Five years she’d lived in the Southwest, and she still hadn’t gotten used to this fucking dry air. Didn’t think she ever would. Wasn’t sure she could change, what with being a fucking zombie, or whatever the fuck she was now.
Maybe she’d survived ‘cause she’d built up an immunity to sand scratching her throat to shit. To feeling like she couldn’t fucking breathe. Like she needed water. And maybe it was still utter hyperbole to compare trekking out to Vault 22 to choking on the dirt of her own grave — but hey, if anyone was allowed to make that kinda comparison, it was her, right?
And maybe she didn’t wanna keep replaying it in her mind all the fucking time like this, but Boone wasn’t much of a distraction. Or. Heh. You know. He was. But not in the idle conversation way. Hmm. Occasionally in the deep conversation way, which some people might have found weird, but not her. They’d been through similar shit, and it seemed like they’d been similarly fucked-up to begin with. He was doing pretty well, in her estimation. Four months after her husband had died, she’d been… well… a mess. Started hearing voices… and that was another thing to make Benny pay for. So hard to get used to the quiet.
But she was getting pretty used to Boone, quiet as he was. And she would have liked the chance to get a little more used to him, if it weren’t for the whole recently widowed thing. She would have been content to wait — at least until the Legion rocked up and made masturbation illegal, which was surely the meanest thing they’d do — but how long did they have? She was on borrowed time, twice over, maybe thrice, and it was clear Boone thought he was, too. Would they be allowed to borrow more?
She risked a glance at him. (Best thing about Boone was he always knew when they were being watched. Worst thing about Boone was he always knew when she was watching him.) Before she’d even gotten the chance to drink him in, his eyes met hers behind his sunglasses, and she felt her stomach flip. She looked away and gulped.
Oh, forget borrowing — she’d steal the time. Shoot its owner dead, if she had to. Wasn’t like they were doing anything useful with it, considering they weren’t fucking him any more than she was. Though… if it was god, or fate, or whatever, maybe they were… but he’d enjoy her version a little more. Or, she hoped so. And fantasised so.
Which was something to feel guilty about. They were friends, and he was grieving. She shouldn’t have flirted with him like she did, either. But, he seemed to be a forgiving person. A good man. Which… just made her want him more.
Her worst fantasies about him had two themes. The first was that he’d mistake her for Carla. It had already happened once, sleeping next to him, and she was fine with it happening more. The way he’d gripped her hip and pulled her back into him, hard, as she ground on him, was, erm… probably not something wise to think about when he was walking right next to her and could turn to look at her at any time. Neither was it wise to think about how she’d felt every rock solid inch of him, and wow, there were a few. Erm, nope. Not thinking about it.
Better to cool off a little thinking about the other theme. Yeah… just remembering that it was something she ever considered really did chill her. Useful thing to remember in this fucking heat.
She could… tell him the truth. Where she was from. How she’d gotten here. She knew he was curious. She felt bad for evading his questions all the time. And it was just, well, rude, wasn’t it? She knew where he was from. And, heh, how old he was… but reassuring him that she wasn’t really three hundred fucking years old wasn’t the worst part. She wasn’t sure what was: the Legion stuff, or the Vault Tec stuff. Yeah. It was… nice, really nice, to have so many options for your fantasies, wasn’t it? Maybe it was roleplaying material! Ooh, baby, I’m responsible for the Great War, and for who knows how many Legion atrocities! Are you going to spank me?
Maybe fantasies were safer, anyway. In her mind, Boone could be whatever she wanted him to be. No need to worry about what he might want or need her to be, either. And what about the fantasies that maybe some other people might find more shameful — the ones where he was overcome with passion, or, worse, mad at her. And he was mad at her a lot. Hmm. Yeah. Even a chemmed-up loser like her didn’t really want that. Fun to imagine, but a man who’d treat you that way was to be avoided. And… in many ways Boone was a man to be avoided, but…
But she was a fuck-up. And she was starting to think she needed him.
Vault 22 was everything they’d been promised and more. Oh, the green green green plants spilling out of its entrance were wonderful enough, but inside? It was humid! And the only thing sweeter than the humidity itself was the smell of the damp soil, and the leaves themselves. The sap, or whatever. The beautiful, intoxicating smell of plants.
She was giddy, half-skipping down the corridors. Pissing Boone off… but oh, if she could bottle this? She wouldn’t need any other chems. He’d like that… and she’d like it if he wasn’t so cross with her all the time. His disapproval flattened the spring in her step, but didn’t erase it.
“What are you so worried about, anyway?” she asked him.
He looked at her like she was stupid. He did that a lot, too… “The warnings?” he hissed. “On the signs here, and what Williams told us. This isn’t a goddamned park, Peterson.”
“No,” she admitted, giggling. “It’s more like a botanical garden!”
She ran into the huge open space ahead and spun on the spot. Flinging her arms out, she felt herself grin as she took in the scene. The plants were wonderful enough, but to be in a vault, a real vault! It was beautiful. Awe-inspiring. And maybe… something to be proud of? She wasn’t an engineer or an architect, and they must have broke ground on this place long after she began her company-sponsored nap, but to have had any hand in this, this verdant cathedral, peaceful yet teeming with life, the greatest achievements of nature and science combined—
It evaporated as Boone’s quiet anger hit her. Dried her mouth… but vodka would sort that out. Huh. Almost didn’t sting on the way down, when her sinuses and nostrils weren’t all shrivelled up, dessicated, and the air she gulped in as a chaser was so blissfully moist. God, she could… stay down here. Fuck Benny and whatever that stupid chip was about. Down here, in the damp… maybe it didn’t suit everyone, ‘cause they’d all left, but it would suit her. Suit her more if she wasn’t alone here, but alone with Boone, but it seemed like the greenery was making him as eager to flee as it was making her want to put down roots. Funny what you could get used to, right?
He was always easy to piss off — or maybe she was just aggravating — but it was worse today. She’d thought it had just been that he didn’t like the director of the OSI any more than she did, but… no. It was her. Or, her in this vault, at least.
Or maybe she was being silly. He was on edge here, and maybe he was right and she should have been, too. He was just in his serious sniper mode. Which… meant she didn’t have to be!
She smiled, and skipped over to look at a beautiful dendrobium. Oh, and the smell! She breathed it in, and it came out as a happy sigh. She really could almost pretend she was in a greenhouse at a botanical garden and not… well. Hmm. Here.
Not that here was all bad. Not since she’d met Booney. Yeah… why not fantasise? Nothing to worry about with him watching her back. She always loved to hear him say he was watching it, too. Heh — maybe he was watching it closely right now, as she was bent over… but that wasn’t what she meant.
He made her feel so safe. And she’d so rarely felt safe. So, she shouldn’t have been so surprised it made him so easy to love.
Wait, what? Love? No, it was… erm… she was sniffing the flowers too hard, and she’d gone light-headed. Maybe him scowling at her would both reassure her and clear her head a little.
She turned, and he… shot at her? It didn’t hurt. And… wow… guess she hadn’t been silly to think he hated her, after all…
He fired again and again and… oh. Not at her! She whipped around and drew her revolver, but… she couldn’t see anyone?
“It’s over,” he said, firmly, from somewhere behind her. She could hear him reloading, now her ears were readjusting, but, what…?
Oh! A… a man, in the plants? But… all… mossy, and…
“Don’t touch it!”
“But he looks so soft,” she murmured, thinking of the cactus she’d stroked as a child on a similar impulse, and not the hours it had taken to pry each needle from her palm afterwards. Still, she hesitated.
“Goddamn it, Peterson!” Boone spat, wrenching her hand behind her back. The force had her spin to face him and rise to her full height in one uncertain movement. He let go of her hand and steadied her with a hand on her hip, and she wasn’t thinking about that beautiful half-asleep morning, ‘cause he was really fucking angry with her right now, she could see it in his eyes, except he was pulling her closer, and… he let go.
She gasped for air. She wasn’t used to humidity any more — the way the sweat that soaked her skin stayed soaking it. How thick it was, in her mouth. Of course, none of this was any excuse to be staring at Boone, but, to be fair, he was staring at her.
Then it broke, as they both remembered the, erm, moss man…
“Why… why did you shoot at it?” she asked. It really did look… nice. Maybe it was like… a fairy, or something?
She turned back to Boone, who looked like he regretted ever agreeing to travel with her. “Because it was taking a swing at you.”
Oh. The mean kind of fairy, then. “I wonder how many there are here?” As she hadn’t seen it, there could have been some still here, watching them, even now… it was a very large room, too.
“Don’t wanna find out. That… thing took five shots to the head. To the brain, if it has one…”
It didn’t look so tough, but then, dead things rarely did. Herself included. “Well, I don’t really fancy an amateur autopsy to find out, but it might help if you let me touch it…”
“Are you ins—” She heard him take a deep breath, and groan.
Heh. See, he was a nice man.
“This place isn’t right. Why don’t people get out? What if they don’t die. What if they… stay.”
“… oh.” And not in the way she’d been fantasising about. Though… no, that was beyond an unhealthy fantasy. That really was insane. But it might be nice, to still be on her feet and fighting after four to the skull. Hmm… if it had a skull…
“What if it’s too late? What if we’ve been… exposed.”
He was really worried, bless him, though he was trying hard not to show it. “I doubt it,” she said, with a shrug. Put her hands on her hips and hummed as she thought about what she’d seen today, and not just the handsome sniper and the pretty plants. “Nothing weird happened, no big poof of pollen, that… creature didn’t bite us or whatever, we haven’t eaten or drank anything from here. And I feel fine.”
He wasn’t reassured. Piss. She wished she could make him feel safe, like he did for her. “I… don’t,” he admitted.
Hmm. Shit. Maybe he didn’t look so great, actually. Clammy… or… no! “It’s just the humidity, Booney!” she said, laughing. “You’re not used to it.”
“Yeah? And you are?”
All the things she could tell him. But to be fair to herself, he rarely actually asked. “Yeah. Do you wanna keep looking for the data, or not?”
He didn’t answer.
“We can… leave,” she ground out, trying not to roll her eyes. Did he realise how much she cared, to choose him over paradise? Maybe the delivery made it harder to see, but it really was the best she could do.
Maybe he did know. There was something fond in his expression.
Maybe he knew she’d do pretty much anything for him… but she kinda hoped not. She had these grand ideas about never being the one to want them more, as if she’d ever had any control over her own emotions. Hmm… maybe it was why she wanted to hide her past. Substitute for being unable to hide her feelings…
“No,” he answered, eventually. He wetted his lips to speak. Why, when it was so gloriously humid down here? Not that she was complaining. “Wanna stay.”
She beamed at him. “Okay! I’ll try to pay more attention, too… I’m sorry I wasn’t any help with this, erm, friend of ours.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, and the way she melted when he smiled had nothing to do with the climate. “Got your back.”
Maybe… maybe she had to admit defeat. Oh, not with those creatures: she and Boone made short work of them together, and now she was looking for ‘em, she could see ‘em just fine.
And not with Boone himself. Though. Surrender was perhaps inevitable. Just not today.
No… with the bloody humidity. Maybe she’d get used to it, if she stayed. But as she was pretty sure Boone was right about the origins of their mossy friends down here, that didn’t seem like a particularly good idea any more. Now? She could just about handle the dry heat of the Mojave, though she reserved the right to complain. And made very frequent use of it, to be honest.
And she would have given anything to experience the humid cool of her homeland again, but… humid heat? Ugh. Pretty pleasant if you were standing relatively still in a hot greenhouse. Traversing a vault? God, they were huge. Magnificently so, but… Hacking through the overgrown corridors, helping Boone shift old barricades of heavy lockers and metal desks and so on… it was just another way to choke on the air, and a change maybe wasn’t so good as a rest after all. Every level further underground they got, the worse it was. And they were sweating so much, they might have to risk the water here soon…
And… maybe it was the way that wetness between your legs for any reason could remind you of another, or maybe it was the way Boone’s shirt was clinging to his muscles. Maybe it was just that she was having a good time, here with the beautiful plants and… beautiful Boone. But… erm… it was hard to keep her mind on the task.
If they were going to die down here — and the more of these creatures they met and killed, the less unlikely it seemed — well… she might as well have seen if he was up for it, right?
But she couldn’t make the first move. Even in a bizarre creature-infested vault. It was half that she didn’t want to annoy or upset him, and half that… well… it wasn’t how it had gone any of the many, many times she’d carefully thought it through.
Sometimes she wondered if Boone thought about it, too. Not ‘cause of the flirting. That was just having a laugh. She’d flirt with anyone, and it seemed like he was the same. And not ‘cause of the time he’d thought she’d been his wife. She was pretty sure wanting him was at least half of the reason she’d mistaken him for her husband, but she really had been confused, and she was sure he had been, too. More confused than she’d been.
But… there were a few times she’d thought he’d wanted to kiss her. The only one she was sure about, he’d been fucking plastered, and mortified by it later, so that didn’t count. And… he’d look at her, sometimes… maybe he thought his sunglasses covered more than they did.
Or maybe she was imagining it. Flattering herself. He was gorgeous, but she knew she was past her prime. And she wasn’t sure she’d had a swan stage between this and ugly duckling for him to have missed out on.
But, if she wasn’t imagining it? Then he was looking at her like that right now. No sunglasses to disguise it, either.
Could’ve been she wasn’t imagining it, but it wasn’t really anything to do with her. The lights were low outside of the grow lamps. The air was so heavy… thick with humidity and so many scents. The wonderful earthy smell of fertile ground, the invigorating smell of green, and, my god, the flowers! Jasmine, gardenia, and other heady perfumes, sweet and musky.
And… the smell some flowers had, which could only be described as sex. In polite company, at least. Or. You know. Sex with men, more specifically. A smell which most of the time she’d found unpleasant, but maybe it was different from different plants. Or maybe it was that she was neither alone nor worried about an audience, and what they might think if it made her smile.
He finally looked away from her, and she thought she might as well investigate. If sniffing flowers was the closest she was gonna get… There was an impressive spadix on one of the plants in this room. Red… kind of uncomfortable looking, frankly. But she didn’t think scent and appearance would be that closely linked, and she was right. Didn’t smell of anything, male or otherwise.
There was a nice-smelling flower nearby… she bent over further to find it. There! From teeny tiny white flowers that looked like nothing at all. But they smelt like heaven. If heaven had a smell… “Booney!” she called, cheerfully, and despite her tone he went for his gun. “No, the— Come and smell this flower. It’s so nice!”
He looked suspicious, but he complied. She wanted to take the opportunity to watch his back a little, but of course he squatted sensibly instead of hinging at the waist like she always did. And he always told her off for. He stood up and, oh, he was standing very close. “Beautiful,” he said, softly, and she leant closer — to hear him, or…?
Oh, oh — if she got out of this with her faculties intact, she’d be thinking of that one pretty often. She gulped, and tried to remember that whichever way she counted it, she was far too old for giggling and hair twirling and foot shuffling and all the rest. She was nearly a decade older than him, not younger… she cleared her throat, and tried to act it. “Yeah. Erm. They are beautiful, aren’t they?”
He laughed at her. How transparent was she, to him? Oh… she felt her cheeks grow even hotter, with shame. She stared at the ground, and felt… his fingers, on her jaw? Warm… but she didn’t mind. He tilted her face up to his, and she knew he felt her gulp, again, like it’d help…
So close. She could smell the cigarettes on his breath, and it should have put her off, but it didn’t. All she wanted was to feel those lips on hers. True, she could have kissed him. But, he could have kissed her, too, and she was willing to wait.
He licked his lips, and her eyelids fluttered half-closed, like they’d done this before, like they did it all the time.
But… he didn’t kiss her. She opened her eyes more fully again, and cursed that she couldn’t pretend she’d closed them against the sun. Not down here. Or, not unless she wanted to get all poetical about it.
He just looked her in the eye and murmured, “You’re so hot.” Like he was trying to fucking kill her. Like he was throwing fuel on the fires of her fantasies, at least.
“Y-yeah,” she stammered. “It’s warm down here.”
Maybe it had been the wrong thing to say. Or maybe he really hadn’t known the effect he had on her, and, finding out, he didn’t like it. He dropped his hand to his side and backed away. She tried not to take it personally.
She took it very personally. Couldn’t look him in the eye — couldn’t look at him at all. “Erm, let’s keep looking. For. For a terminal, so I can see about getting the research from up here. Yeah?”
She risked looking at him. He looked… sad? God. Maybe he was doubting their whole friendship. “Sorry,” he muttered, as if he had anything to be sorry for! Wasn’t his fault he was sexy. She was the one making it weird.
“For what?” she asked, as brightly as she could.
He flexed his hands. Unconsciously? “Need to get out of here.” He took off his beret, and ran his free hand over his face and scalp, twice. “Thought it was you, too, but if it’s just me…”
“Oh.” She tried to examine him without ogling him, and was reasonably successful, but he looked the same as he had done this morning. Just sweatier, and, hmm, manlier, and… Stop it! “Do you feel… unwell?”
He just stared at her. God, he had such pretty eyes, without those sunglasses in the way. Not the big eyes she normally liked, but pretty, anyway. Such a beautiful shade of green, and, well, it was more than that, wasn’t it? It was that they were his eyes. Oh, she was so far gone, and she was being so unfair to him. He thought they were on the same miserable and widowed page, but she found she’d maybe finally gotten to the end of the book — or the chapter, at least — since meeting him.
And… he didn’t look well. He looked strained. His eyes were a little bloodshot… why hadn’t she noticed?
She risked getting a little closer. If he’d ran, she probably would have topped herself right then and there, but luck was on her side today. “Booney… are you okay?”
He still didn’t answer. His breathing didn’t sound right.
She reached for his arm, and he let her, but he flinched when she touched it.
“I’m… fine,” he choked out. Like he was in pain. “I, uh…” He laughed, and licked his lips again. Why the fuck did he have to keep doing that?! And the way his eyes flicked up and down her… “Could be better. But.”
She waited for the end of that sentence, but it didn’t come. He didn’t look mossy, or whatever, but they still didn’t know how it began. If they were right at all, and it was why the vault seemed abandoned. Keely’s notes and the fragmented records they’d found so far weren’t clear, apart from that it maybe spread via spores. “Erm… if you feel this bad, maybe we should leave.”
“No,” he whispered. “Let’s stay. You and me.”
Needlessly charged way to put it, but… “Alright. Tell me if it gets worse.”
He took a deep, shuddering breath, and nodded. As they set off, him behind her and watching her back like always, she thought she heard him mutter, “I will.”