Pale moonlight splashed over the gleaming hood of the jet-black Mustang as it hurtled down the two-lane blacktop toward the estate where Matt and Jaryl had been dropped off the day before. Brennan Mulwray's eyes were squarely on the road unwinding before him, but the sleek road machine might just as well have been on autopilot for all the notice he took of anything beyond the essentials of keeping it gobbling up the miles toward his destination. The coordinates taken from the Helix were a good distance west of the city, past the suburbs and through the inky darkness of the more rural areas. He had been driving for more than an hour at speeds well past the posted limit, and though signs of habitation and/or commerce were now few and far between, he still wasn't there yet. Man, he was really getting out in the boonies. Evidently Matt liked his privacy.
The Helix would have gotten him there much quicker, but Brennan had chosen the Mustang for this trip on purpose. In the first place, the others would have heard the airship prepping for takeoff, and he didn't want anyone to try to stop him. The lesser sound of a car engine starting was more common and wouldn't travel as far. With luck, the others might not even know he was gone. He also didn't want to have to explain himself to his anxious teammates, and he sure didn't want anyone to follow him. To that end he had already slipped his comlink ring into his pocket, which would make tracking him difficult should someone – most likely Shalimar – discover his absence. He could explain or apologize later as needed. Right now, though, this was something he had to do alone.
He drove on through the night, the anguish in his mind and spirit providing its own kind of energy which kept his weariness at bay. The thought of Jaryl saving his life at the cost of her baby preyed on him with every mile. That wasn't what he was about. With his size and strength he was supposed to be a protector of those smaller and weaker than himself. That concept had been drilled into him since his early teens, particularly by Captain Mike Saunders, the former Green Beret who taught him martial arts. Dr. Palance, Brennan's court-ordered psychiatrist, had steered the troubled teen into his old friend's military-style training program as a means of providing an outlet for his restless energy and a respite from the constant friction between the boy and his stepfather. Saunders, recognizing much of himself in the angry and frustrated young man, had taken Brennan under his wing, spending long hours with him in the gym and weight room, teaching him discipline and control of not only his flash-point temper, but also his developing electrical powers. It was he who instilled in the youth the principles of honor, responsibility and mental toughness, forging by example a personal code of conduct which helped Brennan become the man he was today.
And what kind of man was that? he wondered bitterly. The kind that may have brought about the death of a woman's unborn child, that's what. His lips twisted grimly. His old mentor would have told him that he was jumping to conclusions, and accompanied the statement with a slap upside the head. Focus! came the echo of his mentor's voice. There's nothing you can do until you know the truth. That's just what Brennan intended to find out.
The GPS signaled his arrival, so he pulled off the road onto a wide, hedge-lined drive. About a hundred feet in stood a tall, elegant wrought iron gate lit by two pairs of spotlights. A guard shack stood to one side. In the distance he could see the lighted windows of a palatial mansion and the rooftops of some smaller outbuildings. Brennan brought the Mustang to a halt in front of the gate, whistling silently at even the little bit of the estate he could see through the darkness. Matt must have bucks up the wazoo.
The uniformed security guard, a younger man with close-cropped brown hair, looked up at the car's approach. When it stopped he walked up to the vehicle and bent down a little to get a good look at the visitor. Brennan rolled down his window and rested his forearm on the sill.
"Can I help you, sir?"
A rookie, the elemental decided instantly. He's too close. I could take him easy, even without my powers.
"Brennan Mulwray to see Matthew Star."
The guard gave him an odd look at this request, but his response was one of professional politeness.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't accept visitors at this hour," he said, "Perhaps you could return tomorrow."
Brennan was too keyed up to keep the impatience out of his voice entirely. "Look, I know it's late, but this is very important. I would appreciate it if you could just call the house and let Matt know I'm here."
The young guard gave him another odd look and shook his head.
"I'm sorry, sir, but my orders are not to disturb the household at this time."
That sounded ominous. Brennan grabbed a stranglehold on his temper and tried another approach.
"Then let me talk to your supervisor." It was evident to Brennan that he wasn't going to get anywhere with this kid, and he was in no mood to be balked this close to his goal. Perhaps he would have better luck with someone who wasn't quite so green.
The guard started backing away warily, his hand drifting unobtrusively to the butt of his sidearm.
"I must ask you to leave now, sir."
Brennan's patience broke.
"I can't do that," he said softly. Lightning leaped from his fingertips, blasting the guard and sending his half-drawn weapon flying. He vaulted from the car and raced to the fallen man, seized his shoulders and dragged him back to the shack. Once there he laid the man down and went to the back door that would get him to the other side of the gate. It was locked, just as he expected. What he didn't expect was that the lock could only be accessed by an authorized retinal scan.
"Damn," he muttered. That left him with a couple of options. He could try zapping it, which may or may not set off an alarm; he could try to hoist the unconscious guard up to the scanner and hold his eye open. Or he could choose Door Number 3.
Brennan darted outside and surveyed the fence, mapping out a trajectory. Then, igniting both hands like the propulsion engines of a jetpack, he launched himself up and over the twenty foot fence. He came down about five feet inside, landing a little awkwardly on the brightly lit inner driveway. In the distance the lights of the mansion, and his answers, beckoned.
Pinned as he was in the glare of two spotlights, Brennan froze. A half dozen uniformed men came out of the darkness in a semi-circle, their weapons pointed right at his chest.
The leader of the group was a squarely-built man with the bearing of a professional soldier and some kind of officer's insignia on his collar. At his direction they took him into custody with cool efficiency, securing his arms behind his back and snapping some sort of collar around his neck which inhibited his electrical powers. A single command into a headset, and few minutes later a covered tram pulled up beside them. The officer got in beside the driver while three guards loaded him unceremoniously into the back.
Brennan expected to be taken to some austere interrogation room for extensive questioning, but instead they drove up to the back of the main house. With guards on each arm, he was hustled through back corridors, up stairs, and finally to an elevator, people gawking at him at every turn. Eventually he was ushered into what looked like a large, tastefully appointed den. A 52 inch plasma TV dominated one wall. Two overstuffed sofas and a couple of wing chairs upholstered in cream with thin, dark green stripes were grouped around a carved coffee table in the center of the room. End tables with matching lamps were conveniently placed at all four corners. A few paintings, some potted plants and even a couple of trees completed the ensemble, giving the room a homey touch without appearing cluttered. The guards stationed themselves in a triangular formation around him and waited.
A second door opened on the far side of the room. Brennan tensed. Matt came in, his pullover sweater and rumpled jeans looking like they had been donned in haste. He appeared tired and careworn…was it from grief? A half-healed cut above his right eye innocent of bandage or stitches gave him a sort of a gangster look to go with his forbidding expression. The officer approached and saluted crisply; together the two conferred in low tones for several moments. Brennan didn't catch what they were saying, but he couldn't decide if that was because they were speaking too quietly or because they were using the language Matt used back in the alley. Either way, it didn't take a genius to figure out that they were discussing him.
The officer nodded respectfully, then came over to Brennan and removed his restraints. Matt walked across the floor and came to a halt about eight feet away from the elemental, his face inscrutable. Seeing him, Brennan had a sudden, very uncomfortable thought. Until this moment he had been more focused on his own need to find out the truth; it hadn't occurred to him how Matt might feel about seeing him. Now it did.
Matt's expression became thunderous.
"What are you doing here?" he snapped.
Brennan hung his head, the apology he had been mentally rehearsing sticking in his throat. He couldn't blame the telepath for his reaction. If Jaryl had miscarried, his presence here must be like pouring salt into an open wound. Then Matt looked back over his shoulder, and Brennan realized that his question was actually meant for a new arrival. He looked over at the slender figure that had just crossed the threshold and stiffened in shock, his heart plummeting to his shoes.
The feisty, bright-eyed woman he met just over a day ago had been replaced by a pale shadow. The velvet dressing gown she wore was obviously an expensive garment, from the high, ruffled collar framing her face and long wing sleeves brought in at the wrist to the gathered waist which flared out to full skirts that fell to the floor, but something about the way she was standing made it seem that it was not so much covering as enveloping her in its brocade folds. The rich hunter green color made her pallid skin even whiter, almost translucent, nearly matching the hue of the thin white cotton headband holding back her unkempt burgundy tresses. She seemed smaller somehow, and frail, like she might collapse at any moment; her shoulders hunched forward, her face wan, her darkened eyes a bit sunken. She moved into the room slowly, heavily supported on either side by two young women wearing identical domestic-type uniforms.
Matt strode swiftly across the room. The maids gave way before him as he bent and swept his wife up into his arms in one fluid motion.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded furiously, his deep concern at her condition written plainly on his face, "You have no business being out of bed. You have got to rest."
She clung to him, her arms going around his neck.
"I know. But when I found out who it was – I had to come."
"No, you didn't," her husband retorted sharply, "You could have spoken to him later, or if worst came to worst I could have brought him to you. What you had to do was to stay put, not waste the little strength you have coming out here. This was foolhardy and reckless in the extreme, well beyond your usual level. And don't start rolling those big green eyes at me – I'm right, and you know it."
Jaryl sighed, acknowledging the validity of his anger. What happened yesterday had scared the hell out of him. As much as he always tried to hide it for her sake, she was well aware of how it tore him up to experience in his own way what she went through when she used her powers, particularly to such an extent. That was one of the down sides of their link, she reflected, but she could no more have refrained from helping Brennan than she could have left Jesse to bleed to death in that factory two years ago. Intellectually Matt understood and accepted that, just as he acknowledged her right to make that decision, but that acceptance didn't shield him from the anguish of seeing his beloved wife suffer from the injuries she took into her own body. Yesterday had been just about the worst she had ever gone through, and she knew it had been sheer torture for him. He had every right to be upset with her now, and to be honest, coming here had taxed her a lot more than she thought it would. He was probably right on that score.
The larger truth, though, was that although she had no idea why Brennan was here, she had to see him, to talk to him. Somehow, some way, it was important, so much so that it was worth the strain of dragging herself here, worth even the lectures she would no doubt be hearing for the next several days. She couldn't for the life of her explain why she felt that way. She just knew, deep in her bones, with a conviction too strong to be questioned. Raising her head, she met her husband's glare, so filled with anger and anxiety, unflinchingly. One hand crept up to lightly touch lips pressed into a thin, stubborn line.
"I truly didn't think about you bringing Brennan to me," she said earnestly, "I should have, and I'm sorry. I promise I'll take better care of myself from now on. But please let me stay. I need to be here."
He glowered at her, and for a long moment she thought that her plea had fallen on deaf ears; that he was going to carry her straight back to their suite and set a pair of guards on her to make sure she stayed there. Then, ever so subtly, something inside him seemed to shift. Perhaps he felt the strength of her conviction, or maybe it was just the knowledge that she wouldn't ask it of him without a very good reason. She didn't know, but whatever it was, his granite mien softened. With the air of a man about to do something he knew was massively against his better judgment, he closed his eyes briefly and sighed in resignation. Strong arms tightened slightly, giving her a little squeeze.
"All right," he said, "But only for a few minutes."
He carried her over to the smaller of the two sofas. As he passed one of the end tables, its deep bottom drawer opened. A lovely patterned afghan hand-crocheted in forest colors rose from its depths, unfolding itself to king-sized length. It followed them to the sofa and hovered in mid-air while the sofa pillows piled themselves up into a comfortable back rest in the corner. Then it spread its woolen arms and wrapped itself snugly around her, the excess folding back across itself to cover her with two additional layers. Matt laid her down against the cushions, solicitously tucking closed the gaps made when he slipped his arms free. When he was satisfied that he had her as well bundled up as possible, he straightened and glanced over his shoulder. One of the overstuffed chairs slid across the floor to his hand; he gripped the back and tweaked it into a position close beside his wife and sat down. Another glance saw a second chair move in similar fashion to his telekinetic call, coming to a stop facing him at a conversational distance. He gestured to their guest to have a seat.
"Now then, suppose you tell us what this is all about."
Brennan hesitated, then reluctantly stepped forward and dropped into the chair. It was plush and comfortable, but it could just as easily have been made of stone for all he noticed. He sat with his shoulders slumped, his head lowered, wondering how to even begin. Remorse weighed on him like a heavy, smothering cloak. He couldn't bear to look at Jaryl, to see the pain and loss he was sure must be in her eyes.
It was true. One only had to look at her to know. She was so weak, so pale, perhaps even in shock, and it was all his fault. His injuries had been too extensive. Hell, for a while he had been dead! Yet she saved him, and doing so had caused her to lose her baby. What could he possibly say? 'I'm sorry' was so pitifully inadequate. He stared down at his big hands, his gut twisting with guilt. What right did he have to intrude on them at such a time? He felt lower than a snake.
Her gentle prompt bit him like the lash of a bullwhip.
"You shouldn't have done it," he mumbled brokenly, "You shouldn't have done it."
The afghan rippled a bit as one white hand slipped from cover and reached tentatively toward his knee.
"Don't touch me!"
He wrenched away from her outstretched hand and leaped to his feet, anguish apparent in every line of his body. He couldn't bear for her to be subjected to the tidal wave of emotions engulfing him. Hadn't he already hurt her enough? Only when he had put the second sofa between them did he stop, his arms braced, his clenched hands crushing the cushioned top, his head dropped low to hide eyes stinging with grief.
"What?" Totally bewildered at the elemental's distress, Jaryl looked over at her husband to see if he had any kind of clue as to what was going on. At first Matt was just as uncomprehending as she, then suddenly he started, blinking rapidly a couple of times as a jolt of understanding hit him. Jaryl saw the change and started to ask a question, but he halted her with a warning gesture. He glanced toward the hovering guards.
"Give us a moment, please."
They weren't at all happy at leaving the couple alone with the distraught and unrestrained intruder, but still the three men nodded obediently and left the room with well-drilled military precision, the maids trailing in their wake. Once the door had closed behind them, Jaryl sat up a bit straighter and shifted a little toward her husband.
"Okay, so what ….?"
"He knows," Matt said simply.
Her eyes widened.
"Jesse, probably, when he accessed Naxcon's system."
"Oh." She pondered for a moment, then her head tilted in confusion. "But that still doesn't explain …."
"He thinksthat healing him caused you to miscarry."
"Stay out of my head!" Brennan snarled, his head snapping up, his hands unconsciously gripping the sofa so tightly that the blood drained from his knuckles. He looked ready to lunge at Matt, like he needed to fight, to break something, to do anything that would give him an outlet to dispel the emotions threatening to bury him.
The telepath rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Well, if you're going to shout something at the top of your lungs, don't blame other people for hearing you," he retorted with some asperity.
Now Jaryl understood the strange urgency she felt to come out here. Though he wore that street-tough stoicism like a suit of armor, she knew that inside he was bleeding as if from a score of stab wounds, his soul in torment. Being connected with him as long and as pervasively as she had been had somehow formed an unusual bond between them. It was nowhere near as comprehensive and intimate as the link she shared with Matt, but it had been enough to give her a glimpse into his mind and heart. She knew beyond all doubt that this would gnaw at him, weighing down a spirit that had known too much darkness already, and leave an indelible stain that might easily dominate his actions for the rest of his life. Jaryl refused to let that happen.
Brennan couldn't look at her. Corded veins stood out in his neck as he fought for some semblance of control, trying to steel himself against the pity and compassion he heard in her voice. He didn't deserve it.
"Brennan, please, come back and sit down. There's no reason for you to be so upset. It's not true. I am perfectly all right. We both are."
It took a moment for the impact of her words to penetrate his anguish. He turned, heedless of the moisture threatening to spill from his eyes, scarcely daring to believe that he heard her correctly.
"Your baby …?" His voice cracked.
"Is fine," she said gently, "Now please, come and sit down. We need to talk about this."
A boulder the size of Gibraltar slipped from his shoulders with a resounding crash, filling him with an enormous sense of relief. He closed his eyes briefly and tipped his head back, feeling almost a little dizzy as the emotional toxins drained from him, leaving him slightly weak in the knees. Jaryl spoke again in that same soft, sympathetic voice.
"Brennan, dear friend – are you going to sit down or do I have to kick your knee again?"
The incongruity of that statement made his eyes snap open. She was looking up at him with an amused smile, her eyes lightening with a hint of their former brilliant hue. That lifted his heart as much as her words did. He managed a weak grin. Swiping sheepishly at his eyes, he came back and sat down in the chair beside her.
"You're really all right?"
"Yes." She grimaced. "I know it doesn't show right now, but it will - in a couple of months I'll look like I swallowed a basketball."
"And will probably be craving ice cream and pickles," Matt chimed in.
"Oh, please," she sniffed haughtily, "I'd never crave anything so ordinary. Cherries jubilee and corn dogs are more my speed."
She extended her hand. Brennan hesitated, afraid that she might try to draw the aches and weakness from him, or at the very least be deluged by his chaotic emotions.
"It's all right – I won't be able to read you." She touched the pearly white band circling her head. "This psionic blocker creates a shield that prevents me from receiving empathic impressions, even by touch – which for the most part rather sucks, but for now it's necessary because for the time being my usual defenses are non-existent. Without it I'd be bombarded by the emotions and physical sensations of nearly everyone in the building. The blocker insulates me from all that; it even dampens my link with Matt somewhat. That also sucks, but that's the way it is."
She held out her hand again. Brennan took it this time, coming to the edge of his seat and leaning well forward so she wouldn't have to reach. A renewed pang of guilt stabbed him when he felt how cold it was. He brought his other hand over, encasing hers between his in an attempt to warm it.
Jaryl took a couple of slow, deep breaths and looked up at him.
"Now then – I understand how you feel about all this, but we need to get a few things straight. One: Yes, the energy drain involved was huge and debilitating. There's no denying that. Two: In a couple of days I'll be back to my usual charming self and driving my incredibly tolerant husband bananas. Three: You would have died."
"You should have let me die! Do you think I would have wanted to live at that price?"
"Four, and most importantly…" she overrode him impatiently, and here some of the old fire gleamed in her eyes as she leaned forward, "I knew exactly what I was doing when I started. I weighed the extent of your injuries, and the risks, against my own abilities. I made my own decision, which, I might add, you were in no position to challenge - either then or now."
She impaled him with the direct look of someone who wanted to make sure her message was received with crystalline clarity, and held it until his gaze dropped. Then she softened, one corner of her mouth curving upward. "You should also know that if I found that I couldn't save you, I'd have withdrawn. So you need to stop beating yourself up over this. It happened, and we all lived through it. It's over. History. Dump the misplaced guilt and get over it."
"How can I get over it?" Brennan's voice thickened, and he swallowed hard. Jaryl was lying through her teeth; somehow he knew that; knew it with a certainty that went clear to his core. Withdrawing meant surrendering, and there was no more surrender in her than there was in himself. If he needed confirmation, all he had to do was look at Matt. The telepath had remained silent, perhaps sensing that this was something the two of them had to hash out between them, but the haunted look in his eyes revealed everything. "Jesse gave me the gist of what happened. Those injuries should have killed me, and yet you took them into your own body. You risked your life, and your child's, to save mine. How could you do that?"
"Because you were there for me," she said simply, "If you hadn't offered Matt your help, if Jesse hadn't found the crucial bit of information that led you to Naxcon, if Mutant X hadn't helped Matt rescue me literally in the nick of time …."
She took a breath, and then another. "The bottom line is that if you hadn't been there, you wouldn't have been hurt. How could I, in all honor, not help you when you needed it?"
"It's not the same," he insisted, "I only risked my own life. You risked so much more."
"The risk wasn't as great as you think," she said evenly, "I knew going in that I wouldn't be doing this alone. I had powerful backup."
Brennan nodded. "Matt."
"No, Brennan. Not Matt. You."
"Unconscious," he retorted bitterly, "Some backup."
She shook her head. "Not where we were. In that place, you were a huge factor."
He started to ask a question. She forestalled him with a touch, pausing as she searched for words to make him comprehend.
"You're a warrior, Brennan, a warrior to the bone, with an incredible will to live. Spirit that strong has power beyond the physical realm. Energy is energy, after all, in whatever form. In that place you could fight, and you did, with a fierceness that would have done a Roman gladiator proud. That's where you made the difference."
"I don't understand."
"When I heal someone, the connection is physical as well as mental," she explained slowly, "The injured areas almost merge – heart to heart, bone to bone. For a time, particularly with severe trauma, vital functions may have to be shared. I have to be able to keep things like pulse and respiration going, because if one of us goes, we both go."
Brennan stared at her. "Are you saying that your heart …kept mine beating?"
"That's the way it usually works. This time, though, things got a bit …complicated. That's where you stepped in."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure how to explain it because it's never happened before. Suddenly you were just there – your energy, your essence, actively taking over the vital functions, keeping us going. To use mechanic's terms, you kept the engine running while I made repairs. I didn't have to do both. I was able to concentrate on healing and still safeguard my child." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Don't you remember the cave?"
That shocked him right to the core.
"Cave? But … that was just a dream."
"A metaphor, actually, created by your mind, but no less real for all that. The fighting … once or twice your body wanted to quit, but you refused to surrender. You kept us safe while I did what had to be done."
She gave him a weary smile.
"So you see – you really did make a big difference."
Brennan shook his head. There was nothing heroic in what he did – what she said he did, he corrected himself, since he had no memory of it. That was just pure survival. The fact remained that she shouldn't have been in that position to begin with.
"You still shouldn't have taken the risk," he insisted stubbornly, "Not for me. Things went wrong. Your baby …"
"All right, let's talk about my baby. That's something else you should know."
Her eyes bored into his with fierce intensity.
"They would have taken him. I heard them discussing it. They would have taken him away, and his life would have been a living hell as a lab rat in one experiment after another to find out if he inherited my powers. If he did, the soulless bastards would have tortured him repeatedly just to study how they work – and because he's Matt's son as well as mine. One of them even wondered aloud if once he got older, they would be able to dissect him alive and then watch him heal. And you don't even want to know about their plans for me."
Point taken. Brennan could concede that much, at least. He still didn't like it, not by a long shot, but he was coming to grips with the idea that it wasn't his place to question her actions. She evidently recognized his capitulation and was satisfied with it because the fierceness left her, and she let her head relax against the cushions.
He realized something was wrong in the next breath when her hand slipped limply from his and her body started to sag a little sideways. Something in her eyes seemed to waver, like a candle's flame flickering just before it went out. Alarmed, Brennan froze, not knowing what to do, but Matt was already in motion, kneeling at her side in the next instant and gathering her into his arms. The elemental gave way quickly, rising to his feet and pushing the chair aside to give him room.
"All right, that's it," Matt insisted in a voice that brooked no argument, "You're going back to bed right now."
Jaryl tried to prop open her heavy, drooping eyelids without a lot of success.
"You're hovering again," she protested feebly. A shiver rippled through her body.
"Gee, I can't imagine why," her husband retorted sardonically, "You're chilled to the bone, you've lost the little color you had, and you're so weak you're about to pass out. Why would I be hovering?"
He lifted her, afghan and all, and got to his feet. Her head fell limply onto his shoulder. She snuggled against him unconsciously, making a contented sound. The hazy and totally irrelevant thought crossed her mind that, even at times like this when she knew she was working his very last nerve, there was no place she would rather be than in this man's arms.
"Poor Matt," she murmured dreamily, "I really do drive you crazy sometimes, don't I?"
Matt's forbidding expression slowly softened.
"Yes, my love, you do," he admitted after a moment, his ire almost but not completely draining away. He kissed the top of her head lightly, and his voice became warm and tender. "But I guess I wouldn't have it any other way."
Feeling uncomfortably intrusive, Brennan started to edge toward the door.
"I should go," he began, hoping his wobbling legs were up to the task. The physical exertions and emotional stress of the evening was hitting him with a vengeance. He'd be lucky to make it to wherever Security put the Mustang. Matt threw him a sharp look.
"You're not going anywhere," he corrected in the same commanding tone, "You're nearly out on your feet as well, and you're certainly in no condition to drive. You'll spend the night with us." He glanced away and Brennan thought he saw something flicker in his eyes. He opened his mouth to object, but Jaryl stirred in her husband's arms.
"Just go with it, Brennan," she advised in slow, exhausted words he had to strain to catch, "There's no arguing with him when he's like this."
Matt frowned at her.
"You should remember that more often."
Her lips twitched faintly in a Mona Lisa-like smile. "Yes, dear."
Matt's scowl deepened, making it plain that he wasn't buying this show of meek obedience in the slightest, even in her condition. Whether she was aware of it or not, however, remained an open question. Her eyes had already drifted closed.
Matt looked up and caught Brennan's eye.
"By the way, I'd appreciate your discretion about all this," he said, "It's going to be an absolute zoo around here once the news gets out that she's pregnant, and I'd just as soon delay the inevitable for as long as we can."
Brennan nodded. "Of course," he said. It was the least he could do.
The door opened, and a middle-aged man in a dark suit entered. Brennan guessed that Matt had summoned him telepathically, but he had no need to speculate what the man was doing here. He might as well have had 'butler' painted on his forehead.
"Karl will show you to a guest room," Matt said, "If there is anything you need, you have only to ask." He shifted his arms slightly, adjusting his grip on Jaryl's sleeping form. "Now if you'll excuse me…"
"Oh, yeah, sure." Brennan quickly hopped back out of the way. Matt bid him good night and carried his wife from the room.
Brennan was then escorted to a suite so luxurious that it put a five-star hotel to shame, with a bed he could practically land the Helix on. Karl started to describe some of the main features and amenities of the room, but the elemental listened with only half an ear. He was beat – so tired that all he wanted to do was crawl into bed and crash. His mind, though, had a will of its own and kept going back to Matt – the love and deep concern in his demeanor, his tender care of Jaryl as he held her in his arms despite his annoyance at her behavior, the undisguised affection in the way she snuggled against him. Brennan felt an unaccustomed and totally unexpected wave of envy sweep him as he watched the interplay between them.
What would it be like to hold his own woman like that?
He could picture it easily. She would be drowsing against his chest, soft and warm and trusting, her hair cascading over his shoulder, perhaps wrapped in a colorful blanket, her body rounding with his child. He would hold her tenderly, feeling proud, protective, and full of wonder at the miracle of life growing inside her. Most of all he would be content, with a sense of completeness that he had finally found something he had been searching for all his life.
Brennan had always loved kids and wanted some of his own someday, but it seemed like the yearning for a family had grown stronger in the past year, ever since his old high school flame, Becky Dolan, barreled back into his life claiming that her ten year old boy, Connor, was Brennan's son. The claim turned out to be a lie, but those few short hours thinking that he was a father had left their mark on the elemental's mind and heart. Now more and more his thoughts were turning toward the idea of settling down with the right woman and starting a family. The recent deaths of Adam and Emma only intensified those thoughts. Before he could always shunt them aside with reminders of the dangers of his life with Mutant X, a life he enjoyed and found fulfilling, and the ever-present threat of mutant genetic instability. He knew he could die at any time – yesterday was a good example – and he hadn't wanted to put any kid of his through that kind of trauma. He had experienced it himself when his fighter-pilot father had been shot down over the jungles of Vietnam and eventually killed. Brennan had never known him. That pain had been one of the driving factors behind his constant friction with his stepfather, and it made him vow that no child of his would ever go through that. Someday his life would be more stable, not quite so much live-in-the-moment. That would be time enough to think about having kids.
Now, suddenly, 'someday' wasn't so far away.
Karl departed. Brennan wearily shucked off his clothes and slid between the turned-down sheets, yawning copiously. He couldn't remember the last time he felt this wiped. No doubt his head would hit the pillow and he would be out like a light. His imagination, however, freed from its normal restraints by his exhaustion, wasn't through with him yet.
What if the woman in his arms was Shalimar?
His automatic reaction was one of denial. What left field did that come from? He didn't think of Shalimar that way. She was a good friend, a staunch teammate. She was family. She probably felt the same way about him. The whole idea was ridiculous.
Why ridiculous? queried that unruly part of his brain. She's all woman – beautiful, vibrant, and incredibly sexy. You've been attracted to each other from the start. She's smart, fun, and powerful enough to fight alongside you. You trust her. She has a wild streak as wide as yours. You understand each other. What's so ridiculous?
That's still a long way from being in love, not to mention getting married and starting a family, his sense of reason (or maybe denial?) tried to argue back, though the rest of him wanted nothing more than to table the discussion and just sleep. He was way too tired to think straight anyway. Besides, Shal would never go for it. She doesn't want to be tied down; she likes the action too much. If I push it, she's just as likely to run in the opposite direction.
So take it real slow. Use the ol' Mulwray charm. Bring her to you.
We have a great relationship now. Why take the chance of screwing it up?
No guts, no glory. Do you want her or not?
He was still trying to figure out the answer to that question when slumber finally claimed him.
He was no closer to sorting out his chaotic mind when he met with Matt late the next morning to take leave of his host. Matt insisted on walking him out.
"How's Jaryl?" Brennan asked, trying not to feel self-conscious about the two suited men falling in behind them at a discreet distance. He could almost feel their suspicious eyes boring into his back.
"Weak as the proverbial kitten, but much better than when you last saw her," Matt replied, "She crashed hard last night, but at least it was quality rest. She'll be fine, although it will take longer than the couple of days she mentioned."
Brennan's jaw tightened.
"She shouldn't have come out here last night."
"I'm with you there," Matt agreed, "If I had any inkling of what she meant to do, I probably would have tied her to the bed or something. You'd think that by now I would know how her mind works. She gets an idea in her head, something she feels strongly about, and she just takes the bit in her teeth." His facial muscles twisted sardonically. "You may not have noticed this, but my blushing bride can be a wee bit impulsive."
Brennan noticed, all right. He felt a phantom twinge in his knee as he remembered how Jaryl had attacked him before he had a chance to tell her that he was one of the good guys.
"'Impulsive' is right," he agreed ruefully, "She took me out before I hardly had the chance to say a word."
Matt chuckled and clapped him on the back.
"Welcome to the club. If it makes you feel any better, the first time we met she nearly kicked my teeth down my throat."
They walked on, the two bodyguards following unobtrusively. The place was like a palace, huge and ornate, though this section had the feel of behind-the-scenes functionality, full of people bustling here and there. Brennan took it in only superficially. He was silent and seemed preoccupied. Matt threw him a sideways glance.
"There's something still bothering you, isn't there?" he asked.
"I've been thinking about Jaryl, and everything she went through," he said after a moment, "I just don't understand how you could let her do that."
"Like she told you - it was her decision to make."
"But she might have …" Matt shot him a warning look, nodding toward a harried-looking office worker type scurrying past them. Brennan obligingly dropped his voice without missing a beat. " … miscarried, she might have died. Your wife, your child. How could you allow her to take such a risk?"
Matt halted and faced the taller man.
"What you're saying is that, as her husband, I should have stopped her."
Brennan looked away, flushing guiltily. He hadn't meant it in an accusatory way. It was a man's responsibility, after all, to protect his wife, even from herself. It might be more difficult with a woman as powerful and strong willed as Jaryl (or Shalimar?) but that didn't mean that responsibility could be abdicated. He just didn't understand why Matt hadn't prevented her from doing it.
Matt gestured down the corridor, and they resumed walking in silence as the telepath tried to gather his thoughts. Finally he spoke.
"What you have to understand is that to be truly successful, any marriage or similar relationship must be a partnership, a blending of strengths and weaknesses to make a stronger whole," he began, "Decisions have to be shared equally. That is especially important and correspondingly difficult for people like us, because physical danger is so much a part of our lives. In this particular case, Jaryl was sure that she could heal you, even knowing how badly you were hurt, without lasting harm to herself or our child. In that respect, she had the greatest knowledge of the situation. She knew how afraid I was for her and the baby; she was aware I knew how risky it was for them both. She had to take my feelings into consideration, and she did, but in the end, knowing her own abilities even better than I, she was sure she could handle it, and she felt honor-bound to try. What it boils down to is that she was asking for my trust. I couldn't say no."
"That's the hell of loving such a strong woman," he went on, "As much as you want to shield her from danger, sometimes you have to let go of that protectiveness and respect her abilities and decisions, right or wrong. That's a hard lesson for a man to learn. We want, we need, to protect our women. It's a very primal - Jaryl says chauvinistic – instinct, hard-wired into our chromosomes. But if you truly love her, you have to respect and trust her as well. You can't take the decision out of her hands. You can violently disagree…," A rueful smile touched his lips and vanished. "…even twist your guts into bloody, chewed-up chunks of ice when things go wrong …, but in the end you can't deny her the right to make the decision, or else you diminish her equality in the partnership. Once in a while she may acquiesce because she recognizes that the issue isn't any lack of confidence in her power or skill, but rather of your need to protect her – not that such acquiescence happens very often – but still the choice in that instance must be hers."
Matt sighed. "I'm not saying this very well; I guess because I've never tried to put it into words before. There has never been the need, connected as we are. But love, I think, means loving the person for who and what they are, accepting the light and dark, good and bad, even the little things that drive you crazy. 'For better or for worse', as the saying goes. The reverse is true as well and equally hard for her to learn; if she loves you, she has to acknowledge your right to have those feelings, and understand and accept your instinct, your need, to shelter and protect her, even when she wants to beat you senseless with a baseball bat for being overprotective."
Brennan let that notion seep in, but he couldn't let it go entirely. "But what if you're wrong?" he asked, "What if, in this case, she couldn't have handled it? What if she had died, or miscarried?"
"That's the nightmare," Matt acknowledged, a haunted look shadowing his face, "I don't know what I would have done, assuming in the case of the former that I would survive myself, given the symbiotic nature of our link. The jury is still out on that one. I think that may be the ultimate test of love – being able to conquer your own fear enough to trust your partner in an extreme situation. It's a very delicate balancing act. You won't always be able to do it, maybe most of the time you won't be able to do it, but the important thing is to honestly try. Trust like that is the steel that binds you together, and let me tell you, no matter how many gray hairs she gives you …" and here he cast a loving smile at the ceiling toward where his lady was resting, and felt the affectionate caress of her thoughts in return, " … the results are well worth it, because when you find that balance, you have a woman who is what Jaryl is to me - my best friend, my partner, my love….the other half of my soul. She's been more to me than anyone can ever know."
Brennan digested this thoughtfully. He couldn't help drawing parallels between Jaryl and Shalimar. Both women were fearless and sometimes reckless. Both were powerful and stubborn. Both were beautiful and confident enough in themselves to show their softer sides without embarrassment or compromise. And both had men who worried about them.
Why was Matt was telling him all this? Was it because once upon a time he had been where Brennan was now, confused, reluctant and yearning all at the same time about a deeper relationship with another strong woman? Was he encouraging the elemental to just go for it? Brennan rather thought so, but that was easy for Matt to say. He had a mental link with his woman which told him what she was thinking. Brennan had no such advantage. Hell, he didn't even know his own mind! He still didn't have an answer to the question he asked himself last night; he wasn't even sure if he wanted to pursue an answer. Why upset the status quo? He couldn't afford to blow it. And yet - Matt was telling him, showing him, that such a relationship could work. Maybe, just maybe, one day Brennan could make it work for himself. He just needed time to get it all straight in his mind.
With an effort he pulled himself back to a safer topic.
"I take it that Jaryl has given you a lot of gray hairs."
Matt ran his fingers through his jet black hair, his expression rueful. "She insists we're pretty much equal it that department, but she has this problem with looking before she leaps, which is what tends to get her into trouble."
"How much trouble was really she in?"
Matt could see that Brennan needed him to answer honestly. "A lot," he admitted, "We all were, but Jaryl in particular. Your condition at the time was such that if we'd have tried to move you, it would have killed you both, and probably taken me out as well. Jaryl did the only thing she could."
Brennan tensed. "What, exactly, did she do?"
"You had a lot of damage – multiple fractures, internal bleeding, trauma to a couple of major organs. Up to that point she was able to work fairly slowly and carefully; take care of one thing at a time. When Damien Acosta decided to take personal charge, that luxury went out the window. She had to act fast to get you travel ready, so she stopped being careful and just absorbed everything from you all at once."
Brennan's jaw dropped in shock and dismay.
"But she said she knew what she was getting into. That could have killed her!"
Matt shrugged. "She did know when she went in. She couldn't have anticipated she would have to accelerate things the way she did. It was very dangerous, and she did walk a tightrope for a bit, but she had no choice. We had to get out of there, or all of us would have been taken."
"She should have left me!"
Matt shook his head. "Not an option at that point, either morally or physically. She didn't have time to pick and choose which injuries to take and which to leave you with, so she just took everything and told Jesse to get you out of there. She figured that your teammates would take you to the Helix and I would come get her; she would use that time to get herself in some kind of condition to travel."
"But it didn't work out that way," Brennan objected, "Lexa said that when she tried to help her up, Jaryl screamed and collapsed."
Matt nodded. "With the magnitude of your other injuries she missed a sharp piece of rib that had snapped off and slipped down against an intestine," he explained, "When she tried to get up, the peculiar placement drove the shard right through. She had to divert her attention to healing that quickly so toxins didn't spill out and spread."
Brennan was aghast. Matt nodded.
"I know – I felt the same way at the time. But she was able to take care of it before it caused any additional problems. After that, it took quite a while for her to heal the injuries she took from you, and as you saw, the toll on her was extreme. She is on the mend, though, and will make a full recovery." The telepath stopped and faced the elemental seriously. "The long and the short of it is that she's safe at home now because of you and the others. To me, nothing else matters. I'm very grateful." His eyes bored into Brennan's. "I hope that one day you'll understand just how grateful."
He extended his hand. Brennan took it in silence, his face a study of conflicting emotions, wondering just how much the other man was picking up from him. Matt's features, however, gave nothing away. They continued on to the front of the building, where a uniformed guard snapped to attention and opened the door. The two men stepped outside onto the portico.
The black Mustang had been driven to the front of the mansion and now stood polished and ready at the curb, the keys dangling from the ignition. Brennan knew he should go, knew that by now his friends had discovered his absence and were probably frantic about not being able to reach him, but there was something else he had to ask.
"What's it like?" he asked quietly, "Having someone that much a part of you?"
Matt understood that Brennan wasn't referring to the connection he and Jaryl shared. He looked at Brennan with a new light rising in his dark eyes, his gaze far-seeing and filled with wonder, as if he were exploring the deepest mysteries of the universe.
"It's the most glorious, exhilarating, incredibly intimate and absolutely terrifying experience you can ever imagine," he said softly, "There are so many levels. It's the ultimate mix of strength and vulnerability. Most couples never get to experience it. They don't have the trust. I think we're lucky because many times the strongest bonds are formed by facing the storm together – adversity, or for people like us, actual battle. Jaryl and I take it all to a much higher degree because of our link, but I think that other people might make up for that somewhat because they choose to embark on this unique relationship. Our joining came about as the result of a sort of psychic accident." He saw Brennan about to ask the obvious question, and pre-empted him with a dismissing wave of his hand. "Long story."
"How do you deal with having someone inside your head 24/7?"
"It's not as bad as it probably sounds," Matt replied, "And I'm so used to it now that, as you saw, I'm a basket case without it. Usually it's fairly benign, like having a radio on in the background all the time. Most of the sound is tuned out unless you're actually paying attention. And there are certain barriers that we respect. At its height it's …," He paused, searching for the words. "..Intense and magnificent. It's total sharing, instantaneous communication in its purest form, - nothing hidden, no lies, no chance of misunderstanding. Our minds are literally one." He thought a minute, and then grinned. "Of course, there is a down side in that there's nothing hidden, no lies, and no chance of misunderstanding. That's where other people have an advantage. With us, there's not much chance of misinterpreting a nuance or saying that you didn't mean something." His grin widened. "That, and it's murder trying to surprise her for her birthday."
The two men walked down the steps to the waiting Mustang. Brennan opened the driver's door and slid behind the wheel. He started to close it behind him, but Matt held it open.
"If you or the others ever need help in any way," he said seriously, "Call on us. There is nothing too great or too small. If Jaryl and I are not here at the time, my staff has orders to render any assistance possible, and will get in touch with us wherever we happen to be."
They exchanged farewells, then Matt stepped back as Brennan closed the door and ignited the engine. The sleek machine started smoothly down the winding driveway. Matt watched the elemental until he was out of sight.
"And good luck with your own strong woman," he said very softly to no one in particular.
The Dominion's Council Master was trying to decide between a lunch of grilled mahi- mahi or Cajun swordfish when a strident beep sounded from his personal communication device. That particular number was given only to a very few, including a couple of field agents whose reports he wasn't necessarily ready to share with the rest of the Council, so he laid down the menu and reached into his breast pocket to answer it. Beside him, his second-in-command raised her eyebrows in silent interrogation. He listened briefly, asked a couple of terse questions, then hung up.
"Trouble?" Dominique asked.
"Mulwray has been released. Surveillance observed quite a cordial departure."
"I told you this would be a problem. Mulwray no doubt feels indebted to them, and that will influence the rest of the team. Mutant X will have to be neutralized before we move in on Target Alpha."
"I'm well aware of that," he said icily, "But we've only just begun gathering the necessary intelligence; we're weeks away from being able to mount a successful assault. In the meantime, we still have Damien Acosta and his manufactured mutants to deal with. I intend to make extensive use of Mutant X against him, particularly since they're already motivated to take him on. As long as they remain ignorant of our long-range plans they're much more of an asset than a liability."
"And if they begin to suspect?"
"Just as we planned," he answered casually, picking up his menu once again, "Once they have outlived their usefulness, they will be terminated and the remains moved to cold storage for future study. Research already has the morgue drawers prepared. I expect those slots will be occupied before the year is out."
He perused the menu with an unhurried air.
"I believe I'll have the mahi-mahi…."
Author's Note: I would like to thank my readers from around the world for sticking with this very long story until its conclusion – which really isn't an ending, but rather a beginning as Brennan and Shalimar become closer and the cancer that is The Dominion begins to show itself. I have tried to stay within the established story line of the series, just shine a little bit of light on the human side of the characters. I have been focusing more on Brennan and Shalimar, but for those fans of Jesse and Lexa – rest assured that I have some interesting things in mind for them as well.
I hope you all have enjoyed this tale as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I would really like to hear your comments and questions. You can email me through the FanFiction site and/or post reviews.
Until next time….. Stillwaterrs