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January

Sheldon Kopp once observed, "All of the significant battles are waged within the self."

I've fought a few myself over the years, especially since that there femme-fatale of a gland took up residence in the back of my skull. I've won a few and I've lost a few, but for the most part the battles have been to a draw. Mainly thanks to the counteragent and the friends I've made here at the Agency. Though I have to say that I've learned that no matter how much a bad-boy I thought I was, it ain't nothing compared to what I could be. And to not become that ... That's a battle I'll fight every day of my life.

But who knows if I'll win.

"Oh, my," Claire said with a small laugh as they exited the ride. "I haven't done anything like that since I visited Blackpool Pleasure Beach as a child."

"I told ya it'd be fun, Keepy." Darien reminded her with a grin. It wasn't often they got to see Claire the person as opposed to the straight-laced Keeper she spent so much of her days being. It was a very pleasant change.

"All right, Fawkes, fess up. How much of you went see-thru on that there thrill ride?" Hobbes teased and was rewarded with a deep red blush that stained his friend's cheeks.

"Lets just say it was a damn good thing I had the car to myself, okay?" Darien admitted with great reluctance, fully expecting the ribbing to continue for some time to come. It wasn't all that long ago that he'd have gone nowhere near that ride for fear he'd vanish completely.

Claire looked from Bobby, who had ridden beside her on the Giant Dipper coaster, and then back at Darien. "Well, we certainly couldn't tell, could we?" She elbowed Bobby in the ribs with enough force to make him grunt and rub the spot in reaction.

"Nah, just figured you and that heart-thumper of a ride would get into a bit of conflict. You been practicing or something? Sneaking out at night to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl after hours?" Hobbes asked in honest curiosity. None of them knew exactly how much control he could actually master. Some things would always be involuntary where the gland was concerned, which could and had saved Fawkes' life on more than one occasion.

Darien just ducked his head and refused to meet their eyes.

"Perhaps its simply nothing more than being exposed to a wider variety of situations." Claire suggested hastily, hoping to deflect Bobby from looking too deeply into his partner's sudden increase in control.

"And Alyx has taught me a few things." Darien explained in a soft voice, not about to go into some of the details, as they would result in, yet another, argument over 'company pier' issues.

"I just bet she has." Hobbes sneered, regretting it almost immediately as Darien glared at him and Claire frowned slightly.

"The bio-feedback technique she uses?" Claire interjected, knowing, even though neither Darien nor Alyx had told her, that some of his newfound control was due to their getting better acquainted with one another. "She's perfect to teach you that, as well as more in-depth meditation techniques. She's a remarkably patient teacher."

"Yeah, she is." Darien agreed, as Alyx had indeed offered to help and shown him a few things in the last couple of months. Still, his involuntary control was nowhere near as good as he'd like it to be and he had the feeling he wasn't going to get much better.

"What's she been doing lately? Seems she books it the second we're done these days." Hobbes led the way past the midway games heading for the spot they'd staked out earlier.

"I'm not sure." Claire answered. "She's does some research down in the Keep when she has a free moment, she's still taking those courses the Official assigned her and she assists you two with cases." Claire frowned slightly when she realized she had no idea what Alyx did when not working. She turned to the one person who might know. "Darien?"

He shrugged. "Got me, last time I had a free hour to see her after work was over a week ago. After that dockyard mess. I helped her get human again."

Poor Alyx had ended up taking an unexpected swim in the bay with a pair of perps that were being stubborn about coming in. She'd still been sopping wet and had begun shivering by the time things had been dealt with back at the Agency and they'd been freed to go home. Though her dripping all over the Official's desk, including leaving him a gift of fresh seaweed, had been a warped sort of victory for her.

He'd gotten her home and cooked her dinner while she had taken a hot shower and tried to get warm. The cold water of the bay combined with the late December temperatures had left her shivering for a good hour even after she'd cleaned up and dressed. He had ended up putting her to bed after she'd fallen asleep on the sofa with her head resting on his thighs. Which made for an interesting change, as it was usually him falling asleep on her and not the other way around.

He'd stuck around for another hour or so, cleaning up a bit and then let himself out. That had been the longest they'd spent together since he agreed to back off and give her space. Between work and the Holidays things had been crazier than Hobbes off his meds. Working twelve plus hours had become the norm and it was beginning wear them all down, including Claire. She might not head out into the field very often, but that didn't mean she wasn't working. In fact she often had to stay late at the Agency until the agents' work was done in case one or more of them needed help, be it counteragent, pain meds for new bruises, or, in one case recently, stitches for a run in with a razor wire fence. She'd just removed them from Bobby's calf the day before.

"We need a fricking break." Hobbes complained and tried not to yawn. Another fifteen minutes or so and they'd all probably head for home and try and get some extra sleep as the Official had given them New Year's Day off, much to their astonishment.

"No shit." Darien agreed.

"It has been unusually busy." Claire commented as they passed by a vendor selling cotton candy on huge paper cones. She watched in amusement as Darien detoured and caught up with them a few minutes later with a huge pile of pink fluff balanced precariously in his hand. He had a look of pure pleasure on his face as he tore off strands and popped them into his mouth to dissolve into liquid sugar. "Why didn't you invite her along tonight?"

Darien's hand paused halfway to his mouth with another cotton-ball-sized lump of confection between his fingers. He didn't want to answer the question since Claire would quickly figure out something other than too much work was going on where he and Alyx were concerned.

"Never crossed my mind." Hobbes responded. "Guess I figured she wouldn't be interested."

"Or that you thought she'd be in the way." Claire saw Hobbes wince slightly and knew that she was at least partially correct.

"Huh." Darien grunted at Hobbes words.

"What, Fawkes?" Hobbes asked, slowing as they neared the quiet spot they'd picked to watch the light show to come.

"Just remembering something, is all." He gestured with the well-denuded cone of spun sugar. "Any resolutions planned for you two?"

"None that you need to know about, wise-ass." Hobbes grinned. The speakers set up along the boardwalk began the familiar countdown.

"Three...Two...One...Happy New Year." the entire crowd shouted at the first of the fireworks lit up the sky.

Claire leaned over and kissed Bobby on the cheek. "Happy New Year, Bobby. Happy New Year, Darien."

"What? No kiss for me?" Darien mock complained.

"You're all sticky." Claire said with a laugh.

From the speakers then came the traditional Auld Lang Syne and Darien found himself singing along quietly as he watched the fireworks launch into the sky and burst into unique shapes and colors.

Alyx looked out across the city from the rooftop of her apartment building. She was sitting on the waist high ledge than ran about it, drinking champagne from the bottle, and watching three different fireworks displays as she softly sang the final lines to Auld Lang Syne. "We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne." When she the lyrics finished she downed another swallow of the drink and raised the bottle as if in toast, wishing that she was capable of actually getting drunk. At the very least being able to pickle herself might allow her to sleep undisturbed by the dreams for the first time in weeks. "So what do I want to resolve to do this year?"

A difficult question at best, considering this time last year she'd resolved to divorce her husband of ten years and get herself and the kids as far away from him as humanly possible. She snorted in dark humor. Well, she had managed to get away anyhow, even though she'd had to "die" to do it. Her kids, however, were still with the son of a bitch.

The Official had assured her they were fine and would come to no harm; part of her agreement with him now included monthly reports on their well being. The neatly typed reports were always painful to read, but a necessity. The Official apparently not knowing or perhaps not caring that he ... that Jess used to beat her.

If there were the slightest sign Jess had decided to make the kids a target of his anger, of his need to control those about him, she wouldn't even ask permission. She'd be on a plane and on her way to rescue them and to hell with the Official and the Agency. It was only the reports made by the housekeeper the Agency had finagled into the home, and Eberts' personal assurances that kept her here.

A burst of brilliant red light to the north caught her eye and she admired the artistic flower that decorated the night sky for several minutes as it sparkled, dropped and then faded. It was a shame they were so ephemeral. Their beauty only lasting mere moments, but in that time giving so many people a tiny bit of joy.

She shook her head, the alcohol making her moody and more depressed than usual tonight. "Hmm, how about to try and live for the moment? Or maybe to be more trusting of other people?" That made her laugh aloud, her voice echoing hollowly off the building across the street, the sound harsh and derisive.

"Can't even trust myself half the time." she muttered bleakly as she rubbed the side of her face absently. "Okay, how about this? I resolve to learn how to live again, to learn who I am, and what I can be. To take the time to smell the roses no matter how many thorns bar my way. To appreciate what I do have even when it seems like I've lost everything. To see things for who or what they are and no more. To look to the future and the possibilities that lie ahead instead of mourning a past I can't change." She paused; contemplating a few others that floated to the surface of her mind, but in the end remained silent. Those she had spoken aloud were going to be hard enough to live up to without adding even more.

Lifting the bottle to eye level she tried to gauge the amount remaining only to discover she was down to the last quarter. With a small frown of disappointment she drank it all and then set the bottle down beside her. "Happy New Year, kids. May you get all you hope for."

Her eyesight blurred then as the tears she been holding back most of the evening finally overflowed and ran down her cheeks to fall off her chin to eventually splash onto the ground several stories below.

The door to the keep slid open with its Star Trekian whoosh and Darien staggered in with a groan. "Keep, you in here?"

Claire appeared from the far side of the lab, folding the glass divider that had been extended to block the view of anyone who might come in unexpectedly. "Darien...Oh my, what happened?" She went to his side and helped him limp over to the exam chair.

He was a mess, his shirt torn and dirty, the collar bloody due to still flowing tide that ran down his across his chin from his nose, and his hair was filled with leaves and twigs. He groaned as he sat down on the chair, his backside more than a little tender at the moment. "Hobbes happened." he snapped.

Claire grabbed some antiseptic and gauze motioned for him to remove his shirt. She tsked at the number of scrapes revealed. Pouring a generous amount of the liquid on a section of gauze, her nose wrinkling at the harsh scent, she proceeded to clean one of the nastier looking ones causing Darien to suck in a breath as it stung.

"Here." another voice said, almost making him jump out of his skin. Alyx was suddenly at his other side holding out a damp cloth. "You're bleeding all over the place."

He yelped as Claire hit another spot that hurt like the dickens, but took the cloth and made a gingerly attempt to wipe the blood away. "Thanks." he mumbled through the material. Damn his nose hurt, and he could only hope it wasn't broken.

"Alyx would you..." Claire glanced at Alyx who nodded.

"Just call me a portable X-ray machine." She took the cloth from Darien's unresisting hold and gently ran her fingers down his nose; her eyes closed, and head tipped slightly to one side. This was one of her newer tricks and Claire had been helping her improve her skill at discerning internal injuries by the way they felt. She was turning out to be amazingly accurate much to Claire's disconcerted surprise.

At first Darien wanted to bat her hand away not wanting anyone to touch the tender proboscis, but her touch was so light that it nearly tickled instead of causing even the slightest twinge of pain.

"Hmm, not broken at least, but several blood vessels are a mess. As I am sure you are aware." She opened her eyes and stepped away to return a few seconds later with an ice pack that she quickly activated by breaking the inner seal to mix the chemicals. Setting it gently to his face she gave him a tired smile. "Hold that there and let it bleed out a bit more." When Darien relaxed back tipping his head up slightly she admonished him. "Head forward. Don't need you nauseous as well."

"Yes, mom." Darien sniped, then paled as Claire removed a splinter of rock from one of the deeper scrapes over his ribs. "Ow." he got out at a squeak.

"Darien, you are a bloody mess...literally. Just how did you manage this?" Claire asked as she moved onto yet another beauteous scrape that had left his skin raw and oozing blood.

"I told ya, Hobbes did it." he repeated, removing the ice pack to glare at the blonde head that was leaning over him, completely oblivious to his expression or mood, or so it seemed. "We met these guys like planned, but something went wrong and they made us." He shrugged and glanced over at Alyx who had stepped away to get more gauze for Claire as well as tape and bandages to patch up the worst of the injuries.

"And?" Alyx asked as she slid the rolling tray next to Claire and adjusted the overhead light to better reveal the damage.

"Well, Hobbes went after one and I took the other. He got his guy down and cuffed and I was holding my own..."

"Distracting him by letting him kick you around as usual?" Alyx was unable to contain the grin, but didn't let the laugh escape.

"Hey, what can I say? I do a damn good imitation of a punching bag." Darien admitted a bit ruefully. "'Course you'd have laid him out in no time flat."

Alyx just shook her head, not wanting to argue with him about her fighting skills. She been practicing for years before coming here and her time with the Agency had honed and refined those skills until she had become nearly Bobby's equal, whereas Darien still relied on the basic street fighting techniques he'd learned growing up and while in prison. She carefully cleaned the last of the blood off his face, relieved to see that the flow had stopped for now. Taking his hand still holding the ice pack, she moved it back into place. Hopefully his nose wouldn't swell too badly.

Claire directed him to lean forward so she could check his back, which had a few scrapes as well, though none quite as bad as those on his chest. "Darien, the last thing you should be doing is playing target. You still have bruises from the last time."

"Keep, believe me, being a target was never high on my list of things to be when I grew up." He shifted slightly, her ministrations making his eyes tear up in reaction. "So, Hobbes finished with his guy, leaving him neatly wrapped up like a Christmas present, and charged over to give me an assist. I had the jerk in close trying to just hold 'im till Hobbes could get there, and what does he do? Hauls off with some fancy chop or whatever that the guy sees coming from a mile away and squirms out of the way so that I get nailed with it."

"Oh, dear. Bobby did the damage to your nose?" Claire asked as she straightened, the worst of the mess finally cleaned up and bandaged.

"Yeah. Mr. Haymaker also introduced me to the lovely scenery." Darien grumbled, still angry with his partner. "Knocked me right down the nice steep, rock covered, thorn bearing, hillside until I found myself lying against a large rock, having conveniently been stopped by my ass colliding with it, and wondering why the stars were out in the middle of the afternoon." His scowl deepened as he saw the both women trying desperately not to laugh. "No sympathy, not a drop from any of you."

"Darien, that's not true and you know it. I'm sorry I wasn't there to help, but as usual the 'Fish decreed my skills were needed elsewhere." Alyx's smile had faded as she spoke, until the, far more familiar as of late, look of sadness and exhaustion returned.

He dropped the ice pack onto his lap and reached out to her, setting a chilly hand on her shoulder. "Damn, I'm not mad at you, either of you, just bitching in general." He glanced over at Claire who was busily cleaning up, tossing the bloodied gauze into the biohazard container for proper disposal in the incinerator.

Claire nodded and went to the cooler where the counteragent was stored. Today it wasn't needed, only three segments of the snake tattoo were red. She returned with a bottle of water, which she handed to Darien who thanked her in a quiet voice.

"Where is Bobby anyway?" Claire asked.

Alyx chuckled, going to the door of the Keep and opening it.

"Thanks kid. How's wonder man doing?" He hustled into the room and right on over to the exam chair to see him partner downing water and holding an ice pack to his face.

"Just great there, buddy." Darien answered with false joviality. "My skin might grow back in a month or two. Oh, and you failed to break the nose. You'll have to do better next time."

"Whoa, easy there, my friend." Hobbes raised his hands in defense. "Not my fault the mook zigged when I zagged. And I did drag your scrawny ass up that hillside in case you've forgotten."

Claire moved up beside Bobby. "We got the impression you were the one who knocked him down the hill."

Hobbes shrugged with a touch of embarrassment crossing his features. "Technically ... yeah. I guess I did. But you should've seen his Jack imitation. Quite impressive."

Alyx shook her head. "Next time try not to break his crown, please?" she requested, and Bobby turned to meet her eyes.

"I'll do what I can, but no promises. He's becoming a professional at getting the crap beaten out of him." Hobbes responded as blandly as possible, suddenly feeling possessive of his partner.

Alyx got the unspoken message loud and clear. "All right, I'm outta here."

"Alyx..." Claire began only to be cut off.

"I remember, Keep." And with that she was gone, not wanting to intrude on the three of them, especially when she was clearly not wanted.

Claire smacked Bobby on the arm. "Bobby, that was rude."

"What?" Hobbes asked in confusion, resisting the urge to rub the spot. Damn, the woman could hit.

"Hobbes, even I could tell you wanted her to leave." Darien said as he slowly slid off the chair and debated putting what was left of his shirt back on.

"Let me get you a clean shirt, Darien." Claire made her way to the closet that was to the left of the main door and pulled out a dark blue scrub top and brought it to him. "Bobby, you keep forgetting she can feel what you are, even if you don't telegraph your intentions in your speech or mannerisms. For Alyx, you are easy to read."

Hobbes grumbled under his breath as Darien pulled the shirt on over his head, easing it over the raw skin and bruised muscles. "Not my fault." he finally stated loud enough for them to hear. "I just haven't figured out how to deal with her ... outside of work, that is."

"We've noticed." Darien ran a hand through his hair and was disconcerted by the amount of detritus he encountered. "Crap." He gave his head a good shake, brushing both hands through it, and making Claire squawk in complaint at the mess, but not allowing that to stop him until he was reasonably sure the worst of it was gone. "How's she doing, anyway?"

Claire debated not answering on grounds of doctor/patient confidentiality, but realized he was simply showing a natural concern and curiosity about a friend and co-worker. "Well enough. She's still having problems sleeping and the medications are not helping nearly enough. We're trying to get her on a more normal sleep schedule with little success. I suggested she try melatonin supplements to see if that helps at all."

"What? She not telling you herself any more?" Hobbes questioned of Darien in an aggrieved tone. The two of them spending time together after hours was still a source of irritation for Hobbes and had caused him and Fawkes to have several arguments over the matter. Usually resulting with one or the other storming off and, on one occasion, nearly resulting in blows.

"Hobbes, except for work stuff, I've been over to her place once since New Years. Happy?" Darien snapped, making it plain he wasn't.

"Brilliant, Bobby." Claire commented sarcastically in an undertone as she walked past him.

Hobbes scratched the top of his head in consternation, considering the two of them had been near inseparable just a few weeks ago, he'd just assumed Fawkes was still heading to her place after hours. "Fawkes..."

"Forget it, Hobbes. Too much work and not enough sleep; its getting to all of us." His words were becoming annoyingly familiar as they had all complained loudly and often about it in the last few weeks, only to have the words fall on the completely deaf ears of the Official. In fact, it almost felt like the workload had doubled since the first of the year. Even Claire was looking more than a little burned out. "Dinner?" he asked of the pair, and both nodded vigorously.

"That Chinese place on 6th? In an hour?" Hobbes suggested, knowing how Claire loved Chinese. "Give Fawkes here a chance to pretty himself up."

Darien gave Hobbes a look that threatened bodily harm if he didn't shut up.

"Perfect, Bobby." Claire's smile was more than enough to ease Darien's impending grouchiness. His stomach rumbling at the mere thought of food was also an encouragement to let Hobbes' commentary pass by without a comeback.

"Yeah, I'll be there." Darien shuffled to the door and stepped through once it had opened wide enough, but he still caught Hobbes' final jibe.

"With bells on, I'm sure."

The black clad figure strode silently down the ill-lit hallway with an ease that could only have been achieved with years of practice. Stopping before his target he swiftly swept the hallway with his gaze to confirm the lack of any other nearby presence. Going to one knee, he removed the set of lock picks from the small satchel he wore and went to work on the well-above standard locks on the door before him.

After just a few seconds he heard the thoroughly satisfying click as the tumblers fell into place in the second of the two locks and with a feral grin he stashed away the picks and stood. Sliding the door open about an inch, he encountered the next hazard, the specially rigged chain lock that would have been more than enough to defeat the average thief. But he was anything but average, withdrawing a second tool from his bag of tricks and had the chain unhooked in seemingly no time at all.

Sliding the door open just enough to allow him to pass through sideways, he entered the darkened apartment and closed the door with nary a sound. Though his eyes were already adjusted to the darkness, he still paused for a moment to orient and get a feel for the space about him. Tripping over something unexpected or unanticipated in the darkness had taken more than one thief down over the years. He didn't plan to become yet another name on that list.

Once reasonably certain nothing had been moved since the last time that he'd seen the place, he walked confidently and silently across the floor heading towards the opposite side of the room. As he drew near his ultimate target, mumbles and mutters could be heard, some sadly piteous to his ears.

Skirting about the simple bamboo panels that attempted to offer some privacy for what lay on the far side, he removed his black gloves and slipped them into the satchel as his goal came into sight. The sheets had been twisted about her as she tossed and turned while in the throes of some nightmarish hell her sleeping mind had conjured up. Pulling up the balaclava that hid his face, he crouched down alongside the bed and frowned, his brown eyes looking sad and worried. Reaching out he ran his fingers across her cheekbone, his touch interrupting the soft cries of fear emanating from her and causing her to go breathlessly still.

"Shhh, its all right. You're safe." he said in a calm voice and was once again amazed at the way she responded. This was the third time he'd pulled this stunt and, as near as he could tell, she still had no idea.

She muttered something else, though all he caught was his name, and shifted a bit. Relaxing and settling into the thickly cushioned pillows a bit more comfortably. Removing his hand, he stood, fully intent on leaving as he had every other time. He stood over her just watching her sleeping form for a moment, looking so young and tiny on the huge bed.

When she spoke, her words were no more than a whisper in the darkness.

"Don't leave."

He froze not sure he'd really heard her, but when he saw her eyes flutter open, looking remarkably bright in the minimal lighting of the room, he knew he'd been caught.

She turned her head slightly, to see him looming over her, to convince him she was indeed awake enough to realize he was there, having broken into her home like a thief in the night. Though what he was intent on stealing she wasn't quite sure.

"Please."

Pulling the balaclava off completely he dropped it, slipped the satchel off his shoulder, to hit the floor next to his thief's mask, with a dull thud, and kicked off his black sneakers. Lowering his body onto the bed next to her he said softly, "Till you fall asleep."

She shuddered as he wrapped his arms about her, his presence momentarily driving away the demons from her past that haunted her nights. "Darien..."

"Sleep. I'll keep the dreams away for a while." He pulled her close; her head buried against his chest, her body feeling chilled even in the warm apartment. He adjusted the covers, drawing them up to her shoulders and ran his hands over her back in random patterns. It took several minutes, but she eventually relaxed, her breathing becoming deeper and more regular. Yet still he stayed, lying awake in the darkness to do as he'd promised.

The chick who taught me just about everything I know about burglary had a motto that went "faster's better." Yeah, you've heard it before. It worked for lots of things. Like getting in and out on a job. You don't hang around once you have the booty to read War and Peace. You get the hell out of Dodge and enjoy the spoils of victory elsewhere.

At other times the phrase "patience is a virtue" is the one to follow. When planning a heist you gotta be patient, make sure you know all the potential traps and pitfalls before moving in to make the score. And, ya know what? It doesn't matter what the prize is. Cash, jewels ... or someone's heart.

Finis