Everyone stared as the man clutched his head and groaned for a moment, before his eyes began to glass over. He slowly crumpled to the ground, muscles failing him as he fell deeper and deeper under the spell of one word.
"Sleep!" he had been commanded, and despite a valiant battle, he was going to do just that. Still, his struggle was sufficient to keep him from going so deeply asleep as to loose all muscle control; a small mercy, to be sure, but still a mercy.
The others in the cell reacted predictably, shifting away from Jason slowly. He shifted to point at the second gangbanger, who raised his hands in surrender. Jason crooked his finger at the boy they were going to rape. "Come over here."
The boy stood up, shakily, and stumbled across the cell. Jason helped him into the cot, and then spooned up behind his shivering form to offer physical warmth and emotional comfort. He twisted his head around to stare at the remaining gangbanger. "Feel lucky! Once the truth came out about who you raped, your fellow inmates would have torn you to pieces for child molestation."
"What the hell are you talking about?" the fourth man demanded, razor thin body suddenly alert.
"I..." the boy in front of Jason gulped. "I used some fake ID to buy some liquor... I'm only 15..."
The gangbanger went pale. Sure, the boy wasn't an out and out child, but he was close enough. He did not want to go down for 'child' rape. Even in this city, that would be a bad idea.
The next morning, the wardens tried to make trouble over Jason being in the same bed as a clearly assaulted minor. But the boy's ardent support, and the lack of evidence of sexual assault, prevented them from doing much more than adding a charge of assault to the list. Given the boy's testimony that Jason had actually been protecting him, they couldn't even really hit 'the faggot' with that, and gave the whole thing up as a bad idea.
The judge set a million dollar bail, much to the objection of Jason's attorney. Who was not Nicholas Brown, who apparently was 'too busy' to make this appearance, or so a clerk smirked at Jason. Jason leaned in and smiled at the clerk, "I'll remember this. And so will Nick."
The clerk abruptly had better things to do. The bailiffs grabbed Jason, hard, but were unable to site any specific action to complain about. It wasn't like he'd said a single threatening thing.
Even if his eyes... his eyes!
Ronan showed up promptly, Nickolas Brown in tow, as soon as Jason managed to get a phone call. The bail was paid in cash -- much to the shock of the court -- and Jason was free to go. The clerk who'd failed to bother calling Nick was nowhere to be found, and at Nick's suggestion they left that for another day. On the ride back, Ronan filled Jason in on what he missed at the remembrance service.
"You should have seen the face on Jason's parents as they listened to the tales people had to tell. They couldn't believe their 'devil-worshiping son' could possibly have done so much good for so many people."
"I did see," Jason murmured softly, eyes distant. "In my dreams..."
Jason didn't notice the sudden widening of Ronan's eyes, and was so distracted he didn't notice that Ronan let the conversation trail off. They drove the rest of the way in silence, neither saying a word until they tromped into the apartment.
"Paul, shouldn't you be leaving for class now," Jason stated.
"Nah, I took the day off to help you," his brother smiled at him. Jason shook his head angrily.
"Paul, shouldn't you be leaving for class, now," he repeated. Paul took the hint.
"Oh, yeah, I guess I forgot," Paul darted into his room, grabbed a bag, and left. Quickly.
Jason went to his room and grabbed an envelope out of his nightstand, then sat in a couch. Ronan stood by the doorway to the apartment, watching.
"Sit," Jason stated. Ronan didn't move. Jason turned his head and looked. "Now."
"I am not accustomed to being addressed in that tone of voice," Ronan replied testily.
"Then it's overdue. Sit. Now." Jason frowned. "Now!"
Ronan looked in Jason's eyes, and sat. Fast. Haunting memory of months past came to him, of words spoken in ignorance, "How he can miss just how handsome he is, how the power of his character stains his every movement and action to declare that one day -- oh, by all that's holy, may that day be soon -- that one day he will be not just handsome, not just beautiful, but a very paragon of desirability. He's broken, now, but once he is whole... once he is whole!"
Jason, though maimed by Eric's death, had found his power. And the force of his will and character were now fully the equal of Ronan's.
Not accustomed indeed! Ronan thought with what was almost a snicker. Time to get accustomed, because Jason wasn't going to give him much of a choice.
"You can stop drooling now," Jason interrupted his chain of thought.
"Yes, you think I'm hot. That's not what we're here to discuss."
"Jason, we need to talk-"
"Indeed! Ronan, it's time you told me about the Guarding, and the Guiding, and the Guardians."
Ronan's jaw dropped, "How did... when did... who?"
"Well, A is that I have this habit of watching and listening, and you guys aren't always very good at hiding things. B you may have noticed I watched that little thing with a knife at Eric's grave -- even when you do hide something, you don't hide it from me! C, of course, is Eric." Jason lifted the envelope containing Eric's last letter.
"He didn't!" Jason smiled at Ronan's reaction. "Give it here!" Ronan demanded.
"I said, give it here," Ronan demanded in a voice that could move mountains. Jason felt his body try to obey and replied.
"And I said, no."
Ronan reached out with his hand, fingers curled as if to grasp something. Jason felt the letter shift in his hand, preparing to take off, and lifted his other hand palm out as if to command Ronan to stop.
"Give it to me, now."
"No." Jason felt the strain in his mind, something reminiscent of the strain of doing a hard math or physics problem, the sense of stretching to your limits to try and do something. Except he wasn't anywhere near his limits, despite the sweat rolling down both their faces.
Jason thought he was trembling from the strain, then he realized it wasn't him. The room was oh-so-slightly shaking around them in reaction to the struggle. And as time was passing, the shaking was becoming less and less subtle. In fact, any minute now...
Lara didn't bother knocking, she just ran straight in, screaming "What the hell is going on in here?" One glance at the two of them answered her question. "Ronan, what do you think your doing?"
"I want that letter," Ronan demanded.
"Eric didn't want you to!" Jason grunted out.
"What? But he told me..."
"Told you what, Ronan?" Lara asked.
"That I could feel free to try and take it."
"Try and take it..." Lara mused. "You didn't catch the phrasing?"
Ronan let his hand drop and the shaking came to a sudden stop. "Not until just now. Arrogance. Bleh."
Jason likewise let his hand drop, and then tucked the letter into his shirt for safe keeping.
"So, why exactly would Eric provoke the two of us to fight?" Ronan asked.
"I'd say it's obvious," Lara said softly. "He wanted you to see Jason for what he's become: your equal."
"His equal? Me? Are you-" Jason stopped. "The opposite is also true: for me to realize I'm Ronan's equal."
"Of course," Lara smiled softly. "Brother dearest just loved killing two birds with one stone. Especially when it's the same bird twice." For a few moments silence reigned.
"So, Ronan, you going to tell me about the Guiding, Guarding, and Guardians now?"
Lara raised an eyebrow. "Eric mentioned those to you?" Jason nodded. "Well, I guess we owe you some explanations, but..."
"Where to begin," Ronan laughed lightly. "Where shall we begin?"
"Start at the beginning, move through the middle, until you reach the end," Jason supplied helpfully.
Ronan glanced at him and snorted. "This is going to be an interesting tale. Alright, I'll start with the Guardians."
Lara turned and left the apartment silently, leaving the two behind for their discussion.
"The Guardians are a group of people who, for various reasons, have agreed to a common effort. All of us have been granted special abilities, these abilities vary from person to person, each of us with our own unique specialty. We use these powers to the betterment of our fellow man, and to guard against the effects of the Arch. We guard the Arch, or rather against it. We keep people away, as best we can, and try to undo its effects on the city as a whole."
"I do not know what created the Arch, how, why, or even exactly when. I suspect it's fairly recent -- within the last ten years or so -- but I have no evidence for that. I only know that I discovered it around eight years ago when I was poking around in the basement of this building."
"I nearly died. I opened a door to look into a dark room, purely out of curiosity, and saw it. That was enough. I felt its power -- its evil -- reaching out to me. It reached out, tendrils grasping at my soul, and, instinctively, I drew upon a power I'd never before felt to shield myself. The shield didn't last long, but I managed to get the door shut before it failed. The Arch woke up then: I could feel its presence, its darkness, and it had begun pushing out."
"I believe that was inevitable, that all I did was start something that would have happened anyways. But I'll never know. All I know is that in those few moments I looked upon the arch, I damn near died. If I'd let it, it would have drained my soul and my life in mere moments, leaving nothing behind. Maybe it stole a little of my energy anyways, and that's why it started radiating. Maybe I was sensitized and started sensing what was already there. I don't know. But I could feel it."
"What I do know is that the power I reached for, the power I called on to save me, didn't go away. Suddenly, I could do things. I had a cut on my arm when I opened that door; when I checked the bandage a few minutes later the cut was gone, as if it had never existed. When a power outage cut the lights in the basement -- nothing to do with the Arch, just some clumsy work on the transformer that supplied the building -- I was able to create a light to see by."
"When I got upstairs, I was in shock. I didn't know how to handle it. I couldn't imagine what had happened, it defied all logical and rational explanation. I wandered out into the city, my feet taking me left and right at a whim. What I didn't then realize was that my choices weren't really random. I soon found myself in the nearby park, and I heard a scream. I didn't think, I just sprinted. I found a lady being menaced by a large man, trying to escape from him. I don't know if he was trying to get her purse, or trying for something more. I just acted as my nature and conscience dictated. I was a master of the martial arts, even then, and the thug was on the ground in seconds. The lady would have thanked me, but I felt drawn elsewhere."
"And this time I felt, I understood, that I was being drawn. I was being guided towards something. That something turned out to be a minor domestic dispute, except I showed up on the scene just in time to grab a kid out of the way as a TV was sent flying out of a window by the argument. The couple calmed down right after that, and I was drawn elsewhere."
"I had discovered, or been discovered by, the Guiding, a Guardian's greatest tool. It allowed me to know where trouble was; it helped me know how to diffuse situations I didn't quite understand. I helped suicides choose to turn back to life, I stopped a man from murdering his wife when he found out she was cheating on him, I did a dozen things in a dozen places, making life better for the city. Most of what I handled that day were, I came to believe, emergencies triggered by the awakening of the Arch. In the weeks that passed the incidents dwindled until they hit a low."
"Over the years I've done experiments and studies, and tried to learn of the Arch, and the Guiding, and the Power that has been given to us Guardians. I've come to understand that there are very few true rules, but there are many guidelines and tendencies. The Arch is causing evil in this city, creating apathy to cover that evil, and doing things I don't understand to people. And it's doing them in ways I don't understand. In most cases, it takes two approaches. It will either seduce someone towards evil, nudging them just a little bit towards a darker choice but letting them make the choice, or it will force them towards it. It will also dampen the awareness and reaction most people have towards evil, keeping them from noticing or fighting it. And it's getting stronger, slowly."
"We Guardians are here to counter that. We nudge people back to the light, we help break the binding that forces them towards the darkness, we help them be aware of what's going on. Problem is, we're human, even if the Guiding isn't. The Guiding is a tool, as much as it's a self-aware entity. Assuming it is self-aware, we just know it behaves that way sometimes." Ronan made a tossing gesture, as if to dismiss an unimportant subject. "Whatever the case may be, our choices change how it guides us, and to what ends. So, sometimes, we end up missing a case. Which is... very bad."
"And there you have it. There are details upon details upon details for you to learn, but the core of it you now know. Jason, I beg you to keep this secret. Trying to spread the knowledge... the Arch guards itself, Jason. If you try to explain, to bring more into it, be very careful. The Arch will try to kill them, it will try to kill you. And believe me, unless you are very, very careful it will manage just that. It... protects itself."
"So, have any questions?"
Jason settled for a simple, resolute command: "Teach me."
Paul cracked the door cautiously to check the lay of the land before he tromped into the apartment. He had no clue what was going on, but he really didn't want to get caught up in whatever it was. He really, really didn't want to get caught up in a fight between those two.
His brother had changed over the last six months. Most of those changes were good, true. He was stronger, more sure of himself, more comfortable with himself. He knew his mind, and was sure of his choices. Of course, if most of the changes were good, that meant some weren't. God help the poor fool who got in Jason's way these days. Since Eric's death this had come to the fore -- his brother was driven by something Paul didn't understand, something that scared him. His brother had taken on aspects of Ronan's personality, a certainty and surety of thought and action that brooked no opposition.
Frankly, these days Jason scared Paul shitless -- even more than Ronan. Paul had no idea how to deal with it. Of course, there were worse things. Paul had no idea how to deal with a drunken Ronan, either. And judging from the three empty bottles in front of him, and the half-empty one he was nursing, Ronan was quite, quite drunk.
Paul debated backing out, but Ronan looked up at him before he could do it. "Come in!" he slurred, waving with the hand that held the bottle.
"Again?" Paul asked softly. "Ronan, what is going on with you?" Paul walked in slowly, glad he'd gone ahead and eaten dinner out.
Ronan hiccuped, then shook his head. "Go to bed Paul."
Paul decided not to push the point then and there. Instead, he went to his room and pulled out his cell. "Jason, what happened?"
"What's wrong, bro?" Jason replied.
"Ronan is in the living room, finishing off a fourth bottle of whiskey."
There was a slight pause before Jason could reply. "His fourth bottle?"
"That's what I said."
"Shit!" Jason blurted out.
"You haven't been home, but... this isn't the first night, either."
Jason paused even longer this time. "I'll be home soonest."
"Thanks!" Paul breathed a sigh of relief as he hung up. Not wanting to get dragged into the impending confrontation, he prepared for bed as quickly, and as quietly, as he could.
It wasn't long before he could hear Jason get home. He couldn't hear a lot, but from the sounds of it Jason was helping a surprisingly willing Ronan to bed.
Paul waited to hear the door to Ronan's room reopen. He was going to talk to Jason before Jason went to bed, but... He waited a long time before creeping out and peeking into Jason's room. Where Jason's bed was. Jason's empty bed.
Paul stared at the door to Ronan's room, then chickened out and went to his own bed. His oh-so-lonely bed.
As he drifted off to sleep, he couldn't help but think about how damned lucky his brother was. "Almost... too damned... lucky..." he muttered as he crossed the barrier between sleep and wakefulness.
Jason, again, tried to pull away, but Ronan refused to let go, clutching him like a child with a teddy bear. Jason finally just kicked his shoes off and pulled the covers over himself. As he relaxed, Ronan pulled him even tighter, slipping a leg between Jason's two, ensuring a full frontal contact between them.
Which did not help Jason sleep any easier, given that he hadn't had a release, of any kind, in the last several days. And with a warm body pressed up against his, his body was making that complaint known. Loudly!
It didn't help, either, that Ronan was shifting up against him with every breath either of them took. If this wasn't Hell, the Devil needed to take some lessons.
Jason focused on deep, slow breaths drawn from the bottom of his torso, and let his thoughts drift. It took time and effort, but eventually he managed to drift into sleep.
Next time he put Ronan to bed, he'd damned well have to make sure that he did so in a way that didn't result in his being caught like a fly in a web!
Even if it was an oh-so-pleasant web to be caught in?
Jason smiled as the thought drifted across. Yeah it would be a pleasant web if he could have dealt with his one issue...
So why didn't you?
Jason stirred as Ronan, still asleep, shifted his hips to press tightly against Jason's. It was as if Ronan was responding to his dreaming thoughts.
And why can't I, hmm?
Jason pressed his hips back, rhythmically undulating beside Ronan as pleasure began to cascade across his body. This was so wrong -- he shouldn't be doing this!
Amusedly, Ronan thought a clear, And why not?
As the not-dream deepened, Jason began to understand. "You're asleep, that's why-"
Ronan pressed forward, hard, making Jason moan. "So are you, in case you hadn't noticed." Jason would have blinked but his eyes were still closed. "You're asleep," Ronan pressed tightly, making Jason moan some more, "I'm asleep," again Ronan thrust his hips into Jason, "and we're not hurting anyone."
"No, I won't, I can't do that to you!"
"You don't have a choice. You aren't awake, and your conscious mind is active only as a courtesy of your powers. You can't stop what's happening here. You get to enjoy it though, unlike me."
"What?" Jason asked.
"Alcohol does funny things to mind -- and power. Simply put, 'I' am not aware, but rather my subconscious is 'handling' things for me. Forcing 'me' to enjoy a long overdue sex act with the red-hot man I've been lusting over for a while now."
Jason's mind began to splinter as pleasure took a deeper hold, and he wasn't able to manage another coherent thought for the rest of the night.
Which isn't to say that he didn't enjoy every moment of the slow, languorous clime to pleasure that being asleep forced upon him.
The next morning, Jason felt the slow rise to wakefulness in his bed mate, and woke up himself. He'd come to enjoy helping Eric greet the day, and didn't realize, until after hugging closer to Ronan, that he wasn't in his own bed, with his own lover.
Ronan pulled back, startled, blinking his eyes to clear them. Suddenly he started thrashing around in the tangled mess of blankets trying to get out of bed. "What the bloody fucking god-be damned hell did I do to you, Jason? Ah, fucking hell I'm so sorry, I don't have a clue- oh shit!" Ronan noticed the state of his boxers. Then the fact that he had boxers on. Then the fact that, under the blankets, Jason still had clothes on. "Um... eh..."
Jason laughed. "You were a little drunk last night, so I put you to bed. Problem was you didn't want to let go of me, so I had to sleep here. From the looks of it..." Jason smiled as he looked at Ronan's soiled boxers, then pulled his shorts out to look at his own. "At least we both enjoyed it."
Ronan blushed, then ran for the restroom. Jason took some time to stretch before he followed suit. Ignoring the increasingly agitated Ronan, he proceeded to unlimber his equipment and eliminate a truly impressive buildup. He then walked out to grab some clothes from his room and take a shower in the second restroom, but got short stopped on the way.
"What the hell happened last night, bro?" Paul practically screamed at his brother.
"I put Ronan to bed," Jason started to answer.
"Oh, and just happened to stay there all night yourself?" Paul sneered angrily.
"Actually, once I got him to sleep, he wouldn't let go of his teddy bear -- and being handy, I got nominated for the role of teddy bear."
"Oh- Oh really," Paul's sneer wasn't quite right this time, almost like it was faked.
"Any noises or smell you may have noticed have more to do with two adult men who were overdue, than with me taking advantage of Ronan's drunkenness," Jason mentioned airily.
Paul giggled a little and turned to the attack. "So, you admit to lusting after Ronan!"
"I admit nothing, officer, nothing!"
"Ve haff vays of making you talk!" Both of them collapsed in laughter for a while. Paul finally regained control of himself, and deciding not to press the issue any further, talked to his brother on other subjects before the two of them went about their separate days.
"Where are you taking me Lara?" Jason complained. She just smiled and lead him into Ronan's office, careful to close the door behind them. The simply furnished room wasn't too terribly interesting, just a desk, a few chairs, and some filing cabinets. Why she felt the need to bring him here was beyond him!
Lara grabbed one of the largest cabinets and pulled, and suddenly he discovered why she had brought him into the office as it smoothly swung away from the wall, revealing a small door. Slipping through, they walked down the stairs to a hidden basement. "Come on already, Lara!"
"Just a little bit further Jason, and you'll see. I think."
"Lara!" Jason complained as she dragged him to the far end of the basement, to a blank space in the concrete wall.
"What do you see?"
"A wall!" Jason snapped, and turned to walk away. Halfway through the turn he stopped and gazed back at the wall though. "What the-" he raised his hand as if to touch the wall and stopped inches away. Closing his eyes, he let his hand drift over the surface of the wall. "This... this is to what Ronan did at the funeral as a child's finger painting is to a masterpiece..." He licked his lips, and then backed away. "I will see what is there to be seen!" he commanded, somehow using the words to focus his will towards it's goal. Concrete shimmered and danced before his eyes, before fading away to show a door, even as his knees started to quake from exhaustion. Lara caught him before he could fell, and helped him sit down against the wall.
"I watched it and I still don't believe it," she muttered, while she waited for Jason to recover. Jason looked over at the door and then looked at her.
"Don't tell me. The Arch is back there."
"Yes -- a few doors back."
"What else is in there?" Jason asked softly.
"Why don't you go in and find out?" Lara asked just as softly.
"I don't want... if I look at it..."
"Don't worry, the door to that room is clearly marked. And I'm not letting you near it, Ronan's orders."
"Smart of him," Jason got up and ignored Lara's questioning look. They'd played enigma with him long enough, time to get some of his own back! He hid a smile at the thought as he walked over to the door and turned the knob.
He wasn't expecting what he ran into as he walked into the room. On one level, he should have -- it was predictable, given Ronan and Lara's temperaments. And on another level, it was outright obvious given what he'd been told about the ability to heal, and Sam's sudden release from the wheelchair. "Sam!" he cried, and crossed the few feet between them in a rush, to bury him in a hug. "So that's why you got out of your wheelchair so suddenly!"
Sam couldn't speak through the bear-hug, and when Jason finally released him just returned the favor. "Glad to see you got in the 'club' too!" he muttered into Jason's ear as he squeezed. Hard. A loud "cracking" sound broke him off and Jason stumbled backwards, rubbing his back.
"Ouch!" he exclaimed, grinning as he shifted and stretched a little. "Good thing I know a chiropractor, Mr. Almost Broke My Back!"
"Oh shuddup!" Sam shot back, matching Jason's grin.
"There are others who'd like to talk to him, Sam," Lara intervened.
"Yes Lara, whatever you say Lara, anything for you Lara!" Sam half-sang before waltzing off. Jason smiled as Lara proceeded to introduce him to various other people who'd gathered for the 'social event'. Jason would get Ronan back for that little surprise later.
That evening, Lara asked Paul over for dinner, leaving Ronan and Jason alone. Paul looked distinctly uncomfortable with the idea, but decided to trust Jason and Ronan alone with each other. They were both adults, after all. And the idea of Ronan and Jason together... the more he thought about it, the more natural it seemed. Even if it was way to soon to be anything but rebound on Jason's part.
Jason enjoyed dinner that night, lasagna being one of his favorites, and the conversation was kept light and inconsequential as both avoided this morning's events very carefully. Finally Ronan came to the point. "Jason, Eric made some requests in his will. They're... well, they're more than a little odd from most people's perspective. But the biggest one is that he left you a few things, and asked me to arrange a few others out of his personal finances -- a final gift from him, to you."
Ronan walked out of the room and came back with three boxes, and set them on the table before Jason. Two were made of utilitarian metal, with clasps to hold them shut. "I have some pull with the police department -- parts of it, anyway -- and managed to short-circuit the normal process to acquire these items," Ronan rapped the metal boxes with his knuckles. "Eric... didn't know the exact name and model, or he would have handled the deed himself. Having access to the police reports, it was easy enough to..." Ronan shoved one of the cases at Jason instead of finishing, stating simply, "Open it."
Jason had a little trouble with the latches, but they came undone under his hands readily enough. Inside... he had to remind himself to breath as he reached inside and pull out his 'gift'. Holding it in his hand, he hissed angrily. "Impossible!"
"Exactly the same make and model, and I've arranged-" Ronan began.
"How did you get this one?!" Jason shouted angrily, eyes flashing with anger. "How!"
"I don't understand what you mean, Jason. I just bought-"
"This is the weapon I used that night. Not the same make and model, the same weapon," Jason hissed.
"Impossible, the police would have that so tightly locked down-"
"Nonetheless, Ronan, it is," Jason interrupted. "I've killed using this weapon. I know this weapon," Jason put it back in the case angrily "This is the gun from when Eric died. This weapon, and no other."
"Well, at least we now know how come they said the one they got was never fired," Ronan said thoughtfully. "My only question is who the hell pulled the switch."
Jason looked at Ronan, and laughed. "You actually have to ask?" Ronan looked at him. "Eric arranged it, of course."
"Oh, of course he did. He just waltzed right up out of his... grave..." Ronan started looking thoughtful. "Or he made arrangements before he died to have this happen... but..."
"Just like he made arrangements before he died to get me this make and model, he made sure it was this pistol." Jason closed the box. "The other is the same kind of pistol I take it?"
"Yes. Also arranged are training lessons in their use," Ronan answered. "Which, of course, leaves this." He set the third box in front of Jason.
Four feet long and made of ornately carved wood, it gleamed darkly with beauty and sophistication that screamed "money". Jason had no clue what could possibly be inside. But something deep inside him knew that this was important -- more important even than the pistols. He held his hands out over the box and felt inside it with newfound senses. Power... deep, old, deadly power. Blood. Old, new, shed in battle and in defeat. Strength. Spirit -- it was alive. Not in the sense of blood and flesh and bone, but it knew what was happening around it, it had opinions on what was occurring. It yearned for a master worthy of its soul.
It sensed him. God, it knew him. It wanted him as badly as he now wanted it. They were one... they were meant to be one. He was the lover of its last master, but that wasn't what mattered to it. As he was -- as he'd become -- a weapon, so was it. Both of them brought death, both of them held to honor, both of them completed the other. A symbol of the warrior class met one who would one day be a warrior beyond compare and they knew each other.
Slowly, reverently, Jason lifted the edge. Well oiled hinges gave no resistance as he lifted the lid and unveiled what was inside. Reaching in he touched the naked metal, traced the intricate designs on it with his fingers. Twin grooves ran the length of the gently curved blade, and the entire weapon seemed to glow in his sight.
"God in Heaven!" Jason swore. Grasping the hilt, he drew forth the katana. He spoke reverentially and in awe, "This is old, Ronan. Beyond old. Ancient, really. It..."
Ronan replied with equal reverence, "It's a gift, Jason. I... acquired two of them. When I brought them home and cleaned them, I sensed that one belonged with me, to me. The other... it spoke for Eric one day. It wasn't meant for him in the way I sense it was meant for you, but it wanted to be used. And he was its best option."
"This is incredible, Ronan... Oh my God, I can feel it."
"Indeed. As I can mine."
"It's impossible, of course, but... it's alive, Ronan. It thinks, it feels, it knows me. It knows its purpose. It... it knows its own honor Ronan." Jason could barely speak.
"As a weapon, you will find it to be without peer. The movies and our culture have elevated the katana to a place far above and beyond its real potential, its real strengths. But in our hands these weapons are beyond even those exaggerated tales."
"Yes, I can feel it. I can draw on its strength, and it on mine..." the blade began to glow in Jason's grasp, light illuminating the intricate decorations on each side of the blade from within. Soon the glow spread until the entire thing, from tip to hilt gleamed with its own, internal light. Different colors flowed through it in light blues and greens and reds, tracing paths and drifting through one another in a light show of incomprehensible beauty.
"Thank you Ronan. Thank you." Jason whispered, then reached inside the box for the saya and sheathed the blade. Jason placed the weapon back in the box and closed the lid. "It is not yet time for me to wear this, though. I need... something has to occur first. I am not yet ready for the power. And I need to learn how to use this."
"The later I can help you with; the former must come with time's passage or not at all."
Jason looked up into Ronan's eyes. "This was Eric's gift to me?"
"This... and a few other things," Ronan answered. "You will never again want for money, he left you the better part of four million dollars."
"Four..." Jason couldn't speak.
"Guardians, as a rule, tend to be rich," Ronan answered nonchalantly. "We can do things no one else can: heal injuries, track down the lost, unearth treasures thought buried beyond all recollection."
"You use your powers... to earn money?" Jason almost couldn't believe it.
Ronan grinned, "Well, yes. Mind you, we heal for free. But when the family can afford it, we let them know we did them a favor, and point out the costs that would have been associated with 'normal' medical treatment. You'd be surprised how much money you can get out of someone by forcing an inoperable cancer into remission -- for free."
"You're joking, right?" Jason grinned back.
"Nope. All of it is completely legal, if highly unusual. When the tax-man comes calling, we list our services as some form or another of alternative medicine. It's a great cover, since what we do is based on many of the concepts used in alternative medicine." Ronan smiled. "It was a brilliant maneuver, and it even opened up useful doors into the hospital system and FCS."
"FCS?" Jason asked, confused by the acronym.
"Family and Children's Services, it's a government agency that, in theory, is supposed to look out for the welfare of children and help families in trouble," Ronan lost all traces of amusement.
"In theory?" Jason asked.
"In theory," Ronan answered. "Around here... well, you know how things are. In fact, you're going to be coming with me tomorrow to deal with a few things."
"Things?" Jason asked eagerly.
"This and that. It's time you learned a little of what you can do, and what you can't. We'll start with a trip to the hospital. I..." Ronan closed his eyes in pain. "I failed Eric. I didn't understand what he was asking of me, and I didn't do something I should have... one of his friends was in the hospital, and he wanted me to check up on him... I didn't do so until after the funeral." Tears began to run down Ronan's face as he continued, "The doctor in the morgue has an agreement with me, and called me before I got around to calling the hospital. One of the corpses he did an autopsy on, in his own words, 'stank to high heaven'."
"Gee, a corpse stinking?" Jason cracked in an effort to lighten the mood.
Ronan lifted a hand as if to slap him, then dropped it. "Not funny Jason. It wasn't the corpse, it's how the man died."
"He was in the hospital after a major beating, suffering from multiple internal bleeds which killed him after several long, painful days." Ronan paused, anger flashing across his face. "The blood work the mortician did as a matter of procedure showed large amounts -- dangerous amounts in a healthy person -- of blood thinners."
"Blood thinners? What does that... internal bleeding... oh my God..." Jason put two and two together.
"Murder. And the authorities have no interest in pursuing a real investigation into the matter." Ronan confirmed. "So we'll just have to do it for them."
"That sounds like fun."
Ronan's lips tightened, then he nodded curtly. "I'm going to head..." Jason was out the door in a flash, interrupting Ronan mid-sentence and leaving furniture clattering to the ground behind him. Ronan hesitated for barely a second before following suit.
Paul enjoyed walking around the city. He liked the action of putting heel to toe, and he liked feeling the ground moving beneath his feet. He enjoyed seeing the city in a way that you can never manage in a car, in a rush to get from place to place, and he enjoyed -- mostly -- the scents and sounds and the movement of air and all the other things that a car seals you away from.
He was taking a longer walk than usual tonight, giving Ronan and Jason plenty of time to finish whatever it was they were doing. Hopefully, Jason would get Ronan to stop drinking himself to sleep. Paul had no clue how Ronan's liver had survived the alcohol he'd been drinking lately, but whatever miracle was gracing him couldn't last much longer before that onslaught.
"Hello there," someone greeted Paul.
"Hrm, oh, hi!" Paul answered, surprised. He hadn't heard the stranger coming up behind him.
"How are you doing this fine day?" the stranger asked with a grin.
"Oh, fine," Paul replied, wondering why this man was talking to him. "My name is Paul," he said, and twisted around to stick his hand out.
The stranger followed suit and took the hand with a grin, "Eric," he answered as he brushed his red hair out of his eyes. The answer caused Paul to lose stride suddenly.
"Eric?!" he chocked out, then took a deep breath. "I'm sorry... it's just... one of my friends died recently, and..."
"I don't understand," the new Eric asked, "what's wrong with my name?"
"His name was... it's not really anything wrong with your name as such, it's just..." Paul still hadn't quite climbed out of the state of mental shock the name had put him in. But the stranger suddenly understood.
"Oh, I'm so sorry... I normally prefer my middle name, but if you'd rather use my first, feel free to call me Barney. Though I suspect you will have a hard time doing so with a straight face."
Paul laughed. "You've got that one right, Barney!" The two of them sniggered, then resumed their walk. Paul had no idea why he was so comfortable with this guy, but they hit it right off the bat as they talked and chatted to one another.
Paul stopped abruptly as they were passing an alley, and glanced around. "What is it?" Barney asked. Then they both turned and ran into the alley at the sound of flesh hitting flesh echoing down it.
The woman looked half dead as the man leering over her slapped her again, and Paul screamed as he put on a fresh burst of speed. Lowering his shoulder, he slammed it into the midriff of the assailant who was just turning to face him. Physics took over, and the assailant went flying into the darkness, as Barney crouched over the bloodied woman. "She needs a hospital, fast!"
"Too bad she ain't gettin' it then!" someone sneered behind them. "Ran by us so fast we didn't have time to stop ya... guess we'll just have to have some fun with you too, as well as the girl."
Paul let a slight smile dance across his lips as he noted the armament of their foes. Knives, clubs, a few chains. No guns. "Perhaps you should leave... while you still can," he answered. Barney grinned and let his coat fall open. Drawing an object out of an inner pocket, he tossed it to Paul even as they shuffled around so that Paul was facing forward, while Barney was watching his back.
"Paul, trouble," Barney warned. Paul glanced back and saw another group of men behind them, revealing themselves from the shadows.
"I've got the front, you've got the rear?" Paul asked, checking that the object in his hand really was the weapon he thought it was.
"Done!" Barney agreed.
"Leave, now, on your own two feet. Or, if you'd rather, leave later on ambulance gurneys and in the coroner's meat wagon," Paul threatened the men blocking the alley. They laughed, and moved in. Paul was good, but he was not this good. There were at least six of them to both front and rear, and Barney probably couldn't make up the numbers either. "Well, it's been fun Barney."
"You make it sound like it's already over, Paul!" Barney joked back.
"Twelve on two. I know some people who could pull that off -- are you one of them?"
"Actually, I thought you were!" Barney answered worriedly.
"I know a few. But I ain't there yet."
"Well, best defense..." Paul started.
"Is a good offense!" Barney finished. They leapt forward to the attack, flicking their wrists out to extend the batons that Barney had fished from his jacket.
Jason didn't understand why he went up stairs instead of down -- Paul is in danger! -- but he did it anyway. He slammed out the door to the roof access -- Hey, isn't that supposed to be locked? -- and sprinted across the roof. Reaching the end all to quickly, he didn't stop. He hopped up a little on one step to the top of the little wall that ran the edge of the roof. And the next step kicked out hard against that lip, launching him... Straight across the fucking street. He almost couldn't believe he'd done it. He felt a little drained, he sensed the energy he'd poured into that leap. Purely human muscles couldn't have done what he just did. But he wasn't purely human anymore. He, somehow, had come to possess magic. And that magic was being anything but subtle right at the moment, because he needed to go help Paul. Now!
He landed softly, impossibly quietly, on the next rooftop, and didn't even break stride as the urgent need drove him to sprint across this building as well. And the next. And the one after that. The sense of urgency faded with every step, not because it was any less urgent, but...
"I'm going to be there in time!" Jason sighed as he understood. He didn't let up his sprint, but he stopped pouring his magic into the effort to go faster. The crunch of gravel underfoot and the sounds of cars on the road began to intrude on his consciousness once again. He felt something deep inside stretching, straining... and he relaxed the restraint on it. Suddenly he could feel so much more.
And as the new information washed over him, he picked up speed. Not a lot, but each foot was suddenly placed just so to minimize wasted energy as gravel and dirt and dust shifted under foot, without any external aid from the guiding. Each arm pumped just so to maximize his balance. Each breath was that much deeper, that much truer. He could feel everything. Over there a man arguing with his wife... over there a child afraid of the monster under her bed... there, a child crying because daddy didn't want to cuddle... and here a woman about to be gang raped... and his brother, soon to intervene... And above them...
Again Jason pushed off from the rooftops, sailing across the gap between buildings. This time he landed completely silently, muffling even the grinding of gravel underfoot as he sprinted across this ceiling. From the alley in front of him the sounds of combat rose... directly below the figure that stood watch, rifle raised to his cheek. A figure who suddenly stiffened, and spun around as Ronan landed behind Jason without the extra muffling.
Jason was inside the man's defenses, past the barrel of the rifle. He blocked it with one raised arm, as the other grabbed the man's shirt and yanked. The next few moments were confusing and muddled as they struggled for control. Then Ronan was there, plucking the firearm out of the fight and tossing it aside.
At which point the stranger rolled away, dark leather clothing gleaming in the evening light as he rolled right over the edge of the building to the street below. Jason got up and ran to the edge of the room and looked down.
No one. Nothing. He was gone.
"Black leather? How much more cliché can you get?" Jason snorted before looking over at Ronan's face. "I'm going to assume there's a reason everyone seems to wear that stuff, despite being clichéd as hell?"
Ronan laughed, even as he turned to watch the battle below. "Oh come on, I taught you better than that!" he muttered. Jason, remembering the fight going on below, walked over to watch as well. "I've got the stranger, you get your brother... the idiots..."
Paul and Barney wove a defense around the poor woman, darting here and there, baton's flashing before faces and cracking on defenseless arms and legs.
Despite their not-inconsiderable skills, neither of them were a match for the number of rapists they confronted. Together, they held their own, barely. But they were tiring quickly -- if not so quickly as before they'd gained their second wind -- and the end was coming, soon.
"Not like this..." Paul panted. "Not like this!"
"Been nice knowing you, Paul," Barney forced out between breaths. "An honor, really, to die at your side."
Paul didn't acknowledge the comment, instead focusing on holding back the latest press by his opponents. Who just weren't tiring fast enough, damn it.
Then one of them slipped on a piece of garbage. A vaudeville comedy joke come to life as a banana peel went one way, and a person another.
A banana peel of all things. Which, in continued defiance of reality continued the vaudeville joke and slapped another assailant in the face. Distracting him at the critical moment, allowing Barney to take out one of his opponents at the very same moment Paul was doing the same.
Paul would have laughed if he hadn't been so busy saving his life. If he lived, he would laugh later. It was straight our of vaudeville, something out of a three stooges skit. And it saved his life. All they needed now was for a fucking anvil to fall out of the sky on one of the bad guys.
No sooner thought than done, one of Paul's attackers staggered backwards into a drainage pipe, rattling it. And knocking loose a planter that had been resting near it where it passed over the edge of a windowsill. The thug barely had time to get himself off the wall before too many pounds of dirt, ceramic, and plant came straight down on his skull.
Everyone stopped for a moment to stare at that. First vaudeville, now road-runner cartoons. And since when did anyone label their planter's 'Property of ACME, Inc.', anyway?
Jason had to laugh. It was just too funny. "Of all the planters I _could have chosen!" he giggled._
Ronan agreed with the sentiment, and with a grin ordered his young protege to keep his mind on the job. "And please, at least _try to be subtle!" he added with a snicker._
The odds having been dramatically shifted, Paul and Barney started doing much better. The press of numbers had been the only thing giving their foes an edge. Between the sudden reduction of that edge and the demoralizing effect of how, their attackers soon lost confidence. They broke off and ran, leaving their injured behind.
Paul turned to face the woman they'd nearly died to protect. And flinched back in sudden recognition.
"Time to get down there," Ronan started, then glanced at Jason. "_I need to be there. One of us showing up is suspicious enough. Two..." he didn't need to finish._
Jason's mouth tightened in distaste, but he agreed, "I'll see you at home. And make it quick, our conversation isn't over."
"But at least we won't have to hide it from Paul anymore," Ronan muttered at the rapidly retreating back.
"What is it," Barney asked.
"I know this bitch," Paul swore angrily. "It's her fault-" He broke off, paused for a moment, and sighed. "That's not completely honest. The situation did occur because of her actions, but it was as much my fault as hers. Though her rumor-mongering lying mouth has made it a thousand times worse." Paul snarled in anger as he slammed his fist into a nearby wall, then took deep, calming breaths.
"What did she do?" Barney asked hesitantly.
Paul knelt down to check the woman's injuries. "A while ago, I went out to have some fun with friends. They suggested I have something to drink, and I said no alcohol. Well, eventually they went ahead and ordered me a drink. They assured me a bloody mary was completely alcohol free."
"Ouch," Barney answered.
"Yeah," Paul laughed. "Well, about the time I was drunk as a skunk I ran into Mary here. We thought the coincidence was absolutely hilarious thanks to the drunken stupor our drinks had put us in. One thing lead to another, and I took her home for some 'fun'. The only problem being I was drunk. To drunk to, ah, perform."
Barney smiled, "Happens to the best of us."
Paul didn't return the smile. "She was less than happy over it. She decided to tell everyone all about it, but instead of blaming it on being drunk, she decided I didn't like girls. Everyone believed her."
"That must be awkward," Barney commented.
Paul finished checking Mary and stood up, "You have no idea."
"You'd be surprised," Barney laughed. "I've been in a similar situation myself."
"Oh," Paul said by way of apology.
"Why did she jump to the conclusion you're gay?" Barney asked.
"My brother is gay, and so is-" Paul began.
"And so am I." Ronan interrupted. "What happened here, Paul, and who is your new friend?"
"Ronan!" Paul gasped. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"I was passing through. Now, what happened here?" Ronan demanded.
"They were attacking her, I... I couldn't let that happen," Paul answered. "I didn't even think about it..." Paul frowned, thoughts flashing through his head as his stomach began to rise.
"Who are you?" Ronan demanded of the stranger even as Paul stagged sideways.
"Barney Eric Jefferson," Barney answered. Ronan was rocked back on his heels by the name.
"I..." Ronan shook himself. "Hello, Barney." Walking over, Ronan knelt by Mary and examined her himself. "She will be fine, she's already waking up."
"Where..." Mary began to talk as soon as Ronan finished speaking, then broke off with a moan.
"You'll be alright, your injuries are extensive, but not life-threatening," Ronan assured her.
"Oh my head," she muttered as she tried to stand up.
"Don't, give you body time to adjust," Ronan ordered as Paul finally lost his stomach. Ronan looked over with gentle look on his face. "Don't worry about it Paul, it's normal."
"Your first time, Paul?" Barney asked, rubbing his friend's back.
"Yeah," Paul said, spitting to clear his mouth. "I've never had to... God, I hope I never have to again..." Paul started retching again.
Ronan looked at Barney for a moment, then returned to helping Mary up. She was starting to get her feet under her when she got a good look at Paul's face. "Oh God, no!" she swore, falling back down. "I can't... no!"
"You must," Ronan whispered into her ear. "You must face him, apologize, and tell him why..." Ronan's voice was compelling, a hypnotic whisper she could not ignore, and unlike Jason she didn't possess the natural strength of will to retain the memory of it. She simply found herself fortified and strengthened by the assurance that she must do this, that she could, and she would.
She staggered to her feet and looked around for something. "Oh no, oh God no..." she started to cry. "They took my purse, my money!"
Paul smiled at her, wiping his mouth absentmindedly. "Money can be replaced. You live, be happy."
"You don't understand!" she shrieked at him. "My son will be hurt if I don't bring Jack enough money!"
"Excuse me?" Ronan asked, all business.
Mary fell down again, breaking down into tears. "For the last year I've been a hooker, because if I don't bring in money that way Jack... he took my son. I get to see him a little every night, so long as I behave... if I don't, little Danny..."
Ronan's face hardened. "How much money do you need?"
"What?" Mary asked, looking up at him.
"How much will protect your son for tonight," Ronan asked.
"Screw that!" Paul said, eyes narrowed. "No one -- and I mean no fucking one -- hurts a child on my watch. And they definitely don't get to profit by having done it."
"Agreed," Barney added, voice just as grim.
"Perhaps," Ronan countered, "it would be a wise idea to give her enough money to protect her son, before we go rescuing the two of them. Some time to plan, prepare, and be ready."
"Don't even think about it!" Mary begged them. "Jack has an 'in' with the police, if I even think about telling them-"
"Do not worry, I have no plans to involve police in this matter," Ronan assured her. "You've seen what these two can do. And they will not be alone."
"Like you or Jason would need either of us!" Paul laughed. "I've seen the two of you when you spar lately -- you'll make mincemeat out of the sorry bastards."
"They have guns, and knives, and-" Mary protested.
"Doesn't matter, lady. Not if you plan ahead," Barney explained. "Guns are great to kill a guy from a distance. But in a building, it's possible to get inside their range too quick. Speed, power, and surprise can punch through a lot of defenses. And guns aren't the only way to kill from a distance. If I'd had my throwing knives tonight..." Barney shrugged. "I'll be coming along and I'll personally make sure these yahoos don't get your son killed."
"Thank you, but that will hardly be necessary," Ronan assured him.
"Like hell it isn't. I'm coming, and that's final," Barney informed him. "I'm already in up to my head -- I might as well reap the rewards of being 'in' in the rescue of the child, as well as the maiden in distress."
Ronan frowned, then nodded curtly. "Paul?"
Paul looked at Ronan. "I don't want to kill anyone else."
"I understand," Ronan inclined his head in acceptance.
Paul smiled at Ronan, "You don't understand. I don't want to kill anyone else. But if that's what is needed, if that is what is right..."
Ronan grinned and nodded again, "I understand that even better." He looked back at Mary and asked again, "How much?"
"Two hundred and he isn't hurt at all, three and I get to see him, five and I get some time with him," Mary answered.
Ronan pulled out his wallet, then opened a hidden compartment. "Will a thousand do?" he handed her ten bills. Mary's eyes widened when she saw the green.
"He'll never believe..."
"Tell him you had a rich John, who was more than willing to pay for the extra time. And is willing to pay to speak with your child," Ronan suggested.
"No! He said never to mention..." Mary screamed.
"You had a picture of Danny in your purse, right?" Ronan asked. At her hesitant nod he continued, "Your rich John specifically asked to speak to the child when he saw the photo slip loose -- he didn't have to ask to know he was your child."
"I... all right..." Mary responded. "But, why?"
Ronan grinned. "If I'm in the same room as the child when my friends start the assault, I guarantee no harm will come to him."
Mary nodded timidly, then took the money offered. "How will I..."
"You know where we live," Ronan informed her.
Paul stepped up and looked at her. "Is this why?" he demanded.
"Yes," she whispered. "Jack was furious that night... it was the only way I could protect Danny."
"Then I forgive you," Paul told her. "And by my oath, Danny will be protected. We will save him."
Mary touched his face with her fingertips, gently stroking it in disbelief, then turned and ran.
Ronan watched her flee Paul's forgiveness, then turned and walked away. "Come," he commanded. Paul and Barney followed.
Jason sat in a couch in the living room, watching the door. Ronan was sure taking his sweet time about things! Finally the door opened, and Paul walked in. Jason smiled at his brother, then dropped it. His thespian skills left much to be desired, but Paul was too tired to notice any differences between what Jason should have done if he'd been ignorant of the fight, and what Jason was really doing. "Are you alright?" Jason asked breathlessly.
Paul nodded, and tried to answer but a yawn came out instead. "Too tired, that's all. Blood's not mine."
Jason nodded back. "How are you?"
Paul stared into Jason's eyes. Jason held the gaze, and Paul crumpled. Running forward, he crashed into his brother and sobbed. Jason stroked his back and stared as a stranger came in, speaking with Ronan. Jason didn't pay any attention, just held Paul and comforted him as best as possible, ignoring the blood and grime he was getting on his clothes. Clothes, after all, can be washed. How do you wash a person's soul?
Eventually the tears began to fade as the anguish drained itself dry. Jason didn't move, simply held his brother as Ronan saw the stranger out. Ronan came over and placed a hand on Paul's shoulder. "He's come far," he commented.
"Yes, he has," Jason agreed. "I wasn't able to watch all that closely, but... we have business, don't we?"
Ronan nodded his head. "I'll have Lara talk to these two tomorrow -- they need to choose whether or not to face the Arch. We both know Paul's character, and the stranger choose to stand and fight -- that is announcement enough of his character."
"Plus you probed his mind," Jason smiled at Ronan.
Ronan laughed and nodded, "Plus I probed his mind."
Paul didn't even wake up when they washed him and put him to bed -- he was so tired they didn't even need to enforce that with magic. The two of them stared down at him for a few minutes before retreating to the living room. Ronan waved his hand at the kitchen, and a glass of liquor flew out to meet them.
"Lazy!" Jason twitted.
"It's quicker," Ronan smiled at Jason.
"Well, you forgot glasses," Jason responded, leaning forward preparing to get up, but was interrupted when the offending items shimmered into existence on the table.
"You having vision problems?" Ronan smirked.
"You think you're sooooo funny, don't you?" Jason asked as Ronan poured the drink into the two glasses.
"Yup!" Ronan grinned and downed his glass in a gulp.
Jason set his on the table and took a deep breath. "Ronan, you're drinking..."
"What about it?" Ronan snapped.
"How many bottles of whiskey did you down last night? It's not healthy!" Jason was genuinely worried -- and not above using his new found powers to pour that worry into his voice in a much more effective fashion than tone and cadence alone would allow.
Ronan's eyes bulged as he felt Jason's worry strike him. "Stop that!" he snarled. "Yes, I drank a lot. You forget, I'm a guardian -- you are too now! We can choose not to burn off alcohol if we want to, but even so it takes a lot to get us drunk. And it's not like I have to worry about my liver giving out -- hell, if I wanted to I could grow a new one!"
"The ability to heal from virtually any injury doesn't address the fact that you are drinking to excess for a reason, Ronan," Jason answered coldly. "And I think we can both guess who that reason is."
Ronan's eyes blazed with a sudden fire. "How dare you?"
"We're worried about you. All of us," Jason told him, letting warmth and concern fill his voice. "Me, Lara, Paul, others. You're killing yourself over Eric, aren't you?" The fire in Ronan's eyes vanished, replaced by bottomless pits that he could no longer hide.
Ronan really didn't need to answer the question.
"Don't hide it, Ronan. You can be strong, you can be hard, but you can't be heartless. It will consume you," Jason spoke with wisdom beyond his years. Ronan dropped his gaze to the table, filled another glass, and raised it. Looking straight as Jason, he downed it in another gulp. Jason shook his head, and then left. "We will discuss this later, Ronan."
"Stay," Ronan ordered in a level voice.
"You sure? You don't seem to want to talk to me much," Jason answered calmly.
"We must discuss tonight," Ronan ground out.
"Very well," Jason sat back down, his glass still untouched.
"The fight went well. I probed both your brother and his new friend, Barney."
"Barney?" Jason giggled out. "Barney?!" he howled with laughter. "God, did his parents pick a terrible name for him!"
"You have no idea. He normally goes by his middle name -- Eric."
"Fuck!" Jason fell backwards. "Bad timing there."
"Very," Ronan agreed. "Both of them fought for the same reasons, and knew they risked death. Paul... I know him well enough to have no doubts as to his fitness, even if he has yet to face his inner darkness. Barney, on the other hand... I have my probe, and his actions, to go on. Both say he should be offered the chance of the Arch, and I will do so. But I am uneasy."
"Why?" Jason asked.
"I do not know. The Guiding does not speak to me on this subject. And I can not find any reason for my unease... but it exists."
"We shall watch then," Jason answered.
"No, they must be offered the chance tomorrow. Barney will be coming by in the morning, and we will offer them both the chance -- together. Tomorrow evening, we will have work."
The next morning, Barney showed up bright and early as requested, and sat down next to Paul as the four joined in the living room.
"I have much to speak of, and little time," Ronan told them. "We will speak our piece, and then you may ask a few brief questions."
"We are here to invite you to join a secret group. If you aren't interested in joining -- if you aren't interested in keeping the secret -- leave. And do so now." Jason added.
Paul and Barney shifted and looked at each other for a moment before turning to face Jason and Ronan.
"So be it! We have little time -- we will discuss matters latter. For now, we will simply describe things to you, and provide a few simple proofs," Ronan told them.
"We are Guardians. Human beings granted extra powers. We use these powers to do good in the world, and we hide them to keep a secret. That secret is the Arch. It is powerful, it is dangerous, it cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. We can do many things, but what concerns you is a narrow aspect of them," Jason stared at them. "Our powers make us virtually invincible in a fight, defending us from harm in many ways."
"Our powers allow us to kill almost anyone," Ronan took over. "And we can touch and manipulate the minds, feelings, and possibly even the very souls of others. It is not a power to be taken up lightly, but only with a sure heart and a determination to help others. If you join, you will be forces to be reckoned with, capable of destroying entire armies."
"This is not to say you will be invincible -- Guardians are hard to kill, but it can be done," Jason warned them. "It simply requires luck, or a great deal of preparation and foreknowledge -- preferably both. And becoming a Guardian is not safe."
"You have faced the first trial -- you have chosen to risk your life to save that of another. You have faced death, and come through unscathed. Now comes the second trial," Ronan took the thread back. "If you so choose, you will face the Arch. Where it came from we do not know, what it is we only suspect. But this we know: it is dangerous. Fully one person in ten dies when facing it."
"But to the others, those who survive, come incredible gifts, gifts such as you can't imagine. Health, for sure, possibly longevity. The ability to heal at incredible rates, the power to defend or attack in a thousand myriad ways. With these gifts come responsibilities, and an oath to embody them."
Together, Jason and Ronan recited:
"I will stand true. I will keep the watch. I will protect the innocent. My blood before theirs; My life before theirs; My death, in their service."
Ronan lifted his hands, and lightning crackled around them in an eerie light show, gradually coalescing until he held a sphere forged of electricity, the size of a baseball. He offered this to Paul, who shrank back in his chair. Barney, to, rejected the offer to hold the sphere. Ronan nodded, then tossed it at Jason, who caught it, and then crushed it between his hands, leaving nothing to mark its passing. Jason lifted his hands, and fire began to grow between them, until a small orb of flames burned in his hand. Again, Paul and Barney refused the offer, and Ronan took the orb and crushed it.
"Now for what cannot be faked," Jason told them, and took out a knife. "Come, cut me," he rolled up a sleeve and offered his arm, as Ronan followed suit. "Do it!" Jason ordered, and Paul, with shaking hands, took the knife from him. Swallowing, Paul took the knife and pressed its edge against Jason's arm, lightly. He dropped the knife as the razor sharp edge sliced straight through the skin, blood flowing freely. Jason tilted his arm to allow it to drip down his arm, even as the flow cut off and the wound sealed over. Picking up the knife with his other hand, Jason ignored the healing process as the blood was absorbed back into the body through the skin, leaving no trace of his injury. Barney pressed harder, slicing from elbow to wrist in a great furrow that oozed blood. Jason held his arm up over his head and allowed it to flow downward, thankful Barney hadn't tried for the wrist or something similar -- the cut was on the outside of the arm, where it was safe if the healing ability were to fail. And already it closed shut in mere seconds, proving -- to the still unsure Jason, as well as his brother -- that Ronan's claim of impossibly fast healing was true.
Barney cut more lightly on Ronan, satisfied with what he'd seen, and Paul refused to cut at all. The two stared at the Guardians, left unmasked before the 'mere' mortals before them. Jason released the minor spell he'd been holding to keep them from talking.
"Now, you may ask questions -- but be quick!" Ronan warned. "You must choose swiftly, for time halts for no man."
"We'd take more time," Jason told them, "But we are out of time. The little raid going on tonight can't be delayed, and neither of you would step aside to take the time we should take."
"Ask your questions," Ronan told them, "And what we can answer, we shall. But please, keep it on-topic to your joining the Guardians -- if you choose to do so, all will be revealed. And if you do not..."
Jason looked at Paul with sorrow in his eyes. "We cannot allow this secret to leak. We possess the power to wipe this meeting from your memory, and we will use it."
"The Arch is too dangerous to risk," Jason and Ronan spoke together. "Now ask, ask!"
Paul and Barney were awestruck at the sudden light show as Jason and Ronan drew on their powers to illuminate themselves from within.
"Barney Eric Jefferson, I ask you now in the presence of two witnesses, do you freely accept the duty of the Guardianship?" Ronan intoned formally.
"I do," came the answer as sure as bedrock.
"Will you face the trial of the Arch, knowing it may well slay you?"
"Paul Jonathon Bester, I ask you now in the presence of two witnesses, do you freely accept the duty of the Guardianship?" Jason intoned formally.
"I do," Paul answered clearly.
"Will you face the trial of the Arch, knowing it may well slay you?"
"Then come! Come! Come to face the Arch! Come to face the darkness! Come, to know thyself!" Ronan and Jason spoke together. "Come!"
They led the two out of the room and down the stairs, Ronan at the front, Jason at the rear of the quartet as they marched single file through the building. Soon they reached the hidden door that protected the 'secret' rooms the Guardians worked in. From there they advanced, deeper and deeper into the building, until they were before a simple metal door set into a concrete wall. Lining the concrete wall, and two of the brick walls, of the room were over a dozen figures in skin-tight black leather that showed off their incredible physical fitness. If the door were to be opened, none of them could see through it.
Jason took Paul by the arm, and Ronan did the same for Barney, and they led the men to stand before the metal door, two heavy curtains that normally stood draped across it pulled aside to reveal the simple security of solid metal.
Even Paul and Barney could feel it raging on the other side of the door. A darkness to deep to see, too deep to face. Too dangerous to risk for any sane man.
Jason and Ronan ignored it, and released their charges to take position beside either side of the door.
"Barney Eric Jefferson," Ronan asked.
"Paul Jonathon Bester," Jason continued.
Then together they spoke: "You stand now before the Arch. Dare you to face its darkness? Remember, you may well die. If you should stand aside, none would think the less -- this is a horrible death, and the reward may well not be worth it. Pain and suffering is a guarantee should you open this door."
"Choose now your fate, and face it. Do you stay, or do you leave?"
Jason reached across the door and pressed down on the metal handle, unlatching it. The darkness on the other side pressed forward, and everyone shivered as pure evil took notice of them. "Stand aside if you choose to, but now is opened the door!" Jason waited a moment to give them one final chance, then threw open the door.
In unison, Paul and Barney screamed in unspeakable agony, pain ripping through flesh and bone and blood as pure evil washed over them in an impossible tidal wave of hungry darkness.