For Ms. GrahamCracker, who wanted an alternate ending to the series so far where Don and Ian both survive, I hope posting this so soon after the last chapter helps repair everything I destroyed. Cissyaliza, I hope this helps a little as well!
The nightmares have become almost commonplace by this point and the only thing unusual about this particular one is the fact that it covers the last six months from beginning to end and doesn't deviate from reality.
It begins the same as any other morning, waking in a cold sweat to a quiet house and padding down the stairs while he wonders how he's going to make it through another day. Or at least it was like any other morning until he sees the suit jacket hung neatly on the back of a chair and the pile of manila folders on the corner of the table.
His eyes narrow because David and Colby would never be so inconsiderate as to leave those things here and they hadn't even visited last night. Charlie hadn't worn a suit since Don's funeral and it certainly doesn't belong to him or even Larry.
The vibration of a cell phone startles him and he almost jumps a mile as there is a soft intake of breath and a sleepy voice further shatters the silence with a rough "Eppes."
He holds his breath when the voice says that it will be there shortly. A moment passes before a familiar head of tousled dark hair appears over the back of the sofa and later, he won't even remember crossing the room to fold his eldest son into his arms because there isn't a single cell in his body that isn't drowning in relief.
Snapping awake with the bitter taste of bile in the back of his throat and a cry on his lips, Billy's hands spasm around the edge of the blanket as he jerks forward and up. His lungs ache with the effort of dragging in enough air and the next thing he knows, the porcelain tiles of the toilet wall are cool against his forehead and his throat is burning.
Panic and adrenaline make his fingers tremble even pressed flat against the floor like they are. It takes a few minutes before he can gather himself enough to get back into his bedroom, settling down on the floor against the side of the bed, and reach for his cell.
He doesn't know when he became the type to rely so heavily upon others, but he's mentally tossing up between calling Granger and Warner as he calculates the time difference and figures that both of them will be awake when his eyes focus on the date and he has to double-take because it isn't supposed to be October right now, it's March.
When he can't find either of the numbers he wants in his directory, the confusion has become almost painful. Neither Alan or Charlie's numbers are there, nor are the ones for Betancourt, King, Reeves or Sinclair.
Don's is though, the tiny speed dial icon almost taunting.
On an impulse, he hits it and brings the handset to his ear, desperately trying to master his breathing. The voice that answers is decidedly not a voicemail, but achingly familiar and blatantly alive as it greets him with a warm "Coop, man, what's up?"
Five minutes later, he's swiping at his eyes and dialling his handler as he fights hysterical laughter. He wants a month of leave, he says, starting today. There's a flight to Los Angeles that he can't miss because there'll be someone waiting at the airport for him.
Charlie does his best to lose himself in the numbers when he lectures now but he isn't doing very well this particular morning. He'd woken up in the garage because Amita is at a conference at Harvard, and left the house after a quick shower. He hasn't seen anyone but his students all day and even they seem more ebullient than usual.
Over the last few months since he'd returned to a proper teaching load, they've all been quiet and respectful in his classes. He's heard the whispers and especially in the beginning, seen the sympathetic tear tracks down some of the young, female faces. There was none of that today though, the students seemingly disappointed in his lack of enthusiasm and animation.
Some had even given him odd looks in the morning class, but it is easy enough to shrug off. Keeping himself functional requires a level of detachment that he has pretty much perfected. He spends the lunch break preparing his notes and display board for the afternoon class and trying desperately to keep his mind focused.
The afternoon class is even more animated and jittery, especially towards the end of the lecture, forever shooting looks at the back of the classroom and murmuring quietly amongst themselves. He does his best to ignore it and keep his focus on the board and his notes although lecturing about game theory never fails to remind him of Don.
Eventually, he can't take it anymore and dismisses them ten minutes early, slumping into his seat and rubbing at his eyes. A hand descends on his shoulder and squeezes with familiar strength as a voice he thought he'd accepted he wasn't ever going to hear again says wryly "Rough day at the office, Chuck?"
His eyes shoot open and he thinks that he might have actually jumped over the desk in his effort to prove to himself that the man standing there wasn't a hallucination.
The disorientation starts when he wakes up in his apartment.
Colby knows that he hasn't slept there in months, that his landlord let him out of the lease when they found the place in Pasadena and doesn't have a clue why he's woken up there this morning because he distinctly remembers falling asleep on the couch with his head pillowed on Liz's lap the night before after three separate occasions where the entire house had been roused by nightmares.
His cell is flat so he stuffs it into the pocket of the pair of pants on his dresser and stumbles out into the hallway, not bothering to put a shirt on. The apartment is exactly as he remembers and he finds himself in the main room. Rubbing his eyes, he looks around. His jacket is slung over the back of the armchair and the empty takeout container on the kitchen counter is from the local Mexican place.
The bowl by the door only has his keys in it, just like the lockbox that he obviously didn't close properly the night before only has his gun in it and the badge sitting beside it must be his. David's, Liz's and Nikki's are nowhere in sight and the smell of coffee is completely absent.
Returning his attention to the kitchen counter, he racks his memory for the last time he ate from the little restaurant and realises that it must have been months ago. He had hardly been in the part of town where his apartment complex was for the last six months. He wonders if maybe he didn't really wake up and is still dreaming. The idea bounces around in his skull as he dresses hurriedly, collects his cell charger, gun and badge without really paying attention and jogs to the car with his keys swinging from his forefinger. The others should be at the office, he'll ask them what the hell is going on when he gets there.
When he enters the bullpen, his eyes zero in on the back of a dark haired head in a cubicle that has been glaringly empty for what feels like years. The long, lean figure bent over beside it makes him do a double take.
He isn't very surprised when he wakes up in the back of his SUV.
No one's been sleeping too well lately and whoever finishes latest usually ends up crashing at the office or in their car to avoid waking the rest of the house. They landed a rough case a couple days ago and he stayed back at the office when Liz and Colby left around ten.
What is surprising is that his car is still parked at the office instead of in the driveway at home and the bag that he rummages for is one he doesn't remember packing. A glance at his cell shows that it has just gone seven so he decides against going back for breakfast because the others will be arriving soon anyway. He grabs the bag and heads across the road to the small café where the counter girl smiles and says she'll bring the usual over at eight.
He takes a shower in the change rooms before he even enters the bullpen and is still rubbing his eyes when he goes to his desk. The file resting on it is unfamiliar and there is a note in a decidedly more familiar script that he hasn't seen in months. He blinks, confusion settling in his gut.
"You get breakfast, Sinclair? Hope you ordered for us."
He whirls around so fast he nearly gives himself whiplash. Ian's smirk is wicked and the man beside him, grinning, raises a dark eyebrow and David's heart nearly stops.
The words won't come out of his mouth and he thinks he might be gaping. The grin, Don's grin, turns to concern. "David, man, you okay?"
Halfway through her morning ablutions, standing in the shower and still not fully awake, it hits her all over again and seems almost too much to bear. She settles in the corner of the shower and squeezes her eyes shut, letting the hot water pound her skin.
When she opens them and rubs the water and tears away, she realises that this isn't the right shower. The one in the ensuite that she'd been sharing for the last couple of months was much bigger than this and she looks down to find only her shampoo and conditioner, a single bottle of body scrub and a plain white exfoliation cloth.
She dries off hurriedly as she hears her phone begin to ring and throws her dressing gown on before running into the kitchen to answer it. Nikki's voice greets her. "Girl, you needa learn to answer your cell. We're on our way to pick you up, be there in five." There's a muffled male voice in the background and the junior agent snickers faintly, something that might be 'sure thing, boss' but she hangs up before Liz can even ask where the hell she is and what is going on.
It takes about ten minutes to dress and compose herself before she picks up her cell from her beside table and the bundle of coat, gun, badge and keys from the hallway and gets down to the carpark. An SUV is idling by the side of the road and Nikki's head is sticking out of the back window, waving her over.
She jogs over, wondering why David's got his car instead of Colby and the Dodge for one, and still confused as to what the hell she's doing at her apartment building because the lease was terminated last month for another. She slides into the back and the men in the front of the car are most decidedly not Colby and David.
Don's grin in the rearview mirror is enough to make her knees weak all over again and Ian's nod and usual smirk over his shoulder from the front seat only makes it even harder to process.
She must have dozed off in her office, she realises as she wakes with a jolt. When she rubs her hand across her face, it comes away with faint blue marks and she sees the notepaper beneath her has smudged.
Sighing, Megan reaches for her cell and a tissue. Flipping it open to check her reflection and beginning to rub at her cheek with the tissue, she frowns. That picture of she and Larry was her background months ago, she's replaced it at least twice since she first returned to LA in November.
The date is wrong too and she wonders if one of the other women in the office is messing with her.
Nudging the mouse, she goes to reopen the window with the report she's supposed to be reading, and is startled when she recognises the introduction of her final thesis. She hasn't looked at that in months, too many memories of frantic allnighters trying to finish it in order to get back to the West coast and in the end not being able to do anything but try and hold her broken team, family, together.
The frown deepens as she realises that this version of it isn't even finished.
Pulling up her browser window, she clicks her way to her favourite news site and realises that the date on her cell is right and no wonder her thesis isn't done, she still has weeks to go before they want her final draft.
It takes a few moments for the reality of that to sink in and she lunges for the office phone because it's closest, dialling a number she still knows by heart. Each ring seems to last a ridiculously long time until the call is answered.
"This is Eppes."
This head cold is knocking her for a six like she hasn't been knocked in a really long time, Nikki thinks drowsily as she slowly wakes up. Immensely grateful that she'd thought to close the blinds when she got home from work the night before, she rolls over and finds empty mattress.
It's still warm though, and smells familiar and safe, so she closes her eyes again and reaches blindly for a tissue. She still hasn't found one by the time a weight settles onto the bed beside her and she makes a small sound of frustration.
The chuckle is warm and amused as she opens her eyes and sees a hand holding one over her face. She blows her nose gratefully and pitches it into the trashcan by the bed. When she turns back, Ian is sitting cross legged atop the coverlet and he looks calmer and happier than she's seen him in a really long time.
She reaches for his right hand and wraps both of hers around it, settling back into the mattress with a sigh of contentment as her eyes drift closed. Ian chuckles again and his other hand pushes a few stray curls off her forehead as he asks how she's feeling.
"Like I went ten rounds with Reeves again," she mutters and Ian's hand flattens over her forehead abruptly before his weight disappears from the mattress and his other hand slips from her grip.
"Ten rounds with Reeves? You're not really feverish enough to be hallucinating but I'm going to call Don and say you need tomorrow off too. Try and get some more rest."
Her eyes shoot open in surprise.
I hope you enjoyed this and can't wait to hear what you all think! I'm not sure whether this was really what you wanted, but it was the best I could manage considering I'm still swamped with angst over Seventy Seven Seconds. Everyone made it through this one alive which is more than I can say for the others, so here, have a handful of sort-of drabble things while I try and figure out where There Were Nine is going. Part one, and another that doesn't quite have a place yet aside from that it ISN'T part two, of it are written but I don't want to start posting until I have a little more of a buffer.