Note: This is a oneshot/novella set in the Vertigo-Ricochet world in Boone's perspective. It's meant to span from pre-Vertigo events to after the end of Ricochet. However, I do believe it can be read as a standalone, although some parts might be best with context.
Twenty-four years before
Thomas Boone peddled his bike fast, the plastic grocery bag swinging on the handlebar. It was getting dark and he needed to get home. His dad had sent him to get milk and cereal, any kind he wanted because it was payday, so of course he got a big box of Cap'n Crunch, his favorite. He was going to eat it for dinner, and breakfast, and lunch, until it was all gone.
When he reached his house, he left his bike in the driveway and went in through the garage. He set the bag on the kitchen table, hoisted himself onto the counter to reach the bowls, and got a spoon. He measured out a full bowl's worth of Cap'n Crunch, and then sat down to eat it. He read the back of the box as he chewed, wishing he could turn on the TV but knew his mom was sleeping in the living room and she'd yell at him if he did.
After he was done, he put the bowl and spoon in the sink and went to find his dad to give him the change. 17 cents. Maybe he'd let Boone keep it since he was saving up for that new GI Joe action figure. He already had $1.78 in the Ziploc bag under his bed, and he was hoping to have enough by the end of summer.
He opened his dad's office door, reaching into his pocket for the coins. His dad was leaning back in his desk chair, like he was sleeping, but his eyes were open and—
The bookshelf behind him was splattered with chunks of red and pink and white, and wet stuff, too. The side of his head didn't look right. Crushed, glistening. His beard was stained dark, dripping. His silver revolver gleamed on the desk.
The coins slipped from Boone's fingers. He dropped to his knees to collect them. He barely had time to lean over before he threw up his Cap'n Crunch on the carpet. He threw up until there was nothing left, and when his mom didn't wake up from the sound of his yelling, he stumbled to the phone on the desk and called 911, staring into his dad's eyes, thinking they didn't look much different than they had an hour ago.
Twenty-three years before
When he got home from a field trip to the Rocky Mountains, his mom didn't pick him up from school like the other parents. She was probably sleeping again, so he walked home in the snow.
The lights were on in the house, but the car was gone. He walked through the house. Half of his mom's clothes were gone. So was her expensive perfume from the bathroom and the alcohol bottles from the living room. On his pillow, he found the neighbors' phone number, a $100 bill, and a note.
You deserve better. I'm sorry.
He sat down on his bed, alone in the bright, empty house, not fully understanding that he was now alone in the world, too.
Sixteen years before
Foster care was bullshit, and when he had the chance to crash on someone's floor, he always took it. People called him a runaway, a delinquent, but he didn't mind. He didn't need anything or anyone, and he liked it that way.
Thirteen years before
"I'm giving you a chance, kid," the judge said. "Military or prison time. You pick."
Apathy was his way of life. It kept things simple, safe, and sufficiently satisfying, but it also got him in trouble. An assault charge and underage intoxication, to be specific.
"The military, ma'am," he answered.
What the hell? He'd always wanted to be GI Joe.
Nine years before
GI Joe made it look easy, but Boone loved the Navy. He loved the grueling training, the bone-deep exhaustion, the idea that he was doing something good while doing something fun. It took time to acclimate to the structure and discipline, but he began to appreciate its simplicity. He never had to worry about his next meal or paycheck, and people treated him with respect. It wasn't glamorous but it made him feel important. Worth something.
A few years in, his commanding officer pushed him to apply for the SEALs. Most soldiers had to think about the six-year commitment, but Boone signed the dotted line the moment his acceptance letter arrived.
Seven years before
He felt the bullets pound into the other side of the dilapidated adobe wall, dust and debris hazing the air and sticking to the back of his throat. The sound of automatic weapons was unrelenting.
Sweat dripped into his eyes as he checked his MP-5's magazine. He was down to four rounds.
"Dang, AQAP sure knows how to party," Maragoudakis—"Goo" for short because no one had time to pronounce his full name—panted from next to him, clutching his bleeding arm.
Fifty minutes ago, their squad's convoy was ambushed by AQAP-affiliated insurgents on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen. An IED exploded on the road and over a hundred armed men rushed their vehicles. In the commotion, Boone and Goo were separated from the rest of the team, who were now a safe distance away, Lieutenant Roberts helpfully telling them over the radio that they should get out of there ASAP. No shit.
Goo peeked through a hole in the wall. "Bastards are advancing fast."
"We've got to move," Boone said.
They both glanced over their shoulders at the long, straight street that stretched across the town, the only way out. Angry yelling sounded closer, followed by a spray of bullets that carved out another chunk of their protective wall.
They looked at each other.
"I've got four rounds," Boone told him.
"I'm out," Goo said. "But I do have…" His good arm fumbled in his vest, extracting a dirty M67 grenade. He held it up like it was the Holy Grail.
The pfft-pfft-pfft of high-speed rifle rounds went over the top of the wall. Boone peered upwards. A sniper. What a great addition to this shit show. Judging from the direction of the bullets, they were probably on a rooftop northwest of them.
"How's your throwing arm?" Goo asked.
Boone shrugged. "I played peewee baseball when I was six."
Goo tossed the M67 to him. "Hey, good enough for me."
Boone caught it in the crook of his arm. He slung his rifle behind him, secured the flaps of his vest, and adjusted his helmet's chin strap. Goo relayed a message over the radio, and then tucked it back into its pocket. He gave Boone a nod.
Twisting the safety pin, Boone pulled it out, holding down the lever. "Frag out," he said. And then he stood up and threw it over the wall as hard as he could, aiming northwest.
One. He dropped back down.
Two. Urgent shouts from the men on the other side.
Three. Boone and Goo shielded their heads.
The explosion shook the ground with a deafening boom. The second it did, Boone and Goo took off under the cover of black smoke.
If there was one thing SEALs trained for, it was RFYFL, better known as Running for Your Fucking Life. In this case, it meant sprinting 1.24 miles through enemy territory with 30 pounds of gear as people shot at their retreating backs, bullets kicking up puffs of sand around them, the blazing heat of the sun making it hard to breathe, hard to see.
But Boone lived for these moments when adrenaline washed out everything except survival. Something about teetering on the edge of life and death made him feel alive. It was a dangerous high, sure, but he didn't have anything to lose. He didn't have a home to go back to or a photo of his wife or kids or mom or dad tucked underneath his Kevlar. All he had was himself and his duty to his country.
The Humvees were visible up ahead, parked in a defensive line. When Lieutenant Roberts saw them coming, he gestured at Nguyen to move his vehicle forward to let them in.
Boone hurdled through the small space between two Humvees, Goo right behind him. They collapsed on the ground, rolling onto their backs, coughing and gasping for breath. Boone unclasped his helmet and pulled it off.
"Close the gap, Nguyen," Roberts yelled. "Those tangos are coming fast. Now that these two bozos are done socializing with the terrorists, let's move out. We're behind schedule and I'm sure this won't be our last ambush today."
Goo grinned. "Good throw," he wheezed to Boone, and stuck out his fist. "Hooyah."
Boone bumped it with his and smiled. "Hooyah," he echoed, and then got up to do it all over again.
Five years before
"You know, there's just somethin' about a man in uniform," the waitress said, setting his cheeseburger down on the sticky diner table. She'd been flirting with him since he came in. "What are you doin' tonight?"
Kingsville, Texas was a shithole, but at least the girls were pretty. And direct.
"I'm deploying tomorrow," he told her.
She knew what he meant. Her lips turned up. "That's not what I asked, soldier."
Later, he stared up at the cracked ceiling of her apartment with their legs tangled together and his arm trapped underneath her, going numb, and he wondered how being with another person could make him feel even more alone.
Three years before
Rain lashed at his face as he stood at attention. He watched another member of his platoon get lowered into the ground in the same wooden casket with the same tearstained family clutching the same folded-up flag with the same song playing. Taps. He heard that goddamn song in his nightmares.
At the reception, a nondescript man sat at his table. "You're too young to look like that," he said, and slipped a business card toward him. All it had was a phone number. "Give us a call if you'd like…a change of scenery."
Two years and eight months before
The CIA's training was like SEAL training on psychedelic drugs. The military was straightforward: do this, then do that. The CIA was more: here's a situation, now deal with it however you want and don't get caught.
It was a challenge and a freedom he hadn't known he craved. Most of the other recruits were hard, competitive, probably damaged somewhere deep down, and he fit in. They all had a numbness the CIA coveted.
There were a few recruits who didn't, though. They were the ones who tried the hardest but had the worst time compartmentalizing their emotions, the ones who cried in the bathroom after killing an imaginary person in simulation training. They made him thankful for a lifetime of pushing feelings away. He couldn't imagine feeling like that.
One week before
"Did you hear we're getting a rookie?"
Boone glanced up from his computer at the logistics officer sitting across from him, Bob. Or maybe it was Rob? The CIA was a revolving door of faces and names, and Boone didn't have the energy to keep track. "No," he replied.
"Oh." The guy scratched his beard. "Well, I heard they're being assigned to you. The boss didn't tell you?"
Boone's hand tightened on his mouse. "What?"
"Yeah, man. Rookie duty…" He let out a laugh. "Sucks to be you."
Rookie duty. What the fuck. No one in their right mind would send a new, impressionable agent to him for training. He'd only been in the CIA's logistics division for two years and wasn't known for his interpersonal skills. His last evaluation had said as much. And it didn't bother him because he was just biding his time until a spot in Clandestine Services opened up. Logistics—a fancy word for mission support—was boring, tedious, and filled with people who irritated him, not that it took much. He was not the person to partner with a rookie if the CIA wanted them to stick around.
Boone pushed out from his desk and headed for his boss's office. This had to be a mistake.
Five days before
It hadn't been a mistake.
Gemma Hart. That was the rookie's name.
She sounded like someone who'd get on his nerves.
Four days before
"I'll pay you to take the rookie," Boone said, half-serious.
With his feet up on his desk, Bob laughed. "No way. I had to train one last year. I've done my duty."
"What's it like?"
"Brutal. Newbies are either petrified or overconfident turds. Don't know which is worse."
"Great," Boone deadpanned.
"I heard yours is field-certified in Russian, though," Bob offered.
"Maybe you could pawn off all the Russian paperwork off on her."
"Maybe," Boone replied. He did have a huge pile of documents to translate. Russian-language certification was rare in this unit; he was the only one who had it due to the Navy putting him through language school. So, he supposed that was one benefit, though he doubted it outweighed months forced together with a rookie. "What else do you know about her?"
Bob's desk phone rang. He shrugged and said, "Just that she put logistics as her first choice," before answering it.
"Huh." That was also rare. Most new agents tried for CS first, craving excitement and glory, not logistics, a significantly less thrilling job.
He went back to work, beginning to wonder what kind of person Gemma Hart was.
Three days before
After some excruciating bartering with Linda, the librarian-like keeper of personnel records, he held Gemma Hart's 201 file in his hands. He had no idea why this was worth six boxes of gourmet chocolates and three hours of his time fixing filing cabinets in the dusty record room. Maybe because he wanted the upper-hand on this rookie, whoever she was.
"You've got 60 seconds," Linda told him, popping a chocolate into her mouth and glancing at her watch. "Better make them count."
The file—a compilation of Hart's pre-employment and training records—was too disorganized to find the good stuff, so he just flipped it open to the first page. A small picture was paper-clipped to the inside of the folder, showing a woman with brown hair tucked behind her ears and big Bambi eyes, smiling wide like it was her senior photo. Who smiled for their intake photo? Most recruits were scared shitless their first day.
He quickly moved on through school transcripts—Yale, summa cum laude, political science major, history minor. Lists of addresses and associates—seemed she currently lived downtown D.C. with a guy named Ben. Medical records—broken leg when she was 11 and tonsil surgery when she was 20. Farm training results—top 10% of her class, probably could've landed CS if she wanted. Then a background interview with a Steven and Marie Hart that he skimmed until he saw:
M. Hart: Sure, I'd say Gemma was a normal kid. Smart, kind of shy until her teenage years…I think the age-gap between her and Mark made her a little lonely. She liked to be around people. She had this—this imaginary friend when she was young, um…
S. Hart: Macaroni, right?
M. Hart: Macaroni, that was it. She used to talk to it whenever she thought we weren't around, tucked it in at night…it was sweet, really. Probably was a little too old to have one, but…oh, Lord. Don't tell her I told you that. She's very embarrassed about it.
Boone laughed, loud and unexpectedly, for what felt like the first time in years.
"Time's up." Linda snatched the folder from his hands before he could protest. She stuffed it back into its slot in a nearby cabinet. "Hope it was worth the effort."
Rubbing his jaw, he was still smiling when he replied, "Yeah, it was."
Two days before
After a Saturday of working overtime, Boone came home to his quiet, empty apartment. For some reason, he thought of Macaroni as he drank Budweiser on his couch, the TV on in the background just to fill the silence.
The day of
When he came out of a meeting, she was standing by his desk, her back to him. Michaels, the logistics unit director, was introducing her to Bob. When Michaels caught sight of Boone, he beckoned him over.
"And this is your new partner, Agent Thomas Boone," Michaels told her as he approached.
She turned, and the first thing he noticed was her expression. It was serious, but it seemed unnatural on her, nothing like her recruit photo. He could practically hear her thinking, "First day, look extra professional so they take you seriously." She'd dressed the part, as well, with a black suit and hair pulled back.
"Nice to meet you, Agent Boone," she said, her voice strong, pleasant. "I'm Gemma Hart."
She stuck out her hand, and he extended his. Her handshake was firm, maybe a bit too firm, too practiced, and he had to suppress a smile. "Call me Tom," he answered.
"Tom will show you the ropes," Michaels said. "I'm sure you'll learn everything in no time."
"Great," she said.
"By the way, forgot to mention I'll need your PST form and 599B by the end of the day, and for you to get set up with L-Link," Michaels told her. "Oh, and talk to ISD about getting you remote access capabilities because you'll need that for the Copenhagen mission, JWICS level." An analyst snagged his attention and he turned to talk to him.
Her face fell, almost imperceptibly, but Boone saw the confusion and panic there. Michaels had always been a tactless son of bitch.
"Don't worry," he said quietly so Michaels couldn't hear. "He's trying to make the job seem more impressive than it is. We like to use a lot of acronyms to sound important."
She looked up at him with an earnest kind of relief. Her eyes were lighter than he'd expected. They were the same gold-brown of his favorite Tennessee whiskey, he thought, the one he saved for special occasions and particularly bad days. The one he'd been planning to drink tonight as consolation for rookie duty. How fitting.
"GTK," she said.
"Good to know," she explained.
He exhaled a laugh. "Ah."
She smiled and it was warm and easy and the most genuine thing he'd ever seen, and it hit him like something physical. It was so out-of-place in this office. Leaning forward like they were exchanging secrets, she said, "I'm a fast learner."
"I can see that," he replied. "That's good for me."
She nodded, her smile fading into a polite one.
Immediately, he wondered if he'd said something wrong, if his tone had been too blunt. He shifted uncomfortably. "I, on the other hand," he added, "am probably not a great teacher."
"I doubt that," she said. "Director Michaels told me you have tons of experience, and that you're fluent in Russian. That's why he paired us together."
Boone made a noncommittal sound.
She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment before she continued, "Well, I'm looking forward to it, anyway. But I promise not to bug you too much."
From across the desks, Bob piped up, "Uh, that's kinda impossible. Tom makes it his life goal to be a grumpy killjoy—"
"Shut up," Boone told him.
"See what I mean?"
He assumed Gemma would either be put-off or intimidated by that impression of him—hell, most of the office was—but she just tilted her head appraisingly and said, "Grumpy killjoy, huh? I can see that. You have the look."
He was so surprised that he couldn't come up with a good retort before Michaels' attention refocused on them. Gemma's mouth curled into a tiny smile before resuming her professional demeanor.
"There's the deputy director. I want to introduce you," Michaels said as he hailed someone across the room, and started to lead her away.
Boone sat down at his desk. "See me later about the acronyms," he called after her.
Glancing over her shoulder, she gave him a grateful, "Thanks, Boone."
Boone, not Tom like he'd told her to call him. No one called him Boone without putting his title before it—Petty Officer 1st Class Boone, Agent Boone, Mr. Boone. She was already defying him, probably a bad sign, but for whatever reason he liked her more for it.
Bob gave a low whistle. "Dang, it's hard to find an ass that looks good in a pantsuit, but Miss Hart there is rockin' it." He opened a bag of pork rinds with a loud crackle. "That offer still on the table? 'Cause I'll train her for free. I can think of lots of good lesson plans…"
Even though Bob's tone was joking, unprecedented anger flooded through Boone, hot and visceral. "No," he told Bob sharply, "It's not. And don't be a fucking asshole or I'll report you to Michaels and you'll spend the rest of your career doing data entry in the basement."
"Jesus," Bob breathed, pork skin frozen in front of his mouth. "What's the problem?"
With a terse shrug, he replied, "Nothing. But the rookie's mine now, my responsibility, so watch what you say or we're going to have problems."
"Fine, fine. Sorry."
Boone rubbed the heel of his hands into his eyes. The rookie's mine?
One day after
She broke her promise in less than 24 hours. She did bug him. As he trained her on the logistics computer systems, she insisted on writing everything down in a thick notebook, making him repeat instructions to make sure she had it right. She asked questions he didn't even know the answers to, and once she even chastised him for skipping how to close out of a program.
"Click the small gray box that says OK," he said with exaggerated slowness, watching her scribble that down, incredulous at the amount of effort she was putting into this. "That's spelled O-K. Then click the X at the top right of the screen. I hope you don't need me to spell that one of you. Click OK again."
"Got all that, rook?"
She looked up, nose scrunching slightly, lines appearing between her eyebrows. "It's Gemma," she corrected him.
He took a swig of coffee—cold because she hadn't given him time to refill it all morning—and felt satisfied. He'd found a way to exasperate her just like she exasperated him, and he decided he liked it when she frowned like that. He'd have to make her do it more often.
Three days after
He overheard Michaels and Gemma in the break room as he passed by, hovering near the doorway when he caught his name.
"How's it going with Tom?" Michaels asked her as he microwaved his lunch.
"Good," he heard her reply.
"I know he's not…the friendliest guy, so please tell me if it's not a good fit. I want you to feel welcome here."
"Oh." She sounded taken aback. "No, really, it's going well."
Michaels laughed humorlessly. "It's all right, Agent Hart, you can be honest."
He'd known Michaels didn't like him much, but Christ.
"I am being honest, sir." Her voice held a bit of heat now. "He's very good at his job, and he's been extremely thorough and helpful with the whole training process despite having a ton of his own work to do."
Was she…defending him? He hadn't needed defending since he was 15. He moved past the break room, disconcerted at the tight feeling in his chest.
One week after
Copenhagen was their first mission together, a routine deep cover operative extraction. They took separate flights and met at the Nyhavn's waterfront, a canal with a backdrop of brightly colored buildings and old wooden ships. He found her sitting at an outdoor café, drinking coffee with a very yellow scarf wrapped around her neck.
"Hey, rookie," he said, dropping into the chair across from her, "you know yellow isn't an espionage-appropriate color, right?"
She paled, and it was then he noticed her white-knuckled grip on her mug. She was nervous. "Oh. You're right. God, I—I don't think I've prepared enough for this—"
"You have," he cut her off. He wasn't accustomed to the whole morale-boosting thing but he needed her to be calm for this. "You haven't shut up about it for the past week. I've never seen anyone make so many checklists and notes about an op in my life. If anything, you're over-prepared."
"Over-prepared?" Her eyes widened. "Is that a thing?"
He fought the urge to laugh. "No," he assured her. "Relax, this is going to be an easy one."
"Are you ready to get going?"
Her gaze was fixed on him, like he had all the answers. "Can we just go over the plan one more time?" she asked, swallowing.
"Sure," he replied.
He ordered a coffee and they went through it step-by-step, for the tenth time. He could tell she wanted to write it down on her hand. If he'd been on his own, that operative would already be on his way home.
"Okay," she said afterwards, a little more relaxed. "I think I've got it."
Pulling out some Danish krones, he deposited them on the table. "You ready now, rook?"
She unfurled the scarf from her neck and stuffed it in her bag. "Yeah," she said with a tentative smile. "Ready."
Three weeks after
He watched her assemble a Glock 19 without looking, her attention on the laptop playing video feed. Barrel into the slide, recoil spring into the barrel, slide onto the frame. Slide pulled back into the locked position. Magazine into the grip. Releasing the slide with a click.
"I'm not sure we'll be able to use the front door," she commented. "Too much foot traffic."
It was their second mission—a safe house setup in Hong Kong—and they were in a dirty hotel room, waiting for an opening to transport supplies to an apartment in a shady part of town. Even though Copenhagen had gone smoothly, Boone kept waiting for Gemma to go over tonight's plan ad nauseam. But all she'd done was devour dim sum and watch surveillance feed, and was now loading bullets into an extra magazine like she did it every day.
"What do you think?" she asked, turning to look at him.
He scanned her face. Who was this woman? The nervous newbie who needed reassurance, the assertive agent who insisted they finish their mission paperwork before lunch, the loyal partner who stood up for him to Michaels, the self-assured person who could assemble a gun in less than 20 seconds? All of the above? None?
Fucking A. People shouldn't be so complex. He almost wished she was either petrified or overconfident, like Bob had predicted, so he didn't have to analyze her expressions to figure out which Gemma Hart she was in that moment of time.
"We'll use the side door," he grumbled, reaching for his own Glock.
"There is no side door," she said, cautiously adding, "Haven't you been paying attention?
He shot her a look. No, you've been distracting me.
One month after
"Hey," she said, flipping through a guidebook as they walked. "I think we're close to La Closerie des Lilas."
"The what?" he asked.
"The café where Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises." She glanced up, peering at a street sign. "And his Montparnasse apartment is close, too."
He took a turn down a narrow, empty street. They had a meeting with a CS team at one of the Paris safe houses in the sixth arrondissement. "You realize we just have to pretend to be tourists, right?" He gestured at her guidebook. "The prop's a little overkill."
She laughed. "We're in Paris," she said, like that meant something.
"We're in Paris, getting paid to be tourists."
"No, we're in Paris, getting paid to set up a mission," he said.
"While pretending to be tourists," she reasoned. "It would be irresponsible of us not to see a few things. For cover purposes, of course."
"For cover purposes?" he repeated, checking his watch. They were making good time.
"I'd think," she mused, "as such a stringent rule follower, you would want to make sure your cover is intact."
Slowing down, he turned to her. "My cover is rock solid."
She stopped, facing him with an amused expression. "Sure it is. An anti-sightseeing tourist. Very believable."
His brow furrowed as he looked down at her. "Better than a try-hard, stereotypical one."
"At least I blend in," she said. "You look like you're about to storm the Bastille." Her eyes glinted gold in the sun. "Which, by the way, we can go see the remains of, if you're interested—"
"I'm not," he cut her off. He started walking again.
"Have you even seen the Eiffel Tower?" he heard her ask from behind him.
"We're running late," he answered.
"No, we're not." She caught up with him. "You haven't, have you?"
"Why does it matter?"
"We get to travel the world," she replied. "Shouldn't we take advantage of that?"
"Don't romanticize this job, Hart," he told her. "We don't have time. We go in, do our job, and get out. That's the way it is."
He turned his head to look at her. "That's the way it is," he said sharply.
A ripple of surprise and hurt crossed her face. She pressed her lips together, as if to keep from speaking. He almost felt bad, but she needed to adjust her expectations. She was going to be sorely disappointed in logistics if she thought it was just jet-setting around the world with different names and passports.
"Sorry," he grunted.
She shook her head. "It's okay."
After the meeting, they went to pick up supplies from a warehouse. She was quiet around him, tense. Grudgingly, to prove he wasn't a complete dick, he took the route that went past the Eiffel Tower. Gemma grinned at him, rummaged for her guidebook, and then lectured him on its architectural attributes and history. She even convinced him to drive by the Arc de Triomphe. That had been a mistake, because it fueled her to ask to see the Champs-Élysées, the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre—
"Do you have an off switch?" he muttered.
She exhaled a laugh, closing the guidebook. "Just seeing how far I could push you," she said, and then added, "Thanks, grumpy killjoy," but it didn't sound like an insult at all.
Six weeks after
A giant plastic-wrapped cookie dropped onto his keyboard. He glanced up to see Gemma standing beside him, looking tired from last night's mission but smiling all the same.
"It's oatmeal raisin," she told him. "Almost got into a fight over it with some guy from IT because it was the last one. Happy birthday."
The oatmeal raisin cookies from the Langley cafeteria were his favorite. He'd never told her that. Nor had he told her it was his birthday. Birthdays weren't something he celebrated. "How'd you know?" he heard himself asking.
She went over to her desk, which was diagonal from his, and logged into her computer. "About the cookie or your birthday?"
She finished typing something, and then flashed him a smile. "Well," she answered, "I am a spy."
"Hmm." He moved the cookie to the side so he could continue his work. "It's…thanks."
He eyed it all afternoon. It was just a cookie. But it was also the first birthday present he'd received in 22 years.
Two months after
Toronto, mid-spring, bickering on folding chairs inside a cramped news van with a hidden camera mounted on the satellite dish, so cold they could see their breath, was the first time he thought about kissing her. It came out of nowhere.
"It's not him, Boone."
"He's wearing what the protocol described," he argued.
They were trying to locate an undercover operative named Paul in order to help him set up a cover business. Gemma's chair creaked as she zoomed in on the laptop's feed. She wore a puffy jacket and a hat with a pompom on the top, which was ridiculous.
"He's way too old," she countered.
Boone squinted at the grainy video showing the park just outside the van. "You can't even see his face."
"Yes, you can. That guy's at least 75."
"There's no way you can tell."
"Do you have cataracts? It's definitely not him."
He frowned. "No, I don't," he said, "and yes, it is."
"How can you tell if you can't see his face?" she retorted.
"Who else would wear a pinstriped suit with Remembrance poppy pin in May?"
She exhaled a puff of white air. "I don't know. Maybe Canadians make unique fashion choices, or maybe some senile elderly man who thinks pinstripes are still cool escaped from the retirement home."
"Where do you come up with this shit?"
She bent to rifle through some papers scattered on the van's floor, holding up a photo of Paul and flourishing it, eyes bright and cheeks pink. "See, our guy is a quarter of a century younger than that—"
"It is our guy."
"No, it's not—"
He had a sudden vision of grabbing her by the coat and kissing her just to shut her up. It was only a half-second urge, but now he couldn't un-see it. His eyes dropped to her mouth, small and perfectly shaped, and then to where her thigh rested against his.
Moving his chair back as far as possible, he swallowed. No, they were partners. She was dating someone. He hated complications. He needed to look at her objectively.
He needed air.
"I'm going to grab him before we lose our window," he said, and shoved the van door open.
Three months after
They were burned restocking a safe house in Caracas. The house must have been previously compromised because 20 minutes after they'd arrived, an armed man stormed in shouting something about "CIA assholes" in Spanish. While Boone automatically reached for his gun, already deciding he could make a head shot, Gemma dropped the soup cans she'd been holding and screamed. Loudly.
"Don't shoot," she cried out in Russian, of all languages. "Please don't shoot. Oh my God, please."
The man looked bewildered and Boone didn't blame him. In that moment of hesitation, Gemma disarmed the guy and had him face-down on the floor in an arm lock in three moves.
"Do we have zip ties?" she asked Boone, tossing hair out of her eyes as she pressed her knees into the struggling man's back.
Slowly putting his gun back in his waistband, he stared at her. His first reaction was to kill, hers was to distract and disarm. He wouldn't have lost sleep over this fucker, but…it could've simply been a misunderstanding and he would've killed him.
Huh. It was possible this rookie could teach him some things, too.
Four months after
She smiled entirely too much for someone in their profession. She had a smile for everything, different ones for when she was happy, teasing, distracted, relaxed, on the brink of sleep.
And then there was this one, just a gentle upturn of her lips that softened her entire face, which she gave him when she caught him smiling, too. That one was the worst.
Four months and three weeks after
He knocked back his weak vodka tonic, watching Gemma and the agent dance to some 80's song. It was giving him a headache. Out of all the places in Sochi, this was where the agent wanted to meet? He understood maintaining cover, but…this? This club was a neon, tie-dyed version of hell.
Gemma's arms were around Agent Porter's neck, his mouth next to her ear. She nodded every now and then, said something back, discussing the logistics of what he needed for his mission. Every now and then, he twirled her around and brought her back against his body, his hands daring to slip lower each time, like their dancing façade entitled him to touch her like that.
Boone forced himself to scan the crowd. He was here as backup only. Backup stayed put, kept an eye out for anything suspicious. That being said, everything in this club was suspicious, especially those people over there dressed in Lycra jumpsuits.
His headache pulsed again as another Michael Jackson song came on. Son of a bitch, this meet needed to be over already.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gemma stiffen. His first thought was that they'd been compromised, and was almost relieved. But then he saw Porter's hands skimming over her ass, Gemma's mouth forming the words, "Hey, stop it."
That was fucking suspicious enough for him.
He slammed down his glass and pushed through the crowd. Neither of them saw him coming.
"May I cut in?" he deadpanned in Russian.
Gemma's head turned to him with a quick flash of appreciation. Porter's expression remained calm, his hands moving back up to her waist.
"Sorry," Porter said. "No. She's my girlfriend."
He didn't realize Boone was CIA. Boone leaned in. "Sorry," he said. "No. She's your coworker."
Porter's demeanor immediately changed, and Gemma extracted herself from his embrace. "I'll see you at work," she told him, jaw tight. "I won't tell anyone you're a shitty dancer."
Leaving Porter behind, she wove through the bodies until she reached the edge of the dancefloor. Boone followed, coming to stand beside her next to the bright pink wall. She tugged her shirt down and wiped her palms on her jeans.
"Next time, I'll take the meet," he told her.
"Yes," she said, "I would've liked to see you dance with him."
"Well, my anatomy isn't quite up to his standards. I'm sure it would've gone differently."
"Give yourself some credit."
He glanced down at her, at her too-serious face. "What are you trying to say about my ass, rook?" he asked.
She cracked a smile. "What are you trying to say about mine?"
That I'm glad I have more self-restraint than Porter, he thought darkly, because I find myself wondering if it would fit perfectly in my hands if I—
"Nothing," he said. "You okay?"
He hated the way she shrugged with bullshit nonchalance. "Yeah, it's no big deal." When he leveled a look at her, she put up a hand. "Really. That's…nothing new."
"What do you mean?"
Surveying the crowd, she said, "Despite our equal capabilities, there are some things women learn to deal with."
"Fuck that," he immediately replied.
"I'm not—" She tucked hair behind her ears. "I'm not just saying that. They even teach it to us at…school."
She meant the Farm. Disgust rose in him. "No," he said, facing her. "I mean it. It's one thing to use it to your advantage, and another thing entirely to just tolerate it. Especially with douchebag coworkers who think they can get away with it."
Her face lifted to his, considering. After a second, she narrowed her eyes, nodded, and said, "You're right. Fuck that."
He nodded back, satisfied. It was his first time hearing her say fuck, and he liked it.
"Thanks," she said, nearly inaudible.
He didn't answer, not wanting her gratitude. Duran Duran pounded through the speakers and he wanted another vodka tonic.
"You really hate 80's music, don't you?" she mused.
He exhaled. "Yes."
"The music, or the 80s in general?"
"Any reason in particular?" she asked.
"Brings back bad memories," he replied.
"Cassette tapes?" she guessed, smiling. "Mullets? Arnold Schwarzenegger?"
Group homes. Skipping school. Running from the cops.
He rubbed his face. "Something like that."
Blue and green lights flashed over her face as she studied at him. Then, she tilted her head toward the exit. "Let's get out of here, then," she said gently.
Five months after
Reading Gem was a science that he'd unintentionally perfected over the months. After all the time spent together on missions and at the office, she was an open book now. Although that didn't necessarily mean he understood her.
He could tell she had difficulty figuring him out, which was the way he preferred it. He didn't want her to know that there wasn't much about him worth knowing.
Six months after
Logistics wasn't quite as miserable, he realized. Bob took a job with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michaels bugged him less, Gemma helped with the Russian paperwork, and missions didn't seem as boring. Bob's replacement was a kid named Danny Rowe, who he'd dismissed as shy until Gemma took the time to get him to open up. He actually had a good sense of humor, and the three of them naturally became a team. He'd even go as far as friends.
Seven months after
But increasingly, he had unfriendly thoughts toward Gem. He always dismissed it as a male thing, the way he noticed how her breath caught when he touched her, how her mouth moved when she spoke, how her shirt clung to the curve of her breasts, how her hips were at just the right height for him to grab and pull against him.
Christ, he was just as bad as Bob, as that asshole Porter.
She wasn't even his type. He preferred emotionally unavailable women who sought nothing more than a night of getting off and never seeing each other again.
As he had his entire adult life, he'd had several one-night-stands since Gem came to logistics. With the addition of Danny, he didn't feel bad leaving her alone during the free time they had on missions. He'd go for a run, or get a drink at a bar, or spend the night with someone.
Objectively, this woman is more attractive than Gemma, he'd force himself to think. But objectively, he wasn't all that objective anymore.
Seven months and two weeks after
"Fine." Gem jammed a .22 into her coat pocket. "I will plant the bugs since you two are scared of a little security guard." She grabbed the audio transmitters and shoved them into the pocket, too. "The less time we dilly-dally, the more time we'll have to sit on our asses, since that's obviously what you guys want to do."
Danny shrugged in the desk chair. "Well, it is cold," he reasoned. "Scandinavia cold. That's different from normal cold."
"Did you just say 'dilly-dally'?" Boone asked from where he sat on the bed, laptop balanced on his legs. They were in a rent-by-hour place just outside of Oslo that smelled like smoke and French fries, but Danny was right; at least it was warm in here.
Jaw clenching, she gave them both a narrow-eyed look. "I'll be done in thirty."
"There are seventeen bugs to plant," Boone stated, raising his eyebrows, "in eight different rooms."
She tightened her ponytail and raised her eyebrows back. "Then I'll be done in twenty."
And before he could protest, she was out the door.
Danny leaned back in his chair and gestured at his face. "Ever notice how Agent Hart gets that look sometimes?"
Boone nodded toward the door. "That one she just gave us?"
"Yeah, I've noticed."
"It's like she's on the warpath or something," Danny said.
"Warpath face should be the official term for it," Boone said.
"The Hart Warpath Face." Danny grinned. "I don't like being on the receiving end of it."
"Me either," he agreed.
"They should teach it to all the new recruits to scare the enemy."
Danny did his best imitation of it, and then Boone did, too, and they laughed. When Gemma returned, twenty minutes later, and asked them why they were smiling, they both innocently replied, "No reason."
Eight months after
She came into the Moscow safe house with blood on her face and finger-shaped bruises on her neck, her hands unsteady as she tried to unbutton her coat, and it was the moment he'd been dreading. The job wasn't fun and games anymore.
"Dmitri. They kill Dmitri," she murmured.
"What?" he asked.
"Dmitri's dead?" Danny breathed from where he stood by the couch.
"Yeah. I—I found him in the car," she said, still struggling with her coat.
Boone stepped closer, hoping he wouldn't spook her. "What happened, Gem?"
She looked up, obviously trying to keep it together through her fear and panic, but when her eyes met his, they glazed over a bit.
"Gemma?" he asked.
Danny worriedly asked, "Is she in shock?"
Licking her lips, she said, "I killed a man. Some man. A Russian guy. I killed him."
Boone had never felt such a surge of emotion. He had trouble deciphering it. Anger, protectiveness, something deeper. He turned to Danny and told him to call Michaels, and then moved Gemma's shaking hands out of the way so he could unbutton her coat. Slipping it over her shoulders and throwing it over the nearby kitchen counter, he led her to a chair.
She recounted what happened, and then he helped patch her up. The entire time, he had to remind himself to be gentle, calm, in charge. Because as brave a face she put on, he saw right through it, to the trembling vulnerability there, the horror of taking her first life, and all he wanted to do was crush her against him and make it go away.
Eight months and three days after
When he swung by her D.C. apartment to pick her up for their Istanbul flight, he met her boyfriend, Ben. He'd only absently wondered about him before because she rarely talked about him and he didn't care to ask.
Ben was what he imagined; a well-educated, clean-cut guy who smiled easily and kissed her like he knew what he had. Normal. If he'd grown up differently, would Boone be like that?
But a distance existed between Gemma and Ben, he could tell that much. She broke away first, her body was tense when he touched her, and even though she smiled at Ben, it didn't come close to her smile for Boone.
Eight months and seven days after
The Istanbul mission proved to be more intense than he expected. It was more of a CS op than a logistics one, helping Operation 67 target the Russian mobster Vasili Volkov. The high stakes were right up his alley, but he worried about Danny and Gemma being unprepared.
But that wasn't really the case. Despite their apprehension, Danny kept a level head and Gemma's actions were fearless, in an infuriatingly reckless way. He'd already known she had excellent instincts, but she was actually very capable in the field and it scared him to admit she wasn't a rookie anymore.
It wasn't easy on her, though. She was still affected by the man she'd killed in Moscow and from seeing more death in the past month than most deployed soldiers. He knew he couldn't erase that, but one night when she'd been irritable and shivering in their cold bed, his resolve crumbled and he'd tried.
She stiffened when he balled a hand in her sweater. "What—"
"Shut up," he muttered.
Pulling her to him, he wrapped his arms around her until she relaxed and breathed out a soft sigh, burying her face in his chest. He didn't know if he'd helped, but she fell asleep soon after which he took as a good sign.
He'd never held anyone like this. It had nothing to do with sex, just warmth and reassurance. And it felt…good, being needed.
Eight months and eight days after
When he woke up in the morning, however, the closeness was different. She'd wrapped herself around him, and him around her, her breaths coming softly, her hair tangled in his fingers, her hand resting on his stomach. This felt good, too, in an entirely separate way. He wanted to roll on top of her and—
He immediately got out of the bed, wishing their cover wasn't as a married couple. He needed some fucking distance if he wanted to prevent a mistake he couldn't take back.
Luckily, Laura Gibson was in Istanbul helping out on this mission and was very straightforward about her attraction to him. They had slept together before, so she broke his never-see-again rule, but fit the role of distraction perfectly.
So, when she invited him to her hotel room that night, he went. Laura looked like she'd won a prize when he showed up and grabbed him by the belt before he could think twice. It was satisfying and unromantic, and he told himself once was enough.
Because they were taking turns watching surveillance video, he and Gemma were on different sleep schedules, which was a good thing. The next day, though, he walked into the bedroom to shower while she was sleeping. She was stretched across his side of the bed, and even steps away he could see her nipples through her white shirt, and he had the overwhelming urge to put his mouth on them through the fabric and wake her up slowly.
"Oh, fuck," he breathed.
When it wasn't his shift, he spent the next three days and nights with Laura. He could tell that confused Gemma, but what else was he supposed to do? It was like she was in his bloodstream, constantly there, in his head and in his heart.
Eight months and eleven days after
He was about to go on a dangerous mission to Pakistan with CIA special ops. If there was ever a time to give in, it was now.
As they were saying goodbye outside of the Istanbul house, he grabbed her and kissed her. She was only still for half a second before she responded just as fervently as him. She felt right pressed against him, soft and warm and real, and he let himself kiss her exactly how he wanted to, hard and with feeling. And God, did she kiss him back.
When he broke away, he had one of those surreal moments of wondering if it actually happened.
She looked shocked. "I—"
"I have to go. I'll see you soon," he told her, picking up his bag from the ground and heading for the waiting car that would take him to the airport.
Pausing, he turned toward her.
Jesus, he loved when she said his name like that, like he was the most important person in the world. "What?" he said, voice low.
"Why did that feel like goodbye?" she asked.
Because it might be the last time I see you, he thought, and maybe she'd gotten better at reading him because she pressed her sleeve to her mouth, a tear running down her cheek.
He swallowed. He hadn't meant for that. Trying for reassuring, he gave her a small smile and said, "See you soon, rook."
Eight months and twenty days after
He didn't. Well, occasionally in dehydration-induced hallucinations. Or when they beat him so hard he wavered in that hazy space between conscious and out cold.
The Pakistan mission had gone wrong. Two good men had been killed—one with a newborn, the other right in front of him—and now it was just him and Trey Perry, held captive in some hellhole in the middle of nowhere. When he imagined not coming back from this mission, he assumed he would get killed, not held hostage. Somehow, surviving was worse. If anyone was to die, it should've been him, a man who wouldn't be missed the way Ray Park and Sam Faroohar would be.
The beating and yelling happened about every four hours, whenever Volkov's guards decided it was time to fuck with them. It was in those hours that he'd slump against the wall and conjure thoughts of anything that wasn't that filthy, dark room. How to escape. How to make sure Perry didn't die from that broken rib that had likely punctured his lung. How Gem tasted. Smelled. Had become a part of his life without even meaning to. That stupid frown that he found so endearing. That smile.
Sometimes, he even heard her voice, which was when he really knew he was losing it.
Nine months after
Warmth touched his face, and gunfire and yelling echoed in his mind along with Gemma's voice. It wasn't unusual.
"I need backup—" she was saying. "Giddens, where are you?"
Strange. Gemma in his dream state usually said things along the lines of "yes, Boone, you're right" and "yes, like that, just like that" and—
A commotion was happening to the right. It took all his energy to open his eyes. Two shapes moved quickly, fighting each other. One in heavy tactical gear slashed the other's arm and then faced him.
"Gem?" he croaked.
The figure approached him, crouching beside him. The helmet was too big, falling in its face. But it said, "Boone," in her voice.
He started laughing even though it hurt. It sounded real. Was it real? He mumbled something about dreaming, and then the figure pushed up the helmet and it had her eyes, too.
"No," she said, "you're not dreaming."
It didn't feel like he was, but could she really be in Pakistan when she knew this was the last place he'd want her to be?
As she helped him up and ushered him through the compound, it quickly became apparent she was. Gemma Hart, his stupid, reckless, perfect rookie, had come to rescue him.
Nine months and three days after
Pakistan had fucked him up. He hurt, inside and out. Gem worried about him, and despite dealing with her own problems with Ben, she stuck by him even when he was an asshole or drunk or breaking down on her couch. She didn't judge, just let him do what he needed to do, and he appreciated that more than he could say.
That first night back, he had trouble sleeping. Gem was watching TV in his living room, avoiding going home to Ben, so he went out there and sat next to her. Putting a pillow in her lap, she told him to lay down. He fell asleep with his head in her lap, and when he shuddered awake from nightmares, she smoothed a hand over his hair and things weren't so bad.
Nine months and six days after
They were back in the Moscow safe house, prepping for the next stage of the mission to retrieve the core of a neutron bomb, when Gemma said, "Ben and I are over, by the way," and he knew he should feel bad, but all he felt was a lightness in his chest that foolishly seemed like hope.
Nine months, six days, and three hours after
Steel flashed at Gemma's neck. Aleksandr Lukin—the bastard who'd tortured him in Pakistan and had now shown up in Moscow—was about to cut her throat if Boone didn't give him the briefcase he was holding.
The core of a bomb or Gemma's life?
She twisted and fought and told him not to do it, but the choice was easy. He handed it over. He was so far from objective it was funny.
Nine months, six days, and six hours after
Alternate means of securing a keycard from a club employee probably existed, but acting like a couple with Gem was too good to pass up. The target was a few feet away and the plan was simple: act distracted, brush past him, swipe the keycard from his belt, go downstairs, and get the core back.
"You sure you don't want me to take point?" he asked her.
Gripping the front of his shirt, she put his back to the bar, leaned in, and whispered, "No, I've got this," in his ear.
Surprised, he laughed. "Okay."
He felt her exhale of laughter against his skin, and then her lips touched his neck, working down to his collar. He grabbed her shoulders, to make her stop or to hold onto her, he wasn't sure. Then she murmured, "Get ready," and he found himself moving his hands down her arms, craving her bare skin.
When she pulled back, she was breathing heavily, eyes shining in the club lights, a little wild. Her lips parted and she licked them. The hot, heavy want that he constantly tried to ignore rose up in him like a crushing ache.
He reached up, took her face in his hands, and kissed her. She tasted like vodka and lipstick and Gemma, and it was fucking intoxicating. The way she melted into him, all of her pressed against him, drove him crazy. He couldn't help but think he'd almost lost her tonight. And then she was breaking the kiss and pushing him toward the wall. He didn't care if she'd managed to steal the keycard because she was biting his lip, running her tongue over it, and then she was kissing him again.
As he'd imagined for months, he grabbed her hips and brought her against him. A low moan escaped from her, and it was the sexiest thing he'd ever heard. Wanting more, he slid a hand up to the nape of her neck, wondering how to make her do it again—
"Oh, there they are," Laura said through his earpiece, and he remembered she and Danny were in the club, too.
Gemma broke away, looking embarrassed. "They've been watching us?"
"I don't know, rook," he told her honestly. "Wasn't paying attention."
Still wasn't paying attention. Because that kiss might've started out mission-related, but it hadn't ended anywhere near that.
Nine months, six days, and seven hours after
Lukin was dying on the floor. He was going to kill Gem, so Boone shot him. Looking at Lukin brought memories from Pakistan to the forefront of his mind, and he wanted to empty his magazine into his body to finish him off. He began to aim his gun, finger already on the trigger.
"Don't," Gemma murmured.
"What?" he asked.
"Why not? I've wanted to put a bullet into his head since Pakistan—"
"Let the bastard suffer," she told him.
He glanced over at her. Dripping from the sprinkler system's water, she met his eyes. She didn't want him to shoot a defenseless, dying man. But it wasn't for Lukin's sake; it was for his.
He lowered the gun.
Nine months and nine days after
Laura leaned across the candlelit table. "What are you thinking about, Tom?" she asked, taking a forkful of his risotto dish.
Boone sat back. That I hate risotto. That I can't believe Hart set us up on a goddamn date. That I am not built for this dating shit. That I'm pissed she's being difficult about the CS job offer. That I'd rather be arguing with her than sitting here. That you're great, but you don't get on my nerves the way she does.
Nine months, nine days, and one hour after
"Boone?" her voice low and surprised when she answered the door.
Boone. Yes, that alone was worth the drive from Dupont Circle to Gemma's apartment.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, frowning slightly.
"I need to get some things out of my system," he replied.
Nine months and ten days after
It was the early hours of the morning, and Gemma was sleeping next to him, his body curved around hers in what he belatedly realized was cuddling.
He hadn't meant the night to end up this way, but after their argument that made it clear they both had feelings for each other, she told him not to go. He probably should have, but then she'd kissed him and he didn't have the willpower to leave. And finally, finally, he'd been able to touch her the way he'd wanted to for months. Feel the softness of her skin, brush her nipples with his thumbs and then his mouth, discover just how warm and wet she was for him. The feel of her fingernails digging in his back, the way she kissed him like she never wanted to stop.
If he'd liked how she said his name before, it had nothing on the way she moaned it when she came.
He pressed a kiss to her shoulder and fell asleep before he could think too much about what this meant.
Nine months, ten days, and six hours after
"So, you want some breakfast?" she asked from where she sat on the bed. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
"Oh." He picked up his shirt from the floor. "Well…"
"I haven't got much, but I might be able to scrounge up some pancakes," she considered.
Every cell in his body balked, and he wasn't quite sure why. It was such an innocuous suggestion. Breakfast. But she was smiling up at him, her hair mussed from last night, and he realized she expected him to stay, eat pancakes, spend the morning with her. And he wanted to.
But that wasn't him. That was normal. That was Ben.
He'd already crossed the line by sleeping with her. He only did casual, and last night was the furthest thing from that. What had he been thinking? He couldn't get her hopes up that he was suddenly boyfriend material. No, he was destined to fuck up, irreparably, and he didn't want to hurt her. Not Gemma.
So, he didn't stay, and despite the sick twist in his stomach as he lied to her and left, he told himself it was for the best.
Nine months and sixteen days after
When Gemma was mad at him, it was bittersweet. She gave him the cold shoulder and tried her best to be emotionless, but she was shit at it and he half-enjoyed watching her try. There was a lot of frowning and playing deaf. Her true emotions—hurt and confusion—were clear to him, and she was too good a person to be an actual asshole. She'd even decided to take the CS job so he wouldn't miss the opportunity.
But being on bad terms with her bothered him, a lot. He knew he made a mistake leaving that morning. He was a coward. No surprise there; he'd avoided anything meaningful his entire life.
"I'm going to pull over for the night," she said on the third day of driving through Mozambique on their first CS mission.
Surveying the scrublands and the darkening sky, he replied, "Okay. You want to sleep outside or in the Land Rover?"
She drove off the dirt road into a small area hidden by bushes. "In the Land Rover," she said. "I'd prefer not to get eaten by hyenas in my sleep."
Turning off the truck, she added, "But feel free, you know."
He turned toward her. "To get eaten by hyenas?"
"Yeah," she said, sitting back in the seat.
He couldn't help but laugh. A reluctant smile started at the corners of her lips and when she looked over at him, it grew into that smile. His smile.
Christ, she was terrible at being mean, and it tugged at heartstrings he was only starting to realize he had.
Nine months and twenty-one days after
Gem's avoidance of problems surpassed his. Underneath his increasing frustration, he almost admired it. Over a week posing as newlyweds, camping in a tiny tent, getting into two shootouts, and making an exhaustive 300-mile journey into South Africa, and she still didn't want to talk.
Well, for once, he did. His patience was worn out and even though he'd rather keep every ugly inadequacy locked away, she needed to know everything. Then, she could decide if he was worth forgiving.
It took three tries, until he cornered her in the kitchen of the Johannesburg safe house. Nothing with Gemma Hart was easy.
A few months ago, he wouldn't have fought for anything so hard. But that was...before.
Nine months and twenty-two days after
"You know the difference between weak men and strong men?" Joe, one of his many foster parents, asked him once. Joe was the type of foster parent who did it for the state cash reimbursement, and when he was high on weed bought with that money, he liked to wax philosophical in his ratty recliner, eyes closed, rocking back and forth. "Feelings. A weak one can't do nothin' because he always worryin' about his goddamn feelings, or other people's. But a strong one…a strong one, Tommy, will turn them off to do what needs to be done."
Boone had been eleven at the time. Joe wasn't his role model by any means, but his words stayed with Boone through his adolescence, and that mindset was reaffirmed by the military and subsequently reinforced by the CIA. It wasn't a secret that the CIA preferred to recruit those that came from a rough background, believed it bred a useful sort of detachment. Turning off emotions made the job easier, and it worked for him.
Joe's words rang in his head as he watched Gem run off after Sibo Bulani—a dangerous, sociopathic criminal—on the off-chance she could get the location of the civilian he'd kidnapped. And probably for justice for the man Bulani had killed, and for nearly killing them, too. She put her life on the line for it without hesitation.
Gemma was the opposite, he realized. She let herself feel it all, and instead of hindering her, emotion fueled her. Her reckless sort of bravery just about killed him, because he couldn't fathom Gemma Hart reduced to a star on the CIA's Memorial Wall, but Joe was wrong. It was those feelings that made her strong.
Not that he'd ever tell her that. If he did, she'd probably become even more incorrigibly bold.
Nine months and twenty-four days after
Googling "first date ideas" resulted in articles meant for dating pros seeking "unique, WOW-worthy suggestions" or inexperienced losers wanting to impress their "crush". He identified most with the latter, Boone realized with some horror. But he wasn't going to screw up his first honest date with Gem. He still wasn't sure how one planned evening showed a woman he cared about her—he could think of a few better ways—but he was going to do it anyway.
If Gem ever found out it took four hours of research, three changes of clothes, and blasting AC/DC on the way to her place to prepare for their date, she'd never let him live it down.
"It's not McDonald's, is it?" she asked from beside him in his Jeep.
Keep it a mystery, one article stated. "No," he replied. Christ, she smelled good, even from here. "Burger King drive-thru."
She laughed. "I knew you were a romantic."
"You can only order off the Value Menu, though," he said. "I'm a little strapped for cash."
"Oh, you're paying, huh?"
Insist on paying, another one advised. "Only if you behave, rook."
She made a considering sound, and he glanced over at her. Her lips curved into a sexy little smirk. Be a gentleman, a dating column said. That one was going to be the hardest to abide by.
When he pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, he turned off the engine. She read the sign, "Piri Piri, authentic Mozambican cuisine," and then turned to him, genuine surprise on her face. "Boone…"
"On top of that hill in Mozambique, you said that you wished you could actually enjoy the places we go. We didn't really enjoy Mozambique, so I thought…" If she means the world to you, make it mean something special to her. "…Well, I thought you'd like this."
She was quiet for a moment, seemingly stunned, and then she whispered, "I do."
Ten months after
Despite his best efforts, he fucked up three more times.
The first time, Ben was in her apartment. Rage in the unmistakable form of jealousy caused him to misunderstand the situation.
The second time, she held his face between her hands and told him she loved him, and he didn't believe her.
The third time, he drank too much and let another girl distract him from the fact Gemma was pushing him away.
Each of those things hurt Gemma, and he'd never hated himself more. He shouldn't have needed a breaking point, a rock-bottom, but the way she looked at him now destroyed him. Made him realize blaming his past and his inexperience wasn't going to help anything. If he wanted her back, even just platonically, he had to fix it.
The thing was, before Gem, he wouldn't have bothered. He would've dismissed it as a lost cause, buried any residual feelings deep inside, and moved on. Now, though…well, the rookie had taught him more than he'd realized.
Ten months and four days after
In the early days of their partnership, jaw stubbornly set, Gem had made it clear she didn't need protecting. She acted like it was a conscious choice on his part to be overprotective, but really, it was instinctual when it came to her. The thought of her injured or killed constricted something deep inside his ribcage, even when she had just been a rookie to train, and he acted without thinking sometimes.
"You realize how easily this could've killed you, right?" she demanded, radiating fear and frustration as she grabbed his wounded arm. After a long road trip from Cape Town, they'd been ambushed by the mercenary Charl Andermann, and Boone had tried to take him down, weaponless, and was grazed in the process. But she'd believed Andermann had fatally shot him.
"But it didn't," he assured her.
She let go of him suddenly, angrily, and he caught the glimmer of tears before she went back to business, turning toward the now unconscious Andermann.
"Rook," he called out to her.
"No, don't 'rook' me," she tried to snap back, but her voice broke. She began to walk away, furiously wiping tears from under her eyes, and he thought about pulling her against him but resisted the urge. When Gemma was angry, she didn't want gentleness. She either came down on her own or argued until she had no fight left.
He thought she'd calmed down when she came over to the table outside the barn. While he attempted to deal with his arm, she sat on the table and patched herself up in silence.
"I'm sorry," he said after a while, meaning it. For everything. "I guess…" Jesus, he was bad at this. "I guess I'm still not used to someone caring what happens to me."
One of her hands slid into his hair, gripping it tightly. "How can you think that after everything?" she breathed.
A fire burned in her eyes that ignited everything in him. She wasn't over it at all; she wanted to fight.
She kissed him roughly, surprising him for only a second before he responded. He loved the way she reacted to him, a low moan humming in the back of her throat, coming undone when his hands were on her, wrapping herself around him so there was no air between them.
Need—not want—consumed him. It came from the same place his protectiveness did, a place he had no control over. She reached for his waistband, biting his neck, and he ripped off her shorts. He ran his hand from her breasts, across her stomach, over the thin material of her underwear. She moved against him, lost in need, too, head tipped back, eyelashes fluttering as she tried to catch her breath. "Boone," she rasped.
Fuck, he couldn't wait any longer. He took her right there on the table, hard, fast, the only way he could right now. She came when he was deep inside her, and he wasn't able to hold on any longer.
"I need you, and I'll kill you if you die," she mumbled into his neck, still plastered against him. He could feel her heart beat, and her body trembled, not from the sex, but from thinking she'd almost lost him.
And it was in that moment that he believed she loved him, and that he started to understand what that meant.
Ten months and five days after
As planned, a CIA drone dropped a payload on Vasili Volkov's hideout on the Umngazi River. Volkov and his associates were burned to a crisp.
What wasn't fucking planned, however, was Gemma jumping off a fucking cliff into a fucking river, fucking bleeding from the side, to escape the blast area and avoid getting shot by Volkov's people. He would've gone right over after her if he didn't have two innocent civilians with him.
"Too remote?" Boone growled into the phone. His boss, Frederick Nixon, was riding on a high from finally getting Volkov and wasn't being cooperative in the least. "With all due respect, sir, if you managed to get a drone here, then you can send some rescue helicopters to find Hart."
"Assembling choppers is impossible for your location," Nixon replied, voice tinny on the other end. "We'll get a search team out there when it's daylight."
Boone stopped pacing, gritting his teeth. He looked at the cliff, the grass before it scorched from the missile, debris from the house scattered everywhere. One of the worst moments of his life had been looking over the edge to see if Gem was down there, splattered on rocks below or floating down the river or impaled by shrapnel. The moonlight had shown him nothing, thank fuck. "Bullshit."
"Excuse me?" Any lightness in Nixon's tone evaporated.
"That is bullshit, sir," Boone replied tightly. "We have enough resources at our disposal to get one here within the hour. I—"
"Agent Boone…" he warned.
"No, listen to me," Boone said. "The mission is over, Volkov is gone, and you can afford to call in some favors to rescue the agent who was integral to the success of this mission."
"Get a fucking helicopter, sir, or I will."
"Agent Boone, you have no authorization. I'm ordering you to stand down, get back to base—"
Boone hung up, and dialed a new number. This was possibly a career-ending move, but hell if that was going to stop him.
Ten months, five days, and six hours after
From the open door of the helicopter, Boone watched the sun rise on the Indian Ocean, giving them the light they so desperately needed. He surveyed the mouth of the Umngazi River, where Gem might have floated down to, but saw nothing. They passed by hills densely packed with jungle-like trees, scoured the coastline, and flew over the roads leading toward nearby towns. Nothing.
He'd called AFRICOM directly. More specifically Vice Admiral Jeremy Montagne, an old boss and friend of his from the SEALs. Jeremy owed him a favor from six years ago when he'd lost it and disregarded orders, and Boone had covered his ass and snapped him back to reality. He wouldn't have his high-ranking position if it weren't for Boone. Boone hated reminding him of that but didn't hesitate. And it was worth it because Jeremy found a military helicopter undergoing routine maintenance in Durban, just 150 miles east of the Umngazi River.
"Sir, are you sure you do not want a hospital?" one of the soldiers asked him, for the third time.
"No," he replied. "Just circle back and head west this time."
The soldier's eyes dropped to his wounded arm for a long second before nodding. The chopper dipped as they turned, Boone's grip tightening on the handle.
Ten months, five days, seven hours, and thirty-two minutes after
"Go back!" he shouted. "Go back and land!"
The pilot maneuvered the helicopter in a wide circle and touched down in a flat, grassy area. Boone was out of the helicopter before both runners hit the ground, heading for the road where he thought he'd seen…
He cleared the small group of trees and then his feet were pounding into the soft dirt of the road. He could see her now and he didn't stop running until he reached her. He wanted to drop to his knees in relief, but then he noticed the infected gash on her side, the pallor of her skin, dozens of cuts and scrapes on her arms and legs and bare feet, and he realized she wasn't safe yet.
She was still standing, though, by sheer force of will.
When her eyes met his, her expression crumbled. He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, and she let herself go, clutching him like a lifeline. He wanted to hold her and fix her and tell her everything was going to be okay, but the pragmatic soldier in him knew she needed to get to the chopper ASAP.
"Can you make it a quarter of a mile to the helicopter?" he asked, pulling away.
She blinked, fingers loosening their grip on his shirt. He covered her hands with his, pressing them back against his chest. Don't you dare let go, he thought.
"Gem, can you make it to the helicopter?"
Although she nodded, he could tell she hadn't heard him.
He ended up carrying her to the chopper, and then set her down on a bench seat instead of a gurney—at her insistence—so the onboard medic could look at her as they flew to the nearest hospital. He busied himself with cleaning her smaller injuries and mixing a hydration pack for her. She kept asking questions—"Are you okay?", "The woman and kid?", "Is Volkov dead?"—when she really needed to be quiet and concentrate on rehydrating, on getting better, on—on—
His name, spoken softly, perfectly.
His eyes stung against his will. The last time he'd cried he'd been alcohol-numb and barely felt it, but he felt it all now. He felt it all, and he didn't care. She was alive.
Ten months and six days after
Outside of her hospital room, Nixon's voice was loud against his ear, "You disobeyed direct orders, commandeered a military helicopter without CIA authorization, and your relationship with Agent Hart is the goddamn definition of 'personal conflict'. I'm writing up a transfer for you as we speak."
Leaning against the wall, Boone rubbed his jaw. Being separated from Gemma was out of the question. "If you do that, I'll fight it."
"Will you now?"
Ten months and nine days after
"Agent Boone, this is…" The head of human resources at Langley plucked at the thick, book-like document Boone had given her. 77 pages, to be exact. "…highly uncommon."
"Yes, ma'am," Boone said.
"Usually, for operatives, we do this over the phone," the woman said, glancing at the rest of the HR committee. All six returned looks of confusion.
"Yes, but according to section 17, clause G, line 7 in the CIA's Policy and Procedures, an operative is entitled to a formal hearing if he/she requests one," Boone stated, adjusting his tie.
He hated wearing suits, and he hadn't slept since he returned to D.C. On the flight back from South Africa, he researched the appeal process for transfers instead of worrying about Gemma in that hospital bed, and once he landed, he got to work. He read every after-action report from the past ten months, detailed every time his and Gemma's partnership had led to a success—with a special highlight on Volkov as a big fuck-you to Nixon—and filled out the mountain of paperwork needed to formally appeal a supervisor's transfer decision. In addition to the paperwork for intra-Agency relationship approval.
"Is there any reason in particular you requested this hearing?" the woman asked. "I guarantee we thoroughly review all paperwork, and make decisions in an efficient, unbiased manner."
"For my peace of mind," he replied, thumbing to the first page of his booklet, which read: SUCCESS #1 - COPENHAGEN. "I'd prefer going through it with you, so I know you fully understand the benefits of the partnership between Agent Hart and me, and in case you have any questions. If you'd turn to page one…"
"Are you…serious about this, Agent Boone?"
He glanced up. "Yes, I'm serious. I wouldn't waste your time or mine if it wasn't important."
The committee members looked slightly dumbfounded as they opened their copies, and he felt the corner of his mouth curve upward. "As you'll see, I've documented 107 instances our partnership benefitted the Agency and its goals…"
Ten months and twelve days after
He won the appeal, and received Agency authorization to have a personal relationship with Gemma. When Nixon called Boone into his office afterwards, he just tapped a copy of the booklet and said, "Impressive." Then gave him ten weeks of desk duty for disobeying a direct order.
That night, he made a duplicate key to his apartment, went for a run instead of having a beer, and practiced what he'd say to Gemma when she got back.
Ten months and thirteen days after
She came into the 67 office after her day-long debriefing with dark circles under her eyes, hair tucked behind her ears, and a thick bandage apparent under her dress. Christ, it was good to see her. He wanted to take her home, even if she was too exhausted to talk, but he still had something to do.
Laura, characteristically aloof, brushed off his apology that he'd led her on the past few months. But then she fixed her sharp, dark eyes on him when he told her about Gemma. Not everything, but enough to know he wasn't interested in anyone else.
"What is it about Hart?" Laura asked, a mix of curious and exasperated.
He exhaled, rubbing the back of his neck.
"She's not your type."
Laura understood him well. They were a lot alike, after all. "I know," he replied, "and maybe that's why."
She arched an eyebrow, mouth quirking slightly. "Don't tell me she makes you a 'better person' or 'challenges' you. Next thing I know, you'll be going to brunch and holding hands in public."
"The world is just…a lot less shitty when she's around," he answered.
"Huh." She considered him for a long moment. "Interesting."
She shrugged. "I just never imagined a rookie, of all people, to be the one to…well, to get you to give a shit."
He shook his head, lips twitching. "Yeah, me neither. Trust me."
Ten months and two weeks after
Nervous but not fucking around, he sat Gemma down—she was trying not to smile, he could tell—and laid it all out. That he was sorry for being an asshole so many times before, that things with Laura were over, that she could trust him, that he was ready to try again if she was. He gave her his apartment key, which meant more than his words. He hoped she knew that.
That time, when she told him she loved him, he kissed her.
Ten months and three weeks after
"Were you thinking Italian or Chinese?" he heard her ask.
He came out of the bathroom, toweling off his hair. She was on his bed, wearing his US Navy sweatshirt and underwear with little yellow smiley faces all over it, one knee bent as she balanced a magazine on her thigh. Her cheeks were still flushed from their activities earlier, lips slightly swollen, and he wanted her all over again.
"Neither," he replied.
She looked up with wide eyes. "Oh. Well, there's a pizza place around the corner, right? Pizza's always good."
He walked over to her and took the magazine out of her hands, ignoring her sound of confusion. Kneeling at the foot of the bed, he ran his hands up her calves and over her thighs, gently because she was still healing from South Africa. When his fingers brushed the soft skin of her inner thighs, her breath caught.
Propped on her elbows, she looked down at him. "I guess dinner will have to wait."
"I guess," he replied.
She grinned, and then he slipped her underwear over her hips and down her legs, and soon she was breathing, moaning, crying his name.
He could get used to this.
Eleven months after
Violent, bloody dreams were normal in the early morning hours when he was half-awake, half-asleep. He'd had them for over a decade, so they didn't faze him anymore. Usually, he'd get up and start his day since sleep was elusive after them.
But when Gemma was there, she'd shift closer, throw her arm over him, press a soft, sleepy kiss to whatever part of him was nearest. He'd tighten his hold on her and listen to her quiet breathing as she nestled into him and fell back asleep.
What is this feeling? he'd think before sleep overtook him, too.
Eleven months and one week after
Morning-after breakfast wasn't so bad. In fact, he came to expect it. He tried his hand at pancakes, but he'd set off the smoke detector and now she wouldn't let him live it down.
He didn't mind, though. It gave him an excuse to watch her move around the kitchen, making a mess, biting her lip as she doubled the recipe in her head. He loved this easy, relaxed part of her.
And he loved the brave, reckless part that assembled a gun faster than him and jumped off cliffs; the tough, assertive part that didn't take shit but was always fair; the light, unaffected part that made stupid jokes and won everyone over; the good, trusting part that was patient and forgave people when they made mistakes. He—
"I love you, rook," he found himself saying.
And even though he had nothing to compare it to, he knew it was true. There was nothing else to describe this feeling.
The measuring cup she held skittered into the rest. She glanced up, surprised. He wondered if he should explain or elaborate, but she just came over to him, gently ran her fingers over the back of his head, and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
"I love you, too," she said, simply.
He didn't realize he was smiling until her lips curved into that soft, perfect smile.
Eleven months and three weeks after
"Be careful, rook," he said, glancing through his windshield at the airplane. "I want you back in one piece."
"I'll be fine," she answered. He could just make out her face in the airstrip lights. "Simple recon mission. The most dangerous part will be sharing a room with Gibson."
He turned fully toward her. "No unnecessary risks."
"Well, some risks might be necessary."
"No unnecessary risks."
"Not even one or two?"
"Boone," she replied with mock seriousness.
He exhaled heavily. "I mean it."
"I know," she said gently.
"This is the first mission you've gone on without me," he said, "except when I was in Pakistan. You're a great agent, but I still…"
She put a hand on his arm, squeezing. "You'll be off desk duty and back to bossing me around in the field soon enough."
"Bossing you around? I think you've got it backwards."
She laughed quietly.
"Gem." He took a breath and let it out. "How often am I…supposed to say it?"
He added emphasis when he repeated, "It."
She was holding back a smile when she reached up and cupped his face. "God, you are adorable," she murmured. "Are you asking me how often you're supposed to say 'I love you'?"
He gave her a look. "Yes."
"Well," she said, "about once an hour."
She ran a thumb over his cheekbone, smiling. "Relax, I'm kidding."
"Jesus. Forget I asked."
Her hand pushed into his hair, forcing him to look at her. "Boone," she said, "please get it out of your head right now that there's a 'right' or 'normal' way of doing this. You should say it when you want, when you feel it, whether that's once an hour or once a month. It doesn't matter because I know. I know, and I hope you do, too. Okay?"
"Okay," he said.
"Okay." She dropped her hand. "I need to get going. Gibson's going to throw a fit if I'm late."
Getting out of the car, she opened the backseat door to get her bag. Boone got out, too, and watched her sling the bag over her shoulder. He'd do anything to go with her, to be in the field again, to make sure she didn't jump off any goddamn cliffs.
"Rook," he said, "I love you. Don't do anything s—"
He was stopped by her mouth on his, hot and fierce. When she tried to pull away, he didn't let her until he'd had his fill. Then, she kissed his cheek and whispered, "I love you," before stepping back and adding, "Save the lectures for when I get back, okay? It's late and I don't want you to wear yourself out."
"Fine. But you better set aside a few hours," he told her as she started walking toward the plane.
"I can't hear you," she called over her shoulder, waving at him with a grin.
After she boarded, he leaned against his Jeep, crossing his arms, and watched the plane whir to life, taxi, take off, and disappear into the night.
One year and six weeks after
Sensing he didn't want to make a big deal out of his birthday, she just dropped an oatmeal raisin cookie from the Langley cafeteria on his desk with a note that read, "I'm glad you were born."
One year and three months after
They were in Jakarta and she was being a pain in the ass.
"What are you doing?" he asked her as she put down her binoculars and secured the headscarf she wore. "Wait until the contact gives us the green light."
"That was the green light," she insisted, gesturing twelve stories down to the bustling street below. They were on the balcony of a hotel room. "Three short flashes, followed by a two-second pause, then four more flashes."
He rested his elbows against the railing, gazing at the window of the café where the contact was supposed to signal. "That was just glare from the sun."
"No, it wasn't."
"You need to get your eyes checked."
"My eyes are fine," he retorted.
"I don't know," she said. "Seems to me you've got the vision of a middle-age man."
He frowned, adjusting his sunglasses. "Hey."
"Well, it's true."
"It's still four minutes until we're even supposed to be looking for a signal—"
Tugging down her sleeves, she said, "Foreign nationals aren't the most reliable—"
"Exactly, so they are rarely early for anything."
"I know what I saw."
He straightened, turning to her. "And I know what I didn't see."
She had her warpath face on. "I—"
Reaching out, he took her by the chin and kissed her, letting his tongue slide into her mouth until the fight went out of her and she leaned into him. He liked a lot of things about being with Gem, but being able to shut her up like this was one undeniable bonus.
One year and four months after
When it came down to it, though, they were a good team.
"Pliers," he said, and she immediately slipped them into his palm. With one gloved hand braced against the control box, he cut the red and yellow wires. "Wire stripper." She handed it to him. "Which ones did Danny say? Blue and green?"
"Blue and yellow," she corrected him.
As he stripped and twisted the wires together, she went to the warehouse door, took out a small screwdriver and hammer from her vest, and crouched down near the door hinges, waiting until he was done meddling with the security system.
They were on what the CIA called a disruption mission. Right outside Ma'an, Jordan, a place full of red sand and huge rock formations, was a storehouse packed with over 30,000 stolen Kalashnikov assault rifles packed in crates marked as farm equipment. Intelligence had come in that an ISIL affiliate was planning to transport the crates into Iraq soon, and because Boone and Gemma had already been in Amman meeting a source, Nixon had tasked them to deal with it. Boone didn't mind, because "disruption" was actually a euphemism for sabotage, and sabotage meant blowing shit up, and blowing shit up was usually a good time.
He shut the control box. "Go."
She jammed the screwdriver under the bottom hinge, and then struck it with the hammer. The hinge pin popped out and dropped into the sand. In less than 30 seconds, she had all of them out, and then they both pried the metal door open until they could fit through it.
The warehouse was cool and musty. Crates filled the entire place. Gem headed right while Boone went left, both of them pulling out miniature explosive devices from their backpacks. As he ran, he dropped the devices at the corner of each crate.
Just as he reached the other side of the warehouse, the back door slammed open and several men rushed in, yelling. He backtracked behind a crate and looked out.
There were four men, all armed with—no surprise—AK-47s. Dammit, they must've tripped a backup alarm of some sort.
He glimpsed Gem across the warehouse, also hiding behind crates. She jerked her head toward the back door and mouthed, "Get the Jeep," before shouting, "Hey!" and taking off down the line of pallets.
The men took the bait and followed her with zeal. Boone sprinted for the door. He ran out into the blinding sunlight, turning right, going along the building, and then heading for the place where they'd parked the Jeep. He jumped in, twisted the keys, and spun out from behind the rocky outcrop. He sped toward the warehouse door they'd pried open, honking once as he pulled up in front of it.
A flash of black slipped through the crack—Gem, thank God. Her backpack jostled back and forth as she ran for the Jeep. Leaning over, he opened the door for her and she careened into the seat, panting, "Go, go, go."
The thuds of bodies against the warehouse door could be heard as he pressed the accelerator. It banged open with more shouts and the squawk of a radio. Boone drove onto the narrow road that led away from the warehouse, glad it was empty of civilian cars.
Gem twisted in her seat. "Two vehicles are behind us."
He glanced up at the rearview mirror. "Make that three."
Over the roar of the engine, he heard gunfire. Their aim was terrible, but it was only a matter of time before they hit the Jeep.
"I'm going to blow the warehouse," Gem said, extracting the remote detonator from her backpack. "Maybe it'll distract them. Plus, we don't want to get out of frequency range." She typed in a code on the small device and hovered over the button. "Ready?"
Giving the device a sideways look, he said, "Sure."
She didn't press it, though. "What's that tone mean?"
"It means 'Sure, blow it up,'" he replied, edging the speedometer past 175 kilometers per hour.
"You want to press the button, don't you?"
He gave her a sheepish grin.
She sighed. In the middle of a high-speed pursuit. The fact that he was responsible gave him a heavy dose of pride.
"Fine," she said, handing the device to him. He took it, and she clambered into the backseat. "You do it. I'll check what supplies we've got."
With the warehouse in sight in his side mirror, Boone pushed the detonator. "Fire in the hole," he said. There was a five-second delay, and then the building burst into orange flame followed by thick black smoke. One of the SUVs following them slowed and turned around. "One down."
"The Amman logistics team didn't do the best job," she said. "I've got three handguns, an M4, and what looks like a grenade launcher."
He looked over his shoulder to see the small arsenal underneath the back cushions. "Is that an M203 launcher?"
"Yeah. But I've never used one."
"I'll walk you through it," he said. A round broke the back window with a spray of glass. "Fuck. Hold on." He swerved off the road into the sand. Luckily, they'd remembered to let some air out of the Jeep's tires to make driving on sand easier. But driving was still extremely difficult, especially going this fast.
"They're following," Gem warned.
"Get the M4," he said. "If there's anything attached to the bottom rail, take it off."
"Okay," she said after a moment. "What next?"
"Take off the rail. There's a clip near the top of it."
"Now take the M203 and slide it where the rail was. There should be a way to secure it to the barrel, too."
He heard a metallic click. "Done."
"All you need to do is load a 40mm into it and pull the trigger. The sights can be tricky, so aim slightly left."
"Okay." She sat on the armrest between the front seats, reaching up to open the sunroof. "When I get up there, turn around so I can try and fire into their open windows."
He would prefer to do it, but reluctantly accepted that he couldn't do everything just because he didn't want her to get hurt. "Watch for sand kick-up, rook. I'll be turning into the wind."
She shoved a high-explosive round into the M203 and used his shoulder to hoist herself up. A new barrage of bullets came at the Jeep as a result. Boone pulled the steering wheel to the left until they had reversed directions, red sand billowing up and over the hood.
"A little slower," she called down.
He gently applied the brakes, feeling the tires spin. Not the best conditions for this particular tactic, but there was a muted pop followed by the sound of Gem reloading, and then another pop. And then two explosions, one after the other. Through the cloud of sand, he watched the vehicles stop.
Damn, she was a good shot.
Gem dropped back down into the front seat, depositing the M4 on the floor. "Nice driving," she said. "Thanks."
"Sure," he said, heading back to the road. "Thanks for letting me press the button."
She laughed, resting her head against the seat. "What are partners for?"
One year and five months after
Danny plopped down into the chair next to Boone's desk, breathing heavily.
Laura looked over from her computer screen. "If walking across the office is difficult for you, Danny, there's a gym downstairs you should probably get acquainted with."
Danny ignored her. "Boone, you have to help me out," he said. "I totally, totally forgot it was Jen and I's six-month anniversary. Actually, I think it was yesterday. Actually, I don't even know how to figure out anniversary dates, but she dropped some hints. I've never really been with a girl long enough to celebrate anniversaries and I don't know what to do. What do I do?"
Wheeling his chair back with his hands up, Boone said, "Whoa. Why are you asking me?"
Danny nudged his glasses up his nose. "Because you and Gemma…you've been together for a while. Like, your six-month was pretty recent, right? What did you do for it?"
Boone just stared at him, some strange panic settling in his stomach.
Danny stared back, eyes widening in understanding. "Oh, man."
"I didn't – six-month anniversaries are really a thing?" He ran a hand over the back of his head. "Why didn't anyone fucking tell me? I don't even know when…"
"Pull a calendar up," Danny immediately said, scooting over to see Boone's screen. "I went by first date. That's what Google said to do."
Boone opened his Outlook calendar, scrolling back through the months, trying to remember. "That won't work. There was a first date, but it was after the fact."
"Maybe when you became exclusive?" Danny offered.
He grunted. "Also won't work, too complicated."
"Day you met?"
"She was dating someone else."
"Not very romantic."
"Then you're screwed," Danny stated.
"Oh, thanks for the help," Boone deadpanned.
"Hey, I came to you for help—"
"I don't know why you thought coming to me was a good idea. I don't know anything—"
"Obviously not. Now I really don't know what to do."
"Well, neither do I—"
"Jesus Christ, you two are pathetic," Laura huffed, pushing back from her desk. She pointed at Danny. "You. Make a reservation for tonight at La Republica. It's fancy, but big enough that they'll have space on a Thursday night. Profess your nerd-love to Jen and she'll think you're the shit." Her eyes cut to Boone. "And you. You're dating Hart. If you think she gives a crap about anniversary dates, then you don't know her very well. Get her a pizza and call her 'rook'. You'll be set for a year." She swiveled back to her computer. "You're welcome. Now, please shut up so the rest of us can go back to saving the world."
Danny and Boone exchanged a look.
"Did Laura just give us romantic advice?" Danny whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
"I think so," Boone replied.
One year and six months after
He met Gem's family at 4am at the Yale-New Haven hospital. She got a call from her dad that her mother had collapsed and was in the ER. As she picked up her keys from the coffee table, he noticed her hands shaking despite her controlled expression, and he took them from her. Using slightly illegal driving techniques, they made it to New Haven in less than five hours. He didn't intend on intruding on her and her family, so he hung back in the lobby.
Gem paused, realizing he wasn't with her anymore, and backtracked. She looked up at him, and she didn't have to say anything.
"You sure?" he asked uncertainly.
She slipped her hand into his, and together they found her mother's hospital room.
Her father and brother stood up from their seats by the bed where her mother was sleeping, hooked up to various machines. The three of them hugged, and her father told them her mom was stable. Gem's shoulders finally relaxed.
"You must be Gemma's Boone," her father said, reaching a hand out in greeting.
He cleared his throat. Gemma's Boone? "Hi, sir," he said, shaking his hand. "Tom Boone."
"Steven," he replied. "Heard a lot about you."
Glancing at Gem, all he managed was, "Oh?"
Her brother came forward and they shook hands, as well. "Mark," he said. "Do you go by Tom or Boone?"
"Well, Gemma calls me Boone," he replied, "but most people call me Tom."
"Boone it is, then," Steven said warmly, putting a hand on Gem's shoulder. "Thanks for getting here so quickly. Marie's going to be thrilled when she wakes up."
"She's going to be okay?" Gem asked. "The cancer's not back?"
"Yes, she is," Steven answered, "and no, they don't think so."
"Thank God," she breathed, going to her mom's side. "She doesn't look so good."
"I can say the same about you," Mark said, appraising her, and then more quickly, Boone.
Suddenly, Boone became aware of how they must look. Gem had two scratches on her cheek and scabbed knuckles. He had a week-old beard and the early stages of a black eye. It wasn't the best first impression.
"Boone and I disagree a lot," Gem said.
Boone coughed. "What—"
She smiled at his discomfort, and then explained to Mark, "We just got back from a job."
Mark laughed. "Ah."
They all sat down. Boone stayed until Marie woke three hours later. He left the room then to give them privacy, and called Nixon to let him know he and Gemma needed to take a couple days. Then, he grabbed coffee and bagels for everyone, hoping that was a good choice, and hovered outside the door until he felt it was okay to interrupt.
When he walked in, Gem looked up, a soft emotion crossing her face when she saw what he carried, and mouthed, "Thanks."
Mark hurried over, taking a coffee. "Oh, thank God," he said, popping the lid. "I was beginning to hope they'd knock Mom out again so I could finally get some coffee."
Everyone laughed, including Marie, who beckoned him over with a hand. "Please come here, Boone," she said. "I'd like to get to know the man my daughter calls 'infuriating and wonderful.'"
One year and seven months after
The headstone only said, "Christina Lila Boone, 1959-2005." Thankfully, no lies like "Loving Mother" or "Beloved Wife" had been added.
In all his years in the military and CIA, he'd never tried to find his mother. But meeting Gem's family made him want…closure. It seemed she'd floated around the Midwest after leaving him, added heroin addiction to her list of problems, and died of an overdose in a motel room in Saint Louis.
He'd let go of his anger a long time ago. Now, he just felt pity. She was surrounded by strangers in a small, forgotten cemetery, weeds growing around her headstone. It was difficult to admit, but he'd been better off without her.
Setting down the bouquet he held, he said a silent goodbye before turning away.
He found Gem sitting on a bench near the cemetery gate, giving him space. He sat next to her and she leaned her shoulder into him, and for a while, they just listened to the cars on the highway and the wind in the trees. Some people would have asked questions or tried to make him talk or filled the silence with distracting conversation, but Gem was just there.
One year and eight months after
Grabbing his notes off the table, he turned to leave the conference room. But Gem, with her arms crossed and chin uplifted, blocked his way to the door, and he knew he was in trouble. Suddenly, he pitied all the bad guys she had confronted.
"Why did Nixon just mention that you're going on a SOG mission tomorrow like I should know what he was talking about?" she questioned.
"Well." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I was going to tell you tonight." With the help of her favorite takeout and a couple glasses of wine, but he decided not to add that. "I didn't think Nixon would mention it."
Her eyes flashed in anger, hurt, and alarm. "So, it's true?"
"They needed a Russian speaker on the team, so they reached out to me," he explained. "But—"
"Why did you wait to tell me?"
He'd expected concern and reluctant acceptance, not this reaction. Not the white knuckles where they fisted on her blouse, or the panicked tone. He set his things back down.
"We've been in meetings all day," he replied. "There hasn't been a good time."
"That's not an excuse," she said heatedly. "You could've sent me a text, an email, something that said, 'Hey, I'm going on a suicide mission to some undisclosed location, see you later.'"
"Oh, Gem." He knew what this was about now. "It won't be like Pakistan."
She looked away, swallowing hard. "It's SOG. Every one of their missions could end up like Pakistan."
"This one is just a grab-and-go exfil," he assured her. "I'll be part of the recon team, and back-up only for the exfil itself."
"Because things always go as planned," she said wryly.
"I'll be careful."
She made an unconvinced sound. "Where are you going?"
When she started to chew on her bottom lip, what she did when she was nervous, his chest grew tight. He stepped closer to her.
Still not looking at him, she stated, "Well, don't expect me to come save you if you get in trouble."
He turned her face toward him with a knuckle under her chin. "I wouldn't want you to," he said, "but you would anyway."
"How do you know?"
"Because you're loyal to a fault and you like me too much."
Her lips turned down at the corners. "I think you're overestimating yourself. A rescue mission takes a lot of work, and I'd much rather stay at home watching TV and eating ice cream. And honestly, I like ice cream a lot more than I like you right now—"
"Rook?" he cut her off, trying not to laugh. When her eyes rose to his, he said, "I love you."
It was almost cheating, because he knew she had to say it back. She thought he didn't notice, but it was obvious she never wanted him to think the feeling was unreciprocated.
Her mouth opened and closed before she muttered, "I love you, too." Before he could say anything, she pointed a finger at his chest. "But just so you know, it's unfair to win an argument like that."
He smiled, shrugging slightly, stroking his thumb along her jawline. She exhaled heavily, defeated.
Or so he thought.
After a moment, she turned away, went to the conference table, and scribbled something on his notepad. When she was done, she ripped off that part of the page and held the pen out to him with an expectant eyebrow raised.
He approached the table. On the scrap of paper, she had written:
I, Thomas Boone, promise Gemma Hart that I will not be an idiot.
x_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
"Sign it," she told him.
Equal parts exasperated and amused, he did. She picked it up, nodded once in satisfaction, and then pressed it to his chest and left the room.
One year, eight months, and one day after
As someone fired at the SOG team's hiding spot, splintering the tree he was using as cover, he realized he didn't live for the adrenaline rush like he used to.
"We've got contact!" the SOG team leader yelled. "Engage!"
Boone adjusted his night vision goggles and slid back the bolt of his MP-5, and he thought of the small piece of paper tucked underneath his vest before taking a breath and firing back.
One year and ten months after
He tossed the cell phone onto the kitchen table and ran a hand over his jaw. "I don't like this," he said. "Nixon's wrong. There's got to be a better way."
"I don't like it any more than you do, but it's the fastest way to get access," Gem said from where she leaned against the wall.
The late afternoon sun shone in through the open balcony doors, turning her white sundress orange. They were in a Tel Aviv safe house, and the air smelled like salt and sand, the heat dry and perpetual.
"So, you're okay with seducing Zilkha, at a brothel, surrounded by his armed bodyguards?" he asked, voice hard.
"No," she replied, "but I can handle it. As soon as I can steal his phone, I'll be out of there."
"I don't like it," he growled.
Her lips quirked. "You said that already."
He tossed a hand up. "It won't work anyway. I doubt he'd let his phone out of his sight knowing the information that's on it."
"Boone," she said, letting out a small laugh, "are you doubting my seduction skills?"
Hot, irrational anger flooded him. "No. Why is this funny?"
"It's not," she answered, but her eyes still shone with laughter, and something else, something warm, knowing. "But it's just work. And I won't let it go too far."
He forced himself to exhale, to separate the personal from the professional. "Tonight, then?"
"You're wearing a comm," he ordered.
"This is going to kill me," he muttered under his breath. "The entire mission I'll be thinking about him putting his hands on you."
She tilted her head to the side, considering.
"What?" he asked brusquely.
"No," she said, so low he almost didn't hear her. She stepped closer, taking his clenched hand and unfolding it slowly. "You'll be thinking of this."
She guided his hand up her thigh, sliding it under her dress, over the edges of her underwear. Her other hand reached up to pull his mouth down to hers, and she kissed him forcefully. I'm yours, she seemed to say, and you're mine. He felt himself get hard instantly, groaning, and said goodbye to self-restraint as he kissed her back and pushed her underwear to the side to feel the slick wet heat of her. Christ. He was glad she wanted him as much as he wanted her.
She unbuttoned his shorts while he succumbed to some deep, primal part of himself, putting his hands on her, one making her whimper against his mouth, the other sliding up her dress to cup that perfect ass. She stroked him through his boxers, knowing just how much pressure he liked.
Maybe it was wrong – they were on a mission and they usually tried to keep it professional – but he wanted nothing more than to have every part of Gemma Hart right now.
He grabbed her waist, backed her up against the kitchen table, and kissed her deeply. Then, he swept the papers that coated the table aside and turned her around. She made a sound of surprise and pleasure, which only turned him on more. Lifting up the dress, he moved his boxers down and took her hips, and slid into her.
Her breath caught. She felt so good, right. He moved in and out with slow, deep, purposeful strokes, that primitive part of him claiming her with each one. Leaning down, he kissed her neck, pressing his chest to her back and bringing them closer.
"Boone," she said, voice husky and unrestrained.
"If you say my name like that again, Hart, I'm going to lose it."
Her fingers clenched around the edge of the table. "Boone."
His body, muscles, mind acted on their own accord, driving into her harder, fiercer, completely. From the way her breathing changed, the way she arched back into him, he knew she was close.
He didn't stop, couldn't, and when she let herself go, he did, too.
Languidly, she turned toward him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He lifted her up and carried her to the couch, dropping onto it. Catching their breath, they watched the sun begin to set over the Mediterranean, and he realized his anger had faded.
He looked down at Gem, all pink cheeks and half-lidded eyes, with an undeniably self-satisfied smile on her lips, and wondered when she'd started to read him so damn well.
One year and eleven months after
"Oh, nice," he heard Danny say somewhere above him. "Boone stole the last pillow on the plane."
Boone kept his eyes closed, not feeling guilty in the least. First come, first serve. Those were the rules when they had a 17-hour flight ahead of them.
"He probably feels entitled because of that promotion to senior intel officer," Gemma's voice said.
"Power trip," Danny stated.
"How do you put up with it?"
"Ah, well," she replied. "I've dealt with worse. You should see him when he does Russian paperwork."
"Jeez, you must be really serious about him to have stuck around this long, then," Danny teased.
She breathed a laugh. "Yeah, I am."
He made an amused sound. "Well, I wish you the best of luck with his senior highness."
"'Senior.' Suits him."
"Yeah, he's already got the attitude of a grumpy old man."
They both snickered, like they were five years old.
When Danny moved on, Gem sat beside Boone. Without opening his eyes, he rumbled, "Serious about me, huh?"
"Oh–You weren't supposed to hear that," she chided, nudging his knee. "Don't get a big head about it."
She muttered something under her breath. Insulting, no doubt.
He closed his hand over hers, squeezing it. Turning her hand, she interlaced their fingers and squeezed back, and then leaned her head against his shoulder. "I'm using you as a pillow since you took the last one," she informed him.
"Fair enough," he said. "But no snoring."
"I don't snore."
"Ha. That's cute," he murmured.
She nudged him again, this time with her elbow. He adjusted to make more room for her, and she settled against him.
No, he'd never take her feelings for granted, not after everything that had happened to get to this point, to this effortless sort of happiness.
Two years and one month after
Crammed into a closet on a private yacht, he braced an arm against the wall while he called Operation 67 on his SAT phone. He only had a couple minutes before Stanislaus would start wondering where he went. He was the clingiest black market dealer Boone had ever encountered. He was ready for this mission to be over.
"Agent Boone, any sign of the vial?" Nixon answered.
"Not yet," he replied. "Stanislaus keeps referring to it, though. It's somewhere on this boat."
"Copy. Talk to you at next check-in."
"Can I speak to Hart, sir? I have some intel I want her to follow up on."
"I'll patch you through."
Boone swayed with the yacht, waiting.
His eyes closed at the sound of her voice. "Hey, rook."
"Hey," she said, sounding surprised to hear from him. Rightfully so, since he'd been under deep cover for nearly three weeks. "Did you need me to do something? Nixon said—"
With one hand, he rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No."
"Oh." A short pause, and then, "So, why are you calling?"
"Because I wish you were on this goddamn boat with me," he answered, voice low.
"You called to say you miss me?" she asked, the smile apparent in her tone.
"Yeah, well," he said, feeling a bit stupid. "I've got to go. Stop slacking and get back to work."
She laughed. "Copy that," she replied, and added, "I miss you, too, you know."
"Copy that. See you soon."
He closed the SAT phone. He was going to find that vial tonight so he could get back to shore, back where he belonged.
Two years and two months after
Exhausted and jetlagged from a difficult trip, they entered his apartment. Boone immediately collapsed in an armchair while she took the time to hang up her jacket and take off her shoes. She yawned, blinking blearily.
Resting his head against the chair, he said, "Come here, rook."
She didn't hesitate in coming over. She climbed onto his lap, head fitting in the crook of his neck, and sighed. He kissed her temple, and then closed his eyes, wrapping his arms around her.
This, he thought, this is coming home.
Two years and three months after
After six hours of hiking, it felt good to finally arrive at the meet point. He sat on the edge of the cabin's weathered deck, wiping sweat from his forehead, and looked out. Springtime in Mongolia's Altai Mountains reminded him of where he grew up near the Rockies, all snow-capped peaks and grassy rolling hills and wildflowers waving in the breeze. A raw, rugged, simple kind of beauty. He could live in the mountains, he decided.
He glanced over at Gemma, who was trying to get a SAT phone signal to contact the Russian defector they were picking up. Hair had fallen out of her ponytail and dirt was smudged across her forehead, but she didn't seem to notice.
Sunshine, alpine air, and Gemma.
He smiled to himself, opening his water bottle. Yeah, that sounded good.
Maybe one day.
Two years and four months after
Lifting his beer, he flipped the burger, his kitchen filling with the sound of sizzling. Gem was busy tonight, so he'd put on the TV for background noise.
Not that he needed to anymore, he realized. He didn't know why, but silence no longer made him feel alone. His whole life had been about escaping, but nowadays, escape didn't even cross his mind.
Two years and six months after
"Hey, Tom," an operative named Eddie said in the break room, "just found out I'm getting a rookie assigned to me. You've had one, right? What's it like?"
Boone laughed. "Brutal," he said, echoing Bob's words to him all that time ago. He turned to face him. "Life-changing. Be prepared, man."
Stirring his coffee, he went back to his desk. Gem looked up from her computer. "What are you smiling about?" she asked.
Her brow furrowed slightly in that adorable way, the way he couldn't believe he'd ever lived without, and he smiled wider.
His rookie, always his rookie. No matter what happened.
A/N: This turned out longer than expected, but I wanted to show quite a few things, and once I got into it, it was really fun and different to write. Each snapshot was supposed to hold some significance in Boone's life, big or small, to show cause and effect as well as development, especially when it came to Gemma. Some of you might have wanted an extended future type of epilogue, but I wanted to leave it open in case I decide to write another full-length story in this world. Plus, I personally prefer open endings with a general sense of the future, and I wanted to stay away from anything too tropey for these two.
Anyway, thanks for reading and I really hope you enjoyed it. Please leave a review and let me know your thoughts!
Until next time :)