|The End of the Beginning
Author: LJC PM
Set during 5.05 and after "Last Night". Jess Parker was fine. She kept telling herself that, in the hope that she might actually believe it.Rated: Fiction M - English - Drama/Romance - Becker & Jess P. - Words: 11,261 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 11 - Follows: 6 - Published: 07-05-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8289069
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: Primeval and all related elements, characters and indicia © Impossible Pictures. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright Impossible Pictures.
Please do not archive or distribute without author's permission.
Author's Note: Set during 5.05, and after the events of "Last Night". Huge thanks to my amazing betas boosette and fringedweller.
The End of the Beginning
Even if Jess hadn't texted Becker the co-ordinates of the power station, he'd have been able to find it. Shining above the wreckage and rubble of the buildings was the largest anomaly he'd ever seen. Standing seven storeys high at least, it was the centre of a vortex of black clouds that swirled above it, lightning cracking through the air.
He jumped out of the truck, his men behind him, and approached the knot of familiar faces.
"...it's unstoppable!" Temple was saying as Becker's boots crunched across the gravel.
"OK, so... Plan A was rubbish. What about Plan B?" He tried to sound flip, but his gut was already churning. Even without the background in the sciences Connor and the techs at the ARC had, Becker could tell a locking device would be useless on an anomaly that size. It was still growing.
"We're working on it," Matt said tersely, his eyes never leaving the anomaly. Debris swirled around it, caught up in the magnetic field. It was a wonder it hadn't pulled the vehicles in yet.
"Jess said all the anomalies have disappeared—how the hell did she miss that?"
"Maybe it overwhelmed the system—" Connor began, but Becker held up a finger for silence as he got a new text.
"It's from Jess." His mouth went dry, his heart pounding in his chest as he read the words on the screen. "There are future predators in the Hub. She and Lester are trapped."
Abby's eyes were so wide he could see the whites all the way around her pupils. "Predators? How can there be predators?"
"We have to go back." Becker flipped his phone closed, reaching for the keys to the truck. "All the teams are out in the field—they're defenceless. We have to go back right now."
"Becker, wait—" Matt laid a hand on Becker's arm.
"Shut up, Matt, or so help me—"
"We're going with you." Matt turned back to Connor. "Your anomaly—the one in your lab. It was the prototype for this one, right?"
"So essentially it's the same anomaly," Matt pointed out.
Abby's brows were still drawn together in a worried frown. "It must have re-opened, which is how the predators got into the ARC."
A light seemed to go off over Connor's head. "There's a way to destabilise the anomaly, by merging the prototype with this one."
"Fine. Good. We've got a plan. Get in the cars. Jess and Lester are back there alone with God knows how many of those things after them."
Abby climbed into the passenger seat of Becker's truck, while his men got into the back, and Matt pulled out almost even before Connor had closed the door behind him. They peeled out of the New Dawn car park with a screech of tyres.
Becker drove recklessly, ignoring the dark looks from Abby and his men as they clung to the handles as he took corners faster than perhaps was wise. But he didn't slow down until they'd entered the underground parking structure of the ARC.
"She's not answering her phone," Becker glared at his mobile, still clutched in his left hand. He had an EMD rifle in the other, trigger primed.
"Those things navigate by sound," Abby reminded him in a whisper. "If Jess' smart, and she is, it'll be turned off."
"Hang in there, Jess. We're coming," Becker breathed as he took point, the largest EMD he had levelled as he scanned the corridors for movement.
The minutes spent creeping soundlessly through the ARC were the longest of his life. The ARC's emergency lights cast dim shadows, and Becker kept Matt in sight as they entered the Hub, Connor, Emily and Abby bringing up the rear, armed with smaller EMDs.
Becker heard the sound of laboured breathing coming from behind the support pillar just as Matt did. On his mark, they moved in, only to find Jess propped up against the pillar, Lester's head in her lap.
"Over here!" Matt called out, and Becker shot him a dark look, knowing that whatever sound they made would attract the predators.
Jess' eyes were wide, and Becker dropped to his knees beside her and took the EMD from her shaking fingers carefully. "Hey, hey, hey. Jess, you're alright now. We're here."
He cradled her cheek in his hand, wanting nothing more than to pull her into his arms and get her as far away from the ARC as possible. Her face was smeared with blood, the tracks of tears visible on her cheeks through the blood and smudged make-up.
Becker felt at Lester's neck for a pulse, and nodded to Matt. It was steady, despite the blood soaking through the right side of his shirt.
"Abby, keep a lookout. OK, let's get a drip in him and seal him in the Medical Bay. That's all we can do for now, right?"
"Jess?" Matt tried to get her attention, but Jess' face was blank, her breath coming in strangled gasps. Becker's hand tightened on her shoulder as she drew in gulps of air. "How many were there?"
Jess blinked back tears, and Becker could see her trying to get control of her panic. "Um... four or five. Maybe more."
Becker continued stroking her shoulder with his thumb until Matt lifted his eyes to him.
"Becker—check the corridor."
Reluctantly, Becker levelled his weapon and began scanning the area, Abby at his back.
"She'll be OK," Abby whispered, and Becker started. Swallowing his panic, he nodded briskly.
"Look after Jess," Matt said to Abby, as he and Connor bore Lester between them and headed for the Medical Bay. Becker gave Abby one last look over his shoulder, and then followed.
Matt and Connor stood outside while Becker—the only one of the three with field medical training—set up the IV line. Lester was in shock, and Becker had tucked blankets around him, moving in silence, unable to stop counting the seconds as they ticked by. Every second he was there, the anomaly at New Dawn was gaining strength. Every second he was here, Jess was in the Hub, while more of those things roamed free.
Becker tore open the sterile packaging with his teeth, moving as quickly as he could. Becker knew Abby and Emily would do anything to protect Jess. He knew they were smart, and capable, and nearly as well-trained as any of his Security team when it came to taking down creatures. But he wouldn't feel better until he was there himself. There was no logic at work there—just pure primal fear.
"Becker," Lester reached up to lay a hand on his shoulder as he tied the rubber tourniquet around his forearm, tapping the vein before sliding the needle in.
"You're gonna be fine, Lester," Becker said absently, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Your Jess saved my life."
"She's not my—"
"Don't waste time arguing with me, you idiot. Just thank your lucky stars I hired her. I know I am."
Becker's lips curved in an involuntary smile. "Yes, sir."
"Now get out there and kill those things."
Keying the door shut, Becker input the security code which would seal it. All of the vents in the room were too small for one of the predators to breach. They had to hope that Lester would be fine while they moved the anomaly into what Connor was calling "the mini-Sun Cage".
The name had reminded Becker of Sarah. Sarah reminded him of things he'd rather not remember, just now.
He shouldered his EMD, and tried to move as quietly as he could.
"Will it hold?" Matt asked.
"Yeah. Yeah, he'll be safe for now."
"OK. You sweep through this way, and we'll meet you at Connor's lab."
Becker nodded, setting off in the direction Matt had indicated. They would meet up on the other side of the main level where Connor's lab was located. Under normal circumstances, it would take less than four minutes.
Becker had fully intended to do just that—he was halfway to the labs when he turned back. The hollow look in Jess' eyes haunted him. She hadn't been crying—she hadn't even met his eyes. She had just... switched off. Part of him knew he was disobeying a direct order, but the rest of him couldn't shake the feeling that something was off. As quiet as they'd been, there were hardly soundless—yet he hadn't seen a single predator. He questioned his choice to return to the Hub right up until he heard the sound of EMD fire.
He rounded the corner as Emily shouted, "I'm out," and put herself bodily between Jess and the predator advancing on Abby. Jess was behind one of the lab tables, her blue eyes wide with terror.
Just as the predator raised one clawed hand to strike, Becker shot it twice with the EMD on its highest setting.
"That's the first one I've managed to hit," he said as he offered Abby a hand up.
"Thank yo—Becker!" Abby shouted and he turned in time to see a second ugly mutated bat-creature swinging down from the ceiling, using the metal grating like a children's climbing frame and closing the distance at a ridiculous speed. Becker continued shooting, cursing under his breath as the predator dodged every shot as if they were in slow motion. Then the air was filled with a deep bass hum that thrummed through his entire body.
To his amazement, the predator froze in its tracks. Whatever Abby and Jess had done, it was effective. With pleasure bordering on sadistic, Becker fired into its head at point-blank range, and then again for good measure as it hit the floor next to its ugly brother.
"Nice plan, Abby," Becker said as he lowered his weapon. He reached into the pocket of his tactical trousers, and handed Emily three spare power packs. Emily snapped one into her EMD, and handed the rest to Abby.
"Jess is the one who hooked her laptop into the building's sound system," Abby said with a grin. "Now we can beat them."
Jess was still standing at the edge of the lab table, next to the laptop. Her face was still smeared with Lester's blood, and Becker could see that her knuckles were white where they gripped the edge of the table.
"But there are still more of them out there," Jess said, her voice breaking, and Becker no longer cared that Abby and Emily were there, watching him. He pulled Jess into a hug, tucking her head beneath his chin.
"It's alright. It's going to be alright."
Jess nodded, her arms still slack at her sides, and Becker pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
"Abby and Emily'll stay with you."
Abby nodded at him, and he released Jess, whose bottom lip was still trembling.
"Sanderson and Jones are right outside that door. We won't leave you alone—I promise."
"What if... what about those two?" Jess stepped backward involuntarily from the two creatures on the floor in the centre of the Hub. Though immobilised by the soundwaves and the EMDs, their grotesque chests kept rising and falling with each breath.
"The EMDs can take down a full T-Rex, remember? But just in case..." Becker pulled his SIG from his thigh holster and without flinching put a bullet in the head of each downed predator. Jess put a hand to her mouth, trying to stifle her cry of alarm at the impossibly loud sound of the gunshots.
"Becker— the lab," Emily reminded him. As if he'd needed reminding.
"It's going to be OK," Becker gave Jess' shoulder one last squeeze, and she gave him a brave, watery smile as he set off back toward Connor's lab.
"Where are they?" Emily asked, her voice a fierce whisper as she paced the length of the Hub.
Jess kept trying to bring the comms back online, trying to ignore the way her hands shook as she tapped the keys of her console.
"They're coming," Abby said softly, calmer than Jess thought she had any right to be, given the circumstances. Abby had told Jess, in whispers, about Phillip and New Dawn. About the world Matt had come from. Jess had barely heard her, and she guessed Abby had told her just to have someone to tell. Jess had never really known Mr Burton, not the way she knew Lester. But she still felt a twinge of emotion, when Abby told her Burton had sacrificed himself to try and close the anomaly.
Jess couldn't imagine standing there, waiting to die like that. She hoped that if she had to, she could make the same decision. But all she could think about as she kept running subroutines, trying to re-route power from the empty levels of the ARC to the Hub, was how she didn't want to die. She had been so sure that she and Lester were going to die. Right up until she'd looked up into Becker's face, she had been sure that this was it. The end. The apocalypse Matt had warned them about just the night before.
Had it only been a day ago that she and Becker had come into work, the only thought on their minds how to keep the rest of the team from knowing that they were dating?
Jess felt so young, so stupid, so completely out of her depth. The sound of Matt and Connor clomping down the stairs, a shiny silver case between them, broke into her thoughts.
"Is that it? The sun cage?" Abby asked, and Connor nodded.
"Not quite the field test I had in mind, but yeah. It's working—for now. I don't know how long this one will remain stable, though. It appears to have spontaneously re-opened. So we may not have much time."
"We'll take my truck," Becker said, and Jess froze.
"You're leaving?" An edge of panic had crept into her voice, and she hated herself for it. But the thought of being in the Hub alone again paralysed her. "All of you?"
"We're going to try and merge this anomaly with the one at New Dawn. It's our only chance."
Becker stepped over to Jess, and lowered his mouth to her ear. "We're going to beat this. We always do, you'll see."
He glanced back at the team, and instead of kissing her, laid his hand over hers and squeezed her fingers.
"Please be careful," Jess said, pushing the words past the lump in her throat.
"I'll even try to stay warm," he said with a wink, and Jess felt the ghost of a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth despite herself.
"Emily, I want you to stay with Jess—" Matt began, his hand on her shoulder, but she pushed it off.
Emily shook her head angrily. "Oh, no. I'm going with you."
"It's not safe—" Matt protested.
"Do you really think I care? And do you really think you can stop me?"
"I wouldn't argue with her if I were you, mate," Connor said as he handed Jess his EMD and spare power packs. "You don't see me trying to keep Abby from coming, do you?"
"Damn right you'd better not," Abby practically growled.
"See?" Connor said cheerfully. Jess was jealous of Connor's seemingly endless ability to bounce back from nearly any trauma. But then, he had Abby. She supposed so long as he had Abby, Connor would always be alright.
"Does nobody in this place follow orders anymore?" Matt mutter angrily to the ceiling before going back to take the handle of the case holding the anomaly.
"Not since we found out you were from the future and had been lying to us all along," Becker responded almost cheerfully as he clapped Matt on the back. "I'm driving."
They filed out, passing Sanderson and Jones. Jess could see Becker exchanging a few words with his men, and then with one last look at her back over his shoulder, he was gone.
She looked around the empty Hub, listening to the low buzz of the sound system as it blasted low-frequency soundwaves through the facility, and started shivering.
Jess Parker was fine. She kept telling herself that, in the hope that she might actually believe it.
In the end, it had been seven predators that had got through the anomaly in Connor's lab. Becker's men had picked them off easily as the low-frequency soundwaves froze them in their tracks. One by one, the field teams returned, and Shelby had taken Jess' place at the ADD so she could go "freshen up".
Jess hadn't realised what sort of state she was in until she'd stood in the women's toilets around the corner from the Hub and seen what they'd seen—Lester's blood smeared all over her face, her racoon eyes from her mascara, the tracks of tears still visible through the blood and grime.
She'd splashed cold water on her face first, and while her eyes were still red-rimmed, at least they weren't puffy any longer. Her chapped cheeks were put to rights with a bit of hand lotion she'd found in the bottom of her bag, and while comms were still down, her mobile hadn't left her right hand since teams had started returning from the field.
She'd taken the time to carefully reapply her make-up, breathing slowly through her nose until her pulse stopped pounding in her ears. She'd brushed her hair, and slipped her headband back into place. Despite the comms being down, she still wore her earpiece—she was so used to it she barely felt it any longer, and felt practically naked without it. She scrubbed at a stain on her blouse with a wad of paper towel, glad for once that her skirt was red and Lester's blood didn't show.
It had been her favourite top. She doubted now she'd ever be able to wear it again.
When she'd got back to the armoury to retrieve her shoes she'd seen the blood on the floor, and sat down to have a good cry. No-one was there, and she'd tried to be as quiet as she could. She'd cried herself out, and then slipped her shoes back on and walked on unsteady legs to the Medical Bay.
The medics had looked her over, wrapped her in a blanket and given her a steaming mug of sweet milky tea for shock. When the adrenaline had worn off, leaving her hyperventilating and shaking, she'd been handed a Valium and told to go home.
Jess had swallowed the pill, given the medical staff a cheery smile, and then gone straight back to the ADD.
When all was said and done, she was fine—physically. Emotionally... well, that was another story altogether.
When Becker texted that they had closed the anomaly, and could someone please meet them at the New Dawn site and give them a lift back to the ARC, Jess had almost cried with relief. She'd sent Sgt Tully with a van, and gone down to the Medical Bay to check on Lester, but when she heard him threatening loudly to sack the next person who came anywhere near him with a hypodermic needle, she knew he would be just fine.
When Becker and the others had returned from New Dawn, she'd greeted them with a bright and cheery smile, even if it was only a ghost of her usual perky self. She held herself together all through the King's Cross mission, which thankfully hadn't involved a creature incursion. Just a commuter train slipping into the late 1800s for an hour or two. The civilians had all been evacuated through the anomaly, which had closed of its own accord, leaving half the train still trapped on the other side. Apart from Connor making jokes about steampunk smartphones, everything had snapped back to status quo.
Everything except Jess, whose hands hadn't stopped shaking the entire time.
When the team returned from the station, they were in high spirits—euphoric, even, with the sole exception of Matt, who left his black box on Jess' desk and then disappeared up to his lab. Emily followed, leaving only Becker, Connor, and Abby in the Hub.
"Right, so—I wanted to be the first to tell you the good news," Connor said, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet.
"What good news?" Jess asked, mystified.
"Abby proposed. We're engaged!" Connor said with a massive grin as he grabbed Abby around the waist.
Jess' hands flew to her mouth, and she jumped out of her chair to wrap her arms around Abby and Connor in turn.
"I'm so happy for you guys! Really, I mean it. That's fantastic news."
"So we were thinking—we should celebrate. It's not every day you save the world and decide to get married, right?"
"I think maybe tonight isn't the best night for a celebration," Abby said gently. "For one thing, we don't even know if the power's back up at our place. For another, I think Jess has had enough excitement for one day. The champagne'll keep, right?"
"But—" Connor kept looking back and forth between Abby and Jess, confused. Jess pursed her lips, and finally it was Becker who spoke up.
"Jess is actually my ride home. What with Anderson driving my truck into the anomaly and all. Sorry, Connor—but I'm stealing her. And her car."
Connor kept looking back and forth between Abby and Becker, clearly not following. Finally Abby just rolled her eyes and grabbed Connor's arm.
"Jess, we'll see you back at the flat... whenever. Right?"
Abby led Connor away with a wink, and Jess felt colour rush to her cheeks.
"So much for keeping ourselves to ourselves," Becker said under his breath. "Are you OK?"
"Matt drove your truck into the anomaly?" Jess asked, ignoring his question for now. "Are you joking?"
"Oh, how I wish I were. I don't suppose you could give us a lift?"
"Well, I was planning on being in the neighbourhood anyway," she said loftily, and squeaked as he pinched her hip. "Weren't your keys in the truck?"
"The keys to my flat, Danny's bike, my locker, my storage unit..." Becker sighed.
"How are you planning on getting in?"
He just gave her a look.
"Special Ops. Right. Silly question."
"And your copy of A Separate Peace was in the glove box."
"It's just a book."
"It's your book."
"It's fine. Really."
"We can stop at a Waterstones in town—"
"Honestly, Becker, it's fine." The words came out sharper than she'd intended, and she soften them as best she could by squeezing his hands. "I'm just ready for this day to be over. But I still have all of the anomaly data to download from all the teams. I've got about half of them back, but there are still teams coming in from the field—"
"It's alright." Becker pulled a chair away from one of the other workstations. "For as long as you're planning on staying, I can stay."
"You don't mind?"
Becker leaned in close, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "If you think I'm going anywhere without you tonight, clearly you have taken leave of your senses."
Two hours later, they were still in the Hub, which was at least off the back-up generators and back onto the national grid. According to the crawl on the BBC news, which she had muted on two of the screens of the ADD, power was still out in a third of the city and people were already writing off the T-Rex as a horrible marketing stunt gone awry; despite eleven dead, and over thirty injured.
Lester came out from his office, still leaning heavily on his cane.
"What are you still doing here?" Lester asked as Jess entered the last of the mission data into the computer system. "I thought you left hours ago."
"Just finishing a few things up."
"Go home, Parker."
Lester turned to Becker, who was sitting with his feet up on a second chair, leafing through a mission report.
"Becker, will you please escort Miss Parker to her dwelling, and make sure she doesn't take any work home with her?"
Becker raised his eyebrows. "Sir?"
"Hello? I'm right here." Jess waved her hand on front of Lester's face, and he resolutely ignored her.
"Better yet, feed her," Lester continued, as if Jess had never spoken. "I don't think she's eaten since before this entire mess began."
"Are you actually ordering me to take Jess out for dinner?" Becker asked in a stage whisper.
"No. I am very strongly suggesting that you both get out of this wretched place before that blasted alarm goes off again, and remind yourself that there is an entire world out there still spinning because of your actions today. You look as if you both might need the reminder. God knows I do. Now get out. And I don't want to see you back here tomorrow, either.
"But—" Jess sputtered, but Lester cut her off.
"Sayid and Shelby can cover the ADD, we'll be fine."
"But—" she tried again.
"For God's sake, Parker. Think of it as a Bank Holiday week-end. You saved my life. I'm feeling uncharacteristically benevolent. Enjoy my good graces while they last."
"We will, thank you," Becker said, overriding whatever protest Jess was about to make.
"I didn't mean you—oh, fine." Lester threw his hand up in mock defeat. "Just be back on Monday, bright and early."
"Do you mind driving?" Jess asked when they reached her car, and Becker raised an eyebrow. "It's only, the medics gave me something to calm my nerves, and I don't think I ought to be driving."
She fished through the bottom of her purse, looking for her keys, and finally closed her fingers around the silly plastic Batz Maru keyring her sister had given her at Christmas.
"That sounds sensible of you."
"Actually, they gave me a great long speech about what I was and was not to do, and the only bit I remember is something about heavy machinery. I wasn't exactly... It's not that I wasn't paying attention, it's just—"
"Jess, it's OK. I get it," Becker said gently, taking the keys from her fingers.
She blinked rapidly, trying to will her eyes not to fill with tears yet again. She'd held herself together all day, and kept telling herself that if she could just hold on a bit longer, she'd be alright.
Becker slid into the driver's seat of Jess' car, reaching beneath the seat for the release so he could push it all the way back to accommodate his long legs.
"If you want to go home tonight, I'd understand. Familiar surroundings and all that."
"No. I mean, probably tomorrow? But I'd rather..." she took a deep breath. "I'd really rather not be alone tonight."
"Abby and Connor—"
"—aren't who I want to be with, tonight."
"I didn't want to be presumptuous," he said loftily, but his smile verged on smug, and Jess rolled her eyes.
"Idiot," she said fondly as she bucked her seatbelt.
"Did you at least want to stop by your digs to pick up anything?" Becker asked as he pulled out of the car park and into the warm London night.
Then it was Jess' turn to blush. "I actually... packed a change of clothes in my gym bag this morning. You know, just in case."
"Oh, I see how it is. It's all wine and roses, prawn crackers and disarming bombs when you were trying to get me into bed. But now that you've had me, you're just going to take me for granted."
"Oh, shut it." The wave of panic that had threatened was dampened down once more, and she just concentrated on breathing as Becker navigated the scant evening traffic.
The city centre was still nearly deserted, barricades having been set up to block some of the streets off. Jess kept her eyes on her hands of the rest of the drive, twisting one of her rings round and round her finger until they pulled up at Becker's building.
As they walked up the two flights of stairs to his flat, Becker kept stealing glances at Jess. He wasn't used to her being so quiet.
"So, how are we meant to get in?" she asked as they were stood outside his door.
"Watch and learn," Becker said with a grin as he pulled a set of lockpicks he'd taken from the armoury from the back pocket of his jeans and knelt in front of his door.
It had been a while since Becker had picked a lock. He fitted the tension wrench into the bottom, and then set to work on the pins with his pick. He'd intended to impress Jess with his lock-picking skills. The problem was, it had been a long while since he'd done it and the minutes ticked by as he fiddled with the pick to no avail.
"What if this doesn't work?" Jess asked. "Does one of your neighbours have a spare key?"
"I don't really know any of my neighbours very well."
"How long have you lived here?"
Jess reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a small flathead screwdriver.
"What are you—"
"Watch," she said, taking off one high-heeled shoe, "and learn."
Jess positioned the screwdriver in the seam between the head of the hinge pin and the top of the hinge, and used the heel of her shoe like a hammer. Four good taps, and she was able to pull the pin out, and handed him her shoe and the screwdriver.
"I'm not tall enough," she said simply, gesturing for him to repeat the process on the top hinge. He did, and dropped the second pin into her open hand.
"You are amazing." Becker handed her back her shoe solemnly. "And also a bit frightening."
"It's easy once you know how," Jess said before pushing the door to his flat inward carefully, before propping it up against the wall of the entryway and dropping her holdall on the floor next to it.
"Do I even want to know why you know how to take a door off its hinges?" Becker asked as he removed his gun from its ankle holster and locked it in the lockbox.
"I have brothers," she offered by way of explanation.
"And the screwdriver?"
"I always have screwdrivers in my handbag. Do you think the batteries in the black boxes magically replace themselves?" She shrugged. "And by the way, you probably want to get a new door, the kind with the hinges on the inside. For security."
Becker took the chain off the door, flipped the deadbolt, and then went back outside to replace the hinge pins. Then, despite the fact that the door was unlocked, he knocked.
When Jess opened the door, a quizzical look on her face, he swept her off her feet in a hug. She giggled into his neck, and something that had been tight in the pit of his stomach since he had first seen her text that she was trapped at the ARC finally relaxed.
He set her back on her feet , and she tipped her head back to smile up at him. "You're completely mad."
"And you're secretly a cat burglar. I think we're well matched." He gave her a quick kiss, which turned into a not-so-quick kiss as she wound her arms around her neck.
They walked backward into the flat, Jess kicking off her shoes which landed with soft thunks on the hardwood floors before they tumbled to the sofa in a tangle of limbs.
"So, what am I in for tonight? Spagbol a la Becker at last?"
Becker did a mental inventory of his cupboards. "More like beans on toast. Unless you want to go out?"
Jess made a face, and pulled the throw off the arm of the sofa and over her legs. "We're going to be one of those boring couples that never does anything except stay in, aren't we?"
"Replace 'boring' with 'ideal' and you'll come closer to my feelings on the matter. Also," he nuzzled her neck, "you left off and 'shag like rabbits'."
Jess shivered, and he at first took it of a sign of delight, until he realised her softly rounded forearms beneath his hands were prickled with gooseflesh.
"Are you cold?"
"A bit," she admitted, rubbing her arms. "I've got jeans in my bag. I probably ought to change."
"Tell you what—why don't you take a hot shower, and I'll see what I can do for food."
"Deal." She dropped a kiss to his mouth, and then scrambled up, snagging her holdall on her way to the bath.
By the time she came back out, hair wet and combed back behind her ears, and wearing one of his plaid button down flannel shirts over her bright yellow cami and jeans, he was placing to plates on the small table.
He came over to give her a kiss, and realised with a start that she barely came up to his shoulder.
"What?" she asked as he looked down at her, puzzled.
"You're shorter than I remember."
Jess laughed and lifted up the cuffs of her jeans, showing off her pink Chuck Taylor trainers.
"Now there's something I never thought I'd see: Jess Parker in flats."
"I do own flats, you know. I just like wearing heels. They make me feel..."
"Sexy," she said, giving his arm a swat. "And taller."
"Well, you'll get no argument from me," he said as Becker pulled her chair out for her.
"What happened to beans on toast?" Jess asked as she looked down at the simple dinner he'd prepared.
"I went rummaging. We've tomato soup, and toasted cheese sandwiches."
"I feel like I'm at my gran's for tea."
"Your gran would be serving lemonade instead of Stella," he pointed out as he uncapped two bottles and set them on the table, and she laughed.
"Clearly, you've never met my gran."
"So what you're telling me is all the Parker women defy convention?"
"Something like that." Jess grinned, taking a long pull off her beer.
They ate in companionable silence. Becker wasn't used to Jess being so quiet, but they'd had a hell of a week and he wasn't going to push her. Still, he was so used to her bouncing back quickly—all bubbly cheerfulness and bright smiles—that he was concerned. Now that he knew the medics had given her something after he'd left, he understood why her smiles as she'd greeted them when they'd got to from the remains of New Dawn had seemed... not forced exactly, but more brittle than he was used to.
The truth was, he had come to rely on Jess' presence at the ARC as almost an antidote to the bits of darkness that the anomalies fetched up on their shores. It had been a long time since anyone had made him smile so often. Even before they'd "got together" as Abby would have put it, Jess had always been able to tease him out of his black moods.
He sipped his soup slowly, even though it had gone lukewarm, trying to sort out when everything had changed. He'd been desperate when she'd been bit by the future beetle not because they'd kissed—but because she was Jess. None of the monsters from the other side of the anomalies were supposed to touch her. That, more than anything else, was why when she'd screamed in the Hub, he'd dropped the canister of insecticide and rushed to her side without even thinking.
It was, he admitted with a wince, also why he'd taken out his rage on the queen beetle despite Matt's repeated warnings not to shoot the giant bug. The lockdown may have been Phillip's fault, but losing control of the insects had been Becker's—all because he'd been out of his head with worry over Jess.
Once upon a time, that would have been enough reason for him to halt their nascent relationship. He'd have put on the brakes, retreated back into his shell, and gone back to clinging to the rules and regulations as if they would somehow protect him from getting hurt. That was how he'd handled Sarah's death, and he was only just now starting to realise exactly how much more harm that tack had done than good.
But despite the fact that it had barely been a week, Becker knew that even if he had called it off with Jess at the first sign of something more than just affection on both their parts, that wouldn't change how he felt about her. That wouldn't have changed the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach when he'd got her text that she was trapped at the ARC.
It wouldn't have stopped him, when he saw her with Lester's head in her lap, Lester's blood smeared across her face, from wanting to wrap his arms around her and spirit her off to someplace safe where nothing could ever hurt her again—New Dawn and the end of the world were abstract concepts to him. Jess Parker was concrete. She was real, and she was his, and for better or worse, she was in his life. He wanted her in his life. Because he liked being the man she saw when she looked up at him with those enormous blue eyes. He wanted to live up to her expectations of him.
That was... unexpected. That was new. And, he was beginning to suspect—as he watched her nibble half a cheese sandwich she'd dunked in her own lukewarm bowl of tomato soup—that was something he wasn't willing to give up. Not any time soon.
"You're being awfully quiet," Jess pointed out as she wiped her chin with a folded piece of kitchen paper.
"Just thinking," he admitted.
"You," he said with a fond smile. "Us."
Jess raised a brow, her cheeks going pink, and Becker reached across the table to take her hand in his. He ran his thumb over the inside of her wrist absently, and her fingers tightened around his.
"I think I'm full," Jess said as she set half of her uneaten sandwich on the edge of the plate. "Sorry?"
"Don't apologise—I'm used to cooking for, well... me."
"And you are a growing boy," she said dryly, releasing his fingers so she could start to clear the plates. He stood and took them from her, lifting them high enough that she couldn't reach them.
Her pout actually lifted his spirits. It was a bit of the old Jess peeking through.
"Feeling better?" Becker asked as he set the plates in the sink.
"Still a bit cold. I think whatever the medics gave me has wore off." Jess tugged down the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt, her shoulders hunched. "I feel like I'm never going to be warm again."
"I can think of a few ways to generate some body heat," he pointed out as they curled up on his sofa.
Her hair was still drying, and her fringe hung down into her eyes. She pushed it out of her eyes with a gesture of annoyance, and sighed.
"How is it that my response to stress is delayed shock, while yours is for your libido to go into overdrive?"
"It's actually fairly common with men in my profession."
"I wouldn't know. I've never dated a squaddie before."
Becker scowled. "Did you just call me a squaddie?"
She ran her tongue over her bottom lip, looking up at him from beneath her lashes. "Maybe."
"I think I'm insulted."
She swallowed her laughter. "Yeah. You'll get over it."
"And anyway, it's more my response to you wearing my shirt." Becker ran his finger inside the gaping collar to trace one collarbone with a fingertip.
"I was cold."
"Don't apologise. I like it better on you."
"It's snuggly and warm, and it smells like you."
"Really? And what exactly do I smell like?"
"Your aftershave, and just a hint of gun oil," Jess informed him, her cheek dimpling. "Which I now find sexy, by the way. So if, the next time I come down to the armoury, I simply can't control myself, now you know why."
"God, Jess. I'm not going to be able to set foot in there for a week without picturing you naked."
Her lips curved in a sly smile. "Good."
Becker noted that she had a little more colour in her cheeks. But he had to admit, freshly scrubbed and in a shirt that dwarfed her tiny frame, more than ever he wanted to wrap her in cotton wool and hide her away from the world. Not perhaps an enlightened 21st century attitude, but he couldn't help it.
His arms tightened around her reflexively, and she snuggled closer into his side.
"Do you any idea what you do to me?" Becker said into her hair.
She twined her fingers with his, and he brushed his thumb across the back of her hand in a caress.
"I'm beginning to get an idea."
Becker woke disorientated. It was still dark outside, and he was alone.
After dinner, they had managed to agree on black and white movie on Sky. Cary Grant had just started throwing backflips in the nursery of Katherine Hepburn's family home when Becker had noticed that Jess was fast asleep. She had been curled into his side like one of his sister's cats, her head resting on his shoulder. He'd clicked off the TV and carefully gathered her up in his arms to carry her to the bedroom. She'd muttered and fussed as he'd tugged off her jeans and socks, and then pulled his duvet up to her ears. He'd swallowed a laugh and then crawled into bed next to her, burying his face in her hair.
Becker padded out of the bedroom in bare feet and found Jess curled up on the sofa, her knees drawn up to her chest beneath his faded much-washed Sandhurst tee-shirt. She started almost guiltily when he stepped into the front room, and he could see tracks of tears on her cheeks.
"I'm sorry. I tried not to wake you." Her voice was scratchy, and her nose was red. He noticed for the first time that she'd taken toilet roll from the loo, using it to blow her nose.
He had a sudden uncomfortable flashback to his first term at boarding school when he'd been too afraid to admit to anyone—not even Percy or his granddad—how homesick he'd been. He'd quite liked school once he got used to being away from home. He was good at sport, and worked hard on his assignments. But that first term had been the worst of his life. He'd felt alone and lost and knew that none of his classmates would have taken any pity on him, if they had found him crying like a little baby in the toilets.
Becker knelt at her feet, and prised her hands away from her face. "Jess, hey. Hey. What's going on?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"Did you have a nightmare?" he asked gently. "About the creatures?"
"No—no, that's not it." She shook her head, hot tears spattering Becker's arm. "I just can't stop thinking about it."
"They're gone—and we'll make sure they can't ever get into the ARC again. You're safe."
Instead of stopping crying, Jess' face just crumpled and her eyes filled with fresh tears. Becker sat down next to her and pulled her into his arms, stroking her hair until she could speak again.
"Jess, what's going on?"
"I should have done it." She wiped at her eyes with a wad of tissue.
"Done what?" Becker asked, mystified.
"Abby used my laptop to stop them. I read all the files—I knew all about the predators being bat things, with sonar and all that. If I'd just thought—if I'd just used my head, I could have done it. Then Lester wouldn't have got hurt. And you wouldn't have had to come save me like some stupid useless girl."
Becker took her hands in his, rubbing his thumbs over her wrists. "The last thing you are, Jessica Parker, is useless."
"But I was so scared," she whispered, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks. "I saw them, and all I could think was we were going to die."
"Hey, hey." He tilted her chin up so she was meeting his eyes. "None of my men could have done any better, and they are trained soldiers. If you hadn't texted us, we would never have known about the anomaly in Connor's lab. You are not rubbish. You were fantastic."
Jess pulled back from him, getting to her feet.
"Becker—stop." Her voice rose and the last word, and she seemed as shocked as he was at her sudden outburst. "I'm not talking about co-ordinating teams. I know that job inside out. But this isn't about that. This is about the predators. I wasn't fantastic. I'd have stayed, hid under a table, waiting for you to come and rescue me. And when you say that, it makes it worse. I know you're trying to help. But it doesn't help."
"What would help?" Becker asked, trying to stay calm and rational when what he wanted to do was wrap his arms around her and hold her until she was his Jess again. The brilliant, confident, slightly mad Jess that he'd grown to care for over the last two years.
"I don't know." She wrapped her arms around her torso, looking small and lost. "If you hadn't come back to the Hub—"
"I told you, I will always come back for you. I will always keep you safe."
"But you shouldn't have to. I mean, look at Abby and Emily. They did all the real fighting. All I could do was hide. I couldn't even hit the stupid enter key on the laptop when that thing almost killed Abby. I just froze."
"Abby's been doing this job for ages, and Emily spent three years fighting creatures. You can't compare yourself to them. You don't have the same training or experience. Jess, you were never supposed to have to know how to shoot a gun, or make tactical decisions."
"No—I'm the one that everyone always has to look after. You heard Matt. 'Look after Jess'. But I don't want to be the one that everyone always has to look after. I don't want to have to be the one everyone else has to protect when the whole world is at stake."
Her blue eyes filled with tears, and she dashed them away impatiently as they fell.
"Don't you see? I don't want to hold you, or Matt, or Connor, or the rest of them back. I don't want to be a liability to the team."
Becker could feel a muscle twitching in his jaw, and he actually had to fight to unclench his hands from fists. He couldn't understand how she couldn't see what he saw, when he looked at her. He saw the girl who had rushed into Ethan's flat to disarm a bomb no matter how many times he'd begged her to leave before she got hurt. The girl who'd saved Lester's life from the predators, trapped and alone in the ARC, not knowing when—if ever—help would arrive. And she was angry with herself for not being Abby or Emily? It made no sense.
"Jess, you were hired to be our field co-ordinator. Not fight monsters. You were never supposed to have to fight the monsters."
"It doesn't matter. Because when it was time for me to pick up an EMD and do the job that needed doing... I couldn't."
"But you did! You saved Lester's life!"
"All I did was help get him out of there after he got clawed by one of them when it was after me. Becker, he jumped between me and it—he's the one who saved me."
"That's not what he told me. And it's not exactly much like Lester to actually give other people credit they don't deserve, is it? C'mon, Jess. Just think for a minute—"
"I have thought! God, Becker. All I could do while I was waiting to hear if you were dead, if we all were dead—all I did was think. All I could do was re-live those hours over and over again... and..."
This time when Becker reached for her, she didn't push him away.
"I don't know if I can stay at the ARC," she said against his chest, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "I just... I don't know."
Her voice was barely above a whisper, but Becker felt as if he'd had the wind knocked out of him. It was like being shot with an EMD. A heavy weight settled on his chest, and he felt as if his heart was gripped in a vice.
He ran his hand up and down her back, letting her cry, wishing there was something—anything—he could do to make her understand that no-one at the ARC thought less of her. Least of all him.
He pulled back and tipped her chin up so she would look him in the eye. Her eyes were still red-rimmed, and her nose was red. And she was still the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
"Look, promise me one thing, OK? Just promise me you won't make any life-changing decisions tonight. We've got three whole days to ourselves. Whatever you decide come Monday, we'll find a way to make it work. But for now, come back to bed?"
Jess took a deep breath, and nodded. Becker pulled her back into a hug, resting his chin on top her head, and closed his eyes, just content for the moment to hold her.
"If you say 'everything will look different in the morning'," she said, her voice only slightly muffled, "I will bite you."
"Promise?" he asked, and she laughed. It was a genuine laughed, too, which shook her entire body in his arms.
"You're incorrigible," she said as she finally stepped out of his embrace, lifting up the hem of the shirt to wipe at her cheeks.
"You're still wearing one of my shirts," he said with a shrug.
She tugged the shirt over her head and flung it away to land in a puddle of fabric on the floor, leaving her standing in the middle of his front room wearing nothing but a pair of pink striped knickers.
Once upon a time, Becker had thought his type was tall, curvy blondes. But the sight of Jess Parker, her slim hips and small, firm breasts lit by the amber glow of street lamps from behind the blinds awoke in him the desire to throw her over his shoulder, drag her off to the closest horizontal surface and have his merry way with her until neither of them could walk straight.
"Better?" she asked, a bit more like her old self, with a cheeky smile pulling at the corner of her lips.
His answer was to wrap his arms around her waist and lift her off her feet as he kissed her. He tasted salt on her lips before she opened them, tongue stroking his as her legs went round his hips reflexively. They almost didn't make it to the bedroom as there was a very inviting patch of bare wall opposite the door. Next time, Becker thought, giddy with the idea that there would most certainly be a next time. The thought made his head swim as he laid her down on the bedclothes and lowered his mouth to one puckered pink nipple.
She gasped as he circled it with his tongue before taking it into his mouth and sucking on it, gently at first, then harder as she gripped his shoulders. Her skin was warm now, growing warmer and he couldn't get enough of her. With his other hand, he kneaded her other breast, rolling the stiffened peak of her nipple between his thumb and forefinger while he flicked his tongue over the first.
He could feel her heart hammering in her chest, and couldn't resist trailing open-mouthed kisses up her neck to feel her pulse thrumming beneath his lips. The mark he'd left the night before had faded to a scattering of pink dots, and he grazed it lightly with his teeth.
Jess moaned, arching up into him, and he could feel how ready she was even though the loose pyjama trousers he wore. But Becker wanted to take his time, learn all the hollows and curves, catalogue all the gasps and moans he could draw from her lips with a touch here, a taste there.
Jess squirmed beneath him, and he pressed a kiss to her abdomen, the muscles beneath her flushed skin tightening beneath his lips. Slowly, he drew her panties down her thighs. She lifted her legs, resting one foot on his bicep as he peeled them off. He caught her foot, sliding his hand up her calf, kneading the muscles there before draping it over his shoulder and settling between her thighs.
"Do you like this?" he asked against the soft skin of her inner thigh. He could smell her excitement, feel her tensing and relaxing with each breath. She hummed her affirmative response, her heel digging into his shoulder blade as he blew a stream of warm air over her, her hips rising off the bed as he followed it with a swipe with the flat of his tongue.
Becker would never understand why some men hated going down on women. There was an almost instant rush that came with bringing a woman off with just his lips and tongue. The keening cries he drew from her throat sent a flood of heat through him, and it wasn't just the power trip of reducing any woman to a shaking, quivering mess. It was very much this specific woman; Jess Parker, with her ridiculous purple shoes and her ability to co-ordinate upwards of nine field teams at once, guiding them through the maze of narrow London streets with her sure hand and steady voice.
He wanted to make her wail. He wanted to make her lose any semblance of control, pleasure erasing any coherent thought in her head. He wanted her to feel instead of think, and he wanted her, full stop.
He closed his eyes, the image of her crouched on the floor of the Hub, an EMD clutched in her shaking fingers flashing behind his eyelids. He deliberately opened them, fixing his gaze on Jess' face now—her lips parted, eyelashes fluttering against her cheeks as she panted and writhed against the pillows, her hands fisted in the blankets, knuckles white.
Her eyes drifted open, blown pupils ringed with a halo of electric blue, and Becker met her gaze over the soft rise of her breasts. She reached for him, and he twined his fingers with hers before sucked hard on her clit before flicking it with the tip of his tongue until she arched her back, her thighs trembling and her cries rising in pitch until she collapsed, loose and trembling against the pillows.
There was something positively primal about seeing her in such a state and knowing he had done that to her. Maybe it was terribly alpha male of him. Maybe it was simply human, the need not to dominate but to give his partner pleasure and be able to see with his own eyes her satisfaction.
Either way, Becker was achingly hard and feeling ridiculously pleased with himself at the glazed expression on her face.
Jess tugged on his hand, drawing him up next to her so she could kiss him. Her co-ordination was a bit off, but he was hardly complaining. He smiled against her mouth as she licked his lips clean and then sucked hard on his bottom lip. His arms went around her waist as they rolled over so he was on his back and she was sprawled across him.
She slipped one hand inside the loosely-tied pyjamas, fingers curling around him. The sound he made was hardly dignified, but her eyes lit up with a wicked gleam in the gloom of his bedroom. His hips rose half-way off the bed, and Jess pulled the pyjama bottoms down, tossing them to the floor with only a little giggling and cursing as they got tangled around one foot. They were both laughing as she crawled back up to lie on her side beside him, and he splayed his fingers across her hip, thumb nestled in the crease of her thigh.
"Tell me what you like," Jess said as she carded her fingers through the mat of dark hair on his chest. Her nails glided over his nipples, following the trail of hair down to his hip and then back up again, teasing him.
In response, Becker ran his hands up and down her side, tracing her curves. "You."
She pinched him. "You're going to have to be a little more specific."
"You saying my name, along with the words 'yes', 'more', and 'harder'. And 'oh, God' is good. I like that."
Jess smacked his chest, and it only stung a little. "I'm serious!"
"And 'Oh my God, you're so big' is always—"
The rest of his response was muffled by the pillow with which Jess had just hit him in the face.
Becker tucked it behind his head, and pulled Jess down for a long, wet kiss. He groped along the bedside table for a condom and she snatched it from his fingers. He ran his tongue along his bottom lip as she slowly rolled in down his length before sinking down onto the head of his cock. He gripped her hips, adjusting the angle and was rewarded by a soft hiss of pleasure as she took his entire length inside her.
"Oh, Becker, you're so big," she said with breathy wide-eyed innocence, followed by a peal of laughter as he rolled them back over so she was on her back pinned beneath his weight.
"Now who's incorrigible?" he asked as he pulled halfway out of her tight, wet heat before thrusting back into her with a roll of his hips. She wrapped her legs around his waist, knees digging into his sides, and clenched around him, drawing a low moan and "God, Jess," from his lips.
Her fingers drifted over his shoulders, nails leaving half-moons on his back as she lifted her hips to meet each thrust. Becker braced himself on his forearms, tongue tracing the seam of her lips until she opened her mouth and allowed him access. She slid her tongue along his as he moved in and out of her slick folds, each thrust deeper than the last. He'd wanted to be gentle, careful with her, but her whispers against his mouth urged him on, no longer joking as she begged him to move faster, thrust harder and deeper.
Jess leaned up, licking the sweat from his jaw before pressing her lips to his ear. "I want you..." she said, breath coming in harsh gasps before she traced the shell of his ear with the tip of her tongue, "...to fuck me. I want you to fuck me into the mattress until I can't remember my own name, and then make me beg for more. Captain."
His vision went white at her words—word he had never expected to hear come from her mouth—and he pulled back just enough to find her lips blindly in the gloom, taking her bottom lip between his teeth. She hissed in pleasure, making a needy, whimpering sound against his mouth.
He trailed a hand down her sweat-slicked side to slide beneath her bum and lift her up into his lap as he rocked back on his heels so he was kneeling in the centre of the bed, her knees digging into his ribs. Her head lolled to one side as she ran her hands down his arms, circling his wrists loosely with her fingers, thumbs resting over the pulse beating on the inside of his wrists as he pulled out and thrust back into her, her body rocking backward with each thrust.
The wooden headboard thunked against the wall in time to his thrusts, and the feel of her tightening and fluttering around him made the blood pound in his ears. She released his wrists and slipped one small hand between where their bodies were joined, pressing down hard on her clit in sloppy circles as he rocked into her, her other hand coming up to cup one breast while the other shifted with each roll of his hips. He was faintly mesmerised by the movement, instinct older than time driving him into her harder and faster than he'd intended. Just the sight of her, lips bruised and red, hair plastered to her neck with sweat, blue eyes heavy-lidded and dazed made him speed up, wanting to hear her come again. Wanting to see her unravel just one more time.
Her back arched, mouth open in a silent cry as she came again, and he fucked her through her orgasm, his hips losing their rhythm as he followed her over the edge, sweat dripping down his neck and the small of his back. Becker gathered her up in his arms, pressing his face into her neck as she clung to him, shaking.
Outside his shuttered bedroom window, the sky was beginning to lighten from indigo to steel grey, and somewhere in the distance, he could hear a car alarm above the pulse hammering in his ears. Her harsh breaths, somewhere between sobs and sighs ruffled his hair. He stroked her back and flanks slowly and tenderly with callused fingers as they both came down from orgasm. When he could breath again he took her face in both hands and kissed her as he lowered them back down to the twisted sheets. He could still feel her twitching with aftershocks around him, and he rocked his hips against her lazily in tiny shuddery movements as he softened inside her.
"Right, so, dirty talk—very effective," she breathed as he pulled the pillow closer so she could wedge it beneath her head, and he managed a shaky laugh. "Good to know."
"You could have warned me," he grumbled good-naturedly as he reluctantly pulled out of her, flopping over onto his back and scrubbing his hands over his face.
She rolled over onto her side, her pointed chin digging into the hollow of his shoulder as she threw one leg over his. "What, and spoil all my fun?"
She pillowed her head on his bicep as he stared at the ceiling, chest rising and falling with uneven breaths.
"It was," she agreed, pressing a kiss to the underside of his chin.
With shaking fingers he pulled off the condom, tying it off and dropping it into the bin next to the bed. He was going to need to buy more condoms. Soon. And life insurance, and possibly a lot more tea, because Jess Parker was going to wear him out if he wasn't careful. He managed a half-strangled laugh at that thought, and she nudged his shoulder with her nose.
"I was just thinking that you're amazing. And have a filthy mouth. And wondering why the hell I didn't ask you out over a year ago."
"So why didn't you?" she asked, eyebrows disappearing into her damp fringe. Becker reached down to pull the sheet over them, and ran his fingers up and down her bare arm.
"Because, idiot that I am, I didn't want to get too close to anyone at the ARC," he said without thinking, and then almost bit his tongue. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"Yes, you did," she said softly, her cheek pressed against his chest. "But you were right about one thing."
She traced the curve of his bottom lip with the ball of her thumb, a ghost of a smile playing about her lips as she ran her fingers through his hair.
"Things definitely do look better in the morning."
She pressed another kiss to his chest and then snuggled into the crook of his arm and closed her eyes. Becker kept stroking her arm and shoulder as the world beyond slowly came alive with the sound of birdsong and traffic, and he didn't fall asleep again until the first rays of the sun left pink-gold stripes of light across the bedroom wall.