He's gotten used to hearing her.
She's the voice in his ear, steady and sure when he's anything but. The voice in his head, when he can't even recognize his own.
Chloe Sullivan sounds like safety. He hears her, and he's covered. Protected. Alive.
All things he could sure as hell use right about now.
This is where I belong.
"If that's a no-go, we'll just find another way."
She was standing at the terminal when he walked into command central, and she slowed her fingers of fury to raise an eyebrow as he crossed the room and dropped down onto the sofa.
"And hello to you, too. Problems with the boomerang beatdown?"
"You know how it goes," he groaned, leaning forward and propping his elbows on his knees to rub the back of his neck. "It's all fun and games 'til the boomerangs sprout blades." Alarm sparked in her eyes, sharp and bright, and he shrugged and waved off her worry. "Little fletched deflection gave him a taste of his own medicine."
"I guess what goes around comes around," she muttered, managing to smile and cringe all at once. "You'd think he'd know that better than anyone." He chuckled, but her brows pulled together and she put a finger to her ear, squinting down at the tracking touchscreen. "Take this heading for another half mile, then hang a right. You've got a ten minute window before they close up shop."
She shuffled through information faster than he could blink, and he took a second to marvel at a side of their mission that he'd never really contemplated, to put a visual to the voice. In all the time they'd been working together, all the time they'd been a team, he'd never taken the time to watch Watchtower.
Raising his chin, he motioned toward the monitors. "So who's on deck?"
"Funny you should phrase it that way." With a nod, she turned back to her typing. "AC intercepted a Somali pirate ring, so he's winding things down in the water. Vic's wrapping up a mainframe meltdown on that pedo-pornsite network outside Moscow, but he's already headed back to the transport. Dinah's on grid but off-duty for the next forty-eight. And since you were kind enough to tackle Boomerang Boy in our own backyard, it looks like we're set to save the world another day."
And she had orchestrated it all.
He glanced at screens full of intel that all looked like gibberish, even to him – maps, search strings, heat-signature GPS – and seriously considered the possibility that he wasn't paying her enough.
"If all is quiet on the justice front, why do you still have your game face on?"
"Long story nutshelled, I have a hit-and-run hero to track. But first…" She tapped a few keys and switched to an aerial feed of Mexico City, giving him a grin over her shoulder and looking so in control, so in her element, that, for a few fast heartbeats, it was hard to breathe.
"Bart's been craving enchiladas," she said wryly, "and I have to take care of my boys."
You're a fighter, Oliver.
He sways on his feet and shakes his head clear, taking stock of the different points of pain and trying his damndest not to pass out. His lip is split, his ribs are aching, and his left shoulder has almost lost its socket, but he's had worse.
Eyeing the armored brigade of flying freaks – not to mention their considerable arsenal – he's pretty sure that worse is well on its way.
They attack in waves, in perfect formation, choreographed as if they share a consciousness. He fights until his fists bleed, until sweat stings his eyes and all he can see are swirling shades of green and gold. It's almost enough to make him reconsider his whole color scheme.
It's not easy being green, he thinks, and somehow it sounds like Chloe.
Which means he can probably add a concussion to the running tally.
He grins, seriously hurting and half-delirious. But there's a beat in his blood and an echo in his ears that feel all-too-familiar, pushing him, pulling strength from somewhere he can't fathom, and he breathes deep and lets the rush take hold.
It's not her, not really, but he'll take what he can get.
You better be careful, Ollie. I'm gonna start to think you're falling for me.
"Talk about a ghost in the machine. That extension shouldn't even exist."
When she'd sung the praises of coming home to a warm bed, he'd assumed that there would be more bedding involved.
Instead, she'd swung right back into Watchtower mode, walking Victor through recon on an unmanned Checkmate outpost that J'onn had managed to scope before his escape. The two of them had been fighting with a particularly problematic file for so long that he'd given up thoughts of a happy homecoming and planted himself on the sofa.
"Whatever the phantom format is, it's on transfer lockdown," she stressed, shaking her head, "so break out the big guns. We need this intel, and we need it cracked on site."
Part of him couldn't believe that the near-death experience hadn't phased her at all, not when the thought of how close she'd come left him more shaken than he'd ever admit. But she'd been near-death before, near and beyond, and even what killed her seemed to make her stronger.
And, as good as going to bed sounded, there was something about seeing her like this that he'd come to crave.
"Bingo." She swept her fingertips over the tablet, scrolling through the file upload Victor was finally streaming onto the server. "The Six Million Dollar Man strikes again," she said, her voice full praise and pride, "and you're worth every penny. Couldn't have done it better myself. "
He smirked – somewhere halfway around the world, the Tin Man had just been handed his heart.
There were warm words for them all, once the deed was done – Bart was the fastest thing on two feet, J'onn was her favorite Martian, Dinah was the scream queen, AC walked on water. Even Carter and his unending crankiness got kind, keen insight when he managed to play well with others.
Truth be told, he felt a little left out.
She guided Vic back through the gauntlet and powered down the system, and he cleared his throat and waited for her to turn.
"Laying it on a little thick tonight, aren't we? Don't tell me you couldn't decode that database in your sleep."
She snorted and set the tablet down on her desk. "Sure I could," she scoffed, "but at that encryption level, it'd have to be one hell of a nap."
He scratched at his jaw and resisted the urge to tell her that her superpower was showing. They'd been a team too long for her to keep the secret weapon under wraps, not when he'd seen firsthand that she was underestimated at every turn. The whole world sold her short, even her own subconscious.
Shaking his head, he held out a hand. "Come here, Sleeping Beauty."
She slipped off her shoes and slid her palm into his, and he tugged her into his lap, her legs settling around him until they fit together like puzzle pieces. "Not that I don't appreciate you leaving the guys in good spirits," he said, fingers finding her hips, "but all the extra fawning may be outside mission protocol."
"That's funny," she replied, "I seem to recall writing said mission protocol. And team morale? Part of my own personal standard operating procedure."
"Fair enough," he said, nodding. "But just out of curiosity, is there a footnote in there somewhere that says I don't get my own special sign-off? Because, as things stand now, I am sorely lacking in the ego boost department."
She raised an eyebrow. "You really believe your ego needs boosting?"
"Well I'm not talking drastic measures here, but a little effort would be nice. Throw a guy a bone."
"I'd take double-entendres for two hundred, but I think you're missing the point." Her hands came up to cup his face, her mouth curving upward at the corners, and it was almost enough to distract him from the fact that her wrists were red and raw. "It's not about ego, Ollie. It's about saying whatever it takes to get the job done and get everybody home in one piece. And if a 'by the way, you didn't suck today' helps that along and helps our crew stay sane, then that's my script and I'm sticking to it."
Her voice was soothing and honey-smooth, and he looked into her eyes and let himself get lost, let the words wash over him, remembering why she was the glue that held them all together. Why they needed her so much. Why he did.
Something in her smile turned hot, making his heart clench and his hands tighten at her waist.
"Have you ever stopped to consider that maybe I save all your flattery for face time?"
He grinned, vindicated. "See, that's a procedure I have no problem following."
She leaned down to kiss him, lingered, sweet on his tongue and solid in his arms, and it was all the distraction he needed.
You already know what you really want. We all do. We just don't listen.
He comes to in chains, legs spread, arms stretched high, acutely aware that everything aches but his hair. But the green goons are gone and his shoulder's back where it belongs, so he blinks the blurriness from his eyes and decides to celebrate the small victories.
And gear up for round two.
They watch him, waiting, weapons at the ready, so perfectly posed that he'd laugh out loud if his lungs weren't burning. And in this corner, Chloe cracks in his head, the Charlie's Angels from hell, and he laughs anyway, happy to hurt a little if it means he'll keep hearing her.
The trio looks less than amused, which probably means it'll hurt a lot.
The lady with the longbow levels a shot, already shooting daggers from her eyes, and the voice comes again, sly and shrewd and slightly surprised – Oh look, Oliver, a girl after your own heart.
That may actually be where she's aiming, he answers, though he knows it's crazy to. Think it'd make a difference if I told her I was flattered, but I've kind of become a one-woman man?
Just kind of? she says, and then the bow snaps, steel slicing through skin, and he grits his teeth so hard his jaw cracks and hopes to hell that she keeps talking.
How do I know when to let go?
"It's hard to believe you won't even have a scar."
Scarring was the last thing on his mind at the moment – it was still too hard to believe that he had her out of her tower and in his apartment. That, later, he'd have her in his bed.
That, in the morning, he'd have to leave.
She trailed a finger over the gauze at his chest, tracing the lines of the phantom letter his last polarized light treatment had all but erased, and he stifled a shiver and reached up to trap her hand against his skin.
"Perks of having billions in the bank. Most days it's a drag, but on the off-chance that an evil alien overlord maims you with his death ray, you can get the good grafts and all the best biosynthetic bandages money can buy." His thumb rubbed slow circles over her skin. "If scars do it for you, Sidekick, you should've spoken up sooner. But who knows, might not be too late."
Her green eyes flashed, a spark of sweet exasperation smothered in warning. "Ollie – "
"Sure, it'd be a little hard to explain at first," he said, wrapping an arm around her waist and tugging her close, "unless we claim that you were just marking your territory. You could start a worldwide craze – brand your boyfriend like a bovine. "
She tensed, and he pressed on and pretended not to notice. "Though we would have to change your name." He pursed his lips and looked at the ceiling, feigning contemplation. "How do you feel about Zelda?"
He shook his head. "No, that's an 'O.' Zoe could work. It even rhymes." She blew out a breath and shoved at his side, and he held tight and leaned down to grin into her hair. "If you can joke about barely dodging a bullet, you could at least manage a laugh at my red badge of courage."
"More like a scarlet letter," she mumbled, slipping through his fingers. "This is all getting a little too real."
He blinked, hoping whatever she was referring to wasn't him. "You mean it wasn't real enough for you when it was just extraterrestrial mind control and explosive toy makers?"
"I mean that we have a base of operations that's barely operational, an AWOL agent – and angry ex – who knows all our secrets, and a big bad who's gone MIA, along with his entire army of superpowered subjects." She threw a hand in the air. "And our fearless leader is leaving ground zero for a board meeting."
"Shareholders wait for no man, alien, or apocalypse. But I see your point." Humor clearly wasn't working, and he sobered for her sake, studying her face. "You got Watchtower back online and better than ever. We've got the secret stash and the team on standby – I honestly don't know what else can be done while Zod's laying low. Tess is… well, Tess. And I'll be back before you know it, but I won't go if you need me here."
Where was irrelevant – the needing would be enough.
"I…" His heart fell as her head shook, and he told himself that it was just the defeat in her eyes. Sighing, she looked down. "Can we really do this, Oliver?"
He stepped forward to hold her head in his hands, wiping at tears she wouldn't let fall and reaching for humor that suddenly wouldn't come.
"We can do this," he said, smiling softly. "We can do anything."
She took a breath and smiled back, steeling herself right in front of him, and all the words he couldn't say rose in his throat, trying to chase the open air before it blew away. He opened his mouth to bite the bullet, and she went up on her toes to press her lips to his and head him off at the pass.
"You've got an early flight, and I think it's past your bedtime."
"Chloe." He dropped his hands from her face, stared until she swallowed and had to look away. "Do you need me to stay?"
She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and forced her eyes back to him, cornered but still Chloe, his Chloe, brilliant and beautiful and ballsy to the end, and he fell all over again.
"No," she said, and there wasn't a shred of doubt in it. "But isn't it enough that I want you to?"
I love you.
He lifts his chin from his chest, trying to stave off oblivion. They'd toyed with him too long, between the knife play and the target practice, the collars that had choked him on their own, and finally gotten bored when nothing but his bones had broken, leaving their pack of giant hellhounds behind to stand guard.
They haven't tried to eat him so far, so he's counting that as a win.
The last resort is a shadow at first, a mass of malignance that sweeps in and swallows all the light. Then the shadow steps forward, and massive is an understatement – the man's a walking mountain, with slate skin and an iron jaw and fists the size of boulders. But his eyes are intelligent, intrigued, and what looks like infrared, glowing crimson in the dark, and Oliver closes his own.
Playtime's over. This is when the real pain starts.
I could probably get it personalized this time, he thinks, reaching out along his lifeline to wherever she is. Guy like that could do your whole name.
It's silent in his head for what feels like forever, but he holds his breath and waits.
You know we're coming to get you, she says, quiet but firm, just like the real thing. I'm coming.
He knows, and doesn't have to tell her. It's all that's kept him going this long, all he's held on for, and god help this poor bastard when she gets here.
The shadow passes in front of his face, stalking, looking for weakness it won't find outside of his head, and he braces himself for the first strike and broaches his only uncertainty.
Did you mean it? he asks, and swears he hears her smile.
Don't you want to find out?
Whatever it takes, she'd said.