It is much before dawn when Arthur crawls out of bed, careful not to stir the man beside him. His companion sleeps much better between silk sheets than he does, and Arthur nearly laughs when the mass of blankets instinctively rolls itself into a feathery cigar in response to the absence of another body beside it.
Arthur dresses quietly, choosing simple flannels and cowboy boots rather than one of his many sequined suits. He opens a window before he leaves, just a crack to allow some of the brisk night air to waft in.
Below Vegas glows. Immortal, beautiful.
It fills him with a giddy kind of excitement, just like it did when he first looked at the strip from this window all these years ago, and decided that he wanted Vegas as he had never wanted anything.
Some loves never leave you, even if you run away from them for a while. After Hoover Dam the Courier proved too heavy to carry, and when his crew disbanded Arthur saw little reason not to walk away himself.
So he did, until he got all the way to the other end of America.
He draws the curtain and moves to call the elevator, quietly shutting the master suite’s door along the way.
Ten years, and Vegas has waited for him. How lucky can one guy be?
“Beep?” the sound is questioning and somehow, impossibly, sleepy.
Arthur turns his head to regard the eyebot bobbing gently across the hall.
“Sure, kid. You come right along.” It will be impossible to blend into a crowd if he takes Ed-E, but after all this time apart he cannot deny the little robot anything.
As predicted, the somewhat thin 4am bustle along the strip grinds to an immediate halt when Arthur emerges from the Lucky 38. Drunkards, tourists and enforcers alike stare at him with something like awe in their faces.
“Move along.” A nearby securitron rolls towards the crowd, waving its springy arms in an effort to shoo people on their way.
Arthur tips his hat, half to his small audience of onlookers and half to the helpful robot giving him enough space to slip out of the gate and into Freeside.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Arthur mutters, gently thumping Ed-E’s chassis as they disappear into the night. “I ain’t some sort of mythological figure! Folks remember damn well how we took the dam. I got lucky.”
“Beep.” Ed-E bumps him right back.
Arthur grins, rubbing his smarting shoulder. The bot is right; modesty was never his style. “I suppose. It was a pretty wild ride.”
Ed-E bobs next to him, which is as good as any nod.
Arthur roams, without much aim, amused by the thought that no matter how much walking he’ll do tonight, he’ll only go back to the casino at the end of it. Home is where there’s hot running water, a fortune to spend and…
Regular sex with the same person is also something he’s getting used to.
Must be getting old.
It is strangely quiet, safe for the distant barking of an overeager guard dog. Vegas never sleeps, but Freeside apparently tries to. The name is nothing but an artifact these days - one of the few things Arthur did before he went on his long walk was to get the Securitrons to open the gates and control the ebb and flow of more traffic into Vegas proper. It was messy. Bloody even. But that was the price of freedom, or so he had told himself at the time.
Sic semper tyrannis, and all that.
People like Arthur should not have an army, he thinks not without regret.
Actually,no one person should have an army, but all things considered things could have turned out a lot worse for Freeside and the Strip,
The streets are familiar, but the atmosphere is not. Even if Arthur were anybody else, he doubts it’d be likely some random thug would try to jump him armed with nothing but a dented pry bar in this new Freeside.
Crazy, what desperation will make people do.
The Garret’s are still there, to Arthur’s most pleasant surprise. On their long walk back into Vegas he had insisted on spending the first night in the Atomic Wrangler’s moth-eaten upstairs room, though they could have realistically made it to the comfort of the Lucky 38 well before midnight. No one else had slept in the Courier’s bed during those long ten years, or so a blustering James Garret had claimed. This was, of course, a bunch of dogshit as far as Arthur could tell, but he appreciates that James respects him enough to try and lie.
He doesn’t think he’ll go back to the Wrangler tonight. Early morning benders just aren’t the same without Cass, and these days he is nowhere near sad enough to drink himself into a stupor all by his lonesome.
It’s all just ants beneath the skin.
Beside him, Ed-E plays the first few mournful notes of Blue Moon as he makes to float vaguely into the direction of the Old Mormon Fort.
“Oh, honey,” Arthur sighs. “He’s not there.” He does not know this for certain, but it feels good to say.
The little robot hovers defiantly.
“And even if he were, I have no intention of opening old scars.” He puts his hands in his pockets. Nights in the desert are chilly. “We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms, remember?”
Ed-E bumps him, though more gently than before. Arthur rests his hand on the chassis, feeling the motors burr gently beneath. It is warm, alive in ways other people probably wouldn’t appreciate.
Ed-E beeps softly.
“Alright.” He sighs. “You win.”
There are still no guards at the gate of the fort, madness then and an oversight now. A handful of hired guns linger in the yard, pacing half-heartedly between the tents to stay awake. They don’t even glance at Arthur and the eyebot. The cheapest of cheap labour. No wonder the Followers never managed to establish much of a presence anywhere, with that lack of foresight and self-preservation. Good people just don’t go far anymore.
Then again, last Arthur heard they were trying to establish another outpost in the Bison Steve hotel in Primm. Good on them, if it works.
Apart from the useless security, the yard is largely empty. An old woman in a sequined dressing gown is warming herself by a fire, speaking animatedly to a young doctor who is fighting to look appropriately awake and compassionate.
Like Freeside, the Fort is not what it was, but even Arthur fails to feel nostalgic for the hordes of poor and suffering who used to crowd the place.
It’s reassuring, really.
“Are you looking for something?”
The voice belongs to a slight man in a doctor’s coat. His voice is gentle, but not without edge, like a knife sheathed in thick wool.
Arthur does not know why his first instinct is to lie. “You people are kind to strays. I ain’t got the caps for a hotel, and last time I rolled into Freeside they made me a hot drink and gave me a burlap sack to sleep under.” He smiles sheepishly, knowing that his clothes are too clean and well-mended to make him a drifter, but confident that boldness can open much more difficult doors. ”Figured I’d try my luck again.”
“I see,” says the man slowly. He seems more guarded than before. Perhaps Arthur has overplayed it a little? Pity.
Arthur again lays a hand on Ed-E’s chassis, petting gently as a cowboy might have touched a horse in the old days. “Been a few years since I was last in town. Can’t quite believe how… tidy everything is these days.” He does not take his eyes off the doctor. “I remember when you couldn’t save yourselves for refugees.”
“Ah, yes,” the man notes. “After the dam.”
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees. “After the dam.”
The man’s expression does not change, but he looks at Arthur with an intensity that is difficult to decipher. Somehow their interaction has all the markings of a standoff, though there is no discernible reason why it should.
“Something on my face, Doc?” Arthur asks. “I can move along if I ain’t wanted.”
The man shakes his head. “No,” he says, sounding somewhat taken aback, “no. I am sorry to stare, it is just - we don’t get many lost sheep these days, especially at this time of night. You don’t seem injured, you see-”
“Not all those who wander are lost, mister.” And not all scars are one the skin, but that bit should go without saying.
The man runs a hand through his greying hair. He must be somewhere around middle-aged, but years of sorrow and worry make him seem much older. Arthur has seen the look before, especially on medics.
“I suppose,” the man concedes. “My manners are terrible. I should offer you a hot drink and a bed for the night.”
Arthur smiles. “It’s alright,” he says. “Not all doctors are people persons. I’ll take the drink, at least.”
The man’s eyes widen, as though he is surprised that Arthur would take him up on the offer, but he dutifully pulls back a flap on a nearby tent and motions for Arthur to get inside.
The interior of the tent is sparse and nondescript, outfitted with a few empty metal cots, a table and some of the most uncomfortable chairs Arthur can remember sitting on. All old military stuff from the good old days before the big boom. Nostalgia is a pain in the ass.
Arthur sits down and curiously watches the doctor mess with a hotplate and some cups. His hands are shaking ever so slightly. Can’t be a surgeon, then. Maybe he’s a researcher, like Arcade was? Arthur cannot shake the feeling that he has seen this man before. He’s always had an excellent memory for names and faces, enough to fake his way through conversations with even the faintest of acquaintances. But in some ways ten years are a long time after all.
Soon enough the kettle whistles, and the man prepares two cups of steaming tea. He fumbles briefly with a flask by his belt and adds a few splashes of clear liquid to what turns out to be his own cup.
Arthur hides a smile behind his palm, and bites back a comment about how unkind it is not to share. A thin tea made from sliced cactus and wildflowers is the favoured drink of caravaners and couriers all across the desert, and rarely consumed without the addition of some sort of liquid courage. But for now Arthur sips it plain, and does not mind that it is sad and bitter.
The man has not joined him at the table, but continues his frankly bewildering behavior by lingering as close to the tent flap as he can manage.
Arthur is used to leaving people uneasy, but right now he is not trying. Poor guy. Maybe some light conversation will set the man at ease? “Do you have a name, Doc?”
”Bill.” It sounds like a confession.
“Nice to meet you, Doctor Bill.” Arthur smiles, making it friendly with a touch of flirtation. He cannot help himself with doctors, especially if they seem kind. “My name is Arthur, I-” he trails off. The man, Bill, has closed his eyes tightly and is breathing deep and slow, as though he is trying to calm himself. This is getting weirder by the second.
“You okay there, Doc?”
“Have you come for me, courier?” Bill does not open his eyes. The knuckles on the hand clutching his mug are white. “It is time somebody did, but please don’t toy with me. It has been a long time, and I don’t think I could stand it. Please just make it quick.”
The night is certainly taking an interesting turn.
Arthur rises, crossing most of the distance between them to get a better look at the doctor’s face. He is now certain of its familiarity, but to his great annoyance he has not the faintest clue as to what this poor old fool is talking about.
“I’m no executioner,” Arthur says mildly.
Bill blinks at him, then draws his brows. He is scared, but not without defiance. “No? Tell that to Robert House and Edward Sallow.”
Arthur’s smile cracks a little.
“I see your point, fella,” he admits, ”but you’re hardly what they were.”
“I am what I am.”
Whatever that may be. This Bill looks worn and tired, and otherwise like nothing much at all. Perhaps he was handsome once. Perhaps he might still be, with a few nights worth of sleep and someone to tear the bottle from his belt. The signs of the drink are obvious to Arthur. They were all over Cass back in the day, and all over his mom before that.
“So you are,” Arthur agrees, still lost but trying to play along with the madman. “But what of it? We all are what we are. It’s all we can be.”
Used to be all over Arthur, too, if he is honest with himself.
Arthur breaks away. The mood is too heavy, and he feels like he needs a distraction. If he were smart he’d walk away.
“You play cards, fella?” Arthur does not wait for an answer before he pulls an ancient deck from one of Ed-E’s many compartments and starts shuffling, making it more of a show than he needs to. Back in the day he could pull a card from any place in the deck, but he is dreadfully out of practice.
“Isn’t chess more usual?”
Arthur beams at the older man. “That was almost a joke! Well done! Now come join me at the table.”
Bill still moves like a man who thinks himself condemned, but he does as he is told, watching quietly as Arthur sets up a standard game of Caravan.
“You a betting man, Bill?”
Arthur waves the comment away. “That’s alright,” he says. “I’ll set you up. It’ll be only for show, but that’s all that matters anyway. You don’t look like you need the stakes to be high.”
Arthur was lying when he said that he did not have the caps for a hotel room. May well be that he’s the wealthiest man alive between the army of robot soldiers, and the fortune he has stashed away in the casino. It’s all been untouched until now, of course, the knowledge of it as heavy the courier’s legacy. The leather pouch dangling from Arthur’s belt has also not been touched in a decade, and after so long it feels strange to pull out a handful of mixed currency.
Hah. No pre-war coinage, and yet the penny drops.
Of course he’s seen that face before, or at least a much younger version of it.
Bill Calhoun was a handsome man when Edward Sallow put him on his money. The etching probably does not do him a lick of justice.
And a little sad.
No wonder poor Bill is shaking in his boots.
“I wasn’t lying, y’know,” Arthur says casually, when what he really wants to do is yell ‘You’re Bill Calhoun!’, like a jackass. After a moment’s hesitation he still deals, and then starts a track when Bill does not move. “I’m not some sort of avenging angel of legionaries, or some bullshit like that. You weren’t the ghost I was chasing.”
Unexpectedly something not unlike comprehension blooms across Bill’s worn face. It is somewhat unnerving, and grows more so when Bill buries his head in his hands and exhales.
“I am an idiot,” Bill laments, though at least some relief is palpable.
Arthur does not get a chance to jokingly voice his agreement before the old man pulls the rug out from beneath his feet.
“You were looking for Arcade, weren’t you?”
It makes sense, Arthur supposes. They were followers doctors from the same camp. Of course they'd know each other. Or of one another, at least.
“The world’s a fucking village, huh?” There’s a half empty pack of cigarettes in Arthur’s pocket, and he is all too eager to fish it out all of a sudden.
Bill smiles ruefully. “Population numbers never recovered after the great war,” he offers, by way of unasked explanation. Perhaps it is another near-enough joke. “I was here when you picked him up. Before-”
Arthur cuts him off. “Before I was the courier.”
Arthur’s head swarms with a million questions. How well did Bill know Arcade? When was Arcade last seen? What he settles on is both more and less personal.
“Did he know? About who you are.” Does anybody? “Even Ceasar seemed to think you were dead.” As did a man Arthur once met in a cave in Utah, if he recalls correctly.
BIll shakes his head, and uncharacteristically decides to steal a cigarette.
“He had no reason to think that. All he knows is that I ran away.” His hands shake as he lights up.
“And no. He didn’t. Nobody does.”
Arthur emits a contemplative sound.
“I don’t suppose I have much reason to tell anybody.”
“That is… generous of you.” Though Bill is much calmer now, the sadness has not left. At this point it might be part of him, stitched into his skin and his bones.
Arthur shrugs his shoulders.
“What’d be the point? I mean, I know jack about you, but as far as I’m concerned you quit the Legon business while you were ahead.“
The same way Arcade quit before he had to watch Arthur turn into another House. One hell of a wake-up call that was. Crying shame for however many tribes the Legion steamrolled over that the same trick didn’t work on Edward Sallow back in the day.
“No shame at all in running from something like that.”
Bill makes a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. Jesus fuck.
“You’re quite right,” he says, finally picking up his hand of cards. “You don’t know me at all.”
They do finish the game, in the end. Then another, and a third still until the sun creeps over the horizon. Arthur becomes suddenly, painfully aware that somebody is waiting for him in the casino.
“Thanks for this, weird as it was.”
They pack the cards away and Bill rinses their mugs. Throughout the night the old doc had grown more liberal with his tequila. They leave the tent together, and make a game attempt at an awkward handshake.
Bill will not quite meet Arthur’s eyes.
“You look at me funny, Calhoun. “
There is the same rueful smile again.
“You killed my best friend.”
It’s difficult to feel sorry for the death of somebody like Ceasar, and Arthur will not try. But sympathy for Bill is easy.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “One of them, anyway. Do you know that Joshua Graham is alive?” Or was alive a decade ago, but Joshua Graham does not seem the type to die quietly in his cave.
Bill’s face cycles through an interesting range of expressions, none of them happy.
“I- I do not know what to do with that information.”
Arthur claps him on the shoulder.
“Up to you, sugar. Up to you. He’s up in Utah, if you ever fancy a walk that way. We talked a lot about things like redemption last I saw him.” He winks. “Mormons, eh?”
He turns to leave the old man to his demons, hoping his own have been laid to rest for now. He makes it nearly to the gate before Bill catches up with him again.
“Wait-,” he says,” I am sorry, but I have to ask. Where were you for all these years?” The follow up question is only implied - and why would you come back now?
Arthur rests a hand on Ed-E, drumming his fingers to buy some time while he thinks of how to phrase his answer.
“I guess I was trying not to become the next man in the tower. Still fear I might, but I figure I’ll know if I’m fucking up again if somebody else runs away from me.”
“Yeah,” Arthur sighs and gestures dismissively. “Yeah.”
“I am sorry, for what it is worth.”
“So am I Billy boy. For what it’s worth.”
They part ways, quietly and with no plans to meet again. It is likely better that way.
The Lucky 38 is only a short walk away, and Arthur finds himself rushing home with long strides. Upstairs there are ghosts and unfinished business, but there are also good memories and a man in Arthur’s bed.
Perhaps one will make the other more bearable in the long run.