MEASURE TWICE, JINX: PRODIGY

It was dark. Moisture dripped from the ceiling. Bolts were turned, one by one and a lock hissed open. Sasha rested his aching head against the car window, trying to see the raindrops and the trees passing by. Trying not to be back in that place.

"Here we are, then," said the driver. "The Muir Island ferry station. Although why you'd want to go there...You alright?"

Sasha nodded. He produced the credit card that wasn't his, closed his eyes and tried with what little strength he had left to make the transaction work. His head spun with the effort, but the card reader accepted the card and he got out of the car, into the rain. For a moment, his vision went sideways and he saw nails scrabbling against rough stone, wearing down to bleeding fingertips. He thought of rain and of the blood washing away in the rain, the pattern of water and blood as it flowed over wet asphalt, and how it flowed all the way down to Muir Island, where he was. Still.

The man in the ferry house was surly. Th' ferry had just left. There was nae telling when t'would be back. Lady Moira wasnae expecting any visitors. Lady Moira wasnae tae be bothered by any thieving scoundrel walking about.

"I don't know Lady Moira", Sasha said, trying not to sound desperate. That name had not been in the file. "I'm here to see Elizabeth Braddock."

The man looked wary, apparently recognising the name

"Wait right here," he said and went back in.

Sasha waited. The rain blasted him in the face, no matter which way he turned, soaking him to the skin. He hadn't dared draw any luck from either the taxi or its driver, the wheels were already too worn and the driver too overweight. He feared that the ferry might be in similar condition. Carefully, he drew a little from the house, not much, but enough to clear his head. The man came back.

"Lady Moira says to bring ye over," he reported, seeming no happier about that. "Th' ferry will be back in fifteen minutes."

==

The ferry eased into its berth on Muir Island and Sasha got off, knees wobbling with exhaustion and cold. An auburn-haired woman wrapped in a brown coat was waiting for him at the end of the pier. After one glance at her, Sasha knew that she had no luck to spare, either.

"A'm Moira, " she said, offering her hand.

Sasha took it. She had a steady, ice-cold grip. The fingers were like ice, grabbing his wrist, feeling for a pulse, no, that was not now, that was in another place.

"Are ye alright, lad?" she asked sternly, slipping a strong arm around his waist.

"F-fine," Sasha managed and added because a presentation seemed to be in order, " I'm Sasha Kmetyk. I've a message for Elizabeth Braddock. Important."

"Betsy isnae here at th'moment," Moira said. "We'll get ye to the house and get ye some dry clothes and ye can call her from there."

"She'll be here," Sasha said, last desperate wish, and the world tilted around him as space and time tried to change to his request.

==

Brian settled into the other pilot's seat in the Midnight Runner and Betsy switched control to his board, before standing up and stretching to work the kinks out of her back. They had spelled each other off during the first three hours of the flight, but Brian fretted about dropping into British airspace and being under Heathrow's air traffic control and had been finding excuses to hang over her shoulder for fifteen minutes. Betsy didn't mind; the Runner was Brian's special pet project and naturally he wanted to be the one to test its new systems, that was all. He might act like a sexist and a clothead sometimes and he didn't like change, but a lot of that came with being Captain Britain. The personality of Brian Braddock with his sixteen years of experiences and memories didn't have a chance against the spirit and essence of Britain that had been shaped during millennia. Hell of a load to carry.

She drew aside the curtain and went into the cramped passenger area, where Meggan was sleeping in her chair, Warren was reading business reports and Jack and Zach were cuddling. She supposed the word was cuddling.

"Here." Warren handed her a few of the reports without looking up. "I'd like your opinion on these."

She leafed through them, noting that the biomedical research was mainly out of the Philadelphia group of the Worthington Enterprises.

"I've told you already. Cut back on the funding until they show results.That's what you demand from the independent groups before you'll invest. The Philadelphia group has done nothing but suck down money from the start."

Warren frowned at her, probably thinking about company values and employee policy, but he made a note. She had a sudden vision of their future together, flying all over the world in their private jet, him in immaculate Armani suits and her in equally immaculate Tahari, reading business reports together. Great.

"Do you think we're throwing good money after bad?" he asked her.

"Yes. The scientific board down there needs a new chairman."

"Are you volunteering?" A shadow of a smile.

God, he was handsome, the hard, chiselled face with the azure eyes. You could drown in those eyes, sink and drown, and never ever hit bottom. But the delicate mouth thinned in displeasure, when he noticed her attention wandering, and it thinned further as Zach planted a most affectionate, very wet kiss on Jack's neck.

<Damn,> Betsy thought, feeling the temperature drop in the ambience as a very experienced psivamp, who also happened to be fiercely protective of his young lover, took offense. Warren wasn't a bigot, wasn't prejudiced, he just didn't like public displays of affection. He could barely be convinced to hold her hand in public, unless they were dancing or posing for the party photographers. It wasn't fair of Zach to take offense at this -- Zach and Jack had been constantly touching since take-off and she didn't put it past Zach to take cuddling to a new level just to provoke a reaction from either Brian or Warren. The atmosphere was charged with sensuality and lazy indulgence that she was sure originated from Zach and bounced off Jack to challenge her and prejudices she didn't have.

"Is there a problem?" Zach asked with deceptive mildness, turning around in his seat to look at her with narrowed eyes.

Betsy noted that Zach's eyes were darker than Warren's, more sapphire than azure, but the intensity of the gaze was the same, as was the regular, almost angelic features.

"Not that I'm aware of, " she said. "Is there?"

"You don't like me," Zach noted.

It was true. She didn't like psivamps. They could have her for a snack if they wanted to and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it. They had telepathy and empathy and no ethics. There had been a psivamp in STRIKE, once, a psivamp gone rogue, which had panicked the politicians so that they had tried to wipe out the entire telepath cadre as well, not knowing the difference between a psivamp and a psi.

"Stop it, Zach," Jack intervened. "She doesn't have to. They offered us a ride to Muir. There was nothing about liking us in the offer."

She could almost like Jack. He was so young and so serious, you had to care about someone like that. If he hadn't been a psivamp, she'd have gotten along fine with him.

"I don't know you," she told Zach, as honestly as she possibly could. "But you're right, I don't like you. I think you're one arrogant son of a bitch trying to pick a fight with me. You want to eat me, go for it. I can't stop you."

"You have some serious issues, don't you?" A tendril of Zach's mind touched hers. "I wonder what happened to you."

Jack tugged at Zach's arm, increasingly distressed, and Warren looked up from his papers.

<Vile snake>, Betsy thought, and threw up the memory of Tom in Zach's path.

There was disbelief first. He couldn't believe what was happening to him. Jagged pain sliced through shock and Tom attempted the cut-off to shield her, only she wouldn't let him. She spoke to him through the increasing turmoil rushing down the link, saying: <<Tom, hang on. I'm here. Tom, don't leave me.>> Tom was angry with her, wanted her out of there, wanted her safe, Tom said her name, faintest of mind-speak, and was gone, his mind-pattern blinking out into silence and darkness. And after that there was only loneliness, there was never anyone else, nor would there be, not ever again once Jack was gone...and Zach broke the contact. Their physical eyes met, mirroring the same loss and confusion at losing Tom/Jack. It had happened and it had not. Yet.

"Not the fault of the psivamp," Zach said tightly. "But I see where you're coming from. Keep your prejudices if you like. Just keep them to yourself."

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but Warren beat him to it.

"God, what's wrong with you two?" he asked in an exasperated voice. "I'm trying to work and Meggan's trying to sleep, none of which is easy with you going at each other, and as for Brian flying in this upheaval, I'm amazed we're still airborne. Just shut the fuck up, why don't you?"

Warren wasn't a swearing person. He didn't say "fuck" unless he meant it. And while she might want to take Zach apart, she also wanted a safe flight for all of them. She bit her lip until she tasted blood and thought of sun, wind and water. Sunlight on water. Water stirred by wind. Solar storms. Fractal patterns. Second degree equations. She thought about logarithms so hard it almost made her faint.

<<_I_ use the Fourierseries>>, Zach sent at her then, smug and in firm control of his temper. <<Takes the spikes off the upset. Show you sometime, telepath?>>

<<I'd love to>>, she sent back, amused in turn by the mixed challenge and truce offer. No matter that he had been wrong in his presumptions, shoving Tom at him had been a lousy trick. <<And I'll show you a trick or two we used in the sixties, kiddo. Not many left who know how to do it.>>

But the reasons for that were bleak and amusement faded. She turned her head against the wall and if Zach eavesdropped, he had the sense not to push it any further.

==

The room was white. Moira had left the door unlocked, but Sasha had the feeling that if he tried to walk out, someone would appear and ask him to stay put until the test were ready, please. He had been in places like this before. There was a change of clothes and a towel for his hair and he'd been promised a hot bath as soon as the tests were ready. The house was old. He couldn't draw anything from it, unless he wanted it to collapse over his head. A cup of herbal tea had helped soothe his raw throat, although his stomach was too upset for him to eat the sandwich that had come with it.

"Hullo."

The door opened and the most beautiful woman Sasha had ever seen entered the room. She had purple hair and slanted purple eyes and her complexion was peaches and cream.

"I'm Elizabeth Braddock," the beauty said. "You wanted to see me?"

She couldn't be Elizabeth Braddock. She was far too young, far too Asian. The file described a 5'11 blonde, with blue eyes and set her birth date to 1956. What he had changed had gone all wrong. An Elizabeth Braddock who had nothing to do with his sister whatsoever had gotten pulled into this mess, his mess.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I messed up. You see, my sister left me a file and a picture of an Elizabeth Braddock, but you're not her. I'm terribly sorry."

The woman seemed not to be listening. She sat down, beside him, on the bed. He was embarrassed because he hadn't had his shower yet and _she_ smelled wonderfully, like cinnamon and cardamom. She raised her hand as if to touch his cheek, but drew it back before he could warn her not to do that.

"You look like her," she said softly. "I'd know her face anywhere. God forbid you have her temper, though."

Maybe if he got away from her real quick and left the island, she would be okay. Maybe he could make her forget he had ever been there. He made his face blank.

"Who?"

"Chris. Christine Stanton. You are her brother, aren't you? What's your name?"

Hope leapt in him. She knew the most important name.

"Sasha Kmetyk," he answered.

She threw him a sharp look, as if she doubted him for the first time.

"That's not so funny," she said.

He didn't understand at once, but then he did and was relieved. He might be in the right place after all, and in time.

"You're thinking of the other brother, ma'am," he said. "We were three."

She didn't pursue that line of questioning, knowing as well as he where that would lead them.

"I see. What brings you here, Sasha? I'd be glad to help you in any way I can. And I'm Betsy, not ma'am."

She had been a second lieutenant. By everything he knew, he should call her ma'am, but he had just gotten a direct order to the contrary. In the file, Chris had called her Lee. Now that he'd had time to study her, he saw similarities between her and the photograph. The face was the same delicate heart-shape and the nose looked Caucasian rather than Asian.

"STRIKE's basement is loose," he told her. "At least one Sleeper got through to the outside. They think it was the Tinman."

The woman froze, mid-motion. The bleakness in her eyes convinced Sasha she had partnered with Chris on at least one particular mission. He didn't need to tell her that the Tinman hadn't taken kindly to the basement or that no one was left alive up there to provide more information. She filled in the gaps in his story as quickly as she had picked up on the lingo.

"Your advice?" she asked, much like an officer would ask a subordinate, but only when choices were equal and hell was going to break out anyway. Like flipping a coin.

Sasha tried to think about it. There were logical sequences to things in the world. Some things were more important than others when time mattered. Only he could always make heads come up if he wanted it. Or tails or nothing. If he wanted it to, the coin could stay in mid-air forever.

"Protect your team," he said. "Call Colonel Prescott."

It made sense to have said that. She seemed to approve. It made him happy to have pleased her. Think small, his teacher had advised him. Small happy thoughts. And breathe.

He tried. He managed the next breath, but not the one after that. Stars exploded in his tunnelling vision. The lieutenant, no, Betsy, grabbed for him. There was a power outlet in the wall and he drew from it so he could push her back before she touched him, but he took more than he had intended and the room went dark before sleep claimed him.

==

"I don't like this," Warren said, over his cold food, in the light of a lone candle.

"It's awful, " Betsy agreed, poking at the quivering mass at her plate. "It's been years and years since I had corned beef, and I knew there was a reason."

The situation was embarrassing. Warren was used to fine dining, as was the psivamp in Armani. However, the food hadn't caused Warren to do more than raise one perfect eyebrow and Zach was outright breezy.

"No, I meant I don't like all the coincidences. Who is this guy? Why is he really here? Can we believe a word of what you told us he said? Why did the power go out if not to keep is busy? With what's going on at the mainland, isn't that just too goddamn convenient? And we can't even ask him because he's sleeping. You say."

She regularly forgot how sharp Warren was, how he always cut to the core. When he spoke up, his was the voice of her own worst fears and irrational paranoias. He trusted no one and his conspiracy theories included everyone. It wasn't a wholly attractive feature, but a damn useful one.

"The power outage doesn't have anything to do with him," she started to argue, but Zach interrupted her.

"Actually, I sensed that the energy transfer was both intentional and controlled, at least during initiation. I'd like to..."

"Zach," Jack said, half in warning and half in exasperation, "you're not going down there until we know what we're dealing with."

Something passed between the psivamps, just a flash, and then it was gone. She hated when they did that.

"Sound advice," Warren said, skewering a trembling cube of meat with his fork. "Some other people would do well to listen to it." An evil look at Betsy. "When will Moira and the rest be back?"

"It'll be a while," Zach said around a mouthful of cold ravioli. "No lasting damage to either the ferryman or the house, but Moira wanted to ride along with him in the ambulance, just in case. The others opted to stay and look for signs of arson and such. Apparently the fire alarm in the house was out of order. Very unfortunate, as coincidences go. Is there more wine?"

"How can you eat that? "Jack protested, seeing Zach shake out another can of pasta in tomato sauce onto his plate.

"Don't complain about my eating habits until you've finished what's on your own plate," Zach replied cheerfully. "You need to eat, how many times do I have to tell you? The ravioli isn't bad, but avoid the pickled herring. Betsy?"

Betsy pushed her bowl away with a shudder.

"No, " she said to the offered can opener. "I'm fine."

The only sounds the intercom picked up was Sasha's even breaths and occasional snores. A light telepathic tap indicated that sleep was all that was going on. The boy was resting comfortably, and wouldn't wake up for hours if you could rely on sleep cycle patterns.

"He doesn't seem like a bad kid," Zach mused. "A little chat could be most educational. Enlightening, even."

"No!" Jack and Betsy said in chorus for entirely different reasons.

"Then what should we do?" Warren asked, which was a perfectly fair question and a damned underhanded way of cornering her in front of an audience.

Heads turned to her for an answer.

"I don't know!" Betsy exclaimed, throwing up her hands and almost overturning a candle. "I have no idea. Why's everyone looking at me?"

"You talked to him," Jack pointed out. "Plus, you knew his sister. You were partners, weren't you?"

"Twenty years ago, we were partners. This boy is, I don't know, sixteen, seventeen? He wasn't even born at the time!"

She took a mouthful of wine. It tasted awful. She took another.

"But you did know his sister," Jack persisted. "So you should decide."

A bright, uncomplicated boy, for all that he was psivamp. A boy that precipitated decisions in your mind, decisions you didn't know you had already made. She emptied her glass entirely, hoping for a numbing effect.

"I did, " she said heavily, "and she meant the world to me. Even if the fire and the power outage were caused by him, I'll help him. If he hurts one of you, I'll help him. That's how much she meant to me. Aren't you sorry you let me decide now?"

She looked around the table, at somber faces. Even Zach seemed to have lost his appetite.

==

Thank God for lithium ion batteries. Warren had barricaded himself behind his ultralight portable HP, when Betsy stepped out of the bathroom. She had let him shower first, vaguely feeling that he should have first dibs on the hot water, since this mess was partly her fault. He hadn't bothered dressing again and sat on the bed in his bathrobe, unspoken invitation to one thing or another. She pretended not to see. He could wear polka-dot boxers on his head if he wanted, she wouldn't be provoked. She pulled out her fatigues and combat boots and put them on. The wet hair went into a pony-tail. If Warren wanted to disregard security, it was his choice. She knew better. God, it was at times like this she could feel a certain sympathy for Bishop.

"Funny," Warren said, without looking up.

He was needling her, for sure.

"What's funny?"

"You dressing up like that. You're an X-Man. You don't have to play soldier."

"First, the word is X-Woman," she warned him. "Second, no, I don't have to play soldier. You've got that right. I _was_ a soldier. Third, we're at Moira's house so we follow her security rules. Get dressed. You and I are on duty."

She had been a second lieutenant. The snap in the voice was still there when she needed it. It only served to annoy Warren, though.

"Drop the act," he told. "You were never a soldier. You and Zach trying to outgun each other makes me sick."

There were elements of truth in what he was saying. She chose to ignore that.

"Warren," she said very quietly, "you'd better listen, because this is the only time I will tell you nicely. I was too a soldier. But that's water under the bridge. Right now I'm responsible for the hospital and the containment cells until Moira gets back. Two night-nurses and three security guards are my direct responsibility. I must be ready to respond if they need any help. _You_ must be ready to respond if they do. Besides, I like fatigues. So get dressed. Discuss my ego later."

She went to the drawer, pulled out some of his clothes and flung them at him, then went back into the bathroom. He was a sensible man. He would get dressed if she stayed in there until he was done.

"Betsy?"

Warren came up behind her. His arms sneaked around her and crossed at the waist. She leaned back into the embrace. He felt dry and cool. She had the feeling heat was being transferred from her to him, as if he was sucking warmth and life out of her. No. That was unfair and it wasn't true.

"Is there anything more you can tell me about the Kmetyk boy?" he asked.

He didn't ask if there was anything she hadn't told him. He damn well knew that was the case.

"I don't think we can trust anything he says," she admitted. "He seems honest, but we don't know who sent him and why. He may be a mole and not know it."

"STRIKE would do that? To us?"

She thought about it and realised she had no idea. She had barely kept in touch with her old friends from STRIKE. Things might have changed, as various department heads were killed or retired. She wasn't even sure who was in charge of STRIKE right now.

"I don't know," she said. "They might. I couldn't speculate about their reasons."

"Your own reasons, then? You take on this boy, you make him promises. Can you keep them?"

She twisted out of his arms, to face him.

"I loved Chris. I _loved_ her, do you understand? Any promises I make her brother, I will keep."

"I don't hear 'love'. I hear 'guilt'."

She couldn't believe he had said that.

"Fuck you, Warren, and fuck what you think you're hearing. I loved her and if you'd known her, you'd have loved her, too."

"You were there when she died, twenty years ago. Now her face is on a sixteen-year old boy, turning up out of nowhere. Dammit, Betsy, I hate to see you lose your head over a pretty face. A dead face."

She turned away from him, bit her lip until she tasted blood. She couldn't afford to act insulted and turn this into a lovers' spat. She needed his input, she relied on him as he did on her, and much as she hated to admit it, he was right about Sasha. The resemblance had rattled her.

"What would you have me do, Warren?" she asked him.

"Just be careful. He isn't Chris. Don't confuse him, don't scare him. We don't know what he can do. I don't want you hurt because you've let him get to you."

His advice sounded a lot like what she usually told him. And Sasha had already gotten to her, that was the worst of all. She was still thinking of how to answer Warren, when something happened downstairs. She didn't know exactly what but it involved psionic energy transfer, which meant that Sasha was awake and that Zach, damn him, had somehow gotten in there.

==

Sasha emerged out of sleep, through the dreamlayer and the phase of not-being, when he suddenly was aware of another presence in the room. Someone was close, someone who was psionic energy at the core and who watched him with curiosity. Psivamp! he thought and did the only thing he knew to do to save himself.

==

The link had shut down, and Jack was running, taking the stairs two and then three at a time on his way to the medlab. Something had happened to Zach, he had felt the other man's surprise and shock, before the link went silent. It was a emergency secure, Zach doing a partial cut-off or even one of these damned painful calibrations, never hurt this much and he couldn't imagine how the other end must feel. He hoped to God Zach was alright. Betsy was behind him now, running as hard as he and determined, he felt it, not to let him do harm to Sasha. He wanted her to shut up and sent that at her so hard she flinched, breaking her stride, before he flung the door open to Sasha's room.

Zach was on the floor, Zach was lying face-down, quite pale, quite still and Jack sank to his knees beside him, and searched for a pulse with shaking hands. Zach's eyelids fluttered before he found it, definitive life-sign, and Jack remembered to breathe again.

"Dammit, Zach!"

It wasn't what he had meant to say, but his head was a mess of swirling emotions, all of them impossible to put into words. Zach didn't answer, couldn't answer, Jack realised with a sinking feeling, seeing the glaze in Zach's eyes. Depletion.

The link stayed sealed. He could not feed Zach as Zach had fed him. Maybe they were all doomed now, everyone at Muir, if Zach made a last desperate grab for energy, and he would, Jack knew, a psivamp in this state would do anything. But suddenly the air crackled with psionic energy again and something happened. The beginning glow in Zach's eyes faded and the link opened a fraction, enough to let him feel confusion and pain.

"Jack?"

"Yes, it's me." He was still shaking.

"He didn't mean it," Zach said, quite irrationally.

Jack tried not to think about that, tried not to hurl himself at the boy in bed, who had hurt Zach, who had...Who was a boy and didn't know what he was doing, who had perceived Zach's gentle curiosity as a threat and acted...Who had nearly taken away all Jack's hopes and dreams for the future. Zach _was_ the future; whenever he thought of coming days and years, Zach was there.

"C'mon, let's get out of here," he said.

With Jack's help, Zach managed to get his legs under him, an effort that left him white and sweating. Jack thought of the stairs in despair. Zach wasn't that tall, only enough to be awkward to carry, and definitively not brawny, but even sleek muscles weighed.

"There's a psi-shielded room down the hall", Betsy offered. "I'll help."

With that she took Zach's other arm and most of his weight, which made Jack want to yell at her for interference in too many ways to count. Anger gave way to fear and he realised he was afraid for Zach now. Zach didn't have the sense, no, that was unfair, not the _experience_ to be scared of things he didn't know. Zach thought a psivamp was the top of the food chain, that was the problem, Zach being too damned arrogant and confident. He figured Zach had some reckoning to do, later.

Together they got Zach down the hall, into the room where there was a bed. Things began leaking through the link, like Zach's withdrawal headache -- hell of a migraine and it said a lot that Zach was too weak to stop the random drift. Too weak to lift a hand, actually, and he was shivering with cold and delayed reaction. Jack went to the intercom and asked for hot tea, lots of sugar. The exchange woke Zach up, somewhat, to protest the sugar. Jack let him, piled an extra blanket on him instead and turned up the heat.

There was no point in calling Moira, there was nothing she could do for a psivamp in trouble except feed him if Zach's control slipped and Jack really didn't want to put that to the test right now. The tea arrived, courtesy of Betsy, the only one with a slight defense against a psi draining, and Jack held the cup to Zach's mouth to let him sip it.

"What happened?" Zach asked between chattering teeth.

"That's supposed to be my question, don't you think?" Jack replied gently, hunching down near the head end so Zach could see him without having to get up on his elbow. "You were the one on the floor."

He reached out his hand to ruffle the blond hair. He followed the line of cheekbone with his fingers all the way down to the chin, concentrating on its delicate curvature. Mine, all mine, he thought, with a possessiveness that would have struck him as ridiculous only months ago.

"Mhm." Zach's eyes closed with the strain of remembering. Jack watched him anxiously, but the blue eyes were focused when they opened again. Words were harder. "I think...he must have met a psivamp before. Bad one. He opened a gate I didn't know was there. Next time, I'll know."

"You should have told me you were going down to see him. I would have come with you."

"No." The voice grew stronger, faded again. "If he'd been a psivamp, you couldn't have helped."

He knew the rest of the argument, old as the hills. Zach was the older, more experienced, with a skill a lot more fine-tuned than his own. He hadn't been trained the way Zach had and would never be; Zach tended to close up when they got down to details of how, who, when and why. Zach wouldn't hurt him the way he himself had been hurt. What he got was what Zach thought he needed to know and what Zach could bear to teach.

"Am I in your way, Zach?"

It was a difficult question to ask, but Jack needed the answer. And Zach's defenses were down, as much as they could be, and maybe there was a better chance of a honest answer now than there had been in all their time together. Zach frowned, clearly trying to think about it.

"Never in my way," he said finally. "But sometimes you distract me, maybe. You...come first with me, always, Jack. I want you safe."

"So you closed the link."

No accusation, only fact. But Jack felt this to be the most unfair cut of it all. Something diffused down the link, something about Tom and how Zach wouldn't do it to Jack. It didn't make a lot of sense.

"Or he would have drained you too. Both of us depleted, who knows what could have happened? I had to. And I was lucky, he knew he had made a mistake, he shifted it back in time..."

Zach's eyes drifted shut again, as he lost his line of thought. Jack cuffed his shoulder lightly.

"I don't want you to fall asleep on me, Zach. Talk to me. Drink your tea. How's the head?"

"I don't have a concussion," Zach murmured. "And the tea is awful."

This from someone who ate pasta out of a can.

"Zach. Jack."

Betsy was at the door again, all five-foot-seven mean telepath of her. She looked troubled, as well she might.

"Now is not a good time, " Jack said without turning his head.

"It's important. I'm sorry, Jack."

Important, she said. As if the most important thing wasn't to be with Zach and make sure he didn't slip into a coma. But Betsy stood there with her arms crossed, refusing to back down. Bitch.

"Outside," he said to her and "Two minutes, okay?" to Zach.

The corridor was dimly lit thanks to the back-up power, which kept the prison cells locked and the medical equipment functional. In the flickering light, Betsy looked haggard, dark smudges below the purple eyes. He didn't want to feel any sympathy for her.

"Sasha is terribly sorry," Betsy told him. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry, too. I didn't know this could happen. He says he didn't mean it, he got scared, is all."

Jack took a couple of deep breaths, remembering what it was like to be out of control and scared. And alone.

"I appreciate that," he answered. "Zach said as much. Where is Sasha now?"

"In the medlab, sleeping. He agreed to a shot until we have this sorted out."

"You sure?"

"I'm keeping an eye on him as we speak. Listen, Jack, I need to talk to Zach. Just for a minute or so, but I need to talk to him."

Jack put himself between her and the door, which was ridiculous as she was a ninja and he wasn't.

"You can't," he said. "I know where your priorities are, but I've got my own. Zach needs to rest. He really isn't doing too well and he's got mission prep in a few days."

"One question. Is he a psivamp or not?"

"Are you asking me?"

"I want to ask both of you. The rest of it can wait, but this I have to know."

Jack thought about it for a few seconds.

"In my opinion, he isn't," he said. "Why's it matter?"

"I must know," she said, her voice hardening, " if he _is_ the Tinman."

"So?"

"Then I must make sure he never wakes up again. I must break my word and kill the brother of my best friend. Do I have to beg, Jack?"

Tears wouldn't have moved him. But the way she restrained her distress, so that it barely shadowed the ambience, touched him in a place beyond reason. He knew that kind of discipline, he knew the cost and he yielded.

"Okay, " he said softly. "One question."

==

"No," Zach said. "I'm certain."

"How can you be?"

That was two questions, but Jack let it slide. Zach had taken a few more sips of the tea and complained about it and although he still was pale, he had stopped looking like death warmed over.

"If he had been, he would have taken some of the energy for himself. As it was, he just let it dissipate."

"A psivamp wouldn't do that?"

Betsy sat back on her heels as easily as if her legs had been made for sitting seiza.

"No. A depleted psivamp couldn't have resisted the hunger. When he realised I wasn't threatening him, he gave me back as much he could. Some of it was lost in friction."

"Ah, but how did he know you weren't threatening him? Did you tell him?"

"No, of course not, I..."

Zach stopped.

"He didn't know," he said, slowly. "He gave it back anyway."

"Thank you, Zach," she said, rising from the floor. And to Jack: "I think it's safe to let him go to sleep now. I'll bring some more tea and aspirins. Does he take anything for migraines?"

"He does quite well with aspirin, thank you," Zach broke in drily. "But 500 milligrams of ergotamine would be nice, for later."

"If you'd like something more specific...", Betsy began, but Zach waved his hand in refusal.

"No. Moira is alright, but I still don't like tailored drugs."

Jack agreed fervently. He had had his share of research level drugs before Zach and it had been bad, no matter that Moira had been a good and conscientious doctor. But Betsy was of another generation, of another brand altogether. He didn't want to think about that. He met her eyes above Zach's line of sight and jerked his head towards the door. She had gotten her answers.

"Well, then", she said. "You need anything else, let me know."

Jack only wanted her out of there and he let her know that. She nodded, without taking offense, and obliged him.

==

She was there again. Sasha felt her presence as keenly as he felt the needle slipping into his arm and he wondered if it would be the one that woke him up or the other. It would not be a bad way to go, he thought, with her warm scent surrounding him and her soft, silky hair falling over his face like a curtain. But the chemical ripped through his dreams and brought him awake so suddenly he felt tears sting his eyes. He knew why she dared not risk any disorientation from him; he had hurt Zach terribly and upset Jack without meaning to, but he wouldn't hurt her, truly he wouldn't.

"Zach's alright," she assured him, knowing that would be his first question. "Shaky, but alright. He's in a psi-shielded room, so if you can't hear him or Jack, it doesn't mean anything bad."

"I'm _sorry_!" Sasha blurted out.

"No need to be. It was an accident. He knows."

She sounded drained and Sasha realised that she must have stayed awake while he slept, to defend him from the others. It made him feel even worse. Impulsively, he reached out to touch her sleeve. That caught her attention.

"If you want me to, I'll leave," he offered, trying to mean it. "I shouldn't have come. I'm trouble."

"Are you now." She looked down at his fingers, pale against the black linen. "What kind of trouble?"

"I can make things happen."

Damn, he was tired and he'd never been good with words. But she had to see, she had to know what he was; that he could turn in her hands like a blade. He was no magic charm against evil. He was calamity waiting to happen and it happened every time.

"That's not trouble, boy. That's the way the world works."

She had asked and now she was afraid she wouldn't like the answer. So she joked. He could joke back and change the subject. He nearly did it. But he had come here. She had taken him on. Answering the question was the next level of trust.

"They change," he said, telling her as plainly as he could. "They change in the worst way they can, because I want them to."

She didn't cry out or turn away. She couldn't possibly have understood.

"I know someone with a power like that, " she said. "Name's Domino. Things fall in place for her. It's okay."

"It's not!", he almost shouted back at her. "It isn't a power. It's what I _am_."

"Sasha..."

"Were you worried Zach would hurt me? Jack? They can't hurt me. I'd kill them before they did. I'd kill _you_ before you did. That's how it works. How _I_ work."

"I see."

Only that. Two small words and no change of expression at all. Maybe she really did see. Sasha dared not look at her. Then her hand slipped into his, a martial artist's hand with hard, calloused edges. Whatever she felt, fear wasn't it.

"You made up your own rules, " she said now, her voice soft and gentle. "I did it, a long time ago. So did Zach, I bet. It's a lot harder to trust rules you've made up yourself than to trust what you're taught by someone else. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Yes," Sasha said, but he didn't, not really.

"I killed a nun when I was seven, Sasha. I had been sent away to boarding school and she put me in detention. I didn't think that was fair. I was mad. When I saw her in my mind going downstairs, I told her to fall and she did. She broke her neck. I had home-schooling after that."

She shivered once, at the memory.

"I wasn't sorry, not at the time. It hadn't felt like the wrong thing to do. I got to come home, like I wanted. But the other kids wouldn't play with me anymore. They said I cheated and it was true. Sometimes I did it without even knowing it. So I started making up my own rules for what I could do. Some of them were not necessary, some were backwards, but just having rules made a difference for me. Some telepaths never figure out they have to have rules. They end up Sleepers or in mental hospitals. Sasha, you're here. You're sane. As far as I can see, your rules work. Please don't leave."

"I'll hurt you," Sasha whispered and immediately felt her grip tighten. The touch didn't bring back any memories. It was warmth and smooth skin against his and it didn't mean anything.

"There is hurting and then there's hurting," she said. "Tell me what to do, Sasha. Tell me where we go from here."

So he did.

==

It was a living room meeting, which meant outsiders could attend and have opinions on Excalibur business. The living room was also the only room from which you could watch the harbour and the rocky path up to the house at the same time. It was a good place to gather if you didn't trust the automatic surveillance system and Betsy didn't, not with the Tinman around. She would have preferred for everyone to have followed Sasha's advice about scattering and to make this a video conference, but Moira had been adamant about her responsibility to her patients. Rahne, although visibly frightened, stuck by Moira and neither Brian or Meggan would stay at the mainland after Warren had told them what had happened. Pete, Kitty and Kitty's laptop were snugly fit into one of the large armchairs and Zach and Jack shared the other. Kurt was comfortably perched on the sofa with his tail curled protectively around Amanda. Betsy cleared her throat and immediately got everyone's attention.

"As you all know," she began, briefing-style, "Sasha Kmetyk arrived here yesterday. He claims to be the brother of Christine Stanton, late STRIKE agent and partner of mine. On his way here, he admits to having caused a minor railway accident, a motor vehicle collision and a fire. The power outage was also of his doing, as was a misunderstanding about psionic energy transfer. As I understand, he has the power to tilt events slightly in his favour, at the cost of something else. He describes it intuitively as drawing luck from his surroundings."

"I feel it." Meggan spoke up, uncharacteristically. "He taps into the same wells as I do, but only the magical, not the Britannic ones."

That was a complication. If Sasha was to exhaust Meggan's supply lines or Amanda's, they might be back to the default solution again.

"Is there enough to share?"

"I think so. He doesn't take much. It's just, well, I'm not used to someone else being there."

"I feel him too, "Amanda said. "He does small things constantly, then aborts them before they get too big. I can't say if he uses any common magical sources. I'd know if he tried mine, but he hasn't."

With that the flight attendant shrugged, looking as uncomfortable as Meggan. Betsy raised a questioning eyebrow at Brian, who shook his head. So Sasha wasn't into the Britannic power wells yet. Good.

"According to Sasha, there is riot in STRIKE. A group of agents allied with some of the most powerful prisoners and helped them break confinement. Every STRIKE agent at the Wilshire base was killed. There is heavy infighting at some of the other bases. I don't know if we've got any confirmation of the events yet, but at least one very dangerous individual is out there."

"I need some more time with the satellite feeds if you want visuals", Kitty said, fingers flying over the keyboard in her lap, "but from what I see, STRIKE is shooting down everything that moves and they are _still_ not winning. The tac guys are preparing airstrikes over Wales.They are real antsy."

"Have to be, " Pete chipped in, the ice-blue eyes flinty. "Whoever the guy is, he's a butcher. Not that O'l Beaumont wasn't a bastard and a bitch, mind, but he deserved better."

The death of STRIKE's leader had been confirmed some hour ago by Kitty. They had visuals of the body and there was no doubt in Betsy's mind that the Tinman was the one who had gotten through.

"The guy is called the Tinman", Betsy said. "He's part psivamp, part parasite. Chris and I brought him in some twenty years ago, at considerable cost. Sasha thinks the Tinman may come after me next, but I'm not so sure. He's a magical creature. It's far more likely he'd go for Amanda or Meggan first, or even Brian in a pinch. Zach and Jack are probably high on his list, too."

"What can he do?" Zach leaned forward.

"That depends. He can absorb powers and abilities from his hosts and carry them for a while. He has basic telepathic abilities; he's a strong sender and reader. Very adaptive. He can't shape-shift or anything like that, he doesn't have any physical powers, but he can do most psionic tricks I know of and some I can't figure."

"Should we help STRIKE?" Kurt spoke for the first time.

"I think, and Sasha agrees, that the best Exaclibur can do is to stay out of the Tinman's reach. If you take my counsel, you'll leave Muir as quickly as you can. Warren should go back to the X-Men and warn them. Zach's organisation can shelter him and Jack. The rest of you should go to London and John Constantine. John knows what to do. Actually, from what I get out of my London friends, he's already doing something."

Moira set her jaw and Betsy could see that the Scotswoman wasn't about to be dislodged from her island because of any psionic sassenach creature. The other Excalibur members didn't look exactly thrilled either.

"What are you going to do? You left out yourself and Sasha in your contingency plans." It was Warren, of course.

"I don't know yet. Moira, how's Sasha doing, medically speaking?"

The doctor flipped her notebook open.

"The lad was nearly spent coming here. He's been very good, not drawing from anything or anyone that he could help, but that means he's not in much better shape today than he was yesterday. He's malnourished, dehydrated and..."

"Is he critical?"

"No."

"Thank you, Moira," Betsy said sincerely. "In that case, Sasha and I'll be going north to an old STRIKE base."

Eyebrows elevated all over the room and Warren snorted. For a simple nasal sound, it was almost unbelievably derogatory.

"Unless there are a whole lot of things you haven't told us, snookums, your plan sucks," he said.

Betsy shrugged.

"There are two things, maybe three, the Tinman wants. Sasha is one, the records at base eleven is the other. If I can get up there in time, he won't get either."

"Are there no agents closer to base eleven than you?" Brian asked.

"It's the _old_ base," she explained. "It was abandoned in 1954 when a project went seriously wrong. I may be the only one alive who knows where it is. Sorry, brother. Can't wiggle out of this one."

"What project?" That was Pete, predictably, the only one with an interest in history.

"I didn't need to know, so no one told me. I'd guess neuroscience."

Her eyes wandered to Moira, to Kurt. Those were the opinions that mattered. Brian and Warren could argue with her until they were blue and bluer in the face, but they couldn't stop her. That Moira hadn't objected yet was a good sign, while Kurt keeping his peace wasn't. The longer he thought about actions, the less likely he was to implement them. Waffling, Amanda called it.

"Kurt?" she asked him, direct challenge.

"What do you need, Betsy?"

There was a fair amount of anger in his voice. She understood that. If not for her, Sasha wouldn't be here and the leader of Excalibur wouldn't be backed into a corner. But bombs would still be falling over Wales and Colonel Beaumont would still be dead. Kurt knew it as well as she did.

"A car. Gear and food for two. If there are maps, I could use them, too."

He considered that, found the requests harmless.

"What about weapons?"

"None for me. I'll ask Sasha what he's used to. I'm thinking rifle, if marksmanship runs in the family."

Kurt nodded and the three-fingered hand turned palm-up, unconscious gesture, as he let go of his resentment and set to work on the problem instead.

"Anything you need," he said. "We'll see to it."

==

Zach had gone back to the room to take the ergotamine and rest. Jack had tried to be helpful as Excalibur packed their gear and made their contingency plans, but only succeeded in being underfoot. The kitchen seemed a nice and homey place to withdraw to. There were journals and snacks and if someone wanted a meal, he'd be available to fix that.

It was a good idea, but not original. Warren sat already at the kitchen table, staring down morosely into a large glass of milk.

"Jack," he said, making a hasty retreat impossible, and raised the glass in a mock toast. "Want anything?"

Jack offered a weak smile.

"Not really. I...well."

"Where's Zach?"

"He's getting some rest. I hope. We'll get our transport in a few hours."

"Is everything okay?"

Jack almost wondered aloud why Warren would care, but that was unfair. Warren had been friendly to him during his time at the Mansion. Though they hadn't talked much, the conversations had been easy and amiable. Warren had lent him the Mercedes when needed and taught him two different tie-knots, neither of which he could remember at the moment.

"I don't know. This whole thing with Sasha...I can't make any sense out of it."

Zach had said something to Sasha before leaving, something about being in Istanbul in '94 and Sasha's hands had come up, doing a silent jive. Zach had responded the same way and the two of them had exchanged a long series of signs until Betsy had stepped between them and told them to stop, angrily. Since then Zach had been quiet, thinking his own secretive thoughts and shielding off the link.

"That makes two of us," Warren said, and then: "She's with him now. Want milk?"

Jack nodded, that seeming to be the wisest course of action, and sat down opposite Warren, who produced another glass and a milk carton with alarming dexterity.

"We had a good time, Betsy and I," Warren said in what might have been taken for drunken reminiscence, except the blue eyes were cold and level. "She's fun to be with, she knows how to dress and act and she can charm snakes out of their holes. Am I upsetting you, Jack?"

"No," Jack said.

His upset had nothing to do with Warren. It was Zach he was mad at, mad and concerned, because it suddenly seemed as if Zach and Sasha, and Betsy too, had sealed themselves off in their own little world, speaking in code and sharing bitter in-jokes. Zach acted as if he knew what he was doing, but, Jack reminded himself, Zach always acted that way. And how was he supposed to run interference if he couldn't even understand what deals had been cut?

"Good. You must tell me if I do." A sip of milk. "Sasha is a nice kid. He doesn't want me to hurt, when she leaves me. So I'm not hurting. In fact, I don't feel a thing. Strange mercies, wouldn't you say? Especially considering she hasn't even left me yet."

"Is that what he wants?" Jack asked, recalling Sasha's power. A simple need or wish turning into reality, the worst way it could.

"You're a smart kid, Jack." Pale eyebrows lifted in appreciation. "I think he wants her. I also think he wants not to want her. But when I woke up this morning, in her bed, there was something missing. I didn't feel the same way about her as I did yesterday or any day we've been together. Don't know if she picked up on that, but being what she is, she will. Go figure."

If Sasha had wanted Zach that way, Jack would have fought him tooth and nail. He didn't say it aloud, but maybe he accidentally projected some of it, because Warren rose from the table.

"Don't be a fool," he said harshly. "The boy plays all of us. Don't you notice all the odd things we've been doing lately? Moira lets him out of confinement. Kurt puts Betsy in charge of his team. Brian lets Betsy go off on a STRIKE mission with an unknown. Betsy says nice things about Prescott, the man who actually killed Chris Stanton. There's not a damn thing we can do against what he wants."

"What Zach did wasn't odd."

It wasn't. Zach did such things. Sasha was very young, very powerful, and he had been used all his life. Zach had been there. Odd would have been if he had not reached out to Sasha.

"If you say so. But it sure as hell didn't work against what Sasha wanted. Same thing with Betsy. As happens, he didn't have to want her to go gaga over him. She did that just fine by herself. But if she hadn't, he'd have made her. I'm thinking that when she comes back from her trip, she'll be ripe for a break-up with me."

"Do you...blame her?"

Warren smiled and some warmth even reached the eyes. It made him look much better.

"Does Jubilee blame you, Jack? No? Then you know the answer," he said softly. "As long as I've known Betsy, she's been in love with Chris and the memory of Chris. Now that memory has come back to life and she's happy. I could blame her for that, I suppose, if I really wanted to."

"They were lovers?" Jack blurted out and then mentally slapped himself. Warren hadn't expressed any tolerance towards alternative lifestyles that he could see, and to ask if Warren's long-time lover was gay might be tactless.

"Not exactly", Warren answered, sounding perfectly at ease with the idea. "Regulations, you know. In my professional opinion, Betsy is bi, with a slight preference for women, but the partnership is and was more important to her than any gender issue. My own preference for women is stronger than hers, say seven out of ten."

Jack choked on his milk. So, thirty percent of Warren's lovers had been...Warren was...

Warren looked smug.

"Oh come on, Jack," he purred. "I was in the Hellfire Club before I was fifteen. So was Betsy. Let's say they have very special initiation ceremonies, satisfaction guaranteed."

Something tumbled down the psilink. This was how it should be. He should be sitting with Warren, who was brimming with brightness and beauty. They should drink milk. Warren was as pure and righteous as the angel with the flaming sword, he didn't lie or suck other people dry. Jack deserved Warren. As for Zach, well, he should just go and leave them to each other.

"What the _hell_?"

Jack jumped up so fast the chair fell to the floor. The milk sloshed out onto the table.

"Left, I think," Warren said, his voice not quite steady. Zach's broadcast had been that strong, that real. "He went left."

Jack bolted out of the kitchen for the second time that day.

==

And ran smack into Zach's shoulder, almost knocking himself out. Zach reached out a steadying hand, but Jack was too mad to take it.

"God, Zach, what's wrong with you?" he hissed. "I was _talking_ to Warren. You know talking? That thing people without psilinks do every day? Mouth moves, sounds come out? I wasn't cheating on you. I wasn't...doing anything."

All colour drained from Zach's face.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean... I was...I saw you two in there."

"I got that much. What the hell were you _thinking_?"

"I don't know." Zach rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Well, that wasn't true. I guess I do. I thought about how I can't compete. If he ever wanted you."

"Zach..."

"You'd be better off with him, I think," Zach continued, with badly hidden desperation. "His job is at least partly legit. He isn't a psivamp, of course, but you know I'd only be a phone call away if you ever needed..."

"Zach!" Jack said, thoroughly exasperated. "Would you just shut up and listen? I don't want him. I'm here because I want you. Love you. Want to jump your bones. Take your pick. It has nothing to do with him."

Unless it was Sasha's backhanded way of trying to make Warren happy. But the thought slipped away and Jack forgot all about Sasha as Zach's arms came around him and drew him into a tight embrace.

"I love you, too," Zach said and his lips came down hard on Jack's in a kiss that had nothing of goodbye about it.

==

"Oh, no," Sasha groaned, seeing the plate and its contents. It was what STRIKE used, a medical mush that came in sealed containers. It contained as much protein, minerals and vitamins as you could dump on the gut without getting sick. Rumour said that even if you did get sick, there was a net gain.

"Just eat it. You need the vitamins.You'll have to be up and walking in a few hours," Betsy said, looking as chipper and even-tempered as before, although she had to be short on sleep.

Were there stimulants to be had around this place?

"Stim?" he asked and gagged on the first tentative bite. It tasted like cardboard.

"Later," she promised him. "Stims need something to work on. Moira says you're still losing weight. Normally she'd have you hooked up to an IV by now."

Sasha took another forkful gratefully, knowing who had convinced Moira to wait. His stomach did a flip and he decided not to swallow until it had made up its mind.

"'m fine," he said around the mush. And out of curiousity: "What stims are you on?"

She smiled, almost.

"Yellows. It won't hurt me, I'm in good shape. You, on the other hand, won't even get greens until I have no other choice."

She did look well, if a little restless. Yellows weren't that bad, anyway.

He swallowed and felt the nutrients hit like a blow to the gut. He was that far gone. A mouthful of water bought him a little time to settle down. Betsy was watching him, probably having second thoughts about trusting her life to someone who could barely keep his food down. It was a long trek to the base. Depleted, he'd slow her down, perhaps fatally. For the first time, he doubted he'd be able to make it.

With doubt came the whole infinite set of possibilities that all seemed equally probable and important. He was losing focus. Lightning struck in the corner of his eye, emergency save, and the course of action narrowed again.

"Sasha? Did something just happen?"

"No," he said on a breath and put the plate down. "When do we leave?"

"Not yet. I'd like our trail out of here to be fresh when the Tinman comes north. If we're lucky, he won't come to Muir at all, but tail us directly into the highlands."

"You need to sleep before we go," he reminded her.

"You sound like your...like Warren," she grumbled. "Yes, I do. I will."

"Then go." He made a shooing motion.

"Yes, but if there's a thing..."

"I'm going to pack and check my gear. There won't be a thing."

Again, the smile that wasn't. She walked over to the chair on the other side of the bed and sat down, arms crossed.

"I gave Kurt your list," she said. "There were no problems, except...two bottles of vodka?"

"Or 70% ethanol, medical grade. I don't really care which."

She gave him a funny look and he remembered that her twin was an alcoholic. Shit.

"I use it to calibrate and gate," he explained. "It works better for me than the tranquillizers and it's really no different."

"Did STRIKE hook you on the booze?" she asked.

She was angry, but not at him. For his sake. He wasn't used to that. He didn't know how to stop it.

"No. I'm just more metabolically compatible to ethanol than any...can we please not have this discussion?"

"_Did_ they?"

"They let me choose. It wasn't..."

"And you were how old? Ten?"

"Eight. But I'd been gated since I was five under general anaesthetic. Which is much more dangerous."

"So what'd they do? Make you choose between a needle and a bottle?"

Her eyes burned and he recalled that her other brother was a heavy drug addict as well as a reality warper.

"Not really," he told her carefully. "The doctors hadn't been able to tailor a good tranquillizer for me by the time I was seven. By then, I really needed one. The tests showed that ethanol might be an option. They sat me down and talked to me about it."

"God."

She got up and started pacing, arms still crossed.

"It's no different than the trank," he repeated. "Or the stimulants or whatever you take to induce REM so you won't fall on your face over the next three days."

"You're addicted," she said as if she hadn't even heard him, as if she was talking to someone else.

"So are you," he pointed out.

"You're an alcoholic."

"The substances in yellow stims are forbidden in seventy-four countries."

"We're not bringing the damn vodka."

"If you think we can afford to cripple ourselves when fighting the Tinman, feel free to make my decisions for me."

"You can do without it."

God, she was exasperating. He was past sarcasm and on his way to upset, which would do no good. He almost wanted her to shut up and understand, but caught himself in time. That was a dangerous wish, a poorly defined wish, that might flow in any direction.

"I don't think we can risk messing with my head right now, is all I'm saying," he told her gently. "If it means so much to you, I'll try to switch to tranks after this mission. But not now."

She began to speak, but he held up his hand to stop her. Perhaps a little bit of a wish, too. The food had helped. He could draw enough from himself to make small things happen.

"This is not something we discuss," he said. "Go sleep."

And that _was_ a wish, but it was fairly harmless. He hadn't altered how she felt about it and she was going to bed anyway.

==

In the dream, Creed came for her. Kissed her with bloodied lips and she liked it. He ran his hand down her back and the claws came out, so sharp she didn't know her spine lay exposed until the first muscle spasmed. Creed's mouth covered hers, his fists moved inside her, ripping and tearing as they went. Taste of copper, taste of iron and Creed shuddered, tasting it as well...

Too late, she fought the restraining arms, opened her eyes into the red glare of sunset, but she could see. She wasn't blind anymore. The arms were Warren's and she sagged against him, inhaling huge gulps of air.

"I'm awake," she said shakily, and he let up a little.

Twinge of pain in her stomach. She rubbed it absently, feeling the ridges of the mass of scar tissue which covered her torso. Except for some stiffness in the mornings, she had made a complete recovery. It was just the memory of pain, not real hurt, not like it had been.Warren was massaging her shoulders, with his light, deft touch.

Then she saw the suitcases by the bed. Warren wore his grey suit and his image-inducer. She must have slept longer than she had intended.

"You're leaving," she stated.

"Yes," he said gently, with a last lingering caress of her neck."I'll be flying back to Westchester."

Her mind raced through recent conversations and fights and found nothing to precipitate his departure.

"Warren, I..." The plea died on her lips. She could make this difficult or she could make it easy. She could cry and beg and upset them both to the point of fatal distraction. But the wheels were already in motion and there was nothing she could say to make things better between them. She might as well behave graciously.

"I'm sorry," she said, which was the understatement of the year.

Sorry, Warren, for leading you on for so long. Sorry you bought the SoHo apartment, I know you did it for me. Sorry about all the times I left you to go with Logan or Remy. Sorry about all your hopes and dreams. I know you had them, thought you never said so.You're a good man, Warren and you'll make someone very happy some day.

He nodded, something like pity in his eyes.

"Make sure you tell him about the dream," he said, moving away from her.

And then he was gone, really truly gone and she was alone.

==

Sasha had gotten two complete changes of clothes, all in black and white and some very colourful underwear. He wasn't sure if it was a joke or not. The thin, dark-haired man, who had delivered them, hadn't acted like there was anything funny about it.

"Hey."

Zach was in the door, looking much better. To be on the safe side, Sasha drew a little from himself and sent it Zach's way to boost his recovery.

"You don't have to," Zach said. "Moira has offered me all the lab rats I could possibly want. I wanted to apologise for putting you on the spot out there."

Sasha's hands lost their intent. Thoughts scattered.

"I don't want to talk about Istanbul," he said, but there was no force behind either the words or the wish.

"We crossed each other there, to both our organisations damage. Four agents died there. In a damn earthquake. That was you, wasn't it? You were the one they called Prodigy?"

He stood under a blood red sky and the wish was spinning out of control, feeding the restive movements of the geological axis below his feet.

"STRIKE lost a full team," Sasha retorted. "Some of them never knew what it hit them. The rest came to get me. And I go by Mage, now."

If he closed his eyes, he could be there, in the frightened moment when he'd stopped wishing for the three data discs JoJo had told him about. He'd had Jen and Minnie with him, but Minnie had lagged behind, rifle in hand, promising to catch up with them later and Jen, who had carried him on her back was lying among the fallen leaves, staring at nothing. He wanted JoJo, that was the wish. JoJo knew what to do. JoJo was strong, even more so than hard-faced Jen, who had come along for muscle, and JoJo would take him home and explain everything.

"Sasha?" Zac sounded annoyed, Zach wanted him to snap out of it and Sasha wanted it with him. The vision of Jen on the leaves faded into the past.

"I had a teacher, JoJo, " he told Zach. "I wanted him to come back. But I was only ten and badly gated and I forgot to want him to be alive. He came back in a bodybag."

He had screamed and screamed, scattering conflicting wishes all over. The earthquake had reached a 8.3 on the Richter scale and a dam had burst, flooding a city. Then someone had sprayed him with tear gas and he had lost focus long enough for the medic to sedate him.

"That's tough."

"Yes. Do you know what happened to the discs?"

"A third party walked off with them. Mercs. Don't remember what they called themselves. Brat Pack? Something like that. Anyway, the discs were sold back to the original owner three weeks later. Couple of billion dollars. STRIKE didn't tell you?"

"No. I think you overestimate my position in STRIKE. Nobody told me anything."

"They brought you to Istanbul and sacrificed a whole team to get you out of there. It sounds like they thought you were pretty valuable."

"It was my test run. They thought I was good luck, because I was good at surviving catastrophes. They didn't know that there was a connection between the surviving and the catastrophes. And yes, I guess I'm valuable, but not like you are."

Zach frowned slightly, warning Sasha not to go there. There was an awkward pause.

"I wanted to ask," Zach said at last, "how you knew where to hit me. No offense, but better than you have tried and failed."

Ah. Sasha rubbed his eyebrow and JoJo, who lived in a ratty one-bedroom apartment in Sasha's mind, smiled and shook his head.

<<That's what you get for leaving the psivamp alive, boy,>> JoJo said. <<Should have killed him when you had the chance. Now what are you going to tell him?>>

<<You're dead,>>Sasha told JoJo sternly. <<And I'm going to tell him the truth.>>

<<Don't be stupid. Kill him now.>> JoJo seemed less jovial in there, than he had in life.

<<Shut up>> Sasha hissed. <<You're just a figment of my imagination anyway.>>

Aloud, he said: "It's the psilink. You're vulnerable there. You have plenty of autoseals for the output, but not enough for the input. Turn two or three of them."

JoJo kicked the bedroom wall with a resounding bang. Sasha winced, tuned him out.

<<Stupid...giving away too much...remember your training, boy!>> JoJo yelled before dissolving into static.

Zach didn't look happy.

"It would mean less defense for Jack, wouldn't it?" he said.

"More discomfort, certainly."

"Then..."

"But you would be much harder to take. The Tinman won't stop where I did. You're more use to Jack alive..."

Zach tensed and Sasha flinched. Zach outweighed him by at least twenty kilos and they were in a confined space. He had told Betsy that Zach couldn't hurt him. But Zach could, if Sasha allowed it, the same way as JoJo had been able to. JoJo had worked hard at building up his conscience, so he'd know when a punishment was justified.

"What do you know about that?" Zach asked tautly.

Sasha forced himself to relax, to open up to a body blow or a sneak blow. If Zach hit him, it was because he had done something wrong, not because he _was_ wrong. JoJo had made the difference very clear.

"About what?" he asked, and as if by a miracle, the answer calmed Zach right down.

"Nothing," he said. "I'm, perhaps, somewhat overprotective when it comes to our relationship."

That was true, Sasha knew, so why did Zach act as if he had just told a lie? He decided not to pursue it.

"Can I...do you know if I could get my things from the armoury?"

"I guess you could. What do you need them for?"

"I'd like to run some tests. They have a shooting range here, don't they?"

"Are you kidding?" Zach laughed. "Moira guards the birds like her own patients. Yes, of course they have a shooting range. I don't know about live ammo, though. If you could get it, I mean."

"I don't need any. Well, for the rifle, I do, but not for the crossbow."

"Nasty weapon, " Zach commented.

Sasha shrugged.

"It's practical. It's silent and easy to take apart."

"I've always wanted to know how to shoot one of those," Zach said softly. "Maybe you could show me sometime, after you take care of the business up north. Give us a call when you come back, would you? Moira knows how to reach us."

Sasha swallowed. He hadn't expected kindness. He had hurt Zach so badly, yet Zach tried to tell him there would be an 'after' and that they could be friends then.

"I'd be glad to," he said.

Because, in the unlikely event that he survived another week, he'd very much like to call Zach and compare notes on more than crossbows.

==

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Three arrows hit the target in rapid succession. The fourth one strayed a little to the right, the fifth even more and Sasha had to pause and shake out his arm before loading the sixth.

The crossbow was perfectly balanced. The errors were his. He needed a calibration. There had been only a month since he went under the needles of STRIKE's neurosurgeons and he'd had but one calibration since. He was feeling upset and out of control, which was dangerous.

It's just nerves, he told himself sternly. There was more at stake than there had ever been before. An unlucky doctor, who had been kind to him. Jack and Zach and the friendship Zach had offered him.

His sister's best friend, who was so lovely he could hardly look at her. The Tinman who would kill them all.

The sixth arrow slipped between his fingers, as he tried to load it. He bent down to retrieve it, annoyed with himself for woolgathering. There. He almost picked it up. But there was something else on the floor, half hidden under a workbench covered with a tarp. Something...yes! Brown glass bottles in a carton. Two, three, many. Most of them were empty, but some weren't. 70%, cleaning grade, all of them. The highest purity you can get during distillation, barring addition of other substances. 70% is the concentration limit nature has set for ethanol.

He needed the calibration. He needed it really badly. It would just take ten minutes if he could go deep enough on the first try. He grabbed one of the full bottles by the neck and pulled it out of the box. Then he froze, because Betsy was there, looking at him.

Her face was ashen. For a moment it was all Sasha could think of, the gray pallor of her skin. She had parted her lips to speak, but no sound came out. Because this is not something we discuss. And it was really all the same to him if she thought he'd been drinking, for he knew he had _wanted_ to.

With a sharp pang of regret, he made his fingers uncurl around the bottle. It slid back into the carton and settled there. He backed away from the workbench, keeping his hands in plain sight, as if he'd just let go of a lethal weapon. She stared at him, eyes wide and wild. He stared back. Her mouth worked as she fought his wish.

"It's time," she said, her voice slurring. "I came down here to tell you it's time."

==

Continued in JINX: Azeotrop

 

 

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