PANTHEON, PUBLIC RELATIONS: HONOUR AMONG THIEVES

WEI released the news about the shooting two hours ago and the clip has been playing on every newschannel since then. Betsy flips through them to check on what's being said and how. The stock dipped briefly as Brian announced that he would step in as CEO, so Public Relations assembled a talking head for Warren and the numbers are ticking along nicely on Betsy's comm now. It is a slow newsday, which means the studios have time for slow-motion close-ups and extrapolation.

Warren stirs in the bed, but doesn't open his eyes. He's still under, his dreams tasting of metal and thin air. He's going to be fine. Satisfied with the news analyses, Betsy mutes the sound and just watches.

Five men and one woman get out of a limo and walk up the stairs in front of the UN building. Warren is in the middle of the pack. Jan is point and Betsy, trailing them, is rear guard. Sean is on the left, Dominic on the right. Alan walks next to Warren, matching stride with him. Alan is tall and blond and chosen to make a sniper hesitate fractions of a second.

They are halfway up the stairs, when Betsy's step falters. Her head comes up. Then she is moving, blur of black, taking Warren down hard and fast, as the plasma beam cuts the stair in two on the first pass. The guards scatter. At this point, there is a great deal of shouting, some of which is bleeped out. Betsy's throat is still raw, which is how she knows she was part of it.

Second pass and by now it's obvious the sniper is tucked away on a roof. Betsy kicks hard against the stairs and her momentum redirected is enough to propel Warren out of the beam path in time, but she can't get a lock on the sniper and Warren's wings are straining against his harness.

He'll go down in flames. Close-up on her own face, twisted with fury and terror, lips forming the word "no" as she stops him, really stops him, with a force that will keep all by-standers from flying, perhaps forever. But she can't get a lock and there's no cover, so the third pass will require a personal sacrifice from her and if there should be a fourth before someone else can take the sniper down, her sacrifice will have been for nothing.

Another body slams into them, changing their vector. It is Dominic. Rather, it was Dominic. But Betsy has a lock now and no time for anything but lethal force, she twists so hard she tastes blood, and that's the last pass.

Betsy gets up. Warren doesn't. She touches his shoulder and plasma sears her fingers. Dominic is lying on his side. His midsection seems to have melted and fused with the marble stairs. Oh, and the smell. She has no idea how they are going to scrape him off.

An ambulance arrives, as if they were ordinary people. Betsy toggles the com no, but Jan is already on his way to intercept. There's nothing to be done for Dominic and Betsy won't risk Warren in a regular transport. She lifts Dominic's head carefully, dips her hand into the miniscule shadow beneath him and 'ports.

The clip stops there.

==

Reality warps when Nathan bodyslides. Naturally, when the most powerful psi on the planet is in one location, then isn't at all, then turns up somewhere else, something has to give a little. And as for his presence, only the head-blind would fail to notice, these days. Nathan burns as bright as sodium on the astral plane. The knock on the door is unnecessary, a courtesy.

"Come in," Betsy tells him.

The door opens, Nathan limps in, sits down heavily in the other chair. He doesn't ask how Warren is or how she is, that was all in the report, and he knows that Dana was on stand-by but didn't have to come in.

"There will be an official inquiry," he says, looking down at his hands. "As well as an inofficial investigation."

"I know."

She really does know. Even under fire, killing someone dead through telepathy is a serious matter. Had she shot him, the consequences would have been, if not less severe, at least more predictable. Public perception of telepathy will shift over the next few days and it won't be in their favour. Also, she has killed their only lead.

"The forensics found evidence of two alpha-class psionic commands on-site," Nathan says slowly, leaning forward. "Only one of them killed your sniper."

Betsy shrugs. Forensics are getting better every year, but they have a way to go before they can analyse exactly what's been done. She doesn't see what this has to do with anything.

"Betsy." Nathan sounds tired. "There's nothing in Dominic's profile that indicates that he'd save your life and Warren's at the cost of his own."

Of course. That's why Nathan is here and Scott isn't.

"Sometimes people exceed expectations," she replies coldly.

"And sometimes they fall short."

His voice is oddly gentle.

"It was his job, Nathan," she says. "Being a bodyguard means taking the bullet. That's what we pay them for."

"Tell that to his widow."

That's unfair and she gets mad, because what is, is.

"His widow knows," she hisses. "His widow read the small print before they made a joint decision.The threat-level against Warren is always extreme. Every situation he goes into is high-profile. They know what they take on when they agree to be part of his protection."

Nathan taps his fingers against the armrest, eyes narrowing into slits.

"And you? Do they take you on as well? What's the cost of protecting you? And how do you reward them?"

Betsy has had enough. She gets up, cradling her injured arm. Third-degree burns and it won't be the same ever again. Plasma does that.

"I," she snarls, "am Warren's last line of defense. But I'm taking the bullet too, in the end, don't you worry about that. And I do it for the same reason as Warren sets himself up as an assassin's target. The new world order. The greater mutant good. Which is what Dominic died for. Not me. Not Warren."

She stops. Tries to see through the haze of red rage. Thinks about what she really wants to tell Nathan. He is on her side, she knows that, and what's more, he's on the level. He came down here so she would have someone to share the truth with before they have to spin it. Righteous indignation belongs in the debriefing room, not here and not with him.

"Nathan, you have given up so much for the peace," she says at last, sitting down again. "But you're not the only one. We wouldn't allow that. Won't. If it becomes necessary, no, if it becomes convenient, I'll plead guilty to anything you want."

She is pleased to discover that she means every word. There is even a small measure of relief as she considers life in the Tower. Best psi-shielding in the world. Time to catch up on her reading. No more sending people into danger and to their deaths.

"It would cheapen Dominic's sacrifice," Nathan says slowly. "and lower morale among the troops. The headblind would never trust any of us in combat again."

"Nathan, no," she says, but he cuts her off with an impatient gesture.

"Shut up and listen. In the future, Warren will be accompanied by an alpha class energy converter and a beta class telekinetic, to patch our security flaw. Alan will get additional training and you will leave the acrobatics to him. As for the sniper, I'll back you and Bishop will, too, in front of the committee. It was the psionic equivalent of a righteous shooting."

"Nathan."

"It was." And softer: "Don't argue with me, Betsy. I'm not changing my mind."

He rises from the chair. A blanket from the spare bed unfolds, floats through the air and wraps itself loosely around her shoulders.

"I know you're tired," he says in the same soft tone, "but you've been tired before. And...I need you too much. I'm not giving you up without a fight."

Then he is gone, space and time realigning in his wake.

FIN