by Dustin Evermore, Lisa Hartjes, and Mike Surbrook
[The setting: A few hours after Home Wreckers]

Jason wasn't sure when he had fallen asleep, but the smell of freshly brewed coffee and quiet puttering around in the kitchen woke him. He smiled, but when he shifted to stand he was surprised to see Zenshou's head still resting quietly in his lap, though now the two of them were
covered with a blanket.

"Ah, so you're awake at last." A deep, rumbling male voice came from the direction of the kitchen. "Mr. Stone, is it? I'm glad to see you're taking good care of my little girl."

Jason turned his head to see a big bear of a man, 6' 2" tall, and about 250 lbs of solid muscle. His salt and pepper hair was cut short in a simple military-like style, with the strap from his eye patch disappearing into the hairline. The man's arm was in a sling, and Jason could see a cane leaning up against the table near where the man was standing. He also saw the huge assortment of weapons, mainly big frigging guns of military issue.

His little girl? wondered Jason. Who is this guy?

At that moment, Zenshou stirred. "Jason," she murmured softly, then opened her eyes and squinted painfully against the light. "Jack," she said in a puzzled voice as she struggled to sit up. When she managed to get herself up so she could see over the back of the couch, she exclaimed the man's name again in delight and relief.

"Oh god, Jack, I thought I'd lost you!" A sob caught in Zenshou's throat. "I've been trying so hard to find you..."

Jason looked at the stranger suspiciously. "I think you have me a bit of a disadvantage. It's Jack...?" he waited for Jack to fill in the blank.

"It's James, actually," Jack replied. He took hold of the cane and began to slowly make his way towards the couch, obviously in pain. "James Anderson."

Zenshou looked at Jason. "I told you about him," she said with a relieved smile. "He's 'One-Eyed Jack', head of security for my family." Jason saw an unreadable look cross the man's face at Zenshou's words.

Jason wasn't ready to trust the newcomer just yet. "How did you survive the attack on the family?"

"I almost didn't," Jack replied, finally lowering himself onto a chair with a look of relief. "I was in another part of the house when the Black Company hit, and by the time I got there, it was too late. I heard a couple of them swearing, trying to force Mrs. Harihatu to tell them where Midori was. When she refused, they killed her. That's when they said that the mission wasn't a complete loss - their target was actually Midori, but they had orders to kill anyone in the residence area as well, and that even if they didn't get her, she'd undoubtedly get the message.

"I had failed to protect the rest of the family, but I sure as hell wasn't going to fail Midori. I made it to my quarters and grabbed some of my stuff, and I was almost away when they caught me. I got beat up pretty bad, and barely got away." Jack rubbed down with his good hand and rubbed his knee. "I managed to get out of the compound unseen, and went to ground. After 24 hours, when there was no news about the discovery of Midori's body, I hoped that she had remembered what I'd taught her." He gave a proud smile. "It's quite obvious that she did, and she found two good people to help her."

Jason could see Jack really cared about Midori, and that Midori obviously felt strongly about him.

"What I don't know," Jack continued, "is how she managed to hook up with you. Shades contacted me and let me know Midori had made it to his place, and that she had started to use a pseudonym. Very clever, even went so far as to get a complete set of fake ID made - history and everything. I knew you had it in you."

Midori shook her head. "I had a good teacher, Jack." She moved to stand up, but winced at the pain in her hip and leaned back, unconsciously adjusting her body so that she fitted the curve of Jason's arm.

Jason decided to play it straight up. "We hooked up initially because she stopped me from blowing my own fool head off. She asked for a meeting in such a convincing way I stopped what I was doing to speak with her." He looked to Midori and gave her a smile. "She's very good at knowing what to say and when to say it."

Midori blushed, and Jack gave Jason a knowing look. "She's been that way since she was knee-high to a grasshopper. With that smooth tongue, drop dead gorgeous looks and mind to match, she's going to bring HariChem back from the brink of disaster and catapult it to the top of the heap."

Jason helped Midori settle back down, wrapping one supportive around her shoulders. "Take it easy, Midori. When you healed me, you seemed to take on the very wound the Black Commando inflicted unto yourself."

"I know," Midori responded. "I didn't remember how I healed you the last time, and the only think I could think of was taking it away and giving you some of my strength." She shrugged, and settled back more comfortably into his arms. "I was pretty sure there wouldn't be too much of a problem, as I've healed from worse before."

"Have you seen the news," Jack asked suddenly. "No, of course you haven't." He reached over and grabbed the remote control for the tv and turned it on.

"...damage to the estate is extensive, Walter. For those of you who are just joining us, this is Walter Epcott reporting live from the Stone estate. A few short hours ago, this was a majestic ancestral home, now it is a half-ruined battleground."

"Damn," commented Jason softly. It looked even worse than he had expected.

The broadcaster continued, "Witnesses claim that the mercenaries known as the Black Company and the Steel Commandos were the cause of the destruction, but it is as of yet unconfirmed. Representatives for Jason Stone, Syntech MedSystems, HariChem and Midori Harihatu say simply no comment, and official sources say that so far no bodies have been found..."

Midori looked at Jason. "The Steel Commandos? How the heck did they find out about Black Company? I mean, I was planning on hiring them to go after Black Company, but..."

"That would have been my doing," Jack said softly. "I've been keeping an eye on you, Midori, and on Mr. Stone's estate since the two of you hooked up. I saw someone else was watching the house, and when I realized it was Black Company, I called in a big favor. I knew some of the members of the Steel Commandos from the service." He looked at Midori. "There's still going to be a bill that has to be paid, but the favor got them to delay the contract they were working on and act immediately."

"Acting immediately... Oh my god, Gem!" Midori closed her eyes and tried to open the mental link with her bodyguard, but got a sharp, stabbing pain in her head instead, making her gasp involuntarily. She swore, saying a few words that made even Jack raise and eyebrow in surprise. "I can't open the link and find out if she's okay," she said, worry evident on her face. "If only I hadn't let Gem hang on to those pills..."

Jason perked up at that. "What pills? Here lie still. I'm going to check that bandage."

"One of the research breakthroughs that HariChem has had is a drug that lessens the aftereffects of 'ASDS'. In fact, it's one of the many... projects that I only just learned about." Midori frowned, remembering what she had read on that data crystal.

Jason pulled aside the bandages and pulled down the sexy red miniskirt enough to expose what he needed to see. He looked at Midori's wound in surprise and a moment later, he removed the rest of the make-shift bandages to reveal nothing more than a nasty bruise along her abdomen and pelvis. "The injury! It's nearly gone." He shook his head. "Are you using your power now to heal yourself?"

"I was," Midori said, looking down at herself. "Just before I passed out, I set them off, telling it to stop when the damage was repaired. The bruise should have been gone too, but I guess my powers shut down because of the ASDS. It's going to be at least a couple of more hours before I use them again."

The muscles in her abdomen tensed and jumped when Jason's fingers touched her as he readjusted her skirt. A quiet thrill of excitement ran through her, surprising and disquieting her. "I... I'd better go change out of these things, and try to get the bloodstains out." Midori winced as she stood, and after a few unsteady steps and a grimace, she made it into the bedroom.

"So," Jack said, and Jason could sense that the man's demeanor had changed, and Jason recognized it as what he'd seen in some of the best security people he'd met. "How did she know you were going to kill yourself?"

"She told me that she sees things sometimes. She saw what I was going to do before it happened, and just hand enough time to fill out an email and send it to me." That was about all he really knew about it, so Jason presumed that would suffice.

Jack sat quietly for a moment, digesting what Jason had said. "What do you intend to do once this whole mess is over?" Jack watched Jason's every move, like a predator - no, like an Inquisitor, waiting for him to make a mistake.

Jason looked back at him and gave him an answer as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He's trying to protect Midori, even from me, thought Jason. "The only thing I have planned for certain, Mr. Anderson, is to raise Moira. This 'mess' holds too many wildcards to plan for anything else."

"You know that's not what I meant, Mr. Stone," Jack said. "I want to know exactly what you intend to do regarding your relationship with Midori. I know Midori. She's like a daughter to me, and the way she's been acting with you is different from any other man she knows. She usually politely bites the hand off of any man who touches her the way you were there on the couch. The fact that she's openly using her... talents around you is another thing. There's maybe only two people alive, other than you and Gem, who know she's got powers of any kind."

"If you don't intend to stick around," Jack stated, "I recommend that you be careful about what signals you're sending, and make a clean and immediate break once Midori is in the HariChem CEO's office. She has enough to grieve for, and I don't want her to have to worry about a broken heart as well."

Jason refused to be intimidated by the older man. "I know you mean well, Mister, but I think you do Midori a disservice by not trusting her. There are plenty of people in this world who might fall for people who are bad for them, but not Midori. As always, she knows exactly what she is doing, and whether you know it your not, she still holds the cards here."

Jason reached an internal epiphany, Good Lord, I really do think what she wants is more important than what I want. Jason ran down the list of symptoms, I can't stop thinking about her, I want to help her no matter what the cost to myself, I want to spend all my time with her... That's it then. I think I'm in love with her. Jason found his position suddenly extremely awkward, and his face reddened with the realization of his own feelings for Midori.

To Jack, Jason's serious, reddening face seemed to show Jason was losing his temper, not falling in love. Jason's eyes, burning bright blue, stared back at his new opponent.

"You still haven't answered my question," Jack said in a soft, steely tone. "It's not Midori that I don't trust. I watched her grow up, so I know how she thinks. She was raised to swim with sharks, but sometimes she's too kind for her own good. I don't want to see you, or any other man, take advantage of her and she ends up hurt." He paused, his good hand clenching unconsciously into a fist.

"If you're just trying to get into her pants, forget it. She's got too much class to let that happen. And if you force her..." Jack's voice trailed off, but the implied threat was there. "What are your intentions towards Midori Harihatu?"

Jason stood up. Now he really was getting angry and he raised his voice. "Just trying to get into her pants? You think I would do all this just to get into her pants? If sex was all I wanted, I sure as hell could afford to buy enough of that in this filthy world!"

"You and I both know her reputation in corporate circles," Jack yelled back, struggling to his feet. "It'd be a real feather in your cap, wouldn't it, if you were the one who..."

"Jack! Jason! What the hell is going on?" Midori came out of the bedroom wearing a loose fitting pair of pants and an oversize shirt that she was in the process of buttoning. "If there's anyone taking advantage of anyone else, it's me, taking advantage of Jason. I'm the one who knows all his deep dark secrets..."

"Except one," Jason said with a calmer note in his voice. I love you, Midori. Jason looked at Midori intently, silently, and even hopefully.

"You what?" Midori blurted out unthinkingly, turning to look at Jason in surprise. "You love me?" She couldn't do anything but stare at him as her mind whirled and conflicting emotions battled in her head. "I.. I don't know what to say.." Words couldn't describe what she was feeling, so Midori decided not to bother. Over the most tenuous of links, for her mind was still aching from overexertion, she showed him - elation, affection, exhilaration, attraction, and fear, but most of all an intense desire to be with him.

"He what," Jack was suddenly confused. "How do you know... Wait a second. Midori?! Did you just... Are you a telepath as well?!" The head of security for HariChem looked at Midori with surprise, and perhaps a touch of fear.

Jason appeared to remain silent a moment longer while he sent, If you really don't know what to say, I could give you a hint. He presented a cautious smile. Here I am, putting myself on the line again. This could be getting to be a bad habit, he thought nervously as he waited for what she might say next.

"I.." Midori had never felt so confused and scared in her life, but from deep inside her came a little voice. It had never let her down before, and she decided to listen to it.

I love you too, Jason. Her mental voice was a warm velvet glove, caressing his mind with a lover's touch.

Jason moved closer to Midori and reached out, taking her hand in his. He pulled her close and she melted into his arms.

Jack cleared his throat with a rough grumble. "I think the coffee's ready. I'm going to go to the kitchen and get myself a cup, and take one to Shades..." He stood there silently for a moment, watching the woman he'd watched grow up from a shy and awkward teenager into the powerful and self-confident adult, and hoped that the man with her had the strength to hang on for the long haul, because it was going to be a bumpy ride.

He grabbed his cane and left the apartment as silently as he could, and shut the door behind him.

It seemed the two were under a kind of spell. For long moments after Jack closed the door behind him, Jason simply held Zenshou close, silently rejoicing in the fact that she felt the same way about him as he did about her. Excitement and passion possessed him to share with her a long, deep kiss and they remained standing and holding each other for long moments.

Jason deeply wished to explore the relationship further, but an unpleasant little voice in the back of his head nagged at him. There was still Midori's friend, Gem, to consider. Beyond that, Hobbs and Moira were probably worried sick and mad as hell that he had now managed to turn their home into a battleground between rival mercenaries groups.

Reluctantly, Jason pulled away and held her at arm's length. "I'm sorry, I'm being selfish. We need to talk about what happened at the house. You still need a little more time to recover and then we can do something about Gem, but in the mean time, maybe you can fill me in on what you learned from the Black Company man you probed?"

A big case of the guilts hit Midori. "You're right," she replied. "We're both being selfish. I'm going to get us some coffee, and you contact Hobbs and let them know you're alright. They're probably just a wee bit freaked out." She looked him in the eyes, the pleasure from their kiss slowly fading away. "Don't tell them about... the injury, okay?"

Jason nodded. "No need to worry them further."

Midori walked over to the kitchen, and felt embarrassed at having only a couple of chipped mugs to serve the coffee in. Still, it was all she had, and she knew that Jason would understand. She picked out the best looking mugs, filled them with coffee, and put them on a tray along with cream and sugar, and some things to eat from the stash they had bought the day before.

She brought the tray into the living room and set it down on the low coffee table, and waited to speak to Jason again once he'd finished his conversation with Hobbs.

Jason flicked on his internal coded link to Hobbs and he answered after a long pause. //Are you busy with something, Hobbs?//

//Sorry sir. One of the other customers here at the zoo mentioned the disaster at the Stone estate and she became quite agitated.//

//Is she okay?//

//She's calmed down a little now, but she knows we are speaking now. She wants a coded link, too, and I told her that would be up to you.//

Wonderful, thought Jason. He shook his head and sat down on the couch. //I'll have to talk to Doctor Ogura about that. You know, I'm not so sure about providing her with obviously nonhuman enhancements. I mean, sure, she's a cyborg and she already has some abilities that a normal human wouldn't have. But what effect would it have on her developing psyche to pile too much on?//

//Such decisions are thing only her father can really decide, sir. Until she turns 18, that is.//

Jason knew Moira well enough to realize the girl wasn't likely to compromise. He'd have to at least talk to the doctor before he made a unilateral decision to be certain his concerns were well-founded.

//I'll meet you guys soon. Find a hotel, will you? Send me a bill, too. The insurance company will pay for it, so make it a hotel she'd at least enjoy if she decides she's in the mood.//

//Yes, sir.//

Jason closed the connection, then indicated to Midori to continue.

"When I scanned the person from Black Company, I got the name of the person who hired them, and that person's password into the Black Company mainframe." Midori spooned a tiny amount of sugar into the coffee, took a sip, then carefully leaned back on the couch until she was comfortable again.

A smile slowly spread across Jason's face. "Now we're getting somewhere," he commented. "Shall we do it ourselves, or do you want to try to find someone we can trust to do a pro job?"

Midori took another sip of her coffee, and peered at Jason over the rim. "We can find the guy who hired them ourselves, but I want to hire Asagiri to hack the Black Company mainframe, steal some data, then insert a virus which will completely destroy their system."

"Asagiri is going to steal everything in their system that relates to whoever hired them, about you, me, our families and our businesses, and complete copies of the personnel records for the Black Company." She took another sip of her coffee and continued calmly. "And, if possible, a complete client and target list. If Black Company ever shows its face around us again, the world will find out who they are and what they've been to."

Jason nodded seriously. "I hope you know this Asagiri well, and pay that person even better."

Midori shrugged. "I've never met the person. Asagiri is the best computer hacker on the planet, and I need the best for this job. I want to make a very strong statement to Black Company, and their system is reportedly a very difficult crack. My presenting her with the password ought to make her job easier, and perhaps make her more inclined to do the job."

"Yeah, it should make it easier. I'd like to help," continued Jason, "and so long as Gem is missing, you could still use a gun to guard your back." He said it plainly and without insinuating anything. He meant it seriously, and not just a ploy to be near her.

Midori nodded. She took a final sip of her coffee and put it down on the coffee table, and grabbed a piece of a sweet roll. When she leaned back, she ended up in Jason's arms. Midori broke off a piece of the roll and held it up in front of his mouth, offering it to him.

Jason leaned in to take a bite and smiled as a piece of the roll got stuck on his chin. He then swept it into his mouth with a finger.

"Jason," she said softly, turning her head to look at him. "Jack was right. You didn't answer his question." Midori hesitated for a moment, unaware that her heart was looking out at him through piercing blue eyes. "What are your intentions? What do you want from me?"

"In the past few days, I've discovered that I know even less about this life than I thought I did." Jason took a deep breath. "I like the way you make me feel. You amaze me, and you don't even need any special powers to do that."

Midori blushed slightly and lowered her eyes.

Jason paused and considered. Right now, I'd be happy to just move away with her and leave everything behind except Moira. But how do I know for sure that I'm not just grateful to her on some deep level? Will this feel old and stale in a week? A month? Three months? He really couldn't imagine it, but it was a possibility that he'd be a fool to ignore.

Jason cleared his throat. "I don't want anything from you except this one chance you are giving me now. Midori, I don't know what the future will bring. I can tell you I haven't felt this way so deeply before. My intentions? I'm not so different from most people. I want to explore what we have. I want to see where this all leads. I want to find out if we can be more than what we are right now. Do you understand?"

"Right now I just want to be right here with you and I want this feeling to last forever. But I'm no teenager anymore. I also know that the heart can be a tricky thing, real love is hard to find, and the real thing is worth the extra effort."

"I... I feel that way too, Jason. I find myself always wanting to know what you're thinking, what you're feeling." Midori tilted her head so it rested on his shoulder. "You have no idea how hard it has been not to just reach out and skim your surface thoughts. I haven't touched your mind since we left the Edge of Night, except for the mind links."

Jason reached over and took one of her hands in both of his. Aware of his enhanced strength, he held it as delicately as a flower as he held it before his eyes. He spread her fingers apart and locked his own between them.

"Don't forget," he said softly. "You can still just ask me. And if you would like to feel from the heart or in your mind, you can ask, and I will probably say yes.

Midori looked at her long, slender fingers intertwined with Jason's, and she could not help but marvel at this picture of contrasts. His hands, so different from all the other corporate executives she knew. Where they were concerned about ruining their manicure, Jason seemed to revel in their roughness.

Midori's mother had always said you could tell a lot about a person by looking at their hands. The hand she held was unapologetic about the calluses that came from hard work, earned through trials by combat. The scars on his torso bore testament to that, as was the fact that he has gone through the expense of the cybernetic upgrades in order to better protect himself.

And what a laugh Midori was when to came to protecting herself. She was surprised that Gem hadn't died of an embolism, with all the chances she had been taking. Meeting Jason at the Edge of Night was foolhardy, and while she had promised Gem she'd never do anything like that again, she had to admit that she would do it again.

She should have known better than to go to Toronto. Because of her, Jason and Moira's home had been destroyed, and Gem was missing, if not dead. Midori let out a soft sigh, then reined in her errant thoughts. You can't change the past, Midori, she thought. But you do have control over your future, and if you want that future to be with Jason, you're going to have to be more careful. Listen to what Gem and Jason say, and try not to take advantage of the fact they care about you to railroad them into doing what you want.

Midori looked back up at Jason with a new kind of strength behind her eyes. "Thank you, Jason. For everything." She leaned forward and gave him a sweet, gentle, and lingering kiss. "I just feel like that with my powers I've got a really big advantage over you. It feels so... one sided." Midori shrugged helplessly. "I've always prided myself on acting honorably, and what happened bothers me. Not that I don't want to know you," she hastened to say, "but... there's no way we can ever be equal that way." Midori shook her head and sighed. "I'm making such a muddle of this."

"What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't feel right, just 'dipping' into your mind whenever I feel like it. When I'm with business competitors, or people like the Black Company, that's one thing, but with you it feels.. wrong. Like I'm violating a trust, and I never want to do that to you, or ever make you think that I have."

Jason smiled. "It wouldn't be a violation if you asked first. Listen, I don't want you to feel guilty about that anymore and I'll tell you why. In most cases, I can see where reading someone's mind would be a little unfair if you meant to take advantage. But this is the one-in-a-thousand case where you helped me immensely! You know everything about me, and yet you still want me near you. That is an incredible validation for me. It tells me that if you could still like me after all, I'm not such a bad guy. And I don't need to tell you how little I thought of myself after what happened. It was less than a week ago, and I already feel like it was another life."

"That makes it a gift, Midori, not a violation. I will always trust you."

Midori frowned. "I wish you'd stop thinking you're some kind of monster, because you're not. You were in a dark place and you lost your way. I was just lucky enough to find you and give you some light to see by." Her face softened into a smile, and she reached up to stroke his face. Midori's finger gently traced the scar at his temple, then followed the line of his face down until her hand was resting lightly along his jaw.

Jason felt the silent signal of an incoming call on his coded link. "Excuse me for a moment? I think Hobbs is calling."

//Yes, Hobbs?//

//Sorry to interrupt, sir, but I thought you'd like to know that we've checked into the Waldorf Astoria.//

//Why the Waldorf?//

//Moira said she wanted to swim. I thought it best to try it in a hot tub, which they have in the rooms. Besides, children under 18 check in for free there.//

Jason chuckled aloud, earning a curious eyebrow from Midori. //Okay, but she has a limited oxygen supply and she won't float. Make sure she understands that.//

//Of course, sir.// Hobbs changed the subject. //Forgive me, but I am rather curious about the state of your home...//

//Oh, yes, of course, Hobbs! I'll make arrangements to check it over. It will probably be later this afternoon, and if I have a chance, I'll stop in to see you and Moira this evening.//

//Very good, sir. Good bye.// Hobbs closed the link.

"Hobbs says that he and Moira are at the Waldorf Astoria. She wants to try swimming." He sighed, "I wish she would wait to do these things until I was there."

"I should check on the damage to the estate. Would you care to accompany me? The place might still be crawling with cops, but the world already knows your alive. We might as well make sure the cops are looking for us as well as the bad guys. From there, we might both go incognito so our movements aren't traced so easily. I'm sure the police will approve of that, too."

Midori nodded. "If you'd like me to come, I will. It's not easy to see one's home... violated." Her face lost a touch of its happiness. "And it will be easy enough to go incognito. Zenshou Shinju is a complete identity. I've got ID cards, work history, credit chits, the works. Even a couple of bank accounts. I paid a very good hacker to create the identity for me, and it'll take someone trying very hard to find the loopholes to discover that it's fake."

Jason liked the fact she would go with, and he smiled at her to show it.

She frowned again. "We'll have to make another quick stop somewhere, though. I don't have any Midori clothes here... No wait, I've got what I wore when I... arrived in the Zone originally." Midori looked over at Jason. "Maybe while we're there we could grab some of Moira's and Hobb's things for them. If the security force and the police allow us, though I don't know why they wouldn't."

"That's a good idea," Jason agreed.

"And speaking of the police, what are we going to tell them," she asked. "Were we there when the attack happened? How did we get away? They're going to want answers."

"I think we'll just tell them that we got out right away when the alarms sounded. I can tell them I was concerned about security ever since that videozine reporter began his insinuating harassment. I can even talk about a civil lawsuit against the man stating my estate was harmed directly due to his irresponsible reporting. It would be difficult to prove in court, and I don't intend to really go through with it, but it may cause other reporters to approach me more cautiously if they think I might just sue their shirts off their backs."

Jason made a call to the limousine company again, since he wasn't sure what state his own limo might be in and arranged for them to meet him at the bridge entrance to the Zero Zone.

"Well, we've got a ways to walk. Shall we get moving?" He made a gesture indicating 'ladies first'.

Midori have a half smile. "I'm going to need to change first," she said, then paused for a moment. Her smile changed to one of embarrassment. "I'm going to need some help. The outfit I was wearing calls for some... contortions that I might not be able to handle with the stiffness that's coming from the bruise." Midori's hand absently brushed her lower abdomen.

Jason smiled and told her he'd be pleased to lend her a hand.

Midori stood with a grimace and headed for her bedroom. "Please excuse the mess," she apologized. The room looked as if a tornado had hit the closet and scattered the clothes all over the floor, king sized bed, and the lone chair. "It's kind of hard to bend over and put stuff away."

She walked over to the closet and took out a leather one piece outfit that bordered on being a catsuit. Jason recognized it as being from the most recent collection of one of the biggest designers from Japan, and it was obviously the inspiration for the knock-off Midori had worn when they met at the Edge of Night.

With another grimace, Midori bent over and retrieved her boots. She sighed, and walked over to the bed and placed the boots on one of the clean spots, then laid the jumpsuit down as well. "I'm not sure how much of this I'll be able to deal with on my own," she said with a sheepish look at Jason.

Midori pulled the oversized shirt over her head and tossed it on the bed, then rummaged around in the pile of clothing looking for a bra. She quickly slipped into it, then removed her pants, adding them to the pile on the bed.

Jason tried not stare, and tried to focus on less arousing things in the room. Unfortunately, with the slinky clothes, underwear, stockings, and various other pieces of clothing lying about, there was little escape. Jason put a heroic effort in seeming stolid and gentlemanly, when in fact, there was little he'd like more than to jump the poor girl right then and there.

She looked down at the bruise and wrinkled her nose. "God, that's ugly. What wonderful shades of purple and green it's going to turn as it heals." She shook her head, then sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed the leather outfit. Slowly and carefully, Midori slipped in her legs, then stood. She slipped off the bed to stand and with a few movements adjusted the bottoms.

Jason followed her eyes down at the bruise and was then guilty of looking at quite a bit more than the bruise about which Midori was concerned. With military discipline, or at least an attempt at it, Jason blinked and thereafter focused on the bruise.

Midori looked over at Jason. "This is where I'm going to need your help. I don't think I'm going to be able to twist enough to get my arms into the sleeves, or the suit up over my shoulders. I'm not going to be able to put those boots on myself, let alone lace them up. Do you mind?"

"Not at all, love." He hadn't called her that before. Actually, he hadn't every called anyone that before, but he said it now without a second thought. He dutifully helped her with the clothes, enjoying her closeness, the way she smelled, and the touch of her skin thoroughly. He felt more like he was 'helping' himself more than he was helping her.

If Midori didn't know better, she'd have sworn that Jason was enjoying himself, playing valet to her. As he was doing up her boots, she looked down at him with a contemplative look on her face. Jason, she said softly, only partially aware of the caress in her mental voice. What were you thinking when you were helping me just now? I mean, you're not upset or feeling guilty, are you?

Certainly not! There was a musical hint of laughter through the link. It's just I've never had the opportunity to help a grown woman get dressed before. The message actually was a little jumbled when it was sent. Another message was layered within it like a distant echo that clearly enough said, ...especially a woman I am so attracted to...

Jason smiled at Midori. "Let's try not to take things too seriously this afternoon, shall we?" It was a reference for both the now and what they would find at the estate.

After Midori picked up some clothes she could wear as Zenshou and packed them in a small bag, she put on her own armored long coat and placed a black wig with a page-boy cut over her head with expert precision. Jason picked up his own long coat and they both went out the door.

In the lobby they spied Jack, so they let him know they were leaving. Zenshou updated him on their plans and then told him to make himself comfortable in her apartment. All they had left to do now was leave the Zone and meet the armored limousine that Jason had called to pick them up.

The damage to the estate was bad, of course. It didn't appear so bad from the window of the armored limo, but when Jason and Midori got out and walked around, the true condition of the old family estate could be seen. The first place Midori and Jason looked at was the house itself, of course. Although most of the fighting had taken place outside, explosives had been used and it was obvious that the damage sustained by the walls was substantial. Bullets had bored holes through walls and shattered ornate windows. Grenades had destroyed much of the once-grand entryway and the porch in the back of the house. There was a hole in the roof where smoke still lazily slithered into the darkening sky.

A few small craters marred the front lawn, but 30 yards away, the guest house was largely undamaged, save for a few holes made by stray bullets. Jason sighed sadly. He hadn't the heart to go around back and see what remained of his mother's gardens, yet.

"I'm so sorry," Midori whispered, upset at the extent of the devastation.

However, there were still a couple cars parked in front of the estate. One was a marked police car, and one was an unmarked police car with an emergency vehicle light magnetically attached to the roof. One man, dressed in a cheap suit and easily identifiable as the unlucky detective assigned to the case, saw the limo and Jason and his unrecognized guest get out and look around. He walked out of the darkened doorway to the house and made his was around the small craters and small piles of torn and tossed lawn toward Jason and Midori.

"You go and get some things for Moira and yourself," Midori said to Jason, having sensed his increasing bad mood and gave his hand squeeze. "I'll deal with the police officer." She gave him a smile. "Don't worry, I'll find you when I'm done here." Midori watched Jason walk off, she turned and intercepted the police officer.

"Thanks... Zenshou," Jason smiled at her.

With the skill that could only come from experience, Midori introduced herself, fielded all the questions that the officer asked, then assured him that both she and Jason would be available for official statements later that evening.

That dealt with, Midori carefully picked her way through the rubble. When she reached what would have been the front sitting room, she paused, and a lump formed in her throat. Midori was beginning to feel like it had been her home that had been destroyed, and it seemed like an irrational feeling to her. Maybe I could help Jason rebuild, she thought. We'll never be able to get it back to exactly the way it was before, but maybe that's a good thing. The place seemed so... empty and sad. Maybe I can help make it a home again. After all, Moira should have a happy place to live in.

Sensing there were no other espers in the immediate vicinity, Midori opened up her mind and sought out Jason. Midori sensed something like emptiness in Jason as he moved through the house, but also some anticipation as he picked his way around broken family heirlooms, pieces of furniture and art.

Jason, she sent as she tried to get his attention with a gentle "knocking" at the edge of his mind. I'm done here with the police, and I'm heading around to the back where the gardens are, to get away from the reporters and forensics crews. Would you like me to meet me there?

Yes. I'm done here now and I think I can coax the help into gathering whatever else is salvageable. Maybe some time next week I'll pick out a new house style with architects and bulldoze the site to make way for a new home. It sounded a little like he was thinking aloud, although this communication was hardly 'out loud'.

You're not planning on getting rid of everything, are you, Midori asked in surprise, and Jason could sense that the idea of completely erasing the history of his family though the house disturbed her.

Well yes, that's what I was thinking. You don't think that's a good idea?

No, I don't, Midori replied, but this isn't the time or the place to be thinking about this kind of thing. Better to wait a couple of days to when emotions aren't running so high and you can look at it objectively.

Jason walked out of the house and moved toward the gardens. Unfortunately, the damage here was the most severe of all. The low, stone walls that divided and decorated what was once his mother's much-loved garden had obviously been used for cover between the warring mercenary bands. The result was they had been shattered, bombed and otherwise obliterated. Stone shrapnel had shredded prized rose bushes and completely annihilated flower beds. Jason couldn't help but to feel shocked at the scene. The destruction of the garden, was to him a senseless act of brutality.

He spied Midori looking around the garden with an equally appalled look on her face so he put down the briefcase and suitcase full of rescued personal items and walked over to her. "I should have spent more time out here," he commented aloud. "Perhaps I'd be able to remember what it looked like better." He shook his head, "Ah well. I can always rebuild."

Something caught his eye, so he kicked aside a bit of stone and broken shrubbery. Bending down, he plucked a red flower whose thorny stem immediately stabbed him in the finger. Surprisingly, the rose was in nearly perfect condition and in bloom. Jason looked at the little drop of blood gathering at the end of his finger and chuckled.

"I don't think this rose wants to stay with me," he looked into Midori's eyes as he silently offered her the flower.

Midori's smile warmed her eyes. She took the rose in one hand, and Jason's injured hand in the other. With a finger she wiped away the drop of blood and gave the injured digit a quick kiss. "Maybe it's trying to tell you something else." Midori paused, then lifted the rose to her nose to breathe in the fragrance. "I'm sure that your gardener knows the garden like the back of his hand, and between his efforts and the assistance of people from my estate, I'm sure we can get things back to the way your mother would have wanted them."

"To change the garden," Midori added, "would be to admit defeat. Sure, it's never going to be exactly the same, but your mother's spirit was invested here, and it would be a shame to have that beauty ruined and allowed to die away."

Jason looked around him and then addressed Midori. "You're right. I shouldn't change the garden. The garden will be the easiest thing to rebuild. That will just take time and patience." He stooped to pick up a chunk of stone. "You know, my father built these walls for my mother. He spent a lot of long evenings out here, but he'd never give us a straight answer when Helen and I asked him. He'd just say that only a Stone could lay the right foundation for this."

Marta stood on the side of the road and watched the taillights of the taxi disappear into the growing darkness. Here she was, in Neo York, half-a-world-away from Ling Ling, and she'd never felt quite so alone. Pulling coat her tight, Marta turned and started down the street, her boots loud on the asphalt.

After running into Sandra in Hong Kong, Marta had taken a room in an out-of-the-way hotel to give herself a chance to think. She'd also made some calls—calling in, asking for, and becoming responsible for a variety of favors in an effort to discover the information she was seeking. She might not have the contacts that Ling Ling had carefully cultivated during her career, but she knew a few key people on the street.

It turned out that Jason Stone, known on the street as "Drake," was an amazingly easy person to locate, considering he was the CEO of a major corporation. Marta was far more used to the head honchos of multinationals like Jinsei and Mitsumi, who sat safe and secure at the top of their ivory corporate towers and made themselves known only as a name on a memo or press release. Stone, on the other hand, apparently had little to hide and lived his life far more openly than Marta would have ever expected.

So she'd hopped a sub-orbital from Hong Kong to United North America and then hired a cab to take her to the northern reaches of Neo York proper. Once she'd paid off the taxi (a hefty sum to be sure) she was left alone in the middle of the sort of neighborhood that took a dim view of her kind, and she wasn't even armed.

Dressed in tall boots, tight black jeans, a white long-sleeved pullover, and an ankle-length black jacket, Marta knew she looked either like a corporate thug or a bodyguard with a flair for the cliched. The cops would probably show to give her a talking to before she got even halfway to Stone's place. Good thing her passport was in order.

Much to her relief, the trip from where she'd been dropped off to where Stone's residence was supposed to be passed without incident. Find Stone's house, however, was a different matter. Whatever Marta had expected, it certainly didn't include a host of police and emergency vehicles parked in the driveway and on the yard. There was also the matter of the mansion itself. Part of it was well lit, but the rest was dark, and those parts displayed mute evidence of violence. Windows had been broken, holes decorated the walls, and a nearby tree had the twisted and burned look that could only come from an energy weapon impact.

To say things didn't look good was, simply put, an understatement. Not that Marta was going to be put of that easily. There was quite a bit at stake here, not the least of which was the truth. Ducking under the yellow "do not cross" tape, Marta made her way up the drive, hoping that by acting as if she belonged there, no one would question her.

Midori looked around the ravaged garden one last time, then looked at Jason. "We probably ought to get going to the hotel," she said. "The longer we stick around here, the more likely it is that the press might find us, or the police will come up with some other questions that we don't want to answer right now. Oh, that reminds me. I promised the detective in charge that we'd be by the station later this evening to give our statements. He wanted us to do it right away, but I explained to him that you had just been able to get in contact with your daughter and you wanted to see her and let her know everything was alright before you did anything else."

"Thanks, that's perfect," said Jason gratefully. He wasn't sure why the police officer would trust what Zenshou might say since that identity was secret, but he felt comfortable in trusting that Midori was certainly very capable when it came to handling people.

"You got everything that you think Moira might want," Midori asked, "pyjamas, toiletries, favorite clothes, favorite toy, and so on?"

"I hope so," answered Jason thoughtfully. "She's a little hard to predict, but I think I got what she might want. I packed some things for me, too. That reminds me; I had a bit of good luck. It would seem that my laptop survived, and I know she always likes playing on that." He pointed to a briefcase sitting on the ground next to a suitcase just outside of the house.

"Great. Let's get out of here." Midori took a step back and turned, then waited for Jason to get beside her before she began to walk. Carefully, the two of them picked their way through the rubble to the front of the house. Midori tried to hide a pained expression when she saw the ruined front entryway, and when Jason turned his head to look at her he was surprised to see Marta standing on the driveway, staring at the carnage that used to be the front of the house.

"Marta?" Jason called. There was a bit of surprise in his voice as he double-checked that he recognized her. He could see that she was in one piece, unarmed and apparently well. Jason moved the briefcase and suitcase to his offhand and took Midori's hand in his right. He walked toward Marta.

"I'm glad to see you're okay. And I assume you have come looking for some answers?" Jason smiled with his usual charm, in some contrast to the scene of disaster behind them.

"You could say that," Marta replied warily. Her hands clenched into fists and then loosened, only to tighten back as she worked her fingers nervously. There was a sudden desire to lash out, to use violence to achieve some sense of purpose and balance. She looked at Jason under narrowed brows, unmindful of his open smile. "Why do you think I need answers anyway?"

"You came all the way back to Neo York from wherever your sister took you. You've already been paid, so why else would you want to see me?" Jason pointed out what seemed obvious to him.

"Hong Kong."

"What?" Jason seemed taken back by the sudden switch in subjects.

"I woke up in Hong Kong." Marta paused, and then continued. "With Ling Ling." She fell silent, a pained look marking her statement.

Jason looked briefly puzzled. He didn't understand why waking up at home would trigger a painful memory. He decided he could too easily misread that expression and decided not to press it. "First, I'd like to introduce you to my very good friend, Zenshou. Zenshou, this is Marta..." Jason paused, waiting for Marta to filling the blanks.

"Nys..." The sable-haired street samurai let the name drop, waiting for the expected reaction.

"A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Nys," Midori said, dropping Jason's hand, switching the rose to her left and holding out her right hand to the street sam. If she made the connection between Marta and her sister, she gave no obvious response. "I wish it had been under different circumstances."

"Yeah... sure." Marta glanced around and pointedly ignored Midori's offered hand by keeping her own thrust deep in the pockets of her coat.

Midori's hand smoothly returned to her side, unphased by Marta's deliberate rudeness.

Jason immediately appeared offended and quickly reevaluated how polite he was going to be with this ex-hireling.

"Listen," Jason continued. "Why don't we talk in the limo. I'm sure we'll be more at ease once we're away from all of this."

"We or you?" Marta asked cooly. Stone had fast-talked her once before (well... maybe), but she sure as hell wasn't going to let him do it again.

"All of us, I think," Midori responded. "There are certain conversations that shouldn't be held where the... authorities and media can overhear them, don't you think? Besides, the least we could do is drop you off somewhere on the way to the Waldorf."

Cocking an eyebrow, Marta turned to Midori. "Tell me, do you answer all his questions for him?"

Jason refused to honor the slight with any response of his own. He refused to sink to the woman's level, and continued to the limo. Marta would follow or she would not.

Midori returned her look coolly. "No," she replied, "and if you knew the slightest thing about Jason you'd know he can speak for himself. I was merely expressing... concern over the events over the past 24 hours, and how we'd like to avoid any more media coverage. Should you wish to air dirty laundry in the public so it appears on the six o'clock vid news, then by all means," she finished with a shrug. "Feel free to discuss what happened in the Zone on Wednesday."

"No... I don't know anything about... Jason." Marta paused and glanced at Jason's retreating back. "And y'know, he doesn't know much about me either... except that I'm pretty good at killing people that need it. I don't really care about any media coverage either, all I want is some answers."

"Then I'll help you get those answers."

"Will you now..." Marta turned back to Zenshou and glanced about the destroyed front of the mansion. "What happened to his kid? She okay?"

"Thank you for asking," Midori replied. "She was worried about her father but she wasn't at home when the attack happened. The events of the past twenty four hours led us to believe that this might happen, so Jason made sure that Hobbs took Moira somewhere to get her away from the mansion. We stopped by here to survey the damage, get some of Moira's things for her, and we were about to head to the hotel where she is right now."

"How about Sandra?"

"I have no idea," Midori replied honestly. "Jason hasn't seen her since the fight in the Zone. She wasn't here when the attack happened. It was just Jason, myself, and my bo--, my friend. She's still missing. The medical extraction team didn't find her body, nor has anyone from the emergency crews."

"What are you talking about?" Marta asked, looking confused. "Sandra's alive and in Hong Kong."

"I wasn't talking about Sandra," Midori replied, shaking her head. "In fact, I've never met her. The 'her' I was referring to was my friend."

"What does she have to do with anything?" Marta snapped. "I'm talking about what happened back in the Zone, not this..." Marta gestured at the front of the house, "...mess."

Midori shrugged. "My mistake. Moira knows Sandra killed her aunt, and she's upset about the whole situation."

"Really?" Marta opinioned. "Well, Sandra wasn't looking all that calm when I saw her either."

"Everyone involved has a right to their feelings and opinions about what happened," Midori replied. "I entered the picture the night after the fight happened." She turned and headed towards the limo.

The trio made their way to the limousine and got in as the driver held the door for them. Once the three slid into the seat, Jason wasted no time getting to the point. "To state up front, I want you to know that I understand your attempt to kill me was under duress. I certainly don't hold that against you, and would not seek to damage your reputation because of it. Had I known there was an esper behind everything, I would never have put a death sentence on what turned out to be scores of innocent people. I would have handled the esper alone and with a sniper rifle instead rather than risk my friends, you, or myself in a direct conflict with one."

Marta's response was a low "unhunh" and a shrug, as if killing scores of innocent people was no big deal to her. Considering her reputation and chosen occupation, odds were it wasn't.

Jason looked at Marta carefully for a moment before continuing. "As it was, it was a disaster. It very nearly was a total disaster save for a fortuitous intervention." Jason looked intently at Marta and then also at Zenshou. For Marta, he may have meant Shion's timely arrival. For Zenshou, it might have been her email he was referring to. In fact, he meant both and was certain each got the meaning he intended them to have.

"I want to ask you about that, Stone," Marta replied, looking at her hands. She was slowly tapping the tip of her index finger against the thumbnail of her other hand, the extended razor making a faint clicking sound with each impact. Zenshou watched, wondering if the dark-haired women meant to drill through the nail and draw blood.

Clenching her hands, Marta stopped the nervous tic of her finger and then glanced at Jason. "What really happened?"

"You turned on me. You joined them and came after me. I didn't want to kill you, because at that point I began to suspect mind control, so I called Ms. Ling Ling Li. It was clear I couldn't help you. Not unless I could kill the gang leader, and frankly you were in the way. The way you were fighting me told me you didn't give a damn if I stabbed you, cut you into pieces, or blew holes in you. You were going to kill me and I truly doubt you would have lived much beyond that moment."

Cold blue eyes stared daggers at the ungrateful woman. "If you feel some childish resentment about needing to be saved by your big sister, then grow up Ms. Nys. If you want closure to this, and figure out what the hell that gang was really up to, I suggest you finish the job I hired you to do. Master Ting," Jason nearly spat the word, "was not among the dead."

"As I recall, Jason Stone, you didn't hire to kill some 'Master Ting', whoever he is," Marta replied testily. "You brought me on because you wanted someone who was ruthless enough and efficient enough to eliminate anyone who stood in your way while you rescued your sister. And I was doing just that until a fucking building fell on me. After that I don't recall much... except for some guy with green eyes talking to me. After that, everything is a blur, until I woke up in Hong Kong." The was a pause as she drew in a breath and then started her tirade anew.

"Ling Ling tells me my sister came booming in from fuck-knows-where, covered in blood and ice, and dropped me off before vanishing. She'd showed up after you had someone call Ling Ling, and Ling Ling called my sister to tell her that some esper was trying to fuck the three us up but good. That's all I know until Sandra tells me your sister is dead and somehow it's all my fault! Well, it's not my fucking fault!"

With a cry of anguish and rage Marta slammed her fist into the limo window, cracking it before cradling her hand in her lap and breaking into tears.

"It's not my fucking fault." she repeated.

Midori glanced at Jason. Please let me handle this, Jason. Both of you have been traumatized by what happened, and I think I can help. Any further aggression and conflict between the two of you will only make things worse...

Jason glanced at Midori and shook his head. "You're right on both counts, Marta."

He sighed and sat back in the leather seat and rubbed his face with his hands. "It's true that only Master Ting really knows what went on, but he's not your responsibility."

He glanced at Marta briefly and looked away. "Nor are you, by any stretch of the imagination, responsible for what happened to Athena. Sandra pulled the trigger, and I wish every minute she hadn't aimed for the head. In the end, though, I'm the one responsible. Athena wouldn't have even been there, maybe none of this would have happened if I had just paid a little more attention to her when she was hurting. I tried to find her and make amends, but it was too little, too late." He hesitated as if there might be more, but the pained look on his face said he needed to stop for a moment.

Jason felt ill and wondered briefly why it felt so warm in the car. He loosened his tie and continued. "Sandra was in Hong Kong, I presume, because I drove her away. I just don't want to see her again, not ever, and in so many words I told her that."

Jason thought for a moment, staring at nothing in particular. After pulling his mind free of the miasma of memories and feelings of guilt, he paused to consider again why Marta was here. She hadn't flinched at the thought of killing innocent people. Why did she care if she had killed one more stranger? A threat to her reputation as a reliable street sam? Maybe, but her outburst said it was something more than that.

"Is he dead?" Marta asked, still curled over her hand.

"I'm not really sure, to be perfectly honest. Shion Nys did something to him. Something probably appropriately bad. I assume he is dead, but your sister would know for sure. She wasn't really in the mood to hold a conversation with me about it." Jason showed a little concern. "Hey, is that hand going to be okay?"

"Hunh?" Marta lifted her hand out of her lap and looked at it. The skin was unbroken, but a dark bruise was growing around the point of each knuckle. "Yeah... hurts like hell though." She dropped her hand back into her lap.

As Jason and Marta were talking, Midori quietly snapped the thorns off the rose from Jason's mother's garden, apparently ignoring the conversation going on between the two. Once she was finished, she gathered up the debris and put it in the small trash container that came with the bar in the limo.

Jason wasn't sure what to do. He knew there was something else bothering Marta, but he wasn't sure how to get her to talk, or even if it was safe to do so. He dropped what remained of any coldness in his voice and tentatively asked, "Marta, are you really okay?"

Marta looked up at Jason from under the tangled strands of her hair. "Do I look okay? I was the fucking puppet of some goddamned esper and I was totally fucking helpless! How do you think I feel!" A deep breath followed the outburst, at which point Marta looked out the cracked window. "I bet my sister killed him to fast."

Midori suspected anything she might say about espers, either good or bad, would not be taken in the spirit it was meant. Midori knew full well what Marta was going through, but she chose to remain silent.

Jason nodded. "Considering all the pain and suffering he cause you and countless others... Yes, I would rather he had survived and still be paying for that."

"I should ask," Marta said, still looking out the window. "You have a phone in here?"

Jason nodded, took the limo's car phone from its cradle next to him, and then handed it to her.

Marta stared at the phone for a moment before pressing a rapid series of buttons. She then held the phone up to her ear and hesitantly asked "Hello?"


"Yeah, it's me."

//Where are you?//

"Neo York. I'm... Look, can we get together?"

//Now? I presume so... Are you alright?//

"Yeah, yeah, I'm okay. You?"

//Don't change the subject. You do realize that Ling Ling is worried sick about you, don't you? She even called me to check and see if I heard from you.//

"She is? Well... tell her, tell Ling Ling I'll be back soon, and I'm sorry for leaving like that and that I love her."

//Marta... You need to tell her this, not me.//

"Yeah... yeah, I guess I do. Look, I need to talk to you...about... about what happened."

//... I see...//

"Where can we meet?"

//Where in Neo York are you?//

"Uh..." Marta glanced up at Jason and Midori. "Where are we?"

"We're just leaving my estate which is just a couple miles north of the limits of New Rochelle," Jason responded. "We're heading for the new road they built that goes around a lot of the residential stuff in New Rochelle towards the River and Manhattan."

//Who were you talking to?//

Marta blinked and glanced around the interior of the limo. "Uhm... some people I'm with."

//What "people"!?//

Placing her hand over the receiver, Marta looked up. "My sister wants to know who I'm with. I presume you'd rather not say?"

Jason half-shrugged, using one shoulder. "No, that's all right. You can tell her what she wants to know, although I'd prefer if you kept it to just mentioning my name, only." He produced a quick, reassuring smile but then resumed attempting to look like he was not trying to eavesdrop.

Marta glanced at Midori for a second before putting the phone back up to her ear. "Jason Stone."

//The same Stone that hired you initially, correct?//


//What does he want now?//

"He doesn't want anything!" Marta snapped. "I went to him looking for answers."

//Did you get any?//

"A few..." Marta said quietly.

//Where should I pick you up?//

"Uh..." Marta glanced up. "Where are we going? I need to tell Shion where to meet us."

"We're going to the Waldorf so I can see my daughter. We should be there in about 25 or 30 minutes barring traffic problems," Jason noted.

"The Waldorf." Marta repeated. "Stone says we'll be there in about a half-an-hour."

//I'll meet you there, then. In my car.//

"Thanks, Shee." Marta put the phone back in its cradle. "She's going to meet use there."

Midori sat quietly next to Jason, thinking about what had happened over the past few days. As they got closer to the hotel, Midori felt the pressure of power at the edge of her awareness.

She's coming, Midori sent to Jason. I'm going to be dampening now, so I'd rather we not use our link. Now is not the time to announce to Shion Nys that I'm an esper.

No. No need for that, Jason agreed.

Eventually, the car rolled to a stop and the driver let them out. Before them stood the Waldorf Astoria, a hotel so large it occupied an entire city block and even was able to lay claim to being an ambassadorial residence. Jason stood and looked up at the archaic architecture, built in what seemed like another age. He sighed with no little sadness, thinking back upon what must have been romantic times of high hopes when the Waldorf was new. The world could never return to those days, he knew. Yet, looking at Midori, he knew that the future just might be a lot brighter than he once believed.

Jason smiled and offered Midori a gentle arm as the prepared to enter the grand hotel. He looked at Marta, "After you Miss Nys."

"Yeah... right." Marta stepped out of the car and stared across the driveway at the sleek lines of a white Mercedes SL2030 AMG. Her sister's Mercedes SL2030 AMG. She swallowed and took a deep breath. It would not do to go to pieces in front of her sister.

Midori could feel the pulsing of Shion's power signature in her head, like the throbbing of a base line blasting from a gigantic speaker. She was confident that as long as she didn't use her powers, Midori wouldn't be detected by Shion. With the Empress' sheer power, she'd likely be able to detect the slightest mental whisper from Midori.

She turned her head to look at Jason and his offered arm, and gave a quick sad smile. "As much as I'd love to," Midori said softly, regret in her voice, "I think we'd better hold off any kind of public display of affection until the whole situation with the Black Company and the person or persons who hired them has been resolved. And yes," she said, putting a hand on his arm to cut off his protest. "I know it sucks, but I don't want to put you or Moira in any more danger. And yes, I know you can look after yourself, but Moira is still just a child. She's afraid she's going to lose you, and I don't want to be the cause of any more strife between the two of you."

Jason cocked his head and looked at her with an odd expression upon his face. He shrugged and replied, "As you wish."

"What's wrong, Jason," Midori asked. "Did I say something wrong?"

Jason shook his head. "No."

The trio proceeded past the suited man holding the door for them and moved into the lobby of the hotel. It wasn't difficult to spot someone as unique as the attractive, tall, white-haired Shion Nys. She stood near the front desk dressed in an ankle-length blue dress with white ruffled lace at the throat. Although outwardly she seemed calm, Midori could feel her power roiling, like the ocean on a windy day. As the trio approached, Shion's expression remained carefully neutral, as if she was carefully passing judgement on Jason and Midori.

Midori was used to the appraising and judgmental looks, so she let it flow over her without affecting her. She'd be feeling the exact same way if she were in the Empress' position. Midori maintained a relaxed, cautious, but above all polite, demeanor. It would be up to Jason, Marta, and Shion how all this would play out, but Midori wouldn't hesitate to come to Jason's aid should Shion's mental state turn to anger and she chose to lash out.

After they approached the elder Nys, Jason nodded respectfully, trying not to seem as intimidated as he felt. His first impulse to was to get out of the blast radius, just in case there was some kind of explosion, emotional or otherwise.

He stopped and turned toward Marta to make it clear who he was speaking to. "Is there anything else I help you with, Ms. Nys?"

Marta didn't respond to the question for a long moment, standing still and staring first at her sister and then her boots. Jason was begging to wonder if Marta had even heard him when she abruptly turned to him. "Are they all gone? All of them?"

"All but Ting," replied Jason. "But if he was mind-controlled, too, then we may never hear from him again."

"How can you be so sure?" Marta asked. "How do you know they're all gone? And what if this Ting guy wasn't being controlled? Then what?"

Midori had to agree with Marta, though she remained silent. There was no way of knowing if Ting had been controlled, or if there was anyone else who survived, unless someone went back and checked.

"Then I will have a problem. He came specifically for me the last several times. I don't think you'll be in danger if he seeks revenge. I wandered around for a while after—it happened. All I saw were bodies. Ting was not among them, though. When you returned to fight me, he withdrew. I think he told Athena he was going to find Wretch while she was to remain and finish the job should you have failed, but that was the last I saw of him."

Jason knit his brow. "Say Marta, listen. Thinking about it a little more clearly, I don't think it's such a good idea to go after him. I've never seen anyone fight like he can. I wouldn't want to fight him again any more than I'd want to have to fight you again. A confrontation with him can't be worth the risk."

"If Ting is out there, it's my guess that he'd be the master now and begin training new acolytes to carry out whatever his purpose is." Jason shook his head. "These are pretty dark thoughts, considering they are only speculation. Right now, I just was to put it all behind me. One day I know I'll have face him again. I can only hope it won't be on the battlefield."

Marta looked at Jason and then glanced over at her sister, who still hadn't moved from where she stood next to the front desk. "Perhaps I'll go look anyway. Just to satisfy my curiosity. Give myself some peace of mind."

Jason nodded. "Yeah, well... If you run into some trouble, don't be shy about giving me a call. You can reach me via my SynTech office or here at the Waldorf Astoria."

Jason looked from Marta to Shion and back. "I'll leave you two to your business. Take care of yourselves."

Jason accompanied Midori to the elevator.

"You're welcome Mr. Stone." The voice was a soft, but husky contralto purr, and certainly didn't belong to Marta Nys.

Jason looked to see who was speaking.

"Let it go, Jason," Midori said softly, loud enough so only Jason could hear. "Shion is rather... upset. She may look calm, but her power isn't."

Jason nodded. "I am glad Ms. Nys. I am glad for your intervention, which changed what would have been a very unfortunate outcome." With relief, he heard the bell ring, denoting the arrival of the elevator.

He wondered why Shion, Marta's sister, would have felt that having a chance to save her own kin would have been construed as a favor to Jason. Yet, he knew better than to ask, realizing that it's just possible that's exactly how Shion felt about it, or if she didn't, she could take offense. Right now, more than anything else, he just wanted to go see his daughter and tell her that everything was all right.

The elevator door opened and Midori and Jason stepped inside.

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