Ironically, this is totally not at all how I was expecting this chapter to end. -Eyes AlexMuse-

Chapter 42:The Nature of Forgiveness

"So I finally got up for some air, because I like Daggeron well enough, but there's only so much of his 'righteous knight' attitude I can take at a time," Eric went on, rolling his eyes. "I made it into the bathroom to hide out for a few minutes and the next thing I know, Wes walks in and starts laughing so hard he can barely stand up. Took him about five minutes to finally calm down enough to notice I was there. We get to talking, and Wes told me that he was sorry, and that he'd honestly thought since he changed his destiny before, he figured he could do it again with the boys." There was a long pause as Eric started down at the table in front of him. "I told him I wanted to forgive him, but I didn't know if I could," he said finally.

"Then Danny said he needed Wes for something, and they took off." He frowned slightly down at Wes, still laying in his lap. "That was the last time we really talked for ... a few years, actually. There was - "

But Alex wasn't listening anymore. He was already up and moving, pushing past a soft-eyed and sympathetic Jen who looked marginally startled when he climbed over the back of the bench. Trip was leaning on Lucas with wide, teary eyes of his own, while an equally watery-eyed Katie was clinging to Ben, who was staring at Eric in fascination. Alex spared a brief thought just long enough to wonder if she was squeezing Ben too tight, because he looked a bit flustered. "I need some air," he muttered, already heading for the door.

He barely made it off the porch before a hand closed on his arm. He spun, only marginally startled to see Wes. "Do any of you actually sleep, or do you just pretend to?" he heard himself ask.

"We learned a long time ago to take what sleep we can when we can get it," Wes answered, frowning in concern. "But I wasn't asleep." He paused, looking at Alex for a moment. "It wasn't your fault," he said finally.

Alex flinched slightly. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Wes' expression softened, and Alex found himself wrapped in a hug before he could stop it. "Alex. You didn't do anything wrong," Wes murmured in his ear. "I'm the one who chose not to tell Eric what was going on. I'm the one who tried to do everything on my own."

"I told you not to say anything," Alex reminded him. "I made you promise not to."

Was that his voice?

"And I'm the one who chose to go along with it," Wes returned. A hand came up to rub his shoulder. "I could have told Eric anyway. He was Time Force, too. And it was his family. He had a right to know, no matter what anyone else said. But I didn't, because I thought I could change things all on my own. You were just going off the information Time Force was feeding you. I was the one who made the final decision to keep it quiet." The hand squeezed slightly. "It wasn't your fault."

Alex swallowed. His chest felt tight, and he didn't know why. "He said he'd never forgive you," he said finally.

"And he probably won't," Wes agreed. "But I'll never forgive myself, either."

He flinched again. "I - "

"Alex." Wes' voice was gentle as he stepped back to look into Alex's face. His hands were on Alex's shoulders, gripping carefully, but his expression was full of sympathy. "I lost my boys. There's nothing in the world that can explain just how that feels. And I knew exactly what was happening to you while I wasn't there. I was arrogant enough to think I could stop that from happening all on my own, and I was wrong. I will never forgive myself for that. And in some ways, Eric won't ever forgive me either." He stopped, hands tightening. Alex hadn't even realized he was trying to move away. "But," Wes stressed, "That doesn't mean the end of our relationship. If I've learned anything from the years we were separated, it's that there's nothing Eric and I can't work through. We should have seen that then, but I was too busy blaming myself to listen, and Eric was too hurt and angry to talk."

"How ... " Alex shook his head slightly, trying to focus. "How can you work past something like that? How can you just - "

Wes' answering smile was wry. "Eric's almost lost me three times. He's dealt with me unconscious, blind, rude, depressed, and just about every emotion in the spectrum. I've learned to work with his bad attitude, his lack of social skills, and his problems with communicating effectively. After everything we've been through, there is absolutely nothing about Eric I can't learn to accept. And I know he feels the same way. So on some level, he'll never be able to completely forgive me. But that's something we can work through." He paused, looking thoughtful. "When Eric asked me to marry him, he told me that we couldn't be partners without being partners in everything, because it doesn't work that way for us. It never has."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Alex grumbled, already picturing the moment in his mind and trying not to remember what had come just before that.

"That Eric's the closest thing I'll ever have to a soulmate," Wes said simply. He grinned faintly. "Although if I actually said it that way to his face, he'd deck me."

Despite himself, Alex snorted in amusement, and Wes' grin widened. "He would," he agreed.

Wes chuckled softly, and Alex glanced down almost absently, noting that Wes' dog had followed him outside and was sitting at their feet, watching them silently. Her tail wagged when he looked at her, and he acknowledged silently that he shouldn't be surprised, as that was what she was trained to do. He hesitated briefly before slowly holding out a hand. The dog sniffed it, nosed him once, and looked up expectantly.

"She wants you to pet her," Wes told him, reaching out to rub the dog's head himself. "She knows not to ask for attention, but she loves it when people pet her."

Alex frowned uncertainly. "I've never been around animals before," he muttered, still eyeing the dog.

"I know," Wes said patiently, squeezing his shoulder as his other hand continued to pet the dog. "But she can smell that you're family, and that means she likes you."

"Dogs can smell that?"

"Dogs can smell the last time you showered, what kind of deodorant you're using, how you're feeling, what you ate last, and even how many other people you've touched today. She can definitely smell that much." He paused, and grinned slightly again. "She can probably tell us apart better than anyone else could, too."

At least someone can, Alex thought irritably. He hesitated again before at last reaching out slowly. The dog kept watched him, but she wasn't acting aggressively or moving away, so he tentatively put his hand on top of her head.

Her tail thumped against the ground.

"You should smile like that more often," Wes commented as Alex carefully stroked the dog's head.

He glanced up, startled. "What?"

"You're smiling," Wes repeated, looking faintly amused. "You should do that more often."

Alex frowned, looking away uncomfortably. "There isn't exactly a lot to smile about," he muttered.

The dog whined faintly, and he started as she moved forward, pressing against his side and whimpering again. He moved to pet her again without thinking, and her tail immediately began to wag as her eyes closed. He felt the corner of his mouth twitch and tried to fight it.

"How do you figure?"

He looked up again. "What?"

"How do you figure there isn't a lot to smile about?" Wes asked again. There was an odd look on his face as he studied Alex. "You've got a job you enjoy, friends who'd fight half the world for you, and a beautiful fiancé who'd lead the charge. Your family loves you. Blakemore's finally about to be put away for good. How is that not enough to smile about?"

Alex stared at him blankly. "I don't get to spend as much time doing my job as I'd like to, because I'm usually stuck doing something for Time Force," he said finally, his voice dull. "I spend most of my time manipulating the people around me because I don't have any choice. My friends barely know me, and they don't like the parts they do. My fiancé - " He stopped himself, because Jen wasn't a subject he wanted to get into right now. "I can never see my family because they exist in a time nine hundred and seventy-three years before I do. And as for Blakemore ... " He laughed bitterly, shaking his head. "You don't actually think he'll lose, do you? Even if Time Force does pretend he's been convicted, they'll just sneak him out some back door and give him a new identity." Wes was staring at him with wide eyes, and he shook his head with a sigh. "If there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's that you can't trust anyone to do what you expect them to. Especially if there's Power Rangers or government involved."

There was a long silence as Alex continued to pet Wes' dog.

"I never thought I'd meet someone even more bitter than Eric," Wes said finally, sounding subdued.

Alex's jaw tightened, and he jerked his hand away from the dog as he felt it clench instinctively into a fist. "I'm going for a walk," he said shortly, turning toward the street.

Wes caught his arm. "Alex - "

He whirled on him, glaring. "Why do you keep doing that?" he demanded. "Both of you. You're always telling me how much I remind you of him, or him of you, or Sky, or - or - whoever! Why can't I just remind someone of myself?!"

"Because that's not how family works, Alex," Wes said softly, still holding onto him. "When you love someone so much, you want to see the parts of other people you love in them. I see Eric and Sky in you, and sometimes even my dad or Eric's dad. Ben actually reminds me a little of my mom. Sky reminds me of you so much it hurts, the same way he reminds me of Eric."

"I don't want to look like anyone," Alex said flatly, stepping back again even as Wes' grip tightened. "I don't want be a reminder of anyone but myself."

Wes stared at him for a moment, and the hurt in his face was clearly visible. "Why?"

Alex closed his eyes. If he wasn't looking at him, maybe he could he could give the answer he wanted Wes to hear. "Because I - "

He stopped.

He could still feel Wes' hand gripping his arm, and even with his eyes closed he could picture that wounded expression. And no matter how much he wanted to hate Wes, or even just stop caring that he ever existed, a part of him would always hate that expression no matter how hard he fought to ignore it.

He swallowed hard.

"Because I don't want to care," he whispered finally. "Because if I care, it's going to hurt when you're not here anymore. And I don't want to look in the mirror every day and see your face and know that I'll never get to see any of you again."

There was a soft intake of breath in front of him. "Alex - "

"Please," he interrupted softly. He still refused to open his eyes. "I just need some air."

Wes swallowed audibly. "Okay," he said at last, his voice soft. "I'll ... I'll just - " He paused. "Have a nice walk," he finished instead.

Alex nodded. "Thanks."

He turned, only opening his eyes when he knew all he would see was the street in front of him. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets and proceeded to walk away slowly, leaving the house and Wes and the dog behind him without another glance. He didn't know where he was going. It only mattered that it wasn't here.