* * *


The hum of the Zippy Cola fridge, which was providing the minimal illumination for his apartment, kicking on confirmed to Darien that he was indeed awake and in his bed. He glanced about the place, noting that everything seemed to be the way he remembered it. Pool table, currently playing host to several cartons, sofa with his jacket tossed carelessly over the back, comparatively sterile entertainment center with its assorted red and green LEDs blinking into the dimly lit room. The high counter and bar stools beneath it, one with yet another jacket of his draped across it. There seemed to be nothing to account for his sudden feeling that things were out of place and off-kilter.

He stretched, intending to do nothing more than roll over and go back to sleep when his hand unexpectedly encountered ... someone in his bed. He couldn't recall having brought anyone home... but the dream he'd awoken from still lay heavy on his mind and he made a tentative guess as to whom he was sharing bed space with. "'Chele?"

"'Chele?" a hoarse voice responded, sounding as confused as he felt. "Why are you calling me that?"

"Alyx?" Darien tried, quite literally unsure of which reality was the true one at the moment.

"In the flesh." She rolled and kissed him lightly on the shoulder. "Must have been one hell of a dream, bub."

Darien scrubbed a hand across his face, the similarities between the woman in his dream and the real one lying here beside him just enough to keep him off balance. "Yeah, you could say that."

"A Quicksilver dream?" Alyx asked as she slowly shifted to sit partially upright against the headboard.

"No," he assured her, rolling to drape one arm across her waist. "In fact, it was about us."

"Us? And how is that not a Quicksilver dream?" she queried with a hint of worry that he could hear.

"It just wasn't," he explained poorly. "Did... did you ever wonder how different your life might have been if you'd called me after we'd met that first time as kids?" Darien would admit that he'd never thought about it. He could only vaguely remember receiving the thank you card she'd sent him that was because his aunt and uncle had made such a huge production number out of it. That, along with Kevin's not-so-subtle teasing, had ultimately led Darien to ignoring the card and the girl who sent it even though she'd provided her phone number.

Alyx contemplated the question seriously before answering. "Once I remembered that we'd met, yeah, of course I wondered, but it doesn't really change anything, does it? We're here, aren't we?"

"I dunno. I still ended up working for the Agency with the gland, but... the madness had been cured." Darien wasn't quite sure how to feel about that, his sleeping mind conjuring up something that so far had been impossible in the real world. Not for lack of trying, but finding the key to the madness and reversing it had proved to be difficult at best. Even Claire was certain it would require years of research and testing before there was even the slightest chance she'd located the right gene sequence. But that was all right. Darien glanced down at the tattoo adorning the inside of his right wrist and noted the two red segments. While not a cure, the inhibitor Alyx had helped to create had done a great deal to ease his fear of the madness and had, by some miracle, provided the key to removing the gland, which was something that seemed to be unfeasible in that dream reality. One day, when he was ready, he would go through with it and be free of the gland and all the responsibility it entailed.

"Cured the madness?" How? Who?" Alyx managed to contain her excitement, though just barely in Darien's opinion.

"How? Something about a suicide gene and who was... Arnaud," Darien growled the name, anger coloring the word.

Alyx snorted in derision. "Arnaud? Can't see any cure from that bastard having a happy ending. Probably just do more damage." The quaver in her voice frightened Darien and he wished he'd not brought the subject up. She shivered for a minute and then spoke up again, "What about me?"

He could hear that her enthusiasm was forced, but gave her a smile as he answered. "You? You went to Cal-Tech with Kevin, earned a couple of PhDs, and worked for a private research lab. You also found the Phase II trigger on your own."

Alyx stared at him in wide-eyed disbelief for a few seconds, then burst out in weak laughter. "Right. You have quite an imagination there, bucko."

He shook his head with a grin and proceeded to detail parts of the dream; gave her a taste of all he had experienced while asleep for just a few short hours. She sat there quietly, her fingers running through his hair in that way he loved and just listened, allowing him to vocalize the images from his mind before they faded and became little more than faint sepia toned memories. Storing them for him in that incredible mind of hers that would never forget what he told her here and now. It took most of an hour to touch upon the barest outline of the entire life his sleeping mind had revealed to him.

She remained silent when he finished, and he lifted his head to see her watching him, her look almost sad. "'Chele, you okay?" One of her eyebrows rose up and he instantly realized his mistake. "Sorry."

"Don't be." Alyx cupped his chin with one hand. "Just... be careful with it." She tipped her head down, smiling shyly. "I like hearing you say my real name, Dare." She gave him a quick kiss and then slipped from beneath him to stand shakily next to the bed.

"Alyx?" he asked in concern, she'd only been up and about for a couple days, and this was her first night home.

"Just need to use the bathroom," she told him.

"Want help?"

She stuck her tongue out at him. "I think I can make it the 10 feet across the room and back on my own. I'm stronger than I look," she asserted.

Darien ran a hand along her forearm. "I know." He released her and watched as she made her way across the room with a painful slowness. He rolled onto his back and waited for the light to appear under the edge of the bathroom door before sighing deeply. He knew what had caused the dream; him and his 'what ifs,' his continued second guessing of his choices, his decisions during this entire mess.

What if they hadn't cornered Arnaud when they had? What if they hadn't gotten the antidote to Alyx in time? Hell, what if they'd just been paying more attention to begin with and prevented the entire mess from ever happening?

Alyx was slowly recovering from her injuries; her ankle still gave her problems though her wrist had healed well-enough, even if it had taken longer than expected. The bruising had long since faded from her skin, but not yet from memory. Her body was finally regaining strength after the poison-induced coma, but her mind, her heart were still battered and torn. The emotional wounds still raw and seeping blood and would continue to do so until she took the time to actually face what had happened and what she had done... what had been done to her.

In truth, Darien had yet to really sit down and deal with it, to look at everything that had transpired for good or ill, and let the emotional storm he knew was building find its much needed release. They would do it together, they'd talk it out, work through it and then move on... it would just take some time.

There was a loud thump followed by cursing. Darien threw off the covers and rushed to the bathroom. "Kitten, is everything all right?"

The door swung open and Alyx stood shakily in the doorway. "Kitten? That's a new one." She set a hand against his chest, her fingers digging into the cloth of his t-shirt. "I like it. That one's a keeper."

Darien scooped her up and knew by her lack of protest that she had exhausted herself already. "Claire's the Keeper, but 'kitten' suits you." He knew the nick must be a remnant of the dream, but found himself liking it for Alyx as much as his other self had for 'Chele.

She rested her forehead on the side of his neck and sighed deeply. "Does this mean I should practice my purr?" she joked as he carried her across the room and set her down in the center of the bed.

"Nah, you do that fine already," he assured her. He felt his heart leap in his chest as she reached for him, encouraging him to lay down with her, then kissed him with all the energy she could muster. He could feel the terror roiling just beneath the surface, knew she wasn't anywhere ready to take it beyond this gentle meeting of bodies and lips. He could also feel her need for him trying to burn its way to the surface, her love for him making her willing to fight the instinctive and irrational fear that was all she had lived with for long weeks and allow him to take advantage of her tentative offer.

"'Chele... crap. Alyx, you don't have to prove anything to me." He brushed her hair away from her face and did his best to project that he meant the words with all his heart and soul, that he could and would wait as long as necessary for her to be ready.

She shuddered, relief at his statement rolling off her in sharp waves, the pain still not very far from the surface. She curled against him and he wrapped his arms about her, thankful she was still alive and with him. He knew how close he had come to truly losing her.

"Was it better?" she asked suddenly.

"Was what better?" Darien wasn't entirely sure what she was talking about.

"The dream, was it better having known me all your life?"

Darien thought about it, in the dream they'd been friends for years, lovers on occasion. Been there for the highs and lows of each other's lives, together, but never quite connecting completely. Here, now, she was with him, in his bed and in his arms nearly every night. She was in his life and they were together, friends, partners, lovers, any and all of them. While some things seemed better in that other life, like the curing of the madness, the fact that he was living his life without her, still suffered from the isolation and loneliness forced upon him by the gland and the Agency, was still alone, that was anything but better.

"Not better," he told her. "Just different. I wouldn't trade what we have for anything, Alyx."

"Anything?" she repeated, unconvinced.

"You heard me. You're here, now, and that is what matters." He could only hope she could feel that he meant every word, that there was little he wouldn't do to keep her in his life, that everything they'd been through had only made him care for her all the more.

"Sweet," she mumbled sleepily. "A ma vie de coer entier."

Darien lay perfectly still, not quite sure he'd heard her correctly and afraid to ask how she'd come to say those words. By the time he screwed up his courage to say her name, he realized she'd fallen asleep. "I love you too, Alyx."

I don't believe in destiny

Or the guiding hand of fate

I don't believe in forever

Or love as a mystical state

I don't believe in the stars or the planets

Or angels watching from above

But I believe there's a ghost of a chance we can find someone to love

And make it last...

Ghost of a Chance by Rush.