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brace yourself and nestle into me

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Annie had never liked words like fortuitous or providential, especially not after the bus and the way the more devout members of her family had tried to frame the most harrowing experience of her life in such terms (somehow she found those kinds of hallelujahs more distasteful than Aunt Becky’s blunt, “At least you got a boyfriend out of it.”). Today, though, she was appreciating the irony of uttering the words, “How much worse could today get?”

The day hadn’t started off badly. Annie had woken up in Jack's bed that morning at her usual time, but since her SWAT boyfriend had returned home the previous evening with a bruised cheek and sore shoulder, she’d left him to sleep in while she worked on improving her portfolio in the hopes that her next application for a long-term graphic-design job would be more successful than the last few.

An hour later, Jack raced out of the bedroom to discover that the cracking sound that had woken him was not a sign that Annie was in danger, but that her computer had broken down. She would have laughed at the incongruity of him holding his gun while wearing only his threadbare pale blue boxers if she hadn’t been busy kicking at her computer—kicking it sometimes made it whirr back to life, she’d told him, but they both knew that wasn’t her only reason.

Jack had made breakfast while she’d looked up which computer repair shops were open on a Sunday, managing to find one that looked decent, even if it wasn't particularly close. Dropping it off should have taken up the bulk of their morning, but not all of it, until they got stuck in a traffic jam on the way back.

After ninety minutes of being stuck in Jack’s jeep, with no end to the traffic jam in sight, Annie had rolled her eyes and said what turned out to be those fateful words. At the time, though, she had been happily oblivious, her pout of frustration swiftly being kissed away by her boyfriend.

As well as being glad of the distraction, Annie had been pleased by the confirmation that the day’s inconveniences weren’t going to reignite the weird tension that had surfaced between them earlier in the week.

Lisa had called on Monday to say she could visit her in two weeks, and Annie had been excited to show her college roommate around until she remembered she no longer had somewhere for Lisa to sleep. While her parents always got a hotel, visitors who stayed with her would sleep on her couch, but the pull-out thing had stopped working and there was no way anyone could last three nights on it. Knowing Lisa, she wouldn’t complain, but she wouldn’t be comfortable. Buying an air mattress had seemed like an excellent—and cheap—solution, but when she mentioned her plan to Jack the next evening, he’d shrugged, saying they should both just stay at his place while Lisa was in town.

Annie had laughed, thinking he’d meant it as a joke, until he frowned and turned back abruptly to the stove. Although he’d nodded along to her subsequent explanation of why that wasn’t a good idea when they’d only been dating five months, she didn’t think he was particularly happy about being laughed at. Hence, tension.

Annie hadn’t wanted to spoil their Sunday even further by bringing the subject up again, especially after they’d eventually managed to salvage some of their afternoon, enjoying a late lunch before getting coffee with Susan, his partner Harry's widow. But when she realised they were going to drive past a superstore shortly before it closed, she suggested a quick stop to pick up that air mattress.

Nodding, Jack had signaled and pulled into the parking lot without complaint. When she ventured to ask if he was going to come in with her, she was momentarily surprised that he agreed until he mentioned wanting to look at their speakers. There was always some new thing he wanted for his TV.

His easy manner as they walked into the store together and the kiss he placed on her cheek before they parted ways allowed Annie to relax as she made her way through the store. By the time she was returning to the entrance, where the registers were, Annie was mainly concerned with trying to remember what they had in the fridge for dinner.

She looked over her shoulder to try to find Jack while she waited in line for the two customers ahead of her to be rung up by the one cashier working. Although she hadn’t expected the place to be busy on a random Sunday evening, it was strange to see it so bare. Behind her was a large open space, with a few displays before the glass exit doors, no other customers in sight.

When it was her turn to approach the counter Annie put the box down, reaching for her wallet as she spoke to the cashier. Once she’d confirmed she’d found everything she was looking for and wasn’t interested in any of the promotions, the young man reached for the scanner. They both jumped when they heard a loud series of thumps, as if a bunch of boxes had fallen. The reasonable explanation would have been a display toppling, but the noise had come from in front of her, not behind, and all she could see was the counter, the young man, and a blank wall behind him. It was further forward than the walls on either side—both of those obscured by the first of many parallel rows of shelving—and there was a handle, likely leading to a staff area.

It was that handle that the cashier was staring at when he looked over his shoulder, a frown on his face.

“Um, would you excuse me for one moment?” he said, apologetically. “I just need to check on that.”

“Sure.”

He nodded and dashed into the back. Another glance told Annie that Jack hadn’t come out to the front yet. She tapped her fingers on the counter.

Her eyes darted to the clock mounted high on the wall—four minutes until closing. Recalling the announcement that had been made at quarter to, she had just wondered why there hadn’t been another one at five of, when she was startled by a yell from the back room.

She opened her mouth, about to call out to the cashier, when she heard a loud, deliberate thud. One that did not sound like it had been caused by boxes.

Her shoulders tense, Annie stepped around the counter and tip-toed up to the door to the back room, which the cashier had left ajar. She held her breath as she peered forward to look through the gap, her eyes widening when she saw the cashier’s limp body being dragged to the side. The guy dragging the poor kid was bent forward far enough that he couldn’t see Annie, but though his beanie was pulled down, preventing her from getting a good look at his face, she quickly took in his bulky frame and the very large gun strapped to his back.

Shit, Annie thought, spinning so her back was to the wall. Shit shit shit.

Her instinct was to find Jack, but she knew that wasn’t the smart move. She’d have to run through the open display area to get to him and the man inside could easily come out and see her before she could take cover.

The closest place to hide was between the shelving units on her left. She could make it there before the guy came out of the back, hopefully getting far enough to hide.

Turning to do just that, Annie had only taken two steps when she saw a flutter of movement behind the bottom of the counter where she’d just been standing.

Annie took a deep breath, ready to run when she recognised green pale check print on the shirt-sleeve poking out the side.

Jack.

She let out a sigh of relief as he peered around the corner, expression tight and focused as if he was on a mission—because of course Jack Traven had already sensed danger and come to find her. His face cleared when he saw her, and he bolted upright. “Over here,” he mouthed, then took her hand and led her between the aisles, further down than the one she’d been headed for.

“Are you alright?” he whispered, his hands running up her bare arms as his eyes scanned her face.

Annie nodded. “You?” she asked, though the skin she could see didn’t have any fresh bruises.

“I’ll be fine once you’re out of here. The exit’s just—“

“No, Jack, there’s an armed guy back there,” Annie said, tilting her head to the backroom.

“Fuck.” Jack swiftly switched their places so that he was the one at the front of the aisle. “He see you?”

“I don’t think so, but he might have heard me.” She explained how the cashier had gone to check on a strange noise, but that noise had been no accident. “He’d knocked that poor boy out.”

Jack’s face was tense again as he turned, trying to look through the gap in the shelves to the counter, one hand on Annie’s waist as he kept her behind him.

While she appreciated his instincts, he was now blocking her view so she moved to her tiptoes, bracing her hands on his shoulders.

No sooner had she laid her eyes on the counter than the door to the back opened and the man stode out. He held a walkie-talkie up to his face, lips moving as if he was already mid-conversation. She sucked in a breath, tucking her nose into the back of Jack’s neck instinctively as the guy scanned the area.

“Don’t suppose you have anything like that that could get you through to Mac?” Annie whispered, as she recalled laughing off her parents' offer to buy her a cell phone after the bus.

“I wish.”

“They’re gone,” the man said in a deep voice and Annie went cold. He meant her.

Radio static crackled in the air for a long moment before an angry voice muttered, “Just get on with the merch. I’ll get Dan to go early.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Jack moved them back once the guy started moving again, but he didn’t notice them, disappearing behind the door he’d come out of.

As he turned, Jack had a calm but serious set to his face; he took her hands in his as he spoke in a low, sure tone, “Okay, we’re going to get you out of here.”

“Just me?” Annie whispered. “There must be lots more innocent people in here.”

“I know,” Jack said. “Which is why we need to get help.”

Her face scrunched up as her insides rebelled against the idea of leaving Jack and everyone else behind, but she knew it made sense. “Okay,” she nodded, holding onto Jack’s hand while she still could.

“Don’t use the payphone in the parking lot, they might have eyes on it. We passed one on the sidewalk just before we turned, there—”

Jack’s explanation was cut short when the lights flickered and they were plunged into total darkness.

Annie’s breath hitched, but Jack reached out for her, his arm coming around her waist.

“Store this big will have a generator,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was trying to reassure her, but he was still holding onto her hip tightly, like he was afraid she’d disappear if he couldn’t see her. Annie let her head rest against his shoulder until, sure enough, the generator kicked in seconds later. The lights came back more subdued than before, a dull glow, more blue than yellow, that made the rows of grey shelving look colder.

“Come on,” Jack said firmly, taking a step forward.

But as they heard a heavy grating sound Annie suddenly realized that Dan’s instruction to “go early” might not have been limited to power.

They both turned their heads to the front in time to see the shutters fall heavily to the ground, locking them inside.

 


 

Ten minutes later, Jack was stalking down another aisle, Annie hot on his heels as he tried to come up with a new plan. He’d wanted to get her far away from all this, but now that there was no easy way to get outside, he preferred to have her with him. Until he knew all the details, including how many perps he had to deal with, he wasn’t going to leave Annie to hide in some random spot—especially knowing she was unlikely to stay put.

However, there were benefits to having her here. As much as he wished Annie was safe at home, he found it calming to have her by his side, took some relief in being able to reach out and take her hand whenever he needed. Plus, she was sharp and he could use the help until they managed to call someone.

“Keep your eyes peeled for anything that looks like an exit. There might be some side doors they’ve missed.”

“Okay. Where are we headed?”

“The elevator, it’s supposed to be this way.”

There was a pause before Annie responded. “Jack, I wouldn’t feel comfortable hiding in the elevator.”

“No, I wouldn’t leave you there,” Jack said, squeezing her hand because he knew she wasn't great about talking about her fears. “I just want to see if we could use the phone. Situations like this, they normally remember to disconnect the main phone lines, but sometimes forget about the maintenance phone.”

They took a few more steps forward until they reached the end of the aisle. In front of them was an open area that ran the length of the store perpendicular to them. However, the part they had to cross before they could disappear between shelves again was narrow, with only a large bed on display.

They could cross it in three or four strides, but they wouldn’t have any cover so Jack scanned the store carefully.

Behind him, Annie whispered, “You know, I never realised how creepy these places could be until you see them so empty.”

“Not that empty,” Jack replied as his eyes narrowed in on a sight in the distance.

He felt the tickle of Annie’s breath against the back of his neck as she moved closer to him, noticed her hands clutching his shirt when her gaze caught up to where he was staring.

About one hundred feet to their left two customers had their hands up and were being marched by an armed man to the other side of the store, away from where Jack and Annie were standing. Jack couldn’t see his face from this angle, but he could tell from his height and gait that it was a different guy to the one at the front who’d been looking for Annie.

“We have to help those people,” Annie said into his ear.

“We will. Best thing to do right now is wait.”

He knew without looking that Annie wasn’t pleased. She sounded sarcastic when she said, “Didn’t think waiting around for the fireworks to start was your M.O.”

It was a common discussion point since they’d started dating. She’d reminded him only last night about being careful when he’d come home from his latest operation; no matter how minor his injuries, or how often he reminded her that a few bruises were part of the job, Annie would always get that crease in her forehead as she tried to clean him up. He appreciated the concern, always remembered that when he was out in the field, but it wasn’t often that he could take his time the way she seemed to want him to.

“Bomb on a moving bus is a little more of an immediate threat,” Jack acknowledged.

“But he's got a gun.”

“If he wanted to shoot those people, he would have pulled the trigger already. If I jump in and wave my gun around, he’s more likely to start shooting.” Jack didn’t have to tell Annie that someone could get caught in the crossfire. “They know a customer went missing up front, but they probably think you’re just hiding somewhere or even that you ran before the shutters came down. Best thing we can do right now is not give them any reason to be more suspicious until backup is on the way.”

As Annie didn’t answer, Jack turned around to look at her once the group was out of sight. Noting the thin line of her lips and determined set of her eyes, Jack realized that she did see his point—she just wasn’t happy about it.

“Annie, I thought you wanted me to be more sensible.”

Her lips twitched upwards and he could tell she was fighting a smile even as her gaze darted away from him.

“Let’s just get to this elevator, Traven.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He held back a chuckle as she nudged his side, turning around to check the area once more. It looked clear now, but he still kept one hand on his weapon as they crossed, not moving his finger from position until they were far enough behind the shelves to be obscured from sight again.

They raced down the rest of the shelves until they reached the back wall, turning left to head towards the elevator. They’d walked a few more paces when Jack noticed that in the gap between the shelves against the wall was a narrow door. It didn’t have a window, just a sign proclaiming it was for ‘Employees Only’.

“That looks more like a closet than an exit door,” Annie said, echoing Jack’s thoughts.

“Yeah.”

However, he still thought it best to check, so after directing Annie to move to the other side so she was out of the way, he tried the handle.

It moved slowly but thankfully didn’t make a sound as he pulled it open.

“Well?” Annie prompted.

“Closet. Looks like cleaning stuff.” The closet was tall, but narrow and dark. Still, it was hard to mistake the mop bucket and handle propped up against the wall.

He was about to shut the door when he heard the heavy thud of boots in the distance, the sound growing louder with every step. Glancing between the aisles Jack realized it was the same man they’d seen shepherding those customers away and while they could move back and hide between the other shelves, they wouldn’t be able to move fast enough to hide completely. If he came too close, they’d be spotted.

“Quick, in here,” Jack said, moving Annie into the closet and following her inside, pulling the door closed just as he saw a boot peeking into the end of the area they’d been standing in.

“Ooof.”

“Sorry,” Jack whispered, moving his elbow away from her side as he turned to face the door.

“It wasn’t you—I think I got hit in the face by the light switch,” Annie said. But she clearly knew better than to turn it on just yet as they remained in darkness.

Pressing his face up against the gap between the door and the wall, Jack squinted as he tried to look through the tiny sliver of space. A few blurry shapes were all he could make out, but he could still hear. He held in his breath as the footsteps grew louder, the heavy boots touching the ground in a steady rhythm. It was the pace of a man doing a cursory sweep rather than hunting down his prey, but Jack was still tense, ready to move if the need arose.

When Annie’s hand came to rest between his shoulder blades his heartbeat began to even out, but he didn’t let out his breath until he’d seen the dark shape move past their door, heard the footsteps fade into nothing.

“I think they’re gone.”

Her hand travelled up his back to squeeze his shoulder. “Okay, let’s get out of here. These chemicals are going up my nose. Jack?” Annie added after he tried the door handle and swore.

He tried the handle again, grimacing when it failed to turn. “I think this might lock from the inside.”

He heard the click of the light turning on, which allowed him to take a closer look.

“Don’t you know how to pick a lock?”

“I’m more of a break the door down type of guy,” Jack said, trying the handle once more.

“Right. And we couldn’t do that now without drawing attention.”

“Exactly. Fuck.” Jack sighed, giving up on the straightforward method and trying to see if there was something he could use. “Can you see anything that I could use as a crowbar? Or something to pick the lock with?”

“So you do know how?” Annie said, even as she turned to search through the supplies he couldn’t see along the back wall of the closet.

“I learned but I’m rusty,” he replied, trying to look through the shelves near him without bumping into her, but all he could see was bottles of cleaning solutions and rags.

“Would this work?” Annie asked, pulling a brown bobby pin out of her hair. “You could try to pick it while I keep looking.”

Jack agreed, taking the hairpin and turning, crouching so he could attempt to pick the lock. As he stretched the metal to try to insert the thinner end into the lock, he frowned.

“I’m probably going to break it,” he said.

“That’s fine,” Annie said, nonchalantly, “I have more.”

“Okay.” A moment later, he added, “Do you have more right now?”

Annie had started laughing after the pin snapped in his fingers, so he wasn’t surprised to look over his shoulder and find her already reaching back into her hair. It was longer than when they’d first met, almost to her shoulders now and she’d been growing out her bangs, so once she pulled out the second bobby pin the mid-length strands fell in front of her eyes.

“Thanks,” he said, taking the offering. “I’ll try not to break this one too.”

She smiled as she tucked her hair behind her ear. “It’s okay, you can buy me more when we get out of here.”

It was a joke, but it reminded Jack of the reason they’d come to the store in the first place: that damn air mattress.

While he wasn’t exactly raking it in, he did a lot better than Annie on her waitressing gigs and intermittent graphic-design contracts and there wasn’t much he wanted to spend his money on beyond food and rent. However, he knew her independence was important to her so he’d gotten used to her quirks over what he could and couldn’t pay for. Besides, he had no doubt that she’d find the full-time graphic-design position she was looking for soon.

Her dismissive laughter over staying at his while Lisa visited, though—that had stung.

Annie had thanked him, even noted that he did have a guest room which would be more comfortable for Lisa to sleep in, but firmly stated it would be weird for her and her friend to stay at his place when they didn’t live together. She’d had a certain tone, as if this all should have been obvious to him, but that had been the first time Jack had realized they weren’t already living together.

Sure, he knew they weren’t fully living together—Annie still had her place, but for the last month or so she only stayed there occasionally, and when she did Jack was usually there with her too. She’d already moved her computer to his—hell, Annie had even given his phone number to her family and close friends after the time she’d stayed the whole weekend only three weeks after the bus, and her mom had freaked out when she hadn’t been able to reach her. It was his apartment where she’d taken the call from Lisa to say that she was visiting. They might not have had an official conversation about it, but he’d just assumed that when her lease was up Annie would move in with him.

He didn’t doubt that she was serious about him, but after how easily they’d fallen in sync together Jack had found it strange to be on a different page for once. Having never needed to have such a conversation before, Jack didn’t know how to broach the topic and had figured it was probably best to wait until after Lisa’s visit took place.

His thoughts were interrupted when Annie asked, “Hey, what did you see out there?”

“Just now?”

“No, I mean before. How did you know something was up even before you found me?"

“Oh.” There had been a few things that had started to seem off to Jack the longer he browsed—how swiftly the staff member who’d made the store-closing announcement had disappeared from their post, the bulky outer layers a supposed customer had been wearing despite the mild weather. But it was only after he’d noticed a pattern that he’d realized it was more than bad vibes.

“I saw these two guys who seemed suspicious in different parts of the store,” Jack explained. “They both had big jackets that you could hide stuff in and were looking around like they were casing the joint. As I started walking to find you, I saw a third who wasn’t quite as careful—his gun had been poking out his jacket.” That was when Jack had picked up his pace, while still keeping himself hidden as he made his way to the main counter. “Hey, could you step back a little?” he asked.

“I’m not trying to crowd you, there just isn’t any space.”

“No, it’s not that—when you moved, you blocked the light.”

“Oh. Good now?” she asked after moving.

“Yeah,” Jack said since the light level had returned to how it was before—not that that could reasonably be termed good. The bulb was dim and the way he’d positioned himself to look at the handle meant his body was blocking some of the light anyway. He thought longingly of the flashlight on the floor of his jeep as he continued to work on the lock.

“Hey, why don’t I try to move the lightbulb so it gives you more light.”

He frowned, looking over his shoulder once more. The lightbulb was hanging on a string so it was moveable, but it was pretty high up.

“Can you reach that?” Jack asked, doubtful.

She scrunched up her face as she tried, but even going up on her tip-toes in her platform boots, Annie couldn’t quite catch the lightbulb.

“Hmmm.” Once she was back on her heels again, he expected her to drop the idea, but Annie’s eyes landed on the space to his right and lit up. “Oh, that’s perfect.”

“Hey, that might be dangerous,” Jack said when she bent to move the mop bucket.

“More dangerous than getting shot—or running out of air inside here?” Although she spoke lightly, he couldn’t mistake the note of tension in her voice and he knew that since the bus and subway car she had issues with feeling like she was stuck somewhere.

“Hey,” Jack said. He stood, moving to run a hand down her arm and kiss her forehead. He hadn’t realized that she was so worried. “The door isn’t fully sealed, we’re not going to run out of air. But you could slip and bang your head. Look, I’m tall enough to reach it—”

Annie moved out of his arms to meet his gaze with raised eyebrows as she said, “But I don’t know how to pick a lock.”

Jack pursed his lips. “I guess I could hold onto the bucket while you’re on it so it doesn’t move.”

Annie shook her head, rolling her eyes. “I thought you were rusty, now you can pick the lock one-handed?”

He could if Annie’s life was on the line, he thought. Though the current situation probably wasn’t quite that bad.

“Look,” she said, her expression softening as she put a hand on his shoulder, “the walls are narrow enough for me to steady myself on the sides.”

“You could still get hurt.”

“Me getting a few bruises is the least of our worries, okay?”

She raised her hand to cup his cheek and it took him a moment to realize that she was tracing her thumb just underneath the spot where he’d been bruised yesterday.

“It’s not the same thing,” he said, as Annie smirked at him.

“I know. But this is our best option.”

She followed this by brushing her lips against his. A distraction technique certainly, but Jack let himself lean into the kiss, into her touch. His hands moved to her waist, fingers brushing against the soft cotton of her t-shirt, before his thumbs hooked into the waistband of her skirt. After one last gentle kiss, their lips parted, but Jack kept his face close to hers, their noses still touching.

“Well?” she prompted.

Sighing, Jack opened his eyes. “Fine. But only if you look steady.”

Once Annie was on the bucket, and he was certain she wasn’t wobbling, he turned back to the lock, noting it was much easier to get the small piece of metal in place now he could see more clearly.

“That’s better now, right?”

“Hey, keep both your feet on there,” he said when the toe of Annie’s boot nudged his shoulder.

“I will when you admit I was right.”

“You were right,” he replied dutifully, letting out a sigh of relief when he finally heard the mechanism click.

He helped Annie down and turned off the light before opening the door, just an inch at first.

“Coast is clear,” Jack whispered, before opening it wider and exiting the closet. He turned and stepped aside so Annie had room, but in doing so he opened the door further than before and it let out a painfully loud creak.

Annie winced, pausing mid-step.

“Who’s there?” a deep voice called out.

“Now what?” Annie mouthed.

Jack grimaced—a momentary thought that he should have just broken it down after all—when he heard the sound of radio static before the person asked to speak to Patrick. It wasn’t the same voice as the guy who said Annie had got away.

“Stay here,” Jack mouthed back, before striding in the direction the voice had come from.

He heard Patrick respond to the summons, asking Max what the issue was and despite the crackle, Jack was certain this was the same voice he’d heard on the radio last time.

“Thought I heard something,” Max said, asking if anyone else was in his zone.

The confirmation that they weren’t was swift.

Patrick, Max, Dan, Jack tallied mentally, plus the guy by the counter—at least four guys, if the three he’d already seen were the names he’d heard. Maybe five since he hadn’t seen the face of the one who’d taken those customers hostage and then almost spotted him and Annie in the closet.

It could be almost with this guy too; there was time for them to run before he saw their faces. But if they did that he’d warn the rest, which was the bigger problem.

“Okay, I’ll check it out.”

Jack got to the aisle just as Max was putting his walkie away, noting Max was the one who hadn’t hidden his gun well earlier when he’d been on the other side of the store, alerting Jack that he needed to find Annie fast. He could only hope Max would stay careless.

The man’s eyes widened when he saw Jack and he fumbled to unclip his walkie from his belt, but Jack picked up the box nearest him and flung it at Max, managing to knock the walkie out of his hand before he could speak into it.

“Hey,” Max yelled, bending down to grab the radio from the floor, but that allowed Jack to run and reach for the weapon holstered to Max’s side.

“Fuck,” Jack growled when Max changed course, blocking Jack before he could pull the weapon from him and sending him to the ground.

Before Jack could scramble back to his feet, Max had tackled him and effectively pinned Jack down by his waist.

He was bigger and heavier than Jack, but his moves had been amateurish so Jack wasn’t surprised when he was able to block the fist that came for his face, grabbing onto his hand and holding it a few inches away. The man grunted as he brought his other fist forward, but Jack grabbed that wrist, managing to hold onto it and push it upwards as well.

“Who the fuck are you?” Max hissed down at him, as both of them strained to get past the other.

Jack was too busy trying to overthrow the guy to think of a suitable quip, but a second later there was a loud whack above him; the pressure against Jack’s hands disappeared and the weight on his chest lessened.

He watched an unconscious Max fall to the side before his gaze flickered upwards to find Annie standing over him with a fire extinguisher in her hands.

“I thought I told you to stay over there,” he rasped.

“You’re welcome,” Annie said lightly as she put the extinguisher down, while Jack sat up and picked up the radio.

He flexed his hands before moving to take the weapon from Max’s limp body.

“Jack, I...I didn’t kill him, right?”

Annie was peering at the perp, a worried look in her eyes, so Jack got to his feet and squeezed her hand.

“No, look, he’s still breathing. We just gotta be careful not to wake him.”

He’d just finished speaking when the radio crackled to life, making Annie jump—though thankfully Max didn’t move apart from his slow breaths.

Patrick—Jack had his voice memorized—asked for Max.

“Max, you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Jack said in his best imitation of the guy’s voice.

“Well?” Patrick prompted roughly.

“False alarm. Everything’s fine.”

“You sure? Ry just got back and said he heard something in your zone too.”

“Oh yeah, I...I just slipped. Brought some stuff down with me. They must have been mopping over here before closing,” he finished, trying not to smile when he felt Annie’s shoulders start shaking with repressed laughter.

Something that sounded suspiciously like, “Fucking hell,” was mumbled over the radio before Patrick said, in a stronger tone, “Just stop screwing around and get the stuff from the warehouse already.”

Jack responded in the affirmative before putting the radio away and turning to Annie to find her eyes lit up.

“The warehouse,” she said slowly. “There’ll be an exit from there.”

Jack nodded, taking her hand more firmly in his. “Let’s check it out.”

After we do something about him?” she suggested, tilting her head to the perp at their feet.

“Right.”

 


 

After dragging Jack’s attacker into the closet they’d just escaped from, Jack and Annie tip-toed down the other end of the hall to the door that connected the main floor to the warehouse.

Aside from hearing something break in the distance—Jack seemed to think it was someone smashing into jewelry cases—they hadn’t been disturbed again, but Annie kept an eye out while Jack checked the warehouse door.

Once he was satisfied, he led her in by the hand, but any relief Annie had felt at thinking they’d cleared their last hurdle faded when she saw the state of the warehouse.

“This place is a mess,” Annie observed. It was a large space, so perhaps it looked better further back, but before they could find out they’d have to pass through the many piles of boxes up front, all looking somewhat disorganized.

Jack hummed in agreement. “I guess whoever was on shift had to run.”

Annie nodded as they started walking. They had easy access to a large shutter, but pulling it up (if it wasn’t locked from the outside) would be loud, so they kept going.

“Hey, I think there’s a door over there,” Jack said, leaping onto one of the shorter piles of boxes and then down onto the other side in two neat jumps.

The boxes came up to Annie’s chest so she could still see his face when he turned around, and the handsome grin he wore meant Annie knew the answer even before he said, “Good news.”

“Except I can’t do that,” she said, spinning her hand in the air.

“C’mon, you got this,” he said reassuringly, but he had to move some of the boxes around so she could take more of a step up and down than a leap. Despite offering her his hand to help her down, she tripped. Annie let out a small yelp, but Jack caught her waist with his other arm, so she didn’t do more than bump her nose into his chin.

“Sorry,” she whispered into his shoulder once her feet were steady.

“It’s fine. You good?” Jack asked, not letting go of his grip on her waist and left hand.

Annie nodded, though her heart was still racing—weirdly more so than when she’d picked up that fire extinguisher. But Jack had been in trouble then, and what she’d needed to do had seemed clear. Now they were on the verge of splitting up. She knew it made logical sense for her to go get reinforcements, and there was some relief in not being stuck in the building anymore, but she didn’t like the idea of leaving Jack behind—of not knowing what was happening, of not being able to help more directly.

Jack’s expression had held shades of worry at times that evening, but now he looked calm, solely focused on her. It gave her a flashback of their time on the bus, but not the kind that she’d been plagued by those first few weeks after the ordeal. Those had been of the bus blowing up, but twisted so that they were still inside—of sitting there as Helen had been dragged underneath.

She thought of different moments now: of how Jack had reassured her, had tried to shield her, even when he hadn’t known her.

But he knew her now—like how she had a bad habit of not staying on her side of the bed, or that she had blown her last job interview from nerves even though she’d told her family she hadn’t heard back after applying, even that she still smoked occasionally because of said nerves despite publicly insisting that she’d quit—and had made space for her in his life, in his home. Hell, he’d spent most of his day off in the car just so she could take her shitty old computer to get repaired. She always felt better when she was around him, and she wanted him and Lisa to get to know each other when she visited—so why had she thought they should spend that weekend sleeping apart?

“You’re right,” she said suddenly. Jack’s eyebrows furrowed as he looked down at her, and she elaborated, “I shouldn’t have insisted on the air mattress.”

It all felt clear to her as she said the words, how normal it would be to have Lisa stay with them at his place, which felt more like theirs with every day that passed, but Jack only chuckled.

“Come on,” he said, loosening his hold on her and turning around.

He thought she was making light of the situation, she realized, and it only took a second for her to figure out why—it might not have been the best time for a joke, but it was an even worse time for a heartfelt conversation about their relationship.

She laced her fingers with his as they made their way to the once-white door that bore a large red sign marking it as an exit. The handle moved with ease, but Jack was only able to push it open about a foot before he was blocked by a chain and padlock on the other side.

“Think you can make it through that?” Jack asked after he’d tried and failed to open it any further.

They switched places so Annie could take a closer look; it would be tight, ducking underneath the padlock, but it seemed wide enough for her to shimmy her way through.

“Okay,” Jack said after she’d confirmed. “You shouldn’t use the payphone right out front—“

“Because they might spot me, I remember.”

“I’ll be here until you’re out of sight from the building, okay?”

She nodded. “Be careful, okay?”

“You too.”

I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Just...just remember that me being out of the way doesn’t mean you can go charging in and try to take down however many guys by yourself, okay?”

He flashed her a knowing smile; it was too charming for her to entirely trust it, but she had to be satisfied with his agreement.

After Annie had planted a short but firm kiss on his lips, she surveyed the almost deserted parking lot. The sun had started to set, casting a shadow over Jack’s jeep and the handful of other cars still there, but unless someone was lying in wait she had a clear line to get to the sidewalk.

She didn’t feel too worried; she could already hear Jack getting his gun ready to cover her.

Annie had only taken one step forward when he said, “Hey,” and his deep voice made her turn.

“Don’t forget about us,” he quoted her, his eyes dancing.

She bit down the urge to smile, shaking her head before she jogged through the parking lot.

 


 

After reaching a payphone and getting through to 911, she called Mac. She told herself it was because he could check on things, but she ended up feeling more grateful when Mac passed the phone over to his wife while he made calls on another line.

Darlene hadn’t spoken of anything specific, but she had a reassuring manner that had calmed Annie—enough for her to have wished Darlene had stayed on the phone even longer. Annie had said goodbye as soon as she’d seen the first two squad cars drive past, but even though they seemed to believe her when she said she was the one who’d escaped and called for help, they made her keep her distance just like the other passers-by who had started to appear after hearing the sirens and wouldn’t tell her anything.

It made her nerves ratchet up again and even after she started to see other customers being led out by the police, and three men being carted to another side in handcuffs, she couldn’t relax until she heard his voice.

“She giving you trouble, officer?”

Annie gaped as Jack appeared beside the police officer who was still refusing to tell her what was going on, an easy grin on his face like nothing had happened.

The officer’s brows had wrinkled until Jack flashed his badge, at which point the cop started explaining that Annie had been harassing him for information.

“Don’t worry, officer, I’ll take it from here,” he said in his official voice, waiting to grin at her once more until the cop had left them (not before sending Jack a look of immense relief).

“That’s not funny, Jack,” she said, slapping his shoulder. “No one would tell me what happened to you or if you were hurt or—”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay, we’re all fine,” Jack said, slinging an arm around her shoulders. “No casualties.”

“But not no injuries,” she said, pointing at the cut on his arm.

“Minor injuries only. I’m fine,” he insisted.

In fairness, he did look fine, but Annie couldn’t help bringing his face down to hers, kissing him as if they weren’t surrounded by dozens of people. She could tell Jack was surprised—after their faces had been plastered all over the news in the first two weeks after the bus (specifically their faces attached to each other in that subway car) she had been reluctant to show too much PDA, had only been comfortable with the briefest of public kisses—but he fell into it quickly, wrapping his strong arms around her waist and pulling her close.

She’d known it was going to turn out fine, had been sure of it in a way she hadn’t been the day they’d met. But she still needed this, needed to feel him in her arms, his soft lips under hers and his steady heartbeat in his chest, before she could relax (or at least stop wishing she had a cigarette in her purse).

Jack seemed to understand, not letting go of her waist when they finally broke apart for air, one hand always touching some part of her even when they were interrupted by other officers wanting to speak to him.

Although the time between Annie making the 911 call and the first squad cars arriving had felt infinite to her, Jack informed her that according to his watch barely ten minutes had passed between him watching her leave and hearing the sirens. It had been just enough time for him to disarm another one of the robbers and figure out where the hostages were being kept before the additional officers had taken control of the situation; they’d managed to surround the place before anyone had gotten away with the store's more valuable goods.

She had to separate from Jack while another officer took her statement, but she could feel his eyes on her even from a distance and as soon as she was done she met his gaze. He was waving off an offer of medical attention—something she’d normally tell him off for, but she was tired and thought they could both use a hot shower and a fresh set of clothes. If that cut on his arm was his only injury, she could take care of that.

He jogged over to her when he saw her approaching, slipping his arm around her waist again. “Finished with your statement?”

Annie nodded. “You?”

“Yeah, we can get outta here. Drive back to mine?”

“Yeah,” Annie said, leaning into his chest. “Let’s go home, Traven.”

The flex of his hand on her back let her know he’d noted her deliberate word choice, so she tilted her face to look up at him. He was staring at her curiously, but she observed the hopeful spark in his eyes, the way it brightened when she nodded and smiled up at him.

His chest rumbled with pleased laughter under her palm. “Okay,” he agreed, brushing a kiss against her temples. “Home it is.”