Arcade wasn't really sure why he was standing on the outskirts of Vegas as five in the morning without his glasses. He was under the vague impression that there had been a fire or something in the Lucky 38. If that were the case, he didn't know why they'd all run so far. He hadn't smelled smoke and he didn't remember seeing any fire, but he couldn't be sure. He didn't remember seeing much of anything that morning. He didn't have his glasses, after all.
He thought about asking questions, but no one else seemed to be in a talking mood. Veronica had fallen asleep standing up, leaning against a visibly uncomfortable Boone. Cass was muttering under her breath, something about mornings early mornings violating her constitutional rights. Raul, for his part, was standing slightly apart from the main group, his hands in his pockets and with what Arcade thought was a slightly amused look on his face. At the risk of sounding racist, Arcade often had a hard time reading the Ghoul's facial expressions.
Arcade didn't have much longer to ponder the implications of race and racism in a world with no centralized government and multiple species. At that moment, the Courier emerged from Freeside's gate and strode confidently up to where they were standing. She stopped in front of them, and cleared her throat.
Boone elbowed Veronica who woke with a start and a mumbled "sorry Elder it won't happen again." She blinked in confusion, clearly confused as to why they were all standing, unarmed, in a field north of Freeside before the sun was up. The courier cleared her throat again, and Veronica looked blearily in her direction.
"GOOD MORNING, LADIES!" barked the Courier. Cass whimpered and covered her ears. "AM I TOO LOUD FOR YOUR DELICATE EARS, CASSIDY?" Cass mumbled something to the effects of "Why is there so much yelling?" before the Courier started up again. "MAYBE YOU SHOULDN'T GET DRUNK ALL THE TIME, HUH?" Cass looked to the others for guidance. Boone and Raul ignored her, Veronica shrugged, and Arcade mouthed, "I don't know, either."
"WHAT WAS THAT, GANNON?" The courier rounded on him doing her very best to be imposing. God bless, she was trying, but she was all of five feet, three inches tall, and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Arcade glanced back at the other four, and decided to ask the question they were all thinking.
"Why are we here?"
"BECAUSE YOUR DADDIES COULDN'T KEEP IT IN THEIR PANTS!"
Arcade blinked. Not the answer he was expecting. Accurate maybe, but not the answer he was searching for. "I meant more specifically, why are we *here* in this field? And why are you talking like that?"
"TALKING LIKE WHAT, GANNON?"
"Like a…" He almost finished the sentence with "moron," but thought better of it at the last second. "…drill sergeant."
"BECAUSE," said the Courier, a note of triumph in her voice, "THERE IS A WAR GOING ON, LADIES! AND YOU ARE THE SORRIEST BUCKETS OF PISS I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE! I AM GOING TO WHIP YOU INTO SHAPE IF THIS IT KILLS ME!"
Veronica and Arcade exchanged a "Well, there goes the morning" look, as Boone snickered audibly and Cass whimpered again.
Things were not going very well. Boone flat-out refused to participate. He had turned and started walking back towards the Lucky 38 when the Courier summoned strength and speed Arcade hadn't known she possessed, sprinting after him and tackling him from behind, yelling "AND WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING?"
Arcade and Veronica, certain that they were about to witness Boone's swift and bloody retribution, ran towards them, hoping to intervene before limbs starting coming off. Raul strolled casually after them, whereas Cass sat laid down on the ground and fell asleep again, her hands still over her ears.
Instead of ending the Courier's life then and there, Boone laughed. To Arcade's ears, it wasn't a particularly reassuring laugh, more of a "When you least expect it, EXPECT IT"-type laugh. The Courier evidently didn't hear the menace, because she pouted, looking rather like a sulky toddler.
"I don't see why you're laughing," she said, forgetting to shout for the first time that morning.
Boone's laughter stopped immediately. "Get off me." The "Or I'll kill you" was left implied.
"Do you promise to work?"
"Fine then." She snatched the beret off his head and jumped nimbly off him, jamming it on her own head in swift motion. Arcade and Veronica sucked in their breath while Raul watched gamely. This was it. A line had been crossed. The Courier was a dead woman, and nothing they could say or do now could save her.
Boone got to his feet and glared levelly at her. His expression could have curdled milk. "I would like my beret back, please."
Boone stared at her uncomprehendingly. At any moment, Arcade expecting him to snap, go into a murder frenzy, and kill them all. He took a half step behind Veronica, who picked up on his intent, and glared at him for a half second.
"…If I do your drills, can I have it back?"
"Fine. What should I do?"
The Courier paused, looking slightly deflated. Evidently, she had expected him to put up more of a fight. Arcade wondered, not for the first time, if she was carrying a torch for the sniper. "Um, push-ups?"
He didn't even hesitate. "How many?"
"Until I tell you to stop?"
"Fine." He dropped onto his stomach and immediately began doing precise, military-style pushups. Arcade watched him for a moment, noting that his form was immaculate. He glanced up, and noticed that the Courier was also watching Boone, her eyes very wide. They probably would have stood there the entire day, had Raul not spoken.
The Courier started, shaking off a dazed, trancelike expression. "What?"
"We were going to do something today?"
"Oh yeah," she said, off-handedly. "That. Uh, let's go for a run."
"My knees aren't so good, Boss. Can I sit this one out?"
"Yeah, sure. Come on, guys, let's go."
"Can I stop now?" Boone asked, his voice strained.
"No," said the Courier in a decidedly lascivious voice. "No you may not."
As soon as Arcade, the Courier, and Veronica were out of sight, Boone stopped doing push-ups. He didn't get up immediately, just held himself up on his elbows for a minute, waiting to see if they were coming back. When he was satisfied that they were gone for good, he stood up and brushed himself off, watching the spot on the horizon where the other three had vanished. Raul had gone back and sat next to Cass was lying on her side in the dirt.
Boone didn't think she'd actually gone to sleep. He figured that she was just playing possum (whatever a possum was), hoping that the Courier would take her shouting elsewhere if she feigned sleep. As it turned out, he was incorrect. She was out cold. He sat next to her and poked her, trying to figure out whether or whether not she was still alive.
She woke up long enough to ask where they were and fall asleep again with her head in the lap of a visibly uncomfortable Boone. He patted her awkwardly, and she smiled in her sleep.
They sat there, and Boone thought he saw Raul smirk. It was kind of hard to tell.
"How old do you think the Boss is?" Raul asked casually.
"16 if I had to guess."
"That's about what I thought," said Raul. "Jailbait."
"Nothing," he said quickly. They sat in silence. Boone was almost certain that he was smirking.
"…All I'm saying is that I just don't think you're a beret person," said Veronica.
The Courier hmphed. "Says you."
Veronica sighed. "You just not a hat person. Back me up, Arcade."
Arcade sighed. They'd been having this conversation for the entire two hours they'd been walking east. Veronica thought that the Courier should stop wearing Boone's beret because it looked ridiculous. The Courier thought that Veronica could take her opinions and put them somewhere that was neither comfortable nor practical. Neither one had made any headway convincing the other. Arcade thought a subject change was in order.
"Why are you asking me about clothing?"
"You're gay. All Gay guys know about fashion," the Courier said, matter-of-factly.
"Yeah, it's like a rule or something," Veronica said, trying to suppress a laugh.
Arcade didn't find it particularly amusing. "That's the most offensive thing I've heard this morning," he grumped.
"And it's only seven!" Veronica said cheerily. Arcade glared at her, and she smiled innocently in response.
He harrumphed. "I can't even see it," he said sulkily. "I don't have my glasses."
"Oh yeah," said the Courier, crestfallen. "I forgot about that. Sorry."
"Hey Arcade," said Veronica cheerfully, "how many fingers am I holding up?"
"Hey Veronica," he said, mimicking her tone, "How many do I have up?"
"Just the one."
"Knock it off, you two," said the Courier. "We're supposed to be running! We have a war to win!" She hesitated a moment. "And does the beret look that bad?"
Arcade stared at her, trying to think of a way to end the discussion permanently. After a moment, he struck on a wonderfully cruel idea. "I wouldn't wear it," he said carefully. "It probably has lice."
The Courier made a face like she had just found something large and hairy in the bathtub. "D-do you think so?"
He nodded sagely. "Why do you think Boone shaves his head?"
She hurried stuffed the beret in her pocket, muttering something about discretion being the better part of valor and self-consciously running a hand through her curly blonde hair. Veronica disguised her laughter as a coughing fit, then suggested primly that they head back to the others. It was agreed that this was a good idea, and they turned around.
Cass woke again at seven. She wasn't even a little embarrassed about falling asleep with her head in Boone's lap, and as such, didn't bother apologizing. Instead, she asked about his missing beret and laughed uproariously when he explained where it was. It took his most withering glare to silence her, and it only worked halfway. It would be weeks again before she could hear the word "beret" without snickering.
"Sorry," she said grinning enormously, "But that's just- it- I can't believe she-"
"Yeah," grumped Boone. "Hilarious."
For a while no one spoke. They sat and watched the horizon, wondering if the other three had been eaten by Cazadores or if they were just lost.
"Well," said Cass after a few minutes, "I'm gonna go take a leak." She stood up and brushed some of the dirt off her pants, and strode off towards a large rock.
"Charming girl," said Raul, once she was out of earshot. Boone grunted noncommittally, and they watched the horizon for Arcade, Veronica, and the Courier.
Cass returned first, bottles of whiskey in hand and a grin on her face. "Breakfast, anyone?"
Boone accepted a warm bottle. He had the top off when an unpleasant thought occurred. "Where did these come from?"
She ignored him. Boone was torn between horrific curiosity and the knowledge that what he didn't know couldn't hurt him. And if even if what he didn't know was one of those awful truths that drove men to madness, the whiskey was in sealed bottles, and Boone was pretty sure that alcohol killed germs.
He'd almost made up his mind when Cass interrupted his thought process. "I had 'em in my bra, if that's what you're wondering." Boone stared at her, revulsion, thirst, and the knowledge that she had been topless not a few minutes before battling for dominance in his mind.
He looked back at the bottle in his hand, and decided that thirst was more powerful than both anal-retentiveness and lust. They finished off the whiskey, then moved to the shade of the rock Cass had used earlier. They chatted for a while, mostly about how hot the sun was and who would get eaten first if it ever came down to that. After a while, Cass and Boone dozed off, leaning up against one another. Raul, smirking again, left them in peace and went to watch for the other three.
Even dehydration and three burst blisters weren't enough to dampen the Courier's cheery mood. When she, Veronica, and a decidedly sunburnt and grumpy Arcade returned, she announced that the physical training portion of the day was over. Cass and Raul shared a smirk, mentally congratulating themselves and one another on getting out of her exercises. Both decided to ignore the glares from Veronica, Arcade, and Boone.
The smirks and glares were wiped off their respective faces when the Courier announced the second portion of the training. "It's time for team-building activities!" The other five gaped at each other, wondering if maybe their ears had all simultaneously mutinied.
"Come on everyone, partner up!" She didn't even hesitate before flinging herself at Boone and wrapping herself around his arm. He stared at her like she was an unusually freckled and enthusiastic leech. "Boone's my partner," she said, smiling beatifically.
Everyone else was startled into motion. Veronica and Raul partnered up, and Arcade and Cass followed suit. "Okay, so first, we're going to get to know each other better. Learn something new about your partner, and then we're going to share as a group!"
The next five minutes were extremely awkward for everyone but the Courier. As soon as everyone else had a partner, she dragged Boone a ways away from the rest of the group and began grilling him.
"What's your favorite color? Favorite food? Middle name? How old are you? What, in your opinion, is the most attractive hairstyle for a woman? When was the last time you cried?" Her questions came like fire from a machine gun. She barely gave Boone any time to respond, asking the next question before he had finished answering. He caught himself gaping at her in confusion more than once while she asked particularly wordy questions.
Arcade and Cass weren't having much more luck. They sat cross-legged in the dirt, facing one another and avoiding eye contact. Arcade drew circles in the dirt with his pointer finger; trying to think of a question he could ask without receiving more answer than he wanted.
After a long minute, he said, "My middle name's Israel. What's yours?"
"Oh," he said flatly. "I think you win that one."
"Didn't know it was a contest."
Arcade shrugged. "You won anyway."
Another long minute of looking everywhere but each other. "You really got burnt," Cass said conversationally.
"Thanks for noticing," Arcade grumped.
A pause. "Want to borrow my hat?"
"Won't do much, but it'll keep the sun off your neck." She removed her hat, and Arcade wondered if he'd ever seen her without it before. He decided he hadn't and accepted it from her.
"Don't mention it." They sat in silence, watching Raul and Veronica watch a nervous Boone edge away from the Courier, who seemed even more frighteningly peppy than usual.
Raul and Veronica decided that they would just make something up if the Courier forced them to report what they'd learned about one another. Veronica was inventing a string of heart-broken lovers and shady dealings with the Three Families as Raul was imagining an underground fighting ring.
Boone and the Courier rejoined the group a few minutes later. Boone looked shaken, and the Courier's devious expression seemed horrifically out of place on her round, freckled face.
"Well, I think we all learned something new today!" she said brightly, casting a sideways look at Boone as she did so. No one bothered responding, and their indifference had no effect on her enthusiasm.
"So now, I was thinking we could do some trust falls." A horrified look was passed around the group. "Come on, guys!" she pouted. "How can we trust each other during a fight if we can't trust each other to catch us?" She glared at each of them, but the effect was dampened by how far back she had to tilt her head to look each of them in the face. Arcade wondered if maybe they should offer her something to stand on, but then decided the last thing she needed was encouragement.
"Seriously guys, this is super easy. I'll prove it! Arcade and Boone, c'mere." Arcade already knew this wasn't ending well, but he stepped forward anyway. Boone did so after a long moment's hesitation.
"Okay, so Arcade, stand in front of Boone. Fold your arms over your chest, and then fall back so he can catch you!" Arcade swallowed what little pride he had left and got into position. He was sunburnt, he couldn't see, and he was about to be on his ass in the dirt wearing a woman's straw hat.
"Go ahead. Fall," she demanded. Arcade braced himself for the collision with the hard earth, and fell backwards.
It never came. Boone caught him, then sent him gently back on his feet. Arcade didn't know if she should be grateful or waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Boone turned to the Courier. "Beret," he said, holding out his hand.
She pouted, again. "But we're not done yet," she whined.
"I did pushups. I answered your questions. I didn't drop it." Arcade was pleased to know he'd been upgraded to 'it.' "Now give me my hat."
She held out for another thirty seconds, pouting the whole time. She then pulled the beret out of her pocket, muttered about the word team lacking an 'I.'
"We're not finished here," she said. "I just wanted to make sure you all know that." She puffed up her chest, doing her best to look tough. There was actually a savage gleam in her eye, and Arcade was suddenly very, very afraid.
The elevator ride back to the Presidential Suite was a quiet one. The Courier had insisted they break for lunch just before noon. She'd packed a picnic, and had fallen asleep almost immediately after they sat down. Arcade had never seen anyone fall asleep like that. It was like watching a psychic enter a trance. She sat down, and was instantly dead to the world.
They enjoyed a leisurely lunch, waiting to see if she'd wake up. At one thirty, she was still sound asleep. Boone, obviously uncomfortable but by now resigned, picked her up as though she were a baby, and they had all set off towards Vegas.
Lily was waiting for them just inside the suite. "Oh," she crooned, "Someone had a big day!" She plucked the Courier from out of Boone's arms, and carried her into the bedroom to tuck her in. She pulled the covers up to her chin and kissed her forehead before closing the door softly behind her.
"Too much excitement," she clucked. "She was so worked! Hardly slept a wink last night, trying to finish her little camp so she could surprise you all this morning."
Arcade's emotional state made a sudden and graceless transition from relief to guilt. Lily continued chatting, oblivious to the stricken looks on everyone's faces. "She really looks up to all of you. She wanted to prove she's just as capable a leader as anyone else. I told her not to be silly, that of course you all think she's a wonderful fighter, but she had her little mind set! Now who wants a cookie?" She proudly offered a tray of little charred pieces of a substance of indeterminate origin.
"Uh, I'm not really that hungry," Arcade said. There were murmurs of ascent, and they all scattered to their respective corners of the Suite. Arcade read a pre-war book about a small town full of vampires, but he couldn't really focus on the plot. Leave it to Lily to shame them all into feeling sorry for the Courier, who had a textbook Napoleon Complex.
And then he remembered that he had trekked across the Mojave, halfway blind and ridiculously sunburnt, been made to collapse theatrically into Boone's unwilling arms, and he'd had to return a hat to a thoroughly soused Cass, who had groped him no less than four times.
There was really only so much sympathy to go around.