Disclaimer: Wes, Jen, Alex, Katie, Lucas, Trip, Nadira, (Rob) Logan and the trio don't belong to me. They're all borrowed from BVE without permission, but no harm, no foul, no money made. Everything else belongs to me and while you're welcome to borrow, asking me first would be butane!
For my complete list of thanks, see the end credits.
Please offer feedback, it tells me how I've done.
Future Imperfect -- A Change Of Plans
Wes lay back on the couch, enjoying the press of Jen's body as she leaned against him, relaxing into his embrace. It was, he reflected, nice to finally be able to relax.
"OK?" he asked.
"Mm-hmm." Jen sighed and twisted slightly in his embrace until she could look up at him. "Looking forward to going home."
Wes smiled faintly. It was the first time he'd heard Jen refer to the twenty-first century as 'home'. "Me too." She settled back against his chest. "If nothing else, I want to know how Eric is."
"Me too. I mean, we know he's 'OK' -- but what does that mean?" Jen sighed again. "For all we know it could mean he's still alive but a mental vegetable."
Wes pulled a face. "I'm not sure that qualifies as 'OK' even in Alex's book."
"I don't know any more." Jen again looked up. "I thought I knew Alex once upon a time -- but now..." She shook her head.
"Does what he told us really bother you?" Wes asked.
"Bother me? Not really. I always knew there was more to him than met the eye." Jen grimaced and flipped over so that she was lying face to face with him. "It annoys me more than anything. I don't like being manipulated or played with."
"That's not what you said last night," Wes teased, leaning up and kissing her on the tip of her nose.
Jen giggled in spite of herself. "You know what I mean."
Wes' brief spurt of levity died. "I know what you mean."
"I feel...I don't know. Betrayed? Hell -- I don't know what I feel. Ask me fifteen years from now."
He leaned up again, this time capturing her mouth in a tender kiss. "OK," he murmured as the kiss ended.
"Does it bother you?" Jen asked.
Wes smiled faintly. "I've sort of known some of it since that whole business with Doomtron. I knew he had one of my journals and he told me we were related. And now I know what he meant when he said 'some-when' to me right before he came back here the first time I met him."
"When he went back to this century -- after we'd defeated Dragontron and after he'd helped my dad. I asked him if he'd ever explain why he'd done what he'd done." Wes smiled. "He said he couldn't -- but that there was an explanation out there somewhere, or some-when."
"Now would be then, huh?" said Jen.
"Yeah. I guess so."
"Can you forgive him?" Jen asked curiously.
"Can? Already have," Wes admitted.
"Oh?" Jen was surprised.
"I think he's been an idiot and I think he's done some stuff that's hurt; me, you, people around us all... But is anything he's done really any sillier than Eric? Or me? Besides, I think the person he's really hurt in all this is him." Wes pressed a kiss to the top of Jen's head. "Anyway, grudge holding's Eric's forte, not mine."
Jen giggled. "I know what you mean."
"What about you? Can you forgive him?"
Jen's smile died. "I don't know," she replied softly. "I want to. But...he really hurt me, Wes. He was the first person I let in and trusted -- and he was never honest with me. Not in the entire time we were 'together'." She shivered. "I can't forget that."
"I'm not even sure if I can work with him. I don't know if I can trust him."
"How can you be so sure?" Jen asked, her eyes fixed to Wes' face, clearly searching him for any signs of him lying.
"I don't know," Wes admitted. "It's just a feeling I have." When Jen looked dubious, Wes added, "So far, I've had that sort of hunch about our first meeting, the night Steelix was released and the night Kim was attacked. I'm three for three. If you can't trust Alex, trust me."
Jen smiled faintly. "OK." She kissed him gently. "So what happens now?"
Wes smiled wryly. "Now, we go home and make sure dad doesn't go overboard on the wedding."
"Oooh, sounds like fun," said Jen with sarcasm, but she softened the words with another kiss, while her fingers started to wander to the buttons of his shirt.
"It's either that or put up with the entirety of the Silverhills society pages turning up. And believe me, you don't want that." Wes paused, squirming a little as knowing fingers brushed a ticklish spot. "Actually, on thinking about it, it might be good for the socialites to meet a real human being or two..."
"You think I'm kidding?" Wes queried. "Emmie and her coterie only knew one topic of conversation. Shopping." He shuddered.
Then shuddered again as Jen finished undoing the buttons and pressed her lips to a particularly sensitive spot on his chest and decided that the future could wait in favour of what Jen was doing.
There were three. Strange, and vile looking -- they were abortions of two natures, neither of which were inherently evil yet when combined, only evil could result. They moved through the wastelands. They knew they were being tracked. They didn't care.
"Where we are going," hissed one, "they will not matter!"
His cohorts laughed.
"We will rule," hissed a second.
"They cannot stop us," hissed the third.
They stopped at a nondescript point and stood side by side. Looking around, the first nodded.
"This is the place."
"But it is not now," contributed the second thoughtfully.
"We must wait," said the third. "For now."
Alex moved around his office, pacing.
Maybe Eric had the right idea. Maybe what he needed was some time off. Some time away from this job...this life. He had defined himself for so long by outside factors: by the contents of Wes' journal and by the job and by his relationship with Jen. Maybe it was time to work out who he was when all that was stripped away.
Wes and Jen would be going back to 2002 in the morning. He would see them off then... He smiled faintly. Maybe he should give Ven a call. Catch up with the third member of the triumvirate. She was...he frowned. She was up somewhere in Manitoba, he thought. Attached to the regional TFHQ up there as deputy to the CMO.
Yes, that was it.
Manitoba... He'd better call ahead, though. He faintly recalled that she'd got married...
Hm. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea.
He started at the voice. Looking round, he saw, to his surprise, Katie standing his office doorway.
"Marissa let me in," she explained. "Are you planning on staying here all night?"
"Who'd miss me?" Alex answered bleakly. "Everyone's moved on, Katie. Everyone but me."
"Now that just does not sound like the Alex Collins I had a crush on when my best friend brought him to town to meet the folks back home," Katie drawled, laying on her otherwise latent accent with a trowel.
Alex smiled faintly. "You had a crush on me?"
"Alex, the whole damn town did," Katie snorted. "Hick town. Ain't nothing much goes on in Bayou country so when a sweet, fine guy like you comes along..." Katie laughed as Alex felt himself blush.
"You're teasing me," he complained. "And New Orleans is not a 'hick town'."
Katie grinned. "Only teasing you a little. I did have a crush."
Alex's eyebrows rose as he crossed his arms against his chest. "And you would be telling me this now because...?"
"Because," Katie answered, levity being replaced by seriousness at a stunning pace, "you need someone to talk to. Someone who'll understand and who won't judge... Someone who cares."
"I hear your voice but I hear Wes' words. Why is that?"
Katie's mouth curled up in a half smile. "Well it could be because he told me you weren't doing so great -- which he did, but that was a no brainer. I saw you two nights ago. Or it could just be great minds are a thinkin' alike."
Alex studied the woman standing before him. "Katherine Walker -- if I didn't know better, I'd say you were flirting with me."
Her half smile blossomed into a full-on grin. "And they say guys are always oblivious."
Alex shook his head. "I'm not looking for 'that'." Katie's eyebrows lifted as much to say 'oh?' "I just..."
"Want some time alone?" Katie asked, her grin fading back into a serious expression. "Alex, the last thing you need is time alone right now. Wes and Jen have each other to help them through the tough times. Eric has Kimberly -- or my name isn't Katherine Elizabeth Walker. Trip has Nadira. And if I didn't know better, I'd swear I caught Lucas making goggle eyes at Marissa while we were nailing Merle Askot." Alex smiled faintly at that thought. "But you -- who do you have?" Katie took a step closer. "Who do you have to make the nightmares go away?"
Alex's head dropped. He had no answer to her softly spoken query.
He felt her hand on his shoulder. "Alex, everyone deserves someone to share their burden, even if it's only for a short while."
Alex swallowed. "Katie...I know what you're offering and...not that I'm not grateful...but..."
"But you don't love me," she finished. Her fingers lightly touched his chin, gently lifting his head until he was looking at her. "I know."
"I can't take..."
"You're not taking, I'm giving."
And before he could protest, she pressed her lips against his. He froze for a second, stunned by both the act and the feeling of her mouth against his. It was the touch of her tongue gently coaxing his mouth to open that brought him back to his senses. This was wrong. This shouldn't happen. No matter how good it felt. He pulled away, breaking the kiss.
"Katie...are...I..." Alex found he was shaking.
"Alex, you need this," she replied softly. "Let me do this for you."
He studied her face, searching for any sign of hesitation and found none. She was sure. And she was right. He did need this.
"Thank you," he whispered.
Katie smiled and drew him back to her.
They looked around the place where they had stopped. It was dark now.
"This is the place," repeated the first.
"And the time is now," confirmed the second.
"But it is also then," said the third. "We are wrong."
His two cohorts turned to stare at him.
"We must go to then," he explained. "The now is then."
"But if the now is then," said the first.
"How do we get there?" asked the second.
The third gave the closest approximation to a smile he could manage. "We must wait. But not long."
Jen slowly looked around the apartment, making one last check to insure they hadn't left anything behind in their slightly chaotic packing session. There were no two ways about it, she realised, this century really had ceased to be home. She was looking forward to going back to the twenty-first century. Looking forward to seeing Eric and finding out just how he really was. Hell, she was looking forward to butting heads with Wes' father on the subject of the wedding.
Anything rather than staying here.
She wanted to hate Alex for what he'd done to her... And she couldn't. She couldn't even remain angry with him for it. And oddly, that made her annoyed. Trust Alex to be difficult!
Jen shook her head.
It was going to take a lot of time before she really wrapped her mind around what he'd told her two days ago. And some of it -- particularly what he'd said about what he'd gone through while he'd been a cadet -- had just plain shocked her. She'd never dreamed the spaces between his words hid something that painful.
Almost against her will she found herself wondering how she would have coped had she learned what she knew about herself now when she'd been eighteen. She came to the realisation that she wouldn't have done it. Not without Wes.
But that line of thought just led her, uncomfortably, back to Alex. Who did he have? Who had he ever had?
"It's not your fault," said Wes from the doorway.
"Huh?" Jen blinked. "What isn't?"
"That Alex is alone -- it's not your fault. It's not my fault. It's no-one's fault. Unless you count Alex himself -- and that's a little too much like kicking a wounded puppy."
Jen found herself smiling faintly. "I know. Set?"
Wes nodded. "Yep."
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. Slightly puzzled, Jen answered it, only to find Lucas, Trip, Nadira, and Marissa, all out of uniform.
"You didn't think you guys were going to be able to sneak off now, did you?" asked Lucas, grinning.
"Apparently not," said Wes, grinning back. "C'mon in."
The quartet trooped into the apartment.
"What time do you guys actually leave?" Marissa wondered.
Jen glanced at her watch. "Oh-nine-hundred," she answered.
"Good -- then we have time to celebrate first," said Lucas.
"No...Lucas -- you promised!" Trip howled, blushing right to the roots of his hair.
"Celebrate?" Wes echoed.
Jen's gaze went to Nadira, who was blushing almost as much as Trip was. She smiled at the younger woman. "Congratulations," she said. "Both of you," she added to Trip.
"Celebrate?" said Lucas hopefully. "I mean -- it's been a good couple of days, hasn't it? Askot's convicted, Trip and Nadira are engaged, you guys," and he prodded Wes in the stomach, "are engaged...which we didn't get to celebrate properly..."
"Sounds like a party to me," agreed Marissa.
First and second looked to third.
"Now is then, and then is now," he pronounced.
"We march?" asked second.
"We march," confirmed first. "Now. Then. For all times."
There was a bright flash, and then the trio were gone.
It was the angle the sunlight struck him at that told Alex something was wrong. Eyes snapping open, he confirmed what the ray of sunshine had suggested. He wasn't at his apartment, and it was far later than he planned on sleeping.
He sat bolt upright in the bed...and realised he was completely naked beneath the covers.
"Was last night so terrible you're reduced to cursing?" asked a voice from the doorway.
Alex blinked and looked. Katie was standing in the doorway, dressed in a robe that did little to conceal what he was fast remembering to be luscious curves and wearing the sort of smile that reminded him of a cat that had caught the canary and was watching the canary's owners search for the missing bird.
He wondered if he was the canary or the owner.
"I'm sorry," he said as she walked into the room. "I'm just..."
"A little confused?" Katie suggested, producing a cup of coffee, which she proffered to him and he accepted. "That's understandable."
"It's late and..."
"Alex, hon, it is six am."
Only reactions long honed prevented him from slopping coffee all over the bedspread. "What? But...?"
"That," said Katie, nodding towards the window, "is the sun rising over the Bayou. I guess it's a little brighter than you're used to, huh?"
Alex took a long swallow of coffee. "You could say that."
And now that he was a little more awake, he remembered their joint decision to travel down to New Orleans rather than staying in Central City and he started to relax.
"So was last night so terrible?" Katie pressed.
Alex smiled and shook his head. "No, it wasn't. It was..." He hunted for the right word. "Special."
"Did it help?"
Alex thought about the question for a few moments and realised that the weight that had been sitting on his shoulders for as long as he could remember seemed to have dissipated. And he knew what he was going to do now.
"Yes," he answered. He was going to say more, but there was a bleeping from the comm. unit elsewhere in the apartment.
Katie grimaced. "Someone's timing stinks," she muttered. She pointed to another doorway off the bedroom. "The 'fresher's just through there," she directed. "Let me go deal with whoever this is...then we'll talk."
Yesterday, that idea would have scared him. Today, he welcomed it. "I'll hold you to that."
Katie smiled, nodded and went to take the comm. call. Alex watched her go. He didn't love her, that much was true, but if she was willing to give him a chance... He started to set the cup down and get out of bed when Katie returned, but gone was her bonhomie. Like a tonne of bricks, the weight was back.
"Get dressed," she said without preamble. "We have to get back to Central City."
Alex closed his eyes. "What's happened?"
Katie sighed, going to collect items of clothing from her closet. "I don't know -- Marissa wouldn't, or more likely couldn't, tell me." She paused and looked over her shoulder at him. "But we will talk," she promised.
For a long second, Alex was tempted to say: No -- can we talk now? Whatever it is Time Force wants can wait, I need to get my life sorted out first.
That just wasn't him.
I don't even know how to put myself first any more,he realised in both surprise and mild horror. Is there even a 'self' left to put first?
"Alex?" Katie's soft query pulled him from the panicked rush of thoughts. He found she was sitting before him, already dressed. "We will talk," she said. "I promised you last night -- I'd be here when you need me to be. No strings, no time limits, no judgements."
Alex sighed. It wasn't what he needed...but it was the best he could have in the situation. "I'll hold you to that," he murmured.
Wes set his bag down in the time ship. He felt oddly nervous about his return to his native time. People would expect him to have a tan from spending the last 'three weeks' in the Mediterranean sun...which would be strangely missing. Given I've spent a month, near as not, sitting in a court room... He sighed. He and Jen had already come up with a cover story -- that they had been in Northern Europe and it had rained -- but... It annoyed him to have to come up with something like that.
Jen's voice floated through the time ship bay.
"In here," he replied.
A moment later and Jen appeared in the time ship. As he turned round he realised that, for the first time since their arrival, they were both fully out of uniform -- and he didn't think tennis shoes, jeans and a sloppy-joe sweatshirt had ever looked so good. He pulled her into an embrace and kissed her.
"What was that for?" Jen asked, as the kiss came to an end. "Not that I'm complaining!"
Wes grinned. "Just because I can -- and because you're gorgeous...and do I need a reason to want to kiss you?"
Jen giggled. "Good enough for me."
She started to lean up to kiss him when there was a polite cough from the time ship's entryway. Wes jumped.
"Whoever you are, your timing stinks," Jen muttered.
"I know," said Lucas ruefully. "But...um..."
Reluctantly, Wes released his hold on Jen and they both turned to look at Lucas. "What's up?"
Lucas sighed. "The shit has hit the fan. Big time."
Wes' eyebrows lifted. "Excuse me?"
"Departmental briefing in fifteen minutes," Lucas replied. "That's all I know."
"And we're supposed to be going home in twenty..." Wes groaned.
"Maybe this won't be something we need to do anything with," said Jen brightly. Wes just looked at her. "Good point." She grimaced. "Where's the meeting?" she added.
"Alex's office," Lucas replied.
Wes felt Jen wince at that. Unobtrusively, he squeezed her hand. "And we have to attend?" he asked.
Lucas nodded. "Whatever this is, it's big."
Alex looked around his office. The last time it had been this full, he had been conducting a council of war on the subject of Biocon and Arachna. From that last meeting, Rob, Lucas, Marissa, Katie, Nadira and Trip were present. Also present were Hawking, as head of Temporal, and the Director of the Technical department, Dr Bennett. Rounding out the occupants of his office were Wes and Jen, both looking more than a little incongruous, given their twenty-first century clothing. Bennett and Hawking were barely restraining themselves from staring.
And everyone was looking at him expectantly. Alex sighed inwardly. Best get the bad news out into the open...
"TFC have been tracking three criminals in the wastelands to the east of Moscow. As of nineteen thirty local time, said criminals vanished. Literally. The TFC team managed to get a temporal reading and, this is where it falls into TFCO territory, determined that the trio had gone through a naturally occurring time hole." Alex paused. "And that's the good news."
"If that's good," commented Rob dryly, "I know the bad news is going to be doozy."
Alex gave a grim smile. "As of yet, we don't know where the criminals have landed up -- Director Hawking has a team on that as we speak. We do have a way to track them, however -- but that can only be, at best, a two-man team." He paused again. "And as of this moment, we know only the barest details about this trio of criminals -- and frankly, what we do know..." Alex looked around the room. "It worries me greatly. Dr Bennett?"
The neat, little woman nodded. "TFTech were brought into this case in the very early days of the TFC operation. You see, the trio are mutants, but they're not 'standard' -- if you can have a standard -- mutants. They're genetic mutations on some other non-humanoid life form, which," she peered around the room, "renders them basically impervious to all existing weapons. And that includes the assorted weaponry of the ranger program."
"So basically," said Wes, "what you're saying is these guys are super-mutants; we can't find them and can't hurt them when we do find them."
Alex nodded. "That's about the size of it."
"We do, however, have a plan of action," Alex continued. "Nadira -- you still have contacts in Forgotten District," she nodded, "I need you to speak to them, and very probably your father too. See if anyone knows anything." She nodded again. "Trip, Marissa, you along with Rob and whoever it is from the Moscow office need to go over every scrap of data we have on these criminals. There has to be something in there that will give us a clue as to what or who they are." They nodded. "Lucas, I have a brief errand for you to run, then you're liasing with Dr Bennett's team. I'll be liasing with Director Hawking's team." Alex paused and looked at Wes and Jen. "Wes, Jen -- you'll be our recon. team, and you'll be setting off in half an hour."
"So much for going home," Wes murmured.
Alex winced. "I'm sorry. I think we've all got things we'd rather be doing."
"Dr Bennett has equipment for you," Alex concluded. "Lucas will be contacting Eric for you to let him know you won't be back on schedule."
"That would be that errand," Lucas commented.
Alex nodded. "Certainly would. One last thing. Because this going to mean that essentially there's no-one in this office for large parts of the day, I've asked Katie to sign on as Civ-Ad for TFCO. For anyone who needs to report in, she will be your point of contact."
Katie nodded and said nothing.
"Any questions?" Silence. "All right. Let's get this operation underway."
TO BE CONTINUED IN ALMOST UNREAL...
The End Credits
There are a few people who deserve special mention for the help they've given me during the writing of this story, so in no particular order...
Selma -- for the plotting help and the careful prodding and for allowing me to work assorted pieces of temporal theory off her at 5am.
Chris -- for allowing me to work temporal theory with him and for letting me bounce sections of this story off him and for being a tireless Alex fan.
Angel -- for also being a tireless Alex fan and reminding me of the various things that I needed to include.
Gamine -- for being an incredible human being, a wonderful friend and a brilliant beta reader, not to mention being able to rescue my train of thought when it was derailed by three weeks of back problems.
The guys and girls who make up my update list -- you all know who you are -- in particular and you, the reader in general, for being patient with me and for offering me feedback.
Three months, 25,000 words -- book four of the Identiverse is now complete.