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Beauty Bleak in a Wasted World

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Why do we go through this every damn night? Can’t he take the hint and just leave already? Charon stalks over to the bar at the nod from his employer, reaching out to grab the back of Patchwork’s shirt and haul him bodily from the stool, ignoring his words of protest. Dragging him to the door of the Ninth Circle is automatic at that point: reach out, push the door open, and toss the other ghoul on his ass, give some trite words of warning, repeat the next night. Charon is tired of the monotony of it, rotting away in the corner of a bar in the employ of a real prick. He longs for the old days of travelling the wasteland, before he’d come into Ahzrukhal’s service, even though he knows such longings will get him nowhere; days of protecting an employer from the hazards of the Wasteland, instead of throwing drunks out on their ass and shaking up the occasional ghoul who’d missed a payment.

Thinking about the past won’t do anything but put you in an even worse mood; don’t bother, he reminds himself as he shoves open the door, lifting the struggling ghoul easily and pushing Patchwork into the hall without even bothering to look at him. “Good riddance,” he grumbles, not bothering to look down at Patchwork as he turns back towards the door.

A low yelp of pain and surprise catches his attention and he pauses, looking down at the figure shoving Patchwork aside and standing, dark hair falling loose from a messy bun and hazel eyes glaring up at him from behind thick-rimmed glasses. “Watch where you’re throwing people next time!” The woman huffs, hands on her hips and scowl on her face.

Charon scowls right back at her. “Maybe you should watch where you’re going, Smoothskin.” Without waiting for a response he turns on his heel and walks back over to his usual corner, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest, looking around as though in search of more troublemakers; his gaze keeps falling on the woman, however, as she walks in and made her way to the bar, sliding easily into a stool and handing over some caps in exchange for a drink.

She is taller than almost everyone else in the Ninth Circle—possibly taller than anyone in Underworld, besides him—and dressed in combat armour, a US Army star on the back between her shoulder blades. A 10mm handgun rests at her hip, and a combat knife is strapped to her left thigh, within easy reach of her hands; though she appears relaxed, Charon can see the practiced way her eyes sweep over the bar, resting on him and lingering for a moment before moving on.

He can’t help the curiosity that had bloomed at the sight of her; not many smoothskins ended up in Underworld, and none had ever sat and laughed with a ghoul the way she does, as Tulip takes a seat beside her and the two women begin chatting. Who are you, Smoothskin?

 

The whiskey she knocks back isn’t particularly good, and the bar owner is a creep, but the Ninth Circle isn’t bad as far as Wasteland bars  go. Cat has certainly been in worse; she snorts softly, thinking of Moriarty’s and the filth that covers every surface in the place. At least this one is clean.

The patrons had eyed her when she walked in, most openly, a few more covert; she doesn’t mind. It’s to be expected, as she is a newcomer and Carol had mentioned they don't often have non-ghoul visitors in Underworld. One set of eyes feel heavy on her back, and it’s all Cat can do to keep from squirming beneath that sharp gaze even as she chats idly with Tulip, the friendly female ghoul she’d bartered weapons with downstairs. He is easily the tallest person she’s ever seen, both in and out of the Vault, and she admits to herself that it is slightly thrilling to have to look so far up to see his face. Doesn’t change that his attitude is kind of shit, she muses with a soft snort

What is his issue? She wonders after her second drink, chancing a glance at the tall ghoul and finding his gaze still on her; the bartender, who’d introduced himself as Ahzrukhal, notices her looking and nods in the man’s direction. “Don’t let him bother you, Smoothskin,” he says in an amused voice, “he’s just watching for trouble. You’re not going to cause any, right?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she replies truthfully, pasting on a smile and resisting the urge to lean away as he leered. “What’s his deal, anyway?”

“Charon is my...loyal employee. I hold his contract, and in return he does as I say, which is usually throwing out the rabble.” Resting his elbows on the countertop Ahzrukhal leans closer to her. “Watches over the bar. Keeps the drunks in line. Pretty much, I point at something and Charon hurts it.”

Charon, huh? “Loyal employee? What do you mean?”

Ahzrukhal shrugs, picking up a glass and wiping it down with a rag. “I hold his contract, which makes me his employer. He will do what I ask when I ask, without question. You see, Charon grew up around a very interesting group of individuals. They...well, I guess you could say that they brainwashed him.”

“Brainwashed? That doesn’t seem...pleasant.” She chances a glance back over to the ghoul in question, but finds his eyes are fixed straight ahead, seemingly taking in nothing though she can tell it’s a practice deception; every muscle in his body is ready, poised to move at the merest hint of trouble, and Cat can’t deny that she finds that kind of control both enviable and attractive.

“He is absolutely loyal to whoever holds his contract. Unfailing, unflinching, until the day that employment ends. Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt that he holds no end of animosity towards me. But so long as he is my employee, he is as gentle as a teddy bear.” He eyes narrow as she turns back around to face him. “What’s with all the questions?”

Putting on a casual air Cat shrugs, twirling her empty glass between her hands, an idea forming in her mind. “You said he’s your employee by contract? I’m interested in talking to you about that.”

As she expected, the ghoul’s eyes light up with interest and he sets down his rag and glass. “Oh? Would you, now? He is a highly valuable asset to me and to the Ninth Circle. What did you have in mind?”

She spends a moment thinking, considering her current stock of caps and those she’d stashed back home in Megaton before voicing her first offer, intentionally low. “I’ll give you 1000 caps for it.”

“You're kidding, right? Come back when you have a serious offer.” The ghoul scoffs and turns, reaching for a bottle of vodka on the shelf behind him.

“2000, then.”

His shoulders stiffen briefly and Cat suppresses a smile, knowing she has him as he turns, a smirk crossing his face. “I suppose that could work... yes. Yes... here's the contract. And I'll take my payment in full.” As she digs out the caps Ahzrukhal pulls out a folded scrap of paper, pressing it into her hand once she’s given him the money. “I'll give you the pleasure of informing Charon yourself.”

 

As the woman speaks in hushed tones with his employer Charon leans casually against the wall, arms folded loosely across his chest and legs crossed at the ankles, looking for all the world as though he’s lounging by choice; his eyes, however, continued to sweep the bar, looking for trouble while fighting to avoid looking at the woman again. That she talks with Ahzrukhal makes him uncomfortable; good never comes from those conversations, and he dreads to hear what sort of criminal activity he will have to take part in on behalf of his employer. The thought has him clenching his jaw, shutting his eyes as he attempts to reign in his anxiety.

Soft footsteps approach as he stands there counting to ten; he can hear the shift of armour against fabric as they stop in front of him and shuffle, weight shifting from foot to foot, the sound of a throat clearing softly forcing his eyes open.

The moment he does Charon wants to close them again; instead he glares down at the smoothskin, standing straight and lowering his arms to his side. “What do you want?”

She arches a perfect eyebrow and places her hands on her hips, looking up at him, her stance defensive in response to his somewhat hostile tone. “Hey now, calm down with the attitude; I’m not here to cause you trouble or anything. I have good news: I'm your new employer.”

Of all the things he expects the woman to say to him, that certainly isn’t it. “You purchased my contract from Ahzrukhal?” She nods and his heart rate speeds up, blue eyes darting towards the bar where his employer— former employer— stands, watching the two of them with a sly grin. Whatever you’re planning, you bastard, it’s not gonna happen. I’m free of you now.

Shifting his gaze back to his new employer Charon pushes away from the wall, taking a step towards Ahzrukhal. “So, I am no longer in his service. That is good to know. Please, wait here. I must take care of something.”

She steps aside, allowing him to pass without argument; three long strides puts him behind the bar, the shorter ghoul looking up at him with that infuriating half-smirk on his face. “Ahzrukhal. I am told that I am no longer in your service.”

“That's right, Charon. Have you come to say goodbye?” The taunt in his tone is evident and Charon’s fingers twitch towards his gun, bringing it up in one smooth motion and pointing it right at Ahzrukhal’s chest.

He doesn’t give Ahzrukhal time to react before pulling the trigger, bartender dropping to the ground in a spray of red, large hole where his chest used to be. Charon shoots him again for good measure, watching impassively as his lifeless body jerks with the impact. “Yes.”

Not bothering to wait for a reaction Charon returns to his new employer, noting with confusion the small smirk that plays at the corners of her lips; stopping cautiously in front of her the ghoul waits to see how she will react, resisting the urge to shift on his feet as her sharp gaze scrutinises him.

“Let’s get out of here,” she finally says after a long moment, turning and pushing open the heavy bar doors and striding confidently out. “I’ve got a room and a bed I’m dying to fall into.” Having no choice but to follow her Charon falls into step beside the shorter woman, stealing glances at her as they walked towards Carol’s Place.

“Something on my face?” his new employer asks, amusement in her voice as she pushes the door open and steps into the makeshift hotel.

The ghoul hesitates a moment before answering. “No, there is not.” Her attitude confuses him, and a frown turns down his mouth as she sends another maddening grin his way.

Carol looks up as they walk in, her eyes widening at the sight of Charon walking behind her newest patron. Stepping up to the desk she sits behind the tall woman leans casually against it, one long leg crossing over the other. “Sorry for not giving you any notice, but I’ll need another room for the big guy here.” She hooks a thumb in his direction and both Charon and Carol look at her in surprise as she digs out a handful of caps and places them on the table. The female ghoul merely nods, taking the caps with a bewildered expression on her face and gesturing them to go ahead. Giving her a wave and a smile Charon’s new employer gestures at him to follow, leading him to what he assumes is her room for the time being, sitting cross-legged on the bed and looking up at him.

Thrusting a hand out towards him she gives a charming grin that even he finds a bit hard to resist, eyeing her hand warily. “My name’s Cat, by the way; sorry for not introducing myself to you before, this was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision. I really wasn’t planning on having a big guy like you come with me, but,” she shrugs a slender shoulder, “you looked fucking miserable and I didn’t want to just leave you there.”

Charon doesn’t reply, merely shifts on his feet, causing the woman--Cat--to roll her eyes. “Would you sit down, you tall thing? I’d like to talk about this...contract of yours, if that’s okay?” A note of unsurety enters her voice as she pulls out the folded piece of paper and Charon, not one to disobey an order, takes a seat in the dingy chair next to the bed. “So, how does this work, anyway? Honestly, the way Ahzrukhal worded it sounded an awful lot like slavery to me, and I’m not too keen on the idea of ‘owning’ another person; could I just give it to you?”

The ghoul blinks in surprise. “No; I...am not capable of holding my own contract. I must be in the employ of someone else.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Really? But, why not?”

“That is just not how it works; my...training requires me to be in the employ of others.”

Cat looks trouble for a moment, chewing on her lip as she fiddles with the rough edges of his contract; the words on the page had long since faded, but they don’t matter—they aren’t what tie Charon to it, anyway. “Damn; I was...really hoping I would be able to free you, and then try to hire you directly to come with me.”

It’s a long moment before Charon can respond past his surprise. “That is...a noble intention, but it cannot be done. I must be in the employment of another; I cannot hold my own contract. If it is destroyed, then something else will have to serve as my contract.” He shifts in the too-small chair, studying his new employer as she sighs in defeat. “No one has ever wanted to do that before; I am...grateful, I suppose, for the thought.”

Bright eyes glance back to his face, catching and holding his gaze steadily before her serious, somber mood suddenly lifts and an almost impish grin lights her face. “Well, Charon, I’m sure I’ll find a way to free you somehow; I’ve already done a few impossible things, so what’s one more, really?” Carefully she folds the contract and sets it aside on the bed. “So, do I have to order you around and stuff, or can I just...tell you that you can do whatever you want? I really don’t want to treat you like a slave; I’d rather you be as free as possible with me.”

“I…” His brow furrows and Charon takes a moment to clear his throat. “Yes, if that is what you want to do.”

Her answering smile is both brilliant and disarming. “Great! Then from now on, do and say whatever you please; I won’t order you around, and you can have as much freedom as I can give you.” Standing and stumbling a bit she gestures for him to stand as well, the ghoul following her wordless order with only a small amount of confusion. “I’ve got to kick you out now, sorry; need to change and get some sleep, we’ve got a hell of a day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Stepping out of  the makeshift room Charon pauses to glance back at her curiously, wanting to test out just how far his ‘freedom’ extends with her. “And what are we doing tomorrow?”

“Ever been to the Washington Monument?”


“I can’t believe you fucking jumped from the top of that fucking building,” Charon finally speaks up, staring at his new employer as they stop for a moment to survey the area and take a rest. A small smirk curves her lips as she glances at him, amusement clear in her eyes and a shrug pulling at her slim shoulders.

“What can I say? I don’t like elevators.”

He blinks at her, brain taking far too long to process her simple statement. “You jumped because you don’t like elevators?”

Setting her pack down Cat takes a seat and leans against the wall of a crumbling building, nodding as though it makes all the sense in the world. “Yup,” she draws the word out, popping the ‘p’ at the end of it. “Besides, it was much faster; you know how long I had to wait for you at the bottom?”

I don’t know whether to strangle this crazy smoothskin or haul her to the nearest doctor for a psych eval. Giving up arguing with her--already knowing it to be a lost cause--Charon leans against the wall she’s sat in front of, gaze sweeping the area and keeping an eye out as Cat pulls supplies from her pack, setting ammo, stims, and food aside. Curious, he glances down at her as she works, about to ask why she was taking things out and not re-sorting them when the ammo type caught his eye; shotgun shells? Are these...is she setting aside supplies for me?

“Here,” she says almost as soon as the thought crosses his mind, looking up at him over her shoulder with a smile, “these are yours; I don’t use shotguns often, but I’ve kept the ammo just in case I need it. And since I don’t, you can have it all; wouldn’t be good for you to run out in the middle of a fight.” Her cheeky grin has him snorting, giving a roll of his eyes as she kicks her bag away and rests her sniper rifle across her lap. “Wake me up if anything tries to kill us, ‘kay?”

“Wake y—Cat?” The ghoul watches incredulously as she tilts her head back against the wall and closes her eyes, breathing evening out and the softest of snores leaving her on an exhale; kneeling before her Charon snaps his fingers, shaking his head when she doesn’t react. “Damned crazy smoothskin,” he mutters, pulling her pack close and digging around for mines. Once he’s established a satisfactory perimeter Charon takes a seat on the ground across from her, shotgun close at hand, keeping an eye and ear out as he begins to sort through the rest of the supplies.

 

A large, warm hand firmly clasping her shoulder jolts Cat abruptly to wakefulness, eyes fluttering open and blinking against the late-afternoon sunlight. Charon looms over her, blocking out the worst of the sun and she offers him a tired smile, shifting her shoulder and cracking her neck with a loud ‘pop’; he pulls his hand away as soon as she moves, apparently satisfied with her awakened state, pushing to his feet and holding his hand out for her.

“Thanks.” Grinning she allows herself to be pulled to her feet, her hand lingering in his warm one for a beat before she turns to grab her pack and gun. “Okay, are you ready to—wait, what happened to my bag?”

Shouldering his own Charon merely shrugs. “I redistributed some of your scrap; you carry a lot on you, and I can handle more weight than you can for longer periods.” He pauses, slight frown pulling down the corners of his fascinating mouth. “I hope that that is alright?”

Giving the straps a quick adjustment Cat nods at him, hefting her sniper rifle. “Thanks, big guy; I appreciate it."

The two fall into step beside each other, Cat easily keeping pace with his long strides despite her shorter stature. “Where are we going to go now?” he asks, receiving a shrug from his employer in answer.

“Back to GNR, and eventually Rivet City, but for now? Figured we’d just go wherever the Wasteland takes us; I’ve got a few odd jobs I’ve picked up and could use a hand with.” She glances up at him, glare of the sun off of her glasses hiding her eyes from view. “So, what do you say: wanna kill some slavers?”

A predatory smirk curves his lips, grip on his shotgun tightening in anticipation. “You have no idea how much.”