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“So, are you planning on marrying that model or what?” Morgan asked, tossing her coffee cup in the trashcan. Jason shook his head. “Something wrong?”


“She's gone.”


“What happened? I thought you two were happy together.”


Jason's attention was drawn to a limo at the bottom of the steps. “I woke up to find her traveling away from me. No note. Any calls went straight to voice.” A woman stepped from the back of the limo when the driver opened the door.


“I need to get back to the office.” Morgan said, looking at him with concern. “If you need a friend to talk to I'm willing to get a burger at the Brass Diamond.” Jason nodded. “Or some place more expensive.” Jason nodded again, keeping his attention on the woman. She was arguing with someone in the back, while the driver pulled a battered suitcase from the trunk and deposited it on sidewalk beside her. “Or, you know, I could come over, run around your place in sexy lingerie while you make me a gourmet dinner.”


Jason cracked a smile and looked at Morgan out of the corner of his eye. “Feeling the urge to model for me that badly?”


Morgan smiled brightly. “At least I got a smile out of you. Got to run. Call me. I mean that. Go do your 'White Knight' routine.”


Jason watched her go for a few moments before turning back to the scene below. Richard Devereaux showed himself in the open door for a moment before settling back into the shadows of the limo. The driver closed the door. The woman, angry from the way she held herself, watched the limo pull away.


Before long, the woman pulled out her wallet and seemed to be counting money. Jason tossed his coffee cup in the trash and made his way down the steps. “Hi,” he said. “You know, counting your money on the street isn't a good idea in this city. Not even in front of the courthouse.”


I'm fine,” she said, stuffing her wallet back into her purse. She grabbed the handle of the suitcase and pulled it up.


Jason made a beckoning gesture. “My name's Jason.” The woman gave him a questioning look. “Can I offer you a lift some place?”


I'm fine,” she said again. Jason's limo pulled up in the space vacated by Richard's. “What is it today with guys in limos?”


Well, technically, I'm not in a limo. Yet. What's your name?”


Ava.” Jason noted a zippered binder hanging behind her purse.


What's that?” he asked, nodding at it.


Ava gave him a hard stare. “It's my travel portfolio.”


Jason smiled. “Which are you, model or artist?”


Can't I be both at the same time?” Jason smiled and nodded. “That guy offered me a job.”


And the job Dick offered wasn't the one you signed up for.”


You know him?”


All my life, unfortunately. He's married to my mother's best friend. So, Ava, can I offer you a ride? Lunch? I wouldn't mind flipping through your portfolio. See what kind of work you do.”


Ava hung her head in thought. She raised her head enough to look at Jason. “You a photographer?”


Al Porter opened the back door. Jason nodded at him. “My talents lie more in paint and pencil,” Jason explained. “If you'd like maybe we could corroborate on something.”


You'd hire me just like that?”


Jason shrugged. “Let me look through your portfolio. See what you have. For that, I'll buy you lunch. If I get any ideas while we talk we can discuss you modeling for me for the day.”


As long as you don't get any other ideas.”


Al, if I try to take any actions that will dishonor the lady will you protect her from me?”


Absolutely,” Al said with a straight face. “May I take your bag?”


Ava smiled. “I suppose.”


Where to? Sir,” he added after a pause.



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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

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We often look for reasons why things happen. Sometimes it is being in the right place at the right time. Or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it is just because people can be assholes.


Take Morgan, for instance. Morgan was out having fun with some friends and after they all split, she decided to get something to eat. She settled on a burger from Brass Diamond. As the name implies, it is a sports bar. In the parking lot some loser took an interest in her purse. Or in her.


I was in New York dealing with a corporate matter. Yet another brush fire incident dad wanted me to put out. Sandy always wanted to come to New York. Visit Broadway and see the lights. And as many shows as she could manage. God, I miss her.


One of the secretaries told me I should give the Diamond a try. So, here I am. Right place? Wrong time? I guess it all depends on who is on the receiving end.


In the books and movies these things usually start with a scream or a gunshot. Not this time. This just had to do with me noticing a pretty girl with a lovely smile. I didn't hear what started it. A raised voice quickly lowered and a bit of a scuffle.


I would like to say that I investigated because it was the right thing to do. The truth is I don't know what it was that made me go look.


You should have stuck with your friends,” I heard a man say. He was holding a knife at her. “Gimme your purse. Maybe you'll get lucky and that's all I'll want.”


Now, how to deal with this? I could blast him and out myself to Morgan. Nah, I was more in the mood to get physical. And it was only a knife. No, not a Crocodile Dundee knife. Or even a Bowie knife. Hell, not even a military grade survival knife. Just a run-of-the-mill switchblade.


Morgan was hesitant to pass over her purse. The guy made a grab for it. I came around the van they were behind in time to grab the guy's knife hand. “The lady has a friend,” I told him. “Your mistake.”


My other hand caught him by the collar. Using the momentum of his lunge, I slammed him into the hood of the car on the other side. With a slight twist, the knife clattered on the pavement. Okay, so the twist wasn't that slight. I had a lot of anger and personal pain I was dealing with in my life. I did leave the arm attached. And in its socket.


Morgan had the presence of mind to use her cellphone to call 911. It only took a few minutes for a patrol cruiser to swing by and pick up our perp. We made our statements to the police. Morgan sprung for coffee for both of them.


After the excitement was over, Morgan introduced herself.


Hi. I'm Morgan Shaw. Thanks for your help.”


Jason. Scott.”


Of Scott Enterprises?”


That is why I'm in town.”


My father runs Shaw Securities.”


I looked at her. “That would make you Morgan the Younger.”


She smiled. “Why does that sound like Charles Scott talking? Were you going in or coming out?”


Going in. One of the girls suggested I try the place.”


Morgan smiled wider. “I'm buying. Maybe we can get a head up on our relationship if your company keeps doing business with my dad's.”

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“Lights. Low,” Ash said, dropping onto a couch. “I think I'm going to sleep for a week. Since he's here, someone pencil in Jason for breakfast duty.”


“It's your turn,” Psistorm said, stripping off her Guardians jacket.


“Why do you think she wants Jason penciled in?” Sparx said with a smirk. She sidled up to the bar, laid her arms on it, made fists, and rested her head there. “Only a week, Ash? I ache.”


“It was a simple weld job,” Nightwing said. With a click, he removed his cowl. He stepped behind the bar, took down a couple of glasses and a bottle. He poured whiskey into one and set it in front of Sparx. She glanced at it with one eye.


“Pass.” Nightwing shrugged and drank it down.


Ringer said, “That was fun.” Sparx groaned.


“Oh, sure, 'Little Miss Perfect',” Psistorm teased.


Pulling her mask off, Jenny grinned at Psistorm. A compartment on the table in front of her opened up to reveal her glasses. “Thanks, Mentor.”


“You are welcome, Jenny.”


Hellfire sat next to Psistorm. “That was a nice dance you did, Jen. I'm glad you didn't get hurt.” She glanced at Sparx and grinned. “Hey, Sparx.”




Hellfire got up and moved behind Sparx. “You got a hole in your uniform.”




Hellfire pulled a glove off and poked Sparx through the run in her tights. “Dani,” she said, turning around. “That's my ass.”


Hellfire's grin went wider. “Ask me nicely and I'll make it my ass for the rest of the night.”


“You're obnoxious.”


“You love me,” Hellfire teased.


“Yes, I do. You're still obnoxious,” Sparx said, hugging Hellfire. “Some other time.”


Hellfire pouted. “You are one of the few people that keep turning me down. You're going to give me a complex.”


“Team slut,” Nightwing said, not exactly quietly.


Hellfire pushed away from Sparx and glared at Nightwing. “What did you call me?”


“You heard me.”


Eyes flashing with flame, Nightwing's glass erupted. “You have just guaranteed that you never will. You want to know the difference between us, Michaels? I know everyone I have ever been with. I know their names and I respect them.”


Tossing the glass into the small bar sink, Nightwing said, “I'm a guy.”


“I can fix that,” Hellfire snarled. “In fact I can fix it so that Momma Michaels' stupidest won't ever breed.”


“Cool down, Dani,” Psistorm said. “Brad, grow up.”

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“Night, Leah,” Trese said. Dani mumbled something that sounded similar.


“Night, Trese. Night, Dani.” The door to her apartments opened.


Stepping inside, she made her way to the standing mirror. She looked her reflection over. Smudges of dirt were on her suit and her boots. She stripped off her glove and tossed it in a clothes basket. She turned enough to see the rent in her hose. “Those are a write off.”


Electricity arced across her body. Sparx's uniform was replaced by the dress she had on at the gallery. Giving her uniform hanging from her hand the once-over, she pulled the tights out. The uniform went into the basket with her glove. The tights sailed for the trash can.


With a slight discharge of her power, Leah propped her boots up next to the closet door. She stepped out of her heels and left those beside her boots.


She ached, but she wasn't tired. Leah poured herself a glass of wine and headed for a chair, picking up Jason's book from where she had left it before being called out. She took a drink and set the glass on a the table beside her chair. Curling up in the chair, Leah ran her fingers over the plastic sealing the book within.


The book was over-sized. Easily what would be referred to as a “coffee table book”. Thick and heavy.


Breaking the seal and pulling the book out, Leah opened the front cover. Jason had signed it, “For my Elvgren girl.” Leah smiled. The label inside the cover showed it was copy two. Turning the flyleaf, Jason's sketch for her was her done in Elvgren's pinup style. She was stretched out on a tiger-skin rug. Her robe was sheer, barely concealing anything. Sheer stockings that matched the robe, covered her legs. One hand played with her hair. She was smiling.


“Mentor, I need a frame for this.”


“I will see to it,” the AI said.


“Thank you.” Leah began turning the pages, studying the art on one page and reading what Jason had to say about it on the other.


She lost track of time. Her wine glass was nearing empty when Leah realized music was playing. Her door chime sounded. She got up, set the book on her chair, and went to the door. When it opened, for a moment everything felt wrong.


Jason stood in the hallway. “Would you like to come in?” she asked.


Crossing her threshold, Jason asked, “What are you up to?”


“I was just flipping through your book. Looking for paintings of me,” she said with a smile. “What brings you here this...morning, I guess?”


“You,” he answered, stepping close. Leah's breath caught in her throat. Jason pulled her close and began kissing her demandingly. Possessively. His hand moved her skirt to the side. Cupping her butt, he lifted her. Pinning her against the wall, Leah moaned when Jason entered her.


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Sitting in the dark, watching the clouds blow in and obscure the stars, Jason did nothing. At his SE apartments he had drawn Beth simply because she was sitting in front of him. Now, sitting in front of him was a sketch pad opened to a blank page.


If he started drawing, would it be Marlene or Leah that he drew? Leah was on his mind a lot lately. She took up as much time as Marlene did up there. Actually seeing her in the dress he designed, that he thought she would be wearing when he proposed to her didn't help him any.


He was tired. Like he had told Beth, his batteries were near drained. Being called out hadn't helped any, but, conversely, being close to Leah while they worked had.


He should go to bed. His schedule was clear for a few days. Jason sighed.


His head snapped to the side. Eyes flashing red with power, Jason turned toward Leah's room. “Door open. Clear path to Leah's room. Call Kris.”


Jason blasted out the door, caroming off the wall when he turned, not waiting to hear Mentor's response.


* * * * *

Orgasm subsiding, Leah smiled and opened her eyes.


Steven Bauer, still inside her, grinned. “I'm not through with you yet.”


Leah screamed.

* * * * *

“What's the problem?” Kris asked. Trese stood behind her.


“I don't know.” Jason jabbed the panel beside the door. “I just know there's something going on.”


Kris nodded. “Open it, Mentor.” The door opened to reveal Leah coming towards the door. “Are you okay?”


“I'm... I'm fine,” Leah stammered, not realizing she was shaking her head. Her tears started to flow. “He was here!” Leah went to Jason, burying her face in his chest. Jason's arms closed about her.


“Who was?” Kris asked gently.


“Bauer! He...he...”


“Let's go inside,” Kris suggested.


Trese slipped inside and activated a wall panel. “Give me the security feed for the room.”


Jason turned Leah around and let her lead them in. “What happened?”


“I was sitting in my chair there,” she pointed it out. “I was going through your book. Music started playing.”


Kris glanced at Jason. “What music?”


“I don't know. Elevator music. No words. Just a tune. Then the door sounded. I answered it and Jason...” Leah gulped in air. “Jason was on the other side. I asked him why he was here. He said he was here for me.” Her eyes darted to Jason and then she looked away. “He kissed me. He pinned me up against the wall and took me.”


Jason's head dropped and his eyes flared.


“Alright, Leah. You and I will go into your bedroom,” Kris said. “I want to do a quick exam. Depending on what I see we may head down to Medical for a full exam. Okay?”


Leah nodded. “Jason, come look at this,” Trese said before the door closed.


“Let's get your dress off,” Kris said. “Do you need help?” Leah shook her head, lowered the bodice and stepped out of it. She put it on a waiting hangar. She started to push her hose down when Kris said, “Wait.” Kris pulled on a pair of gloves.


* * * * *

The security feed showed Leah enter her room. She examined herself in her mirror and began changing out of her Sparx outfit. Once again wearing the dress they just found her in, Leah opened a cabinet and poured herself a glass of wine.


Leah turned towards her chair and took something off the counter before moving to sit. Her hand went to her arm. She set her wine glass down and curled up in her chair with Jason's book. Trese advanced the feed until Leah, sitting in her chair, screamed.


“What do you make of it?” Trese asked.


“The bracelet,” Jason answered. “Leah wasn't wearing one at the gallery. She is now.”


“Should we ask her about it?”


“You do it,” Jason said. The bedroom door open and Leah and Kris came out. “What's the verdict?” Jason asked.


Leah, still wearing her hose, and now a robe, sat back in her chair. He emptied her wine glass. The bracelet sparkled in the light of the table lamp.


“All the signs of recent intense arousal. Hose and panties are damp. She's swollen and tender. But there's no other signs of penetration or sex,” Kris said.


“I... I haven't. Not since... Not for lack of Brad and Dani trying.” Leah said.


“How do you feel about that?” asked Kris.

Leah gave a small smile. “Dani has a better chance than Brad does.”

“I won't tell her that,” Trese said. “She'll redouble her efforts.”


“I appreciate that. I'm going out of my mind,” Leah said quietly.


Trese looked at Jason who gave her a slight nod. She went over to Leah and knelt down. “Can I ask you something?” Leah nodded. “Your bracelet that you're wearing. Where did you get it?”


Leah looked at the bracelet. Then she looked at Jason. “Jason gave it to me. It was...it was our last anniversary together. We were on the Mistral Wind off the coast of Monaco.”


“The first time I saw that bracelet, Leah, was the day Warren picked you up at the airport,” Trese said. “You were wearing it then.”


“But, Jason...”


“Leah,” she looked at Jason. “You've been on the Wind all of twice. Once here for a dinner party and once in San Diego. You and I have never been to Monaco together.”


“I'm going out of my mind,” Leah whispered.


Trese lay her hand gently on Leah's leg. “I want to take your bracelet. I want to run some scans on it. Can I do that?”


Leah's hand went slowly to the bracelet. Looking at it, she turned it on her arm. “Sure,” she said, slipping it off. She handed it to Trese. Trese formed a purple force bowl. Leah set it inside. Trese closed the bowl.


Kris keyed in the medical dispenser and pulled out a packet. She took that to Leah. Leah looked at it. “I don't want to be medicated.”


Kris smiled. “Alright,” but she set the packet on the table anyway. “If you need me, call.”


“I will. Thanks.” Trese and Kris went out into the hall. Jason turned to follow. “Jason, will you stay a minute? Please?”


Kris turned and nodded at Jason.


“Sure,” he said. He turned to face Leah and the door closed. Smiling, he asked her, “What do you need?”


Rising from her chair, Leah came to him. She stared into his eyes until she shivered. “To feel safe. Will... Will you stay with me a while?”

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“And you think that's what it is?” Leah asked. She lay face down on her bed. Her arms were crossed under her chin. She taken her robe off and blushed in front of Jason. The entire time his eyes had been on hers. She had left her pantyhose on, joking that it was her last line of defense. She knew Jason would respect her limits. She just wished she knew what his limits were.


Hands working one leg a time, Jason gave Leah a massage. “It's entirely possible that it is a focus for whoever Bauer had that messed with your head.”


“Do you think Trese will be able to figure that out? If it is?”


“That's hard to say. Trese works with Mentor a lot. While he resembles how a human mind works, the process is entirely different than organic.”


“That is entirely possible,” Mentor said.


Leah laughed. “Eavesdropping?”


“Monitoring only. I heard my name.”


“Quite alright,” Leah said. She moaned when Jason found a tight muscle and worked to loosen it. “Ash wants you to do breakfast since you're here.”


Jason smiled. “I'll think about it.”


In time, Jason reached the top of her thighs. “Want me to stop?” he asked quietly.


She shook her head. “You've got a lot of back to cover yet.”


“You're enjoying this,” he said with humor.


“Absolutely.” Jason adjusted her waistband and Leah shifted to make it easier. He took a bottle of lotion off her nightstand. The bed shifted. Jason straddled her. He moved her hair out of his way. Leah slipped her hand under it and flipped it up off her shoulders.


She heard the pump on the bottle and Jason rubbed his hands together. He started at the base of her spine. Her mind went to what had happened earlier. Jason could be insistent, but he was always considerate. He was born with power and his loving parents taught him to respect it and the damage it was capable of.


Being an athlete, Jason was naturally strong. He knew the damage strength could do. And while she had been gone, his strength had increased. Even after he found out her ability to heal Jason was always gentle with her.


Jason's hands worked her back. Leah slept.


* * * * *

Leah stirred, wondering why Jason had stopped. She opened one eye and realized what she was seeing was daylight. She heard a page flip. “Find one of my novels to your liking?” She felt Jason's hand on her back.




She rolled over. Jason had on shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. “Did you sleep?” Jason shook his head. “I didn't expect you to stay up all night.” She moved closer, laying her leg over his. He moved his arm out of the way, and Leah snuggled in closer. “What is that?”


The book in Jason's hands was bound in supple brown leather. A strap hung loose from it. “One of my grandfather's journals.”


“Oh. So why didn't you sleep?”


“Making sure you were okay. You didn't twitch at all.”


“That means I only got half of a massage.”


“Sorry,” Jason said, turning another page. “You were sleeping on the front half.”


“Well, it used to be...” She stopped herself, realizing what she'd been about to say. “Anything from Trese?”


Jason shook his head. He closed the journal, wrapping the strap about it. Then it disappeared.

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Jason shook his head. He closed the journal, wrapping the strap about it. Then it disappeared. He shifted to face her. Leah moved a little bit closer. “Feeling safe?”


“Feeling a lot more relaxed and comfortable. What's with your grandfather's journal?”


“When Stacy and Jennie were going through the basement where my canvas was stored they found a niche. Had several chests that were my grandfather's. One was almost entirely journals. I've been going through them. Learning a bit about him.”


Leah examined his face. “Learn anything interesting?”


“He was involved in war effort. He had a hand in creating the Liberty Alliance. Probably where my dad got his fascination with capes. He also mentions Kayne several times by name.”


Leah braced her head on an upraised arm. “I could have gone longer without ever hearing that name again.” She cast a glance at her clock. “I guess we missed breakfast.”


“Are you hungry?”


“Yes. Aren't you?”


Jason gave her a grin. “I've been in bed all night with a half-naked woman. I've had a hand on her most of it. Let's just say it's a different kind of hunger.” He ran a finger down the side of her face. Leah smiled. “Pancakes or waffles?”


* * * * *

Running her fingers through her hair, Ash yawned. Her belly rumbled with hunger. She heard Dani's voice coming from the dining room. Ash contemplated the ease of cold cereal against the effort of actually making something.


“You're late,” Dani said. “Breakfast was supposed to be an hour ago and you were supposed to make it.”


“I was tired. Sue me.” Leah and Dani were sitting at the table. Leah was writing in a book. In front of each was a plate. Leah had waffles. Big, thick, lovely waffles. And fruit. Dani had a ham steak, a pile of scrambled eggs, and bacon. “Where did you guys get that?”


“Ignoring the fact that we can cook, Jason made it.”


“He did? How?”


Leah smiled. “Ash, you're not awake. Get coffee. As to how, I kept Jason prisoner in my bed until he agreed to make me breakfast. Why he made enough for everyone else I can't begin to guess.”


“In your bed? Are you two...?”


“No. I just had a bad night and he stayed with me.”


“Are you okay?” Ash asked.


“Better,” Leah answered.


“That's good,” Trese said entering the dining room. The plate she carried made Ash's belly rumble again. “No more problems after?”


“Not according to Jason. I got a massage and we talked for a bit.”


“I'd have done that,” Dani said sullenly.


“What's that?” Trese asked indicating the book.


Leah finished what she had been writing, closed the book, and lay her pen on it. “Journal for Dr. Pearson. I figure the events of last night qualified as something she might want to know. Anything on that bracelet?”


Trese nodded. “Weird readings. Drawing some compositional blanks. The band is your standard Sterling silver inset with onyx. On a guess, I'd say it's worth no more than maybe five hundred.”


“There's a but in there, Trese,” Ash said.


“Yeah. The weight is off if it was just silver and onyx. My lab assistant is running deeper scans. I'm trying not to damage it.”


“Damage it,” Leah said.


Giving her a concerned look, Trese asked, “Are you sure?”


Nodding, Leah replied, “Yes. Jason didn't give it to me, so sentimentality went out the window. If someone else is using it to keep my mind scrambled, damage it. I don't want it back.”


“Be right back,” Ash said. “I need to see what you guys left me to eat.”

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Showing her card at the reader, Morgan pulled her 1966 Jaguar XKE Coupe into the parking garage of Guardian's Tower. A green light at the end lit up. She drove to it. A reinforced door opened and she drove through it. Jason waited by an elevator with an open door.


Morgan pulled into a parking spot and shut off her engine. She got out and walked around the car and pulled a sea bag out of the passenger seat. Slinging it over her shoulder, she walked to Jason.


“Is that everything?”


“Yes.” Jason nodded and they stepped into the waiting elevator. “I'm sorry I missed the wedding,” Morgan said. “I was otherwise preoccupied.”


“Your absence was noted,” Jason replied with a smile. “I like it better when you have long hair.”


Morgan's hand went reflexively to her shoulder. “I needed a change.” Her long locks had been turned into a pixie cut.


“That's understandable.”


The elevator opened. “Where to?”


“This way.” Jason lead her into the dining area. “Normally we'd use the meeting room, but the vote tended to be in favor of informal.”


Morgan stopped, taking in everyone at the table. Her eyes sought out those she knew or had at least met before.


“Hello, Morgan,” Marlene said.


“I'm sorry I missed the wedding.”


“Think nothing of it,” Marlene said. “You were quite indisposed from what I understand. How are you?”


“Physically, I'm fine. Mentally, I don't know.”


Marlene nodded her understanding. “You're in the right place.”


“Have a seat,” Jason said. “You know Ash and Kris.”


Morgan nodded to each. “Ash. Dr. Tyler.”


“Kris,” she replied. “I'm off duty.”


“Sparx,” Jason continued. “Rick.”


“Hi. Richard,” Morgan said to each.


Sparx replied in kind. Kaneda nodded, “Nice to see you Morgan. I wish I had known.”


“Wasn't your fight, Richard.”


“Hold that thought, Morgan,” said Jason. “You remember Paladin. Short-armor there is Cavalier.”


“Miss Shaw,” Paladin said with a nod. Cavalier gave a bit of a wave.


“Lastly is Sharon Anderson. She and Kaneda will oversee your training.”


“But I thought...” Jason gave a slight shake of his head. “Okay, then. Where do we start?”


“For starters,” Paladin said, “gear. Toss it up on the table.”


Setting the sea bag on the table, Morgan opened it up. First thing she took out was a torn leather jacket. She set that on the table. Ash laid it flat, inspecting the rents.


Next she pulled out Shadow Hunter's helmet. “I'll take that,” Cavalier said. Morgan tossed it to her.


“I'll take the baton,” Paladin said. Morgan pulled that out and took a long look at it before passing it to him. Cavalier already had wires connecting her armor to the helmet.


Pulling leather pants out that were in the same sad state as the jacket, Morgan set it on the table. Ash laid them flat, as well. Lastly, Morgan pulled out her boots. About the only thing in her outfit that was more or less intact.


“Morgan,” Richard said gently, “why didn't you call?”


“It was my fight, Richard,” she replied.


Shaking his head, Jason said, “Morgan, can you take me in a fight?”


Giving a bit of a smile, Morgan looked at the table. “Maybe.”


Ignoring the years of practice and training that he had gone through to make the change easy, Jason changed violently. His chair flew backward, slammed into the wall, and fell over. Morgan felt pressure from his change on the table.


Let's go. Training room. Now.”


I thought you meant...”


Leaning on his fists, Pulsar hung his head. “Morgan, I know what you thought. Rule number one you need to remember if you plan on continuing, is that there are no rules. You go into a fight consider that it may well be your last.” He picked his head up. His eyes were glowing through his mask. “You do not take on someone like Bloodbath without help.”


He killed Sandra!” she snapped back, standing up.


I'm aware of that,” he said calmly. “I lost you.” He pointed at Ash. “I lost her.” His finger pointed at Sparx. “I lost her.” He pointed at Marlene. “I lost her. Twice. And that is before we get into any fatalities. Each one of them left a mark here,” he pointed at his chest. “And here,” he said pointing at his head. “And I am the poster boy of not dealing with things well.”


You don't understand!”


Morgan, I understand far better than you imagine. You were angry. You were hurting. You were in no mental condition to take him on. You know what I can do. Bloodbath heals the same. Do you know why I had to wait until you were in the hospital before I came to heal you?”




Bloodbath jacked him up. The job he did on you, he did Jason worse,” Ash said.


Morgan looked at Pulsar. “Why didn't you do it at range?”


Line in the sand.” Pulsar pulled his mask off and dropped it on the table. “If I wasn't in his face he could have gotten to you. We wouldn't be having this conversation.”

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“I'm sorry Jason was so hard on you,” Marlene said.


“It's because he cares,” Morgan said quietly.


Marlene smiled. “Just so. Here we are,” she indicated a door. “This isn't going to interfere with work, is it?”


Morgan smiled. “I am officially on extended medical leave.”


“How extended?” The door opened and Marlene lead the way.


“Until I get my head together and give up this foolish nonsense. Or see a shrink.” Morgan took in the apartment. “Wow. Better view than Park Avenue. Does this mean I'm a Guardian?” she joked.


“Do you want to be a Guardian?”


Hearing the seriousness of the question gave Morgan pause. “I don't know. I started as a way to honor Carson.” Morgan dropped her bag on the floor. “But I kept getting sucked in. One thing after another that needed to be responded to.”


Nodding, Marlene said, “They can all relate. That is pretty much how they got started. And we built up from there.”


“Jason going on about his losses. All we had was a summer fling.”


Marlene gave a laugh. “I'll tell you a secret. Jason has only ever had one summer fling, Morgan. And you were it. You came into his life when he was vulnerable. And if you haven't noticed, he doesn't really do things in half-measures.”


“But then Ash came along.”


“A few months later. That didn't really last either.”


Morgan moved to the window and looked out over the skyline. “Do you know why?”


Following after, Marlene said, “Ash kept hurting him physically. Granted it always healed, but she doesn't like hurting people she cares about. What are you going to do now that your face is associated with the mask?”


“I don't know. Disassociate? Try to put some distance between me and it?”

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Bracing her foot against the top of the desk, Beth fastened the strap around her ankle. “When are you going to let me see what you did to me?” She put her foot down, slipped on the other shoe, and repeated the process.


“Soon,” Leah teased.


“You're purposely dragging this out.”


“It won't be much longer,” Leah promised. “I just want a neutral opinion before you see it.”


Jason stepped into his office. “Now I have some idea of what my office is used for when I'm not around.”


Beth lowered her foot to the floor. “You! If you ever involve yourself in my personal life again, I'll... I'll... grrr!”


“In the first place, I have no idea what you're talking about. In the second, who are you and what did you do with my office manager?”


Leah smiled. “You like?”


“Your skills might be rusty from disuse, but you haven't lost your touch. She's gorgeous.”


“Can't I see now? Please?' Leah turned her makeup case so Beth could see herself in the mirror therein. “Oh, wow,” she said quietly. “What did you do to me?”


“What you asked. I hope you aren't disappointed.”


Beth smiled at Leah before looking back into the mirror. “No. Not at all.”


“So, dinner plans?”


“I... I haven't really stopped long enough to think that far ahead,” Beth said.


Jason held his hand out to Beth. She took it and he helped her to her feet. He surprised her when he spun her about like they were dancing. “Very nice.” He released her.


“What was that for?”


“To get a better impression.” Beth shot him an annoyed look. “At least I didn't ask you to dance on the coffee table. Or my desk,” he teased. He held out a card to her.


“Like I would. What's this,” she asked, taking the card.


“Dinner is at eight.”


Beth looked at the card. “Jason! I can't afford this!”


“You can. I pay you well enough. But that is neither here nor there. I called and made your reservation. They will put the bill on my tab. Your responsibility tonight is to enjoy yourself. Nothing more. There is a car waiting for you downstairs.”


“A car?” Beth looked stunned and then relieved. “Thank you.”


“Anything here I need to look at?” Jason asked indicating the pile of files.


Beth began collecting her things. “No. They'll keep over the weekend. I meant to put them away. I'll ask Jessica to see to it on my way out.” She slung her bag over her shoulder. She started to move around the desk and stopped. Beth turned to look Jason in the eye. “I love you.” She kissed him on the cheek.


“The feeling is mutual, Miss Gilbert. Enjoy yourself.”


“Yes, sir.”


“Beth.” She turned towards Leah. Leah passed her something.


Beth looked at it. It was the tube of lipstick Leah had used on her. “Thank you,” she said smiling.


“Have a good time,” Leah said. She and Jason watched Beth walk out of the office. “That was nice of you.”


“I'm not the one that painted her face. And apparently I am now done for the day. What would you like to do?”


“Food?” Leah said. She closed up her makeup case and latched it down. She set it on Jason's desk and retracted the legs, locking them in their place. “Just not wherever you sent her to.”


“It's your weekend,” he said. Leah smiled. “Wherever you want to go.”

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Leaning back against the wall, Dani watched the numbers shift as the elevator car moved upward. After the thirty-ninth floor the numbers shifted from red to blue. When the car passed the fortieth floor an alarm sounded. The car shook when it suddenly stopped.


“Geez,” she said to herself pushing off from the wall.


The door opened and Dani was confronted by handgun pointed in her direction.




“Hi, Warren. Is Jason here?”


Warren pushed the gun towards the floor. “I wasn't gonna shoot her,” an island accent apparent in the woman's voice.


“I'm just not comfortable with you pointing it anywhere in her direction,” Warren said. “Sorry, Dani. He's out with Morgan. Dinner-slash-business meeting.”




“Are you okay?”


“Well, there's this alarm going off in my ears.”


Before she finished speaking, Warren was beside her and punching a code into a wall panel. “Sorry. Workers on the floor below yet. I'm not sure why it went off when you came up.” The alarm went quiet.


“Because she hasn't been cleared yet,” the woman said.


“But she got this far, which means she was vouched for, Cheryl.”


“Aye, Jason did. Why do you think I didn't shoot her?”


“Because you'd be the cleaning detail,” Warren joked. “You okay?” Dani shook her head. “You hungry? Want something to drink while you wait?”


“I'm good,” she said quietly.


“I'll give him a call.”



* * * * *

“Seriously, what do you think of it?”


“Let's say I agree to buy it, then there's the cleaning, refurbishing, and general overhaul.”


Morgan smiled. “All true, but think of the space in the loft.”


Jason gave her an annoyed look. “They didn't even finish the fourth floor.”


“But those over-sized windows! Just think of the light they'll let in so you can paint.”


“They look out on the alley. There's only two of them. And the entire back corner is dark.” His phone buzzed. He picked it up and looked at the screen. “I'm sorry, Morgan. I need to take this.” He answered the phone. “Go.”


“Did she say what's wrong?” Jason pursed his lips while he listened. “If she wants to be alone until I get there, show her to my room. The alarm system will be fixed within the week. Thanks.”


Morgan looked at Jason over the top of her wine glass. “Something wrong?”


“Dani came into town unexpectedly. She needs to see me.”


Morgan smiled. “And here were having such a fun discussion.”


Jason nodded. “Give me a couple of days to think on it. Then I'll be in touch.” He signaled for the waiter.


“Do you need a lift?”


Shaking his head, Jason said, “Check please.”


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“Hey,” Jason said entering his apartment. He shrugged off his suit coat and lay it on the back of a chair.


“Hey,” Dani said from the window. She sat looking out it. She had taken her shoes off, but still wore her long black coat. “The place is coming along.”


“Slowly. Did you like the alarm? I think we could do better if it had some kind of beat to it.” Dani didn't rise to the bait. Jason sat in the window and faced her. “So what brought my favorite firecracker to New York. Don't you have school?”


“I took a week off. I let all my teachers know. I've got my stuff so I can do the expected class work. I'm sorry I messed up your date.”


“Morgan and I are just friends. She knew you needed me. So, why are you here?”


Dani reached inside her coat and pulled out an envelope. It looked like it had been in there a while, with dog-eared corners. She passed it to Jason. Turning it over, the return name and address meant little to him. He thought the town might be close to her grandfather's farm. “Read it,” Dani said, turning her attention back out the window.


Dear Dani,


I regret to be the one to tell you that our Cody was killed in action in the middle east. They are

shipping his body home next week. Momma has already made the funeral arrangements. That

said, Momma also doesn't want you there. I realize that won't come as a surprise to you.


Cody does want you there. I know how he felt about you. Probably better than most. In his

letters to me he said that there is a fire box in his footlocker. I have a key to it. He wanted

me to give it and the box to you in the event of his death. I guess it was the only way he felt

that he could protect some things that needed protecting.


I realize it won't be easy for you and Momma might cause a scene, but the funeral is...


“I'm sorry,” Jason said. Dani wiped some tears away.


“I can't stop crying.”


“You will. When you're ready and healing, they'll stop,” he said gently. “The funeral is tomorrow. What do you want to do?”


“I need to be there. I need to say goodbye.”

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Dani slipped her hand into Jason's and let him help her from the car. Standing up, she adjusted her black suit jacket. Her red blouse was only visible at the collar. Dani slipped on sunglasses and turned her face to the sun.


“His kind of day,” she said. They turned and headed towards the gathering of people. “Part of me wants to comment on some of the people I know, but you'd have no frame of reference.”


“I'm here for you. Beyond that I can be polite and make conversation as needed.”


“I appreciate it,” she said quietly.


“Dani!” a girl called. Dani looked and saw Marissa waving and coming closer. Mari looked a few pounds heavier than Dani recalled seeing her.


“Hi, Mari. Jason, this is Marissa Baines. She's Cody's sister. She's the one that let me know about what happened. Mari, this is Jason Scott.”


“Oh! The Jason you were always talking about?”


Dani smiled. “Yeah. The guy with the big pool in California.”


“I always wanted to visit that pool,” Mari laughed.


“You'd be very welcome,” Jason said.


“I hoped to catch you before everything started so I could give you something without Momma knowing,” Mari said.


“She's looking this way,” Dani said, turning her head to face Mrs. Baines. She gave a slight nod in greeting. “Do you know why I like having tall friends, Mari? They can be used as a wall when you don't want someone to see something.” Jason took a few steps, bent over as if he were picking something up, and then stood erect, blocking Mrs. Baines view of Dani. “Thanks,” Dani said.


Marissa pulled out a folded envelope. “A short note and the key I told you about.”


“Mari, how...how did he die?”


“Explosion. They didn't go into detail. At least as far as I heard. Just that he died in an explosion. Your grandfather is here. There's a seat for you near the front. I got an extra rose for you.”


“Thanks, Mari,” Dani said quietly.


Mari caught Dani in a quick hug. “I need to get back to the family. See you later?”


“I'd like that,” Dani said. “Escort me to my seat and you can meet my grandpa,” she said to Jason as she watched Mari retreat.


“He's your father's father,” Jason said. Said, not asked. They walked slowly through the crowd.


“Get real. I'd need a time machine to meet mom's dad. So when I join the team what kind of view can I expect?”


“I figured you'd get the view of the back alley.” Dani elbowed him in the ribs.


“There's my grandfather.” When they drew close, Dani hugged him. “Hi, Grandpa.”


“I was wondering if you were going to be here.”


“Had to.” Dani stepped back. “Grandpa, this is Jason Scott. Jason, my grandfather, Joseph Anderson.”


“Just call me Joe,” he said holding his hand out. Jason shook it. “Cody worked for me summers and weekends until he enlisted.”


“Yes, I heard the horror story of the equipment barn,” Jason said. Dani elbowed him again.


“No one got hurt. A pleasure to meet you.”

“A pleasure, sir. Dani, I'm going to go pull up a tree. All the seats seem to be claimed.” Dani nodded and Jason turned away. She found Mrs. Baines staring at her.


“Don't let her rattle you, Dani. You were more than good enough for Cody.”


Dani smiled. “If it comes to it, I'll be the one doing the rattling.”

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“Hey! Rufus!”


Robert Baines looked up from where he had been about to apply the cutting torch and saw Dani. “Hey, Blondie.”


The name struck Dani like a slap across the face. “You don't call me that. Not now. Not ever. I am not one of Cody's hand-me-downs that you can lay claim to.”


Robert shrugged. “I didn't mean anything by it. Why do you call me Rufus anyway?”


“Because it rhymes with doofus. You're always the one doing stupid shit. You're about to apply a cutting torch to a fireproof box. Did you ever stop to think that whatever Cody put in there could be damaged by your cutting?”


He shrugged again. “Momma wants to know what's in it. There's no key to it, so cutting is the only option.”


“What's written on the box?”




“And everyone in your family knows who Blondie was to Cody. Yes?”


Robert shrugged again. “Yeah.”


“So, you ever stop to think that just maybe Cody arranged for me to have a key to it?” Dani took the box and turned away.


“Momma wants...”


“Momma will know if there's a damned thing in here that Cody wanted her to know,” Dani said with finality.


Cloud snorted at her as she walked by. “Hey, there, Cloudy.” Dani set the box aside. “You missing him, too?” Cloud came closer and snuffed Dani's hair. “Maybe I can talk Mari into a ride. Would you like that? You, me, and Sunny. Just like we used to do.” Cloud lowered his head. Dani placed her forehead against Cloud and felt the tears start again.

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Joe Anderson watched as Dani said her goodbyes to Jason. She held on tight and smiled when Jason brushed hair out of her face. Jason kissed her on her forehead and climbed back into the rental. Dani waited and waved until he had left the drive.


When Dani made her way to the porch, Joe said, “Good friend you got there.”


“One of the best,” Dani agreed. “He ditched his plans and brought me here without thinking twice.”


“So, airport on Sunday.”


“You get me for a few days, Gramps,” Dani said with a grin.


“What's in the box?” he asked, nodding at it.


Picking the box up, Dani sat on the glider with it in her lap. “Don't know yet. Part of me wants to open it and see. Part of me wants to wait a while. It's like he's still here if I don't open it.”


Joe sat beside Dani. “Felt that way about your dad's stuff. But there was stuff that needed dealing with to drag it out for too long.” Joe looked at his granddaughter. “So what happened?”


“Mrs. Baines argued that she had a right to whatever was in the box, key or no key. She had Bobby going to use a cutting torch to get into it.”


“Figure most of whatever is in there is paper. Not bright.”


Dani laughed. “That pretty much sums up Bobby.”


* * * * *

Sitting on the bed, Dani stared out into the dark beyond her window. The unopened box sat beside her. She focused her attention on the wick of the candle that was on the window sill. Flame leapt upwards, dancing in the slight breeze coming through the screen.


“So what am I supposed to do, Cody?” her voice soft. Her grandmother's cat, Fluffers, meowed at her and jumped on the bed. She began to rub her chin along the box. “Claiming it or telling me to open it?”


Fluffers meowed again and rolled belly-up. Dani smiled and began scratching the cat's offered belly. Fluffers started purring.


“I suppose you're right,” she said. She reached for the key laying on the covers. Picking it up, she slid it into the lock and and turned it. Lifting the lid, Dani saw that Cody had cut a part out of the sketch of her that Jason had done at her request, and taped it into the lid.


“I don't know if Jason would applaud your ingenuity or beat on you for defacing one of his drawings, Cody.” Looking in the box, Dani noted that it was mostly full, and what she could see was mostly paper. “Saved your ass, Rufus. No need to thank me.”


Dani fished out the first envelope laying on top. Written in red marker was “Read Me First”. The envelope wasn't sealed. It was smudged with dirt, ink, and fingerprints as if it had seen a lot of use. She pulled a sheet of paper out of it and unfolded it.


Hey Blondie,


If you're reading this then I didn't come home the way I had hoped. I kept swapping

the letter out. I'd write to you before each mission and use the same envelope. For good luck.

The guys in my unit think it's funny that I keep a fireproof box in my footlocker. I kept

telling them it was because my girl was just so hot. The drawing was nice. Really captured you.

The guys didn't believe it was my girl. It wasn't until we saw your commercial that you had sent

me that they started to believe.

Won't be long before my girl is a movie star.

There are things I want to ask about, but there's a bit of paranoia where it comes to the

mail out here. They don't want us writing anything out about what we're doing or where we're

going, just in case.

Some of out allies out here claimed they ran into some type of earth elemental. How do

we fight something like that? When asked, the Major said that we've got more guns than they've

got freaks. I don't want to even think about how many guys we could lose if we have to try.

I really miss you, Blondie.

Anyway, on to more important things.

Where I could I put you as my personal representative, I guess you'd call it. Not that I

don't trust Momma to do what I want. I know you'll do your damnedest to do what I want.

There's a couple of things in the box for Momma and Marissa. If you could, wrap them

up and see that they get them I'd appreciate it. The wood box is for Bobby. I'm not sure if it

needs wrapping. It's my pins.

I got your name on my bank account. Thanks for supplying the SSN. You'll be getting my

money. It isn't a lot, but I was hoping that Mari would use it to go to college or something.

There isn't enough to cover Bobby I don't think.


Dani put the letter aside. “If they both want to go I'll make it happen, Cody. Promise.”

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  • 2 weeks later...

“I'll have the reports sent to you this evening,” Jason told Marlene through the video link.


Marlene nodded. “That's fine. I'll read them over and get in touch with you if I have any questions about any of it.”


“Alright.” Marlene was reaching to sever the link. “Marlene?”




“How are you?”


Marlene hesitated. “I'm fine, Jason.” She cut off the connection.


“Well,” Beth Gilbert said. “That was rather... abrupt. ”Marlene felt herself blush under the gaze of the raven-tressed woman. “Anything that you want to talk about.”


Marlene felt her insides clench up, and then she nodded. “Can we? Please?”


Beth smiled warmly. “As long as I'm talking to my friend and not the boss. Since it's personal, I assume you don't want to do it here.”


Shaking her head full of strawberry blonde hair, Marlene said, “No. How about my place?”


“Your place? I thought you'd be staying at the mansion.”


“My place, Beth.”


A knock came from the office door and both women looked towards the redhead that popped her head in. “If the meeting is over and you're interested, Tara, Jessica, and I were going to go get something to eat.”


“I'm sorry, Trese,” Marlene said. She dropped her gaze to the report laying on her desk in front of her. “But I already have plans for this evening.”


Trese frowned. “Okay. Beth?”


Beth smiled at Trese as warmly as she had smiled at Marlene moments ago. “Sorry, Trese. I'm the one she's got plans with. Maybe next time.”


Trese shrugged. “Sure. Maybe next time.” She closed the door quietly.


Beth turned her head back to Marlene. “Problems with Jason and Trese?”


Marlene sighed. “My place, Beth. Seven?” Beth nodded.


* * * * *


It was a little after seven when Beth rang the doorbell to Marlene's house. It was a Colonial Blue two-story home with a full basement situated in the same neighborhood as her parents' house. Beth wasn't sure why Marlene bought it and when asked, Marlene always claimed it was her sanctuary. When she was Charles' personal assistant, Marlene had lived in the mansion, the same as Beth when she had worked closer with Jason. Beth shook her head at the thought. Jason rarely worked closely with anyone except Warren, Ash and Kris.


Shifting the bag in her arms, Beth was reaching for the doorbell when the door opened. “Hi, Beth,” Mrs. Palmer greeted her. “Let me get the door.” Marlene's mother was what Beth suspected Marlene would look like in another twenty years; still beautiful, but with lines around her eyes from smiling. It was easy to tell they were related.


“Thanks, Mom,” Beth said, stepping into the house.


“What'd you get?” Marlene asked.


“Hunan chicken. The special,” Beth replied.


Marlene rubbed her belly. “I don't think I can handle that.”


“That's probably why I got the beef in garlic sauce. Other than that, white rice, fried rice, spring rolls, and they gave me a tea sampler.”


“Any of the teas you two don't want to try send my way,” Meredith Palmer said. “If you need anything, call.”


“I will,” Marlene said.


“Bye, mom,” they both said, not quite in unison.


Beth took the food into the kitchen, retrieved plates and bowls. Marlene pulled out the silverware. “So where do you want to start?” Beth asked.


“Spring rolls look good.”


“So, you're going to be like that,” Beth said.


Marlene stopped and looked at Beth. “I'm sorry,” she said quietly. “I don't intend to be. I've just had so much to deal with since I got back and no one to really confide in.”


“I'm here,” Beth said. “I've always been here. A phone call away regardless of what side of the country you're on.”


“I know. It was bad enough when it was Jason that disappeared and having to deal with that...Shyft.”


Beth nodded and began pulling food out of the bag. “He disappeared again.”




“For five weeks or so after the explosion.” Opening up a carton, Beth poured the rice into a bowl. “White or fried?”


“White is fine with the garlic sauce.”


Opening another carton, Beth dumped her chicken over the fried rice. “He didn't tell anyone where he was going. Went north. Way north. Ended up in Quebec.”


Marlene spooned some rice on a plate, then covered it with beef and vegetables. Two spring rolls joined her dinner. “What was he doing up there?”


“Looking for you. He spent a goodly amount of time looking for anyone who could tell him anything that might lead him to where you were. At least according to him.”


Marlene took her plate to a table for two near the window. She sat in one of the chairs and looked out the window. “He didn't say anything.”


Grabbing a packet of tea, Beth tore it open and dropped the bag into a mug. She slipped it under the coffeemaker. “While you were gone, Jason seemed to have two settings. Focused or depressed. Focused when looking for you. Depressed when he couldn't look for you or didn't have any leads.”


“He slept with Trese,” Marlene said quietly.


Beth took her bowl and her mug. She sat opposite Marlene. “Did he? When was this?”




“Let me think. January was when Angelique's father barged into your office and started making demands. Now that I think about it that was also around the time that Jason made all the scars on Trese's back disappear. Kris came into town for that. She stayed for about a week.


“I remember that because Roan tried to resign. That was the day that Jason told me what he'd been doing. Insofar as looking for you, that is.”


“What did you do?”


Beth smiled. “Played the best friends' card, blew up at him, and broke down in my office. I told him to find you and to bring you home. Your mother came to the office to talk to him about you. You need to hide your journals better.”


“Sorry. The cabin burned down and Jason never rebuilt it. That was where Sandy kept her sensitive ones.”


Beth nodded. “Your mom found and started reading. Learned from you what Jason was.”


“Shit. I bet that went over well.”


Shrugging, Beth said, “That's when he gave mom your necklace. So by it she'd know when you were found. After Kris left Leah came into town. I think that was the following week.” She took a sip of her tea. “Hmm. Not bad.”


“What is it?”


“Cherry something. I didn't really look. Just sampled. Want one?”


“Yeah. Just nothing too exotic.”


Beth got up and fetched the tea. She handed it to Marlene. A mug went under the coffeemaker. Beth cycled it for hot water. “Leah went back to modeling. Got resigned. She had a couple of jobs out here so crashed with Jason for the week. That was the second time he disappeared.”


“With Leah?”


Shaking her head, Beth said, “There was a malfunction with the doohickey that Jason had Melner working on. It misfired and Jason disappeared. At least according to him and the building's monitors. There was two of him reported returning.”

“Two?” Marlene shook her head. “Why didn't he say anything to me?”


“I could ask you why you're not talking to him,” Beth countered.


“He was overprotective. I was stifling. Smothered. I needed to get my head together.”


Beth brought the mug to Marlene. “And have you?”


“Not really. There are other concerns.”


“Like the fact you're pregnant?”


Marlene was shocked. “You know?”


“You rub your belly as much and as often as a pregnant woman does. And since Jason healed Kris, Trese, and Sharon, I figured he did you, too. It is his, isn't it?” Marlene looked down at her plate and nodded. “Does he know?” Marlene shook her head. “You're not being fair to him.”


“I know.”


“Anything else?”


“I lost my engagement ring.”


“He would tell you that it was just a ring and replaceable.” Marlene smiled. Beth's phone rang. She looked at the screen before accepting. “Hey, Trese. She's here.”


“My phone is off.”


“What? TV! Now!”


“What's wrong?” Marlene got up and headed towards the front of the house.


“Super News Network,” Beth said trailing Marlene. “Thanks, Trese.” She disconnected.

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  • 3 weeks later...

“Come on, Leah. Answer the damn phone.” Shannon hung up when it went to Leah's voice mail. Again. “Okay, girlfriend, you want to play that way, I'll try an end-around.” She picked out another contact and hit “Call”.


“Hey, Kate. Where's your roommate?” Shannon glanced around while she listened. “No. She bugged out early. There's someone here looking for her. Tell her when she gets in that he was looking for her. Tell her that he is also the one that bought her dress.” Shannon smiled. “Jason Scott. Talk to you later.”


Shannon slipped her phone back into her clutch.


* * * * *

I can't,” George said. “There are rules about these things. I could lose my job.”


You dream of better things, George. You said you designed that dress?”


George looked at Jason and shrugged. “It was a one-time thing. I got lucky. They let me enter the one design.”


And I bought it. I liked it. I was really hoping to see it on the model up close.”


George looked down. “Leah wanted to wear it to the Meet and Greet.”


She was supposed to wear it,” Jason said, holding out his copy of the receipt for George to see. “Instead she didn't even stick around for it.”


George read the request Jason had written. He looked to the copy attached to the hanger. The bottom below the buyer's signature had been torn off. “I'm sorry. That wasn't on my copy.”


Her name is Leah. Does she have a last name?”


I can't.”


George, give me a lead. Something I can work with. Maybe we can come to an agreement.”


Now you're trying to bribe me.”


Jason held out a business card. “Tell you what. Take Leah off the table. If you decide you want to try on your own, you give me a call. I'm always looking for investment opportunities.” Slowly, George reached out and took the card. “And I will take my dress and be on my way.”


* * * * *

Turning into an alley, one moment he was in a tux with a dress slung over his shoulder, and the next he was in slacks and a jacket. Jason slipped his hands into his pockets. He wasn't sure where he was going. His general direction was towards home.


In time he passed by an ice cream parlor and glanced through the window. He smiled to himself. He couldn't see her face, but deep down he knew it was her. His eyes traced the line of her boots and fitted jeans. Her hair hung loose.


Jason pulled the door open, made his way to the counter, and sat on the stool beside her. “That's a big sundae.”


Glancing at him, Leah paused. “Jason?”


“Hello, Leah.”


“It's a comfort food.”


“Can I get you something?” the counter girl asked.


“Banana split,” he answered. “So, what happened to you today that you need that much comforting?”


“Well, I was working and took a few missteps where my boss was concerned. After work there was this party. I got all ready for it, but the dress I had picked out for it disappeared on me.” Leah turned to look at him. Jason smiled at her. Leah shivered.


“That wasn't from the ice cream,” Jason said quietly. “I feel it, too.”


“I looked for you...” they said in unison.


“You first,” Jason offered.


Leah smiled at looked back at her sundae. “I looked for you at the party.”


The counter girl set his ice cream in front of him. “Thank you.” He turned his attention to Leah. “I got called out for work. Emergency situation. When I went back you were gone. Celeste said you had a migraine and left.”


“Word of advice, don't believe much of what she tells you. I don't suffer migraines. Except for Celeste.”


“She struck me as a shark. Looking to take a bite.”


“Apt. She's looking to get set for life. On her back.”


Jason chuckled. “Funny thing is, she was pretty much pointed out to me three different times. She's very pretty. There was something about her that just left me cold.”


Fiddling with her spoon in her ice cream, Leah asked, “So, what do you do for a living? Besides sponsoring fashion shows?”


“My father is the sponsor. I just get to make the public appearances. I do...troubleshooting. CEO in training. For if my father ever decides to retire. Does modeling pay all your bills?”


Leah smiled at him. “No. I model part-time. I'm a college student. Pre-law. I work as a researcher. Legal assistant.”

* * * * *

Leah watched as they locked the door. “That's the first time I've ever been thrown out of an ice cream shop.”


“They do want to go home and we did keep them late. What now?”


Smiling, Leah looked down. “I... I don't want tonight to end just yet.”


Jason put his hand up and waved down a taxi. “Me either. I do know a quiet, intimate place that serves a great cup of coffee.” The taxi pulled up. “Or he can take us home.”


“Coffee sounds good,” Leah said, slipping in the back. Closing the door behind him, Jason gave the driver an address.

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There was something in Jason's eyes that startled her. Kris became acutely aware of how close the bed was. Jason pulled himself erect and closed his eyes. Kris watched as his hand formed a fist. He smiled and opened his eyes. Whatever Kris had seen was gone.


“I don't want dinner to burn,” he said, turning back to the hall.


“Are you okay?”


“I'm fine,” he said. Returning the kitchen, he began stirring.


Kris resumed her perch on a stool. There was a large portfolio laying on the counter next to her seat. “What's this?”


“Something I thought you might want to take a look at. Maybe give me your opinion on it.” Kris pulled it closer and opened the cover. The first image was of Jason's old cabin. She had seen enough of Jason's art over the years to recognize that he had drawn it.


She turned the page and was presented with interior design sketches. Kris flipped back to the external drawing, made some mental notes, and turned back to peruse the all the internal sketches. She started smiling. Glancing up at Jason, he gave her a questioning look. She grinned and continued to look through the drawings.


By the time she was finished and closed it, Jason was pulling the chicken out of the oven. “This isn't the old cabin,” Kris said, tapping the cover. Jason shook his head. “Then what is it?”


Jason set the pan with the chicken aside. He moved the portfolio down the counter and appeared another in front of Kris. She opened it up and after a moment she realized she was looking at a copy of the blueprints. “You aren't... These are...”


“Plans were finalized last week. It was fully approved. Construction begins on the old foundation in two weeks.”


“Awesome! What possessed you to rebuild after all this time?” Jason's head dropped. There was something in his look that made her think. “Marlene?”


Nodding, Jason said, “I want it at least started when we find her. She told me that in not rebuilding it that I had let the bad guy win. She also told me she had never gotten time in the cabin like Sandy and Leah did.”


Kris grinned. “Long vacation with no clothes?”


Jason grinned back. “Something like that. She also told me that it didn't just belong to me.”


“Smart girl. When are you going to tell everyone about it?”


“Not until after it is finished.”

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The Persuader


Marla Pearson relaxed and settled back in the chair. She cleared her mind and shut out the noise. As she did, the room slowly grew darker. In front of her was a full-length mirror. She stared at her reflection choosing how best to present herself.


Starting at the bottom, her low heels became flats. The color of them lightened to a medium gray. The skirt she was wearing, Marla decided that it wouldn't do. It lengthened and then split into dark gray slacks.


Her blouse was white. She left it for the time being.


Ash-blond hair fell to her shoulders. She gathered that up into a tight bun. The intense blue of her eyes she muted until they were a dull gray. Her reflection put on black rimmed glasses. Marla gazed at her double and decided to go without makeup. It simply vanished from the reflection.


Her double put on a lab coat and picked up a thick pile of folders.


The blouse,” she said to herself. It shifted from white to a pale green. She looked over her double to pick out any details that might stick out. Nothing did to her mind. “I'm ready,” she stated.


The mirror changed into a door, which she opened and stepped through.


The room beyond was white; the walls, the ceiling, the floor only broken by the joins of the tiles. One wall held a one-way mirror. Marla set her files on the table and took a seat.


Across from her was a man wearing an inmate jumper. His hands were shackled to the arms of his chair. Without looking, Marla knew that his ankles were likewise shackled to the chair. Done to keep a prisoner from attempting to up-heave the table onto the interviewer.


He had a few days growth on his face and his brown eyes were shadowed.


His hair was shorn with a light stubble of regrowth. He was collared. Leads from the collar were attached to his temples. At the back, Marla knew there were two more on either side of his spine, at the base of his skull.


She pulled the first file off the pile, opened it, and scanned the first few pages.


Where the hell am I?”


Mr. Greenwood. Hugh Greenwood. Obviously not a lumberjack.”


I don't get it and where the hell am I?” he screamed at her.


Hugh... Do you mind if I call you Hugh?”


You can call me 'Sir'. Or 'Master' if you prefer. Which you'll learn when I get out of this.”


Okay, Hughie.”


Not that. Call me Persuader.”


Sorry, Hughie, but you are going to have to persuade me not to. It says here that the first known occurrence of your powers you got one of your high school teachers to do a strip tease on her desk.”


Persuader smiled. “What can I say. I was hot for teacher. Why don't you get up on the table and do one for me?” He screamed in pain.


No, Hughie, I will not strip for you. You seem to have covered up other uses of you abilities until you asked the head cheerleader, who also happened to be the prom queen and the quarterback's girlfriend out. In front of him.” Marla turned a page. “The girl, some time later, ended up in the mental ward of a hospital. The quarterback suicided after being the center...hmm...the center of a gang-bang of the coaches and the rest of the football team. All of whom later went through counseling.”


Persuader smiled. “It did help me expand my horizons. Be a dear and let me loose.” He screamed again. “What the f**king hell!”


Every time you attempt to persuade me, Hughie, you are going to suffer that pain. Or it will end up burning your ability out of your brain.” She turned another page. “Petty larceny. Grand theft. Oh, bank robbery. You hit the big time there. Except where you were caught on camera with one of the bank's employees in the vault. It seems she also went through counseling for your little escapade.”


What do you want?”


Marla ignored him. “You ended up with a perfect grade average in high school. The school records show that you spent a lot of time not doing your work. You have three doctorates from three different universities on three different subjects. And those schools have no records of you ever attending, Hughie.”


I needed a little something to hang on my walls. I want to talk to my lawyer.”


Marla suppressed a smile. “Hughie, you don't have a lawyer.”


Then I'm not saying another damned thing!”


Another page turned. “You moved into the suburbs. Rented a room from a middle-aged single woman. And turned her into a sex toy.” Persuader grinned. “Made friends, and I use that term extremely loosely, with neighbors. Once again with the quarterback scenario with the neighborhood men, while applying your abilities to the females. Females ranging in ages from fifteen to...” Another page turned. “Fifty-six.”


She turned her full attention on Hughie. “You are a real piece of work. What is it? Daddy issues? Is that why you have problems with authority figures? And the control over women. Is that due to an Oedipus Complex? I understand that your mother was immune to your ability.”


Not saying anything, sweetheart.”

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Now, a suitable punishment for Hughie would be for him to be made to dance naked on a table, then suffer the fate of that quarterback... with the results being filmed by Chi Chi LaRue and posted on the “gay” section of Pornhub.


Yes, it’s cruel. So was what he did to those people. 


Or, Marla can proceed directly to “Go” and burn his ability out of his brain. That would work too. 

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“Are you okay?” a deep male voice asked.


Marla lifted the device that covered her head. “No! I feel like I swam in slimy.”


“Would it help if I said I'm sorry?” Dan Thomas asked.




“Assessment. Can we use him?” the deep male voice asked.


Standing up, Marla said, “Yes. Give him to Challenger for target practice. Give him to Shadow as a knife rack. Alan, he is completely immoral. He has a superiority complex driven in part by his ability to persuade others to do what he wants them to do.


“As for whether or not we can use him, my answer is an unequivocal no. He's a rabid feral dog. He is safe so long as he is leashed and muzzled. If you remove the muzzle in order to make use of him he will turn on you. The last thing we need, sir, is someone like you being his sock puppet.”


“Noted,” Alan Baines said.


“Why am I always the one that has to get inside their heads? I really wish there was a way to use what I see as evidence.”


“I'm sorry, Dr. Pearson,” Dan said. “It's your gift.”


“Are you okay?” Huntress asked quietly.


Shaking her head, Marla said, “I need to take a shower and scrub myself clean. I need to get out of my skin so I can wash where he got underneath it. I need to take my brain out so I can bleach the filth from it. How did you catch him?”


“I saw him first,” Huntress stated.


“I thought you were blind,” Alan said. Huntress' lip curled into a small smile. “Recommendation?”


“Find someone that can make him do all the sick things he's made others do. Failing that, put a bullet in the bastard's head.”

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Consciousness returning, Marlene stirred and realized the car wasn't moving. She pulled herself up in the seat. “Where are we?” She looked out the windows and realized they were in the mountains. The sun was up, flashing between the trees. The landscape looked familiar, but she couldn't place it.


She glanced at Jason. He was smiling at her. She reached out for his hand. He gave it to her. “Where are we?”


“Are you awake?”


Smiling back at him, she said, “Yes.”


“I need my hand back.” When she released it, Jason put the car in drive. He pressed the accelerator and the car rolled forward, a little faster than idle speed. Coming around an all-too-familiar curve, Marlene gasped.


It was bigger than the old cabin. Looking at the windows above it seemed there was an entire extra floor. “Jason...”


He pulled the car to the side and killed the engine. Marlene opened the door and stepped out. She walked slowly towards the cabin. The color of the wood was different from the old cabin. The porch was wider and wrapped around out of sight.


Marlene walked towards the building. She turned back to Jason. “Go ahead,” he nodded towards the door. She moved up the steps slowly, her gaze taking in little details. Eye bolts were mounted on several beams above the porch. The window glass had a prismatic glare when the light reflected off of it at an angle.


Double doors were closed. She reached for the handle and found it locked. She looked at Jason over her shoulder. He smiled. Marlene found her hand going to her necklace. The key came free easily at her touch. It slid just as easily into the lock. Marlene turned it.


In the center of the room was a fire pit. Above it was a wide smoke catcher. Four curved couches circled it. Turning her eyes to the side, there were two square tables with four chairs around each. Double doors on the inner wall were nearby. Above the tables were two paintings. Jason's work.


On the left, Sandy Wilson sat in a bay window. She was playing her guitar. On the right was a painting of herself that she had never seen before. She was also sitting in the same window, at the opposite end. If the paintings had been hung closer together she could imagine them being one piece, except the perspective on each focused on the women, and not in keeping the lines of the window panes straight.


Maybe she would suggest such a painting to Jason. Just for her.


She wiped the tears trailing down her face.


“What do you think?”


“I haven't seen all of it yet. When did you do the picture of me?”


Jason set the bags he was carrying down inside the doors. “I started it after you disappeared. As a means of keeping you. After I got back from...before Christmas, I put it away.”


“You never pull out unfinished work,” Marlene said.


“After you left I took it out with the intention of finishing it. For the same reason. To have you close. I wanted it hung up there. To have you and Sandy close together again. In the event that I would have you here to see it.”


“Why wouldn't you have me here?”

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Kaneda watched while Jason drove the screws into the crate holding the portrait of Marlene. “Mentor let me know you had returned.”


“A little while ago.”


“Did you find any answers?”


“I was told that I was chasing ghosts.” Jason paused, holding a screw in one hand and a power screwdriver in the other. “Which is pretty much how I described what I was doing before I met the man.” He lined the screw up with the last hole in the lid and drove it home. “Something on your mind?”


Kaneda held his weapon resting on both hands. “I am not worthy. I failed.”


Jason laid his hand on the sheathed blade. “I am not taking it back,” he stated, removing his hand. “We all failed her.”


“When the time comes,” Kaneda said, “I want in.”


Jason bowed his head in agreement.

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“Still planning on going with the blue and red?”


“Yes,” Trese said. “Or maybe sometimes going with red and blue. You know, how football teams wear different jerseys for home and away.”


Ash gave her a “get real” look. “No heels.”


“But Sparx wears heels,” Trese protested.


“Sparx also flies,” Warren pointed out. “Kris flies, no heels.”


“Dani flies,” Dani said. “Dani doesn't wear heels. Because Dani doesn't want to end up with two broken ankles if she lands wrong.” Trese stuck her tongue out at her.

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