Story: Business Unfinished

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Story: Business Unfinished

Business Unfinished is a story set in my Champions world. The characters have been with me for a long time. Most of the characters have dual identities. The general tone is such as you would find in modern comic book. There is some language that deviates from that. There are scenes with sexual overtones.

Questions are more than welcome. Constructive criticism is greatly appreciated.

Edited by: Greywind on Oct 11 2013 - 2:59am
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Beginnings

Warren - Tuesday 10:53 A.M. New York

He stood, looking out the window towards the runway, waiting for the flight from Miami. He checked the time on his wristwatch, again. Not late. Never late. Maybe a bit too early, even for him. He put his hand back into the pocket of his navy blue windbreaker, his fingers wrapped around the comfortable weight of his cell phone. Remembering...

"Leah is coming in. She wants you to meet her," Kate said.

"Why me?” He smiled, looking deep into his wife's blue eyes and feeling the sense of wonder again. Why me? Feeling lost and yet finally, totally complete, in the love reflected in her eyes.

"Why you? Because you fell mindlessly, helplessly, totally in love with her best friend.” She moved closer to him, taking his hand in her own. She reached up and she brushed a lock of brown hair back. Standing up on her toes, she kissed him. "And because I told her you would.” She looked down at the roundness of her stomach as she settled back on her feet and laughed lightly. "You know, I never really felt short, but I swear, Warren, the bigger this baby gets the harder it seems I have to try to kiss you."

"I love you, Kate," he whispered, bending forward to kiss her again.

"What about Kris?" she asked as old fears reared their head.

Mom warned me about this. "Kris is a friend, Kate. Yours as well as mine. She's a friend. A sister. Anything more I wanted or hoped for with her ended when I found you. I love you."

"But I'm fat!"

Laughing, he picked her up gently in his arms. "You aren't fat! You're pregnant and we're going to be parents."

She held tightly to him. "You need to go. Her plane is due to land in about 3 hours. You should change."

He carried her from the kitchen, and set her gently in the recliner. "Mom said she'd come sit with you, if you'd like. Give a call up to the house.” He kissed her again and stood. "See you soon."

...now...

 

"Warren!"

He turned toward the sound of his name. Gray eyes searched through the people coming down the causeway. He saw her hand waving over the crowd. His eyes took in her full brown hair hanging down her back to her waist. Leah laughed as she threw herself into him, hugging him.

"Well, Farm Boy, you look like you're keeping in shape! How's my sister? I mean besides knocked up. You look like you've been spending time out in the fields. Or is that windburn?"

Sisters...

"I do keep in shape. Your sister keeps me running. What was I thinking? A poor farm boy like me marrying a spoiled city girl. She's fine. Doc says the baby is coming along just fine.” Breaking away, he checked her out. "You look... white."

White pumps added three inches to her height. She wore white slacks, with a white jacket over a pale blue silk blouse. The sleeves pulled up to her elbows. A loose silver and black bracelet adorned her right wrist.

"White is cooler in the tropical sun."

"Tan lines?" he asked, playfully leering at her, falling into old patterns of their friendship like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes.

"Wouldn't you like to know?” Leah laughed at the joke.

"No," he responded seriously, "not really.” Noting the lack of even a simple carry on, Warren frowned. "No luggage?" he asked.

"I had to leave in a hurry. Just me."

Jason, Ashleigh and Marlene - Tuesday 9:24 A.M. California

"...So the meeting with the board went about as well as expected. They aren't exactly happy, but with my knowledge of the inner workings, since your father depended on me so much and with your endorsement, they'll come around. Hopefully before too much damage is done. They just aren't happy with a ‘jumped up secretary’ being put in a position of real authority. Are you sure this is the best way?"

Her high heels thumped on the floor. Marlene stretched her legs onto the coffee table and crossed her ankles. Her black skirt showed off her well-toned calves. She reached up and took the glass her companion offered, ice clinking in the amber fluid. Her green silk blouse contrasted her strawberry blonde hair.

"For the company, Marlene? I don't know. For me? I was never comfortable..."

Cutting him off, she raised her voice above his. "You are never comfortable. Not here. Not doing whatever it is you do when you aren't here! Not with your friends!” Not with me... Old arguments left unspoken.

"Marlene," turning his back to her, he said, "it isn't that simple. Too many things are pulling me in too many different directions. I need..."

The office door slammed open with a bang.

"...You can't go in there!"

Five feet five inches of anger turned on the secretary and silenced her with a glare. The secretary looked to her superior trying to find a way to explain.

"It's okay, Jessica. Miss Parks has been kept waiting too long."

"You got that right, Jason Scott! Dammit..."

Jason waved her to silence. "Jessica, have maintenance check the door after I'm gone.” The sound of the doorknob bouncing off the floor punctuated the statement. "And have the knob replaced, please."

"Yes, sir," said Jessica, quietly closing the door.

"What do you want, Ash? What answer do you want that you think I can better give you in person that hasn't already been passed though Theresa or Mentor?"

A flash of anger smoldered in his eyes. Ashleigh tried to calm herself before she started in.

Gently, Ash, Marlene thought to herself.

Voice straining to remain calm, she answered. "Jason, we've got a job coming up. It's important. We need you."

"Ash, I don't play the game anymore.” With a sigh, Jason sat his glass on his desk. Condensation rolled down the side of it to make a ring around its base.

"’Game’? It isn't a game, Jason! People's lives are in danger!” Heat touched her voice. Her sapphire eyes flashed dangerously. Anger at being kept waiting. Anger at having to make the trip. He had to understand! He had to see!

Turning away, he looked out the window. Sunlight played through the leaves of the trees. "People's lives are always in danger, Ash. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. When does it change?” His head hanging, he looked at her out of the corner of his eye. His palm pressed flat against the coolness of the window. "When do I get to stop worrying about everyone else and get to worry about me?"

She crossed the room to stand closer to her friend. "Jason...” Ashleigh started. She reached up, not quite touching him. She was unsure how to cross the gulf between them. "Jason, we need your help. Things are going to be ugly out there when this mess starts. Leah..."

"No!” His voice cracked like thunder through the office.

Neither of them noticed the opening or the closing of the door.

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Transitions

Warren and Leah - Tuesday 12:32 P.M. New York


Raindrops formed rivulets running across the car's window as she looked out. Too many times, too many turning points in her life were punctuated by gray clouds and rain. Will the sun ever shine for me again? She wondered.


"Warren?"


"Yeah?"


Nervous, not quite sure she wanted the answers to the questions, but needing them. "How is he?"


He glanced at her, her face still turned towards the door. "I don't know. We haven't talked lately. Honestly, Leah, the only one he talks with much is Theresa. You know how the situation with her started. I don't think she'd tell anyone about what they talk about. She doesn't offer. I guess we don't ask, either."


"Will he be there? When we get there, I mean."


"Don't know. I hope so. We told him when. Every time we sent a message we got a reply through Theresa or Mentor. Same response. 'No.' Ash decided she'd give it one last try," he said, chuckling lightly.


Leah turned to look at him with a smile. "You laugh a lot more now."


"What are you talking about? I always laughed before."


Leah laughed with him. “No, you didn't. You always made sure everyone else laughed. You and Jason always quoting 'relevant' lines from movies! Or irrelevant ones!"


"Hey! They were always relevant to us. It wasn't our fault nobody else got it.” Glancing out his door window, raindrops seeming to fall in slow motion to his eyes, noticing... "Oh, crap."


Startled, Leah looked. "What?"


"Convenience store. Armed robbery. Young male. Looked like a .38."


"Do you want me...?”


Warren cut her off. "Take the wheel for a few seconds. Thirsty?"


A navy blue streak launched from the car. The driver's door slammed shut from the onrushing wind. Leah placed her hand on the steering wheel.


...Responsibility...


Raindrops suspended between moments. Warren moved.


Three seconds passed before he made it to the door of the store. Gently. The door swung open, not slamming, the glass not shattering. The cashier, Jimmy by the name tag on his vest, was holding a paper bag over the counter towards the perpetrator.


Four seconds. The perpetrator, blond, unshaven, details, black hooded sweatshirt, red baseball cap turned backwards, was taking hold of the bag.


Five seconds. Smoke spewed from the barrel of the gun. The bullet moved little faster than the raindrops to Warren. Gently. A blow sent the kid sprawling. Reaching out, Warren grabbed the casing spinning through the air and the bullet in one golden-gloved hand, too swift for Jimmy to see.


Six seconds. Warren moved towards the culprit and stopped his slide. A zip tie bound the boy's wrists behind his back.


Seven seconds. Warren opened one of the cooler doors and extracted two soda bottles. Cola. More glass unbroken.


Eight seconds. Warren picked up the paper bag and slowed enough for Jimmy to get a look at him. Blue cowl covered the upper part of his face. A blue bodysuit with golden lightning trim covered his torso. The paper bag, revolver, and two cola bottles appeared on the counter between them.


Nine seconds. Warren reached over the counter for a paper bag, dropping in the gun and the two soda bottles. A five-dollar bill appeared on the counter.


Ten seconds. The door opened. No glass shattered in his wake as he raced back to the car.


Jimmy picked up the bag of money and the five-dollar bill. Beneath the bill lay a small navy blue card. A golden lightning bolt, lightly glowing, bisected the card from corner to corner. Setting the bag of money back on the counter, Jimmy rang up the sale of two sodas and waited for the police.


"Wow. Twenty seconds. Slowing down, Farm Boy.” Leah smiled at him as he passed her a bottle and resumed control of the car.


"I dropped the gun with the patrol car heading to the scene. Leah, what happened to your ring?"


She looked to her hand and back to Warren somewhat abashed. "It broke."


"Have the stone reset. What's the big deal?"


Her voice caught as she spoke. "It was the stone that broke."


Shock registered on his face. "Leah, those stones don't break!"


"I know,” she whispered, her tears falling like the rain.

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Ashleigh and Marlene - Tuesday 10:04 A.M. California

A light knock upon her office door broke Marlene from her musings as she stared out over the Scott Enterprises Silicon Valley campus. Sunlight reflected brightly off glass and chrome. She turned away from the view to the darkened interior of her well-appointed office. Bookshelves stood empty, waiting for her to place her things upon them. For her to finally lay full claim to the office that was her predecessor's. She sat, allowing the chair to accept her weight, and turned her attention to the computer monitor in her desk. The flip of a switch near to hand brought the lights up. The touch of another released the office door, allowing Ash to enter. Marlene turned her full attention to her guest. Ashleigh’s long blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Small, plain gold hoop earrings pierced each ear.

Smiling at her friend, Ash opened, "So, he let you have the big office and the chair to go with it.” Ash sat in the chair that Marlene used to use so often when working with her employer. The light from the ceiling reflected in the lenses of the sunglasses resting on her head.

"Yeah, Ash, and all the headaches, paperwork, and b.s. that goes with them.” She smiled back. "It feels different sitting on this side of the desk."

Looking around at the bare paneled walls and noting the empty shelves, she asked, "When do you finish moving in?"

"I'm in. There's a portrait of Charles and Stacy that will go up there." She pointed at the empty space on the wall across from her desk. "Doesn't seem right, not having the old man keeping an eye on me all the time. There's some things sitting in a box from my old desk, but I've got so much more room now. I don't have all of Charles's technical manuals, since the science end of things wasn't part of my job description, but I'll find something to put on the shelves"

"I think he'd approve you sitting in his chair, Marlene. If it hadn't been for you and your more-than-able assistance, he'd have been where you are and he wouldn't have had as much time, if any, to spend with his playmates over in R&D."

"He did like his time over there. The board..."

Ashleigh raised her hand and cut Marlene off. "The board wants a Scott sitting in the big chair. There has always been a Scott at the helm since the company was founded. Times change."

"Jason is the last of his family," Marlene said, quietly.

"No, Marlene. Charles may have been the last blood relation that Jason had on this planet, but he's got a family. This brings me to why I’m here. How long has he been like that?"

"What? Dark. Brooding.” Lost... "I've known him longer than you, Ash. I can't say that I know him better. I don't have the same type of bond you and the others have with him."

"Have you ever seen him like this before?'

"A couple of times. I met his mother at a party he gave in high school. That's about how long I've known him. Stacy, she insisted we call her 'Stacy', instead of 'Mrs. Scott.’ Stacy was a warm, lovely woman so full of life. She had a rich, warm laugh. Always willing to listen. Never judgmental. She always had good advice. Two months after I met her she was killed in a car accident. He became moody, depressive. I think the only thing that saved him then was Sandy."

"Sandy Wilson?"

"Yes. Ancient history for you?'

"I know about Sandy. I know what happened. That was the year before we all got together."

Marlene took a deep breath, "Sandy never gave up. Never let him give up. His grades slipped and she pushed him. All the time they were together, they never fought. Oh, they'd have arguments, differences of opinion, but they never fought.

"Spoiled rich boy going to public school. The rumors that flew around the school about that. This teacher or that teacher that supposedly seduced him, trying to get close to the family fortune. The snobby girls that thought they were so much better than the rest of us made plays for him. He never laughed at any of them. He never mocked them. He just walked away from them. We had the hardest time trying to understand him. I think Sandy understood him first. He wanted to be accepted for what he was, instead of for what he had.

"There were a lot of surprised kids. Sandy was shy. Her family wasn't well off. Her dad had lost his job. Her mom worked as a waitress, trying to make ends meet. They met when Jason was having problems with advanced math and accounting classes. Sandy agreed to tutor him. Hard to point to when the 'tutoring' stopped and the dating started."

Marlene rocked back in her chair, her gaze directed to a place in another time. "There was a summer party we'd been invited to. Looking back, you'd really have to wonder how some of these people ever became friends together. Somewhere, somehow, during the party Jason and Sandy were separated. From what I understand, he'd gotten involved in a game of pool in the basement. She was talking with some friends. I don't know how it happened; don't think any of us are really sure what happened.

"Have you ever seen Jason angry?” Marlene asked. When Ashleigh nodded she continued, "My father used to get angry. He'd bellow and storm and rage until his anger gave out. I've seen kids get so angry that they have to hit something. Jason being angry scares me. People that become calmer and more focused the angrier they get? I'm not really sure how to deal with it."

Ash showed Marlene a wry grin. "Sharon's training. With the things that he's capable of, self-control is necessary. She trained him so that he wouldn't kill someone accidentally."

"At the party, Sandy ended up upstairs in one of the bedrooms with a guy, Arthur Rocco, and his gang. Jason ran up out of the basement and upstairs. Nobody had any idea what was going on upstairs, but somehow Jason knew that Sandy was in trouble. I remember hearing a door slam. There was yelling from upstairs, the crash of glass and what I can only assume was the sound of bodies hitting the floor. Mr. Stevens, it was his house, went upstairs first. They found Jason standing over Rocco and his gang. Sandy was sitting on the bed crying.

"So, I guess you can say that I've seen him like he is now before. His mom, when Sandy died, when Leah left, and now.” Marlene, fingers playing with the chain about her neck, took the pendant from her blouse. Looking at a stone set amid the gold, looking so much like a black star sapphire. The star itself seemed to glow red. "Sandy was the first person he ever gave one of these to."

Ash leaned forward, elbows on the black denim covering her knees, fingertips pressed together, and spoke, "Sandy was the second. His mom was the first."

"Do you have any idea how he makes them?"

Ash's pendant fell from the collar of her white polo shirt. "Blood and power. That's all he ever told anyone."

Looking to Ashleigh, Marlene asked, "What's going to happen, now? With Jason, I mean."

"I don't know, Marlene. You wind a spring too tight and it'll break. With as tight as Jason is wound right now, I feel really sorry for the next person that picks a fight with him."

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Jason - Tuesday 10:10 A.M. California

Jason still stood gazing out the window where Ash had left him. Jessica’s voice came quietly from the intercom. “Sir, you wanted me to remind you of your appointment. Your plane is waiting at the airport.”

Pulled from his musings, Jason turned and pressed a button on the intercom. “Thank you, Jessica. I’ll be departing momentarily. Let Miss Palmer know once I’ve gone and inform the pilot that his services won’t be needed. I’ll fly myself. Have someone in New York have my car waiting when I land.” The press of another button silenced the intercom abruptly.

Retrieving his suit coat from the back of his chair, Jason noticed the imprint of the door in the plaster of the wall behind it and shook his head. Ash… His suit coat settled on his broad shoulders, he reached for the doorknob and found the door jammed. Ash... A sharp tug brought the knob loose in his hand.

“Sir,” Jessica’s voice was muffled by the door, “are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Jessica. The door is a little jammed. Don’t stand too close to it. I’ll have it opened in a moment.” Jason’s fingers slipped into the hole around the inner workings and he pulled. The door creaked and the bolt snapped under the pressure exerted on it. Finally, the door hung open, somewhat askew from the bent hinges.

“I’ll have the door repaired, sir. First thing.”

“Also tell maintenance that there’s a bit of plaster work behind the door, Jessica. Once you’re done with all that go ahead and take the rest of the week off. With pay. I don’t expect to be back before Monday and I don’t expect my personal assistant sitting here behind her desk not doing anything constructive with her time.” He gathered up his briefcase and started to turn away. “Enjoy your weekend, Jessica.”

Looking a bit like a deer in the headlights, Jessica responded, “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Ah, sir? The New York office said that Mr. Asher came into town unexpectedly and signed out the Lamborghini. Everything was per your standing orders.”

“Thank you, Jessica. I’ll take care of the car situation.”

Lost in thought, Jason turned away and headed for the elevator. Once in the elevator, he pressed the button for the roof and the helicopter pad. On the roof, Jason traversed the distance to the idling Bell 230.

"Mr. Scott! Your plane is ready and waiting. Roan called in and bitched. Something about being pulled out of the seat. She's hot, sir. Just thought you'd like to know." Charlie Walker, a former Army pilot, retired, was the chief executive pilot for Scott Enterprises.

"Thanks, Charlie. Is there a woman in my life that isn't angry right now?" Jason and Charlie climbed aboard the 230.

"I don't know about that, sir, but Roan has been looking forward to actually being able to fly the priority bird. She just about threw a party when her number came up for this flight. To be honest with you, sir, I wouldn't exactly be happy in that situation, either." The rotor slowly built up to speed and Jason and Charlie put on headsets and keyed into the helicopter's systems. "She's a good pilot, sir, and I think you pulling her ticket on this flight might be bad for employee morale, if you catch my meaning."

"Charlie," Jason began, "were you always this circumspect with my father?"

"No, sir, sir. With your father, I'd just tell him he made a shit decision and call him on it."

"Thanks, Charlie. I really appreciate your candor." Jason keyed into the external communication system. "Scott Air, this is SE-Alpha-1."

"SE-Alpha-1, this is Scott Air. What can I do for you, sir?"

"Air, you've got Priority One ready and waiting without pilot. Give Ms. Shepperly her flight status for P-1. Tell her it was a miscommunication."

"Yes, sir. Anything further, sir?"

"That'll be all, Air. Thank you." Jason keyed back to internal communications and spoke, somewhat exasperated, “You ever been a passenger in someone else's bird, Charlie?"

"Yes, sir. That's some boring shit, sir."

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Family Gatherings

Warren and Leah – Tuesday 2:29 P.M. New York

The silver Lamborghini sat nestled into its space between Dani’s red Miata and Theresa’s green Mustang Fastback, in the vault that was the extremely private parking area of the building known simply as Guardian’s Tower.

“I’d get your bags for you,” Warren quipped, “if you had any.” Leah barely smiled at the joke.

“Doesn’t look like much has changed.” Leah spoke quietly.

“Not much. Down here, anyways. We did give Theresa your parking space.”

Leah’s smile grew a bit wider. “I never drove here, silly.”

“Just because you didn’t drive here, didn’t mean that there wasn’t a parking space for you.” They approached the Guardian’s private elevator. “Do you want to talk about what happened? With the ring?”

“No,” Leah sighed, “not just yet. So much happened then. I’m not really sure how to talk about it, and I’m not sure how much of it is actually necessary to talk about.”

Light scanned both their faces. “Warren Asher. Codename: Lightning. Leah Capwell. Codename: Sparx. A pleasure to see you again, Ms. Capwell.” A computerized voice came from a speaker set into the control panel. The car began its ascent with barely perceptible movement.

“Hello, Mentor. When did you become so formal with friends?”

“You’ve been gone, ma’am. Things change. I was not entirely sure of the current situation and decided to err on the side of formality. I meant no offense.”

“None taken, Mentor. As far as I’m concerned, whatever else happened, we’re still friends.”

“As you say, Leah.”

“Mentor,” Warren broke in, “who is currently upstairs?”

“Currently in residence are Theresa, Dani, and Warstar. Mr. Michaels assured that he would be available for the meeting and expressed great interest in seeing Leah again. Sharon and Dr. Tyler both indicated that they would be present for the meeting. I understand that Dr. Tyler won’t be accompanying the front team, but will be leading the medical team.”

“Sharon?” Leah asked, trying to mask the disappointment and trepidation she felt that Jason was not here.

“Sharon Anderson. Jason’s one-time sensei. Dani’s mom.” Warren answered.

“Huntress.”

“That be her. Is it a problem?” Warren asked.

“No. My contact with her was always uniform only. I wasn’t really interested in what she had to teach. I figured she’d be retired by now.”

“Considering what she has done and what she still can do, she’d still be active, but has ‘chosen’ to step aside for us young’uns. She’s there if we need her, but she’s looking to see what else there is. As young as she looks, she’s done this a lot longer than us and she’s lost more friends than we have. Charles was just the latest.”

“I couldn’t find out much about it. How did Charles die?”

Warren gave her a sad look. “An agent of Warmonger managed to get through security at a press conference.”

The car stopped and the doors opened quietly to a carpeted hallway.

“Hungry?”

“A little, Warren. I could use a sandwich or something.”

Warren led Leah down the hallway to the kitchen area. A large table with many chairs around it occupied the dining area. The kitchen was well appointed with a large refrigerator, microwave, and other necessary appliances.

“Have a seat, Leah. What would you like?” Warren moved behind the appliances.

“Is a club sandwich possible?”

“Sure, Pretty Lady. Give me a minute.” Warren moved. An impression of the fridge opening, closing, and sounds that were not quite definable came from the cooking area. “Do you want chips?”

“Potato chips. Baked, please,” Leah responded.

“Us, too, Warren!” The speaker was a short blonde whose smile reached her green eyes. “Hi, Leah!” Dani charged and Leah barely made it to her feet before being hugged.

Leah looked at Dani’s companion. Theresa Gardner was taller than Dani, but only by an inch or two. Her red hair was hanging past her shoulders. Her clothing, while similar in style, darkly contrasted Leah’s own look. Black silk in place of pale blue and no jacket. Black slacks and shoes in place of white. Theresa’s pendant hung loose and in the open outside of her blouse. The look she gave Leah was cold.

“Hi, Theresa. How have you been?”

Theresa gave a slight nod in acknowledgment of having been addressed. “Leah. Warren, how’s Kate doing? Sour cream and cheddar chips for me, please and thank you.”

“Sure thing, Trese. Kate is fine. Round, but fine. Only another couple of months.”

Leah, looking to Dani, started to ask, “Did Jason…”

Theresa’s head snapped to face Leah. She spoke very abruptly. “Won’t be here. He doesn’t want to see you!”

“Theresa!” Warren barked in warning.

“What, Warren? Everybody is so upset that Jason doesn’t want to be here with her here, but nobody gives a damn about why! This slut wasn’t even gone a week before she climbed into bed with someone else!”

“How?” Leah, shock on her face, moved away from Dani and closer to Theresa. “How do you know that?”

“Five days! Five goddamned days after you left your stone shattered about two in the morning!” Theresa was almost screaming at Leah before she turned and ran out of the kitchen. Tossing a look at Leah, Dani chased after her friend.

Tears streamed down her face, too ashamed to look at Warren. “How did she know?”

“You honestly don’t know, Leah? I thought with your relationship with him, he’d have told you.” His left hand rested on her shoulder and the fingers of his right hand brushed her tears away. She shook her head silently to give him his answer. “The stones. They’re a mixture of his power, his blood, and our blood, whoever has one. He will always know where we are. Any intense sensations we experience, any strong emotions we feel, and he feels a reflection of it.”

Leah looked up at Warren. “What are you saying, Warren? That anything we feel, he feels? Is that what you’re telling me?”

He looked into her eyes; red from the tears she had shed that day. “He felt his mom die. Sandy, in a very real sense, saved him. Thinking things through before, I always thought that the four of us coming together, once I had an idea of what had happened, had the same general effect on him when Sandy died. Now, I don’t know. I think I was wrong.

“Theresa knows, I guess, because Jason talked to her. He needed to open himself up to someone. She was more than willing to be there for him.”

Leah drew away and collapsed into a chair, her head down, and her face hidden by her hair. “What did I do, Warren? To him? To us?”

Resisting the urge to comfort her again, Warren resumed making lunch. “You made a decision, Leah. He reacted to it the only way that he knew how.”

Her sandwich and chips appeared on a plate beside her on the table. Wiping her face with a napkin, she picked up a chip and started nibbling at it. “What did he do after I left?”

Warren set three more plates with sandwiches on the table and took a seat across from Leah. He looked her in the face and gauged in his mind the choices and possible answers to her question. “Well, not knowing everything and not knowing how he’ll react to me answering that question if he finds out, do you want the Cliffs Notes version or essay-like answers?” Picking up his own sandwich, he took a bite.

Noting the seriousness in his voice, she looked back into the eyes of the man her best friend had married. She reflected on the cost that the decision she made to leave had incurred. “Did he date?”

Warren gave her a half smile, “That isn’t the question you want answered. He got angry, Leah. We had a run in with some of the Blood Guard. Jase damned near killed Black Jack, Bolt, and Moray. Ash had to stop him. Kris tried. That was when she decided that focusing on finishing school was a priority.” Warren took another bite.

Leah picked up her sandwich and studied it. “He got like that?”

“Leah, we got hold of Darque’s notes on the community. He pretty much pegged Jason. ‘Of all the Guardians, he is the one most prone to using violence.’ Can’t really say that’s changed much. That is one of the main reasons he removed himself from the situation. There’s a lot of conflict that has been avoided because he isn’t here.”

“Brad?”

“Yeah. Not sure what the problem is between them, but I’ve seen matches and gasoline get along better. As for Jase, did you see the report on the nuclear missile accident that happened last summer out at the test range?”

Leah, chewing on her sandwich, nodded.

“It wasn’t an accident. We baited Warmonger after Charles was killed, and he took it. There were twelve of us there and we almost lost. We did manage to put him down. Kris tried to call in support, but all emergency channels were jammed. We assumed it was something Warmonger had done.” Warren picked up a chip and moved the others around his plate with it. “It was Jason. He co-opted a medium range tactical. Warmonger was ground zero.”

“You did say he was responsible for Charles. I can’t say I blame him. Drastic situations requiring drastic measures and all that.”

Chewing slowly, Warren gazed upon Leah, locking her eyes with his. He swallowed. “Had all of us been in on the decision, it would have been one thing. We’ve always worked that way when it came to these types of decisions. You know that.” Leah nodded in agreement. “Do you honestly think Ash or Kris would have voted ‘yes’ for such a final option? It wasn’t a ‘we’ thing, Leah. Jason made the decision and all the arrangements for that strike. We didn’t find out until after we made a recon sweep of the area that all personnel had been pulled out that morning. Not even a skeleton crew. The whole base had been evacuated. Jason wrote off an entire SE research facility to take out Warmonger. Permanently.”

Full realization of the implications struck Leah. “Oh.” Leah was not quite sure how to continue with the conversation, so she turned her attention to her plate. “So, did he date?” she added with a nervous giggle.

Warren smiled at Leah. “Yeah. He’s dated. He did the ‘worthless playboy’ routine for a while. He went out with Angelique for quite a while…”

“Angelique!” Leah interjected. “That bitch?”

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Jason – Tuesday 11:45 A.M.

“I said I was sorry!”

“Dammit, Jason! ‘Sorry’ was when you canceled dinner on me last month! ‘Sorry’ was when you couldn’t take me to that reception because you had to take that stupid, lousy, blonde actress because it would ‘be good for the corporate image’! ‘Sorry’ doesn’t even come close to this! I’m a pilot! And I’m a damned good one! You had no right to pull me out of this seat!” Roan glared at Jason, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat.

“Actually, Roan, as the owner of this plane and being fully qualified to fly it, I have every right to bump you if I so choose to do so. I had no idea who the pilot was to be! You just got your qualification rider for this plane! I haven’t been avoiding you and I wasn’t attempting to. I just have a lot on my mind and didn’t want any company.” His jacket and vest lying with his briefcase in the passenger cabin, Jason sat absentmindedly rolling up his shirt sleeves. His collar was unbuttoned. He stared out at the sky and clouds.

Roan’s red hair was held back at her neck. Her green eyes flashed as she looked back at the controls. “This is going to be a long flight,” she muttered to herself.

“Not really,” Jason replied.

“Our ETA to SE Long Island is a little over ten hours, sir! That puts your ass on the ground around one o’clock A. M. local.” Her eyes danced over the controls, checking dials. “Unless, sir, you have some magical way of getting us there faster!”

“Wait and see, Roan, and fly.” Throwing a switch to communicate with the ground Jason spoke, “Scott Air, this is SE-Alpha-1.”

“One, this is Air. Go ahead.” A voice crackled through the speakers.

“Air, do we have clearance to accelerate?” Jason asked.

“Affirmative One. FAA wants you high and clear before you go for burn.”

“There you go, Roan. Clearance to fly faster. Get all necessary information from Air and do what the nice people at the FAA want us to do to get us to New York faster.” He stood up.

“Just like that?” She looked at him, anger still flashing in her eyes. “Why wasn’t I informed we’ll be taking her up?”

“You should have been. Take it up with Air. I have an appointment around ten, New York local. I don’t want to be late.

“Now, I’ll be back where the passengers sit while the pilot does her job.”

“Yes, sir!” Asshole, she added silently to herself. She spoke quietly into the mike, communicating with Air.

Sitting back in the cabin, Jason flipped through the various movie options and slipped a disc into the player. The cabin lights lowered as the screen came to life.

“Jason,” Roan’s voice came through the speaker, “we’ve got full clearance. Revised ETA puts us at SELI around seven this evening, eastern. Climbing now.”

“Thanks, Roan.” Jason settled back to enjoy the movie. Robert Downey, Jr. ran helter skelter through a firefight in a desert. You’ve got it easy, Tony, Jason thought to himself.

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Dani and Theresa – Tuesday 2:50 P. M.

“Want to talk about it?”

Theresa was sitting on her bed. Her arms were wrapped around a pillow. She had kicked off her shoes. One was lying in the middle of the floor. The other, somehow, managed to be hanging by the heel off the lampshade next to her reading chair.

“Why do you like her?”

“Why do you hate her?” Dani asked Theresa gently. “Trese, Leah isn’t the bad guy. Yes, she hurt Jason. Hell, girl! Jason hurt Jason a lot, too.” Theresa glared at Dani, standing in the doorway to her bedroom. “I know how you feel about him, but he isn’t as perfect as you seem to think sometimes. If he was, do you think Ash would be in Cali trying to talk sense into him?”

“She hurt him and there was no reason for it. It was only five days after she left!”

“And you would never do anything like that to him. Ever. So you can’t understand why she made the decision that she made to leave. You have absolutely no reference beyond what, I’m assuming Jason told you, as to why she made the decision to sleep with that other guy, whoever he was. All you know is that it happened because Jason told you it did.”

“Obviously it did.”

Dani entered the room and closed the door. She sat on the bed, folding her leg under herself. Reaching down, she took hold of Theresa’s ankle and gave it a gentle shake.

“Not like you gave her a lot of room for a denial and running off like you did, you didn’t give her any chance to explain. Assuming that any of it is any of our business in the first place, and that she’ll share with any of us, in the second. She’ll talk to Warren. Given the chance, she’ll head out to Nebraska and visit Kate. Knowing Leah, she’s probably still kicking herself for missing the wedding.”

“She didn’t deserve him.” Theresa gave Dani a weak smile.

“Or he didn’t deserve her. All depends on how you look at things. Nobody except Leah knows why she left. Everyone thought things were good between them. I figured they’d have been married by now. Probably before Warren and Kate managed it. Now, Kate is expecting. Warren is happy. Leah has been who knows where, doing who knows what…”

“And Jason,” Theresa cut in, “has been cut off and alone and totally miserable!”

“Trese, Jason pulled away from us. Honestly, he’s probably feeling a bit guilty about what he did to Kris. He’s always been driven by guilt. He blamed himself when Sandy died. Somehow, it was all his fault that he couldn’t save her.” Dani brushed her long blonde hair behind her ear. “I’d have thought with all the talking you were doing with your ‘big brother’ you’d have learned some of that by now.”

Theresa looked to her friend and pulled the pillow closer, a wall between them. “The first time I saw him was in that bar. All those men around me, I thought I was dead. There he was, just standing calmly, holding out a hand for me to take. He took me away from them.”

“Cute.”

“What?” Theresa asked.

“I just thought it was funny that you left out the part that Leah was there, too, and that Leah was the one that walked you out of the bar before Jason beat the hell out of everyone in the place. In case you hadn’t noticed, but violence seems to be Jason’s way of expressing himself.”

“Physically,” Theresa said.

“What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you noticed? Jason gets physical. He uses what your mom taught him, rather than resort to powers.” Taking more interest in the conversation, Theresa lowered the pillow and put her legs in Dani’s lap. “You get him agitated or worked up and the first chance he gets he heads into the gym to work over the heavy bag.”

“So what is it about Leah you don’t like?” Dani prodded.

Theresa started to pull the pillow back up and seemed to realize what she was doing and looked at it. Then she gave Dani a sheepish look and set the pillow aside. “Everything he’s done for me and he won’t let me pay him back. He helped when I was in trouble. He helped get me away from my stepfather. I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for him.”

“Trese, we’re a team. He’s saved everyone here at one point or another. Everyone here has probably saved him once or twice. You’ve done a lot. If you hadn’t noticed, right now you are about the only person that he really talks to. He used to talk more with Warren about ‘guy things’ and he talked to me and Ash regularly about just about everything else. Now there’s just you.

“His dad did a lot to help you, too, you know. Took you in. Gave you a nice home. Let you finish school. Made you his ward. I understand his lawyers are still looking to finish up the adoption proceedings to make you his daughter. You owe as much, if not more, to Jason’s dad.

“Jason should have taken more from his mother. She was a lot more open with people.”

“I’m surprised that more people don’t know about him.” Theresa put her head back and rested it on the headboard.

“What do you mean?” Dani looked at Theresa quizzically.

“Being born realized. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Having your nursery lined with six-inch battleship plate? The only people you can’t hurt with your abilities are your parents?”

Dani shook Theresa’s leg again. “What? Instead of being like us and freaking out when puberty hit and we didn’t know what the hell was happening to us? Personally, I think I’d have rather grown up different, knowing exactly what I could do instead of burning down my grandfather’s barn the first time I was kissed.”

Theresa looked away from Dani. “I don’t like talking about the first time I manifested.”

“C’mon. Warren has finished making the sandwiches by now and I’m hungry.” Dani stood up holding her hand out for Theresa.

“Why do you put up with me?”

With a mischievous glint to her eye, Dani answered, “Because Jason buys me nice things when I send him my report of all the silly things you do.”

Theresa threw the pillow at her.

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The Guardians – Tuesday 6:44 P. M.

Warren was dressed in his Lightning uniform. The cowl was pulled back and hanging at his neck. He checked the meeting table with the built in monitor bank and holotable to make sure everything was functioning properly for the upcoming meeting. Every monitor showed the face of Dan Thomas.

“Who are we expecting at this meeting, Lightning?” Dan, looking a bit like Bruce Willis, ran his hand across his short cut graying blond hair.

“In body, Huntress, Hellfire, Dove, Warstar, Nightwing, Psistorm, myself, Ash and Sparx. We’ll have a link up to Aegis. Probably Paladin on their end. Mentor will be making a record, as usual.”

Dan looked as if he were concentrating on something on his end. “What about Pulsar?”

Warren stopped to flip a switch at the workstation he was at. “Not at this time, Dan. He quit. Whether or not he’ll be back is strictly up to him at this point. We’ve tried. Pulsar isn’t interested.” He removed an access panel and checked several of the connections within. Lights flickered on the workstation panel.

“All right. What about reserves?”

“None at this time. White Tiger is in Hong Kong. Red Star and the Ghost are tracking down Wild Wind. Longbow is chasing after Bloodbath. Shadow Hunter is available, but for the usual fee.” He replaced the access panel and moved on.

“Let’s keep the mercs out of this if we can. Wildfire doesn’t pay the Guardian’s bills, but I’d like to keep things relatively simple. Has Sparx said anything to you?”

“Yes, Dan. She’s said quite a bit. Most of it personal. Whatever is relevant to this situation that she requested us for, she’ll bring up.”

“Sorry, Lightning. I’d just be a lot more comfortable with more information about this. She left the team and turns up not even a week later hanging around with Ulysses Madacar and his associates. I’d like to know why and I’d like to know why she thinks she can just call us up and expect us to jump. We’ve got our own people keeping an eye on Madacar’s operation, not to mention the FBI.”

Lightning stopped and looked at the nearest monitor. “She can call us up and expect us to jump because she’s a friend, Dan. Same as you. Like you pointed out, the Guardians are not the public face of Project Wildfire. She’s a friend and done nothing to violate our trust. We’ll help her. Same as we would help anyone else that asked.”

“I understand, Lightning. I just don’t like it.”

“That’s because your paranoia leads to your control issues, Dan.”

Dan’s faced showed something of a grin. “Yeah, Lightning, I know. I’m a product of my job training.”

“Hi, Dan!” Dani entered the meeting room. The overhead lights making it appear as if flames were moving across her bodysuit.

“Hi there, Princess. How are things going?” He smiled down from the monitor to his namesake.

“Not too bad. I’ve got a couple of auditions coming up in the next couple of weeks. One for the stage and a possible movie.” She took a seat at the table. “If I get it, I might actually be able to work with Hugh Jackman!”

“That would be something to see, Dani. I hope it all works out for you.” Dan said.

“I hope so, too!”

Theresa and Warstar entered into the meeting room. Warstar towered over Theresa. His high-gloss black and silver armor-like appearance reflected the light of the monitors as he took his seat. His red eyes took in his teammates and Dan Thomas.

Theresa, dressed as Psistorm, dark blue and red bodysuit, blue shooting glasses, and her black satin jacket with “Guardian” in yellow reflective letters on the back, took her seat next to Dani and checked the data feeds coming across her station. Dani reached across and gave Trese’s arm a gentle squeeze.

Dani’s face brightened. “Hi, mom!”

Sharon Anderson stepped into the room, high heels clicking across the floor as she walked. She looked more like her daughter’s sister than her mother. “Hi, Honey. Hi, Trese.” She gave Dani a kiss on the head and Theresa a gentle hug. “How are you doing?”

Theresa looked up at the dark glasses that covered Sharon’s unseeing eyes. “Okay, I guess. I just wish Jason were here.”

“Be careful what you wish for, Trese. Sometimes the universe has a strange sense of humor.” Straightening up, Sharon went to a chair by the wall, instead of sitting at the table.

The door swished open and Ashleigh and Leah came in together. Brad Michaels, dressed in the charcoal and black of his Nightwing gear, brought up the rear. “…And that, Leah, was how I stopped Taurus and Pisces!”

“That was really something, Brad.” Leah laughed. Ashleigh, unseen by Nightwing, rolled her eyes.

“Everything ready, Warren?” Ash asked.

“Yeah. I found the problem. A wire shorted. Fried the whole board. I got it replaced, so the table is fully functional. I dropped the board into the electronics bay. I’ll take care of it later, unless Mentor has one of the drones do it.” Warren zipped around dispensing drinks to everyone.

“Okay, everyone,” Dan’s voice came through the speakers, “is that everyone?”

Sharon spoke from her seat. “No, Dan. Dove still isn’t here.”

“She probably got hung up at the hospital,” Warren offered. “They’ve been busy, from what I understand, getting the new ward up. I never realized that we could be defined as ‘abnormal medicine.’”

“Dr. Tyler specialized. A lot happens through alteration and mutation, Lightning. Take yourself,” Dan responded, “your metabolism sped up, allowing you to move faster. Why do others that have similar abilities suffer from accelerated aging or dietary problems?”

“Clean living, Dan,” Warren shot back, “it keeps me from having all those problems.”

“Hey, Brad!” Dani threw in, “I heard you were telling Leah about how you stopped Taurus and Pisces. Did you happen to tell her that knocking the supports out from under that water tower was an accident?” Dani showed a big grin.

“C’mon, Hellfire, that was all part of my plan,” Nightwing retorted.

“So you intentionally let Taurus hit you that hard just to take out the supports? I mean, if it was really intentional, wouldn’t you have stayed conscious through it all?” she laughed.

Leah was laughing hard. “I can’t believe how much I missed all of this!”

Nightwing stood. “When do I start getting some respect around here?”

“About when you stop being a fly-by-night operator and the comedy relief.”

Everyone stood and looked to the door where Jason stood.

“Heard you weren’t coming, Scott,” Nightwing growled.

“What’s the matter, Michaels? Afraid that the first team will step up and you’ll be benched for the season?” Jason retorted mildly.

Nightwing moved forward threateningly. “Any time you think you’re man enough to take me, Scott!”

“Another time, junior.”

Ashleigh moved into Nightwing’s path of travel, stopping him. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming, Jason? You would have been here sooner.”

Jason sighed. “Because, Ash, I’m not here. I mean I am, but I’m not staying. As for traveling with you, nothing personal, but I really didn’t feel like being lectured about what I should be doing for the duration of the trip.”

Theresa stepped to Jason and hugged him. “Missed you.”

“Missed you, too, Trese, but I had work to do.”

“Must be hard work getting out of working, Scott!” Nightwing barked.

“Put a muzzle on it, Michaels. Considering your personal history, I don’t really think a preppy like you has any business telling me about work.” Jason looked around the room. “Hey, War. Car keys?”

“I’ll get them. Give me a second.” Warren vanished, creating a small breeze.

Dani moved in closer to Jason and wrapped an arm around him. “Thanks for taking me to that reception. I can’t believe all the people I met there.”

Jason smiled at her. “It was no problem, Dani. It was fun.”

“So, Jason, any chance we can talk you into helping out?” Dan asked.

“No, Dan. I have some things I need to deal with. I’m only here for tonight and tomorrow. Then I’m off to deal with a few more issues at another office.”

Leah took a few tentative steps closer. “Hello, Jason.”

He looked at her, seeing her for the first time. “Leah. You look good.”

“Jason, I just… I want…”

“Here you go, Jase. Didn’t get a chance to wash it or anything, but I didn’t scratch it or anything like that.” Warren handed Jason the keys.

“Thanks, Warren.”

The door opened again admitting Dr. Kris Tyler, her white wings taking up most of the doorway.

“Hey guys! Sorry I’m late. I was just…” She drew up short seeing Jason. “Jason. I thought you weren’t going to be here.” Her frown pulled the ugly scar on the right side of her face that marred her beauty.

“I’m not staying, Kris. Just came to get my car.” He moved away from the girls and turned to Kris, who immediately took a step backwards, away from him. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave.”

Kris moved into the room and away from the door, giving Jason more than enough room to leave. Jason took the hint.

Ashleigh whispered to Leah, “You want to talk to him, go after him.”

Leah gathered her courage, and walked to the door and went out.

“Jason!”

Standing beside the elevator door, Jason turned to Leah. “What?”

“I’d like you to stay. We’ve got a lot to discuss and I really think that we could use your help and…”

“No,” he responded quietly. “I have things that need doing and reasons not to stay.” He gave a look back at the door. The elevator door opened and he stepped inside.

“What happened, Jason?”

He looked at her. No emotion crossed his face as he spoke. “You left.”

“Can we at least talk?”

“Yeah, Leah, we can talk.” The elevator door closed, leaving her alone in the hall. She turned and walked back to the meeting room.

Dani looked up from her monitor. “So, what happened?”

Leah looked at Dani sadly. “He left.”

“Did you get to talk to him?” Ash asked. Leah just shook her head, no.

“I’ll bring him back!” Nightwing rose up from his chair and flew out the door and down the hall.

“He’s changed,” Leah said.

“Noticed that, did you?” Dani replied.

“What do you mean?” Kris asked. “His mood?”

“No. He’s taller, for one thing,” Leah said.

Several monitors changed over from Dan Thomas. Some showed the parking area. Others showed Jason in the elevator. Still others showed Nightwing flying down a shaft inside the building.

“The next idiot,” Ash said quietly.

Warstar looked at her. “What do you mean?”

Ash gave Warstar a small smile. “Just something I talked with Marlene about earlier today.”

“Do you want me to stop them?” Warren asked.

“No. I think they both need this. For different reasons.” She looked at the monitor that showed Jason walking from the elevator towards his car.

Kris spoke up. “Mentor. Give a comparison between the two.”

“Yes, Dr. Tyler. At last evaluation, Nightwing was stronger, being capable of lifting three thousand five hundred pounds compared to Pulsar’s one thousand eight hundred pounds. Under most circumstances, Nightwing’s reaction times were superior to Pulsar’s. Pulsar’s fighting capabilities are superior to Nightwing’s. Nightwing is classed as a ‘brawler,’ while Pulsar has actual training.

“That is assuming, of course, that Pulsar does not resort to using his powers. Nightwing has a top speed of four hundred twenty nine miles per hour compared to Pulsar’s top speed of two hundred sixty eight miles per hour. Within the confines of the garage flight should not enter into the combat.

“Nightwing still has little grasp of the concept of tactics…”

“While Jason did most of our planning.” Warren finished.

“’Do you know what your sin is, Mal’” Dani said.

Theresa gave her friend a grin. “’Ah Hell... I'm a fan of all seven. But right now... I'm gonna have to go with wrath.’”

Leah, looking confused, asked “Who’s Mal?”

Lightning put a hand on each girl’s shoulder. “You have done well, my young padawans.”

“Mentor, full sensor sweep of the parking area during whatever happens. Let’s see if we can’t get an updated idea of the current capabilities of Jason.”

“Yes, Dr. Tyler,” Mentor responded.

Dan frowned from the monitor. “Is all this really necessary?”

“’Necessary,’ Dan?” Theresa responded. “I wouldn’t say ‘necessary,’ although it is a long time overdue in happening. That was weird.” Theresa frowned down at the monitor.

“What was, Trese?” Kris asked.

“As soon as the sensor sweep started, Jason stopped for a second. You don’t think he might actually know that the sweep started, do you?”

“Powers?” Ash inquired.

“If anyone wants to buy me dinner,” Theresa said, “I say ‘no’. Jason won’t use. He’s been denying that aspect of himself since he left. I don’t think Brad will be able to pull that out of Jase. He’ll probably be enjoying the beating he’ll be inflicting without them.”

Ashleigh looked at Trese. “That wasn’t what I meant, but you’re on. If Jason uses you buy me dinner. Whatever I want. Wherever I want. I think Nightwing might just push all the right buttons to get Jason into full combat mode.”

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The Garage

Jason stepped from the elevator and began the walk to his car. He paused and his eyes flashed red, imperceptible to the cameras, as the sensors began scanning the garage. His head turned slowly. He noted the locations of the devices and resumed his stride to the Lamborghini.

Nightwing emerged from the flight shaft. The wind whistled slightly in his passing.

“Hey! Asshole! The lady wasn’t done talking with you!”

Nightwing bore down on Jason with his arms outstretched in an attempt to lift his target on contact. Ducking low to the ground Jason threw a back kick. He caught Nightwing low in the gut. Nightwing doubled over from the blow. The momentum from his flight carried him forward. The force of the kick lifted him enough that he cleared the top of Theresa’s Mustang.

The Lamborghini wasn’t as fortunate. Steel crumpled and glass shattered with Nightwing’s impact. Rubber squealed as the car moved sideways into Dani’s Miata.

Jason stood ready as Nightwing got to his feet. “That was a lucky shot, Scott! We both know I’m better than you!”

“Really, Michaels? If I recall, you do three things really well. You’re moderately strong. You fly really, really fast. What was the third? Oh, yeah. You can see in the dark.”

Nightwing charged. “I’m stronger than you!” His fist flew towards Jason’s face and was caught in Jason’s grip. A look of surprise crossed his face.

“Not anymore.”

Three rapid-fire blows caught Nightwing in the gut and left him breathless. A spin kick landed him on his backside in front of the damaged car. Dazed, he slowly got himself to his feet. Jason’s fist met him halfway as he came erect, knocking him back to his knees. A kick lifted him up and he slammed down onto the front of the silver car. The front axle buckled and the tire fell flat under the car.

Blood trickled from Nightwing’s nose and the corner of his mouth. His breath was ragged and his eyes were glazed, staring at the ceiling.

Disgusted by the damage done to his car, Jason tossed the keys across the garage and began walking up the exit ramp to the street.

Nightwing moved uncertainly as he climbed off the remains of the car. “Come back! We aren’t finished yet!” His voice croaked and cracked as he spoke. His knees buckled and he collapsed. The twisted steel of the car’s trunk slid off and joined him lying on the concrete.

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The Guardians

“Well, that was…” Dani started.


“…interesting.” Theresa finished. “That has to be just about the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone put Brad down.”


“Except maybe Brad.” Dani added.


“Warren! Med kit!” Kris yelled and took off flying for the shaft so recently used by Nightwing.


Lightning moved and was waiting by the entrance to the flight shaft with the med kit when Dove dove in taking hold of the kit on the way by.


“I think Jason needs to give up on Lamborghinis. That’s what? Three that he’s lost? And Brad! I seriously hope he didn’t damage my car!” said Dani.


“At least he missed mine!” Theresa grinned at Dani.


Warstar, voice deep, spoke. “Huntress. You knew Pulsar would be here tonight. How?”


“It’s a simple matter, Warstar, if you know enough. Lightning doesn’t own a car here. He runs anywhere that he needs to be. If he needs a car for any reason, he has full access to the SE carpool. He usually uses Jason’s. With the time that he spent visiting with Leah, he never bothered to take Jason’s car back. It only stands to reason that Jason knew that Lightning had his car. He would also know if it had been returned. It hadn’t, so he came here looking for it.” Sharon favored Warstar with a smile.


“I understand that,” he began, “but how did you know that he would be in the city tonight?”


“Stacy’s birthday!” Dani started lightly beating her head against the tabletop. “I can’t believe I forgot about Stacy’s birthday party!”


“Party? What party?” Ash looked confused.


“Stacy Deveraux,” Leah answered. “I forgot all about her. Her mom and Jason’s were best friends. She was named after Jason’s mom. She’s eighteen or nineteen now.”


“So,” Ash began, “you’re telling me that I wasted my day getting up early and flying out to Cali to convince Jason that he needed to come here today, when he already had plans to come this way anyways?”


Theresa hid a grin behind her hands. She was trying very hard not to laugh.


“Theresa! Did you know about this?”


Theresa started laughing. “I told you that a trip west wouldn’t be needed!”


“At least you got to see Marlene,” Dani said.


“Great, people.” Dan looked down from the monitor. “We’re possibly short an operative and you are all acting like you’ve found one of the great secrets of the universe. Dove! What’s Nightwing’s status?”


Dani looked at Dan and spoke. “Lighten up, Dan. It was just Brad. He’s taken worse before.”


A view of the garage showed Lightning and Dove with Nightwing lying on a gurney.


“Near as I can tell, Dan, minor concussion. He should be up and fully functional in the morning. I’ll do a more detailed diagnosis once I get him into the med bay and have a chance to have the scanners go over him.”


Lightning and Dove wheeled the gurney into the open elevator.

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The Meeting

“As you all know,” Leah began, “about two years ago, I left. I didn’t say anything to anyone here about why. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. Not even Kate. I realize that I hurt a lot of you.” Her eyes lingered on Theresa. “I realize that I hurt Jason. It wasn’t intentional on my part.

“I was approached for a mission. I was not approached as Sparx. I was approached as Leah Capwell, former model. My mission was to infiltrate, if I could, into the organization of Ulysses Madacar. The Department of Justice wanted someone that had some training and enough of a name that they would not be seen as a potential threat by anyone in the organization.”

Leah stood and began walking around the table.

“I was sent to make contact with a member of Madacar’s staff in Monte Carlo. Make contact, get him interested, and do what was necessary.”

“Well, you obviously succeeded!” Theresa commented.

“Psistorm,” Dan said, “not now!”

“Thank you, Dan,” said Leah. “Psistorm, you and I, when this is all over, will talk. Either like adults or in the training room like Nightwing and Pulsar.”

“At least you aren’t calling those two adults,” Warren added.

Leah shot a look at Lightning. “The man that I was asked to make contact with was this man.” Leah pressed a button and the image of a handsome man with dark hair appeared on the monitors. “His name is Steven Bauer. He is Madacar’s assistant. When he speaks, it is with the voice and full authority of Madacar.”

“I’ve done business with Bauer,” Paladin's voice came through the speakers. “He is ruthless when it comes to business dealings people, and Miss Capwell is correct. From what I’ve been able to discern, if anything happens to Madacar, Bauer will be the man taking over.”

“Thank you, Paladin,” Dan said to the knight in shining blue and silver armor,

Continuing, Leah said, “Steven has a very… forceful personality. I made contact. He seemed interested. He invited me to dinner. He invited me to his yacht.”

“So he’s the one?” Psistorm asked.

Leah gave her a regretful smile. “Yeah, he was the one.

“Things happened faster than I thought they would with Steven. He sees what he wants and he takes it. Regardless of the cost. He was brokering a deal for Madacar in Southeast Asia. The deal would have involved the Triads and the Yakuza. Possibly other organizations. Drugs. Weapons. The DOJ wanted to know what. I understand that the CIA was also interested.

“Out on the yacht I watched as he killed a man. Apparently the man had been an agent of a rival organization. I called in to my control. They needed more than one verified killing considering what they thought was at stake. I was ordered to stay and continue.”

Lightning let out a groan. “This whole setup stinks!”

“Leah, who was your control?” Ashleigh asked.

“Maxwell Spears,”Leah answered with some confusion.

Dan’s face turned away from the monitor. Lightning yelled, “Leah, if I had known Spears was behind this, you never would have left!”

“Lightning!” Dan barked. “This has nothing to do with the Danforth issue. Leah, when was the last time you made contact with Spears?”

“About three months ago, Dan. I called when I was ready to come in, but I never got an answer from him.”

“When I get a hold of him…” Lightning began.

“Won’t happen people. Spears was confirmed killed last year. It was a professional hit. Cheapshot took him out.”

“That isn’t possible, Dan!” Leah exclaimed. “I told you, I talked with him about three months ago!”

“It wasn’t him, Leah.” Dan checked something off screen. “We’re looking for confirmations on Spears’s cases. Cross-checking with the DOJ. It sounds like you’ve been compromised for a while, Leah.”

Ash looked up from the monitor. “Leah, why did you call to come in?” she asked.

“Steven has been hunting for something. Burning contacts and calling in favors. Doing whatever it took to find what he was looking for. What it turned out he was looking for,” Leah said, “was Warmonger’s primary research base.

“He found it. There’s an island,” she pressed a button and the monitor changed to show a map, “here.” A red dot appeared amid the blue of the south Atlantic.

“Oh, hell,” Ash whispered. “Just what we need. Madacar and Nova Research getting hold of any of Warmonger’s plans or schematics.”

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Jason and Sharon – The Loft

Illuminated only by the occasional flash of lightning through the skylight and windows from without, Jason sat bare-chested in silence at his desk. Sweat glistened across his muscles from the light of a desk lamp. Papers sat in neat stacks waiting for or already had had his attention. The one currently under his scrutiny was being notated in the margin and bore sweat stains from his hands.

“Are you going to say something or are you just going to stand there?” he asked to the darkness.

A shadow moved soundlessly and came into the light of the lamp. Sharon took a seat on the corner of the desk. Her stocking feet, ankles crossed, came to rest on the arm of Jason’s chair. She lifted a sword replica letter opener from its place on the desk.

“How did you know I was here?”

Jason looked to Sharon’s eyes, covered, even now, by dark glasses. “I saw you.”

Sharon turned her head, seeming to take in the loft. “Dark. I always liked the dark. You could never see in the dark. Not like Nightwing. You’ve changed. In a lot of ways. I’m not sure all of them are good.

“How did you see me?”

“Take your glasses off, Sharon. I’ve never liked them,” he said. “I always liked the intensity of the color of your eyes. They always reminded me of the sky.”

Sharon took the glasses off and dropped them onto the paper in Jason’s hand.

“What color are your eyes now?” she asked.

His head dropped to his chest, stretching his neck. “I imagine red for the most part. Not something I have to think about when I’m alone.”

“A rather impressive beating you gave that bag. Thinking of anyone in particular?” she asked.

“What makes you think…” he started.

“Jason, don’t think me a fool. Not now or ever. I can’t see you but you have that masculine scent that I became very familiar with when I was teaching you. You always preferred your bags filled with sand and there happens to be sand over a very great deal of the floor. Now, as I don’t feel any breezes coming from places that they shouldn’t be, that means you didn’t blow any holes in the walls. So, you beat the heavy bag into the garbage. Exactly who are you angry at?”

“Brad.”

Sharon gave a small laugh. “Hardly. I understand the fight was rather impressive. If you want to call it a fight. You and Brad don’t like each other. If you were really angry with him you would have dragged the fight out longer to beat on him more.

“Are you angry at Leah? It isn’t like you said a lot to her.”

“What’s the point? Me and Leah are ancient history.”

Sharon leaned forward resting her arm across her knees and balanced the letter opener on the tip of a finger. “’Ancient history’. For who? You? If that were the case, you would have moved on. It isn’t like you don’t have options.”

“Options for what?”

“Relationships. Sex.”

Jason laughed. “With who? You?”

He reached over and caressed her ankle. She moved her feet and sat cross-legged on the desk.

“Hardly. Don’t get me wrong. It was fun when it happened and you needed it after Sandy died. I needed it after my husband died. But right now, you and I aren’t exactly relationship material and I’m looking for more than just a sexual outlet.

“You want a list of the women in your life that might actually make a good chance for you? Open your eyes, Jason. You’ve dated. Once or twice with a woman and you move on before something serious comes from it. It seems everything you attempt, you sabotage. The only woman you dated for an extended period was Angelique, and honestly, I really don’t want to know how or why that came about!”

“It came about,” he said quietly, “because it had to. I can’t go into it any more than that. Trust me on that.”

“I’d like to, Jason, but like I said, you’ve changed!

“Marlene was Sandy’s best friend. You’ve known her longer than anyone, except me. She loves you. Theresa loves you. Dani loves you. If you want to have fun you could probably have the two of them at the same time! Some of the women you’ve dated probably would have liked to be considered ‘relationship material!’”

Sharon threw the letter opener behind her where a soft sound indicated that it was buried in the remains of the bag.

“How strong are you now?”

“Tests put me at about the same level as Brad.”

“Your reaction time is faster. No matter how you moved or blocked, Brad was always able to connect with you once or twice. From what they described to me, Brad never had a chance.”

“If they wanted him to have a chance, they wouldn’t have started the sweep,” he said.

“That’s a false assumption. Had they known your revised capabilities, they wouldn’t have had to run the sweep. Kris would probably like to have some time with you to have a really good look at what has changed.”

“That might get her in the same room with me for an extended period.”

Sharon cocked her head as if she were looking at Jason. “You can’t blame her for that. She was never the warrior that you or Ash was. Or Warren for that matter. Her medical training and her beliefs just made her more and more of a pacifist.

“Take a good look at her next time you see her, Jason. A couple of inches more to the left and you would have killed her.”

Jason stood and his chair rolled back to slam into the wall.

“Don’t you think I know that!” he yelled. “I. Lost. Control!”

“You were angry. The Blood Guard members were just acceptable targets for your anger. And the discussion becomes a circle.

“Who are you angry at?” She got up from the desk and started walking towards the door. She gathered her coat and her shoes. From the pocket of the coat in her arms she pulled out a data stick and tossed it at Jason, who caught it out of the air. “Dan wanted you to have that. He thought it might change your mind about tomorrow. You should have stayed for the meeting. It would have been enlightening for you.”

Sharon slipped on her coat and stepped into her shoes. Her heels clicked as she walked across the bare floor to the door. “You said my eyes reminded you of the sky, Jason. When was the last time you flew?” The door closed with a solid bang before he could answer.

Jason retrieved his chair and turned his attention back to the stacks of paper on the desk. Sharon’s glasses and the data stick diverted his attention time and again. Sharon’s final question seemed to echo in the silence.

With a roar that was part anger and part frustration, Jason swept the papers from his desk, scattering them across the floor. Sharon’s glasses remained, staring reproachfully at him. When was the last time you flew?

Jason picked up the data stick and turned it over and over under the light. A touch on the desktop opened the bay and he slotted the stick into the port for it. The monitor in his desk and the wall monitor mounted high behind him came to life with the insignia of Project Wildfire and the record of the Guardian’s meeting played before him.

When the recording was done, Jason brought up the image of Steven Bauer.

“Son of a bitch...” Jason whispered to himself as he stood. “Son of a bitch!” he roared as his chair sailed into the over-sized monitor. Pieces of it rained down.

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To do What is Right

Jason – The Party Tuesday 10:48 P. M.

Lightning flashed overhead and rain misted on the windshield of the taxi. Jason sat in the back behind the Plexiglas divider lost in thought. A shower and a change of clothes did nothing for his mood, which was thoroughly reflected in the weather.

“Bad night to be out. Storm’ll be worse before morning. Seen it like this before,” the driver said.

“Yeah,” Jason replied indifferently.

The cab slowed and pulled to the side. “Hey, man! Looks like I’m gonna hafta drop ya here,” the cab driver informed Jason. “Somethin’ goin’ on up ahead. Can’t get no closer.”

“This is fine. I can walk the rest of the way.” Jason paid no attention to the hundred dollar bill he passed to the driver. “Keep the change,” he said.

Lights flashed from the tops of police cruisers and a SWAT van. Officers in tactical gear were everywhere. Barricades closed off both ends of the street with officers keeping bystanders and reporters out. Jason worked his way through the crowd up to the barrier. A reporter was trying to get information from a police officer.

“C’mon. Give me something I can use, Murphy!” the cute, young, beret wearing reporter said.

Murphy replied, “Look. I’d really like to help you out, but my orders are orders. You’re going to have to wait until the captain releases a statement to the press, Val. Same as everyone else. Now step back!”

Valora moved a step back. “This isn’t a way to get your name in the paper, Murphy!” she yelled as she moved down the blockade.

Jason stepped up beside Val and asked, “What’s going on? What’s the story here?”

“Some girl’s birthday party was crashed. There were shots fired. Apparently, there’s a hostage situation.” She turned to Jason. “You a reporter? Get your own story!”

Jason gave her his best smile. “No, Val. I’m not a reporter. I was supposed to be going to a party, but the street is blocked off. Who is in charge of the detachment?”

“Frank Stone. Are you sure you aren’t a reporter?”

Jason gave a laugh. “I’m sure, Val.” He turned into the crowd, away from the police line.

“Hey,” her voiced carried behind him, “you’re that Scott guy!”

He tossed her a wave over his shoulder and vanished into the crowd. Jason turned into an alley and looked to see if anyone noticed. A bum was curled up by a box. No one else was around. Jason changed as a crimson energy corona outlined his frame. Gone were the rain-drenched overcoat and street clothes. In their place was the yellow and orange battle gear of Pulsar.

He looked to the sky as rain fell on his face. Light burst and thunder roared close behind.

When was the last time you flew?

“Tonight, Huntress!” he roared as his feet left the ground leaving a crimson wake behind him.

Pulsar flew low over the building and landed behind the command van. He opened the rear door and climbed in. “What the hell!” Franklin Stone bellowed as he turned. “You are about the last person I expected, Pulsar.” He smiled and held out his hand. Pulsar took it.

“Captain. What’s the situation?”

Stone ran his hand over his graying black hair.

“Well, as far as we know, we have a party in the Deveraux penthouse. Spotters have been able to get a count of five hostiles. Possibly more. All of them are armed. Pistols and two shotguns. We don’t believe they have any fully automatics, but we aren’t positive. Snipers can’t get a line on all five. They keep moving and staying away from any windows.” Stone indicated the plan of the penthouse. “We’ve thought about taking a team up and dropping them on the roof. We’ve got the stairs covered and shut down the elevators.”

“Have they made any demands?” Pulsar asked as he looked closely at the floor plan.

“Five million dollars. A commercial helicopter. Twelve backpacks with enough food to last a week.”

“Is there a time limit?” He looked at the building, noting the position of the penthouse balcony.

Stone turned his gaze to the clock. “We’ve got twenty-three minutes before they toss the first party girl off the balcony. They also warned us that if any costumes showed up or tried to interfere, they’d toss more than one. And at first sign.”

Pulsar nodded. “I understand. I’ll just have to make sure they don’t see me.”

Stone smiled showing white teeth contrasting against his dark skin. “Is this the part where I tell you, Guardian, that this is a police situation and we have it well in hand?”

Pulsar gave a light laugh. “You can try, Captain, but I think I’ve already left.” He turned and exited the command van.

Pulsar left the same way he came, flying low through an alley.

…to protect those unable to protect themselves…

Positioning the building and the orientation of the penthouse in his mind, Pulsar flew away from the barricades. Judging that he had traveled far enough, he flew straight up into the teeth of the storm. Lightning fractured the sky and thunder shook him to his core as it boomed behind the lightning.

Looking down upon the city at night, Pulsar fell. He angled his descent in the direction of the building surrounded by the flashing lights of the police. Small flashes of power kept his fall under control. Once over the building he arrested his fall and alit lightly on the roof.

A short walk took him to the edge of the building, looking down upon an alley. Another step and little exertion left him slowly descending towards a bedroom window. He reached out and touched the window frame. Crimson light surrounded the window frame and suddenly, the frame and the glass were gone. He flew into the room slowly and came to ground on the carpet. He turned and put his hand up to the empty window space. A crimson flash of power and the window was returned to its place.

He took a quick look around the room. The door was slightly ajar. Pulsar changed and Jason stood in black suit pants. The sleeves of his white dress shirt were rolled up to the elbows. He moved quietly towards the door and peered out. Seeing no one in the hall, Jason slowly opened the door and stepped out.

The stock of a shotgun cracked him across the temple and he fell to the floor.

“Get up!” a voice growled at him.

Jason stood unsteadily. A flick of his tongue and he tasted his blood on his lips. A gash from the blow bled freely. He hobbled down the hall leaning heavily against the wall.

“Hey, Carl! Found this guy coming out of a bedroom!”

Carl was heavy-set with a boxer’s build. An average looking guy with a nose indicating a past break. He toted the second shotgun.

“What were you doing in the bedroom?” he asked Jason.

“I was in the bathroom when you came in,” Jason answered thickly. “I hid in the bedroom.”

“We searched the bedrooms,” Carl said.

“Guess I just hid better than you searched, Carl.”

“Sit down!” A backhanded blow snapped Jason’s head to the side.

“Jason, come here,” said Emily Deveraux.

Jason turned his head to Emily and then back to Carl. Six men, Jason thought to himself. Carl indicated in Emily’s direction with the barrel of his shotgun. Jason stumbled her way and sat next to her. She pulled Jason’s head to her lap and applied a napkin to the wound on his head. She bent over as if inspecting the wound.

“What are you going to do?” she whispered.

Jason looked at her out of the corner of his eye as she wiped blood from his face. “Make sure that only the right people get hurt,” he replied in a whisper.

He looked around the room, assessing. Six targets. Twenty or twenty-five of Stacy’s friends as potential casualties or witnesses. Roughly ten minutes before the time limit was up.

The phone rang and Carl answered it.

“What do you want, Stone? …I don’t want excuses, Stone! I want the money and a helicopter loaded! You have…” he checked his watch, “eight minutes by my watch before I toss someone off the balcony!” Carl slammed the phone down.

Jason watched as Carl looked around the room. His eyes settled on Stacy and he walked over to her. From the looks of Stacy, she had been crying. A lot of the girls looked like they might have been. Some of the guys looked like they would have liked to.

“Today’s your big day, girl. What are you? Nineteen?” he asked, as he sat on the coffee table in front of Stacy, laying the shotgun across his knees. Stacy just nodded her head. “Well, since it is your big day, what do you say to going first?”

Carl’s hand swallowed Stacy’s arm. Pulling her up from her seat he dragged her towards the balcony. Stacy started screaming for someone, anyone, to help her. Jason felt Emily tense up beneath him and he gave her leg a quick squeeze. Carl managed to slide the door open and get Stacy on the balcony. He was able to close the door with an elbow.

A young man stood and promptly had a handgun in his face. He sat back down heavily. Jason pivoted from his position. His leg caught the gunman behind the knees. His other foot caught the gunman in the side of the head, slamming it into the coffee table. One.

Jason grabbed hold of a tray and spilled the contents on the floor. He turned and dodged one of the other gunmen. His knee drove up into the man’s stomach and the tray clanged off the back of his head. Two. A handgun discharged. Large caliber, Jason gauged from the sound. A body fell to the floor with a scream of agony.

“Everyone get down! On the floor now!” Jason yelled.

Bodies moved low around the room. Jason turned and caught a blast from the shotgun on the tray at close range. He threw the tray and caught the man that fired the handgun in the neck with it. Three. A leaping side kick landed on the chest of the man with the shotgun. The shotgun blew a hole in the ceiling as the man flew backwards. Four.

The remaining gunman closed the range with Jason. Jason grabbed the hand holding the gun, rolled himself backwards down the gunman’s arm and slammed his elbow into the back of the man’s head. Five.

Jason looked out the door in time to see Carl force Stacy over the railing of the balcony. Jason charged, never once stepping on a body, and shattered the door. He spun and slid backwards across the rain slick balcony. He slammed into the railing beside Carl. Momentum carried Jason over the railing. His foot caught Carl under the chin as he went over.

Below, a policeman called to the captain, “We’ve got two bodies falling!”

The crowd gave a horrified cry as it watched the bodies plummeting.

Stone watched through binoculars. “Come on, hero! Now’s the time if you are going to do something!” he said to himself.

Looking down, Jason noted one of Stacy’s shoes falling free. Stacy was reaching up to him as she fell screaming in fear.

Jason changed.

Pulsar accelerated, watching as the ground below rushed closer. He grabbed hold of Stacy, one arm around her back. Her arm whipped around his neck and locked into a death grip.

Too fast! he thought to himself. Too low!

Pulsar turned trying to compensate for his downward speed and the additional weight. He spun, flying backwards, and eyed the SWAT van.

“This is going to…”

The tactical van rolled up on two wheels from the impact, and settled heavily back down on all four wheels. Pulsar fell the remaining few feet to the road. Stacy landed on top of him and rolled off.

The first sensation was fading pain. The second was rain pouring down. Paramedics were trying to put him on a board when he sat up.

“I don’t need that. How long was I out?” he asked one of them.

“About five minutes, sir.”

“How is the girl?” he asked.

“She’s shaken up quite a bit, sir. Her arm is broken,” the paramedic responded. “The police have all the men in custody. The girl’s mother was shot. They have her on her way to River General.”

Pulsar stood unsteadily, and walked to the ambulance where Stacy was laying on a gurney. She looked at him as he walked up.

“You saved me!” she said quietly. Her voice scratchy from the screaming she had done earlier.

“Not quite, miss. Had I saved you, your arm wouldn’t be broken. I just kept you from dying.”

A paramedic was splinting her arm. “We’ve got it set. We’ll be running her in for a cast,” she said.

“That won’t be necessary,” he replied as he reached out and put his hand on Stacy’s arm. A crimson nimbus surrounded his hand where he touched her. Heat suffused her arm eliciting a sharp intake of breath from her. Pulsar stiffened and flexed his arm.

“She’ll be fine,” he said tiredly.

He turned to see Val standing by Captain Stone, beside the command van. Both of them were looking at him. He looked up into the heart of the storm and took off.

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Jason and Kris ~ River General 11:42 P.M.

Pulsar came to rest beyond the parking lot of River General Hospital. He changed and Jason walked through the doors of the emergency room. He noted the nurse behind the counter and walked over.

“I’m looking for a friend. Emily Deveraux. She was shot,” he stated.

The nurse looked at him. “Are you family?” she asked.

“No,” he answered, “just an old friend.”

“She’s in emergency surgery. Dr. Tyler is with her.” She turned her attention to a computer monitor and Jason slipped away.

Great, he thought to himself.

When a gurney came through the doors he slipped into the emergency room proper. He noted several of his playmates from earlier, accompanied by police escorts as they were treated. None of them looked at him.

He made his way to the operating room and looked in. Kris and her medical team were performing surgery on Emily. He watched and waited.

Twenty minutes later, Stacy and her father, Richard Deveraux, came into the ER. Richard, a fifty-ish man with gray hair and eyeglasses, had his Blackberry in hand. The nurse Jason spoke with earlier was urging Richard to turn it off or she would be calling security.

Stacy came over and looked through the window into the OR. “Will she be all right?” she asked Jason.

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” he told her gently. He put his arm around her. Stacy turned away from the door and buried her face in Jason’s chest. She began crying softly. Jason held her close. “It’ll be alright,” he told her quietly.

“He threw me off the balcony,” she said. “I was falling. You were falling!”

Jason laid a finger across Stacy’s lips. “Not here, Stace. Not now. Later, you and I can talk about things, but not right now.” He looked towards Richard. Stacy looked back over her shoulder to her father where he was still fiddling with his phone.

Richard looked up and saw the two of them looking at him. He put his phone into the pocket of his overcoat and walked towards them. “Scott,” he nodded his head towards Jason. “How is Emily?”

“Your wife is still in surgery, Dick,” Jason responded. “The doctor is still working. I’m sure she’ll have news for you when she is done.”

Richard seemed to take umbrage at Jason’s tone. “My name is ‘Richard’, Scott. Not ‘Dick’! Your father always called me that. I never much cared for it when he did it.”

Richard’s phone chose that moment to ring. He stepped away, fished it from his pocket, and began a rather animated conversation with it.

“Asshole,” Jason said under his breath so that Stacy would not hear.

Stacy was looking back into the OR. “Isn’t that doctor a friend of yours?” she asked.

“She was, Stace. She was,” he answered.

Richard stepped back up. “I have to go back to the office. Can you take care of my daughter, Scott?”

“Sure, Dick, I’ll take care of your family for you.” Jason drew himself up to his full height and looked down on Richard. Richard turned with indignation rife on his face and left.

Perhaps an hour later, Kris stepped out of the OR. Her wings were folded behind her. She saw Jason and Stacy sitting on a bench. Each was holding a coffee cup. With an intake of breath she pulled down her mask and stepped towards the girl.

“Miss Deveraux? I’m Dr. Tyler.”

“Is my mother going to be okay?” she asked.

“Your mother is in a very critical condition. We’re trying to get her condition to stabilize. I’m afraid that we are going to have to do more surgery. We weren’t able to get the bullet out,” the doctor said. “We’re going to wheel her into a private room for post-op recovery while we wait and see what happens.”

“Can I see her?” Stacy asked, wiping tears from her face.

Kris nodded. “You can sit with her when we get her into her room.” She turned her attention to Jason. “I heard this was your doing,” she said quietly.

“Not quite, Kris. I’ve never used a gun on anyone.” Jason offered his coffee cup to her. She nodded with a small smile for him as she took it and drank.

“I’ve got teams dealing with broken ribs, concussions, a fractured jaw…”

“At least,” he interjected quietly, “you are only dealing with one gunshot wound and there were no fatalities, Kris.”

This time, Jason. What about next time?”

The nurse called out for Kris. “Dr. Tyler, they put Mrs. Deveraux into room two-twelve.”

“Thank you, Carrie.” She turned back to Stacy. “Come on. I’ll take you to your mom.”

In room two-twelve, Stacy walked over to the bed her mother was lying upon. She took her mother’s hand in her own and looked at Jason. “Is there anything you can do?”

Standing inside the doorway, Jason looked up to the camera. “Kris, can you disable that?”

“Why should I?” she asked as she checked the monitors hooked up to Emily.

Jason walked to her and set his hand lightly on her shoulder. She stiffened at the touch, but did not pull away. “To help me do the right thing.”

She looked up at him, searching his eyes. She nodded. “They told me you had changed. What can you do?”

“I don’t know, but if you are willing to become my doctor again, you get first crack at finding out.”

She hung the clipboard with Emily’s charts on the end of the bed and walked towards the door. “Does this mean you’ll be with the team tomorrow?”

Jason stood beside Emily’s bed. “I don’t know, Kris. One thing at a time.”

Kris walked to the nurse’s station and turned off the camera in room two-twelve. By the time she had returned to the room, Jason had rolled up his shirt sleeves and unbuttoned his shirt.

“What do you want us to do?” Kris asked as she closed the door.

“Hopefully, nothing. Stace you need to let go of your mother. Whatever happens, Kris, don’t touch me or her until I let go of her.” Jason put one hand on Emily’s chest over the gunshot wound, and took her hand in his other. He took a deep breath. The hand on Emily's chest began glowing red. He stiffened and blood began to trickle down his chest, seeping into his shirt. The monitors showed Emily’s heart rate growing stronger.

Kris watched in horrified fascination as the initial gunshot wound and the surgical incisions she had made in Emily appeared on Jason’s chest. Several moments passed before the glow faded from around his hand. He stood, releasing Emily's hand as he did. With some apparent effort, he took his hand from her chest, and took a short, awkward step backwards. Blood was smeared down his chest, flowing freely from the open wounds he had accepted.

Kris was moving towards Emily when Jason fell heavily to his knees. A quick glance at Emily’s monitor showed a strong, regular heartbeat. Jason weakly held himself on his hands and knees. Blood pooled on the floor beneath him.

Kris knelt beside Jason and rolled him onto his back. She ripped his shirt completely open. Using her scrubs to wipe his chest, she checked to see the rate at which his healing factor closed the wounds.

“Will he be alright?” Stacy asked.

Kris nodded. “He's a fast healer. I've never seen him do that before, though.”

Stacy moved beside Jason. “His eyes are glowing red! How long has he been like this?”

“All his life, Stacy,” Emily answered quietly from her bed. “He was born this way.”

Kris looked up at Emily. “You knew?”

Emily smiled. “His mother was my best friend. We didn't keep a lot of secrets from each other. As he grew, and we saw the type of man he would be, we continued to keep his secret.”

Stacy looked at her mother. “Even from me?”

“It wasn't my secret to tell you. Your father doesn't even know.”

Kris examined the wounds. Not even scars left traces on him. Jason reached up and touched the side of Kris's face with his fingers. She smiled down on him. His hand went to hers on his chest. He interlaced his fingers with hers. His fingers traced the scar and he remembered the day that he caused it. A tear rolled down the side of his face.

“I'm sorry,” he whispered to her.

“Shh. It's okay, Jason...”

His hand on hers began glowing. “I'm sorry,” he whispered.

Unable to move, held fast by the power Jason released into her, Kris watched through the glow emanating below her eyes. She watched as skin peeled back and the bone below Jason's face appeared. She was aware of a distant ache in her own face.

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Later

Kris stood by the door in fresh scrubs. Jason sat in a chair, his shirt a bloody mess. Emily lay still in her bed, the head of it elevated. Stacy sat on the foot of it.

“Dammit, Jason! What possessed you to do that?” Kris asked vehemently.

Jason favored Kris with a smile. “Kari has had the advantage over you long enough?”

“Don't bring my sister into this! Why?”

“Guilt,” Emily said. “You always held the world on your shoulders. Like Atlas. Every time someone got hurt, somehow, you always felt you were at fault. I remember you when your mother died, Jason. You became so depressed that everyone thought that you would follow her. It seems that the only thing that kept you with us was that girl you were dating.”

“Sandy,” he replied quietly.

“Sandy. Every time she looked at you, it was like seeing your mother looking at your father. She would have done anything for you.”

“She died.”

“She was killed, Jason,” Emily said. “How many people were hurt that day in the bank?”

Jason looked at Emily. “Eight.”

“How many died, Jason?” Emily asked.

“Mom?” Stacy looked from her mother to Jason, eyes wide.

Emily asked again, “How many died?”

“One,” Jason answered quietly.

“How many men did you kill that day?”

“Jason?” Kris and Stacy asked, almost together.

“Six,” he answered.

Emily smiled tightly at Jason. “A year later and you've got three new friends. You made a difference in the world and in people's lives. Then Leah came into your life. You seemed more alive with her than you had in a long time. It was like seeing you with Sandy again.

“When Leah left, you withdrew into yourself.

“It wasn't your fault, Jason. You didn't cause the accident that took your mother from us. You didn't kill Sandy. You didn't make Leah leave you. And you didn't kill your father.”

Jason looked down at the floor. “I killed...”

Emily spoke quietly. “You killed six men that killed your fiancé and threatened numerous others. I don't recall anyone looking for you for that. I do recall people wondering about the man that stopped others from dying.”

“Jason,” Kris said, “I don't agree with decisions that you've made. They weren't decisions that I would have made.” Jason wearily looked at Kris. “But at the same time, they weren't decisions that I had to make. Warmonger had to be stopped. You stopped him. We all thought what you did was excessive.”

“Kris, it was excessive. It was also necessary. I'm not a hero, Kris. I've killed, and if it is necessary, I'd do it again. If that nuke hadn't killed Warmonger, I would have dropped another one. A bigger one. As many as it would have taken to make sure that he never got up again.

“It wasn't justice, Kris. It was revenge. Pure and simple.” Kris turned away and looked at the floor, discomfited by the admission. “I'm not you, Kris. I don't hold your beliefs. I respect you and them, but I can't follow them. You're a doctor. You don't play the game anymore because you took an oath to do no harm.

“Ash believes, Dani believes, that we use only the minimum force necessary to stop the bad guys. All my life, Kris, being who and what I am, I've had to hold back, so that I don't hurt someone unnecessarily.

“I am a mutant, Kris. I wasn't kidnapped by a subversive organization and altered to become a soldier, or to become a messenger pigeon. I didn't fall into a toxic waste dump and get struck by lightning while trying to get out of it. I was born this way.” He sighed.

“The facade, the shell, has been cracking. Pieces have fallen by the wayside, and I don't think it can truly be fixed. I'm not entirely sure that I want it fixed. Sharon taught me self-control. The discipline necessary to turn the other cheek. I feel that I've turned so many times that I've permanently become dizzy from it. I've lost too much, Kris, and the only way it seems that I can keep from losing anything else, is to just give it up.” Jason leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. “I'm tired, Kris. I'm tired of living up to other people's expectations. Everyone seems to have ideas of who and what I should be.

“My father had Sharon train me when I was old enough to understand. For other people's protection. Before that, it was 'Don't' from my father and my mother. 'Don't be what you are. Don't let others find out. Hide what you are.'” Leaning into her mother, Stacy looked at Jason as if seeing him for the very first time. “It's become second nature to keep secrets, Kris.” Jason rubbed his eyes. “I'm tired of keeping secrets. I'm tired of worrying about what everyone else wants or expects me to be.”

The anger draining away, Kris's face softened as she looked on Jason. Lightly she stepped before him, taking his hands in hers and pulling him to his feet. Her wings swept around them as she embraced him. “I've missed my friend,” she told him, “but you scare me sometimes.”

“Sometimes, Kris, I scare myself.”

Turning towards the door, she said, “Go home. Rest. Doctor's orders. I'll take care of getting Emily signed out.”

Greywind
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Favors

Jason, Emily, Stacy and Angelique – Wednesday 2:58 A.M.

The sound of a key scraping against the lock preceded the door of the loft sliding open along its track. Light from the open door was reflected among the granules of sand cast across the floor like stars shining in the sea of night.

“Lights!”

Track lighting and overhead lamps flickered to life. Jason stepped aside allowing Emily and Stacy to precede him into the loft. The papers were still scattered across the floor by the desk. He took off his jacket and hung it on a rack by the door. Offering his assistance, soon both Emily's and Stacy's rested beside his.

“If you get hungry the fridge is fully stocked. There are two beds upstairs if you want to lay down. If you want a shower, the bathroom is through there.” He indicated, pointing past the kitchen. “There are some clothes in the wardrobes. I think Leah or Ash left some things that might fit.”

Emily reached up and pulled the letter opener from the remains of the heavy bag. “I'd fire the housekeeper, if I were you,” she said, looking up from the sand and papers scattered across the floor.

Jason gave her a wry smile. “The housekeeper was let go about a month before I bought the building.”

“No nubile young things chasing you around that are willing to clean up after you?” Emily asked.

Stacy knelt down and began shuffling the papers into a rough stack, oblivious to her mother's question. Emily and Jason each chuckled seeing her. Following the trail of papers, Stacy moved around the desk. Pieces of plastic and electronic components lay scattered on the floor before her. She looked up seeing the shattered remains of the monitor and chair.

“Jason,” she asked, “what happened to your TV?”

“Nothing, Stace. The TV is over there.” He pointed to the wall between twin fireplaces. “That was a computer monitor. The computer is in the desk.” Jason went into the kitchen.

“Okay… So, what happened to your monitor then?” She set the stack of papers on the desk.

“The desk chair hit it.” He came out of the kitchen with a broom and dust pan. Setting the dust pan aside, Jason pushed the broom creating a neat pile of sand.

“Jason!” Stacy yelled, the frustration evident in her voice.

The dust pan filled, Jason took it into the kitchen to dump it in the garbage. “Stace, there was a bad report that came across. I lost my temper. The chair and monitor got in the way. It’s no big deal.”

Stacy took the broom from where Jason left it and attacked the pile of sand. When Jason came back with the dust pan she pointed. “Leave it!”

Jason set the dust pan where she pointed and went back into the kitchen. “Are either of you hungry?”

“Yes,” Emily answered.

“Sure,” Stacy replied with a hint of aggravation.

Jason began scrounging through the refrigerator. He pulled out and set on the counter the makings for an omelet. Out of a cupboard a cheese grater was retrieved. From a hook a skillet was taken down and set on a burner. Emily took a seat from where she could watch the proceedings.

“What's it like to fly?”

Pausing, Jason looked up from dicing an onion. “There's an incredible sense of freedom. Except when there is an incredible sense of urgency.”

“How often does that happen?” she asked. She took the grater and began shredding the cheese.

“Honestly?” Jason scraped the onion into the skillet. “Just about every time I fly.” He opened the carton of eggs and took one out. He contemplated it for a moment before continuing. “There's always somewhere that I'm going or something that I have to do. Of all the things I can do, flying is the one thing that I enjoy the most.”

Emily watched as the last of carton was cracked into a bowl. “A bit much for just the three of us, isn't it?”

He smiled at her. “I don't know about you, but I've been going pretty much non-stop since I got up yesterday. Healing myself, or others, makes me hungry. Here.” He held his glowing hand to her and a deformed bullet fell to the counter. “The deformation is from where it hit the bone.”

Emily looked askance at the bullet. “Is that the one...?”

“That came out of you? Yes,” he answered her.

“I don't want it. Throw it away,” she whispered.

Jason took the bullet and dropped it amid the egg shells and sand. “How about this, then?” He held out his hand. Resting in his palm was a black stone with a red glowing star.

Emily took it from him. “Is this your mother's?”

Jason resumed mixing the ingredients for the omelet. “No, Aunt Em. Mom's was buried with her. That one is yours.”

Stacy moved behind Jason and dumped the dust pan in the trash. She noticed the stone lying in her mother's palm. “Ooh. Pretty! Do I get one?”

“Well, I seemed to have misplaced your birthday gift. Wait until after we eat. I'll get you one then. Okay?” he asked

Stacy squealed with excitement. “Yes! I mean, that'll be great!” She took the dust pan and went back to the pile of sand.

“Jason, why do you wear the costumes? You. Your friends. I really don't get it.”

He poured the mixture from the bowl into the skillet and set the bowl aside. “Each of us wears what we do for different reasons. The police have uniforms. We have ours. Some, whether you want to call them 'villains' or 'heroes' or just 'vigilantes', dress alike, being part of a team. The Guardians, when we started out, decided that looking alike wasn't going to work. Dove,” he looked at Emily, “Dr. Tyler needed to have her wings free so that she could fly. Lightning's boots are specially made so that the soles don't wear or melt.”

“What about yours? Yours has changed a number of times. The only thing constant with it is this.” She held the stone out to him. “The star burst. And the colors.”

“Yeah, Jase!” Stacy said. “What's up with those colors? I mean, is yellow really a 'manly' color?”

Jason sighed. “Sandy designed all the suits that I've worn and she chose the colors. I guess she got the idea for the star from her stone. Every design she made was yellow and orange. Except one. The main reason for the bright colors, to my mind at least, they make me a target. When Bolt or Bloodbath or one of the other bad guys does their thing, being a target for them keeps the police and bystanders safer than they would be otherwise.” He began folding the omelet.

The lights dimmed. Colors swirled through the air of the loft like a laser beam through smoke.

“Jason,” Stacy asked nervously, “what's happening?”

“Company. Looks like we might need another plate.” Jason opened up the cupboard and took down four plates. He cut the large omelet and set a portion on each plate.

Angelique appeared amid the swirling colors and stepped into the loft.

“Well, this looks almost domestic Jason.”

Jason carried two plates to the table. Emily took up the remaining two. She set the plates on the table as she took a seat.

“You're looking...” Jason began.

“Beautiful!” Stacy exclaimed.

Angelique favored Stacy with a smile, “Thank you, child.”

Stacy's face clouded. “I am not a child! I'm nineteen!”

Angelique laughed, the sound both melodious and friendly. “Pray, forgive me. I meant no offense.”

“Stacy,” said Jason, “your mother is a child where Angelique is concerned. Introductions. Angelique this is Emily and Stacy Deveraux.”

“So you're 'Aunt Emily'!” Angelique held out her hand to Emily, who took it.

Jason sat at the table. “Sit. Eat.” He took up his fork and did just that.

Angelique sat beside Jason across from Emily. Still staring at Angelique, Stacy took the last chair.

“When did you two first meet?” Emily asked.

Angelique smiled. “The first time? Eight years ago, wasn't it Jason?” Mouth full of omelet, Jason merely nodded. “I was looking into some business ventures. Some investments that didn't quite pay off properly.”

Emily looked a little puzzled. “How did you first meet?”

Jason gave an amused half-smile. “Our first actual meeting was my right fist to the left side of her jaw. I broke it, actually.”

Emily looked horrified. Stacy gasped out, “Jason!”

“It's quite alright, child,” Angelique stated. “We've come to terms with our past.”

“What could she have possibly been doing to justify that, Jason?” asked Emily.

Jason put his fork down. “Well, when we first met, Angelique was involving herself in a business venture. Let's just say that the business was a little on the shady side of the law. When we, the Guardians, managed to track down some leads from a different source it led us into conflict with Angel and her companions. She was in the process of casting a spell targeting Ash. I hit her on a flyby to stop her.”

Emily looked a little stunned. “Casting a spell...?”

“You're a witch?” Stacy blurted out.

Angelique's green eyes turned cold as she gazed upon Stacy. Her words and her tone encapsulating malevolence. “I prefer the term 'sorceress', child.”

Stacy's eyes dropped to her plate. Her fork picked at the omelet.

“How...?” Emily started.

Warmth having returned to her eyes, Angelique looked to Emily. “Yes?”

“How old are you?”

Jason stood, taking his and Emily's empty plates. “Okay. Anybody want anything else?”

Angelique looked amused as she answered Emily. “I will be one hundred and sixty-two in June.” She resumed eating.

Stacy got up from the table and carried her plate with her half-eaten omelet to Jason. “Is it okay if I take a shower? I'm not feeling so good now.”

Jason brushed some hair from Stacy's face. “Sure, Stace. I realize it can be a little unsettling the first time. I'll get you a change of clothes.”

Emily sat down on the couch in front of the TV. A game controller was moved to make room for her cup of coffee amid the clutter of drawing pads, pencils and game cases on the table before her. Waiting for Jason to return, Stacy joined her mother.

Returning with a small stack of clothing that he set on the arm of the couch, Jason said, “Music. Random.” The opening strains of Sarah Brightman's version of Queen's “Who Wants to Live Forever” came lightly from hidden speakers. He moved a stack of drawing materials from the table and sat on the cleared space. “Are you ready for this?” he asked Stacy. She looked at him a little confused. “Your stone?”

She brightened perceptibly. “Yes!”

Angelique came and stood beside Jason. “Do you need help?” she asked.

Jason looked at Stacy and then at Emily. “Probably. I don't think either of them is up to what needs to be done.”

“What needs to be done, Jason?” asked Emily.

Jason locked his eyes with Stacy's. “Do you trust me, Stace?” Biting her lower lip, she nodded. Jason held out his left hand to her. “Give me your hand.” She reached out. Jason took hold of the proffered hand, turning the palm up. “Do it,” he stated.

Angelique conjured a blade of mystic force. Before either Stacy or Emily could react, she sliced neatly across Stacy's upturned hand. Blood welling from the cut, Jason turned her hand to pour it into his cupped palm. The hand holding Stacy's began glowing and a twin of the cut Angelique had made appeared on Jason's hand, mixing their blood. His fingers curling over his palm, Jason's power played out between them. Her injury healed, he released the girl's hand. Under pressure from the force exerted on it the blood coalesced and became hard. Moments seemed like hours to him. The mixture in his hand formed a polished stone suitable for a necklace or a ring. Jason sighed as he held the stone out to Stacy.

“You've never done that for me,” Angelique said.

Jason gave her a look that was a mixture of annoyance and amusement. “Somehow I don't think your father would quite approve.” He stood and stretched.

Angelique looked at him with concern. “You're tired.”

'The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep...'” he quoted.

“Frost was one of your mother's favorites,” said Emily. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Fourth stanza. I think I'll take a shower in the morning. I'm going to go to bed,” Emily said.

Stacy took half the stack of clothes and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. Emily looked at the trefoil of the Klingon Empire on the shirt that Stacy left behind. “What is this?”

“Klingon hockey jersey,” he answered. “Ash preferred her sleeping clothes loose,”

She took the clothes and started for the stairs. “Is there a preference for where I sleep?”

He smiled at her. “You might want to take the bed with the door between there and here. I'm going to be a little busy and if noise bothers you...”

“That'll be fine. Good night, Jason. It was a pleasure to meet you Angelique.”

“Good night, Aunt Em,” Jason said.

“Good night, Emily. It was nice meeting you,” Angelique stated pleasurably.

Jason went to his desk, kicking a piece of plastic out of his way as he went. “I like her,” Angelique said. “I think I intimidate Stacy, though.”

“Well, you are over eight times older than her. Until tonight, who we are was something that she saw on the news or read about in a magazine.” He looked at the remains of his chair, groaned, and hung his head dejectedly.

“Let me get that for you.” Angelique began gesturing. Arcane power built up and released. The pieces of the chair and the monitor began re-knitting themselves. When finished, the chair rolled to its proper place behind the desk.

“Thank you.” Jason sat in the chair trusting in Angelique's magic. The flip of a switch brought his computer to life.

“So...,” Angelique sashayed around the desk and leaned against it. “What is the nature of this favor you need?”

Jason leaned the chair back while the computer booted up. “How involved is your father in Bauer's plan?”

She smiled as she folded her leg under herself and sat on the corner of the desk. The skirt of her blue evening dress pulled up when she placed her matching blue stiletto-heeled shoe on the armrest of his chair, revealing the top of her pale blue stocking. “I honestly have no idea.”

“Are any members of the Blood Guard going to be involved?” he asked her.

Brushing her fingers through her long blonde hair, she answered, “Some of them will be sent before the Guardians arrive. Warp will be the gateway.” She gave him a wistful smile. “You're back in the game. Analyzing. Planning.”

“Can you keep them out?”

“My father...” she began when he cut her off.

“Your father, when he gets over it, will find it a grand jest,” he said. The overhead monitor flickered to life, showing the image that was on it when it was previously destroyed. Angelique looked up at it.

“He hates you.”

Jason's fingers began moving over the keyboard. “The feeling is mutual.” He slotted a data stick into the open port. “Mentor!”

“Yes, Jason?” came the computerized voice from the system's speakers.

“I need you to gather whatever information you can about the area from the map. More than likely Ash has already asked you to do it. Tap into the military satellites. Get me whatever images you can of the island and surrounding environs. Make sure that information is available from the transport. Download simulation files WG 67, WG 102, and WG 120 through 133 to the data stick.”

“Yes, sir. Is there anything else I can do?”

Stacy came out of the bathroom, hair still damp from the shower, wearing a t-shirt with Darkwing Duck striking a heroic pose and a caption reading “Let's Get Dangerous!” She smiled at Jason. When she saw Angelique, she sat on the couch and took up her mother's coffee cup. Angelique gestured and spoke quietly. Stacy's head slid slowly over and came to rest on the arm of the couch. Jason gave Angelique a questioning look.

“A light sleep spell. Nothing more.”

He nodded to her. “No, Mentor. Although there is something you cannot do. You will not tell anyone of this. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Mentor responded.

“So,” Angelique asked, “what now?” As if in response Cheap Trick's “Gonna Raise Hell” started playing.

* * * * *

On a chessboard, an obsidian queen, lighted by the flickering light of a fire, moved forward of its own volition. The piece came to rest in a square harboring a crystal bishop.

* * * * *

Jason knelt before a chest at the foot of his bed rummaging through the contents; setting aside bundles of paper, a gun case, and smaller boxes containing odds and ends. Angelique lay supine across his bed watching him. She turned the gun case and opened it.

“I didn't think this was your style.”

He glanced up at her. “Guns? They aren't. That's the only one that I own. It belonged to my grandfather...” He paused as he uncovered a photograph of himself and Leah from better times. Leah was wearing an evening gown, he a tuxedo. She was laughing at some joke of Warren's. His hand on her waist, feeling the curve of her hip, the warmth...

The closing of the gun case snapped him out of his reverie. Jason turned the photo in its frame face down and set it aside in the chest. From the bottom he pulled out a black plastic box and set it on the bed. He took the gun case and flipped the top up. His hand brushed the barrel and the three speed loaders stored within.

Angelique slid the lid off the black box and looked at the contents it held. Pulling the fabric out she held up a black shirt with his star burst on it in red, and said, “Not your usual colors.”

“No. It isn't.” He closed the lid and set the empty gun case back in the chest. As Angelique folded the shirt, he lifted a box of bullets from the bottom of the chest. The box glowed red and disappeared. Putting everything except the black box back in, Jason replaced the lid on the chest.

Angelique set his tunic back in the box and moved it atop the chest. “Jason, do you trust me?”

He stood and stretched, the muscles popping in his back. A warm smile appeared on his face. “I trust you enough to let you weave a gateway into my home,” he said quietly. He turned in the direction of the stairs.

“Can I ask you something?” She stood. The slit in her gown left her leg exposed to his gaze. She turned slowly, facing the bed.

“Payment?” he asked her.

She looked back over her shoulder. “No. Just because I want to. Please?”

He stepped up to her. Jason's fingers caressed her back, moving slowly upwards. His lips moved over her exposed neck. His hands slid the gown off her shoulders leaving the silken dress to puddle around her ankles.

* * * * *

Angelique's head lay on his chest while her fingers traced along his muscles. “I've missed this.”

“Missed what? Someone you could have a repeat performance with?” His smile belied the seriousness of the statement.

She sat up on him, placing her foot on his shoulder. “They were fine when I left them. I never knew what happened,” anger heating her voice. “Knowing what happened before with anyone I was with, why did you?”

His fingers caressed her silken-clad leg. “Maybe I was hoping it would kill me,” Jason answered quietly. “As long as it doesn't happen again, it really isn’t a big deal. I hate dealing with the supernatural.”

She moved to get off him. “You need to get some sleep.”

Jason held her by the waist, refusing her. “Not just yet. When do you stop being 'Anton Darque's daughter' and start being your mother's daughter? Or maybe just be you?”

Angelique caressed his shoulder with her foot. “You know I don't know who my mother is.”

His hand cupped the side of her face. “That's just it, Angel. Without knowing who your mother is, do you think she'd be proud of what you are?”

Her foot snapped across Jason's face, drawing blood from a split lip that quickly healed. “I am my father's daughter!” she snarled.

His tongue cleared the blood from his lip. “But you don't have to be, Angel. You could be so much more. How many friends do you have?” She turned away from him, and tried once again to get up. Jason sat up, brushed her hair from her face and turned it gently towards his. “How many friends, Angel?”

“Two. Maybe...” she answered quietly. He kissed her gently. She stood, pulling herself free of him with no resistance. “You need to sleep.”

He caught her hand as she turned from him. “I trust you, Angelique.” He lay back down on his pillow and fell fast asleep. She looked down at the stone he had pressed into her palm. She began crying silent tears.

* * * * *

The obsidian queen spun in place alongside the crystal bishop before it vanished, leaving the bishop resting alone.

* * * * *

Jason awoke to darkness. Beyond his sight, at the corner of his vision, there was a violet light. Try as he might to capture it with his vision, it was elusive whenever he tried looking directly at the source of it. Sitting cross-legged on his chest at the foot of the bed was Angelique, naked except for her pale blue stockings. Mystical energy escaped from her eyes like wisps of violet smoke. He sat up in bed. Angelique did not move or respond. A circle consisting of mystic runes aflame with a violet light enclosed his bed.

“Angelique,” he spoke softly.

Her head lifted up and her eyes snapped open. Gone were the pupil and iris. Only the violet light was visible. She smiled warmly and she closed her eyes. The runes winked out of existence. The light in the room returned to what he was used to.

He arose from the bed throwing back the covers. Angelique watched him as he crossed the room to the dresser. With gym shorts pulled from the drawer in hand Jason turned, noticing Angelique watching him. “How long did I sleep?”

She smiled teasingly. “Twelve hours. Or maybe two.” She stood on the chest as he drew near to her. “Hmm. I'm taller than you now. I kind of like looking down on you.” She placed a hand on his shoulder to steady herself.

“How long did I sleep?” He put his hand on her hip as she leaned closer to him.

Her leg lifted and she slid it behind him, wrapping it around his waist. She dropped herself into him, trusting Jason to catch her. Her arms went around his neck as she settled into his arms. “You slept for about eleven and a half hours. I cast a ritual that expanded time. While you slept for almost twelve hours, less than two hours actually passed.” She kissed him passionately. She laughed, releasing her leg's grip and slid down.

Angelique sat on the bed and pulled herself across it, reclining back on her elbows. Her eyes were alight with amusement when she noticed the effect she had had on him. He pulled on the shorts.

“Are you going to get dressed?” he asked her.

She bent one leg at the knee, revealing more of herself. “I like being naked around you.”

He lifted her silk gown from the floor. He smiled at her playfulness. A crimson glow surrounded the blue silk in his hand. Jason turned and stepped into the open air of the loft. He flew down coming to rest beside the desk.

“Connect. Kris.”

The computer flickered to life. The line connected. An image of Kris appeared on the monitor.

“Jason. I can't say I expected this. What's up?”

“I thought it over. I'm in.”

“You have,” her eyes flitted away from the monitor and back, “less than an hour before the team leaves.”

“Alright. I'll be there as soon as I can.” He reached to shut down the connection.

“Jason.”

He sat back in the chair. “Yes, Kris?”

“I've got a problem. Seeing as Scott made the transport I'm kind of hoping you can help me out. Long fell down a flight of stairs last night. He suffered a compound fracture of the femur.”

Jason rocked the chair back. “You want me to heal him?”

Kris looked shocked at the suggestion. “No! Oh god, no, Jason! This isn't like last night with Emily. Long will be fine. In time. I noticed last night, I wish I had been able to actually monitor you when you did that, but I noticed that you didn't heal as fast. There seems to be a lag time between the injury and your healing factor kicking in when you take on someone else's injury. All I was wondering is if you have a pilot available capable of flying the transport.”

Jason looked thoughtful as he tapped his bottom lip with a finger. “Don't you have a backup?”

Kris smiled. “Long is the backup. Our primary is on paternity leave. Campbell's wife gave birth to a daughter last week. You know how Dan is about calling people in off of leave. Especially when it involves family. That's why I'm looking for other possibilities. Do you have someone available?”

“Give me a minute, Kris. Connect. Scott Enterprises. Long Island. Dormitory. Roan Shepperly.”

The phone rang twice before the connection went through.

“The hell? Jason? Do you have any idea what time it is?” Roan's voice was thick with sleep.

“Good morning, Roan. It is 6:18 in the morning. While I realize that normally you wouldn't be awake for at least another couple of hours, your services are needed. This is Dr. Tyler. She works at River General Hospital here in New York. She also works with Project Wildfire.”

Roan rubbed sleep from her eyes and focused on the monitor. “Dr. Tyler. What can I do for you?”

“Miss Shepperly, I need a good pilot qualified to fly an SE331X for a medical mission,” Kris told her.

“Three-thirty-one X? I've never heard of it. Much less being qualified to fly it,” Roan said.

“Roan,” Jason said, “there are ten of them, effectively. Wildfire has four of them. The Guardians have two. Two were modified to Dr. Tyler's specifications. One of them is warehoused unfinished to replace any of the other nine as needed. The last one...”

“The Executive Priority Transport,” Roan said

Jason smiled, “was modified into a flying limousine for the head of Scott Enterprises. You are fully qualified. Dr. Tyler will take care of the necessary requirements. There will be a detached service bonus for the flight, Roan. Thank you.”

“Understood, sir. Thank you.”

“I'll leave you two to make your arrangements,” Jason said. “I have a few things to do this morning. Goodbye.” The computer removed him from the conference call automatically. “Mentor.”

“Yes, sir?” the synthesized voice came from the desk.

“Take care of the necessary paperwork for Roan's bonus over my signature. Make it fifteen hundred on top of standard flight-time pay.” Angelique sat on the desk. “Also, prepare a recommendation for her in the event that she wishes to transfer, also over my signature.”

“Yes, sir. All the requested files have been transferred and are ready. Anything further, sir?” Mentor asked.

Angelique rested her foot on Jason's leg. He caressed her ankle. “No, Mentor. That's all I can think of. Thank you.” He pulled the data stick free from the port.

Angelique watched Jason with a bemused smile, enjoying the feeling of his fingers on her leg. “I'll talk with Charley. There may be other restrictions or considerations, but I'll see about keeping the Guard out of your way. I can't promise anything.”

He looked up at her with a half-smile. His eyes slid past her to a daisho resting on an ornamental stand high on a shelf. He stood, kissed Angelique lightly, and walked to the shelf. Reaching up, he took down the katana. The kashira carved in the likeness of a roaring tiger. The ivory tsuka wrapped with a black silk cord.

“Wasn’t that White Tiger’s?” Angelique asked him.

“Yes. He gave it to me shortly before Leah and I started dating. Someone poisoned the blade. The poison retarded my healing factor.” He pulled the sword a few inches free of the sheath.

Angelique walked up behind him. “That explains why he tried killing Black Jack. He would have succeeded if father hadn’t insisted that Black Jack live.” Her gaze took in the blade. “I think that was truly the beginning of the end of Kaneda’s service to my father.”

“I need to get going.” He turned to face her. “Thank you.” He kissed her forehead. A step away from her, a crimson light, and he stood orange star burst on his chest, his mask in his grip. He looked down on Stacy asleep on the couch.

“I’ll watch them until you get back,” Angelique told him. He nodded to her as he pulled the orange mask over his head. The skylight above opened to the early morning sun. His feet left the floor. Pulsar flew up, out, and was gone.

Greywind
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Joined: Feb 23, 2013

Examples of Power

 

Steven and Anton

Anton Darque stood by the fireplace in his study gazing into the flames, a brandy snifter in hand. Above the mantelpiece was a painted portrait of his daughter, Angelique. Behind him, two comfortable chairs sat upon either side of an over-sized chess board. The pieces, carved of obsidian and crystal, showed a game in progress. Standing beside each chair was a small round table. Upon one rested another snifter and an ashtray holding a small, thin cigar that gave off a winding wisp of smoke.

Anton’s unruly mane of dark hair and full beard belied his true age. Two streaks of white, one on either side of his chin, showed the only discoloration. His clothing marked another time, clothing today seen mostly at Renaissance Festivals or, perhaps, the Shakespearean Stage.

The one side of the tall double doors to the study opened. A slightly built woman entered and spoke. “My lord…” she began, when Steven Bauer pushed past her and entered into the study.

“Anton, you requested my presence?” he asked.

A flicker of annoyance crossed Anton’s face, unseen by Steven. The woman was about to seize him by the collar when Anton spoke.

“Leave us.”

The woman bowed and closed the door quietly, leaving the two of them alone in the study. Steven crossed the space to the bar and poured himself a drink.

“How progress your plans, Steven?” Anton turned his back to the fire. The shadows cast by the light making his frame seem much larger. The large ruby ring on his left hand seemed to draw in the light and glow from within.

Steven took a swig from his glass. The liquor burned as it went down.

“Everything is progressing according to plan, Anton. Once the information makes its way through channels to Scott, it will be far too late for him to interfere. Then it will be a simple matter for me to eliminate him.” He lifted his glass to take another drink when a sickly yellowish-green force slammed into him, lifting him, and pinning him spreadeagled against the wall. His glass shattered on the floor and the fluid once contained within made a small puddle.

“You forget yourself, Bauer! You are not my equal!” Anton stepped forward and lifted an obsidian piece from the sideboard of the game. “You are but a simple pawn! Your plans will not interfere with mine own! Do I make myself clear?”

Agony shooting through him, Steven responded. “Yes, Lord Darque!”

“Your plans progressed too slowly, Steven. Your time with your plaything distracted you from your goal.” Anton lowered his hand and the glow faded from around Steven, dropping him to the floor. Steven, laying prostrate, lifted his head.

“She wasn’t too bright. We force-fed her the information.” Steven pulled himself up to his knees slowly. Anton lifted his hand when Steven sought to pull himself to his feet. Steven remained on his knees.

“Do not underestimate Miss Capwell’s intelligence. She may not have your knowledge, Steven, but I’d wager her intelligence vastly exceeds your own. If you manage to survive this, you may find yourself crossing the board and being promoted, but until that time you are still just a pawn in this game.” Anton replaced the pawn on the sideboard beside the queen, a tic of his eye the only indication of his annoyance.

“Lord Darque, I’ve been trying to contact Spears. To find out what has happened and what information that Scott may already have.”

Anton looked over the chess board and moved a knight forward, threatening the white queen. “Spears was becoming troublesome. I had Cheapshot remove him from the board last year.”

“But…” Steven began.

“Enough! You will find that your plans have progressed further than you thought. The Guardians will be on your doorstep this afternoon. I would suggest that you return to that island you’ve been hiding on and prepare to greet your guests properly.”

The door opened and the woman stepped back inside the study. Steven got to his feet and backed out of the room. The woman bowed again, closing the door behind her. Anton noted the hand prints burned into the paneling of the wall and smiled.

“And the game continues, old friend,” an aged masculine voice spoke. A blue corona lifted the crystal shards from the floor and began finding their place, rebuilding the tumbler that had been dropped.

“Yes,” Anton replied, “the game continues. You’ll find your queen in danger.”

The crystal tumbler settled itself back on the bar and the light faded out. With a wink and a smile the man resumed his seat. “You’ll find, Lord Darque, that my queen is more than capable of protecting herself.” The man lifted his cigar and the brandy snifter, and took a drink. Anton settled himself across the chess board and placed his booted foot upon the edge of the table.

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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way

The Guardians – Wednesday 6:45 A.M.

“Did anyone see Kris this morning?” Hellfire asked as she locked her harness into place.

Lightning flipped switches and checked gauges and monitors from the pilot's seat. “No. Apparently Medical is having personnel issues. Seems their pilot slipped down a flight of stairs last night and broke his leg. The backup pilot is on family leave. Kris is trying to find someone qualified to fly the medical transport.”

Sitting in the co-pilot's seat, Ash pulled her harness around her and locked it into place. Lifting a headset from where it lay on the control panel she put it on and pulled the microphone down and into place. “Everyone on board and locked in.”

Looking up from the sensor arrays, Psistorm said, “Not yet. Brad isn't on yet. Leah is in the back helping Warstar.”

“Thanks, Trese, but I wasn't asking. Tell Nightwing to get his ass on board now or he can fly himself and he damned well better keep up if he does!” Ash turned to Lightning. “How you doing?”

“I'm okay, Ash. I was up kind of late talking to Kate.”

“How is she doing?” she asked him.

Lightning turned to Ash and gave her a half smile. “Worried. As usual. Even knowing Leah as long as she has and getting to know the rest of us, she still feels like an outsider. Not really a part of the team. No powers.”

“Sometimes, Warren, I feel she's the lucky one.”

“No, Ash. I'm the lucky one.”

Ash smiled, reached over and gave a light squeeze to Lightning's arm. “I wasn't meaning that. I was saying she's the lucky one, not having any powers.”

Leah's voice came through the headset. “Nightwing is on and strapped in.”

“Okay. Thanks, Leah. Lightning, light it up.”

The plane began to vibrate as the engines came to life. Lightning pulled the flight yoke and tested the control surfaces. The roof of Guardian's Tower divided, lowered and pulled back leaving the Guardian's transport exposed to the early morning sun as the elevator raised it up.

“Flight control, this is Lightning,” he said. “Alpha One priority.”

“Lightning, this is flight control. Alpha One priority confirmed. Flight path confirmed. Launch when ready. Clear skies, Guardians,” came a rather sultry female voice from the headsets.

“Thank you, Control.”

The engines began rumbling as they pushed the jet up into the sky. The nose swung south, towards Brooklyn and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The belly thrusters closed and diverted the engine's thrust. The transport accelerated forward and climbed higher.

“Onboard, set for cruise and assume control,” Lightning said.

“Unable to comply. Please stand by,” the computer responded in a female voice.

Dove's face appeared on a monitor. “Lightning, assume station keeping and prepare to open the belly hatch. You guys have some help coming on board.”

“Understood, Kris. Station keeping engaged.”

“Kris,” Ash asked, “what happened to your face?”

Dove smiled. “I'll tell you about it when you get back. I've a pilot to clear. We should be about two hours behind you. Dove out.” The monitor went dark.

“Well,” Lightning asked, “any ideas on whom the 'help' is?”

Theresa, excitement apparent in her voice, answered, “It's Jason! I've got a sensor reading. Onboard confirms. Estimate on intercept is three minutes.”

“What's going on?” Nightwing’s voice demanded through the comm system. “Why'd we stop?”

“This is your captain speaking,” Lightning replied, “We are currently at station keeping awaiting pizza delivery. We will resume travel in approximately five minutes. Thank you for choosing Lightning Air.”

Ash looked at Lightning with a bit of humor on her face, and said, “We're picking up some last minute assistance, Nightwing. Keep the comm clear unless it is an emergency.” With the press of a button on her headset, she keyed out of the ship's public address system. “Pizza?”

“I'll get the door for him.” Hellfire released her harness and moved through the open hatch, towards the back. Wind whistled as the skin of the transport split open underneath. The bay doors swung downward. The traffic on the city streets below was easily visible.

Pulsar flew up through the bay doors and hung suspended. The slim blonde toggled the switch to close the doors. When the doors closed he settled to the deck.

“What? No pizza?” she asked. She flipped a strand of hair over her shoulder.

“A little early in the morning for pizza, isn't it?” Pulsar responded. “Who's up front?”

“Lightning's flying, Ash is in second, and Trese is on sensors.”

Pulsar moved forward. “I'm going to need the comp station, so I can get up to speed on the battle plan.”

Hellfire moved towards the rear and put a hand on Pulsar's shoulder as she passed him. “Welcome home.”

Entering the forward cabin, Pulsar sat in the seat vacated by Hellfire. Ash turned her seat and watched him lock the harness.

“What changed your mind?” she asked him.

Fingers moving across the keyboard, Pulsar looked at Ash. “I had a couple of long talks with some old friends.”

“I heard you had a busy night,” Psistorm said.

“Very eventful,” he replied. “Spent far too much time in the hospital for my liking.”

From the pilot's seat Lighting asked, “How is Emily?”

“Emily and Stacy are staying at the loft until their apartment gets cleaned up. Apparently Dick is living in his office these days,” Pulsar replied. “Emily is in better shape right now than she was before she got shot.”

The transport began accelerating forward again. “Onboard, set for cruise and assume control,” Lightning said. “ETA ten hours. We'll be doing a sub-orbital parabolic arc.” Lightning turned his seat around to face Pulsar. “Funny you should say 'better shape.' Have you seen Kris?”

Pulsar glanced up from the monitor. “She looked fine last time I saw her.” He looked back down at the monitor. “Dog soldiers, Black Jack, Bludgeon, Bolt, FIST, Inferno... What the hell is this? The complete list of Blood Guard members?”

“Yeah. Pretty much all we can assume at this point,” Ash said. “We figure various mercenaries would offer services. With the relationship between Darque and Madacar being what it is, a safe assumption is that the Blood Guard is available to Bauer. Figure there may be grunts, which is why the dog soldiers are listed. Bauer may have hired one or two nests of Viper's, as well.”

Pulsar tapped a few more keys. “Basically you are saying is that intel on this is garbage and we're going in blind. Eight of us against... What? Upwards of twenty-five possible capes, just counting the Guard. Not including any possible from Viper. What is the plan? Ringing the doorbell and tell them we're selling Avon?”

“Jason!” Ash chided angrily. “There isn't a lot to go on. We're doing the best we can with what we have.”

“Yeah, Jase,” Lightning said, “besides we've always managed to come out on top no matter what the bad guys threw at us.”

“All right. Give me some time to see what I can come up with. I might be able to come up with a little bit more.” Pulsar picked up the headset and put it on. Orange gloved fingers began moving over the controls. Data began streaming across his monitors.

* * * * *

Trese spoke into her microphone, “What's up…? Can't...? Sure. I'll help. Not a problem.” She released her harness and stood. “I'm going into the galley. Since the pizza delivery was a bust we're stuck with MREs or sandwiches. Anybody want something?”

Lightning turned from the controls. “Sure. Sandwich is fine by me,” he said.

“Sounds good, Trese,” Ash answered her.

“I'd let you take care of lunch detail, Ash,” Trese stated, “but I wouldn't want you using it as a payoff on our bet.” She laughed.

Ash turned her seat to face Theresa. “I would never do such a thing!” Mock innocence apparent in her voice and the look she gave.

Laughing, Theresa laid her hand on Pulsar's shoulder. “Jase, you want anything?”

“No. I'm fine, Trese. Thanks,” he answered her without looking up. She moved through the hatch, heading back towards the galley.

Pulsar opened a compartment in the console. There was a small crimson flash as the data stick appeared in his fingers. He slotted it, noting the spark and small puff of smoke as the first program took effect. He closed the compartment, sealing the data stick within.

On a secondary monitor with a blinking cursor the words “WG 127 150 m” appeared. Below that the computer responded with “Parameters?” Glowing phosphor letters spelled out “Cancel on deploy. Autopilot command sequence override: JS001A. Auto-engage deploy plus fifteen seconds. Lock.” The monitor resumed the previous display that showed a map of their destination. The program counted down the miles.

Moments later, Leah entered the flight deck with a tray of sandwiches and coffee. “I've got a roast beef on rye, and a ham and Swiss. Sorry, Warren, but Warstar got all the peanut butter and jelly. All ten of them.”

“It figures. He always gets preferential treatment!” Warren turned away from the controls to face Leah. “I'll take the ham. Thank you,” he said as she handed him the sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Leah handed the remaining sandwich and cup over to Ash. She looked out through the windscreen. “Anything interesting out there?” she asked.

“Saw a couple of whales several hundred miles ago,” Ash responded. “Other than that, a couple of planes, a few ocean freighters, lots of water, and some clouds.” Ash gave Leah something of a smile and nodded her head towards Pulsar.

Leah closed her eyes and nodded. She took a deep breath, held it for a moment before releasing it almost like a sigh. She took the seat at the sensor console. Her gaze took in the readings. Nothing threatening appeared on the screens.

“Jason,” she turned to him. “You said we could talk.” Ash and Lightning turned their attention to the controls, giving these friends and former lovers some semblance of privacy.

“Six hours to make up your mind?” he asked.

Leah turned towards Pulsar. “I was talking with Dani,” she told him. “And Brad.”

Pulsar's attention remained on the monitors. “That's nice.” He watched the counter shrink as they neared their destination.

“I was wondering,” she said, “about your relationship with Angelique.”

“Keep wondering. I don't see as it is any of your business,” he replied brusquely.

“Okay.” Leah tried keeping the disappointment out of her voice. “Why didn't you ever tell me about your stones?”

“What about them?” he asked noncommittally.

“Jason, dammit! Look at me! And don't answer questions with questions!” Pulsar turned his head to look at Leah. Calming herself from her outburst, she asked, “Take off your mask, please?” A flash of power and his mask was gone. Leah gasped in surprise seeing his eyes glowing with power.

“There's been a few changes,” was all he said.

“I noticed that before.” Leah took a moment to collect her thoughts. “Why didn't you tell me about the stones? And what you can do with them?”

“Leah, I can't do anything with the stones. All they are is a representation. A physical manifestation of a kind of link,” he told her.

Leah sighed. “You knew about Steven and I. You broke my stone.”

Pulsar turned back to his monitor. “Did I? Or did you? As for you and Steven, Leah, I'm not psychic. Empathic, maybe. I knew what you had done. I didn't know who he was. Not like you left me with any reason to care.” The counter became smaller in number. “It could have been Brad, for all I care.”

“What the hell is it between you two, anyways?” she asked.

“Why don't you ask him?” he asked her quietly.

“I did!” she exclaimed. “He didn't answer me.”

Pulsar glanced at the monitor taking note of the distance. He reached back and pressed a button. The hatch settled into place closing off the cockpit from the rest of the transport. “You want to know what the problem is? Brad Michaels is an arrogant, conceited ass. He is a classic jock. Everything, and I mean everything, is a god damned competition to him! From the moment he joined this team, he fixated on me. Basically creating a competition between the two of us.

“You want to know what's between the two of us? Look into a mirror sometime.”

Leah looked shocked. “Jason, I never did anything to make him think I was interested.”

“Really? How about the Christmas party before you left?” he asked her.

Thinking back, trying to recall what he was asking, Leah answered, “Jason, that was different. All that was was a kiss between friends under the mistletoe.”

“Really?” He looked at her. “Then why didn't you tell me? Why did Brad wait until I was out of sight before he did it?”

“How...? The stones,” answering her own question.

“Yeah, Leah,” he responded quietly. “The stones. Warren is agitated. Ash is feeling a little embarrassed. Dani and Trese are amused. Kate is a little uncomfortable and trying to sleep. Kris is asleep. Marlene has a headache.”

“What about Brad or Warstar?” she asked.

Pulsar made a sound like a mixture of a snort and a short laugh. “As soon as you get blood out of Warstar, I'll make him one. There's no way in hell I want that other prick in my head constantly.”

“I didn't know. You never told me what it was. You just gave me the ring,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“I gave you more than that, Leah.” Pulsar's fingers moved across the controls making adjustments. “I trusted you.”

She spoke quietly. “I was working, Jason. Max Spears...”

“Maxwell Spears was dirty! Had you asked any of us before you took off on this 'mission' we'd have told you!” Pulsar exclaimed. “Spears was playing both sides. Dan knew he was dirty, Leah. When you find someone looking for information, and he doesn't know that you know, you feed him information and use that to figure out who is on the other end. In this case, Spears was gathering information either for Madacar or Bauer. The only problem is, Spears worked for Darque. Anton isn't particularly fond of sharing. Especially if the information he is getting is useful in giving him an advantage. He doesn't believe in equals, Leah. You know that. You either work for him or you're an enemy. His alliances are always temporary and usually end quite painfully for his 'ally.'”

Leah glanced over the sensor readings. “Spears didn't want me to contact anyone once I agreed to the job.”

“And what, exactly, did Spears expect you to do for this 'job'? I mean besides being Bauer's whore.”

“Jason, it wasn't like that! I didn't mean for it to happen.”

Pulsar raised an eyebrow looking at her. “When a walking, talking taser doesn't mean for something to happen, you'd think she'd actually be able to stop it. Especially when the other person is normal. So, let me ask you: why did any of it happen at all?”

Leah looked at him. “What do you want, Jason?”

“Maybe, Leah, I want the dinner we had planned that you weren't in town for. Maybe I want to wake up in the morning beside the woman I love.”

The counter hit one hundred fifty miles from the island that was their destination. For a brief moment the words “WG 127 active” flashed on one of Pulsar's secondary monitors. A warning beep sounded from the sensor console. Leah grabbed the headset and put it on. Her fingers began pressing buttons.

Lightning flipped the switch to return to manual control. “Leah, we're lit up by a designator! Jam it!”

The beep increased in tempo. “Too late, Lightning! They've got a lock on to us!” She made adjustments to her controls. “They've fired! Missile is closing!”

“Strap in, guys!” Ashleigh barked into the comm.

Leah spared a glance at Jason and noted his mask was back in place. Just a word, Jason, please. Just reach over and touch me. Tell me that it will be okay. “Lightning, war book says it's a clipper!”

Ash looked up at the data feed coming from Leah's station. “Damn. What's it locked on to? The engines? One of us?”

“Unknown! Missile is closing!”

Lightning threw the transport into a barrel roll in an attempt to avoid the clipper. “Leah, drop flares!”

“Flares away!” she called back. “No good! It isn't heat seeking.”

Lightning leveled out the transport and throttled up. “That takes Dani off the hook!”

Pulsar slammed the quick release on his harness and stood up, bracing himself against the bulkhead. “Nightwing, drop tube one. Point defense.” He took the headset off, dropping it onto the console. He thumbed the release for the hatch. Moving through it he noted that the light for drop tube one was red. He glanced over his shoulder at the ship's system display. Nightwing’s icon was seated within drop tube one. Pulsar moved into the second drop tube.

Psistorm was moving forward towards the cockpit as the door for drop tube two closed. “No! That's all wrong!”

Leah grabbed for Psistorm when she lost her balance from Lightning pulling them into a turn to avoid the missile. The straps of her harness pressed into her chest. Psistorm managed to get a hold on the vacant seat and pulled herself into it.

Ash pressed two lit indicators in sequence. “Chaff released!”

Psistorm fought her harness into place. “That's wrong! Leah tell Brad to get out of the drop tube!”

“Trese!” Ash barked, “talk to me!”

Psistorm knocked the headset out of her reach reaching for it. “Standard flying point defense! Blasters only! Nightwing is useless out there!” Psistorm's eyes glowed purple. The headset snapped into her hand. “It should be Hellfire or Sparx in one!”

“Chaff didn't work,” Leah stated. Her voice calm, belying how she truly felt.

Psistorm pressed the indicator to release the door of drop tube one. “Tube one is non-responsive to door control!”

The sound of a small explosion came from drop tube two. The transport rocked when the drop pod blew out and downward. Almost immediately the warning alarm silenced and the missile disappeared from the sensor displays leaving the icon for Pulsar alone, flying south.

“Board is clear from threats,” Leah said.

Lightning throttled back the speed. “What just happened?” he asked.

Psistorm looked over the monitors. “We're a lot closer than we should be.”

The transport's belly thrusters opened. The engine throttled up to full power of its own volition. The ship moved upwards. Each passenger was forced deeper into their seat from the effect. The nose slowly swung north. The thrusters closed, sending the ship back the way it had come.

“Onboard non-responsive,” Lightning said. “Autopilot refuses to disengage. What the hell is going on?”

As if in response, the sound of Nightwing banging on drop tube one echoed through the ship.

I want to apologize for the rough ride.” Jason's voice came from the pubic address. “I wish there had been another way, but I don't think many of you would have listened if I told you that none of this was your concern.”

“Jason, what is going on?” Ash asked.

I can only assume, Leah, that at some point you finally worked up the nerve to talk to me. I can't know what we'll say, but my responses to you, more than likely, were short. Almost hostile.”

'Save it, Ash,” Psistorm said. “It's a recording.” Her fingers moved confidently across the keyboard.

I've never dealt well with loss, Leah. In this life that we are forced into it seems that everything is a wheel turning within another wheel. We never know when any given wheel starts spinning.”

“Dani, I need you up here!” Psistorm barked into her microphone.

Sometimes we get to a point where we find the people we love set against us. When that happens people like Anton laugh at the joke. Spears played you, Leah. You became a spoke on a wheel that started turning a long time ago.”

Dani entered the flight deck. “What do we have?” she asked Psistorm. “Leah, I need your seat.”

The wheel is an assumption on my part. I know things, Leah. Maybe I should have stayed for the meeting.”

Leah released her harness and gave the seat to Hellfire. Not bothering to fasten the harness she began working the controls.

Wildfire... Huntress, they're looking for links in a chain. They're trying to find history. Bauer's history. He doesn't appear in any records before five years ago when he started working for Madacar.”

Psistorm glanced up to an overhead monitor. “...the hell? History is showing that a 'WG' file ran. What the hell is a 'WG' file?”

Hellfire shifted to look up at Psistorm's monitor. “That's Jason's programming shorthand. It's a war game file.” She shifted back looking at the diagnostics running across her own monitors.

I don't need the chain. I know where it started.”

“War game file for what?” Psistorm asked. “I didn't think Jason was much for war games.”

This plan, this wheel and the circumstances surrounding all of us, I'm sorry. I figured this would be a better way.”

Ash turned to look at Psistorm. “War game files are training files. I'd have to check the directory, but what we just went through, I'd have to say something from the one-twenties or one-thirties files. Flight threats.”

This matter is personal to me. Leah, you were used. I'm sorry that circumstances led to this. You were already prepped for flight. It would have taken me too long to make other arrangements to come on my own. You all would arrive before me. Please, everyone, just go home. This is no one else's concern.”

Hellfire said, “We've got a program running. Nonstandard. Program originated from data port H.”

Psistorm opened the data port bay. Reaching in she attempted to remove the data stick. “No good. The damn thing is stuck!”

I was forced... That isn't accurate. I felt compelled to do what I have done. I set my own wheel spinning to counter his.”

Ash arose from her chair and moved past Psistorm. “Let me try.” Psistorm moved her hand out of the way and Ash took hold of the data stick. There was a loud snap as she removed the data stick. “There.”

“'His' who, Jason?” Leah whispered.

Ash tossed the data stick to the top of the console. She moved through the hatch and hit the manual release for drop tube one. The door released and she pushed it open.

“What happened?” Nightwing snarled.

It has to be this way,” Jason continued. “I need it to be this way. Where I go no heroes walk.

“Damn!” Ashleigh cursed.

Charcoal boots stepped heavily on the deck. Nightwing followed Ash into the already crowded flight deck. “What's the problem?” he asked. “If the pansy doesn't want us along, let's just go home.”

Ash slid back into her seat. “Girls, I don't care what you have to do, but get manual control restored.” She pressed a button on her headset to activate the radio. “Medical One. Medical One. This is the Guardians. Respond. Come in, Dove.”

Hellfire watched as each system affected by the program was marked off on the ship's systems display. “Ash, the radio transmitter is out. Onboard is compromised.”

Ash lifted both fists in frustration, but held herself in check before she brought them down and destroyed the control panel. “What still works?”

Psistorm began rattling off the still functional systems. “Galley. Head. Autopilot. Life support.”

Nightwing checked the time. “Let's just head back to the tower. It'll be early enough that some of us can still go out. Scott doesn't want us here anyways.”

“Running away from a fight, Michaels?” Lightning tossed over his shoulder.

“What's your problem, Warren?”

In a blink Lightning was out of his seat glaring across the console at Nightwing. “What my problem is, Brad, is my friend, my brother is out there alone needing help! What my problem is, is that I finally have some inkling about what his problem is with you! You want to be a part of this team, then be part of this team. No glory plays. The quarterback isn't going to run the ball across the goal line. Time to pass, Brad, and show that there is a team.”

Pulling himself up, chest pushed out, Nightwing looked down on Lightning. “You don't have any call saying that to me, Asher,” he said.

“Don't I?” Lightning responded.

“You know something, don't you?” Psistorm asked.

Lightning returned to his seat. “I don't know anything. I have my suspicions. Jason isn't much for grand speeches or pep talks,” he said. “Anything he says, there's a reason. Particularly when his head is fully in the game.”

Ash watched the diagnostics run. “The last time he mentioned anything like this 'no heroes walk' bullshit was the day he dropped a nuke on Warmonger.”

Leah looked shocked. “What do you think he's going to do?”

“On a guess, Pretty Lady,” Lightning stated, “I'd say that he plans on killing your boyfriend.”

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Landfall

Pulsar and Charley

Pulsar flew low over the waves as he closed on the island. The water below was a clear vibrant blue. Schools of fish were visible beneath the waves. The sand of the beach was white. Leaves of palm trees were gently waving in the breeze. A lone woman, obviously athletic and well proportioned, lay nude beneath the sun.

He swung low towards the woman. A violet nimbus limned his form, choking out the crimson of his power. His landing was less than graceful as his body skipped across the sand. He stopped, coming to rest near the woman's feet.

Charlemagne Bascomb got to her feet. She took hold of Pulsar's form by the back of his shirt, lifting him as she stood.

“Well, Jason, this isn't exactly how I expected this meeting to take place. What the hell are you wearing? Black isn't your color unless you're wearing a tux.” She set Pulsar down on his feet. “You're going to broil if you're planning on trekking through the jungle dressed like that.”

Pulsar pulled off his mask spitting sand.

“Charley,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers, “you look good.”

She laughed. “You're about the only guy I know that can look me in the eye when I'm not wearing anything.”

Pulsar shrugged. “I've seen you naked before. While impressive and enjoyable to admire, I know that it doesn't do anything for you. I'm not one to arm wrestle when it might mean getting my arm ripped off.”

She gave him a bemused smile. “You'd heal.”

“Eventually.” He turned to look out to sea. “Doesn't mean I'd enjoy it.”

Charley pulled a leather thong with a small amethyst eight-pointed star from her dirty-blonde hair and shook it loose. “If I thought I could handle a man, I'd want it to be someone like you. Leah, on the other hand, I always thought she'd be fun.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, looking for a reaction.

“Where's Bauer?” was all he asked.

She ran her fingers through her hair. “Rules are that you wear this.” She handed him the charm. His costume disappeared, leaving him dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a blue silk button-down. He tied the thong behind his neck. “While you're wearing that outside the dome, you won't have access to any of your powers.”

Jason lifted his hand and pointed out over the water. Nothing happened. “Okay. What else?”

“So long as it is only you here, the Blood Guard stays out of it. If the Guardians show up, we'll be here. Anton doesn't know about this. I don't think he'll be happy about it when he finds out.” She took cut-off jeans out of a bag and pulled them on. “There are packs roaming the island.”

Jason turned and watched her pull on a tank top that barely covered her breasts. “Anything else I need to worry about?”

Charley looked down on Jason as she crossed her arms. “No. Bauer figured the Guard would be enough with packs of dog soldiers for support. You power up and Warmonger's sensors will let Steven know. Might even let him know it's you. I'm not sure how much information is in the data-banks.”

“You're good people, Charley. When are you going to come over?” he asked. “You're about the only one now that isn't with Darque out of fear.”

She bent over and took up her towel. She made a show of shaking the sand off before folding it up and placing in her bag.

“When Angel does, Jason. I don't work for Anton. I work for Angelique.” She put on sunglasses and began walking down the beach. “Bauer is in the dome. Remember what I told you.”

Jason moved off the beach and into the foliage.

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The Blood Guard

Charley parked the four-wheeler and walked into the plain gray building that the Blood Guard was using as a staging area. She ducked her head under the seven foot door frame, taking off her glasses as she entered. The interior was dark enough after being out in the sun.

“Titania,” Bauer said sarcastically, “nice of you to join us.”

Raven's black wings twitched in a way that Charley knew indicated annoyance. Raven was never long on patience. Charley stepped up to an open space beside her at the long table. Charley looked at the members of her team sitting or standing around the table.

Raven squatted on the near end of the table. Her mechanical talons gleaming in the overhead lights as she deployed and retracted them.

Bludgeon sat back in his chair. His booted feet crossed on the table beside a helmet. His truncheon twirled in his hand loosely before snapping upward, only to fall loose and twirl again and again.

Stinger, multifaceted eyes like those of an insect, sat staring at Bauer with a sneer on his face. His wings hummed softly.

Zephyr hung suspended in the air. Her long, loose, light brown hair and the diaphanous fabric of her costume moved in the light breeze that constantly surrounded her.

The cowl of his medium gray bodysuit hanging at his neck, Moray sat hunched over the table. A squeal came from the tortured tabletop. A furrow appeared under his finger. One of many such marks.

At the end of the far side of the table sat Bolt. Small sparks popped in the air around him as he fidgeted in his seat.

Shadow stood, or sat, it was hard to tell, across from Bolt. The tendrils of shadow-stuff moving about hid his obsidian body.

Sitting in a lotus position, Magnetron's bluish-gray costume was distorted behind the magnetic field that held him in the air. A steel ball moved slowly about, orbiting him.

Thunderbolt sat impassively, seemingly staring at Zephyr. Behind the smoked lens that protected his eyes when he moved at speed, it was hard to be sure. It would be just like him, Titania thought to herself. Beautiful Zephyr was the current woman of his interest.

Quantum, the last of Charley's task force on loan to Bauer, looked up at her. “Stevie here is giving orders. Telling us where he wants us. Now!” His pale blue eyes glared in anger. His elbows rested on the arms of his chair. One black gloved hand laid over the knuckles of the fist his other hand made.

Charley looked down the table at Bauer. “I want you people out there patrolling with the packs. This is not negotiable! You people are here to do a job! I fully expect you to do that job!”

A crack sounded through the room when Charley slapped the table. “Our instructions, Steven, were given to us by Lord Darque. Our involvement is entirely contingent upon the appearance of the Guardians. If the Guardians do not appear we do not have any reason to deploy. Until we have a confirmed sighting, we will not deploy.”

Bauer drew himself up. “I am in charge here,” he shouted. “You will do as instructed!”

Charley gripped the end of the table. She shoved it perhaps a foot to her right. The table slammed into Bauer's crotch. The blow sent him sprawling into his chair. Raven turned a back flip off the table as it moved. Her wings catching air before she hit the floor.

With a long-legged stride, Charley moved around her associates to where Bauer sat trying to catch his breath. “Listen to me, dumb ass.” She spoke quietly, but firmly. She bent low at the waist, bringing her face inches from his. “As you are fully aware, the Blood Guard answers only to Lord Darque. In the event that you need a refresher on exactly where you stand in regards to us I can contact Warp and have him deliver Wolf. Her last instruction in manners would seem mild if she had to do it again.

“This detachment is under orders. I am in charge of this detachment. Is that understood?” Bauer nodded, blinking tears from his eyes. “Good.”

No one noticed the prints Bauer's hands left slightly melted into the arms of his chair.

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Bauer

The dog soldiers, named such by the canine design of their combat helmets, worked around the command center with quiet efficiency. A lighted wall map displayed the island's topography. Green lights represented the location of each five man dog pack patrolling Warmonger's island. Steven Bauer stood at the main control console. A green light flickered and turned yellow.

“Sir,” one of the dog soldiers approached Bauer, “we've lost contact with Pack Seven. Packs Four and Thirteen report gunfire from Seven's designated patrol area.”

His attention was locked on the yellow light. “Is there any traffic from Seven?”

“Negative, sir,” was the response. “There is nothing. They called in for check in, but nothing else. Radio silence was ordered.”

The yellow light flickered to red. Irritation crossed Bauer's face. “Have Thirteen recon Seven's area from the south. Have Eight swing in from the coast. I want Packs Twelve and Fourteen to extend into Thirteen's area until another Pack can be dispatched. I want full electronics. Helmets on and cameras running. Everything gets fed to here.”

“Aye, sir.” The dog soldier saluted, right fist to left breast, head bowed, and turned to leave.

“Sensor check.”

Another dog soldier answered, “Aye, sir. Scanning now.”

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Jason

Blood soaked into the sleeve of his silk shirt. The bullet had passed clean through. Dog Pack Seven lay unconscious in the small clearing where the fight had occurred. Their guns had been tossed into the undergrowth as hard and as far as his augmented strength had allowed.

Stripped of his shirt Jason used a cloth from a first aid kit off the belt of a dog soldier to wipe the blood from his arm. A cursory inspection of the shirt showed that there were no other holes, and therefore, no other injuries. Not bad, he thought, for having five guys with guns shooting at me.

Pulling the shirt back on Jason looked to the cliff face rising to the south. Barely visible above it was part of the dome. He set off at a comfortable jog.

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The Guardians

“Anything?” Ashleigh’s voice held barely contained frustration.

Fingers danced quickly across the keyboard. Hellfire answered, “The system isn't accepting any manual input. I don't know what Jason did, but I've never seen anything like this before.”

“I'm beginning to feel like Khan looking for the manual override,” Lightning said from his seat.

Hellfire quirked a smile at Lightning, “At least we don't have Enterprise out there shooting off photon torpedoes at us.”

Ash turned her chair around to face the others. “Do we have any idea what is going on? This is somehow something personal to Jason. What would set him off like this? Trese?”

Psistorm sat quietly mumbling to herself. One hand adjusting and readjusting controls while the other held a stylus and made notes on an electronic notepad. She looked up at her name. “I'm sorry. What?”

Locking eyes with her Ash asked again, “What would set Jason off like this? You talk to him more than anyone else here.”

“I don't know, Ash. If I did, I'd say.”

“The fastest way to motivate Jason,” Hellfire said, “is to make him feel guilty. He'll either try to correct what he feels guilty about, or he'll get really pissy because he can't.”

Lightning looked over his shoulder at her, smiling. “Learning from your mom?”

“Hey,” she responded, “when you have the chance to learn from the best. Besides, I find that psychology helps me. I find if I do a little profiling of the intended character it helps me get into the role when I act.”

Fingertips pressed together, elbows on armrests, Ash reclined, crossed her legs and stared at a spot on the cabin ceiling. “What strangeness do we know going on in Jason's life?”

“You mean besides spandex? Leaving us stranded up here?” Lightning asked.

“Dating Angelique,” Sparx and Psistorm said in unison. Trese glared over her shoulder at Leah. Leah gave her something of an amused smile in return.

“Anything,” Ash said, “that might help make some sense out of this. What is his connection to Bauer?”

Sparx took a deep breath. “Steven is a businessman. His known history extends five years. There's no record of parents or family. No record of his education. Any medical or dental records are filed away. His doctors are all employees of Madacar's.”

Standing beside her, Nightwing shook his head. “This is bullshit,” he said, and walked towards the aft cabin.

“Why do you do that?” Hellfire asked Sparx.

Fidgeting, clicking her fingernails together and sending sparks flying, she asked, “Do what?”

“Call him by his first name.”

“Habit, I guess. Anyways, I don't recall there ever being any contact between Jason and Ste... Bauer, where business was concerned.”

“No reason why you should,” Psistorm said snarkily. “Nova Research is at the top of the list of SE's businesses not to do business with. It's been that way since Jason's grandfather's time.”

Ash looked to Sparx. “What about non-business related contact?”

“Ash,” Trese said, “beyond us and our close-knit group of friends, Jason doesn't have contact with anyone. That's what I've tried explaining over and over again. Jason goes to work. He goes home from work. He might, might,” she stressed the second, “watch a movie. I can't say that he watches TV really. Jessica might leave newspapers on his desk, but I can't say whether or not he reads them. I can't tell you the last book that he read. He doesn't spend time surfing the internet. He's got a stack of video games about four feet high, that he hasn't taken the cellophane off of. I don't know how he spends his time.

“His barely existent social life consists of people that work for the company, us, or if he has a business function that he has to attend, finding a woman to escort for the night. Since those, at most, are a two-date maximum I really can't consider that a social life.”

“Someone else has been learning from me mum,” Hellfire quipped in a poor British accent.

Trese gave Dani an amused look and continued, “He and Marlene used to have dinner together at least once a week, but I haven't heard anything about that recently. Unless it was something major, Marlene was never the woman that Jason escorted to the functions.”

“Neither were you, Trese,” Dani said. “There's a reason for it. Marlene has been in love with Jason since high school. Jason knows it.” She looked at Leah. “Jason's been running scared with his heart since it was broken when Sandy died. He's only brought it out once since. And we all know how that ended up.”

Discomfited by the blunt honesty of the statement, Leah asked, “Then why Angelique? Why did he start a relationship with her?”

Reaching up to try other buttons, she answered, “Honestly, I don't know. Maybe Trese...”

“He never went into any great detail about why. He just said that it was something that had to happen. Maybe he sees something worthwhile in her that we don't.”

“Angelique? I always thought she was pretty sexy, myself,” Lightning interjected. “Remember when we went out to that nightclub, Leah?”

Leah thought back to what was effectively another lifetime ago. “Which? The night that she managed to have all the alcohol in the place dumped on me? The night that she tried stripping me naked on the dance floor with her magic? If Jason hadn't been there to 'fix' my dress...”

Lightning laughed. “No. I was thinking the night that I was a gentleman and held her seat for her.”

At the memory of Angelique falling flat on her ass when Warren pulled her chair out for her, Leah began laughing. “You didn't hold her seat for her. You made it disappear!”

Even Ash had to laugh at the memory of that prank. The laughter was infectious with Psistorm and Hellfire joining in with comments to the effect of, “I wish I had been there to see that.”

Once they had managed to get their laughing under control, with a few persistent giggles and snickers slipping out, Leah asked, “What strangeness are you looking for, Ash?”

“I don't know, Leah.” Ash uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, elbows on knees, resting her chin on her interlocked knuckles. “Do you have something?”

Leah stood leaning against the bulkhead, hands behind her back, one ankle crossed over the other, her chin down. “I don't know for sure. After all this time, I honestly feel I know less than I should have before.” She took a deep breath. “Before Jason and I started dating, it seemed that we were always pulled together. From the first time I met him I had the strange feeling that I somehow belonged with him.” Her face burned with embarrassment, hidden behind her hair. “I've only ever told Kate about this.

“When it came to the four of you, I always felt like I was intruding. The relationship between the four of you, I never felt like I belonged, but Jason kept... I don't know how to put it. When I really needed him he was always there. Do you know how strange it is to call a guy, have a woman answer and find he's in the shower when he's supposed to be single and uninvolved?”

“Leah.” She looked up at Ash. “I've never lied to you. Warren can tell you. There was a time that Jason and I were lovers. We figured out a long time ago that we were better as friends. There are still times when I'll spend the night in the loft.”

“It's 'past', Ash. We're good, you and I.” She took a moment to collect her thoughts, looking out at the blue sky. “Early on, like I said, before we were dating, I started having strange dreams. I want to say that it was about when he saved Kate from disappearing...”

Lightning cocked a grin at Leah. “I'll always be grateful to him for that.”

“Me too, Warren. It was either the night that he grounded Stardust Records' jet or it was the night that he'd crashed through my balcony door, but I started having strange dreams about Sandy...”

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What Leah Dreamed

A voice, a mere whisper on the wind, calls, “Leah.” A dream?

The moon shone full through the leaves of the trees. Behind Leah stands a small cabin. A glider on the porch is swinging in a gentle breeze. Lights glow warmly through the windows and the open door, beckoning Leah to return.

“Leah,” a gentle wisp of breath through the trees.

Through the trees before her, Leah sees a soft silver-white light. Curiosity, or perhaps something stronger, draws her closer to the light. She followed it as it moved, weaving its way between the trees. Her path leading her upward.

In time the light leads her to a rock promontory that overlooks a valley, dark in the night. The moonlight is reflected off the surface of a silvery, winding river. Beside Leah is a boulder. She leans against it. Her breath coming in short ragged bursts from the exertion of climbing.

“Welcome, Leah.” The voice is sweet and melodious. Leah looks up on the boulder, where sits a young woman. Her hair is brown and long. Her eyes are green and sparkling in the moonlight, reflecting her smile. Sandy Wilson.

“We need to talk, you and I.” Sandy holds her hand out for Leah to take. Reaching up, Leah took Sandy's hand in her own. Sandy assisting as Leah climbed up on the boulder.

Sandy gave Leah a sad look. “You have something that I cherish very highly, and I want you to be happy with him. Jason never fully healed from my death, Leah. It still hurts him inside today like it did when it happened. He blames himself and cannot let go of the fact that the blame is not his.” Sandy looked up to the stars. “Jason and I came here often, when we could. His mother left him the cabin when she died. He hasn't been up here since the last time he and I were here. This is his hideaway from the real world. He always said that time here always put the rest of his life in perspective.

“Jason hides much of himself. There were sides of him that only I saw and only when we came here alone. His father never came here after his wife died, figuring that it was left to Jason and that he was responsible enough so that he wouldn't use it for... 'gamey pursuits' was his father's term for it.

“Jason brought me up here one weekend for a much needed vacation. I never knew that Jason could cook until we came up here that night. He had planned the whole thing in Jason Scott style. Soft music playing, candles lit, fire burning... A very quiet night of romance. Not the image that he had in school, I can tell you! He made love to me the first time that night. It was kind of funny, you know? Here is Jason, rich Jason who could have had any girl that he wanted, and he wanted me! He very gently took my virginity that night. Jason had a reputation at school of using women. He had conquered many of the girls and supposedly some of the teachers, as well. Jason didn't know anything of his 'reputation'. It was his first time, too.” She looks at Leah and smiles wistfully.

“You know how gentle he is.” Leah nods softly. “There is a dark side to him, as well. He is capable of great violence, but he tries to keep himself in check.” Sandy gazed into Leah's eyes, searching for something. “He doesn't always win those battles with himself.

“There was a boy in school who had more than a little interest in me. His name was Art Rocco. He was a jock; football, wrestling, track, baseball. You name the sport and he was involved. Art and his little clique were always teasing Jase.

“Jason never involved himself in sports that I saw. I asked him about it and he said he wasn't interested. I knew about his interest in the martial arts. I saw Jase talking to the coach one day and I started asking the coach questions about Jason. Coach Rogers told me that Jason used to play, as a freshman. One of the best, natural athletes that he had ever seen.

“Jase had been a running back. Supposedly real fast. The track coach tried several times every year to recruit him, as did Coach Rogers.

“Coach Rogers told me that during an important game, Jason was carrying when he got hit by two bruisers. The coach showed me the medical report. Jason had a broken arm, three cracked ribs, four ribs that were actually broken, a punctured lung and several of his organs had been bruised. The season was over before Jase could rejoin the team.

“Jase turned to his drawing and painting. My parents have a portrait of me that he had done.” Sandy smiled.

“A friend of mine gave a large party near the end of the year. There were over two hundred people there, including Art Rocco. Jase was talking to a couple of girls from the cheer leading squad. Art wanted to talk with me, he said. Something that he wanted to show me, to give to me. He led me upstairs.

“He took me into a room where his four followers were. I felt uncomfortable. I asked Art what he wanted. He asked me why I was dating a loser like Jason Scott, asked me if I was only interested in his money. He asked me why I always turned him down when he asked me out. He asked me why I wasn't interested in a 'real' man.

“Two of Art's buddies grabbed me and carried me to the bed and held me down. Art ripped my blouse off. His other friends grabbed my legs.

“I didn't know how he knew, but Art's buddies never knew what hit them. Art got up and I looked. I saw Jason, calm, like the eye of a storm. I got the impression that the storm was about to break. Art charged at Jason, and Jason moved out of the way. Every time that he hit Art it was calculated to hurt. No lasting damage. That was what he had told me. The last punch that he threw, Jase knelt as Art ran at him. He punched Art in the stomach, or so I thought. Art laid there, doubled up, arms wrapped around his legs. I found out later that Jason had ruptured him.

“Jason gave me his jacket and apologized to the people for the incident. We left after the ambulance took Art to the hospital. In school people made a big thing out of it, but every time that someone asked him about it, he walked away from them. Jason was ashamed of what he had done. The only way that he could reconcile the incident with himself was that he was defending me.” Sandy stood and stretched.

“Jason isn't a pacifist, but there are times that it's like he really can't justify the use of violence to himself. He felt he had gone too far with Art. That he had done more than was warranted. Jason earned a reputation that night and no one else ever asked me out. I had become known as Jason's girl.

“It was interesting at times. There were all these girls that were interested in him because of his money. I knew that he had money, but it never interested me. He made a big thing out of not spending more money on me than any other high school student could afford to spend. I guess it was because he didn't want me to be uncomfortable. We had our share of his dad's social events, but he made an effort with my parents, too. He took them out to an expensive restaurant on their anniversary. A restaurant that my father never could have afforded.

“I have to say, my parents never knew what to make of Jase. He offered to help my father with a deck that my father was planning on having made for the house. My father thought that Jason was going to have it contracted out. My father told him no, that he wanted to do it himself. Jason was there with the rest of my family when we started to build it. It shocked my father because he thought that Jason would never want to get his hands dirty.

“Jason became more relaxed around my parents, and they learned that his interest in me wasn't due to his reputation at school. My brother had told them about Jason. It took a lot of effort for me to get them to accept him before they got to know him.

“His father took to me like I was the daughter that he never had. A lot of the money that was spent on me was actually spent by Jason's father. Any time that I needed something Mr. Scott made sure that I got it if my parents couldn't afford it. He was spoiling me!” Sandy grinned.

“When my father got laid off from his job, Jason made an effort to get him a job somewhere in the company. When he found one for him, my father got upset. It took a lot of talking to get him to understand that the job wasn't his, but he would go through the process like every other applicant. He was actually excited when he came home and told us that he got the job. He never asked Jason if he had gotten him the job.

“After the incident with Art Rocco, Jason made himself scarce. We hardly ever saw each other and it was a while before he took me out again. My parents were wondering if we had broken up. It took a while, but I finally cornered Jason and asked him why. He said that he never wanted me to see that side of him.

“Jason made our senior prom something really special for me. I felt like Cinderella or something. Jason picked me up in a stretched limo. We had dinner at a very romantic restaurant. Then we went to the prom. Art Rocco was there with his buddies. I thought there was going to be trouble. Was I surprised when he apologized to me!

“My parents made graduation special for both of us. They knew that they couldn't afford anything expensive, but they took us out to dinner. My father bought me a car. They never expected Jason to buy things like that for me. Mr. Scott, on the other hand, went all out and sent us to Hawaii.

“While we were there, we went to this place that had a waterfall, beautiful flowers growing around the stream. I fell off and Jason caught me. That was when I learned about what he could do. I tried to talk him into becoming a hero. The idol of millions.” She laughs. “I never realized that I would have to die for him to do it. He told me that he wanted to live his life for himself and not for others. He explained things to me. He had wanted to kill Art for what he was doing. He was afraid of losing control.

“We went home and found out that Mr. Scott had made jobs available for us if we wanted them. Jason was an administrative aide to help him learn the business. His father fully expected him to take over the company in his turn. I had a job in accounting.

“We had registered for classes at UCLA. We were doing well for ourselves. Jason and I made plans for our wedding. We found a house that we could afford, and rented it. My parents were ecstatic when Jason asked my father for permission to marry me.

“Then, everything ended. We went to the bank to deposit our checks. Six gunmen entered the bank. I never saw what happened. I do know that Jason killed the robbers.” Sandy's gaze turned out over the valley.

“I died that night with Jason beside me. My parents tried to keep in touch with Jason. They didn't succeed very well. Jason sends them Christmas cards, anniversary presents and such like, but he never got close enough for them to talk to him after the funeral. Jase buried his pain but he never forgot it. He thinks about it every time that he puts on his costume. His father doesn't think much of about his choice but he stands by it.

“Leah, he needs to let go and to let the wound heal. It has been years since it happened. Help him heal. Bring him here and let him see this place again. I think that he needs it. He needs to sort out me from you. Phantasm was told by Darque what to do. He didn't know how to separate what was happening from the past. I am the past, Leah. Show him his future and help him heal.”

Sandy helps Leah stand, holding her hands tightly. “Help him.” She kisses Leah gently on the lips and fades from view. “Help him.” Her voice a whisper on the wind.

* * * * *

“Definitely strange,” Ash said. “Were there others?”

“A few others, but they stopped after Jason and I became a couple. I was beginning to think I had a second set of powers.”

“Leah,” Dani asked quietly, “why did you leave?”

Eyes locked together Leah thought through the silence. “I don't really know. I remember having concerns about... something. Jason... or...” She waved the thought away. “I don't know. Once I started with what Spears wanted I just focused on that.”

Ash and Lightning glanced at one another. “Mind control?” he asked quietly.

“Always a possibility, but again there's the question of 'why',” she answered just as quietly, pitching her voice so only Lightning heard.

A notation marked on the notepad, Trese looked up. “Where does that leave us with Jason?”

Hands in her lap, Ash lay her head back and stared at the cabin ceiling again. “I don't know, Trese. I wish I did.”

Leah lifted her head, resting it against the bulkhead. “Please,” she said quietly, “let us help him.”

“Password confirmed. Voice analysis confirmed. Manual control restored.”

Spinning her seat forward, Ashleigh barked, “Go!” barely moments after Lightning's hands had already begun working the controls. The transport made a tight turn to resume the previous flight path. Nightwing yelped in surprise.

“My apologies to you,” Mentor said using the intercom. “Jason was rather adamant about his plans. I was not to interfere, nor was I to inform any of you.”

“Then why...”

“Because, Theresa, Jason may have forgotten, but I was originally programmed to protect him. Even, at times, from himself.”

“But why?”

“'Why', Leah? Because I have faith in you,” he explained, “and you didn't disappoint me.”

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Battle Joined

Warmonger's Island – Wednesday 2:40 P.M.

Steven Bauer sat quietly, eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Soon, Jason, he thought to himself, soon old debts will be repaid. With a sigh his eyes returned to the map. The packs of dog soldiers had not found whoever had neutralized Pack Seven.

A red icon appeared from the northern boundary. Numbers beside it indicated the speed and altitude at which it was traveling. “Unidentified aircraft has breached the ten mile limit.”

Bauer stood, his eyes focused on the icon. “Inform the Guard. Put them on alert.” Ten miles, he thought to himself, they will be here within minutes. “Commander, inform all packs, Condition S. Just in case.”

“Yes, sir. Condition S initiated,” the dog soldier commander replied.

* * * * *

Lightning took the transport low over the waves, the force of its passing kicked up a wake. “We deploy on the beach! By the numbers,” Ash told the Guardians, “like we planned. Mentor, take control of the transport. Keep it out of harm's way.”

“Yes, Ashleigh,” Mentor replied.

Ash watched each member of the team run through their own equipment check. This mostly involved the placement of earpieces and microphones, and checking for their proper function. Their practiced moves showing confidence even when the person had pre-battle jitters.

Ash took the comm gear from Leah and fit it into her own ear. The test signal came through clearly. “Being a bit of a tease, Leah?”

“What?” Leah asked in response.

Smiling, Ash pointed to Leah's bare upper thighs above her boots, “Showing off a bit of leg there.”

Leah laughed. “Maybe there will be a few heads to turn.” She pulled an evening glove up her left arm. Her right arm was covered by the only sleeve of her leotard. Her right hand remained uncovered. From a storage locker she pulled out amber shooting glasses.

“Dog soldiers, Sparx,” Hellfire said. “Do you really want them checking out the merchandise?” She too donned amber lensed glasses.

Psistorm sniffed. “Why should she care one way or the other?” She shrugged off her jacket and hung it in a locker.

Tossing her a look of annoyance, Hellfire said, “Enough already, Trese.” She raised her hand to the side of Sparx's head and pressed a small stud on the glasses. The lenses darkened adjusting to the cabin lights.

“What the...?” Sparx asked with a little confusion.

“Equipment upgrade. Light filter lens,” Hellfire told her. “They can also be switched over to an infrared setting. I wouldn't suggest that out there though.”

From her own locker Ash pulled out a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Is that what you're wearing?” Sparx asked.

Looking from her low heeled calf boots, up her dark pants, to her blue V-neck tee shirt with red hemming at sleeves and collar, Ash asked, “What's wrong with what I'm wearing?” She pulled on her gloves and tightened them down.

“Absolutely nothing, Fearless Leader,” Hellfire said in mock seriousness.

Her own glasses slid into place. “Good,” Ash replied. “Mentor, time on target?”

“Two minutes thirty-four seconds at current speed.”

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“Something on your mind, Bolt?” Standing nude, tank top and cut-offs cast aside, Charley pulled her body suit out of her locker.

Bolt leaned nonchalantly against the door frame. “Just admiring the view, Beautiful,” he said with a wink.

Ignoring him Charley slowly pulled on the body suit. Next she took out a pair of long boots. She slipped those on, playing to her one-man audience, slowly pulling the zipper up on each. Finally she took out a pair of long gloves that fitted to her elbow. She pulled her mask over her head and fit it into place. She shook her blonde mane free of her headpiece and quirked a smile in Bolt's direction.

He straightened and took a step towards her. Raven slammed into him from behind sending him sprawling. Sparks popped and snapped as he slid across the floor. Raven landed one knee to his chest when he rolled to get up.

“This is the women's room, asshole.” The blade of her talon pressed hard against his crotch. “Maybe I should make you one.”

“Raven, let him up. He's got a job to do,” Titania told her. Raven stood, keeping her talon pointed in his direction. Bolt gathered himself and walked to the door, keeping an eye on Raven. “And Bolt,” Titania said as he passed through the opening, “one free show to a customer. The next one you'll pay for.” Bolt stiffened, but did not look back.

* * * * *

Thunderbolt lifted the dual chambered syringe from the case. One chamber was filled with a clear solution. The other was filled with something that looked like anti-freeze. He pressed the nub injector against his thigh and pushed the plunger down. The shakes began almost immediately and built in tempo until Thunderbolt was just a blur. They promptly stopped. “Aah,” he said in relief.

“Man,” Bludgeon said, taking up his own syringe from the case, “I don't know how ya can do that.” His moves mimicked Thunderbolt's. Red serum passed through the syringe and into his body. Veins and blood vessels stood out under his skin as he grunted in discomfort.

It'sallamatterofwhatyou'reusedto.

Bludgeon stood bracing himself against the table panting with his head hanging. He looked up at Thunderbolt. “Huh?”

“I said that it's all a matter of what you are used to, Donnie.”

Donning his helmet and putting the chin strap in place, he said, “Yeah, well, your mouth runs as fast as the rest of ya when ya shoot up with that crap.”

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The Guardians stood around the transport's belly hatch bracing themselves against bulkheads or overhead grips. With the press of a button Hellfire opened the lower door. So low was the plane flying, spume dotted Nightwing's black boots with moisture. The drop light indicator blinked from red to green. A click sounded, noticeable only to Nightwing with the wind roar, when smoked lenses locked into place over his eyes. He glanced at Sparx, unnoticed by the others, and nodded to Ash. Arms pulled back he fell more than jumped through the aperture. His arms spread outward from his body allowing the scalloped foils to catch air as he sped ahead of the plane.

Hellfire and Psistorm stepped up face-to-face. “Ready?” they asked simultaneously. They laughed together, more to relieve tension than anything else. Psistorm stepped into Hellfire's embrace. They fell together. Flames leapt from Hellfire like an afterburner as she accelerated after Nightwing.

Looking down at the water nervously, Lightning held a golden gloved hand out to Sparx. “May I have this dance?”

Smiling at him, Sparx placed her hand in his. “This time I get to lead.” She spun him about and wrapped her arms around his chest. They too fell through the opening.

“We've got beach, Warstar! Time to go!”

The armored behemoth stepped through the hatch. Sand flew from his impact. He pulled himself to his feet and began ascending the small crater ridge. He crested in time to see Ashleigh's more graceful landing and the subsequent roll that brought her standing in a combat-ready position.

“First priority is to find Jason!”

* * * * *

“Rules of engagement?” Stinger's multi-prismatic eyes seemed to see everywhere at once while staring down Steven Bauer.

Bauer looked down at him from his elevated position. “Condition S is implemented as a precautionary measure. Not that I expect failure. Rules of engagement are whatever your conscience dictates.”

Turning her back to Bauer, Titania began issuing orders to her team. “T-bolt, you're on recon. Your priority is Lightning.” A buzzing noise that may have been his acknowledgment reached her simultaneously with the door slamming open. Titania realized she had been looking at Thunderbolt's after-image. She shook her head and continued on. “Raven and Zephyr, you're on aerial recon. Engage only if you feel you can succeed. Quantum, your target is Pulsar. You were made to be his equal. Do better. Magnetron, you and Shadow take Warstar. Your magnetics, and your strength,” she nodded towards Shadow, “should be adequate to take him out.”

She watched Moray pull his cowl into place. “Hellfire is yours.” Titania shuddered in disgust when he licked his lips at some hidden thought. Her attention turned to Stinger. “Archie, you and Donnie get the telekinetic. Strong Girl, or whatever she's calling herself lately, is mine.”

“What about Nightwing? Don'tcha think somebody oughta take him?” Bludgeon asked.

Stinger chortled. “With his track record, he'll take himself out before he's even a threat. Let's go.”

Titania was headed towards the door when Bolt spoke up. “What about me?” He jumped when a bundle consisting of a pair of gauntlets, cables and a hard-shell backpack landed on the table in front of him.

“Condition S, Sparky,” Bauer said. “You already knew that. There's an assault pack waiting for you outside. Suit up.” Bauer turned his attention back to the map.

Bolt gathered the gear and headed towards the door, muttering to himself.

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Lightning hit the ground running from where Sparx dropped him. Sand flew like a rooster tail and was sucked back in his wake as he sped down the beach. Ashleigh watched him go. “Keep your eyes open.”

“Roger that. Not seeing anything on the beach,” Lightning said.

“Alright team. Recon in force. Nightwing, pull back and stay with us. You don't have Lightning's speed,” Ash told them.

Nightwing growled across channels back to her, “Lightning doesn't have Thunderbolt's speed.”

“I can hear you, you know,” Lightning responded. “Thunderbolt may be faster, but his win/loss record shows who is better.”

“You realize, Nightwing, that's like pointing out that Titania is stronger than Ash,” Hellfire said. She set Psistorm on the sand and flew in a wide circle about the team's beachhead.

“She is?” Lightning answered in mock surprise.

Bullets and laser beams gouging the sand preceded the appearance of the dog soldiers. Some knelt to fire. Others took cover where they could find it behind tree trunks or large rocks. Ash grunted in surprise when a bullet deflected off of Warstar and spent itself against her shoulder before dropping useless to the sand.

“Dog soldiers,” Ash said, more to inform Nightwing and Lightning. “Sparx! Shield up!”

Pale blue electricity surrounded Sparx. “Shields up, Keptin,” she said in a clipped accent. Twin laser blasts were absorbed by her shield. Ash growled in annoyance when a hole was flash burned into her pant leg.

Flames ignited trees and undergrowth. Hellfire poured flames from her hands as she flew behind the packs, cutting off any line of retreat. “Too many for one pack, Ash!”

Warstar stomped on a fallen tree trunk, snapping it up into his two-fingered hands. He swung it like a baseball bat. Trees fell, uprooted and sundered. Dog soldiers, the lucky ones, dove beneath the wild swing. Several unlucky were sent flying.

Psistorm was down on one knee, with her arms outstretched to the sides and her eyes glowing, surrounded by her own force field. Bullets smacked off of it. She cried out in pain and surprise when a bolt from a laser rifle managed to burn through it.

Lightning fanned out from Sparx's fingers, crackling and snapping where it found a rock, a tree, or a dog soldier. Several of them continued to lay down fire from cover.

Running up, bullets and lasers making more holes in her clothes, Ash grabbed one dog soldier and swung him about, knocking another off his feet before she flung the one in her hands out over the water. “I hope you can swim,” she muttered to herself.

Hellfire, the bullets melting before they came close enough to hurt her, continued to hurl fire at the mooks in armor. She dodged a few laser shots as she flew by.

Sparx caught one dog soldier full on with a bolt of lightning, sending the soldier into paroxysms similar to St. Vitus dance. He fell smoking and face down when the bolt expended itself.

Charging with what was left of his tree, Warstar steamrolled several of Bauer's thugs, pinning them beneath the wood in his hand.

Rising to her feet, Psistorm gestured one hand forward with a smile. A dog soldier climbing to his feet was slammed into Warstar's back by her power.

* * * * *

Jason turned back towards the sound of gunfire. Too distant for them to be shooting at him his experience told him. Even so, he quickened his pace southward.

* * * * *

Thunderbolt aimed a blow at Lightning's head as he overtook the navy and gold figure racing along the trail. The blow failed to land. Lightning evaded it easily. He ducked the next blow leaving Thunderbolt to overshoot him when he stopped, reversed his path of travel and headed back to the beach.

Seconds. Precious seconds was all that maneuver would gain him. Seconds in which Thunderbolt needed to turn around. How much time he gained depended upon whether Thunderbolt stopped, turned around and re-accelerated, or if he kept on and came back in an arc that he could manage at his velocity.

Lightning stopped on the beach with his back to the water. He scanned the beach and the tree line. Thunderbolt wouldn't give up. He had a deep-seated need to prove he was better than Lightning.

In a blink Thunderbolt was there, facing Lightning down not too far from where Jason had skipped across the sand. He came on, building speed as he went. Blows rained on Lightning. Block. Parry. Strike. Again and again. Faster than the normal eye could follow.

They parted. Lightning felt the sweat creeping down his back. Thunderbolt was panting with one hand braced against a knee.

Pulling himself up with an intake of breath, Thunderbolt charged in again. Tens of blows flew between them in a second. A couple got through Lightning's defense, landing hard and threatening bruises at the very least.

The speed difference between them kept Lightning from mounting any serious offense. He broke away and ran. Thunderbolt set after him. Lightning turned faster than Thunderbolt was capable of matching. That was where Lightning's advantage was. He was more maneuverable than Thunderbolt. He raced towards the trees.

Thunderbolt pulled himself into as tight a turn as he could manage to follow Lighting. Again, moving like a running back, Lightning dug in and changed direction back towards the beach. Thunderbolt tore into the undergrowth as he ran. He grasped a tree trunk in passing, using it as a pivot point like a child on a playground to change his direction.

Again Lightning was standing on the beach facing Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt threw another punch. A grab, a twist, Lightning used his hip for leverage and executed a perfect aikido throw, using Thunderbolt's momentum to send him skipping over the waves.

Lightning waited until Thunderbolt's head broke the surface before running. He'd found out years before that running on water was possible. It was just really hard to get up on the surface to run on it if you're in it.

He pulled Thunderbolt up when he ran past. He looked dazed to Lightning. Move fast enough and hitting water was as bad as hitting concrete. Only you tended to bruise and break rather than suffer road rash.

He ran back to the white sand. He dropped Thunderbolt and pulled out two zip ties from his belt. Lightning bound Thunderbolt's wrists behind his back before doing a high-speed pat-down.

“Why not...” Thunderbolt panted, “just... kill me?”

“Aww, c'mon T-bolt,” Lightning said while he fastened the second strip around the downed man's ankles. “You know that's against the union rules.” He was looking at the transponder that he'd taken from Thunderbolt's belt. “Sorry about this.” He quickly ripped a strip of cloth from his foe's costume and speedily fashioned a gag. This was placed in Thunderbolt's mouth and tied.

Lightning carried the man into the trees. He found one thick enough that wouldn't sway much when he pulled on it. Another zip tie and Thunderbolt was bound to it. Underbrush and fallen branches he used to cover the bound man. Satisfied that it would take more than a cursory search to find Thunderbolt, he walked to the far side of the tree and dropped one of his cards. He covered it lightly with dirt and sand with the toe of his boot.

He ran.

“Thunderbolt is down. I'm going to get rid of a transponder. What did I miss?” he asked.

“Mook fight,” Hellfire answered. “Nothing serious. Ash is working on cut-offs and could probably use a Kevlar sports bra about now.”

“That's enough, Hellfire!” Ash snapped into the radio. “Any sign, Lightning?”

He drew back and threw the transponder into the ocean several miles off the island and turned to head back. “None, Ash. I'm sorry.”

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An energy contrail, darker blue against the sky, followed Quantum as he flew. Nightwing erupted from the trees and slammed into Quantum from below. Quantum's force field flared and died out. Nightwing carried him higher. “You aren't who I'd like to fight,” Nightwing growled, “but you'll do!”

A blow from his fist sent Quantum falling like a rag doll. He made no attempt to gain control before Nightwing slammed into him again.

Fire lit across Nightwing's back and side. The last thing he saw was Raven sail past him towards Quantum.

“This is Raven,” she said. “Quantum has been engaged by Nightwing. He is currently unconscious. I'm bringing him in.”

“What about Nightwing?” Bauer's voice came through her ear piece.

“Sliced and diced. Last I saw him he was falling into the trees,” she answered.

* * * * *

“You stupid bastard.”

Jason had witnessed the beating Nightwing gave Quantum. Jason looked on the ruin where Nightwing lay. He was unsurprised when Nightwing moved his arm. That was what Nightwing had going for himself. He was durable. Like a Timex. He took a beating and was always able to bounce back from it.

Nightwing jumped in surprise when Jason knelt down. “Thought you were her coming back to make sure.” Pain was evident in his voice.

Jason assessed Nightwing's wounds. Kris insisted that they all have paramedic training. Even from the very beginning. “I'm going to have to move you, Brad.” He rolled Nightwing over so that the cuts were uppermost. In his mind Jason saw the position that Raven would hold herself in: hands by her waist, palms turned outwards, fists closed, talons hanging, and her wings pulled back in a power dive. The cutting edges of her talons held to rake. The upper cuts skipped across Nightwing's ribs. Painful, but not life-threatening.

“Why,” he stammered through the pain, “why do you hate me, Scott?”

The lower cuts missed the ribs and had cut into the muscles. They possibly went deeper, but Jason lacked even the simplest tools. With his powers cut off he couldn't heal Nightwing. “I don't hate you, Brad.” He needed something to bind the wound. He'd settle for duct tape. The first piece for Nightwing's mouth. He could drop the talisman, but if Charley was right he could end up with every dog soldier and Guard on the island trying to kill him.

“Heard you,” Nightwing whispered. “When you told Leah what the problem was. Not just my eyesight that's enhanced.”

“You're cut deep. Why couldn't you guys just go back like I wanted?”

Nightwing started to laugh but ended up coughing roughly. “Tried. Would have tried taking Leah out. They wanted to stay.”

Looking to see if any blood came from Nightwing's mouth, Jason said, “I don't hate you, Brad. You just act like everyone I disliked in my youth and why I wanted to go to public schools. You have an overblown sense of entitlement. You act like having a little bit of money makes you better than everyone else.” He laid his hand over the lesser cuts and tried to draw the injury to himself as he had done the day before with Emily. To no avail.

“Not better... not better than everyone. Just better than you. You didn't deserve her.”

“Brad,” Jason warned, “this is neither the time nor the place for this discussion. And since I am the only one here right now that has the slightest inclination in saving your ass, you'd think that I would be just about the last person you want to try pissing off.” Jason flipped the shredded foil out of his way and stopped. He flipped it back and forth with a look of serious contemplation. “What's this made of?”

“Fabric,” Nightwing answered.

“Wise ass,” Jason growled. “I need something sharp. Do you have a knife on you?”

He groaned. “Can't you just pull one out of your ass like you usually do?”

“I'm afraid not. I'm under a spell right now that is keeping me from using my powers.” He didn't mention that if he had had access to his powers he wouldn't be sitting there right now. “Now, to continue our discussion, you are completely undisciplined. You rush into things blindly. Which is how you end up unconscious ninety percent of the time or bleeding out on island holidays.”

“The hero is supposed to get the girl.” He coughed again. “That... that really hurts when I do that. It should have been me.”

“It was you, Brad. You beat the crap out of Quantum and Raven sliced you up.”

“No,” he whispered. “Leah should have been with me.”

Jason kept looking around for something sharp and remembered taking down the katana. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the katana. Like making the bullet appear in the loft, it so surprised him when the katana appeared in his hand that he almost dropped it. “Well, Angel, looks like I found a loophole,” he said to himself. He set to cutting the foils off Nightwing's costume. “You want Leah, Brad, stop being a peacock and try being a person.” He folded the foils and used the whole one as packing. The shredded one wasn't of much use for anything. “Oh, Angel, you're going to be so pissed about this one.”

“Who are you talking to?”

He set the katana down and put his hands together, palms down and fists closed, thumb to thumb. Power played along his finger and thumb. Angelique's blue silk dress came forth like a magician's infinite scarf. “Just talking to myself, Brad.” A few passes with the katana and the dress was nothing more than several silk rags. These he used to bind the packing to Nightwing. “Brad, do you have your communicator? Brad?”

Jason moved over Nightwing and found him to be unconscious. “Great. Your favorite position.” He peeled back Nightwing's cowl to get at the ear piece.

He sat in the sand in the shade of a tree beside Nightwing. He pressed a stud on the ear piece to remove it from the team's network. “Mentor,” he said.

“Sir?”

“Mark this spot. Nightwing is down. He is severely injured. I'm not sure how badly. I don't have any medical supplies. What is the ETA of Medical One?”

“Revising. Medical One will be there in approximately 53 minutes. Miss Shepperly began accelerating before I even finished informing Dr. Tyler.”

“Jason, what is Nightwing's status?” Kris's voice came through loudly.

He glanced at Nightwing's unconscious form. “Three lacerations on the right side from about the fourth rib to his shoulder. Three lacerations on the right side just below the rib cage. The lowest only appears to be a graze along his hip. I'm not sure of the actual depth. I packed those cuts with one of his foils. I've got that held on with strips of silk.”

“Silk?” she asked.

“Don't ask. The unpacked cuts seem to have stopped bleeding.”

“Wait there. I'll send Lightning to your position.”

Jason sighed. “That's not going to happen, Kris. There's too much business...” Jason paused, searching for the words, “unfinished here for me.”

“Dammit, Jason! The team is there for you!” This he didn't hear. He had dropped the ear piece beside Nightwing and started running.

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Ash watched as the sky darkened. The wind was slowly building up from a gentle breeze. Clouds were forming quickly, roiling in the south Atlantic sky. “Damn! Roger that Kris,” she said. “Lightning! Nightwing is down. Jason called in. Mentor, show Lightning where to go.” She knelt down and removed part of her pant leg. “One for one. We can't handle that rate of attrition.”

“What do we do now?” Psistorm asked. She, like the others on her team, was restraining their fallen foes.

“We go south. We've got Nightwing's position marked. Jason was there. We pick up his trail from that point.”

Rain began, a spatter against leaves at first before the clouds burst into a torrential storm. Hellfire started steaming before Psistorm covered the team under a giant purple force bubble.

“I thought Mentor said that the day was supposed to be clear,” Sparx commented on the weather.

“The weather was to remain clear, Sparx,” Mentor replied. “I do not understand the current weather conditions. It cannot be natural. The local wind speeds are already at category two and rising.”

“It has to be Zephyr,” Psistorm offered. “She's the only one that we know for sure that would be here.” She winced and the bubble cracked when blown debris slammed against it. The cracks flared slightly and the bubble was whole once again.

Hellfire put her arm around her friend's shoulder. “You're getting better at that, Trese.”

“How do we deal with her?” Sparx asked. “I've never had to deal with her before.”

Ash looked at her with a smile. “Team work. We'll need a distraction or two. 'Star, how's your throwing arm?”

“Fully functional,” his bass voice rumbled. “What is your plan?”

* * * * *

Hellfire launched from the trees like a rocket. Almost immediately the winds started blowing her around. It took more power than she was used to expending flying to hold close to her planned course. Up. Up closer to Zephyr.

Sparx flew wide using the trees as cover and dodging the debris that the winds sent in her path. Like Pulsar the night before, she too sought the storm. Seeking to use the clouds for cover. Her own trail would blend in with the lightning that had begun.

* * * * *

Standing like a statue, through long field binoculars Titania watched Hellfire's progress through the wind and the rain. She barely noticed the branch that slammed into her, broke, and continued to be carried on by the winds. “Moray. Go,” she said calmly. Without a backward glance, Moray took to the skies fighting the wind. She watched his progress. “Archie, can you fly in this?”

Stinger knelt. His arm was across his eyes, protecting them from the buffeting winds and debris. His wings were tucked tight behind him, much like a scarab beetle would. “Not happening in these winds, Charley.”

“Raven.”

“Here, Titania. What the hell is going on out there? The wind has me grounded. I'm not losing my wings in this!” Her voice was steel coming through Titania's ear piece.

Titania sighed. “I understand that, Raven. Zephyr is flexing her muscles. What's the word on Quantum?”

“Broken. Someone must have put a bug up Nightwing's butt. Compressed ribcage. Cracked ribs. Broken jaw. He'll be lucky if he doesn't lose an eye. Internals are probably bruised.”

Jason, Titania thought to herself. “I understand. Have the medics do what they can and have him ready for departure. I'll let you know when Zephyr is done playing.”

“Roger that,” Raven replied. “Out.”

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Flames rolled down Hellfire's arms and off her hands. The flames licked and spat in the rain and wind, and ultimately fell short and wide of Zephyr.

Reaching out, as if to grab Hellfire's distant form, Zephyr turned her hand cupping the flaming blonde in her mind's eye within her open palm. She snapped her hand quickly into a fist. The effect was immediate. The flames doused. Hellfire's hands went to her throat and she began to fall. Zephyr watched her splash into the waves.

Lightning arced past her. She turned to face Sparx, who was descending on her from the clouds above. She flew backwards, keeping the distance between the two of them open. Ball lightning rolled around Sparx's fingers and she sent it spinning towards Zephyr. Zephyr moved like she was waving a bug away and the ball of lightning sailed off.

Forming two more balls, Sparx flung them away from herself. These Zephyr dodged easily by flying lower and allowing them to fly past unobstructed. Bringing her hands to her chest and pushing outwards towards Sparx, the wind changed direction. The wind impacted into Sparx sending her out of control to slam into water.

Propelled by Warstar's mighty arm, Ash flew straight and true into Zephyr. She grabbed hold of the brunette. The collision disoriented Zephyr. Ash rolled so that she would take the brunt of the impact from the fall. They sank beneath the waves.

* * * * *

Moray sliced into the waves, transitioning smoothly between air and water. Once in the ocean his speed markedly increased. His eyes adjusted to the water and his gills opened. He sped off in search of his prey.

* * * * *

The stuff of shadows moved at Warstar's feet unnoticed. It built upon itself like smoke, becoming thicker. It quickly took on the form of a muscular man. Darkness blacker than night colored him. His limbs appeared distorted. Thin, wiry and out of proportion with his body. Warstar's eyes widened in surprised. Shadow's fist slammed into Warstar. The armored behemoth sailed near twenty-five yards before coming to rest in a second Warstar-created crater in the sand.

Turning towards the sound of the impact against Warstar, Psistorm was met by the rat-a-tat of dozens of children's jacks against her purple force bubble. Small cracks appeared where they impacted. The next sound was like thunder. Bludgeon's truncheon crashed down on the wall. It shattered into myriad fragments before they faded into nothingness.

Psistorm's eyes flashed purple. Her force field appeared, closer to her body than the bubble had. It was a deeper purple and stronger than the wall.

Eyes flashing a bright red, Warstar stood on the sand. Shadow launched himself at Warstar. Warstar swung his armored fist and overcompensated when his hand passed harmlessly through Shadow's form.

“You can't touch me, Tin Man,” a voice, long and thin, whispered to him, carried on the ragged wind.

“C'mon, girl,” Bludgeon said through gritted teeth. “Ya can't keep this up.” His booted foot slammed hard against her field. It flared and Psistorm stumbled.

She regained her footing and lashed out with her power. The blow missed Bludgeon's armor and set him flying a dozen yards. “I can keep it up as long as I need to. You're nothing but a cheap bully. One thing I learned from my step-father is that you can't fear a cheap bully!”

The jacks reappeared spinning around Psistorm. They set a keening noise like nails across a chalkboard.

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Electricity arced across the waters when Sparx broke the surface. Her glasses had been lost when she hit the water. She brought her hand up and felt for the ear piece. It too was gone. She got her bearings, surprised by how far Zephyr's blow had sent her, and headed back towards the island, flying low over the water..

* * * * *

“Help me!” Zephyr begged Ash. “I cannot swim!” Her voice was accented. Ash couldn't place it.

“Then why don't you fly out of here?”

Zephyr splashed heavily towards Ash. “I cannot! The spirits of the air cannot lift me from the waters!” An air of desperation was entering her voice. “Please! You must save me!”

Ash grabbed Zephyr's flailing arm by the wrist. “Settle down! I'll get you out of here, but if you try drowning me I swear I'll leave you!”

“Yes! Yes!” the brunette sobbed.

“Come on then,” Ash said, pulling the other woman into position for a lifesaving sidestroke. Long trip to the beach and I don't even get to enjoy myself, she thought to herself.

* * * * *

Further away Hellfire splashed from the water. A sharp intake of air sent her into a coughing fit. She had gone into the sea with only the air already in her lungs. Zephyr's attack had kept breathable air from entering the young woman's airway. It had also kept the oxygen her powers relied on from reaching her. She took a moment to rest, floating on the surface.

* * * * *

Lightning looked down on his fallen teammate. Almost in the same position Jason first saw Nightwing. “And this, Brad, is why we don't grandstand in the big league.” He knelt and checked Jason's bindings and noticed that there was indeed bleeding still from the unpacked cuts. “Mentor, ETA on Medical One.”

“Forty-two minutes at current speed,” came the reply.

“Damn,” Lightning said, more to himself. He leaned back against the tree, further mimicking his missing comrade. “Mentor. Revise the scenario. What if I carry Nightwing back to Medical One? Give me a time estimate.”

“A moment.” Even Mentor's moments took forever sometimes to Lightning. “Once you are up and running it will take approximately ten minutes.”

He hung his head while he thought. Options flashed before his mind's eye. Determination marked his face when he looked up. “Kris.”

“Here, Warren.”

“I've got an idea. Could be risky, but it could get Nightwing to you faster.”

Silence hung loudly while she considered. “What's your idea?”

“You know how they stop planes on carriers?”

“Yes. Arresting gear. Usually a cable laid across the deck. What does this have to do with your idea?” she asked.

“My choice, Kris. My risk. Let me talk to your pilot.”

Roan came on the system, obviously confused. “Uh, I'm, uh, here, sir. Lightning.”

He gently lifted Nightwing in his arms. “Captain, cut speed to zero. Hang low and deploy the safety net.”

“Warren!” Kris's voice came loudly into his ear, “that net is designed for water rescue. It's meant for people to climb.”

“I understand that Kris. Be ready. Five minutes.” He began running, pushing himself faster.

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The sound of the jacks acting on her force field was beginning to affect Psistorm's concentration. She saw Bludgeon stand. He adjusted his helmet and snapped the truncheon back into his hand. He started stalking, very determinedly, towards her.

“You missed again, Tin Man,” Shadow taunted after Warstar's fist passed effortlessly through his immaterial body again. “Can you keep this up much longer?” the shadowy man teased.

A flicker appeared throughout the purple field. In that brief instant one of Magnetron's jacks slipped inside and buried itself in the padding of the crimson bodice of Psistorm's costume. She screamed in pain as her force field faded from sight.

* * * * *

Well, the lithe blonde thought to herself, might was well get started. The waves were still churning from the winds. Hellfire noticed that she too had lost her glasses somewhere in the water. She rolled over and began kicking herself in the direction of the island.

Pain arced across her belly. She doubled up trying to protect her vitals. She caught a glimpse of something gray swim past her. Shark? She asked herself as it swam past again in the murky depths.

* * * * *

“How much of this do you want let out?” the Wildfire corpsman asked Roan through Medical One's intercom system. She looked questioningly at Dove.

Dove, wearing scrubs and lab coat instead of combat gear, answered, “Mitchell, how long is it?”

They heard Mitchell yell, “Dove wants to know how long it is!” There was a muffled response and Mitchell was back. “The tag says twenty yards, ma'am!”

“All of it!” Roan and Dove answered in unison. “I want the anchors checked ASAP. Lightning will be coming in hot. If those anchors don't hold, Mitchell, I want to know about it before it happens! We don't have a lot of time for second guesses and we sure as hell won't have a second chance to get it right!” Dove said.

“Aye, ma'am,” Mitchell said. “Understood. Roll it out now!”

Kris looked out at the roiling clouds. This has to be just about one of your dumbest ideas ever, Warren.

* * * * *

Bullets impacted upon her force field. Some fell to the ground at her feet. Others ricocheted off into the underbrush. Lightning arced from Sparx's outstretched hands, chaining from one pack member to another, until all five were caught in her blast. Electrical systems in the dog soldier's armors overloaded and went dark. Within seconds the five men were laying twitching on the ground.

Sparx turned from where she was hovering a couple of feet from the ground. Her face looked to the sky, not seeing the soldier from the assault pack with the bazooka-like cannon lifted to his shoulder. A sound like a chuff came quietly from the heavy weapon. Its ordnance passed unimpeded through her force field. The rubber-like material quickly wrapped itself around her body, pinning her arms to her sides uncomfortably and forcing her legs together. She fell to the ground amid the dog soldiers she had subdued.

Two sets of armored combat boots entered her field of vision along with a pair of softer navy blue leggings. With no small difficulty she rolled on her side to look up. Bolt looked down on her. Copper colored gauntlets covered his usual dark gloves. Cables hung loosely from the gauntlets to the pack slung over his back.

“Hello, Pretty,” he said to her when he knelt down. He touched a hand lightly to each side of her head. Power coursed through her. She felt her own being pulled from her. Consciousness left her along with the last of her ability.

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Moray glided beneath the waves. He'd cut his prey. Not seriously, but she knew something was stalking her. He darted in again. His finger, like a lover's caress, drew a line up the back of her calf. She kicked out, but missed him. He noted with satisfaction the blood from the cut smoke up and mix with the water.

Head bobbing, Hellfire sought to call for help, only to find her ear piece had joined her glasses. She threw a feeble flame above the water. Not much brighter than a candle flame. No one is going to see that. I can't keep it up with rain and the waves, she thought.

* * * * *

Bludgeon charged in while Psistorm was down on one knee. Her hand was pressed against her bleeding shoulder. The truncheon swung down and she blocked it with her forearm. Power flared where it impacted, protecting her arm. She opened her hand and pushed at Bludgeon. Purple energy reached out from her palm and shunted Bludgeon back.

Shadow continued to evade Warstar. Blows failed to land, but at the same time, the blows kept him from re-solidifying to initiate his own attacks.

* * * * *

The four-wheeler tossed up sand as Titania rode it through the jungle. Clutching the rack behind the Amazonian woman Stinger was holding on for dear life through bumps, jumps and swerves. Over hillocks and around trees, the descent from the island's highlands was faster than was safe for the current conditions. Stinger was considering whether or not it was safer to trust the raging winds that Zephyr had called up than the madcap race that Titania was running. They had left the dog pack that had been with them far behind.

“As soon as you think you can fly, do it, Archie,” she said to him.

“Yeah, about that, Charley, I get the strange feeling that Zeph isn't in control of the winds anymore.”

Her hair was blowing wildly in the wind. Sometimes behind her, sometimes to one side or the other as a strong gust of wind took it. “And?” she asked, tossing the question over her shoulder.

“If she isn't, then the winds will have to blow themselves out. You know how I feel about walking. I might get my boots dirty.”

She slid to a stop by a fallen tree. She braced the quad-runner with one leg and kicked the trunk off the trail with the other. “Or you can be like every other bug, Archie, and see where the winds take you.” She released the brake and opened the throttle wide.

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Moray eeled through the waters towards the girl. Every time she started to swim towards the island he approached her. She was bleeding from a myriad of small cuts. Hurting her physically wasn't the only pleasure he sought. His hands had caressed her backside on one pass, had cupped her breast on another. The flame-motif bodysuit was slowly coming to pieces around the girl. This was some of the greatest fun Moray had had in a long time.

* * * * *

Pulling herself free of the water and onto the sand, Zephyr was panting and shaking as she gained her feet. “I thank you for saving me, but now...” She never saw Ashleigh's fist come around to catch her square in the jaw.

“Stuff it bitch,” Ash said, catching the falling girl.

* * * * *

Psistorm reached for a fallen tree with her power. She brought it up like a club. Some of the jacks cut into it like a saw. She motioned like she was swinging a tennis racket. Bludgeon rolled to the side and came up on his booted feet. “Ya missed me!” he growled.

“I wasn't aiming for you, dipshit,” the redhead said glaring at him.

He took a half step backwards and glanced over his shoulder. Magnetron had been caught between two trees. The magnetic field surrounding his body imprinted upon both tree trunks. Psistorm pulled hers back and the magnokinetic fell to the ground.

Shadow continued to dance around Warstar, much to the metallic giant's frustration. He stopped swinging at the elusive shadow-stuff and stood with arms wide before him. He was openly inviting Shadow to attack. The shadow-stuff moved in, taking the offering.

“Theresa!” he bellowed. Psistorm reacted without thought to the warning. She threw herself to the ground. Her force field thickened until it was almost opaque. Caught between Warstar's outstretched hands Shadow hauled his own fist back. He noted the crimson aura covering his foe's body. Plasma vented from Warstar's gauntlet-like hands and ignited. The miniature star burned hot and bright.

Shadow, bereft of his powers in that instant, screamed in agony. Warstar threw the plasma ball at Bludgeon. It exploded against the thug's armored vest, blowing him past the fallen form of his ally.

He looked down at the prone smoking form at his feet. Shadow was moving feebly. He was slowly pulling himself to his knees. Warstar raised both of his massive fists and brought them down on Shadow's back, again and again.

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“Where is he?” Dove asked without speaking to anyone in particular. Her wings twitched in frustration. She stabbed the intercom switch with a finger. “Mitchell, what's the word on those anchors?”

“Ma'am, the anchors are rated for one thousand pounds each. That was a requirement that both you and Mr. Scott dictated in the design. There are ten anchors. The only weakness in Lightning's plan is the net itself. The design of the net and the tensile strength of the material, it should hold up.”

“That's fine, Mitchell,” she said somberly. “I'm sorry. I'm just worried about this plan.”

“That fine, ma'am,” Mitchell said. “I understand. Lightning has done his fair share for us. The least we can do is be there for him when he needs us. How is the new captain doing?”

Dove looked over at Roan. “She's doing just fine, Mitch.” Roan blushed slightly at the compliment. “Out.” She released the button and turned her attention to the sensor screen.

“Uh, ma'am?” Roan asked.

“Tell you what, Roan,” Dove said, “you can call me 'Dove', you can call me 'doctor', or you can call me 'Kris'. 'Ma'am' is the way the Wildfire troops are polite without being overly familiar. Personally I'd prefer you to call me 'Kris'. My friends do.”

Roan looked a bit relieved. “Kris?”

“Yes?”

Looking up at the sensor monitor over the pilot's seat, Roan asked, “You're friends with Mr. Scott? I mean Jason?”

Dove rested her elbows on the control panel. She interlaced her fingers and rested her chin on them. “I was friends with both Jason and his father, Roan. What's on your mind?”

“Was?”

She couldn't help but rub her face where the scar had been. “Let's just say that Jason and I have some issues we need to work out between us. We're still friends, but we haven't had a lot of contact the last couple of years.”

“Oh,” Roan answered a little dejectedly.

“Roan, what's on your mind?” Dove prodded.

She looked at the black haired woman with a wry smile. “Jason. We dated a couple of times. I know, don't date the boss, but it seems like we hit it off pretty good. All of a sudden he breaks dates and he's unavailable for one reason or another. Yesterday he pulled my ticket and I think that the only reason I got it back was because of Charlie Walker.” She paused for a breath.

“And?” Dove asked again.

Roan looked back out through the windscreen. “Does he care?”

Dove pointed a bemused smile at Roan. “'Care'? In general or about you?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly.

“Roan, Jason caring isn't in question. Jason has a pretty big heart all things considered.” Dove glanced down at the monitor again. “Jason has been in a pretty dark place lately. I found out recently myself that he really hasn't been having much to do with anyone. If he asked you out, it's safe to assume he likes you. If it was more than once, I'd be pretty sure that there was some interest on his part, but Jason has some pretty deep emotional scars.”

“What's Jason doing out here anyways?” she asked Dove.

The sensor chirped a warning. “Kris! He's coming!” Far ahead and coming closer was a sign not unlike the wake of a hydrofoil racing boat.

“Mitchell, be ready!”

Water sprayed Medical One's windscreen. There was a loud snapping noise when part of the net ripped free from its anchors.

“Go!” they heard someone yell.

“Mitch, what's going on?” Dove asked into the microphone. “Mitch?”

One of the other corpsmen responded, “Ma'am, Mitch dove in. The net ripped partially loose. Lightning and Nightwing are both tangled in it.”

“Are they all right?”

“Don't know, ma'am. We've two in the water with a basket for Nightwing. Lightning is face down. That's why Mitchell dove in,” the corpsman answered.

* * * * *

In some ways the waves made the trek to the island both easy and difficult. When the waves came up from behind Hellfire it seemed like they pushed her along. Until she crested. Then, as the wave drew away from her, she felt like she was sliding down a sand hill.

Saltwater burned in her cuts. Moray's games fed her anger. Her anger was already burning white-hot. The cuts he had inflicted were injury. The fondling and groping was pure insult. In contrast, her uniform coming apart was a mere annoyance.

She was totally unprepared when Moray grabbed her ankle and pulled her under.

Moray pulled her close. They wrestled in the water, with Hellfire attempting to break free from his hold. Moray was stronger than her. His hand grasped her neck, claws digging in and drawing more blood. His eyes were as pallid as a dead fish. The extended canines added to the feral look when he grinned at her.

Her lungs were beginning to burn from the lack of air. Her throat was burning from the water she had taken in when Moray pulled her under. Cuts and scratches burning, she lashed out with her knee, slamming it into Moray's side. In response, he grinned wider. Dani closed her eyes.

* * * * *

Ash took a last look at where she had restrained Zephyr. The wind-rider was bound with zip ties in a long chain of dog soldiers. She pulled her glasses and ear piece from a pocket. She wiped the lenses on a loose flap of her shirt and put them on. She shook the ear piece, pressed a stud and slipped it back into her ear.

“Who's still on the playing field?” she asked.

Bludgeon, Shadow and Magnetron were dumped on the ground in a not very neat pile when Psistorm dropped them. The plastic ties would do to restrain Bludgeon and Magnetron, but Shadow's powers, if he regained consciousness, would make restraining him difficult at best. Nigh impossible at the worst. Ash set to binding them as best she could to her cluster of villains.

Warstar gently carried Psistorm, her weight negligible to his great strength. Blood still seeped from under her hand pressed to her shoulder. She grunted in pain when he set her on the ground.

“Sparx? You there?” Ash questioned the air. The air had no answer. “Lightning, come in please.” She glanced at the darker red on Psistorm's tunic. “What happened?”

“The Brotherhood reject there was playing with his toys,” Psistorm told her. “Ian McKellen did it better and he was only an actor!”

Peeling the suit away from the wound, Ash asked again, “What happened? That's in pretty deep there, girl.”

“Shield failure,” Psistorm answered sullenly.

They all turned towards the water when they heard, and then saw, what appeared to be a whale spout. Water fountained into the air, misted, and rained back down. As they watched, Hellfire broke the surface some distance yet from shore.

“Help me up,” Psistorm said. She gasped in pain when Warstar once again lifted her.

“I am sorry,” he rumbled.

She smiled at him, though wincing with pain. “It's okay. Get me closer to her.” The three of them went down near the water's edge. Psistorm reached her hand up and gestured towards Hellfire. Her eyes turned a uniform purple, even through the amber of her glasses. A purple aura surrounded the distant blonde's form and winked out when she was lost behind a rolling wave. Sweat broke out on the redhead's face.

“Easy, Trese,” Ash told her. “You can do this.”

“Not the doing that's so hard, Ash,” she replied. “It's the distance.”

When Hellfire next appeared riding the crest of a wave, Psistorm reached out with her power. Her friend hung loosely in the air. Slowly, inexorably, the telekinetic pulled the blonde closer.

Ash ran out into the surf to take Hellfire and ease the strain on Psistorm. “You're hot,” she said quietly.

“Can't flame underwater,” she said. “All I could do is heat up.” She looked down at her tattered outfit. “I guess I can't knock your fashion sense any more, Ash.”

Before she could reply, the girl in Ash's arms passed out.

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A small, three vehicle convoy of m1025 scout vehicles sped past. They were painted tan with a black nova in eclipse with a stylized "N" overlaid on the doors. They had been modified. In place of a machine gun on the ring mount, each had a heavy energy cannon. Each cannon also had a soldier manning it. Jason noted that the first and the third were carrying six dog soldiers each, while the second held only three. He also noted the presence of Bolt.

After the convoy had passed, Jason resumed his trek towards the dome, and Bauer.

* * * * *

Ash knelt beside Hellfire and a small pile of first-aid kits taken from the belts of the downed soldiers. The blonde's cuts had been treated and wrapped with the supplies they had found. The bandage she had fixed to Psistorm's shoulder was already turning a bright red. The redhead was sitting with her back to a tree and trying to keep her field up over their heads to keep the rain and wind off. Too often Ash noted her head bobbing in time to the field flickering in and out of existence.

Warstar stood guard over them while Ash administered to the girls. His head turned from side to side as he scanned the trees.

“Sparx, you out there?” Ash tried again. “Lightning? Come in, please.”

“Ash?”

“Kris. Go.”

“Lightning is with me. He brought Nightwing out to Med One,” Dove said. “There's been some,” she paused, “complications.”

Ashleigh sighed. “What kind of complications?”

“We're getting Nightwing cleaned up so that we can do a visual. After that we're going to get a scan so that I can assess the extent of his wounds. Jason's first aid helped, but between the saltwater soak and Lightning's...”

“Kris, where is Lightning?” she asked.

It was Dove's turn to sigh. “I was getting to that. Lightning pushed himself to get Nightwing here. The only thing we had for him to decelerate on was the safety net.”

“And?”

“Lightning hit it at close to his top speed. The water drag on the net helped, but still.”

Ash took up a handful of sand and compressed it, letting it trickle out of her fist. “Did he somehow get his vitamins mixed up with Nightwing's stupid pills? How bad is it?”

“Just from what I can see, he has dislocated his left shoulder. All things considered there, I'm surprised it's still attached. His right ankle and knee are both swelling. Cursory diagnosis there, I'm going to have to go with strains.”

“You aren't telling me the worst of it.” She flung what sand was left in her hand away and brushed her hand on her leg. “Out with it.”

“Near as I can tell, he's got a major concussion.”

Ash stood with a sigh. “So regardless, he's done.” It was a statement. Not a question.

“Sorry, Ash. I can't see him getting back up any time soon.”

“All right, damn it,” the blonde cursed. “How long before you get here?”

“Twenty-nine minutes,” Roan answered her.

“Okay, doctor. Are you ready?”

“Let's hear it,” Dove answered her.

“Hellfire is down. Nasty encounter with Moray from the look of things. A lot of minor cuts and abrasions from the neck down. Single, right hand strangulation attempt. She's got a nice bruise from it. Four minor puncture wounds to the left side of her neck, with a single puncture wound on the right. She has a deep cut across her abdomen. It doesn't appear to have gone deeper than the muscles.

“She's passed out. Stayed that way through having her wounds wrapped.”

“Wrapped? You didn't happen to use blue silk too, did you?”

Ash looked up to the sky and saw a ray of sunlight punch through the cloud cover. “Blue silk?” she asked confusedly.

“Jason found some. Looks like part of someone's cocktail dress. He used it to pack Nightwing's cuts.”

She gave a weak laugh. “No. We just used the first aid kits the puppies had on their belts. To continue, Psistorm is down. She's bleeding out, Kris. Magnetron and those damned jacks that he uses. I can't get the bleeding to stop.”

“Dammit, Ash! Worst case first! You know that!” Dove yelled at her friend.

“Oh, hell,” she said quietly. “Have to call you back!”

Titania killed the engine of her four-wheeler and swung her leg over it. She sat with one ankle across her knee. Stinger still squatted on the rack behind the saddle. Titania's gaze swept over her comrades and the fallen packs. “Quite a collection you've got there, Short Stuff. You realize that whatever you've used won't hold Shadow once he wakes up.”

Ash and Warstar both moved to interpose themselves between their fallen friends and these two new threats. “If he wakes up. What do you want, Titania?” the blonde asked.

The tall woman spared a glance at Stinger when his wings buzzed. He pulled them back when a gust of wind hit. “Just doing my job, Half-pint.” She nodded towards the downed girls. “How bad are they?”

“Bad enough!” Warstar growled.

“Mind your manners, Tin Man. You're trespassing here,” Stinger said menacingly.

Titania stood and the springs on the four-wheeler squeaked. “Stand down, Archie. Give me the kit.”

“Charley! Our orders...” Stinger squeaked when she picked him up off the quad-runner. She took the large medical kit out from under the rack and set him back on it.

“Orders, Archie? I'm in charge. Remember?” She started walking towards the Guardians.

“What about Bauer?” Stinger was sounding a little worried now.

She rounded on him. Her voice was as large as the rest of her when her ire was raised. “What about him, Archie? You're the one that asked him what the rules of engagement were! What was his answer?” He seemed dumbstruck by her outburst. “Well? What are the rules of engagement?”

“Whatever our conscience dictates,” he finally answered her.

“Right now, Archie, right here, and right now this,” she held the medpack up under his nose, “this is what my conscience dictates.”

He stepped back from the plastic case shoved in his face. “But why?”

“That, Archie,” her voice quieter, “is none of your god-damned business. Call it 'karma' if you have to. You can sit and wait. You can walk. You can try to fly for all I care right now, but so help me, Archie, if you do anything stupid where those two girls are concerned, you face me first.” She turned her back and walked up to the Guardians. She could feel his eyes trying to bore into her. To figure out what possessed her to do this. “Keep an eye on him, Warstar,” she said quietly.

He lifted his head to stare into her eyes. “Who will keep an eye on you?”

“I will, 'Star,” Ash answered him. “If she wanted to fight we'd all be swinging by now. Just keep an eye on the bug. You've got range. I'd have to throw someone at him.” She gave Titania a threatening glare. Warstar nodded and stepped aside to allow the tall woman to pass.

She looked over Hellfire. The girl looked like a young woman that had fallen asleep on the beach while sunning herself. Except for the overcast sky and the bandages. “I thought she could take him,” she said to herself.

“As far as we know, she did,” Ash told her.

Titania knelt down beside Psistorm. She lifted the redhead's chin off her chest. She took in the bloody bodice and the bloodier bandage. “Crap.” Ash squatted down behind her where she could keep an eye on Stinger and still see what the Amazon was doing. “Damn Zephyr to hell. If she hadn't called up this storm, it would have been Bludgeon and Stinger after her.” She shifted the girl until she was laying flat.

The case was opened and Ash peered inside. All of the tools had over-sized grips and finger holes. “You always pack kits like this?”

“Only when I'm expecting a lot of collateral damage.”

Ash looked at the taller blonde. “That's a load of crap. You're usually the one causing the collateral damage.” She cocked her head at Stinger, thinking about his questions. “Why are you doing this?” she asked quietly. Obviously Titania didn't want the bug to know.

With practiced moves, Titania peeled the bloodied bandage, and the tape that had held it on, off the wounded girl. “Call it karma.” She took out a bottle of distilled water and rinsed the bleeding hole in Psistorm's shoulder.

“That's not a good enough answer.”

She took out a spray can and let Ash see that is was only a disinfectant. She sprayed the wound and Psistorm let out a quiet whimper. “Be honest, Shorty. Is any answer I give you going to be good enough?” She took hemostats out of the kit.

“Let's just pretend for a moment that the answer to that is 'yes' and see where we go from there.”

“Would 'I'm doing a favor for a friend' suffice? The jack nicked the sub-clavian artery. That's why she's bleeding out.” She applied a compress to the wound and set the hemostats aside in the case.

Ash eyed the woman. “You've only got one friend that I know of, and I wouldn't trust her as far as the two of us together could toss her.”

“How long until Dove gets here?”

“About twenty minutes. Maybe less.”

Titania bobbed her head back and forth while mulling something over. She took out a small vial and slipped it into a hypodermic. She looked Ash straight in the eyes. “Jason does. Trust her, I mean.” Before she could apply the injector to Psistorm, Ash grabbed her wrist.

“Where did you get that?” On the label she had seen the interlocking square and diamond housing “SE” in block letters.

“It will help her replenish her blood supply and, hopefully, start the process to heal the artery,” she said, trying to pull her arm out of the short blonde's grip.

Ash released her. “I know what it is. I asked you where you got it from. As far as I know, that hasn't been released yet for general usage. I don't even think the FDA has passed it yet.”

“Then it's a good thing we aren't on American soil then. Isn't it?” She slipped the needle into Psistorm's shoulder and pressed the syringe, releasing its contents. “Jason gave me a small supply of it. Just in case.

“My turn to ask. Why didn't you do like Jason wanted and leave?”

“Jason needs us.”

Titania pursed her lips and nodded her head in understanding. “Jason needs you? You know what? Had you honestly been there when Jason needed you, a lot of what has happened with him over the last couple of years wouldn't have happened,” she stated it as a fact, with no accusation. “You don't like Angelique. You don't trust her. You know what? At some point in time, Jason crossed that bridge. He does trust her. At least as much as I do.”

“Yeah, well,” Ash said, “I expect sharks to bite too. She shouldn't take it personally. There's a lot of bad water under that bridge.”

Titania replaced the compress with a clean one. “You and I aren't so different, Ashleigh Parks.”

Ash laughed at that. “We aren't so much alike either.”

“Aren't we? I wasn't picked up off the street by Viper and put through a bad version of the Avatar Project.”

Ash looked dumbfounded at her. “Bad version...”

“It had to be a bad version,” Titania said. “Why do you think you're so short?

“Anyways. What's the damage to your team? We lost tracking on Thunderbolt off to the east early on. I haven't heard anything on Lightning since. I know for a fact that Raven took out Nightwing. He's somewhere near the highlands. Dead or alive, I have no idea.” She replaced the compress again. There was less blood showing on the one she took off. “You've got these two here...”

Ash glared at her. “That's your fault! If you'd...”

“No!” Titania barked at her. “That's just what I've been trying to tell you. Nightwing? Your fault. Hellfire? Your fault. Jason's little sister here? Your fault! Jason told you to go back. Hell! He'd even reprogrammed your on-board computer to ensure that you left. And yet, here you are! Right where he didn't want you to be. If you hadn't come, none of this would have happened!”

“He needs us,” she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself. “No. No, you aren't going to get me to second-guess myself. He needs us. Here. To keep him from doing something terrible.”

“'Needs' you? Maybe,” she said, “but he doesn't want you here.”

“He's going to kill Bauer.”

Titania snapped and Ashleigh found herself face-to-face with the giant woman. “Let him! He doesn't remember it, or he doesn't remember me, but that bastard picked me up in Vegas. He's the one that pulled me into Nova Research for them to use as a guinea pig for their version of Avatar!”

The engines of Medical One screamed over the waves. Sand swirled as the exhaust pounded the beach.

“Ash! What's going on?” Kris asked her.

Ash waved her arm. Her other hand covered her face. She moved to protect Hellfire while Titania did the same with Psistorm. Stinger brought his arm up to protect his over-sized eyes. Warstar stood immobile, watching Stinger.

Roan throttled the engines down until they were just a dull roar. Medical One hung suspended over the beach. Ash watched as the belly split asunder and two corpsmen swung the hoist with the rescue basket over the opening.

White wings flashed as a light hit them. Dove glided to the beach. She glanced at Titania and shot a questioning look at Ash, who only shrugged, and knelt down beside Trese.

“Doctor.” Titania nodded her head at Dove in welcome. “She has a jack embedded in her shoulder. It caught her in the artery. I didn't want to chance taking it out without better equipment. I didn't want to cut her to get at the artery itself.” She spoke without any hint of the anger she had shown Ash.

Dove, in full medical mode, checked the wound for herself. “Where did you learn all this?”

“Watching M*A*S*H. I sprayed the wound with disinfectant.” She handed Dove the spent vial. “I shot her up with this.” Dove looked at it and read the label without saying a word.

They all looked up at Medical One when it began a horrendous squealing. Smoke poured from the winch motor. “No no no no NO!” Dove yelled. “Mitchell! What's going on?”

“Ma'am, uh, blame this one on Lightning. One of the grommets from the netting jammed in the winch. There's no way we can raise or lower hoist at this point.” He waved down to her. “We can rig something, but it'll take time.”

“Thanks, Mitchell. Let me know what you come up with.” She shook her head. “If it isn't one thing, it's another.”

“Drop it on the beach?” Ash suggested.

“Another ten minutes or so,” Dove said, the frustration evident.

“I've got an idea.” They all turned to look at Stinger, still squatting on the back of the four-wheeler, with his hand raised. “I could carry her up for you. She can't weigh that much.”

Titania stared at him. “Remember what I said, Archie?”

“Yeah,” he responded, “yeah, I do. No games, Charley. I'll fly her up to the hospital ship. Then I'll fly back to extraction, or I'll see where the winds take me.”

“Well?” Titania asked Dove.

Ash stood up. “I don't exactly trust you! I'll be damned if I'm going...”

“Stinger, take her, please,” Dove said, laying her hand on Ash's shoulder. “Medical, Ash. I over-rule you.”

“Kris, I swear...”

“Titania didn't have to do anything, Ash. She did her best to help. If Stinger is willing to help for Titania, let him.” She knelt to check Hellfire.

“Mentor! Land!” Ash snapped as she stalked towards the water.

He knelt and lifted the telekinetic gently in his arms. “Charley,” he said standing, “your radio must be off. Stevie called. Condition S was completed.” She glared holes through Stinger without saying anything. Grinding her teeth, she nodded her head curtly to him. His wings slipped out, their buzzing increased in intensity until he was lifted off the sand and flying up to Medical One.

With a growl, Titania turned and slammed her fist into the tree that Psistorm had been resting against. The tree splintered and fell. Ash, Dove and Warstar all watched her stalk off to wade into the water.

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Dove flew up into Medical One. The tableau before her consisted of Stinger, still holding Psistorm, and Mitchell and one other corpsman holding their sidearms on Stinger. Stinger's wings were abuzz with annoyance.

“Put her down! Now, Stinger!” Mitchell ordered.

“Mitch, stand down,” Dove said. “Corpsman. You also.”

Pistol still trained on Stinger, Mitchell said, “Ma'am, he's got...”

“He has my patient, Mitchell! And this display is keeping me from treating her! Stinger, place her on the table there.” She pointed to a table that was little more than a gurney. She deliberately stepped into the corpsman's line of fire.

Stinger snarled at Mitchell, but did as Dove asked, laying Psistorm down as gently as he had picked her up. He brushed her hair off her forehead before he turned to leave.

“Stinger? Archie?” She paused, waiting for him to turn to face her before continuing. “Thank you.” His face softened and he held himself a little taller. “Before you go, would you mind bringing Hellfire up for me? Please?” He gave her a tight-lipped smile and nodded.

* * * * *

Jason knelt, watching the access to the dome. In his mind he cataloged the sensations he felt from his friends. Lightning was unconscious. His shoulder, leg, and head hurt. It was the one thing about his ability that Jason almost found humorous. Unconscious, one really didn't feel much. He felt it all. He closed that door.

Ash's anger had flared. She was still seething. Jason clamped that down and pushed it into the closet in his mind with her name on it.

He thought of the fiery blonde. She ached and was exhausted, so she slept. That was filed away, too.

Sweet little Trese. All he felt from her was a fading fire in her shoulder and the cold. Too much cold. Reminding him of others. No, he thought to himself and filed it away for later.

Uncalled for, he felt a burst of warmth and humor. Three connections, so new in his mind, registered all at once. He sorted those into their own spaces and closed those doors.

More anger, duller, and frustration. Marlene. His mind flashed an image of her sitting on his office sofa with her legs stretched out before her.

Focus. Worry. Directed anger. Moments like that and Jason was almost a telepath. Kris obviously working on one of the others. I'm sorry, he said to her in his mind. Another distraction filed away.

Another connection and he had the urge to urinate. He smiled at that, thinking of Kate so far away, and pushed it away.

Something other he felt and tried to place it. Leah? No. It couldn't be. That connection was shattered like her stone. The place in his mind that was hers was sealed. It couldn't be opened again. He was at a loss as to where to store the sensation.

* * * * *

“Why are we still here, Charley?”

Titania sat with her legs up on the table in the galley of the Guardian's transport jet. They took up most of the table. “I'm here because Short-round is going to want to talk when she calms down. Since she started this debacle she at least deserves to know something of what has been happening so that she knows exactly how deep her short ass has sunk into the crapper.

“Why are you still here? I thought you were going to try flying off.” He mumbled something that she didn't quite make out. “You'll have to speak up a bit, Archie. I didn't catch any of that.”

He stared at her for a moment before he answered, “No one has ever said 'thank you' to me before.”

“I can't imagine why. 'Eat hot bug zapper!' Would you thank you for that?” she teased.

He looked a bit put out. “This is different, Charley. I'm serious.”

Her expression changed. “It always is, Archie. Let me ask you something. Seeing Warstar and Half-pint out there on the beach guarding the other two, if I hadn't said something, what would you have done?”

Stinger mulled that over for a minute. His face turned bright red. “Probably would have attacked.”

“Who?”

He scratched at his jaw. “Probably Power... Strong... The short one. I can't really hurt Warstar. Tried that before.”

She nodded her head. “And if that had no effect? Would you have tried taking the non-combatants out?”

“I...” he was lost in thought for a moment, “I don't know. Maybe.” He pulled the carafe out of the coffee maker and poured a cup.

When he set it down to put the carafe back, Titania took the cup. “Thanks,” she said, noting that the cup was yellow with an orange star burst.

He glared at her for a moment, and then grinned. He slid open a cabinet and took out another coffee mug. It was colored in orange and yellow diagonal bands. The borders were like flames. He contemplated it for a moment before slotting it back in the drawer. “Why did you do what you did earlier?” He took out a white one with a simple blue band around it and filled it.

“Everyone has an origin story, Archie,” she said taking a sip from Pulsar's cup. “Not all of them are pretty.”

“Charley, dude,” he said pointing to his eyes, “like I don't know that.”

“Make yourselves at home, why don't you?” Ash stormed in. She hardly spared Stinger a look before she took her cup out of his hands. “Thanks,” she said, with barely contained rage. “We need to talk,” she said to Titania.

“Archie.” Titania nodded towards the open hatchway.

He looked from one to the other. For a moment he was struck by the similarity to the Han Solo Cantina scene. Charley was sitting nonchalantly on a bench seat, pointedly ignoring the apparent threat of the shorter blonde. “Is this going to be one of those 'career altering' conversations?” Ashleigh ignored him. Charley nodded her head slightly and slowly. He sucked his upper lip into his mouth while he thought. “Is it going to go into 'secrets man was not meant to know'?”

“Archie, Short Stuff here and I...”

“Will you stop that!” Ash barked.

She showed an amused smile. “Archie, Ashleigh and I need to talk. Like you said, it could end up being career altering. Depends on what you do and who asks what questions later. She and I need to talk.”

“You mean me?” She nodded to answer the question. “You feel you're somehow protected?”

She gave Stinger a small smile. “As protected as my relationship with Angelique allows me to be from Lord Darque's wrath. You, Archie, don't have that.” Ash turned to look at him.

Thoughts raced through his mind. Foremost, the helpless girl he carried up such a short time ago, and the beautiful doctor that gave so much with simple gratitude. He turned and opened the cabinet one more time. He looked over the mugs therein and very deliberately reached in and pulled out a simple, plain purple one. He closed the cabinet and reached for the carafe.

Both women gave him measuring looks. Ash stared at the coffee mug as he took a sip from it. “Are you sure, Archie?” Charley asked.

“I'm good having doubts later. Right now, well...” Whatever else there was, he left it unsaid.

Ash tossed herself into a seat. “What do you know?”

“I know lots of things, Half...” She blew out a sigh. “Ash. Point is, everything I told you out there earlier was true. You being here, on this island, started this whole mess! Ask Stinger. What did I tell Bauer about deployment?”

Ash looked to where he was leaning against the bulkhead. He shrugged his shoulders. “Deployment was contingent upon a verified sighting of the Guardians. If no sighting came, we would kick back and enjoy the beach and the sun until we were recalled.”

“Why? Not that I don't mind a good brawl from time to time, but why?”

“Last chance, Archie,” Charley said, pulling her cowl up and shaking her hair loose. He shrugged again in answer. “Jason spent last night with Angelique. He asked her for help dealing with the Guard.”

Stinger looked at her incredulously. “You set us up!”

“Not exactly, Archie. There wasn't supposed to be any engagements with the Guard. At all. Hell, Jason has already taken out a couple of packs. They don't know where to find him. Which is frustrating the hell out of Bauer. He doesn't even know who is doing it.” She took a drink of coffee.

“Once they got here, you set us up to fail!”

She shook her head. “No, Archie. I picked battles that I thought would weigh in the Guardian's favor, I'll grant you. With all the praise that Madacar heaps on his dog soldiers, I expected a better accounting from them. Bauer would have been better off hiring Viper.

“Nightwing,” she paused, “Nightwing I didn't expect. Raven can be a little... excitable. All the same, I didn't expect him to take out Quantum. Quantum was supposed to be looking for Pulsar. A fool's errand. His bad luck that Nightwing found him first. Nightwing's bad luck that Raven saw him.

“I expected Zephyr to stick to orders. Problem is, damned near all the Guard are wild cards. Understand, Ash, Moray wouldn't have been here if I had any say as to who I was getting. Black Jack wanted to be here, just in case. He's still a little angry at Pulsar over their last encounter.

“I figured that Psistorm could have handled Bludgeon and Stinger long enough. I hoped that Hellfire would be able to fend off Moray. I know what Warstar could do against either Magnetron or Shadow. Again, I hoped he could stand up to both.” She ran her fingers through her hair.

A glimmer of a thought struck Stinger. “You hate Bauer.”

“Don't you, Archie? He's an overbearing, self-absorbed asshole.”

“No, Charley,” he said. “Don't try to dodge this. You hate him for more than that.”

She leaned her head on her hand. That arm braced on the back of the bench she was sitting on. “Tell you what, Arch. You hold that thought until this is all over, and I'll tell you enough about why.”

“What about Dove?” Ash asked the giantess.

She took another drink. “What about her? As long as she's a doctor and only acts in that capacity, she's a non-combatant as far as I'm concerned.” She lifted her head enough to wave that thought away. “Anyways, we all know that while Thunderbolt is faster, Lightning is better at what he does. That was pretty much a no-brainer. Not to mention, the mad-on T-bolt has for Lightning.”

Ash set her cup on the table. “And us? We're the only two you've left out.”

Charley smiled at that. “Us? I figured a little mud wrestling. Best two-out-of-three falls. Maybe get you out of whatever outfit you decided to wear this time.” She winked at Ash. Ash glared back. Stinger blushed.

“What. About. Sparx?” Ash snapped each word out.

“Condition S,” Stinger said. Ash gave him a questioning look. “Bauer has her.”

“Bauer has some plan targeting Jason. That's part of why Sparx was sucked into this. Right now, she's collateral or insurance. Hard to tell which.”

Ash hung her head and blew out a sigh. “Do you know what is going on between Jason and Bauer?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“Give!” Ash demanded.

“No,” she said simply.

“Damn it!” Ash slammed her hand on the table, breaking it in two. Her coffee cup shattered against the ceiling of the galley. Charley's legs followed half the table to the floor. Stinger shielded his eyes against falling ceramic and raining coffee. “Why? Why won't you say?”

Charley stood and set her cup in the small sink. “I have obligations on one side of it, and because Jason is my friend, on the other side of it.” She pulled her cowl back into place. She bent over to allow her hair to fall free.

“He's my friend, too, damn it!”

“Ash,” she spoke quietly, “you don't trust him. You obviously don't trust his judgment. He asked you, asked your entire team, not to get involved. You've got four out of seven out of action for the immediate future. Three of them out for the foreseeable future. That's assuming, of course, that two of them don't die. Sparx is beyond your reach at the moment. You need to trust that Jason can get her out, because if you try, again, to find Jason with just you and Warstar, you will be endangering him and her.”

“Jason is going to kill Bauer.”

“Jason's a big boy, Ash. He knows that he'll have to answer for any decision that he makes. He's killed before.”

“It almost destroyed him,” Ash replied.

“He survived it. That's one problem I see with your code of conduct, Ash. You refuse to see that some people can't be rehabilitated and that some assholes gave up the right to live a long time ago.

“You want to know what's between Jason and Bauer, why don't you ask him the next time you see him. Come on, Archie.” She walked out the open hatchway and down onto the sand.

Stinger took a last swig from the mug in his hands. He stopped and contemplated it for a long moment before setting it into the sink. “She's right, you know.

“If you'll accept a little unsolicited advice, take both ships out beyond the ten mile marker. Cloak them if you can. Land on the water or go submersible if you have to. I can send you a signal just before we leave. To... you know... let you know that it'll be safe for you to come back.” He stepped past her to the open hatchway. He stopped and turned to look at her. “I hope she'll be okay.” He caught up to Charley, who was walking slowly through the sand towards the four-wheeler.

Warstar, Mitchell and Roan eyed them as they passed. Mitchell held an assault rifle whose barrel was held low, but followed them in a non-threatening manner. Roan fingered her Wildfire-issue sidearm nervously.

“Charley?”

“Yeah, Archie?”

“Who is Jason?”

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No Matter The Cost

Warmonger's Island – Wednesday

With the last of the pack restrained and stowed away in a storage closet, Jason took stock of his current situation. Both sleeves of his blue shirt now matched. Bloody and holey. He flexed his arm with no hint of injury restricting his movement. His leg had been hit in the thigh. That, too, was already healed. He put his full weight on it with no twinge of pain.

He cracked open the door and peered out. Nothing moved in the hallway that he saw. He concentrated on listening and heard nothing. “Sleep tight, boys,” he said to the fallen pack as he slipped out the door.

The corridor he was in had a high ceiling. It was about twenty feet high to Jason's estimate. The floor was scuffed with old painted lines and tire marks from golf carts, forklifts, or heavier transports. It was easy to note that the floor sloped downward at a gentle angle. Near as he could tell, down was towards the heart of the dome.

The lights above were few and far between. There were other passages that intersected the one he silently trod down. He had to duck into one to avoid the headlights of a golf cart when it passed him in the relative darkness. The cart was pulling a small personnel trailer. Four men sat in the cart itself, while six more rode on the trailer. The men were talking and laughing about something that Jason couldn't make out over the electric whine of the cart.

Once it was past, he slipped out behind it and followed. It's lights grew dimmer in the gloom, the further it traveled ahead of him.

Before long he heard voices coming from in front of him. “I swear, she's stacked!” It was a male voice. Jason didn't recall ever coming across a female dog soldier. “She must have about a fifty inch bust.”

“Let's think about that one. The woman is eight feet tall.”

“...and those legs,” first voice said. “Could you imagine having them wrapped around you?”

“Come off it, Burke. She'd snap you in half without even trying. Besides, from what I've heard, she plays for the other team,” the second voice said.

Jason moved closer to the doorway. It was a small office with just the two of them inside, from what he saw. One desk with a computer on it, a couple of chairs, and a small table with a coffee maker seemed to be the entirety of the room's contents.

“Whaddaya mean, Joe? Plays for what other team?”

“Titanium ain't inta guys, Burke,” a third voice said. “Heard she was seen smooching on dat hawk chick. Least dat's what Bolt says.”

“Oh,” Burke said. “At least I got pics of her down on the beach. I can sell them ta one of the girlie magazines. Maybe that, uh, what's that one? Under the Spandex?”

Skintight?” Joe asked.

“Yeah! That' the one. Or maybe Naked Power,” Burke answered. “I got a video from the helmet cam. Swapped out the memory card. Got it all right here!” Jason saw a helmet-less dog soldier pat a pocket.

“Oh, man, ya gotta let me have copies, Burke,” Number Three said.

“Burke, she finds out you were out following her, much less taking pictures of her getting naked and sunbathing, you won't live long enough to sell them,” Joe told him.

“Tell you what,” Jason said, “you hand over the memory card, and let me borrow your computer, she'll never have to know that you took the pictures, Burke.” He stepped into the office.

Joe, sitting in front of the computer said, “Who the hell are you?” His hand moved slowly towards the grip of his gun.

“I'm the man Bauer is waiting for.” Jason pointed at the gun hanging off the back of the chair. “I wouldn't do that if I were you.” He picked up a coffee cup off the desk. Burke and Number Three were also reaching for their weapons. Jason threw the coffee cup at Burke. It shattered on his forehead.

A hook kick caught Joe on the side of his face when he tried to get his gun up. The kick sent him and his chair slamming into the wall. Joe spilled out of the chair, unconscious.

Number Three was bringing his assault rifle to bear when Jason grabbed the barrel of it. He forced the gun back until there was a snapping sound. Number Three's wail of pain was cut short by a palm strike.

He turned to look at Burke, who was obviously dazed. Jason closed the door of the office and pulled cuffs out of Joe's belt to restrain him with. Number Three followed while Jason kept an eye on Burke. There was blood leaking from his nostrils and both eyes were darkening.

Jason took Burke's cuffs and attached him to a pipe running down the wall. He left him in a sitting position. He fished the memory card out of Burke's pocket. A small crimson flash and it was gone.

He reached for the desk drawer and saw what he was looking for mounted on the wall over the desk. A map of the complex, complete with a “you are here” arrow indicating the office he was in, was hanging there. He looked it over. Most of it was marked “storage”. A few areas had been designated as barracks or other support facilities. The hall he had been walking down was the only way into the central dome. Between where he was and where he wanted to be was a large, open area that was designated as a day room. From the map, there was no way to avoid it. It also didn't look like there was any way to avoid further traffic in the hall from this point onward. He would have to trust to his luck.

He took a last look at Burke, Joe, and Number Three. He locked the office door and closed it when he left.

Luck seemed to be with him as he followed the painted lines. A large section of the wall had been removed to allow access. Carts were parked in and around the doorway. Jason moved stealthily between them as he moved past the day room. The room was large and outfitted like a cafeteria. Tables in lines with chairs to one side of them covered most of the floor. From the layout, it could also be used for briefings. Televisions were mounted high up on the walls. From the screen he could see, it looked like Monday night's football game between the Hudson City Thunderbolts and the Vibora Bay Hammerheads was being shown. Charlie Walker had told Jason about the game. The Hammerheads had only scored a single field goal the entire game.

He neared the far side of the opening when he overheard part of a conversation. “They just called in. The Guardians pulled out. The Blood Guard beat them off... I don't know... I said that I don't know... Look, we're here until we're told to pack up. Suck it up and deal with it.”

About time, Jason thought to himself.

Once past the day room the tunnel grew darker. The lights were farther and farther apart. As he neared the end of the tunnel he noticed a giant shadowed form in the dim light. The figure was roughly man-shaped, but it stood almost ten feet tall. It would easily have dwarfed Titania. Jason caught the glow of the thing's visual sensors.

The heavy exterminators, robotic orientation had been some of the worst creations in Warmonger's arsenal. They alone had racked up a serious number of kills against the world's heroes. They had been dubbed “hero slayers” long before anyone knew what their actual designation was.

The first ones had been heavily armored, but slow. The second, and last version seen before Warmonger had been nuked, had been faster and all of the weapon systems had been upgraded. The monstrosity before Jason would put those to shame.

Jason's eyes glowed red. Shadows altered with his vision. Colors contrasted like a monitor with the settings off. Way off. He saw the heat of a hot water pipe where the insulation didn't cover it completely. He saw the heat from an electrical junction box as the electricity poured through the cables. The only hint he saw from the HERO Slayer was the visual sensors. There was no heat, no hint of power going to the weapon systems.

He moved cautiously forward. He noticed the spikes protruding from the knuckles of the machine's massive fists. Under one arm was the barrel of some cannon. An emitter on the chest was covered by something clear. Whether it was part of a focusing crystal of a laser or some type of covering for a sensor array, Jason couldn't tell. A box-like structure near one shoulder appeared to be a missile rack. What he was looking at was a formidable machine of war.

He skirted the giant slowly. Running from the back of the machine's head were cables that terminated at a battery behind the robot's foot. He reached out and laid his palm on the armored thigh. Nothing. No vibrations. No hum of machinery. It appeared as if this HERO Slayer was set up purely for intimidation purposes.

He kept a wary eye on it over his shoulder. He moved quietly to the smaller pedestrian door set into the wall beside the massive garage door.

The door opened quietly into absolute darkness. Jason's altered vision allowed him some sight, but the distance was nowhere near what he would have preferred. Far distant was, quite literally, a light at the end of the tunnel. His eyes returned to normal.

Jason strode purposefully out onto the floor of the dome. In that moment he felt a kinship with the gladiators of old, walking out onto the sand of the arena, with the same intent. To survive. Whether the challenge would be other gladiators, or lions, or some technological nightmare, he would meet it head on.

The interior of the dome was massive. Such a structure one might expect to be measured in football fields. The dome could very well be measured in city blocks, with height enough to include skyscrapers. It was an impressive feat of architecture that, somehow, Warmonger had managed to hide from the world.

The floor appeared to be solid. He noticed no cracks or joins between plates. It seemed to be one massive piece. The soles of his shoes made no sound with his steps.

In what would be the center of the floor, still at a distance, was a raised area. It appeared much like a stage. Jason gave a quiet snort of amusement. An island on an island, he thought to himself.

Within minutes, Jason had crossed the distance. The stage was set. The map of the island with the colored indicators of the dog packs was there. Computer monitors ran around the circumference of the dais, appearing to hang suspended from nothing. Only one individual moved among the equipment.

“Major. Report. What's your status? Report, damn it!” Bauer barked.

“Hate to be the one to tell you, but Major Doberman can't answer you.” Bauer stiffened at Jason's voice. “Neither can Captain Rottweiler. Or Private Chihuahua. They're all taking little doggie naps.”

Bauer turned slowly. “Jason Scott. Not what I expected after all this time.”

“What did you expect?” Jason asked, stepping up onto the stage. “Bauer?” He turned the name over in his mind. “Pawn. Question there is 'whose pawn'? Warmonger's? Madacar's? Or Darque's?” He ducked under one of the monitors. “Steven Bauer. Ulysses Madacar's right hand thug. It must have been an interesting journey getting there.”

“Oh, you have no idea. I'm surprised you didn't come in here flying your colors.”

Jason gave Bauer a measuring look as he walked slowly around the stage, avoiding any equipment. “I really don't do that much any more. I kinda retired for a while. So, you're somebody's pawn. Steven. Did you choose that name, or did someone force it on you?” He glanced at the map in passing. “No. I'm thinking you took that name for yourself. To remember.

“If you wanted your ass kicked again, Artie, all you had to do was call.”

Bauer launched himself through a table with a snarl, catching Jason by surprise. His foot slammed into Jason's chest, resounding like slapped leather. Jason spun through a control panel and a monitor. He fell heavily, face down, on the arena floor.

“That looked like it hurt, Jase,” Bauer said. “Didn't happen to break a rib, did I?”

He got himself to his knees and spit blood as he stood. He expected the monitor to be broken. Of course, Jason would have expected to have bounced off the control panel, too. “Not hardly. I see you've had some training.”

“A little kenpo. Some Muay Thai. Some savate. I never was able to find out what style and discipline you studied, though,” he replied.

“It's an eclectic style. You'd be hard pressed to find other practitioners. What's with the slayer in the hall?”

Bauer quickly punched in some commands on a keyboard. “He's my... secretary, I guess you could say. He keeps the dog soldiers from disturbing me when I'm in here working.”

Jason jumped lightly back to the stage. He waved his hand through a monitor. “Hologram. Wainwright's work?”

“Virtual reality. The dome was Wainwright's testing area. It's a mixture of technological wonders. He never did tell me where he got it from.” Bauer stepped back through the table. “It's fascinating, really. The man was truly a master of his craft.” He caught his foot under the table and kicked it at Jason.

Having seen Bauer walk through the table twice, Jason was caught off guard when it impacted. He reeled back and slammed his head against the monitor.

“It's a matter of tractor and pressor beams. I really don't understand it all. It's like one moment an object is an illusion, and the next, bam! It's real!”

“That's...” Jason shook his head to clear it, “surprising, Artie. Those are some pretty big words you're using.”

“'Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles, a destroying wrath which brought upon the Achaeans myriad woes, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes1,'” Bauer quoted.

“I hope you aren't comparing yourself to Achilles. The Iliad? That's way above the Dick and Jane books you were reading as a senior. Or were you only looking at the pictures even then?” Jason blocked the coup de pied chasse that Bauer threw at him. “I'm more thinking of Hesiod. Did you ever read Works and Days, Artie?” He parried a low punch and backhanded Bauer across the stage. “'He harms himself who does harm to another, and the evil plan is most harmful to the planner.'2 Do you get that one, Artie?”

It was Bauer's turn to spit blood as he stood. “Yeah, Jase. I get it.” He massaged and worked his jaw.

“What's this all about, Artie?”

“What do you think it's all about, Jase?” Bauer spat.

“It wouldn't have anything to do with me busting your balls, would it?” Jason said in an off-handed manner.

“You took what was mine!” he snapped out.

Jason took a step back. “You want to explain that one, Artie? Because I'm really drawing a blank on that one. I never took anything that was yours.”

“Sandy Wilson.”

“What about her?” Jason asked. He and Bauer paced each other, warily watching one another.

“She was mine!” he ranted.

Jason looked at Bauer in a confused manner. “Artie, that is so many different kinds of messed up, it isn't even funny.” Bauer's foot came down from a high kick. Jason sidestepped, caught his opponent in the chest with an open palm and he shoved Bauer backwards. Off-balance, Bauer hit the floor hard and slid, coming to a stop near the edge of the dais. “Sandy has been dead for more than ten years! She wasn't yours. She didn't even like you. After you and your little cluster of punks tried to rape her, if it was at all within her to hate, that was how she felt about you!”

Picking himself up off the floor, Bauer grinned to himself. “Well, that could have gone better. What about you, Jase? Do you hate? 'Sweeter it is by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetness, and spreads through the hearts of men.'3

“Homer wasn't talking about hate. He was speaking of wrath.” Jason resumed his wary pacing. “Do I hate? Why don't you ask Warmonger?”

“He hated your father,” Bauer snarled out.

“His hatred murdered my father and destroyed him,” Jason said.

Bauer launched a flurry of blows at Jason. “You destroyed him! You murdered him!”

Jason was hard pressed to keep up. His head snapped to the side and he saw stars. Blood flew from his nose and mouth. Bauer's foot slammed into his chest again, sending him flying once more. This time he flipped over a console and landed like a rag doll.

Through bloodied teeth, Jason began to laugh. “His hatred killed him, Artie. I just happened to be the implement his fate chose.” He slowly rose to his feet.

In the warrior's code

There's no surrender

Though his body says stop

His spirit cries – never!4” Bauer sang, off-key.

“Artie, shut up! You still can't sing.”

Bauer was bouncing now, in time to the song running through his mind, from one foot to the other, believing he had Jason's measure. The monitor, the consoles, the tables, even the stage itself, vanished. Bauer landed lightly on a mat in the middle of a dojo. Weapon racks appeared from the aether.

“Why are you doing this, Artie?” Jason barked.

His eyes alight, looking like a host infested with a Goa'uld or just with madness, Jason couldn't be sure. Bauer laughed. “Why? I've studied you! I know all about you! I know how strong you are. I know what your powers are. I know what you can do. I know how fast you can fly. I've studied everything!

“I'm the yin to your yang...”

“You're more like the starch in my underwear,” Jason interjected.

Bauer continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. “I'm your arch-enemy! I'm the Joker to your Batman! The Red Skull to your Captain America! Syndrome to your Mr. Incredible!”

“I can get behind that one,” Jason said.

Bauer stopped and cocked his head to the side. “You like it?”

“Yeah,” Jason smirked, “yeah, I do. Syndrome died.” Bauer glared at Jason and growled. “What's wrong, Artie? Never considered that outcome?” He stepped up to the mat. “How do you want to do this? Armed? Unarmed? Your choice.”

“I can take you,” Bauer answered.

“Money. Mouth,” Jason said. “You know how it goes. Put up or shut up.”

Bauer grinned again. “'Put up'? I think I can find something to 'put up', Jase.” He waved his hand, palm down, as if wiping something off a table. His fingers worked as if he were tapping on a keyboard. Like a giant billboard, part of the dome lit up. An image of Sparx, spreadeagled and apparently unconscious, covered a quarter of the wall. “As you can see, I have adequately 'put up'. And, just to make it more interesting,” his hand moved downward as if pushing a large button, “you're now on a timer. You can't see it yet, up there, but there is a machine, a 'death trap' if you'd like, that will slowly begin flaying her alive.”

Jason's chin dropped and he glared at Bauer. “Whatever you do to her, she'll heal. Not as fast as me, but she'll still heal.”

Bauer shook his head slowly, “Oh, I don't think so. You see, with you it was trial and error. Through Spears, I'm sure you know about Spears, and Black Jack, I was able to introduce into you something that Nova Research came up with. It was intended to,” he grinned, “slow the healing process.

“Leah, on the other hand, there wasn't a lot of need for trial and error. I had her for the better part of two years. I know how her powers work. Probably better than anyone else. The ring she's mounted on? It's kinda like a capacitor. You plug a power source in and it sucks it dry. Every ohm, every volt, every erg of power she's capable of generating is being pulled out of her as fast as her body creates it. The ability of her cells to store a charge has been effectively nullified.

“She will die. Slowly. Most painfully, I would imagine. But by the time it's all over, she will be quite dead.” He lifted a sword from a rack and tossed it to Jason's feet. He took another off the rack.

Jason ignored it. “Use a weapon offered by you? Created by this place? I don't think so. First time I ram it through your heart, only to find that it's smoke and mirrors? No thanks.” Crimson power flashed. White Tiger's katana rested easily in his hand. “Two men enter. One man leaves?”

Thunderdome? Apt, I guess, Jase.”

“Or 'there can be only one'. Either way,” Jason brought the katana up into a ready position, “it doesn't really matter. You aren't getting out of this alive.”

“Planning on killing me? You're a Guardian...” Bauer said.

“I quit,” Jason said simply, as a matter of fact.

Bauer pressed on, “A hero.”

Jason shook his head. “Sorry, Artie. Left my union card in my other suit.”

“You come here, as an honored guest, and you threaten to kill me in my home. Why?”

Jason considered Bauer. “I'm really beginning to wonder how many of you are in there, Artie. You don't seem to be making coherent conversation.

“I am going to kill you for the simplest of reasons. Had you come at me head on, just you and me, it would be one thing. You insisted on carrying out a mindless vendetta, bringing other people into a personal grudge.” Jason pointed at the image of Sparx on the wall. “For that, Artie, I am going to kill you,

“Coming in here, Artie, I only hated you. Now, I'm pissed.”

Bauer snapped his own blade upright. There was a sharp, metallic sound of metal striking coming from Jason's blade. The sound was not as pure as if both blades had been metal. Bauer stepped forward, jabbing the point of his blade at Jason's eye.

Jason moved to the side and forced Bauer's blade down. His foot snapped out, catching Bauer low in the ribs. Bauer spun and coughed. “That looked like it hurt, Artie. I didn't happen to break a rib, did I?”

“Asshole,” was Bauer's response. He came upright rubbing his side. He crossed blades with Jason once again.

Bauer began his offensive. His blade moved swiftly and surely. His training obviously extended beyond what he had told Jason. Jason was beginning to believe that Bauer's skill with a blade was less than his own until Bauer reversed a thrust, slipped inside his guard and sliced into Jason's bicep. Blood flowed freely before it was arrested by his healing.

The sharp pain gave Jason pause. Bauer forced Jason's blade back in that moment. He slammed his knee into Jason's thigh and shoved. Jason's leg buckled. Instead of falling down, like Bauer expected, Jason rolled backwards with the shove. He came up from the roll on one knee. He held the katana in an overhead guard position.

When Bauer did not immediately press the attack, Jason stood. They slowly circled, each looking for an opening to attack. Bauer feinted and was met by the steel of White Tiger's blade. Jason drew the cutting edge along Bauer's sword. He half expected sparks to fly.

Bauer pulled back and feinted high. Jason raised the sword to block and Bauer spun low. His blade burned across the inside of Jason's leg. Jason stepped back, putting his wounded leg behind him.

The point of Bauer's sword dug into the mat. One foot snapped out catching Jason in his leading ankle, followed almost immediately by Bauer's other foot slamming into his hip. Jason fell hard off the mat and slid, coming to rest against one of the “dojo's” walls. There was the vague sensation of moisture on Jason's back.

Phantom steel whistled through the air and was stopped inches from making another cut by the real steel of a samurai's blade. Jason rolled and his shin impacted behind Bauer's knee. Staggered by the blow, Bauer threw his arms out to steady himself.

With the moment's respite, Jason used the knuckles of the hand holding the sword and the open palm of the other to throw himself to his feet. He unconsciously wiped sweat off the open hand before resuming a two-handed ready position.

Blade whistling, Bauer turned to face his opponent. Jason deftly blocked the blow. He stepped closer to Bauer and twisted, slamming his elbow into Bauer's bicep. His arm numbed from the blow, he set a snap kick into Jason's lower back. Bauer pivoted. The sword in his hand moved to intercept Jason, stumbling from the kick.

Jason brought his own blade up in a rough guard position. The impact drove it back hard, leaving a red mark creasing his brow. Following up the wild blow, Bauer snapped a low kick at Jason's knee. He lifted his foot and took the kick on his shin. He stepped back; giving ground and quickly shaking his head.

Instead of pressing the attack, Bauer flexed his arm. “They make it look so easy in the movies.” He shook his hand loosely, trying to get the feeling back.

Shrugging his shoulders and setting himself once more, Jason prepared for the next round. Bauer danced lightly from foot to foot, shuffling his feet. The blade in his hand feinted. In response Jason barely twitched his sword in defense before Bauer pulled back.

Bauer's empty hand snapped out as if he were throwing something. A burning sensation set in high in Jason's shoulder. He glanced down at it, catching the ghostly form of a shuriken embedded there. His eyes snapped back to Bauer. His hand lifted to his wounded shoulder to find the throwing star gone. “Not playing fair, Artie. Then again, playing fair was never your style.”

The katana fairly sang when Jason moved in. Bauer took his blade back into both hands for his defense. Each slashing cut was deftly parried, steel meeting facsimile. Bauer forced Jason's blade away. Using his momentum, his foot came up in a high kick and caught Jason in the side of the face. Continuing his spin, his blade came around and drove through Jason's exposed back.

Forcing himself erect, Jason stood and fought the sword lodged within him. He turned towards Bauer and the blade slide out between his ribs. Air escaped from his ruptured lung through the cut in his side. Bauer looked wonderingly at him.

Grabbing hold of Bauer's arm, Jason drove the ancient steel of the tiger pommeled katana through his foe's body. Pain reflected on Bauer's face, with a scream he couldn't release. Bauer's eyes were closed tightly in agony.

Jason felt the katana shift. Bauer pulled away. The blade that had extended through Bauer fell to the ground glowing red. The handle dripped molten steel in Jason's hand. The wound in Bauer's chest bled steel and smoke.

Bauer opened his eyes. Looking into them was like looking into a blast furnace. Bauer grinned malevolently. “Oops.” His skin blackened and cracked. His clothes turned to ash. “I am stronger than you. I am faster than you. And I am better than you.”

Holding tight to his wounded side, Jason backed off. “You're also the second asshole it two days to make that assumption,” he said through gritted teeth. “I underestimated you and I played your game when I should have just ended this.” He dropped the useless piece of ivory.

Flame and smoke roiled thickly off Bauer's arm like a flamethrower. Where it struck the floor it stuck and burned.

Jason threw himself away from Bauer's blast, sliding across the floor. He rolled so as to be facing his opponent and lifted his arm. A crimson beam of force erupted from his palm. Bauer dodged the blast. The wall of the dojo flared when the beam forced its way through.

Bauer spared the virtual wall a glance as it faded away. He turned back in time to see Jason rising to his feet. A violet glow started beneath Jason's silk shirt. It grew brighter. Where it touched his clothes they changed. The violet light increased, enveloping Jason's form. When it was finished the light receded back to the charm hanging from the leather thong around his neck.

“Neat trick,” Bauer quipped. He tossed another flaming glob at Pulsar.

Feeling a quick jolt of surprise when he saw the orange gloves on his hands, Pulsar dodged the attack. He launched himself at the blackened form. “Not one of mine.” Bauer faded from view when another virtual wall appeared between them. He pulled himself up and slammed into the wall hands and feet. He recoiled off the wall, bounced once off the floor and stood ready. His eyes shifted, looking for any indication of his opponent. Once again he felt the sensation of moisture on his back and down his leg where he had hit the floor.

His mind went back over his adventures of the last two days. He noted his mistakes and realized what he should have done, instead of what he had done. Twenty-twenty hindsight and all that. Even the short engagement thus far with Bauer he had made mistakes. The truth of the situation was simply that Pulsar was nearly a year out of practice. Katas keep the movements and the physical memory, but without someone to spar with his timing was off. Exercising alone didn't impart the immediate urgency that facing someone that wanted to kill him did.

The dog soldiers were simple. One on one he simply outclassed them physically. A few at a time were a minor threat to him. More, well, a man can die if he's stung by enough bees.

Stacy's arm shouldn't have been broken. He fixed that, but still, he had misjudged their fall. It should have been a simple catch-and-flight. Guilt. He shoved that away. Don't have time for that right now. Maybe later.

He had misjudged Bauer from the beginning. He owed Leah an apology. Bauer obviously wasn't normal any longer.

How had Bauer gotten hold of Leah? She had been with the team. Of course the team should all still be on the transport and heading back to New York. He misjudged them. Somehow they had managed to bypass his programming. Trese. Had to be. Dani helped, but Trese found a hole.

His mind flashed back to the three m1025 scout vehicles. Bolt. Somehow Bolt was central to Leah's capture, Pulsar thought. Both their powers were electrical in nature, but Leah could fly. Bolt was a ground pounder. He could run fast. Not as fast as Lightning and he needed metal to skim across for speed. Three vehicles. Three packs. Bolt had help. It was the only thing that made sense to him.

“You aren't giving up already, are ya, Jason?” Bauer called out.

Pulsar tried to focus on where the voice was coming from. “Just reassessing, Artie. I'll be with you in a moment.” Enough. Time for here and now. I'll just have to step up my game.

He looked up. There wasn't a ceiling over him, but he didn't trust Bauer. Power flowed like a lance upward. He flew in its wake.

Twin gouts of smoky flame sought him out. Both coming from a single source. Bauer. Pulsar twisted, spun and dove, executing maneuvers like an aerialist. There was no trapeze for him to grab. There was no net to catch him if he fell.

A burst of flame across his path caused him to shift his flight. He felt heat close behind. He fired blindly following the trajectories back to their origin. The flames ceased immediately. He turned to face where Bauer had been. Again, his foe was gone.

“I thought you wanted this, Artie!”

Muffled, his answer came back. “Oh, I do, Jase. But my plan isn't to get myself killed. It's to kill you!”

Virtual reality. None of this is real. Just a figment of Bauer's digital imagination. Pulsar heard the roar of the flames and rolled. Heat seared him as it passed through where he had just been. He coughed. He found it hard to catch his breath. He tasted blood. Flames licked at his boots. Higher, he thought to himself.

Pulsar fell.

He slid across a city street and came to rest in the gutter. Water, dirt and other waste trickled past, disappearing into a sewer grate. He spit blood, remembering too late his full mask. The water flowing past his face was turning red.

He levered himself up painfully to his knees. Bauer walked out of a door a block down the street. The flashing neon sign read “Joe's”. Breathing was hard. His side hurt. The inside of his arm was covered in blood.

His hand was shaking when he moved it up his side. His fingers sought the source of the blood. Pain lanced through him when he found the deep open gash between his ribs. Part of his mind, disconnected from the pain, noticed that Bauer's footprints were burning as he walked.

“Almost over, Jase. Been a merry chase and I honestly can say I didn't expect it to end with you on your knees in the gutter, but it's really very apt, if I do say so. And you know? I do say so.” Bauer lifted his hand. A gesture Pulsar was familiar with. He'd done it so many times himself. Lift. Point. Release, and the power flowed.

His vision shifted. The city street faded out like a ghost. Virtual, he giggled. He was slipping into shock. Points of light came sharply into focus while other things grayed out. Even Bauer he was seeing differently. Heat coursed through his body. Something other was spraying in a fine mist from the floor. It reminded him of the mansion's sprinkler system. He realized the dome wasn't as high as he thought.

Pain lanced through Jason's head. Pain that wasn't his. From a distance he heard Leah scream. His chest hurt. All of it. Like someone turned a sandblaster on him.

“Hear that, Jase? We're heading into the endgame,” Bauer said. “She was sweet. She was a lot of fun, all the different things she was willing to do for me, but in the end, she was just a means to strike at you.”

“...something that Nova Research came up with. It was intended to slow the healing process.” Pulsar heard Bauer, but the remembered line came through clearer. His mind cleared with the pain that was not his. It had to be Leah he felt, but that made no sense to him. He fought the pain in his side. He fought gravity, inch by inch, getting to his feet.

He noticed blood ran all the way to the top of his orange boot as he brought himself erect. Not yellow any more, Sandy. All blood.

“Going to die on your feet, Jase?” Bauer asked.

He wobbled, but stood. “Don't plan on dying, Ar... Artie. Least... not this minute,” he rasped out. Blood was thick in his mouth. His mask. He had to take his mask off, but he couldn't remember how.

Leah's screams of agony continued.

Bauer pointed his fist at Pulsar. “Time to end you, I think.”

A sticky flaming mass shot out and struck Pulsar in the forearm. It spattered. Part sailed past him. Part splattered across half his face and burned. Power erupted from his arm like a shield, stopping the flow. His mask burned through. Blood burned. His eye ruptured.

With too much pain to deal with he stopped feeling. He still stood. He was still aware. Through his remaining eye he saw the bloody glove. He saw his power splaying off his arm, keeping Bauer's napalm away from him.

He saw a water pipe closer than he thought it should be.

Bauer stopped and lowered his arm. “You aren't supposed to be able to do that.”

Pulsar's power shifted. The flaming mass sloughed off his face to sputter at his feet. “Says the burning shit-pile.” His voice was calmer, surer than he expected given the circumstances. Behind the mask his eye tracked the water pipe until he saw what he was searching for.

He shut off the shield and threw out his hand. Power lanced forth, severing a sprinkler head from the pipe. Water gushed forth from the hole and began spraying from other sprinkler heads.

The water from above forced whatever was spraying from below lower. Bauer steamed where water hit him. The steam obscured his vision. Not so for Pulsar. The heat of Bauer's body stood out like a flare to him. Something popped from behind him. He dare not take his eye off Bauer.

“Endgame, Artie,” he said quietly. Crimson energy lanced out one last time. It struck Bauer in the chest and sent him flying. Bauer's body hit like a bursting melon amid the water. Steam continued to rise from where he lay.

Pulsar watched him for some moments. When he realized that Bauer was not, and hopefully would not be moving, he turned. His leg failed him and he fell heavily on his wounded side.

Up. Need to get up. He managed to turn himself and caught a glimpse of smoke. The smoke was coming from a machine. Beyond it was Bauer's ring and Leah. Got to get over there.

He lay there feebly trying to make headway towards Leah.

He coughed. Blood spattered into the water. Fly dammit! And he did.

It was slow and erratic, but he was flying. He caromed off the cannon Bauer had used on Leah, knocking it over. He came to rest at the base of the ring.

Cables wrapped around portions of it, like an electromagnet. More cables, or the ends of those around the ring, ran to restraints around wrists and ankles. Leah sobbed quietly. Her costume was a bloody, ruined mess. Her glove and boots were gone.

Part of his mind followed that thought while he tried to breathe. Contact. Ensure contact. Got to get mask off. Drifting. Focus! He managed to force himself onto his back.

“L...eah,” he managed to get out.

Her head bobbed. When she looked he noticed that her eyes were glazed. Pain and shock. Her body was shaking. “Jason?” she responded quietly. “It hurts so much.”

“I know. Gonna,” he coughed hard. “Oh, that hurts. Need to get you down.” He lifted his hand. In his mind he held his hand out strong, pointing at the cable holding one leg. In reality his hand wavered and when he released his power the blast passed between her thighs close to one leg.

Throwing caution to the wind, using both hands, he cut loose with four blasts. The first two severed the cables at her ankles. The third went wide. The fourth burned high, blowing through the upper part of the capacitor ring. He groaned and laid his head back dejectedly, preparing to rally his strength one more time.

He grunted with pain and surprise when Leah fell atop him. She whimpered with pain, her raw chest laying against Pulsar's.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered to him. “I never meant...”

He put his arm around her as best as he was able, given both of their conditions. He turned the ruin of his face away from her. “Is... it's alr... k.”

She lifted her head to look at him. “You aren't healing.”

“Gonna... take a litt... l'il time, s'all.” He tried to put a smile in his voice.

She laid her head on his chest, like she used to do so often, so long ago. “I'm cold. I'm not healing.” Fear crept into her voice, alongside of the pain. “Am I going to die?”

On her back, his hand began to glow. “No,” he answered quietly. “Not today.”

In his mind, the door that closed off the place that was Leah's slammed open.

1 Homer The Iliad bk I L.1

2Hesiod Works and Days L.265

3Homer The Iliad bk XVIII L.109

4Survivor Burning Heart 1985

 

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A spot of light appeared, grew into a line, and then expanded into a portal. The entire effect looked like a CRT television screen turning off, only in reverse. Through this portal stepped Anton Darque.

His gaze turned to the devastation of the capacitor ring. A cable hung to the floor from one side, directing his gaze to the two figures entwined beneath it. He gave a wry smile and his eyes turned stone cold.

He turned his attention to the smoking ruin of Steven Bauer. He squatted down. Bauer surprised him. He was still alive. Anton rolled him to his back and saw the hole that had been blasted through him.

“This game is over for you. You have two choices. The first option, Bauer, is this: everything you were is gone to you except as how it serves me. You will continue to serve Ulysses, even so far as replacing him if it becomes necessary, but your life and your loyalty are mine! Any breaches will be swiftly dealt with. And painfully, I might add.”

Bauer wheezed in reply.

“Your other option is to simply lie here and die. You might want to make up your mind. I really don't think you have a lot of time left.”

Anton turned his attention once again to the two figures. He noticed the crimson glow of Pulsar's power. He cocked his head inquiringly. Bauer's feeble grasp pulled on his sleeve for attention. He looked down on the blackened body.

“I accept.”

He lifted Bauer, giving the heat of the man's body no mind. “From this moment on you are Napalm of my Blood Guard.” With a last glance at Pulsar and Sparx, he stepped with his burden through the portal. It closed behind him.

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Sharon Anderson, in a midnight blue leotard, sat meditating on the balcony of her apartment. Her eyes snapped open, her concentration broken.

“Jason!”

* * * * *

Kate Asher adjusted her seat one more time, trying to find some position that she was actually comfortable in. The baby kept moving. It seemed the baby took great pleasure in using her bladder as a punching bag, urging her to the toilet, only to find she couldn't go when she got there.

The television was playing a rerun of a Wings episode. It was a show that Warren enjoyed. Through her pregnancy Kate had taken to watching it and other shows as her baby kept her more and more of a prisoner of Warren's recliner or the couch.

Pain lanced through her causing her to contract.

“Ohgodohgod,” she said through the pain. She thumbed the two-number speed dial on the phone for the main house. “Oh, Jason.” She squeezed her eyes tight against the pain, waiting for someone to pick up.

* * * * *

Angelique sat on the couch in the loft. She was comfortable in Jason's clean dress shirt from the night before. Putting that on was the only concession she made to decency in Jason's absence. Stacy had gone through the game collection and managed to get Angelique to play. The video game controller hadn't been comfortable in her hands when they had started, but she figured she could give Jason a challenge now, after having spent most of the day playing. A small spell kept blisters from forming on her fingers.

Stacy had loosened up. In the daylight the situation seemed more like a sleep-over, with the events and urgency of the night before dulled by sleep.

Walking from the kitchen with coffee carafe in hand, Emily was prepared to pour for the three of them when they felt it. The carafe shattered across the floor.

Tears sprang from Stacy's eyes. Angelique screamed as if she were dying.

* * * * *

With a report in one hand, turned to a page halfway through, pen grasped in her mouth and a late lunch balanced on a tray from the commissary, Marlene kept one eye on other traffic and the other turned to the report. The report was just one more way the board was trying to curtail her authority. She could get Jason to shoot it down easily, but she couldn't be seen running to him every time an obstacle was thrown in her path.

The tray slipped from her fingers. Her lunch splattered when it hit the floor. The coffee cup bounced once and shattered on the second impact. Coffee soaked into the pages of the report as they fluttered to the floor.

Marlene joined the mess on the floor.

* * * * *

Rubbing a kink out of her neck, Kris sat in the galley of Med One writing up her notes for Trese's records. Barely a half hour before she had sutured the wound closed. A copy would have to sent on the experimental drug usage to the applicable parties and the girl would have to be watched for any side-effects, but so far she was good.

Warren, Kris shook her head at the thought, would be read the riot act when he was in a condition to hear it. Kris would never want to be the one to tell Kate that her husband had been killed by his own stupidity.

Minor cuts and bruises were Dani's only injuries. Bandages, tape and aspirin would hold her over. Ash had her taken to the Guardian's jet to free up space in the medical bay.

Nightwing was the worst. She'd done what she could. Not quite meatball surgery, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. Several of the cuts had been simple sew jobs. Brad would have several more scars to show off.

She was up and running before she realized it. She leapt from where Med One floated, and with a little help from her wings, she landed inside the hatch of the Guardian's transport. Warstar glanced up at her abrupt entry. She moved gracefully, if hurriedly, to the flight deck.

Ash was already working the controls. She glanced around at Dove. “What was that?”

“Jason.”

“I got that much, Kris! What I want to know is what that was.”

Kris shrugged off her lab coat and tossed it aside. “I don't have any idea, Ash.” She slipped a headset off a console and put it on. “Roan. Set course for Houston and go!”

“Aye, ma'am,” the redhead responded. “Houston. Destination?”

“Aegis. Mentor, take care of necessaries.”

“Yes, doctor,” the AI answered.

Ash had the transport in the air and heading back to the island.

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ENDINGS

“Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?”

“The equipment, Hellfire, is in perfect working order,” Mentor told her.

She made a small adjustment to the position of the microphone. “Everything around here is in perfect working order, Mentor, except the people.

“Okay, mom. I'm still getting used to having to file a report every time I blow my nose or wipe my...”

“Danielle Siobhan Anderson. That type of language does not belong in a report or a missive to your mother.”

“Yes, Mentor.” Dani sighed. “You'll obviously get the point, mom.

“Whatever it was that happened with Jason, I don't know if you felt it or not, but whatever he did woke me up. Ash dropped us right outside the door to that installation. With just five of us still capable, I'm not sure how impressive we were.

“Ash and 'Star ripped the door opened like it was tinfoil. It seemed that the dog packs lost their alpha. Only a few actually put up resistance once we got in. We were probably a lot harder on them than we normally would have been, but Kris was in a hurry to get to Jason. Mitchell surprised us. He was capable of keeping up with us.

“Just before we got into the central dome, we ran into a new model of Slayer. Warstar never stopped. I mean he literally ran into it. He drove that thing through the wall. I think he was really disappointed when he found out that it wasn't active.

“The dome had been a battlefield, mom.” She laid her head back against the chair's rest and closed her eyes. The images came back to her clearer that way, although forgetting would have have made things easier for her in a way. “There were still fires sputtering with the sprinkler going. Not sure who, or what, Jason had been fighting, but that stuff was hard to put out.

“I found Tiger's sword, mom. Or what was left of it. The blade is gone. What there is left is melted. The ivory is scorched. I'm pretty sure he'll want it back for all that.

“But the worst of it, mom” she choked a bit, and wiped tears from her eyes, “was seeing Leah there, rocking back and forth, crying over Jason. He looked like he had gone through a meat-grinder. You know how he was. Always in the front relying on his healing factor to deal with any wounds. This time the wounds hadn't healed. I've never seen that before with him.

“Leah swore that he was dead. He's in a coma. She spends time with him. She talks to him.

“Warren,” Dani sighed again, “I guess I better discuss him before I go any further with Leah, so that everything is sorta in context.

“Kris read Warren the riot act. Went off on him pretty good about not wanting to be the one to tell Kate that he died due to his own stupidity and exactly what in the hell was he thinking pulling a bone-headed maneuver like he did. Really wish I had been able to record that. Definitely a 'Kris classic'.

“First thing he did was call home. Kate scared him. She's fine, mom. Apparently this effect Jason had started her contractions. Weird thing is, she swears that Jason was there with her. That he calmed her down and stopped the contractions. I don't know what to make of that. Ash flew Warren home. He wasn't in condition yet to run. Kris didn't like the idea of letting him go, but he wanted to be with his wife.

“Anyways, to get back to Leah, some idea that Ash and Warren had about her, he called in Spellbinder. They talked. She spent the better part of a day watching Leah. She says that someone laid a pretty hefty whammy on Leah. What she said was that the spell scrambled things in Leah's head. Emotions that are tied to people have been crossed, I guess. Nearest thing that 'Binder said that made sense to me was that Leah's emotional base tied to Jason had had a jumper cable clamped on, to transpose her feelings to, I'm guessing here, Bauer. Magic isn't my strong suit, but, counting 'Binder, there's only three people I know of that can lay down that kind of power.”

She took a drink from a tall glass of iced tea. “Which brings me to the next bit,” she continued.

“We've got a guest. Angelique showed up demanding to see Jason. We were about to toss her, and Titania, out on their collective asses, when the Witch Queen pulled out one of Jason's stones. Why he gave her one, I'll never understand.

“Spellbinder did a quick check. Yes, the stone is actually Jason's. She also was able to confirm that the spell laid on Leah wasn't Angelique's. I'da thought it would be, since she and Leah never got along, and how fast she was there to jump into bed with Jason.

“Next part gets kinda creepy for me. She swears she saved Jason's life. I really hate that witch, mom.”

Dani pulled her hair out of the way to rub, scratch at, really, the bandage that covered the side of her neck. “My wounds are healing. Itching like you wouldn't believe.

“Anyways, the other day the Witch decided to snipe at Leah. Leah sparked her ass across the common room. I've got to say, mom, between what she did on the island and what she did then, I've got a lot of respect for Charley.

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Angelique was crying and trying to stand up. She called out to Charley, “Stop her!”

Ash eyed Charley as she stood slowly and stepped past Leah. Leah didn't even spare her a glance, keeping her attention on the crying blonde. Charley squatted beside Angelique. “What would you have me do, Angel? Toss her across the room?”

“That would be a start,” she replied, fighting to get her tears under control.

“You know what? We're here because you claimed guest-right on Jason's honor. You pretty much twisted their arms to let us stay, and you've done absolutely nothing to repay their hospitality except to be a first-class bitch.” She stood then and looked down on Angelique. “I think Leah has shown remarkable restraint since it took her this long to blast you. Not to mention that she obviously didn't use her full power. Time to grow up, Angel.” She turned her back on the fallen blonde.

“I thought you were my friend!”

Charley stopped and turned at the waist to look back on the smaller woman. “I am your friend, Angel. I also claim Jason as a friend. You want to pick a fight in his house I am not going to protect you from your own stupidity. And this tower is as much his home as the loft is. If one of them starts it, I'll jump in the middle of it with no second thoughts.

“This you brought on yourself.”

Ash caught up to the taller blonde in the hall. “Why didn't she use her magic on Leah?” she asked.

“She can't.”

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The muted sounds of the monitors were the only things to be heard in the room. Angelique kept her vigil over Jason's still form. In the space between not being enemies and not really a friend, her time keeping watch over her friend was about the only place among the Guardians that she truly felt safe. Not that she felt threatened by them, but after her little dust up with Sparx and subsequent admonishment by Charley, she was subdued.

Charley was right, though. She did request sanctuary using Jason's name. Her behavior had been atrocious. The way she had acted was an insult to her friend and their friendship.

I wish you would wake up, Jason, she thought to herself. I am so scared right now.

Everything that she thought she was had been taken from her in a flash of her father's ire. She had learned much in her long life about manipulating others. In a dark, painful moment, she learned that she was still playing a child's game in comparison to that which was played by her father.

“So, all that you were is gone. As simply as that.” An aged male voice seemed to come from a blue will-o-wisp that was hovering inside near the window. “I think your friends would disagree with that.”

Angelique flinched when the voice broke the silence. “Go away, old man. I don't have time for your games.” Now she truly felt defenseless.

“There is always time for games, Angelique. This one is fairly played out for the time being.”

“What do you want, Arkayne?” she asked. Not quite petulantly, but all the same, not too far removed from it. Some habits are hard to break.

The will-o-wisp disappeared in a small flash, in its place stood an old man with a wizened face. “I wouldn't mind a bit of brandy, perhaps some whiskey. And a cigar, I suppose. If I were to visit your father I imagine I would already have them.” He moved to the side of Jason's bed. “But I'm sure the good doctor would frown on a doddering old fool smoking in a room with her patient.”

“Can you do anything for him?” she asked.

Arkayne arched an eyebrow at Angelique. “Can I do anything for him? I daresay that I can. The question is 'should I do anything for him?' Sometimes it is better to allow nature to take her course. His body is healing. It needs time to expel the chemicals that got into him. His mind needs time to deal with other things. Right now he has himself locked in,” he tapped a finger to his own temple, “and he's waiting for the key.”

Angelique turned her gaze from Jason and looked at the frail older man. “You know what he went through?”

“Oh, yes,” he answered sadly. “One must keep his eyes on all his pieces. Until they are removed from the board.”

“Is he...” she started to ask.

“Removed? Only from this game. There will be others, I'm afraid.” He turned and found a chair. “I'm getting a bit too old for this. I need to sit for a spell.” Angelique winced at his turn of phrase.

“How are things with you, dear girl? What is it like for you to actually have a friend?”

Angelique's eye flashed fire. “You should know how things are with me! I've been stripped! Blocked!”

“Yes,” he nodded, “yes. I understand. No, dear girl, I don't know how things are with you, exactly. You weren't my piece to keep an eye on. It was actually the second question that I was looking for an answer to. What is it like for you to actually have a friend?”

“I have had friends before, old man!” she snapped.

A flash and a crackle, like lightning and thunder, passed through the room. Angelique cowered from the display. “Mind your temper!” the old man growled. “I am not talking about minions and toadies, girl,” he spoke quieter. “I am talking about true friends. Someone that you consider at least an equal. Like Charlemagne. Or young Scott, here.”

She moved around, interposing the bed between herself and Arkayne. “There are times that I miss just spending time with him.” She slid her fingers into Jason's unmoving hand and held it. “There have been times where I was about to do something and I caught myself, thinking 'Jason would be disappointed in me if I did this'.”

Arkayne's eyes gleamed with delight at this simple confession. “And how did that make you feel?”

“Confused. I've only ever worried about my father's reactions before.”

Absentmindedly, Arkayne fumbled in his pockets before pulling out a long-stemmed pipe. “What now, dear girl, will you do?” She gave the old man an admonishing look. He looked at the pipe in his hand and the unlit match in the other. “Oh! Well. I'm not going to smoke it.”

“I don't know yet what I will do. Wait until my father's temper settles, I suppose.”

Arkayne cleared his throat. “Your father does not take betrayal lightly. Even if a part of what occurred played into his hands, he still will hold that you, his own flesh and blood, betrayed him. That is not something that Anton will easily forgive, nor will he ever forget.”

“What is this all about, Arkayne?” she asked.

“You, dear girl. This is about you.

“Through the actions of Scott here, your father lost his most powerful piece. His queen. You.” He tamped the tobacco in his pipe down with his thumb. “Further, your father has lost Charlemagne. Her loyalty was ever to you. Never to your father. Not wholly, at any rate.

“Doctor Tyler also planted a seed in another of your father's pieces. Honest gratitude can do wonders for a man's self-esteem. I'm sure with his actions on that beach that Scott here would also like to thank him.” He set the pipe stem between his teeth.

“Between you, Charlemagne and Stinger, your father has lost two pieces and a third is wavering. In return he has secured the services of a rook. Maybe a knight. Though I have my doubts.”

Angelique released Jason's hand and sat herself in Jason's reading chair. “Is this what you do, old man? Playing your game with my father, force people to do things?”

“'Force'?” He raised an eyebrow at that. “Hardly force. Cajole, maybe. Urge if necessary, but it is always through free will. I could force you to do what I think is best, but what would you learn from that? The hardest lessons must be learned freely.”

She pulled her legs up into the chair with her. “What, then, would you suggest I do?”

“The hardest thing, Angelique. Change. Grow,” he said tiredly. “But know this, whatever you do; you cannot stay as you are. Too much has been done to bring you to this place, to face this question, and for you to find an answer.”

“All of this,” she asked, horrified, “was because of me?”

“No. No, of course not, dear girl. It was done for you. Not because of you.”

“I don't see the difference, Arkayne.”

“You will. One day, you will.” He forced himself to his feet using his cane to assist. “I must go. Scott is out spirit walking. It won't be much longer as these things are counted, and he'll awake.”

She looked up at the old man. “You won't stay until then?”

His form wavered and once again the blue will-o-wisp was in the room. “No, dear girl. Scott has little reason to bear me good will.” The floating blue light passed through the glass of the window out into the night.

Angelique rested her head on her hand and gazed on Jason, lost in thought. After some time had passed she stood with a sharp intake of breath. “It was you!”

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Marlene dropped her suitcase in the hall. She shrugged the strap of her carry-on off her shoulder and set it down. She laid her briefcase on top of the suitcase. She slipped her suit coat off her shoulders and dropped that over the rest of her load. She braced herself against the wall and kicked off her high heels.

“I told you, Marlene, that I could manage your bags.”

“Fine, Mentor. Manage them. Where is he?”

“He is resting, ma'am, in his room.”

She looked up at the ceiling irritably. “Don't 'ma'am' me, Mentor. I'm not in the mood for it.”

“As you say, Marlene.”

She fairly stalked down the hall. She glanced in the dining room where Trese sat fighting with a fork left-handed. She changed her course and went in. “Hey, Trese.”

“Marlene!” The lithe redhead noticed the blackened eye and cut on her friend's face. “You look like hell. What happened?” She stood up and they hugged, Marlene taking care of Trese's arm in a sling.

“Actually, I was hoping you could tell me.” She held Trese a little tighter for a moment before stepping away. “I was dealing with some paperwork and in the middle of it, I had a black out. And somehow, Jason is in the middle of it.”

“You, too, huh?”

“What 'too'?” she asked Trese.

Trese sat back down. “I slept through the excitement, but it seems everyone that Jason has gifted with a stone got a hit with feedback when he healed Leah. Angelique says that it wasn't feedback from the healing. She said Jason died.”

Marlene glared at Trese. “The witch 'says'? She's here?”

“Yeah. She's in Jason's room with him.”

Marlene pointed at Trese's plate. “You need help with that?”

Trese smiled. Her eyes glowed purple and her fork stabbed into her meal. “Thanks, Marlene, but I think I can manage.”

“Good.”

* * * * *

Kris slipped quietly into Jason's room. Marlene had taken over Jason's desk. His computer was running with her laptop set up right next to it. Both monitors were running screen savers. Files had been stacked neatly, but had slipped across the open space when Marlene had nodded off sitting at the desk.

The doctor checked the wrap on Jason's head. Peeking under it, the skin was still an angry red, but the blisters were gone. She laid her hand lightly on it and couldn't feel any heat from the burn. That, at least, was healing.

She wanted to pull the wrapping up higher to look into the optical cavity. Give it time, doctor, she thought.

A quick check of the IV drip was next. She smiled to herself when she saw the initials on the bag next to the time showing when it was changed. “CB”.

She pulled the sheet down to where she could see his side. The bandage was due for a change. She peeled the tape off gently. She wasn't concerned with waking her patient. She was only worried that she might cause more damage. The wound was closed with an angry, puckered scar. She doubted it would stay, but Jason could use a reminder that he wasn't indestructible.

Kris pressed on either side of the closure. There was no seepage and the scar stayed closed. She decided to re-cover it, just to be sure.

She inadvertently brushed Marlene's leg with a wing when she moved by the desk. The CEO stirred from the touch.

“Thought I told you to stay out.” She turned to face Kris. Her eyes were blurry with sleep.

“You haven't told me anything,” the smile carried in her voice for her friend.

“Kris?” She rubbed the sleep from her face, wincing at the tenderness around her eye and the cut. “I chased the witch out when I got here.”

Concerned at the condition of her friend, she said, “Looks like he got you, too.”

“Yeah, that's what they tell me, anyways.'

“Let me take a look at that,” the doctor said. She was gentler with Marlene than she had been with Jason. “You should have been wearing sunglasses.”

“I did. When I was outside.”

Kris affixed a small bandage over the cut. “Yeah, well, no more bright lights for a while. That includes computer monitors.”

“I've got work to do, Kris.”

Kris cocked her head and gave Marlene a look. “Lene, our agreement is that when you are here, you're my patient. As your doctor I am officially putting you on work restriction.” She gave Marlene a questioning look. “What?”

“Sandy always called me 'Lene'. She was the only one that did.”

“Why don't you lie down and get some sleep?”

“No. I want to stay here with him.” She looked at Jason's prone form.

“Okay, then at this moment,” she stepped behind Marlene, “I'm not your doctor. I'm your friend.” She deftly unbuttoned and unzipped Marlene's skirt. “And I'm telling you to lie down and sleep.” The skirt slipped to the floor. The winged woman stepped to a dresser and pulled out a pullover shirt. “It's a king-size bed. I don't expect Jason to wake any time soon and I really don't think he'll care if he wakes up next to a beautiful woman.

“Well? Blouse. Off. Now.” When Marlene had stripped down to her panties, Kris handed her the shirt. “You want me to turn the bed down for you, too?”

“No,” she smiled nervously, “I think I've got that. Good night, Kris.”

* * * * *

It was still dark in the early morning when Jason first awoke. He lay still, realizing that he was in his room in the tower. It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't alone in his bed. Marlene was shivering, the blanket having shifted, and she was crying softly in her sleep. He touched her gently. She moved closer into his warmth. He put his arm around her and pulled the blanket up to cover her. He closed his eye and sank into sleep.

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Lots of views. No comments or feedback.

 

Tough room.

phantaskippy
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Greywind wrote:

Lots of views. No comments or feedback. Tough room.

I've read some of it, but it is hard to go back and figure out where I was in the story, so I haven't finished it.  Chapter lines would be great, because at least then I could track and find where I last read.

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I probably account for a few of those views, and I haven't read the story once.

I looked at your opening blurb and went "Ah, Champions, never played it, wont bother with the story then." and when a new chapter popped up I came in the thread thinking "What's this then? A thread I haven't read?" and then realised why.

Sorry, just not interested in something I have no background with.


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Don't look at it as the game. It's just a story.

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phantaskippy wrote:
I've read some of it, but it is hard to go back and figure out where I was in the story, so I haven't finished it.  Chapter lines would be great, because at least then I could track and find where I last read.

The chapters are: Beginnings, Transitions, Family Gatherings, To Do What is Right, Favors, Examples of Power, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way, Landfall, What Leah Dreamed, Battle Joined, No Matter the Cost, and Endings.

Only thing I can suggest is keeping track of the post number.

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