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Whispers & Bullets Part 1: The Blessed Flames

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Well, looks like the good times end here.

Winlock and Barnes strolled into the VIP section of the Third Rail, big bad guys trying to own the place. MacCready was in no mood to entertain those two, but, outnumbered and cornered, he had no choice but to humor them yet again.

“Can’t say I’m surprised to see you in a dump like this, MacCready” snarled Winlock.

“I was wondering how long it would take your bloodhounds to track me down, Winlock. It’s been almost three months… don’t tell me you’re getting rusty.” Bluffing, MacCready added, “Should we take this outside?”

The man was tall and imposing, especially with his slicked back blood red hair. As much as he relished the chance to finally pop a bullet in that asshole’s forehead, the young mercenary knew he was currently in no shape to take him on. With Winlock and Barnes breathing down his neck, business was awfully thin. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten a nice warm meal. Jerky and other trash tier foods weren’t going to keep him alive much longer…

He was pretty sure that none of his interlocutors would dare start a firefight in Goodneighbor unless they had a death wish. Mayor Hancock could easily take both men down with a switchblade alone for even wishing to try anything in his town. Despite the advantageous situation, he couldn't take any chances. Finding an ounce of strength in his gut, he was able to pull off his usual witticism in the face of the man that had been threatening his life for weeks.

“It ain’t like that. I’m just here to deliver a message.”  Obviously just being a messenger this time, right, thought the young mercenary.

Clearing his throat, MacCready answered plainly, “In case you forgot, I left the Gunners for good.”

“Yeah, I heard” snickered Winlock in response.

Of course, MacCready knew that he was aware of his status towards them. Can’t hurt to remind this jackass that he should leave me alone , he thought, feeling content that he could piss off the big man further. He finally shifted his eyes to Barnes, silently letting his partner speak for the both of them. Spineless as always.

“But you’re still taking jobs in the Commonwealth. That isn’t going to work for us.”

If he could roll his eyes any further, MacCready would gladly oblige. It’s been the same conversation over and over again for months. Gettin' real tired of this broken record . The frustration boiling in his veins was surely going to be spat out with his next words and he clearly didn’t care. Winlock and Barnes had to leave his temporary “office” that had become the VIP area of the Third Rail as soon as possible if he wanted to avoid a full on confrontation.

That’s when he spotted a thin shadow walking up to the room they were in. In the dim red lights of the bar, he could hardly make out any details, but whoever had the balls to walk in here during official Gunner business was a woman. Couldn’t be much taller than him, strangely curvaceous and wearing a vault suit under a thick layer of leather armor. He was definitely not looking forward to deal with a vaultie of all people but he would still welcome the change. Who could blame him for wanting to get rid of the two brawny men as soon as possible?

“I don’t take orders from you… not anymore,” he hissed, words dripping in anger. “So why don’t you take your girlfriend and walk out of here while you still can?”

His bravado didn’t seem to even phase Winlock but his words unmistakably hit their mark.

“What?!” exclaimed Barnes who had remained completely silent through the entire confrontation.

The dark skinned soldier wasn’t as imposing as his superior but he still had an aura that screamed of pure murder machine. Turning towards his associate, flames consuming his green eyes, he exclaimed “Winlock, tell me we don’t have to listen to this shit…” voice almost breaking under the pressure and exasperation he was pushing through his clenched jaw.

“Listen up, MacCready.” Damn do I hate hearing him say my name , the young man thought. “The only reason we haven’t filled your body full of bullets is that we don’t want a war with Goodneighbor.”

The large man almost looked defeated for a second when he finished his statement. I really have to go lick Hancock’s boots again for letting me stay here...

Still as calm as humanly possible, Winlock sighed, “See we respect other people’s boundaries... “ You respect the superior skill and firepower of Goodneighbor, not people, MacCready winced to himself. Seemingly unaware, the large man continued, “we know how to play the game. It’s something you never learned.”

Happy to aggravate both men further, the mercenary adopted a sarcastic tone, “Glad to have disappointed you.”

“You can play the tough guy all you want. But if we hear you’re still operating inside Gunner territory, all bets are off. You got that?” barked Winlock.

While Winlock wouldn’t be bothered by his quip, he couldn’t help but feel pleased with himself. I hope you feel as powerless as I am for once, asshole. What MacCready wasn’t expecting was to see the shadowed woman tiptoe towards a free seat, a smirk drawn across her face. Studying her in the better lighting of the VIP room, he noticed that she couldn’t be very old at all with her sunkissed wrinkleless face and ample cheeks. She was wearing thick black glasses, framing her hazel eyes. Freckles covered the bridge of her nose and two small moles were visible on her chin. Considering her appearance, she was definitely what someone would call a pretty woman. What evaded MacCready was how she could have such big cheeks in this godforsaken wasteland. There was a very limited number of women he had met that even had hips to speak of, with the lack of nutritious food and all the surviving they had to do. Even his Lucy… No, not the time to think about this, he chastised himself.

He returned his attention to the Gunners. The young mercenary knew they couldn’t touch him as long as he remained in the vicinity of Mayor Hancock and his precious town, but a chill still took hold of the back of his neck. So many things to do, so many caps to earn… He definitely couldn’t be offed yet, not when he had such an important person depending on his success out here in the Commonwealth. Not willing to show any weakness, he steeled himself before replying.

“You finished?”

“Yeah… we’re finished. Come on Barnes”, finally uttered Winlock, frustration visible on his face. Good dog. Wouldn’t want to piss off the good mayor now.

Relief threatened to show on MacCready’s face when both Winlock and Barnes finally turned around to leave the bar. While he did believe in Mayor Hancock and his hatred for the Gunners, that couldn’t keep the two from trying to stab him to death in his sleep tonight. Gonna try to convince Hancock to let me crash in the State House tonight...

The young man took a deep breath before turning his attention back to the mysterious vaultie. She was still smirking while she seemed to study him. Could she be an actual client for once and not just a junkie looking for handouts? She definitely didn’t jitter from jet or psycho withdrawal, MacCready noted. Her leather armor looked like it had endured the assault of a yao guai or another large clawed creature with all the deep grooves stretching from her left shoulder to her right hip. Dried blood was splotched all over the animal hide the armor was made of, giving off an intimidating look coupled with the claw marks. What kind of trouble did this vaultie get into, MacCready wondered. The strangest part of her getup was definitely her vault suit. Despite the state of her armor, the damn thing was pristine, looking freshly washed even. All that blue and gold would make for a great target in the ruins, he thought. Leveling his eyes back to her face, he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was scrutinizing him with even more effort than he had put into his study of her form. Discomfort mounting, he decided to break the ice.

“Look, lady. If you’re preaching about the Atom, or looking for a friend, you’ve got the wrong guy. If you need a hired gun… then maybe we can talk.”

He noticed the woman smiling at him even more than she already was. He was getting more uncomfortable than he normally would due to that damn smile. He just couldn’t read her at all. Why was she smiling, why had she been smirking at his exchange of heated words with Winlock, why was she looking so relaxed in front of a stranger while he was trying to infuse his words with venom so she’d leave him alone? No, she can’t really be a client, right?

The woman chuckled to herself before piercing his eyes with her steady and confident gaze. He felt like she could see within the depth of his soul with those eyes of hers, which greatly unsettled him.

“I’m interested… if you think you’ve got what it takes,” she answered after what felt like an eternity. What a cocky gal this one. Does she even know who she’s talking to?

“You’re joking right? I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I know my way around. I used to run with the Gunners for god’s sake.”

“Gunners… yeah, I heard of them. Put a lot of ‘em in the ground as well. In my eyes, that’s not much of an insurance for how good you supposedly are.”

“Look, if you’ve got the caps, I’m not gonna let you down,” he answered sharply.

For a split second, her smile faltered. It didn’t take long for her confident composure to come back to her, but he felt like he had been able to get a speck of valuable information on her. Sweet spot for kids maybe? MacCready’s cheeks still grew hot at the snide statement. How can she dare doubt my skills? Seriously, who does she think she is. She’s just a damn vaultie. He was visibly irritated at the woman questioning his efficiency with a rifle. She seemed to be lost in thought, brushing her gloved hand on her chin. Her smile finally came back as if she actually liked seeing him exasperated.

Wanting nothing more than to find a reason to turn her down, he asked, “Now, what about you? How do I know I won’t end up with a bullet in my back?”

“All I can give you is my word and a bunch of caps , ” she huffed, pulling out a small pouch and jiggling its contents. Now you’re speaking my language, lady. Might actually be payday for once!

“Bunch of caps, huh? Okay, hotshot. Price is 250 caps… up front. And there’s no room for bargaining.”

“Oh don’t you worry your sweet cheeks there… MacCready, right?” The question felt forced, especially with her sultry voice. No need to hide that you were eavesdropping there, miss. She continued in a heartbeat, either not noticing his scowl or, most likely, just ignoring his reaction.

“250 caps it is. Count if you want.” She threw him the pouch, which he greedily caught.

“All right, boss… you got yourself an extra gun. Lead on.” He took a step forward but was quickly stopped in his tracks by her raised hand, palm towards him.

“Shouldn’t we celebrate this? Brahmin steaks sound good to you?”

She was eyeing him with that trademark smile of hers. If he was to be honest, he liked that she seemed to think of him as more than just a gun. She was definitely the first client to offer that they get a meal before actually getting into the nitty-gritty of things. He hesitated, not knowing if he should accept or be more cautious of her kindness. Was she even offering or would he have to chip into his newly acquired stack of caps for this?

As if she had read his mind, she chuckled and added “I’m buying of course. Order as much food and booze as you want, MacCready. A gal has to butter up the man she’s interested in, yes?” Interested? What did she even mean? She just HIRED me, it’s not like this is anything but a business venture. Still, despite the doubts creeping in his mind, he finally smiled back at her.

“As you wish, boss. Brahmin sounds great.”

They both exited the VIP room to join the rest of the patrons of the Third Rail.

 

********************************

 

“Damn MacCready, you must have been the hungriest man on Earth!”, she exclaimed, as the mercenary wolfed down his third steak. He was also on his third beer while she was still sipping her first glass of whiskey. She had finished her first (and only) steak by now and was looking at either his own plate or Magnolia, the charming singer of the bar. The relief he felt in his stomach from all the food was worth all the shit he had gotten from Winlock and Barnes.

He realized that he still had no idea who his new boss was, not even her name.

In between two bites, he lifted his chin towards her and asked “What’s your name boss? You got mine; it’s only fair that you give me yours, right?”

She studied him for a moment, probably pondering if he was worthy to know her name. Her stare softened and she smiled before finally revealing her name to him. “Name’s Gwendolyn. Pleased to meet you, MacCready. Even more pleased to have you watching my back from now on.”

The sincerity in her words took the mercenary aback. When was the last time someone had actually been happy to see him, he didn’t remember. All he knew is that he would do his best to watch her back for as long as she would want him, that’s for sure.

When the last bite of meat disappeared from his fourth plate, he looked up at his new employer. She had a grin plastered on her face, pushing up her generous cheeks. Damn, she’s cute with those cheeks of hers. Kinda want to pinch ‘em. When he was finally done with his meal, she got up from her seat to speak to Whitechapel Charlie. At that moment, he realized that, in his hunger, he had probably cost his boss at least a good 100 caps worth of food and drink. The guilt of being such a nuisance to his new income provider locked him in place on his chair. Did I already fuck this up? This gig could net me so many caps, what I am doing, being such an ass not even a day into this? Visibly, she was done with the Mister Handy bartender because she was already coming back to their table, eyes planted in his. He looked away, guilt and uneasiness eating away at his gut. As if on cue, she placed a warm hand on his shoulder, squeezing slightly, maybe as a way to reassure him that he had done nothing wrong.

“Hey, I’m glad you enjoyed a good dinner. You seemed to really need it. Don’t worry about the price or anything. I don’t mind at all.” Her voice was gentle and kind, just low enough for him to hear the soft words drip from her supple lips. While he still felt guilty, he was also thankful for her remark. He finally got up from his seat, ready to follow her out of the bar.

She led them to the Hotel Rexford, probably thinking about turning in for some much needed sleep. While he was down in the VIP room of the Third Rail, MacCready never really noticed how fast time passed without staring at the watch he was able to pilfer many moons ago. It was already well into the night, the sky speckled with stars. Much to his surprise, she splurged on him again for the day, getting him his own private room for the night as well as a room for herself. They’d gotten lucky and both rooms were right next to the other. It would be easier to reconvene in the morning, he thought. When they got to their respective doors, she offered him wishes of good sleep and nice dreams, waving her hand. He didn’t dare go into his room before she opened her own door and disappeared.

After getting a well needed scrub and a couple of cigarettes, he finally settled himself in bed, arms under his neck, staring up at the ceiling of his room. He had haphazardly thrown his tattered duster over a nearby chair and let his hat drop to the floor. Man, today was a good day. Got a new job, a good meal and even a roof over my head. What kind of karma did I cash in to get this lucky ?

He was pulled out of his own thoughts when he heard some muffled sounds coming for the wall he had in common with his new boss. Curious, he got back up as silently as he could to put his ear to the wall. What he heard was not what he was expecting from the confident, ballsy woman he had met earlier today.

She was crying, positively weeping like a child.

His curiosity made him feel dirty. Why was he so interested in hearing a grown woman cry her eyes out? Nevertheless, he was glued to the wall, unable to pull back from his discovery. Gwendolyn’s sobs were calming down, finally, as she was trying to breathe in slowly. He heard her shift in what sounded like fabric, probably the shredded bed sheets that adorned every bed in the Rexford, before he heard her sigh deeply. She was whispering something, not that he could heard any of her words.

His neck felt engulfed in flames when MacCready finally pulled back from his listening post. What was he doing, eavesdropping on a woman, his boss even, like a brat? Everyone has secrets and sorrows, he thought. Especially me… His mind was then filled with the memory of his now departed wife, Lucy. She was so sweet and cared for him like nobody else had in his entire life. Being the mayor of a cave full of children was not a position that afforded him any comfort from his proteges. He was relieved to finally leave Little Lamplight at the age of 16, thinking he could probably find something to live for in Big Town, until he realized that the coveted adult town was nothing more than a couple of shacks filled to the brim with his past friends, now only echoes of themselves as they were consumed by fear. He had refused to become just another lost soul in that dead end place so he had settled for the equally terrible alternative of aimlessly travelling the Capital Wastes. During his travels, he had met and fallen in love with Lucy, gotten married and even brought a beautiful baby boy into this forsaken world. Lucy… You’ve no idea how I miss you. I should have stayed back with you when you died, accepted my own death and… No, no don’t you dare go back there, the young man cursed himself. You had to run, protect Duncan, protect your son. A son that you abandoned like a COWARD . Tears were threatening to erupt from his blue eyes, so he slapped himself in the face. Stay together man. You’re here for a reason, now stop being a child and get to work.

 

********************************

 

When he emerged from his room, his boss was still nowhere to be seen. She wasn’t in the lobby or the corridor that housed the hotel rooms. He thought she must still be asleep; it was only 5 a.m. after all. Getting restless from sitting around, he pulled a cigarette to his lips, lighting it. The embers lit up his face as he smoked in the dark cool air of what was probably early December. Minutes passed with still no Gwendolyn in sight. At this point, he was pacing the main road of Goodneighbor, antsy that his cash cow might have run on him. That’s when he spotted a familiar figure cloaked in old red cloth, head adorned of a tricorn.

He waved down Mayor Hancock. The ghoul smiled at him in a rictus, his usual look when he was high on jet. Hancock settled beside him, back to the facade of the hotel, crossing his arms. Of course, his smirk never left his emaciated face as MacCready produced a cigarette for him. He gladly accepted the token and lit it up, taking in a deep puff of smoke in his lungs.

“So, kid, I heard you got yourself a new boss. Congrats,” the ghoul finally exclaimed. While the mercenary wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic at first, he smiled back at his companion when the smile the ghoul had on his lips looked more sincere than anything else in his demeanor.

“Yup, got myself a big fish, Hancock,” he started. He looked around for a minute, making sure that nobody was interested in their conversation before continuing, “Chick’s a vaultie with quite an attitude. You’d like her. Just please restrain yourself for a couple of weeks, yeah? I can’t afford to lose this gig to your… charms .” The ghoul let a bark of laughter escape from his chest at MacCready’s plea.

“Ain’t gotta worry, brother. Already tried and got turned down. Gwen’s not an easy woman to seduce it seems!”

Both men laughed their hearts out. MacCready barely registered that Hancock already knew his boss's name, instead imagining the tough vaultie refusing a night with the mayor. “What a slap in the face that must have been, mayor.”

“You got that right MacCready. She’s like one of those pinup girls from pre-war posters with those damn curves of hers. Can’t believe I won’t get to see those naked in the near future.”

Embarrassment creeped into the young man’s face when a flicker of imagination in his mind decided to picture his boss naked. That would be a dream, wouldn’t it? Shaking his head to try to push the thought away, he couldn’t escape Hancock’s laughter. The ghoul had definitely noticed the change of color in his complexion, that’s for sure, despite the dim light perched on top of them. Before he could defend himself, the mayor grabbed his shoulder, giving it a slight shake.

“You better protect her, MacCready. She’s one of a kind, and we won’t get to meet another gal like her in our lifetimes. Yeah yeah I know I’m practically immortal, don’t look at me like that,” the ghoul added when the mercenary’s face changed from a frown to a confused look. “Look, I know a bit of her life story and, seriously, ain’t nobody else like her in this shit covered land. So you better do your job right or you’ll have me to answer to.”

The sudden protective nature of Hancock’s words left him speechless. What had happened between the two to gain her the support of the almighty mayor of Goodneighbor? He’d have to question her about it at some point in the future. He was pulled out of his reverie when he heard a sultry voice call to both men.

“Well if it isn’t my favorite mayor and my new gun, chatting up a storm in the dead of night!”

Gwendolyn approached both men. She was wearing her vault suit again but had not bothered putting on her leather armor this time. Despite her bright smile and gentle eyes, it was really hard to miss the deep dark circles hovering over her cheeks. Did she cry all night? Hancock, with his sharp wits, had probably noticed them as well but decided to ignore that as he wrapped an arm over her shoulder, pulling her close to him. That’s when MacCready heard something clink at her hip. Wait what? A sword? What is she doing with a sword as her only protection right now? Is she nuts? His questions were interrupted by Hancock’s banter.

“Well, Sunshine, didn’t think I’d see you today. What brought you back to Goodneighbor? Don’t tell me you miss me already?”, the ghoul playfully joked. Her warm features faced the mayor with a bright smile, revealing her white teeth. Wait, those teeth are way too white and perfect. Who is she, really? Of course, the question would be added to the pile of unanswered mysteries surrounding the woman. He noticed that she was taller than Hancock by half a head. That would mean that she was definitely a little taller than him as well.

“Oh Hancock, you’ve no idea. I got a lead.” The ghoul’s eyes grew wide in surprise. Trying to keep his composure, he let out a worried sigh.

“So Valentine did end up helping you with that . Are you sure it’s wise to go after what is probably a terribly dangerous mercenary?”

Not missing a beat, Gwendolyn frowned, “Hancock, you know I have to do this. I have to find Shaun… and yeah, a dangerous mercenary is a good guess. I have to take down Conrad Kellogg. I’m told he’s basically the deadliest man in this whole damn Commonwealth.”

A look of horror spread across Hancock’s ghoulish features. MacCready couldn’t help but frown at the sudden revelation. Anybody with half a brain knew who Kellogg was and steered clear from the hired killer.

“You can’t be serious, Sunshine. Kellogg is the one that took your kid?” Whoa there, she’s after HER kid? Another thing to question her about.

“John please,” she whispered, “don’t say that out loud. Yeah, he took my son, and he’s gonna pay. I’m not debating this with you.”

Her tone had gone from happy-go-lucky to deathly serious in an instant. The deep frown she wore on her young face appeared out of place and unsettling. Hancock must have understood the finality of her words because after seemingly wanting to continue the conversation, he closed his mouth and looked down. MacCready had never seen the almighty mayor of Goodneighbor so distraught in his entire life. What kind of connection did the two share for her to have such an effect on the ghoul? Before he could ponder as to the nature of their relationship, Gwendolyn turned to face him, her frown softening ever so slightly.

“Come on MacCready, time to get our things. We’re leaving in…” She looked at her PipBoy for a minute before bringing her eyes back up to him, “30 minutes is alright with you?”

The sudden question surprised him. Not a single one of his previous employers would even ask for his opinion on things like this. After a moment, he answered, “Okay boss, 30 minutes in the Rexford lobby, got it.”

He turned on his heels, ready to leave, when he looked back to make sure Gwendolyn was following in his footsteps. To his surprise, he saw her pulling Hancock into a tight embrace, murmuring something to the ghoul. He was holding her to his own body as tightly as possible.

“You better kill the asshole and come back; you hear me, Gwen?” Hancock’s voice was shaking, breaking even. MacCready felt a wave of pressure crash down on him. He’d have to take this job seriously, or he’ll definitely have the mayor at his throat.

She let go of the ghoul, smiling gently at him, “Don’t worry, I got myself an extra gun just to be safe. Kellogg is as good as dead.” The confidence in her words felt… forced. She must have been putting on a strong front for Hancock to stop worrying. While the ghoul still seemed reluctant to believe in her words, he finally turned to look at the mercenary.

“You better not let her down MacCready. Bring her back safe, you hear?” While the mayor had been smiling when he said those words, it wasn’t difficult to understand that this was certainly a threat.

Not wishing to show his discomfort, MacCready put as much confidence as he could in his next words, “Who do you think you’re talking to, mayor? She hired the best sniper in the Commonwealth and I intend to keep up the reputation.”

Satisfied with his comment, the mercenary entered the hotel with a spring to his step.