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Leaning against Marlene's desk, Trese watched her. She looked as drained as Trese felt. “What's left on your schedule?”

 

Tapping her screen, Marlene said, “I've got a meeting at four.”

 

Internal or external?” Trese asked.

 

That's the meeting with Accounting?” Sarah asked.

 

Yes.”

 

Sarah, shift the meeting from Marlene's schedule to mine. You can send whatever you've got for the meeting to my inbox and I'll go over it.”

 

What are you doing?” Marlene asked.

 

Trese smiled. “Asserting my authority.”

 

And what do you expect me to do?”

 

I expect you to collect your things, take the rest of the day off, taking Jason with you. I expect you to turn off your phones and find a quiet place where you can take a break. Find a place where people won't expect to find you or will at least respect your privacy if they do know you're there.”

 

Marlene stared at Trese for a moment and then smiled. “Sarah, can you order me and Jason some dinner? Have it delivered to my apartment here, please.”

 

Anything in particular?” Sarah asked.

 

Anything not pizza,” answered Marlene. She stood up and went to her closet, taking out a long coat and draping that over her arm. “Do you know where Jason is?”

 

Research. Talking with whoever will talk to him.” Trese watched while Marlene collected whatever she felt needed collecting and slipped it into her briefcase before snapping it closed. She slipped on her coat and gathered her bag and briefcase. “Thanks,” Marlene said stepping around her desk. Trese leaned her cheek towards Marlene and put a finger on it. Marlene kissed it and hugged Trese. “Thanks, Sis.”

 

Go get him and get out of here before I change my mind and run off to spend time with Dani.” Marlene left her office.

 

The Thai place delivers here. Do you think Jason will mind?”

 

Smiling at Sarah, Trese said, “Nope. I'll be in my office. If you don't have anything left to do today with Marlene gone, feel free to escape, too.”

 

Thanks,” she said to Trese's back.

 

Walking back to her own office Trese felt the weight of the day pulling her down. She felt her own need to decompress. Dinner with Dani and maybe a movie. Stepping into her office, she pulled her phone out and tapped the screen. “Mentor, Jason gets the night off. I don't care if the world decides to end.”

 

Yes, Trese.”

 

Pass me to Dani, please.”

 

Hey!”

 

Hey, yourself.”

 

Whatcha need?”

 

My bestie.”

 

There?” Dani asked with concern.

 

No. This mess is done. I chased Marlene out and confiscated her last meeting. I need to go over her notes for it. After I get out, I need dinner, maybe a movie, and to unwind.”

 

It's Brad's night for dinner,” Dani said.

 

Ugh. I need comfort food. Not hot wings and beer.”

 

What would you like?”

 

Anything not pizza.”

 

Dani laughed. “But pizza is comforting.”

 

Serious, Dani. Nothing really greasy.”

 

Okay, Teke. I'll take care of it. Call me when you're heading out.”

 

I will. Dani?”

 

Yeah?”

 

I love you.”

 

I love you, too. See you in a while.”

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Marlene lay with her head in Jason's lap. She was facing him with one hand slipped behind the small of his back. Jason had one hand on her side and the other gently massaged the back of her neck. Jason's head was tilted back. His ankles were crossed on the coffee table.

 

She sighed when the doorbell rang. “All good things...” she muttered, forcing herself up. She made her way to the door. The doorman stood on the other side holding a brown paper bag.

 

Delivery,” he said when Marlene opened the door.

 

Smiling, Marlene said, “Thanks, James. Did I cover it all?”

 

Yes, Ma'am. Enjoy your dinner.” James turned and headed back toward the elevator.

 

She closed the door and turned back. The only sign of Jason were his shoes under the table. Marlene frowned. The bag of food went on the counter. Making her way down the hall to the bedroom, she found Jason laying on the bed. He had stripped down to a pair of shorts. One arm was across his eyes.

 

Smiling, she bent over and gave him a kiss. Turning back toward the door, Jason's hand caught hers. “You need something?”

 

You,” he answered.

 

I'm going to put the food away for later. Then I'll change out of my clothes and curl up with you.”

 

Power flowed. Others have described the sensation like a momentary sense of being naked and the change was done. To Marlene it had always felt like Jason was touching her everywhere all at once. It was somewhat arousing to her and the thoughts she had about it slipped into erotic.

 

When it was done, she found herself in a long, green satin nightgown. Dark lace adorned the bodice, sleeves, and lower hem. “Hmm. Someone went shopping for me.”

 

I went shopping for me. I thought that might look good in a painting of my favorite lingerie model.”

 

Marlene smiled. “I thought Leah was your favorite.”

 

Second favorite.”

 

What made her slip a spot?” Marlene asked teasingly.

 

Probably the fact I haven't seen her in lingerie in several years.”

 

I'll be right back.” When she came back Jason seemed to be asleep. She pulled a light blanket up from the foot of the bed to cover him. Marlene slipped in laying her head on his chest with an arm to either side. Jason's arms came up to hold her.

 

* * * * *

What did you get me?”

 

I called Wolfgang's. Chicken and rice, broccoli, and macaroni and cheese.” Dani helped Trese off with her coat. “How was it?”

 

So many people had plans. They didn't get to tell their loved ones that they loved them one last time. One woman threatened her husband with divorce. Then he ends up dead.” Trese slipped her shoes off. “One woman is pregnant. They hadn't been married a year yet. He'd been with the company less than five months.” She came to Dani and put her hands on Dani's hips. Dani's arms went around Trese. Their foreheads came together. “I'm drained. I'm tired.”

 

What happens with the pregnant woman?”

 

Trese picked her head up and smiled. “Jason put her husband on the rolls. He can argue with the insurance people. He is going to maintain the husband's pay. At least for a while.”

 

Shower or dinner first?”

 

Shower. Maybe it will help.”

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Sitting on her bed cross-legged, Lisa Sheffield ran a brush through her hair. She shared living quarters with Jenny Michaels. The view was a lot better than that of the dorms. The food was free and the meals generally tended to be edible. Especially the nights when Jason was in residence.

 

Lisa did her share of the common chores. When Jason cooked there usually wasn't a lot of cooking dishes that needed cleaning. To say nothing of his skills in the kitchen. Something Brad could learn a bit of.

 

Frowning to herself she tossed the brush on the bed. Growing up she'd never seen the ass that Brad was now. He had been competitive in sports, but when he started wearing his Nightwing costume it was like that aspect of him had been inflated. Apparently on par with his ego. And from what Lisa had seen so far of the Guardians' records and reports, much to the detriment of his body and reputation as a hero. How many times could one person knock themselves out before they didn't wake up again?

 

She lay back on her pillow lost in thought. Lisa didn't feel it when her powers activated. One moment, she was staring at the ceiling, and the next, her eyes clouded, turning white. When the phenomenon passed she reached for a journal sitting on her nightstand.

 

How long?” She opened the book with the ribbon and clicked her pen. The ribbon was always on a blank page.

 

One minute forty-seven seconds,” Mentor answered. She jotted the date, time, and the elapsed time across the top of the page. Lisa began writing what session was about. Miss Masters seemed to think such a habit important.

 

Thanks for keeping an eye on me,” she said with a smile. Not sure if Mentor could detect such things, but it made her feel better thinking that it... He, she reminded herself, could and realized what it meant.

 

Always. As you and Doctor Tyler requested. At least you haven't been trance walking lately.”

 

Yeah, that kind of puts a damper on the joy of sleeping nude.” Lisa grabbed a post-it. She wrote a time on it followed by GPS coordinates. “Where's Trese at?”

 

She is in the common area.”

 

Lisa sighed. “Thanks.” She got up and headed for the door.

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Trese was sitting on the couch that faced the large screen that regularly saw use as a TV. Stacy sat on one side of her, Lisa noticed that her hair was longer than the last time she had seen the girl. Dani sat on the other, leaning against Trese. Lisa glanced at the screen. They were watching an old black and white movie. She didn't recognize any of the cast.

 

“Trese?”

 

Trese glanced at her and smiled. “Yeah?” Lisa moved behind the couch and held the note out to Trese. “What's this?”

 

“Some place you need to be and when you need to be there,” Lisa told her.

 

Reading the note and glancing at the clock, Trese said, “A little more than half an hour. What's going on?”

 

Lisa simply shrugged. “Take a flyer.”

 

“Is it something she'll need help with?” Dani asked. Lisa shook her head. “Alrighty then.”

 

Sighing, Trese stood up. “Guess I better get ready for work.” Stepping past Stacy, Trese looked at Lisa. “I'm not sure if I'm supposed to thank you or curse you for this.” Lisa laughed.

 

* * * * *

Psistorm set the flyer down on asphalt away from the people and the lights. The first raindrops hit her windscreen before she popped the hatch. She walked towards the police tape.

 

“Hurry up, people! We need to gather as much as we can before it really starts coming down!” Psistorm saw “Colvin” on a patch affixed to his gear vest.

 

“This is why you sent me out here, Lisa?” she asked quietly. Her eyes began to glow purple. She put a barrier over the crime scene that extended past the tape.

 

Colvin looked up. “What the hell?”

 

“Good evening, Detective Colvin. Umbrella Lass at your service,” Psistorm called out to him.

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Settling into her chair, Trese brought a monitor to life. “Learn anything new?” She studied the image of the bracelet on the screen.

 

“There's a solid core running through the band. I have run calculations based on the size and weight. None of the other elements measure out. There would either be additional space, hollow areas, if you will, or the bracelet would weigh more. I have also run samples of minerals. There are close matches, but only if the minerals, or rocks, are not pure,” Mentor explained.

 

Trese rocked the chair back and rested her head. “I assume you heard Leah?”

 

“I did.”

 

“So, what's the plan?”

 

Mentor said, “To begin with I plan to dismount the onyx. Unless you care to do it.”

 

“Thanks”, Trese said. “I'm not a jeweler.”

 

“After that I have been deliberating the benefits of melting the silver down or cutting it. Do you have a preference?” he asked.

 

“Cut it. Leah doesn't care if it gets broken and you can always melt the silver down after since you've got it in quarantine.”

“Indeed.”

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“So, what do you have planned for the day?”

 

Smiling at Dani, Leah said, “Debating on returning a favor.” Her eyes glanced to Jason's door down the hall.

 

Dani grinned. “I'm game if you are.”

 

“Uh huh. And which of us are you interested in getting naked?”

 

“Both?” Her grin widened. “Been a while since I've been with multiple partners.”

 

“And when have you actually been with more than one person at a time?”

 

“Lots of times!” Dani looked at Leah out of the corner of her eye. “In my fantasies. Not buying, huh?”

 

“Nope,” Leah said grinning. Her eyes rolled up into her head. Leah fell. Dani's hands went to the back of her head. Her forearms pressed against her temples.

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“What happened?”

 

“She's awake!” Dani called. “Hey, Teke. You were watching Mentor and passed out. You weren't the only one. Leah is still out. Jason is dealing with multiple compound headaches. Courtesy of all of us.”

 

“But what happened?” Trese tried to sit up. Dani put a hand on her shoulder to keep her down.

 

“The problem, Theresa, is the unknown mass within the bracelet was apparently alive. When I cut into it, you and Leah passed out. The others all suffered headaches,” Mentor explained. “I, on the other hand, heard nothing.”

 

“So we have a sample.”

 

“Unfortunately not. Once its containment was breached it seems to have evaporated.” Trese moaned. “I do, however, have the entire procedure recorded. So, perhaps, among the Guardians' allies, we can find someone with knowledge of what it actually was.”

 

“How are you feeling?” Kris asked.

 

“Like Thumper is in my skull bouncing off the insides. How long was I out?”

 

Kris smiled. “Almost three hours. We can all relate to the headache.” She handed Trese a small cup with pills and a glass of water. “Ibu.” Trese nodded and swallowed them down.

 

“Why did I get hit so hard?” she asked.

 

“I'm thinking proximity. You were in the same room with it with only the containment housing between you and it,” Kris said.

 

Rubbing her forehead with the palm of a hand, Trese asked, “How long you gonna keep me locked up?”

 

“Since you're aware and only suffering from the headache, I am going to release you into Dani's custody. I suggest rest, though.”

 

Trese sat up gingerly. “Whoa. Room shift.” She looked through the glass partition. “How is she?”

 

“Worse off than the rest of us,” Dani said.

 

“Mentor, brainstorm with me. I'm going to want to see the recording. Me being in close quarters with... Whatever it was, knocks me down. Assume it was a pain reaction. A scream, if you will, from what?”

 

Dani shrugged. “Being cut? I'd scream if it hurt.”

 

“The cutting blade was titanium carbide,” Mentor commented. “A possible reaction to that.”

 

“I'm going to go with 'atmospheric',” Spellbinder said from the doorway. “Jason called me,” she said in response to Kris' questioning look. “What was the content of the case, Mentor?”

 

“The bracelet. Sterling silver in the band with traces of copper. Fifteen onyx stones, diamond cut and inlaid. The remote saw. Standard atmosphere. I saw no need to work in a vacuum and there was no danger of combustion.”

 

Spellbinder was quiet, lost in thought. “You're thinking War of the Worlds? Martians get a taste of earth germs and die?” Dani asked.

 

“No,” Spellbinder said. “It's actually a case of it didn't belong here. While it was in the bracelet it was protected. Outside of it, it simply didn't belong in this reality.”

 

“What was it?” Kris asked.

 

“A parasite.”

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“How do you feel?”

 

“Like I've got the shadow of a hangover. Which, since I've never been drunk is rather interesting.” Leah rubbed her temples. “At least the screaming stopped and there's no spiders lurking in the corners.”

 

“Spiders?” Kris asked.

 

Leah spread her hands wide. “Big honking spider dropping larva out its butt.”

 

Kris looked at Spellbinder. “The larva, as she called it, is what was in the bracelet. There's a strand of the spider creature's web that extended to it.”

 

“Why would it?” Kris asked.

 

Spellbinder gave a wry smile. “The creature is intelligent. It does make deals. From what you've told me, I will assume there is a second larva that was bound to the first. Most likely in Bauer's hands. When Leah was in a proper mental state, that would allow him access in order to inject images, manipulate emotions, that sort of thing.”

 

Kris shook her head slowly. “Addie, you scanned Leah for the better part of a day when she got back. You said that there was nothing effecting her.”

 

“No,” Spellbinder said quietly. “I said there was nothing magical about her except what we now know was Arkayne's manipulations. This isn't magical. The means that the bugs were brought here by most likely was magic. The creatures themselves are simply from another reality.”

 

“If you guys are going to insist on talking bugs, I'm going to go,” Leah said.

 

“How are you feeling?” Kris asked.

 

“Hungry.”

 

“That's a good sign,” Spellbinder said.

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Tara opened the door. Al smiled at her. “That's a big box.”

 

Al stepped inside and set the box outside of the foyer without leaving it. He took off his coat and hung it up. His cap went on the same hook. He took off his shoes without being asked. “Where would you like it?” he asked, indicating the box.

 

“What is it?”

 

Al smiled again. “I have no idea.” His glasses came off and he slipped them into his breast pocket.

 

Tara looked over the box, shifting it from position to position to look at all sides. “It's for Michael.”

 

“Yes, ma'am.”

 

“Will you be joining the others in the dining room?” Tara asked.

 

“No, ma'am. That's not my business. If I may, could I use your television?”

 

Tara smiled. “Of course. Would you like some coffee? It's just about ready.”

 

“Please,” he answered with another smile.

 

Tara got the remote for the TV and switched it on. She handed it to him with a smile. Tara pushed the box with one hand towards the dining room. It wasn't heavy and she had to wonder what it was. “Michael, there's a box for you.”

 

“Coffee dinged, Gramma,” he said coming out of the kitchen.

 

“I'll get it, Mom,” Tara said.

 

Michael examined the box. “What is it?”

 

You're going to have to open it to find out,” Gramma told him.

 

Would you like some help?” Trese asked. Michael nodded. Mr. Abernathy passed Trese a pocket knife. Trese knelt down with Michael and pulled the blade out. She sliced through the packing tape, folded the knife back in, and helped Michael pull the box out of the carton.

 

It's wrapped,” Michael said, stating the obvious.

 

There's a card on it,” Tara said from the archway. She brought the coffee to the table.

 

That's my name!” he exclaimed, pointing to the card.

 

Trese grinned. “Why, yes it is!”

 

Pulling the card off, Michael took it to his mother. Tara opened it. “For Michael,” she read. “An early Christmas present. Jason.” She handed the card back to Michael so he could look at it.

 

Santa! And reindeer!” He set the card on the table and turned his attention to the present.

 

So,” Trese asked, “are you going to be neat about it or...?” Michael slipped his hand inside a fold and ripped. “Guess not.”

 

Mom!”

 

I see!” Tara said. “It's the playset you wanted!”

 

Yeah! The whole hideout!”

 

I think it's a tower in the city,” Beth said. “They don't really hide out. Do they?”

 

Can we put it together?”

 

Trese sat cross-legged. “Of course we can. Where do we start?”

 

* * * * *

Michael played with his figures in the new playset. “You're really good with kids,” Tara said. “Do you have any of your own?” Trese shook her head. “Little brothers or sisters?”

 

“I have an extended, rather dysfunctional family. Several close sisters, none of which are blood. Then there's Jason, Warren, Kate, but I claim her under the close sisters.” Tara grinned. “She's Warren's wife.”

 

“Where do I stand?” Beth asked.

 

“Currently, my trainer and slave driver.” Beth laughed. “She's family, too.”

 

Reaching over, Tara stood the box up. There was still a weight in it. “Michael, did you put something in this box?”

 

“No.”

 

“Well, there's still something in it. Come look.”

 

Michael came over and pulled the box down to look inside. “There's another present!” He wrestled the box over until the second present fell out. The wrapping didn't last as long as the first present. “Mom! It's all of them!”

 

“Let me see!” Michael brought the box to his mom. “You're right!”

 

“Can I play with them?” he asked.

 

“They are yours.” Tara peeled the tape off the flap. She pulled the plastic out of the box and looked over the figures.

 

“It's a factory set,” Trese said. “It has all the pieces from the collection in one place. Along with their accessories.” Tara began releasing the figures and setting them on the table where Michael could reach them.

 

“Which one is your favorite?” Trese asked the boy.

 

“This one! She looks like an angel!”

 

Trese smiled. “Yes, she does.”

 

“Jason said I could meet her!”

 

“He did?” Trese reached over and picked up the Psistorm figure. “What about this one?”

 

“All she does is make bubbles. I'm going to put her in the TV room.” Trese glowered. Beth covered her mouth to hide a grin and keep herself from laughing.

 

“That's not a TV,” Tara said. “It's a monitor.”

 

“Whatever.”

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Locking the cabin door Tara and Trese walked off the porch and towards the parking area. There was a rustle from the woods and Trese went on alert, trying to see the source of the noise.

 

“Tara!”

 

“Jarrod?”

 

A young man with several day's growth covering his lower face, stepped out. Trese couldn't make out what he was wearing. She did see the shotgun held in his hands. Held entirely with the business end pointed too closely in her and Tara's direction.

 

“We need to talk!”

 

“Talk to my lawyer!” Tara's voice carried.

 

“You don't understand!”

Tara made to step past Trese. Trese put her arm in front of Tara. Tara stopped when Trese refused to move her arm. “I understand just fine. I had plans, Jarrod. Plans that your bullshit put an end to. I honestly don't know what I ever saw in you!”

 

“He's my son, too!”

 

“Then why don't you do anything to help take care of him?” Tara shouted. The shotgun shifted. The barrel pointing even closer towards them.

 

It seemed to Tara dark smoke blew between the three of them. Jarrod screamed. When the smoke cleared, Jarrod was laying on the ground. Al held Jarrod's shotgun, pointing it at him. “Hush, boy. You don't want to wake the dragon. Miss Gardner, are you okay?”

 

“We're fine, Al. Thanks,” Trese said.

 

“Why don't you two head back to the house.”

 

“Tara...”

 

Looking down at Jarrod, Tara said, “Anything you have to say to me goes through the lawyers.” She glanced at Al. “Just the driver, huh?” He quirked a smile at Tara.

 

“Come on, Tara. Let's go see what shenanigans Michael has the Guardians up to.” Trese led her up the drive.

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  • 3 weeks later...

They settled in the car. Dani turned it over, slipped it into gear, and pulled out. She felt Roger's gaze travel her body. “Are you Red?”

 

Dani chuckled. “Nope. I'm Dani. I tend to wear red because I look good in it and I like the color. Red prefers purple.”

 

“Ah. Where we off to?”

 

“Tailor. Wings doesn't want an off the rack. She would much rather have a good fit. You've got a son?”

 

“Lucas. Haven't seen him in forever.” Roger turned to look out the windshield. “She tell you everything?”

 

Dani smiled. “Only enough to make conversation.”

 

“You look familiar,” Roger said.

 

“Watch TV much? I'm an actress. Stage work and commercials mostly. A few appearances in TV shows.”

 

“At least you're a working actor,” he said.

 

“Not enough to keep me happy, but enough to keep me in the business. So, you're cleaning yourself up enough to get Lucas in you life. What about his mom?”

 

“I don't know where they are. I'd like to part of his life. I'm not sure how she feels about it. Can't talk to her.” Dani glanced at him. His attention was out the door window. “Why's she doing this?”

 

Dani smiled. “It's who she is.”

 

* * * * *

“How is it going?”

 

Dani turned her phone to show Kris. “Two suits. Blue and gray. Five dress shirts. Five ties. Six pair socks. Two pair dress shoes.”

 

“I don't know how I'm going to pay her back for this,” Roger said.

 

“Volume boost, Mentor. Roger,” came through Dani's phone louder than one would expect from any phone. “You will pay me back by doing your best to get the job. You will pay me back by making sure you keep the job once you get it. And lastly, you will pay me back by being a good father to Lucas.”

 

“Yes, ma'am.”

 

“We already discussed that, Roger,” Kris said.

 

Roger smiled. “Yes, Kris. How did your dinner date go?”

 

“He hasn't taken me up on it yet. I was informed that your appointment is on Tuesday. As your sponsor I am obligated to be there for the meeting. So I will see you then. Got to go.” Kris disconnected before either could reply.

 

“Well, I hope she spelled out her expectations,” Dani said grinning.

 

Roger grinned back. “I guess she did. What's next?”

 

“Lunch? I'm starving.” Roger nodded his agreement.

 

* * * * *

Tuesday morning came early for Roger. His grandmother had gifted him with a new briefcase and other things that she thought might help him. When he had opened it and seen what was in it he was shocked. The calculator alone must have set her back for the month alone.

 

He made his way to the kitchen to find her cooking breakfast. “You didn't have to get up early, Grandma.”

 

“What makes you think I got up early? Like you, I didn't sleep much. I figured at the very least I'd send you off with a full belly,” she said, poking him in it. “Today is going to change your life. You got an angel looking out for you.”

 

“I hope so, Grams,” he said, taking a seat at the small table.

 

She slid a full plate in front of him. “What time is that girl supposed to show up for you?” She sat in another chair with her own food.

 

Roger spoke through a mouthful of his breakfast. “Six thirty.”

 

“What have I told you about talking with your mouth full?”

 

Swallowing, he said, “Sorry, Grams. I'm nervous. Scared, really.”

 

“You got nothin' to be scared of, Roger. You done good. Your light shone and that angel saw it.”

 

“I'm sorry, Grams.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Goin' to prison.”

 

She patted his hand. “Best thing that could have happened to you. You got your life turned around and didn't end up dead like your father. Runnin' with the gangs could have done that to you.”

 

Roger nodded. “I need to get ready.”

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Longbow

 

Bryce Callahan stared at the monitor long moments after he had disconnected from Jason. Jason's girl reminded him of his own lost daughter. Maybe it was the way she looked sprawled across the front seat of her car reminding him of how Carlie had looked in the crime scene photos he had been shown.

 

Poor Bryce. Wallowing in it. Unable to move forward.”

 

Shut up, bitch,” he said pushing himself away from the desk. He turned his attention to the work bench. Trick arrows were sometimes a necessity for dealing with problems. He much preferred the simple expedient of a broad-head through his target's heart. “Like I did with you.”

 

Slash laughed. “And now you've got a ghost you don't know how to exorcise.” She wore gray knee boots, gray leather pants, tunic, gloves. A gray band around each bicep. Her mask was gray. She had been a Caucasian. The only color about her was her blondish hair, piercing blue eyes, red lipstick, and the bloodstain around and below the black hole where her heart had beaten.

 

Take your mask off.”

 

Wouldn't you rather I took this off?” Her hands went to closures of her tunic. “Then you can fantasize about doing wicked things with me.” She laughed.

 

Take your mask off.”

 

She smiled lasciviously. “If you insist.” She pulled the mask down. Her blue eyes blinked in the mask. Her upper face was blank.

 

I never looked at any of the pictures of you they shoved under my face. I never bothered to learn your name. Leave me the hell alone.”

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“So, what did I miss?”

 

“The Old Man kept throwing his granddaughter at Jason. She never seemed to stick. Thank God,” Beth said. “Could you imagine the two of them together? Much less her having a say in the company?”

 

“No, no, and no,” Marlene replied.

 

“Your mom wanted to be here to meet the plane. Video calls just don't seem to quell moms. She will be here later. Probably dragging your dad behind. Passes are already in place.”

 

“Good. Good,” Marlene said absently. She smiled and nodded at someone that said hello.

 

“Marlene! I mean, Miss Palmer.”

 

“Hello, Jessica. Step into my office for a moment, please.” Jessica rose from her desk and followed Marlene and Beth through the door. Marlene set her bag down and embraced Jessica. “How are you?”

 

“I'm good. Fully healed, but you knew that. Mostly back together upstairs.”

 

“I'm sorry I wasn't here to help,” Marlene said stepping back to look at Jessica.

 

“It's okay,” Jessica said with a smile. “Where were you?”

 

“It's a long story. One I will regale you with on a girls' night. And who's this?” she said, turning towards her desk. “Replaced me with someone a lot younger?”

 

“I'm Michael,” the boy said from where he sat at Marlene's desk. He wore a fitted three-piece suit.

 

Marlene moved over to him and knelt down. “Hello, Michael. I'm...”

 

“Marlene. Jason was looking for you.”

 

“What are you working on?” she asked.

 

“I was playing a game with my friend,” Michael said.

 

“That's a nice suit.”

 

“Jason got it for me.”

 

The door to the office opened and Tara came through. “Michael, come here!”

 

“Tara,” Jessica said admonishing her.

 

Marlene stood up. “You must be Tara.”

 

“Yes, Ma'am.”

 

“Marlene.” Tara looked confused. “My name is Marlene.”

 

“Yes, Ma'am... Marlene. Jason let Michael play in his office. I meant no harm,” Tara tried to explain.

 

Smiling, Marlene said, “And no harm done.”

 

“But Mr. Croystetter...”

 

“Tara, who do you work for?”

 

“Ma'am?”

 

“Who do you work for? What is your position in the company hierarchy?”

 

“I don't... I don't have one. I work directly for Miss Gardner,” Tara said.

 

“That is correct. As such, whatever Mr. Croystetter might have to say about what you do or don't do has little bearing on matters where you are concerned. Understand?”

 

“Yes, Ma'am.”

 

“Good. Now, feel free to leave Michael in my care and go on about your business. I'm sure you and I will have time later to get to know each other better.”

 

“Yes, Ma'am.” Tara smiled at Michael and left with Jessica following after.

 

“She's going to be a tough one to break of that habit,” Beth said.

 

“Like you and Charles?” Marlene said grinning.

 

“I didn't have the benefit of going to school with his son. Look at Jason. He still calls dad 'sir'.”

 

“Which one?” Marlene asked laughing.

 

“All three of them. What do you make of the Old Man?”

 

Marlene waved it off. “Looking for leverage. Seeing how he can use Tara. As long as rumors don't start about Tara using her bedroom skills to get her job.”

 

“Unified front?”

 

Nodding, Marlene said, “If she needs it.” She turned her attention to the boy. “Okay, Michael. I am going to be needing my desk. You can move your game over to the table.” The table in question lit up.

 

“Okay.” Michael got out of Marlene's chair and limped to the table. Marlene gave Beth a questioning look.

 

“He's doing a lot better since his surgery. Doesn't need the brace and the doctors expect full mobility before too long,” Beth answered.

 

Marlene nodded. “Time to get to work and see what kind of mess my company is in.”

 

“Does Jason know you've taken over?” Beth teased.

 

“Pfft. Jason would give it to me if I asked him for it.”

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  • 2 weeks later...

“Are you sure you're okay to be out here?” Trese asked. She set the broken plank on the cart with the other pieces.

 

Jason braced another broken board and released a low powered burst at it. It shifted enough that Warren could get a pry bar under it to remove the wood and the nails. “Aside from some dark dreams, I'm fine,” he said. Warren glanced at him and pushed on the bar. The board came free. Jason handed it to Trese, who added it to the pile in the cart.

 

“We get these last four boards done and then we can warm up and eat?”

 

Smiling at Trese, Jason said, “Did you and Dani body swap or something?”

 

“If Dani were out here I'd be warm. And I'm hungry.”

 

Warren popped the last broken piece from the post and handed it over. “Jason and I can finish up if you want to head back.”

 

Eyes glowing purple, Trese stepped above the snow on a platform she created. “Don't have to ask twice,” she said. She set off walking back towards the house, her platform disappearing a few steps behind. There was always more a few steps ahead of her.

 

Jason pulled a new plank off the cart. He held it in place while Warren rapidly hammered nails in one end, and then the other, fixing it to the posts. “Careful you don't crack the boards.”

 

Warren gave Jason a half-smile. “Not like this is my first time.”

 

“Cracking boards? Obviously not.” Warren chuckled. “You have been uncharacteristically silent. What's on your mind?” he asked, retrieving another plank.

 

“My dad.” Warren waited while Jason put it in place, and then just as quickly as the first, hammered it down. “What happened? You were supposed to heal him.”

 

Jason hung his head. “I tried. Against his wishes, I tried. There are some things that are beyond my power's ability to heal.”

 

“You say that like it is a separate entity.”

 

Grabbing another board, Jason put it in place. “Sometimes it feels like it. Ben was concerned about his quality of life had he lived. And about it for those who would have had to care for him. He had a stroke. There was some brain damage. Loss of blood flow.”

 

“How bad?”

 

“Bad enough,” Jason said quietly.

 

Warren hammered the board home. “He would have hated that.”

 

“You take after him.”

 

“Yeah.”

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Ash indicated an airbike. “That's yours, if you can't tell by the size. Controls are really similar to a cycle. Each hand is the accelerator for that side. Rear thrusters are controlled by your feet. Press down for up. Pull up for down. Left handle controls the left front. Same with the right.”

 

“Shifter?” Charley asked.

 

“Auto. Warren was fiddling with a manual build. I'm not sure how far along he is with it. Pull back for a climb. Push forward for a dive.”

 

“Ever do a Crazy Ivan?” Charley asked, grinning like a mad woman.

 

Laughing, Ash smiled back. “Oh, yeah. Controls take a bit of getting used to, so don't get too carried away.”

 

Looking across the bay, Charley asked, “What's the difference between this and one of those?”

 

“This is like a bike. Those fliers are more like planes.”

 

“And enclosed. My hair gets frizzy in the rain.”

 

“Well, Jason put this on the order when he figured you were going to stick around for a while. It's built to your size. I'm not too sure how well you would fit in a flier. This button here,” she indicated it on the control cluster. “This is the wind screen. Basic on-off. It automatically adjusts for atmospheric issues, like rain, and speed.”

 

“On button?” Charley pointed one out.

 

“Yep. Flight bay open, Mentor.” A section of outer wall scrolled back on either side. Ash mounted her own airbike. Charley watched while Ash slipped her boots into the stirrups and brought it to life.

 

“Think I've got the basics.” She mounted the airbike. “Fit is good!” Ash gave her a thumbs up. Charley brought her cowl up into place and mashed the starter. They both gunned their engines and shot out of the side of the tower.

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