Claire sat disconsolately at her desk staring unseeing at the swirling screensaver on her computer monitor. Everything was such a mess! Investigations into the disappearance of the Agency van had yet to yield any clues and the guilt she felt over her part in its disappearance was clawing at the edges her consciousness. If only she'd found the nanobug sooner, Stark's people wouldn't have known about his transfer and their agents wouldn't be missing. She sent up a silent prayer for their safe return and fervently hoped their blood wasn't on her hands.
And what about Darien? There were far too many unanswered questions about his condition for her liking. It was still too early to decide whether his knee needed more corrective surgery, but the thing that concerned her most was the unexplained fluctuations in his temperature. He was obviously run down and exhausted, but was she missing a more serious condition?
Claire sighed deeply. It wasn't just Darien's physical well being she was concerned with either. He was covering well, but there was bound to be more emotional fallout over his ordeal in the coming weeks and months. He'd shown remarkable strength and resilience when confronted with the myriad crises facing him since the implantation of the gland, but no one could carry such a burden alone. She was thankful he had come to trust Bobby and her as friends and confidantes over the last couple of years, but his reluctance to discuss these last weeks of captivity and his unwilling part in killing the three Chrysalis delegates worried her a great deal.
"Non of this is your fault Claire, you know that right?" Darien's voice penetrated her thoughts and she jumped in surprise. Looking up, she saw him standing in front of her, leaning on his crutches.
"I could say the same thing to you," she answered with a wry smile. "Anyway, what are you doing out of bed? You're supposed to be resting."
"I'm fine, honest, but the walls were starting to close in on me in there. Do you think we could go outside?" There was more than a hint of desperation in his voice. It had been weeks since he'd been able to enjoy the feeling of the sun's rays on his face, and if he'd been getting stir crazy when he was in the rehab centre; he was one step away from losing it now.
Claire smiled at his pale complexion. "Yes, it looks like your tan could use a little work! Let me just check you over, then we'll collect Pavlov and take him for a constitutional. I want you in your wheelchair though, is that clear?"
Darien sighed deeply, but complied with Claire's requests. At that moment, he'd agree to just about anything for a chance to get outside – even, God forbid, wearing a sober suit and tie.
When he was pronounced fit for their excursion they headed back to lab three. Hobbes was sleeping deeply in a cot by the door and they decided to let him catch up on some much needed rest. Leaving him a note, they collected Pavlov and the wheelchair and headed out of the building.
"Man, that feels good!" Darien exclaimed as he turned his face towards the sun. It was a beautiful day in downtown San Diego and he fully intended to enjoy his first taste of freedom in way too many weeks. "Ya think we could call by the bakery on the way?" he asked hopefully.
"Nice to see your appetite's returning to normal anyway," Claire observed, once again berating herself internally for her failure to get to grips with his condition.
"You'll figure this out Keep, I know you will," Darien stated with conviction, picking up on the reason for her sombre tone. "You just need a break, that's all, think about something else. That usually works."
"Maybe you're right," she answered uncertainly. "I just don't want a big crisis to blow up without having the slightest idea what's going on in that brain of yours."
"Now there's a thing people have been trying to work out since I was a kid!" Darien joked, trying to lift her mood. "How about just taking the morning off then, huh?" he asked cajolingly. "You can get back to being the focused and dedicated scientist this afternoon."
"It's a deal," Claire willingly agreed. "Now, where's that bakery?"
They returned to the Agency an hour later, their purchases held securely in Darien's lap. He'd already managed to polish off half a box of donuts on the way back, but the bag of breakfast bagels for Hobbes was untouched.
"Hey Hobbes, brought you a present," Darien called as Claire wheeled him into lab three. "Had a good sleep?"
"Yeah, out like a light." Bobby stretched his arms above his head, as he perched on the edge of his cot. Heading over to check out the bagels, he commented, "Not really a good thing when you're in our line of business my friend, but hey, you don't usually have to baby-sit your partner twenty-four seven." He grinned, making sure Fawkes understood he thought it was worth it to have his partner back safe.
"Darien, you're going to make yourself sick if you eat any more of those," Claire chided as he started to devour yet another donut.
"What can I say? I need the sugar rush," Darien replied, trying to keep his face straight. "'Sides, I'm working on building myself up," he added, plucking at the t-shirt he wore as it hung loosely on his lean frame.
"I won't deny you could do to put on a few pounds, but I think we could get you something with a little more nutritional value, don't you?"
"Yeah, but I bet it wouldn't taste as good," he answered, unrepentantly selecting another pastry.
Hobbes rolled his eyes at Claire, who clicked her tongue disapprovingly, but offered no further comment. At least he was eating again.
The intercom on the wall beside Darien buzzed loudly and the Official's voice drifted into the room.
"Are you there doctor?"
Claire moved across the room quickly and pressed the button to answer, "Yes Sir, I'm here."
"I want you and Hobbes in my office as soon as possible," he ordered gruffly, before cancelling the call.
She exchanged a worried glance with Bobby, then, turned to Darien.
"And I want you in bed by the time we get back alright?" she told him in a commanding tone.
"Why? I feel fine," Darien whined and would have protested further, but she gave him a look that said she wouldn't tolerate any further argument. "Okay, okay, bed," he conceded grudgingly.
"Can you manage?" Hobbes asked him quietly. At Fawkes' reluctant nod, he smiled and turned to follow the Keeper out of the door.
"We received this by courier ten minutes ago," the Official informed Claire and Bobby, waving a video tape in front of them. Alex and Eberts had already been present when they'd arrived a couple of minutes earlier and from their concerned faces this didn't bode well.
"It's a personal message for Darien from Jared Stark," Eberts told them. "We thought it might be prudent to view the tape before deciding whether or not to give it to him."
"Probably a good idea. That guy is a certifiable sicko," Bobby agreed with distaste.
Eberts took the tape and inserted it into the waiting machine in the corner of the room. All eyes turned to the television screen and within seconds Stark's smirking face appeared.
"By now you must be aware that I have eluded you again," he gloated unpleasantly. "I'm afraid your friends weren't that lucky and met with quite an unpleasant end. Knowing your liking for photographic evidence I thought you might be interested in this," he said holding up a blown up image of three mutilated corpses.
There were gasps of horror and disgust from the assembled group as they recognised the bodies of their colleagues.
Stark continued with a humourless smile, "I must admit to being disappointed that you have managed to thwart my plans once again. However, I think it only fair to warn you that battles may be lost, but the outcome of a war is never certain until the final shot is fired. Have no doubt that I'm still a force to be reckoned with and the next time we cross paths I fully intend to see you dead." He said this with no hint of emotion, as if it were simply a statement of fact.
"In the meantime, I've been indulging in a little genealogical research," he said, apparently changing the subject. "You have a very interesting family Darien. Such a pity there are so few of them left. Your father seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth, but I'm sure your Grandmother and Aunt Celia must be a great comfort to you. I wonder if they will buck the trend and die peacefully in their own beds?" Moving closer to the camera, he stared unblinking into the lens, "I've been seriously considering taking a more personal interest in your family's health. What do you think?"
Stepping back and moving towards the far end of the room Stark continued, "Speaking of family, I do hope the delectable Ms Monroe is with you. If you look through the window behind my left shoulder you should be able to see someone of interest to her." Once again his mouth twisted into the travesty of a smile.
A small child of perhaps eighteen months could just be seen toddling across a well-manicured lawn towards a kneeling woman. Eleanor Stark swept the little boy up into her arms and turned her back to the window. After far too brief a glimpse, the child Alex had carried for nine months disappeared from view.
All colour drained from Alex's face and she struggled in vain to stop tears from flowing freely down her cheeks.
"Before you ever decide to threaten me again my dear, just remember who holds that precious boy's life in his hands." The words were spoken with true venom. The last image of Stark before the screen went black chilled Alex to her very core. He would follow through on the unspoken threat, she was sure of it.
Claire placed a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder and squeezed it gently. "Are you alright?" she asked quietly.
Alex simply nodded and continued staring intently at the blank screen.
"Sir, I don't think we should show this to Darien, he's been through enough at the hands of this man, don't you agree?" Claire's tone made it clear she wasn't asking, she was insisting.
"Too late," came a voice from behind them. Darien stood there with his head resting against the doorframe, his face pale and drawn.
Claire once again sat at her desk in the Keep, but this time her mood was quite different. Her subconscious had been working overtime in her sleep that night and she'd awoken at three am with a working theory about Darien's condition. She couldn't believe she hadn't seen it before. It all seemed so clear now.
The quicksilver gland's interaction with the pineal gland could explain a whole host of things. The area of the brain where the pineal gland was situated had long been the subject of many mystical traditions and was thought to be a source of supernatural energy. This "third eye" was said to perceive higher dimensions and some of Darien's dreams had shown flashes of precognition in the past. His latest experiences with a spectral Bobby were most probably a further development.
The lab was strewn with papers and notes she'd read and discarded as she searched for evidence to support her theorem. Ever since the Simon Cole incident she had carried out extensive research to see if there was a chance to sever the connection, or at least prevent interaction, between the two glands. Her efforts had come to nought, but the information she'd collected was proving invaluable now. After hours of reading, cross-referencing and rechecking data, Claire was positive she had discovered the answers she'd been seeking. Her Kept wasn't going to like the idea of more tests, or the conclusions she'd reached, but that couldn't be helped. There was no point denying the truth.
Now all she had to do was explain the situation to Darien without terrifying him!
Darien sat in stunned silence. Yesterday's events were bad enough, but if what Claire was telling them was true, they'd just gotten a whole lot worse. He could hear her voice droning on in the background, but was barely listening to her explanation.
"The hypothalamus regulates body temperature and has a connection to the pineal gland. Whether the manifestation is triggered by the high temperature or causes it I'm not sure, but I'm now certain they are linked. Hopefully the tests I have planned will provide clarification." Claire's presentation was interrupted by the Official's gruff voice.
"You seriously expect me to accept this explanation?" he snapped.
"Sir, you can't deny that Darien has already exhibited flashes of prescience in the past through his dreams," Claire pointed out calmly. "Think of the Benjamin Scarborough case, or what about his nightmare before his father returned?"
"Prophetic dreams are one thing doctor, put phantom partners appearing to warn of impending danger are quite another."
"I think I may be able to explain that element as well," Claire replied quickly. "I've found some obscure references which suggest a link between the pineal gland and imaginary friends in children. It seems the phenomenon may well be due to the production of high levels of melatonin. Children have much higher levels than adults and this seems to allow some of them to sense forces that are beyond most people's perceptions."
"So you're saying instead of being Ralph, I'm seeing Ralph?" Darien managed to mumble distractedly. The days of confusion and uncertainty during his kidnapping were crowding in on him with a vengeance. How could he cope if he wasn't sure what was real and what was imagined? Living in a constant state of uncertainty would be hell.
Noticing the fear in Darien's eyes she moved over to kneel by his chair and placed her hands on his knee.
"You may not have another episode Darien," she began in a reassuring tone. "It might have been caused by the cocktail of drugs and excessive amounts of melatonin in your body, or the injection of mRNA, or by a combination of them all. The other Bobby hasn't reappeared since your system has been clear of their effects has he?"
"No," Darien admitted slowly, "but you can't give me any guarantees can you? Bottom line is, I'm even more of a freak now than I was before." He could feel tears stinging his eyes and quickly moved to dash them away. It was one thing to cry in front of Claire or Bobby, but he wouldn't show weakness in front of the Official.
"We'll cope with this Darien, I promise," Claire said insistently. "Now I know what's happening, we can monitor the situation and explore ways to control any reoccurrence. It's just one more little quirk caused by the gland."
Bobby placed a comforting hand on Darien's shoulder. "Don't worry about it kid, with two Bobby Hobbes to watch your back, you'll be fine."
Two days later Darien was sprawled out on the large sofa in his studio apartment watching his friends bustle around. Claire and Alex were busy in the kitchen preparing dinner, whilst Bobby and Eberts were struggling to assemble a cot under the far windows.
Darien had been truly frightened by the prospect of returning home alone, but his rising panic had been assuaged when Bobby insisted on coming to stay for a while. Nothing was said, but he was sure his friends had picked up on his feelings. The memories of gut-wrenching loss and despair seemed to creep up on him when he was alone and it was easy to imagine the 'deaths' of his friends had been real. Having them around him offered much needed reassurance.
Everyone had rallied round since Stark's dire warnings and the new factors concerning the gland were explained. Darien had to admit the revelations about tapping into elemental forces and precognition had freaked him out, but Claire's no nonsense, practical manner helped to calm him, as usual. She had an itinerary for new tests that ran to more than four pages and was determined to take control of the problem. Even the Official had come through by providing discreet protection for his Grandmother and Aunt.
Darien heartily agreed that the adage, "May you live in interesting times," was meant to be a curse. He'd had enough interesting times recently and he fervently hoped things would get really boring around there for a while. Even without the use of clairvoyance, he didn't think that wish would come true.
Loud bickering from Hobbes and Eberts interrupted his musings. They sounded like children in the schoolyard.
"I'll tell you exactly where rod B is gonna go if you don't back off, and it ain't gonna be in slot C," Hobbes shouted angrily.
"Really Robert, there's no need to get hostile. I was merely…"
"SHUT UP EBERTS!" Hobbes bellowed at the top of his voice as the last of his patience evaporated.
Darien grinned. Things were definitely getting back to normal around there.
As they settled down to dinner that evening, Darien couldn't help thinking that, though the gland was responsible for him losing so much in his life, it had enabled him to finally find his true family.