Disclaimer: Alex, Wes, Jen and Eric don't belong to me. They're borrowed without permission from BVE. No harm, no foul, no money made. Gina Thomas and all Time Force procedure information does belong to me -- you're welcome to borrow, but please ask me first.

This chapter is in tandem to the prologue of Hide and Seek -- you don't need to read that to understand this, but if you have read that then you'll recognise the basic events. Bear with me! This will be the only time the two stories cross each other.

Many, many thanks to Gamine for patiently beta'ing again (and again), and also to Irina for beta'ing despite her cold.

Please offer feedback -- it tells me how I'm doing.

~*~

Future Imperfect -- Strange Déjà vu

Alex sipped the mug of coffee in front of him, absently wishing that he could take Gina Thomas back to the year 3000 for a day, if only to teach the Time Force coffee makers how to make a decent cup.

"Eric should have lightened up by now," Wes observed.

Alex smiled wanly. "I'd hate to think he got worse."

Wes grinned. "Oh, he does -- when he's on restricted duty. If he can't go out and hit something at least once a week he's a real bear! I mean, I thought I reacted badly to being inactive but..."

Alex chuckled outwardly, but inwardly he cringed. They don't deserve this, he thought. He doesn't deserve this. Sparing him from having to make an actual reply, Jen and Eric entered the conference room.

Covertly, Alex studied them both, seeing the differences that had arisen in just three weeks. Jen looked worn and tired -- but that was more a reflection of being hauled out of bed very early, Alex suspected. Her eyes bore out that theory. There was a spark of life to them that certainly hadn't been there three weeks earlier, when he'd visited Del Oro Bay to deal with the Alpha Project controls -- and Alex doubted it had been there since before Ransik's attack on him. Eric was a different story.

Alex could see pronounced shadows beneath the other man's eyes that he wanted to put down to the early start, but something told him that was wishful thinking. Then there was the haunted expression in his eyes that didn't leave even as he smirked at Wes' greeting. And as if that wasn't all a clue to Eric's mental state, there was the detail that he hadn't bothered mentioning to Wes and Jen what tomorrow was. Alex mentally shook his head and cursed Biocon again.

At least we have a chance of preventing the worst from happening, Alex reminded himself.

"... would someone mind telling me just what the hell is going on today?" Eric finished.

Show time. "That would be me," said Alex quietly.

"OK. So...?" Eric prompted.

"What do you want to hear first?" Alex asked. "Why today or why I'm here period?"

"Why today," suggested Jen. "Why is this trip so urgent?"

"Eric," Alex answered, and waited.

Sure enough, it looked as though Eric was about to choke on the cup of coffee he'd just sipped. "Excuse me?"

"You're preparing to leave, aren't you?" Alex replied neutrally, noting that neither Wes nor Jen looked entirely surprised by that revelation.

"I might be -- does that make any difference?"

"Makes a hell of a difference." Alex sat back in his seat. "I wanted to have this discussion two or three months down the line when the dust had settled after Biocon. Unfortunately," he continued, folding his arms across his chest, "two or three months down the line, you aren't here." Which is true -- just please don't ask me any more. He knew that would be a plea in vain.

"If he's not here," Wes put in, "where is he?"

Alex forced himself to shrug. "If I knew the answer to that question, I couldn't tell you. As it is, I don't know anyway." Liar!

"You expect us to believe that?" Eric asked.

Alex shrugged again. "It happens to be true." He's not going to buy this.

"Sure it is," he drawled.

Alex's poker mask settled into position. "Fine -- you don't have to believe me, but that is all I'm saying on the subject."

Eric opened his mouth to say something, but Jen got in first, "OK, we've established why now, so why at all?"

And now comes the part I know they're going to hate. From his briefcase he produced a datapad. "The bigwigs in Time Force want some form of...contract between us in 3000 and you guys here."

"Contract?" said Wes sharply.

"You've both," and Alex indicated Wes and Eric, "got honorary ranks within Time Force..."

"We do?" said Eric, surprised. "Well I suppose that explains why Lucas told me he outranked me."

Alex smirked faintly. "Actually, he doesn't any more."

"Oh?"

Alex shook his head, not wanting to get into the back room politics of Time Force. "Anyway," Alex continued, "the bigwigs are concerned that 'inappropriate technology' is being left in the hands of 'unknowns and renegades'."

"Which one of us is the renegade and which one of us is the unknown?" Wes wondered.

"They want to take the morphers -- and that includes the Quantum Morpher -- back to 3000," Alex explained, ignoring Wes' musing.

"But they'll be so much scrap metal in 3000!" Jen objected.

Alex gave a tired grin. "Which is what I said." He sighed -- this had taken so much talking on his part. He was reasonably sure that Wes and Jen would go for it, but Eric...

"What's the plan?" Jen asked quietly.

"The plan is," Alex answered, "that the three of you retain your morphers but you remain answerable to Time Force -- or become answerable to Time Force," he added, looking at first Wes then Eric.

"Hit the bottom line, Alex," Eric muttered, glaring. "What do you mean?"

"Bottom line: Either you agree to sign up, or in Jen's case, remain signed on; or you turn your morphers over to me when I leave."

Alex tried to sit back and relax, but he couldn't help but feel he was only seconds away from another broken nose, this time at Eric's hands -- and that was if he was lucky.

"You want us to what?!" Eric was incredulous.

"Technically," Alex answered wryly, "they're Time Force property. I know," he added before anyone could say anything else, "that they're next to useless without the three of you holding them. Unfortunately, convincing the bigwigs of that has been well nigh impossible. This is the compromise."

"What is this going to involve?" Jen asked.

Alex pushed the datapad across the table towards her. "That's the contract. The bigwigs have agreed to the three of you being permanently stationed in time -- as they see it. You won't be salaried -- unless you happened to have cause to come forward in time, then you'd be getting the standard pay deal. You probably won't be eligible for promotion either, but as all three of you will be at the rank of Captain, there isn't a whole lot further you could climb up the rank ladder anyway."

"But what is it going to involve?" Wes pressed.

"Nothing."

Eric snorted. "Right. No such thing as a free lunch."

Alex snickered, faintly amused. "Literally, all it involves is you and Wes sign...thumb print the contract and that's it, unless Time Force require anything in this time period."

Eric rolled his eyes. "Knew it."

"We'd do that anyway," Wes reminded him.

Eric shrugged. "So?"

"Anyway. That's the offer."

Alex saw Eric cast a look at Jen. "You know this organisation. Think we can trust them to not interfere in our lives?"

Jen shrugged. "Probably -- there are rules and regs about how much interference Time Force can have with a time period. We live here -- regardless of what datapads you sign -- therefore they can't actually do anything to you. They certainly can't drag you out of time -- that's a criminal act."

Eric frowned at that, but said no more. Alex wasn't sure what to make of that.

"Well," Jen continued, "I chose to be a Time Force officer and if they're happy to say I'm still a Time Force officer then I guess that's what I am."

Wes held out his hand for the datapad. "I might not have known what I was letting myself in for last June but I chose to take on the morpher and whatever came with it. Just tell me where to sign."

Alex leaned over and indicated where Wes needed to press his thumb for it to register, before focusing his attention on Eric.

"If you don't want to, you don't have to," Alex observed. But please say you will!

There was a long, long moment while Eric considered his options. Then, rubbing his face with one hand, he held the other out towards Wes. "For the record, I think this is the worst decision I've ever made, but I'll do it."

"Eric, you don't have to..." began Jen.

"No, what I didn't have to do was pick up the QCB last July -- and I sure as shit didn't have to activate it." Eric sighed. "For better or worse, I chose to do all that." He imprinted his thumb on the datapad and slid it back across the table to Alex. "I'm in."

Alex felt utterly relieved by Eric's decision. Maybe this would work out all right... "Thank you." He tucked the datapad back into the briefcase. "The other thing is -- Jen, Askot's court case is up."

Jen nodded. "You said," she replied.

"You're being called as a witness. Askot's lawyer tried," and Alex snorted, "to have you named as a defence witness."

"That's absurd," said Eric.

Alex grinned. "That was what the Supreme Court told him. Unfortunately," he continued, the grin fading, "there's no way that you're going to avoid testifying -- and testifying in person."

Eric looked from Jen to Wes. "Anyone wanna fill me in here?" he appealed.

"It means I have to go back to 3000 for a few weeks," Jen answered.

"Three," Alex confirmed. "At least, to appearances here. If I could guarantee trial length, you could be gone and back in a day, but... Legal proceedings still take as long as they take, and this is far from being a straight forward case." And that has to be the biggest understatement of my life.

Eric nodded slowly. "So Jen goes away for three weeks?"

"Jen and Wes," Alex corrected.

"For three weeks?"

"For three weeks," Alex confirmed.

Eric looked from Wes to Jen and then back to Alex. "Leaving when?"

"This afternoon." It was Jen who answered.

Eric stared. "You leave, this afternoon, for three weeks?" he whispered.

"Afraid so."

Alex saw Eric go rigid. That was when he realised that Wes and Jen hadn't mentioned this possibility to him. Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no.

"Eric?"

Alex could see Eric retreating, rapidly. His earlier hope that this would work out evaporated faster than a glass of water in Hades.

"Eric, it's not what you're thinking."

Alex held his breath as Eric finally looked up at Wes who had so far been speaking.

"Trust me."

"OK." The word was barely above a whisper.

"The reason we didn't say anything is because we didn't want you to feel trapped."

"Trapped?" Eric echoed.

Jen nodded. "We know you're thinking of leaving," she explained. "The last thing I wanted was for you to feel obligated to stay just because this might happen."

Please believe this, Alex willed. The consequences of Eric not believing were definitely not good. If he didn't believe, the chances were good that he would be out of the door -- and out of Silverhills -- before you could say Q-Rex, and if that happened, it would be catastrophic.

Long, long moments passed before finally, Eric murmured, "Oh."

"It's OK," Wes stated, smiling.

Eric sighed. His entire body posture told Alex that the last thing Eric thought was that things were 'OK' but... "I guess you guys need to sort out the details of your trip...I'll get out of the way."

"You don't have to..." began Alex, still worried.

Eric shrugged. "If you're going away there's stuff I need to do before you leave. I'll get a start on that."

The second the conference room door swung shut behind Eric, Alex felt himself sag into his seat. Was that going to be enough? Gradually he realised that both Wes and Jen were staring at him.

"What?" he asked.

"You want to explain to us just what the hell is going on here?" Wes enquired.

"I'm not supposed to say."

"And someone promised the whole truth," Wes countered, "and I don't think we've had anything near that yet."

Alex groaned softly. "Can you wait until we're in the time ship?"

"Something tells me I'll have to."

Alex knew Wes was less than happy about it but there was no way Alex was risking saying anything until he knew for a fact that Eric couldn't overhear it. Knowing too much of your own destiny is a very, very bad thing.

"This is to do with Eric leaving," said Jen quietly. "Isn't it?"

Alex sighed. "I can't say anything here. You know that."

He could only watch as Jen's face paled as she mentally connected up the pieces. "Why? How? I'm not leaving him to that!"

Alex shook his head. "Not here, and you don't have a choice, Jen." He sighed and glanced at Wes, who was looking more bemused by the second. "How soon can you two be ready to go?"

TO BE CONTINUED...