He'd come rushing in at the last minute, like he always did, like some savior from a pre-Blackout movie. It was the same dramatic entrance he'd made in that bar in north Texas. When he'd blasted through the door, all dangerous glares and deadlier moves. But this time, he'd held the cure to saving her grandfather.
The sun sank lower and lower, setting on her grandfather's life, just as it set on the day. She and her mother waited with Gene, praying help would arrive in time. And then it did, in the form of Monroe. She was sure Rachel would do a bit of self-reflecting over that, considering he was the one to actually inject her grandfather. She and Rachel had been too shaky and numb to do it themselves.
So now, here she was, two weeks later, on her way back to New Vegas. With Monroe. Oh, how things had changed. On their way to Willoughby, she'd never expected to make a return voyage. And certainly not with him. Actually, she kind of figured he'd be dead by now, either by her own hands or by someone else in her family.
But that had happened. Monroe had died. At least, she'd thought he had. And it hadn't brought her the satisfaction she'd thought it would. She could say it was because Miles was so upset about it. She could say it was because he was a warrior, and even an evil warrior deserved to die on the battlefield. In the end though, she'd had to admit the truth, at least to herself. Since he'd rescued her, since they'd travelled together, she had not only begun to forgive him, she had started to like him as well. She offered up another silent apology to both her father and brother, but even the hatred for that was falling by the wayside the more time she spent with him.
And now, he'd saved her grandfather. He didn't like Gene, for obvious reasons, but he'd done it anyway. She supposed it was partly for Rachel. Somehow, she believed Monroe still felt the need to atone to her mother for his many sins against her. But deep down, she knew he did it for her. For some reason, whenever she needed his help, he was always there. And the warm feeling that notion gave her was becoming less annoying all the time.
And so, two weeks had passed since that night, and Gene had made a full recovery. She'd also gotten the details of what exactly had gone down. It wasn't only Monroe she had to thank for her grandfather's life, but Miles and Connor as well. Miles was no surprise, but Connor had been less expected. And apparently, he'd done the really difficult work of getting the antidote and escaping Truman's grasp. But it was Monroe who'd slipped into the quarantine camp, like a shadow upon the wall, and cured Gene.
She glanced over at Connor, riding beside her, remembering their first meeting after their escape from the camp. He'd been standing next to his father when Miles introduced them, and her first thought was that he was cute. He had dark looks, darker than she would have expected for Monroe's kid, and he reminded her vaguely of Jason. But her initial reaction was slightly ambivalent. He just didn't have...the Monroeness she had expected. He didn't...shine.
Of course, when his father was in the room, it was really hard for anyone else to stick out. Monroe the elder had a way of drawing all eyes to him. Seeing him in action, it was easy to understand why so many had followed him. The charisma, the presence, he could say jump and people would ask how high. Of course, she supposed the same could be said of most dictators throughout history.
And that thought brought her mind back to Aaron, the man who'd taught her about history. She hoped he was okay, wherever he was, and that he would find what he was looking for.
"You all right?"
Monroe's questioned yanked her into the present, and she glanced over at him. "Fine."
"Care to share what's on your mind?"
Not wanting to bring Aaron up, she sighed. "Just getting a little tired. How close are we?"
"About another hour. You got it in you?"
He was teasing her, but she knew he would bring them to a stop if she said no. She smirked at him. "I think I'll make it."
"If you wanna quit..."
Connor watched as Charlie fixed his father with a stare. It should have been intimidating, but his father simply returned the look with one of his own. Connor felt a bit uncomfortable watching the exchange play out. He wasn't sure if they wanted to toss each other off their respective horses and pound each other's faces in, or toss each other off and simply...pound into each other another way. One thing was sure; the air around the two of them was electric.
When his father had first brought up the idea of going off to New Vegas to meet with some contacts, he'd agreed, figuring a trek with his father to the town he'd heard about even way down in Mexico could lead to one hell of a weekend. Wine, women, and song. Then Monroe had dropped the bombshell of Charlie going along, and all thoughts of a guy's trip evaporated.
It wasn't that he disliked Charlie. Hell, he'd thought she was cute the minute he'd laid eyes on her, but he figured New Vegas was really no place for a woman. Not one as tiny as Charlie. Mentioning that to his father brought a huge smirk to the old man's face. When his father proceeded to tell him how she had nearly killed him there, he'd changed his mind. Apparently, this little warrior could handle herself. He found her instantly more attractive.
But when he mentioned that to the old man, he was met with a steely blue gaze that he had to admit might have been the iciest look he'd ever gotten. And he'd been raised by a cold blooded drug dealer. In clipped tones, Monroe explained that Charlie was not some common whore like the ones around Puesta del Sol. That Charlie was not to be treated that way, or talked about that way, or even thought about that way. His father finished his little tirade by telling him that if he tried anything with her, he would personally kick his ass. And if he needed to scratch an itch, he would just damn well have to wait until they got to New Vegas.
Connor understood what that meant. Charlie was off limits...at least for him. He might have balked, if he hadn't seen the underlying emotion in his father's eyes. He had no doubt the man had one hell of a poker face, but in front of his son, when talking about Charlie, something had slipped through the carefully constructed facade. His father actually gave a damn about the girl, and if he was reading it correctly, it was one big ass damn.
Now, he might never be accused of being a kind man. In Mexico, he'd built a reputation as Senior Nunez's protégée, a man to be feared and respected. But the truth was, Connor wasn't a total asshole. At least not all the time. And if he'd seen nothing in his father's eyes but lust and a desire for a quick role in the hay, he might have made a play for Charlie himself. What he'd seen though, well, he was pretty certain that was love. Or the beginnings of it anyway.
No, he knew how his father felt, but he suspected Monroe wasn't ready to admit it to himself, let alone to anyone else, especially Charlie. Plus, he had to admit, the relationship between his father and Charlie's mother was totally out of the park screwed up. The age thing really wasn't a big deal; his father didn't look as old as he was, and he supposed women probably found him attractive. What he didn't know was how Charlie felt.
It didn't look like she wanted to kill Monroe anymore. Hell, he didn't want to kill Monroe anymore, but that was a far cry from actually liking him. Watching the two of them trade insults, a grin on each of their faces, he made it his secret mission to discover what she really felt for the old man. If they were going to restart the Republic, a warrior like her would be a good one to have on their side.
They reached New Vegas, and Monroe offered to find them accommodations and try his hand at finding his contact. "Why don't the two of you take a look around. It's easier to find what I need if I'm on my own."
"You sure you don't need any help?" Charlie asked.
"I might once I find them. I may need someone nobler than me to ask these people to join our fight." His eyes met hers. "That's where you come in."
She nodded, grabbing his arm. "Be careful."
"You, too." His fingers drifted lightly over hers before he stepped away.
Connor watched the whole exchange, a glint in his eye. Charlie was going to be an interesting puzzle to piece together. He glanced up and caught Monroe's eye. The look said 'do not let anything happen to her.' Just to goad the old man, he reached out and hooked his arm through Charlie's, leading her away. "It's okay, Dad. We'll be just fine."
Charlie exchanged one last look with Monroe before Connor turned them around a corner. She pulled her arm away, and he released her with no fuss. That little show had been for his father anyway. "I don't need a bodyguard."
He held his hands up. "Hey, don't get pissed. I just thought it was a gentlemanly thing to do, escort a lady down the street."
Charlie snorted. "Seriously?"
"I guess, seeing the kind of guys you hang around, you haven't had much experience with gentlemen." They wandered down the street, taking in some of the sights.
"I 'hang around' with men who know how to fight. Do you?"
"Well, I guess I knew how to fight well enough to get away from Truman and get the antidote to save your grandfather's ass." The words were cocky, but the tone was not.
She sighed and looked away. Sometimes she had a really big mouth. "I'm sorry. You're right. I owe you a lot of gratitude for that one." She glanced over her shoulder, in the direction from which they'd just come. "It's just your father...sometimes he brings out the worst in me. Since he is your father, maybe I'm projecting some of that onto you. That's not fair."
"Apology accepted." He looked over at her, offering his most debonair smile. "So you don't like Monroe very much?"
"Sometimes I hate his guts." They both chuckled. "But sometimes..."
She stopped walking and looked up at him. A shutter closed behind her eyes, and he knew she feared she'd already said too much. "Sometimes, he's not that bad."
She moved away, picking up the pace as they headed towards a large tent at the end of the street. "Hey, sorry if I was prying. I'm just trying to get a feel for the old man is all. Your entire family knows him better than I do."
She eyed him for a second. "You're charming."
"You inherited it." He looked over at her. It kind of burst his bubble to hear that. Like all he was could be attributed to the man who had just waltzed into his life. "Whenever your father wants something, he turns on the charm."
Well, the man had led a country. Maybe, it wasn't all that bad to be compared to him. He smiled the biggest shit-eating grin he could at her. "And there's the smirk. You inherited that smile as well."
He studied her as they walked. "Sounds like you've given a lot of thought to my father."
"Well, yeah...I tried to kill him." He knew that, but to hear her say it was a little strange. "I'm over it."
She was telling him the truth; he owed her the same courtesy. "I had him whipped. Well, I mean, I whipped him."
They were right outside the big tent when she turned to him, shooting him the full on Matheson glare. It was formidable. No wonder she and his father got along. They both spoke volumes with their eyes. "Excuse me?"
"Well, I...there was a crowd and..." He had no idea what to say. She'd just told him she'd gotten over killing Monroe, and it was quite possible she had feelings for the guy. And he opened his mouth to tell her he'd whipped the man. For once in his life, he was at a loss for words.
The mere idea of General Sebastian Monroe being tied up and whipped before a large crowd should have been elating.
It was not.
Partly because she wasn't sure she wanted to imagine that sort of torture bestowed on anyone. But the larger part was because the man who had been beaten in Mexico wasn't General Monroe, not really. Not anymore. He'd become...someone she cared about, for heaven's sake. And he was morphing into a different Monroe in her head all the time.
Connor stumbled over his next words. "I...I had to...the man I worked for, he was...I didn't have a choice."
But Charlie didn't believe that. There was always a choice. Like the choices Monroe was making by fighting on the side of good in the war against the Patriots. That Monroe...Bas Monroe, didn't deserve whatever had happened to him south of the border. She made a mental note to ask him about it later. Connor was still jabbering next to her; she had to put him out of his misery. "Let's just drop it for now, okay?"
He nodded, his eyes grateful for the change of subject. He gestured to the tent's opening flap. "Shall we see what's going on inside?
They walked into a huge tent with a large wooden stage constructed at one end. A man with long, blonde hair sat up on the stage, strumming a guitar and singing a song she couldn't identify. The look on Connor's face said he didn't know it either, but she asked anyway. "Who is this guy?"
He shrugged, backing away when an older woman spun around in disbelief. "Who is this guy? He was in a famous rock band before the Blackout."
"I was five when the Blackout happened," Charlie said.
"I was eight."
The exasperated woman turned back to the stage, and Charlie lifted an eyebrow at Connor. She tilted her head towards the exit, and he nodded, following her out. "If that was what famous rock bands had to offer, maybe I didn't really miss anything."
"He wasn't very good," Connor agreed. "But I remember music. I remember some of it being great."
"Maybe we could find something to eat instead."
"Lead the way."
Crossing the street, they decided on a small booth roasting rabbits over a fire pit. Charlie took a big bite when the vendor handed her a helping, wrapped in white paper. Savoring the spices, she allowed herself a moment to relax and enjoy a meal for a change. Connor was just grabbing his serving, when two women passed by, chatting excitedly.
"No, he's back in town. And he's fighting Bull."
Charlie's stomach tightened. It had to be a coincidence. There were plenty of other boxers who could have come back to Vegas.
Connor must have seen the dark look pass over her face. "You okay?"
"The last time Bull fought someone he killed them. How can anyone stand up to that?"
"Well if anyone could, it'd be Jimmy."
"He was the best." Charlie reached out her hand and grabbed the woman's arm as she passed. The woman curled her lip in disgust. "Excuse me!"
Charlie dropped her food and bolted, without even a word to Connor. He would either follow or he wouldn't; right now, she didn't care. She had to get to Monroe. At an all-out sprint, she ran through the streets of New Vegas, legs pumping, lungs aching, until she blasted though the opening of the fight tent at the other end of town.
She was just in time to see Monroe take a punch to the right side of his face and sail through the air to land with a thud on the ground. The man...was that really a man...who had hit him was a behemoth. Pushing her way through the crowd, she fought to get to the front. To see if he was still breathing. Dear God, let him still be breathing.
He was, though she imagined he rarely took a punch like that. He was a true boxer, light and fast on his feet, able to sneak in and get a hit before his opponent knew what happened. She'd seen it time and again. The men Monroe fought only got in a few hits before he took them down. He'd been the champ when he'd left Vegas. But it looked like someone new had stolen the title.
She looked at his face and caught him staring at her, his blue eyes full of pain, but full of pride as well. As she watched him watching her, he seemed to gather strength from some endless pool deep inside. His eyes never left hers as he climbed to his feet, cracked his neck, and grinned. The stupid son of a bitch actually grinned at her. She smirked right back. When he turned to the mountain of a man in front of him, she hoped he'd found in her eyes whatever he had needed to.
For a moment, she turned away, almost unable to watch, and her eyes met Connor's. She wasn't sure what he saw on her face, but he nodded, as if some big decision had been made. She turned back to the fight, feeling Connor sidle up beside her.
"He's a tough son of a bitch, my old man. I've rarely seen men that strong."
He meant his father, not the ape he was fighting. And he was offering her comfort. She was grateful for his presence, but also a little miffed. The shirtless Bas with his back to her gave her a fantastic view of the switch marks across his back. Both Monroe men were going to get an earful later.
And had she just thought of him as Bas?
She was here. And there was no way he was losing to this gorilla while Charlie was watching. He just needed a new perspective. The look she had given him was a permit in a way. Permission to fight and win any way he could. At his weight, he should never have been in the ring with this guy, and the assholes who put him here knew it. So if he had to get a little dirty about it...well, that wasn't really his fault, was it? He could still summon up General Monroe when he had to.
And summon him, he did. The old familiar violence and rage welled up inside of him, and his next punch connected with solid flesh. He felt a lip split under his fist, and he used the distraction to his advantage, bringing a fist up into the ribs of the larger man. The hit was hard and the hit was solid, and he thought he heard a bone crack. After that he was all fists, flying as fast as he could, landing anywhere he was able.
The fight ended when the giant crashed to the ground and he was proclaimed the winner. But the fury was still simmering, pent up inside, until she stepped forward. His eyes, unfocused through the last half of the fight, fell on her, and the world righted itself.
She placed a hand against his cheek; if memory served, that was the first time she'd ever touched his face. He placed a hand on top of hers and just gazed at her. "Let it go, Bas. Just let it go."
So she'd seen the mask he'd slipped into as well. But something in her eyes washed it all away. She didn't seem at all surprised when plain old Bas Monroe looked back at her. "Charlie..."
Without the fire burning inside him, the aches and pains became more real. He teetered forward, held up by both Charlie and Connor putting their arms around his shoulders.
"Glad you made it out in one piece, Dad." Connor put an exaggerated emphasis on the last word. "But what the hell was that all about?"
"I'll tell you in a minute. Just need to rest a bit..."
They helped him out of the main arena and to the smaller first aid tent beside it. "Connor, let's just get him patched up first, please."
They gently placed him in a chair in the middle of the room. Connor glanced around. "What all do we need?"
"A doctor..." Charlie said. She kept looking at him, as if afraid to tear her eyes away. He wanted to tell her he wouldn't do anything else stupid, at least not until he healed. But with his luck, he could never be too sure.
Connor looked at his face and upper chest and agreed with her. "Yeah, but where in New Vegas are we gonna find that?
"Well," another voice came from the door, and three heads swiveled in that direction. "I believe I might be able to help with that."