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Author's Note: Set during "Prince and the Revoluion." Big big BIG thanks to Yahtzee and LizK for betas!
The Art of War
by Tara O'Shea
Diane balanced the bag of groceries carefully as she fumbled in her coat pocket for her keys. Her mail was clutched in her mouth as she fitted the key into the lock, turning the deadbolt and shoving the door open with her hip. Humming to herself, she dropped the keys in the glass candy dish on the side table, flipping on the hall light with her elbow.
Diane let out a short yelp of surprise and dropped the bag of groceries as the light from the hall slipped into the living room, revealing Lou and Kyle sitting on her couch.
"I hope there weren't any eggs in there," Kyle said dryly. Diane just stood there, hand pressed to her chest as if that would keep her heart from pounding right out of her ribcage from shock.
"Dr. Hughes, we need to talk," Lou said, all business. It was as if the Deputy Director of Special Operations was in the middle of Sat Ops, and not perched on the edge of Diane's sofa amidst stacks of medical journals and unsorted mail. She simply commanded through sheer presence, unfazed by the clutter surrounding her.
"Any reason why you broke into my apartment, instead of picking up a phone—"
"It's about Jake." Lou said, and Diane felt as if someone had just punched her in the stomach.
"What? Is he okay? What—"
"He's fine," Kyle assured her quickly. "For now."
"What do you mean, for now?"
"I found a listening device in my office tonight. Correction: I found one of our listening devices in my office today." Lou's gaze was unwavering. "I disabled it, but there could be another one tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. That's why we're here. We have reason to believe both my office and the lab are no longer secure."
"But that's crazy! She's your boss..."
"Ever since Jake was infected with the nanites, Director Warner has shown an uncommon interest in the project. Specifically, we think that should it fail, Jake would be at risk. From his own government."
"I think I need to sit down." Diane sank into the chair opposite the couch, feeling as if her knees were water. She felt like she was in the middle of some summer blockbuster movie. Like Will Smith or Tom Cruise would suddenly appear, on the run from the sort of stereotypical Men In Black she always made fun of when they popped up on-screen. This didn't happen in real life. In real life, your boss did not get spied on by her boss. Even when your boss was a spy. That wasn't real life. That was fiction.
"Are you saying they might... that they'd do something to him?" She reached up to toy with the amber pendant around her neck. It was a nervous habit since childhood, but she couldn't help herself. What had started like faint dread cold in the pit of her stomach was rapidly building to sheer panic.
"I'm saying that if she can't control Jake, he might just disappear. And there's nothing we can do to stop it."
"Diane—listen to me," Kyle said gently but firmly. "We don't know what might happen. But I know someone who can help Jake disappear before Warner and her goons could get a hold of him."
"Disappear?" she repeated, hating how small her voice sounded. Hating how small and helpless she felt.
"He'd get a new identity—a new life," Lou continued, her dark eyes locked on Diane's, as if she was gauging her reaction. "Untraceable."
Kyle reached out to touch her shoulder and she looked up into his face, biting her lip to keep it from quivering. "He'd be safe, Diane."
"But—but what if something went wrong? What if the nanites—he'd be out there with no medical—"
"Based on all your research thus far, what do you truly believe are the risks of the nanites failing again?"
Diane felt all the blood drain from her face. "Again...?" she echoed.
"I know all about Seattle," Lou said, and Diane swallowed. She and Fran were going to have to have a long talk in the morning. "Have there been any indications since then that Jake might reject the nanites again?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Then in your professional opinion, do you truly believe Jake would be more at risk out there, alone? Or in Warner's hands?"
"No—you're right. I guess... Um. You're right." Diane dropped the pendant she was tapping against her sternum, trying to still her nervous fingers. Her gaze went from Lou to Kyle, and then back again. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because we need your help," Kyle said sympathetically. "Jake's closer to you than anyone else on this project—he listens to you. He trusts you."
"For this to work, you'd need to put your personal feelings aside." Lou's hard edges seemed to melt a bit. "Help us talk to him. Help us make him understand."
"The sooner the better. We don't know how long Warner's had us under surveillance. Sooner or later, one of us would slip. It has to be soon. Now. And for this to work, we'd have to present a united front. For Jake's own sake. Do you think you can do that?"
They both looked at her expectantly, and she found herself nodding even though her every instinct was to tell them all to go to hell, and she'd take her chances. But they weren't her chances—they were Jake's. And if they were right, she wouldn't be able to live with herself.
"I don't have much of a choice, do I?"
The clock radio read 2:32 a.m. and Diane was dreading it going off in barely four hours.
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, tried to count her breaths as she inhaled and exhaled slowly. Tried to relax from the top of her head to her toes—talk herself into sleep. But there was no chance. She was awake, and she had been ever since her head had hit the pillow four hours earlier.
She hadn't lied to Lou, exactly. She was worried that something like Seattle could happen again, and she was petrified that if it did, Jake would be completely defenceless. The nanites were unpredictable, and she was only just now, after six months, really starting to get a handle on the work to the point where not only did she know everything Dr. Gage had known, but she was starting to see how to improve upon it. New directions, new possibilities, new avenues. What had started as his project was hers, now. It would have been years—if ever—before the government would have been able to reach the point of human trials. Jake's accident had brought her research further faster than she'd ever imagined.
But they were still so far from knowing what the prolonged effects of the nanites would be. So far, the nanites seemed to be repairing any damage his cells sustained—either through using his new abilities, or injuries on the job. He hadn't even gotten so much as a head cold since being "infected." But there were still risks.
His adrenal glands could give out, from over-producing the hormones that boosted his natural abilities. He could be stricken with Addison's Disease and require massive amounts of hydrocortisone. His muscles—even his heart—could fail from the strain. He could suffer from stress fractures, torn ligaments and tendons, deteriorating cartilage. Dozens of what-ifs and could-bes that haunted her as she listened to the traffic sounds outside her window.
Going from lab mice to human trials meant that she didn't know how valid her data would be in the coming months or even years. Only three mice in the lab had the same "generation" of nanites Jake had been infected with. Antonio—who had been injected the morning of Jake's accident—had already died. Maria had never shown any complications, and aside from some initial heart palpitations immediately after synthesis, neither had Enzo. But the mice hadn't lived through half of the situations Jake had–hadn't been under the same physiological stresses and undergone the same extremes. It wasn't like the NSA was really going to allow her to set off an EMP just to test how two lab mice survived or didn't survive in close proximity. Ditto Varcon gas, five storey jumps, and rocket propelled grenades.
She had no map. She had no plan. She had been playing it by ear from the moment she had run into Jake in the elevator, and rushed back to her lab to go over the security camera footage. All of her worst fears could be givens—it was simply too soon to be able to tell. The fact that he'd survived this long was a medical miracle.
The idea of him out there, alone, without medical care he might need terrified her. But as three a.m. stretched towards four, all she could think was he'll be gone forever. I'll never see him again.
Diane fought to keep the sheaf of papers in her hands from rustling as she read from the prepared script. "Ah, so—who had the turkey and Swiss?"
"That's me," Kyle said, and she marvelled at how relaxed he sounded as Jake circled the lab, using his extended senses to sweep the room for listening devices.
"And Deputy Director Beckett? What—what did you order?"
"Vegetable soup. Green salad. Brown rice."
"Now we know how she keeps her girlish figure," Jake said absently, his eyes still fixed on the banks of servers.
Diane laughed nervously, inwardly cringing at how fake it sounded even to her ears. "Oh! And here's my—my pepperoni pizza with anchovies and artichokes," she stumbled slightly over the text, "the two A's that make a meal worth having."
She smiled at her improvisation, but Lou and Kyle were watching Jake expectantly. She turned and saw him staring past her towards the panel next to the cabinet where she kept the med-kit and other supplies.
"Mmm. Dig in, guys," she said, her heart pounding in her ears.
Jake motioned for them to stretch, and Diane felt panic begin to well up as she tried desperately to think of what to say to fill the unscripted silence. Finally, she went with sounds of pleasure, as if she was actually digging into a tasty lunch. In reality, she hadn't even been able to manage breakfast that morning, her stomach in knots from tension when Lou had told her she would have such a large part to play in this afternoon's little farce.
The sickly-sweet smell of burning circuitry filled her nostrils as smoke trickled out of the vents of a wall panel, and Jake murmured, "We're clear."
Diane immediately felt a surge of anger, which she squashed as best she could.
Her lab was bugged.
Every comment she had made that was personal, private, petty, cruel, silly, frivolous—anything she had said or done for who knew how long had been monitored by some drone in a suit in a darkened room somewhere.
This lab was her sanctuary, and now she felt dirty, as if she'd been violated. Diane let her chin drop to her chest and took a deep breath as the smoke dissipated, sucked away by the fans set into the ceiling.
"The two A's that make a meal worth having?" Kyle said, eyebrow raised.
"I'm not a spy, okay?" Diane said in her defence. "You guys are the spies."
"I thought this war was with our enemies out there. Not our superiors in here."
"Well, get used to it," Lou said bluntly. "There are factions upstairs who don't want to see us succeed. They're threatened by things they can't control, and they can't control you."
When Jake looked to her, slightly confused, Diane broke his gaze, fiddling with the rings on her right hand nervously.
"Lou, Diane and I had a talk."
"What, you're voting me off the island?" Jake chuckled, his eyes flicking to Diane's, but then his smile faded as he took in her grave expression.
"No, but we can have lives after this program," Kyle explained. "We can move on. You, on the other hand, are the program. If it shuts down, Jake...." Kyle trailed off,
"What? They're going to put me in a cage five miles underneath the Rocky Mountains?" Jake was trying to keep his tone light, but Diane flinched anyway. "Oh, God," he said softly as he realised that might be exactly where he would end up, if Warner and her cronies had their way.
"I have a contact, an identity specialist. He creates new lives for people and erases the old ones. He operates outside normal channels. Now, what he does is neither legal nor cheap. But he owes me. Big time."
Diane watched Jake's face as he took in what Kyle was telling him. She could almost read his mind. He would never see his family again. He would never be able to call himself by his real name, couldn't risk being found out. Even with a new life, he'd always be looking over his shoulder.
He looked the way she felt. Numb.
"If you want it," Diane forced herself to say, "there's a way out of this war."
Jake looked at her, and she hoped he couldn't tell how fast her heart was beating. Or if he could, maybe he'd just chalk it up to nerves.
"I need to get back to Sat Ops." Lou touched Jake's shoulder on her way to the door. "Think about what we've said?"
Jake nodded, and Kyle clapped him on the shoulder before following Lou out.
He looked at her, and she dropped the printout of the script into the shredder.
"I so suck at this whole spy thing," she muttered as the papers emerged the other end as confetti.
"Yeah—you and me both," Jake said, his eyes straying to the vent where he'd found the bug.
"I didn't mean—"
"It's okay. I guess I'm just a bit spun."
Diane swallowed. This was it—her big chance to do what was right for the team. Lou and Kyle were counting on her.
"Jake, this isn't what you signed up for. You just wanted to serve your country, not become a lab rat. I mean, whatever you decide... if you need to talk, I'm here for you."
"Thanks, Diane." He gave her a half-hearted smile, and headed off in Kyle's wake.
"Any time," she said to the empty lab.
Diane woke to the cordless phone ringing next to her head. She sat up, confused until she realised she'd fallen asleep on the couch, her dinner sitting cold in front of her on the coffee table. The VCR clock was a smear of blue without her glasses, which were sitting on the kitchen counter.
"H'lo?" she mumbled into the phone, heel of one hand pressed to her eye sleepily. She'd pulled the throw off the back of the couch half over her, and it fell to the floor as she sat up.
"Diane, honey? Are you all right?"
"You sound tired." Diane could see her mother's expression over the phone lines. Her lips would be pursed, her eyes would be narrowed, frown lines between her pencilled in brows. Her mother's expression of disapproval was something she'd gotten used to over the last twenty years. Calling it up took no effort at all. "Were you sleeping? Did I wake you?"
"I was just taking a nap," she assured her quickly, padding in her socks over to the kitchen. "I had to get up anyway—don't worry about it."
The box of the frozen dinner she'd nuked and then neglected to eat was still sitting on the counter, and the dishes she'd washed when she'd gotten home that evening were dry in the wire rack next to the double-sink. Her glasses, which she'd removed after they had steamed up from the scalding hot water she'd used to wash the handful of mugs and plates, were sitting next to the sink. She slipped them on, and cringed when she read the wall clock. She'd passed out three hours earlier, and she knew instinctively it would be hell trying to get back to sleep tonight, even as exhausted as she felt. "Mom, it's after 9pm. How come you're still up?"
"I'm watching CSI. That Gil reminds me of your father."
"Mom, Dad doesn't look anything like William Peterson."
"Who's William Peterson?"
"The actor who plays—never mind."
"Sweetie, I emailed you four times today, and you never replied. That's not like you. I'm worried about you."
"Mom, I just talked to you on Sunday. We talked about this. You can go seven whole days without hearing from me before you call out the National Guard."
"You usually at least answer your email—"
"I told you, work has been crazy."
"The work you can't tell me about?"
Diane sighed and then wished she hadn't as she could almost see her mother's frown deepening. "Mom, you know I can't. They had me sign a stack of papers a mile high—"
"You're not like that girl on the TV, are you?"
"Which girl on the TV, Mom?"
"The one whose hair is always different, who's always running."
"Mom, I thought you said you weren't going to watch Alias again. That it was too violent."
"I like that Victor Garber. I saw him in Charley's Aunt."
She wandered back out into the living room, and scowled at the cold veggie lasagne congealing in its plastic tray on her coffee table. She'd been hungry when she'd made it hours ago, but now it seemed the least appetising thing in the world. She carried it to the trash, pulling the bag out and setting it next to the back door to take out on her way to work in the morning.
"What did you email me about?" she asked as she crouched down to get a fresh bin liner from the box under her sink.
"Oh—just some things. They're not important."
"Mom, don't be that way." Diane paused in the act of replacing the bag and leaned against the kitchen counter, rubbing at the bridge of her nose as she felt a headache forming. "I'm sorry about the email—I'll read it in the morning."
"Is it work? Are they working you too hard?" Her mother was always convinced that Diane was being taken advantage of, and she and her father had both suggested that she would be making much better money—with shorter hours—in the private sector. Diane had bitten her tongue more times than she could count, to keep herself from pointing out that no one in the country—possibly the world—was doing the kind of research she was doing.
"That's not it. There's just some stuff that's going on with this guy I work with—"
"Are you dating?"
"What? No!" Even to Diane's ears, her reaction sounded shrill, and she cringed. "No, Mom, it's not like that. He's just someone I work with—I can't really talk about it."
There was a long pause, and she could hear a car commercial on in the background as she pictured as clearly as if she were standing in her parent's bedroom her mother's hand straying to the framed photo of her sister's family she kept on the bedside table. Touching the glass as if she could magically will more grandchildren into existence. Make a husband and a house in the suburbs and two kids and a dog pop into Diane's life so that she would understand her strange youngest child who had always confounded her.
"Are you seeing anyone?"
"Not since Sunday, when you asked me the last time," Diane snapped, unable to keep the frustration out of her voice.
"You don't need to get snippy."
"I'm not being snippy," Diane said wearily.
"You're just grouchy because I woke you up." Her mother's voice was inexplicably cheerful, as if she'd solved some puzzle and was pleased with herself. "You should get into your jammies and get a good night's sleep."
Great. Now I'm eight years old again, Diane thought sourly.
"That's a good idea, Mom," she forced herself to reply without snark. "I'll do that."
"I emailed you about Charlie's Christening. You'll read it, won't you?"
"I promise. Tomorrow."
"You're not just saying that to get me off the phone?"
"Aren't you missing your show?" Diane changed the subject.
"It's at commercial. They show a hundred commercials, and they keep breaking in to talk about that thing in Kembu. You think they could just wait until the news comes on, instead of interrupting the programme—it's only half an hour."
Diane dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand, to keep from saying anything that could get her fired. Or possibly killed.
"Oh! My show's back on," her mother exclaimed. "I love you, sweetie. Get some sleep."
"Love you too, Mom."
"I'll talk to you this week-end."
Diane turned off the phone, and thought about flinging it across the room. Instead, she set it in its cradle to charge.
Her mother meant well—she knew that. But the last thing she needed right now was parental guilt. She stared at the phone, trying to think if she could really come up with a genuinely good reason for calling Jake's cell. Especially after her little scene in Sat Ops that afternoon. Lou had been on the verge of throwing her out—and Diane was still amazed that she'd been able to stand up for herself for the brief second she had, before the Deputy Director's withering stare.
Jake was on a mission. She knew that. A dangerous mission, which was another reason her stomach was in knots and she didn't think she'd be able to sleep. Usually, nights like this, she'd stay late in the lab working to try and keep her mind off it. But she'd been so exhausted from her sleepless night, even Fran and the other lab techs had noticed. She'd allowed her research assistant to shoo her out of the lab at barely quitting time.
Grabbing the phone, she dialled a string of numbers, listening for the chirp that would let her know the line was secure, and asked the Operator to be put through to Sat Ops.
"Agent Carver," a woman's voice answered on the other end of the line.
"Hey, Susan. It's Diane. Has Jake checked in?"
"About half an hour ago."
"Is anything—is anything going on?"
"Aside from catching the prince in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend?"
"Oh. Oh no!" Diane stifled a giggle. "You're kidding!"
"Yeah. Busted in, guns blazing and everything. Wilson just about lost it. But the perimeter's secure—no sign of Baako's people."
"I just thought... You know, make sure everything's going okay."
"We're going over the data he transmitted from the prince's PDA, and still running student visas. Looks like a quiet night, though. Are you in the lab?"
"No—I'm at home." Diane could feel her cheeks starting to burn with an unwanted flush. She felt so foolish. "Just checking in myself, I guess."
"Hang on, Agent Duarte wants to talk to you—"
"That's okay—" Diane said quickly, but she was too late.
"Diane?" Kyle's voice came over the speaker. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, no, I was just calling in, to make sure—to see how Jake was doing. I'm sorry to bother you."
"No bother. Carver fill you in?"
"Yeah. I guess I just, um—you know, I hadn't heard from him, so..."
"He's on a mission, Diane."
"I know. I know. I just wanted to touch base, I guess."
"Get some sleep, Doctor. That's an order."
"Yes, sir," she saluted even though he couldn't see her, and hung up, chewing on her bottom lip. She fished her cell phone out of her purse, but she had no voicemail. Her hand hovered over the keypad, fingers itching to dial Jake's number. Instead, she replaced the mobile phone in her purse, zipping it shut for good measure.
"You look like death warmed over," Fran said as Diane slid into her chair, balancing a muffin on top of her coffee cup. "Rough night?"
"I didn't get much sleep last night," she said with a shrug, then muttered, "Or the night before."
"Not the good kind of not sleeping, I'm guessing?" Fran asked, sympathetic.
Diane laughed. "There's a good kind?"
Fran gave her a look.
"Oh." Diane blushed, and shook her head. "No."
Fran had been there for the entire Steve saga—from the first regress-to-seventh-grade excitement of relaying how they'd met at the sexual harassment seminar, to the period of sheer panic over whether or not Clemens bosses would send other kidnappers after her. If there was anyone in the office who would be her confidante when it came to her sex life or lack thereof, it would most likely be Fran. But that didn't make it any easier, since she couldn't exactly explain to Fran why she hadn't slept in days.
"So I take it Jake's still out in the field?" she asked, gesturing to the empty lab with her coffee cup.
"Yeah—yeah, he's still at the university."
"I figured. Usually, by the time I get here, you two are already at it."
"At it?" Diane asked, mystified.
"You know—doing the whole treadmill thing. Sometimes there's doughnuts. I like it when there's doughnuts." She looked wistful, and Diane swallowed a laugh. "And you're always happier when you get your fix."
"Your Jake fix," she elaborated.
"C'mon. This is me you're talking to. You're always a wreck when he's out on assignment. They—" she pointed towards the door, and Diane took it to mean she meant Lou and Kyle, "—don't always see it."
Diane decided it was easier to let Fran believe she was just worried about Jake's current assignment. "I just worry."
"It's just a bodyguard gig, right?"
"He's got nanites; he's not bullet-proof."
"Is that all that's bothering you?"
"Wha—what do you mean?"
"Look, there's job stress, and then there's job stress. You just seem a little more," she made flappy hands of dismay, "than usual, this week."
"It's nothing." Diane waved her friend's concern away with a smile that felt cheesy and fake. "Don't worry about it."
"If you say so, boss."
Diane was alone in the lab, sitting at her desk with the lights dimmed, when there was a light knock on the glass partition. She looked up to see Jake back-lit by the hall lights. Even in the dimness, she could see the crestfallen expression he wore.
"They pulled the security detail on Malik."
"I talked to Warner. She said... It doesn't matter what she said. Ethics—politics. None of it matters."
"He shook my hand, Diane. He thanked me, knowing he's a dead man. Knowing my government totally hung him out to dry. He's just a kid. Jesus, he's barely older than Jerry."
He began to pace, every line of his body screaming tension and anger. She hadn't seen him like this in a while. Not since he'd thought Theresa Carano's father had been killed because of the intel he'd provided. That had been a sham; this was much, much worse.
"I mean, first I had to tell him that his father was dead, and he was just so stoic. A guy had just tried to kill him—I would be a wreck. Jerry would be—but Malik, he just... he didn't even shed a tear. Just stood there, with this look on his face. God, Diane. You should have seen his face."
I don't have to, she thought. I can see yours.
His idealism was one of the things that was just such a breath of fresh air in this place. The sheer joy he usually took in his work was infectious, and she hated seeing him lose hope. Be beaten down by Warner and her ilk. But that idealism was eating him up from the inside out. She could see it a little more every day, as he learned their job wasn't always about justice or the right thing, but what was right for National Security. What served their government's best interests. It didn't always come down to right and wrong the way it did in the movies or comic books. Reality had a lot more shades of grey—and was a lot more harsh and cruel.
"Jake, I'm so sorry," she said, reaching out to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Is there anything—I mean, anything I can do? To help?"
"I think I need a drink." He took a seat at the counter, shoulders slumped in defeat. "I think I need a lot of drinks."
"If you promise not to tell anyone..." Diane began, crossing to the small fridge set beneath the counter. The bottle had been a gag gift from Fran. Diane had put it in the fridge and then completely forgotten about it.
"It's for medicinal purposes," she tried to joke, but it fell flat.
"The people who run this place—Skerrit, Warner, they don't even consider Malik a human being anymore. He's a loose end." Jake's voice was tinged with a bitterness she had never heard in him before.
Part of her wanted to reassure him—tell him it would all be okay. All work out somehow. But she was too tired to lie—and she wasn't sure offering him false hope would help.
"Yeah, well, that's how they look at the world." She unscrewed the cap, and poured a shot into one of the two small beakers she'd gotten out of the cupboard and handed him a drink. "Not going to change."
"You didn't think it would, did you?" she asked as she poured herself a double. He stared at her, dark eyes almost black in the dim light, the brown irises almost swallowed up by his pupils.
"Yeah," he breathed. "Yeah, I guess I did. Go figure."
They clinked glasses, forgoing a toast. The liquor burned her throat as she sipped it. She didn't care.
"I just, uh..." she trailed off.
"What?" he prompted softly.
"I just think you need to make peace with it, because at the end of the day, there's nothing you can do about it." She hated the cynicism in her own voice, hated seeing him so lost and so alone.
But she kept thinking that maybe, somehow, if he could just accept the ruthlessness of the business they were in, learn to see it as an ugly but necessary part of their world—then maybe he would have a better shot at surviving as an agent.
"I don't know if I can do this anymore, Diane," he said softly. Her heart broke for him, and she blinked rapidly, her eyes burning slightly with unshed tears that she prayed he couldn't see in the dim light.
More than anything, she wanted to beg him to stay. She knew it was selfish, and petty, but she wanted him to stay so desperately. Lou's admonition to put her personal feelings aside rang in her ears, and she put on a brave face, trying her best to seem completely sincere and supportive.
"Jake, if, uh, you know... if you decide that this life isn't for you, and..." Her breath hitched in her throat, but she pushed onward. "And if I come here tomorrow and you're not here, I just ... I want you to know that I would understand."
She forced herself to smile, even thought all she really wanted to do right now was cry.
"And I'd really, really miss you."
Jake gave her a wan smile, and ran his finger along the edge of the beaker.
"I'd, um... I'd really miss you too." She knew he was sincere, but there was still an elephant in the room that neither of them were ready to acknowledge.
"The last six months, you've been... You've been really great. I mean that. Not just as my doctor. You've been a really great friend."
He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze, and her vision blurred from sudden tears. She downed the rest of her drink, and reached for the bottle to pour herself another.
"I should—I should really go. Still on duty, and all."
"Thanks—for the drink, for listening..." he trailed off. "For everything."
"Any time," she whispered, and he folded her into a hug, resting his chin on top of her head.
She hugged back, desperately hoping that this wasn't the good-bye it felt like. And knowing, in the pit of her stomach, that it was.
For the second night in a row, Diane was lying awake in bed, unable to sleep.
There had, of course, been life before Jake.
Three years at the NSA, working alongside a boss who at best treated her like an underling and at worst, some sorority girl he'd been saddled with who was deserving of every verbal insult he could muster. She remembered when she'd first been recruited, while still working at her doctorate in molecular biology and nanotech at MIT. She just remembered men and women in crisp suits with passion in their eyes as they explained to her how the NSA had the largest research budget of any branch of the government—over $300 million a year, just in DoD funds earmarked for research. Everything that followed after that was a blur of smiles and handshakes and a stack of legal forms three inches thick, swearing her to silence in order to secure her clearance. She hadn't even met Dr. Gage until she'd moved to Alexandria. She'd known who he was, of course. She'd read his work, studied it. She'd been beside herself with excitement that had quickly cooled upon actually discovering he was a sexist jerk who left three-day old mugs of coffee all over his lab, treated his research assistants like slaves, and chewed the ends of pencils like a ten year old.
And then there was the fact that working in the Research & Development sector of the NSA meant she really couldn't quite have the kind of social life her peers had. When she attended conferences, she wasn't allowed to even disclose which branch of the government she worked for. When her friends and family asked her what she did for a living, all she could say was "research."
But the research... the research was worth it. The idea that there even was Biomedical Research being done that wasn't constrained by the need for ASBREM Committee approval would have horrified or terrified some of her more idealistic (and naïve) classmates from med school. But she hadn't cared. Gage's project had gone far outside the merely theoretical, into practical applications that amazed and astounded her. She'd always assumed while she'd been working on her doctorate they were at least decade away from functioning "nano-assemblers." It seemed practically science fiction. Yet her first two months on the project, she'd learned Gage was two years into trials with mice and rabbits.
She'd met the army of programmers whose job it was to write the code which actually told the assemblers how to construct the nanites—and she'd spent the first two years working on simply how to get the code to be transmitted to the microscopic little buggers intact. The challenge had kept her enthralled to the point where her complete and utter lack of a social life outside of work had really ceased to bother her. While other young women her age were dating, falling in love, getting married and starting families, Diane had been up to her eyebrows in the kind of biomedical research that was going to hugely benefit all of mankind. That fact alone had kept her warm at night for a good long while.
But it wasn't quite feeling like enough, the last six months.
As she lay awake in bed that night, listening to traffic sounds outside her windows and watching the shadows cast on her wall by the streetlamps and the trees rustling in the fall breeze, she kept trying to picture what her life would be like without Jake Foley.
No anticipation of his arrival in the mornings for his work-ups, sometimes bearing coffee and bagels from the Dunkin Donuts on the corner across from his apartment, still hot despite the 40 mile commute. No idle chatter as she checked his vitals, or he changed from his button-down shirt into sweats for his work-out, making fun of the late night talk show guests they'd watched the night before in their separate apartments, or catching up on the office gossip of who in Sat Ops was pissed off with whom this week, or who had nailed which bad guy thanks to ECHELON chatter or discovering an heretofore undiscovered encryption key.
No sharing lunch in the canteen, stealing off each other's plates, Jake almost always mocking her obsession with trying to make the perfect salad from a salad bar which had only fake bacon bits and iceberg lettuce. Or her ribbing him about his all-junk-food diet which seemed to consist mainly of burgers, burritos, and pizza, while not so secretly envious of his nanite-enhanced metabolism.
No more Boggle or Scrabble after work, and fighting over whether or not words in Klingon or Elvish would be allowed to count towards the final score. No week-end DVD marathons of old black and white movies she adored, or cheesy sci-fi epics he was always making her sit through. No more late-night phone calls while he was out on a mission, and she was catching up on paperwork in her lab.
No more pretending his X-Box or Playstation addiction was all a part of his training.
No more emailing each other silly chain letters.
She rolled over onto her side, tugging her pillow into a different shape and burying her face in the cotton pillowcase as if that would somehow make sleep come sooner when she knew it wouldn't. She closed her eyes against the tears that suddenly burned behind her eyelids.
No more Jake.
She'd known the lab would be empty when she arrived.
It wasn't unusually for Diane to have already been there, working for hours, before Jake showed up for their regularly scheduled appointment. She usually arrived sometime between six and seven, so she could get an early start before the day got started for everyone else. Fran joked that she shouldn't bother paying rent on her place, since all she ever did was sleep there—and it wouldn't have surprised her one bit if Diane set up a cot in the lab one of these days. Especially considering all the late nights she put in.
She'd know the lab would be empty—but that hadn't stopped her from having visions the entire drive from Alexandria to Ft. Meade of her arriving and finding Jake there waiting for her. That she'd turn the corner and see his dark head bent over the desk, just like always.
Her Jake fix, Fran had called it. And Diane was beginning to admit that her assistant wasn't far off.
As she rounded the corner, there was a tightness in her chest as if she was gripped by hands that were slowly crushing her. She'd known he wouldn't be there—but she had still hoped.
At the sight of the empty lab, the breath she'd been holding came out in a strangled sigh. She hung her jacket up, and slipped on her lab coat. The beakers from last night's "binge" were washed and sitting on the counter. She put them away, then settled into her chair to check her email.
Six messages from her mother from the last two days—she'd promised to read them, but couldn't bring herself to click on them. She had a staff meeting that afternoon, and there were several requests for sign-off on new supplies and equipment.
She stared at the screen, seeing but not really absorbing what was in front of her, and then gave up.
Diane was almost breathless when she reached Sat Ops. Lou and Kyle were in front of Carver's station, the deputy director's back to her as she approached.
"Lou... hey." Diane tried to sound casual as Lou and Kyle closed the files they'd been reading. Lou kept her face blank. "I-I thought that I—I would find Jake here?"
Lou's eyes drifted up to the catwalk, where Skerrit and Warner perched like Huginn and Muninn, grimly watching the tech ops bustling across the crowded floor as they went about their jobs.
"Maybe?" Diane's voice was barely above a whisper.
"You won't," Kyle said as Lou turned away from Diane, casting her eyes to the big board.
It was a dismissal even Diane could understand.
A lump in her throat that threatened to turn to tears, Diane headed towards the door. It slid open just as she approached and she gasped as Jake stepped through it.
"Jake." Her voice was barely above a whisper, and he stopped just short of barrelling right into her. "Hi. You're..." here, she almost said, but stopped herself in time, "late. For your morning work-up."
The tears that had threatened just seconds ago now were on the verge of becoming tears of joy, like she was in a long distance commercial or some other suitably sappy situation. But she couldn't help grinning. Her heart felt like it was going to burst. Sappy or not, that was exactly what it felt like. Her head spun from the sudden reversal—from abject sorrow to a joy so intense it felt like she might shatter.
For his part, Jake reached out and gave her shoulder a squeeze, his eyes shining with what she recognised as hope. He was a completely different person than the Jake Foley who had exited her lab the night before. Something had changed, and she wasn't sure what it was—but whatever it was, she was so glad of it it was almost painful.
"Director Beckett, Agent Duarte," Carver said, and Jake's eyes slid past Diane's, over to Carver's station. "There's something you need to see."
Jake gave Diane's shoulder a quick squeeze before he went over to join Kyle and Lou. She trailed after him, just as Carver put the morning news up on the Big Board.
"In another tragedy for the royal family of Kembu, Prince Malik, last remaining heir to the throne, was killed in a car bombing early this morning. Also killed, an unnamed female companion..."
Diane glanced at Jake, expecting him to be completely shattered. But rather than grief, what she saw was something different. As the newscaster continued, citing the fact that the State Department had opened negotiations with the new regime, it all clicked. Diane's mouth dropped open in shock when she realised that was what was giving Jake hope.
He'd traded his future. Given it to the prince and his girlfriend.
"Why don't we take a walk?" Kyle said quietly to Jake, and Diane followed Lou's gaze to the catwalk where Skerrit had his head bent towards Warner's, their voices too low to carry.
Kyle left, Jake in tow behind him.
"Dr. Hughes?" Lou said, her eyes never leaving the little drama unfolding on the catwalk.
"Shouldn't you be in the lab?"
This time the dismissal didn't feel as crushing, and Diane practically skipped out of Sat Ops.
Diane could hardly concentrate on her work, and when Jake finally appeared in the lab late that evening, she stood up from her desk so quickly her chair rolled backwards almost two feet. Jake's eyes scanned the room-she didn't need the JMD to tell that he was sweeping for bugs—and he nodded, giving her the all clear.
She threw herself at him, hugging him so tight his breath rushed out with an "oooof."
"God, you have no idea what it was like, seeing you walk through that door this morning," she said, her voice slightly muffled by the fact that her face was buried in his chest, "I thought I'd never see you again."
"Yeah, well—you're stuck with me now, 'cause I gave away my 'get out of jail free' card." She could feel his chuckle more than hear it.
"Don't—don't laugh. Don't laugh about it." Her eyes burned with tears. "Don't even."
"It's okay, Diane—I'm not going anywhere. At least, not for a while."
"Are you okay?" he asked as she released him, glancing over his shoulder at the hallway beyond the clear glass doors to make sure no one had happened by to see her little emotional display.
"Yeah." She dashed away tears impatiently. "Yeah, I just, ah... yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean to pounce."
"You can pounce anytime," he said gently, fishing a Kleenex out of his pocket and handing it to her. "I'm resilient. I can take it."
She wiped at her eyes, smudging her glasses in the process. "So, um... how..."
"How'd my day go?" Jake finished for her. "Pretty good. I went to a wedding."
"Yeah. No fear of public speaking this time—it was pretty quiet. But I think it ranks right up there—better than the last one I went to, even, except for the part where this time, I didn't get to dance with a pretty girl or anything," he added with a wink, and was rewarded with a smile from Diane.
"Do you—do you wanna get out of here? Grab some dinner? Malik took me to a great Moroccan place near campus that I think you'd really like."
"That sounds perfect," she said as she shrugged off her lab coat and grabbed her jacket off the hangar.
"I know it didn't work out the way you'd planned," Diane said as Jake set the Styrofoam container containing the last of the lamb and couscous on her coffee table, "but what you did for Malik and Anna... That was really amazing."
Jake's smile was rueful. "Yeah, well, it woulda been more amazing if it had worked a little better."
"Hey—look at it this way." She raised a brow. "How many agents can say they're on a first name basis with a king and queen?"
"True," Jake admitted which a chuckle, and then grew serious again. "Assuming Malik's able to reclaim his throne."
"He wouldn't be able to do anything if he was dead," Diane reminded him. "You saved his life, Jake."
"I just wish I could have done more."
"You did a lot more than most people would have. And for what it's worth—I know it's scary, knowing that you could end up... you know, five miles underground in a mountain in Colorado." She pushed her glasses back up on her nose, tucking one leg beneath her and turning sideways on the couch to face him. "I mean, knowing that, you still tried to help him. It was just a really good thing. You are one of the good guys. Even if it doesn't feel like it all the time."
"Yeah." He flushed, staring down at his scuffed sneakers. "I'm one of the good guys."
He smiled crookedly, bringing his gaze back to hers.
"You'd come visit me, if they stuck me in Cheyenne Mountain down with the Stargate project, right?"
She smiled and gave his hand a squeeze. "They'd have to keep me out with Uzis."
He looked down at their clasped hands. "Can I ask a question?"
"Sure. I mean, always."
"Yesterday, and the day before—you seemed... okay with me going. I mean, you weren't exactly shoving me out the door or anything—"
She cringed. "That was yesterday. Today's different."
"What's different about today?" he asked, curious. She took a few seconds before replying.
"Jake—whatever you choose, it's your choice. I don't want to stand in the way of anything..."
"But you didn't want me to go," he prompted.
"I really, really didn't want you to go."
"Then why the act?"
"It wasn't—it wasn't an act exactly." Diane frowned, drawing up both legs and wrapping her arms around them. "I mean, you need to do what's best for you. And if what's best for you is to disappear," she shrugged, "then I need to put aside how I might feel about that. Put aside my personal feelings, you know... And let you make your own choice."
Jake eyed her sceptically. "I know it's you talking, but somehow, I'm hearing Lou."
"Yeah, well... the phrase 'united front' was used repeatedly." Diane laughed nervously. "She and Kyle showed up at my apartment Monday. Like, in my apartment when I opened the door. Waiting for me. Kinda freaked me out."
"Yeah. I can see how that would. I do appreciate what she and Kyle tried to do—did. For me. And what you did, too."
"I didn't want you to think that I didn't care, 'cause I did. I mean, I do. Care. I just didn't want that to stop you from... From having a life." She rested her chin on her knees, regarding him seriously. "Jake, I mean it. If this ever gets to be too much for you, don't—don't stay on my account. Not that I think you would, or anything," she said quickly, a blush rising in her cheeks.
Jake suddenly found his shoelaces utterly fascinating.
"Diane... when I thought about leaving. When I sat down, and really thought about it—it wasn't just about my folks and Jerry and Kevin and Darin and Sarah and D.C. and my own name and my own life... I mean, I'd miss being an agent. And Kyle. I'd even miss Lou, I think. Sorta."
He took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh.
"No matter how much running away might seem like the only answer—I'm not sure that this crazy war we're fighting would really be over if I just took off. Warner would still be out there, and at least where I am... At least I can do something.
"And the life I'd be leaving behind... no matter how hard it gets, it's not like it's all bad. Some of the best parts of my life these last few months have been... I guess I just can't picture my life without you anymore. Even stuff like this—simple stuff, like having someone to talk to who understands, knows me better than anybody else, someone I can trust. Ever since this whole thing began, you're the one who's been there for me. Not just... not just as my doctor. But as my friend. I guess it just kinda threw me, you being so... I mean, last night in the lab, when we said good-bye. Leaving you behind was—would be really hard. I didn't realise how hard it would hit me until this morning. The look on your face when I walked through that door.... Diane?"
She suddenly realised that while he was talking, her eyes had drifted closed.
"M'sorry." She covered her mouth as her face was split with a yawn.
"Am I putting you to sleep?" he joked, and she shook her head.
"I, um... I just didn't really sleep the last couple of nights, and the food and the wine..." She sat up straighter, blinking a few times to try and stay focused.
"It's okay. It's been a crazy couple of days. I should probably take off, anyway."
"Are you sure?"
"I haven't exactly gotten a good night's sleep lately either."
She followed him to the hall closet, still stifling yawns despite the fact that it wasn't even ten o'clock yet.
"You'll be on time for your morning work-up?"
"Yes, ma'am. And I'll bring the coffee and doughnuts." Jake winked. "For medicinal purposes."
"God, if I never have cinnamon schnapps again..."
He laughed as he pulled on his jacket, and she gave him a quick hug.
"Thanks," he said into her hair.
"Letting me know I'm not fighting this war alone," he said simply, chin resting on the top of her head for a second before he let her go.
"Any time," she said softly, and closed the door behind him. "Any time."