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Shot Through the Head

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Robert MacCready once killed a man over a bottle of beer. He’s not proud, but he’s not ashamed, either. The man had been some drifter, dead drunk and too pissed to notice that MacCready and his fellow gunners were just coming off the high of shooting up a whole damn raider settlement. The blood had still been comfortably warm on their skin when they came into the Third Rail, laughing and clapping each other on the shoulders, ready to drink some shitty beer and hoot at Magnolia while she sang.

The drifter hadn’t liked the swarm of young men coming in, and he hadn’t liked it at all when they stole his spot at the bar and ordered a round. MacCready had spotted his discontent and ignored it, flushed as he was with freshly earned caps and the warm, heady delight of violence. He’d been first to order and first to scoot down the bar, and so it was his beer that the drifter snatched and smashed on the ground. The whole scene had played like MacCready was on jet: the drifter picking up the drink, the crash, the gunners behind MacCready turning, the patrons going for their guns. MacCready’s own gun. The shot.

MacCready’s handgun was a little 10mm, and it had made a little hole going in and a larger one coming out when he shot the drifter in the face. The shot echoed in the little bar, and the music ground to a halt as Magnolia dove behind the radiator. The customers were all getting out their guns. MacCready scanned the bar: six behind and to the left of him, and the bartender at close range with his flamethrower and buzz saw, though it probably wouldn’t come to that.

“Spilled your beer, didn’t he, guv,” Whitechapel Charlie had said into the tense silence. “Deserved what he got. I’ll clean this right up.”  Magnolia had came out from behind the radiator and went back to singing, and the bar had returned to the usual mixture of suspicion and beer.

MacCready hadn’t been bothered by the drink at the time, but in later days he had taken it as an omen. The Third Rail was one of those places: a pit stop for people on their way to some final decision, one way or another.

 MacCready’s decision saunters into the backroom of the Third Rail wearing expensive power armor and tacky sunglasses, and watches as MacCready tells Winlock and Barnes to get lost. Time stutters when the man asks MacCready his name and it’s like he’s watching the drifter reach for his beer all over again. He makes his usual sales pitch: 250 caps, upfront, non-negotiable.

“And hey, what’s your name, or should I just call you T-60?”

“I’m Leigh, and everything’s negotiable. 200 caps, and I’ll let you ride in one of my spares.”

“You have more than one of those?” MacCready asks, and Leigh grins like MacCready’s already said yes. Maybe he has.

“I’ve got a whole garage,” Leigh says, and MacCready takes the caps.

 

It’s a shitty night out. A storm’s blown in from off the Glowing Sea and Goodneighbor is glowing with radiation. Bolts of green lightning illuminate the drunks moaning in the gutters.  MacCready can’t get the irradiated rain to stop splashing in his face no matter how he tilts his hat. Leigh dumps his suit in a backalley and huddles with MacCready in a doorway.

“Someone’s going to steal that,” MacCready points out. He’d steal it, if he had any idea how to pilot one of those things.

“Not unless they have a fusion core, they’re not.” Fusion cores run at about 140, slightly more than half the value of MacCready’s life. People don’t keep that kind of shit stashed for a rainy day, not in Goodneighbor. Out of his power armor, Leigh is tall and tan, with a nice scoped piece that shoots .45’s. He catches MacCready looking and winks. “Stole this off a corpse, then souped it up myself.” Damn, MacCready thinks, he’s got me dead to rights already. He resolves not to be too friendly with Leigh.

“So, we just going to squat in this doorway all night, or what?”

“Keep it calm and look over my shoulder, inconspicuous-like. Is the city watch looking?”

“No. They’re about thirty seconds between rotations, though, so I’d wait for the next pass.”

“You’re a doll,” Leigh says. “I’m going to get out a screwdriver. Let me know when we’re clear.” Doll, MacCready mouths to himself. Leigh, he thinks sourly, is entirely too cheerful for someone whose rads are rising by the second. MacCready gives him the all clear, and Leigh kneels and jimmies the door open with a bobby pin and screwdriver like it’s nothing.

“Nice,” MacCready says. “What’s the plan?”

“The plan is, we go in and kill everyone, then we take as much stuff as we can carry. It’s going to be mostly triggermen, so machine guns. You’re on cover fire, I’m on point.” As plans go, MacCready’s heard worse.

They go in at a crouch, Leigh in front, MacCready behind with his rifle. Leigh introduces them by capping one of the triggermen in the head. MacCready takes the next one with a headshot as he comes around the corner, and a third in the shoulder. Adrenaline punches into his system, making everything crisp and fast and clear. The third triggerman survive. Leigh motions urgently for MacCready to come forward and MacCready sprints across the hall and crams himself into the alcove.  

“I’ll get the one on the stairs,” Leigh whispers. “There’s three more left upstairs.”

“How do you know?”

“Pip-boy,” Leigh says, and sticks his head out. Nothing. He switches his pistol out for a nasty looking shotgun, then sprints up the stairs. Two loud shots, then a round of gunfire. A flash of lightning through the windows illuminates the trail of blood leaking from the landing. Damn stairs. MacCready takes them two at a time, peeks around and shoots another triggerman in the head. There’s two corpses on the floor, and two living triggermen hiding from the shotgun behind a crate.

“Some gangsters you guys are,” he says, and takes the head off the idiot who pops his head up to look. Leigh rounds the makeshift barricade pops off a round from his shotgun into the last triggerman. Click, boom.

“Very professional,” MacCready says.

“Same to you,” says Leigh with a nod. He picks up one of the beers the Triggermen left on the windowsill and takes a swig. “Tastes like radiation,” he says, and finishes the bottle, then hands another to MacCready.

“I’m not big on the green ghoulification lemon flavor,” MacCready says, and tucks away the bottle to sell later.

“Suit yourself- oh, a desk fan!” Sooner or later, every employer has some kind of flaw, and this turns out to be Leigh’s: he has the worst taste for old world junk of anyone MacCready’s ever met.

 

They clean out two more triggermen nests, then hole up in the third to wait out the storm. Leigh strips the place down practically to component atoms and dumps everything into two piles. MacCready approves of this down to the bottom of his broke little heart, even if he doesn’t understand why Leigh’s love for desk fans.

He tells the man so after his third beer. There’s only so much you can do in a hideout after you’ve divided up the loot, so they’re drinking their way through the ex-triggermen’s cooler. Nothing tastes better than stolen beer.

“Well,” Leigh drawls, “the fans have got screws, and the screws can go into sheet metal, and the sheet metal goes around the edge of turrets.”

“You can make turrets out of desk fans? I’ll have to be a lot more drunk before I believe that.”

“Twenty caps says I can,” says Leigh.

“Fifteen,” says MacCready. First rule of the perpetually broke: never pay more than you have to.

“Don’t trust yourself, do you?”

“You seem like a maniac,” MacCready says, and takes a sip of his beer. “So I’m not more than fifteen caps sure that you don’t turn desk fans into turrets.”

“This from a man who kills people for money.”

“I’d be more of a maniac if I killed them for free.”

“Fair,” says Leigh with a laugh, and they clink their glasses. A toast: to only killing people when you’ve got a damn good reason.  

 

The trips to Daisy and Diamond City to sell all their loot are murder on MacCready’s back, but the caps feel good. 5% of 500 caps is a decent haul, and afterwards Leigh takes him to his digs.

“Home base, huh?” says MacCready as they tromp in through the door. “Moving a bit fast, aren’t we, boss?” Leigh chokes and then starts to laugh.

“How’d you know that? People around here aren’t usually up on their baseball lingo.”

“There were some books and stuff where I grew up,” MacCready says shortly. He doesn’t like to talk about Little Lamplight. More attention means more chances that some asshole will head down with the intention of stealing from some stupid kids.

“Trying to be mysterious, are we?” There’s someone else in the house. MacCready whirls and brings up his pistol, trying to keep his eyes on both Leigh and scan the darkness of the backroom at the same time.

“Relax, it’s just Nick,” Leigh says as a tall man emerges from the shadows, his eyes two glowing yellow crescents in his face. Strips of skin are missing from his face and when he lowers his cigarette, his fingers are nothing but long strips of steel. MacCready lowers his gun and holsters it.

“Do you always sulk around in unlit rooms? Or do those eyes of yours have night vision?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know, kid?” Nick’s got a voice like old leather and whiskey, the kind of voice you hear in the old movies. A gentleman’s voice. Funny thing to hear on a synth, but just right for old Nick. He’s never talked to the detective before, but he knows him by reputation. Only synth detective in the Commonwealth.

“Surprise me again and we’ll see how much older you get, old man.”

“Not much of a mercenary, if you let yourself be surprised by a bucket of bolts like me,” Nick says, but he offers MacCready his hand. They shake.

“Are we all friends now?” Leigh asks blithely. “What brings you to my digs, Nick?”

“Gotta sensitive problem,” Nick tell him with an eye on MacCready.

“Go check out the roof,” Leigh tells MacCready. “You’ll like the sightlines. Great sniper’s post. My robot butler might be around here, or, hmm, a lady who likes punching things for caps. Actually, I think the two of you would get on fine. Look, just assume anyone who's not shooting at you is supposed to be here.”

“Got it,” says MacCready, and heads up the stairs and out onto the roof. It’s late in the day, and the sun is setting behind the stadium wall, turning the sky pink and gold and messing up MacCready’s line of sight. There’s a slim young woman in a newsboy cap seated on one of the chairs. She calls out to him when she hears his footsteps on the roof.

“Is that you, Blue?”

“Probably not,” MacCready tells her.

“Gotcha. Another one of his friends, then? Have a seat. I was just working on the next issue of Publick Occurrences.” MacCready sits down next to her and steals a beer out of the cooler.

“You run that thing? We love reading that over in Goodneighbor. Lifts our spirits.”

“Goodneighbor, huh. You some kind of mercenary?”

“Best sniper you can hire this side of the Commonwealth.” The woman laughs.

“Good for you. I’m Piper. If you follow Publick Occurences, you already know what I spend most of my time doing. Sometimes I take a day off and go shoot things with Blue.” She holds out her hand and the two of them shake. She’s got the right gloves for someone who goes shooting frequently. It makes MacCready like her more.

“So,” she says, leaning in conspiratorially. “What are you up to with Blue? Whatever he’s doing, it always makes a good story.”

“Just taking out some gangsters. You want a story, you can ask him, I’m sure he can make up something.” Piper snickers.

“That’s Blue, alright.” MacCready hasn’t got anything to say to that, so he sits in silence for a bit and nurses his beer. It is a nice view. The smell of noodles rises from the shop below, and the lights of the city gleam in the encroaching darkness of night. MacCready has the sense of being perfectly, comfortably invisible, just the way he likes it. The roof is a beautiful sniper’s post- he could take out two guards and the weapon shop owner with one pass, and hit the second wave of guards as they came around the corner. Not that he would. But it’s a nice feeling to be ensconced, more dangerous than the world around him. Next to him, Piper scribbles on a piece of paper, occasionally pausing to stop and glare fiercely at the city before returning to her work.

“Hey,” MacCready says to her. “Why do you call him Blue?”

“Hmm? Oh, the man was fresh out of the vault when he first came in. You should have seen him come into town in the blue suit of his.” MacCready processes this.

“You know, that’s good to know. I was beginning to think that man was an institute synth. He’s kind of weird.”

“Why’d you stay with him, if you thought he was a synth?”

“Caps.” Piper snorts.

“Typical Goodneighbor.”

“You have something against dishonest work, Miss Rabble-rouser?” MacCready retorts. “Just because you have unlimited free time for muckraking doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t need caps.”

“I’ll have you know that I make plenty of money with my muckraking,” Piper informs him. “Everyone loves a good story. The commonwealth’s stuffed with people who know how to shoot, but hardly anyone around here can write a story. It’s the power of the press, baby.”

“Big words for some who ran a story about how securitrons can be modified to be sex robots.”

“It was a slow newsweek,” Piper tells him, totally unashamed.

“Jeez,” says MacCready, and then starts to laugh. “Fu-Fine. You’re alright, you know that?”

“Glad I can get your approval,” Piper tells him dryly. “You seem like less of a maniac than most of Blue's other friends, but that's only because I'm comparing you with Cait, Hancock, and a super mutant. He’s got a name but I don’t really want to ask.”

“A super mutant?”

“Come on, Blue hasn't told you that story? I thought he busted it out to impress all the new hires. So, we were on our way to Good neighbor when we heard this weird distress call…” MacCready doesn't believe half the bullshit that comes out of Piper's mouth, but he can't bring himself to stop listening. The Piper and "Blue" in the story have just made it to the top of Trinity Tower when the actual Leigh emerges from his house onto the roof.

“... and then he opened the door and let the super mutant out," Piper continues. Leigh holds up one finger and interrupts. 

“First off, we still had a stimpack left when I opened the door. Second, there was a bobblehead in there. I wasn’t just going to leave it.”

“You could have shot the guy through the bars,” MacCready points out.

“It might have chipped the Bobblehead,” says Leigh.

“Good to know you value your knick-knack collection more than human life, Blue.”

“Seems reasonable,” says MacCready, eliciting a grin from Leigh. 

“A man’s got to have his priorities,” Leigh says with a smirk. Piper sticks her tongue out at him.

“Well, I’ll just leave you cold-hearted mercenaries to count your caps or whatever you do in your spare time. I’ve got to finish this article by tomorrow.”

“See you around, Pip!” Leigh calls after her. A muffled yell echoes up the stairs.

“Don’t call me that!”

“She’s great,” Leigh says fondly.

“Sure,” says MacCready. He wonders if they’re sleeping together. Probably not. Leigh gives off a vibe like if someone was his girl, everyone would damn well know it, and Piper’s not the sort to be anyone’s girl. “You seem to know everyone around here.”

“I make it a hobby,” Leigh tells him. “It’s going well so far. I’d introduce you to Cait, but then we’d be up drinking all night and I want to go meet some mutants tomorrow. Sadly, I don’t think these will be friendly.”

“Aw, too bad, I love drinking all night.”

“I’ll introduce you when we get back, then. The couch is yours. Be ready by dawn tomorrow.”

“Got it, boss.”

 

They go to the library.

“Are you seriously returning books now?”

“I didn’t see that mutant!”

“How did you not see it? It’s huge!”

They go to the comic book store.

“Now that I think about, you look like the skinny comics nerd type, MacCready.”

“This from the man with an alphabetically organized comic shelf in his house.”

They go to Swan’s pond, then run away from Swan’s pond as fast as possible. It takes five dead raiders and a few stimpacks, but they finally make it to the top of the fire escape, safe from the falling rocks. Swan roars and tosses a few more building-shaking missiles, but he can’t fit on the fire escape. Some unlucky raider draws his attention and he stumbles off, roaring.

“Fuck this freedom trail,” says MacCready. “Freedom ain’t worth it if I have to fight a super mutant to get it.” Leigh goes to the edge of the building and peers down.

“Raiders are dead,” he reports. “I think Swan’s going back to his pond, but I’m not sure.”

“Let me check, boss. No offense, but you can’t see for shit.” He pulls out his scope and peers down the street. Swan is adjusting his hat. “I think we’d better stay up here for a while. Hey, at least this way no one’s going to try and steal your armor.” Leigh makes a face. The top of the raider hideout is surprisingly cozy- there’s a fire pit and an armor workbench. MacCready’s stayed in worse digs, although usually the corpses were in a different room.

“Do you think we can dump these corpses over the side of the building?”

“Don’t see why not.” Leigh replies. They clean house. Leigh shuffles around with a broom for a bit and digs some meat out of the fridge.

“Time to cook some molerat, I guess,” he says without much enthusiasm.

“I’ll cook it,” MacCready says, and pulls out his little pack of spices. It’s one of the most valuable things he owns- having something to cover the taste of slightly rotten meat is worth it’s weight in gold. Leigh looks genuinely impressed.

“I headshot a man at two blocks, and this is what impresses you?”

“I can kill people, but I can’t cook for shit,” Leigh says.

“It ain’t hard,” MacCready tells him. “Throw some salt on it and then turn it till the juice is clear. Molerat ala mode.”

“Do you even know what that means?”

“No idea.” Leigh snorts. They sit in silence while MacCready digs some beer out of the cooler and seasons the molerat with it, then puts it in a pot to cook over the fire. There’s so much jet scattered around the room that MacCready briefly considers adding some to the stew just to see what it does, but, eh, better not. The top of a skyscraper is no place to try new things.

“Hey, MacCready,” Leigh says.

“Yeah, boss?”

“What was up with those thugs in the third rail?”

“Used to work with them. Bunch of animals. Trying to scare me out of the commonwealth. Why do you wanna know, boss?”

“Just wondering,” Leigh says.

“They’re just assholes with better guns than they deserve.”

“How is that different from us?”

“We’re assholes with decent guns,” MacCready tells him. Leigh sits back and considers this for a bit. After four days of running and gunning, it’s a little strange to see him out of his power armor again. Out in the field, Leigh is a giant fucking wall for MacCready to hide behind, a voice rattling from the depths of a tin can that says “watch your left.” Out of his armor, he’s just a man, slightly taller than MacCready, bruised and sweaty from their final sprint up the stairs. His eyes are brown and his hair is black, his cheekbones smooth and high.

“Hey, boss, are you chinese?” Leigh jerks at the question like he’s been shot.

“What? No. I hate them commie fuckers. Well, I used to. I guess I don’t have to anymore. China’s probably ruined now. We had a lot of nukes in the US before the war.” They lapse back into silence. MacCready takes watch on the fire escape and tries to remember what he knows about the chinese. Not much. Stuff he read in old magazines. A guy that Princess and the other girls used to swoon over, a guy who didn’t look too different from Leigh. Different eye color.

“Hey, MacCready, do you know where any gunner nests are?”

“Why?” MacCready asks slowly.

“Well, I have aspirations. I’d kind of like to be an asshole with a nice gun.” MacCready’s glad he has his back turned. It’s dangerous letting people know how much you want something.

“I know a place.”