The notebooks, twelve in all, sat in a neat stack atop Mal’s desk. They were memo sized and bright orange, the covers worn and a little crumpled as though they had been stuffed in a bag or a pocket. And there was no note with them.
It’s not like his desk was completely off limits. Dakota and the rest of the council was in and out of his office from time to time, especially when there was Clan business at hand. And as Serenity had business concerns both within and without Sitka, it made sense that someone would drop something off when they needed to.
Mal picked up the notebook on the top and turned it over in his hands before flipping it open. His eyes scanned over the first page and he began to smile.
Journal of Alec J. Hardison
(Being an account of my first days in the back end of nowhere)
He sat down at his desk and began to read. It was clear that Alec was not a natural journaler, or at least he wasn’t in the beginning. That first book consisted of lists like:Things that I hate about this whole enterprise
(even though I agreed to it like an idiot):
3) weather and nature
Also names of people he’d met on the trip to Sitka; Mal made a mental note to have those names vetted by McClane. It was good for Alec to form bonds amongst people in and around his new home. He was a natural charmer and it would serve him in good stead during his years there.
Mal tapped his fingers on the stack of notebooks thoughtfully. This was Alec’s way of showing he trusted him. Not just as a Clan Leader but also, Mal hoped, as a friend. He scooped the notebooks up and walked out of his office, already considering what to read first.
Late January 2009
Eliot thinks he’s being funny. It’s not what he said but I know that’s what he means. Seriously, who packs up your stuff and takes away your computer and shoves a bunch of tiny little notebooks in your hand and says, “Come along, apprentice?”
Eliot Spenser, that’s who. – Apprentice. Ha. Like he’s the Emperor or something.
Also, he put me on a boat and we are slowly making our way to Sitka while Wade and Cas caught a ride up with Wash. In a plane.
Have I mentioned that my sire thinks that he’s a laugh riot?
I’ve never been much for keeping a diary. That was never my thing but I guess I can use these for that in addition to any bits of wisdom Eliot decides to shove my way. All I have to do is look over at him and see that eye brow raise. That’s my signal to write shit down. Lucky me, my years with Nana means I’ve got penmanship down pat. My print’s even better so I can make these itty bitty note books work…
Alec stepped out on the deck of the ferry, MV McKinley, and was hit by a rush of brisk wind. He pulled up his collar and pulled down the wool hat over his ears. “I am not cold,” he muttered. “So not cold.”
It wasn’t as cold as it could have been. A fellow ferry passenger, Celeste MacAuley, had shared both spiked coffee and general weather information that morning.
“Such a city boy!” she’d said. “Late January we usually get more rain but snow isn’t out of the question.”
He said goodbye to Celeste and her husband, Randall, when they got off the ferry in Petersberg. Randall shook hands with both Alec and Eliot before walking down the gangplank. Celeste pulled Alec down and gave him a peck on the cheek. “You’ll do fine, Alec. If you or any of your friends are ever in town, you always have a room at our inn. Keep in touch?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alec replied dutifully. He waved as Randall gathered up Celeste and hustled her away.
“That’s good,” Eliot said and slapped Alec on the shoulder. “Making connections that aren’t in front of a computer screen.” Alec looked at Eliot who grinned cheekily at him. “This is good for you.”
“I’ll have you know that online relationships are real.”
“Not when you’re playing an elf prince mage thing.”
Alec rolled his eyes and walked back to their stateroom.
They pulled into Sitka the next afternoon. Alec made sure to pack everything back into his bag carefully under Eliot’s watchful eye then hefted the bag on his shoulder and nodded at his Sire. “Let’s blow this pop stand.”
As he walked down the gangplank, Alec stopped and took a look around. Sitka was beautiful. The slightly overcast sky served as a backdrop for soaring mountains with the main part of town nestled near the waterfront. Alec’s city-critical eye tried to fill in what was missing – the constant flow of people, sweeping skyscrapers and the like – and failed.
“Hardison! C’mon, our ride’s here.”
Eliot stood at the base of the gangplank waiting for him along with another gentleman who was kitted out in a field jacket and muck boots. Alec made his way down the gangplank and hitched his pack higher on his shoulder. He cocked his head, a nearly forgotten memory springing to mind. “Haven’t we met before?” he asked.
“Jack Carter,” Jack thrust his hand out and Alec shook it. “I came to Xavier’s with Robert. We didn’t really get a chance to say much beyond hi and bye.”
“Yeah, I remember you,” Alec replied. “How’ve you been, man?”
“Pretty good. I got elected to pick you up since I was already going to be in town on a supply run. I’m parked right over here.”
He led the two to an older Land Rover and once they had their gear stowed, he took off. “So, do you want the ten cent tour or are you ready to get to the house.”
“Head to the house, I’m thinking,” Eliot said. ” I figure Alec’ll want to get the land back under his feet.”
“We could have just flown from Bellingham with Wash, Cas and Wade, but noooo.” Alec grumbled. “‘We’re taking the ferry up’, he said. ‘Fresh air, sunshine, quality time,’ he said.”
Jack spared him a look then found Eliot’s eyes in the rear view mirror. He didn’t miss the other’s smirk.
“Put you on the slow boat to Sitka, hmm?”
Alec startle to bristled but discerned the teasing tone in Jack’s voice. “It was only a few days but it just felt long. Plus, nature. Lots and lots of nature.”
Jack barked out a laugh. “That’s Alaska for you. Nothing but nature. Especially once you get out of the cities. It takes some getting used to but after a while, you don’t really notice the bear sitting on the back porch waiting for a handout.”
Eliot chuckled even as Alec’s mouth dropped open. “He’s kidding, Alec.”
“Not really,” Jack groused. “Still a bear even if it was just a cub.”
As they drove out of the main part of town, Alec let his mind wander. All of this was the result of choices he’d made: the hacking, getting into and out of trouble. Crimson Moon. His own decision to have Eliot Turn him. As his Sire was fond of reminding him, he had choices and the time, hopefully, to make better ones.
It wasn’t long before Jack turned the Land Rover on to a well packed drive.
“Hey, Alec,” Eliot said, catching the other man’s attention. “Check it out.”
“Wha…ohhhhh.” Even as nature averse as he was, Alec couldn’t contain his own wonder of the breathtaking sight before him. Serenity’s clan home was coming up on his right but the ocean in front of him seemed somehow different. Larger. Endless.
Jack parked the car then looked back at Alec with a grin. “It took me a while to take it in and I lived in Oregon for years. This may feel like the back end of nowhere but I’ll be damned if you can beat the view.”
“I feel you.” Alec replied softly. He wasn’t sure why he whispering and once he slipped out of the car, he’d shaken off the initial enchantment and moved to grab his bag from the back of the truck.
A man and two women were waiting on the front stairs of the house just as the trio cleared the car.
“Afternoon!” The man called out with an affable smile. His name swam to the front of Alec’s brain. Mal. Malcolm Montgomery. Serenity’s, and now Alec’s, Clan Leader. He recognized the taller Black woman who stood by his side, Zoe Washburn, Mal’s Second-in-Command. She stood with easy grace but Alec remembered that she was deadly as any with a shot gun, something he’d read in the packet of files that Nate had given him to read about Serenity. He shook hands with Alec and Elliot then held out a hand towards the woman with him. “I’d like you to meet our caretaker, Dakota Mosely.”
Immediately, Alec was reminded of Nana. Dakota was a little shorter but she had that presence that certain older women seemed to have in spades. He went to hold out his hand to her when Dakota stepped in and gave him a hug. She did the same for Eliot then stepped back beside Mal.
“Welcome,” she said sincerely. “There’s rooms ready for you and if you’re hungry, I have blood and food laid out in the kitchen.”
“Got the supplies you were waiting for, Dakota,” said Jack, pointing back to the truck. “Want me to bring them in?”
“I’ll take care of this,” Mal said. He walked towards the back of the Land Rover while everyone else looked on.
“Mal, just bring the bags in. Please don’t put anything away.” Dakota said pleasantly. Alec noticed the skeptical look on her face. Definitely some history there. And obviously Mal remembered because he blushed.
“I only moved things around that one time,” he replied waspishly
“And once was enough.” Dakota gave a small grin then gestured towards the house. “Let’s get you settled.”
Getting settled meant being installed in a large bedroom with a Queen-sized bed, local art hanging on the walls and French doors that opened on to a small balcony.
“Bathroom’s down the hall,” Dakota pointed out. “You’ll find a set of linens in your closet along with more blankets if you need them.”
Alec put his bag down on the bed and spied his computer bag sitting on a nearby desk. That’s when it hit him: he was really, truly in Sitka. He sat down heavily on the edge of the bed and rubbed a hand over his face.
“Are you alright, Alec?”
Alec looked up to see Dakota’s worried mien.
“Yeah,” he swallowed and tried again. “Yeah, I’m okay. It’s just real now, y’know?”
Dakota walked over and sat down lightly next to Alec. She rubbed his shoulder with one hand before wrapping her arm around his shoulders. “It’s okay,” she said softly. “Let’s you and me sit here for a few minutes. The rest of them can wait.”
Alec nodded, grateful for her understanding.
The next morning found Alec with time on his hands and nothing to do. He and Eliot had regular training time while they were making their way on the ferry but at the moment, he was reconnecting with with Nate. Sitting on the front steps of the house Alec thought he heard a voice.
“I’m in my office. Why don’t you come in and talk to me?”
That brought his head up and he looked around but there was no one else about except for a few people near the dock. The voice sounded distinctly like Mal.
There was an amused chuckle and then, “I forget you’re still honing your senses. It’s Mal. My office is on the first floor near the kitchen. See you in five.”
Alec shook his head. “Still gotta get used to that,’ he said to himself before getting up and dusting off his jeans. He walked into the house and headed for the kitchen. Inside, Dakota was talking to Bruce who was sitting on one of the stools near her table.
“Good morning,” she said brightly. She put the finishing touches on a small tray that held a pot of coffee and a small plate of pastries before holding it out for Alec who took it automatically. “A little coffee and something sweet makes any conversation a little more bearable. Mal’s office is that way.” She indicated with her head with a sympathetic smile.
“Um, thanks. Morning, Doctor Banner.”
Bruce nodded at Alec and twirled his glasses in his hand. “Morning. Listen, when you’re done, come down to the lab, would you? Robert and I were talking with Matt about some computer modeling we’d like to do and we wanted ask you what you thought.”
Alec blinked. “Okay? I mean, I don’t have that much experience with practical application. I’ve mostly just messed around with it if I had a reason to…” his voice drifted off as he realized how that sounded. “A legal reason to,” he finished lamely. Bruce chuckled.
“No worries. We’ll show you what we’re working with. Matt can bring you up to speed. I expect the two of you will spend some time together.”
“Coffee waits for no man or Vampire, Hardison,” Mal’s peevish voice floated down the hall and Dakota rolled her eyes.
“You’d think that the man would just come down and get it himself,” she said good naturedly.
“I could,” Mal said with some emphasis as he walked into the room. He liberated one of the coffee cups and the pot and mock glared at Dakota before winking at Alec. “I get no respect from my people. None.”
A raised eye brow was the only response he got from Dakota. Mal sipped his coffee then looked at Alec. “Good to see you. Let’s go before you’re corrupted.”
Alec put the tray back down and grabbed his own coffee cup, circling back to capture the pastry plate. “Thanks.”
He followed Mal down the short hall to the back of the house and walked into the office. It was snug and warm, benefiting not just from the fireplace but also some of the heat from the kitchen. The office was all dark wood and bookshelves from floor to ceiling. He eschewed sitting at his desk, opting to have a seat near the picture window that overlooked the back of the property. Alec took the seat opposite from him and then sipped his coffee.
“So,” Mal began, putting his coffee cup down on a small side table, “how did you sleep?”
The concern in the other man’s voice took Alec aback. “I’m okay. All of this,” he made a sweeping motion that took in the scene outside, all green and growing. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”
Mal looked at him with some sympathy. “It can’t have been an easy decision for you to leave everything you knew behind. That and to have become a Vampire as well. Not everyone can handle those choices in such short order.”
Alec squirmed a little uncomfortably in his seat. It was one thing to talk about this with Eliot or even Wade or Cas. They knew him, had been the only people to come close to truly knowing him outside of his Nana. “I did the things that got me and my friends into this mess. I needed to do something so I could feel safe.”
Mal’s lips quirked in a friendly smirk. “Well, that’s part of why Serenity exists. We’re a good, strong Clan but we do exist to hide those who need hiding. People like you, Bruce, a few others. That’s built into our DNA.” He picked up his coffee and sipped it. “You should try Dakota’s galettes. You’re going to love them.”
The younger Vampire picked one up and bit into it then closed his eyes in bliss. “Uh huh, what did I tell you?”
“Oh my guddd,” Alec muttered around a mouthful of flaky pastry. He stopped when he saw the amused look on Mal’s face and swallowed. “Sorry. That is really good.”
Mal took a bite of his own pastry and rolled his eyes in bliss. “You think this is good? You missed her Christmas cookies.”
“Oh man,” Alec moaned after he finished his sweet. “She’s definitely got a gift.”
“Well, stick around long enough and you’ll get to taste a lot more than that.” Mal reached over and poured himself a cup of coffee, holding up the pot in front of Alec inquiringly.
Alec shook his head. “Not much for coffee, thanks.”
Mal put the pot down and stirred in milk and sugar. “I believe Eliot mentioned that you pretty much own stock in something called Super Orange Blast soda? What kind of name is Super Orange Blast?”
“Hey, don’t knock it till you try it.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised. When I met Matt he was pretty much mainlining Jolt until John got him down to a bottle a day.”
Alec shifted in his seat. “Doctor Banner mentioned Matt before I came in here.”
Mal sipped his coffee and made a face at the heat of it. “Matt Farrell. He’s our Clan Researcher. A hacker, former hacker actually. His mate is Serenity’s Head of Security, John McClane. Anyway, Matt got in a little trouble and ended up here. It took him a while to get used to life here but he’s found a place to fit in. My hope is that you will too.”
There was a brief pause then Alec offered, “I know a big reason why I’m here is because you agreed to hide me, which I am grateful for, believe me.”
“You’re wondering what you’re going to do while you’re up here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
Mal sat back in his chair and crossed his leg over his knee and rested his folded hands there. “The short answer is: it’s up to you. I’m a firm believer in second chances. If you can start that here, great.”
“One thing I require you to do is meet with Niles Crane.”
Alec frowned. “Who is that?”
“Out Clan Psychologist.” Mal watched the play of emotions over Alec’s face before he continued. “Everyone, including me, has seen him at least once. Living here, as much as I and a lot of others love it, is a challenge. I chose to come here and make it my home. You’re young; newly made. Leaving your old life behind is not as easy as it looks. Niles is here to help.”
“Okay,” Alec mentally put that in the row of ‘Things to be avoided unless you can actually help it.’ “Anything else?”
“Well, there’s the whole swear your fealty to me if you want to stay. Kissing my ring and all that.”
Alec snorted but then sobered at the semi-serious look on Mal’s face. “Um…”
Mal held the pose for a moment then chuckled. “Ha! Gotcha! You should have seen your face. I don’t have a ring to kiss,” he looked thoughtful for a moment then continued. “Although it would not be a bad idea.” He fished into his back pocket and pulled out a small note book and pen, “let me just get this down.” He scribbled a few notes then put the notebook back in his pocket. “Ideas. Gotta take them were you can get them.”
He got to his feet and Alec followed suit. When Mal offered his hand, Alec took it. “Whatever you decide, Alec, you have more friends than you know. We’re here to help.” The two men shook on it and then Mal clapped his hands together.
“Alright then. Grab yourself that last galette and I’ll take you on the ten cent tour.”
The pair walked out of Mal’s office and back through the kitchen. Mal stopped long enough to kiss Dakota on the cheek. “Lovely as always, madam.”
The affection between them was clear. Dakota laughed softly and waved a hand at Mal. “Flattery as usual will get you almost anything except more galettes.”
“You wound me,” Mal said, hand pressed melodramatically to his chest.
Dakota just rolled her eyes and went back to work. Mal motioned towards the door. “Alec, this way.”
Alec followed, grabbing his jacket off the hook near the front door and shrugging his way into it. Mal stood on the porch and looked out towards the sound, his hand on the wooden pineapple.
“Can I ask you something?”
Alec gestured towards the wooden creation. “What’s up with the pineapple?”
Mal looked down to where he was rubbing the top of the four foot statue. “It’s a symbol of hospitality. Serenity is open to everyone who has need.” He glanced at Alec. “It’s also a good way to work off some steam.”
Alec raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“If you’re feeling antsy, out of sorts. You come out, you clean the pineapple.”
“Nope. Got a very nice set of brushes just for that purpose.” Mal gave the carved leaves a final rub. “Everyone, and I mean everyone, takes a turn at it.” He chuckled at the skeptical look on Alec’s face. “Ah, c’mon. It’s not that bad. A little cleaning, a little fresh air. It’s good for you.”
Alec looked at the pineapple and looked at Mal again. “You and Eliot with this fresh air stuff. Okay then.” He clapped his hands together. “What’s next?”
Mal walked down the stairs with Alec on his heels. “I know this is a big change for you, city boy and all, but I’m hoping you take the time you’re here to find out who you are and what you want to do. You’ve been a hacker for most of your life, right?”
Alec pushed his hands in his pockets, suddenly uncomfortable. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I mean, not my whole life but it’s about the only thing I’m good at.”
“Alright then, you just need to find something else that helps you fit that bill. Thing is, you’ve got time,” Mal said sincerely. “Be patient. Not just with us but with yourself.”
Later in the afternoon, Alec found himself outside a room marked “Security” on the other side of the house. He knocked on the door and only opened it when he heard a voice shout, “Come in.”
The double rows of computer screens and compact servers were state of the art and nearly made Alec weep with envy. He was walking forward before he knew what he was doing.
“Can I help you?” a voice asked dryly. Alec spared the older Vampire sitting at the desk on one side of the room a single glance before he fixed back on the glory before him.
“Nah,I’m good,” Alec muttered, his eyes plastered on the code running on one of the screens.
There was a chuckle behind him then another, much younger, voice filled in, “I told he’d probably react that way, John. One look at my baby and it’s like the whole world stops.”
That remark brought Alec up short. He turned around guiltily and felt the tips of his ears heat when he fully saw the two that had spoken. One was the aforementioned security expert. Even though he wasn’t one any more, John McClane oozed the words “cop” and “hard ass” with out even trying. He still sat behind his desk but gazed at Alec with a smirk and a quirked eyebrow. “Two of you. I didn’t know the world could produce two of you, Mattie.”
The aforementioned Mattie was obviously Matt Farrell, McClane’s Mate who was younger than McClane by nearly half, Vampire on no. His hair was a bit longer and in dire need of a cut and he was lanky whereas McClane was a bit bulkier. He carried two steaming mugs in his hands, one of which he held out to Alec as he walked forward. Alec took it and the smell of warm blood tickled his nose.
“Don’t mind, John,” Matt said as he indicated his Mate over his shoulder with his thumb. “He’s just afraid of the anticipated bump in brain power now that we have you on board.”
Alec grinned at the teasing tone. “Ah, he’s one of those.”
“I am not afraid of the brain power,” John grumbled. “Maybe the geek power.”
“Age of the geek represent,” Alec said with a chuckle and fist bumped Matt. “It’s gonna rub off on you if you stick around long enough.”
Matt snickered and looked at his Mate. “Told you.”
John got up from his seat and stalked over to the pair. “Yeah, well, the only rubbing off I want is you and me…” Matt held up his hands.
Alec just rolled his eyes upward and started to whistle innocently. John took a look at that and grinned ferally.
“Wow, okay, just slow your roll, John. Alec and I have work to do then I’m all yours.”
“You bet your ass you’re mine,” John replied silkily. He knew better than to get any closer to Matt because if he did, Alec was going to just have to come back later. John shook himself then looked at Alec who had wisely turned all of his attention towards the monitors. “Hardison.”
Alec turned around as John started to make his way to the door. The other man nodded at him. “Don’t keep my boy too long. I got plans.”
“Sure,” Alec replied easily. “Plans.”
“Funny man,” John said. “Later.”
Matt made little waving fingers at his Mate then turned back to Alec once he was gone. “So,” he said, clapping his hands together, “you, me. Stuff to do.”
“You have plans,” Alec said. “Your man said so.” Matt rolled his eyes.
“You’re going to beat this into the ground, aren’t you?”
“I’m tempted,” Alec replied with relish. Matt stalked over to the computers and waved to another seat, which Alec took. Matt couldn’t stay irritated for long. After a while he started to grin.
“John’s a little intense but he suits me, y’know?”
Alec nodded. “I see it with Cas and Wade. They’re still in the honeymoon stage.”
As they spoke, Alec watched as his life to date slowly fill up the screens. It was all there: the foster records, school, the legit business files that went with Angel Investigations. Matt glanced at Alec before he made a few more keystrokes. He waved a hand at the screens and said, “You know how this goes.”
With a heavy sigh, Alec nodded. “All this,” he made a circular waving motion, “goes away.”
“Including that pesky Pentagon file that’s been sitting on a certain server for YEARS,” Matt said with relish. “I thought I was the only person who’d experienced that kind of heat.”
“What do you mean?”
Matt sat back in his chair, running his hand through his hand as he stared at the screens. “A couple of years ago, there was this thing I got involved in. A fire sale.”
It took a minute as Alec thought back. “No. Way. THE FIRE SALE?” The capitals made themselves. “That was insane.”
“Yeah, well, I was neck deep up in it. It’s how I met John.”
Alec shook his head. “I heard rumors of what went down but never the full story.” He stopped then, thinking. “We all have something. You know that. If you ever want to talk…”
The silence stretched between them before Matt said, “John gets it, sort of. I mean, he was right there, protecting me. Making sure I survived. But, yeah, maybe one day. You get it in a way a lot of other people don’t.”
They went back to work, slowly copying and then erasing any trace of Alec that could lead back to Serenity. Once they dealt with the public records they went after that deeper layer – the dark web. That was a little more painful. Alec lived his life here; hacking, working jobs on occasion. Plying his skills. Once they had the relevant files gathered, Matt pushed the keyboard toward Alec. Alec looked down at it, one finger hovering over the “ENTER” button.
“This has been a part of me for a long time,” he said quietly.
“You’ll get it back. Just not now.”
“Yeah, I know,” Alec said. He pressed the button.
The records purged with brutal efficiency until all that was left was a blinking cursor on the screen.
Both geeks sat staring at that cursor until finally Matt said, “You okay?
Alec rubbed a hand over his face and blew out a breath. “Mmmm, yeah. Yeah I am.”
Matt grabbed two game controllers and handed one to Alec. A few swift key strokes and they were ready to start their first campaign.
“For the Horde,” Alec said solemnly.
“For the Horde,” Matt replied and the two bumped fists.
Along with learning about being a Vampire, Eliot had Alec on a fairly structured physical regimen. Even though Alec was in decent shape pre-Vamp, Eliot emphasized being even more so now that he’d changed. So, working out, sword training, basic combat. These had become a regular part of Alec’s life. Which is why he was out on a run. “Builds character,” Eliot said.
Alec glared at him and replied, “You’re going to get me eaten by a bear.”
Eliot rolled his eyes. “Again with the bear. You and Jack need to get over this bear thing.”
Alec stopped running beside a rough hewn face and blew out a breath. It wasn’t like he was all that winded; in fact he was in a lot better shape than he’d been in a while, Vampire or no. Something he wasn’t going to tell his Sire because he didn’t want Eliot to smirk at him and say “I told you so.” A man had his pride.
He turned towards the fence, resting a hand on the top rail and taking in the sight before him. As the wind blew, the high grasses on either side of the fence sway also bringing with it a low basso moo. He looked up to see four large oxen with darkly dappled hides grazing peacefully. As Alec watched, a fifth walked into view. This one was slightly different, similar markings but a slightly lighter color that was distinctly blue.
“What the hell?”
He settled himself with one foot on the bottom fence rung and watched the oxen. It was peaceful. After all he’d been experiencing lately, Alec finally realized that he needed some peace and quiet. So he watched the ox. The ox watched him. A win win.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been there but he heard heavier footfalls coming towards him but didn’t move.
“That ox is blue,” Alec said conversationally, leaning against the top rail of the fence. “There’s other ox out there that are sort of blue-ish but I swear to got that that one ox is really blue.”
The ox in question raised its head from where it was browsing in the thick grasses and contemplated Alec as it chewed.
The other person settled next to Alec and there was slight creak as the lower rung gave way to some heavier weight.
“Blue roan Shorthorn-Holstein oxen,” a deep voice said. “Paul’s raised them for decades. Used to use them when he worked logging. Old Babe there, he’s a sport. Always have to have one.”
Alec turned and looked…up. He was tall but this man was just a hair taller and broader than he’d seen in quite a while. The sleeves of the other man’s forest green Henley were pushed up to display dark powerful forearms that rested on the top of the fence much like Alec’s. “You’re John Henry.”
The other man smiled widely and chuckled. “And you’re Alec. Mal told me you’d read up on us.”
Alec shrugged. “You’re a little hard to miss.”
The chuckled turned to an all out booming laugh. Alec felt his ears burn. “I’m sorry. Sometimes my mouth gets away from me.” John Henry shook his head as he got himself under control.
“No, no, it’s fine. You say what you mean, I like that.” John Henry shook his head and gave one last chuckle before he stuck his hand out. Alec took it, watching as his more slender palm was encased in the other man’s. They shook. “I’m sorry we weren’t here to greet you when you got here. Work keeps both Paul and I pretty busy.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.” John stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Third grade.”
Alec nodded at John. “You are a brave, brave man.”
John shrugged. “I like it. Kids that age are just starting to find out what their place is in the world and they want to know everything. Living out here means a different set of skills but they’re still just kids. And they’re funny.”
Alec backed away from the fence and gave the oxen one last look. “I was going to head back.”
“I’ll walk with you, said John. “We have a place just outside of town but we’ll be staying for a few days.”
The two men started to long slow walk back to the main house. “Cool,” Alec said. “I’ve been meeting a bunch of people but still trying to get my feet under me.”
“I can understand that.”
John was surprisingly easy to talk to, telling Alec funny stories about his students as they made their way back to the house. As they came up the stairs, the door opened and another man stepped out. Not as tall as John but he definitely had a well worn look about him.
“My Mate, Paul.”
“Bunyan,” Alec finished as he and Paul shook hands. “Read the file.”
Paul smirked. “Good to know.” He turned towards John. “Supper’s on.”
With Paul and John in temporary residence, the dining room table was full for the first time in months.
“So, you’ve settled into your job, Alec. How do you like it?” Mal asked.
“It’s not bad,” Alec replied, aware that everyone’s eye were on him. “Matt hooked me up with the university in tech support. UAS has a strong online course curriculum and they need a lot of help in that area to keep things running smooth.”
“What he isn’t saying is that the rest of the techs were valiantly resisting the impulse to wrestle him to the ground so he wouldn’t leave,” Matt quipped. When Alec glared at him, he shrugged. “What? I’m only telling the truth. The university ramped up their online offerings, which means there’s a lot more that could go wrong given how many people work on staff right now. It’s a lot easier to fix that stuff on site rather than contract it out to someone in Fairbanks or Anchorage.”
“Yeah, well, the techs weren’t that bad.” Alec offered only to be stopped by Matt’s snort.
“Right, tell that to Mary Cochran. I thought she was going to leap across her desk to make sure you didn’t walk back out the door.”
“I thought she was kind of giving me the eye,” Alec admitted. He passed a steaming bowl of vegetables to Jack on his right before tucking into his own plate. Even as a Vampire, food still held a great deal of pleasure for Alec. Sitting down for dinner like this felt a lot like the years he was living with Nana. Other foster kids would come and go, while a few who were with her all the way until they aged out. It really helped created a family feeling more than anything else could. Conversation flowed all around him and he rested in it.
“And how are the young scholars under your care doing, John?” Simon asked. The large man shifted back in his seat, hand resting on his stomach.
“They’re fine and already thinking about summer break,” he said with a rumbling laugh. “I’ll be sad to see them go.”
“Why’s that?” Alec asked.
” I’ve known most of them since they were really little,the big man said. “Next year they move on to Blatchey Middle School. We’re all really close. I’ll still see them in town but it’s different.”
“What happened with the after school program idea you were kicking around?”
John shrugged. “Fits and starts. We just lost our instructor when she took up with a man in Juneau and I don’t have a replacement.”
Alec happened to look up from his food right at that moment to see John’s eyes on him. “Um, what did I do?”
A broad smile formed on John’s lips. “Nothing. Yet.”
“Did I miss something?”
“How old were you when you got into computers, Alec?” Matt asked innocently.
Alec pushed back from the table a little and folded his arms across his chest. “11 or 12. Nana took me to the Boys and Girls club in town and they were giving computer classes. She signed me up. Thought it was a good way for me to make friends.”
“How long before you started hacking?”
“I don’t know, three months?”
“Hold on,” McClane broke in. “You were hacking when you were 11? Where were the adults?”
“In the room,” Alec replied. “I got bored. Everyone else was looking at either clothes or porn”
“As you do,” Matt broke in. Alec rolled his eyes and continued.
“I started wondering how you could get into government computers. Nana had an old VCR and I used to sit and watch Matthew Broderick and War Games all the time. It looked like fun.”
McClane put a hand over his eyes and shook his head. “Fun, he says. Digging into government systems and trying to start a war seems like fun.”
Alec shrugged. “Like I said, I was bored. My teacher caught me sneaking into the computer lab long after the rest of the kids went home and promised not to send my ass to jail if I was willing to let him teach me the right way to go about it.”
“You didn’t try to deny what you were doing?”
“Why bother? He caught me probing around the edges of an IRS server” Alec waved a hand at the assembled clan members. ” ‘sides, he was a hacker himself. Ran with a crew back in the early 90s in New York City.”
Matt was making waving hands. He subsided when his Mate glared at him but mouthed, “DUUUUDE we totally have to talk.” when McClane turned his back.
“Let me guess,” Alec said with a sigh. “You want me to take over.”
“You could try it out,” John Henry replied. “See if you like it. Most of them are my students so I know them. They’re good kids.”
Alec sat back and folded his arms. “So you’ve said. I’m terrible with kids.”
“Have you worked with them before?”
“No, but I’ve been one and I was not exactly a joy.”
Eliot nodded at Alec, “Get to know the parents. What have you got to lose?”
Alec crooked an eyebrow. “My dignity?”
*NOTE TO SELF: Do not stand still around your fellow clan members otherwise you will end up being volunteered.
A week later and Alec adjusted the strap of his messenger bag over one shoulder and nervously twitched his tie. Though his normal wear ran mostly to jeans, t-shirts and an ever present hoodie, he knew it was a little too soon for him to be that casual.
Parents had to trust their kids to him; hell, he had to trust himself with those kids. He even messaged Paul (aka Lord Nikon and his former mentor) about it. After a long string of LOL across Alec’s computer screen, Paul settled down and ran over much of what Alec needed to do, modeling it on the long ago program that brought Alec into his orbit.
“Most of all? Remember that kids can smell bullshit a mile away. You did. They’re curious so don’t talk down to them but stay in control. It’s just a few hours after school. You should be fine.”
For this gig, Alec broke out a light long sleeve shirt, and a nicer pair of jeans and casual boots. McClane corralled Matt before he could put his foot in his mouth mocking Alec while Eliot took a look at him and tossed him a tie, which Alec had looked at and said, “You actually OWN a tie?”
“Just put it on,” Eliot growled. “Once the parents feel okay about you, you don’t have to keep it buttoned up so tight.”
Which is how Alec found himself here, looking like the geekiest of geeks ever. All he needed was a pocket protector.
“You okay?” John Henry’s amused rumble caught Alec’s attention. “You look like you’re about to face a firing squad.”
Alec swallowed. “I’m fine, man. Totally fine. They’re kids, I’m the adult. It’s going to be okay.”
“Not everyone’s parent could make it today but those that are here will report back. Honestly, most of them aren’t going to care what you’re wearing.”
“Got it,” Alec replied.
“Think of it as protective coloring. They got used to me teaching here. After a while it’s like I’ve always been here. If this works out, that’ll go a long way with making you seem like a local after a while.” John Henry said and Alec nodded.
Proactive building an identity. Learning how to be someone new. This was Alec’s life now. It would be years before he’d have to seriously consider moving away from Sitka, especially since he’d been turned relatively young.
“Alright then! Here we go!” John Henry swept open the door and Alec followed after him. Ten sets of young eyes tracked his movement into the classroom along with another six sets of parental ones.
Alec and John Henry stopped near the front. “Good afternoon, everyone.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Henry.” came the cherubic response. Alec felt his hackles go up. They couldn’t be that angelic.
“I want everyone to say hello to Alec Hardison. He’s going to be taking over the computer club.”
Alec grinned nervously and waved. “Hi.”
One ginger headed girl raised her hand and John called on her. “Yes, Jenny?”
“What happened to Miss Sipowitz?”
John shoved his hands in his pockets as he answered. “She’s moved on up to Juneau. It was all very sudden but she wishes you all well.”
“I heard she got knocked up,” one of the kids whispered loudly which brought snickers from all around him. Alec’s eyebrow went up and he checked out the parents in the back. From the expression on their faces, the whisperer wasn’t too far off the mark.
“Well, all that aside, I hope you are going to make Alec feel welcome,” John continued. He turned to Alec and held out a hand. “They’re all yours.”
Alec slipped his bag over his head and hung it off the back of a chair. Then he walked around to the front of the desk and sat on the edge. He let his gaze sweep around the room then clapped his hands together.
“Alright, so, I’m Alec. You don’t have to call me Mr. Hardison, no one does.”
“Does it make you feel old?” one dark haired boy asked curiously. Alec looked back at John who was trying to hold back a smile.
Alec turned back and said, “It’s not that it makes me feel old. It just sounds weird, y’know?”
“I think it makes him feel old,” the kid said to one of his classmates, who snickered. Alec narrowed his eyes.
“What’s your name?” He pointed at the kid who had asked about his age.
“Roger, Roger Battle.”
“Anyone ever call you Rog?” Alec asked. “Or maybe something like Roger Dodger?” That brought a few giggles which quieted quickly when Alec raised his hands. He left the desk and walked towards Roger. The kid was a little red in the face but he kept his eyes on Alec. When he got to Roger’s desk, Alec got down on one knee.
“I’m okay with you calling me Alec because that’s what my friends call me,” he said quietly, all of his previous nervousness gone. “I’m the new guy; I get it. You’regonna poke at me a little. That’s fine, too.” He held out a fist and Roger looked at it and then at Alec’s face. Alec rolled his eyes. “Don’t leave me hangin’.
Roger tentatively fist bumped Alec who broke out in a wide grin. “Alright. We good?”
Roger nodded, a small smile playing on his face. The rest of the class took note of the entire exchange and there were eager whispers as Alec went back up to the front of the room. “Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about what Miss Sipowitz was going over with you. Parents, feel free if you want to stick around.” One more hand went up.
“Mr. uh, Alec?”
“Okay, what’s up, Alice.”
“Do you know what hacking is?”
That brought Alec up short. He slipped his hands into his pockets and rocked on his heels. “I’ve heard of it, sure.”
“Can YOU teach us that?”
Alec pretended to consider the request. It was like deja vu; he was a little younger than Alice at the point he got into the game so having her ask him about it took him by surprise. “So why do you want to hack?”
Alice looked around at her friends. “I saw it on a TV program and it looked really cool.”
“Well, hacking is really a matter of figuring out how to get into certain systems as quickly and efficiently as possible. It takes a lot of skill, which takes time and effort to develop…” Alec chanced a quick look over at John Henry who was staring at him with one eyebrow significantly raised. “And it’s also very, very illegal which is something that I know your parents wouldn’t want you learning to do,” he finished lamely. “But we’re gonna have fun. You’ll never even want to start hacking.”
Alice looked a little disappointed as she sat back. One of the other kids whispered to her and she nodded and whispered back.
After a few more questions, Alec finished up. “Alright, I’ll see everybody Monday.”
The kids converged on Alec, their parents right behind them. He fist bumped and shook hands and once everyone was gone, he flopped into a chair. “Okay, that did not totally suck.”
“On the contrary,” John Henry replied. “You did good. Real good. You’re a natural.”
“Oh and nice save on the hacking question.”
(Yes, he avoided the question but that does not explain why a parent came to me and swore that when she stopped by the class room one day, she heard someone scream, “Avast me hearties! Pillaging is afoot.” The parent declined to walk all the way into the classroom.-John Henry)
…I pretty much avoided talking to Niles for months. And it’s not like the man didn’t try to track me down. I just declined to make myself available. Therapists make me nervous. Scratch that: therapy freaks me out. – A. Hardison.
Alec was working away at the pineapple, annoyed and frustrated with himself. The day had not been great. Servers were down at the university. The kids had decided to be a pain. And then there was Alec’s own stuff. He’d been settling in slowly, acclimating himself to his surroundings but just when he thought he was almost there, he’d slide backwards. He’d lay awake at night, feeling that all encompassing vastness of his new life before him and something would feel like it was about to snap inside.
“You do realize that with all the energy that you’re putting that, you might very well rub that entire side off.” Niles said sardonically.
The brush slowed then stopped and Alec sat down heavily on his rear on the top step. Niles stood at the bottom of the stairs, hands in the pockets of his field jacket looking up at Alec. “I’d ask you to come talk to me in my office but that’s not working.”
Alec sighed and rubbed a hand over his sweaty brow. “Look, man, I’m sorry…I..” he stopped when Niles held up a hand.
“It’s not working but it doesn’t mean that I won’t stop trying.” He rocked back on his heels and pulled a set of keys out of his pocket. “That said, I need to go into town. Come with me.”
“I should finish this.”
Niles snorted. “As I said, you might not have a pineapple left when you’re done.” He tossed the keys at Alec who caught them instinctively. “I’d like the company.”
Old habits meant that Alec’s first impulse was to beg off and make himself scarce. But those same habits were part of his problem. “Alright. Let me check with Dakota, see if she needs anything.”
Understanding hazel eyes met his own. “I accept that not everyone like to end up on the therapist’s couch.”
“You don’t have a couch.”
“Indeed, I do not. Too much of a cliché.”
That brought a huff of laughter from Alec.
They didn’t go to Nile’s tiny office downtown. Instead, they were sitting having coffee at Vladivostok, Sitka’s one and only hipster coffee bar.
“It’s more hipster-esque than actually hipster,” Niles offered.
“I didn’t think there were enough hipsters in Sitka to push it into ironic territory,” Alec replied. Niles chuckled.
“So noted.” Their talk subsided as their coffee and pastries were brought to them by a flannel shirted barista.
“I get it. I’ve been avoiding you,” Alec said after a few quiet moments.
Niles nodded. “We’re a small community, both within and without Serenity’s walls. And even though you’ll be able to leave here eventually, the fact remains that it wasn’t your first choice.”
“Yeah, my first choice would have been to dip and lie low until I thought that Cri…” He cut himself off and wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. “Until things had blown over,” he finished gamely.
“I understand it caused Nick and Eliot some degree of consternation when you said you were going to leave.” When Alec looked at him, Niles shrugged. “I’ve talked with both of them as well as with Mal. Sometimes they forget that even contemporary folks can make themselves disappear if the need is great enough. And as a child of the digital age, you could make it much harder for certain people to find you.”
Alec sipped his coffee and tried not to make eye contact with the barista. “I’m assuming you know some of how I grew up.”
“I know what you’ve told others,” Niles replied. “I was hoping, if you felt safe enough, that eventually you’d be willing to talk to me about some of it.”
Alec let that sink in and then he said, “Compared to a lot of kids in the system, I got lucky that I got Nana when I did. I will still young enough to find a family and I hadn’t been in the system that long. I wasn’t ruined yet.”
He said those last words entirely without heat but there was a slight hitch that Niles detected that he was pretty sure that even Alec missed. He filed this away for later observation.
“I did okay with Nana. She’s the one who got me hooked up with computers.”
“Ah, the nefarious after school program,” Niles quipped. “The one that put on the road to crime.”
“Nah, man, it really wasn’t like that at all,” Alec began but stopped when he saw the wry twist of Niles’ lips. “You’re good at the whole getting people to talk thing.”
Niles shrugged. “You could say it was my super power.”
For another thirty minutes, Alec talked a little more about his childhood, finding it easier the longer he went along. It wasn’t exactly cathartic but it did feel comfortable by the time he was done.
“Do you understand why Mal wanted you to talk to me?”
Alec shook his head. “Nah, not really.”
“By the very nature of who we are and spirit willing, we’ll both live a very long time.” Niles looked to the distance before looking right at Alec. “The mortal life that you thought you would live, that’s gone now. You have a chance to take stock of your life in a way that mortals do not. And you get to do it over and over, recreating yourself.”
He threw some money on the table and the pair left the coffee shop. As they walked , Niles continued. “That’s both a strength and a curse for us. Everything around us will change and it’s tempting for us to not change along with it. So, we have to remind ourselves that change is good, that it’s something that we shouldn’t be afraid of. Your mortal life has worth. Remember it while you can.”
Alec walked beside Niles, his hands stuck in his pockets, thinking. Finally, he said, “I appreciate your insights, doc. Given me a lot to think about.”
“So, once a week? Doesn’t have to be a full hour. Let’s look at it more like a check in.”
“I can live with that.”
Summer Solstice, June, 2009
Mal nimbly dodged Sam and Dean as they dashed by him and out into the summer sunshine, an out of breath Alec on their heels. He leaned against the door jam, panting after the fleeing animals.
“Yeah, that’s right! Keep running. Don’t think I won’t find you at some point…” he shouted, waving a hand after them.
Alec looked over at Mal, who crooked an eye brow in inquiry. “Baths,” he replied. “Robert got it into his head that Sam needed to get clean for the celebration tonight.”
“Sam’s his dog,” Mal pointed out. Alec nodded.
“True. His and Jack’s dog. Robert’s still holed up in the lab and Jack is doing,” Alec waved a hand. “Something, I don’t know.”
“Did you volunteer for this little escapade?” Mal asked. “Or were you standing still?”
Alec rolled his eyes and replied, “Number two.”
“Huh. Well, I’ll leave you to it,” his Clan Leader said, clapping his hands together. He started to walk towards his office when he heard Alec behind him.
“Don’t make me run after you. Don’t you do it!”
Mal chuckled as he walked away. The rest of the Clan was out and about doing whatever needed doing so they’d be ready for the solstice celebration that night. It had been a few years but they were actually going to have a fairly full house, what with some of the fishermen and others in attendance. Even though he himself split his time between New York and Sitka, there was something to be said for being in the home place these past few months, figuring what he wanted to write about next. Beckett might have something to say about that.
The sun was setting when they settled down to their Solstice dinner.
Alec looked around at his fellow Clan Members and finally something inside of him eased. He’d given Mal the notebooks as way of showing his own good faith that he would try and make a home.
When he looked at his Clan Leader, the other man raised his glass in his direction, his smile warm and bright.