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29 February 2004 @ 18:47
 

Friday, February 13, 2004
7:21 p.m.


"Baltimore," Diane repeated as Fran hung her lab coat on the coat tree in the corner of the lab.

"He says the bed and breakfast is this gorgeous vintage place—"

"Fran, it's Baltimore."

"There's all kinds of urban renewal! Crime is down, people are moving back into the city—"

"Have you ever been to Baltimore?"

Fran thought about that for a minute. "Does BWI count?"

"No. And don't they have bed and breakfasts in Virginia?"

She shrugged into her heavy winter coat, pulling her long dark hair out from under it before wrapping her scarf around her neck. "Yeah—if you're a millionaire."

"Ah. So Mark is romantic yet cheap?"

"Please—the word is frugal," Fran corrected. She'd been dating the air force pilot for a few weeks now, and as far as Diane could tell, it was getting pretty serious.

Fran was one of the only women she'd ever known who could picked up in a bar by a genuinely nice guy who turned out to be dateable material. She'd only been out drinking with Fran twice, and each time she'd managed to leave with great-looking guys who actually held doors open for their dates, and had actual jobs and looked good in tight jeans. It was surreal. Not necessarily grown up jobs—Chris had been a professional hockey player, but he'd flown Fran in his own personal helicopter to dinner in Boston. That, Diane had decided, made up for the fact that he hit a rubber disc with a stick for a living—but jobs nonetheless.

Mark, whom Diane had yet to actually meet, was stationed at Andrews and according to Fran had that whole Val Kilmer from Top Gun thing going. He had a three day pass, and had surprised Fran with plans for a romantic week-end.

"Oh, well—my mistake."

"Plus it's maybe forty-five minutes away tops, just in case."

"I'm sure everything will be fine," Diane said quickly, glancing at the JMD screen. Jake's adrenals were up a little—had been up, actually for the last hour or so, but she knew he was in Sat Ops, and just assumed that he was working. Holiday week-ends didn't mean the bad guys took shifts off, as Kyle and Lou were happy to remind them at any opportunity. "Jake's not out on a mission—it looks like it'll be a quiet week-end."

"I'm just saying, if you need me—I can be here in half an hour if I speed."

"And leave poor Mark stranded alone at the Sybaris that is Baltimore? What if he gets picked up by a cocktail waitress?"

"I've tagged him, so I can track him down if I release him into the wild." Fran grinned as she dug her gloves out of her coat pockets. "Speaking of tagged—how about you? Are you and Jake..." Fran let the sentence hang expectantly.

Diane blinked in confusion. "Are Jake and I what?"

"You know. Doing anything special for Valentine's Day."

"Not—I mean, nothing special." Diane busied herself with putting away the tray of instruments she'd left out on the counter, fussing slightly as she laid them in their drawer. "He's just coming over to watch some movies."

Fran raised an eyebrow. "What kind of movies?"

"We haven't really decided yet. Maybe Rear Window, Jake's never seen Marnie—you know, not exactly the most romantic movie ever made, what with the whole wedding night from hell, but Jake's never seen Sean Connery as anyone other than James Bond, so—" She stopped at the look on Fran's face. "What?"

"Nothing."

"We're just gonna grab some dinner, watch some movies, eat some ice-cream," she said, trying to sound casual. "It's not a date or anything."

"Sounds like fun." She slung her purse over her shoulder, and paused in the glass doorway. "And if you want me to bring you back a brochure from the B&B, you know—in case you guys ever want to not have a date in a romantic vintage hotel in Baltimore—"

"Fran..."

"You know, for President's Day."

"Fran!"

"I gotta go—Mark's meeting me. I'll have my pager with me, just in case, okay?"

"Okay," Diane said waving goodbye with forced cheerfulness. "Have fun."

"I will!" Fran called back over her shoulder, and then Diane could hear her footsteps as they echoed down the hallway.

"It's not a date," Diane repeated to the now-empty lab, but suddenly she wasn't so sure.




Saturday, February 14, 2004
4:06 p.m.


Diane stared at the clothes laid out across her bed, chewing on her lower lip and vaguely paralysed by indecision.

On one side were her favourite jeans, a pair of thick cotton socks, a dark green ribbed tank top and her favourite Indian cotton shirt which was so faded from washing that it had turned grey. The jeans were flared, and a smidgen too long, which she liked because for some reason, even though it should annoy her that clothes never seemed to be cut properly for women who weren't Amazonian in stature. The embroidery around the pockets was slightly threadbare, and they'd been broken in to the point where the knees had only just started to fade that first shade lighter.

On the other side of the bed, draped across the pillows on plastic hangers, was a dark brown skirt a few inches shorter than she would even think of wearing to work, and a black silk knit v-neck top that she'd bought because it was exactly the sort of thing that could go from work to an evening out, which several magazines at her dentist's office had insisted every urban professional 20-something gal needed. She'd worn it exactly once in the year and a half she'd had it, and it had languished in the back of her closet until she'd started dating Steve, only to be banished once more when their third date turned out to be their last.

She picked up the sweater, pressing it to her cheek.

If she opened her door wearing ensemble #1, it would be like hanging a sign around her neck "I didn't think this was a date." Never mind that it was pretty much what she usually wore on the week-end, and in fact, had worn the last time she and Jake had spent a Saturday afternoon on his couch, vegging to The Two Towers extended edition. That, Diane supposed, was the point—if Fran was right, then tonight wasn't supposed to be just like every other time she and Jake had hung out.

But if Diane wore the "Hi—this is so totally a date" ensemble and Jake showed up in jeans and a t-shirt, then she would feel like a moron. And he would think she was a moron. And everything would be horrible, and awful, and awkward, both tonight and Monday at work, and he would tell Kyle, who would laugh at her, and—

"Okay. Panic. Because that's useful," she muttered, running her hands through her hair and giving it a slight tug. "C'mon, Hughes. Get a grip."

She had already spent most of the day not relaxing, as she had originally planned, but obsessively tidying. She'd vacuumed all the carpets, and even thrown her bathroom rug into the wash—something she had previously only done the night before her mother came to visit. She'd gone through the apartment, picking up mugs that had found their way to ledges, counters, and shelves and returning them to the kitchen where they could soak in scalding hot soapy water that would hopefully kill anything that had evolved into a new species in the bottom of the forgotten tea and cocoa. All of the magazines and catalogues that had piled up had been sorted, and she'd lugged the garbage down to the dumpster. She'd had no idea that six months worth of Toscano, Victoria's Secret, Pyramid and Sharper Image catalogues could be so heavy. But as a result, her coffee table now sported a single scented candle casting a soft glow across the polished wood, and the basket next to the couch only held the last three months of Scientific American rather than the last three years. It was slightly disconcerting, seeing this much surface area in her humble one-bedroom apartment.

She hung the skirt back in the closet, then reached over and refolded the shirt and laid it back in the dresser drawer. The socks and tank top were tossed unceremoniously into the top drawer, then tucked in again so she could get the drawer to actually close. She picked up a pair of black suede flats—not too dressy but with a bit of a heel since she had to do something about the fact that she seemed to be missing about three inches of ankle—and sat them next to the black sweater.

This, she decided, was a plan.

Next all she had to do was talk herself through the whole hair and make-up thing. She glanced at her watch and grimaced. Three hours was just enough time to completely freak herself out before Jake rang her doorbell.

Saturday, February 14, 2004
7:21 p.m.


Jake was late.

Not that he probably even knew he was late. Technically, Diane had emailed him saying "7-ish" and under normal circumstances, it would have worried her if that meant 6:30 or 8:00, but she was coming to recognise these were not normal circumstances. In fact, nothing about the last three hours fell under her definition of "normal."

She'd ended up washing her hair twice, since the first time she'd spent an hour straightening it, trying to achieve something approaching the hairstyle she saw in her mind's eye when she closed her eyes—rather than her mirror. After half an hour trying to blow it out straight and sleek and shiny like the girl in the glossy magazine ad for the straightening balm she'd picked up at the Walgreen's on the corner, she'd given up. The miracle formula, rather than making her hair shiny and smooth, instead made her feel sticky and it reeked of chemicals. Not bothering to run another bath, she'd opted instead for a shower, and washed her hair twice to try and rid it from the last of the goo. She'd ended up just combing her fingers through her wet hair and letting it air dry into loose waves that brushed the shoulders of the black silk top.

She'd then decided her favourite jeans were a bit too lived in, and attempted to squeeze into the jeans she'd bought over the summer and had only worn a handful of times before they'd been hidden away in a bottom drawer. They were just a little too low-rise—and she was pretty sure that no matter what might be in fashion these days, plumber's butt wasn't it. How the hordes of 15 year old girls she saw at the mall on the week-ends managed it, she would never understand. She suspected it had something to do with being fearless and young, as opposed to petrified and approaching 30.

She'd finally settled for her calf-length denim skirt, which she'd ironed and wiped down with a clothes brush three times since she'd put them on. Shoes had taken her another half hour, and she'd ended up right back where she'd started, with the pair she'd first picked out that afternoon. The only thing keeping Diane from changing her clothes for the third time was the fact that Jake was late, and the last thing she wanted was for him to show up while she was standing in her underwear, evaluating what signals yet another ensemble might send him.

She'd blown out the candles she'd lit around the apartment, and then opened the windows to let out the smoky smell. Then she'd caved, and re-lit the one on the coffee table, managing to spill wax in the process. Luckily, all of it on the tabletop, none of it on her sleeve.

Diane was starting to realise that some girls were never going to be Grace Kelly. On her best day, she—Diane Hughes—probably didn't even rate Tippi Hedren on her worst day. Still, she had her contacts in, and had even managed not to blind herself, putting on mascara. Her mother would be proud.

When the doorbell finally rang, Diane was up off the couch like a shot and to the intercom before Jake had even taken his finger off the button. Taking a deep breath when she head his footsteps in the hall, she wasn't quite prepared for the sight that met her eyes.

"I was seduced by the marketing campaign," Jake said from behind what looked like the most expensive bunch of red roses she'd ever seen.

"Jake, they're beautiful," she said, flustered as she stepped aside so he could come the rest of the way into the apartment.

She took the flowers from him, the plastic wrapping rustling as she brought the closest bloom to her face and inhaled its perfume. A wisp of baby's breath tickled her cheek, and she couldn't help but smile. The last time she'd gotten flowers like this, they'd been from her dad the day she'd been awarded her doctorate. "You didn't have to..."

"Well, I figured why not, you know?"

"Yeah. Why not?" she echoed, the knot that had appeared in her stomach twenty-four hours earlier tightening. "Lemme just find a vase—"

"Okay," he said, and set two plastic grocery store bags on the floor as he slipped off his coat.

Carrying the roses to the kitchen, she grabbed the clay water pitcher that currently held her wooden spoons, whisk, and spatula and dumped the contents into the closest half-empty drawer. She turned the cold water tap in the sink to full blast, and grabbed some scissors to cut through the wrapping. She could hear Jake puttering around in the living room, and her hands shook slightly as she arranged the flowers in the pitcher-turned-vase.

He'd brought flowers.

She took a deep breath, trying to still the butterflies in her stomach. C'mon, she told herself sternly. It's still Jake. He probably just felt sorry for me, spending Valentine's all alone and...

And that was it, she decided. He was just being a good friend. That was all. No need to panic. No need to get herself so turned around. Fran just didn't understand their relationship, that was all.

Just friends.




Saturday, February 14, 2004
7:31 p.m.


Jake had had a whole speech prepared for when the door opened, and Diane was wearing jeans and a sweat shirt and he was standing there with a dozen red roses.

It was a good speech. He'd worked on it the whole drive over, and it covered how he'd bought the flowers because Diane really ought to have someone buy her flowers, because being alone on Valentine's Day sucked, and why not have the sort of Valentine's Day they actually deserved to have? And she would have laughed, and they would have made snarky comments about people in stable healthy relationships that didn't involve kidnapping, and everything would have been fine, and all of his panic and worry and $100 for roses would have simply become amusing anecdotal material for the future.

Only thing was, she wasn't wearing jeans. She was wearing a date-skirt. Jake knew it was a date skirt, because the only time he'd ever seen her wear it was while she was in fact on a date, with that sleezeball Clemens. That, combined with the contact lenses and the fact that her hair looked all soft and touchable and the top she wore was just exactly the right sort of top, seemed to confirm Kyle's suspicions.

Jake was on a date.

His brain seemed to be in overdrive, analysing and making adjustments as he struggled with this new and terrifying knowledge. Until five minutes ago, he had been operating under the assumption that Kyle was off his nut, but that just in case, he ought to approach the evening as if it were actually a date, and dress and act accordingly. But deep down, he'd been preparing himself for the reality that it wasn't a date, and he'd spent almost all of the last day trying to figure out how he would explain away his manner and attire when reality bitch-slapped him and things snapped back to status quo.

Suddenly, he wished he'd spent a bit more time on the whole "you're going on a date" scenario. If he had, perhaps he might not now have sweaty palms, a dry mouth, and suddenly feel like anything he would say tonight was guaranteed to make him look like the moron he suspected every member of the opposite sex actually saw him to be.

He took a deep, calming breath just as he heard Diane shut off the tap in the kitchen. She came back out into the living room carrying the flowers, and he tried not to stare too obviously at the way the denim hugged her curves as she set them down on the low table between the two living room windows, displacing a bowl of potpourri which sent up a cloud of lavender and lemongrass scent as she moved it to the windowsill.

"How's your hand?" he asked, fighting to keep his tone normal and relaxed as they sat down on the couch, a respectable two feet of couch between them.

"No nanites for me, so I'm healing the old fashioned way. Um... slowly." She held up her hand, which still sported a Band-Aid. She gestured to the bags, which Jake had set on the coffee table. "So... whatcha got in there?"

"Loot," he said, and felt a profound sense of relief when she laughed.

"Valentine's loot?"

"You betcha. We've got chocolate," he said, setting a box of Godiva truffles on the table which she immediately scooped up and began unwrapping. "We've got wine."

He brought out a paper-wrapped bottle and set it on the table with a flourish.

"And I brought the most romantic movie of all time, albeit, on second millennium analogue, since Lucas won't give it to us in clean, pristine digital format until September."

She looked down at the video cassette in his hands, and raised an eyebrow.

"The Empire Strikes Back?" she asked around a mouthful of truffle.

"Yeah."

"Empire is the most romantic movie ever made?" Her tone was dubious, sending him straight into defensive mode.

"C'mon, the whole 'I love you' 'I know' just before Han gets frozen in carbonite? That's classic!"

"What happened to the Die Hard box set?"

"I figure, McClane blowing up Fox Plaza, that's more of a Christmas movie. Empire felt more Valentine's to me. I mean, if that's okay—"

"No, it's great," she said quickly. "It's just not what I was expecting..." she trailed off.

"You were expecting Bruce Willis," Jake said, feeling as if the floor had just dropped out from under him. "I brought you Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill and you were expecting Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. There's a Blockbuster, like, four blocks from here—" he got up, and she grabbed his arm.

"Jake, no! It's okay!" she pulled him back down beside her. "This is perfect. This is great."

"Really?"

"Really. Why don't you go ahead and put it in, and I'll open the wine."