Author: A. X. Zanier
Title: Hearth and Home
Rating: PG-13 (Warning for being overly sweet)
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters or basic story ideas to "The Invisible Man." Any additional characters or ideas are mine.
Timeline: Four months after "The Secret To Life"
Comments: Hey, it was Christmas. ThatÕs my only excuse.

Thanks to Rebecca(WorkerCaste) for another great Beta job.

Hearth and Home

// "True happiness is of a retired nature, and an enemy to pomp and noise; it arises, in the first place, from the enjoyment of one's self, and in the next from the friendship and conversation of a few select companions." -- Joseph Addison, The Spectator, March 17, 1911

It may have taken me some time to learn it, but I had and this time of the year it could never be more true. //

"Crap. We're gonna be late."

Darien shook his head and chuckled, watching as Alyx rushed about trying to finish getting ready. "Alyx, slow down. We're not going to be late. Well, not beyond fashionably late, that is." She slipped into her heels and stuck her tongue out at him. As if in agreement with his father, Ben chose that moment to let out a chortle of glee and make another attempt at grabbing one of the ornaments off the Christmas tree Darien was currently standing next to. The kid had this odd fascination with the tinsel and silver balls that hung from the dark green branches. Alyx had insisted on a live tree this year -- not a cut tree, but one actually alive and in a huge planter. Darien had no idea what she was going to do with it after the holidays were over, though she'd mentioned something about donating it somewhere.

"You look lovely," he said quietly, admiring her from across the room.

"Ach, you have to say that." But she smiled as she convinced the earring to finally cooperate and the back to stay on. Grabbing her wrap and purse, she walked over to her two men and tickled Ben as she removed the handful of tinsel he'd grabbed from one chubby hand.

"Mmm, that doesn't make it any less true." The deep green dress was perfect as far as he was concerned, showing off her slenderness without being revealing. The top laced up the front much like a renaissance-style gown, was off the shoulder, and had belled sleeves. She'd pulled her hair back into a fancy braid, with sliver threads woven through it and bells hanging off the end that chimed softly every time she moved. Her dress fell to mid-calf and flowed with her at every step. She looked exactly as he had told her -- lovely.

Alyx looked up at Darien, who was only slightly uncomfortable in the slacks and sport coat he was wearing. His shirt was an obnoxiously bright red turtleneck that contrasted with the black of the jacket. He'd insisted on wearing it, though, and she couldn't find the will to argue with him, since he looked damn good in it and it was most definitely festive. Ben was wearing a comfortable set of sweats, also with a Holiday theme. He wouldn't last much longer, though; he might very well fall asleep on the drive over. "I still can't believe they wanted us to shove him in that awful elf outfit."

Darien rolled his eyes. "I can't believe they had the courage to ask us. At least you didn't laugh in their faces." Shifting Ben so that he was secure in one arm, he reached out to caress Alyx's face, light fingers tracing the outline of her cheek. "And they say I have no taste in clothes."

Alyx grinned. "Lets get going, before his majesty here decides to do something spectacular." She took the baby from Darien, and just barely kept those little hands from grabbing at the earrings dangling from her lobes. Having him yank them once had been plenty, and had reminded her why she normally didn't wear anything but studs around babies. Anything bright and shiny seemed to catch his eye. "You are such a troublemaker," she told the infant with a smile, then handed him his preferred toy that had suddenly appeared in the air over his head.

Darien grabbed the overstuffed diaper bag they seemed to travel everywhere with these days and opened the door so they could finally get out of there. He looked over the place, hoping they hadn't forgotten anything, even though they inevitably seemed to.

When they walked into the overly decorated office at the Agency, Dani hustled right on over and stole her little brother out of Alyx's hands with nothing more than a grin. The bag was placed on top of one of the file cabinets where it could not be missed and Alyx, with Darien's hand resting lightly on her back, walked into the room. The conference table had been shoved against one wall and turned into a buffet, and the Official's desk now held the small stereo from which Christmas music flowed. Drake had done a wonderful job on the place, though she was still amazed he had talked the Official into allowing it. It was the first Christmas office party she'd ever had at the Agency. If not working, they usually got together at someone's house; she had hosted a small fete at her place last year. Having one here, in the Official's office, was a first.

"Drake, you did a wonderful job, but I still could have helped you know."

Drake turned about and smiled. "No need. You've only been home a couple of days, and I enjoyed it. Besides, I talked Kat and Francine into helping me."

Alyx nodded with a grin. Francine, the newest member of the accounting department, was a cutie. In fact, she was standing in the corner chatting with Bobby and Claire, looking stunning in the dark blue dress she was wearing. "Well, once again I'm the shortest person here. I don't know why I bother with heels anymore. It doesn't make any difference."

"Sure it does. My neck doesn't cramp nearly as fast looking down at you," Darien commented, then had to dodge the elbow she mock-swung at him. "I'm going to see what Bobby's up to over there." He gave her a quick kiss and then wandered over. Bobby was now holding Ben, who was trying to stuff Bobby's tie into his mouth. Darien was hard pressed not to burst out laughing when he saw the thing up close. It was in the shape of a Christmas tree, complete with blinking lights and dangling ornaments. It was no wonder Ben was trying to claim it as his own. "Hobbes, you trying to electrocute my kid?" He removed the tie from Ben's hands and shook his head. In person it was even uglier.

"Nah, Fawkes. In fact, I wore it just for the munchkin. Figured it might be useful distraction. I'm not exactly an expert at this baby-sitting thing. Taking down terrorists I understand. Kids... that's a dangerous assignment. You are a far braver man than me, my friend." Hobbes lifted the tie and waved it at Ben, who promptly grabbed it and began to try and eat it again.

*He's hungry,* Alyx suddenly voiced in Darien's mind.

"I guessed," he muttered. "Hobbes, you might wanna rethink electricity around him, he might just short the thing out on you." Darien took Ben from Bobby just as Dani appeared by his side with a bottle. Ben complained loudly until it was placed in his hands and then found its way to his mouth. Darien was endlessly impressed with how coordinated the kid was. He'd have him picking locks by age three at this rate.

Hobbes frowned. "Fawkes, please tell me you're kidding. I don't need to have my house doing its version of 'Poltergeist' 'cause his nibs is in a snit."

"Yes, he's joking, Bobby," Claire said with a grin and a gentle hand on his arm. "We have no way of ascertaining what talents Benjamin will develop, if any."

"Errm, like I should know," Hobbes got this twinkle in his eye. "Care to dance, milady?"

"But of course, kind sir," Claire responded. They moved out to the open area and began to dance to the soft music. Hobbes had her laughing within moments as he spun her about.

Dani moved to face Darien, one hand caressing the cheek of her younger brother. "Does she suspect anything?"

Darien glanced over at Alyx, who was chatting with the Official and Drake. "Not a clue, and you have no idea how hard that is to accomplish."

Dani laughed softly. "I might have some idea. Hard to keep anything from her."

"Shoot, hard to not just tell her," Darien admitted. "I hope this works."

"It will," Dani assured him. "And she'll love it." She looked down at Ben and removed the now empty bottle from his hold. His eyes were already glazing over. Opening his mouth, he yawned hugely and then belched, making Darien chuckle. "Give him over. The nurse agreed to stay late and watch him."

"Dani, thanks." It was such a lousy way of expressing his gratitude for all the things she'd done over the months, including simply accepting him without reservation, not hating him for taking over her mother's life in many ways, and not being jealous of the time he'd had that she hadn't. "Are you sure you don't mind?"

"For this cutie? Any time." She shifted Ben so his head was resting on her shoulder, allowing her to hold him one handed.

Darien shook his head. "Some days I just...."

"Worry too much. Worry that you're gone too much. Worry that you won't be there for him," Dani filled in, and Darien nodded.

"I lost my dad when I was young, not that he'd been around much before then, but I... I just don't want him growing up thinking the same things I did." He ran his hand through his son's hair and smiled as Ben yawned again, his eyes drifting shut.

"Darien, trust me, he won't. He'll have plenty of family, no matter what. Related or not. I can promise you that." She set a hand on his shoulder. "You're a good father, nothing will change that. Now go dance with your wife. You two haven't had a night out in ages that didn't involve a stakeout. Enjoy it." With that she walked past him, grabbed the diaper bag, and left the room to take Ben down to the nursery.

Darien turned and looked over at Alyx, who was now deep in conversation with Claire and Kat, which could in no way be good. It was inevitable that any discussion they began would turn to any of the dozen or so projects they were working on and, once begun, it was nearly impossible to pull them away. In an attempt to forestall what would surely be a foray down to the Keep for a more intensive discussion, Darien moved behind Alyx and covered her eyes. "No. No work."

"Darien, I need her opinion on...." Claire tried to explain.

"No. She's been gone a week and has the next couple of days off. No work."

Alyx reached up and placed her hands over his, but didn't try and move them. "Dare, she was asking me about some clothes she was considering buying. One of those girl things." Alyx was trying so very hard not to laugh. She could feel his sudden embarrassment and didn't want to make it any worse.

"Crap," he muttered softly. "Sorry." He lowered his hands, still held lightly in her own, and pulled her close. "The munchkin is off to the nursery. Thanks again, Claire."

"Not a problem, Darien. He is a cutie. Reminds me of someone I know." She grinned and winked at him.

"Hey, hey. None of that. It's my job to stroke his ego, not yours," Alyx laughed.

"Ego? Is that the newest euphemism?" Kat added to the fray.

"All right," Darien interrupted. "I won't have you harming her tender ears with this smutty talk." He proceeded to pull Alyx away as both Kat and Claire burst out laughing.

"Tender ears, my ass," he heard Claire say as he dragged Alyx over by the buffet.

Alyx was laughing softly when Darien turned her about to face him. "Sorry about that, but I want you to relax for a change. This is the first Christmas in years where we've managed to be together and not working."

She sighed. "I know, and I promise to enjoy it. Though why I let you talk me into allowing Claire and Bobby have Ben this close to Christmas, I'll never know."

"'Cause I can con anyone?" he asked with a sly grin.

"Right. Nice try. Lucky for you you're so cute." She patted his cheek and grinned. For a long moment she did nothing but look at him, her fingers playing with that curl that tended to grow at his temple. "Dance with me?" she asked softly.

"Yeah." He led her to the open area where a few other couples were swaying to the music. For a long time they forgot about everyone else.

It was the Official himself who broke their quiet moment. "Well, you two have done a lot of work this year, even with your maternity leave, Miss Silver." He was his usual gruff and unyielding self, even at the holidays. "Good work. I don't want to see either of you until after the New Year." He smiled, a real smile, at their surprised looks. "Merry Christmas."

Neither Darien nor Alyx had a chance to say anything before he walked off, heading back to the chair he'd been ensconced in most of the night. Watching over all of them like a proud father.

"Umm, who was that and what did he do with our boss?" Darien asked, stunned.

Alyx shook her head. "And he hasn't even gotten my present yet." The Official still had the uncanny ability to do the unexpected, even after all these years.

Hobbes stopped by then. "Did I hear right? The Chief gave you the week off?"

"Yeah, what's up?" Darien was always suspicious of the Official's motives, had to be. No matter what, his motives were always ulterior, so it was best to keep one's eyes open at all times. "Let me guess, fumigating the building?"

"Nope. I'm to report bright and early day after tomorrow." He looked over at Claire for a moment, then back at the two of them. "Enjoy yourselves."

"Bobby, thanks for taking Ben for the night."

"Kid, I'm glad to. Though you'll be owing me a big one for it." He wagged a finger at her.

"Anything, Bobby. You know that." Darien nodded in agreement. Over the years they had all become very good friends and would do pretty much anything for each other.

"I know, kid," Bobby replied softly. "Right now I'm off to make time with my girl, before I become the super-kid's baby-sitter." He walked back over to Claire, grabbing a sprig of mistletoe on the way and shamelessly holding it over his head. Like he really needed anything to convince her to give him a kiss.

Darien and Alyx spent the next several hours doing nothing more than relaxing with their co-workers --friends, both old and new, who had been with them and stood by them through six different kinds of hell in the past several years. They talked a little, danced a little, drank a little, and stood quietly together watching the world drift slowly by. It wasn't often they got the chance to be nothing more than themselves with their friends, to see their friends -- their family -- so at ease, without the pressures of work foremost on their minds. Alyx wished she could capture this night and bottle it, preserve the mood, so that the next time life took a downturn for them, as it inevitably would, she would be able to pull out this mood and give them all a little peace and joy.

It was just after midnight when the party began to break up. Claire and Bobby were going to have enough excitement dealing with a rambunctious four-month-old come morning, so they needed all the sleep they could get. They stopped by with the still-sleeping infant so that his parents could kiss him good night and wish them good luck. Alyx assured them everything would be just fine. She knew Ben was fond of both of them, and Bobby, for all his rough and tough attitude, was almost as big a sucker for kids as Darien was. Ben would be happily spoiled until she and Darien picked him up the next morning.

Dani was the next to leave. She came over to say good night and verify what time she was to be stopping by for Christmas dinner. Alyx had insisted; she would have had all of her family over if she thought the risk was low enough, but, realizing it wasn't, she satisfied herself with knowing that she could spend time with her daughter and would be able to talk to the rest for the first Christmas in years. Dani pulled Darien aside and spoke to him for a couple of minutes, after which she gave Alyx a grin that left her wondering what the two of them were up to.

It wasn't too long after that, the remainder of the group having hit that raucous we're-slightly-beyond-drunk-let's-get-the-real-party-going stage, when Darien decided it was time for them to head out. Alyx was easy to convince, so they did the rounds saying goodnight to everyone before grabbing their stuff and heading out into the chilly night air.

He'd given in once Ben was born and bought a real vehicle. A nice SUV that was more than roomy enough, and safe enough for him to allow his son inside it. Alyx still had her Jag, but since it was only a two-seater Ben never rode in it. In fact, the Jag seemed to spend more time parked at an airport terminal than being driven about these days. As soon as Alyx had been cleared for duty again, and all the necessary arrangements made for a child of two secret agents, she'd been swept up in backlogged requests by other agencies.

The Official was actually doing his best to work with her, though, to accommodate her needs as both a parent and an agent, surprising both of them by letting her decide which jobs she felt she could, or should, do. It was more responsibility on her shoulders in some ways, but she was handling it quite well. In fact, though it was more work, she preferred having an active say in her assignments. She had averted some problems by being able to see that her presence was unnecessary or, in one case, an actual liability on the job. The Official was more than satisfied that his long-term plan had worked out so well, and was therefore willing to meet them halfway when it came to their personal lives. They might not have the privacy of the average person -- heck, of your average government agent -- but they reveled in what they did have and enjoyed every moment they were able to spend with each other.

Darien stood behind Alyx as she opened the SUV's door, stopping her from getting in with a hand on her shoulder. She leaned back against him with a sigh, closing her eyes for a moment. Then she opened them as he slipped something soft over her face. "Hey, what are you doing?" Her hands went to the blindfold.

"Do you trust me?" he asked softly as he gently tied the silk scarf behind her head, blocking off her sight. His hands drifted about to hers once he was finished.

"Always." she responded. It wasn't very often he asked that, at least not recently. There had been times in the past when reassurances of her trust in him had been necessary, when his faith in himself had been at a low point and he'd found it difficult to believe in himself, much less others. She felt his lips on her neck then. A wonderful warmth on skin growing chilled in the cool air.

"Good," he breathed against her ear. "No peeking and no cheating. Promise me." His hands moved hers down to her stomach, pulling her close to warm her swiftly chilling body. Though never again as bad as her first winter here, she still chilled easily when the weather turned cold.



He was cheating, as far as she was concerned, his hands and mouth creating a delicious warmth within her. "I promise." She could feel both apprehension and excitement coming off him, but didn't pry any further. He'd let her know what was going in his own time.

Turning her about, he kissed her lightly, her arms coming up to encircle his neck. "Come on." He helped her climb in and gave her another swift kiss before shutting the door and heading around to the driver's side. "We have places to be." He started the engine and pulled out into the nonexistent traffic in downtown San Diego on this night.

"Darien...." She wasn't sure how to ask this, but plunged ahead anyway. "I just wanted you to know, I never intended to force you into fatherhood. I guess I didn't really think about exactly how complex it would be, trying to juggle this job and a family. It seems like I'm never home some weeks. I..."

"Alyx, what the heck are you talking about? I swear, if you had planned ahead any more, Ben would already be accepted at Harvard or MIT." He hadn't realized she'd been worrying about her lack of presence at home. She'd spent every free moment, both before and after Ben's birth, planning for just about every contingency. He'd been the one bouncing about and nervous as all get out, never quite sure what to do or how to react. Except for one thing: marrying her. Nothing else had ever felt so right in his life. Her being pregnant had been the icing on the cake.

Forced into fatherhood? He'd dreamed about the possibility for years, even though she had told him it was impossible. Miracles did happen in this life. He'd been lucky enough to experience a few of his own. His son was just the most recent of them.

He set a hand over hers and squeezed gently. "Alyx, yes it was a bit of a surprise to learn I was going to be a father, but I don't and will never regret it. I know how tough it is some days -- oh, how I know -- but he's happy, he's loved, and neither of us has any plans on leaving him alone. Unless there's something you're not telling me? The bag boy at Ralph's perhaps?"

She released a shaky laugh and shook her head. "No, though that one kid is damn cute."

"Alyx...." he squeezed her hand tighter for an instant then relaxed, twining their fingers together. "Then what's the problem?"

"'ve been closing me out lately and I guess...I'm wondering why." Over the years, he'd learned more than enough control over his mind and body to block her completely if he wanted to. In fact, it wasn't the first time this had happened, though the last time had been one of those extreme situations where it had been completely justified, no matter how much it had scared her at the time.

Darien sighed to himself; he had hoped with her gone so much the last month that she wouldn't have noticed, but he wasn't very surprised that she had. The trick was to convince her it had nothing to do with her and Ben, and yet not give away the real reason. He could feel her concern growing the longer he took to answer and just about the time she was getting ready to break, he hit upon an idea that just might work. "Umm, it was Dani actually. Her being a telepath and all. Sometimes I was...a little too loud I guess."

Alyx relaxed marginally. "Her control is good enough to block you out, or it should be."

"Well, yes, but apparently you taught me a bit too well, and there have been a couple of occasions when I've even called her Alyx by mistake." He smiled at the look on her face as he said that. It wasn't even a lie; he'd done it three times so far. "You sure you didn't just clone yourself?"

That worked, her tension easing away. "Pretty sure -- that child did not inherit her height from me."

Darien chuckled. "Definitely not, though all your brother's are tall, right?"

"Yup, all around six foot. My dad insisted I took after his Aunt Brigid, who earned the nickname 'pixie' for being so dainty. Lots of stories about supposed elven ancestors from my dad's side." She lifted their twined hands and kissed the back of his. "'Course, then you have all the stories that my mom was descended from the Valkyries." She laughed softly and rubbed his fingers along her cheek, enjoying the warmth.

"You must have the most unique family history that I've ever heard. Wish I had stories like yours to tell." He sounded wistful. The few things he knew or had learned about his family over the years were not necessarily the type of legacy he wanted to pass down to his son.

"Dare, we'll make our own." There was often far more regret and loss where his family was concerned, lost history because there was really no one left to tell him all the little secrets, to pass on who they had been and what they had done over the years. Some papers and mementos they'd found at the house in Cold Springs had filled in a few of the gaps, but it wasn't quite the same as being told stories about your three-times-great-grandfather on a snowy winter evening before a roaring fire.

"We'll have our own stories to tell. Our own history to pass along." Turning in the seat, she reached out with her free hand to caress his cheek. She didn't need to see him to know where he was. "Come on, you're the invisible man. Your uncle and your brother created the gland -- something people have been trying to do for years. You've done any number of wonderful things, and saved the world more than a few times. And that's even before we get into the tales of the footloose and fancy free thief who, for all the less-than-legal activities, still had a heart of gold. You have plenty to pass on to your son, I promise you."

Once again, she had managed to amaze him. Showing him that there really had been more to his life than that of a half-hearted, forcefully-reformed thief. That there might be something for his son to be proud of, once he was old enough to understand and to care about such things. "Damn, woman, how is it you always manage to say just the right things?"

"It a gift," she quipped.

He slowed the car, turning onto the gravel driveway and coming to a stop. Reaching up, he grabbed the remote and pushed the button, causing the gates to unlock and swing open. "Speaking of gifts..." He drove through once they had swung wide and continued down the drive under the canopy of trees that overhung it.

"What about them? Please tell me you didn't find something else to buy Ben. The kid has more than enough toys already and you practically bought out the whole damn toy store." Alyx was a little exasperated. Darien had gone a bit overboard with the Christmas shopping for Ben, but she hadn't the heart to stop him when he took the time to not only research, but sit down and play with most of the toys to see if they were actually good enough for Ben. Some of the toys were modern versions of ones he'd loved as a kid, while others were the best modern technology and Fisher Price could create. The Pooh bear and story book were the sweetest of the bunch. The man had a huge soft spot for kids, and she loved him for it.

Stopping the car again, he turned of the engine. "Stay put for a minute, okay?"

"Sure, I guess." He freed his hand from hers and she listened to him get out of the vehicle and walk away, his shoes crunching on the gravel drive. She did her best to be patient and not peek. She couldn't help but feel the increase of his nervousness. The urge to find out just what was going on, what was worrying him, was building to a peak. Shifting, she lowered the window and tried to hear what he was doing, but except for his footsteps and some quiet muttering she got no hints.

"Alyx, you promised not to peek," he said as he opened the door and helped her out, steadying her on the uneven ground.

"I didn't peek. I listened," she countered, relieved when he laughed softly. The last thing she wanted was him upset with her. She allowed him to lead her across the gravel and then onto soft turf. She could smell the grass as it was crushed under their feet.

"Okay, no peeking still. Keep your eyes closed." He untied the scarf and reached into his pocket for the other control. Flipping the switch, he looked over his creation carefully, thankful that it appeared to be intact. He put the control away and then set his hands over her eyes.

"Darien, what the devil is going on?" Alyx asked as her hands went to his.

"Your Christmas present." He moved his hands away so that she could see.

Alyx didn't know what to say at first. In fact, she was a bit confused. "Umm, it's a house. A beautiful house, admittedly, but a house." Beautiful was putting it mildly. Three stories easily, though the top might be mostly attic. Balconies on the ground and second floor. Decorated for Christmas with white lights and red-bowed garlands everywhere.

He dangled the keys before her eyes. "Ours."

She spun about to look at him. "What? What did you say?"

"It's ours. It's not quite ready -- the security still has to be upgraded -- but we can move in any time." He watched as she closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "Alyx?"

"Ours? Really?" She opened tear-filled eyes to look up at him.

"Hey, what's with the waterfall routine? I thought you'd be happy." Darien was beginning to wonder if he'd made a huge mistake doing this without consulting her, but this place had come on the market while she was out of town and, after having Claire, Bobby, and Dani look it over to get their opinions, he'd made an offer. It had been amazing how fast the yes came when he mentioned cash.

"Sorry," she said, wiping her eyes with a hand. "I just don't know what to say. I..."

"You don't need to say anything, Alyx." He took one of her hands in his, knowing what would happen, and was rewarded with her emotions washing across his senses. "Come on, I'll show you our home."

//That ultimate purveyor of movie wisdom, Buckaroo Banzai, included the quote, "Home is where you wear your hat." It was about time we had one of our own. //

Happy Holidays