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  1. Thursday, 5th September. Project Proteus HQ, 17:43 Annette sat back in the comfortable office chair she’d picked to replace the almost throne-like monstrosity Dr Cook had sat in when the Director’s office had belonged to him, looking at the holographic display as it scrolled through the results Major Taggart had punched up for her on his tablet. Eyebrows twitched upward over brown eyes as she scanned the contents of the shimmering screen, beyond which sat Taggart himself and two of the Project’s scientists, each of whom was a study in opposites to the other. Professor Larry Palahniuk was a short, rotund red-faced man in an unfastened lab coat, sweater vest over a shirt, and khakis. He was the same scientist who’d accosted Marissa and Courtney on their visit to the Project - a somewhat obsessive, if brilliant, man with PhDs in Quantum Mechanics and Astrophysics and no interest at all in organisational politics so long as he got the funding he asked for. Next to him, all cool elegance mingled with a hint of disdain for all around her, sat Doctor Julia Carter. In addition to being the head neurologist of the Marias Medical Center above, she had moved into the slot of the Project’s principle neuroscientist and geneticist following Cook’s removal and incarceration. Annette wasn’t certain about Carter - Taggart’s security probing had revealed no connection between the good doctor and Professor Kline’s rogue operation. No hidden bank accounts, no suspicious deposits, no shady communications. And she was polite - in a chilly way - and competent - in a chilly way - and very skilled in organisational infighting to preserve her bailiwick from intrusion. But Annette didn’t trust Dr Carter, a feeling which she’d passed off as a gut dislike both of the woman’s proximity to Cook and her borderline sociopathic detachment. That she had been brought in on this meeting was more due to her expertise and standing in the Project than anything else. Annette forced her attention back to the data on the screen. “These are impressive results.” she commented mildly, picking up her mug of tea and taking a sip. “Impressive?!” Professor Palahniuk’s colour, already ruddy, deepened. “I would say unlikely, and only because ‘impossible’ is not a word I like to throw around, given our line of scientific endeavour.” He waved a hand at the holodisplay. “A perfect score! On every sub-section! The boy must have cheated somehow. Telepathy, perhaps. Some manner of ESP.” Off to one side, in her usual seat against the wall, legs curled under her and watching the proceedings with the customary mixture of amusement and aloof interest, Ellie shifted slightly, her eyes narrowing a fraction as they fixed on the professor. “We stipulated, and Mister Bannon agreed, that no ‘Shine’ was to be used in this assessment, professor.” Taggart responded, frowning. “We have no reason to suspect bad faith on his part.” “And his neural activity according to the EEG showed none of the same patterns we’ve noted when studying subjects Adams or Sykes, who were our telepath and our ESPer respectively.” Dr Carter pointed out, studying her own tablet. “Though his neural patterning is significantly different from anything I’ve seen. The sheer level of synaptic engagement… Well… His whole brain seems to light up, in layman’s terms.” “We spent two days putting together that assessment. I would struggle to complete it in the time Mister Bannon did.” Palahniuk argued, somewhat plaintively as he realised that the mood in the room did not sync with his own skepticism. “I doubt I’d even understand some of the concepts.” Annette said dryly as she glanced over some of the problems. “It was designed to be challenging to PhDs.” Dr Carter responded, still avidly scanning the data on her pad. “Covering a multitude of disciplines, to identify areas of intellectual and academic weakness. No-one of Mister Bannon’s limited years should be able to answer all of the problems in the test, least of all in such a short space of time.” “And yet he did.” Taggart pointed out. “And yet he did.” Carter agreed, giving the Major a thin smile before returning her attention to her own screen. “I also note a fascinating anomaly - no activity in the paralimbic system indicating nerves or tension of any kind.” She glanced up at Annette, then across at Ellie, who met the older female’s gaze directly, without any shifting in her expression. “Mister Bannon’s neurological oddities aside…” Annette spoke up, causing Dr Carter to look back at her. “Are we satisfied that he did, in fact, pass the test within the parameters set.” The Project Director didn’t want Carter - or anyone else not cleared for it - to start putting two and two together regarding the Bannon boy’s strangeness. Of course, the problem with working with very intelligent people is their tendency to think for themselves. It would only be a matter of time until that cat was also out of the bag. “I’m satisfied, yes.” Dr Carter nodded, tapping her tablet off and sitting back in her seat. Finding no support from his colleague, Professor Palahniuk ‘hmmphed’ before shrugging, nodding in reluctant assent. “What about security risks?” he asked Taggart. “The boy is not even seventeen years old yet, and there is the matter of his aberrant behaviour profile.” “Major Taggart and I have determined that, given the opportunities and rewards of a paid internship here, we can convince Mister Bannon to mothball his, uh, business ventures. From all our observations, he sells his home-grown and home-refined pharmaceuticals for money, not out of some adherence to the glamor of criminality.” Annette tapped her fingernails against her mug. Taggart nodded agreement. “Fine.” Palahniuk shrugged again, his expression petulant. “But I’ll be keeping an eye on him and I will not-” “Professor Palaniuk.” Annette cut across the other man calmly, her voice taking on a cold crispness. “Where does a six hundred pound gorilla sit?” “Ma’am?” The rotund man blinked in astonishment. “I’m not sure-” “It is a simple question. An old joke, even. Where does a six hundred pound gorilla sit?” “Why… where it pleases.” “Exactly. As a matter of security, and the safety of this installation and its personnel, you are not to provoke Mister Bannon - or indeed any of the gifted young people - with your somewhat abrasive manners. If you cannot address him civilly, do not address him. You are a leading light in your field, sir. An invaluable asset to the Project. But if you put this Project or its personnel in danger because you feel the need to assert yourself over a teenager, I will see to it you are unable to get tenure doing anything more than teaching high school physics for the rest of your career.” Her tone softened slightly at the terrified look on the man’s face. “Listen, Professor. These young people have enormous potential, for good or ill. We are the means by which they will realise that potential, one way or the other. A positive experience with us means the former. All I am asking is that you treat Mister Bannon as a talented intern to mentor.” “Well… I… Yes.” Palaniuk nodded at that, his expression one of a man adjusting to a new way of thinking. “I suppose it would be a good opportunity to observe him, as well. To learn more of how his gifts work.” “Just so, Professor.” Annette smiled at him, leaning back in her chair. “And after all,” Palahniuk went on. “He does seem to be incredibly intelligent. It would be a shame not to see that potential realised.” “I agree.” Dr Carter replied. “Good. We’re all in agreement, then. I’ll have to go over the details with Mister Bannon, then likely again with his father - he is a minor, after all.” Annette looked up as Taggart’s phone went off. The major muttered an apology, looking down at the text he’d received, then looked up at Annette. “I’ve got another meeting to attend.” The major explained as he stood, giving Annette a significant glance. “Go on.” Annette waved him off, then nodded to the two scientists. “And I think that’s a good place to close the meeting. Thank you both for coming.” As Carter and Palaniuk left quietly in the wake of Taggart’s exit, Ellie uncurled from her seat and padded across to sit where Taggart had been sitting, across from Annette. The lovely Project director studied the young alien woman, keenly aware that the sparkling grey eyes were studying her in turn. “He aced the test.” Ms Giles said, watching Ellie’s reaction. The girl shrugged one shoulder. “Are all Teulu so intelligent?” “I have not met all Teulu.” The girl replied with a hint of a smile and a faint tightening at the corners of her eyes. “I can say stupid ones do not live long. But…” she relented for a moment. “...there are differences amongst us just as there are with humans. I could not answer many of the fat professor’s test questions. Doubtless there are scholars and scientists among us who can.” “I thought all Teulu were warriors.” “We are. But we also have a culture that prizes excellence. That necessitates innovation, research, science. Fighting is as natural to us as breathing is to you, but you do not only breathe, do you? So it is with us. We have science and civilisation, Annette. We are not savages.” Ellie smiled faintly, rising from the chair and moving to the door. Characteristically, she said no farewells before slipping out, leaving Annette alone. The Director sighed, shaking her head and pulling up a draft document to cover Jason Bannon’s internship contract. ======= Aelwen found Jason in the conference room which the Fellowship had used in the previous week to plan their assault on Site C. He was stretched out on one of the couches along the far wall, hands behind his head and his eyes closed, the white cord of his earphones running up over his chest from the phone resting on his stomach. She slipped into the room and sat down, facing him over the width of the glossy black surface of the conference table, and studied him intently. He was skinny, was her first thought. A teulu male of his age should carry more muscle, should already have callouses and scars from weapon practice. A teulu, male or not, would never close their ears and eyes and relax in this way around anyone except their own pride. It would be easy to dismiss him as soft, too human… “Something on your mind, Ellie?” he asked, not opening his eyes. And there was the other shoe, a phrase she’d picked up from Annette Giles. Like Devin, like the other young humans of his pride, Jason was a Radiant. He could feel her presence somehow, could kill her with a thought, freezing her solid or breaking every bone in her body, if the conversations she’d overheard were accurate. Any apparent vulnerability was more than likely a clever stratagem, something she made a note of. And he’d dealt very appropriately with the two humans who’d tried to kill him, even if he had ended up sparing them on the request of his human- what was the term? Ah, yes. ‘Girl-friend’. It wasn’t unheard of for teulu males to indulge their mates’ requests, but then no teulu female would have asked for the sparing of those who’d tried to kill her male. Humans were strange, and confusing. “Who is Cora and what did you do to her?” she asked bluntly, still watching him intently. He opened his eyes, turning his head as his hands came up and removed the earphones. Tinny musical sounds came from the device before he tapped the phone, silencing it as, still reclining, he regarded her with those cold, shimmering green eyes. The eyes of the Draig. Aelwen met his gaze and the pair of them studied each other like cats for a long moment. “What is that to you?” he asked calmly. “Devin mentioned her to me. The implication was that he was displeased with things you did to Cora, to Liam, and to his sister.” Ellie gestured with one hand offhandedly. “It is a source of contention in your pride. I want to know more.” He gazed at her for a few moments more, then sat up and faced her, his shaggy hair falling around his face, framing the scar on his cheek. “Cora was Cade’s girlfriend, one of us. She had Shine, but didn’t seem to be interested in its ramifications or potential, or in assisting with our investigation of the strangeness that had overtaken our lives.” he explained calmly. “This came to a head when our investigations led to the Crossroads prison, at which her father is the warden. She point blank refused to consider that her father may well be involved with the then-mysterious deaths and disappearances amongst the prisoners in his care.” “Explain?” “A warden of a prison occupies a position much like Annette or Taggart do here. It’s hard to conceive that someone of such power and responsibility and resources would be unaware of what was taking place, at least on some level.” Jason shrugged. “Cora’s rejection of that possibility also encompassed, by inference, a rejection of everything else I had researched. It was the final straw: I lost my patience and told her she was a foolish, useless waste of potential. Though in considerably more unkind wording.” “I see.” Ellie considered that. “And then what happened?” “She stormed out. And then went home and practiced her gift. Anger gave her determination. And the next day, she fought alongside us against a creature of the Dark.” Jason’s lips twitched in a faint smile. “Was that your design?” The blonde teulu girl asked, head tilting. “It was one of the two desired outcomes.” Jason stood, moving to pour himself a glass of water from the jug on the table. “Either she would seek to prove me wrong, or she would continue to prove me right and stay out of my way. No matter what, she would either be useful or at least cease being an impediment.” “I see.” Ellie nodded slowly, her brow furrowing slightly. “Do you think it was wise to treat a member of your pride so?” “I didn’t consider her a member of my pride.” Jason responded. “I’d met her a handful of times, and only then through Cade. I protected her from three idiots who tried to assault her, because she was Cade’s friend. But my tolerance for her was not sufficient to put up with her willful foolishness.” “And where is she now?” “New York. A school for performing arts.” Jason shrugged lightly. “A shame. She was just starting to show her spine. But she wanted to be a dancer, so…” Ellie considered this, reaching over and getting her own glass of water from the jug Jason had placed back on the table’s surface. “Devin believes you are a coward because you attacked this Liam with your Radiance rather than ‘being man enough to look him in the eyes and punch him in the jaw’.” Jason’s eyebrows raised faintly, his lips twitching in amusement. “And what do you think?” Ellie studied him over her water glass as she took a sip. “You would only be capable of cowardice if you were capable of fear.” she answered. Jason nodded slowly. “So it makes no sense to call you a coward.” “Making sense is not the Jauntsens' strongest suit.” Jason shrugged, a wry look in his eyes. “From everything I have observed, they see the world one way - their own. Anything that does not fit in their mold of the ‘way things should be’ is therefore automatically wrong. Any evidence that does not support their personal view of their own innate superiority is to be discarded.” Ellie frowned, her eyes tightening. “You dislike them.” she said, a note of accusation in her inflection. “I saw their true face on Tuesday. All their previous pretensions of friendship, of care, were a facade. They don’t like me, don’t trust me, and even fear me. Devin said as much to my face. You know what I ‘did to his sister’?” Jason took a sip of water, leaning forward in his seat. “I took her at her word. There was a time I was attracted to her, desired her, and told her so, even foolishly kissed her believing she harbored desire for me. She rebuffed me, which was fine. She said she was not interested in a relationship. Also fine. And the next day she starts dating Cade. That was also fine.” He spread his long-fingered hands. “Confusing, and inconsistent with her own words, but fine. So I assumed she had made her choice, and I moved on.” “I see.” Ellie nodded slowly, frowning a little. “I found myself attracted to Autumn, we ended up together. And it seemed Marissa took that as a personal affront, as if she has some claim on either of us. Which she does not.” Jason shook his head. “And then, on Tuesday, it comes up that she only dated Cade because she was afraid of me. That she feared I would hurt her and believed that Cade would protect her..” He snorted lightly. “None of it makes any sense whatsoever. She is apparently jealous I date Autumn, but is so afraid of me she seeks protection from someone. She supposedly didn’t want me dead, and yet allowed someone to try and kill me without warning me. I think it’s possible she’s insane - unbalanced enough to actually believe whichever version of the story she currently finds most convenient to present to others.” “This makes my head spin.” Ellie shook her head slowly, her steel-grey eyes grave. “Your pride is more fractured than I thought.” “My ‘pride’,” Jason said with slow, cold precision. “Is Autumn. Sean. And Cassandra. The others are, currently, allies - whom I will work with in good faith so long as that is reciprocated.” “Devin saved your life.” Ellie reminded him, cocking her head slightly to one side. “And that is why I still consider him to be an ally.” Jason responded. “And would do the same for him.” “I see.” Ellie finished her glass of water and stood. “I thought perhaps I could mend the rift between you. You would be stronger working together.” “I’ll work with him. I just don’t trust him. And he doesn’t trust me. So we’re even.” Jason looked up at her. “I can appreciate your goal in talking to me about this. You may want to avoid swimming in these waters, though.” “I can see that.” Aelwen’s lips pressed into a line. “I think there is more to Devin than you see, though.” “Perhaps. And in turn, there is more to me than he sees. Again, we are even.” Jason replied wryly, then considered, his eyes on hers. “Devin is brave, and a part of him strives for what he perceives as nobility. His worst enemy is himself, not me.” “You are ‘dating’ a human. Are friends with some. Your father is one.” Aelwen stated. “Are they all this difficult?” “No. They can all be to varying degrees, though teenagers are the most confusing. Because they are the most confused, I think.” Ellie shook her head, stepping towards the door. “Strange people. Oh, it seems the Project will be employing you after all.” She said as she reached the door and paused, glancing back at him. “Why do you want to work for them?” “Why would I not?” he countered, his gaze and expression giving nothing away. She smiled slightly, nodding, and slipped from the room as silently as she had entered. ====== “...so Marissa had every reason to believe that we would take action to prevent the attempt on your life.” Annette explained, peering at the lean figure sitting across from her over her tea. “Though it was not our intention to do so, we let her and you down.” Damn, but the young man was hard to read. Even Ellie, as inscrutable as she could be, was more expressive than Jason. A function of his intellect, perhaps. Or of a life spent hiding his true nature from a world that wouldn’t accept it. Not human, Annette thought, studying the impassive scarred features, the unwavering frozen green stare that seemed so ancient in a young face. She wondered if that expression would change a jot, give her any warning before he incinerated her, then forced herself to relax. He wasn’t a mad dog. He was a rational creature who had had plenty of provocation from others and not lashed out. Everything she had observed and studied of him indicated that Jason Bannon responded to sincerity and understanding in kind. Nevertheless, when he finally moved his hand and picked up the tea she had served him, taking a sip, Annette softly released a breath she’d unconsciously been holding. “So the Project is infiltrated.” he stated calmly, his eyes still on her face. She nodded. “My thinking is that whoever it is is covering their tracks too well for myself or Taggart to uncover - but not too well for Sean Cassidy and Cassandra Allen.” He nodded agreement. “How can I help?” he asked simply. Annette smiled. “Once you sign on the line, you will be working for the Project. You’re a person of interest for our enemies - for whatever reason, Enterich singled you out for killing and exposed the infiltration of our security to ensure it would succeed.” She frowned slightly. “It’s possible they will make another attempt on you.” “Which would serve your purpose also - forcing them to expose themselves further and expend resources.” The young man’s calm as he discussed the notion of being bait in a trap was eerie. He sipped his tea. “I will be on my guard - another attempt will be even less successful than the first. But I feel you should omit that aspect of the arrangement when you speak to my father.” Annette blinked, then frowned. “You think he would stop you taking part in the plan.” she stated, nodding, then stopped as Jason shook his head. “No. I think he would try to, and fail.” the Teulu youth explained simply. “He cannot stop me doing what I choose to do, but he will worry, and the stress will not be good for him. I’ve not told him the details of the attempt on my life for that very reason - which turned out to be prudent, given that before just now I didn’t know the whole story. It would have caused additional strife at the parents meeting if others wrongly believed Marissa was party to the murder attempt. As the evidence up to that point strongly suggested.” “Was that why you didn’t bring it up?” He was silent for a moment, his cold eyes distant. “I was not one hundred percent sure she was an enemy. If I had been, there would have been no discussion at all.” he said with dreadful finality. “As it is, I believe she is unbalanced, inconsistent, and dangerous to herself as well as others.” “You realise the twins say similar things about you?” Annette’s gaze was grave. Jase met her eyes and smiled, very slightly. “Unsurprising. I wonder who will be proven correct.” “You have to admit that your… nature does not lend itself to inspiring comfort or reassurance.” “Indeed? And yet some find me pleasant company, even comforting, being able to accept that I am different and so approach me in that manner. So, to borrow a phrase, perhaps the fact that some find it beyond their ability is a ‘them’ problem.” Jase retorted bluntly. Annette shook her head, smiling ruefully. “You genuinely don’t care what people think of you?” “I care what some people think of me.” He shrugged. “Others are irrelevant except in the sense they might interfere with my path.” Annette considered that, studying him as she tapped her fingers on her desk. “Can you work with the twins, despite differences?” she asked bluntly. “Not to be rude, but I get the impression greater forces are at work here than adolescent rivalries.” “I will work with them if they work with me.” he shrugged. “I will meet them precisely halfway in all things where such cooperation is necessary.” Annette sighed, rubbing lightly at her brow with her left hand as she eyed the spare form in the chair across from her. He meant it, she knew. He would cooperate, but not give way. No doubt about it, this was going to be interesting. “Alright. One final thing.” she said at last, straightening. “We ran a genetic test on you - on all of you, to be honest. We wanted to see if there was a common genetic marker component to all of the gifted, and in light of Ellie’s existence, well…” she spread her hands in an elegant shrug. “And?” Jason’s gaze did not even flicker as he studied her. “And I think you know what we found.” Annette came straight to the point. “Only myself, Taggart and two scientists we trusted to run the tests know. And to be honest, yours is far from the strangest DNA.” She saw his head tilt, his gaze taking on a curious glint. “Have you told anyone?” she asked him. “I’ve told people whom I trust.” he answered. “I only found out myself very recently. But I am curious why you are telling me.” “Consider it an extension of trust. I know about your heritage, and yet I still am willing to work with you. I am willing to believe you are proof that we can co-exist with Ellie’s people, should that prove necessary.” “Culturally, I am more human than teulu.” Jason shrugged. “My instincts and emotional similarities notwithstanding, I know very little of my mother’s people.” “But you are in a position to find out.” Annette pressed. “And you assume I will share all I find out?” he countered, regarding her calmly. “I might decide I have more in common with them.” “You might.” Annette nodded, her expression sober. “I am counting that you care about your friends, and your father, enough that should it be necessary, you would at least help keep things peaceful. I’m counting on the fact that you seem to remember kindness when it is extended to you.” “I remember everything.” he replied simply, something shifting behind the green ice of his stare, and for a moment Annette wondered at the depth behind the simplicity of that statement. She herself had learned to train her memory, to remember details with mnemonic tricks, but it was largely abstract facts - dates, faces, people’s names, pets and favorite wines, useful tools of diplomacy and connection-building. What would it be like to perfectly recall everything, including the emotional context, smells, sounds and sensations? To literally be able to step into a memory, good or bad, and re-live it? To have the sort of intellect that left multiple PhDs scratching their heads trying to comprehend? Lonely. She realised with a sudden flash of insight. Even for a boy - and he was a boy, hard as that was to remember sometimes - who didn’t experience sorrow or loneliness like she did, there had to be some sense of… isolation. Of looking around and realising None of these are like me. Even allowing for his Shine, even allowing for his other-than-human nature… Without either of those factors he would still find it hard to connect. And with that insight came more, a clarification that expanded and revised her impression of Jason Bannon. Naturally he connected first with Sean Cassidy, finding at least some common ground of intellect. Through Sean, he had connected, tenuously, with others in his age group, finding some sense of belonging. Given his nature, of course he would fight tooth and claw (literally) to protect or avenge his connections to the world, without any compunction, restraint or morality playing a part. Annette Giles studied the lean young man with a fresh perspective now. He was still dauntingly composed, still capable of the savagery he’d inflicted on Liam Day or Marshal Dale. But she understood better now where the source of that fierce protectiveness lay. A combination of his predatory teulu nature and the simple fact that he didn’t count on being able to connect to others, so treasured the connections he had made. By the standards of human society he was a potential danger - but then so were the Jauntsens. So was Sean Cassidy. So were all the ‘kids’, to quote Taggart. “I’d be interested in seeing the test results myself.” Jason commented, getting the conversation back on track and jolting Giles from her reverie. Annette nodded agreement. “I was planning to include you in that area of study. If for no other reason than so you could ensure we were not doing anything amiss with the data.” she replied. “Do you have any questions for me?” Jase cocked his head, smiling very faintly as he regarded her. “When do I start?”
  2. "No need to apologise." Annette smiled, though her eyes were fixed on her glass in a slight frown of thought for a moment before they raised to regard the twins. "I'm not exactly a spymaster myself. My work with Aeon has mostly been in the area of investigation of phenomena, diplomacy and the like. What I'm really concerned about is that, due to our involvement with the Project over such a long time, it's possible Branch Nine and the Society might have taken in new members who are working for whoever is paying Klein's bills. How far does the rot go?" Her lips drew into a tight line as she considered that. "Maybe start with the Project." Devin suggested. "Worry about the other stuff once we've made the center secure?" "Build on that." Marissa agreed. "Whatever change we find in the couch cushions while we clean up your place we can then use." "Yes." Annette conceded. "That would be the sensible path. As for figuring out who's dirty, I think this should be a group endeavor. Telepathy might not be the answer, but we can start with getting Mister Cassidy to go through our logs and security feeds. If anyone can follow the data trail, it would be him. Miss Allen's gift might also be useful. Meanwhile, I will get Major Taggart to put together a training and protection detail that are not part of the Project, Aeon or Branch Nine. I'm sure he knows some people." She tapped her fingers on the table in thought. "I'll be having a talk with Mister Bannon later, too. I'll let him know the situation, and how it was my fault those marshals were able to get close to him." She gave Marissa an apologetic smile. "I can't say that it will fix all your interpersonal issues with him, but the blame for that particular snafu shouldn't rest on your shoulders - you trusted me and I wasn't able to deliver. I'm sorry."
  3. Annette nodded slowly. "We're in a position to help each other." she agreed, eyes studying each twin in turn. "More than you realise, in fact. The Project has been compromised." She unfolded her hands and picked up her drink, fixing Marissa with a meaningful look. "After your last meeting with Enterich, I had Taggart give orders for a covert protection detail to be put on you, your family and the Bannons." "Covert detail? Bodyguards?" Marissa asked, a frown creasing her perfect brow. Annette nodded. "Not that Devin is easy to tail anywhere, but yes - Branch 9 special operations personnel were supposed to be watching out for you and Jason, particularly at or near your homes." "Yeah. How'd that work out?" Devin snarked, remembering Jase's blood all over his hands as he flexed his fingers in his pockets. Marissa, however, had started to realise where Annette was going with this. "The order was rescinded." Annette said, calmly enough, though her dark eyes narrowed. "According to the log, by Taggart himself." "But Taggart didn't do it, did he?" Marissa asked rhetorically, then sighed, rolling her eyes as Annette shook her head. "Shit." she huffed. "More or less my words." Annette agreed. "I don't believe for a second Taggart would have done it - and more to the point, that day he couldn't have done it. The log showed that the rescindment order was given from inside the Project compound on a day Taggart was up at Bulwark." She looked down at her glass, shaking her head. "I don't know if it was that presence Mister Cassidy struggled with whilst you were rescuing Etienne the other week, or if there's actually a physical agent - or agents - that have infiltrated the compound and somehow know Taggart's codes. But the operation was carefully coordinated. The detail was called off literally two hours before the attempt on Mr Bannon's life." "So the situation is, I've inherited Directorship over a project which might well be infiltrated by Klein's people - some of whom might not even know they are if the brainwashing data you recovered from the Site C mainframe can be relied on. I trust Taggart, one or two others, and you lot." She sighed, spreading her hands. "If I do nothing, it's only a matter of time before the Project is completely back under Klein's control. So yes, I'll help you in any way I can. But I'll need the gifts of several of you to help me clean house if I'm going to help you the way you need."
  4. Marissa and Devin Annette wasn't too hard to find - at least for the Twins. The elegant Director of the Project was present under the auspices of the Marias Medical Center's board of directors, just another well-wisher from the great and good of Shelly turned out to give their condolences to the bereaved family. Some of those present knew her real role and purpose, though did not acknowledge it openly. The various parents of the Fellowship members who were introduced to her in passing were careful to keep recognition off their faces and any conversation banal and light. When she saw the Twins approaching, to her credit Annette didn't miss a beat or flicker an eyelid, smiling to those she'd been talking with as she extracted herself from the small knot of people with consummate poise and moved away, ostensibly to refresh her drink or powder her nose or whatever diplomacy she'd substituted for "Excuse me, a couple of superhuman teenagers seem to want an important conversation about something with me." Briefly making eye contact with each twin, she wandered through a couple of larger reception rooms and out of the French windows onto a patio at the side of the opulent mansion - one which, due to it's distance from the buffet and drinks, was deserted, at least currently. As the Twins approached, she sat down in an ornate wrought-iron chair at a marble-topped patio table, her drink in hand and a curious expression in her dark eyes. "You both have a serious look." she said quietly after a beat, setting her drink down and folding her hands over one another. "Given your mother's dislike for the Project currently, I figured out here was probably a better place to talk. What's on your minds?"
  5. Jacob glanced down at the hand Marissa had laid on his chest, feeling his pulse quicken at the contact. She really was astonishingly beautiful up-close, with her long lashes framing dark eyes that drew a guy into their depths as she looked up at him. He found his gaze following the curve of her lips as she spoke, found himself wondering what it would feel like to run his fingers through her long, glossy dark hair- Wait, that's not right... Tawny. I'm with Tawny. Marissa was right in her estimation of Jacob, at least as far as it went. He was a 'good' person - cut from a similar cloth to Cade, in fact: well-balanced and decent, with a code of behaviour instilled by the examples of his father and Autumn's grandfather, a not-quite-frontier mentality that the measure of a man, or woman's, character was more important than anything else: social status, wealth or power, even the law of the land. Laws, after all, changed and shifted with the whims of politicians and societies. But right and wrong never changed. Or something like that, anyway - Jacob didn't really think about the philosophy so much as live it. But now there was a discordance set up between how he was reacting to Marissa's touch and nearness, and what she was saying, and what he was feeling. An off-key harmonic, a feeling that something was not quite right here. He didn't trust her, at all. He'd seen far too much of her reign of terror to so easily dismiss it from just a few smooth words... and yet... Her touch was bliss, her voice the murmur of an inviting sensual angel, so much so that it took Jacob a few moments to parse what it was she was saying so persuasively. He blinked, shaking his head almost unconsciously This isn't right... I'm not this 'Matt' guy... I'm not pining after Autumn... We both moved on. And she had good reasons not to tell anyone before... Is Marissa coming on to me? Why? She's dating Cade, isn't she? And I'm dating - "Tawny!" he blurted out as the blonde slice of wholesome farmgirl approached them then, her cornflower blue eyes reddened from crying but still lovely, her gaze noting the hand on Jacob's chest and looking curiously at Marissa as she moved to stand next to him. There was a rush of mingled emotions from the tall young man - relief, guilt, concern for Tawny - as Marissa retracted her hand and he stepped back a half pace. "We were just talking about, you know, all the stuff that's been going on." he told the blonde girl, resting a hand on the small of her back in a half-embrace. "Are you okay?" "I'm fine." Tawny nodded, giving him a brave smile before smiling at Marissa in turn. "And yeah, I bet there's plenty to cover. I felt like freaking out when I first got sat down by these guys and given the scoop. I thought-" and she lowered her voice, leaning in closer to them both. "I thought the powers were the weirdest, scariest part of all this. But monsters? That... other place?" she shivered, leaning closer to Jacob. "I hate it." she admitted quietly then. "I hate all of this. I wish I could go back to the start of the summer and do it over." She smiled slightly, slipping her arm around Jacob's and squeezing a little. "Not completely, perhaps. But a lot of it."
  6. Marissa He mulled that over for a moment, honest brown eyes studying her before he replied. "Sure. You and your brother and me haven't exactly seen eye to eye over the years, but from the sounds of it you - all of you - are going through changes. And not the cringey sort of changes when the adults try to sit you down and talk to you about stuff - I mean real, life-altering changes." Jacob shrugged. "So, if Autumn's going to give you guys a chance - and you've been waaay shittier to her than to me - then I guess I can give you a chance too." "About for her not telling me more..." He shrugged. "I can sort of understand that. We were both raised with stories about the Hidden Enemy making people do sick things, and mysterious murders and disappearances, but we thought those were just Crocker / Kavanagh family legends, spook stories, you know? And suddenly she wakes up in Wonderland with a bunch of people who are all people who bullied her, or she avoided, or just plain didn't know before. I guess she wanted to make sense of it herself before trying to explain it to me - I know that's what I'd have felt like doing." He sipped his soda, glancing around briefly to make sure they were still alone. "Anyway, she managed to tell me some of this before class yesterday, with a promise of more catching up later, so I'm not going to go too hard on her over it." "Anyway." he finished, looking back at Marissa with a rueful smile and offering her a hand. "Yeah. Let's try the friendly thing out."
  7. "I know most of the big stuff, I guess?" Jacob hazarded, lowering his voice after glancing around to make sure nobody was too near. "That Cody was possessed by something that's haunted Shelly for ages, that he killed Charlie and wanted to kill you guys because of your Shine. That he, and whatever was in him, is dead. That you all have powers - but Autumn was pretty close-mouthed about everyones gifts except her own: I guess she felt it wasn't her place to tell other people's business, which I totally get. Jase told me some of what he could do in the same sit-down. I know there's more than she's had a chance to tell me - stuff about Marias Medical Center, and why Jason got shot, and that you guys have got some powerful enemies and more weird stuff going on." "Additionally, Tawny hinted to me she had some powers too, last night. And that's about it. "Jacob shrugged, plainly not liking the depths of his own ignorance. "I'm not totally clueless, but I'm a long ways from being on the inside of what's going on."
  8. Kat She didn't really want to be here. Okay, that wasn't completely fair. She felt she should be here, so there was an element of her own choice in the matter of her being present. But she was keeping her telepathic gift tightly buttoned up right now, because the last thing the town of Shelly needed to see was the new girl, who'd barely known Charlie, breaking down and spazzing out at the reception for his funeral-goers. And it wasn't easy, either. She'd gotten used to randomly sampling the emotional landscape around her, to feeling the bright lights of people's minds, to being plugged in to the world in a way that had been impossible before coming to Shelly, before her gift had awakened. But the emotional landscape right now was largely mournful, with sharp jagged edges of grief that cut and flayed at her self-control if she wandered too close to some of those present. Additionally, there were the other emotional landmines, like the various Fellowship parents, worrying and fretting, even her own dad. And the hostility between the woman she understood to be Charlie's mom and his dad. A bitterness infecting the members of the group, souring the overall mental dynamic. The Jauntsen twins shared dark mood, Sean's pensive aura... it was a mess for a telepath. So she was doing the only sane thing right now - mentally stuffing her fingers in her ears and re-focusing on the world through her normal senses. Time to find someone to talk to, before she got unfocused again and ended up sitting in a corner crying as the world's woes poured into the radio receiver of her brain. Ah, there. Sean, talking to some kid she vaguely recalled... Garfield? Gary? Gareth? The one who'd sat with Marissa in study hall the day before. Regardless, it was a conversation involving at least one person she knew in this crowd of strangers. "Hey guys." She didn't have to force the smile she gave Sean as she butted into the conversation. It was somewhat of a relief to latch onto a familiar friendly face. She gave Gareth a smile and a nod as well. "Hi. I'm Kat." "Garret." he smiled back. "I've seen you around. Nice to meet you." "Same." Kat rocked a little on her toes and heels, looking from one guy to the other, waiting for them to carry on talking. Cade He'd been chatting a little with some of the other guests, mostly people he knew from mowing lawns on the weekends, when his mom found him. Miyako was looking a little frazzled, though admittedly only to someone who knew her well. She apologised to the adults he'd been speaking to as she appropriated her son, tugging him aside with a hand on his arm. "Do you know where Haruka is?" she asked, glancing around in the crowd, lips thinning a little. "I'm due on shift at the hospital in less than an hour, and I wanted to get her dropped off at Jolene's parents." Being as the two girls were thick as thieves, Jolene's mom was the go-to babysitter when Miyako had a shift to cover and Ian was, as usual, busy being sheriff. Of course, Cade was more than happy to help out in this too, but Miyako had been reasonably firm that a sixteen year old boy not have to always be responsible for that task. "I saw her talking to Jolene, actually." Cade recalled after a moment, eyes narrowed in thought. "In the large lounge area to the left of the front door?" "She's not there now." Miyako shook her head. "Be a hero and help me find her, would you? The two of them are likely exploring this place. I'll check the downstairs - could you check upstairs?" Cade's mom leaned a little closer. "I just hope to heaven that she remembers she's not supposed to gossip about all the strangeness with her friend." Miyako muttered. "Haruka's a kid, but she's not dumb, mom." Cade tried to be reassuring, though admittedly it was hard. Sure, Haruka wasn't dumb, but you didn't have to be dumb to have poor judgement, or to be an excited eleven year old with a huge cool secret you desperately wanted to share. His kid sister was about as sensible as a well-adjusted eleven year old could get, a thought which didn't overly reassure him when he thought about some of the silly shit he'd done when eleven. Haruka was smarter than he was, though. Right? It'd be fine. "I'll go find her." Lucius Cole's mansion really was over the top, he mused to himself as he loped up the stairs and started checking the rooms at the top. An upstairs reading room / library, glass-doored bookshelves filled with what looked like hard-bound collections of literature which he wondered somewhat cynically if Lucius had ever read more than a couple of. A locked door, probably a study or private area. And bedrooms. So many bedrooms. Seriously, for a divorced man with a mistress and only one child, why the heck had Lucius felt the need to build this place? He stopped for a moment as he heard voices behind one partly-open door. Thinking it might be the two girls, he paused and listened, hoping that he'd been right and Haruka wasn't blabbing everything. "...this isn't a matter of what we want, Misti." a male voice Cade recognised as his father rumbled quietly. "It's a matter of what's practically possible. Miyako suspects, and so does Cade." "Oh? I thought you'd put those suspicions to bed." The twin's mother sounded a little drunk, judging by the tone of her voice and the faint throaty chuckle that accompanied her words. "Speaking of beds..." there was a faint squeak of a mattress. "Lucius has some very comfortable ones." "Christ, not here." His dad replied with hushed urgency. "Are you out of your mind?" "Relax." Misti drawled the word out. "I'm teasing you. You're so tense, sheriff." Her tone became suggestive. "You know, I know some great ways to get rid of tension." "This isn't smart, Misti. I thought we were going to be smart about this." She made an exasperated noise. "You haven't had the week I've had, Ian. My kids are in open revolt. Carl isn't backing me up - he says to let things calm down. to loosen my grip. I need a good, hard, dirty, ball-slapping fucking from a real man right now. Come on... I'll let you handcuff me again." Marissa He studied her for a moment, then shrugged. "Alright. If you say you want to make peace and talk, we can talk." he allowed. "I don't want to put Autumn in the middle like some kind of tug of war, and you two do seem to be getting along... so." "So." Marissa agreed, smiling as she nodded, rewarded with a slight smile in turn from the tall warden's son. "So." He glanced around, then looked back at her. "Small talk, or do we skip straight to 'what the hell is going on in the world lately?'" "Small talk for now." Marissa decided after a moment's affected pause to think. "I'm lousy at that." Jacob made a sour expression. "Most boys are." She smiled at him, her dark eyes on his face. "It's a good skill to have, though. Just pick something that's on your mind and go with it." "Right." he gestured with his glass of soda. "Is this place for real, or what?" he said, indicating the mansion around them. "It's sort of Las Vegas hotel meets the Kardashians." "Uncomfortable with luxury?" she asked with a grin, taking a slow sip of her champagne. Jacob considered that. "I guess. It just seems a bit phony to me." he said after a moment's thought. "Like, off somehow. Out of place. Or..." he went on, glancing around more thoughtfully. "Maybe it's just that I feel out of place here. I dunno."
  9. Devin "You're right that we don't fear loss. But it's not as simple as saying that means we cannot love. When we do love, we love utterly, and fearlessly. We kill and die for those we love without hesitation, on instinct." Aelwen replied softly. "We also accept that nothing is permanent, that the beauty of the rose lies in the fact that it will one day be gone. Even the mountains, even the sunset, even the dance of the stars will not last forever. One day, everything will end." Her lips quirked in a small smile. "Optimally, a day very far in the future." She gave a small sigh and rested her head on his shoulder. "So it is not that we do not care for those close to us, or do not feel rage at those that would harm or take them from us. We accept that we cannot control everything, that one day we will know the pain of loss." She gave his arm a slight squeeze. "My mother's mother told me that pain is the price of life and love, that all have to pay it, and so long as the joy outweighs the pain it is a worthwhile price to pay." "And yes, I will be glad to help with Site B. Even if they did not have my equipment, even if the opening to the Void was not there, it would be an honor to fight alongside Radiants against their enemies." She gave him a small, teasing glance. "Even young, untrained, fractious and quarreling Radiants. Major Taggart has shown me some of your warriors weapons - they are effective, and I have been practicing with them." She slowly straightened up from leaning on him. "You all faced a dark entity and won, a dark entity that was once one of the gods of my people. Do not underestimate your Pride, Devin. You are all formidable, with powers or without." Standing, she bent down and kissed his cheek again, the scent of her hair lingering as she straightened up once more and stepped away. "And now I am going to go and sample some more of the food and drink here." she announced, raising her arms over her head and stretching in a distractingly feline fashion before eying him. "If you are done with your solitude, I would welcome your company. If not I will see you later, for certain."
  10. She slowly blinked, her prismatic eyes like grey jewels as they gazed into his. "Aelwen." she said softly, almost breathing it, adding "That is my name: Aelwen, of the Blaith, out of Rhoswen by Indra." She shifted slightly, lightly shrugging a shoulder. "Ellie is a convenient shortening that the guards at the place you call Site B labelled on me. I do not mind it, but I wanted you to know my name." "It's pretty." Devin acknowledged. "The other part is like your surname? Family and stuff?" "Yes." Ellie - or Aelwen - curved her lips fractionally in a smile. "Blaith-" she pronounced it 'bl-eye-the', curiously "-is my clan. Rhoswen is my mother, Indra is my father." She leaned in and kissed his cheek, being tall enough she didn't need to lean up much to do so. "I am glad you like my eyes, but not so glad that you are angry and in pain, Devin. I would help you, if you would not consider it an insult?" "Help me?" Lost as he was contemplating her shining eyes and enviably clear complexion (Though she had a small scar running just under the line of her jaw, he noted from this close vantage. Like someone had tried to cut her there.) Devin couldn't help but wonder what she had in mind. For all she was hot and seemingly totally into him, she was also an alien from a warrior culture who might think tracking down and murdering people for upsetting her bae was romantic. "Yes." she replied. "Human reactions are confusing to me. I do not know context for people's actions and words here. I might have insight into Jason's actions, but I do not know why this Tawny 'went off on you', or why she thinks you are immature and selfish for telling her your heart. You are young, yes. And inexperienced, as all young people are, myself included. Human or Teulu does not matter - youth is youth. Maybe she was also being immature? Regardless, I want to help, however I can do so." Autumn Her dad had gone to talk to a few of the other guests. Lucius was well connected with the local realty business scene and, as the beer and champagne flowed, some of the quiet conversations were naturally turning to other topics once the initial expressions of sorrow were out of the way. Autumn and Dana, neither terribly interested in such things, had drifted away from the business chatter and circulating, occasionally exchanging words with those they knew in the rarified crowd when Autumn spotted Gar Bannon by himself near one of the buffet tables, soberly dressed in black and with a Coke in one hand. A shared look with her mom saw both Keane women start moving through the throng, Autumn catching Gar's eye and smiling as he raised a hand in greeting. "Hi." he said as they came close enough, his hazel eyes somber despite the genuine smile as Autumn gave him a hug. "How're you both holding up?" "Better than Hannah, I'm wagering." Dana murmured, casting a sympathetic glance towards Charlie's mom before looking back at Gar. "How about you?" "Feeling lucky." he said simply, a flicker of sad guilt at the admission crossing his expressive features. Dana nodded, her own expression reflecting a similar feeling. "Jase is about somewhere." He shrugged, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm trying not to cling to him like a limpet, but I feel like I'm on edge whenever he's out of my sight these last couple days." The older Bannon sighed. "You know I actually looked in on him while he was sleeping last night? Like he was a baby again or something. I just wanted to check he was... you know, okay?" "He's always going to be your baby." Dana told Gar softly, smiling warmly at him. Her smile turned a little mischievous. "Even is he is, well, Jason." She placed an arm around her daughter's shoulders for a quick squeeze. "Just like I'm always going to worry about Autumn."
  11. Devin "Yes." she answered simply, and instantly. "We will need more than just us, though." She drew her other long leg up onto the bench, wriggling a little to get comfortable and slipping an arm through Devin's as she leaned lightly against him. "And I think you know that, too." Devin grunted non-committedly, wondering what she wore for perfume. Something light - maybe it was just the shampoo Annette had provided her or something. "Jason is Teulu. He likely finds humans as difficult as they find him, for all his experience with them - his mother did him a disservice leaving him with no knowledge, no guidance and expecting him to somehow cope." Ellie remarked quietly. "But he is not my main concern at this time. You are." "We do feel emotional pain, Devin. It doesn't manifest the same way, and doesn't have the same causes, but we feel it. Loss of a loved one can cause us grief, abandonment by our Pride can cause us isolation, betrayal causes anger. Romantic rejection does not bother us overmuch, unless it's from-" she hesitated. "A special someone. Is it the girl you spoke to at the burial?" "Tawny, yeah." Devin said the name almost bitterly. "Were you lovers before? Betrothed?" "Well, no. Friends. Best friends, like, since I moved to this craphole." "And she was taken by the dark one, and you went and saved her." Ellie nodded approvingly. "She was of your Pride - you did the right thing. Your friend is alive because of you." Her head tilted slightly. "I am curious: do you see her as less of a friend - less worthy of your friendship - because she does not return your romantic feelings?" Cassandra "Time's up." To her credit, Leila had at least waited until Cassandra had made it to the reception, gotten a drink of sparkling apple juice, and was considering the catered buffet before pouncing. Cassie half-turned, seeing her editor and arch-frenemy standing next to her, likewise considering the food on display but with one eye on the blonde reporter. "Today's the day, Allen. I want my answers." Her tone softened barely perceptibly. "I know Charlie was one of your in-club of whatever-the-fuck. Devin LaDouche standing up and speaking at his funeral announced that loud and clear. But here's the thing: I'm the editor, you're a reporter sitting on a humungo humdinger of a story." She took a sip of her Coke. "So let's talk."
  12. Devin "Perhaps. Perhaps not." Ellie seated herself next to Devin, half-turning to face the curt youth, her posture a mixture of coiled poise and relaxation as she bent one knee up on the bench, resting her hands atop that and her chin on her hands, regarding him soberly up close. "Your people are in some ways very confusing: twisting and turning, biting at yourselves as much as your foes, saying things you may or may not mean depending on moods which change hour to hour, it seems - and regretting and punishing yourselves for things that are outside your control. That is," she went on calmly "when not blaming others for your own failings." "Yeah, I get it. Rub it in. Your people's way is better." Devin rolled his eyes, shooting Ellie a glare. Unruffled, she met his gaze, her manner still collected. "I did not say that, nor was that my hidden intent. I said your kind are confusing - it was not a judgement of merit or worth." Her gaze was faintly luminous, the grey catching hints of the prismatic refraction of the sunlight from outside the glass walls. "As for understanding... I do not have your shades or nuance of feeling, Devin Jauntsen. But the feelings I have burn deep, and I comprehend pain when I see it." There was no pity or sympathy in her expression or tone, but there was... concern? A note of warmth, perhaps. And curiousity, a drive to understand, all glimmering in the eyes that studied his face. She reached over and placed a hand on his. "Your pain matters to me. I want to help if I can." "Why?" he found himself saying for the second time in five minutes. She was hard to look away from, he had to give her that. There was something entirely artless about her beauty, perhaps something that came from utter self-possession, or the deliberate grace with which she moved and spoke. It was hard to put his finger on. "It's a Teulu thing." she answered with a faint crinkling of the corners of her eyes and the merest hint of a smile as she bantered his own deflection back at him, her hand slipping from where it covered his and returning to her own knee as she regarded him. "Hard to explain to humans."
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