Author: A. X. Zanier

Title: 100 Days

Rating: PG-13

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

Timeline: Post To Temper the Soul for reasons that will become apparent in a later story.

Spoilers: Uh, probably. Does it really matter after two years?

Notes: Valentine's Day fluff piece that morphed into an angst piece. Yeesh.

Music: 100 Years by Five for Fighting, Collide by Howie Day and Feels Like Home by Chantal Kreviazuk

HUGE thanks to my most awesome of Betas - Krys - who puts up with not only my version of grammar, but writing.

***

100 Days

"Well, you're either lovers or you're wanting to be lovers or you're trying not to be lovers so you can be friends, but any way you look at it, sex is always looming in the picture like a shadow, like an undertow." -- Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, Northern Exposure, Get Real, 1991

The sound of the door sliding open found Darien in the kitchen slicing the last few portabello mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. He rinsed his hands, dried them on a towel, which he then tossed on the counter as he hurried to meet her before she made it too far into the apartment. He needn't have worried, for as he came out of the kitchen he saw her standing in the doorway looking completely confused. Not surprising given the current state of the place thanks to his efforts in the last 12 hours.

"Welcome home."

"Really? Whose?" Alyx questioned looking about. "You're dressed for a GQ photo shoot and my floor is covered in air-filled rubber." Behind her the door slid shut on its own, causing the balloons closest to rise momentarily into the air, colliding with the ones nearest to them and creating a slow-motion display of Brownian movement.

"And you must've been filming a commercial for Outback Steakhouse," he commented as he took in the ensemble she wore. It wasn't something he'd ever seen before and guessed it must have been provided for whatever she'd been doing since she'd left yesterday morning.

"I wish," she grumbled, stripping out of the dark brown Aussie drover coat and hanging it next to the door. That's when he realized she was dressed for riding from head to toe. Leather riding pants - jodhpurs he seemed to vaguely recall from his days at camp Nimrod - fancy riding shirt that was untucked and stained with dirt, grass and possibly blood, and boots - expensive boots - complete with leather riding crop sticking out of the left one. "Would have been far more interesting than playing bodyguard for Her Ladyship." She sighed heavily and ran a weary hand across her face. "Care to explain?" she requested as she kicked listlessly at the nearest inflated red ovoid.

"Do the words 'Valentine's Day' ring a bell?" Darien asked with a straight face, but a frown quickly followed as she closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.

"That's today?" she near-whimpered.

"Uh-huh," he informed her, trying to determine in which direction her mood was shifting.

She groaned, hand dropping to her side as she opened her eyes. "What time zone am I in?" she requested plaintively.

Darien snorted in amusement. From anyone else that question would be highly unexpected, but from Alyx, who had spent a fair part of the previous week in various parts of Russia saving the free world... again, it was par for the course as of late. She'd returned just in time to catch a few hours sleep and then rush off to guard Her Ladyship today. He was pretty sure she hadn't slept in over 24 hours by this point, though, except for the sudden confusion, she seemed just as steady as always. "Greenwich Mean minus 8... I think," he answered, trying to add up, or in this case subtract, the time zones in his head.

Alyx laughed. "Close enough. I think my brain is still set on tomorrow." She stepped forward, the balloons sliding away from her and looking like some odd ground fog. As she attempted to skirt about him he grabbed her and pulled her close for a kiss, but she squirmed away. "Ack, don't. I stink of lathered horse."

Darien froze, the image coming to mind not one he'd ever expected to see outside of a very aberrant bestiality flick. "Ummm..."

"Not like that, you perv. As in a sweaty horse that's been ridden hard," she said through a chuckle.

Which did little more than conjure up yet another image, only this time the 'horse' being ridden was all too human. Though, he had to admit it was an interesting use for the crop, and the tiny bits of leather decorating her body were... good for leverage.

This time she obviously caught the full visual from his mind and smacked him on the arm. "Darien, for heaven's sake," she complained in exasperation at his one-track mind.

"What? You gonna tell me you had no plans for that riding crop tonight?" He pulled her close and lowered his voice, the fingers trailing against her temple apparently encouraging her to stay in place this time.

"Keep it up and I'll think of something... painful," she grumbled as his dipped his head to brush his lips along hers.

"Up is never a problem, sweets," Darien assured her, trying desperately not to grin like a 10-year when he wanted to seduce her slowly.

"I can fix that, ya know," she warned, but with obvious humor in her eyes so Darien knew she was just ragging on him.

"C'mere you," he insisted, and pulled her in for a kiss that was successful at silencing any potential complaints. When he released her he found she was gazing up at him with such a look of peace that it made him want to sigh in pleasure. It was always nice to know one was appreciated for their talents, even the ones not known to many. "Now go shower, eau de horse is not your best scent," he mock ordered, and it was true enough. Up close there was the definite whiff of large equine about her.

"I told you," she reminded him. "You could join me," was her suggestion and while the insistent ache in his lower anatomy was certainly trying to convince him it was the grandest idea in the world, he knew he wanted things to be perfect tonight and that meant taking it slow.

"Nah, you go ahead. I got some stuff to finish up." He stepped aside to allow her by. "Not like you can't tell me about your day while getting sudsy," he reminded her with a teasing grin. "Sounds like yours was miles more interesting than mine."

"Depends on your definition of 'interesting' I suppose," she grumbled as she sauntered away, peeling off the shirt as she went. He noticed that she'd spilt the seam along the shoulder blades, which attested to the fact that, whatever had happened, it had been violent. "Her Ladyship came damn near to pushing up the proverbial daisies." The words became muffled near the end as she swung the door shut, but he still caught them.

'Her Ladyship' was Illyana Delacourte who was the de facto ruler of ... Malta? Monaco? Macedonia? Moldavia? One of those 'M' countries in Europe. Drake had given Darien the juicy bits when he asked where Alyx had gone haring off to so soon after returning from Chernobyl, or wherever she'd been in Russia. Illyana was due to take over full control of her government in just a few weeks. The parliament officially controlled the country, with her fulfilling all other duties until she "came of age." The threat of an attempt on her life was high, as it was well known that she disagreed with many of the policies currently in place and fully intended to change them once she was in power. Drake had also mentioned that if the Russia trip, which had apparently involved working with the Agency of Federal Security (formerly the KGB), hadn't been of the utmost urgency, Alyx would have been assigned to Illyana's entourage as an additional bodyguard.

*Damn, and this was such a nice shirt, too,* she muttered mentally. *Another sacrifice to the gods of stupidity.*

Darien went back to the kitchen, slid the mushrooms into the small ramekin and set it on the tray among the others. *Any new and creative ways to be stupid?* he asked, and was pleased at the laughter that echoed through to him. It had always reminded him of tinkling of silver chimes and this time was no different. Hard to believe there had been a time when speaking mind to mind with her felt awkward, but now... now it was part of his life and he wouldn't give it up for anything. Strange to realize that to the rest of the world this wasn't part of a normal day.

*Well, it did involve farm animals,* she responded with overtones of teasing humor. *She insisted on going horseback riding with her prize stallion that she travels everywhere with. Biggest piece of fluff in her stable. Not stupid, per se, but ... vain. Knows he's pretty and makes sure the rest of the universe does too.* Darien heard the shower start up as he carried tray number one over to the table and set it atop the lazy Susan he'd set out for just this purpose. *I, on the other hand, chose a mount with far more brains than looks. Found out later he was a retired stunt horse. Doubt things would have gone half as well with a lesser beastie.*

With those words Darien got the distinct impression that things had gone fubar in a major way. *So I take it someone tried to off Her Ladyship?* He grabbed the pan of heated broth, carried it to the table and poured it into the awaiting ceramic pot. He set it aside, dug into his pocket for his Zippo lighter and set the flame to the container of blue napalm beneath the pot. Once certain it was going to remain lit, he carried the pan back to the kitchen and washed it.

*They don't need to off her; injuring her would give them more than enough time to consolidate their power and undermine her authority for the next 20 years. In fact, that would be better for them as no new heir would be sought after if she were still alive, but unable to fulfill her duties.* This was followed by an ironic chuckle. *If it wasn't for Piotr...*

Darien felt a moment of shock run through him. Piotr Vallenchevski was one of the few men in recent memory who had not only earned Alyx's respect and trust, but her heart... if only to a small degree. Darien often wondered if anyone could truly win all of her heart. *What about Piotr?* he questioned cautiously. While not a sore spot, there was still some inevitable... jealousy where the man was concerned. He - Piotr - had actually had the pleasure of being married to Alyx. A sham marriage, admittedly, but still... He'd gotten the one thing Darien was just now becoming willing to admit that he'd never have with her.

Alyx must have picked up on his mood. *Easy, bub. Illyana and Piotr are... friends, and have plotted a few things behind the scenes. For all that she comes across as a bigger piece of fluff than her horse, she's actually very intelligent and perceptive. I'd give you even money that she was using this trip to draw out her enemies.*

Darien rolled his eyes. *Playing bait is a good way to get oneself killed,* he pointed out needlessly.

*True enough,* she agreed. *Lady Luck was a definite player in today's game.*

*Details, wench. How'd you save her royal ass?* He checked over everything again and then took up position next to the high counter facing the main room. He adjusted the miniature rose in its heart shaped pot - his one token nod to the traditional gifts. He'd bought it mainly because the blooming buds were a perfect match to her hair color: a vivid red with just a hint of golden orange to it. Add to that the fact it was a live plant and it became a mandatory purchase.

*I almost didn't.* He heard the shower shut off and waited patiently for her to continue. *These guys were good. They rigged a... joy buzzer under the saddle. One that delivered enough of a punch to send the horse into a total hissy fit,* she explained.

Darien wanted to ask for more, but was momentarily distracted by the secondary thread of thoughts, little more than a soft mutter, about 'what in the name of all that is holy am I going to wear' that made him laugh softly. He was slowly getting used to the fact that she could think about more than one thing at a time. Multitasking taken to a completely new level. However, he was still curious to hear the rest of her adventure in royal babysitting. *You didn't sense the zapper?*

*No. It ran on such low power that it got lost in the horse's own field. Wasn't 'til the first discharge that I knew it was there and by then it was too late.*

He was still getting that secondary thought line as she poked through her closet, considering and discarding one item after another. He was about to tell her to just toss on anything, since she wouldn't be wearing it for all that long anyhow, but held his mental tongue when her hand settled upon the deep violet silk shirt he'd bought for her a couple months back. He'd goofed on the size, buying one that one far too large for her, but she hadn't cared and somehow, even with the sleeves dangling well past her hands, she made it work. Silently casting a yay vote for the blouse, he restrained the cheer when she did indeed decide on it and then added a comfortable pair of black slacks to go with it.

*Too late? I thought she was okay?* That was what he had assumed given Alyx wasn't in the kind of mood that would suggest a mission blown all to hell.

*She's just fine. Turns out she's a damn good rider,* Alyx assured him. *Poor horse suffered five zaps before I managed to lock onto the transmitter and fry the thing. A'course by then there was no way he was gonna stop until he'd exhausted himself, or broke a leg, so guess who got to go galloping after the pair?*

*Uh, you?* he responded sardonically.

*Good boy. Got it in one. Mad chase over hill and dale until I could grab the reins and slow him down. Musta been when I split the seam, as he had the bit between his teeth,* she told him with some amusement in her voice, however, there was an undertone of... something. Not quite anger, but akin. *I put me and Her Royal Hinieness between the two horses while I got hers calmed and the saddle off. Nifty burn mark where the buzzer had been planted.*

*I bet,* Darien commented dryly. *What was it?*

"No idea," Alyx said aloud as she came out of the bathroom. "Looked like some wires and microchips in a semi-solid silicon gel, but the weird thing was the gel wasn't damaged and appeared to have transmitted the electrical charge." She shook he head. "Never seen anything like it before."

"Gonna have the Keep check it out?" Darien asked, noting the book she held in one hand that was reminiscent of one of those lab books he often saw Claire or Alyx making notes in.

"Can't. Feds took jurisdiction." Darien gave her a look that plainly said he knew better. "So I snagged a sample of the gel for Claire to play with." She shrugged. "Thought it might be important."

"Which, of course, means it will be." He waved at the roses. "For you."

She gave him a brilliant smile and went up onto her bare toes to give him a quick kiss. "Thank you." Her stomach rumbled then, making him chuckle, as it was usually his gut being vocal. "Any chance there's food involved with this?"

"But of course, milady," he replied with a sweeping gesture towards his preparations.

"Ooo, fondue. How very 70s of you." She gave him a big grin, bounced away from him and set the book face down upon the black surface of the table.

Darien just shook his head and followed along, knowing she wasn't knocking his penchant for wearing clothes that could be loosely described as "retro." Years of living down, sometimes with barely the money needed to buy enough ramen noodles to get him through the month, never mind brand new clothes, had left him with a wardrobe straight out of a Salvation Army catalogue. It was a habit that was hard to break and he still often made purchases at second hand shops instead of paying full price for clothes that would often get beat to hell on the job. Oh, these days he had a burgeoning collection of what he termed "Sunday Church clothes," but they only saw the light of day on special occasions, such as this. He'd actually pulled out the linen slacks, cream silk dress shirt and linen sport coat Alyx had selected for him on one outing to the mall.

"You know me, easier to look back than forward," he tossed off lightly, the words only half-serious at best. He slid the chair out for her to sit in and then settled himself in the one kitty-corner from her. "Any preference?" he asked, giving the lazy Susan a gentle turn that set it rotating.

"Hmmm, how about chicken and mushrooms," she answered after looking over the choices. Then, much to his surprise she blushed, her cheeks coloring over to pink.

"What?" He focused on skewering her selection, setting it into the steaming broth to cook and then made his own choices.

"Just... I never expected you to go to so much trouble for a silly holiday," she admitted, almost sounding embarrassed for making what had been most of his life a correct assumption.

The last time he'd done something even vaguely romantic had been when he was still seeing Casey, who had definitely been a romancing kind of girl, and he'd bumbled his way through it. Until his world had fallen apart. Now Alyx... Alyx had never seemed to be the type who wanted all the trappings that went along with a budding relationship. In fact, she often preferred a far more direct approach to life and... love and he acted accordingly.

"I don't want to disappoint you again," she stated, her embarrassment now verging on discomfort and he realized she thought he was going to do something stupid like do the proposal thing.

"Alyx..." He stopped and reached for her right hand, upon which was the ring he'd given her and that she wore as a sign of her commitment to him - to them - so that she would feel that he was not going to go jumping off that cliff again. "I only wanted to do the unexpected. And it seems to have worked just like I planned."

Her sigh of relief very nearly made him laugh. "So there's nothing you want to.. uh, ask me?"

Although he knew she tried her best to not read him, to not act upon the hints, or sometimes blatant, emotional and mental commentary that always ran through his mind and that she inevitably overheard, there were times, like this one, where she plainly couldn't help herself. And, in truth, he did have topic that he wanted to discuss; it just wasn't the one she was fearing. "Well, I had planned on bringing it up later, when I had you a bit more... relaxed, but now is as good a time as any." He caught the way she stiffened slightly, as if in anticipation of bad news, but was quick to ease her mind. "I was wondering if you'd thought any more about us moving in together?"

She honestly appeared to be surprised as his question, but covered it smoothly. "Actually, I have." She pulled her fondue fork from the pot and, after a moment's examination of the meat, deemed it done and slid it onto her plate before proceeding to reload it with beef this time. "And I don't think it's a good idea."

Now it was his turn to be surprised and more than a touch disappointed. "Why, if I may ask?" he requested over-politely, afraid to let her see that her answer had hurt more than he'd be willing to admit.

Alyx gave him a wan smile. "Of course you can ask. Me answering may take some bribery."

Darien blinked, almost grateful for her attempt to keep this light. "Name it," he responded, wanting very much to know why she was rejecting the idea. He'd found himself looking forward to searching for a place, a new apartment or maybe even a house so big that they and their meager possessions would rattle around inside like a couple of stray marbles in a coffee can. To start making a life together, as opposed to what sometimes felt like two ships passing in the night.

She tipped her head slightly as if to gauge the seriousness of his reply. "Dare, I think it's not feasible right now. Between our rarely agreeable schedules, the security upgrades the Official would demand and the fact that the two of us together in the same place would make just too tempting a target for someone... I don't think it'd work."

Darien knew he was frowning, could feel his brow furrowing in reaction, and while some of it was most definitely disappointment, there was also the ring of common sense to her words. Once again he'd let himself get caught up in the idea and hadn't thought through all the potential ramifications and pitfalls involved. He mulled for a few minutes while they both nibbled on a variety of tidbits, with Alyx quietly waiting for him to digest her words along with the food. In the end he found himself agreeing with everything she had used to argue against living in sin, but he had to wonder if the far more visceral reasons for - you know, those emotional ones - had been tossed aside and remained unexamined before she'd come to her decision.

"Alyx, is it just practicality that you don't want to give this a try?"

She removed the chunk of tofu from the soy sauce and popped it into her mouth. Seemingly determined to not just blurt out some gut reaction answer, as he was hoping she would. "No," she finally stated. "Though you may not like my reasoning."

"Spill," he entreated, not certain he wanted to hear the answer, but knowing he needed to. It was one of the changes they both consciously made an effort to make in their relationship. They talked to one another now, each doing their damnedest to convey with words the needs of the moment, and it had made a difference, though only time would tell how much of one.

"Truthfully, I - we - still need a place to run to, to hide, to get away from the world and... each other now and then." She shifted the chair over so that it was next to his and stretched out her legs across his lap, plainly trying to show him that now was not one of those times she needed to be away from him. "Kinda difficult to do that if we live in the same place, doncha think?"

He ran a hand through his hair, taking the time to think about his reply before opening his mouth. She was right about one thing; there were indeed times she needed to get away from the world, never mind him. Some days just living came hard enough for them, and while often the reaction was to fall into each others arms, there were those other times when it was far wiser to find a dark corner to hide in and deal with the situation alone. "Alyx..." He stopped, not entirely sure what he wanted to say. Life had been so insane the last few months and they had some so close to falling apart that he wanted to do something to assure her that his bout of guilt ridden idiocy was never going to happen again. Since she had made it plain that marriage was not an option, this had seemed to be a viable alternative.

He met her eyes and saw something in them he'd hadn't expected, and it instantly clued him in that this wasn't about her not wanting to be with him, to avoid taking that leap of faith and trust that living with a male would entail for her. No this involved her fears, her deep-seated, pounded into her head by force concerns over what she was. "You wouldn't hurt me," he whispered, hoping like hell that she could feel that he meant it.

"You can't know that," she asserted in an abjectly sad voice. "I'm not willing to risk it." She poked absently at the few remaining mushrooms. "And neither are you."

Darien stilled for a long moment as he searched for the words to counter her statement. "Alyx, you know better'n I do how low the risk of me going off the deep end is these days. Why would I worry about it?"

She quirked one eyebrow upwards. "You tell me. You still have nightmares about hurting Bobby. 'Hot doughnuts'," she quoted, the reminder gentle and not incorrect. "And you feel such guilt every time, or have you forgotten what happened last month?"

No, he hadn't forgotten. Just thinking about it gave his conscience a twinge even after all this time, and all the reassurances that it wasn't his fault. At least these days he didn't try to kill Alyx anymore. No, he was far more likely to try to con her into a little spur of the moment bed play, though with a decided tendency towards the rougher aspects of sex. She had, as always, fended him off expertly; keeping him distracted until Hobbes had arrived with the counteragent.

Darien had spent the next several hours afterwards tossing pebbles into the ocean and avoiding the rest of humanity while gnawing on the guilt that lay heavy upon his mind. Finally, after having gone over everything a dozen times without ever coming to a resolution, he went hunting Hobbes who told him to 'just go talk to the kid.' When Darien had shown up at her place, knowing he looked far more like a puppy that had barely survived being tossed in a river to drown, she'd stifled a laugh and pulled him into a much needed hug. He had tried to apologize for the bruise blossoming on her cheek, only to have her hush him and pull him to the sofa where she had spent the next several hours cuddling and reassuring him, her fingers running through his hair as they talked.

"Damn it," he muttered, his hands settling atop her legs and slowly sliding back and forth. He hated it when she was right, when her logic and practicality made sense.

"Darien, it's not that I don't want to be with you, this conversation wouldn't be taking place if that were the case. It just isn't the right time." She set her fingers under his chin; delicate taps designed to draw him out and proceeded to do her utmost to lighten the mood. "'Sides you wouldn't be able to plan your larcenous nighttime escapades with me always underfoot."

"I'd manage," he informed her smugly, certain she'd pick up on the fact he'd pulled off an 'escapade' or two right under her nose. "But I understand your reasons and... while I don't much like it, I agree with 'em." He ran one finger firmly up her right insole and leaned in to give her a quick kiss. "Offer is always open if you change your mind, 'kay?"

"'Kay," she echoed and tipped forward to rest her forehead against his shoulder as if she knew that the contact was just what he needed at that moment. "So, did Bobby finally screw up his courage and ask Claire out?"

"Yeah. Said he'd made reservations at Josephine's. They do a special Valentine's Day dinner thing every year. Low lighting, overpriced food, romantic music," Darien explained, willing to allow the topic to change to something that wasn't of the utmost importance in the here and now.

Alyx snorted. "That man needs to get over his company pier issues and just fall into bed with Claire before she jumps his bones in the lab one day."

"Man, tell me about it," Darien agreed wholeheartedly, even though he had to admit that it had been interesting watching the pair dance about each other these last few months. "They'll get there eventually. Took us a while if you recall."

"Took me a while, you mean. I don't think you ever had any doubts." She tilted her head and he looked down to meet her eyes. "I was almost too stubborn for my own good."

"You came to your senses, just like I always knew you would," he said around an irrepressible grin. She stared up at him looking so sweet and tempting that he ducked down and kissed her for long minutes where he did nothing more than revel in the pleasure of the moment. Reaching out by memory he retrieved the velvet covered case he's stashed down the far end of the table along with the neatly folded linens that would normally be used beneath the plates. "Here," he whispered as he pulled away. "Happy Valentine's Day."

She took the box that had the name of a local rare gem store printed in gold upon it, but simply held it. "Darien, you didn't have to do this."

"I know. I wanted to. Now, open it up, would ya," he urged. "Don't need you making this into some big weepy production number."

She chuckled softly and did as he asked, only to gasp in surprise at the contents. Inside, lying atop violet silk, was a pendant set in silver that he'd seen in the store window one afternoon when rushing to meet Hobbes and some contact of his. Darien had bought not only the necklace, but also the entire set, which included earrings, bracelet and a ring all supposedly cut from the same piece of red amber. He planned to dole out the pieces over the course of the next year, saving them for the most special of occasions. What had made the pendant so special, and so damn expensive, was the butterfly buried within it, captured with its wings outstretched. A very rare find according to the shop owner and the authenticity papers he'd received with the purchase.

"Oh Darien, it's gorgeous," she exclaimed once she found her voice. Lifting it out she asked, "Would you?"

"Of course." Taking it from her he waited for her to shift and sweep her hair out of the way so he could slide the cool metal about her neck. Fastening the clasp, he released her and moved to see how it looked.

"Perfect," he decided, his hopes confirmed, as the red amber was a dead on match for her hair color.

"You always amaze me," she said in a hushed voice. "But why a butterfly?"

Darien wasn't sure how to explain his reasoning. "It just seemed to fit, y'know." He shrugged.

"So I'm not a caterpillar glutinously munching on leaves any more, is that what you're not saying?" Her eyes were twinkling with amusement as she asked.

"Something like that," he agreed with a smirk. "More like you've changed into something more beautiful that anyone ever expected."

Alyx laughed. "Flatterer. You realize you were going to get laid tonight no matter what, right?"

"Yup," Darien acknowledged. "And yet I gave it to you anyway." Her words to the contrary, he knew that his gift had surprised her and struck a cord. That she completely got the fact that he'd bought it for her and not as some nebulous bribe.

"Hell, my gift is gonna pale in comparison," she grumbled disconsolately.

"Gift? Thought you'd forgotten about today?" Darien reminded with a look of confusion.

"I may have forgotten it was today, but that doesn't mean I hadn't planned for it, bub." The book she had placed on the table earlier leapt into the air and drifted over to settle in the suddenly clear area before him. "For you," she informed him, settling back into her chair to await his judgement.

The book was done in an indigo that verged on black with the words 100 Days etched into the leather in silver. He picked it up and thumbed through it, noting that many of the pages were quite obviously done in her handwriting. He noted the dates at the top of the pages and snapped it shut. "Baby, this is a dairy or something. I can't read this."

"Sure you can," she assured him. "Look." She flipped to the beginning of the book and pointed to the words written there.

100 Days Journal

100 days of poetry, lyrics and quotes to inspire one to even greater heights of creativity.

This was followed by a poem that he recognized:

To see a world in a Grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

William Blake (1757 - 1827)

"Nope, still don't get it," he told her with a look of confusion.

"Yes, it's a journal, of sorts. Comes with a bunch of poems and such to supposedly get the muses working. Knowing how you like quotes I thought it would be a nice way for me to..." She trailed off in what appeared to be consternation, like whatever she'd been about to say would be just the wrong thing. "Dare, everything I put in here is for you. When I'm away for work and incommunicado I... write... to you," she clarified. "I finished this one a month ago and decided to wait to give it to you today."

Darien caught the 'this one' reference, which he interpreted to mean that another one of these was in the works. "Alyx, I'm not sure what to say," he told her, opening the journal at random.

"Read a page or two first, then you can try to come up with something appropriately obsequious in a vain effort to not hurt my feelings and ruin your chance at sex later," she deadpanned, which caused Darien to snort in amusement.

The first page he opened it to was another poem, this one by Shakespeare.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

He turned the page to encounter one of her hand written entries dated June 27th.

Well, I missed your birthday for the second year in a row. Your gift should have arrived on time - I paid them enough to make sure it did - and I hope you like it. Your other present will have to wait until I get back. While I'm certain you'll enjoy it, it just won't be the same as giving it to you on your day.

Damn it, I miss you so much it hurts.

And it's just like the Official to send me out of town for your b-day, but always have me home for mine. Like anything ever happens on Halloween. Barring any complications I should be back home by the end of the week. Maybe I'll luck out and we'll actually manage to have a day off together for a change.

Darien was oddly astonished at the amount of emotion she managed to convey in just a few sentences, especially since he knew how difficult it could be for her to simply say such things directly. He flipped through at random and stopped when he came across a drawing. Alyx would be the first to admit she had no real artistic talent and could only duplicate images she had in her mind. She could draw the face of a perp she'd seen for no more than an instant with an accuracy that was frightening, but ask her to sketch her brother Jacob, whom she hadn't seen in several years, and it came out looking like something an uncoordinated six-year old would create. She'd picked up one of those 'How to Draw Manga' books and had been trying to develop some skill of her own, with, what he had thought was limited success, but the image before him decried otherwise.

It was of a meeting all done in what he could only describe as modified anime. Alyx sat at one end of a huge table with some suit standing at the opposite end pointing to a vaguely sketched screen on the wall. There were three others sitting at the long side of the conference table, all attentively watching the pointer. On the surface it was a fancy doodle of a boring meeting, until he looked closer. The outstretched arm of the man was fading, cracked as if completely dried up; tiny flecks of dust being carried away by the circulation of air in the room. All of the others showed the same surrealistic dried out and cracked effect in lesser amounts depending on where they sat. The closer to Alyx, the less desiccated they appeared to be. Alyx was the only one who appeared to be normal, but she wasn't paying the least bit of attention to the speaker. She was sitting sideways in her chair, one fisted hand supporting her head while the other was writing in a book set before her.

A unique modification of the picture within a picture within a picture style with the assumption being that the picture Alyx was drawing the very picture he was gazing at. There was a faint outline of something behind her, and he had to trace it with his fingers before he could figure out what it was - himself, or a stylized version of himself. An outline of his body, including the hair, and surrounded by what could only be an aura or that halo Alyx could see about him when they were both Quicksilvered. In the drawing his hand was hovering just over her shoulder as if to reassure her he was indeed there, no matter how impossible it could be.

It didn't take him more than an instant to understand the meaning of his invisible presence standing there behind her. She'd explained many a time that he was always in the back of her head, and distance, while dulling the connection, never severed it. Only he could do that, and had in recent memory much to her unhappiness. So even while she was suffering through a dry as dust meeting, she could still feel him there with her and grasped onto that presence to keep herself from having the life sucked out of her as the others in the image had.

"Wow," he managed to allow escape, totally blown away by, not only the drawing itself, but also the implied meaning. "This... this is amazing."

Alyx leaned over to see what he was looking at and chuckled. "Lord, that meeting was boring as sin. I could have drawn two of those in the time it took that guy to explain everything that I had memorized the night before." She butted her head into his arm like a cat that wanted to be pet and he responded by dropping his right hand to play with her toes. "I hope to god I never see the inside of Cheyenne Mountain again."

"Again," Darien repeated. Like most people ever got to go there once in their lifetime. He thumbed through the pages, stopping at random and hitting upon another bit of provided inspiration, this one a quote.

...they no longer felt like newlyweds, and even less like belated lovers. It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from "Love in the Time of Cholera"

The words struck like a huge clapper and caused his psyche to ring like a bell. That quote could have been written about himself and Alyx. There were still days he wondered how he'd survived his initial meeting with Hobbes, or how he had gotten through his first few months at the Agency, never mind practically starting over after that first Stage Five debacle. It hadn't been long after that when Alyx had appeared and upended all their lives yet again. By the time they'd finally fallen into each other's arms, they'd been through so much that it seemed like they had been together for a lifetime.

Beside him Alyx shifted to sit cross-legged on her chair, one hand playing with the pretty bit of jewelry hanging about her throat, the other settling upon his shoulder, her fingers toying with the hair along the back of his neck. He read through a few more innocuous entries that were composed of equal parts missing him and general complaints about whatever mission she was on. For the most part there were no details, as was to be expected, since most of her loan jobs were just as top secret as those she did for the Agency.

Then he stumbled upon one that made his heart freeze in his chest.

Aug. 17th

Christ I wish you were here to wrap your arms about me and hold me. Need you to tell me it's not my fault and that it'll be all right even though I know it never will be.

I... all those children... dead and... and I bear just as much of the responsibility as anyone.

I hurt. I ache. I wish I dare cry, but I'm afraid if I start... I'll never stop. I can still see their bodies all lying atop one another, frozen in the desperate pain of their final moments and knowing that I could have saved them if... if I had just been willing to... Ah, god damn it, why didn't I just do it and worry about the consequences later?

If there is one saving grace, one thing that is keeping me from taking a swan dive off the roof (all of two stories so damage would be minimal with my hard head) is you. Knowing that all I have to do is close my eyes, push away the pain that is making my eyes ache and hands shake, and concentrate on you.

You're happy, thankfully - though wallowing in your pain were that the case, would probably help as well, if not as much. The distance makes it difficult, but I can almost see what you are doing. Eight-ball with Bobby down at the bowling alley on 9th. You've been tag-teaming marks. Scamming them for beer money, though Bobby doesn't yet realize it.

You have no idea how much it helps, what a balm on my bruised and battered soul your joy is at this instant. How it reminds me that there can be moments of peace and happiness, that there is more to life than hurt, and pain, and fright and... screwing up and causing the deaths of so many innocents.

I won't call - can't, thanks to orders - and wouldn't simply because it will spoil your mood, your fun, which as we both know, is all too rare for us on the best of days.

Instead I will lay here on my cold hotel bed and let your presence seep into my heart and soul and try to remember that there will be days that make all the pain and suffering I'm going through now worth it. Know that there will be days when I win the battle and save the day.

But I still wish you were here.

Darien felt his mouth go dry and his heart pound in reaction. The heartache she had felt when she had written the words was palpable to him. "Crap," he muttered softly. "What the hell happened?"

Alyx glanced over at the page and paled dramatically when she saw what it was. "Oh hell, that... That was a mess. That was the ATF job I did last August. Looked so simple until Turner decided to go all male."

"Wait... I remember that one. Made the national news and everything," Darien recalled; the connection tenuous at best since she'd not been able to discuss any details at the time. "Thought it was called a major success considering everyone was expecting another Waco out of it."

"Yup, far as anyone knew it was a complete success with only a few of the ringleaders escaping by choosing to bite a bullet instead of being arrested." Her voice was filled with disgust. "They covered it up. Swept the mistake under the rug and forbade anyone to speak about it."

Darien looked back at the page before him the words 'all those children... dead' jumping out at him even though he seemed to remember that all the women and children had been rescued unharmed. "Alyx, talk to me," he pleaded, somehow knowing that the misery and guilt it had caused still lingered and gave her nightmares six months later.

"Not supposed to," she argued, but it was obvious to Darien that she needed to.

"Baby..."

"Said I wasn't supposed to, not that I wasn't gonna," she interrupted. "I... I was requested for my hacking skills so a liaison was assigned." She ran a hand through her hair, making it plain that this was going to be difficult for her to talk about.

"A liaison?" Darien inquired since he actually knew very little about how her out-sourced jobs worked.

"Umm, yeah. When I'm on non-Agency missions where there is no full disclosure as to my abilities, they assign someone who does have disclosure to field questions and relay information. This time is was Travis Duncan, one of Duke's guys, and we worked very well together." She sighed deeply and closed her eyes for a long moment. "I used a combo of Destiny and my own abilities to shut down power to the compound and pinpoint the location of the weapons cache. However, there was a problem."

"Okay, I'll bite, what problem?" he asked and was pleased when she gave him a half-hearted smile for his efforts.

"I couldn't read through the walls with any accuracy and the wiring to them was minimal - lighting and such - so Destiny was useless. Found out later they were lined with lead - poorly - which is how I discovered them. Big blank spots to my inner sight," she told him in a soft voice. "The bastards had a bunch of kids in the room directly above the cache, but I couldn't get more than a glimpse or two into their minds. I was able to discern that there was a booby-trap of some sort, but not what kind other than it wasn't electronic." She shifted in her seat as if fighting a sudden need to stand and pace.

"So what did you do?"

"I recommended drilling a hole through the wall and checking out the situation with a fiber optic camera. To try to convince the kids that they could just walk without fear of reprisal. The opening would probably have been enough for me to get a better idea of what was going on inside and possibly allow me to read the kids' minds. But Turner rejected the idea. Even when Travis pulled rank. Said they didn't negotiate with terrorists no matter what their age," she detailed, her voice going flat and unemotional in a vain effort to hide her feelings. "I just knew something was gonna go wrong, something really bad, but I had no way of convincing them."

She seemed to sink into herself, then continued without prompting from him. "The decision was made to blow the door and send a tactical team in to take control of the situation. Me and Travis were banished outside; mainly 'cause I kept telling Turner he was just gonna screw things up. Oh, and that he was an asshole." The anger she still felt for the man was obvious in her tone; somehow coming through past the hurt. "As soon as the door went I knew... I knew exactly what was going to happen and I shouted a warning - mentally as it turned out, since it was missing from the recordings - which Travis echoed, but by then it was already too late."

Darien watched as she sucked in a long breath and released it raggedly. "So there was a booby-trap?"

"The kids were the booby trap," she announced, each word as sharp as a shard of glass and just as cutting. "Soon as enough of Turner's men had rushed into the room they triggered the canisters of poison gas."

"Shit," Darien muttered, not able to comprehend how a group of kids could be so indoctrinated that they'd throw their lives away on the say-so of some megalomaniac with delusions of godhood. "Alyx..."

"One of the SOB's who offed himself was a biochemist and he'd cooked up a creative modification of ricin poison by combining it with RCA - another by-product of the castor bean." Alyx closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, and he knew that she was reviewing that day in her mind. "Ricin can take days to have any effect and can be survived in low doses. RCA... it usually isn't fatal." She met his questioning gaze. "It... it causes the blood to clot, and in this version... it does so very quickly. The kids were dead in minutes."

It took no effort on Darien's part to figure out she'd experienced the entire thing through one, if not several minds, including a few who had not survived. He wanted to admonish her for the blatant act of stupidity, but since it would do absolutely no good so many months later, he instead reached out to cup her face with one hand and project reassurance to her. "It was not your fault," he told her in no uncertain terms. "There was nothing you could have done."

She snorted; her hands coming up to wipe away tears that had pooled but not overflowed to run down her cheeks. "That's the real bitch about it. I could have done something and chose not to."

"Babe, you were nowhere near the room - you said so yourself - there was nothing you could have done," he insisted, but the look of belligerence on her face argued otherwise.

"Bullshit," she snapped. "I coulda changed Turner's mind for him. Made him try my idea. Could have put the kids to sleep once I had access to the room. Resolved the situation without a single death or anyone being hurt. But no... I had to..."

"Do the right thing," Darien finished, interrupting her. "Alyx, you had no choice, and don't you even try to argue with me." He shifted his thumb to rest atop her lips in the vain hope to keep her silent. "There would have been one person hurt - you."

Her lips moving against his finger she mumbled, "Twenty-three kids aged four to 13 died. Six of Turner' s men were killed and four others became seriously ill. I could have saved all of them." Alyx's eyes drifted shut and her head lowered. "It would have been worth it."

Darien sighed, certain she would fight over this until one of them stormed out of the apartment, so he attempted to take the middle road. "Yeah, maybe it would have been. But it didn't play out that way." He shifted his hand under her chin and tipped her head back up. "It wasn't your fault." He made sure to enunciate each word precisely, hoping like hell they would sink in and have some positive effect.

"I... my head knows that, but some days... I still wonder, y'know?" She sniffled, and then scooted forward until she was practically in his lap so that he could wrap his arms about her. "It hasn't been one of my proudest moments, that's for sure."

"You tried, that's more than most even bother thinking about doing these days," Darien stated, actually believing the words for a change. "Just tell me they buried the asshole... Turner in the deepest pit they could find."

Alyx gave a harsh bark of laughter and sat up. "Shit, Dare, he got pats on the back for a job well done." At his obvious look of shock she continued, "They couldn't even demote the bastard without raising suspicions." She turned slightly, reached out and shut the journal. "I can safely say I won't ever be doing any jobs for him again."

"Good," Darien agreed. "Though I gotta wonder why he's still breathing. You, umm, sometimes find vengeance a good way of working out your anger." A very true statement, even if she had a way of leaving them quite healthy and just wishing that she'd gone ahead and finished them off.

"Oh, believe me, I considered it, and the Official probably debated letting me for the first 48 hours. Then realized he'd end up losing me if I went after Turner, so he sent me on another job instead." Alyx sighed heavily. "I was pretty damn useless to him anyway at that point."

Darien felt righteous indignation boil up at the callousness the Official could and did show time and time again. "He never lets up, does he? Doesn't give a damn about any of us."

"Yes he does, just in his own way, is all," Alyx corrected. "The job was low priority, so low that under normal circumstances I would never have been assigned to do it."

Darien stared at her in confusion. "Then why?"

"To get me away. To give me a chance to think about things and deal with them without the pressures of life here." Alyx pulled a smile from within her bag of tricks for him. "Plus the 'Fish knows we spend our unconscious time together and the Keep has certainly told him about our odd REM sleep incidents. I doubt he wanted me sharing my nightmares with you."

Not able to disagree with any of her points he simply nodded. "But more work?"

"Easy work, sweets. All I did was install and tweak some new security systems at a few government outposts. The work was done at night, which gave me all day to lounge on beaches, soak up the sun and contemplate my navel."

"Where, exactly, did the bossman send you?" Darien asked in curiosity-laden suspicion.

She gave him a huge grin. "Guam, Hawaii, Virgin Islands... places like that."

He ignored the sudden bout of jealousy, realizing just based on her reaction tonight that she'd needed the time alone. "Why can't I ever get sent on missions like that?"

"Same reason you don't get sent on the ones where a couple dozen kids commit suicide in the name of their all-mighty leader who'd been dead for over a day by then," she responded, her voice bland.

"Yeowch. Point made." He pulled her back in close; her face buried against his chest and just held her. "Sorry I picked that one," he apologized softly.

"Why? Least this way I was able to answer your questions and get it off my chest. It's not like I've had anyone to talk to about it," she reminded him as her arms curved about his waist.

Which, of course, made Darien wonder just why she had decided to talk about it when she was quite plainly still under orders to remain silent on the matter on pain of.... That she hadn't outlined, but he doubted it would involve cuddly kittens. "And what if I were to take the truth to the papers?"

"Absolutely nothing, 'cause after all this time no one would believe you and the few who might be willing to talk would be countered by a dozen others with proof of the opposite." She shook her head. "I can guarantee you, Turner will screw up again and I'll gladly testify before a congressional committee about his terminal stupidity when he does."

Darien snickered at the overtone of pleasure in her voice, certain as she was that she would one day get a chance at redemption for her perceived failure. "Ah, Alyx, it's always the simple things, isn't it?"

That earned a warm chuckle that did a fair job at banishing the remainder of the unhappiness she was feeling. He knew that it might be a long time before she'd completely be at peace with the incident and her role in it, but for tonight she was done with it, had shoved it back into its box and shut the lid firmly upon it. Looking over the table and the little that was left he came to an abrupt decision. He reached out and slid the cover over the gelled sterno shut, snuffing the brilliant blue flame. He had originally planned to follow up the dinner with chocolate fondue for dessert, but sensing her increasing need for sleep, changed his mind.

He released her, encouraging her to sit up, slid back his chair and stood. "C'mon," he said quietly, holding his hand out to her.

She took it and slipped off her seat to stand before him. "Aww, time to do the dishes already?" she mock-complained with a pout.

"Nope," he replied as he scooped her up into his arms. "I'm thinking it's time to get you all relaxed." The balloons parted before him as he carried her across the apartment towards her bed.

"Feh," she laughed, "You just want sex."

"Well, you did say I was gonna get some tonight no matter what. You change your mind?" He stopped next to the bed, waiting for her response and, strangely enough, more than willing to defer the play until she'd had some sleep.

"Mind? I have one of those?" she questioned, the words muffled with her lips brushing along the side of his throat.

"Uh," he articulated, his eyes drifting shut to better enjoy what she was doing. She seemed intent on find every bit of skin within easy reach and bringing it to an electrifying awareness. When she stopped he whimpered in reaction.

"Darien," she said, drawing him back to the reality of the world about them. "Now might be a good time to put me down," she suggested at a throaty purr.

Like he was going to argue? "Yes, ma'am," he uttered even as he lowered her to the mattress. The amber pendant glowed warmly in the golden hued light of the room and he could just barely wait to she what see looked like wearing it and nothing else.

***

Darien set the drink back on the headboard and turned the lamp down a bit once he had settled back on the pillows propping him semi-upright. Alyx snuggled up along his side, her face pressed against his naked hip, her breath warming his skin. One of her arms was draped across his thighs, but it was nothing but dead weight. She had closed her eyes for too long at one point earlier, allowing sleep to swoop down and grasp hold of her tightly and refuse to let go. Not that he'd been overly upset since he was more than sated for the moment and had been about to suggest a midnight snack when she'd gone under.

He had found himself still wakeful and, after cleaning up a bit, grabbed a drink and the journal off the table before heading back to bed. He picked pages at random, some with the provided poetry and others - over three months worth he was quick to realize - with her words, her feelings, her thoughts of the moment. He discovered the occasional drawing; some little more than rough doodles, others complete and detailed including one of himself caught in the act of Quicksilvering. The viscous material frosting the tips of his hair and running across his skin like beads of sweat. The look on his face was one of unadulterated pleasure and he could only wonder why he'd been going invisible at the time.

It lies not in our power to love or hate,

For will in us is overruled by fate.

When two are stripped, long ere the course begin,

We wish that one should love, the other win;

And one especially do we affect

Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:

The reason no man knows, let it suffice,

What we behold is censured by our eyes.

Where both deliberate, the love is slight:

Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

Christopher Marlowe

The poem was oddly poignant, especially for this day and what it represented and he could only wonder if she found any deep meaning in the words especially since she had intimated she'd chosen the journal with this day in mind. A few pages after was yet another hand drawn picture that showed her, with her face all scrunched up, eyes closed and tongue sticking out. Underneath was written:

January 25th

Bad, bad man. Here I am horny as hell and you're not at home.

This made him burst out in laughter, which caused Alyx to grumble sleepily in complaint. It was a damn good thing they had tomorrow off so he could spend the day making up for all the nights they hadn't been together due to work or general circumstance in recent weeks. He still had some definite plans for that very expensive chocolate he had purchased and that had gone unused for dessert. He set one hand on her back until she quieted down, a silent apology wafting from his mind to hers. With a final huff of discontent she fell back to sleep.

It took about an hour to give the most cursory examination to the entries she had made. The one thing he noticed throughout was that while she repeatedly wrote that she missed him, needed him, wanted him she not once used the words that all those poems, lyrics and quotes were supposed to inspire.

Not once, anywhere in her writing, did he read the word love.

Finis