It had been, almost, a quiet night. They’d found an out-of-the-way bar somewhere in Middle of Nowhere, Kansas, and enjoyed a dinner of pub grub and Coronas. The sense of normalcy - or at least, the illusion of one - was worth its weight in gold, and had done wonders for Dani’s well-being. Which was probably why Grace had assented to it in the first place.
They ate hot wings and hamburgers. Dani teased Grace remorselessly about how much of a mess she was making, as the buffalo sauce coated her fingers and face. Grace muttered a pointed complaint about not exactly having a lot of opportunities to practice in the future, but sat still as Dani dabbed at her face with her napkin. Neither woman cared much about what they might have looked like.
They left a little after the football game on TV ended, paying cash and tipping generously. Dani was walking back to the car, already fantasizing about her bed, when she heard the scream - a desperate cry for help that pierced the night like a siren. Her eyes were drawn immediately to a store across the street, a pawn shop starkly illuminated by a solitary streetlight. A van was idling by the curb, doors open, and even from a distance Dani could make out frantic motion from inside.
There was a gunshot.
Grace’s arm was around her before she had time to think, her cyborg bodyguard pivoting in front of her, so that most of Dani’s body was shielded by the armored mesh inside Grace’s. Grace’s free hand was already at her own waistband, to the concealed holster she practically slept with, thumb resting on her pistol’s safety.
“We should-” Grace began, her mind singly focused on finding cover and exit routes, on getting Dani out of danger...
Grace hesitated for a fraction of a second, glancing down into Dani’s eyes. Eyes which were unflinching, determined, burning with resolve. Eyes that belonged to the Daniella Ramos of 2042.
“Yes, ma’am,” Grace murmured.
And just like that, she was sprinting headlong into danger.
It took Dani a minute of jogging to cross the distance Grace had covered in a little less than ten seconds. There had been a half-dozen more gunshots in the time between Grace’s and Dani’s arrival, but Dani’s pace had barely slowed. She was getting problematically comfortable with running towards gunfire.
By the time she made it to the pawn shop, the battle was already over and won. Six men lay sprawled across the floor, beaten and bloodied, amidst the wreckage of the small store. Dani walked over broken glass and upended merchandise, stepped around dropped pistols and blood-soaked balaclavas. She tried not to look too closely. She’d grown more accustomed to death in these past few months, but the sights still stuck in her brain.
She found Grace in the back office of the store, crouched beside a woman who couldn’t have been a day over eighteen. That woman was huddled in a corner, almost in the fetal position, while Grace was in the midst of draping a blanket over and around her.
“Is everything okay?” Dani asked, once she got within a few feet of the two women. Grace must have heard her coming, and nodded curtly in the affirmative. The woman she was tending to, however, startled almost violently at Dani’s arrival.
“It’s okay, she’s a friend,” Grace reassured her, as best as she could. Grace had never been, in her own words, particularly good at the touchy-feely stuff, at dealing with civilians and refugees and life outside the barracks. And that was in her own time - she had even less of an understanding of the pre-apocalyptic people.
Dani crouched down, flashing her palms in a small display of non-threateningness. “My name is Dani. Can you tell me what happened?” The woman was alternating between crying and hyperventilating, and she had bruising all along the left side of her face that was going to turn into a monster of a black eye in a few hours. She clutched the blanket closer.
Dani waited in silence for several seconds, but Grace shook her head, making it clear that the woman wasn’t ready to be questioned. “Her father owed them money. When they couldn’t find him, they came to get her. I think that’s the gist of it.”
Dani felt something in the pit of her stomach. Man’s inhumanity to man had always sickened her, even before she’d known that they would one day have to unite against a common enemy. The casual savagery disgusted and disheartened her.
“I didn’t kill them,” Grace continued, bobbing her head back in the direction of the bodies on the floor. She seemed to read Dani’s mood. “Though I still can.”
Dani shook her head, and from Grace’s resigned expression, she suspected that this was a conversation they’d had before. Or rather, would have again.
The blue-red lights of a police cruiser swept the shop. Their cue to leave. Dani offered the woman a small smile, before following Grace to the back exit. Their car was parked a few blocks away, and they reached it without incident. Dani keyed the ignition, and they were off.
Grace crashed a few minutes later, in an empty parking lot behind a half-demolished strip mall. They’d done this enough times by now that the convulsions no longer scared Dani. No, that wasn’t true. They still scared her, but only because she knew what they meant Grace had been through. She’d become comfortable jabbing needles into the woman, could count almost to the minute how long it would be until Grace was back to normal.
Normal for her, of course.
Dani found herself stroking Grace’s cheek, without thinking, gently coaxing the woman back to consciousness. The car was illuminated by the small interior lights, which seemed to make the darkened world outside them disappear. Grace’s eyes fluttered opened as her breathing returned to a normal rhythm, her skin still damp from sweat. There was always a brief look of confusion in her eyes after these episodes, as her mind raced to catch up, looking for threats and dangers.
She shivered a little.
“We’re safe,” Dani reassured her, already knowing what the first question on her lips would be. Lips dry and chapped by the cold Midwestern air. “Nobody is following us.”
Grace closed her eyes, smiling softly, letting herself be lulled by the way Dani’s finger brushed along her cheekbone. “Do we have any water?”
“We have Coke,” Dani answered, passing a bottle from the map pocket of her door to Grace. It was one of those old-fashioned glass bottles, and Grace pressed it to her forehead for a few seconds, before drinking greedily from it.
“Thank you,” Grace said, setting the half-emptied bottle down in the cup holster between them.
Dani shook her head. “Thank you. For what you did back there. Saving that girl from whatever those men were…”
Grace was shaking her head, gently. “That’s why you’re the leader. Our leader.”
“Still…” Dani went back to brushing Grace with her finger. There were bits of plastic and glass in her skin, splinters of wood in her hair. She was enjoying picking them out one by one. “You did a good thing tonight, Grace.”
She leaned forward, planting a small kiss on Grace’s cheek. Grace’s eyes drifted shut, and that oh-so-rare smile flashed across her face.
“I’m ready, if you want to go.”
She picked up Grace’s Coke bottle, taking a small sip of her own. “I’m not, and I don’t.”
The interior lights were clicked off.