Jai was there when Ben met Annie

It wasn't like Ben Mercer had been easy to handle, right up until the moment he wasn't. No, he had always been a loose cannon, making handling him an intricate dance between staying out of sight and staying close enough to know what was going on with him. All of which meant that Jai had been in the bar, nursing a beer and watching, when Mercer had first met Annie. He sighed when he realized that, once again, Mercer had picked up the hottest blond in the place.

Jai could hear just enough of her voice to identify her for American, although he was amazed to hear her speak to the bartender and realize she had enough Sinhalese to get along. From his spot in the back of the room, Jai watched as Mercer flirted like the expert he was. The girl laughed at all the right lines, leaned in at all the right times, and overall looked pretty thoroughly charmed. All in all, Mercer was putting on a hell of a performance for what Jai thought looked like a pretty easy tumble. Still, he supposed she was worth the work, if only for that smile. When Mercer led her out of the bar, so many drinks later, Jai just rolled his eyes, finished his beer, and gave up any plans of Mercer doing any more work that evening. Just as well, really. Jai had reports to file.

Jai had fully expected that night to be the end of things. Annie was not the first hot blond in a bar. She wasn't even the third. Mercer would blow off some steam and the blond would be out the door before the sun finished rising. Things would be the same as they were ever were.

But the blond wasn't out the door. Not until nearly noon, and then it was hand in hand with Mercer, catching lunch at some little street café. Mercer was still working her like an asset; the charm ramped up to 10. The question wasn't so much "what did he see in her?" because that was glaringly obvious, even more so in the light of day, but "what was he doing and why?" He couldn't possibly be telling her any kind of the truth, this wasn't his first rodeo, but why even bother to go to this much effort? There would always be another hot blond in a bar. Mercer had a type, and she fit it, but he had a pattern, too, and this was breaking it.

At first, it wasn't really a problem. Mercer worked around the girl, prying her loose so he could cultivate an asset or pass information to Jai. Mercer was pretty tight lipped about the girl, but Jai now knew her name was Annie Walker, she wanted to travel the world on her terms, and she had a real knack for languages. Jai wished he could tell if Mercer was deliberately withholding information or if he truly knew that little about her. It wasn't impossible; the two of them had clearly found much better ways to spend their time than talking. Still, the work continued, in fits and starts, Mercer's spy craft seemingly not hampered by his new infatuation.

It was Mercer's idea for the next information pass to be in the stalls at the market, while he and Annie Walker went shopping. Jai was pretty sure he had heard every joke ever made about women and shopping, and even he thought that Mercer's idea was a stretch. No one could possibly be that distracted by bargaining for some new knick-knack. Still, there she was, chatting casually with a shopkeeper at a stall not 20 feet away while Mercer drifted over to where Jai stood, lazily flipping through a collection of sunglasses.

"Just tell me, really, Mercer. What are you doing with her? Why here? Why now?" Jai was beyond trying to hide his disapproval. This had disaster written all over it.

"She's good for my cover," Mercer insisted as Jai tried to minimize his disbelieving stare, the bustle of the crowded shopping center covering their voices.

"Why, because you're too busy rolling around with her to do your job?"

"I'm doing the job, Wilcox. I always do the job. No matter how you think I do it, the job gets done, it always gets done."

There was something in Mercer's voice, just an edge of something, the thinnest line, but it was enough to get Jai to narrow his eyes. "What's up with you, man?"

"What? I like a girl and that has to mean there's something wrong?"

"I thought you said she good for your cover."

"She is."

"There's something you're not telling me."

"C'mon, Jai, you know me. I always tell you everything." Mercer's familiar, joking smile; he could always lie with the best of them.

Jai gave him a hard stare, but Mercer met it without flinching. "I tell you everything, man. Case in point," he added, grabbing Jai's hand and shoving the thumb drive in it. "She makes me look good. Now back the hell off."

Annie took the moment to toss a glance back at Mercer, and smile that smile as Jai ducked out of sight. Mercer went trotting back to her, showing off two pairs of new sunglasses, laughing with her as he slid an arm around her waist and drew her off into the crowd, the two of them making their own space around each other, the better to lock out the rest of the world.

Even then, Jai realized, he had known something was off. Mercer's voice, the way he had immediately pulled Annie to him, the way he seemed to be speaking almost urgently as they disappeared together into the crowd. All he could think of as the days passed and Jai realized Mercer had given him the slip, was that he should have gone after them. He should have believed in that voice he had heard in his head, the one that said that something was changing, between Mercer and Annie, between Mercer and Jai. But he had trusted Mercer to at least do the damn job. If someone had asked Jai, before Mercer met Annie Walker, if he had ever thought that anything could distract Ben Mercer from the job at hand, Jai would have said no. He had never met a more focused operative, even if he did tend toward the cowboy in his behavior. He would never have suspected that Mercer would have thrown away so much for a woman he had known for such a short time. Yet here he was, clearly gone, and the woman with him.

At first, Jai covered for Mercer with the company, but there were only so many lies he could tell. There was no new information, nothing he could pass on. Jai was Mercer's handler, but right now he wasn't handling a damn thing except of mountain of lies, half-truths, and misdirection. Jai wasn't a company man for nothing, though; he could investigate, he could hunt, he could lie. He could find fucking Ben Mercer, and he would.

A cabana in Unawatuna. God, how trite, how clichéd: Mercer had run off to a cabana on the shore with a hot blond and somehow, this was a good enough excuse for him to forget every damn thing he had ever learned at the farm. Because he couldn't believe that Mercer had lowered himself enough to tell the woman the truth, Jai watched and waited, hoping for a moment where he could actually get Mercer alone. There was no point in blowing whatever might be left of his cover.

When it started to rain, torrential, sweeping bursts of water pouring from the clouds, Jai figured there was no time like the present. He walked out to the beach in front of their cabana, turning his back to them, and staring out at the crashing waves. He knew Mercer had seen him. Mercer could always be counted on to know who was around him at any point time. Professional paranoia was just another survival skill for deep cover agents.

Mercer must have made some excuse for why he was walking out into the storm, something that convinced the woman to stay inside, where it was dry. Jai could see her silhouetted against the candlelight. It was a good look for her; he couldn't blame Mercer for the way his eyes kept straying back, to the light, to the woman, to whatever it was that she was to him that made him throw everything else away.

"I can't hide your forever," Jai said. He might have been yelling. He would give himself the excuse of the fierceness of the rain. It certainly wasn't because he was the kind of handler who would become emotionally involved with his operatives. Mercer was a job, nothing more. Jai was only here now because it was his job on the line, his reputation, and his father that he would have to answer to, even after everything else was done.

"I never asked you to."

"No one knows you've gone off grid. You can still come back."

"Can I?"

"She can't possibly be worth this. You don't even know her. She for sure doesn't know you. It's been three weeks. No one's world changes in three weeks."

"You know, you always sounds so damn sure, Jai. So much like your father. But at the end of the day, you really don't know a damn thing."

"You have to leave her. Or at least get back to doing your job while you're doing her."

"Crude, Jai." Mercer's smile was ice-edged and his eyes were hard, but he wasn't moving and Jai wasn't feeling like apologizing.

"What's your plan here, Ben? Lying to her forever? Whatever you think you have here with her, you can't keep it. Just leave her, while the leaving is good."

Mercer looked back at the cabana. The woman was a gilt-edged shadow against the light, but even Jai could tell she was searching out Mercer. There wouldn't be much more time to talk. If Mercer had stayed with her for three weeks, she wasn't stupid. He was smart, and he valued intelligence in the people he surrounded himself with. She would come out soon, and all the subterfuge in the world might be for nothing.

Mercer didn't look at Jai when he spoke, but Jai knew the words were for him. "Your wish is my command."

It would be slightly over two years before Jai saw Mercer again, but it would be less time before he saw Annie.