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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 19

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 06 July 2020 03:54] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 04 July 2020 22:22]

Last of the Fallen

Anne-Marie Brooks was a human tornado. She yanked the car door open before Julia could kill the engine, dragged her daughter from the driver's seat, hugged her tightly.

Julia hugged back, smelling her mom's scent. It hadn't changed in the last two years. The hug she got was as tight, as firm as any she'd ever gotten; the changes that had happened to her hadn't affected her parents in the least.

"Hi, Momma," she whispered, kissing her mother's cheek. "It's so good to be home."

Anne-Marie held her at arm's length. "And we're glad you're here, darling. We've missed you."

She smiled in to the car. "Hello there! I'm Anne-Marie Brooks."

Arwyn pushed the door open, got out, Kel right behind her. "Hello. I'm Arwyn. Arwyn… Collins. And this is my sister, Kel…"

Kel covered her, holding out her hand. "Kelly Collins, ma'am. It's very nice to meet you."

"It's very nice to meet you both," Anne-Marie's smile was like a sunbeam on a cloudy day. "And such a coincidence. Collins, you said? One of the local celebrities has the same last name. Julia, you know Tom Sheridan's work, don't you?"

Her breath caught in her throat. "Is he… he's here, isn't he?"

Anne-Marie grinned. "Certainly. Lives in Horace Potter's old house on Briarcrest. Such a wonderful young man- very polite, thoughtful, such a gentleman. He's almost too good to be true, but Alec is such an angel. Dad invited him over for dinner tonight."

Kel seized her lower lip in her teeth, trying not to squeal. Arwyn folded her hands together, every muscle tensed, forced herself to calm down. Julia was trembling; Anne-Marie smiled wider.

"Look at me, carrying on in the November cold like this!" she exclaimed. "Grab your bags, girls, and follow me into the house. Let's get something warm in you right now."

She hustled them into the house, directing everyone to their rooms. Julia dropped her bag on her old bed, took a turn through the room she'd grown up in, went back down the stairs. Her mother was brewing tea in the airy kitchen, her nose tickled by the scent of fresh cookies.

"Tea in a few minutes," Anne-Marie announced, settling herself at the table. "Your friends seem like very nice girls."

"Research assistants, Momma," Julia replied smoothly. "We've been spending a great deal of time together these last few months. They're almost like daughters, and they're both smart as whips. Especially Arwyn."

Anne-Marie nodded. "Considering their age, they'd almost have to be. But enough about them- tell me about you. Where's that young man of yours you were telling me about the other day? I was sure you would bring him along with you."

Julia smiled shyly. "You'd be surprised, Momma. He's closer than you might think."

Alec grabbed the phone on the second ring, checked the clock. Four-thirty. "Hello?"

"Hey, son. Just calling to let you know dinner's at six."

"Okay, Doc, I'll be there," Alec stretched. "Gotta get that run in. I'll see you in a couple of hours."

He hung up, flicked his computer off, went upstairs to change. Ten minutes later he was stretching out on his front steps, then took off into the woods. He'd bought this house because it straddled the woods that rimmed their little hamlet, giving him a touch of solitude. He'd found he did better with the quiet of the forest around than even being in a small town like Grover's Mill.

San Francisco had been too big; Sacramento too. He'd spent a nightmare of a month in New York, then decided to try Denver. There he'd met Max Shultz during a movie shoot, who'd told him about Grover's Mill. Heaven on Earth, Max had said. He'd been right.

The woods were so welcome, he felt like he was a part of it. His stride lengthened, winding his way up the slightly beaten path he followed that rounded Swallow's Peak and came down five blocks from his house.

Halfway up the mountain, he heard a squeal, then a crash, and a couple of voices shouting. He broke off from the path, bashed his way through the underbrush to the old Mill Road…

Becca Hughes was sitting on the gravel, screaming. Alec vaulted a fallen tree, skidded to a stop next to her. Jared Rabb glanced up at him through glazed eyes, pinned under his Explorer.

Alec swore under his breath. Damn kids and their joyriding. "Easy, Jared, I'm here."

"Can't feel… I can't feel my legs, Mr. Collins," he grated out, a trickle of blood running from his mouth. Alec just nodded, scanning the nearby woods.

"Relax, kiddo, it's just shock," it was an easy lie; he spotted a log, ran to grab it, went back for a stone so heavy he could barely move it. "Becca, you go and get Doc Brooks. Run, girl!! Now!!"

She stood up, darted away; she was a track girl, she'd make it in time. Alec wedged the log under the edge of the car, set the rock. "Jared, you with me?"

"Yeah," he didn't sound like it.

"I'm gonna move the car, and you grab my hand when I do, hear me?"

"Yeah."

Alec heaved. The car shifted a little, almost rising from the gravel… then the log snapped, dropping him to the ground. Jared cried out, flailed weakly with his arms.

"Hang on, Jared!" Alec snapped, throwing himself against the car, trying to rock it off of the boy. It rocked, but not enough.

He felt eyes watching him, turned to spy his wolf friend standing on the edge of the road. Something inside his mind snapped for a bare second. "Don't just stand there! Get me some help!"

The wolf trudged forward. I already have.

Alec's jaw dropped. Before he could analyze the situation, a twelve foot bear lumbered from the trees, waddled over to the car.

He glanced at Alec, carefully braced his legs above Jared's head, set his shoulder on the roof of the Explorer, and heaved. The truck rose up, letting Alec drag the boy to safety, the bear shoving it back up on it's tires.

The animal came back around with a satisfied grunt, studied Alec for a moment. He bent his head, nuzzled Alec's shoulder, and then rumbled away, giving the wolf a growl on the way past.

The wolf came over, sat down next to Alec. Cure the pup, Brother. It is within your power.

He didn't understand it. But he set his hands on Jared's head, felt a faint click in the back of his mind, felt life and heat dance in his palms, flow into the boy. Crushed bones knitted in seconds, ruptured muscles melding back into form, nerves firing once more.

The wolf barked. It is you, BlightSlayer. You are home, Brother.

"Who is BlightSlayer? And why am I talking to a wolf?"

He snorted. Do not try so hard, Brother. Now we are sure; you have the time you will need to come back to the Green. Remember, we stand guard, as you have guarded the Green. You will see; we are faithful, too.

With that, he got up and trotted away. Alec watched him go, then turned back to Jared. The boy was stirring; Alec shucked his windbreaker, wrapped it around him.

Doc showed up twenty minutes later, riding in the back of an ambulance. Garth was right behind them, slewing his cruiser across the road, settling his cover while he surveyed the scene.

He spotted Alec, went back for an extra jacket, handed it over. "Good thing you were running around the woods. You're becoming this town's guardian angel."

"Kid helped himself," Alec replied. "I just got the car up; he grabbed my arm, pulled himself out."

Garth nodded slowly. "And you just happened to catch the angle just right, flip it up on it's wheels?"

"Hey, I'm an engineer; fulcrums are my business. Plus, you know, adrenaline, all that stuff."

Garth pushed his hat back. "Uh-huh. Even if I didn't know you, that would sound like so much bullshit."

Alec opened his mouth; Garth held up a hand. "I don't really care what happened. You tell me you grabbed that car, lifted it off the boy, I'll take your word. All that matters is that boy; everything else is irrelevant."

Tony watched the paramedics load Jared into the ambulance, came over. "Damnedest thing I've ever seen."

"What's that, Doc?" Garth had his pad out now, making some notes.

"Not a scratch. He doesn't even have a bump on his head," Tony shoved his hands in his jacket. "Not so much as a cut from crashing through the side window. That is the luckiest kid on the face of the Earth. What I can't understand is, he was saying how he couldn't feel his legs, but there's no damage there at all."

Garth fixed his eyes on Alec. "Yeah. Day for miracles, I'll tell you what."

Tony nodded, took a step to Alec's side. "Nice cut there. That from when the log broke?"

Alec sighed. "It's a scratch, Doc. I've gotten worse playing basketball at the 'Y'"

"Hmh," he pulled open his little black bag, fished out a butterfly bandage, carefully cleaned the cut, covered it up. "Whatever you say, youngster."

Alec turned to Garth. "We all finished, Sheriff?"

"Sure. Do me a favor, come by the station tomorrow, give me a formal statement, we'll put this to bed?"

"Okay," he started off. "Doc, I'm gonna take a rain check on dinner. Maybe Saturday or something."

He ran back into the trees before Tony could answer. Garth leaned back against his cruiser, watched the ambulance pull away. He gazed at the Explorer, the rock, and the snapped log. "Huh. Maybe he did pick it up."

Alec was freezing when he clambered up the stairs to his door, sliding inside. He went immediately to his bathroom, got in the shower, turning the hot water all the way up.

He ducked his head under the stream, let it flood over his back. He plucked the bandage from his chin, wadded it up, tossed it over the shower rod in to the garbage. He let the water gurgle around his face, over his chest for a very long time; when he finally slapped the water off, he felt much better.

Alec toweled off, got dressed in some sweats, headed down the stairs to think about dinner…

The front door blew open, Anne-Marie Brooks sweeping into his front room. "Shame on you, canceling dinner at the last minute!" she scolded, already on her way to the kitchen. "It was already finished, so we brought it over here. Where're your hotpads?"

He followed after her. "Anne-Marie, what the heck are you doing?"

"I told you, bringing supper over here," she'd set the wicker basket she'd hauled in on the counter, inspected his cupboards with a trained eye. "Be a dear, fetch six plates; I can't reach."

He started doing it, still confused. "But I'm tired… I wanna get some work done, go to bed."

"Nonsense, you want a big, home cooked meal, some nice conversation, and a good bottle of wine," she pulled salad plates out, found the silverware drawer. "Go on, put them on the table; Tony and the girls are bringing in the rest of dinner."

"Girls?" he echoed. "Plural? I thought there was only one. Are you setting me up?"

"Don't be silly," her Cheshire cat grin told him that was exactly what she was doing. "Julia brought some friends home with her; they're perfectly charming, you'll adore them."

She pushed an armful of wine glasses at him; he took them to the table. "You know, I have a mother."

Anne-Marie ferried the flatware to the table, patting his cheek on the way past. "Of course you do, dear. I'm just filling in until she comes to run your life herself."

He barked a laugh in spite of himself. "Come on, I just wanna go to bed…"

Tony came in, trailed by three young women. "Sorry, son, but Hurricane Brooks has blown into town. Batten down the hatches and dig in; you aren't sending it off."

"Yeah, no kidding," he took the roasting pan from Tony, carried it to the stove, caught a glimpse of the Brooks' youngest daughter. "You must be Julia- excuse me, Dr. Brooks. I'm Alec Collins. It's very nice to meet you."

He stuck his hand out. She had the oddest expression on her face- the pictures hadn't done her justice. She was extremely beautiful, making him think back to his earlier conversation with Doc. Oh, well, nothing wrong with being a late bloomer.

She took his hand, shook delicately. He was surprised at her grip. "Please, Julia is just fine, Mr. Collins."

"Alec," he corrected gently. She held his hand a moment more, then let it go slowly. "I'm sorry, but am I doing something odd?"

She actually blushed. "No, not at all," she murmured. Her voice was like warm honey, purring out from deep in her throat. "I've never met a celebrity before, that's all."

"I find that difficult to believe," he turned away, opened the fridge. "Would you like something to drink?"

"Sam Adams," she blurted out. "I mean, if you have it."

"Of course," he collected two bottles, popped the tops off on the opener hanging next to the sink, handed one to her and one to Doc. The other two young women finished unloading their burdens, came to the island as well. "Hello. Alec Collins, it's nice to meet you."

More odd expressions. The brunette took his hand first. "Kelly. Kelly Collins. And this is my sister, Arwyn."

"Small world, huh?" he grinned, finally got a good look at the young blonde. His brow furrowed up slightly. "Excuse me, but have we met before?"

Arwyn shook her head slowly. "Uhm, no… not as far as I know."

"No, I've met you before, I'm sure of it," he tapped his lip. "I never forget a face…"

Kel nudged Arwyn. "You remember. Last year, the book signing in San Francisco. For Aries."

Arwyn suddenly smiled; it was brilliant. "Of course! I'd completely forgotten."

Alec snapped his fingers. "Yeah, that must be it. I apologize; there were a lot of people there that day. I don't remember everyone."

Dinner was superb- Anne-Marie made one mean pot roast. She'd been right, he'd needed to be around people after the weirdness of the afternoon. Julia had proven a delightful conversationalist, making Alec wonder again about the strange discussion he and Doc had had in the Caber. She was absolutely gorgeous, charming as hell, and for some unknown reason, interested in him.

He wasn't good with women, as a general rule, but the signs she was giving off were unmistakable. A light touch on his arm, leaning in to speak to him, lingering her eyes on him, always seeming to pay attention. It made him acutely uncomfortable, especially given that her parents- crap, she was Doc's daughter!- were right there with them, but she didn't even seem to notice.

Doc did, though. "It's past my bedtime. If you youngsters will excuse me…"

Before he could get up, Anne-Marie rose. "Me, too. You kids have a good time."

Kelly and Arwyn yawned simultaneously. "Gosh, it is late, I didn't realize how tired the flight made me. G'night."

And just like that they were alone together. Alec slid out of his chair, taking a couple of plates with him. "Your mom always that subtle?"

She laughed, watching him carry the plates to the sink. "I'm sorry. You know mothers."

"All too well," he affirmed, heading back to grab some more plates. "Mine's two thousand miles away, and she still keeps her thumb on me."

Julia started to reach for some silverware; he waved her down. "I got this. Why don't you head on out to the living room. I'll be there in a minute."

He was as good as his word, appearing in around sixty seconds with two cups of coffee. He handed one to Julia, sat down in an armchair next to the sofa. "So. What's his name, and why isn't he here with you?"

She chuckled. "There isn't anyone… exactly. There's potential, but no one, just this minute."

"Why?" he sipped lightly, set his mug down. "All those French guys chicken or stupid?"

That earned him a giggle. "Neither. I work. A lot."

"You seem worth the wait."

She blushed. "Thank you."

"Just telling the truth," he lifted his cup, took another sip. "Now what is it you do for L'Institute Thoth? Doc told me you were a geneticist, but he didn't get very specific."

"RNA resequencing, mostly working on retro- and rhino- viruses, designed for human longevity, cellular decay rates, things like that," she stopped. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't talk about work…"

He'd cupped his chin in his palm. "No, please. I find it all fascinating. Doc gave me one of your old papers; it was very interesting. Since then, I've done a bit of research; I'm not a scientist, but I have a good layman's picture of what you do."

"Really? Which paper did my dad give you?" she took a drink.

"Uhm… DNA Resequencing in Damaged Muscle Tissue and It's Potential Curative Factors. Kind of a long winded title, but it was interesting," he sat back. "Doc told me you presented it at a conference in Berkeley? I'll bet you were a hit."

She almost spit out her coffee. "You could… you could say that."

He handed her a napkin. "You okay?"

"Yeah," she dabbed her lips, set the napkin down. "Just… just taken a bit by surprise. Most laymen don't seem to be too interested in what I do."

Alec grinned. "For you, I'd develop an interest. A keen interest."

She ducked her head, blushing.

"I'm sorry, that was out of line," he got up, taking his coffee with him. "Maybe we better call it a night."

"No," she replied. "I was… that was very flattering. I get a lot of comments, but most of them aren't quite that… sincere. Please, I'd like to stay."

Alec studied her for a moment. "You know, it's the weirdest thing. I keep thinking I've met you somewhere before. But I can't put my finger on where."

Julia nodded. "Yeah, I'm having the same feeling. Maybe we have met before."

"I'm pretty certain I'd remember meeting you, Dr. Brooks," he grinned. "You're not exactly a woman a man would easily forget."

"Oh?"

"Yeah," he watched the lights playing out the window. "Intelligent, witty, charming. What more does someone want from a lady?"

She got up, wandered over to stand next to him. "Beautiful? Sexy? Desirable?"

He laughed. "All of which, ma'am, are in the eye of the beholder. Intelligence, wit, and charm stay constant- beauty is fleeting."

It was taking everything she had not to start crying. He stole a look her way, saw her trembling. "Hey. Hey, what's the matter?"

"Nothing," she sniffled, crossed her arms. "I'm… I'm cold."

He started away. "Okay. Let me get your coat, I'll take you home so you can…"

She caught his arm. "I'd rather stay. Please? I'm just cold."

"Oh," he steered her back to the couch, sat her down, went to a closet and pulled out a blanket. "Well, then, here. This should help. And I'll turn up the heat."

She snuggled up in the brightly-colored wool; it looked like an authentic Native American blanket, brilliant red with an intricate design woven in. Her nose caught the acrid tang of the baseboards firing up a notch, Julia giving him a smile as he came back.

She folded the blanket back from her shoulder. "Come sit with me."

He hesitated; she grinned widely. "I don't bite. I promise. Come sit."

Reluctantly, he complied; she slid the blanket over him, cuddled up against him. "See. Now I'm warm."

"Okay," he replied slowly. She took hold of his arm, tugged it over her shoulders, snuggled closer.

He didn't say anything for a while, was surprised at how comfortable it was to simply sit there with her. "Do you need anything?"

"No," she whispered back. "I'm absolutely perfect right now."

He slipped away, sliding out from under the blanket. "Okay, now I'm officially freaked out."

She dropped the blanket. "Why?"

"Because women who are… perfect… don't hit on me!" he kept his distance, backing up when she stood. "I have no idea what's going on here, but, uhm, yeah, you just, just stay over there, 'kay?"

"Now you're just being silly," she put her hands on her hips. "All we were doing was sharing a blanket. Nothing more."

He was really spooked, looking like he did the first night. "Sure we were."

"Okay, no more sharing the blanket," she cocked her head to one side; it was hard to imagine Alec not being the same confident man she'd grown to know. "Most men like having me around."

He finally managed a grin. "I'm not most men. And it isn't a matter of not wanting you around, it's just a little fast, that's all."

"I'm sorry," she replied. "I… I find you very attractive. In my experience, I have to be the aggressor; most honest men are too shy to approach me."

Alec mulled that over, nodded. "That actually makes sense. Except for the attractive part."

She dropped her hands. "I'm… I'd better go."

He didn't argue, walked her to the door, held her coat for her. "Here, I'll drive you…"

She shook her head. "I need the air. It isn't very far."

He opened the door, then closed it. "This didn't go very well. But… I'd like to try again. The Edgemont game's tomorrow night- would you like to go? A bunch of my friends are going, but it'd be great if you could come too. And… I'm having a little get-together after…"

"Yes," she cupped her hands around his. "Meet you here? Say four-thirty?"

"Yeah. That would… that would be great."

She ducked out the door. He watched her until she was crossing the street, then closed the door gently.

Julia flopped against a tree halfway down the block. It wasn't a gag, he'd really forgotten everything. Her, Kellehendra, even Arwyn- she'd have bet anything he'd remember her. But he'd bought in to the whole small town thing, seemed content to be just a writer in a little town in Minnesota.

It was Alec, though. Alec without the baggage that came from what he… used… to be. Everything was the same- the way he looked, talked, his scent, even his ability to ignore her pheromones. But he wasn't haunted, or tense, or closed off. Just Alec.

She'd tried cranking her pheromones up: all she'd accomplished was putting him on edge. But her body was betraying her- it was Alec, and she wanted him to touch her, love her in the worst possible way. She could try just forcing him; that would probably bring him back…

She snorted to herself. And he'd never forgive her. Especially if it didn't work. Humiliate him, completely break him, ruin everything. She'd learned better than that.

She walked away. This wasn't something superpowers were going to fix. They needed to find the man inside, make him come out.

Alyssa waited for Brooks to leave, made her way across the street. She needed to move now; if Brooks was here, Somack couldn't be far behind. Once the Kalrist appeared, they would bring Collins around, one way or another.

She bounded up the steps, knocked on the door. In a few seconds it opened, Collins standing there with an odd expression on his face. "Oh. Hello. How are you?"

"Better," she acknowledged. "May I…"

"Of course, please," he opened the door wider, stepped aside. Once she was in, he closed the door, led her to the living room. "They taking good care of you over at the Inn?"

"Oh, yes," she shrugged out of her coat. He took it, trying to very politely not look at her. Her skirt was short and tight, her legs were smooth and bare, and her turtleneck was painted on to her body, advertising her lack of a bra.

He came back, motioned her to sit on the couch. "I wanted to thank you. In person. For…"

He held his hand up. "Not necessary. I just gave you an opening- you did the hard part."

"I think it's very necessary. Most men wouldn't get involved."

"Around here they do," he blew out a breath he'd been holding. "Would you like some coffee? Maybe tea?"

"Tea, thank you," she got up, trailed along to the kitchen. "Your home is lovely."

He chuckled. "Not all bachelors are complete slobs."

He set the pot, went back and finished clearing the table. "I have some cherry pie; would you like a slice?"

Alyssa nodded. He was acting very strangely; she'd made the adjustments to her gold-implants to allow her to use her pheromones, but he wasn't reacting at all. But neither was he slamming her around with his psychic talents. He was… being normal.

He sliced up the pie, handed a plate and a fork over, then set a cup of tea beside her, coming around the table to sit across from her. Her plan was backfiring; he had no intention of approaching a woman who was just getting out of an abusive relationship.

"Did you talk to Elyse Farber?" he asked, picking at his own pie.

Alyssa nodded. "Yes. She said it would be healthy to… be alone for a bit."

"That's good advice," he put his fork down, tipped his cup to his lips. "A little space comes in handy."

"Is that why a world-famous author is hiding in Grover's Mill, Minnesota?" she asked lightly. "People like to brag about you. I paid attention."

He grunted. "Hiding. No, not hiding. Enjoying the peace and quiet. I'm not a typical celebrity- I write books, I could put anyone's picture on the jackets. Actually, I used to."

He paused to take a bite. "Science fiction fans are… tiring. For the most part, they're remarkably intelligent, well-read in scientific matters, and very, very dedicated. Talking to them is usually an education. But sometimes, they get a little… zealous. And that can be somewhat exhausting."

She sipped at her tea. "How so?"

"You don't really want to hear about this…"

She nodded. It was funny, she really did. "All Cain ever talked about was what a lousy…"

"I get the idea," his face was coloring up; from anger or embarrassment, she wasn't sure. "Anyway, the fans?"

She nodded again.

"There was this one kid in Chicago," he picked his fork back up. "He'd read all of my books- not just the Constellations Chronicles, all of them. And had the posters, and the technical manual I'd written in a moment of weakness, and all of it.

"So he comes up to me at a signing at WizardWorld, this big con the comics companies set up. I was being optioned by X-Generation Comics to create a series; they thought it'd be great to have me at the convention. Sell a few books, meet and greet, things like that.

"Anyway, after lunch, here comes this kid- maybe sixteen. He's hauling this big briefcase along with him. When he gets up to me in line, he flops his case open on the table, unrolls a CAD map of one of the ships in this obscure book I'd written a decade before, and starts asking me about how it's slipdrive was supposed to work when the Bergholtz Capacitor isn't the right size."

She giggled. He quirked an eyebrow. "What?"

She lowered her eyes. "I'm a huge fan. I've read them all too."

He started. "Well, then. That's a surprise."

"You were saying?" she nibbled at her crust. Alec studied her for a second, then shrugged.

"Well, I tell the kid that it's just a story. He plows right over the top of me, holding this blueprint up in my face, pointing to the engineering section, just rattling on. It was a pretty good drawing, the kid had some real talent, so I told him he'd misread the specs and pointed out where he'd misplaced a bulkhead. He studies the drawing for a second, turns bright red, almost runs off without getting his book signed.

"And that was Friday afternoon. It actually got worse before it was over."

Alyssa laughed out loud. "That's too funny. Some people."

Alec grinned. "It's funny now. But he was so embarrassed, I felt bad. Plus, it's kind of a neat thing, firing young people's imaginations like that- he went a little overboard, but he was thinking about how things work and why it should be one way instead of another. I got a friend of mine at Northwestern to give the boy a call- he's studying to be an aeronautical engineer right now."

"See? It turned out okay," Alyssa poked her crumbs around her plate. "Most other authors would have just brushed someone like that off."

"A fan's a fan. Treat them bad, they won't come back. Would you like more pie?"

Alyssa drifted off to sleep on Alec's couch. He covered her with the same blanket he'd given Julia, tiptoed to the den to make a quick call.

"Hey, Doc, sorry… no, I'm fine. Listen, that girl from the Caber? Yeah, she's asleep on my couch… No, she just showed up a bit after Julia left. Is it okay to let her stay, or should I take her back to the Inn? Okay. No, she's staying on the couch, I told you. Yeah. Tell Julia I had a good time, and I'll see her tomorrow. Yeah. G'night Doc."

Alec found himself a blanket, settled down in his easy chair. When he dozed off, he was watching over Alyssa, but thinking of Julia.

Grover's Mill, Minnesota, November 18, 2001:

She smelled coffee. Alyssa stretched, wiggled her toes, rolled over. She'd fallen asleep. On his couch. Forget seducing him, she'd passed out with him still awake.

There was a tangled blanket on the easy chair. She sat up, staring. He'd slept in a chair so that, if she woke up, he would be nearby. He didn't even know her, and he was already watching over her.

Alyssa had had a brutal education in the realities of the universe. The Empress was as vicious as she was beautiful, reinforcing her incredible pheromones with powerful mind control abilities. Failing her was a virtual death sentence- she had ripped one of the male Azizi limb from limb when he returned from the attack on the Protector in Los Angeles, killing him as easily as Alyssa could slay a human. For coming back alive, instead of dying battling Collins.

She'd learned that being an Arion didn't mean much in the final analysis. Just as the Supremis were arrogant enough to believe they were the ultimate life form in the galaxy, she had learned that there were creatures who held them in the same contempt they held other species. The Kaldec were one of them. The Kalrist were another- for very different reasons.

Not because of what they were, but because of what they did. They found the Arions a savage, conquest-obsessed race, the Velorians a culture corrupted by their inability to fathom basic truths of decency, the Gehemites fearful isolationists. Attitudes not entirely unfounded in fact.

The Kalrist trained their Order to defy the strong in defense of the weak. To utilize their formidable power in the furthering of some archaic ideals they clung to, protecting the innocent, battling aggressors. The Empress had shown her how many of the setbacks the Arion Empire had suffered in the past had been at the hands of the Order. Demonstrating the need to defeat them once and for all, else the time would come when they would move in force, crush the Arions. Liberate the galaxy.

But sitting here, talking to, being near the finest product of the Order, she wondered if that might be such a bad thing. The Empire was savage. The Velorians were corrupt. The Gehemites were perfectly happy to bury their heads in the sand and wait for the end. The Order drew their lines, stood ready to face anyone who crossed them. Without flinching.

The Kaldec's initial assault had wiped out one-quarter of the Order's troops, crippling their ability to launch any type of counteroffensive. Had the Empire lost that many ships in one engagement, they would have limped back to Sullust to lick their wounds. The Order turned around, spurred by Collins, and fought back, beating off an attack at their Citadel, then the strike at Kualu Lumpur that ended with sixteen dead Ultrafemme and their commander captured. Then atomizing the Spire in a fit of vengeance.

They were different. They weren't afraid. They had chosen their path, and that was what they were going to do. They wouldn't be deterred.

Even without his memories, his abilities, Collins was a Knight. He did what he did because he believed it right, not because he had something to gain.

He came in with a tray. He set it down, poured her a cup of coffee. "Good morning. Sleep well?"

She nodded, taking the cup. "Yes. Thank you; I seem to say that a lot."

"Don't worry about it," he took his own cup, sat down on the other side of the coffee table. "Just collecting good karma. Might need it some day. Would you like breakfast before I take you back to the Inn?"

She shook her head. "How about I buy you breakfast?"

He dropped her off, went back home to shower and change. He bounced down the stairs, tugged the door open, surprising Julia as she lifted her hand to knock.

"Good morning!" he said cheerily, his smile wide. She smiled back immediately. "How are you today?"

"I'm… I'm great. How are you?"

"Excellent," he took her arm, steering her down the stairs. "I'm meeting someone for breakfast. Would you like to join us? I'm sure she won't mind."

"She?" she echoed, unable to keep her face from falling a bit. Alec missed it, nodded vigorously.

"Yeah, I made a new friend yesterday; she wants to take me to breakfast to say thanks. No big deal, come on along."

He held the door open for her, closed it after she slid in, climbed in himself. "I'm actually glad you came by. Alyssa's had a tough time; she could use a couple of girlfriends right about now. There's stuff you just can't tell a guy, especially a guy who isn't interested that way."

"Oh," Julia shrugged off the earlier feeling. "What way is that?"

He darted a look at her, then back to the road. "Having potential."

Her heart leapt. She fixed him with a very deliberate stare. "Are you pussyfooting around the subject?"

"Potential's all one can hope for," he wheeled them into the street. "when the potential-ee? lives in France."

She hadn't turned away yet. "You know, I'm thinking about relocating to the States. You know of a place I could stay while I shop around? I don't want to put my folks out."

"I… might be persuaded to let you use my house. I have an extra room, and rent's pretty cheap."

Her hand covered his, twined her fingers with his. "That sounds… great."

Alyssa toweled her hair off, plugged the hair dryer in, ran it over her locks quickly. She set it aside, nudging the door closed, searching for some clean underwear. She'd have to thank Collins… Alec again for the new things he'd had that boutique set aside for her.

A figure stepped from the shadows. "You didn't come home last night. Did you bag Archangel?"

She actually jumped, whirling around at Cain. "What the hell are you doing here? You want to ruin everything?"

He chuckled. "Don't worry, these feeble-minded idiots won't even remember I was here. So? Did you tag and bag him?"

Alyssa dropped her robe, slipped into some underwear. She ignored Cain's open staring. "Not that it's any of your business, but no. Not yet."

"Why? You losing your touch?" he sat down on the edge of the bed, not even bothering to hide his smile. "Big bad Arion can't even seduce one pathetic human?"

"Even like this, he's ten times the man you are," she snarled back, tugging a pair of jeans on. The next instant, Cain had a fistful of her hair, was yanking her head back painfully.

"You keep a civil tongue in your head, bitch," he murmured softly. "Especially when you're no more than one of them."

She struggled. "I'm not going to be like this forever… Ow! Let me go!"

Cain tugged harder, tracing his fingers along her cheek. "So what? Powered up you'll last three seconds more; I've been killing Arions for years. Threats from Primes are pretty cheap."

She ground her heel back on his foot, making him wince, let go. She almost ripped the patches off, then subsided. The Empress would go insane if the two of them tried to kill each other. "Get out of here, before you ruin any shot we have. He's still buffered against the pheromones; it's going to take work. And thanks to your brilliant plan, he's more interested in being Galahad than my lover."

"Then you'd better…" he shot a look out the window. "Oh, shit! Brooks?! With Archangel?! Did you know…?"

"She's with him?" Alyssa dodged to the window, glanced down. Alec had just parked, was getting out.

Cain tensed next to her. "No more fooling around. Let's just kill them both."

His clothing flickered, became his armor, his helmet rolling up his head. His warlance was in his hand; he took two steps and crashed through the window.

Julia heard the crash, shoved her door open right before a form slammed into the hood. Alec jumped aside, a man in armor uncoiling from his crouch, unlimbering a long ebony lance.

"Hey, Collins," his voice was eerie, emotionless. "Time to die."

Julia grabbed the undercarriage, heaved the Explorer out of the parking lot, taking the armored man with it. The Forsaken leapt from the hood, charged forward.

Alec's foot slipped out, tripping the man. Julia tried to pounce, felt something seize her mind, topple her to the pavement.

Four more armored men dropped from the roof, the first back up, whirling his weapon. "She's not enough to save you, and right now, you can't save yourself."

He raised his arm. A blur shot out of the sky, slammed into his back, bowling him over. Arwyn, in her blacks, landed in front of Alec, hands set.

"You won't get away this time, Cain," she growled, eyes burning. "Back away from him."

Four warlances spun, spit energy. Arwyn flew backwards, hit a parked Buick, sagged against the ground. Cain got up, sauntered over, grabbed her by the hair.

"You're the little harridan from Frisco," he laughed. "I was hoping you'd turn up again. I always thought you'd be fun…"

He stiffened. No

Hagan Grimm never saw it. He was standing there over Alec one second; the next, he was face down on the pavement, his unshielded arm twisted back behind him, snapped in three places. Cain whirled on his toes, then gasped, powerful arms locking him up in a stranglehold.

"You take your hands," Alec, Archangel, snarled right into his ear, "off of my daughter!"

He twisted, Cain's armor the only thing saving him from a snapped neck, spun him away, hurling him a good twenty feet, through the windshield of a Caravan. His warlance leapt off the ground, settled in Alec's palm, turning back to it's normal silver. His coat shredded off his body, Alec whirling his new weapon around.

Corey McRae went limp, dropped to the ground. Julia felt the pressure let up; before she could do more than roll over, Alec had mauled the other two Forsaken, Cain's warlance slammed through one, the other crumpled on the grass, both legs broken.

Cain ripped his way out of the windshield, bounded at Alec. He managed one kick; Alec caught it, smashed his knee out, flashed his hand up, grabbing Cain by the neck, lifting him up and over, piledriving him headfirst against the asphalt. His helmet saved him from a broken neck, his blacks rippling away from his pulped knee.

Alec rolled him over. He grabbed Cain's battlesaber, flared it to life. Cain's helmet flooded off, leaving him bare to the world.

"You know I'm going to kill you," Alec set the 'saber at Cain's throat, blistering the skin. "Tell me why you did this to me."

Cain smiled. "I didn't do squat. I just played the cards I was handed. Me, and the rest of them."

The room above them exploded, a form fleeing at high speed. Alec glanced up, then narrowed his eyes, turned them back on Cain. "Give my regards to the Devil."

Cain's undamaged leg flew up, snagged his neck, flung him off. Alec rolled with it, came back up, Cain already at the top of the Pine River Inn.

"You can kill me," he shouted, "or you can save Grover's Mill from the Wild Hunt."

The concrete around Cain exploded, making him leap backwards. Howling had started from the middle of town; Alec dropped the battle saber, ran off towards the screaming. And the smoke. The damn serpent in the Garden.

Julia caught up before he turned out of the lot, carrying three spheres and the saber. "Arwyn had these, she said you'll need them…"

"I had what I needed!" he shouted back. Julia recoiled, almost stumbled. "Why couldn't… why did you have to come?!"

She started to open her mouth; he took a quick turn, cutting down a side street. "Keep the gear. Weapons are for wimps."

He tapped his sin'cho, gone in an eyeblink. Julia tossed her head, blinking back tears, raced after him.

The Square was burning. Garth braced his shotgun on the hood of his cruiser, opened up on the bear-sized monster lunging across the street. It bucked, shook it off, finally fell at a round in the face.

He'd been in Lucy's when these.. things… just swarmed out of the woods, started tearing the place apart. He'd yanked out his bullhorn, ordered everyone off the streets, then given them something to give their attention to.

He fumbled with the reload, another monster bounding right at his head…

A hand grabbed it's leg, smashed it to the asphalt. Alec hopped on it's back, jammed three fingers on his left hand down at the base of the animal's neck, snapped it with a sharp crack.

Another came at them; Alec twisted to his feet, swung out a picture-perfect side kick, knocking it aside, denting the entire side of a parked Cavalier. The creature tried to rise, exploded into flame.

Garth's mouth dropped open. Alec tried not to notice. "Get everybody off the streets, Garth, I'll take care of this."

He didn't get time to argue, three more of them charging down the street. Alec pointed, a ball of light swirling around his hand, leveled all three with a light beam like something from Star Trek.

Or one of Alec's books…

"Go, Garth!" Alec shouted, already off. He popped the door to Lucy's open. "Everybody, stay in here until I come back!"

He slammed the door closed, flipped over a row of parked cars, ran into the Square. He centered his thoughts as he ran, began to broadcast as "loudly" as he could.

The Kaldec were psycho-sensitive; lighting himself up like a bonfire would bring them…

Howls split the air, Hellhounds and Grendals rushing from all sides. Alec balanced himself, suddenly thinking how stupid he'd been to not take the armor and weapon…

He didn't have much time to think it over. Hellhounds jumped from both sides; he hopped one, kicked the other in the jaws, ducked another, punching it's stomach as it flew over his head.

He scattershot his pyrokinesis, a little trick he'd learned watching Somack. Five Hellhounds exploded, shoving a dozen more back, letting him spring from the circle, get clear.

Julia blurred back to sight at the edge of the Square. "Armor!" he snapped. She threw them his way, Alec suiting up. While his helmet folded itself over his head, he saw the tacnet come alive. "Cas!! Get your ass down here!"

"What's the plan?" Julia murmured, setting her feet.

He glanced over his shoulder. "I'll spearhead. Bat cleanup until Cas gets here."

The swarm had turned, coming at them in a more linear flow. Alec charged back at them, his shield-arm crashing into jaws, hammering heads. The ones that flew past ran into Julia, giving her handy targets for her frustration. She grabbed the first Hellhound, tore it literally in half, crushed the head of a second with a wickedly fast front kick.

Alec bounded up, slapped a bellowing Grendal in the head, brainburned it down. It flailed at him, knocking him off balance, dropping him to the grass on his side. Five Hellhounds smothered him, claws raking his armor. Alec scrabbled for anything to use as a weapon…

A sword flamed to life in his hand. He didn't ask, sweeping it at the snarling mass on his chest. The Hounds burned away, flesh scalding at the touch of the blade. He rolled up, swinging away, turning the tide quickly…

Engines roared above him. Four Crusaders dropped from the air, forming a "V" in front of him, opening up on the Wild Hunt.

"You've lost," Michael had come to him this time, ignoring the fetid stench surrounding them. "Put him back where he was supposed to go."

Lucifer lounged on his Throne, a twisted mockery of Heaven's Glory. "Why? He didn't beat me."

Michael took three quick steps, seized the front of Lucifer's suit, yanked him from his seat. "Do. Not. Test. Me."

Lucifer snarled. The figure Michael held went from man to Devil, huge horns, spurred knees, cloven hooves, massive bat's wings. Fire and brimstone heaved from the Devil's nostrils, enormous hands clamping around Michael's arm.

The second his hands touched the arm, six feet of human became twenty feet of warrior. Shrieks echoed around the infernal chamber, lesser demons scattering from the holy light of the Father's General.

"Father is merciful," Michael's voice boomed. "He doesn't have to be vengeful. That's why he has me. Put him BACK!"

Lucifer matched sizes, shoved Michael away. Satan's looming runeblade sprang into his hand; Michael raised his Spear and Shield, readied himself.

Lucifer swung his blade. Before it could meet Michael's Shield, Gabriel popped into existence, hand raised. The blade halted in mid-slash, hung quivering in the air.

"Hold," the Herald Angel said softly. "Father commands that you return Alec Collins to the place he was rightfully to awaken. You were granted your opportunity to tempt him; you have failed. You are to spare him the anguish you intended to heap upon him, and let him go back to the path of his life."

Lucifer's eyes were wild, boring hungrily at Michael. "And if I refuse?"

Four hosts appeared instantly. Raphael and Uriel whirled their weapons, on either side of Michael, ready for battle. The walls were alive with bright lights, the four Warhosts arraying themselves.

Gabriel shrugged. "Then we are free to destroy you. Now is better than later."

Uriel leered back at Lucifer. "This foul wasteland has needed a good housecleaning for millenia now. Nothing cleanses quite like the Fires of Heaven."

Michael shouldered his way past his two brothers, raising his Spear. "I am ready. Let's finish this, once and for all. I've taken all of you I can stand."

Raphael sheathed his Sword, took hold of Michael's shoulder. "I would not mind ending this farce myself. Choose. Quickly."

Slowly, Lucifer dropped his runeblade. "Done. Take the whelp."

Raphael snickered. "Wise choice."

The Warhosts vanished, shrouding the Chamber once more in darkness. Only Lucifer and the Archangels remained, once more back in suits. Michael smoothed his lapels, twisted his lips back from his teeth. "It's almost a pity you aren't just a little dumber."

"You are lucky your lapdogs arrived when they did…" Lucifer growled.

Raphael once again grabbed Michael's shoulder. "You learn nothing, Lucifer. You tried to tempt a human, and he turned his back on what you offered. For every one that falls, there are three that do not. It has always been- it will always be."

"You are naive`, Raphael, to believe that of them," Lucifer's laugh was truly evil. "All it takes is the right bait, and they all fall."

Uriel shook his head sadly. "You are such a fool, it's almost painful."

"Grover's Mill, his friends, all of it," Michael demanded. "Put it all back the way it should be. And leave the boy in peace, or I will come back. And we will finish this."

"No," Lucifer smiled. "There was nothing said about that. He came back, he is…"

Both Uriel and Michael's Swords were in their hands. They lunged for him at the same time, Gabriel knocking Uriel down, Raphael tackling Michael, dragging him to the muddied floor.

Harsh light filled the Chamber, darkness become noon. A silence so vast it was loud surged, then faded, along with the light, Lucifer cowering beside his Throne, trembling. "Y-Y-Y-Yessss, I will obey…"

The Archangels eyed one another, traded nods. "Better to serve in Heaven," Michael said calmly, "than to rule one day in Hell. But, of course, you already know that, don't you?"

They vanished.

The Citadel, November 17, 2001:

Sorala sprinted down the corridors, sliding to a halt outside the Cathedral. "Somack!!" she shrieked, looking wildly around. Adam stirred, coming to his feet, the aged Cleric stepping out of the shadows.

"What?" he called, reaching for her arms. "Sorala?"

She gasped, shaking her head. "The two… Anderson, Kincaide…."

"What about them?"

"They're alive!!" she babbled. "They're sitting up in Medical, talking, eating, saying Alec sent them back! From Heaven!"

Somack almost fainted. Adam grabbed his arm, holding him up. Before anyone could say or do anything more, a bellow came from inside the Cathedral.

Adam eased Somack down, ran to the doors, heaved them open.

The shroud was just tumbling from Alec's shoulders. He took a second shuddering breath, bracing his hands on the obsidian table he laid on. "Ohmigod," he gasped. "I think I was dead."

Jian stared. Connor fell forward, Alec catching him before he could hit his head. He struggled with his brother, then laid his chest on the edge of the slab. He studied himself very quickly. "Holy crap… I was dead!"

Jian came closer, gingerly touched Alec's arm. He shook himself. "Yeah," he managed, jaw sagging. "Two days."

Alec nodded slowly, casting a glance at the altar. "That's okay. The record's three."

He twisted, very carefully, his legs off the slab, keeping the linen around him. He spotted Adam, standing awestruck at the entrance to the Cathedral. "Hey, Fah! Do me a favor, go get me some clothes!"

The boy jumped, spun, raced away. Jian overcame his shock, took Alec's arm, helped him down from the slab. "How… how do you feel?"

"I'm hungry," Alec's reply was a little sheepish. "I know when you, you know, come back from being dead, you're supposed to have some great wisdom to impart. But I could really go for a Double Whopper and a pile of fries right now."

Jian choked, almost sobbing. Alec squeezed his shoulder. "Relax, man. It's okay."

"I never said…" he gasped. Alec squeezed harder.

"That's because you never had to. I know. I've always known."

Adam sprinted back in, slid to his knees in front of Alec, holding up a rosewood box. "This was… it was all I could find quickly, Master."

Alec dropped the shroud, opened the box, rubbed his armor on. "Get up, Fah. And don't ever call me Master again. I'm not a Kalrist."

Sorala turned from tending Somack. Her eyes engulfed her head, the woman dropping to her knees in front of him. It was taking an enormous amount of energy to keep herself up. "Arc… Alec?"

"Geez, Sorala, you act like you've never seen a dead guy come back to life…"

She fainted, pitching forward. Adam jumped forward, catching her. Alec sighed. "Okay. That pretty much handles the resurrection jokes."

He crouched over her, delved her quickly. "Just a little shock."

"Third one, uh, sir," Adam intoned. "The two… women in Medical came back a while ago as well. They said that you sent them back. From being dead."

Alec closed his mouth. "Huh. Okay, sure. Adam, go fetch someone from Medical. Quickly."

Jian moved to Somack, lying on his side, staring at Alec. "Where the blazes… Clerics!" he bellowed. "Attend Lord Somack and the Archon!"

A clatter of feet came from the other direction. Four Knights came running, Thien among them. The short man slammed to a halt, staring. "Alec?!"

"Stop saying it and get over here!" he snapped. "People are dropping like flies!"

He grabbed one Knight before coming over, sent him running the other direction. Stephen Ghali raced away, taking the corner at a skid, vanished. Thien bent down, taking Sorala's shoulders. "Let's move them to the pews. Where the devil are those Clerics?"

They lifted her gently, carried her into the Cathedral. She began to stir when they set her down, stared up at Alec with huge eyes. "Are you… is it you?"

He nodded.

She screamed, sat up, hugged him so tightly he could barely breathe. Before he could tug free, Somack piled on as well, both Kalrist weeping.

Thien smiled. "Get used to it. They are by far the most sedate."

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