…And A Time To Die
by Charlie Ball & John Guilfoyle

Sarah had called Alex late in the afternoon to let Alex know how her check-up had gone. After a little small talk, Alex had invited her to his home for dinner.

"You might want to pack an overnight bag or something. Dinner will be around eight and it's just over a two-hour drive from London. By the time we're finished, and with the return drive, it would be extremely late before you got back to your hotel. And we do have a tremendous amount of room here..."

"Only if you're sure it's okay. I don't want to impose or anything…"

"Not at all, Sarah. I've already spoken with mother about it, and you're welcome to spend the rest of your visit here to England with us at the estate."

Sarah accepted. "Sure, I'd love to - if it's okay with your mom, and you, then I'd love to stay. It might be easier that way, since you live so far from the city."

Alex smiled on the other end of the phone. "I agree, Sarah. The limo will be around at five-thirty to pick you up. I'll see you at about half-past seven."

******

Sitting in the back of the car, Sarah watched the scenery change from the urban environment of London to suburbs and finally, to rolling countryside. After a long, quiet ride, the car finally slowed and turned onto a private drive. The road wound through a stand of very old oak trees and moments later the manor came into view.

The estate looked like something from a post card -- manicured lawns, neatly trimmed hedges, brick walls covered with ivy. It was impossible for her to tell how old it was but it had to have been more than a century. As the car came to a stop, Alex came out of the door, slightly bending his head to avoid hitting it on the doorjamb.

"Hello Sarah," he said with a gentle smile. "I'm glad you could come. I hope the drive wasn't too tedious."

Thanking the driver, Sarah straightened her jacket and tucked a curling wisp of hair behind her ear. "Hi," she said simply.

"Dinner will be in a half hour or so. Let me show you to your room. One of the staff will have your bags there in a bit."

As Alex led her up the stairs and down the hallway, he asked, "So everything is alright, then?"

Sarah nodded in the affirmative. "Yeah, I'm healthy as a horse. And… there's no sign of any of the surgeries I had. After the x-rays came back negative, they even ran a CAT scan. I was at the hospital all day, but the important thing is that I got a clean bill of health."

"Well, that's good news," Alex said with some amount of relief. They stopped in front of a beautifully paneled door. "Well, here we are," he said as he opened it up. "I think you'll find everything that you need. I'll go get changed myself and I'll meet you back here in a bit - then I can introduce you to mother. I'm at the end of the hall so if you need anything, just knock... or you could just pull the cord over there," he said indicating an intricately woven cord by the wall, "and that will ring a bell for the maid."

Sarah was impressed. "Wow, Alex, the maid? This place is awesome!"

"I think so too," Alex returned with a smile.

"See you in a few," Sarah said, disappearing inside her room.

******

Answering the brief knock at her door, Sarah opened it to find Alex waiting. He looked quite dashing, though the girl could still detect the sadness in his face that had been present since he'd heard about his father passing away. For her part, Sarah looked radiant. She'd gone shopping in London, and had purchased a beautiful evening gown and a mink wrap - among other things. Her outfit revealed and accentuated both her tanned, muscular shoulders and a tasteful amount of cleavage. What was truly appealing, however, was the way the girl carried herself. She simply seemed more comfortable.

"You look lovely," said Alex with a smile as Sarah stepped into the hallway. "Mother's in the parlor. Ready?"

Drawing a deep breath, Sarah released it and said, "Yes - though you need to know I'm really nervous. I'm a poor American girl at heart, remember."

Alex smiled and said, "There's really no need to be nervous. It's just my mother, not the Queen..."

Alex took her by the hand and led her back down the stairs. They went down another hallway and entered into the parlor. Sitting in a chair was a woman dressed in black who, at first glance, didn't seem to be old enough to have a son Alex's age. She looked up as they approached her and Sarah could make out the fine wrinkles near her very green eyes that hinted at her actual age. Sarah could also make out the faint, tell-tale signs that she had been crying at some time earlier. Still, she smiled warmly at the two as they came near.

Alex stepped slightly to the side as he said, "It is my honor to present to you Sarah Steiner, a very good friend from New York. Sarah, this is her Grace, the Lady Alysson St. John-Smythe, Duchess of Gloucester, or better known to me simply as 'Mother'... and," he added with an impish grin, "occasionally as 'Mum' when I want to wheedle something out of her."

Lady Alysson arched her eyebrows at her son as she rose.

Sarah offered an awkward half-bow-curtsey thing that she'd later be embarrassed about. "Hello, Lady Alysson," she managed.

"Welcome, dear," she said as she stood up. Sarah found she was several inches taller than the duchess, but something about the older woman's bearing made her seem taller. "I'm very pleased to meet you. Alex has told me a good deal about you, but he seems to have forgotten to mention how beautiful a young woman you are."

Sarah grinned a bit goofily at the compliment, then quickly regained her composure. "Um, thank you. You look wonderful, I should say. You look more like Alex's sister than his mother."

The duchess chuckled a little. "Oh, if only that were true... but thank you anyway. I trust the drive wasn't too tedious?..."

"No, not at all," Sarah politely answered. "It was a pleasant ride."

After a bit more conversation, the trio made their way into the huge dining room and sat down at the table. In short order, courses began arriving and Sarah watched in amazement as the meal progressed - Alex and his mother were complete naturals in this setting, which was so foreign to her. The staff waited on them hand-and-foot, the food was incredible - if much of it unrecognizable - and every bite, every beat in the whole affair seemed carefully measured and long considered.

Alex glanced at her every now and then, his eyes holding a smile. Near the mid-point of the meal, he barely mouthed the words, 'relax, you're doing fine' and Sarah could swear she heard him as clearly as if he'd whispered in her ear.

Still, by the end of the dinner, Sarah's stomach was in knots. She'd made it through the meal without truly embarrassing herself, but the stress of considering her every movement, shift and word had worn on the girl's nerves. Worst of all, the new underwear she'd bought that afternoon was riding up her backside, and she desperately wanted to pull it out.

With dinner finally behind them, Lady Alysson stood, and said "I'm afraid I'm off to bed. There are some details that I have to attend first thing and I really should be awake for them." Turning to Sarah, she said, "Perhaps tomorrow afternoon, we could spend some time together. There are some lovely shops in town and I'd welcome the company. You might even be able to tell me what Alex has been up to in New York -- Heaven knows the phone calls are relatively rare," she added with a wink.

"I believe," said Alex, "that I've been officially admonished."

The duchess said 'good night' to Alex, pulling his head down to kiss him on the forehead. She then took Sarah's hands in her own and said, "Good night, Sarah. I'm glad to have met you."

Sarah stood as well. "And it's been nice meeting you," she replied. "I'd enjoy spending some time with you tomorrow, and want you to know that I greatly appreciate your hospitality in letting me stay here."

"Not at all, dear. We're glad to have you." Looking at both of them, she said, "try not to stay up too late. Cook will have a fit if you're not up in time for breakfast."

After she left, Alex smiled and said. "I think she's taken a liking to you, Sarah. I've never known her to take anyone to her favorite shops before she's known them at least a month. Did you get enough to eat?" asked Alex after they had left the dining room.

"Oh yes," Sarah answered, glancing over her shoulder to make sure the pair was alone. "Turn around for a second, Alex."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Hm?"

"Turn around! I've got some… clothing issues I need to take care of."

Alex arched an eyebrow, but did as was requested of him, and a very relieved Sarah resolved her undergarment situation. "There," she commented, touching her friend on the arm to let him know he could turn back around, "thanks. Now, want to show me around the estate?"

"Well, if the moon were a bit larger, I'd be happy to accomodate. Unfortunately, without a little more light, we'd probably end up stepping in a rabbit hole at some point. We could take the short tour or the manor house and then expand on it to the grounds in the morning."

Sarah nodded. "That sounds good. It is getting a little late, I suppose."

Alex gave her a tour of the manor house, pointing out some of the more interesting points about this portrait or that tapestry. They walked around the outside of the building for a bit and then ended up back in the study.

"Care for a nightcap or have I managed to bore you to the edge of unconsciousness?"

"What did you have in mind?" Sarah queried playfully. "I'm not too tired yet - I think I'm finally getting over the jetlag, actually. Just in time to go back to the states, of course," the girl laughed.

"That is the way it always seems to work, isn't it?" replied Alex. Looking around, Alex weighed the options for a nightcap. "There's usually some brandy in the study. Cigars too," he added with a wink, "but I've never really acquired the taste for them..."

"Cigars? Yuck!" Sarah said, making a face. "No thanks on that, but I will try a little brandy."

They went into the study, a dark paneled room that contained an antique oak desk that contained a small collection of photographs, several chairs, and a small sofa. One wall contained both a cabinet that housed a television and a large window that looked out onto the dark grounds beyond. The rest of the room, save for the study door, was lined with shelves full of leather bound books.

Alex went to one of the shelves and pushed on one side of it. A section of the wall swiveled around to reveal a moderately stocked wet bar. Alex selected a decanter and two brandy snifters and closed the panel. After pouring the deep, golden liquid from the decanter, Alex replaced the stopper and handed a glass to Sarah.

"Jeeze," Sarah exclaimed quietly, looking around, "this is quite the set-up. Are there any secret passages that lead to the Bat-cave?"

Alex chuckled and replied, "Not that I've ever discovered -- but certainly not for lack of trying. It used to be one of my favorite games. Every so often, I still knock on a wood panel or two, hoping find one. If legend is true, the man who built the original castle sealed the body of his brother into one of the walls."

Walking around the room, Sarah's eyes lingered on the photos that sat neatly arranged on the desk. Each picture was in a unique frame, some evidently quite old while others seemed to have been taken within the last decade. One picture in particular caught her attention -- the photo was that of a man in his mid thirties and a boy, probably no older than ten. It must have been Alex and his father.

"Is this your father?" Sarah asked, gently picking up the picture.

Alex glanced at the picture Sarah was holding and identified it more by the frame than the image. "Yes. That was taken just after my tenth birthday."

Sarah's heart fell. With everything else that had been going on, she couldn't imagine what it would have been like if she'd also lost one of her parents. Putting the picture back down, she moved closer to Alex and softly touched his arm. "Are you okay, Alex? This must be awfully hard for you."

Alex gave a sort of tight-lipped smile, and said, "It hurts... but I'll be all right. As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be near him -- to do the same things he was doing, dress the same way. I remember practicing the same facial expressions he used to make. Every so often, he'd get quite cross with me -- mostly when he was entertaining and I had snuck out of bed to listen to what he and the other adults were doing. Then, after the accident..." Alex paused and took a sip from his glass.

"After the accident, I used to spend a great deal of time in here," he said, indicating the room, "pretending that he'd be home any moment and tell me how his day had gone. One day, I think I was twelve, I'd overheard mother and some doctors discussing the option of disconnecting the life support equipment and I went a little mad. I kept screaming at everyone until mother promised me that she wouldn't let them do it."

Sarah listened attentively, trying to offer what support she could by sympathetically stroking the man's arm.

"It was especially difficult when I... spoke to him recently. In order to show me what actually happened to cause the accident, I had to re-live it, see it all over again. Then we talked about what had been happening in my life recently and gave me his perspective on it -- kind of a long overdue father-to-son chat. But it didn't seem long enough...  I miss him very much..."

******

The weather was actually quite nice for the time of year. Instead of the usual steady rainfall, the skies were mostly clear with only the occasional cloud drifting overhead.

The memorial service, at the family's insistence, had been small. Still, it had taken a bit longer than anticipated, but Alex didn’t mind. It afforded him a chance to learn of his father through the eyes of others who knew him.

Now, standing at the gravesite, head bowed and listening to the priest, Alex desperately wished that he could have had more time with his father. Behind him, with her hair up and dressed in a simple, knee-length black dress, Sarah stood silently, her eyes on the ground. Had Alex's grief not been so acute, he might have noticed that the girl looked particularly good this day; it was perhaps a confidence or peacefulness that wasn't normally present in her manner.

Near the end of the service, Alex stepped forward slightly and began, unaccompanied, to sing*.

And now that we've reached the end,
I think of all that's passed
of how the time that went so fast
and of how I've come to depend
upon the faith I feel inside your guiding hands.

With few exceptions, nearly everyone gathered for the service seemed slightly startled. While the song was expected, having been printed in the program, it was evident that they were unprepared for what they heard. Though Alex sang alone, one could almost hear other voices, as though there were people singing background vocals. Several people even looked around for other singers to no avail.

Say you'll go with me forever,
though I know that you can't.
Well I ain't much with words
There's nothin' I could say that you ain't heard,
But I promise you that each and every day...

I'll hear your voice
In every thought that flows through my mind.
I'll see your face
In every cloud that floats through my sky.
And when the world is too much,
and the hurt's got me down on my knees to pray,
I'll hear your voice
and you won't be so far away.

Though the young Englishman's emotions were plainly displayed on his face, they never seemed to touch his voice. The melody and the words were as clear and steady as anything that might have come from a recording -- perhaps more so... And the sound of supporting vocals was now unmistakable, though their source remained a mystery...

Do you remember a moonless night?
With only sound for a view,
funny what an ocean can do.
It was then that I knew you were right,
and that the hand I held would guide me to the light.

Say you'll go with me wherever,
even though I know it's just a dream
Though I know it's unknown,
It's something that I gotta do alone.
But I swear to you I could never do
anything without your soul inside.

Many of the women gathered, as well as a few of the men, were now openly weeping at the parting words that Alex sang to the memory of his father. Even the most stoic among those gathered found some excuse to wipe a bit of dust from their eyes...

I'll hear your voice
In every thought that flows through my mind.
I'll see your face
In every cloud that floats through my sky.
And when the world is too much,
and the hurt's got me down on my knees to pray,
I'll hear your voice
and you won't be so far away.

Someday I'll hold you,
and we will be sailin'
and I will never have to say goodbye again.
Til then, til that day

I'll hear your voice,
and you won't be so far away.

As Alex concluded the song, there was a moment of silence in which the sound of the imagined vocalists faded. Shortly thereafter, there was polite applause that was followed by the final benediction.

After the funeral, Sarah hung mostly in the background while Alex talked with friends and family. She was introduced as a friend of the family, and as she watched the mature young man she'd recently become intimate with conduct himself with poise and grace, her heart warmed. This was the Alex she knew - not some godlike being that could return from the dead, mend flesh and change reality. His father's death had obviously affected him deeply, but Alex had some inner strength that carried him through. Sarah wondered if she'd be as strong when her parents passed on.

Sarah noticed a younger couple, at the fringe of the gathering. Unlike Sarah, who was staying in the background to allow the family to receive the condolences of those in attendance, these two seemed undecided as to what to do now that the services were over. As Alex finished speaking to an elderly man who was apparently an old friend of the family, he looked up and, seeing the couple, his face turned suddenly neutral.

The two shifted uncomfortably for a moment and then walked forward to where Alex and his mother were standing. Sarah couldn't help but notice the young man walked with a limp.

"Hello, Gerry. Jessica."

"Hello, Alex," replied Gerry, who then nodded toward Alex's mother, "your Grace. I'm very sorry for your loss. I remember him as a very kind and generous man."

"Thank you, Gerry. He was always rather fond of you as well."

While they spoke, the young woman Alex had called Jessica, glanced quickly in Sarah's direction. If Sarah hadn't known better, she would have sworn there was a split second flash of jealousy in her eyes. Then the young man with the limp looked over as well, and in a moment Alex had brought them over for introductions.

"If you'll excuse me," said the Duchess, excusing herself, "I need to go and speak to Father Nichols and thank him for the lovely service. Thank you for coming," she said addressing both Gerry and Jessica.

After she departed, Alex turned to Sarah, extending a hand to her. "Sarah, I'd like you to meet two of my oldest... friends -- Gerry Collins and Jessica Randolph. Gerry, Jessica? This is Sarah Steiner -- a very good friend I met in New York."

Even with her hair up and wearing a conservative black dress and matching hat, Sarah was impressive. Her physique was unmistakable, and the make-up she wore completed a rather atypical look of sophisticated beauty. To those that didn't know her, she might even have seemed a touch detached. Her voice, however, was warm. "Hello Gerry, hello Jessica. It's nice to meet both of you."

Gerry's eyes quickly ran over Sarah from head to toe as he said, "Very pleased to meet you, Sarah. Have you known Alex long?"

Sarah noted Gerry's ogling, but showed no outward sign of having noticed. "A few months now," she answered, "though sometimes it feels like it's been much longer. We've been through a lot together."

"I'm sure," Jessica interjected, sounding to Sarah cold and as ironclad British as they came.

While she knew how to handle Gerry, Sarah wasn't so confident with Jessica – the jealousy in her eyes – and voice – was plain as day. "Uh… yeah. What I mean is that we've been in some tough situations together, because of – because of…"

"Our unusual talents," Alex offered.

"Yeah, our talents," Sarah agreed. "We've got a lot in common, Alex and I – both being young and-"

"Talented?" Jessica asked sharply.

Sarah met the other young woman's gaze. "We've both had to go through a lot of the same things because of our meta-humanity. Tons of like, medical tests and stuff. It can be a little like living under a microscope."

“Quite an ordeal, I’m sure,” replied Jessica coolly.

“Will you be returning to the States soon,” asked Gerry, turning to Sarah as he continued, “or will you be staying here a while longer?” His question implied that Alex couldn’t leave soon enough while Sarah would be welcome for an extended stay.

“I’ll remain in England for another week or so,” said Alex stiffly. “Unfortunately, Sarah will be returning sooner to fulfill other obligations.”

“Pity,” said Jessica, almost purring. “A shame we won’t have time for a fours–”

“Thank you for coming, Gerry, Jessica,” said Alex, cutting her off. “Perhaps we’ll see each other again before I have to go back.” Alex’s voice had a slight edge to it.

“Yes. Well, I’m glad we had the opportunity to see you,” replied Gerry uncomfortably. “Again, my condolences.” Turning to Sarah, he said, “It was a pleasure to meet you Miss Steiner. Perhaps our next meeting will be under happier circumstances.”

“Pleased to meet you as well,” said Sarah as neutrally as she could manage.

Jessica merely nodded to Sarah and Alex, almost glaring as they left.

“What was that all about?” asked Sarah in a low voice. “For a minute, I thought she might try to claw my eyes out.”

“I’m not entirely sure,” said Alex. “but I think that Brainchild may have done something to  them. The first time I met him, Gerry and Jessica had introduced him to me. The way they’re behaving now leads me to think he may have done more than just use them as an introduction service. They were my best friends as I was growing up and they were never like this before.”

The remainder of the afternoon was spent at a reception. Alex and his mother greeted and thanked everyone who came. Sarah was content to remain in the background but every so often, Alex would come over to check on her. Occasionally he would introduce her to the other guests, including both Prince Charles and Prince William, who were attending on behalf of the queen.

“Wow,” said Sarah a short time later. “It never occurred to me that you might know anyone from the Royal Family.”

Alex smiled a little. “We’re actually related. Cousins, I think. Mother can give you more detail than I can, I’m afraid. I haven’t quite gotten around to memorizing the family tree.”

“Wait a minute,” said Sarah. “If you’re related, then that means… What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“I mean… is there a chance you could end up… well… like ‘King Alex’ or something?”

“Oh God, I hope not,” said Alex smiling slightly. “I mean, it is possible… very remotely possible… but fortunately there’s little danger to that. There are at least a dozen other people in line, probably more. I’ve never kept track. But for Heaven’s sake, please let’s hope it never comes to that.”

Sarah was both surprised and somewhat amused by Alex’s response. “Well, besides the obvious tragedy it would take to get there, what would be so bad about something like that?”

“Are you kidding?” asked Alex with a look of exaggerated disbelief. “I thought the press hounded me enough when they discovered I was a metahuman. What do you think they’d do if I assumed the throne? The press would descend like a cloud of locusts; P.T. Barnum would rise form his grave and promptly turn green with envy at the sight of a circus like that. I might as well open a campground on the lawn of the manor and charge an entrance fee. ‘What would be so bad’, indeed…”

“Okay, Okay… Forget I mentioned it…,” Sarah smirked, held up her hands in mock defeat.

Finally, the last of the guests departed and the staff began cleaning up and several hours later, they found themselves back at the manor house. Sarah packed her bags and after a light meal, the two took a walk around the grounds.

* I'll Hear Your Voice by Rockapella

(two lines of the lyrics altered but otherwise intact. If you've never heard these guys, find a recording -- or better yet, an album -- and give a listen...)

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