I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lines to an Indian Air
Jess didn't seem any the worse for wear after her close brush with death. She was her normal, perky self as she bounced around the office, chattering away as brightly as always. Her only concession to what had happened, it seemed, was the fact that she now carried her epipen in her large and just as brightly coloured handbag instead of leaving it in her car.
Becker, on the other hand, had spent the time since Jess's little brush with anaphylactic shock constantly on edge, twitchy and anxious in a way he never was. He'd been under fire before, lost men and women under his command in the field, and stayed ice cold calm throughout. But this was different, maybe because Jess was a civilian, someone who wasn't just someone under his care, but someone for whom he was responsible.
Or maybe it was because he'd held her in his arms while she shivered and struggled to breathe, begging her not to give up, to keep on breathing just for him.
Whatever the reason, he couldn't get the image of Jess at death's door out of his mind. He woke up in the middle of the night, drenched with sweat and still feeling the shadowy weight of her body in his arms, growing cold and still. It caught him off guard during the day, when he heard her laugh, turned his head and instead of the alive, joyful, energetic Jess, for a split second he saw her pale and unconscious, her lips turning blue.
It was starting to affect his work, at least in the office. In the field he could still focus on tracking down anomalies and the things that came through them, his weapon a comforting weight on his hip and Jess' chirpy voice sounding through his earpiece, bright and reassuring. But back at HQ was a different story – once he was back in those corridors, amongst the clinical steel lines and under the harsh fluorescent lights, it wasn't quite as easy to forget.
He supposed that it was understandable – the ARC was where it had happened, where Connor's little experiments with wormholes under Philip Burton's guidance had brought through the insects that had almost killed Jess. He was trying not to blame Connor for that, although it was hard not to hold someone to account. Jess certainly didn't seem to blame Connor – if anything, she seemed closer than ever to him and to Abby, since the pair of them came as a package deal these days.
He had no qualms about blaming Burton. Connor had always had a tendency to be distracted by shiny things, and he'd risked his life to try and save theirs. Burton, however…
Well, there was a reason he'd spent the last few weeks avoiding the man, and it wasn't for Becker's personal safety.
Abby had somehow managed to sneak up on him while he was distracted, watching Jess dance around the office again. She actually made him jump, as twitchy as he was, but her small smile of pleasure at catching him off-guard faded when she finally caught sight of his face. He knew what he looked like – washed out, dark shadows underneath his eyes. He also knew there was going to be no fooling Abby. The only blind spots she tended to have involved Connor.
"Becker," she prompted when he stayed silent, and he mustered up a small smile of his own from somewhere, one that felt extremely false on his face.
"I'm fine," he lied, hoping that for once Abby wouldn't see through it. "Just been a long week, that's all."
"Uh huh." Her eyes dropped to his half-open desk drawer, the epipen – one of several he'd stashed throughout the facility – clearly visible. Her expression softened, turning sympathetic. "She's fine, you know?"
"She almost died!"
The words came out too harshly and too loud, attracting more attention than Becker was comfortable with. He ducked his head, his fingers tightening for a moment on his knee, and tried to school his expression into something more neutral.
Abby was still watching him, her face both sympathetic and – now – considering, like she was figuring him out the way she figured out the animals under her care, what drove them, what made them tick.
"You should talk to her," she said abruptly, the look in her eyes telling him that there was no way she was going to drop this any time soon. "She didn't die, but I'm beginning to think that maybe she's the only one who could convince you of that."
"I'm fine," Becker repeated stubbornly, knowing in his heart it was futile when Abby had that glint in her eye.
"No, you're not," she said, her tone now even more brusque. "And we need you to be fine if you're watching our backs in the field."
She never had pulled her punches, not when it counted, and she'd hit him where it hurt. She knew it, too, her expression softening again as she didn't bother to hide her concern for him.
"If the next word out of your mouth is 'fine', Becker, I'll feed you to the mammoth."
"I thought it was vegetarian," he said, buying for time and trying to ease her concerns at the same time.
"Herbivore," she corrected, her eyes never leaving his face. "And it won't matter if I grind you up small enough."
He blinked, completely taken aback, and she finally cracked a smile, one that was more teasing and less worried.
"Look, Connor's finally got the hint and is actually taking me out somewhere tonight."
"Knowing my luck, it's probably a LAN party – don't ask – but that's not the point. The point is that Jess will be on her own and you really need to talk to her about this."
He sighed, giving into the inevitable – or to Abby, which amounted to the same thing – and rubbed his hands across his face. "What good would talking to Jess do?"
"Jess is a big girl," Abby said. "She's capable of taking care of herself, no matter what you think. Ah, ah –" She held her hand up, stalling his instinctive objection. "We're not talking about fighting creatures, Becker. We're talking about her taking care of her health now given that she's highly allergic to beetles that haven't even evolved yet. And even if she's allergic to things in our time, it sounds like she's been managing her condition for years. Like I said, she's a big girl."
"Look, Abby –"
"Or I could take this to Lester?"
She certainly knew how to play dirty these days, coming back from the Cretaceous a much harder person than he'd been used to. Under other circumstances, he might admire that as a survival skill, but not when it was aimed at him.
She'd won and she knew it, but thankfully she didn't crow about it. That was one thing about her that hadn't changed. "Talk to her, Becker," she said gently instead. "We'll all feel better for it."
And that was how he ended up at the entrance to Jess's block of flats, pressing the intercom button and waiting for her to let him in.
"Hello? Connor, did you forget your key again?"
He hesitated for a moment before saying, "No. It's Becker."
"Oh!" There was surprise in Jess's voice and, unless he was reading things into it because he wanted them to be there instead of them actually being there, she was pleased to hear from him. "Um… I'll buzz you in, okay?"
He'd never been to Jess's flat before, but it wasn't difficult to figure out from her flat number which floor she was on, and Jess met him at the top of the stairs. She beamed as soon as she caught sight of him, genuinely delighted that he was there and he took a moment to drink the sight of her in before he smiled back.
She was obviously ready for a night in – instead of the vividly coloured skirts and tops she wore at work, she was wearing a pair of flannel pyjamas, an oversized cardigan over the top of it. That was brighter, more like Jess, as were the pig slippers she wore on her feet.
He should have phoned, or picked another night, anything but turned up unannounced but before he could suggest calling back another time, she'd turned on her heels and headed back towards her flat door, chattering brightly the entire way.
It took him a second to catch up with her, trailing helplessly in her wake as she made her way back indoors, closing her front door behind him and then leading him towards the kitchen. It was only when she looked at him expectantly, her hand already on the kettle, that he realised she'd asked him a question and he'd missed it.
"Tea?" she asked again, not at all put out, it seemed, by his distraction. "I may even have some biscuits somewhere, if Connor hasn't eaten them all. He has a habit of doing that, but Abby always buys new ones. She hides them better than I do, as well."
"Yes," he said, a little lost, as he frequently was when it came to following Jessica Parker's verbal flurries. "To tea, and to Abby being devious, I mean."
Jess paused for a moment, her face scrunching up in concentration. "I've never really thought of Abby as devious, but I suppose I can see it. More like… she knows how to manage Connor."
"Yes." He smiled awkwardly, unsure of how to keep the conversation going. He was known for being taciturn – Jess had teased him more than once about it – but it was worse around Jess than it was anyone else. He wondered if she'd noticed that. He wondered what it said.
"Two sugars, right?"
He didn't know when she'd figured that out, but he nodded, smiling again because that seemed to be all that was expected of him.
"So." She sat herself on the couch and looked at him expectantly while the kettle was left to boil. "What brings you here? Not that I'm objecting, of course."
Now that it had come to the crunch, he wasn't sure what to say. There was no elegant way to raise the subject, and talking about the weather really didn’t seem like an option. How on earth did one say, 'I'm having nightmares about you dying in my arms and Abby seems to think that a chat will fix it?' without coming off sounding like a complete nutter.
"I… um. I was wondering how you were feeling now."
Jess rolled her eyes at him, slumping back into the soft cushions of the couch. "I'm fine, Becker. I've told you that before. No long term effects and I'm being a good girl and keeping my epipen close to hand." She paused to give him an arch look. "Not that I need to keep it that close given how many you've got stashed around the office. Are you sure you're not part squirrel or something?"
He opened his mouth, shutting it again as soon as he realised he had no comeback to that. Not any that made sense. He had to settle for, "It's best to be prepared."
That earned him another eye roll, but thankfully the kettle began to come to the boil, saving him from having to say anything else.
Jess returned with two mugs, both, he noted, adorned with brightly coloured cats, the most garish of which she pressed into his hand.
"There you go," she said cheerfully, settling herself back down onto the couch, completely at ease. "Nothing like a nice cup of tea to make everything seem a bit better."
Becker was more of a coffee man, but he swallowed down the slightly watery brew without comment.
"How are you, anyway?" Jess asked, her voice just a tad too cheery and bright. She was avoiding his eyes, blowing into the steam that was rising from her own mug. "We don't seem to have talked for ages."
"We talked only this morning," he replied automatically, searching her face for any sign of what was going through her often convoluted mind.
"I said 'good morning' and you grunted." Jess didn't sound at all put out. "That doesn't count as a conversation, not in my book."
"I don't grunt," he protested. "I may have said something noncommittal, but I don't grunt."
"Ooh. Noncommittal. Big word for this late in the day."
He caught himself before he could say something exasperated back, focusing instead on his tea. It was safer.
"Abby doesn't think you're sleeping." Now it was Jess who sounded noncommittal, anything she was feeling firmly under wraps. Firmly for Jess, which meant that the worry she was feeling for him was seeping out around the edges.
"Abby should mind her own business."
"She usually does," Jess said shrewdly. "So if she's saying something to me about it, then you really aren't sleeping and she's really worried about you."
"She should probably worry more about Connor at the moment." Not all of that observation was down to the fact that he was still a little pissed off at Connor. Connor had been haunting the labs even more than he usually did, which was saying something for Connor.
"She is." Now Jess's tone was completely matter-of-fact. "That's probably why she told me. So I can worry about you instead and she can go back to worrying about Connor."
"Why aren't you sleeping?"
She looked him straight in the eye, her face so concerned, so worried about him, that any more protests he might have made died, stillborn. Instead, he swallowed, unable to lie to her. Not when she was looking at him like that, one part determined to ten parts vulnerable.
"Bad dreams," he said shortly.
"Some of them." He hesitated, not wanting to admit anything further, not unless she pushed it. If she pushed it, he didn't think he'd be able to hold anything back.
She really did look ridiculous in that cardigan combo, ridiculous and defenceless.
"Are the rest about Sarah?" she asked, her eyes shining with sympathy.
The name sent a pang through him, the grief he thought he'd buried bubbling up and catching in his throat.
"Some of them," he admitted, the words forced past the tightness in his chest. "But most of them are about you. About what would have happened if we hadn't made it to the car in time or the pen hadn't been there."
"Mine are mostly about being eaten."
Jess's tone was still matter of fact and he blinked at her, completely thrown. She shrugged, completely unfazed by it.
"We deal with monsters, Becker. After I saw that poor girl… after she died in that school, I had nightmares for weeks about being stalked like that, killed like that. But that's why we do what we do, isn't it? Not the dying horribly part, but the stopping other people dying horribly." She took another sip of her tea, cradling the mug in both hands while she stared at him over the top of it. "You know what made my dreams go away?"
He shook his head, rendered silent by her confession.
"You," she said simply. "Of course, the vast array of weaponry you cart around with you might have something to do with it – do you take it to the supermarket with you? – but mostly you."
He swallowed down the lump in his throat, the one that had nothing to do with grief now, or with fear, and everything to do with Jess's simple, uncomplicated trust in him.
Of course, Sarah had had that trust, too, but at least Jess seemed relatively happy to stay out of the field.
"I dream you die," he said. "In my arms, and there's nothing I can do except beg you to stay."
"Very romantic. But I'd prefer not to go the whole Romeo and Juliet route, if you don't mind. What would make them go away?"
He shrugged helplessly, too overwhelmed by the simple fact of Jess to do anything more, but she nodded anyway, almost as if he had given her an answer, and a sensible one at that. And then she patted the couch cushion next to her.
"Come over here," she said, no come-on in the words, just a simple kind of practicality. "That tea's decaffeinated, and you looked ready to drop as soon as you walked through the door. And when you wake up, I won't be dead or dying in your arms but here with another cup of tea. And the biscuits. If I can find wherever Abby's hidden them."
"I'll find them," she said, her chin set determinedly. "Connor's very intelligent, but I'm smarter than him in all of the ways that count."
"You're smarter than everyone."
He hadn't meant to say that out loud, but he was glad he had when Jess beamed at him again, patting the couch cushion once more.
"Go to sleep, Becker. Abby and Connor won't be back for hours, plenty of time to have a nap. And I promise, I'll be here and I'll be fine when you wake up."
When it came down to it, he was simply unable to resist Jess. Maybe things would have been easier if he'd admitted that sooner. He gave into the inevitable, rising to his feet and settling down next to her.
She relieved him of his mug and set it firmly on the coffee table, shifting sideways slightly and patting her lap instead.
This time he didn't hesitate, maybe because even he knew when to admit defeat. His head settled in her lap, her fingers moving to card slowly through his hair.
It didn’t stop the dreams, but this time when he woke up, his heart pounding and the memory of Jess lying pale and still in his arms, reality was very different from the nightmare. Jess's lounge was warmer and more welcoming than his Spartan bedroom, the mugs of cold tea still on the coffee table, a human note that made the whole thing more real than the washed out colours of his dream memories. And Jess was right there, just as she'd promised, wrapped awkwardly in his arms as they both lay, stretched out, on the small couch. She was sleeping peacefully, her face pink and healthy and her breathing even; when he pulled her closer, she submitted with a sigh, snuggling into him even though she didn't wake.
Becker closed his eyes and joined her, at peace for the first time in weeks.