You like 'Elsie'?" he asked. "Maybe 'Ellie' instead? But that might get you confused with Perkins ... maybe 'Elsa'? 'Elle'? Nah, 'Elsie' is -"
She took three fast steps across the room and slapped him across the cheek.
It stung, but damn, Deacon knew he deserved it and worse. He shook it off, and looked up to meet her gaze, unobscured by his sunglasses and open and vulnerable.
"You stupid bastard," she hissed.
There were a thousand things he should say, apologies and explanations that would take a lifetime to get through. He should say that he never wanted to lie to her, never wanted to hurt her. That he only did what he did to protect her. That he was trash and she deserved so much better. That he loved her so much it hurt. "I'm sorry," was all he could manage.
"You damn well should be."
And then her arms were around him, and before he could react, before he could breathe, she was kissing him fast and frantic, her lips pressing an urgent admonishment against his own.
She was fury. She was fire. She fell into a straddle across his lap and breathed life back into him.
Oh god. Oh god.
This was it. The moment Deacon had waited half his life for. His actual, honest to god above, soulmate was in his lap, clutching at him like he was the last raft in a barren sea.
They were a mile underground, at the very heart of the Institute's hive, completely and utterly trapped, and yet, and yet, for the briefest moments, none of that mattered. There was nothing but John and Elisnore: the fool and the woman kissing him like they were on the cover of a dime romance. Her lips soft and insistent against his own, her fingers traveling up the back of his neck, searching to thread through thick strands that weren't there.
Deacon pulled against the cuffs binding his forearms down to the chair, his hands reaching to pull her in against him, to hold fast to what couldn't possibly be real. When the shackles held, his fingertips contented themselves with twisting into the pale fabric of her skirt.
They were screwed, and yet all that seemed to matter was the way that she bit at his bottom lip, the way she curled her tongue against his own as she drank him in, drank him down.
"Ahem," an awkward cough interrupted the thought.
And just as quickly as it had begun, it was over.
They pulled apart. Nora was off his lap and stood back upon the floor before Deacon managed to blink the haze from his eyes. Her lipstick was smeared and some of her carefully pinned curls had fallen away, and she was completely and utterly perfect in every way.
"Mrs. Byron," a Courser in the doorway- a new one, not one for Deacon's Karamazov pals - began. "If you would come with me, please. Father is waiting."
Nora ran her hands over her skirt, smoothing down the wrinkled fabric like she hadn't just tasted some part of his soul. "Right, of course." One step towards the door, and then she paused, glancing back at Deacon. "Can my, umm, friend come too, please?"
"I'm afraid not, ma'am. Your associate is to remain here for now."
Nice try, pal. "Could you at least uncuff him? He's no threat at all." She flashed the synth that sweet dazzling smile that Deacon had seen crack the coldest settlers and shrewdest merchants more than a few times. "Please?"
"He will be quite safe here, ma'am," the synth replied in a definite tone.
Hmm. Deacon added Coursers to the `Nora-Immune' column.
As she stood frozen at the centre of the room, called away but desperate to stay, Deacon's training took over. He set the play and sent it spinning in motion. "One for the road, Sweetcheeks?" he asked with his suavest smile.
Anyone else would have flashed him an odd glance in reply. Anyone else would have cocked their head and dropped their jaw and ruined the whole damn thing.
But this was Wanda. The best. The brightest. Deacon's other, better, half.
She was back to his side in a heartbeat, no hesitation, no hint that she knew this was all part of some ploy. When she bent down to meet him, Deacon turned as though to kiss her cheek, nuzzle against her ear, but instead, spoke low in whisper.
"Run," he warned her. "You get a chance, you run. Don't look back."
And then, maybe, there came the inexperience. She paused for just a moment too long, hesitated for that slightest sliver of a second before recovering. She pulled back to meet his gaze and Deacon knew now more than ever, that he was doomed; she held his heart, his soul, in her hand. She pressed a final kiss to his forehead - sweet and gentle, and with a touch that made Deacon yearn for something more that he'd ever known - and then she turned and walked away.
Deacon watched his soulmate go, uncertain if he was more afraid that she, would or would not, return.
Will Deacon escape? What is the Father's plan? Why is Elsie in a circle dress? Find out next time on: Deacon and Nora (Drink and) Talk About Sad Things Together.
*Quote from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy