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The Plotbunny Adoption Agency

Chapter Text

Jack had, after expending a great deal of time and energy, concluded that reaching the Fountain of Youth alone was impossible. It was not merely improbable; his track record was currently to a point where anything that was improbable, and not impossible, was likely to happen to him anyway. Since he could divine no way of reaching the Fountain alone, he had been left with no other choice but to return to Tortuga and find himself a small group of nominally trustworthy fellows (Mr. Gibbs, for example) in order to reach the Fountain of Youth.

Hopefully the promise of eternal youth would be enough for the fellows, because Jack was a bit short of shiny treasure these days. He missed having shiny treasures… but at least the rum wasn't gone yet.

Jack hated the word 'yet'. It implied that eventually the rum would be gone. He was always very sad when the rum was gone.

Where was he again? Oh, right… trustworthy fellows who would work for immortality.

So here he was, wandering around Tortuga, looking for familiar – or at least encouragingly friendly – faces that he could con into… er, talk into joining him on his crazy little venture.

"Jack! Jack Sparrow, as I live and breathe!"

Jack whirled around and grinned. "Mr. Gibbs! Just the pirate I was looking for. I have a proposition to make ye."

"A proposition ye say?" Gibbs tried to sound uninterested, but his expression betrayed him. That was one of the many reasons Jack liked and trusted Gibbs so much. Well… that and Barbosa knew better than to try and get Gibbs to betray him because they all knew mutiny was not something Gibbs would stand for. "Going after the Black Pearl again, are ye Jack?"

"Not yet, Gibbs. Not yet." Jack glanced about warily. "Barbosa isn't in port here, is he?"

"No. Ye just missed him. He took the Black Pearl back out to sea two days ago. He left behind Cotton, Murtogg, and Mullroy, though. Apparently the second mutiny didn't sit right with them."

Nodding thoughtfully, Jack considered the three names. Cotton was the mute pirate with the trained parrot. He was an alright sort, though he might not want to live forever as a mute. The Fountain might be able to fix that, so Jack didn't completely discount him. Murtogg and Mullroy… those names were familiar in a vague sort of way…

Oh! The two members of the British Royal Navy that he'd wound up telling stories to on the Dauntless the day he'd first met Elizabeth. They were nice blokes and Jack remembered that they'd done the smart thing and defected to the Black Pearl during the battle at Shipwreck Cove. Surely they'd prove useful…

"Perhaps my proposition is an overture that would sound truly pleasant to their ears as well as yours," Jack postulated.

"So we should gather them up, then?"

"Aye." Jack's eyes spotted a poster on the wall. Most of the words were faded, but he could swear is said 'Sirius Black' near the bottom. "What's that there?"

"What's what where?" Gibbs whirled around to look as Jack pointed out the poster. "Oh, that there. It's a poster requesting information pertaining to the whereabouts of one Sirius Black. There's a rather large reward out for anyone who can bring useful, real information to a man known as Rave who's taken up residence just outside of town. I admit, I tried telling the man a few convincing lies, but he laughed and said I was one of the better liars he's met. Not good enough, o'course. He did give me enough money for a few bottles of rum; said it was payment for the entertainment."

"Really?" Jack wandered up to take a better look at the poster. There was a drawing on it – a fairly good one, in fact – of a man who looked about Jack's age, but better kept. Jack didn't want Gibbs taking a good look at the picture, though.

"Why are you so interested in this Sirius Black character?"

"Interested?" Jack echoed as he snatched to poster off the wall. "I'm not interested in Sirius Black." Jack folded up the poster and slid it into his shirt. "Whatever would give you such an erroneous," he leaned into Gibbs personal space just to watch the other pirate squirm as he spoke, "idea as that?"

"Nothing." Gibbs pulled away. "Nothing at all."

"So, about my proposition…" Jack steered the conversation back on course, but in the back of his mind he was already planning his encounter with this 'Rave' person. Jack couldn't imagine who it might be, but this didn't bode well for him.

Sirius Black, after all, shouldn't be a name anyone knew yet.  He wouldn't be born for decades and decades, after all.  And if someone was here and now looking for him... if they ran into Jack before he was ready then they might start to notice similarities of a not-so-coincidental nature.


Rave gave Beam an annoyed look. "You burnt dinner?"

"Well, really, I simply over cooked it. Burnt is a such a subjective term. The Whiskertails think it looks fine; they'll eat your share if you don't want it," Beam responded in an amused, whispery voice.

He did not know what Whiskertails were and he was fairly certain that the explanation would make no sense to him, so Rave just shook his head negatively and took a bite from his bowl of 'over cooked' stroganaff. Mentally he vowed to work harder at keeping Beam from nabbing the cooking chores since he was a better cook than her.

Despite her lack of cooking skills, Rave was grateful to have his friend along with him on this trip.  Well, it wasn't really a trip in that walking through the Veil was a one way trip.  They'd been researching the history of the Veil for years, devouring all the information they could find.  Though it had begun as Rave's search for closure about his godfather's death, it had become something more since then.  Largely because Sirius was not dead after all.

Beam was the only one who'd supported Rave's research and treated his wilder theories as valid, not as a sign he was losing his grip on reality.  And when he'd had enough research, well... she just showed up at the Ministry of Magic on the night he planned to sneak in to go through the Veil.  They walked through to the world behind the Veil together.

The voices, believed by so many for so long to be the voices of the dead, were actually the voices of pirates in a town of outlaws, located on an island in the middle of nowhere.  A few transfigured clothes later, the two were able to blend in with the crowd, nicking the things they needed to eat and plastering up posters with Sirius' face on them everywhere.  They were only going to wait a few weeks before moving on to the next location... assuming the scrying spells and potions they intended to use brought them useful information after all.  If the scrying magic failed, then they'd grab a map, pick a port at random, and hook up with the first crew they could find headed in that direction.

For now, though, Rave was just enjoying being completely overlooked in a crowd.  No one ever did a double take at the scar on his face or stopped him to 'thank' him for killing Voldemort or randomly propose marriage... For the first time ever, Rave was completely unremarkable.

Beam giggled and put down her emptied bowl. "You're thinking deep thoughts again, Rave. Come on, dance with me. Your dogfather will be here soon, I promise."

Rave smiled and shook his bowl at her for a moment before going back to eating. Once he couldn't take the burnt taste anymore, however, he stood and joined Beam, twirling her around as the sun set. "You're sure he's here?"

"Soon," Beam repeated. "The dog star is bright tonight because he's in Tortuga. He'll see the posters and here he'll come."

Chapter Text

Rinoa sighed and propped her feet up on the empty chair beside her. Her new shoes were clutched in her hands as she whimpered pitifully.

"I told you not to wear those."

"You have no pity in your heart." Rinoa sighed again, more pathetically this time. "I should have listened. Happy?"

"Not really. Concrete retains heat, Rin. You'll have burned feet feet as well if you don't put those shoes back on when we head out." Squall paused for a moment as Rinoa began to transform her expression into that of a 'puppy' pout. "Don't even think about asking me to carry you."

"Fine, fine... I'll think of something to keep my feet from killing me. As it is, I'm not looking forward to dealing with these." She reached up to poke one of the puffy blisters on her feet only to have her hand smacked away by Squall.

"You'll only hurt worse doing that right now." Squall rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, huffing in annoyance. He had no idea how cute he looked when he did that, but Rinoa wasn't going to bother telling him. After embarrassing herself in front of him over her crush the year before, Rinoa was quite pleased at how they'd managed to salvage their friendship and settle back into being best friends without a hitch. But comments about how Squall looked still made the brunet feel awkward, so Rinoa had begun steering clear of them.

"Do you see Zone or Watts anywhere?" Rinoa craned her neck around, eyes peeled for the two men who were supposed to meet them at the cafe.

"No."

"Squall..."

"..." Squall quirked an eyebrow, as if to say 'what?'

"Hyne as my witness, one day you will learn to be social," she declared.

"You've been saying that for years," Squall observed. "It's yet to take."

"You suck," Rinoa grumbled, mock pouting again.

"Whatever." There was a moment of silence before Squall asked, "so, tell me more about these 'Forest Owl' friends of yours."

"Well, I told you about how they're fighting to free Timber from Galbadian tyranny, right?" She paused as a waitress walked up and took their orders – iced teas in take away cups, which arrived a few moments later.

"Yeah, you may have mentioned their noble cause once or twice or a couple of dozen times," Squall drawled. "It'd be nice to finally have a few specifics on what I'm supposed to be helping you with."

"Right, right..." Rinoa nodded eagerly. "Our base is a train, so when we're active we're always on the move. Though we'd prefer to find a peaceful way to liberate Timber, that's not really an option at the moment. So we hit military targets and annoy the hell out of local Galbadian troops in order to keep them occupied until one of the cells around here can find a weakness that can be exploited in order to finally topple Galbadian control in this country."

"That's great."

"You don't sound enthused."

"Imagine that."

"Squall..."

"You know that the only reason I'm here is because you, my best friend... my only friend who isn't my sister, asked very nicely." Squall paused and then added, "Timber's current political state isn't really all that important to me at the moment. What is important is returning to the university at the end of summer and completing my degree a year early."

"Ugh, you spend too much time in school as it is, mister." Rinoa made a disgusted noise. "You finished high school way, way early, now you're gonna complete a BS in only three years, and you still found time to train in the use of gunblades; you're even an expert with those crazy things. Prodigy doesn't even begin to describe you..." she scowled. "Can I borrow part of your IQ for the next school year? I nearly bombed pre-cal and calculus is gonna kill me this year; I know it will."

"I'll tutor you via webchat," Squall promised.

"That'll have to do," Rinoa conceded. "Oh, hey, look, there's Zone. Huh... I wonder where Watts is."

"He's probably on that train of theirs," Squall muttered, turning to look at Zone.

They'd met once before, about a week earlier when Squall had arrived in Deling to meet up with Rinoa. He was on summer break from the University of Esthar and had been told by his father, Laguna, that he needed to go out and embrace the world. Though his father had completely different ideas than Squall as to what 'embracing the world' was supposed to mean, Laguna had wholeheartedly approved of his sixteen-year-old son visiting Galbadia without a protector. Considering that Squall was traveling under the name of Leonhart, which had no known connection to the Loire name, he ought to have been safe from misguided Galbadians deciding to use him as a pawn against Esthar. Anyone who did find out Squall's true identity would also meet the business end of Lionheart, Squall's favored gunblade.

Of course, Laguna didn't know about Rinoa's 'freedom fighters,' but what the old man didn't know couldn't give him a heart attack.

"You know, I'm only going to be here about three months," Squall said abruptly. "We're already a week into that time frame."

"I know. Why?"

"It's just... I don't know... it's not really a lot of time," Squall shrugged. "If you intend for me to make good use of my gunblade skills, then you must have some specific target in mind."

"Uh..." Rinoa shrugged. "I might; it depends on a few things. I'll tell you about it later, I promise."

By then Zone was collapsing into a chair complaining about his ulcer again – why the man didn't just buy a healing potion was beyond Squall's understanding. Sure, potions were expensive but it was stupid to leave an ulcer unchecked the way Zone seemed to be. Squall shrugged it off; the older man's problem was none of Squall's business anyway.

"Rinoa!" Zone beamed at her. "Squall," he added belatedly. Squall shrugged, taking no offense.

"We were wondering when you'd get here," Rinoa teased.

"Well, we ran into a few problems, but Watts is handling it." Zone pulled up a chair and dropped dramatically into it. Considering how the man was acting, Squall was finding it a little hard to believe that Zone was older than him by five years; Zone just didn't seem mature enough to be twenty-one. But then... Squall had always been far too mature for his age. "Our train should be pulling up over there," he gestured to a set of tracks on the opposite side of the street from the cafe, "any minute."

Watts came racing up and slumped against the back of the chair Rinoa had her feet propped up on. "I lost'em," he gasped.

"Lost who?" Squall asked.

"The reporters," Watts grinned as Rinoa reluctantly moved her feet out of his way. He took a seat and grinned. "Word's out that you're back, Princess. The reporters from that underground paper want to talk to you again; you've turned yourself into a local hero. But we're on a schedule, so I ditched them."

"Thanks, Watts." Rinoa favored the older teen with one of her brightest smiles. "I hate talking to reporters. I never know what to say."

"So, Squall... ready to take on the Galbadian military?" Watts asked, leaning forward eagerly.

"It's what I'm here for," Squall replied gamely, which seemed to please the two Timber natives. "Looks like your train is here," he added as a beat up, three car train pulled into the station, the words 'Forest Owls' and 'Liberate Timber' spray painted on the side. "It isn't exactly subtle," he added, giving Rinoa an amused look.

She blushed. "It represents our hatred of Vinzer Deling."

"You must really, really hate him, Rin."

"Oh, shut up."

The inside of the train was a lot nicer than the outside. The first car of the train was the engine – an electric contraption a few years out of date, but in good enough condition that Squall suspected that at least one of the Owls was an engineer of some considerable talent – and the other two were filled with six rooms each. Counting Squall, there were currently six Forest Owls on board, which meant that everyone got their own room to sleep in on the third car. The middle car had two rooms converted into a single conference room and three more turned into an open area where they could stretch out and relax a little. The final room of the car had been converted into a tech room, which was apparently Watts' domain. No one else went in there but him and no one else wanted to spend time in a room made even more cramped than it'd started by cramming it full of computer equipment.

According to Rinoa, there were two other Forest Owls, but they weren't likely to show up until towards the end of summer. Squall was hopeful that he wouldn't have to deal with the two late-comers at all; one of the two Owls already on the train when he'd arrived with Rinoa, Zone, and Watts was a little too perky for Squall's tastes and he didn't relish the idea of being confined to a train with all the Owls for days on end.

Pessimistically, Squall wondered if it was too late to sneak off to Winhill to visit his mother's grave and spend his summer getting to know a few of his relatives. He'd given Rinoa his word that he'd help out, so Squall didn't give the idea much in the way of actual consideration... though he did hope to visit the small town at some point. Winhill was fairly close to Timber's borders, so it wasn't completely unlikely that he'd be able to get away for a day or two in order to make the visit.

"This'll be your room, Squall," Watts told him, sliding the door open to reveal a small, nondescript cabin. There was a twin bed squashed into the space under the window across from the door, two shelves lined the walls on the left and right, and what was likely a fold away toilet beneath a sink. There were three drawers visible under the bed, which was where Squall figured he could stash the stuff in his duffel. It wasn't bad, though it made him long for the tiny dorm room he had at the university. "I know it's not much, but..."

"It's fine," Squall assured him. "I don't have much stuff to clutter the space with, anyway."

"Ah... right..."

"I'm not quite what you were expecting, huh?" Squall asked, a sly smile appearing on his face that he was glad Watt's couldn't see as he had already stepped in the room and was dropping his duffel on the bed.

"Well... no. Not really," Watts replied, going with the honest route. "You're Rinoa's best friend and... I suppose I was expecting someone a little more like her. Not so... quiet."

"I get that a lot," Squall told him.

"It's kind of a relief, really. Rinoa is prone to exaggerate when it comes to friends but seeing how you are makes it less likely she's exaggerated your fighting skills. If we're gonna do even half the things she wants us to this summer, then we're gonna need you to be better than the best."

"I know what you mean about Rinoa's tendency to overstate things," Squall agreed. He turned and pinned Watts with a steely look that had the older teen squirming uncomfortably. "I can assure you that in this case, she doesn't know just how skilled I really am."

"Watts! Squall! Come on! Jules just told me about the Galbadian checkpoint at the Eastern Forest being low on supplies!" Rinoa's voice echoed loudly down the cramped hallway. "This is the perfect time to hit it!"

Squall followed Watts down the hall and into the second train compartment where Rinoa was. "Doesn't the Eastern Forest connect Timber to Galbadia Garden?" Squall asked, wanting to confirm his knowledge of the local terrain.

"Yeah, it does. A lot of SeeDs and Cadets travel by car that way to reach nearby towns in Timber for vacations and shopping trips; it's cheaper than taking the train to Deling... or at least it was. The checkpoint makes travel between Timber and Galbadia nearly impossible unless you're on foot and bypass the checkpoints altogether. You've got to have special permits to pass through the checkpoints, otherwise you have to take the trains everywhere. This really hurts the economy here in Timber; just another way Galbadia is trying to crack down on this country." Rinoa paused and then added, "I know you just got here, Squall, but this is a really good opportunity. Their supplies will arrive tomorrow, so if we're gonna take down the checkpoint, it's gotta be today."

Shrugging, Squall told her, "it's your show, Rinoa. If you want to hit them, then I'll be at your side."

Rinoa grinned impishly and clapped her hands. "Great. Watts, if you'll go change our route, then we can get underway. Is everyone else okay with this change?"

The rest of the group nodded effusively, so Watts scurried off to change the train's course. Squall rested a hand on his gunblade while his free hand rubbed the bridge of his nose, as though to ward off a headache. Assuming this was how all Forest Owl business was conducted, and knowing Rinoa it probably was, Squall knew he was in for a long summer.

He missed Esthar already.


 

Seifer couldn't believe that he missed Balamb, but the checkpoint guards – pigheaded ass-wipes that they were – were making him think longingly of the nice, friendly atmosphere that pervaded the entire country of Balamb. Timber was a pleasant enough place, if you could ignore the constant presence of Galbadian soldiers reminding everyone that Timber was no longer a free country but instead an annexed territory now under the 'protection' of Galbadia.

Though he didn't particularly care one way or the other about Timber's situation, there was something about the Galbadian military that rankled Seifer. The younger ones were ex-Garden cadets, for the most part, all hailing from Galbadia Garden, which was more of a feeder school for the Galbadian military than for SeeD. Seifer knew that relations between Galbadia Garden and Balamb Garden were tense – you couldn't live in Balamb Garden and not notice once a year when representatives from Galbadia Garden and Trabia Garden showed up to have a weeks' worth of conferences with Headmaster Cid and Garden Master NORG – but he was starting to see just why that was. Galbadia certainly didn't need to control Timber and the citizens of Timber quite clearly didn't want Galbadia in charge. Rumor had it that over half the nation's population were involved in 'terrorist' activities in the name of liberating their homeland. Seifer didn't doubt it.

Still, he'd have brushed the whole situation off as none of his business and gone on to Galbadia Garden as his next stop on the way to Deling if it weren't for one thing.

"What do you mean our passports won't let us through the border?" Seifer demanded, glaring at the border guard. Fujin and Raijin were glaring at the soldier too and the combined force of their stares made the man shift nervously.

"Right now, all traffic between Timber and Galbadia has been limited to the trains running between Timber City, the capital city of Dollet, and Deling City. If you wish to travel from Timber to Galbadia, then you must return to the city and take the train." The soldier, who couldn't be much older than Seifer and his posse, refused to back down. Seifer had to at least respect the man for that, even if he was getting particularly pissed off.

"We're Garden cadets," Seifer snarled, pleased to see the Galbadian flinch. "If we could afford to take the train, we'd have already bought tickets."

"Then I hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation in Timber."

Fujin bristled and narrowed her eyes. "RAGE," she growled.

Patting the albino woman's shoulder gingerly, Raijin said, "Timber City wasn't that bad, ya know? Maybe we should just save up better this year so that next summer we can check out Deling, ya know?"

"UNACCEPTABLE!"

"Yeah, with any luck I'll be SeeD next summer, you'll be on your way to FH to learn the fishing trade, and Fuu will have finally decided what college she wants to attend and what major she wants to study." Seifer turned and glared at the soldier again. "This is the only chance we'll have for a long time to visit Galbadia."

"SHOPPING," Fujin lamented.

"These travel restrictions weren't something we were made aware of when planning our vacation," Seifer added. "We were informed, by Galbadia's tourism industry, that travel between Timber and Galbadia was completely unhindered."

"That was true until recently," they were told firmly. "The level of terrorist activity in Timber has risen in the past few weeks and Galbadian citizens demanded a higher level of protection from the possibility of terrorist attacks happening on the Galbadian side of the border. As a result, free travel between Galbadia and Timber has ceased, except for the trains to and from Timber City, which are monitored heavily. I'm sorry this inconveniences the three of you, but orders are orders. I cannot put the safety of Galbadia's citizens below the concerns of three alleged vacationing cadets from Balamb Garden."

"Whatever," Seifer snapped, turning and walking back over to where they'd parked the car. He didn't check to see if Fuu and Rai were following; he could hear their footsteps behind him.

"Pompous ass," Seifer grumbled softly. He knew the guy was only doing his job, but... that didn't make him any less pissed off that his vacation was effectively ruined. Timber was worth exploring a little longer, but not two months and three weeks longer. They might as well check back into their hotel for another week and then book passage on the train back to Balamb by way of Dollet, which was the only way they could afford to return home without stranding themselves halfway there. If they took the train to Deling instead, they'd only be able to make it as far as Dollet before running out of cash.

They'd counted on being able to drive themselves around Timber and Galbadia, which was considerably cheaper than taking the train, and now... now they'd basically rented the car for no reason at all. It was a fucking waste of money. Yanking the door open, Seifer fully intended to get back in the driver's seat and slam the door for all it was worth. Except he caught sight of a face just beyond the treeline.

It was just a flash, barely visible for all of a handful of seconds, but Seifer was left with the impression of chestnut colored hair and stormy eyes. He stood there, the door open and forgotten, staring into the forest in hopes of catching another glimpse. Something big was about to go down; Seifer could feel it.

"Something wrong, Seifer?" Raijin asked, peering at the forest as though it would reveal what Seifer was thinking.

"I thought I saw someone back there." Seifer gestured in the direction where he'd seen the face. "I must have been imagining things." He tried to shake off the feeling and make himself get into the car, but... he couldn't. He shut the door instead.

"SEIFER?" Fujin stepped forward, her hands reaching for the large chakram she kept latched to her back.

"You never imagine things, ya know?" Raijin muttered, pulling out the extendable wooden staff he preferred. "You're actin' like something's about to go down."

"I've just got a weird feeling..." Seifer trailed off as five people leaped out of the forest in tandem. His hand went for his gunblade even as his eyes were drawn to the person he'd seen in the forest.

The brunet was a man about Seifer's age, a gunblade gripped with both hands with familiar ease. He was taller than Fujin, but not by much, and there was a certain grace to him even as he stood completely still. He wasn't quite threatening the guards, but it was clear that he could attack at any second.

"Huh, I guess the Galbadian soldier was right about escalating attacks," Seifer remarked, his tone amused.

"We gonna just watch this?" Raijin asked.

"AFFIRMATIVE," Fujin snapped before Seifer could respond. She was stilled pissed off her shopping trip had been canceled.

"Like the lady said," Seifer agreed. "We're not gonna hinder the liberation front from doing their part to harass the Galbadian Military. This isn't our problem."

A petite teen with long, raven locks accented by a streak of tan, dressed in blue and black seemed to be the groups leader. While the others were armed and ready for battle, the girl was equipped only with some sort of wrist mounted launching device and had a dog at her feet, growling at the soldiers.

"We are the Forest Owls, dedicated to the liberation of Timber and the removal of Galbadian control from this nation. Your presence here blocks an important trade route and promotes the stifling of this nation's economy. We demand that you cease such actions at once." The girl's voice was melodious and, under any other circumstances, Seifer probably would have been drawn to her.

Half the point of the vacation was, after all, so that he could have a summer fling and pretend, for a little while, that he was normal. As a Garden raised orphan, he wasn't really in touch with what most teens his age were like, but a little summer romance was an idea he could easily get behind and this girl seemed like she'd be the perfect candidate.

But Seifer barely noticed her. His attention was stuck on the brunet with the gunblade. Part of him was annoyed; this civilian might seem to know what he was doing while holding the weapon, but there was no way the kid had the skills necessary to go head to head with a trained Galbadian soldier, much less the twelve men stationed at the checkpoint. Yet the other part of Seifer... prayed the brunet would be breathtaking fighting with the gunblade. Seifer was the only gunblade specialist at Balamb Garden – there was one at Galbadia Garden and two at Trabia, but none of them were a match for Seifer – and the idea of finding a worthy rival for him to train against was a heady concept.

The checkpoint leader laughed at the Forest Owls. "Little girl, go home before you break a nail. I'd hate to make you cry, sweetie. Maybe if we meet again in town, you can show me a good time and I'll contribute to the Timber economy." The bastard had the audacity to leer suggestively at the girl. She couldn't have been older than sixteen, but the soldier, who had to be well over thirty five, was blatantly propositioning her. It was disturbing to watch and Seifer instinctively let his hand hover over his gunblade.

People like that made Seifer seriously want to gut them with Hyperion.

It seemed the brunet had similar inclinations. "You'll address her with respect or keep your mouth shut," he said calmly, his voice sharp, like cold steel.

"Are you threatening me, little boy?"

"If I was threatening you, there would be no cause for confusion."

"Are you refusing to remove this illegal blockade of Timber's borders?" the girl asked.

"Obviously," the lead soldier replied.

None of the other soldiers, particularly the one who'd stopped Seifer, Fujin, and Raijin earlier, looked pleased with their leader's response, but they had no choice. They had to follow orders.

"Very well. We'll remove this blockade by force, then." The girl sounded sad, as though she'd honestly hoped to reason with the Galbadians.

"Attack!" the lead soldier snarled and the Galbadians jumped into action.

Seifer hated standing there, watching the battle unfold before them. It wasn't their place to fight; doing so might inadvertently involve Balamb Garden. They'd already been identified as Balamb Garden cadets and helping a terrorist cell – or a liberation unit, depending on your point of view – would probably get them kicked out of Garden at best and handed over to the Galbadian government on a platter to appease their wrath at worst.

Still, Seifer itched to pull out his gunblade and fight. Especially now that he could see just how talented the brunet really was. His technique was different from what Seifer was used to, but every bit as deadly and efficient. Seifer longed to fight at his side now and spar him for practice later.

The other Forest Owls were not nearly as talented with their weapons as the brunet was with his gunblade. Yet they were good enough to hold their own. Even their leader, the girl with the dog, was doing well enough. They weren't going for the kill, though, and were leaving their enemies unconscious on the ground.

Five out of the twelve Galbadian soldiers hit the ground, knocked out of the fight. Three of them were courtesy of the gunblader while the dog took down one and an androgynous looking redhead was responsible for the fifth. There were still seven soldiers remaining, however, including the leader.

Letting his subordinates keep four of the Forest Owls busy, the Galbadians' leader grabbed the pretty girl in charge of the Owls and clamped a hand over her mouth, dragging her off towards the woods. Seifer had a sick, sinking feeling about what the man had planned and, without a thought to the consequences, raced off after them.

By the time Seifer caught up to them, the girl was fighting the bastard tooth and nail. Her fingers clawed at his face and she kneed him in the groin. The Galbadian yelped, more startled than pained thanks to his armor, and snarled, ripping the girl's vest with his knives and drawing his gun. He pointed it at her and his finger squeezed the trigger... but Seifer got there in time, his gunblade knocking the man's arms from beneath and causing him to shoot at an angle into the forest.

Seifer swung his blade a second time, catching the man across the chest. The soldier's armor protected him from the worst of the blow, but he stumbled back in surprise. This time his gun was pointed at Seifer's chest and the cadet swore softly. If he wasn't fast enough... Seifer didn't even want to think about the result.

The gunblade that blossomed in the center of the man's chest came more of a surprise to Seifer than to the soldier. They both looked down at the end of the blade sticking out of him as it was yanked out and then the soldier crumpled to the ground, dead. Seifer found himself staring into the storm blue eyes of the other gunblader and couldn't move. It was as though the other teen's intensity had grounded him to the spot, making his breathing difficult and causing his blood to pound in his ears.

"I was so scared!" the girl exclaimed, throwing herself into the brunet's arms. "He... he was going to..." she trailed off and shuddered. Turning to Seifer, she smiled. "Thank you, for stopping him."

"It's what any decent person would have done," Seifer told her as he felt, rather than saw, his posse walk up behind him.

"He's right." It was the soldier who'd blocked the posse before. He tossed his sword on the ground in a show of surrender. "No decent person stands by and lets people like that," he gestured to his dead commander, "harm a girl like you... even if you are considered a radical and a terrorist. With him dead, I'm in charge of the checkpoint. We'll retreat for now, but we'll be back with reinforcements in a matter of days. I'm not really sure what you hoped to achieve here, miss."

"With every battle we win, we force the Galbadian Government to take our demands a little more seriously. Eventually they'll come to realize that their hold on Timber isn't worth the constant fight and renounce the unlawful annexation of Timber." The girl sounded so certain and naive.

"I wish the world worked like that, miss," the soldier, a lieutenant from what Seifer could tell, replied. "But you're all just making yourselves wanted criminals. If any of you are ever caught... the punishment for terrorism is execution. We can't identify any of you by name; please, just consider giving this up as foolishness. Eventually Deling's presidency will come to an end. Perhaps you'll have better luck talking things out reasonably with the next regime. Just... think about it, alright."

The lieutenant paused and then turned to Seifer, Fujin, and Raijin. "As far as anyone has to know, the cadets from Balamb Garden were long gone before the Forest Owls showed up." He walked off before Seifer could think of a reply.

The girl burrowed into the brunet's arms again and, for a stunned moment, Seifer felt something twist uncomfortably in his chest at the sight. He quickly shook off the reaction and offered the duo a smile. "Is everything always this exciting with you two?"

The girl laughed and pulled herself away from the brunet. "Only when school isn't in session," she responded. "What's your name? I'd like to know who it is that saved me."

"I'm Seifer Almasy and these are my friends, Fujin Engel and Raijin Colbert. As the Lieutenant said, we're cadets from Balamb Garden." Seifer gestured to each in turn, watching as Fuu and Rai stepped forward and shot each other significant looks. For all that they were a posse, Raijin had always been better at picking up on Fujin's subtleties than Seifer. But he was fairly certain Fuu wanted them to stick with these Forest Owls. They were interesting and held the promise of a summer far more challenging than shopping and, for all that Fujin loved to shop, she loved challenges more than anything.

Seifer hoped he was right about her decision, anyway. If the opportunity to tag along with the revolutionaries appeared in front of him, he had every intention of jumping on it. Seifer wanted a chance to spar with the brunet at least once. Just watching the other gunblader fight had set Seifer's blood on fire; he couldn't wait to find out what it'd feel like to cross blades with the lithe teen.

"Well, Seifer, I'm glad you were here," Rinoa said, smiling brightly at the blonde cadet.


 

Squall scowled and sheathed his gunblade. He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the checkpoint. Either Watts or Jules had taken charge of the retreating soldiers, but Squall wanted to go back just in case one of the Galbadians had a sudden change of heart. Even with their commander dead, there were eleven Galbadians and only three teenaged amateurs – lucky amateurs at that – supervising everything. While Squall could handle things if fighting broke out again, he doubted the other three would manage quite as well.

"I'm Rinoa Heartily," Rinoa added, blithely handing out her name as if it were a party favor for anyone to hear about.

"Rin," Squall hissed sharply. Just because Seifer didn't sound Galbadian didn't mean he wasn't actually a plant. The odds of this being a setup were low, but that didn't excuse Rinoa's complete lack of caution.

"Have a little faith," Rinoa responded, seeming to know what Squall was getting at without actually giving his warning any thought. It was times like these that he missed the time when they were children and he could get away with smacking her on the back of her head with pieces of paper or pillows or various other nicknacks when she did something stupid. He never did it hard enough to hurt her even a little, just enough that she'd know he'd thwapped her, but as they'd gotten older Squall had made himself leave the habit behind. It was too bad, though. She could do with having a little sense knocked into her.

Seeming to sense Squall's hostility, Rinoa sighed and shook her head, giving up the argument. "We should get back to the other Owls. It was nice meeting the three of you." She gave Seifer a particularly blinding smile and then turned away to walk out of the forest.

Squall waited a beat and then nodded at Seifer. "Your timing was fortuitous," he said grudgingly. "I appreciate what you did for her." Then he followed after Rinoa. Internally he was fuming. Rinoa's name was not common in Timber; it was quite clearly Galbadian in origin. It didn't help that Rin's pale skin and dark hair were classic signs of a Northern Galbadian. Even her accent was obviously acquired in the city of Deling. She gave too much of herself away; he'd have to talk to her about that.

At least his own appearance was misleading. Squall's chestnut colored hair was common in Timber and Southern Galbadia and his own pale complexion was solely the result of all the time he'd spent indoors during the year studying at the university. He'd be tan enough soon; he'd blend in with everyone else without a worry. Though his accent still slipped into his normal Estharian tones when he wasn't paying attention...

Odd, though... Seifer and Fujin were traditionally Estharian names and, though it was hard to tell where the albino woman hailed from, Seifer's blonde hair wouldn't look out of place in Esthar either. Raijin was stereotypical Balambese through and through, though.

It gnawed at Squalls mind, however, that Seifer had a gunblade. What little he'd seen of Seifer's stance had spoken of someone whose weapon was treated like an extension of his body; if Seifer wasn't already proficient with his gunblade, there was no doubt in Squall's mind the blonde teen had the innate talent to one day challenge him. If Seifer was already well trained, which was likely considering he was a Garden cadet, then maybe he was already a worthy challenger.

Or maybe Squall was grasping at straws hoping that this chance encounter with a stranger would yield for him something he'd desired ever since he'd surpassed his trainer a little over a year ago. Yet Squall couldn't help but take a moment to look back at the blonde, the obsidian bladed weapon still held in the blonde's hand, and wish that he could trust Seifer to be exactly who he claimed to be. He wanted an equal so badly...


 

It took about an hour to get rid of the Galbadian Soldiers. They were allowed to take food and water with them, more than enough to sustain them on the trek to Galbadia Garden. They were also allowed weapons in order to protect themselves from any wildlife that might choose to harass them. Everything else, however, was left in the Forest Owls' care.

Rinoa intended to have them wait for another local cell to show up and take over the checkpoint. The other cell, the Forest Foxes, was comprised of adults who were better suited to impersonate Galbadian soldiers in order to obtain the supplies set to arrive the next day. Since it'd take the dispatched soldiers about two days to reach the Garden on foot, the Owls weren't worried about their subterfuge being discovered until the entire checkpoint had been packed up, the supplies squirreled away somewhere the Galbadians wouldn't think to look.

At least, Squall hoped that was what would happen. He'd sort of tuned Rinoa out after she mentioned the Forest Foxes and their identification codes.

During the fight against the Galbadian soldiers, Squall had seen their commander grab Rinoa and run off with her. He'd knocked out his latest opponent with a bit of magic – the bracelets he wore concealed beneath the long sleeves of his fur-lined, leather, bomber jacket afforded him the ability to junction magic similarly to the way GF users could, though without the repercussions – and took off running in the direction he'd seen the man take Rinoa. He'd gotten there just in time to see Seifer wreck the Galbadian's aim with a well timed hit with the flat of his blade below the man's arms.

When the soldier aimed his gun at Seifer, Squall had reacted instinctively. Seifer might've had time to fight back, but it didn't matter; Squall had shoved Lionheart through the bastard's chest to rescue the stranger who'd saved his closest friend.

Shock had numbed his reaction to the event at first, allowing him to concentrate on things like keeping their identities secret and overseeing the exodus of the eleven remaining soldiers, but now they had nothing better to do than wait. Watts, Jules, and Andrew were playing go fish and Rinoa was chatting with Zone over their short range radio. Squall, however, was left alone to brood over what had happened.

He'd never killed before and it disturbed him that the first person whose life he ended instilled no feelings of regret within him. Yes, the man had been threatening Rinoa – threatening to do things to Rinoa that would have broken her spirit, or wounded her irreparably – yet Squall still thought he ought to feel something beyond the resolve that should the situation arise again, he would do what had to be done. If that meant killing to protect Rinoa... then that was what would happen.

"Squall?"

He jerked out of his reverie at the sound of Rinoa calling his name. A car full of people, likely the Forest Foxes, had just pulled up. "Time to head out?" he asked.

"Yeah... are you okay, Squall?" Rinoa asked, looking at him worriedly. "You seem a little out of it."

"I'm fine." Squall shrugged. "What about you?"

"Mmm... I guess I'll be okay. I'm still a little freaked out... shaky." She paused and then beamed at Squall with a slightly lopsided grin. "You were really cool, though. So was Seifer. I can't seem to get his face out of my head." She giggled and Squall rolled his eyes. "He's just so... classically sexy, I suppose. His face was so..."

"Rinoa... what have I told you in the past about trying to use me as a sounding board for 'girl talk' stuff?"  Squall rolled his eyes.  "Do you seriously expect me to have an opinion on someone else being sexy or not?"

"Fair point.  Let's just go now, shall we?" Rinoa hurried off while Squall suppressed a smirk.

Shaking his head in amusement, Squall followed after her towards where they'd 'parked' the train. Zone was probably bored since he was all alone there... or he was enjoying being rid of the teens for a few hours. Glancing back at the last place he'd seen the Balamb cadets, Squall couldn't help but think it a little strange that he couldn't get Seifer out of his head either.

Chapter Text

Seifer was crouched in the bushes, hiding, because he didn't really want to deal with anyone. Sis left and Squall was crying. Squall never cried, that was what crybaby Zell was for. But Squall wouldn't let anyone – not Matron and not even Seifer – get close enough to try to help.

Besides, Quisty kept yelling at him not to make things worse by being mean to Squall – Seifer would never be mean to Squall; Squall was the most important person in Seifer's life and he didn't want to hurt the other boy – and Irvy and Sephie and Zelly were all taking her side. It wasn't fair, didn't they know him better than that? Didn't they pay him any attention at all? Or were they too wrapped up in themselves to notice that when Squall hurt, Seifer hurt?

Crouching down even further in the bushes, Seifer felt as if there were rocks pressed against his chest to keep him from breathing. Squall's sudden, inexplicable rejection and the mean words from the others... all of it was weighing down on him. He hated this feeling; why wouldn't it just go away?

Would it hurt less if none of them mattered to him? Would the pain stop if he pushed them away?

"Squall! Where are you going!" Matron shouted from within the orphanage.

The door slammed open and Seifer watched from behind the leaves as a brown headed blur raced down the steps towards the flower field in the distance. "I'm gonna find Sis!" Squall shouted, not stopping to look back even once.

Matron stumbled out after Squall and Seifer couldn't help but feel a little resentful. Sure, he wanted to help Squall too, but why didn't anyone notice he was missing? Squall runs out and there's shouting. Seifer walks out and no one cares.

It wasn't fair. Why didn't anyone care about him?

"Squall!" Edea shouted, looking around frantically. She'd been too slow and now Squall was gone... or was he? There was someone off to the side... a tall man with hair like Squall's and eyes like Squall's and dressed in a black and white outfit, a weapon unlike any Seifer had ever seen before clutched in one hand.

Whatever the weapon was, it was perfect. Seifer wanted to have one himself someday.

"Excuse me," Matron said to the man who looked so much like Squall. "Have you seen a little boy?"

"You don't have to worry," the man said soothingly. "The boy won't go anywhere."

"I think so, too. Poor thing..."

Seifer grimaced, wrinkling his nose distastefully. Didn't Matron know that no one liked to be pitied? Squall would probably hate it more than most people, but be quieter than the ocean breeze about it. He was always too quiet. Seifer wished he'd talk or laugh more; Squall's voice was so much nicer than everyone else's.

That was when the woman appeared. She was tall, like the man with the cool weapon, but so pale Seifer could almost see through her. There were tears in her long black dress that looked like they'd come from a fight and the blood on her only confirmed Seifer's suspicions that she'd been in battle. She was beautiful, but there was something about her that made Seifer's blood run cold.

Seifer pressed himself closer to the ground and winced as a twig snapped beneath him. No one seemed to notice, so he hoped it was alright.

"You're alive?" The man took a few steps forward, placing himself between Matron and the newcomer.

"A sorceress?" Matron asked, a strange look of reluctant acceptance appearing on her face.

"Yes, she's called Ultimecia... we defeated her." The woman, a sorceress apparently, took a step forward as the man spoke and so he brought the weapon in his hand up into a defensive position, placing his other hand on the weapon as well. "Matron, stand back," he commanded.

Seifer wondered why this man, who looked so much like Squall, was calling Matron by the name only orphanage kids got to use.

"It's ok. There's no more need to fight. That sorceress is just looking for someone to pass her powers on to. In order to die in peace, a sorceress must be free of all her powers. I know... for I am one, too. I shall take that sorceress' powers. I don't want one of the children to become one." Matron gently stepped around the man, her expression hardened in some manner Seifer didn't recognize.

"No... I cannot disappear yet," the woman snarled stumbling back a step. "I... came back... to change the world. I... I will change... everything!"

The woman was standing too close to the bushes and, for the first time since his parents died, Seifer felt afraid. If she looked down, the lady would see him and... do something terrible. He just knew it.

She looked down.

"My little failure... so young now..." her hand darted down and she grabbed Seifer by the wrist, dragging him to his feet and through the thickest part of the bushes, the prickly leaves leaving tiny tracks of blood on his arms and legs. "So innocent... though you won't stay that way. My Knight... my failure," she repeated and Seifer shuddered, struggling to get away, but she wouldn't let go.

"Let go! You're hurting me!" Seifer shouted, trying to pull his hand free, but her grip was too tight and her fingernails were digging painfully into his skin.

"My heir," she whispered, bright tendrils of... something, Seifer couldn't even begin to guess what, rising out of her and hovering around him.

Matron and the man stared in shock, too surprised to act. But Seifer could still see them clearly and, as the first piece of light struck him, Seifer screamed, "Squall! Help me!"

The man... Squall, yet not Squall, raced forward, shoving Ultimecia away from Seifer. Her grip on his wrist relaxed and Squall's hand replaced hers. But his grip wasn't painful at all as he pulled Seifer out of the way, the lights writhing in the air, confused as to where they should be going. From the safe place Squall took him too, Seifer watched as the rest of the bright things went into Matron.

As the last of the strange lights disappeared, the mean lady seemed to dissolve just like the evil witch in the Oz movie. "Is it over?" Seifer asked. Somehow, he knew it wasn't.

"I'm sorry," Squall told him. "It's just the beginning for you. But... it'll turn out okay."

"You are Squall, aren't you?" Seifer asked. The brown haired man opened his mouth to answer, but Matron cut him off, pulling Squall away from him.

"You called me Matron. Who... are you?"

"I'm a SeeD... a SeeD from Balamb Garden."

"SeeD? Garden?" Matron echoed the words without understanding.

"Both SeeD and Garden were your ideas. Garden trains SeeDs. SeeDs are train to defeat rogue Sorceresses and protect those who don't abuse their abilities." Squall gave her a confused look and then held out his hand to Seifer.

If it were anyone else, Seifer would have ignored the unspoken invitation. But this was Squall and Squall had just saved him. He latched onto Squall's hand and clung to it, shaking like a leaf. He was scared, but he felt safe with this Squall.

"What are you saying? You're... that boy from the future?" Matron looked off in the direction of the flower field. Maybe she did know where their Squall was after all.

"Matron..." Squall started to say, but Matron cut him off again.

"Please return. You do not belong here." Her words weren't sharp, but there was something truly unhappy in her tone.

Seifer's Squall came running back at that moment, tears running silently down his face. "I can't find Sis. Am I all alone?" he trailed off, staring at Seifer and the other Squall. "Who's he? Are you leaving with him?" Squall demanded. "You're gonna leave, just like Sis..." Squall looked like he was gonna start crying harder all over again.

Reluctantly, Seifer dropped the tall Squall's hand and walked over to his Squall. He pulled Squall into a hug, letting the other boy feel just how badly he was still shivering from the experience with the mean lady. "There was a crazy lady here and he saved me. But I'm not going anywhere with anyone... except you. You'll never be rid of me," Seifer promised. "He's..." Seifer wasn't sure what to say. Was he right? Was the man Squall?

Seifer felt safe hugging his Squall just like he'd felt safe holding the other Squall's hand. He thought they were the same, but he didn't know how to say it properly.

"He's no one. You don't need to know." Edea gave the other Squall a long, hard look before looking at the littler Squall. "The only Squall permitted here is you." Her expression softened as she turned back to the big Squall and her voice became more caring. "Do you know where to go back to? Do you know how? Will you be all right by yourself?"

Squall saluted sharply and nodded, a small smile tugging at his lips as he watched Seifer. "I'll be fine... Matron." Then he was gone.

Matron smiled for a moment and then turned to Seifer and Squall, her expression growing serious once more. "I don't know how to fix this," she admitted.

Seifer was afraid to ask what needed fixing. He knew her answer would be him. Somehow... somehow he always seemed to be wrong.

It figured that this would be no different.

Part One

Seifer scowled and narrowed his green eyes menacingly at the little first year cadet who'd been wandering up towards him. She was thirteen or fourteen with wide blue eyes and it was obvious that she'd decided hitting on the hot eighteen-year-old was a great idea. Fortunately his glare was good at shooing people away.

Like most people did when Seifer would show up at Balamb Garden, the girl probably thought he was a transfer from one of the other Gardens. He had his gunblade with him – he was never without Hyperion these days – and he had the same sort of military bearing that most SeeDs and upper level cadets seemed to acquire. So the girl's mistake was understandable. But now she was likely running off to cry because the mean blonde guy glared at her.

If it weren't for the fact that she'd forget about the event completely in a few weeks when GF training began for the firsties, Seifer might have felt bad about scaring her off like that. That was the nice thing about visiting Balamb Garden, though. Seifer could watch his old friends from afar without having to worry about them recognizing him and blowing his cover and, by putting enough space between his visits – only staying for a week at a time when he was there – everyone except the staff had forgotten about him by the time he returned from the various other places Matron would take him to hide.

Seifer hated hiding, but at least at Garden he could imagine what it would be like to belong.

"Bored now," came a familiar voice and Seifer craned around, smiling a little at the sight of Fujin and Raijin walking down the hall. It was Fujin who spoke; she had an unusual way of talking though she seemed to have toned down a little since the last time he'd hung out with them at Garden, some three months previous.

Seifer usually wound up spending his time at Garden with the duo and renewing his friendship with them was actually one of the least painful parts of the time he'd spend there. Despite not remembering his previous visits, Fuu and Rai always seemed to sense he belonged with them and they'd gravitate to him within moments of noticing his return. In fact, Raijin had already seen him and was pointing him out to Fuu who actually smiled. The duo hurried over to Seifer and sat down beside him.

"Seifer," Fujin said gently, her red eye shining with relief as she hugged the shocked man.

"You... you remember me?" Seifer responded, hugging back out of reflex as shock dulled his reaction.

"We haven't been using GF's very much lately, ya know?" Raijin told him. "Neither of us wanna make SeeD so we've been cutting back so those who do wanna make SeeD get more time with'em, ya know?" The big guy patted Seifer's shoulder and grinned warmly as Fujin released him.

"Affirmative," Fujin concurred. "Missed you," she added.

"Yeah, we did. We're a posse, ya know?"

"I missed my posse too," Seifer said, swallowing thickly. Damn... was this what it was like to have friends who cared? It felt nice... "I can't stay long, like always," he warned them. "I'll only be here until the day after the graduation ball; Matron wants me to attend. She thinks I don't get enough social interaction."

"True," Fujin agreed. "Always alone... always moving."

"Never enough time for friends except when I'm here," Seifer filled in. "Here I've got you two. Even when you were using GFs, you'd remember me without the memories."

"We still don't remember most of your visits, ya know?" Raijin looked sad. "But we've been remembering a few of them. You're in a lot of the school's photo albums, ya know? We went through a bunch of them a few weeks ago and memories just kept coming back to us, ya know? It was like a... a..."

"Flood," Fuu cut in. "Information dump."

"Yeah, those."

Seifer laughed in amusement. He really had missed them... their quirks and company and the way he felt at home around them. It was almost as good as being around... well, that didn't matter anymore.

"So what's with you showing up and disappearing all the time, ya know?" Raijin asked. "You're not a Garden cadet or a SeeD so..."

"It's complicated," Seifer told them. "I'd rather not talk about it out in the hallway. But... Headmaster Kramer... I'm his wife's adoptive son. But I don't think Cid ever officially adopted me as well; I'm not really around him enough for that, or something along those lines."

"Complicated," Fujin agreed.

"My dorm should be empty; my roommate's always off with his latest girlfriend, ya know?" Raijin shrugged, seemingly unaffected by his roommate's womanizing ways. "We can talk there."

"Sounds good to me," Seifer agreed. He could have refused – he should have refused – and Matron would pitch a fit the second she found out... if she found out. What Matron didn't know wouldn't hurt her and Seifer trusted these two. More importantly, he needed to tell someone before he... well, he just needed to tell them about it.

Ten minutes later they were situated in the living area of Raijin's dorm. It was fairly neat, though not as clean as Seifer kept his rooms (since he was always moving around he'd gotten in the habit of keeping his space as clean as possible so that he could find his things at a moments notice for packing purposes), and the three of them settled on the couch with Seifer in the middle.

"Spill," Fujin commanded imperiously.

"Yeah, we're curious, ya know?"

"You two know about sorceresses, right?" Seifer tried to keep his tone light. He'd never had to explain this to anyone, ever. That always fell to Matron, who'd only told a handful of people over the years.

"Well ya, who hasn't?" Fujin gave Seifer a look that clearly asked 'are you daft?' as Raijin continued to speak. "Sorceresses are famous throughout history, ya know? Most are noted as being benevolent or whatever, though the most recent one to make the books – Adel – went bat shit crazy, ya know?

"Matron – Cid's wife, Edea – she's a Sorceress. Cid's her Knight. It's not really well known, but she's been a sorceress since she was, like, five, so..." he shrugged. "It's not something people tend to broadcast."

"Don't sorceresses get unstable without a Knight, though? They must've 'bonded' pretty young, ya know?"

"Actually, the younger someone is when they get the powers, the longer they can go without needing a Knight; not sure why that is, but it's true," Seifer explained. "But that's not really the point. That was more like... background info."

"What does it have to do with you?" Fujin asked quietly, her voice having a calming effect on Seifer's nerves.

He hadn't realized confessing what he was could be so... nerve-wracking even when he trusted the people he was talking to. "Well, Matron started an orphanage after the Sorceress War was over; I was one of her orphans, along with a bunch of other kids; Squall Leonhart, Quistis Trepe, Zell Dincht... just to name a few. Of course, they don't remember orphanage anymore because of the GFs. I'm sure Dincht doesn't even realize that he ever was an orphan.

"When I was eight, this lady appeared at orphanage. She was dying... and a Sorceress. She needed to pass on her powers and Matron was willing to take them on in addition to the power she already had so that none of the kids would have to deal with being a Sorceress."

"What, did she fail and now you're someone's Knight? 'Cause that's so cool, ya know?" Raijin beamed, not noticing the way Seifer winced.

Fujin leaned over Seifer and smacked Raijin on the head with a pillow. "Silence," she instructed. Raijin nodded and rubbed his nose as though it'd had been injured by the attack of the fluffy pillow.

"She wasn't a good Sorceress and she didn't give a damn about the kids at the orphanage," Seifer said, picking up where he'd left off. "I was tired of putting up with the other kids – they didn't like me much and the feeling was basically mutual; I only ever really got along with Squall and he only just tolerated me, which worked out fine for the both of us. So I was camped out in the bushes near where the Sorceress was. She saw me there and... I don't know why or how, but she grabbed my arm and was able to, somehow, transfer a portion of her power into me. There was a guy there who saved me from getting stuck with all of her power, most went to Matron after he pulled me out of the way, but... it was enough.

"I'm the world's only known Sorcerer ever."

"That is so cool..." Raijin rubbed his nose for the second time and scowled at Fujin. "You didn't have to hit me again, ya know."

"Idiot. Becoming a Sorcerer has made Seifer's life lonely. Don't call that cool," Fujin reprimanded.

"I don't mind," Seifer told her with a smile. "Just means he doesn't think I'm a freak."

"You aren't," Fujin said at the same time Raijin chimed in with, "of course you're not a freak, ya know?"

"Knight?" Fujin asked.

"I... there used to be someone – I thought he was my Knight. He was my best friend and... then he left and forgot about me. My magic's been reacting lately the way..."

"The way it would if you didn't have a Knight," Fujin filled in. Her eye shone with concern. "What will happen if you can't find a Knight?"

"I'll go stark raving crazy and try to destroy the world as we know it... for kicks." Seifer shrugged. "I don't know how to pass on my abilities and even if I did... could I really put someone else through this shit? It's not... I'd rather hold off on that as long as possible."

They were silent for a long time and then Raijin asked the inevitable question. "Maybe one of us could be your Knight, ya know?"

"My magic rejected Ellone and she's like a sister to me," Seifer responded dejectedly. "No offense, but I just can't see you two succeeding where she failed. You're my best friends, but she's..."

"Family."

"Exactly."

"This sucks, ya know?"

"I know."

Chapter Text

Sora knew he ought to have paid better attention to what Merlin had been telling him and the others, but he felt uncomfortably warm. His stomach twisted at the scent of something charred nearby – he didn't even want to know what trouble the Heartless were causing this time – and he longed for the comfortable beds that Aerith had promised would be open to the trio whenever they needed a place to stay. He realized, with a dawning sort of irritation, that he was probably coming down with a cold.

His head was starting to ache too, but Sora didn't want to complain. There was so much to do – so many places left to check for Riku, Kairi, and King Mickey – that Sora didn't want to slow anyone down. He was perfectly capable of toughing out a queasy stomach and a simple head-cold.

Walking out into Traverse Town's third district, Sora closed his eyes for a moment and shivered. The air felt too cold against his skin and his head swiftly went from aching to pounding. The brunet scrubbed his hands against his face and then opened his eyes, glancing around the third district square. There were likely Heartless hiding in the cracks of the street – they squeezed in everywhere like some sort of sentient form of ooze that snapped back into shape at the drop of a hat – just waiting for someone to come along for them to ambush. It didn't matter how many times they were defeated, the Heartless kept coming back.

It was a little disheartening, really.

By now, however, Donald and Goofy had gotten several feet ahead. Sora took a few quick steps to catch up to them and then fell in with their pace. Surely enough, several seconds later there were three Heartless rising up, as if out of nowhere, to greet them with swords and fists. Their shadowy faces were contorted into parodies of smiles; though the creatures surely were happy to see three potential victims walking forward to lose their hearts.

Donald readied a spell, Goofy brought up his shield in a defensive position, and Sora hesitated, the pounding within his skull making the usually thoughtless summoning of his Keyblade impossibly hard. Before they could attack the Heartless, however, there came a clanging noise as, with a single swipe, the three Heartless were completely, utterly dealt with.

Sword in hand, Riku grinned at Sora. His silvery hair was every bit as long as Sora remembered it being a week earlier when things had still made sense and 'other worlds' meant the continent across the ocean. His eyes were the same deep cerulean blue, his outfit the same ridiculous canary yellow shirt paired with baggy blue jeans and suspenders, but his smile... seemed different from before.

Sora smiled in return and took a few steps forward, throwing his arms around the platinum-haired teen's neck in a brief hug. Then, remembering himself – guys don't do hugs, after all – Sora flushed, but kept his smile unrepentant. "Riku!"

"Sora... I've been looking all over for you. Where have you been all this time?" Riku gave Donald and Goofy a curious look, but returned his full attention to Sora after only a few seconds.

"I've been looking for you," Sora replied. "Well, you and Kairi. These two are Donald and Goofy; they've been searching for their King. We're, uh, working together." Turning to Donald and Goofy, he gestured to Riku. "Guys, this is Riku." Seeing the looks of confusion on his companions face, Sora squinted uncertainly at Riku. "You're really here, right? I'm not dreaming this time... right?"

"I hope not. It took forever to find you." Riku reached over, ruffling the shorter boy's hair.

"Riku..." Sora whined, trying desperately to keep his already messing hair from looking even more like a rats nest than usual. Riku knew how much Sora hated his messy hair, yet the taller boy was forever making it worse anyway. "Wait a second... do you know where Kairi is?"

"Isn't she with you?" Riku asked in concern.

"No... I was hoping that she was with you... and that you were both safe." Sora sighed, swaying dizzily for a moment. "What if she... when our world got eaten, what if she was hurt by the Heartless?"

"Don't worry," Riku put his hands on Sora's shoulders, steadying the Keyblade Master. "I'm sure she made it off the island, too. We're all finally free; she's probably looking for us right now. With any luck, we'll all be reunited soon. I met someone who promised to help..." Too busy reassuring Sora, Riku didn't notice the shadow rising up behind him as another Heartless made its move.

Slipping out of Riku's grasp, this time Sora felt the Keyblade materialize effortlessly in his right hand just seconds before he swung at the Heartless. The dark creature exploded into nothing, a single heart rising up into the sky and vanishing after a few feet. Sora swayed again, but this time he used his Keyblade to prop himself up as he smiled brightly at Riku.

"Sora, what did you... how did that get there?" he pointed at the Keyblade.

"I'm not sure how this works, really," Sora responded with a shrug. "But I can use it to defeat the Heartless who've been attacking us. We've been traveling between the worlds, Riku, trying to find the people we've lost."

"Traveling between the worlds, huh?" Riku nodded slowly. "Yeah... I've been doing that too. The lady who said she'd help us has brought me here from a place called Hollow Bastion; that's where I wound up when the Island disappeared around us."

"Guess what, Riku!" Goofy spoke up. "Sora's the Keyblade Master now."

"Huh... the Keyblade? Is that what it's called?" Riku nodded at Goofy and Donald. "You two have been looking out for Sora... thanks. He needs keepers so that he doesn't get into too much trouble."

"Hey!" Sora exclaimed while Donald snickered.

"That's for sure!" the Duck agreed.

"Sora... are you alright?" Riku eyed Sora in concern. "You don't look so hot."

"I'm fine," Sora attempted to wave off the concern with an actual waving motion, but lost his balance instead.

Collapsing to the ground, his sight gave out for a moment. The next thing he knew, the Keyblade was no longer in his hands and Riku was holding had an arm around his shoulders and was propping him up. Riku's free hand was pressed to Sora's forehead. Sora batted ineffectually at Riku's hand, but the silver haired teen evaded the other's weak attempt.

"You're not okay, Sora. You're burning up!" Looking over at Donald and Goofy, Riku asked, "is there somewhere we can take him so he can rest. We've got to get him someplace safe!"

"Uh... Cid's house is just up there," Donald pointed at an area where a house could be seen overlooking the square. "We were supposed to meet Leon there."

"I'm sure Leon will help us out," Goofy added. "He'll be worried as soon as he sees how bad Sora looks..."

"I'm fine," Sora insisted, struggling to sit up on his own. Dazedly, he registered the fact that his Keyblade lay beside Riku. He reached for it, intending to use the weapon as a crutch for returning to his feet, but Riku snatched it away. The Keyblade disappeared from Riku's grasp, returning to wherever it went while not in use and forcing Sora to lean back into Riku's arms again. The world faded out once more, but he could feel Riku adjust his grip on his shoulders and legs before standing up.

Sora wanted to protest, but Riku smelled like home and his arms felt nice. Tiredly, Sora wrapped his arms around Riku's neck and leaned his forehead against the other boy's shoulder. He'd found Riku, after all. Maybe it would be okay to take a short break...

Just a short one...


 

Riku paced back and forth in the room that had become his jail cell. Sora was just one room over, but he'd been denied the right to see his friend. It didn't matter to Leon or Yuffie that Riku wanted to know how Sora was doing; the duo were completely nuts! It didn't help matters that Donald and Cid had sided with them. Goofy and Aerith didn't think they were right to exclude Riku, but neither were able to change the minds of the others.

The crux of the issue – the reason for the distrust he was receiving – had to do with Maleficent. According to Leon, Yuffie, Cid, and Aerith, Maleficent was an evil witch who controlled the Heartless and sought to bring about the death of all worlds. Maleficent, however, was the woman who'd brought Riku to Traverse Town in the first place.

He was really regretting telling the others that they were wrong about Maleficent.

She'd seemed so nice to him when she'd found him at Hollow Bastion and offered to help him reunite with his missing friends. Riku had tried to explain to the others that they had to be mistaken, but they'd locked him up instead. Aerith, at least, had been against it, but she was preoccupied with tending to Sora.

Sora... he'd passed out while Riku had been carrying him to Cid's house and, as far as Riku was aware, had yet to reawaken. Once they'd arrived, everyone had seemed nice enough...

"Put him on the bed," the beautiful blonde woman said, shooing the tall, dark haired man and the tiny ninja-girl out of his way.

Riku hurried to comply, laying his friend out on top of the covers. Worriedly, he checked Sora's temperature again; the brunet was still burning up. It was a wonder Sora hadn't collapsed before Riku had gotten there, though the taller teen figured that Sora's fever had spiked just as he'd shown up.

"Can you tell me anything about his symptoms?" the pretty blonde asked again, her voice soothing. "How was he acting before he collapsed?"

"He seemed fine while we we're visiting Merlin," Donald asserted.

"Not really," Goofy objected. "He was kind of... out of it, I guess. Sora didn't seem to be concentrating well and he kept rubbing between his eyes, like he had a headache or something." Pausing thoughtfully, he added, "Sora skipped lunch too. He said he wasn't hungry, but he looked a little green at the mention of food."

"Oh, really. How did you notice all of this when I didn't?" Donald demanded.

"He seemed really dizzy when I met up with them in the third district square," Riku cut in when Goofy pointedly refused to answer Donald's question. "Distracted, too... Sora's never been one for asking for help when he doesn't feel well, though. He... he always thinks he's going to be a burden on everyone and..." Riku trailed off, his throat tightening. "Can you help him, miss...?"

"Call me Aerith," the blonde told him with a smile. "You must be Riku. Sora's been very adamant about finding you and a girl called Kairi."

"Yeah, I'm Riku."

"Well, Riku, I will do everything I can for Sora. I'm something of a Healer, though my training was not completed before this catastrophe with the worlds..." Aerith trailed of, but gave Riku an encouraging smile. "I do know how to deal with fevers and such. Sora likely has the stomach flu. It's not pleasant, but so long as we keep his fever down he'll recover quickly enough."

Leon and Yuffie had introduced themselves to Riku while Aerith used the nearby faucet to get some rags wet. She'd tended to Sora while they waited for Cid to arrive. When he got there, a few minutes later, Riku was put through yet another round of introductions. Then Cid began to explain why he'd wanted them all gathered there.

"You guys ever hear of Maleficent? I hear she's in town." Cid swept his gaze over them all and Riku felt as if his heart had stopped for a moment.

Maleficent was a little creepy, but she'd been helpful to Riku. Yet the tone Cid used to say her name was cold and a touch fearful.

"Gosh, I can't say that we have," Goofy responded.

"She's a witch!" Cid exclaimed, hate clear in his tone.

"She's the reason this town is full of Heartless. Don't take her lightly." Leon added.

Aerith nodded in agreement. "She's been using Heartless for years. Maleficent's lucky that she hasn't become a Heartless yet."

"What!" Riku stared at them in wide eyed disbelief.

"We lost our world because of her," Leon insisted.

Cid chimed in, saying, "one day, a swarm of Heartless took over our world!"

"That was nine years ago," Leon continued, only to be interrupted by Cid again.

"I got out of that mess and came here with these guys."

"That's awful!" Donald sniffled sympathetically.

"A-are you sure it wasn't someone else who brought the Heartless to your world?" Riku asked. "It's just... I... when I woke up after the Island was swallowed by darkness, she was the first person I found. Maleficent helped me; she didn't seem evil."

Everything went downhill from there. Leon refused to listen to Riku any further, Yuffie took orders from Leon, and Cid... well his accent got thick enough that Riku couldn't understand a word the man said. Donald leaped to conclusions but, based on the look that Goofy gave the duck, Riku figured he couldn't really take Donald's reaction personally.

Chapter Text

Andrew wasn't certain how it happened. One minute he was fighting an insanely overpowered, mojo-wielding demon, the next he was convulsing on the ground from magical overload with Spike kneeling beside him – which, despite how tolerantly friendly the vampire would be at times, was pretty surprising – and trying to move him to a position where the seizures wouldn't hurt him. Then there was another bright flash of magic.

His eyes had cleared quickly, but he couldn't believe it. Here he was, standing by the locker he'd had in his freshman year at Sunnydale High… which was located within the old Sunnydale High with intact walls and students milling around in the sunlit – and electric light lit – halls.

Part of him wanted to assume he was hallucinating. Unfortunately, he was pretty certain that he wasn't. This was too real and familiar to be anything but authentic. Though he did know better than most that there were several demons capable of giving people life-like hallucinations, he was fairly certain the one that had been attacking him with magic didn't have that ability.

Meaning that Andrew Wells had somehow gotten the slate wiped clean. He felt shorter than usual, was standing beside his freshman locker, and was witnessing the population of old Sunnydale High going about their business without ever realizing that there was a hell mouth radiating evil from beneath the library.

Down the hallway, someone familiar turned the corner and started hurrying in Andrew's direction. Jonathan Levinson, not even noticing Andrew, was heading to whatever class he had next.

Dizzily, Andrew recalled the feeling of the knife in his hand, the copper tang of blood in the air when he'd stabbed Jonathan, and the look of betrayal and surprise on the brunet's face when he realized what Andrew was doing. Stuffing his binder and books into his locker and slamming it shut, Andrew woozily scurried to the nearest bathroom.

He didn't remember what his schedule was and didn't particularly care. Remembering Jonathan's murder made him violently queasy, which translated to him kneeling, alone, in the bathroom, hunched over one of the toilets as he lost his lunch. When he was finished, Andrew sat on the floor of the stall with the door open as he leaned against the wall and shook violently. He managed, if only just, to make himself reach the lever to flush away the mess and then wrapped his arms around his knees and rocked slowly.

"Uh… are you okay?"

Andrew looked up in shock at Jonathan, unable to believe that the older teen had noticed his mad dash from the hallway. "N-not really," Andrew managed to rasp out. "I-I think that lunch didn't agree with me," he lied, hoping that he was right in assuming that the lunch period had already happened.

"Not surprising," Jonathan said, looking sympathetic. "I think the lunch lady wants to kill all the students in the building." There was a short awkward pause before he spoke again. "Um… do you need any help getting to the nurse's station?"

For a moment, Andrew was tempted to say 'no'. He knew he probably ought to. But at the same time… he really didn't want to send Jonathan away. "Help would be good."

"Here," Jonathan offered Andrew a hand up and then stepped aside. "I'm Jonathan, by the way."

"Andrew," he said, leaning against the stall door frame as he struggled to keep his balance.

"Tucker's brother?"

"Uh-huh." Taking a tentative step, Andrew felt emboldened when he didn't keel over and started following Jonathan to the door. There was a sound of the bell ringing. "I'm sorry. I've just made you late for class."

"Don't worry about it," Jonathan replied, getting the door. "My next class has Cordelia Chase in it and, well, she may be gorgeous but she and her minions are always mocking me. So getting a chance to skip out on some of that is fine."

"I know what you mean," Andrew agreed quietly. "I tried to see who else in my classes like Star Trek and Star Wars and wind up branded as the class uber-geek." He paused and the added with a faint smile, "which isn't actually that far off, but now they all make fun of me for it."

Jonathan laughed softly. "They're just boring for not liking Star Trek and Star Wars." He grinned encouragingly. "Starting to feel better?"

"Yeah… some."

"Good." They turned down the hallway towards the nurse's office. "Hey, uh… which lunch do you have, anyway?"

Andrew racked his brain to remember what lunch period he'd had freshman year. "A lunch," he replied after a moment. Senior year had been in a different school from Sunnydale High, and he'd had B lunch both sophomore and junior year. Suddenly his sharp memory was coming in handy.

"Really? So do I. If you're here tomorrow, you should stop by my table before you go see your friends. I'd, uh… like to make sure you're okay and all."

Surprise washed through Andrew. "Seriously? Sure, not a problem."

By then they were at the right door, so Jonathan pulled it open and shooed Andrew inside. The nurse, an elderly lady who Andrew knew was later known for trying to make up for Snyder's cruelty, turned and smiled brightly at the two teens.

"What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?"

"Uh… lunch didn't exactly agree with me," Andrew stammered out, 'cause suddenly he was feeling a little embarrassed and really caged. Mostly, he hoped she wouldn't make him call his parents to go home. That was the one place he definitely did not want to go to. "Jonathan was just making sure I got here okay," he added.

"Here," the nurse, Mrs. Garner, handed Jonathan a pad, "just write down what happened and I'll sign off on it. You can use it as a pass excusing you for being late to class."

Accepting the pad, Jonathan pulled his backpack off his shoulders in order to scrounge around for a pen or pencil. Art straight from Dungeons and Dragons decorated the bag and Andrew wished he could study the pictures instead of answer Mrs. Garner's questions.

"What's your name, son?"

"Andrew Wells…"

"What did you have for lunch?"

"Uh…" Andrew swallowed nervously and hoped that the other two would simply blame his slow responses on his being sick. "Pizza," he said as quickly as he could. That was a safe answer, after all. He remembered it being served nearly every day and it was one of the cheapest items on the menu – which is why he got it all the time – despite the fact that it tasted nothing like real pizza ought to.

"What the cafeteria serves is not pizza, its poison on bread," Jonathan grumbled almost inaudibly. "It's a wonder so few have ever gotten sick because of it before."

"How were you feeling this morning?"

"Fine," Andrew shrugged, "a little tired since I had to cram some of my homework in after watching the Voyager rerun last night," he flushed slightly, having no idea where that part came from. Maybe he subconsciously knew what day it was after all.

Jonathan grinned; "you were watching it, too? I can't wait to see the new episode tomorrow."

Andrew managed not to sigh in relief. "It'll be awesome," he agreed quietly.

Smiling at the two boys, Nurse Garner signed off on Jonathan's note and shooed him off to class. "Alright, I'm going to take your temperature, just in case, and then you can call your parents to have them take you home."

"Can't I just stay here?" Andrew asked, immediately regretting it. The expression in Nurse Garner's eyes was a bit too shrewd. "It's just, my dad's out of town and my mom's in a meeting, so…"

On the hellmouth, families tended to be easily destroyed by secrets and violence, more so than in other places. Really, it was no wonder that Nurse Garner had a look in her eyes that asked if what Andrew just said was the truth. "All right. You have to call your mom as soon as her meeting should be over." Then she stuck a plastic covered thermometer in Andrew's mouth when he started to speak. Reluctantly, he closed his mouth over the thermometer and settled down on one of the cots. "Is there anything else you'd like to mention?"

Shaking his head negatively, Andrew crossed his eyes in an attempt to read the numbers on the thermometer. Though he couldn't get the readout to focus, he did start to wonder if this was the chance he'd dreamed about ever since the night he'd killed Jonathan.

Maybe he'd been given a gift: the opportunity to get things right.

It was like if Anakin Skywalker were to be given a chance to turn away from the dark side and erase the evil of Darth Vader… except on a much smaller scale, but still…

Andrew grinned internally. Suddenly, everything was looking up.


Spike couldn't feel his soul.

For a moment, he felt free. He could do anything he wanted and damn the consequences.

But then… he also felt bereft, imbalanced. The empowered feeling was nice, but he also recognized that it was wrong. Without his soul, Spike felt as though he was only half of what he should be.

"You're not my knight… but your face is his face," Drusilla crooned from behind him. "You could be him and better… you could be my prince…"

"No." Spike turned around. "Sorry, pet. I'm not going to stay by your side as your knight this time. I don't know how, but this is my past and I want to… need to do things right this time."

"Miss Edith will be lost without you. I'll be all alone with the stars singing to me and no one to dance with." Dru pouted prettily and Spike was tempted to stay with her.

He closed his eyes, though, and remembered the battle in LA. Andrew had found him, somehow, in the melee to tell him that Willow was on the way to close the portal and that she needed as many friends lending their support as possible. Only, as they were about to head to her, a magic wielding demon attacked Andrew. Spike didn't recognize the demon, but he knew its power was stronger than the little blond human's.

The demon had poured raw power into Andrew, knocking the young man to the ground and sending him into a seizure. Spike had abandoned everything in panic. He knelt beside Andrew and did his best to keep the Watcher from hurting himself as the magic gleamed darkly around him and the boy's body bucked and twitched, as though trying to physically expel the magic.

A flash of white overpowered everything, turning the demon to ash and meshing with the darkness surrounding Andrew and, by extension, Spike. Andrew had stilled and his breath had grown ragged, but he was alive. Spike moved to pick up Andrew and get him out of there, but the two conflicting magics finally turned to gray and dove into both Andrew and Spike.

There was pain and then he was alone with Drusilla in the past.

Spike's eyes opened. "I have to know if he was sent back too, Dru. But I can't do that as your dark knight."

"He has tainted your thoughts, the little ray of sunshine. Flawed little thing," she snarled jealously. "Death for love… suffering for love… pained without any noticing him for himself… he is as used as you."

"Find yourself a knight who doesn't feel the need to protect the light," Spike sighed. "Goodbye, pet."

"Madness goes hand in hand with the spark," Drusilla warned him. "You'll speak in riddles and know Miss Edith's words without me saying them aloud. That isn't fair. I like my secrets."

"I did madness once, pet. I think it'll skip me this time 'round."

"No other can take your place, my William."

"You said it yourself, Dru," Spike opened the door to the night. "I'm not your knight; I just share his face." Without looking back, he walked out to see where he stood.

Looked like Africa was closer than he thought and the night had just begun.


 

Andrew let out a sigh of relief when Nurse Garner left on an emergency – some kid getting sick in class and possibly needing to go to the hospital. He felt a little guilty when he scrawled a note saying that he called his mom and that she had picked him up. He added a pretty decent forgery of her handwriting, which confirmed what was in his handwriting, and signed off. Curiously, he felt less guilty as he hacked into her computer, pulled up his schedule, and copied it onto a nearby piece of paper along with his locker number and combo.

Checking to make sure there wasn't anything else he needed to do, Andrew sent the computer back to its previous screen and surveyed the room. When nothing was immediately apparent as important, Andrew tugged open the door to the station and snuck out into the hall. What he really needed was someplace to go where he could collect his thoughts and not be bothered by anyone else. He considered the library and dismissed it. That was Scooby territory and he wasn't a Scooby.

Next his mind lit upon the theater. Unless Sunnydale High's thespian society was rehearsing a play – unlikely, since they only did two a year and they were always at the start of the semesters – the theater would be the ideal place to hide out. Using a little magic to scout the halls, he located the fastest, empty route to his destination and took off.

A few minutes later, he stood in the back of the theater with his hands on his knees as he leaned over and huffed for breath. He'd forgotten that gym hadn't exactly been his favorite class in high school and vowed to take a little time to get in better shape this time around.

As soon as he could breathe again, Andrew settled into one of the plush chairs and stared up at the stage. Immediately, he lost himself in thought. Somehow a miracle had sent him back to before everything went so tragically wrong and he didn't want to waste it. Tomorrow he'd see Jonathan at lunch, to assure the friendly sophomore that he was okay, and then what? Attend classes? Go back home where Tucker reigned supreme and all that was Andrew got ignored? Or…

He'd never really been happy until the Scoobies had accepted him. The major downside to having everything bad he'd done erased was that their acceptance was gone now, too. They wouldn't have any idea who Andrew Wells was anymore.

What he wanted to do… no, needed to do was find a way to make them notice Andrew Wells for himself. He needed to make an impact so that he could show up at the library and they'd smile at him and invite him to join in their brain-storming, save-the-world-from-the-next-apocalypse sessions. He needed them to see him as part of the family.

"So how does one go about getting accepted by the Scoobies without starting off as a hostage?" Andrew muttered sullenly. Sighing, he felt the urge to talk to Spike about his problem. After the platinum haired vampire's short visit to Italy, Andrew had taken to calling Spike whenever he had a problem. They'd wound up having the strangest – and most entertaining – conversations that ended with Andrew always feeling better about things even if he didn't manage to get the advice he had been seeking.

He knew that Spike wouldn't be much help on the 'joining the Scoobies' front, though, since the vampire had been integrated into the gang much the same way Andrew had. A series of long weeks being tied to nearest convenient surface and barely tolerated until the captors couldn't take their babbling any longer and let them have free reign of the house. Since teenagers had a notoriously small amount of patience, Andrew didn't feel like pushing his luck with a teen Buffy when adult Buffy had been so impatient to begin with.

Andrew hadn't really taken much notice of the Scoobies during high school the first time around, so he didn't have any idea how to go about integrating himself with them other than to…

The doors by the stage opened and Andrew ducked down to sit on the ground and strained to hear who'd just come in.

"From the looks of things, the students don't use the library enough for it to matter if you're missing. School is going to be let out in a short while and I need you to be here to decide which ones out of the moronic masses that call themselves the next generation are worthy enough to earn the title of Sunnydale High's Most Talented," Principal Snyder sneered.

Giles sounded incredibly upset as he gave a short protest that Andrew could barely hear and then, louder, "very well. I shall oversee the talent show. I'm a librarian, not a teacher, and sponsoring events is not in my contract, so I will be doing this under protest."

Snyder's voice was indistinct but he sounded condescending. The doors shut again, signaling that at least the principal was gone.

"Patronizing troll," Giles grumbled, sounding closer to Andrew's hiding place than before.

Swallowing nervously, Andrew wished he'd gone somewhere else to sort out his situation. He attempted to sneak away, only to land sprawled at Giles' feet when he tripped.

"What are you doing here?" Giles demanded.

"I-I… I'm not going to get in trouble, am I?" Andrew squeaked as he scrambled to sit up. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop on you and Principal Snyder," internally he was already cursing his knee-jerk reaction: freak out when glared at. "I wasn't feeling well, but I didn't want to go home. I figured that since normally no one's here in the auditorium…" he trailed off as Giles' glare turned into a kindly expression.

"Sorry I snapped at you," Giles offered Andrew a hand up. "I certainly won't get you in trouble."

"Thanks…" Andrew latched onto his hand and haphazardly lurched to his feet. "You're Mr. Giles, our librarian, right?"

"Yes, and you would be?"

"Andrew Wells…" he responded as they both sat down in the row.

"So… you said you weren't feeling well. What seems to be the problem?"

"Oh, just the usual problem of the lunch lady trying to poison the students," Andrew drawled. "We wouldn't have this problem if it was Neelix in the cafeteria."

"Neelix?"

"Oh… he's a character in the show Star Trek: Voyager. He's a good chef and the self-declared morale officer." Andrew shrugged and added "you must not watch the show, right?"

"I've never been all that interested in sci-fi shows," Giles admitted.

"Not even Doctor Who?"

"Well… I did enjoy the fourth doctor quite a bit," the librarian agreed, causing Andrew to grin.

"He's the one with the scarf, right? I'd know more about it, but reruns of Doctor Who are pretty rare here in Sunnydale.  Or at least, the channel they air on gets really bad reception at my house." Happily, Andrew rambled on a bit longer. "I like sci-fi and fantasy plots like those where the future of humanity is bright. Not that they don't have their share of problems, but that they've got amazing technology and unlimited optimism. The world doesn't seem so bad when the future looks so nice." Seeing the unreadable expression on Giles' face, Andrew flushed and ducked his head. "Sorry. I babble a lot when I'm not at home or in class. I'll just be quiet now."

Instead of an irritated agreement, Giles laughed softly. "I don't mind. The few students who grace the library with their presence on a regular basis tend to babble a great deal as well. I'm used to it," he explained. "Now, I'm supposed to be judging who gets into the talent show when school lets out. I don't suppose you'll be trying out, are you?"

Shrugging, Andrew said, "I don't really have any talents that are, you know, worthy of showing off. Somehow, I doubt anyone cares that I can speak and write Klingon from Star Trek or the particulars on how the X-men's powers could theoretically be made to work."

Giles looked a bit bemused. "Surely there's something?"

"I don't think anyone would appreciate it if I decided to see if I share my brother's talent for raising demons by summoning flying monkeys in the middle of the show," Andrew grumbled.

"Flying monkeys?"

"Mobat demons," Andrew clarified and then flushed, realizing that Giles had no idea that Andrew knew about the creepy crawlies of the night. "I mean, you know… he… uh… plays Dungeons and Dragons?"

"Your brother summons real demons, doesn't he?" Giles pressed the issue. "I know there's real magic and demons, Andrew."

"He hasn't summoned anything dangerous… yet," Andrew mumbled sullenly. "He just likes to see how much he can control. Most demons with beast-level intelligence will obey him, but only in small numbers."

"And that's why you know about Mobat summoning?"

Andrew shrugged, still refusing to look up. "They wouldn't obey him when he brought a few over. Instead, they sort of… protected me when he threw a temper tantrum and lost control of his magic…

"I should probably go," Andrew stood and started back out of the row. Part of him wanted to tell Giles everything. Giles was an adult and could help… except Andrew wasn't exactly a kid anymore and he couldn't get the memories of future Giles' distrust out of his mind.

"No, stay, Andrew…" Giles sounded so lost. It gave Andrew a pause as he started to wonder what was going through the librarian's mind.

Turning around to face Giles, Andrew regarded the man silently with a tilted, curious stare. He seemed younger, less jaded by the harsh possibilities of reality. The observation seemed utterly ridiculous and yet… Giles clearly had no idea what to do with the information about Tucker.

Sort of like how Andrew had no idea where to go from here. Reluctantly, he sat back down.

"Won't your parents intervene?" Giles finally asked, looking hopeful.

"My parents didn't want me to begin with.  They've literally called me 'the mistake' to my face.  Tucker... he could summon demons in front of them and they'd call it an impressive illusion and would he like extra allowance this week?"  Andrew paused a beat and then frowned.  "Actually, that really happened, so..."

"Sometimes I really hate what the hellmouth does to people," Giles whispered, not intending for Andrew to hear.

"I've told once before," Andrew continued. "But the teacher thought I was lying and sent a note home to my parents. I got grounded for making up slander about my brother.

"Do you believe me?" His voice nearly gave out on that last question, because suddenly it was the most important thing in the world.  Because if fate sent him back and made it look like he was about to have everything he'd wanted but then snatched them away almost immediately...

The troika might have nothing on an angry Andrew Wells pissed off at fate.

"I believe you," Giles responded.

Relief coursed through Andrew. "Thank you."

The bell rang to dismiss class, making both Andrew and Giles jump in their seats.

"You should come to the Library whenever you have a chance," Giles offered once they'd both recovered from the sudden noise. "It'll give you something of a safe haven from your brother after school and… I think you'll enjoy meeting a few like-minded students."

That was when Cordelia marched into the room followed by her lackeys. "We want to be in the talent show!" she announced.

Andrew tried, without success, to recall the names of Cordelia's little troupe of Barbie dolls. They'd been a year ahead of him, so they'd never seemed all that important to him in school. Really, Andrew was more worried about the next group that scurried in right behind the Cordettes.

Ann Jamison and her three friends – Lisa Combs, Emily Marquette, and Natalie Smith – were his grade's equivalent of Cordelia and her clique. They loved picking on Andrew and had managed to make much of his school years hell the first time around.

Not for the last time, Andrew promised himself that it would be different this time.

"We're here for the show, too," Ann called out.

"Sign your names on this clipboard," Giles handed Cordelia a clipboard, "preferably in the order in which you wish to audition, and then take to the stage. So long as you demonstrate that you'll be ready to showcase a talent by the end of this week you'll be in the show."

Nodding serenely, Cordelia turned around and quickly established a mostly fair order for the girls from both grade levels to follow. She even let nearly everyone else go before her.

Relieved that none of the girls in his grade were paying him any attention yet, Andrew scooted down a little in his seat and hoped they'd continue to overlook him. Unfortunately, good luck rarely lasts so close to the hellmouth.

"Don't look now," Natalie drawled to Ann (the other two had left to go fetch things they needed for their 'auditions'), "but there's an 'undesirable' in our midst."

"It's just Wells," Ann mocked. "Maybe if we ignore him he'll turn invisible and disappear."

"If the two of you continue," Giles snapped, interrupting the duo, "you'll be disqualified from the talent show."

A slow smile lit of Andrew's face. None of the teachers had ever stuck up for him before.

"Whatever," Ann blew off Giles' warning as she stalked up to the stage. A few moments later she had the microphone hooked up and was singing a horridly off-key rendition of "Blues in the Night."

"Ugh… the torture begins," Andrew groaned, clamping his hands over his ears. Surprisingly enough, Giles snorted with amusement.

"If you have to tell them anything, just give your name, rank, and serial number," Giles responded dryly.

Once Ann had finished singing, Andrew dropped his hands away from his ears and checked the time. "I really should get my stuff from my locker and get home." Regretfully, Andrew stood and started to leave, but then paused and whirled around. "Um… do you really not mind if I show up at the library?"

"You'll be more than welcome," Giles assured him.


 

Dumping his backpack in the middle of his bed, Andrew critically surveyed his room. The four white walls were mostly obscured by comic book posters; his collection of comics was contained in a couple of stacked cartons at the foot of the bed; his closet had no doors, so he had a full view of the clothing, which were almost all hand-me-downs from Tucker; a small TV with badly bent rabbit-ear antennae sat on top of a short, beaten bookcase that featured a small collection of Star Trek and Star Wars books. The room itself was tiny and cramped. The twin bed took up much of the space and there was very little maneuvering room.

He knew now, from his memories of the future, that his home wasn't normal. Well… okay, for Sunnydale the home was normal, but not for the rest of the country. Most people didn't put one child on a pedestal and berate and belittle their other child. Most people loved both children equally.

What Andrew really wanted was to move out. But, since he was only thirteen or fourteen years old now (he really needed to check a calendar, though he was fairly certain he was fourteen) there was no way he could legally pull off living alone. He'd have to wait two more years before anything about his home could change.

A banging noise on his door pulled Andrew out of his thoughts. "Hey, brat! Get your butt out here!"

Sighing softly, Andrew stood and opened the door. "Yes, Tucker?"

"I said," Tucker grabbed the collar of Andrew's shirt and yanked him into the hallway, "'get out here' not 'stand in the door like a moron'. Mom's going to pick up some McDonald's on her way home from work. So try to pay attention around six-thirty or Dad may decide that latecomers to dinner don't deserve their food again. I'm sure you'd hate to miss dinner three days in a row."

Remembering his violent reaction to seeing Jonathan, Andrew nodded sullenly. The day was slowly catching up to him and he just wanted to lie down and sleep. Retreating into his room, he shut the door with shaky hands and cleared off his bed so he could stretch out on it.

He couldn't sleep yet, though. Running a hand through his hair, Andrew reluctantly sat up and fluffed up his pillows a little so he could lean against them. Then he yanked his backpack over to him and retrieved his day planner and books.

First, he checked the date and was relieved to see that his birthday had been about three weeks ago. That cut down his time at home to just barely under two years.

Second, Andrew checked over his homework assignments and started working on them. He had an idea about possibly graduating early – he didn't want to have to commute to school for his senior year the way he had before – which would mean maintaining his grades and taking summer classes. Both sounded easy enough, though he'd probably regret losing so much of his summer to schoolwork.

Cracking open his first book, Andrew started reviewing the material for his classes.


 

BEEP

BEEPBEEP

BEEPBEEPBEEP

Andrew smacked the sleep button on his alarm clock and blearily clambered out from underneath his navy sheets and comforter and the notebooks and textbooks that littered the bed. He blinked blearily and then realized that it was six in the morning and he was back at home, fourteen, and trapped in the past. Worse, he remembered that he was all alone again.

Reluctantly, he reset his alarm and packed everything into his backpack that he'd need for the day. All his homework was done and, having 'been there and done that' with school before, he wasn't having too difficult time remembering how to do everything.

Snagging an outfit from his closet, Andrew crept from his room and down the hall to take a quick shower. If he didn't act quickly, Tucker would wake up, take a long shower, and hog the hot water. But, he was up early enough this time. Classes didn't start until nine o'clock, so he was doing good on time since it was only six thirty by the time he was turning on the water.

Ten minutes later he was dressed in clean clothes and was headed back to his room to deposit his pajamas in the hamper. His mother walked out of her room and stared at him in surprise. The expression on her face seemed to ask 'why are you here?'

"Good morning, Mom," Andrew chirped.

"Uh…" she blinked. "Good morning…" she trailed off.

Andrew remembered that he usually woke around seven, not six, and tended to miss seeing her in the mornings. It was no wonder she was surprised. "I noticed last night that we have some pancake mix in the pantry. Would you like some? I could make them…"

"Breakfast sounds good," she admitted reluctantly. "I have to be at work by seven thirty, though, and it's six forty-five already…"

"I can be fast and make little pancakes," he pressed determinedly.

"Sounds nice," she finally answered after a short pause.

He felt his face light up as he hurried away to dump his dirty clothes in the hamper. Practically bouncing down the stairs, he felt excited as he pulled out the pancake mix and the maple syrup from the pantry and started mixing. Maybe today would be a good day. Maybe he could fix his home while he fixed the rest of his life, too.

Or maybe non-demonic pigs would fly… Tucker's loud shouts demanding pancakes that weren't 'tainted by Andrew' rather broke the mood.

"Just don't burn anything," his mother sighed.

"Don't worry," Andrew reassured her. "Cooking is something I do just fine." She scowled at him so he returned is attention back to the pan and flipped the mini-pancakes over.

"Hurry up. I don't want to be late just because you wanted to play house," his mother grumbled.

Andrew bit his bottom lip and didn't say anything. After a few moments, he flipped the pancakes onto the nearby plate and set them, along with the syrup, a stick of butter, and silverware in front of his mom. "You've got plenty of time, right? The office is only about fifteen minutes away…"

"I suppose," she muttered and then dug into the pancakes ravenously.

Quietly, he returned to the stove and started on some pancakes for himself.

His mother didn't say anything when she left a few minutes later. Maybe today wouldn't be such a good day after all…

Andrew walked into the library at eight o'clock. It was the time of day when usually only the staff and a few dedicated students taking zero hour classes showed up. So he was surprised to see the Scooby Gang already there. At least, there was Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The original trio… and they were staring at Andrew like he's some sort of invader from the fifth dimension.

Why did everything have to be so difficult?

"Uh… hi… I'm looking for Mr. Giles," Andrew stammered out. Quickly, he took inventory of the library and, when he didn't see the librarian, asked, "is he here?"

"Hello Andrew." Giles walked out of the office behind the circulation desk. "Having a better day than yesterday?"

"Um… it's too early to tell, actually…" Andrew felt like shrinking into himself. Buffy, Willow, and Xander kept staring and not saying anything and… just… staring. He didn't like getting scrutinized like this. Shifting uncomfortably, he added, "thanks."

"Andrew, this is Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenberg, and Xander Harris. Everyone, this is Andrew Wells." Giles smiled as he introduced Andrew to the group.

"You're Tucker Wells' brother, aren't you?" Xander said after a brief, awkward moment.

"Unfortunately…" Andrew suddenly felt ridiculous. They were the people he'd known in the future, but at the same time, they weren't. They hadn't been tested or forged into the fighters he'd gained acceptance – albeit grudgingly – from. They all looked so... young.

He wished he could talk to Spike. Even if it meant being teased by the bleach blonde for being wishy-washy, he desperately wanted to talk to the vampire.

"Nice to meet you, Andrew," Willow finally bubbled. She shot out of her chair and practically hopped over to the blond teen. "Giles mentioned you to us yesterday; he said you know about the demons and such that roam about Sunnydale."

"Yeah, well, my brother likes summoning low level demons for fun," Andrew shrugged. "It's hard not to notice when hell hounds are growling at me from under the porch or mobats are perched in the backyard trees."

"He summons demons? But that… that's dangerous!" Buffy looked and sounded outraged.

"Yeah, well… that's Tucker for you. He never seems to think he'll get hurt and…" Andrew trailed off and shrugged again. "So… um… how come you guys know about the demony side of Sunnydale? No one else seems to know about it…" Andrew pondered on this for a moment and then was surprised to remember how he used to fear he was crazy and imagining the demons because no one else seemed to notice. After ganging up with Warren and Jonathan and then later joining the Scoobies, he had never really given much thought to the way things had been in high school.

"Uh, well…" Xander looked uncertain but he pushed out the chair across from himself with a foot. "Have a seat, Andrew."

Tentatively, Andrew moved over to the chair and sat down. His heart started thudding as he found himself surrounded by the original Scoobies and, again, he wished Spike was there. The bleached vampire would have known what to say, whether to tell them about the future, if gaining an in with the group was really a good thing to do… okay, so maybe he was branching out into the hero-worshiping again, but at the very least Spike would probably be handling this with less internal panicking.

"Andrew…" Buffy glanced over at Giles and then looked back at the blond teen. "Do you know what a Vampire Slayer is?"

"Um… not really," Andrew shrugged. "I'm assuming that'd be someone who slays vampires as more of a job than a hobby…"

"Job?" Buffy looked sidetracked and then moved her gaze back to Giles. "Like… a paying job?"

"If there was an organization in charge… that had the funding, then it sounds like it could be the title of a well paid job. Cause, well, fighting vampires is dangerous and requires a lot of money in medical supplies and weapons.." Andrew trailed off, flushing under the scrutiny he was still getting.

"Well… money and jobs aside," Giles cut in, "a Vampire Slayer is a destiny – a calling – not something a corporation controls." He sounded a bit aggravated. "In every generation, there is a girl…" he then launched into a very familiar spiel about Vampire Slayers.

Chapter Text

Manticore had started quietly.

They took orphans and abandoned children, the ones no one would miss. As part of a government that spanned dozens of planets, it was simple to take one here, two there, never enough to get any case workers in an uproar. As far as anyone knew, these children were going to better lives.

Later, with time and practice, Manticore no longer needed to go out an find the children. By adjusting embryonic DNA, the scientists at Manticore were able to create hybrid soldiers – the T-series transgenics. The T-series, however, did not look human and could not be deployed with normals. Despite their effectiveness, the T-series was generally considered failures as possible government operatives and enforcers.

From the failure of the T-series, however, sprang three new programs. The X-series – soldiers with small amounts of animal DNA to enhance their abilities without deforming them – was the first to gain success, followed quickly by the W-series. The W-series, whimsically named for the wizard-like abilities of telekinesis and low-level transmorphic abilities – the ability to change their own appearance at will, though not drastically so – that were similar to old fantasy stories from Earth-That-Was, were similar to the P-series, which could affect the minds of others. There were precautions one could take to offset the affects of a psy-ops (P-series) transgenic, but the W-series were naturally immune.

Then came the discovery of children with the ability to read minds and see the future. These children were genius savants and Manticore would have given anything to take these children for their own use. The problem was, most of the reported children had good parents who weren't about to turn their children over to a group of scientists who wanted to use those children's brains as 'playthings'.

Parents, however, would turn their children over to boarding schools if it meant getting their precious prodigy the best education possible. So Manticore created a front and with their 'school' they netted around three dozen children with naturally psychic abilities.

Their crowning glory, however, was River Tam.

She was a gem and she slipped from their grasp.

During the war against the Browncoats, a 'family' of X5s – transgenics with feline DNA – escaped from the compound on Ariel. Of the twenty escapees, eleven managed to stow away off-world, three were killed, and six were recaptured and reindoctrinated. But those eleven escapees were far too many. Their stories got out and became urban legends on planets across the Alliance. Worse, a man known by the pseudonym Eyes Only learned of these escapees and of Manticore.

Eyes Only's security was the best in the 'verse. No one could trace his interplanetary hacks; no one could stop him; no one could learn his identity. Worse, this super hacker had set his sights on Manticore. He funded Simon Tam, River Tam's older brother, and rescued her from Manticore.

In taking River Tam from Manticore, Eyes Only became the lead target of all Manticore operatives. If any agent could discover his identity, they were under orders to eliminate the target.


 

W6-186 was a rather ordinary young man.  Dark messy hair, green eyes, and handsome, but not enough to stand out.  His height, however, was variable, changing as he needed it to.  His weight fluctuated as well, depending upon the size of his frame.  And if someone noticed him, recognized him... well, 186 had just enough psychic talent to reach out and snuff that recognition, directing the other person to look away and forget.

See... W6-186 was one of Manticore's wizards, quite possibly the most powerful one in their ranks.

His partner, X5-494, was trouble.  A massive smart-alec and pain in the ass.  186 wouldn't work with anyone else, though.  Being the best, of course, he got what he wanted.  No one wanted to risk ruining the magic.  It helped, of course, that they were the most effective team in Manticore.

X5-494 was, similar to 186, handsome, but not to the point of standing out.  He had ash blond hair, dark eyes, and an alluring smile.  He had started off as a lone operative trained for infiltration, stealth, and eliminations.  Something had happened on his first mission, however, that had landed him in psy-ops for reconditioning.  The second reconditioning he'd undergone, given that his clone brother had been one of the eleven escapees that disappeared.  Afterwards, 494 had been temporarily assigned to wizard-duty.  Or... it was supposed to be temporary.

Though efficient, 494 hadn't endeared himself to any of the wizards he partnered with.  He mouthed off, called his work baby-sitting duty, and ridiculed the wizards for not being able to take care of themselves.  He saw wizard-duty as a demotion, a punishment for screwing up.  And then 186 came up on rotation for a mission, taking out a cruiser smuggling bio-weaponry.  494 was assigned to him and, as expected, started up the usual bullshit.

186 took 494 to the training salle and proceeded to wipe the floor with him.

"I can take care of myself just fine.  But when I'm putting all my concentration into tanking a cruiser seven-hundred-thousand kilometers away, I shouldn't have to watch my own damn back.  That's your job and when you whine about babysitting, all that makes me think is that you're not up to the job.  If that's the case, then I'm going to demand a different partner and that's not going to look very good for you, will it?"

Well, X5-494 knew what W6-186 was doing, but he took the challenge anyway.

After that mission, they were inseparable.  494's temporary re-assignment became permanent and he never looked back.

They were made bunk mates, fought together, ate together... their first loyalty was to Manticore, but their second was to each other.

From there, 494 settled down, even befriended a few of the wizards that 186 was close to, such as 186's sister, W6-751, and brother, W6-543.  The four of them were together in the mess hall when news of River Tam's escape reached Manticore's wizard facility.  And, a year later, the four of them were together again when the eraser team - known for their blue gloves and deadpan attitude - failed for the last time to retrieve River Tam and bring her home.

"W6-186.  X5-494.  You need to report to the briefing room."  The guard who'd approached them was cold, no-nonsense.  He didn't think of the transgenics as people - most of the guards didn't.  "Agents Snape and Lydecker require your presence. You've been given a new assignment."


Logan Cale had never particularly liked Persephone. The nobility was a collection of mildly inbred, self-absorbed, ignorant twits and the slums were full of people who couldn't afford to leave the planet for better lives, instead trapped in exploitative jobs that left them too exhausted to fight back.

Eyes Only had made a ridiculous number of streaming videos - sixty-second, untraceable cortex hacks - about the corruption of Persephone.  Things always changed, yet... they always stayed the same too.  So Logan hated coming here.

This time, though, the problem annoying Logan wasn't really Persephone.  It was the fact that he'd come here, to this cheap bar - he thought the name was Crash, which seemed thematically appropriate - in the worst slums on the planet, on the promise that he'd be introduced to an escapee from Manticore.  A promise that wasn't panning out.

Staring at the Blue Sun logo on his cola can, Logan glowered at the can.  Blue Sun was funneling money to Manticore.  Logan couldn't prove it yet, but he was close - so close - to having enough for a broadcast.  But even that wouldn't be enough to put a dent in Manticore's armor of obscurity.  He needed this interview.

This wasn't the first time his hopes hadn't panned out, though the last time he'd still managed to do some good despite the let down.

S1W, deemed a terrorist organization by the core planets and the last gasp of Browncoat resistance by the outer planets, had brought Simon Tam to Logan.  He'd networked S1W with Mr. Universe to get them the plans they'd needed to stage the girl's escape.  He'd flown the getaway ship.

That girl... she did not deserve to be put in the center of the fallout from exposing Manticore.  She'd been too damaged - drugged out of her mind on top of who knew what else in terms of medical procedures and torture - to be credible.  The only thing an Eyes Only broadcast could do for River Tam was hurt her.  So Logan had done his best to help them escape and went back to searching out the eleven fabled escapees from Manticore.

But the woman he was supposed to meet with was late.  Logan was giving her another half-hour and then he was cutting his losses and getting the hell off of Persephone.

The Cale family was rich.  Core world rich, not Persephone rich.  Which... making the distinction, even just to himself, was probably ingrained privilege and snobbery showing through.  He'd been a teenager during the Browncoat civil war and he'd followed the news reports with a careful eye none of his friends had understood.  Logan heard the propaganda like everyone else did, but he saw the holes in the stories and had hungered, even then, for the truth.  He hacked a lot of places he shouldn't and found out what the Browncoats were really fighting for.

Very quietly, Logan had rooted for the underdog, even knowing they would fail.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, Logan stumbled across the first of many references to Manticore.  Records of eleven escaped child soldiers yet to be recaptured.  Records of children being relocated, psychologically tortured, genetically augmented...

He might not have had his Eyes Only persona yet, but Logan made his first major cortex hack releasing those details into the net.  It couldn't be proven, but rumors couldn't be killed.  And those rumors grew wild, reigniting time and again... including after River Tam's escape.

Mr. Universe had passed on to Logan rumors of a thief on Persephone who was committing thefts requiring extraordinary strength and combat.  The reports didn't all agree on the physical appearance of this person, though most assumed the thief was a woman.  They called her the Dark Angel.

From there, Logan had come to Persephone on a tip off from S1W and a contact they'd made who swore she knew the Angel's identity and could prove the thief was a Manticore child soldier.  One of the escapees.

It was a long shot, but in Logan's experience those were worth taking when potential payoff was this high.

When Logan only had about ten minutes left on his self-imposed deadline, the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen settled into the seat next to him.  Lustrous black hair, brown eyes, self-assured and confident smile... Logan might have already been a little smitten.

"Hi, I'm Max."  She grinned and held out a hand to him.  Logan accepted the offer of a handshake and smiled back in return.  "First time on Persephone?"

"Unfortunately not," Logan replied and then introduced himself. "But I can't say the place ever manages to grow on me. Is it that obvious I'm not from around here?"

"Not really. I'm just very good at reading people."

"Is that so?" Logan felt amused for the first time since he'd started his 'wild goose chase' on the planet. After taking a drink from his latest cola he asked, "so what else have you read from me?"

"You were born rich and privileged, but you didn't like the 'verse you saw. Can't tell yet if you're a genuine crusader or a bored rich brat."

Logan froze and then laughed. "Unfortunately, I'm likely a mix of both. You really are quite good at reading a person."

"Can you tell anything about me?" Max asked teasingly.

Studying her for a moment, Logan nodded, "you're very confident, like there's nothing you can't do. In fact I'm sure there isn't much you can't accomplish. You're used to the guys hitting on you going on about how beautiful you are or listing out all of your qualities in hopes that flattering you will score a point. You are beautiful, but I'm sure that hearing it from every guy who can't remember where your eyes are located gets a little tiring after a while." As he spoke, Logan made a point of keeping eye contact.  He'd been taught better than to converse with a lady's cleavage without permission, after all.

This time Max laughed. "Not bad, Logan. Not bad at all." Then he felt something poking him in the side and finally looked down to see her holding his pistol against his side. "Thing is, I know you work for Eyes Only and I know you've been looking for someone on this rock. So why don't we find a nice secluded booth and, if you're a good boy, I might introduce you to the Dark Angel?"

Swallowing nervously, Logan nodded and wished that Crash was one of those places that made you leave your gun at the door. Hopefully this wouldn't turn into a mess...

Chapter Text

Lindsey watched as his apartment exploded. There hadn't actually been any of his things inside it, though he couldn't be certain if it had been empty. What he was certain of, however, was that the explosion was a message from Wolfram and Hart that they were displeased with his choice.

Oh, he'd taken back the tapes and had the shiny carrot waved in his face. Holland Manners had even managed to be more persuasive than usual. But… as Lindsey sat in the office chair staring out into the city, he thought of the three children and the way it felt to know that he'd helped save them. He thought of all the murderers and demons he'd defended since joining the firm. He thought… he thought about the last time he'd felt this disgusted with himself and Angel's blatant dislike of him and how people were more willing to trust an ensouled vampire over a Wolfram and Hart lawyer any day of the week.

Lindsey thought about the fact that he'd decided to become a lawyer because he'd wanted to help people like his family, people whose homes were unlawfully taken away… whose lives were ruined by people like him.

So he'd gotten up, gone to the records room, pulled out his contract and various methods of magnification, settled himself at his old desk, and spent the night filling out his resignation. After accounting for every detail possible, Lindsey left the contract and his new documents in Manners' old office and walked out. A few hours later, Lindsey had packed up all the things from his apartment that he wanted and donated the rest to charity. A truck came by to pick it all up while he was changing things related to his bank account at the local branch.

Twelve hours – almost to the second – of Lindsey leaving behind the law firm, his empty apartment turned into a fiery blaze.

Somehow, Lindsey doubted he'd be getting his deposit back.


"I heard about your apartment."

Lindsey didn't even bother to turn around to face the vampire. "A lot of people heard about my apartment. It made a very loud noise when it exploded."

"Explosions tend to do that," Angel moved into Lindsey's peripheral vision.

"I could be a Junior Partner right now. Manners offered me a six figure salary, an office with a gorgeous view of the city, and a full benefits package." Lindsey laughed softly. "Instead I tendered my resignation and watched my home explode."

"Why didn't you take the promotion, then?"

"Why do you care? I'll probably bore you to sleep again." Lindsey hopped off the hood of his car. He'd been sitting there all afternoon since his apartment blew up. "I'm leaving LA. I thought you might like to know."

"Lindsey…"

"The thing is, Angel, you don't really care." That shut him up fast. "You see me and you see this lawyer who has gotten in your way, sent people to kill you, and annoys the hell out of you. You don't see a person, so you don't care. I'm as much a monster to you as any of those demons you hunt down."

"I don't see you that way."

"Maybe you don't…" Lindsey shrugged. "You're either the one with the power, or you're powerless. That's what I've always believed, anyway. But working for Wolfram and Hart made me forget what I meant when I came up with that little piece of wisdom. I lost a lot of things there."

"Why didn't you take the promotion, Lindsey?"

Opening the driver's door, Lindsey got into the car. "Wouldn't you like to know?" he pulled the door shut, started the engine, and left LA in the dust.


Eliot Spencer watched as Leverage HQ exploded.

The feeling of déjà-vu was nearly overwhelming. If it hadn't been for how pissed off he was at Sophie for getting them into this screwed up situation in the first place, he might have sat on the hood of his car all evening waiting for… someone.

Returning for LA had been about the money.

After he left, he'd buffed up, made a name for himself, and even got engaged to a beautiful woman in Kentucky. But, unable to help himself, he'd also become a retrieval specialist. Just weeks before his wedding date with Aimee, he'd taken what was supposed to be an easy job in China. There was a cursed monkey statue that needed to be smuggled out so that it could be destroyed by shamans. The statue got out, but Eliot almost didn't. At the time, though, he'd wished he hadn't.

Six, almost seven months, passed with him trapped in jail. His torturers had only one question to ask, "where is the monkey?" Yet everything the professionals did to him couldn't compare to the pain of finally returning to the states – to Kentucky – and finding Aimee with another man's ring on her finger and nothing but contempt for him.

So he went and liberated Croatia.

When Dubenich approached Eliot about working a job for him, Eliot's first instinct was to turn him down. There was nothing supernatural at work at all and something about the weasel rubbed Eliot the wrong way. Dubenich wasn't a client of Wolfram and Hart's, though, so he'd shrugged off the bad feelings and, reluctantly, heard out the man's entire proposal. If Eliot hadn't been strapped for cash and easily convinced that Dubenich was a moron getting in over his head, then he'd never have returned to LA. Except… he'd kind of wanted to go back just to see how things might have changed.

Like everyone else in the group (except for Nate, of course), he took a few side jobs, all of which dealt with cursed objects that needed to be magically 'neutralized' or destroyed. Once he got back to the Leverage team in LA, however, he kept as far away from the magic/demon community as possible.

He didn't want anyone to recognize him… not Angel and certainly not Wolfram and Hart.

Right now, though, he wouldn't have cared about being recognized. As much as Eliot loathed admitting it, they were all family now. Nate, Hardison, Parker, and even Sophie, no matter how pissed off he was with her, had become important to him in a way that no one at his last steady job could have even been offhandedly considered for.

It was just… he really, really liked that office. The sports channels alone made working with the team worth it, never mind the 'warm, fuzzy feelings' that came with doing good deeds while getting to kick ass and pull scams. There were all sorts of good memories of that place, too.

"You okay, Hardison?" Eliot asked.

"Yeah," Hardison said in a rough voice. "I'm just peachy. I mean, it isn't like we just blew up our own home..."

"You're not gonna start crying, are you?" he teased.

"Of course not!" Hardison denied vehemently.

Parker giggled at Hardison's expression and then looked up at the flames. Her smile faded and she sniffed. "I might cry. My plant was still in there."

"I wanted to save it, but we only had time to grab the painting of Nate," Hardison said apologetically.

"You got the painting?" Parker hugged Hardison enthusiastically. "That's great! I'll get a new plant later."

Eliot glanced over at Nate and Sophie. They were quiet and staring up at the blaze while purposely avoiding looking at one another. Sophie using Nate's need to pay back IYS for his son's death to complete her collection of the two Davids statues was a low blow. Their relationship was definitely going to suffer for this… which was too bad. He'd been mentally rooting for them.

"We need to split up," Nate said quietly, but the whole group heard him. "We'll meet up in eight months and decide what to do from there."

"It's been fun," Eliot offered as they gathered together to form a pentagon.

Parker nodded solemnly. "Lots of fun. I never realized that… well… never mind." The look on her face, though, filled in the rest of her statement, at least in Eliot's mind. I never realized that I could trust anyone else like this. Damn if he didn't feel the same way.

Wolfram and Hart hadn't been big on promoting trust between coworkers. Eliot's own antagonistic working relationship with Lilah Morgan was a perfect example of the rivalries that were encouraged there. Working as a 'retrieval specialist' for cursed objects hadn't been great for learning interpersonal skills either. Being a part of Leverage Consulting and Associates was the first truly healthy job experience Eliot had ever had.

That was probably a little pathetic.

"I never really considered using my skills to help people before this," Hardison added quietly, interrupting Eliot's reverie. "Never really had friends like you guys before this, either. Not close friends, anyway." Parker met his eyes briefly and then they both looked down, blushing.

Sophie opened her mouth and, for a moment, it looked like she was going to say something. But the moment passed and she looked away, guilt visible all over her face.

"It's not the first time I've had to watch a place I thought of as home get blown up," Eliot said, shrugging. "You get used to it after a while."

"All things heal with time," Nate said, still in that quiet voice. Sophie smiled wanly, heartened that at least one of them might forgive her. "We'll find a way to fix this when we're together again."

Then, by unspoken consensus, they turned their backs on one another in a fluid, single motion and walked away.


Eliot's first stop was his apartment. It was probably a stupid idea to go there, but he wasn't about to abandon his things. Parker might prefer money to objects, but she didn't understand the allure of a good guitar. There were just some things that were more important than money.

After gathering his clothes in two suitcases and a few boxes of items that weren't irreplaceable but certainly sentimental, Eliot started loading up his pick-up truck. His guitar was the first thing to go in the truck and, unlike everything else, it got to ride in the cab with him. Once the essentials were loaded up, he boxed up his computer equipment and moved his desktop to the truck bed. After the computer came his very nice collection of pots, pans, and various other cooking related items. A depth spell – a minor expansion trick he picked up on not long after he left LA the first time – on the truck allowed him to fit more there than would normally be possible and still lock the lid on top to discourage thieves of the petty variety. He considered taking the furniture, but there wasn't enough space and he could always buy more once he got a new place.

As Eliot opened up the driver's seat to his truck, he considered what his second stop should be. He needed a place to stay for the night at least, if not getting an entirely new apartment immediately. Well, that meant deciding if he wanted to stay in LA. Eight months was a long time. He could go to New York or visit his hometown, a suburb of Dallas. Or he could leave the country completely. Canada was supposed to be nice this time of year and at least half of Croatia adored him. The other half used his name as a particularly profane curse word.

Eliot really liked Croatia…

"Lindsey."

Eliot froze. He knew that voice. Closing the truck's door instead of getting in, Eliot turned around to face the speaker. "Lilah."

"I never thought I'd see you again. What happened? One day you were at work at Wolfram and Hart as Manners' golden boy and the next you were gone and Manners said that no one should speak of you or consider even trying to look for you." Lilah sounded genuinely curious and confused.

"I found my conscience," Eliot admitted. "I had to draw the line at aiding someone who intended to murder three blind children. Afterwards, when the assassin was dead and the kids were still alive, I realized that I didn't want to lose myself to that place again. I took files with me, turned in a resignation that took care of everything including fine print, and reinvented myself. My name is Eliot Spencer now."

"I know." Lilah's eyes were distant as she added, "sometimes I've considered doing the same thing – leaving. I just wouldn't know what to do with myself if I did. I…" she focused on Eliot. "We were never friends, Lindsey, but you leaving helped catapult me into the Junior Partner position. So I feel I owe you something and I don't like having debts.

"To repay that debt, I'm giving you a warning and a file. Ian Blackpoole is a Wolfram and Hart client, Lindsey. This is a copy of his file." She handed over an inch thick binder stuffed full of pages. "He thinks he can toy with you and your associates, but if you all truly manage to screw him over he will be out for blood, literally. He's a demon who passes for human."

"Lilah… thank you," Eliot wasn't sure what else he could say. He'd never much liked Lilah, but it seemed like she'd changed a lot in the years he'd been gone. As she walked off instead of acknowledging his words, he mentally compared her to the woman he'd once known and felt sorry that the vibrant, if morally bankrupt, woman had become so lost. Perhaps she had finally found her 'line' and then crossed it only to find that living with herself was now the most difficult thing imaginable.

"I must be going soft," Eliot muttered as he tossed the binder into the car and finally got into the driver's seat. "I'd actually like to help her get out of the hole she's dug for herself."

Glancing at the fuel gauge, Eliot started for the closest gas station. His first stop had to be for fuel. His second… would be to the only person from his past that he could trust. If Wolfram and Hart really was involved with IYS, then it was time to see if Lindsey had any friends left in LA.


Caritas was different. The bar setup was across the wall to the left of where it used to be, the karaoke stage was opposite the entrance to the bar, and the exit to Lorne's private quarters was beside the stage with a sign on it. The ceiling no longer had the warehouse-esque look to it, either. The feeling of the place, though, was the same.

For the first time in a long while, Eliot felt just a little bit like the lawyer Lindsey McDonald who had never realized how truly out-of-his-depth he'd been in this world of demons and slayers. As Eliot Spencer, though, he was no longer all about furthering himself and he found that made him fit in better. Or at least, it made him more aware of everything around him.

The Host was up on stage finishing up a rendition of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. Hearing Lorne's voice again brought a smile to Eliot's face as he signed up to sing. He didn't log a song by his name on the list, which was oddly short at the moment, but wrote 'acoustic guitar' instead.

Two songs later, during which Eliot worked on a beer and avoided Lorne, Eliot settled onto a familiar stool and began to sing L.A. Song, which he hadn't played in a while. Despite his time away from the guitar, the chords of the song flowed easily and the words needed no prompts. The look of recognition-surprise-pleasure that appeared on Lorne's face was nice to see, too.

"Lindsey, it is so good to hear that voice of yours again!" Lorne immediately pulled Eliot into conversation when he got off stage. "Or should I call you Eliot?"

Unsurprised that Lorne knew his name already, Eliot grinned. "I haven't been Lindsey in years, Lorne. I don't mind if you call me that, but I prefer Eliot now."

"I think that Eliot suits you better. Lindsey was headed for trouble, but Eliot knows where his path is going."

"A different sort of trouble," Eliot filled in with a laugh. "I've joined a group that is sort of… well, we're thieves, but we use our talents to mess with people who hurt others in order to help the ones they've hurt. Recently, though, we tried to get a little retribution for Nate – he's the one who runs our operation. He once worked for IYS Insurance as a fraud investigator and he at one time chased down every one of us now working for him. But his son got cancer and IYS refused to pay the insurance money for the kid to get treatment. There was some bullshit about the treatment being experimental.

"Nate's great at doing things for others and not asking for his own payback, but the thing with his kid turned him into something of an alcoholic and we were hoping that scamming Ian Blackpoole of IYS would get Nate the resolution he needs. What we didn't realize was that Sophie had a secondary agenda during our 'help Nate' plot and that agenda screwed up our plans big time."

"That isn't why you're here, though, is it? Not that I'm protesting the story-telling," Lorne winked flirtatiously. "I love a good thief story. It's like the Italian Job. The new one always brings a smile to my face."

"That was a good movie," Eliot agreed. "What brought me here is something that has only just been brought to my attention.

"After our plans were shot to hell, we decided to disband for a few months until the heat was off. So I went and packed up my apartment. When I was about to drive off, Lilah Morgan showed up. I haven't seen her since I left Wolfram and Hart and God only knows how she tracked me down, but there she was… with a binder full of information of Ian Blackpoole. It turns out he's a demon and a client of Wolfram and Hart." Eliot paused and then said, "which leads me to why I'm here.

"I don't want to get involved with Wolfram and Hart, but the only way to really get back at Blackpoole is to make certain that the firm won't swoop in to save the man once we get to him."

"That means making him persona non-gratis with Wolfram and Hart before your Leverage crew gets to him," Lorne intuited.

"Exactly."

"These people you work with, they're important to you. But you don't want your past to mesh with your present."

"Wolfram and Hart doesn't like me anymore, Lorne. If they realize I'm involved with an attempt to screw with their clients, they'll try to end me."

"Eliot, what's more important to you? Continuing Leverage or avoiding Wolfram and Hart?" Lorne patted him on the shoulder. "When you can honestly answer that question to yourself, you'll know what you have to do."

"I know what I have to do already," Eliot grumbled. "I need to find Angel. I have a plan… or at least half of one, anyway."

"Stick around till closing," Lorne told him. "I'll take you over to see him."


Angel Investigations had taken over a rundown hotel, the Hyperion. Eliot remembered hearing about the Hyperion Hotel. It was once a well-known fixture of LA. Horrible crimes had occurred at the hotel and stars had gone there for publicity stunts that inevitably went wrong.

He wasn't certain, but Eliot thought he remembered hearing that a fear demon of some kind had been living there.

The lobby was empty save Eliot. Lorne had run upstairs after telling the thief to stay put and not touch anything. It was tempting to go over and poke the phone or something, just to see if Lorne would know, but Eliot didn't want to screw things up from the get go. He'd parted with Angel on relatively good terms and hopefully they were still on good terms.

If not, things might get tricky. Eliot was rather fond of having all his limbs attached, after all.

Chapter Text

Section 1 - From the Psych pilot episode, establishing Shawn's real reasons for returning to Santa Barbara

Opening the door to the Chief's office, Shawn swept in with a grin at Vick's irritated expression. He had a lot to tell her, but needed to keep up appearances for a few moments longer so that anyone looking in would dismiss what was going on. "There she is," he exclaimed happily, letting the door shut behind him.

"Don't ever walk into my office without knocking," Vick snapped reflexively. Truth be told, though, she looked more torn between irritation and amusement than anger.

"I'm sorry; I got excited," Shawn apologized. It was the truth, after all.

Still a little annoyed, she asked, "you know what I'll do to you?"

There was an odd rustling noise and Shawn realized there might be someone else in the room who was obscured by the boxes, which was where Shawn had been hoping to hide himself during his discussion with Vick. So instead of giving an honest answer, he said "yes" instead.

"Oh, you do?" Now she was completely amused.

"I'm psychic," Shawn responded as if it should have been obvious.

"I am just finishing up here," Vick said, unwittingly confirming that there was someone else in the room. "I'll be with you in a moment."

That was when Henry stood up and said, "that's alright, Karen. I've got to get going anyway."

Shit.

If Henry had told Vick that Shawn wasn't psychic then he'd have to break cover to two people instead of just one. His father did have a somewhat smug expression on his face, but not the 'you're busted' expression that Shawn was so familiar with. As Vick thanked Henry, Shawn found it less and less likely that there was any reason to panic. While part of him kind of wanted to tell his father what was going on, he knew it was better this way. So he let his dad leave the room without saying anything beyond a slightly stunned "Dad" when Henry said "Son".

As the door shut behind Shawn's father, Vick gestured to the obscured chair. "Have a seat. I was considering adding you to my speed dial, Mr. Spencer, but I'd be remiss if I didn't do a background check, don't you think?"

Sitting down, Shawn still felt a little worried about what his father had said. "Uh, yes…"

"I asked your father how long you've had the gift," Vick said leadingly.

Shawn merely flashed her a smile and quirked an eyebrow as he asked, "what did he say?"

"His recollection doesn't match up with your assertion at all," she continued, watching Shawn's reactions closely.

Feeling very glad he'd been given permission to give this perceptive woman a partial briefing and the option of a full briefing, Shawn smiled faintly as he told her, "I can explain that."

"You said that you've had this ability all your life." When Shawn didn't respond, she added, "he said you've only had it since you were eighteen."

Surprise lit up inside Shawn. He hadn't thought that his dad would give him up, but hearing that Henry had lied for him was still astonishing. "He said that?" Shawn scooted around in his seat a moment in order to pull out his wallet. Giving Shawn an odd look, Vick nodded. "I have to admit, I didn't see that coming." Opening the fake back on his wallet – one of the nifty, low-tech gadgets that Fargo had whipped up for Shawn before he'd returned to Santa Barbara – Shawn pulled out his DoD credentials and tossed them onto Vick's desk. "I'm afraid he lied. What I'm about to tell you cannot leave this room, Chief."

Eying Shawn curiously, she picked up the badge and credentials and checked them for authenticity before handing them back. "What's going on here, Agent Spencer?" She paused and then glanced at the door. "Does your father know you work for the Department of Defense?"

"The less people who know why I'm really here, the better," Shawn responded instead as he hid his credentials again and slid his wallet back into his back pocket. "He and I haven't been very good at staying in touch over the past few years. Gus knows I'm DoD… well, he knows I was DoD. I had to tell him that I quit and had a back-story of eccentric jobs has been fabricated upon my request."

"I… see…" Vick looked confused, not that Shawn blamed her.

Time to get down to business.

"Chief, tell me, what have you heard about a business group known as the Consortium?"

Section 2 - Somewhere during Psych season 2 and Eureka post season 2

Shawn was unusually well dressed today, not that he minded. It was what he used to wear to work in Eureka, so he didn't feel ill at ease. The lovely secretary certainly appreciated how he looked in the get-up (dress pants and shoes, a plain, blue dress shirt sans tie over a white jersey, and a black, unbuttoned dress jacket) judging by her not so subtle staring.

There was a buzzing noise and the blonde secretary frowned a little and gestured to the office door. "Mr. Price can see you now, Mr. Spencer." She didn't appear to be very happy about losing her eye-candy.

So Shawn beamed at her and winked as he stood and crossed the room. "Thank you Anna… do you mind if I call you Anna?"

"No, I don't mind at all," she gushed.

"Then please, call me Shawn," he responded. "I'll see you again soon, Anna," he drawled and then opened the door.

Walking into Eugene Adam Price's office, Shawn finally got to meet his quarry in person. Price was a handsome man with brown hair that was well styled, but not overly so. His eyes were gray with flecks of green… the same shade of which could be found on the tie of his clearly expensive suit.

"Mr. Spencer, it's a pleasure to meet you," Price said quietly. His voice oozed charm and his eyes swept appreciatively over Shawn's body.

Making a split-second decision, Shawn shut the door and gave Price a smile and mimicked the appreciative look over. "Please, call me Shawn, Mr. Price."

"If I am to call you Shawn, then I insist you call me Gene," Price responded as his smile widened marginally. "Please, have a seat, Shawn." Settling into the chair across the desk from Price, Shawn watched as the man sat as well. "I'm surprised to see you here alone, Shawn. I'd heard that you and Mr. Guster were inseparable when it came to running your psychic consultancy."

"Gus has a job beyond Psych," Shawn explained. "He's in a meeting right now that he could not skip; otherwise he would be here, too."

"He must be a very busy man," Price observed.

"He's a great friend. I probably wouldn't be able to handle living in Santa Barbara without him," Shawn pitched his tone so that it sounded like he was partially admitting to something.

"Shawn, that's why I asked you here. I have questions about your abilities and, from the sound of it, you can confirm some of my theories about psychic phenomena." Price's smile widened marginally. "Scientifically, my company has found proof of the existence of an all encompassing field of energy known as the Akashic field. It contains the answers to everything… all the knowledge of the universe. This field is particularly dense in certain parts of the world, such as Santa Barbara."

"You think that the Akashic field is the source of my psychic abilities," Shawn posited. "If that's true… then it would explain why my visions are so much stronger here… why I've always been drawn back here…"

"Yes… that is what I think." Price smiled and stood, coming around the desk to lean against the edge of it and look down on Shawn. "Even without tapping into your abilities, you're a very intelligent man, Shawn." On cue, Shawn made himself blush and stammer out a negative. "No, really. You fascinate me. Shawn, if you would give me a chance, I'd like to study you and perhaps learn enough to help you control your abilities."

"I'm not really sure what you're asking." Shawn really wished the guy would stop saying his name, even though he knew that Price was using it as a subtle sign of control.

Holding out a hand to Shawn, Price tilted his head to the side, "let me show you one of my labs studying the Akashic field. Perhaps I can clarify what I mean better if I can show you what we know already."

Reaching up, Shawn took Price's hand and let him pull him to his feet. After a year and a half, things were finally moving forward. If things went right, everything would be over very soon…


 

Allison stretched as she got out of the car, but she didn't linger. She wasn't well known outside of Eureka, but the Consortium did know who she was and if she was seen in Santa Barbara then her presence might inadvertently blow Shawn's cover. As it was, events were finally moving forward and Shawn's first objective had been achieved. The Consortium thought he was a genuine psychic, which meant plan two needed to be executed swiftly before they realized the truth.

Ducking inside the police station, Allison strode down the hallway and paused to stop a rather handsome looking blue-eyed detective of Irish descent to ask for directions to the Chief's office.

"Chief Vick's office is right through those doors," the handsome detective answered, gesturing to a rather lovely looking office with windows instead of walls facing the bullpen. Allison thanked him and debated flirting a little with him, but she noticed the ring on his left hand which made her decide to hurry up to see the Chief.

Reaching the door, Allison knocked lightly on the glass and was beckoned inside by the petite, blonde Interim Chief of Police, Karen Vick.

"Chief Vick?" Allison smiled and shook the blonde woman's hand before taking a seat. "I'm Dr. Allison Blake, representative of the Department of Defense."

"Yes, Shawn told me you'd be arriving soon; he just didn't specify how soon."

"Well, he's finally been contacted by Eugene Price, who is rather obsessed with the idea of psychic phenomena." Allison grinned. "He's a rather brilliant actor, isn't he?"

"Shawn has been a particularly bright spot around the police station," Vick leaned forward a little bit. "I know I'll certainly miss having him around when this is over."

"We've certainly missed him at the DoD. Anyway, how long do you think we should talk before giving your detectives a partial briefing on the case?"

"Give it at least another five or ten minutes." Vick paused and then twisted one of her framed photographs around. "This is my daughter, Anna Carly Vick. She's only just turned a year old."

"I have a son, Kevin, who's eight." Allison smiled. "They always seem to grow up so fast..."


 

Lassiter knew something important was afoot the moment the lovely African American woman asked for directions to Chief Vick's office. She was beautiful and aware of it to the point of exuding confident poise, there was something in her walk that said 'Fed', and she'd managed to dodge any sort of questions that would lead to him finding out her name – or having an actual conversation at all. As much as Carlton wanted to be the Chief, he was quite protective of Chief Vick and the Fed lady had been in there for at least ten minutes already.

The door opened and the Chief gestured at Lassiter and O'Hara to come inside. "Detective Lassiter, O'Hara, this is Department of Defense representative, Dr. Blake," Vick said as soon as she'd shut the door behind her. "Dr. Blake, this is Head Detective Lassiter and his partner, Detective O'Hara."

Carlton nodded stiffly, still wondering where this was going. He didn't have to wait long.

"Please, Detectives, have a seat," Dr. Blake said. Once they'd complied and Chief Vick was once more seated at her desk, the Doctor stood to the right of the desk and began to explain. "The DoD has been investigating, for the past several years, an organization known as the Consortium. The Consortium is a group dedicated to hindering the advancement of several DoD programs dedicated to the development of new methods of defending our country. About a year and a half ago, a prominent member of the Consortium was identified as living here in Santa Barbara and, about six months later, we assigned a DoD agent undercover to gain the Consortium member's trust in order to find the evidence we need not only to take down this branch of the Consortium, but the entire operation."

Blake looked a tad troubled as she continued to explain. "Our operative cannot break cover yet and, until he does, the DoD will require all the assistance the two of you can offer. While two of our scientists and a DoD agent will be joining me here in the next few days, we don't know Santa Barbara well and scientists, such as myself, aren't exactly trained for dealing with the capture of suspects."

"Then why are there going to be scientists working this case at all?" Lassiter interrupted.

"I'm afraid that's classified," Dr. Blake responded smoothly. Carlton felt his jaw clench in annoyance. "Our main target is Dr. Eugene Price, CEO of Psytech Incorporated, but until our operative can get us the information we need, we'll be targeting the minor players that we've been able to get evidence on so far."

"I've already agreed that, as the best detectives Santa Barbara has to offer, the two of you will cooperate with the DoD on this," Vick finally spoke up.

He didn't like this and, judging by the expression on O'Hara's face, Juliet wasn't exactly keen on this joint task-force any more than he was. But the Chief wasn't exactly giving them a choice here. She was telling them, without actually saying it, that they were going to do this and they were going to show the DoD that the officers of the SBPD were referred to as Santa Barbara's finest out of sarcasm.


 

Shawn dropped his jacket on the couch in the Psych office and went over to the kitchen to get something to drink. What he really wanted was a shower – after fielding Mr. Price's scientifically oriented questions about his psychic abilities, as well as some not so subtle flirting, for what ended up being four hours – because dealing with people like Price left him feeling dirty. The man was all too happy to kill people in the name of scientific progress for Shawn to feel at all comfortable around the man.

The Psych office, however, didn't have a shower in it and in order to get to one he'd have to go home to his apartment, which was about a fifteen minute drive on his motorcycle. Shawn had taken a cab to and from the Psytech building and the Psych office was closer to Psytech than his apartment.

Besides, Shawn had a case he'd put on hold that afternoon in order to make it to the appointment. The case was for Adam Hornstock, the lawyer that he and Gus had befriended a few months earlier. Hornstock's current case was about a man who'd been accused of embezzling from the bank he worked at. Shawn was fairly certain that the guy was innocent and that one of his 'oh so shocked' coworkers was the actual culprit. In fact, Shawn had enough to give to Hornstock to get his client off. Shawn just wanted to work at it a little longer to see if he could pin point the real thief.

The court date was set for the next day, so whether Shawn managed to figure out who did it or not, he wanted to get the information he already had to Hornstock at seven... which was just an hour away.

Shawn's stomach rumbled at that moment, reminding him that his lunch had been many hours ago and not particularly satisfying. As Shawn grabbed his drink – a cola – he also stuck one of the frozen dinners he kept in the office freezer into the microwave.

Looking around the office, it began to sink in. He was finally in the home run stretch. Proving Price's connections to the Consortium would be easy enough. All Shawn had to do was get some alone time with a computer hooked up to the building's mainframe. Getting info on what they were actually up to in Psytech would be helpful too. The company was pretty vague on the details of just what it was that they did.

After the microwave signaled that his dinner was ready and Shawn had setup at his desk so that he could eat and work, the papers that he was looking over began to blur together as the minor headache that had been building up since four o'clock that afternoon chose that moment to start flaring up into something truly painful. As Shawn rummaged around for Advil, he was tempted to declare defeat and just call up Hornstock in order to tell him about the clues he had 'divined' from the available evidence that proved the client innocent.

But... Shawn didn't like to do things halfway if there was a chance of catching the real culprit. And after agreeing to meet Gene for dinner in two nights to discuss how far Shawn would go as far as having his psychic gifts studied, he really, really wanted to catch a bad guy.

Shawn studied the papers in front of him as he ate his dinner, but he might as well have been staring at blank sheets for all the good it did him. All he could think about was how he really didn't want to leave Psych behind and how much he didn't want to go to dinner with Price.

The evidence he needed was likely staring him in the face, but Shawn's concentration had fled him. With a reluctant sigh and a glare at his now-empty plastic food container, Shawn picked up his cell and dialed Hornstock's number.

Adam answered cheerily, his bright tone instantly renewing part of Shawn's missing good cheer. "Shawn. It's great to hear from you. Have the spirits managed to convey a message to you?"

"It's in the time stamps," Shawn responded. "Almost all of the recorded times for the transactions occur when McGinnis is on duty, but three of them occurred when he called in sick with the flu and wouldn't have been in the office." As Hornstock grew excited, Shawn continued to add a few more pieces of information he'd managed to glean that would help clear McGinnis. The login name used by the embezzler was similar to McGinnis', but it was spelled wrong by just one letter. The fake account used for the embezzled money was at a bank located on the opposite side of Santa Barbara from McGinnis' home, which was inconvenient for getaways. McGinnis was just a few months away from retirement and was an old man with no relatives. He didn't need the money and had no one who needed the money.

There were a few other things, which Shawn told him, that would point to McGinnis' innocence, but Hornstock had plenty to convince the jury and, hopefully, annoy that lovely new DA, Miranda Switt, who seemed to hate Shawn from the moment she first saw him.

Of course, being hated on sight wasn't all that uncommon at the SBPD. While Vick, Jules, Buzz, Allen, and a handful of detectives and patrol officers actively liked Shawn, a great number were resentful of him for the way he simply waltzed in and solved cases that were seemingly impossible or even hated him for his psychic act. Whether the hatred was for being psychic or for being a fake psychic was a moot point.

There was only person that Shawn couldn't really read anymore when it came to a question of resentment or liking: Carlton Lassiter. While Lassie had clearly hated Shawn at first, the hatred had simmered down to a resentful sort of respect and now seemed to be changing again into some sort of grudging, unspoken friendship. At least, Shawn hoped it was. After all, he'd gotten Lassie to smile a few times and even laugh. Lassie didn't smile and laugh for just anyone... right?

Of course he didn't. Carlton Lassiter wasn't the sort of person who let his guard down unless he was around people he liked and trusted. But he didn't trust Shawn... or did he?

Section 3 - After reading Lassiter and Juliet in on the DoD investigation and have to fake suspensions because it made sense when I was first writing this; as part of the con to fake their suspensions, Shawn and Lassie stage a fight and Carlton has to hit Shawn to sell the suspension - despite being read in on some of the investigation, the detectives aren't yet aware of Shawn's part in it

 

Shawn opened the door and froze in surprise at the sight of Carlton Lassiter standing at the threshold of his apartment. "Uh, hi Lassie." Grinning irrepressibly, Shawn stood aside and welcomed the detective inside. "What brings you to my humble abode?" he asked, shutting the door behind Lassie.

"I just... wanted to apologize," Carlton said, his blue eyes looking ashamed.

"Because you enjoyed hitting me or because you didn't enjoy it?" Shawn asked curiously.

"Wha... I did not enjoy hitting you!"

Quirking an eyebrow, Shawn said, "you've thought about it in the past. You prefer the idea of having me in handcuffs, though. Very kinky, Detective."

Lassie's face flushed and his fists clenched. "Spencer..." he growled, his rough voice sending Shawn's brain to places that really weren't appropriate for this conversation. Turning towards the door, Carlton muttered, "I don't know why I bothered..."

"You seem to be forgetting that I volunteered to help make your suspension believable, Lassie," Shawn said, letting his voice grow serious. "You don't have anything to apologize for. Besides, my eye is barely bruised. It'll have faded away completely in a day or so and it isn't like I've never had worse. Dislocating my knee when that crazy spelling-bee dad ran me off the road was way more painful."

"You're a civilian," Lassie snapped, whirling back around to face Shawn. "You're not supposed to get hurt. Especially not by..."

"A cop?" Shawn filled in. They subsided into an awkward silence; Shawn knew that Carlton had been about to say 'by me', but 'a cop' sounded a little less personal. This was difficult enough for the Detective as it was; Shawn didn't want to make things any harder. "I'm fine, Carlton," Shawn finally said, dropping the nicknames and surnames that had always maintained the distance between them. "If it helps, I forgave you the second you hit me."

"It kind of does," Lassiter admitted after a moment, looking away in embarrassment.

"Have a seat; there's a Dragnet marathon on that I was gonna watch. You should join me... relax a little while. Whatever this assignment you and Jules have is going to be very stressful." Shawn waited for Lassiter to reluctantly seat himself on the couch before hurrying to his kitchen to grab two beers. Returning to the living area, Shawn sat down beside the very tense Carlton Lassiter and handed the man one of the bottles. "You aren't relaxing," Shawn accused, leaning back into the couch and flipping the TV on to the show.

"This is the city..." Sargent Friday's voice intoned from the television.

Shawn wasn't really paying attention to the show, however. He knew all the episodes by heart; this was more for Carlton's benefit that anything else. Unfortunately, Lassie seemed to grow increasingly rigid as the episode progressed.

"Do you want to talk about what's eating at you?" Shawn asked. They'd finished the first episode of the marathon in silence, their beers each sitting half empty on the coffee table.

"Not really."

"It has something to do with me," Shawn guessed. "It's not just the whole hitting me thing, either, though that really was bothering you. If you don't spill soon, I'll just ask the spirits to guide me to the answer."

"You are not psychic, Spencer. Just... cut the act," Carlton snapped, his eyes narrowing to glare at the pseudo-psychic.

"Just because you don't want to believe in psychics doesn't mean psychics aren't real," Shawn responded calmly, thinking off the many psychics - real and fake - that he'd met over the years. The ones who wanted to touch peoples panties and stuff were fakes, as were the palm readers and the people who worked carnivals and tv shows. The genuine ones were the ones who used their talents to help without expecting rewards. Shawn had always been a little in awe of the ones who were real.

He wasn't sure how they kept from going crazy, though.

"I should go," Lassie muttered, standing abruptly as Sargent Friday announced, once more, that 'this is the city... of Los Angeles, California.'

Shawn stood too, grabbing Carlton's wrist to keep the man from leaving. "I just want to help," Shawn told him. What he was referring to, however, not even Shawn was sure. All he really knew was that suddenly he was drowning in the bluest eyes he'd ever seen.

"Shawn..."

A heated frisson ran through the fake psychic at the sound of his first name on Carlton's lips. He'd wondered for a while how it'd sound to hear Lassie call him that. Letting out a shaky breath, Shawn forced himself not to bridge the distance between himself and the detective to press their lips together. He wasn't even certain if Lassie swung that way. It was a bad idea...

Though it seemed that Lassie hadn't gotten the 'bad idea' memo. He leaned forward, a hand reaching out to cup Shawn's cheek, and then suddenly their mouths were fused together, Carlton's tongue invading Shawn's mouth while the brunet clung to the older man dizzily, moaning low in this throat. Carlton's free hand moved to press against the small of Shawn's back, drawing them closer while his mouth migrated first to Shawn's jaw and then his neck, kissing a trail down towards Shawn's shoulder.

It was the sensation of Carlton's left hand sliding up to nestle in Shawn's hair that made him pull away sharply, gasping for breath and desperate to regain his equilibrium. The motion itself had been electric, sending even more heat racing through Shawn's body and fueling his libido. However, he could feel the wedding band on Carlton's hand.

"I... I can't do this..." Shawn breathed out, still panting for breath. "I can't be second best again."

"Second best," Lassiter echoed, too turned on and confused to realize what Shawn was getting at. "I don't understand..."

Grabbing Lassie's left hand, Shawn held it up. "You might be separated from Victoria, but that's still a wedding band on your finger. You still love her and if she were to ask you today, or tomorrow, or anytime really, to come back to her then you would. You'd break things off with me and you'd be great about it, but... you'd go back to her without hesitation.

"You have no idea how easily I could fall in love with you, Carlton. I don't want to get my heart broken."

"Shawn..." Carlton trailed off, but he was staring at the ring on his finger as if it held all the answers he was searching. "I'm sorry... I should leave."

This time, Shawn didn't stop him. Sinking back onto the couch as the apartment door shut, all he could think was that it really was too late.

He was already in love with Carlton Lassiter, but it wouldn't have been fair to the other man to let things continue. While Shawn might love Carlton... Carlton didn't even know who Shawn was. Not really, anyway...

Chapter Text

 

Q was not a happy camper.

Not that he was actually camping or anything… it was just one of those human idioms that slipped into his vocabulary during his time on Voyager. There was just something rather addictive about humanoid sayings... and their penchant for nicknames. He loved nicknames; particularly the one Icheb had given him.

Given that, during the majority of his time on Voyager, Q had been human and abandoned by both his parents, he found it strange how much he'd enjoyed his time as a human. Despite his father's horror stories about how disgusting human bodily functions were and how terrifying falling asleep was, Q hadn't been particularly disgusted or afraid because of his condition. He attributed that to Icheb, who'd befriended Q despite his tendency to take advantage of Icheb's inherent niceness. Icheb never judged him and had no expectations of him beyond being Icheb's friend in return.

Though Aunt Kathy had pushed him to be a better person (and he loved her for that and for succeeding) and his father had pushed him to be a better Q (and Q still had mixed feelings about the methods his father had employed), it was Icheb that Q would zip away to visit in his spare time, particularly during those few moments when he'd manage to lose his father. Being in Eternal Custody was a real bummer. He appreciated the attention, but enough was enough.

Fortunately, the Q Council agreed on that point and had lifted the custody sentence. Apparently 'Eternal' didn't mean forever anymore.

After convincing Icheb to take a weekend off from the Academy to go party and celebrate the lifting of his sentence, the two of them had spent time at the real Sandrine's bar in France and done some gambling in Quark's bar at Deep Space Nine. While there, they'd met Jake Sisko and, on a whim, Q took Jake and Kassidy to briefly visit Captain Sisko.

All in all, the two had enjoyed themselves immensely. They were both sorry the weekend had to end and, despite offers to mess with time a little so that Icheb could stay with him longer, Icheb was quickly returned to the Academy with a snap of Q's fingers.

Not wanting the fun to end, Q had then decided to visit random dimensions and alternate universes (not to be confused with alternate realities, of course). Unfortunately, his latest stop had resulted in circumstances that led to his current unhappiness…'unhappiness' being an understatement.

The race of beings known as Q have always claimed omnipotence and omniscience. That being said, omnipotence and omniscience don't necessarily mean what the members of the Federation believe they mean. 'Omnipotent' did not mean that the Q were all powerful, but that they had the potential to do anything. Likewise, 'omniscient' didn't mean that they knew everything, but that they knew the gist of everything and not the nitty-gritty details.

Therefore, it was perfectly understandable that Q hadn't known to expect to run into the problem he'd found. After all, how is one Q supposed to predict that he'd run into another Q who'd gone the Q equivalent of space crazy in a universe where everything exists in five dimensions instead of three?

Easy… they don't.

Q tried not to panic, but the other Q had been siphoning off power from the locals by draining their life force and generally shortening their overall lifespan, possibly permanently. It was horrifying; Q had never heard of anything like it and it was making the other Q more powerful than anything Q had ever seen before.

"You aren't going to tell anyone what I'm doing," the other Q threatened.

After a millisecond of thought, Q decided that it would be a bad idea to disagree. "Of course not. I'm not even sure what you're doing, so I'm not going to mention it." He let his mouth click shut before he started babbling.

The other Q was tall and oddly willowy with red hair and red-gold eyes; at least, that was how he'd have looked as a human. In the five dimension universe, obviously they didn't look human at all, but as Q they could see all possible appearances another Q might take. In all his forms, though, the other Q was incredibly intimidating.

"You don't need to worry about having a chance to mention this," he drawled, extending his hand and snapping impossibly long fingers.

Q felt his body freeze as a 'net' of energy wrapped around him, slowly draining away his Q powers and life much like the life was being drained away from the natives. There wasn't much time to get out and, after a few moments of struggle, Q realized that fighting only sped up the process. He had to get out while he still had the power to do so and mask his trail so the other Q couldn't follow.

His first instinct was to go to his father, but Q didn't know where he was. After Eternal Custody was lifted, his father had gone in search of his mother, who hadn't returned after fleeing in humiliation over Q's childish, destructive antics. Thus, Q had no idea where his father was. Worse, with his powers already draining away, Q could no longer feel the Q Continuum.

He had to think of someone – and someplace – else.

Aunt Kathy: she'd offered him sanctuary before and he knew that she'd never rescind that offer. She wouldn't be able to protect him from the rogue Q if he showed up, but Q knew he'd feel safe with her anyway. He'd be human again, but being human wasn't completely horrid and it would be temporary.

So Q reached into his final reserves of power and disappeared in a flash of blinding light.

Several universes away ,where there are only three dimensions, Admiral Kathryn Janeway was in her office talking with Captain Picard about the current state of the Romulan Empire. They were interrupted, however, by a flash of light that was nearly blinding in its intensity.

The young Q appeared in the middle of the room and collapsed to the floor as he fell unconscious.


Q woke up slowly. His head hurt and his eyes felt dry as he forced them open. A doctor with lovely, coppery hair and bright blue eyes handed him a glass of water. After a few moments, Q identified her as Doctor Crusher.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, smiling kindly at him and holding out a glass of water.

Blinking, Q sat up slowly and accepted the glass. "Disoriented," he rasped out. He took a drink and cleared his throat. "Thanks," he added. Already his eyes were feeling less scratchy and his headache was fading.

"I'm Dr. Crusher," she introduced herself. "We've met before, when you were younger, but I don't suppose you remember that…"

"I do," Q assured her. "I'm sorry I was such a brat to you," he added, feeling a little embarrassed at the memory of how he'd literally had miniaturized planets for play toys and started natural catastrophes and wars for fun. He hadn't stopped doing things like that until after his time on Voyager when, after his selfish actions nearly got Icheb killed, he finally understood why mortals valued the lives of others so dearly.

"You were a child," Crusher said, not unkindly, to completely dismiss the past. "I remember that your mother was quite proud of you."

"She isn't anymore," Q responded unthinkingly. "Is…" he looked around and grinned when he saw Aunt Kathy in the far corner of the room conversing with the Doctor and Captain Picard. "I interrupted something when I arrived…" he said, trying to remember what had brought him to Starfleet Headquarters on Earth and left him, for all intents and purposes, a human.

He remembered red hair and gold eyes and people dying in pain… he remembered being in pain unlike anything he'd ever felt before. He remembered the cause being another Q who was committing crimes that no Q had ever perpetrated before. But, in his human form the memories were distorted. Q needed his powers to regenerate before he could go to the Q Council and report what he'd found.

"Q," Aunt Kathy spoke up as she saw the young man awake and watching her. "Are you alright?" she asked, genuinely worried.

Q wondered if it was a terrible thing that he sometimes wished that she'd been his mother instead of Lady Q. "I've run into trouble again," he admitted quietly. "This time, though, it really isn't my fault."

Aunt Kathy smiled with amusement. "Well, then, why don't you start at the beginning?"

"Um… okay… the beginning, right." Q grinned. "I don't know how much you're in contact with Icheb, but he probably hasn't mentioned to you that my punishment got lifted; Dad doesn't have Eternal Custody of me anymore. He's gone off to try and track down mom, so I went exploring."

"Wait, what does Icheb have to do with this?"

"Oh, I convinced him to take the weekend off to go bar hopping with me," Q responded with a shrug. "Depending on how long it's been here since then, he might have mentioned the end of the custody thing to you."

"Seven told me he took off last weekend," Janeway said speculatively, "I haven't spoken with either of them since then." She paused and then arched an eyebrow while asking in that tone of voice she had that made Q feel like he was a little kid again, "bar hopping?"

"We went to the real Sandrine's and visited Quark's on DS9. He wouldn't let me stretch our time, though; does he have to be so responsible?" Q shrugged as Aunt Kathy laughed.

"He's a good influence on you."

"He's a good friend," Q agreed, his eyes flicking curiously to Captain Picard and the Doctor. "Hi, Doc."

"Hello, Q," the Doctor appeared rather pleased with the nickname, though once he'd have objected.

"Captain Picard," Q held out his hand, the action honest if a bit tentative. This was the man who'd almost been his godfather and who his father had irritated beyond all reason on several occasions.

Fortunately, Picard didn't seem to be the sort to hold grudges against the children of those who annoyed him. If anything, Picard seemed to find something a bit funny about the whole situation. Picard accepted Q's hand and shook it politely.

"Well, uh, where was I?" Q asked, turning back to his Aunt. "Oh, right, so I went exploring on my own and wound up in another universe where I ran into a Q who I think has been away from the Continuum longer than I've been alive since I didn't recognize him. He was…" Q closed his eyes and gave his head a little shake. "There are terrible things that a Q can do with our powers. When it comes down to it, the council typically doesn't care if we use our powers to mess with the natural order of other species so long as we don't start affecting the stability of the Continuum itself.

"But at the same time, there are things that a Q can do that won't affect the rest of the Continuum yet are forbidden with good reason." Q stared into his Aunt's eyes. "Draining others to increase our power is one example. And I'm not talking about just draining other Q… anyone, really. Human's, for example, have what you refer to as ESP ratings and then the Betazoid's have their telepathic abilities… that's all different levels of the ability to manipulate the same energy that Q use for our power. Draining another person's abilities is supposed to cause one's own to intensify, but I can't even begin to explain how wrong that is."

"I think we get the idea," Janeway responded dryly.

Q nodded. "Well, this Q noticed me immediately and he wasn't exactly pleased to have been caught red-handed stealing the life force of the natives of that universe. He'd upped his power to the point where he can more than stalemate me, but the Continuum can still overwhelm him. He tried draining me so I wouldn't be able to report to the Council, but I managed to get out before he could be completely successful. I also managed to make it so that he can't trace me, either. The problem is… for the time being, I need to stay human while my powers regenerate. I was hoping… that is…"

Q sighed and tried not to look too pathetic, "Aunt Kathy, can I stay with you for a little while?"


 

Icheb tapped the tip of his stylus against the edge of his desk and wished, not for the first time, that he'd let Q convince him to go gallivanting around the galaxy for just a little bit longer before returning in time to finish his homework. While he hadn't admitted it to Seven yet, – or anyone else for that matter – Icheb was severely lacking in the friends department.

He'd done well enough at first, but then the whole thing with the Borg virus happened. It hadn't mattered that the person responsible had been an obsessed, highly ranked security officer; the incident effectively killed any hope Icheb had for a social life. His peers were wary of getting to know him and he still felt a definite sting of betrayal when it came to the social leaders of his class that had once been his friends.

Despite the rocky start to their friendship, Q was the best friend Icheb had and it was unfortunate that they rarely got to spend time together. Q was witty and fun; Icheb always felt lighter – happier – when around the omnipotent being.

Here, surrounded by people he wasn't sure he even liked and forced to attend lectures on material he already knew quite well, Icheb felt as though he was fighting the urge to fall into a boredom induced coma. That wasn't quite fair to the Lieutenant who was teaching the class and putting a great deal of enthusiasm into the course. But there's only so many ways to describe black holes before it all started boiling down to the fact that they were only detectable because of the debris getting sucked into them and the gravitational effects they had on nearby spacial bodies… and that, much like space, their most distinguishing feature is that they're black.

The tapping of the stylus sped up slightly.

The class was dismissed, but Lieutenant Garrett requested that Icheb stayed after for a few minutes.

"Is something wrong, sir?" Icheb asked, walking to front of the lecture hall.

"You seem distracted lately," Garrett said. "Your work ethic has remained the same, but… I suppose your passion for the Academy has waned."

Icheb tried not to grimace at the Lieutenant's choice of words; Garrett had a habit of describing people in astronomical terms, particularly those applied to fazes of the moon. "I appreciate your concern, sir," Icheb responded honestly. "I just… miss my friends."

Alright, so really he missed Seven, Naomi, various people he worked with on Voyager, and, most of all, Q. Despite having seen the mischievous young Q just four days ago, Icheb missed Q terribly. The problem with the Academy wasn't just that he didn't fit in with his peers or that he missed Voyager or even that the classes were too easy, but that every time Q showed up and offered to show him the cosmos, Icheb had to battle himself to say 'no.' Turning him down got harder every time, especially now that Q wasn't traveling everywhere with Q Sr. in tow.

Garrett offered to help if Icheb needed help adjusting to life off of Voyager; all he had to do was ask. In return, Icheb made the right noises about how he'd enjoyed his weekend off campus, was making acquaintances who would surely become good friends, and that he appreciated the offer of help. Then he fled into the corridor as fast as he could without actually appearing to be fleeing.

As a result, he wasn't paying nearly enough attention to where he was going and ran into someone. Stumbling, Icheb barely managed to balance against the wall, his PADD and stylus falling to the ground along with the man he'd walked into.

Nimbly, the familiar man hopped up after grabbing what Icheb had dropped. Laughing at the mishap, the man threw his arms around Icheb in a friendly hug. "That eager to get out of class, huh?"

"Q!" Icheb returned the hug for a brief, enthusiastic moment, before pulling away. "I thought you were going to be roaming the cosmos and enjoying your new found freedom; or have you been everywhere and done everything already?"

"Not yet, I got… sidetracked," Q tilted his head to the side. "That's your last class of the day, right? I've got a lot to tell you and…" he shrugged.

"That was my last class," Icheb answered agreeably. It was his last class, though if it hadn't been Icheb had a feeling he would have lied about it and skipped. "It is time for lunch, however, and I missed breakfast this morning; tell me over lunch."

"We'll have to go to the Academy cafeteria, won't we?" Q asked a bit mournfully.

"First year cadets aren't allowed to leave the campus during the day and may only leave on weekends when they have permission," Icheb recited dutifully. "I hate that rule… and so does just about every freshman on campus."

Q nodded, "school cafeteria it is."

Icheb grinned, feeling excited for the first time since the weekend had ended. There was just something about Q… Icheb always felt so very alive in the omnipotent being's presence.


 

Jake Sisko smiled at the wormhole as it closed, imagining that he could see his father's face in the event horizon.

The Q that had shown up on the station the weekend before had been so very different from the last one to visit, which had been surprising not because he'd been a Q but because he'd claimed to be the son of the Q that Jake's father had once punched. Jake rather liked this one, though; he'd taken Jake and his step-mother, Kassidy, to visit Benjamin Sisko in the wormhole and gotten into a debate over the benefits of linear existence with one of the wormhole aliens.

Icheb, the Q's friend, had been interesting, too. Icheb was a native of the Delta Quadrant who'd once been Borg and had opted to travel to the Alpha Quadrant with the crew of Voyager rather than remain in his home quadrant. He'd also decided to join Starfleet, excelled at astrophysics, and had somehow become best friends with an omnipotent being. Jake had been utterly intrigued by the duo and had felt totally justified in inviting them to visit whenever they felt like it.

Of course Commander Kira hadn't been happy to hear about Q's visit after the fact, but Jake figured it wasn't that big of a deal. Q hadn't caused trouble, nor had Icheb. Granted, Q did mess around with Quark a little, but Jake felt the Ferengi had it coming. Nog's uncle or not, Quark really had to be the most irritating person Jake knew. The man had redeeming qualities – if someone harmed his family, Quark would get more protective than any Ferengi Jake had ever heard of – so Jake had intervened before anything could be taken too far, which was what led to his impromptu trip to the wormhole.

All in all, it had been the best weekends Jake had had in quite some time.

"Excuse me?"

Jake shook himself out of his thoughts and turned to face an attractive blonde human woman. "Sorry, I was a bit distracted. Can I help you with something?"

"I got a little lost and was hoping you could direct me back to the Promenade," she paused and then smiled. "I'm Amanda Rogers, by the way."

"Jake Sisko," he grinned and shook her hand. "I was actually on my way there; would you mind an escort?"

"I'd be thrilled," she said, only partly teasing. "I'm supposed to meet a friend at Quark's bar this afternoon, but I wanted to get here early and see the station for myself."

 

Chapter Text

 

Peter was the only person in Wonderland allowed to leave in search of foreigners fit to play the game. It was part of his role, after all. He was the White Rabbit, who lured girls down the rabbit hole and into a world of imagination. Then she'd wander the world, surrounded by men and women who professed their love for her and only her. He'd guide her – he was only the lure, never the chosen – and eventually the foreigner would fall in love with someone for real.

The problem with all this, for the girl at least, was that everyone in Wonderland had clockwork in the place where their hearts should have been. So her love was genuinely heartfelt. However, a person without a heart cannot feel a 'heartfelt' emotion. When she won the game and the role players no longer needed to love her, the obsessions they all developed fell away. The girl would be sent back home, alone, and they'd wait for Peter to pick the next girl.

Every time the game ended, the role players hoped that not only would they be picked, but that they'd develop a heart, too. Everyone in Wonderland yearned for a heart.

The first time Peter saw Alice, she looked happy.

Peter was there for Alice's sister, who radiated unhappiness. She watched Alice with a mixture of jealousy and guilt; Lorrina was in love with the man who courted Alice, but she refused to speak of her feelings. So Peter took Lorrina to Wonderland.

Her stay was the shortest to date; Lorrina fell in love with Blood, who closely resembled her sister's lover. When the game was won, Lorrina was sent back home to just moments after she left. Her memories of Wonderland were like a dream to her, but left her with a determination that she'd not possessed before.

Lorrina slowly, subtly, began attracting notice from Alice's lover and, eventually, stole him away for herself. She did it in such a way that Alice never suspected it was deliberate, so as not to lose her sister's love and adoration. In Wonderland, Lorrina learned to become a fraud and used her new knowledge to wound her sister deeply.

Alice's pain was palpable and Peter felt guilty about it. If he'd left Lorrina alone, Alice would have likely married her lover one day. They'd have lived happily ever after... until the man's eyes finally strayed. Because if all it took was a month for Lorrina to get the man to break up with Alice, then he was clearly destined to be unfaithful to her.

Peter wasn't certain why, but the thought that someone might be willingly unfaithful to Alice made him angry. It made him even angrier that her lover actually had been unfaithful and broken it off with her. Mostly, though, Peter was angry at himself for causing Alice's pain and for feeling something for someone who wasn't even playing the game. He shouldn't be able to feel anything more than pity for the girl until she came to Wonderland and drank the potion.

It was then, caught up in the feeling of anger, that an idea began to occur to Peter. In Wonderland, when someone died, their clock stopped. Once Julius repaired a clock, the person who died returned to life, but their memories were gone. They were a clean slate, full of potential, that never took the same personality twice (that anyone knew of). Their names and roles remained the same, but everything else changed.

What if Alice could change that? She'd already made Peter feel anger without having ever met him. What if she could do more? What if she could make everyone feel love – real love? No one knew what feeling real emotions would do to their clockwork hearts, but they all suspected that a clock that loved with a true, pure love would become a heart of flesh.

What if Alice could break the curse that had laid upon them since before any native of Wonderland could remember?

Watching Alice closely, Peter came to a decision. He would bring Alice to Wonderland whether she liked it or not. Alice was going to save his world.

Alice was going to save him...

Chapter Text

Daisuke had never seen a gun up close before.

Oh, he'd seen guns – the police officers that tried to catch Dark pulled theirs out often enough – but never up close. Not until now.

The barrel was still smoking.

Funny… Daisuke had always thought that 'the smoking gun' was just a metaphor, but it really did have a small whiff rising off of it. He could have happily gone his entire life without knowing that.

Satoshi's face was so pale. Daisuke had never realized before, but the bluonde's complexion was several shades lighter than everyone else in the class. Today, however, Satoshi's skin seemed almost translucent compared the red smeared across his usually pristinely white shirt.

Some of the other students were screaming, but Daisuke could barely register any of the sounds. Their teacher was surreptitiously using her cell phone to summon the police, or something along those lines. Most of the rest of the class was frozen. Takeshi, however, was on the ground beside Satoshi, putting pressure on the gunshot wound.

The gun was pointing at Daisuke now and, try as he might, his concentration kept slipping away from that gun to the bot who lay dying on the ground.

All he could hear was the ringing of the gunshot in his ears.

Daisuke flinched when Takeshi pulled his hands away from Satoshi and shook his head. Takeshi said something and, though Daisuke's ears didn't seem to be cooperating, the redhead could read his friend's lips. "He's not breathing, his pulse is gone… he's dead."

Turning to the man with the gun, Daisuke took a step forward, to numb to care about what happened to him and to angry to stand still. "You bastard!" he snarled, his hearing finally returning.

His voice didn't sound like his own; there was too much pain…

The man smirked and walked to the window, keeping his gun trained on Daisuke, the only threat in the room. "Good. Little Tamer, that's exactly the attitude I need from you." He twisted his hand to the side, shooting out the window. It took him only seconds to complete, but that was all the time Daisuke needed.

The redhead lunged forward, vaulting over a desk and landing in front of the assailant. But by then the gun was pointing at his face again.

"I'd love to stay and chat," the man mocked, "but I really have to fly. It's a shame. I'd love to know what lengths the Niwa scion would go to in order to avenge the death of his family rival's heir. The Hikaris always cause the strangest things and that doesn't change because of his name.

"Well… ta. So much to do, so little time. Tempus Fugit and all that…" he shot out the window and leaped out of sight.

Daisuke only needed a few more steps to reach the window and he peered over the side, not noticing the way the glass cut his hands. There was no sign of him and, without Wiz, there was no way to safely follow the escape route of Satoshi's murderer.

Tempus Fugit, Dark's voice whispered softly from within Daisuke's mind. The Phantom Thief was every bit as shaken by his rival's death as his Tamer was. But the final words of the murderer gave him a pause. He knew those words; they were Latin for 'time flies'. They also referenced a Hikari artwork by the same name in a museum in a neighboring town. Supposedly the Tempus Fugit, an ornate clock, could turn back the hands of time… Tempus Fugit is a Hikari artwork – a clock – that can undo time. Daisuke… what do we do?

Stumbling away from the window, Daisuke looked down at his hands, noticing the blood on them for the first time. He looked over at Satoshi, lying unnaturally still and soaked in blood, and Takeshi, kneeling in blood with his hands covered in it.

We fix this, Daisuke responded. We steal the Tempus Fugit, bring back Satoshi, and fix this.

He knows, Dark cautioned. He called you a Tamer and he mentioned this artwork's name on purpose. He's baiting us. We could be the next to die…

I don't care. We have to fix this, Dark. I have to fix this…

"Satoshi…"


"Your mother's probably worried," Dark said as he crept into the museum.

There was no warning this time.  They'd left school as soon as they could sneak away, taking the train to the town where Tempus Fugit was located, and heading straight to the museum.  By the time they got there it was late already, the museum only an hour from closing.  Daisuke had gotten a ticket anyway and they cased the place together.  They left before the final closing warning could be given and now, an hour later, they were back inside.  Wiz was somewhere in the museum as well, luring away the guards, and the cameras had all been deactivated. All that remained was to get into the room with the clock and get out to a safe place where they could use it.  Dark had the wheel, so to speak.  Daisuke wasn't exactly feeling romantic, but theft was Dark's specialty so Daisuke had taken a mental step back.  They needed to be at their best for this one.  And though they both felt weird about not sending their usual warning, well... Satoshi was dead.  Right now, the rules didn't matter.

They hadn't been home since Satoshi died. Emiko, Kosuke, Daiki, and Towa were likely all going out of their minds with worry. Both Dark and Daisuke felt a nagging sense of guilt at putting their family through that, but…

Once we get the Tempus Fugit, we'll go back to before Satoshi's death. Mom won't know she ever worried about us disappearing because none of this will have happened.

"I know that," Dark snapped in irritation. "It's just… I don't know. I want… I want to save him too, but we should have…"

Waited?  We don't know what kind of limits the clock's magic has. We couldn't take that kind of risk. Daisuke's voice shook.

"There it is," Dark said, not bothering to be delicate as he grabbed a stanchion, pulled the guide rope off of it, and smashed it into the casing. The glass shattered after the third impact and he reached in to grab the clock as alarms began blaring around him. As luck would have it, there was a skylight in the room and Dark was able to make a quick escape to the roof of the building through it.

"We're playing into the murdering bastard's hands, Daisuke," Dark warned as he popped open the clock's built in cover that protected the clock face and hands.

"I know," Daisuke responded as he took control of his body once more. "We don't have any other choice, Dark.

I know, Dark echoed. Despite what you've felt for Risa and Riku in the past, they're not the ones you truly love. I once teased you that you thinking what you and Riku felt for each other was love because I could already see this… Satoshi kept becoming more and more important to you. He's the most important… because what's happening between you and him is what falling in love is really like.

Except for the whole alter egos hating each other and him dying, Dark amended, but still…

"You're right," Daisuke responded. "I can't lose Satoshi. I love him." Then he twisted the dials of the clock and the world spun.


"Daisuke," Takeshi huffed the name in irritation and Satoshi glanced over at the two friends.

The young reporter shook Daisuke's shoulder. "Earth to Daisuke, are you there?"

"Huh?" Daisuke blinked and his eyes came back into focus. "What, Takeshi?" he asked, glancing around and then freezing when his red eyes landed on Satoshi.

"You totally spaced on me," Takeshi complained. "You need to pay more attention."

"Sorry," Daisuke responded, not sounding particularly contrite, or interested, at all. His eyes were still on Satoshi, his expression unreadable though something in it made Satoshi's chest feel tight.

It was the eyes. There was something akin to grief in those eyes…

Placing his backpack beside his desk, Daisuke sat down and tucked something into the bag. It looked like a clock, but Satoshi couldn't be sure.

Once everyone was in their seats, their teacher started taking role.

A face appeared in the door window. The face was of a man, likely in his early twenties, with bright green eyes and spiky brown hair. There was a grin on his face, which widened when he noticed Satoshi looking at him. Then the door opened, revealing that the man was tall and fairly average looking. He was dressed in a plain black t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. The only thing, aside from him being at a middle school where he didn't belong, that made the man stand out at all was the semi-automatic he held so casually.

The gun came up and pointed at Satoshi. There was a deafening roar as the shot rang out.

Too stunned to react, Satoshi felt the seconds slow and braced himself for what promised to be the worst pain he'd ever suffered only to realize that the bullet had embedded itself in his chair while he lay on the ground with Daisuke crouched on top of him. He never even felt the redhead slam into him, knocking them both out of the way.

"You knew I was coming, Tamer. Looks like phase one was a success after all," the gunman said, grinning down at the two boys. "Here I was afraid that my plan would fail. The Niwa family and Hikari family have been rivals so long… but here you two are, overcoming Krad's hate and Dark's indifference. You should feel so proud of yourselves."

As the man rambled, the two boys slowly disentangled themselves and stood up. "What the hell do you want with us?" Satoshi snarled, trying to place himself between the gun and Daisuke. Niwa was having none of that, though, and firmly took a stand beside the bluonde.

"With you and Niwa? Nothing, Hiwatari. Or should I call you by your true name, Hikari? Maybe it doesn't matter." The brunette snorted in amusement. "You ought to be dead right now, but time itself has changed for you. Oh how time flies. Time isn't really linear, you know. But that means for the next twenty-four hours or so we're in a pocket of time that shouldn't exist and not all the rules apply in a place like this.

"That means things like this will actually work." With his free hand, the man pulled out a bracelet from his pocket and dropped it on the ground. There were rubies and sapphires decorating the thin gold chain; Satoshi didn't recognize it as being a Hikari artwork, but that didn't mean it wasn't. But then, while all Hikari art was magical not all magical art was made by the Hikari family.

"Time for phase two."

The man slammed his foot down on the bracelet, breaking the chain in several places and scattering the tiny gems. Satoshi felt like he'd been hit with a sledge hammer and he dropped to his knees, only peripherally aware of the same thing happening to Daisuke. When the effect faded, the man with the gun was gone, but two people had appeared on the ground beside Satoshi and Daisuke.

Krad lay curled up on the ground, his wings folded up against the unconscious angel's back. Dark lay dazed beside his enemy, staring up at the ceiling.

For the first time in his life, Satoshi could not hear the echo of Krad's voice inside his head. All he had ever wanted to be free of the Hikari family curse. Yet now that it seemed to have happened… this could not be a good thing.

Chapter Text

Tabitha knelt beside Master Altessa, a strange horror welling up within her. He lay as though in sleep, but she knew that was not so. Sticky red blood surrounded her in every direction from the messy attacks of the bandits.

Altessa had ordered Tabitha to hide while he bravely faced the lawless marauders. The bandits had believed Altessa to be in possession of rare jewels, wrongly assuming that all dwarves were rich. They killed Altessa for what he did not own and never would have.

He'd died to protect her too, Tabitha knew.

Once Altessa was dead and the bandits took what little money he had, the bandits had fled and Tabitha had come out of hiding.  

"Oh, Master," she murmured, closing Altessa's eyes gently, "if only you had not ordered me to hide.  I could have saved your life, if you'd let me."

She stayed there by his side for hours as the sun set and the moon traveled the night sky and dawn began to peek across the horizon.  She might have stayed there for days, if not for the sound in the distance of travelers headed her way.  She could hear their chatter long before they came into view.  The majority sounded like priests, but there was one voice that caught Tabitha's ear in particular.

The Chosen was headed her way.


Zelos eyed the green haired woman curiously.

He had a habit of sneaking out of Meltokio at night and just... running whichever direction seemed to suit him.  Inevitably a search party would be sent out to drag him back.  This time he'd managed a good forty-eight hours on his own before he was recognized by searchers.  But this part was very different.

The priests in charge of the carriage would have just passed the woman and her dead friend by entirely.  But Zelos insisted they stop and help bury her friend - Master Altessa - and take the green-haired beauty aboard.  It was the chivalrous thing to do, after all.

Her name was Tabitha.  No surname was given.  When asked if she had somewhere to stay, she'd mentioned that Master Altessa owned a forge near some backwater town in the middle of nowhere on the other side of a dangerous forest.

Certainly not the sort of traveling a lady could be expected to undertake alone.  Zelos immediately offered her the use of his mansion while she stayed in Meltokio - he had more than enough guest rooms, after all, and they were rarely ever used - and the funds to hire escorts once she'd recovered enough from her grief to travel.

Tabitha... didn't really seem to understand the concept of grief.  That might have been surprising except... Zelos was pretty sure she wasn't actually breathing either.  She'd mimic on occassion, but mostly she simply seemed to forget that it was necessary.

Zelos' leading theory for the moment was that she was an angel.  He hoped she'd stick around long enough for him to figure it out for certain.


A Few Years Later

Tabitha whirled around, grinning at the feeling of her new chakrams.  They fit her hands perfectly; understandable since Zelos had ordered them specifically for her and personally fixed the grips when she'd complained of an imperfection. He was so sweet, so different from Altessa's gruff care, though she had no doubt that the dwarven man had loved her as his daughter. Despite the protests she'd made so long ago, Zelos insisted that she stay with him and, for five years now, she'd remained with the Chosen.

The Chosen's mansion was huge and spacious. Sometimes, Tabitha felt as though she could wander for hours without visiting the same room twice. The contrast between the mansion and Altessa's small home was clear, but both places felt the same to her. Both were home.

At least, Altessa's had been home before the dwarf had died. Now she didn't know what that place near Ozette would feel like. Part of her, though, assumed it would feel empty without Altessa at the forge.

Stowing away her new weapons, Tabitha headed out of the mansion and away from the Noble's District towards where Zelos had promised to meet her; they had shopping plans and tickets to view the coliseum that evening.  In the morning they were headed out for Sybak and Tabitha would have the chance to use her new weapons should monsters or brigands attack them.

Not entirely paying attention, she was startled to find herself running into a blank-eyed blonde girl with pink-hued wings. She managed, barely, to keep her balance and blushed in embarrassment. "I'm so sorry, are you okay?" Immediately after speaking, she finished processing the fact the girl had wings and Tabitha blanched. It was all she could do to remember to simulate breathing properly.

"Don't worry, she's fine," said a nearby guy dressed in a bright red outfit. He looked so out of place, as did the angel and two others standing beside him, that Tabitha immediately knew that they were together. Whether they were from Cruxis, though…

"Oh, good. I'm not usually so clumsy, but today's special so I haven't been paying enough attention." Tabitha grinned at them, trying not to seem forced. What if they were from Cruxis and realized what she was?

"Today's special?" the platinum haired woman echoed?

"It's Zelos'… the Chosen's birthday," she chirped, hoping that, if these were representatives of Cruxis, they'd dismiss her as a fangirl of the Chosen's.

"You're friend's with this w… the Chosen?" the little boy asked.

"Yup," Tabitha felt a bit calmer at the sound of the kid's voice. How could someone so innocent be of Cruxis?

"Tabby? Tabby, there you are!" Zelos' voice rang out across the square and Tabitha felt relief flood her.

"Hey, Zelos!" Tabitha whirled around and waved at the energetic redhead. "We've got tourists."

"That obvious?" the platinum haired woman asked, sounding slightly irritated.

Tabitha offered her a slightly apologetic smile. "A little. We may not be as tourist oriented here as they are in Altamira, but this city still has a lot to offer. It is the capital of Tethe'alla, after all." She tilted her head to the side and asked, "have you seen the castle yet?"

"No…" the brunette guy responded, his voice growing somewhat guarded.

"It's straight up ahead, though if you take the first split to the left you can visit the Martel Cathedral," Tabitha gestured to the path as Zelos finished walking up. "Usually, the castle is open to visitors, but it's been closed down because the King is sick. The coliseum is over that way," she made another gesture, "anyone can enter the tournaments there. Both ways are great places to visit."

"Uh, hello there," Zelos flashed Raine a suave smile. "A pleasure to meet you, gorgeous."

Seeing the irritation in Raine's eyes deepen, Tabitha elbowed Zelos and smirked at his protest. "Don't mind him, he thinks he's the goddess' gift to women. I'm trying to find someone who can help him get over his delusions."

"Some way to speak to the Chosen," Zelos griped as Tabitha dragged him off while waving to the group.

"Well, somebody has to," she shot back.

"Ouch," Zelos grinned irrepressibly. "So, milady, you seem in a hurry."

"Just a little bit further" Tabitha muttered in reply. Once they were far enough away from the strangers that their voices wouldn't be heard properly, she told him, "that girl was a real angel, Zelos. I just… I don't think they're representatives of Cruxis."

"Are you sure? After that scare where Lord Yuan tried to recruit me into both Cruxis and the Renegades, I don't want to take any chances," Zelos let his worry creep into his voice and eyes.

Five years was a long time to live with secrets, but Tabitha hadn't managed to keep hers even that long.  Zelos had sussed out quickly enough that there was something strange about her, though he'd never have guessed she was an artificial intelligence.  He'd been fascinated by the truth, though, and embraced her for who she was.  They'd quickly become inseparable.

Zelos did, however, grow a protective streak that surprised them both. Tabby was his girl and he wasn't about to let anyone harm her or take her. Not even the angels themselves would hurt her if he had anything to say about it.  The gossip mill didn't dare spread their rumors about her where Zelos could hear them either, though Tabitha's inhuman hearing had left her overhearing the occasional aspersion towards her character.

"Don't worry about it. We should be fine," Tabitha paused and added, "thank you for worrying. I like knowing that you'll always be here for me." She linked her arms with his left arm and leaned her forehead against his shoulder as he led her towards the castle. "I thought we were going shopping."

Zelos groaned.  "I got roped into a prayer ceremony for the King's health.  We'll have to delay our shopping for an hour."

"If we delay too long, we might not have enough time to get your present," Tabitha teased.

"You don't have to get me anything," Zelos protested.

"Since I'll be buying it with your money, technically I'm not getting you anything anyway."  The two of them laughed as they arrived at the castle entrance.  "So, should I head back to the mansion and wait for you to finish up?"

"That's probably for the best," Zelos agree.  "Otherwise you might wind up in the library again and I'll have to pry you out with a crowbar."

"Books."  That was all Tabitha needed to say.  It'd been years since the incident in question and yet the reference still made them both sport ridiculous grins.

It was the first of many inside jokes they'd developed since becoming friends.

Chapter Text

 

Part One – Galbadia

"LIES," Fujin insisted, refusing to listen to Squall... refusing to believe that Seifer might actually be dead.

Raijin laughed nervously. "That's gotta be a lie, ya know!" Waving a hand in front of his nose, as if to wave off a bad scent, he added, "there's no way he'd put up with a trial, ya know! Or an execution for that matter! It's just so not Seifer, ya know!"

Fujin nodded and waved her hand sharply for emphasis. "FIND!"

"Oh... what?" Raijin glanced at Fujin and then asked slowly, "we're gonna meet up with Seifer?" Fujin nodded again. "Well, see ya, Squall. We're gonna head off to Galbadia to look for Seifer."

The two of them turned to race off, but Squall couldn't just leave it there. "Wait!"

"What?" Raijin asked. Fujin just stared at him.

"If you two are so certain Seifer is alive then I believe you," Squall said, a strange feeling taking root in him as he spoke. "So I want to go with you two and see for myself."

The two of them looked at each other and then back at him. "You've got a mission, ya know! So, just stick with that and we'll let ya know when we find him. If you come with us, you'd be abandoning the mission, ya know! You'd get kicked out of SeeD."

"I know," Squall responded, feeling oddly calm about his decision. "Cadets are only allowed to attempt the entrance exam to SeeD three times and Seifer's used his up. He has no reason to return to Balamb once you two find him." Squall paused and then added quietly, "I'll have no one to spar with anymore."

Raijin and Fujin looked between each other again and then nodded sharply.

"Come on then. I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing, ya know!"

"AFFIRMATIVE," Fujin added.

"Let's go!" Seifer's posse turned back towards the exit and started walking again. Squall followed after them. He'd never really cared all that much about SeeD in the first place, it was fighting with his gunblade that he craved. And if being SeeD meant dealing with idiots like Rinoa... then maybe the mercenary life wasn't what he wanted after all.

"Squall!" Selphie yelled.

Looking up, but still walking, Squall waved at her before he passed through the Garden exit and left his worries behind.


Once they were on the train, Squall started to have second thoughts about his impulsive decision. He'd worked so hard to make SeeD, but here he was throwing it all away because of Seifer? They were rivals, not friends. They could barely stand each other. Yet Squall sat on a train to Deling in hopes that he'd find Seifer there and... what?

His mind kept running over all the times that Seifer had dragged him away from studying to spar or forced him out of the library and into the cafeteria or literally picked him up and carried him to the infirmary when he was too stubborn to admit he needed treatment. Squall had never understood why Seifer was always going out of his way for him. The arrogant blond had always blown off Squall's curiosity by claiming he'd invested too much in having Squall as his sparring partner to let the brunet run himself into the ground, but Squall had never bought it.

Squall had never needed to reciprocate Seifer's actions, though. When something happened to Seifer, his posse rushed in and helped him. He didn't need Squall even though, loath as he was to admit it – even to himself – there had been times, too many to count, that Squall had needed him. Squall couldn't even remember all the times he'd needed Seifer to remind him to be human.

The goal of becoming SeeD had been an all-consuming task. There had never seemed to be an alternative at Garden; either a person made SeeD or they left the only home they ever knew. Sure, a person who'd graduated from Garden had the skills necessary to survive in other jobs, but what about the mindset? The military academy churned out soldiers, not bakers or actors or... whatever. Interacting with someone outside of the military was difficult, especially for someone like Squall who could barely deal with other people at Garden.

What kind of life could he possibly have to look forward to?

"You okay, Leonhart? You look kinda spaced out, ya know?" Raijin asked, interrupting Squall's reverie.

"I'm fine," Squall responded quietly. "Just... wondering how we're going to find Seifer."

"Huh... I hadn't thought that far, ya know?" Raijin commented.

This time Squall was the one exchanging a look with Fuu. "PRESIDENTIAL PALACE!" Fujin declared.

"I doubt we could just walk in there, though," Squall mused. "We'd have to scout the palace and find a way to sneak in."

"AFFIRMATIVE," Fujin agreed. "TWO OBJECTIVES!"

Nodding, Squall thought he knew what she was getting at. "Seifer first, obviously, but they'll have separated him from his gunblade. So we'll have to find that, too."

"Oh, I bet Seifer is so pissed. He hates being separated from Hyperion, ya know?" Raijin looked sad on his missing friend's behalf.

Squall stood up as he felt the train's speed begin to decrease. He'd managed to get them into the SeeD compartment on the train, but it was likely going to be the last time he'd ever get to use the privilege. He felt oddly at peace with his decision, however. It was like... this was what he was meant to be doing. Staring out the window, Squall watched as the station walls appeared in the window, the bricks blurring together at first. He wondered if Quistis would take over Rinoa's mission; the contract had stipulated 'no replacements,' but it likely wasn't taking into account one of the SeeDs quitting before real progress was made. If Quistis requested to be his replacement, then she'd likely be allowed to take the position of squad leader in order to smooth things over with Rinoa.

There was a chiming noise from the ceiling's speaker. "We hope you've enjoyed your trip on the Express Line Number Eleven," came a voice over the intercom. "We've reached our destination of Deling City; all passengers may now disembark." The speaker chimed again and then clicked as the system turned off.

"We're gonna find Seifer, ya know," Raijin muttered, not really directing his comment towards anyone in particular. Despite his earlier confidence, he seemed less certain now that they'd arrived.

Fujin's spirit seemed undaunted, however, as she walked over to the door and activated the opening sequence. "DEPART," she commanded.

Squall nodded and followed her out, Raijin mere steps behind him. Once off the train, they found a set of escalators leading up to the city proper and Squall found himself a bit awed by Deling's architecture. Balamb looked more like a giant city composed of only suburbs; there were no tall buildings or impressive constructions. Deling, however, was comprised of ornate complexes; a gate building just visible in the distance appeared to be bordering on Gothic architecture, though it was a bit hard to tell from so far away.

"IMPRESSIVE," Fujin observed, giving Squall a significant look.

"I guess," he shrugged. "Where's the palace?"

"Behind the Gate," Raijin responded, adding with a grin, "we've been here before, ya know?"

"Are either of you junctioned?" Squall asked, mentally checking his own GF, Shiva, as he asked. Shiva's reassuring presence likely wouldn't last. GFs affiliated with Garden could be recalled from the field when necessary. But, so long as she didn't leave him until after they'd rescued Seifer, Squall didn't mind that he'd eventually lose her. She was a good companion, but ultimately a crutch he used to improve his already impressive skills in battle. There were other ways for people to use magic in battle, which he intended to look into once he finally lost Shiva.

"NEGATIVE," Fujin immediately responded.

"Nah, we're not SeeD hopefuls, ya know? Cadets not planning on making SeeD don't train with GFs, ya know?"

Squall nodded. "I still have Shiva, but they'll recall her from me once Quistis reports I've gone AWOL. We should do this fast."

"AFFIRMATIVE!"

The trio set off towards the palace and Squall was grateful for the waning daylight. It was only 6:30, but nightfall was approaching fast. The dark would make their infiltration of the palace easier.

He had to wonder, though, if Seifer really would be in the palace. Fujin and Raijin were convinced Seifer wasn't dead and Squall had to admit, at least to himself, that there was a strange sensation deep in his chest that made him feel that they were right. The idea that Seifer might be dead had made his chest contract painfully earlier, his thoughts running in circles in an attempt to find something else to fixate on. Now the feelings within him were no longer suffocating, but still intense. Seifer was alive – Squall was certain of this. Yet Squall was afraid of what they'd find inside that palace... assuming Seifer was even there.

Seifer was a criminal, after all. He might have been taken to the Galbadian super-max prison, D-District. The place was reputed to be inescapable and Squall didn't relish the idea of trying to save him from it.

They passed under the Gate without incident and wandered around the edges of the palace grounds. During the day the palace was open to visitors who would be guided through a limited tour, but closing time was fast approaching. Without speaking aloud, the trio agreed that going through the front doors were definitely out and they edged around to the back of the building. With all the grace and stealth that came from being trained by Garden, they managed to avoid the guards and arrive at their destination unchallenged.

Conveniently enough, there were packing crates arranged in such a way that they could use them to reach a fire escape ladder, which they could then climb to the second floor balcony and sneak inside. Using hand signals, they decided on the order in which they'd go up – Squall would lead, followed by Fujin, and Raijin would take the rear – and then scurried up onto the building.

There was a clang in the distance as the palace closed off the entrances for the night, but otherwise no sounds could be heard as they made their way into the room connected to the balcony. Shutting the door silently behind them, Squall surveyed the room critically.

There were drapes adorning all the walls, obscuring the doors as well as the windows. Only the overly ornate double doors leading out to the balcony were visible. Except for a large, decorative, throne-like chair in the center of the room, there was no furniture.

"This is surreal, ya know?" Raijin muttered, looking a little freaked out.

Squall nodded. There was something about the room that made his skin prickle uncomfortably. "We should hurry."

"Affirmative," Fujin whispered, rubbing her arms as though she were cold.

Hurriedly checking the walls, they searched for the exit that would lead into the rest of the palace. Fujin was the one who found the door and she quickly got the others' attention, motioning them over to join her. The door clicked open softly; Squall was relieved that it was unlocked. Things were going smoothly.

Probably too smoothly, but Squall didn't want to think pessimistically. The mission was to save Seifer. They'd succeed. There was no other acceptable outcome.

Chapter Text

 

At first, Donna thought she'd missed out again. Everyone was talking about Daleks swarming everywhere and how the planet itself had been moved. The whole of the world had thought the end had come and all of London was upset they couldn't excuse it as being the yearly Christmas oddity.

Except, at night, Donna would dream of things – snatches of conversation, brief glimpses of impossible creatures – that made her wake up with a heavy sense of loneliness weighing on her mind and a hollow feeling in her chest where her heart was. The first few weeks she'd awoken to the feeling of tears running down her cheeks and staining her pillows, but the crying had long since ended.

Going back to temp work after having been away – her mother said she'd been sick, but Donna's memories were a little fuzzy on the subject – made Donna feel like she'd settled into somebody else's life. She didn't feel like she was too good to be a temp, no matter what her mother thought, she just... felt like she was supposed to be somewhere else doing something more. There had to be more to life than temping.

The worried looks from Sylvia and Wilf grew worse and worse, but Donna didn't know how to reassure them. She wasn't even certain what was wrong. Though, Donna did know that something was wrong. There had to be something wrong to make her feel this way.

Donna knew that there was something missing inside her. It was like there was a hole in her heart where someone as close as family (if not closer) was meant to be. She'd always been an only child, but Donna felt like she'd lost a brother... or maybe just herself.

So when her mum encouraged her to go traveling – which should have felt out of character for Sylvia, yet somehow didn't – Donna jumped on the chance. She stuck to the British Isles and had fun touring Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Though in Cardiff, Donna saw SUVs with the logo 'TORCHWOOD' on them and a handsome man in a WWII vintage coat. He didn't see Donna, but he'd seemed familiar to her. She didn't stay, too afraid that she was simply imagining the familiarity with the handsome stranger to meet him and risk the feeling being nothing more than a need to expand her horizons or something equally inane.

When she finally got back to London, Donna wasn't ready to return to Chiswick and her temping job. Instead, she played tourist; she visited Big Ben, the Palace, and various museums... and met him.


The thing about Lucy was that she'd always had really crappy aim. The Master had no idea how she'd managed to pull off shooting him in the heart (it probably helped that he had two), but fortunately her bit of luck with the gun had not carried over into her ability to throw.

Despite being mere meters from where the Master had been reforming, Lucy had chucked the vial full of the 'potions of death' only to watch it rebound off the side of the 'cauldron' and shatter on the floor. It was her only vial full of the 'potions of death.' The Master's laughter after that point had become more about mocking her than about his most recent triumph over death. (Or the stupidity of the cult that had willingly sacrificed themselves to bring him back. Honestly, they ought to have valued their own lives more than that, but if they were simply going to waste all that perfectly good energy then it should go to a good cause. The Master had no idea what Lucy was so upset over. He was practically recycling.)

When he'd finally been able to step down onto the ground – fully corporeal and one-hundred percent Time Lord once more – the Master had completely ignored his nakedness in front of his two enemies: Lucy and her lackey. The lackey was easily hypnotized (and more than a little too interested in the Master's dangly bits for the Master to feel comfortable reading her thoughts), but Lucy wasn't. That was part of why the Master had chosen her to be his companion, after all. She was smarter than most people gave her credit for and hypnotism didn't work on her. Of course, being the daughter of Lord Cole and thus having lots of money and connections had been helpful to the Master as well, but that was more of a bonus than anything else.

Lucy was defiant and angry, but no match for the Master. Being shot through the heart hurt, after all, and it tended to leave the recipient of the bullet with a grudge for the shooter. In this case, the Master wanted Lucy to know what if felt like to have her heart pierced with a bullet. So her lackey, who had been hypnotized into being his lackey, shot Lucy on command. Then the lackey shot herself as well.

As the only living being in the room, the Master had been very pleased by the turn of events. He was alive with all his regenerations intact, the Doctor was nowhere in sight, and revenge was every bit as sweet against Lucy as it had been against Chantho.

After appropriating some halfway decent clothing (not nearly as nice as the tailored suits he'd worn when he'd gone by the alias Harold Saxon) and enough money to purchase something better, the Master headed out into the world. One shopping trip later and he was wearing clothes closer to what he preferred in this incarnation.

That was when he ran into her.

At first, the Master hadn't thought she was anything special. Her hair was a lovely shade of ginger and she was attractive as far as humans went, but she seemed like an average nobody. He'd thought she'd fade into the background, forgotten, as soon as he lost sight of her. The only problem was that she seemed to be going everywhere he was going.

She stopped in the same cafe as him for lunch. She wandered through the same tourist traps as him (the Master only went because the best sunglasses were for sell there and it was surprising how good of a disguise a pair of sunglasses could be). The longer the Master was around her, the more he noticed her. Or, more to the point, the more he noticed the energy coiled within her.

Artron energy buzzed inside her. There was too much present for her to be a mere time traveler, but she wasn't a Time Lord either. The Master could sense that she wasn't suffering from a poorly done chameleon arch imprint. There had to be some other explanation. Unfortunately, the Master doubted he could just walk up and ask her about it.

That much energy would drive a human who was conscious of it insane... or cause their head to explode. Since the woman was clearly alive and not a babbling lunatic, the odds that she could remember what caused the artron energy to build up inside her were practically nonexistent. But the Master's curiosity had latched on to this woman. She was special somehow and he didn't know why.

The Master couldn't just make her remember, either. Sure, he'd get his answers, but what if she was special enough to be worth keeping around? If she remembered and was interesting, but died, then he'd have wasted a chance to use her to one-up the Doctor.

In the end, the Master introduced himself to her as Koschei Masters and spent the rest of the day playing 'tourist' with Donna Noble. He got her phone number, simply by being his usual, charming self – no hypnotism necessary – and passed himself off as being from a small town called Gallifrey and told her that he'd come to London for his ex-wife's funeral, which had been in the morning.

Donna was, of course, very sympathetic over his loss.

"I honestly don't know how I feel about Lucy being dead," the Master admitted after a moment. "I loved her when I married her, but we grew apart and... she kind of went nuts. I tried to help her, but I knew it was over when she picked up a gun and shot at me." He had tried to help Lucy, after all. She couldn't handle all the death and destruction during the year that never was. She'd stopped sleeping well, had violent nightmares when she did manage to sleep, and didn't respond well to the therapists that he'd brought in for her. His methods of cheering her up didn't seem to do anything positive for her after a while and he finally gave up on making her smile again.

Despite popular opinion, the dark rings around Lucy's eyes in those last days of that non-existent year had been present because the only sleep she'd been getting was the drugged kind; the Master might be a bit of a sociopath, a major megalomaniac, and a mass-murderer, but he drew the line at wife-beating. There were some depths to which the Master refused to sink. He probably should have had her committed but, being on the crazy side himself, the Master had still felt connected to her. So he'd kept her around. Then she went and betrayed him by rooting for the enemy and killing him the first chance she had.

Bitch...

"I'm sorry. We've only just met and here I am pouring out my troubles on you," the Master added, looking away in well-faked guilt.

"Sometimes we just need someone who'll listen," Donna responded with a smile. "I don't mind listening. It can't have been easy, watching the person you love go mad."

"This is a depressing conversation now," the Master said, letting his voice hit a pitch that sounded like he was trying to cover up how he really felt by forcing a happy tone. "I've got to check into my hotel, but... would you mind meeting with me for dinner?"

"Really?" Donna blushed.

"Today started off being all about death. You made me smile and enjoy myself, Donna." The Master meant that part, though. The day had begun with a lot of death. Donna was bossy and a bit rude, but she was fun. She had made him smile – genuinely smile – several times during the few hours they'd been together. If anything, his determination to discover the answers to the mystery she presented was stronger than ever.

It was horribly Doctor-ish of him, but the Master wanted to save this woman.

Well, it wasn't like he had to be evil twenty-four/seven, was it? Besides, unless he forced a regeneration (and the Master loathed that idea with both his hearts – regeneration was always a painful, tricky process) he couldn't exactly go about conquering the planet until enough time had passed since Harold Saxon's brief, but infamous, stint as Prime Minister. Too many people would recognize his face if he were to try again now.

Thus, saving Donna would give him something to do while he bided his time until a plausible scheme presented itself.

"Give me a call around seven, then," Donna told him.

The Master only just managed to smile instead of smirk.


At six-fifty, the Master called Donna's mobile from a payphone not far from the restaurant he wanted to meet her at.

"Donna Noble," she answered brightly.

"Donna, it's Koschei." He used a tone of voice that made him like he was trying to mask being upset.

"Koschei!" Donna chirped happily, then registering the way he'd sounded. "You okay?"

"There were some problems at the hotel I was booked at," the Master lied. "It's nothing."

"What kind of problems?" Donna demanded.

 

Chapter Text

 

James ran a hand through his messy hair and let out a sigh of relief as the train began to move. It wasn't exactly that he was happy to be leaving his parents behind. He knew that he'd be suffering from homesickness soon enough. What relieved him was that the coddling was over. James knew that he'd been his parents' "miracle" child; they'd told him enough times how long they'd tried to have a baby and what a blessing it was to have him.

An only child, James knew he was spoiled; he doubted that there were many other children who need only mention liking something for it to be acquired for them. Possessing dozens upon dozens of things that he didn't really need or want, James was rather glad to get away from that. He wanted to know how life would be away from home; he wanted to learn to fend for himself.

Pulling open the nearest compartment, James found himself staring in shock at a small boy with long hair that fell around his face in oily locks. There were bruises along his jaw line and his left eye was blackened. Defiance lit his dark eyes.

"What do you want?" the boy demanded.

James swallowed uncertainly. 'Well, I did want to see what life was going to be like,' he thought before speaking. "Do you mind if I sit with you?"

The boy stared at James for a long moment before shrugging. "Do as you will. I don't care."

"I'm James Potter," James offered after he sat down and shut the compartment door. There was no response from the boy, but by then James had already realized that he wouldn't be getting one. He pulled a book out of the carry on bag he'd brought with him and began to read.

As James began to read, he heard, "Snape. I'm Severus Snape." James looked up in surprise and smiled.

"Nice to meet you. Are you a first year like me?"

"Yes…" Snape answered gruffly.

"Maybe we'll be sorted into the same house," James said hopefully.

"We won't," was the harsh answer. "You'll be a Gryffindor; I can already tell. Potters always go to Gryffindor. I'll be in Slytherin and you'll pretend you were never pleasant towards me because Gryffindors and Slytherins never get along."

"Well, if you're right about the sorting than you're wrong about the rest," James declared. "Conformity is overrated. All getting different houses means is that we have different personalities and priorities. They're not binding contracts deciding whether we're good and evil."

"Some people might disagree," Snape objected.

Shrugging, James marked the page and closed his book. "There's always someone who disagrees. The world would fall apart otherwise."

Snape snickered. "I suppose it just might."

"What do you think the sorting ceremony will be like?"

"My mother said that it's supposed to be a surprise," Snape shrugged. "I think we'll be questioned by the professors so they can see which house we fit into."

"Sort of like a personality quiz?" James nodded, "that makes sense. Your idea sounds better than anything I've been able to think of, anyway."

"What did you think of?"

"At first I thought it had to be some sort of spell, except then I realized that not everyone will know how to do any magic yet so why would the professors expect that? That idea got crossed off the list pretty fast."

"List?"

"I get bored easily," James waved his hand dismissively. "Someone mentioned wrestling trolls to me, but they're always trying to scare me." At Snape's curious gaze, James elaborated. "My uncle likes to play practical jokes, especially on me."

"Oh…" Snape looked like he wanted to add something, but the compartment door burst open.

The new comer was another dark haired boy. This one had deep blue eyes and a mischievous smirk. "Any room left for another?"

"Go away, Black," Snape snarled, his dark eyes narrowing.

"I wasn't asking you…" Black began, but James cut him off.

"Snape was here first, so if anyone has say about who sits here, it's him," James declared. Part of him wanted to tell Black to stay; he wanted to talk with someone who didn't look so dirty and… misused. He didn't want to be alone with a reminder that the entire world really was as different as he had imagined and more. That part, however, was quickly and brutally squashed.

"Snape isn't the sort of person you should be affiliating yourself with," Black asserted.

James raised an eyebrow and tightened his grip on his book. "We've never met before, so you really shouldn't assume."

"I recognize you, though. James of the distinctively featured Potter house."

"And you're Sirius of the notorious Black family." James stood imperiously and, startling Black, James slammed the compartment door shut in his face. "Git."

On the other side of the door window, Sirius Black could be seen standing there with his mouth open in shock. Inside the compartment, Snape could be seen doing the same thing. "What…?"

"He was being rude to you." James settled back into the spot he'd been sitting on earlier and smiled at Snape. "Maybe next time he'll think twice before acting like that towards you."

Snape's eyes seemed to brighten a little as he drawled mockingly, "my hero."

"Don't… don't say things like that." James sighed and picked up his book again. "I'm just a spoiled brat pretending to be all noble."

"If you say so." Snape turned his gaze to the window and stared at the passing countryside.

Chapter Text

Prologue

The official incident report states that two fairies on patrol above ground noted a house on fire.  No human assistance had arrived yet, so the officers went to investigate.  Two adult humans were discovered upstairs, badly burned and already dead.  They were protecting, however, a human child.  A young girl, also badly burned.  The officers removed the child and healed her wounds.  Then they mesmered her so that she'd remember her parents rescuing her by tossing her out the window.  She was left, presumably unconscious, a safe distance from the fire and observed by the patrol until humans arrived to put out the fire some ten minutes later.  It was an unremarkable report - they weren't supposed to interfere in human affairs, but saving lives was a general exception, so long as the incident was easily contained and all humans mesmered afterwards.

It was filed and forgotten.  Well, filed and forgotten by the LEP anyway.

The girl, however, did not forget.

She remembered the smoke and the fire and her parents running to save her.  But the window wouldn't open and the flames were too close and then the whole family was screaming.

She remembered that the fairies didn't open the window until after her parents died.  Even though their magic could have saved them all, they only chose her.  They could have healed her parents.

She knew it.

They could have come sooner, but they waited outside the window.

She's certain of it.

The house shouldn't have gone up in flames like that.  Investigators blamed her parents, claimed a candle knocked over in the living room had been the start of the blaze.  But no one had lit a candle that day.

She would have noticed that.

The fairies were to blame.

And she remembered that they tried to take her memories, tried to rewrite history, tried to erase the evidence of their crimes...

Melinda Gail would never forget... not would she forgive.

Chapter 1

Nineteen years of age, Artemis Fowl was not quite like his peers.  For one thing, he ran the family business... and had been running it on and off since he was approximately ten years old.  He'd started off as a criminal mastermind, slowly taking the family business from illegitimate to legal until every one of their enterprises left were entirely aboveboard.  He was sixteen by the time he managed that achievement and he'd 'retired', so to speak, in order to attend university in order to get the social and networking experience that his peers valued so greatly.

He might not have stuck it out, though, finding the university life to be dull and boring and all too full of drinking alcohol... except, just as Artemis was thinking of finding a way to test out of every course he needed for his degree, he met Marissa Eckridge.  He noticed her intelligence first, a fierce genius to rival his own that made their shared courses suddenly bearable.  Her age was next; she was only a year older than him and thus one of the very few of his fellow students who was genuinely close to him in age.  It took him a few weeks to realize she was pretty.  A few more to recognize she was flirting.  He might not have noticed at all, except she'd kissed his cheek goodnight one evening and a few things he'd been wondering about suddenly snapped into focus.

They'd eventually started dating and now, well, they were both hinting at the idea that getting engaged in the near future would be very nice, wouldn't it?

Artemis was fairly confident that once he had the right ring, she'd say yes when he asked.  Well... she'd probably say yes if he had no ring at all.  But having one is traditional, one of the few traditions Artemis didn't mind sticking to.

And, with Marissa gone for the week to visit with her parents in London, now would be the perfect time to find a ring that suited her.  Artemis wasn't about to let anything get in the way of his quest.

Gloves and car keys in hand, Artemis was about to open the front door when the doorbell rang.

He froze.  Maybe they'd go away.

The doorbell rang again and Artemis frowned, taking a step back.  If the security station had let someone through, they should have signaled Butler who would've immediately told Artemis.  He glanced over his shoulder.  Where was Butler, anyway.  They were supposed to meet at the car...

The third ring of the bell had Artemis going for the gun stashed under the hallway table.  He didn't like using guns himself, but better armed than risk facing trouble alone.  He peered out the peep hole, but there was no one he could see.  And Artemis waited several long moments, pressed against the door, but there was no fourth attempt to ring the doorbell.

Right.  Well, he certainly wasn't headed out there alone.  Artemis turned and headed towards the security station.  He'd review the tapes himself, if he had to, and find out just what was going on and where Butler had gotten to.  With any luck, he was over reacting.

 


"I did warn you he wouldn't answer," Commander Short told the LEP negotiator Lynn Ferris, a touch peeved to have had her experiences with Artemis Fowl simply disregarded by the officious bureaucrat.  She glanced over her shoulder where Butler slept against the side of the car.

Putting Artemis on the alert like this was just begging for trouble.  If she didn't know better, Holly might have thought Ferris wanted to push Artemis into Gail's arms.  But, she did know better; Ferris was just the sort of twit who assumed she always knew better than everyone else.

Fortunately, Holly had an ace in the hole, so to speak.  Confiscated from Mulch Diggums some years earlier, it was a disc made by Artemis himself to help recover his mesmered memories.  It had been a pretty good gambit, all things considered, but Mulch had been a weak link.  He'd been caught seven months after receiving the disc trying to sneak back into the Fowl family manor with the disc, not realizing that the LEP still had Fowl under surveillance, just in case.  The disc had gone into the evidence lockup and been largely forgotten, until Holly had learned about the LEP's plan to utilize Artemis Fowl against the rising threat that the human Melinda Gail posed.

If anything could trigger Artemis' memories, it would be this disc.  And, hopefully, Artemis wouldn't be so upset with Ferris' tactics that he'd ignore what Holly had to offer him.

"Fine," Ferris snapped.  "You'll just have to go in and fetch him for me then.  You should still be fine to enter this residence, correct?"

Holly wanted to roll her eyes.  "I should be, yes."  She walked over to Butler and took his keys, then headed back to the manor door, letting herself in.

Artemis was no where in sight.  Holly shut the door, placed the disc on a nearby table, and then settled onto a bench by the door.  She didn't have to wait long.

The boy wonder... no, not a boy any more.  The young genius arrived in the hall, gun trained on Holly, eyes narrowed speculatively.  "What did you do to my bodyguard?" he demanded.

"He's just asleep.  I promise you, no harm will come to him."  Holly gestured to where she'd left the disc.  "That should explain who I am and why you should, if not trust me, then at least give me the benefit of the doubt.  I'm unarmed," she added.  It was even true.

Careful to keep the gun pointed at Holly, Artemis retrieved the disc.  He glanced at it, speculatively, before tucking it away in a pocket.  "Who are you?  You seem..." Artemis paused, hesitantly.  "You seem familiar."

"I'm Commander Holly Short.  And I should seem familiar.  We've met before, a long time ago.  You kidnapped me and ransomed gold for my return from the LEP.  You just don't remember, because we made you forget."

"How'd you manage a thing like that?"

Holly smiled and clicked her fingers, sparks rising from her hand.  "Magic, of course."

 

Chapter Text

It was weird being back on Nar Shadaa.  It'd only been a year since his last visit but it felt like ages ago.  Like the moment he'd knelt in the refugee camp and let Marnie show him the beauty of the Force around them had been an entirely different lifetime.

Maybe it had been.  Maybe this was Atton's third life.  Or fourth, rather.  First he'd been Jaq the Republic pilot, then Jaq the Sith interrogator, then Atton the nobody scoundral, and now... Atton Rand, Jedi Padawan.

He still didn't know what to make of it.  Of all the people in the galaxy who'd deserved a second chance at a good life, Atton was one of the ones who'd deserved it least.  But here he was, wearing a lightsaber at his side.  And while they were only teacher and student now, Marnie had promised him a date once he became a Knight in his own right.  Which, apparently, could be any time now.  There was something the Force was waiting for, some trial they could both feel was awaiting him.

So here they were back on Nar Shadaa.

Atton could feel the Force tugging him along, hurrying his steps deeper into the city towards the refugee market.  Rain that sizzled a bit from the acidic run off that tainted most of the planet's water chivied him along too and he sprinted the last few yards to get into the old office complex where the market was held.

The feeling of urgency dropped off some and Atton meandered to the market area, catching up with a few refugees he recognized, spending a few credits here and there, and picking up the latest gossip.  Unsurprisingly, the Exchange had set back up in its old offices.  Atton, Marnie, and Bao-Dur had cleared them out the year previously, but it was hard to keep a nefarious criminal organization down.  And, naturally, the Exchange was up to its old tricks, putting refugees into unmanageable debt and then claiming family members for slaves as restitution.  Apparently a number of children had been taken as payment for real, and imagined, debts and a number of refugees were, understandably, freaking out because they couldn't afford to pay to buy back their loved ones and they lacked the resources to fight back.

This, Atton supposed, was the sort of situation where a Jedi might come in handy.

He reached for his comlink, then hesitated.  This... this was what the Force had been leading him towards.  His trial.

Bao-Dur's trial had happened during the raid on the Sith Temple on Dxun.  It had been pretty inspiring to feel the way the Force had shifted around the Zabrak, the certainty with which he'd pushed back against and even quieted the darkness.  Afterwards, Bao-Dur had been Knighted.  The first of Marnie's many padawans to receive the honor.  Visas had been next, aboard the Ravager as she confronted whatever it was her former Master, Darth Nihilus, had become.

The rest of them, however, were still waiting for something.

Mical was currently studying the Jedi Master Bastila Shan and Mira had, for some unfathomable reason, chosen to study under an infuriatingly bizarre old Jedi by the name of Jolee Bindo.  Brianna had chosen to spend time with Bao-Dur, learning to better calm and center herself.  Atton was the only one to remain with Marnia after their visit to Coruscant.  He'd been just this side of truly being a Knight in his own right since his fight with Darth Sion.

Now it seemed he was to find out what he'd been waiting for.


Atton slunk along in the shadows, head down, lightsaber hidden but in easy reach.  He looked like any other dirty refugee headed into the Exchange to pay a few debts... or maybe rack up a few instead.  The Gamoreans let him pass, no questions asked and no need for Jedi mind tricks.  He reached out with his senses, feeling along through the Force for a few scared kids.  They'd probably be loud with their terror, so where...

Ah.  There.  Atton slid off to the side and mimed like he was lighting up a joint.  He didn't know what was popular these days street wise, but there was always something that could be smoked so he figured faking that was easiest.  As he'd hoped, the Gamorreans laughed it up and called him a few words he didn't recognize but probably translated to something along the lines of 'crack head'.  But they also left him alone as the wandered ahead to finish their rounds.  Which meant that Atton had a few minutes until the next patrol came by.

He found the door to the room where the kids were being kept easily enough.  It was, unsurprisingly, locked.  It was also very easily opened with a good shove with the Force.  He hurried in and grimaced at the sight of six children, ages anywhere from four years to fourteen, and each a different species entirely, cowering together in the corner.

"Hey kiddos," Atton greeted, "your parents sent me to rescue you."  He pulled out his lightsaber and lit it up.  The kids pretty much uniformly lit up with hope.  "Okay, first, lets get those chains broken."  The lightsaber cut through those cleanly enough.  He started pairing the kids together, eldest with the youngest and so forth, then cut a big hole in the back of the room which led out onto the street.  He handed off his comlink to the eldest kid, a little orange Twi'lek girl, and told her to have Marnie come take them back home.

"What about you?" the girl asked softly.

"I've got a few things left to do," he replied.  "I'll see you soon."

She opened her mouth as if to say something, then snapped it shut and nodded, holding the four-year-old's hand tightly as she led the way out into the alleyway.

Atton turned his attention back to the hallway.  He let the next Gamorrean patrol pass the room by and slipped back out into the hall.  He headed to the main control area where the latest Exchange Boss had set up shop.  It was easy enough to get inside.  Easier still to wipe out the droid guards with a little carefully utilized Force lightning.  It was a power that was all too easily misused, but came easily to Atton... probably due to his less than stellar past.  Still, as long as he used it to knock out the droids and not as a way of torturing someone, he was fine.  Good enough, anyway.

"So, those kids you kidnapped yesterday are free.  How many other slaves you got hidden away here?"  Atton stabbed the first idiot to attack him in the thigh and sheered through his vibroblade.  Honestly, who fought a Jedi with a blade that didn't have cortosis ore weaved into it?  "Slavery, as you seem to have forgotten, is illegal in the Republic and Nar Shadaa, though Hutt controlled, still pays lip service to being a Republic world.  Or moon, whatever."  Atton deflected a few blaster bolts, mock yawned, and added, "you know, I used to be a Sith."

The room suddenly went very still and very quiet.

"The Jedi are kinda desperate these days, you know.  Willing to take all types.  Like me.  Very repentant former Sith.  But sometimes I still just get so angry.  Like when the Exchange thinks it can enslave children for profit."  He smiled his best terrifyingly not nice smile.  "I'm sure my master would understand if I had a bit of a relapse and slaughtered everyone in this room.  It's understandable that a person doesn't stop being all angry and Sith-like in a few days... right?"

The Exchange boss was quite eager to do whatever the hell Atton wanted after that little speech.


 

There were a few other slaves in the refugee center's Exchange station and Atton kept of the blithely menacing former Sith act a while longer.  Well... it wasn't a total act.  Atton hated slavers.  Made his blood boil with rage.  But in Atton's experience, acting in anger had never done anything but make his life worse.  Also, they'd tried killing off the Exchange here once before.  Big sweeping gestures hadn't really helped anyone overly much, it seemed.  So this time, smaller acts.

Sometimes small acts had greater impact than larger ones and a well meant kindness did more damage than a shrewdly designed plan.  Perhaps one of the few lessons Kreia had to teach that was worth learning.  This time they were going to ensure the refugees were genuinely empowered and capable of taking care of themselves before putting Nar Shadaa in their rear sensors.

But first, to check in on Marnie and the kids.

Atton found them back in the refugee market area.  He stood off to the side as one of the children was reclaimed by a grateful parent.  He didn't really feel up to praise and gratitude at the moment, but the orange twi'lek girl saw him and brightened, waving to him excitedly.

Sighing to himself, Atton sauntered over and ignored Marnie's smirk.  "Hey kiddo.  You know, I don't think we had a chance to exchange names earlier.  I'm Atton Rand.  You?"

"Amarna," she replied.  "Thank you so much for rescuing me Mr. Rand," she added.  "I... I know what happens to twi'lek girls in slavery.  Mama always made sure I'd know why it was extra important to keep safe.  But she's... well.  When they came down yesterday, they saw I was alone and just took me."

Her parents are dead, Marnie filled in via the Force.  About two years ago, is what she told me earlier.  She's been staying with a relative - an aunt, but not really her aunt - well, we'll get into that more later.  She's Force sensitive.

"I'm glad your safe now," Atton told her.

"Do you think it'll ever be safe for girls like me?" she asked with a sudden, somber expression.

No.  He didn't.  But that wasn't the sort of thing you told a frightened little girl who just had an awful, traumatizing experience.  So instead Atton told her, "one day."


 

Amarna's aunt-who-wasn't-really-her-aunt was most definitely not the kid's aunt.  She was a Rodian with a name that had too many consonants in the wrong places for Atton to pronounce with any reliability.  She accepted the name Jace, however, and so that was what Atton and Marnie called her.

"I was a friend of the family," the Rodian told them, having sent Amarna off to her room to play or nap or whatever kept her out from underfoot while the adults talked.  "They died in a terrible accident.  Race went wrong and crashed into normal traffic, killed dozens.  Big tragedy and the racing officials paid off anyone who already had enough money to sue.  Amarna barely got anything from her parents once the local Hutt took his share of the inheritance in tax."  She stared at them shrewdly for a long moment.  "What do Jedi want with this girl?"

"She's Force sensitive.  I believe she has the potential to become a Jedi herself one day.  If you're willing, we would teach her... but she'd become a ward of the Jedi."  Marnie paused, adding mentally, I never went on Search before the Mandalorian War.  I have no clue what the proper protocol for this is.  If she agrees I'm going to have to send Bastila a message asking for help on getting guardianship transferred to the Order.

Atton managed not to react to Marnie's grumblings, particularly not the mention of Bastila Shan.  Knight Shan was a stuck up bitch as far as Atton was concerned.  Worse, she thought she was special because Revan was her reformed lover.  A reformed lover who'd abandoned her to go gallivanting off beyond the Outer Rim.  Though at least Atton had enough tact these days not to shove that in the young woman's face, even if she was an uppity twit who'd never have pulled the Order together without Marnie showing up to save her.

"Take her," Jace told them.  "Best life she can hope for with me is table dancer or pazaak player.  Maybe singer.  She wants other things; dreams about a life I can't provide.  At least with the Jedi even if she doesn't become a Knight, she'll be on a better planet than this with an education that might just make those dreams truth."

 

Chapter Text

 

The first thing he was aware of was the fact that his head hurt. It was as though there were thousands of people screaming in his mind, though he heard nothing. In fact, he was fairly certain that he was completely alone.

The Doctor was next aware of the fact that he lay face down on a catwalk he did not remember having in his TARDIS. He braced his hands against the hole-covered floor and levered himself onto his knees. Eyes blinking against the scratchy, dry feeling from having been asleep, the Doctor took stock of his newly altered TARDIS.

The walls were a soft tan that seemed to be covered in giant rivet marks. The floors were now some sort of catwalk and, judging from the lights and paneling that glowed from beneath, the systems that had once been found in the walls were now located below. The outer columns had morphed from steel beams into a series of brown coral-like creations that stretched towards the walls. The central control console and column now glowed green; the new additions of a readout screen and a telephone were outlined in the warm light.

Standing dizzily, the Doctor walked over to the readout screen and quickly brought up a screen detailing his location. The last thing he remembered was that Romana had been intent upon using the experimental gravity well to destroy the Dalek army. The entire Dalek fleet had shown up for the battle; the opportunity was too good to pass up.

Staring at the screen, the Doctor realized something else; all the Time Lords had been present as well. Ever since the destruction of Gallifrey, the Time Lords traveled together in clusters of ships. Now it seemed to have been their undoing. The gravity well device was far more powerful than they'd predicted.

According to the screen readout, the TARDIS, having been at the edge of the shockwave, had been shoved to safety while everything else had been destroyed in the creation of the black hole. The debris from Time Lord and Dalek ships alike whirled around the event horizon of the newly created singularity.

The Doctor felt sick as the silent screaming threatened to overwhelm him. He stumbled backwards into a chair that hadn't been there before and sat as he tried to mentally numb the pain. "This is my fault… if I hadn't suggested the technology… if I hadn't helped develop it…"

And then it sank in. His voice was different. The TARDIS wasn't the only thing that had changed; he'd regenerated into his ninth form.


The Doctor held out the sonic screwdriver and pointed it at the nearby buildings. He'd only just arrived at Earth, in the year 2005, and he was already being assaulted by strange occurrences. According to the TARDIS, someone was trying to turn plastic shop-window dummies into Autons using thought control. That could only mean one thing; the Nestenes were at it again.

Bleeping in a soft manner, the sonic screwdriver led the Doctor into a store named Henricks. It wasn't quite closing time yet, so he wandered inside and let one of the sales ladies find him a new outfit. He ended up with a mostly black outfit with a deep burgundy shirt; the dark colors felt appropriate and the leather jacket was fantastic. Unfortunately, the purchase ate up the last of his currency for the time period.

The store was almost closed by the time he'd changed into his new clothes in an abandoned room in the basement. The room was filled with old, unsold gift items, many of which were mechanical in nature. It was only then that the Doctor realized that he had no way of stopping the transmitter. Fortunately, there were more than enough supplies to remedy that problem...


The Doctor tripped over something on the way out of his hideaway and he nearly dropped his homemade (or was that store-made?) bomb. He managed to balance himself against the wall, sliding the explosive device into his pocket as he scanned the floor for whatever his feet had caught on.

It was as though his hearts had leapt into his throat. There was a dead body on the floor and, as impossible as he knew it was, he thought he saw one of his friends: a scientist, Jenaren, whom the Doctor had met during the war.

Closing his eyes and backing away, the Doctor almost didn't hear the noise from the other room over the sound of the screaming dead Time Lords. He stumbled to the door where the sound came from, anxious to leave behind the too recent past.

He pushed open the door and peeked inside. Several operational Autons were converging on something… or someone. The Doctor walked and, mostly hidden, made his way to the person that the dummies had surrounded.

She was blonde, young, pretty, and, most of all, frightened. The Doctor reached out and took her hand, ignoring the strange electrical shock that seemed to accompany the action. "Run!" he hissed, pulling her away with him.


 

"Well… that ninth form didn't last very long," the Doctor grumbled, staring out the window at the night sky.

"Did you say something?" Mickey asked from the couch where he was trying to sleep.

Standing on the opposite side of the room, the Doctor glanced back over his shoulder and shook his head. "Not anything of importance. Get some sleep, Mickey. After all the worrying I put you, Rose, and Jackie through, you've earned it."

"Yeah, well… I suppose after all the sleeping you did that you don't need any rest now, hmm?"

"Not really. My kind doesn't sleep that often anyway. At least… not by human standards." The Doctor paused and turned away to hide his wince.

"What are your people like, Doctor?" Mickey's tired voice slurred. The Doctor remained silent, hoping that the young man would fall asleep, but Mickey was persistent. "Doctor?"

"They were arrogant and condescending; most far more so than I am. Some, like Susan, my… relative, were nicer, though." He finally wandered over to a chair and sat somewhat stiffly. "Nevertheless, I miss them a lot. It's strange to be the last of the Time Lords; I don't like it much at all."

"You're the last," Mickey echoed, sitting up and staring with an expression that was almost pity.

"I'm the last," the Doctor repeated. "I suppose that's why I can't help but want Rose around. She stops me from feeling so alone. You could still come with us, you know. I invited you once before and I'm not in a habit of revoking such invitations without reason."

"I-I'll think about it," Mickey lay back down, but his eyes were wide.

"I shouldn't have mentioned the loss of my people," the Doctor sighed and stared at the floor. "Now you're probably going to stay up and be irritable tomorrow because you were busy thinking about all that now. Bet you wished you'd gone home now, huh?"

"Shut it, Doctor." A small smile crossed the young man's face. "You're not getting me to leave just so you can take the couch."

"Alas, you have spotted my dastardly plan," the Doctor smiled in the darkness and leaned back in his chair. "Get some sleep, Ricky."

"It's Mickey," the younger man grumbled, his eyes drifting closed as he fell asleep.

"You're not alone. We're still here…"

The Doctor started at the sound of the voice, looking around wildly. It couldn't be; she was dead. They were all dead…

"Susan?" he whispered.

The silence mocked him.


Adam stared at his face in the mirror and then clicked his fingers once and again.

Open.

Closed.

"That was a very stupid and foolish thing you did," his mother admonished from the doorway. "You were lucky that leaving you here with that… that… door in your forehead was the least the Doctor did. Albeit, I wish he'd let you get rid of that thing first, but really…" she trailed off and sighed. "I do love you, Adam. You didn't mean for this to happen…"

"I didn't," he echoed. His forehead looked fine now; Adam brushed his fingers over the spot where the chip opened and closed his skull. "It's just… I've had this chip for a year now. One whole year. I can't keep jobs; people click their fingers all the time or make noises that are close enough that the chip reacts. There have been so many close calls and today… today I had to quit again. I think someone may have seen.

"Haven't I been punished enough? Won't he come back and end this…?"

"The Doctor has a tendency to forget about people he doesn't like and he didn't much like you," a new voice interrupted.

Adam stood and rushed to the door, placing himself between his mother and the source of the voice; a lovely woman with eyes like a storm and short, pixie-cut blonde hair. She was about Adam's height and wearing a plain, purple tank top, faded jeans, and white socks and tennis shoes. A leather jacket was draped over her arm as she leaned against the door frame.

"I'm sorry; I ought to introduce myself better. I am Mrs. Campbell and I once traveled with the Doctor in one of his previous forms. As you know, Mr. Mitchell, the Doctor isn't quite human. In fact, he's almost completely alien."

"Almost…" Adam echoed, his eyes narrowing. "What do you mean, almost?"

"I mean that there are things happening right now, as in the conceptual 'now' and not the literal 'now', which the Doctor doesn't know about. I have to find him before things get messy, but I'm going to need your assistance." She paused and gave him a smile; "I'll get that chip in your head removed if you'll help. However, if you try to pull the same thing on me that you did on the Doctor, the deal is off."

"I don't know anything about you," Adam protested.

"That didn't stop you with believing Rose Tyler, now did it?" Mrs. Campbell shook her head sharply. "Never mind that. This is very urgent and it could give you a chance at a normal life. And, honestly, hiding yourself the way you are, can you call what you've been doing all year living? I'll bet you haven't been able to sleep well for the fear of being found out and dissected… dying slowly in a lab somewhere.

"I have a TARDIS of my own; if you're coming it has to be at this time. I won't be able to return to 2013 until my… mission is over."

"I…" Adam hesitated, looking over his shoulder at his mother.

"Don't go, Adam," she begged. Her eyes were full of fear and her expression reminded him of the horror he'd seen when he'd explained how he'd received the chip in his head. She'd been so disappointed in him for the way he'd abused the Doctor's trust; Adam just hadn't been able to bring himself to sugarcoat what he'd done.

"This is my chance to make you proud of me again," Adam finally said. Turning his attention back to Mrs. Campbell, he replied, "take me with you."

"Very well. My TARDIS is this way. Unlike the Doctor's TARDIS, mine still has the ability to use the Chameleon Circuit…"


Jack stared at the spot where the TARDIS had been for quite a long time. He knew, rationally, that the Doctor had probably thought that he was dead. The Doctor knew hundreds of people who were now dead and had watched many of them die; Jack assumed that the Doctor hadn't checked him specifically because the Time Lord hadn't wanted to see another friend dead.

It still hurt to see nothing where the blue box had been moments before.

"Was I dead?" he asked aloud, forcibly turning his attention away from the fact that he'd just been marooned.

The evidence did seem to point in that general direction. Jack remembered being hit by the Dalek's laser followed by a brief sensation of flying accompanied by a feeling of extreme pain. Yet… if he'd died, why was he still alive? The Daleks were gone and, in their place, dust littered the floor. But the mutants had to have made it past Jack; another reason to believe he'd died.

"Okay… I died. And then someone resurrected me just in time to see the TARDIS go away. This doesn't make any sense what-so-ever." Walking over to the chairs in front of the Game Station's main console, Jack seated himself and stared at the screen readout.

The Delta wave had built up, but it hadn't been used. The screens were tuned to examine the wave and a detonator for the dangerous Delta wave was clearly visible.

"Next question: how were the Daleks really destroyed? The Delta wave wasn't used and I've never heard of any power capable of turning Daleks to dust. If there was one, why didn't the Doctor use it sooner?"

Nothing answered him except for the unhelpful whirs of machinery.


"So, when are we going off on our next adventure?" Rose asked, staring contemplatively at the cereal her mother had just placed in front of her. "Oi, Mum, the milks gone sour."

"What?" Jackie started sleepily with her eyes half closed.

"Not quite awake yet, hmm?" the Doctor teased with a grin while looking over the tops of his glasses. "I wouldn't drink that glass of milk you just poured; it isn't good anymore."

"Oh… and I just bought this a few days ago; the label says it still has a few more to go," Jackie frowned at the offending jug of milk before proceeding to pour it all out into the sink. "What a waste…"

Mickey stuck his head in the doorway. "I'm back."

"You didn't miss much," Rose promised, pushing away her ruined cereal. "Breakfast was a bust."

"But the tea is fine if you use the artificial creamer," the Doctor added, pushing the glasses he wore back in place and returning his attention to the newspaper he was holding. "Looks like there's going to be a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Harriet Jones."

"Serves her right," Rose groused. "Like you said, Doctor, they were leaving and they weren't coming back."

"Yeah, well…" the Doctor shrugged. "So, Mickey, what was so urgent for you to take care of that you had to rush off at six in the morning?"

"I had to pack. I… I'm going with you and Rose." All eyes turned to Mickey and he grinned. "You did say I could come," he added.

"So I did and so you shall," the Doctor folded up the newspaper and tossed it aside as he spoke.

"Oh, so now you're taking him too," Jackie slumped into a free chair, a scowl on her face.

"I don't 'take' people, Jackie. I give them a choice to come with me." He pulled off his glasses and stowed them away in a pocket. "You could come too."

"No," Jackie snapped sharply. "I'm not going to go rushing off into trouble. Go on your mad adventures if you want, but I'm staying here."

"Yes, because it's so safe in the here and now," Rose drawled. "We don't go rushing off into trouble, anyway. It just finds us, you know?"

"I know…" Jackie sighed softly, "I don't want you getting hurt, sweetheart."

"The Doctor always manages to protect me," Rose quipped with a smile. "Don't worry so much." She reached out and caught her mother's hand in her own. "I'll always come home to you, Mum."

Getting up from the table, the Doctor tried to quell the emotions that began to rise to the surface. For the most part, he succeeded, but not before Mickey saw the loneliness and envy that flashed in the Time Lord's eyes. He didn't have this any more…

"You're not alone, Doctor," Mickey muttered softly.

"I… thanks…"


"Are you awake now?"

Struggling against the heavy feeling that weighed down his eyelids, he tried to open his eyes to see who addressed him.

"Don't bother to answer; I can sense that you are not fully recovered from the procedure yet." The voice was unfamiliar and quite harsh sounding. "I am known as Nimrod and I am your rescuer. The trouble I went through to collect you from that abomination your race created had best be worth the trouble. You owe me a great deal."

"I… I am the Master," he managed to gasp out, his eyes opening slowly. "I owe no one."

"You are the Master no longer; you haven't been so since your original body died. Ever since then you've been playing at being what you once were in the bodies of others." Nimrod smirked, the expression threatening on his face. Nimrod was a tall man with a bald head and calculating blue eyes. "Your previous… host… died in the singularity that all of your races' ships were once connected to, but not before I retrieved your consciousness and placed it in this body, a once mindless clone."

"A clone of whom?" the Master demanded, struggling to sit up.

"It seems you are recovering faster than I anticipated," Nimrod leaned over and revealed a syringe, which he expertly injected the Master with. "I shall have to continue this later."

The Master's vision began to grow fuzzy and he lay back on what he now realized was a cot. The room was a sterile white that blurred together with the labcoat Nimrod wore. The last thing the Master saw before he fell unconscious again were the deep blue eyes of his captor staring at him with inexplicable malice.


The TARDIS that Mrs. Campbell led Adam to seemed sterile inside. The walls were ivory with small doors that most likely concealed machinery vital to the ship's functions. The center dais lacked the column that the Doctor's TARDIS had possessed and there were no support beams. Anything that wasn't the same shade as the walls were varying hues of gray. The temperature was low, too, giving Adam the distinct feeling that he'd walked inside an ice cube.

Wrapping his arms around himself, he turned to Mrs. Campbell. "So, um, what exactly do you need me for, anyway?"

"I'm not certain, to be honest. The Time Lords have the ability to automatically know generic information about the time line. Great battles and who won them or the names of people who impact history, for example. I, however, am not a pure Time Lord. My gifts are to know who is needed and where, though these capabilities did not surface until I had experienced my first regeneration."

"Regeneration?" Adam queried.

"When a Time Lord or Lady dies, so long as the body is intact, he or she regenerates. Every cell in my body recreated itself when I regenerated. My genetic code changed and I became someone with the same memory, soul, and purpose but with a new appearance and a slightly changed set of tastes."

"You really are an alien, aren't you?"

Mrs. Campbell laughed. "That I am, human child. You have a destiny about you and all I know is that it must be fulfilled."

"So how am I supposed to fulfill this 'destiny'?" Adam glanced about, searching for a place to sit. He remembered that there had been a chair in the Doctor's control room, but there was nothing in Mrs. Campbell's.

"We're supposed to go somewhere and somewhen. First, however, there are others I must find." A smile appeared, ever so faintly, on her face. "I won't know who I'm looking for until I find them. I didn't know I'd need you until I arrived on your street."

"I don't recall the Doctor having that sort of capability."

"The Doctor is pure Time Lord. I'm a fourth human. My Grandfather was a human known only as the Other. Please, ask no more questions," she strode to the central console and began to input commands. "I must concentrate on flying the TARDIS. I am not as adept at commanding this vessel as he is with his."

"As you wish." Adam fixed his gaze on the second set of doors, which presumably led to the rest of the TARDIS. "I'll just go find something to amuse myself with."


The Doctor had tossed his outer jacket through the openings on one of the columns in the control room, giving Rose and Mickey a bright smile as they hurried inside. He's already started the TARDIS and, now that they'd closed the doors, the TARDIS began to activate. The loud revving sounds indicating to her passengers that they were entering the time vortex.

"Where are we going?" Rose asked as she dumped her backpack and jacket near the door.

"Farther than we've ever gone before," he teased. "You saw the world blow up five billion years in your future; now it's time to see what happens next: the colony of New Earth."

"You two saw the Earth explode?" Mickey asked, dropping his bag next to Rose's.

"Yup. The planet was abandoned by then; no one wanted to blow up too," Rose smiled at Mickey and then turned to the Doctor. "So why'd they name the planet 'New Earth'?"

"Well, after Earth was destroyed by the sun, the humans of the universe had a cultural reawakening. They found a planet with approximately the same atmosphere and size with similar continents and climate and moved in." The Doctor flipped a few switches and the TARDIS began making another round of screeching noises. When the center column came to a halt, the Doctor hurried to the doors, grabbing Rose's hand on the way, and led his companions out into the light. "Welcome to New Earth. Across the way, you'll see New New York."

Rose leaned her head against the Doctor's shoulder. "New New York," she echoed. "How many New York's have there been?"

"Fifteen."

"So that would make this New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New York," Mickey said with a slight laugh, though his eyes were gazing at the Doctor and Rose with an envious expression.

"That sounds about right," the Doctor agreed. "Do you two see that building to the right?"

"The one with the giant green symbol on it?" Rose asked.

"Yep. The giant green moon is the universal symbol for hospitals." The Doctor grinned. "So, where should we explore first? Out here, the city, or the hospital?"

"Out here," Rose and Mickey chorused.


The sound was different. There was harshness in the Doctor's TARDIS that had always made Jack think of as a warning to any who might harm the people within. The grating noise he heard now was similar, but softer.

Curious, Jack stood and walked out of the control room and through the hallways towards where the noise was originating. But all too soon, the sound cut off. Except… there was a door on the wall that hadn't been there before.

Doing his best to avoid the clumps of dust that had once been Daleks, Jack pushed the door open and wandered inside. "You know, I think I like the design of the Doctor's TARDIS better. It has a homey feel to it," he observed. "Considering that, though, this isn't too bad. Just different…"

"And sterile," observed the control room's other occupant. She was a beautiful woman, no doubt about that. "My name is Mrs. Campbell."

"Is there a Mr. Campbell?"

"There used to be. He was human and didn't survive the Time War. I regenerated instead of moving on with him."

"So you're like the Doctor?" Jack questioned. "I thought he was the only survivor of that war; he believes everyone else died."

"The Time Lords are capable of a certain amount of telepathy. The death of so many of our kind has deafened us to one another… I am only part Gallifreyan and as such my abilities are different. I cannot sense him, yet I know the Doctor is alive." Mrs. Campbell paused and then let out a soft sigh; "I am searching for him. He thinks us both to be dead. Will you come with me?"

"I would be delighted to travel with you," Jack agreed slowly. He didn't know if he could trust the lady before him yet, but she was his best bet at locating the Doctor.

"Good. Welcome aboard, Captain Jack Harkness." Smiling, Mrs. Campbell began to start the TARDIS. "I should warn you, though. My other guest, Adam, is also an acquaintance of the Doctor's and they didn't get along very well."

"I'll keep that in mind."


When the Master woke again, he was alone in what looked like a plain white box. He was lying on the floor, shivering and alone.

"Nimrod! Let me out of here!"

"You're in no position to be making demands," was the growled response from hidden speakers. "If anything, you should thank me for what I've done for you. I've given you life as a Time Lord again. That is no ordinary clone you reside within, after all."

"I don't care whose clone I'm in! I want let out of this room!"

Nimrod's laugh echoed through the speakers. "Tch, tch, tch… so impatient. Here, let me give you a hint. You are now closer to your greatest rival than you've ever been before."

"My greatest rival…?" the Master shook his head. "Stop speaking in riddles. Tell me what you want of me and release me!"

"I thought you liked riddles, Master," mocked Nimrod. "Very well. I want you to track down the Doctor for me, of course. I don't want you to engage him, though he'd mistake you for someone else should he see you. I want you to stay in the shadows, find out what he's up to, and help me to set up my revenge against him."

"Your revenge against him? What could my good Doctor have done to you?" The Master sat cross-legged on the ground and stared up at the blank ceiling in wonder.

"It's more of what I did to him and how he retaliated," Nimrod hedged. "Now, I have a nice little human-made time ship for you to use. It isn't anything like a TARDIS, but I'm sure it will do." A seamless door lifted.

Cautiously, the Master stood and walked over through the doorway. At first he couldn't see anything in what appeared to be a hanger bay, so he surveyed himself as best he could. He was tall and thin, dressed in tennis shoes, twenty-first century style faded blue jeans, and a plain white long-sleeved shirt. "Who am I now?" he whispered. "Do I know this person? Where are the rest of the Time Lords? I can't hear them…"

The whoosh of a teleport stole the Master's attention and he looked up to see an early model of a human time ship. He hurried over to the entry ramp, but paused at the sound of his savior, and captor, over the intercom.

"I can track you, Master. Now you are my puppet and, no matter where and when you go, the transmitter deep inside you will always lead me to you. Do not think you can just abandon me."

"How will I be able to contact you?"

"The knowledge is contained within the ship's computers. Now go."

He stepped into the ship and shut the ramp, sealing himself inside. Turning towards the cockpit, he came face-to-face with a mirror, and the face it reflected back at him. "My enemy," he whispered, reaching to touch his own face. "I have never been closer to my enemy than I am now," he echoed, finally understanding.

Curly, dirty blonde hair and dark brown eyes stared back at him with a familiar intensity. The Doctor's sixth face… now belonged to the Master.


"So… Mrs. Campbell, what's your first name?" Jack asked. "Someone as lovely as you must have a beautiful name."

Her deep blue began to sparkle merrily. "And what if my name is an ugly one?"

"Any name would be beautiful if it's yours," Jack countered.

"Susan. My name is Susan Campbell. Very human sounding, aren't I?" Susan smiled at the surprise on Jack's expression. "Did I not tell you that I'm a fourth human? Or was it Adam I explained it to… I can't remember which."

"It was me," a new voice answered. "You must be the person Mrs. Campbell was searching for."

"Well hello there," Jack immediately moved to stand in front of Adam. "My name is Captain Jack Harkness. It is an absolute pleasure to meet you."

"Uh…" Adam blinked and glanced over at Susan, "is he trying to flirt with me?"

"Yeah, he is," was the absent response. "Clearly it isn't working. Jack, darling, Adam isn't from a time as open about whom you… hmmm… dance with? Why am I thinking of dancing?"

Jack laughed and waltzed back to her. "When I met the Doctor and Rose, I danced with her atop my spaceship, which was cloaked and floating next to Big Ben. It was a really nice ship, too. Shame it blew up before I could teach it how to make a proper martini. My dancing with Rose made the Doctor awful jealous though; his expression was rather adorable when he found out."

"Oh I can just imagine," Susan giggled for a moment before an expression of longing crossed her face. "What did he look like, Jack? I… I haven't seen m… him in such a long time. Did he seem well? Did he still have his sense of humor?"

"Well, he is about this tall," Jack gestured, "with dark hair and eyes. He's got this habit of saying 'fantastic' all the time. And his smile… he always meant it when Rose was there."

"Can't we talk about something else?" Adam demanded.

"Our next destination is a small planetoid orbiting a black hole. It shouldn't be possible, but is there just the same," Susan said, effectively changing the subject. "There's something that needs to be done in this place, though I haven't a clue what. I guess we'll just have to figure it out as we go."

"Sounds like fun. Oh, and Susan?" Jack leaned over and pecked her on the cheek. "I was right. Your name is absolutely gorgeous, just like you. I think I'll go find myself a room and be back in here when we land." Breezing past Adam, Jack descended into the TARDIS.

"I don't like him," Adam grumbled petulantly.

A fond expression had appeared on Susan's face as she stared absently in the direction Jack had vanished in. "I like him, though. I think this is the first time anyone has made me laugh since my husband died."


"Watch out for the… oh, never mind. She'll find out," the Doctor grumbled and leaned against the back of the lift and regarded Mickey curiously. "I am a little surprised you decided to come along. Glad, though, that you took me up on the offer."

"Really?" Mickey grinned though he fought against it.

"Yeah… I'll probably play pranks on you."

"What?"

"Well, I've always been something of a prankster; can't help it, really. It's a… hmm… you know, I'm not certain where I got it from. My parents were so very somber all the time."

"What were they like?"

"I don't remember well. Gallifreyan children chosen to become Time Lords and Ladies were taken from their homes at the age of eight to attend the Academy. I wasn't with them very long." The Doctor felt rather surprised at himself for volunteering the information like this, but after all the teasing he given Mickey – and all the pranks he knew were coming – the Doctor felt as if he owed the man something. "They were proud of me for being chosen to become a Time Lord. I was never really theirs, though."

"I don't understand; how could they give you up like that? Or was it like boarding school?"

"STAGE ONE: Disinfectant!" chirped a computerized voice.

The loud, shower-like sound of the disinfectant made listening difficult, so the Doctor took it as an excuse not to explain. Fortunately, Mickey didn't press the subject. Though the Doctor hoped that the somewhat fearful man had forgotten, he knew that Mickey had realized how uncomfortable the line of conversation had become. The topic had been dropped out of kindness.

Suddenly, the Doctor started rethinking a few of his pranks. Maybe Rose wouldn't be too upset if one or two were played on her instead…

Thinking back to how much Jackie's slap had hurt, the Doctor changed his mind. There was no way he was going to risk setting off Rose's temper to the point where he'd find out is the force behind a Tyler woman's slap was genetic.

When the disinfection process was over, the Doctor strolled out into the ward with Mickey mere steps behind him. Glancing agitatedly at the other set of elevators, the Doctor muttered, "where is she? I hope she didn't get stuck in the lobby for some reason."

"Rose will probably be up in a few minutes, Doctor." Mickey was looking around, absolutely amazed by how… normal everything looked. Aside from the cat nurses, the place looked exactly how he'd expect a hospital to look.

"There."

"What?" Mickey saw that while he'd been staring about the ward, the Doctor had wandered off ahead of the human man, ticked off some lady who was hovering about a sickly looking alien man (who was either obese or naturally heavy-set), and identified the only likely candidate for summoning the Doctor via psychic paper. The person the Doctor was gesturing to was really a giant face in a jar.

"Is he supposed to be in a pickle jar?"

The Doctor burst out laughing. "It's not… he's not…" shaking his head, he struggled to stop giggling. "The Face of Boe isn't in a pickle jar… but… I suppose the concept is the same."

Strolling over to the sleeping Face of Boe, the Doctor knelt beside the 'pickle jar' and said, "I'm here. Different face, yeah, but it's still me. It's the Doctor."

"Are you a friend of his?" asked one of the nearby cat-nurses.

"Not really. We met once, a long time ago, when the Earth finally ended. Um…" straightening up, the Doctor smiled sadly at the nurse. "What's wrong with him?"

"You don't know? He's dying?"

"From what?"

"Old age."

Chapter Text

Panther stared at the com screen as static once again proved to be the only answer to his hails on the Wolfen II's frequency. He looked up and stood, stretching, before walking over to Leon, who was pacing in a rather... manic manner. "He's still not answering. I don't think that he's going to... I don't think that he can."

"I don't like what you're implying," Leon replied coldly, stopping in mid-stride in order to face the feline. "We just need to give him more time, that's all."

"We've given him an hour, Leon. If he was fine... if the Wolfen was fine... he'd have checked in already."

"No! Wolf is fine! He's always been more than capable of taking care of himself and he'd murder us if we called the CDF for help."

Panther put a paw on his teammate's shoulder, genuine concern appearing on the face of the normally flirtatious feline. "I'm sure you're right about Wolf being fine, but this lovely cargo ship were using has the worst sensors I've ever seen."

Leon nodded miserably and pulled away, turning to look out the window to the space and stars beyond. "I know... I just hate this. I hate this ship, I hate that there isn't enough room in the Wolfens for a person to be able to rescue another, I hate this job... I almost hate myself for convincing Wolf that we need the money from the job no matter who is hiring us."

"Well, the way the CDF is flushing out illegal businesses, we really didn't have a choice about accepting General Pepper's offer. Had we waited any longer, Starfox would've returned from its current mission and then where would we be? Broke without food or fuel, that's where.

"Besides, this is one of the best paying jobs we've had since I've joined and the contract Wolf signed is very protective of us." Panther smirked and seated himself at the COM again, swiveling his chair so that he was still facing Leon. "In the eighth clause, it states quite clearly that if we run into trouble that the three of us can't handle on our own, we can call in for reinforcements and the CDF will have to comply. We could call in about Wolf's situation..."

"We don't even know if there is a situation," the chameleon snapped.

There was a long, drawn out pause as the two members of Starwolf stared each other down.

"He's been your best friend for a long time, hasn't he?" Panther gave Leon a searching look. "Could you really keep waiting here, knowing we can do nothing alone, all for the sake of his pride over his welfare?"

Leon sighed and then gestured towards the COM panel. "Send the CDF a message. Tell them that Wolf has disappeared on one of the planets we were charting and that we require assistance... He's going to be absolutely furious with us, but you're right.  Better furious than dead."

"Unless, as you so eloquently put it, Wolf murders us upon his return."

If looks could kill, Panther wouldn't have to wait for Wolf O'Donnell to be rescued in order to die.


Fox exchanged an amused look with Krystal as they listened to Falco argue with the holographic representation of General Pepper. The General wanted Starfox to head out to a neighboring system where Starwolf had been sent on a recon mission that had apparently gone bad.

Falco was dead set against signing up for that mission. It meant encountering Leon and Wolf, who annoyed him in that order. Not much was known about Panther yet, so he hadn't been added to the list of Starwolf's bad points. Of course, Falco figured that it was only a matter of time before the feline did join that list.

"What did Panther's message say, General. The exact words would be very helpful," Fox spoke up, neatly cutting off Falco's tirade. Slippy then, discretely of course, maneuvered the irate bird away from the COM channel.

"I have the report right in front of me, Fox. The message said, 'This is Starwolf to General Pepper. The Galinger System is apparently uninhabited, but the last planet was wreaking havoc on the ship's sensors. Wolf took his fighter in for a closer look and lost radio contact for a few minutes. He resurfaced long enough to say he'd check in after an hour and then went back towards the planet. That occurred over 6 hours ago. We don't have the resources available to mount a rescue at this time and are requesting back up.'"

"Sounds like something you'd do, Fox," Krystal mused.

Peppy nodded in agreement. "Are we going to accept the mission?"

"No! Fox, just leave them out there. They wouldn't do it for us..."

"That's just it, Falco. Wolf has done that for us. During the Apariod invasion, he saved my life in Corneria City and they all very nearly died saving our asses during the Apariod home world incident." Fox smiled at General Pepper's form. "Starfox formally accepts the mission, sir. You can add this to the credit line you've set up for us."

"Fox!" Falco all but wailed, but Peppy cut the avian off and very softly began explaining to Falco the concept of a majority decision… and how everyone else agreed with Fox.

"I'm sending the information you'll need for this job over now." General Pepper's visage turned to Slippy.

"Receiving the telemetry now, sir," the amphibian chirped. "And… there. The Great Fox has finished the download."

The Great Fox they had currently was an upgrade on the one that Peppy had purposely crashed into the Apariod homeworld. It was bigger, faster, energy efficient, and, more importantly, had a really large hanger-bay. There was room for all five Arwings, four Landmasters, and a few other vessels, should the need for more ever arise.

Pepper's hologram nodded. "Good luck, Star Fox, we're counting on you."

The COM uplink deactivated and the holoprojector flipped off. Fox turned to ROB and grinned at the robot. "ETA to the Galinger System?"

"One-point-eight days." ROB pressed several keys on his control panel. "Course plotted and initialize." The Great Fox immediately leapt forward.

"I don't like this, Fox," Falco growled from his perch in front of the weapons systems. "I know they helped us out before, but Wolf and Leon also worked closely with Pigma and Oikonny…"

"Um… Falco?" Fox interrupted his friend, an amused look plastered on his face. "I was there, remember?" The vulpine immediately ducked as a clipboard sailed over his head.


Panther was just about ready to strangle Leon, who had been going out to the edge of the radio interference in his Wolfen II. He had been trying to discover the complete area of the disturbance, and had learnt one thing only. It was a big blob centered over the northern pole of the planet.

Wherever Wolf was, he must have been freezing.

It wasn't the fact that Leon was off flying solo in his fighter while Panther was stuck baby-sitting the cargo ship that had the feline ticked off, however. It was because of the fact that… well… okay… it was because the chameleon was off in the Wolfen while he was stuck baby-sitting the ship that considered turning right a major maneuver.

Of course, his bad mood improved greatly when the sexy voice of Krystal emanated from his COM system. "Starfox hailing Starwolf, do you copy?"

"I copy, beautiful," Panther purred into the COM. "When I sent that call for help, I didn't realize they'd be sending a team for Wolf and the most gorgeous woman in the galaxy for me."

Silky laughter answered that and then she spoke again. "There's only one life-sign aboard your cargo ship. Is Leon all right?"

"Him? He's freaking out over Wolf's disappearance and has been circling the fifth planet's northern pole in an attempt to get the Wolfen II's radio to punch through the interference."

"You mean that lizard actually has emotions?" Falco's voice could be heard muttering in the background.

"Tell beak-boy to shut it," Panther retorted coldly.

"Panther, this is Fox. Has Leon sent you back any data concerning the size of the area that has the COM silence?"

"Yeah, he has. Here, I'll send it over… unless…" Panther gave the ship in front of his tiny vessel an appraising look. "Could I just come aboard? This ship is cramped enough for just one person and a Wolfen, it'll be worse when Leon returns to pace again."

"Come on aboard," Peppy invited.

"Krystal, my rose, won't you be my welcoming party?"

The COM signed off on Krystal's laughter. Panther grinned and called up Leon to let him know where the new rendezvous point would be.

The chameleon then began to rant, in a well-spoken manner, and told Panther what exactly his opinion of the CDF was when they sent Starfox as their rescue team.

The feline yawned and leaned back into his chair as the autopilot guided the cargo vessel into the hanger of the Great Fox. Leon was still ranting and Panther couldn't bother himself to pay attention. Had other, less appropriate, four-letter words been used, he might have been taking notes, but as it was he was trying valiantly not to fall asleep.


 

Leon and Panther joined the Starfox team in the Great Wolf's conference room.  While Panther settled into a chair next to Krystal - presumably to flirt and try to convince her to play footsie under the table - Leon moved to the head of the table in order to start briefing their backup on the situation.

"I found a building under the jamming," he announced, startling Falco out of a light doze.

Fox stifled a chuckle at his friend's expense, voicing his concern instead. "Jamming? I thought the interference was natural in cause."

"This isn't Venom; there isn't a trace of cortosis ore down there," Leon took a seat next to Panther as he spoke.

"Cortosis ore?" the aforementioned feline queried.

"It's a mineral that is constantly resonating. When enough of it is centered in one place it can block out most COM frequencies and a few of the sensor frequencies," Slippy answered. "Leon's right, Fox. There's no way that something natural in occurrence could cause all our COM channels and sensors to read the northern pole of that planet as a dead zone."

"Meaning the only way to find out what's down there is to set down in our fighters and take a look," Peppy added morosely.

"I'm going down there," Leon immediately volunteered.

Panther opened his mouth, but Fox inadvertently cut him off. "I'll go, too."

"I've got a bad feeling about this, Fox," Falco's voice held a genuinely worried tone. "I think a third person should go with you two."

"I'll go," Krystal said quickly.

"I meant me," Falco grumbled, but shrugged. "I guess that's fine."

"How will you get Wolf back up here if his Wolfen is damaged?" Panther asked, eyeing the three people about to go planetside with a wary look.

"The Arwings can handle it," Krystal replied while Fox added, "there was more than enough room for about three of Tricky in the cargo compartment when I was assigned to Sauria. Admittedly, that was before Tricky grew up, but Wolf isn't exactly dinosaur sized."

"I dunno," Slippy muttered, "more like two-and-a-half versions of little Tricky could fit in there. Three would be pushing it."

"Close enough," Fox waved his paw dismissively.

Panther exchanged a glance with Leon and felt less than comforted by the fact that the chameleon was slowly turning a pale shade of green-ish gray.


The two Arwings and the Wolfen II landed in the snow and ice beside the apparently abandoned building at what was approximately the center of the disturbance. Leon was out of his starfighter first, his eyes scouring the building's windows for a response of any kind. In the twilight of the planet's evening sky, it was easy to see that there were no lights in the complex and no movement anywhere at all.

Even the security cameras were motionless, the small lights that would indicate operational status left dark.

Fox popped the hatch on his Arwing and hurtled over the side in order to save time in catching up to Leon. "For a supposedly empty star system, this planet has a pretty good impression of a Cornerian building."

"It does indeed, but… Fox, I don't sense anyone here. There's something faint that could be an unconscious person… or an overactive computer AI," Krystal shook her head ruefully. "Sorry I can't be more specific."

"That's fine," Fox replied, giving her a smile.

Leon gestured to the door, which opened automatically. "Ladies first," he told the vixen.

"Gee, thanks," she drawled before walking into the building.

Fox chuckled and walked towards the opening. "Careful, Leon. Krystal is far more vindictive than Falco if you tick her off. That's why he doesn't bother her."

"What about you?"

"I'm not suicidal," was the cheeky reply.

"So how are we going to tell where we're going and where we've been?" Krystal immediately asked, shooting a light, playful glare in the direction of the two males. The question was well warranted; the hallway was white and several doors lined the opposite side. Everything looked the same and it was a good bet that the rest of the complex was essentially the same.

Leon pulled out a canister of black spray paint in response and tagged the door they'd just come from with the letter 'E.' "The entrance."

The two Star Fox members nodded in approval. "Good idea," Fox said with a smile. Turning to Krystal, "which direction is the presence in? If we track that down, we can, hopefully, ascertain if Wolf even came this way."

"He did," Leon responded ominously while Krystal closed her eyes briefly and then gestured to the right side of the corridor.

"That way."


Fox was the first one to enter the medical bay. It was the typical sterile style area that was expected on a base such as this abandoned one. Except… this room wasn't entirely abandoned.

Wolf lay on one of the bio-beds; a soft beeping noise confirmed that, yes, the medical center was operational and was monitoring the lupine left in the room's care. Wolf's jacket had been hung on a rolling chair that sat, abandoned, next to the mercenary's bed. He was unconscious, his face relaxed for the first time in Fox's presence,

Fox stopped moving in the threshold of the room, not even noticing when two other forms stumbled into his. They didn't complain, though. Leon and Krystal were also too busy staring at their quarry.

"He… he looks okay," Leon finally ventured.

Krystal nodded; "we should get him to the Great Fox."

Fox moved to one of the computer terminals and skimmed through the files for a moment before pulling out a memory storage device and uploading the medical files. "I didn't see anything about him immediately, but Slippy will probably find anything I've missed."

"Good thinking," Leon said absently, walking over to his friend's bedside and sitting down in the vacant chair. "Wolf? Common, Wolf, wake up."

Krystal seemed to glide as she approached the opposite side of the Lupine. "He won't wake yet, Leon. I think he's been drugged; the unconsciousness doesn't quite feel right."

The chameleon nodded mutely and pulled the jacket off his chair. He held the dark material uncertainly, just fidgeting for the sake of doing something, anything.

"Upload complete," Fox chirped, stuffing the device back into one of his many pockets.

"How are we going to get him back to the starfighters?" Leon asked.

Fox approached Wolf from the same side as Leon and carefully picked up the inert lupine. "Unless you want to carry him," he said, shifting around in order to find balance.

"No, I'll pass," was the other male's response. "He's probably too heavy for me."

"He's not that heavy," Fox muttered, a slow blush creeping across his face as Wolf's head rested against his chest. Krystal smirked at him and he felt incredibly blessed that his fur covered his reaction. "Come on, let's get out of here."


It was cold when he woke up. Worse than the chill, however, was the emptiness he felt inside himself. It was like he had been erased and left without a purpose.

Did he have a name? He didn't even remember that much.

He opened his eyes… or tried to. His right eye opened, allowing normal sight to flood his mind, but a mechanical sensor seemed to activate in his left eye. A red screen of various hues made up the left half of the room and blurred his vision. Uncertain of how to deal with the dual input, he mentally shut off the fake eye.

The suddenness of seeing through only one eye was oddly comforting, as if that was what he was used to.

He sat up slowly and surveyed his surroundings. He was in a Medical Bay of some sort, but it didn't feel familiar. It left him with the impression that he'd never been there before… assuming he'd been anywhere before.

"Wolf!" an insistent voice caught his attention. He turned to face the speaker, who seemed to be addressing him. "Wolf, you're finally awake." There was a pause and then "are you all right?" The green lizard gave him a searching look.

"I don't think you're going to like this," Wolf said after a long moment. "Who are you?"

There was a long pause. "You're right. I don't like this, Wolf." The lizard – a chameleon – bit his lip. "You really don't remember me?"

"I-I'm sorry," he shook his head. "Is that my name… Wolf? That sounds familiar…"

"You don't even remember your own name?" the chameleon's voice sounded horrified. "This is… this is really bad. Look, my name is Leon. I'm the second in command of Starwolf, which you run. We're mercenaries. Something happened to you on our latest mission, but none of us know what. We, uh… had to send for help in order to recover you. Right now we're on a ship called the Great Fox which is run by Starfox."

"Are they a mercenary group, too?"

"Yes, they are." Leon heaved a sigh and stared at Wolf with an expression made of anxiety and curiosity. "How do you feel?"

"Confused." Wolf shrugged helplessly; "other than that I feel fine… though, why do I have a cybernetic eye?"

There was an awkward pause and, just as Leon was about to answer, the door opened. Relieved at not having to explain, the chameleon rushed over to vulpine who entered the room.

Wolf's first reaction was to stare. While Leon had seemed familiar after a few moments, the feeling of knowing this fox was instantaneous. The falcon flanking the vulpine was familiar too, but far less so.

Wolf hopped of the cot and landed unsteadily on his feet. His right hand automatically braced him against the medical bed while his tail flicked back in forth in search of balance.

Snatches of conversation reached his ears; belatedly Wolf realized that Leon was telling the vulpine… Fox McCloud… and the avian… Falco Lombardi… about O'Donnell's sudden memory loss. It took Wolf a few more moments to realize that he was O'Donnell.

Wolf O'Donnell: the name seemed familiar, but like everything else there was nothing else there in him other than the feeling.

"Wolf?" the vulpine, Fox, walked up to his lupine counterpart. "Leon told us about your memory loss. I suppose that means you don't remember me; I'm Fox McCloud, the leader of the mercenary group Star Fox and captain of this ship. We've met before, though not always under good circumstances. So long as you're on board, my crew and I will do our best to help you recover what you've lost. Krystal, one of my pilots, is a telepath. She might be able to help you best. Would you like to meet her?"

"I guess," Wolf shrugged. "This is so strange. I know I'm supposed to know you; even before you said so, I could tell."

"It's like a door's shut on you and now you're lost, isn't it?" a beautiful cerulean vixen in a blue and silver flight suit wandered into the room. "I am Krystal and we have only spoken over com links in the past. Perhaps you recognize my voice?"

"It's sort of familiar," Wolf agreed. "You're right on target with that description, too."

"Fox had me wait outside. Not everyone reacts well to telepaths," she smiled and tilted her head to the side. "Perhaps it would be better if you become reacquainted with yourself first. I'm sure you're hungry."

Chapter Text

"Agh…" Zelos dropped his sword and collapsed to his knees, his breath jagged and burning in his throat. His right hand flew up to his neck and came away with sticky, red blood covering the fingers of the glove. "Rai…" he doubled over, coughing.

The others were not too far away, but they were fighting Yggdrasill. The room was getting ripped apart; each magic attack shook the walls and dislodged large pieces of debris loose. Zelos had moved out of the others' way for a few moments to catch his breath and do a little mana replenishment. It was bad luck that had caused the sharp piece of metal to slice his throat before hitting the floor a few feet away.

Only bad luck…

Zelos pressed his hand back up against his neck, trying to stop the blood flow. From the feel of it, and from the fact that he hadn't bled out yet, Zelos guessed that the major arteries and veins in his neck had been missed… not that it did him much good to know.

Raine was on the other side of the fighters and was casting healing spells on the rest of the group. She didn't see Zelos crouched on the ground; no one did.

"Help…" he breathed the word, making no real noise. It was getting harder to inhale; his body wanted to cough up the blood that was trying to drain towards his lungs.

"Zelos?" Suddenly, Sheena was there. "Are you okay?" She knelt down next to him and gasped. "Oh goddess… I'll get Raine!" The ninja scrambled to her feet and raced across the room, darting in between combatants and over to the silver-haired healer.

By the time Sheena had taken Raine to Zelos, the room was becoming fuzzy. The blood loss, coughing, and shallow breathing was a bad combination, especially for someone whose family wasn't known for overwhelmingly good health in the first place. It wasn't until after Raine finished her spells that it even registered to him that they were there.

The pain went away immediately, though the coughing took much longer to dissipate. When he stopped shaking from the force of the coughs, Zelos looked up into Raine and Sheena's faces. "Thanks," he said… or tried to. With a surprised look on his face, he cleared his throat and tried again, but there was still no result. Horror replaced the surprise on Zelos' face.

"Zelos?" Raine gave him a concerned look. "Can you speak?" Zelos shook his head emphatically from left to right: a definite 'no.' "I'm sorry," she whispered.

Zelos frowned and reached out, grabbing her shoulders and attention. "Not your fault," he mouthed as clearly as possible. "Don't apologize."

There was a loud scream from the fighters and Yggdrasill disappeared to be replaced by a floating crystal and a hazy outline. "It's over," Sheena whispered. "Come on," she pulled Raine and then Zelos to their feet. "We should be there. We'll figure out how to help you in a little while, okay Zelos?"

He just nodded in understanding. Stooping over, he picked up his sword; he didn't entirely recall dropping it, but had known when it was gone. When he'd sheathed the weapon, he followed after his friends. They reached the others in time to see Lloyd smash Yggdrasill's Cruxis Crystal.

The shards circled around Lloyd strangely, yet were overshadowed as the Eternal Sword appeared. "Eternal Sword!" the brunette swordsman yelled. "Reunite the two worlds!"

A blinding light filled the room and the sensory overload accomplished what blood loss could not. Zelos found himself falling into a dark void, never knowing that when he hit the ground he was just outside the destroyed Tower of Salvation in Tethe'alla.


"Zelos? Oh goddess, that doesn't look good. What happened to him?"

'Lloyd?' Zelos struggled towards the familiar, comforting voice. "Lloyd?" There was no sound when he spoke; that was when he remembered.

"Don't speak," Raine admonished. "Don't even try. You need to let your throat heal the rest of the way on its own or you might never speak again."

Blue eyes flickered open in shock. He sat up and the world spun lazily around him. When he swayed, Lloyd reached out to steady the redhead.

Zelos looked around and the worried eyes of his friends and then up at the blue sky with the purple sphere of Dherris Kharlan above them. In the distance, a silhouette, that was almost a tree, sat transparently on the horizon.

"When Colette couldn't talk, she would write letters on out hands to spell out words. Why don't you try that," Lloyd asked softly, running his fingers soothingly through Zelos' hair.

Nodding in agreement, Zelos leaned towards Lloyd and closed his eyes. The last thing he was aware of before drifting off to sleep again was the sensation of Lloyd's shoulder against his cheek and the feeling of being safe in the red clad teen's arms…


"You're going to have to wake back up sometime," Lloyd warned Zelos, who snuggled further into the covers. Sighing in exasperation, Lloyd sat down the edge of the bed and gave a final warning. "If you don't get up now, I'm going to attack you."

Zelos squirmed in response, but did nothing else. He'd been roommates with Lloyd at nearly every Inn they'd stopped at since the redhead had joined the group; they were used to each other by now.

"Well," the brunet leaned over Zelos, "you can't say I didn't warn you." Lloyd reached over and started tickling his friend.

Zelos shook in mostly silent laughter and he sat up fast in order to make a bid at outmaneuvering Lloyd. He grabbed at the teen's shoulders and twisted until Lloyd fell back on the bed. Zelos moved fast, pulling himself over until he was straddling Lloyd's waist and had him pinned, breathless, to the bed. The brunet's face was flushed and it occurred to Zelos he could just lean down just a little ways to kiss him.

And then the door opened without a single knock.

Zelos sprang off Lloyd and nearly fell to the ground. The latter, however, just sat up and tried not to look disappointed.

"While I'm sure that scene was far more innocent than it appeared, its still probably a good thing I walked in when I did," Raine smirked. "Otherwise I might've been interrupting something." Both guys turned interesting shades of red. "Zelos? Have you tried to speak since waking up?"

Zelos shook his head and, after thinking for a moment, tried out a few of the sign language motions he remembered learning from the deaf guy he'd attended Sybak's Academy with. You said no talking, he signed slowly, his hands feeling clumsy.

"Sorry," Raine shrugged, "I only know a few letters right now. Sheena was showing me a few earlier. She said you might know it." Zelos shrugged in resignation. "Anyway, I don't want you speaking for the rest of the week, okay?"

Zelos nodded in understanding.  He reached over to grab Lloyd's hand and began tracing.

"How long since the fight?"  Lloyd spoke slowly, one word at a time as Zelos' fingers danced along his palm.  When Zelos nodded, Lloyd answered.  "The battle was yesterday.  You've got to be starving.  What's safe for him to eat, Professor?"

Only paying attention with half an ear, Zelos got up and made his way over to his bag.  He pulled out a fresh set of clothes and gave both Lloyd and Raine pointed looks.

"We'll wait for you outside," Raine told him, then dragged Lloyd out with her.

Dropping the clothes on the floor, Zelos leaned forward and let his face drop into his hands.  He took a few shuddering breaths and felt tears prick his eyes.

What if this was permanent?  What if he was mute?  As the Chosen people tended to run roughshod over his life and choices already, but without a voice to fight back, to interrupt and argue and weaponize his words?

No.  Now was not the time to freak out about this.  He'd submit to whatever restrictions Raine placed on him, accept whatever healing she thought he needed, and in a week he'd be talking again.  Maybe two weeks if the damage was particularly tricky to heal.  He had to think positively or he'd never get through this.

He couldn't let anyone see him without his smile.

Grabbing his clothes once more, Zelos changed into the fresh outfit and went out into the hall.


Zelos was doing the fake smiling thing, pretending he wasn't freaking out inside and... Lloyd really didn't know what to do to help him.  There was no guarantee Zelos would get his voice back and if he didn't?  Things were going to be difficult on him pretty much every day from here on out.

There'd been a moment, earlier, before Raine showed up bringing reality with her, that Lloyd had thought Zelos was going to kiss him.  Had wanted Zelos to kiss him.

Maybe it was terribly selfish of him, but Lloyd was terrified that Zelos would use this as an excuse to pull away.  That they'd never find out what this unspoken something between them was because Zelos was too determined to self destruct.

Case in point, Zelos' fake smile while he twirled the spoon through his soup without really eating anything.

"You know, food does a person a lot more good when they eat it instead of play with it," Lloyd muttered, giving Zelos a pointed look.  Zelos huffed and rolled his eyes, but the spoon started traveling to his mouth more often.  Lloyd finished his own lunch and waited patiently for Zelos to finish too.  There was still more soup in the bowl than Lloyd would've liked when Zelos shoved it away, but it was good enough for now.

"You're still going to travel with me to gather Exspheres, right?" Lloyd asked.

Zelos shrugged and doodled on Lloyd's hand the word 'liability'.

"No, you aren't," Lloyd responded emphatically.  "There's no one else I'd want to come with me.  And no matter what happens, I want to learn that sign language you were using earlier.  That seems really useful."

This time Zelos' smile was quieter and shyer, but real.

Chapter Text

As Cat and Kryten filed out of the common area – Cat to take a shift in the control room and Kryten to check on the state of the laundry – Lister watched quietly as Rimmer slumped into one of the chairs at the table.

“That other version of me, the one from three weeks in the future... he called you Lister,” Rimmer finally said. “I've gotten everyone's name wrong, haven't I?”

“Yeah, but that's not such a big deal. You had six hundred years in solitude to forget and still weren't that far off. I'm Dave Lister,” Dave paused, deciding – for now, at least – not to worry about whatever horrible thing was waiting for him in three weeks. “The others are the Cat and Kryten.”

“Right. Cat, Lister, Kryten,” Rimmer muttered to himself. “Thanks,” he added a bit louder. “I'm sure I'll be back in the habit of using your names soon enough.”

“No problem.” Lister twisted around one of the other chairs and settled on it backwards, propping his chin up on the back. “Are you alright, man?”

The sound Rimmer made was more broken than a laugh should ever be. “I almost wish we'd escaped your way,” he admitted. “Then I'd be more certain I hadn't just finally cracked.”

“We're not a hallucination,” Lister promised.

“Wouldn't a hallucination say exactly that?” Rimmer shrugged and then stood up, pacing the room and counting quietly to himself.

“Uh... Rimmer, what are you doing?”

“Just... nothing. Nothing at all.” Rimmer turned towards the aft compartments and then froze. “I don't remember which room is mine.”

Dave got to his feet and came up beside Rimmer. Very gently, he patted the hologram on the arm. “I'll show you the way, okay?”

Rimmer nodded and followed in silence. It wasn't until after the door shut behind the hologram, leaving Lister in the hallway and Rimmer alone in his room, that Dave considered that maybe Rimmer shouldn't be left on his own at the moment.

Lister reached out to reopen the door, but his hand hesitated and retracted. Surely, if Rimmer really wanted company, he'd say something... right?


Early the next morning – well, earlier than Lister had ever seen Rimmer willingly wake up without Holly there to run the alarm for him – Rimmer wandered into the common area. Kryten was following him saying, of all things, “that sounds like a good idea, sir,” while sounding rather shocked.

Lister drank his tea (what passed for tea on Starbug, anyway) and waited for Rimmer to bristle over Kryten's tone and start an argument with the mechanoid, but instead the hologram just shrugged and seated himself at the table across from Lister. He looked about as uncomfortable as he had the night before.

“So what's this good idea?” Lister asked, directing the question towards Rimmer.

“We're still in range of... of the planet,” Rimmer responded quietly. “There's plenty of food in the palace kitchens. If we wait until night, we should be able to raid the pantry and stock up our supplies without anyone there being the wiser. It's not like they can track us down once we're gone.”

“That is a really good idea,” Lister agreed. “Let's do that. Kryten, would you let Cat know we need to come to a stop again?”

“Of course sir.” Kryten bustled off.

“Want some tea?” Lister asked, standing up to refill his cup. “You look like you could use some.”

“What?” Rimmer asked blankly.

“I know it tastes terrible, but at least having the cup will give your hands something to keep busy with.” Lister watched as Rimmer stared down at his hands with a surprised look, as though they were fidgeting of their own accord.

“Oh, yes, a cuppa would be... nice.” Rimmer flexed his hands and then pressed them palm down against the table's surface.

“So, how is it? Being back, I mean,” Lister asked curiously, grabbing a second mug out of the cupboard for Rimmer to use.

Rimmer shrugged. “I... remembered a lot more than your names wrong,” he admitted. “The size of the engine room... I need to relearn what everything in the cockpit does.” He paused and then added slyly, “I ought to know where the garbage disposal is located so I can get back to threatening to shoot Kryten out of it when he annoys me.”

Lister snickered. “I'll show you later. Once we nick the food from... the planet,” Lister hesitated to call it Rimmerworld to Rimmer's face, for the moment. Maybe, once the hologram had settled back in it might be okay to refer to it as that, but for now... seemed best to skirt the issue for now. Rimmer had suffered more than necessary for his selfishness. There was no reason to rub it in any further. “Anyway, when we get back it'll be my turn at the helm. How about you join me and I can help you refresh your memory on all the controls?” He placed Rimmer's tea in front of the other man and then settled back down with his own.

Almost immediately, Rimmer's hands moved to hold the cup. He nudged it back and forth in front of him, taking care not to spill anything. “Yeah, sure, that sounds... that sounds like a good idea.”

“Hey, Goalpost Head,” Cat called, walking out of the cockpit. “Kryten says this is your idea?”

“If you mean the idea to steal food from the planet, then yes. That was my idea,” Rimmer replied, staring down into his tea.

“A surprisingly thoughtful idea as well, if I might say so, sir. Really, I can't remember the last time you came up with an idea that was so... well, not-self-serving. After all, I wouldn't think that you'd want to willingly return to a place where you were locked up for several centuries, left alone with nothing but your neuroses and guilt to keep you company...”

“Kryten, man, shut up,” Lister snapped, not liking the way Rimmer's hands tightened their grip on his mug of tea.

“Let's just get this over with,” Rimmer muttered, taking a sip from his his cup.

 Dave nodded and in a kinder tone, asked, “so where did we stow the teleport?”

“Right over here, sir,” Kryten answered, pulling the teleport device out of a nearby cabinet. “Mr. Rimmer, do you know the time where the palace is?”

“Afternoon,” Rimmer responded absently. “Set the teleport to take us forward about five hours and we should show up around midnight. The kitchens ought to be empty and as long as we're quiet, the guards won't notice us.”

“You can stay here if you like,” Lister said, the words popping out before he could think them over. Noticing the surprised expressions on Cat and Kryten's face, Lister hastened to add, “600 years there is more than enough. You shouldn't have to go back even for this if you don't want to.”

Rimmer frowned thoughtfully and drank his tea for a long, quiet moment. “I'll be fine coming along,” he finally decided. “Let's just get this over with.”

He stood up and moved to stand by Kryten. As Lister moved to join the others, he couldn't help the concerned expression he wore as he regarded Rimmer. 600 years in his own personal hell... and he was willingly going back? After what he'd said earlier about not being sure any of this was even real?

Maybe... maybe he just needed closure.


They thought he'd spent his nearly six hundred years on this planet mostly alone. How naive were these three anyway?

Rimmer sighed and folded the ends over the box of fruit he'd been packing up. They were not-quite-peaches, with a slightly... citrus flavor to them that Rimmer enjoyed, on the rare occasions he'd been able to have one. Cat was concentrating on the meat – mostly from pig and cow like creatures that speed-evolved after the terraform completed – while Lister raided the spices and Kryten boxed up vegetables.

“We've got enough for the first load up, right?” Rimmer asked, dropping his finished box on top of the pile. They'd been at it for not quite an hour already and would need to stop before 4 AM local time to avoid getting caught. He eyed bags of flour and sugar, before scooting a few over to join the pile.

“Yes, sir, I can transport all of this straight into the cargo bay and be back down in a jiffy.”

“Then get on with it.” Rimmer didn't dare say the mechanoid's name out loud yet. Just in case he'd get it wrong again, like he had when he'd gone to Kryten with this idea in the first place. Lister wouldn't mock him for it, but there was no telling with the Cat and Arnold didn't want to hear Kryten's patronizing tones again.

The door on his room had shut, after Lister had escorted him there, and the silence had been suffocating. So Rimmer had turned on some of Starbug's pitiful selection of music, raised the volume louder than he was really comfortable with, and left the lights on as he tried to sleep. Only, every time he closed his eyes, he'd be back in that cell, knowing with certainty that all of this was in his head and when the next time the door opened...

The music and lights hadn't helped in the least, so Arnold sought out Kryten and, for lack of anything better to say, asked for a refresher on... everything, really. He'd forgotten a lot of things about his life on Starbug, like the name of the ship they were trying to catch up to. Red Dwarf. Or why he'd wound up on the planet in the first place. He remembered leaving them behind, but he didn't remember why.

That discussion had led to Kryten insisting that they head to medical and check Rimmer's T-count. Rimmer had said 'alright, Carton' and then winced as Kryten corrected him. On the bright side, Rimmer's T-count was way down. Unfortunately, Rimmer also remembered what the T-count was supposed to represent. If it went too high, then he'd have a simulated heart attack, or aneurysm, and, usually, a hologram of his type would die from something like that.

Except, Legion's upgrades had done a lot more than make him hard light... not that he'd known it before the cloning fiasco. He distinctly recalled having several heart attacks over the past several centuries and each time his light bee would reboot his physical form back to his original settings with his T-count back down, ready to raise up and screw him again. Kryten didn't need to know about that, though, so Rimmer just blew off the mechanoid's concerns and distracted him with the idea of maybe stealing food from the palace.

He just needed to see the place, one last time, to be sure that...

Arnold just needed to know he was really free. So as Kryten teleported up with the first stash of food, Rimmer waited for Lister and the Cat to distract themselves again. Quietly, Rimmer slipped out the door and into the hallway.

The hall was dark, lit further down by wall sconces, the candles nearly gone. Rimmer edged his way towards the light and then snitched the wall sconce. The guards that were supposed to be patrolling the halls rarely ever did, so Rimmer convinced himself not to worry as, by memory, he made his way towards one of the palace's many hidden exits.

With Emperors so paranoid they made Arnold look like he was merely security conscious, the whole palace was littered with these exits. But the one he was looking for was...

“Where the smeg do you think you're going?”

Rimmer winced and turned around to see that Lister had followed him after all. “Just wanted to check something, that's all. Be back before you can say everything's tickety-boo,” Rimmer assured him.

“Then I guess I'd better stick with you, since I... don't know the way back,” Lister decided, taking a few steps closer. “How do you know where you're going, anyway?”

“I wasn't always stuck in that room. Got out a few times, never lasted...” Rimmer shrugged. “Just something I need to see.”

“What is it?”

Rimmer merely shrugged again, then turned around and kept going. Lister would either follow, or not. Considering the clumping sounds of Lister's shoes, obviously he was following.

A few minutes later, they were at the exit and Rimmer raised up the candles to illuminate the wall beside the exit. A dark stain covered the wall where he looked, but Rimmer could still remember the way it had looked a few decades earlier, fresh and red.

“Rimmer, what is that?”

“Some Zepher GELF landed here about a century ago and were enslaved. When they escaped to another continent, with the clones that sided with them... they tried to take me with them. It didn't work out.”

“Rimmer...”

“The Empire couldn't force me into soft-light once I destroyed my light bee's remote, but they did figure out how to temporarily disrupt my projection and... basically paralyze me. The last I saw of the people who were trying to save me... they were being slaughtered here while I was dragged off to be the night's entertainment. They didn't even know me. They just thought it was unethical not to try.” Rimmer paused and then added, “I was relieved when no one tried again. No one else to die for... for nothing. I figured... if I was imagining things, this place might still look how I remembered and not...”

Lister placed a hand on Rimmer's arm. “Come on, man. It's... it's over. Let's get back to the others.”

Arnold nodded, but didn't turn away from the long dried stain on the wall. If Lister hadn't finally started pulling him along, Rimmer might have stayed there staring all night long.

He'd have fared so much better if he really had been isolated for six centuries. If only that had really been the case.


Lister's concerned stare was an irritating itch on the back of Arnold's neck for the rest of their pantry-raid. There was no putting him off and Rimmer rather wished he hadn't said anything at all. Better to have seen for himself that the blood had been cleaned away and the stain left as... a warning, probably, and looked crazy for staring at a wall, then to have given Lister yet another reason to pity him.

But that was always the problem with him and Lister. Lister would ask questions, not really giving a smeg about the answer, and Rimmer would answer, honestly, and not be believed. His rather horrendous childhood was too insane; Arnold knew that. But when Lister asked... Rimmer could never seem to resist answering, even when he knew it would only lead to further humiliation down the line.

Eventually they came to the final load of food that they could filch in a single night and everyone teleported up.

“Did we get everything on the shopping list, Kryten?” Rimmer asked absently, already considering the short lifespan of the stuff they'd collected that was actually healthy. He wasn't sure, but he was fairly certain he remembered Lister rather disliking vegetables. Hopefully they could convince the man to eat at least some of the healthy bits before it all started turning brown.

“That and more, sir. We're set for at least a few months, more if we can fix the storage stasis field for the perishable goods.”

Rimmer frowned thoughtfully. “When did we get a stasis field?”

“It was one of the items we stole from the simulant ship,” Lister filled in. “But it's broken. Figured I'd tinker with it on and off. I mean, I fixed Kryten; how hard can this thing be?”

“Did it come with a manual?” Rimmer asked, looking around for the stasis field unit.

Kryten gestured towards a pyramid like device with wires spilling out the side, as if it had been gutted. A large handbook lay open next to it. “Yes, sir. Of course, Mister Lister hasn't actually looked at it yet.”

While Lister talked smeg about not needing instructions, Rimmer walked over and took a moment to flip through the book. The paragraphs themselves were in the ridiculously tiny font that made the large blocks they were separated into all the more difficult to read, but there were detailed schematics every other page or so.

Something to pass the time when he couldn't sleep tonight... maybe?

Setting aside the book, Rimmer grabbed the nearest carton. “Time to start putting everything away, then. Be careful with those, Kryten. They're peaches... sort of. Bruise easily.”


Rimmer actually managed to pick back up on the basics of piloting Starbug pretty quick. It helped that Lister was patient and beamed at Rimmer like he was utterly brilliant whenever he did something right.

Mostly all Arnold had to do was be able to turn the autopilot on and off and manually change course without coming fully off of the autopilot, but Lister had him go completely manual in order to fly Starbug in a few circles. To Arnold's rather pleased surprise, he made Lister burst out in bright laughter when Rimmer flew the ship around in the pattern of a two-finger salute to the clone world they'd left behind.

Eventually, though, the piloting portion of the lesson ended and they dropped the ship back on to auto pilot. Rimmer slid into the much more familiar seat in the back of the cockpit.

“Alright,” Lister said, putting one hand on the back of Arnold's chair and the other on the outer edge of Rimmer's panel. He leaned in close. “Do you remember any of this station? If you do, we can use that as sort of a starting point. Guess we'll be seeing how much I actually remember about the scanners meself.”

Nodding hesitantly, Rimmer tapped the screen on the left. “This is the navigational array readout and this,” he tapped the screen on the right, “is the sensor array readout. I can use the nav computer project our course here,” he muttered, more to himself than to Lister, as slowly it all came back to him. Their current course lit up on the nav screen. “The sensors work with the nav computer so that the autopilot will adjust the course as necessary, but additional course corrections can be input assuming we want to pass further than the minimum safe distance from a star or something.” He pointed out the controls and adjusted their course so they'd pass a few hundred kilometers further away from the solar system's sun.

“What about these?” Lister asked, gesturing to an incongruous looking joystick welded underneath the array controls.

“I don't... I don't remember that one,” Rimmer admitted quietly.

“It's for the laser cannons the simulants upgraded us with not so long ago.” Lister gestured to the screens. “It's pretty straight forward. The button on top turns on the targeting array; you can either set a target using sensors the same way you set the nav computer, which turns on auto-fire... which is kinda clunky, actually. If you start moving the joystick around, though, you can use the button where your thumb rests to fire and the cross-hairs on the screen let you know what your shooting at so you can pick your targets. We did some target practice a while back and you were pretty good at it.”

“I guess we'll need to do some more target practice some time to see if I've still got the knack for it,” Rimmer observed, starting to lean back only to freeze a little at the feeling of Lister's breath on his neck. “Anything else?” he asked, keeping his voice steady even as some part of him desperately wanted to panic. Having someone so close never boded well.

At least, not on Rimmerworld. This was Starbug. No one would cause him physical harm here. Not intentionally, anyway.

“You alright, Rimmer?”

“Fine,” Rimmer replied tightly, trying not to shrink in on himself... trying to breathe normally.

“It's just...” Lister moved away and settled in to Kryten's usual seat. “You seemed a little on edge there. If I did something that bothers you, you usually speak up about it.”

“You didn't do anything wrong,” Arnold told him, but he knew that if Lister had seen enough to know something was wrong then he was observant enough to notice how he... unwound when Lister moved away. “The last time anyone was that close to me... there was torture involved.” Once again, there he went, opening up and pouring his heart out. “I don't really like being touched anymore, not that I was every particularly touchy feely to begin with. Don't like being crowded either, apparently. Not that you were...”

“Guess I was crowding you a little there. Enough to make you uncomfortable, anyway,” Lister said, seeming blasé about the whole thing. “Even if I'm not doing something wrong, if I make you uncomfortable somehow then I want to know so I can stop, okay?”

“Uh, yeah... sure.” Rimmer felt the oddest sensation in his stomach. A sort of... flippy sensation? It was pleasant though, so he smiled faintly. “Last question. When's my shift on watch?”

 “After Kryten. Goes Cat, me, Kryten, you, repeat.” Lister grinned, adding, “though when we're all hanging out in the common area, we just rely on the alarms to let us know if something's going wrong, since it's close enough out there to hear if something happens in here. We switch the order around sometimes too, you know, just to have something be different.”

Rimmer nodded and stood, not really ready to head out, but... it would be hours yet before it was his turn. Besides, he didn't want to wear out his welcome. Lister had apparently forgiven him for abandoning them. The last thing Rimmer wanted was for that forgiveness to evaporate before he'd found some kind of normalcy to cling to... something that would last even when Lister's kindness reached an inevitable end.

Besides, there was that manual to look at.


The manual was one of those half-and-half affairs, as it turned out. Half was English and the other half Esperanto. Despite having never managed to learn Esperanto, Arnold was fairly certain that half of the manual made more sense than the English half.

He sighed in frustration and flipped the book shut. So much for having a new project that would keep his mind occupied.

The front cover looked like a sketch version of one of the blueprints, only several times bigger... and Rimmer had an idea. He flipped the book open again, skimming through the pages quickly until he came across the first mini-blue print. He studied the picture for a long moment; it had been a very, very long time since he'd drawn anything but a straight line.

A year passed, get up, draw a line, sit back down, wait for another year to pass.

He'd need to practice.

Standing, Arnold crossed the room to the non-perishable supplies and started rummaging around for a blank sketchbook – surely they had at least one... or several. He smiled faintly at the sight of several large sketchbooks. Rimmer didn't remember when, or where, they'd found these and he'd probably planned to use them for sketching out perfect revision tables. But now they'd go to a far more useful cause, assuming Arnold still had the talent.

Settling back at the table, Arnold set aside the nicest one for later and then picked up one at random. These were much bigger than the little manual – couldn't it have come with fold out pictures? - and Rimmer frowned again in realization that he needed much better lighting than the storage compartment had. It wasn't really much better anywhere else on the ship.

Gathering everything up, he figured it wouldn't hurt to at least look for a better place to draw. Then, humming softly to himself in order to stave off the quiet, Rimmer set off in search of the ideal place to sketch.


 

Dave tapped his hands lightly on the steering apparatus and wondered if maybe he ought to pick up a new hobby, like reading. Despite Rimmer's jokes, Dave had read books before – good books, too, not just that dirty page from Lolita – and he still did from time to time. He just didn't do it often enough for reading to be considered one of his hobbies.

Still, it didn't look like they'd be finding Red Dwarf any time soon. They'd lost all trace of the ship weeks ago and most of his previous hobbies had required the space of the Dwarf's hallways or gymnasiums or locker rooms. The AR machine was already starting to lose it's charm. It was always disconcerting to leave the virtual reality where he'd been clutching yet another femme fatale close only to find his arms empty in reality. Besides, there was only so much hip gyrating cybersex he could get away with before Rimmer and the Cat did something terrible to him in the real world that he wouldn't notice until he'd pulled off the AR headset. He'd probably already pushed that boundary too far already.

Mostly, though, Dave hated waking up to the real world only to have yet another love interest fade into nothing.

The point was, cybersex didn't count as a hobby and he couldn't do that while taking shifts in the Starbug cockpit anyway. Cat would kill him, if Rimmer didn't get to him first. Books, however, could be a good diversion. There were some in the spare bunk room, where the psychosis-inducing noisy pipes lived. He'd seen some interesting looking fantasy novels in there, something to do with psychic dragons and a unicorn girl, and science fiction classics about hitch hiking.

There came a knocking sound from behind him and Lister grinned as Kryten said, “shift change, sir.”

“Hey, Kryten,” Lister said, standing up and sliding into Rimmer's seat while Kryten took his usual station. “Any guesses on what horrible thing is going to happen to me?”

A pained expression crossed the mechanoid's face. “Perhaps it was just a bad joke on the part of Mister Rimmer's future self.”

“Maybe. Sounds like something he'd do,” Lister agreed, not entirely certain it was anymore. “Does he seem... off to you?”

“I'm not sure I know what you mean, sir.”

“I'm not sure either, really,” Dave admitted. It had been fun, teaching Rimmer how to fly Starbug again, but his mind lingered on that moment back on the planet when he'd seen Rimmer's face go totally blank, staring at a wall with a stain barely noticeable in the flickering light of the candelabra. The panicked expression that had appeared on Rimmer's face when Lister had moved too close to him at the end of their lesson earlier had been pretty telling too.

Just what other horrible things had happened to Rimmer on that world? No matter how much of a smeghead Rimmer was, he didn't deserve what he'd gone through.


Story Notes:

  • Rimmer and Lister work together to make the stasis field work.  Arnold uses his artistic talents to sketch enlargements of the blueprints which make it easier for Dave to figure out how to rewire the machine
  •  When Lister realizes that Rimmer isn't actually sleeping anymore, Dave makes the Cat move in with his wardrobe and has Rimmer share his room.  Despite protesting that its unnecessary, the familiar arrangement helps Arnold cope with his PTSD better and he no longer feels the need to fill the emptiness and quiet with constant light and music when he's alone.
  • After the Cat calls him a blueberry one too many times, Rimmer gets the Cat to help him pick out a new outfit - something that isn't a JMC uniform - so that the Cat won't be able to call him insulting nicknames without also insulting Cat's own taste in clothing.  Or at least, no insulting nicknames based on his clothes anyway.  The Cat takes up the challenge and designs him an entire wardrobe, which Rimmer can then simulate as he pleases using his lightbee.
  • Eventually they encounter Hogey, a simulant from an early batch that failed at being soldiers.  Hogey just wants to be entertained and challenges them to a duel throughout time and space for the imagined slight of killing his brother... whom Hogey readily admits never existed.  Arnold finds the whole thing hilarious - the first time he's really, truly laughed since Rimmerworld - and he comes up with a convoluted plan to give Hogey what he really wants and them a ready source of entertainment...

When Hogey looked unconvinced, Arnold fixed the smile on his face and hoped it made him look charming instead of smarmy or insane. "Think about it this way, Hogey. In this scenario, if you lose then you'll still be alive to challenge us to other non-lethal dueling alternatives until you do win. And if we lose then you won't have to seek out new entertainment; you can just make up another non-existent dead relative to accuse us of murdering and challenge us to a new non-lethal dueling alternative."

Apparently that was good enough for the rogue droid. "Very well then. You kills my brother. I challenge you to mini-golf at location to be decided."

"Sounds fair to me," Rimmer replied agreeably. "Well, miladdos, what're your thoughts?" He turned to the other three and gave them a 'we're waiting,' gesture.

Lister sounded like he was trying very hard not to laugh as he agreed to the epic mini-golf plan. Kryten and Cat, however, were a lot more uncertain as they, too, affirmed the decision.

"I will return when location of game ready." Hogey stood up and shot the far wall, destabilizing it the same way he'd messed with the doors earlier. He paused, however, and put a hand on the mini-golf course book. "Can I borrow?"

"Oh, yes, of course." Arnold slid his course notes over. "These too, so you can double check the specifications of the planet."

"Good, good," Hogey muttered, using the notes to bookmark what was apparently his favorite course in the book, the one with three windmills on it. "I return later to avenge my brother." He then walked into the wall and fell on his arse. Muttering to himself, Hogey shot the wall again, stood up once more, and this time, book in hand, left Starbug behind.

"I think that went well," Rimmer declared, grinning over at Lister.

This time Lister did crack up.

"Now, I realize I was here for all of this, so this may seem a little niave," the Cat said, "but... what just happened?"

Clearly the only response for this was to join Lister in laughing. So that's what Rimmer did, leaving it up to Kryten to explain that they'd just agreed to an epic game of mini-golf so that Hogey could avenge the death of a non-existent brother whom they hadn't killed.


Story Notes:

  •  A new emohawk, sent by the Kinatawawi, arrives on board ship when they land to have some down time fishing. Cat loses his self-absorption, Kryten loses his enjoyment of cleaning, and Lister loses his slovenliness. The emohawk seems uninterested in Rimmer, however, skipping over attempts to take from him in favor of hitting the rest of the crew. Afterwards, when Lister asks him about it, Rimmer admits that while he still feels things, most of the time he feels muted. Like he's completely numb. The emohawk must have sensed that and skipped him in favor of easier, tastier prey.  While he has moments where he feels better - like when they encountered Hogey - its something he's been struggling with since Rimmerworld.
  • Lister winds up kissing Rimmer after dealing with the emohawk incident and, though neither really know what to say about it, they end up kissing a few times more. Rimmer starts having flashbacks to the clone world however, so Lister introduces green/yellow/red since Rimmer's always liked color coding situations, which does help a great deal when things start getting more physical between them.  Arnold isn't sure he actually wants to have sex, though, and doesn't know how to bring this up with Dave quite yet.
  • They hit the first reality bubble where it makes them all think Lister is a mechanoid and Rimmer shoes out Kryten and Cat to deliver the news to Lister himself. He swears that nothing has to change between them and when Lister realizes that Rimmer means it... he also realizes that he's a little in love with Rimmer. Lister decides to let Kryten boss him around for a while until things settle down some - Cat doesn't care at all, of course - and reality returns to normal, revealing that Lister's arm has actually been bleeding all this time. A remorseful Kryten goes to do laundry while Lister patches himself up with Rimmer's help and Cat stops the ship.

"You know, you've changed." Rimmer leaned against the doorway, watching Kryten shove the laundry into the washing machine with the dedicated purpose of a man – droid – with a guilty conscience. "I know. I've said it before and I've been a right smeghead about it... but you've changed. While you may have learned things like bravery and honor from Lister... but let's face it, you learned how to be a jealous, backstabbing hypocrite from me. And you were jealous of him. It's one thing if a human acts like a human, or even a holographic AI like me, but a droid... if a droid less sophisticated than you could successfully pass for a human while you... well..." Rimmer shrugged dismissively. "That feeling you have right now, though? That's another one you learned from me. Not very nice, is it, being tormented by your very own self-loathing beast?"

  • They end up deciding to utilize the stasis field until Starbug clears the reality bubble field. Inside they find the time drive, deactivate the bubble field, and make a test jump after completing the install. After their test jump, however, an alt. Starbug arrives and negotiates a look at the time drive. While Rimmer, Cat, and Lister are stuck in the med-bay, Lister hooks up a scanner to the internal CCTV system and they're horrified by the people their future selves have become. Rimmer slips out and grabs a gun, loading it with holo-bullets, and then heads downstairs where, despite Kryten's admonishments, quizzes his future self about what it must be like to have become no better than the clones that tortured him for 600 years. alt!Rimmer is confused at first, then admits that he eventually erased the memories of Rimmerworld, as his PTSD had made dealing with their new friends difficult. Lister shows up with a bazookoid and threatens to shoot the future selves if they don't leave immediately, but where he fires a warning shot, Rimmer shoots his future self with the holo bullet, remarking calmly that he hopes they don't have an antidote to the computer virus that the bullet just infected his light bee with.
  • Rimmer tries to insist that they destroy the time drive, but they're attacked by their alt selves. Lister, Cat, and Kryten are killed in the first barrage and it's Lister that Rimmer is thinking of as he destroys the time drive, right before Starbug explodes around him...
  • Epilogue - Lister is explaining the time-wimey, wibbley-wobbly circumstances of their improved Starbug to a camera when it spontaneously explodes. Rimmer teases Lister about wasting a perfectly good camera and how 'either it can't understand paradoxes, or it can't rationalize them. Either way, you're just going to blow up more cameras if you keep trying. Just... write it all down in a journal or something. Now, are you going to help me finish the inventory or not? It looks like we've got twice as much curry ingredients as we did before." 

Chapter Text

The first thing Alvin was aware of that morning was the pounding in his head. It took him a few pained minutes to suss out the cause was too much drinking the night before.

The bed underneath him was too soft to be the one where he used to live with... well, it was too soft for where he lived now either. So obviously he'd gotten wasted to the point of blacking out and gone home with someone else. At least that someone wasn't in bed with him at the moment; Alvin couldn't feel the tell-tale press of some other sleeping body against his own, so he had a good chance of sneaking off without too much embarrassment.

Of course, sneaking out would require opening his eyes. It was already bright enough with his eyelids closed, but Alvin slowly slid them open anyway, ignoring the way the light made his stomach churn nauseously.

Once his eyes were open, Alvin sat up and quickly realized that he was not in the home of someone who'd wanted a drunken night of sex. The bed, for one thing, was a single. The sheets were sterile white and he was wearing a pair of light blue pajamas that he'd seen before on patients at the Fennmont Hospital – Talim something or other – but he'd never had the misfortune of wearing the things until now. The walls were white too, making the room seem brighter than it really was. A few obnoxiously cheerful, medically themed posters adorned the walls. Then there were the bandages wrapped around Alvin's right arm.

Seemed as though he must have gotten into a bar fight. Hopefully his opponent, or opponents (Alvin never underestimated his ability to be an offensive asshole while drunk), wouldn't take what happened personally. There were a few things in Fennmont that Gilland still wanted him to do and it would suck if he had to waste time avoiding some bar brawler.

The less time he had to spend in Fennmont near Gilland, the better.

As if sensing Alvin had woken, a doctor walked into the room. She was pretty: 5'5” with hair that was sort of a cross between strawberry-blonde and light brown. There was a chart, Alvin's medical data most likely, in her hands and she smiled politely at Alvin as she shut the door behind her.

“Good morning,” she greeted him. “I'm Doctor Kadowaki. What's your name?” She pulled out a pencil from behind her ear and held it over the clipboard, obviously waiting for information to update the chart with.

“Alvin Smith,” he answered. It was the name he answered to these days, anyway.

“Alright, Alvin...” she finished penciling in the name and then hooked the chart to the end of the bed. “Do you remember what happened last night?” She asked pleasantly, though a somewhat worried expression appeared in her eyes.

“I don't really remember much after my fifth or sixth beer,” Alvin admitted. “It's fuzzy for a while and then nothing. Just waking up here hungover. Did I get into a fight or something?”

“No... no, you didn't get into a fight.” She pursed her lips for a moment.

Alvin cataloged it as a nervous habit and then resisted the urge to shake his head, if only for the sake of not aggravating his hangover. There was no reason to care about this woman's reactions or expressions. She wasn't an enemy. She wasn't someone to use for Gilland's crusade. She didn't stand in the way of going home to Elympios.

She was just a doctor doing her job and he would probably never see her again after today. His instincts for spying could tone it down a little.

“You were found just outside the bar last night, attempting to slit your wrists. You were brought in, bleeding heavily from a deep cut in your right arm; you had managed to nick an artery.”

Alvin felt cold. “I... what?”

“You tried to kill yourself, Mr. Smith. I realize that you cannot remember this as it occurred while your blood-alcohol levels were quite high, but we're quite certain this was a genuine suicide attempt.”

“Was I saying anything?” Alvin asked, his stomach churning far worse now than earlier.

“No. By the time you arrived at the hospital, you were already unconscious.” Doctor Kadowaki took his hand in what was likely meant to be a sympathetic gesture. It fell flat. “There's a protocol here at the Talim Medical Center when dealing with attempted suicides. All patients brought in because of failed suicides are put on a week long watch. There's mandatory group counseling sessions run by the med students and overseen by our psychology staff. At the end of the week, you'll receive an evaluation. If you're not considered a threat to yourself, you'll be released.”

“I was just drunk,” Alvin protested weakly. “I'd have never done something like that sober.”

“But the fact is that you tried to kill yourself. Even if it's not something you'd choose without alcohol in your system, that you tried at all is a sign that you need help sorting out whatever problems you're facing.” She smiled blandly and then said, “at the end of the week, however, if you're still considered a potential suicide risk, then you may be kept here for another week, or moved to a different wing for one-on-one therapy.”

Alvin scowled at her. “You can't just yank me out of my life like this. I've got a job. There are people expecting me to show up today.  Besides, I didn't try to kill myself.  That's bullshit.”

Kadowaki gave him a pitying look and then proceeded to completely ignore what he'd said.  “If you'll let us know who to contact, we can let them know you're having a hospital stay. Of course, we pride ourselves on patient confidentiality; they don't have to know why you're staying here.”

“So, what, it's okay that my rights get trampled over just because some strangers say I'm suicidal?” Alvin refused to look at his bandaged arm. “The people who brought me here probably just didn't want to admit they'd injured me in a fight themselves. This is ridiculous.”

“There's some stationary and writing utensils over there,” the doctor told him, ignoring his words completely. “You should write letters to anyone who needs to know where you are or that you won't be showing up for the next week. You've been assigned to Mathis' group; he's one of our top students and he should be in here shortly to heal your arm and discuss in more detail what the next week will be like.”

“Do you really have the legal right to keep me here?”

“Yes."  At least she was finally acknowledging his complaints, even if this wasn't what he wanted to hear.  "We legally have the right to keep you under observation.” She sighed and offered him a conciliatory look. “This isn't about whether you like the system or not, Mr. Smith. This is about helping you understand why you attempted to kill yourself and finding out what it is you need to change in your life to keep this incident from repeating. Next time you decide to go drinking, do you really want the worry of suicide hanging over your head?” She turned and walked out.

Alvin rarely wanted to hit girls. He really wanted to hit this one.

No way had he tried to kill himself.

Sure, life sucked. His mother's early onset Alzheimer’s meant she had no idea who he was. Uncle Gilland was an asshole who was manipulating entire nations towards war for a selfish agenda Alvin didn't fully understand and was forced to aid anyway. He'd betrayed the woman he'd been living with. He might have loved her and now she was probably dead. After so many years of lying and running and never having to face the consequences...

None of that had to mean he wanted to die. Not that he hadn't considered it before, but... suicide simply never appealed to him. So he wouldn't have tried it while drunk, right?

The door opened again and this time some kid dressed in a med-student uniform walked in. He couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen with striking amber eyes nearly hidden beneath a fringe of dark, raven-black hair. This had to be the Mathis kid.

Alvin wondered if this guy was related to Dr. Mathis who'd left from Exodus a year after its formation. It seemed pretty likely; Mathis didn't exactly seem like a common surname on this world.

“I don't suppose you could do something about my hangover in addition to healing my arm?” Alvin asked, offering the kid a smile. The pounding in his head was still killing him, so he was hoping the answer would be 'yes.' Either way, though, he was planning on running off once he was healed up and Mathis left.

“Uh, yeah, I should be able to help with that,” the kid replied, responding to Alvin's smile with a slightly lopsided, and totally genuine, smile of his own.

Alvin relaxed as the kid's spirit arte usage eased away the pounding in his skull. He held out his arm Mathis to unwrap and heal.

“So, I'm Jude,” the kid offered with a smile. “You're Alvin, right?”

“Yeah. Look, how do I convince that doctor-lady... Kadowaki? How do I convince her that she's mistaken about what happened last night? Because, drunk or not, there's no way I'd try to kill myself.”

 Jude frowned thoughtfully. “Sorry. I only started on this program two weeks ago. I don't know her very well. Do you really not remember anything from last night?”

“Not really. Certainly nothing like trying to do that,” he gestured to the deep, sutured gash running from his wrist half-way up his arm.

“Well, if you can remember what happened and you really didn't try to kill yourself – and you can convince her its the truth – then she'll have no choice but to let you out early. Otherwise,” Jude shrugged, as if to say that Alvin was stuck in that case. “This is going to sting,” he added and then narrowed his eyes in focus, calling up another spirit arte to heal up the gash.

A minute or so later, Jude was removing the sutures. “Most people injured while drinking wonder why we don't just heal it up while they're still drunk enough not to feel it,” he mentioned absently.

“I know alcohol interferes with the healing process,” Alvin told him. “You're pretty good at that for... a first year student?”

“Yeah, I'm a first year,” Jude affirmed. “My parents are both doctors, so I've already learned a lot from them, if that's worrying you.”

Alvin shook his head negatively, letting out a sigh so he could pretend to be resigned to his fate. “What's this observation week going to look like?”

“Group therapy in the mornings, starting today, and then either more group therapy in the afternoons or you could also get some books from the library and spend the time reading. In three days, you'll get another visit from Kadowaki to check up on how you're doing. At the end of the week, she'll interview you again and decide, based on my evaluations and her interview, whether or not you should be released.”

“Sounds boring,” Alvin huffed, crossing his arms.

“Maybe it will be, but would you humor me at least for today?” Jude's smile was honest. Alvin had sort of forgotten what honest smiles even looked like.

It would probably be easier to escape in the evening or at night anyway.

“Yeah, sure. It can't hurt to play along for now,” Alvin agreed.


Additional Notes:

  • Medical students have to spend time in every wing of the hospital at some point doing rotations for class credits.  Jude's rotation to the psychological health division just happens to correspond with Alvin's unfortunate drunken episode.
  • Despite his best efforts, Alvin gets stuck there for a week.  But he winds up friends with Jude during that time and even opens up some about his problems with Gilland and how his relationship with his uncle screwed up his relationship with Presa.
  • Alvin has it pointed out to him that things like desiring to go to sleep and never wake up are actually forms of suicidal ideation and that some of his coping habits are technically forms of self harm.  It freaks him out and makes him worry about what really happened the night he was sent to the hospital.  He fakes being okay well enough to get Dr. Kadowaki to release him at the end of the week, however.
  • Alvin starts spending time with Jude every time he's in Fennmont, which winds up being pretty often.  Jude helps Alvin develop more healthy forms of coping with his stress and Alvin winds up telling him more and more, skirting dangerously close to the truth, about some of the worst problems in his life.  When Jude gets a break between semesters long enough, he insists on going with Alvin to visit Alvin's mother.  Jude's healing arts help heal her from being poisoned and her caretaker is sacked.  Alvin knows what its like to be blackmailed into doing things he hates, though, so he doesn't press charges against her, letting her run away instead.  Jude tries to get Alvin to send his mother to Jude's home village to be taken care of by Jude's father, but Alvin doesn't want to bring unwanted attention to Jude's family and declines, instead hiring a new nurse that Jude helps interview.  After this, though, Alvin is pretty much halfway to being a ride or die friend for Jude.
  • Back in Fennmont, Jude asks Alvin what it is about Jude's father that makes Alvin so uncomfortable.  So Alvin admits to having heard that name from his uncle.  While he's sure Jude's parents are good people, Alvin's uncle very much isn't.  Alvin just wants to protect Jude, if he can.
  • There'd be a few time skips from there, with Alvin and Jude hanging out or traveling to different places during Jude's holidays from school.  The final pre-game events scene would be Jude and Alvin celebrating Jude's internship with a leading researcher in Fennmont.  While Alvin is proud of Jude's accomplishments, he cautions Jude to be careful as Gilland has ties to the research institute.
  • From there a lot of the games plot points would still happen.  Jude meeting Milla and discovering the spyrix and the human experimentation going on.  Escaping together with Alvin's help, etc... but Jude is more open with Alvin and, as a result, Alvin's finally able to figure out Gilland's real plans and decides early on to turn against Gilland.
  • When Elize is kidnapped, Alvin is shot and nearly killed by members of Exodus who no longer trust his loyalty.  On the Zennethra, Alvin kills Gilland before Gilland's experiment with the spyrite tech can go wrong.  Instead, Celcius is released by accident and Milla still sacrifices herself as things get increasingly out of hand.
  • Alvin protects Jude and Leia and Leia doesn't get shot because Jude and Alvin don't fight.
  • Jude and Milla are teased about their relationship being romantic, but both insist it isn't.  Their feelings are intense, but platonic; either an intense friendship or a proto-QPR.  Neither are particularly interested in kissing, though holding hands or cuddling is cool.  Alvin doesn't really understand, but he respects what Jude has to say about it.