"What do you mean, too late?" Cody demanded.
"The kid's real father just got screwed over by his wife. The situation is spiraling completely out of control, and..." Jason took a deep breath. "Alright, I need to keep calm. There is a way out of this, I know it!"
"What is 'this'?"Cody asked.
Jason glanced at him and shook his head. "Bad news. David's parents are on a knife edge; pushed just a little further in the wrong way and they'll kill him. His real father just got accused of molesting a child, and there's just enough evidence to make the hysterical accusations of the child's mother seem justified."
"Alright then, what's the problem?" Cody asked.
"What's the problem?" Jason asked, angered. "The kid's best hope for a normal life is his father, who is about to get tossed into jail for sexually abusing a child!"
"Is the father guilty?" Cody asked calmly.
"No! And stop smiling like that!" Jason snapped.
"Then what is the problem?" Cody laughed. "If he's innocent, and this child's best hope, what makes you think we can't... fix... the accusations?"
"'Fix' them?" Jason asked, shocked. "'Fix' them?!"
"Well," Cody answered, "yes. Fix them."
"How exactly do you propose to do that?" Jason asked.
"Depends on the specifics," Cody smiled. "Depending on the number of people and records involved, we might simply make it go away. Memories can be altered, records made to vanish, threats... eliminated. Or we could cross a few palms with silver and make things go away that way. Or if there are too many involved, just make sure that the judge is... amply aware of the insufficient evidence to support the charges."
Jason gaped in shock. "You'd just... just... manipulate the criminal justice system like that!" he gasped in shock.
"Is that a problem?" Cody asked wryly.
"It's wrong!" Jason complained.
"Why? How is it wrong?" Cody pressed.
"It's... it's... it's wrong!" Jason protested, unable to marshal a more coherent opposition.
"The American justice system is based on the principle that it is better for ten guilty men to go free," Cody argued, "than for one innocent man to be put in jail. Is it not?"
"I'm not going to like what happens when I say yes, am I?" Jason complained.
"And if they could be told of, and therefore test, our ability to discern the truth in such situations, they would accept, absolutely, that we can do so, would they not?" Cody pressed. Jason nodded reluctantly. "Then all we're doing is using our ability, and then... adjusting the situation so the court decision is the same as it would otherwise have been."
"I still don't like it!" Jason protested. "And if you guys can do this much, why the heck is that court case still hovering over my head?"
Cody gave a short bark of laughter before he could restrain himself. "Did you, by any chance, notice the sudden change in ADA in charge of the case, Jason? Right after, in case you didn't notice, Ronan had a little... chat... with the DA?"
Two plus two equals... "Ronan didn't! Wouldn't! Couldn't!" Jason protested.
"Could. Would. Did," Cody disagreed.
"Wait, what about the first trial?" Jason asked. "He didn't make that one vanish!"
"That trial wasn't about guilt and innocence, it was about you taking back what was yours. It was about you taking control from the rapist who had taken it from you," Cody explained. "It's not pleasant, it's not fun, but it helps in the healing. It's part of the healing. And therefore... we rarely touch rapists if we can avoid it. Not because they deserve it, but because their victims need that closure, at a minimum, or better yet that opportunity to strike back."
"That's why Ronan insisted I go to the police..." Jason said thoughtfully.
"Yes," Cody said simply. "Now, back to business!"
As coherently as he could manage, Jason laid out what he'd Seen of the situation. Soon he and Cody had a plan built together. And, naturally, Cody made sure to put Jason at the center of every important step.
Roger took a sip of his beer, morosely staring at the dark wood of the counter top in front of him. "Give me a Coors Light,"someone told the barkeeper as he slipped in beside Roger.
"I don't want to talk," Roger said darkly, sensing the others regard.
"You don't have to," the other commented. "I can talk well enough for both of us. Or rather, the three of us. You, me... your son."
"My son," Roger snorted. "Is that what this is about? The rumors... the lies that bitch is spreading... I'd never lay a hand on Zach that way!"
"I'm not talking about Zach, who is also your son even if not by blood," the stranger answered. "Ah, thank you!" he told the barkeep as he took the beer. "Beer's not my favorite drink, but it's pretty good," he sighed as he took a swig.
"If this isn't about Zach, who is it about?" Roger asked.
"Thirteen years ago, or so, your wife had an affair," the stranger said.
"Your point!" Roger ordered.
"You found out. Had a fight. Got some revenge with a pretty lady you met at a bar, much like this one. You either didn't bother with a condom, or it didn't work. She came up pregnant, ticking her husband off to no end," the stranger said conversationally.
"Preg-" Roger took another swig of his drink as his voice failed. "Pregnant?" he whispered, not daring to look up.
"Hypothetical question here, but could you, would you, take responsibility for two boys as your sons? Even though one is twelve years old and never met you, and the other no blood relation?"
Roger turned to stare at the stranger. "My wife put you up to this, didn't she? Thrice-damned bitch, what's she after now?"
"You didn't answer my question, but I'll give you an answer anyway. No, I am not here on behalf of your wife. In fact," the stranger grinned, "I fully intend to screw her over as badly as she tried to screw you."
"What did she do to you?" Roger asked bitterly. "Not as good a fuck as you expected?"
"You owe me an answer, first. Would you take care of the two boys?" the stranger pressed.
"In a heartbeat," Roger answered without thinking about it.
"Your wife ticked me off by treating you the way she did. She's using the criminal justice system for personal gain, and that just plain ticks me off," the stranger smiled. "Enjoy your drink, and feel free to forget this conversation."
Roger blinked, staring morosely at the counter top in front of him. Maybe he should go home, he wasn't doing himself any good just moping around in bars. Turning to pay his tab, he frowned when the barkeeper said his friend had already paid for him. "Friend?"
"Yeah, the guy you were talking to, he said I should get you a cab, too, it's pulling up out front," the barkeeper shook his head and wandered of. Roger pressed his hand to his head and remembered, vaguely, a conversation with... with... someone.
"I need to lay off the booze," he muttered to himself as he slipped into the cab.
Jason walked away angrily. It'd been necessary, he had to admit that, but... still...
Damn it! Damn Ronan and his secrecy fetish, and damn the bastards that made all this skulking about in the shadows necessary! And damn him for going along with it!
Now he just had a few more stops to go compromise his integrity at. The various 'expert witnesses' had to be... prodded... to _find something to 'prove' that the evidence was false, misleading, or otherwise tainted._
"Roger, you will never believe it!" his attorney blared down the telephone line. "We've got the bitch six ways from Sunday, and her little dog too!"
Roger worked his mouth in an effort to introduce some moisture back into it. "Quieter, please, I've got a jackhammer going in my head."
"Hung over?" his attorney asked.
"Yes, Phil, hung over," Roger admitted. "And yes, you told me so."
"Well, you'll never believe it. That computer consultant I had go over those photos? He found proof positive that were tampered with, not just 'enhanced' to make them more readable." The lawyer's joy filled his voice.
"What?" Roger asked, bolting upright.
"He had a nagging feeling that he'd missed something, so he went back over them again just to be thorough. I don't understand the details, but the proof isn't in the photos themselves, it's in the way they're stored. Something about a file header that clearly shows an editing process, not just enhancing but actual editing, was used."
"And he'll testify in court?" Roger asked.
"Oh yeah, and the video artist who 'enhanced' the raw data will too!" Phillip added. "He's really ticked by how the original data that he enhanced just 'vanished', leaving behind just the result's he produced. He went back over his contract and and noticed something he'd missed. Those two idiots specified, in writing, the exact techniques they wanted used... and that list focused exclusively on those enhancement techniques that would make it impossible to spot a forgery. He doesn't have the original data, but that contract plus his assurances that he didn't use the software that left the 'tag' our expert found. Which means the tag pre-dates the enhancements he applied to make the photos more clear."
"It sounds like their entire case just went belly-up!" Roger exclaimed. "With most of the physical evidence gone..."
"Hey, there's no telling why they want to put your son up on the stand," Phillip reminded him. "Maybe they've brainwashed him into thinking you abused him, and maybe it's a deliberate terror tactic to make you think..." Phillip paused as his computer dinged at him. "One sec, I just got an urgent e-mail... Oh. My. God."
"What's wrong?" Roger asked.
"Listen, Roger, I gotta do some research... but if this material is right... fucking hell, we won't just toss them into jail, we'll get the judge to throw away the key!"
"What is it?" Roger asked.
"I need to confirm this... and it's got sources listed to confirm it with... but the 'psychiatrist' that bitch has been sending Zach to specializes in 'reconstructing' the 'buried' memories of abused children. By which I mean he was almost kicked out of the APA for creating stories out of whole cloth and convincing kids to repeat them."
"Holy shit!" Roger swore.
"Yeah, yeah..." Phillip said thoughtfully. "Listen, Roger, I need to go. I've got work to do, and we're going to court in a few hours."
"What?" Roger protested. "But the court date isn't for weeks!"
"We're going to ask for an emergency injunction to keep Zach away from that quack," Philip informed his client, "and in all likelihood there's gonna be stuff happening that you need to be there for, able to make decisions. Go, get your ass ready. We've got a battle to win... and now, we have the tools to fight it with!"
Jason frowned as he walked out of the lawyer's office. His clerk had deliberately misfiled the evidence needed to prove Roger's innocence, yes, but... her behavior was wrong. He needed to talk to Ronan about this, soon.
But for now, he needed a break. The demonstration going on around home was annoying, but for the moment he could sneak around it with a little effort. He'd have to face them down, but... not tonight. Not tonight.
"My name is Georgina Bourdet, I will no longer be known by the name of a child rapist!" the plump woman angrily informed the judge.
"Mrs. Clifton," the judge repeated icily. "First, I will address you as I see fit, and by that I mean using your legal name until such a time as it is actually changed."
"I object! That's-" she began to reply.
"Second," the judge cut her off, "you will address me as 'your honor' or 'Judge Maxwell'. And third, you will not interrupt me again. Am I clear?" the judge snarled.
"Yes," Georgina wilted under his stern gaze. Her lawyer nudged her with his elbow, and when she glared at him coughed something under his breath. "Your Honor," she added grudgingly.
"Further violations of those orders will be considered contempt of court, understand?" The judge glared at her angrily as he asked her his question.
"Yes. Your honor," the honorific clearly grated on her, and the pause was not quite sufficient to turn it into an insult.
Bang bang. "I fine you five hundred dollars for contempt of court," the judge snarled.
"What?" Georgina complained. "I mean, your honor, what did-"
"One thousand dollars! Extra, not total. Do not argue with me!" the judge's eyes flashed as Georgina opened her mouth do do just that.
"My apologies for any offense, your honor," Georgina managed to eek out evenly.
"Good," the judge said amicably. "Now, so long as there are no further offenses this day, I will waive the fine and have the record expunged. But set toe out of line..."
"Yes, your honor," Georgina bobbed her head, striving to please.
"Now, I want to know, Mrs. Clifton, why you chose the psychiatrist you did," the judge asked.
"He was recommended to me, your honor," Georgina answered.
"By whom?" the judge demanded.
"I..." Georgina paused, hand rising to her temple. "I... I'm not..." She looked up at the judge for a moment, frowning. "I'm sorry, I don't remember," she paused, then quickly corrected herself, "I'm sorry, your honor, I can't quite seem to recall."
"You don't remember. Someone just happens to suggest a psychiatrist and you don't even remember who it was? How about when? Where? How?" With each question Georgina just shook her head, confused. "Did you even bother to research this man before you trusted your child into his 'capable' hands?"
"It didn't seem... necessary..." Georgina trailed off, confused and staring into space.
"Another thousand dollars, Mrs. Clifton, and at this rate you'll have a week in jail to boot!"
Roger glanced at his lawyer as Phillip rose to his feet. "Your honor, may I speak?"
"Do you have something to add to this debacle?"the judge asked testily.
"I believe so your honor," Phillip said firmly.
"What is it?"
"Your honor, recently several new facts have come to light. Experts have gone back over the data and found things they missed or didn't look for, or noticed that their contracts specified things which should have set off alarms when they signed them. The video experts found proof that the photos were doctored, hidden not in the photos but in the file structure used to store them. Both the audio and video technicians noticed that their contracts specified enhancement techniques that do, in fact, clarify the subject matter but at the cost of removing all possibility of detecting a fake. The originals of those vanished, then mysteriously re-appeared when the secretary to Mrs. Clifton's lawyer found the originals, misfiled."
"Are you coming anywhere near to a point, Mr. Jordan?" the judge asked.
"Your honor, on the surface this simply appears to be a turn of rather good fortune for my client. As a lawyer, I dug beneath the surface, and ran into this," Philip waved at Georgina, "in every single case."
"This? Her behavior?" the judge asked.
"When I asked the video expert why he went back over, how he noticed the 'tag' in the file header, he told me that 'something felt wrong'. He couldn't define what, just chalked it up to instinct. But when I asked him point blank why he didn't check the file header the first time, he became vague, confused, uncertain. Lost in thought and unable to respond in a socially acceptable manner to my presence."
Philip pointed to Georgina and thundered, "Just like Georgina Clifton is today!"
The judge's face turned blank with shock. "What?"
"The other witnesses were effected as well, your honor. I dug. And I found two blind spots, two places where that confusion and apathy would appear. One is how the original mistake occurred, and one is how it was fixed." Philip walked around the table at which he sat, drawing on the natural charisma that was a job requirement for a courtroom lawyer. "Your honor, the evidence strongly suggests that the witnesses, and Mrs. Clifton, have been manipulated, deliberately and with malice aforethought. It also suggests that two someones, one hostile to my client, and one friendly, did the manipulation."
Philip faced Georgina and shook his head. "She is not responsible, your honor, for her failure just a moment ago to use the appropriate honorific; I believe the stupor into which she descended is a product either of the techniques used to manipulate her mind and memory, or of her attempt to fight back against them. Either way, she should not be held responsible for her failure, and I move first that you strike it from the record and drop the fines and penalties for that act, and I move second to dismiss," Philip whirled to face the judge, "all charges against my client with prejudice, on the grounds that someone has manipulated the evidence available to this court beyond all hope of recalling the truth!"
"Mrs. Clifton," the judge said softly, "pending examination by this court of the situation, should my finding confirm Mr. Jordan's position I will grant his first motion. His second is taken under advisement pending such examinations. You are free to go, and the fines are held in abeyance for the moment."
"Thank you your honor," Georgina smiled.
Phillip strutted back to his seat, and Roger leaned over as he sat down. "You could have told me you were planning this," he complained.
"Roger, until she provided the perfect opening like that I had no intention of doing anything more than laying groundwork," Philip answered dryly. "I'm still tracking down people and seeing just how far this... rot... has spread. The damage this is going to do to the legal system..." Philip looked away, distressed. "God help us, if I find enough of it I could singlehandedly bring down the criminal justice system."
Jason turned on the evening news, still thinking about the things he'd had to do. He didn't' like the idea of playing with people's memories and minds, but there was a certain logic to the necessity of-
"Ronan!" he called, "get in here!"
"What is it?" Ronan asked listlessly.
"We're in the news," Jason said tersely, and turned up the volume.
Ronan watched with Jason until the show stopped discussing the fiasco in the courtroom. "I could understand you being a bit clumsy, but..." Ronan shook his head.
"Who else can pull these kinds of tricks?"Jason asked.
"Let's just add this to the list of things we're discussing with Jin sometime soon," Ronan said dryly. "His group has the power, but even they wouldn't do this..."
"Do I detect a hint of doubt in your voice?" Jason asked.
"Not... doubt," Ronan said slowly. "Uncertainty, maybe. Fear, assuredly. I sincerely doubt that they are directly involved. The problem is... who is it?"
"Rudolf... and I think you mentioned others..." Jason said softly.
"Yes, Rudolf and others have been... nibbling at the edges. Testing us," Ronan agreed. "But why are they testing us? Who is doing it... and most importantly... how."
"We need to figure out how I got my powers," Jason said softly.
"Most definitely," Ronan agreed. "Mur-" Ronan's mouth clicked shut.
"Mur? Mur who?" Jason asked.
"There are secrets I am sworn to keep," Ronan told him. "Mur-who is one of those. I don't doubt that I'll get permission to tell you more, but it'll take time."
"Permission? From who?" Jason asked. "You already told me you're the dictator of the guardians!"
"Please," Ronan asked, "don't call me dictator!"
"Sole authority figure with complete sovereignty, then," Jason teased.
"If they really wanted to-" Ronan started.
"Ronan, don't bull shit me,"Jason said angrily. "The rule system you guys have in place may be very loose, but it makes you the complete ruler of the group. There is no way anyone is going to get two thirds of this group to disagree with you on anything, much less to the point where they'd agree to depose you."
"Depose? What a... harsh choice of words," Ronan commented wryly. "But yes, I suppose you're right. The odds of getting two thirds of the group to turn against me to such a degree are slight. Assuming, of course, that I don't do anything excessively stupid."
"Assuming," Jason laughed. "Now, why don't we get back to the problem at hand... what do I do about Roger, and David, and the rest of that situation? With the court screwed up like that, it's probably going to become really ugly really quickly."
"Given your rather ham-handed approach with suggestions," Ronan said wryly, "I'll let someone else clean up your mess. Right at the moment-" The ringing of the phone cut their conversation off.
"Koken residence, Jason Bester speaking, how may I help you?" Jason answered by rote.
"What. Did. You. Do," the person on the other end growled.
"Excuse me?"Jason asked, glancing over at Ronan.
"To Tommy!" the voice growled.
"Ashley, is that you?" Jason asked.
"Yes, it's me! Now answer the thrice-damned question!" she snapped angrily.
"I have no clue what you're talking about, I haven't seen him since we were over there the other night," Jason told her.
"Fine, what did you do then?" she demanded.
"Ashley, what's going on?" Jason asked.
"Tommy just took his bath for the night, and came back with some rather interesting questions," she told him. "He thought he had cancer or something when he found a couple of bumps on his crotch. If I'd taken him in, I'd have had to answer some very strange questions from the doctor. I checked him myself, and they aren't just lumps. They're his privates, regrowing. What. Did. You. Do?!"
"His what!" Jason spluttered. "Ashley, back up, what do you mean regrowing?"
"The reason he came here is because his parents cut his... equipment off," Ashley said angrily. "Now, without any warning and after I've spent a lot of time and effort helping him come to terms with that, they are spontaneously regenerating. And the energy that's flowing all around that area has your signature all over it!"
"Ashley, I have no clue what you're talking about!" Jason told her. "I tried to heal him-"Jason's mouth shut with a click. "The other night, when I tried to heal him I couldn't quite manage one part... I thought it was just from me falling on him and I tried something different..." Jason rubbed his temples as he thought.
"Whatever you did," Ashley told him, "I want an explanation, I want you to show me how to do it myself, and I want you to figure out what the cost is."
"I'll call Jericho, have him meet me there," Jason told her. "I honestly have no clue how I did- Well, no, I think I remember what I did, I just have no clue how it's doing what no one else can."
"Just haul ass. Jericho's already here, he's the one who recognized your energy signature," Ashley ordered, then hung up.
"Ronan, I gots to go," Jason said. "Apparently, I somehow managed-" Jason's mouth clicked shut as he watched Ronan grab his shoes.
"You know I have good ears,"Ronan said with a laugh.
"Not that good," Jason pointed out wryly. "You seem strangely unaffected by the news,"he commented as he grabbed his own shoes.
"Yes, I do don't I," Ronan answered.
"You're hiding something," Jason accused him.
"Don't be stupid," Ronan told him.
"Do you really expect me to believe you aren't hiding something?" Jason asked, exasperated.
"Of course not! There's just no need for you to comment that water is wet, or that I'm keeping secrets. It can be assumed that I already know these things, and so do you."
They'd snuck out of the building easily enough in the waning light of evening, and getting across town hadn't been too terribly difficult either once they'd picked up a cab. "Hey Ashley," Jason said as he walked in.
"What did you do?" she screamed. "And how?!"
"Well, apparently I healed him. As for how, I'm not entirely sure how to put it into words..." Jason shrugged. "Basically instead of trying to heal the injury direct, I just healed everything right up to where my powers wouldn't reach and used that to... leap frog my way forward."
"Well," Jericho butted in, "I'll need Lara to take a look because she's far better than I at the medical stuff, but it looks like you somehow convinced the body to produce additional stem cells. Those cells then relocate themselves to where the missing tissue belongs and differentiate to produce the needed material, and provide a matrix for the next wave of stem cells to build on. The skin is pushed outward by this building process, with accelerated cell mitoses where the skin is stretched."
"Gee, sounds like you don't even need me," Jason said lightly.
"The energy is limited, and we can't replenish it," Ashley said tightly. "Can you... do you think..."
"Oh," Jason said softly. "I'll try and do what I can," he told her. "So, where's my patient?"
"The other room, sleeping," she told him. "It's a little early, but under the circumstances we thought that encouraging a 'nap' might be helpful."
"Since we have no clue how this works, I figured the reduced activity of sleep would assist in the healing process as well as remove useless biological junk from the study of this new effect," Jericho added.
"And of course, avoiding any unnecessary concern on Tony's part was helpful, too," Ashley said pointedly, glaring at Jericho.
"Huh? Oh, yes, that too," Jericho agreed hastily.
Jason ignored the byplay and knelt by the couch, resting his hand on Tommy's forehead. He wasn't entirely certain what he was doing, but he found the energy he'd embedded into the boy easily enough, and adding more of himself into it wasn't that difficult either. But it wasn't enough for him. He wanted this to go faster. He poured more and more energy into the spell he'd already set up until it began to shine right through the skin, but it just wouldn't move any faster! Maybe more power would do it, but-
Jason, enough! Ronan warned him. Jason blinked, shaking his head as the trance he'd fallen into broke. Ronan removed his hand from Jason's shoulder as Jason slowly stood up. "You OK?"Ronan asked.
"Yeah, thanks for stopping me," Jason told him. "It was like... once I started I couldn't stop, for some reason."
"Yes, I know," Ronan told him. "Learn to control it – we'll provide you with what practice and assistance we can."
"Ronan," Ashley asked, hesitant, "What is going on? What are you hiding from us now?"
"Much," Ronan told her. "Much."
"You've always kept secrets," she told him, "but... never when they involved our lives. Our well-being. You've kept your past secret, you've kept some of the things you've done secret, but... But never what we can do, nothing about the nature of our abilities. Why the change?"
"I've kept nothing, from you, about the nature of our abilities," Ronan told her. "I've kept much secret, about the nature of other things..."
"You're not making sense," she told him.
"Oh, I'm making perfect sense," Ronan told her. "You simply make a flawed assumption."
"And what might that be?" Ashley asked.
Ronan smiled and shook his head. "No, that is a discussion for another time, another place, another person."
"Ronan!" Ashley complained.
"You are assuming," Jason guessed, "that my powers are fundamentally identical to your own."
Ronan closed his eyes and sighed. "Damn."
"How long have you known?" Jason asked. "Not that I was different, but the nature of that difference? And how did you know?"
"I've known since you started showing your powers that something was different about you. I... asked some questions, some rather impertinent questions... of a friend," Ronan said slowly. "He was only guessing, as was I, but as time passed..."
"Mur," Jason breathed. "Who is this Mur, and what does he know?"
"I never betray a secret, Jason," Ronan chided him.
"Fine then, but tell me what you know of my powers," Jason ordered.
"Almost nothing," Ronan assured him. "Bits and pieces and fragments, most of which you've discovered for yourself. You see beyond what normal men can. Beyond what the rest of us may see. You have an... intuition. For people, situations, advice. You can heal almost any wound, if you let yourself. And you throw your entire being into doing so, if you aren't careful to control it or someone else doesn't restrain you."
"What do you know?" Jason demanded.
"Secrets, many secrets," Ronan whispered. "Your power, as you develop into it, will be fundamentally different from my own. Greater. For I control but one aspect of magic, and you... you possess two."
"Two? Two aspects?" Ashley asked.
"I have spoken too much already, and we have much to prepare for," Ronan told them, tone closing the topic. "What little I know that I have not shared will quickly become apparent on its own, and it must do so on it's own. To speak before it does so is..." Ronan licked his lips and glanced away. "I do not know enough, I dare not speak further. It makes things... I have been told it is a bad idea."
"You've been told," Jericho asked. "By who? And what makes you sure it is the truth?"
"The source has never lied to me, never deceived, never..." Ronan shook his head vehemently. "I didn't ask more, I didn't think... neither of us thought I needed to know more! We... Jason is wrong, Jason shouldn't have happened. Neither of us was sure how to deal with it, and I didn't ask the questions I should have!"
"Enough!" Ronan snapped. "I have spoken too much of this already! I will find out more, when and as I can, but other things interfere! We will deal with those things first, and then worry about the larger picture!"
"Are you sure you want to do it that way, Ronan?" a strange voice asked from the door.
"Jin!" Ashley shouted, spinning around.
"Ashley, it has been a while," the figure in the door nodded his head. Tall, mysterious, and, Jason noticed absently, incredibly handsome. The olive skin and angular eyes of his Asian ancestry were kind to this black haired man. "And you would be Jason, I assume?"
"What are you doing here," Jericho growled as Ronan moved to stand in front of them, drawing all eyes to himself.
Ronan didn't wait to add his own voice to the situation, growling out an angry "What he said," while jerking his head towards Jericho.
"I'm here to talk to you about the news," Jin said calmly.
"The news?" Jericho laughed.
"Did you watch the evening news tonight?" Jin asked affably. "That court case was quite the shocker," Jin's voice gradually lost all trace of amusement and turned into a chill chewing-out, "and I'd love to know what the fucking hell the idiots involved were thinking!"
"Be nice, Jin," Ronan chided him, relaxing. "We had a new guy doing his practice runs, or we would have been really out of luck."
"Excuse me?" Jin commented.
"This is yet another attack against us," Ronan said softly. "I don't know who, or how they knew we would get involved before we even knew we'd get involved, but the entire thing was a set up."
"A set up..." Jin whispered. "Damn it, who the hell is doing this?"
"Well, I'm going to guess none of your guys are involved?" Ronan asked.
"No, no way," Jin said. "There is no way they'd do this!"
"Did you check?" Ronan asked. "I've been checking, just in case."
Jin looked away. "Yes," he eventually forced out, hesitating.
"What's wrong?" Ronan asked.
"I don't know," Jin admitted. "Something is wrong, and I can't tell you what it is, or where, or even how I know."
"A gathering storm..." Jason whispered. "We're at the heart of a gathering storm."
"Yes, as good a description as any," Ronan agreed. "I need to go... there are things only I can do. People only I can contact... Ashley, I need to talk to Mary. Now!"
"She's upstairs-" Ashley began as Ronan ran out of the room. "I'll be back,"she said, following.
"So, you're him," Jin said, staring at Jason.
"I take it your name is Jin?" Jason asked.
"Jin Takamora," Jin introduced himself, holding his hand out.
"Jason Bester," Jason took the offered hand and shook it. Jin grabbed hold with his other hand and pulled Jason close, starring into Jason's eyes.
"So you're the one," Jin said.
"Stop it," Jericho warned.
"He wants you," Jin whispered. "And I cannot let him have you!" Jason struggled to break free of the grasp, even as some corner of his mind noted that Jin was talking about two people. The 'he' who wanted Jason wasn't the 'him' who could not have him.
"Enough!" Jericho snapped, rushing up to free Jason. Jin let go long enough to send Jericho flying with a casual wave of his hand and then took Jason's hand back in between both of his own. Jason felt something pressing in against him and fought. Barriers he didn't know he had sprang up but he couldn't stop it. He felt it oozing in through every crack, forcing open the doors to his mind as he fell deeper and deeper into Jin's eyes.
"No!" Jason growled, reaching up and touching, oh so gently, Jin's face with his free hand.
Jin started shaking as Jason fought back. Jason couldn't hold on his own from the defense, but he could strike back and he struck hard. He couldn't win, but he could delay the inevitable for a long, long... Jason blinked as he sensed it. A dark cloud, wrapped around Jin, strangling him inch by inch. Jin wasn't trying to break into his mind! It wasn't Jin, it was this... cloud... this thing!
Jason couldn't possibly deal with it on his own. It was too strong, too dark, and it already had him by the metaphorical throat. He'd wasted too much of his strength in a futile strike against a man who was completely innocent of what his body was doing. He had no leverage, he'd wasted his strength, and he was falling... falling into darkness... All alone in the shadows of his mind...
God, help me, he prayed even as the last of his defenses fell. The darkness reached out to choke him, and Jason was defeated, his soul laid bare before the onslaught of the darkness.
Suddenly, a brilliant light started sheering off the choking coils of darkness, burning away the tendrils seeking to dig into his soul. Jason's mental 'hands' came up, blazing with sudden brilliance that the darkness could not hope to survive. The black cloud broiled and flexed as he started grabbing hold and ripping it to shreds.
Jin stumbled back, releasing Jason as he shook, and this time Jason held on. He took Jin by the back of the head and forced him to hold the gaze. Jason noted, for the few instants he could see clearly, that the room was now brilliantly lit by a light that shone from within him, and then he fell again into Jin's eyes. This time, though, fight as he might Jin was the one being overpowered. The dark cloud screamed as Jason reached in, hands still blazing, and tore it away from Jin.
Soon the last shred of the shadow had been routed out and incinerated, and as quickly as it had come the power, the brilliant light that had coursed from the deepest recesses of Jason's soul, vanished. Jason stumbled back, releasing Jin as they both fell to the floor.
"Thank you," Jin whispered hoarsely.
"What happened?" Ronan asked, bursting in the door.
For the first time in a long time, Jason really looked at Ronan. Not using his newfound sight or anything like that, but with his eyes and his heart. Remembering what he'd Seen earlier, he understood what he had to do. As Ronan knelt beside him, Jason reached up and touched his face, calling that brilliant light back and letting it set into his mentor.
Ronan jerked back, a scream rattling it's way up his throat as the light surged through him for an instant that seemed to last forever. Before his scream could finish working it's way out of his mouth he too collapsed to the floor. Gasping, he looked at Jason for a few bare moments. "What have you done?" he cried.
"I set right what you sought to destroy," Jason told him. "We'll discuss that later. For now, we need to help Jin."
As if in response to his name, Jin groaned and tried to roll over. "What the hell is going on down here?!" Ashley demanded as she burst into the room.
"Get Jin into a bed, he's going to have the headache to end all headaches when he finishes waking up," Jason told her. "And do not, under any circumstances, even think about trying to heal it. It has to be done naturally."
"Alright," Ashley told him, "but you are gonna owe me some explanations."
"Done, now get him to bed," Jason agreed as he crawled over to Jericho. Resting his hands on Jericho's face, he called the light once again.
Only this time, he did it slowly enough to make sure he was right about how he was doing it. There were no words involved, no invocations, just a simple, pure thought. A plea for aid, directed inward and down, and from there... Up. Straight up.
If Jason were to try to put it in words, to reduce the sensation to the symbolic logic known as English, the result would be inevitable. "Please, God, I need your help," he whispered. The light, the raw power of God focused through the lens of his own belief, came forth once more and fueled his efforts to heal Jericho. Jason gasped for breath as he fell backwards, the spell that had held Jericho unconscious shattered.
"Fascinating," Jericho commented as his eyes snapped open. "That spell was..." Jericho shook his head and groaned. "That spell left me with a nasty headache," he complained.
"Actually, I think that's because of the way I broke it," Jason told him.
"Figures," Jericho groaned. "I would have to be unconscious when you did it!"
Ronan laughed, "You and your obsession with magic!"
"Please, Ronan," Jericho complained with a laugh, "you know full well that 'magic' is a useless, vague term too laden with inappropriate meanings to be accurate. Call it metaphysics!"
"Toe-may-to, tah-mah-to!" Ronan rebutted, emphasizing the differences in the two pronunciations.
Jericho laughed as he finally managed to sit upright. "Where's Ashley, I'd say we three need some help," he asked.
"Helping Jin get into-" Jason started.
"Jin!" Jericho suddenly remembered who'd knocked him out. "That treacherous, no-good-"
Jason cut him off, "He was being controlled, Jericho. By someone strong, ruthless, and..." Jason trailed off, shivering.
"What's wrong?" Ronan asked, crawling over.
"Cold... so cold..." Jason whispered. The room was frosting over, but Ronan didn't seem to notice it as he worked his way across the floor. "Turn the... lights... back on..." Jason asked.
"Jason! Focus on me!" Ronan ordered.
Jason tried. Oh how he tried. But it was too dark... just too dark to see...
Strangely, for all the dark, quiet chill around him Jason could still hear the beating of his heart. Thump-thump, thump-thump thundered in his ears. Regular, monotonous, slow. Thump-thump rang again and and again, keeping him from his sleep.
Thump. If only it would shut up... he was so tired. Thump. Almost asleep...
"Gaaah!" Jason screamed, bolting upright in reaction to the sudden fire in his gonads.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," Ronan told him, relief clear in his voice as his hand released Jason.
"What the fuck did you do that for?" Jason shouted, cradling himself with his hands as he let himself lie back down instead of sitting up.
"Because a simple slap wasn't enough," Ronan told him. "Jason, focus on me. This is important, don't let your mind wander or drift from the now, just focus, hard."
"I don't think that'll be much of a problem, not after you turned my balls into jelly!" Jason snapped in complaint.
"Jason, you could have..." Ronan's voice failed. "You could have died," he almost whispered, tears rising in his eyes.
"Are you..." Jason began, then watched a single tear track it's way across Ronan's cheek. Then more, in a silent cascade. "Ronan, are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Ronan told him, "it's you we need to worry about."
"What happened?" Jason asked, trying to sit upright in...
When did he get put in a bed? He hadn't been out that long, had he? "I can't be certain," Ronan told him. "I need you to describe to me, as best you can remember, exactly what happened with Jin. Every last detail!"
Ronan was calm, for the most part, but began cursing when Jason described the dark cloud that had been choking Jin's spirit.
"Tell me everything you can remember about it," Ronan insisted after kicking Jericho and Ashley out of the room.
"It was dark... so very dark..." Jason whispered. Ronan slapped him, waking him up with a start.
"The way you started drifting again is almost, almost, confirmation," Ronan told him, "but I need more. Stay in the present, focus on me, but tell me what you can remember."
"It was dark, and... not cold, but it wasn't hot either. It was not-hot, that's the best way I can describe it. It was very not-hot... like all the heat was gone, sucked out of the air around me without leaving the air cold," Jason tried to explain, unable to find the words.
Ronan's eyes closed as he leaned back, clearly upset. "Go on, everything you can remember."
"It seemed to... swallow the very idea of sound, dampening the noise around it, and it smelled... it smelled like.. like..." Jason couldn't quite remember! It was dark, it was cold-
Another slap brought him back to the here-and-now. "Jason, I hate to do this to you but I need confirmation," Ronan told him. "You've got almost everything I need, just a few more things. You were talking about smell; what did it smell like?"
"I'm not sure. It was strong, sharp... like... Ozone!" Jason's eyes opened wide in realization. "It smelled like ozone mixed with rot... rotten eggs! Sulfur! Ozone and sulfur, I'm sure of it!"
Ronan sat on his heels, face graven. "Pray, Jason. Pray to God, because we sure as hell need His help. And then some..." Ronan rose, slowly. "I'll send someone else in to keep an eye on you. I'm sorry, I know you're tired but for the moment we can't afford to let you sleep."
"Whatever happened, it did something to me, didn't it?" Jason asked.
"The... cloud you described is a very powerful spell," Ronan told him. "One beyond the ability of any Guardian to cast. Someone... else... had to do this. It releases a kind of poison to try and break it's victims down as it moves in. That poison lingers, even after you've destroyed the spell itself."
"Poison?" Jason asked. "Can't I just-"
"No!" Ronan said sharply. "Don't even try! It's a spiritual toxin, not a physical one, which puts it completely outside the reach of any other Guardian. And as it breaks down, it releases other, nastier toxins than you can flush out of your system. Slowly. If it breaks down too fast, and you don't have the energy to accelerate the flushing out process, it will kill you."
"Oh," Jason said slowly.
"We're lucky you survived, had you been anything but what you are, had you not been a-" Ronan caught himself. "We will discuss that later, in more private circumstances," he told Jason. "For now, I need to go check on Jin. I only hope, I pray, that you were in time..." Ronan turned to leave the room.
"In time for what?" Jason asked.
"In time to save his soul from eternal enslavement," Rona said softly over his shoulder. "That black cloud was the mark of an enslavement spell, a powerful one. One that could easily drive men insane, but if it works leaves their very soul enthralled and unable to ever, ever, seek freedom."
"Sounds evil," Jason commented.
"That's just it," Ronan said slowly, facing Jason again. "It is. It is impossible to create without assistance from... dark forces. Dark forces that should not be moving in this city. In my city, my home..." Ronan shook his head. "Something is wrong, and I don't think we're equipped to deal with it."
"If we aren't, then who?" Jason demanded. "There's no one else!" Ronan didn't answer. "Is there?" Jason asked slowly after a few moments. "Ronan," he said more firmly, "is there?"
Ronan turned away, unable to face Jason. "They call themselves... The Council," Ronan said after a few moments. "More formally, The Grand Conclave of Wizards, Council of the Light, and Defenders of Humanity. The full title,"he commented wryly, "is almost never used."
"My God..." Jason swore. "How long have you... What have you been keeping secret?"
"I..." Ronan's voice failed. "They contacted me, their leader, anyway, almost a year ago, after I had everything set up. It was all done in secret, from the general bodies of both groups. We exchange knowledge, do a little experimentation together. Secrecy is the watch-word, it's had to be. If they knew... if the general body of the Council knew... or if the Guardians, the rest of them, knew..."
"How bad could it be?" Jason asked.
"Bad," Ronan said flatly. "You must keep this secret, completely and utterly, understand me? It's a secret, not to be revealed! Swear it!" Ronan turned and grabbed Jason by the shoulders.
"Swear it, Jason Bester," Ronan ordered. "Swear!"
Unbidden, words leapt to Jason's lips. "By God above, by the Light we serve, I Jason Bester do swear on my immortal soul this oath. To keep this secret that has been given unto me for as long as it should be kept, in return for the knowledge. The knowledge I need will be given to me to seal this oath!"
"I," Ronan said solemnly, "Ronan Koken, do swear this oath, bound by the arts of magic, invoked by the arts divine and sealed by the arts mystic, witnessed by the arts arcane, to return favor. Of the powers and situation at hand I shall keep no secret from you that does not need to be kept, hold nothing back. In return I ask only your silence and your aid, to the betterment of all."
"So mote it be!" the cried out together.
Ronan slumped over the bed, clearly drained. "Well, it's not like I needed confirmation but there you have it," he said wryly.
"Confirmation?" Jason asked weakly.
"Oh yes," Ronan told him. "I've suspected for a while... those flashes of insight you've shown, a few of the trick's you've pulled that no one else could have. That light you managed earlier was the clincher, it came from the power of prayer. What just happened... well, I pretty much already knew but this pushes it beyond the possibility of doubt."
"Moved what?" Jason asked, annoyed.
"I've kept many secrets, Jason, and now I'm going to share a few. There are, for lack of a better explanation, three branches to magic. The mystic branch is the one the Guardians, most of us, anyway, use. The arcane branch is 'dominant', there are more of them then any other. The third branch is the divine branch, divine magic. Derived from faith, and the link it provides to the various gods men have believed in."
"Wait, gods?" Jason asked, confused.
"You use the divine branch of magic, Jason. You have access, as well, to the mystic branch, but you are, for lack of a better word, a saint!" Ronan told him.
Jason snickered, "Me? A saint?"
"Bah," Ronan complained. "All words are, all any word can ever hope to be, is a symbol. We use those symbols to build sentences and communicate, but they remain symbols. Would you prefer the less accurate term 'avatar'? Or how about priest? Cleric? Maybe we should just coin a new word, ubermakisfrackisopporus! How would you like to be an ubermakeesfrakispus?"
Jason cracked a slight grin and suppressed a laugh. "Alright, alright, I get the point! Just stop that!"
"Stop what?" Ronan asked innocently. "How about calling you a mikiveruskylegalus?"
"Stop!" Jason forced out between giggled.
Jason was reduced to helpless laughter as Ronan tried on name after name. Soon enough Ronan couldn't keep a straight face and started laughing as well. "We'll finish our conversation later -- and I mean it this time! I need to go see to Jin. If he really was carrying that cloud around, he's probably a lot worse off than you are. Odds are..." Ronan looked away. "I'm not sure I can save him, Jason. I owe him, and while we may disagree from time to time he's still a friend. For all that, I don't know if I can save him."
"I'm sure you'll do your best, and it's a very good best," Jason reassured Ronan, but his words seemed to act like a slap to the face.
"You don't understand," Ronan said, nearly in tears. "I know exactly what I must do to save him, I'm just not sure I can stomach it... or what I'd see in your eyes after I do it."
"It can't be that bad!" Jason protested. "What do you have to do, sleep with him?"
"Worse," Ronan said. "Pain provides a beacon, an anchor to let you find yourself again. More than that, pain is a direct counter-agent to the toxin. A little pain burns off a miniscule amount of the toxin, but a lot of pain..." Ronan shook his head. "It's a non-linear progression; twice the pain burns off more than twice the toxin."
"Oh hell," Jason breathed. "A population growth equation..."
"Yes, exactly... though I'd have called it an exponential equation instead. I am going to have to cause a lot of pain to burn off a noticeable amount of the toxin."
"Why not just do like you did with me?" Jason asked.
"You got a light dose, he's got a heavy one. Soon enough, over the course of days, it will weaken him past the point where a slap, or even a blow to a more sensitive body part will do any good." Ronan almost sounded sick, Jason noted absently. Then again, Jason was feeling sick too.
"How..." Jason swallowed.
"Back when I first got my powers, I did some experiments. I thought pain would be a useful tool to control people, too keep them away from places I didn't want them to go."
"What?!" Jason screeched.
"Not a lot of pain!" Ronan protested. "Just a little, like making them feel like they had a cramp or something to discourage them from poking around near the Arch. Stuff like that. It just... never worked right."
"Thank God for small favors!" Jason said, appalled. "Torturing people? What were you thinking Ronan!"
"You know what, just forget it," Ronan snarled. "I'm going to focus on saving Jin's life. His life, Jason! Either you'll understand or you won't." Ronan whirled around and stalked to the door. He got halfway there before Jason's voice froze him in his tracks.
"I thought you said it didn't work," Jason said slowly, "but that's not what you said, is it. Is it, Ronan?"
"It never worked right. I wanted a little pain, distract and slow them down but not really hurt them," Ronan said softly. "But the controls never worked."
"It caused pain. Lots of pain," Jason guessed.
"Agony beyond description," Ronan confirmed sadly. "Of course I dropped the experiments then and there, found other ways to do it. But I know how to do it, still."
"That's what your afraid of," Jason understood. "You aren't afraid of what it will do to you, but rather... what I'll see in you after you've done it."
"It will... change me," Ronan answered, "but I'm doing it for the right reasons, so the change won't be too bad. It'll be there, always waiting, always calling. Pain... the idea of causing pain will come that much more readily, that much more quickly, to me."
"Ronan," Jason called. "Ronan!" he ordered.
Finally Ronan faced him again.
"I forgive you," Jason told him. "More than that..." Jason's voice faltered. "Come here," he whispered. Ronan came back and leaned over the bed. "More than that," Jason told him, reaching up to touch Ronan's face. His hand brushed against Ronan's trembling face, tracing the lines and curves of the face that had come to mean so much. Swallowing, Jason tried again as his hand drifted back along Ronan's jaw. "More than that, you great big lug," he said.
"Ronan!" Ashley shouted as she burst into the room. "We're loosing Jin! He's falling and we just can't catch him!"
"Coming!" Ronan shouted, twisting to leave.
Jason caught Ronan by the wrist and yanked him back to the bed. "Not so fast!"
"Jason!" Ronan protested.
Jason shifted his grip and pulled Ronan's face in. "More than forgive you, I love you!" Jason pressed his lips, passionately, into Ronan's. For a moment Ronan was rigid in shock then relaxed into the kiss. It lasted exactly thee heartbeats, then Jason broke it. "Go, do what must... do what must be done," he ordered Ronan.
"We will..." Ronan swallowed and tried again. "We will discuss this later."
And just like that, Ronan was gone. Jason touched his lips, and smiled. Running his tongue over his lips, his smile turned into an outright grin as he tasted Ronan there. Ronan tasted good. Very, very good. Jason could hardly wait to feast himself on the various flavors his mentor would offer.
And imagining it would very effectively keep his mind off other things. That dark cloud couldn't stand the thought of hot, quivering flesh moaning in ecstasy. And maybe, just maybe, if he lost himself deep enough into his fantasies he could forget what Ronan was doing.