(By Dustin Evermore, Max Fauth & Lisa Hartjes)

[This story picks up where "The Vision" ends.]

Zenshou woke slowly with a smile on her face. Her internal clock woke her, reminding her of the need to get up early so she could get back to the apartment before Gem arrived. Just a few more minutes, she thought, unwilling to give up the contentment she felt. Zenshou turned and snuggled up close to the hard, warm body behind her. Mmmm... This is nice... Wait a sec...

Zenshou's eyes popped open and she saw a man's armed draped across her waist as if cradling her. What the... She lifted her head carefully and she was still clothed as she was when she went to bed, and the man lying on top of the covers with the sheets tangled between them was Jason.

What happened? Zenshou was puzzled. There was a vague memory of having a nightmare, and being pulled out of it by someone. Was it Jason, she wondered. When she was so terrified in the dream she didn't recognize the voice, but it made her feel safe.

Very slowly and carefully, she turned over so she was facing Jason, his arm still draped across her waist. He made a noise and for a brief moment disappointment crossed his face, but his hand moved and splayed itself across her back and pulled her closer. Jason let out a sigh, then the only motions he made was the rising and falling of his chest.

He looks so... gentle when he's asleep, Zenshou thought, resisting the impulse to lift her hand and brush aside an errant lock of his hair. She lay there silently, surprised to find contentment at watching his sleeping face. Is this what it is like to wake up to someone you care about?

Zenshou finally had to admit to herself that she felt something for Jason, but she certainly didn't know what it was. Friendship certainly, and a sense of kinship. He's been through so much, his heart and soul almost broke. The fates certainly have smiled upon him, by giving me the chance to help him on his path to redemption.

Jason stirred and squinted out of drowsy eyelids. Oh no! I meant to get up early to take Zenshou shopping! He was about to roll over and grab the phone, which had an intercom on it when he realized he was not alone. Jason opened his eyes wider and noticed Zenshou's quietly curious and contemplative eyes staring into his.

"Yaa!" he said in surprise. He clumsily rolled off the bed, the covers going with him, and he hit the floor with a thud, smacking his back and head jarringly.

"Ow." The embarrassed sound of his voice floated up from the floor. Then he noticed he still had no shirt on and his face turned a color of red that was starting to become familiar to Zenshou. He sat up rubbed the back of his head with one hand.

"I'm so sorry! I didn't mean... It's just, I felt your nightmare last night and I wanted to make sure you were okay. I didn't mean to fall asleep." He almost added, 'but nothing happened, I swear'. It would have been a totally idiotic thing to say; as if to imply she wouldn't even notice if something had. Instead, he only mostly felt like an idiot. The truth was, he just got too comfortable lying there with her and he felt like he abused a friendship he had only just begun.

He looked at the surprised and amused Zenshou who sat up, now exposed on the bed because Jason had managed to pull the covers off when he fell from the bed. "Oh!" He stared at Zenshou with wide eyes for a longer moment than he should have.

Zenshou was comfortable with nudity in a situation like this but quickly realized that either Jason wasn't, or he was still disoriented from the surprise he had upon waking. One of the pillows flew from the head of the bed to hit Jason in the stomach. "You're staring. Haven't you seen a woman dressed like this before," she asked with a smile, then bit down on her lip at the look of utter dismay on his face.

Jason had a hard time prying his eyes away from her half-naked body. "I-uh-s--sorry!" Jason hurriedly grabbed up the blanket and shook it, billowing it up and settling it around her bare shoulders. He paused when he had finished helping her with the blanket to look ashamedly up at her face and was caught in those blue eyes once more.

That final look of contrition was too much for Zenshou and she started to laugh softly. "Oh Jason," she said with a smile. "Now we're even about something. We've both seen each other without a shirt on." She adjusted the blanket. "Are you okay? That's quite a bump on the head you took." Zenshou swung her slender legs out from under her and slipped towards the edge of the bed.

"And don't worry about what happened last night," she added, trying to reassure him. "I know you didn't take advantage of me. I kind of remember what happened. I had a nightmare - I don't remember what it was - but I believe you were able to help me. I don't think I've slept that well in a long time. Thank you," she said softly with a shy smile. I think you needed that peaceful rest too, she thought, and many more hours of it.

"Oh, well, um. You're welcome?" Jason was confused and he couldn't get the image of Zenshou's breasts out of his head. He was pretty sure he had done something wrong and didn't understand why he wasn't being reprimanded. He rose to his knees, exposing a wide, much-scarred chest that seemed to map his past fights like book written in hieroglyphs. Nearly all the scars still looked pink and new. He forgot about the bump on his noggin with Zenshou's proximity.

Jason, what have you been through to have injured you so much. Zenshou was confused for a moment, then suddenly realized what was wrong. He doesn't have any injuries?. Does he have accelerated healing, or did he take something after I fell asleep?

"Could you hand me that red thing that's on the floor?" Zenshou asked.

Jason couldn't help looking at Zenshou and the moment stretched as he drank in her long, alluring form.

"Oh. There it is," he said belatedly. Jason retrieved the item, looking with big eyes at the 'red thing'. It resembled something like a bra, only it hugged more of her rib cage and had a zipper. He handed it to Zenshou.

"Thanks. Now, turn around. You're only entitled to one free show," she said with a laugh.

Jason turned around, wondering if he really should be in a room alone with a half-naked guest. Then again, was there better way to spend the first part of a morning? "Well. If we're going to do that shopping, we should get started," he stated. He was blushing so badly, his neck betrayed his color even with his back to Zenshou.

"Oh Jason, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you," Zenshou said as she quickly put on the bustier. "I where I grew up there are different... rules for nudity. Nudity, complete or partial, in mixed company is acceptable in certain circumstances, like bathing or sleeping because they're not sexual activities. There's nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. I'm not offended. If you had said something crude, that would have been something altogether different." She sent a feeling of reassurance through their link.

She did a minor adjustment to herself. "There. I'm covered just like I'm wearing a bikini. Could you hand me the rest of my things?"

Jason turned around and looked at Zenshou. He couldn't help admiring how she looked as he bent to pick up her clothes. Jason hesitated as he handed them to her. "You know, Zenshou, you don't have to wear these again. There are plenty of clean clothes in the closet."

Jason strode over to the closet and opened the door. Beyond was a large walk-in space in which a wide variety of women's clothes was stored. "Helen was a bit shorter than you, but I bet there's something in here you might like. And you might as well take whatever you want. I certainly don't have a use for them, and I'll probably just end up auctioning off the formal wear and giving the rest to GoodWill."

She looked at the clothing longingly for moment, but shook her head. "Thanks Jason, but I'm afraid that they're too good for what Zenshou wears. The quality is too high. Zenshou wears knock offs and cheap imitations. She doesn't have a 'sugar daddy', and it would really be a shame if they got ruined. I don't exactly stay in the nicest of areas in the Zone. Besides, they might be recognizable, and if I show up with stuff before it appears in the charity shops, people might wonder if there's a connection."

Jason looked a little disappointed. "That makes sense."

Zenshou zipped up the catsuit to just above the top of the bustier. "I do need to get some more clothes, though. I don't have very many, and with the lack of water it's expensive to get clothes washed on a regular basis."

"All right then. I'll get changed and showered. Why don't we go find breakfast and then figure out where we can do some shopping?"

Zenshou nodded as she adjusted her boot. "All I really need is food. I can get the rest later." She paused and thought for a moment. "I wonder what Gem's favorite fruit or vegetable is. I adore pomegranate, but it stains like hell," she grinned.

Jason nodded. "I know where there is a supermarket. I've never gone there personally, so that makes it a good place to try. We shouldn't be recognized."

"Fantastic," Zenshou replied. "Now I just have to try not to go too overboard and buy more than we can carry back - or that will spoil before we get a chance to eat it." She grinned.

Later, Jason found something to eat in the kitchen and the two enjoyed a quiet breakfast. Jason was clad in an altogether different outfit this morning. He had on a loose-fitting black cotton shirt and blue jeans. He left the top few buttons undone, exposing black body armor underneath. He did not at all resemble the clean-cut corporate figure Zenshou knew him to be.

Zenshou found herself wondering what she would have thought about Drake if she had met him on the street, or in 93 U. Likely would have avoided him, she thought. All that hardware, and the armor. But which is the real him? Jason Stone, ruthless CEO; Drake, street sam; or the Jason Stone who fell out of bed and panicked like his parents had walked in on him doing something naughty?

When they were ready to go, he armed himself. To Zenshou, it seemed like he was expecting trouble, for in addition to his usual swords and pistols, he packed his longcoat's inner pockets full of space clips. Finally, he removed a dark, canvas shoulder bag from a closet and looped the strap across his chest and shoulder.

"Do you always go into the Zone dressed for bear," Zenshou asked curiously. "Gem doesn't have even a tenth that stuff."

"Yes, these days I do. The board knows now that I have made trips to the Zone in the past and they strongly disapprove." Something about his tone suggested he cared not in the least what might happen to SynTech should he die. Perhaps, then, the Stone fortune was not tied to the fate of Jason's company. "My enemies would certainly see it as a place where they might be able to get away with murder. There has been almost constant attempts on my life, one way or another, for years now."

I can't imagine what it must be like to have to try and live like that, Zenshou thought. It's hard enough for the short time that I've been there.

On the top-most shelf of the closet were two helmets. The familiar one was black with a tinted face shield. It was the same one Jason had Zenshou use the night before. The other was a deep crimson red with a silvered face shield. He pulled them both down and handed the red one to Zenshou.

Zenshou quickly tied her hair back and slid helmet on. "Who's helmet is this?"

"Yours," said Jason with a grin. "Actually, I had originally purchased it for Moira to wear. She doesn't often say very much, except when she really wants something. She asked to go riding, so I got a helmet for her, but we haven't had an opportunity to go yet." He wondered what Zenshou would think when she finally met Moira. Would she hate me for what I did, or like me for what I tried to do? He wasn't sure how he felt about it, himself.

"Mine," Zenshou repeated, returning his grin. "I guess this means that you do want to see me again." She looked down at the helmet. "And it clashes nicely with the outfit Gem advised I buy as part of my Zenshou disguise."

Jason grinned at her. "They'll never suspect your true identity now!" He led Zenshou to the garage where they had parked the BMW motorcycle but he ignored the bike and proceeded toward the back of the garage.

"Sorry, Zenshou, it wouldn't be wise for Jason Stone to be seen with Zenshou. It may be okay if she's with Drake, though." He grinned and walked to another bike. The Yamaha XT2000 that Marta had ridden so recently looked only slightly used but it was wedged between the back wall and a limo. Jason looked a little chagrined.

"The driver is always doing that. But since he's not here, yet--" Jason stepped around to the side and grabbed the bike. With a heave, he lifted it up and with another heave, he raised the 200kg machine chest high. "Excuse me," he said as he walked by Zenshou and placed it gently back down on the ground. "There's a collision sensor in there that will cut off the case if the bike is jostled too much," he explained.

Zenshou raised an eyebrow. Cybernetics, she thought. Heightened strength would be very valuable for a street sam. She thought back to the fragments of memories she had of last night, and remembered how gently he had held her. Obviously knows how to use them. Zenshou was suddenly glad that the silvered shield was down on the helmet as she felt a blush creep across her face as the question of whether or not he was gentle or rough in other endeavors came to

Jason threw a leg over the bike and prepared to start it up. "Ready to go?"

Zenshou's reply was to slide onto the back of the bike and take a hold of him on either side of his waist.

Jason smiled happily to himself inside his helmet at Zenshou's touch as he started up the engine. In moments, the high-revving two-stroke street bike was hurtling the two riders across the city.

Jason rolled to a stop in the parking ramp next to a large supermarket which obviously catered to the middle class. He pulled off his helmet and turned to Zenshou. "Do you know why I've had so much cyberware installed?"

"Tell me," Zenshou replied, her hands lingering at his waist for an extra moment or two before taking off her helmet.

"It's actually because I don't use any form of personal security. I'm rigged with a coded link, reinforced bones in my skull, hyped up nervous system and musculature and a couple other goodies that help give me an edge. I've spent many years training in self-defense, both hand to hand and with these weapons. And although my record is certainly not perfect, I've taken down a good number of would-be assassins. I'm certainly comfortable going toe to toe with even top street sams. Heck, I went toe to toe against a cybered kung fu master and Marta Nys in one day. I didn't win, but hey, I'm still alive! And that's the point, isn't it?" Jason grinned.

"Yes, it is." Zenshou shot Jason back a genuine, brilliant smile of happiness and pleasure. She looked for a moment like she was going to do something else, but changed her mind. "I guess this means we ought to celebrate." She pressed briefly up against Jason as she slid off the back of the bike.

"You know," she said as she tried to decide what to do with the helmet. "Without our... personal augmentations, you'd be able to wipe the floor with me. I've got no self defense training other than how to use a pistol. There's never really been a need, until now."

Jason took her helmet absently and carried it for her as if it were natural to do so. "I'd love to-- I mean, I'd feel honored to teach you as much as you'd like to know. Any time, Zenshou."

Zenshou looked surprised. "Really? I mean, I won't feel bad if you decide to back out. I can be something of a clutz." An amused expression crossed her face. "You might also want to back out when Gem finds out. I honestly don't know how she'd take it. Maybe she'll challenge you or something." Zenshou laughed softly. "Now wouldn't that be funny. Being fought over, but for a completely unconventional reason." She grinned and tucked a loose lock of hair behind her right ear.

"Well, one of my faults is that I don't back down. But don't worry. I know she probably just wants to look out for you as a friend and do her job as a professional. Maybe she'll want to vent some frustration. If it comes down to that, then sure, I'll put up a fight. But I think I will win that one by taking a fall."

"Why would you do that," Zenshou asked quietly.

"No way do I want to break the self-confidence of someone who is supposed to be guarding your life. That's like beating your own soldiers to a pulp before sending them into battle. They'll just give up or die or worse; lose the objective. That's not in your best interest and I want to show you that I can be a good partner in this."

Partner, Zenshou thought. Is that all he really wants to be? Is that all I want him to be? She quickly shoved the thoughts aside. Zenshou didn't want to think about them, and she felt a tinge of shame. Here I am, enjoying myself, when my family lies unavenged. What kind of person am I... Someone who realizes that to avenge a death, one has to live. That's what Jack would say. 'You're far too serious for your own good. You need to get out and have some fun. Get a boyfriend.' Oh, she remembered the arguments she had gotten into with Jack over that very subject. It was almost as if Jack refused to understand Midori's sense of obligation. After every part or other social function, he'd grill her about the men she met, trying to get her to think about them as people, not extensions of their corporations.

She thought back to the night of the dance. At the time, she thought that Jack had simply forgotten to perform his 'interrogation', but now Midori wasn't so sure. Had he seen something that she hadn't? Did he know something she didn't? Zenshou found herself wishing she knew where Jack was, and the overwhelming desire to yell at him for not telling her what he knew and thought about Jason.

He sent a mental message. ~In the zone, I should go by a different name since Jason Stone is an awfully juicy target for mercenaries looking for a nice, fat ransom.~

~What should I call you? After that feat of strength, should it be Hercules? Or Samson?~ Jason could "hear" the amusement in her mental voice. ~Or would you settle for Drake?~

~Drake will do fine.~

~...although I like the way she says my true name...~ Jason mentally stopped the mind link. It seemed he was thinking to himself and had forgotten to turn off the mind link first.

Zenshou managed to keep from looking at him in surprise, though a faint blush dusted her cheeks with color. That little devil, she thought. What is he trying to do? Get a reaction out of me? She peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. What should I do? Let him know that I heard him, or keep playing the game?

The two made their way into the supermarket and soon enough had collected a couple armfuls of canned food, dehydrated soups, real cheese (and crackers, because Jason insisted that you had to have crackers with cheese), and an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables. On top of these basic things, it was quickly mutually agreed that a bottle of mid-range wine and some beer was a necessity. However, the shoppers did not make it through the candy aisles unscathed. Zenshou picked out several boxes of assorted chocolates, insisting they were as essential to survival as anything. Jason finally picked up a ball of string and some bungie cords.

It was a lengthy lesson in logistics, but eventually, Jason and Zenshou were able to get things wrapped up in brown paper, tied with string and strapped down with bungie cords to the rear fender of the Yamaha.

Since the shoulder bag was still empty, Jason suggested heading to a second hand store. Over Zenshou's protests, and reinforced by the fact Zenshou had mentioned she needed clothes earlier, Jason insisted they pick at least a few articles up since they had time now. After consulting yellow pages and a map, the two headed for the second hand store to quickly fill the last bit of storage space they had.

Jason and Zenshou, fully loaded and looking like a couple of drifters with everything they owned actually strapped to the back of the motorcycle, rolled back into the Zero Zone. Under Zenshou's direction, Jason picked their way through the streets to the old hotel where Zenshou and Gem had claimed living space. It took a bit of fumbling around and tripping on a few steps, but the two managed to bring everything up to the apartment without having to leaving anything exposed to Zone scavengers on the bike.

After making a quick stop in on Alice and Shades with a box of chocolates and some of the fruit in her hands, Zenshou and Drake were in the apartment.

"Sorry about the mess," Zenshou said yet again with an embarrassed smile. "Things took a lot longer than I expected to yesterday." She swept the clothing that was strewn across the meager furnishings into a single pile. Jason could see pieces of satin and other soft materials mixed in with the coarse fabric of cheap knock-offs.

"Listen," Zenshou said, interrupting his musings. "Could I ask a big favor? Could you put all that stuff away while I deal with my hair? I need to get rid of this brown dye."

"Oh sure."

"Thanks." Zenshou sighed with relief and disappeared into the bathroom.

Jason began stacking food in the cupboards and placed the perishables, wine and beer in the refrigerator.

"I'm thinking of trying to talk Shades into giving me the penthouse, or at least the top floor," Zenshou called out. "It's in lousy shape, but it can be fixed up - made more secure, I mean - and it'll give us more room. What do you think?"

Gem couldn't help but smirk. "I could really do with a hot tub," she called out, then threw open the door. She stepped into the apartment, stretching her arms and rolling her head back "Of course, it would be a bit hard to get the decorators out here on such short notice." She shook her hair out and looked down at Zenshou.

Except that it wasn't Zenshou. Instead there was a reasonably tall man, a little over six feet tall with dark hair and expressive, grey eyes. Unlike a thief that Gem might have expected, the man appeared to be actually putting stuff back in the cupboards. He was still wearing a badly damaged armored longcoat and was obviously armed with a pair of very professional and well-used swords, judging by their handles.

"Hello," he said with a smile. "You must be Gem. I'm Drake." Thinking quickly, he reached to the bottom of the bag and retrieved the last item and presented the small box. "Chocolate?

Gem stood silently in the doorway for several seconds, her mouth slightly open. Her mind raced with thoughts, as she rolled over different possibilities. "No," she finally said slowly. She leaned against the door frame, her eyes locked on Drake, one hand slowly edging towards her jacket. "No thanks," she clarified, eyeing him warily.

Zenshou stepped out of the bathroom, clad only in her underthings, drying her hair with a towel. "Hey, Gem. You're late. Stayed out too late partying?" She twisted and hung the towel on the back of the door. "I'll be back out in a sec. I need to change." Zenshou crossed the room and entered her bedroom.

"By the way," Zenshou said, sticking her head back out the doorway. "We did some shopping this morning. There's a whole bunch of fresh fruit in the fridge. Help yourself."

Gem glanced between her boss, dressed only in the expensive red bustier and panties she'd bought recently, and Drake, still offering her chocolates. She looked back to her boss, and a broad smile crossed her face. She nodded slowly, taking her hand away from her jacket and resting it on her hip. "Oh, right," Gem began. "I was out late." She nodded once more. "Look, if you two want a bit more private time..."

Drake decided he wouldn't get shot in the back in the next few seconds, so he turned and put the box of candy away and then turned back to Gem.

"I wasn't out late. I didn't get home until, oh, about fifteen minutes ago." Zenshou opened her mouth to continue to speak, then realization dawned. "Gem," Zenshou protested, scandalized. "It wasn't like that. We met up at the Edge of Night, then went to his place..." She let out an inarticulate noise and started to blush a shade that matched what she was wearing. "Drake," she said with a strangled voice. "You tell her." Zenshou disappeared back into the bedroom and began to make lots of noise as she changed her clothes.

Drake smiled and said, "I'm going to be frank with you, but I don't know this hotel. Is this place secure?"

"As good as it's going to be," Gem replied, her smile quickly fading.

"You're Zenshou's friend as well as a bodyguard, so you need to know what's happening." Drake wanted to remove any further perceived threats and put forth an open hand. He slid out if his armored coat.

"My name is Jason Stone. I'm a businessman from Neo York, but I prefer to be known in the Zone as a street sam, Drake, for obvious reasons." The scabbards from the sword clacked together as he placed the coat they were a part of over the back of a chair. He then deftly caught the buckle holding on his twin shoulder holsters and popped it loose. "Two nights ago, Zenshou contacted me and asked to meet at the Edge of Night." He laid the holster and Desert Eagle pistols on top of the coat.

Drake moved away from the weapons. There, I'm unarmed. Maybe she'll relax a little, he thought.

"Last night we held that meeting. And between you and I, Zenshou was taking a big risk. She didn't know me very well, and although she did an extensive, uh..." Drake struggled to find a way to say it. "She did extensive background research on me, but she was still exposed in a public place frequented by young corpers, so we left to finish business at my place.

"We've come to an arrangement, Zenshou and I. I will be helping her to find and stop whoever killed her family. There may be an outside link to someone inside my own company, someone murderously ambitious. It could be one of a number of people unsatisfied with my leadership since I seized the company five years ago, so there is even a real benefit to myself, as well."

"We have plans. I know Zenshou is already in motion, having hired a private detective. I have proposed another plan to put into action as well, and this is why you, as her bodyguard and her friend need to know. I'll begin setting things up immediately, but you will be needed to witness, on Zenshou's behalf, some very important contracts. We'll be able to force our enemies' hands at that point. That's when the fun will really begin."

Jason paused to study Gem's face for a moment. "As for what happened last night, Zenshou was tired and I have a lot of spare rooms at my place. Actually, the place is currently completely empty of people, so it was nice to have a little company." Jason decided that saying any more would be digging an unnecessary hole that he wouldn't be able to climb out of any time soon.

Gem stood in silence for a few seconds after Jason finished. She then let out a long sigh that hissed through her clenched teeth. She scratched her head in frustration, and held up a hand to Drake. She paused, changing her mind on what to say, and finally muttered "Stay there." She immediately turned away from him, stormed off across the room and flung open the door to Zenshou's bedroom. "Boss!" she yelled inside, "Why didn't you tell me you were going to pull a stunt like this! I wouldn't have taken the night off!"

Drake frowned, disliking the tone Gem was taking with her 'boss'.

Zenshou looked up from where she was seated on the edge of the bed, putting on the two-inch heeled shoes that matched her bright red outfit. "Because that's exactly why I didn't tell you. You needed the time off, and I thought it was an acceptable risk."

"Gem, I was scanning the minds of everyone within 100 yards of the club, before, during and after I was there. I would have known if there was anyone thinking of even pulling out one of my hairs, let alone doing my any kind of harm. As soon as Jason walked in the club, I read his mind to see if he was okay. Believe me, he can be trusted. I know him better than he knows himself. The instant I detected a threat I would have been out of there."

"I also changed my appearance. Different clothes and hair color. Just ask Jason." Zenshou walked passed Gem and out into the living room.

"Drake, was I dressed anything like this when we met at the Edge?"

Drake shook his head, "Nope. You looked different." He looked over at Zenshou and blinked. "Er, very different." His heart climbed a little, in spite of himself. Zenshou could make anything look good, and make even somewhat slutty outfits seem somehow classy. He looked away again before Gem might notice, and tried to hide a smile.

"There," Zenshou said triumphantly. "I told you I was careful. I handled all the pass attempts and divert attention away from me, without the obvious use of my powers." She paused for a moment and sighed. "I'm sorry, Gem. It's just that this whole thing was a very... personal matter, and I didn't have time to talk to you about it." Zenshou walked over to one of the chairs and sat down, automatically crossing her legs at the knee.

"I had one of my visions the night I contacted Jason. What I saw was, well, something that I had to act on, and it's not my place to discuss it. If Jason wants you to know, he'll tell you himself. I chose the Edge because it's a public place, and if I had had to turn someone's brain into goo and it went oozing out of their ears, there would have been enough of a distraction from the screaming corpers and their girlfriends that I would have been able to slip out undetected, either through the front door, or teleporting from inside the ladies' room."

Jason winced at the mention of brain gooing and moved closer to the conversation.

"I'll try not to do it again," Zenshou finished. "I don't want both of you disappointed and upset with me."

Gem leaned against the door, shaking her head. "Yeah, okay," she muttered mostly to herself. "So what's this plan of yours?"

When Jason heard Zenshou's reply, he gave her a quick, wry look over Gem's shoulder, as if it was silly to think she could disappoint him. Then he interjected, "In short, I will buy HariChem."

To her credit Gem remained nonplussed by the bold statement. She glanced at Zenshou, certain her boss wouldn't have given away her own company like that. "So what's the fine print?" she asked.

Although Gem had directed the question at Zenshou, he continued anyway, "If Zenshou and I plant a few rumors that this is what I intend to do, it will do two things: First, we may be able to discover where the leaks are in our companies. Second, during, or immediately after the deal I would expect our enemies to take immediate action against me to either prevent the deal, or make the deal moot by killing me. That's when we spring our counterattack. They should not know of this little alliance and won't expect a trap. They'll be expecting to do to me and Moira what they did to Zenshou's family. If we beat them, we have a chance of going right up the chain of command to whoever is behind the dirty work.

"But I won't be keeping control of HariChem however things turn out. I'll prepare a separate contract, witnessed by my assistant, Hobbs and you, Gem. The terms will be that all shares in HariChem will be returned to Zenshou's real identity when it is safe for her to resume control of the company, or when six months have passed, whichever comes first. I have no intention of doing anything underhanded, and Zenshou might even feel she knows me well enough to believe I wouldn't try to steal her company, but I want to make certain this will happen whether I'm alive and able to turn over the shares or not.

When Jason explained his plan to Gem, the importance of what it implied hit Zenshou again. He knows that there's a good chance he'll get killed before all this is over, yet he's going ahead with it. No, more than that, he's the one who suggested it. I know that he's not suicidal anymore, so why is this so important to him? He... He doesn't feel that he has to because I stopped him, does he?

"There are a lot of details to this plan and it isn't going to happen over night," Jason continued. "I also think we should work fairly close together so that we can coordinate, and so that the enemy doesn't hit us before we are aware of them."

~Drake,~ Zenshou sent through the link to him.

~Why are you doing this? You might get yourself, Moira, Hobbs, and many other people killed, and you could end up losing SynTech. If you feel you have to because you're obligated to, that you owe me something, don't. I release you from any and all obligations to me. It's bad enough that I've endangered Gem, Shades and Alice, I could never forgive myself if you and yours suffered too. I... I didn't stop you from killing yourself so I could coerce you into helping me. I did it because when I saw you, it was like looking at myself in a mirror. If the circumstances were dfferent, it could easily have been me with that pistol the night that my family was killed, because I felt I failed them too.~

~I think I can still keep Moira and Hobbs safe. And you aren't responsible for those of us who know the danger and willingly go anyway. We are all responsible for ourselves and what we do. That same truth especially applies to me.~

~I'm not saying that,~ Zenshou sent back. ~I know it's your decision. I just didn't want that decision to be based on the idea that you had to pay me back for what I did. I don't want people who don't deserve it to get hurt because of me.~

Jason continued to send, ~Midori, I know I'm responsible for killing a horrifying number of innocent people. They never had a choice. It wasn't done in self- defense. It was... I'll just say it. I hired Marta Nys and Sandra Blackmore to kill everyone who had hurt me, Moira, and had tried to kill Hobbs. So I killed them. Every last one. Then I found out they had been mentally controlled to do what they did. Sandra was right. It didn't have to be the way I made it to be.~

Jason continued, ~I don't feel so good about that.~ That was a gigantic understatement. The feeling that came over the like was like a strong wave of nausea. ~It was... a mistake. What you did was do me a huge favor. You've given me a chance to do something right. You got my attention long enough to make me remember that I still have a responsibility to try to be a human being.~

There had been a long pause while Zenshou and Jason seemed to take a long look at one another as the conversation took place. Jason seemed to pale as the conversation went.

~Then you can return that favor by not throwing your life away,~ Zenshou sent at him. ~We all have our 'beasts', and you've seen the face of yours. It doesn't make you evil. It doesn't make you any less human.~

Jason could sense there was more that Midori was going to say, but she held back.

Throughout their conversation, Gem stood in silence, tapping her feet. Suddenly she blurted out, "So what is it I'm not being let in on?" with clear annoyance in her voice.

Zenshou looked over at her friend. "I was telling Drake that if he was doing all of this because of some kind of sense of obligation to me, he should go soak his head."

Gem glanced at Drake, gauging his reaction, and tried (badly) to suppress a grin. "That's more like you," she said.

"I don't think I'm throwing anything away," said Drake softly.

Zenshou looked over at Drake and gave him a searching look. But why, she thought. Why has this become so important to you that you'd risk everything... She turned her attention back to Gem. "What do you think about the plan, Gem?"

"Risky," was all Gem said. She kept her eyes on Drake, not flinching.

"Oh no," Zenshou said with a sudden look of concern. "Drake, you said that HariChem stock's dropping. We've got to do something about that. If it falls too low, we're going to have to sell off assets, and someone has to be buying the stock. We need to make sure that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands!"

"Don't worry. Once it gets around that I'm looking to buy a major portion of HariChem shares, they'll stop dropping. After I do, they'll take a sudden jump and hold for at least a while. When you come back into direct control of the company, they should take another jump still. From then on it will depend on your company's performance."

"But in the mean time, a lot of damage can be done in two days." Zenshou paused for a moment. "You know, whoever is after HariChem is likely to be taking advantage of the stock bottoming out. We should run checks on anyone or any company buying right now, rather than selling. If we're lucky, we can trace it back."

Jason nodded and replied, "I think your uncle, as the Chief Financial Officer, will be the best man for that job. I will need to meet with him anyway, to discuss stock price. In order for me to purchase enough stock to establish control of HariChem, someone will have to sell it to me. I'll buy as much as I can from what is available without starting a run on a the stock, and the rest will probably need to come from the Harihatu family. Put me in touch with your CFO, and set things up for the sale." Jason was going into 'business mode'. The more he spoke of the plan, the faster he went. "He doesn't need to know you and I are working on this together, just that you are interested in selling to me."

Jason thought for a few moments. "And make sure he puts the meeting on his schedule. We may as well begin spreading rumor of my interest in HariChem. I may need some back up for myself and for the CFO, just in case." He paused to look from Zenshou to Gem and back. "Shall I make other arrangements?"

"Well, there may be a problem with getting Nakata Miro to help us." Zenshou glanced at Gem for a moment. "We don't know how the enemy got their information about HariChem. It could be something as simple as a worm or hacker, or a traitor within HariChem. I simply don't know who to trust. Nakata isn't blood - he is... was... a friend of my father's. He has always been loyal in the past, but I've never 'tested' him.

"Then we'll test him now. We have to start somewhere." Jason seemed confident this was the correct course.

"As for the sale of the Harihatu owned stock, I'm the last living Harihatu," Zenshou explained, "so upon the death of the rest of my family I inherited their shares. I am the sole owner of 51% of the voting shares. I want to increase that, if at all possible. The more I control, the better."

"Got you covered," Jason responded. "When control of HariChem is returned, all shares, including ones I purchase from the public, will go with them. That will make 51% plus whatever I can manage to add to that."

"Gem and I stopped by Nakata's and spoke with him. He's under orders not to sell any Harihatu assets, stock or other possessions unless I tell him face to face and Gem is standing next to me. It would probably be best if the three of us went and saw him in private about this. How soon do you want the meeting?"

"This afternoon would be best. Then I'll be able to feed the numbers to Hobbs and he can find out what I need to do to be able to make the purchase." Jason thought hard. There was another detail he had to complete in order to make this move successful. "I'll also need to get access to a Neo York-side phone and make a call to my office before the meeting this afternoon.

"Give me a second." Zenshou leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and took a centering breath. A look of concentration crossed her face for a moment, then she suddenly blushed and chuckled. "The meeting is all set. I'm going to have to apologize when I see him face to face."

"Now, what were you looking for in the way of 'back up' from us?"

"Physical protection. Having Nakata place the meeting with Jason Stone on his calendar schedule means that the meeting and who he is seeing will be available to HariChem personnel."

Zenshou nodded. "If there's an attack, then we'll know that there's a leak in Nakata's office - either himself, his secretary, or that there might be some kind of security breach in his personal data systems.

Drake continued, "I'll make a call right now and ask Hobbs to return. He can begin work on things even while en route."

Jason paused for a minute and his eyes looked curiously blank while his attention left the room. "Done. He seems quite happy to hear from me and says Moira is doing well. He's booking the next flight to Neo York. Within two days, Jason Stone's newest interest will be floating around the office." He flashed a bright, charming grin.

He winked at Gem. "I'm not psychic. Coded transceiver," he tapped his temple for emphasis.

"Gem, I'm afraid I'm going to have to go shopping again." Zenshou held up her hand to ward off her friend's protests. "Not for you. What you've got is fine. I need a business suit, the kind that Midori the CEO would wear, and I'll need it for the meeting with Nakata, and the inevitable meetings that will happen afterwards." She stopped and thought for a moment. "Or maybe not. The suit I bought from Sergio's might just work..."

Jason looked at Zenshou. "You need a proxy. Having you present as Midori at scheduled meetings will make you an easy target. If we can establish Nakata's trustworthiness, he may be a candidate. Otherwise..."

Jason took a long, hard look at Gem, staring at her as if she was a tool, rather than a person. Ball-peen hammer? Or Claw? He weighed the options.

"I think she'll do nicely," he said to Zenshou without changing his penetrating gaze.

Zenshou looked at Gem, waiting to hear her answer. She's an obvious choice, she thought. Someone that I trust, someone that is unknown to them. She doesn't have the corporate savvy, but that's an easily dealt with obstacle. I could eavesdrop on the meetings either through Gem, or we could do it in some technological fashion.

Gem watched Drake in silence, seemingly oblivious to the suggestion. She suddenly blinked and gawped at Zenshou. "Me?" she screeched in an oddly high-pitched voice? "Why me?"

Zenshou couldn't help but smile slightly. "You're the obvious choice, Gem. First, I trust you," she said, starting to tick off items with her fingers. "Second, you would be a complete and utter unknown to them. An enigma, and that makes you a very powerful weapon in this situation. They won't be able to second guess you, or know how to pressure you into making the decisions they want you to make. Your lack of knowledge in corporate decision-making is something we can overcome. We can communicate through our link, or through some technological device. Your job will be to remind them that I am still alive, still in control of the company, and to relay my wishes to the board."

Zenshou paused for a moment, then grinned. "The board of directors of HariChem are a rather... conservative bunch. You would be a blast of fresh air and attitudes."

Gem wiped her brow, a look of worry on her face. "I'm just really not sure I could handle it. You know me - I tend to go off the rails at times."

"Don't worry," Zenshou replied with a reassuring smile. "I can be with you, up here." She tapped her temple. "I can keep the link going, but I'd want to make sure there are no other espers around. We'll probably want to have a more conventional means as backup."

"I'm still not sure I could manage it," Gem replied, still clearly nervous. "I mean, I know nothing about these kinds of big deals and stuff. You'd need to coach me at least."

"We will," Zenshou assured her. "I believe you'll do just fine. You probably won't have to make any really big decisions. And remember, you can always say that Midori told you that that kind of decision will have to be made by her."

Jason told Gem and Zenshou, "A technological device can be fairly easily implanted if you like, Gem. We could hook you up with a coded transceiver similar to the model I use, or use a bug. Bug are easy to detect, though, because they are constantly transmitting, unless you manually turn them off."

Gem shook her head. "I'm not too crash hot on the idea myself, unless it's absolutely necessary. Besides," she continued, nodding to Zenshou, "I'd rather rely on the method we already have."

Zenshou nodded. 'That would be my first choice, but we do need to have some kind of backup in case that's not an option."

Jason walked over to his long coat and patted around. A moment later he pulled out a cell phone from a coat pocket. Looking down at the phone, he pressed a button and then pressed 'delete'. "I think we may be over-planning. As your boss's proxy, it would be normal for you to need to make an occasional call to her anyway, so you should carry it. It can be the backup to Zenshou's unique talents, as well. No one will call you on that phone, Gem, unless it is me or Zenshou."

Jason handed the phone to Gem. The only person he gave the phone number to was long gone, and Jason really had no further use for it anyway. "It has the added benefit of not being associated with you or Zenshou, so if someone wanted to, they won't get that number by running searches on you two. Zen and I can get new phones."

Later, the three met with Nakata Miro and began making arrangements for the sale of Harihatu-owned stock to Jason. Although met with some doubt and a lot of worry on Nakata's part, the older man complied with Midori's wishes and began processing the complex paperwork that would be sent to Jason's office.

"Gem," Zenshou said when they were leaving Nakata's office. "Jason told me that while all this is going on, that if we ever need a place to run to, or just somewhere to get away, that we are welcome to 'pop in' at his estate, as he put it. From what I saw, the security measures are very good, but I know you're going to want to check it out. It might be the best place for me to be during the meetings."

"Of course I will," Gem replied. She eyed Jason warily as the trio departed. He seemed eager, maybe a bit too eager to help. Certainly her boss was well taken with him. But why don't I trust him? she asked herself. Gem shook her head and followed behind the other two. Guess I'm just doing my job.

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