music: Passenger by OneRepublic

So, there's this Chinese Proverb that goes, "To know the road ahead, ask those coming back," which makes it very easy for me, since I just have to ask myself this time 'round.

the road not taken

.

I sat down in the chair next to her. They had disconnected all but the most necessary monitors and she was still covered in wires and tubes. The heart monitor gave a slow, but steady rhythm; the sound of the machine breathing for her was driving me crazy. If it weren't for the reassurances of both Mike and Dani that she was indeed still in there, just hiding from the world, I would swear she was being kept alive out of some perverse need to torture her. They had told me the inhibitor would wear off by tomorrow and if she turned off the machines again they were not going to try and save her, she would have made her choice. They wanted... hoped I could change her mind.

I fished the bracelet out of my pocket and turned it over in my hands a couple of times. Gently, oh so gently, I lifted her hand nearest to me and slid it on her wrist. "I found this today, didn't even know I had it."

I didn't know what else to say. In all the months we had been together not once did either of us ever say that we loved one another, and I'm not entirely sure why. I think perhaps she never felt she needed to and I... I think I was afraid to admit I did. Some days our lives had been so intertwined that it became hard to separate the work from the living. Some days our work was about nothing more than living, surviving until the next moment. But when we had our time alone, words never seemed to be necessary. We could go from a near death situation to loving in a matter of hours. Words seemed so clumsy, so cumbersome, when we could simply show.

But now all I had was words and I, who at one time spouted off quotes just to irritate my friends, could think of nothing to say.

Darien forced his eyes open with a groan of irritation, expecting to see the ceiling over his bed and not the interior roof of the van and it took him a moment to remember why he wasn't snug in his bed. That hacking case, they had a plan and were just waiting for their target to get back online so they could track him back to his evil lair... or mother's basement, which was far more likely in his opinion. He glanced at his watch discovering he'd actually had a fair three hours of sleep, the sun, which had been low in the west when he'd closed his eyes, had long since gone down, and it looked like they had moved locations.

Hobbes had vanished from the driver's seat so Darien twisted about to look into the back of the van expecting to find his two partners staring mindlessly at a computer screen, instead he found himself alone. Which kind of sucked as he could use the company right about now. He was tired of the dream, tired of it insisting that its reality could be the only one when he knew for a fact it wasn't, that important points had already been changed, or had never existed in the first place. As if it were some scene from a vivid alternate reality that kept intruding on this one, showing him what he had... would have lived if he'd stayed on the same path. Which was fine and dandy, if it were true, but at this point had become nothing more than a pain in his ass. He scrubbed his face with both hands wanting to talk to someone about it, but not really having anyone to turn to. He needed to do as Hobbes had suggested, look at the dream as intel, nothing else and then make the best decision he could with all the facts in hand. Weigh those pros and cons, make his decision, and stick by it for good or ill.

But not today, hell, not tomorrow most likely, if things didn't pan out tonight. And anyway, right now he needed to stretch the kinks out of his back, take a leak, and grab something to eat. Maybe Hobbes and Alyx were on a food run or the like, though leaving him alone didn't make much sense and wasn't normal. He opened the door and slid out, his legs less steady than he thought they would be, they had apparently chosen to nap a few extra minutes, caught himself as he looked about to see where they were. Directly across the street was The Hole, one of the weirder locations on the WiFi hacking list, but that had been used at least twice since they had started tracking their thief. This place catered to the high end gamer set and was literally a hole in the wall... thus the name. A stairwell led down to a darkened doorway and into the subbasement of the buildings on the block that had been converted into one business: The Hole.

Darien checked his pockets and found the van keys, made sure the contents were secure and locked it up tight, suspecting that his partners were inside. As he crossed the street he pulled out his phone and texted Alyx, might as well make certain she was in there and not waste time looking for her if she were actually at the Java Hut a block over. Her response came back seconds later, confirming she and Hobbes were indeed inside, and where to find them.

Inside he hit the bathroom first, then tracked down the gaming room she and Hobbes were hiding in. There were a half-dozen others in the room all involved in some first person shooter, which Alyx and Hobbes ignored, their focus on the two laptops set up on the bar before them. One was Alyx's personal computer, the other the one they'd been running Destiny and the tracer program from. In fact, it looked like the tracer program was running right now.

"Thought you said we shouldn't run the program off of the WiFi?" Darien asked as he sidled up behind her.

"You are correct, bub," she responded turning the seat about and grinning up at him. "I modded the security a wee bit, we should be reasonably safe."

"Plus, it's bait," Hobbes added, ignoring her pout. "We want him to try and use it, make it easier for the kid to track him."

Darien co-opted the next stool down for his ass. "Why here?" The guy behind the bar came over and Darien requested a coke to drink.

"I ordered you a burger. Figured you'd be hungry," Alyx told him, as she leaned back against the bar, watching the game playing out on the screen across from them. There were a mix of computer stations and game consoles in the room, but there only seemed to be the one group session going on at the moment; the computers stations on but unused.

"TigerLily you've got a bogey on your six," Alyx called out and, in response, one of the characters spun about, a hulking alien beast lumbering up from behind. One frag grenade later and a cheer arose along with thanks from the gamer whose handle had been TigerLily.

Hobbes chuckled and shook his head. "She's been doing that for the last hour, much to their appreciation." He waved a hand at the group of twenty-something gamers. "Made them much more willing to share the room with us when they realized she could predict where the bad guys are with plenty of time to spare."

"Us geeks gots to stick together," she stated primly. "As to why here; I saw a pattern in the data. There's and eighty-five percent chance our target will be using this locale tonight to continue his nefarious deeds."

Darien drank down about half the soda that appeared by his elbow, suddenly thirsty as sin. "Ah, now that makes sense. You could have woken me."

Hobbes shrugged. "No point, might be hours before this guy makes his move. And you need your beauty rest when you have her to keep up with." He winked, which made Darien shake his head and smile.

Hobbes had a point though, while Darien had aged quite gracefully, Alyx hadn't... at all. She'd looked like a teen when they'd first met and if she didn't make the conscious effort to appear as mature as her mind was she would still come across as a teen, early twenties at most and that would be pushing it. Given her unique ability to absorb energy from anything and everything about her, she might very well never age again, much like Wolverine from the X-Men comics, who also had the ability to heal extraordinarily fast. She might very well live forever, looking young and beautiful for the eternity of it. He could only wonder if she and Claire had considered that. It would be an interesting topic to bring up one lazy afternoon they had together. He made a mental note to do exactly that.

"So, what's the plan?" Darien asked, hoping they'd be willing to share even if ultimately he would be doing very little of the work. Alyx would be handling the computer stuff for certain, he and Hobbes were here mostly as muscle, protect her, protect the gear, protect each other, and hopefully track down their target with minimal damage to life and limb.

"The plan is to wait for him to make another attempt and track it back to the source. If we manage that, we head in in person and haul him into the Agency for a little chat," Hobbes answered.

"If the location is local," Alyx pointed out. "If he's working out of Colorado or Timbuktu, we'll make arrangements for him to be picked up and transported here."

"I imagine your jarhead friends will be wanting a chat with him?" Darien asked as his dinner was delivered. A monstrous burger, steak fries, and a half a pickle. His girl knew him so very well; he would have to remember to thank her properly later.

"After we've had our turn," Hobbes stated with a look of almost jealousy at the food Darien had begun to gleefully wolf down.

He may have not had much use for the Quicksilver on this mission so far, but he had the feeling that would be changing in the near future. Everything seemed to coming to a head and he knew better than to turn down the opportunity to eat. Fuel was mandatory for the high priced engine his metabolism had become thanks to the gland.

"Bobby, order a burger. We are going to be here for a while yet even if he hacks in five minutes from now." Alyx leaned casually back, elbows on the bar, seemingly fascinated by the game going on across the room from them.

Hobbes grumbled under his breath for a couple of minutes then sighed. "I know, but we did eat dinner-"

"Feh," Alyx interrupted. "We had cheese and crackers, literally. Eat, you may not get to again for a while."

Hobbes nodded. "You're right, as usual." He signaled the barkeep and quickly placed an order. "You hang out here, don't you?"

Alyx nodded. "Now and then. I like the game theory, especially with teams. Helps improve my tactics and deployment. Since I'm being sent out as lead more often I need to make certain I understand how best to use the people given to me."

"You could play chess," Darien suggested, only about fifty percent serious at best. Having worked with her plenty of times, he knew how good she was, whether as lead or follower. The fact that she always wanted to improve impressed him, even as it made him want to shake his head in dismay. Every now and then taking a backseat and just letting things play out as they would, reduced the stress level. Some days she could manage that, but definitely not on this particular occasion.

She turned to face him, stole a fry, and then answered. "I do, a lot, but the pieces have no personalities. In real world situations you need to take that into account as well."

"You have learned well, grasshopper," Bobby stated, complete with really bad accent.

She preened while Darien tried to laugh and swallow at the same time. Hobbes handing out compliments had always been rare, handing them out to Alyx, in person no less, was astonishing. Though Darien wouldn't disagree. She was good, damn good and had probably saved both their asses any number of times. Made him wish they worked together more often, plus it was just far more fun. He knew the opposite would be occurring, now that her skills were back up on the proverbial job market. She'd be gone even more often, risking life and limb out there somewhere, possibly getting hurt, or worse, killed without him by her side.

And he wanted to be by her side. Wanted to be able to hang out with Bobby whenever, most especially when Alyx couldn't be in town. Wanted to get his Keeper to drop her guard every now and then and just be Claire. Wanted to continue to work this crappy job until it stopped being fun, which wouldn't be for a long time yet and... and he wanted the gland out. But not today. Maybe not for a while.

He sat there for a long while, watching his two friends as they chatted, offered advice on the game going on in the room and were just themselves, their guard, not down, but relaxed in the far from threatening situation they currently found themselves in. A moment of peace in the midst of what had often become a life of upheaval. A moment he would treasure.

.

The hours drifted by, the game ongoing, with Darien and Hobbes each taking a turn playing, neither very well, when one of the gamers took a break to stretch legs or go outside to smoke. They tried several times to get Alyx to play, making it obvious she had on other occasions, even giving away the handle she played under - thesilverqueen - much to her dismay and her partners' ongoing amusement. It was nearing one a.m. when the game took a turn for the worst, and the group found themselves cornered and surrounded with no hope for escape. They went down fighting, but were defeated all the same, and soon as the end credits began to roll, five of the group turned on the sixth.

"Nerfherder we were supposed to go left at the dock, not bloody right," the bleach blond neo-punk groused. "Weren't you listening?"

Nerfheder threw up his hands, clearly the newbie to the group, even though an excellent gamer, as everyone else had taken Alyx's advice without blinking. Darien leaned over to Alyx. "How'd you know about the short cut anyway?"

Alyx shrugged. "Backdoors like that one are built right into the game. Like Easter eggs in a DVD movie. Usually you find them through sheer luck. I can... see the code in the game if I concentrate." She looked up at him, humor in her eyes. "Tired? You can grab another nap if you want."

Darien shook his head. "I'm fine, but Hobbes looks to be wilting. Maybe the old man should go crash for a while."

"I'm just fine, junior," Hobbes groused around a yawn. "Just need some coffee." He signaled the bartender, who set a fresh pot on to brew.

"All right, boys, I have a few questions for my peers over there, if you think you can handle watching the monitors for me."

Hobbes waved a hand at her. "Go. You've been wanting to talk to them for a couple hours now, it must be important."

Alyx slid off the seat and strode away. Darien glanced at Hobbes who indicated with a tip of his head that Darien should probably follow along. Tucking hands into his back pockets Darien did exactly that. The greetings had commenced by the time he had arrived. Several of the gamers - both male and female - practically fawning over Alyx... thesilverqueen, making it clear she had a reputation not only here, but at other gaming locales in the area. Well, it certainly seemed she had managed to acquire a life outside of the office and himself. When had she managed that?

"Who were you playing against?" she asked as Darien came within earshot and slid in behind her. Without hesitation, she leaned back against him, marking her territory, much to the disappointment of at least two of the females... and one male standing about her.

"Mayhem," the dark haired kid in a polo shirt that radiated a pure geek vibe answered.

"Out of Hong Kong?" Alyx questioned, and got a round of nods in response. "She's damn good... but beatable."

Darien could practically feel the smile, which meant she had defeated this Mayhem personally on a previous adventure.

"And who's the beanpole? He ain't no gamer, that's for sure." That from the female blonde with bad attitude and tattoos on both arms.

"Hey, I warned you I sucked before I even sat down," Darien argued, but amiably. They seemed more curious as to why their gamer queen was dating someone who was clearly a non-geek.

"This is my partner, Darien Fawkes, and he has many uses besides computer geekery. That's my role on the team. Two of me would be scary."

That got laughs from everyone and broke the slight coating of ice that had formed over the group at his apparent possessiveness of Alyx. "Have you guys been having lag issues the last couple of months?"

That got more nods. "Yeah," the tattooed blonde said, stepping up to field the questions. At a guess she spent the most time here of the group. "Late at night especially." She looked up at Darien, not that she was shorter than him by much; she easily topped Bobby by a couple of inches. "This place is open pretty much twenty-four/seven and the regulars notice when there's a problem."

"Plus management is getting tired of giving refunds when the servers crap out," the tall dark-skinned kid added. "But it's not like DOS attacks, this is different."

"Which is why you're here, I'm betting," the polo shirt said with a knowing look at Alyx.

"Yep. It's nice to have niche to fill," Alyx replied with a soft laugh that got smiles from everyone. Looked like she definitely had an in here, not a single one of the gamers appeared to be suspicious. "Is the lag cross-platform or computer only?"

Heads shakes from all. "Everything slows down to a crawl, like something is sucking up all the bandwidth. But it's not a regular occurrence, and this isn't the only place having problems. Top Gun has been having the same issues. You think they're connected?"

Alyx shrugged. "Could be. I'll know more when I know more."

"Ah, so mysterious. So, what are the boys for? Your muscle?"

"That too. They have their uses." Alyx tipped her head to the side. "I know you're supposed to have this room all night, but I need it. I've already arranged for you guys to have the Oubliette on my dime... if that's okay with you."

"The... the O room." The poloed geek went down onto one knee and took one of her hands into his. "My Queen, we will be more than happy to accept this boon from you."

Alyx laughed, while the blonde chick smacked the kid on the shoulder hard enough to rock him, but clearly not hard enough to really hurt. Kid was stronger than his outer geek shell would hint at. "Get up, you're embarrassing her... and us." She met Alyx's eyes. "We pay your way next time we game, agreed?"

"Done," Alyx agreed with no hesitation. "I'll leave word on the board when I'm available."

A finger with a black painted nail was wagged at her. "Soon."

Alyx tipped her head down in acknowledgement. "Soon."

"All right, ya noobs. Off to the O. Let's see if we can get Mayhem back online for another round."

Moments later, with the exception of the barkeep, the room belonged to them and them alone.

"Kid, what the hell did you do to them?"

Alyx shrugged. "We game, talk geek, the usual. I like them."

"And they certainly seem to like you," Hobbes stated with a frown. "Exactly what do they think you do?"

This one Darien was pretty certain he knew the answer to. " 'Net security, I bet. You find 'em, we get to crack their heads."

"And that is one bet you would win. Not that I told them anything, Just a comment here and there and let them draw their own conclusions." She shrugged. "Seemed to be the easiest way to handle the situation, and it allows me cater my cover personas to suit my needs."

Hobbes chuckled, shaking his head. "Pretty damn accurate in this case. All right, how do you want to set this up?"

"I am gonna take our bait and get nice and comfy on the sofa over there. When he strikes, I'm going to have to go deep, I really don't want to tip over off the stool and crack my fool head open." She picked up one laptop while Bobby grabbed the other and the three of them made their way over to her chosen location.

Once she had everything set up the way she wanted, it became a waiting game. They chatted, played some games just to kill time, might as well since she was paying for the room, and waited.

.

Darien had dozed off, legs stretched out before him, hands on his stomach, fingers laced loosely together, Alyx sat beside him, one of her hands resting lightly on his thigh, her body a warm, welcome presence beside him, as he did nothing more than relax and enjoy her company. He wished they were home in bed, but at least they were together. Alyx was coaching Bobby through some complex game, explaining how to kill the monsters, switch gear, and other piddly stuff that seemed to be second nature to her.

"Uh, what just happened," Hobbes groused and Darien cracked open one eye to see Hobbes' character stuck in the middle of a swing, the sword a jagged line that was far from natural, the monster frozen with it's mouth open in a roar.

"Looks like we're in business." Alyx picked up the bait laptop and pressed a few keys.

Darien sat up straighter, yawning, one hand scratching the back of his head. "This our boy?"

"Looks like. Yep," she confirmed. "And there's three different handles showing up at four different locations." She tapped a few more keys. "Interesting."

"Define interesting," Hobbes requested.

" 'Oh, god, oh god, we're all going to die.'," she replied without looking up from the screen, but Darien caught the grin that curled her lips upward, which meant they should probably get whatever she was referencing, but didn't. He'd ask later and would be willing to bet there would be a movie or TV show involved. That was okay with him, he generally liked her viewing choices, even if they didn't always mesh perfectly with his style. Hard to complain about a chick who hated romantic comedies, but loved action flicks and was a die hard Bruce Willis fan.

"Hand me my laptop, please?"

Darien did so, balancing it on his leg while she typed one-handed on it. After a couple minutes, she smiled. "Oh, you are a sneaky one, aren't you?"

"Kid?"

She met Bobby's eyes. "He's good, damn good. In fact if it weren't for the obvious reality that I'm right here, I would swear I was the one doing this."

"Huh?" Not Darien's best line by any means, but summed up his feelings reasonably well right now.

"He's not hacking in via the WiFi, he's dialing in, like I do with Destiny, and taking over the servers." Alyx sounded impressed. "What an elegant solution to the power problem. Dial into the server farms at WiFi hubs and use their combined power to attack. And tonight he's dialed into four of them. Though this one here at the Hole is by far the largest."

"Well, let's cut him off then," Hobbes suggested getting to his feet.

Alyx shook his head. "No we want him to try and hack in... whatever his target is tonight."

"But I thought you... we were supposed to be stopping that," Darien said, confused at the sudden turnaround.

"Yes, but I can't track him if we cut him off. I need him in the system, trying to hack in to wherever he's targeting tonight so I can trace him back to his hidey-hole."

"Oh... duh."

She patted him on the knee. "S'all right. Okay, I'm going to have to go deep for this one. Do not try to pull me out. Bad things could happen. Just let it play out. Understand." She looked from one to the other until she got nods from both. "All right, see you on the flip side."

And with that, she was gone. Her mind dove into the computer system, leaving her now very vulnerable body behind. While not the first time she had done this, it still freaked Darien out just a little. Usually the connection she made was fairly light, and she could maintain a conversation while doing her searches in the system, but not this time. Her body had gone almost completely limp; he set very gentle fingers against the pulse point in her throat and felt the slow, strong beat there, which made him sigh in relief. Bobby took her laptop from him and set it back on the table.

"She's fine, Darien."

"For now," Darien groused. When Bobby looked like he was about to take exception to that Darien waved his hand. "I know, this had to be done, and she's the only one who can do this. But how long do we wait? If the sun comes up and she's still in there, do we just sit here and pretend everything is all right?"

"If she's still in there when the sun comes up I'll be calling the Keep, and we'll go from there," Hobbes answered without hesitation. "In fact I'm giving this an hour and no more. Catching this guy ain't worth her life."

"No shit." Darien heaved a huge sigh and forced himself to calm down. It would be ironic if now that he'd made his decision, even if he'd not yet shared with the class, he lost her, even more ironically lost her to the job. That because of his indecision and inability to come to terms with the importance of the people around him that she died sooner rather than later. That because he stayed, those five years she would have had to live her life would be taken away. And it would be all his fault.

Jeez, could his outlook on life get any lower?

Why did he always assume the worst in any given situation? Yeah, the way his life had been kind of justified it, but the last few years things hadn't been that bad, had they? Gained a gland, lost a brother. Gained friends - Bobby and Claire and Alyx - that he would never have even met under normal circumstances. But since then hadn't things gotten better? Hadn't life begun to go his way? First the inhibitor? Now the removal technique. His freedom handed to him on a silver platter.

Maybe... no it was definitely past time he stopped being a pessimist. No, his life was not perfect, far from it, but perfect would be so very boring. He looked from Alyx to Bobby, who had his attention focused on the computer on her lap, the data scrolling by apparently interesting in some way that Darien would probably never be able to understand. Which was just fine with him. He'd learn the basics to get by and... and maybe it was also time to do more than just get by with his life. Maybe it was time to be proactive and figure out where he wanted to be in five years.

.

It had just about hit that hour mark when Alyx's computer and both their cell phones sprang to life. Both men receiving texts at the exact same moment her computer delivered an email to itself. An email that opened to reveal an address and a picture. The exact same information had been delivered to both their phones, though Bobby hadn't gotten the pic, as he had yet to upgrade his phone and couldn't see the pretty pictures.

Hobbes frowned, when Darien showed him the image. "I really got to get a new phone."

"Yes, you do. Alyx chose this one for me. We text quite often when she's out of town on jobs."

The very same Alyx who chose that moment to return to awareness; and without liking it very much it seemed. She squinted in the dimly lit room, carefully picked up the laptop and gingerly set it on the table before managing a pitiful, "Ow."

"Kid?"

She turned to Bobby as blood began to drip from her nose. "Just get him," she mumbled, barely coherent as her eyes rolled back and she passed out cold.

"Shit," Darien swore, catching her as she tipped forward towards the table. He just barely kept her from smashing her head into the solid surface. "Call the Keep..."

Hobbes was already ahead of him, his phone to his ear. "Sorry for the early wake up call, but the kid has done it again. Yeah. Out cold with a nose bleed. We're at a geek place called The Hole-"

Darien shook his head, cutting off Hobbes' words. "Have her meet us at the location," he pointed at the address on the laptop. He could feel Alyx poking the back of his head, making him want to get up and run from there, the urgency unmistakable. They needed to move on this, and now. He shifted Alyx, holding her securely in his arms and got to his feet. "We'll need both computers."

Bobby nodded and stood as well. He frowned but didn't argue. "Change of plans Keep, you're gonna need to meet us on the road. I'll text you the address, just get there as fast as you can." He glanced over at his two partners. "She ain't doing too good."

'Too good' would have been a step up in Darien's opinion. Not only was she out cold, but she had gone beyond limp, and, aside from the absolute certainty that she was somehow her urging him to get moving on this and pronto, would have been willing to bet no one was at home. Yet part of her seemed to have remained stubbornly aware and made every effort to relay the importance of the situation on him. And that contact, as visceral as it might be, was the only thing keeping him from going into hysterics. He did not like his girl being hurt, wanted no part of losing her again. Her death, fake as it had been had hurt him in ways he had yet to be able to describe. It had been like losing part of himself, a part that until it had gone missing he hadn't realized he needed to survive. Without her his life would not be one worth living, he would just be surviving, getting by day to day with nothing to look forward to and no motivation to do anything of value.

Within moments Hobbes had the two laptops packed into their bags, which he slung over his shoulder and led the way back out into the early morning city. False dawn hadn't yet touched the sky, but you could feel it in the air and knew it would be coming soon. The city was stunningly silent at this time of the day, not even the distant rumble of truck tires on the highway could be heard, no dogs barking, no birds yet beginning their pre-dawn rituals. They'd managed to catch that one moment in this ever-moving city when all was still. And they were going to be the ones to shatter that silence.

Hobbes got the passenger door to the van opened and waited until Darien had managed to climb in with Alyx still in his arms. Given the configuration of the new van there was no place to stick Alyx other than the one chair, and she wasn't likely to remain upright past that first sharp turn Hobbes was certain to make in the near future. So she would get to ride up front with the boys. Once they were reasonably situated, Hobbes shut the door, booked it around the front end, climbed in the driver's side, and shoved the laptops on the floor. With some creativity, they got the seatbelt secured around both Darien and Alyx. Seconds later, with a squealing of tires and black smoke drifting up from the rear of the van, they peeled out and onto the empty street.

Hobbes made an effort, a small one admittedly, to obey the traffic laws as he drove through the silent city, their target literally across town, and normally a fair forty minute or better drive in the typical daytime traffic. Hobbes pulled off a speed record and did it in twenty minutes. He cruised past the address at just over the posted speed limit and circled the block, before parking three doors down under the cover of a low hanging tree.

He double checked his phone to verify the address and shook his head. "We're in the suburbs, Fawkes. High end suburbs at that. And while our target is definitely young, he ain't a kid."

Darien agreed. This place looked to be too upscale for their target, but he didn't doubt Alyx's info. "Living in his parent's basement?" he suggested. "If we had a name we could run down more info."

Hobbes smacked himself in the forehead. "D'oh!"

Darien snickered at Hobbes' most excellent Homer Simpson imitation. "What?"

Bobby grabbed the laptops, pulling out Alyx's baby and waking it up from its nap. "We was in such a hurry to get out of there that we didn't think to even do a basic search on the address."

Alyx's laptop had access to all sorts of nifty stuff, including databases with lots of information. She had the ability and permission to get into all sorts of places that Darien had only begun to learn about since he had only recently begun to take an interest in computers and their usefulness to the job. He hadn't even bought one for himself yet, but figured it would be coming soon. Alyx was too much of a tech-head to let him get away without having one for much longer. Besides, it would give them another way to stay in contact when she was on those long distance loan jobs.

"Did you feel like you had to get out of there too?" Darien asked, wondering if it had been more than his imagination.

Hobbes eyebrows bounced upwards and stayed there. "Yeah... the kid pulling her tricks again, huh?" He dug into the bag. "Where is that damn... Ah ha! Got it." He came up with the wireless connection for the computer and shoved it into place. Mere moments later he was typing away like a madman.

"At a guess, she felt that getting here was important." He wiggled enough to get the seatbelt undone, and shifted her so that her forehead rested against the side of his neck. Her nose had stopped bleeding, but his shirt had already been ruined, the baby blue now stained a dark crimson, which was depressing as he'd bought this shirt only a couple weeks ago. Good thing he hadn't paid full price for it. Incidents like this one were why he still shopped at flea markets and second hand shops, the job was damn hard on his clothes and he hated paying full price for something that would most likely get destroyed in some manner or other.

"No shit. My hair was damn near standing on end." He pressed a few more keys. "House is owned by a Stephen Richards, twenty-five. Freelance computer programmer. Has quite a tidy sum tucked away into his bank account and... his driver's license pic matches the image the kid sent us." He turned the computer so Darien could see the image. "Apparently, this professional geek gig pays pretty damn well."

"Well, then why is he doing this? For shits and giggles?" Darien wondered aloud. He could see Alyx doing that, though more to just see if it could be done, and while she might want to test her toys against the toughest competition possible, he doubted she'd do any real damage. Like Kate back in his first year here, with her fancy Quantum Computer. She'd broken into the DoD and the Nikkei stock exchange and worked them over like it had been easy as pie. Which it had been. Alyx... well Alyx was nearly as good, and might very well be better if she had the time to sit down and give any project the attention it really deserved. Look at the program she'd come up with in a matter of hours just for this case. What she could do if she really put her mind to it was a frightening thought.

"Could he just be a middle-man?"

Hobbes shrugged. "Dunno. There's been no unusual activity in any of his official accounts. And his phone records don't show anything hinky either. But that don't mean much since we've only had about five minutes to research the guy." Moving cautiously he slid out of his seat and moved to the back of the van with the laptop, which he set on the table as he grabbed the second one and set it up as well. The tracer program was still running, showing their target was still online and still trying to hack his way into some database somewhere and probably making a whole slew of military mooks want to tear their hair out at their inability to stop him. Then again if he were trying to hack into one of the databases that Alyx had modified the security on, he might just be banging his virtual head against a virtual adamantium wall. "He ain't finished that's for sure. I can't tell if he's having any success though." He glanced at his watch. "How's the kid?"

Darien shook his head. "Out cold and alive. You now know as much as I do." He didn't mean to sound grouchy, but he was worried about her and they couldn't exactly go after this Richards character until the cavalry had arrived. Speaking of which... "Where the hell is Claire?"

At that moment not one but three sets of headlights turned onto the street the next block down, as they rolled closer Darien recognized the outline of Claire's Cherokee and two of the Agency pool cars. The boxy outline of the LTDs was rather distinctive in the current market of curves and aerodynamics. The pool cars turned out their lights and pulled up curbside a couple houses down, while Claire crossed the street to park with her headlights directly in his eyes. She turned them off after moment and exited the vehicle with her medical bag in hand, the stethoscope already about her neck. She'd clearly come prepared for the worst, which was a good thing, he supposed. She was wearing about the last thing he expected to see, jeans and a t-shirt that read 'Trust me, I'm a Doctor' across the front. Honestly, he hadn't thought she owned anything so... so relaxed, the closest he'd seen her to dressing down had involved leather. He'd been certain she didn't even know what denim was or that clothes that could be made from it.

She opened the door and climbed up onto the step. "How is she?" she asked, the stethoscope moving into the proper position. With her help, he slowly shifted Alyx so that Claire more easily examine her. The medical bag ended up on the floorboards by Darien's feet once he'd shifted the seat back as far as it would go.

"Hey, Keepy," Bobby called out from in back. "Sorry to wake you."

"Not a problem, Bobby," she replied, her eyes meeting Darien's for moment. She ran through the usual suspects, a frown creasing her brow the entire time. When the stethoscope came off her frown only deepened. "What exactly was she doing this time?"

"Uh, back-tracking this guy's signal back to his house," Darien answered. He looked down at the woman in his arms who looked awfully pale in the overhead light of the van.

"And what does that entail?" If it wasn't for the fact that she needed to keep her balance, Claire would probably have her hands on her hips given the irritation easily viewed on her countenance.

"Following his computer signal in the system. She was in for almost an hour," Bobby explained from in back. "The computer wasn't able to track the guy, he was using proxies and bouncing the signal everywhere." He poked his head into the front. "She was the only one who could track the signal quickly."

"Which put her down for the count," Claire pointed out tone rueful. "All right, she is not going to like this but I need to speak to her before I dare risk giving her anything." She looked Darien in the eye. "Think you can wake her?"

"I can try," Darien answered. Behind him, the side door slid open and he could hear Bobby starting up a discussion with at least two of the Agency people who had followed Claire in. "You bring along the cavalry?" Yes, he was indeed procrastinating. If Alyx wanted to be conscious, she would be no matter how much actual pain she was in. It was rare when her stubbornness couldn't at least create a draw where her body was concerned. Pain was something to be dealt with, no more no less.

"Of course, and informed the Official of the little I knew. I expect you will receive a call in the near future, and you are stalling." Claire gave him a single eyebrow raise, which he would swear she had learned from Alyx as it the good doctor had never used that one at him before Alyx had joined them.

He nodded and shifted Alyx so that her face was nearer to his. He ran his fingers gently along her cheek wanting her to be certain it was him before he pushed harder. She could be insanely reactionary when woken suddenly, and it had occasionally involved flinging things, including him, away from her with her mind alone. Fists and other nearby objects had also been used. It wasn't fun, and it wasn't funny, but it was something he had learned to deal with since they'd begun sleeping together on a semi-regular basis. She had to deal with similar problems with him, as he still could have very violent dreams, and had been known to knock her out of his bed without being aware of it.

So this time, knowing she was hurt and in pain, he took every care to make certain she wouldn't react, at least not beyond the unavoidable discomfort that would be caused by simply returning to the land of the conscious and aware. He kissed her lightly on the forehead then said very softly, "C'mon, sweet thing, I need you to wake up for a few."

He felt a wash of awareness across him, her built-in self-defense mechanism checking to make certain the coast was clear. She swallowed and shifted, trying to wake up as requested, but clearly, not having an easy time of it. He could tell Claire was getting impatient, but would not rush this. If she really needed to remain unconscious, he would not force her to wake. "S'okay, baby, take your time, but we do need some info from you." He hoped that the reminder that they were still working a case would help draw her back to the surface.

A moment later she sucked in breath of air, a sob escaping as it was released. "Hurts," she said, the single word badly slurred.

"Yes, I imagine it does," Claire commented, wisely keeping her voice soft. Darien knew the Keeper was still pissed at Alyx, and could really cause her pain if she wanted to. It would appear, however, that she still placed her role of doctor above that of angry and hurt friend. A good thing as Claire was pretty much it for who to go to for help in this situation. "Can you open your eyes for me?"

"Maybe?" came the dubious response, but she proceeded to make a valiant effort at just that. The silver was dull as tarnished pewter, which meant the headache was beyond bad, but her eyes weren't bloodshot, always a good, or at least a less bad sign. "Shields are shot," she informed them.

That, however, was less than good. She wasn't broadcasting which meant she was holding it together by the skin of her teeth, but it probably meant she was picking up on everyone and everything nearby and all that noise in her head would just add to the pain she already felt. She needed to pass out completely, preferably with one of the many drug cocktails they'd come up with to help ease the pain and block the incoming signals when her control crashed. "Not long, I promise you," Darien assured her, hoping to god Claire would back him up on this one. Now was not the time to be pissy and vindictive.

"Have just what you need, Alyx. Just need to gauge your level of pain first."

Alyx chuckled for all of a second before it morphed into a groan of pain. "Fifteen," she finally said when she had some measure of control back.

"Huh?" Darien asked, looking from one woman to another in confusion.

Claire reached into the kit and came up with a vial and syringe. "Her pain level on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst."

And she had said fifteen, which meant... she really needed to be drugged into unconsciousness right about now. "Shit," Darien muttered.

Alyx's hand reached up, and curved about his neck, her fingers freezing cold even though the temperature at this early morning hour was quite comfortable for him. "Stop worrying, I'll be fine," she assured him. Her eyes unfocused then and he thought she was about to pass out again until she spoke. "Make sure he doesn't wipe his drives and don't turn him over to anyone before I get the chance to speak to him. It's important."

"Alyx, I can't-"

"You got it, kid," Bobby cut in from in back where Darien suspected a plan had been hatched. "We'll put him on ice until you get the chance to pick his brain."

"Cool," she said, her eyes slipping shut and hand shifting down as Claire moved it to allow her better access. The scent of alcohol was sharp and strong in the close confines of the van even with assorted doors and windows open to allow in the early morning breeze. A second later the needle had been inserted in one of the many veins easily visible in Alyx's forearm. She sighed softly as the drug hit, wiping the pain away and dragging her back into the Land of Nod.

"She needs to lie down," Claire stated, making it clear there would be no arguing about it.

"I think we have some blankets and such in the back. Emergency supplies," Darien told her, brushing a stray curl from Alyx's face. The moment the pain had faded her color had returned, which eased the ache on heart. He hated seeing her in pain, no matter how much a part of their lives it had become. They had both become poster children for beatings, both of them sporting bruises in multiple shades of color given how often they were punched, kicked or otherwise banged about. It was one of the odder hazards of this job.

"All right then. Bobby?"

"On it, Keep. Need to rearrange a bit to accommodate you two."

Darien stayed where he was, he'd be told when all was ready, and then he'd move, not before. Alyx didn't need any unnecessary jostling right now. Claire, however, had moved to the back, shoving the agents out of the way from the sound of it, to make certain things were set up to her specifications.

"That would be a sleeping bag, Bobby."

"I can see that, Keep. Kid must have stuffed it in here. She's always thinking ahead like that." Bobby didn't sound the least bit surprised. Alyx was known for doing stuff like that and because of that they always seemed to have just what they needed just when they needed it. Like she was psychic or something. That thought made Darien grin slightly. She rarely spent any time in the van these days, yet had planned for an emergency that might have never happened. Though he and Bobby did do a fair share of stakeouts in the van and a sleeping bag with blankets would be much more comfortable for a nap than trying to curl up in a seat that didn't actually recline thanks to the modified interior design.

"We're ready for you, Darien," Claire said a few minutes later.

Moving slowly, he made certain he had a solid hold on Alyx, slid out of the seat and onto the ground. He moved over to the side door, the foot of the sleeping bag stuffed into the far rear of the van, which would put her head near the very end of the side door, and that would allow Bobby access to the computers and such without having to climb over Alyx. With a little wrangling and help from both Bobby and Claire they got Alyx situated on the sleeping bag, pillow under head and a blanket tossed over her. She was out like a light, but looked far more comfortable now that she'd been given the good drugs.

Darien looked up at Bobby. "So what's the plan?"

Hobbes just smiled.

.

The plan had been stupidly simple, especially with the original version of Destiny up and running on Alyx's laptop. Richards' security was actually quite good, but not up to defeating an invader it didn't expect and Hobbes had it offline in under five minutes without Richards even being aware of it since he had still been trying to hack his way into some database that Alyx had upped the security on. So he ended up being beat by a girl... twice even though he hadn't known it. When Darien had appeared in a shower of Quicksilver flakes beside him, a gun aimed casually at Richards' head, he went still for a long moment, as if completely shocked at the sudden turn of events. As it should be as far as Darien could be concerned; why else use the Quicksilver if surprise failed to be the end result? Plus he had three Agency goons behind him, all doing their best dangerous and deadly routine at the poor geek.

The kid had slowly raised his hands, eyes wide in real fear and the Agency had taken him into custody. Easy-peasey.

The likelihood that this guy had come up with this plan on his own had dropped dramatically at his effortless capture. The guy had been so focused on the database incursion that he'd been completely unaware that he'd been discovered, much less that anyone had been nearby waiting to take him into custody. Hobbes still hadn't figured out how the different pieces-parts went together or what they were supposed to make, if anything, and the geek hadn't shed any light on the subject. He had wisely kept his mouth shut, not even asking for a lawyer, as if he understood this whole situation were more serious than the typical hacker-related incident.

Bobby and Darien both had a go at getting some information out of the kid, but without trying all that hard, given neither of them really knew the right questions to ask. So they'd made him as comfortable as possible without revealing where he was, who had him in custody or why. Not that he was entirely clueless as he clearly knew he was in deep shit and that anything he might say would most certainly be held against him. He also wasn't the usual geek they caught, and failed to collapse into a hysterical pile of 'I didn't do its,' or 'I didn't mean tos,' once they had him behind locked doors. He kept his cool and simply waited.

It had taken a fair twenty-four hours for the real interrogation to begin. Alyx had slept for twelve of that, her mind not letting her get away with abusing it so badly without paying the price. Darien had worried, spending as much time by her side as the Official would permit. When he hadn't been there, Agency goons had been left watching her door, making certain no one could get to her while she remained unable to truly defend herself.

That, in many ways, had been the worst part all along. When she overdid it, pushed herself to her limits and beyond the corresponding recovery time became inevitably longer, which left her vulnerable to outside attack.

On this occasion it hadn't been bad guys going after her that they ended up fending off, but the good guys, the ones who had hired her for a particular job, that had ended up stuck on hold because she had chosen to end the incursions instead of continuing to patch the holes created.

Granted, sleep and food to get fixed up wasn't too bad a deal when you thought about it, but those to whom she answered had gotten plenty antsy by that point. The Official covered it far better than the military mooks, who were practically frothing at the mouth wanting to know what the fuck was going on and instead getting the professional run-around from the Official.

As far as the boss had been concerned, if Alyx wanted first crack at Richards, she would get it. She had earned that much respect after managing to do what no one else had been able to - find him.

Alyx had gone to Richards' home not long after she'd returned to the land of the concsious. They'd left everything in place and she'd easily cracked his encryption and spent several hours pouring over every bit of data in his system. When she'd finished she'd told the Agents with her to bag and tag everything and bring it to the Agency.

Darien had tagged along, playing personal bodyguard, and watched all this with some amusement, only mildly surprised when the agents didn't give her even the slightest amount of backtalk. They had their marching orders, obviously and it had been made clear that on this she was very much in charge. Darien had felt mostly useless, but got the impression that she wanted his company more than anything, which he didn't really mind. She'd found something... something that had disturbed her, but she hadn't been ready to discuss it. She had her reasons he was sure, but wished she felt she could unburden herself with him. He'd listen, even if he ultimately didn't understand. But she hadn't been ready, maybe hadn't been sure that the conclusions she had come to were the truth, and, if nothing else, Alyx thrived on the truth. Even living a lie, or maybe because she spent so much of her time not being real, the truth had become the only thing she could believe in.

He hoped that one day she'd believe in him.

So now they sat in the tiny security office down the hall from the cage, waiting for Alyx to make her grand entrance. Richards had been treated like the geek he was. He wasn't some terrorist as far as they could tell. Aside from his sudden interest in hacking into government databases, his record was clean as a whistle, not even a speeding ticket or DUI to be had, no sealed juvie records to be dredged up and waved as proof of his being a bad guy through and through. No, he appeared to be nothing more than a twenty-five year old geek who had gotten into something way over his head. Kid hadn't even requested a lawyer. Just did what they asked when they asked and not done more than ask for some extra blankets - which had been provided - because the basement the cage he was in never really got warm.

When Alyx finally stepped into the room, Richards looked up from the magazine he'd been staring at and went dead still, as if shocked to find a girl standing there before him. He deliberately set the magazine down and then said, "So, you're the heavy?"

Alyx laughed. "You could say that, I suppose." She unlocked the cage and swung the door wide. "Let's talk a walk."

Richards sat there for a couple minutes, then shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

And that's just what they did.

A couple hours later they returned, cups of Starbucks in hand, and one hell of a story to tell.

.

Richards looked seriously uncomfortable in the presence of the Official, but he hadn't been given much choice in the matter. He was still under arrest for a major crime and had figured out that getting the Official on his side might be the only way he could save his ass. Alyx stood behind him at parade rest while he and Hobbes took up positions on opposite sides of the room. Greene and Alice stood outside the doors, just in case the kid chose to make a run for it.

"So, what have you got to say?" The Official made certain to sound gruff and the kid bought it completely.

"I'd like to say I was snowed, but that's not really true. I suspected what I was doing wasn't even vaguely legal, but that program..." Richards trailed off shaking his head. "I had to try it and the list it came with seemed to be the perfect way to test it." He practically glowed, his geek out on full display. Alyx, who Darien expected to be amused at the reaction, remained stoic, which meant she'd discovered a truth that had been more than a touch bitter to swallow.

Richards seemed totally unconcerned that he was spilling his guts without a lawyer present, which meant Alyx had cut a deal of some sort with him, and given the Official seemed to be playing along... it had obviously been pre-planned, not even Alyx would guarantee a deal without checking with the Official first. Then again, with what appeared to be her past involved she wouldn't want the little fish. Oh no. And no matter how good Richards might be, he was most certainly the little fish, the patsy, the scapegoat and if anyone else, say the jarheads, had caught him they never would have looked beyond him to see who had really been pulling the strings. Alyx clearly had, and knew that whoever had really been running the game, had to be big, really big. Which meant, luckily for Richards, that the little fish would get thrown back into the pond to swim away.

"How did you acquire the program?" The Official asked.

The kid shrugged. "Arrived in a package. No return address. Just a disk and the list of IP addresses."

"And you were dumb enough to look at it," Hobbes grouched. "It could have fried your drive."

Richards twisted about to look directly at Hobbes. "Which is why I used an older computer that was not tied to my main system." He huffed, plainly not happy that Hobbes thought he could be that stupid. He spun back around to face the Official. "The code was older, late eighties or so, but it was amazing." The awe in his voice was unmistakable. "I needed to do some minor mods to update it for current tech, but the program on its own was sound. The power demands for it to work effectively were a bit daunting at first - least without having to spend a small fortune on server farms."

"So you just co-opted existing ones," Darien stated. He'd kept up with the class on this one.

"An ingenious solution to the power issue," Alyx added, arms folded across her chest in irritation, even though her tone sounded praiseful. "Of course, there had been nothing comparable back when I wrote the program."

Richards froze, literally went stock still, eyes widening in shock as her words sank in. Darien resisted the need to laugh. The poor kid's mouth opened and closed several times before any coherent sound came out, and even then the geek squeaked it.

"You wrote that code? What were you? Ten?"

Alyx didn't even crack a smile. "Twenty," she stated. "You do realize that you need to forget that code, yes?" Her voice was ice cold, her look a glacier ready to roll over the world and destroy everything in its unstoppable path.

"Yes, ma'am," came the instant response, and from what Darien could see on the kid's face he meant it. "I have the feeling you'd know if I tried anything with it."

"That's 'cause she would," Hobbes stated in his very best mob muscle voice, which made Darien shake his head in order to keep from chuckling and spoiling the game. Yeah, they were just trying to intimidate Richards, to impress upon him the need to stay as far away from this as possible or risk losing a lot more than just a couple computers and a few hours of his life. That program could very well get him killed, and not just by those who had slipped it to him. The military would definitely like to get their hands on him and not for altruistic purposes that's for certain. They were pissed, and would be even more so when this was over with. Darien just didn't see Alyx turning Richards over to them, not with what she knew. Hell, they be as likely to have Richards rewrite the program for their own use as prosecute him for using it. And the government with that kind of power would never be a good thing.

"So you have no idea who sent disk to you?" The Official did not look happy at all, but Darien had the feeling his boss was simply putting on a good show.

Richards shook his head. "No. I'll give you the original disk and letter... which you probably already have as I didn't exactly hide them." He looked from one man to the other until he'd made his way about the room, his face paling dramatically by the time he met Darien's eyes. "Shit," he muttered under his breath.

The Official didn't bother to ease Richards' concerns; they needed him scared and wanting to behave like a good little geek. "Who did you send the data to?"

Richards blinked, confusion skittering across his features. "What data?"

"The docs you downloaded," Hobbes explained, but at the kid's continued confusion added, "One for each incursion. About a dozen in all."

Richards shook his head. "I didn't download anything," he told them, defiance in his voice for the first time.

Darien glanced at Alyx who met his eyes and nodded slightly. Letting him... them know the kid told the truth. Richards had no idea that the program had been grabbing files once it had penetrated the databases. Interesting, and not in a good way.

Richards twisted his head about to look up at Alyx. "Was it supposed to do that?"

She just smiled at him, quite plainly not about to give the kid an inch, at least on the surface. Darien suspected Alyx actually felt sorry for Richards, and was trying desperately to maneuver things to keep him as safe as possible, which wouldn't be very easy now that he had placed himself on the bad guys radar.

Richards slumped back into the seat, not really focusing on anyone in the room. His voice was a tiny thing when he spoke, "What's going to happen to me?"

Darien realized the kid had finally figured out he was in real trouble, the kind that could end up with him disappearing off the face of the planet should they so choose. Darien didn't think it would come to that, but it was a certainty that life as Richards knew it had come to an abrupt end... and that was a damn shame as it most certainly hadn't been the kid's fault other than being too curious for his own good. A situation with which Darien could most certainly sympathize.

"That's what we're going to decide," the Official informed him, making the kid cringe in his seat at the unforgiving tone. As if on some prearranged signal the glass fronted door opened and Agents Greene and Alice stepped in and stood together side by side in the open doorway.

Richards turned about to look at Alyx with real fear in his eyes. "I'm willing to do pretty much anything to fix this," he told her, his voice pleading.

Darien found it interesting that Richards turned to Alyx to make his plea, and not the Official. Somehow, the geek had figured out that Alyx and not the Official would be making the ultimate decision on his fate. Smart kid. Trouble was Alyx would probably be less lenient than the Official. The secrets she protected had forced her to learn how to make the hard decisions and stick by them, no matter what the ultimate cost and who had to pay it. Though more often than not she paid that cost herself.

Her harsh look softened. "I know, and I'll do what I can, but you've committed several serious crimes, even if you didn't consciously plan to. With the Patriot Act alone I could bury you."

He shut his eyes and swallowed hard. "I understand," he finally said, meekly.

"Good." The Official nodded to the bookend agents. "Take him home and stay with him."

Richards opened his eyes, focus switching to the one person who would be deciding where his life would be going from here.

Alyx stood there silent until he had left the room, the door shut tightly behind them, then shifted around to sit in the so recently vacated chair. "You or someone else needs to hire him now. Farm him out to the NSA if you need to, but stake your claim before someone else does." She looked exhausted and unhappy, but Darien would need to be patient to find out exactly why. If he ever found out. He might very well be left off this particular need to know loop.

The Official shook his head. "I can't afford him and... we can't trust anyone else." He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Anywhere we place him in the government could have moles, and then he'd be right back where he is now."

"A pawn," Hobbes stated. "And he's already proven he can take your programs and adapt them." He moved around and co-opted the corner of the Official's desk to lean against. "We could kill him."

Alyx managed a dry chuckle at that, which kind of surprised Darien. Her response, however, actually shocked him.

"Believe me, I've considered it." She sighed heavily. "Not that it matters, they'll just find someone else. Maybe I should go beat on Sims for a little while," she pondered aloud.

"So what are we going to do with him?" Darien asked cautiously, wondering just how seriously she had considered killing Richards. "None of this is really his fault, and somehow I doubt he really knew those IPs were government databases. He just wanted to play with the new toy." Darien felt an odd sort of sympathy for Richards, he'd made one wrong choice and ended up caught between a rock and a hard place... a story that was so very familiar to Darien. He hadn't planned to end up where he currently was, but he would do his utmost to make the best of it. Richards would just need to do the same.

Alyx turned to look at Darien, a smile on her face that failed utterly to touch her eyes. "I'll make some calls. I think I can arrange for him to be out of the line of fire and still do what he loves."

The Official nodded, apparently understanding what she was not outright saying. Darien, for a change, had a fair guess as to what she had planned, but wanted to confirm it. "Patrick?" he asked.

"Yeah. Seems like it would be a good fit for all concerned." She turned back to the Official. "I'll contact Mikey in the morning, he can coordinate with you and get Richards off the grid as fast as possible. I hate running roughshod over his life, but I don't see that we have much choice."

"Kid, if we didn't snatch him up your husband's people probably would and that... that would be bad," Hobbes stated, summing the whole situation up succinctly. "We could just prosecute him, y'know."

"Not an option, Hobbes," the Official grumbled. "That program needs to disappear, not make headlines." He aimed his beady eyes at Alyx. "Will you be able to cover?"

She nodded. "Some self-destruct bullshit. They'll buy it, especially once I've finished the upgrades." One hand came up to rub her forehead. "I'll spin it so we're the heroes as usual."

"Excellent." The Official gazed about the room, not looking anywhere near as happy as Darien thought he would. "You realize this is just the beginning, right?"

Hobbes frowned deeply. "Yeah. How did he get that program?"

"How about where did those files end up?" Darien added, wondering if that might be the more pressing concern.

The Official swore softly, much to Darien's amusement. "Can you find out?" the Official asked of Alyx.

"Will try to anyway. I didn't see those files on any of his drives, but they could be hidden on some invisible partition. It'll just take time to search them thoroughly," she answered, sounding just so thrilled to add yet another item to her never-ending to-do list.

"And if they're not there?" Hobbes asked, falling on that particular sword mighty bravely.

She shrugged. "Then I try to figure out who they were sent to." She sighed. "As to your first question... Finding the program would be my fault, I suppose," Alyx stated, sounding less than happy to be answering that question.

Darien had been thinking long and hard about that very thing and had come to the only conclusion possible. "The disks were at your home, right? Jess must have found them during the move and figured they might be worth something." The only person who didn't look surprised that he'd figured it all out was Alyx, but then she knew best how his mind worked, and, plus, he'd had more than a few hours at her bedside to ponder several of the more obvious questions and come up with answers.

"How many others?" Hobbes asked as he caught on to the potential problems that could be unleashed as well.

"Dozens," Alyx told him frankly. "Some probably worthless to them, games and such, but others..." She rubbed her face in her hands. "I wrote a lot of programs, especially when I wasn't working. Some... some are more dangerous than this one."

"Christ," Hobbes muttered. "You couldn't just change diapers, could you?"

That actually got her dour expression to crack for an instant. "Not something I can really control. When I see the code... it practically writes itself. It's just a matter of keying it in." She shifted forward in the seat, hands grasping together behind her head for a long moment before meeting Bobby's eyes. "My specialty was encryption keys, thankfully, but I wrote more than few code breakers as well." She turned her focus to the Official. "Someone with skill will be able to mod and use them."

Darien flashed back to his time with Kate Easton who had tried to explain how she came up with her Quantum Computer. She saw an end product; coming up with the tech to achieve it was what took the work. He suspected it was similar for Alyx, or at least had been, with how her mind worked now she might very well be able to just take that end product and make it happen, the code literally writing itself in the computer she'd chosen to hold it. Hell, he'd watched her do that very thing. Mod systems with little more than a blink of her eyes, the code seeming to appear of its own volition. He could only imagine her need to write programs back when married, with her husband trying to isolate her and bend her to his will, and her... her undeniable need to use what she had learned, to do something with those skills she'd acquired. Of course, she'd written dozens of programs.

And they'd all been left behind.

Granted, none of them had known that her husband had been working for some uber secret government organization that considered her their ultimate weapon and had been grooming her to become a mindless drone for said organization. No, they - meaning the Official - had thought she was nothing more than a housewife that had the potential to be one of the best spies in history due to a government experiment performed on her decades ago.

Anyone else would have caved, become nothing but a shadow of her former self and not been able to do anything without first asking permission from her oppressive spouse. But not Alyx. No, she had continued to work even against his wishes. Continued to write code, if only for her pleasure, when forced to drop the jobs she had been hired to do. Even then, her mind had been supercharged; allowing those codes to lie fallow would not be something she had been capable of.

"I'll make a list of everything I wrote, from most to least dangerous, with descriptions." She got to her feet and began to pace the width of the room in front of the desk. "Fuck," she muttered. "You should have done more homework before snatching me up, Charlie." She had stopped before the Official's desk and snapped a hand out at him to emphasize her point.

"So, it would appear," he agreed not taking her admonishment to heart.

Hell, she was right. The Official had made some serious assumptions about her life and they were now paying the price. Shit, had been for months now, and would continue to do so until they had managed to figure out who the fuck they were and convince them to back off.

"Will you be able to recognize one of your programs if it gets used?" Bobby asked, making certain to keep his tone calm and bland, as even he could tell Alyx was riding the edge.

She threw up her hands. "Maybe? Not like I watch every inch of the 'net or look over every program being written every single day." Her hands balled into fists and her steps became jerky as she returned to her irritated pacing. "And... and it would depend on how much they've been modified." She shot a glare at the Official. "Most likely it would be dumb luck, like this time."

"But you don't think it was dumb luck, do you?" Darien asked, causing her pacing to stop dead as she leveled a heavy gaze on him.

"Fawkes?" Hobbes prompted.

"Why else drop the program in our backyard? They, whoever 'they' are, were testing the waters." Darien shifted and stuffed his hands into his pockets, his back against the window sill, wondering if the Official had known this all along.

"But they sent him the program before we set up... before the kid went into her nutso routine," Hobbes pointed out, scratching his head.

"I am well aware of that fact, Hobbes," the Official stated, his look darkening noticeably. He switched his focus to Alyx. "This could be a problem."

"No shit," she responded. "I'm probably the only person in the world who could track and disarm that program."

"Their gonna know you're alive," Darien pointed out needlessly. Which would make all their efforts a waste of time, the hell he'd gone through all for naught. They would come after her again, and it would be doubtful they'd take the subtle route a second time. Oh, no, next would be direct and to the point and, if they were half as good as he suspected, they would not be likely to lose and Alyx would be gone... again.

"They're going to suspect I am alive, which will be more than enough to make them look closer." She gave up the pacing, her shoulders slumping in seeming defeat. "I can maybe cover my tracks on this one, especially since I did the trace through a gaming locale..." She trailed off, quite plainly thinking about how to salvage the situation. "Boss..."

The Official didn't hesitate. "Go. Do what you need to, fill me in when it's done."

Alyx glanced over at Darien, gave him a wan smile, and then booked it from the room. Whatever plan she'd come up with needing to find its outlet now.

Darien watched her go with only a twinge of worry twisting his gut. He wanted to be with her, if only to keep her grounded, but knew he'd be otherwise useless. If she needed him she would call and he'd happily go, but for now she would be better off alone. Besides there was still work for him and Hobbes to do to officially put this case to bed. "Want us to track down where the package came from?"

The Official shook his head. "No. Just pretend to, we don't want to poke the sleeping bear any more than we already have." He picked up his glasses and pretended to clean them with the end of his tie. "Make it look like we hit a dead end on that front."

"Probably all we'll hit anyway," Hobbes groused.

Darien agreed. It would be highly unlikely that these guys failed to cover their tracks. Alyx had already checked the disk and determined it wasn't the original, which meant there could be copies any and everywhere out there. Her defense program might turn out to be very popular in the near future, especially if the hacking program had been farmed out to others to play with. Richards wouldn't be the only geek smart enough to figure out how to adapt it to today's tech, not by a long shot. Which the 'Fish would be certain to take advantage of. Sell Alyx's counter to those willing to pay his sure to be exorbitant price for it. And when her other programs started making their grand entrances... It wasn't her fault, not at all, but she would blame herself, and feel responsible for all the havoc they would cause. And then... then she'd try to fix it. Yet more of her precious, limited time pulled away for the job.

Darien sighed softly wondering just when she'd have the chance to be Alyx.

"So we go through the motions, make it look like he cut a deal and make him disappear," Darien stated, summing up their job for the next couple of days.

"Which you should probably get started on," the Official pointed out.

Hobbes nodded, straightening his shoulders now that he had his marching orders. "On it, boss. Let's go, Fawkes."

Darien pushed off the wall and followed his partner out into the hall, wondering where they were heading first. "How long is this gonna take?"

"A couple of days to make it look good," Hobbes told him as he pushed through the stairwell doors at the end of the hall and headed down. "By then the kid'll probably have everything arranged to get Richards shipped off and we'll be able to turn in our final reports and put paid to this one."

"Hear, hear," Darien agreed, given it had been nearly two months to get to the point where they could see the light at end of the tunnel, he'd be more than happy to close the books on this job. Next time he'd leave the hacker cases to the geeks, he and Bobby were so not suited for it. The Boss needed to replace Eberts, like now, as none of the temporary right-hand agents had been of any real use other than from an organizational and filing standpoint. And even then, they'd spent more time catching up than doing any work that impacted the now. "Pizza and paperwork?"

"You buying?"

"Sure," Darien agreed, "but that means I choose where." He could feel the sly grin sliding across his face, as his preference for pizza places weren't always ones Hobbes approved of.

Hobbes sighed. "Mob pizza it is," he grumbled, but it seemed to be forced to Darien, which meant that he had pretty much convinced his friend that the quality of the food outweighed the money laundering they were contributing to. "Come on, we need the Keep's help faking up test results."

Darien chuckled. "Wonder how good the Keep is at faking it..."

Hobbes snorted. "I'll let you know when I find out."

.

Three days later Darien stood before the Official in his office. The two month long hacking case had finally been wrapped up and off the books. Richards had left late the day before, ostensibly to parts unknown, but they would be receiving regular updates via one Agent Corvan who had made all the arrangements to make Richards disappear. They had no clue what new name the kid would be living under, but suspected they'd be seeing the results of his work with Patrick's computer company within months. Richards was lucky, they could have dumped him onto WitSec and shoved him in some backwater city like Albuquerque to live out the rest of his days in obscurity. No, he'd get to do what he loved, which wasn't all that bad a deal when one thought about it.

Darien could relate, even if it had taken him way longer than it should to figure it out.

"All right, Fawkes, you wanted to talk to me," the Official grumbled, sounding as if he had a million other things to do and needed to be doing them right now and that Darien was keeping him from them.

"Thought you might want to know my decision on the whole gland situation, is all."

The Official harrumphed and settled back in his chair, utter boredom firmly in place on his features. "And that decision would be..."

Darien stuffed his hands into his back pockets. "I've decided to stay..."

That dangerous gleam appeared in the Official's eyes, so Darien made certain to be quick to dim it a bit.

"With some conditions."

The Official didn't bat an eye. "What conditions?"

And now the negotiations would begin in earnest. "First: no using Alyx's and my relationship against us. Same goes for Claire and Bobby. We're friends..."

The Official snorted.

"Okay, more than friends in some cases; and don't even pretend you didn't plan that from the beginning. No using it as emotional blackmail or what have you. You stay out of our personal lives."

The Official tipped his head slightly. "Agreed. Provided you take proper security precautions. Next."

"No more threatening to withhold the Counteragent or inhibitor. I'm here by choice, you get me the drugs I need when I need them so I can do my job." Darien knew this could be a touchy one as the Official loved holding onto that leash and would want little part in having it loosened even more than it currently was.

"Done," the Official agreed without even a hint of hesitation.

"And the research will continue, with full funding, to improve things. I have no interest in going permanently Quicksilvermad anytime in the future," Darien added, somewhat thrown by the Official's quick acquiescence to his demands, but he soldiered on.

The Official rolled his eyes, actually rolled his eyes, as if that particular request had been an obvious one. "Of course. Anything else?"

"I want you to honor the deal I made with Kevin. I want my pardon."

The Official nodded slowly, eyes narrowing. "Agreed, with some conditions of my own."

"Like what?" Darien knew the Fat Man would balk at something, but was a little surprised it was this one.

"There will times where you having a criminal record will be needed to sell your cover, an official pardon would interfere with that."

Darien hadn't considered that, and it wasn't as if they could wipe the minds of all the local cops who knew him by name. Being a spy in a town where the local constabulary recognized your face had created some serious problems from the get go; never mind all those criminal elements who knew him semi-personally. "Still, you can write it up and make some notation that it goes into effect the day I walk out of here." The Official opened his mouth, presumably to agree, but Darien cut him off. "And I get approval of any info that gets put out there. Can't exactly play the part if I don't know my own background info."

The Official frowned, as if he hadn't expected Darien to catch onto that. "Done. That means that when there is an undercover assignment you'll put in full effort. You do the job as a willing participant."

Darien actually smiled. "That's the plan." He ran a hand through his hair, surprised this had gone so easily. He knew there was a fair chance that the Official had planned for his invisible man to remain on the job and had expected this list of demands, which irked the hell out of Darien, as it had taken him weeks to come to an actual decision. Not that it really mattered. The Official usually had a plan in place for just about everything, why not for the chance Darien would stay? "However, when I decide to leave, even if it's weeks instead of years, you let me go, no questions asked, no arguments, no blackmail, agreed?"

The Official met his eyes with a gaze that was startlingly frank. "Agreed. Anything else?"

"Nope," Darien told him.

Now that seemed to surprise the 'Fish. Maybe he'd been expecting a request for a raise or something. Darien didn't need it. Alyx had made sure he had more money then he could cautiously spend in a lifetime and it collected an absurd amount of interest every month. No, money was not something he needed at the moment.

"I'll have the papers drawn up and ready to sign by the end of the week."

Darien pulled the digital recorded out of his interior pocket and showed it to his boss. "I'm going to hold you to that." Alyx hadn't asked why he wanted to borrow the tiny piece of equipment and had simply given him a quick lesson on its use.

The Official chuckled and pulled a similar one out of the top drawer of his desk. "As will I."

Darien gave him a nod of acknowledgement. Oh yeah, the Official had been prepared for this turn of events, but on this occasion Darien didn't mind.

"Now, I expect you will want to inform your Keeper of your decision."

And that would be Darien's cue to go. The Official had what he wanted and would now return to whatever he'd been doing when so rudely interrupted. "I'll go do that." He stuffed the recorded back into his pocket and left the office and the Official who sat there with a look of smug satisfaction on his face. That was okay. Darien was more than a touch satisfied himself. This deal would allow him, and Alyx, the freedom to do their jobs without worrying about the manipulations of the Official impacting their personal lives, and that could only be a good thing.

With a lightness of heart that hadn't been there for a long, long time Darien made his way down to the Keep to give Claire the news.

.

The hardest part of his day came that evening when he arrived at Alyx's place. He had planned to have home court advantage when he told her of his decision, but she had offered to cook whereas he'd had come up with nothing more exciting than take out for dinner, as his cupboards had been surprisingly bare when he'd gotten up that morning. Her cooking trumped quality take out any day of the week, so he would just have to screw up his courage a bit tighter than he'd originally planned. He deeply feared she'd be upset with him for his choice... His choice. He needed to remember that and remind her of that fact if necessary. His life, his choice, even if it meant staying at the Agency for the next decade. A decade. Could he last that long? Would the gland go insane long before then and try to kill him from the inside out?

He mentally shook his head. It didn't matter. He'd made his choice and he'd live with it. Live being the operative word here. No more surviving day to day, no more going along to get along. Oh no, he would dive in head first and make the most of every single day, even... especially those that made him want to walk away. He'd get through those, find that damned silver lining, and enjoy every moment of peace and joy that he would be granted. And he knew most of those would happen because of the red head standing in the kitchen doing something miraculous involving herbs and spices and a formally living chicken.

"Hey, sweets," he called out, wanting to make certain she knew he had indeed entered her apartment, though given the door had been open, she had probably been aware of his arrival since he pulled into the garage.

"Hey, bub. Gimme a sec to get the bird in the oven and you can have my full attention." She tossed a brilliant smile his way, looking much better now that her job had been officially completed and she'd had a few hours to wind down. She and Richards had spent several hours behind closed doors, probably discussing his future before she'd returned to her jarheads - this time without the costume - and finished the work in one monster forty hour sprint. They'd been less than happy to learn that she'd not only caught their hacker, but had made him disappear, especially when they'd been told that they had no idea who he'd been working for. Or that the computer the program had been on had eaten itself when she'd tried to break in, making it completely unrecoverable.

Lies, very huge lies that Alyx had told them with a straight face, with the Official by her side to back her up. The military mooks hadn't been happy, but as she had technically completed the job she'd been hired to do for them, which had nothing to do with catching the hacker, or recovering the program used, kept their bitching to a minimum. Well, that and the threat that they'd never be allowed to hire Alyx again if they didn't shut up about it. That had been effective and they'd left with their tails tucked firmly between their legs.

They now had a couple days to relax, finish up any paperwork related to the cases before moving on to the next.

She finished dressing the bird, washed her hands, then slid the pan into the oven and set the timer for an hour. She spent a couple minutes wiping down the counters and making certain everything was as it should be before turning her full attention to him. He leaned back against the counter, watching her, wondering if she were finding things to do to avoid the conversation he wanted to have. Did he really feel that nervous to her? Was he? While concerned about her response to his news, he had no doubts about it.

"Drink?" she offered, heading for the fridge.

"Sure," he agreed, allowing her to play hostess if that would make her more comfortable. Once she had her head buried in the fridge, looking for the beer she'd hidden in there for him, he said. "Remember when you said you back me in my decision on the gland no questions asked?"

"Yes," she answered as she backed out with two bottles held in one hand by the crossed necks. "And I will." She popped both tops, without a bottle opener, and handed one to him.

He took a long drink before continuing. "Well, I've made a decision. Made it a while ago, actually, but we were in the middle of our cases and I didn't want to screw them up."

She set her bottle on the counter without having taken a sip. "I know," she finally said. "About a week ago, yes?"

Darien nodded. "How'd you know?"

She shrugged, ducking her head down to look at her bare toes, the nail polish a dark purple today. "You stopped feeling all torn up inside."

Huh. Guess that was true enough, not that the decision had made much of a difference, he'd still had that dream every night for the last week. The urgency of it not lessened one whit even with his choice clearly made. "So you've known for a week and didn't say anything?" He wasn't quite sure what to make of that and it must have shown in his tone.

"Darien, I may have known you'd made a decision, but I have no idea what it is. I wasn't about to be presumptuous." She met his eyes, her look carefully controlled. "I figured you'd tell me when you were ready."

Duh. Plus, it wasn't as if they had spent a whole lot of time together that didn't involve work the last week. "Well, after much consideration... I've decided to stay."

She smiled and said just one word, "Cool."

But with that word came an unexpected rush of emotions, confusion counter-pointed by happiness, and he understood both. Confusion as to why he'd chosen to stay and happiness that he had. She locked it down quickly, probably not wanting her reaction to influence his now. She'd back him on it, with no questions, even if she would always wonder why. He knew that would be one question she wouldn't ask. Not now, anyway, and he appreciated that even as it bothered him, if only slightly. Not that he could tell her why. That prohibition against talking to her about the dream still in full force, even now. He could feel it, an odd sense of dread should he bring the subject up here and now, even with his decision to stay out in the open. That was all right, though, he knew what was coming and that was enough... for now.

"Can't say for how long, might change my mind in a few weeks if the work gets boring..."

"And I'll back you then too," she told him moving forward to stand just out of reach. "It's your life, Dare, you need to do what is right for you."

"I am, I promise you that." He set the bottle down and closed the distance between them. "I need you to be part of that life," he told her, as close as he could come to telling her how he felt about her.

"For as long as you want me," she told him, and not for the first time. "I just want you happy, D, and if you are happy here, I'll doing everything I can to see that it continues until you are ready to move on."

Damn. How could it be that she always managed to say just the right thing at just the right moment? He'd hate it if it didn't make him so happy. She was his, and would be for as long as he wanted her. And couldn't imagine not wanting her. "Thank you," he managed, feeling truly choked up for the first time in ages. Was there anything she wouldn't do for him? He didn't think so, and he was beginning to realize the same held true for him. He set his forehead against hers and did his poor best to let her feel what her statement meant to him, allowing his emotions to express what he couldn't seem put into words.

She shivered in his hold and allowed that carefully crafted wall in her mind to fall apart allowing him to glimpse her feelings for him and her reaction to his emotions. He closed his eyes to better feel, neither of them moving for long minutes as they took the time to get reacquainted with each other after long weeks of hit or miss moments alone. This wasn't about sex, so much as just renewing that connection between them that had formed at their first meeting.

When he finally moved to kiss her, she was more than ready, responding to his need to connect physically with the very same need.

He pulled away to look into her eyes, that sensation of freefall taking hold as he gazed into their glorious depths. He wanted to say something profound, something that would make this moment a memorable one, but she got there first.

"So, is this something that should be commemorated in some way? I could call Bobby and Claire. I've more than enough food for all of us."

Darien chuckled, in some ways relieved she'd lightened the mood. They spent far too much time dealing with the serious, that he could understand her wanting to avoid it in their personal lives, especially where they crossed paths. "No, I think this celebration should be one-on-one from the get go."

Her eyes twinkled in mischief. "All right, we have about twenty minutes before I have to get back to work on dinner. Would you care for dessert first?"

Oh, hell yes, but he'd wait and savor the moment when it came. "Nah. How about I help get dinner ready, instead?"

If she were surprised by his answer, she made certain to not let it show. "Okay. I think I can find something for you to do."

"Oh, I'm sure you can," he responded leaning in to kiss her lightly, "but dinner first, darlin'."

She grinned and slipped away. "Just for that you can peel the potatoes."

"Your garlic potatoes?"

"Uh huh," she answered as she produced a bag of oversized spuds.

"Hell yes." He stepped over to the counter as she laughed.

This... this moment, them together doing the most mundane of chores, was worth more than gold to him.

The entire evening went like that, both of them simply being themselves and enjoying each other's company. Eventually, their needs turned from ones of comfort to those of desire and they found themselves in her bed, which Darien had to admit really was much more comfortable than his, with no clothes and all the time he could wish to explore every inch of her skin.

Sleep came, as it inevitably did, and for the first time in long, long weeks, he did not have the dream.

.

.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I marked the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

.

.

.

finis