A big 'thank you' to my Beta reader Rebecca(WorkerCaste) without whom this fic would never have
been posted.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Part 11

The four of them stood or sat in the Official's office two days later, after having turned in their
reports on the little 'vacation' he'd sent them on. Claire had already announced that all three
agents were on restricted duty for a minimum of a week, and that both Darien and Bobby needed at
least five days of total rest, preferably in bed. The Official was not happy, to say the least, but
grudgingly agreed, since both men were sporting bruises and bandages and couldn't seem to move even
a millimeter without expressing their pain in some sort of primal vocalization.

Of course, he didn't know the Keeper had suggested they play it up for all they were worth.

He even agreed to ease up on Alyx, who at least appeared to be unhurt by the experience. Instead,
he chose to double her class load for the next week. Claire was about to argue, but Alex got to it
first.

"No," she said quietly.

The Official continued for a moment before her words sank in. "Miss Silver, you will do as you are
told."

"Don't you dare treat me like a child," Alyx snapped at the man sitting stiffly behind the desk. "I
am more than capable enough to handle this... this job. I don't need to memorize any more government
rules and regulations. Nor do I need any more fighting techniques. If I choose to broaden my
learning, I will do so on my own." She took two short steps forward to stand just before the desk.
"If there is something you think I need to learn, let me know and I'll consider it. I doubt I'll
need the sniper class or the seduction class you have me scheduled for. I'm already an expert shot,
and perfectly capable of seducing anyone I want."

Hobbes choked back his commentary. The Official had been planning on putting her through the sniper
and CTS training? Was he nuts? "Chief," he managed when he finally found his voice. "She don't need
'em."

"She does have a point, sir. Other than the hostage negotiation course, there isn't really any need
for the others right now," Eberts added as he looked over her file. "Any regulations or such, we can
simply provide the information. I don't believe she'll have much trouble memorizing it."

"Eberts..." the Official began, but then he paused, considering. "All right. After the hostage
negotiation course, you'll be finished for the time being. I could use you on more cases, anyway."

"Next week, please." Alyx allowed a small amount of how she was feeling seep into her voice. She
needed a break, just as both guys did.

Claire backed her on this. "Sir, I do need to run some tests. There were some interesting
developments recently."

"Agreed. You will make yourself available to the Keeper, as her schedule requires, for the next
week, and then you will work. Do you understand?" The Official didn't look nearly as upset as he
was trying to sound. Alyx nodded, thankful for any break. "Fawkes, Hobbes, try to heal quickly. The
world doesn't stop just because you have some boo-boos."

They pushed themselves to their feet. "Yes, boss," Darien said with sarcasm. "Nice to know you
care."

As they all turned to leave, the Official spoke again. "Miss Silver, I need to speak with you for
another moment."

She sighed and gave the others a half-hearted wave to say she'd catch up with them later. "Sure.
What do you need?"

"Eberts,"

"Yes, sir." Eberts left the room and returned a few minutes later with a man whose presence put
Alyx immediately on the defensive.

"Jinx," she snarled. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Agent Silver, meet Special Agent Kevin Terry of the ATF," Eberts said as he took up his position
behind the Official.

"I said my employers had an interest in keeping you alive," he said with smile.

"What the hell is going on now? I read you, you... you...." She stopped, not really wanting to
repeat what had been going on in his mind that one night. He still wore the cast on his hand, and
would for weeks yet.

"Agent Terry has been undercover for nearly two years to gain enough information on Mr. Zatore,"
Eberts commented.

"The 'convention' got me the last bit I needed. My agency started making arrests yesterday.
Including myself, which is why I'm loose." He seemed to be relieved to be free of the situation.
"I wanted to come by and apologize once again. When I found out you were an agent..." He trailed
off.

"You were doing your job, had a role to play just as I did, and you had no way to know I was more
than I seemed that first night. I understand." Alyx stepped over to him; she felt the need to
offer something by way of apology. "Care to join me for lunch?"

He shook his head. "I can't, I have work to do. Maybe another time?" Alyx nodded. He turned back to
the Official, but didn't say anything.

"Miss Silver, you are free to go. Check in with the Keeper about those tests." Eberts was
obviously handling the dismissals today.

Alyx gave him one last look and then left without a word.

Agent Terry watched her leave. "Are you certain she's not available for transfer? We could really
use her."

"Out of the question. She's still a rookie, and she has special needs that you cannot meet." The
Official was getting tired of this argument. He hated piling the work on her, but it was the only
way to keep the wolves at bay. Ever since the CIA had gotten a hold of the information on Darien,
and then her, there had been demands from every corner of the government, every agency -- hell,
almost every department. The Official was not very big on sharing his toys.

Terry nodded, accepting the answer for now. "I'll inform my superiors. Thank you for your time."

The Official gave the man a polite nod and then Eberts escorted him from the building. Too many
people knew about his 'special' agents, and he knew one day even his pull would not keep them from
being yanked away from him, no matter how much they good they did while here. He looked down at
Miss Silver's report again. Two dozen pages long, with all the details she'd been able to glean
from the minds of the others there. This information alone would keep them busy for six months, at
least. Maybe that would be enough to prove that both agents belonged here, and that he was the one
best suited to utilize their unique talents and get the most work from them with the least effort.
Maybe he'd be able to justify that budget increase he so desperately needed. For, no matter how
useful both agents were, they were also damn expensive to maintain.

He closed the report and set it aside for Eberts to go through. He'd track down the other details
needed and then they would be able to move on this information. Oh, it was going to get interesting
for the next few months.



Alyx walked into the Keep, amidst the rather vocal moans of pain from Darien. With a hastily
smothered laugh, she said, "It's just me, you can quit faking."

Hobbes, who was sitting nearby and had seen her come in, began to laugh. "Claire doesn't want the
boss putting him back to work. With good reason." He gave a slight nod in the direction of the
exam table Darien was currently sprawled on.

Alyx poked her head around the glass divider to see Claire drawing a blood sample from a shirtless
Darien. The bruising on his torso was very impressive. Huge splotches across his side and stomach
that were red and purple, some even bordering on black. Claire had replaced the bandage over the
knife wound, which was healing fairly well considering everything. His left cheek bone was also a
lovely purple, though they still hadn't figured out what he'd been hit with. "Hey, Dare. Sheesh.
You bruise worse than I do."

Darien turned to look at her. She looked lovely in a fragile sort of way. She definitely looked
like she could use some down-time. "Gee, thanks. Not the one thing I wanted to be better than you
at."

Her look became serious. "You're better than me at a lot of things, Darien. Most of then seemingly
simple." She met his eyes for a second and then turned to look at Hobbes, who had wandered over
towards Claire. "How are you doing, Bobby?"

"Me? Just fine. You and Keepy did a good job patching me up. I'll be back to normal in a week or
so. Well, normal for me anyway." Considering what could have happened, he was more than satisfied
with the outcome. Even with the injuries. "You need something?"

"Just to schedule those tests with Claire before I head home." Alyx leaned against the metal post,
trying not to smile at Darien, who was trying to pull on his shirt and wincing at every movement.

"Oh, okay." Claire moved to look at her calendar and thought for a moment. "Check back in two
days. I may have some time then. Even I deserve a couple days off."

"Yes you do, Keepy," Hobbes said as he sidled closer to her. "Maybe you'd like to do go out to
dinner this evening. With me. And Fawkes, of course." Hobbes wanted to make sure she didn't think
he was asking for a date. He wouldn't do that. It would set a bad example.

Alyx smiled at the easy camaraderie between the three of them, but she wasn't jealous; she knew she
wasn't quite ready yet. It would come with time, and time was the one thing she had plenty of. "I'll
give you call, Claire, about that discussion. Okay?"

"Any time, Alyx." Claire knew it wouldn't be easy for her, and had to let her choose the time and
place without trying to push her into it. The fact that she was willing to try was a good beginning
and boded well for her chances of getting past it, of actually healing.

Alyx had made it nearly to the door when Hobbes stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"You're more than welcome to join us. We're just gonna get something to eat and hang out for a
while. Nothing special."

"Thanks, Bobby, but not tonight. I have plans." She really did, but she could tell he didn't quite
believe her. "Next time, okay?

"I'll hold you to that." He released her, satisfied that she wasn't going to run off and hide from
the world this time.

"I know you will. See you guys in a couple days." She walked out the door and out of the building,
into the bright sunshine and cool winter weather with a smile.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Darien opened the door to his apartment, glad to be home. It had been a fun evening, but neither he
nor Hobbes were running at full power, and the evening had ended early. It was just after nine PM.
He had his mail in his hands, including a package that he hadn't been expecting. He tossed
everything on the pool table while he shed his coat, and debated getting a beer. In the end he went
with a bottle of water. Claire had him on some painkillers to help him sleep a bit more comfortably,
and he'd found out the hard way that they didn't mix well with alcohol. Perching on the edge of the
table, he rolled one of the balls back and forth as he sorted through his mail. A couple of credit
card offers, a few bills, his Scientific American, and finally the box.

For one instant, he found himself wondering if maybe someone had sent a bomb or something else
equally lethal to him, and then shook his head. Sometimes Bobby's paranoia was indeed contagious. A
good thing on occasion, but unnecessary this time, he was quite sure. Opening the box, he found
another inside, this one gift-wrapped in bright silvery Christmas paper, with a small card
attached. Maybe his aunt had forgotten something?

He opened the small envelope and slid out the card. He had to read it twice before he was able to
understand what it said. 'From one invisible (wo)man to another. Bet you thought I forgot. Merry
Christmas. A.S.' Still holding the card, he picked the box back up and checked the return address.
It was indeed from her, but that didn't ease his confusion any. Picking the wrapped item up, he
undid the ribbon and then peeled off the wrapping paper, not entirely sure what he was going to
find underneath. It was another box, which he opened. Parting the tissue paper, he revealed a book.
An old book.

Thumbing through the pages, he did a double take at the date on the inscription inside. Considering
the it was written to an Emily and from a Thomas, thought, he couldn't really doubt the authenticity
or the date of December 25th 1897. He was holding a fricking first edition copy of H. G. Wells'
"Invisible Man" in his hands. From Alyx. The woman had to be completely nuts.

He glanced over at the other package, still sitting on his night stand. He wasn't exactly feeling
tired anymore and figured, what the hell, he'd put it off more than long enough. Besides, there was
no way he could keep the book; it must have cost a small fortune and, given how much he was paid --
or not -- on a weekly basis, he seriously doubted she could afford it.

He repacked the book among the tissue paper, grabbed his gift for her and his jacket, and then
dashed out the door. He was halfway to her place before he remembered her saying she'd had plans.
"Crap," he muttered to himself, but instead of turning around, he continued. At the very least he
could wait a little while to see if she showed up. He was a little confused when he saw her car
parked in its usual spot in the garage. He pulled into the empty space next to it, wondering if
maybe she'd made an early night of it as well, or perhaps she'd had a date.

That thought stopped him cold with his hand on the door handle of his car. He'd been about to get
out, and found himself frozen in place as he forced himself to really think about that. What if she
had a date? Perhaps even a successful one. What if she was up there right now, snuggling and
cuddling her way into a night spent not alone?

That left him feeling very cold. Forcing himself out of the car, he picked up both packages and
made his way to the elevator and up to her floor. His steps slowed as he neared her door, suddenly
afraid of what he was going to find on the other side. He kept telling himself he had no claim on
her, that she was just a friend, his partner, and whatever she did outside of work was her
business. Just as he'd been trying to convince Hobbes, Claire, and the Official about himself
almost since the day he came to the Agency.

They still watched him. The last thing he wanted to do was start acting like Hobbes and check up on
her just to satisfy his curiosity. Okay, so maybe it was something more than curiosity, but it still
wouldn't be right.

He knocked on the door instead of ringing her the buzzer. He figured if she was busy she'd just
ignore it, but the door slid open after only a couple of seconds and the heavenly scent of buttered
popcorn wafted out. She was standing there in beat-up T-shirt -- one proudly proclaiming 'Yes, the
world does revolve around me' -- and a pair of jeans with holes in the knees.

"Hey, Dare. Thought you'd still be out with Bobby and Claire." Alyx was surprised at his visit,
but had known he was here since he pulled into the building's garage. "Want to come in?"

"Uh, sure." He stepped through the door, feeling a bit awkward. "I don't want to interrupt
anything." He looked about the darkened apartment, noting the huge bowl of popcorn and several
sodas sitting on her coffee table, as well as the out-of-place bottle of hot sauce. "I thought you
said you had plans?"

"I do. You're welcome to join me if you want." She waved towards the sofa. "I have some beer. Sam
Adams."

"Uh, look, I just stopped by to return this." He held out the box she'd sent to him.

"Why? Didn't you like it?" Alyx truly felt bad; she'd had hoped he would understand the meaning,
but obviously not. "I meant it in a nice way. No insult or anything..."

Darien interrupted. "I know, it's not that. It's just too much."

She shook her head. "No it wasn't. Look around -- what do I have to spend my money on? Hell, half
my pay goes into my stocks. The apartment is paid for for a year, and the 'Fish paid for all the
initial furnishings. Come on, I paid cash for my car." She set a hand on his elbow, steered him to
the sofa, and got him to sit. "The price wasn't the point of that gift and you know it."

Darien set down the boxes on the coffee table. "Yeah, I know." He realized something then. "You
got Bobby and Claire something, too, didn't you?"

Alyx nodded. "They should have arrived today as well. They may be late, but I wasn't really in the
mood to celebrate when the time was appropriate. I don't expect anything in return, if that's what
you're worried about." Finding just the right item for each of them had taken a bit of work and
some careful study of what she knew about each of them. She was pretty sure both Bobby and Claire
would like their gifts, but she'd been worried about Darien's reaction to his. His wanting to
return it had surprised her.

He was rubbing the back of his neck in consternation. He'd thought she didn't want any part of
them, except maybe himself, and even then it was from a distance. Not sure what to say, he picked
up her gift and handed it to her. "I should have done this before, but...." He shrugged.

She took it from him and said, "Thank you." She opened it very slowly, being careful to not tear
the paper or peek to see what was within. About the time Darien was going to just reach over and
tear the paper off himself, he caught on that she was doing it just to annoy him.

"Alyx, stop teasing and open the damn thing, would you?" He was laughing as he said it, and Alyx
smiled at him.

Finally getting all the paper off, she turned the book over to see it was a copy of Bartlett's
Quotations. The really big one. Opening it, she found the note he had written inside the front
cover. "For those times when you just can't find the right words." She looked at him, not quite
sure what to say. 'Thank you' was not quite adequate, and the poor man looked like he was expecting
her to laugh at him. Holding the book, she shifted and kissed him on the cheek, letting her actions
speak for her.

Darien was pleasantly surprised, and for a long moment was tempted to return the simple kiss with
something more, but refrained from doing so as he remembered the things she'd said while on their
little 'vacation.' Needs and not wants. She needed a friend right now, and not something more.
"So, can I assume rental movies were your big night out, and not a hot date?"

Alyx laughed. "A hot date...ri-ight. And where would I have found the time to meet someone? I've
spent more time with you and Bobby than I have by myself in the last six weeks or so." She set the
book on the table and picked up the bowl of popcorn and hot sauce.

"Please don't tell me you put that crap on your popcorn." He actually sounded pained at the mere
thought.

"Umm, yeah, actually. Have since I was a kid. It was the only way to keep my brothers from stealing
my popcorn." She started to set them back down. "I'll get you your own bowl and a beer."

He stopped her with a hand on her arm. "I'll get them in a bit. Sit. What are we watching?"

She leaned back into the cushions and, with a flick of her mind, turned on the television and
started the DVD player. They watched the black and white credits flicker by until the title
appeared. "'It's a Wonderful Life?' You do realize it's the middle of January, right?"

"Yup, but I'm ready to get into the spirit now. After this is 'Die Hard,' one of my all time
favorite Christmas flicks." Alyx tossed some of the popcorn into the air, intending to catch it
in her mouth, but his hand flashed in front of her and caught it.

"You watch Bruce Willis movies?" He was truly surprised.

"Only the good ones. Unlike most males, I actually have taste." He was so stunned, she was able to
free her popcorn from his hand and get it into her mouth. Once she had swallowed, she continued.
"After that is 'Scrooged.' That one is just plain fun." When he still hadn't made any comment,
she became concerned. "Dare?"

"Just tell me you didn't get 'A Christmas Story'." Darien was finding himself astonished again.

"Ick. No, but I did get 'Die Hard II.' Another Christmas classic." She caught his look and smiled.
"I said I had taste." When he tossed his arm over her shoulder, she shifted closer and leaned
against him with a sigh. The movie played itself out before them as they shared popcorn and
companionship. Circumstance had conspired to isolate them both from the rest of society, but now
they had each found some small comfort in the company of the other.

"Dare, Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Alyx."



What has happened to it all?
Crazy, some say.
Where is the life that I recognize?
Gone away.
But I won't cry for yesterday;
there's an ordinary world,
somewhere, I have to find.
And as I try to make my way
to the ordinary world
I will learn to survive.

For me it was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn about this new life of mine, even after
almost two years -- how to survive, to have the will to keep going, and to actually find some
happiness in it. And it's a lesson no one can help you learn.

Finis



A/N: "The Invisible Man" book I mentioned in this story is available for purchase through
Amazon.com ZShops. It is being sold by Between the Covers Rare Books, INC. at a price of $2000.00.
It is a 1897 first edition, has a gift note written inside, and is in near fine condition.

The quote at the end if from the song Ordinary World, originally done by Duran Duran. The version I
listen to is by Naimee Colman and I highly recommend it.

AXZ