Chapter 19


The hospital was in Mthatha. As soon as the helicopter touched down, two women forced me onto a gurney and wheeled me through big swinging doors. Boone followed us through the hallways, a phone pressed to his ear. I was taken to a sterile, white-walled room with intimidating equipment, and I thought it was all a bit excessive until I saw the grim expression of the nurse who poked an IV into my arm. Maybe I didn't look so good.

The medical staff moved around in a blur and Boone stood next to me, watching everything. They hooked up a clear bag to a pole, and then the nurse injected something into my IV line.

A doctor came into the room. "Sorry, sir, you have to go," she told Boone.

I began to feel buzzing everywhere on my body. Boone said something in protest. I rolled my heavy head toward him, my vision starting to go. "Hey," I said.

He dropped his eyes, striking blue under the florescent lights. I thought he might have taken my hand but I was too numb to feel it.

"I don't want to see you again—" I started, and his eyebrows went up. I had to take a breath to finish, "—until you've had your arm looked at."

The doctor's gaze jerked downward. "Sir, you're bleeding through that bandage. You need to go to the ER."

"I don't—" he tried to reason.

"Sir."

"But—"

Boone gave me a disparaging look as they ushered him from the room. The doors swung shut, and I smiled and waved at him through the rectangular glass window before the sedative took me under.


I was out for a long time, and then I faded in and out of consciousness, never awake enough to open my eyes before drifting back to sleep. I was comfortably numb, though, and incredibly grateful for the existence of painkillers.

When I finally came to fully, I heard a familiar voice speaking in hushed tones, "No, man, I'm serious. I watched a documentary about this guy who went swimming in some river with a paper cut and little flesh-eating bacteria got in there and starting chomping away. They had to chop off his arm and I'm pretty sure he died."

"You watch things like that for fun?" Boone asked flatly.

"It's educational."

"I doubt it."

"I'm just saying," George said, "what if Gemma contracted something like that?"

"Then we can only hope she gets her own documentary."

"Do you take anything I say seriously?"

"No," Boone said.

A chair creaked. "God, I don't know how she puts up with you," George muttered. "If I was her, I would've jumped off a cliff, too."

I cracked open my eyes to see both of them sitting next to me, each drinking a can of Red Bull, a bag of Simba Nik Naks on the table between them. George had shared his snacks with Boone. What a heartwarming thing to wake up to.

George noticed I was awake first. He stood up, wiping cheesy fingers on his pink-and-blue Hawaiian shirt. "Hey, chickadee," he said, a big smile lighting up his features.

"Hey," I croaked. I swallowed, my throat fuzzy. "What brings you here?"

"Oh, I just figured I'd see what you were up to," he replied, shrugging. His smile turned into a grin. "Obviously not much, besides being a BAMF."

"BAMF?" I asked absently.

"Bad Ass Mother Fucker," George explained.

"Ah. How long have I been…" I trailed off. Boone unfolded himself from his chair slowly, and my attention went to him.

"Almost a day," Boone answered, coming to stand next to George. He was wearing black sweatpants and a grey tee-shirt from a Cape Town electronic music festival, no doubt from George's closet. Bruises and cuts ran up his arms, but his skin was clean and the bandage around his gunshot wound was new. He saw me looking. "You'll be happy to know the doctor chastised me for not getting it looked at sooner."

I made an I-told-you-so sound. "But you're going to live?"

"Unfortunately," George said.

It hurt to laugh. The meds were starting to fade, but for right now, the pain reminded me that I was lucky to be alive. "Am I going to live, too? No flesh-eating bacteria?" I asked.

Flushing a little, George replied, "You had an infection, but supposedly it's nothing unusual under the circumstances. You might want to get a second opinion, though. Just saying."

"You're on a course of antibiotics," Boone told me. "And they stitched up your side and arm, put you on a drip for dehydration. Among other things."

I looked down my body, which was half-covered by a blanket. My left forearm had a neat dressing wrapped around it, my right hooked up to an IV. Sensors were taped to my skin. Carefully, I kneaded my side, which was sensitive and sore, feeling a thick bandage underneath my hospital gown. God, I was a mess.

The doctor appeared in the doorway, holding a clipboard. Boone and George sat down again as she checked the machines and made sure the cuts were doing well. She told me they needed to keep me overnight for at least five more days, much to my dismay. I really, really wanted to go home.

She kept calling me Ms. Stevens, and I realized a lot of things had been taken care of while I slept, like a cover story. I glanced at Boone, who was finishing his Red Bull, taking in the shadows under his eyes, and knew he'd been the one to do that.

She gave me another dose of painkillers that knocked me out before I could say anything else.


When I woke up again, the lights were dimmer. George was slouched in a chair, sleeping with his hands laced across his stomach. Boone had his arms crossed, watching the beeping monitor on the other side of the bed. His eyes slid to mine when he saw I was awake.

We looked at each other for a long moment, and then he shook his head. He broke eye contact and exhaled, leaning forward and resting his elbows against his knees. His shoulders hunched and he dropped his head.

"What?" I whispered hoarsely.

He shook his head again.

I licked my dry lips. "You want to lecture me, don't you?"

"Yes."

Wheezing a laugh, I replied, "Well, it's not necessary because one, it wasn't my fault, and two, you told me to be reckless. I was just doing what I had to do."

He raised his head. "You jumped off a fucking cliff."

"That part was the least damaging, actually," I told him.

"Oh, really?"

I let him try to intimidate me with his hard expression, but after a few seconds, I reached out a hand. His eyes dropped to it.

Pulling his chair closer to the bed, he took my hand. He made a frustrated sound, then he lowered his head and pressed my hand against his cheek. "You are so…" he grumbled, unable to find a suitable word.

"Yeah, well," I murmured. "You, too."

I moved my thumb gently against the stubble of his cheek. He squeezed his eyes shut, and I felt the breath of his sigh against my skin.

"When's the last time you slept?" I asked.

He kissed my palm, his lips warm. "I'm fine, rook," he said as he drew back.

I was about to protest but decided against it. "Is your arm okay?" I asked instead.

"Yes," he responded. "Although I didn't appreciate you throwing me under the bus like that."

"Well, if you'd had it looked at sooner, I wouldn't have had to," I said, unapologetic. With some difficulty, I managed to prop myself up on the pillows. "Is there any water?"

There was a glass on the bedside table. He gave it to me, holding it while I wrapped both hands around it and took a sip.

"So, what's the cover story?" I asked quietly, taking another drink.

Keeping his voice low, he replied, "Hiking accident."

I considered it. "Yes," I said, gesturing to his arm, "I hear people get shot all the time hiking."

The corner of his mouth lifted. "This?" He tapped his bandage. "Fell on an upturned tree root."

"Oh." I nodded knowingly. "Of course."

"I didn't have much time to get creative." He took the glass from me. "We're still under the identities we entered the country on. Had to come up with something plausible for a journalist and an accountant to be doing in the wilderness of the Eastern Cape."

"Makes sense, I guess. You're Dean Walsh, right?"

"Yes. You call me Boone as a nickname, though," he said. "After Daniel Boone, the explorer. Best reason I could come up with."

Confused, I said, "What are you talking about?"

"You…said my name in front of the nurse a few times," he explained.

I winced. "Oh, God."

"No, it was more like, 'Oh, Boone.'" He made it sound high-pitched, and needy.

I stared at him in horror.

"You're turning red," he told me. "Should I get the doctor?"

"You're so lucky I'm too tired to hit you."

He laughed.

A loud vibrating sound started up behind him. George stirred and I saw a lit-up phone on the table beside him.

"Can you please just answer it this time?" George groaned, rubbing his eyes.

I didn't catch what he meant until I noticed the too-calm set of Boone's shoulders as he put down the water glass. It was Boone's phone. And he was letting it ring through to voicemail like he didn't hear it at all.

"Who's calling you?" I asked.

He pretended not to hear that question, either, but thank God for George. "Oh, man, he didn't tell you?" George said, much more awake now at the prospect of drama.

"Tell me what?"

Boone leaned back in his chair. "Nothing."

"He's in trouble," George explained, scooting his chair closer to us with a noisy squeak-squeak-squeak. "Langley's been calling nonstop for hours."

Frowning, I looked between them. "In trouble?"

George put up a hand. "Now, this is just what I heard," he said with undisguised delight, "but he cussed out your boss and is now refusing to return to DC and he's being written up for disobeying a direct order."

My eyes widened and the heart monitoring machine beeped faster. "What?"

After a hard glance at the machine, Boone gave George an unkind look, rubbing his jaw. "It's fine, rook. I'll sort it out."

"No," I told him. "Explain."

Sighing, he stared at the ceiling as he said, "After the missiles dropped and I got in contact with base, I asked Nixon to get helicopters out there to look for you. He said he'd assemble a search team in the morning, but choppers were impossible because we were so remote. Which was bullshit. He just didn't want to draw attention."

"Okay…" I said slowly, waiting for more.

He dropped his gaze to mine. "I told him he better get a fucking helicopter, or I would," he said. "He didn't…like that. So, I hung up and called a buddy of mine in AFRICOM and had them send the closest military chopper. There was one in Durban, less than 150 miles away."

I ran a hand through my matted hair. "Oh, Boone."

He shrugged. "I called him to let him know we found you," he said. "He told me to return to DC right away and that there would be disciplinary action."

"And you're still here?" I said, alarmed. "What's it been, like a day and a half—"

"See, this is why I didn't want to tell you," he said, more to George than me.

"Why, because you knew I'd try to talk some sense into you?" I retorted.

"No, because I didn't want you to worry about anything except, you know…not dying," he replied.

"I'm not dying. I—"

"In all fairness, you do look a little rough," George contributed.

The phone started buzzing again. I looked at Boone as sternly as I could. "You are not losing your job over me," I said. "Answer the goddamn phone."

He didn't move. I raised an eyebrow in warning, and I saw an almost indiscernible twitch of his lips as he stood and picked up the phone. He opened the door and took the call out in the hallway.

"I'm sure he'll have some manly excuse why he didn't go," George said, "but really, he was worried shitless about you. Don't let him tell you otherwise." He took a swig of old Red Bull and burped. "At one point, I'm pretty sure he was stress-eating. Kind of made me feel better about myself, actually."

I didn't tell him it was probably because Boone hadn't eaten for a very, very long time.

George began chattering about this one time his uncle had surgery and the doctor accidentally left a pair of forceps inside him. I listened, drowsy but actually quite riveted, one eye on the door.

I couldn't believe Boone had gone against Nixon like that. I wondered what the consequences would be. A slap on the wrist? A suspension? A transfer? Despite the gradual changes I'd seen in Boone over the months, I knew this job still meant everything to him.

Boone was gone so long that George and I both dozed off. I woke when I heard the door shut softly. Boone's face was shadowy as he approached the side of the bed.

"I'm not in that much trouble," he said when he saw my worried expression.

"How much?"

"Nixon's pissed," he answered, "but I think the fact that the mission was successful and we got you out alive mitigates his anger a bit."

"Only a bit? Nice to know how much Nixon values my life."

"Don't be too offended," he said. "It's his job to be pragmatic."

Rubbing an eye with the heel of my hand, I asked, "So, what happens now?"

"I've got to go back to DC and smooth things over," he replied.

I nodded, understanding he needed to go even though I wanted him to stay right here. "You'd tell me if it was bad?"

"Of course," he said.

I blinked at him. "Liar."

He smiled and I shook my head, trying not to smile back.

"Thank you," I said, "for risking your career to save me."

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," was his blunt reply. "I've risked more than just my career for you, and you've done the same for me. It's not something we need to acknowledge."

"At the very least, it deserves a 'thank you,'" I reasoned. "I should probably go further, though. Flowers. A card. Some hero worship—"

"Don't make me regret it," he warned.

I exhaled a laugh. "Really, Boone. Thanks for taking care of everything." He didn't react, so I reluctantly said, "You need to go, huh?"

"Yes." His gaze ran from my arm bandage to the IV and the heart monitor. "But I don't want to."

"I'll be fine," I assured him. I shrugged a shoulder casually and added, "Like George said, I'm a BAMF."

"Oh, there's no doubt." He braced his arms on the bed, leaning over me, his expression serious again. "But I never want to see you in a hospital bed again, rook. I've been through a lot of shit, but this –" He cut himself off and stared at the tubes coming out of my arm.

"Well, can't say I'm a fan either," I said after a moment, "but it was worth it."

"Was it?"

"The world's a safer place without Volkov."

"Yeah." Inhaling deeply, he hesitated before kissing my forehead. "I'll see you soon," he said. "Hopefully, I'll have some things figured out by then."

His words struck me as odd. "Things?"

He was already straightening up and didn't elaborate. Grabbing a sweatshirt off the back of his chair, he nudged George's leg, waking him. "Keep an eye on her, will you?" he said, jutting a thumb in my direction. "And make sure she obeys the doctor's orders."

George grinned sleepily. "Yes, sir," he answered.

"I can take care of myself," I said, indignant.

As Boone headed for the door, he added, "Call me if she gives you any trouble."

George saluted him. Boone opened the door, glancing back before he stepped out. When he saw me frowning at him, he smiled and waved, and then he turned and left.


"Pretty sure this goes against mountain man's instructions," George said, reaching into a bag and handing me a cheeseburger.

I eagerly took it out of its wrapper and took a big bite. "Fries?" I inquired with my mouth full.

He took out a carton of French fries and set it on my hospital bed. "Duh," he said, sitting down and unwrapping his own burger.

"So good," I mumbled, stuffing a fry in my mouth.

"Oh man," he said after his first bite. "Illegal burgers totally taste better."

"Agreed."

It was my fifth – and last – day in the hospital, and my appetite could not be satiated by hospital food. I took that as a good sign. Even though my body still hurt, the pain was dulled by painkillers and my head was clear. I felt a whole lot better, probably due to the fact that all I'd done for the past five days was sleep and watch TV.

Despite Boone's orders, I hadn't expected George to stick around the entire time. But he never seemed bored, and I was so grateful to have him here. He snuck in food and magazines, and he translated Afrikaans soap operas for me, putting on voices for the different characters and doing his own improv. He made one episode about a woman rejecting a guy because he thought he was a dolphin and wanted her to live in the ocean with him, and the doctor told George to stop because laughter wasn't good for my stitches. He made it bearable, even fun.

"You ready to blow this popsicle stand?" George asked, grabbing some fries.

I finished chewing. "Like you wouldn't believe."

"Good, 'cause there's a plane on standby for you at Mthatha Airport," he told me.

"It's already there?" I asked, surprised.

He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "The Agency with a capital A must think you're really special or something."

The doctor appeared in the doorway. George and I crammed the rest of our burgers into our mouths and turned to her with guiltless expressions.

"I need to run a few tests," she said, her lips pressing into a disapproving line when she saw the fast food wrappers. "Then you'll be free to go."

I nodded, mouth too full to speak. She left.

George and I swallowed our food and grinned at each other.

"I'll kind of miss this," George said.

"Me, too."

It took another four hours before I was discharged. I signed the release paperwork with a made-up signature for Emily Stevens, and the doctor issued me a week's worth of pills, instructed me to see a doctor when they ran out, and cautioned me to be more careful while hiking. I told her I'd try.

The sun was low in the sky when we left the hospital. Walking farther than the bathroom felt strange, but good. Freeing. I sucked in air that didn't smell of disinfectant and pulled up the sleeves of the shirt George had bought me, enjoying the feel of dry, hot wind against my skin.

George drove to the airport, which was only a few minutes away and consisted of a single runway and a couple of hangers. An airplane waited at the end of the runway, small and unassuming. We parked near the narrow staircase leading up to the plane's door.

"Don't tell Agent Boone what a bad babysitter I am," George said, turning off the engine.

I laughed. "I won't."

He gave me a sly look. "What's going on between you two, by the way?" he asked casually.

"Wow," I said. "Subtle."

He flashed me a smile. "That's me," he replied. "Come on, I've been so curious this whole time. I've shown an impressive degree of restraint, you've got to admit."

Running a hand through my hair, I sighed. "I…honestly don't know. We haven't talked about it since everything happened."

George didn't push it. "Well, you guys are something else," he said, opening his door. "If it doesn't work out for you two, then the rest of us are screwed."

I got out of the car, too, and we walked to the stairs. I turned to him. "Thanks for everything," I said, and gave him a hug. "I mean it. None of this would have been possible without you."

"Oh, I know," he assured me when we broke apart. "I'll be bragging about this for the next couple of decades, don't you worry."

"If you ever need anything…"

"Likewise, chickadee," he said. "I'll probably be in DC soon for an official debrief of this whole thing. I'll look you up."

I stepped onto the first stair. "You better," I said, heading up the staircase. I glanced over my shoulder and smiled. "Bye, Magic."

The grin he gave me was glorious.

The pilot confirmed my identity and told me to sit wherever I wanted. All the seats were empty. I chose one near the back next to the window. The engines whirred, the door sealed shut, and we started down the runway. As we took off, I saw George's car driving away from the airport, becoming a tiny speck as the plane ascended.

I leaned my head against the window, watching the sun set on South Africa. I thought about the enormity of what had happened here, what we had done, everything that had changed.

And then the plane went into the clouds until it broke through them, and the ground was obscured by a thick blanket of white. Shutting my shade, I grabbed a magazine from the seat pocket and settled in for a long flight.


The Agency was ready for me when I landed. A driver picked me up, informed me I had a meeting with the deputy director of the CIA at 1300, and dropped me off at my apartment to get ready.

"Uh, it might be a while," I told the driver, knowing that showering with my various injuries was going to be a struggle.

"I'll wait," he stated.

Going up to my apartment, I took a moment to enjoy being back home, then swallowed some pills, took off my bandages, and showered carefully. When I looked in the mirror for the first time in days, all I could think was: God, I need a vacation.

The most time-consuming part was finding clothes that didn't press against my side. I settled for a black sheath dress that was a size too big, and slipped on flats because there was no way I was wearing heels after the week I'd had. If the deputy DCI had a problem with that, I didn't care.

True to his word, the driver was still waiting for me two and a half hours later. He drove me to Langley in post-rush hour traffic. He was more than he appeared because he had an access card that got him to Langley's seventh floor, the executive level. He led me into a large briefing room filled with people in suits, and left me there. No one noticed me until Nixon pushed his way through the crowd and came to stand before me.

"Agent Hart," he said. "It's good to see you. You're looking well."

Pleasantries. Right. It wasn't like he'd decided to leave me stranded in South Africa's wilderness or anything.

With reluctance, I remembered Boone telling me not to take offense and I forced myself to forgive him. "It's good to be here," I said, and then added, "What...is this, sir?"

"Your debriefing," he answered. He saw my appalled expression and smiled. "The operation was kind of a big deal. Come on, let's introduce you to some people."

Nixon presented me to most people in the room, all high-ranking. I quickly realized this meeting was more political than anything; there was a lot of back-patting, maneuvering, and securing support for future endeavors. Operatives were out there risking their lives, and these people were trying to get promoted? It put a bad feeling in my stomach, but I supposed that was the way the world worked. Or at least this world.

Again, I felt the need for a vacation.

I met the deputy DCI, a short balding man who thanked me for my service and dedication. They were the only direct words he spoke to me the entire time. I was glad I hadn't worn heels for him.

When we sat down at an enormous round table, I already had a headache. Why couldn't Nixon have warned me my debriefing would be so soon, and in the presence of so many people?

Debriefings were usually long, tedious ordeals, but this one was the worst I'd gone through, mostly because the CIA needed to justify its use of a drone strike to take out Vasili Volkov. I had to rehash everything from the moment I killed Igor Bagrov in Moscow to my final interaction with Volkov. It took so long that we had three breaks and one catered meal.

After it finally came to a close, Nixon took the elevator down to Operation 67 with me.

"Just so you know, Agent Hart, the FG20 operation is very pleased with the results of this mission," he told me as he pressed the button for the fifth floor, more energetic than I'd ever seen him. "The elimination of Volkov and the Chiffer has not only protected their mission, but the Agency as a whole. You and Agent Boone can expect to see a letter of commendation in your file."

I nearly asked if it would go beside Boone's letter of disciplinary action, but decided that was between them. "Please consider writing one for George Calvi, too," I said, rubbing an eye. "It was really a team effort."

"Sure." He scratched his beard. "You all right?"

"Yes, sir."

"I would've thought you'd be a little more impressed by the show back there," he mused, but it wasn't judgmental.

After the things I'd seen and done, it was hard to be impressed by people talking about what I'd seen and done. "It's just…unsettling sometimes, to go from the field to the office so quickly."

"I get it," he said. "I remember being in the field. Granted, it's been a while, but I remember."

The elevator dinged to indicate our arrival. "Sir," I said, "I know it's short notice, but would it be possible to take some time off?"

He glanced at me as the doors opened, and he replied, "Of course, take a few weeks of vacation time. It seems like you need it."

We both stepped out. "Thank you," I said.

"Besides, 67 is going to be changing now that Volkov is gone," he explained as we started down the corridor toward the office. "We'll be reassigned a new focus, either a new target or group. It's a good time to be gone; it might actually be boring."

"That's hard to believe."

"It is, isn't it?"

Nixon scanned his ID at the doors and they hissed open. The office was relatively empty; I probably wasn't the only one to take time off after the past few months. But there were three people talking near the center section of desks, absently swiveling in their chairs with coffee cups in their hands. Boone had his feet up on a desk, telling Danny something that made him laugh so hard he had to push his glasses back up his nose. Gibson rolled her eyes, swirling the liquid in her cup, but looked like she was fighting the urge to laugh, too.

I felt a slow smile spread across my face. I'd been waiting all day to see them, and it seemed like they were waiting to see me, as well.

"He fought hard to keep you together," Nixon's voice said from behind me.

I turned around. "Sorry?"

To his credit, he seemed slightly uncomfortable as he continued, "Agent Boone. I told him I knew some lines had been crossed between you and him. That much was obvious when you went head-to-head with Andermann and Tom got shot. And then after this helicopter incident…well." He gave me a discerning look. "I am the director in a spy agency."

I tried to stay impassive, but he'd caught me off-guard.

"Relax," he said, smiling slightly. "I might be your boss, but I'm not heartless. I met my wife when we were both operatives."

"I didn't know that," I said.

"Yes, well," he said. "It's not something we advertise." His phone rang in his pocket, but he took it out and ignored the call. "I put the paperwork through to transfer him due to personal conflict."

My heart dropped. "What?"

"Yes."

"But—"

"And then he wrote a 77-page appeal and demanded a sit-down with the committee in charge of making transfer decisions," he continued, raising those thick, grey eyebrows. "He detailed every single instance your partnership has benefited the Agency and its goals. It's been…well, it's been a very long week, Agent Hart."

I looked over at Boone, who was draining the last of his coffee, his arm bandage visible underneath his shirt. So, that was what he'd been doing as I laid around watching South African soap operas? Striving to keep us together?

"And what did they decide?" I asked quietly.

"He's being put on desk duty for 10 weeks," he answered, "as his disciplinary action for insubordination. But after that, he'll stay part of Operation 67."

I pressed my lips together so my relief wasn't embarrassingly obvious.

"Like I said, he fought hard," Nixon said. "It helped that you two just came off an incredibly successful mission, but still. It's been a while since I've seen that kind of determination."

Nodding, I wasn't quite sure what to say. I wasn't even sure what to feel.

His phone went off again and he answered it this time. Putting a hand over the bottom, he said, "Enjoy your time off, Agent Hart. You deserve it," and then headed for his office and closed the door behind him.

I stood where I was for a minute, processing, and then crossed the floor and made my way toward the middle group of desks.

"Well, look who's back," Gibson drawled as I neared them, with a close-lipped smile that was surprisingly sincere.

Danny sat up in his seat. "Gemma!"

"Hi, guys," I greeted.

With his feet still propped up, Boone twisted his chair around to see me. Our eyes met. "Hey, rook."

I came to stand beside him. "Hey."

He looked tired. 77 pages. God, I just wanted to hug him.

He scanned my face, and then my side and arm. I curled my fingers over the back of his chair. "What's up?" I asked them all.

"Nothing really," Danny said.

"We were just discussing how ironic it is that Volkov was blackmailing us for drones and ended up getting killed by one," Gibson replied.

"Poetic justice, I guess," I said.

"Did you actually talk to him?" Danny asked me, leaning forward. His bangs flopped in his face and he pushed them aside. "Boone didn't even get to see him up close."

"Hey," Boone interjected, "I was busy saving lives."

I smiled, then said to Danny, "I did, for all of 60 seconds."

"You look disappointed, Danny," Gibson told him. "Did you want an autograph or something?"

"No." He made a face. "I was just wondering since none of us had actually interacted with him, despite this entire operation being centered on him."

"Huh," Boone said. "That's true. Didn't realize that."

Gibson's own curiosity won out because she swiveled toward me and said, "So, what was he like?"

"Arrogant and rude," I answered. "Kind of like you, actually."

"Ooh," Danny teased.

Gibson made a sound. "I was going to ask how you're feeling, but forget it."

"How are you feeling?" Boone asked me, and even though it was subtle, I noticed Gibson's eyes darting to him, narrowing for a microsecond.

"All right, considering," I said. "You?"

"Fine," he replied.

Danny looked from the bandage on my forearm to Boone's bicep. "You guys definitely didn't come out unscathed from this one."

"No, we didn't," Boone responded.

"At least you got some cool scars," Gibson said. The three of us gave her a look, but she just shrugged. "What? A lot of people have scars in this business, but yours were in the pursuit of one of the most wanted men in the world. That'll shut people up."

Danny snorted. "You're kind of weird. You know that, right?"

She didn't seem to take offense, just lifted an eyebrow and downed the rest of her coffee. "How was your debriefing with the big shots?" she asked me, tossing her cup into the trash.

"Long," I answered. "Boring. But I did manage to get a few weeks off."

"Good for you," she said, and then she smiled like the Cheshire Cat. "And good for me, too. I'll get my own vacation, from you."

"Uh huh." It was strange to be on joking terms with her, but I liked it. "Hey, are any of you heading out? I need a ride."

"I'm going to be a while longer," Boone told me.

I was disappointed, and he could tell. He gave me a slight nod which meant something, although I wasn't sure what.

"I'll drive you," Danny offered. "Your place is on my way home."

"Thanks," I said.

Danny grabbed his coat, and we said goodbye to Boone and Gibson. As we walked through the sliding doors, I looked back to see them conversing with oddly serious expressions.

We got caught in traffic, but neither of us minded because it gave us time to catch up. Danny told me that while Boone and I had been running around in South Africa, they'd been pulling 18 hour shifts and Nixon had put up a daunting countdown clock on the main monitors, ticking down Volkov's deadline to release the classified FG20 information.

"But, in other news," he said, grinning shyly as he took the exit for my apartment, "I kinda asked Jen out."

"Kinda?"

"Well, no, not kinda. For real."

"Yeah? And?"

"And she said yes," he said. "We're getting coffee after work tomorrow."

"I told you." My cheeks hurt from smiling so wide. "I want to hear all about it afterwards."

He cleared his throat, his cheeks turning a bit pink. "Yeah, okay."

"This is so exciting," I said, just to embarrass him some more. "I'm so happy for you. Are you happy? You look happy."

He pulled up in front of my place. "Gemma," he groaned. "It's not a big deal."

Patting his arm, I laughed. "This is only the start of the teasing. You better get used to it." I tugged on the door handle. "Thanks for the ride."

"Anytime," he said.

I climbed out of the car slowly, my side protesting at the movement. Before I closed the door, Danny called my name and I turned around.

Leaning over the passenger seat, he said, "I forgot to tell you I'm glad you're okay. And…I don't know what's going on with you and Boone, but you really, really deserve to be happy, too."

Touched, I could barely find my voice to say, "Thanks, Danny."

He gave me a smile. "See you around," he said.

"See you."

I shut the door and he pulled away from the curb.

When I made it into my apartment, I went to the bedroom and gingerly changed into sweatpants and a sweatshirt, transforming into a big, comfortable blob. In the harsh light of the bathroom, I changed my bandages. My side was healing nicely; it was a straight, narrow cut that didn't look so bad now that the infection was gone. The gash on my forearm wasn't as neat, the stitches a bit freakish, pulling together skin that didn't quite fit.

I ambled to the kitchen, realizing I didn't have any fresh food. I grabbed a box of Cheerios and headed into the living room. Sinking down on the couch, I opened the Cheerios, ate a handful, and sighed.

In the field, I was faced with a certain kind of reality, one with a focus on life-or-death choices, consequences on a huge scale, the immediate problem at hand. But being back in DC, sitting in my apartment alone, hurting all over and eating stale cereal because I hadn't been home to go grocery shopping…this was a different kind of reality. This was my life when I wasn't at work. There were different responsibilities when I was here, ones I'd largely neglected the past couple months. I needed to call my dad to wish him a happy belated birthday, get my car serviced, pay my bills, catch up with Melanie and Josh, figure out what I was going to do about Boone...

I tossed back some more Cheerios. No. No, I didn't have the energy to deal with any of that tonight. "Tomorrow," I told myself, and turned on the TV.

In the middle of a Buffy rerun, there was a knock at the door. With great effort, I heaved myself off the couch and answered it.

It was Boone with a pizza box, everything I ever wanted.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi."

He seemed ready to say something, but his eyes swept over me and he changed his mind. "You hungry?"

I nodded.

"Good," he said.

Stepping back, I let him into the apartment. He set down the pizza box on the coffee table, and thankfully didn't say anything when he saw the Cheerios. As he shrugged off his jacket, I noticed he was still in his work clothes. He rolled up the sleeves to his elbows and sat down on the couch.

I was stupidly happy he was here, but I had reservations because this was a different reality, after all. "Boone," I said, sitting next to him.

He opened the box to reveal an enormous pepperoni pizza. "Hmm?"

"We probably…need to talk," I told him, cringing slightly at the words.

"I know," he said, "and we will. But you don't look up for it tonight, rook."

My mouth opened in surprise.

He picked up a slice and said, "I'm just here to eat and make sure you have everything, all right?" before taking a bite.

I blinked at him for a moment. Somehow, he always knew. "Are you sure?"

"We'll talk tomorrow," he assured me.

I nudged his leg with mine. "Have I ever told you that you're my favorite person?"

"Don't get soft on me, Hart," he said, but when he leaned back, he looked pleased. "Now, eat and tell me why that guy just exploded into dust."

Reaching forward, I lifted up the biggest slice. "He's a vampire," I stated. "Obviously."

He glanced at me, amused. "Obviously?"

With a big bite, I settled into the couch next to him. "Oh, boy, you've got a lot to learn."

After a pause, he said, "I do," and the words were light and heavy at the same time.

It didn't take long to polish off the pizza. Somewhere between the second and third Buffy rerun, I rested my head on the pillow at the end of the couch. Surreptitiously, I brought my socked feet close to the heat of Boone's thigh, trying to warm my toes.

I dozed off. I woke up when I felt Boone move. The end credits of an episode were playing, the volume much lower than it had been. Blearily, I looked over to see Boone carefully extracting himself from the depths of the couch.

"Stay," I murmured.

He stilled, turning his head to me. "You want me to?" he asked.

"You were keeping my feet warm," I replied, and I lifted my legs and extended them across his lap.

We both knew it was more than that, and I didn't mind. Judging by the way he pulled a blanket off the nearby armchair and settled back into the couch, pulling my legs closer to his body and covering us with the blanket, he didn't mind, either.

I watched the beginning of the next episode, but had to fight to keep my eyes open. After a few minutes, Boone reached over to turn off the lamp.

"Go to sleep already, rook," he told me.

I smiled at the exasperation in his voice, closing my eyes and drifting off in a cocoon of warmth.


It was still dark outside when Boone stood up from the couch. The apartment was cold, and I missed his warmth. I felt a hand gently squeeze my leg.

"I've got to go in," I heard him say.

"Why?" I groaned, blearily cracking open my eyes.

He crouched down beside me, just a shadowy outline. "I don't know if you heard, but I've been put on administrative duty for a while."

"I heard."

"Well, I was stuck with the early shift," he said.

"It's not fair you're being penalized for getting me out alive," I told him with as much vehemence I could muster half-asleep.

Exhaling a laugh, he replied, "It could be worse."

"I guess," I murmured, "but you should remind Nixon you got shot on the job and deserve some time off."

"What, like a vacation?"

"Maybe not a crazy Cancun vacation, even though I know you like those," I said. "But he let me take time off without a fight, so maybe you can convince him."

"Maybe." He adjusted the blanket to cover my legs, and then straightened. "You around tonight?"

"Yes. It'll be a miracle if I leave this couch," I mumbled.

His quiet laughter sounded far away. "I'll come by after work, then."

"Okay," I said, and curled into the couch.

As I fell back to sleep, I realized Boone had woken me up so I wouldn't think he had disappeared.


It was a proud moment when I finally heaved myself off the couch and decided to have a semi-productive day. My first task was to call home. It required some question-dodging, but it was good to hear my parents' voices. I apologized for not being able to call on my dad's birthday, not that he minded. He just said he hoped I'd been doing something exciting. It was the day I'd been knocked out twice, but I decided ignorance was bliss and changed the topic.

Afterwards, I ran some errands, moving slowly but feeling better than I had yesterday. Before heading to the supermarket, I went to Starbucks for some caffeine. I picked up my latte at the counter and took a seat at a high-top table near the window, resting for a moment and watching a new dusting of snow coat the city.

I was stirring three additional sugar packets into my drink when someone slid a coffee cup onto the table and sat down across from me.

"Hart."

I looked up in surprise, immediately recognizing the voice. With her parka unzipped to show a neatly pressed blouse and trousers, Gibson crossed her legs and snagged one of my unused sugars to pour into her coffee.

"You don't strike me as the Starbucks type," I commented. Besides, everyone knew the coffee cart at Langley was better and cheaper.

"I'm not," she answered, swishing her cup back and forth before taking a sip.

"Then what are you doing here?" I asked.

After she lowered the cup, she replied, "I wanted to talk to you."

I wracked my brain for a reason why she'd want to do that, hoping this didn't have to do with Boone. "So, you…followed me here?"

"Please, like I have time for that," she said, but I caught the unconscious glance at my phone on the table.

"Oh, my God, you pinged my phone." I didn't even bother phrasing it as a question.

"I might have."

"I'm not sure how I feel about that."

"Flattered?" she offered.

"If by 'flattered' you mean 'creeped out', then yeah, sure," I said, bringing my latte up to my mouth. "What's this about?"

She looked like she might be regretting this now. Her lips pursed slightly, more out of discomfort than her usual aloofness. I waited.

"Tom's been trying to talk to me since he got back," she eventually said. "We were both busy so it didn't happen until yesterday."

So, this was about Boone. "Okay," I said, uncertain where this was going.

Smoothing a finger over an eyebrow, she gave me an appraising sort of look. "He told me," she said. "About you and him."

My stomach sank a little. "Oh?"

"No need to play coy, Hart," she said. "He told me everything. Well, the abbreviated version, at least."

There was a long, awkward silence. I debated what to say as I pulled my bottle of antibiotics from my purse, popping the cap and jiggling a pill into my palm. Boone had mentioned he was going to "figure things out". I was glad, but I wondered if it was going to backfire on me. "I'm not really sure what to say," was my reply.

She watched me swallow the pill. "I think you know by now that I'm a competitive sort of person," she said.

I took a too-big gulp of coffee and it scorched its way down my throat. I coughed. "If you're here to fight me or something, can you at least wait until I'm not at a disadvantage?"

I'd never seen Gibson taken aback before. "Oh," she said, "no. No, that's not where I was going." She laughed. "But I like that that's your impression of me. Means I'm doing something right."

Relaxing into my chair, I said, "Well, how else was I supposed to take that?"

"I meant that I don't give up until I get what I want—"

I narrowed my eyes. "This explanation isn't going much better."

"—or until I realize it's time to fold," she finished. "I've seen it for a while now." She glanced outside, watching a car pass by. "Tom's always treated you differently. And it's like every time you two came back from a job, something had changed. And don't get me started on the way you look at each other…" She crinkled her nose in disgust.

"You knew?" I asked.

"Not definitively, but come on, Hart. Not much gets passed me," she replied, eyes sliding back to mine.

"Okay, fair enough."

She rotated her cup slowly. "Tom apologized for misleading me," she continued, "but honestly, it's been obvious for years that he wasn't interested in me like that, even before you came along."

"I know you guys have a history," I said, remembering what Boone had told me about their time at the Farm.

"Yeah, well." She shrugged a shoulder. "When he came to work at 67, I thought I'd take another shot. I didn't expect a stupid rookie to distract him."

Although her tone was casual, I knew this probably affected her more than she let on. She cared about Boone; that much was obvious from when he'd been captured in Pakistan.

Her forehead creased. "Don't look at me like that," she ordered. "I don't want to be with someone who doesn't want me. All I've got is a bruised ego, so no need for your annoying Gemma puppy dog eyes."

"Fine," I responded, my mouth twitching with a smile.

"I'm not here for a heart-to-heart," she stated. "But despite everything, Tom is a friend, and when he talked to me yesterday, he hinted that…I don't know, he's made some mistakes that maybe screwed things up."

It had been surprising to hear Gibson speak about her own feelings, but this was something I would have never guessed we'd talk about.

Before I could respond, she held up a hand. "I don't want to hear about it," she said, lowering her hand and taking an impatient breath. "Look, I just want to say that Tom and I are a lot alike. This stable relationship stuff you normal people do doesn't come naturally to people like us. If Tom and I had dated, I was never under the illusion it would end in a white picket fence." She shook her head. "I never thought he'd want something serious, with anyone, even me. And I don't think he did either."

I opened my mouth, but she cut me off.

"Just give him a chance, okay?" she said, somehow forceful and reluctant at the same time, like she didn't want to be caught saying this. "That guy deserves to be happy. And God knows why, but I think you help with that. Although, his judgement is questionable these days, defying orders and pissing off the higher-ups, so it's possible he's just losing his mind and you've got nothing to do with it."

Warmth bloomed in my chest. Putting my elbows on the table, I leaned forward. "Gibson?"

"What?"

"Are you…giving me your blessing?" I teased.

"No," she said indignantly.

I started to grin. "You like me."

Reaching down to zip up her jacket, she replied, "Hardly."

"Does this mean we're friends?" I asked.

She arched an eyebrow. "Don't get ahead of yourself."

My grin widened.

She stood, snagging her cup off the table. "I'm leaving now," she said.

"So soon?"

"I said what I wanted to say and I have better places to be." Slipping on gloves, she added, "You know, you should really consider making your vacation permanent. Like, don't come back at all."

Her prickly words didn't get to me anymore, now that I knew that was Gibson's version of humor. As she started for the exit, I called out, "Gibson."

She turned to glance over her shoulder.

"Thanks," I said sincerely.

With a hint of a smile, she said, "See you around, Hart," and then opened the door and stepped outside.


The snow fell heavier as the afternoon progressed. I headed home straight after grocery shopping so I wouldn't get stuck in traffic, and also because I was tired of errands and just wanted to settle down on the couch with my thickest pair of wool socks and a mug of hot chocolate.

So, I did just that, and started a book I'd been meaning to read for years. Snowflakes gradually accumulated against the window panes, wind whistling through the cracks. I was so cozy under my blanket, the pressures of the job slowly fading away. I wasn't sure if this is what most operatives did on their vacation, but it worked for me.

I was in the kitchen heating up a second round of hot chocolate when someone knocked at the front door. When I walked into the living room and opened it, I wasn't surprised to see Boone. He was windblown, with snow stuck to his jacket and hair and stubble, skin flushed from the cold.

Before he could say anything, I opened the door wider and said, "I'm making hot chocolate. You want some?"

Stomping his shoes on the doormat, he stepped inside. "Sure."

Heading into the kitchen, I grabbed the milk out of the fridge and added more to the pot. I heard him close the door and unzip his jacket. "Do you want marshmallows?" I called as I reached for the cocoa mix.

After a few seconds, I heard, "Do I want marshmallows?"

I glanced over to see him leaning against the kitchen doorway. "What, stupid question?"

He ruffled the snow out of his hair, giving me a small smile. It wasn't fair that despite sleeping upright on a couch last night, working a ten-hour shift, and braving the storm, he still looked good.

"How was work?" I asked, reaching up to get an additional mug, the motion tugging on the healing skin of the cut. Moving a bit slower, I took out the bag of mini marshmallows from the cupboard and set them next to the stove.

"Great," he replied dismissively. "How are you?"

I sprinkled cocoa and sugar into the pot. "Good," I said as I stirred. It already smelled delicious. Between my injuries and this recipe, I was going to gain a few pounds on this vacation. And I was okay with that.

"Did you take your antibiotics this morning?" Boone asked.

I was slightly affronted that he thought I'd forget. "Yes."

"What about the painkillers?"

"I only take them when I need to."

"Did you need them today?"

"Yeah. A couple hours ago."

"And when's the last time you changed the bandage?" he questioned.

"Right after I took the painkillers," I answered.

"And—"

Turning around, I raised the spoon in warning. "Quit it, or I'll withhold the marshmallows," I warned.

He raised his hands in surrender and came further into the kitchen. "I just want to make sure," he reasoned. "You're not keeling over on my watch."

"I'm fine," I promised him, and went back to stirring. "I even got off the couch for a few hours and ran some errands."

A pause, and then he said gruffly, "If you needed something, you should've told me."

"I'm a big girl, Boone."

He came closer and leaned against the counter next to the stove. "I know," he said. "But still. Tell me if I can help."

"You offering to be my nurse?" I asked.

"Sure."

"Hmm." I contemplated that. "Nurse Tom?"

He folded his arms across his chest. "Nurse Boone to you."

I smiled before dipping the spoon into the hot chocolate and tasting it. Glancing over at him, I smiled even wider.

"What?" he asked warily.

I lowered the heat. "I just had a mental picture of you in a nurse outfit." I couldn't help but laugh loudly. "You know, if you really want to help…"

"Forget it, rook." His eyes moved over my face and I thought I saw relief there. "Good to know you've still got your sense of humor, though."

"Who said I was joking?" I tapped his arm with the spoon and nodded toward my mug at the end of the counter. "Can you pass that to me?"

Grabbing it, he set it down next to the other one. He watched me add a little more sugar and mix it in. "When you're finished, can we talk?" he asked.

"Yeah, of course," I replied. I'd been expecting this, so the question didn't fill me with dread the way it usually did. For once I didn't feel like Procrastinating Gemma.

The silence was easy as I finished heating the hot chocolate, but the tension in Boone's muscles belied his relaxed stance. I wondered if there was more to this "talk" than just needing to get on the same page, because that was all I was expecting. Filling the mugs, I added heaps of marshmallows to the top, and then handed one to him.

"Thanks," he said.

He nodded toward the living room, and I followed him. Instead of going for the couch like I thought, he sat down at the dining room table and indicated I should sit across from him.

I slid into the chair, curling my fingers around my mug. "Why does this feel like a business meeting?" I asked with a suppressed smile.

"I just…have some things I need to say," was all he offered as explanation.

"Okay…"

"I'm—" He scratched the underside of his jaw. "—not really sure where to start."

I waited patiently, sipping a marshmallow from the top of my drink.

He drew in a breath, and there was a beat before he said, "I guess the first thing I want you to know is that I get it now."

"It?" I questioned.

"This." He gestured between us. "It took a lot of stupid mistakes on my part, but maybe that's what I needed to understand…what we have."

I tucked my hair behind my ears. "Ah."

He rubbed his face, uncomfortable, but when he looked up and met my eyes, his expression was resolute. "Look, I was scared before," he told me. "Not of you, but of being in territory I didn't think I belonged in. I'm not a boyfriend guy, Gem."

"I know," I replied. "And I'm so sorry if I pushed you in that direction too fast."

"No," he said. "It's my fault. I wanted it all but I didn't stop to think about what that meant, and it's obvious now that I wasn't ready. And that ended up hurting you, which I never wanted. I can't tell you how sorry I am about that."

I nodded, accepting the apology.

"I won't pretend I'm not still…intimidated by what it means to be in a serious relationship," he said, "but I realize I'm more scared of having this not work out."

It meant a lot to hear a man like Boone admit his vulnerabilities like that. "Boone," I said, "I don't want the prospect of being with me to be daunting in any way. It doesn't have to be a 'serious' thing right off the bat."

He gave me a look. "There's no way in hell we could be anything but serious, even platonically."

He was right. Our partnership prior to any romantic feelings had still been a strong, intense thing. "Is that what you want?" I asked gently.

"Yes," he answered without pause.

"Like I've said before, don't say things just because you think I want to hear them—"

"Rook," he interrupted. "I've had more than enough time to think about it, okay? The answer is yes."

"I—okay," I gave in. It was hard not to when he was all straightforward and determined, an adorable crease between his eyebrows like he was trying to convey his point through his expression.

"In South Africa, you told me I needed to figure some things out, and I have," he continued. He wrapped his hand around his mug. "I talked to Laura, apologized for leading her on in Istanbul, told her about us. I thought she had a right to know."

"I know," I said casually.

"I –" He stopped. "How?"

"Didn't you hear?" I asked, smiling as I sipped my hot chocolate. "We're friends now."

He raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Well, it's possible she hasn't accepted our friendship yet," I admitted. "But I'm sure we'll be swapping friendship bracelets soon enough."

He stared at me for a second. "That's…great."

I fought the urge to grin. "You seem ecstatic."

Grimacing slightly, he picked up his mug. "I'm just foreseeing a lot of let's-gang-up-on-Boone, that's all," he said, taking a drink. "Especially if Danny's there."

"I didn't even think of that," I said cheerfully. "That'll be nice. Teambuilding."

He frowned, but he couldn't hold it and it soon turned into a reluctant smile. "Anyway," he said.

"Anyway."

"I didn't say anything, but Nixon also knows that our relationship goes…beyond coworkers," he said. "He wanted to transfer me, but I did my best to convince him not to—"

"Convince him not to?" I repeated, leaning forward.

"Yeah—"

"Boone, I heard what you did," I stopped him. "The appeal, going above Nixon's head, the committee hearing…"

"You know about that, too?" he said, exasperated.

Ignoring him, I asked, "Why didn't you tell me? I could've helped or something—"

"I had it under control," he cut me off. "You didn't need to worry about it."

"I would've liked to have known what was happening," I countered.

"You were in the hospital," he argued. "You needed to focus on other priorities."

I exhaled sharply. "Boone. This was a big deal."

"Which is exactly why I didn't tell you," he said. "I knew you'd be stewing over it instead of concentrating on getting better."

"So what?" I said indignantly. "That's my prerogative."

"And it's my prerogative to want to protect you from stuff like this," he responded roughly. "It was not a pleasant experience."

I knew he'd kept it from me out of concern so, with a frustrated huff, I let it go. "Did you—did you really write a 77-page appeal?"

"Yes. How'd you know that?" he asked, bemused.

"I have my sources."

"Then I guess your sources also told you I submitted the paperwork for authorization of an intra-Agency relationship?" he said, obviously thinking I knew that information already.

I was at a loss for words. "No, actually," I managed after a second.

"Oh." Now he looked uneasy. "I figured I would get that approved while I was at it, and Nixon would've made us fill it out anyway. I hope that's okay."

Boone had taken the initiative to tell the CIA about us. Boone. "No, that's…that's really great."

"It is?"

"Yes. And they approved it?"

"They did," he replied. "It means they'll keep a closer eye on us in terms of personal conflict circumstances, but we can still work together the same as we have been."

I let the relief show in my voice when I said, "I'm glad."

"Me, too," he said. "Even just for my peace of mind." His jaw tensed and he gave me a stern look. "God forbid you decide to jump off a cliff again."

I drank some hot chocolate and licked my upper lip. "You ever going to let that go?"

"Hell no."

"It was almost certain death by Volkov, or possible death by jumping, you know," I justified.

"Oh, I understand why you did it," he told me. "If it'd been any other operative, I'd be okay with it. But seeing it, not knowing if you were alive—" He broke off. "That's a feeling I'll never forget."

"Do you understand now –" I balled my hands in my sweater. "—what it was like for me when Andermann shot you and I thought you were dead?"

"Yeah," he said. "I do."

We looked at each other for a long moment, the understanding heavy between us.

"Our job is risky," I said, "and that'll always be a fact we have to deal with. But for what it's worth, I feel inexplicably better knowing you've got my back."

"And I always will, even if the Agency gets in my way," he told me, peering down into his mug with a slight smile. "Even if you get in my way."

"Well…" I smiled, too. "Likewise."

"Somehow, that's not reassuring."

He glanced up and I gave him a deal-with-it grin.

He shook his head, and then shifted to reach into his pocket. I saw the shine of metal before he set something small down on the table between us. It was a silver key. The grin dropped off my face, and judging by Boone's self-satisfied expression, I realized that was probably his intention.

"What's that?" I asked.

"A key," he replied.

"I can see that," I said, "but to what?"

"My apartment."

My eyes widened at it. "Any particular reason you put it there?"

"Yeah," he said. "It's for you."

I jerked my gaze up to meet his. "What?"

He nudged it toward me, a mix between amused and apprehensive. "It's yours," he said. "So you don't have to break in, although I know that's a favorite pastime of yours."

Picking it up, I didn't know how to react. "Boone…"

"I'm not expecting anything, rook," he assured me. "A lot of stuff has happened and I know you need time—" He sent his fingers into his hair and exhaled heavily. "But I want you to trust me and I don't want to hide anything from you."

I chewed on my lip for a moment. "Are you sure about this?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" he asked.

My delay in replying caused him to interpret the silence for himself. A dark look crossed his face. He looked me straight in the eye when he said, "I'm sure. No one will be seeing the inside of my apartment except me…and you, if you want."

I took a second to absorb that. Then, keeping a light tone, I said, "You don't care if that puts a damper on your bachelor lifestyle?"

"No, Gemma," he said. "That's what I'm trying to tell you."

"Oh."

"I'm done hiding behind distractions and excuses just because you scare me," he told me. "I've realized you'll always scare me–"

I started to frown. "Hey—"

"—because I care about you, and what you think of me," he finished. "I didn't know letting someone have that power over you was part of it until—well, recently."

My frown smoothed out. "Yeah. Yeah, I understand what you mean."

It was a vulnerable thing to allow yourself to fully care about someone, to know you were voluntarily putting yourself in a position where you could get hurt. But I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that the happiness I felt with Boone outweighed the hurt I'd faced, and was worth the risk of hurt in the future.

God, that was terrifying and thrilling to acknowledge. And maybe a little stupid. But for the most part, love was stupid, wasn't it?

Nodding at the key, Boone said, "So, I want you to have it. Use it however you want, but no pressure, okay?"

"Okay," I replied.

We were quiet as I turned the key over in my hands, thinking, and he took a sip from his mug.

"Gem?" he said after he set the mug down.

"Hmm?"

"You're the best thing that's happened to me," he stated, his tone even but his voice rough.

There was an almost painful twinge in my chest as my brain understood what he'd said. I carefully laid the key down on the table and blinked up at him.

"Listen, I'm just going to lay it out," he said, leaning his elbows on the table. "I wasn't ready before – even though I thought I was – but I am now. I want something real with you, rook, no matter the risk of putting myself out there or the inexperience I may have. Because, honestly, it's worth it. Even when you're mad at me or annoying the crap out of me, I want to be around you. And I realize that whenever we're apart, I can't shake the feeling that something is missing."

I swallowed the lump in my throat. "It's like that for me, too," I said.

"I've always been apathetic about life, for a lot of reasons," he went on, "but you make me want something more, or at least to try for something more." He paused, tried to gauge my expression, which was probably a bit dazed. "It's hard to explain, but even before anything happened between us, you made me want to be a better person."

"You've always been a good person," I told him. "I know you've told me otherwise, but that's bullshit."

His mouth curved into a small smile. "See, that's what I mean. You've got this unwavering sort of faith in me."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"No," he said. "No, not at all."

"Good," I said. "Because that's never going to change."

He nodded in acknowledgment, and then watched me, unhurried, faintly amused, a little sad, all at the same time.

"What?" I asked, tilting my head.

He glanced down at the table and then back up. "You know I care about you more than I'll ever be able to explain," he told me.

It was an apology and a declaration, and it meant the world. "You don't need to explain," I replied softly. "Actions are more than enough."

"I wish I –" His Adam's apple bobbed, but his gaze didn't waver. "You're irreplaceable, rook. You should know that, at least. And I'm sticking around for as long as you want me."

I gave a small, shaky laugh. "Well," I said, "I think I've made my feelings for you pretty clear."

"They haven't changed?"

"No," I replied. "They're always there, even when things aren't perfect."

There was unmistakable relief in his expression. "Yeah?"

I rested my chin in the palm of my hand. "Yeah."

Sitting back in his chair, he said, "That's good to hear."

"I wasn't kidding last night, you know. You really are my favorite person."

"In a five-mile radius?"

"No," I said. "In the world."

He shifted in his seat, endearingly embarrassed at the compliment.

"I've never met someone who can make me so angry and so happy simultaneously," I said.

"And that's a good thing?"

"Yes, it is."

He nodded. "I guess I have firsthand knowledge of that."

My heart beat fast; I could feel it thumping in my chest. But it felt incredibly, wonderfully light. "Was there anything else you wanted to say?" I asked him.

"Just that Nixon gave me permission to take some leave. Three weeks. I played up the getting shot angle, like you said."

"That's great," I said. "Any plans?"

"Besides Cancun?"

"Don't even start."

He smiled. "No, no plans."

"Me neither."

"Hmm."

"Are you finished now?" I inquired.

"Yes," he replied, wary.

"Good," I said. "Come here."

His eyebrows raised in question but I just looked back at him. Slowly, he pushed back from the table and stood up. He came around the table and hesitated before crouching next to my chair, careful to make sure there was space between us, putting the control in my hands.

Turning toward him, I took in all the details of his face: the exact shade of his irises, the bits of red-gold in his five o'clock shadow, the healing cuts and bruises, the nervous clench of his jaw. Dark hair that was getting too long and those irresistible freckles. Boone. Just Boone.

I reached out a hand and cupped his face. His eyes flicked up to mine, in surprise and relief, and in that expression—in that deliriously perfect expression—it was all there and he didn't try to hide any of it.

You're the best thing that's happened to me.

I released an unsteady breath, and then I leaned forward to slide my arms around his neck. I buried my face between his neck and shoulder, holding onto him tightly. He almost lost his balance, but quickly grasped the chair for balance. His arms wrapped around me, and I felt the soft exhalation of breath against my neck.

My heart was so full, it hurt. I'd missed this, being close to him.

When I drew back, I didn't let go completely, keeping a hand on his shoulder. Confusion flickered over his face.

"What?" he asked.

"Do you promise not to react if I tell you something?" I said.

"Yes," he said carefully.

I inhaled, glancing away and swallowing before turning back to him. "I love you," I said, "and I know last time I sprung that on you and it didn't work out very well. I won't say it again unless you're okay with it, but I just want you to know because I think it's important—"

He grabbed my face between his hands and kissed me, cutting off my words. His mouth was hot against mine, and I immediately opened my mouth to deepen the kiss. I leaned into him, clutching the collar of his shirt in my fist.

He stood, pulling me up with him. His hands were gentle as they ran down my back and rested at my hips, tugging me closer, but he kissed like he'd been waiting years. I responded just as fervently, my injuries protesting slightly, but I didn't care. God, I didn't care because it felt like I'd been waiting years, too.

Desperately needing to catch my breath, I broke away, resting my hand on his chest. His heart was pounding.

"You promised not to react," I said, breathless.

"I did?" He took my chin between his fingers, tilting my head up. "Sorry."

"Yeah, you seem real sorry."

His lips twitched. "That's what I should've done the first time you said it," he said.

I made a soft sound. "Well, that would've been too simple. Boring, even."

"Maybe." His thumb brushed over my bottom lip. "I meant what I said earlier. I'm ready to try this and not screw it up. Fucking terrified, but ready."

When his eyes met mine, I could tell he meant it.

"It's okay if you're not," he said, "but are you ready, rook?"

The familiar words made me smile. "Yeah," I replied. "I'm ready."

I had barely finished the last word when he covered my mouth with his again. I smiled against his lips. Yes, I was ready to kiss this man whenever the hell I wanted.

"So, what now?" I murmured, trailing my fingers over his jaw.

"Now…" He gave me a considering look, his eyes warm but undeniably mischievous. "Now I think Nurse Boone has some unresolved issues with you."

I laughed. "Like what?"

He dipped his head to kiss me and then started to walk me backwards toward the bedroom. "Lots of things."

A little shiver went down my spine. "Please don't tell me there are lectures involved."

"Oh, there will be lectures, of sorts," he answered. "They're my specialty."

My back hit the bedroom door gently. "What about the hot chocolate? It'll get cold."

He reached down and twisted the door knob. "You have a microwave."

The door opened. I glanced into the room and then back at Boone, and a grin spread across my face. He grinned back, the kind that took years off, made him look carefree, happy.

He closed the distance between us. I stood on my tiptoes to wrap my arms around his neck, and he backed us into the room until we collapsed on the edge of the bed.

"First things first," he said, moving his lips to my throat, "you shouldn't be wearing this many clothes."

I turned my head to give him better access. "No?"

"No."

He pulled my sweater up and off, and then my tee-shirt, resuming his attention on my neck as he slid my sweatpants down so that I was just left in my bra and underwear. I pushed my socks off with my feet.

"Better," he rumbled, skimming a hand over my collarbone. He slipped my bra straps down my shoulders.

"You know what would be even better?" I prompted.

"What's that?"

"If you got naked, too."

He let out a laugh.

I reached up to undo his shirt buttons, feeling the warmth of him underneath. With that discarded, he tugged his undershirt off.

My focus was drawn to the bandage on his arm, as well as the abrasions, black-and-blue discolorations, and the dark bruise from when he'd been hit in the vest in Johannesburg.

"I hope you like scars," he commented, nonchalant, as he unbuttoned his slacks.

I trailed my hand down his chest. Nothing about these scars were ugly. They just reminded me how short life was, how human we were. "I like everything about you," I told him. "And I mean that in the cheesiest way possible."

He laughed again, said something along the lines of, "Shut up," leaned forward, and kissed me. Suddenly, I felt my breasts exposed to cool air, my nipples hardening. He pulled the bra down my arms without me knowing it had even been unhooked.

Smooth.

Then, the cool air was replaced by the heat of his mouth, and I fell back on the bed, closing my eyes.

With slow, languid movements, he worked his way down my body with his lips and hands, pausing when he met my various wounds. His touch was featherlike there, reverent. "I'm going to have to be careful with you," he murmured.

"Not too careful," I breathed.

"I'll do what I want."

When he reached my hips, he ran his hands over my thighs, and I parted them for him. His fingers stroked me over my underwear, and a low sound came from his throat. When my underwear came off, Boone's stubble grazed against my inner thigh, sending a ripple of goosebumps over me, right before he settled himself between my legs and kissed me in an entirely different way.

"Oh," I gasped.

Oh. Oh. His tongue. My hips rose, wanting more, and he knew exactly what I needed. Pressure in just the right spot, adding a finger at the right time, his other hand gliding up my body to squeeze a breast. An exquisite rhythm. I lost track of everything except for the building sensation of a climax, my hand buried in his hair, and when it came, I cried out and rode it until I went limp against the mattress, panting.

The bed indented as Boone's weight settled beside me. His arms came around me, pulling my back against his chest. We stayed like that until I moved against him, feeling him hard and ready against me, and I reached for a condom.

"Tell me again," he rasped into my ear.

"What?" I exhaled, still breathless.

"You know what."

"That I love you?"

Holding my hips, he slid into me, forcing a sound from both of us. I guess that was the right answer.

At first, his thrusts were shallow, careful. I shifted the angle, pushing our bodies as close as possible, the press of his skin against mine a wonderful line of heat. One of his arms grabbed me underneath my breasts, holding me tightly to him, while the other slipped down my stomach and between my thighs.

He went deeper, but his pace remained slow. Our breathing filled the room. I moved my hips in sync with his, feeling every inch of his body, increasing the speed.

He bit down on my shoulder, groaning, "Rook," thrusting into me harder, losing control. I reached behind me, grasping his leg, digging my fingers in desperately.

"Boone, I—"

My second orgasm hit me harder than the first, a feverish, toe-curling burst of pleasure. My muscles clenched around him, and after three slow, deep thrusts, he pressed his face against the nape of my neck and let himself go, too.

Neither of us made an effort to move, content to be warm and sated and wrapped around each other. He sighed, keeping me cradled against him like he had no intention of letting go. I kissed his arm and closed my eyes.

It felt like a new beginning. Everything that happened in the past few months had led up to this moment of unrestrained and unapologetic happiness, but it wasn't weighed down by the mistakes and misunderstandings. Not at all. I wouldn't take back anything because it made this real. It made this real and strong and hard-earned, and neither of us was ever going to take it for granted.


Nearly three weeks later, on the Sunday before we had to return to work, I woke to the smell of coffee. Rolling over onto Boone's side of the bed, I yawned and stretched. The sheets were still slightly warm from his body. I nestled into them, wanting to stay cozy for just another minute, then forced my legs off the bed and stood up.

I wandered into the living room, blinking sleep out of my eyes. The sky outside was already showing the bright blue of a clear day, and the TV was chattering with the morning news.

Arms wrapped around me from behind and a steaming mug entered my field of vision. "Coffee?" Boone said in that hoarse morning voice of his that I loved.

I groaned with contentment, taking the mug and breathing in. He had made a habit out of waking up before me and putting the coffee maker on. Just another perk to having him around. "Thanks," I said.

He stayed behind me, laughing as he kissed my neck. "What do you want for breakfast? I was thinking pancakes," he said against my skin.

"My definition of pancakes or yours?" I asked.

"What's the difference?"

I smirked. "Well, mine are edible and yours are not."

"Ouch."

"The truth hurts."

His lips trailed up to just beneath my ear, stubble tickling my neck. "I was using your recipe, so maybe that was the problem."

I breathed out a laugh. "Don't try to blame your charred pancakes on me."

"Fine," he murmured. "I'll try again, but if they're bad, don't tell me."

"That's okay, it'll be obvious by the sound of the smoke detector going off—"

"Shut up, Hart," he growled, arms tightening around me.

I grinned and took a careful sip of coffee.

I was about to say something when I caught the newscaster say a familiar name. Boone heard it, too, and straightened. We both looked at the TV where a blonde woman was speaking with an old picture of Volkov in the top right-hand corner, the words Drone Strike written underneath.

"The White House confirmed Vasili Volkov's death this morning," she reported. "Volkov was on the CIA's most wanted list for over nine years, the only Russian citizen to have been on the list since the Cold War. No details were given about the drone strike, although sources say Volkov was hiding out in southeastern Yemen. In other news, China's stock exchange is seeing an upward shift—"

Boone came to stand beside me.

"Yemen," I said. "Huh."

"A little off," he said.

I turned my head and we shared a look. We were the only ones who knew what had really happened, about the risks and close calls and effort it had taken to bring Volkov down.

During these past few weeks, it had been easy to ignore the world out there, the realities of our job, all the work we still had to do. It had been nice to forget, even just for a little while, and I wasn't sure I wanted that to end quite yet.

"Well," Boone said, reaching out to brush his knuckles along my cheekbone, bringing me back to the present, "I don't know about you, but I'm hungry."

He turned away from the TV and headed for the kitchen. I jogged to catch up to him, setting down my mug on the countertop before grabbing the back of his shirt and steering him away from the stove. "No, no, no," I said, depositing him on the other side of the island counter. "I'll take care of breakfast. You stay put."

He laughed, low and deep, raising his hands. "Okay, fine."

I started pulling out the ingredients for pancakes, and then rummaged around for a mixing bowl and measuring cups. Spreading everything out on the counter, I bit my lip as I did mental math to figure out the right measurements. Boone usually had eight or nine, as I'd discovered, and I was feeling pretty hungry myself. So, maybe I should double the recipe this time–

"I love you, rook."

A measuring cup fumbled out of my grasp, and I glanced up, the words a soft shock right in the center of my chest. He was watching me, elbows on the counter, and it seemed like he had surprised himself with the words, too.

I knew he loved me. Deep down, I'd known for a while. But I didn't tell him that, because this was such an important moment for him. It was the first time he'd said the words out loud in his entire life, and he chose to say them to me.

To me.

I blinked so the tears wouldn't fall and went around the counter. Holding the back of his head, I pressed a kiss to his cheek. "I love you, too," I told him.

He took a deep breath, and then he turned toward me with a smile I would never forget.

It was a small, quiet, perfect thing. Happiness swelled inside me, the simplest, truest kind, and I smiled back.

Stepping away, I went back to my spot and began measuring out flour. Putting all the ingredients into the bowl, I mixed them up as we discussed what we wanted to do on our last day of freedom. I made the pancakes, letting Boone participate under my supervision until he started burning them, and then we ate them on the couch, flipping the channel to something other than the news.

We had every intention of going out, but ended tangled up in each other and drifting off on the couch. I didn't mind, because I was sure the coming days, weeks, and months would hold more than enough excitement. Right now, with Boone's head in my lap, watching the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest, his thumb absently making circles against the back of my hand, I wanted this, because it was all in the quiet moments where nothing was happening but everything was right.


THE END


A/N: Endings always have a lot of pressure on them, so I hope this chapter lived up to expectations. It was a tough one to write. I wanted the story to end on a good, resolved note after everything these characters have been through. I am going to miss writing about them so much! I started Vertigo with just the passing idea of a spy in an elevator, and it's really neat to have two complete stories come out of that. Hopefully, it's been an enjoyable journey.

I know I say thank you in every chapter, but THANK YOU for reading, reviewing, favoriting, following, and PMing. Your support has been an enormous factor in my writing. To know that someone takes the time to read what I create, much less enjoy it, is amazing. As many of you know, sharing your work can be a scary thing, so know that even the smallest piece of feedback can make the difference between a writer continuing a story and abandoning it. I am incredibly lucky to have you guys.

Thanks to the anonymous reviewers of the last chapter: Fawn, E, GiGi, stephanie (thank you! I love what you said about Gemma being badass while retaining emotion...that's exactly what I want to portray!), MM, Blwoodbury13hot, Romz, Catarina L (so happy you found the last chapter powerful, I wanted it to be an intense finale to the mission stuff. And although publishing has never been a priority for me, that is very good to know and so nice of you to say. Hope you liked this final chapter!), Guest (words can't explain how happy your review made me. I'm so glad you enjoy the strong-yet-flawed characters and the progression of the character development and romance. Thank you so much for reviewing!), mylittleprincess, Guest, Guest, UnknownMystery (thank you very much!), Clumsyhead (thank you so much for such a kind review. I like detail, but there's a fine balance between too much and too little, so that's very encouraging to know :)), Guest (wow, thank you. For my writing to provide even a sliver of happiness means so much), Bookworm, Rena, Sinelle (I just want to say thank you for being such a loyal reader for so long. I really hope you enjoy the ending!), xoxo12 (thank you for reviewing both Vertigo and Ricochet, you made my day. It's so nice to hear from new readers :)), aly (you're right, so much has happened in quite a short time period! I'm glad rereading tied some things together and I hope this final chapter is satisfying :) Thank you for all of your lovely feedback and support.), AF (besides the small epilogue here and the post-Ricochet scenes in Boone's oneshot, I am not planning any other epilogues. I wouldn't rule out writing additional oneshots or full stories, though. Thanks for the review!), and Leprechaun (thank you for all of your feedback and support on every chapter. I'm really glad the last chapter was one of your favorites, and that the build-up and action parts were exciting. I hope you like this one, too :)).

Like I said in my last A/N, I will be posting a oneshot from Boone's perspective. It's tentatively called The Rookie, and will be around 15-18k words (so maybe more like a novella haha). It will be comprised of snapshots of important times in his life, from his early life to after Ricochet, heavily focused on Gemma and the changes he experienced because of her. I'm super excited! If you've wanted more Boone backstory, or his POV on key scenes in Vertigo or Ricochet, or some behind-the-scenes stuff, or some epiloguey parts, I'm hoping you'll enjoy it! I will probably be posting that in May.

I'm not opposed to writing more in this world, but for now, I'd like to play around with some new story ideas. I love the Fictionpress community and will always share my work here :) Please follow me as an author if you're interested in getting an alert when The Rookie is posted and for any future stories.

As always, let me know your thoughts, and thanks for reading! Until next time :)