Disclaimer: Situation is mine, some of the characters are mine, that which is left belongs to BVE -- all hail the mouse!
With grateful thanks to Nessa and Gamine for once more running their expert eyes over this and patiently pulling out the nits.
Please offer feedback, it tells me how I've done...
It was like something out of a fairytale.
Or perhaps some child's crayon drawing.
The colours were bright and harsh. The road he was standing on was a brilliant yellow-ochre. The fields it was running between were a verdant green. The sky above was crystal clear and oh so blue.
The whole, vivid effect made the place seem unreal, but that didn't bother him so much.
What did worry him was that he had no knowledge of how he came to be in this strange land, or why.
He just had the impulse to keep walking in the direction he was going. And maybe when he got to where he was headed, he'd find what he was looking for.
Dr Evore made her way along the corridor, the tap-tap of her heels echoing harshly. At the end of the hallway, sitting slumped on the kind of hard plastic chair that only hospitals ever seemed to possess was a man who, she reflected wryly, looked how she felt.
"You should go home," she said as she neared him. "You know he's not going to wake up anytime soon."
The man turned a tired and depressed gaze on her. "I can't do that."
The sun beat down on the strange land, yet he wasn't hot. More puzzling was the fact that when he looked up at the sky, there was no sign of the sun at all.
He had walked for hours, yet the scenery hadn't changed.
He should have been tired, yet he wasn't.
He should have been footsore, yet he wasn't.
In fact, he got the feeling that although his feet had been moving, he had covered no distance at all.
And most puzzling of all -- that fact didn't seem to be bothering him.
She put a hand on his shoulder. "Rob, I know you want to be here for him when he does wake up but you're not going to be doing either him or you any good by pushing yourself like this." Dr Evore paused. "Or should that be punishing yourself?" Rob flushed an embarrassed shade of pink, but said nothing. "This is not your fault."
"Isn't it?" he retorted.
"No, it's not," she replied gently. "You did everything you could."
"Yes, you did." She put her hand on his shoulder trying to instil reassurance in him. "You got him here, and got him here quickly."
"But was it quick enough?" he asked, dropping his gaze. "Or have I just condemned him to a long and lingering death?"
He was getting somewhere now.
He hadn't noticed it at first, but now he could see it. What had been flat fields, on the same level as the road itself, were now gently rolling embankments, giving him the feeling that he was almost walking through an emerald tunnel.
The embankments offered some shade from the not-there-yet-burning sunlight, something, which was now beginning to be a necessity.
He still didn't feel hot, but the light was very bright now and it had almost seemed as if it was being reflected up from the road, and relief from that was welcome.
She crouched in front of Rob, not giving him the option of looking away. "I can't answer that question yet, and you know that. But you also know that I will move heaven and earth to make sure the answer's one we can both live with."
"You should have seen him, Ven," Rob murmured. "He was so angry..."
"So willing to die?" she suggested.
Rob shook his head. "No."
Ven blinked. "He wasn't?"
Rob smiled faintly. "He was pissed, not suicidal."
Ven allowed herself a little smile at that. "Then there is definite hope."
The embankments now towered above him. Lush, green mountains that loomed over so much that the sky had been reduced to a narrow, azure strip.
Even though it hadn't been hot in the full glare of the light, here in this semi-dark tunnel, it was cool.
Unconsciously, he found himself walking faster. This was not a place to tarry.
"What makes you say that?"
Ven smiled. "You know Alex. When he's fighting for something, he doesn't quit."
"And..." Unexpectedly, Rob's face broke into a grin.
Ven frowned. "And? Rob?"
"He's finally found someone," Rob answered.
Ven caught her breath. "Found someone? As in...?"
Rob nodded. "I caught him whistling in TFHQ!"
Ven found herself laughing. "Alex? Whistling? I didn't think he knew how."
Rob's smile faded. "He was fighting for her when this happened," he murmured.
Ven put her hand on Rob's shoulder. "What happened?"
The cobalt ribbon was less than an inch wide in this deep canyon he was walking through -- no, running was a more accurate term.
It was cold, down here, between these two massive, green walls. Even the harsh brightness of the colours was reduced almost to grey and black.
He shivered and picked up his pace even more.
Ven watched as Rob shrugged a little.
"He was surrounded," he answered. "The Mutorgs and Arachna. I wasn't in time to stop that." Ven squeezed his shoulder gently. "I know. It's not my fault -- doesn't stop me from feeling guilty."
"And you wouldn't be you if you didn't."
"I think you have me confused with Alex."
Ven shook her head. "No I don't, Rob. You and Alex both have over developed guilt muscles -- yours is just quieter than his."
There was no sky now.
It was dark in the depths of the rift and he was tired -- oh so tired.
In the pitch-blackness, he stumbled and fell. He knew he should get up and keep going but it seemed so much effort.
Too much effort.
He froze at the word -- the first sound he'd heard beyond his own footsteps and breathing since arriving in this place. It was sweet and high, a young boy's voice.
"Daddy -- are you hurt?"
Out of the darkness came the owner of the voice.
In spite of all logic, he could see the boy clearly, almost as if the boy were somehow glowing. The child was no more than six with coffee-coloured skin, wide dark eyes and a shock of unruly dark hair.
"Daddy?" he repeated. "Are you hurt? Who hurt you, daddy?"
It took several long minutes before he realised the child was speaking to him. "You...call me daddy?"
The child smiled a wide, joyous grin. "Daddy! You're OK!"
Before he could truly process it, the child had run up to him and enveloped him in an embrace.
"You can't stay here," the child observed. "Bad things live here. You have to keep going."
"But you can't stay here!" the child implored.
To his surprise, the child started to pull on his arm. Even more to his surprise, he found his strength returning even as the child tugged.
"You have to keep going," the child insisted as he finally got back to his feet. "Mommy's waiting for you."
Ven watched as Rob sighed.
"I guess," he finally said.
Ven smiled. "I lived with the pair of you for two years -- or nearly at any rate. I know these things."
"So how did you get him out?" Ven asked. "From what you've said..."
"It wasn't easy," Rob agreed. "Tagging him with the transponder was easy enough. I managed that before he left this time."
Ven lifted her eyebrows. "And you did that exactly how?"
Rob smiled. "Never under estimate the power of scaring someone who's too busy whistling to know you're there until you slap them on the shoulder."
He was underway once more.
The child -- after that remarkably cryptic comment about 'mommy' -- had vanished from whence he'd come, but he took the words to heart: You have to keep going; bad things live here.
And sure enough, as he continued moving, it was starting to get lighter now. Finally.
Was he coming to the end of the tunnel or was it just someone with a torch bringing more work?
Did it matter if he didn't stay sane?
Ven found herself laughing. "That's sneaky enough even for Alex!"
Rob grinned. "I thought so."
"So what did you do then?"
Rob sighed, his grin fading. "Once they'd gone, I took over his office and watched...and waited."
Ven winced. "You should have called me -- I'd have helped."
Rob shook his head. "It didn't take long."
"Half a pound of tuppenny rice; half a pound of treacle. That's the way the money goes -- pop goes the weasel."
He giggled again.
It was definitely lighter -- so no torch then.
The colours were back. The sky was back -- still no sign of the sun.
"The sun has got his hat on...no...wait -- that can't be right."
He walked on a little further.
"Sing-a-song-o'-sixpence, a pocket full of rye..."
"And when you found it?" Ven asked softly. "When you found when it happened?"
"I activated the transponder." Rob studied his hands. "I pulled him through the time stream." Ven winced again, this time from the medical consequences of that act. "What else could I do, Ven?"
"I know." She sighed. "I know there was no other way -- that doesn't lessen the risks."
"What else could I do, Ven?" Rob repeated. "It was either I did that or I left him where he was."
She squeezed his shoulder again. "I know."
"Ring-a-ring-a-roses a pocket full of posies..."
"Geez -- I leave you alone for five minutes and look at you."
He was brought up short in his singing by the voice. A new voice. Different voice. Female voice.
He looked up and found himself looking at a familiar looking young woman. Her brown hair was pulled back in an austere ponytail, which combined to make the stern expression on her pretty face look even sterner.
"Wha...?" he asked.
"Look at you," she scolded. "Buy you a drool bucket and install you in the nearest mental institution."
He made a mental scramble for his scattered wits. "Are you saying I'm nuts?" he asked.
She gestured a hand in his direction. "All the evidence points that way."
"Prove to me you're not," she said. "Get out of this place."
The yelp startled Ven. It took her barely a second to process that it had come from the room immediately behind her, and when that happened, she was up, onto her feet and facing the speaker.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Patient is having a seizure."
He landed on his back, knocked there by the familiar looking woman when he'd tried climbing the left hand embankment.
"You said get out of here!" he objected.
"That wasn't what I meant," she retorted, "and you're not far enough gone to not realise that."
He lay there, looking up at her angry face. "I just want this to stop."
The anger mutated into sympathy and she offered him a hand up. "I know, but you have to play by the rules. You have people waiting for you."
"Rules? What rules?"
She smiled as he finally got back to his feet. "Of course there are rules -- and you know that."
And he realised that he did. "There are people waiting for me?"
She smiled again. "I can't tell you any more -- just tell you that you need to get going. You'll get there."
Ven shook her head. A seizure just wasn't medically possible.
She crossed the hallway to the room opposite in a blur.
Unless it was a consequence of his method of rescue. Unless this was a consequence of being bodily dragged through the time stream unprotected.
It can't be that...no...
"Dr Evore?" She blinked. The junior doctor who had told her of the seizure was standing before her. "It's stopped!"
Ven just stared at him. "Stopped?"
The junior doctor looked as confused as she felt. "One moment he was seizing...the next it was like it hadn't happened."
"That's just not possible."
The junior doctor shrugged. "It's what's just happened."
The embankments were gone completely now. The rolling, flat fields were back but preventing the sense of having travelled in a circle from forming was the dark blur on the horizon.
That was his destination.
He didn't know how he knew that but he was convinced of it.
Maybe he'd find out where this was when he got there.
Maybe he'd find out what was going on.
Or maybe there'd just be more rules...
"Ven, what's going on?" Rob asked as she returned to him.
Ven shook her head. "I don't know," she replied. "It doesn't make sense."
But Ven just shrugged. There was no explaining this. What was going on in that room was just not medically possible. The only possible thing she could put it down to was the one thing she didn't dare mention to Rob -- he was already guilty enough over having to pull Alex through the time stream; she didn't want to make him feel worse.
The blur on the horizon seemed to quickly resolve itself into a wood.
In fact, he was a little surprised by how fast that happened -- almost as if time was running out.
What surprised him both more and less was that as he neared the wood, came upon a fork in the road. One branch headed straight into the wood, the other branch continued on between the impossibly green fields. Standing at the fork, leaning against what might have been a signpost -- had there actually been any signs attached to it -- was a man.
Like the woman, he recognised the man. Unlike the woman he could put a name to him instantly.
"You're Wesley Collins," he said.
The man smiled. "I am." He ducked his head. "At least, sort of."
He blinked. "Sort of?"
Wesley smiled again. "It's long and time is short. You have to make a choice, Alex."
The unexpected use of his name -- the name he'd almost forgotten -- was like dropping a pebble in a pond. The ripples set up a cascade of memories and suddenly he knew why he was here. In a crystalline moment he understood.
"What's the choice?"
Wesley waved a hand at the fork in the road. "Do you go left or do you go right?"
He blinked. "That's it?"
Wesley smiled. "Pretty much."
"What's the difference? There has to be some sort of catch...or something."
Wesley waved his hand in the direction of the left fork -- the fork that led into the wood. "That direction leads to pain, and suffering and heartache." He then gestured to the right fork. "That direction leads to peace. That's all I'm allowed to tell you."
Just as Ven was finally deciding on what she could possibly say to Rob that wouldn't make him feel worse, the junior doctor returned.
"Dr Evore -- I think you'd better get in here."
"What's happening?" Ven asked.
"The patient's vital signs are fluctuating wildly -- I can't get them to stabilise."
"What does that mean?" Rob asked quietly as Ven started across the hallway.
Ven felt her heart sink as she reached the door of Alex's room. "It means he's dying, Rob."
He studied both paths.
The wooded path looked uninviting -- not aided by the idea that the route to the left, through the wood, led to pain and suffering. But then again, the idea of the right path -- even if it did lead to peace -- wasn't appealing either. Something about the idea of seeing more of this odd place made him feel uncomfortable at bet.
"Alex -- you have to choose," said Wesley. "If you don't, I have to choose for you and I know you won't like that."
A smile slowly crossed his face as another moment of pure crystal clarity seared through his mind.
He wanted to be where she was.
But which way would that be? Peace or pain?
Almost without realising he'd made the decision he started to move.
Ven was two steps away from the bed when suddenly every alarm started to shriek and ever monitor flat lined.
She froze to the spot. This couldn't be happening...shouldn't be happening...not now...
The first thing Alex realised was the deep-seated sensation of pain. Every fibre of his body hurt! The Guide hadn't been kidding when he'd said this was the way of pain...
It was a woman's voice. Frightened. Familiar but not one he could place instantly. Where the hell was he?
"I think so..." he murmured, instantly alarmed by the weak croak his voice made.
"Alex Collins, so help me if you ever do this again..." That was Rob's voice, but while the words might have been disapproving, the tone was relieved.
Alex tried to open his eyes to see who was with Rob, but his eyes didn't seem to want to cooperate.
"Don't try to do anything," said the woman, clearly more in control than before. "Just rest -- you've been through a lot."
Alex wasn't entirely surprised to find himself drifting off into a medicated sleep. Wherever he was, he strongly suspected it was some form of medical facility and if the drugs made the pain go away -- which they did seem to be doing -- that was fine by him.
Ven wasn't aware she'd swayed until she found herself being gently guided to a seat by Rob.
"He's going to be OK?" Rob asked softly.
Ven bit her lip and nodded. "I think so."
Alex wasn't entirely sure how much time passed. Most of it was just a haze of semi-conscious pain and dreams of weirdly coloured landscapes with a few moments of complete consciousness and long periods of unconsciousness for punctuation. None of it made a lot of sense. He vaguely felt he ought to be worried by that -- but worrying required energy and he didn't seem to have much of that to go spare.
Eventually, however, the dosage of sedatives was reduced and he started to have days and nights. When that happened, he knew that the answers he was searching for -- the sense making -- wouldn't be long in coming.
Sure enough, two days later, Rob and the woman -- who Alex now, finally, identified as Ven -- entered the room and assumed positions, one either side of the bed.
"Something tells me I'm not going to enjoy this," Alex offered, glancing from one to the other. His voice still sounded ropey to his ears, although neither Rob nor Ven reacted to that.
"There are a few things you should know," Ven began.
"Yep," Alex murmured, "I'm not going to enjoy this."
"Don't be flip, Alex," Rob retorted sharply. "Please," he added, his tone modifying from sharp to apologetic.
Alex looked again from Ven to Rob and back. "OK."
"You've been seriously ill," Ven stated, her expression giving nothing away. "In fact, you were, for several weeks, critical. Bluntly, Alex, you're only here now because you're a stubborn son of a bitch."
"And, as far as the outside world knows," Rob continued, "you aren't here at all."
"Officially," said Ven, "Major Alex Collins died in a heroic defence of the lives of billions of people."
Alex swallowed, trying to force back the sudden burst of nausea. "The Mutorgs."
Rob nodded. "The Mutorgs and Arachna."
Unbidden, the memory loomed large. Of being surrounded, of seeing Katie seriously injured, of knowing what needed to be done to protect her -- to protect everyone. He swallowed again. "How did I get here?" he whispered.
"That would be me," said Rob. "I...tagged you with a transponder just before you left this time period -- in case something went down..."
"And you pulled me back," Alex finished softly. Rob nodded. "Why?"
"Because that's what friends do," Ven answered.
"How? How did you know?" Alex asked.
Rob shrugged a little. "I didn't. I just know that when...if you're pushed hard enough, you protect everyone else and forget yourself."
Alex smiled a little. "You mean you read Wes' gift to me and put two and two together." Rob looked stunned. Ven didn't look much better. "I'm guessing it was at some point during my less-than-stellar second year at the academy, although beyond that I wouldn't like to be more specific. What?" he added. "You didn't think I wouldn't realise you were sheep-dogging me?"
"You're not angry?" said Rob cautiously.
"For what?" Alex enquired. "Saving my life at least -- I don't know, twice is it? Or is this the third time? Seem to remember someone in here got shot up pretty badly the night I bust my ribs." Rob shifted in his seat and looked uncomfortable. "I figure you did it at a point when I was probably being a complete pain in the ass -- which, from what I don't recall about that year, was probably most of it -- and you wanted to know why."
"Wanted to help you," Rob admitted.
Alex nodded. "I know...and I do thank you." He switched his gaze to Ven. "Both of you."
Ven smiled. "You are -- and always have been -- our friend, Alex. No matter what happened...or happens."
Alex returned her smile. "Thank you." He sighed. "So Alex Collins is officially dead, huh?"
"Yep. Lucas Kendall is now running covert ops -- and," Rob added, "doing an exceptional job of it."
"You sound surprised," said Alex, amused.
Rob shrugged. "To be honest, Al, in the two years I worked with him in TF Crime, I never thought he'd amount to much. Either that four months spent in the past really changed him or he has more hidden depths to him than the Grand Canyon."
"Or you could just be a lousy judge of character," said Alex.
"I'm friends with you," Rob retorted.
"You walked into that one," Ven observed.
"I did," Rob agreed with a groan. "Needless to state," he continued, "none of them --the usual suspects -- know you're actually still with us. I didn't want to say anything until we knew for sure that you were going to pull through."
Adrenaline started to surge through Alex as the implications of that statement hit him. "Not even Katie?"
"Especially not Katie," said Ven gently.
Fear reared its head. "Why? She's OK isn't she? I..." Alex started to try and sit up, only to have various, still healing injuries make their presence felt. For a few seconds everything whited out in a haze of pain.
"OK -- Alex, relax; breathe." Ven's voice had switched from gentle to professional. "I can't tell you anything until you relax."
Precious moments passed. The haze slowly receded and he found himself able to focus his eyes once more.
"No point in soft-soaping this," said Rob. "Alex, she's pregnant."
Alex felt his heart stop. "What? How?"
"The usual way, I would imagine," said Rob dryly.
Alex just stared at him. "What?"
Ven shot Rob a filthy look. "Rob, you're not helping." To Alex, she said, "You can stop panicking that she's been unfaithful to you -- or even before you."
Alex blinked and slowly shook his head. "But it's not possible."
"You held a chrono-morpher for nearly five years, yes?" said Ven. Alex nodded, not seeing the relevancy. "One of the minor side effects of morphing, so they've found out, is that it renders some of the artificial hormone manipulation inactive. It's not actually a medical problem -- it's not going to make you sick or," and a faint, humourless smile crossed her face, "kill you. But it does mean that..."
"I'm fertile and if that's caused by morphing so is Katie. Hence pregnancy." Alex found himself sagging back against the bed, feelings in an uproar. One thing forced itself through the confusion. "And she thinks I'm dead."
"At the moment," agreed Rob.
"You let her think I was dead!" Alex exclaimed.
"Because you very nearly were," Ven retorted firmly. "Alex, she came back to this time already thinking it. At that point we didn't know if you were going to live or die. Which would have been more cruel, Alex? Which would have hurt her more? Losing you a second time, or never knowing?"
Alex had to concede that point. "But I can still..." He stopped, feeling his heart clench. "I can still go and see her?"
"It'll take a little finessing," said Rob, "you currently don't have an identity..."
Rob blinked. "What?"
"Alan Drake," Alex repeated. "I did an undercover op a few years back, had to have a new identity for it."
"And it's all still current?" said Ven, surprised.
"Mostly," Alex admitted. "I'd been thinking about taking some time away when I got back -- been prep'ing Alan Drake's details. I just hadn't necessarily been planning on it being permanent."
"You'll need to change the holos," said Ven thoughtfully.
"Why?" Alex asked.
Ven shifted a little in her seat. "Well...the explosion did some...damage to your face and neck."
"How much 'damage'?" Alex asked softly.
"A lot," Ven admitted. "I could fix it -- have fixed it..."
"But I don't look like me any more," Alex finished. "Alex Collins really did die huh?"
Ven looked a little surprised. "You don't sound that bothered."
Alex smiled a little. "You know the baggage that went along with that name, Ven. Alan Drake has no expectations being heaped on him; no burden of family history... He can be who I want him to be. Someone once gave me a piece of advice," he added. "We each make our own destiny." He smiled again. "Maybe now I really can."
It was Christmas. It was normally a time of year that Katie enjoyed -- seeing her brothers' faces on receiving their gifts was always something special -- but this year was different. This year she was two months pregnant and staring the prospect of single-motherhood straight in the face.
This year, she was trying to celebrate the holiday while living with a broken heart.
She had told Alex she'd had a crush on him from the time she'd first met him -- when Jen had brought him home at the end of her first year at the Time Force Academy. That much had been true. What she didn't tell him -- although she got the feeling he'd guessed -- was that her crush had long since turned to something deeper. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was the only man she would ever truly, totally love.
And he was gone.
With a quiet sigh, she excused herself from the familial gathering and went out to stand on the porch so that at least the only person's whose Christmas was being ruined was hers. But as she came out onto the porch she saw a flash of someone lurking beneath/behind the big oak tree on the edge of the property.
"I know you're down there," she called, managing to instil a thread of steel in her voice. "C'mon out -- or I'll be forced to call Time Force."
There was a rustle and the man came out from behind the tree. He wasn't tall or well built -- point of fact, he looked as if he'd been seriously ill. His face was pale and drawn and his dark hair, shaggily cut, only served to emphasise it. And yet...there was something about the way he was standing. About the way his grey/green eyes were staring at her. Something familiar, even if the face the eyes were set in wasn't necessarily so.
Her hand flew to her mouth in surprise, shock and a little fear.
It couldn't be...
But he'd done this before. Cheated death.
Before she'd had a chance to consciously process that thought, she was down from the porch and across the yard, flinging herself at him. "Oh my God! I...you..." She was laughing and crying and hugging...and she felt his arms go around her. "I thought I'd lost you."
"You know me," he answered, his voice husky. "I'm like a bad penny -- I just keep turning up." He kissed her, just barely brushing his lips over her temple. "And...if you'll have me, this time I'm not going anywhere."
Katie hiccuped. "You think I'm gonna let you go again?"
He chuckled. "You hear me arguing with that one?"