Summary: Set between 5.03 and 5.04. By nine at night, only Jess Parker remained in the ARC's operations centre.
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Author's Note: Set between 5.03 and 5.04. Huge thanks to seren_ccd for betaing and listening to me burble excitedly at her!
By nine at night, the Hub was complete deserted. Lester had left some time ago, his document case in hand. One by one, the lab techs had shut down their PCs and gone off for drinks, dinner, to walk their dogs. Even Connor had left his lab, talking animatedly into his mobile to Phillip as he'd gone. All of the stations around the ADD were shut down for the night, and the lights were dimmed. Only Jess Parker remained in the ARC's operations centre.
"Jess? What are you still doing here?"
Jess looked over to see Becker—who had changed out of his uniform and into civvies—approaching with his black box in hand. He was wearing faded jeans, work boots, a thin tee-shirt beneath his beat up brown leather jacket. It was still disconcerting to see him in civilian clothes. His dark hair getting long enough to brush his collar in cowlicks, he seemed younger. Normal. Just like any other bloke she'd pass on the street.
Any other incredibly fit bloke that she fancied like mad, anyway.
"Abby and Connor had a row, I think. Connor's been staying in the Prospero flat, and the atmosphere at mine is awfully gloomy. And Matt's off with Emily, so I've been staying late, trying to get little bits of work done."
"Oh, I've got loads of things done. All my holiday shopping—Lester's getting a tie. I've got caught up on the last six months of 'The Archers'. And I've balanced my chequebook three times, just to make sure."
"You did your holiday shopping?"
"Semper paratus, right?"
The corner of Becker's mouth quirked in a smile, cheek dimpling as he placed his black box on her desk, where she lined it up nearly with the others.
"What colour tie?" he asked casually, pushing his hair back from his forehead, mussing it even further.
"Butter yellow Shantung silk. He doesn't have one; I checked. Matching bracers and handkerchief, too. When I do a job, I give it my all."
"What are you getting me?"
"I gave you a tank!"
He made a face. "You gave me a toy tank."
She punched his arm, knowing it didn't hurt even though he rubbed his shoulder afterwards. She'd made sure the toy had been on his desk when he'd got back into work the day after they'd blown up a shopping centre full of creepy giant insects from the future. She'd even stuck a little blue and white ARC sticker on its side.
"I can't get you a Challenger 2 unless Phillip gives me a pay rise."
"You'd really get me a Challenger?"
"Where do you think you'd find parking for it in the city?"
"It's a tank. You'd park it anywhere you like. That's the point."
"You are such a giant kid." She glanced at the monitors, and frowned.
"What?" Becker prompted.
"Connor's lab. Looks like he's going to work all night. Again." Jess sighed.
"I can't believe I'm asking this, but perhaps that's why he and Abby had a row?"
"I don't think it's about him working nights. I think it's about what he's working on."
"What is he working on?"
"Abby doesn't know. It's all hush-hush." Jess sighed before she switched the anomaly detection device to its remote settings, and clicked off her bank of monitors. "You off home, then? To your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife and 2.5 children? Charming yellow lab? Twenty foot python?" She laughed at his expression. "C'mon, give me some hint."
"What, and spoil all my fun?"
She rolled her eyes.
"Anomaly meant I skipped lunch, so I was going to pick up a take-away. Just forgot to give you this." He nudged the block box back out of line with the others.
He stared at her, hazel eyes dancing, as she restrained the urge to tidy the line of recorders, even though her fingers were practically twitching.
Finally she rolled her eyes and gave in, lining the little black boxes up in a neat row on her desk.
"And this," Becker said before she could say anything, pulled a Black Magic bar out of his pocket.
"You're completely forgiven," she said as she took the chocolate bar, and dropped it into her shoulder bag.
"All it takes is chocolate?"
"I'm easy," she said with a shrug, and colour flooded her cheeks as she realised what she'd just said. But Becker only laughed.
"In that case, do you want to go for a curry?"
Jess' heels echoed on the concrete floor of the ARC car park as she hurried to keep pace with Becker. She started toward what she thought was his SUV, but he tipped his head to the right, where a sleek Buell racing bike was parked in an empty row.
"It's Quinn's. I'm just keeping it for him while he's... away." Becker kept his eyes on the bike, and she knew it was difficult for him to admit Danny might never be back. "Hop on. I know a place."
Jess slid onto the back of the bike behind him gingerly. It was very low to the ground, and when Becker pulled out of the parking structure, she gripped him around the waist tightly, trying to stifle her yelp of surprise.
She'd been on the backs of motorbikes before, of course. But not in a long time. And never with Becker. At first she was terribly self-conscious about the fact that she had her cheek pressed up against the soft, worn leather of his jacket. But as they navigated the narrow streets of the city, she began to relax and enjoy having an excuse to press herself up against him.
All too soon, Becker pulled to a stop in front of a small curry restaurant tucked onto a side street. Reluctantly, Jess unwrapped her arms from his waist, and pulled her shoulder bag up higher on her arm before jumping off.
"How did you find this place?"
"Sarah took me here, it was one of her favourites. They have fantastic chicken tikka masala."
"Chicken tikka masala? Becker, you do know that's not proper Indian food, right?"
"Are you seriously going to lecture me on my food choices?"
"I'm just saying, live a little. Try something new. I'd have thought you of all people would be a little more adventurous."
"I get plenty of adventure at work, thanks."
They settled into a booth in a corner of the restaurant. Jess noticed Becker had chosen a spot with clear sight-lines to both exits, and sat with his back against the wall. You can take the boy out of the SAS...
"Fine. But I'm going to get the hottest thing on the menu." She began flipping through the laminated pages, scanning each menu item according to how many small red peppers there were beside each title. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and saw a young man standing at the counter, pen and pad poised. The restaurant was deserted except for her and Becker, and two elderly Bangladeshi gentlemen in the corner, sipping small cups of espresso.
"You don't have to impress me."
"No, I always do this. My mum and dad always used to take us for a curry on our birthdays. I think I've eaten curry at every place on Brick Lane."
"What's your favourite?"
"I had an amazing fish curry for my twentieth at a place in Hammersmith. It's gone now, though." She opened the menu, perused the options, then laid it back down.
On cue, their server approached to take their order.
"What would you like to order?" the young man asked.
"Can I get a Naga curry with goat? And can you ask the cook to make it as spicy as he would make it for himself?"
"That is very hot, miss. Are you sure?"
"Very sure. And can I get a side of roti, and a Kingfisher?"
"Goat curry, roti, and Kingfisher. And you, sir?"
"Chicken tikka masala, and a Kingfisher as well, please."
"Now you're just winding me up."
"I happen to like chicken tikka masala," Becker said as he handed the menus to the server.
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
"You can ask. I can't guarantee I'll answer."
Jess took a deep breath. Usually Becker's strategy when she started to try and prise personal information out of him was just to let her keep talking until she'd said something clumsy and obvious, and clammed up out of embarrassment. She had to admit, it was a very effective strategy. Or, at least, it had been up to this point. But tonight things felt different. And she was feeling brave. Or foolhardy.
"Did you and Dr Page—"
"I mean, it's just... the way you talk about her, I thought maybe you were... close."
Becker glanced down at his menu, and then back at her, his gaze frank and open.
"We were friends. We joined the ARC at the same time. Learnt to navigate this madhouse together. She got on better with Cutter, of course. She was as mad as he was. Mad and brilliant."
"You miss her."
"I miss all of them. Sarah, Quinn, Jenny. I even miss Cutter. Undisciplined, unpredictable, completely insubordinate. No respect for authority. Completely bonkers, the lot of them."
Jess smiled. "Does that mean I'm mad too?"
"Oh, we're all mad. I mean, seriously. We fight dinosaurs. We've the maddest job there is."
Jess began to giggle. In all the time she'd been at the ARC, no-one had ever actually said it out loud. Once she got started, she couldn't stop. Becker's smile turned into genuine laughter, to the point the two old men in the corner turned to look at them oddly. Jess tried desperately to regain her composure. But the sight of Becker wiping tears of laughter from his hazel eyes just set her off again.
"Did he really abseil down the ventilation shaft?"
"Oh yeah. All in the name of security. We had fun, me and Quinn."
"Was he like Matt?"
"Not even a little bit. Night and day. Quinn was the maddest of the lot. I wondered sometimes if he had a death wish. He'd just... throw himself at problems, completely heedless of his own safety. Looking back, I think he always felt like he should have done something to save Patrick. Ethan. Whatever his name was. If I'd just listened to Matt, and not let him near Ethan. But I'd promised. I mean, it was his brother."
"Becker, Danny chose to go back."
"He shouldn't have had to."
"I know." She reached out and laid her hand over his and gave his fingers a squeeze.
Just then the server came up with their plates. Jess withdrew her hand, feeling self-conscious as the moment became awkward, the sudden closeness dissolving.
"Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on, and we're completely left out?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, it's just... First Matt was always disappearing, and leaving his phone off. Then he was hiding Emily. Then it turned out Emily was hunting a dangerous sociopath who just happened to be Danny's long-lost brother. Now Connor's holed up in his secret lab doing secret lab things, and Matt and Abby keep whispering. I mean, is it any wonder I fell behind on 'The Archers'? We've got our only mad soap opera going on here. Next we'll learn Lester has a love child with Christine Johnson."
"How do you know about—never mind. You read the files. Do you always keep track of everyone else's lives like this, Miss Nosy Parker?"
"Don't call me that. The kids at school used to call me that."
"It can't be any worse than 'Becky'."
"Fair point. I just worry that something's going on, and I'm always going to be the last to know."
"If it's important, Matt would tell us," Becker replied with conviction. "He wouldn't put the team in danger."
"I suppose you're right."
"Of course I'm right."
Becker stole a chunk of meat from her plate, and she just watched him with a serene smile as he popped it in his mouth. He chewed for a few seconds, before his eyes went wide, and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.
"Jesus," he breathed as he swallowed, and immediately reached for the last piece of roti.
Jess couldn't help the laughter. "I told you it was hot!"
Becker scowled at her. "Jessica, that's not hot. That's 'destroy my tastebuds forever' hot. I may never taste food again."
She wrinkled her nose. "I hate it when you call me Jessica. Like being called into the head's office at school. You only do it when you're cross."
"That's not true."
"It is! You only call Abby 'Abigail' when you're cross with her. Like that time the Diictodons got out of the menagerie and ate your iPhone."
"It was brand new. I hadn't even put my music on it yet."
"Just as well, then. They'll probably have a new one out the following week, anyway."
"Do you always look for the bright side of everything?"
"Pretty much. I mean, you've got to, right? What else can you do?"
"I've always found abject cynicism a valid life choice."
"If you keep calling me 'Jessica', I'll tell Connor what the 'H' in 'H. James Becker' stands for."
He froze, a fork full of chicken halfway to his mouth. "You wouldn't."
"I might do. You never know. I'm undisciplined and unpredictable."
"You're very disciplined, and completely predictable."
"I am not!"
"The first bit is a compliment, you know."
"Yeah, but the second part isn't. I'm very spontaneous."
"Name one thing you've done today that wasn't in your day planner."
"I didn't have dinner with you in my day planner."
"Ah, but I was the one who was spontaneous and asked you. Doesn't count."
"Today is Thursday. On Thursdays, you get a ride in with Abby, because you loan your car to your brother so he can pick up his kids from his ex-wife's for the week-end. Breakfast is a large mocha latte from Caffè Nero, and a banana, eaten at your desk. For lunch, you always have the chick pea curry from the take-away around the corner. You have three cups of tea from the break room, but no caffeine after 3 in the afternoon, and you always have a brand new Black Magic bar in your purse which you nibble on in the afternoons. Have I left anything out?"
"Are you stalking me?"
"I don't have to stalk you. You have a routine, and you stick to that routine religiously. The only thing I can't ever guess is what shoes you'll wear. You wear the purple ones a lot."
"Which purple ones?"
"Why would anyone need more than one pair of purple shoes?"
"Let me put it to you this way... Shoes are like handguns. You can never have too many. How would you like it if I couldn't tell the difference between a SIG p229, and a Glock 17?"
"I'm never going to underestimate your knowledge of small arms again. You're like a card sharp, only with weapons."
"I like the Glock 17. It can fire underwater."
"Why would you ever need to fire a handgun underwater?"
"Think about what we do for a living for, like, two seconds, and then ask me that question again."
He made a face, and she knew she'd scored points. They tucked into the rest of their dinners in earnest, and Jess couldn't help but feel like she'd finally found some common ground.
Becker pulled up to the kerb outside her flat, and killed the bike's engine. They walked up to the front steps in silence, and Jess looked up at the darkened windows.
"Well, this is me," she said lamely, not actually wanting the evening to end. They'd demolished their dinners—apparently, dinosaur chasing does give one an appetite—and she'd had a mango lassi shake for her pudding. But as the restaurant had filled up with noisy students, Becker had insisted on paying the bill. However, she'd slipped a tenner in his jacket pocket when he got up to go to the loo, so she didn't feel too badly.
"I had a really good time tonight," she said, standing on the first step so they were eye to eye for once.
"So did I."
"I'd invite you in for a coffee, but I don't want to wake Abby if she's asleep."
"I'd better get off home."
"To your boyfriend, or yellow lab?"
"No wife. No python. Not even a parakeet," he confirmed in a conspiratorial tone. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
Jess felt her heart leap into her chest, and tried to play it cool. "You can ask, but I can't guarantee I'll answer."
She liked it when Becker smiled. She liked his dimples. She liked the glint in his eye. Most of all, she liked that she could make him smile.
"Go on, then. I'm waiting."
"Did you do something to your hair?"
"Other than washing it, do you mean?"
"It seemed redder before."
"Yeah, it was. About three months ago."
"Yeah. You really are hopeless." Jess laughed, some of the tension coiled in her belly easing slightly. She stepped right up to the edge of the step, close enough to brush a crumb from his shirt.
"We should do this again. Make it a regular thing, don't you think?"
For the first time, Becker looked uneasy. "Jess, this is a seriously bad idea. We work together."
"So do Abby and Connor," she said, and then winced. "Okay, so maybe that was a bad example."
"I'm not Abby, and you're not Connor."
"Well, then you'd better stop me, hadn't you," she teased, feeling even braver than before because he hadn't moved away. He had, in fact, come a half-step closer.
She leaned in close enough to feel his breath warm on her cheek as she brushed her lips against his. He held stock still at first, and then opened his mouth beneath hers, one hand coming up to curl around her neck.
They kissed for what seemed like forever, until Becker pulled back, his fingers tracing the curve of her jaw.
"You are completely bonkers, you know that?" he said as he leaned his forehead against hers.
"Bonkers, but brilliant," she said softly. "Right, Becky?"
"I'm going to regret telling you that, aren't I?"
"Probably," she admitted, pressing another light kiss to his mouth.