It had been about a year since Jacob had been hired to watch over Liz, and the time had been largely uneventful, all things considered. There had been a couple of haphazard swipes at her, but they’d been unnervingly easy to dispatch, leaving him with the uneasy feeling that whoever was behind them was only testing the waters. All told, the most nerve-wracking incidents had been of Liz’s own doing; she was observant, and in the early days of Jacob’s assignment, she’d spotted him nearby a couple of times he hadn’t intended, sending him scrambling for believable explanations. He’d had to change his strategy rather early on, using friendship as an excuse to stay openly close to her rather than trying to remain unnoticed. It hadn’t been his original directive, but it was the only way to do his job effectively without raising suspicion, and he didn’t mind the new method nearly as much as one might expect. He did, after all, specialize in deep cover operations.
“So,” Liz announced, sitting across from him with a smile, “I’ve decided that I’m not going to complain about Nik tonight.”
Jacob allowed the corners of his mouth to quirk upward a bit, making a show of looking at his watch, before teasing, “I don’t know, we’ve still got about four hours to go before tomorrow morning. Really think you can make it that long?”
Liz tried to look offended, but the effect was ruined by her smile – Well, Jacob amended, maybe ruined isn’t exactly the right word – as she playfully kicked him under the table, exclaiming, “Hey! I am not that bad!”
“Ow! Alright, alright, whatever you say. Crazy woman,” he grinned, muttering that last comment only just loud enough for her to hear.
“Oh, shut up,” she grumbled, but there was no heat behind it. The whole “crazy” thing had become a sort of inside joke between them after he’d witnessed her go a little overboard to scare off an ex-boyfriend.
“What are you going to do, hit me again?”
“I just might,” she smirked.
“Wow, someone’s had a bad day. Come on, what did he do this time?”
Liz just shook her head, knocking back a substantial draught of the drink in front of her. It was a Friday night, and as they often did, the pair had met for drinks, just the two of them, in a quiet little bar. Liz would drop the cold, professional mask she wore around her colleagues and the normal, well-adjusted mask she wore around everyone else, and let him see the real her, the face she showed only to him and Sam. She would complain about her coworkers and her boyfriend, “Tom” would complain about unmanageable students and their defensive parents, and the two of them would crack off-color jokes the whole time.
Alright, he thought, as she admitted that she’d had a long day, but it “actually wasn’t Nik’s fault this time, just something at work,” Maybe it wasn’t strictly necessary for my cover to become her best friend, but it’s not like it’s hurting anything. After all, the woman needs someone to actually talk to. It had taken time and effort to convince her to let him in, but it had been worth it.
It took an hour, some alcohol, and a bad joke on Jacob’s part, but she finally did vent her latest frustrations about Nik. Unfortunately, that was only to avoid what was really bothering her. It took another hour, a lot of patience, and actually caring about the answer – And when had he started to do that? Around the same time he’d started thinking of her as Liz rather than Scott, he figured, though when that had been was anyone’s guess – but she did eventually open up about the case that had stressed her out that day. She didn’t give away many details – the woman was like Fort Knox when it came to keeping secrets for the job, and Jacob was careful not to even consider turning that statement around on himself – but he got the gist of it, and knew what it meant that she was willing to share even that much with him.
After that, they were able to enjoy the rest of their night out, and Jacob was almost able to convince himself that his biggest worry was all the papers he had to grade over the weekend. He surprised himself by almost wishing it was. The night wore on and soon came to an end, the pair walking down the dark, nearly deserted street. Acutely aware of their isolation – and, thus, vulnerability – Jacob was careful not to lower his guard, scanning their quiet surroundings for any hidden threats. Unfortunately, that didn’t prepare him for when, as he and Liz passed the mouth of an alley, a man emerged, coming at him from behind. He only just managed to quell his instincts, allowing his assailant to grab him, holding a gun to his temple. He could tell from the practiced motion that the man was a professional; what exactly that meant for the context of the attack remained to be seen.
“Elizabeth Scott.” Crap. They were after Liz specifically, and Jacob for once had no clue how to deal with the situation. He couldn’t let any harm come to her, but in his current position, he had very few options, and all of them would blow his cover.
Liz’s eyes were wide with shock and horror, as she managed, “I-I don’t know who-”
“Shut up. Do you think I’m stupid? I know exactly who you are.” Jacob watched as Liz’s face morphed into a neutral mask, her eyes still worried as they met his, but with an edge of control and calculation.
“Now,” the man holding him continued, “You have two choices. Get in the van, or I bury a bullet in your boyfriend’s brain.”
“I’m not her boyfriend.” The words were out of Jacob’s mouth before he could stop them – and, really, wasn’t he better trained than that? – but, he’d at least managed to keep his tone closer to out-of-his-depth-teacher-losing-his-filter-and-blurting-out-the-first-thing-to-cross-his-mind than irritated-operative-throwing-snark-at-the-guy-threatening-his-mission-because-something-more-substantial-would-blow-his-cover. Small victory, but hey, he’d take what he could get. And, the night had started out so well.
Liz watched them carefully, probably trying to ascertain the risks of messing with this guy, and Jacob felt a sudden curiosity. How would she deal with the situation? She was strong and smart, and she’d been with the Feds for about a year now. He saw something flicker in her eyes as she, too, recognized the skill and experience of their adversary.
“Alright,” she said calmly. “Okay, I’ll come with you. Just let him go.”
He didn’t have to fake the widening of his eyes. She didn’t really think that was going to happen, right?
“It’s okay, Tom. Everything’s going to be okay.” She said it with such certainty, looking steadily into his eyes, that though he could see in her expression she did not expect the other man to comply with her request, Jacob believed her, and thought he would have even if he’d really been just “Tom Keen,” without the last resort of his own abilities to fall back on.
The man holding him snorted. “Nice try, but this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to get in the van, and we’re going to take a ride to a nice little place we’ve got all set up for you. He’s coming with us to make sure you behave yourself, and if you’re very, very good, we’ll let him go when it’s all over. Capisce?”
“It doesn’t look like I have much choice.” Her voice was carefully blank, but she didn’t seem defeated. Rather, Jacob got the impression she felt in control of the situation. At face value, that was laughable, but it did make sense. Her captor wouldn’t risk damaging his leverage until he was confident he had no further need of him. As long as Liz let him think he could use her companion to control her – and that she was dangerous enough to warrant such measures – she would have time to think of a plan without having to worry about Tom.
A second man drove the van, while the first kept his gun trained on Jacob. When they reached their destination, a hint of victory entered Liz’s eyes, though she maintained an impressive poker face. It took a moment for Jacob to see the reason, and when he did, he could have kicked himself for not being the first to notice it. The structure into which they were led was surrounded by tenement buildings. Crowded tenement buildings. And, it just so happened that the gun with which he’d been threatened wasn’t fitted with a silencer. Of course, there were plenty of ways to kill him that didn’t require a gun, but all Liz had to do was threaten to scream, and he’d become pretty much indispensable as long as they remained in that location. He found himself impressed by how sharply she was thinking in such a stressful situation, and wondered if he’d need to be of any use at all; she seemed to have a pretty good handle on things.
Once safely inside, the first man turned to the driver, saying, “Watch them. I’ve got to make a call.” As he left the room, most likely to report Liz’s capture to his employer – and Jacob really needed to figure out who that was – the other man drew his own weapon, glaring at the pair. His outward hostility couldn’t mask his nerves, though. He fidgeted with the gun, eyes shifting uneasily between Jacob and Liz.
Crap, Jacob thought. Twitchy. That makes him dangerous.
Movement caught his eye, and he stared in shock and horror as Liz strolled right up to the man, who levelled the gun at her, shouting, “Stop! What are you doing? I’ll shoot you, I swear!”
At that, she finally halted, barely a foot away from him, her expression measured as she analyzed the man standing before her. It was a look Jacob had seen before. Crap, he realized, She’s going to try to talk him down. There was no way that would end well. The guy’s anxiety made him volatile.
Suddenly, Liz’s expression transformed into one of utter contempt, as she snorted, “No you won’t.”
Jacob had been wrong. Of course, she wasn’t going to attempt talking him down. No, that would be too pedestrian for Elizabeth Scott. If he could have gotten away with it, he would have laughed out loud. He relaxed, deciding to trust her ability. This was, after all, her profession, and he’d long wanted an opportunity to see her in action. She didn’t disappoint. He watched the guard grow angry and agitated as she goaded him into making a mistake.
“You are way out of your depth here. Your partner out there’s the one with the brains –and the balls. You’re good for nothing but to stand here and look threatening, and guess what? I’m not buying it. You’re not even smart enough to threaten the one you haven’t already confessed to needing alive!”
His aim wavered involuntarily, as though about to switch targets at that reminder, and Liz used the moment of weakness to take that last step forward, force the gun towards the ceiling with her left hand as the guard fired reflexively, and knock him out cold with a single right hook. She retrieved his gun as he fell to the ground, the first man bursting into the room shouting, “What’re you doing, you idiot? Someone could’ve heard-”
He froze, seeing Liz standing over his downed partner, gun in hand. He immediately raised his own weapon to fire, but that split second of hesitation was all she needed to put a bullet between his eyes. Jacob didn’t think he’d ever respected the woman more. He’d been hired to protect her, but she – in the middle of the night, with no warning and even a few drinks in her – had just protected herself and a civilian.
Civilian, he remembered, Right.
“Oh my gosh! What- What was that?”
She looked at him carefully, trying to gauge exactly how freaked out he was. “My job,” she answered simply in a reassuring tone. “You know I’m in the mobile emergency psych unit. This is basically what I do. Only, I usually don’t have to shoot people.” She offered a small smile.
“Tom” let out a shaky laugh, as though balanced on the knife-edge between shock and hysteria, before making a show of pulling himself together while she called it in. She picked up the second gun, in case the first man regained consciousness before the authorities arrived, before heading over to him.
“Hey,” he responded, looking at her as though she were keeping him grounded. He tried to ignore the thought that, if he’d needed it, it probably would have worked. Now was not the time to examine that; he had a part to play. He was as good at his job as she was hers.
“You going to be okay?”
He let out a shaky breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Thanks.”
“I’m sorry I dragged you into all this. You shouldn’t have had to deal with it. Look, you’re a good friend, Tom, but I’m not going to ask you to stick around after today. These people have proven-“
“What? Liz…” What was he supposed to say to that? She was trying to distance herself because she was afraid someone would hurt him to get to her. It would take a lot more than a couple dime-a-dozen mercenaries to frighten Jacob, but he couldn’t exactly tell her that…Could he?
“You haven’t scared me off yet,” he said softly, smirking even as his eyes burned with sincerity.
She looked at him in disbelief, shaking her head slightly. “I don’t understand…You’re a teacher, you’ve never been exposed to anything like this. How are you handling it so well? Most people would be a terrified wreck.”
“Well, I’ll admit I’m kind of freaked, but you’ll protect me, right?” Jacob teased with a small smile. The crazy thing was, he trusted her to actually do it. Hopefully, she just wouldn’t notice that he’d be protecting her, too.
She blinked at the trust so evident in his otherwise light tone and radiated determination as she promised, “Yeah. I will.”
From that day forward, she never left home without her gun.