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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 18

Written by mechjok :: [Wednesday, 01 July 2020 03:47] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 02 July 2020 22:00]

Last of the Fallen

Cas clambered aboard, armed with a set of blacks, a warlance, and a PBC. His armor was a flat gray, as opposed to the silver of a Knight, but out of the labs, he walked and looked like a Knight. Kellehendra studied him openly as he finished pre-flight.

"I didn't know Techs were trained in combat."

Cas shrugged. "Not generally. But when you're roommates with one of the Horsemen, you get a crash course in lots of things. Alec taught me to fight a long time ago, I've kept my hand in when I could. I'm nothing spectacular, mostly because I lack the same types of mental and physical gifts, but I get by."

Arwyn finished storing her bag, plopped down next to Kel. "He's too modest. Cas has seen a lot of combat, even been awarded the Sect of Valor. He was trained by both Alec and Torik in hand-to-hand combat."

"None of which we need to advertise, youngster," he replied, climbing up into the cockpit. "Once Dr. Brooks is aboard, feed me the co-ordinates."

Kel leaned closer to Arwyn. "He's just like the rest of them- so modest. Like they think they'll get too full of themselves by telling the truth. They're very strange."

Arwyn nodded wisely. "Weird, isn't it?"

Julia came out of the Citadel, a bag on her shoulder. Before she could make it to the ramp, a figure dropped from the air, landed a few feet away from her. Arwyn groaned. "Great. C'mon, we better go break this up."

Julia caught the faint rustle of air in the pre-dawn twilight, kept her eyes forward. "Go away. I'm busy."

Kara stepped in front of her. "No. I've been staying away, out of respect…"

"He's still dead. Keep staying away."

Kara blew out a breath. "I owe him my life- I owe him my daughter's life."

Julia speared her with a glare. "Then you're lucky he was there; I would have let you die."

Kara tried to match her glare, failed, dropped her eyes. "I understand how you must feel…"

"No, you don't," Julia snarled. "You don't know anything about me. You never will. You'll never understand what I'm feeling right now. You have everything in your life. I know, because he sacrificed himself to make sure."

She stopped, pulled herself together. "Why he did it I'll never understand. Because you are absolutely hopeless."

She stepped around her, walked up the ramp of the Condor. Cas didn't hesitate, firing the thrusters, lifting the craft into the skies.

Arwyn watched Julia for a while before she spoke. "That was harsh, wasn't it?"

"Not harsh enough. She's alive, her daughter, her friend, all of them. Alec's dead. In my mind, that's nowhere near a fair trade."

Kel laid a hand on her arm. "Hating her isn't going to bring him back."

Julia looked back, biting her lip.

"He wouldn't want you to hate anyone, least of all because of him," she rubbed Julia's arm gently. "He did what he thought he had to- if it had been us, he would have done the same thing."

Arwyn nodded. "We're going to bring him home, Julia. Please, don't let him see you like this."

Grover's Mill, Minnesota, November 17, 2001:

He'd actually made it to bed last night. That was so unusual, it occasioned comment.

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, got up, checked himself in the mirror. Still looking a little rundown; it was a good thing he had an appointment with Dr. Brooks for a checkup today.

He climbed in the shower, got clean, dressed before thinking about breakfast. He settled for cereal and some toast; his stomach was bothering him. Probably too much beer the night before; he had to keep reminding himself that he wasn't twenty-one anymore.

He was dropping the bowl in the sink when his friend popped out of the bushes. Alec furrowed his brow, on impulse grabbed a steak from the fridge, went out on the back porch.

His friend was just lolling in the yard. He raised his head when Alec opened the door, opened his jaws wide in a placid yawn. Alec stopped at the foot of the stairs, sat down, watched the wolf watch him.

After a minute, the creature rose slowly, padded closer, sat back down a safe distance from Alec. Alec unwrapped the meat, tossed it to the wolf, who caught it in his jaws, then set it down, continued to watch Alec.

"What?" he asked, holding his hands out. "Don't you like free beef?"

The wolf just sat there, watching him. He cocked his head slightly, got halfway up, slowly approached Alec. When he got to three feet, he began to sniff the air intently. Alec didn't flinch, even when the critter came right up to him, put his paws on Alec's legs, stood up on his rear legs to peer in his face.

The wolf's eyes were a clear gray, contained knowledge. He made a slight noise, something that might have been a questioning yip, then settled down, turned around, walked away, picking up the steak on the way past.

Alec watched him go. He wasn't afraid at all, just puzzled. Like that was something normal. After a minute, he got up, decided this would be one story he didn't share with Peter, and made a mental note for Dr. Brooks to order a CAT scan.

Young Wind brought the steak to his cubs, dropping it at their feet. They attacked it heartily, Moonspool nuzzling her mate.

Is it he?

Young Wind tossed his head. BlightSlayer is there. It is him, but it also is not. He could not hear my voice, but his presence is powerful.

Has he been Corrupted?Fear tinged her voice; Young Wind curled his neck around hers, nipped her ear lightly.

Corrupt BlightSlayer? Absurd, he turned back towards the house, a quarter mile distant. Lost, perhaps. Confused. But not Corrupted. We must guard him, until he remembers. And alert the others.

Alpha Point, Central Wyoming, November 17, 2001:

Jian crouched down, testing the debris with his fingers. It crumbled up, drifted away on the slight breeze that stirred the area.

"This place was all but deserted," Connor muttered, scanning the treelines a mile and a half away. "So where the hell are they?"

Willem Schauble paused, staring at the ruins. "They wanted us to see this. So we would think they were here."

"Looks like," Jian agreed. "We been able to verify anything out of Denver yet?"

Willem shook his head. "We're treating everything for the last year as suspect. But they are somewhere in the continental United States, I know that. We registered three landings at the Citadel."

Jian glanced around. "This is a feint. Everybody, back to the ships. They might have traps."

The survey team contracted, withdrew, the tactical element keeping weapons trained on the ruins until the Gryphons were being loaded. Jian paused on a ramp, looking the other groups over. "Where is Lord Somack?"

Connor hopped from the ramp, running among the ships. Willem keyed up his tactical display, muttered under his breath. "There. Two klicks to the southwest. Isamu's with him."

Jian leapt down, drawing his warlance. "Connor! Gaheris! Monty! Let's go!"

The Knights ran after him. They skirted the ruins, heading for Somack's blinking icon, Willem herding everyone else up the ramps into the Gryphons.

Somack opened his mind, delving the Green. He scanned for thoughts, felt a number of minds chitter back.

A pack of wolves drifted from the trees. Somack squatted, held his hand out to the alpha. He sniffed eagerly, then nuzzled the Cleric's palm. Welcome to the Green, Lord of the Stars.

Greetings, Forest Brother.

You destroyed the Blight, as you promised, White Ears said smugly. Efficiently, as well. The Brotherhood stays true.

Somack smiled gently. It came at some cost.

White Ears studied the Kalrist, then snorted. What cost? BlightSlayer is not dead.

What?

Your… Archon? the wolf tossed his head at the unfamiliar title. He is not dead. If he were, we would know. In fact, one of us has seen him recently. Many days towards the rising sun.

Somack's heart leapt into his throat. Which wolf?

Young… Wind, White Ears replied, turning away. He is very distant. But I will prepare him for your arrival. He will await you, take you to BlightSlayer. Hunt Well, Star Lord.

White Ears trotted away. Somack got up, turned, started back towards the Gryphons as fast as he could move. Isamu moved along behind him, held out a steadying hand.

Before they got too far, Jian ran up, trailed by three other Knights. Somack didn't even slow down, heading back to the ships. Jian galloped alongside. "Master? What is it?"

"The wolves," his voice was once again Somack's, the voice of command and certainty. "They told me they have seen Alec. Alive, and unharmed. To the east."

Jian stopped for a second, ran to catch up. "The wolves, Master?"

Somack nodded. "We are going east, Jian. Quickly."

"East," he began, "east is pretty big, Master."

"Then we need to get started."

"Master…"

Somack stopped, his helmet rippling off his head. "Are you prepared to take the Shal'kyrie? Are you ready to lead us to victory?"

Jian halted. "No, Master."

"Then the one who is is to the east," Somack began to run again. "and we are going to go find him. Now."

He quickened his stride. The Knights had no choice but to follow.

Grover's Mill, Minnesota:

He blinked his eyes rapidly once Dr. Brooks dropped the pen light. The physician turned away, making a notation on Alec's chart. "You know, I have never seen a twenty-seven-year-old man in better physical condition, Alec. How many miles you running these days?"

"I average around four," he slipped his shirt back on. "Missed it this morning, though. Did forty minutes on the bike instead."

"Son, talking to you makes me tired," Tony Brooks chuckled, flipped the chart back. "Chem panel's normal, cholesterol is virtually non-existent, everything seems to check out… taking vitamins?"

"Yeah."

Brooks glanced over. "Not taking any of that Creatine crap, are you?"

"No, sir."

Brooks dropped the chart. "Had a couple of those football players in here, drinking those protein supplements. Looking to get a build like you have… you sure you're a writer? The last guy I met who was as obsessively fit as you are was a pro basketball player."

Alec shrugged. "We live a long time in my family. My brother's built like me too; my dad was even bigger. Never got sick, right up until he died."

"Good genetics," Tony murmured. "Oh, by the way, my younger daughter called me a couple of days ago. She's going to come for a visit; you should meet up with her. I think you two might hit it off."

"Julia?" Alec slipped off the exam table. "Huh. I thought you said she was working in Europe, for those French guys, who, L'Institute Thoth? Why's she in the States?"

"She wasn't clear about that. She just said she wanted to come for a visit."

Alec stuck his feet in his shoes. "Sure, Doc. Hey, when she calls back to set a date, let me know, we'll throw a little party at the Caber. Welcome her back in style."

Tony frowned at that. "Julia's a little… different from the last time she was here."

"I was in New York the last time she visited, Doc," Alec grinned. "I've seen the pictures of her from college, though. She's quite a looker. If she's anything like you, she's probably as smart as a whip, too."

"You saw the pictures? When?"

"Last time Anne-Marie had me over for coffee. She pulled out the albums; you're a lucky guy, to have two such lovely daughters. We done?"

Tony studied the boy for a minute, then nodded. "Yeah. We're done. Just, ah, take it a little easier on the exercise, okay? And when Julia calls, I'll let you know."

"Thanks, Doc, see ya at the game."

Alec waved to Gina, Tony's receptionist, closed his coat against the November chill. He checked his watch; Peter, Will Bailey, and Sam Nelson were probably all at the Caber having lunch. If he hurried, he could catch them.

Before Tony Brooks could make his way to his next patient, the phone in the stand-up desk trilled. He grabbed it. "Dr. Brooks."

"Daddy? It's Julia."

"Well, hey, pumpkin! How are you?" his smile lit up the office.

"I'm fine, Daddy. Uhm, I know this is kind of short notice, but is it okay if I come to visit today?"

"Of course! Of course it is!" he snatched his glasses off. "As a matter of fact, one of my patients was just asking about you. You might have heard of him- Alec Collins. Oh, excuse me, you'd probably know him better as Tom Sheridan."

He heard her choke softly. "The writer, Daddy?"

"Yeah, pumpkin, he lives here in Grover's Mill. Has for about six years."

"Oh My God…"

Tony held the phone a bit tighter. "Julia, are you all right?"

"Yeah, Daddy, I'm fine. Look, I'll be there in a couple of hours. I'll see you then, okay?"

"Sure, honey. I'll call Mom, have her make your room up."

"Thanks. Oh, Daddy… I'm bringing a couple of friends…"

"Plenty of room, sweetie. Plenty of room," he smiled fondly. "I'll see you soon."

 

Julia flipped the cellcomm closed. "I don't believe this. He's there. He just talked to my father. But my dad says he's been living in Grover's Mill for six years."

Arwyn frowned. "Six years ago Alec moved into the apartment we were in in San Francisco. And then all the stuff- Jian, the Yucatan, all over Europe."

"An entire city having a mass hallucination?" Kel looked confused. "Is such a thing possible? I certainly cannot create a memory matrix capable of altering reality on that scale, even for a single person."

"I don't know," Julia curled her legs up under her. "But something's going on. If it is him, why is he going to a doctor? Regularly? My dad doesn't make casual acquaintances; he makes friends. He wouldn't have mentioned Alec if he didn't know him fairly well."

Arwyn stood. "We're gonna find out. And we're going to bring him home."

"What if…" Kel swallowed. "What if he doesn't want to come back? I can't do it, but the Archon can. Easily."

"It can't be that. How did he get out of the Citadel?" Julia tossed her head. "He was dead, remember? He might be able to manipulate a city full of normal people, but all of us? The Knights? Somack? No way.

"No, something very dangerous is going on in Grover's Mill. And we're going to find out what."

Grover's Mill, Minnesota:

The Caber was the best lunch in town, even better than Lucy's. Mick Dougherty, the pub's owner, thought anything less than a half-pound of meat slapped on a fresh-baked roll a sin against God Himself, and treated his patrons the same way. He started making his world-famous Irish stew fresh every morning at six, started a second batch at one for dinner, and to everyone's best knowledge had never stored a portion in his entire life.

Alec wormed his way through the normal crowd, warm scents of stew, fresh Shepherd's bread, flaming hamburger, sizzling fries filling his nose. Peter stood up, waved from their normal booth, a Coke already beading up at his place.

"How'd you know?" he struggled out of his coat, hung it on the brass rack at the corner of the booth.

Will Bailey grinned. "Doc called a couple of minutes ago. He told Sam you were headed over. Figured we'd get you started."

Genessa Yates hustled up before he could even take a sip. "Stew or burger?" she said jauntily.

Alec grinned. "Am I that predictable? Stew, half a loaf of Shepherd's Bread, and a side of smothered fries."

She winked at him, made her way off. Sam Nelson took a bite of his burger, set the monstrosity back on his plate. "You eat like I did in college, and I've never seen you gain a pound. You make me sick."

"Sorry, Sammy," Alec chuckled. "I'm hungry. I only had cereal for breakfast; had to go see Doc… who once again asked me why I bother to come see him."

"What? Those headaches still?" Peter sipped his club soda. The Caber was absolutely dry until two o'clock; in a small town, nobody took chances. Besides, there were only a handful of places to eat lunch- getting liquored up would narrow it down. "Maybe you aren't drinking enough coffee."

"Two cups a day is enough for anyone, thank you," Alec replied, taking a drink from his Coke. "I usually fit in one or two of these too. 'Sides, a chem panel would tell me if I was a caffeine dependent."

Will plucked a fry from his plate. "Have your glasses checked?"

"Yeah."

Sam nudged his arm. "Start writing longhand for a while, pay someone to transcribe it. See if that helps."

Alec sighed. "I use a dictation program, wise guy. It isn't the computer screen."

Will reached over, slapped the side of his head. "Hey!"

"That help?" he asked, grinning broadly. His cohorts chortled into their sodas.

"Yeah, thanks," Alec said slowly. "Remind me about that tomorrow night."

Everybody laughed. Genessa slipped his lunch in front of him. "Hey, you coming to the game?"

She shook her head. "Gotta work."

"What?" he stood up in the booth. "Hey, Mick!! Why're you open tomorrow night?"

Mick glanced up from the grill. "It's Friday night! Why the hell'ya think, you daft monkey?" he hollered back, his brogue as thick as his burgers.

"But the Edgemont game's tomorrow night!" Alec shouted. "How're the Wildcats gonna win when their biggest, and I mean that literally, fan isn't there?"

Mick turned from the pile of meat on the grill, smiled. He was a huge man, six-eight, two-eighty, all muscle, the part-time wrestling coach. "Now look here, laddie-buck, some of us have bills t'pay, you read me?"

"I'll cover you!"

"Pardon?" the pub went dead quiet. Alec grinned, walked his way over to the bar.

"I said, I'll cover you. One Friday night's receipts, in cash, if you close the place down to come to the game. A good Friday night."

Mick studied his friend for a long minute. "That's a lot of dough, mister."

"I got it to spend. Take it or leave it."

Mick shook his head. "Take it."

"Done!" Alec stuck out his hand. Mick shook it, then went back to wash his hands. Peals of laughter sounded around the pub.

"Hey, Alec!" someone called from a far corner. "I need a research grant!"

He smiled that way. "Only thing you research, Corey, is female anatomy. I give you the bucks to surf the 'Net all day long, your mother'll tan my hide!"

The laughter went up a notch. Alec flopped back down at his table. "So, 'Nessa, like I say, you coming to the game tomorrow night?"

She smiled her amazing smile at him. "Yep."

"Good. We'll see ya there. You need a ride?"

She walked off, shaking her head. "I'll call you."

Peter chortled. "My God, we need to start leashing you."

Alec let that slide, attacking his stew. He barely got two spoonfuls into his mouth before Tony Brooks blew in to the Caber. Sam waved him over, Peter reaching to the table across from them to snag a chair. "Gentlemen. Good afternoon."

"Hey, Doc, join us for lunch?" Peter asked. Will raised his hand at Genessa, who darted to the bar for a Coke for Tony.

"Thank you," he murmured, surveying the other men's lunch. "I ought to order all of you to the hospital to get your stomachs pumped. The stew is fine, but my cholesterol is going up just sniffing these burgers."

Alec chewed happily, slid his plate of smothered fries in front of Tony. "Fries, Doc?"

He snickered. "Thank you. Nice to see the speal still works on somebody."

Tony delicately nibbled on a fry, sighed. "I trust some discretion will be observed concerning this, gentlemen?"

Peter laughed. "Your cholesterol is high, huh, Doc?"

"Anne-Marie hears about me eating this," he paused for a satisfied sigh, "and it isn't going to matter much. She'll kill me before that does."

He took a drink of his soda, leaned his arm on the table. "Alec, my daughter called right after you left. She's coming into town tonight, and I think she really wants to meet you."

"Caroline's coming home?" Sam asked.

"No, Julia," Tony nodded towards Alec. "I was thinking, how about you come over for dinner tonight? I know Anne-Marie would love to have you."

"Sure, Doc."

Sam checked his watch. "Hey, we gotta get going. We gotta be in Evansville in an hour and a half."

The other three men rose, Peter shrugging into his coat as well. "I told Hans and Franz I'd help them with this system installation at Cooper Studios. We'll catch you guys later."

Genessa came back with the check; Alec snatched it up. "Have fun, guys."

They left, shaking their heads. Tony slid in opposite Alec.

"So what's the deal, Doc?" he said idly, stirring his stew around. "You're awfully anxious for me to meet Julia. What's wrong with her?"

"Nothing," he said, a touch defensively. Alec quirked an eyebrow. Tony folded his hands on the table. "She's had a rough time of things, Alec. She wasn't the most popular girl, or the best looking, but she was always the smartest…"

"More to life than being popular, Doc," Alec spooned up a bite. "I wasn't the life of the party in school either. Being pretty, well, that's a matter of perspective."

Tony smiled slightly. "And what do you think about that?"

"I've seen pictures of Julia from college; she's very pretty," he grinned back. "Even if she wasn't, I'm no great shakes there either. If she's your daughter, probably got a lot to offer. Folks'd do well to remember that."

He ate a couple more bites before going on. "So long as Anne-Marie doesn't try to fit me with a tux before dinner's over, I imagine we'll get along fine."

The door blew open, two strangers ducking inside. The man wore a scowl, one he seemed to wear comfortably. The woman with him sported a black eye, which did virtually nothing to mar her beauty. Clear blue eyes scanned the pub quickly, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, a thick leather coat not doing much to hide a nice figure.

Alec jerked his head at the two. "Hey, Doc, that look to you what it does to me?"

Tony turned slightly. "If you're thinking abuse, then yes."

The man growled something at his companion while they sat down a few tables away; the lunch crowd had thinned a bit. Genessa turned away from the table with an odd expression on her face; before she made it to the bar, the man slapped his hand down on the table, snarled something that carried through the pub, the woman with him jumping.

Alec got up, walked over. "Hey, folks, how's it going?"

"Beat it, hayseed," the man muttered.

"Hayseed?" Alec laughed. "Not quite. Look, it isn't any of my business, but how about you hold it down, okay?"

The man turned his scowl on Alec. "You looking for trouble, Mayberry?"

Alec watched the woman flinch from his tone. "Nope. But if you're looking to start some, how about picking a partner a little closer to your weight class?"

The man got to his feet. "What's your problem, farm boy?"

"Right now, mister, you are," Alec replied quietly. "I don't know where you all are from, but around here, we don't take kindly to men that raise their hands against women. So, if you're wanting a punching bag, take your best shot. But I punch back."

"Farm boy, you are buying yourself a world of trouble…"

Mick came around the bar, stood next to Alec. "No, fella, you are. See, we're a friendly town, here in Grover's Mill, but you're talking to one of our favorite sons. Now, when one of our favorite sons gets himself in a scrape, folks tend to want to hop in, help him out. There's thirty-five, forty guys in here right now; you throw that punch you're thinking of throwing, and those forty guys are going to pile on you until there's nothing left to pile on. And when the sheriff shows up to haul your carcass off, every one of those forty guys, and the forty or so women in this pub, are going to tell him you started it. So, save yourself a lot of pain, turn around, and take yourself out of here. Before you do something you are really, really going to regret."

The man sneered at Mick, scooped his coat up. "Yeah, I lost my appetite anyway. Alyssa, let's go."

Alec put his hand very gently on her shoulder. "Ma'am, you don't want to go, he won't take you."

She tensed under his hand; he almost pulled it away, never taking his eyes from the man. "Go away, Cain," she said softly. "I… I don't want to see you ever again."

He turned his sneer on her. "Whatever, bitch."

Alec nailed him right across the jaw, spilling him over an empty table. Mark Lynn and Roger Upton bounded out of their seats, grabbed Alec and held him back; Mick grabbed Cain up by the arm.

"Okay, mister, I'm done being friendly," he growled, dragging him to the door. "Get on out of here, don't come back. You do, next time nobody's gonna hold him back."

He shoved the man out the door, stood there until the squeal of tires echoed from the lot. He closed the door gently. "Doc, come take a look."

Alec straightened his shirt, the two men giving him a clap on the shoulder. Doc squatted down next to the woman, spoke to her gently. Alec stepped around him, heading back to his table. "Add the table to the bill, Mick."

He was already back behind the bar. "That one's on me, boyo. Doc, what you need from me?"

"Ice, Mick, thank you," he stood, offered his hand to the young woman. "Come along, young lady, let's go over to my office, check you out."

She nodded slowly, took the offered ice pack, managed to flash Alec a small smile before she left. Genessa clucked as she came over.

"You and pretty girls," she said. "Recipe for disaster. Watch yourself with this one, she looks especially needy."

He grinned up at her. "Ah, but I only have eyes for you, dear lady."

"You keep that up, buster, and one of these days," she leaned down, putting her face close to his, "one of these days, I'm gonna call your bluff."

He kept his gaze steady. "I never bluff. I just stack the deck. Speaking of stacked…"

She swatted his arm, giggled. "My God, you are horrible!"

Cain Grailmore spun his Trooper to a stop ten miles out of town, glanced back at Grover's Mill. It had been Archangel, but it hadn't. He hadn't recognized Cain, but he'd had the same mental signature, sure as hell had the same mile-wide streak of chivalry running down his spine.

He wasn't sure what was going on, but he was sure he'd done his part. The rest was up to Alyssa; seducing Somack's favorite pet would be a lot better than just killing him.

He wheeled back on to the highway, headed for Princeton and his Raptor.

Alyssa sat quietly, holding the ice pack next to her eye. She had enough gold on her person to make her nothing more than a human woman, artfully disguised in small, flesh-colored patches on her skin. That maniac Grailmore had taken advantage of her weakness, getting pleasure from slapping a Prime around; she'd been glad when Collins had smashed him in the jaw, was sorry that the two men had stopped him from doing more.

But that was counterproductive. They needed to keep Collins in the state he was in- pushing him to fight might be the catalyst to make him go back to being Archangel. And if that happened, the first person to die would be Al'isa He'l'nevar, Prime of the Starkillers Clan, soldier of the Kaldec. And her death would be excruciatingly painful.

No, this was something that required subtlety. And so, the Empress had selected a Prime who had learned the most bitter of lessons- the Arions were nowhere near the top of the galactic food chain. A Prime who had not only learned it, but truly understood it.

Seducing Collins would make him the Empress's tool, without so much as raising a single fist. And would be enjoyable- Alyssa had grown fond of human pets, and their desire to give her pleasure, generally to the point of their deaths. It was rumored that the Knights of the Order were capable of actually providing greater pleasure than any other species in the Galaxy. She meant to find out for herself.

Doctor Brooks came back in, looking a chart over. He had been surprisingly gentle, very accommodating with her injuries. He gave her a brief smile, setting his clipboard aside.

"Well, no serious injuries, but you're going to be tender for a day or two," he probed ever so lightly along her ribs, nodding to himself. "The eye will stop smarting by tomorrow; keep the ice on it, you'll be stopping traffic with those baby blues in no time."

She nodded slowly; it did hurt.

Doc Brooks pulled a card from his shirt, scribbled a number down on the back, handed it over. "That's the local counselor, Dr. Farber. Give her a call, she's waiting to hear from you, okay? She'll be able to help with all the legal angles and such; anything starts to bother you, you give me a call, all right?"

Another nod; he paused when his nurse opened the door, handed him a slip of paper. He looked it over, managed another smile. "You're all set up at the Pines River Inn; there'll be a car to take you anywhere you need to go first thing in the morning."

That surprised her; plans beyond the initial confrontation had been deliberately left fluid. "Who?"

Doc patted her shoulder. "Who do you think? I'll get Gina to walk you over to the Inn, get you settled."

Cas had switched to civvies, rented them a car. "You three sure you're gonna be all right?"

Arwyn snickered from the passenger seat. Julia favored him with a smile. "I think so, Cas. It's Grover's Mill, not the Spire."

He nodded. "I'll park the Condor in the forest beyond the town, wait for you to call."

She nodded in reply. "Good. We'll call you as soon as we can."

She wheeled away, Kel plastered to the window, staring at everything. She'd been fitted with an imager that did little more than lighten her already light-red skin, darken her purple hair to black, smooth out the delicate ridgelines at her forehead. She was still breathtakingly beautiful, evidenced by the Hertz clerk falling over himself to be accommodating. Of course, Julia and Arwyn had been there too, probably making the young man's month.

Arwyn peered out the windows as well, taking it all in. "This country is so beautiful; why would you ever want to leave?"

Julia shrugged. "It's difficult to see it when you grew up around it. Grover's Mill is only about thirteen thousand people; when I lived here, all I could think about was seeing the world, seeing what was out there beyond the hills and the pines. Now that I've done that, I can't imagine why I would have ever left."

"This is something he's always wanted," she intoned softly. "To live in a place like this, free from the pressures that came from what he was. To be a normal person, in a normal place, without having to fight anymore. He would talk about it, sometimes, when Toshiro wasn't around, when everyone else was busy."

Kel leaned between them. "I can't understand that. He is the Archon, he is the Chosen One. Fighting destiny is like emptying the oceans with a teaspoon."

Arwyn turned halfway. "You haven't known him long enough. He hates what he's become, he thinks he's nothing more than a killer. If he could bring back every life he's ever taken, he would in a second. But he can't, and it haunts him.

"He's never accepted what he's had to do. He still does it, but he hates it."

She touched Julia's arm. "It's why he kept trying to send you away. And why he didn't want me to ever leave the Citadel."

Julia gave her a small smile. "No more past tense, sweetie. He's alive. He's going to come home. To us, to all of us."

"… and if you need anything, anything at all, you just dial the desk."

The heavy-set woman who ran the Pines River Inn gave her a disarming smile, patted her arm. "You're going to be safe here. I promise."

Alyssa nodded, a small twinge fluttering in her stomach. These humans were being extraordinarily generous to her, an admitted stranger, one with a doubtful past. There was no identity search, no attempt at subterfuge, nothing like that. She had been in a difficult situation; until they were certain that she was properly cared for, nothing else seemed to be of consequence.

"Well, when you get hungry, the dining room is included in the service. I was supposed to tell you, Erin's Boutique down the street? They're ready and willing if you need to get some new clothes; I don't think your… well, I think you might have just the clothes on your back."

Alyssa nodded again. "Thank you. You're… thank you."

Another pat on the arm. "Think nothing of it, dear. We just want you to get better."

"That man, the one in the pub?" she kept her voice even, slightly trembling. "Will he… did he ask about me?"

Caroline Gilbert laughed. "He did, indeed, dear. I would imagine he'll be around to check up on you later. That's what he does- Alec is an absolute angel."

Mick handed him another ice pack. "How many times I gotta tell ya, the palm, not the knuckles?"

Alec settled it on his sore hand. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. It after two yet? Gimme a beer."

Mick judged the clock, drew a stein. "You walked over here, right?"

"Drive? In Grover's Mill? Why?"

Mick chuckled. "I should have had the boys let you at that piece o' shit. Might have been a good diversion to watch you beat his head into his arse."

"Please don't remind me why my knuckles hurt," Alec sniffed. "Good God, I minored in philosophy, for Heaven's sake. So I go and pop a guy in the kisser. Nice reason there."

"Trash gets treated like trash," Mick replied, sipping at a cup of coffee. "In my book, you did what needed to be done. Man like that, you could reason with him till the Sun goes cold; punch him in the jaw, he learns right quick."

"I guess. Doc call yet?"

"Yep. All taken care of," Mick regarded him soberly. "You are something else, my friend."

"No use having money if you don't spend it," Alec took a pull from his beer. Harp. Excellent. "I got everything I'm ever gonna need already. Everything else, that's gravy. 'Sides, my dad, he always said having too much meant you had to share with folks' haven't got enough. Guess I took it to heart."

"You don't talk about your dad much," Mick polished the counter idly. Until dinner hit, it would be pretty quiet in the Caber. Genessa swept by every couple of minutes to check on Alec, but she had everything under control. "He sounds like he's quite a man."

"He died, few weeks before I moved here. Still hurts."

Mick stopped. "I'm sorry, boyo."

"Long time ago, Mick," Alec drank. "But you're right, he was quite a man. He was my best friend, my hero, for as long as I could have one."

Mick slapped his shoulder. "He did a good job."

He wandered away. Alec studied his hand, flexed the fingers, finished his beer. "Thanks, Mick. I gotta go, I'll see ya later."

He tossed some money on the bar, got up and left. Genessa drifted over to Mick, the both of them watching Alec trudge down the street, out of sight. "He's getting depressed again, isn't he?"

Mick nodded. "Yeah. The party'll perk him up, though; he likes that stuff. That, and havin' all his friends around him tomorrow night. He'll be okay, shake it off. He always gets like this, this time of year."

His hand had stopped hurting by the time he got in his door. Three messages- one from Doc, one from Anne-Marie admonishing him not to bring anything to dinner, and one from Ed, saying that he'd already gotten four offers, including one from Random House that was phenomenal. And that Baen was having a stroke.

Alec set himself in front of his computer. His writing was his therapy; he availed himself of it for the next four hours.

Julia pulled into town as the big clock over City Hall chimed quarter to three. She'd never been able to tell herself how much she'd wanted to come home over the years, hadn't been able to bring herself to do it.

"In Issha's name," Kel whispered from the back seat. "This place… it's perfect."

Her thoughts mirrored the sentiment. It was, but she'd been too blind to understand. But Alec… Alec, somehow, hadn't.

Arwyn turned back to her as they made their way off Main towards Julia's parents' house. "If we take this from him, he'll hate us. Forever."

Julia's hands tightened on the wheel, making the plastic squeal. Kel leaned forward, put her hand on Arwyn's shoulder.

"What happens if we don't?" she said softly. "How many will die because we let him be happy?"

Arwyn shrugged helplessly. Julia kept her own eyes forward. "We have to trust him. That his love for us, will outweigh what is here for him. And it's Alec- bet on the love. Always bet on his heart."

They pulled up in front of a two story house, a woman bounding from the porch with a shriek.

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