I hated this quest. Seriously. Creeped the hell out of me. Stupid plants.
Boone and Sparrow cautiously walked into the canyon, the air somehow smelling fresher with every step. Sparrow went first, and when she stopped suddenly, Boone almost ran into her. He was about to tell her off when a flash of green caught his eye, and then he joined the girl in staring, slack jawed, at the scene in front of him.
"I… it's so… it's all alive," Sparrow whispered reverently.
Silently, the pair walked forward until their boots were hidden by the plants. They paused briefly beside a sign, but then continued.
"Movement," Boone muttered, swinging his rifle off of his back.
Both man and woman had their weapons trained on the miniature jungle before them, tracking a small bump moving near to the ground. Boone gritted his teeth, began to squeeze the trigger- and missed his shot as the bump suddenly jumped high out of the undergrowth, revealing it to be a simple mantis. Sparrow moved in smoothly and took it down, and Boone sighed deeply while replacing his rifle with his machete. The duo took out the rest of mantises and soon found them at the overgrown entrance to Vault 22. The sniper rested against a support began to clean mutated arthropod goo off his blade and saw Sparrow watching him, her eyebrow raised. He felt a headache coming on when she grinned mischievously at him.
"What, is the big bad sniper afraid of a widdle gween mantis?"
They had been in the vault for at least 15 minutes and Sparrow was already getting really sick of it. The novelty of being surrounded by living plants was wearing off, and she decided that it was more than vaguely creepy. As she got tripped again by a loose tendril of some vine or another, she cursed loudly, her voice echoing down the metal corridor.
"What, the little bratty kid afraid of some ivy?"
Sparrow whipped her head around and glared at her companion. His eyes were narrowed, challenging her, and in response she stuck her tongue out at him.
"It's just this place. It's so damn quiet. And green. And why is it so hot and sticky! I've never felt anything like this before."
She fanned her face as she spoke, small beads of perspiration running down her forehead and into the hollow of her neck. She noticed she was not the only one suffering- Boone's shirt was soaked through in places, sculpting itself to his well-defined chest...
Sparrow groaned at her thought process, cursed again, and dropped the pack. It wasn't until she was almost done peeling off her leather armor that she peeked up at the sniper, who was watching her expressionlessly. Feeling surprisingly self conscious, she dug through her pack, quickly changed into her fatigues and retied a bandanna around her hair, trying to keep her neck bare.
"Getting hot?" Boone's voice was more dour than usual, but she thought she heard a hint of amusement.
"Well, I'm soaked through and through. Here, hold the pack open and help me pack the armor up so we can move on."
They worked quickly and efficiently, and she tried not to shiver when Boone helped her put the pack on, the backs of his fingers brushing over her bare shoulders.
She took a moment to consult her pipboy, feeling better that she knew the way to quickly get back out in the familiar brown wasteland, squared her shoulders, and began to walk forward again. Boone followed her quietly, the sound of his footsteps blanketed by all the foliage.
They were entering the second level, and Sparrow found her nerves strung tight- the tiniest sound was making her pulse race. It was so quiet that she could hear her companion's breathing. They hadn't run into anything but a few mantises, but it was doing anything but calming her. There was a scraping noise behind her, and she whirled around, her pistol raised-
"Hey. Calm down, or we'll see how you like being in the crosshairs" Boone admonished her, adjusting his rifle- it had scraped against the vault wall, causing the noise.
"Sorry. Sorry. This place- it's giving me the creeps!"
To her surprise, Boone nodded in agreement. "I admit, this vault makes me… uneasy. A few mantises would not have chased out all the people or other wildlife." He looked over her, at the corridor laid out before. "Would you like me to take point?"
Everything in Sparrow's body screamed "Yes!" but she shook her head slowly. "No, you're better at a distance, plus you're taller than me- you can just shoot over my head. I still don't like this though."
Boone had just chopped down a flower and was now watching his partner.
"I really don't like this place!" she exclaimed, wiping some kind of brown muck off of her pants. "I may not know much about plants and crap, but I'm pretty sure they're not supposed to try and kill you! Or spit stuff at you!"
Boone thought about making a sarcastic comment, but resisted. Although he wouldn't vocalize it, he too was deeply disturbed by the vault. He found himself thinking of Carla, how she loved flowers, and smirked when he thought about bringing her a bundle of angry, spitting Vault 22 plants in a bouquet. Tied with a ribbon of course…
"What's so funny?"
Sparrow's voice cut through his half memory/half daydream, and he shook his head.
"Nothing. Thinking about flowers. Carla liked them."
"I hate flowers now. And I bet she'd share my opinion if she was here!"
Boone shrugged again, and soon they were destroying more flora, now taking pot shots from a distance. He was brooding; he hadn't meant to talk about Carla, and he wasn't sure what bothered him more- the fact that he had mentioned her in casual conversation, or the fact that the courier had vocalized almost his exact thoughts about his late wife. He no longer thought about Carla all the time, and when his thoughts did cross her in passing, they weren't accompanied in unbearable pain.
The girl had found a computer and was sitting down to read any information. Boone, although in much better shape than when he had first started travelling with her, was grateful for the respite. The vault was incredibly warm, which in itself would not be so bad, but it was also extremely wet- it felt like they'd been walking through a blanket of water vapor and heat. He pulled a bottle of water out and poured some down his throat, relishing the cool feeling. A muttered voice pulled his eyes back to his companion- she was still at the console, her chin resting in her hand, fixated on whatever was lighting up the screen.
If he was honest with himself, he was damn impressed with how the girl handled herself. They'd been travelling together for over two months, and he found himself unconsciously matching his stride to hers, or helping her before she asked, as he had with the pack earlier. He was far past embarrassment when she undressed in front of him now, and so he had watched her peel off the armor in mild amusement. Her face had streaks of dirt on it, dust that had collected in the rivulets of sweat, and her hair had ceased to be a fluffy, tangled mess, and was instead laying flat on her head. And he thought he had become mostly immune to her body, her femaleness, in the weeks since they had walked to New Vegas, but he hadn't been prepared.
As she stripped off the jacket that served as the top half of her armor, he had sucked in his breath. Her undershirt was soaked with sweat, and it clung to her, outlining her breasts in a way that left practically nothing to the imagination. When her pants followed, her shorts also clung to her, accenting her hips and the secret "V" at the apex of her thighs. Her skin was shiny, and when she looked up at him, her lips were softly parted in relief. Her bandanna had been pulled off in the struggle to free herself of her armor, and her hair, the color of dark, ashy silver in the dim lights of the vault, framed her face. He was unable to tear his eyes from her, feasting on the barely clothed outline of her body as a starved man would in sight of food…
Realizing he was on extremely dangerous ground but still unable to look away, Boone waited until she was finished changing, and then asked her, more sarcastically than he had intended, "getting hot?" He could only hope that she didn't notice his immediate physical response to her reply, and when he helped her replace the pack on her back, he felt electrified when he let his knuckles brush against her shoulders, slick and smooth.
"Hey, Boone, over here!"
Boone startled, and then took off after Sparrow, who was rounding a corner. More plants, but at least they weren't attacking. He found his eyes straying down Sparrow's backside- her fatigues fit her a little better than most people- and so was unprepared when the girl shouted and back-pedalled into his chest. He automatically reached out to steady her when he saw had caused her to stumble- a thing, suspiciously humanoid, was rising out of the plant matter. He still hadn't quite registered when Sparrow fired into it multiple times with her pistol, knocking it down. They stared at it, not moving for a moment, Sparrow breathing hard, his arm still curled around her waist.
It took only a split second for Boone to get a full grasp, and he embarrassedly let go of the girl and stepped around her to examine the creature.
"Looks like a plant-person thing."
She kneeled down next to him and touched it with shaky fingers. "I think I know what happened to the original inhabitants of the vault. And why there isn't wildlife."
He looked up and met her wide eyes. He recognized her fear, something he hadn't seen since that first day in the REPCONN test facility, and fought back the urge to try and comfort her. He wasn't a goddamn saint or bodyguard. He began to feel angry and stood up abruptly, not offering her a hand.
"Come on. Let's finish this and get out of here."
"I… all right. Yes." Sparrow stood up and looked around. "I really, really don't like this place."
They made their way through the vault, slowly, both of their nerves getting more and more frayed. Boone was careful not to indulge any thoughts about his companion, and was angry at himself for ever doing so. By the time they found Keely, he full of furious energy, and had snapped at the ghoul. Sparrow grabbed his arm and pulled down the hallway before turning on him, her eyes flashing.
"What the hell is wrong with you!"
"She's sending us on a suicide mission. How are we supposed to blow the place up without frying ourselves?"
"It's not any worse than other crap we've been asked to do by your precious NCR!"
"Don't you dare even go there!"
They glared at each other, one tall and menacing, and the other a little shorter and radiating fury. Then, Sparrow sighed and leaned heavily against the wall, her shoulders slumped.
"I'm sorry. It's this place. I really do hate it. There shouldn't be so much damned green everywhere. And it's so fucking hot!"
Boone opened his mouth to say something sharp, and then closed it. He couldn't remember a time when his companion had voluntarily backed down from a fight, but she looked utterly exhausted right now. He felt his own anger ebbing away and held out his hand.
She looked at him gratefully and shook it. "Peace. Now, can we blow up this joint so we can blow this joint, please?"
Sparrow watched as Boone tested the door to the server room.
"Seems solid. If we can close this, we should, in theory, be safe from the flames. It will get hot as hell though, and we won't be able to touch the door for a while after." The sniper looked up at her, obviously dissatisfied.
"In theory, huh?" Sparrow sighed and ran her hand through her hair. She felt light headed, though she couldn't tell if that was an effect of the adrenaline that had been pumping through her system for the past five hours or the gas that flooded this level of the vault. "Fine. You stand here, ready to close the door. I'll throw the grenade."
Boone narrowed his eyes, but Sparrow chose to ignore him. They had discussed the best way to ignite the gas, but this seemed like the least likely to roast them both. They had argued over if they both had to be present, and if not, who should stay on a different level- but in the end, they were both breathing in gas, about to do possibly one of the stupidest things they'd ever done.
She took out a grenade and sighed, running her fingers over its bumpy exterior. "Ready?"
"You'd better be as good a shot with your throwing arm- the last thing we need is that grenade ricocheting off a wall and exploding near us," Boone grumbled, getting into position.
Sparrow threw the grenade as hard as she dared- her aim was slightly off, but it bounced down the hallway. They were supposed to have more time, but it went off early, and she felt the heat as the flames roared towards her-
And then she was falling backwards. Everything seemed in slow motion, the door not quite latching and instead being blown back open by a wall of fire, her world shifting as the over-heated wind blew into the room, flames licking at the ceiling, landing on something that, while not soft, was certainly not a hard metal floor either-
With a gasp, she felt herself being rolled over, and suddenly the looming figure of Craig Boone was leaning over her. She stared up into his face in shock, vaguely realizing that he must have pulled her into the room and away from the fire, and that it was awfully warm. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she knew it was inappropriate, but she found herself intensely aware of how his body was pressed against hers, how her thighs were pressed against his, his strong arms just supporting himself above her body… For a moment she thought she must have been hit by the fire because she was burning up, heat pooling throughout her body, and Boone was running one of his hands over her hair, cupping her cheek, and he was close enough she could see each individual hair on his chin, the flecks of colors in his irises, and the soft brush of his breath as he whispered her name.