I took a break from writing this chapter because I wasn't sure of it when I first wrote it and then time got away from me. I had a friend move in with me and I've been helping him with stuff. A few days ago I opened the file for this chapter and re-read through and did some edits, finished it up and can finally post it. The last scene isn't 100 percent with me, but it's not too bad either. I've kept you guys waiting way too long. But no matter how long it takes I plan to finish this. And I miss you guys too much when I'm away for so long!

I've also been working on trying to find a website I can use to move my blog over. I think I finally found one that I can use to archive my stories and other articles neatly. Also been wanting to try to use my facebook page more, so if interested in bugging me on it go to the link in my profile here. Much love!

So here's chapter 20. Enjoy! (And for some of the requests people have made for this chapter, sorry I couldn't try to work some stuff in, but I had already had it mostly written before I got the reviews, which I am always so thankful for.)

Oh, welcome new fans! Its nice to have you aboard.


Chapter XX

Never Could Have Been Worse


"You get in more trouble than anyone I have ever had the displeasure to meet."

Keene had vanished in between the time he had knocked Scarlet into a short, unwanted nap, and when she had woken up. The sadistic bastard was probably somewhere close by though, watching her dangle helplessly. Throughout the night she had wracked her brain, attempting to come up with some sort of plan that ended with her taking his head off. Of course, she would have to get down first, and it looked like that wasn't happening any time soon. She had tried to reach where she had been tied, but she was weak in this position, weaker than the gravity that forced her to remain almost completely straight upside down.

First she had held out that Neil would come to her rescue, but as the hours ticked by she was sure that he had seen her hanging up there and realized just what a failure the mission had been and he'd gone back about his business. Who was she to him except for some random human Marcus had sent? It was a depressing thought that despite how hard she had worked her ass off for their kind that she would just be so easily discarded.

At this point she was certain she was getting some kind of brain damage because she was beginning to have hallucinations. No, scratch that, one very vivid and annoying hallucination. "Why don't you go haunt someone else, you big jerk?" Scarlet muttered, peering up and the man who was leaning against the tower just a few feet away from her, smoking a cigarette.

"Now, is that anyway to talk to your old friend, doll?"

"I don't know what's worse, that out of everyone I could have possibly started to imagine my brain digs up you or that I'm imagining shit in the first place." She knew which one really bothered her more, but she wasn't going to say it out loud. To be honest, the silence had been the worst part of hanging here. If it had been Vulpes, or Arcade, or Julie, or hell even Caesar, she would have just rolled with it and accepted it. However, having the dead chairman loitering about reminding her just how big she fucked up was just getting on her nerves.

Benny dropped his cigarette to the ground and put it out with his foot, his brows knitting as he watched her. "You know, I'm going to ignore your foul mood and take it as you're just upset because of what Keene did to you."

"Yes, because having a dead man hanging out with you wouldn't upset me at all." Scarlet fumed. "If you're going to be here why don't you be useful?"

"Sorry, no can do." He held up his arms in a hands-off gesture. "That's off limits."

"Mostly because you're not real."

"Now you're just hurting my feelings."

Scarlet dropped back into what she reluctantly called a relaxed position, causing her to swing a bit back and forth. "Whatever."

Benny crouched in front of her and she swore that he actually blocked out the sun. But that couldn't be possible because he was just a figment of her imagination. "Don't look so defeated; I don't really like that look on you."

"What else am I supposed to do? At some point that bastard nightkin is going to get tired of watching me squirm and come kill me. There's no way down and no one knows I'm here. It looks pretty bleak here, Benny." Yeah, she was pretty fucked and she had accepted that she might not make it out of this one. Scratch that: wouldn't make it out of this one. "Why do you care anyway?"

"Oh, because you killed me, right." Benny crossed his arms over his knees thoughtfully. "I don't hold that against you. You had to do it. I could tell you didn't want to. Plus, you took care of House, so I guess I owe you for that."

"I didn't want to do that either." Scarlet wasn't above admitting when she had made a mistake. House needed to be out of the way, but now the thought that she had killed not just one but two people for the Legion was a weight on her mind. She had tried to ignore that feeling for a while, that cold sensation that if her Dad were here he would be clearly disappointed in her choices. Or maybe that was just her conscience. She had never hurt anyone before that wasn't trying to actively kill her before becoming wrapped up in the war for the Mojave.

"Then why did you?" Benny was starting to sound like a goddamned therapist. It made Scarlet want to punch him in the fucking nose.

Instead she just let out an irritated breath and ignored the question, once more glancing up to examine the bonds that held her there.

The Chairman stood back up and went back to his previous position. Scarlet tried to make sure he didn't see that her eyes followed his movements. She noted the shadow that had fallen over her had disappeared. I'm so far gone that my brain is convincing my senses this is real. It was amazing how quickly one's mind could go when in a situation like this. "He's not going to let you die, kiddo."

"Excuse me?"

Benny pretended not to hear her and continued, "I've done some pretty crazy things in my life – some of them awful, as you know – but I never did anything for love. I'm assuming you love him."

Scarlet didn't have to even guess what he was talking about. "Now I know that you're a hallucination. The real Benny would have never said something so retarded."

Benny smiled. It was a queer sort of smile that barely touched his lips but shone brightly and knowingly in his eyes. It was soft and somewhat kind and a little mischievous all at the same time. Scarlet didn't want to look at his anymore and made like she was scanning the camp. When she looked back at where Benny had been standing he was gone.

"That's right, asshole, run away again. You're really good at that."

In the back of her mind she imagined she could hear him laughing.

-X-

Vulpes Inculta didn't know how or why Scarlet had managed to find herself atop Black Mountain. He was sure that she was going to try to tell him all about the bleeding heart scheme that led her here when she was freed, but frankly he didn't give a shit what it was. He was in the mood to throttle the life out of her the second those super mutants were dead. He had given her an order and she had disobeyed. What did you expect, Vulpes, really, he told himself, she's from the world of profligates. Logic doesn't seem to be a strong trait amongst them.

"Sir, the men are in position." The leader of the raiding party almost appeared out of nowhere in a crouch beside him. Vulpes could tell by the expression on his face that he was wondering why they were here. They were aware of the Courier's importance to the Legion, to some degree, but this should have been a sign that maybe she wasn't as resourceful as originally thought. If one of their own men had gotten themselves in a mess like this they would have left him to rot. How was he supposed to explain the complexity of this situation? Especially without looking like a fool.

I should have chained her up before I left. He meant it.

"Good," Vulpes replied, "on my order we destroy everything on this mountain except for the Courier. Beware of the pockets of radiation, and where possible, avoid them." They had their natural remedies for radiation sickness, but they weren't well stocked and what they had they usually withheld for their special teams.

Vulpes laid a hand on Rex's back, considering the events that had led them here. Rex had spared no time showing Vulpes where his Mistress was trapped, and Vulpes knew he had to act quickly as soon as he saw Keene amongst the mutants milling about the area. He had always had a feeling that he would prove to be a problem for the Courier despite her convictions that he was fairly harmless even though they argued. It would take someone like Scarlet to think that a nightkin could act in a rational manner.

It didn't take long to get the raid team ready for another mission, and though they were tired from the attack on Charlie they were true Legionaries and ready for battle no matter what. They didn't complain when he gave the order to march out and head for Black Mountain. True to the end. It did not sit well with him that these men had to put their lives on the line because Scarlet had disobeyed him. He hoped that she would realize the severe error in judgment she had made. If she didn't then he was certain he would make sure she learned it.

Going in immediately had been out of the question. The mutants had been worked up from whatever had occurred during the Courier's capture and Vulpes even saw some of them dragging the deceased bodies of others out to an unknown location. He didn't want to consider what beasts like this did with their dead. The more he watched them, the more differences he could pick out between these and the mutants that Scarlet had befriended in Jacobstown. They weren't as bright and seemed to have no discernable structure outside of listening to the strange looking leader and Keene.

But the sun was high in the sky now and the mutants seemed to be returning to what he assumed was their regular routines. Many disappeared completely, likely sleeping or attending to other business away from the main camp. With their numbers small this would be the best time to attack. Even if others arrived after the fighting started it would be too late to make a difference and they would take them out, one after the other. He didn't doubt that there would be injuries on his side, however.

Vulpes motioned to the closest soldier and vacated his hiding spot, as did the others. He leveled the rifle in his hands at the first mutant, it's back still turned, unaware that an assault had just begun, and fired. It didn't instantly kill the creature, but a second quick shot proved to be fatal as its head was torn into bits. Others, hearing the shot turned to the interlopers.

"The battle-cattle are attacking!"

Vulpes lips curled into a sinister smile. This fight shouldn't be happening, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to enjoy every minute of it. Cleansing this world of filth was his life's work and he took pride in his job.

-X-

All Scarlet wanted was a drink of water. At this point even the irradiated stuff would have been acceptable. A long time ago, in a much different life she vaguely recalled her mother telling her about how long someone could live without water; it hadn't been very long. She wondered if she was near that point yet, or if her bleak attitude was making time seem longer. How far the mighty have fallen, huh?

"Regretting poking your nose in business that isn't yours, human?" Keene had seemed to amble out of nowhere to appear right before her. And I'm losing my ability to keep track of my surroundings…

Scarlet pretended to think about the question for a few seconds before replying, "Not yet. Although I do want to lodge a complaint about the service here. It's atrocious and I don't think I shell be returning."

"Still so arrogant." Keene sneered. "Do you think you're going to be rescued?"

Scarlet went to shrug and found the action awkward from the position she was in, but she managed it anyway. "Didn't actually consider it this time." It was true. Part of her had already accepted that she was likely not making it out of this situation, although she was unsure why she wasn't panicking yet. Maybe she didn't have it in her to care anymore.

That apparently wasn't the answer that Keene had been looking for. He remained quiet for a moment as if he was considering something and then decided to go forth with his plan. "That's unfortunate then, since I wanted so much to take that away from you myself. No matter. At least this gives me peace of mind." Keene nodded at another mutant, who then stepped forward to toss something onto the ground. At first Scarlet couldn't figure out what it was, but as the dawning horror melted on her face Keene smirked in only a way insane nightkin could smirk, "Found your partner sneaking around. Tabitha didn't think he was a threat, and he might not have been for her, but he's a spy for Marcus so I took care of him."

Neil. Neil's head. That's what the other mutant had dropped. Scarlet felt sick. This was her fault. If Keene hadn't been willing to go so far to take her down then this wouldn't have happened, and now there was nothing that she could do to erase what had happened. She had finally given up on testing the fates and actually try to survive in this world and it seemed that this was exactly what the powers that me had been waiting for.

"Finally, speechless."

No, this was the moment that Scarlet would give up. "I'm done. You win. No one else dies, do you understand?" All the humor and pretense was gone from her voice. The verbal baiting was over, the mind games. Keene had stolen the victory, and in a way that made Scarlet feel like shit for even considering playing.

"Except you."

"Except me."

Keene took this as a satisfactory conclusion to events and reached up to lift the Courier off of the hook holding her immobile. He dropped her onto the ground and she managed to wiggle up into a sitting position; quite a feat considering both her ankles and wrists were tied. Even though there was no way she could run like this she decided not to even try. Even if she did escape he would find other ways to torture her. Maybe he would kill Marcus and take over Jacobstown or track down Vulpes and smash his head in just because he'd seen them traveling together. She wasn't going to let anyone else become collateral damage.

Scarlet closed her eyes and waited for the killing blow.

It never came.

Two gunshots.

Her eyes snapped opened just in time to hear a mutant or a nightkin (she couldn't tell which was which when they spoke) screaming about 'battle-cattle.' What the hell were battle-cattle? Keene was just as shocked by this sudden cry as she was, but as he turned to glower down at her she knew that at least he was aware of what they were. "You! You did this!" The confusion must have been evident on her face, but that didn't matter to Keene, who pointed at the mutant standing beside him, "take her somewhere and don't let her escape." With that he was gone.

Scarlet took this as her chance. She edged beneath the guard tower where she had been hanging to escape the reach of the mutant left behind with her. She kicked with both of her bound feet at his head when he tried to get through the crisscrossed metal. As she backed up she found a broken piece of metal jutting out and started working at the rope around her wrists. It was tough going especially since she had to keep kicking at the mutant. But suddenly her wrists came free and she grabbed a rock and swung it at its head. It hit the creature's temple and it roared. In that moment she untied her feet and weaved through the metal struts until she came out the back.

By this time the mutant at the top of the guard tower with some sort of missile launcher was taking aim at whoever was attacking Black Mountain. Scarlet climbed up the side and looked out over the battlefield to see what was going on. Relief swelled in her chest as she recognized the uniforms on the men fighting the mutants. Legion!

She hoisted herself over the edge of the guard tower just in time to catch the launcher-wielder unawares. She grabbed a rifle leaning against the railing and fired. As it tried to spin around to attack her she leveled one good kick at its off-balance form and sent it screaming over the edge. It wasn't very high, but it would be enough of a fall to stun it for a few moments. Scarlet hauled the missile launcher up and slung it over the fence.

Before the mutant could recover and come after her she slid back down off the guard tower and raced off with the rifle over her shoulder. However, something in the crowd caught her eye and she stopped with such abruptness that it was as if something in her brain just shut off at the mere sight of it. No, it can't be. Benny had been a hallucination driven by severity of her situation, but now she no longer felt that. Yet there was his signature checkered coat. He seemed to go unnoticed by all combatants, all but her. As soon as she fully had him in view he strolled off into the battle. Sometime he was visible, sometimes he wasn't. That didn't stop her from following him, driven by an urge she couldn't explain. Each step brought her closer to him, and finally she reached out, close enough to touch. In that moment he vanished and instead, in his place –

"Vulpes!" If there hadn't been a bloody battle going on around them she could have thrown her arms around him and held on with everything she had. At his side, fighting as bravely and as ruthless was Rex. Thank god he's safe!

The Frumentarius jerked his head to look at her, obviously shocked to see her so close. The shock transformed into relief, and then to anger. He ducked under the swung of a mutant, who was taken straight into the firing line of another Legionary, and grabbed Scarlet by the arm and hauled her through the chaos until they were between two buildings, mostly safe from crossfire and the sight line of enemies. He pulled her down next to him. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"Vulpes, I'm sorry—" Scarlet's happy reunion had become the equivalent of a parent scolding their child for a monumentally stupid act. She felt ashamed despite knowing the full story of why she had to come out here. Somehow, she realized, she knew that Vulpes would neither care nor agree.

Vulpes held up his hand, "later. For now you STAY! HERE!" He punctuated each word with a finger pointing the ground where she knelt. "Rex, stay." He looked at the animal and motioned to Scarlet. "Guard her." He reached over and patted Rex's head quickly before he rose and disappeared back into the din. He hadn't even given her the chance to speak at all. Even though she knew she could aid in the battle now that she had a weapon she didn't dare chance that with Vulpes looking so pissed off.

"I think I'm in trouble, boy." She told Rex, who just laid down with his head in his paws and whined. Yep. In trouble. Even the damned dog knew it.

-X-

The mutants might have had brawn on their side, but it meant nothing when going up against Caesar's highly trained soldiers. If the NCR had wanted they could have taken this place easily. That realization made her furious that they had sent her to take care of this on her own rather than spare a small contingency for an afternoon, especially when this place had been such a danger to travelers and NCR caravans. As important as they claimed that she was to their endeavors they sure as hell liked to send her into situations where she would likely be killed. Yet, here she was, waiting for a Legion officer to return to her side after he'd brought his own men to rescue her. She would have laughed at that if she wasn't so fucking tired.

It could have been forever or just five minutes, but the fighting began to die down, the ground littered with corpses and splattered with the blood of nightkin and mutants. There was one particular area where a group of Legion soldier had found a good position and held it without one enemy breaching their circle of fire.

Finally a shadow blocked her view and Vulpes stood above her, his uniform splashed with a red just slightly darker than its normal color. He reached down a hand and she took it without argument and he pulled her to her feet. "They're all dead. All the ones that didn't run, that is." He told her, tone short and businesslike.

The air around them was tense, as if his rage was a beast unto itself, formless, deadly. Like the radiation that encircled Black Mountain. Scarlet said nothing.

"Do you have any idea what you've done? What do you not understand about stay put until I come back?" His slender fingers gripped her chin and yanked her face to look at him. The ferocity in his eyes cut her gaze like a knife. "Do you think that this entire thing is a game?" Scarlet opened her mouth, but Vulpes continued, "and before you even think of trying to crack a joke, look at me and tell if it I am in a jesting mood?"

"I'm sorry."

Without warning Vulpes released her chin and slapped her across the face. She grabbed the throbbing cheek with a cry of surprise. Vulpes wasn't finished yet. "I have one man out there with a broken arm and another with broken ribs. Go tell them that you're sorry. They shouldn't have had to come here and save you. You're supposed to be our ace in the hole, not our burden to bear!"

"I meant to stay on the Strip, I did, but then Crocker needed me to—"

Crocker's name was like a whip that struck Vulpes somewhere unpleasant. His face melted into disbelief and his voice dropped to a dangerous octave. "You threw what I told you out the window because the NCR lapdog wanted you to go on a suicide mission?"

"It wasn't—"

"It wasn't a mild suggestion to stay home!" Vulpes raised his hand again and Scarlet was certain he would strike her again, but instead he just lowered it slowly, as if he was having a hard time controlling himself. His hand shook, either from rage or the aftereffects of adrenaline leaving his body. "You made me look like a fool." Even his voice quavered. "You're supposed to be under my supervision. Do you know how this makes me look to my men?"

"I'll take the responsibility for it."

"Don't you see? You don't get to take the responsibility for this, because I'm the one in charge of you. Do you think they understand the subtle nuances, the complexity of this ally-ship with you? Caesar tasked me with it because I could and I did. You'll be lucky if he doesn't revoke the agreement between the two of you and force you to make a choice now." He took a deep breath. "At least look thoroughly punished when we go out there."

"That shouldn't be too hard." Scarlet replied, still rubbing her cheek.

-X-

The Legion didn't immediately leave Black Mountain. Some of the men were wounded and were taken to one of the tents nearby that Vulpes deemed a temporary aid station. It seemed like multiple soldiers had some sort of medic training. Scarlet offered her own services at first, but Vulpes was insistent upon keeping her by his side from that moment on. She stayed silent as he discussed plans to have a special team come and take possession of the place. The NCR hadn't put in any effort for the place and it would make a decent base of operations for a small contingency of Legion forces.

Scarlet didn't disagree with that choice. It would actually make a good place to set up if you could avoid the pockets of heavy radiation. The special team Vulpes spoke of was probably one with the training and ability to find these pockets. As Vulpes lined out the plans she stroked Rex's fur in an attempt to get her mind off of the events that had just unfolded. She had no idea how she was supposed to tell Marcus she got someone killed.

As night began to fall one of the soldiers came over. "Sir, we have a problem in one of the buildings. There is a door that is locked and we're pretty sure that someone's inside."

Vulpes' eyes flickered over to Scarlet, silently asking her if she knew who it was. She shook her head. "I heard that the leader, Tabitha, has a prisoner here." She answered, remembering what Neil had told her before she started her journey up the mountain.

"We'll be right there." He got to his feet and motioned for her to follow.

She grabbed his arm and whispered, "you might want to have your men leave when we open the door. It's supposed to be a ghoul. I know how the Legion is with that."

Vulpes looked irritated that she was asking for a favor but waved her off in agreement. At least he could still reason.

When they got inside Vulpes looked at his men, "go take a break. You all deserve it."

Without question they filed out. When they were gone he inquired if she knew how to get inside. "Let me see." She wasn't that great with technology. After a few minutes of examining the lock she spotted a working computer terminal and went to see if it was linked to the door. What she found was a series of diary-like entries from who she assumed was the prisoner. The more she read the more amused she was. At the end it talked about a code for the door and she read it out to Vulpes.

Vulpes pressed the door control and as soon as it opened he was staring into the barrel of a gun. Vulpes went for his own weapon and Scarlet had to jump up and grab his arm. "Wait! Hey, everyone calm down! Its safe."

Inside was Tabitha's prisoner. One ghoul mechanic. Check. "Humans." He muttered. "Here I thought someone had decided to overthrow Tabitha." He put the gun away, but seemed to watch Vulpes warily, obviously taking in his uniform.

"I'm Scarlet." The Courier stepped forward, extending a hand. "And this handsome brute is Vulpes."

"You're the one that new nightkin was after." The ghoul said, "It seems his plan failed." He took Scarlet's hand after a moment of thought.

"You knew?"

"I hear things." The ghoul told her, "I'm Raul Tejada."

"Pleased to meet you." Scarlet smiled.

"I don't think your friend agrees." Raul nodded at Vulpes, who had gone to sit at one of the chairs, looking pretty exhausted.

"Yeah, he's a little mad at me right now. Don't worry about him though. He's a friend of mine."

"Friends with a Legionary?" Raul was both curious and amused at this.

"Long story."

"I would imagine it is."

"What are we going to do with him?" Vulpes interrupted. "He's seen you with us. You know what that means, Scarlet."

"No!" Scarlet spun. "That's unnecessary. He probably doesn't even know who I am."

"I can't take that chance." Vulpes had his hand on his weapon.

Scarlet went to protest, but the ghoul was already speaking in his own defense. "I've been through Caesar's territory. You boys do a fine job keeping the riff-raff off the roads. Wish the NCR was as good at that as you are. Might not be in this situation."

Vulpes narrowed his eyes at him, thinking.

"I'm not saying I'm a friend," Raul continued, "but I'm not an enemy either. None of this is my business." He held up his hands.

"Vulpes, please. I can't take anymore bloodshed today." Scarlet begged. She was being truthful. Getting Vulpes to agree not to kill Raul wouldn't make up for Neil, but it go a long way to salvage her state of mind.

"How do I explain to my men that we're making a philanthropic gesture towards someone of no interest to us, a ghoul no less?"

"Say he's a friend of mine." Scarlet said. "Say he's the reason I came up here. Makes me an emotional, but loyal sort to them." Which was true. "Takes some of the blame off you and everyone's happy."

The look on Vulpes' face told her that everyone would be happy except him. "If I am asked about it then I will say so, but I won't offer lies to my men."

"That's why I like you, Vulpes Inculta. You're so damned honorable." She grinned and rubbed his shoulder in appreciation.

"Tonight, the two of you stay in here. Tomorrow, I take you back to the stripe where you will stay or so help me…"

"You won't have to worry about that."

"Make sure I don't."


So I finally have Raul in here! Been waiting so long for this chapter. Next chapter, Scarlet, Vulpes, Rex, and Raul head toward the Strip as Scarlet deals with disappointing Vulpes.

Until then, thoughts on this chapter?