Author's note: Huge thanks to Kawcrow for last minute betaing.
Lou didn't even look up as Kyle shut the door of her office with a quiet click.
"I want you to talk to Jake."
"Okay." He nodded, used to her moods after four years of working closely together. She'd been grimmer than usual, lately. But then, their situation had been fairly grim, so he couldn't begrudge her that. "About what?"
"Find out what's going on between him and Diane. How far it's gone."
That wasn't what he was expecting. He felt the frown settle over his features before he could stop it. "Lou..."
Her eyes snapped up to meet his. "This isn't a request, Kyle."
Inwardly, Kyle sighed. He hadn't told her about finding the two of them together in the men's room before Ben Wilton had died. In fact, he had no intention of doing so.
Suddenly, he was intensely glad he hadn't, and that worried him slightly.
The solidarity that they had shared, banding together against Warner after the Varcon gas incident had slowly evaporated, leaving unease in its place as Lou began to grow more brittle beneath Warner's scrutiny. It hadn't helped that, when Warner had put forth the theory that Jake might have colluded with DuMont, Lou hadn't immediately shot it down. Which meant neither could Kyle. While he genuinely believed no force on earth could have prompted Jake to working willingly with DuMont, Lou hadn't been so sure.
By the second week of Jake's absence, Kyle himself had wondered if Jake had really gone rogue. And then the events surrounding Wilton's death hadn't exactly helped. Kyle was ashamed to admit that he had been willing to believe Jake might haveunconsciouslybeen responsible. Diane had been the only one who'd never doubted Jake's innocence. And even he could see there was a wedge being driven straight through the heart of the team, and by default, his position was to serve as buffer between Lou and Jake and Diane, much the same way Lou saw herself as the last line of defence between her team and Warner.
Things had changed, over the last few months. Finding the listening devices in Lou's office and the medlab had changed everything. She hadn't wanted to alarm Jake or Diane, but she had confided fully in Kyle that when the higher-ups were stooping to bugging their subordinates, all bets were off and this was war. And in war, there were casualties.
Neither of them wanted to see Jake become one of them. However, since Skerrit had stepped back and let Warner run roughshod over his protégé, Lou Beckett had changed. That change might be the only thing keeping Jake alive.
Kyle just wasn't sure if it was for the better.
"What about Diane?" he asked, cautiously.
"I'll talk to Diane."
She looked back down at the report on her desk, effectively dismissing him.
Jake was at his workstation in Sat Ops as Kyle approached, his head bent close to Carver's as he pointed out something on her screen. He looked up as Kyle loomed over him, and Kyle pretended not to see Carver scurrying to close a web browser window that appeared to have the latest Strong Bad flash cartoon playing in it.
"You wanna go for a beer?" Kyle asked, without preamble.
"It's kinda early, isn't it?"
"Yeah. So, wanna go for a beer?" he repeated, and saw Carver out of the corner of his eye pointedly not looking in his direction.
"Sure." Confusion and a hint of worry shone in Jake's brown eyes. "I mean, I guess."
"You wanted to see me?" Diane said from the doorway of Lou's office.
"Please, take a seat," Lou said genially, gesturing to the red fabric-covered sofa against the wall.
"Is everything okay? What's going on? They're not cutting our funding, are they? Because you can tell them that there's a really good reason why we needed that additional"
"They're not cutting our funding," Lou assured her as she stepped out from behind the desk.
"Oh." Diane let out a breath she hadn't been aware she was holding. Her hand, which had gone to her neck to wrap her fingers around the amber pendant which hung suspended from a thin silver chain, dropped to her lap. "Then what did you...?"
"I wanted the two of us to... talk." Lou leaned against the front of it casually, her arms crossed.
Diane's eyes narrowed suspiciously at Lou's tone. It was that carefully open, friendly tone that people used when they were anything but. And given the last few "discussions" she'd had with Lou, Director Beckett as her New Best Friend seemed to go beyond "highly unlikely" straight into "mirror universe."
"Talk," she repeated, her back suddenly that bit straighter, and her hands tightened on her knees. She was unable to escape the dread curling in the pit of her stomach at Lou's faint smile and guileless brown eyes. It was as if she was ten years old and being called to the principal's office.
"Are you and Jake sleeping together?"
Diane's mouth dropped open in shock. "What?"
"It's a simple question," Lou countered, still damnably calm.
"I don't see how my personal life would be any of your business" Diane began angrily.
"I beg to differ," Lou said, a hint of steel finally creeping into her reasonable, measured demeanour. "This project has been on thin ice from day one. And as the head of this team, it's my responsibility to ensure that nothing jeopardises either the project or the team. As much as I personally believe this project cannot succeed without its chief researcher, if push comes to shove and the people upstairs see otherwise, I will pull you off this project. Because I won't have a choice. And neither will you."
"I would never do anything..." Like a punch to the gut, Lou's accusation had knocked the wind out of Diane's sails. She simply couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Lou, nothing is more important to me than this project."
"I don't think that's strictly true."
"Whawhat do you mean?"
"I mean that you have proven through your actions time and time again that Jake is your prioritynot this project. Not this team. Not the NSA. Jake. Seattle and Philadelphia are proof of that, so please don't waste my time or yours trying to deny it."
Diane deflated. She knew what this was, now. And she'd been half-expecting it ever since Jake had come back from Philadelphia. She supposed she'd just been lulled into a false sense of security when weeks went by, and there appeared to be no fall-out from her actions. She should have known better. Lou didn't let anything slip through the cracks.
"Where is Jake? Why isn't he getting 'the talk' too?" Diane asked, aware that she sounded sullen, and not caring.
"Kyle's giving him the talk, as you so eloquently put it."
The bartender set two Coronas down in front of Kyle and Jake, a wedge of lime stuck in the mouth of each chilled bottle.
"So, you and Diane...?" Kyle asked as he dropped the mangled chunk of fruit to the paper napkin and took a swig of his beer.
Jake froze midway in the act of lifting his own bottle to his lips. "Nope," he said after he swallowed.
"You and Jake are very close," Lou observed, and Diane shifted in her seat. The coffee table between them was suddenly a demilitarised zone. Lou had made no move to join Diane on the couch, and standing, loomed slightly over her due to her diminutive size coupled with the fact that the sofa was low to the ground. It made her feel small, and she realised that was the point.
"And you thinkyou think that our being 'close' is somehow a threat to the team?"
"You tell me. You purposefully withheld information regarding Jake's status from both Kyle and me. You enlisted Dr. Yoshida in your little escapades, jeopardising her career may I add. In both cases, you were damn lucky that the entire thing didn't blow up in your face. If it had, it wouldn't have just been your career you would have torpedoed. It could have cost Jake his life."
"I didn't know what else to do."
"What you could have doneand what you should have donewas keep Kyle and me in the loop. And not lie to us, and withhold information from us which could have brought Jake home safe and sound that much sooner."
"Lou, you weren't there," Diane said, desperation creeping into her voice. "You don't know what it was like. There's no way he would have ever let you take him back to the NSA. You didn't know what Benton and DuMont had done to him. There's no way he would have come backnot without hurting people along the way."
"No, you don't know that, Diane. And we will never know what could have or would have happened. But what scares me is that you made an assumption and then you acted on it. And that assumption was that I don't give a damn about Jake, and that you're the only one who does."
"Well can you blame me?" Diane finally exploded. "You just stood there in Sat Ops, listening to that police radio broadcast. When those shots were fired, we didn't know that we weren't listening to him dying, alone, and afraid, in some dingy boarding house with no idea who he was or that his only crime was trusting us. We did this to him. He never asked to become a lab rat, and I for one refuse to treat him like one."
As if shocked by her own outburstfor real this time, as opposed to her little performance in Sat OpsDiane struggled to compose herself. She wanted Lou to listen to her; not simply reject her fears out of hand, writing them off as the emotional outbursts of a love-sick idiot.
"Lou, I did... I did what I did to protect Jake. And I know it was against regulations. And I know that I got in over my head and you and Kyle had to come bail me out. I know that. But I didn't know what else to do. Warner was convinced Jake had sold us out and you and Kyleyou just seemed to have already written him off. He didn't have anybody in his corner. Except me."
"Are you quite finished?"
"Iyes. I guess."
"Do you know why there was no disciplinary action, regarding your actions in Philadelphia?"
Diane shook her head.
"Because I lied to my superiors when I prepared my report. I doctored events to cover up your actions. Your mistakes. I let the Executive Director of the NSA believe that I was in complete control of the situation. Because had the full truththe fact that you falsified reports, lied to me about the status of Jake's monitoring device, used government resources to further your own personal agenda in violation of a direct order from your superior, and enlisted the aid of another member of your team to perpetuate your charadehad that truth come out, you'd be up on charges, Kyle would have been hung out to dry, and Jake? Jake would be in some lab somewhere possibly being dissected. Now, what does that sound like to you?"
"I never meant toI didn't"
"You didn't think, Diane. You let your personal feelings cloud your judgement, and the rest of us had to cover for you."
Diane flinched, and Lou continued.
"What if Jake had gone through with that robbery? What if he'd been killed, fighting in that back room? He may have nanites, but he's not invincible. He's not Superman. You, of all people, should know that."
Behind her glasses, Diane could feel tears of helpless anger burning in her eyes, and she tried to will herself to calm down. Regressing to the emotional sensitivity of a teenager wasn't going to help this situation, only exacerbate it. Her nails dug into her palms as she blinked rapidly, hating the flush she could feel in her cheeks as Lou's words washed over her.
"I know this is hard for you to believe, but I want to protect Jake, too," Lou said, her face softening slightly at Diane's obvious distress. But the respite was short-lived as she continued, caught somewhere between exasperation and righteous anger. "But I can't do that if you keep me in the dark. I cannot help Jake if I am not in full possession of the facts. Of all the information. And that means that whether you like it or notor whether you like me or notI am never, ever to be lied to or left out of the loop where this team and this project is concerned ever again."
Lou's dark eyes bore into her, and Diane felt like a butterfly pinned by her gaze.
"Now, I am going to ask you again, and you are going to answer me. Are you and Jake conducting an illicit affair behind my back?"
"I mean, she's got that whole Sexy Librarian thing going, with the glasses and the lab coat..."
The waitress whisked away their empties, and brought two more beers. Kyle was still nursing his second, but Jake was already on his third, and warming to the subject.
"Yeah." Kyle chuckled. "I can see that. Not that Iyou know. Not really my type."
"No. No. It's okay."
They had moved from the taproom to a booth in the back, near the plaque which stated George Washington had stopped there in 1793. Kyle wondered if it had been a cop bar then, as it was now. Luckily, it was still too early for the off-duty NSA crowd. Which was why Kyle had chosen it.
"I mean, she's cute," Kyle said, taking a long pull off his beer.
"I like it when she does the penlight thing," Jake said wistfully.
"But you're not..." Kyle prompted, and Jake shook his head.
"No. We're best friends."
They lifted their beers in companionable silence.
"We're just friends," Diane said softly, and thankfully her voice didn't break. That would have been more humiliation than she currently thought she could bear.
"Just friends," Lou prompted.
"That's all we've ever been. And maybe there mightmaybe there would be more. But there isn't. Because we work together. And it's the NSA." A note of bitterness crept into her voice.
"Diane? There is a reason why the NSA frowns upon fraternisation between team members. Do you know what the reason is?"
"Because we're cogs in a machine, and that machine is more important than any one individual?"
"No," Lou corrected without venom. "Because it saves livespure and simple."
She finally crossed from the desk to the couch, perching on the edge next to Diane, who scooted over a few inches despite the fact that there was a foot between them.
"There are three men out there who are alive because I left Alex Brandt for dead in Serbia five years ago," Lou said quietly.
Diane blinked in confusion. "I don't understand what that has to do with"
"Alex Brandt and I spent eleven months meeting in hotel rooms and safe houses on assignment all over the world, behind the backs of our superiors."
Diane couldn't tell if she was more surprised at the admission, or that Lou had chosen to reveal the fact to her.
"I... I didn't know," she finally said in a small voice.
"No. No one knowsat least, not beyond rumour and speculation. We broke it off when I took the head of field operations job. We worked together for another year. And we tried to pretend it never happened, but that was pretty pointless. It informed every decision I made. It coloured every action. It was the elephant in the middle of the room for far too long.
"And I turned my back on him, and those three men lived, and I didn't care. Because I'd chosen my career over a man I thought I might have loved, and then it didn't matter because he died anyway.
"When I saw the flames, I wasn't thinking about the mission. I wasn't thinking about the agents bleeding out in the snow thousands of miles from home. I wasn't thinking about the men and women under my command. I was thinking about Alexand more than anything, I wanted to run in there after him. Instead, I turned my back on a man I'd loved.
"I spent five years haunted by that choice. Ben Wilton paid for that choice, with his lifean innocent bystander to my personal soap opera that almost cost us Jake as well.
"All because when I should have been doing my job, I let myself be blinded by a relationship I never should have started in the first place. So when I tell you that there are reasons why that regulation exists, I'm not just quoting chapter and verse."
Diane frowned, trying to phrase her response carefully as if she was walking through a minefield and any misstep would blow her sky-high. "Even if we didn'teven if we never... I care about him, Lou. Every time he goes out there, every mission, I worry about him. I can't just turn off how I feel."
"I'm not asking you to stop caring about Jake," Lou said, her tone sympathetic. "What I am asking is that you learn to step back and see the big picture. In the end, it's as much for Jake as it is for you. I'm not asking you to blindly serve. But I am asking you to understand that as absurd as it sounds, there is no room for secrecy in this business. I can't protect Jake or the project, if I don't have your full co-operation. If you don't tell me what's really going on. Have I made myself clear?"
Diane nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"Good." The moment between them of intimacy created by shared confidences was gone, vanished like mist burned off by strong sunlight. "You can go."
"Thank you," Diane said, not sure what else to say. Then she fled Lou's office.
"Kyle?" Jake asked as Kyle handed the bartender a twenty and shrugged on his coat. "What's with all the questions? Is something going on?"
"Nothing you need to worry about," Kyle assured him. "Just..."
"Walk soft, where Diane's concerned for a while. Especially around Lou."
Jake nodded slowly, and they stepped out into the damp and cool Baltimore evening.
Kyle knocked lightly on Lou's door before entering. She was sitting at her desk still, just as she had been that afternoon. But no files were open before her, and she appeared lost in thought. Kyle stopped just short of the corner of the desk, idly wondering if he'd worn a hole in the carpet yet in this particular spot. It always seemed to be the closest he got to her, these days.
"According to Jake, they're just friends."
"Do you believe him?" she asked, sounding weary.
"I have no reason not to."
Her smile was grim. "I'll hold you to that."
"Lou? What's really going on?"
She leaned back in the chair, lifting her chin a fraction. "It was time someone read Dr. Hughes the riot act. I should have done it after that mess in Seattle, but it never occurred to me she'd pull the same stunt twice. Not a mistake I'll be making again."
"No offence, but you do realise that this is most likely shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted, right?"
The line of her mouth tightened slightly. "Someone around here has to make the hard choices, Kyle. I learned a long time ago to accept that, more often than not, that someone is me. She doesn't have to like me. All she has to do is trust me."
"If you'd asked me a month ago, I'd have said she liked and trusted you."
"I'm serious, Lou." He sighed. "Look, something went down with the two of them in Philadelphia. We both know that. But it looks like they're handling it themselves. You're the one who always says we're supposed to use a scalpel, not a baseball bat."
"And your point?"
"Is this really about Jake and Diane? Or is this about Alex?"
"It has everything to do with Alex."
His surprise at her forthrightness must have shown on his face.
"I want her to learn from my mistakes," Lou continued. "And if she can't do that, then I want her to follow my goddamn orders."
Kyle digested this information, and then decided to take a chance, knowing he was potentially crossing a line. But it was a line that he felt needed crossing.
"I know you want Diane to learn from your mistakes. But punishing her and Jake for your sins? That's a little medieval even for you. And I say that as your friend."
"I'm not looking for a friend right now, Kyle. I'm looking at my second in command and expecting him to back me up."
"I've always got your back. You know that."
"Good. We've a briefing at 0800. You should probably head home."
The dismissal stung slightly, but Kyle accepted it. He had no other choice. When he reached the door, however, he turned back to her.
"I know Warner's playing hardball. But you don't have to out-bitch her just to keep up."
"I'll keep that in mind."