Part XVII

Alyx slammed open the door to the Official's office a couple of days later. It startled Drake, who allowed a hastily stifled 'eek' of surprise to escape as he jumped up from his chair, knocking it to the floor with a bang. Alyx was followed by Darien and Bobby, who both looked rather upset as well.

"Miss Silver, is there a problem?" the Official asked, without looking up from his desk.

"Problem? Oh yeah, try three guys jumping me this morning while I'm on my run. Damn good thing I was in the right part of my cycle. Made them pretty easy to flatten." She tossed the ID's of the men on the desk and he glanced at them. "They are currently sleeping in the cage in the basement."

"And you two are involved, how?" The Official looked at the two men who stood just behind Alyx.

"She called me. Her car wouldn't hold the mooks, so I picked up Fawkes and we brought them here in the van," Bobby answered. Alyx had calmed down a lot since she'd called him. She had been all set to storm any or all of the SWRB compounds and take them out once and for all, but he talked her down to a state of rationality and persuaded her to get showered and dressed while he and Fawkes hauled the slime balls in. According to Fawkes, she'd had a very bad night, with not one, but two panic attacks before she'd fallen asleep in complete exhaustion.

"When the hell did they figure out I was anything but a zombie?" Alyx asked as politely as she could manage.

The Official sighed and was about to answer when Drake interrupted, "According to our informants, yesterday."

"I didn't ask you, Drake." she snarled the man's name and shot a dangerous glare at him, making him snap his mouth shut on whatever he might have said next.

"Miss Silver, I've done everything I can." The Official wasn't faking his sympathy for a change. In fact, he seemed to be at his wits' end over the matter. "They won't back him, but they won't stop him either. We are now at war with the SWRB over you."

"Well that's not good," Darien commented as Alyx lowered herself into a chair. Darien moved up behind her and set his hands on her shoulders. He began to knead the muscles that were tight and stiff again. She'd had a terrible night last night. He knew. He was the one who'd held her all through it. Who'd kept her from leaving the apartment when she'd tried to smash her way through the door. The one upon whom she had finally fallen asleep, with tears still running down her cheeks, whimpering for it to be over. Darien wished there were more he could do for her.

"I will not live like this." There was no strength in her voice, like she was ready to give up.

"Kid, we'll protect you." Bobby moved up beside her. They were a team, partners, and they stood by each other through everything. Including this. Maybe especially this.

"Thanks Bobby, but what are you gonna do? Twenty-four hour guards? Never let me out on any jobs? Maybe confine me to the Agency?" She turned to look up at him. "All that will do is get other people killed. I won't have that."

"You have no choice, Miss Silver." Drake tried to sound like he was the one in charge, like he had rank over her, like he could dictate what she could and could not do.

Bobby and Darien exchanged a look. "Uh-oh."

Whatever the guys were expecting her to do, however, didn't happen. "Thanks for the reminder, Drake. It was just what I needed." She shrugged out of Darien's hold and left the office without another word.

Bobby moved to sit in the chair she had vacated; Darien paced over to the window and stared out. "Chief, what's our next move?"

"Our move? We have no move. In fact, I have an assignment for the two of you." The Official turned his head slightly. "Drake."

Drake started again. "Sir? Oh, yes sir." He picked up the file and opened it. "An Ian Devereaux is supposed to be arriving in town today. He..."

"You're sending us out on a job?" Darien sounded incredulous.

"Yes, Fawkes. Last time I checked you were an agent here, and the Keeper cleared you for light duty." The Official's tone left no room for argument, but that didn't stop Bobby.

"Who's gonna protect the kid?" He was hoping like hell the Official wasn't trying to get the two of them out of the way so that the SWRB could grab her without risking them.

"The Agency is more than capable of protecting her," Drake said, sticking his nose where it didn't belong once again.

Darien snorted. "They did a bang-up job this morning." He rubbed the back of his head, not wanting to yell at the man who had no idea yet of how low the Agency could sink, or how cheap they could be.

"She was told to stay with someone at all times. She failed to do so," Drake countered.

"Damn it, she needs some freedom!" Darien snapped and took two steps toward Drake, who did not look thrilled about it and backed away.

"Fawkes, killing the geek won't help the kid. Cool down." Bobby was trying to be the voice of reason for a change, as unusual as that might seem, mainly because he didn't want to have to deal with another toady coming in that he might dislike even more than Ms. Pritchard. Drake was okay; he just needed time to figure out his place in the scheme of things

"Fawkes, if you can get your act together you'll be done by this evening." The Official waited for Fawkes to get his head straight, then signaled for Drake to continue.

"Ian Devereaux...."

Darien walked into the Keep about thirty minutes later to find Alyx and Claire arguing rather loudly. Alyx had been backed into a corner, while the Keep was waving around a syringe of the large super economy size.

"Uh, Claire, could you not injure her too badly, please?"

Claire turned at the sound of Darien's voice and lowered the syringe. "What? Oh, this? This isn't for her." She stepped away, allowing Alyx to leave the corner.

"She's trying to talk me into going to a shrink and I keep telling her 'hell, no.' Apparently the good doctor is a little hard of hearing today." Alyx moved away and headed for the door of the Keep. "I have enough crap in my head without someone trying to shrink-wrap it."

"Alyx, hold up." He moved between her and the door, which now worked, thanks to Alyx. It had taken her all of thirty seconds to fix it. She sighed. "The Fat Man is sending me and Hobbes out; we should be done early this evening. Stay here, okay?"

"Stay here. You giving me orders now, too?" Alyx snapped at him and he steered her out of the room and down the hall a ways.

"You know that's not true. At least make them put in a little effort to grab you." All it took was his hand running along her arm to get her to relax a bit. "Catch a nap in your office, later. I know you didn't get enough sleep."

"Dare, I'll be nutso by the time you get back." She looked so tired that he was tempted to tell the 'Fish to screw himself and take her home, but knew better. She had to start dealing with this on her own, and she knew it as well.

"You'll be fine, Alyx." Darien rested his forehead against hers, just to comfort her for a moment. Now that he wasn't blocking her anymore just his presence seemed to be enough to help her. Or so she claimed.

"Fawkes, we have to go." Bobby came around the corner, hoping he wasn't going to be interrupting anything too interesting, and simply saw the two of them standing there being sweet at each other. It would have been nauseating, except that it happened here so rarely. He gave them credit for being very professional when at work. Off-duty? That was something else altogether. "Be on your toes, kid."

"Something going down, Hobbesy?" Alyx was still looking up at Fawkes who had stood up straight and turned to look at Bobby.

"Maybe," he shrugged. "A little paranoia never hurt, you know."

"And you would be the expert in that," Darien commented dryly.

"Don't you forget it, my friend. Kiss her good-bye and let's ride." Bobby waved at them; Alyx just shook her head and gave Darien a gentle shove to get him moving.

"I have work to do as well, while I can." Alyx slipped away from Darien and patted Bobby on the shoulder as she walked by him.

"Timing, Hobbes. You must improve your timing," Darien complained, as he joined his partner and they headed out of the building together. Once in the van and moving with the mid-morning traffic, he decided it might be nice to know what they were doing and where. "So what are we supposed to be doing with this Devereaux guy?"

"You didn't hear a word Drake said, did you?" Bobby should have known he'd pull something like this. It's not like it was the first time Fawkes had tuned out on the preliminaries and expected Bobby Hobbes to fill him in.

"Sorry, Hobbes, I was thinking about other stuff." Darien didn't sound the least bit repentant. He didn't want to be out working on some crappy assignment that smacked of busywork if there was the slightest chance there was going to be trouble back at the Agency. Trouble that would be sure to include Alyx. "Just tell me what I missed, okay?"

"Sure, but you won't like it." That was putting it mildly. When Drake had outlined the assignment, Bobby had thought it was joke at first, since there was no way his, their, lives could be so warped. But it wasn't a joke, so now they were headed right back to the place where this entire mess had started. "We're meeting Devereaux at the cruise ship dock. He's supposed to be arriving when the boat docks in about thirty minutes."

Darien stared at his partner openmouthed. "This is a joke, right? The 'Fish's version of gallows humor, or something equally as sick."

"No joke, Fawkes and it didn't come through F&G. I checked." He'd done more than ask -- he'd outright accused. Wanting to know if this was another set-up. "This is an Agency job and has been in the works for a while."

Darien was still shaking his head in disbelief. "I mentioned timing earlier -- well, the timing on this one stinks to high heaven."

"Tell me about it," Bobby muttered. "We meet the guy and he hands us a file, then we escort him to his plane and he's out of our lives. Then we can go back to ours." Fawkes was right, this assignment stank to high heaven, but near as he could tell it was also legit and left them with no real options. This was their life.

"You're sure they are gone? That she's accessible?" The Director was more than a little impatient. When he'd learned she was not only alive, but also awake and seemingly healthy, he knew he had to have her. Even after all the testing on the drug and the guarantee from his people that it could not fail, that it had worked time and time again on those with minor versions of her power, and that they had become swiftly dependent on the counter was not disputed. Yet, somehow, she was free of it. Wanting her for 'intelligence gathering' was becoming a minor issue. He wanted to study her, to duplicate her abilities -- which he was beginning to suspect were not as minor as telepathy -- to duplicate 'her' if her DNA was stable. That success would guarantee his place in history.

"Yes, sir. Fawkes and Hobbes left twenty minutes ago on an assignment that should keep them busy for several hours. They are being tailed as a precaution, with orders to distract them if necessary." The voice at the other end was confident of the situation. It was his job, after all.

"I'll be there in thirty minutes." The Director disconnected and set about to organize a few things, including a secure room that should be able to hold Miss Silver once they had her in custody.

He arrived with plenty of time to spare. It was amazing how all the black vehicles and black clad men were simply ignored by the members of the public. The block was sealed off and the Agency essentially isolated. There would be no warning. His men would secure the building and those inside and he would simply walk in and claim his prize, finally. His men were set and he was about to give the go-ahead when his cell phone rang.

"What?" he barked, into the hated piece of electronics.

"Back off." A stranger's voice ordered.

"Excuse me?" The Director was more than a little irritated. He had things to do and was not in the mood to deal with prank phone calls.

"I said, 'back off''. She is my property." The voice sounded cold, with carefully restrained anger.

"And who the hell do you think you are?" The Director was looking forward to putting this ass -- most likely a lackey of the Official's trying a pitiful scare tactic -- in his place.

The voice chuckled, sending actual shivers down the Director's spine. "I am Mirage."

That got the Director's attention. "I will need verification of that." He wasn't the only one to know about Mirage, or its new and far more dangerous form. But he was not about to let a simple name frighten him into giving up the girl.

"The wolf in sheep's clothing may be one of your own."

The Director froze as the code phrase was spoken softly in his ear. There was nothing he could do. This was the one group that even his charter would not protect him from. They could manipulate even the SWRB without even the Director knowing about it. "Understood." It was the only thing he could say. The only thing he could do. The line went dead and he picked up the radio. "Call off the raid."

"Sir?" The surprise in the man's voice was blatant and the Director could sympathize. He'd been trying to work this for months and it had now been yanked out from under them with one phone call.

"Do it. Recall them and get out of the area." This had not been part of the plan, but he would not subject his program to the scrutiny of Mirage. They were too damn dangerous.

"Yes, sir."

The Director signaled for his driver to leave. He still had other work to do.

A week later...

Darien groaned and opened his eyes to find Alyx leaning over him. The room was still dimly lit; a level of light that signaled it was not quite dawn yet and therefore far too early after the night he'd had.

He had gotten caught up in the middle of a shoot-out the day before. Literally. He'd gone into the abandoned office building over in Mission Hills to do his invisible spy routine and find out what one group of bad guys was offering to sell the other group of bad guys. Without warning, the two groups had decided they were better off being enemies and began shooting at each other.

Darien, not wanting to solve their little disagreement in order to get the information he needed, tried to beat a hasty retreat out of there, only to find himself trapped between the groups as they took poorly aimed potshots at one another. He'd ducked behind various stray pieces of office furniture and thin walls as he tried to make his way out, only to have shots impact near him time and time again. If he hadn't known better, he would have suspected that it was either a set up or that the quicksilver was actually attracting the bullets, like mosquitoes were attracted by the scent of sweat.

Bobby had come to his rescue, firing both of his guns at once, to clear a path for Darien to escape. The only problem with that had been that the bad guys' combined focus now swung to the intruders, and the cries of "Federal Agent" only seemed to inspire them to shoot faster and with far more accuracy than before.

It had been a long damn time since Darien had been that frightened; if it hadn't been for the fact he was already quicksilvered, he would have vanished in record time. So instead he had trusted his partner and followed his directions to get out of there, all the while waiting for a stray -- or far more likely, an intentional -- bullet to hit him in the back.

It hadn't happened, but it took a good five minutes after they had made it back to the van and driven away at breakneck speed for him to calm down enough to drop the quicksilver. By then, he'd been damn near Stage Three. He had submitted to his shot with ill grace; only Alyx's presence had convinced him to sit in the chair like a good boy, without having to be wrestled there. He'd only found out later that she'd been without her powers at the time, and her threats to secure him to the ceiling till he behaved had been empty ones.

He and Bobby had given their reports and been lectured for not fulfilling the mission, even though it had not been their fault. When Darien had left the office, he'd been angry as hell and not in the mood for company. He'd hopped into his car and taken off for a few hours to cool down. Eventually, though, he'd come back out of his mood and, after calling Bobby to apologize for his crappy behavior, headed to Alyx's place.

So it had been her arms around him, her voice calming him, when he'd woken up from nightmares. Nightmares about being shot, of not being able to move any part of his body, not just his legs. Waking up with his back aching, panting in fright. She had been unbelievably patient, and it made him wish, again, that he had let her help him when he'd been hurt, instead of believing he had to do it on his own. As Bobby would say, it was done, over with, water under the bridge. She hadn't held it against him and, if anything, they were now closer than before, were able to talk to each other a bit more, were less afraid of what they could do to each other, what pain they could cause each other and yet not drive the other away.

"Alyx, come back to bed."

"Uh, uh. We're meeting Bobby for a run, remember?" She was dressed for it, he noted. Exercise top, over which she wore a hooded sweatshirt. Pair of bike shorts under a pair of dark gray shorts with the F&G logo on them. He hadn't known there were clothes with the F&G logo on them. Blinking he realized the sweatshirt said the same.

She looked way too conscious for the little sleep she had gotten last night. She was doing so much better, her body's adaptive process apparently working like it should. The blue eyed, enforced sleep portion of the cycle had been the first to go and the time when she was without her powers and threatened with panic attacks had shortened dramatically. In fact yesterday had been the first time in two days she'd had her abilities crap out on her. He'd found out later she'd had a hated panic attack, but it had not been a very long one and Claire had managed to talk her through it. She'd never actually become completely unaware of her surroundings, a vast improvement over what could happen.

Reaching out he hooked an arm about her waist and pulled her onto the bed with him. A laugh escaping from her. "Come back to bed anyway. Bobby will understand." He searched her eyes and then kissed her. Thankful that their fears a week ago had been unfounded.

He and Bobby had returned to the Agency after seeing Devereaux onto his plane, expecting to be told Alyx was gone and that they would have to live with it. Instead, everything was fine. She'd spent the afternoon working on various projects and then shut herself in the padded room when a panic attack threatened. It had been her choice, much to his surprise. Once she'd come out of it, he'd gone to talk to Bobby and had the oddest feeling something was being kept from him. That something had happened while they'd been gone, but that he was not in the loop of need-to-know.

Since then, there had been no word from the SWRB, no watchers, no more attempts to grab Alyx. They hadn't left town, but it seemed their interest in Alyx had evaporated, and the Agency was now being left strictly alone. Darien wasn't sure what to make of it, but wasn't going to complain either. For the time being, they were free. No one hunting them. No one trying to use them, beyond the 'Fish's ever-present version of persuasion. No one but themselves keeping them here.

Darien sat up a bit more and took Alyx's hands into his own, turning them over so that the insides of both their wrists were visible. Her bruises had faded over the week, her sensitivity returning to normal. Their lives were also returning to some semblance of normality. The monitor that helped keep him whole, keep him sane, was still green, his body not yet having absorbed enough of the 'extra' to register upon it. The shot from yesterday afternoon once again working like it should. A small thing he was thankful for every day.

Alyx looked from him to their wrists and then back. "What? There's nothing there." She freed her hands from his gentle hold and ran her fingers lightly over his wrists. First following the circular route of the snake and then to trace over the small scar on the other. Soon it would fade to nothing, and only he and she would know the truth of what happened that day. Lifting his hand, she kissed the palm, causing him to draw in a shaky breath.

She wasn't entirely right. The shackles were there, invisibly, on both of them. Chains holding them here, for the Agency, for the Fat Man, for good or ill. But, for the first time since his had been fitted about his wrists, they no longer weighed upon him, upon his mind.

"Dare, you promised," she reminded him, trying to sound angry and failing. "Do you want to have to go back to the treadmill in the basement?"

Darien shook his head. He'd been getting bored as sin down there and had talked Claire into trusting him with the therapy and weekly check ups, instead of daily ones. She had agreed so long as he worked out with someone. Today was the first day going running with Alyx; he'd been surprised to learn Bobby ran as well, and they had decided to make a threesome out of it.

"'Sides, we get to come back here after and shower. If you're good, I might even let you wash my back." Alyx grinned and got up from the bed, walking out into the apartment. "But you better hurry."

"Not fair. Blackmailing me," he grouched, but her form of persuasion was effective as he threw off the covers and got out of bed.

Her laughter rang through the place, making him smile.

An old Persian Proverb states, "It is better to be in chains with friends, than to be in a garden with strangers." The hard part is learning the truth of this simple statement, because the chains are most often those of your own making and you have to be willing to wear them. Holding the keys to one's chains is sometimes more important than being free of them.

Finis