Disclaimer: Alex, Rob Logan and the concept of the Time Force Academy don't belong to me, they're borrowed from BVE without permission, but no harm, no foul, no money made. Tonk and Tonk's Place are borrowed from David Schmoller and Full Moon Productions without permission, but no harm, no foul, no money made. The practicalities of the TF Academy, all TF procedure, Deregovian Brandy and all other characters do belong to me and while you're welcome to borrow, asking me first would be nice.
Many thanks to Vanessa and Chris for both taking a look over this story for me. Also thanks to Gamine, Selma and Angel for being wonderful individuals and for tirelessly cheering me on even when I'm being a pita...
What Friends Won't Do
The sign over the door had proclaimed this was 'Tonk's Place', which was a nondescript sort of a name that hadn't set any warning bells ringing when he'd seen it, but now that he was inside... It was a dive. No -- on reflection -- it wasn't a dive, that was an insult to dives the universe over. A dive, Rob decided, might have some standard of hygiene. This place, on the other hand, clearly didn't. The floor was tacky with spilled drink, the tables were caked in grime, the bar itself looked visibly sticky, the glasses behind it were so dirty as to be almost grey in colour and the bottles of booze on display were unlabeled and filthy.
This was not a place for anyone who didn't want to get violently drunk.
Which begged the obvious question: What the hell was he doing here?
On second thoughts, scratch that, Rob decided, his eyes falling on his quarry. I know why I'm here -- it's Alex that worries me.
Alex was the academy class baby by some six months, while Rob was the oldest member of the class by two years. As odd men out in the crowd, it was almost inevitable they'd form a friendship. It was also somewhat inevitable that from time to time Rob found himself looking on Alex paternally. This was rapidly proving to be one of those times.
Alex was drunk. Not just drunk in fact, Rob realised as he sat down at his friend's table, but completely and utterly, stinking blind drunk and probably only one stage away from unconsciousness. As if that wasn't alarming enough, then the potent smell of Deregovian Brandy fumes hit him, and Rob realised that the veritable forest of empty bottles on the table had all, once, contained the most lethal known alcoholic drink in the galaxy.
Slowly he shook his head. "Alex what are you doing to yourself?"
"Ahneedarink..." Alex mumbled, blinking blearily. "Wujagemmeone?"
Rob opened his mouth to answer only to see Alex's eyes roll up as the Deregovian Brandy finally took its toll and he slumped forward, sending a cascade of empty bottles clattering onto the floor.
"Hey, buddy," hollered a voice.
Rob looked round to discover Tonk -- presuming that was who the barman was -- looking at him.
"Who, me?" Rob asked.
Tonk nodded. "You a friend of his?" Rob nodded. "Do him a favour," Tonk continued, "take him home and make sure the kid never comes to my place again."
Rob nodded. "I plan to," he murmured.
Tonk grunted and moved away. Rob turned his attention back to his comatose friend. Of course, that could be easier said than done. It occurred to Rob that there was no way he could take Alex back to the academy housing -- Alex was already perilously close to washing out from the academy as it was without showing up in this sort of state. He grimaced. He only had one option but it was going to be about as popular as a Galvas on a rampage -- and probably just as painful.
"Excuse me?" he said, trying to regain Tonk's attention.
"Yeh?" Tonk grunted.
"Do you have a comm. centre I could use?" he asked.
Tonk stared and jerked a thumb in the direction of a battered looking comm. booth. "Five credits."
It was daylight robbery, something that Rob knew full well but... Not like I have a choice. Standing up, he crossed to the bar and handed over five credits. Tonk handed over the booth key -- Rob wasn't surprised, given the state of the rest of this dump, to find the key was sticky.
Incredibly, however, the inside of the booth proved to be clean enough for him to risk sitting down on the bench while he punched in the comm. code for Ven Desouza and waited for the call to connect, which seemed to take very little time. Certainly, as far as Rob was concerned, it didn't take nearly long enough for him to organise his thoughts.
Of course, where Ven was concerned there was never enough time for him to do that.
"Rob, this is a surprise," Ven said.
"Yeah, well." Rob sighed. "I need a favour...or more accurately, Alex does."
"Does he." Ven sighed. "You know I dumped him a week ago?"
Rob nodded. "I do," he answered tightly. "And if I thought there was any other way I could do this, I wouldn't be bothering you."
"With smooth talk like that it's no wonder you're single," stated Ven acerbically. Rob just glared at her. "What do you want?"
"I need a place off campus I can take Alex. Somewhere safe."
Ven's eyebrows climbed. "Safe?" she echoed. "He's drunk again, isn't he."
It was not a question, but Rob nodded anyway. "Comatose this time."
"A bar on the edge of Forgotten District, called Tonk's Place."
"I'm not going to collect you, if that's..."
"Ven I'm not asking you to," Rob interrupted. "I said. I just need to know I can take him to your place and sober him up."
Ven grimaced. "I know I'm going to regret this. All right." She hesitated. "And I'll have an anti-intoxicant standing by." Rob opened his mouth but she shook her head. "Don't argue, Rob -- which one of us is the doctor?"
There was no denying that. "All right. We'll be there in twenty minutes."
"OK." She closed the connection before he could say anything else.
Rob shook his head. Worry about Ven later -- get Alex there first. He left the booth and returned the key to Tonk, who just grunted and pocketed it. He resisted the temptation to wipe his hands on his pants.
Crossing back to the comatose Alex, Rob debated for a second as to what the best way to do this was going to be. Then with a shrug he decided the simplest method was probably easiest -- particularly given Alex was too out of it to have his pride wounded by the indignity. With little ceremony, Rob bent over and picked Alex up in a shoulder lift, thanking whatever deities that happened to be listening that Alex was not a bigger man.
Ven was waiting at the door of her apartment complex when Rob arrived.
"You weren't kidding about him," she noted, helping Rob to carry Alex into the building.
"Put him on the couch," Ven directed as they entered her apartment. Rob did as he was told, then stepped back to allow Ven room to administer the anti-intoxicant. "It'll take about half an hour to act."
The words were emotionless. Rob shook his head. "You're cold -- you know that?"
Ven looked at him. "I dumped him, remember?"
"And you can turn your feelings on and off like that? Neat trick."
"Oh screw yourself Logan," Ven snapped. "I don't have to put up with this crap from you or for him." And she violently jerked a thumb in the direction of Alex. "I owe him nothing."
"If you don't care, why the anti-intoxicant?" Rob shook his head.
"Because I want him out of here," Ven retorted. "And you want to know why I dumped him. Well guess what: You're looking at the reason right here, right now. This," and she gestured the sofa again, "is why. Does this look like the Alex either of us met at the start of your time at the academy?"
Rob folded his arms across his chest. "Bullshit," he said flatly.
"What do you mean 'bullshit'?"
"I mean, we both know the real reason you and Alex have split up and it has very, very little to do with Alex."
Rob watched as Ven paled. "That had nothing to do with it!" she retorted.
Rob shook his head. "How dumb do you think I am, Ven? Did you think I wouldn't remember? Well I'm sorry, I wish I could forget, but I can't."
"It was an accident," she mumbled. "You know that."
"I was drunk, you," he added, staring at her, "weren't because I know you don't drink."
"Are you going to tell him?"
"Three weeks later and I still don't know," Rob answered honestly. "Friends don't sleep with their friend's girlfriend, even if they are drunk." His expression turned bitter. "Then again, friends don't expect their friends to seduce them while their friend's boyfriend is passed out in the living room."
"Oh you'd like that, wouldn't you," Ven snapped, anger colouring her face now. "Pin all the blame on Ven-the-Bitch. Well sorry, Robert, but it takes two to tango and you were most definitely tangoing."
"You didn't leave me with a choice."
"There's always a choice!"
"Could you keep it down? I have a headache."
Rob froze at the sound of Alex's voice. How much of the conversation had Alex heard? With a sinking feeling, Rob slowly turned to look at the couch, only to see that Alex was still lying, eyes shut, in the same position that Rob had put him in.
"Alex?" Ven asked, glancing at her watch. Rob guessed she was trying to work out if the anti-intoxicant would have acted yet.
"What?" Alex groused, not moving or opening his eyes.
"How do you feel?" she asked lamely.
"I've got a six-month hangover. How do you think I feel?" There was a lengthy pause. "I know one of you gave me something to sober me up," Alex continued, "and if you think I'm going to thank you, you're wrong. Leave me the hell alone."
Ven opened her mouth to say something else. Rob shook his head. "Not going to happen," he said.
Alex cracked an eye open. "I'm just going to get drunk again -- why bother?" The eye slid shut.
Rob exchanged glances with Ven. "Give me half an hour," he mouthed. Ven didn't argue, instead she vanished out of the living room. "First," he began, "you're not going to get drunk again. Second," he continued, not allowing Alex to get a word in, "because I'm not trying to talk sense into you while you're drunk. Third, because you need to take a long hard look at yourself and you can't do that until you're sober. Fourth, if you keep this up, you are going to kill yourself. Fifth, Director Symes has scheduled you an oh-nine-hundred hours meeting on Monday. I don't know what that's for, but I'm guessing it's not to congratulate you on your outstanding grades, and you sure as shit can't go to that in this state." Rob paused. "I don't know if you realise this, Alex, but you are yay close to being tossed out of the academy and I cannot believe you want that to happen."
"First, you're not my father. Second, what business of yours is it? Third, you can get bent. Fourth, your point is? Fifth, you really think I care?" Rob stared, stunned, and before he could say anything, Alex was continuing, "So how was Ven? Better for you than me, recently, I bet. Obviously I don't meet the same standard you do. Since she dumped me for you."
"That's bullshit and you know it."
"Is it?" Alex retorted, struggling up from his sprawl until he was sitting more or less upright on the couch. "From what I hear, it was one fuck from you and she couldn't wait to dump me."
"Alex you're being ridiculous," Rob answered.
"Yes, you are."
"You mean it was more than once? You were banging her the whole time?" Rob refused to dignify that with a response. "Well don't worry. You just let me get back to drinking and I won't get in your way."
It was when Alex tried to stand up that Rob realised just what a mess his friend was in. He could barely stand up, as though he'd forgotten what it was like to not have alcohol dulling his reflexes.
"Why did you have to goddamn sober me up?"
"How long have you been drunk?" Rob found himself asking.
Alex stumbled and sat down, hard, back on the couch. "Six months...or more." He gave an awkward shrug. "I don't know. Haven't exactly kept a count."
"It didn't matter."
"No, why are you drinking yourself into the ground?" Rob asked, concern leaping another tenfold.
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, I thought we were friends."
Alex snorted. "Well as you so eloquently pointed out, friends don't sleep with their friend's girlfriend, so I guess that lets you out of that category."
Rob slowly shook his head -- this was nothing like how he'd imagined this conversation going. "Alex I am only going to say this once: I did not plan to sleep with Ven; I did not want to sleep with Ven; I am not dating Ven now and have no intention of dating her either. It was a huge mistake and something I regret deeply."
"Save it for someone who cares," Alex retorted, struggling to his feet again. "I need a drink."
Again Alex stumbled, this time, falling forwards. But for Rob catching him, he'd have gone head first into the small table in the centre of the room. "Al, you are in no condition to go anywhere."
"Let go of me!" Alex retorted.
"Uh-uh." Using his size advantage, Rob bulled Alex back onto the couch. "You're not going anywhere Alex."
"Sez you," Alex snorted. "Like to see you...ow!"
The 'ow' was in response to Ven applying another hypo spray to Alex's neck. The contents became obviously apparent as Alex slumped back into unconsciousness.
"What did you do that for?" Rob asked, more than a little irritated.
"Because at the rate you were going the pair of you were going to rip each other limb from limb," Ven retorted. "Which is hardly going to help him."
Rob swallowed. "Sorry."
Ven sighed. "Look -- you're right, you can't take him back to the academy campus like this."
"What are you suggesting?" Rob asked.
Ven looked down, studying her hands. "I have a spare room here. Were you kidding about the meeting with Symes?" Silently, Rob shook his head. "Then...you need to stay here this weekend. I can't detox him on my own."
Rob stared at her. "What?"
Ven looked up, meeting his stunned gaze. "He needs help, Rob."
"I know that -- I didn't think you wanted to get involved."
"I don't." She sighed. "But I am involved anyway."
Rob couldn't argue with that. "Well isn't there a drug you can give him?"
Ven shook her head. "If this was just..." She stopped.
"If this was just...?" Rob prompted.
"He said he'd been drunk, continuously, for six months," Ven replied. Rob nodded slowly, not seeing where this was going. "There's only one substance that can do that and it's what makes Deregovian Brandy so lethal."
"Yes, so, and?"
"Regova is a narcotic, Rob," Ven answered. "And if I...you...we don't get him detoxed, it is going to kill him even more surely than the alcohol poisoning."
Rob stared. "What?"
Ven laced and unlaced her fingers. "Short form: Regova is the basis of Deregovian Brandy. In small doses, a glass or two, it's not dangerous, although it will give you one hell of a hangover because of what it does to your brain chemistry. Larger doses over longer periods produce a cumulative effect."
"Meaning...?" Rob prompted, knowing he wasn't going to like this.
"Meaning has it ever occurred to you why alcoholics don't live very long?" Ven answered. "Once a person is addicted to Regova, unless they can get detoxed pretty darn quick..."
Rob filled in the silence as she trailed off. "It kills them."
Ven nodded. "They do a course on narcotics and their various effects at TF Medical -- it's required study for cadets." She looked up and met Rob's gaze, and to his surprise he saw real fear in her eyes. "I've seen what this stuff does to the human body. I may have ended my relationship with Alex -- and you're right, what happened three weeks ago did have something to do with it -- but I don't want that to happen to him."
Rob looked beyond Ven, to the couch, to where Alex was sprawled unconscious. Out cold, he looked far younger than nineteen. Not for the first time, Rob wondered just what it was that had driven his friend to a state that was clearly only two stages away from death.
"How did we let him get so bad, Ven?" he asked.
"Because we let him fool us," she answered. "Because we let him forget that he didn't need to project an appearance with us."
"Because he was good at hiding," Rob put in himself.
"Will you help me?" Ven asked.
Rob glanced at Alex and then back at Ven. "He's my friend."
"Can you work with me?"
Rob offered a faint smile that lacked any real humour. "I'm willing to lay my differences aside. What do you need me to do?"
He felt...strange. His head felt like it was being crushed by an iron band and yet at the same time it felt as though if he moved too much it might float away altogether. His stomach churned and opening his eyes only made the sensation worse as the room started spin around him.
This wasn't a hangover.
This was something worse.
His groan turned to a whimper.
In so far as the pain in his head enabled him to think straight, he was frightened.
"Alex -- you need to drink this," said a voice gently.
He felt a beaker being pressed to his mouth and automatically he reacted, taking in a mouthful of the substance.
It was foul!
He tried to spit it out, only to find that the person who had been gently helping him drink was now clamping his mouth shut, leaving him no choice but to swallow. Whatever it was burned a path down his throat, hitting the churning mass in his stomach with the same sort of effect as throwing gas on a fire.
"Don't fight it, Alex," the voice whispered, soothing him as he lost the contents of his stomach. "You need this to happen."
Alex wanted to ask why. Wanted to ask what was going on -- why he felt this way. But when it was over, he found he was too weak to even do that. He tried to open his eyes and see whoever it was that was now gently cleaning him up but nothing seemed to be working now.
"It's OK," the voice murmured. "Rest now."
And Alex found himself drifting away.
When he next woke up, the headache seemed to have got worse and now it seemed to be allied to violent shivers. Distantly he realised he was now well wrapped up in blankets but it wasn't helping. He was cold to the bone and getting colder.
The only upside to this moment of waking was that his stomach seemed to have settled now. Perhaps the owner of the voice had known what they were talking about after all. Perhaps...
"Sshh," murmured the voice. "Rest, Alex. It'll be OK."
And again, he found himself drifting away.
When he woke again, everything was different. Everything had taken on a sharp, hard, painful clarity. He looked around himself and realised he was in Ven's 'guest room'. He wondered, confused, how he'd come to be there.
"Back with us, then?"
Alex whipped his head round and finally saw the speaker.
And felt his jaw drop open.
"You!" he exclaimed.
The speaker offered an apologetic smile. "It had to be this way -- I'm sorry."
Alex closed his eyes. He had to be hallucinating. Whatever was wrong with him -- it was making him see things. He opened his eyes. He was still looking at a blonde almost mirror image.
"This is your fault..." Alex began.
The other man looked startled. "How do you make that one out, Alex?"
"Ever since I got that flaming book," Alex retorted. "Ever since I learned the truth." The other man waited. "You told me I was going to die, alone...young... Why the hell did you have to tell me that?! Isn't it bad enough that I've gone through my life in your shadow? You were the hero. You were the perfect member of the family...and because I look like you, I get compared to you."
The other man shook his head. "Alex I..."
"Don't!" Alex hissed. "I didn't want this. I didn't want any of this. I can't be you. I can't be what you want me to be! I. cannot. do. this!"
The other man shook his head again. "Alex, I don't want you to be me."
"Don't you? You must be the only person in this fucking family who doesn't!"
"The only person you can be," the other man replied gently, "is yourself."
"But that's not enough!" Alex found himself yelling. "If it was enough, why the hell did you give me that book? Why the hell did you have to tell me? And why the hell are you taking away my only escape?"
"The drinking?" The other man looked scornful. "Alex that's not you."
"How the hell would you know? No-one knows me. The rest of our family don't see me -- they see you reincarnated. I'm not a person. Alex Collins doesn't fucking well exist to them!"
"And if you keep going the way you're going, Alex Collins won't exist period," the other man retorted mildly.
"And that would matter because?" Alex snapped. He wanted nothing so much as to cross the room and beat his fists against his blonde counterpart's face but he couldn't seem to persuade his legs to work and worse, the shivers were starting to come back.
"It would matter," the other man replied gently, "because you have things you need to do and people who will count on you. And you won't be alone."
Alex found himself laughing but not the sort of happy laughter; the hard, brittle almost hysterical kind. "Yeah right. That would be why my girlfriend and my best friend slept together. Because they're just over-flowing with love for me."
The other man sighed. "You know that neither of them meant that."
"And I suppose you didn't mean to tell me I was going to die before I was thirty. Well I guess I'm just pushing up that schedule. Wouldn't wanna be hanging around where I'm not wanted."
"But you are wanted, Alex. You just don't know it yet."
Rob shivered as he left the room, Alex now sleeping once more. It wasn't just that there was something incredibly unsettling about having Alex react to him as though he was someone completely different; it was what Alex had been saying to him.
"What was he saying?" Ven asked. "I could hear you talking...and him yelling -- but nothing clear."
"Something about a diary," Rob answered.
"It's probably just a hallucination," Ven replied, laying a hand on his arm. "Right now, Alex doesn't even know where he is, never mind what he's actually saying. By tomorrow evening, he won't even remember this."
Rob was far from convinced. "Will you be all right with him for an hour or so?"
Ven nodded. "Of course -- he'll sleep for a good couple of hours now anyway. Where are you going?"
"I need to check something."
Rob looked around the 'single study bedroom' that was Alex's home on campus and shook his head. He felt a little as if he was trespassing or prying, somehow, even though Alex had long since given him access. Partly because of what I'm about to do, he decided.
Giving the room a slow sweep, Rob spotted his likely prize: A red, leather bound, ancient-looking book, sitting on the desk. He made a beeline for it, then hesitated.
He was prying.
This wasn't any of his business.
Rob picked up the book and opened it. If he was going to help Alex it was going to have to become his business.
To my descendant -- and friend -- Alexander Collins. My name is Wesley Collins.
A shiver travelled the length of Rob's spine. Alex's words of nearly two years ago floated through his mind:
"My family is a very, very old family. We can trace ourselves back over a thousand years. According to those records, I'm an exact match for one of my ancestors...and it would have to be the one who did everything. Wesley Collins. He was a hero, and a nice guy, and everyone loved him... He never did anything wrong; he was a Harvard graduate, he..." Alex shrugged. "He's a lot to live up to."
It wasn't difficult for Rob to put two and two together now.
Automatically sitting down on the edge of the nearby bed, he started to anxiously thumb through the diary. The answer to what had been bugging Alex was in this book. Somewhere. And so was the means to fix the problem.
He just needed to find it.
He was hot. Too hot. Too many clothes, too many blankets.
He tried to shed a layer, but arms were encircling him, preventing him.
"Uh-uh, Alex," whispered a voice. "You need this."
"Too hot..." Alex mumbled.
"I know baby, I know...it'll be OK."
Pain shot through his stomach and he screamed. The arms loosened, letting him curl in on himself.
"It hurts..." he moaned softly. "Make it stop...please..."
"I know it hurts, baby, but it'll be all better soon. I promise."
The pain came again. He screamed once more.
"It'll be OK," she soothed. "It'll be all right."
As the pain lanced through his midsection for a third time, his stomach convulsed and he found himself throwing up.
Hands gently rubbed his back, soothing him as his stomach rebelled against him until it had finished.
"Rest now, baby," murmured the voice.
And he felt himself drift off once more.
When consciousness returned, so did that hard, bright clarity, and with it his tormentor.
"You again!" Alex exclaimed as his eyes fell on the blonde mirror image.
"Me again," he agreed evenly.
"Why can't you just let me die in peace? Why have you got to stick your nose in?"
The other man gave a faint smile. "Because I care about you."
"If you cared, why the hell did you tell me? Why they hell did you have to ruin my life like that?"
"Ah-ah." The other man's smile faded as he shook his head. "The only person ruining your life right now is you, Alex."
"Well what the hell would you be doing? Oh, no, wait -- I forgot. You're the fucking perfect one. The one I've been held up against every second of my life...the one I've never measured up to."
"In your mind, Alex -- in no-one else's."
The other man smiled faintly. "Did you truly read this?" he asked, holding up the diary.
"Then did you blink and miss all the times I made an ass of myself? I didn't miss those out, I promise you. I was and am human. I'm not perfect -- I don't expect you to be."
Alex snorted. "It's easy for you to say that. You're not the one who's going to be dead before they're thirty."
The other man's expression darkened. "At this rate, Alex, you'll be dead before you're twenty. Take a look at yourself. You're so sick, you vomit and you can't even clean yourself up afterwards."
"I..." Alex wanted to argue that point but realised the other man was right.
"In fact," the other man continued, "right now, you're so weak you can't even stand up."
"So?" Alex muttered sulkily, hating that the other man was right.
"I didn't force you to drink Deregovian Brandy," the other man replied.
"And maybe I'd rather die a drunk than I would face that fate," Alex retorted, weakly gesturing towards the diary the other man was still holding up.
The word hung on the air for a long, long time before Alex finally replied, "Because I'm not brave...I'm not courageous...I'm not...not a hero."
"And what standard are you holding yourself to, here, Alex?" the other man asked. "Me? I've already told you, I'm human. I'm no hero either. I just did what needed to be done."
"What other standard is there?"
The other man smiled. "Your own. Look at yourself. Do you like what you see right now?"
"No," Alex grudgingly admitted.
"So why are you doing this to yourself?"
"You're the one forcing me to be sober!"
The other man actually chuckled. "Touché -- but are you really so willing to die?"
Alex grimaced. "I don't want to die," he acknowledged.
"So -- is sobering up really such a bad thing?"
Alex felt defeated. "No. I guess not."
"Alex, I'm going to give you a piece of advice," the other man said. "We each make our own destiny. Yes, I wrote about you dying -- I don't believe for one second that has to happen. Point of fact, I hope it doesn't. If you know about it ahead of time, you can do something to avoid it." Alex stared at him open mouthed. "Don't look at me like that! I haven't crawled out from under a stone."
"Fate, destiny -- who gives a shit, Alex?" the other man retorted forcefully. "Yes, you have certain things you will need to do. And yes, die is one of them." Alex opened his mouth to say something. "When you're ninety and old, and grey-haired." Alex's mouth closed with a snap. "In the meantime, you have every chance to live a very long, fruitful and meaningful life."
"You...really think so?" For the first time in a year, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope.
"I don't just think so," answered the other man, folding his arms across his chest. "I know so."
"You're not listening to me -- again." The other man rolled his eyes. "We make our own destiny, Alex."
"You said that."
"So why don't you listen to me?" the other man wanted to know. "This is your life. Not mine. Your path is your choosing." Alex had no answer to that.
Ven stared at Rob.
"Where did that come from?" she asked.
For answer, Rob produced the leather-bound journal. "Read that."
Ven accepted it, opened it and started to read, only to stop after a couple of lines and look up, horror etched on her face. "What is this?" she asked.
"It's a journal," Rob replied. "Written by one of Alex's ancestors."
Ven looked shaken. "This is what's been bothering him?" Rob nodded. "We have to do something!"
Rob smiled faintly. "That's what we are doing, Ven."
She leafed through the book. "Is it enough?"
"We'll make it enough."
"What the hell was I on last night?"
"Al, you do not want to know," retorted an amused voice.
Alex shifted a little until he could see the speaker. It didn't surprise him to realise Rob was looking at him dispassionately. "You hauled me out of a bar again, huh?"
"Yep," Rob agreed, folding his arms across his chest. "And that's the last time I'm doing it, Al."
Alex blinked a little owlishly. His mouth tasted as though something had crawled in and died and his head ached. He felt like three-day-old crap, in fact. And Rob had to know that. So why was the lecture starting now? Why wasn't Rob sticking to his side of the plan?
The amusement faded out of Rob's expression. "That is the last time I am hauling you out of a bar, Alex." Before Alex could contest that, Rob continued, "Do you even know what day it is today?"
"It..." But the cold splash of fear hit Alex hard as he realised he didn't know what day it was or even where he was. "No," he whispered.
"Thought you wouldn't," said a new voice.
Alex's eyes widened as Ven appeared. His mouth opened and closed without anything coherent coming out.
"Now," said Ven, firmly, "you are going to sit there and listen to us for."
Mutely, Alex nodded.
"Today is Sunday. It is, in fact, Sunday evening," said Rob. "I hauled you out of Tonk's Place on the edge of Forgotten District on Friday afternoon."
"Between then and now," Ven continued, "you have been detoxing from Regova addiction."
Alex felt sick. "What?"
"Congratulations," said Rob dryly. "You successfully turned yourself into not only an alcoholic but a Regova dependant."
"We," said Ven, "are only going to straighten you out once, Alex. Bluntly, you won't survive a second detox."
"You have got to get your act together," Ven continued. "Either that or just flat out aim a chrono-blaster at your head and put yourself out of your misery, because that will be quicker and less painful."
"I don't want to die." The words surprised Alex a little for some reason. There wasn't any point to living; not knowing what he knew now.
"We each make our own destiny."
Alex's head snapped up -- but the words weren't spoken by either Rob or Ven. They were an echo of something else -- someone else. The memory slipped away before he could grasp it but it left the sense that there was some light of hope.
"You don't want to die," Rob repeated. "Well start acting like it."
"Clean up your act," said Ven.
"Stop drinking," Rob added. "And I mean stop."
"Start studying," Ven continued, "instead of cutting class or faking it."
"Start living as opposed to existing," Rob finished. "I don't know what's gotten into you in the last year, Alex -- but right now, you have two choices. You can go on as you have been, get yourself tossed out of the academy and ultimately drink yourself into oblivion, or you can make an effort and do something with your life."
"What's it going to be, Alex?" Ven asked.
Laid out baldly like that, Alex knew it was no choice at all. "Will you help me?"
For the first time since the talk started, Rob's expression cracked, showing a little amusement through the stern façade. "Alex, we're your friends," he answered. "That's what friends do."
Alex stood in front of Director Symes' desk, trying hard not to fidget. He still felt rough, although Ven promised that it would pass soon, and the last place he wanted to be was in the academy director's office at nine o'clock on a Monday morning. Unfortunately, it wasn't as if he had a great deal of choice in that matter.
"Ah, Cadet Collins," said Symes, entering the room. "Take a seat."
Alex did as he was told while the director took his place behind the desk. "You wanted to see me, sir."
"I did," Symes agreed, sternly peering over his glasses. "I wanted to discuss your grades, and more importantly, whether you really feel there is much point in your continued attendance at this establishment."
Alex swallowed. "I've had...a few family problems, sir."
Symes' gaze was piercing. "Have you, indeed. These nebulous 'problems' are now at an end?"
The director leaned forwards in his seat. "Cadet Collins, I frankly do not believe you." Alex's heart pounded uncomfortably. "You were, on entrance, the youngest cadet to attend this academy. You were, in point of fact, something of an experiment. An experiment, I am sorry to say, which has clearly failed both you and us. While you are undoubtedly academically very gifted, being placed a year ahead of yourself has very clearly and demonstrably placed a burden of pressure on you. A burden you have failed to bear."
"What are you saying, sir?" Alex asked softly.
Symes smiled kindly. "I am recommending that you do not continue with your current studies."
Alex felt gut punched. "You're expelling me?"
"No." Symes sat back in his seat again. "I am recommending that you repeat this second year of the academy. You did successfully pass your first year -- albeit with a sever drop in grades towards the end of that period -- and you have it in you to be an exceptional Time Force officer, but I feel you would benefit from retaking this second year."
Alex felt dizzy. "You...you're not expelling me?"
Symes smiled again. "No, Cadet Collins, you're not being expelled."
"I... You won't regret this, sir," Alex promised.
"I'm sure I won't," Symes agreed. "I will notify your assorted tutors of this recommendation and formal classes for you will be at an end until the start of the new academic year in six months' time. Between now and then..."
"May I sit in on the first year classes?" Alex asked. It was a request that surprised him a little.
Symes, on the other hand was not surprised, to judge from the shrewd smile now gracing his face. "Of course."
"I know that I passed the first year course but... I would like to make up what I missed." It was, Alex knew, a tacit admission.
The director merely smiled again. "I would expect no less," he answered. "I will duly notify the first year tutors. Your new schedule will be sent to your comm. account today and will begin as from tomorrow." The director stood and held out his hand. "Good luck, Cadet Collins."
Alex stood on oddly shaky legs and accepted the proffered handshake. "Thank you sir. I won't let you down."
Interview over, Alex made his way out of the office. Ven and Rob had both offered to wait outside for him but he'd insisted they wait in the academy's refectory. That way, if it was bad news, he could drown his sorrows with coffee.
Alex frowned. Somehow that didn't quite have the same ring to it but the thought of drinking anything stronger than coffee made his stomach rebel.
Besides, he realised with a smile, it hadn't been bad news. Not exactly. His mind wandered to the contents of the diary. Wesley seemed to think that he -- Alex -- had been a perfect, grade A student at the academy. Being held back a year was certainly not that! Alex smiled. It might not have been the most auspicious of starts, but maybe now he was making his own destiny.