A/N: An extra thousand words or so was added to chapter 38 yesterday (Sun) to make it a full chapter. Make sure you're caught up... if y'all even remember what was going on in the first place. :P
Samantha had a brief flash of what that man had looked like as he plummeted toward the concrete floor, and then suddenly she was back on the catwalk.
James frowned at her, and she knew his iron grip on her wrist had been the only thing keeping her from repeating the other man's fall. "Don't do that."
And then they were running once more.
The catwalk felt very unsteady beneath her feet, and now there was no railing on the left side, just a long fall down. James kept his hand around her wrist, as though he didn't trust her not to loose her footing again. Honestly, she didn't trust herself.
The smoke was creating a faint mist over everything, and her eyes were beginning to water. She wasn't having any difficulty breathing, but as she saw the fires begin to rage below her, she knew that wouldn't last long. The warehouse was massive, but all the smoke would soon begin to rise.
James' pace didn't slow when they finally reached the stairs, and Samantha found herself tripping down after him. She couldn't match his speed, and she couldn't match his precision. She misstepped and collided with his back again and again, but his feet stayed remarkably steady as they sped down the seemingly endless metal staircase.
Samantha's lungs burned. Down, turn, down, turn, down, turn. How many flights had they gone? Surely they were near to the floor by now.
James abruptly stopped, and she slammed into his back again. "Back up," he instructed. "Onto the catwalk."
Though deeply confused, she didn't hesitate. They were going across another catwalk when the stairs on the other end were destroyed? And how could she possibly manage to run the length of the building again?
She took a few steps onto the catwalk, and it swayed threateningly. "James…"
He tugged down on her hand, and she knelt down with him. The smoke was getting thicker, but she could still clearly see his face, and his serious expression.
He released her hand, and though they were side by side, it made her nervous. Holding onto him was better than any security blanket she'd ever had. He tossed two pieces of fabric at her. "I'll be back, I swear," he said.
And then he was up off the catwalk, leaping down the stairs with a gun in his hand. She watched him in fascination. He was seriously jumping down the stairs, full flights at a time. His incredible speed down the stairs earlier had been moderated so she could keep up. She soon lost sight of him through the smoke, and could only hear a few gunshots.
A few. That had to be James. If they were firing at him, surely it'd be much more concentrated. Then there was a rain of gunfire, and she cringed. She knew he could be stealthy, and he had to have been intentionally drawing attention to himself. Why?
God. She was on the verge of panic. She needed something to distract her mind.
She looked at the items he'd given her. A wool cap and a ratty bandana. She pulled on the cap, trying to hide her hair as much as possible. She knew that she was likely the only female in the entire warehouse, and soon they'd be on the ground floor. Despite the severity of the situation, she had to stifle a laugh. No matter how well she hid her hair, she'd still be half the size of most of those guys. It was impossible to blend.
The bandana was next, and she wrapped it in typical bandit fashion around her nose and mouth. She knew it was to help with the increasing smoke, though she immediately thought it was harder to breathe. Every time she inhaled, the fabric clung oppressively to her face.
Waiting on James, she took stock of her surroundings. Though it was difficult to tell, they looked to still be at least four stories up. She could make out people beneath her in disorder. Some were attempting to put out the fires, some were moving boxes outside, and, most disturbingly, some were running toward base of the stairs. Not a one was looking at the catwalks.
"Stairs are hot. Go." James was beside her again, urging her to go farther down the catwalk.
"James, it's shaking. And the stairs on the other side are completely-"
He unzipped another pocket on his vest. "Just go!"
Samantha tentatively took a few more steps, then braced herself and broke into a run. It was much different having him behind her instead of leading her. She didn't like it at all. And, worse, the further she got out on the catwalk, the more it swayed below her. It couldn't hold her and James. Didn't he realize that?
The smoke was thick, she could barely breathe, and she was running blindly down an unsteady catwalk. Fear, adrenaline, and exhaustion were all trying to take hold.
An explosion rocked the catwalk, and suddenly she was lurching backward as the surface she was standing on dipped into a sharp diagonal.
She grabbed for the railings, missed, and slammed straight into James' chest. He had a strong grip on the bars, his feet were braced, and he was stationary on the catwalk, seemingly content to fall with it.
The catwalk's slanted position held, giving Samantha a chance to find some handholds. At the moment, her full body weight was resting on James. She grasped the railing and tried to mimic James' position. She partially managed, knowing that if James were to suddenly disappear, she'd go tumbling down the catwalk.
For just a second, she found it romantic. It reminded her of spooning against his muscled frame. Just this time, it was life-or-death spooning.
"What… was… that?" she panted through the bandana.
"The supports on that side of the catwalk were destroyed, along with the stairs."
"You?" she asked, knowing the answer.
"The stairs… on this side… are already ruined. What… now?"
"We need to get to the catwalk below us. Do you see it?"
She awkwardly turned and looked below her. There it was, yet another catwalk. It was ten, maybe fifteen feet away, and to the left side. "Yeah."
"We've got four minutes, Sam. I wish we'd fallen more, but-"
"I can make it."
"Are you sure?"
"I'll go first. Hang on." He leaned in and gently kissed the side of her neck.
The gesture surprised her so much that was suddenly certain she could make that jump. James, the insane action hero who'd dumped her only to rescue her again, had done something sweet in the midst of such peril. She grabbed the railing tighter.
He slowly moved away from her, and Samantha knew he was making sure she could hold herself without his help. "Make sure you push off hard, and get far enough to the left. I'll catch you."
The catwalk shuddered slightly as he jumped over the railing, and then she was alone on the catwalk. She was still facing upward, and hadn't seen if he landed safely or not. She nearly smiled. Of course he had. Now, it was her turn.
She shakily reoriented herself, trying desperately not to lose her footholds. Soon she was facing the left, and could see that, yes, James had made it to the other catwalk. He was looking up at her, gesturing frantically.
Too late, she realized that when James had jumped the catwalk had lost its fragile stability. The angle was getting steeper, and the left railing she was gripping so tightly was beginning to wobble precariously.
He kissed my neck while he was in his macho serious mode, she thought happily. He totally still likes me.
Back in the day, Samantha had pursued gymnastics. She'd been too clumsy to progress very far, but right now she had a metal bar in front of her and boy who liked her. The fear and uncertainty were merely pushed back as an afterthought.
She transferred her full weight to the bar, and it swung forward. As it fell, she pushed off the slanted catwalk with her feet. She dutifully remembered to keep her arms straight, and flipped over the railing. It fell further as she spun, she released her grip, and landed neatly in front of James.
He had his stance widened and his arms stretched out awkwardly, and he just blinked at her for a moment. "Uh, nice."
She smiled, though he couldn't see due to the bandana. "Thanks."
"Alright, now run."
They were about a fourth of the way across the length of the warehouse. They were about twenty feet above the ground floor, and the smoke was thick enough that Samantha couldn't make out many people below them. The catwalk was also getting quite warm, and she could feel the heat through her sneakers.
She began to run as instructed, and fatigue instantly hit her. She'd thought she'd gotten a burst of energy, but this was too much. They'd run the length of the building once, gone down staircase after staircase, and now they were running back. Maybe, maybe if she'd been able to breathe cleanly, she would have been able to force her legs to cooperate. She was pushing herself as hard as she could, and felt on the verge of collapsing.
The catwalk teetered and creaked, and she stumbled forward just as both railings swung off the side. James grabbed her waist, keeping her upright. She dragged in a breath, looking before her in horror. They were only halfway across, and now she was standing on a walkway barely two feet wide with empty space on either side. She balked. As an amateur gymnast, the balance beam had always been her worst enemy.
"You can do it, Sam. Run," James urged.
She ran, coughing brutally with watering eyes. This was insane. She'd always thought she was in pretty good shape, but she certainly lacked the physical stamina for this. And James… he didn't even appear as though he were tiring.
Without warning, the catwalk jolted and creaked. The portion of the walkway that she'd just put her left foot on swung sharply downward and crashed down toward the floor. She gasped sharply, reached for railing that wasn't there, and just barely caught herself by shifting her balance to her other foot. Now there was nowhere for them to go except back the way they'd come.
She slowly brought her left foot back to rest on what remained of the catwalk, exhaling in relief as she stabilized her precarious position. Then two strong hands touched her lower back, and she was pushed off the edge.
James jumped after her. A twenty-foot drop wasn't that imposing, and he knew how to land and how to relax his knees. He wished he could have warned Sam, but they were running dangerously low on time. He had no idea how difficult it would be to traverse their way to an exit.
They'd landed right in the middle of the chaos on the ground floor. The smoke was thick and various fires still raged, and so far nobody was paying them any attention.
Samantha was sitting on the concrete with her legs sprawled out in front of her. "That… was mean," she heaved.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes, but… mean."
James sighted a door that led outside, and it wasn't that far off. They'd just have to sidestep a moderate fire and duck their way around the various men running about. Many were still attempting to put out the fires, and they likely would have eventually succeeded…
If a bomb weren't about to go off in just over two minutes.
James knew he could thread through Langston's men without drawing much attention. But Samantha's shoulders just weren't broad enough. And even with the cap and the bandana, she still looked… feminine. Wonderfully feminine.
James shook the thought away. "Can you stand?" he asked, unzipping his vest and shrugging it off his shoulders.
"I… think so. Gimme… a minute," she answered, coughing violently.
He put the vest on her while she was sitting. A little better, but it still wasn't enough bulk to make her blend in. Regardless, James still preferred her to have it. He would have given it to her earlier, but it was heavy and cumbersome, and he hadn't wanted to slow her down.
He lifted her to her feet, tugging on her insistently. "C'mon, Sam."
"Just… let me… catch my breath…"
"No, Sam." He hooked an arm around her waist, and dragged her forward. Her feet were barely touching the ground. "Fifty feet to the door, do you see? That's all."
"O-okay." Samantha stood fully upright, and he grabbed her hand. With the other, he pulled out another gun. There was no time for subtlety. If someone got in their way, it was shoot first.
He didn't risk a full-out run, but walked rapidly, pulling Samantha behind him. He glanced at his watch. There was time, as long as nothing else went wrong. It'd actually gone smoother than he'd anticipated. Once Brian had opened fire, he thought they were done for.
Brian. Damnit. What a devastating thing to happen after all they'd-
A flash of stark white hair suddenly caught James' attention. There, far off to the side, was Oliver Langston. James had never actually seen him in person before, but it could be no one else. He was walking with two burly men and grimacing fiercely.
I could shoot him, James thought. Just a little bit closer and I couldn't miss.
That man had tried to kill Samantha, he had succeeded in killing her parents, and he had been the cause of Brian's death. James was sick of letting that man slip through his fingers.
He and Samantha were quite close to the door now, and James hadn't had to lift his weapon once. Surely she could make it outside on her own.
No, no. He'd see it through, he'd personally see her to safety. It's what he had come to do. Besides, the building would explode shortly anyway. Langston would never survive… or was he heading toward an exit as well? Also, there was still a small chance that the building would never actually explode.
He'd save the girl. Then he'd do his job and kill the bad guy.
Samantha followed James outside, ripping the bandana off her face and inhaling the sweet fresh air. Well, not exactly sweet and not exactly fresh, but she was no longer struggling for every breath.
She turned to James, smiling weakly. It was almost over.
"It looks clear. Run," he said, pointing. "My car is quarter of a mile that direction. Can't miss it."
"Wh-where are you going?"
He patted a pocket on the vest she was no wearing. "Keys. There's a hidden keyhole near the gas cap."
He touched another pocket. "Gun, if you need it. Just run. I'll be back out in a minute."
"Do you even have a minute?! Why the h-"
"I swore to Brian. I need to make sure of something."
"No, James! Damnit!"
"I need every second I can get right now. Stay outside, and don't make me have to worry about you. Run. Run!"
Samantha let out a guttural yell of protest as she turned and ran. James was such a fool! Why in god's name would he risk going back into that building?
She stopped after about two blocks, and turned back to look at the warehouse. James was no where to be seen. There were a few men mulling about outside, and the faintest wisps of smoke leading out from broken windows. But, other than that, there was no evidence to the chaos inside.
"C'mon, James," she muttered, watching the door they'd come through. "Hurry up."
Then there was deafening explosion. The warehouse ripped open in flames, sending glass shards flying into the air, and collapsed in on itself.
A/N: Well, please review. First, I'm a mite rusty writing-wise, and I want to make sure it's tolerable.
Second, we've already established that I'm easily swayed by feelings of guilt. Heh.