After the Fire

DISCLAIMER: "John Woo's Once a Thief" remains John Woo's, and, considering what a delightful little series it is, who would have it otherwise? No infringements intended.

SPOILER: Ep 22 ("Endgame") definitely. And a passing reference to "Kangaroo Court".

COMMENT: This very short story was written around the New Year of the Dragon, 4698, or Imbolc, the Season of Inspiration, in the year 2000 CE, whichever you prefer. I had just watched the final episode, "Endgame", and I realised I had to do something about that ending, if I were ever to be able to write any more OaT stories. I did know there was a perkier ending out there somewhere, but at the time I had not seen it, and I had little hope of ever laying my hot little hands on a tape of Brother against Brother. I'm happy to say that this has since been remedied (great thanks, Lynda!). However, knowing that the more upbeat ending existed, helped me in writing this one. No matter how I may deplore the demise of fascinating characters in any series (Marcus Cole, anybody?), I'm usually loth to undo a heavily dramatic ending, for fear of belittling it. In this case however, an alternate canon ending (in fact more of a continuation) was already a fact, so I felt that ep 22 wasn't written in stone. And, I just had to open up that closure..

RATING: Perfectly safe.

FEEDBACK: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my main page.



After the Fire




Eliann SleepingCat

"There's never enough time."

She leant a little heavier on the roof of the car, as she turned to watch the fires eat up the building after the violent explosion. Her wound would not let her go over there for a closer look. If she rested a bit, she might be able to drive back. She'd have to do it herself now.

Yet it was not the wound that pained her, as much as the emptiness, the letting go, after all time has run out, and nothing in the world can repair what you lost. They had been a good team, those three. The best.. And now she would have to go back alone, and she would have to start all over again, as so many times before. Handpick those who had lost everything but their integrity, those whom nobody else would give the time of day, much less a second chance.

None of her other teams came close though. This had been her favourite group - not that she had ever let them know.

And what of Jackie? How would she take this? She was ambitious, that girl.. Was there a chance she might help handpicking two guys to work with? Somehow, the possibility was no comfort. There simply would not be another team like the one that had just been lost in the flames.

Now, why was that? The Director frowned, trying to analyse past events. She shifted a little, stood up straighter, as the memories began washing over her. Mac in jail.. Victor in jail.. starting their training.. Li Ann looking at her over a rack of clothes, smiling.. Victor avoiding her touch.. Mac in bed.. Victor walking beside her, her arm through his. Victor defying her.. accusing her.. smiling at her.. alone at the briefing table.. Many frantic incidents, but also many peaceful ones. All those quiet moments, where did they come from? Why had she never noticed them when they happened? Her impression of Victor had always been of a tornado in full swing or else only waiting for something to hit - but most of her memories now were of quiet interaction, slow walks, sea green glances..

What of his sister.. His mother? Those would be hard calls to make. They always were.

The fires were dying out. The smoke was roiling across the sky now, turning the night to lead and slate. She did not move, made no effort to get into the car. Later.

Later, she would go back, step into the empty hall and have a long and close look at the briefing table, get used to the idea that he - that they would never sit there again. She must never forget. Never slip up and expect to see him - see them there, no matter how briefly.

Another image. Victor pointing to his cheek and smiling. After she had more or less violated him, he had had the grace to make her look good at the awards ceremony - the ceremony Jackie and Li Ann had ruined by rolling over the floor, fighting.. She smiled a little. That had really been something.. But Victor's mood had puzzled and delighted her. Far from dodging her touches, he had allowed - even asked for - a peck on the cheek. Of all things, why should she remember that now?

She slumped a little over the car again, supporting herself on one elbow. No use. It was not her wound that hurt. And this was hell of a time to realize.

When had it happened? When she sprung him from prison and forced him into her service? Hardly. He had been an annoying macho puppy then - for all that he wasn't that much younger than she was herself - and she had had no patience with him. Not her type at all. Mac was gentler, more supple and versatile. More interesting. If she had had a favourite, it had been him. How certain she had been of that.. Later then. Was it the first time Victor smiled at her rather than cursing her? The first time she knew that all his fierce capacity for loyalty was turning towards her? Or was it simpler than that? Was it the first time he stared her down with those sea green eyes, and she let him - if only for a moment? The first time he lowered his voice to where the tone almost went out of it, leaving only a rasping whisper, showing he cared about her safety, her feelings?

She shook her head slowly, remembering. The last time he had done that, she had warned him against sniffing around the top dog. Well, the warning had proved sound, hadn't it? Still, she wished now that she had put it another way.

So much warmth, so much.. fire. So when? Not until he stopped her in the doorway - brusquely, because she had taught him to treat her as his equal in strength - and against her better judgment she did pause on her way to destiny, and she did tell him what she was about? Or even later? Was it only as he was carrying her out of this very building, before running back to save the others? No, by then the damage was already done, though she had not known it at the time.

Blissfully ignorant, as they said.

When did he get into her heart? She thought she had thrown all the bolts. She smiled mirthlessly to herself. And here I figured Mac for the cat burglar..


* * *

"Did.. have you seen the others?"

Oddly, his voice did not startle her. She must have thought it part of her dreams - of her grief.

"Director? You ok?"

She straightened and turned slowly, trying not to laugh. He had to be a ghost, and he was asking her if she was ok. As she saw him, she realized that she did not care whether he was a ghost or not, as long as he was there. She looked at him for a long moment, then she took the few steps across the clutter of debris and half fell against him, whimpering. He caught her and held her, making some presumably consoling noises. It occurred to her that she could never have let Mac see her like this. She'd never have recovered her face. Victor did not even seem surprised at her sudden falling apart. He was no ghost though. Underneath the acrid smell of smoke, she could detect his own special scent clearly. Maybe she had grown sensitive to it lately - or some time along the road. But she did not think ghosts smelled so - male.

"What happened?" she murmured, her face buried against his throat.

"I - I don't really know. We were almost out of the building.. I must've been thrown clear by the pressure wave from the blast - I think that's when we got separated. I must've passed out, because I came to, flat on my back, staring up into smoke. Looked like a thunder storm building up. Except it'd be out of season.." His voice trailed off. There were really no words now. Not for this. Funny how they had never allowed for disaster. Born optimists, the three of them..

"Why did you come back?" she asked, still not raising her head.

For a moment, he wondered if she were blaming him for not dying with the others; then she continued,

"You don't seem to be injured. Why didn't you run? Take your chance and start a new life far away from all of this? Even be a cop again?"

He was silent for so long, she thought he would not answer.

"You'd have found me", he said, finally.

"I thought you were dead", she pointed out, trying desperately to control her voice and failing only slightly. But noticeably. "I might not have come looking."

"Maybe I wasn't thinking clearly", he said, and she turned her head a little and smiled against his jacket as she heard the lie. He had not considered leaving. Because deep down, he wanted to stay.

"We gotta find the others", he pointed out. "You stay here, I'll go look for them."

But she clung to him. "There might be other bombs. Next time, you might not be so lucky."

Lucky. Strange concept. "We gotta know", he almost pleaded, feeling he could not simply push her off of him when she was injured. "I gotta know.."

"We'll have the building sanitized first", she insisted, finally looking up. "If they're alive, they're already out of there. If they stayed.." She broke off, casting a glance over his shoulder to where the sudden rage of fire had already exhausted itself. There were still fires burning, but they were peripheral to the site of the first explosion. The area where she had last seen her agents was only smouldering now. Suddenly she stood up straight, stiffening in his arms.


* * *

Out on the field of rubble that had once housed flower beds and a parking lot, two figures came staggering, both bruised and torn, their faces streaked with soot and their clothes in tatters. Mac was doing most of the staggering, hobbling actually. Li Ann, glad of being tall enough, was supporting him.

Looking towards the car, they both spotted the two barely separate figures at the same time.

Mac felt a surge of pure joy, an exhilaration born of triumph over death - but he covered quickly. "Oh no", he complained, "for a while there I actually thought we were rid of him!"

"He's a true Shambhalla warrior", Li Ann said affectionately. "They don't die."

"Him, a Shambhalla warrior? Look, you may be glad to see him, but isn't that overdoing it?"

"He has the integrity", she said quietly. "The honour. I'm not sure either of us thieves do."

"Does", Mac corrected her, then frowned. "I think. Besides, aren't the Shambhalla warriors a Tibetan idea? Some kind of Tantric rangers or something?"

Li Ann smiled. "The Tibetans got them from the Chinese."

"Oh yeah", Mac countered. "And Lenin invented the light bulb." He squinted against the smoke and the first intimation of dawn. "What's he doing anyway?"

"Who, Lenin? I think he's dead."

Mac made a disgusted face. "Vic, of course. Does that look to you like he's holding her? Because that's exactly how it looks to me."

Li Ann contemplated the scene in front of them, her face inscrutable under the soot. "He always had an ambitious streak.."


* * *

"They might be unconscious", Vic said without turning around. "Mac was hurt to begin with. Before all this hell broke loose." No reaction. "Look, Dir.." He sighed. "This is awkward. What do I call you?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

He should have heeded the warning, but he didn't. Under the circumstances, he barely noticed it. "What's your name?"

The odd thing was, she might have told him. A few moments ago, in their tight little pocket of time, she could have let him know. There was never enough time..

"Being the sole survivor does not entitle you to that kind of ambition", she said coldly. "And as it happens, you're not."

He let go of her as if slapped in the face. Then her second statement registered. He turned around - and jumped, almost failing at first to recognize the two bedraggled apparitions approaching them. Then he grinned, widely and incongruously. Wonder how he does that, the Director reflected, not for the first time. All those teeth can't really fit into one face.

"You've got blood on your sweater, Vic", Li Ann told him. "Looks sloppy."

"Sorry", the Director interjected with sublime cool, before Vic could answer. "I think that must be mine."

"You need to get that wound treated", Mac said to her. "I'll drive."

She pursed her lip condescendingly. "I doubt you're up to it", she said, glancing at his leg. "Victor will drive."

Vic held out his hand, offering to assist his Director into the car. But she paused in silence, giving them all a sweeping look, as if to convince herself they were really there. It had been close, this time. Too close.

She turned toward the car, but paused again, this time looking at Vic only. "Some day I shall have to live with your loss", she said. A true enough statement, naturally directed at all of them. But just for the hell of it, she risked staring straight into those intense, green eyes as she spoke it.

She let him hand her into the car and slumped gratefully into the back seat.

"But not today", she finished contentedly.

* * * The End * * *