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Silence reigned in the elevator. Marlene held Jason's hand tightly. A private gesture that would end when the elevator stopped. It wasn't time for a big reveal of their relationship, not with Jessica's attack turning eyes towards Scott Enterprises, even though some of the gossip magazines had already printed a few pictures and started with the rumors.

 

Trese stood on the other side of Jason, leaning her head on his arm. Marlene looked up at Jason. He had been operating on autopilot. He had showered and shaved during a brief stop at the mansion that allowed them all to clean up and change into business wear. His eyes were dark when he glanced down at her. She couldn't tell if it was lack of sleep or stress and worry. She gave him a supportive smile.

 

The elevator chimed and the readout showed the number of the floor they were heading to. She reluctantly released his hand. The doors slid open. Jason stepped through first and scanned to either side. He turned to the right with Marlene at his side and Trese a few steps behind.

 

Beth Gilbert, nominally in charge of the office when Jason and Marlene were both absent, and Sharon Knight, the head of Scott Enterprises' security, stepped out of a waiting area. Each held a brief in hand. Beth handed hers to Jason.

 

“They are not accepting my authorization,” she said. Jason flipped the brief open and scanned the papers within. “Standard forms.” Jason nodded and Beth handed him her pen.

 

Nib scribbling across the paper, Jason asked, “How is she?”

 

Beth shook her head. “Not good. The arrow did a lot of damage. Her brother came in last night with his family. They were expecting to stay with her, but the police have her apartment closed off. There's a Detective Harris investigating. He was wanting to know if she has any enemies; the usual stuff.”

 

“Standard procedure,” Marlene said. “Cooperate fully with their investigation.” Jason nodded in agreement as he finished signing the papers. He passed the closed brief back to Beth.

 

She nodded her head. “I'll get this taken care of.” She started to turn away before turning back and asking, “How is Kate? What did they have?”

 

Marlene smiled. “Kate's fine, Beth. They have a little boy.” She gave Beth Aaron's birth statistics while they walked to the desk at the nurses station.

 

Sharon Knight handed her brief to Jason. “Trese,” he said, opening the brief, “why don't you see to Jessica's family. They're probably tired and could use some sleep somewhere more comfortable. I assume she's stable?” The question was directed to Knight. They started walking down the hall towards the room with a uniformed police officer standing beside it.

 

“She is. To be honest, Jason, she's lucky. If you look at the report, the shooter was off the grounds. It was a long shot. Granted, I'm no expert on archery, but it was a long shot and the arrow went through her bag, a book, and into her. If it hadn't hit her book, it would have been a through-and-through.”

 

“Any ideas?”

 

“Yes. None good. My team responded; two of them began first aid while waiting for the paramedics, two of them began taking pictures of the immediate scene, and two others began doing long range sweeps with video gear. Per standard procedure, we gave the equipment to the police as evidence. I put the report together using the information transmitted to SecOp from the gear.” She flipped a few laminated pages in the brief. “This is Jessica as she was found.” The picture was clear. Jessica was sprawled across the driver's seat. The fletchings of an arrow pointed at the roof of the car. “The arrow is silver. The shaft, the feathers. I can only assume the point is, as well. When the ER surgeon removed it, it was bagged and tagged as is. The police haven't exactly reciprocated with information.”

 

“What information would that be, Miss Knight?” a deep voice asked.

 

Turning towards the man, Knight said, “Detective Harris. I was just informing Mr. Scott of yesterday's events.”

 

Detective Harris, somewhat overweight with a beer and donut gut, nodded his head of thinning hair. “Messy business. If you don't mind me asking, Mr. Scott, your whereabouts at the time of the attack.”

 

“I was in Nebraska watching my godson being born.”

 

Harris continued nodding. “Can anyone corroborate that?”

 

“I can,” Marlene said from behind Harris.

 

“And you are?”

 

“Marlene Palmer.”

 

“Huh. The CEO?”

 

“That's correct,” Marlene said. “I was with him. Theresa Gardner was with him. Warren Asher, his wife, Katherine. Mr. Asher's parents and sister. Shall I go on, Detective?”

 

“No, that's sufficient. I understand that Miss Randall has worked for you for a number of years.”

 

“Detective Harris,” Jason said stiffly, “I am sure that you have Miss Randall's personnel record. In that record you will see that she has been with Scott Enterprises since she graduated from high school. You will also find that for the better part of the last two years that she has been working as my personal assistant. Having been handpicked by her predecessor.

 

“Now, I have things I must see to. If you want to ask me any questions, make an appointment.”

 

“Mr. Scott, I can have you taken downtown.”

 

Jason brought himself up to his full height. “Detective Harris, is tomorrow, say eleven AM, acceptable to you?” Marlene asked. “Say, in my office?”

 

Harris nodded slowly. “I suppose.”

 

Marlene nodded her head. “Good. Miss Knight, please make sure that Detective Harris is expected tomorrow. Ensure that all forms and passes are waiting so as not to delay the detective.”

 

“Yes, Ma'am,” Knight responded.

 

“Now,” Marlene said with a smile, “if there is nothing immediate that you need us for, Detective Harris, we will see you in the morning.” She kept the smile until the detective entered the elevator and the doors closed. “That wouldn't have gone over well,” she said to Jason. “I realize you're tired,” she brushed her hand gently down the front of his suit coat, “but I don't think that I could do enough damage control if you had done anything there.”

 

Jason gave her a tight-lipped smile and nodded. “I know. What would I do without you?”

 

“Let's hope you never have to find out.”

 

“I love you.”

 

Marlene smiled with a twinkle in her eye. “I love you, too.”

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The wine server poured more into Leah's glass before moving on to the others. Leah took a sip, delaying answering Warren's question. Warren watched her. Leah's eyes went everywhere except to meet his. “Leah?”

 

She let out a heavy sigh. “No, Warren, he won't give me my job back. 'When we agreed, in good faith, to allow you your leave of absence, it was understood that you would be returning within a reasonable, if indeterminate, period of time. We' and I'd almost swear that he was using the 'royal we' in the letter I received, 'do not consider a period of two years to be reasonable and as such refilled your former position accordingly.'”

 

That sounds like a lawyer. So now what?” he asked. “Going to stay with the team?”

 

Leah gave him a bit of a smile. “Not like I have anything better to do. Maybe make it official this time.”

 

Warren chuckled. “You have always been official to the ones that mattered.”

 

Warren?” Leah's tone was more somber. “How come you never told me about Cheryl? I mean about how she died. I know you loved her, but nobody ever said anything about Spears before. If somebody had said something, anything, I wouldn't have even bothered to talk to him. Looking back he was too... I don't know what I'm trying to say.”

 

Too slick? Like a sleazy lawyer?”

 

Yeah. I guess.”

 

When... when you make a mistake... you know, we do this. We go out saving lives, fighting crime, trying to do right.” Warren stared into his wine glass for a moment. “This morning on the way in, I stopped in a diner for breakfast and a guy came in. I can't tell you what it was that made me aware of him. It might have been the way he moved. Or the way he held himself. I knew there was something off about him. Anyways, he pulls out a sawed-off and starts demanding money. Out of the till. From the waitresses. From the customers. He wanted it all. He just about crapped himself to find me standing there between him and waitress he'd pointed the gun at.” Warren set the wine down and took a drink from his water. “I can't tell you that waitress's name. She had dirty blonde, almost brown hair, and the end of it was this cherry red, like she had dip-dyed it. Her eyes were hazel. I can remember all this, but I can't remember her name. And I know I read it off her name tag.

 

All the lives we touch, the people we help, and we never really know their names. You know what I'm saying?” Leah nodded. “And when you screw up and someone dies, those names you learn. Those names you never forget.

 

We don't talk about Spears. We just kept looking for ways to prove he was dirty. Try to catch him and make good for Cheryl. Anyways, everything was in the reports from our early cases.”

 

Leah sniffed. “You ever try reading those things? None of you were much for story telling.” Leah deepened her voice. “Thumper robbed bank. We stopped him. End of report.”

 

Warren laughed. “Working on your Ronon Dex impersonation?”

 

Leah laughed with him. “At least you're laughing. I was beginning to think you were slipping into the Pit of Despair.” She reached over and squeezed his hand. “I didn't mean to bring up bad memories.”

 

There's good memories. And regrets. I can't deny that, but right now I really wish Kate were here. I haven't been able to take her dancing in the last six months.”

 

Well, Speedy,” Leah said, “I guess you'll have to settle for dancing with me, then. What would Kate say if I left you sitting all night?” They both laughed.

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Leah took a few tentative steps closer to where Jason and Kris were talking quietly. In her hands was Jason's sketchbook.

 

“I didn't realize that walking in on me when I was getting dressed stayed with you,” Kris said with a slight blush.

 

Jason gave her a bit of a smile. He reached out and caressed her face, not unconscious of the fact that it was where, until a few months back, she had carried a scar that he had caused. “Beautiful things always stay in the memory, Kris. You've always been a very sensual woman. You just never really admitted it to yourself.” Her blush deepened. He cocked his head slightly when she looked away. “Are you okay?”

 

Kris forced herself to smile. “We can't change the past.”

 

“Where our friendship is concerned I only ever regret one thing,” he told her quietly.

 

She stepped into him, wrapping her arms around and hugging him tightly. “And that's only an issue as long as you let it be. Let it go, Jason. No guilt for me. You carry too much and you fixed it.”

 

“Jason?” Leah felt like she was intruding, but still, “can I ask you something?” Kris, blushing again, gave Leah an embarrassed smile when she let go of Jason.

 

“What's on your mind?”

 

She flipped open his sketchbook to the picture of her in the evening dress. “I was wondering about this.”

 

“What about it? I thought it looked good on you,” he said with a warm smile.

 

“Except that I don't, and never have, owned a dress like this. I don't think I've even worn one when I was modeling.”

 

Jason looked confused. “Are you sure? Open back. Slit high on the one leg. I could have sworn I saw you in it. I've never been much for fashion design. Everything I've drawn like this, I've seen it somewhere before.”

 

“Jason, the only place I've seen this dress was in a nightmare.”

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I was asked if what was bothering Kris was the situation with Jason. Not exactly. Kris still has issues with Jason, hence her nightmare. This is still something of a work in progress, but it explains more. The exact timing of this is the day after Reaffirmation Day. It runs for a few posts.

 

What Came Before

 

Leah put the finishing touches on her makeup and checked her appearance in the mirror. With her little finger she wiped a small smudge of lipstick from the corner of her mouth. For a moment her eyes locked on the caged stone dangling from a chain about her neck. She smiled briefly to herself and slipped it into the collar of her blouse.

 

Turning around, satisfied with how she looked, she cast her glance over the mess she had created in her room. Blouses, slacks, dresses and other accessories lay scattered across her bed and chair. She stepped into her closet and ran fingers over the toes of racked shoes. “What to wear?” she asked quietly. Leah lifted a sandal and after a moment gave it a dissatisfied look. She stuffed it back into its place.

 

Taking up a pair of red high heeled pumps Leah turned to a full-length mirror. She cocked her head from side to side. The color of the shoes went well with the red spaghetti-strap top she wore beneath a sheer black blouse. Leah slipped the shoes on her stockinged feet. She moved to check her appearance from various angles. “Nah”, she said and kicked off the shoes.

 

She finally settled on low black boots with heels that came up over the cuffs of her form-fitting jeans. With one last look in a mirror to check her makeup, hair and earrings, Leah grabbed her bag and went out the door.

 

At the end of the hall, coming from the recreation room, she heard a tok tak tok tak-tok-tak-tok-taktoktaktoktaktok sound. As she neared the door she heard a loud pok and the clatter of plastic followed by the sound of a ping pong paddle being hit on the table. She popped her head in to see Warren, dressed in a sweat-soaked basketball jersey and running shorts. Scattered across the floor were the remains of several ping pong balls.

 

What's up, Farm Boy? I thought you were going to head home to Kate.”

 

I was.” He pulled another ball out of a box. He wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of a hand. “I can't explain it. I tried leaving earlier. I just couldn't bring myself to do it.” He got ready to serve the ball and glanced at Leah. He gave a low whistle and stood up, dropping his arms to his sides. “Hot date, Pretty Lady?” he asked.

 

Kind of,” she answered.

 

Brad?” he asked teasingly.

 

Leah laughed. “He should be so lucky. No. One of the photographers I used to shoot with found out I was back in town and wanted to discuss the possibility of me doing some shoots. My portfolio, not to mention my résumé, is several years out of date. Since I'm not working, I figured modeling would at least put some money in my pocket.” Leah cast her gaze to the floor and flicked sparks from her fingernails. “I didn't expect Jason to have all my stuff put in storage.”

 

Hey. He cares. Just because...”

 

Leah crossed her arms and gave Warren a hurt look. “I walked out on him?”

 

In the space of a second Warren crossed the distance between them. “Wasn't your fault. He held out hope for a long time.”

 

I know. It just, it hurts, Warren. Dammit! I promised myself I wasn't going to cry over this anymore!”

 

Warren took hold of her hand and spun her around. “Then don't,” he told her with a smile. “Dance, laugh, remember good things. If you cry, you'll just have to redo your makeup.”

 

She gave an honest laugh for his efforts. “It's just drinks. Maybe dinner.”

 

If it will get you out of the tower for a night it will do you good. Just make sure Brad gets a look at you before you go. Watching him walk on his tongue is amusing.”

 

Do I really look that good?” Leah asked him.

 

Warren regarded her, making a display of checking her over from her loose flowing hair to her boots. “If it weren't for Kate, I would,” Leah suddenly found herself in Warren's arms, “scoop you up in my arms and cart you off to my room.”

 

And what would we do in your room?” she asked, batting her eyelashes at him.

 

Hmm. Probably end up watching a movie, but I'd keep you safe from all the mashers and pick-up artists hanging out in whatever bar you're supposed to be getting drinks at.” He set her back down lightly on her feet.

 

Thanks, Warren. I missed you.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I love you, Farm Boy.”

 

Love you, too, Pretty Lady. You were missed around here.” He winked at her. “Now you have to redo your lipstick.”

 

Leah gave him a warm smile. “Just make sure Brad sees it before you clean it off.” Warren turned away and grabbed a broom. He started sweeping up the cracked, dented and split remains of the balls scattered across the floor. “Warren?”

 

Yeah?” he mumbled in response.

 

Are you alright?” concern lay heavy in her voice.

 

He shook his head while he swept. “I don't like my head messed with. I'd rather be with Kate, and I have this overwhelming sense of... I don't know. Foreboding? And I'm just about out of balls to beat on.”

 

You're feeling it, too?” Ash asked from the door.

 

Too?” Leah asked in response.

 

Just tried to run down to get a pizza. Anxiety attack? Nerves? I don't know”, the blonde said. “I just had the feeling something bad would happen if I left. Dani is feeling it. She's supposed to go to an audition. Trese was going to go with her. I think Jenny and Lisa said something about tagging along with them. Bad case of the dreads right before they got in the elevator. I called Kris. She said she was going to come in. She said she had the strange feeling she was needed here.” Ash leaned against the door frame. “'Star hasn't felt it, but he hasn't had the urge to leave the tower. Same with Jason and Marlene. The three of them are in the common watching a movie.”

 

Jenny and Lisa felt it?” Warren asked, leaning on his broom.

 

No,” she replied. “In fact they gave the girls strange looks. They're new to all this, so strange hasn't really begun to sink in as 'normal' yet. Leah? What about you?”

 

I've got a date. I haven't gotten near the elevator yet.”

 

Come on. Let's go experiment.” With that the three left the rec room and headed for the elevator.

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Leah stretched her hand out to push the call button. Her heart rate accelerated. It felt to her as if her heart were going to burst from her chest. Perspiration slicked her palms. Ash and Warren both saw her extended hand shake.

 

I'd have to say that that is a 'yes', Leah. Whatever it is, it's affecting you, too,” Ash said.

 

Leah jumped when the elevator chimed and the door opened. She gave a sigh of relief when she saw the winged woman within. “Hi, Kris,” she said with a nervous laugh.

 

You guys all missed me that you had to meet the elevator?” the raven-tressed woman asked. “Warren, you've got Leah's lips on your cheek there.” Kris was wearing a white halter vest and white slacks.

 

How do you know it's Leah's?”

 

Because she needs to redo her lipstick. What's going on?” She stepped quickly from the elevator before the doors closed. Immediately the elevator began descending.

 

Mentor, who called the elevator?” Ash queried the tower's artificial intelligence.

 

A wall panel lit up showing two women of apparent average size, and another woman that towered over the other two. All were beautiful.

 

I wonder why Addie is with those two,” Warren asked quietly, more to himself than the others.

 

Ash kept an eye on Leah. “I'm sure she has reason, Warren. The two of them might explain the heebie-jeebies everyone that has tried to leave feels. Mentor, where is everyone?”

 

Most are in the common area. Nightwing and White Tiger are training,” Mentor said.

 

More like White Tiger is showing Nightwing that strength isn't everything. Again,” Warren said. “What do you think is up?”

 

I have no idea, Warren. Mentor, let them up,” Ash instructed the AI.

 

Unnecessary, Ash. Miss Bascomb has access. She has already used it. Arrival is imminent.”

 

Within moments of Mentor's announcement the elevator opened to reveal Adalene Masters, Angelique Darque and Charlemagne Bascomb. Leah's reaction to seeing Angelique was immediate. Fingers splayed open and electricity arced between them.

 

Angelique laid her hand on Adalene's arm, stopping her when Adalene stepped to interpose herself between Leah and Angelique. Without looking behind Angelique raised her hand to stop the statuesque Charley from placing herself between Angelique and the perceived danger. She stepped towards Leah, hands down at her sides; palms open to Leah in a posture of surrender. “I am not an enemy. I am not what I was,” she said calmly.

 

A person doesn't change in a matter of weeks!” Leah snarled.

 

They do if they are coerced. Or altered. The change in me hasn't been weeks, Leah. It has been years. And it is part of why we are here. If you wish to attack me, I can't stop you.”

 

'Can't'?” Leah snapped at her, “Or 'won't'?”

 

I can't, Leah. When this day is over, if you still wish it we can return to this place and you can be free to do as you wish. Right now I ask you be patient, listen to us, ask questions if you must, but please, hear us out.” Angelique wasn't pleading, but her attitude was completely different than the Guardians were used to. Even after having had Angelique as a guest in tower for a number of weeks. “What there is to be said affects you, Leah. Intimately.”

 

Addie, what's this about?” Warren asked.

 

The past, Warren. It's about the past and friends and enemies. It's about the future and whether some friends will remain so. Is everyone here?”

 

Depends on what you consider 'everyone', Binder,” Ash said. “Leah?”

 

Leah, glaring at Angelique, lifted her hand until it was in her line of sight. She snapped it into a fist and stopped the electricity dancing around it. “This isn't over, Witch!”

 

No. I don't suspect it is,” Angelique said.

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Ash is looking into it, Dani. What would you like me to do?” Jason asked the lithesome blonde.

 

Dani tossed herself heavily onto a couch. “I don't know. I've got an audition in less than an hour!” she said peevishly.

 

So you've said,” Jason commented.

 

Lisa was surprised by all this. She expected people with powers, heroes and villains, to be above all the day to day concerns of basically having a life. She was further startled by Jenny, her best friend, grabbing her glass off the table and handing it to her. Mere moments before Leah's bag sailed the length of the table with a mumbled “sorry” when she realized what she had almost done.

 

Leah? What's wrong?” Marlene asked from where she lay across Jason's lap with her legs tucked up, when Leah threw herself on a couch opposite.

 

Leah put her feet up on the coffee table, locking the heels of her boots on the table top. Sparks snapped off when she clicked her fingernails together in irritation. “The Witch is here.” Marlene sat up.

 

'The Witch'?” Lisa whispered to Jenny. Jenny just shook her head. Lisa didn't miss the smile or the shake of his head that Jason gave Marlene when she glared at him.

 

Jason stood when the others came into the common area. “Addie,” he said in greeting, “this is something of a surprise.”

 

Lisa shivered and whispered to Jenny, “Which of them does cold?”

 

No one,” Jenny whispered back. “Why?”

 

I'd swear the temperature in here just dropped about fifty degrees.” Jenny shrugged in response.

 

I'm sorry, Jason. I have need to speak with you on a somewhat urgent matter. Where are the others?” she asked.

 

This is everyone, Addie,” Ash told her.

 

Addie sighed. Angelique placed her hand on Addie's arm and gave her a weak smile. “I wanted all the Guardians here.”

 

Adalene,” Kris spoke up, “who else were you expecting?”

 

Huntress. Longbow. Nightwing...”

 

He's getting tooled in the gym,” Warren chipped in.

 

Jason smiled at her. “Binder, Huntress doesn't consider herself a Guardian. She never has. I don't think Longbow does, either.”

 

Still,” she said, “I was hoping for more.”

 

Marlene approached the sorceress and took her hands in her own. “I wanted to thank you, Addie, for fixing Jason. I really appreciate it.”

 

I couldn't have done it without Angelique, Marlene, and I wouldn't thank me just yet,” Adalene said with a tight smile.

 

Marlene looked on Angelique and her faced hardened. “Thank you.” The words came out like there was iron in Marlene's voice.

 

Angelique gave Marlene something of a smile and a shallow bow. “Think nothing of it, Miss Palmer.”

 

Lisa was caught up in everything going on when Jenny tugged on her arm. “Come on.”

 

Where would you go, Jenny?” Jason asked.

 

Jenny felt nervous and had a hard time meeting his eyes. “Well, this sounds like it's going to be personal and we don't need to be in your way.”

 

Kris smiled at the girl. “Jenny, if you're seriously thinking about joining this motley crew then you should stay. We don't usually keep secrets from one another.”

 

Brad came around the corner, one eye blackened. “Oh, hey, got here as fast as we could. Ooh, Jason, bad karma night,” he said, seeing Angelique and the looks Leah and Marlene had for her.

 

Brad,” Trese admonished, “I wouldn't.”

 

Ash moved a couch closer to the others. “Everyone sit,” she said. It came out more like an order than a request.

 

A lean, muscular Asian man came through the door. Every time Lisa saw him she couldn't make up her mind if he reminded her of Robin Shou, when he made Mortal Kombat, only with shorter hair, or a younger Jet Li. “Charley,” he said with a grin. “You look good, woman.”

 

Flatterer. I always look good.” Her gaze dropped to the sheathed katana in his hand. The ivory of the handle was scorched and it had been recently re-wrapped. “What's with that?”

 

Always be prepared.” He ran his thumb over the roaring tiger's head. “Jason gave me back my honor.”

 

Charley answered slowly, but deliberately, “Kaneda, I think Jason would say that you regained your honor when you stopped working for Anton.”

 

Hai,” he responded with a quick bow. “Huntress said the same.”

 

Never thought we'd be on the side of the angels. I thought that the blade melted?”

 

It did,” Dani piped in. “I picked up what I could find of it during the clean up. Mostly it was a puddle.”

 

Kaneda exposed a few inches of the blade to Charley's eyes. “That's not steel.”

 

Hai,” he said again, giving her a devilish grin. “Omnium.”

 

Jason!” Marlene rounded on him. “What were you thinking? That stuff is expensive.”

 

Jason chuckled. “Don't blame me. Blame dad. Sharon asked a favor. Dad gave her an ingot. When he found out why she wanted it, he asked that a second blade be made. There were three, altogether. The first was a process trial. It was terribly unbalanced and unusable once the metal set.”

 

What happened to the other blade?” Leah asked.

 

Not sure,” Jason responded. “Dad gave it to her like she asked. I don't recall her ever saying what she did with it. I know that an old friend of hers wanted to make a blade the old way, but using newer, advanced materials.”

 

I know where her sister is,” Kaneda said, “but it is not here and there are other concerns.”

 

True, Kaneda. Thank you,” Spellbinder said. “Can we be seated? Please?”

 

Angel, may I speak with you a moment?” Jason asked. Eyes followed them as they stepped out of the common room. While they talked, Lisa noticed Jason slip something into Angelique's hand. She watched Angelique smile and nod with her head down.

 

With an open moment, Brad steered Adalene over to Jenny and Lisa. “Binder, this is my little sister.”

 

Ah, the little girl that didn't need saving. I am glad that you are well.” She handed Lisa a small lock of hair. “Please return this to your mother,” she said with a smile.

 

Thank you,” was all Jenny said.

 

And this is Lisa Sheffield, Addie.”

 

Adalene gave the girl a warm smile. “A pleasure, Miss Sheffield.”

 

When Jason escorted Angelique back in the room, all found a place to sit or stand. The founders of the group sat center-most, with the late-comers and newer members behind or beside, except Marlene. She still held her place on the center couch with Jason sitting on the arm. She leaned against him.

 

Jason,” Spellbinder said tentatively, wetting her lips, “I have to ask, how have you been lately?”

 

All eyes turned to him, questioning. “I'm fine, Addie.”

 

You're not fine!” Marlene exclaimed.

 

Jason stood and looked down on his girlfriend. “Marlene...” He saw worry in her eyes and concern for him.

 

Maybe she can help. Like she did before.”

 

Jase? What's wrong?” Warren asked.

 

Jason?” Adalene expressed concern with just his name.

 

He's been having nightmares,” Marlene told them.

 

Like we were having at the farm?” Leah asked.

 

Jason shrugged. “I don't know.”

 

Adalene asked, “Jason, when did they start?”

 

Marlene caught Jason's hand and held it tight. “Shortly after the night at your place, Addie. Show her the drawings.” She directed the latter to Jason.

 

Drawings?” Addie asked.

 

Marlene never took her eyes from Jason's. “He draws, Addie.”

 

I know he does. What are the drawings of?” she asked.

 

Show her, Jason.” Marlene fought him with a battle of wills, refusing to be the one to give in at this moment. “Warren, can you get Jason's book, please?”

 

Where is it?”

 

It was on his desk.” She looked up at Jason, seeing something. Hurt? She wasn't sure, but she knew it wasn't anger.

 

I'll be right back with it,” Warren said.

 

Warren,” Jason said, “don't bother.” With a crimson flash, Jason held out a sketchbook to Marlene. Marlene in turn passed it to Adalene. Jason turned to stand by the clear wall, looking out with his hands clasped behind.

 

Adalene and Angelique slowly looked through the sketchbook together. Some of the drawings were just sketches. Others were colored; pencils, pastels, a few water colors. A colored sketch of Trese asleep on the couch, her head lay in Dani's lap, who had her feet up on the table. A pastel drawing of Kris flying, eclipsing the sun. A sketch of Marlene in a state of undress. Whether or not she was dressing or disrobing couldn't be ascertained from the image. The next page was of Charley in a tank top and cut-offs. A tree-line was colored in with no definition. An off-white, light tan gave the impression of sand. The next, a drawing of Marlene asleep sitting up. Angelique recognized the couch being the one in Jason's loft. Another page, Leah in a plaid shirt and cut-offs, laying in a hammock, eyes closed. The next, a watercolor of Kaneda seated in a lotus position, meditating. An image of Angelique in colored pencil, showing a lot of leg, shaded with blue. Jason was able to convey the impression of the silk dress with the colors. She tapped the page. “You owe me for that dress, by the way,” she said with a smile for him. Jason nodded, but did not turn.

 

Addie turned to the next. An image of Kris in a slip or camisole, pulling a stocking up her leg. Her wings were only an impression. She turned to an image of Marlene nude except for a pearl necklace she was toying with and biting. The next image was Ash, working out, hair pulled back in a ponytail. Jason had given her a sheen, blending colors, to make it appear she was sweating.

 

Adalene turned the next page only to have a piece of tracing paper slip free. Jason's style had changed. The sketch was rougher, the pencil laid down heavier. Adalene saw herself standing above and looking down. She was wearing a crossed bikini top of white and an ankle-length loincloth skirt held by two gold hoops at her hips. Leah handed Addie the tracing paper. She took one glance at it and laid it over her image. It showed her in her leotard from the night she had healed Jason.

 

The next page was just as rough. Angelique looked back at Addie. She was dressed the same as Addie had been, only with a dark shadow with two glowing red eyes standing behind her. Another piece of tracing paper laid over the image of Angelique, putting her in the same blue dress as the earlier image. The impression of a chess queen was done lightly on the tracing paper.

 

She slowly turned the page. An image of a god hurling lightning down. A chess king behind him, the edges of it looking as if it was sharp enough to cut.

 

The next image was of a young girl laying. The background was done as a splash of red, blood red, radiating out from the recumbent form. Adalene spared a glance at Jason.

 

The next page was a drawing of Leah in her Sparx uniform. The image was distorted. One arm was out of proportion. One leg stretched beyond the length of the other. Leah's hands were at her head, her face distorted by some unimaginable scream. The entire background was black. So black that Adalene couldn't see the strokes where Jason had put it to paper.

 

Addie noticed the hanging fragments of several pages missing.

 

With the next page Addie released the breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. Jason had drawn Dani, Trese, Jenny and Lisa sitting around a table playing some game. The next page was of Leah in a sparkling black long-sleeved evening gown. Her hair was piled up with tresses curled and hanging down framing her face. About her neck was a gemstone in a cage. With blacks and grays Jason had made the dress shimmer in the drawing. Adalene could almost swear she could see the weave of Leah's hosiery. Long be-gemmed earrings reflected light.

 

Adalene turned the page to find only the rough outline of a body. Whatever he was drawing couldn't be readily discerned from the lines. She closed the sketchbook and set it on the table where Ash picked it up to flip through the pages, with Kris looking over one shoulder and Leah looking from the other.

 

I was afraid of this. Jason, what you are doing isn't so much having nightmares as remembering. When the three of us healed you, you were meditating. That's almost the same as a conscious dream-state, if you will. What happened in my workshop, you... we were sort of projected to another plane of existence that lies beside reality as we know it. It allowed for Angelique to come close enough, in a metaphysical sense, to help. The other is Arkayne.

 

And he's the reason I'm here.

 

I want you to know, before any more of this goes any further, I release you from your promises to me. I don't want you to feel that you are indebted to me. I am going to tell you much, and in so doing I am breaking faith with, and a promise to Arkayne. There will be a cost, but that will be my burden to bear.” Everyone's eyes, except Angelique's and Jason's were on Adalene. Adalene and Angelique stared at Jason's back. Jason stood staring at something outside the window.

 

Adalene took a deep breath and let it out. “There are a group of people that are called Seers. In the past they were like the Oracle of Delphi. It was believed that they saw the future. Arkayne has access to the Seers. He has been planning something for a long time. A very long time.

 

Recently, I was able to get my hands on several books from his library.” She turned her attention to Charley and held out a hand. “Please?” With a nod, Charley passed her a book bag. “These books,” she pulled one out and looked at the cover, “these books are about the four of you.” She lay the first book down. The leather was embossed with a lightning bolt. “This one is about Warren.” She pulled out the remaining four. One book was noticeably thicker than the others. “This one,” covered with a stylized dove, “is about Kris. This one here has to do with the team.” The cover had a stylized G on it. The next book she tapped had an upraised fist. “Ash, and lastly, Jason,” the thickest, covered with a very familiar star burst.

 

Each book is a blend of a copy from the Seers' library and Arkayne's notes on each subject. As the Seers foresaw something that related to one of you and wrote, it would magically appear in whichever book that Arkayne had bound to each of you.” She picked up the book with the G and opened it to a marker she had placed there and began reading:

 

'I foresee a time in which my adversary will assemble a group of these masked mystery men. Whereas few of these vigilantes and self-styled heroes have actual power, there will be a time when, as in the distant past, men with power to rival the gods will be born. The Demon must not be unopposed.

 

I see a path. It will be a long path fraught with many perils, not the least of which will be the Demon himself. There is a hope that his blood can be turned on him. I must strive for that!'

 

Could I get something to...” Warren set a pitcher of tea in front of her and handed her a full glass, “drink? Thank you, Warren.” She took the proffered glass and sipped. “This passage was written during the nineteen-twenties. Arkayne saw a need for the Guardians over one-hundred years ago.”

 

I don't much believe in prophecy, Binder,” Ash said.

 

Arkayne does, Ash. And this isn't about prophecy in the sense that there is some great thing you have to do. In the last ten years, look how many lives each of you has touched. The Guardians have already done great things.” She gave Ash a sad look. “This isn't about prophecy, destiny or fate. It's about manipulation.”

 

She set the book down open and took up the one with the bird on the cover. “Kris? Do you mind?”

 

The raven-tressed woman shook her head. “Go ahead.”

 

'The Seers have found one of the chosen, but they are conflicted. There is some question of which of the twins would be better suited.' From here there are questions about the future, and the Seers, I don't know how many, would follow the thread to see where it would lead.

 

'She has brought me an answer at last. The others say that the wild one would be best suited. I am unsure. Something fills me with unease about that one. I choose the gentle one. Knowing what the Children of the Serpent will do to her, I can only hope that her true nature will overcome what they will do.' There's a bit of time passage here. It doesn't go into specifics.” She began reading again.

 

'I have set things in motion. The snakes have their orders. Too much of a direct hand I have played. I hate this, but it must be done. The burden is mine, and so I record here the girl's name so that I will not forget. Kristina Leigh Tyler.'” Adalene held her place and looked at Kris.

 

You mean...?” the winged woman began.

 

That Arkayne chose you to be taken. Experimented on. There is a passage here that indicates that at times he even doubted you would survive.”

 

Lisa rubbed her eyes. “What's the matter?” Jenny whispered to her.

 

Seeing things again,” she replied just as quietly. “Like Jason. There's puzzles around him. Sometimes there's a lot. Sometimes there's only one, but all the pieces are coming out of the same box. It's like he's working on all of them.”

 

What does it mean?” Kris asked. “What 'true nature' is he talking about?”

 

Jason turned into the room. “I thought that would be apparent.”

 

Warren started nodding his head in understanding. “Yeah. Yeah! I get it. I can see how.”

 

Well I don't!” Kris exclaimed.

 

Really, Kris?” Jason said quietly. “When we started out you wore that head piece that made you look more like a raptor than a dove. Not to mention that spear you used to tote around.”

 

Wasn't even two years, Kris,” Warren said to her, “that you put that away and switched to a staff.”

 

And now,” Trese added, “the only thing you carry is your medical bag. I can see where the true nature overcame the programming.”

 

All of it,” Kris said quietly, almost only to herself, “everything, and it was just as some... some playing piece?” She wrapped her arms about herself and her wings followed suit, almost hiding her behind them.

 

Warren came to her then, pulling her close. She rested her head against his chest. “I think that's what this is about, Kris. We've all been played and played with. Is that it, Addie?”

 

Adalene nodded her head. “Yes, Warren. You're beginning to understand the level of this.” She rubbed the back of her neck, left her hand there and set her elbow on the book. “What was foreseen with the four of you, each of you brought something to the group as a whole. Jason's analytical mind, which, if I'm not mistaken, is part of why you dislike running your business.” Jason nodded. “Ash is the spirit of the group; the one that always makes you get up and keep going. Warren...”

 

I'm the wise-ass of the group,” he chimed in.

 

No,” Jason said. “That's Brad's position. You've always been the conscience of the group. The one that always made sure that we were in the right. Doing right. Always asking the questions that made us consider why we were doing.”

 

Kris gave a choking laugh. “And I'm the 'chick with the wings'.”

 

Warren pulled her closer. “Oh, no, Kris. I never realized that was how you saw yourself. You've always been more than that.”

 

Kris pulled away from him. “Jason is the most powerful of us.”

 

Ash is stronger,” Jason said.

 

She didn't say 'strongest', Jase. She said 'most powerful'. And you are,” Ash said. “Yeah, I can rip tree stumps up, throw cars, what have you, but you, you can blow through the trees and the cars without even trying.

 

Kris,” Ash waited until the winged woman looked at her, “you aren't the least of us. You always kept your eye on the little things that the rest of us might have overlooked. How many times were you the one that pulled the bystanders out of the way when we were in the middle of a big throw-down?”

 

Ash is right, Kris,” Jason said. “You were the one that always kept us grounded. Even when you were flying the highest.”

 

Group hug time?” Brad asked.

 

Jason was annoyed. “Michaels, do yourself a favor and shut up. Kris, Kari is a wild child. She was the party girl, where you studied. Could you imagine what she might have become with what you can do?”

 

“I can fly, Jason,” she said quietly.

 

“I remember a number of times,” Ash said, “that there was blood on that spear. I love Kari, Kris, but with what you were when we started, I'd almost be afraid to see what Kari might have been. She might have ended up more like Raven.”

 

Kris nodded, wiping tears from her cheeks. “I know what you're saying, but everything I went through. The pain. All of it. Just so some scientists could find a way to splice wings on my back.”

 

Warren smiled at her. “At least they're feathered like an angel's and not ugly and scaly like a demon's.” Kris gave a choked laugh. Warren slipped his arms around her and held her close. “And you survived the pain. Would you have wanted Kari to go through all that?” She just shook her head.

 

Adalene slipped the book to the table and picked up another. “If you're okay, Kris, I'd like to continue.”

 

Kris sniffed, wiped her eyes and broke away from Warren. “I'm fine.”

 

'The Seers have found another of the chosen. All I need do is have those fanatics pick the girl up, and she, too, will be altered. I wish there were another way, a better way.'”

 

Girl. Ash, I assume,” Brad said. Jason shot him another look of annoyance.

 

As you can see, Arkayne does show some reticence about this,” Adalene said.

 

Addie, I don't care. He still went through with it all,” Warren said. “I really don't care about his reasons.”

 

She nodded and returned her attention to the book in her hands. “'Damn the Demon! He has meddled! The girl is lost to me! I pray another can be found.'”

 

Wait! What?” Ash was confused.

 

Adalene closed the book, keeping her fingers in it. “You weren't Arkayne's first choice.”

 

Who was?” Ash demanded.

 

Adalene sighed. “Does it matter?”

 

It might, Addie,” Jason said quietly from by the window.

 

She sat for a moment and gathered her thoughts. “Charley.”

 

What?” the tall woman asked.

 

Not 'what'. 'You'. You were Arkayne's first choice to undergo the Avatar process. Instead of being picked up in Las Vegas by Viper agents, you were seduced and taken by Nova Research for use as a test subject. Arkayne believes that it was at the behest of his demon.

 

Charley looked stunned. “That... that would have been terrible.”

 

What?” Ash asked. “To have been a Guardian?”

 

No. I might have ended up short,” she said somberly, then winked at Ash. Ash tossed a pillow off the couch at her while everyone else laughed.

 

When everyone calmed down, Jason asked, “Is there anything else we need to know about that, Addie?”

 

Not really. It goes into how Ash was chosen and picked up by Viper. Warren's goes into how certain waste chemicals from one of your plants got dumped on the Asher farm. Arkayne took a direct hand in that. He's the one that caused the storm that night.”

 

No storm, I wouldn't have been out in that field,” Warren said quietly. “I shouldn't have been out in it.”

 

Brad shrugged his shoulders. “What's the big deal?”

 

Ever been struck by lightning?” Warren asked him.

 

Trese cast a glance at Leah. “I have,” she said, barely above a whisper.

 

Leah reached across for the younger girl's hand. “I won't even joke about arranging it for you if you'd like, Brad.”

 

I've been tagged by Bolt before,” Brad said defensively.

 

Leah raised an eyebrow. “Raw power, Brad, I think I weigh the scale heavier than Bolt, and even then I don't match Mother Nature in the middle of a storm.”

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Conversation in the farmhouse was subdued. Warren cast a glance at the rooster clock on the kitchen wall. His eyes darted back to Jason, kneeling in the living room, and Marlene, sitting in a lotus position in front of Jason. His eyes went back to the clock and he realized only seconds had passed. He picked up the dice, shook them and cast them on the game board. They came up four-six.

 

“Ten, Warren. From one railroad to the next,” Ash said with a quiet laugh.

 

Warren sighed and passed her the rent. “You don't own them all, Ash.”

 

“Only because I managed to get the Short Line, Warren,” Beth said.

 

“Just wait, Beth,” Ash said. “You land somewhere pricey and I'll be getting that monopoly for cheap.”

 

Jennie took a cucumber spear from the vegetable tray. “How much longer do you think?” Her, Trese and Dani were playing cards at the other end of the table.

 

Warren couldn't help it. His eyes went to the clock one more time. “As long as it takes, Sis.”

 

“It's been...”

 

“Three hours, fourteen minutes, and forty-eight seconds since they sat down.” In that time Marlene had giggled, cried, laughed, and cried some more. Her back was to Warren, but he knew her makeup had run streaks down from her eyes.

 

Kris sat across from Angelique with the meditating pair between them. Angelique sat cross-legged on the couch with her eyes closed. Kris started to say something when Angelique said, “They're fine, Doctor.” Kris sighed.

 

Slowly Jason removed his hand from Marlene's. Just as slowly, he stood with his eyes closed and turned towards the door.

 

“Jase?” Warren called to him. He stepped towards the door and stumbled, knocking a lamp off an end table. Warren caught it before it hit the floor. “Jase?” Jason righted himself, but did not answer. His fist tightened. He took a few steps towards the door and opened his eyes. Power danced there. The others saw it reflected on the screen door before he opened it and stepped out into the night.

 

Marlene sat motionless for a few moments before she drew her knees up, wrapped her arms around them, and buried her face to cry.

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The Dress

 

Upon entering his room, Jason hung the garment bag he had been carrying on a hook by the closet door and turned his attention to the women sitting on the couch. Both women had their legs drawn up under them. Marlene was closing the cover of a drawing pad on which she had written, “Marlene's”, “Private”, and “Keep Out!” Leah was holding a large coffee mug.

 

Everything go okay?” Marlene asked him.

 

Jason nodded. “The clean up is going. Depending on the engineer's report the rest will probably have to be torn down.”

 

Any idea what happened?” Leah asked.

 

Jason sat himself on the back of the couch. He shrugged. “It was a research lab. It could have been any number of things. We won't have any idea until the analyses are done and the reports come back. With everything going on I'm not ruling out sabotage.”

 

Leah shook her head slowly. “All those people...”

 

Fifteen dead and twenty-seven others injured. Hopefully they'll find out what happened,” Marlene said sadly.

 

We've got our people overseeing. Everything else is being done strictly 'hands-off'. We'll let CSI do their job. As much as I'd like to keep my fingers in, I think it's for the best that way. What's that?” Jason cocked his head at the drawing pad as way to change the subject.

 

Nunya,” Marlene said with a grin.

 

'Nunya' what?” he asked.

 

Nunya business,” Leah answered with a laugh. Leah said something to Marlene in Japanese. Marlene laughed and replied the same way.

 

Jason sighed. “You two know I hate it when you do that.”

 

The two women laughed at him. “You could always learn the language,” Leah scolded him.

 

Marlene had a twinkle in her eye. “I love you.”

 

I love you, too, Beautiful,” he told her.

 

Is that my dress?” she asked, pointing at the garment bag in an off-hand manner.

 

Jason smiled. “I hope so. It's a little small for my cross-dressing routine.” Leah snorted.

 

Dress for what?” she asked.

 

Oh, there's a little soirée at the museum Saturday night.” Marlene shifted until she was kneeling on the couch. “Do you have plans for Saturday, Leah? You could come with us! You can be my plus one and Jason can go solo.”

 

Or find another date,” he teased.

 

Leah looked uncomfortable. “I... don't know, Marlene. I wouldn't want to be in the way.”

 

Marlene reached over and took hold of Leah's hand. “Leah, you will never be in the way.”

 

Leah gave a quick smile that faded rapidly. “Even if I did, I don't have anything to wear.” Jason gave her a look that was part guilt and part something she couldn't quite place. “What?”

 

That's...” he sighed. “That's not quite true, Leah,” he said quietly. “You're probably going to be mad at me, but I wasn't exactly honest with you.”

 

Leah looked confused. “Honest about what?”

 

Instead of answering, Jason walked to the wall where he had hung a painting of the team. He pressed his hand against the wall and for a moment, it was backlit. The wall clicked and a door swung inward. He stepped inside, lost to the view of the women. When he emerged he had a garment bag in hand. He glanced at Leah and then stepped to the closet and placed the new bag on a hook beside the one he had hung earlier.

 

He returned to the hidden room and came out bearing several other parcels. He set those on a table near where the garment bags were hanging. Leah and Marlene rose and moved closer. They both recognized the names of the different boutiques on each parcel. A shoe box, two lingerie boxes, and a jewelry box.

 

What's this? An early Christmas?” Leah joked, but her voice didn't carry the humor.

 

Marlene cast a glance at Jason, smiled and said, “Why don't you take a look?” She lifted the bottom of the first garment bag revealing her own dark green dress. “Hmm. George has outdone himself,” she beamed. “I love the color.”

 

That's beautiful,” Leah said. “It'll look great on you.” She turned her attention with some trepidation to the pile of boxes. She sighed and flipped the top off one of the lingerie boxes and moved the tissue paper out of the way to find a package of high-end pantyhose. “Jason, you know these were my favorite kind,” she said quietly.

 

I know,” he responded, his voice rough.

 

Leah set that box aside and noticed that her hand was shaking when she reached for the other lingerie box. She opened that box to reveal a sheer panty.

 

No bra,” Marlene teased.

 

The dress is backless.” It came out as a whisper and Leah was surprised that it was her voice. Marlene gave Leah's shoulder a gentle squeeze and ran her hand lightly up and down the other woman's back. Jason stepped away. They heard the secret room shut.

 

Leah lifted the lid of the shoe box. Black four-inch stiletto-heeled shoes were revealed within. “Ooh, modeling shoes,” she said with a rough laugh. Marlene laughed with her.

 

Well,” Marlene said, “down to two. Jewelry or dress next?”

 

Leah gave the garment bag a glance and then turned her attention to the jewelry box. Inside she found a pair of dangling jeweled earrings. “They're beautiful,” she whispered. “Jason, I can't...”

 

They're yours. They've been yours. They've just been waiting for you to claim them,” he said.

 

What about the dress?” Marlene prodded. “I want to see it.”

 

Leah gave Marlene a “you're nuts” look and sighed. She lifted the bag off the dress. She felt herself trembling. Hanging from a hook in Jason's room was the dress she had seen in a nightmare months before; a dress that Jason had drawn her wearing.

 

It's... it's a beautiful dress, Jason. I don't know what to say.”

 

Marlene cocked her head to look at Jason. His attention was out a window. “Why don't you try it on?”

 

I can't... I...” She saw the look Marlene was giving her and sighed again. “Alright, but only if you try yours on. This isn't a modeling job.”

 

Marlene giggled. “Agreed, but all of it.” She bounced over to the dresser and pulled out the things she had set aside to wear with her dress. She looked at Jason. “What are you still doing there? Out in the hall with you!” She made a move to swat at him.

 

He quirked up a smile at her and held his hands up in a sign of surrender. “Okay! Okay! Out in the hall with me.”

 

Marlene chased him to the door. “I love you,” she whispered to him before she closed the door.

 

In the hall Jason leaned back against the wall opposite his door, with his arms crossed. After some time had passed, Brad walked down the hall. “What are you doing out here?”

 

Waiting,” Jason said.

 

Brad gave him a confused look. “For what?”

 

Marlene and Leah are in there getting naked. I'm waiting for them to let me know when I can join them,” he said seriously.

 

For what?”

 

You're a big boy, Brad. What do you think adults do when they get naked together?”

 

Marlene's voice came from the public address. “You can come in now.”

 

Jason stepped towards his door. “Don't wait up,” he said to the younger man, wiggling his eyebrows. Jason stepped in and closed the door on Brad, who was attempting to get a look in the room. With the door closed, Jason started laughing.

 

Want to let us in on the joke?” Marlene asked.

 

Turning into the room, Jason stopped laughing. Marlene's dress fell to her knees. One arm was bare and the other was covered with a loose flowing sleeve. Her heels matched the color of her dress perfectly. Her sexy legs were covered with tan hose. She cocked her head to the side and gave Jason a shy smile.

 

That doesn't work on me,” he said and she laughed.

 

What do you think?” she asked, turning in place so that he could see all of it.

 

He took a few steps that carried him to her and looked down into her eyes. “I think you're beautiful.” She gave him a loving smile. She tilted her head to the side indicating Leah, who was standing in front of a mirror looking at her reflection. Leah brushed her hands down the front of the dress. She felt herself shivering, feeling Jason's appraising gaze move up her body.

 

I look just like your drawing,” she whispered.

 

Jason stepped up behind her and gave her a warm smile. “Not quite. Your hair isn't done up and you don't have any makeup on.” Leah gave her reflection a sad smile. Her hands played with the fabric of her dress. She lifted her exposed leg and dug the toe of her shoe into the carpet. “Are you okay?”

 

Leah turned to look at Jason. Tears were forming in her eyes. She reached up and pulled Jason down into a kiss. When she broke it, she said, “I'm sorry, Marlene. I shouldn't have done that.”

 

It's alright, Leah. With the way you look right now, I think he deserved it,” Marlene said. Leah stepped into Jason and hugged him. Marlene didn't miss the look on Jason's face. “So, what now?”

 

Leah pulled away from Jason and brightened. “Now, I think I'm going to my room and I'm going to call my bestie. And then I think I'm going to cry my eyes out in a girly fashion until I fall asleep.” She looked up at Jason. “Thank you,” she said quietly and turned to go.

 

I've got a better idea, if you're interested,” Jason said. Leah turned back. “Since I've got you two all dressed up, how about we go out to dinner together?”

 

Leah and Marlene looked at each other. “Wolfgang's,” they said in unison.

 

We'll need to do our makeup,” Marlene said.

 

And do something with our hair,” Leah added. “My room?” she asked Marlene as she was going out the door.

 

Nodding, she said, “I'll catch up with you in a minute. I need to get a few things.” Leah nodded and left.

 

You want to explain that look?” Marlene asked Jason. He raised his eyebrow in question. “The look Leah didn't see when she was hugging you.”

 

That could have gone worse,” he replied.

 

She's hurting, Jason, and she's confused. And you keep doing nice things for her.” Marlene walked up to him and ran her fingers along his jaw.

 

Do you want me to stop?”

 

Jason, she's our friend. If you stop doing nice things for her that will make me angry, and you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.”

 

Jason lowered himself to kiss her. When Marlene broke the kiss, he said, “I've seen you angry. I much prefer you... interested.

 

She smiled. “Later. After dinner. Dessert, maybe.” She turned and took her jewelry case off the dresser. “Right now, I have to catch up to Leah. You get us a table and get cleaned up.”

 

I love you, Miss Palmer,” he said when she was opening the door.

“I love you, too, Mr. Scott.”

 

When the door closed, a flash of crimson left a ring box in his hand. His fingers curled around it as if he were going to throw it. He shook his head and growled. Another crimson flash and the box was gone just as suddenly as it had appeared. Jason's hands started loosening his tie.

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Fears

 

“Lights, Mentor. Low please,” Marlene said. The lights of the room came up to the requested setting. She slipped the shoulder of her dress down and immediately started fighting a losing battle with it to get her arm free.

 

“Let me help you with that,” Jason said. With a crimson flash her green dress disappeared leaving her standing in heels, stockings and panties. Another crimson flash and Jason hung her dress up on its hanger.

 

“Thank you,” she replied. Marlene stepped to the dresser and pulled out Jason's Federation hockey jersey. She pulled that on and stared into the eyes of her reflection for a moment. She wrapped her arms about herself. She caught Jason smiling at her. A smile she couldn't bring herself to return.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked, slipping his arms around her.

 

Marlene stepped away from him and waved him off. “I'm just exhausted.” She picked up the remote and dropped herself on the couch, drawing her legs up. She started channel surfing.

 

Jason joined her on couch. His fingers brushed her leg and he lifted one, then the other, slipping her shoes off. She pulled her legs back under her. Click, an infomercial, click, a late news cast, click, an old sitcom, click... “You want to tell me what's bothering you?” She spared him a glance out of the corner of her eye. Click, click, click...

 

Marlene turned the set off and tossed the remote to the coffee table, where it bounced once and landed on the carpeted floor. “I'm trying...” She turned her head away from him, trying to hide the tears she couldn't stop. “I'm trying to be understanding and supportive with Leah.”

 

Jason reached over and caressed her ankle. “I appreciate that.”

 

Pulling her legs up under the jersey, Marlene turned to face him. “On account of everything she went through.” She wiped at her eyes, but more tears fell. “I have never liked seeing you kiss another woman. Not even Sandy and she was my best friend. Every time...” Marlene rested her elbows on her knees and hid her face behind her forearms. “Every time you and Leah get in close proximity of each other, it's like the two of you are playing with fire. And I'm the one that's going to be burned!”

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It was still dark when Marlene awoke. She brushed her arm out and was dimly aware that she was lying down. She had expected to still be in Jason's arms on the couch. Her head rested on her pillow. Jason must have gotten tired of holding her and put her to bed. She sighed. She listened for any noise, but the room was silent. Marlene found herself to still be emotionally drained from the previous evening. “Jason?” she called, not too loudly, to the darkness and listened. Still no sounds emerged. “Mentor... No. Never mind.” Marlene pulled Jason's pillow to herself. Clutching that, she lay and watched the raindrops running down the window reflect the lights of the city in ever-changing patterns.

 

Some time had passed. The darkness of night was slowly transforming into what would be a gray, rainy day. The door swung open for a moment, and then swung closed. Marlene lay still. She heard something being set on a table and then she closed her eyes, feeling Jason's hand rub her back.

 

I'm sorry, Beautiful. I meant to be back before you woke up.”

 

I'm in bed alone.” She heard fabric rustling and a chill breeze slipped under the covers. She shivered and then Jason pressed up against her. She pressed herself tightly against him. “Where did you go?”

 

He kissed her lightly on the shoulder. “I laid you down, figuring letting you stretch out would be more comfortable. I went and made breakfast.”

 

I was comfortable with you holding me. Why didn't you lay down with me?”

 

Because if I fall asleep I think I'm pretty much done for the day,” he told her.

 

She watched drops of rain race down the window. “It would be a good day to lay in bed together.”

 

Jason smiled. “As long as it's with you, any day is good day to lay in bed.”

 

Marlene rolled over and threw a leg over him, hooking it behind his knee. His fingers caressed her thigh above her stocking. “I'm sorry,” she said quietly.

 

Brushing hair from her green eyes, he asked her, “For what?”

 

Last night.”

 

He kissed her forehead. “Except for you being upset, I rather enjoyed last night. I had two beautiful women to keep me company and then I got to hold you for most of the night.”

 

It was a moment of weakness.”

 

It was obviously something that has been bothering you for a while. I'm sorry for that.” He lifted her chin until he could see her eyes. “Let's not ever let it go that far again. Okay?” She nodded and snuggled back down.

 

Have we gotten our schedules for the day?” she asked.

 

Jason wrapped his arms around her. “Yeah. We get fifteen minutes for a morning coffee break to go over the nightly reports. Then Legal is blocked out for an hour and a half as a prelude to the meeting with the families of the victims. After that, they get the run of the commissary and we get lunch on the fly and the reports of whatever has been happening while we were in meeting.”

 

Can we play hooky?”

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Perusing the report for the afternoon meeting, Marlene brought her planner up on her monitor. A look of consternation crossed her face when she saw that her meeting was canceled. “What the hell?” As she watched, her late afternoon meeting was marked “rescheduled”. “Son of a bitch.” She ran her fingers over her keyboard, trying to readjust her schedule. One after another, every meeting she had scheduled for the next day was marked “rescheduled”.

 

Marlene jabbed a button on her intercom. “Sarah, come in here, please.”

 

Within moments, her personal assistant opened the office door and stepped inside. “Yes, Miss Palmer?”

 

“What's going on? My schedule for today and tomorrow has suddenly been cleared.” She tried to flip the page to the following week and it did not respond. “And I can't even look at next week.”

 

“No, Ma'am.”

 

Closing the now unnecessary report, Marlene said, “That's it? You have no idea? You're supposed to be my assistant, Sarah. How can this happen without you knowing about it?”

 

“I was told to tell you to direct any inquires to Mr. Scott,” Sarah said quietly.

 

“I see.” Marlene gave Sarah a hard look. “All right, Sarah. You may go.” She pushed the button on the intercom for Jason's office.

 

“Miss Palmer? How may I help you?” a girl's voice answered. Jason had to make do with someone from secretarial. Jessica was still in California helping her brother's family settle.

 

“I need to speak with Mr. Scott,” she said.

 

“He's in a meeting,” the girl replied.

 

* * * * *

 

Since Jason's current assistant was away from her desk at the moment, Marlene passed it by without slowing. She opened the door to Jason's office to find Sharon Knight speaking to him.

 

“...in your usual spot. I had everything transferred that you requested.” She leaned over the desk for a moment and reached forward. Jason took whatever it was she set on it before Marlene could see.

 

“Jason, we need to talk.”

 

He smiled at her. “Is there a problem?”

 

“I had two meetings this afternoon. One was canceled and the other was rescheduled. All my meetings for tomorrow have been rescheduled and my computer isn't responding to anything. I asked Sarah about it, and she told me that she was directed to send me to you.” Marlene, so used to being in control, was frustrated.

 

“I see,” Jason said. Marlene couldn't help but feel a smile was being held back. “Where's your phone?”

 

A look of confusion passed over her face. “My phone?” she asked quietly. “It's on my desk.”

 

“And your laptop?” Jason questioned further.

 

Marlene knew the signs, but she couldn't believe that Jason would do such a thing. “It's... it's in my office.” She crossed her arms. “Why?”

 

“I'll go secure them,” Knight said.

 

“Secure...? Jason, what are you doing?” Fear passed through Marlene. “Jason, it is you, isn't it?” a tremble of fear in her voice.

 

Jason swiveled his chair out and rose. Stepping out from behind his desk, he said, “It's me, Marlene. Look at your stone.” Marlene tugged a chain out from the collar of her blouse to find the stone hanging from it glowing.

 

Her mien changed. “This isn't funny. What's going on?”

 

He quirked a smile at her. “First things first,” he said, drawing up close to her. Jason's hands went to either side of her face, cupping it, and brought his lips to hers. Marlene couldn't help but press herself against him. His arm went around her and she wasn't fully aware of him lifting her or one shoe slipping free. She was aware of his hand caressing her leg from foot to the hem of her skirt when he sat on the office couch.

 

She was breathless by the time the kiss ended. “What happened to the rules about hanky-panky in the office?” she teased.

 

“I'm on good terms with the owner. I don't think he'll fire either of us,” Jason told her seriously.

 

“Want to tell me what's going on?”

 

“Short answer?” Marlene nodded. “You're being kidnapped. Now you can come along quietly, or you can make things difficult.”

 

She cocked up an eyebrow at that. “And what happens if I make things difficult?” she asked with an amused smile.

 

“Then I throw you over my shoulder and let everyone in the office check out your legs,” he teased.

 

“Hmm. Tempting, but I think I'll go along quietly and keep my dignity in check.” She gave him a quick kiss. “I need my coat and purse. I'll have to check a few things. I might need my briefcase.” She rose off his lap.

 

“No,” he told her in all seriousness. “Coat and purse. No phone. No computer. No briefcase. Absolutely nothing related to work.” Jason stood up after her and snatched her shoe off the floor.

 

“Can I have my shoe?” she asked with her hand out for it.

 

Jason smiled. “No. I'm going to hold on to it to make sure you come back.” Marlene laughed and took off her other shoe. She tossed it to Jason. On stocking feet she went out the door.

 

“Looks like someone is violating dress code,” Sarah teased when Marlene got back to her own office.

 

“So report me,” she sniped back in good humor.

 

Leaving her office with coat and purse, she turned to Sarah. “Monday, you and I need to talk about this.”

 

“Yes, Miss Palmer,” Sarah said. Marlene turned away. “Of course, that assumes you'll be capable of remembering that you wanted to talk to me come Monday.” Marlene turned back with an amused smile. “Enjoy your weekend, Marlene.”

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Want to talk about it?” Ash asked as she stepped into the kitchen.

 

Jason was pulling bowls and various spices from a cupboard. “Talk about what?”

 

Well, that would be the first answer, wouldn't it?” She pulled an apple from a fruit bowl and wiped it on her shirt. “You seem to do a lot of thinking when you make meals. I assume it has something to do with that brief that Marlene kept you from looking at.”

 

Where's the pepper?” Ash pulled it from a cupboard and tossed it to him. “That brief is the preliminary report on the bombing of the research lab.”

 

Ash's brow furled. “Bombing? It wasn't an accident?” Jason took the brief from where he had set it and slid it towards Ash. “Want to give me a summary?”

 

No. Read it. I want your impression without coloring you with my bias of it,” he told her.

 

Jason focused on making dinner while Ash read through the report. Ash paused in her reading. “Where did you get this?”

 

Captain Stone dropped it by,” he told her.

 

Cocking her head to the side, she gave Jason a hard look. “If anyone finds out that he gave this to you, it could cost him his job.”

 

If he stops being a cop, he'll be offered a job. Stone knows I have it and you know I have it. I am going to have an internal audit done of security. Maybe Knight can figure out how the bomber got into that lab without being detected.” Nodding her head, Ash went back to reading the report.

 

Ash cocked her head to the side. “Found within the blast radius, see figure yadda yadda, were pieces of a scorched playing card. All pieces cataloged were from the same card, a Jack of Spades manufactured by not important. It was the only playing card found in the area. Research into known signatures of bomb makers shows that incorporating a Jack of Spades into the housing of a bomb points to one Jonathan Dalton, a former special forces demolitions expert.” Ash stared at Jason as he rolled fish steaks through the spice melange he had concocted. “Black Jack.” Jason nodded. “You think Bauer is behind it?”

 

If Black Jack made the bomb, I'm not saying he's the one that planted it, but with an ego like his, I'd have to say that he'd want to do it himself. But if he made the bomb, it stands to reason that there are three possibilities. The first one is that Anton had him do it. That leads to questions of what does Anton gain by having a research lab blown up. I think it's fairly safe to assume that Anton didn't have it done.

 

That leads us to the second possibility. What if Bauer had it done? In my book, he's already pretty much certifiable. He doesn't need a reason beyond inconveniencing me.” Jason took a baking sheet of crusted fish and set it aside. “The third possibility is that Black Jack was hired and it is industrial sabotage. If that is the case, then I need to start looking closely at what was being researched in that particular lab.”

 

You don't know offhand?” Ash asked.

 

He started peeling down a clove of garlic. “The company is a big place. Some projects don't come up to me or Marlene unless there's a problem. There is a chain of command in place. Lab managers. department heads, directors, and so on.”

 

But you don't think it was straight up industrial sabotage.”

 

Jason started mashing and grinding the garlic. “Keep reading.”

 

Ash's finger traced through the line. “Also found where the bomb had been placed, undisturbed by the blast, showing the craftsmanship of the bomb maker, was a single crystal pawn.” Her finger tapped on the page. “Part of his twisted... why he had Jessica shot?”

 

Jason looked Ash in the eye. “So you agree with my assessment?” Ash slowly nodded. “You still think the son of a bitch shouldn't be killed?”

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“What's the game plan?” Nightwing asked. Brad held his mask in his hand. The eye shields kept flicking down and then back up.


 


“I'm working on it,” Kris said. “I'm not jumping in, so I get to play referee.”


 


Marlene stood holding Pulsar's hand and her head leaning against his arm. He had his gloves and mask tucked into his belt. “Just do me a favor, Kris, and engage the safeties.”


 


Kris looked at the woman out of the corner of her eye and gave her a smile. “That was my plan, Marlene. Jenny is planning on going in.”


 


Looking up at Jason, Marlene said with a smile, “You don't get bloody and I've got a surprise for you later.”


 


He puller her around in front and slipped his arms behind her. “I love your surprises,” he said before kissing her. He was still looking in her eyes when the door behind him opened.


 


“Whoa,” Nightwing said. “Very Sarah Bryant, Ash.”


 


“How does it fit?” Jason asked keeping his eyes locked with Marlene's.


 


“I guess that answers who put it in my kit,” Ash said teasingly. “Fits good. With the shoulders bare, I feel like I can move. What's so special about it?”


 


Jason turned to her. “The under layer is Nomex with the upper layer being Kevlar. In between is an Omnium mesh. And before you say anything, Dad was the one that arranged it,” he said, turning his attention back to Marlene.


 


“I wasn't going to say anything,” she said with a grin.


 


“Your dad?” Ash was confused.


 


“Once Omnium sets, it's pretty much what it is. Dad wanted to make sure you'd be able to move. The main thing with that outfit is that it's pretty durable with that coating over the Kevlar to help make it cut-resistant,” Jason explained to her. “It should be able to stop a knife. I'm not saying it won't hurt, but the outfit shouldn't be cut.”


 


“My skin can stop a knife blade,” Ash said.


 


“Hey, Ash,” Dani teased, “I think the point is that you won't be fighting naked.”


 


“At least when it happens I don't have to worry about the clothes binding,” Ash said defensively.


 


“No more public indecency charges,” Kris teased.


 


“That only happened once!”


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Marlene cast a glance at her watch laying on the bathroom counter. She was tempted to run more hot water into the tub to bring the temperature back up to a more relaxing level, but she had plans for tonight. She closed the brief she had sitting open in front of her on a bathtub caddy.


 


The business proposition offered by Frost Industries sounded good and the numbers they were offering seemed more than reasonable, but there was something, something that she couldn't really put a finger on, that made the whole thing turn sour in her mind. Normally on nights like this, Jason adamantly refused to discuss business with her. He had made it very clear, their date nights were for her and himself. She debated violating that.


 


She slid the caddy easily down the tub and pulled herself from the cooling water. “You can drain it, Mentor.” The drain released and the water and bubbles gurgled its way out. She dried herself and wrapped the towel around herself. Marlene cracked open the door to allow what little steam remained to vent.


 


Gathering her things from the counter, Marlene gave her fog-dimmed reflection a wistful smile. Almost as an afterthought she snagged the brief off the caddy before heading out the door and up the stairs to the sleeping area she shared with Jason.


 


She sent the brief spinning through the air, to land on the bed next to the gray skirt she had picked out to wear. Putting the proposal from her mind, she reached for the pink seamed stockings draped over her armoire.


 


Having gotten dressed, Marlene was putting the finishing touches on her makeup when she heard the door to the loft slide open. She gave her reflection a smile and reached for the necklace that for the last fifteen years, she had been inseparable from. Something was dropped noisily on the dining table and Marlene shot a look at the door that led to the stairs. She slipped the necklace back on and checked her reflection one more time. The amethyst star Angelique had given her looked out of place. Sorry, Angel. Tonight is just me and Jason. She reached up to remove the necklace again when the star faded from view. That was weird. She shook her head.


 


She heard the refrigerator open. Marlene cast a glance at a full-length mirror and saw that her seams were straight, the skirt was hanging properly, and that her pink silk blouse was caught in the belt she had put on. A cabinet in the kitchen closed loudly. She cast an annoyed look at the door and straightened her blouse. Marlene slipped down the stairs in stocking feet.


 


What are you looking for?” she asked Jason. Cabinets stood open around the kitchen. He turned to look at her. His head cocked to the side. For long seconds he was silent. And then, “What are you doing here?”


 


Reaching up to close a cabinet, Marlene said, “What kind of question is that?”


 


I wasn't looking for anything,” he mumbled.


 


Marlene leaned back against the counter. “Are you okay?”


 


I'm... fine,” he said.


 


Marlene gave him a concerned look and then smiled. She lifted one foot and pressed the sole against the cabinet door. “What do you think?” she asked lifting her arms to the sides, hands palms up. His eyes roamed her body from the foot up. When his gaze reached her belt, his head cocked to the side again. His eyes moved up and locked on hers. Again, he was silent for a long moment. A smile slowly worked its way out of him. “You look stunning.”


 


So,” she asked coyly, “what's the plan for tonight?”


 


Jason checked his watch, his finger tapping on the crystal. When he spoke, it was with more self-assurance. “I have a late meeting. It came up rather suddenly.”


 


Marlene crossed her arms and gave him a hard look. “With whom?”


 


Julia Frost.”


 


Uh huh. Does this have anything to do with her proposal? I want to talk to you about it”


 


Jason shrugged. “I don't know. She called, said she was in town and wanted to meet with me.”


 


When, exactly, is this meeting supposed to take place?”


 


Jason moved to step past Marlene. “In a half hour. I need to change.” He slipped up the stairs. Marlene watched him go. She was sorely tempted to follow. She sighed and attempted to get her thoughts in order. She looked at the dining table and the bag of groceries that had spread its contents across the surface. She set to putting those away to give herself time to think.


 


Two movies peeked out from the bag and Marlene pulled them out. The Notebook and Somewhere in Time. Marlene smiled to herself despite her mood. She set those aside. A roast, onions, potatoes, carrots, and fresh green beans all found places in the refrigerator or pantry. Returning to the bag, Marlene found a red rose and small box, several inches square, crushed and covered in albumen. Almost an entire carton of eggs had broken and spilled in the bag.


 


She turned at the sound of Jason descending the stairs. He was settling a black suit coat over a royal blue silk dress shirt. “We need to talk.”


 


I have to go. We can talk tomorrow at the office.” He pulled down a long coat and draped it over his arm before sliding open the steel door.


 


Jason?”


 


Tomorrow, Miss Palmer. At the office.”


 


With the closing of the door, Marlene slipped down into one of the chairs. Her fingers tapped heavily against the tabletop. “Mentor?” There was no answer. Marlene's gaze flicked to the computer monitor hanging high on one wall. In a font that could be easily read from where she sat, were the words “Anomalous scan detected. Conducting Level 4 diagnostic sweep.” “Fine,” Marlene said under her breath. “Don't be available to talk.”


 


Her eyes went back to the table and the crushed box caught her attention. She pulled the top open and pulled out an object wrapped in tissue. Marlene carefully peeled the paper away from a spun glass rose. It would have been beautiful if it wasn't broken. Marlene sat and wondered if it was an omen. She stood up, taking the bag from the table and dropping it in the trash on her way by up the stairs.


 


She gave Jason's clothes a withering glance where they lay strewn across the floor. Marlene took her phone from where it lay on the dresser. She scanned through the list of numbers and selected one. Putting the phone to her ear, she sat on the bed cross-legged.


 


“Hey! What are you up to?” She ran her hand down one leg and tucked her ankles closer. “Then it's okay if I ask you for some company tonight?” Marlene felt a tear slide its way down her cheek and she wiped it away with the palm of her hand. “No. He... went out. Said it was a business meeting.” She ran her fingers through her hair and looked out the skylight over the bed. “That's fine. The two of you are better than alone tonight.” Marlene's fingers traced the line of her necklace until she came to Angelique's eight-pointed star. “Weird,” she said quietly. “No. I haven't. I didn't know if I was going to be taken out or have dinner cooked. From the bag that was tossed on the table, I'd think that cooking was the plan.” She tightened her grip on the star until the points dug into her palm. “That's fine. I'll see you two when you get here. Thanks, Trese.”


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The Tesla Roadster pulled up in front of the The Four Seasons hotel. Jason stepped out and adjusted his coat against the autumn chill. The valet took his keys in exchange for a yellow slip of paper. Jason made his way into the lobby. His gaze settled on the young woman behind the counter. Her dark hair and olive complexion spoke of the Mediterranean. Jason put his most charming smile into place and moved to the desk.

 

Can I help you, sir?” she asked with a smile. Her voice was accented. Greece, a passing thought went through his mind.

 

Jason Scott. To see Julia Frost,” he told her.

 

Her fingers danced across the keyboard. “Let me check. Yes. Miss Frost is staying in the Ty Warner Penthouse. I will call up and announce you, Mr. Scott.”

 

That would be much appreciated.” His eyes held hers while she made the call.

 

She lay the phone back on it's cradle. “You are expected,” she said returning his smile.

 

I would also like a room. Something with a nice view of the city.” Her fingers began going through the process of booking a room. “Tell me, Jasmine,” Jason charmingly said reading her name off her tag, “what time are you free this evening?”

 

Jasmine gave him a warm smile. “My shift ends at ten. How long will you be staying with us?”

 

Monday, I think. Yes. Monday will do nicely,” he said. “I would like a bottle... no, make that a magnum of champagne, sent up at 10:30 along with fresh strawberries. And I would like you to be there no later than eleven.”

 

I am flattered, Mr. Scott, but the company policy prohibits fraternization with the customers.”

 

Jason's charming smile never wavered. “So don't tell them. I certainly won't. I'll make it worth your while.”

 

Jasmine looked around to see if anyone was watching or listening. “What would I have to do?”

 

Wear something interesting. Hose, heels, dress. Be interesting company for the evening.”

 

I don't know...” she said lowly.

 

Eleven o'clock, Jasmine. My room,” he said with his charming smile. “Don't make me have to come looking for you,” he said with a wink. He headed off for the elevator that would take him to the penthouse.

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Just waiting on the game plan, Teke. Oh, hey! Look who else got a new outfit,” Dani said looking Jenny over. Jenny blushed. She had on what looked like a medium blue leotard over a lighter blue, almost white, body suit, with boots and gloves that matched the body. Her hair was pinned up and a full mask was in her hands.

 

It feels weird,” she said.

 

You look pretty hot,” Dani said with a wink at the girl.

 

Hey! That's my sister you're ogling!” Nightwing snarled.

 

I don't know, Brad. She looks pretty damned sexy to me.” Charley glared at Nightwing in challenge.

 

Enough!” Kris snapped. “Brad, you've ogled every woman in the building whenever you've gotten the chance, so don't you think that you're being just a little bit hypocritical? And your sister is wearing more than some of us do.”

 

Pulsar moved so that Marlene was in front of him and put his arm around her shoulder. She reached up and put her hands on his arm. “How does it fit?” he asked her.

 

Jenny shrugged. “Like I said it feels weird.”

 

I asked how it fits. Not how it feels. You'll get used to it. It's a light-weight armor. It will stop small calibers. I wouldn't chance anything heavy if you can avoid it. I took your abilities into account.”

 

She nodded. “It fits okay. It's similar to what I wore doing floor exercises. It just feels... weird.”

 

You'll get used to it,” Trese told her reassuringly.

 

Did you go over the layout sheet, Jenny?” Ash asked.

 

She nodded again. “There's a zippered pouch in each glove. A compartment in the outer side of each boot,” she pointed to indicate it. “There are hidden clasps here,” she pointed at the front of her hips, “for a belt, or for a backpack if I so choose, using the hidden clasps on my shoulders, as well.” She smiled at them.

 

What else?” Kris asked.

 

I've got my hair done up tight, to fit under the mask, so that it can't be grabbed in battle by an enemy. I've got a communicator,” which she pulled out of one of her gloves and put it in place, “which will be held in place by the mask.”

 

Ash nodded. “Anything else?”

 

Jenny was thoughtful for a moment and then shook her head. “That's all I can think of.”

 

Alright, then,” Ash said. “Get your mask on and let's get down to the Ready.”

 

Jenny gave them a nervous smile and pulled the mask on over her head. She picked her head up and looked at Ash. Her world tilted and she stumbled. Charley held her steady. Jenny pulled her mask back off and said sheepishly, “And the lenses are ground to scrip. I'll be right back. I need to take out my contacts.” She turned, stepped past Charley and jogged down the hall.

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Water sluiced through Jason's short cropped hair and over his body. The water was hot; just short of scalding. He stood with his hands braced against the shower wall. Already he felt the knots in his back and neck loosening under the heat.

 

Hearing the door open and feeling the chill of cooler air, let Jason know someone had come in. He lifted his face to the streaming water. “Are you okay?” It wasn't a voice Jason was expecting. In fact, being in the shower with an “occupied” sign on the door, he wasn't expecting anyone.

 

“I'm fine,” he said turning around. “You do know that there's another shower right next door, don't you?”

 

Ashleigh gave him a shy smile. “I wanted this one.” She slipped the lock into place. Jason let the water run over his head and stared at the blonde woman. He didn't bother trying to cover himself. Her hair was cut in a short shag. Her sapphire eyes threatened to drag him in. She had on a short robe and her legs were bare. “Can I ask you a question?” Jason gave the merest hint of a shrug. “Are you... seeing anyone?” Jason didn't respond. “Dating? Engaged?” An echo of old pain, not yet fully healed crossed over his face.

 

“No. There's no one.”

 

Ashleigh gave him a nervous smile. Her fingers slowly pulled at the sash of her robe. “If you want me to go, I will. I was thinking maybe, I could wash your back and you could wash mine.” She opened the robe and let it slip from her shoulders.

 

She felt his gaze travel her naked body as if it were an electric touch. She quivered, sucked in her breath and took the plunge. It was all of three steps to join him under the falling water. She smiled up at him and said, “I'm usually not so forward.”

 

“Ashleigh...”

 

“Just 'Ash' is fine.” She reached up and pulled him down, her lips meeting his for the first time.

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So, if Jason has already moved ahead with his plans, how, exactly, are you planning on finding him?” Ash asked Spellbinder.

 

I don't plan on finding him, Ash. I expect Jason to point out where he is. Exactly.” Spellbinder gave the blonde woman a small, amused smile.

 

Ash was confused. She looked around to the rest of her teammates and then back to the sorceress. “I don't get it.”

 

It's simple, really.” Spellbinder used the butt of her staff and pointed it towards Ash, who gave it a wary look. Spellbinder slipped it beneath the chain around Ash's neck and lifted her pendant free. “I'm going to use you, Kris, Dani, Trese, and Warren. Between the five of you, I'll know exactly where he is. It will only take about five minutes. Then I'll use him as a beacon and send us to him. I will need a space big enough to do that, though.”

 

Training room, Addie. Plenty big enough,” Warren said. “How long to set up?”

 

Spellbinder thought for a few moments. “Give me a half hour to set up the circle. That will give you all time to get ready.”

 

Ready for what?” Trese asked.

 

Things are moving where Jason is involved. He has Kaneda and Titania working with him. If he is slipping into darkness the way Lisa suggests, then we may only have one shot at this. You need to figure out who is going to talk him in off the ledge and that person needs to figure out how they're going to do it.”

 

He's my best friend,” Warren said quietly. “I should be the one to talk to him.” Standing up, Kris gave him a long look. “What?” Kris gave him a sad smile and the winged woman walked out into the hall. “What was that all about?” Warren asked quietly.

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“Oh, wow,” Lisa said quietly when Dove walked into the training room. White body armor covered her; white knee-high boots with guards, gloves that covered her arms almost to her elbows, and a loose hooded cowl shaded her eyes. In her hands she carried a long, heavy bladed spear.

 

“Kris...” Warren started, but seemed to have lost what he had intended to say.

 

She gave him a gentle smile. “It's okay, Warren. I know what I'm doing.”

 

“You sure?” Ash asked. “I'd hate to think you've given up on your oaths.”

 

Dove shook her head gently. “I haven't, Ash. I know what I'm about.”

 

Giving the winged woman in white an appraising look, Spellbinder said, “Kris, I want you here.” She pointed out on the outside of the circle she had made in chalk on the floor. “Stand here and face the circle.” Kris moved to where the sorceress indicated and noticed the faint pentagram inside the circle.

 

Spellbinder moved around the circle counter clockwise to the next point of the star. She closed her eyes, said something under her breath and when she looked up, her eyes seemed to give off light. With her Witch Sight active she looked on the others. She thought for a bit. “Warren. You here, please. At the right hand. Face the circle.” Warren moved to where she indicated while she moved on to the next point.

 

Without breaking her stride, she said, “Dani, here. Same as the others.” She stopped at the fourth point and turned her gaze from Trese to Ash. “Well, that's an interesting development.”

 

Trese looked nervous. Ash shrugged. “Something wrong, Addie?” she asked.

 

“Just a development that I hadn't expected. Nothing I can't work with. Trese, here, please. Ash, you take the left hand point.” They stepped to where they were wanted. Spellbinder moved behind Kris. The incantation started slowly, quietly, almost like a chant. Spellbinder moved, almost dancing, around her friends. The butt of her staff left a light blue trail of magic that settled into a circle around the five and the pentagram.

 

Light shone from the pendant Dove had hanging from a black choker. When Spellbinder made her way behind Warren, the light of the pendant shot out like a laser beam to Warren's ring. Spellbinder's song and dance continued until she was behind Dani. Light shot across the pentagram from Dove's pendant to Dani's. Spellbinder continued. A beam of light snapped into being between Dove and Trese, and between Trese and Warren.

 

Spellbinder continued on to close the outer circle. When she was done a crimson beam went from one stone to another, binding all five into a star. Warren brought his hand up unconsciously so that the star was level around chest high. Spellbinder passed through into the circle. The beams she passed through never broke, maintaining their connection as she passed.

 

In the center of the circle, in the heart of the star, she set her staff to rest. When she took her hand from it, it remained standing upright. As one, the beams snapped to the crystal set into her staff, causing it to glow red. She finished the incantation and reached for the staff. Information came to her in that moment. “Arena est a pythonibus,” she said quietly.

 

'Arena eat a python on a bus'?” Nightwing asked, confusion evident.

 

Warren shrugged. “It must run through the Congo.”

 

It isn't in the Congo,” Spellbinder said with some annoyance. “It's Outside. It means 'Arena of the Wizards',” she explained. “It is known by many different names, but that is the one that I learned of it by. If Jason is there, someone must have shown him a gate. I question who and I hate to find out why.”

 

Why does it sound like that 'outside' was capitalized?” Warren asked.

 

Because it is, Warren. It is in a pocket that is outside of the astral. It is outside of time and space as you know it.”

 

It's an arena. Means it should be a good place for a brawl,” Nightwing said.

 

No!” Spellbinder, Dove and Ash said in unison.

 

We aren't looking for a fight, Brad,” Kris said. “We're looking to keep one from happening. Warren, get changed. Brad, if you can't do this, say so and you can remain here.”

 

There are rules for the Arena. Say nothing. Do nothing. Everything will be weighed there,” Spellbinder told them. “Who is going along for the ride? Step inside the circle.” Jenny pulled her mask over her head and slipped her contact case into a glove pocket. She stepped next to Spellbinder without any hesitation. Trese slipped her jacket off and tossed it to the side, leaving her in her red and blue uniform.

 

If you are not looking to do battle, I will remain behind,” Warstar rumbled deeply. Spellbinder nodded at him with a tight-lipped smile.

 

Lisa's eyes flashed solid white. “I dare not go, Addie,” she said quietly. Her eyes shifted back to normal.

 

I understand, Lisa,” Spellbinder told her gently. “Brad? You in or out?” Nightwing inhaled deeply, held it, then let it out. He snapped his cowl into place. He crossed into the circle. “Alright,” she said letting out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. “Face outward. How we are here is how we will appear there.”

 

Okay, everyone. Hold on.” Spellbinder chanted and the outer circle began glowing again.

 

Power surged and blue lightning flashed. When the glare faded and Lisa could see again, she and Warstar were alone in the training room. “Godspeed,” she whispered.

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