Author: A. X. Zanier

Title: Lessons Learned

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: I do not own the characters or basic story ideas to "The Invisible Man." Any additional characters or ideas are mine.

Timeline: Two weeks after "Out in the Cold"

Comments: When the plot bunnies attack everyone should run in fear. This was, I thought, an appropriate follow up to OITC and a good lead in to the next two in the series AHSN and WYW. This is also my first attempt at really getting into the Keeper's head. Not exactly my choice, where the plot bunnies lead I am forced to follow.

Music: "I Will Remember You" by Sarah McLachlan, "King of Pain" by The Police, "Out There" by Sister Hazel

Thanks to Rebecca(WorkerCaste) my brave Beta reader/editor, who puts up with my version of creativity.

Lessons Learned

In what was most likely a chilly December day in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "We can draw lessons from the past, but we cannot live in it." Sometimes it's a hard thing to learn, sometimes the past haunts us far more than we should let it, sometimes the lessons the past has taught us are the ones we shouldn't have learned.

-- Saturday --

I open the door to my townhouse to see Alyx standing on the top step, looking uncomfortable. She's wearing jeans and a heavy sweater, with what looks like a turtleneck peeking out above the collar of the sweater. The sweater is very bulky and distorts the curves I'm used to seeing on her. I don't speak -- perhaps saving my words for later when they may really be needed -- but just step aside, allowing her into my home for the very first time.

I shut the door and lock it out of habit and turn to see her standing in the hall. Tension just about oozes off of her. She's not broadcasting -- her control has improved greatly since our first meeting, back in that cage buried in the basement of the Agency -- but I can tell. It's not often she's truly relaxed around any of us. In the months she has been working with us, she's adjusted, but not much else. Only the first, very tentative, feelings of trust are beginning to show. Understandable, considering the innumerable mistakes that had been made bringing her into the Agency. But now I know that isn't the only reason. Things from her past, her many lived years prior to the Agency, have in many ways also been responsible for her ongoing distrust. Especially of Bobby and Darien.

Going to her side, I motion for her to continue down the hall, which opens out onto my living room. I am hoping the more relaxed surroundings will be conducive in getting her to talk about painful subjects. I observe her as she carefully looks over the room, taking in everything. I know for a fact that, if I asked her to close her eyes and describe the room in detail, she could, down to the smallest piece of Pavlov's hair sitting on the carpet. She relaxes marginally, her stance easing by an infinitesimal amount that I am observant enough to notice.

"Have a seat, Alyx." I move into my kitchen; it is right off the living room. "Care for a drink?" I get down a pair of glasses from the cabinet I keep them in.

"No thanks. Maybe later," she answers as she turns to look at me. She allows her bag, that backpack that seems to go everywhere with her, to slip off her shoulder and land on the floor at the end of the sofa with nary a sound.

I walk back out carrying my glass of juice and sit in the armchair. "Sit," I suggest to her again with a wave of my hand. This time she does, if a bit stiffly, perching on the very edge of the sofa, as if ready to bolt at any second. "Alyx, if you'd rather talk to a psychiatrist..." I trail off as she shakes her head.

It isn't that I don't know psychology; I have to for the position as Keeper. I have to understand the motivations of my Kepts and use that knowledge to keep them, to manipulate them, to control them when necessary. But even I will admit that I am no therapist. It may turn out that Alyx will need far more than the limited help I can give.

She settles back a bit further into the sofa, but does not lean back. Instead, she is nearly doubled over with her forearms resting on her thighs. "I just... You won't tell the Official? Won't parade my every psychotic fear and bad memory before him?"

She is pleading softly. Not whining, not begging, but pleading with both posture and tone. "As I agreed before -- only if it is absolutely necessary will I tell him." I give her a small smile of encouragement. "All right?"

"Where do you want me to start?" she asks, lifting her head to look over at me.

I don't nod, don't smile, keep the satisfaction I feel off my countenance. She has made the first move like I have been hoping she would. Like I know she needs to do. I already have my questions planned, the small promptings that, hopefully, will reveal the information I need, to help her help herself. "How did you meet him?"

Much to my surprise, she laughs, shaking her head gently. The few curls that have pulled free from the bun her hair is pulled back into bounce and wave about her face.

"I ran into him -- literally. Hit him with my car the first day I screwed up my courage to drive again." She pauses, and a look of bone-deep sorrow passes across her features. "I hadn't been able to drive since my parents were killed. Just couldn't seem to get behind the wheel. The memories...." She breaks off then with a choked sob.

I have done some research into her life. It was a necessity, so that I can care for her and understand her properly, but I had run into problems, walls that I could not seem to get around. A lot of her records are missing or incomplete, and the few I have found, Alyx herself has altered. I have yet to confront her on the matter, not that it would result in anything more than her closing herself off from me even more so than she does now. The data she removed has made me curious as to what she is hiding, what exactly she doesn't want me and the Agency to know about her. You'd think her life would be an open book with the access we can get, the strings the Official can pull, and the data Eberts can retrieve, but that is far from the truth.

I knew about her parents' deaths and the fact she had come upon the crash site, tried to save them herself according to the police and fire reports. She'd nearly been killed, pulled away from the burning car mere moments before it exploded. I knew she had recurring nightmares, and a unique phobia dealing with fire that took medication to help her get through. The end result was panic attacks and severe sleep loss. The attacks had happened throughout her life since the accident, and were moderate to severe, but in general did not interfere with everyday life. She'd had no recorded attacks in over five years, though. She had been to see a psychologist soon after the accident, but given her age at the time, and the situation -- there were custody issues -- the records had been sealed and I had, as yet, been unable to gain access to them. Partially because now 'she' was dead.

Just another issue I would have to deal with eventually. Like the panic attacks due to sensory loss; too many inhibitors had been used at too high a level to try and keep her under control at the original Lab. A mistake, as it turned out -- it had left her completely phobic and would send her into a fugue-like state that she needed to be sedated through. She denied the phobia to me, but I knew the signs. I'd watched her fighting to hold herself together those few times I'd been forced to resort to using the inhibitor -- in very low doses -- to help her regain control. I wasn't sure which she hated more: the inhibitor, or the 'pattern' programming.

Her new abilities had become part of her now, and their loss, should it occur, could very well drive her to insanity -- or worse, suicide.

"Alyx, you don't have to discuss that today," I say softly, hoping to pull her back from the brink she's nearing. I do know she needs the release, to break down and let out the misery she's feeling, to express the pain and fear, but not yet. She needs to get the words out, to face them, to see them as what they are first, before it will do her any real good. "You were rather young, weren't you?"

She just shrugs. "We became friends. Our relationship didn't go beyond that until after I turned eighteen." I watched her rub the side of her face, but not like a few weeks ago -- this was normal discomfort, not the past intruding on her now. "Good little -- naive -- girl that I was."

Alyx admitting she was naive was a surprise, though probably true. She had been young and most likely feeling more than a bit lost after the death of her parents, making her an easy target for just that type of manipulative bastard. This one had played her well. "Alyx, it was not your fault."

Alyx leaned back into the cushions of the sofa, finally, but she wasn't any more at ease than before. "Of course it was. I walked right into the situation. I watched my life deteriorate, fall apart, and I let it. Let him take it over. Mostly anyway. I had this odd streak that made me challenge him every now and then. I usually ended up beaten black and blue for it, but it always seemed to be worth it, like I had somehow won even though I had ended up hurt yet again." She shakes her head and laughs softly. "It seemed that no matter what, I had to challenge him, force him to beat me into submission, almost... almost as if to remind him that he hadn't really won yet. That under the bruises, the subservient attitude, the pleas and begging for him to stop, that I was still better, stronger than him."

I wasn't all that surprised by her comments. What I did know about her showed her to be a fiercely independent spirit who fought against any type of imprisonment. I had full access to what had taken place at that Lab, knew exactly how hard she'd fought from the first time she'd been awoken, knew that her sole concern had been to get away, to get back to her family, to her children. I had wondered if perhaps she had known subconsciously that she had passed her talents on to her offspring. I had only recently confirmed the presence of quicksilver in each of them and, based on Darien's report of the incident in Newport, suspected her youngest might very well have begun manifesting her talents early. Alyx had done no more than give a bare-bones report on the incident, though she had made sure to implicate the CIA as the instigators of the entire thing. They were denying it, of course.

Her apparent inability to trust was directly related to her husband and his abuse of her. I understood her not wanting to trust me -- I was one of 'them.' Another scientist brought in to poke and prod her, to try and coerce her into using those talents she'd been gifted with. She had just begun to really trust her Keeper at that Lab, and his abrupt departure had done irreparable harm to her. She had come to rely on him to keep her grounded, to remind her that she had to constantly work to retain control, that if she lost control there would be great harm to so very many others, whether it was intentional or not. Then he had vanished, and her world had fallen apart. She'd destroyed the Lab in one spectacular burst of uncontrolled energy. It had been effective in forcing her to gain some sort of control, but had also taken her to the point where she tried to starve herself to keep from ever harming anyone again.

She reminded me, oddly enough, of Darien, who felt such guilt over the things he did while quicksilver mad. He never, no matter what he might say, blamed the madness. He always blamed himself. Always.

I often wondered if Darien envied Alyx her lack of side effects where the quicksilver was concerned, but I had never found the courage to ask him, to perhaps learn he was indeed jealous when I knew he had no reason to be. Alyx still hated her abilities in many ways. Oh, I knew she had resigned herself to the situation, and had found that necessary bit of inner peace that she'd lacked, but I also knew it was still no easier for her. I had gotten her to detail her first experience triggering the quicksilver, had egged her into it, when she'd still been a 'guest' of the Agency. She had all but snarled out the events at me.

She had simply wanted to hide, to get away from the strangers who had stolen her life, who were explaining, to her confusion, that she was 'dead' and now the property of the government. They had assumed she would require an adrenal trigger, much like the QS-9000 project had, but they had been mistaken. She had had the quicksilver in her system for almost her entire life, so she didn't need an artificial trigger. She'd simply had to want it to happen, and it had. She had gone invisible for the first time out of a need to gain her freedom, but it had been anger she'd been feeling, the sudden urge to hurt, even kill those in her way. And that had frightened her more than suddenly turning invisible.

I realize I've been thinking for longer than I intended. Alyx is looking at me with a hint of humor in her eyes. "Boring you, am I?"

I shake my head. "No, just putting the pieces into place for the puzzle that you are." She gets a thoughtful look and nods slightly, as if understanding. She must realize she is going to give me more power over her, however slight, by talking to me, and it ... honors me. It shows me she's willing to... maybe not trust me, but allow me to step a tiny bit closer to her. "Alyx, do you trust anyone?"

"Not even myself," she answers candidly. "You have no idea of the temptation all this power is. You think giving a thief the ability to go invisible was a less-than-intelligent idea? Try giving a near-genius the ability to just about literally do anything she wants. That's what you did to me. Though I must give you credit, you also did a damn good job taming me." She closes her eyes for a moment and I know she is searching her memories for something in particular. "All that power with no control... I still have nightmares about it. Vague and confused, but I have them, and what scares me most about it is the pleasure I felt with all that power running through me. While it was happening, it was the most euphoric experience in my life. Then I had to come back down and face reality."

Her look is hard, making me realize I have to walk a very fine line with her. Instead of turning her back to the subject of her abuse, I move forward. "What is it about Darien that affects you so?"

This time the laughter that breaks past her lips is nearly hysterical. "What a question. Think, Claire. Think about how we met."

I look at her, unsure of her point. I know exactly how they met, and it had been forced upon me by the Official. I was nearly certain that Darien was going to kill her, but the Official was convinced it would work, that she would, in the end, break and use her abilities, if not to help herself, then to help Darien. And it had worked. "Alyx..."

"Claire, he was my worst nightmare, in many ways. Kind and sweet for all those hours and then... " She slapped her hands together startling me. "He was nasty, cruel, abusive. To make matters worse, I could feel everything that was happening to him. You have no idea the hell he goes through." I open my mouth to speak, but she runs over the top of my words. "You think you do, but I know. I know."

She slumps back against the cushions, looking so very tired. And more than that, worn. Like she was carrying around the weight of the world on her shoulders. Atlas for the new millennium.

"How can I trust him? He brings all those memories back, and it's not his fault. None of it is. He's what I hate the most, and yet he's also the sweetest man I have ever met."

"He scares you?" I ask, thinking back to our little convention trip. I knew she and Darien had been getting closer, had been exploring the possibility of a relationship, and yet since that trip it had changed. Darien would still look at her with that hunger in his eyes -- he would be so very angry if he realized I knew -- but he was very careful to never let her see it. Gone was the silly flirtatiousness I had watched flow between them. Though between her and Bobby... some days, their attempts to out-innuendo each other grated on my nerves. It was one of those 'guy' things that Alyx had somehow mastered -- having three brothers most likely aided her -- but only rarely did Darien participate these days.

"No. Oddly enough, he doesn't. But because of what happens to him...." She shrugged. "I don't blame him, any more than I blame Bobby, Eberts, or you, but that doesn't make trust any easier. I'm trying. I swear I am. I just can't let myself go that far, not yet. Maybe not ever again."

Her voice is hushed by the end, barely audible, but I hear her. In some ways, I can't find fault with her view of life, can't find a valid argument that might make her see things differently. I will do what I can to help, but finding the ability trust again is something only she can do.

"And you let me get way off track here." She's regained her composure for the moment, impressing me with her resilience yet again.

"Not really," I find myself saying. "When was the first time he hit you?" I watch as she pales slightly, the pain coming to her eyes for an instant, and listen patiently while she tells me. She is going to need a friend when this session of ours is over, and I give myself a mental reminder to make a call as soon as she's out the door. She may not really trust any of us yet, but she has made friends, and they would do just about anything for her, whether or not she realizes it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alyx walked into her apartment to find the room softly lit by candles and dinner waiting for her on the dining table. It was nothing fancy: pasta with red sauce and garlic bread that was fresh from the oven by the smell of it. Not quite trusting her senses, she actively searched for anyone in the room -- hell, in the building -- that might have done this, but came up blank. Just her neighbors below her and the super working in the shop off the garage on the ground floor. Setting her bag down on the sofa, she wandered into her kitchen where she found the note stuck to her fridge with a magnet. 'A little Keepy told me you might be in need of some TLC. Enjoy the meal and take a long relaxing bath. I spared no expense. -- D'

Shaking her head for the umpteenth time that day, she backtracked and picked up a slice of the garlic bread to nibble on as she wandered into the bathroom. There were more candles in there, giving the room a soft, calming light. Along the lip of the oversized tub were a box of Mr. Bubble, a single champagne flute, and a bottle of decent champagne chilling in a wine bucket. Alyx smiled. No expense, indeed.

A little more than an hour later, Alyx was ensconced in hot water laced with the pink aroma of Mr. Bubble and sipping at her third glass of the champagne. She knew that Claire must have called Darien the moment she'd been out the door and that she had somehow known that Alyx was not going to be heading directly home. Even though Alyx had done her best to give little or nothing away about herself, it was now obvious that at least two people had been observant enough to know her habits when upset, and she had been upset after leaving Claire's place. She had been so upset at one point -- when discussing the first time her husband had raped her -- that the only thing that had kept her in place had been the sudden appearance of Pavlov, Claire's dog.

Instead of barking at the stranger or doing the yippy happy thing to try and make friends, the little guy had sat solemnly at her feet just staring up at her for several long minutes as she finished the telling of the experience. Then he had hopped up into her lap and laid down with a sigh, much to Claire's surprise. Alyx had spent the rest of the afternoon discussing painful things from her past while running her fingers through the silky hair of the little dog.

The ache of those memories was still with her and would be for the rest of her life, but -- and this was the soft-spoken comment Claire had made -- was she going to let those fears, those memories, those buried bruises and scars control her life now? Was she going to let him win?

Settling deeper into the tub, she finished off the glass and poured another. She knew she couldn't really get drunk, but she was more than capable of achieving a pleasant state of muzziness, where the world took on a touch of unreality and her abilities were dimmed. Never to the degree she wanted to panic, of course -- it just dulled the signals and maybe let her relax her tightly-held shields a bit. Claire couldn't seem to understand that it was actual work to maintain her shielding all the time, a constant, if small, drain on her resources. It was a minor cost to pay to have her sanity, though. She could still remember, though a bit fuzzily, her first week fully conscious and how very much it had hurt, how very lost she had become in so short a time.

She had worked out later that she'd been awake on and off for the two weeks prior as they figured out what was going on and came up with the inhibitor to help control the voices, emotions, and other sensory input she was picking up without control. Even with those drugs, it had taken her teacher's arrival, and his non-accusatory attitude and kindness, for her to be willing to try and gain control over her new abilities. Every day had been a fight to hold onto herself, to remember who she was, to resist the almost unconscious urge, need, to hurt those that had taken her life away, to simply live until the next day.

With a soft growl of irritation at herself, she pushed those thoughts away. They were past and she had moved on, had found some peace and, yes, even happiness here. Setting the glass aside, she closed her eyes and sank deeper into the tub, allowing the water to rise up to her neck and the pile of bubbles to tickle her chin. That's when the phone she'd dragged into the bathroom with her went off.

Smiling slightly, she picked it up with a damp hand and brought it to her ear. "Ummm, what?" she mumbled into it.

A soft chuckle rolled out at her. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Mmmm. Not really a valid question," Alyx replied, not allowing herself to come up out of the pleasant drowse the hot water and alcohol had lured her into.

"'Not a valid question?' Sure sounded like one to me." His voice remained soft, almost teasing. "Bad day?"

Alyx thought about how to answer him without giving anything of importance away. "Yes and no."

He laughed. "That's not an answer." There was a long pause. "So, what are you wearing?" The leer was blatant in his voice.

Alyx decided to go along with it for now, the champagne and the need to ease the tensions of the day's events encouraging her into a bit of harmless silliness. "Mr. Bubble and nothing else."

He made this odd, half-strangled noise in the back of his throat and Alyx grinned evilly. Shifting so that he could hear the water moving, she sighed audibly and waited for him to say something.

When he did his voice was tight. "Damn," was all he managed to get out.

"Something the matter, sweets?" she drawled, realizing she missed being able to tease him like this. While Bobby had been easier around her, Darien had become far more standoffish since returning from their little convention trip. "Something come up, perhaps?"

"Alyx!" he blurted out. "You are a terrible tease, you know that."

"Me? Who asked what I was wearing?" She listened to him groan. "Should I ask you the same? Maybe convince you to slip into, oh ... nothing." She had a pretty damn good guess how he'd react to that comment.

"Oh, crap," he muttered. "I... Want some company?" The leer was back.

Alyx seriously thought about it. A goodly portion of her wanted no part of being alone tonight, wanted no part of the dreams she knew would come once her eyes closed and she allowed herself to sleep. But she also wanted no part of coming to rely on another person to protect her from those things. She had to learn to deal with what she was and what she had been on her own and... she didn't want Darien to mistake their building friendship for more than that, didn't want to hurt him more than she already had.

"Mmm, I think tonight I would be better off alone." She looked over at the bottle, noting it was more than half gone already and betting it would be empty by the time she drained the tub. "Why don't you go out and have some fun? Go bowling with Bobby, or bar hopping for that matter. Play pool with some pretties, have a few beers, enjoy the evening."

"Bobby's busy and I.... You know I don't go out much any more." He almost sounded sad.

"You should, you know. Get a life and all that. No one said you weren't allowed some fun." Alyx let sympathy leak into her voice. She had a good idea of how hard it had been on him, how much adjustment he had be forced to make in his life to accommodate the gland and the Agency, how lonely he'd become over the last year and a half. Part of her was still angry at the Official and his less-than-subtle attempt to fix Darien's life by tossing her at him like a bone to a dog. To give him an in-house distraction to not only keep him in the fold, but keep him happy, distracted... sated, even. Too bad she wasn't willing to play the 'Fish's game. Too bad she was afraid to. "Dare, there are plenty of beautiful women out there that would be happy to spend a quiet evening with you."

"All except the one I want." The hurt was back in his voice and it made Alyx feel guilty. The teasing had turned out to be not as harmless as she had hoped.

Alyx pushed herself a bit more upright and leaned against the side of the tub. "Darien, I'm sorry. I hadn't intended to upset you. I just can't be what you want."

"I know, and I shouldn't have started the teasing." His voice lowered. "But I miss you."

Alyx snorted. "I never said to stay away. How about lunch tomorrow? We could have a picnic, or do a movie marathon. I recently acquired several Mel Brooks movies on DVD." Since the night they'd exchanged belated Christmas gifts and watched movies till the wee hours of the morning, Darien had stayed distant from her. Oh, they still worked together just fine, though there had only been one mission since he'd recovered fully. In fact, he still had the remains of the bruises he'd gained on that snowy mountainside. His cheek was at that horrible green and yellow stage, and his ribs were still holding onto some of the purple. The knife wound had healed quite well, even after everything, and should eventually fade into a faint line that few would notice.

"Alyx... Yeah, I'd like that. You sure you don't want company tonight?"

"I'm sure. I plan on finishing this bottle of drink, while soaking a bit longer, meditate for a bit, and then sleep. I need to sort through some things, Dare. Okay?" The last thing she wanted to do was push him even further away. While she might still be uncomfortable with the 'Fish's intentions, she did like Darien and wanted, needed, his friendship. "Thank you for everything you did tonight. You have no idea how much I appreciate it, or how badly it was needed."

"Hey, no problem. That's what friends are for, right?" He was still a bit stiff, but better, not quite as upset.

"Right. Night, Dare."

"Sleep well, Alyx." Darien hung up his cell phone and shoved it into his pocket. He leaned his head against the cool metal of her door with a sigh. "G'night, Alyx." Pushing away from the door, he headed for the elevator, intending to head home and to try and not think about her all evening.