At day's end, the King found himself looking West toward Jacobstown, often without thinking or meaning to, and his thoughts would inevitably turn to Marie.
She was out there somewhere, beyond his small sphere of influence, outside the minimal protection he could offer. He was in the dark about her exact whereabouts, only able to hazard a guess at her location. Rex was with her, at least, but that was small comfort to him when he considered the many dangers facing them out in the Wasteland. It had been so long since he himself had ventured beyond Freeside and the Strip that it was easy to forget about the creatures and Fiends lurking just beyond the gate. Most of the time, they were just a scratching noise near the fence, tolling shots during the witching hour. Monsters beneath the bed, as good as nonexistent. Nothing to worry about, until now.
The sky had since turned the color of dried mustard seed, browning with night's approach. Soon, it would all be darkness and stars and dreams, for some. His shadow grew long behind him, his face longer as he watched the sun dip below the horizon, following the same course as the sinking feeling in his gut.
Another day had come and gone, but still there was no sign of the courier.
If he was being honest, his interest in Miss Marie wasn't always solely professional. She had made a real, lasting impression on him – the likes of which few others had in recent memory. Time was you couldn't pay someone to do the quality work she did, and in half the time she did it. But that was business, impersonal. The King didn't like to think of people as commodities to use and discard; they were human beings, each deserving of a chance to make their own way and pursue their own happiness. Seen in this light, it was impossible to stay removed. He made friends, he cared. Sometimes, too much. It simply couldn't be helped.
He stood there, for a few minutes more, letting himself hope against reason.
Just as he was about to head inside and retire from his pointless vigil, a familiar barking reached his ears. He had barely turned around when Rex leapt on him, pawing at his trousers and proceeding to smother the King with sloppy, wet kisses. It was the last thing in the world that he'd expected, and the very thing he'd needed most.
"Why, Rexie, you look all better, boy! Good as new!" he exclaimed, kneeling down to scratch behind the dog's ears. "Did my Rexie get a new brain?"
Rex darted around, as if to show off his health and newfound vigor. His longtime companion was a blur of accelerated movement, unable to keep still for more than a few seconds. He danced around the King's feet, vibrating with enough energy to power HELIOS One. Life had been returned to the old canine, whose loyal service to mankind it seemed was not yet complete.
In all the excitement, it would have been easy to forget the instrument of his recovery, but the King did not. He knew exactly where credit was due, to whom it was owed.
Marie was keeping back, out of the way of the reunion that she had every right to take part in. She wore a reserved smile, not to mention some new cuts and bruises. Her cheek looked a little swollen, possibly from a Cazador sting. Despite her oath of silence on the matter, this mission to save Rex couldn't have been easy for her. The Mojave didn't cater to convenience; and that was an understatement.
Standing back up, he approached her with the gratitude she deserved.
"You're a woman of your word, truly," he said, turning the spotlight on her. "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am just to see my pup back on his feet and happy."
"Well, we were in the neighborhood," she said, hiding nonchalance in a smirk.
Grinning, he asked her, "Alright if I thank you now?"
She nodded, stifling a laugh at their private joke. "I think that's generally how it's done, so yes." But in her typically awkward fashion, she extended a hand toward him. It made him smile even more, such an innocent gesture. Apparently, in Marie's mind, a handshake was the ideal system through which thank you's were conveyed.
Accordingly, he took her small hand in his. Then, on impulse, he gathered her other one, drawing their tangled hands near to his chest. She looked up at him with wide, wondering eyes. "Thank you, Marie," he whispered, as their close proximity required no more than that.
"You're welcome," she responded, although her eyes remained fixed on a spot just below his nose.
Interpreting her shy behavior as discomfort with such confidential intimacy, he stepped back. Instead of relief, he was met with disappointment. Her dark eyes darted away from him, leading him to believe that maybe he had been mistaken. Perhaps that had been some sort of cue, missed. He just didn't know, one way or the other, and that surprised him a little. The King was no novice when it came to dealing with women, fancying himself a conservative Casanova, and a gentleman above that, but he suspected he might be a tad out of his depths with Marie.
All the more reason, he believed, to try and get to know her better.
"Should we go inside?" she asked, reading his mind.
He nodded. "Of course, of course. You must be tired and hungry from your trip. Rude of me not to think of it before. Come on, Rexie." With an ear for his former master's voice, the dog heeled. "Let's see if we can't whip somethin' up for our friend here."
- . - . -
Something that didn't occur to the King until too late was the day of the week. He was soon reminded by the festive atmosphere within his School, which was inordinately packed with black jackets and greased hair. Most of the gang had gathered inside of the theatre, filling every seat and occupying all four corners of the small room. Those down in front pressed in around the stage where two beautiful women held them in thrall. Between the playful catcalls and the compliments, he could just make out the song they were singing – Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las, the girls' favorite.
Joanie, the blonde one, was an angel beneath the spotlight, playing the part of innocence (minus the modest attire) as she skipped across the stage. Cathy was her counterpart, a foil in dark, brown hair and teasing eyes. The latter was Pacer's main squeeze now, though she insisted on sharing the room connected to the King's with Joanie – for reasons he didn't have to guess at, since she had made her intentions clear to him on several different occasions. Each time, he had politely turned her down, much to her chagrin. Friendship, such as the kind between himself and her present beau, was something she didn't understand, or care to it seemed.
Both women operated under the title of groupie, though it was a bit of an ambiguous term, living under the protection of the Kings. And Tuesday evening was their time; this little song and dance being their contribution. It was fine by the King, encouraged even, since the girls enjoyed themselves and the boys got to let off a little steam without having to arm wrestle any one-armed bandits.
At first, he thought Marie to be entirely disinterested in the scene; then he caught the scrutinizing gleam in her gaze. If he was a gambling man – and he was, from time to time – he would have wagered that the courier was a lot more observant than anyone gave her credit for.
"Why don't we go see about that dinner now?" he suggested, ushering her away from the theatre.
She raised a brow. "And miss the show?"
With a loaded question like that, he could feel the crosshairs on him.
"I've done my share of missing lately," he told her with a soft, meaningful smile. "Don't suppose a little more will do me much harm. Besides, I can't have you go starving on me now. That just wouldn't do."
Marie had a lightness in her eyes – a look he hadn't seen before. "It'd certainly be a black mark on your hospitality," she agreed, breaking into a smile.
He was delighted by her good-natured response. "Exactly."
They headed into the kitchen, or what passed for one. It was really little more than a few refrigerators, not all of which were in working order, and cabinets holding the rest of the non-perishables. Music and raucous laughter from the other room followed them inside, going largely unchallenged by the thin walls and open hallway.
"So what're you in the mood for?" he asked.
She leaned against one of the counters, with her hands folded together. "Anything," she said, then gave a nervous little laugh. "Everything."
"You got it, honey," the King said and began to rifle through the available inventory of goods and foods. They had quite a store, courtesy of years of saving. Not to mention the Garret's kept them well-stocked in exchange for a few appearances at the Atomic Wrangler from time to time. Certainly not a bad trade, in his opinion.
As he started pulling things from the fridge, he noticed Marie start at something in particular. It was a white package with red lettering – Fancy Lad Snack Cakes, it read. He had to chuckle at her choice.
The King tossed her the box, which she caught. "Sweet tooth, huh?" he said.
"It's a personality flaw." She was already tearing into the box.
In a matter of seconds, Marie had freed the treat from its cardboard prison. Her expression bordered on euphoric as she carefully withdrew the plastic-wrapped morsel. He had to wonder whether she was holding a sweet pastry in her hands, or something far more precious. She wasted no time in unwrapping and consuming it. Biting into the chocolate cupcake, some of its crème-filled center clung to her lips. The expression, 'like a kid in a candy shop' came to the King's mind. Yet again, he was seeing a different, private side to the courier – and, like before, he found himself enjoying being in her confidence.
"You've got a little somethin' there," he said, moving toward her. Without thinking, he used his thumb to wipe the smidgen of white from the corner of her mouth.
"Thank you," she said quietly, with bowed eyes.
"You're welcome," he answered. Then to his surprise, she continued, really opening up for the first time.
"When I was a little girl, Ma Ma would buy these for special occasions." She smiled at the memory, rolling the second snack cake around in her hand. "I never knew where she got them. Most of the time, it was just wheat noodles and rice. Whatever we could scrounge up. You must know. But these . . . These are what I remember."
"Sounds like you've got some good memories there," the King told her.
Marie nodded, but he caught the ghost of regret in her eyes. She was a woman haunted, though he couldn't know by what. "Plenty of bad ones, too," she added.
"One nice thing about living, I'll tell you," he said, imitating Marie's posture as he crossed his arms and leaned against the counter beside her. "Always time to make more memories. Better ones, if you're fixin' to."
"You make it sound easy."
He leaned over, his arm brushing against her shoulder. "Easier than you think."
She looked up at him, her dark eyes full of soul, and he was revisited by feelings he couldn't describe in plain words. The King wondered if there was a song for it, and supposed he already knew a dozen of them by heart. He decided then and there that some day soon, although he did not know when exactly, he would sing one to her. Just for her, this courier that had thoroughly won him over without having to throw down a single chip. It was impressive, especially by New Vegas standards.
Marie was the first to move away, making a beeline for the fridge. "Have you ever tried Nuka-cola with Sugar Bombs?" she asked, beginning to root around for them.
"Can't say that I ever have," he admitted.
She threw him a smile over her shoulder. "Prepare yourself then."
The King matched her smile, and raised her a chuckle. "When you come around," he said. "I always do."