The next morning their schedules continued as normal. Ronan spent an hour or two drilling Jason and Paul in self defense, mostly making them work through various moves and styles he'd been teaching them. He'd said months ago, "Either you understand what I've been telling you about the mindset of a fight, or you don't. Droning on about it won't help either way -- only being forced to use the knowledge. Be ready for that day, but rest assured I won't bring it down on you simply to temper the steel you have forged."
He'd held true to his word, and from that day on they simply sparred with him coaching for an hour each morning. Both had come to enjoy that hour and the simple relaxation of physical exertion, and both enjoyed Ronan's calm assurance of their continual improvements. Naturally, neither of them objected to the fact that the increasing levels of fitness it propelled them to -- and Jason, at the least, took comfort in the fact that no one was going to be attacking him anytime soon. Not, at least, without paying a very high price.
Strange that thought was enough, though, and he often mused on it. He'd never really considered hurting people before, but under Ronan's tutelage he'd found in himself things he really did not like. Ronan had forced him to face the darkness within his soul, to separate its bits and pieces into things that could be understood. Controlled.
In desperate times, wielded, unleashed to do horrible things. Ronan had explained that his victory that first night, when he had rescued Jason, had rested on many things. One his skill in martial arts, on his physical prowess, on other things he wasn't ready to discuss. But the core -- the piece that let all the others work together to let him win -- was the fact that Jason's attackers had been controlled by their darker natures. Ronan had controlled his darker nature, even as he gave it free reign over his soul. He had called forth rage, demanded that it come to him and answer his call. And because he had called it, because he controlled it, it did as it was bid. When it came, he used it against his foes before walling it back up, calling it to heel, and chaining it once more in chains forged of a will stronger than the strongest steel, a chain that in his words, "Can never be broken save that I choose to let it break. Pray that day never comes."
Jason found within himself that same darkness and it scared him shitless. Once he let is loose -- now that he'd acknowledged its existence, even -- there was no turning back. He would no longer be who he was now -- could never again return to that innocent existence he'd had before his rape. Oh, he could never undo the effect of the rape, but this was a different step, in another direction. One that, in the deepest recesses of his soul, he was terrified he'd already taken.
Ronan wasn't pressing him on the decision, but as Ronan had shown other times he was quite capable of using reverse psychology in ways that Jason couldn't begin to resist. Or, some part of him whispered, this was Ronan's way of pressuring him to find his own place... without applying any pressure at all.
Jason wasn't prepared to bet, one way or the other, on which was the case.
Besides, the sparring was fun. Matching his brother, move for move, blow for blow, there was a calm and peace there that he'd never found elsewhere. No thought -- no time for thought, really -- simply a calm, assured movement from action to reaction, from attack to defense and back again. His hands drifted out with glacial slowness as his brother extended an inch too far, and Jason fell backwards, holding his brothers wrists as he brought his feet up into Paul's stomach and threw him across the room.
Paul hit the wall with a jarring 'thud' as Ronan swore. "Damnit to hell!" Moments later, Ronan looked up at a panicked Jason, kneeling over his brother. "He'll be fine. Good thing he has a thick skull!"
"Shit Ronan, I didn't mean to-" Paul's moan broke Jason's train of thought.
A few minutes later, after an icepack had been applied to the injured area, Ronan sat the two of them down. "You two are getting better than I realized. I never showed you that move, Jason, for a reason. It's not safe to practice or use in here."
"I'm sorry Ronan, I must have-"
"Enough!" Ronan interrupted. "Clearly you're learning, and this is a good thing, not a bad. It simply means we can't do this in here anymore. In the future, we'll take it downstairs, where there is room to do such things without danger."
Jason and Paul shared a look. Ronan was going to continue the sparring?
"Ronan, in case you hadn't noticed, I nearly killed Paul!"
"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," Ronan replied. "Your knowledge and skills are not the problem, only that we didn't take sufficient precautions."
"And what happens the next time we screw up and don't 'take sufficient precautions'?" Paul demanded angrily. "Instead of splitting my skull, I crush my brother's?"
"There won't be a next time!" Ronan thundered. "There are ways to do this safely -- and had I been paying attention, I would have taught you them by now. I have been remiss, and like it or not we're going to correct that."
"Like it or not? You know, I have a job, I have a line on a good apartment, I think I'm getting out while the getting is good!" Paul shot back.
Ronan turned to face him directly. "You may do as you choose, but trust me, please, you need to learn just a few more things. You need to learn how to spar, how to train, safely. Even if you never take it up again, that information is vital."
"Why? Don't I already know enough to handle just about any attacker?"
"You know nothing!" Ronan struck out towards Paul, hands and arms a blur as he mimed a head strike. Paul saw the trap coming and blocked low as a foot strike came in instead. Ronan twisted around and Paul got a hold of his arm and started to pull it up behind his back.
Only instead of being disabled, Ronan moved with Paul and suddenly -- Jason didn't see how -- Paul was the one with his arm behind his back, chest down on the table. "Very few could have pulled that move off, true, but against them you'd now be helpless. A victim for whatever horrors they choose to commit."
"And this extra training will help... how?" Paul demanded snidely.
"It won't. But it will let you train further -- or train others -- with a modicum of safety."
"If we aren't going to train any further-" Paul started.
"And if ever you want to train someone else?" Ronan demanded. "You cannot see the future, and some day you may need to train another. And even if not, at least you will learn to use what I've shown you to full effect."
"Fine, fine..." Paul agreed. "Now, let go of my arm already?" Ronan did so, and Paul picked his ice pack back up.
"Ronan, while we let Paul soak his poor head, why don't you keep teaching me a little?" Jason asked.
Ronan looked over in surprise for a second before nodding. "If you aren't going to argue as well..."
"I... I think I want to continue training one way or the other," Jason replied.
Ronan grinned. "Then I'd love to teach you more! Come, let's head downstairs," Ronan pulled Jason from the room while Paul stared at the two of them.
Lara and Ronan had to frog marched Jason to a car, clearly with Paul's aid since his guitar and amp were in the back seat instead of in his room, and Jason was not amused. He had no clue what was going on, Lara and Ronan just grinned every time he asked.
Finally they turned off the main roads, but he had no clue what they were doing here. It was some kind of campus, he thought, but the only sign he'd seen had something to do with 'fine arts' whatever that meant. Eventually they found a satisfactory parking spot, or at least one Lara was willing to accept. She had a 'thing' for finding the perfect parking spot that was clearly driving Ronan batty today. Jason thought that suited Ronan just right for once.
They quickly dragged him and his equipment into a nearby building. Blinking in surprise, Jason realized it was an auditorium of some kind. There were only a few people in the audience, all in a row, almost as if this was some kind of try out. Ronan pushed him out onto the stage and whispered soto voice, "Just play what you did the other day and you'll knock their socks off. Play some other stuff and you'll have 'em eating out of your hand." The audience did not look amused at Ronan's comments, trading glances with one another. All but one of them, anyway, who just gave Jason a small smile and pointed to the center of the stage, where some equipment had been set up for him to use. Setting himself up, Jason decided to play along with this insanity, whatever it was.
Facing the audience, he slung his guitar over his shoulder and then bowed. "Ladies and gentlemen, forgive me -- I wasn't informed until the last minute I'd be doing this today. And by that, I mean my friends just grabbed me from work and frog marched me here without a word." The audience frowned at him instead of laughing.
Discarding humor, he raised his hands to the strings and began. Before long, looks of scorn turned to respect, hauteur to companionable grins, and the odd man out was grinning ear to ear. Finishing the first song, he decided to try another. This time he plucked his strings, putting an infectious grin on every face as this time his efforts at humor struck home. All too soon that song ended, and he moved into another quickly, dancing between songs and melody fragments with his old ease again.
Everyone always told him he was good; from the looks on the face of the audience they agreed. And he had a sinking suspicion that these guys knew what they were talking about. Ronan, as usual, had set him up without bothering to mention he was doing so. When he brought his act to a close, he bowed simply. "I trust I haven't wasted your time, ladies and gentlemen?"
If it had been a full audience, rather than the half dozen people who had shown up, the standing ovation they gave could have brought the roof down on their heads.
Later that day, Jason was chasing Ronan down the street, threatening his friend with suitable retribution for this morning's surprise in dire tones, when a dirty old crone darted out of an alley and knocked him down.
"Child of prophecy, welcome, welcome!" she cackled. "The storm is coming, and its power shall be the scouring of your soul!"
Ronan turned around and saw the hag, and went pale. "Get away from him!" he shouted, jogging back.
"Marge sees what she sees, oh powerful you are but even you can't change that!" she cackled at him. "A storm is coming, and its force shall be the scouring of this young man's soul!"
"Get out of here, Jason, while I talk to Marge here about her behavior," Ronan ordered.
"Three signs will there be, oh child of portents," Marge addressed Jason. "The first shall be the death of your false love, who returns that with love even more false, yet also a love true! Oh what pain awaits ye..."
Ronan cut in as Eric turned around a nearby corner. "Eric, get Jason out of here now!" Eric, unquestioningly obeying Ronan, dragging a very unhappy Jason off.
"What the hell is going on?" Jason demanded.
"Dunno, but when Ronan orders like that I obey, and so should you!"
Meanwhile, Ronan continued his conversation with Marge.
"What are you doing bothering that poor boy?" he demanded.
"Marge sees what she sees..."
"You see naught but the horror and darkness to come, and you speak in riddles to boot!" Ronan roared. "Now, why do you bother him?"
"Marge sees that this is a prophecy that must be, oh nasty one should know that."
"Fine, speak your prophecy," Ronan spat out. "Then begone!"
"Marge sees what she sees, and I advise you to mark my words well," she told him. Her voice grew stronger, younger, and she seemed to speak from a great distance with a hollow rushing tone. "A storm is coming, and its force will be the scouring of that young man's soul. By three signs you shall see it's coming, chances to turn aside or embrace the storm. The first shall be the death of a false love. Second, the boy shall find true love in a murderer most foul," Marge grinned at Ronan's suddenly ashen face, "and shall redeem with his love the one he finds in his soul. Third shall be the assurance of a storm to come, for two indivisible shall become one indivisible. Know ye that once the third sign has come, you cannot turn aside from a storm, but it may not be the storm. Finally, this is not a prophecy of what will be, for it can be stopped, but rather a prophecy of what must be, or all the world shall be covered in darkness for a hundred years, and this city become as dust. Keep to honor and duty, or see all you have striven for destroyed! The boy must be told all that I have told you -- all of it, word for word as best you can! -- but I give a second gift to you, oh you of two names," Marge's voice was returning to her normal tone, indicating the end of prophecy, but all she spoke was true -- by curse or blessing, Ronan didn't have a clue, but she always spoke only truth, if twisted and distorted beyond recognition. "Share it if you choose, Marge cares not." Marge leaned in and whispered one final thing to Ronan, before cackling and scooting off. Ronan stared at her, shocked. She always spoke truth, he knew that, but this... this was like nothing she'd spoken before! She turned and cackled one last thing at him in answer to his thoughts: "All prophecy 'ere this one has been but practice, proof that you and others might know truth when you hear it. Old Marge has fulfilled her duty to the One Above, and may now go to her eternal reward. One task left old Marge, and she can do that from beyond the veil if she chooses."
"And I so choose, Justin Alfred Brown."
With those words, the old woman vanished from sight as if she'd never been, and Ronan knew he would never see her again. "Good riddance," he muttered, as he turned to follow the boys.
Jason was dragged upstairs to the apartment, while Eric was sent to bring Lara in. "Paul, out!" Ronan commanded as he walked into the apartment. Paul took one look at his face and ran. Jason wished he could follow. This was the Ronan from the first night here, when he'd truly upset his friend by offering to pay for his bed with sex. This was the angry giant who could snap him in two like a toothpick.
Something was very, very wrong with that old woman, he figured. He couldn't figure out what the harm in an old bag lady was, but there had to be something pretty big to get Ronan so angry.
Except, he realized, it wasn't anger. The word "commanding" came to mind, as did "forceful". Ronan wasn't angry, he was... he was... He was taking charge of a situation. Whatever the hell the situation was!
Soon they were sitting down in an impromptu meeting, Eric to the left, Ronan to the right, and Lara directly in front of Jason. Ronan started in. "Jason, I need you to understand, what we're going to tell you, you aren't going to want to believe. I can't provide a lot of proof -- you aren't ready for it -- but believe me when I tell you it's true. Eric, I was getting ready to tell you about Marge anyway, this just moves my schedule up a little."
Lara leaned forward, "What are you doing Ronan? There's no reason to discuss the bitch with Jason!"
"You might not like Marge Lara, but show her a little more respect than that. She has never once lied to us," Ronan chided.
"She can't!" Lara shot back. "Well, probably anyway..."
"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Jason demanded. Ronan and Lara locked eyes, and she looked away.
"On your head be it Ronan!" she muttered.
"Eric, Jason, listen closely. Marge is someone I have met many times before. She has always appeared the same way, a dirty old woman whom you bump into by accident. Except it is no accident, she comes bearing a message for you. That message, though couched in riddle and metaphor, is true. Every word out of her mouth is completely and utterly true -- though subject to being metaphorical, couched in a riddle, or just framed in her own odd point of view."
"This is some kind of joke, right?" Jason interjected.
"I wish it were, Jason, but this message revolves around you -- that's why she wanted to talk to you."
"What?!" Lara shouted. "I could buy Eric, barely, but she came for Jason?!"
"It gets worse Lara, this is her final message. Everything else was building up to this apparently."
"That's ridiculous!" Lara retorted. "That old biddy doesn't have enough mind left to build up to something!"
"Others do. And I don't think she was ever acting on her own." Ronan frowned.
Lara started to say something, then paused. "Oh," she finally said. "That makes sense."
Waiting a moment, Ronan continued. "Jason, believe me, I am dead serious. That lady speaks only truth, and she had a prophecy for you, a prophecy that it is vital you hear word for word, as best as I can relay it."
"Oh, great, now she's a prophet!" Jason snapped.
"You want proof of that? Last time I saw her was the night before I rescued you. She told me that I would soon rescue a young man, too late to rescue him. I would save his living space, only after his parents destroyed it. I would save his body, only after others battered it. I would arrange for the saving of his sex, only after another perverted it. I would save him too late to save him."
"Sound familiar?" Lara asked Jason.
"You've got to be kidding me!" Jason spluttered.
"I wish, Jason. She told me that the night before I rescued you -- the night before you went to your parents."
"OK, let's just assume I buy this. What's the message she wanted to give me?" Jason demanded.
"The storm is coming. Its power shall be the scouring of your soul. Three signs will signal the storm. One shall be the death of your false love, one who returns a love even more false and more true," Eric hissed, but waved Ronan on rather than explaining. "The second shall be your finding true love for a murderer most foul, and with it redeeming him. The third shall ensure that there will be a storm, but not necessarily the storm, as two indivisible become one indivisible," Lara shook her head as Ronan continued. "This is not a prophecy of what will be, for it can be stopped, but rather a prophecy of what must be. If we do not keep to duty and honor the prophecy may be broken, and the world shall be covered in darkness for a hundred years, this city becoming as dust, and all we have striven for destroyed."
Jason rocked back in his seat. "She told you one more thing than that, didn't she," he swallowed. "Those words... almost word for word, I dreamed that last night. And in the end... in the end the voice offered another gift up, one final piece of wisdom... but I didn't get to hear it..." Jason shook his head. "What, are you listening to me sleep now that you're picking pieces of my dream to tease me with?"
Eric looked at Jason. "Jason, trust me, Ronan has spoken true here. He keeps many secrets, and I keep many of them for him. This is one you get to keep now too. If he says Marge speaks only truth, then she does."
Lara looked at Eric, and frowned. "You recognized part of the prophecy didn't you?"
"Yes," Eric whispered softly. "But I don't want to talk about it."
"Eric," Ronan said, "it's important we hear whatever you have to tell us."
"I don't think I should Ronan. Your description... I didn't pay much attention, but..." Eric was clearly reluctant to finish.
"Don't tell me you met her already!" Lara snapped at her younger brother. He simply looked at her. "Great, just great, if I ever get my hands on her!"
"Enough, Lara." Ronan commanded. "I take it she told you not to talk?"
"Yes. She told me... I can't remember the exact phrasing, but if I talk now, I doom this city to death, though...." Eric broke off. "I'm not going to say everything she said unless you order me to, Ronan. Please, don't."
"Alright, not for now. When you're ready, if ever. Jason, are you OK with all this?"
"Are you nuts Ronan? A bag lady giving modern day prophecy, my friends talking about my dreams, a trip by a college of the fine arts without any forewarning, I nearly killed my brother this morning, and it's barely even dinner time!" Jason was shouting now. "What the hell are you going to pull out of your hat next, telling me that I'm the next coming of the Messiah?"
"Don't even joke about that, Jason," Lara warned. "A certain Someone has a very rotten sense of humor, and believe me, He can always hear you."
"Oh, great, so God has a sense of humor now?"
"What do you call the duck billed platypus?" Eric offered. Jason almost cracked a grin.
"OK, you win," Jason answered, exasperated. "Fine, God has a sense of humor, whatever. Right now, I'm going to go find Paul and explain to him that helping you in your little pranks is a Bad Idea." Eric followed Jason out the door, shooting Ronan and Lara a very clear look.
Jason yawned, and got up out of his chair. He'd drilled into his younger brother's skull the idea that helping play pranks on 'Big Bro' was a bad idea, but boy was it tiring. And dinner had hardly been a very fun affair, with everyone afraid to say a thing lest they set him off. Except Eric, anyway, who'd busily tried to boost his spirits. Finally everyone else had gone to bed while the two of them had just chatted. Jason looked at his friend. "Yesterday, we didn't get anywhere..."
Eric simply got up, smiled, and walked over to the bedroom. "Come on!"
Jason followed, and Eric closed the door behind them. Soon they were repeating the events of yesterday, except this time Eric grabbed a tube of lube out of the nightstand. Jason looked into Eric's eyes, and whispered softly, "Go slow, I've never... not before, not after that bastard..."
"Shh, Jason, shh. It's alright. Time to take back what that bastard took from you." Eric's hands, so powerful, so strong, became as velvet as he stroke Jason's chest and face, and soon the two began to take off. Soaring higher, and higher, seeking ever increasing plateaus of pleasure.
Finally, together, they spread their wings and flew at long, long last.