Jason slammed the door shut and ran to catch Paul. He moved so fast he actually managed to catch his brother before he hit the ground, and he was rapidly surrounded by others seeking to give aid. "What the hell just happened?" Jason screamed angrily as he lay his brother down.
"No clue, nothing like that has ever happened before!" Ronan told him.
"Shit, Paul's not breathing!" Jason cried out. "No, no no no no NO!" Jason looked his brother in the eyes and drew upon his powers. "Be healed!" Nothing happened. "What? No! Heal, dammit, heal!"
"It doesn't work like that Jason, either you have the healing gift or you don't. And it would appear neither of us do," Ronan told him. "Lara is nearly here, I already called her."
Jason held one hand over his brother's heart and spoke a command, "Beat!" Clenching his fist in rhythm with his own heartbeat, he set the pattern then turned attention to breathing and spoke another command, "Breath!" and lifted and lowered his other hand in time with his own breathing. "He can't be dead, I don't fucking believe this!"
"Good idea," Ronan said, thankful that Barney at least was still breathing. It boded well for Paul that Barney was clearly alive, if completely exhausted.
Sweeping into the room at a sprint, Lara crouched between the two prone forms, one hand on each forehead. "They're alive," Lara announced. "Barely, but alive. Paul is worse, he doesn't have enough energy to work his own body, but he is just barely alive. I have to replenish their energy." She moved both hands to Paul and touched his temples, and starting breathing with the same pattern Jason had established for him. "Something is wrong... I'm pouring the energy into him and it's just not enough. If I didn't know better..." She paused for a few moments, searching. "Yes, there it is! I need more power than I have, Ronan will you-"
"Take mine!" Jason offered, and fed her energy.
Lara screamed in agony and convulsed, and beneath her so did Paul. "Too much!" Jason stopped and Lara fell forward, resting herself on Paul. "Oh God Jason, how the hell..."
"You OK Lara?" Ronan asked, concerned.
"Jason just fed me too much power too fast," Lara told him exhaustedly. "Someone else take over, you just need to feed Paul energy now."
"Shit, Jason be careful!" Ronan scolded him. "I can't believe you just fed her that much power!"
"What?" Jason asked, confused. "I didn't push all that hard!"
Ronan looked at him sharply as another figure knelt by Paul. He touched Paul's chest right over his heart, and looked at Jason. "I'm not much of a healer, but I can feed power to him. Let me draw on your power, but please don't push. I'm weaker than Lara, you'd kill me if you poured that much power into me that fast!"
Jason nodded and let the power flow out of him to the other man, letting it be pulled instead of pushing it. "That's all? Take more, please!"
Ronan looked at Jason in surprise. "Jason, Lara is considered one of the stronger Guardians. Me and Eric were on another level altogether, and apparently you are as strong, if not stronger, than I am. He is taking as much as he can handle, and if you concentrate you can probably feel the strain he's under."
"Strain? From this-" Jason paused a moment and closed his eyes. "Shit, he's right at his limits isn't he?"
"I have a name!" the figure snapped as he moved to help Barney. "Jericho, to be precise. And yes, I am at my limits channeling that much of your energy. Feel free to redirect some of your excess energy at Paul -- he should regain consciousness any second now." A groan from the fallen figure confirmed Jericho's estimate. Jason carefully pushed a small, minuscule amount of power towards his brother and felt it pour into the emptiness of Paul's exhaustion. Suddenly the energy was being pulled by that emptiness, and Jason stopped pushing it, simply letting his brother pull as much as he felt like. "You should have handled it like that with Lara!" Jericho sniffed as he held his hands over Barney's face.
Jason restrained the urge to smack the annoying little man. How the hell was he supposed to know all this, when he'd had his powers for all of a week? He'd spent time learning so many hundreds of details, and the etiquette of proper power transfer techniques had hardly been a priority! "It should have been a priority, fool, because you could easily kill someone by shoving that much power at them that fast."
Jason spent a moment confused before he understood, and anger boiled in his gut. "I'd thank you to stay out of my mind, Jericho!"
"I did. You're broadcasting. Another 'not a priority' item, I'm going to guess?" Jericho sneered.
"Enough, Jericho!" Ronan snapped. "Your attitude is hardly helpful here and now."
"My attitude isn't the problem, Ronan, it's the incompetence of-" Jericho began.
"Enough!" Ronan roared. "Focus on your job, and heal the poor man!"
"He's healed, I just need to pour energy into him until he can regain consciousness and get it from Mr. Energizer Bunny over there," Jericho complained.
"What are you guys arguing about?" Paul complained blearily.
"Paul!" Jason cried as he fell to his knees. Grasping his brother by the hand he grinned. "I was so afraid..."
"God, I hurt... Mind helping me up, bro?" Paul asked. Jason felt the pull on his energies grow stronger as Paul regained full consciousness. "I guess I passed?"
"I guess so -- I'm sorry, I had no idea-" Jason began.
"No, he failed," Jericho interrupted. "Both of them failed, that's why they survived."
Everyone turned to look at Jericho. "Explain, now," Ronan growled.
"These... for lack of a better word, 'holes' that Lara and I just healed are what the Arch does to people who fail. They suck the energy right out of a person until not even dust remains intact." Jericho explained. "Trying to place the hole in two people at one time must have strained the Arch's resources, or strength, or however you want to phrase it. It wasn't able to fully open them to suck everything all at once, it could only manage a little."
"So you're telling me they would have died had they gone separately?" Ronan asked.
"Yeah -- or if the door had remained open any longer than it did," Jericho confirmed.
"But I feel the power in them!" someone else protested.
"So? They survived. They didn't actually protect themselves from the Arch, but they were still exposed -- it's weak, but they did get the power," Jericho argued.
"This theoretical argument is fascinating, but I think we have other business to attend to," Ronan broke in. "How long before they are recovered?"
"Depends on how long Jason can keep the energy flowing -- another couple of minutes of this and they should be fully recovered," Jericho admitted grudgingly. "You can feed some energy to this other guy now."
"This? I could do it all day!" Jason tried to downplay it even as he started pushing a small amount of energy towards Barney, with identical results to the flow he'd 'offered' Paul.
"That level of energy would kill me if I tried to maintain it for more than a few minutes," Jericho scolded Jason. "The fact that you consider it 'nothing' scares the hell out of me."
Jason opened his mouth to respond, but thought better of it. The click as he shut his mouth was the signal for Barney to wake up and complain about "Did anyone get the license truck of the number that hit me?"
After everyone laughed, Jason and Paul helped Barney stand up. "OK, lets get out of here," Ronan ordered. Everyone filed out, and Ronan and Lara led the trio of 'newbies' back to Ronan's apartment. As Paul and Barney collapsed into easy chairs, Jason and Ronan took opposite ends of the couch. Lara stood by the door for a few moments before plopping into a third easy chair.
"Paul, Barney, obviously all didn't go as planned," Ronan began.
"Gee, I wonder why this headache didn't clue me in!" Barney snarled.
Ronan frowned, then inclined his head in response. "We've never before done two at once -- it created an unusual situation we've never seen before. One of our... theoretical experts examined you two while you were out, and he thinks you saved each other from death. The way the Arch kills those who fail this test is by sucking every last ounce of energy out of their bodies -- even stealing away the energy in the chemical bonds that hold your atoms together. When it tried to do it to two of you at once, it couldn't do so. We don't really understand the mechanism, but basically all this 'test' does is expose you to the Arch's power, and that exposure activates your own powers. You can then use those powers to protect yourself from the Arch's effect. It's difficult, and one in ten fail -- we don't know why, if it's a lack of strength or skill or instinct or something else altogether."
"Knowing Jericho, he's already using the newest 'data points' here to figure that out," Lara grumbled.
"Lara, however much you dislike him-" Ronan began.
"Like you don't!" she snapped.
Ronan pursed his lips for a moment. Inclining his head in agreement, he continued, "However much we dislike him, he is brilliant at figuring out the whys of our powers, and new things to do with them. His ability to create a theory for the practice we've developed-"
"Is incredibly valuable, I know. But worth that toad stool's incessant-" Lara began to rant.
"Lara, enough!" Jason snapped with a hint of command in his tone. Paul glanced at him in shock, unable to believe his brother was actually telling Lara off.
"As I was saying," Ronan tried to regain control of the conversation, "We don't know why it happens -- though that may indeed be a short lived statement -- we just know that it does. And though we've managed -- Jericho has managed -- to deduce how people die, we didn't know enough to protect them from it. Now, we may just have a way to do so."
"So we were guinea pigs?" Barney complained bitterly.
"No," Jason assured him. "I haven't been 'initiated' for very long myself, but I've known Ronan for months now. Trust me, ask Paul if you want to double check, but there is no way -- none! -- he'd do that to anyone. What he told you was accurate to the best of his knowledge, and he had no idea having more people in front of the Arch would change things."
"So we're just some horrible, horrible accident, is that it?" Barney snarled. "We failed your 'test' and survived, and now you have to-"
"Enough," Ronan ordered softly. Surprisingly, Barney obeyed. "The word 'test' was always a poor choice, but it was the best we could come up with. 'Trial' or 'Ordeal' imply other things we didn't wish to imply, and we didn't think it important enough-"
"You didn't think it important enough, Ronan," Lara reminded him.
Ronan glared at her for a moment. "It didn't seem important enough to spend the extra time figuring out the 'right' way to say it. We... I... had more pressing concerns to deal with. Perhaps it's time to revisit that decision."
"Regardless, now that the two of you have the Guardian's Power, we need to train you in it's use. The basics, anyway." Ronan looked at Paul and Barney and sighed. "This is going to be hard on you, but you need to learn it quickly, all three of you."
"All three?" Paul asked, then glanced at Jason.
"We've talked, a lot, but haven't sat down to do the basic training on a lot of things. I'm ahead of you on theory, but not practice," Jason frowned. "You know, Ronan, you did kind of tell me-"
"It's easier with the theory, and you have to cover that anyway, but we are in a little bit of a rush in order to get this done in time for tonight. You do remember our little 'mission', don't you?"
"Oh," Jason replied with a little laugh.
"That's why you hurried us through this so quickly!" Barney exclaimed. "You don't want to have to hide your powers from us!"
Paul leaned forward and added, "I bet the pimps we're going to go visit are going to have a big surprise!"
"I was mildly worried about hiding it from you two, the pimps and Mary and her son not so much. Her son is a child, no one will pay attention though he is ready to believe. Mary will owe us much after tonight," Ronan said grimly. "The pimps... many of them will die this night for opposing us. Those that survive will pose no threat, and will likely disbelieve what they saw."
"Human nature," Jason interjected. "You and I did it Paul -- we just don't believe in magic, and try to rationalize away its effects when they interfere in our lives. Remember how fast I healed from my rape and beating?"
"Ronan did that?" Paul asked.
"Yeah, though... now that you mention it..." Jason turned to look at Ronan with a question. "You said neither of us has the healing gift..."
"I don't. But in this case, the English language fails us and ambiguities slip in. I don't posses what is called the healing gift, which prevents me from engaging in certain forms of healing -- mostly those that act quickly and directly. I can still do other things, however. I can help clear a fogged mind, or redirect clogged energy. I can feed the body energy to burn away almost any infection or disease, repair damaged tissues and restore health in a million other ways. But these things take time to have major effects -- bruises disappear over the course of a day rather than weeks, far faster than normal but far from the nearly instant healing Lara could provide."
"So," Jason said thoughtfully, "it isn't really a question of what you can heal but how fast you can do it?"
"No," Lara answered. "Or rather, yes, but if someone has slit my throat it isn't going to matter if the cut heals in a day or a month; if it isn't closed now I'm dead."
"Oh," Jason blinked. "So basically the healing gift lets you share our rapid healing ability with others, while those without it can only accelerate the natural process, not jump over it?"
"Isn't that what they just said?" Barney asked.
"We're moving far afield here, gentlemen," Ronan interjected. "And while it is most definitely a fascinating conversation for those that don't already know the material," Jason ignored the hint of rebuke with a grin, "we have other things we simply must cover. Sit up straight you three, and let us begin."
"The first exercise anyone can do -- you three have all probably already done it at some point. Take your two hands, put them a half foot apart, palms facing each other. Close your eyes, and slowly close the gap until you feel something different, like their touching," Jason obeyed, and slowly let his hands drift together. He'd done this exercise several times before, and soon he felt that subtle not-pressure that no one had ever been able to explain to his satisfaction. Paul had done this 'game' too, and quickly found the right point, but it took Barney a few tries before he got it. "Now onto the new stuff! If you concentrate, you can increase or decrease the distance at which you feel this -- simply concentrate on your hands, on tightening them up or loosening them. Concentrate and that pressure and will it to be stronger or weaker, and now it will obey. Play around with this for a few minutes, until you're ready for the next step."
Ronan waited a few minutes for them to finish, then cleared his throat. His voice took on a different tone and cadence: even, measured, almost hypnotic. Jason felt the commands resonate deep within him, and obeyed. "Close your eyes and concentrate. Feel your body, how it sits-" Ronan stopped and bit back an angry order as Paul's hands started moving. "Do not attempt to reach out and touch it with your hands, simply be aware. Feel where you legs and arms and torso lie, and the energy that flows within them. Feel the energy that coats you like a suit of armor, surrounding you and touching you and flowing over you."
"Feel how your own energy is bound within your skin. Feel how other energy, though bound to you lies outside your skin. Feel how some energy is bound close to you, and other energies radiate far away. Focus on the energy layer that stays closest to your body, merely inches away from your skin. Feel that field ripple and flow. Feel it."
"Now, get up and walk around. Practice feeling that energy. Open your eyes and see the world around you with this new awareness. Feel everything around you with those outer layers."
"Oh my God," the three trainees intoned in unison. Jason had felt this briefly the other night. Suddenly he was aware of everything around him. For a moment his attention was grabbed by the table in the corner, the way its grain ran, the slight cool spots where a cold glass had sat there minutes ago, the age of its energies and the way that didn't run anymore, simply sat still and waited. Then his attention wandered elsewhere, to the shelves filled with books -- books that had their own ineffable energy pattern like nothing he could have imagined. Everywhere he looked he saw the pattern and grain of energies, and the way they wove together. Just like last night he knew how to place his foot for maximum effect and minimum noise, and could feel the ways he could use just a small amount of power to protect the carpet underfoot from the effects of him walking on it. It was too much for the human mind to handle, and he didn't even try -- he just let it wash over him, permeate his mind and then be gone.
He could feel the way his own energies reached out, layer after layer of them touching everything around him. He kept his focus on the innermost layer, and sensed that it was different. The others were more passive, to a greater or lesser degree, but this one...
"Focus on the innermost layer, keep your focus on it. Feel how it's different, that it of all the layers available to you is purely physical. The others allow you deeper knowledge of your surroundings, and can be used for other things but that one can be changed to do things. Focus on it... Jason, catch this." Ronan threw a small rubber ball -- one of the 'super bounders' kids everywhere love to annoy their parents with -- at Jason. "Toss it back to me and watch, use your outer auras to feel what I do."
Jason tossed the ball back and watched, awestruck, as Ronan's aura seemed to harden, focusing before the ball, concentrating right where it would impact. Rather than striking Ronan's palm it stopped dead in the air for a moment before falling straight to the ground, bouncing back up so Ronan could catch it. "Did you three see that? Try and make that energy behave that way. Concentrate on the difference between mine and yours, feel how mine has been changed."
Slowly, Jason began to understand the difference. English wasn't equipped with the words to explain it but there was a difference. It was an energy field, a single unified whole, and while it wasn't on a different frequency or showing a different color, Jason could sense the difference, touch it, just not define it. "We usually use the word 'texture' to describe the difference, if that helps," Ronan added. "Simply will your own to take on the same texture and it will."
Jason felt his own energies twist into place eventually, but it was oh so slow. "As time passes, you will learn to maintain this altered state without thinking. Do so -- it defends effectively against most attacks that could take you by surprise. Almost all bullets will be stopped by this."
"Didn't help Eric," Jason complained.
"Eric always had trouble maintaining this shield -- he was good at many things, but not this," Ronan answered bitterly. "A normal bullet wouldn't have penetrated even his relatively weak defenses, but he wasn't facing a normal bullet. From what you have told me Jason, his killer was in possession of our powers, correct?"
Jason nodded in agreement, "I don't see how anyone would survive a shot to the chest, and the drop afterwords, if they weren't."
"This defense is very effective, but it does require energy to stop things. And the more energy you put into launching a projectile -- the more will you place behind its flight -- the more energy it will require to stop it. And it will be harder to stop, as well, resisting the effects of the shield unless the shield is perfectly formed. While most people would find it difficult to place a significant amount of will behind the act of pulling a trigger, a Guardian is trained to put his will behind everything he does. While whoever killed Eric was no Guardian, clearly he possessed our powers. And, presumably, our training." Ronan's face stayed calm only by sheer force of will -- and now Jason could feel that will emanating outwards like the heat from a furnace.
"Now, practice until you can maintain this texture without thinking, without thought. It is vital that you can do so tonight," Ronan ordered. "Lara and I must discuss things elsewhere. The ball here," Ronan tossed it to Jason, "is a perfect way to test each other. You'll find a box of them in the drawer over there, feel free to practice with those as well." Ronan helped Lara up and walked her out of the apartment, leaving the three of them to practice. As he left, he waved his arm and shimmering fields of energy organized themselves around the furniture. Experimentally, Jason tried throwing the ball through them, and had to duck to avoid the rebound when it bounced off, instead. Alas, he forgot why children love super-bounders so much, and the ricochets continued for a minute before someone could catch the ball.
"Doesn't it just figure," Jason remarked, "that after all that time we spent practicing the martial arts, we get to practice something else for it?"
Paul laughed. "Yeah, it figures. I should have stuck with it rather than running out the other day though -- I somehow suspect you're going to have a slight advantage now..."
"Fear is -- you must control it, but it is not evil nor good," Jason spouted.
"Jason, I hardly need the philosophy lesson!" Paul snapped angrily.
"Yeah, well, I didn't mean to do it. It's been happening recently, and I'm not sure why," Jason replied. "Ronan says it's an 'aspect of my newfound powers' that he doesn't fully understand, which says exactly nothing."
Paul walked over to the indicated drawer and pulled out the box of rubber balls. "He does that a lot, doesn't he? At least now he can tell us what he knows!"
"Honestly, it's even worse. We're back in the dark ages in a lot of ways -- they really don't have a grasp on why most of what works, works. Or even what they can, well, we can, do. He might not evade the question, but now I end up knowing what it is that I don't know!"
Barney laughed, "Sounds like fun!"
"You have no idea," Jason grinned. "Still, catch!" Jason tossed his ball even as Paul threw one at his back. Jason felt the drop of energy as the ball aimed at him dropped rather than hit. Alas, the one thrown at Barney ended up bouncing around the room, and quickly revealed a property about the energy fields protecting all the fragile objects in the room. When the ball bounced off them, it didn't leave any energy behind -- instead, it gained energy with each bounce. And if it bounced for long enough, it really started to smart on impact. "You know, I think Ronan set it up this way on purpose," Jason complained as he rubbed his sore behind.
"Well, duh -- no pain no gain. And you'd hardly learn without a good set of bruises to remind you!" Paul joked.
"Bruises, huh? And who is it that's even more black and blue than I am?" Jason taunted as he took good aim with a ball. Launching it with the superior precision he'd begun to develop, he watched it bounce off five different fields before catching Paul right in the rear in a very nasty spank.
"Ouch!" Paul shouted, and retaliated in kind. Alas, his aim wasn't as good as his brothers and the ball ended up bouncing around the room a dozen times before taking him in the face instead. Thankfully, he managed to have the kinetic defense set up to stop it.
"Anyone else think we need eye protection?" Paul gulped as he picked up the bounder.
"Yeah... I'm going to go have a little chat with Ronan about that," Jason commented. "I mean, these things could... Oh." Jason laughed. "Easy solution: don't get hit in the eye. Hard solution: it hurts like hell but your eye will heal if you get hit. Don't forget, we can even regrow them now!"
"Shit, you're kidding?!" Barney gasped.
"Nope -- remember the fast healing trick we showed you? You'll even regrow lost body parts!" Jason answered gleefully.
"Cool!" Paul answered.
"Um... regrow body parts?" Barney asked. "As in arms and legs?"
"Ronan told me any body part that gets cut off or injured can regrow or heal to perfect health!"
"Wow, that's just incredible!" Barney laughed. "I can see some real advantages to that. I wonder just what..."
Suddenly Barney grew pale, and Jason, concerned, asked, "What's wrong?"
"Any body part? Including those that have been missing for years?" Barney swallowed.
"Yeah, any body part -- why, what's wrong?" Jason asked.
"I need to hear that from Ronan, oh God please no!" Barney ran to the door, and Jason and Paul followed.
"What's wrong?" Ronan asked when they ran into him in the hallway.
"Please, please tell me Jason is wrong -- that we don't regrow missing body parts!" Barney begged.
"Um, actually, we do," Ronan reassured him. "Oh no..." Ronan suddenly paused. "Jason, Paul, go back to practice. I suspect... fuck, I didn't realize... Barney, are you Jewish?"
Barney nodded his head.
Jason and Paul went back to practice, trading confused looks. "What was that about?" Paul asked.
"I have no clue!"
An hour or so later, Ronan and a rather dejected Barney walked back in the door, narrowly avoiding one of several dozen bouncing balls rattling through the room. "Enough!" Ronan muttered and held out his hand. Every single ball veered in midair and hovered over his hand in a tangled, moving mess. "Having fun you two?" Ronan commented.
"Yeah, lots," Jason answered. "Barney, are you OK?"
"I really don't want to talk about it Jason," Barney answered.
"Trust me, Jason, some things are better left undiscussed, and this subject is one of them," Ronan added. "Now, we should proceed to the next stage of your training. You all now know the basic kinetic defense. It will only stop thrown and falling objects, but it will protect you from many things ranging from bullets, to grenades. Even certain types of explosions -- it won't protect you from the thermal bloom of a detonation, but the shrapnel will be blocked, and the overpressure and shock wave will be minimized. Just remember, while it will ground the kinetic energy of a moving object, it won't stop continuing action like gravity's pull, or someone pushing an object at you. And though a falling object will have the majority of it's speed sapped to just over the acceleration of gravity, if someone is thrusting an object at you their will will protect its kinetic energy and let it slip straight through. So be careful of knives, swords, maces, and the like. Your ability to heal will make you difficult to kill even with those, but you aren't invincible."
Ronan grinned, and added, "That said, you will be amazed at how close to invincible the combination of the basic kinetic defense, your existing martial arts skills, and that healing ability will make you. Nothing short of an instantly fatal injury will kill you, and even many of those will be resistible -- a stab to your heart won't kill you unless the knife stays in, for example. In most situations, any opponent you face will be unable to kill you unless they know exactly how to do it."
The three trainees stood still for a moment while the concept sank into their heads. Jason had already covered (to a degree) the fact of their powers, but the implications... They were scary. Because what Ronan was saying was that, for all intents and purposes they were now invincible. The Guardians were kept secret, and without the knowledge of that secret the odds were against anyone trying to kill them in the 'right' way. "How did Eric die, then?" Paul asked. "I mean, if we heal this quickly..."
"The bullet penetrated his brain, causing massive internal damage," Ronan explained tiredly. "The brain is the one organ that we're vulnerable at -- sure, we can heal, but any massive damage there destroys part of what makes us, us. Without those parts, we die. Simply put, while a heart injury may put a person into such severe shock as to stop their bodies attempt to live, they don't actually die for a few moments. With a brain injury of lethal force, death is instant -- without the brain to drive the lungs and heart and body, the body dies instantly."
"That's why this shield is so important," Barney thought out loud. "The one attack we're likely to encounter that would find it easy to hit our brains would be bullets -- the skull would deflect knives, and resist blunt objects."
"More than that. A bullet striking flesh tends to destroy the flesh around the wound -- you don't just puncture the organs, you actually destroy bits and pieces of them. A direct hit with a bullet will destroy your heart, and that is a fatal blow," Ronan stated flatly. "Bullets and similar high-energy weapons are the biggest threat you face, unless you learn to maintain this texture. A knife you can pull out, bruises and broken bones you can heal, but if the actual tissue is destroyed rather than damaged you are not likely to survive."
"So.... practice, practice, and more practice?" Jason asked.
"Yes, but for now I wish to show you something else. Someone with the Power of a Guardian attacked Eric, that much is clear from your description of what happened," Ronan frowned. "I do not understand how this is possible, but I must assume there are other hostiles with that same power out there."
Jason remembered the black-clothed figure of the other night, and shivered. "I can get behind that statement," he commented.
"With that assumption in place, I must prepare you as best I can to encounter such a foe. Let us begin with what we've come to call 'air-glass'. It is the basic active defense against most attacks," Ronan brought his hands up and between them formed... well, it looked like a very thin plate of glass. You could see through it, but it distorted the vision oh-so-slightly, with the effect plainest at the edges. "It looks like glass, hence the name, and it's formed -- essentially -- by collapsing the air into a super-dense, super-thin shell. The larger the shell you form, the more energy it takes both to make the shell and to maintain it. And be very careful with what you form -- the edges tend to be razor sharp unless you specifically concentrate on making it another way." Roland paused and waited for them to follow suit.
"Well?" he asked.
"Um, Ronan, you forgot to tell us how to do it," Jason told him.
Ronan froze for a moment before his jaw dropped, and then did the impossible.
He blushed. As he lost concentration, the plate of air-glass he had between his hands vanished, deepening the blush and leaving no doubts in the minds of anyone watching what was happening.
Jason and Paul burst out laughing at the sight, incredulous. Ronan opened his mouth to scold them, but the blush just got worse. Which fed into the laughter. Poor Barney just glanced around the room, utterly and completely confused. "OK, what's the joke?" he asked finally, causing Jason and Paul to burst out into laughter all over again, even as Ronan found his voice shutting down.
Finally Jason found the strength to speak between hapless giggles and informed Barney, "Ronan doesn't blush."
"You sure about that?" Barney asked. "I mean... well..."
"What?" Paul asked in a giggle. "Don't tell me you've seen him doing it!"
"Well, actually... Just forget I said anything, please!" Barney evaded.
"Oh no, you don't get off the hook that easy," Paul pressed.
"Yeah, what could you ask him about that made him blush?" Jason asked with a grin. "Inquiring minds-"
"Definitely do not want to know, Jason," Ronan informed him. "Trust me, you'll find out about it soon enough, and you do not want to think about it until you have to."
Jason lost his grin and looked at Ronan. "That bad?"
"For Barney it is. Trust me, just let it drop. It's not something he wants to be reminded of," Ronan assured Jason. "Now, lets get back to work!" Ronan reformed the plate of air-glass and showed it to them. "Now, concentrate on the feel of this plate, and then simply will a duplicate into existence. You've already learned how to apply your will when it comes to changing the nature of your aura to form the kinetic defense I showed you earlier; this is just a more advanced application."
Jason hit the trick almost instantly, but it took Paul a few moments longer to get it. "Practice changing the shape and size of it -- and be careful of the edges!" Ronan told them. "Barney, I'll hold this as long as you need me to. I know it's hard -- I should have put several steps between these two things -- but we have to hurry. It's already lunch time, and we have to have you ready by dinner." Paul and Jason wondered over to the other side of the room and continued to practice, slowly getting the hang of it. Jason moved a lot quicker than Paul, but then again he'd had a lot of the background work already -- he'd learned how to control his will, he'd learned the basics of meditation, even if he hadn't had the time to master the skill, and he wasn't suffering from the lingering aftereffects of the 'headache from hell' that Paul kept complaining about.
Finally Ronan called a break. "You guys need to eat -- and don't be surprised if you're a lot hungrier than you think you should be. We're going to go out to eat today," Ronan grinned at them before adding, "at an all-you-can-eat buffet, to keep the cost from you three down."
"Hey, I'm not that bad!" Jason protested!
"Wait until you start eating, then try that line," Ronan told him. "Now, come along -- and remember to practice the kinetic defense I showed you. It's not anything obvious enough to cause trouble in public. In fact, once you get used to it you'll discover it adapts itself automatically to protect you without stopping things that won't harm you -- insects buzzing by, beach balls bouncing off your head, stuff like that. Once you get comfortable with using your new-found skills, you'll find your mind is capable of handling things you can't. Now, lets move!"
Joking and playing all the way, they marched themselves out to a nearby Chinese buffet and paid their ticket. Ronan grabbed their silverware and marched off to a table with a grin on his face. Setting the silverware down, he sat down and waved at the buffet. "Go load up your plates, boys, and put plenty on them!" Jason shrugged and obeyed, not questioning the order. Paul, on the other hand, followed Barney's lead and grabbed a normal sized plate filled with a number of goodies, but far from overflowing. Ronan grinned at them when they sat down and got up to grab his own plate.
"I wonder why he told us to get so much?" Jason commented as he took a bite of his beef with broccoli. Suddenly he didn't wonder as he started shoveling it down his gullet as fast as he could move his chopsticks. In between two bites he dropped them in favor of the fork Ronan had pulled out of the silverware bundle for him. Moving on to the egg rolls he watched Barney and Paul stare at him with incredulous expressions.
"You OK bro?" Paul asked.
Nodding, Jason moved on to the fried rice, hoping it would last long enough to at least blunt the edge off his hunger. Paul shook his head and took his first bite as Barney commented, "I think I'm gonna grab a second plate..."
Barney's comment went unheard as Paul suddenly started devouring his plate as quickly as he could, suddenly understanding his brother's actions as hunger assailed his senses. Matching his brother bite for bite, he almost moaned in horror when he realized he'd finished his plate. Before he could get up, Ronan plopped a second plate in front of him and Jason, even as Barney plopped a pair of plates down and started eating. "Consider this a lesson: until you get used to the drain of using magic in a systematic manner, you're going to find you can't trust your sense of hunger to tell you when to eat. Doing magic drains energy, and the only way to replace that energy is to be fed it from the outside, or to burn fat. And once you've burned fat, your body knows it needs to replace it. I don't know why your bodies wait until you're eating to let you know it, but they do. Jericho thinks it's the result of some kind of mental filter, but no one else understands his reasoning. So, when you do stuff, eat afterward until you learn to gauge your need for food better."
The rest of the lunch session passed without too much chatter as the four of them proceeded to decimate the buffet in short order. "All right," Ronan spoke as they mopped up desert, "it's time to head home and work on the second part of todays training."
He didn't receive any argument from the others as they all stood up, groaning. They'd sure gotten their money's worth out of the buffet! When they got home, they resumed their training. Ronan closed and locked the door behind them. "Sit however you feel comfortable," he ordered. "We are going to engage in some meditation."
"Meditation?" Barney grumbled.
"Yes, meditation," Ronan explained irritably. "It will help you with auric control."
"Orick control?" Paul asked.
"Auric -- as in auras. As in that inner energy field that you can block bullets with. And of course, the other fields as well," Ronan answered less irritably. "Now, sit."
They obeyed and arranged themselves comfortably. "Breath in through a count of six, exhale through a count of seven. If you can use higher numbers, feel free. Simply focus on the breaths..."
Jason let his eyes close and his breathing deepen, concentrating on the breathing, and using the relentless progression of numbers to squash conscious thought. "Feel your auras, pull them tight as you breath in, and push them out as you exhale..." Jason turned his attention there, and slowly began to get the hang of it. Pull in, breath in, push out, breath out. Inhale power, exhale power. Breath in life, exhale life. Soon he felt his auras loosen up, stretch their muscles, and start moving more easily. As he pulled tight, he sensed them pulling even tighter against him, a subtle pressure on his skin like a second layer of clothes. As he exhaled he felt them stretch outwards, washing over the room and telling him where everything was. Soon that innermost layer was stretching out... out...
Jason's eyes snapped open as that layer was blocked by another, similar energy. He could have screamed as the awareness brushed across his consciousness, triggering an awareness of other auras. He felt them washing through his body like a sickening, loathsome insects burrowing through his very soul. He could have retched at the sensation if it hadn't paralyzed him. Pulling his auras tight for a moment, he pushed hard against those other auras, matching like with like until only one 'color' of aura remained. The outermost layers couldn't apply any real force, but the deeper in the stronger his aura grew, the more able to resist intrusion. Thankfully, the outer layers didn't bother him as much as the inner layers did. So long as he kept the other's auras outside of the inner layers, he was fine.
He sensed more than saw Ronan smile sadly at him as he solidified his control, using his auras to exclude others from his body. He wanted to move away from his brother, and Barney. It felt wrong to be so... intimate... with a complete stranger, or his own brother. And intimacy was exactly the word, it was a gentle caress that stroked something connected directly to his soul and he did not want those two there.
"Well, Jason, I see you've learned a little more than I intended for you to manage just yet," Ronan finally commented. "I didn't intend for you to become aware until after I'd told you how to push the auras away."
"Thankfully, I figured it out myself... mostly," Jason commented a little bitterly.
"For you two," Ronan informed Paul and Barney, "you need simply harden your aura -- concentrate on the idea of hardness -- and you can use it to sweep away others auras once you become aware of them. The inner auras will have an easier time sweeping stuff out, they are very physical and don't really like to coexist. The further out you go, the more mental the auras become, and the less easy it will be to prevent coexistence. In the middle layers, if you concentrate on solidity you can keep them completely at bay, but it's difficult and draining. Unlike the inner layers, where interpenetration is simply too intimate to bear in all but the closest of personal moments, the middle layers are quite bearable. Learn to deal with it, if you can. Your alternatives are to practice the solidity to keep other auras shoved away completely, or to keep your auras pulled up tight so they are denser, and more able to push aside others. Both options are inferior, and leave you much more vulnerable, so I would recommend against them unless you absolutely cannot learn to deal with it. The outer most auras, you will notice, are hardly intrusive at all and quite bearable -- as well as being almost unstoppable."
"Now, practice some more, until you manage these controls. They are vital, because these auras are your most useful tool, and most powerful defense. Your auras can react quicker than you can, allowing them to counter attacks you can't see like a bullet being fired -- you don't need to be aware of it, simply hold the texture in your innermost aura that tells it to stop bullets." Ronan sighed. "With time, you will learn to simply hold that defense in place at all times. And I will see you get that practice!" Ronan snarled the last sentence out angrily. Jason sensed his auras shift under the influence of that anger, and instinctively used his to try and calm Ronan. The outer layers were useless for it, and their inner layers were blocking each other, but the middle layers were interweaving in a complex dance that, in a manner similar to body language but far more potent, simply transmitted his understanding and acceptance to Ronan. His worry, and his friendship.
Jason stared into Ronan's eyes, filling them with his care. They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment, before Ronan looked away, suddenly uncomfortable. Jason let the moment end and went back to his meditation. Time enough for such things later.
Jason turned his attention back to his auras and practiced for a time, engaging in fierce struggles with Paul and Barney over whose auras would be in which place, learning to hold the others out of an area and how to push his own auras into a place. As time passed, Barney and Paul had to band together simply to hold their own against him, and soon even that wasn't enough and he was pushing them back. Raw strength counted for a lot in this kind of direct contest, and it was becoming clear that Jason had that -- in abundance.
It scared Jason. He was beginning to get a feel for just how powerful he truly was, and the word 'very' didn't begin to describe it. He couldn't even begin to quantify the level of power he possessed, whether it was enough to lift one eighteen wheeler or ten, but he could feel it. With every passing moment of this training... He broke away from the training to ask Ronan a question.
"Ronan, why did you start so heavily with theory with me?" he asked softly.
"Theory provides-" Ronan started.
"Cut the bullcrap, Ronan," Jason growled. "No evasions!"
Ronan pursed his lips for a moment, staring at Jason. Licking his lips nervously, he eventually relented, after taking a gulp from the glass of juice he'd been carrying around. "Alright, no evasions. I was -- am! -- scared. I wanted you to have the theory first because I honestly don't know what you're capable of, and that scares me. You do things with ease that I can't do -- period. With these guys, they don't have the strength to do much damage by accident. You... you do things in ways completely different from what anyone else can manage, and can do things we simply can't do."
"Is that it?" Jason demanded.
"Jason, you don't understand," Ronan argued after taking another drink from his glass. "A normal Guardian, though powerful, doesn't hold the power to bring the entire building down on our heads by accident. You do. I have spent more time than you know running around reinforcing this building with my powers to make sure nothing happens -- and even then I'm not sure it's been enough!" Ronan continued drinking from his glass as Jason shouted back at him.
"Then why haven't you taught me control already?"
"Because I can't!" Ronan roared. "What I'm teaching you now will let you use your powers, but it places no checks on them, provides no balance! Control will come with time and practice, and I wanted to give you theory first to minimize the chances of something going wrong!"
"So why didn't you tell me this earlier?" Jason complained bitterly, watching Ronan take yet another large drink from his glass.
"Because I was scared, you numb-skull! And I didn't want to scare you! It hurts too much to see you-" Ronan froze for a moment, took a drink, and then resumed, "It hurts too much to see anyone in pain, and for a friend it's even worse. I didn't want to do it if it wasn't necessary."
"Oh, so you left me clueless about it just to avoid a little bit of pain?" Jason sneered, getting closer to his friend. "Do me a favor next time and just slap me into the iron maiden instead of avoiding 'unnecessary' pain. I kinda like knowing what's going on from day to day!"
"Jason, Ronan, enough!" Paul broke in. "The two of you should stop going at it like you're married!"
The two of them turned their glares on Paul for a moment before his words sank in fully, and then they started looking at each other in shock. Jason shrugged it off a bit quicker than Ronan did. "Paul, whatever our relationship might be-"
"Paul, it's none of your business to regulate the relationship between the two of us. As far as marriage goes, don't be absurd, I could no more marry Jason than I could marry you -- you are my students, my trainees, my-"
"Your roommates, Ronan, we're your roommates," Paul countered to the soundtrack of a snickering Barney. "In fact, if I remember the other night correctly, Jason at the very least is your-"
"Enough!" Ronan roared angrily. "Say one more word and I'll-" Ronan bit the sentence off.
"And you'll what?" Paul asked with a smirk. "Smack me around? Use your magic to kill me?"
Ronan was standing halfway across the room from Paul. Ronan couldn't possibly touch Paul physically. "No, no magic," Ronan uttered icily as he took a half step forward.
Paul staggered back, scared by the sudden shift in Ronan's demeanor. This wasn't Ronan, something was-
Jason stepped between them and slapped Ronan, hard. "Do not threaten my brother," he commanded with an equal chill in his voice. Ronan touched his cheek, shocked. That had not been a light blow: Jason had used his entire body to put force behind his striking palm, sending Ronan flat on his rear. Ronan's glass was on the ground, contents spilled all over his shirt.
Ronan scrambled up and glared at Jason. "Do you really want to fight me, boy?" he growled. Around him the air seemed to darken, and though nothing changed shape or size, everything seemed smaller around him, less important... as he grew in importance. To look at him was to know Power.
"Get a hold of yourself, Ronan. And do it now," Jason again gave a command to Ronan. "This isn't you, and I'm not letting you do this." Suddenly Jason duplicated Ronan's trick, growing in importance as everything around him shrank. But the air around him grew brighter, charged with energy as his eyes seemed to glow. Barney gasped as the hairs on his arms suddenly starting sticking straight out, as if the very air was transferring a static charge.
"You would challenge me?" Ronan's voice had grown deep, deeper than any human as it growled with the force and depth of a large engine. Barney could see his eyes darken, loosing definition and color.
Jason suddenly leaned forward and sniffed. "Ronan, what exactly were you drinking just now?"
"Excuse me?" Ronan blinked, surprised.
"You're drunk!" Jason blinked in shock. "Drunk as a skunk, in fact!"
"I am not!" Ronan insisted. "I can't possibly be..." Ronan blinked and shook his head. "I can't be drunk, I'm a Guardian and Guardian's don't... not only only three glasses..." Ronan's power faded away slowly, as he began to stagger. "I can't possibly be drunk, don't be silly!" he giggled as he fell backwards on his butt. "This isn't possible, I'm barely even..." further conversation was cut off as he began to be violently ill all over himself. Jason backed away, wrinkling his nose. Ronan looked down with disgust at himself for a few moments before a small grin appeared on his face. "Help me clean up?" he asked Jason cheerfully, head cocked to the side. Jason stared at him for a few moments before answering.
"Ronan, we'll be glad to help you clean up," Jason assured him before moving over to whisper a command to Barney and Paul. The two grinned and ran off to obey. Soon the shower could be heard running in the background as Jason helped Ronan strip out of his clothes, and using paper towels from the kitchen cleaned the worst of the mess off his friend.
Jason knelt to the ground, got his arms under Ronan, and lifted him in his arms with new-found ease. "This Guardian thing has its advantages, doesn't it?" he mused aloud. Ronan just snored at him, falling asleep like Jason's arms were the most comfortable bed in existence. Alas, sleeping men don't notice the devilish grins of their soon to be former friends, so he provided no resistance when Jason stuck him into the shower.
Ice water has many useful advantages, especially when it comes to sobering people up. Ronan howled in agony when the icy blades starting cutting into his flesh, and to his dismay Jason was more than strong enough to hold him in place for a prolonged period of time. "Guys, go get Lara -- and tell her I think we may need to talk to Jericho, if she's never heard of anything like this before."
"Is something wrong?" Paul asked.
Jason swore softly under his breath before explaining. "One of the many gifts having our powers gives us is perfect health and physical condition. Ronan's body should have been able to burn off almost any amount of alcohol without trouble -- that's why he had to drink fifty bottles a night to get drunk. On top of that, our powers should constantly be nudging our bodies in the direction of perfect physical fitness -- he should be as strong as a master weightlifter, in peak condition, at all times. As flexible as a master acrobat, all the time. I've barely begun that particular transformation, so why the hell am I actually able to hold him under?"
"Oh," Paul replied, and then ran out of the room. Barney stared at Jason for a few moments before following suit. Jason spared a moment to hope this wasn't a prelude to another 'don't talk about it!' conversation, those were just too weird. Ronan's spluttering and screaming was starting to be moderately coherent now, so Jason reached over and turned the hot water on.
"Now," he asked the enraged Ronan, "do you think you can manage to wash yourself, or do you still need me to help you?"
"Help me?" Ronan snarled while fighting the hand on his chest that was still holding him down. "Why the hell would I need you to help me?"
"Good question," Lara asked from the door. "Now, what exactly is going on Jason? And how the hell are you holding Ronan down?"
"Actually, that's what I wanted to ask you Lara," Jason informed her. "Ronan got drunk while training us -- and from his own words, he only had a couple of glasses to drink," The obvious disgust in Jason's voice made Ronan flinch like a slap to the face, but Jason didn't notice and simply continued, "And not only was his body unable to burn off the alcohol, he seems to have abruptly lost the perfect physical fitness he should have had."
"Back up," Lara asked in an icy voice. "Ronan was drinking. As in alcohol?"
"Yes," Jason answered her.
"You fucking idiot, you moron, you bloody stupid..." for a few moments Lara spluttered, at a loss for words before she continued, "you bloody stupid man!" The monologue went downhill from there, rapidly. Jason had to admit he was rather impressed: once she hit her stride, she managed to keep going for a good five minutes without repeating herself. As she continued, Ronan shrank more and more into himself, head falling forward -- even as Jason and Lara hauled him up and started scrubbing. Finally, she wound down and deigned to explain to a rather curious Jason the reason for her fury. "Ronan, you see, knows he's an alcoholic. He's known that pretty much from the day he turned 21 and could legally drink."
"Ah," Jason figured it out. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but..."
"Yes. He tends to be rather harsh with alcoholics that 'fall off the bandwagon'. For a reason." Lara turned to glare at the object of their discussion, who had started sobbing. "Son of a bitch," Lara swore at him. "Why the hell would you go near a glass, Ronan? Even with your powers -- hell, especially with your powers! -- you don't dare drink alcohol."
Ronan looked away from her as Jason finally turned the water off. Lara pulled a towel off a nearby hanger and as Jason pulled Ronan out of the tub, started drying him. Ronan tried to resist, but was so weak from crying he couldn't manage much. Especially when both Jason and Lara still had their strength, and he'd somehow lost it. "Well, he's paying for his stupidity," Jason commented. "I'd love to know how he got drunk, though..."
"That one I don't even need to call Jericho about, actually -- I have a pretty good idea of how he managed it," Lara told Jason. "Willpower is at the heart of our abilities -- our powers and our bodies respond to our wills. That's how a Guardian commits suicide -- you can't slit your wrists if they heal instantly, and your powers will respond to your bodies natural reflexes if you try hanging, but if you simply will yourself to die, eventually it will happen."
"Wait, suicide?" Jason asked sharply.
Ronan answered for Lara, voice hoarse with pain. "We haven't lost many Guardians, but three of them have been to suicide. Two simply willed themselves to death because they'd seen to much, failed too often. The third... he sponsored his wife, and she didn't survive the Arch. He just couldn't bear the thought of living without her, and..." Ronan broke off and didn't finish.
Jason didn't respond, simply continued to help Lara dress Ronan, who by this point had figured out the futility of protest and resistance. "So, does that help explain why Ronan lost his powers?"
"Actually, the fail-safe explains it," Ronan told Jason. "I... if I were to lose myself to alcoholism, I could be a danger to others, and I knew it. So I designed a fail-safe."
"Fail-safe?" Lara probed.
"If I ever... if I'm drunk, and act against another Guardian, my powers are locked out for a day. One sunrise and one sunset, to be specific," Ronan admitted. "I may be arrogant, but I'm not stupid... everyone falls off the bandwagon, eventually. Whatever else I may be, I'm only human."
"Your power is locked out?" Lara asked as they headed back out to the living room. "That means you aren't doing anything tonight except resting, mister!"
Ronan's face twisted. "Agreed," he growled. "Which means tonight's expedition-"
"Will go exactly as planned," Jason informed him. "I'll cover your part."
"You can't!" Ronan protested.
"I can, and I will. All I have to do is get close to the child, and then guard him and the mother," Jason said.
"But-" Ronan started.
"I'll go with them," Lara reassured Ronan. "I imagine I can keep the three of them out of too much trouble, especially if I bring Samuel with me."
"No, that's not enough. Get me the phone," Ronan ordered.
"I hardly think you're-" Lara began.
"You're taking Quentin," Ronan interrupted her.
Lara froze in shock for a moment. "No way in Hell am I taking that monster with me!" she screamed.
"He's going with you, like it or not, because I strongly suspect it's relevant to his current job," Ronan told her harshly. "I don't know how Rudolf Irrigo got his powers, but I want the balls of the person who dared target him at us."
Lara glared at Ronan for a few moments. "He's an assassin Ronan, you know that as well as I do. I don't trust-"
"Trust is irrelevant, Lara," Ronan broke in again. "He is an invaluable tool, whatever you may-"
"He's a god-damned assassin," screeched the rather irate Lara. "How can you possibly dream of trusting-"
"Enough!" Jason roared, tired of the argument. "I'll talk to this Quentin, and see what I think of him." Jason slapped the phone into Ronan's hand and ordered him, "Make it happen."
Ronan and Lara both stared at Jason for a few moments. "What exactly makes you think you can give orders?" Lara asked icily.
"The two of you are squabbling like little children, someone has to be the adult," Jason answered.
Lara stared Jason straight in the eyes for a few seconds. Then a few more. Then a few minutes. Jason never blinked, and eventually she looked away. "Fine then," she snarled as she stomped off.
Ronan started dialing numbers before Jason turned around to remind him. He, at least, knew when he'd met his match. Jason had grown since Eric's death -- and besides, he was right. They had been squabbling like little children over a decision not only long since made, but long since made moot. Trying to 'shut down' Quentin was impossible. Even had he not had the powers of a Guardian, Ronan wouldn't have bet on it happening. With them? Not a chance in hell.
Even if he wasn't someone Ronan would have picked to become a Guardian, he was a damned useful acquisition for the group. And completely and utterly loyal to Ronan. Too loyal, really -- if Ronan ever died, his killer had better have his affairs in order -- because Ronan wasn't sure he'd transfer that loyalty to whoever took charge of the Guardians in the event that Ronan couldn't handle those duties anymore. Like right now.
He knew damned well Lara was going to do her damnedest to ground him until she was convinced he was back on the bandwagon, and that wasn't going to happen anytime soon.
Jason bought a cup of coffee from the lady at the counter, then looked around for a corner seat. He'd never been to this Starbucks before, but since they were all the same that didn't really matter. What mattered is this is the one he'd been sent to, with some very specific -- if peculiar -- instructions.
1. Buy a cup of something hot 2. Sit at the corner table 3. Wait -- do not get up for a snack, or restroom, or anything 4. When someone sits and says hello, nod your head once, and then ignore them completely -- they don't exist, and they haven't done anything. 5. When they leave the table, go to the men's room 6. Check under the sink, and obey all instructions
The orders were distinctly odd, but Jason didn't really feel like arguing -- they only had a few hours before night fell, and he wanted this done, tonight. He'd expressed that opinion to the man on the phone, and he'd agreed to 'rush things'.
If this was rushing, Jason didn't want to see 'proper caution'. Seeing only one open table -- a table that shouldn't have been open, given the crowding around him -- Jason sat. The chair he took gave him a good view of the majority of the room, with the solid wall to his back. Unfortunately, the layout kept him from keeping an eye on both the restrooms, and the entrance.
Jason didn't have to wait very long, an elderly man separated from the crowed and sat down across from him. "Hello, young man!" the man greeted him cheerfully. Jason took a sip of his coffee and inclined his head in greeting.
"Well, a fine evening to you too, sir!" the man giggled. Jason kept a watch on the crowd around them, ignoring the man.
"The sun shines at noon," the man crooned to himself, "and the ice is slippery. Young fools do foolish things, and wise fools do stupid things." After a few minutes of random babble, the man looked straight into Jason's eyes. "Go check the toilet now. Inside the tank, like you were told."
Jason continued to ignore him, and the old man grinned. Reaching into his pockets, he dropped an envelope on the table, got up, and walked away. Jason ignored it, took another sip from his coffee, then got up and walked into the restroom. He had a short wait outside the door, then a short man with dark black hair scooted out. Jason slipped in, locked the door, and checked to make sure he was alone. Seeing the sink in question, he dropped down to his knees to crawl underneath.
And froze as he saw a shaft where the ventilation grille should have gone -- one large enough to accommodate the man pointing a gun between his eyes. "Hello there, young man," the figure laughed. "Now, unless you want a bullet between your eyes, let me strongly recommend you follow me."
The figure crawled backwards, and Jason followed. This shaft was not standard architecture for any building he knew of -- and neither was the metal blast door that sealed the entry behind him. From the way it shifted sideways, then back into the gap, Jason strongly suspected that it hid the presence of the shaft from curious passerby.
Soon they entered a small, dismally lit room. The figure waved its gun at a nearby seat, and Jason crawled over and sat. "So, you're Timmy."
Jason blinked. "If that's what you want to call me, Que-"
"Shut up," the figure snarled. "You idiot, you don't know the first god-damned thing about field craft. Obviously you don't even watch the right movies. You don't offer my name, you make me give it. Quentin, to be precise. Now, how about giving me yours?"
"Jason," Jason confirmed.
"Hrmph," the man grunted. "No attempts to evade the question, or turn it back at me? I'm disappointed, kid, I thought Ronan would have taught you better."
"Ronan had other things to teach me than the art of spying," Jason answered.
"I swear, that man's priorities are as skewed... well, as he claims mine are!" Quentin laughed, nastily. "So, what did he teach you?"
"Enough that that pistol isn't a threat," Jason answered with a grin.
"Wrong," Quentin informed him. "It's a special pistol designed just to kill Guardians -- or Sentinels. Or not-Guardians, as the case may be."
"Sentinels?" Jason asked.
Quentin snorted in disgust, "Hasn't even taught you that much yet, has he? Figures!"
"He hasn't had much time to teach, period," Jason defended Ronan. "That said, bullets-"
"Depends on the bullet, kid. This little beaut," Quentin waved the pistol, "is a specially designed weapon that shoots an unusually large bullet. That bullet is equipped with a sophisticated doppler radio sensor which tells it when it's been brought to a halt, and then activates an atomization system that sprays atomized acid at the target. Won't kill you, but your defenses won't stop it, either."
"If it won't kill me-" Jason began.
"Healing almost instantly doesn't change the fact that acid burns are pretty damned painful, kid. Painful enough that I can just put this between your eyes," a .45 appeared in Quentin's other hand as if by magic, then vanished, "or take my tanto and handle things more personally, as needed."
Jason grinned. "Trying that would be a mistake. I've already jammed the dead drop you have over my head, your .45 wouldn't penetrate my defenses, and as far as swords go, getting into melee range with me would be a mistake."
Quentin stood still for a few moments, then laughed. "OK, so Ronan taught you a little bit. How would you deal with the snipers waiting outside the building?"
Jason leaned forward with a companionable grin, "A sniper isn't going to do any good if I maintain my defenses at peak. Especially if they don't know who to look for." Jason shimmered for a second and when Quentin could see clearly again, looked totally different. Quentin grinned acknowledged the point with a wave of his hand.
"OK, clearly it would be most unwise for either of us to anger the other," he agreed. "Now, why exactly did you need to meet me so suddenly?"
"What did Ronan tell you?" Jason asked back.
"That you needed to meet me, ASAP, and that there was an op of some kind tonight," Quentin answered.
Jason nodded his head. "Ronan is temporarily out of action. The op can't be delayed, but he's worried. The attack on Eric has him spooked-"
"And with good reason," Quentin agreed. "I haven't been able to track down Rudolf's supporters, and what's worse is I can't prove he had any. Either they are far better than they have any right to be, or they don't exist. Since Rudolf can't possibly have pulled off everything on his own, he had to have help -- which means they are far, far better than I want to think about."
"That's what Ronan has had you doing?" Jason asked.
Quentin nodded, "The attack on Eric needs to be dealt with, and harshly. It was a trap, set specifically for him, and we need to know how they pulled that off. We need to know who they are, and we need to put them in the ground."
The cold, chill finality of the way Quentin phrased that sent chills down Jason's spine. Ronan could be cold about killing, but the way Quentin spoke... With Ronan, death was a natural consequence of getting physical -- you don't seek to do it, but you don't refrain when the time comes. With Quentin, Jason realized death was the first option in conflict resolution.
No wonder Lara hated the man's guts! "Lara didn't want to take you on the op tonight, Ronan insisted. I'm going to make the final decision," Jason said eventually.
"If Ronan said I'm going, then the decision is made," Quentin informed him. "Where Ronan orders, I go."
"He mentioned your loyalty being beyond question, but he wouldn't tell me why," Jason asked obliquely.
"My story to tell, huh? Fine then..." Quentin leaned back and stared up into the darkened spaces above them, and eventually started to speak.
I'm fifty years old, kid, and I've been a world class assassin for twenty of them. I started my career as a hired gun when I was all of twelve years old, in a dingy third world city. I was good, I was _really good._
"No one suspects a kid of anything, and while I couldn't hide large weapons, I had the aim to use smaller weapons at ranges no one would suspect. With a pistol, I could match the accuracy of a rifleman. With a rifle, I could match a sniper. Put a sniper's gun in my hands, and... well, lets just say I don't just aim for one shot, one kill."
"As a kid, I could wriggle in and out of spaces no one else could. Places no one else could get into were mine for the taking. And I took. I amassed a not inconsiderable fortune before I was fifteen years old. And then, I lost. The target knew I was coming, and had planned for me. They knew exactly where to wait, exactly where I was going to be."
"They'd bribed my handler to betray me, and he did."
"The only mistake they made was not finishing me. By the time they were done I was half-dead, but another kid -- Jeffery -- took pity on me and nursed me back to health. Once I regained consciousness, I contacted some friends and got them to take me to a hospital here in the US -- best medical care around! As a thank-you gift, I brought Jeffery with me, and got him set up here. He thanked me, and stayed in touch as I went back home to close out the books."
"An assassin -- a good one, anyway -- will kill the target he's paid to kill, and only that target. I wasn't just good, I was _great. But not that time. I killed the target's wife. I killed his friends. I took down his employees -- every last child-raping one -- and then I started in on his pets. And then I started leaving things -- razor sharp knives, spent bullet casings, and the like -- on his bed. And I'm ashamed to admit it, but his children's pillows too. I won't lie; I almost did kill them. I was standing over one, pistol in hand, staring at his sleeping face."_
"I didn't though. The eldest was all of five years old, and they were innocent of their father's crimes. I continued my reign of terror, killing one of his friends, employees, tools, whatever I could get my hands on, one a night. He tried running, but found the driver of his limo with his throat slit, and a note promising that if he tried to leave before I was finished... well, he believed the note."
"Eventually, he tried to contact me. I was destroying his fortune -- the fortune he'd built for his children -- and begged me to simply end it, and leave something for them."
"I didn't tell him that I'd already made arrangements for them, I simply sent his messenger back, one body part at a time."
"I'm not proud of that time, Jason. I was hurting, and I inflicted that hurt a hundred times over on a man who didn't realize what his employees were going to do. He told me that before the end -- that's what makes it so horrible. His suicide note... it wasn't addressed to his kids, or his employees, or anyone you'd expect. It was left to me. And he did it because I finally told him why I was doing it."
"I'd woken him up in the middle of the night, pistol in his face. I'd hired some extras for the night, and they spread him and tied him to the bed. He'd never seen me before, but he knew. He asked me one thing."
"'Why?' he asked me. So I told him."
"Before I finished I'd had to cut him loose so he wouldn't choke to death on his own vomit. He hadn't known, you see. His employees had been told to deal with the threat -- but to rape a child was beyond even his limits. When he looked up, he started to promise dire retribution to all of them, then stopped."
"My rapists were the first ones to go down, you see. And they were the only ones I'd tortured. Don't ask me to describe it, Jason, I won't. From what I've heard, you have a pretty good idea what I wanted to do to them. And I knew how to do it -- it was a part of my job."
"I don't know why I believed him, but I did -- he didn't mean for what had happened to happen. I was actually going to call it off."
"I went back that night to tell him I was calling it off. Everything. I wasn't going to rebuild his lost fortunes, but he had enough for himself, and his kids."
"His kids weren't home, and I didn't know why. That worried me. I almost left, but on impulse I went and checked his room as well."
"He'd hung himself. On the desk was a note, addressed to me by name. Not my real name, of course, but my title. It was written to the persona I'd created for myself -- 'The Jaguar'. Far from original, of course, but..."
"I still have that note. He apologized, and said that his death couldn't make up for what happened to me. He'd done many things making his fortune, harmed many people, but the one thing he'd never done is harmed a child. And while I wasn't really a child -- I'd come to kill him -- the idea of his men raping me... he couldn't stand it."
"He asked only that I leave his children be, look after them if I could. I found them easily enough when I went looking, and I brought them back to the US. That city, that country... they never would have been safe there."
"But I knew Jeffery would take them in and protect them. And he did. He protected those children, while I continued my career. But this time I was more selective -- and expensive. My reputation had grown, and everyone wanted to hire me. I took only the most dangerous, most difficult jobs, and then only those that deserved doing -- drug lords who didn't care about the peons in their little empires, dictators who caused suffering while they enjoyed their new-found wealth, and similar individuals. Those who felt themselves beyond the law, and used that position to do the intolerable. I made them my rightful prey, and they paid for it. All the while I got older, and the children grew. They had children of their own, and all of them lived under my umbrella, my protection. Only Jeff knew I even existed, though -- I never visited the children, I had no right."
"Then, one day, I got a call from a local contact here. He was one of several agents I had watching over Jeffery -- he didn't know it, but he and the children were guarded just as well as the US President. Oh, I couldn't put all the security in place the President might have, but then again they weren't a major target for international assassins like me."
"Or so I thought."
"One of my targets knew I'd been hired, and was the next best thing to unstoppable, so he didn't try. He just hired another assassin and gave him a very broad target -- making me pay. The other guy was good, God only knows how good. He dug through layer after layer of security."
"He cut through the fog I'd put over my past to track down Jeffery and the children. And he destroyed my security without me even knowing it. It was over a month before a backup noticed something was wrong, and checked in. I came straight back, abandoning the several million dollars I'd already sunk into my current job. If my employer complained, I could afford to give back the hundred million dollar payment he'd given me twice over -- and I'd do it a dozen times over to protect Jeffery. I owed him too much, and the children too."
"I was too late, though. My opponent had already killed Jeff -- tortured him to death -- and the children were missing. I dug. I pulled in every resource, called every contact, and I just couldn't get anywhere. Finally, I found something and came running back -- back here, where I'd hidden the children in the first place."
"I was stupid. I didn't do enough research. I only knew that traces of information -- fragments of fragments of clues -- all seemed to point in one direction, at one place. So I went. No one else could seem to get close. But I wasn't going to be deterred. I broke in at midnight, and poked around in the basement. Eventually I found my way to a metal door, covered by a black curtain."
"I slammed the door shut the second I opened it, and turned to run. But Ronan found me first. He had his Katana out, and was blocking the door."
"'How did you get in here?' he asked me. I didn't bother trying to answer, I simply drew and fired. Much to my shock, it was useless, and he came at me with that sword. Thank god I'd trained for so long in every single combat form I could think of -- I fought him to a standstill. I held my own against him for several long minutes. He was quite impressed with the that, but he finally managed to get through my defenses. I thought I was dead when that blade came swinging in, but he simply slammed his fist into my jaw, knocking me out. When I came to, I'd been restrained, and the blade was hovering next to my throat. I was impressed with his patience -- a blow like that should have left me out for hours -- and only later did I discover I was only out for a few moments. Only later..."
"He asked again about how did I get in, why did I come. I spat in his face. I told him that if he killed me, my entire fortune would be turned against him -- every assassin in the world would come for him, in vengeance for what he'd done to those I cared for."
"He almost dropped the blade, he was so shocked. He thought I'd come to harm him -- not rescue my kids! When he found out the truth, he smiled a little smile, and shook his head."
"The other assassin had shown up earlier, looking for his targets. He'd been on scene when Ronan did his job, made tracking them this far easier. Ronan told me he was dead, and the children safe. Said he would offer to let me call them, but it wouldn't do any good -- even if they'd known me, they wouldn't remember me anymore."
"I almost lost it at that point, thinking he'd harmed them. I don't know how he got my attention through all the filth I was spewing, but eventually he got it, and explained. It was for their own safety -- once I understood what had been done, even I'd agreed with that! -- and they hadn't been harmed in any other way."
"He'd wiped their memories clean of their old lives, and built them a new one, elsewhere. They weren't rich, but they had more than enough money to live out their lives, happily ever after. And no one would ever be able to track them down. I hadn't, and I was -- am! -- the best. We spent time talking, and eventually Ronan let me go."
"For all that I grew up a street kid in a third world city, I had honor. After I'd grown, I'd studied the ways of a hundred warrior cultures, of a dozen assassin groups. I'd found one that appealed to me in the samurai of ancient Japan, and adapted it to my needs. That night, I offered Ronan my sword in service, in repayment of having fulfilled my duties for me, and in furtherance of protecting those children. If Ronan died -- if someone took him on -- it was just vaguely possible someone might be able to track past him, to track them down anyway. Now, they would go through me first."
"So, kid," Quentin asked tiredly, "do I pass muster?" The silence stretched out as they stared at each other.
"I'll have to think on it," Jason admitted.
"Don't take too long, kid," Quentin warned him, "the mission is tonight."
"I know. Let me tell you a little about it-" Jason began.
"No need," Quentin grinned at Jason before continuing, "It's for a good cause, and what intel you have is what I've already gathered. Pimp's name is Rodrigo Alveras, he's got a shit load of goons, and runs a number of women, through an 'apartment building' in the bad part of town. He runs the women by taking their children hostage, and once the children are old enough he hooks 'em on drugs then starts prostituting them out too. Ronan caught wind of him a week ago, and has been getting ready to shut him down. If Eric hadn't died..." Quentin paused for a moment before continuing. "If things had gone as planned, they'd have been shut down already, but other things have taken priority."
Jason looked at Quentin in shock for a few moments before whispering, "Ronan knew?"
"Ronan has his hands in many things," Quentin explained.
"Why take so long?" Jason demanded harshly. "If he knew -- he could have taken them out by himself, and we both know it!"
"Still a boy," Quentin whispered to himself. "Jason," he spoke up, "What would have happened had Ronan gone ahead and attacked as soon as he found out?"
"He would have taken them out!" Jason shouted.
Quentin's voice turned icen, as he rebutted, "Maybe, or maybe he would have discovered the building was wired to blow, killing everyone inside. Or maybe he would have discovered it was one operation out of a dozen, and in killing the one, he triggered a 'purge' of the others -- dooming dozens of children to death because he couldn't wait three days to rescue a few others."
"He should have... he..." Jason spluttered before calming down. "It's possible, but is it really all that likely?"
Quentin reached into his shirt and pulled out a couple of pieces of wire, then tossed them at Jason's feet. "Three months ago, a similar operation opened up downtown. The women were imported from overseas, spent a few months as whores, and were eventually sold as brides to the highest bidder. If they failed to obey in any way... we found out because there were a number of bodies with sexual mutilations being found in the river. Eventually we traced their source. That wiring was from the self-destruct mechanism the 'employer' of the whorehouse had installed to cover his tracks."
Jason fingered the cut wires for a few moments, then looked up at Quentin. "And you just happened to bring this with you today?"
Quentin grinned, "I didn't think you'd pick up on that. I figured this conversation would come up sooner or later, and a demonstration really is useful."
"How much of this meeting was staged?" Jason asked with a grin.
"More than you'd believe, less than you'd think," Quentin admitted ruefully. "This place really is a secure meeting point, but the elaborate instructions to ID you were just to set the mood. In reality, I own the entire building -- both the Starbucks and here."
"I see," Jason said eventually. "Another little lesson from Ronan?"
"Not one most people receive, but yes," Quentin agreed. "He thinks quite highly of you."
"I could almost do without that," Jason laughed. Looking at his watch, he decided. "Lara is not going to be happy with me if I accept your help. But..." Jason looked down at the ground a few minutes. "We could use the backup -- just stay hidden, if possible. If not, oh well."
"Done!" Quentin got up and walked to one of the walls, and opened a door for Jason. "Here's your exit -- see you some other time. Oh, and kid?"
"Yes?" Jason asked.
"Keep more aware of your auras, or it'll get you killed."