Author's note: To read Coigreich, the sequel to Whiskey, please go to my LJ writing account. The link can be found in my bio.
Title: Murphy's Law
Author: A. X. Zanier
Copyright: March 22, 2005
Rating: FRT+ (Language)
Fandom: The Invisible Man
Series: Pater Noster Arc
Sequel: Between "Deliver us..." and "From evil."
Summary: The ultimate sacrifice is made.
Spoilers: Probably, does it really matter after all these years?
Disclaimer: a) The characters and basic story ideas of The Invisible Man are the property of others including, but not limited to Matt Greenberg, Studios USA, Stu Segall Productions and NBC Universal. Any additional characters or story ideas are mine. I make no money from this intellectual exercise. b) This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any opinions or views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the author and are used for story-telling purposes only.
Music: Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol
Many thanks to my wonderful beta, Suz.
A Chinese proverb, and there are a lot of them, goes, "A thorn defends the rose, harming only those who would steal the blossom."
But what happens to the flower when the thorn is lost?
Darien knew something was wrong the instant he entered the building. The hustle and bustle of a working foundry should have been in high gear. He knew of at least three projects that were scheduled for the week; two private commissions and one a special piece for some space-pirate movie in the middle of filming. The production company's regular source had been overbooked and unable to take the last-minute request. They had suggested the fourth monkey and Fallon had been happy to take on the challenging job.
But the forges were already banked and it was only seven p.m. This time of the year they typically worked late into the night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures after the sun had gone down to combat the sweltering heat needed to melt and mix the metal they made their creations with. Instead, they were in full clean-up mode, work divided evenly between storing various bits of gear and sweeping the floor free of any detritus. It was so not what should have been happening.
He'd only been gone four days. What could possibly have happened to close down a business that prided itself on being available anytime, day or night?
Something serious, that's what. Deadly serious.
And he hadn't been expecting that given the calm, if short, message left on his voice mail by Steve, requesting he stop by once he'd completed his current mission. Darien had been very much off the radar the last several days, what with being undercover and all and Fallon, being Fallon, wouldn't interrupt an Agency job for anything short of life or death... and maybe not even the latter. She understood his need to keep the two halves of his life separate and did everything she could to facilitate it. Of course, it hadn't been Fallon who called, so... A frisson of fear raced through him, the sudden surge of adrenaline damn near making him Quicksilver unexpectedly.
Steve made his grand entrance then, looking harried and worse for wear. "Darien, thanks for coming."
"No problem, was gonna stop by anyway, what's up?" Worse for wear was an understatement, now that Steve had closed the distance between them. The guy looked like shit and clearly hadn't slept in days.
"You haven't heard?"
Darien shook his head. "Been undercover in San Fran." He swallowed hard, sudden fear making his stomach twist into knots. "Is... is Fallon all right?" It would explain why it had been Steve to call and not the proprietor of the fourth monkey.
"She's alive," Steve assured him, but without the expected note of relief. "Banged up, but okay."
"Banged up?" Darien shook his head, not certain he'd heard that right. "What the hell happened?"
"Fallon was ambushed in LA."
Darien felt the blood drain from his face. "Oh, crap." She'd wanted him to go along, to take advantage of his thief's point of view, but he'd had other commitments.
"That's an understatement, man," Steve said, his voice shaky.
"Wait, LA... the Hutchinson meeting?"
"Why's he trying to take her out? Yeah, he's got a reason to... but..." Darien trailed off, not getting it. The reason for the whole meeting had been to resolve the dispute between the two after a miscommunication had led to gauntlets being thrown down. And none of it posturing.
"It wasn't Hutchinson. He lost two men trying to protect her," Steve explained, though to Darien's ears doubts existed.
"So?" Darien shot back. "Pawns to sell the con. What's a coupla grunts to a sumbitch like him?"
"Darien," Steve sighed heavily and ran an unsteady hand through his hair. "We're pretty certain he wasn't involved. His younger brother was killed in the shootout. Not the typical pawn you'd sacrifice."
Darien had to agree with that point. Hutchinson might be a piece of work, but he was definitely a family man in every sense of the word. There was still something missing, Darien could see it in the other man's eyes. "Who did we lose?'
Steve ducked his head before meeting Darien's eyes and saying one word, "Murphy."
Oh fuck. Not Murphy. Anyone but Murphy. Losing Murphy would break Fallon one shattered piece at a time. He didn't even have to ask how. Murphy had surely taken the bullets meant for Fallon. Shoving her out of harm's way while thrusting himself into it. Sacrificing himself to protect the one person he had deemed worthy. The idiot.
Murphy was dead and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. But he felt a deep-seated need to do something, enact some sort of vengeance for his fallen comrade in arms. "Do we know who did this?" he asked, voice tight with carefully reined in anger.
Steve shook his head. "We don't know... yet. We will find out and there will be hell to pay when we do."
"Damn straight there will." Darien nodded in agreement and hoped he'd be one of the lucky few chosen to send the culprit on his way to said fire and brimstone. "I'll help any way I can."
Steven sighed, this time ion obvious relief. "Good. I need a favor. A pretty big one."
Darien had no idea what kind a favor Steve could possibly want. Darien's words to the contrary, there wasn't much he could really contribute to hunting down the bastard that had done this: beating the bushes for info was Hobbes' specialty not his own. "What kind of favor?"
"Fallon," Steve responded, as if it should have been obvious.
Darien didn't know what to say. It was a fair bet that most everyone knew they were sharing sheets on a fairly regular basis, but it wasn't something that had been paraded about or announced at the company picnic. And it wasn't like it had any real impact on their working relationship. He was most assuredly nothing more than another employee, and an occasional one at that. He certainly received no special treatment or status just because he was sleeping with the boss. "And what do you think I can do?"
Steve cocked his head slightly and gazed at Darien through narrowed eyes. "Do? You don't have to do anything, just be there for her."
Darien opened his mouth to protest his ability to be a source of comfort for anyone, but Steve continued on.
"If you care about her at all..."
Darien stiffened. Oh fuck. Could he have possibly let it slip through some word or deed that he felt for Fallen far, far more than he had planned? That he now regretted his insistence, and her quick acceptance, of keeping it light, no strings, and no attachments? That he cared enough to wonder about the future, about what he'd do once his debt was paid and the deal done?
Without admitting to anything, he said, "I'll do what I can."
Steve sighed. "Getting her off the roof would be a great start. She's too easy a target for snipers up there."
The roof? What had she been thinking? Someone tries to kill her and she decides the best way to deal with the situation was to make a big ol' target of herself? That thought made him pause. It actually made sense in a way. She'd already lost one person. She'd be deeply concerned about losing more. Making herself an easy target would, to her way of thinking, save lives. If they (whoever they were) didn't have to go through anyone to get to her then no one else would get hurt. Painfully warped logic, but valid all the same. She was the captain of the ship, it was her job to go down with it, saving all that she could. And she would. Without hesitation. Which probably made Murphy's loss hurt all that much more.
He climbed the stairs to the roof, swung the door open and nodded to Gilly and Mugs, both armed and looking about warily. They certainly seemed to dislike the fact they were in the open and vulnerable to attack from just about any direction. Fallon was on the phone, pacing stiffly back and forth in front of the table, her laptop open and on.
"I don't give a great bloody damn about yer schedule. Ye owe me and I be collecting." She stopped, running her right hand through her hair. She'd been letting it grow out, and the bangs now fell in front of her eyes. "Ye've got forty-eight hours, ye little gobshite, do ye understand me?"
Darien walked up behind her; the voice at the other end of the line a shrill screech that he assumed was anger, but that obviously didn't impress Fallon in the least.
She laughed harshly. "Ye really want to think afore you threaten me, ye..."
She didn't get the chance to finish the sentence as Darien plucked the phone from her hand and snapped it shut.
With a squall of pure rage she spun about, hand balled into a fist and arm pulled back to deliver a stunning blow.
Softly, Darien said, "Fallon," and the anger drained out of her. She closed her eyes, swallowed with difficulty and stepped forward to lean against him, her body shaking with tightly reined in emotion. For once not caring who saw, what they thought, or what the gossip 'round the water cooler would be come tomorrow, he wrapped his arms about her and pulled her close, offering what little comfort he could in this situation.
He and Murphy had had an understanding that bordered on friendship. They worked together well enough and could manage conversation that didn't come across as forced. With Fallon the relationship had been different, Murphy... well, Murphy was her Hobbes. Murphy had been her friend, her guardian, her anchor, her rock of Gibraltar, the one thing she could rely upon no matter what. And now he was gone.
Darien knew he couldn't make things better, couldn't make her pain go away, couldn't fix it, so he did the only thing he could and held on tight.
Darien awoke to find himself alone in the bed, which surprised him given how long -- and how much alcohol -- it had taken to get her to fall asleep the previous night. It wasn't until they'd finished the bottle that she'd been able to talk and he hadn't tried to force her, just waited her out, knowing that eventually she'd let the words tumble over themselves as they sought an exit, a vain attempt to share the burden, the pain. Only this time, he wasn't sure it had made any difference, for once she was done, her words far too few to satisfy either of them, she seemed even more heart weary than before. As if she blamed herself for Murphy's death.
And he was left to wonder what it was she hadn't told him.
Once she'd fallen into a restless slumber, Darien had gone back downstairs to talk to Steve, who had proceeded to give him all the details he could want and would have nightmares over for months to come. Of the five men who had gone with Fallon, none had walked away without injury. One was still in the hospital, but had come out of surgery with a positive prognosis: he would walk again. The rest had all been treated and released. Except Murphy, of course.
Then Steve revealed that Fallon had been through all this before. She'd made plenty of enemies over the years, and attempts on her life had been made before, but this was the first time one had been in any way successful. There had been little or no warning that this would happen, but, as Steve pointed out, the longer they remained in one location the higher the risk and the better a target she became. Normally, they picked up and moved every ten to twelve months, which, of course, led Darien to ask why they hadn't left for safer, if not greener, pastures. The response had been a shrug and "business is good," which Darien suspected was no more than prevarication. Business was sure to be good wherever they set up shop. No, Fallon was still here for some reason none of them could fathom.
Question was: would she take the threat seriously and bail, as was her wont, or would she stick it out, whatever her reasons?
That was what Darien found himself pondering as he stared at her pillow. The clock read a not too unreasonable 9:17 a.m. It was just that he hadn't fallen asleep until nearly four that was making his eyes ache. He knew he couldn't fall back to sleep, so he flung off the covers and rolled out of the bed. After looking about for a few seconds he found his clothes neatly folded on the bureau. He tugged the pants on while staggering into the bathroom to deal with usual morning necessities.
When he came out, still bleary-eyed, but lured by the scent of coffee, he found her sitting at her dining table cum desk, papers spread before her and cell phone to her ear. She gave him a wan smile when he caught her eye as he poured himself a mug of the precious caffeine-laden liquid. She looked... broken was the only word that came to mind, and it fit. This had clearly been a blow she hadn't been prepared to deal with.
She scrawled a few more lines on the notebook before her then said, "Thank ye." She closed the phone and set it on the table as Darien came around to stand next to her, sipping the coffee. "Feel up to a wee jaunt with me?"
" 'A jaunt'?" he mimicked. "Where to?"
She shook her head. "Does it matter?"
He thought about it for a moment. "Nope, guess it doesn't." Last time she'd taken him on a "jaunt," it'd been to Acapulco for dinner and dancing with larceny for dessert. They'd been gone a little over six hours. "Do I need to pack anything?"
"Aye. Couple days worth'a clothes should do." She shuffled all the papers into a single pile. In a tiny voice she asked, "What about Hobbes?"
Crap. Good fucking question. He could spin some tale, he supposed, but what was the point really. He'd just have to listen to the mandatory lectures on duty to the Agency and crap like that. He was doing it his way, right? Well, this week, his way involved blowing off whatever schlep work the Official managed to scrounge for them. Bobby would be off in his own little universe where only the Keeper and a bed existed. Their reunions, even after so short a trip, were becoming legendary.
"What about him? He's a big boy and'll manage just fine." Darien yawned and scratched his chest. "When and where?"
Fallon got to her feet. "Two o'clock, at the hangar. Have your passport with ye."
"Uh... Fallon, I don't have one." Where the hell were they going that he needed a passport? Typically, if they crossed a border, it was very much under the radar, but, then again, they were usually on the clock and not wanting to leave records of who they were or where they'd been.
"Oh, that's right. Umm..." She went blank, as if it was taking actual effort to come up with a suitable solution. "Talk to Nikki, 'e'll get ye set up."
"Fallon, are you all right?" Stupid question maybe, but one that needed to be asked.
"Darien," she sucked in a breath and blew it out slowly, "I 'ave to be... for now."
Darien arrived at the airport early, after stopping by the fourth monkey to pick up the passport Nikki had whipped up for him. Real or fake didn't really matter to him as he had every confidence that a phony would pass even the most rigorous inspection and be indistinguishable from the real thing. He slung the travel duffle over his shoulder, paid the cabbie and waited until the bright yellow car had driven away. The jet was parked before the hangar, and Fallon was talking to a pair of guys decked out in somber black. As Darien neared, he noticed the vehicle parked on the far side of the plane. At first, he thought it was a limousine, thinking that without Murphy Fallon hadn't wanted anyone else to drive her, but the rear of the car was shaped wrong. With a bit of a shock he realized it was a hearse.
The pair broke away as he approached, heading towards the car.
Fallon was all business, perfectly cool, calm and in control. "Ye'll need to stow your gear in the cabin. Cargo area is spoken for."
She wasn't kidding. As he watched, the casket that must contain Murphy's body was rolled over to the plane and then carefully loaded inside. Darien could only imagine the strings she'd pulled to get his body released days after being killed in what was surely an open police investigation. He wanted to say something, but no words, not even a clichéd quote came to mind. Once the cargo door had been sealed and the hearse was vanishing into the distance, he cleared his throat. "Are you sure about this? I mean, doesn't the family usually come to collect the body or something?"
"Aye," she answered as the engines roared to life. She walked to the stairs with Darien trailing after. Once inside, he stowed his bag with the others in the rear, making sure the netting keeping them in place was secure with the addition, then settled into one of the seats for the take-off. The interior was done in luxurious corporate modern with lots of burgundy leather, chrome, and polished wood. There was room for 20, easy, but seats for only half that, including a lounge area where the seats were more like couches with their backs against the walls of the plane.
The pilot's voice came over the intercom, "We've got clearance and can taxi to the runway whenever you are ready." Sounded like Peter was taking his turn piloting this week, which meant Gary was co-pilot. They generally paired for longer flights and since the UK was the assumed destination, having both of them was a necessity.
Fallon pressed a button built into the armrest and said, "Go ahead." She didn't glance back towards Darien as the jet began moving. There was a short pause as they oriented on the runway, followed by sudden acceleration and the sensation of them launching into the air. A few minutes later Peter announced they had reached their flight altitude.
Darien unbuckled, intending to grab a drink from the kitchen, his book from his bag, and then sprawled in the lounge; he was still tired and suspected he'd need the sleep once they touched down in the UK. Fallon had her laptop out and was working on something. He didn't know what and didn't want to disturb her concentration, 'cause, for all he knew, it could very well be life or death.
He woke from the doze he'd fallen into when something moved beside him. He opened his eyes to find Fallon sitting backwards on the couch and gazing out the window. "Hey."
"Hey," she echoed, followed by several more minutes of strained silence. " 'Is family doesn't like me. They think I'm the reason 'e left the military, think I've got some blackmail or something to keep 'im working for me all this time." She turned her head to meet Darien's eyes. "They're gonna say I killed 'im."
"So why do this?" he asked, curious as to why she was playing the masochist.
She shook her head. "I 'ave to. I took their brother away, the least I can do is bring 'im 'ome."
Fuck. Crazy as it sounded, it was nothing less than what he'd expect from her. She had this deep sense of obligation to those around her and an even deeper sense of loyalty. Darien knew that she would have traded places with Murphy in a heartbeat, except for the fact that she knew Murphy would have been suffering even worse to have failed in his self-appointed task to protect Fallon. Perhaps it was Murphy's loyalty to what his family could only see as a total stranger that prevented them from understanding the relationship for what it was. Hell, Darien still wasn't entirely sure why he kept coming back; it wasn't as if she encouraged him, at least not on a personal level. On a business level she'd manipulated him perfectly, given him jobs that were not only profitable, but challenging, even with the Quicksilver, and she constantly pushed the envelope of what he could do, encouraging him to broaden and strengthen his abilities.
It wasn't that she didn't care; she did and deeply, but she didn't often let it be seen, and certainly not as a huge production number. Those proverbial flowers and chocolates. No, it was more often the stray comment or sudden shy smile that lit up her entire face that gave it away. You could see as well as feel the camaraderie amongst all those closest to her, and the only reason Darien was certain that her feelings for him ran deeper than just friendship with benefits was her ability to appear on his doorstep when things were their bleakest. Twice now he'd had days where he was certain he couldn't face another, when hope had fled and he had no one to turn to for support. She had arrived at his apartment as if by magic and given him what he'd needed most. Someone outside the Agency, someone uninvolved with that facet of his life whom he could cling to, who could understand that the world was a fucked up place and that railing against it would drive you insane quicker than the toxin building up in his system.
He reached for her, and that seemed to be the impetus she needed to curl up against him, her forehead resting against the curve of his neck. She shivered lightly as his arm slid about her waist, and seconds later he felt the first of the hot tears hit his chest, soaking into the material of his t-shirt.
Oh fuck, they are pissed Happy family scene this was not. Oh, no, the Quintvalle siblings looked downright livid, which was quite out of place on the tarmac of the quaint airport just outside the small town of Nailsbourne. The grass was a brilliant green and the sky a blushing rose, the sun not yet peeking over the horizon. It was going to be a beautiful day... for someone. Darien remained next to the jet while Fallon dealt with the necessities of returning her friend's body to his family and not smacking them about as they screamed at her.
It was no wonder Murphy had fled the bosom of familial comfort if the harridan act his sister was putting on was the norm. You'd think, based on the detailed and scatological critique of Fallon and her relationship with their brother that the woman was spewing, she'd take even one second to notice that Fallon was just as upset as they were. But neither of them could see beyond their own anger and hurt. Lots more anger than hurt, in Darien's opinion.
A dozen times Darien wanted to intercede, and a dozen times he held his place. Fallon had asked that he not interfere, and so he wouldn't, but that didn't mean he enjoyed watching her be verbally flayed by a couple of strangers who had no clue what the fuck they were talking about.
Why the hell is she just standing there? Yeah, he got that she felt guilty, but those... people were doing their damnedest to kick her while she was already down and all she could seem to do was just stand there and take it. And Fallon was not known to be a turn-the-other-cheek kinda gal. Part of him wanted to shake her and tell her to find her backbone and stand up to the assholes. They clearly had no inkling of who their brother really was if all they could think to do was place blame on the shoulders of the one person who didn't deserve it.
In an attempt to understand, he put himself in her place. What if it were Bobby? What if his partner had been killed protecting his sorry ass and he had to face the Hobbes family with the news? And what if they thought it was all Darien's fault? He'd probably be doing the exact same thing she was, standing there facing them squarely and waiting for the defamatory words to run dry before saying his piece.
On this occasion, the words weren't given a chance to peter out naturally, but were cut short by the arrival of the hearse that would transport the body of their brother the final leg of his journey home. Silence reigned until, with the help of both pilots, the casket was unloaded from the jet and into the long black car. Once sealed inside and the gentlemen hired to drive waiting for instructions, the harpy, as Darien had begun to think of her, wailed and turned on Fallon again, slapping her across the face with a manicured hand. Her brother shot a glare at his sister, silencing her overblown self-righteousness.
Then, to Darien's shock, the man asked, "Miss O'Neill, are you all right?"
She shrugged. "Aye. Take more than a wee slap to 'urt me."
He stepped forward and set a gentle hand on her shoulder. "That's not what I was talking about."
"I know." She straightened, his hand dropping away, and looked from one to the other. " 'E's 'ome, that's what's important, right?" The last was clearly aimed at the sister, who had the good grace to look ashamed for her most recent act.
The brother frowned. "I'm not so sure, anymore."
Fallon growled, "Good. He deserved better than this to return to."
"Why you little..." the harpy was cut off, again, by her brother.
"Enough, Elise, you've made your point." He turned to Fallon. "Thank you for bringing him home." Since there was nothing else to be said, he grasped his sister by the arm and dragged her towards the hearse where the driver still waited for instructions.
Darien, sensing the coast was clear, joined Fallon. Her left cheek was bright red from where she'd been hit. "That went well," he observed sarcastically, causing an amused snort in to leap from her in reaction.
"It went exactly as I expected," she said around a heavy sigh. They waited in silence until they were alone in their corner of the airfield and the sun had lifted above the horizon.
In little more than an hour, the plane was circling in for another landing, this time on a field, literally; short green grass in a cup of a valley between equally verdant green hills. Darien had the sudden urge to sing, 'the hills are alive with the sound of music,' even though he knew this wasn't anywhere near Austria. He hadn't a clue where they were other than it was green. They bumped their way along the ground and came to a rest next to a stone building that looked like it had been standing there for a few hundred years. The two SUVs parked next to it, on the other hand, were brand spanking new, and made it clear they were expected.
Fallon was up and grabbing their bags as soon as the plane had come to a stop, giving Darien the impression that they would be staying here for a while. Not a bad idea as he could use some food about now, but he was curious as to where 'here' was.
"Fallon, where are we?"
She flashed him a quick smile over her shoulder as she dashed down the steps and launched herself at the redheaded giant of a man waiting at the bottom. The stranger enfolded her in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet as he did so, before finally setting her back on the ground. The family resemblance was obvious even to Darien.
"Darien Fawkes, me Uncle Liam," she said as she stepped out of the way.
Darien managed to shake the man's hand as it sank in that he was in Ireland, and more than that, at the very place where Fallon had grown up. "Nice to meet you."
"Ach, Fallon 'e's looking like a ram who just run 'eadfirst into a wall. You could've warned 'im you was bringing 'im 'ere," Liam admonished as he took the bags and carried them to the SUV.
She shrugged. "I didn't know for sure till an hour ago."
"Bollocks, lass. Your Steve called last night to let us know ye'd be stopping by." He lowered his voice. "An 'e told us about Murphy."
The smile that had made an appearance at the sight of her uncle, faded. "Liam..."
"Hush, ye'll tell us when ye be ready, an' not afore. Now c'mon, they're all waiting for ye."
Darien was feeling more or less as dazed as Liam had described, even though he was trying to just go with the flow. He was hustled into the front seat of the SUV while Fallon climbed in the rear. The other SUV had been left for the pilots, who would apparently make their own way back to... wherever it was they were going. Liam chattered on about inconsequentials as he drove: wool yield the past spring, recent acquisitions for the foundry, work done on one of the buildings before the tourist season began in earnest.
Darien didn't pay a whole lot of attention as it really had nothing to do with him and probably wasn't any of his business. They followed a pair of tracks through the green grass, up and down hillsides, through stands of trees and past assorted outbuildings. As they topped a taller than average hill, their goal came into view. Darien whipped about in his seat to stare at Fallon. "You grew up in a castle?"
Liam roared in laughter. "She didn't tell ye?"
"Uh, no. I think I'd remember being told she grew up swimming in the moat and walking the parapets," Darien commented sardonically.
Fallon rolled her eyes. "It's a family estate that we get the joy of maintaining. Drafty old beast of a castle and not nearly as exciting as ye seem to think. Ye should have been 'ere when we had the place retrofit for central heat," she griped, sinking deeper into the seat.
"Aye, but winters were much more tolerable after," Liam reminded her, then turned to Darien. "There was a time ye would've had ice in your glass of water long before dawn."
"Not sleeping in the foundry or barn ye didn't," Fallon grumbled, wrapping her arms about herself and looking irritated.
"Which your da disapproved of, if I recall." Liam winked at Darien. "Wild child she was. A miracle she ended up as civilized as she did."
"Liam," she shouted in exasperation. "I wasn't that bad."
"Oh, ye were, but so were all your siblings. Hellions, the lot of them." Liam assured Darien, who was hard pressed not to laugh out loud at this point.
"Fallon," Darien began, voice soft. "I guess I was just expecting the usual house with white picket fence."
She gave him a wan smile. "An American bias. There was nothing special about growing up 'ere. It's just 'ome."
"I don't know 'bout that, lass. Ye had the open skies and acres of land to play in, just like I did," Liam pointed out. "Not like ye were crowded into a tiny flat with no space to call your own like a lotta others these days."
"And three times the chores." She shook her head in annoyance. "Average jackeen don't have to go chasing lost lambs while it's lashing."
"Ach, like ye really minded. Spend all her time following me 'round the forges given her druthers." Liam glanced back her way, his eyes alight with mischief. "Ye need to be off twisting hay, not looking for an excuse to be pissed off."
Fallon covered her face in her hands, her words muffled. "An' they wonder why I don' visit more often. Liam, enough, please."
"Next ye'll be telling me to hump off. All right, lass, I'll let it be... for now." He drove the SUV across the bridge that was indeed over the moat, the huge stone wall rising several stories above them. He followed the driveway off to the left, ignoring the circular turnabout complete with decorative fountain in the center, and pulled to a stop by a smaller, but no less elaborate door.
Darien climbed out and took a moment to just stare at the grand edifice he was standing next to. The wall rose straight up a good fifty feet, two towers of the quartet visible at either corner, the windows either tiny arrow slits or large arched openings covered in stained glass. The walls themselves were covered in ivy and moss and darkened with obvious age. The stonework varied here and there, suggesting that the walls had been built and rebuilt throughout the centuries. The base of each tower was blank until about twenty feet up, but dead center of the wall he stood before was a door, grand double doors with an impressive arched lintel over them. He felt like he should be listening to some boring tour guide intone about how amazing the stone masons of the 11th century must have been to create such an intricate design on the stone lintel with the tools available at the time.
Fallon nudged him out of his reverie. "It's a door. Ye walk through it."
"You sure about that? Looks more like something that should be in a national museum." While part of him was being honest, he was also taking advantage of his lack of knowledge to get some ribbing in. Far as he was concerned, she was never going to live this one down. This place made the home he grew up in, which was not considered small by the day's standards, seem like a saltbox of a hovel.
She sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. "Oh, bleeding 'ell," she grumbled and stomped through the doorway, leaving it open for Darien and Liam to follow behind.
Darien made it a couple yards inside and stopped dead. Whatever he had expected, and he'd tried not to, it wasn't this. To him a back door should open up on a mudroom, or kitchen, but this... this was some grand reception area running perpendicular to the short entrance hall. He could only imagine what the one at the front door looked like. There were no crystal chandeliers or marble floors, just ancient metal candelabras and stone, but there were also tapestries, and rugs and furniture that glowed in the light that filtered through the windows. You could feel the age of the place, but it didn't come across as some sterile museum piece, it felt lived in -- like a home.
"Oh wow," Darien said in awe.
Fallon shot an unreadable look in his direction and then took off, heading for the stone staircase some distance off to their left.
"Crap." Darien moved to go after her, but Liam's hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Let 'er be for now. I think I know where she's going and she's gonna want to be alone." Liam was no longer smiling, knowing in that way only close family can, that his niece was in a lot more pain than she was letting on.
That didn't stop Darien from being curious and acting upon it. "And where would that be?"
Liam debated for a couple seconds then shrugged, maybe guessing that Darien wouldn't let up until he knew the answer. "The family chapel."
"Oh." Religion, hers or in general wasn't something that had ever come up between them. "Uh, guess you're stuck entertaining me then."
Liam managed a dry chuckle. "I think I can 'andle it." He gave Darien the once over. "Hungry?"
The rumble of his stomach was answer enough. "Starved."
"Come on. I'm certain Mab can scrape something up for ye."
Mab? Darien wondered who or what that was.
It turned out to be a who. Fallon's youngest sister, home from college for the summer and stuck with kitchen duty this week. A task she didn't seem to mind all that much, especially since it currently meant she got to interrogate... ahem, talk to her sister's newest friend. Mab was joined by Donal, the eldest of the siblings, and their cousin Colm, who was younger than Fallon by only six months. As Darien was fed French toast and rashers of bacon, they gleefully gave him the rundown of some 50 family members that currently lived or worked on the ancestral estate. Many of them did not live in the castle, but in the nearby village of Crìonach Falach, and commuted the short distance every day. Because of where the castle was located, hidden in a valley instead of atop a hill, and the fact that the town itself was practically invisible in the nearby woods it had sprouted up within, he'd never even realized it was there even though they had flown close enough to see it, had he been looking.
They were polite enough to wait until he had eaten his fill -- an amount that left them openly wondering where he had stuffed it all -- and sipping a cup of coffee before beginning their interrogation. For that's exactly what their friendly-seeming questions really were; a less than subtle investigation into who he was and his relationship with Fallon, of whom they were clearly very protective.
Mab began with the obvious. "So, 'ow did you meet Fallon?"
It had been made quite clear through comments, Fallon's included, that though her family would never disparage her current line of work, they also didn't approve of it. They supported her, not her chosen profession. So, he told the truth, just not all of it. "Back home I work for the government, Department of Fish and Game, and we... collaborated on a project with Fallon and Murphy. By the time it was over we'd discovered some common interests and became friends."
"So, you don't work for her?" Donal asked in curiosity.
"No." A lie, but a necessary one for the moment, and it wasn't like he was a full-time employee or anything. He just did the occasional job and helped out planning others to pay off his debt. "Our paths cross now and then when she has info my boss wants, but other than that..." He let the sentence hang for them to fill in any way they wanted.
The foursome exchanged glances followed quickly by smiles. "Dating 'er must be a real treat," Colm said with sarcasm dripping off the words. He took an elbow in the side from Mab for it, but didn't seem to care.
Darien chuckled. "We don't date, really. Just... hang out when our schedules permit."
"Oh, but there must be a reason you choose to 'hang out' with each other." Mab almost looked innocent with that curly blonde hair and those baby blue eyes, but Darien didn't buy it for one second.
"Well, the whiskey is pretty damn good," he responded coolly, not about to give anything away if he could help it, but Liam jumped all over the facetious pronouncement.
"The family whiskey?"
Darien nodded, wondering what hidden trap he'd fallen into now.
Donal whistled. "You 'ave pictures of her boxin' the fox, dontcha?"
Darien shook his head, not having a clue what that particular turn of phrase meant. "No, no pictures. I do have a couple smaller pieces of her art, though."
That earned him a group of blank stares, as if they were convinced he was, as Fallon would say, off his nut. "What's the big deal? I'm not anyone special..."
"Mr. Fawkes..." Liam began.
Liam nodded. "Darien then. Fallon, for all that she makes no secret about her... relationships, has only brought three of her... friends home. Her Steve, Murphy and," he paused for dramatic effect, "ye."
Darien blinked in disbelief. He had some idea of Fallon's sexual history, mostly from Steve, not that it was any of Darien's business, but it had no real bearing on their personal interaction. "Hold up, Pete and Gary are here, have been before. Nikki was here last year..."
Liam interrupted the recitation of those Darien knew had been 'home' with Fallon since he'd begun hanging around. "Aye, true enough, but they 'aven't been invited to stay 'ere. They all stay in town or in one of the guest houses."
"Oh." It was all Darien could think of to say.
Darien found Fallon exactly where Mab had said: a couple hills north and out of direct view of the castle. She was lying on the far down slope, which was covered in purple flowers; heather he seemed to recall Mab saying. If it hadn't been for the subtle trail Fallon had left behind, he might never have found her as the she was lost among the colorful plants, invisible to casual sight. Below him, in another valley, was nature run rampant. A thick, old growth forest filled the valley floor, the leaves on the trees the dark green of deep summer. The stream running through it (the same one that fed the moat around the castle) taking on its more natural proportions, and the sound of it mingling with the breeze through the leaves of the trees worked to create a most idyllic scene. He could only imagine the secrets hidden in the wooded valley below and the mysteries waiting to be revealed by a curious visitor. It was a place that could make even him, jaded and cynical as he had become, believe in fairies and leprechauns.
It must have been an amazing place to grow up.
He settled himself onto the ground, the fragrant blooms enfolding him in their scent the moment he was horizontal. The sky was a shade of blue that he'd never seen before and that the ever-fair skies of southern California plainly could never match. A few puffy white fair-weather clouds drifted lazily by, only increasing the brilliance of the blue with their contrasting color.
He could easily imagine spending hours doing nothing more than gazing skywards and letting his mind drift along with the same ponderous beauty of the amorphous collection of water vapor above.
An oh, so very rare sense of peace descended upon Darien, and he sighed deeply in unaccustomed pleasure.
After several minutes of silence, which made Darien wonder if she had even noticed his arrival, he said, "Oooo, that one looks like a ship," complete with hand jutting skyward to point at the formation in question. Actually, it looked like a cloud, but he figured it would work well enough as a conversation starter.
Fallon snorted in amusement, confirming she was alive and conscious. "It's a cloud."
" 'It's a cloud'," he repeated, complete with accent. "Use your imagination." He rolled onto his side and gazed down at her. "You do have one of those, don't you?"
She didn't speak for such a long time that Darien became convinced that she'd taken offense and was now mad at him. He was about to apologize when she finally spoke.
"It's a penguin wearing a top 'at."
Darien couldn't help it, he snickered. "A penguin?"
"Aye, a penguin," she grumbled. "This was your idea, remember?"
"Yup." He leaned down and kissed her gently on the forehead. "You doing okay?"
She looked right at him for a second, eyes greener than the flora they lay amongst before returning her focus to the sky above. "I never believed in 'im, y'know. I mean, 'e was damn good and all, but the Imp of the Perverse t'ain't something ye can plan for. That's the point of Murphy's Law. Ya ken?"
"He seemed to believe it," Darien said softly.
"That 'e did," she agreed, "right till the moment it killed 'im."
"Fallon, it wasn't your fault."
"Then whose was it? I'm the boss. I make the final decisions." Her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "I'm the one 'e died protecting."
"Ah, sweet bird, did you plan for every possible contingency before the Hutchinson meet?" Darien ran a hand down her arm, thankful when she didn't pull away, and knowing exactly how they had planned for that meeting, since he'd had the opportunity to toss in his two cents.
"Aye. And the meeting itself went just fine," she admitted.
"Did you or anyone else have even the slightest hint there'd be trouble from the outside?"
He set a finger over her lips, silencing her protest. "But nothing. No one was expecting the hit. No one, including Murphy." He shifted his hand to cup her chin, a glittering of tears in her eyes. "If you have to place blame, put it on the son of a bitch who tried to kill you."
She poked him in the gut. "Ye be right, ya sleeveen, but it's still my responsibility. I don't want to lose anyone else."
"Fuck no," Darien agreed wholeheartedly. " 'Fraid it is a hazard of our jobs though."
"Aye, I s'pose 'tis." Her poking became a caress, fingers trailing absently across his midsection. "I'm going to miss 'im terribly."
Darien surprised himself by saying, "Me too." He then followed it with the seeming non sequitur, "I can't be his replacement, Fallon."
If she was put off by his statement, she didn't show it. And he could sympathize; it would be like him trying to carry on without Hobbes by his side. Darien would probably try to find a replacement, latching onto Claire, or maybe Alex, in an effort to ease the pain of loss and his need for that depth of friendship and... love that he and Bobby shared. His attempts would fail miserably no matter how much his friends would want to be there for him, and he'd end up driving them away for a time, until he had healed enough to go on with some semblance of sanity. Darien couldn't take Murphy's place; it just wasn't the kind of person he was right now, least not in Fallon's life. He was no Murphy by any stretch of the imagination. What she'd had with him was one of those once in a lifetime relationships that just couldn't be duplicated; much like the one he shared with Bobby.
"Ye'd 'ave to be a right 'eader if you wanted to be." She dropped her hand to the turf. "I don't want to replace 'im."
Darien nodded slowly. "Then why am I here? Liam mentioned that you..." He suddenly realized this might not be the best time to have this particular conversation.
"That I what?" she growled.
"That the last... friend you brought here was Murphy," he finished, modifying what he had originally planned to say only slightly.
"Ye mean lover," she corrected. "I never 'ad sex with Murphy."
"I know that. I'm pretty sure your family does too, but... they've figured out that the... friends you do bring home are important to you." Now he could only wait for the coming explosion.
She frowned slightly. "Well, that's true enough."
Not quite the reaction he was expecting.
"I asked ye to come 'cause ye can 'andle me... being me."
"What do you mean?" he asked, suspecting that he knew the answer.
"Most everyone'd expect me to just deal, do what is necessary and go onto the next project. After the appropriate time in unemotional mourning. They'd be right gobsmacked to see me bawling like a babby." She rubbed her face in her hands. "Ye... With ye I can just be me."
"I like you."
She shoved him weakly. "Now ye just be lettin' on."
"Nope. I like you. Even if you do see penguins wearing top hats." That earned him a shy smile and a sniffle. She was trying so hard to not get all emotional and teary-eyed right now.
She shrugged. "What can I say? I like penguins." Her facetious words were countered by her hand snaking out and twining with his.
He lay back down and focused on the hand held within his. "I still say it's a ship."
"That's 'cause ye be a bleeding eejit."
And so, across the sky, the ship sailed.
For each thorn, there's a rosebud...
for each twilight -- a dawn...
for each trial -- the strength to carry on,
For each stormcloud -- a rainbow...
for each shadow -- the sun...
for each parting -- sweet memories
when sorrow is done.
Ralph Waldo Emerson