The Long 15
Chapters: 1, 2
*puts on cowboy hat* *spins the spurs on my neon pink crocs* ”Thangs be happenin’...”
Word Count: 9300
Rating: Still explicit
Every morning was a headache. A headache in the same spot as his scar while one eye squinted until it adjusted to the light and the other just plain refused. He didn’t mind mornings before the incident, but now, waking up had become a chore. A hefty stretch beckoned his attention to the foot of the bed. Lawrence fared better upon waking. Always ready to go and ready for action, no matter how little sleep he had the night before, if he slept at all. Bare back arched as he hummed the tune to an off-key song Vincent recognized from the radio. The ranger had no reservation in strutting about in minimal clothing, but he had nothing to be ashamed of. He was strong, defined, even a few complementing scars and tattoos.
A normal body...
Once his eyes shirked sleep, the blots on Lawrence’s back turned to a canvas of a few tattoos and scars. On his upper back a caricature of the sun waving sunbeams of orange and yellow with a solemn face, black eyes, and a small nose while his lower back had a face of the moon to match. Before Vincent could study the other tattoos, he looked over his shoulder.
“Morning.” Lawrence stood up and tightened his belt. “Hope you got some sleep. Three hour walk to Vegas.” Vincent groaned at the prospect. With just that statement alone, he was already exhausted and ready to commit the day to the bed. “I suggest another shower while there’s still hot water.”
A pang of jealousy stung Vincent, yet he still admired the man. It happened here-and-there. His brain scolded him for both comparing himself to other men not like him and also for just thinking about such things. Lawrence turned to him as he fumbled with an inside-out undershirt. Then Vincent saw it clearly. Small, artfully drawn across his ribs under his right breast that read a name.
“I’m gonna get supplies in town and be back soon. Shouldn't take longer than an hour.”
“I’ll be ready by then…”
Only after Lawrence left, did Vincent make his move to the bathroom. Sure to bring his spare clothes and lock the door behind him. He investigated the bathtub and showerhead overlooking it. Hard water stains ran down the off-white porcelain. Loose handles of faux-crystal, labeled H and C. Lucky for him, the frontier wasn’t so dry. He turned the knobs. Pipes groaned and rattled in the walls. Then a sudden burst spurt from the showerhead. Cleansing water, clean to boot. He wanted to spend all night in it, before Lawrence kicked him out for using up all the hot water. He turned away from the mirror. A habit to start the day off better than if he did inspect himself—Another habit, the bad kind he ought to quit. Warmth washed over him, flowing rivers across his skin, turning hair to little rust-colored tendrils. A shower followed by clean clothes was a rare blessing far from any familiar civilization. Something he missed about staying in one place, but nothing dampened nor compared to the freedom he found on his own.
Cooking eggs and meat enticed him downstairs. A quiet morning crowd, nothing like rambunctious nightly characters. News played from the radio. The deep, raspy voice of Mr. New Vegas attracted listeners, but it was the man’s personality that kept him. Charming renditions turned the worst news of legion and NCR activity into something to chuckle at. Local oddities in Vegas followed, the shows and deals at shops and casinos, and of course timely breaks for music. Among a more refined crowd compared to the nightlife of Henderson, Vincent spotted Lawrence across the saloon floor at a table, enamored by the window's view onto a lively dirt road.
“Get what you need?”
“Indeed I did,” Lawrence said as the young man took a seat. “Breakfast is already—” He paused as a server came by just in time. Gecko bacon still sizzled and popped. Warm and fluffy orange eggs occupied a good portion of the plate alongside grated hash browns. He wasn’t hungry when he woke, but once that plate hit the table some ravenous beast awoke in the boy.
“You said it was three hours to Vegas?”
“So long as you don’t trip on your own feet.”
Vincent scoffed, “You always talk bigger than your guns are fast?”
Lawrence smirked. “Shut up and eat.”
Vincent paused before another bite of gecko bacon. “I, uh…” Delightfully crispy and filling, he couldn’t remember the last time he didn’t have to eat foraged cactus fruit or something made two-hundred years ago. Most of his money went to food and water being out on the road. Sometimes he scraped enough caps together for a decent meal in a hotel or real restaurant, but those were scarce so far out from big cities. “Noticed your tattoos. They’re good and I like them. I’ve thought about getting at least one, just to try it.”
“Oh yeah?” He arched a brow as he refilled the empty coffee mug. “I drew those myself and had a tattooist friend put ‘em on.”
“You designed those?” Surprise overtook his expression. He hadn’t imagined the ranger was an artsy type. “You can draw?”
“I haven’t in a while,” He shrugged. “Mostly just for planning and recon—”
“You’re skilled! You ought to keep at it.” The ranger stifled the prideful smile on his face. It was nice to see him not scowling so much lately. “What about that calligraphy? Must have been an important guy to warrant such pretty letters.”
His expression soured. Smile faded as he turned his attention away from Vincent. “Was a friend.”
“Sorry,” Vincent withdrew with timid words. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I just liked the lettering.”
“When you're done here, meet me outside,” Lawrence suggested as he stood up from his seat. “I need a smoke.” Vincent watched the ranger leave. He sighed then pushed away a mostly empty plate. Full anyway, but some remnant of his mother’s voice scolded him for wasting food. Did he really just ruffle the stalwart ranger? A twinge of regret irked him. Maybe he really ought to cull that curiosity… He didn’t want to shoo away his new companion or offend him, especially after all the ranger had done and helped him with. He couldn’t really help his curiosity. He had a man’s name tattooed on him after all. Family? Brother? Brother-in-arms?
Could he ever mean that much to someone else? Vincent always figured and accepted he would spend the rest of days alone with his condition. He dealt with rejection. Expected it whether it was being denied his existence entirely or the romantic type. It was just better that way. No reason to be disappointed…
He hesitated to meet Lawrence outside. It took too long to muster up the courage to even pretend he didn’t know he offended the ranger who stood on the porch. A second cigarette between his index and middle finger. Eyes drawn on the distance in the road. Not even the noise or smell of passing cattle or squeaky wheels of carts withdrew him from his trance.
“What are you looking at?”
Lawrence hummed. Eyes met Vincent’s for a moment. Morning light lit auburn hair in a warm and woody halo as curious blue eyes stared wide at him. He always had a nervous look in them. Maybe just from lack of experience in the wasteland, Lawrence figured—Or the scar and mismatched pupils just forced that look on him. Lawrence figured he must've looked like that as a fresh-faced kid himself too. “Ready to go?”
Where the buildings thinned and most were worn down, unsettled and forgotten, did the desert begin its creep inward on the town. Departing traders unholstered their pistols and rifles as they set forth on the decrepit road. A group of them had left at the same time as Vincent and Lawrence, several wagons and two brahmin in tow. Their guards were a grizzled sort, probably one or two he spotted in the saloon last night. The boy wondered what it took to be like them and if he had that in himself somewhere. Going off into the desert, the wilderness, the wasteland without fear or at least enough to show. Rangers did that everyday, and now Vincent was as well. Just, with company. Lawrence had been quiet, but that was in the man’s nature, Vincent could already tell that much. He was the same way and if that similarity was any indication to others parallels, he knew the ranger was the type to also get lost in his own thoughts. Mostly the bad kind that made it difficult to get up in the morning. Lest his mind was occupied staring out into the horizon. Keeping an eye out for unsavory individuals. Maybe it was something those types were born with.
“Comin’ up on no-man’s land!” The driver called out from the front of the line. Caravan guards tightened their formation towards the carriages. Lawrence followed suit and caught up to the boy.
“What does that mean?”
“It means keep an eye out.”
The sun reflected off his dark sunglasses, hiding his expression underneath a glare. He scanned the desert. A long, empty highway for miles stretched across a valley he had to squint to take in any discernible shapes. Jagged, rocky hills, scorched and faded by the sun. Even the plants were just as mean. Cacti and Joshua trees. A passing prickly bush of dried out branches. He didn’t think anyone sane would live out in such an inhospitable place. The heat had a way of draining you even if you stood in the dry warmth for a few minutes. Ever since passing the San Bernardino mountains, Vincent hated it. It never stayed this hot in the Boneyard, hell not even Yucca Valley got this awful.
“I hope you've been thinking more on what you’re gonna do when you find this guy, or if you don’t.”
“Think I won’t?” Vincent eyed the ranger while he rummaged through his satchel for water.
Lawrence shrugged. “Always a possibility.”
“There’s more going on with this whole thing,” He articulated. “I was being paid a lot of money alongside several other couriers to deliver some items, small stuff, inconspicuous, random objects.”
Lawrence looked at him, “Seems a little weird, or seems like they were trying to hide whatever their real delivery was.”
“Exactly,” Vincent gestured with a quick flick of his hand. “I was carrying a chip, a poker chip made of platinum. It had the number 38 etched into it.”
“38? Like the Lucky 38?”
“A casino on the strip. Not open to anyone,” Lawrence stated, turning his gaze to the highway. The guards were still on alert while they surrounded the brahmin and wagons. Occasionally, their occupants stole a peek outside the tarps. “Supposedly no one has ever been inside; never see anyone come out either. It’s that tower one.” Vincent followed Lawrence’s finger to the skyline. New Vegas was still some ways away, but he could make out the city through the road-shimmer and haze. The tower. Taller than the rest of the skyline. He had seen it at night too, lit up tall, bright, and proud. It still beamed during the day as if it could rival the sun.
“Maybe the chip was from there?”
“Could be. Maybe those guys who attacked you thought it was—”
You always heard them before you saw them. It was a sound you wouldn’t associate with certain death, like a wisp or whistle, until you heard it coming towards you. Another bullet whipped past them. The ranger was quick to look to its origins, allied with the barrel of his pistol. Guards searched for more in the hills. Then they showed themselves. A whole hoard emerged from over the hills, but held their position. “Find cover!” Lawrence ordered. Vincent pulled his own pistol from the holster on his leg as he found cover behind one of many concrete dividers standing down the center of the road. Guards exchanged fire—Warning shots really. Yet, Vincent couldn’t spot their attackers from so far away. Lawrence joined him behind the divider. Helmet donned as he rested the sniper rifle on the concrete top. Red lenses peered down the scope. A hand shoved the pair of binoculars to Vincent. “Tell me what you see; guns, numbers.”
He scanned the ridge. They hid in the shade, camouflaged by the stone overhang. “Three of them. I see rifles.”
“The taller overhang, left of us. They’re in the shade.”
He moved the rifle just barely. More gunfire blasted—The wrong direction. He glanced behind him in time for the sniper’s boom. It throttled him. Just like the first time he heard it, it sent a pounding bass through his bones. A jolt through his body and rattled an already racing heart. And just like the first time he heard it, he hadn’t expected it. Eyes fixed on the small group. One fell from the ridge.
“More coming from the South!” A voice boomed across the highway. Lawrence ducked behind the next divider. Both stared down the Southbound highway. He remained pushed up against the sun-bleached concrete in spite of the burning heat that melted through his clothes. Another divider, off-center in the road would cover them for a time, he noted, but it was best not to stay in one spot too long. These ones didn’t make themselves visible, until a nearby guard fell. Then, he knew they were close. Vincent jumped. Sudden crash of brawny man at his feet. Still alive, coddling his gut, and groaning on the sweltering black-top.
“Shit,” Lawrence hissed.
The caravan guards pushed on with a hail of fire as the bandits pressed forward. The ranger rushed over to the next divider. He peered around then released a few rounds before tucking himself away. Wide eyed and unsure of if he should move, Vincent could only watch. Hands clammy. Legs jumpy. He struggled to keep a hold of his own gun. He turned to Lawrence as if to seek guidance, but the ranger was occupied with the men set in his sights.
The shape caught his peripherals. The boy held his breath and focused on the figure creeping out Lawrence’s sight. He raised his pistol. The glint of the sun against silvery metal drew the ranger’s glance as he reloaded a spare clip. He pulled the trigger. One shot turned into a few, letting up once he saw the body slumped over the concrete. A sigh of relief vacated the ranger as he stared at the would-be-attacker. Now slung over the concrete, his face obscured by dirt and a battered bucket-helmet.
Vincent inched closer to the edge of the barrier. Beyond the road, the bandits underneath the overhang also peered from their shaded point. Just two left.
“I see two of them still on the ridge.”
The gunfire died down. Three dead raiders lay behind him. Anxious breaths still held in lungs. Lawrence stayed low as he moved over to the wounded guard. He pressed fingers to the man’s neck. Quiet curses withdrew. The ranger had that same scowl he wore the day Vincent met him.
“Tanner and Damien are dead,” One guard announced as he observed the scene. A grimace crossed his face and he turned to his approaching colleagues.
“Shallow graves,” Another suggested, disappointment apparent in his voice. “We gotta move fast.”
Lawrence stood up. He looked on to the ridge in the distance. “Come on,” He slung the heavy sniper over his shoulder.
“Maybe we should help them before leaving?” Vincent sputtered as he joined the ranger’s side again.
“We will, by killing the ones still out there.”
“We’re going after them?”
“I want to,” He declared. “You don’t have to.” He had always been warned to never venture off into the wastes alone. It was safer in the town and cities, wherever others were at, but he quickly learned that wasn't true. Humans were just another kind of danger. “There could be more, they could have a base or something, but we’re gonna find out.”
Off the roads, it was easy to get lost. Terrain starts to look the same. You lose direction, you run out of food, but you know things are about to get a lot worse when you run out of water. They found the ridge the bandits were set upon at. A good three extra feet higher than the ranger had. Lawrence reached out to the rock wall. Too smooth to climb. “Wanna do some recon for me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I can put you on my shoulders and you’d be able to get up there, then find me a way up and we can figure out where they went.”
“What if they’re still up there?”
“Then we can cross a few things off our to-do list.”
He pressed his lips together as he thought about it. He supposed it was something to do; be helpful like Lawrence had been for him. “Alright,” Vincent nodded. He took off his satchel and set it on the dirt.
Lawrence squatted, faced against the rock, “Sit on my shoulders, then I’ll stand, then you stand, got it?”
He hesitated getting into such an awkward position with the ranger, even if it may have been something he fantasized about. However, this wasn’t exactly that position. Lawrence lifted him, slow and careful. Hands rested on Vincent’s legs, just above his knee kept him steady. “First time I’ve taken a ranger for a ride,” he stifled a self-satisfied laugh.
Lawrence scoffed, “well it doesn’t have to be the last, so don’t get shot.” Vincent held his tongue even as another cheeky line conjured up in his head. He shouldn’t make his interest too obvious, for his own sake. The ranger wouldn’t be interested in him anyway…
He stood up, slower than Lawrence had, but managed to stay up, while leaning on the rock-face. He avoided peaking down, for fear of losing his balance. Heights weren’t something he sought out. He tried conquering that fear in the Boneyard. The towers there rivaled the Strip, but if flashiness was the point, the Strip would win. His whole body tensed, but in one go, he pulled himself up on the ridge. Instinct jabbed him for a reminder to evaluate the rock balcony, then around the bend.
No signs of raiders.
“I don’t see them up here.”
“What about a path up?”
“Going to look!”
He scanned the layout. Jagged rocks embedded in loose soil gave the appearance of a steady mountain, but would give way with one step. The entire rock wall was too smooth to climb for as far as he could see it. Vincent ventured further into the shade around the bend. It was a canyon, a small and narrow one, but natural. Probably one of many hidden in the hills. No wonder so many bandits, raiders, and highwaymen hid themselves in this area. The perfect spot to launch an assault… He paused at a whisper. The wind? The boy stilled himself. There hadn’t been any wind today. The stagnant sweat that drenched his body told that much. Then he heard them again.
They were still here.
He slid back into the light of the day. The ridge extended onward South, then bending Eastbound. Only a three minute walk and he found railroad spikes pounded in the ridge. A makeshift ladder of rope and pipe brought him down onto parched soil. Following the ridge’s bend along familiar ground brought him back to Lawrence, waiting in the cover of shade behind a stone pillar.
“Lawrence, they're still here.”
“Did you see them or they see you?” He jumped up and followed the younger man back to the ladder.
“I heard them. I don’t think they saw me.”
“Any idea of how many?”
“Gotta be more than one,” Vincent said. “Sounded like a conversation.” He brought the ranger back to crevice. No light penetrated the narrow opening, keeping the boy back. Dark seemed to be a newfound enemy in light of recent events. Only one eye worked in the shade; the other never adjusted and may as well just not even be there. “Heard them in here.”
Lawrence ripped off sunglasses, peering peered into the shade. Not so dark he couldn’t see anything, but just enough to make hiding easy. He went in first. Pistol drawn and aimed. Quietly, they crept along the wall for guidance and listened for their targets. Indeed talking among themselves, their topic indiscernible—Not that it mattered, only that they kept at it for the ranger to hone in on their location. A few more feet than Vincent had gone brought them close enough to see candle-light flicker across cave walls.
“I don’t know anymore,” A voice muttered.
“Some might just be playing dead,” Another suggested. Lawrence watched the shadows as trained ears listened. Only two. Close together. The crevice opened wider into a cave. He leaned around the uneven rock wall. Two men sat at a table by humble candlelight and dying lanterns. One fiddled with his gun, reloading the magazine and inspecting it, while the other still had his strapped to his thigh.They made a small camp in the cave, a few sleeping bags laid about along with other loot and supplies caravans usually had. The serial offender.
Lawrence set sights on the one whose gun was already drawn. Behind him, Vincent watched, taking mental notes of what skill and confidence looked like. Steady. Stiffening his arm. The blast lit up the end of the barrel. The shot echoed. His moves so sudden it looked more like a twitch than a planned second shot.
Lawrence exhaled. He stood up, retired the pistol to his side and ventured further into the cave—Hand lingered close by. “They got food and water.” Vincent followed him in. The two lay dead, slumped over the table. They didn’t even know who their reaper was and never would now. What a way to go, Vincent pondered. He had been there. At least now he knew who almost killed him and could get even. The ranger snagged what little the highwaymen had of value; a few clips of ammunition, water cantines, stray caps... “Ready to head back?”
Something twisted in his stomach when the ranger looked over the scene. Terribly silent where men ought to have been gearing up to get on the road. The kind that made your skin crawl. Yet you didn’t exactly know why. Coming up the gravelly slope, the thin black line of asphalt opened up to the highway. Shoulder weakened. Pistol fell to his side. He wouldn’t need it. The heavy sigh lured Vincent over for a look of his own.
The guards leaned gracelessly against the cart. All six of them that they left alive less than an hour ago, even the driver. Blood splatter painted a terrible scene of red across the asphalt. Each had a single bullet to the head. A scene Lawrence had found one too many times. Sometimes it was soldiers, or civilians like the caravan, but occasionally it was a ranger. “They were executed.”
Vincent pulled back the tarp flap of the nearest wagon. Cleaned out. Only useless oddities remained flung about. He rushed over to another one, the one he remembered had passengers. He caught only a quick look at them whenever they peaked out. He knew it was a young girl and boy with an older woman inside. Likely their mother...
The sight knocked the wind out his lungs. He couldn’t take another breath no matter how much he needed it. Lawrence snatched the tarp away, shutting out the terrible scene. Vincent’s stare severed. He looked to Lawrence. Those strong and dour eyes bore right through the young man. The ranger’s cemented scowl gave him a quiet warning and the boy took those suggested steps away. Now he understood that look. He couldn’t gather his words and speculated there just were none to be said. No longer did the heat bother him with such a chill inside. Even the hot road that he knew would burn through his clothes the moment he sat down, didn’t compare to the cold that swept through that stretch of the 582.
Lawrence sat with him. Not for a rest, no he scanned his horizons. Grip tight around the glock he never put away. He drew a cigarette then a match. A long draw as they both breathed in the smoke, but only the ranger exhaled a gray cloud. Had the ranger encountered anything like it before? His puffs on the cigarette grew wider apart. How did he calm the nerves, the shakes, and the adrenaline? How did he deal with resounding emptiness? Too many questions of why and who clouding his mind.
The ring of fire pushed on towards his fingers, slowly engulfing the white stick into ash. “We should bury them,” Vincent finally spoke.
His nod was slow. Lawrence crushed the cigarette into a crack on the road then reached for the radio attached to the armor under his coat. “Ranger Lawrence, calling for any available stations,” his voice remained unmoved.
Static returned as they listened. A sudden break followed by a silent delay refreshed their hope. “Helios One, go ahead.”
“Large caravan traveling Northbound from Henderson was attacked by highwaymen. All dead.”
The static paused again. “Any details on the attacker?”
“Highwaymen most likely. Some of them are dead too.”
“Thank you, ranger,” The young voice assured. “Are you in need of assistance?”
“If you have spare hands, I have a lot of bodies that should be buried. Some supplies might be scavenged.”
“Copy that—Sending a patrol your way.”
“Thank you. Ranger out.”
They sat in silence for most of the time. Eventually shade overtook them as the sun began its descent into the afternoon. It must have been around one when Lawrence stood up. He took off the duster and hung it over the wagon wheel. Then it was the scraped and dusty, combat armor underneath next. A lone chest piece, thick and solid. Unlike the kevlar vest Vincent wore, it looked like it did a better job of protecting the essentials. “What are you doing?”
“Getting started,” He said.
“Is that safe?”
“Whoever killed them got what they wanted. If they were still hangin’ around we would be dead by now.”
The patrol arrived half an hour later. Seven regular soldiers, armed with rifles and shovels of their own. They investigated the scene before talking directly to Lawrence. He had only dug a few feet by the time they arrived. Vincent only managed a foot, but it was better than sitting around doing nothing. The soldiers helped the daunting task go by a little faster. Conversation revealed they were a part of the force that held onto Helios One. The old solar-array sat outside of Henderson to the North near Black Mountain. Most of them were just bored, according to the captain. No action and little to do. The solar array wasn’t even fully functioning to their dismay. Lawrence indulged their curiosity in his ranger stories during the digging. A few even impressed Vincent, but the young man kept to himself. In the late afternoon, the final grave was filled. Rocks served as headstones for all eleven of them. The soldiers did one final sweep of the caravan, slavaging anything that may have been of use before returning to Helios One. Seven soldiers now in the company of two mules, one brahim, and whatever arms and ammo that remained after the chaos.
Something kept him lingering on the side of the road. Another hour and they would have reached their destination, alive and unscathed if fate was kinder. If he and Lawrence didn’t go searching for those two, would those men have had a better chance of surviving? Or would the two of them also be dead? More victims to unnamed outlaws and raiders laying out in the road… At least the first time around, someone thought to bury him.
Lawrence lit a cigarette, stopping at Vincent's side.
“I’ve been wondering how often you see a scene like this?”
“Too many,” He sighed. “If I’m showing up, it’s because of scenes like these.”
As the sun set in the West, orange and pink flowed across the sky like water. Encroaching night to the East brought about fear and anxiety for those out on the frontier. Legion, raiders, highwaymen, and general scum ready to wake up. The New Vegas sprawl halted at Nellis boulevard right on that Eastern front of night. Homes, small farms, and stores littered the outskirts. Each like their own roadside town. Whatever couldn’t fit inside the boundary of Nellis boulevard, stretched up onto what remained of a highway overpass. More shacks, buildings, people…
Beyond the Strip, there were no reliable lights out here, aside from candles and fire. Those who did stay out after dark eyed them suspiciously as the two passed. Settled next to the boulevard and encroaching on the local’s residential area, NCR farmsteads, guarded by soldiers. Armed, of course. They weren’t particularly exposed to frontier-land, so Vincent couldn’t help but wonder what those soldiers were protecting against. At the end of their long walk, the ranger and courier finally rested. Another room, small, single-bed, and above a busy casino. Freeside was a change of scenery from the dark and desolation beyond. Brightly lit by the overhang that stretched the length of Fremont street. The lights all colors of the rainbow as they traveled across a virtual billboard. Casinos, hotels, and odd-shops lined the way, stacked on top of eachother, reaching up to those light in sky level after level. There was no night in New Vegas. When the sun set, the colorful, artsy neon signs, the flashing LED boards advertising poker, drinks, food, anything anyone could possibly want, merely took over the sun’s duty.
From outside the humble window, the streets flooded with people. Tourists, locals, and all variety of humans and ghouls gathered into the small hours of the night. At the end of the street stood a heavy gate. A group of securitrons like the one that pulled him out of his grave guarded their posts. Except these ones didn’t have that friendly cowboy face flickering on their screens. Beyond that gate, he couldn’t see much of the Strip. Only one casino, The Plaza. Grand. Flashy. Tall. A towering wall of glistening windows stared down the peasantry, as if a declaration Freeside’s strip were some shabby knocking
Lawrence took the seat across from Vincent. A heavy sigh exhaled as he leaned back and pushed his boots off. Vincent pulled away from the window, turning to more pleasant prospect to gander at. Exhaustion drained the color of the man’s face. Vacant eyes darker than usual met Vincent’s at the feeling of being watched. “I’ve been thinking more about confronting Benny.”
He hummed, mustering up what little interest he could in such a a state. Arms stretched behind him, coming together to cradle his head in hands. “What happened today have some influence on that?”
“Yes,” Vincent stated. “All the more reason to go after him. How many times has that happened there? What about the other trade routes?” A subtle nod took Lawrence’s eyes off Vincent and out to the window. Muffled hollering brought a group of drunken friends together as one held up a casino ticket. “How many times has Benny killed someone because it was beneficial to do so?”
“Your heart’s in the right place,” Lawrence agreed. He looked back at the young man. Face narrowed in a scowl the ranger hadn’t seen him wear yet and didn’t suspect the boy had in him. A brutish, brow-beating look. A bit wiley with those unusual pupils and icy blues. Daring, once he caught a glimpse of the scar. Fresh. A bit pink still. Long, crawling under thick waves. “But offing one psycho doesn’t prevent others.”
“And burying a group of dead caravan guards doesn’t bury those people left to rot on the side of the road with no grave and no one to witness them,” He retorted without skipping a beat or taking a breath. Vincent crossed his arms, tight against the kevlar vest. “But, it was better than just leaving them, better than doing nothing, better than crawling in a hole and saying nothing can be done.”
“There’s more to it—”
“How can you say that? You’re a ranger—you just do it.” He paused, but so did Lawrence. Vincent looked at the neon scene outside. A quick refresher. He attempted to ease the tension in his shoulders as he considered his words might offend the ranger who had been so generously helping him. But, his question remained. How could anyone just sit by and not do something?
“You’re not wrong,” Lawrence confessed, marked by a defeated huff. A hand pressed against his forehead rubbed away the strain in tightened brows. “But you’re also not invincible.”
“I know,” Vincent agreed, even if his agreement was weak and only half-felt.
“I had the same ideals as you when I joined the rangers,” Lawrence continued. He snuffed his cigarette in the ashtray. “But you can’t save everyone and you don’t win every battle.”
Timid eyes gathered their strength to stare at the man. His face held no reserve nor ill-will at Vincent’s words, but maybe that was from the exhaustion. Something new showed up in those drained eyes. Something Vincent didn’t spot before when he first met the ranger. A heaviness, weighted down by dark circles. Something he may have just been good at hiding, like those battles he never won.
In the light of a new day, the expanse of the city showed its true size. Down on the street, Freeside looked like a different world than the one they saw at night. Somewhere, maybe in something he read was told, before the war, it was called Fremont East. The older part of Vegas. It seemed the city’s structures had survived. Obvious parts of it were rebuilt, but the skeleton of the old-world still shone through. In the Boneyard, the towers in the city were gutted to rebuild, but that was before his time. The stripped buildings then got rebuilt themselves as the NCR grew and expanded. Yet, he hadn’t seen anything like the chaparral of New Vegas, not in the NCR and definitely not stuck in Yucca Valley.
“What do you think Vegas was like before the war?” Vincent stared up to the towers laying on the horizon. Only the tallest spokes climbed to the sky. So many to explore, experience. All so exciting and new! Already overwhelming and he hadn’t even set food on the Strip—The Strip. So close, so far behind the gates.
“Exactly the same,” Lawrence declared. “World was too. Same desert, different cactus.”
Vincent hummed, rather disappointed by Lawrence’s answer, but he supposed there was truth in it. “Sometimes I think about what life was like. From the pictures and books I read, it was paradise.”
“If it was a paradise why did those idiots bomb each other to kingdom come?”
“Uh, good point…”
Musings of what life would have been like before the war was something he often thought about at the end of the day. What would he be like? Would he have a family? Be a normal man or still plagued from being born all wrong? Those same ruminations pushed him out into the world.
Securitrons stood patient and observant at their post. The fence’s true height, distorting, jutting up higher and high the closer they walked. A chain-link and barbed wire fence just the beginning. A wall of cinder-bricks stood behind that. So tall none could even so much as see over while standing close, let alone get close enough to even try to peer over.
“No admittance unless patrons possess a passport or 2,000 caps minimum,” One securtrion bellowed, wheeling over when the two came in close enough range. “Consent to a credit check for entrance.”
“There’s a cap minimum?” Vincent’s shoulder slumped as he looked up to Lawrence.
The ranger’s scowl came out earlier than usual today. “Didn’t have that last time I was here.”
“The cap minimum went into effect on the 15th of August, 2281,” The robot replied.
For a moment, he almost thought it some cosmic sign to stop. To realize his mission was foolish and would likely result in his death. Like the deathclaw he encountered. Like the Khan in Boulder City… What was he gonna do anyway? He wasn’t even entirely honest with Lawrence when he asked. His own voice mocked him,“Just ask.” Vincent sighed. That was a dumb idea and an even dumber excuse, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Not to himself and not to Lawrence.
Slot chimes drowned in with the regular ambience of the casino. Vague conversation intermingled in with music. Card tables full of confident poker faces, but it was the slot players that were the most daring. Only poker and blackjack were the ways to win, and even then, it wasn’t likely. The two of them sat at the bar overlooking the expansive gambling hall of the Queens. The bartender set a glass of swarthy beer in front of Lawrence. The younger boy swiveled about on his stool. A kind of agitated swivel that mimicked the way an angry, hungry nightstalker paced around.
He paused when he noticed the ranger staring at him. Lawrence slid his beer over to the boy. Vincent returned the gesture with a confused look, “I’ve never tried…”
“Well go on. Try.” He nodded to the glass. “You look like you need it more than me.”
“Sorry, I’m just trying to think how to get on the Strip—More specifically get that many caps.” He picked up the cold glass. Water beaded on the side. Heavier-than-expected. It sure seemed like a lot. Did he always drink this much?
“Well I had an idea...” A thoughtful hand perched on Lawrence’s chin while an intrigued brow peaked. “I can try to get us passports from the bureaucracy stationed at McCarran.”
“Oh?” He took a whiff of the dark lager. A memory of the speak-easy under the brothel. The faint smell of spilt beer on the floorboards that never went away. The clashing perfumes of the girls. He took a dainty sip. Anytime he even dared going in there, his mother shooed him away. It got worse when she noticed her boy eyeing the colorful labels on the shelf. That’s when she gave explicit orders to her charges. Never let him try any lest it come out of their pay.
Vincent recoiled. Bitter. Repugnant. A foul tinge coated his tongue. Face twisted to a grimace as he returned the glass to Lawrence. The ranger laughed. “Ain’t nothing to scoff at, it’s pretty good.”
“Compared to what?”
Lawrence took a more brave gulp. Not even a wince.Not a spit or sputter. Vincent shook his head. “Anyway.” The glass clicked on the bartop. A satisfied sigh escaped his lips. “I was gonna suggest we head over there today, just to inquire.”
“I’m already an NCR citizen so maybe that would help too?”
“Just what I was thinking,” His voice echoed in the glass before he took another drink. “Food and beer first though.”
“That’s awful,” Vincent muttered, a quick flash of his offended tongue flicked out.
“You just a virgin or a beer snob?” Lawrence chided. “My money’s on virgin.”
“Whatever,” He shook his head. “Enjoy your piss-water.”
“Boy, I’ve a right mind to slap you silly,” Lawrence chortled. “If it’s too bitter, try something lighter.”
Vincent shrugged, “I just don’t think I’ve got a taste for alcohol. Never tried it before.”
“Alright, alright. Nothing wrong with that, but I got a few pointers if you're ever adventurous.” Lawrence winked, pleasant smile lingered. There was something about the way the ranger looked at him sometimes that felt like a tease. Whether it was the smirk on his lips or the colorful words they made. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind the taste of beer from Lawrence’s lips...
Only from inside the cooled terminal did the heat mirage off the black top look almost like dancing water. The chipped paint of the pre-war planes shimmered and swayed under the bright sun. Some even looked good enough to fly. Others however lay gutted and caked in two-hundred years’ worth of dust, grime, and dirt. He crossed his arms on the back of the sofa. Faded maroon and faux leather winded like a river, hugging the wall-length windows. Dreamy eyes lifted to the New Vegas skyline. So many towers. Like little suns themselves shone out onto the desert. An entire wall surrounded the Strip as if it were a kingdom. Street grids stretched further past those guarded walls. Urban sprawl, new and old. Just like the Northern-Eastern part where they came in at, so was the West and South part of the city. More buildings, rebuilt, repurposed, refurbished for modern life in the desert wasteland.
Ruins littered the farthest flung regions where nobody sane lived. He heard it was all the unsavory sort. Vipers, Fiends, Jackals, Gauchos, raiders and highwaymen—Whatever they called themselves they were all the same thing. Dangerous.
Was it this big before the bombs? Surely in better condition, but the Strip was the only glimpse into the city hundreds of years ago. There lay revenge and something else. Something that comes of revenge, or so he thought. Lawrence crashed next to Vincent on the lounger, but the boy was lost, deep in his own thoughts. Head tilted as he observed the young man. A silent chuckle and admiring gaze. A nose, much too big for his face, a slight hook on the bridg as well. Red blotches across his cheeks from the relentless sun lightened since they took refuge inside, but that same sun kissed his hair. Strands of rust and gold twining through brunette waves. Lawrence turned in his seat, setting an arm off the back of the chair, yet the boy still didn’t take his eyes off the engaging view. Only until Lawrence waved his hand in front of Vincent’s, did he finally come back to Earth.
“You alright there?”
“Yeah, I was just looking at the view…”
Lawrence glanced out the windows. The only light that illuminated the terminal originated from the windows. Disguised as a nice view, it was merely better for power consumption. “Quite a view indeed.”
“What did the clerk say?”
“They cleared you, but it’s gonna take about a week.”
“Well, it’s something.”
Good he would be able to get in, but it was longer than he’d like. Maybe that was a good thing too. Time to prepare was a necessity, especially with how unsure he was. Was a confrontation what he wanted? It angered him to no end. Remembering how terrified he was in those moments as he watched his own grave be dug. Even more so after he woke up in the doctor’s house. He knew he wouldn’t be the same and had yet to truly take inventory of what he had lost. The days lost unconscious, the paralyzed pupil, and the headaches were just a few he knew of.
“Lucky you know a handsome ranger to sponsor you,” Lawrence smirked as he leaned to him. The squeal of the rubber seats pulled Vincent from drowning in his thoughts. He scoffed, debating whether he should indulge the ranger’s remark. He was quite tempted to, but… What if Lawrence found out? Throwing all his own strangeness aside, was the man even gay? Surely, the ranger sees Vincent as a man, just young and inexperienced. Yet, even if he was, the moment he found out about his deformity there’s no way the ranger wouldn't be disgusted.
Vincent spun around in the seat, as if doing so would make all his doubts and incessant thoughts fly off and away. If he had any smile on his face, it disappeared by now. “I don’t know if I can repay you, Lawrence.”
“I’m not asking for anything,” He stated. “Just don’t go get yourself shot in the head again, otherwise it would have been a waste.”
Vincent laughed. “I’ll try not to. I didn’t like it the first time around.”
“Well, let’s get out of here,” Lawrence suggested, coming to his feet. “Paperwork leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.”
“That right?” Vincent followed him further into the terminal lobby. “Does it have something to do with using too many brain cells?”
“Watch it, short-stack,” He jabbed Vincent’s shoulder .Lawrence tugged the ratty kevlar shoulder strap. “That vest ain’t gonna protect you from me.”
“I took on a deathclaw,” Vincent retorted so matter-of-factly. “I doubt a ranger is any competition.”
“Hah!” Lawrence sputtered as he shook his head. He stepped first on the stairs, a pair of broken escalators really. “Lotta bark in you for such a little guy.”
“What do you suppose there’s to do in the meantime? Waiting to get processed n’ whatnot…”
“Well, seeing as neither of us are rich cattle barons—” The lobby of McCarran was a huge, cavernous room. Just about made up the whole building. A set of model planes hung from a high ceiling. More flashy neon lights indicated terminals and other services from when the airport was actually an airport and not a fortress. “Guess gambling and drinkin’ our days away isn’t an option.” Lawrence paused by doors. He studied a board mounted on the wall. Papers pinned into the cork illustrated faces and names, flyers of some NCR events for the soldiers, and notices of mundane rules and regulations. “I can think of somethin’.” That sly smile crossed his ranger’s face. He plucked a paper from its spot.
“You just told me not to get shot a few minutes ago,” Vincent exclaimed, but the ranger had only a shrug to give. “How much are they paying?” He stood on his toes for a better look at the paper. A man. A heavy scowl shown beneath a substantial brow ridge. No hair, but plenty of tattoos on a bald scalp and a bit creeping down his throat.
Lawrence peered through the scope of his rifle down onto what was once the Las Vegas Steel Factory. The factory spanned nearly a mile on its own, but it wasn’t even wholly intact. It must have been an enormous place in its time. All that remained of it was a bland structure like most that still stood on the fringes on New Vegas’s boundary. A decayed sign hung by a single rusted cable on the pillars, liable to fall any day now. The sun bleached any color it may have had, but if you squinted hard enough you could make out something red and black. In those mazes of steel beams and drywall, were raiders, bandits, outlaws, all sorts hidden in the drudges of society. Their numbers were their strength, so none crossed into their territory, lest they were brave or stupid. Yet, a ranger and a courier lodged themselves on a vantage point in one of many crumbling buildings across the highway. Their target was known to skulk about on the overpass, taunting soldiers stationed outside McCarran and even harassing patrols. A few obscene gestures and disrobing sprinkled in when he was particularly daring.
“Snipers are always in pairs; one shoots, and one spots, but both know how to shoot.”
“Is it difficult?” Vincent inquired as he looked at Lawrence, binoculars still attached to his eyes.
“Being able to shoot a sniper rifle is one thing, the real difficulty is can you be a sniper.”
The rifle was a huge thing. Black and matte with a long, thin barrel. He figured the whole thing would come at least to his elbows if they stood side-by-side. “What do you mean?”
“It's like hunting…” A distant tone articulated. “You decide when this person dies.” Lawrence loaded the rifle’s magazine. Bullet by bullet, with patience and care. “Where you put the bullet.”
“Does it bother you?”
Lawrence paused briefly before looking back into the scope. Not every successful mission was one to be celebrated. “I suppose it depends.” He adjusted the knobs of the scope as he peered down. “What I’m doing. Why I’m doing it.”
“I can guess why it might be rough.”
“Trainin’ was a bitch and a half, that's true, but I loved it.”
Vincent stared out to the horizon where their bounty awaited sure death. A few walked about across the highway, oblivious of the ranger whose crosshairs were set upon them. He never thought about snipers much. He always imagined it was like killing any enemy, but he hadn’t done much of that yet. “Sometimes the things you've done will catch up with you and you regret following those orders. You start thinking about what else you could have done differently.”
Lawrence hushed himself. He stared through the eyepiece. For Vincent however, it was interesting to see a ranger at work, especially after so many stories about their endeavors at Hoover Dam. “Are you proud of your work though?”
The ranger stayed silent. He held his breath. The rifle’s boom resounded through the valley. It shook him, outside then vibrated into his heart. Like a heavy wave washed over. Even through the silencer and the earplugs, the rifle made itself known. Quite odd given sniper’s were supposedly the sneaky type. Vincent returned his gaze through the binoculars. Their target lay there on cement, in the middle of the overpass’s intersection. Any allies he may have had nearby scrambled off into the ruins.
“Yes,” Lawrence finally responded.
“Was that him?”
“If the tattoos and cueball head of his was any indication, absolutely.”
“You can see that much detail with the scope?”
“Wanna take a gander?”
Lawrence shuffled aside, still on his stomach. Vincent lay next to him the same way. He knew it would be heavy, but the gun was more than he expected. Even with the stand that held up the barrel, the boy’s arms struggled to keep it up as they twitched in defiance. “Wow,” He muttered as he looked down onto the ruins in detail.
“Ought to take you for practice,” Lawrence suggested, lighting a fresh cigarette.
“I could use it.”
Down on the overpass felt more like being naked up on a stage of everyone you knew. With so many unsavory individuals hiding like snakes in grass of old ruins, neither let their guard down. A disgusting odor permeated the man. Not death, no this was months of unwashed human. It crept up on the two before they even got within six feet of him.
Lawrence knelt at the body. “Might want to look away,” He suggested to Vincent as he pulled the hunting knife from its sheath. The stench turned his stomach. At least it wasn’t enough to make him need to vomit, but when he heard that awful tearing. Then a crack he steadied himself. Hands planted on his knees as his stomach threatened another heave. “So this one,” Lawrence started through a labored grunt. “Not only is he ugly, but also is guilty of smuggling. Usually the people type. Also dabbled in drug dealing.”
“Hm,” Vincent hummed. He refrained from opening his mouth for fear breakfast might come up for another go.
The knife cut deep one last time. That sound made him shiver. An awful bone crack. Sawing on cartilage. Never had he been so not curious. “Alright,” Lawrence exhaled as he stood up. “Let’s head back.”
Their arrival at McCarran drew the attention of the soldiers—A severed head in hand and whatnot. Lawrence didn’t seem to mind, but then again he was also a ranger so those looks were ones of reverence. A few grimaced at the sight, but they didn’t look too long. On the bright side, there was one less problem in the world.
“Well look what the cat dragged in,” A mocking voice called from across the terminal lobby.
“Ah, is that a faint whisper of insignificance I hear?”
The approaching uniform carried a grin. A major in the NCRA. Tall, dark, and intimidating. “What did you do now? Still harassing Legion patrols in your spare time?” Both the men extended hands for a strong shake.
“Oh, here and there. Bounty hunting occasionally.” He nodded to the head in his left hand. A stained and hole-ridden sack was all that carried their bounty’s head.
“I think I smelled him before I saw him,”The major curled a lip at the sight. “Which ugly fuck is that?” Vincent retrieved the folded bounty from his satchel and presented it to the major. He examined the paper. “Ah, my memory is refreshed—Ugly fuck number 65!” He peered into the sack, shifting it around for a better look at the head inside all while wearing a tight-lipped scowl on the sight.
Lawrence lit a cigarette as he looked over his map. The clamor of the casino crowd had been halted at the arch that led to the dining hall. Staff wandered about, but the swishing of uniform pants did little to take either out of their trance. Vincent propped his head up in his hands. Vacant eyes stared at the glossy wood counter. He studied each of its knots and waves. Obstacles and ways around them. Yet, some stopped entirely. “I’m still unsure of what to do.”
The ranger glanced up from the map in time for the bartender to bring a tall glass. “About what?”
He looked at the glass. A heavy white foam tempted to overflow the top while the amber liquid gleamed even in the low-light of the casino floor. “About Benny. We still have to go to the Tops and figure out where he went. I’m just hoping I’m not on some ghoul-goose chase…”
“Well, you have the advantage of surprise.”
“You think so?”
“There’s no way he knows you even lived, let alone you’re after him.”
“I suppose that's true,” Vincent pondered. Yet it still nagged. All the unknowns, all the possibilities… Surely Lawrence wasn’t so indecisive. Vincent studied at the ranger. He had set his duster over the back of the chair. Frankly, Vincent found him better in just the white button-up shirt he wore under it all and the faded jeans, but only because Vincent could get a better look at his form. A strange mix of attraction and jealousy rushed him when it came to Lawrence. It had faded a bit as he grew accustomed to the man’s presence and only the admiration and desire remained. It wasn’t the first time, however. No, it happened a little too often for comfort. He figured it was because those men were, in some way, the kind of man he wanted to be. When it came to Lawrence, he knew he wished he had the ranger’s confidence and bravery. Good looks were just a boon. He sighed. Vincent would just be happy with the right body.
All the times he couldn’t stand up for himself played in his head like an old-world movie. His face twisted. Tied up. Heart beating so hard in his chest. Trembling. His captors, men he had never seen before, never met, never slighted, dug his grave right in front of him. Taunting he’d been thrown in any minute. A gun to his head. He shook his head and gripped the arms of his chair. A fire burst inside him, hot and fueling a thirst for revenge and the need to prove something to himself for himself.
“Lawrence,” He started. “Can you teach me to be better with a gun?”
The ranger looked up from his map, attention remained on the boy this time. He had been expecting it, but didn’t want to force it on Vincent in case he misread him. A slow nod came first before he said, “Of course.”