Jason ducked as a whip of fire cracked over his head, turning the motion into a roll to the left as another whip tried to take his leg off at the ankle. For all that she was going 'easy' on them, Lara was pushing them hard, and with very little effort on her part.
Oh, Jason could have tried to overwhelm her with sheer power, but there were three problems with that. First, he couldn't always rely on being able to do that, so he needed to learn how to do more with less. Second, it was against the 'rules' of the exercise for any of them to try that approach, and he had no doubt that breaking the rules would have a nasty result.
But the third problem was the most important one: it probably wouldn't work. Brute force counted for a lot, sure, but Lara had already clearly displayed that she was very, very good at this. Ronan couldn't overcome her with brute force, so it was probably best not to try.
Paul threw several firebolts at Lara in an effort to distract her, while Jason continued to roll to avoid the whips constantly coming down on his head. If he let her control him like this much longer he was going to-
Barney, busy dodging the fire aimed his way, managed to step into Jason's way and they fell down in a heap, even as Lara was forced to turn her attention to Paul and deal with him. Paul desperately shielded as Lara flung lightning in his face, the eerie glow of his shield barely holding as the electrical crackle danced across it.
Sorting themselves out, Jason and Barney tried sending a combined stream of bolts against her, but she simply rolled away and vanished. The three of them quickly met in the center of the room and formed a circle, searching for her. They kept their backs close to each other, to make sure she couldn't hide in the center of their circle, a lesson they'd already learned the hard way. Lara had spent time going over ideas and concepts with them, but she was just as bad as Ronan at 'enjoying' practical training. Despite their defensive posture, there were too many hiding places in the room, especially with the pillars that had been artfully arranged to provide them.
Paul nudged Jason in the side with his elbow, and surreptitiously pointed to a corner of the room. Jason had lost his sword earlier in the 'fight', and getting it back would definitely be helpful. "See it," Jason whispered back, and the three of them slowly moved there. Jason reached down and grabbed the hilt, only to curse when his fingers closed over empty air.
The impact as the trap detonated wasn't lethal, but Jason still felt it as he rolled across the ground. Thankful Lara wasn't really trying to kill them, he leveraged himself back to his feet and assessed the situation. Paul was out cold, with the marker on his forehead that indicated he'd 'lost', and Barney was nowhere to be seen. Frowning, Jason put his back against the wall and raised layer after layer of defenses. Two allies down, and Lara was nowhere to be seen. Not a good combination.
Eschewing her normal trickery, Lara stepped out from behind a pillar and drove bolt after bolt of pure force into Jason's defenses. Each bolt shredded the defense it impacted against, freeing the next bolt to strike straight through it. Jason couldn't hold the shields in place against that kind of assault, and with a smile he tried something Lara wouldn't expect. As he raised defenses -- carefully raising the new defenses outside his stronger defenses -- he didn't bother trying to make them strong. He just made them a flimsy curtain against which the bolts could impact.
Lara smiled as her bolts, designed to shred the first shield they came into contact with rather than punch through weaker shields, began to waste their energy on the flimsy shields Jason could spin out without effort or thought. "Elegant, isn't it?" Jason asked her.
"I see you remember what I said, about fighting with magic being as much about expenditure of energy as anything else," Lara answered from directly to his left, accompanying her comment with a lance of power that tore through his flimsier shields before shattering on the ones he'd carefully protected against the shredder bolts.
Jason twisted and in a moment of panic threw a bolt of raw power against her, in a reflexive attempt to gain some space. He grunted in agony as the bolt simply reflected off her shields and came screaming back at him, passing easily through his own shields since it was his 'own' attack.
Lara cut her attack off as Jason rose, unsteadily, to his feet. His shields had held, barely, so he was still in the game, but the outcome was pretty certain. Though he didn't have a clue how she'd moved so quickly-
Jason blinked in surprise as he realized that 'Lara' was still throwing those shredder bolts at him. Thankfully, he'd kept up raising the 'curtain' shields even as his attack had clubbed him to the ground. "That mirror was a nice trick!" Jason cried out.
"Thank you!" the 'Lara' still throwing shredder bolts at him said.
"Nice use of illusion, too... though I have to admit, I have no clue how you're getting it to throw those... shredder bolts at me!" Jason congratulated Lara, looking for any clue to her presence. Oh how tempting it would be to just use his Sight, even if it was against the 'rules' of this little game.
'Lara' cocked her head and smiled. "What makes you think this is the illusion?"
"The minor detail that there is no way a power lance that strong could have been anything but you direct, especially with that reflection shield in place," Jason laughed, worried. Lara wouldn't be playing games like this unless she had a plan of some kind. And an ace up her sleeve.
"Jason, did you forget something important?" 'Lara' asked as she stopped throwing the shredder bolts. "Remember what the rules of this little game were?"
Jason's eyes widened as two lances of power hammered into his shields... one from the 'Lara' in front of him and another from the left. "What the fuck?" he swore, even as his defenses began to collapse. He could shore them up by pouring power into them, but he'd been given a very strict 'energy budget' and he wasn't about to break it. Which left...
Jason grinned, and dropped every defense but two freshly raised shields. They were rather draining to hold, but the result was quite satisfactory as both lances cut off, freeing him to drop the shields and take off. Glancing behind him, he saw Barney lying on the floor, with the symbol on his forehead that indicated that he was now out of the game.
"Ya know, I could have sworn Barney was on my side," Jason commented after he put his back to a corner and raised new defenses. Trying to outfox Lara was clearly a loosing proposition, and with both Barney and Paul out he didn't have the energy budget left to try and take her head on. The 'game' wasn't quite over, yet, but it couldn't last much longer.
Then again... Jason grinned and decided to pull a trick of his own.
"So, you about ready to surrender?" Lara asked, walking out from behind a pillar. When Jason didn't respond, she glared at him. "No matter how much time and concentration you put into that shield, its energy is going to be very, very finite Jason."
"Yup," Jason agreed, dropping the illusion as he drove a lance of pure energy into her back. He'd carefully blunted the lance to prevent killing her, but it still slammed her into the wall and pinned her there. With her shields arrayed forward-
Jason ducked and rolled backwards even as a whip of fire from his right told him he'd wasted most of his remaining energy on an illusion. He moved back into the pillars, trying to hide as he thought furiously. Lara had mentioned something about the rules earlier, maybe there was something there he could...
Jason smiled, again. There was no way she would fall for it, but she would have to admit it was very, very creative. And while it skirted the rules, it was clearly inside them.
Jason cast the illusion of himself walking out of the pillars, the red 'game over' symbol clearly on his forehead. Glancing at his wrist, he frowned as the 'watch' that indicated his energy budget quickly wound down towards zero. If Lara didn't fall for it, quickly...
"So, you ran out of energy?" Lara laughed, walking out from around a pillar. "I was amazed how long you held out as it was!"
"Gotcha!" Jason whispered as he threw the last of his allowed energy into an electrical bolt. It whipped across the room and slammed into Lara's chest, stunning her.
"Now I am out of energy," Jason told her, coming out of concealment. "You OK?"
Lara moaned as she sat back up. "What hit me?" she asked, blinking.
"The rules explicitly stated that if we surrender, it's game over. No illusions of us surrendering," Jason laughed. "But that doesn't mean we can't create the illusion of us having lost!"
"That... was smart of you," Lara agreed. "Most people don't come up with that trick, either!"
Jason smiled as he grabbed her hand to help her up. Then his eyes widened as his hand closed, again, around thin air. "God-damn it!" he swore.
"Three down, and I win," Lara smiled. "As I said, most people don't think of it; I show them the trick first. Now, help me wake up Barney and Paul." Shaking his head ruefully, Jason walked over to where Paul was still lying motionless on the ground.
Jason paused as he added up the time. Paul should not still be out-
Zzzzt! The electrical sound of another stun bolt reached Jason's ears, and Lara's cursing told him that this time, it had gone home even as 'Paul' shimmered and vanished.
Apparently, both brothers and great minds think alike. And Lara wasn't the least bit happy with it.
"Alright, you guys did decently," Lara said when she calmed down. "Now, let's go over this little exercise and see what else we can learn from it. After that we'll be finished for the day, and..."
Jason smiled as he stretched. Even if he'd 'lost', that was still a fun game to have played.
"How did it go?" Paul asked as Jason slipped into the car.
"It went... alright," Jason admitted, shaking his head. It had been a fascinating training session, but he hadn't accounted for how infuriatingly difficult learning to shoot would be.
"You sound disappointed," Paul commented as he pulled away from the curb.
"Well, I wasn't exactly expecting to become a world class shooter overnight, but I did expect to be able to hit the target pretty regularly!" Jason complained.
"That bad, huh?" Paul commiserated.
Jason shrugged. "According to my instructor, I'm not half bad, 'for a rookie'. With some training he says I could be pretty good some day."
"Well, that's something!" Paul tried to cheer him up.
"Eh, maybe," Jason replied, starring out the window. "Did you have a fun time?"
"Ronan had Jericho run us through a bunch of 'metaphysical theory'," Paul commented sourly. "It was rather less fun than your shooting practice, I'd imagine."
"Ouch," Jason winced. "Jericho might be smart, but I get the distinct feeling nobody really likes him."
"Well, not quite nobody, but rather close," Paul agreed. "Did you hear how he became a Guardian?"
"I'm almost afraid to ask," Jason laughed. "Interesting, I take it?"
"Oh, very," Paul agreed. "Apparently he was doing some tutoring for a local college, and one of his students worked out at the gym. Anyway, for some reason he needed to pick the student up after a workout, so he drove on over. When the student didn't come out on time, he went in to try and find him. Ronan didn't have half the security in place that he did now, and somehow Jericho just walked right around it without even noticing it was there!"
"What?" Jason asked, incredulous.
"This was back before they realized that locked doors tend to come unlocked around the Arch," Paul pointed out.
"Oh," Jason said, surprised. "He really has been around for a while!"
"Anyway, Ronan found him down by the Arch, experimenting with the damned thing!" Paul giggled. "Apparently, after he shielded himself on pure instinct, he played around a bit to find a 'more effective' approach, purely out of curiosity. He wanted to get closer to the Arch and study it in detail!"
"You've got to be shitting me!" Jason snorted.
"Honest to God, he was less concerned with the laws of physics breaking down than he was with figuring out the how's and why's of his new powers!" Paul laughed. "A much better introduction than I had, in a lot of ways, but I can just imagine the look on Ronan's face to find a 'damned scientist poking around something that should never have happened in the first place!'"
"That sounds like a quote!" Jason giggled.
"According to Jericho, it is!" Paul agreed. "The guy's pretty abrasive in a large number of ways, but if you get to know him better he's actually kinda fascinating. The stuff he thinks about, and does!" Paul shook his head.
"You sound like you admire him!" Jason protested.
"Not... admire," Paul said grudgingly, "respect, for sure, but admire? No. But you have to admit, what he's doing is important work!"
"Oh come on," Jason protested. "He plays around with magic like it's a game!"
"He's experimenting!" Paul argued. "He's pushing the boundaries, finding better and easier ways to do things, and new things that we can do with our powers! Even Lara admits that over half of what we can do, he figured out!"
Jason couldn't come up with an effective argument against that, and his silence was all the confirmation Paul needed. "You know, it's rather annoying when you actually win arguments with me, bro," Jason commented eventually.
"Yeah, well, a younger brother has to grow up sometime," Paul snickered.
"Next time, choose a slightly less annoying time frame," Jason asked. "Please!"
"I will take your request under advisement with all due consideration," Paul smirked.
Sighing, Jason felt really glad that Ashley's place shouldn't be far off. Any second now he'd be able to ditch his suddenly annoying younger brother. Except instead of pulling up in front, Paul parked in the drive way.
"Don't you have some work of your own to be doing?" Jason asked.
"Jericho and Lara decided it might be a good idea for me to be involved in this little experiment," Paul told him, grinning. "So I get to be around as you show them all what a miracle-worker you are!"
"Great, just great," Jason sighed as he got out of the car. "Just what I need, my brother floating around to ruin my style!"
"Style? I didn't know you had any!" Paul quipped as he ran to the front door.
"Annoying twit," Jason grumbled, closing his door. He followed Paul in a more sedate pace, as befitted his status as elder brother.
"Jason, I'm glad to see you could make it," Jericho told him as he approached the door. "We've made arrangements for several patients who need body parts restored. And a few who don't, to keep things honest."
"A few who don't?" Jason asked, confused.
"Some people who had their appendix or tonsils removed," Jericho smiled at him. "Minor things like that."
"Just to keep me honest," Jason asked.
"Precisely," Jericho smiled.
Jason tried to sigh, but the giggle ruined it.
"Well, that was a fine waste of time," Jason laughed as he got in the car.
"Yeah, but we learned a lot. Sure, it doesn't look like we can duplicate it but-" Paul started.
"Paul," Jason said warningly, "I've had enough of Mr. Super Happy Curious for one day. I don't need you replacing him."
Paul's mouth hung open for a second before he closed it with a clop. Jason could almost hear the offended "Well, I never!" that his brother didn't say.
Thankfully it wasn't that long a drive to the library, and the talk about what car Jason should get for himself -- preferably, Jason mused, sometime soon! -- was quite sufficient to fill the time. Finally Paul turned and Jason shifted in his sheet, glad he would soon be away from his brother.
"Hey, aren't we in the wrong lane?" Jason asked as Paul moved to the left lane.
"No, I need to be in the left hand lane if I'm going to get into the parking garage," Paul answered.
"And why would you be aiming for the parking garage?" Jason asked with a sinking feeling.
"I have some studying of my own to do," Paul answered, hiding his smile.
"Great," Jason drew the word out in frustration. "So this insanity won't be quitting anytime soon, I take it?"
"Oh, no, I wouldn't say that," Paul answered as he pulled into the turn lane. "We are in different classes!"
Jason groaned and shook his head. Sure, maybe Paul would take off and do his own studying, but more likely than not...
Jason snickered as Paul explained, again, that he wasn't gay, he was Jason's brother. Jason hadn't really expected to find a half dozen class mates in the library, but then again they were all working on the same English paper. And when Paul had shown up with Jason, well... all the guys made some errant assumptions, since they knew that Jason was 'unattached' these days. Even if it was way too early to be 'anything but a rebound', a fact they earnestly wanted to explain to Paul.
Paul finally managed to break free, and Jason snickered as yet another of his friends intercepted him. Anytime now, Paul would realize that after the first one, Jason had deliberately set him up, but for the moment, it was time to get while the getting was good. Trudging to the second floor, Jason took the few books he'd pulled from the shelves and found a quiet spot to flip through them. It actually didn't take him half as long to find enough material for the paper and sketch a decent outline, and just as he finished someone got off one of the public computers. Seeing as how he had the work he needed done, he decided to slip on and check through his e-mail real quick.
Opening up a browser, he paused for a second before changing his mind. He hadn't had a chance to get at a computer lately, and the urge to do some more 'research' was just about overwhelming. He quickly tried several likely combinations, and got absolutely nowhere. Ronan Koken appeared to have appeared full grown just a few short years ago, with no childhood whatsoever. A patent absurdity, so Jason tried option B and pulled up information on Master Hitoshi Seki. There was a definite paucity of material, but a few news-clippings looked likely. Most of the online newspapers he was referenced in had good pictures, and it was definitely the same man, but in several cases the pictures didn't show. After about the sixth time a picture of Master Hitoshi didn't display, or lead to a broken link, Jason began to notice the pattern. It was never just Master Hitoshi, it was always Master Hitoshi and some of his students.
And then he hit pay dirt. A list of students who'd placed in a martial arts contest 'gave up' the gold of Ronan's real last name. Ronan Jacob Joyce; age was about right, and the town he lived in wasn't impossibly far. Jason smiled, and then read the article a little more closely. Some of the details were just about right, but some of the descriptions were off. Ronan had a good tan, sure, but the article appeared to be describing someone with much darker skin than any tan could explain. Frowning, he did some more research on Mr. Joyce, and rapidly found...
An obituary. "Damn," Jason whispered. Not the right Ronan at all! Murdered at age fourteen by his best friend, and the picture was most assuredly not Ronan, at all. Sighing, Jason closed out, cursing his luck at turning up a false lead like that. Something about the whole thing bothered him, but he couldn't quite place his finger on it. And then Jason went back in and pulled up the missing pictures, checking the names of the students involved.
"Well, well well well well well..." Jason repeated over and over again. In those that listed the students, Ronan Joyce was mentioned several times, but there were two where the students were listed, and he wasn't. And now that he was looking, there was another picture that did show Ronan Joyce. Most assuredly not the Ronan he was looking for, but perhaps this wasn't a false lead after all.
Assembling a list of the students whose pictures he couldn't find, he slowly eliminated them one by one until he was down to two. But he simply couldn't seem to find a picture of either of them alone, in any of the articles!
"Idiot," Jason laughed, and abandoned the Hitoshi angle. He didn't need Hitoshi anymore, he had full names of the two students and knew where they lived! Digging in, he rapidly found pay dirt. Richard Edward Torres had many pictures to his name.
And Ronan had some damned good reasons to hide his 'true identity'. He'd tried to cover his tracks, but the website had a note on the front page about restoring the data after some hacker had clipped it out. He hadn't 'missed' the most damning piece of evidence, half so much as someone else had managed to recover most of it.
"Fuck," Jason swore, staring at the damning article. Some of the details weren't spelled out, but if you read between the lines... Who the hell had Jason chosen to give his heart to? What kind of monster was Ronan?
And there, most damning of all... years ago, yet still Ronan. A photograph that clearly identified that yes, this was the man Jason loved.
Jason took a mental step back and forced himself to think through everything he knew. And... God help him, maybe, just maybe... "Oh God," he moaned quietly, tears in his eyes. There really was no maybe about it, it added up completely.
"What's wrong?" Paul asked, coming up. Lightning quick, Jason turned the monitor off and spun to place himself between the computer and Paul.
"OK," Paul said slowly. "What were you doing, looking at porn?" he laughed.
"No," Jason said flatly.
"Alright, so what was it?" Paul asked, edging closer. He darted at the monitor to turn it back on, and Jason decided on the spur of the moment not to play any games. His fist came up, suddenly glowing with power, and struck his brother, hard, in the chest. Paul went tumbling backwards as Jason placed his other hand on the top of the computer and pushed.
Damaging public property was a stupid thing to do, but he wasn't in the mood to reveal anything. Not yet. Not until he'd had a chance to think, to confirm his suspicions, and decide what the hell to do about them.
Electricity flashed as the computer suddenly short circuited with a loud zapping sound, and smoke began to pour out of it as the components fried. Processor, memory, hard drive, even the network card itself, Jason methodically fried every last one of them to make absolutely sure no one could reconstruct his work.
"What the fuck was that for?" Paul exclaimed as he pushed himself to his feet.
"None of your business," Jason told him coldly. Gathering his stuff, he walked for the entrance. "Are you done with your work?"
"Yeah, finally," Paul said, falling in behind Jason. "You fried that computer for no reason at all!" he pointed out, refusing to drop the subject.
"What I found is for me. For now, at any rate. I'm not sharing," Jason growled. Paul pushed at him, mentally, and found himself physically rebuffed as Jason casually slapped such a strong psychic 'backhand' that Paul actually felt it, physically.
"OK, you really don't feel like sharing," Paul agreed, wincing. "That hurt, by the way," he complained.
"Next time, don't go snooping where you don't fucking belong!" Jason snapped. They had to cut the conversation off as they passed by some other people, and Paul didn't pick it back up. Jason was glad for small favors as he mulled over recent revelations.
Seeing a donations jar by the front desk, Jason detoured long enough to drop a check in. Ten thousand should just about cover his 'debt' from the fried computer, he figured.
"What the hell has gotten into you?" Paul asked once they got into the car.
"Just take me home, I have some thinking to do," Jason ground out. "And I promise, you will be the second person to hear what's 'gotten into me'," he added.
"The second?" Paul asked.
"The second," Jason repeated firmly.
They drove the rest of the way in silence, as Jason dove deep into thought.
"No," Jason said flatly.
"Jason-" Ronan began.
"No," Jason said in a tone that brooked no argument.
"This isn't like you Jason," Ronan complained. "Normally at least you'd talk to me!"
Jason's head swiveled, almost mechanically, to stare at Ronan. Ronan took a step backwards from the cold glare and almost wish Jason had kept staring at the wall. "Not like me?" Jason whispered. "Oh, now that's rich coming from you!"
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ronan complained.
"It means what it means," Jason told him, then turned to stare at the wall again. "At the moment, I'm not interested in talking. We will discuss this after... we will discuss this later."
"After what?" Ronan pressed.
Jason just looked at him again, and Ronan backed off. "OK, I don't know what is going on, but can we at least discuss tonight? I'd rather not go through any more of those nightmares if I can avoid it!"
"And what if you deserve them," Jason whispered.
"What did you say?" Ronan asked softly.
"Nothing," Jason said more clearly. "Forget about it."
Ronan looked at him, worried. He hadn't quite caught what Jason had said, but the tone, the sheer tired bitterness of it shocked him. "Jason, can't you tell me what's going on?" he begged. It was futile, he knew that almost instinctively, but he had to try.
Just, as he knew deep down, Jason had had to try to help him in the past. The point wasn't success or failure, it was the fact that they had to be there for each other in times of need. Just like...
Yet again Ronan felt the tears rise, and suppressed them through an act of sheer will. He'd had so much practice that normally he didn't even notice, but it took more effort than usual this time. Everything had been so difficult lately, and this wasn't the least of it.
"Jason, I don't know what's going on, but-" Ronan began.
"Go away," Jason said dully. "Let me think for a while, please," he asked.
"I'll be back later," Ronan said slowly, shuffling through the door. "Jason-"
"Don't worry, Ronan," Jason said slowly. Ronan couldn't see them, but he could hear the tears in Jason's voice. "Don't worry, I'll... I'll shield you from the nightmares tonight."
Relieved that whatever had happened, Jason still cared for him, Ronan finished closing the door. He never heard the next sentence, which would have shattered what was left of his heart.
"I'll shield you. I owe you that, whatever my feelings are now."