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Author's note: Thanks as always to my faboo betas, particularly Yahtzee and lierdumoa.

Status Quo
by LJC

Monday, February 9, 2004
8:22 am

As he entered the medlab, Jake was greeted by the sound of breaking glass and Diane's sharp "Dammit!"

She was standing in the middle of the lab, a tray and the remains of a glass beaker at her feet.

"Are you okay?" he asked he grabbed some paper towels and bent down to help her clean up the mess.

"I'm fine." She crossed briskly to the waste bin, dumping a handful of towels and glass. "Ow!"

Blood oozed from a small cut on her palm, and Jake took her hand.

"Let me see." With his nano-enhanced vision he zoomed in on her palm. "It's no big deal. It's just a splinter of glass." He led her over to the sink and, dampening a paper towel, carefully cleaned the cut.

"That was so stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid," she muttered as she got the first aid kit from the shelf, digging through it with one hand for some disinfectant ointment and a bandage.

"Hey—hey, it's just a beaker. I'm sure the NSA will buy you a whole case. You're their star doctor, after all."

"Yeah." She let him take the bandage out of her fingers and peel off the wrapper. She hissed as he pressed it over the cut.

"Y'okay?" he asked, and she shrugged.

"I'm okay."

"You don't seem okay."

"It's just—I hate February." The venom in her voice surprised him.

"Is it the whole cold, wet, grey thing?" he asked.

"No, it's the two hours on the phone, listening to my mother go on and on about my cousin's kids, and dropping not so subtle hints about how happy Aunt Margie is to be a grandmother—never mind." She sighed, and picked up the tray from the floor, setting it on the counter. "Just—never mind."

"Your mom should meet my mom."

She sank into her chair. "She actually asked me if I'd thought about trying speed dating. She got on the internet and downloaded a bunch of D.C. web sites, and emailed them to me this morning."

She turned her laptop screen towards him so he could see. The subject line read THINKING OF YOU, HONEY!!! and he winced in sympathy.

"My mom has set me up on so many blind dates, I should get a free dog. Over Christmas it was her pharmacist's daughter. Thanksgiving was the girl who works as the receptionist at my dad's office. I guess I can understand, considering Jerry's her only other hope for grandkids. That's genetic material that should not be passed on, you know?"

"You think I would have been off the hook when my sister got married—but no. No, it's not enough that she's got one daughter married off. Now it's all 'What happened to that nice boy from work you were seeing?' What am I supposed to say? Gee, Mom, he seemed really great until he tried to kidnap me and sell my brain to the Russians. Oh yeah. That would go over great."

Jake took a seat on the edge of her desk. "I'm sure my folks would be thrilled that my last date was suicidal, homicidal, and ended up in a Federal minimum security prison. Bad enough Jerry knows about Sarah." He shuddered.

"It's like, unless you're with someone, you don't count. Like you're a total loser just because you're not half of a couple. And then for weeks there's just this—this... barrage from every side. The grocery store, and TV—"

"—flowers, cards, chocolate—" Jake filled in, getting into the spirit of her rant.

"Oh, and the stupid TV movies—"

"—constant commercials for perfume, diamonds... if I hear that annoying DeBeers song one more time—"

"Exactly! It's like the entire month of February exists to keep FTD, Hallmark and Hershey's in business."

"So I take it you have no plans for Valentine's Day."

Diane cupped her cheek in her hand, the picture of abject misery. "I dunno, does ritual suicide count as a plan?"

"You know, a friend was telling me about this disease. You might have heard of it. It's called the Single Syndrome?"

That got a glimmer of a smile out of her, which quickly faded. "I just want to crawl into bed and have somebody wake me when it's March."

"Seriously—what are your plans this week-end?" Jake asked, the beginning of an idea sparking in his brain.

"Shunning the world at large. Possibly while eating ice-cream."

"You up for company?"

"What do you have in mind?"

"We could rent some DVDs."

"The First Annual Losers In Love movie marathon?" Diane suggested, the ghost of a smile back in place.

"I'll even bring the rocky road," Jake said with a wink.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The canteen at the NSA was pretty much like any government cafeteria, with long steam tables of the sort of food that made airline meals look appetising. Jake watched Diane grab a pre-packaged chicken Caesar salad from the stack in the refrigerated case, and fell in behind her in line for the cashier.

"Okay," Diane said as she set her tray with her salad and water bottle down in front of the bored-looking girl (with a startling number of ear piercings for the NSA) at the cash register. "Ground rules: Nothing directed by Nora Ephram, or involving any A-list actor dying beautifully from a fatal disease."

"I think that sounds do-able." He fished a five dollar bill out of his pocket as Diane collected her change from the little plastic tray. "Never been much of a Meg Ryan fan, or—what's that one? The bad remake of the bad movie with the blonde from The Astronaut's Wife?"

"Oh, God! Oh my God, that's so bad!" Diane laughed as they started walking towards their usual table, which had a great view of the parking lot behind the Operations building. Outside, the grey skies of that morning had started to give way to weak winter sunlight, patches of blue appearing between the heavy clouds that threatened snow that would no doubt melt the second it hit the ground. Jake was always amazed how mild winter in the District was, compared to Ohio.

"Yeah, but what's it called?"

"Sweet November," she said as she popped open the plastic to-go container and poured the tiny cup of dressing over the grilled chicken, lettuce, and croutons. The seating area was only half full, as techs from all over the building took their lunches in shifts and it was still relatively early. Since Diane tended to come to work at the crack of dawn, and Jake usually skipped breakfast, they'd fallen into the habit of eating together a few times a week. On the other side of the canteen he could see Carver, with her habitual tray with nothing but yoghurt and a banana. Behind her, making small talk, was Tech Agent Hart.

"Yes! I love Keanu, don't get me wrong—"

"You don't love Keanu. You love The Matrix," she pointed out around a mouthful of chicken.

"Hey—I am a devotee of Mr Reeves career," Jake insisted. "Bill and Ted? Classic. Speed? Kick-ass, and gotta say—I have no issues with Sandra Bullock. Johnny Mnemonic, however... bit of a mis-step. Bit of a career mis-step."

"I always get that one mixed up with the one with Denzel."

"Yes. Everyone made bad cyberpunk movies that year. I think, freshman year at Georgetown, I saw every single one of them a hundred times. Never work in a movie theatre. I mean, it can be cool. Or it can really, really suck."

Jake inspected his burrito with something approaching scepticism. He opened his can of Mountain Dew, which fizzed, forcing him to quickly sip off the violently-green liquid which covered the lid of the can to keep it from spilling. He'd sworn off the soda a while back, only to discover that even the nanites were useless against caffeine headaches. And at the rate he burned calories, thanks to his souped-up metabolism, it wasn't like he really had to worry about the sugar any more.

"God, where was I in—what year was Johnny Mnemonic?"

"1995," Jake replied without even having to reach for it, a fact that might have embarrassed him, had he been in different company.

"'95 was my... sophomore year? Junior year? Something like that? Of undergrad. Oh my God, that was so long ago. That was nine years ago. No wonder my mother is on my case. I'm old."

Jake almost choked on his first bite of lunch. "You're not old!"

"I'm so old—my cousin Cathy has three kids, and I haven't had a boyfriend that wasn't evil in... in way too long."

"Wait a sec, you were a junior in '95? Were you, like, twelve when you graduated high school?"

She shrugged, wiping her fingers on a paper napkin. "I skipped a grade. Or two. And then I kinda fast-tracked into my graduate program."

"You were lecturing me how quote-unquote normal nineteen year olds have no focus—and you were all Wonder Woman at nineteen."

"I don't know that I was all that focused, exactly. I mean, I was. Sorta. I took all these classes and everything. I didn't have anything better to do than study, I guess. You know?" She suddenly seemed way more interested in her salad, pushing pieces of lettuce around with her plastic fork.

"Yeah. I kinda do." He gave her a sympathetic smile. "So. Saturday—no Meg Ryan. Rocky Road. Got it."

Friday, February 13, 2004
6:41 p.m.

"I can't believe you're vetoing The Godfather Trilogy," Jake said into his cellphone as Kyle came up behind his workstation in Sat Ops. "Okay—okay. We'll do a St. Valentine's Day massacre marathon some other week-end..." Jake looked up into Kyle's expectant face. "I gotta go. Talk to you soon."

"Hey," Jake said as casually as he could as he flipped his cellphone closed.

Kyle raised a brow. "You got a hot date?"

"No—Diane and I are just gonna watch some movies. Me, I say in the spirit of the season, we should do the Die Hard trilogy. Counter the whole sappy romance thing with some good solid gunfire and explosions and Bruce Willis thing. But she's kinda pushing for the new Hitchcock box set. I mean, we did North by Northwest a while back, but she really has a thing for the Jimmy Stewart ones."

"You guys do this a lot?"

"I dunno, every other week or so." Jake shrugged. "It's been a rough couple of months, what with the whole Sarah thing and that jerk Clemens and all. You know how it is. It sucks to be single in February."

"I hear ya."

"What happened with Megan?" Jake asked, lowering his voice slightly, since he wasn't sure that Kyle's love life was—or should be—common knowledge.

"Perils of the job," Kyle replied, more sanguine than Jake would have been had the situation been reversed. "After I cancelled the third date in a row during that whole mess with the Albanians, she stopped returning my calls."



"Yeah. Maybe order some food, have a bottle of wine. I'm trying to teach her to appreciate the genius that is Rush. She's more of an angry piano chick kind of girl than power bands. But I'm working on it."

"Your place or hers?"


"You gonna wear a clean shirt?"

"Of course I'm going to—Kyle! What the hell?" Jake suddenly realised that, in his own special Kyle way, his mentor was teasing him.

"You do realise that what you've described would, in most civilised countries, be termed a date, right?" Kyle said, laying a hand on Jake's shoulder, his expression one of infinite patience and understanding as he instructed his protégé in the realities of life.

"A date—no. Kyle! I mean, we just—She was having a really bad day, and we were venting about how much Valentine's sucks when you're single, and I just asked if she wanted company."


Jake shook off Kyle's hand, annoyed. Having been the older sibling in his own family, he wasn't quite used to the reversal of fortune yet. "We're just hanging out."

"So, you're telling me that if I were to come over some night after work to hang out, you'd crack a nice bottle of wine, maybe put on some music?"

Jake closed his eyes in pain. "Okay—that is a mental image I did not need."

"Which only underscores my point," Kyle said smoothly.

Jake opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again. He took a deep breath, trying to be Zen about this. "It's not a date," he said simply.


"It's not a date!"

Kyle held up his hands in a placating gesture. "I heard you the first time."

Jake suddenly paused, bringing an hand to his mouth as the implication hit him. "Oh my God, what if Diane thinks it's a date?"

"You could always ask her," Kyle suggested.

"No!" Jake said perhaps too forcefully, and then dropped his voice down to barely above a whisper, as both Carver and Hart's heads swivelled in his direction at the outburst. "Are you kidding me? If it's not a date, and I ask her if it's a date, then she'll think I'm like the biggest moron in the western world, and if it is a date and I don't know that it's a date—"

Kyle nodded, ponderous. "It's a lose-lose situation."

"How do I tell? How would I tell if she thinks it's a date?"

"If she shaves her legs, then it's definitely a date."

"What if she's wearing jeans?"

"Good point. Too bad the nanites don't give you X-Ray vision."

"Kyle? I'm serious. How can I tell without contriving to feel up her calves?"

"You may be over-thinking this."

Jake shook his head, suddenly feeling panic welling up in his chest. "No. No, I'm really not. I don't think I've given this enough thought. If I had, then I wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place—"

"Well, when you asked her out—"

"I did not ask her out!" Jake hissed. Jake swore he heard a snicker from two rows over, despite the fact that he was pretty sure Carver hadn't actually heard him.

"When you made plans to spend Valentine's Day with her," Kyle corrected in low tones, obviously amused, "what was going through your mind?"


"How very Cold War of you."

Lou materialised behind Kyle, arms crossed. "Is there a problem, gentlemen?" she asked, glancing back and forth from Kyle to Jake.

"No. No problem. Not a single thing—" Jake said quickly.

Kyle cut him off with a look. "We're fine, Lou."

"Good. Then cut the chatter and get back to work." She included Kyle in her sweeping gaze.

"Yes, ma'am," Jake said meekly.

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 be 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?"


"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—"


"You know, for President's Day."


"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 wouldn't 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.


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

Saturday, February 14, 2004
7:37 p.m.

Diane fled into the kitchen, idiot idiot idiot reverberating through her brain as she fished through her drawer for a corkscrew.

She had to face reality, no matter how unlikely it may be.

She was on a date.

She still wasn't sure how it had happened. But their week-end of jeans and ice-cream and things exploding had somehow morphed into an honest-to-God date. Sure, Jake was wearing jeans and a sweater. But then, she'd seen Jake on a date. That was what he wore on a date. And the jeans were clean, and looked like he'd maybe even ironed them and where the hell was her corkscrew?

She yanked open all three drawers where things lived in her kitchen, and surveyed them with dismay. She owned a corkscrew. She knew she did. She'd seen it.

Now when they ordered food, she'd have to think about what she would order. There was the whole garlic thing to consider, not to mention the fact that there was the whole messy food thing. She was okay with chopsticks, but not great with chopsticks. And tucking a napkin into her cleavage to block sweet and sour chicken should it head south wasn't really the sexy.

The sexy. She was actually seriously worried about looking sexy. For Jake.

"Oh my God, what am I doing?" she muttered as she dug around in the back of a drawer. "What am I—"

"Everything okay in here?" Jake's voice behind her froze her in her tracks. She glanced back over her shoulder. He was standing in the doorway, looking amused and concerned all at once.

"Yeah—yeah. No, my corkscrew is just hiding." She gestured to the drawers. "I know I have one. I've had wine. Here. Before. Before now."

"Were you on the phone?"

"No. No. Just talking to myself like... um.. you know, how people do," she finished lamely.

"Yeah. Yeah, I do that all the time." He looked down into one of the drawers, and pulled out a yellow plastic corkscrew. "This what you're looking for?'

"Yeah." She flushed. "Eagle eyes."

"Didn't even have to use the nanites."

She took two glasses from the cupboard, setting them down next to the wine. "Um... so... I was thinking about food. I mean, if you're hungry. For more than chocolate, I mean. 'Cause if we're gonna polish that off on our own," she pointed to the bottle sitting on the counter, "maybe we should eat first. So we don't fall down."

He raised a brow. "You might swoon?"

"I might. It wouldn't be pretty." She grabbed the glasses, and he took the bottle and elusive corkscrew and followed her back out to the living room.

She pushed the box of chocolates to the side, snagging another one as he peeled the foil away from the cork. She bit into the truffle, and then made a face.

Jake froze in the fact of twisting the metal corkscrew into the cork. "What?"

"Orange—wasn't expecting it." She made a mental note as to what the mandarin orange truffle looked like, so she wouldn't get any more of those.

"You don't like orange?"

"Too sweet. Though these—" she held up one of the dark chocolate espresso truffles, "—these more than make up for it."

"I'll take your word for it," Jake laughed, and she realised she'd pretty much decimated the espresso truffle population.

"No, wait—Here." She scooted closer, and since his hands were full with the wine, held the truffle up so he could take a bite. It wasn't until he cautiously bit into the sweet that it penetrated her fuzzy brain that she was feeding him chocolate.

"It's good, right?" she prompted, trying to cover the fact that she'd just crossed a line completely unintentionally.

Jake chewed, nodding. She licked sugar and cinnamon off her fingers, trying to act nonchalant as an awkward silence stretched between them.

"So—food. Pizza? Chinese? Thai?" Jake said once he'd swallowed.

"How about, um, something that involves forks?"

"We can do forks," he said, nodding. "Or burgers. Burgers involve no utensils of any kind. And it's red wine—always goes well with red meat." He wrestled the cork free with a "pop" and he poured himself a glass first. "Or—there's Italian. Or food from other countries we haven't sampled. Together, I mean."

"Yeah." She held out her glass for him to pour. "Italian sounds good."

His hand brushed her as he steadied the glass, and she almost jerked her fingers away at the sudden contact. Their knees were almost touching, and Jake seemed transfixed by the amount of bare leg exposed by the slit up the side of her skirt.

She glanced from the glass back down to her leg. Had she cut herself this morning? Was there a run in her nylons? Did she have any weird bruises? She was always barking her shins on something, which was one of the main reasons she wore pants to work.

"Um, Jake? I think that might be enough—" she began, as wine sloshed over the side of her glass, spattering the hem of her skirt and her ankle. "Whoa!"

"God, I'm so sorry!" He blinked, as if emerging from a trance.

"It's okay," she insisted, glancing around her for something to mop up the spill. If she hadn't cleaned that afternoon, there would have been a stack of napkins on the table from the previous night's take-out. This was why she didn't usually obsessively tidy, she decided. It was more trouble than it was worth.

Jake pulled a wad of tissues out of his pocket, and began blotting her skirt. "I don't know what the hell I was doing, I'm so sorry—"

"It's just a skirt." She stilled his hand with hers, a flush creeping up her neck when he didn't move away. "Um... I'm gonna—I have jeans in the other room—"

He jerked back as if her touch had burned him. "No. yeah. God, I'm so sorry."

"I'll just be a minute."

She ran to the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. This entire night was just spiralling out of control, and he hadn't even been here for a full hour yet. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been this nervous. Even her first night out with Steve had been less fraught with trauma. It felt like everything she said or did was coming out wrong. As she fumbled with the zipper on the skirt, she heard something beeping. Hopping out of the skirt, she located her bag on the floor next to the bed, and began fishing through it.


She came up with the JMD, the readouts and displays on the tiny screen scrolling data so fast she could barely read it. She stood in the middle of her bedroom in her underwear, staring at the information streaming in from Jake's nanites.

Suddenly many things became clear.

Saturday, February 14, 2004
8:03 p.m.

Jake got a sponge from the kitchen, and began wiping up the droplets of wine he'd managed to get all over the hardwood floor next to the coffee table, all the while mentally cursing Kyle in every language he knew swear words in. His Serbo-Croatian lacked the usual epithets, but he could make up some new ones with the nouns and verbs he did have. You could do a lot with "mother", "cheese," and "gun" if you were really motivated.

So she'd shaved her legs. That didn't mean anything. Not a thing. Women—in his limited experience—shaved their legs all the time, without it being a harbinger of anything dire. But thanks to nerves and the nanites, he'd zeroed right in on her calf and had been unable to tear his eyes away.

She'd fed him chocolate. Okay, that was new. And unexpected.

This was all Kyle's fault. Somehow, someway, he was going to pin this on his mentor and concoct some elaborate revenge that would take days to unfold. Slowly. Painfully. Perhaps involving Lafortunata. Yeah. That would work. Rocket launchers and guys with throwing knives didn't make Kyle pale and run away like a girl the way just mentioning Seymour did... This was a plan.

He was still on his knees, sponge in hand, when Diane emerged from the bedroom. She'd changed into jeans, and something about her was different. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but it was making him even more nervous than the whole truffle incident had.

"We need to talk," she said, taking the sponge from him and pointing to the couch. "Sit."

"Okay." He took a seat, hands folded in his lap. She dropped the sponge on the table and wiped her hands on the legs of her jeans as sat down next to him.

"Jake, are you nervous?" she asked flat out, and he swallowed.

"Nervous? No! No—why would I be—yes. God, yes." He closed his eyes. "It's that noticeable? That you're noticing it?"

"Yes." She took a deep breath, her eyes sliding away from his guiltily. "Also, I kinda snuck a peek at the JMD while I was in my room—"

"Diane!" He felt utterly betrayed, that she would be monitoring them on a date.

"Well, it was in my bag all blinking and beeping!" She crossed her arms, lifting her chin a fraction in defiance. "Kinda hard to ignore."

"Great. So, here I am, all trying to be smooth, and meanwhile the nanites are sending you instant messages telling me my heart rate and blood pressure are up—"

"Well, yes, actually. And your adrenals were all—You were trying to be smooth?"

"Maybe," he admitted sheepishly. "A little."

"Why were you trying to be smooth?" Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"So you wouldn't think I was an idiot?"

"I never thought you were an idiot," she protested. "Except for those moments when you actually were being an idiot, and I actually called you an idiot."

"Well, yeah. But that was at work. Not... not at work."

"Jake, what are we doing?" Her eyes searched his, and he felt his stomach do flips.

"Um... spending an evening together?"

"No. I mean, what are we doing?" She spread her arms wide, taking in the flowers and the chocolate and the awkwardness and the whole evening in the simple gesture.

"I dunno. One minute, it was all Die Hard and solidarity. And the next minute, Kyle was all 'Are you gonna wear a clean shirt?' And that was it—that was the beginning of the end."

She looked confused. "Kyle asked you about your shirt?"

"And I started to think about how disappointed you would be, if you thought we were going on a date, and then it wasn't a date, and then suddenly it was a date—"

"I'm still unclear on where the shirt comes into this."

"Then when I got here, you just looked so—I mean, really great, and that shirt—Just-just great." He tripped over the compliment, and she was just looking at him, her expression unreadable. "And you were wearing contacts, and the only other time I'd seen you without your glasses was at the wedding and then when you were at the carnival with Clemens—and that was definitely a date. And you wore that skirt—"

"You remember what I was wearing? You were on a date with Sarah, and you were noticing what I was wearing?"

"Well, you looked so nice," he shrugged, feeling his ears starting to burn with an unwanted blush.

She buried her face in her hands. "No wonder Fran thinks we're dating."

"Hey, I'm not the one who started feeding—Fran thinks we're dating?" Jake blinked. Somehow, it had never occurred to him that Kyle might not be alone in his suppositions regarding his and Diane's relationship.

"I kept telling her it wasn't like that—but then I wasn't sure, and I changed clothes something like four times—"

"How long has Fran thought we were dating?"

"Then you show up with flowers—really, really gorgeous, expensive, date-like flowers. And you brought movies where people kiss and stuff, instead of blow up office buildings! What was I supposed to think?"

"So you admit that Han and Leia are, like, the couple—"

"Don't change the subject!" She waggled a finger at him, all cute and fierce. "Do you see? Do you see why I might be thinking this was a date?"

"I only thought it was a date because I thought that you thought—okay, I think my brain hurts."

"I think I need more wine." She reached for her glass, and drained half of it in one swallow.

"I thought you said you'd fall down?"

"Oh, I will." She tipped the glass back, draining it, and he laughed.

"What's wrong with us?" he asked, some of the tension draining away. What had started feeling like the worst first date of all time was slowly settling back into the comfort zone he'd been so desperately missing since she'd first opened the door, and he'd stepped into the Twilight Zone.

"Other than a potentially terminal case of Single Syndrome?" Her smile was rueful and slightly self-mocking.

"This whole day has just been so weird, and not..."

"Yeah. Not." She sighed, cupping her chin in her hand.

Jake turned slightly towards her, serious and sincere. "Look, Diane, the thing I like the most about hanging out with you is that it's not all weird, and confusing, and awkward—I had Sarah for awkward. And that ended really, really badly. I don't want that. God, I so don't want that."

He knew he was entering frightening territory, with the whole honesty thing. But he had to tell her, because it was too important to him. He didn't know what he would do if he managed through his ineptitude to damage their relationship.

"I don't either," she said quickly, reaching for his hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.

"I mean... What is so weird about being friends?" he asked, feeling frustrated. "I mean—why can't a man and a woman be friends? It happens all the time, right?"

"All the time," she echoed.

"I mean look at Kyle and Lou. Okay, maybe they don't spend the amount of time outside of work that, um... you and I do. But—but they're friends. Friendly. Without, you know, the whole—I mean, nobody gossips about them." He sighed. "What's so crazy about two people who work together—okay, really closely together. But work together, and are friends, doing stuff together outside of work?"

"Exactly! It's not like we're going out dancing—"

"We've only danced, really, that one time. That doesn't count as going out dancing. Totally different."

"Or to the movies—watching movies at home is totally different." She was really getting into the spirit of the discussion now, tucking her feet up under her, and gesturing with her wineglass.

"Totally. A completely different sensory experience. And easier, you know? You don't have to stand in line for popcorn. The floor isn't sticky—"

"Sticky?" She laughed, and it came out almost as a snort. "What kind of movie theatres do you go to?"

"From soda," he clarified quickly. "The floor isn't all sticky because some kid four rows behind you spilled his 42 ounce Cherry Coke, you know?"

"Ah. Yeah. No, I hate that." She reached for the wine bottle again, and this time he took it from her, refilling her glass without any mishaps.

"And-and we order pizza, but we're not out every night, table for two at some restaurant—"

"Or we go to the pancake house," she pointed out. "It's not a date if you go anyplace where the menus have pictures."


"Yep. It's a law."

"And Hart and Carver eat lunch together all the time, and nobody is gossiping about them, right?"

"Well, after the Christmas party, a little," Diane admitted. "Hart was drunk and kept grabbing her ass."

"Okay. Okay. Bad example. Um..." He wracked his brain for a common point of reference. "Kelley Mitchell and Mark from the lab?"

"They actually dated for a year or so, I think."

"Oh." Jake deflated a little, and Diane patted his hand.

"I totally didn't know about it, until Carver told me."

"Um... Mulder and Scully?"

She laughed. "Okay, I didn't even watch the last three seasons of X-Files and even I know that's a bad example."

"But it happens all the time, right?"

"All the time. Absolutely."

Jake's eyes narrowed, and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "You're humouring me, aren't you."

"You bet." She raised her glass, and he clinked it with his own, smiling.

"You know what we need?"

"Couples therapy?" she suggested, and he wondered how fast the wine was hitting her system.

"Ha ha. We need to start tonight over. Just... rewind to before the weirdness—"

"And tape over the weirdness?" she suggested with a chuckle.

"And tape over the weirdness," he agreed.

"You know what else we need?"


"Ice cream."

Jake froze. "Oh, God. I got so caught up in trying to find a florist I could actually afford, I totally spaced on the rocky road."

"See, if you really were my boyfriend? I'd so be kicking you to the kerb right now."

"Over ice cream?"

"I was promised ice cream, and I have been denied ice cream. If you're ever going to have a successful relationship, you have to learn how to keep your woman happy."

"I'll bear that in mind." Jake felt a rush of almost giddiness, now that the tension had dissolved completely. It was like being punch-drunk, and he guess that even more than the wine was contributing to Diane's returned good humour. Shared relief that they had not only survived what could have been a disastrous experience, but come out the other side a smidgen closer than they were before. "Okay—so... how 'bout this for a plan... You call for a pizza with no anchovies or artichokes, because just... ew."


"Diane? They're hairy little fish," he gave her a look, and she held up her hands in defeat. "You call for pizza, and I—I walk to the 7-11 down the street, pick up two pints of whatever ice-cream they have that has the most calories and chocolate content, and we relax and watch movies until we fall down?"

"I like that plan. That's a good plan."

Saturday, February 14, 2004
10:42 p.m.

As the final strains of John Williams score reverberated through the apartment, Diane dropped her spoon into the empty Ben & Jerry's carton, and leaned back against the throw pillows on the couch. "Okay, you know how I always say there's no such thing as too much ice cream?"

"No, but I think I get where you're coming from," Jake said around a mouthful of Chunky Monkey. "Banana and chocolate seemed like a good idea..."

She surveyed the detritus of their little binge currently littering the coffee table. The leftover pizza was wrapped in tin foil in her fridge, the empty pizza box was crammed into her kitchen garbage, and gold foil and brown paper cups were all that remained of the 2 lb. box of Godivas. They'd finished the last of the wine during the Cloud City betrayal scene, and Jake had switched to the free litre of soda the pizza place had sent along with the large half-veggie half sausage deep dish pie. She was wishing now, as her head felt pleasantly stuffed with cotton, that she'd not had quite so much of the wine. But what was done was done.

She was giving serious consideration to unbuttoning her jeans, but decided that even if this wasn't a date, that would strain the bonds of their friendship too much. Somehow, the black silk top had survived the experience, though there had been a moment of panic regarding an adventurous green pepper determined to escape her slice before she'd gotten it to her mouth. Jake had, however, caught it on a napkin during the climactic lightsabre battle, thus sparing her the humiliation of having to go change clothes for a third time since their non-date had begun.

There had been a dodgy non-date moment—during the Millennium Falcon scene, where all the sexual tension of the first two films resulted in, what she had to admit, was one hell of a first kiss. She'd snuck a peek at Jake, who had paused, pizza halfway to his mouth, transfixed as Han had massaged Leia's wounded hand. It was indeed quite the romantic moment. They both chosen—wisely, she decided—to let the moment pass without comment. She'd even found herself tearing up at the end, when he was sealed in carbonite and delivered to Boba Fett. Jake had handed her a paper napkin, so she could blow her nose. He hadn't even made fun of her, which she appreciated.

"Wanna do Jedi next week?" he asked as he dropped the video into the remaining plastic bag.

"Ugh. Ewoks?" She made a face. She'd never quite understood George Lucas' insistence on adding kiddie elements to the final film—even thought she'd been all of eight years old the first time she'd seen it, and had even begged her parents for a stuffed Princess Kneesaa for Christmas. As an adult, however, the giant walking teddy bears just made her cringe and reach for the fast-forward button.

"Well, I was thinking Princess Leia in that metal bikini." Jake's eyes glazed over, apparently at the memory which had launched a thousand teenage male fantasies.

She rolled her eyes. "Of course you were."

He shrugged. "I can make no apologies. I'm a product of my generation."

She laughed, and walked him over to the hall closet. As crazy as the night had been, and she was not lying to herself when she admitted that it had been crazy, she was sad to see it end so soon. Once they'd gotten past the crippling embarrassment, the night had reminded her why she enjoyed spending time with him outside of work. It was nice to have someone with whom she could be herself. Just relax and joke and laugh and not feel the sheer weight and pressure of having to hide her occasional complete dorkitude, or be pretty and poised and perfect—the three Ps she wasn't particularly skilled at.

"I had a really good time," he said, unconsciously echoing her thoughts as he shrugged on his coat.

"Even with the wine stains, panic, and over-indulging in ice-cream?" she asked, tucking a stray curl behind her ear.

He grinned. "Wouldn't trade it."

He opened his arms for a hug, and without giving it a second thought she stepped into them, resting her cheek against his chest as her arms went around him. The embrace was warm, familiar, and completely comfortable. She pulled back and he pressed a kiss to her cheek. The touch of his lips at the corner of her mouth was feather-light.

When one of his hands slipped up to cup her cheek, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to kiss him. All she had to do was turn towards him that little bit and there was his mouth, no thinking required. No awkwardness. No time to second-guess or contemplate what exactly it was they were doing. Her eyes drifted closed as his lips brushed hers as if they'd been rehearsing this scene for months, just waiting for the right moment to play out.

As if it were inevitable.

She got up on her tip-toes, both hands pressed flat against his chest before they slid up and she wrapped her arms around his neck, fingers toying with the dark curls that brushed against the collar of his coat. His hand curved around her neck, fingers tangling in her hair as his mouth opened beneath hers, and when they parted, they were both blushing.

This time, Diane didn't need the JMD to tell her his heart rate was elevated.

"You know," she said as she zipped his coat up a little tighter, fighting to keep her voice normal, "if I didn't know any better, I'd say I was just on a date."

"Yeah?" His breath was warm against her cheek, and he looked slightly dazed.

"Yeah. Got a kiss good-night, and everything."

"Me too." He smiled and traced the curve of her jaw lightly with his thumb.

"So... What are you doing for President's Day?"


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