Castle Roland

Chapter 16

Published: 8 Apr 14

"You aren't supposed to sleep," Ashley scolded Jason, shaking his shoulder.

"I'm not sleeping," Jason answered her with a sigh. "Though I was having the most wonderful daydream!"

Ashley tried to straighten the blanket covering him. "What do you mean by-" she started to say. The sudden and clearly visible answer to the unfinished question earned Jason a shocked "Oh!"

Jason rolled onto his side to conceal the tent that had been hidden in the folds of the covers. "Yeah, that's what I meant," he told her as he blushed. Just in case, adjusted his package so it wouldn't be quite so visible if he rolled onto his back.

"Well, it's far from surprising,"Ashley commented as she moved to a nearby chair. "And don't worry about it, I've had plenty of teenaged boys around here, so I'm used to ignoring things like that."

"Gee, thanks," Jason commented wryly. "It's a real boost to my self esteem that I'm not packing anything a buncha thirteen year old kids can't beat."

"Well, there's also Tommy," Ashley pointed out. "And I wasn't talking just about... things," she said hesitantly, "but also walking into an 'empty' bedroom and finding boys... stretching themselves out."

"Stretching themselves... out..." Jason figured it out halfway through. "I imagine that gets very hard..." Jason cringed, and decided try again. "I mean difficult to deal with," he said carefully.

"Hard isn't a bad word, Jason," Ashley chided him, "and neither is 'wet'."

Jason started choking for a moment. "You... you didn't!" he protested, laughing.

"I most certainly did go there!" Ashley laughed. "You needed a laugh, so I provided."

"God, I can't believe you said it!" Jason laughed.

"Well, I will admit that 'wet' comes up much less in conversations with girls than 'hard' does with boys," she laughed. "But there's no reason not to use them simply because of the double entendre that can be read into it."

"Can be read into it?" Jason giggled.

"Well, alright, when it comes to boys I suppose 'will' be read into it is more accurate," Ashley agreed.

"You're trying to distract me, aren't you?" Jason asked.

"Well, we can't let you wander off into that dark... hole, I think is the way Ronan described it," she admitted.

"And the pain I feel at the thought of what Ronan is doing isn't a player?" Jason asked.

"Ronan told you what he was going to do?" Ashley asked. "He refused to so much as mention it to us when he kicked us out."

Jason looked away, refusing to answer.

"Jason, what is he doing?" she pushed.

"You don't want to know," Jason told her.

"What could possibly be so bad?" Ashley asked.

"You can't hear it?" Jason asked. "I thought as much," he muttered when she shook her head.

It curled his stomach simply to hear the noise. Ronan could block the physical noise, but Jason knew what was happening... and Ronan could not hope to block Jason's Sight. Even when it was sound being carried by proverbial sixth sense Jason had found within himself, his Sight was there.

Jason pulled the covers tight around himself as he curled into a tight ball. "I can hear what he's doing Ashley, and it sickens me. He has to do it... but God have mercy on us all for doing it."

"It can't be that bad," Ashley protested.

"How do you keep me here if I try to wander off," Jason asked her.

"What?" Ashley asked, confused.

"If my mind wanders, how do you keep it here?" Jason asked.

"Well, I try to talk to you and if that doesn't work... I hurt you..." Ashley shook her head. "Jin is too far for that, though. We tried. Short of... Oh God!"

"If a little pain won't work, then try lots of it," Jason agreed. "It has to be done, but..."

"Ronan must feel like crap," Ashley swore. "He hates things like this with a passion."

"Wait, this isn't the first time?" Jason asked.

"He hates unnecessary pain," Ashley told him. "When we first started experimenting with healing, he'd spend days running around and alleviating the minor aches and pains that crop up. If someone stubbed his toe he was there with a kind word, a helping hand, and some clandestine pain relief. It lasted about, oh, a month or two before he just... stopped. He spent a couple of days locked up, alone in his room, and then he came out, changed."

"Changed?" Jason asked.

"I think someone, I don't know who, smacked him upside the head. It was the four of us back then, but then Ronan started actively recruiting," Ashley smiled pleasantly. "He moved from simply doing, to being more, to leading."

"Four of us?" Jason asked.

"Me, Lara, Frank, and Ronan. Best friends through college, the 'five musketeers', and when Ronan found the Arch he showed it to us."

"Five?" Jason asked.

Ashley froze, and a tear fell from her eye. "Alfred," she whispered. "I'd almost forgotten him. He'd have wanted that, in a way."

"Wanted to be forgotten?" Jason asked.

"Yes," Ashley smiled. "He never..." she swallowed, looking away as more tears fell. "He always said he didn't ever want to cause any of us any pain," she told Jason. "'Let my wake be a celebration of my life, not a mourning of how it ended'," she quoted. "He'd never want us to be stuck, remembering that god-awful scream as the arch simply sucked the life out of him. It was a long time ago. The arch was weaker then, it couldn't simply rip his soul from his body. It aged him," she moaned in horror. "We just stood there in shock as it ripped the years from his body. In a minute he was a fifty year old man. By the time we could drag him out of the room, still screaming, he looked to be over a hundred. He screamed for two days before... the hospital tried, but they had no idea how to fight what was happening to him. He just kept aging. His heart and liver and lungs just wouldn't give out as he withered away before us."

"Eventually," Ashley finished, "we severed the link that was draining his power from him. He smiled at us, thanked us, told us to remember... remember him as he was, and then he died."

"I can't stand the thought of anyone dying because of that thrice damned thing, but to date seven people have fallen to it. Seven people have died in unspeakable agony," Ashley shook her head. "I could hate you, you know. I have nothing left, you pulled the rug right out from under me. ... About one in ten die. One in ten, Jason!"

"He won't," Jason assured her. "He will grow strong, and powerful, and will survive horrors beyond imagining. He will live to see joy, and he will die not at the arch, but doing something brave, heroic, and utterly stupid. Something to be proud of, something to honor and remember. He will be remembered as a savior and hero by hundreds of children."

"Like that's much consolation," Ashley told him, "and you can't possibly know that!"

"Actually," Jason told her, "I can. You've heard about my intuition?"

"Your... I heard about it," she agreed, shocked, "but I never imagined... Are you sure?"

"Beyond a doubt," Jason told her firmly. "He will not die at the Arch, and while there is no certainty in life, his Destiny -- the plan powers beyond anything you or I can imagine have for him -- is to die protecting children, years and years from now."

Ashley closed her eyes and cried. "Thank you for that. Can I... is there anything I can do to save him from that?"

"Plenty," Jason told her, "just don't ask me what."

"What?" Ashley asked, confused.

"Right at the moment, I think the phrase 'I'm just the messenger' is appropriate," Jason said thoughtfully. "I've told you what I know, and all I know is what I've told you. His fate isn't set in stone, it can be changed. It's what is most likely to happen, what... for lack of a better way to describe it, it's what God has planned. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, Ashley, and there are more powers out there than God."

"But God is the most powerful," Ashley smiled. "Beyond a doubt," Jason agreed. "But human free will can set even His plans astray, and His foes harry us at every turning."

"You sound like a preacher," Ashley laughed.

"I suppose I do," Jason said thoughtfully. "It certainly fits in with what Ronan has implied," he added with a laugh. "Well, this particular font of wisdom is about dry. Right at the moment, I wish I could get some sleep but I'm not going to get it."

"Sorry, no," Ashley agreed. "How about some nice conversation?"

"Sure, what do you want to talk about?" Jason asked.

"How about that kiss?" she asked, scooting closer.

"Sorry, not much to tell," Jason told her. "First one. Well, actually, I think it's just the first one to count," he corrected himself.

"First one to count?" she asked.

Jason blushed, scrunching his eyes in embarrassment. "That's not a tale I particularly care to tell," he told her.

"Sounds like the best kind!" Ashley exclaimed, eyes gleaming.

"Well..." Jason temporized, mind racing. Did he or didn't he... "Actually, it's just the first one. I didn't actually kiss him then."

"I gotta know this story," Ashley grinned.

"Sorry, wild horses couldn't drag it out of me," Jason told her.

"I'm not wild horses, and I don't play fair," she warned him. "Come'on, tell already!"

"Sorry, not gonna- Hey, wait!" Jason grabbed the covers as Ashley tried to sneak a hand under them, but didn't really succeed. "No fair!" he screamed, thrashing away. "Help! Help!" he screamed, laughing.

"What's going- Oh!" Tommy exclaimed from the door. "Well, two can play at this game!"

"Rescue!" Jason exclaimed... a little too early. Having one person tickle you was bad enough, but with two of them he couldn't possibly hope to buy himself even a moments reprieve. "Uncle, uncle!" he cried.

"You going to tell me?" Ashley demanded, continuing the onslaught.

"Not a-" Jason began. A few more moments of 'persuasion' changed that to, "Alright, alright! I'll tell!"

"Good!" Ashley sat back down, laughing.

"That wasn't fair!" Jason complained, pulling the covers around himself.

"Distracted you rather effectively, though," Tommy commented.

"Distracted..." Jason's eyes widened and he glared at a grinning Ashley.

"Strong emotion can't bring you back, but it can keep you from drifting. At least, that's what Ronan said," she answered the unasked question. "Now, tell, or I resume my dastardly assault!"

Jason sighed, and looked away. "It was right after I met Ronan," he told her. "I wasn't exactly in a good frame of mind... I tried to 'pay' him for rescuing me, and he was rather... upset by it."

"Huh?" Ashley asked. "Jason, you're not making much sense!"

"No, I imagine I'm not," Jason caged. "It isn't a time I really like to think about much," he added a little bitterly.

"Ashley, why don't we drop this?" Tommy asked. "I'm sure we can come up with other things to talk about."

Ashley nodded, "Sorry Jason, I guess I didn't realize that, well..."

"I understand," Jason told her. "Lets just talk about something else, please?"

"So, Frank was just standing there, covered in the stuff," Ashley began to wrap up her joke, "and Ronan tells him that 'if that's what you wanted, you should have just told me! I'd have been glad to throw shit at you barehanded just to save myself the repair bill!'"

The three of them laughed at Ashley's reminiscence of the 'early days' of the Guardians until Jason suddenly broke off and looked away. The other two stared at him, confused by his sudden shift in demeanor. "It's done," Jason whispered, relieved.

"What?" Ashley asked, confused by the non sequitur.

"Ronan, he's finished. It's quiet down there," Jason told her.

"Tommy, go check?" Ashley asked.

"Be right back," he answered.

"Jason," Ashley began, "you made a promise a little while ago to me."

"I've already told you everything I know," he told her.

"How can you be sure, though?" she asked. "You said nothing is certain, but then try to say that it's certain he won't die?"

"Is an asteroid going to come crashing down out of the sky and smack him in the head, killing him instantly, tomorrow at 4:32 PM?" Jason asked.

"What?" Ashley blinked at the absurdity of the question.

Jason repeated himself, affecting a slightly annoyed air, "Is an asteroid going to come crashing down out of the sky and-"

"I heard you the first time," Ashley cut him off.

"Then why make me repeat it?" Jason asked with a small grin.

"Now is not the time to be funny," she told him angrily. "And while I suppose it could happen, the odds are so small... it's absurd to even think about it!"

"The odds are so small, it's absurd to even think about it. It won't happen, even though it might," Jason said smugly.

"What does that have to do with... anything..." Ashley glared at Jason. "You," she said with mock anger, "are far to clever for your own good!"

"Why thank you," Jason smiled. "I'm glad to hear my wit is appreciated!"

"Appreciated my..." Ashley cut herself off and started grinning. "You know, I'll be right back... I'm sure the kids will love to hear that you're going to do a stand up comedy routine for them!"

"Hey, wait a minute now!" Jason told her, worried.

"Oh, no," she replied, getting up, "I've got to go spread the word and good cheer!"

"Alright, alright, you win!" Jason begged.

"Hrm... did I really?" she asked, eyes gleaming. "I didn't realize we were in a competition!"

"You don't play fair," Jason accused.

"No, I don't," she agreed with a laugh, then cut off as Ronan walked into the room. The moment hung, awkwardly, for a few long moments, no one knowing what to do.

"Hey," Ronan said softly, before dropping into the chair Tommy had dragged in earlier.

"How ya doin', Ronan?" Jason asked, concerned.

"For some odd reason, I feel like crap," he answered, voice listless.


"Don't," Ronan interrupted him. "Just... don't. I don't need false sympathy, I don't need... just don't go there."

Jason decided he knew exactly what to do, awkward or not. "Ronan," Jason said strongly as he flipped the covers up, "get your ass over here."

"Jason, I don't think sex is the answer to this problem," Ronan told him.

"No, neither do I. But thanks to the orders you gave, I can't get out of bed," Jason reminded him. "So if I want to give you a hug and hold you close, I have exactly one way to do it. So, I'm making this an order: get your ass over here!"

"An order, huh?" Ronan asked.

"Disobey at your own peril," Jason confirmed with a small grin.

"No sex?"

"Not so much as a kiss!" Jason assured him, then paused.

"I'll hold you too that," Ronan agreed before kicking his shoes off.

"Wait now, lets not be too hasty!" Jason protested.

"Too late," Ronan told him, slipping in beside Jason. "No kissing."

"Fine, no kissing," Jason agreed. "How about moving a little closer though?"

Jason took Ronan into his arms and held him tight. After a few moments, Ronan relaxed into the hug and started crying. "Shh," Jason told him, "I've got you. Let it all out..." Ashley left the room to give them a little privacy as Ronan sobbed, almost silent.

"I love you, Ronan Koken, and I won't let you fall," Jason told him. Eventually the tears faded, and Jason felt sleep begin to claim Ronan slowly, stealthily.

"I need to get going," Ronan said.

"You need to sleep," Jason told him.

"I've got things I need-" Ronan started.

"You need to sleep," Jason said firmly, cutting him off. "Don't make me make it an order."

"First rule of command, Jason, never give an order you know won't be obeyed," Ronan told him as he started to shift around.

Jason held on tighter and smiled. "No, that's the second rule. First rule is if you have to give an order the guy won't take, make certain he doesn't have a choice. Sleep, Ronan, sleep."

"What do you think-" Ronan broke off with a yawn. "What do you think... you're... what do you..." Blinking, Ronan shook his head and tried to break loose. "How?"

"I think Lara mentioned it the other night," Jason told him with a smile, "Chemical A meets chemical B in your blood stream and you puke. Chemicals C, D, and E make you sleep. So, sleep, my beautiful, wonderful, awe-inspiring hero. I'll be here to ward off bad dreams. Sleep, and dream of better days. Sleep."

Ronan tried to fight, but slowly fell under the spell Jason's soothing words were weaving.

"Shouldn't have... taught you... so... well..." were his final words before Jason finally put him under.

"But you did," Jason smiled, and kissed Ronan's forehead gently. "Oh, sorry! Still... just one kiss," he said after, "and you won't even know about it."

Jason shifted around to sit up against the headboard, Ronan still held in his arms, and smiled as he rocked his...

Jason blinked as he realized. You couldn't call Ronan 'mentor', not now. He wasn't lover, yet. More than a friend. What could he call Ronan?

Jason smiled, and nodded his head. Yes, he would hold his man through the night, and ward off bad dreams. Jason smiled and closed his eyes and waited.

And waited.

And began to want to curse as he waited some more. How long did it take to fall into fucking REM sleep? It had already been four hours! It was like Ronan was just refusing to fucking dream!

Jason blinked. Refusing to dream? "You idiot," he swore, and started pressing in with his mind. There, and there, and there, and... yup, idiot was right. It was a brilliant, complex, and incredibly sophisticated piece of work, and Jason didn't have the first clue how to deal with it.

Of course, if Ronan was to be believed, maybe he didn't have to know...

"Lord," he whispered, "I don't know if it works like this. I don't know how it works. But Ronan says I derive some of my power from You, and I can't believe prayer isn't involved. This is beyond my ability, beyond my knowledge. You are a kind and merciful Lord, and this is hurting him. He's done it to himself, I know, but..."

Jason paused, tears in his eyes, as he tried to figure out what to say. How...

"I want to heal him, I want to protect him from even... even from himself. I don't know why he fears dreams so badly, but men need dreams. For tonight I can ward off nightmares, I will remain awake through the night if that's what it takes, but he needs to dream. He's tired, bone deep tired. I don't know how I've missed it for so long, but he's beyond exhausted. He needs sleep, he needs rest. I'll ward off bad dreams, but with this spell he's put into place-"


Jason blinked as the idea bored it's way into his mind with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. If Ronan hadn't been resting on him, he would have thrashed around, but somehow something stopped that -- for Ronan's sake.

"He's important, he leads people. He does good things-"


Jason again blinked as the idea bored in with even less subtlety than before.

"Not why should You," Jason whispered in understanding. "Why do I want this."

Jason thought about it for a while. Why did he want this? "I love him, but You know that, so that's not what You're after. I'm not sure I understand the question, but I'll try..."

Jason thought. He loved Ronan. Wasn't that answer enough as to why he wanted this? Apparently not, so... Go back a level. Why did he love Ronan?

He saved him, sure, but that wasn't enough for love. Oh, not this kind of love. Not the kind that made his heart ache and his body yearn. This love set his blood boiling and cast his mind adrift, made his stomach do back-flips and made this man the center of his universe.

"I guess I can't answer that question," he whispered. "I love him, just... because I love him. I love the way his thoughts run deep and sure, the way he snaps at someone when their exceptionally stupid but always forgives. I... love him because he's him."

"Ronan Koken, I love you," he whispered, looking down at the man resting on his chest and smiling.

And that was the answer, he understood. That was the 'why' he was being asked. That was what the Lord was after.

Please, Jason thought as he laid a hand on Ronan's forehead, directing the thought as a prayer. Not just that one thought, but what he wanted and why. Jason offered up his love for this man, his belief that he deserved better than he was allowing himself, his earnest desire to provide it in the one way he could.

The Lord knew the answer; the point of asking was for Jason to know it. And more, acknowledge the answer.

Slowly, with infinite hesitation the power began to flow, gently, oh so gently wrapping the spell Ronan had wrought in gossamer threads of unimaginable power. Just one night of good dreams.

Jason smiled as the power caught him up as well, effortlessly burning out the remaining traces of the toxin as it dragged him to his slumber. For every request there is a price, and for this night's good sleep, the price was rest of his own. He would ward Ronan's sleep...

Jason felt the naked flesh of his lover pressing against his own, and smiled into Ronan's eyes before kissing him, deeply. Chest against chest they ground against each other and enjoyed the company as Jason warded Ronan's sleep from within. "I love you, you great big lug," he told Ronan.

"I love you," Ronan whispered back. "Oh, how I wish I could say that for real, but this is just a dream. It's been so long since last I dreamed but I know what a dream feels like. I've yearned for it for so long... ever since that day..."

Jason felt it, digging at the edges, and glared into the darkness that surrounded them. Other times, other nights, other lifetimes that horror would drag Ronan into a nightmare. _Not tonight! He felt the darkness reach out, and twisted around, placing himself between that darkness and the one he loved._

And against that love, the darkness could find no purchase.

Ronan woke up with a start, jerking himself out of Jason's arms. "What the hell?" he swore before rolling out of bed.

"I hope you slept well," Jason yawned out as he stretched, awoken by Ronan's reaction.

"Not this again," Ronan swore. "At least this time I don't have a mess in my pants!"

"No, I figured that would be rather disturbing, that's why I didn't let things go that far," Jason told him. "I've heard of lucid dreaming, but I don't think last night was quite what they mean by that!"

Ronan froze. "You..."

"This isn't the first time we've done this," Jason told him with a laugh. "Just the first time you've been 'awake' for it."

"Fuck!" Ronan swore.

"So, you great big, handsome, wonderful, beautiful lug," Jason said dreamily, "tell me again, please?"

"I..." Ronan's voice failed after that one, sorrow filled word, and he grabbed his shoes before running from the room.

"Shit!" Jason swore, then started hunting for some clothes of his own. Ronan was not running out of here that fast, like that! No way in hell!

"Hey Jason," Ashley poked her head in.

"Where are my clothes?" Jason demanded.

"Well excuse me!" she complained.

"Ronan just ran out and I need to catch up!" he told her. "Now, clothes?"

"Oh, well, if you're in a hurry..." she grinned. "Ronan managed to run right into a bunch of kids wanting some time and attention, almost as if someone decided they didn't want him running off so quick and decided to see to it."

Jason blinked. "What?"

"Don't ask me how Tommy set it up so quick; he's a miracle worker!" she grinned. "I'll get your clothes, you'll have plenty of time." Jason paced around the room while he waited for her to return.

"Here," she said, tossing him clean clothing. It wasn't Jason's, but it fit well enough. "Thankfully, I just 'happen' to have some spares in your size."

"Please tell me it isn't an ex-boyfriends," Jason asked as he pulled it on.

Laughing, Ashley denied it. "No I keep spares in pretty much every size," she told him.

"Good, now where's Ronan?"

"Bogged down near the front door," she laughed. "I think the kids know the idea is to lock him in place, because that is exactly what they are doing."

"That's helpful!" Jason laughed.

"Yeah, Tommy does a great job with them," Ashley agreed. "I'm the mother, and in theory I'm in charge, but... It's Tommy who really keeps them going, and keeps them together."

"Well, I guess I owe him," Jason admitted as he tied his shoes. "Be back soon" he told Ashley as he ran out the door. Front door was doubtlessly blocked, so backdoor it was. Running around the house, he slipped into the car and waited. Concentrating, he tried to make himself invisible but it just didn't work. Giving up, he decided to simply wait. Perfectly still, barely even breathing. If he was really lucky...

Ronan came around the corner, glancing over his shoulder, and entered the car without a second glance. Moving to start the engine he froze, then glanced over at Jason. "Shit," he swore softly.

"Didja miss me?" Jason commented, grinning.

"I'm not ready to talk about it," Ronan warned him.

"Fine. We'll just drive home, not talking the whole time," Jason told him.

"How did you know I had the car brought over?" Ronan asked.

"Ve haff ways ov making you talk," Jason recited with a full-blown, and rather corny, accent. "Or, in this case, ve haff our ways ov making Tommy talk, da?"

"I forgot to tell him not to mention it," Ronan said softly.

"Pretty much," Jason told him.

"Well, at the time I wasn't really expecting... this," Ronan said unhappily.

"We decided not to talk about that, remember?" Jason teased. "You aren't ready!"

"True enough," Ronan agreed. "True enough..." he repeated in a sigh as he pulled out into the street.

"So, how do you want to deal with those protesters?" Jason asked.

Ronan slammed on the brakes and starred at Jason.

"Um... what?" Jason asked, confused.

Ronan closed his eyes and sighed for a moment. Hitting the gas, he pulled over to the side of the street before stopping -- legally, this time. Having done that he turned the ignition off and started to softly hit his head against the steering wheel.

"You forgot about them, didn't you?" Jason asked after a few moments thought.

"Yes," Ronan moaned in frustration. "Other than just walking up to them and kicking their asses, I can't think of any way to deal with them."

"Well then," Jason said wickedly, "let's do just that."

"Jason, I don't think violence is going to work," Ronan warned him. "Mind you, the idea has a certain degree of appeal, but-"

"Who said anything," Jason grinned, "about violence?"

"Well you're the one who said we should just kick their asses!" Ronan pointed out.

"Oh, yes, we will... just not physically," Jason grinned evilly at Ronan. "I've had an idea, and I don't think they're going to like it one bit."

"Oh?" Ronan asked.

"Yup," Jason grinned. "The only question is just how dirty you want to fight..."

Jason grinned as they pulled up near the gym that had become home. The demonstration was still going strong, but the newsies had moved off. Perfect; Plan B was good, sure, but Jason much preferred Plan A. Either would work, but the lashings of trickery, deceit, and blatant outright lies involved in Plan A tickled his sense of humor just a little more than was probably healthy.

Half a year of living with Ronan had clearly contaminated Jason's sense of humor, but right at the moment he didn't care. This was going to be so much fucking fun!

Jason grinned over at Ronan. "Game time!"

"Game time," Ronan agreed, voice filled with grim amusement. He didn't particularly like the idea of lies and deceit, but he did find the plan uproariously funny.

Jason pulled his cross out from under his shirt and kissed it. Hopefully God wouldn't be too terribly-

Jason blinked. "One moment," he asked Ronan as he bowed his head.

He was so used to framing his prayers in words and not the pure ideas that seemed to be the new link between him and the Lord, but tried.

Grinning he lifted his head to meet Ronan's amused gaze. "Well, He approves," Jason commented. The startled flinch he got from Ronan set Jason laughing. "He even has a few... call them 'requests' for how we go about this."

"He... requests?" Ronan stammered.

"Nothing major," Jason drawled out. "A little of this, a little of that, and a quick call to Quentin."

"A call?" Ronan asked.

"Oh, yes, mind giving me his cell number?" Jason asked.

Soon the details were all set... again... and none too soon as some of the demonstrators began to notice them. "Aright, show time," Jason told a rather perplexed Ronan.

"I thought we'd agreed how to do this, but those 'minor changes' of yours sound almost like a complete revision!" Ronan complained.

"Well, the biggest revision is the one your missing," Jason laughed. "The one where we aren't using trickery to try and pound an original thought through their stone skulls."

"Jason, what do you... mean..." Ronan's eyes widened as he abruptly understood.

"Heathens!" one of the demonstrators screeched, as the entire group began to approach them. Cries of 'fag', 'queer', 'murderer' and the like followed suit.

Jason waited a few heartbeats, gazing into Ronan's eyes as he prepared himself for the battle ahead. Turning to face the crowd he walked forward, silent, until the crowd stood, screaming, less than ten foot away.

"Enough," he ordered, unheard beneath the crowd. "I said," he announced louder, "that's enough!"

Having augmented the strength of his voice with his powers, he expected to sound a bit different. He hadn't expected the deep, resonant, almost bell like tone that emerged with a rumble from his chest. It cut through the babble and noise quite effectively, exactly as desired, but also had the unexpected side effect of echoing off the buildings lining the street. "Thank you," Jason told the stunned crowd once the echoes died out. "Now, if you'd like to engage in reasoned, civil discourse, I am more than willing."

"Murderer! Monster! Queer!" one of them used a bullhorn to announce.

"Please, sir, once it was no longer necessary to speak over the noise of the crowd I had the common decency to regulate my volume. It is, after all, the polite and mannered thing to do," Jason scolded the man.

Jason felt more than saw Ronan hide a snicker behind his hand, and while most of the crowd missed the insult, a few glared at Jason, and two of them quickly hid smiles of their own.

"Polite? Mannered?" a woman sneered, pulling herself to the front of the crowd. "You don't even know the meaning of the words, Jason Dustin Bester! Not after the shameless way you flaunted your perversion in front of your family!"

OK, that much was not in the plan. "Aunt Krystal," Jason said with exaggerated pleasure, "what an unexpected... pleasure." The deliberate pause before pleasure, coupled with the flat, almost expressionless quality of how he said the word, said quite a bit. "I might have expected your presence with these... individuals; it certainly suits what I've heard of your... habits."

Aunt Krystal flinched back, and Jason made careful note. He'd clearly hit something without even realizing, or aiming for it. He was tempted to use his Sight to dig in, but right at the moment was hardly the time to indulge his vendetta against the thrice-damned bitch, however fun he might find it.

"Murderer! Seducer of innocents! Faggot!" the man with the bullhorn took the opportunity to cut in again, this time from close enough that the volume hurt Jason's ears.

"I think I made my opinion on the matter of your volume quite clear!" Jason raised his volume and put a slight edge in his tone.

Thank god that he'd gotten enrolled in that speech course! Professor O'Connor was annoying, but at the moment Jason was enjoying every 'vital' skill the man had drummed into his skull.

"Murderer! Fiend! Rapist!" the loud mouth continued, close enough that Jason had to suppress the urge to yank the thrice-damned bullhorn from him and smash it into a billion teeny, tiny pieces.

"Who am I accused of killing?" Jason cried, "who have I raped? Throw facts, not titles, at me or I'm going to just walk away. I will walk away, never to be found again, and you can't stop me!"

The man behind the bullhorn gaped for a moment, and then his face grew hard. He raised the horn and took a deep breath and then hesitated.

"Well?" Jason asked angrily. "Do you even know what you are talking about or are you just shouting meaningless accusations because you were told to?"

He flinched at the accusation. Jason's brow furled as he considered the man in front of him. Yet again, Jason had touched a nerve without-

"Greetings," a melodic, polite voice announced from behind Jason. "I apologize for the unruly nature of my flock in my absence."

Jason turned and nodded politely, "Reverend Williams, what a... surprise."

"Indeed," the 'good' Reverend responded. His hair was crisp and face clean, as if he'd just come out of a makeup trailer. Jason noticed, rather absently, that the man with the bullhorn was backing up as if he'd done what he'd set out to do. "I'd almost given up hope of meeting you. Why, some of my people thought you had simply cut and run rather than face us! I assured them, there was no more chance of you doing that than of any decent person doing so! Facing ones accusers is, after all, at the heart of the system set down by the Founding Fathers, an American tradition!"

"Tradition is a wonderful thing, isn't it?" Jason agreed. "At least, taken with a little moderation. It wouldn't do to uphold a tradition that cultural or technological change had rendered an unnecessary and meaningless drain, or a tradition that was morally wrong if once culturally acceptable."

"Indeed," the Reverend agreed, affable smile never wavering even as Jason saw a recognition of his counter-sally in the man's eyes.

OK, so plan B might have been fun too, but now that Jason had met the opposition, a direct theological 'assault' seemed like a much poorer idea. They hadn't touched on the Bible yet, but Jason had a sinking suspicion that this man would be clever enough to not simply rest on his pre-existing knowledge of the Bible and how it supported his position -- a knowledge that was sure to be impressive -- but had actually bothered to research the points Jason might make.

No, a 'fair' theological battle was not a winning proposition, at all.

"I imagine you'd like to have a word with your flock," Jason said, matching the Reverend's smile with his own. "I'd hate for them to go from... unruly, was it... to completely out of control."

"Oh, there is no need," the Reverend said, "they are good, Christian men and women." Jason didn't like the slight emphasis on 'they': point to the Reverend.

"Well," Jason said, carefully glancing over his shoulder, "I guess I just have to take your word for it." The emphasis of 'have' was even more subtle than the Reverend's on 'they', but Jason felt the slight shift in his favor. Jason didn't know how, but clearly he'd scored. Again without meaning to or knowing how.

If this was a side effect of his new-found powers... well, Jason liked. And if it was 'merely' chance, well thanks be to the Lord!

"Yes, well, if it makes you more comfortable I suppose I could have a few words with them," the Reverend answered Jason. "But to everything a time and season, and with you here it seems a... waste not to focus on the opportunity for meaningful dialogue."

"Indeed," Jason agreed. "If it's possible to open such a dialogue, well it's been my experience that such has always been helpful to bring the truth to light."

"Indeed, bringing you to the truth is most desirable," the Reverend sneered.

Got you, you bastard!

"I would hardly dare to presume that either side had a monopoly on truth," Jason said affably. Reaching for the cross that lay, gleaming, on his chest he continued, "But if I were to dare, I have every reason to believe that the truth lies on my side of the equation."

"Oh really?" the Reverend sneered, "some perverse interpretation of the Bible based on a hundred years of deliberately changing it?"

"No, on an authority above even the Bible," Jason told him.

"Above the Bible?" the Reverend scoffed, "preposterous!"

Jason grinned. "So sure, are you? Tell me, does not God himself have absolute, limitless authority?"

"Of course!"

"Then doesn't He have the power to designate messengers, whose word then outranks even the Bible?"

"And you just happen to be one of those messengers?" the Reverend sneered.

"No, better," Jason said smugly. Trickery, deceit, and outright lies...

Unless, of course, you get permission to do the unthinkable.

OK, so these idiots had ticked Jason off; apparently he wasn't the only one peeved!

"Lord," Jason called, raising his cross up to the sky, "let Your power be known!" Jason almost dropped his cross when the gold went from simply reflecting light to glowing like a sun in his hands. That was not part of the plan, and Jason sure as hell wasn't the one doing it. Or... was it sure as Hell not the One doing it?

The light suddenly gathered itself and shot upwards, into the sky, and Jason felt himself change... the power flowed through him, filling his body with the brilliant, golden radiance as it passed through him to another. He became, for a short while, a bridge through which the unimaginable could occur.

'Exactly' as planned, Quentin jumped off the roof of a nearby building. What was not planned was him being inside a ten foot creature formed of golden light, wings -- that's what they had to be, even if they looked nothing like birds wings, or bat's -- catching the air with an almost metallic glint. They stretched outward for dozens of feet, even cupped to catch the air (and avoid clipping the buildings on either side of the road). As the angel slowly drifted down, it gradually pulled it's wings up to avoid hitting those below it. They didn't move like flesh blood and bone, but flowed, rippling and twisting as they continuously reformed in a display of liquid grace.

The ten foot high creature landed several yards away from the various players in the unfolding drama, and Jason gaped. This wasn't just outside the plan, this was completely outside anything he'd even remotely expected. This was... this was...

"Fear not," the angel intoned, voice almost bell like as it rang out. There was nothing, nothing of humanity in it. A visceral fear struck deep to the core of Jason's guts. This was real. He'd called on the Lord, and the Lord had answered by sending him an angel.

Not completely, no, Quentin was somehow acting as a channel for the being so it didn't have to emerge fully into human reality, but an angel.

"Fear not," the angel repeated, "for this day I come bearing not the sword but a message."

Around him Jason felt more than saw people fall to their knees in shock and awe. How he kept his feet he couldn't begin to guess. But he had to stand. He was not to fear, and it was fear that was weakening his knees. The angel told him not to fear and by God he would do his best not to show it!

The angel smiled at Jason as if hearing his thoughts, and inclined it's head in a gesture of respect.

"I come bearing a message from the Lord on High, He who is Prince of the Morning and King of Kings, he who is Lord of the Dawn and thy God," the angel told them. "And these are His words: What was, is no longer. Commands should not be followed once their reason has passed and they become harmful. Love thy neighbor, that is My command, not hatred for that which is different. Face the darkness with My love in thy heart and thou shalt not fail. And listen. Listen to this one, into whose hands I have placed power beyond mortal ken, wisdom beyond his years. In the hours of darkness he shall be My voice, the sword with which I shall strike. He is Mine, My sword and My shield to shelter you in the dark times that shall beset you. He shall face the Betrayer, and set right the balance. Look for his return when the forces of the Deceiver strike anew, for his power will come then in new form."

"Thus spake the lord, when he sent me to this place. Listen to the one known to mortals as Jason Bester, for he shall be the Lord's hand in the coming darkness."

"Trust him as you would the Lord, for he is the Lord's own," the angel finished.

The Reverend glared at the angel and pulled from beneath his shirt a large, ebony crucifix. "Begone deceiver, in the name of the Lord above! Deceive us no more!"

Jason felt the dark energy of the Reverend's faith build and grow, and deep inside him something snarled in rage. Without realizing it he placed himself between the angel and the Reverend, his cross raised to ward off the darkness. "Begone!" Jason called out. "Take the darkness that stains your soul and leave, for you are not welcome here!"

The Reverend screamed and shoved the Crucifix at Jason, a terrible, terrible mistake. Jason met the blow with his own cross, driving it before him as shield and weapon alike. When the golden metal of his cross touched the Dark infused wood of the Reverend's crucifix a flash of light erupted as the golden brilliance shattered the darkness gathered by the Reverend's perverted faith.

The Dark which had infused the crucifix could not be so easily undone, however, and struck back with a vengeance. For a moment the two powers hung in balance, then Jason pushed with his heart and his will instead of reacting on instinct.

His power flooded down the connection and reached into the crucifix, purifying the object by burning out the Darkness within. Alas, however, the Dark had dug in too deep, too long. The hand-carved wood couldn't have survived the powers dueling within it under any circumstances, but with the Dark so deeply embedded it too had to be purified.

Still in the Reverend's hands, the crucifix burst into flame. Screaming in pain, he drove it forward in a desperate attempt to fight back, but Jason stood firm. The flame burned brilliantly for an instant longer, and then died. The ashes of the crucifix fell from the Reverend's hand, and he pulled back a charred and blistered mess that had once been a functional, human appendage.

The Reverend fell to the ground, howling like an animal as the pain of his hand wracked at him. Jason stood, triumphant and filled with sorrow at the pain before him. He would have knelt down and healed the man, but the angel placed one of his enormous hands on Jason's shoulder. "No," the angel warned. "He has chosen the Dark, and until he repents you shouldn't heal him."

"He had no way to know what would happen," Jason argued. "Had he tried it against anyone else..."

"He tried to turn a symbol of the Lord against a servant of the Lord; he attempted to invoke the Lord's power for Darkness and twisted his own faith to the Dark. He earned his fate." The angel's voice was measured, even, and reasonable.

"The first duty of a servant of the Lord is to love. He is far from a threat, there is no purpose served in leaving him in pain. Let me heal him," Jason begged.

"My authority here is that of the Lord's, but I have delivered his message and that authority is spent. I may not order you, only advise."

"Lord, my wisdom does not encompass this," Jason prayed aloud. Taking the ruined hand between his own he looked up. "I cannot leave this man in pain, but if it be Your will I must. Send me a signal, send me a sign, let Your will be known, or else I must act as my conscience requires and heal him. Please, oh Lord, guide me."

Jason felt his hand began to burn, and watched as the Reverend's hand slowly healed, burns fading and charred flesh closing over with the healthy pink of a normal hand. Jason's own hand slowly, oh so slowly, took on the injury he was healing.

But where the Reverend was merely human, Jason was a Guardian. His powers had run slow at first but now they approached maximum and he could heal with a speed and rapidity that made a mockery of bed rest and hospital stays. The injury faded slowly enough from the Reverend that even as the healing came to a close, Jason barely hit third degree burns. And even those rapidly faded into nothing. "Remember," the angel whispered in Jason's ear, "that tests such as these are not to confirm your worth to the Lord, but to remind you that you are indeed worthy. To assure you in the dark times when your soul is heavy that you are the right person, at the right place, at the right time."

"Not so fast," Ronan snarled. Jason turned just in time to see a gun discharge into the air, Ronan wrestling for control. Predictably, he gained it quickly.

"Aunt Krystal, a gun?" Jason said lightly, "I'm shocked!"

"Bastard! Fucking faggot!" she snarled, struggling against Ronan.

"Feel lucky, bitch," Ronan snarled, placing a hand against her belly. "I don't kill those who are with child, however much they've earned it."

"Child?" she said, going limp as her eyes widened.

"You didn't know?" Ronan said, disgusted. "It's at least two months in, you've missed your last period, and you didn't know?"

"How did you- How could you..." she stammered.

"I curse you," Ronan whispered. "For trying to kill the one I love, I curse you. I curse you with a blessing." Ronan looked at the hand he held against her belly, and Jason felt his own power answer the power gathering there, forming a link with deadly results.

"Ronan-" Jason tried to warn him.

"I curse you with a child who shall know the truth," Ronan whispered, "I curse you by blessing your child to know right from wrong, good from evil. He shall know the truth of your twisted heart and reject you! I bless him with protection from harm and the power to act on his knowledge. One day, he will reject you. One day he will turn from you. And on that day, you will know why he has done that."

"Ronan!" Jason snapped angrily. "Enough!"

"He shall-"

"Enough!" Jason snarled, ripping Ronan's hand away. "Go, now!" he ordered his aunt, as he forced Ronan back. White faced and horrified, she ran. She ran for a very, very long time.

Jason could care less. "You idiot!" he swore. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"I wanted to scare her. It's not like I really can do those things," Ronan told Jason.

"Yes, you can," Jason snarled. "My powers aren't like yours, and sometimes they jump in whether I want them to or not, and they did."

"What?" Ronan answered, confused.

"Your words were taken as vow, your blessing made real!" Jason whispered hotly. "There is a bond between you and the unborn child, and your power works upon him!"

"No, not possible!" Ronan protested. "All I did was infuse a mild amount of power into the unborn child, to give it strength and health, it won't even last very long!"

"Wrong," Jason said flatly. "You changed reality by making a vow which will shape that child's life, forever. He will know the difference between right and wrong, and he will turn against his parents, because of you."

"What? But that's... that's impossible!" Ronan protested uselessly.

"I have Seen, Ronan!" Jason hissed. "The boy will be born, and he will live, miserable, until the time comes for your prophecy to come true in full. He shall know good, he shall know evil, and for that difference he shall do things he would have thought unthinkable. He will be a force of good in the world not because he chooses it but because you made him one. Because you forced him to be so."

"I... I..." Ronan stammered.

"It was an evil act, Ronan! You stripped the right to choose from him!" Jason snarled. "Just... just stay out of my way!"

Jason whirled around and marched off towards the gym. Ronan glanced at the angel, who shooed him on. The demonstrators had already scattered, so there was no one left to deal with. "Quentin?" Ronan asked.

"He'll be fine. He and I... shall have a few words," the angel told Ronan.

"You can talk to him?" Ronan asked.

"He is completely conscious and aware," the angel told Ronan. "And he can make his thoughts known to me, and I to him. We'll be fine. Go." Ronan turned and chased after Jason.

"You ass!" Jason swore, shoving Ronan against the wall. "Couldn't you feel the difference?"

"Jason, please-"

"Shut. Up." Jason snapped. "I'm not done chewing you out. I'm not even close to done!"


"Shut the fuck up already!" Jason swore. "What the hell where you thinking, Ronan?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Ronan snapped back.

"Yes!" Jason screamed, "because clearly you weren't thinking at all!"

"Jason, how was I to know something was different?" Ronan protested.

"You should have felt it, Ronan! And beyond that, you should have fucking listened when I tried to warn you!"

"Oh please," Ronan snarled, "like you couldn't have stopped it at any moment. Our powers work at our will, you could have stopped it just by-"

"Idiot!" Jason snarled, "in case you forgot, my powers are different. My powers are different!"

Ronan's eyes widened. "Oh shit!"

"Yeah, oh shit!" Jason agreed, sarcasm dripping from his voice like venom from fangs. "Whatever you were doing, my mere presence was enough to change it. It was like... like witnessing an oath. Only somehow, I made your oath real, I made it binding. On both parties."

"What does that mean?" Ronan asked.

"I don't know," Jason told him, "but I sincerely doubt it's going to be good. You are bound, Ronan, just as much as that child is. If I close my eyes and reach out I can touch that bond, between you and the unborn child. Your powers reach out to him, and he to you. God only knows what the results of that are going to be!"

"Jason, I didn't know, I swear, I didn't know!" Ronan told him.

"And that's the only reason I haven't kicked you into next week yet," Jason told him. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and Looked again. "I think -- think, Ronan! -- that the change is for the better. The boy is going to have a miserable childhood, but you and your power will shape him to endure it, and blossom into something... something..." Jason shook his head. "I can't See that far. I know it's good. He's going to become something, do something, but... there's a great big blind spot around twelve years from now. I can't see into it. It's... dark. Cold. Shrouded. I can See no more."

"Well, there's that much at least. All's well that ends well," Ronan said bitterly. "And no, that's not an excuse, this shouldn't have happened, you have that much right. But there's not much we can do about fait accompli, is there?"

"No, there isn't," Jason said sadly. "You really didn't feel it?" he asked.

"I had no clue," Ronan swore, taking Jason's hands in his own as he stared into his eyes.

"I believe you," Jason said softly. "I almost wish... I almost... I don't know what I wish!" Jason looked away, but didn't pull his hands out of Ronan's.

"Jason," Ronan said softly, "about what I said earlier-"

"Ronan," Jason cut him off, moving closer. Jason felt the breath start to catch in his chest for some reason he couldn't define. Then with a 'click' he felt like an idiot for being confused. He was less than three inches from Ronan, breathing the same air that had just been in his lungs. Smelling the man's sweat, practically feeling the heat of his skin. "Ronan," Jason tried again, "I'm sorry I pushed you."

"It's alright, it's my fault..." Ronan forced out, distracted. "I just... Jason, we can't. We just can't... be together."


"No buts," Ronan said softly, placing a finger on Jason's lips to silence him. It was all Jason could do to avoid kissing the finger... or sucking it in, sensually... Or... or... "Jason, I'm in a position of power over you. I have been for a long time. Maybe... you've taken a lot of that power back, yes, but not all of it. Not yet, anyway," Ronan chuckled, eyes locked on the finger he still held on Jason's lips. Quickly he pulled it away, as if burned. "I'm sorry, anyway," Ronan shook his head, as if to clear it. "Anyway, I hold power over you. A relationship... a relationship like you want must be one of equals, and we aren't exactly equals. You... ever since your rape... a relationship between us just couldn't work out. Never. I'm sorry, but... but..."

Jason stared up into Ronan's eyes, heart breaking. "You love me," he stated.

"I... I..." Ronan stammered, before looking away. "I dare not... please, Jason, don't make this any harder than it has to be. This isn't about... love... it's about... power... and... self-determination... and..." Ronan swallowed convulsively. "Please, Jason!" Ronan begged.

"I'll leave this be," Jason told him, "if... and only if... you can tell me you don't love me. Love is powerful, Ronan, you know that. It's the greatest healing force imaginable, and a leveler beyond repute."

"Jason, this isn't about love, it won't work, it can't work. I... I want it to," Ronan admitted, "but it can't. It just... you and I can't!"

"Fine then," Jason said softly, bitterly, "I will hurt, and you will hurt, and we will both suffer. In silence. Is that how you want it?"

"I... I don't want it that way," Ronan told him, "but it's how it must be. We can't... we just can't, Jason!"

"Fine then," Jason said, raising a hand to Ronan's shoulder. "If that's the way it has to be, I will wait."

"No, don't wait," Ronan protested. "Find yourself someone. Someone you can be with." Ronan's eyes glistened with unshed tears, Jason noted. He almost couldn't see it himself, his own sight was blurred by tears.

"If that's what you want, then I'll wait," Jason told him. "But... not forever, Ronan. Love must be watered, and fed, and nourished. Don't throw away your chance for it. Not again."

"Jason... I..." Ronan started. "I..." Ronan licked his lips. "Please, don't," Ronan begged.

"I love you, Ronan," Jason told him. "And I will wait. And I will wait for a very, very long time. Until our love grows cold and dead, until you have truly murdered it."

Ronan flinched. "Jason, please, don't... don't do that to me."

"I love yd="headerLogoContent">

"I've heard that a castle is only as strong as those that built it. If thats true then this castle is an iron fortress judging by those I've met here." - Unknown

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[The Guardians][29]

[Rilbur Skryler][30]

  [Chapter Fourteen][34]

Chapter Fifteen


  [Chapter Sixteen][35]

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Rilbur Skryler, all rights reserved. See [copyright][33] page for additional details.

"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.

"Mrs. Clifton-"

"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.

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