A/N: Holy super-late-updates, Batman! Weren't expecting this in your inbox this afternoon, were ya? Heh.
Sorry it took me so long to bust this chapter out. Pity it took me so long because all of this is really just a build-up to the meat of the story, which is Minerva's fall from grace and the painstaking process of building herself back up again. I hate to give things away but since I've taken ages to get a simple filler chapter out, I feel like I ought to throw a little teaser out there.
TiggerMusica: Ha! I actually killed Vulpes when I first met him too, only because I was so freaked out by the staked heads and the burning shit. Later I developed an appreciation for his.. methods. As you can tell, lol.
Vault108: =) Thank you! I've struggled with being concerned that Minerva might seem too in control, but since that'll all be crumbling away soon, I feel comfortable portraying her with that tough edge that I've always imagined in my Couriers. Since my story is rated M I think that's why it only shows up when you click M... there's a filter or something, right? Or maybe I misunderstood you. I dunno. I'm just glad you found it and have enjoyed it thus far. XD
HarmlessWampa: Aw, thanks. That means a lot. You'll have to thank Shadow Ocelot for inspiring me to start writing, it's her awesome friggin story Imperium et Libertas that I read, fell in love with and decided to try my hand at writing because of. Villains... unf. Amen, sista. The bad boys are always the hottest.
And now... drumroll please... Chapter 7 is here, finally! No thanks to Lucidique, Shadow Ocelot and Fortunesque for distracting me with their awesomeness... Lol. I jest. They actually have given me feedback and help and love. Heheh, you guys are the bombdiggity shizznits. Check out their stories if you haven't already because HOT DAMN. That's all I really need to say, lol.
"When you steal NCR equipment, tools, and personal property… YOU ARE HIS BITCH."
Minerva didn't expect to run into Vulpes Inculta again so soon – let alone in an NCR Ranger camp. Yet here he was, staring at her through those off-putting dark goggles, his frozen grimace inviting defiance from her even on paper. She could almost smell death and cruelty just by looking at him – feel it creeping up her veins and churning in her heart. But without all the trivial distractions in Nipton (the dead people had been a little distracting) she could actually pause to study his strong features and appreciate the harshness of his beauty.
"Vulpes Inculta," said a voice behind her. "He's one mean son of a bitch."
Minerva turned to face the man who had joined her in the Ranger tent, betraying no emotion, though she was pleased to finally learn the Dog Head's name. Vulpes Inculta… that rolled off the tongue, didn't it? She found the name suiting for someone so smooth-spoken.
"I'd say," the courier replied, rubbing her arms for warmth. It grew cold at night in the desert, and dawn was only just beginning to break. She'd found the NCR camp out of pure dumb luck, and it sure beat getting pulverized by an army of lakelurks down by the so-called 'beach.' Boulder City Beach was a big fucking pond, not a beach – an irradiated ocean was a magnificent thing to behold, and that puddle didn't even come close to the Gulf. Still, lakelurks weren't to be laughed at. Minerva was glad to have stumbled into NCR territory again; a cot and some warm food was infinitely better than decomposing inside an oversized turtle's stomach. Minerva was reputed among NCR as a successful bounty hunter who offered her services for a fair and deserving price, so they helped patch her up, rationed her some food and let her rest.
"I ran into him and the Legion at Nipton, south of here." Her gaze returned to the poster. The officer's face fell, and he moved closer, crossing his arms over his chest, listening. "They completely wasted the town – let me go so I could give the NCR a bedtime story about it."
"Legion, that far west? God damn it. You're serious?"
Minerva shrugged her uninjured shoulder carefully. "Sure as hell I'm serious. The Legion is pissing and shitting all over NCR, so I suggest you find an umbrella, stat."
The Comm Officer groaned and rubbed his forehead in frustration. "Can't say I disagree with your advice, McAdams, but we have to fight back. Have you heard about Nelson?"
"Yep," Minerva replied, casting her dark eyes back towards the poster. "Like I said… the Mojave's forecast is piss and shit. Lots of it."
"It's raining piss, hallelujah," Castillo sang miserably.
He recognized her almost immediately. It was her swagger, he thought - or the clothes, or the bottomless black eyes that shot straight through his soul.
Tales of her deeds were spread liberally across the Mojave and had caught hold of Caesar's attention, so it didn't come as a surprise that after Vulpes regaled the Fort with his tale of Nipton, Caesar ordered his best Frumentarius on a covert mission to bring the infamous mercenary-turned-courier back to camp.
But of all the places to stop in Freeside, he found it strange that a woman as prone to violence as she would make a beeline for the Atomic Wrangler rather than paying Mick and Ralph or Silver Rush a visit. He wasn't surprised, however, that she declined the aid of a bodyguard - she probably believed she didn't need one, and she was right on two fronts. From what he'd heard, Minerva McAdams had a deadly aim and lightning fast reflexes; but if for some reason a street thug managed to best her, he would step in. On Caesar's behalf, of course.
Vulpes would admit Caeser's interest in the Courier had merit, and the longer he observed her from the shadows, the more he realized this. She sauntered in the Atomic Wrangler like she owned it, marched up to the bar and gave both Garret twins a loose hug. Chatter erupted between the three of them, and the Legionary managed to pick up snippets of their conversation while remaining inconspicuous, settled within ear and eye shot but far enough away to avoid recognition.
"James," The Courier exclaimed, laughing over something the twin said. Her laugh was rough and dark, just like the rest of her, and it sounded like she could of easily been laughing at a crucifixion rather than a good joke. She fascinated Vulpes; the way she moved, the way she spoke, the things she said - he'd never seen a Profligate quite like her. It was refreshing and... even a bit arousing. The Courier was attractive, and to see her fiery spirit tempered down by a slave collar and a strong Legion soldier inflamed him with a curious desire. Perhaps Caesar would agree...
Minerva was certainly a mystery, and her interpersonal dynamics varied to every extreme. She'd practically ravished the inexperienced crier outside the Wrangler with her eyes and voice, but with James she spoke casually and fondly, how a sister might. Francine received a similar tone, yet something in the cruel twist of her lips seemed sultrier. It wouldn't surprise him in the dirt-smeared, rough-around-the-edges Courier turned out to be a skirt chaser. He only counted himself lucky that he happened to wear a skirt on a regular basis.
Shaking the odd, stray thought away before it could take root, Vulpes straightened his posture and set down his cards. He was barely paying attention the gambling game he'd joined, instead eying the Courier as she maneuvered through the crowd and up the stairs. He had to handle her tactfully, and his gut told him to wait. So wait, he would.
Vulpes absently picked up his cards, flashing a disarming smile at the men he was playing with and showed his hand.
"Full house. I win."
Minerva dumped her bag of things onto the bed in her room and began to undress, thankful for an evening of respite. Out in the Mojave she never got any real sleep, just a facsimile of rest that rejuvenated her enough to trudge on through the next day. But here, in her old room, she could finally shut her eyes and succumb to a much-needed oblivion. The Garrett twins were her former employers and two of her good friends – she was happy to see them, and vice-versa. She knew they'd let her stay free of charge, at least for a little while, and that was long enough for her. She'd already formulated her plan. In the next 32 hours, Benny would be dead and she'd have her costly little package back (unless the ox had pawned it – then she'd be really pissed.)
Minerva shrugged out of her clothes and began to rummage through the dresser beside the mattress. She found a clean, pale green linen dress folded up among a few others and pulled it out, deeming it suitable for her mission. Though her style usually fell along the lines of 'guns blazing', confronting Benny would take some finesse and a lot of charm. Places like The Tops disarmed you before you entered anyway, so she was alright with leaving the majority of her guns here – all she really needed was her switchblade, anyway.
Setting the handy hold-out knife on the nightstand, Minerva slid into the wrinkled gown in the same perfunctory way she did everything else. Some days she felt like a ghost, floating along without any driving force besides her own stubborn will. She used to enjoy her lack of purpose; it gave her liberty to be reckless because she had no responsibility other than her own survival. But ever since waking up in Good Springs... a strange, unwelcome feeling of loneliness had been slowly creeping over her. She was beginning to wonder if her life had any meaning – if she died now, this very moment, would she feel accomplished? Complete? The answer was no.
That worried her. It made her lose focus and she couldn't lose focus, not now, not when she was so close to getting what she wanted. She just needed to rest. A little shut-eye would assuage her nerves and tomorrow she'd be ready to show Benny a real good time; yeah, a fuckin' blast.
Vulpes had ended up renting a room at the Wrangler himself, but he was awake early in the morning and back down at the bar, his hat drawn low over his face while he sipped at a small glass of whiskey for appearance's sake. The taste of alcohol appalled him, but in order to fit in New Vegas society, it was a necessary evil.
James Garret had yet to show up behind the bar, but his sister was handling the customers with an admirable efficiency. He watched her, calculatingly, waiting for his chance to engage in conversation. She'd been quite friendly with the Courier, so he was willing to bet she knew a lot more about her than he did.
When she caught a break and was polishing glassware with a thoughtful expression, Vulpes swooped in. He scooted closer to her and nudged the whiskey that he'd barely consumed towards her.
"Would you top that off for me?"
"Sure thing." She bent to grab a bottle of whiskey and began pouring it.
"How are things in Freeside? I haven't been here to visit in a while." Vulpes took a small swig of his drink and offered Francine the same beguiling grin he'd deceived his gambling partners with the night prior.
She snorted softly. "NCR's been sticking their little fingers in a pie that doesn't want them there. They've been trying to take over Freeside under the guise that they're 'helping' us. It's a load of crap. This will be considered NCR territory before long. Who knows what that'll do to business." She shrugged her shoulders helplessly and started to wipe the counter down.
"Yes, the NCR does have a very... inefficient way of dealing with things, don't they," Vulpes agreed smoothly. "They've never really-"
Whatever else Vulpes intended to say vanished somewhere in his throat. He'd chanced a look over at the line of rooms upstairs and his eyes met with... well, he wasn't quite sure what he was seeing.
Was that the Courier? He blinked a few times to erase any doubt. Yes, that had to be her, but... what was she wearing? Was she wearing a dress?
Vulpes didn't often ogle women – he could appreciate their aesthetic value but he preferred them hard-working and out of the way. The Courier was certainly hard-working, but she had to be the most in the way woman he'd ever come across. She marched through the Mojave like she owned it. She was a specimen he'd never encountered before.
He wasn't sure what to think when he saw her step down the stairs in that green... dress. It floated around a pair of long, shapely white legs and exposed more skin on her than he'd ever had the pleasure of seeing before. It left little to the imagination, but Vulpes imagination was having a field day deciding just what she looked like beneath the soft, feminine fabric. Lean, toned... scarred, he guessed. Her head wrappings were gone, revealing boyishly short hair and a nasty, jagged line that marred the top part of her forehead and slashed into her hairline. From what he'd heard, that particular scar was why Minerva had come to pay New Vegas a visit.
"Really what?" Vulpes slid his eyes back to the Garret sister, torn from his wandering thoughts. It took him a second to remember what he'd been saying.
"Impressed," he finished, pushing his glass full of whiskey back across the counter. "Here, on me. I have business to attend to." Minerva had descended the stairs and was heading straight for the bar. He nodded politely to Francine and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Courier reached the bar and the two women erupted into friendly chatter. He slipped out of the Wrangler quietly, and headed towards The Strip, where he knew Minerva would be going eventually.
It wasn't time to introduce himself yet. But it would be time soon enough.
Here's a visual of her in the dress in case anybody's interested. I like throwing pictures out here and there to enhance the story.