Title: The Road Not Taken

Author: A. X. Zanier

Status: Complete

Rating: R (Language, violence, sexual situations, the usual)

Fandom: The Invisible Man (SciFi, 2000)

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.

Sequel/Series: part of the AS altiverse

Timeline: Picks up where Fallen ended.

Spoilers: Probably. Does it really matter after all these years?

Music: Show Me What I'm Looking For by Carolina Liar

The Road Not Taken

A slightly less famous Holmes once said, "I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving - we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it - but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor." Now for the last few years I'd been drifting along with the tide that chance and my brother had flung me into, all the while wishing I had some control over exactly what shore I would crash upon. Well, now... now it was time to actually learn to sail.

where the roads diverge

.

"What did you say?" Darien was certain he had heard wrong. He could have sworn Claire had just said she could remove the gland.

"She said you're free, ya lunkhead," that came from Alyx, who leaned against a stanchion in the Lab with a small smile playing across her lips. No other reaction, just that hint of a smile. And that... that made him think this might just be real and not some wish fulfillment dream, like so many others he'd had over the long months since he'd come to the Agency.

"When can you do it?" he asked; the first words he could think of in his stunned condition. He wasn't quite certain he believed this... this sudden change of events. Seriously, after all this time he was finally going to get the gland out of his head and his life back? It couldn't be possible. Not after so long. Surely, it had become a permanent resident in his cranium. He'd resigned himself to the situation months ago, regardless of anything the good Keeper might say.

Claire laughed, seemingly not at all put off about the, even in Darien's opinion, self-serving question. "A few weeks of prep work... How about Friday the fifteenth? You'll have to spend a month or so recovering-"

He didn't let her finish. Instead, he rushed over, scooped her up into a bear hug, spun her around, and kissed her soundly on the mouth. He'd been expecting a long-winded prevarication about having to run weeks, if not months of tests, not a simple straightforward answer. That, more than anything else convinced him this was really happening. That all he had to do was say yes and the process would be set in motion and he'd be free of the gland in no time at all. What was... two months in the grand scheme of things, after all? He'd waited longer than that to pull off a choice job back in the day.

He set her down and turned to give Alyx the same treatment, only to discover her no longer standing in the room, much to his confusion. Certain she'd be just as thrilled as he to know that he'd no longer be forced to work at the Agency, forced to endure the madness, or any of the other less-than-fun side-effects of the gland. That he'd get the chance to be Darien Fawkes the man, instead of the receptacle. Show her who he really was as opposed to what Agency forced him to be. Yet, she had vanished, the sound of the Lab door sliding shut the only sign of where she had gone.

He turned back to his Keeper, who stood there, hands clasped in front of her, hair mussed from his jubilation, face carefully neutral. "Claire?"

"I believe she skipped out of a meeting to be here," she answered with a tiny shrug of her shoulders, quite possibly not having any real idea why Alyx had bailed before the celebration had really begun.

Though he now understood exactly why she'd insisted he wanted to come into work today. Even if Claire had held out until the very end of the day to spring the good news on him. Truthfully, if she'd done it first thing, Darien would have gotten nothing of value accomplished, and while the work hadn't been the most exciting - follow-up on several open and pending cases - it had been necessary, and he would have been bouncing off the walls and unable to get anything of value accomplished if given the news early in the day. 'Sides, now he could justify leaving and getting started with the celebrating.

"We can begin the prep work first thing tomorrow if you like," she suggested, making her way to one of the computer terminals and bringing up what looked like a calendar program.

He nodded, bouncing on his toes, not really wanting to deal with all the minutiae right now. He wanted to celebrate, take them all out to dinner... or drinks. Yeah, drinks sounded good, raise a toast of farewell on this chapter of his life and a second to the next. Then corner Alyx and drag her back to his place for some up close and personal celebrating. A little one on one time before she got dragged away on another job. Now that she was off the injured list, the bossman would surely put her back out into the field, and lately that meant nowhere near San Diego.

"Keep, can't we do this tomorrow," he all but whined. Okay, so maybe he whined a little. "I want to celebrate... with my friends." He sidled up behind her, but she didn't turn around until he placed his hands on her shoulders.

She sighed softly. "Yes, I suppose the details can wait," she said as she glanced over at the clock, which read five thirty-four in the afternoon. Probably earlier than she usually left on an average day, but he was pretty certain he could sway her.

"Please?" How often am I going to get news this good?"

"All right," she agreed. "I need to finish up a few things here... Meet at Herb's at seven? I'll bring Bobby." She cocked her head slightly to the side. "You'll need to pry Alyx from her meeting, I'm afraid I haven't an excuse good enough to rescue her from this one."

His eyebrows went up. "In house or outsourced?" he asked, knowing Claire would only answer if she'd been given leave to.

"Outsourced, but not due to leave for several days yet. Though that could change in a heartbeat, as you well know."

Oh, how very well he did know. She'd literally left at a moments notice on a couple of occasions, a hurried phone call from some nameless airport his only reassurance that she'd hadn't run away from him and the Agency and instead been loaned out to make some more brownie points and bucks for the Official. He knew it was a sacrifice on her part, her loan jobs part of the deal that kept him here in San Diego and not dragged all over the country himself at the whims of various ABC agencies. That she did it for him always amazed him and he made every effort to show his gratitude... when she was in town.

"Do you know where?" He quickly added, "If you can tell me, that is."

Claire shook her pretty blonde head. "That information I have not been made privy to, so probably in country." She shrugged. "While back to full strength, I strongly recommended that she be kept near to home as a precaution. No need for those after her to become aware of her unholy ability to survive any sooner than necessary." She managed a ghost of a grin, but it faded quickly.

"True 'nuff," Darien agreed. "I am going to go give Bobby the good news and then see if I can pry Alyx away from... whoever she's stuck in a meeting with." He laughed softly. "If I know her she'll be glad of the rescue." He headed for the door; damn near bouncing off the walls with poorly contained excitement. "Seven at Herb's, yes? You'll be there? I'm buying, promise."

His unabashed joy seemed to finally break past that wall she'd put up against him, and she chuckled. "Yes, Darien, this is most certainly a day that deserves celebrating."

"Woot," he cheered, as the door opened. He barreled out into the hall intent on finding Hobbes and berating him into joining in on what would surely become the party of the year.

.

Darien knocked on the Official's door, but didn't bother waiting for a response before entering. The mutter of irritation had been expected, but not the sigh of dismay, almost as if his appearance had been expected. Five men sat around the conference table, atop which sat several piles of files and two laptops - one clearly Alyx's - that dueled from opposite ends. Whatever the meeting was about and whoever it was for, it had to be big as three of the mooks wore full military dress uniforms, two Marine and one Army if he remembered correctly. That did indeed bode well for an in country mission for Alyx, not that that meant easier, just more convenient to home, is all.

"What do you want, Fawkes?" the Official rumbled, probably wanting to get on with the meeting and go home himself. Without Eberts about to do most of the schlep work, he must have been having one hell of a time getting anything of value accomplished. The weekly change in assistants had been an ongoing source of amusement for Bobby and Darien, even if the reason for it happening still burned. He killed that mental maundering quickly. Now was not the time to go wandering down that particular pathway. Now... now was the time to play the gallant knight and rescue the fair maiden.

Darien ignored the 'Fish, instead focusing on Alyx, who met his gaze with poorly hidden amusement. "Herb's at seven."

She cocked her head to the side, clearly thinking, and at the same time he felt her power brush across him, making him want to shiver in pleasure, the contact not quite enough for direct communication, but enough to know she was damned happy for him. "Seven-thirty," she countered with, and he nodded.

He'd take what he could get and would bet even money that this meeting was intended to go on far longer than that, though he had to admit the looks on the faces of the quintet around the table were worth the price of admission. Utter confusion mingled with a touch of whatthefuck that did not mix well with the stuffy suits and government provided uniforms. Not that he truly cared, he'd accomplished what he'd set out to do: rescue the fair maiden from the clutches of the evil wizard and his minions in his tower. He gave her a grin and backed out of the room, the whole thing having taken less than five minutes all told.

From the hall, he heard the Official rumble into life. "You heard her, you've got an hour to convince me that you actually need Agent Silver's services."

Darien chuckled softly, looked like Alyx wasn't the only one wanting to escape the meeting. Maybe the Official wanted to get home to his wife's roses. Darien shook his head in amusement. Not bloody likely, as the Keeper would say. More likely just using Darien's unscheduled interruption as another opportunity to manipulate things his way. Wouldn't be the first time and most certainly not the last either. And in truth Darien would much rather not be the one at the receiving end of the Official's manipulations. He'd had more than his share already.

That made him pause in his tracks, the echoes of his footsteps in the stairwell fading before he allowed that train of thought to pull out of the station where it sat idling, waiting for clearance. He allowed it to, if slowly, not certain the passengers could handle it at a greater speed. What if... what if this sudden good news was nothing more than another case of being officialed? What if, though real, it would require some sort of sacrifice on his part for it to actually happen? And what if he wasn't willing to pay the tithe?

He pushed that aside, with force. Alyx had been there, made a point to be there when he was told. Yeah, that meant there was a fair chance that she'd known what was going to happen, what with the whole you want to go to work thing of last night she most certainly knew... something. Maybe not exactly what, but more than enough to know that he'd want to be there. Not surprising, really, but at the same time disturbing, and he so didn't want to think about the other side of this right now. How long had they known? How many months had they been hiding this from him, his freedom.

He forced himself back into motion. Not wanting to ruin his high quite yet. His moment in the sun after so very many months under deep, gray, overcast skies. When Claire went over the details tomorrow, it would most certainly bring him back down to reality in a hurry. That wet splat upon the solid earth after a fall from a great height. Tonight would be all about the good. No more no less. And he'd spend it with those who meant the most to him in the world; and that was worth more than gold to him. They'd stuck by him through the hell of the last couple of years, damn straight that he'd have them there to celebrate his reprieve. Taking the stairs two at a time, he hit the parking level and damn near ran for the double doors. With a shout of pure joy, he burst through, into the bright California sunlight, and raced for his car. His plan nothing more than to head home for a quick shower and change, then over to Herb's to grab that big booth in the back.

.

Alyx appeared at the table at seven forty-two, clearly flustered and in the same clothes she'd been wearing at the office. Clothes, he suddenly realized, were not her usual ones. She typically dressed for comfort, t-shirts and jeans, yes, even at the office, unless she was in the mood to push the Fat Man's buttons, then the leather and suede would come out. Shirts missing shoulders or backs, boots that came up past her knees, you name it and she'd worn it... and made it work. This - and he realized she'd been wearing it in the Keep earlier - this was all professional. Black slacks, low heeled, yet dressy boots, white dress shirt, designed to not be tucked in, and a stylish blazer cut to hug her every curve. No way you'd mistake her for a guy, even if you ignored the long curly hair.

She peeled out of the jacket, tossing it over the back of the booth, undid two buttons on the shirt, revealing a deep violet tank top beneath, and plopped herself down next to Darien, who sat at the end of the booth. She scooted in, shoving him over without so much as a by your leave, until everyone had been shoved 'round. Claire and Alyx now facing each other across the wide expanse of cracked table top. Not that he minded her choosing to sit next to him instead of the space that had been next to the good Keeper, who had slid in across the red pleather to sit within Bobby's personal space. Darien draped an arm about Alyx's shoulders, pulled her close, and kissed her a solid one on the lips with an ear to ear grin splitting his face.

Now the celebration could really begin.

"You started without me?" Alyx pouted, reaching for the pitcher of dark beer on the table, which was already half-empty. Or still half-full if he were to put a more optimistic spin on things.

"You were late," Bobby said with a shrug and a smile. "Munchies of every type are on the way, Mr. Hollow Legs here was hungry... as usual." He raised his glass, filled with pale cider from one of the other pitchers - there were four on the table containing various libations in various shades at the moment - and drank down most of what remained.

"Good, I'm starved. Been stuck in the 'Fish's office most of the day. If the big boys had gotten straight to the point, we could have settled the deal in a couple of hours, but no, they had drag it out all day, figuring the Official wouldn't outwait them." She turned to Darien. "He says, 'thank you,' by the way. Your timing was impeccable, as usual, and he was able to triple his price with them cringing only a little."

"You're welcome, and let him know I'll take my ten percent cut of the gross in my next paycheck."

Alyx laughed, "I'll pass that on."

Claire snorted into her glass, clearly finding amusement in Darien's sudden reversion to extortion unexpected to say the least. "You'll never go completely straight, will you?" she asked, humor evident in her tone.

Darien shrugged. "Doubt it," he answered candidly. "Will I take up a life of crime again?" He paused mostly for dramatic effect. "Probably not." Will I case pretty much any place I walk into for the rest of my life? Certainly. Between being a thief and the spy racket, it's automatic." He gestured at Bobby. "Hobbesy here does it, even if the focus is a little different."

Bobby nodded, clearly in agreement. "True enough, my friend. And not a habit I plan to break, either; its kept me alive this long, figure it'll keep me alive a while longer."

"I notice you left Alyx out of that," Claire pointed out, tone almost harsh.

Darien didn't get a chance to answer, Bobby got there first. "With the kid's talent? She does it without having to work at it. And usually spots stuff the two of us miss."

Claire rolled her eyes while Alyx grinned over the top of her glass, the look a comment all on its own. And not a friendly one. The look on the Keeper's face wasn't exactly all smiles either. Something had clearly gone down between the two of them when he hadn't been looking, and though curious to know what the hell had happened, and why, he shoved it aside for the time being, sensing that bringing in out into the open, in an attempt to clear the air between the two girls, would be anything but conducive to the celebrating he wanted to get on with. And in that spirit he raised a hand, gaining the attention of their waitress, who arrived at the table mere seconds later.

"We'll have the food out in just a few minutes," she assured them, the perky flirtation of earlier suddenly muted in the presence of Alyx, who wasn't radiating a mine vibe as far as Darien could tell, and though awfully cute, the waitress inevitably took a distant second to Alyx and was clearly aware of that fact. So she'd changed tactics from flirting her way to a big tip to making certain the Alpha female of the group was happy. What the poor server failed to realize was that Alyx would be more than happy to watch and even participate in said flirting. Hell, if Darien played his cards right he could make it a challenge; see which of them could score her phone number first. Wouldn't be the first time they'd played the game. And it always made for a fun evening. And an even better finish to the night once they were alone.

"Cool," Darien said, with a shy smile on his face. "Round of shots, if you would. Whiskey for me and Hobbesy, tequila - Silver Patron, if you have it - for the redhead, and twelve year old scotch for the blonde."

The waitress' eyebrows shot up at Patron and only slid higher at the scotch. She glanced about the table, as if expecting disagreement, but only got nods confirming his choices. "Coming right up," she said, and sauntered off with a bemused expression on her face.

Alyx snickered, shaking her head in clear amusement. "The usual?" she asked him.

"Of course," he agreed, not the least bit surprised she knew what he'd been thinking.

"Play nice," Bobby warned, but with a smile cracking his features, as if he knew what was going on, which he probably did. Wasn't the first time they'd played the game with Hobbesy along. In fact, on rare occasions they could get him to play along as well. However, with the Keeper here, Bobby would be far more likely to play her, than some waitress, no matter how cute.

Claire turned to Bobby, looked back at Darien and Alyx, then huffed in obvious discontent. "Do I want to know?"

"Probably not," Alyx stated with a shrug of her shoulders.

Claire's eyes narrowed as she sucked in a breath, clearly planning a scathing retort.

Much to Darien's surprise, Hobbes cut it off at the knees.

Poking her in the side Bobby said, "Ease up, Keep, we're not at the office. Relax, have fun. Fawkesy's paying for it."

Her head snapped about, thousand watt glare aimed at him, and for an instant Darien feared for his partner's life.

He needn't have worried.

Hobbes, with a huge grin, bussed Claire a good one, making her freeze in place for an instant before squalling, "Bobby, what the bloody hell are you doing?"

"Distractin' you," he explained, around the smile plastered on his face. "We're celebrating, remember?"

At that moment, both the food and libations arrived; more than ample time for Claire to recover and, to all appearances, let whatever the hell it was bugging her drop. When greedy hands reached for food, Darien slapped them away. At the pouts he said, "Shots first."

"Darien, the alcohol-"

He cut her off, "Will loosen you up, Claire. You are still in the Keep."

Alyx didn't say a word, just toyed with her shot glass, as if waiting to see if Claire was going to be joining them tonight. Darien was wondering that himself. Alyx had her emotions locked down tight, and Claire had been... almost cold since giving him the good news and he wasn't about to let work spoil what had been the best news he'd received in recent memory.

"Raising his glass he said, "To happy endings... and new beginnings."

The other three raised their glasses, adding a cheery, "Here, here," of agreement. The shots were downed quickly, heads thrown back, swallowed, then gasps as the burn of pricey alcohol made it's way down unprepared throats. Three glasses slammed to the table in unison, grins on the faces of the trio. Only Alyx still held her glass, though now empty, a wistful expression on her face. Without asking, Bobby and Claire fell to the food, filling their plates with an assortment of tidbits. Darien signaled for another round, then turned his attention to Alyx.

He nudged her with an elbow and leaned in close to softly ask, "What's up?"

She turned to him, giving him a brilliant smile for his trouble. "Not a thing," she assured him, but he didn't buy it for a hot second.

"Liar," he stated, resting his forehead against hers and receiving a deep sigh for his efforts. A momentary wash of very mixed emotions played across him, but she was quick to lock it down, which did little to ease his concern.

She set a hand on his thigh. "Am not. Though I could probably fix that."

He closed his eyes for a long moment, enjoying the feel of her fingers gently massaging the muscles of his leg. She obviously wanted no part of a serious discussion at the moment, and between the alcohol and what her hand was currently doing, he had no issues allowing it to drop. He'd revisit the topic tomorrow, provided he remembered, that is.

"All right, you two. Save the private celebratin' for later," Bobby ordered, and Darien opened his eyes to turn and look at his friend, who, based on the shit-eating grin taking up his whole face, wasn't nearly as upset as the authoritative tone had suggested.

Darien pulled away from Alyx and cocked his head to the side. "You could always join us," he suggested, making her laugh softly and Claire turn an interesting shade of pink, "or you two gonna have some one on one time of your own." The pink turned to red as Claire glanced at Bobby and then away.

Hobbes wagged a finger, trying for anger, but, having imbibed just enough booze, he managed to miss the mark entirely. "Fawkes... Ah, hell." Then blushed furiously, which only made Alyx laugh all the harder.

Bobby glared at her, so she held up her hands in submission. "No teasing, promise, but I must admit it's an interesting turn of events from Mister Company Pier himself."

He ducked his head for a moment, in acknowledgement of the deserved jibe, then met her eyes squarely. "Fair enough, my friend." He rubbed the top of his head for a moment. "Not that you two set a stellar example to follow." Claire turned to stare at him in surprise, but he just shrugged. "Just saying..."

Claire shook her head in obvious dismay. "There isn't anything going on between... between us," she insisted, though the continued pinking of her cheeks seemed to decry otherwise.

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," Darien stated, not about to let this opportunity pass without at least token commentary. The two had been dancing around each other for ages, and in the last few weeks seemed to be dancing just a few steps closer to... dating... maybe. Alyx's death, fake as it had been had caused more than few changes at the Agency, more even than the 'Fish possibly realized. Then again, given the 'Fish was the 'Fish he might very well have known the instant the game changer between Bobby and Claire had happened. Darien certainly wouldn't put it past him.

"No kidding," Bobby added in an undertone that was still more than loud enough for all of them to clearly hear.

Claire spluttered, unable to form a clear sentence for several long minutes, while the other three laughed in amusement.

It was Alyx who defused the potentially explosive situation. "Kidding aside, if you make each other happy, go for it. Nothing else matters."

Claire stared at Alyx for a long moment, as if searching for the unpleasant surprise that Darien knew not to be coming, found nothing but Alyx's usual brand of honest observation, heaved a great sigh, and relaxed for the first time since sitting in the booth nearly an hour ago. That brand spanking new line in the sand drawn between the two girls wiped away for the time being. For which Darien could only be thankful. He wanted to celebrate not referee a cat fight between his two favorite women. Though for an instant his mind wandered off to into realms where said cat fighting involved fewer clothes and far more groping than actual fighting, which meant the booze was doing the job it was supposed to. Granted his mind often lived in the vicinity of the proverbial gutter, but he generally didn't bring it out to show Claire. And that mental turn of phrase brought with it a whole passel of images that would earn him a solid smack from the good Doctor sitting across from him. Which had the potential for some fun, actually.

Alyx snorted in laughter, tried to cover it with a blatantly fake cough, then gave it up as a bad job when he waggled his eyebrows at her.

Both Bobby and Claire looked completely confused until Alyx stated in a bored tone, "Darien's horny," and left it at that.

This time Darien blushed full, not able to argue with what was most certainly the truth, while Claire giggled and Bobby shook his head in clear amusement.

"I'm sure the kid'll take care of that later, just keep it in yer pants for now, hotshot."

Claire's mouth dropped open for a long moment, before she burst out in yet another round of giggles. Darien shook his head, laughing softly at the antics of his Keeper. Getting her to drop her guard was always tricky, but he absolutely loved it when Claire came out to grace them with her presence. He understood the wall she had to remain behind, and knew better than to touch on certain subjects when her resistance had been lowered, 'cause, damn she would so get even with him if he took advantage of her, and those shots hurt enough already without her coming at him with a full mad on. And that was the least of the potential ways she could get back at him, if pissed enough she could deny him the inhibitor, or worse the counteragent... that thought stopped dead. After tomorrow that wouldn't be an issue... ever again. Tomorrow would be the very first step of his walk to freedom. That long walk out of the prison walls after that first stint inside and the joy he'd felt to be free of those dreary gray stone walls had nothing on the sudden overwhelming joy that bubbled up as the truth really sank in: he'd survived, he'd be getting out; he was free and nothing would ever compare.

Grabbing his half full glass of beer, he raised it and said, "To Claire, the best damn Keeper around." He gulped down a fair portion. "Thank you."

Claire blinked. "For what?" she asked, the words only slightly fuzzy around the edges.

"For what?" Hobbes echoed. "You either need more or already had too much. For figuring out how to get the gland out, duh."

She looked bemused for a second. "Oh, that." She lifted her glass and practically chugged the ale, as if that statement made her want to get stinking drunk. She glanced at Alyx, the blue-eyed gaze a challenging one, but when no response came, set the glass down, and sighed softly. "I'm just glad we got that sorted out."

Hobbes snorted. "Just listen to her, a few months ago she was all but tearing her hair out working on the problem and now she... you're treating it like it was a foregone conclusion." He shoved her gently. "Toldja you'd sort it out."

"Yes, you did, Bobby," she agreed, clearly not about to elaborate on the matter, her sidelong glances at Alyx confusing the fuck out of Darien. Almost as if Claire were waiting for Alyx to do... something, but he had no clue as to what. And, right now, it didn't matter; whatever had been going on between the girls had no bearing on tonight's festivities. Now he felt the need for more perception-altering lubrication.

With perfect timing, their server appeared with their newest round of drinks and set them on the table. "Anything else?" she asked, plainly still unsure how to handle the group.

"Keep the rounds coming," Alyx told her, "and the pitchers full and we should be good to go." She gave the girl a slow smile, her eyes quite blatantly roving over the pretty blonde waitress, which caused the girl to blink as she processed the shift in mood by her female customer. Darien had to give her credit; she took it in stride, smiled in return, clearly more than willing to play along, especially if it earned her a bigger tip.

"Of course," she agreed. "Every thirty or so on the shots?"

"Perfect," Darien said with and a grin, taking his turn to admire the curves the snug-fitting clothes revealed, and getting slow fluttering of her eyelashes for his trouble.

"Done, just give a holler if you want anything in particular."

"Oh, I'll be sure to do that," Alyx got out before Darien could even manage formulate a response. Though he probably would have said something similar, had the alcohol not been slowing his synapses more than a touch. Alyx would always be quicker on the draw in these situations, but since she most likely had an uphill battle, it evened the playing field.

Then again based on the sudden rise of color to the server's cheeks, that slope Alyx was pushing up might not be as steep as he'd thought. When the server sauntered away a moment later, she made certain to sway those hips for all to see.

Hobbes snorted in pure amusement once she was out of hearing range in the crowded bar. "Fawkes, my friend, you're outta your league."

Darien chuckled softly, nodding in complete agreement. "Tell me something I don't know."

Claire's eyebrows drew together as her more-than-slightly pickled brain cells tried to process what wasn't being said. Given the over-abundance of brain cells she possessed, it didn't take her long at all. "She's using her abilities, yes?"

Hobbes answered. "Nope. She just flirts like a player, is all."

Alyx just shrugged. "I grew up with three brothers, and my study choice was a male-dominated field. You go along to get along." She handed around the shots, toying with hers before continuing. "I'm still a tomboy at heart, and always will be. I've always gotten along better with guys than gals." She met Claire's eyes squarely. "Mom made every effort to instill something vaguely ladylike in me, and I can fake it if necessary, but given she'd never been a traditional female herself..." she trailed off. "I am what I am."

Claire seemed to take a moment to digest Alyx's words, taking her time to formulate a response. "Thought you were what we made you?"

For second Darien had some concern that Alyx was about to blow her proverbial top, but instead she laughed.

"That too," Alyx said with a nod. "Though, truthfully, could you image how well I would have fit in here had I been a... a girl?"

Hobbes snorted into his beer. "Kid, I can't even picture that." He shook his head chuckling softly at the images his mind had conjured up. "For the record I like you just the way you are. 'Sides we have Claire to play the part of lady when needed."

The lady in question huffed in discontent. "I am no more a girl than Alyx," she argued, her words only slightly slurred.

"True 'nuff, Keepy, but you are most certainly a Lady... in every sense of the word." While Darien truly had no clue as to Claire's lineage, he definitely had his suspicions and those included the belief that she most likely came from a family that fell somewhere in the royalty part of the British food chain. He'd never asked, least not since that early incident when he'd followed her about and discovered her name. If that was actually her real name, and not some cover identity she lived under. He could drive himself mad thinking about it, so he tried not to, and just trusted that the face she showed him was a true one. If so, then the name didn't matter, the knowing of who she was did.

And given she'd done what she'd promised, what she'd set out to do shortly after meeting him that first time in the padded room, he knew that trust hadn't been misplaced. "Thank you, Claire," he said, his voice surprisingly soft, and the sentiment completely real.

"You're welcome," she responded with an astonishingly sincere smile, which she spoiled by hiccupping, making Darien laugh. "The Keepy is tipsy," she informed them with a blissed out look in her eyes.

"Yes, you most certainly are," Alyx stated in agreement. "I shall take on my usual role as designated driver and see to it you all get home safe and sound. Any of you bring your cars?" Two of the three shook their heads.

"We shared a cab over," Hobbes said. "Me and Claire did anyway, not sure how Fawkesy got here."

"Drove," he admitted, "but Herb'll let me leave the car here overnight if needed."

Alyx snorted, "Better be needed or else what's the point of celebrating?"

"Too true, kid," Hobbes agreed and as a follow up raised his shot and downed it. Everyone else followed suit.

Darien nudged Alyx after the empty glasses had been set on the table. "Eat, woman, you said you were hungry."

"Yes, sir," she snarked, but fell to the food as requested.

"So, Fawkes, what are you gonna do after?" Hobbes asked around a mouthful of nacho.

When you leave, what will you do? Flashed through his mind, words Alyx had said to him not so very long ago. He shook his head, attempting to chase away the memory.

He refilled his glass with the dark brew this time as an excuse to avoid Hobbes' question for a few moments. "Dunno," he admitted finally. "Not like there's much call for ex-thieves and ex-spies in the local job market." He rubbed the back of his head, kind of wishing Hobbes hadn't brought the subject up. "Maybe... maybe I'll just live for a while. I've got a decent amount stashed away." He glanced over at Alyx who seemed to be pointedly not looking his way, finding a sudden fascination in the bar food she had in abundance in front of her. "Maybe head up north for a while."

"Cold Springs?" Bobby asked, confusion skittering across his face for several seconds. "Back to the old homestead?"

Darien shrugged. "Don't see why not. Place is mine now, might as well take advantage of that fact."

Alyx shifted then leaning against his shoulder as if aware that the contact was exactly what he wanted at that moment. No surprise there. She sighed softly as he wrapped his arm about her shoulders and pulled her close. He could only hope that she didn't think that he planned on running away forever. The last thing he could imagine doing was leaving her behind, but a few days for himself, knowing she'd be waiting for him, or come up and join him at his call was more than well deserved. Time alone, no longer under the purview and watchful eyes of Agency. Then he'd return home to his friends and pick up on the whole living thing that he'd put on pause the last couple of years.

"Of course, Darien. But what about after?" Claire closed her eyes for a long moment and he had some concerns that she'd passed out without realizing it. When she opened them her gaze was intense, decrying the fact he'd thought she was drunker than a skunk. "There must be something you wish to do with your life? You've said you won't return to being a thief."

Darien shrugged. "I'm sure I'll think of something, Claire. The one thing I'll definitely have after the gland is out is time."

"All the time you need," Alyx said quietly, her words having all that much more impact because they were so soft. "I'll make certain of that."

"Kid..." Bobby trailed off, shaking his head. "You'd run roughshod over the 'Fish, wouldn't you?"

"Hell, yes," she told him, not bothering to even try to prevaricate. The she shrugged. "I still have some leverage I can use if needed."

"Save it for something more important, sweets. I'll manage just fine." He tipped his head over to rest against the top of hers. " 'Sides I'll have all of you to cock block the Fat Man should he try anything."

Claire snorted into her glass of beer, then spluttered, trying to swallow and cough at the same time. Bobby came to her rescue even as he laughed. "You have had enough of the hard stuff, Keepy. You have zero tolerance."

"Tell me something I don't know," Claire responded, her voice about an octave lower than normal thanks to the carbonation still trapped somewhere in the region of her larynx. "Just one... incident at college taught me to stay away from anything stronger than wine, but seeing as this is a special occasion..."

"Do we want to know?" Darien prompted, wondering what she could have done that was so terrible for her to have sworn off hard liquor. Though given what he'd seen of her after hours, there was most definitely a hedonist hiding under that prim and proper exterior.

Claire blushed, "It involved a decided lack of clothes and a swimming pool," she admitted, before bursting out in giggles.

"Could've been worse," Alyx informed her. "You could've gone streaking through the football team's locker room on game day."

Bobby's jaw dropped. "You didn't?"

Alyx shrugged. "Opposing team, and I take full credit for the win that day."

Bobby roared in laughter.

"That's my girl," Darien informed her, gently grasping her chin and tipping her head up to kiss her for several timeless moments. He finally released her with a small sigh of contentment. Right now, nothing could be more perfect in his world.

Claire shook her head. "You were a wild child? That doesn't fit anything I know about you," she said, the words quite slurred by this point and Darien made a metal note to slow down the scotch for her. He wanted to have fun, not send his Keeper into a black out.

Alyx shrugged. "If you want to call it that. I wasn't in constant trouble or anything like that, just had fun and pushed the envelope without crossing any major lines." She glanced around the table meeting everyone's eyes for an instant before continuing. "Our parents raised us to be ourselves, not forcing us into some niche that someone thought we should be stuffed into."

"Square peg into a round hole," Bobby stated with a quick nod.

"Exactly, my friend," Alyx agreed. "They made certain we were prepared to stand on our own feet, but provided support instead of direction."

"Ah," Claire stated effusively. "That explains quite a few things."

And it did for Darien as well. No wonder she just accepted him as who he was and no more. That's how she had been raised. It had always been one of things he admired about her. Her ability to just accept things... people as who they were. To accept him as he was and not try to fit him into some mold created by her mind. As Bobby had said: square peg in a round hole. She was one of the few people in his life who didn't do that, which, of course, made him like her all the more.

"As if I'm some great mystery," Alyx huffed, her tone bordering on angry for the first time all evening, which was odd given she'd made a point to tame her usual ire when Claire had been poking her with sticks earlier.

"Kid..." Bobby shook his head. "We only know what you let us. Yeah, we got files and info, but it's just words on paper. None of it is you." He scratched the top of his head, eyes squinting as if unable to focus too well at the moment, and given the amount of alcohol, he'd drunk was most likely the case. "If that makes any sense."

She hand waved his statement... literally. "Shit, Bobby, that's true for all of us. How much of your file is Top Secret? How much of Claire's?" Her emphasis making it clear, to Darien anyway, that she too had doubts about the legitimacy of the good Keeper's nom de plume. "Darien's public file will be whitewashed once he's out, right down to his credit score, so don't you dare give me that 'we don't know you' bullshit. You can trust me in a tight sitch, that's all you need to know."

Darien blinked, kind of shocked at the mini-rant he'd just been side-swiped by. The shock mostly due to the sudden realization that everything she'd just said was the unvarnished truth. He knew what he knew about his friends and that was it. Did it change anything? Not really. But she'd definitely called Bobby to the carpet on that one.

And based on the thunderous look on his partner's face, he didn't much care for that.

"Kid..." Bobby sighed, letting the momentary anger drain away. "How do you do that? Cut straight to the heart of something that most people wouldn't ever think about, much less see?"

Alyx shrugged. "My curse. Always being right is an awesome responsibility, you know."

And that diffused the situation completely, as Bobby roared with laughter.

Claire giggled. "You're ego is showing."

"Yup," Alyx agreed with a grin lighting up her eyes. "Helps that I'm the only one with a fully functioning brain at the moment. You all are just way too slow on the uptake in your current conditions. But don't worry I'll regale you with all the pertinent information once you've sobered up and recovered from the hangovers." She chuckled softly. "Gonna be an interesting day tomorrow."

"Oh bloody hell," Claire groused, "I never even thought about the consequences."

"As it should be, Claire. Now is time for fun, worry about tomorrow when it gets here, not before." Darien grinned. " 'Sides my headache will be as bad as yours. We can suffer together."

"Show up late, Doc," Hobbes stated, lifting his glass of beer and taking a huge swallow. "You'll just be doing prelim stuff with Fawkes, right?"

Claire sighed heavily. "True, and I do suppose after this I will require a bit of a lie in."

Alyx snorted. "A bit? Claire you have no clue how drunk you really are," she stated. "I'd tell the lot of you to take tomorrow off, but not a single one of us can really afford to, especially now."

"What's so especially about now?" Darien asked, the room deciding unexpectedly to tilt to the right.

Alyx just shook her head and refilled his glass with the pale. "Drink, drink and be merry my friends, we have a success story to celebrate."

They all raised their glasses in toast.

.

They ended up back at Darien's place. She'd left her car at Herb's and taken his in order to drive everyone home safe and sound. We'd all worked together, as much as three suffering from the effects of way too much booze and one perfectly sober person could anyway. It had taken all of them to get Claire home and tucked into bed. Darien had had some concern the good Keeper would be up riding the porcelain bus in a short amount of time, but Alyx assured him Claire wasn't that bad off. She had even managed to gulp down a couple glasses of water before collapsing into bed, which would help to stave off some of the hangover she'd be certain to have come morning.

Then it had been Hobbes' turn, which hadn't been all that difficult as he wasn't nearly as gone in the head as Claire, though it wouldn't be likely that he'd be awake at his usual oh-six-hundred as it was already well after two a.m. They'd closed Herb's down, which had been Darien's intention from the start, and if it wasn't for the fact that it was a weeknight would have bribed him to keep the place open, if only for them. However, Alyx had astutely pointed out that at least two of their foursome had been up far too many hours already and that, combined with the drink, meant they should be headed for the land of Nod, instead of another round of alcoholic libations. It hadn't taken much persuading, as both Bobby and Claire had been the proverbial three sheets to the wind by that point and Darien had paid the bill with a more than generous tip and left Herb to finish cleaning up so he and his employees could get home.

So, Bobby had been left curled up comfortably on his bed, assuring Darien that he was just fine and would see them in the morning. He had just laughed at that. While Hobbes might just be up before noon, there was no way in hell Darien would be, not without divine intervention. He had plans for when he got home - his or hers, it didn't really matter at this point - and they involved still being awake when dawn colored the city.

So, once his door had been shut and locked he pounced on Alyx, who didn't seem the least bit surprised. Not that she should be given the gentle teasing that had been going on between them all evening, he had always planned to finish this celebration in a state of decidedly sweaty undress. He might not be sober, but he'd made every effort to not get all that drunk. He had a decent buzz still, but the room didn't spin the least little bit when he closed his eyes, which meant he was just fine and dandy for some serious bed play.

Alyx chuckled softly and slithered out of his grasp easily. "You are drunk, bub."

"Yup, I am," he agreed, shedding his jacket and kicking off his shoes. "But not that drunk." He dug through his pockets and pulled out the receipt from the bar, on it, written in neat cursive was a phone number and the name Janine, proving he'd been successful in tonight's endeavor. He tossed his jacket on the pool table and held up the paper for Alyx to see.

Alyx pulled a napkin out of her pants pocket and held it out to him. On it were the same phone number, Janine, and an underlined "call me anytime" in the identical handwriting. Darien snorted in laughter. "What time?" he asked, oddly certain that she'd won the bet this time around.

"Just after ten," Alyx answered, confirming Darien's not so bold assumption. "She cornered me on the way back from the ladies room."

"So, you win."

"As usual," she said around a grin.

He moved over to her with slow deliberate steps, stalking her for all intents and purposes as there was something about her, something he couldn't quite put his finger on, almost as if she wasn't all here, though why he couldn't imagine... or maybe didn't want to. She'd kept her emotions locked down tight all night long, allowing him nothing but the most briefest peeks into what was going on inside. And that wasn't like her, not as of late anyway. After that week in Cold Springs and their temporarily living together, she'd opened up quite a bit, permitting him to share her emotional state, that link allowing emotions to flow both ways instead of just his to her. He knew doing that had been difficult for her and he'd appreciated it, appreciated her letting him in and granting him a chance to understand her better. And that could never be a bad thing. But today, she'd closed that connection down and he knew no more than what she granted him, or could not help but share, and that worried him, if only slightly. It could be no more than work related need to know, which he could understand. They all had their secrets to keep; she just had to work harder at it than others.

She didn't back away, just waited patiently for him to reach her, tipping her head up as he got closer so she could continue to meet his eyes. Being cautious to not touch her skin, he removed her jacket and tossed it next to his own, and then began to work on the buttons of her shirt, undoing them one at a time as if he had absolutely no interest in tearing it off her, stripping her bare, tossing her onto the bed and just taking her. No, he just acted as if he fully planned on taking this one achingly slow step at a time irregardless of how badly he wanted her. What he wanted more was for her to let him back in, if only for a few hours; even when necessary he hated when she put up that wall and planned to do his very best to bring it down.

Only once the shirt had been shed did he brush fingers along her skin, just barely making contact with her shoulder, lightly tracing up along the side of her neck until he cupped her face in his hand. Her eyes remained open and looking into his, her gaze seeming strangely sad to him. "I won't be here when you wake up," she told him in a soft voice.

He failed to keep his disappointment from her, though the fact he still held her face in his hands meant there was little chance she wouldn't know what he was feeling at the moment. "Why not?" he asked, making certain to keep the hurt out of his voice.

She smiled and tipped her head into his hand, rubbing her cheek along his palm. "Because it's after three a.m. and I have a meeting first thing in the morning. You aren't likely to wake up before noon."

He couldn't argue that, but he'd still prefer having her by his side when he did finally return to consciousness. "What time's the meeting?" He leaned down and kissed her lightly on the forehead, allowing his needs, his wants to come to the forefront, that way she'd know exactly what she was dealing with.

"Ten," she answered, "and there's no way I'm going to be doing the walk of shame."

Darien snorted and pulled back slightly to look at her, her eyes drowsy with his desire at the very least. He slid the right strap of the camisole down her arm, taking the lacy bra strap with it, the curve of her breast visible by the time he stopped. "Not the like 'Fish can't guess what we'd be getting up to tonight," he grouched, not really as upset as he was pretending to be.

"Not the 'Fish I'm worried about," she replied, eyes drifting shut as his hands trailed along the newly revealed flesh. "Just have stuff I need to do before the meeting is all."

He leaned down, lips brushing along her temple. "How's about you keep me up till dawn, then you can grab a couple hours of sleep and still have time to go home and change. Please?" he whispered the last, playing on the fact that she could get by with far less sleep than the rest of humanity, and she nodded, giving in far easier that he had imagined she would. Her hands finally came up, finding their way under his shirt to curve about his back, but without bringing him any closer, telling him she was quite comfortable with him setting the pace tonight. It was his celebration after all.

It wasn't enough though, he could feel that tingle of static wherever skin met skin, bringing his flesh to a shocking awareness, but no more, no emotions, and that meant she was holding back. But why? He knew she sometimes worried that she would overwhelm him, subsume his thoughts, his emotions, his very self under the tidal wave of her own, but it hadn't yet occurred. Yeah, sometimes they got so tangled together that they got caught up in the moment and then had difficulty pulling apart when it was all over, but that was it. A few moments to center and get themselves back under control and everything had been fine.

Leaning in he kissed her gently, lips barely touching her and whispered, "Let me in, please?"

She literally shuddered from head to toe and her hold on that wall collapsed.

He groaned aloud and captured her lips with his, her need a living, breathing entity that grabbed a hold of him and refused to let go. He fought against it, as much as he could but still found her stripped to nothing but her panties when he was finally able to pull himself back from that precipice. "And who's horny now?" he said aloud even though she would have heard him even had he not spoken.

"That would be you," she stated primly, "given you're still dressed."

It was true too. Her hands might have continued their roving under his shirt, but the clothes had yet to be removed, hell, they were barely out of place. Her control was pretty amazing he had to admit, the trick was get her to lose it... if only a little.

As if she'd heard that thought, and given their emotions were still very much entwined she probably had, she said, "You're the one in control tonight," which damn near broke him as he could feel she how much meant the words.

"Alyx," he began, not realizing until that moment how breathless he was, but she silenced him with a look.

"Your choice," she said, granting him leave do as he wished with both word and thought, and that... that could be a dangerous thing 'cause it might be hours until he would be sated.

"Till dawn, remember?"

Christ, three hours of play should be more than enough to satisfy even him. Scooping her up in his arms, he carried her over to the bed and lay her gently down. He wanted her, right now, but he would wait, time was the one thing he had in abundance, and he fully intended to enjoy this capper to the night of celebration as it should be.