A/N: This fic should progress in a chronological manner, covering a variety of events, but may not always focus on the main plot of the game. Expect cameos from many other characters as well. Also, as a warning, there will probably be spoilers throughout. And a lot of Elvis Presley references. Last, but not least, I hope you enjoy!
- . - . -
Some days, Marie Jingfei Song wasn't convinced that she hadn't died back in Goodsprings. If this wasteland wasn't hell, she thought, then it sure as hell set the bar real high. Between raiders and legionnaires on the roads, cazadores and deathclaws in the mountains, and throngs of unpleasant people spread throughout the otherwise barren Mojave, it was understandable how she could confuse it with the actual place. Short of a giant lake of fire, the desert was doing a good impression of eternal damnation – much to the courier's frustration.
She lifted a hand along with her gaze from her pip-boy, shielding irritated eyes from sun and sand. For what must have been the third time that day, the Asian woman tried to judge her position relative to the map. Was that north? Or had she come from the north? It was true that her sense of direction had always left something to be desired but this was bordering on the downright pathetic. A map was supposed to prevent people from being lost, but it ended up leaving her more confused than if she'd just followed her intuition.
And on that note, she did just that.
That way was north, she decided with no empirical evidence to support the conclusion. There was none to refute it either, though. She started walking.
The wind made a brief cameo then, determined to make a bad day worse, and smacked her in the face with enough force to make the small, light-footed courier step back. Granules of dirt and rock were kicked up from the petulant weather, peppering anything that wasn't protected by her leather armor, namely her sunburned arms. Sure, it breathed, was lightweight and maneuverable, etc. etc., but damn! if she wasn't going to end up looking like a tomato by the end of this trek. Marie pulled her beret tighter down over her ears; a futile act, really, since she knew she'd be picking sand from her hair and clothes for the next week.
Chancing a glance at her companion, (after all, what else was there to look at beside the odd and less-than-exciting cactus flower every now and then?), she noticed that Boone was quiet as ever. Obviously he was preoccupied with his favorite hobby: giving new meaning to silent as the grave. In fact, Marie was pretty sure she'd met corpses that were more talkative. But that was okay, suited her just fine since she wasn't all that much of a people person anyway. It wasn't like she hated people, she just didn't like them very much. Didn't understand them. Couldn't trust them. And the feeling was mutual, nine times out of ten.
There was always that one exception – but she'd learned not to rely on such an off chance.
"I thought we were headed to Freeside," Boone remarked, clearly having tired of playing their undeclared game of Who Can Be Quiet the Longest.
Her mouth felt uncommonly dry. "We are," she said.
"Then we're going in the wrong direction. Freeside's to the north."
"We're going north."
"No, we're going east." His brows lowered over his dark sunglasses, suspicious. "I thought you had a map?"
"I do have a map."
Instead of pressing the point, Boone just gave one of his signature sighs. "Then use it," he said, not as a suggestion. She frowned. It was the map that had gotten them into this predicament in the first place. Obviously. She was not going to use the map. Call her stubborn. "Fine. Don't use it. But at least tell your misguided sense of direction to take us that way." He motioned to the west – or, apparently, north – with the muzzle of his sniper rifle.
Smothering her pride with necessity, she altered their course accordingly. Sure enough, to Boone's credit and her chagrin, the gate to Freeside came into view no more than an hour later.
At first, she thought it was a mirage. But then she realized it was too ugly to be a mirage. Or else her imagination was really underwhelming these days. The gate was a faded red, stained darker in some places with something that was most certainly not paint. Surrounding it was a plume of colorful billboards whose logos and text had long since been worn away by the wastes. It was still a sight for sore, sand-aggravated eyes which said a lot about the state of the Mojave, and nothing good.
Marie wasn't used to handing out gratitude, but she was making the effort to become more personable and decided to give it a try now. "Thanks," she said.
Boone gave her a bewildered look – or she assumed it was confusion, anyway. With those sunglasses on, it was almost impossible for her to read his expression beyond the defaults: Pissed Off and Only Mildly Annoyed. Marie had enough trouble picking up on verbal cues and body language (the non-violent kind) as it was without being deprived of the insight gained through the so-called windows of the soul.
"For what?" he replied once he'd recovered from the surprise.
Damn. He was supposed to say, you're welcome. Now she had to explain herself. Something she was even worse at than expressing thanks. "The course correction. You were right. I was going the wrong way."
"Oh," he said. "Yeah. You're welcome."
There it was! With that said and done, Marie proceeded through the gate into Freeside, secure in the knowledge that she'd observed the appropriate customs. Boone followed behind, silent as ever, and probably thinking she was some kind of crazy. But then, who wasn't out here in the Mojave? Because that was a person Marie would like very much to meet.
- . - . -
Her wish was granted sooner rather than later. Everyone she talked to, everywhere she went, all roads seemed to lead to someone called 'The King'. Intrigued, Marie decided to check out this self-proclaimed monarch.
He wasn't exactly hard to find. She just had to follow the trail of strangely-dressed men with the uniform jackets and hair-dos. The building, big with neon letters that spelled out The King's School of Impersonation, also helped. A few of the gang members milled about the exterior, clearing any further doubt. They gave her suspicious, almost dirty looks as she neared. Didn't bother her. Marie was used to far worse. As far as welcoming parties went, this wasn't half bad. At least no one was shaking her down for caps . . .
"What do we have here?" sneered one man not long after she'd stepped inside. He moved forward, placing a hand in front of her and effectively barring her from the door. Marie let her hand drop to her revolver – an instinctive act, like a porcupine bristling its needles. "Another petitioner for the King?"
"Just exploring," she said, and made to go around him.
This just riled the guard dog with the funny voice. "Exploring, huh? Like hell. We're not some tourist trap like the Strip. We don't let just anyone walk around the King's joint."
"Who's the King anyway?"
He blinked, looking as shocked as if she'd hit him. Which really wasn't such a bad idea. "Who's the King?" he said. "Are you shitting me? In Freeside, the Kings rule. And the King rules the Kings. Got it?"
She nodded. "Got it. Can I see this King of Kings now?"
"Anything's possible, I suppose. How much is it worth to you to meet the big man?"
Correction: it seemed she was getting shaked down for caps, after all. Big surprise. Must have been Monday. Or any other day of the week that ended in Y.
Frowning, Marie tried to remember that violence was not always the answer. She knew how she would have handled this situation in the old days. Her hand caressed the smooth metal casing of her revolver. Those were the good ol' days. Except they weren't all that good, nor had they occurred all that long ago, and they had ended up getting her shot in the head. The weapon stayed holstered.
"For once, I'd like to go somewhere where they pay me for my time and effort," she grumbled to Boone as she rifled through her pockets for some caps. She withdrew an amount that seemed fair. "Fifty caps." Chump change, really. For a chump.
The man's greedy grin turned satisfied as he accepted the bribe. "You know what? I think you and the King have some business to discuss." He unlocked the door, kicking it open with his foot. "Head on through. The King's the bored-looking guy by the stage. Can't fuckin' miss him."
Marie walked past him, sparing him a deserved kick in the shin but not from a withering glare. She never let her displeasure go unknown. And he certainly wasn't getting a thanks for his information, especially when she'd had to pay for it out of pocket. Boone moved past him, bumping none-too-gently into the doorman's shoulder "accidentally". Yep, Boone was okay in her book.
If she was expecting a palace, she would have been sorely disappointed by what apparently served as the King's throne room. It was just a room like any other, converted into something that tried to pass itself off as a theatre. There was a stage, sure, some tables and chairs, but it lacked the same flair as other establishments she'd run across. Up on stage, there was one of the gang members, singing a song about a hotel. He was off-key, and shaking his hips in a way she'd never seen, even from prostitutes trying to lure in their next customer. It was just . . . not good.
Tearing her gaze from the train wreck of a performance, she noticed the gentleman seated at the table front and center. He had stopped watching the act, instead focusing his attentions on a cyber dog to his side. Marie guessed this was the man she was looking for.
As soon as she was a few feet from him, the King took notice of the new arrival. And Marie took notice of the King, getting a good look at him for the first time.
He was not like most people she'd met, in the Mojave or elsewhere. For one, he looked her straight in the eyes, as if he had nothing at all in the whole wide world to hide. What surprised her even more is the kindness she saw in those blue eyes. It put her ill at ease, despite his otherwise relaxing presence and calm demeanor. And the other thing was his clean state of dress; he cut a handsome figure in his white, neatly pressed suit. All in all, the King's whole manner was, well, kingly.
"Look, Rexie, someone new's come to see us." He ran a loving hand through the mutt's fur once more before resuming a straighter posture. "Poor boy. He hasn't been feeling well lately." As if remembering his manners, he motioned to the empty chair opposite him. "But, please, have a seat."
Marie sat down.
"Now, what can I do for you?"
"You always charge people to come talk to you?" she began, still miffed over the lost caps.
His brows knitted together in momentary confusion, then smoothed back into a neat line. "You'll have to forgive Pacer," he said. "He means well. How much did he take from you?"
To her surprise, the King handed exactly that amount back to her. Reimbursing her from his own wallet. "There you are. I apologize for the inconvenience."
She stared at him, wide-eyed. He was just giving her back the caps? Just like that? Wait, she was supposed to say something here, right? "Thank you," she blurted out, a little too late. Her hesitation had crossed the threshold line into the territory of awkward. If he noticed her fumbling gratitude, he pretended not to.
"You're welcome. Now, I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm the King."
He had extended a hand but it remained lonely in the air. She looked at it for a few seconds, warily as if it would shock or bite her, then gave it a quick, tentative shake. "Marie," she answered brusquely.
"Pretty name, Marie," he said with a smile that all but charmed her in an instant. This one was dangerous, she decided. Not in a bang-bang, shoot-em-up kind of way, but in another way that she didn't have a word for. "So tell me, Marie, what can the King do for you today?"
"I was actually hoping you might have some work for me," she said, glad to be getting back to something she understood.
"Maybe so. Maybe so. You do look like someone who can handle themselves, and Freeside could use all the help it can get. Together, I'm sure we'll be able to come to some sort of an arrangement." That smile of his returned, full force. It did something inexplicable to her insides. Marie didn't like the peculiar feeling, but she reserved judgment on the man himself. "Who knows? This could even be the start of a beneficial partnership. What do you say?"
The courier leaned back in her seat, kicked her feet onto the table.
"At your service, Mr. King."