author's notes: it once again must be said that Cybra rocks.
now on to the final chapter!

Chapter 6

Chad was at the threshold again, afraid to take that first step into the darkness. What was there? He called out into it, only to hear his own voice echo back. He took a breath and stepped forward.

He had assumed there would be something in the darkness—a forest, a swamp, evil spirits, even. But it was empty. Nothing but emptiness and the absence of light. His footsteps echoed, as if in a large, bare room, but he could see no walls. He really couldn't see much of anything.

But then, quite suddenly, they appeared. The pale, glowing eyes that always seemed to look at him with such antagonism.

Chad took several more steps forward. Soon his eyes adjusted enough to see.

He stared at the other him, who, in turn, stared back with loathing. For a long time they just stood, sizing each other up. It was then that Chad noticed the blood on the other's hands. It made his own run cold. Whose...? Chad realized then that it wasn't Father who had been haunting him this past year but this person, this other him. It was this him who had committed all those crimes, who tried to murder everyone, who betrayed his friends. And now that they were face to face, he couldn't deny that it wasn't himself.

But what should he do now? The other continued to glare at him with a terrifying hatred. This person...this other him...he needed to be...destroyed.

The instant he thought this, the pale eyes flashed and narrowed, and Chad knew then that he could read his thoughts. Of course he can, Chad berated himself. He's me, after all.

A heartbeat later the bloody hands were wringing his neck. Chad heard his own voice muttering to him, "All this time, our whole life, you've denied my existence. You tried to lock me up in a cold, dark corner of your mind. You wanted me dead. Now it's my turn. I don't care if it means I die with you. Now you die."

Chad struggled against him, trying to push him away and fend him off. He is me...shouldn't I be as strong as he is? But he could feel himself losing the battle. He could feel the life being strangled from him. What happens if I die? Does he take over, or do I just...die?

His vision started blurring, and he imagined he saw a light growing behind him. But his other self looked up at it too; it wasn't just his imagination. The other him looked frightened for a moment then released him and retreated several steps into the shadows. Chad fell to his knees.

An ethereal figure, shining warm and golden, came into Chad's field of vision.

"Cree," he murmured as she knelt beside him. She laid a hand on his face and he smiled at her.

"You'll be all right," she told him, and he believed her.

She then turned to look at the other, sulking at them from the gloom. He backed away a few more steps as she stood and approached him.

"Stay away!" he shouted, and Chad felt his fear.

But she refused, slowly nearing him as he continued to edge away until he hit the wall and could go no further.

Cree regarded him in silence, and he cowered, covering his face. "Don't...don't look."

"It's okay," she finally spoke soothingly. "Chad, it's okay." She reached out and pulled him into her arms.

"What are you doing?" both Chads asked at once.

She looked into the pale eyes. "Don't hide from me. You don't have to be afraid. I love you, Chad."

Tears spilled from his eyes. "But...I...." He showed her his stained hands. "They won't come clean. I tried...but...."

She gently took his hands and held them. She carefully opened them, one at a time then turned them over, studying them.

"What do you mean, sweetie? They look clean to me."

He looked down at his hands in hers. The blood was gone. The tears continued to trail down his cheeks, but he smiled at her, happy for the very first time in his lonely existence. He embraced her, holding her to him tightly.

"Thank you," he whispered.

---

Chad opened his eyes and found himself back in the room of the mansion with his arms around Cree. He met her gaze. She seemed glad, but exhausted.

A thought that something was strange interrupted his thoughts. It was bright in the room—not the fiery flickering of dying flames, but light coming in through the windows.

Chad looked around. "Where's Father?"

He focused on Cree again to consult her, only to find her eyes closed. He suddenly noticed how limp her body was in his arms.

"Cree? Cree??" he repeated with increasing panic.

The smile still hadn't left her lips…her body was warm…she had to be okay. She had to be….

He called an ambulance. But he couldn't just sit there and do nothing as he waited for it to arrive. And even though Chad could no longer feel his presence, he couldn't be sure where Father might be lurking.

With great difficulty, he lifted Cree and staggered out the door. He limped down one hallway after another. But it was as if his radar was off, he had no idea where he was headed. Was he even going in the right direction? He considered climbing out a window, but then found that they were on the second floor. He didn't even remember climbing a set of stairs.

He started to panic. The ambulance would arrive, but they'd never be able to find them. What if they died together in this horrible place? His strength finally let out, and he slid to his knees. He held Cree close, pressing his face to hers, and wept.

"Cree…please…just tell me you'll be all right."

He heard a soft noise and his head jerked up. A skinny girl was peering at them from around a corner. He recognized her as one of the Delightful Children.

Chad tensed. He had no idea what she might do. But she was alone…strange. Maybe if he took Cree and walked away, she would do nothing.

He gathered his precious cargo and stood painfully.

"W…wait," he heard a barely audible voice.

He looked up at the small girl.

"You're trying to get out?" Her words were hesitant and uncertain, as if she had little practice at speaking.

He stared at her, hopeful but guarded. Would she actually help him?

"Yes," he finally replied.

She held out a tiny, pale hand, and pointed. "This hall. Turn left at the end. Then down the stairs."

Again he regarded her. Could he trust her? Might it be a trap? But he didn't have many choices. He decided to believe her.

"Thank you," he said, and went down the passageway indicated. He could feel her eyes on him the entire, long, slow journey down the hall, and felt more than a little relieved when he turned the corner.

The girl had told the truth. At the bottom of the stairs was a door, and beyond that, light and air. He stumbled outside just as the ambulance arrived.

---

Chad walked uncertainly down the hall of the hospital. He looked down the hall in one direction, then the other.

"Chad?" a deep voice asked, and he spun around.

"Dr. Lincoln," he recognized the man behind him, relieved. "Could you tell me where Cree is?"

"Now, first thing's first, Chad, you know better than to leave your room, with the bed, and the I.V., and the monitors…."

Chad twitched impatiently. He still hadn't gotten used to Dr. Lincoln's odd, roundabout way of talking. "They discharged me this afternoon. My mom and dad are going to pick me up any minute, but I wanted to see Cree first. How is she?"

"You know Cree, with the—" began Dr. Lincoln, when he was interrupted.

"There's my runaway patient," a cheerful, sing-songy voice called. Chad recognized the nurse as she approached them.

Chad glanced at her guiltily. "I was going to come back…I just wanted to stretch my legs," he lied.

"Well, your parents are here, they're ready to take you home now."

"But…I want to see Cree." Chad looked pleadingly first at the nurse, then Dr. Lincoln.

The other two eyed each other with knowing smiles.

"I'll tell you what, son, Nurse Flagg here will tell your parents that you'll be a few more minutes, with the delays, and the paper work, and the waiting—"

"And?" Chad prodded.

"And I'll show you where Cree's staying, with the pillows, and the bandages, and the bedpans…" he spieled, starting to lead the way.

"Oh! I almost forgot," the nurse stopped them. She held up the bag she was carrying and opened it. "Here are your…personal effects, from when you were admitted."

"Oh, right, thanks." Chad reached in and removed his neatly folded, badly singed clothes then hurried off after Dr. Lincoln who was leaving without him.

They arrived at a door like all the others when it opened and Numbuh Five—Abby, rather, stepped out, closing it gently behind her.

"Well, well, if it isn't my younger daughter, with the being a good sister, and the visiting her older sibling, and the…aw, you know what I mean."

"Hey, Dad," she greeted before noticing who he was with. "Chad! How are you feeling?"

"I'm okay, thanks. How's Cree? Is that her room? She's in there now?" he asked eagerly.

"Yeah, she is. But—" she grabbed him by the back of his shirt as he headed for the door, "she's asleep right now. Don't disturb her, she still needs her rest."

"All right, I won't, I'll be quiet," he promised quickly and entered the room.

Light filtered in through the drawn curtains. As Abby had informed him, Cree was sleeping, and was hooked up to an assortment of machines, as well as heavily bandaged. But simply looking upon her eased an ache within him, and he finally felt he could breathe.

He sat on the chair by her bed and watched her. Seconds ticked into minutes, and eventually only looking at her wasn't enough. He stood quietly and crept towards her. He observed her again from the side of the bed, ignoring the tubes in her nose. She was breathing slowly and deeply, still asleep. Surely it wouldn't hurt to…?

He bent forward slowly, inching towards her slightly parted lips. He touched his to hers—lightly, barely touching her at all, really. He wouldn't wake her.

But then she swatted him weakly, murmuring sleepily, and he pulled back abruptly to see her eyes flutter open.

He smiled warmly at her. "Hey, how are you feeling?"

Cree regarded him with tired, unfocused eyes for several seconds. Then mumbled, "Oh. It's you."

Chad's smile faded at this, and she laughed weakly.

"Oh, lighten up, Chad." She held out her hand to him, which he took immediately and accidentally got tangled in her I.V.

"I'm sorry!" he exclaimed in horror, straightening the line.

"It's okay. It's taped pretty securely—"

"No, it's not okay," he replied, anguish apparent in his voice. "This wouldn't have happened…. You wouldn't even be here if…. This is all my f—"

"Stop it." Cree's voice was soft, but firm and serious. "If I hear you blame yourself for this, I swear, I'll get up and march out the door. I don't care if I have to drag five hundred pounds of medical equipment behind me to do it."

Chad gazed at her, so vulnerable in her condition, yet so strong. He himself was a horrible person. And yet…she loved him. That he would love her had always been a matter of course, but that she would return those feelings, even after seeing the ugliest part of him…. It was nothing short of a miracle.

He really couldn't find the words to express how he felt. Instead he stared into her eyes and said nothing.

Finally Cree asked, "What's that you got there?" indicating the bundle he was carrying.

"Oh, it's nothing. Just my clothes."

"Aw, how sweet of you," she grinned, taking them from him. "Most people bring flowers, but you give me toasted laundry." She ran her fingers pensively over the burn marks. The question on both their minds--"What happened to Father?"--went unasked. They looked at each other and didn't say a word, because it didn't matter. They both knew that Father would never be able to drive a wedge between them again.

Instead, Cree smiled and said, "This isn't the first time you gave me your ratty old clothes."

He met her gaze, remembering. But then said, "Hey, who said I was letting you keep them? Word on the street is that the 'Inferno Survivor' look is in now."

"Oh, really? Then I'll have to—" Cree stopped short when a mint fell from the folds of clothing. She picked it up and stared. "This…is a MINT."

"Yeah, Abby gave it to me," Chad shrugged.

"How long have you had this?"

"Uh…" he thought. "Since before we went to Moonbase?"

"You idiot, we could have used this," she said exasperatedly.

"For…our halitosis?"

"It's not a regular peppermint, moron, it's a MINT: Makes Icy; Never Thaws."

"You're talking gibberish." Chad pressed his hand to her forehead.

She grumbled in annoyance, and removing the plastic wrapper, tossed the MINT to the corner of the room. A bright, high-pitched, crackling explosion filled the room, and when Chad opened his eyes, the other side of the room was encased in a thick layer of ice.

"Oh…. Yeah, we could've used that."

"You're so useless," Cree shook her head.

"2x4 technology was never really my strong point," he rationalized.

"Clearly," she rolled her eyes. "Come here and give me a kiss, you dimwit, and not a wimpy one like before."

Chad wasn't about to disobey those orders. They were just getting to the good part when a voice muttered,

"I thought I told you not to wake her."

The couple looked up to see Abby frowning at them through the doorway.

"He didn't, I woke up by myself," Cree lied convincingly as Chad tried to look innocent.

"Chad, your parents-- What happened here?" she interrupted herself, staring at the ice formation. She entered and closed the door hastily behind her.

"Ooh, busted," whispered Chad.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Cree demanded in an undertone.

"I'm not the one who threw the MINT."

"Don't you dare tell her, you snitch."

Abby stared at the ice, frowning. "I can't believe these two, wasting perfectly good 2x4 technology," she groused to herself.

The door opened again.

"Hi, Mr. And Mrs. Dickson," Abby greeted then excused herself from the room.

"Chad? The nurse told us you'd—" Chad's mom paused when she saw the ice, then decided to ignore it. "The nurse told us you'd be here. Hello, Cree, how are you?"

"I'm okay, considering."

Mrs. Dickson smiled at her, but then focused her attention on her son. "Are you ready to go home, dear?"

Chad looked at Cree and didn't reply.

"Come on, sport, let's go and get a home-cooked meal in you," his dad suggested jovially.

"I'm staying here with Cree," Chad answered, not taking his eyes from her.

"I know you want to, dear, but you should come home and rest. You've been discharged, but you still need to take care of yourself."

"I'll be okay, Chad. You can visit me tomorrow," Cree said softly.

"See? Even Cree thinks you should take care of yourself. Besides, she needs her sleep, too." His mom was becoming more insistent.

"I'm staying." His tone made it clear that his decision was final.

His parents looked at one another and sighed.

-

After Chad's parents had left, Cree reasoned, "Well, your mom already hates me, so it's not as if she could like me any less," she paused as she tried to stifle a yawn, "but aren't you worried that she'll punish you?"

"I'll probably be grounded," admitted Chad, "but I'll deal with that later."

She smiled at him sleepily. "I'll send you a nail file so you can scrape your way through the bars that they're going to put on your windows," she murmured.

"Thanks. Bake it in a loaf of bread for me, will you?"

Cree's eyes had closed. "Mm-hmm," she mumbled slowly. "Bread."

Chad's smile changed to a worried expression. Cree was exhausted, and he had selfishly insisted on staying with her without asking her first.

"You should sleep, Cree," he whispered. "I guess I should…go." He stood and released the hand he had been clinging to.

But she didn't let go of his. "Stay."

He settled back in his seat. "All right."

Hours passed and he stayed, watching her sleep. Nurses and doctors came and went, checking up on her, administering mediations, changing bandages, and she slept. And he stayed.

She woke again in the middle of the night. It was dark, but she felt his hand in hers and she was comforted. She squeezed it gently.

"You're awake," he said softly.

"You're awake? What time is it?"

"I don't know. It's too dark to see the clock."

"It is dark in here." She paused. "Are you okay? You…don't like the dark, do you?"

"It's okay, I'm fine."

She couldn't see his face, but could hear from his voice that he was smiling.

A long span of silence passed.

Chad interrupted it to say, "I was right."

"Hm?"

"You did save me. I knew we met before Abby introduced us."

Cree reflected before answering, "I think it was a mutual thing."

Chad knew she was giving him too much credit. But he continued, "There is something you can do for me."

"What's that?"

"Shove over and let me lie down. I've been sitting here so long that I can't feel my legs."

"Not a chance," she refused flatly.

"Bed hog."

Cree laughed and reached out to him.

"Ow! Yeah, that was my eye."

"Oh! Sorry, sweetie." She aimed higher, feeling the top of his head, then reached behind and lower for his neck.

"What are you doing?"

"Pulling you in for a kiss."

"Well, why didn't you say—mgff."

Chad knew he would be stiff and sore and grounded in the morning, but for now, life was good.

---

He stood in the warm, golden light. He could see the darkness there in the distance, and he knew it would never completely disappear. But he was no longer afraid of it. It didn't seem quite as dark anymore.

He heard her call to him, and he turned to smile at her. The light and warmth--they all were born from her. He walked towards her then quickened his pace to rush into her waiting arms.

-fin-

---

---

author's notes: it's finally done! once again there are unanswered questions...the obvious one being "what the #$&! happened to Father?" of course i won't answer that (insert evil laugh here) but it is significant that one of the Delightful Children has separated from the pack....
so yes, there is room for yet another sequel, and i have started one, but whether it'll fizzle before completion is another issue.

and i put a random Cree/Chad pic that i drew on my profile page (i can't seem to post it here), which actually has nothing at all to do with my fic. i had wanted to draw a scene from it, but i drew that one instead. it's cheesy! :P