Midnight rockers
City slickers
Gunmen and maniacs
All will feature on the freakshow
And I can't do nothing 'bout that, no
But if you hurt what's mine
I'll sure as hell retaliate

(Massive Attack/Safe From Harm)

The ejection seat shot into the sky over the Pacific ocean, losing speed as it gained altitude, and taking Mitch Brogan on the ride of his life. Always wanted to try one of these crazy things... too bad I only get to do it once.

On the horizon, Mitch Brogan could see the lights along the eastern shore of Angelus' wharf district. The setting sun glinted off the orbital tower, rising as far into the darkening sky as he could see. And he could see a long way... but not for much longer. He just had time to take in the view above him, and then a harsh light from the spinner he'd just ejected from began to wash out everything else, nearly blinding him. Mitch could feel the heat already, and the shockwave wouldn't be far behind. The Blue Lady's ejection seat wasn't going to make it, and neither was he.

Didn't I retire just so I could avoid this sort of thing? I must be doing something seriously wrong, here!

This was the point where Mitch expected his life to flash before his eyes. But with Death in the guise of a plasma blast overtaking him at high mach numbers, he didn't have enough time. Mitch only had time to wonder what he could have done differently....

Maybe retiring wasn't such a good idea.

* * * * *

January 31st, 2133: XSWAT Director's Residence, Alpha Sector:

Director Renuka's retirement party.

"... and I'm looking forward to spending more time with my family." And less time talking to the press. Mitch's smile didn't waver for an instant as he spoke with the reporters. "Now, if you'll excuse me...." He ignored their frantic shouts and declined to answer 'just one more question' before turning to walk away. Then he paused, and pointed out a young Lieutenant across the room to the nearest newsie. "See that guy over there? He was Renuka's aid for a few months back in '23... and he's an esper...." The whole gaggle of reporters practically stampeded over each other, heading towards their new prey.

Your turn, Brougham. Don't forget what happens to staff who leak info to the press without authorization....

Mitch had been having so much fun watching Brougham get mobbed, he nearly walked straight into 200 cm of cyborg. Lucky for him this particular cyborg was an old friend. "Whoops! Hi, Dad."

Malachi Brogan looked down at his son and grinned, his ruined, burnt face contorted into a mockery of mirth. "That was downright mean, son."

It was a scary sight, but one Mitch had seen so many times he grinned back without flinching. "Yeah, well... " Mitch looked around at all the VIP's in tuxedos, dress uniforms and fancy clothes. "... we don't get to have much fun at these damned things."

"True... let's step outside and talk, Mitch." Neither Brogan said another word, other than small talk, until they were on the balcony, looking out over a quiet night in Alpha Sector. "So, all this just for her, Mitch?"

He looked back inside. "Yeah, they're giving her quite a send-off...."

Old Brogan cut him off sharply. "Not them—you. Transferred to XSWAT to be her driver, and after twenty years, you're retiring just so you can raise her children...."

Mitch could hardly believe this! "They're our children. And in case you've forgotten, I served in the field, too. I was in the first XSWAT squad to meet Ryuzo and live to tell about it, then I led the CRASH team that took him down."

Malachi nodded. "I know. I just wanted to hear you say it—most of those nobs in there..." He pointed a thumb disdainfully over his shoulder towards the party, "...need to hear it, too. They still think she married her chauffeur."

Mitch sighed and made a dismissive gesture towards the house. "It's Jama's party. Let 'em talk. She knows the real story, you know it, the people I care about know it. As for the rest... I'd like to forget about the whole CRASH team business. I shouldn't have been there—I belong with Jama."

"Ever since the CRASH team... you've been waiting for this day, haven't you, son?" He studied Mitch's face intently.

He shrugged. "I was so fed up, I asked her to leave the force. She refused. It was either come back or leave her for good. I couldn't do that... so here I am. It all worked out for the best."

"I know how you feel... that's what I wanted to tell you. I've stayed at XSWAT because Jama was here, same as you—and now it's time for me to leave. I'm going into Omega Sector, and I don't know when I'll be coming out again." He stopped, waiting for Mitch's reaction.

"You haven't gone crazy on me, have you Dad?" Mitch looked bemused. The Old Man was possessed by an Entity, after all.

Malachi shook his head. "No. Omega isn't what it used to be. The zones that still haven't been reclaimed... well, if they aren't the most dangerous, they're certainly the strangest. There are places within that aren't actually part of this world at all... and doorways leading to... I can't really explain it. The only Entities which remain are the smart ones—the ones with enough brains to realize they can't oppose XSWAT openly or directly any more—or those who don't want to oppose it at all, like me. And I've got things to do there. That's all I can say, for now. You and Jama can get by without me, and so can XSWAT."

Mitch thought he might never see the Old Man again, but over the years, he'd learned that wasn't the way to bet. "Does Jama know what you're planning?"

"Yes. I'm sorry she didn't tell you. I wanted to do that myself."

"Thanks Dad. I hope you'll be careful."

"I will. Now go find Jama and enjoy your retirement, both of you. That's an order."

* * * * *

The fireball expanded in an eyeblink, filling up sky below him. Steam began to rise from the ocean where the fireball touched down on the water. He still hadn't heard the noise from the blast, but he could see the light, feel the heat. The ejection seat hadn't carried him nearly high enough, and it began to experience the first hints of turbulence from the blast a few microseconds later....

I WAS enjoying my retirement, dammit!

I didn't mind the publicity that came with being married to someone famous. We were both used to that, and we did a good job of keeping the press away from our kids.

I didn't mind that even if Jama retired from XSWAT, the title of Defender of Angelus was a lifetime appointment. It gave both of us something to do, and I was still her 'right hand man' like in the old days, only without all the bureaucracy.

I didn't even mind staying home with the kids when she had to travel. There was no end of speaking engagements at law enforcement conferences, all over the world, and Jama always wanted to increase cooperation with other agencies.

Of course, the twins inevitably did get a lot of attention, and naturally, they attracted the worst kind of attention when the Defender of Angelus was conveniently out of town! I guess I really should have seen this coming....

* * * * *

October 9th; 2136: Renuka-Brogan Residence, Alpha Sector:

Saturday afternoon Silat lesson

Mitch landed on the practice mat with a loud THUMP, as Jama demonstrated a basic throw for the twins. He rolled out of it and regained his feet in one fluid motion, then walked over to stand next to her as she spoke to them. He was a head taller, and had maybe twenty kilos on her, yet she threw him almost effortlessly.

"Lucky for you I enjoy this," he muttered.

"Lucky I'm going easy on you, too," she replied, then turned to the twins.

"So, how did I do that?" She didn't have to wait long for an answer. Two different answers, in this case, as the twins seldom agreed on anything.

"Speed," Alice asserted.

"Leverage," Malachi disagreed.

"And Dad's getting old," they both added in unison.

Jama shushed Mitch before he could protest and went on with the lesson. "You're both right. When faced with an opponent larger than yourself, you need to move quickly, and use his own bulk against him."

"Bulk? Excuse me?" Mitch looked down at his stomach—it was nearly as flat as Jama's! Even after three years in retirement, they both kept in shape, sparring three times a week. The twins had joined them for basic self-defense instruction as soon as Jama felt they were old enough. Much as she tried to keep them focused and take their lessons seriously, Mitch's antics also kept them entertained, which helped, up to a point....

"Could we see it again? Just one more time." Alice tried to sound studious, to no avail.

"Yeah, we've almost got it, honest!" Malachi didn't do much better.

Jama shrugged and looked at her husband. "Once more, okay Mitch?"

He put his hands on his hips and refused to move. "No, 'not okay Mitch'. I think they've got it already. I also think they like watching you toss me around, Chief." The twins were both laughing out loud, now that their little game was over. "You want to see me get thrown, you'll have to step up and do it yourselves. Who's first?" Alice jumped up in a heartbeat, ready to go. Malachi looked dubious—Alice wasn't even half Mitch's weight!

Jama stepped in. "Alice, you're not ready yet. Both of you practice with me, first." Alice had it on the first try, and instinctively understood how to adapt the technique to new situations. Malachi took several tries, making certain to execute the move exactly as he was shown, which he did, but he took his time getting it down pat.

Alice eventually got impatient with him. "It's easy Mal... like this!" And she charged at him before Mitch or Jama could seperate them. Malachi was hard pressed to fend her off—Alice's style wasn't anything like the lessons he'd studied. She didn't do anything by the book! But he did. His stance changed suddenly, and his hands made odd motions in front of him, leaving his defenses wide open as his sister moved in to strike him....

"Parma magica!" Even with Alice trying to wail on him, Malachi's arcane shield spell went off perfectly. Rote memorization wasn't good for fighting, but it always worked for Hermetic spells, and he wasn't about to get smacked around by his sister, of all people!

Alice's hand cracked into his shield before she could pull back. "AOW!!! No fair Malachi!" The shield disappeared.

"Alright, that's enough." Mitch and Jama both went over to check Alice's hand. It was fine. He turned to his son. "We don't use magic when we're sparring, Malachi."

"Well, she started it!" Mal sounded tired, as well he should after using a combat spell at his age.

Jama spoke to her daughter. "We are here to learn self-defense, Alice. Not street fighting."

"Uncle Dave said Dad used to fight real dirty, back when he was an XSWAT. When are we gonna learn about that?"

Mitch shook his head. "Dave just likes to tell stories. Now, go get cleaned up, you've both got homework. I'm cooking dinner tonight, six o'clock sharp."

Jama started to follow the twins out of the sasaran . Mitch took her hand and stopped her. "Hold it right there, Mama Jama. We're not nearly done yet. You think you're gonna toss me around like that, then just walk out of here?"

Jama walked back over to the mat with him. "You know, I really was holding back, Mitch."

"So was I." He stretched, then dropped into a fighting stance.

"I see. And now you're going to 'fight real dirty', I take it?" She raised an eyebrow and began circling him.

"I'd rather not. You might decide to use magic."


They closed, and before he knew what was happening, Jama flipped him... hard. After two more such falls, an embarrassed Mitch lay on the mat, groaning in pain and admitting defeat. He held out a hand for Jama to help him up, at which point he caught her completely off guard. With a surprised yelp! she landed unceremoniously on the mat next to him.

"Very funny, Mister Brogan." She started to get up.

Mitch grinned and put an arm around her. His other hand began loosening her belt.

"Ah... Mitch, what are you doing?" It was actually quite obvious what he was doing....

He kissed her cheek, and spoke softly, almost whispering in her ear. "Having failed to achieve victory by main force, I will now resort to more subtle means."

"So I see. And you think this will work, do you?" One eyebrow arched.

He kissed her again, on the mouth this time. He had the front of her gi open. "I have inside information on all the enemy's weaknesses—can't fail." Mitch's hand began moving under her gi, demonstrating exactly how good his 'inside information' was.

Jama arched her back and smiled. "Mmm... it appears I have no choice but to fight back. Prepare to defend yourself, Mister Brogan." She began working on his belt.

The sparring session which followed consisted of an amazing variety of holds, stances and techniques, most of which definitely weren't part of any officially recognized martial art. Eventually they had fought each other to exhaustion and declared joint victory. They lay on the practice mat in each other's arms, amidst their scattered clothes, and neither of them said anything for a while.

Mitch broke the silence first. "I'll miss you next week."

She ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. "I'll be back Thursday night. We should tell the kids tonight at dinner."

He sat upright in shock. "Oh shit! What time is it?" Mitch cast about on the cluttered floor for his watch—it was under Jama's sport-bra. "Uh... dinner might be a little late. Race you to the shower!"

Jama paused long enough to summon a household spirit to clean everything up—this was no way to treat a sasaran!—then went after him.

* * * * *

Mitch decided to order dinner, and as usual, nobody complained about his non-cooking. The twins were passing a few scraps to Cadbury, much to his delight. When they were infants, he had been fiercely protective of them—now it was their turn to take care of him. He was the oldest cat Mitch knew of, at 23, and age was slowly but surely taking its toll on him. Cadbury spent more and more time sleeping, but he never missed a meal with the family, for obvious reasons.

Alice paused to read the message in her fortune cookie, then tossed aside the paper and began munching loudly. Those things were just dumb. Afterwards, she looked at Mitch. "That was a long sparring session. Who won?"

Jama and Mitch simultaneously replied "I did." Then they laughed as Malachi looked back and forth between them in confusion. "It seems your father fights dirty, after all." Jama explained. "I would claim a moral victory, if nothing else."

Alice looked smug. "I knew it." Malachi added, "You're gonna teach us, right Dad?"

Mitch wondered if he'd get through the twins' teenage years with his sanity intact. Of course, if they didn't live to see their 13th birthday, he'd be off the hook... "Absolutely not!" They looked more than a bit let down. Time to change the subject. "Mama Jama and I already have lessons planned for you two while she's out of town this week...."

"Mom's leaving? When's she coming back? Is Cadbury going with her? Can't we come, too?" They took turns rapid-firing questions faster than he could possibly answer. Overwhelmed, Mitch looked at Jama, pleading silently for help.

Jama shushed them calmly and they piped down. "I'll be at a conference in Bogota, and it is going to be boring. You wouldn't like it. I'm coming home Thursday night. Cadbury is getting too old to travel with me, so... until I get back, I need you two here to look after him. And Mitch."

Alice laughed. "Okay Mom. Have a good trip."

Malachi just looked at his father and shrugged. At age 12, he was starting to wonder if his father let the women run their house out of meekness, or if it was some sort of brilliant ploy to avoid responsibility.

* * * * *

The following evening, Mitch stood in the master bedroom and went over their plans for the week as Jama finished packing for the trip. "You sure you've got everything, Chief?" Jama was so busy she barely heard him. The doorbell rang, and he checked the monitor on his terminal. "Be right back." Stepping out in the hall, he yelled towards the twins' rooms. "Kids! Aunt Chrysine is here!" There was a prompt chorus of shouts, and he heard a small stampede heading towards the front door.

"Okay, Jama... the car's ready and the sitter's here. Need any help with your luggage?" He went back in the bedroom to find his wife just standing there, suitcase packed. She set it down, stepped forward and put her arms around him. "You sound almost anxious to see me off, my husband."

He returned her embrace, and sighed. "Hell, no... I wish you were staying. But if you're gonna do this, I'm here to help. And I'll be here when you get back. Promise."

"Alright, let's go. Here, carry this." Mitch took her bag and they went downstairs. The twins were entertaining Captain Chrysine of Angelus XSWAT in the living room, giving her all the details of life in the Renuka-Brogan household, and inquiring about Chrysine and her daughter, Angie. Chrysine was good with kids, and she had Malachi and Alice's complete attention with stories of Angie's latest news from the XSWAT Academy, where they both hoped to go someday soon.

When Mitch and Jama walked in, Chrysine stood up and actually saluted. Jama simply said "Hello, Chrysine. Thank you for coming." Then she turned to the twins and began saying goodbye, and behave while I'm gone. Don't give Aunt Chrysine a hard time, and do what Mitch says....

Mitch smiled and told the tall Clade. "At ease, already. We're not your superior officers any more, remember?" He reached out to shake her hand.

She took it and nodded. "Yes Sir... I mean... Mister Brogan." She saw the look on his face and corrected herself again. "Mitch. Always glad to help you and Madam Director at need. And good to see the twins again, as well."

"Sorry she has to rush off tonight; she'd love to talk to you. Maybe you should stop by when she gets back. It's okay if you call her, Jama, you know."

"I will try to do that." Try to do what? Stop by, or remember to use her first name? For a moment, as she initially greeted Jama, Mitch thought Chrysine had looked slightly intimidated. Back when Chrysine joined the CRASH team, Mitch thought she was unflappable... which turned out to be one of his first mistakes. Jama intimidates more than a few people... why not Chrysine? Aside from the fact that Chrysine intimidates damn near everyone!

"Good. Help yourself to whatever you like in the kitchen. I'll be back in a couple of hours, at which point I expect a full report on the state of XSWAT, as you see it. Meanwhile, relax, Chrysine."

"Yes, S... Mitch. I will see you then." She started to salute again, caught herself, and brushed the hair from her face instead.

* * * * *

Mitch loaded Jama's bags into their new limousine in front of the house. The Blue Lady was smaller than the limo XSWAT had provided, and not as fast, but still bullet-proof. Mitch might have gone overboard adding safety features, but Jama didn't mind the expense. Blue Lady was intended to protect their children, after all.

"So, Mitch. What did you think of her?" Jama's face was hard to read in the darkened cabin as they headed for the airport.

He shrugged with one arm, keeping the wheel steady with the other. "Seemed about the same as ever to me."

"No. I mean, back when she was on the CRASH team?"

He thought for a moment and smiled. "She was the only one who wasn't crazy. Myself included. I knew she'd have a fine career ahead of her, if I didn't get her killed. And that really worried me at the time."

"Something seemed to be bothering her... I don't know what it was." Jama obviously expected an answer from him, and Mitch wasn't sure what to say.

"Ah... well, she may have been the sane one of the team, but there were some issues...." Jama waited patiently for him to continue. "Chrysine was always a bit... awkward, socially. Inexperienced. Not afraid of a fight to the death, but terrified to walk into a crowded bar. The other girls helped her with that. So coming to her old CO's private residence... spending time with his family... she's not sure how to act."

"And you... ?" Jama sensed there was more to this story.

"I taught her as much as I could about the job. I think she was the only one on the CRASH team who felt like I had anything to teach, really. The others didn't take me seriously. I don't know, maybe Chrysine didn't either, but she's so bloody polite she'd never let on. That... and she was the first one of them to find out about us. After that, I knew I could trust her, and for quite some time, she was really the only one on the team I trusted."

That seemed to satisfy Jama. "Well, that explains a lot, Mitch. Any squad will resent resent its CO if he favors one of them too much. And it puts extra pressure on the 'favored' officer. But as I have always said, you got the job done, and your appraisal of Captain Chrysine's career prospects turns out to have been accurate."

"Uh... thanks, Chief. I think." Mitch had always told Jama he'd botched the job of leading the CRASH team, and she had always insisted he was too modest. So it was nice to hear a serious appraisal from her, even if it meant discussing one of his major screw-ups. "I'm just glad she's watching the twins. She is trustworthy, you know."

Jama smiled. "Yes, she certainly is." She didn't add, they were all trustworthy, Mitch.

An hour later, Jama was on a hypersonic transport heading east, and Mitch was on his way home. He and Chrysine had a few things to talk about.

* * * * *

Chrysine had somehow managed to get the twins to bed on time. Mitch had expected they'd still be wide awake and raising hell; seeing Chrysine always got them excited. But they did what she told them, like everyone else with half a brain, Mitch thought. So, Mitch and Chrysine could talk in private. They sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, sipping Jama's imported tea. "This is very good, Mitch. Thank you." Chrysine's tail swished back and forth contentedly.

"Thank my mother-in-law. She sends it every month. So, what's the word from XSWAT HQ?"

"Ah... business as usual, Mitch. Crime is rising slowly, supernatural crimes slightly faster. We are managing." She regarded him calmly with one eye—her other covered by a patch due to an old injury. She'd lost it to an Entity attack, and like Old Brogan's burn wounds, it couldn’t be healed. The boosted immune-systems of clades made cybernetic rejection a serious problem, so Chrysine simply wore a patch.

"And is there any news regarding Omega Sector?" Mitch didn't expect any, but he couldn't help asking.

"None. We make fewer forays into Omega each year, and it would seem there are fewer threats within it. The Wall is very quiet, and although extremely strange things happen there, it is less dangerous than in previous years."

Mitch looked into his teacup for a moment. If there was news of his father, she would tell him. He faced Chrysine again. "Interesting. Yes, very good. Thank you Chrysine, for everything."

"It is nothing, Mitch. I was glad to see you and your family again." She smiled as she spoke.

"Well... what I mean is, thanks for everything, since we first met. I don't think I've ever told you that. It's long overdue." It sounded almost like an apology.

Chrysine looked acutely embarrassed. "There is no need, Sir. Had you not requested me for the CRASH team, I would not have found Angie. I am very grateful for that."

He nodded. "And without you on the CRASH team, I wouldn't have lived long enough to start my own family, so I guess we're even, Chrysine. But it wasn't me—Jama picked you."

"And may I ask why?" For a moment, Mitch saw the same questioning look he'd seen so many years ago....

He didn't want to go over it again. "It all started one dark, stormy night at XSWAT HQ. There was a very rigorous selection process involving tarot cards...."

The bemused look on Chrysine's face reminded Mitch why it pointless to joke around with her. "Tarot cards, sir...I mean, Mitch?"

He shrugged. "Hey, it worked. We needed officers who couldn't be corrupted. Jama felt you could be trusted to fight the Yakuza. Now, she trusts you to guard her children. Remember that."

"Ah... yes. I will, Mitch. But I should be going now. Let me know if I can help you again this week. I will send you my duty schedule."

"I think I'll be alright. They're just a couple of rowdy twelve-year-olds. Commanding the CRASH team was really good training for that."


* * * * *

Lucky dippers
crazy chancers
seems to be moving fast
what happened to the nicities
of my childhood days
well I can't do nothing 'bout that, no
but if you hurt what's mine
I'll sure as hell retaliate

As it turned out, the rest of the week wasn't terribly eventful. Thursday afternoon, they were all looking forward to Jama's return, and Mitch had just enough time to pick the twins up at their private academy, then get them fed before it was time to meet Jama at the airport. Then there was an incoming call on the house terminal. Great timing....

There was no ID on the signal. Mitch considered letting the message service take it, then picked up in case it was Jama calling from somewhere en route. Guess again... of all the people who could call, of all the days they could pick!

"Mitch! Thank god you're home. Sorry if this is a bad time, but I need a favor." She hadn't changed much, and they'd done a great job on the skin grafts—he couldn't see the burn wounds Jama had given her at all. But that didn't really matter.

His eyes narrowed and he prepared to drop the call. "It's a really bad time, Erin. And whatever you need, the answer is NO!"

She was frantic. "Okay, I'm sorry, don't hang up, please! I know it's been a long time and I promised not to come back...."

"What, you're in Angelus again?" She just nodded, apparently too choked up to speak. "Yes, you did promise, for your own protection. Erin, leave now! Send me an e-mail when you get someplace safe, and explain the situation. But I doubt I can help you... right now, I have to go!"

"Mitch, can't it wait a few minutes? I'm almost there." She was pleading with him now—he'd never heard Erin sound so desperate. Not that he cared.

How the hell did she get this address? "No... Erin, stay away. Jama put wards on the whole place, keyed to your aura—you get too close, I will not be responsible for what happens! Understand?"

"Mitch, it's not for me. It's my daughter... she's in trouble. Until now, I couldn't do a thing to help her... but she's just turned 18. Please, I just need you to help me find her... I know you can do that. There's no one else left... I have to see you!"

I don't think so... whoever you are. "Alright, hold for a minute. Stay on the line!" Mitch checked the time—he was running late now—and called Alice's mobile. Busy. Malachi's as well. Mitch didn't like this at all. He left messages for both of them. "I'll be running late. Wait for me inside, and don't talk to anyone else until I get there."

He went back to the house terminal. "Erin, you remember that place we went for pizza after graduation with Dave and Crystal? I'll meet you there in half an hour."

"I remember... thanks Mitch. I knew I could count on you." The call ended. Oh shit. That wasn't Erin. Damn good imitation... but we didn't go out for pizza after graduation. She got into a big fight with her parents, so we went and got drunk, instead. What's going on here?

Someone was trying to delay him, and he had to make up for lost time. Jama's new Stozwind was faster than the Blue Lady, but it was at Cho's Pro shop for a tune-up. Please, pick up your phone, Dave!!!

"Cho's Pro Shop, how fast you wanna go?" Dave sounded chipper as always when talking to a customer. After Jama and Mitch left XSWAT, he had decided to go into business for himself, and he was doing alright—half his client base were police, and the other half were the speed freaks they were chasing.

"Fast, Dave! Is Mama Jama's new ride ready?"

"Yep, had the girls give it a wax-job, too...."

"Never mind. Something's wrong. I need you to take it right now, get to the Wellstone Academy, and pick up the twins."

Mitch heard tools and parts clattering all over the floor, making a tremendous racket. "Your kids in trouble, Mitch? Okay, I'm gone."

"Thanks a million, pal. I owe you one. The car knows where you're going. Just get there, fast!"

Mitch breathed a sigh of relief. Dave wasn't quite the driver he was, but he had the fastest car in Angelus, and he was closer to the Academy than Mitch, so maybe he'd get there in time. Mitch tried the twins' mobile phones again; still busy. He left another message—Uncle Dave would be taking them for a ride in Mom's car. They'd like that.

He waited a couple of minutes, getting more worried with each passing second. Then he called again. This time, the phone wasn't busy. But he didn't recognize the voice on the other end....

"Do not hang up, Mr. Brogan. And do not call the police if you want to see your children again." Male, late 30's/early 40's, possibly Latin-American. There wasn't much to go on.

Mitch had been briefed on what to do if this happened, but it was hard, so hard, not to panic... "Alright. I need to speak with them... both of them. I need to know they're alright."

A brief moment later he heard Malachi's voice. "Dad? We're okay...." He was cut off, and then Alice was on the phone. "They tricked us, Dad! Don't let 'em...."

Mitch knew he had to talk fast. "It's okay, both of you just remember what we told you... " He was cut off when their captor got back on the phone.

"Mr. Brogan, don't get any ideas. So far, your children have been model prisoners. They've obviously been well-prepared for this eventuality, so I must conclude that you also know what to do. Keep this line open, do not contact the authorities, and await further instructions. Abide by these rules, and no one will get hurt."

The call ended. Mitch sat in the living room with his head in one hand and the phone in the other, trying to keep calm. The voice on the phone had been well-spoken, reasonable, even reassuring. And Mitch wanted nothing more than to strangle its source. No time for that. Work the case, Brogan!

Why would anyone do this? He and Jama had both made enemies when they were in XSWAT, but Mitch was pretty sure they were all accounted for. And if they wanted to get to them through the children, why kidnap them? They wanted something other than revenge. Money? There were wealthier people in Angelus, less dangerous people to target. But if they weren't after money, then what? They must have known Jama was out of town—did that mean they wanted something from him?

Whoever had done this knew him well—knew exactly who to dredge up from his background to distract him, and that bit about Erin's daughter was a nice touch. If Mitch recalled correctly, she had turned 18 earlier this year. So they'd done their homework, up to a point. But they weren't infallible; he'd caught the impostor in a lie too easily.

But if they wanted something from Mitch, they could have made their move anytime after Jama left. Their timing was terrible—she was almost home! Then it hit him. It's easier to get the twins with Jama gone, but they don't want to keep them too long—they're waiting for her. The phone rang again.

It was Dave. "Hey, Brogan, you could've told me you'd already picked up your hellions! Security at Wellstone said you were here five minutes ago... what gives?"

So, that's how they got them—another impersonator. This stinks. Mitch hated to keep his best friend in the dark, but if he talked to security at the kids' school.... "Sorry to send you on a wild goose chase, Dave. Had to change plans. Look, long as you're out and about, why don't you drop Jama's car off here at the house and have a drink."

Dave sounded satisfied with that. Mitch hadn't invited him over in quite a while. "Fair enough. Ten minutes."

And of course, the phone rang, yet again. Yeah, right... keep the line open. It was Jama. Mitch froze for a moment. He had to take this, but what the hell was he gonna say to her? "Jama, how was the conference?"

"Too long... I can't wait to be home. How are the kids?" She sounded tired. Oh, god... how can I do this?

"They're fine, dear. Uncle Dave finished up work on your car early... I asked him to pick them up, and they're not back from school yet." Well, I didn't lie to her!

"I see. That's typical for him... Mitch, he had better be not be late getting them home. I'm just about to get on a plane here, and my flight should arrive at Angelus on schedule tonight." Mitch knew that tone of voice... Jama expected everything to go according to schedule... that was his job, after all!

"Well, try to get some rest on the way. Pick you up at the airport. Love you, dear."

"I love you too, Mitch." And she was gone. Cadbury had woken up. The big Maine Coon jumped into Mitch's lap, and nudged his greying muzzle on Mitch's chin. Trrlll?

He knew something was wrong. The children should be here, and Mitch was upset. "We're in big trouble, Cadbury. C'mon." He followed Mitch into the master bedroom, and watched as he uncovered a hidden locker and began gearing up: The vest he hadn't worn in three years. Utility belt. Aviator shades. And finally, the shoulder holster, Mother's Little Helper tucked inside, loaded with highly illegal armor-piercing ammo. It was the the smallest .45 automatic in production; his mother's backup weapon from her early days on the force. And the fact that it was practically an antique made it no less deadly—as he had demonstrated on the CRASH team.

Then Cadbury's ears perked up, and his gaze fixed on the doorway. Mitch heard it too, a moment later—someone was in the house! He wondered, did they plan to grab him, too, before Jama got here? He couldn't let that happen. Mitch began quietly making his way through the house, looking for the intruder. It sounded like they were in the kitchen. He rounded the last corner, gun drawn, and swept the room... only one of them, standing by the fridge. "Freeze!!!"

Dave Cho stood there, beer in hand, looking like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. "Don't shoot! I didn't take the last one!"

Mitch breathed a sigh of relief and lowered his pistol. Dave looked him over, and reached into the fridge for another beer. "So, is this what happens to you when Jama's outta town for too long?"

"They took the kids, Dave." Mitch took off the offered beer. "Kidnapped. I don't know what they want yet." His voice was emotionless; the initial shock had worn off—now it was time to get a handle on things.

"What?!!" Dave looked at him in disbelief. "You call Jama yet? The police?"

"Jama's on her way here—she doesn't know yet. And no, if I call the police, they'll... never mind." He took hold of Dave's shoulders, looked him in the eye. "You're the only one who knows, and I need your help with this. I might have to go out, and I need someone here I can trust to keep an eye on things for a while."

Dave nodded. "Okay Mitch. But I can't believe you're not telling Jama...."

"She's 3000 kilometers from here! What's that gonna do, besides upset her? I'll tell her when she gets here. And by then, well... maybe the situation will be resolved." It wasn't like Mitch to snap at him—he was really on edge, here.

"Okay...what's the plan, Mitch? You've got locators on both of 'em, right?" Dave didn't look optimistic.

"Disabled. Those things are for medical emergencies and accidents—no kidnapper's sloppy enough to get caught that way. No... the plan is to wait for further instructions. I've got to play along with these people, keep 'em happy until it's time to move. It's going to be close."

What do you mean 'time to move', Mitch?" Dave had no idea what he was talking about. "What's going to be close?"

"I hope to hear from someone else, real soon. The twins know what to do." Mitch wouldn't say any more. I told them what to do, but did they believe me? Or did they think she was just an urban legend?

He verified that Jama's flight was still on schedule, then they gave both the spinners a good once-over. When they went back inside, someone was waiting for them. It was impossible to say how long she'd been there. Dave froze in his tracks as they walked into the kitchen, and caught sight of Officer Miyako Benedict standing there silently, patiently.

White uniform—every detail was identical to standard XSWAT issue, except the color; it was simply white, as a funeral shroud. Her skin was even paler, almost to the point of translucency. It contrasted starkly with her hair—a black, tangled, and unkempt mane, the stuff of nightmares. It was everywhere, spilling out over her ears, shoulders, back, and her eyes... it would have been a kindness if that hair covered her eyes, but no. Feral, red, unblinking; they looked out from between errant strands of her hair, mercilessly transfixing whoever they lit upon.

Mitch had forgotten how disturbing her presence was. Dave was completely overwhelmed. "Mitch... what in the...?"

She disregarded Dave Cho, and looked accusingly at Mitch. "Mr. Brogan... Officer Skipper McElroy sent me." Her voice was even scarier than her eyes, if that were possible.

Mitch steeled himself to face her... he had been expecting someone else. "Officer Benedict, report! Where is McElroy?"

She approached him, and her movements were hard to follow, as if she was under a strobe light in a dark room. Before he knew it, Benedict was inches from Mitch's face. "Understand this, Mr. Brogan... we work for the Defender, not you. We will help her children... but we do not take your orders."

"The Defender isn't here, Officer Benedict... I am, and I speak for her until she returns." Benedict eyed him coldly but said nothing. " And another thing... McElroy is not part of your group. She served in Omega with my Old Man, as a Corporal. At her funeral, she got a posthumous promotion to Sergeant—I know, I was there! So unless any of you freaks have made Lieutenant when I wasn't looking, McElroy is senior on this case. And she sent you here. Now, report!"

The Ghost backed off, and some of the hatred in her eyes subsided. "Your children summoned the Blue Lady. Officer McElroy answered their call and found them in an abandoned office building in Kappa Sector, being held captive by six... individuals, for unknown reasons. She contacted me and requested the aid of myself and the others, then returned to Kappa to keep an eye on the children."

Mitch listen with growing alarm, then stopped her. "Can you...." At that moment, the phone rang again.

He held up a hand for silence. "Brogan here." He turned on the speaker.

It was the same voice he'd heard before. "Ah, Mr. Brogan. I trust you have followed my instructions."

Establish trust, then... "Yes, I have. A friend dropped by, and he has agreed to look after the house if I have to leave, but that's all he knows. If that's not acceptable to you, I'll send him home."

"Of course, Mr. Brogan, we could hardly expect you not to involve your good friend Mr. Cho. And so long as he agrees to the same rules that you have, and follows them, nothing will happen to his place of business. Or his lovely young employees."

Dave ran to look out the windows. Mitch began to ask the obvious question, but he was cut off. "No, Mr. Brogan, we have no need to watch your house or tap your phone. We have been studying you for some time, and we have anticipated everything you might do."

"Now, listen carefully. Your wife's flight is on schedule to land at the Angelus International East Terminal, right on schedule. Soon it will be time for you to go and pick her up there You will stop at the Angelus University Student Union on your way. You will pick up the gentleman waiting on the front steps, then take him with you to the airport. Understood?"

"Yes. I've got it." Mitch didn't like this. Were they trying to get an assassin close to Jama? Who was he picking up?

"Good. You will pick up your wife on schedule, then you will receive further instructions."

"How do I know you're not planning to kill her? I'm not going to set my wife up to get blown away."

"Mr. Brogan, if we wanted her dead, we wouldn't be going through all this. We need her alive, and cooperative. We need to establish trust, and once she sees that her children are healthy and whole, we can move forward. So, now that we understand each other so well, I hope you won't be talking to any of your friends from XSWAT."

Mitch glanced at Miyako. "Not a living soul." End of call.

"Officer Benedict, get your team together. McElroy is OIC. She will get the twins to safety. The rest of you...make sure this never happens again." Whoever was responsible for this, Mitch realized he had just condemned them to die. So how is it I'm just now realizing the Defender has her own 'death squad', and why am I okay with it?

The Ghost didn't smile, not ever. But for the first time, Mitch heard grim satisfaction in Miyako Benedict's haunting voice. "We will, Mr. Brogan. Be sure of it. But time is short, and not all are ready."

This worried him. The opposition was organized and thorough; going off half-cocked wouldn't do. "Who's available, then?"

"Officer Long and her father. Aino and I will be there. Jasad will not move before dark... but this time, the cyborg will come."

"Are you sure?" Of all the 'graveyard shift' officers, the only one whose existence Mitch still doubted was the mythical cyborg—a full-conversion job so complete there was supposedly no human tissue left, except for the brain. Disembodied, dehumanized, and according to myth, the most powerful member of their team. Mitch had never heard anything but rumors about it—but Angelus was the city where all urban legends came true.

She nodded. "For the Defender's children, he will fight."

"Alright, go." Turning to his old friend, "Dave, sit tight. I'll call when I can. Feed the cat, will ya?." Mitch ran out to the car without waiting for a reply.

Officer Miyako Benedict turned and glided from the room without a sound, a chill draft flowing in her wake, leaving Dave Cho alone in the kitchen. Once she was gone, Cadbury stepped cautiously out of the pantry, where he'd been hiding.


Dave looked down at the old Maine Coon. "Yeah, I heard him. Could I get a drink first?"

In reply, Cadbury batted his food dish across the floor. It stopped at Dave's feet, empty.

* * * * *

Mitch parked the Blue Lady in front of the Student Union Hall at Angelus University a few minutes later. He didn't have to wait long—less than minute—until someone tapped on the passenger window. Male, late 30's/early 40's, Latin-American. No hair, dark shades. Approximately 190cm, 95 kilos... no, he was partially 'borged, make it 145 at least. Khaki trousers, green safari shirt, hiking boots—he looked like a retired soldier. Mitch opened the door and the man slid calmly into the passenger seat, smiling slightly.

"Mr. Brogan, it's good to finally meet you." The voice matched that from the phone calls. "Shall we go?"

Mitch eyed him coldly. He hated the man already. "I'm surprised you didn't delegate this to one of your flunkies." The limo was already in motion, heading for the airport.

The smile didn't waver. "I'm sorry, Mr. Brogan... you can call me Santiago, by the way... I never meant to give the impression that I was in charge of this operation. I am simply one of the 'flunkies', as you said."

"Then you're expendable." Mitch stated it as a fact, without emotion.

"Completely. Don't get any ideas, now, Mr. Brogan. Besides my other upgrades, I also carry a large, internal plasma charge. Metallic hydrogen—very nasty. It may be triggered voluntarily, or by trauma."

Mitch activated auto-pilot and looked at Santiago, aghast. "Jama was your target all along."

"No, Mr. Brogan. This bomb's intended target is yourself, if you do not cooperate. We could not be sure two hostages would be enough. You are the third."

Mitch saw the apparent flaw in Santiago's plan. "But once we pick up Jama...."

"Then the bomb would kill you both, nobody wins, and your children would be orphans, Mr. Brogan. We would have to move forward with our alternate plans."

They had their bases covered. "You win."

Santiago gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Indeed."

They headed east, past the docks along the Angelus shore, both of them silent. There was nothing more to say. Mitch stayed in the standard flight corridors for civilian traffic bound for the Eastern Terminal, doing nothing to attract unwanted attention to his spinner or himself.

The Angelus Orbital Tower brought in far too much traffic for the old airport to handle, and it was much too near the Tower for safety. Since its completion, two new airports on artificial islands 100 km east and west of the city handled the massive influx of air traffic, and airspace within 50 km of Angelus was an official 'no fly zone' for any craft large of enough to be dangerous. Ferries, hovercraft and high-speed wingships (which couldn't reach the Tower if they tried) shuttled passengers and cargo continuously between the city and the new airports.

Mitch proceeded to the terminal exit for VIP pickup and parked the limo. Jama called shortly. "Mitch, I'm at the gate—where are you?"

Santiago gave Mitch a warning look. "Ah... sorry, dear. Running a little late. Why don't you head on down to baggage claim and then meet me outside?"

"Something's wrong isn't it?" She sounded tired and worried.

"I'll explain when I pick you up, okay? See you soon, love." Mitch looked back at Santiago coldly. End of call.

They waited. Jama came out of the Terminal a while later, her luggage trundling along behind her. Mitch turned to Santiago. "She'll need some help loading that."

He nodded. "Go ahead—just don't make a scene, Mr. Brogan."

Mitch stepped out and stepped over to Jama. She knew something was very wrong the moment she saw him. He put his arms around her and held her close, whispering. "I'm sorry Jama. I'll explain later—the twins are okay, but you need to work with me here, or we're dead, understand?" Then he began loading her bags in the trunk.

Still sitting in the passenger seat, Santiago addressed Jama for the first time. "Miss Renuka, kindly get in the car—your children are waiting to see you."

She hesitated, looking at Mitch. He nodded. "It's alright, Skipper." She took the hint and got in.

With Mitch driving and Santiago in the passenger seat, she had the back of the limo all to herself. She couldn't see Santiago from back there, so she keyed the intercom. "Where are they?"

If her withering tone fazed him she couldn't tell. "They are safe in the custody of my superiors, Miss Renuka. When we get there, you will be informed of what you must do to secure their release."

Mitch finished loading the car, got in, and headed back for Angelus. "Jama, he's wired. Don't do anything rash, okay?"

"You've got a lot of explaining to do, Mitchell Weinrank Renuka-Brogan...." Mitch couldn't recall Jama ever sounding quite this angry. Well, maybe once... when she'd caught somebody attacking him... on second thought, no. This was worse.

Santiago looked a bit worried. "You have video of the rear seats, Mr. Brogan?"

Mitch nodded, and a screen on the dash showed Jama seated in the back. She looked every bit as angry as she sounded.

"Miss Renuka... your husband has done well not to endanger your children any more than necessary. He's been...."

"Santiago... I do not want to hear this. Do you understand me?" It was clear she was done talking to him.

He turned to Mitch. "Mr. Brogan, can you reason with her?"

Mitch shrugged. "Hold on a moment." The Blue Lady cleared the Terminal exit and dropped out of the standard traffic pattern, rapidly losing altitude and speed. Mitch was heading out over the ocean towards Angelus' docks.

Santiago stared at him in alarm. "Mr. Brogan, what are you doing?"

"Going in under CTC's radar. Unless you want them to track us? My kids aren't the only people waiting for the Defender of Angelus to come home—she's kinda famous, in case you've forgotten." And I'll be damned if I'm letting you set off a bomb in the regular flight-lanes.

"Very well, Mr. Brogan, I see your point—but do not deviate from my instructions without permission again. Now, talk to your wife, please."

Mitch nodded and keyed the intercom again. "Jama... I don't know what they want from you, yet. But there isn't much time, and you'll need to be focused. So I want you to try to calm yourself... do us all a favor and meditate for a while, okay?"

"Mitch, I don't...."

"Jama, please! Trust me. I'll explain everything. It's going to be alright."

"Very well." Her voice made it quite obvious she didn't. But she relaxed back in her seat, closed her eyes, and focused on her breathing. In a few moments she was completely still.

Mitch shot Santiago a relieved look. "Satisfied?"

"How long will she remain like this, Mr. Brogan?" He studied the monitor for a moment, then turned back to Mitch.

"Depends on how pissed off she is... I'd say she's going for a new 'personal best' thanks to you. Now lemme concentrate on my driving, will ya?"

Santiago settled into his seat for the trip back. It was going to take a while.

Mitch made certain Santiago wasn't watching the monitor, then let the spinner fly itself for a while. He was jacked into its systems directly, which let him operate them 'hands-free.' Mitch pretended to by flying the vehicle, but he was actually 'hacking' his own security systems.

Mitch looped just over a minute of Jama's video feed, and played it back on the monitor. Santiago didn't notice. First hurdle cleared. Now Jama could move around without him noticing. Mitch cut the intercom. Now she couldn't be heard. Time to get busy. He accessed the terminal next to Jama's seat....

* * * * *

The terminal next to Jama beeped insistently, interrupting her meditation. Irritated, she glanced at it with one eye, then both eyes went wide as she saw the message:


Jama typed frantically: WHAT HAPPENED?






She realized he wasn't taking no for an answer when the moon roof began to slide open. Oh, Mitch... why is it whenever you get behind the wheel, you start thinking you're Superman? She typed a hasty OK LOVE YOU, then climbed out, summoning a wind spirit to take her to safety. The moon roof closed behind her, and Mitch was alone in the spinner with Santiago. He didn't see Jama flying away ahead towards Angelus to help rescue their children, but he was confident she'd manage to do so undetected. The Sorceress had her ways.

They flew on in silence. Occasionally Santiago checked the monitor to see if Jama was still 'meditating.' He tried to engage Mitch on conversation a couple of times, to no avail. They were less than halfway to Angelus when the spinner's phone beeped. Santiago looked at Mitch curiously.

He shrugged. "Probably one of Jama's friends, wanting to know when she'll be home."

Santiago didn't want any trouble from concerned friends. "Put it on speaker-phone. If they ask, Miss Renuka is too tired to talk right now, but you'll take a message for her."

Mitch did so, and answered the call. "This is Mitch Brogan." He kept one eye on Santiago.

"Mr. Brogan, this is Amber Long." Oh shit, does she know...

Apparently she didn't. "I just wanted to inform you; your children are safe." Santiago's eyes went wide, then shut tight.

Mitch sent the cybernetic command to launch Blue Lady's survival raft. In case I don't die, somehow. Then he punched out, shouting incoherently at Santiago. "Sayanoraaa!!!"

The spinner below Mitch was immediately engulfed in a glowing fireball. For a moment, Mitch thought he was clear, but it kept expanding until it was about to engulf him. In moments, he couldn't see anything except the fire, couldn't feel anything but the heat. And then the noise drowned out everything.

Jama's safe. Alice and Malachi are safe. I thought I'd be safe... didn't realize Santiago's bomb would be so BIG! Doesn't matter... I can hear the spirits calling, Jama. Is this what they sound like, when they talk to you?

Soon, Mitch could hear nothing else. The sound of the loudest wind he'd ever heard surrounded him, carrying him up. He felt nothing—no heat, no flames, no gravity pulling him down to burn. The seat fell away into the fire, while Mitch's ascension continued. He heard voices on the wind, but couldn't make out any words. Soon he could see the Orbital Tower once again, catching the last rays of the setting sun. It was almost dark.

Don't need an elevator—I'll take the Stairway. Let me go.

A single voice resolved itself out of the noise... it sounded achingly familiar. "Stay with me, my love." He was hallucinating; she was gone—he'd sent her away. It couldn't be her... "Look at me, Mitch Brogan!"

"Huh... Jama?!" Mitch regained consciousness in mid-air, his wife floating before him. Wind spirits swirled about, supporting both of them, and he could feel her own guardian hantu extending its protection over him as well as her. She looked exhausted. Small wonder! he thought. "Aren't you supposed to be in Angelus? I sent you to get the twins...."

"Miyako and others are going after the twins... and I was worried about you."

He was too tired argue with her. "Guess I won't be going out in a blaze of glory with a guardian angel like you."

"No, you won't, not as long as I'm here." she floated closer to him, put a hand on his cheek.

He took her hand and smiled weakly. "That was a perfectly good blaze of glory you just messed up, woman. How am I ever gonna top that?

"With any luck at all, you won't." Jama fought the urge to slap some sense into him. "Mitch... what just happened?"

The urgency in her voice brought him back. "The kids are safe. Santiago suicided." He looked back along the path of the wreckage floating in the water... there! A strobe flashing in the twilit sea. "That way. You need to rest."

The survival raft had hit the water, and quickly fallen behind the speeding spinner, so it had been a good deal farther from the blast than Mitch's ill-fated ejection seat. Jama brought them down, and Mitch dove in the water, swimming over and pulling a handle on the raft. It quickly inflated into a lifeboat for six—they had room to lie down. Mitch turned on the search and rescue beacon while Jama caught her breath.

He sat there, looking out across the dark sea toward the lights of Angelus. "I can't believe this."

Jama sat up next to him. "Mitch...."

"That asshole blew up my limo." He sounded indignant.

She took hold of his chin and turned his face towards hers. "Mitch, I love you, but don't you ever do that again!"

He grinned weakly. "I love you, too. And... I'll try not to get blown up any more, okay?"

She wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder. The salt breeze blew her tangled hair across his face. "Promise?"

He returned her embrace, and began gently stroking her hair back in place. "Yeah, I promise."

His phone rang They looked at other in shock for a moment before he answered it. "Of course, if I was as tough as this damn phone, it wouldn't be a problem... Mitch Brogan here!"

"Mitch!!! This is Paige. Where are you?"

He rolled his eyes. Wonderful timing. "Oh, hi Mom. Uh... I got hijacked by a suicide bomber. I'm in a survival raft with Jama... we're both okay. Where are you?" He heard shouts and sirens in the background... this was not good.

"I'm in Kappa sector with your children, where you should be!" She was in full-blown 'grandma-bear' mode, and very irate.

"My spinner got blown up 20 klicks offshore! Anyway, how'd you get mixed up in this? Can I talk to the kids?" He rolled his eyes at Jama.

"Your father... he disappears, again, for three years, then out of the blue calls me up, casual as can be: 'Hi Paige! I just rescued the twins from a bunch of kidnappers, could you look after them for a bit?' He's insane, you know that?"

"So I've been told. Are the kids there?" Jama was smiling at him mischievously.

"They're on the way. Mitch, who are these people? Friends of Jama's? It's like they turned this place into a war zone because of those kids. Half a city block went up in green flames, Mitch! Green flames!!! Wait, here they are."

Mitch put the phone on speaker-mode so Jama could talk with them, too. "Alice, Malachi, are you alright?"

They sounded more excited than frightened. The two of them took turns speaking, sometimes interrupting and finishing each other's sentences. "Yeah, we're okay now... but for a while we were really scared. Someone picked us up from school... who looked just like Dad... they even had Dad's spinner... and they locked us up... but the Blue Lady found us... just like you said she would... and she went to get help."

Mitch knew the rest. "I'm sorry about that, kids... they tricked me too. Be sure and thank the Blue Lady, for all of us."

"We will. Promise. We got to see Grandpa today, too! He went after those people with the biggest gun you ever saw! And there was a dragon, and a woman with wings, too! Huh?... Grandma says we're going home now... will you be back soon?"

Jama said, "Yes, as soon as we can. Until then you do what Grandma says."

"Okay. We love you. Bye."

Mitch put away the phone, smiling at Jama. "Kids."

She smiled back. "Kids."

He gave Jama a knowing look. "So, Dad's the mysterious cyborg on the graveyard shift." The accusation had no anger in it—he was glad to know the Old Man was still around.

"I'm sorry Mitch, I should have told you." Her apology was sincere, he could tell. "But back when you joined XSWAT, you were so... determined to prove you could pull your own weight, without relying on family connections. It would have been even worse with the graveyard shift."

Mitch shook his head. "I was young and foolish. Childhood's over the day a man realizes he's got nothing left to prove."

"Well, I'm glad that's settled. Now let's go home." She moved to the prow of the tiny lifeboat.

"Um... yeah. I'm sure somebody saw that explosion. Search and Rescue should be here within the hour." He glanced at the beacon to make sure it was working.

"We're not waiting for them." Uh, oh. Mitch knew that tone of voice. Jama had made a decision, and something was about to happen. He felt the wind around the raft start to shift...

...and with a roaring whoosh the whole thing was airborne, being carried aloft towards Angelus by one of Jama's wind spirits. He guessed they'd be at home in about half an hour... if they didn't get shot down.

It wasn't an unpleasant ride, once Mitch got used to it. They had a fantastic view of the city lights on the way in, and if they hadn't been going so fast, it actually would've been rather romantic. As it was, Mitch had to do some quick talking on the radio. Traffic Control squawked at them as they crossed over the docks.

"Unidentified aircraft... you're broadcasting an SAR beacon. Who are you and what is your destination?"

This was outside Mitch's experience, and definitely not in the manual. He didn't know how many regs they were violating... and at this point he didn't really care. “Roger that, CTC. This is Mitch Brogan, on board survival raft from private spinner Blue Lady. Defender of Angelus is on board as well, declaring this an emergency flight. We are going home."

Mitch ignored the rest of their frantic queries and took off the headset. He went forward, where Jama sat cross-legged in the bow of the raft, her long dark hair flying in the wind behind her. Commanding the spirits which kept them aloft and on course took some concentration, but she spared Mitch a glance and smiled at him. He grinned back. "Sounds like we might catch a little hell for this stunt, dear."

Jama looked forward again. They were over Alpha Sector now, and beginning to descend. Their house was coming into view. It was easy to pick out this evening, with a number of police vehicles parked in front, circling overhead, and the inevitable media mobile units parked as close as they could get. "Ah, you have no idea, Mitch...."

On their final approach, floodlights from the police spinners followed them all the way in. The raft literally splashed down in the swimming pool, within the relative security provided by their back yard. Mitch steadied the lifeboat while Jama climbed out, then followed her towards the house. He could hear excited shouts from the front yard. The back entrance to the garage was ajar; Mitch spied a pair of glowing red eyes within. Miyako? Someone, or something very large stood behind her, but he couldn't see who it was.

Then the patio doors opened from within the house, and his mother stood there, holding the twins hand in hand. Alice and Malachi bolted excitedly out into the yard, into their parents' arms. Jama fell to her knees hugging both of them to her, exhausted and delirious with joy and relief. She asked them if they'd been hurt.

"Not until the end... there was one of them who threatened us... then her boss got mad and told her to stay away from us... but he wasn't very nice either... and didn't tell us anything... so we were pretty scared... until the Blue Lady got there. Then later she helped us get away... but everybody was fighting and screaming... and grandpa was really mad! We're okay, not a scratch on us... but our ears are still ringing from the explosions."

Mitch put a hand to his forehead, wincing. "Explosions?"

His mother came walking over, and it was clear she did not approve. "Yes, it must have been spectacular. Jama's friends did one hell of a job, Mitch. And after they destroyed half of Kappa Sector to make their point, they insisted on escorting us home. They're still here... all of them. And they want to talk to both of you."

Jama stood up then, wiping the tears from her eyes, regaining some composure. She smiled at her mother-in-law. "Paige... I can't thank you enough for all your help with this. You have most certainly gone 'above and beyond the call of duty' tonight. You are correct, of course—Mitch and I do need to talk to our... guests for a while. Could I possibly trouble you...?"

Paige didn't let Jama finish the request. "It's my pleasure, dear. Come on, kids. Your folks have things to do." She gathered up her grandchildren and started to head back inside.

Something occurred to Mitch, then. "Uh...waitaminute. Is Dave still here, too?"

Paige turned around, rolling her eyes. "Oh, him. Yeah, Mitch, Dave's still here. He's entertaining Aino and Miss Long."

"That figures. And where is Master Long?" Mitch raised an eyebrow.

"He's out front, running interference, keeping the media people busy. That guy is good." It took a lot to impress Paige—but then, did she realize Long was a dragon? 'Good' didn't even begin to cover it, really.

Mitch pulled Jama close, ignoring the floodlights which still illuminated their back yard. "Welcome home, love." He kissed her forehead. The tattoo on it had changed again, to a star, with arrows pointing in eight directions. "Gonna be an interesting evening, I think."

Jama looked up at him and nodded, determination in her voice. "There's going to be a meeting—we need to know what this was all about."

Mitch didn't like it. "You're exhausted. And you're a mess—you can't run a meeting like this, oh Defender of Angelus." She started to protest, but he went on. "It's still early. I'll get everything organized—you take a few minutes to rest, and clean up a little."

"And yourself?" Jama was an independent woman—she did not like being coddled.

Mitch didn't boss his wife around very often—she was too dangerous. But this time he took a stand. "Jama, you are the one they're here for—they shouldn't see you like this. I am just your husband—nobody cares if I'm a wreck."

Jama looked herself over. Her hair was tangled, her clothes were scorched and she was pretty sure her makeup was ruined. She kissed his cheek. "You've got twenty minutes. Get busy, Mitch Brogan."

And they both went inside to get ready, for an interesting evening, indeed.

* * * * *

Jama went off to the master bedroom. Cadbury materialized from somewhere and went chasing after her. Trrrll? She scooped him up in both arms on her way down the hall. "Yes, I missed you too!" Mitch could hear his loud, rumbling purr until Jama shut the door behind her.

In the living room, Mitch found Aino, Amber Long and Dave Cho sitting and trading tall tales from XSWAT. "Yeah, mostly I was Madame Director's mechanic, but I went to Epsilon Sector with Mitch for a while. Uh... which unit did you say you were assigned to?" He looked back and forth between Aino and Amber quizzically.

Mitch interrupted as he walked in, saving them the trouble of lying to him. "That info is 'need to know', Dave."

Cho jumped up at the sight of him. "Mitch! You look like hell." The two women stood up as well, looking concerned.

Mitch held up a hand motioning for them to have a seat. "I'm fine." As casually as possible, he explained. "They blew up my spinner. Jama's alright—she was already clear." To Aino and Amber: "And thank you both, for what you did today. I hope neither of you were hurt."

Amber smiled confidently. "My father would never allow that, Mr. Brogan."

Mitch had no idea what to say to that. "Ah... and is he well?"

"He was slightly injured... but we attended to it." Aino's expression was enigmatic. What happened?

"Alright then... Jama will be ready to see everyone shortly. Please, make yourselves comfortable." He turned to Dave. "I gotta get a drink. Join me in the kitchen? Anyone else need anything?" They didn't, but Dave followed him with that we need to talk look Mitch knew so well.

In the kitchen, out of earshot (Mitch hoped) of the two 'ladies' in the living room, Dave quietly went crazy. "Mitch who are these people?"

Mitch sighed heavily as he poured himself a stiff drink. "Look, Dave, I'm sorry about putting you on the spot like this... I didn't know they were coming. "

When Mitch was done, Dave helped himself to the bottle. "It's alright, Mitch... I mean... Amber is awesome! Why haven't I seen her around?—and believe me, I'd remember! Is she new on the force?"

"You're unbelievable, Dave, you know that? Like chasing former Lace & Steel clades wasn't dangerous enough?" Mitch hadn't seen him this enthusiastic about anyone since their CRASH team days....

"Dangerous? What's the deal?" Dave looked a little nervous, which was good. Maybe was finally learning to take Mitch's warnings seriously.

Mitch looked him in the eye and let him have it, straight out. "I'm not sure how long she's been on the force—at least as long as you and me. Officer Long answers only to the Defender. She's half-dragon, Dave. And that guy out front? August Long, is a real live, full-blooded, no bullshit, I-kid-you-not dragon who happens to be her father."

Dave could tell, Mitch wasn't kidding. Not this time. He slammed his drink and leaned against the kitchen counter for support. "Her father's a dragon? What is it with this place?!"

Mitch suppressed a laugh. "Look, I gotta go check on something. Do me a favor and keep her and Aino company a little longer, okay pal?"

"Mitch, what should I do?" Dave looked like he was about to panic.

Mitch took hold of Dave's shoulders and gave him a huge, cheerful smile. "Be nice to her." Then he turned and went out the back door, into the garage, leaving Dave alone in the kitchen once again.


* * * * *

The darkened garage was half-empty with the Blue Lady gone. As soon as he stepped inside, Mitch felt a chill, and spotted Officer Benedict's red eyes softly glowing in the darkness. "Miyako... why are you hiding out here?"

She approached him as she spoke, and Mitch had to fight the urge to run back into the bright lights of the house. "We saw your children safely home, Mr. Brogan, and remained here to keep them safe, and so we could speak with the Director. But we didn't want our appearance to... disturb them."

Mitch understood. "You have my thanks, Miyako. The twins are with their grandmother, so you can go inside now. But who is we?"

"Hello, son." Mitch knew his father's voice instantly. "I'm here for the same reason. Much as I'd love to, I can't let the twins see me now."

"Dad? I wondered if you'd gone back to Omega." Mitch didn't like what he was hearing. "Why can't they see you?"

"I've... changed quite a bit. It was inevitable after three years in Omega Sector. My symbiosis with the Entity possessing me has entered a new stage. I don't think anything like this has ever happened before. It's quite a sight, I must warn you."

Mitch inhaled sharply. "You still sound the same."

"I am the same... on the inside. Outside, not so much. Little by little, the Entity is taking over my cybernetics. I'm still in control of them, but it's... learning. How to take care of them, repair them, even improve them. It's fusing with them."

"Well... like I said, it's okay to go in the house now. I don't care how you look. I'm glad you're back. And thank you." We're gonna have a long talk later, Dad.

Mitch had one more stop... in front of the house. The scene was total chaos, but at least it was controlled chaos. August Long (in human form) stood at the end of the driveway, coordinating with the APD and 'handling' the press. The swarm of reporters grew even more frenzied when Mitch appeared.

August greeted him calmly amid the clamor. "Mitchell Weinrank Renuka-Brogan. It is good to see you whole and healthy. I trust you have seen your children?"

Mitch bowed to him, then stood up and replied. "Yes I have, Master Long. You have the undying gratitude of myself and the Defender." He looked around at the newsies, hanging on their every word, shouting inane questions. "Have you been out here very long?"

"Only a little while. But I am glad you're here. I need to go inside, and speak with the Defender. I understand you have some talent for dealing with these... people?" He nodded to Mitch and began walking towards the house.

It seemed to Mitch like Officer Long had been doing quite well. "I'll do my best." He raised his voice so they could all hear him. "There'll be a press release in time for the 11 pm 'cast! Until then, I'm not at liberty to release any further information."

Then he made a call to XSWAT Alpha Sector HQ. Mitch knew people there, and it didn't take long to work his way up the chain of command. Captain Greyson had never really liked him, but he explained that 'Jama needed a favor', and XSWAT promptly cordoned off the Renuka-Brogan residence. The APD tried to claim jurisdiction, but Mitch informed them one of the suspects had been a heavily modified cyborg carrying a plasma bomb, and that made it an XSWAT case. End of discussion.

The meeting was just getting under way when Mitch walked back inside. Dave had been exiled to the living room, looking tired and bored. "Dave, I can't thank you enough for sticking around through all this... I guess it's all over but the shouting."

"Yeah... Mitch, they want you in there, pronto. And I should be going."

"Ah, just one more thing...." He saw the look on Dave's face and shrugged. "It's not for me, it's for Jama. I was gonna do it, but I've gotta go in there...." Mitch waved towards the dining room where everyone was waiting.

Dave grinned. "Okay, for Jama. I'll make you a deal...."

Mitch found everyone seating around the long dining table. Jama looked... better. She'd changed clothes and freshened up, but Mitch suspected she'd also used magic, somehow. That's gonna catch up with her, later. Hope she's not pushing herself too hard. She seemed to be acting as chair, and Master Long had the floor at the moment. He stopped speaking for a moment when Mitch walked in, and everyone turned to face him. "Ah, Mr. Brogan. Please join us... we have a few questions for you."

Polite as he sounded, Master Long was not asking. Mitch took a seat next to Jama. Oh, crap....

* * * * *

Master Long continued, his gaze never leaving Mitch. "We are prepared to give a complete report on our findings and actions in Kappa Sector. However, we feel, and the Defender has agreed, that we need to start at the beginning. It would seem that this began with you, Mister Brogan. Please, enlighten us." He gave slight nod, yielding the floor to Mitch.

Mitch glanced at his wife nervously. Way to put me on the spot, sweetheart! She looked back at him encouragingly. "All is well that ends well, my dear. We need to know everything."

His eyes narrowed. "Alright, I'll hold you to that..." He turned to face the rest of the assembled officers: Master Long, Amber Long, Aino, Miyako Benedict, and Malachi Brogan. It took effort not to stare at his father... the face and body looked the same, but his cyber-limbs looked wrong, like they'd been rebuilt by HR Giger after an absinthe bender....

Mitch centered himself and continued. "The, ah...would-be kidnappers had at least one mage, maybe two, who were accomplished impersonators. One of them picked up the kids from school, disguised as myself. The other stalled me here at home, impersonating an old friend on the phone. I realized what she was doing, and tried to call the kids at school, but I couldn't get through. So, I sent Dave to pick them up—he was closer and had a faster spinner. But he was too late."

Jama interrupted him then. "Mitch, who called?"

Mitch had hoped to avoid this conversation. "She claimed to be Erin McCarthy..."

Jama's reaction was immediate and intense. "If she is mixed up in this...!!!"

Malachi held his face in one hand. Miyako's eyes flashed with anger. The rest were impassive.

Mitch shook his head and kept his voice level to reassure his wife. "It wasn't her, Jama, just an impostor."

"And how do you know this?" Jama had always half-expected her to come back, looking for trouble, but this was too much.

"She gave me some sob-story about her daughter being in trouble. I know for a fact she isn't." Looking around the table, Mitch could see nobody was satisfied—he was only digging himself in deeper. I thought this was about my kids, not my psycho ex-girlfriend's! He drew a breath and continued.

"Erin promised she'd never come near us again," he glanced at Jama, "but there was an off-chance she might come back for her daughter. So I've had her under low-level surveillance ever since." There were a number of raised eyebrows around the table at this news. "Her daughter's not in any kind of trouble at all—she's a freshman at the Angelus Fine Arts Academy, living on campus. And Erin hasn't contacted her."

Jama's face was expressionless. "That's very interesting, Mitch Brogan. Please continue."

No good deed goes unpunished. "The kidnappers got Alice and Malachi, then Dave came back here. They called and told me to wait for instructions. Miyako showed up to let me know that all of you..." He nodded to everyone, "...were getting ready to move. Then the kidnappers called again, and I had to go pick one of them up on the way to meet Jama at the airport. They wanted something from her, in exchange for the twins. I still have no idea what."

Master Long spoke again. "Thank you, Mister Brogan. Now, we would like to hear the Defender's story."

Jama stopped glaring at Mitch and turned to face the group. "When my husband picked me up at the airport, he informed me he'd been car-jacked by a suicide bomber, Santiago. He informed me that my children had been kidnapped, and my cooperation would secure their release."

Then she turned back to Mitch and smiled. "Then, without Santiago's knowledge, Mitch informed me that all of you were on the case, and helped me escape, again without tipping off our hijacker."

It was Mitch's turn to glare. "All so that you could go help the twins, Mrs. Renuka-Brogan. But you didn't."

Jama sighed. "No, I did not. You said that our colleagues here..." she motioned around the table, "...were going after the twins, and I had absolute confidence in them. But Mitch, you were alone with Santiago, so I followed you, just in case. As it turns out, I'm glad I did."

Mitch took her hand. "Well... so am I."

Jama turned back to Master Long. "That is all that we know. Now...what can you tell us about these people? We still don't know who they were, where they came from or what they wanted."

Amber Long spoke for the first time. "We do now, Madam Director. They were all Entity cultists. And their leader was possessed by a Soul Stealer."

Jama and Mitch were both shocked—they'd been expecting political terrorists, not Entity involvement. The thought of one of those things taking their children made them realize just how lucky they'd been today. As one they turned towards Mitch's father.

Malachi knew what they were about to ask. "They weren't from Omega Sector—I'd know if they were. Not from Angelus at all, in fact. They came from all over—Brazil, Kenya, Indonesia... you see the pattern forming here."

Jama knew what he meant. "The Equatorial Block. All countries opposed to the Orbital Tower project."

The old cyborg nodded. "Yes. They felt it was too risky, too hard to protect. And if it came down, due to accident or terrorism, the debris would fall on their countries. These cultists wanted to create chaos in their home countries by doing just that. That's why they wanted you, Jama."

She almost laughed. "Ridiculous. The Orbital Tower is huge. There's no way I could destroy it, even if I wanted to. Which I don't, of course."

"I don't believe they wanted you to." Malachi looked a bit worried. "For decades now, I've been killing Entities... only now I realize I was just culling out the less intelligent ones. They wanted you to do something considerably... easier."

Jama began to wonder if everyone was so cryptic in their old age, or if the habit was specific to supernatural creatures—her father-in-law was getting as bad as August Long! "Captain Brogan, what exactly are you talking about?"

"We built our Stairway to Heaven directly above the Gateway to Hell, Madam Director. And you're the one who barred that gate. Open it, and..."

"...And we lose the City, Orbital Tower and all. They were after the Ordinus Seal." Jama suppressed a shudder, and tightened her grip on Mitch's hand.

"Yes. If the Door is opened again, the resulting chaos would leave the Tower defenseless. And if they have access to bombs like the one Santiago used...."

Mitch had studied the worst-case scenario. "Megatons of debris would hit South America, Africa, and Indonesia—and that's just the land-strikes. The segments hitting the ocean would cause tidal waves. Big ones. We'd lose coastal cities all over the world." Jama's head whipped around to face him as he mentioned Indonesia—she still had family there, in Bali.

Malachi made a sweeping gesture, taking in the world beyond Angelus. "And in the chaos that followed, they would open more Doorways leading from their world to ours."

Jama closed her eyes and lowered her head. "I could never... ever... let that happen."

August Long regarded her sadly. "Not even to save your own children, Defender?" It was not a question he enjoyed asking.

Jama remembered how Gurzorath had corrupted Angelus' former leaders, twisting their selfless devotion to family, using it against them until they would coldly murder their entire city or put the entire world at risk. "I have seen what becomes of such bargains, August. I said never again." She was almost in tears; her voice was strained.

The table was silent for a long moment. Mitch gently put an arm around Jama, and lifted up her chin, turning her face towards his. "That's not gonna happen, Chief. After today, the word's going out: Mama Jama's kids are off limits." He turned to face the rest. "Am I right?" The question had a menacing tone.

For the first time Mitch could recall, he saw Miyako Benedict smile... at him! "Oh yes, Mister Brogan. We made certain of that."

He softened his voice a bit. "Ah... good. How exactly did you deal with the Soul Stealer?"

She nodded towards Malachi. "There are those of us it could not, or would not possess. It had nowhere to run... this time."

Mitch wasn't sure if wanted to know what that meant. "And the rest?"

"We gave them to Jasad. He is dealing with them as we speak."

Now he felt slightly queasy. The vampire? "Ah... I wondered where he was."

Miyako smiled again. "He's very thorough. They will tell Jasad everything, before he is finished."

Mitch almost didn't hear it; a single, quiet word passed Jama's lips. "Good."

Aino spoke for the first time since Mitch had come in. "I believe the Defender is tired. Shall we adjourn?"

Master Long agreed. "Yes. We all know what to do. As does young Mister Brogan, I believe. The Defender should rest."

"Of course." Mitch stood up and bowed to Master Long.

Jama did the same, then addressed the whole group. "We always suspected that someday, someone would try this. Thanks to all of you, and your preparations, your vigilance, we have avoided the worst-case scenario. Alice and Malachi are safe. And it is not likely that anyone will try anything like this, ever again. What they will try next is a question for tomorrow." She put an arm around her husband, and continued, "I learned long ago, this job is often a thankless one. But you should know: You have our gratitude, and that of our, the Defenders of Angelus."

* * * * *

After they saw the last of their guests out the door, Jama and Mitch exchanged a look of unalloyed relief before falling into each other's arms. The embrace lasted until they both began to feel fatigue catching up with them. Mitch broke the silence first. "It's over... we can relax now, I think."

Jame smiled up at him. "Not quite. We need to check on the twins."

They padded quietly down the darkened upstairs hallway to Malachi's room, soundlessly opening the door. Their son was fast asleep, but Cadbury instantly perked up where he lay at the foot of Malachi's bed, eyes glowing fiercely in the dark. Upon seeing Jama and Mitch, he settled back down again, but his eyes didn't quite close—he was back on 'guard duty' again tonight, just like when the twins had been infants.

In Alice's room, they found their daughter asleep, as well. Across the room, Paige sat by the window with an e-book softly illuminating her face. In the dim light, Mitch noticed a pistol sitting in her lap, which he supposed made her almost as dangerous as Cadbury. Upon seeing the two of them, Paige waived them out, silently mouthing Go to bed! They went. Neither of the twins could possibly be any safer.

Jama was truly exhausted, and she didn't protest as Mitch gently picked her up and carried her towards their bed, just as he had when they were younger. The moment he opened the bedroom door, she realized something was different. "Mitch, do I smell incense burning?" Jama gave him a suspicious, questioning look.

There was a soft light coming from the bathroom doorway. Mitch said nothing, but set Jama on her feet with a muttered "I'm getting too old for this," whereupon she went to investigate the light. He quietly followed her.

In their master bathroom, the only lights were candles, softly flickering, everywhere. Jama smelled her favorite incense. And next to the hot salt bath there was a bottle of chilled champagne. She stood there, looking around in confusion, until Mitch came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. "I wanted to give you a proper welcome home, but everything's been so crazy...."

She turned around, returning his embrace. "Yes, it has... but this is wonderful, Mitch. Thank you." She smirked at him menacingly. "Just don't think this is going to get you out of trouble."

Mitch smirked back at her. "Fine. But if you want to tear a strip off me..." he began undressing her. "'ll have to do it while you're luxuriating in that tub."

"You really do not fight fair, Brogan, you know that?" She returned the favor, getting him out of the dirty clothes he'd worn since they arrived home.

"Well, twenty years in XSWAT, mostly watching your back, taught me a few things, Renuka." She pinned her long hair up so it wouldn't get soaked.

"Oh I'm pretty sure my back was not the only thing you were watching." She allowed him to help her into the bath. "Now you get in here."

"Yes ma'am." Mitch lowered himself into the salty water, which felt almost painfully hot to him—and Jama hadn't even flinched! After settling in, he began kneading her shoulders, right where they met her neck. For a while, she didn't say anything.

"All these years Mitch, you've been keeping tabs on McCarthy's daughter. In secret. Why?" Jama sounded confused, maybe even hurt, but not really angry. At least, not yet.

Mitch gathered his thoughts for a few moments before he spoke. "You did a good thing, Jama, running McCarthy out of town. She really was psychotic. Thanks to you, McCarthy's daughter—her name's Amanda—had a fairly normal upbringing, and she's emotionally stable." He began working his way down Jama's back, trying to massage her tension away.

Jama arched her back appreciatively. "That's good to know, dear, but Erin's gone... so what's your concern?"

"Before she left, Erin told me she didn't want to leave her daughter behind, and that worried me. I figured she'd stay away from us..." Jama let out a derisive Hmph! "...but she might come back for Amanda, and then there'd be trouble. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I remembered your warning... and I couldn't have you killing Erin in front of her daughter. Our children aren't the only ones who need protecting, Jama."

She turned around, and put her hands on his shoulders, half-floating in the salty water, and leaned close to him. "Mitch... if that really had been Erin on the phone, would you have helped her?"

He cupped her face in his hands, pulling her closer. "Not for Erin's sake. But if Amanda was in trouble, then yes... I just wouldn't let Erin mess up her life."

She kissed him. "You are devious and exasperating, but you're a good man, Mitch Brogan. You're not done yet, though ."

What more could she possibly want him to explain? "With what?"

"My massage, silly." She settled comfortably into his lap.

"Oh, of course." He went back to work on her shoulders.

She looked around the bathroom. "So when exactly did you have time to do all this?"

"Uh... I bought it all yesterday, but I didn't actually have time to set it up myself tonight, so I got a little help."

"I see...." Jama's eyes narrowed. "And would this 'help' happen to be the smart-aleck mechanic I saw here earlier?" She already knew the answer. "This involved a bottle of something rare and expensive in payment, didn't it?"

Mitch chuckled. Jama knew his friends so well. "Nope. Didn't cost a dime. Dave just wanted some... information."

"I'm not sore there Mitch, at least not yet. Here...." She moved his hand, and he began massaging her legs. "Now. What information?"

As innocently as he he could manage, Mitch explained. "Oh... he just wanted Amber Long's phone number."

Jama's eyebrow went up as she put her arms around his neck, hands clasped behind his head. "And of course you gave it to him." She was not amused.

"Well... after everything he'd done today... it wasn't much to ask." Mitch could tell he was in trouble, here. "Uh, Jama... have I told you today how very beautiful you are?"

"No, you have not." Jama's hands moved to the top of his head and very forcefully, deliberately dunked him.

He surfaced a moment later, spluttering and gasping. "Guess I shouldn't complain."

Now she was amused. "Indeed you shouldn't." Jama laughed as Mitch shook his soaking wet hair, sending a shower of salt-water in all directions.

He gave her a smug grin. "Yeah, the view's nice down there, anyway...."

She blanched in mock-offense at his underhanded compliment. "Sometimes I wonder why I keep you around, Mitch Brogan."

He leaned back in the tub to stretch, and an alarming number of joints protested with audible cracks. "Ouch. Well, I could show you why, but I'm too tired."

Jama leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder, and sighed contentedly. Mitch figured this was one of those 'enjoy the moment' things, and kept quiet. He was just glad to be alive. For several minutes, neither of them said anything.

Jama was the first to break the silence. "Are you sure?"

I was lookin' back to see if you were lookin back at me
To see me lookin back at you
But if you hurt what's mine
I'll sure as hell retaliate
You can free the world you can free my mind
Just as long as my baby's safe from harm tonight

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