Epilogue: "Retirement"

"Jacob?" The word stabbed into his ear, causing his lids to pinch, and a spasm to rock his body. There were numb sections on his cheek where he was in contact with an unforgiving material below him.

Feeling terrible, he started to push up only to be punched by inescapable nausea and that same splitting headache he suffered before the world fell away. He shifted just far enough not to soil himself as foul-smelling and worse-tasting liquid expelled itself from his gut. He could hear it as it slipped through the grating and splatted some number of stories below him. He coughed and spit for long moments, trying to clear the acid flavor from his mouth.

Shifting back to his original position, he allowed himself once more to settle, eyes closed, on the grating.

"Jacob? Are you there?" the voice came again, causing another jolt to shoot through him. Seems he'd passed out.

Peeling his lids open, Jacob found himself laid out on the hard grating, limbs tangled in odd ways that said his landing wasn't pleasant. Less than arm's length away was Hattie's lifeless body. Between them, still clutched in his hand, was her heart.

His fingers closed more tightly in an echo of his last act before blacking out. He'd kept just enough cognizance as part of him was dying to yank out the knife, toss it away, and plunge his hand into her chest to pull the organ out. She'd told him, he'd told himself, that he had to in order to ensure her permanent death.

Thoughts warred within him on what to do with that muscle, lying lifeless and cold in his palm. One part of him wanted to throw it as far as he could from him. He fought that, because Hattie's life should never be thought of as a throwaway. While she didn't choose the fate life had dealt her, she did manage to choose how she would leave it.

Similarly, he wasn't one for keeping trophies of his kills. Victor Sierra was a job to him – not a search for glory or a danger high. Victor Sierra recruited him from military service early because he was good at thinking on his feet, measuring a situation quickly and accurately, and could handle a variety of weapons with little to no extra training. He didn't possess the machismo that so often accompanied people in military service. He was taught better than that. So, the idea of preserving it in some jar some place to brag about when he was older just gave him the shivers.

Barring those two choices, Jacob wasn't sure what to do with it. He knew, however, that he didn't want to keep holding it. Pulling his knees under him – carefully, slowly – so as not to aggravate his already too sensitive gut and aching head, Jacob pushed up onto all fours. He crawled to Hattie's body, reverently placing the organ into her softly curled hand. There was some kind of closure in making sure her body was whole.

He took a moment to study her, noting that her injured hand had nearly grown back completely – just slightly smaller than her left hand. Sitting back on his heels, he wondered just how she had managed to chew it off in the first place if her teeth never developed properly as a vampire. A shiver moved through him. It had to be a slow and painful process – to be sure.

The perseverance to complete that escape floored him.

A welling of sorrow and pity moved through him, and he found himself leaning down, touching her face, and stroking the dark skin.

"I'm sorry that this ever happened to you," Jacob whispered. He sat for a moment, numb, unable to bring himself to think or to move.

"Jacob!" interrupted his silent mourning. He jumped and blinked, finding himself on his feet without ever thinking to do so. "You were supposed to check in half an hour ago! Where are you?"

He cleared his etched throat before keying the connection. "I'm here," he croaked, feeling as if he hadn't spoken aloud in years.

A relieved sigh came over the line. "Are you okay?"

He nodded and then realized no one could see the move. "I'm not sure okay is the most apt description. More like a Mack truck ran me over."

"Did you find her?" Taryn asked next. "Did she hurt you?"

"Yeah," he answered, realizing he might have given her the wrong impression. But, in a way, it was true for both questions. "Before you ask, it's done, hence the Mack truck comparison." He looked back once more to Hattie, still trying to decide whether his head or his gut needed priority attention. "I'll drop a GPS tracker on her body, and then I'll head up. You guys can get a team dispatched to start clean up."

Taryn laughed in relief.

"What?" He could guess, but he wanted to hear Taryn say it.

She went silent a moment, before saying, completely sober, "Well. It's good to hear that you're still you after your meet up."

"As much me as I can be, considering," he sighed, cradling his head as the sound of talking hammered on his brain. "But not a devotee, if that was your concern."

Taryn seemed to understand he didn't want to talk details over the mic. "What's your ETA?"

"I'm all the way forward to the bow and all the way down to the keel," he sighed, spinning a slow one eighty to try and mark where he was and needed to go. "It was a maze getting down here, and I'm not sure I left myself enough spoor to get back soon."

"If you get lost, turn on your GPS tracker and we can talk you back to familiar territory, at least."

"I'll let you know if it comes to that."

"All right. One way or another, we'll meet you back at the infirmary."

"The infirmary?" Jacob queried, confused.

"The infirmary," Taryn repeated, her tone staving off any protest. At her insistent tone, it dawned on him why.

He tried not to feel betrayed by the continued lack of trust. Instead he said, "I'll let you know when I get out of the maze."

"Sounds good."

He signed off, took one glance at the body lying near his feet, and, with a frown, he turned away, and started back for higher ground. He surprised himself when he made it back to the infirmary with only a moments of getting turned around in the maze of passageways and ladder wells. Good as his word, he made sure to let Taryn know as soon as he got into familiar territory.

Taryn arrived about ten minutes after he did, and he made sure to clean up best he could and be seated on the bunk before she stepped through the door. When she arrived, she only had Lee with her. Both of them looked, well, concerned.

Their debrief was surprisingly short. He relayed as much information about his encounter with Hattie – sure to include how she choose to end it. He stressed that.

"It seemed she was fighting the instinct the entire while." He shook his head, not looking at them, sure he'd see their incredulous looks – sure that they might question his motivations and loyalties even after his assurances.

"So," Taryn sighed after some time. "We have one small matter to settle before this is truly done."

Jacob's head shot up, his gaze locking on Taryn's.

"What do we do with you?" The regret and sorrow in her voice was the only thing that kept Jacob rooted to his seat when everything in him wanted him to bust through them and find a way to escape.

He knew one of the options. Protocol. Would she stick to it though?

"Taryn?" Lee gulped. "What…?"

Their leader ignored Lee's consternation – her eyes still fixed on him.

"You've done us a great service, Jacob," she uttered. "We'd have been after the vector a lot longer if you hadn't done what you did. There's no doubt you showed loyalty to the cause, despite what happened." She drew a deep breath, running a shaking hand over her gray stubble. "And I'm not sure that earns you a retirement."

Jacob swallowed. Retirement – the cute little colloquial that Victor Sierra used in the place of execution. No one retired from Victor Sierra. They died in the line of duty, grew old in the service of the organization, or were summarily slain, usually for trying to get out before their job claimed their lives.

He could see, sense, and even smell how she was battling between her duty and her personal feelings over the matter.

"However, I have no idea how I'm going to let you walk and be able to explain your absence to headquarters. Not without you the center of a man hunt, and us facing courts martial."

Jacob dropped his gaze to the floor, his fingers fidgeting with each other and his tongue trying to wet suddenly dry lips. It was a quandary. They all knew he wasn't going to be able to stay in Victor Sierra. The organization's long prejudice against the supernatural entities in the world would never allow them to even entertain employing a vampire in their ranks. He'd known that from the moment he'd convinced Lee and Carlson to just let him convert. He'd also hoped that they would – take his good works into account.

"Sorry we put you in this position," Jacob sighed, meeting her gaze with a sincerely apologetic expression. "I don't want a retirement, truthfully."

"Ma'am, there's got to be a way!" Lee piped in finally. "We can't just kill, Jake! He's our teammate."

"And a hell of a soldier," Taryn agreed. She shook her head ruefully. She drew a deep breath and let it out again. "Help us with the clean-up?"

"Of course, Taryn," Jacob agreed. His heart skipped a moment at the concession he could hear in her statement. She wanted to let him live.

She started to turn around but paused and glanced at him once more. "It will give me time to think of something."

The solution hadn't been altogether elegant.

Once their danger point was past and the aftermath cleaned up, the Tarry ended the Epedemia Protocol and recalled the lifeboats. It was found as they were being stowed back into their rightful places, one of the lifeboats hadn't piloted back to the ship.

When the Navy found it later, there was only a pile of ash on the bow, most of which was lifted by the wind and lost at sea.

The plan was for the team to relay how Jacob had, in fact, been afflicted with the Burning Blood, but escaped because he knew the consequences and couldn't face them. He was to have been presumed to jump overboard and swim to one of the lifeboats to make a getaway. The rest? That would be up for their conjecture… hopefully one that would lean on his sense of duty and despondency over his changed condition. With the evidence they were provided, the hopeful conclusion was for investigators to find he had committed suicide by sitting on the bow and immolating under the rays of the sun.

The ash? Well, he had Hattie to thank for that. Her escape from the infirmary had provided them with her severed hand which they used to provide evidence of Jacob's demise.

As Jacob watched the darkening sky settle into full night, he shook his head. He could only hope they bought the scenario. His existence didn't need to be a hounded one.

The wind picked up as the night deepened, cutting the air with the crispness of ice. The temperatures dipped quickly, but still Jacob stood there, looking for some signs of his destination. They should be arriving sometime in the early morning.

Something akin to excitement rolled through his gut. It warred with his need to get some closure. He and a certain dhampir had some unfinished business, and Jacob was certain he knew exactly where to find him.

A/N: And that's a wrap... for THIS portion of Jacob's story and we end with a hint of where Jacob goes from here!

Going to take a break from this storyline for at least a little bit while I get the logistics of the next story in place.

Thank you to Frankannestein for reading and reviewing this tale! Super tickled it wasn't the "Only i'll like this" story I was worried it'd become!