Boone didn't know why the Courier agreed to go into Vault 22. Ever since she woke up in a grave with a mouth full of earth, she couldn't be in small dark spaces without panicking. He didn't know what else she'd expected to find in a Vault, and he didn't know how he'd expected her to react.
She'd done all right, at least initially. It wasn't until the damned elevator shut itself off with them inside that the hysterics started.
She'd sank to her knees, and he went down after her and pulled her close, wishing he were anywhere else.
The Courier was running her hands all over him like she was afraid he'd vanish. When her trembling fingers found the scar on his bicep, she stopped to trace its path. It was little more than a pale raised line, but it tingled as she ran her finger up and down its length.
"Boone," she said suddenly, "talk to me."
This was unexpected. "About what?"
"Anything." There was a desperate, whining note in her voice that he'd never heard before. "Please, I'm freaking out, just talk to me, okay?"
He tried to think of something to say to her, but there was no room in his mind for anything but her proximity and her small, pale hand tracing his scar.
"I got that scar during training," he said.
It was hot that day. Every day in the Mojave was hot, but this was a special kind of hot, normally reserved for ovens and certain rings of hell. The sun was directly overhead, and Boone had sweat running down his forehead and into his eyes.
His eyes were watering from the sting of the sweat and the intense, reflective brightness of Lake Mead. His palms were drenched and sticky, and he couldn't find a comfortable grip on his knife. He was facing his opponent (Jake Wash, died trying to retake Nelson), and the rest of the recruits were standing in a loose circle around them. Sergeant was barking commands, asking them if they were waiting for a fucking invitation, or if they were going to start fighting sometime before he died of old age.
Knife fights were not an approved part of basic training, and technically illegal. But, in Sergeant's words, "What, you gonna run crying to mommy every time Uncle Kimball puts a knife in your hand?"
Sergeant's gravelly voice spurred Wash into motion. Boone's brain was slow and muddy from the heat, and he didn't react to Wash's lunge until after the knife had bitten into his arm. Wash went pale and dropped his knife, apologizing profusely. Sergeant called them fuckwits and fairies and told Wash to get Boone to the health officer before he bled out.
The Courier's wandering hands found another scar, this one on his shoulder. This one was larger and less sensitive, but the skin around it broke out into goosebumps when her cool fingers brushed it.
"Where'd this one come from?"
Cook-Cook was a fucking maniac. Boone and Manny had spent the day in fiend territory, searching unsuccessfully for Driver Nephi. They had taken a wrong turn heading back to McCarran, and they turned a corner and found themselves face to face with a bear-sized man wielding a flamethrower.
Cook-Cook laughed. "Weenie roast tonight, boys!" Boone froze, and he probably would have stayed there and been baked alive, but Manny's hand found his and pulled him along after him.
Boone was barely aware of the fire that licked his shoulder. His entire awareness was comprised of Cook-Cook's awful, rasping laughter, the grey-brown buildings flashing past as they ran, and their pounding footfalls.
The fiends didn't bother following them. Boone collapsed just short of the bridge out of fiend territory. His last memory of that day was Manny's panicked face and a nearby patrol running to meet them.
"Wow." Some of the trembling had gone out of her hands and voice, but she was far from calm. Her breathing was too fast, and he could feel her elevated pulse when her wrists brushed his skin. He was again struck by how small and vulnerable she really was. A strange, protective urge came over him and he tried to push it away.
"You're really brave, Boone." Her hand left his shoulder to trace his collarbone. Her fingers strayed from his chest to brush his jaw before settling on the scar that cut across his mouth.
Her touch was electric, and Boone was suddenly very aware that he was huddled in a dark elevator with a beautiful woman who was touching his lips, an area no woman had access to since the death of his wife. Blood was rushing from his head to other, more interesting areas, and he shifted uncomfortably, trying to disguise his arousal.
If the Courier noticed his discomfort, she didn't show it. She was saying something, but it was hard to focus on her words when "Something's Gotta Give" was playing in his head. He started speaking, if only to distract himself from her breath on his cheek.
Some people were mean drunks, some people were sad drunks, some people were funny drunks. Most people were dumb drunks. Boone had learned this lesson from watching his father and uncles drink after a long day of hard ranch work. He wasn't allowed to join them in the kitchen for a bottle of booze, even after he was old enough to quit school and pitch in with the Brahmin. This was a point of contention between his parents. His father said if he was allowed to work, he oughta be allowed to drink. His mother said he was still underage, and she'd whup his ass if she ever caught him drinking in her kitchen. So he had to go to Uncle Jim's house if he wanted to drink.
Jim was his favorite uncle. He had no kids or wife of his own, and he lavished all the attention he wasn't paying to his nonexistent family on his brothers' sons. He bought them alcohol and pornography. He said they had the right to the pursue happiness, and if you were a man, that meant booze and girlie magazines. At Uncle Jim's house, you could whatever the hell you wanted as long as you were sober enough to walk your own ass home afterwards.
There was a pack of dogs living in the empty fields behind Jim's House. When Boone was a little kid, Jim told him that the dogs could smell your breath. You couldn't breathe when you walked by them, or they would smell you and hunt you down and eat you. Radiation had made them smart and ruthless, as well as giving them paws with opposable thumbs for opening doors.
Boone hated those dogs, even after his father told him to stop holding his breath like a retard, the dogs were just dogs.
After a few (several, many) drinks at Jim's house, Boone decided to show those dogs who was boss, once and for all. They might be bloodthirsty and hyperintelligent, but he was a man, dammit, and he had a knife.
Boone had it about as far as the back porch before he tripped and nearly stabbed himself in the eye. Jim had to take him home, and that was the end of the lawless fun at Uncle Jim's house.
But like his dad said between gales of laughter, he was damn lucky the knife hadn't bounced the other way, or they'd all be calling him 'Headlight.'
Shit, why had he told her that story? He should have made something up, told her a story that didn't involve him being a stupid teenager. She was an intelligent woman, and he'd just told her about the time he decided to go kill a pack of stray dogs with a kitchen knife. If that didn't make her loose all respect for him, he didn't know what would.
Instead of calling him an idiot, she laughed breathily. "Oh god, really? That's great." She was smiling now, calmer than she'd been since the elevator stopped. Her face was an inch from his, and his heart was warm and heavy in his chest, beating a mile a minute. The humor in her eyes was overtaken by quiet, emotional intensity. Her right hand was on his cheek; her left was on his chest, sending They were both breathing shallowly, and everything they hadn't said to one another was boiling just below the surface. Another inch, and everything would have changed between them.
But instead of kissing him, she guiltily broke eye contact and leaned away. Something in his head came crashing down, and bitter relief and quiet disappointment washed over him. Desperate for a change in subject, and she grabbed his wrist and turned it to look at the scars there.
"What about these?"
Any warmth left by her nearness froze over.
He had a bottle of pills in one hand and a razor in the other. The room was more or less as it had been before her absence, except for the broken glass and upturned furniture. His heartbreak seemed like a physical presence that had crawled from the Carla-shaped space in his mind.
He grunted. "I don't remember."
It had all seemed very clear: Fate took Carla as punishment for Bittersprings, and now it was keeping him alive as some sort of cruel joke. This pattern was going to be playing out for the rest of his life. As long as he was breathing, he would be suffering.
"I don't believe you," she said. "How can you not remember?"
Every time he closed his eyes, he saw images of the Khans swarming like ants from an overturned anthill. Panic, confusion desperation. The children screamed as the arms holding them went slack, parents shrieked as their families were swept away from them. It was wrong, it was all wrong, but their orders were firm: Fire at will.
"I just don't, okay?" A trapped feeling rose in his chest, and his grip on her arms tightened.
The pass out of Red Rock canyon was hell on earth. A hundred corpses watched the sky with glassy eyes. Betsy (a softer Betsy, one that hadn't even heard of Cook-Cook) began to cry nervously. They had done a bad, bad thing, and while the repercussions weren't yet obvious, the result was staring them in the face.
"Boone," her voice had gone small again. "You're hurting me."
When he closed his eyes, he saw the Khans; when he opened them, he saw the traces left by Carla and their child. The only way to drive the images from his mind was to end it all, and accept whatever waited for him in the afterlife.
It was Manny who found him, slumped over and covered in blood. Manny called the doctor, and brought him back. He didn't think he'd ever gotten around to thanking either of them.
"Boone!" The Courier's frightened voice broke his trance.
He released her immediately, and she shrank away from him, rubbing her arms. "Oh Christ, I'm sorry!"
She smiled warily. "It's okay." She was lying, but they were both too polite to say so. The lights flickered back on and the elevator began to move again. "Hey, lights. Looks like we aren't dying in this elevator." He joined her in weak laughter, and they waited nervously for the doors to open, avoiding each other's eyes.
"Let's take the stairs on the way back up," she said. He nodded, but didn't respond, but he didn't need to. They'd reached a stalemate, and they had nothing left to say to one another.