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Sound came back slowly, muted. He heard his own heart beating, then the feeble scraping of a monitor, either trying to stand or get its weapon back. His head was all but empty. Jason never realized how alone that made him feel.

 

Surveying the carnage, fallen bodies of monitors, two of the Praetor's guard, Trese, Kris, and Elyse. A few monitors were left standing between him and Aaron. In more a fit of pique than necessity, Jason pointed his hand in their direction, splayed his fingers, and cut them all down with a single burst.

 

It seems like the only damned thing I do is survive.

 

Making his way to Aaron, Jason knelt by the younger man. Feebly, Aaron grabbed Jason's hand, pressing something into it. “You prom...” Jason hung his head. He laid Aaron's hand on his chest and looked at what he had been given. Kate's wedding ring and the chain Aaron had worn it on.

 

Kris was the next closest. Jason went to her. She was lying face down. Gently, Jason rolled her over. Her eyes were open, staring into the nothingness of death. He closed them and kissed her gently on the forehead.

 

The battle pike she had used lay nearby. It wasn't the one she had carried for years, but that of Hydron, a member of the Elite Guard, and leader of the Praetor's personal guard. Jason picked it up. He used it to get to his feet. The prongs of the trident head collapsed into the shaft. The shaft retracted until it was about six inches long. Jason disappeared it.

 

The next closest was Elyse, the blue-skinned alien woman. An artist, a common interest that had drawn her and Jason together all those long years ago when the Guardians were fairly new. Arelysan Ralach, artist, teacher, gentle soul. But for all that, she too had been a member of the Elite Guard. She had also been a rebel.

 

Jason knelt. She still had one blade in hand. The other nearby where it had landed when she had fallen. Honor blades made of some crystalline substance from her home world. “I was honored to call you friend.” He sheathed the first blade and retrieved the second. It slid easily into its case. Without releasing the closure, Jason added the harness and sheathed blades to his collection.

 

He turned to Trese. When he got to her and looked down, for a moment he saw the 16-year-old runaway that reached up and put her hand in his. Jason knelt. “I'm sorry, Trese. We failed. When it mattered the most, we failed.”

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Jason brushed the hair off her face. She had nothing to offer him except for her clothes. Jason refused to take anything except his memories.

 

Faint footsteps got his attention. Stiletto heels on a hard floor. The pattern of them tugged at his memory. They drew closer.

 

Putting his hand on Trese's shoulder, Jason whispered, “Goodbye.” He stood up and faced the door.

 

The figure was silhouetted by distant light in the hall. It was definitely feminine. Light from the portal room first illuminated her black boots. They came up to her knees. From there it appeared as if dark hosiery covered her legs. Her hips were revealed by a French cut black suit. Coming into the room, Jason saw that the suit was cut low in the front. The sheer bodysuit underneath covered everything to her neck. Wrist bands with rings that matched the one that hung low on her throat made Jason think of bondage. Her hair was black. Her lips were painted black. Pushing sixty, Leah Capwell still looked to be 25. When Jason looked in Leah's eyes he felt again the charge he had felt the first time he had looked in her eyes on a runway of a New York fashion show. His body reacted to her.

 

She smiled an amused smile and stepped closer.

 

You could have flown down the hall instead of announcing your presence,” he said.

 

A waste of power,” She moved, sensual, seductive, drawing closer. “You leave your guard down around women you find beautiful.”

 

I'm not the one that doesn't have her shield up.”

 

Do I need it?” She was easily within his arm's reach. Jason's eyes traveled her body until he was once again gazing into her eyes. “I dress for the Praetor's pleasure,” she said. “You are not him.”

 

No.”

 

Leah gently laid her hand against his chest. She cast a glance at the fallen, picking out Jason's compatriots. “This venture has been costly.” When she looked back at him she smiled. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. “I haven't felt that since the first time I saw you. A lifetime ago. When did you see me last?”

 

January. We spent the weekend together.” He laid his hand atop hers. “You stopped in as a layover between modeling jobs.” His hands moved to the restraint on her wrist. He removed it and cast it aside. “Tuesday, we stopped in at work. We checked on Melner's progress.”

 

Warren made me sit through enough episodes of Star Trek and Stargate that even I know it's a bad idea.” That made Jason smile. “The accident.”

 

Yes.” Jason removed the second restraint and tossed it. He pulled her closer, feeling the warmth of her body against his. He kissed her, the jolt of electricity on his tongue was tantalizing. His hand moved beneath her hair finding her collar blocking his path. He disappeared that, as well. She pulled back. “If we keep this up we're going to give some monitors an eye-full.”

 

I am the Praetor's Inquisitor. No one is coming in until I go out. We don't have much time.”

 

Leah?”

 

She smiled. “I am no longer his creature. It seems whatever control he had over me ended when he departed. The cost has been high.” She pulled away from him. “Trese made this,” she said, indicating the reactor they had used to charge the portal.

 

Trese and Melner.”

 

Leah placed a hand on each lead to the transport device. “I am the Guardian of this gate. With my leave, you shall pass.” Machinery hummed. The field stabilizers lit up.

 

Leah?”

 

Smiling at him her impish smile. “I love you. Save me.”

 

Jason flew backward into the portal. The last thing he saw was Leah collapse on the reactor. Jason was completely alone in his own head.

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“Do you feel that?”

 

“Feel what?” Melner asked. Gauges on Melner's panel spiked. “Not again,” he muttered. “Incoming wormhole!”

 

If Leah hadn't been watching the transporter she would have smacked him. The field stabilizers lit up. “That's a lot of power,” she said, raising her hand against the glare.

 

When it faded, Jason was on his knees. “Leah?” He glanced around. “How long have I been gone?”

 

Approaching, Leah said, “About ninety minutes.” She noted that his clothes were different than when he departed. A different cut and style. “How long were you gone? Where did you go.”

 

Jason stood slowly. “How long? Decades. I thought I'd never see you again.” Leah smiled.

 

“Where did you go?” she asked again.

 

“The future.” Jason stepped off the dais. “I need to get out of here. Fresh air. Something.”

 

“I understand. Mr. Melner, could you have Mr. Scott's car called up, please. I don't think he's in any condition to drive at the moment.”

 

“Sure. Sure.” He picked up a phone, pressed a few buttons. “Have Mr. Scott's limo pulled around to Special Projects. Thank you.”

 

Leah slipped her arm around Jason. Leaning on her for support, the two of them left. “Decades?” Melner whispered, watching the two of them go.

 

* * * * *

Sitting behind his desk, Melner made notations in a journal, logging the day's events and readings. The hum of machinery brought him to his feet. “Not again!” Looking down at the transporter, watching the glare fade away, he found himself staring at Jason Scott. “Holy The Enemy Within!”

 

Melner! How long?”

 

How long? How long what? You just got back maybe a half hour ago! You left with Miss Capwell.”

 

Half an hour. They might still be close by.”

 

I'm calling security!” Melner screamed.

 

Don't! If you want to have a job tomorrow, don't. Did the other me talk to you at all?”

 

No. Just Miss Capwell.”

 

He may not have known you or had forgotten you.”

 

She wanted your car brought around. Neither of them is driving.”

 

Good enough.” Jason ran, slamming the doors open. “Out of the way!” he yelled at people in the hall.

 

Skidding around a corner, for a few moments no one was in sight. Jason appeared his team communicator, fit it around his ear and flicked it on. “Mentor, code Omega lockout.”

 

Sir? Whom am I to lock out?”

 

Leah. She may already be compromised.”

 

Compromised? By what?”

 

By me.”

 

I don't understand, sir. Leah is in the limo. With you. Scanning. I do not understand this.”

 

Redact security footage at my location.” Jason changed on the run and Pulsar took to the skies. “Worry about witnesses later.”

 

Yes, sir.”

 

Maintain a lock on me. Under the lockout add me to the list. Pick two of the others to unlock.”

 

But why?”

 

Mentor, you've already said it yourself. I am in the limo with Leah. There are two of me and the one not me is the enemy.”

 

Jason?”

 

Trese?”

 

Do you need help?”

 

Yes.”

 

I'm on my way!”

 

Negative!”

 

What? Why?” Trese's voice sounded hurt.

 

Goodbye. “Because I've already lost you once today.”

 

* * * * *

Leah looked at Jason and smiled. “So, no harm done and I'm to be in Vancouver on Thursday.”

 

Thursday?”

 

In two days. I have a job. You said you would have me flown up tomorrow.”

 

Yes. Quite right. I'm sorry. That was a long time ago for me.”

 

I can't imagine what that must be like.”

 

Jason stared at her unblinking. “There's a fog on my memory due to the passage of time. I do remember you.” Leah smiled. Jason slid closer. His hand went to her face, caressing her cheek, his fingers running along her jaw, lifting her chin. Jason claimed her mouth with his.

 

Leah lost herself in the kiss, enjoying the sensation of Jason caressing her body. His hand moved down her back, pulling her closer. It moved over her hip, tracing the curves of her butt, her thigh, until his hand met bare skin under the hem of her dress.

 

Jason's hand moved upward. His thumb on the inside of her thigh, forcing her legs apart. That part of her awareness that sensed when she was in danger started screaming at her.

 

No!” Leah pushed away. “No. Not like this. Not here. I want it to be something special.”

 

It will be special.”

 

Leah tried hard to manage a smile, not sure if she succeeded. “Later. Tonight. I'll wear something special. We'll lay a comforter in front of the fireplace like we do at the cabin. Then I'll be yours.”

 

Jason's eyes were hard. Leah was taken aback by the lack of compassion in them. “Yes. You will.” Jason smiled. It wasn't the charming smile she knew Jason usually used. “As you wish.” His attention went out the door window and he spoke to her no more.

 

* * * * *

When the limo rolled to a stop, a guard opened the door and stepped back. Jason stepped forth. “Ah. The old homestead.”

 

Halfway out the door, Leah said, “I'm sorry,” before throwing herself back into the car.

 

Pulsar slammed into Jason, taking the door off the car. Jason was dragged along the drive before being lifted, spun, and thrown. His own power flared, bring him under control. “This is different,” he said with an evil grin.

 

We aren't done!”

 

Aren't we? Your power can't hurt me! I am you! Only I'm like Jason 2.0. Stronger in every way.”

 

Hold your position!” someone screamed.

 

Shoot him!” Jason screamed.

 

Stand down, Knight!” Pulsar called out at the same time.

 

Dammit!” Knight yelled. “Hold fire!”

 

Jason moved in swinging. Pulsar made to block, but his aim was low. Jason smiled, then screamed when one of Elyse's honor blades cut into his arm. Pulsar swung. Jason's arm blocked. Power flared and the retracted battle pike slammed into his arm.

 

The staff extended. The tines unfolded, one of them slicing into Jason's temple and scalp, narrowly missing an eye. With a twist, Pulsar's leg slammed into Jason's side, throwing him back to the ground. The pike disappeared. Pulsar dropped to the ground.

 

An engine roared, brakes squealed, and Trese's Mustang ground to a halt.

 

It looks like I get to kill the little rebel again today,” Jason sneered. He cut loose with a blast that sent the limo tumbling towards the Mustang. Leah flew up out of the doorless opening. The limo was stopped from colliding with the Mustang by a purple barrier.

 

Not my car, asshole!” Trese called, getting out of her car.

 

Lightning ripped into Jason.

 

I told you to stay away,” Pulsar yelled.

 

Trese charged. “You need to explain to me how you lost me once already!”

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Kira watched from a distance as Jason moved along stalls. He had a messenger bag slung over one shoulder. She had watched when someone had tried taking it from him. In a few seconds she realized what would happen if Jason felt he had reason to hurt someone. The only people that moved like that were the monitors. Doctor Tyler said he wasn't one, but Kira wasn't assured.

 

Jason stopped at one stall and pointed at something behind the seller. Kira saw him glance her way and she ducked behind a box. After a moment she peeked out. Jason was holding something up to the seller whose eyes went wide. The seller, Kira wasn't sure who it was, it might have been Gummer, held up a hand with the fingers spread. Jason shook his head and held up one finger. “You learned haggling pretty quick,” she whispered.

 

Gummer, and she saw it was Gummer, dropped his head. Then he looked back up at Jason and held up four fingers. Something else caught Jason's attention and he pointed to it. Gummer nodded. He put his hand back up with four fingers up. Jason shook his head and held up three fingers. Jason said something and Gummer smiled and laughed. He nodded his head and took the items Jason had pointed out and rolled them up together.

 

Jason handed over whatever it was he had offered and pulled two more out of his bag. Gummer handed the bundle over to Jason. Jason put the collection into his bag. Something bothered Kira about that, but she couldn't figure out what it was.

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Wolfgang's, where the food is excellent, the spirits are great, and the service is superb. At least according to many of the food reviews the restaurant has received. The restaurant covers two floors. The lower floor is where most guests are seated. The upper floor is generally reserved for private gatherings. Such as the one Dr. Kristina Tyler arranged.

 

“Oh, I am so not looking forward to later,” Trese lamented.

 

Dani reached over and gave Trese's hand a quick squeeze. “It'll be okay, Trese. Just tell them that you're taking over and there'll be a new way of doing things from here on out.”

 

Trese smiled. “Yeah, somehow I don't quite see that going over too well.”

 

“Is there something wrong?” Kris asked.

 

“Jason. He raked one of the department heads over the coals. It was brutal.” After a moment, Trese added, “And I don't think it was entirely justified. I think it has more to do with Jason not sleeping properly than anything that was actually wrong.”

 

Kris frowned. “I plan on checking on him before you guys leave. One more thing to ask him about.”

 

“You all packed and ready to go?” Ash asked.

 

“Yeah,” Trese answered. “Not a lot that I absolutely have to take. Mostly things to do for the ten-odd hours I'll be a prisoner in the jet. Mr. Fluffy is laying on my bag ready to go.”

 

“Hey!” Dani objected. “I told you before, Mr. Fluffy is mine!”

 

Trese smiled and looked at Dani. “Yes, but he's my security blanket when you can't be.”

 

“Who the hell is Mr. Fluffy?” Brad asked while indicating his glass to the server.

 

“Well, I guess that's okay then,” Dani said with a smile. “He's my cat,” she said to Brad.

 

“I didn't know you had one,” he said while the server poured.

 

Slicing off a bit of her steak, Dani said, “There's lots about me you don't know.”

 

“So, what's everyone's plans for Christmas?” Ash asked. “I know some of us are supposed to be at Warren's.”

 

“Being a good little corporate master,” Trese said. “If everything goes well and I can sneak off, I'll be there.”

 

“You'd better be,” Dani said. “That room gets cold with only one person in it.”

 

Most laughed. “I don't think that'll be an issue,” Ash said.

 

“I've got two shows over the weekend. We're giving a special matinee for some school kids on Friday.”

 

“Sorry I'm going to miss them,” Trese said.

 

“What about you, Kris?”

 

“Me? Hospital. Single, uninvolved me will be working twelve to sixteen hours covering for the family oriented.”

 

“Leaving me alone for the holidays,” Kari lamented. “I picked up some volunteer work. Going to help Santa hand out presents to the underprivileged.” Kris smiled at her twin.

 

“Brad?”

 

Brad looked at his plate. “Debating between going to my parents' or locking myself in my room until after Christmas.”

 

Jenny gave him an annoyed look. “It won't be that bad.”

 

“Not for you and Stef. It never is. Or for Will, for that matter.”

 

Lisa Sheffield looked at Brad and frowned. For a moment her mask slipped and she showed concern for him. She was still angry with him. She turned her attention to Leah when she spoke.

 

“So, where is Jason this evening?” Leah smiled at the server when her glass was refilled. “I figured he'd be here.”

 

“Jason let me organize dinner,” Kris said. “That is the extent of his involvement in the holidays so far. As to where he is, he has a date tonight.”

 

“Oh,” Leah said quietly, looking at her wine glass.

 

“With anyone interesting?” Ash asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Who?”

 

“I can't say,” Kris said.

 

“Is it Charley? Is that why she isn't here?” asked Dani.

 

“Charley is...at something of a loss with the Witch being gone,” Ash said.

 

“It can't be that interesting,” Kari said. “It isn't with me.”

 

Kris gave Kari an annoyed look. “Remind me again who at this table has an issue with Jason? Besides Brad, I mean.”

 

Brad snorted.

 

“I can't help it,” Kari said. “That hurt.”

 

Kris gave a pointed look. “It wasn't you he did it to.”

 

Kari looked at her plate, picking at the remnants of her dinner. “It still hurt.”

 

“And he's apologized. Numerous times.”

 

“Lisa? What plans do you have?” Ash asked.

 

“Heading home after finals. Then back in January when classes start up again.” She smiled at Ash. “Finals will be a breeze.”

 

“Powers?”

 

Lisa shrugged. “I can't help it. It isn't like they come with an off switch.”

 

Adalene Masters wiped her mouth with a napkin, smiled at Lisa, and said, “That control will come in time.”

 

“Dr. Tyler?” the hostess approached.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Knowing your penchant for chocolate, the dessert chef has made French silk pie. Would you perhaps like a slice?”

 

Ash saw Kris' eyes sparkle. “Here we go.”

 

“Please,” Kris said, nodding. The hostess moved off.

 

“I would like to thank you for the invitation, Doctor,” Adalene said.

 

“You're one of us. You know that.” Adalene nodded her head while turning her wine glass.

 

“So, Addie, what are your plans?” Ash asked.

 

Adalene smiled. “Same thing every year. Keep the world free of ghosts and goblins so Santa can do his thing.”

 

The busboy came by and removed plates, followed by the server setting out dessert plates with slices of the pie. “Oh, that does look good,” Dani said. The server placed the last plate and moved their cart away.

 

“Oh, it is good,” Kris said, smiling around a bite of the pie. Dani took a bite off her slice with her fork. Her phone started an incessant beeping.

 

“Why is it always when I'm eating?” she lamented.

 

“Maybe because you're always eating?” Brad said, glancing at his watch.

 

“Bite me, Michaels.” Dani looked up. Everyone was checking their phones except Kris, who was busy with her pie. “Why is mine the only one going off?”

 

Ash shrugged. “Where's the fire?”

 

“The Tower.” Dani stood up and looked at her uneaten dessert. “Damn it.” She looked around, noting that none of the staff were visible and headed for the balcony. She looked at her long red dress and matching shoes. “Oh, double damn it.” She kicked off her shoes.

 

“I'll get them,” Trese said.

 

Dani slipped out onto the balcony and threw herself into the air. Her evening dress ignited and fell away.

 

“New dress for Dani this year,” Brad joked.

 

Kris' phone beeped once. She lifted it up, looked at the screen, and touched it before setting it back down. “Okay, so what's going on?” Ash asked.

 

“Wait and see,” Kris said smiling as she took another bite.

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Dani descended feet first through the flight shaft. Indicator lights pointed out the entry to the common floor. Approaching it, the access opened, allowing Dani to land and douse her flames. “It better be damned important. That was the first time I wore that dress.”

 

“Yes, Dani,” Mentor said. “You should go to the common area.”

 

Barefoot, Dani headed the way Mentor instructed.

 

Turning the corner she saw a shadowy figure standing in the common. The only lights on in the room were from the Christmas tree. The lights blinked, casting their patterns on the walls and ceiling. Dani cast the figure a questioning look. “Momma?”

 

Sharon turned to her daughter. Tears were streaming down her face. “Dani? My beautiful girl! Let me look at you!” Sharon moved closer.

 

“Momma? Your eyes?”

 

Sharon stared at her daughter, taking in everything about her. “I can see again.” Dani felt her own tears slipping free as her mother embraced her.

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Ash waited in the hall when Kris stepped from Jason's room. She waited until Kris drew close. “How is he?”

 

“Blind”.

 

Ash glanced down the hall to Jason's door. “Will he be okay?” she asked looking back to Kris.

 

“He regrew an eyeball. I'm sure he'll be fine in time,” Kris said smiling.

 

“Do you think...”

 

Kris brushed a strand of Ash's hair aside. “Why don't you go in and keep him company. Just in case he needs something.” Ash glanced at the door again and bit her lower lip. “Doctor's orders.” Ash nodded and headed down the hall. Kris stayed where she was until Jason's door closed behind Ash.

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Brad stood in front of the painting of Nightwing, glass in one hand, the other shoved into his trouser pocket, thumb hooked on the outside. It took a few moments before he realized Emily was standing beside him.

 

“Mrs. Deveraux,” he said in greeting.

 

“Mr. Michaels,” she said in return. She spoke without ever turning to look at him. “It would behoove you to know that everyone here this evening is here because Jason invited them. He had the sole say in tonight's guest list. If you are here it is because he requested it.” Emily turned away from the painting and made her way to another group of guests.

 

Brad watched her walk away, lost in his thoughts.

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Jen looked over the list of names. The list wasn't alphabetical, but numerical. The number coincided with the books shelved behind her. Supposedly, the lower the number the more the volume would be worth to a collector. At least that was how Emily explained book collecting to her. What that had to do with these collected volumes of Jason's paintings, Jen had no idea.

 

All of the red volumes were sealed. A lot of Jason's free time over the summer had been spent making the list she had, and more spent doing sketches that were sealed in the books. That was the main reason for the tamper-proof seals.

 

“Can I help you?” Stacy asked. Jen looked up to see a tall black man with graying hair.

 

The man handed a card over to Stacy and seemed to stare at Jen for the longest time. “Is there something wrong?” Jen asked.

 

“Forgive me for staring. You remind me of someone and I'm trying to place who it is,” he explained with a smile. “I'm Frank Stone.”

 

“Oh! I've heard stories,” Jen said.

 

“Good ones, I hope.”

 

“Nothing but, Captain,” Jen said grinning. “Jen Asher, sir.”

 

“Ah, Warren's little sister. That explains it.” He held out his hand. “Very pleased to meet you, Jen Asher.” Jen took his hand. It was dry and he was gentle, but Jen felt strength there.

 

Stacy slid a red-bound volume on the counter. “I am going to get something to drink and maybe a bite. Want anything?”

 

“Hmm. Something strong that will keep me going until dinner,” said Jen.

 

Stacy cast a glance at Stone. “Large coke on ice. Got it. I'll let you go hit the snack bar when I get back.”

 

Jen checked the volume on her list, saw Stone's name there and drew a line through it with a highlighter. “There you go, Captain.” Jen handed him the book.

 

“It makes me wonder where Jason finds time to paint.”

 

“Honestly, he spends time not sleeping. So he paints,” Jen explained.

 

Stone smiled. “Well, I need to get back to my wife and see what is hanging up on the walls in here. Very nice to meet you, young lady.”

 

“Thank you, Captain. Very nice to meet you, as well.”

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Sitting on the corner of his father's desk, Jason watched Marlene escort Daniel Thomas and Sharon Anderson into the office. Two of Thomas' foot soldiers stopped outside the door and bracketed it.

 

“Can I get you anything?” Marlene asked.

 

“No, thank you,” Director Thomas said.

 

“Ice tea,” Sharon said.

 

“Yes, ma'am.” Marlene left to fetch Sharon's drink.

 

“Charles,” Thomas said with a nod. “Jason, I've been looking for you.”

 

“And here you've found me. How hard was that?”

 

“Damn it, son! Where are those assets?” he demanded.

 

Jason smiled a closed-mouth smile that quirked up one corner of his mouth. “Kris and Ash? The ladies are out enjoying the pool.”

 

Daniel Thomas turned to the two by the door. “Go detain them.”

 

“No,” Jason said, standing up.

 

“Excuse me? You absconded...”

 

“Director Thomas, you are not exactly law enforcement. Neither of those women did a damned thing except be taken prisoner and experimented on. They are both American citizens, which means that the law is on their side. Following that, Director, they are my guests. Any efforts taken by you or your stooges will result in you and I throwing down, right here and right now, and invariably end up with you being taken out in either a body bag or a garbage pail. Neither option would really disappoint me at the moment.”

 

Damn it, son!”

 

For the record, I am not your son. If I absconded with anyone it was because you were treating them like prisoners.”

 

They needed to have check ups,” Thomas said.

 

Jason nodded. “I agree with you there. Irish is coming in tomorrow to do tests on both and get benchmarks, if nothing else.”

 

Jason, why don't you go see to your guests while Director Thomas and I talk,” Charles said.

 

Yes, sir.” Jason stepped past Thomas and stopped beside Sharon. “You look lovely,” he said quietly and kissed her on the cheek.

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“It isn't like you to shy away from a challenge.” Jason turned back. “I have to wonder what Sandy would think of that.”

 

* * * * *

Charles poured whiskey into a glass. “I would suggest, Director, that with any future dealings you might have with my son, that you not attempt to motivate him with mention of Miss Wilson.” He held out the glass of whiskey.

 

Daniel Thomas took the offered glass, lowered the bag of ice from his swollen jaw. Taking a drink, the alcohol burned around loose teeth. “Damn”, he muttered. “Lucky he didn't break it.”

 

“Quite honestly, you're lucky he didn't take your head off.”

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Night at the Gallery

 

Standing on the landing of the gallery's staircase, Emily Deveraux looked over the assembled guests and smiled. Tonight was a private gathering. The public opening of Jason's showing would be a few days hence, allowing for the removal of pieces Jason did not want in the public eye, and their replacement with others of his collection.

 

Picking up the striker, Emily tapped the silver bell that had been placed for her use. “If I may have everyone's attention.” Conversations muted and eyes turned to Emily. “I would like to thank you all for coming. After many years of trying I was finally able to get Jason to agree to a public showing of his works. The main floor is fully open. Each gallery has a theme.”

 

“So we get to see Scott's landscape paintings?” Brad Michaels snarked. Emily watched Ashleigh Parks lean to him and whisper something. Brad glanced at her. “My apologies.”

 

Emily nodded. “The galleries on the upper levels are not yet open. They will be before the night is over. Jason has asked that those galleries remain closed until he is able to escort the subject or subjects of those galleries on a personal tour of it.”

 

“Where is Jason?” Jordan Kendall asked.

 

“Temporarily delayed,” Emily answered. “Beth contacted me earlier and explained that something unexpected came up that Jason had to deal with.”

 

“It happens often enough to me,” Jordan said, eliciting a laugh from many.

 

“Please, everyone, make yourselves welcome. There is a bar and an appetizer table. The gallery asks that, please, do not leave your glasses and plates scattered around the displays. Thank you all for coming.” Emily made her way down the stairs.

 

* * * * *

“So, where should we start?” Warren asked.

 

“I'm thinking my husband should start with snacks. My tummy is a'rumblin' and I think I shall faint from hunger long before dinner,” Kate told him.

 

“As you wish,” Warren replied with a shallow bow to his wife.

 

“'Shall faint',” Leah teased. “Been reading them tawdry romance novels again?”

 

Kate grinned. “Remind me again, oh favorite roommate, who got me started on them.”

 

“That would have been your grandmother.”

 

Kate thought for a moment. “Fair point,” she agreed. “But I remember a lot of them coming out of your room when we lived together.”

 

Shrugging, Leah said, “A girls gotta do what a girls gotta do when there's no romance in her life.”

 

“Warren is right, though,” Ash said. “Aside from Kate wasting away, where should we start.”

 

Stepping up, Emily said, “I couldn't help but overhear. Perhaps you might try the east wing. All the paintings in there Jason is donating to one of the museums. A display of extraordinary people, from what I understand. The woman that curates the exhibit is here somewhere.”

 

Warren held a small plate for Kate. “So, what was decided?”

 

“Emily is suggesting the east wing,” Kris said.

 

Flashes from the front door caught Warren's attention. “Might want to hold off for a few minutes. That might be him now.”

 

Their attention turned to where Warren indicated. The flashes came from cameras pointed at a limousine that had pulled up. A valet opened the door and Frank Gilbert stepped out. Smiling, he turned and waved at all the photographers. He put his hand down and helped Beth out of the car. With Beth on his arm they walked into the gallery.

 

Behind Beth, Jason exited the car. Jason headed towards the door, stopped and looked off to the side. He pointed at something and Warren cocked his head, questioning. Jason was joined by a young woman that he towered over. They spoke, the girl jotted something down in notepad. Jason held both hands up to her with his fingers splayed. He pointed at the notepad. The woman got a defiant look on her face. Jason said something further and the woman smiled. She slipped the notepad into her bag. Jason held his arm out to her, which she took.

 

Warren continued to watch as they entered together. “I wonder who that is,” he said, nodding toward the woman on Jason's arm. Beth brought her father to them.

 

“I have no clue,” Kris said. “Although she does look vaguely familiar for some reason.”

 

“Mr. Gilbert,” Warren said in greeting, holding out his hand to the older man. Taking in Frank's tuxedo, he said, “I didn't realize this was a black tie event.”

 

Frank smiled and clasped Warren's hand. “When I get to escort a lovely young woman to any event at my age, it is a black tie event.”

 

“And she is quite lovely,” Leah said smiling. Warren thought he saw Beth blushing.

 

“Thanks,” she said in response to Leah. “Sorry we're running late.”

 

“Couldn't decide what to wear?” Warren teased.

 

“Hardly. My dress was picked out a few months ago. It's a gift from Jason.” Beth's dress was royal blue silk. It fell to her knees. The upper bodice and sleeves were sheer. Her shoes matched perfectly.

 

Kris smiled. “I thought I noticed a George.” Beth smiled back.

 

“Hey, Beth.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Nice legs.” Warren grinned. Beth gave Warren an annoyed look and then smiled.

 

* * * * *

Jason pointed out Emily to Valora Langford. “Don't think this gets you out.”

 

“Please, Miss Langford, I'm here most of the night. You've got yourself an exclusive. All I ask is no photographs. You don't have a photographer with you. That means any pictures you might take would be from your phone. If you would like, you and I can arrange a photo of the two of us. If you feel any of my work needs to be added to your story, then prints will be made available to you. Fair enough?”

 

“I suppose.”

 

“Now if you'll excuse me, I'm already running late. Emily, this is Valora Langford. She's a reporter.” Emily raised an eyebrow at Jason and then smiled at Val. “I figure a little press coverage can't hurt.”

 

“As you wish, Jason. Come Miss Langford. I will show you around the open galleries.”

 

As Jason turned and walked away, he overheard Val. “I heard you were shot at that party last year. Remarkable recovery.”

 

“Yes, it was,” Emily commented. Jason shook his head.

 

Approaching his friends, Jason's gaze fell on Kate. Feeling his gaze upon her, Kate looked back and then blushed. “I told you that would be a lovely dress on you.”

 

Kate gave a shallow curtsy. “I figured with everyone who would be here it would be safe to dress up.”

 

Jason smiled. “The effort is much appreciated.”

 

“And Aaron willing, it will be much appreciated after, as well,” Warren said. Kate blushed deeper. Leah elbowed her in the ribs.

 

“Emily suggested the east wing,” Ash said. “Something about 'extraordinary people'?”

 

“Just a series of paintings I've been working on when I should be sleeping,” Jason said. “Different heroes and villains. Some the curator requested. Others were ones that I had access to good references for.”

 

“No nudes?” Brad Michaels asked when he walked up.

 

“Tasteful ones,” Jason answered. “Getting caught doing things you shouldn't be, Michaels, will get you tossed out. Excuse me.” Jason headed towards the stairs.

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Frank stood up. “If you will excuse me, this old person has had entirely too much excitement for one night. Thank you, Jason, for the invitation. And the book.”

 

“My pleasure, sir. Sleep well.”

 

“Good night, Daddy,” Beth said.

 

Jason pulled his coffee cup out from under the coffee maker. “Would you like something?”

 

“A glass of wine if you have it,” Beth answered. She slipped her shoes off and drew her legs up on the couch. Jason brought her a glass.

 

“I didn't realize everything matched,” he said, noticing the blue reinforcement of her hosiery.

 

“Attention to detail. Isn't that why you hired me?” She lifted the hem of her dress until the wide blue band of her stocking top was visible, revealing the blue strap of her garter belt. “Everything matches.”

 

Jason dropped himself into a chair tiredly. “This evening got to you, didn't it? Even with everyone there being a friend or at least them having had some impact on your life.”

 

“Batteries are nearly drained,” he admitted. “Entirely too many people all at once.”

 

“So what was the sketch in Daddy's book?”

 

“One of you.” Jason appeared a sketchbook and a pencil.

 

“You aren't.”

 

Jason looked at her. “I are.” The pencil started moving on a page.

 

“Fine. Just make me look good.”

 

He chuckled. “I capture the beauty. I don't improve upon it.”

 

Beth toyed with her wine glass. “So what was the delay tonight?”

 

“Croystetter.”

 

“Artimus or Miriam?”

 

“Yes. Apparently one of them got wind of tonight and Miriam wanted to know why I didn't invite her. It seems both of them are in town tonight. I'm just glad neither showed up at the gallery.”

 

“I can't imagine them crashing,” Beth said.

 

“Crash, no. Totally tasteless and below their station. But show up, get my attention and get a last minute invitation I wouldn't put past her.”

 

“I see your point.” She took a drink of wine. “What are you going to do?”

 

“Nothing. I already did it. I made it clear to her in no uncertain terms that I wasn't interested in seeing her, socially or otherwise.”

 

“Ouch.”

 

“I doubt it hurt much. I don't think she was chasing after me for her own sake.” Jason yawned.

 

“You should go to bed. I'll take the couch.”

 

Jason slipped his pencil under his left thumb, pinning it against the sketchbook. He gave Beth an annoyed glance. “My apartment. My rules. The lady gets the bed.” He stood up. “I'll take the couch.”

 

“That's hardly fair. We could share it.”

 

Heading down the hall, Jason said, “That's a tempting offer.”

 

Trailing after him, Beth said, “Well, it doesn't seem right that I'm putting you out.”

 

“You aren't.” He set his sketchbook on a bureau. Beth glanced at it. It was remarkable to her how finished it looked in the short amount of time Jason had worked on it. He had done it all in graphite, but at some point he'd switched to a blue pencil, shading in bits of her hosiery, dress, and makeup. “Needs a bit more color,” Jason said. “At the very least your lipstick.”

 

Beth nodded. “Before you go running out of here, would you help me with my dress?” She turned her back to him, allowing him access to the zipper.

 

Jason reached for the pull tab. His hand began itching.

 

Yes! Take her! Claim her!

 

Something wrong?”

 

No,” he answered. His watch began beeping. He glanced at it and pushed a button, silencing it. “No more argument. Looks like I'll be sleeping in the tower. Assuming I sleep at all.” He caught the fabric of Beth's sleeve, and disappeared it. Beth shivered in the cool air. Turning to face him, Jason gave her a gentle smile. “You're right. It all matches.” He reappeared her dress and lay it across the bed. “There are hangers in the closet.” He turned towards the balcony door.

 

Beth caught his arm. He turned back to her. Standing up on her toes, she kissed him on the cheek. “You looked like you needed it,” she said with a smile. “Be safe.”

 

Jason changed. Pulsar pulled open the balcony door and stepped out, sliding the door closed. He launched himself into the sky.

 

Leaning against the glass door, Beth watched him go. “Guess I have an idea of how Marlene feels at moments like this,” she said to herself. When Pulsar was a distant red light, Beth pulled the drapes closed and readied herself for bed.

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Warren wasn't sure what surprised him more. Boyd's apparent intelligence or Jason's willingness to listen considering past interactions between these two men.

 

Is this on the company network?” Jason asked.

 

No. I've been working on it on my own. I'm not someone that the suits...” Boyd coughed. “Sorry. I'm not someone that management listens to.”

 

I'm listening,” Jason said. “I want a copy of your work.” He pulled the writing pad closer. “How are you with presentations?”

 

I've never had to give one outside of a classroom,” Boyd said quietly.

 

Jason wrote something out on the pad. “This is the email address I want you to send your proposal to. The working copy you have now is fine. This second email address is someone who can help you with your presentation work.”

 

I don't understand,” Boyd said.

 

There is a meeting at the end of next month. You will be there to present on this after you get it cleaned up.”

 

This isn't what I was expecting,” Boyd mused.

 

Jump the line to the top and you find yourself with more work,” Jason said.

 

Boyd nodded. “I appreciate it, Mr. Scott.”

 

Something else on your mind?”

 

Looking guilty, Boyd said, “Yes, sir. I've been wondering about Beth.”

 

She still works for me,” Jason said.

 

When she left with you I was so angry.”

 

That was you in the pickup with the shotgun.”

 

Nodding, Boyd said, “I was angry. I was drunk. Afterward I kept expecting the sheriff to show up on my doorstep. As the days went by and nothing happened I had to wonder why. I went by Beth's and talked to her dad. He told me she'd left town with you.

 

I had entirely too much time to sit and think. About the mess I'd made with Beth. About the mess my life was heading towards. I got counseling. I stopped drinking. I wasn't going to college to play ball. Never saw myself leaving town, really.”

 

What did you do with the shotgun?” Jason asked.

 

Taking a heavy breath, Boyd looked at the ceiling. “I cleaned it. Put it back on the rack. It was my granddad's. Haven't been hunting since. Like I said, it kind of opened my eyes about where I could end up. That wasn't who I wanted to be.”

 

You missed.”

 

I'm sorry.”

 

Apology accepted.”

 

Can I ask you, Beth... Is she happy?”

 

I think so,” Jason told him.

 

Is she... Married? Seeing anyone?”

 

Boyd, as her employer, out of respect for her as a person, and more importantly as her friend, it isn't my place to answer any personal questions about her.”

 

I understand,” Boyd said. “I'll will get this emailed and start getting it cleaned up, then.” Boyd stood up, narrowly missing the server. “Mr. Scott. Warren.”

 

Merry Christmas, Boyd,” Warren said as the other man walked away.

 

Can I get you gentlemen anything?” she asked.

 

No,” Warren said. “I think we're pretty much...”

 

Refills, please,” Jason said, cutting Warren off. “Also two hot chocolates. One with no whipped cream. The other with extra whipped cream and cinnamon.”

 

Coming up.”

 

Warren gave Jason a questioning look before turning around to scan Rosie's. Turning back, he said, “Kate and Leah coming?” Jason nodded. “Boyd didn't miss.” Jason shook his head. “Then why?”

 

I had a pretty good idea of who it was at the time. Understood where he was coming from. At the time I had more important concerns, if you recall. I didn't need to be sidetracked dealing with the sheriff about an inconsequential shooting.”

 

If it had been anyone other than you it wouldn't have been inconsequential,” Warren said.

 

Jason shrugged. “It would have been even less of a concern to me and more of one to the sheriff. I'm sure they would have caught the perp, tried and imprisoned him. As it was, it didn't even rate the paper, since if anyone else heard the shot they would have written it off as a hunter.”

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