A/N: Okay, so this will be the last chapter of The Problem With Parents. As I see it, it's the kind of story that could go on forever without any closure, so I'm hoping that this chapter will bring something of the sort to you. And I really apologize for the extremely long absence.
All that it takes, one more chance
Don't let our last kiss be our last
I'm outta my mind just to show you
I know everything changes
I don't care where it takes us
'Cause I know how I feel about you
Not a day pass me by
When I don't think about you
And there's no moving on
'Cause I know you're the one
And I can't be without you
Miranda Cosgrove – About You
It was amazing how two words – one word, really – could cause so much trouble. Diana Lombard sat at her desk and cradled her aching head in her hands. There was too much to think about and she didn't feel as though she had the time she needed to think it all over. She could practically hear her father commenting on how she had left things too late, and how there wasn't enough time to straighten everything out, but there was still plenty of time left before she had to decide. But that didn't mean her concerns ceased to exist. No, it was quite the opposite.
Diana didn't know what to do about the future. It was that simple. Leaving Martin seemed unfathomable. She could hardly remember what life was like without him, and thus going away for university was out of the question. But was it right to deny herself so many opportunities just because she was in love? The very thought seemed to be against every feminist concept that she had ever learned.
And what of Martin, what would he do? He fit in so well at the Centre; she couldn't imagine he would go anywhere else. From the time he had joined as a young teenager, he meshed perfectly with the odd and unique creatures that inhabited the Centre. There was never any doubt that Martin Mystery had found his calling. The fact that he had been fortunate enough to do so at the age he had was something that made her jealous, because she had no idea. For all her plans, facts, and figures, the rest of her life was a big old blank.
"And I don't know if I want to stay there," Diana murmured to herself, idly tracing a picture of a flower onto one of her university applications. She liked the Centre, but she had always gotten the feeling that she wasn't quite as good at being an agent as Martin was. If it weren't for him, she knew that she probably would've quit a long time. It wasn't even about her physical or mental abilities; she just didn't have the same passion for the job that Martin did. He loved dealing with the paranormal and lived for when the U-Watch would summon them.
Not for the first time, she considered the fact that the Centre did have postings all over the world, which meant that Martin might be able to come with her if she did go away. But could she deal with Martin going out into the field on a regular basis and not being there to know what had happened? If he never came back, Diana knew that she would never be able to live with herself for not being there. The problem was, she just didn't know if she really wanted to spend the rest of her life being an agent. There was so much more out there, and as much as she loved Billy, Java, and M.O.M., it seemed like a waste to limit herself to just one experience.
Diana sighed slowly and pushed herself away from her desk. It was times like this that she wished that she could be more like Martin. He never seemed to worry about anything. Despite all of the times she had lectured him about not being prepared, it was a trait Diana rather envied. What must it be like to coast through life, feeling certain that everything would just work out for the better?
"Hey Di!" As though in answer to her thoughts, her door flew open behind her. Diana jumped as Martin barged into her room, a grin lighting up his face. "What'cha doin?"
"I'm busy," Diana said shortly, trying to hide the fact that he'd frightened her. The sting of her reply was cancelled by the softness in her vivid green eyes as Martin tossed himself down on her neatly made bed. He rolled over and smiled at her. She couldn't help it. Her lips automatically smiled in return.
"Do you want to go grab a burger?" he asked. "I'm starving."
"Maybe in a minute," she said absently, looking at him intently. "Martin, do you ever think about the future?"
Martin looked up at her somewhat warily. "The future, Di?"
"Yeah, you know." Uncomfortable by the scrutiny in his crimson gaze, Diana turned away and began to gather the applications on her desk together. "The future. What we're going to do after high school. That sort of thing."
"Well, not really," Martin said slowly, wondering what brought this on. "Do you mean... the future between you and me?"
"No. Well, yes, I suppose."
"I don't know," he admitted. "I know I want to be with you forever."
His words caused a slow flush to cross Diana's cheeks and her grip on the papers she was holding tightened. Neither one of them had gotten up the courage to say those words while the other was conscious. Martin's admission was the closest either one had gotten, and she couldn't deny the effect it had on her. "I want to be with you, too," she whispered.
Before either of them could say anything else, a familiar beeping filled the air. Diana sighed and rose from her seat as Martin sprang up from the bed. He held the U-Watch up and scanned the room until he found the portal, located this time inside her closet. As she approached and started to open the door, Martin caught her around the shoulders and ducked his head to kiss her gently. She leaned against him and returned the kiss, enjoying the quiet moment where nothing else intruded on their time together.
Unfortunately, it didn't last long. The U-Watch beeped again, more impatiently this time. Martin drew back with a look of disgust and shook his head, clearly annoyed. Diana shot him a sympathetic smile as she pushed the door open and let herself fall into the bright blue light. Her body tingled all over as her feet came into contact with a hard surface. Moments later, Martin stepped onto the platform next to her. Each of them placed a hand on the scanner, which confirmed their identities and allowed them access to M.O.M.'s control center.
"Welcome, agents," M.O.M. said briskly, quickly shutting one of the drawers on her desk. After years of having Martin around, she had clearly learned the value of keeping a completely bare desk when he entered the room. Diana hid her smirk behind a hair toss as she and Martin approached the woman's desk.
"Hey, M.O.M., how are things hanging?" Martin greeted cheerfully, looking for all the world as though he wanted to hop up onto the corner of her desk. He knew better, though, and settled for casually placing his hand on the curve of Diana's back. She shivered slightly, warmed just by the touch of his hand, but contained herself when she caught M.O.M.'s sharp eye on them.
Normally, agents who were romantically involved were not allowed to continue in partnerships. It was considered to be a compromise to both the mission and to the agents themselves. But Martin had a lot of sway at the Centre. He was one of their best agents and together, he and Diana made up one of the best teams. She was never quite sure exactly what he had done, but one day their love was an issue, and the next day, it wasn't. Still, by mutual agreement, the two of them did their best to avoid drawing attention to the fact that they were a couple. It just seemed like the best idea.
"Today, you'll be going to a small mountain village in Russia," M.O.M. said, drumming her fingernails on the desktop. "There have been reports of an unusual shadow appearing at night, and several people have mysteriously disappeared only to reappear hours later in another location with no memory of what happened. I'm afraid that Java won't be joining you. We have some tasks here at the Centre that we need him to attend to instead."
Diana raised her eyebrows; this was quite unusual. Normally if one member of the team couldn't join them, the team just didn't go. The Centre must have been quite busy to send out just her and Martin, although she didn't really mind. She was confident that she and Martin could handle anything, and judging by the grin on his face, Martin felt the same way. His hand gripped hers and squeezed tightly as the two of them took off at a run towards the portal that had materialized in the middle of the room. There was an odd sort of shimmer in the air, and then when Diana opened her eyes, she saw rows of quaint, brightly painted houses and mountains in the distance.
"Here we are, I guess," Martin observed. "It looks pretty quiet."
He was right, and Diana was puzzled. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, so there should've been at least a few people walking around. Instead, the town was virtually deserted. She couldn't see a single person or pet; it was hard to believe that no one owned a dog or cat. Slowly, she moved forward, her steps hesitant. A strong feeling of wrongness crept over her the further she went. Martin must have felt similarly, because he reached out, touching her arm to stop her from continuing.
"Something's wrong," he said, his eyes sweeping over the area. "Stay close."
"I know. Use the U-Watch to see if there's anyone around."
As Martin played with the watch, Diana walked over to the nearest house and peered in the window. The inside of the house looked as though the occupants had merely left for a few minutes. A pot was sitting on the stove, and there was a half eaten piece of cake on the table. Diana moved on to the next house. The television had been left on, and she could see what looked like a pile of knitting on the floor, beside a half-chewed dog bone. There was even a running fish tank with no fish inside. Whatever had happened to the people had clearly happened to the animals as well.
"I don't see anyone around," Martin said, coming up behind her. There was concern in his voice. "The U-Watch isn't giving me anything. Do you think we should call the Centre?"
"Let's look around a little more," Diana suggested, knowing that Martin hated giving up on a mission. "M.O.M. said that sometimes people could be missing for hours, so maybe this is one of those times." She swung her head to gaze over the village, feeling chilled by the stark absence of life. "Maybe we can find a clue as to where everyone has gone, or about that shadow. It's almost sundown."
The two of them set off together, searching for signs of life within the community. Diana made sure to stick close to Martin, but it didn't seem to matter. If it hadn't been for the fact that M.O.M. had confirmed the town was inhabited, she would have been convinced that the townspeople had up and deserted. Stores were left unwatched, the doors hanging open for any thief to wander in. Restaurants with food slowly congealing on the tables. She could hear water running in several of the houses they walked by. Even the bank and police station were unmanned.
"This is really creepy," she murmured after some time, wrapping her arms around her body. Night was beginning to fall, and after having been in the town for almost two hours with no sign of anyone, she wasn't so sure she wanted to spend the night there.
Martin was watching her closely. "Why don't we sit by the fountain for a while?" he said, draping a comforting arm around her shoulders. "It's pretty well lit, and if no one shows up by midnight, then we'll contact the Centre and tell them to just monitor the town to see if – or when – anyone comes back."
Diana nodded slowly. "That sounds reasonable. You know, it's weird. I haven't seen any of the normal paranormal signs of activity. Usually we find slime or something."
"I know. I've been running periodic scans with the U-Watch, and it's like everyone in the town just put down what they were doing and walked away." Martin was frowning as he spoke, and his voice was full of frustration. "This is one of the strangest missions we've ever been on. How are we supposed to take care of the situation when there's nothing and no one to explain what happened?"
She had no answer for them. They sat on the edge of the fountain in silence, listening to the sound of the water trickling back into the pool below. Diana gazed morosely over the town. One of the things she liked about being a Centre agent was the gratitude in people's eyes when their problem was solved. It didn't look as though that would be happening on this mission. What if the people never came back and the Centre couldn't discover what happened to them?
"Di, I'll be right back," Martin said suddenly. He had been squirming on the bench beside her and now stood. "I gotta go."
"Don't take too long," Diana said, trying to inject a note of amusement into her voice. She didn't really want Martin to know just how terrified she was at the thought of being alone. Her gaze followed his slender form as he jogged towards the woods that bordered the town on one side. Alarm leapt through her when she couldn't see him anymore, but she pressed it down, knowing that Martin would never go very far away from her when they were so alone in the middle of nowhere. Still, she was uncomfortably aware of the pressing silence around her.
Then the lights went out.
And Martin screamed.
Diana leapt to her feet, searching the area desperately. It was so dark that she couldn't see her hands in front of her face, much less anything else in the vicinity. "Martin!" she yelled helplessly, cursing the fact that she couldn't see a thing and didn't have a flashlight. If she had the U-Watch, it would've been much easier. As it was, she was resigned to holding her hands out in front of her and feeling her way in the direction Martin had gone. It was tedious and slow going, and the fact that Martin hadn't answered her – hadn't spoken since he'd cried out – only worried her more.
"Ow, shit," Diana hissed quietly, rubbing her shin. She kicked the lawn chair she'd walked into and strode by, realizing that she'd made it to the woods when a branch whacked her on the cheek. Breathing hard, she paused, realizing that she had no idea which way Martin had gone or how far into the woods he had ventured. Knowing him, he might've been attracted by the sign of something and gone in too deep.
"Martin!" she called again, waiting for an answer. There was nothing. Diana bit her lip, so frightened she could cry, and took a step forward. Her foot caught and she stumbled, landing hard on her knees. Her chest squeezed and she gasped for breath, rolling limply onto her side. For how long she lay there taking slow, deep breaths Diana didn't know, but she at last grasped the presence of mind to reach out and see what had tripped her. Her hand came into contact with soft hair, followed by smooth skin.
Smothering a gasp, Diana groped for the person's arms. Sure enough, her fingers found the U-Watch and she quickly activated the flashlight, lighting up the scene around them. Martin was sprawled on the ground in front of her, unconscious. Blood dribbled down the side of his face from a large cut on his forehead, and his hands, arms and chest were cut up, as though he had been struggling with something.
"Martin... Oh, thank god..." Diana whispered, feeling her racing heart gradually calming. She closed her eyes to contain the tears she felt trying to break free. Even though he was out, she felt safer just being near him. "Stay still, okay? I'm going to call for help." Gently, she unclasped the U-Watch and slipped it around her own wrist. It took her a minute to remember how to contact the Centre. The U-Watch was a complicated little piece of machinery.
"This is the Centre, agent 001293 speaking." The voice blasted into the silent clearing, and Diana very nearly screamed. "What is your status?"
"This is Diana Lombard," she whispered, placing her lips beside the watch. "We were sent to a village in Russia earlier today. My partner, Martin Mystery, has been attacked and wounded and is currently unconscious. The townspeople are still missing. We need help immediately."
There was no response from the U-Watch, which she took to be a good thing. Diana settled as close to Martin as she could, knowing that it would take a couple of minutes for the agents to locate them. Her right ankle and knees throbbed painfully as she moved and Diana winced. She had been so upset over finding Martin that she hadn't even noticed the damage she'd done to herself in the process. There was no question that the two of them would be spending at least a couple of days in the Centre's hospital wing after this experience, and they didn't even have anything to show for it.
She was relieved when the familiar blue portal lit up and four Centre agents came out, accompanied by M.O.M. and Billy. Actually, if she was being entirely honest, she had never been so glad to see someone in her whole life. The agents attended immediately to Martin, checking his breathing and carefully placing him on a stretcher. Then he was carried into the portal. Diana watched them go, hoping that Martin hadn't been hurt too badly, and looked up at M.O.M.
"Agent Lombard, what happened?"
"We got here and looked around for the townspeople," Diana said, feeling an odd trickle down the side of her cheek as she spoke. She touched her left cheek and realized she was bleeding. "But there was no one around. Martin performed several scans and got nothing. We decided to wait in the middle of the town after having no luck with a physical search, since you said the shadow only appears at night. Martin had to go to the bathroom. I waited by the fountain, and then the lights went out and I heard him scream. I found him here. Actually, I tripped over him, literally. Then I called you and that's it." She shrugged helplessly, aware of how lame her story sounded.
M.O.M. sighed. "We'll keep the town under surveillance," she said finally. The lights of the town had failed to come back on, so the entire area beyond their little portion was complete darkness. "I'll send some agents back in the morning. Hopefully we'll have more to go by at that point. Are you injured, Agent Lombard?"
"Not really," Diana said. She started to get to her feet and squealed, shocked by the snap of pain that traveled from her knees all the way up her spine and back down again. Her legs buckled, and she would've fallen had M.O.M. not reached out and grabbed her with a well-placed arm. Diana found herself half-leaning against the taller woman while Billy requested another gurney from the Centre.
It was rather embarrassing to have to lay down on the gurney and be rolled into the Centre as though she was on her deathbed, but Diana was happy to get away from the creepy little town. The longer she stayed there, the more certain she was that something truly horrific, beyond anything that she or Martin had faced before, had gone on. She had the niggling sense that Martin had gotten off easy, and that it was pure luck that she hadn't come across his corpse instead. The thought was chilling, and it was comforting to see the familiar sights and sounds of the Centre.
Diana willingly allowed one of the nurses to help her strip off her clothing, grimacing when she saw that her favourite pair of pants was completely covered in a sickening combination of mud and blood. The nurse noticed her expression and tossed the pants into a nearby garbage can before helping Diana to lie down again. Several doctors entered the room. Most of them went to Martin and rolled his gurney out the door, but a couple approached her and began to perform scans with advanced machines.
"You've bruised your knees and sprained your ankle and left wrist," one of the doctors informed her at last, making a notation on a clipboard. "You'll be back to normal in about a week, but you'll have trouble standing for the next day or two. I suggest you take it easy."
"And Martin?" She gazed anxiously towards the door through which Martin had disappeared.
The doctor smiled. "Actually, Agent Mystery got off easier than you did. His cuts and scrapes are not that serious, and the wound on his head looked more serious than it really was, as is often the case with that sort of thing. We were able to clean and bandage him. He'll be waking up soon, if he's not awake already."
"Thank you," Diana said, unable to hide how much of a relief that information was. "Do you know what attacked him?"
"Based on his cuts, it could have been anything," the doctor said, shrugging. "There was nothing unusual about them, although we do suspect that you probably saved his life."
"Me?" Diana couldn't help finding the idea amusing. "I didn't do anything. I didn't even see it."
"No, but your presence probably scared it away," said the doctor in a matter-of-fact way. "Your brother might have suffered the same fate as the townspeople."
A chill ran down Diana's spine, and she was too preoccupied with the thought of what might have happened to bother correcting the doctor, the way she normally would have. He left, leaving her alone in the chilly room. She gingerly rubbed her swollen left knee and sighed as the door slid open. Diana straightened up and pulled her hospital gown over her knees, delighted to see Martin walking through on his own.
"You're okay," she said, running her eyes over him anxiously. It wasn't a question, but it came out sounding like one, and Martin nodded.
"I'm fine. Thanks to you, or so they tell me." A crooked grin touched his lips as he made his way over to her and eased himself onto the bed across from hers. "Are you okay, Di?"
"I'll survive," she said lightly. His expression didn't change, and with an internal sigh she reluctantly pulled back her gown to show him the damage. Martin grew concerned immediately and slid off of the bed, examining her knees closely. She could admit, they looked awful, swollen to about twice their normal size and a lovely black-and-blue color all over. It didn't really hurt as long as she didn't move, but trying to straighten or bend her legs was absolute murder.
"I should've been there," Martin muttered.
"You were. I tripped over you and that's how I got hurt."
Martin smiled ever so slightly. "I always said you were a klutz," he said, aiming to give her a kiss on the forehead. Diana looked up and their eyes met. Slowly, he moved in and kissed her gently, a reaffirmation of the fact that both of them had come through the creepy incident alive.
"I'm just glad we're both away from there," she said once he had pulled back. "That was a seriously creepy place. Somehow I doubt they'll ever find out what really happened there. It's a ghost town now."
It was unusual to hear the normally scientific Diana talking about ghost towns, but Martin couldn't deny the truth of her words. "Di, you know how you were talking about the future earlier?"
"Yes." Actually, in light of everything that had happened, she had nearly forgotten.
"I don't want you to worry about it too much."
"I can't help but worry," Diana said irritably. "I know you want to stay with the Centre, but I don't know if I do. Sometimes I think I might, and then others time – like today – I can't stand the thought of it. I don't even know whether or not I go to university, and forgot knowing what I might want to study. I want to be with you, but I don't know – " She was cut off by a finger pressed firmly to her lips.
"I love you, Diana."
Diana's eyes widened and she swallowed audibly. "I love you, too."
"Here, this is for you." Martin pulled a small jewellery box out of the pocket of his hospital gown and placed it on her lap. Diana stared down at it wordlessly. "I've had it for a while but I was never sure of the right time. I wanted to make sure it was perfect, but something always happened to screw it up. This wasn't exactly the scenario I was dreaming of," he indicated the hospital wing with a wry smile, "but what matters is that you have it."
"Martin, this isn't..."
"Just open it, Di."
Diana did as he requested, sliding open the velvet cover and pulling out the beautiful ring inside. She could hardly believe what she was seeing. It was a slender, white gold band with an emerald and a ruby on top; both jewels had been cut into the shape of half a heart and placed together so that it formed a whole. Surrounding the heart were several tiny diamonds that winked in the light when she moved the ring back and forth.
"It's not what you're thinking. I know we're too young for that." Gently, he took the ring out of her hands and slid it onto her right ring finger. "It's a promise ring, Di. Because I promise that no matter what happens in the future, we're going to be together."
Diana's eyes filled with tears. "This must have cost a fortune," she managed. "How did you pay for it?"
"A magician never reveals his secrets," he answered, grinning. "I don't want you to worry about the future anymore, Diana. Let it happen when it wants to happen." He brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and cupped her cheek. "I just want to enjoy being with you. I love you, Di, more than anything else in the world. Even more than my job at the Centre, if that's what it comes to. I'd do anything to be with you."
The tears slipped free, streaming down her cheeks. Diana switched her gaze from the ring to Martin and smiled tremulously. "I love you, too," she said again, throwing her arms around his neck. Her knees gave a twinge of pain from the sudden movement, but Diana didn't care. It was well worth the pain to be able to kiss the man she loved.
And so, that's it, the end. I hope you feel it was a fitting one, because I certainly do.