Authors Notes:

This is a work of fiction – a bit of science fiction and fantasy mixed together in fact.  None of the characters, names or personalities, are based on real people.  Any resemblance to a real person is entirely coincidental and not intentional.  I do live in the Atlanta area and use a lot of places I’ve been in the story. 

If you are offended by sex between adult men don’t read any further. 

If you are not of legal age don’t read any further. 

If this type of story is illegal where you live, for whatever reason, don’t read any further.

This story is copyrighted to me and cannot be reproduced without my express written consent.


If you have any comments you can send them to btaoc1963@gmail.com  I appreciate anything that anyone has to say good or bad.  If you have bad things to say please at least be polite.  I’ll try to respond to anyone who sends me an email.  I'm astounded by how nice everyone has been, and I really do feel like I've made some new pen pals.  I check my in box all the time now hoping to see new messages.  I don't care if they are about the story, I just enjoy the conversations that some of us have started up.  You guys are awesome!

This is the first thing I've tried to write in nearly 25 years, so bear with the story if it's a little rough around the edges.

I am not in nor ever have been in the military, so I apologize for getting anything wrong.  The characters are all Navy SEALS in the Prologue, where the story starts.

Thanks guys for all the emails and the support.  You are all great and interesting people and I've enjoyed getting to know a few of you better :-) 

The email notification list for new chapters has been building and seems to be working well.   As great as Nifty.org is in many ways, sometimes it's difficult to find new postings when the stories aren't put out on a set schedule (like mine *cough cough*).  So if you are interested in getting on a mailing list send me an email and I'll create a group so I can let you all know when I post a new chapter. 

There are a few references here I want to include links for.  I mention an old Budweiser beer commercial.  I'm not sure if some of you are old enough to remember these commercials.  They are the 'I love you man' series that was popular for a short time.  Here's the original commercial on YouTube so when you read the reference hopefully this gives you the visual and audio of Kevin and Rick as they lean over and kiss Henry (it's not what you think so read and find out! lol)

The 'I love you man!' Bud Light beer commercial

The song that Lane and Bryan use in this chapter is by Florence + The Machine.  This song is used in my spinning class a lot and it's come to be one of my current favorites.  And like Lane thought... the lyrics are perfect for the visual of the scene.  I hope you like it and that it adds something a little extra to the story.

Bedroom Hymns by Florence + The Machine

Many thanks to Steve for helping me again with the editing !  You're a great guy and I so appreciate the help! 

Rafa wherever you are man I hope you are OK and I miss you.

And now on to Chapter 21! 

 
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Chapter 21



 

<>< Prologue ><>


          The Master thrashed about in his bed – his hairy muscled body drenched in sweat.  His Mind filled with the color of blood, and in his dreams he held the stone again - it was the source of his pain.  In his dream his thoughts were primitive just like they were eighty thousand years ago.  There was no language among his people then, but his thoughts were plain – What have I done!?

          The Spirit taught him and shared secrets with him making him strong – speaking directly to his Mind and Soul; he comprehended the meanings of the words he could not yet speak.  He realized the difference between himself and the others – he was still young but he could tell - he was better at everything and they were afraid of him.  He liked being different because it made him feel special.  He knew he was smarter than they were – they were so easy to trick; all of them, that was, except his brother. 

          His brother was as clever as he was, and the Spirit cultivated the seeds of jealousy deep inside of him.  At first he didn’t know what it was he felt, but once the seeds were planted they grew and the Spirit fanned the flames of anger and pettiness inside of him.  You will never be special as long as he lives.

          He looked down on his brother’s body, the face nearly unrecognizable from the crushing damage he had inflicted.  He thought it would make him feel strong; the Spirit said it would!  But instead it made him feel cold and empty inside.  Lightning filled the dark and cloudy skies, and the cold rain fell; the World cried at his actions, and its tears matched his own.  The Groaning of Creation started that day.

          He woke with a start.  He heard the sound of his own harsh breathing - he detested that sound; it served to remind him of his appearance.  He couldn’t stand the sight of himself … his ruddy skin and hairy primitive body.  There were no mirrors or reflective surfaces anywhere in any of his strongholds.  His appearance made him hate the beautiful perfection of the new Warriors of The Order all the more.

          His hand hurt where he had clenched his fist in sleep, driving his sharp fingernails into the flesh of his palms. The memory and ghostly weight of the stone in his hand and the wetness of the blood were sharp and clear in his Mind.  He could still smell the blood from the stone.

          He had buried the memories of his actions tens of thousands of years ago; why had they resurfaced now?  He knew the answer right away…someone found the stone.   How and why after all this time he did not know, but it was of no consequence; it could not be used against him. However he could never be too careful, and he would discover who had it and how it had been found.

          He was unsettled by the dream and pushed the memories back down where they should stay forever – buried in his subconscious.  He put them down in the blackness with everything else that used to make him human.  That place in his Mind echoed with ages upon ages of pain; he didn’t like to go there.  When he did, sometimes he heard a voice echoing up from the deepest part of himself, and it terrified even him.  It was the voice of his brother, screaming as the life was being beaten out of him. 

          The Master grunted in anger, and black smoky tendrils flowed from his body; he rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.

          He dreamed again of a young boy floating in the air with the stone orbiting around his body.  He recognized the boy - he and his mother had been his prisoners not long ago; prisoners that had been rescued by the Warriors of The Order.  What was the significance of the woman and the boy?  And how did the stone fit into all of that?  He would meditate on that and discover the meaning. 

          Unable to sleep he got up and went to find one of his whores and work off his tension and anger.

          His servants were unsettled as the screams of the women broke the early morning silence in the house.  All of them learned to tread lightly on the days when they heard those screams lest their own voices add to the spine chilling chorus.

 

<>< Chapter 21 ><>

 

          It had been nearly two weeks since Liz’s death.  Henry was still giving Ken and the others the cold shoulder and kept his interaction with them to a minimum.  He spoke to them only when necessary, and even then his communication was short and curt.  Drew spent most of his time in their room playing by himself or coloring.  Sally tried her best to help and did a good job with Drew, but as soon as one of the guys showed up he would quietly pack up his crayons or collect his toys and retreat back into the room he and Henry shared.

          Everyone, especially Ken, felt a deep thread of sadness that wouldn’t go away from Henry and Drew’s behavior.  Brad did his best to keep Ken distracted and upbeat, but he often found his partner with a sad look on his face.  They spent more time than usual inside one another to help ward off the feelings; all of the couples did.  They stayed merged more often as a group too - they were Brothers and shared their grief, holding each other up in their Hearts.

          Their training continued - Ken pushed himself and everyone else harder than ever.  They all knew what he was doing; he knew it himself.  He wanted to make sure they would be strong enough in the future so that no one would ever have to make a sacrifice like Liz did again.

          Bill and Kevin spent a good deal of their personal time at the Orphanage trying to make sure the kids were taken care of.  All of the guys were helping there too… and they met each and every one of the children.  They all took on the roles of ‘big brother’s’ to most of the kids… playing sports and helping to organize chores.  Bryan even cooked a few special meals for all of them.  The kids were presented with an entirely new world for themselves when they were with adults who really cared about them and for them.  It was evident to all of them in their interactions with Brad and the other men how concerned they were for their wellbeing. 

Bill was forced to fall back on some disciplinary tactics from their Navy background with a few of the older kids who continued to misbehave…and they responded well.  The kids needed boundaries, and when they knew there was love along with the punishment it stuck with them and changed them.  They wanted to make Bill, Kevin, and the rest of the guys proud of them – that was the best motivation of all.

          The kids also figured out pretty quickly that any of the men seemed to know when they were lying, and it didn’t take long for them to stop trying to pull the wool over their eyes.  It was a discovery to know they could get along just fine by telling the truth.

 

<><><> 

 

          Halloween was rapidly approaching, and Sally was deep in her plans for a party at the Lab.  Drew had been withdrawing more and more and she tried as desperately as any of them to help him in any way she could.  The sad fact was that Drew missed his mom and wanted her back and nobody could replace her - he was just a little boy who wanted his mom.  They couldn’t even comfort him with the lie of Liz being in Heaven waiting for him – they knew that at some point his Mind would slip open, and he would see the lie for what it was.

          Henry tried his best with Drew but was floundering inside.  His own heart was devastated from losing Liz, and he didn’t feel equipped to raise Drew on his own as a single dad – and Drew’s behavior wasn’t making it any easier.  He acted out at the slightest provocation - he was talking less and less and he wet the bed nearly every night.  He stopped wearing any of his Marvel Superheros clothing and didn’t play with any of his superhero toys.  Instead, he played with his hot wheels and colored and watched the same videos Liz had gotten him over and over until Henry wanted to scream.

          Trying to keep his contact with the guys to a minimum, Henry had gotten into the habit of waiting until they were already in the gym and training before he and Drew emerged from their room for the day.  He usually made bowls of cereal for both of them, and then they would retreat back into their room to eat.

          That morning Sally tried to pre-empt the rut they were in by cooking a big breakfast of all Drew’s favorite things.  She made snowman shaped pancakes, crispy bacon, scrambled eggs with cheese, and cinnamon toast. 

          Henry traipsed through the kitchen in just his underwear holding Drew, who was still drowsy and had his head on Henry’s big shoulder.  Henry took Drew into the shower with him every morning; Liz had always taken care of that, and it was another duty Henry took up.  Drew was in his underwear too instead of his pajamas; Sally was sure it was because he was trying to be like Henry.   

          Sally did a double take when she saw Henry’s nearly naked body.  The physical changes the Enemy had caused in him made his body just as lean and muscular as any of the guys, and he was a devastatingly handsome man in his own right.  He didn’t have the angelic charisma that the guys had but to her that made Henry all the more handsome – with his dirty blond hair, green eyes, and his usual facial scruff he looked like the type of scruffy bad boy Sally had always been attracted too, and seeing him in his Kalvin Kline tighty-whities showing off his body just made him all the more scrumptious.

          Drew’s head perked up off Henry’s shoulder as soon as he smelled the bacon when they walked through the kitchen on the way to the showers.

          Sally said, “Good morning guys!  I made you both breakfast this morning!  You’ve been eating way too much cereal lately.”

          Henry’s reply was low key as he said, “Thanks Sally.  I appreciate it.  Drew what do you say?”

          Drew’s reply was sleepy and automatic, “Thank you, Ms. Sally.”

          “You’re more than welcome Tiger.”  There was a slight pause as Sally turned back to the stove; she knew Henry would be irritated with what she was about to say.

          “So Drew, Halloween’s coming up soon.  Have you thought about what you want to dress up for at the party?”

          She was right and Henry glared at her; he knew what she was doing, but Sally kept her back to him and maintained her positive demeanor.

          Drew hung his head, and in a barely discernable voice said, “I don’t know.”

          Sally was beginning to see a few cracks in his behavior.  He was devastated by the loss of his mother, but he was also missing his friendship and interaction with the guys.  He was confused and Henry’s attitude towards Ken and the others didn’t help. With Liz gone, Drew wouldn’t let Henry out of his sight, and he mimicked all Henry’s behavior worshipping the ground his new dad walked on. But she knew it was more than that; Drew was terrified of Henry leaving him like his mom.

          “Well, be thinking about it Tiger, OK?  Oh, Henry I noticed Drew’s jeans are getting a little high around the ankles.  He’s growing like a weed, and we probably need to go shopping soon and get him some new clothes, so be thinking about what costume you want to get so we can pick it up.”

          On one hand Henry was irritated at Sally for pushing Drew about the costume.  She knew full well he had planned to go as Iron Man before Liz died.  On the other hand her comments dug deep, and he felt like he wasn’t doing a good job in taking care of Drew.  He was doing the best he could, but he was barely holding himself together.  He felt cut off from that feeling of connectedness he had come to rely on with the guys, and he missed it terribly.  The conflict inside of him was harsh - he was still so angry about what happened and blamed them for everything that occurred that day.  They should have done something more; if they had Liz would still be with them, and Drew would still have his mom, and Henry would have his wife.

          Neither Henry nor Sally realized the doctor was observing their conversation.  His face was impassive, but inside his heart was aching for all of them.  His massive intellect was on overdrive trying to figure out how in the world they would ever arrive at the point of Drew confronting the Master – especially now with the direction things were going.

          I know it looks bleak at the moment Aaron, but there’s still time.  I’m anxious as well, but we have to trust that things will work out.  With the men…I think that somehow they will make it all work out.  We have to trust them.

          Aaron sighed and thought: You are right Albrecht.  I admit I am having a difficult time though – the thought of that young boy and what he has been through - so many deaths through the ages.  I know he does not remember them consciously but each one is etched on his Soul.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry took Drew into the shower and got them both clean.  He noticed Drew kept facing away from him in the shower and he wondered why, but he kept in mind what the doctor said about not bringing attention to odd behavior so he didn’t make a big deal of it.

          He toweled them off and put clean underwear on both of them, and they went back to their room and got dressed.  Henry saw Drew’s pants and realized Sally was right about his growth spurt and he said, “Hey Tiger, Miss Sally’s right, we need to get you some new clothes.  I’ll talk to the doctor and see if we can go after breakfast OK?”

          Drew’s “OK,” was very subdued, and he hung his head.

          Henry knelt down in front of him, but Drew wouldn’t make eye contact.  Henry put one big hand on Drew’s shoulder, and with his other hand he gently cupped Drew’s chin and lifted his head up, forcing Drew to look at him.

          “Drew what’s wrong?”

          Drew’s eyes started watering and big hot tears dripped down over his cheeks as he started crying.  Henry didn’t know what else to do other than grab him and hold him tight.  Drew’s arms reached up into a death grip around Henry’s neck as he sobbed.

          “I’m here Drew.  I’m here buddy.”  Henry tried to keep his voice even and not break down himself.  He bounced Drew almost like he would a baby, trying desperately to do anything to comfort him.  “Shhhhhh I got you.  It’s alright.”

          He cupped Drew’s head in one of his big hands and stroked him soothingly while his other arm was around Drew’s bottom to hold him up.  He slowly walked back out of their room towards the kitchen.  Sally made eye contact with him, and Henry had an almost pleading look in his eyes.  She started tearing up herself, but she held it together and tried to sound chipper as she said, “Who wants some pancakes and cheesy eggs?”

          Henry whispered in Drew’s ear, “How about it Drew?  Those are your favorites.”   

          He gently put Drew down at the table and scooted his chair up.  Drew was still crying but not as intently, although he was still breathing hard.  Sally started putting his food in front of him, but he sat unresponsive, still crying with his arms down at his sides.

          Tag and Olive had heard the commotion and came out of their room to see what was going on.   They had knowing looks on their faces as they both sat down at the table.

          Olive said, “Good mornin’ Drew, how’s my sweet boy this morning?”

          Drew was still unresponsive, and Henry started to say something when Tag stopped him with a glance.  Tag picked up a fork and reached across the table and cut off a big piece of one of the snowman pancakes.  He dragged it through the syrup so it was dripping and he stuffed it in his mouth and started making the most outlandish noises of pleasure.

          “Mmmm mmm mm mm mmm!  This has got to be the best tasting snowman I ever put in my mouth!  You sure you don’t want any more o’ dat boy?  You know when I was in the Army we didn’t get snowman pancakes.  No sir!  We got Spam!  And that’s if we was lucky!”

          Drew was looking at him and his tears had stopped.  He sniffed and swallowed, and his voice was uneven as he was catching his breath as he asked, “Wh.. what’s .. sp.. spam?” 

          “You never hearda’ Spam?!”  Tag got wide eyed, and put his hands down on the table. He leaned over in surprise and said loudly, “What do they teach deez kids nowa dayz!?”

          Tag went into an over exaggerated, and very animated,  story he completely made up about Spam and food in the Army… but in less than a minute he had Drew actually giggling.

          Tag winked at Henry with a big grin on his face and nodded towards the food, and Henry filled his own plate and sat down looking relieved.

          After they finished eating Drew said out of the blue, “I have to wee-wee.”  He got up and darted towards the locker rooms.  Henry was shocked – Drew hadn’t let Henry out of his sight in the last two weeks, but he ran off like everything was normal.

          Henry looked at Tag and said, “Thanks Tag.  You’re great with him.”

          Tag said, “Well, me and momma got kids of our own.  I learnt a thing or two on how ta take their minds off their troubles when they git upset.  He’s hurtin’ inside somethin’ horrible, and you are too, Henry.   Try’n be patient with ’im, and don’t be too hard on yourself either.”

          Olive reached over and covered Henry’s big hand with her own, giving him a squeeze of comfort.  She was such a small petite woman, but her grip was strong just like her heart.  Her hand barely made it across his knuckles but she somehow managed to push the comfort she wanted to convey to him through her grip.

          In her quiet gentle voice she said, “It’s gonna work out Henry.  Just you wait and see.  Have a little faith.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Drew had his pants down around his ankles as Bryan came into the bathroom to take a leak.  He glanced around when he saw Drew and was surprised not to see Henry.

          Bryan was in the middle of a strenuous workout, and he was just in his workout shorts and tennis shoes, and was drenched in sweat.  His entire body was pumped and his muscles swollen; veins were visible across his shoulders, upper chest, and in his arms.

          His demeanor changed as soon as he saw Drew and he transformed from a focused fighting machine to a gentle giant.  His green eyes lost their intensity, softening when he saw Drew and in his deep gravelly voice he said, “Hey little man!  How’s it hangin’?”

          Drew turned away and tried to cover himself.  He reached down and pulled his pants up quickly and started to run out of the bathroom.  Bryan’s heavy sigh echoed off the tiles in the empty bathroom.  His heart hurt so much for Drew and his loss – it also hurt for himself and his Brothers, which included Henry.  Henry was one of them now, and it upset all of them to see him in such pain and keeping his distance from them. 

          Bryan reached out and grabbed Drew by his shoulder before he got away.  He gently but firmly turned Drew around so they could look into each other’s eyes and said, “You know I love you little man.  I miss you.”  He leaned over and kissed Drew gently on his forehead, and took his hand away.   Drew stood there for a second looking at him and then he turned away, quietly leaving the bathroom.

          Bryan finished up, washed his hands, and went back to continue his workout.

         

<><><> 

 

          While Drew was in the bathroom Henry took advantage of the short window to knock on the door of the doctor’s office. 

          He quickly explained the need for some new clothes and asked the doctor if a short outing to Wal-Mart could be arranged.

          “Of course my boy, of course.  I’ll arrange everything and you can leave shortly.”

 

<><><> 

 

          A little over thirty minutes later Henry and Drew looked up as Brad and Ken came to get them.  The doctor must have pulled them out of training to escort them to the store.  They looked freshly showered, and their hair was still damp.  Ken, trying to sound upbeat, said, “Up and at ’em guys.  Pat and Darren are bringin’ the car around, so let’s hop to it.”

          With all of the extra ‘guests’ staying with them in the Lab the doctor had arranged the purchase of two new fully loaded Chevy Suburbans for transporting everyone around as needed.  The guys weren’t sure who did the modifications to the vehicles once they left the Chevy dealership, but the doctor had the suspensions modified for the extra weight as well as bulletproof glass installed.  The vehicles drank gas like mad, but they were extremely comfortable and safe.  Ken and the others noticed Runes etched into the frame of both vehicles as well.  The doctor had definitely increased the security measures.

          Ken was acting as if everything was normal. Henry merely nodded and grabbed Drew’s Iron Man hoodie and started putting it on him.  Drew wouldn’t hold out his arms and turned away, obviously not wanting to wear it.

          Henry tried not to sound frustrated and he said, “Drew, come on.  It’s cold outside, and you have to wear a jacket.  You can pick out a new one at the store OK?”

          Reluctantly Drew put it on and he trudged out of their room with Henry in tow.  Ken took a deep breath.

          Fuck I hate this B.  I just wanna’ grab him and hold him ‘til he forgives me.  I need to figure out a way to make things right with both of them.

          Brad’s mental voice was gentle as he thought:  I know Ken.  I feel the same way.  

          Brad brought them both together a little tighter than normal in support of his best friend and lover; they all hurt, but Ken was taking the brunt, and it hurt him deeply.   They followed Henry and Drew out to the waiting vehicle.  Drew made a fuss about getting in the car seat but it was still the law in Georgia at his age.  He was angry and irritable, and Henry knew this was going to be a difficult trip for everyone.

          Ken kept ahold of Brad’s hand just like when they drove their own Explorer.  He kept running his thumb over the back of Brad’s hand and occasionally just squeezing it gently.

 

<><><> 

 

          They pulled in to Wal-Mart and Ken, Brad, Pat, and Darren made themselves as scarce as possible to give Henry and Drew their space.  Pat, through his Avatar, saw how strained the relationships were between all of them and the pain they felt.  He could tone his Avatar down if he tried hard, but it was an effort and he couldn’t turn it off completely.  Brad was just as aware of it from his own Avatar – the emotional pain between all of them was clearly visible to him and his heart ached for everyone.  Ken knew this too, and was doing his best – when they were together Ken was in the mode of keeping a hand on Brad almost all the time, or an arm around his shoulders.  Ken was always physically affectionate but he was being more attentive to his lover.  He could feel the effect it had on Brad through their Link and see it in his eyes – it brought comfort to both of them.

          They were all experts at surveillance from their special forces training and owning and operating their own security firm, so it was easy to keep Henry and Drew in sight at all times but keep their distance and remain unobtrusive.  Brad kept a light Link up with Henry in case he needed to talk to them but nothing deeper. One thought that seemed to be in all their minds – they would much rather have been helping Drew pick out his clothes than hanging back out of sight.

          Drew wasn’t helping…he was indecisive and noncommittal with everything Henry was picking out for him.   The only thing Drew made clear was that he didn’t want anything to do with the superhero items he normally got so excited over.

          Henry finally felt he had enough clothes in their cart but he needed Drew to try at least some of them on to make sure they fit, especially the pants.  He was getting irritated and frustrated with Drew and tried his best not to show it.  Before he lost his temper and said something he would regret he lifted Drew up and set him in the cart with all the clothes and said, “Come on Tiger.  We need to go try some of these on.”

          Drew could tell Henry was getting angry and it spiked his anxiety levels, but he squatted down and held on to the sides of the buggy and didn’t say anything.  There was a small line at the fitting rooms, so they had to wait a few minutes.  Henry didn’t notice until it was too late – he never saw Drew grab the can of Coke – but he turned when he heard the noise of the can opening, and he saw Drew pouring it all over the clothes in the buggy.

          Henry saw red and shouted, “DREW!”

          Drew’s eyes went as round as saucers. He looked stunned for a second, and then his eyes filled with tears and he opened his mouth, but no sound came out at first.  He was so scared he could hardly breathe, and after a few seconds he took a deep breath. Then the wailing started.  Henry had never yelled at him before, and it scared him deep down inside - he was terrified Henry was going to be so mad at him he would leave him all alone.

          Drew thought that if he misbehaved, his mother would somehow come back.  It was child logic and didn’t make sense to anyone but him, but he wanted her so badly he was willing to try anything.  He didn’t do it to drive Henry away – he did it to bring his mommy back.

          Ken and the other’s heard Henry’s shout and arrived just as Drew started to cry.  None of them felt any danger so they knew it wasn’t an attack, but they all reacted quickly when they heard the near hysteria in Drew’s voice.

          The dam of emotion that Henry had been holding back broke, and he was so mad he could barely control himself.  He didn’t even realize it but he grabbed the sides of the metal buggy and nearly pinched it closed in his anger.  Then he did the worst thing he could possibly have done, but he didn’t know what else to do – he turned and walked away.  It was only a few feet but he had to get just a little space and get his temper under control.  He was so angry he wanted to hit something and as mad as he was at Drew, he also knew he didn’t want Drew seeing that anger directed at him.

          Drew saw Henry move away and the pitch of his voice went higher and his words were barely understandable as he cried, “Daddy don’t leave me!”  He tried to crawl out of the cart, desperate to get to Henry, but with the metal of the buggy contorted he couldn’t get his legs out.

          What Ken and the others saw devastated them.  Pat’s Avatar flared, and he saw the hysterical desperation inside of Drew.  He wanted his mom, and he was terrified that his dad was leaving him too, and he was trapped and couldn’t move.

          Henry froze, his eyes wide and bloodshot as hot tears spilled down his cheeks.  He wanted to throw up from the pain Drew’s cry sent into the pit of his stomach.

 

<><><> 

         

          Suddenly everything was quiet.  Henry spun around and he saw Drew, his mouth open, holding his hands helplessly in front of him, reaching impotently for his father.  He was crying so hard his face was red and blotchy, and his nose was running, his chin was covered in spittle.  A huge drip was frozen and hanging a few inches off his chin.  It was as if reality paused.

          He saw Ken, Brad, Pat, and Darren - their eyes were glassy from their own tears, and they weren’t moving.

          Henry thought he might be going insane, and he fell to the floor, bent over; and he screamed, slamming his fists into the floor.  The tile buckled with his first blow and it hurt – he might have broken his hands – the tile was directly over a concrete slab.

          He grabbed onto the physical pain trying to let it drive out his hurt and frustration.  He slammed his fist into the floor again, and again.  Every blow was aimed at the hurt inside; his anger at Ken for letting him take Drew and Liz on the train, for not beating the Eschphene leader soon enough, and the others for not protecting Liz and letting the situation escalate so she was forced to sacrifice her own Soul to save her son.

          “Henry, stop”

          His breath was coming in ragged gasps – he was sweating from the tension in his body and the pain in his hands.  His face was a deep red from the tears, the emotional storm running through him, and the physical pain.

          He didn’t know whose voice it was, but it was beautiful.  Strong arms grabbed ahold of him - even as they wrapped around his body they wrapped around his Soul, giving him comfort.

          He knew whoever it was understood everything he was going through and loved him deeply.  Not even looking up he thrust himself against the body of whoever it was, and he clung with all his strength as his big frame wracked with sobs.

          Strong gentle hands soothed him, holding him tight, and Henry knew this was how he should be comforting Drew.  It took him a few minutes to get himself under control.  

          Once he calmed down enough to talk, he pulled back and looked up into a face that was inhumanly beautiful.   The man was glowing softly with a light that warmed him on the inside – just like what he felt from Ken and Brad and the guys when they were deeply merged.  It drove home how much he missed that feeling.

          “Who are you?”

          “I’m a friend, Henry.”

          “What’s happening?”

          “I know how much pain you are in - and Drew, and Ken and Brad and the others.  The events of that day were tragic but also heroic beyond words.  Gabriel led the choirs of Heaven in a song for Liz Hastings that day.”

          “You’re one of the angels?”

          “Yes I am.  I’m Raphael.”

          “What have you done to me?  What’s going on?”

          “I slipped you out of Time for a moment so we can talk.  There are some things I want to show you.”

          Henry moved himself around on the floor so he was facing Raphael and got a good look at him.  He had heard Brad talk about his Angelic grandfather before, but had never seen or met any of them in person.  The Presence of the being in front of him was staggering and he was afraid.

          “There is no need to fear me Henry.  I am here to help.”  Raphael reached out and put his hand on Henry’s solid chest – he could feel Henry’s heart beating rapidly.  He opened up Henry’s Heart energy center and a bright yellow light shone forth.

          “Brad and the others are being patient with you Henry.  They love you, you know – not just as a human being, which is a part of their task, but as a Brother.  You have become one of them, and your anger towards them is causing them a great deal of pain and anxiety.”

          Henry’s face hardened as the turmoil inside him surfaced. He said rather vehemently, “Liz is gone because of them!”

          “You do not believe that Henry.  You are trying to convince yourself of that because it would be easier, but it is not true.  I’m going to show you everything that happened that day while you were unconscious.  I’m going to show it to you a few times, each from a different perspective.  Brad could have shown you some of this – but he would never force it on you, especially knowing how you feel right now.”

          “But you will?”

          “Yes.  For many reasons, some of which I hope will be clear to you once you have seen everything.  Much rests on your shoulders Henry.  So much happened that day, and the men learned many secrets they have not shared with you yet because they do not wish to increase your burden.  They have your best interest in their hearts and are still trying to protect you.   It pains me to show these to you but it must be done.  There is too much at stake and time is running out.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Raphael took Henry on a journey into the past – he relived the day Liz died from her perspective.  He heard her thoughts and felt everything she did the entire day… her joy at his proposal of marriage, her regret at saying the wrong thing when he pulled out the ring he and Albrecht made for her, her hatred and anger towards Doug, her fear for Drew and for Henry when she picked him as her Intercedent to fight Doug, her pain and terror when she grabbed the rock that obliterated her body and would have destroyed her Soul if Uriel hadn’t intervened, her last thoughts of just finding Henry and having him in her life, and the sadness that she would never be with him.  He heard her final words to Drew and to him, and to the guys… telling them to hold Henry tight and protect him and Drew and to find a way to defeat the Master without turning Drew into a monster.  He also felt the last thing she did as Uriel wrapped her up in the comfort of his wings as he stayed with her until she was gone. The groan that came out of Henry came from his Soul as he heard Liz’s last words to Uriel:

 

Will it hurt?

Uriel’s presence surrounded her, wrapping her up in his Strength and Warmth and Love:  No Child it will not hurt.  I will be with you until the end and it will be peaceful.  You will simply go to sleep and never wake up.

 

          He felt it when she ceased to exist, and it crushed him; he curled up in a ball at Raphael’s feet and was completely debilitated in his anguish. 

          Raphael was relentless and moved on – it would have been far crueler to draw the visions out.  As painful as they were for Henry, he knew it would be best to push on until he was done.

          Next, he was inside of Ken.  Henry felt Ken’s split second decision to have Brad knock him out so he could face the Eschphene leader himself -  Ken’s motivation was to save Henry and Drew and Liz – Henry felt Ken’s anger towards himself for what happened to them while they were under his protection.  Henry experienced all the emotions Ken felt as he learned Drew was the Master’s brother and the Curse of his existence, forced to die every seven years in a never ending cycle.  Henry learned more about the Master and how he would have to ask Drew’s forgiveness for killing him, and that Drew would somehow have to bring himself to forgive the monster.  He felt everything during Ken’s fight, the physical pain he went through and nearly dying towards the end - not just the physical pain but also the emotional trauma of knowing that if he died Brad would die too and Drew would be at the mercy of whatever the Eschphene had planned for him.  He felt Brad’s presence inside of Ken, and he was immersed in the special bond they shared, and as deeply as he was inside of Ken – however Raphael did it – he felt the powerful, intimate, exquisitely intense love the two men shared when their Souls were merged.  Henry’s breath caught in his throat at that, and fresh tears fell down his face – the raw brutal purity of the Truth between the two men was as beautiful as it was terrifying to Henry.  He knew how great Ken’s capacity for love was and also how great his capacity to be hurt.  He felt Ken’s anguish when he saw Liz’s body unravel, and he felt how much Henry’s anger hurt him, and how much Drew’s little fist and words “I hate you!” cut into his heart. 

          Raphael continued Henry’s journey through every one of the men…letting him feel what it was to be each one of them that day - how they clung to one another inside their Minds and Hearts as they were forced to watch Ken almost die, and their own grief from losing Liz.  He felt everything Bill went through at the Orphanage with the children earlier in the day, which Henry knew little about because he had isolated himself from their friendship.

          Lastly, he relived Drew’s memories… the happiness and contentment on the mountain playing with Henry and having his mom and new dad there, with Sally, Ken, Brad, Loy, and Rick.  He knew how much the men meant to Drew then… he felt the terror as Drew’s world unraveled when Doug shot Henry and knocked Liz out and kidnapped him - the pain and humiliation Drew felt as Doug ripped his urine drenched clothes off him and squeeze his balls, the pain in his head and body as the rocky ground cut him.  He felt Istariel inside Drew’s mind, trying to comfort him as best he knew how.  He felt Drew’s confusion at waking up and having Henry tell him his mom was gone, and the betrayal he felt by Ken for not protecting his mother like he promised.  Iron Man should have saved her!  Ken was Drew’s biggest role model besides Henry, and all the pain and loneliness of losing his mother turned into anger towards Ken and the world in general.  He felt Drew’s thought process of acting out in the store, subconsciously, desperately hoping his mom would come back to him… and Henry felt Drew’s shocked terror and fear when Henry yelled at him and then turned away.  It was almost more than his young mind could take and he was having a psychotic break at the fear that Henry was leaving him too.

          Not even halfway through the memories he was being forced to relive, Henry was curled up on the floor in a ball, shamelessly sobbing.  He begged Raphael to stop, but the images and memories all kept coming, and he felt them all as if he lived them himself. He squeezed his eyes shut trying to block it all out, but he couldn’t close his Mind; Raphael was keeping it open and making him share and experience everyone’s pain.

           It brought the old perceptions back of Henry feeling like a monster – the way he selfishly took everything and acted.  He knew that if he had been more of a man, and brave enough to accept their compassion and support that the last few weeks would have been very different, and better for himself and for Drew.  He berated himself, and felt he deserved all the pain that Raphael inflicted upon him.

          Raphael sat quietly while Henry continued to sob.  After a short while he pulled Henry back into his lap and tried to comfort him – holding Henry tight and letting him cry.  It was nearly an hour before the tears slowed down, and Henry was emotionally and physically exhausted.  His body ached from the tension, and his eyes were bloodshot and his nose was running.  His face and body were red from the strain he was under.

 

<><><> 

 

          Finally the silence was broken as Raphael said quietly, “I’m sorry Henry, to have done that to you, but you now know everything you need to know about that day.   You know who Drew is and what he must do, and you know the roles Ken and Brad and the others play in this Battle.  And most importantly you know that you and Drew are loved.  Most humans know this in their minds, but you know it in your Heart as well – it is a Blessing.”

          It still took a few minutes before Henry could talk, but he knew Raphael was in his Mind so he thought:  How can one little boy carry that?  He doesn’t deserve it… it’s not fair.

          No, Henry it is not.  But that is his fate… and Drew needs you.  He needs you to be his father and help him prepare to face his destiny.  Much rests on your shoulders as well, and I believe it is no coincidence that you are in his life.  Your own life has prepared you to be in his, and you can help raise him to be who he needs to be to break the cycle of his Curse.

          How?

          I do not know.  I know, as you do, what needs to happen, but not how it will occur.  The randomness of Ken and the others is what will make it possible, but it also makes it impossible to see.  I think that is no coincidence either – if we cannot see then neither can the Dark One.  You must have faith and move forward for the sake of all.

          I have to get back to Drew.  I have to make it clear to him that I’m not leaving him.  I know he’s frozen but I can’t stand the thought of him being scared out of his wits because he thinks I’m going to abandon him.

          Very well.

 

<><><> 

 

          Reality un-paused and he heard Drew’s cry start again mid-scream.  Henry’s mind was racing with everything he felt and just experienced, but he pushed it all away for the moment and turned around.

          The sight of Drew, standing there, completely incapacitated and hurting beyond his ability to cope nearly broke him.  With his inhuman speed he rushed over the few feet, pulled the buggy back apart, and lifted Drew up, pulling his little body against his own.  Drew wrapped his arms and legs around Henry as tightly as he could and crushed his face against Henry’s neck.

          Henry kept whispering into his ear, “I’ve got you Drew.  I’m not going anywhere.  I’ll never leave you son. You mean everything to me, and I love you so much.”  Tears were falling down his face, and he barely managed to get the words out his throat was so tight.

          Pat, and Ken to a lesser extent, saw the emotional turmoil in Henry, and Brad felt it.  Something strange happened that they didn’t understand yet – one second Henry was furious and nearly lost complete control in his anger, and the next he was an emotional basket case desperate to comfort Drew.  The change was so sudden and drastic it was near instantaneous, and it made no sense to them.

          People were staring and the Wal-Mart employee manning the fitting rooms was looking at the twisted metal buggy and the Coke covered clothes with huge eyes.

          Henry didn’t trust himself to say much to Ken yet – he felt like a heel for the way he had been treating Ken and the rest of the guys.  He tried to make his voice as neutral as he could and said, “Ken… I’m sorry about the clothes, but I need to get Drew out of here.”

          Ken’s eyes were still glassy from what he had witnessed with Drew, and his own throat was tight.  He started to reply, but Brad interjected, “No worries Henry…  I’ll take care of it.  Go with Pat and Darren, and get in the car, then swing by to pick us up out front in a minute.”

          Thanks B.

          That’s what badass boyfriends are for, remember?

          Ken knew what Brad did – and he loved him all the more for it because he felt the turmoil inside his lover as well, and it was enormous.  But Brad was being a rock for him and that was what he needed.  He would be the rock for Brad as soon as they got back to the Lab.

          Drew was Henry’s main priority, and he continued to hold him tight and whisper into his ear how much he loved him and that he would never leave.  His heart and mind were still racing, and he was scared beyond words at what Drew had facing him by his seventh birthday.  He was scared for Drew and for himself and the guys.

          The enormity of what they all faced hit him – and it was surreal to him that he was in a Wal-Mart shopping for children’s clothes when the fate of Mankind rested on their shoulders - it didn’t make sense and the transition was mind boggling.

          Pat and Darren escorted him out.  Pat kept a hand on Henry’s shoulder in comfort as they walked to the car, and for the first time in weeks Henry didn’t try to shrug off the touch.  Darren wanted to do the same thing but he didn’t want to inadvertently Read Henry without his permission.  His curiosity was on fire about what happened, but he would never invade his friend’s privacy in such a manner.

          Brad paid for the damaged clothes, and he and Ken hopped in the Suburban when Darren pulled over to pick them up.  The drive back to the Lab was quiet.  Ken, Brad, Pat, and Darren discussed the strangeness of what happened in their Minds - they were still trying to give Henry his space.  Henry had Drew calmed down, and about halfway back to the Lab he fell asleep in Henry’s arms, completely exhausted.

          As soon as they got back to the Lab, Henry took Drew into their room and put him into bed.  He shut the door so it would be quiet, and then he sat on the bed, trying to collect his thoughts.  What was he going to say?  He had been an asshole and hurt his friends… his Brothers, when they were just looking out for him and trying their best to protect him and his son.  He knew how desperate they had been to try and save Liz.  He realized how powerful and unexpected the entire encounter with the Eschphene was, and he couldn’t blame Ken or any of them for not knowing ahead of time what the danger was. The dark thoughts came again about himself – I’m really not a nice person deep down, and I don’t deserve their friendship.

          He owed them all so much.  His life had changed completely that fateful day nearly two years before when he had been ordered to kill Loy and Rick with two other Protectors of the Enemy.  Loy had freed him from the bondage and forced servitude to The Master, and then a year later they helped him find himself, pulling him out of a deep nearly suicidal depression and showed him a future he never thought he could have.  It was tragic that the life they showed him with Liz was gone now but it wasn’t their fault.  He was alive and human again because of them, and he had the most amazing little boy in his life who loved him as a father. 

 

<><><> 

 

          Ken held Brad’s hand and played with it on the drive back to the Lab like he always did.  Brad could tell that Ken had been affected strongly by what happened at Wal-Mart - it drove home how much Henry and Drew were still hurting and blaming him for it.  As soon as they got back to the Lab and Henry disappeared behind closed doors, Ken wanted to leave.  For the first time ever the Lab didn’t feel like a place he wanted to be.

          B, let’s head out.  I don’t feel like bein’ here right now.

          Brad sighed heavily and replied:  I know Ken.  I’m with you.

          Brad didn’t need to say anything else – he was in Ken’s Mind and Heart holding him tight.  Ken knew Brad understood, and he was there for him as always.  His reply was twofold – he agreed with Ken, and he expressed his presence inside his partner to let him know he shared the hurt.  Normally Ken would try to work off his feelings in the gym, but there wasn’t any place else he could go and do that right now.  There wasn’t any equipment anywhere else that would even begin to challenge him to the point of taking his mind off things.

          They were quiet on the drive home and once again Ken played with Brad’s hand.  They rested and took solace in one another’s presence – the subject of Henry and Drew was talked out and there was really nothing left to say.  The situation sucked and would eventually get better – until then they just had to ride it out and make the best of it.

          Thanks again B.  I’m leaning on your pretty hard right now, and you know I appreciate it.  When we get in the house I want you to lean on me.  I’m here for you too.

          Ken reached up to hit the garage door opener as they turned the corner on their street.  As they pulled up into their driveway they were both surprised to see a man sitting on their front doorstep.  When he stood up they realized it was Michael, and their jaws dropped.

          He was waiting at the rear of the Explorer as soon as they got out of the car.

          Ken had a note of panic in his Mind thinking something must be horribly wrong for Michael to show up, and he asked, “Is everything alright?”

          In the few interactions they had with Michael, he had never been overly friendly towards any of them – he had smiled on occasion, but Raphael seemed to do a lot of his talking for him.  This time his smile was genuine, and it completely transformed his face.  He was so handsome in every way imaginable he was almost hard to look at.

          Ken sent a private thought to Brad: B I’m really sorry but I think I might have just have popped a boner looking at my grandfather.

          Brad could barely contain his mirth and he thought back:  Well I’m glad I’m not the only one.  Ken you’re a stud – the stud of my life… but fuck he’s gorgeous!

          “Hello Ken.  Hello Brad.”  Michael held his hand out in greeting to both of them and continued, “There is nothing amiss tonight other than the sorrow dwelling in your hearts.  I have come to try and take your mind off your troubles.  I would have visited you at your Lab earlier, but you have it warded against me.  I’m not pleased about that, but I understand your reasoning.  I haven’t had a fight with Raphael like that in ages, but he explained his reasons, and I respect his Wisdom.”

          Ken was truly touched that Michael – such a powerful being and obviously busy doing whatever it was Arch-Angels did – would come to see him to try and lift his spirits.

          Brad said, “Come inside Michael.”

          Michael didn’t move and said, “Actually I was hoping you would come with me Ken.  You are welcome to come as well Brad if you wish to observe.  I now know how difficult it is for you to be apart from one another.”

          Ken’s handsome brow furrowed, and he asked, “Where do you want to take us?”

          Michael got the same little kid grin on his face that Ken got sometimes and said, “A place I go when I am troubled.”

          Brad’s Intuition told him it was the right thing to do for Ken.  He knew the doctor had his doubts about the Arch-Angels and their agendas as far as Ken, Brad, and the others were concerned.  He also remembered Luke’s words in the Valley:

 

“No offense Brad but you are terribly na´ve.  If you think they aren’t already using you, you are sadly mistaken.  Your faith in them is commendable, but it is misplaced.  Such beings don’t care for you… and even if they did, their affections for you would not stand in their way of using you however they thought necessary to accomplish their goals.” 

 

          He knew Luke was trying to plant seeds of doubt in them, and he was also most likely using truth to do it rather than lies, but deep down Brad felt that Raphael, Michael, and the others really did care about them.  He felt that Ken wanted to take Michael up on his offer, and there was no way he wanted Ken out of his sight.

          Brad smiled and said, “Count me in.” 

 

<><><> 

 

          They felt no transition but suddenly they were standing in what, at first glance, looked like the Coliseum in Rome.   Brad quickly realized this place was not the ancient ruins but a clean and well-kept area - all of the structures were new and immaculate.  There was no one else in site.

          The large oval area they were in had hard packed dirt on the ground and was nearly two hundred feet long at the longest point in its oval shape.   The air was warm and a little humid and the sun was shining brightly directly overhead.  There were a few scattered clouds and the sky was a deep blue.

          Ken and Brad both looked around in wonder and were curious as to where they might be – were they still on Earth? 

          Michael saw their faces and guessed at their question – he wasn’t intruding into their thoughts.

          “I created this place as a private refuge.  It is not large, and lies outside of Time.”

          Michael took off his jacket as he was talking.  Both of them were impressed at the hint of a body that was straining against the t-shirt he wore underneath.  He stripped the t-shirt off, and both Brad and Ken literally had to swallow.

          Michael had to be the most perfect male specimen in existence, at least to them.  His form was handsome and muscular, and incredibly lean and tight.  He was taller than Ken by six inches in his human form, and he had a light dusting of hair on his chest and stomach, perfectly accentuating his physique.  His body was thick with corded muscle and his skin flexed and twitched with the slightest movement.

          He glanced at Ken with a smirk on his face and said, “You have this same effect on humans Ken, whether you realize it or not.  Your body is a weapon in every form imaginable.  Your appearance is part of your arsenal – as much as the strength of your arms.  The charisma you have as a Nephelem is a part of you; and your humility makes you all the more stunning and appealing to mortals.”

          Michael continued to disrobe, kicking off his shoes and popping the top button on his jeans and slipping them down his legs – and they got one question answered; at least this one angel went commando!

          Ken laughed inside his Mind and thought to Brad:  I win!

          Brad was stunned but laughing about their joke: Damn!

Michael stood completely naked before them, and he was glorious – the pinnacle vision of masculinity.  They weren’t surprised to see what hung between his legs was just as perfect as the rest of him.

          Brad remembered reading Aristotle and it struck him that everything about Michael’s appearance  followed the Golden Mean – symmetry, proportion, and harmony – in every aspect of his being.  The form of his face and body - his chest, arms, shoulders, legs, forearms, calves – all followed the proportionate law of this ideal.  The bulge of his biceps and triceps in relation to the big ball of his shoulders, the thickness of his chest to the size of his core, every part of his appearance followed this law… he was Perfect.

          Michael grinned, knowing the effect he had on them.  He wasn’t arrogant or mean spirited when he chuckled and said, “You need to disrobe Ken – don’t be bashful.”

          Fuck B.  We’re gonna’ have some wild sex later tonight.

          You know you’re that hot to me all the time Ken, and I want a date with ‘that guy’ when we get home later so you’d better be ready.

          Ken began stripping down and by the time he slid off his jeans he had his erection under control.  The control he had over his body was absolute after Brad’s help at his final Awakening.

          Brad was so hard it was painful as he looked on the two naked men.  He felt a tremendous pride towards Ken, and he made sure Ken knew it.  In Brad’s eyes, Ken was just as glorious and perfect as Michael.

          Ken felt Brad’s feelings towards him, and it warmed him inside like nothing else could.

          Ken looked at Michael and grinned back and said, “Well your plan is working so far, but staring at my naked studly grandfather really didn’t cross my mind when you said you wanted to take my mind off my troubles.”

          Michael chuckled and began to stretch and indicated that Ken should do the same.  He moved over and they began helping one another, bracing an arm or a leg and helping to pull limbs to stretch their muscles.  This place was warm, and in the bright sunshine they both began to sweat lightly as their bodies loosened and warmed up.

          As soon as they started working together Michael began talking, “I watched you Ken as you fought the Eschphene.  I am proud of how you carried yourself.”

          Ken grunted slightly as Michael pulled him forward stretching out his inner thighs and said, “Yeah if the bastard hadn’t cheated, I would have beat him without Liz having to die.”

          “That entire situation is regrettable.  He had no honor – his insanity drove him to act in a cowardly manner and made him completely unpredictable.  Yet you stayed true to yourself in the fight, and that is what matters.  The strength of their magic was powerful to begin with, and his actions of devouring the souls of his own people reprehensible; and it made him extremely potent. There was no way you could have predicted that, not knowing anything of their magic.”

 

<><><> 

 

          There was a small pause as they changed positions and continued to warm up and stretch. “What you have managed to do with your training so far is commendable.  Albrecht is a good instructor, but as good as he is, and as much as he has helped you, he does not have your strength and agility, so he cannot teach you from his own experience.  I mean no disrespect to him when I say that – it is simply the truth.”

          They spent a few more minutes warming up and Michael said, “I know you and Brad are together even now, in your Minds and Hearts.  I wish you to blend even deeper.  After observing you fight I realize, as you have, when the two of you are One, the whole is greater than the sum of your individual selves.  That is another Paradox of your Avatars – it not necessary to try to ponder why, again a simple fact.”

          Brad was watching and listening not far from the two men.   He was fascinated as he observed them and wondered what Michael had in store for Ken.  He heard the instructions and he poured himself into Ken.  Their breath caught and their eyes watered and time seemed to stand still as their Minds, Hearts, and Souls became One.  Brad laughed as he had the thought:  How can time stand still for us when we are already outside of Time?  That’s a mind fuck!

          Michael could tell from Ken’s reaction what just happened.  He felt a small pang of jealousy at what his grandson and his partner shared.  Since the outset of their involvement in Aaron Thomas’s Project, none of the ten Arch-Angels realized how they would be affected too.  Just as Istariel had changed from his contact with these men, Michael and the others had as well – in ways they never could have imagined.

          “Now let us fight.  Do not hold back.”

          Michael and Ken moved out into the middle of the Arena and faced one another.  They stared at each other, not blinking, and after a moment they both moved at the same time.  Just like the fight with the Eschphene leader, Ken was able to pit himself against Michael in a way he couldn’t with his Brothers in the Lab.  He found his Center and embraced his Avatar – it shone brightly on the big ball of his shoulder spitting brilliant arcs of color.

          Michael and Ken moved blindingly fast, and Ken pushed harder and harder.  He lost himself in the fight, which is what Michael wanted – to find that place inside himself where he was acting on instinct and not letting his Mind interfere with his Body.

          Brad felt it too as he was with Ken in the fight - it was exhilarating.

          As good as Ken was, and as hard as he pushed himself, he was no match for Michael.  Michael was impressed regardless – and he was enjoying himself immensely.  It was seldom that he took the time for anything so personal, and this was one way he thought he and his grandson could bond.  And he admitted to himself in a brief moment of grandfatherly pride, Ken was very good.  In a few ages he might even be Michael’s equal.

          After nearly half an hour both of them were drenched in sweat – it flew off their bodies with every impact as they blocked and parried each other.  The inhuman grace and agility was a sight to behold, and Brad was truly in awe of both of them – when he saw what Ken could really do when he cut lose it was awe inspiring.  Brad knew he was going to have to rethink a few things about how he could be what Ken still needed him to be in their relationship.

          Michael finally called a halt to their sparring and began his instruction.  He spent a few hours going over different holds and sweeps and strikes and even grappling techniques.  The two big men threw each other around like rag dolls, and they both had huge smiles on their faces the entire time.

          Lastly, Michael taught Ken a Kata – he called it The Quintessential Dance - and spent much time helping him to learn the proper form and movements.  The Kata was long and extremely complex, but Ken was a fast learner.  Being inside of Ken, Brad learned it as well.  Michael was a good teacher, and was patient and not afraid of using his hands to reposition Ken when necessary – some of the movements were extremely precise.  He only had to correct Ken once, and his Body remembered.

          The two men practiced the Kata repeatedly – it was a dance and they moved fluidly together.  In all the time they spent with Michael, Ken was so focused on learning and pushing himself, and wanting to please his grandfather, that he finally, at least for a while, forgot his troubles with Henry and Drew.

          Michael finally called a halt so they could rest.  Ken was breathing hard, and his body felt exhilarated. 

          “I think you have learned enough for this visit.”

          Ken moved forward and embraced his angelic Grandfather.  He hugged him tightly in true affection and it sent a feeling of warmth through Michael at the open show of affection.

          “Thank you for this Grandfather.   It was just what I needed."

          “If it is alright with you Ken I would like to do this again.”

          Ken’s face lit up and said, “Me too.”

          The two men embraced again and held themselves tightly together for nearly a full minute.  As they pulled apart, Michael put one of his hands on Ken’s shoulder and the other he put against his chest over his heart.

          “Until next time.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Brad and Ken appeared at the doorstep of their house – it was as if they hadn’t moved.  It would almost have seemed like a Dream except for the exhilaration Ken still felt throughout his Body.

          Brad moved over to Ken and wrapped his arms around Ken’s strong body hugging him tightly:  I’m happy for you Ken.  I’m also so hot for you right now I can barely keep from shooting in my pants.  Let’s get inside.

 

<><><> 

 

          They were in the kitchen and Ken had just set the house in ‘vault’ mode when they both heard Bill’s voice in their Minds.   Brad and Ken felt all their Brothers in the Link and wondered what was up.

          Bill: Guys?

          Brad:  Hey Bill what’s up?

          Bill:  Where were you?  I’ve been trying to reach you for a minute or so.  We were getting worried.

          Brad:  Sorry man… we had a visit from Michael.  We didn’t mean to worry you.

          Bill: Whew!  OK – and I hope it was a good thing.  You don’t seem stressed, so I’m guessing it was.  Look, I know you guys just got home, but can you come back to the Lab?  Henry’s really upset and wants to talk to all of us together.  He’s pretty wound up… I tried to ask him if it could wait until the morning when we all get in for training, but he’s pushing.

          Brad: Hey Dar?

          Darren:  No problem Brad… I’ll bring everybody back as soon as it’s safe.  The meter’s runnin’ fella’s.

          Through the Link Brad realized Loy and Rick were still driving.

          Loy:  We’re almost home guys, we’ll just be another couple of minutes, tops.

 

<><><> 

 

          A little less than five minutes later they were standing back in the Lab, gathered in the kitchen.  There was a strong current of curiosity and more than a little anxiety and trepidation running through all of them. 

          Henry was in the gym by himself.  After he asked Bill to get everyone together he had gone in and said he would wait in there.

          They all entered together.  Henry was sitting on the edge of the boxing ring.  He had his arms hanging over the bottom rope and his knee’s dangling over the edge.  As soon as he heard the door open his head snapped up.

          The first thought that ran through all their Minds at the same time was:  Fuck he looks awful. 

          Henry’s face was pale and his eyes were bloodshot.  They could see how tense he was.  When he made eye contact with Ken, and then all of them - as he looked at their faces one by one - fresh tears filled his eyes.  They could see the trembling in his body.

          He leaned over and rolled out from under the bottom rope and stood up.  He started to talk, but he choked up and had to stop and take a deep breath.

          All of them saw the turmoil inside of him.  Brad gently touched his Mind and brought him into their Link.

          Their concern and Compassion flooded into him, and he fell to his knees with a loud sob.

          Ken rushed over before anyone else moved and knelt down in front of Henry.  He cupped one hand around Henry’s thick neck and shoulder he pulled him forward until their foreheads were touching.  His deep voice was strong but gentle:  We’re here Henry. 

          The simplicity and profundity of his statement filled Henry.  They felt the floodgates open inside him - relief, shame, embarrassment, self-loathing, loneliness, fear, and all the other emotions running rampant through him.  There was no anger or bitterness directed at any of them, only himself.

          Oh God, Ken… guys… I’m so sorry!

          That’s as far as he got before he lost it completely.  He reached up and fell against Ken, wrapping his arms around Ken’s shoulders and holding on for dear life as his body wracked with sobs.  Everyone gathered around and the closest ones hugged him and held him tight.  Rick, Bryan, and Kevin were there first, and Henry was barely visible as they had him surrounded, each wanting to touch him in comfort.  They let him pour out his feelings and held him close in their Hearts.

          Bill was hesitant at first; he sometimes hated not being able to touch someone without his Avatar firing off, but Henry needed his support so he put his hand gently on top of Henry’s head along with everyone else.  His Avatar flared brightly, and it reached out and synchronized with Brad’s, Lane’s, Loy’s, and Darren’s.  Everything that happened at Wal-Mart was suddenly made clear.

          It was traumatic for all of them – reliving Liz’s death, being inside of her and hearing and feeling her thoughts and emotions as she sacrificed herself to save Drew – Ken’s experience as he fought to try and save Drew – everything each one of them thought or felt that day was open and raw.  The most painful part, but also comforting in a strange way, was Liz’s last thought:

 

           Will it hurt?

          Uriel’s presence surrounded her, wrapping her up in his Strength and Warmth and Love:  No Child it will not hurt.  I will be with you until the end, and it will be peaceful.  You will simply go to sleep and never wake up.

 

          Just as with Henry, when they felt her cease to exist it was agonizing but they were relieved to know that she didn’t suffer in any way.  Uriel made sure it was peaceful.

          They were shocked at what Raphael had done to Henry – and angry at him for being so harsh.

          They suppressed that anger and focused on Henry, who needed them badly right now.  All of his thought processes were open to them.  With his Mind and Heart closed, as a normal human, he was barraged with the loss of his future wife, and fear of raising Drew and taking on that responsibility on his own, and now his abject terror at what Drew was going to have to face; and he felt completely inadequate against it all by himself.

          Brad’s voice filled his Mind:  You aren’t alone Henry, and neither is Drew.  We’ll be with you every step of the way and do whatever we can to help both of you.  I see what happened, and there’s no need to be ashamed at how you reacted – we understand.  Yes it hurt – it hurt all of us because we care for you and Drew and Liz so much.  We’re scared for Drew too after everything we’ve learned, but we’re with you Henry and you won’t face any of this by yourself.

          Lane’s Avatar flared, and his eyes turned white as a Vision filled his Mind.  He withdrew from the Link on instinct, not wanting Bryan, or Henry, or any of his Brothers to be negatively affected if it was a bad one.  He saw what needed to happen…there was even precedence for it with Kelly, the girl form Australia.

          Lane connected with Brad in a private Link and shared with him what needed to be done.

          Brad opened up all their energy centers – blue, yellow, and red – and wove them together into a bright white ribbon.  All their Avatar’s flared brightly as their tattoos shifted into the single complex Rune.  Henry felt the hot wind blowing around him as their eyes turned white.  They wrapped themselves around him as Brad opened up his energy centers: Don’t be afraid Henry.

          Henry now saw them through his Mind’s Eye – bright and powerful as the warmth of their Souls washed over him.  He relished that feeling – the feeling he missed so badly - and he wanted Drew to know it too.  After all the stress and turmoil of the day, the soothing comfort of their presence washing over him was blissful and peaceful.

          Brad wove flows of energy and directed them into Henry.  His body arched in shock at the Power Brad sent through him, and his arms went out to his sides.  Ken held Henry tight, anchoring him as Brad opened up his Mind and Heart permanently, removing the blocks that normal humans were born with.  Lane saw that if Drew was going to have any hope of completing his task, he would need Henry as his father.  Pat’s Avatar had shown him in Australia the danger of trying to raise an Aware child if the parent or parents were closed off, and Darren had done the same thing to Kelly.

          Drew’s Mind slipped open often enough on its own that the doctor was sure it would eventually stay that way, and Henry needed to be able to cope with that and help guide and protect his son.  He needed to show Drew how much he was loved – not just in words but in his Mind and Heart.

          Henry felt the change immediately.  He was frightened but felt all his Brothers with him.  Because he was so deeply merged with them he saw what they did to him through Pat’s Avatar.  He felt everything – their own hurt at his behavior and dealing with the loss of Liz, and how much Drew’s words hurt Ken, but he also felt all the good and beautiful things.  He felt the unconditional love they had for him, not just as a man but as their friend and Brother. 

          They helped him get over the shame and embarrassment for his behavior – he knew that if he had been willing to merge with them right away, most of the last few weeks wouldn’t have happened, or at the very least not been as difficult.

          He laughed when Lane hung shit on him for that – but it was as a loving Brother trying to ease the tension, and he knew it wasn’t meant to hurt but to make him smile, and it did.

          Henry knew he was forgiven, and they stayed with him, in the place where Time nearly stood still, until he was able to forgive himself.  Just like when Brad, Ken, Loy, and Rick were with Greg Rawlins – they all crawled into the well of emotions inside of Henry – going deep into the bottom and carrying him out.

          Henry was sweating heavily – the emotional tension was so extreme his body had been a taught wire during all of this, and he was exhausted.  Lane sent a gentle flow of healing energy into him that restored his body and relaxed him.  It took away the blinding headache he had given himself and made him feel like he just had a full body massage with a happy ending.  He laughed with all of them at that thought.

          They slowly withdrew physically, and Ken pulled him to his feet, but they were all still deeply knit together.

          Henry:  Guys I don’t know what to say…but I guess I don’t have too.  You can feel everything I want to say.

          Ken:  We love you Henry – you know that.  No thanks’re needed.  We’re glad you’re with us and a part of our lives.  This is gonna’ be a huge adjustment for you.  I’m gonna’ talk to the doc, but I want you to start trainin’ with us.  You have the Body of a Protector and the Mind of a ‘suit’ now… you’re double trouble against the Enemy and more like us now.  You’re the perfect Protector for Drew along with us. 

          Henry:  I can’t believe what you just did for me.  I’m still scared shitless for Drew.  I’m going to have a talk with him today – he misses his mom so much, and he doesn’t understand any of this, plus my behavior has probably confused the shit out of him. 

          Bryan, always more insightful than most people realized, thought:  Don’t merge deep with him Henry.  Lane or Brad or one of these other fuckers needs to show you how to shield yourself.  He’s just a little kid, and he shouldn’t see a lot of what’s in you.  I’m not just talking about your past…he doesn’t need to see images of when you and Liz were together – you know, adult shit.  No kid should see that, and you don’t want him growing into a sexual pervert like all these fuckers.

          All of them got a chuckle out of his comment, but there was a strong thread of wisdom in his words. 

          Brad:  Bry’s right.  Where’s Drew now?

          Henry:  He’s still asleep.  I asked Sally to sit with him in case he wakes up and I’m not there.  He freaks out if he can’t see me or doesn’t know where I am.

          Brad:  OK I can give you a crash course on the basics right now – you have to learn to shield yourself or things will get ugly very fast out in public, and more importantly right now you need to learn how to compartmentalize things you don’t want to share with someone.  It will literally only take a few seconds if we go deep.  The other stuff we’ll start breaking you in on when we train.  You can start with us in the morning. 

          Henry grinned and thought:  This is gonna’ to take some gettin’ used too!

          Henry pulled Ken into a hug first and he squeezed him tight in a brotherly fashion.  He went around the circle until he had hugged each one of them; he felt he had to express his gratitude even though he knew no thanks were needed. 

          There was a huge feeling of relief present in all of them, and with Henry still with them he felt it as well - they were happy to have Henry back with them.  Yes, there was still hurt inside of Henry and all of them as far as Liz’s absence – but it was shared grief now and not a wedge between them.

          Now they just had to make things right with Drew.

 

<><><> 

 

          Everyone hung around the kitchen for a few minutes.  It was still a few hours from dinner time, but they were all looking for snacks.

          They were back to a lite Link for talking and Bryan thought:  All you fuckers be back here by 18:00 for dinner.

          Lane came up behind Bryan and crisscrossed his arms over Bryan’s chest and kissed his cheek.  I can see what’s going on in that handsome head of yours Bry.  If we’re going to get everything done by six we need to head out now.

          Darren sent everyone home but Bill and Kevin, who were on duty until dinner time.  Henry went back to his room and had a talk with Sally.  She was wide eyed when she found out what the guys had done to him.  She was thrilled and also a bit jealous. He didn’t tell her about Drew being the Master’s brother just yet.  He wanted to talk to the doctor before he did that… it wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, but that was a burden he didn’t want to put on anybody lightly.

 

<><><> 

 

          Sally left Henry alone with Drew, and he sat in the recliner in the corner of their room and watched Drew sleep; he was still completely worn out by the events at Wal-Mart.  Henry didn’t want him to sleep too much longer, or he was afraid Drew wouldn’t want to go to bed later.   He was a heavy sleeper like most kids, so Henry decided to gently wake him up.  

“Come here pod’ner” he drawled in his best cowboy accent as he picked Drew up and set him in his lap.  Drew reclined against Henry’s big chest with his head resting back on Henry’s shoulder – he was awake but laying quietly. 

Just like Brad had shown him, Henry brought Drew into a light Link –enough to talk and to feel Drew’s emotions.  Drew felt it but didn’t show any surprise – Henry could tell he was extremely comfortable with it.  It reinforced Henry’s presence, and Drew found it extremely comforting.

Henry wrapped his arms around Drew and held him close, letting him wake up slowly.  Drew’s head was against his cheek, and every once in a while Henry would move his face enough to gently kiss the top of Drew’s head. 

Henry had the TV volume turned down low, and changed to the Weather Channel – something he knew Drew would find boring.  Sure enough after a few minutes he started to fidget.

“Alright buddy, I need you to turn around for a minute.  We need to talk.”

          Drew slowly got up and repositioned himself so he was straddling Henry’s lap.   

          “You need to listen to me very carefully Drew.  OK?”

          Drew had one of the almost adult looks on his little face, and he said quietly, “OK, Daddy.”

          “First of all before I say anything I want you to know how much I love you.  I’m your daddy now and that means everything in the world to me.  I want you to know that it’s OK to cry, and it’s OK to be mad.  There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way.”

          He paused a moment to collect his thoughts and took a deep breath.

          “I know you miss your mom, and I do too… more than anything.  If there was any way in the world to bring her back I would.  She was so brave…” Henry started to choke up at this point, but he forced himself to continue and not break down.

          “I had a talk with Uncle Ken and Uncle Brad and the rest of the guys while you were asleep, and I realized a few things.  I know you’re mad at them honey…but they did everything they could to try and save your mom, and they feel horrible that they couldn’t…and they feel like they let you down.”

          Drew kept his eyes downcast, and he was fidgeting with the buttons on Henry’s shirt with one hand.  He wouldn’t make eye contact but, Henry could see hot tears starting to drip down his cheeks.

          “They tried so hard Drew, and your Uncle Ken almost died too.  Sometimes bad things happen in the world.  Sometimes there are bad people, and there’s no reason other than that’s the way it is.  But we have to be brave, just like your mom was, and we have to keep on going.  It’s sad, and it hurts; but we have each other, and we have our friends.  Uncle Ken and Uncle Brad and the other guys… they’re our family now.  They love us very much and want to protect us.

          “I know you feel mad at them, but it’s not their fault.  Uncle Ken is sad because he thinks you don’t love him anymore – all of the guys think that.  I know that’s not true, but I know you’re mad about your mom…and you’re taking it out on them, and that’s not fair.  You can be mad…I’m mad too…but not at them.”

          Henry reached out and lifted Drew’s chin up to force him to look into his eyes, “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you, son?”

          Drew couldn’t talk… he started to hiccup and he was breathing hard as the tears fell down his cheeks.  He wasn’t wailing like earlier in the day – he was grieving and sad, and he was a little boy that wanted his mommy; and she was gone forever.

          “Come here buddy.”  Henry reached out and pulled Drew down against him, wrapping both his big arms around the little boy.  He felt how much Drew was hurting through the Link and tears were running down his cheeks too.  He let Drew cry, hoping that he understood even a part of what Henry just told him.  He felt the anger still there, and the confusion and hurt.  In the moment it wasn’t directed at anyone specifically, but it was there.  He could tell that Drew didn’t really understand his own feelings – he was only five years old and wasn’t processing his emotions like an adult, but they were there and still strong and upsetting.

          Henry continued to hold Drew until the worst of his tears were over.  He had moved a box of Kleenex onto the nightstand earlier knowing there were going to be tears.  Henry put his hands under Drew’s arms and picked him back up so he was straddling his waist, and he grabbed a tissue and had Drew blow his nose and he cleaned his face up as best he could.

          “Are you hungry buddy?”

          Drew still couldn’t talk, but he nodded his head yes. 

          “What sounds good?  Nothing too big ‘cause dinner’s only a few hours away.  My guess is somethin’ with cheese in it.  Am I right?”

          Drew nodded his head.

          “OK, give me a big hug and a kiss and we’ll go find something.  You’re going to turn into a big piece of cheese one of these days I think.  I need to get kisses from you before that happens.”

          Drew threw himself back against Henry’s big body and wrapped his arms around his neck and he gave him a big wet sloppy kiss on the lips. “I love you Drew.  You’re a good boy, and I’m proud of you.”

          “I love you too, Daddy.”  Drew’s voice was slightly muffled with his face pressed against Henry’s body.  They held the hug for nearly a minute and Henry, with a big sniff, finally said, “OK up and at ’em kiddo.”

 

<><><> 

 

          When Bryan and Lane got back with the groceries they didn’t have much time to throw things together.  Luckily they both had a few mental tricks up their sleeves to move things along.

          Henry’s door was shut, and he and Drew were behind closed doors, but they hoped after everything that happened a few hours ago that wasn’t a bad sign.

          Henry was right about Drew liking almost anything with cheese in it… and Bryan knew that spaghetti was his favorite dinner – so Bryan decided to throw them both into one amazing dish of twice baked cheesy spaghetti.  It was a cholesterol and fat bomb, but all of them would work it off in the gym the next morning.  He also made a variation on his famous yeast rolls and made buttered garlic knots with parmesan.  Drew didn’t think parmesan was a cheese because it wasn’t orange and didn’t come wrapped in single slices, but Bryan was pretty sure he would love them anyway.

          Lane was perfectly in tune with Bryan and helped as much as he could.  Having telekinesis helped in many ways and Bryan’s own Avatar let him speed up certain parts of the cooking process.  The guys started showing up around 5:30pm, always early and in hopes of snacking before dinner.

          Much to Ken’s delight, Bryan used Velveeta in the spaghetti because it melted better and wasn’t greasy.  Bryan didn’t mind the taste, but it was basically a plastic artificial food and he really didn’t’ like it, but he put aside his personal prejudices against it because it was for Drew.  The only other exception he made was for Ken when he made the Velveeta and Picante queso dip for their parties and at football games.

          The kitchen smelled amazing, and everyone’s stomach was rumbling as it got close to dinner time.  Bryan threw together a simple but tasty garden salad as the last dish.  One of Lane’s duties had been the ice cream…homemade strawberry ice cream, another of Drew’s favorites.

          Brad noticed something interesting while he observed Bryan cooking.  When Lane played his guitar and he had his eyes closed, you could feel him broadcast the sound in his Mind as well as hearing the sound physically. 

          While Brad was watching Bryan in the kitchen he switched his Sight and sure enough he saw it – it was so faint he could barely see it, but there were small tendrils of energy coming off Bryan’s Aura and touching everything he was cooking.  Brad was almost sure Bryan wasn’t even aware of it.  They always wondered why his cooking was so much better than everyone else’s…his joy in the act of making things for people he loved translated in a magical way, enhancing everything.

 

<><><> 

 

          Drew devoured his grilled cheese sandwich and then went back into their room to color and watch videos.  He was even more quiet than usual, and Henry wasn’t sure how much of his talk had sunk in.  He kept their Link up but didn’t intrude or invade Drew’s privacy.

          Henry dozed on and off, letting the noise of the TV – the millionth time he heard Thomas the Tank Engine– lull him into a nap.

          He started when he heard a knock on their door.  Drew was coloring and didn’t even look up.  Henry called out, “Come in.”

          Lane stuck his head in the door and said, “Dinner’s ready guys.”  He had a big grin on his face, and he winked at Henry. 

          Without looking up Drew said, “I’m not hungry.”

          Henry said, “Sorry Lane I feel asleep. Thomas the Tank Engine puts me in la-la land.”

          Lane got that mischievous grin on his face and shot back, “Hey at least it’s not Barney!  Or the Teletubbies!  Those little purse toting goobs freak me out!”

          Henry grimaced and said, “Yeah thank God.  We’ll be right there Lane.  Don’t hold up for us.  I need to run kiddo here into the bathroom to wash his face and hands.”

          Lane replied, “No rush”, and he shut the door.

          Henry looked down and saw that Drew was coloring in his Transformers coloring book.  He was intently trying to stay inside the lines, and doing a pretty good job of it.  Optimus Prime only looked a little squiggly.

          “You’re doin’ pretty good there Tiger, but it’s time for dinner.  Let’s go get washed up.  It sure smells good!”

          “I’m not hungry.”

          “You need to eat; otherwise you’ll be starving by bedtime.  Come on let’s at least try OK?  Please?  For me?”

          Drew gave a heavy exaggerated sigh, which made Henry grin, and he got up.

          As they went through the kitchen everyone was there; all the guys, the doctor and Albrecht, Sally, the Keenans, and Kelly.  The noise level was pretty high from the various conversations going on.  Drew kept his head down and followed Henry into the bathroom off the locker rooms and they both washed their hands and faces.  Henry wet Drew’s hair down and did his best to comb it out of his eyes – Drew definitely needed to get a haircut soon.

          Henry had told them not to wait, but they did anyway.  As soon as Drew and Henry made it back everyone sat down.  The tables in the kitchen had all been put together into a long banquet style table, so everyone could sit together.

          There was enough food to feed an army – or at last eleven men with hyper metabolisms, a little boy, and a few normal adults.

          As they sat down, Bryan winked at the doctor and said, “I know it’s not Long John Silver’s doc, but I put extra grease in yours so it should pass muster.”

          Albrecht had to lower his head to stifle his chuckle, and the doctor actually smirked.

          Henry was trying his best to keep Drew upbeat.  Sally and the Keenans talked to him, and all of the guys said hello to him but didn’t try to engage him any further not wanting to upset him.

          Henry said, “Wow Drew, this looks like it was made just for you!  Spaghetti with cheese in it!  What do you say to Uncle Bryan?” 

Drew didn’t look up, but he quietly said, “Thank you, Uncle Bryan.”

          “You’re welcome buddy.  Remember what I told you in the bathroom this morning.”

          Drew was trying hard to keep up the charade of not being hungry but everything smelled so good, and it was all his favorites that Henry had to stop him on his third plate.  He had cheesy spaghetti sauce all over his cheeks.

          “Whoa, pod’ner!  I heard a rumor that there’s strawberry ice cream for dessert!  You gotta save some room!”

          By the time the ice cream was served, Drew was much more animated as far as looking around and not keeping is eyes downcast, but he was still quiet.  If Sally, the doctor, Albrecht, or the Keenans spoke to him, he was polite, but limited his responses to single words or short sentences. 

          It wasn’t much but it was so much better than his behavior the last few weeks that it uplifted their spirits a little.  They kept the conversation at the table light and funny and there was a lot of laughter. 

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry was a heavy sleeper.   Drew had taken to sleeping in his bed with him since Liz died, which was frustrating because he wet the bed nearly every night.  He loved Drew but he didn’t like waking up smelling like piss.  He started keeping fresh sheets and towels by the bedside so when it happened there was minimal interruption of sleep.   Drew had started sleeping in his underwear instead of his Marvel Superhero pajamas – probably because he wanted to be more like Henry.  Henry didn’t want him to go back to wearing kids diapers because of the self-esteem issue, so like a caring father he toughed it out and didn’t make a big deal when the bed was soaked. 

          Henry was snoring slightly so Drew knew he was sound asleep.  He looked at the clock on their nightstand; he knew his numbers, but wasn’t good at telling time yet.  He knew it was in the middle of the night though.  Tip-toeing as softly as he could, he got out of bed and moved out of their room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

 

<><><> 

 

          It was Ken and Brad’s turn for Lab duty that night, and they were asleep in the room they shared. 

          As soon as they got in bed together the night before and started thinking about their interaction with Michael, they both got hard, and Ken remembered Brad’s comment about wanting a date with ‘that guy.’  Because they were in the Lab they toned it down slightly and only kept at it for a few hours.  Ken made sure to mask their Aura’s – there was no need to broadcast to everyone in the building what they were up too.

          Finally spent, Ken rested his body on Brad, knowing he could take his full weight, and let his big sweaty muscled frame be held and caressed – Brad’s hands on his body and their Hearts and Minds One sent him to another place.  Brad felt it, and was still amazed after all these years he could still do that to Ken – the man of his dreams that owned his heart.  They both had long ago gotten over any insecurities about their relationship and accepted their devotion to one another – and they both smiled when they felt the effect they had on one another. 

Ken let himself be held for a while until he finally rolled onto his side and pulled Brad back against him.  Wrapping Brad up in his arms, where Ken knew Brad felt safest and loved, they let themselves drift off to sleep, relaxed, their sweaty bodies pressed together.

          Ken was a light sleeper, and he had been combat trained in his SEAL days to wake at the slightest provocation.  Even in the Lab where he knew he was safe, or at home in ‘vault’ mode, he still woke up if he heard something strange.

          They didn’t usually lock the door to their room in the Lab – no one ever invaded their privacy.  There was a great deal of respect between all the guys about leaving each other alone if the doors were shut.  Especially with their libidos as strong as they were – it was likely someone walking in unannounced might get quite a show!

          As soon as their door cracked open Ken’s eyes opened and he was wide awake.  He felt no sense of danger and didn’t panic – it only took a second to realize it was Drew.

          Hey B, wake up.

          Brad’s mental voice sounded groggy as he thought:  What’s up?

          We got company.

          Both men slept naked together and always had - they weren’t bashful or shy about their bodies, and there was no better feeling than your lover’s naked body against your own.  Before their friends had to move into the Lab it wasn’t unusual to see some of the men walk naked from the showers back to their rooms.  They treated the Lab just like the barracks back in the Navy when it was just them and the doctor and Albrecht.  Now they at least put on underwear or shorts.

          Ken sensed the slight trickle of Power from Brad and felt the illusion of underwear now on his skin.

          Good thinking B.

          Yup:  he chuckled.  No need to scare him with the snake pit.

          What’cha think he’s doin’?

          Just stay still for a minute.

          Neither one of them had moved a muscle, and Drew thought they were still asleep.  He made his way quietly over to the side of the bed.  Ken heard a sniff and realized Drew was crying. 

          He didn’t want to startle Drew so he rolled over slowly like he was resettling himself knowing Drew would hear the movement.  The only light in the room was from a small nightlight that they used in case Brad had to get up to go to the bathroom and with Ken’s enhanced vision the room was almost like daylight. 

          “Hey buddy, what’s wrong?”                      

          Drew was in a bad way.  His emotions started building more and more once he got to the door, and now he was back in the stage of hiccupping and hyperventilating.  He had a hard time talking but he managed to get out, “U..Un..Uncle Ken, c... can... I…s…sleep...with you and Un.. Uncle Brad?”

          Ken was shocked, and he felt an emotional rush inside himself as his eyes teared up and he said, “Of course you can buddy!”  He pulled back the covers and Drew climbed up and over between the two big men.  They moved apart to make room for him and turned on their sides facing him.  Both of them put a hand on him in comfort, wanting to sooth him if possible.

          “Drew what’s wrong buddy?  Settle down… breath deep… take your time.  Everythin’s OK little guy.”

          It took a minute for him to calm down enough before he blurted out, “I…I’m…sorry Uncle Ken.  I…s…still…l…love y…you.”  He rolled over and threw his little arms around Ken’s neck, rolling himself over and wrapping himself around Ken like a spider.  His little body was shaking with sobs.

          Drew’s words broke the dam of emotion in Ken; his throat tightened up, and tears started falling down his own cheeks.  He had to swallow hard, but he managed to squeak out, “I love you too buddy.  Never, ever, think I don’t!”

          Brad let them have their moment, knowing how much this meant to Ken.  His own relief at what he was witness to was obvious to Ken through their Link.  He kept his hand running slowly up and down Drew’s back in comfort.  It took a few minutes for both Ken and Drew to calm down, and he said in playfully hurt tone, “What about me?  Don’t I get any love?”

          Drew pulled back and managed to sit up in the small space they made for him between their big bodies.  He sniffed and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.  As soon as he got into position he dove against Brad’s neck and chest, squeezing his arms around Brad as tightly as he could, and he said, “I love you too Uncle Brad.”

          Brad’s eyes were glassy as he said, “I love you too Drew.  Just like Uncle Ken said, never, ever think I don’t.”

          It only took a few seconds before Drew giggled and he said, “Uncle Brad you tickle!”  Drew was in just his Marvel Superhero underwear, and Brad realized the hair on his chest and stomach must be tickling Drew and he laughed, hugging him a little tighter.

          Ken said, “Drew you’ve made me really happy.  I’m sorry I let you down.”

          Drew sniffed and hiccupped again but he managed to say, “Daddy told me how hard you tried.  He said it made you really sad about mom, and that I made you feel bad.  I’m sorry I hit you.”

          Ken was still having a bit of a hard time getting himself under control – Drew was talking more like an adult than a five year old but Ken knew that he understood what he was saying.

          Ken sniffed loudly and said, “Hey I’m gettin’ jealous.  Get back over here, and give me a hug.”

          Drew smiled and disengaged himself from Brad. He rolled over and hugged Ken and gave him a big wet sloppy kiss on his cheek.  Ken chuckled at the face Drew made as he giggled, “Your whiskers tickle.”

          Oh my God, B.  I can’t believe this.

          He’s a terrific little boy Ken.  Henry obviously had a talk with him… I could tell he was different at dinner; it just took a little time for whatever Henry said to sink in. 

          Ken continued to hold him, and after a few minutes of resting against his big warm body Drew drifted off to sleep.  Ken and Brad stayed up a while longer, staying deep inside each other’s Hearts and Minds sharing the happiness of the moment and letting the Light of their Auras shine on Drew while he was sleeping, knowing he would feel it even then.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry panicked when he woke up and Drew was gone.  He looked around the room and there was no evidence he had been up – his crayons were in their box and his coloring books were stacked up on the small coffee table.  Thinking that maybe he had gotten hungry or gone to the bathroom, Henry threw off the covers and got up.  He realized the bed was dry and didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.  He knew there was no way Drew could leave the Lab, so he had to be safe, but he was worried not knowing where his little boy was.

          He went out into the small hallway and down to the common area near the kitchen and didn’t see him anywhere. There was no cereal bowl on any of the tables or the counter.  It was still early, and the place was quiet so he didn’t want to call out. 

          He went through the kitchen and back to the rear entrance to the bathrooms and didn’t see him.  Now he was getting worried.  He went to the main door and it was sealed, and he pulled up the log and the door hadn’t been opened since the previous evening.  He saw that Ken and Brad were on duty; he hated to wake them up, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

          He was completely new to his Mind being open, and he didn’t want to try and contact them mentally yet – he didn’t want to make a mistake or shout and wake everybody up.  He padded back to the door to their room and knocked gently.

          Ken was awake instantly as soon as Henry knocked on their door, and he realized what was going on.  He didn’t want to wake up Drew yet – he was sleeping peacefully between Ken and Brad.  Hey Henry, Drew’s with me and Brad.  He came in a little after 3:00a.m.

          Henry gave a sigh of relief and Ken felt it.  Sorry if you got a scare.  He fell asleep after we talked and he’s still snoozin’.

          As long as he’s OK.  I hope he didn’t bother you guys.  You want me to come in and get him?

          Naw, let him sleep.  He was upset and he came to talk to us.  Your chat with him did wonders man, thank you for that.  We’re all patched up with him now.  He’s an amazin’ little boy.

          Ken knew that Henry was still new to everything, but he shared the memory of last night’s conversation with Drew.  The emotions hit him hard, and his breath caught in his chest.  He was going to have to get used to the brutal honestly and truth in communicating this way – it was beautiful but jarring.

          Ken chuckled in his Mind and thought:  You get used to it fast Henry.  Sorry if that was a bit sudden.

          It’s fine – I actually like it.  It’s so… refreshing.  But it’s also like jumping into freezing water… once you get over the shock and warm up, it’s nice.

          Yeah I get ‘ya.  You should have seen the first time B and I merged.  That was a rough time for both of us.  One night over a few beers we’ll share that with ‘ya.

          When you guys are ready to get up give me a holler, and if he’s not awake yet I’ll come get him.  I don’t want him to be an inconvenience.

          Henry let me make this really clear– you and Drew are family.  We’re thrilled that he came to us, and he can jump in bed with us anytime he wants to.  We love having him.  My guess is he’ll be making the rounds with all the guys this way at some point.

          Ken chuckled: I think you might have to fight us to get him back. 

          Henry laughed too and thought:  My eleven dads – it’ll be a best seller!

          Naw you’re his dad… we’re his gay uncles.  That way you get to be the bad guy, and we get to spoil him rotten.

          Oh I see how it is!  You just wait… payback’s a bitch Mr. Gay Uncle Ken.

          They both had a good laugh and it struck them both through their Link – it was so nice to be back on track together.

          Henry had a thought and a huge grin crossed his face:  Hey Ken I know this is kinda personal but I guess there really aren’t any secrets anymore.  Are you into watersports?

          Ken got a curious look on his face and wondered where that question came from:  No why?  I’m surprised you even know what that is.

          You learn a lot hanging around with you pervs in the locker room.  And it’s too bad you aren’t.

          Just then Ken felt a warm wetness filling the bed:  Shit!  With inhuman agility he shot out of the bed and landed on his feet leaving Brad in the warm puddle.

          Henry howled with laughter out in the hallway, doubled over.                                

          Ken’s movement woke Brad who realized immediately what happened and he rolled off the bed and hit the floor.  Ken was laughing hysterically at the look on Brad’s face – bed-headed, bleary-eyed, and disgusted.

          Drew slept peacefully through it all.  Henry knew that when Drew wet the bed it was always early in the morning, and it was due anytime.

          Henry had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard as he thought:  Still wanna fight me for him?      

          Man it’s a good thing Ricky and Loy weren’t on duty last night.

          Why’s that?

          They totally woulda’ got boned up from that.  You might really have to fight them until Drew gets past this stage.

          Oh my God those pervs!  Ewwwwwww.  He started howling with laughter again.

          All the noise and laughter woke a few people up.  The new rooms in the Australian Lab were sound proofed, but not the rooms in Atlanta, and their laughter filled the hallway.

          Trying to explain it just set Henry and Ken off again.

 

<><><> 

 

          Their laughter finally woke Drew up, and he was upset about wetting the bed.  Brad especially could feel his embarrassment.   Henry moved over and picked Drew up under his arms and set him on the floor. 

          Brad was stripping the bed now that Drew was awake and he said, “Drew let’s get those wet undies off, and I’ll wash them with the sheets.”  On top of being upset about the bed wetting Brad sensed a sudden flare up of panic in Drew that surprised him – it was pretty intense.

          Drew took off running back to his room.

          As Drew ran by him Ken said, “Hey Drew, where ‘ya goin’?” 

          Brad and Ken looked at Henry with raised eyebrows, and Henry said, “I’m not sure guys… you know this is new to me.  I’m not used to being around kids his age, and I think he’s goin’ through some kind of phase about people seeing him naked.  After what Doug did to him I think it’s made it worse.  I plan to talk to the doc about it and get his opinion.”

          Brad said, “Good idea.  He’s got so much on his plate right now for a kid his age – all in all I think he’s doing really well.  He adores you Henry, and you’re doing great with him.”

          Henry blushed at the compliment and said, “Thanks.  I never thought I’d be a father – in fact I never really was the marrying type before my days with Them.  I didn’t want kids – didn’t like ‘em.  But now I can’t imagine not having Drew in my life.”  Henry’s eyes got a little misty at the sentiment he expressed.

          Trying to keep the mood light Ken said, “OK guys no more water works allowed this mornin’!  Remember we’re supposed to be manly men!”

          Ken felt a small surge of power from Brad, and Henry started howling with laughter again.  Ken looked at him funny, wondering what was going on when he caught sight of himself in the mirror.  Brad had changed the illusion of his underwear, which had been basic military style boxers, to a hot pink posing strap with little glitter hearts all over it.  It left little to the imagination.

          Still laughing, Henry turned to go after Drew and said over his shoulder, “OK I’ll leave you two manly men to do what manly men do!”

 

<><><> 

 

          By the time Henry got to their room Drew had on a fresh pair of underwear. He didn’t draw attention to Drew’s behavior, and Drew seemed to be OK now so he said, “OK Tiger we gotta hit the shower and get ourselves clean.”

          They both walked down the hall and through the kitchen area in their underwear to the locker rooms.  Drew tried to keep his back to Henry while in the shower and kept trying to cover himself as much as he could.  Something was really bothering him but Henry didn’t pry.  He and Drew were lightly Linked – enough to talk if they needed to, and to feel each other’s presence and basic emotions.  Henry kept his thoughts positive trying his best to make Drew feel loved and safe.

          They dried themselves off and, as they were going back through the kitchen the doctor and Albrecht were eating their breakfast.  Sally was in the kitchen in her robe and slippers.  The Keenans were late risers and, Kelly usually slept until early afternoon.

          Everyone said good morning to Drew, and he made his rounds saying good morning back and giving out hugs.

          The doctor said, “Henry my boy, we have much to discuss.  When you get dressed will you come to my office please?”

          “Sure thing doc, I’ll be right there.  Sally would you mind watching ‘Squirt’ here while I talk to the doc?”

          Drew giggled and said, “I’m not a Squirt I’m a Tiger!”

          Henry knelt down and said, “Oh yeah?  Well I was looking for my Tiger, but I can’t see him through all that hair in his eyes.”

          Drew pulled his hair back and Henry exclaimed, “There he is!”

          Drew giggled and said, “You’re being silly, Daddy.”

          Albrecht had a smile on his face, and for once the doctor did as well.  He was pleased to see the smiles after all the sadness that had been hanging over them the last few weeks.  The sadness would be there for a long time, but as they moved forward away from the intense grief there would be small windows like this.

          Henry leaned down and picked Drew up, flipping him onto his heavy shoulders.  Drew’s hands wrapped around Henry’s head and they went back to their room to get dressed.

          Sally said, “We need to plan another shopping trip.  Yesterday’s was a bust as you know – Drew needs a haircut, and I still need to pick up a few things for the Halloween party.”

 

<><><> 

 

          The Lab was a busy place that morning.  Ken and Brad, after putting the sheets and Drew’s wet underwear in the washing machine, retreated back to their room. 

          Brad started pulling out their workout clothes knowing they would be doing PT shortly when Ken thought:  Hey B come here.

          Brad knew the tone, and he felt the rush of emotion that went with it.

          He stopped what he was doing and looked at Ken and smiled, dropping the illusion of their underwear.

          They stared into each other’s eyes as Brad moved over.  Ken pulled him into their signature full bodied hug, and they rested their chins in the crook of each other’s thick neck and shoulders.  Ken chuckled – Brad still smelled faintly of piss from when Drew wet the bed.

          Brad chuckled too and thought:  Sorry. 

          It was worth it B.  I’m so thankful Drew seems ta be back on track with us.  I have ta admit I missed sleepin’ next to you, but havin’ him between us was really nice too.  We’ve never thought about adopting a kid or anythin’, but fuck I love him so much…

          Me too Ken.  And yeah I missed your arms around me last night, but any time we’re here and he wants to do that I’d love it. 

          You know what else I love B?

          What’s that?

          Everything about you – your Soul, your Heart, your Mind, your sexy ass Body, your eyes, your handsome face, your dick…

          I see my mad seduction skills are working perfectly this morning.

          Their hands moved down and started roaming over each other’s body.  It dawned on them both that as often as they made love, it had been a while since they had simply enjoyed exploring each other this way.  Ken pulled back so they could make eye contact and as soon as they did Brad brought them completely together.

          Their eyes flashed white briefly and then they saw the different colors – Ken’s emerald green ringed by Brad’s crystal blue and vice versa.  They felt the wash of emotions in each other as they touched, knowing how it felt to themselves and their lover.  The complexity and depth was as mind numbingly beautiful as it always was – painfully intimate and sweet, and fulfilling beyond words.

          Both of them felt the warm rush as they made each other smile, or caught their breath as they touched a special place they knew caused arousal in the other.  They took their time and made each other feel good as only they could. 

          After spending nearly an half an hour keeping themselves on the brink of a powerful orgasm, they were both sweating and breathing heavily. 

          Fuck B I could stay with you like this forever.

          You mean that?

          Well at least until I get hungry.

          Douche.

          As much as I wanna’ continue, we’ve been at this for a while… the guys’ll be showin’ up any time for trainin’.

          Let’s get on the bed then.

          They moved over, still holding hands.  Brad lay down first so Ken could be over him.  He wanted to see and feel Ken’s body on top of him.  He pulled his legs back over Ken’s shoulders and let out a low moan of pleasure as Ken slipped inside of him.  There was so much precum they didn’t need any extra lube.

          As excited as they both were, it only took a few minutes of Ken thrusting into him to reach his orgasm.  As soon as Brad felt Ken starting to pulse inside of him it sent him over the edge in a shared orgasm.

          Brad felt the rush as strength flooded into his Body, as Ken’s DNA fueled their supernatural bond.  Ken needed to take Brad’s load for the same reason so he held Brad’s erection in his hand and leaned over, amazingly agile for such a big man, and took Brad into his mouth as the first volley of cum started shooting out.  With Brad’s increased strength Ken felt the shots hit the back of his throat, and he started swallowing.

          When he was sure Brad was done he continued to suckle him until he was soft, and then he lay down on his lover to let himself be held.  He put his full weight down on Brad, knowing how it made him feel.  Their warm sweaty muscled bodies felt so amazing together – just perfect.  Their breathing slowed as they rested against one another in every way – in the Spiritual Realm they were a shining star.  Brad let his hands roam over Ken’s strong, muscled, sweaty body – loving the feel of his soft warm skin.  Fuck B, your hands’re magic.

          With his enhanced hearing Ken knew when the guys started arriving in the kitchen, and they reluctantly got up and dressed and headed out to start their morning.

         

<><><> 

 

          Henry got dressed in workout shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt and tennis shoes, ready to get into the gym with the guys. 

          The doctor was waiting for him and shut the door behind Henry for privacy.  He sat down behind his desk and looked at Henry intently.

          “You have come such a long way my boy, from the first day you arrived here.  I must say I am very proud of you.  And I cannot tell you how nice it is to see you and Drew reconciled with everyone.  I knew it would happen, I had every faith in you, but I am happy it did not stretch out too long.”

          “Thank you, Doc.  And I’m sorry for the way I acted.  I know I didn’t handle it well.”

          “Nonsense!  You handled it as well as anyone would have given the circumstances.   I was going to say you are only human – and while technically that is still true, after the changes you have been through, in particular yesterday, you are much more than that now.”

          “Well I know the guys are half Nephelem.  After merging with them I know what that means.  I’m not sure what I am.”

          “You are a hybrid now as well.  The half of you that was changed by the Enemy… I have studied you extensively since you came to us Henry, and I believe I know how they changed you.  It was an excruciatingly painful and horrible process.  Whoever designed the concept was intelligent but misguided.  The part of you that Bradford and the others opened up yesterday…they restored your Mind to a state before the Curse fell on Mankind.    You are also now an Original Man as they are.  You do not have their Nephelem Heritage and therefore you have no Avatar, but you are still extremely powerful.  Once we have trained you properly you will be more than a match for the Agents of the Enemy.  You are also now Immortal, Henry.  You can be killed, but you will no longer age.”

          Henry sat wide eyed while he listened, taking in what the doctor was explaining.  What the guys did to him was nothing short of a miracle.

          Henry’s first thought was, “What about Drew?”

          “Henry, we will have to wait and see with your son.  If his Mind eventually stays open, which I believe will happen soon, then he will eventually be the same as you are as far as his Mind is concerned.”

          “Will he stay young forever?” The doctor could see the concern over that on Henry’s face.

          “No my boy – the process is gradual and painless and would allow him to grow naturally into a young man.  He will stop aging at the ‘perfect’ point in his physical and mental maturity.

          “The most difficult adaptation you will face in the short term is the Mental aspect of your new nature.  The moral obligation that goes with such power is extreme.  There are many things you must learn to protect yourself and those around you against.   I will not overwhelm you today with too much information, but suffice it to say you have a long road ahead of you.  I will accelerate that road as much as I think it is safe to do so – Drew will desperately need you as he approaches his seventh birthday.”

          The doctor could see the fear in Henry’s eyes at the mention of Drew’s Curse.

          “Do not fear yet Henry.  We have time to prepare, and I have learned where Bradford and Kenneth and the others are concerned that nothing is set in stone.  We must be diligent and watchful, and remain hopeful that things will turn out alright.  I am not saying it will not be difficult, but we must hope for the best.

          “Now, for today, I wish to talk to you later this afternoon about Drew specifically.  He has reached the age where children start school and we must be optimistic about his future and start his education.  I have some ideas on this but as Drew’s father you will need to make certain decisions where he is concerned.  I will find you before dinner to discuss these matters.

          “At the moment, however, there is one more aspect of your nature that I wish to explore.  Albrecht and I have had many discussions about this and based on the changes the Enemy made in you there is something I wish to try.  Albrecht will explain this next part to you in private.  I will ask Sally or Olive to watch Drew today while you begin your training after you talk with Albrecht.

          “I know, Henry, that this is a lot of information.  Do you have any questions for me?”

          Henry had a deer in the headlights look on his handsome face, but he shook his head negative.

          The doctor gave one of his rare grins and said, “Very well my boy.  I am sure questions will come up, so do not hesitate to come find me.  I am adding you to the rotation of counseling sessions that I have with all the men, but I am available to you anytime you need me.”

          The doctor signaled to Albrecht who was waiting outside the closed door.

          He stuck his head into the doctor’s office and said, “Come with me please, Henry.”

          Henry got up and followed Albrecht out and down the hall to one of the small examination rooms.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry was a little nervous and couldn’t imagine what Albrecht wanted to talk to him about.

          As they entered the small room Albrecht patted the exam table and said, “Please sit and make yourself comfortable.”

          Henry hopped up and sat on the white paper that covered the padded bench.  He didn’t like exam rooms – so much of what was done to him by the Enemy was in a room like this, strapped down and helpless.

          Albrecht was quiet for a moment, and he looked at Henry and smiled.  His voice was deep and soothing and he said, “There’s no need to be nervous Henry.  As Aaron said, he and I have studied you extensively since your arrival with us.  We have, more or less, reverse engineered the Process they used to change you.

          “The end results of the changes in your body are similar to those of Ken, Bryan, Rick, Pat, and Kevin.  You don’t have their increased muscle and bone density or enhanced senses but you do have vastly increased strength, speed, dexterity, and agility.  There are enough similarities that Aaron and I wish to try a little experiment if you are agreeable.”

          “What do I need to do?”

          “Let me explain a few things first so you have a clear picture of where I want to go with this.  It will be deeply personal if you wish to continue.  You know there are really no secrets any longer between you and the other men.  When you merge with them completely you are truly naked in every aspect.  It is both painfully intimate and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time.”

          “Yes sir, it is.  The first time was rough, but I’ve really come to like it.  It’s changed my entire life and the way I look at everything.”

          Albrecht smiled and said, “Yes it has a way of doing that.  Suddenly small pettiness and negative thoughts seem trivial in the bigger picture, no?  You rise above such things to the truer meaning of what it means to be human – the way humans were meant to exist together.

          “I could easily get side tracked explaining more of this to you.  It’s a fascinating topic and one that I have studied extensively, and if you wish at some point down the road I’d love to share some of my insights with you.  But now back to the task at hand.

          “You know about how the men share their Souls.  You also know how their bodies react to one another when they make love.  Their DNA fuels the bond between them and it makes them far stronger in every way imaginable.  It is not just their Physical and Mental natures – it also magnifies who they are. 

          “You also know that Ken’s semen, and that of the other Bodies can kill a person if it is ingested or internalized in someone other than their partner.  The same enzymes and amino acids in them exist in you, but the Enemy did something else to you; as soon as your semen leaves your body it begins to break down.  You might not be aware of this but that effectively makes you sterile at least as far as normal intercourse is concerned.  If you ever wish to have children of your own Aaron can help with that so don’t be alarmed.

          “Aaron and I believe that the same supernatural elements that exist in Ken and the others also exist in you.  The Enemy didn’t understand the significance of this; in essence they didn’t take you far enough.”

          Henry got a curious almost disbelieving look on his face, “So you are telling me I’ll get stronger if I eat my own cum?  Sorry to be blunt but I don’t know the medical terms.”

          Albrecht laughed and said, “I told you this would be deeply personal.  In theory that’s what I’m saying… but because your semen breaks down so quickly that won’t work.  There is a Tantric practice I can teach you that will let your body retain your seminal discharge.  If you do this, I believe your body will absorb the DNA in much the same way it works for the men.  Except for you it will be like fueling yourself, because you don’t share a Soul with someone else.”

          “Holy shit.”

          Albrecht grinned and said, “Yes. And if it works as I hope, you will experience a greatly magnified feeling of euphoria immediately following your orgasm, and then a significant boost in strength.  I’m not sure of that, but I believe that will be the case.”

          Henry looked embarrassed and his face turned red, but he was also a bit excited.  Albrecht could see his breathing deepen slightly and knew Henry wanted to try it.

          “What do I have to do?”

          “Something you will no doubt enjoy; hopefully you have enjoyed your entire life!  Masturbate!”

          Henry blushed a deeper shade of red and asked, “That’s it?”

          “Mostly.  Once you reach the point of ejaculation you will need to clamp down firmly on the head of your erection.  There is a specific grip I will show you, and it prevents the semen from discharging and forces it to backwash into your body.  I’m not sure how long it will take to absorb, but I believe it will only be a matter of seconds.  As soon as that happens you will feel the effects – how greatly you will be affected I don’t know.  And I don’t know if it will only be physical or if you will also receive a benefit to your Mind now that it is open.  The Enemy didn’t plan for that and it is an unknown; at the worst you will feel no effect whatsoever.”

          “When do you want me to try this?”

          Albrecht grinned and said, “No time like the present my boy.  I will need to show you how to grip yourself properly.  I hope that will not make you uncomfortable.  I have seen you unclothed numerous times, and I have been deeply in your Mind, so I have essentially seen everything there is to know about you.  There is no need for embarrassment, but it is a very private thing, and I respect that.

          “How long has it been since your last release?”

          Henry’s eyes misted over slightly and said, “The morning that Liz died.  I’ve been so focused on Drew and my own issues…I just haven’t since then.  And to be honest I’m horny as a goat.   Even before the changes to my body I was a twice a day guy minimum.  After the changes I could easily do five to six times on a good day.”

          Albrecht grinned and said, “I see… then this should go quickly.”

          “Very funny!”

          “There is another lesson I will show you that will help this process in the future.  Now that you have access to your energy centers you will learn a level of control over your body you never dreamed possible.  Your Core Energy center, which represents your physical strength and sexual needs, is very strong already.  After yesterday your Mind will be much stronger and will continue to get stronger over time.  Your Heart will grow as well, but will be the weakest of your three energy centers… I have some thoughts on that but will leave those for another day.  Please disrobe and lay back on the table.”

          Henry stripped down, and he was already half hard from the thought of what was about to happen.  Henry was well endowed and actually larger than any of the other guys, and he was uncut.

          “This time Henry, I will open your Energy Center for you.  Part of your training will be with Brad and the other Mentalists, and you will learn how to do this and control your own energy flows.”

          Albrecht put his hand on Henry’s taught stomach, covering his belly button.  He reached out with his Mind and opened up Henry’s Core. 

          Henry could now see with his Mind’s Eye, and he saw the blood red flare of energy come out of his Body.  He went from half hard to fully erect almost instantly.

          There is no need for embarrassment Henry.  This is natural and will happen often early on.  Even once you are used to the energy flows it will still happen; it will be a great source of pleasure and power for you and will eventually become second nature to you.

          No wonder the guys are such horn dogs.

          Albrecht laughed and thought: Yes.

          I will make this fast and clinical Henry to avoid any discomfort on your part.  I know you are not used to being touched by another man. 

          It’s OK Albrecht – I’ll admit it took me a while to get over that hang-up, but I’m past that now.  Henry chuckled and continued:  I know I’m the odd man out here.  I’m not used to being the only straight guy around.  But with my Mind being opened…well you know.  That stuff just really doesn’t matter.  In a way I feel incredibly lucky…I get a glimpse of what the world should be like and will be like once we defeat the bad guys.  I’m very comfortable being around the guys now in every way.  I know they’re all in love with one another, and I’m over any conceit on my part that they want to be with me.  I think all straight guys have that thought as soon as they learn a friend is gay. They don’t want to sleep with me and I have no interest in sleeping with them.  That doesn’t mean we don’t love each other – I love ’em, but I’m not in love with ’em.

          I’m proud of you Henry.  You’ve not had an easy road these last years, and you have grown beyond what I expected.  The first time I looked into your Mind I saw a good man deep down.  The men have a habit of bringing out the best in people, and you are no exception.

          So go ahead Al.

          Albrecht raised an eyebrow and looked at him: Al?

          Henry winked at him and got an evil grin as he thought: Sorry but if we’re gonna be jerk off buddies we’re past the point of formalities.

          Albrecht looked shocked for just a moment and then broke out laughing at Henry’s joke.  Henry hadn’t heard Albrecht laugh like that since he’d met him. 

          Are you ready?

          Henry got up on his elbows so he would have a good view.  He was still hard as a rock from his Core Energy center being open.  Albrecht reached out and pulled down his foreskin exposing the head, which was glistening from the precum caused by Henry’s level of arousal.  Albrecht firmly gripped Henry’s erection, placing his thumb just under the head and the rest of his fingers around the shaft.  Red fire flared from his hand and even though Henry was ready, his eyes nearly popped out of his head when the orgasm hit him.  It was so powerful his whole body tightened.

          Albrecht pinched down strongly on the head not letting any semen escape and he used a reverse milking motion, stroking downward and forcing any semen captured in his shaft back down into his system.

          Albrecht did a countdown and in less than three seconds Henry felt a warm flush come over his Body.  Suddenly his big frame arched and Albrecht saw an explosion of blue and red energy coming from Henry.  Henry was untrained so the energy torrent was wild and uncontrolled – and Albrecht was astounded at how powerful the flows were.  His Mind and Body were now nearly as powerful as any one of the Team at their first Awakening.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry was dazed and felt euphoric as he lay back on the table for a few seconds acclimating himself to the sensations.  Albrecht said he and the doctor weren’t sure how Henry’s Mind would be affected and apparently it was and with his new strength and range he began hearing unshielded thoughts from people in the front part of the building where the ‘cover’ business was. 

          At first it was faint, but as he focused on it the voices and feelings got stronger, and suddenly he was immersed in their brokenness – he doubled over in pain, clutching his head, momentarily overcome at what Brad referred to as their general ‘fucked-upness.’

          Albrecht was in his Mind in an instant and shielded them both.

          I’m sorry Henry I had no idea you would be so strong.  My apologies.  Let’s get you dressed and come with me into the gym immediately.

          Henry was still seeing spots in his eyes from the intense pain – not only the brokenness, but seeing through all their eyes at once was blindingly painful.

 

<><><> 

 

          As Henry was getting dressed there was an urgent knocking on the door.  Albrecht opened the door to see Brad, Lane, Loy, Darren, and Bill with concerned looks on their faces.

          Brad said, “Is everything alright?  We all felt a surge from Henry and realized he was in pain and then your shield went up.”

          Henry was a little unsteady on his feet still and he said, “I’m alright guys, thanks – that was just totally unexpected.”

          Brad asked, “What happened?  That wave we felt was damn powerful.”

          Albrecht brought all of them into a lite Link and shared what just occurred.  The most common reaction was a smattering of “Fuck me’s” and “Holy shits.”

 

<><><> 

 

          As Henry made his way to the gym to begin his training, Albrecht sought out the Mind and the other half of his Soul.

          Aaron – you felt it too?

          Yes Albrecht.  That was a surprise.  I was confident I had predicted his Body’s reaction, but I was doubtful of his Mind.  I am impressed at how strong he is – he will be formidable once he is trained.

          I’m worried about him Aaron.  Now that Liz is gone, our plans for him have changed.  You and I and the men – we all share our Souls, and that keeps us grounded and fulfilled.  Henry won’t have that now with Liz gone, and I think over time it will be difficult for him. Now that he is Immortal it will be more painful as the years pass.

          Aaron gave a heavy sigh which Albrecht felt.  Yes, love, I know.  It will be difficult for Henry not having that connection with someone of his own.  I will communicate our concerns to Bradford and the others – they will be a huge support net for young Henry.  That will have to suffice until we are successful in our mission of defeating The Master.  I will not permit Henry to be a casualty in that aspect.  I learned my lesson with Taliesin and will not repeat that mistake.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry was feeling more than a little overwhelmed.  With his Mind expanded so greatly he was seeing and sensing things on his own he could never have imagined.  He thought being Linked with the guys and being merged with them would have prepared him, but it was still different.

          Ken had a private conversation with Brad about Henry’s training and they both agreed that his Mental disciplines had to take a priority in the short term.  He had to learn to control and shield himself.  Brad knew they would have to be careful – Henry’s Mind wasn’t genetically enhanced as theirs was.  He didn’t have a perfect memory, so it might take longer for him to learn things.  He knew from being in Henry’s Mind previously that he was a smart man, but there was still only so much information a person could absorb at one time.

          Brad quickly came up with an outline to use as a starting point. 

          All of the Mentalists, starting with Brad, spent time with Henry as individual instructors.  They went into a Construct of the gym and stayed deep so Time would barely move, and they started him on the basic exercises they all learned and still practiced.

          They were able to encourage him, help with his headaches when the stress became too much, and answer all his questions.  He was a good student and even in the first few hours he had spent the equivalent of days with them.  He got to know each one of them even better, and their friendships grew stronger and deeper.

          After lunch he switched to working out with Ken and the Bodies, giving his Mind a rest.  He had been trained as a Protector of the Enemy on how to use his strength, speed, and agility, but he did not have the fighting skills they did from the Navy or from what Albrecht had been teaching them.  His Mind might not be genetically enhanced but his Body was, and he had perfect muscle memory.  Once he was shown a technique it became a part of him.

          Ken was also teaching everyone the Kata that Michael taught him – The Quintessential Dance.  It encompassed many moves and techniques that, once mastered, would make them all even that much more dangerous as fighters. 

          The guys started competing for who got to work with Henry, which he got a kick out of.  They were so used to sparring with each other; it was more fun to have someone new.  It also made things easier on everyone having a sixth person in their rotation.  With five Bodies and five Mentalists there was always an odd man out, but now at least when Henry was with them there were an even number, and it would make certain aspects of their training faster.

          By late afternoon Henry was shirtless with the rest of them and covered in sweat.  He was exhausted and sore, and he loved every second of it.

          Ken came up to him and put his arm around Henry’s shoulders and ruffled his hair:  Not bad for your first day bud.  I’m proud of you Henry – all of us are.  You bring so much to the Team now and you’ll make our job much easier.  I gotta warn you though – don’t drop the soap in the shower.  I saw these horn dogs eyeing your backside.

          Henry’s eyes opened wide for a second, and then he burst out laughing.

          He heard a few cat calls in his mind about how fine his ass looked, and he took the teasing as it was intended. 

          You guys are just a bunch of big pervs. 

          Lane:  Yeah no wonder you fit in so well! 

          Ken kept his arm around Henry’s shoulder as they walked back to the locker room, and gave his big shoulder a brotherly squeeze before he moved off to his own locker.

 

<><><> 

 

          Drew spent the morning with Olive and Tag, while Sally did her tasks for the doctor.  She had picked up on nearly all of the custom software applications he developed on their new computer systems that Darren and Pat had helped him to develop.   Before she went to work as the secretary at TGH Securities with the guys, she had put herself through night school working towards her Masters of Business Administration, but she never finished it.  Some of the computer classes she had taken had exposed her to a few programming languages as well as HTML/XML. 

          Much of the doctor’s applications for the new computers were still command line driven and very ‘old school’ as far as the interfaces were concerned, and Sally had started working with him in her spare time on creating graphical user interfaces not just for the new applications but also his new operating system.  He was so focused on updating the raw code running the applications he hadn’t gotten to the point of making them easier to use.  Even for him it was a daunting task to re-write and update decades of code – he was essentially starting from scratch.

          Sally seemed to have a real knack for the design interface, and it was something to pass the time.  Right after Carlos had been killed she had used the time as an emotional crutch to get by, but now she enjoyed it and it helped everyone on the team with the learning curve on the new applications.

          After lunch she spent the afternoon with Drew.  The doctor had asked her to include some home schooling for him in her schedule – Drew knew his numbers and the alphabet and Liz had started him reading but he was behind for a boy his age.

          The doctor had an interactive white board set up for her to use and some curriculum software he had purchased that covered basic reading and math.  Drew, like most modern kids, loved the technology and considered it more of a game – he didn’t even realize he was learning half the time.

          The last few hours before dinner time were considered ‘free time’ and a few of the guys ran back to their homes to perform various chores or run errands.

          Sally had Drew down for a nap and Henry woke him up by accident when he came in exhausted from his day of training.  He wanted to lay down for an hour or so.  He hadn’t showered yet and was still sweaty and shirtless but he didn’t care – he was so tired he just wanted to lie down.

          “Hey Tiger, I’m sorry I woke you up.  Move over just a bit and I’m going to take a nap too.”

          He kissed Drew on the top of his head and lay down on his side.  He heard Drew fidgeting a little and then Henry felt Drew’s fingers on his back.  Drew was outlining the muscles on his back – it didn’t tickle, in fact it felt so nice and soothing that it put Henry to sleep in less than a minute.

          Drew had dozed off after a few minutes, enjoying taking a nap with his dad.  The urge to pee hit him hard and fast - he didn’t want to go in his pants or in the bed so he took off running, holding his crotch, trying to make it to the locker room and a urinal.  He didn’t quite make it, and even as he was trying to pull his pants down he wet himself.

          It upset him, and he started quietly crying.  He heard Doug’s voice in his head “Damn you smell you little shit.  You pissed your pants like a baby.”  He wanted to be a big boy so bad – he wanted to be like Henry.  He wanted to grow up big and strong like Henry and all his uncles.

          Drew heard Bryan and Lane talking just outside the side entrance of the gym to the bathrooms, and he panicked and tried to hide himself. 

          Lane said, “I’ll be right there Bry, just gonna hit the head.”

          Lane came in humming to himself and Drew heard his pants unzip and a second later he heard the sound of a steady stream hitting the urinal.  Lane’s eyes flashed white for the briefest of seconds, and his Intuition told him to turn around.

          Drew had his eyes squeezed tightly shut as he hid, not wanting Lane to find him.  The Will he expressed to stay hidden formed a rudimentary shield, so when Lane cast his Mind out he didn’t sense Drew in the stall.

          Lane glanced over his shoulder and didn’t see anything but his Intuition was telling him that someone was there. He cast out with his Mind, immediately alert just in case.  With the new Runes in the Lab he felt sure nothing could be wrong, and his gut feeling wasn’t one of alarm.  His handsome brow furrowed slightly in confusion at the conflicting messages his Mind was sending him.

          He moved forward quietly and glanced down at the row of toilets in stalls.  He gently pushed open the stall doors, and on the second one he saw Drew squatting down with his tennis shoes on the rim of the bowl.  He had his head down and was trying to be quiet, but Lane knew something was wrong.

          He said quietly and calmly, “Drew?  What’s wrong buddy?  Why are you hiding?”  He moved forward and knelt down and he smelled the urine right away.

          “Did you have an accident?”

          Drew had to sniff a few times and get his breathing under control, and he said almost imperceptibly, and very dejectedly, “Yes, Uncle Lane.”

          “It’s no big deal buddy.  Come here and let’s get you cleaned up.  Where’s your dad?”

          “He’s taking a nap.”

          “OK let’s get you over here by the sink.”  Lane lifted Drew up under his arms and set him down on the floor over by the row of sinks.

          He continued, “Let’s get these wet pants off and get you clean and dry.”

          Drew’s hands grabbed ahold of the top of his jeans and he said rather forcibly, and with a hint of panic, “No don’t!”

          Lane stopped immediately.  Drew wouldn’t make eye contact with him and he knew this wasn’t about him peeing in his pants.

          Drew.  Look at me Tiger.

          Lane’s presence in his Mind was so calming and caring Drew looked up and fresh tears fell down his cheeks. 

          Drew what’s the matter?  Why don’t you want me to take your pants off?  Are you ashamed for me to see you?

          Drew nodded his head slowly up and down:  Yes.

          Drew I’ve seen you before, all of us have.  We’re all guys and there’s nothing to be ashamed off.  Tell me what’s bothering you.

          He could feel Drew’s anxiety level spike, and Lane pulled him into a big hug.  Drew’s arms flew around Lane’s neck, and he started sobbing into Lane’s shoulder.

          Lane sent soothing thoughts and words trying to calm him down:  It’s OK Drew, I’ve got you buddy.  I’m here. It’s OK bud.  Shhhhh.

          Lane was rubbing Drew’s back, and he let him cry for a minute until he started to calm down some.

          Drew?  Will you let me look inside and see what’s bothering you?  That way you won’t have to tell me in words.  I know you’re upset, and I don’t like seeing you this way.  It makes me sad when you’re sad, and I’m not sure what to do to help you.  Will you let me do that?

          Drew didn’t say anything but he almost imperceptibly nodded his head yes.

          Lane was ever so gentle and he brought Drew into a fairly deep Link.  They rarely merged with Drew – the doctor said it wasn’t a good idea unless it was absolutely necessary.  The mind of a child is completely different from an adult and Lane was careful to keep himself tightly shielded so Drew wouldn’t see anything he wasn’t supposed to see.  He just made sure Drew knew how much he was loved and cared for.

          He saw the prominent memory of Doug shouting at him the day Liz died, “Damn you smell you little shit.  You pissed your pants like a baby.”  He knew that Drew was upset about wetting himself, but his Intuition told him it was something deeper than that.

          Lane knew he might have some serious explaining to do if this went wrong but he opened up Drew’s Heart and brought Drew into his own.  They appeared naked in the dark place where he and Bryan came to be together.

          Drew immediately tried to cover himself.

          Drew… it’s OK.  Look I’m naked here too.  We both are.  There’s nothing to be ashamed off.

          Drew looked at Lane’s soft penis, and his eyes got a little wide and he thought:  You have a boo-boo too Uncle Lane.

          What?  What do you mean?

          You’re wee-wee.  It’s broke just like mine.

          Lane chuckled and thought: What do you mean it’s broke?  It works great!  So does yours from what I can see.  We just need to work on your bladder control.

          No it’s broke.

          Show me what you mean.

          An image of Henry and Drew taking their morning shower together appeared in Lane’s Mind, and it hit him immediately what the problem was.  He had to stifle his humor and not let Drew feel it so he wouldn’t think Lane was laughing at him; he knew how deeply this was bothering Drew.  To him it was a really big deal.

          Henry was uncut and Drew was circumcised.  He wanted to be just like his dad in every way – he had a serious case of hero worship towards Henry, and it bothered him that aside from their size their dicks weren’t alike.

          The seriousness was that it added to his already fragile self-esteem and self-image.  Doug shouting about him being a baby for peeing in his pants and his inability to stop wetting the bed plus all the emotional abuse he had suffered – Lane could see how intense the emotional undercurrent was in Drew’s subconscious.  He had to remember that things he didn’t think were important sometimes meant everything to a child.

          Lane sent a private thought to Bryan:  Bry I need you.

          Bryan appeared with Lane and Drew and his eyes went wide when he saw Drew with them. Lane shared the memory of everything that happened from the bathroom to present with Bryan in a flash.

          Bryan:  Fuck!  Poor kid.

          Bryan knelt down and told Drew:  Come here kiddo and give Uncle Bry a big hug.  You got nothing to worry about little guy.

          Drew:  Uncle Lane you fix boo-boo’s right?

          Lane:  Well yeah pretty much.

          Drew:  Can you fix me?

Bryan:  Sure he can!

          In their private Link Lane shouted:  Bry!  I should talk to the doctor about this first!

          Bryan:  No.  You need to fix it for him.  Look at him Lane, the little fucker is tore up inside.  This is such a simple thing.  He wants to be like Henry, so we make a small change.  I’ll take the heat from any fucker, including the doc, that has a problem with it.

          Lane:  I love you ya big lug.  You’re right.  This is such a simple fix.  And I’m going to set up a little trigger for Drew to wake up if he’s asleep and he has to pee, and add a little tweak to his sympathetic nervous system to help with his bladder to give him more time to get to a bathroom.  I know the doc will probably have an issue with that too – he doesn’t like interfering or tampering with people like that, but being with him like this and seeing what it’s doing to him, I say fuck that. 

          Bryan:  We’ll take the heat if there is any Little Buddy.  Pull what you need from me.

          Lane:  We’ll share so it’s from both of us.  It’s a really easy fix.

          Lane dropped the private Link with Bryan and thought:  Sure I can Tiger!

          A smile broke over Drew’s face and their hearts melted – in this place, the smile was from his Soul and it warmed them deep inside.

          Their eyes misted over at how easily such a small thing could bring so much happiness to a little boy who had been through so much in his life already.  He simply wanted to be like his dad.  Lane had another thought about that that he would follow through with in a few minutes.

          Lane opened up his and Bryan’s energy centers and wove them into a bright white ribbon.  A hot wind blew their hair and Drew saw them as they were in the Spiritual Realm – white shining towers of strength and Light.  The Warmth Drew felt coming off of them made him feel completely Loved and safe.

          Lane’s mental voice echoed with Power and he knelt down in front of Drew and thought:  Don’t be afraid Drew.  This won’t hurt a bit – it might tickle a little but that’s all.

          Lane wove a fine lacelike weave of healing energy and the misty tendrils arced over and into Drew’s tiny penis.  Lane looked deep into Drew’s DNA and he saw the pattern of what he needed – the pattern he was born with – and he restored the flesh and nerves that had been cut off when he had been circumcised as a baby.

          Their Light dimmed, and Drew looked down and he literally jumped into Lane’s arms hugging his neck and giving him a big wet sloppy kiss on his cheek.  Lane almost dropped him as Drew squirmed and leaned towards Bryan to do the same thing.  They could see the joy inside of him and feel the relief of something he perceived as a huge burden.

          Lane leaned over and kissed the top of Drew’s head, and his eyes flashed white as he set his triggers.

          Lane to Bryan:  OK time to face the piper.  I hope Henry will be OK with this too.

 

<><><> 

 

          Drew let Lane help him get cleaned up from his accident and before Drew could run back to his room to get on a clean pair of pants Lane grabbed him by his shoulder and turned Drew to face him.

          “I got two things Drew before you go ripping out of here buddy.”

          Drew turned to look at him, his face suddenly serious and wondering if he had done something wrong.

          Lane gave him his mischievous grin and said, “You haven’t done anything wrong Tiger.  I need to tell you something and ask you a question.”

          Drew nodded his head.

          “OK, first off Drew, I did something else to you besides fix your boo-boo.  There are two reasons you’ve been having accidents – one is that you aren’t waking up, so I put a trigger in you that will wake you up if you have to pee.  The other reason is the muscles in your bladder need training so I sort of helped them out a little.  So from now on if you’re asleep and you have to go to the bathroom you’ll wake up, or if it’s during the day that will give you more time to get to the bathroom.  Do you understand?”

          “Really Uncle Lane?  Alright!”  He seemed excited.

          “I want you to know Drew that it’s still not a big deal, and it happens to everyone at some point when they grow up.  I’m just sort of helping you skip a stage so count yourself lucky.”

          Lane grinned when he said that, and Drew grinned back.

          “Now the other thing… you need a haircut bad.  Do you trust me to help you out with that too?”

          Drew gave an exaggerated sigh as only little boys can, and his shoulders slumped a little as he said, “Alright.  I don’t like haircuts, but OK.”

          “OK, good deal. Go run and change clothes and meet me back here in the bathroom.”

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry was still snoring lightly when Drew came in quietly to get some clean pants.  He changed and then moved over to the bed and looked at Henry’s sleeping face. 

          Drew’s eyes flashed white briefly and his Mind slipped open.  He remembered the first time he met Henry in the basement of that house.  He had seen then that Henry had been terribly hurt inside – he didn’t understand the hurt he saw but he felt it – he knew that Henry had been forced to do terrible things against his will.

          There was a barrier now in Henry’s Mind that Drew couldn’t see behind but he clearly saw how much Henry loved him and wanted to protect him.  He saw the hurt inside of Henry about his mom.  He saw fear too, but he didn’t understand it and couldn’t see the reason; fear for Drew.

          The first time Drew saw Henry in that basement he was drawn to him.  He had a very solid presence, and even in the basement when Drew was scared Henry had done his best to make Drew feel safe.  Not like his real dad, Doug.  Drew had always wanted a dad like Henry.  He knew his mommy was happy when they were together, but he missed her smile and the way she brushed his hair out of his eyes and how she read to him at bedtime and tucked him in. 

          He hadn’t told Lane that the reason he was reluctant to get a haircut was because of the way his mom used to brush the hair out of his eyes.  He still imagined her doing it and once his hair was cut he knew it would be different – he didn’t want to forget that feeling.  But when Henry had talked to him about his Uncles and explained to him about bad things happening he said that he and Drew had to be strong and keep on going.  He figured that a haircut was part of that; he didn’t want to let go of the memory, but he wanted to be a big boy.

          He looked at Henry’s face, calm and peaceful in sleep, and Drew knew that Henry needed him as well.  With wisdom far greater than that of a normal five year old boy – a boy who’s Soul was over eighty thousand years old - Drew leaned over and kissed Henry on the forehead and said quietly, “I love you.  Thanks for bein’ my daddy.”

          His Mind closed, and he quietly shut the door and ran back to meet his Uncle Lane in the bathroom.

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry woke up to the smell of something delicious coming from the kitchen.  His stomach growled as he stretched his big frame.  He looked around and Drew wasn’t in the room and he looked at the clock with a moment of panic – it was almost six o’clock, and he slept much longer than he intended too.

          He knew more people would be out and about, so he threw on a t-shirt and grabbed some spare clothes and headed out towards the locker room to take a shower before dinner.  He was still a little bleary eyed as he stumbled through the common area towards the kitchen.

          He heard Drew in the kitchen giggling almost uncontrollably.  Darren had a ball and was levitating it and Drew was trying to catch it.  It spun around in the air, around his head, or his hands, and he continually tried to catch it but never quite could.  He sounded happy for a change, and Henry smiled.

          Lane was in the kitchen with Bryan when he saw Henry moving through the room.  He knew Henry hadn’t noticed the haircut yet so he moved over and blocked Henry from going any further.  He said, “Henry, hold on!  Close your eyes we got a surprise for you.”

          He stopped and did as he was told – he knew they were up to something.  He heard excited whispering and waited patiently.

          Suddenly Drew almost screamed, “Look, Daddy!”

          He opened his eyes and Drew was standing up with a huge grin on his face – he was sporting a new haircut that looked almost exactly the way Henry had his cut.  Short on the sides and a little longer on top.  The big mop of hair that had been falling over his eyes like an English sheepdog was gone!

          Henry got a surprised look on his face and looked around in a panic, “Wait!  I hear Drew!  Where’d he go?”

          “I’m right here, Daddy!”

          “You can’t be Drew!  Who’s this handsome young man wearing Drew’s clothes?”

          “It’s me, Daddy!    Uncle Lane gave me a haircut!”

          I hope you don’t mind Henry.  He needed one pretty bad.

          Henry smiled and thought:  I love it Lane!  Thanks man – I was dreading takin’ him to get one to be honest.  Liz said he hated getting’ his hair cut.

          “Come here Tiger and give your old man a hug.”   Drew leapt up into Henry’s arms for his signature hug and wet sloppy kiss.

          “It’s going to be so much easier taking care of your hair like this buddy.  Did you thank Uncle Lane?”

          “I did, Daddy.  Didn’t I Uncle Lane?

          “Well he kinda did… I was hoping for at least ten hugs, but I think I only got nine, so I’m feelin’ a bit short changed.  I think you need to give your favorite Uncle another hug and a kiss!”

          Darren stood up with his arms out, “Well I’ll go for that being his favorite Uncle and all.  Sucks to be you Lane!”

          Drew loved the attention and the mock fight the guys started over who was his favorite Uncle.  Bryan got in on the argument and Henry said, “OK while your favorite Uncles are making you dizzy, I’m gonna’ go hop in the shower!  I stink!”

          Henry started back to the locker room and Lane exclaimed, “Hey Drew!  We almost forgot; show your dad your new move!  Henry check this out!”

          Henry turned around and Drew struck an Elvis pose, hand on hip, and he licked his hand and slid it along the side of his freshly cut hair.  He even had the lip action going, and Henry burst out laughing and shaking his head.

          As Henry turned to head into the shower he saw Drew ‘high five’ Lane.  He almost teared up at the sight – it dawned on him how lucky he was to be here with Drew.  With everything he knew about what was to come, there was no better place in the world for them to be.

 

<><><> 

 

          As soon as Henry was out of sight around the corner Lane sent his thought out: Henry?

          Yeah, Lane, what’s up?

          Ummm… I hope you aren’t mad but I did something else besides cut Drew’s hair.

          Lane shared his memory of what transpired while Henry was asleep.  Henry was shocked; not angry at all but stunned that Lane could do what he did.

          Oh my God Lane that’s fuckin’ unbelievable!  No I’m not mad… you solved a huge problem for Drew, and I’m grateful.  I wish I could have been a part of it, but I know you did it because you care about him.    Just damn, the things you guys can do.  And thanks for the trigger on waking him up.   I want to learn how to do that myself.  I should have set one in myself to wake up sooner than I did.  I missed all the fun.

          Man I’m glad you aren’t pissed at me and Bry.  I still haven’t told the doc what we did, and he might not approve.  He doesn’t like us tampering with people, and I totally get why, but when we saw what was going on inside Drew and how important it was to him… well fuck we had the power to make it right so we did.

          Well tell the doc I’m grateful if he gives you any flack.  I’ll talk to him about it in my session. 

 

<><><> 

 

          Henry went on to start the water and was just soaping himself up when Drew came running into the shower naked with him. 

          “Uncle Lane said I needed to clean up before dinner.  I had an accident while you were asleep.”

          “Well then let’s get you all squeaky clean and see if we can pass inspection.”

          He noticed a difference in Drew right away – he wasn’t trying to hide himself.

          Drew kept looking at Henry like he wanted him to notice something.  Henry grinned to himself and looked down in surprise, “Hey Drew what happened to your pecker?”

          Drew smiled brightly and bowed his body a little, pushing out at his waist and proudly showing himself off to his dad, “It’s not a pecker daddy it’s my wee-wee.”

          “No it was a wee-wee… now it’s a pecker!  There’s a big difference!  Come up here a sec.”

          Henry picked Drew up in the shower and cupped his big arm under Drew’s butt.  He knew that all little boys needed and wanted validation from their fathers, and he knew Drew had never gotten anything but pain and ridicule from Doug. 

          Henry looked directly at Drew’s penis and said, “That’s a fine looking pecker Drew.  And with your new haircut, you’re such a handsome young man you’re gonna be a heart breaker just like I was at your age.  The ladies are gonna’ love you son.  Now there’s something I need to show you – I know this is new to you and I’ll be careful.”

          Henry proceeded to show Drew how to wash himself and told him how important it was to keep his foreskin clean.  It was a special father son moment, and Henry remembered his own father showing him the same thing. 

          Even though they were in the Lab and would always be escorted and protected by the guys until there was some type of resolution with The Master and the Enemy, Henry was doing what the doctor suggested and was optimistic about Drew being alive and well past his seventh birthday.  He gave him the father/son talk about not letting strangers touch him ‘down there’ and that if he ever felt uncomfortable to come find Henry or one of his Uncles or the doctor or Albrecht immediately.

          Drew was quiet and solemn and listened to everything Henry had to say.  He loved it when Henry talked to him as a grown up, or at least not like a baby. 

          They were clean and drying themselves off with fresh towels as Henry brought the conversation to a close. 

          To break the solemn talk, Henry asked, “OK who’s hungry?  I know I am!”

          Drew blurted out, “I am; I could eat a fuckin’ horse!”

          Henry was so shocked at first he didn’t know what to say – then he burst out laughing.  He let it go but made a note to himself to talk to Drew about using bad words – another item on the dad list – and to ask the guys to be more careful around Drew with the ‘F bombs.’

 

<><><> 

 

          Lane and Bryan went to talk to the doctor right after dinner and were surprised at his reaction.  They expected him to be angry.  He did repeat his lecture about responsibility, but he also commended Lane for his caring nature and the way he approached merging with Drew.  The worst chastisement he gave to Lane and Bryan was that they should have consulted Henry first.  The fact that Henry was fine with their actions after the fact didn’t make it OK.

          Henry was waiting outside the doctor’s office when Lane and Bryan came out.  Lane gave Henry a wink and a thumb’s up letting him know they weren’t in the dog house with the doctor, and Henry grinned back.

          Henry apologized for missing his earlier appointment before dinner.  The doctor waived off his apology, clearly understanding his exhaustion.  He asked how Henry felt the day went from all aspects.  Henry found the doctor incredibly easy to talk too.  Even though on the surface he seemed so formal, he was a very down-to-earth man, and as Henry came to discover, incredibly wise and caring.

          The doctor had many documents for Henry to sign – unbeknownst to Henry the doctor had taken care of the transfer of legal Guardianship of Drew from Liz to Henry.  Henry was stunned – he considered himself Drew’s dad and had not given the idea of legally adopting him any real thought yet with everything that was going on.  But the relief he felt was almost overwhelming, and he thanked the doctor profusely.

          They went on to discuss Drew’s education with Sally, so as a parent Henry would be aware and involved in Drew’s progress.   The doctor went over many things Henry could do to help, including reading to Drew, but also letting Drew read to him.  He demonstrated many small learning techniques that Drew would see as games but would teach him basic principles of math and logic.  Henry was starting to go a little cross-eyed after a few hours had gone by.

          The doctor, knowing what a long day Henry had already had, smiled at him and said, “I am going to break one of my own rules tonight Henry.  Do not expect this often, but I know how much all this is to take in.”

          The doctor put his hands to his chest and formed the diamond shape with his fingers and thumbs and a small ball of light appeared out of his chest.  It gently floated over to Henry and disappeared into his body.

          “I told you I would accelerate your training as much as I thought safely possible.  I spent much time with Albrecht today coming up with this for you.  I think it will help.”

          Henry’s Mind filled with information – not only everything they just spoke of, but an understanding of his new Mental abilities and advanced fighting techniques from Albrecht.  It all built on everything he’d started learning earlier in the day with the guys.  With a little bit of practice in the real world the experiences would become part of him as if he spent years studying with the Team.

          Henry’s eyes misted over, and he laughed at himself, “Doc, I’m sorry.  I’ve cried more in the last two days than I have almost my entire life.  I can’t begin to thank you enough for everything you and Albrecht and the guys have done for me and Drew.”

          “Nonsense my boy.  There is no need for thanks, but thank you for being so polite, and your gratitude is welcome.  Now go spend some time with your son.  Perhaps even read him a book, and I will see you tomorrow.”

 

<><><> 

 

          That night Lane and Bryan were getting ready for bed.  They had their shirts off already and were getting ready to crawl under the covers.

Lane had a look on his face, and Bryan just grinned.  He knew exactly what his partner was thinking.

          Fuck Bry!  Why didn’t we think of this a long time ago?

          Hell I don’t know.  You’ve always been perfect to me Little Buddy.  I remember seeing uncut guys back in the barracks and being kind of curious, but it’s just something that hadn’t crossed my mind since we’ve been able to do all this amazin’ shit.

          Do you want to do it?

          Hell yeah!  If you do!  I’ll be happy with you either way, you little shit, you know that.

          Bryan was sitting on the edge of the bed taking off his shoes and socks and Lane crawled over behind him on his hands and knees. 

          I love you so much big guy.  I know you know how much, but I don’t ever want to stop telling you.

          Lane put his hands on Bryan’s heavy shoulders and pulled him back against his bare chest.  His hands roamed down over Bryan’s big hard chest and started firmly kneading his pecs.  He knew it was a huge turn on for his partner.

          Bryan leaned his head back against Lane and let out a huge sigh of pleasure:  Fuck that feels good. 

          Lane opened up their energy centers one by one and laced them together.  Just like with Drew earlier in the day he looked at their genetic code deep inside the bands of energy – he instinctively knew what it all meant.  He saw the patterns they were born with, and he sent the reconstructive flows into both of them at the same time, limiting it only to the areas he wanted – their dicks!

          In a matter of seconds all the nerves and skin regenerated and their foreskins were completely restored.  There was a slight sensation, not painful at all that ran through their groins and they were sweating lightly as if a strong healing occurred.

          The drain on their energy was minimal, and they both smiled.

          Lane got that mischievous grin on his face and he thought:  OK, let’s test drive these fuckers!

 

<><><> 

 

          Early the next morning while they were doing their PT Lane sent a private thought to Ken:  Hey bossman!  You up, lazybones?

          Ken laughed and thought:  Me and B are already back from our run shithead. We’re eatin’ breakfast.  What’s up?

          Me and Bry got a few things to share with you yahoos when we all get to the Lab before training starts.  Just wanted to give you a heads up.

          OK, anything I need to know so I’m not blindsided?  -

          Ken knew if it was anything important Lane would have already told him, but he wanted to tease his friend a bit. 

          Naw nothing like that.  Just an update mostly, but it would be easier to have one conversation with all you sissies. 

          He felt Ken laugh:  Damn you didn’t rise to the bait.  You’re catching on.

          Douche.

          Hey that’s B’s line!

          Lane chuckled and thought: Yeah I know, but it was appropriate. I see why he uses it so much!

          Ken laughed and thought:  OK see you girls in a few!

 

<><><> 

 

          As usual, when everyone got to the Lab, they had already done their PT and had breakfast.  Unless something unusual happened they were always a few minutes early and hung out in the kitchen talking having a last minute cup of coffee.  Henry wasn’t an early riser, but he made a commitment to everybody that he would get up early and get his run in before training started.  Drew was still sound asleep, and Henry was happy to report that Drew woke up a few hours earlier and made it to the bathroom without incident.   Everybody would be sure to give Drew a high-five at his success later in the morning.

          Since he was up earlier with Drew, Henry had to go into the locker room for some privacy to jerk off.  After the experiences the doctor shared with him the evening before, his energy flows weren’t as sporadic, and he controlled them well as he gripped himself and squeezed just like Albrecht had shown him.  The euphoric shock took him a few seconds to recover from – the orgasm was far more powerful and full bodied than anything he had ever experienced in the past. 

          Ken and Brad had both sought him out the night before as they were leaving to go home and told him he would need to do that every morning and probably every afternoon to make sure he was at full strength for their Training sessions.  None of them were sure how long the effects would last in him, so better safe than sorry. 

          Brad usually initiated a Link as everyone gathered at the Lab, and that morning was no exception.  As soon as it was active and everyone felt the comforting presence of their Brothers, this time including Henry, Brad sent out a thought:  Guys let’s hop into the Conference room fast before we get changed.

          Everyone filed in and Ken stood up at the lectern.

          “Good morning ladies – and that now includes you Henry.  Get used to it!”  Ken got his little kid grin on his face when he said that.

          Ken looked at Lane and said, “You’re up Lanester.”

          OK guys… I wanted to give you an update on something that happened last night with Drew.

          He shared the memory of the previous night’s event in the bathroom up through the haircut. 

          There were some echoes of mental ‘oh shit’s!’ and ‘fuck me’s’ as usual. 

          So of course I know what all you pervs are thinking.  And the answer is yes.  No, I’m not pulling out my junk to show you sickos, but Bry and I did the same thing to ourselves last night.  I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner, but it was super easy.  And yeah it makes a BIG difference. 

          Lane had his own grin when he said that.

          Lane also felt them go through the same process he went through – if they could regenerate flesh and nerves that had been cut off years before what about Tag’s leg?  Could they regenerate it?

          I don’t know fellas, but I don’t see why not, and again I’m kind of kicking myself for not thinking about it before now.  We need to talk to the doc about it, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.  It will take a lot more energy but nothing compared to some of the things we’ve done. 

          Brad: My guess is that the doc was waiting for us to think of this on our own.

          Lane: I know this opens up another can of moral worms for us.

          Brad:  You got that right!

          Ken: It does, but not in the short term.  Barrin’ any emergencies of our own the same rule applies we talked about after the Orphanage.  If somethin’ lands in our lap then we can address it, but we can’t go lookin’ for issues yet.  Our mission is to continue trainin’ and fightin’ The Enemy and findin’ a way to defeat The Master and keep Drew alive.  None of that’s changed.  We stay on target just like any other mission. 

          I get how hard it is for the doc and Albrecht… more so every day.  The bigger picture has ta be our target, and as painful as it might feel we gotta’ let smaller things go for the time bein’.  And you know what I mean when I say smaller things – there are no little people.  Even once The Master’s defeated and out of the way, we’ll have choices to make as to how to proceed.  We could wear ourselves out helpin’ people one at a time, or we can focus on all of humanity first and then work our way towards individuals. 

          I’m not sayin’ that’s what we’ll do; I’m kind of thinkin’ out, loud but you get the drift. 

          Henry, as he sat listening, felt in awe of his Brothers and the responsibilities they faced.  His own role seemed insignificant compared to what they would eventually face.

          Brad thought:  Henry that’s not true at all.  You’re a part of the Team, and you’ll be involved.  I’m not saying this to freak you out, but your role in a lot of ways is much bigger than ours.  You’re Drew’s father, and if anyone can prepare him for what’s coming it’s you.  If that part fails then it’s all a moot point.  You know we’re with you just like we’ve said.  I’m saying this to prove the point that you play a vital role in all of this with us, and we consider you just as important as any one of us as far as the success or failure of The Order is concerned. I for one feel blessed that it’s you.  After a slight pause and a grin he continued… I bet you don’t though!

          Henry was at a loss for words – when it was put that plainly the responsibility was daunting, and it scared him to death, but he felt everyone with him and he knew he wasn’t alone. 

          His answer brought smiles to their faces and warmed their hearts:  It’s a privilege fellas.  I mean that. 

          Rick and Kevin were the closest to Henry, sitting on either side of him.  They both leaned over and sounded like the guy in the Budweiser Beer commercial as they said in unison, “We love you man!” and they both kissed him on either cheek at the same time, and everybody got a good laugh out of it.

          Ken said, “OK ladies while we’re all here is there anything else to cover?  We haven’t had a pow wow like this in a while.”

          Everyone felt Henry get a little nervous.  It reminded them all of Bryan when he was bashful about speaking up.

          Bryan said, “Spit it out Henry.  If I can learn to do it you can too, fucker.”

          Again they all laughed, but Henry didn’t know the background.

          He lowered his head a lot like Bryan did when he was nervous and said, “Sorry guys I’m just not used to speaking up in groups.  The doc did something to me last night too after dinner.”  He closed his eyes and pulled the memory as he now knew how to do and shared it with them.

          They looked deeper into Henry’s Mind and saw what the doctor shared.  They were amazed on a few levels… the doctor was always so big on letting them grow into their powers they were surprised he would do such a thing… but it proved to them that time was running out, and he must have felt he didn’t have a choice, which put a serious tone to all of it.

          Brad thought:  That’s awesome Henry.  It means we have our work cut out for us today!  We’ll spend all morning in a Construct getting you used to everything you can do now.  And if you’re ready we’ll even add a bit to it!

                                                                            

<><><> 

 

          The next few weeks went great for everyone.  Henry had always been a ‘morning guy’ and woke up horny, so the first thing he did was make sure Drew got up to use the bathroom and get him resettled, and then he slipped into the small exam room for his tantric exercise.  He had to be careful and not lose track of time; he laughed at himself the first day when he realized he had been edging for over half an hour with no realization of the passage of time.  He promised himself he would set a trigger in his Mind for fifteen minutes and try to stick to it.

          After his ‘personal time’ he would get dressed for his morning PT, eat breakfast, and be ready by 7:45 when the guys started arriving.  Training started at 8:00am sharp.

          Henry was surprised on his second morning when Bill and Kevin showed up to run with him; instead of running on the treadmill by himself like he planned they had a route from the Lab parking lot they sometimes used.  He wasn’t supposed to go out on his own, certainly not because he couldn’t take care of himself - especially now – but the doctor’s rule was still in force as far as no one travelling by themselves.

          The morning after that, Ricky and Loy showed up, and the next day Lane and Bryan, then Patrick and Darren, and on Friday Ken and Brad.  He was grateful – and no explanation was needed, he knew they didn’t want him to feel left out or lonely.  He also knew it was no imposition – they did it because he was their Brother, and he was a part of the Team now, and he was able to accept it with no guilty feelings.

          On rainy mornings they would stay inside and use the treadmills, otherwise they all enjoyed running outdoors.  It was ingrained into all of them to keep an active Compulsion up for anyone seeing them to basically ignore them, and they kept constant feelers out for any Enemy presence when they were outside the Lab.

          In the evenings, most of the guys usually came back to the Lab for dinner.  On a few occasions, if some of them had errands or chores to do they would skip, so there were occasionally a few empty seats but more often than not they were all together.   Most of the time Bryan cooked but they all tried to chip in and share that duty.  Olive loved to cook too, and surprisingly Kelly did as well.  She would surprise them with some Australian style dishes that always tasted great even if they weren’t used to them.  She was slowly coming out of her shell.  The doctor really was a miracle worker.

          Henry was always exhausted after a hard day of training, but he no longer got headaches.  He got in the habit of taking a short nap before dinner, and Drew was always careful not to wake him up; once in a while Henry woke up to Drew curled up against him.  Drew liked to climb on his back and give him back rubs, which sent Henry out like a light.  Drew wasn’t strong enough to really give him a massage, but it still felt great, and Drew thought he was helping his dad. 

          Henry read to Drew every night, and at the doctor’s suggestion, he started watching more television for an hour or two after dinner; something along the lines of The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, or once a week one of the news networks.  Henry planned to keep those on rotation since all of them seemed biased in one form or another.  Even though Drew was only five, he needed to get more of a sense that there was a world outside the Lab.  Henry always asked Drew if he understood everything he saw and did his best to answer and explain any questions he might have.

          The doctor had never urged any of the men to keep up with current headlines – he explained that after literally centuries of experience it was best not to get tangled up in current politics or religious movements – be aware of them yes, but not get involved.  As they had all come to realize it would be too easy to become sidetracked from their goals if they did – and as horrible as some atrocities in the world could be, most events were basically Free Will at work.  If the Enemy was ever known to be directly involved that would be another story.

 

<><><> 

 

          Everyone was so busy with their daily schedules and tasks that Halloween crept up on them before they realized it.  Sally had managed to go shopping and got the rest of her supplies, but it was at the last minute.  They got badly needed clothes for Drew and he was really upset that there were no Iron Man costumes left.  Sally didn’t want him to make a mess with the green face paint that went with The Hulk costume, and the only one left was a Thor costume that had been opened and returned.  There were dozens of other costumes, but that was all that was left of the superhero variety other than Spider-Man which for some reason Drew really didn’t like.

          Everyone took off Halloween day, which was on a Friday this year.  Sally had the lab decorated with cobwebs with bats and spiders hanging on everything – much to the doctor’s annoyance.  He seemed grumpy and stayed in his office most of the day.  Albrecht told her not to worry about it, but she tip-toed around the doctor all day.

          Sally had done her best with Drew’s costume – she even bought a Thor play kit with a plastic Mjolnir and a plastic winged helmet that had blond hair attached to it to accessorize his basic costume.  Combined with the packaged costume it really didn’t look too bad, but Drew was less than enthused, and his body posture reeked of dejection.

          As all the guys arrived, they made a big deal of how great he looked, and it helped, but everyone knew he had his heart set on being Iron Man.  Sally knew the significance and how much it meant to him, but there was nothing to be done.

          When everybody was there Henry brought them all into a light Link.  They were letting him initiate the Links in the Lab, and he practiced increasing his range in the evenings when many of the guys were at their houses.

          Guys?  I have a favor to ask.  I hope it’s not a big deal, but could a few of you go with me and Drew to Bill and Kevin’s neighborhood and let him do some real trick-or-treating?  Their neighborhood seems to have the most kids so there will be plenty of houses to hit.  He’s already bummed about his costume, but I bet that would help make him feel better.  

          Ken: OK but we’re all goin’.  We can disguise ourselves easy enough for the night.  I don’t want any surprises, and I’m not takin’ any chances.  I think it’ll do Drew a world’a good to get out and have some fun.

          Everybody felt a spike of excitement from Lane, and he suddenly shielded himself:  Darren, Brad, meet me in the gym.  Henry you get Drew, and all you sissies come find us in five minutes.

 

<><><> 

 

          Brad and Darren appeared in the gym beside Lane, and he brought them all deep into a Construct of the Lab.  He took them deep for the time differential, and he explained his idea – Darren’s dimples were in full force with his enthusiastic smile of agreement and Brad’s smile was just as wide.

         

<><><> 

 

          Henry led Drew into the gym.  He had his full Thor costume on but he didn’t seem all that excited.  The rest of the guys filed in behind them.

          Brad, Lane, and Darren were wearing Men in Black suits with sunglasses and were all standing in the middle of the gym.  Lane was in the center holding a briefcase and Brad and Darren were to each side of him with their hands crossed and feet wide apart all looking very official.

          Lane stepped forward and said in a serious voice, “Special Agent Drew please step forward!”

          Drew seemed a bit apprehensive and looked up to Henry, not sure what was happening.  Henry had a pretty good idea of what was going on, but he was trying to keep a serious face.  He was tempted to tear up from what the guys were doing for his son.

          “Go on Drew!  That’s you Tiger!”  Henry scooted Drew forward by his shoulders until he was moving on his own; his red Thor cape dragging the floor slightly behind him.

          He walked up to Lane, who knelt down in front of him.  “Special Agent Drew, I have a very important assignment for you.  We discovered a proto-type of the new Iron Man Mark IV Armor, but it only came in your size!  Can you test it out for us?”

          Drew’s eyes were as big as saucers, and he was speechless.

          Drew was so excited he was about to explode as his mind started realizing what was going on.  They found him an Iron Man costume!

          He literally started tearing off his Thor costume.  Henry moved forward to help him and gathered all the pieces up and wrapped them in the cloak.

          When Drew was standing there in his jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers Darren knelt down and pulled out a wristband from his pocket and slipped it on Drew’s right wrist.

          Lane held out the briefcase and Drew took it, not sure what to do with it.

          Darren took Drew’s wrist and said, “Press the red button to activate your armor.”

          Ken, Bryan, Patrick, and the rest of the guys were just as excited to see what Lane, Brad, and Darren had come up with. 

          Lane couldn’t help it and thought:  Hold onto your hats guys… this is gonna be so badass!

          Drew looked at the wristband.  It didn’t look like a toy… it looked real.  It was shiny black and had lights on it.  There was a big red blinking circle on it.

          Henry and all the guys were lightly Linked with Drew, and they felt his excitement and his nervousness. 

          Henry leaned over and put his head down right beside Drew’s and whispered in his ear, “Go ahead Drew!  This is what you wanted right?  Don’t be scared Tiger, me and all your Uncles are here.  Push the button.”

          Drew couldn’t believe what was happening.  He took a deep breath and pushed the red button. 

          He jumped when the briefcase flipped open.  Two gloves, two boots, and the helmet shot out and wrapped around his hands, feet, and face while red and gold metal started unfolding from the rest of the case.  The sound of rivets and screws and clicks were audible as the armor formed and wrapped around his body.  In less than five seconds he was standing in a child-sized fully articulated suit of Iron Man Mark IV armor.  The last thing was the visor shutting over his face as the eyes and the chest light lit up.

          Lane designed it and Brad created the external Construct for it.  Everybody wondered what Darren’s roll was.

          Darren’s voice was for Drew alone:  Time to fly special Agent Drew!  Just think of where you want to go!

          The boot jets activated and the Repulsor beams in the gloves lit up and Drew lifted off the ground.  Darren knew where Drew wanted to go and he flew around the gym.  The guys were in complete control, and he was perfectly safe, and he was so excited he could hardly contain himself.  They had the movements and the sounds down exactly from the movies – in Drew’s mind it was perfect!

          Everyone’s jaw’s hit the floor when they saw the armor unfold – they were used to external Constructs, but once again Lane’s creativity showed an alternative use that brought incredible excitement and joy to a little boy.  The armor looked, felt, and sounded every bit as real as it did in the movies.

          It wasn’t any extreme effort for Darren; but once Drew took off Brad, Lane, Loy, and Bill synchronized their Avatars with his and it became completely effortless.  The Construct itself was weightless and it only sounded and felt real, so they were simply lifting Drew’s normal body weight.

         

<><><> 

 

          They piled into the two Suburbans, and Brad and Darren drove them to Bill and Kevin’s house.  Brad had been thinking about a costume for Henry on the drive over and he decided on a Spartan Warrior from 300 – it was easy since Henry had a better body than any of the actors from the movie anyway.  He had the cloak, the bronze helmet, the leather sandals, and the spear.  Henry had dirty blonde hair and green eyes and was a handsome man.  He had a light dusting of hair on his chest and stomach – just the right amount to accentuate the shape of his incredible physique – he looked absolutely stunning.

          Brad decided to make everyone else essentially invisible – they didn’t want to draw more attention than what Drew and Henry were already going to bring.  He broadcast a Compulsory Net for everyone in the immediate vicinity to ignore them.  Henry had himself and Drew shielded so they wouldn’t be affected – and it was good practice, and drove home the need to never let his guard down over either one of them.

          Henry had told Drew no flying outside of the Lab and he was fine with that… he was so excited with his costume it didn’t matter; he could still make the boot jets flare and the Repulsor rings in the gloves light up.  Henry could see how happy and excited he was, and it hit him hard again at what Drew would soon be facing.  He had to wall those thoughts off quickly so Drew wouldn’t pick up on them.  Henry forced himself to think only of this night and making sure his son had the best night possible.

          Drew had a bag for his candy – Sally had gotten one for him to collect candy around the Lab.  They promised Sally they would be back in a few hours – they all knew how much work she put into the decorations and didn’t want to disappoint on her.  When she saw Drew walking through as a mini Iron Man her jaw dropped and any thought of objections flew out of her head. 

          Henry walked Drew door to door through the entire subdivision – he couldn’t see Drew’s face unless he lifted the faceplate, but he was Linked with his son and knew how happy and proud he was.  Henry made sure Drew was polite and thanked everyone for the candy he got.

          They were all happy for Drew as they followed him unobtrusively through the neighborhood.  There were some excellent costumes but also quite a few that were inappropriate.  Some of the guys had to shake their heads at the graphic blood and gore of the zombies from The Walking Dead. 

          One of the teenagers was scaring smaller kids and laughing about it, but as soon as he saw Henry he steered clear and didn’t try to scare Drew.

          Drew didn’t realize how much extra candy he got because of Henry – all of the lonely housewives in the neighborhood tried to be extra chatty to keep him at their door.  He declined any photographs for him or Drew, and Darren took care of any pictures or videos that people tried to take without permission.

          After two hours they had circled through every house that was giving out candy and made it back to Kevin and Bill’s driveway.  They piled into the Suburbans and headed back to the Lab.  As soon as they all were back inside and the door was secure Lane, Brad, and Darren vanished back into the gym.

          Henry, followed by the rest of the guys, led Drew through the lab and into the gym.  As soon as they entered they saw Lane, Brad, and Darren back in their black suits with sun glasses. 

          Lane stepped forward and said, “Special Agent Drew, you performed your task very well!  We have to take the armor back to the vault now.  Please press the green button on your wrist.”  A panel on his right wrist popped open revealing the indicated button.

          Drew pressed the button and the armor flew off him and folded itself back up until it was just a suitcase.  He reluctantly handed it over and asked, “Can I wear it again tomorrow Uncle Lane?  Please?”

          Brad took off his glasses and knelt down and said, “Sorry Agent Drew but Halloween is the only night we’re allowed to use it!  You’ll have to wait until next year.”

          He was so excited that the news hardly put a damper on his spirits, and Henry grabbed him and flipped him up on his shoulders and said, “Come on Agent Drew!  We have to go see what else Miss Sally has for you at the party!  Comin’ guys?”

         

<><><> 

 

          As Henry was moving towards the door, Ken sent a private thought to Brad.

          Fuck B I love you more every day.  What you guys did for that little boy tonight…  I hardly know what to say. 

          What’s the point of having ten half-angel Uncles if there aren’t any perks?  It wasn’t that big a deal to pull off Ken.  It was Lane’s idea and it was a good one.  With everything that’s going to come Drew’s way soon enough he needs happy memories like tonight.

          Well I wanna’ make a happy memory with you later tonight.  When you do shit like this, and it shows what a beautiful man you are, it just gets me goin’.

          You mean it makes you cry like a baby, or it makes you all drippy?

          Well… uh… both!

          Douche.

          Ken put on his little kid grin that he knew Brad couldn’t resist and pulled him in for a quick hug and a kiss, and they made their way back to the kitchen and the party.

 

<><><> 

 

          The weekend was quiet after Halloween – Sally spent the next morning cleaning the Lab and getting all the cobwebs down.  She was tempted to stretch some across the door to the doctor’s office as a joke, but as grumpy as he had been she thought better of it.  Better safe than sorry!

          Ken and Brad had an impromptu get-together on Saturday at their house for dinner.  Bill and Kevin were officially ‘Big Brother’s’ to Tommy and Brett, the two brothers from the Orphanage, and were able to take the boys out on a pre-arranged schedule.  Bill checked with everyone first to be sure they didn’t mind – he thought Drew might enjoy having a couple of other boys close to his age to play with for a change.

          Henry had a long talk with Drew and coached him about not talking about the Lab or anything that happened to his mom.  He was a little on edge about Drew saying something wrong, but Drew seemed to take it all in stride.

          While the food was still cooking, Henry ended up standing with Ken, Brad, Bill, Loy, and Rick by the fire pit talking and drinking a beer – the guys could tell how nervous he was about Drew saying something he shouldn’t to Brett or Tommy.

          Brad:  Relax Henry, it’s fine.   Drew’s smart, and he won’t spill the beans.  If he gets excited and says something he shouldn’t, Bill will just take Brett and Tommy out back and shoot ‘em.

          Henry was so engrossed in watching Drew playing with the other kids it took a second for what Brad said to register.  When it did he almost spit beer out his nose and they all busted out laughing.        

          Once he got himself under control Henry laughingly thought:  Sorry guys.  I’ll try to relax.

          Ken:  Just have a good time Henry.  That’s why we have these get-togethers.  We all need our chill time, and it looks like Drew’s havin’ a great time too.  Who knows how long it’s been since he got to play with someone his own age.

          Bill:  Well since he was playing with you yesterday Ken, that’s an easy answer.

          They all laughed again and Ken thought:  Fuck you Bill.  Kev, you need to keep your man here in line!

          Kevin was in the kitchen helping Bryan and was laughing with everyone else:  Never fear Ken, I’ll lick his ass… I mean kick his ass later tonight!

          Henry:  Ewwwwwww!

          The evening continued and everyone enjoyed themselves.  The thought occurred to all of them at some point during the evening about how nice it was to have a gathering where nothing bad happened and everybody simply had a nice and relaxing time. 

          The back of Henry’s head actually started to hurt from smiling and laughing so much and it was a great feeling.  He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so happy and relaxed.  He had a brief moment of guilt when he realized he hadn’t thought about Liz all night while he was having fun.

          Brad picked up on it right away through their Link.  Everyone was lightly together but his Avatar always tuned him in to such things.  Ken, who was standing closest to Henry put his arm around his Brother and squeezed his shoulder tight, letting Henry know he Understood and it was alright to feel that way.  No words were spoken or thought, but Henry’s eyes misted over for just a second at the gesture and the feeling of support from all the guys. 

          Henry looked up and scanned the night sky.  There were a few stars out already and it was a beautiful autumn night.  It was chilly enough that the fire pit felt great, but it wasn’t so cold that it was uncomfortable.   Ken’s arm was still over his shoulder – Ken had that comfortable and friendly way of touching friends.  He kept his hand on the crook of Henry’s shoulder and neck and was giving him regular light squeezes.  

          Henry relaxed into that feeling and sank into the Link briefly wanting to feel everybody a little more strongly.  He had only been down a second when he had an epiphany – he was exploring and learning a lot about himself in his sessions with the doctor, and had come to realize many interesting things about himself and human nature in general – with his Mind open and now able to read thoughts it was a necessary part of his education.  The thought that was foremost in his mind as he felt Ken’s arm around him was that one thing that human beings crave above all else is not just a connection with someone else, or even a sense of purpose, which were both high on the list, but to be known and understood, which meant that he mattered.  After merging completely with all of the guys he knew he was loved unconditionally, and they understood him regardless of his faults and brokenness – he was known and that validation was a source of unimaginable comfort to him.  The profound comfort that insight brought him washed through the Link and all of the guys got a little teary eyed from the emotions that struck Henry so deeply and suddenly.

          He realized that most humans sought this feeling through religion – part of the eternal soul searching for God to get that feeling of being known from a higher power.  Now that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that angels existed, simple extrapolation suggested that God did as well as demons – and Raphael had mentioned the Dark One.  Henry realized that what he felt with his Brothers was what most people sought from God – which drove home just how horrible the Curse was.  It created that feeling of isolation and separateness from God and fellow human beings and left the human race adrift, which caused the brokenness and the ‘fucked-upness’.

          It was brief but powerful, and Lane didn’t miss the opportunity to hang shit on Henry for making them cry.  Even at the same time, Lane had those thoughts he was the first one to pull Henry closer inside his Heart for a Mental hug that left no doubt inside Henry that he was one of them.

          He would always love Liz – she would stay in his heart forever, and he would never forget her.  But he was slowly getting over the grief and emptiness that he had felt so strongly right after her death.

          Ken raised his beer, “To Liz.”

          Everyone followed, “To Liz.”

          They all took a swig of their beers and stood in silence, not wanting to break the mood quite yet and honoring the memory of a woman who was brave beyond words and made the ultimate sacrifice to save her son.

          Bryan’s timing was perfect to break the solemn moment and bring everyone back to the happy relaxed atmosphere as he called out, “Food’s ready!”

 

<><><> 

 

          The following Tuesday they had broken up into their respective groups to start the routines Ken and Brad had outlined.  There was an undercurrent of excitement in all of them about an email the doctor had sent out late Sunday evening.  The small healthcare business that had occupied the front part of the building they were in was moving to a larger facility, and the doctor was planning to expand the Lab into that space.  He wanted to include many renovations to the entire building to make it more on a par with the Australian safe house.

          There would be new rooms for additional cardio equipment – they loved the idea of a spinning room and also moving the treadmills out of the workout area in the gym, and even a quiet room for yoga and meditation.  By moving the treadmills out of the gym it would give them room for two additional boxing rings and more floor space for weights and gymnastics.

          The bad news was they would be doing much of the renovations themselves, and they would need to cover the additional area with new Runes.   The doctor and Albrecht had decided for the time being to discontinue their efforts to relocate the Keenans, Sally, and Kelly, and he was absolutely adamant about Henry and Drew staying in the Lab.  The new renovations would include larger and more comfortable mini-apartments for them as well as larger rooms for the couples to sleep in while they were on duty.

          Henry seemed more than a little distracted and Darren, his partner for the morning, told him, “Hey Henry snap too!  Mind on the job.”

          Henry replied, “Sorry, Darren.  Parent stuff.”                

          Darren got a slight frown on his handsome face as he asked, “Everything OK with Drew?”                                                                   

          Henry sighed as he responded, “We were watchin’ TV last night, and I went to the kitchen to get us a snack, and he changed the channel – which he knows he’s not supposed to do.  I have the remote restricted to the few channels we watch at night, but I do have the news networks on the list.   He turned it to CNN Headline News and got freaked out by what he saw.   Sometimes I just don’t know what to tell him.”

          Even though they were Linked, Darren didn’t just look.   It was a common courtesy they all gave one another.

          “What did he see?”

          “There’s a hostage situation over in the Middle East and a terrorist group is saying they’re gonna’ cut off the heads of the hostages unless their demands are met.  The family members of the hostages were readin’ prepared statements asking for mercy for their sons’ lives.  It’s heavy shit for a five year old to see.  They showed blurry still shots from a video that was taken a few weeks ago of some reporters gettin’ beheaded.    They had the graphic warnin’ before they showed the pictures, but I wasn’t in the room and Drew saw them.  You couldn’t see any details but he was really upset.

          “I mean, fuck Dar, with what he’s already seen – he’s even been face to face with The Master, and thank God that fucker didn’t know or realize who he was or we wouldn’t be here, but he doesn’t need to see shit like that.  How do you explain Evil to a five year old?  Between Doug and The Master he’s seen more Evil and cruelty than most people do in a lifetime, so he knows that it’s out there but… I don’t know.  I did the best I could to try to explain things to him… but he told me you guys could save them.  I’m trying to teach him how to make good choices and that we need to be good people… but the ‘it’s not our problem/Free Will’ answer really confused him.

          “I know what the doctor says about not getting involved in political issues… and how y’all aren’t supposed to interfere with Free Will… but that part Drew doesn’t understand.  I kinda’ want to be out there with him right now even though I don’t know what to tell him.  I don’t want Sally to have to field stuff like that either.  It’s my job as his dad.”

          Darren sat there in silence for a few seconds and lowered his head, “Fuck.”

          There was no humor in Henry’s voice as he chuckled and said, “Yeah, tell me about it.”

          Henry and Darren were sitting on a mat on the gym floor and were supposed to be going through their Mental disciplines, but they hadn’t started yet because of the conversation.  Henry had his head lowered in thought when suddenly he felt a powerful, cold wave of anxiety come off Darren.  Darren’s entire body convulsed slightly when it hit him.  They were tightly connected to help each other through their exercises, and it hit Henry hard - almost as hard as it hit Darren.

          Darren’s eyes flashed white, and Henry saw the hair on Darren’s arms rise up as Goosebumps covered his body, and the trembling in his body got worse.  

          Henry’s head shot up in surprise, and he leaned forward and gripped Darren’s strong shoulder in concern: Darren!?  What’s wrong?

          Darren knew everyone was in the middle of their exercises, and he didn’t want to jar any of them with what he felt, so he sent out the equivalent of a mental ‘711’ that would hit the triggers they had all set up to stop what they were doing and Link immediately.

          At the speed of thought Darren felt everyone join with him – their comforting presence flooded into the Link surrounding their two Brothers.  They all felt the wave of anxiety that Darren was still experiencing; it wasn’t incapacitating, but it was visibly affecting him, and they could see how his body was reacting.  Pat was at his side in a flash, wrapping his big arms around his lover in a protective manner as he poured himself into Darren to try and counteract the feelings. 

          Brad, not intruding into the bond Pat and Darren shared, reached into Darren’s Mind and he separated and then walled the anxiety off inside of him – it was still there and powerful, but now distant.  The relief Darren felt was visible to all of them.

          Ken:  Dar? What triggered that?

          Darren instinctively shared the memory of his conversation with Henry about Drew.  He intuitively knew it was relevant, but he still wasn’t sure specifically what set his Avatar off. 

          Lane’s eyes turned white as soon as Darren shared the memory.  His energy centers erupted, and his Avatar flared brightly on the big ball of his shoulder.  A hot wind whipped his hair, and his handsome face went still as he began to speak - and the voice that came out of his mouth wasn’t his own, it was The Masters! The voice was deep and echoed with Power.

          “I so wished to meet all of you.  Your reputation precedes you.  It’s too bad you weren’t in time to save your friend Greg.  The absence of his life in yours is but one small sting you will feel.  You may have rescued the others, but they are not beyond my reach forever.  And there are others in your lives, your past lives, that you don’t even know about.  But I do, and they will also perish; horribly and painfully and not even knowing why.”

          Lane felt the Power coursing through him and knew what he said was as much a memory as a Vision.  They all remembered The Master uttering those words in the basement after evacuating Sally, Liz, Drew, Henry, and the Keenans from their imprisonment - the day their friend Greg Rawlins was killed by The Master.

          Brad’s Intellect was absorbing everything, and the pieces of the puzzle began forming in his Mind. 

          Brad: Guy’s get into the Conference room stat.

 

<><><> 

 

          As they all rushed out of the Lab, Ken reached out with his Mind:  Doc!  Albrecht!  We have a situation.  Can you both come into the Conference room?

          The doctor and Albrecht felt his urgency and stopped what they were doing immediately and rushed to join them.  The doctor’s office was physically close to the Conference room so everyone arrived at nearly the same time.

          Brad brought the doctor and Albrecht into their Link and shared everything that had transpired in the last few minutes. Also, as soon as Brad entered the Conference room the Operations Board came to life, and the input switched to the outside cable feed.  He changed the channel to CNN Headline News – it was all with his Mind and happened in a flash. 

          The hostage story was still running just as it was the previous night.  In fact Henry could tell it was a recorded loop, so there must not have been any significant developments overnight.

          The father of one of the hostages was reading a prepared letter, asking the terrorists to have mercy on his son.  The name at the bottom of the screen read “Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Kent Peterson.”

          Bill exclaimed, “Holy shit Kev!  That’s Craig!”

          Off to one side, standing beside the man’s wife was Craig Peterson, the young Marine ROTC Cadet that Bill and Kevin met the morning they visited the Orphanage.

          “Guys he was driving a panel truck picking up donated toys in our neighborhood, and someone hit his truck while we were out jogging.”

          The camera panned back and they could see the other families standing off to the side of the podium.

          A few of the men looked familiar - Brad, Lane, Loy, Darren, and Bill all had the same feeling.  Their memories were perfect since the Program, but it had been nearly twenty-two years since they had seen any of the men on TV in person, and they had all changed significantly.

          Brad said under his breath, “Hampton!”

          Ken asked, “Hampton?”

          Recognition flooded into Brad and the other Mentalists as he said, “Yeah Hampton.  You remember Hampton and his goon squad Ken - the guys I had that run in with at the base gym.”

          The memories came back to Ken – his memory wasn’t perfect like Brad’s, but he and Brad had relived those memories on a special night the year before of when Ken and Brad had first met and were struggling so hard with their relationship just before either one of them had come out to the other but were already in love. 

          Henry felt a little lost – he could tell the guys obviously knew the man on TV, and it sounded like they served together in the Navy, but it didn’t sound like they had been on good terms.  Being Linked with them, Henry was getting strong waves of emotional memory, and the prevalent feeling was that the guy on TV was a total asshole.

          Brad could see the look of confusion on Henry’s face, and he pulled Henry down deep with him and Ken in a private Link – Deep enough that Time nearly stood still for the three of them.

          Even though Brad and Ken had completely merged with Henry, he didn’t know or remember every detail of their lives.  The longer he spent with them the more he would pick up – but he knew them down to their core as far as who they were as men.  They had shared many memories with him, and he with them, but there was still a lifetime of details they had yet to learn about one another.  Brad shared the memory of when he and Ken first met, and the near disaster that followed as they struggled in their early relationship during the first months after Doctor Thompson had changed them.

          Henry was still blown away with the Time differential.  He relived the memories Brad shared as a viewer from both their perspectives – he spent the equivalent of weeks inside of their lives, feeling everything they did and hearing their thoughts and living their struggles with each other.  The experience brought him that much closer to both of them in their intimate friendship.

          Henry saw Hampton and his cohorts and the incident that Brad had with them when they hit him with the folded metal chair after he knocked Hampton out, and the other four holding Brad down and beating him badly.

          He felt Ken’s anger both inside the memory and the fresh emotion from viewing it again.  He saw where Ken had balled up the metal chair like tinfoil and launched it at the fleeing men.

          Henry saw the faces of all five men, and he now knew the names of the ‘goon squad’.  He also now knew each one of his Brothers’ birth names.  With everything he just learned, it struck him, as well as Ken and Brad,that his prevalent thought was:  Damn how long did it take you to get used to a new name?

          Ken had to chuckle and thought:  Yeah it was a bitch for me.  Blondie here didn’t have an issue.  Sometimes that perfect memory pisses me off.

          Brad grinned:  Yeah Ken… remember that time at 12:32pm eighteen years ago when you…

          Ken:  Fuck.  See what I mean Henry?

          Henry:  Damn!  And I thought women were bad about pullin’ that shit.  I feel for ya brother.

          Brad looked at Henry and winked as he thought:  Just wait Henry… your turn’ll come.

          Brad brought them back up and no time had passed.  Henry blinked and was in awe of the subtle power and complexity of Brad’s abilities.  Brad sent one more private thought to Henry:  Don’t worry Henry you’ll be doing much the same thing soon enough.  You just started yesterday – give yourself a little time, and we’ll have you running circles around the Enemy ‘suits’ in no time.

 

<><><> 

 

          Kevin had a frown on his handsome face as he said, “You guys have no idea how many times I wanted to kick that guy’s ass.  Man he was a jerk.”

          Darren chuckled and said, “At least Bry and Lane got him good – the whole bunch of them.  That was classic.”

          Even though the situation was serious they all had grins on their faces at the memory and again Henry was clueless.  Lane noticed Henry’s confusion and said, “They pulled a stunt with me and it pissed Bry off.  We snuck into their rooms in the barracks and rubbed their underwear down with habanero peppers.  That blistered their balls, and they walked funny for a week.”

          Henry laughed at that, but he also made a mental note not to piss Bryan off.

          Ken pulled everybody back on track by asking, “So what do you guys think is goin’ on?  Do you think The Master is goin’ after them because we knew them when we were in the Navy?”

          Darren said, “Ken that has to be it.  When Henry told me what Drew saw it triggered my Avatar pretty intensely.  And the fact that Bill and Kevin met one of their kids recently… it’s that whole coincidence thing again.  We can practically see the puppet strings being pulled.”

          Lane said, “Yeah it’s a trap.  But He knows we won’t sit back and let those kids die because their fathers knew us.  This isn’t just an issue of Free Will where we aren’t supposed to get involved.  This time there’s a direct connection to us.”

          Ken looked at the doctor, who had been silent so far, “Sir?  What do you think?”

          The doctor said, “That it is a trap.  And it is tragic, but not unexpected for The Enemy to do something like this.  I feel responsible – if I had covered your disappearance more thoroughly this would not have happened.”

          Albrecht frowned when the doctor said that and was about to comment, but Ken cut him off, “Pardon me sir but that’s bullshit.  You couldn’t find every person that we ever came in contact with in the Navy and wipe their memories.  It was amazing that you made all evidence of us disappear the way you did.  This is NOT your fault!”

          Albrecht looked grateful for Ken’s comments and nodded his appreciation.

          Ken continued, “We know it’s a trap, so we go in careful and aware.   We ran missions in Syria, but we weren’t Awake or aware of The Order back then.  Sir, what can you tell us about the Enemy in that part of the world?”

          It was Albrecht who responded, “There is more of the Old World in that region than any place on Earth, Ken.  There are many Evil creatures that have dominion over small areas there.  The strife in that region of the world is no coincidence.  The Master has Dominion over those creatures even though many of them are not human.  You will have to be extremely careful…it is most likely a Nephelem or a Fallen Angel that is ultimately responsible.  It would be best to go in by stealth, rescue the hostages, and get out with no supernatural confrontation – or at least as little as possible.  That may not be possible, but that should be your goal.”

          Ken put on his Captain’s voice and said, “OK.  Guys we’re now on mission status.  Henry, you and Sally will stay here in the Lab to help with remote Operations.  Henry, you’ll be Drew’s primary protection while we’re gone, so stay sharp.  The doc and Albrecht are here and don’t hesitate to lean on them if you need too, and try to stick to your trainin’ schedule as much as possible while were gone.  No slackin’.”  He winked at Henry when he said that, but he was serious about the training. 

 

<><><> 

 

          For the next few hours they strategized and laid out their approach.  There would be a strong possibility of exposure if things escalated inadvertently, and they worked on multiple contingency plans.  Henry was in awe of their combat and tactical experience and how they planned everything in such minute detail.  All of them asked Henry numerous questions about the Enemy and truly wanted his opinion about a number of issues. 

          Even though his memories were difficult, Henry shared whatever they asked, knowing it might help them.  They knew some of the questions made him uncomfortable, but he did his best to answer everything they asked.  He really felt like he was part of the Team and contributing.

          The first thing they were going to do was head to Washington, DC where the families of the hostages were gathered for security reasons.  They needed to find out what Intel the Government had gathered about the situation and would then fine tune the specifics of the rescue based on that information.

          The news feed ran in the background on mute while they strategized, and there was finally an update just before lunch.  Sally had ordered subs from Jimmy John’s for all of them and while they were eating they listened to the update.   To keep her budding computer skills sharp, Sally had started a database of all the Team and their food preferences as well as all the food establishments that delivered to the Lab.   How she managed to help the doctor, teach Drew, keep the Lab clean, and help them with meals throughout the day was a mystery to them.  As often as they ate, the meals alone should have kept her busy.

          They knew she wasn’t their maid or responsible for feeding them, but she had always done it when she looked after them at TGH Securities, and she continued that role in the Lab.  She definitely enjoyed doing it – when she merged with them they could see she really didn’t mind, and the fact that she could see how much they appreciated it, and more importantly didn’t expect it of her, made her want to do it all that much more.  They never wanted her to feel belittled by forcing a silly gender role on her of ‘keeping the menfolk fed.’  She had just put Drew down for a nap and came into the Conference room to help clear off the leftovers of their meal when she saw the new updates on CNN.

          The terrorists had made a new video that was leaked on YouTube – the video hadn’t been verified by the Pentagon yet but it was going viral.  The leader of the terrorist group had his head covered and wrapped so only his eyes were visible.  The video panned across a street somewhere in Syria and it showed the five hostages with sacks over their heads, all lined up on their knees.  They were tied hand and foot with their arms behind them, and it looked as if they had been badly beaten – there was a significant amount of blood on their clothes, and bruises and welts were clearly visible through the shreds of their tattered uniforms.  According to CNN two of the men were Marines and the other three were Army. 

          The military hadn’t wanted to publically release the names of the hostages but an overzealous reporter snuck into the media area where the families were gathered and managed to ascertain their identities.  It was only a matter of time anyway because the families insisted, against military advisement, on making public statements.  The names of the men were PFC Rich Hampton, PFC Guy Caulfield, L.Cpl. Jacob Peterson, PFC Caleb Donaldson, and SPC Nathan Cochran.

          The terrorist leader screamed that if the President didn’t stop all air strikes against them, they would kill one hostage a day beginning the following morning at sunrise – it would be death by beheading, and the bodies would be desecrated in unspeakable ways. 

          Their blood boiled at seeing fellow servicemen in their predicament.  Anger flared through the Link and drove home the sense of urgency they needed to get moving.

          Ken said, “OK guys enough planning.  We have the basics down, and we’ll just have to improvise as we go and gather more Intel.  Y’all are the best and we’re gettin’ those guys out safe.   Darren send us all back to our houses… everybody pack the clothes you’ll need.  Pull us all back here in fifteen minutes, and we’ll get the gear we need from here.  We’re goin’ in heavy so pack what you need but make it light.  We’ll store everythin’ at the Aussie Bunker – after we hit DC it’ll be closer.  Hit it guys.”

          Darren’s eyes turned white as he opened up their energy centers – Henry saw the white ribbon of power flowing between them.  He stayed in the Link to contribute to the energy needed to teleport them, and he felt it as their Avatars synchronized and they vanished.  He was still Linked with them, and now felt them at a distance - they were at the limit of his current range, but Brad had assured him he would be getting stronger every day as he stretched himself in training.

 

<><><> 

 

          An hour later they were in Arlington, VA in a building next door to the Pentagon.  They felt the presence of the Enemy as soon as they appeared – it wasn’t strong like it was in Australia but it was enough for them to feel it, and it didn’t surprise them at all.

          Ken, Bryan, Kevin, Patrick, and Rick were masking the Auras of themselves and their partners in case they had to split up. 

          The building they were in was where the families of the hostages were waiting – there was a media center where the News networks handled interviews, and the families were fed information as it became available and was deemed appropriate to pass on.

          General Votel was in charge of Special Operations and was overseeing the affair State-side.

          The Mentalists kept up external Constructs to give them full access D.O.D. Nametags, and they used their Avatars working in conjunction with one another to get past any security checkpoints into and throughout the building.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig’s older brother Jacob was the main reason he decided to join the ROTC and planned on becoming a Marine as soon as he graduated from college - he planned on going in as an Officer. When he received the news that Jacob was being held hostage, Craig was so scared for his older brother he didn’t know what to do.  He immediately contacted his advisor on campus who handled everything at school – he would receive an ‘Incomplete’ in all his classes which meant he would have to take them again but wouldn’t receive a failing grade, and it would give him the time he needed to be with his family and not interfere with school until the issue was resolved.

          He was trying to put on a strong front for his mom and dad, but when he had a few minutes by himself he would start to shake he was so scared.  It wasn’t just the fact that Jacob was probably going to die – he knew that the US Government had a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and he realized what that meant for his brother and the other hostages.  Logically he understood the policy – but this was his brother Jake, and suddenly it made a difference.  What really scared him was the way Jake would die…bound helpless and having his head cut off.  Craig had watched the uncensored videos of the journalists that had been beheaded weeks before, and he could still hear their screams.

          Taking a bullet or getting blown up by a bomb…at least that would be quick, but the thought of what Jake would feel made him sick to his stomach in fear for his brother.  He needed a distraction to keep himself from dwelling on the bad thoughts. 

          “Mom, you want me to get you and Dad a cup of coffee?  There’s a vending machine just down the hall.”

          His mother was in a fog – probably on Valium he thought – and he had to repeat himself.  She never had done well with Jake being on tour overseas and had started taking them again.  When Jake was stationed in Afghanistan she barely slept the entire time.  She really freaked out when Craig made his decision to join the Marines himself, but at least he was still in college for a few more years before he was going in.

          He felt bad that his mother didn’t deal with it well, but it was something he felt he had to do.  And he wanted his father and Jake to be proud of him.  His dad had been in the Navy and wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps – he had been a bit of an asshole about them not going into the Navy, but once he settled down he was proud in his own way.  Craig always thought his father was more proud of the bragging rights to his buddies than he actually was of his two son’s serving their country.

          “Thank you, sweetheart.  Do you need any money?”

          “No Mom, I’ve got it.  I’ll be back in a few minutes, I’m going to run to the bathroom while I’m out there.”

          “Remember honey, don’t talk to any reporters.”

          “I know, Ma.  I won’t, I promise.”

          Craig made his way out of the area they were in and down the hall.  He went to the bathroom and sure enough there was a reporter who tried to corner him, but he said “no comment”, repeatedly, just as he had been instructed.  The reporter was pushy, but Craig stuck to his guns – he almost lost his temper, but he didn’t want to cause a scene, so he left as quickly as he could.

          He was standing at the vending machine trying to figure out how it worked – it was a lot more complicated than the ones on campus, and he had just enough money to get three cups, one each for himself and his mom and dad.  He didn’t want to screw up – his dad was so picky he would be sure to let Craig know if he got it wrong.

          Craig.

          There were lots of people milling about in the hallway, and he glanced around when he heard his name but he didn’t see anybody.

          Craig.

          He looked around again and noticed a big handsome man looking right at him a little ways down the hall – he looked familiar.  It took him a second because Kevin was now cleanly dressed and not sweaty and wearing running shorts.  He had no idea how or why Kevin could be here, but he smiled and nodded a greeting.  With the noise in the hall it didn’t register with him that he had heard the voice in his Mind and not with his ears.

          Kevin gave a slight jerk of his head, indicating he wanted Craig to come over to him. 

          Craig had a curious look on his face as he made his way down the hall.  He hoped Kevin wasn’t a reporter but as he got closer he realized the laminated ID card at his waste had the D.O.D. logo.  His eyes went a little wide at that.

          As soon as he got close he held his hand out, and he felt Kevin’s solid grip in his own.  Kevin’s other hand went to his shoulder and gave him a gentle squeeze of comfort.

          Kevin said, “Hey Craig.  I’m so sorry about what’s goin’ on with your brother and the other guys.  Do you have a second?  I need to talk to you privately.”

          “I’m supposed to be getting coffee for my mom and dad, so I can’t be long.”

          “It’s important Craig.  It’s about Jacob.”

          Craig’s curiosity was on fire, and he felt conflicted, but Kevin seemed like such a nice guy when he helped him collect the toys in the street after the wreck.  Craig had some inexplicable sense that he could trust Kevin completely.

          “Is the other guy here with you?  Bill?”

          “Yeah he’s waiting for us along with a few other friends. Follow me.  I promise it won’t take long.”

          Kevin kept his hand on Craig’s shoulder as he turned and guided them just down the corridor to a door that was labeled ‘Conference Room 1.’

          In reality the door was a large walk-in supply closet where Bill was waiting.  Bill was keeping up a Compulsion for no one else to enter.  As soon as Kevin and Craig walked in Brad took everyone deep into a Construct of the ‘Conference Room’ – Craig was completely unaware of the transition.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig stopped as he saw the nine other big handsome men looking at him.  He recognized Bill, who stood to take his hand.

          Bill Read him when they shook hands just to make sure he was free of any influence of the Enemy.

          He’s Clean guys.

          “Hey Craig – it’s great to see you again, I just wish it was under different circumstances.”

          “Thanks Bill.”  Craig was nervous and didn’t understand what was going on.  He looked back to Kevin and said, “You said this was about Jake?”

          Ken stood up to shake Craig’s hand, “Hey Craig, I’m Ken.  We’re taking a huge chance by involving you, and I don’t want to put you in any danger, but we need your help.  We’re here to extract Jacob and the others.”

          Craig’s eyes got wide, and he looked at Kevin and asked quietly, “Who are you guys?”

          Ken answered, “We’re friends, Craig.  And there’s a lot more going on here than you or most people realize.  Before I go any further I need you to promise me that whatever you hear or see in the next few minutes goes no further.  No one, not even Jacob, can know about us.  Can you promise me that?”

          Craig’s mind was racing, and he didn’t know what to do.  He was really frightened now – what was Jake involved in?

          Brad was monitoring Craig’s thoughts and said, “Jake’s not involved in anything covert Craig.  As far as we know he’s not in special forces.”

          “Then why are you guys here?  What does this mean?  And why is this in secret?”

          Ken smiled trying to put Craig at ease, “All good questions Craig.  You’re gonna’ make a fine officer.  You’re keepin’ your wits about you in a difficult situation.  I mean no disrespect when I say that for a young man of your age you’re handlin’ everythin’ extremely well.”

          Kevin, with his hand still on Craig’s shoulder, turned him to make eye contact, “Craig, we’re the only hope Jake and the others have of getting out of this situation alive, but we need your help.  We’re taking a huge risk by doing this, so we need you to promise us that whatever you see and hear of us goes no further.  No one can know we’re here.  I don’t mean to frighten you, but there are people in the military, in the room with your parents right now that are working with the terrorists who have your brother.  This is a no win situation for Jake unless we step in.  I know this is a lot to take in but please, for your brother’s sake, we need your promise.”

          Craig started to panic as Kevin was talking, and he almost shouted, “Are my mom and dad in danger?”

          Ken said, “Not at the moment, but they will be if we’re successful.    There’s a lot going on here from many years ago Craig.  This is actually about your dad, and the fathers of the other four men who are being held.  It all stems back to their time together in the Navy.”

          “I don’t understand.”  Craig was feeling more than a little overwhelmed.  Brad looked deeper into Craig’s memories hoping to find something that would help.  He found the memory he was looking for.

          Brad said, “Remember your promise to Jake, Craig.  He made you promise to keep your mom and dad safe and be brave.  You told him you want to serve your country and make this world a better place.  That’s what you’ll be doing if you keep your promise to us – you’ll be helping your parents and making the world a better place.  I can’t explain more just yet, but remember your words to him Craig.”

          Craig’s eyes got wide and he whispered, “How could you know that?  No one heard me say those words but Jake.”

          Lane had his usual mischievous grin on his face and said, “You might be too young to remember the Transformers Craig, but just like the theme song, there’s more to us than meets the eye.  Rest easy Craig – we’re the good guys, and we’re here to get your brother back safe.”

          Craig’s brain was in overdrive as he was trying to absorb everything these men were saying.  They had to be some sort of special operations group – the kind that you never knew existed.  It sounded like a movie, but they were right in front of him.  And there was something about them – it wasn’t just their solid presence or their clean cut hyper military appearance that put him at ease; it was something deeper that he felt, something he couldn’t explain.  Each one of them epitomized what it meant to be a soldier – strong body, square jaw, ruggedly handsome, intelligent, and kind but stern; but it went beyond that – they made him feel positive and good in a strange way, and he knew he could trust them.

           Craig and Jacob had a difficult childhood. Their father, Len, had come close to being dishonorably discharged from the Navy.  He was an alcoholic and was drunk through most of their early upbringing.  It was Jake, in his teenage years that convinced their father to sober up.  Jake had been more of a father to Craig than Len – and Jake taught him what he knew about being a man and being honorable.  “Your word is all you have in this world Craig,” he would say, “You have to learn to keep your word no matter what.”

          As if they were reading his mind Ken said, “I trust you to keep your word if you give it to us Craig.  So what do you say?”

          Craig slowly put out his hand for Ken to take and said, “I promise, Sir.  I won’t say a thing, not even to Jake.  What can I do to help?”

          Ken smiled and said, “Good man!  Now, here’s what we need you to do….”

 

<><><> 

 

          Kevin and Bill escorted Craig back to the vending machine and patted his shoulder.   

          “Don’t worry Craig – stick to the plan and everything will be fine.  Just get the General isolated for a few minutes, and say exactly what we told you.”

          Kevin, with the part of his Avatar that came from Pat, looked at the vending machine and Understood exactly how it worked and the intricacies of the mechanisms inside it.    Bill saw everything through Kevin and he reached out with his Mind inside the machine and before Craig went back to his mom and dad he had two cups of hot coffee just like they liked them with the perfect amount of cream and sugar, and one hot coco for himself with extra chocolate.

          Kevin winked at him and said, “On the house.  I think the US Government can afford 3 drinks, don’t you?”

          Kevin and Bill turned and walked back down the hallway, and Craig lost sight of them almost immediately in the hustle and bustle of all the people milling about.  It was almost as if they disappeared.

          He took a deep breath, wondering again who they could possibly be.  They seemed to know everything about him and Jake, even secrets that no one could possibly know.  But he trusted them, and if they could help Jake, then he would do whatever they asked.

          He made his way back in with the drinks and said, “Sorry that took so long ma.  There was a line.”

          She looked at him funny and said, “But dear you were only gone a minute.  And thank you for getting this for your father and me; that was very thoughtful of you.”

          He hadn’t looked at his watch before he left to get the coffee, but he knew he had to have been gone at least fifteen minutes talking with Kevin and Bill and the other men.

 

<><><> 

 

          Kevin looked at Ken and thought:  Fuck I hope he’s going to be OK.  This place is crawling with Enemy Agents. 

          Ken:  He’ll do fine Kev.  We need the Intel, and we can’t just take on everyone here.  Well, we could, but then Jacob and the others would be dead before we could get to them.  He’ll get the General by himself, and then we can get what we need from him.  He won’t suspect anything from Craig.

          Brad:  I have a shield on Craig – if the General turns out to be an Agent and tries anything with Craig it will be diverted to me.  I have a Construct of Craig’s Mind already built just in case.

          Lane did his Samuel Jackson Impression:  Check out the big brain on Brad!

          Brad shot him a bird as they grinned at one another. 

          They all continued to chat, and if anyone didn’t know them it would seem like they didn’t have a care in the world and were just hanging out together.  But they were all focused and precise and ready for whatever came their way. 

          Ken felt proud of all of them, and he was confident they could handle whatever might come up.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig covered his nervousness well.  He waited and it seemed like forever before he saw General Votel again.  The General had only addressed Craig and his family once – he seemed like an arrogant and cold man and spent as little time with the families as possible.  Craig’s father Len and the fathers of the other hostages all seemed extremely nervous around him – Craig assumed it was because they had all been low ranking enlisted men, and a Four Star General intimidated them.

          The General went into one of the Conference rooms attached to the media center they were waiting in along with his senior staff and aides.  Craig hovered by the door hoping their meeting wouldn’t last long. 

          He knew it was breaking protocol to approach the General directly, but that was part of the plan.  When the door finally opened, the General was one of the first men out the door, and Craig practically pounced on him, “General Votel sir!  May I have a word with you?”

          He spoke loud enough to be heard by anyone close by, so the General couldn’t outright ignore him.  He turned towards Craig with a scowl on his face and said irritably, “What is it, son?”

          The General’s top aide tried to intervene and said, “The General is a busy man, Cadet.  I’ll have someone come find you momentarily.”

          Craig was persistent and looking directly at the General he said, “Sir it’s private – and very important.”

          The General, not used to being pushed, was furious, and he blurted out, “More important than the lives of your brother and the other men?”

          Craig always had a temper and had to work hard to keep in check.  He knew he was being impertinent, but he was so angry towards the General’s attitude he didn’t care.  Craig straightened his shoulders and glared at the General and said evenly, “What I have to say General is for your ears only.  It’s not only private but a matter of security.  If you want me to spill the beans in front of everyone here I’ll gladly do that if it means helping my brother.”

          Craig knew he had made a small scene and he could see his father Len turning ten shades of red in embarrassment, but Len’s fear of the General was apparently stronger than his desire to support his son, so in typical fashion Len left his youngest son hanging out to dry.

          The General’s face was a storm cloud, but he pointed back at the door to the Conference room and said, “Two minutes!”  His aide started to follow, and the General cut him off with a sharp motion of his arm.  The aide looked surprised, and Craig saw a look of almost uncontrolled fury cross his face for a split second before he got himself under control.  It happened so fast that Craig thought he might have imagined it.

          Craig was taught as a wire now that it came down to it.  Doubts about trusting Kevin and the other men were racing through his mind.  What they wanted him to do seemed so insanely crazy he was having second thoughts about it all.

          He walked into the Conference room and heard the door close behind them.

          The General was glaring at him and said tightly, “What’s so important, son?  It better be good, or your days as a Marine will be over before they ever get off the ground!”

 

<><><> 

 

          Brad was monitoring Craig, and through him everyone else.  Kevin had his Avatar synchronized with Ken’s, Bryan’s, Rick’s, and Patrick’s to make sure their presence was invisible and undetectable – not just inside Craig’s Mind but in the building.

          They felt Craig having second thoughts, but the young man pulled himself together.  He made them a promise, and he would stick to the plan no matter how unorthodox it seemed.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig took a deep breath to steady his nerves and just before he opened his mouth the door abruptly opened and the General’s aide, Major Tidwell, came in.

          General Votel, already irritated with Craig, and not used to being disobeyed turned on his aide and said, “Major Tidwell I thought I made it clear I didn’t want to be disturbed!?”

          Major Tidwell glanced at Craig and then at General Votel.  His eyes turned white, and Brad felt the control he tried to exert on Craig – it went against the Construct of Craig’s Mind that Brad had built, so as far as Tidwell knew Craig was being held.

          Craig went wide eyed and he felt the brunt of …something…brush against his Mind.  It was like nothing he had ever felt before, and it scared him to death.  Whatever it was it felt cold – not physically cold, but it sent a shiver down his Soul.

          Brad:  I’ve got you Craig.  We’re not going to let anything happen to you.

          Ken and the others weren’t expecting such a direct move by any Enemy Agent – they always worked in the shadows and behind the scenes, but Brad was ready, and while he protected Craig’s Mind he knew the others wouldn’t let anything physically happen to Craig. If the situation somehow turned violent Kevin could be there in seconds and if it really came down to it, they could teleport him out of the room even if it meant blowing their cover.

          Craig heard Kevin’s voice in his Mind:  Craig, don’t move a muscle.  I’ll explain soon, but for now just hold perfectly still.  Major Tidwell thinks he has you under his control, and he needs to believe that he does.  If you move, he’ll know it’s not working.  We’re with you, and you’re safe. Just hold still and listen.

          Craig not only heard their voices but he felt their presence in his Mind, and it confused him, but it felt the opposite of whatever Major Tidwell just tried to do to him.  Kevin’s presence, and Brad’s, had a warmth about them that was comforting, especially compared to what he felt from Major Tidwell.

          Major Tidwell sneered and his voice was filled with contempt as he turned back to the General and said, “Shut up, Votel.”

          The General blustered and looked like he was about to bellow when Tidwell’s eyes flashed white again, and the General paled.  “Yes General, I’m from Them.  Did you really think we weren’t keeping tabs on you with something so important going on?  We can’t let you ruin our plans.”

          “What plans?”

          “There’s no way you’re going to authorize a spec ops mission to rescue the hostages.”

          The General wasn’t an Enemy Agent, but he had been in their pocket most of his career.  They seldom interfered with him, and he always gave them whatever it was they required of him – and in return his career blossomed, as did his personal wealth.  He knew they could take everything away from him in an instant if it suited their purposes, and he was terrified – he was more afraid of losing his rank and money than he was trying to save the soldiers who had been captured.

          “Fine.  I’ll take care of it.  What about the boy?”

          “What did he want?”

          “I don’t know… you barged in before he got to ask me anything.”

          “I’m sure it has something to do with The Order.  I know he was in contact with two of their new Warriors recently.  I can still smell their stench on him.  It’s a good thing I came in before you gave him any information.”

          “I wasn’t going to tell him anything, Tidwell!  He made a scene in front of the reporters outside, and I had to give him his little meeting.  I was handling the situation just fine.”

          Craig was doing his best to remain still but it was hard – not only staying physically inactive, but hearing what these two men were saying.  The General had no intention of rescuing Jake or the others!  Who did this Tidwell guy work for that the General was so afraid of?  Kevin said his parents would be in danger once Jake and the others were rescued.  Craig’s Mind was spinning with all the questions.

          “Pull your men out of Baiji, General.  I don’t want any overzealous SEAL’s trying to be heroic and going against your orders.  I need those hostages alive long enough to spring our trap, and then the lives of the hostages are forfeit.”

          The General knew better than to ask about any details of whatever trap Tidwell was talking about, but he did ask, “Is it necessary to kill all of them?”

          Tidwell laughed and said, “Don’t tell me you’re finally feeling a seed of patriotism after all these years General?  I’d hate to think you’re getting soft.  Just to be sure of your loyalties you need to take care of this boy and the families for us.  After the media circus has run its course, you will arrange for all their deaths.  Wipe their bloodlines from the face of the earth.”

          Kevin knew that Craig was going to panic when he heard that so he spoke again:  Craig you’re doin’ great.  Don’t worry, we won’t let anything happen to your family or the others.  This didn’t happen like we planned, but we got what we need to know. We’ll let this scene play out until you’re back outside with your family, and then I need you to meet me back at the vending machine.

          Tidwell looked at Craig and said, “I will make him think he had his little meeting, and you told him that you were doing everything possible to recover his brother and the other hostages.  Whatever it was he was concerned about turned out to be inconsequential.   He will wake up five seconds after I shut the door behind me.”

          Major Tidwell left the room, and sure enough Brad felt the hold inside his Construct of Craig’s Mind disappear.  As soon as the Compulsion lifted Kevin thought:  Craig you can move again.  Thank the General for his time.  Stay calm buddy, and act normal.

          Craig was completely freaked out by everything that was happening, but he held himself together and he said, “Thanks for your time General.  I appreciate it sir, and I’m sorry if I bothered you.  I know you’re doing everything you can to rescue my brother and the others.”

          The General was scared after discovering his aide was working for the Enemy.  He didn’t like being so closely monitored – and now they wanted him to arrange for the deaths of five families!  He knew he would have to do it.   His bruised ego made him want to exert his authority, and Craig was in front of him so he yelled, “If you ever do anything like this again Cadet, I will ruin your career.  I don’t want to see you or hear anything you have to say – if you have any more bright ideas, keep them to yourself.  You’re the bottom of the food chain here and not worth my time.  Now get your ass back out there, and sit with your family, and keep to yourself.”

          Craig swallowed hard, and even though his anger flared back up he was scared – the General really could ruin his dream of becoming a Marine.

          Kevin:  Don’t worry Craig.  He’s a dick, and for now you need to focus on your family and your brother and put the old wind bag out of your mind.

          The General opened the door and Craig moved out first, moving over to his family.  His father, Len, started in on him right away, “What the hell were you thinking Craig?  Don’t you ever think about anyone but yourself? You need to learn your place, and it isn’t dealing with Majors and Generals.  You’ve always thought a lot of yourself, and it’s going to get you nothing but trouble.  You completely embarrassed your mother and me.”

          Craig was nearly in tears at his father’s words.  Kevin and all the guys were with Craig, and they felt Len’s words cut him down to his core.  They knew everything there was to know about Craig, and his father couldn’t be more wrong.  When Bill Read him as they shook hands they all knew everything there was to know about Craig – he was a solid young man and had good basic values that he surely didn’t get from his father.  Craig was human, and he wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t have nearly as much ugliness inside of him as so many people had.  They knew how much he loved his older brother and what a positive influence Jacob was in his life –apparently a far greater influence than Len.  Craig could so easily have turned out to be a carbon copy of his father, but he rose above his circumstances and was well on his way to being a fine young man.

          Craig looked down at his mother hoping to get some support, but she was completely zoned out on whatever sedative she had taken – the cup of coffee still in her hand untouched, teetering on the edge of her knee with her slack hand barely wrapped around it.  He reached down carefully and gently took it out of her hand, setting it on the small table in front of her.

          Kevin:  Craig come back out to the vending machine.

          Craig looked at his father – so different than the pictures of his days in the Navy.  He was now middle aged, missing most of his hair, and overweight.  He was a heart attack waiting to happen, and Craig hoped that the stress of the situation with Jacob didn’t push him over the edge.

          Brad’s Avatar was causing him a lot of discomfort as he witnessed the burdens Craig was carrying at such a young age – and still Craig’s main concerns were for his family and those around him.  His father always seemed to think the worst of him, and Craig had always thought the best.  The fear for his older brother came rushing back and with it his determination to help Kevin and his friends to bring his brother back safely into his life.

          Craig took a deep breath and said as calmly as he could, “I’m going to get some air dad.  I’ll be right back.  I’m sorry if I embarrass you.”

          He didn’t wait for his father’s reply and quickly left the room.

 

<><><> 

 

          Craig went back out into the hallway and when he turned the corner Kevin and Bill were standing by the coffee machine waiting for him.  Kevin held his arm out and as Craig walked up he put a fatherly arm over Craig’s shoulder.

          They went back to the door labeled ‘Conference Room 1’ and Kevin opened the door for Craig, keeping his hand on Craig’s shoulder as he guided him through the door – and back into Brad’s Construct of the Conference room.

          As soon as the door closed behind them, Craig let the emotions loose, and he started shaking.  He didn’t want to cry in front of Kevin and the others, and he was fighting the tears.  His desire not to appear weak in front of them was obvious through the Link.

          Kevin turned Craig around to face him and said, “Craig you did awesome.  We got the Intel we needed to find Jacob and the others.  You should be proud of yourself.

          “I’m going to go out on a limb here Craig, but it looks like you need a hug.  I know how stressful this whole situation is for you – but you rose to the occasion.  You played an important role in helping us, and Jacob and the others are in your debt.”

          As he continued to talk, Kevin pulled Craig against him.  Craig was a little reluctant at first, but after a brief hesitation he hugged Kevin back.  Jacob used to hug him when he was upset and he desperately needed it, even though he wouldn’t admit it.

          “Let me tell you something Craig.  I didn’t do nearly so well as you just did on my first mission.  You kept your head about you, and even though you were totally freaked out on the inside, you showed everyone what you’re made of.  And it’s OK to feel scared – being brave is about taking action and doing the right thing even when you feel that way.  Everyone’s scared buddy, and don’t think for a second it makes you less of a man because you feel that way.  And it’s OK to get a hug from a fellow soldier – you’ll learn you have to lean on the other men around you when you’re put in stressful situations.  That doesn’t make you less of a man either.

          “I’m going to go out on another limb.  I’ve known your father for a very long time.  He was a dick when I knew him, and he’s a dick now.  I know you care about him– he’s your father, and I get that, but don’t take his words to heart.  You and Jacob have each other, and if your brother is half the man I see you already are, you are all each other needs.  You’ll need to take care of your parents, but don’t let them rule your heart or the direction of your life.”

          Craig’s voice was a bit muffled with his face pressed against Kevin’s big frame but he said, “Thank you, sir.  I don’t know what to make of all this, but thanks for saying that.  I know my parents aren’t the best, but they’re all I have besides Jake.  I get what you mean though.”

          Kevin took Craig by his shoulders and held him out at arm’s length, smiling at him, and said “Good man.”

          Craig pulled back, and his eyes were watery, but he managed to stave off the tears.  He asked, “So who are you guys really?  How were you talking to me like you were?  I felt something inside my head… it’s hard to describe.”

          It was Ken who replied, “That’s a bit hard to explain right now Craig, and you’re safer not knowin’ too many details.  I don’t mean to scare you by sayin’ that, but for now it’s the truth.  We’ll tell you what we can after everyone’s safe.  Since we know Major Tidwell is an Enemy Agent, we need to move your family and the others before we get Jake and the rest of the hostages.”

          Brad continued, “Craig, your parents are tired and will want to go back to your hotel room to rest.  In fact all of the other families will be doing the same thing in the next few minutes.”

          Craig got a hint of a grin on his face and said, “And you know this … how?”

          Lane hummed the first line of the Transformers theme song and winked at Craig.  He said, “Trade secret – but it’s from a reliable source.”

          Brad continued, “When you get back to your rooms there will be instructions given to all of the families.  You’ll be changing hotels so you’ll need to pack everything and be ready.  We won’t have much time once they’ve discovered you’re gone.  Major Tidwell will put things together quickly once he realizes you’re all missing, so we have to get Jacob and the others free as quickly as we can.”

          Craig said, “But it’s going to take you a long time to get to Syria where Jake’s being held captive.  If you move us now, they could kill him before you can get to him!”

          Ken grinned and said, “You let us worry about that.  You’ll have a bit of a clue once we leave the hotel.  Now Craig, we still need your help.  You’ll need to help keep your parents and the other families calm once we move you and head out to rescue Jake and the others.  It will all happen fast so you’ll need to be ready.”

         

<><><> 

 

          When Craig returned to the waiting area, Len was in a circle talking with the other fathers.  Craig remembered seeing pictures of the five of them together when they were back in the Navy and knew they were close friends; he had heard all the stories from his father’s point of view.  Craig had his suspicions that the reality of those stories was very different from the drunken recollections he heard.   Mr. Hampton, always the ringleader of their circle, was the first one to decide he was beat and wanted to go back to the hotel and get some rest.  The other men agreed that it was a good idea, and one of the junior aides assigned to them made the arrangements.

          Craig’s mind was still racing, wondering who Kevin and the other guys were – how could they know his memories and talk inside his head?  He kept reminding himself it didn’t matter as long as they got Jake and the others out safe, but his curious mind wouldn’t let the thoughts go, and his imagination was running wild.  Regardless, he had a strong feeling he could trust them – which turned his mind to Major Tidwell and the General Votel.  They obviously couldn’t be trusted and were somehow connected to the terrorists.  How could the government be so corrupt?  His entire world view was now different after the events of the last few hours, and he was going to have to rethink things.

          An hour later, Craig was with his parents back in their hotel room not far from the Pentagon.  They had only been in the room for a few minutes when there was a knock on the door.  His father answered, and Craig could hear him speaking quietly with someone.  The conversation was short, and Len seemed agitated by whatever he had been told. When he shut the door he announced, “We have to move hotels guys.  There’s a security concern and we’re being relocated.  Everybody pack up fast.”

          The other families were in the same wing of the hotel, and they all started streaming out into the hallway about the same time.  It took a few trips in the elevator to get everyone plus the luggage downstairs and into the small ballroom they had been instructed to gather in.

 

<><><> 

         

          Ken decided to not hide their identities to Hampton and the families – Craig already knew who they were, and it would be more trouble than he wanted to deal with trying to cover everything.  If the situation turned ugly, they would resort to tampering with their memories but only as a last ditch effort.  The entire premise of The Order was based on giving man Free Will to make their own decisions, and he wanted the willing cooperation of the families. 

          Loy gave Ken the signal when all the families were gathered in the ballroom and waiting. 

          Ken:  This is gonna’ be interestin’ guys.  Let’s hope they don’t freak out completely.

          Brad:  Expect the worst, and hope for the best with these guys Ken. 

          Lane:  Hopefully they aren’t the same tools we remember, but from the way Craig’s dad was treating him I’m doubtful.

          Ken:  OK here goes nuthin’.  I want to make an impression. B you got us covered?

          Brad grinned: I’m on it.

 

<><><> 

 

          Ken, Brad, and the others all filed into the ballroom.  Brad made them all invisible with an external Construct and they positioned themselves around the seated families.  The chairs had been set up in the middle of the room so the families were all gathered together.

          All of the Team, as five couples stood side by side, holding hands when Brad dropped the Construct.  There were gasps of surprise and a little fear as they seemed to appear out of nowhere.

          With his typical false bravado Hampton stood up and was about to make a blustery exclamation, when his eyes landed on Brad and Ken and he did an immediate double take.  A look of disbelief crossed his face, and his eyes darted around to Lane and Bryan, and then around the group. 

          “Whetherson?  Dutcher? It can’t be you!  You haven’t changed a day… none of you have!  What’s going on!?”  He was starting to look frightened when Ken spoke.

          “I’m going to get right to the point Hampton.  You and your family…” Ken’s his eyes scanned all of them as he spoke, “… and the rest of you are all in a great deal of danger.  We’re here to offer our help and protect you, and we’re about to get your sons back for you and put you all someplace safe.  As difficult as it is to understand, your current lives are about to go on hold.  I’m sorry that it has to be that way, but you’ve landed in the middle of a fight you know nothing about.”

          Craig’s father Len spoke up, “Are you kidnapping us? I’m going to call the General and see what he has to say about this!”

          Craig spoke up, “The General is part of the problem, Dad.  He’s been ordered to kill all of us after Jake and the others are executed.”

          Len turned on his son and almost shouted, “Are you mixed up in this!?  How could you get involved in something like this and endanger your mother and me – and your brother!?”

          Kevin’s voice was hard, surprising Bill and even Ken, who had known Kevin longer than any of them.  Kevin was a very controlled individual and rarely ever let his anger out, but Len’s continued ill treatment of Craig pushed a button in him. 

          “Let me tell you something Peterson!  Your son is a brave man!  Not a KID… he’s already shown what kind of man he is by putting his life on the line to save his brother and the rest of you.  He’s already  more of a man than you ever were, and you will start treating him with a little more love and respect as of right now!  Do I make myself clear!?”

          There was a loud rumble of thunder in the skies of Washington, DC reflective of Kevin’s anger.  Kevin dropped his shields momentarily and Len Peterson could feel the anger coming off of him, and it shocked and scared him so bad he almost pissed in his pants.

          Ken:  Not helping Kev.

          Kevin: Sorry Ken, but I can’t stand seeing him treat his son that way.  He’s such as ass.

          Ken continued, “With Craig’s help we got the Intel we needed from the General to locate Jacob and the others. We’ll be extracting them in a few minutes after we get you all to safety.  Craig’s right about the General and Major Tidwell… we know there are others involved in this but those are the only two we’ve identified so far.  Which means you shouldn’t trust anyone in Washington right now except us.”

          Len looked pale and stared wide eyed at Kevin, but Hampton asked, “And why should we trust you?  How can you show up after all these years and look like you do?  What’s going on?”

          Ken replied, “We’ll explain more once we have Jacob and the others back.  One good reason you can trust us is that you’re still alive - we’re the good guys.  I told you, you’ve landed in a fight you know nothing about, and you don’t want to tangle with the bad guys without our help.”

          Craig spoke up, “I trust ‘em dad.  You should too.  Stop being a jerk, and let them get Jake back safe.  They have to get moving.”

          Craig glanced at Kevin and received a wink of reassurance and support.

          Brad asked, “Will you cooperate?  If you want our protection and our help you need to let us know.  We’re being honest with you – it will completely disrupt your lives, maybe for a few years, but you will get your sons back safe.  It’s going to be hard on you, but that’s the reality.  Our condition is you have to agree to cooperate – and we’ll know if you’re telling the truth.”

          Ken said, “We’ll give you five minutes to talk it over amongst yourselves.  After that, if anyone wants to leave they can.  We’ll get your sons back regardless, but if you refuse our help you’ll be on your own.”

 

<><><> 

 

          The scene that unfolded would have been comical if it had been under different circumstances.   All of the wives, including Craig’s mother, started soundly berating their husbands, and a few of the wives even hit their men in the arm or chest.  The general consensus was that their husbands were all being asses, and they needed to do whatever it took to get their sons back. 

          With their enhanced hearing, Ken, Bryan, Kevin, Ricky, and Pat all heard every word that was said.  It sounded like a cackling hen house though and grated on all of their nerves.

          Trying to lighten the mood some Brad sent a private thought to Ken:  After seeing them interact guess I’m not so bad, huh?

          Ken suddenly coughed trying to cover up the snort that burst out of him when Brad said that.

          Ken:  My God B, if I had to listen to that for any length of time, I think I’d go insane.

          In less than two minutes Hampton moved over to Ken and said, “We’ll do whatever you need us to do.  Just get our boys back.”

          Brad looked directly at Hampton not just at the man but deep down inside of him.  The brokenness and bitterness he saw was brutally painful and harsh, but he felt the need to look.  He pitied Hampton and what he had become… when Brad looked deep, he realized that he was partly to blame for Hampton’s attitude. 

          Brad had always been smart, even before the Program, but after the genetic alterations by the doctor, his intelligence level was even higher.  He didn’t realize in his interactions with Hampton that he came across as arrogant…it was never his intent, but to Hampton, who wasn’t a bright man, it felt demeaning and it planted the seeds for the animosity that grew between them. 

          It made Brad sad to think that he contributed to the unhappiness in Hampton’s life – he was smart enough and mature enough to know that he wasn’t responsible for the way Hampton reacted and the decisions he made throughout his lifetime that led him to be the person he was.  But with Brad’s Avatar he couldn’t help feeling Compassion for Hampton and the other four men.  He had a glimpse, through the part of his Avatar that came from Lane, of what these men could have become if they had been happy and content, and it pained him to see how far they missed the mark.

          Ken, already deep inside his partner, poured himself more fully into Brad in comfort:  B, you know you aren’t responsible.  He made the decisions as far as how he reacted – you can see that as clearly as I can.  Don’t beat yourself up.  Yeah we were young and even a bit cocky after the Program…we were SEALS and trained to be confident…but you never did a single thing intentionally to hurt him.  None of us did.  He was an immature prick…and he’s no better as an adult.   I feel sorry for him too…but I don’t take any responsibility for how he chose to live his life, and you can’t either. And you never know…it might not be too late for him to change.

          Brad: You know I’m supposed to be the smart one right?

          Ken:  You are… I’m just pointing out what I see inside you.  Your Compassion is blinding you in the moment.  Remember I have a PhD in Brad Wilson, so I have an advantage.

          Brad: Thanks Ken.  I love you.

          Ken, not caring if Hampton or the others saw, moved over and put his arm around Brad and gave him a hug:  I love you too B.

          Meanwhile, Patrick and Bryan had been collecting the luggage and making it into a nice neat stack.  Lane Listened and filled them with a burst of Power.  With no warning to the normals, Darren and the entire pile of luggage disappeared.

          Craig was wide eyed, and Ken gave him that little kid grin and said, “I told ya you’d have an idea of how we can get to Jacob in time.  Pretty cool, huh?”

          Darren was only gone long enough to move the luggage off the platform in the Australian Safe House and clear it for bringing everyone else there.

          Ken used his Captain’s voice to get their attention and to calm them down, “OK everybody.  We’re taking you to a safe house of ours.  Don’t be afraid… you won’t feel anything.”

          Darren said loudly, “Everybody get close please, and relax.”

          The Team formed a ring around the families.  Craig was the only one who didn’t look nervous - he had a grin on his face along with a wide eyed sense of wonder.

          Taking the entire Team plus the five families was going to be a push for Darren, even with all their Avatars synchronized.  The normals couldn’t see the ghostly image of the Tree or the Animal Spirits swimming and flying around the room filling the men with Power.  They did see the slight glow about the men surrounding them and they felt that pervading sense of Warmth that touched their Souls as all the men embraced one another in their Hearts, Minds, and Souls.  They let the Power fill them up as Darren visualized the platform in Australia, and they all vanished.

 

<><><> 

 

          A few minutes after they arrived in Australia, Darren teleported back to Atlanta and brought Albrecht, Kelly, and Sally back to the Safe House to look after their guests.  The doctor would stay in Atlanta with Henry, Drew, the Keenans; and Kelly, Sally, and Albrecht would stay in Australia, at least in the short term, to look after the families of the hostages. 

          Most of the men had the same thought – they were almost at their maximum capacity to hide people from the Enemy and would have to think long and hard about how to proceed if they needed to help more people in the near future.

          As soon as Sally, Kelly, and Albrecht were there to organize everyone, Ken gave the order to suit up.  They moved into the small private rooms and got into their new Kevlar assault gear.  They all had their Heckler & Koch Mk 23 Mod 0’s for handguns, and extra ammunition in case they needed weapons, plus all the other gadgets the doctor supplied for them – fiber optic cameras, C4 with detonators, emergency first aid kits, and numerous other things. The suits had already been upgraded with the new technology that Darren and Pat had helped the doctor to build, including encrypted satellite links back to the Lab allowing the doctor to remotely monitor them even across the planet.   Even with the weapons and gadgetry their preference was not to use them unless absolutely necessary - their Bodies and Minds were their primary weapons.

          By the time they were geared up and back on the platform Darren was fully recovered.  The Mentalists all created external constructs of black Didashah and Shumaq, the robes and head covering local to the area they were going too.  It was already late in the evening in Baiji, but the dark robes would still cover their suits and help them blend in if anyone happened to see them.

          Brad had the main Operations board displaying a satellite map of Baiji.  He used it as a visual reference – his eyes flashed white, and he cast his Mind across the globe from Uluru, Australia to Syria.  He started skimming minds once he got close, moving across the area until he located a Mosque in Baiji. He felt the strong presence of the Enemy but his Aura was fully suppressed by Kevin so he was confident no one would detect him.  He entered the Mind of an Akhoond who was alone in the building and sent a Compulsion to go into a private hall and lock the doors.

          Their eyes flashed white as a bright ribbon of power flowed through them.  Their robes billowed out from the hot wind blowing around them; Brad opened up Craig’s mind enough for him to see them as they were in the Spiritual Realm.  Craig felt the powerful warmth wash over him and saw them as brightly glowing pillars of light… he made eye contact with Kevin, who grinned and winked at him just before they vanished.

          Craig’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw them as they truly were.  He had no idea who or even what they were, but with what he saw and felt he knew Jacob’s chances of coming home were better than ever.

 

<><><> 

 

          As emotionally and physically exhausted as Jacob was he couldn’t sleep – he hadn’t slept in days - he was so scared about what he and the others would face once the sun came up that his mind wouldn’t slow down.  All he could think about was Craig and his mom and dad and what they must be going through worrying about him.  He also couldn’t shake the thought that he might be the first one picked to die.

          As terrified as he was, he secretly hoped he would be the first one picked.  If he was first it would give the other men an extra day for some kind of rescue attempt or for circumstances to change.  He also had to admit, and felt guilt at the thought, that it would put an end to his suffering that much sooner, and he would hopefully find peace.  He felt cowardly for having that thought but he couldn’t help it.

          He squirmed against the ropes and stifled a groan – his bruised body ached from the beatings, and his arms had been pinned behind him for days.  He occasionally heard the other men move or groan, and he wanted to try and comfort them somehow, but they learned the hard way about disobeying the command not to talk amongst themselves.   He knew that at least a few of them were crying – it was hard to hear with the sacks over their heads, but the sound was unmistakable.

          He hadn’t seen the faces of any of his fellow hostages.  They were only allowed to eat what little food and water they had been given one at a time.  Their captors were extremely careful, but rough – which enforced the realization that they had no intention of letting them live.  They were given just enough sustenance to keep them alive but weak enough so they couldn’t resist.

          Jacob tried his best to be brave and not let his captors see how afraid he truly was.  Even with everything that was going on, he didn’t regret his decision to join the Marines – if anything what was happening to him convinced him his decision was the right one.  The type of evil he was facing needed to be stopped.   He didn’t want to die, but if he had to die for his country he wished it would be some way other than being helplessly bound and beheaded.

          That thought pissed him off, and the anger kept him going for a while, but eventually the fear came back.  Fuck I hope they make it fast – the idea of the pain he would have to endure almost debilitated him if he dwelled on it, so he tried to distract himself. 

          He thought of happy memories - playing football with Craig in their backyard and Thanksgiving dinners at his grandparent’s house.  He was so proud of his little brother – they were very close.  He had practically raised Craig on his own and did the best he could – when he and Craig were kids their father was drunk most of the time and their mother was doped up on sedatives – if either of his parents were coherent for too long it usually meant an argument.  Jacob finally had a man-to-man talk with his father when he turned eighteen and threatened to take Craig and leave if his parents didn’t get their act together.  It sort of worked and things got a little better, but he couldn’t wait for Craig to finish college and join the Marines and get out of the house.

          The sorrow he felt when he realized he wouldn’t be there for Craig anymore hit him hard.  It was that thought that broke him – not the fear of the pain, or getting beaten, but the fear of Craig having to keep going without his older brother to look out for him.

          The sensation of something heavy crawling on his leg jerked his thoughts back to the present.  He didn’t want to make too much noise and get the attention of the guards, but he tried to shake whatever it was off.  He heard rats all the time but they seemed to be getting bolder, and the thought of one of them crawling on him completely creeped him out. 

          Whatever it was seemed to be gone - he stayed still and tried to listen but it was difficult with the sack over his head.  It seemed quiet again, but after a minute he felt the oddest sensation.  Something touched his leg three times – it was a light tap.  There was a pause of about five seconds, and then he felt it again.

          He felt the weight of something on his leg again - this time down by his knees.  He started to squirm and shake it off, but he felt whatever it was tap him again.  One.  Two.  Three.  It was deliberate.

          He had no idea what was happening but he stayed still.  His heart was racing.  Whatever it was moved forward slightly and tapped him again.  One.  Two. Three.  Whatever it was weighed a few pounds – if it was a rat it was a big one.  But how could a rat count?  That didn’t make sense.

          It moved further up, pausing every few inches and tapping him.  It was slow and methodical, and he somehow got the sense it didn’t want him to panic.  He had just calmed down but almost jumped out of his skin again when he felt the weight of two more of the mysterious creatures crawl up on his legs.  The tapping started again – all of them in unison.  One.  Two. Three.  Jacob was starting to freak out a little, but he forced himself to stay calm – maybe beyond all hope this was some kind of help.  He held perfectly still and let the rats or whatever they were move up his body.

          The creatures started moving a little faster now that he was holding still.  One crawled up and perched on his shoulder and the other two went over his shoulders, one on either side, and he felt them leaning down putting their weight on the ropes that bound him.  He felt little jerking motions of their bodies almost like a slow vibration.  In another minute he felt the ropes around his arms and shoulders go slack.  Pain shot through his body at the sudden movement and he inhaled sharply and bit down hard to stifle a groan.  Hopefully the sack covering his head muffled the hiss of pain that he couldn’t completely hold in.

          Their weight left his shoulders and he felt paws on his hands now, down behind his back and in another few seconds his hands were free.  His hands and arms felt like thousands of ice cold needles were shooting into his skin as his circulation was restored.  He had no idea how this could be happening but he almost cried with relief – not just from his arms being free of the pain but that somehow help seemed to have found him.

          The one that was still on his shoulder dug at the edge of the sack over his head – it burrowed under the rough cloth and he felt its furry body against his neck.  He felt a gentle tickling sensation, and he realized it was licking the wound in his neck.  That grossed him out, and the thought of catching some disease ran through his head, but then he started to laugh at himself as he thought – that’s a pretty damn fucking good problem to have compared to what I was facing even a few seconds ago.

          It took a few minutes for the circulation in his arms and hands to come back.  He was slow to resettle himself trying not to do anything that would draw the attention of the guards.  Ever so slowly he reached up and edged the sack back off his head – he was in luck; the room was dimly lit.  Lifting the sack up a little more he saw a single guard seated and facing away from him – from the small nimbus of light his body was shielding, it seemed he was on a phone or a tablet.  As luck would have it, the man had his earbuds in and was listening to music.

          Jacob pulled the edge of the sack up to his forehead so he could drop it again quickly if he needed too.  He reached up and felt the body of the rat and gently picked it up – even though it only weighed a few pounds at most, fire flew through his right shoulder.  He transferred the rat to his left hand and held it up in the dim light.  The rat was completely docile in his hand like it was used to being handled.  As soon as he looked into its little black eyes Loy said:  Gotcha!

         

          Jacob spun around, completely shocked and surprised, and took a defensive stance.  He was surrounded by a group of men in full black assault gear.  Their faces weren’t covered and they all had relieved looks on their faces.  They definitely looked military.

          “Where am I!?  Where are the other men!?  How did I get here!” he shouted.  He looked down and saw that his uniform was clean, and all his wounds seemed to have disappeared.

          One of the men stepped forward with his hands out in a placating gesture, “Relax Jacob.  We’re friends.”  It was the voice he heard in his head as he picked up the rat.

          “We’ve got a lot to tell you…”

 

<><><> 

         

          Jacob was stunned by everything he heard.  The revelation that he had been kidnapped by a Supernatural Enemy as a pawn was difficult to swallow… and the fact that they told him virtually no time was passing, and he was still in his body being held captive – their meeting was happening inside his mind.

          He listened to them – he didn’t really have a choice since there was no door out of the room they were in, but they all had this peculiar air about them, especially the leader, a guy named Ken.  Jacob felt they were telling him the truth – Ken’s words seemed to sink into him in this strange and bizarre way that went all the way down into his bones.

          He listened and sat quietly until Ken said, “OK ask away.  I know you have questions.  We’ll answer what we can and be up front about the ones we can’t.”

          “How do I know any of this is real?  I could be hallucinating this entire situation.  I haven’t eaten in days, and I’m dehydrated.”

          It was Brad who answered, “Well, ultimately I guess you won’t until we send you back to your body.  When you start feeling the pain in your shoulders and arms again and are in the room with your fellow hostages you’ll have to decide if you believe us.  Now that we’re in contact with your Mind you’ll continue to hear us and you can talk to us as well.”

          “OK.  Why the rats?  If you can talk to me in my head I don’t get that, other than them chewing through the ropes.  Why didn’t you just contact me that way?  Like that bald guy in the X-Men movies.”

          Brad grinned as he replied, “Because you’re surrounded by some very powerful and Evil beings Jake, otherwise I could have scanned for you, but they have protections up that kept us from doing that.  We have a few tricks up our sleeve that allowed us to circumvent those protections – Loy’s ability with animals is one of them.  The rats are beneath their notice, and even then we had to be extremely careful in using them.

          “We had hoped to get in and free all of you and get out without any confrontation, but it looks like that’s not going to happen.  We’re close to where you’re being held, but there is something in our way – a barrier we can’t cross.  We didn’t expect that, so we need you to take out the guard in your cell and get the other four men on their feet.   We’ll need your help in getting them to where we are.  Our first priority is to get all of you with us, and then we’ll plan our exit strategy.”

          Jacob was taking all this in and praying he wasn’t hallucinating.  These guys had to be some sort of secret Black Ops SEAL team – the kind that the government denies the existence of.  It made him scared for himself and his family – he was afraid if he saw or learned too much it wouldn’t go good for him.

          Bryan was the one who stepped forward when they heard Jake’s thoughts and felt his concerns.  Bryan, the gentle giant, knelt down and put his hand on Jacob’s shoulder and looked him in the eye and said, “You got nothin’ to worry about Jake.  We’re the good guys – these ladies here are the best fuckers on the planet.  You got part of it right – we used to be a SEAL Team but we aren’t anymore.  And your life is gonna’ change pretty drastically for a while – we got your family and your brother safe, but you’re all gonna’ have to stay hidden for your safety once we get you out of here.  Not forever, but for a while.”

          Jacob’s anxiety level spiked when Bryan mentioned Craig, and he would have come out of his chair if Bryan’s big hand wasn’t on his shoulder holding him down.  “Craig’s with you guys?  He’s OK?  Mom and Dad are OK?”

          Lane with his usual mischievous grin said, “Yeah Craig’s at one of our safe houses along with your mom and dad.  Your little bro is something Jake.  He helped us get the Intel to find you.  You owe him big time.”

          Despite the situation, Jacob smiled and said, “That little fucker.  I’m gonna kick his ass for putting himself in danger for me!  But hell yeah, little bro!”

          Ken smiled and said, “He really kept his wits about him in a rough situation Jake.  You did a good job raisin’ him.  You’re a fine young man and a soldier, you should be proud of both of you.”

          Jacob’s eyes misted over and as he thought about Craig and he said, “I am proud of him.  He could have so easily become fucked up in our dysfunctional family, but he didn’t.”

          Ken said, “He had a great role model.”

          Jacob sighed and said, “OK I guess I don’t have any more questions.  Well I do, but I think I believe you so they can wait until later.  What can I do?”

          Brad said, “Jake if it’s alright with you I’d like to look at your memories.  That should tell us more and would be easiest.  Your Mind has details that you might not even be consciously aware of that I can pick up on.  But I’ll only do that with your permission.  So far we’re just on the surface of your Mind, and we can hear your conscious thoughts and feel your emotions, but we don’t like to go deeper without permission.  I promise I’ll try to keep things just to what I need to see and not look any deeper.”

          Jacob looked nervous and seemed to think about it.  After a short moment of silence he said, “Go ahead.  But it’s not pretty.”

          Brad’s eyes flashed white, and Jacob felt Brad’s soothing presence flow into him.  He flinched at first at the unfamiliar feeling but realized quickly that it was nice and even comforting.  The man inside his head was strong and kind and even though Brad was toning his Aura down, Jacob could feel the warmth spread over his Soul at the contact.

          Jacob’s eyes went wide and he muttered, “Oh my God… that feels… amazing!”

          Brad looked back over the last week and relived every second of Jacob’s life – Ken and the others were with Brad, watching and observing – using their training at surveillance and observing every detail.  The human mind picks up details that are not always consciously available – between Bill’s Avatar and Brad’s they pieced together what happened. 

          They were pretty sure that Jacob’s Commanding Officer was involved and sent him into the ambush where he was captured – Jacob was the only survivor in his unit.   They felt every blow as he was beaten and tortured more for pleasure than to debilitate him.   They felt his thoughts – his fears and anger and confusion.  Again, just like it was with Greg Rawlins when they met him at the Waffle House – much of the pettiness and deceit had been burned out of Jacob through his suffering, and what was left was pure and noble.  They saw how he retreated to his happy memories of playing football with Craig, and – even though his relationship with his parents wasn’t great – how he still thought of them and was more worried about what they were going through than his own situation.

          It restored a little bit of their faith in humanity to see what was inside of Jacob – there were still good men in the world - just not enough. 

           Inside Jacob’s memories they heard snatches of conversation in Arabic that Pat was able to Understand even though Jacob didn’t speak the language.   They didn’t get a name, but his captors made reference to a number of powerful men in charge.  There was no way to tell how many of the terrorists might actually be Enemy Agents versus human servants, but it sounded like there might be quite a few Agents here.

          Brad withdrew and smiled at Jacob.  He winked and said, “You have a well ordered mind Jake, and don’t take this the wrong way but that wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I expected.  Most of the time seeing people on the inside isn’t very pretty – I didn’t look deep, but I can tell you’re a good man.”

          Jacob didn’t even realize he was crying until he tried to talk.  He had to wipe his eyes and he lowered his head in embarrassment.  He blushed at the praise and asked, “Did you see anything helpful?”

          Brad said, “Yes, a few things, and the more we know the better off we are.”

          Jacob asked, “So what’s next?”

          Ken asked him, “Jake do you think you can take that guard out without makin’ any noise?”

          Jacob frowned and said, “I’m not sure, sir.  My arms and shoulders are pretty bad off from being tied up for so long, and I’m dehydrated and haven’t eaten in days.  If I get the jump on him I’d say I have a 50/50 chance to be honest.”  He hung his head and said quietly, “Probably not what you wanted to hear.”

          Ken looked at Lane and asked, “Do you think we can do anythin’ about that with those Runes up?”

          Lane nodded saying, “The runes they have placed are blocking our Nephelem abilities just like the Eschphene magic did, but our Avatars are working – the issue is the rats… we can’t channel too much power through them or we’ll kill them.  I think we can manage to fix Jake but we’ll have to wait on the other guys until we get them with us.”

          Ken looked at Jake and said, “I hate to put that on you Jake, but if we get you back in fighting shape you’ll have to take the brunt of whatever needs to be done to get the other hostages out with you and make it to us.”

          Jacob was wide eyed and said, “How can you do that?”

          Lane grinned and replied, “Like I told your brother – there’s more to us than meets the eye.”

          Ken looked at Jacob and asked again, “So if we get you patched up can we count on you?”

          Jacob grinned and looked at all of them and said proudly, “Not only yes, but hell yes, Sir.”

          Ken smiled back and said, “Good man.  You’ve been through a lot Jacob, and I hate asking you to do more, but we need your help to get the others out safe.  I’m proud of you.”

          Jacob hung his head and blushed again, “Just earning my pay sir, such as it is.”

          Brad said, “OK Jacob… No time has passed for your body while we’ve been talking, so you’re still holding the rat up.  I know they creep you out, but we need to use them as a conduit to heal you.  Now that we’re in contact with your Mind, we can continue to talk with you so you won’t feel alone.  We’ll talk you through everything once you’re ready to take out the guard.”

          Ken asked, “One more question Jake.  Have you killed anyone in hand-to-hand combat before?”

          Jacob replied, “No sir.  I’ve had the training, but have never had to use it.  I’ve killed with my weapon before but never up close.”

          “Are you sure you can do it?”

          “Yes, Sir!  To protect the others, I know I can do it.”

          “OK.  Just don’t think about it… do it and keep moving.  Don’t dwell on it.  There will be plenty of time later to think about it, and you have any of us to talk to about it if you need to once we have you out safe.”

          “Thank you, sir.”

          Brad said, “Alright Jake I’m sending you back to your body in five…four…three…two…”

         

<><><> 

 

          All the pain and discomfort flooded back into Jacob’s awareness of his body as he heard Brad’s final countdown in his head. …One.

          Brad:  We’re still with you Jake.  He could feel Brad’s grin as he continued:  You’re not hallucinating.

          Jacob kept his eyes on the guard, who thankfully was still paying attention to his phone.  His head was bobbing slightly in tune with whatever music he was listening to.

          Lane:  Just relax Jake, this won’t take long.

          With Jacob in the Link his Mind was open enough that he now saw the glow coming off the rats and the tendrils of white energy that seeped out of them and into his body - he immediately felt the effects as the Healing flows entered him.  Lane kept the flows gentle, which took longer, but were easier on Jacob’s body and the rats.  Loy kept the little creatures calm with his presence as their bodies were used as a conduit for the power they sent to heal the young soldier.

          Jacob had never felt anything like it in his life – the dehydration, nausea, and weakness from malnutrition vanished.  He no longer felt hungry, and his body felt refreshed and strong again.  The cuts and bruises all over his body were gone, the only evidence they had existed were the blood stains on his tattered uniform.

          He set the rat he was holding down and all three rodents moved to his feet and chewed through the last of the ropes binding him.  Brad and the others felt the wonder, and a little fear, of what just happened to him.  But like always, Jacob brought himself back into focus and concentrated on the task in front of him with no distractions.

          OK I’m free.  Here goes nothing.

          Jacob took full advantage of the guard’s focus on his music as he crept up behind him and snapped his neck clean.  He remembered the maneuver from training and was surprised at how easy it was – it also scared him.  He caught the body before it could fall and make any noise and the thought went through his head – I wonder if he has a family?

          Jacob was reaching down for the rifle he saw leaning against the wall by the stool the man had been sitting on when the door opened.  Jacob’s stomach lurched in fear as he made eye contact with the man standing at the door.  His eyes were dark brown, almost black, and he was inhumanly handsome.  He had dark hair kept short and had a full goatee that was neatly trimmed.  His body looked strong and he radiated an Aura of strength and power.

          Orophir glanced at the rats, and realizing one of the hostages was free, knew exactly what happened.  His eyes flashed white and the three rats squealed as the bonds holding their Spirit’s to their small bodies snapped.  Loy wasn’t prepared for that, and in his room across the street he bent over at the sudden pain and loss of his little friends.

          As soon as Orophir got close enough to Jacob the Amulet he wore broke the Link that Brad and the others had with Jacob.  It was a new Matrix of his own creation – and one that contained the trapped essence of a few lesser Nephelem.  His father had more than enough servants and wouldn’t miss the few he now kept imprisoned for his own purposes.

          Jacob felt Brad’s presence disappear, and he knew he was in trouble – he launched himself at the man instinctively, hoping to incapacitate him quickly and with as little noise as possible but didn’t stand a chance.   Orophir was a Nephelem in human form and had strength, speed, and agility, far beyond those of a normal human.  He effortlessly caught Jacob and sent him flying across the room, where his body slammed into the wall and fell unconscious.  Orophir heard a number of bones shatter and hoped he hadn’t been overzealous.

          Orophir sent his thoughts out:  Azaziel, as we suspected, the Warriors of The Order are here.  Make sure they do not leave alive.  My father will be most displeased if you fail.

          Azaziel’s voice sounded like grating rocks:  You doubt me?

          Until these new Warriors are dead once and for all, yes.  They are stronger than you think.

 

<><><> 

 

          Brad felt his Link with Jacob sever as Loy doubled over.

          Ken: B!?  What just happened!?

          Brad:  Shit!  It’s Orophir!  I saw his face just as the Link severed.  He’s not strong enough to do that on his own; he must have some new toys.

          Ken:  Fuck.  OK we knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  God I hope Jacob is alright.  Their plan was to start the executions at sunrise.  We’ll have to wait until Jacob and the others are in the open, then make our move. 

          Brad took them all deep into a Construct so they could revise their strategy.  They had to compartmentalize their concern and anxiety for Jacob and focus on a new plan. 

          Ken’s Avatar flared and brought the others in as his handsome face hardened.  Everyone felt the anger and focus in him – it was in all of them now and they let it fuel them.  They were getting tired of losing friends, and they weren’t losing any more today.  Unknowingly, the Enemy just kicked the anthill.

 

<><><> 

 

          The only visible evidence that the sun was about to rise was a slight lessening of the early morning darkness.  The clouds over Baiji were heavy and dark, and the sky was filled with lightning.  There was no rain, but the wind was cold and everyone in the town was afraid.  The warfare that had taken over the streets kept the residents afraid and in their houses – the devastation was evident from rubble filling the streets.

          Jacob was unconscious for a few hours – while he was out the other hostages hadn’t slept – as exhausted as they were, the pain in their bodies and the freezing cold in the cell kept them awake – and the fear. They were sure that one of them had tried to escape and been caught – the commotion was unclear since they couldn’t see or hear clearly. Talking wasn’t allowed so they all remained silent, scared and isolated and knowing that one or more of them was going to die soon. 

          Their hearts lurched in their chests as guards entered the room where they were kept and roughly grabbed them, forcing them on their feet.  All of them were in such bad shape they stumbled more than walked and their captors pushed them and laughed when they fell.  Jacob was conscious but just barely – the sack was over his head again.  He was in tremendous pain and barely coherent, but inside he held onto the hope that Ken and the others were still nearby.

          Their captors didn’t speak English, but the taunts and jeers coming from their mouths were obvious, trying to demoralize the broken soldiers even further.  Their bodies shook from the cold and fear.  Like Jacob, they were resigned to the fact that they were most likely going to die – it wasn’t the fear of death itself; it was the way in which they would die that scared them.  They didn’t want to disgrace their country or their uniforms by screaming.   PFC Hampton tried to break off and run and was beaten so badly they had to carry his body the rest of the way.

          The Market area was clear – all the carts that were left overnight had been pushed into the middle area and were burning in a huge bonfire.  Most of the terrorists who weren’t taunting or guarding the hostages were gathered by the fire, warming their hands and talking.

          Their leader had everything staged – the hostages were all on their knees, tied with their heads still covered, positioned in a line and far apart.  There was a news van parked nearby that had broadcast equipment in it to record everything.

 

<><><> 

         

          The lightning thickened and thunder ripped across the sky; the biting cold wind whipped harder. 

          Orophir, aware of their Avatars and what they were capable of, had given orders to have all animals of any kind in the area destroyed.  Loy felt their deaths over the next few hours after they lost contact with Jacob. His anger built more with every death.  He called each Spirit to him as they died and sent them on with his blessing to be Reborn.

          The doctor’s voice came through loud and clear in their earpieces, “I have current satellite imagery of the Market area.  The hostages have just been staged for their cameras.  I am initiating a live feed into your HUD’s.   Darren I believe the image is good enough for you to use to Teleport.  There is a two second time variant due to signal latency from the satellite, so be aware.  Patrick can help you to account for that.”

          Ken double clicked his earpiece in acknowledgement.  Orophir had done a good job of countering their attempts to reconnect with Jake.  They had been cut off from the doctor for a short time as well, but with his new computers he broke through their encryption in seconds, boosted his signal, and re-established communications. 

          They watched everyone getting into position – the leader of the terrorist group was pacing back and forth in front of the hostages.  His demeanor was arrogant and cocky, and he was verbally abusing the captives now in English.  The hostages had to be wearing some type of Amulet or Rune from Orophir that kept Darren from pulling them out, so they were about to engage in a full on assault.  They had all been itching for a fight anyway – the Enemy needed a good ass kicking, and it was the perfect opportunity while rescuing the hostages.

          All of the Team felt for what Jacob and the others were going through – it pained them to see fellow soldiers in their predicament.  It brought back memories of their own time in Syria as SEAL’s and living in this part of the world – dealing with the heat and the cold and the deaths of friends.  Ken let the anger in all of them build – he knew they would be focused and in control, but the anger would fuel them to not hold back.  He wanted to hit the Enemy hard and let them know who they were dealing with.                         

          As soon as the terrorist leader pointed to Jake, indicating he was the first one to die, Ken gave the signal.

 

<><><> 

 

          One thick bolt of lightning came down from the clouds and branched out into ten forks.  The flash was blinding and sound was deafening – Ken said he wanted to make an entrance, and Brad, Lane, and Darren had cooked up a good one.

          Underneath their headgear their eyes were white and the tattoos were glowing brightly as they appeared in the Market where the lightning struck the ground.  They were filled with Power from across the Veil, the Tree of Life, animal Spirits, and the Music of Creation.  They were as powerful as they had ever been, and they came down like a hammer on the Enemy.

          Lane:  Whoever wants fighting music tune in to Lane Radio.  I have a separate Link running with some music Bry and I have been playing around with.

          Ken knew it wouldn’t interfere and they had come to like it.  He left the decision to all of them but every one of them tapped in to see what Lane had for them.  Bryan had learned the drum piece to “Bedroom Hymns” by Florence + The Machine, and Lane did everything else plus the lyrics.

          As soon as they appeared they were in motion.  There were nearly a hundred men all with weapons – mostly automatic rifles, but there were a few rocket launchers in the mix. 

          Brad, his Avatar synchronized with Lane’s, Loy’s, Darren’s, and Bill’s, sent out an explosion of Psychic energy that shattered any shields that might be protecting them.  He saw a few Enemy Agents drop as their Minds were blown away by his assault – their Minds were now free of any protections.

          Now that they were physically present with Jacob and the other hostages Brad brought them into a light Link.  The Team was One, their Souls merged tightly, and when the captives were brought into the Link they saw the warm golden light behind their closed eyes that washed over their Souls.  Their breath caught in their chests at the extreme and unexpected feeling of hope and warmth.  They didn’t understand it, but it drove the worst of the fear out of them.

          They heard Ken’s voice in their Minds:  We got you fellas.  Just hold tight, and let us take care of these guys, and we’ll have you free in a few minutes.  You’re all going back to your families.

          Relief flooded through them – they heard the Conviction of Ken’s words, and that cut through their pain and confusion.  Each one of them felt Ken’s strong hand on their shoulder in comfort and support, and they knew he was telling the Truth.

          They also heard Lane’s music – he chose the song not only because Bryan wanted to learn the drum piece but because the lyrics were oddly appropriate and meaningful.  He grinned at Loy’s thought:  At least it wasn’t Simon and Garfunkel this time!

          Darren could have killed them all but Ken would never ask him to do that again unless there was absolutely no other way.  Darren was prepared just in case, but their training had paid off, and there was no need – in less than three minutes all of the enemy were either dead or incapacitated.   Not a single blow landed on any of the Team.

          They were a swath of death through the terrorists – the inhuman speed, grace, and agility with which they fought was breathtaking.  They all worked in unison, their attacks coordinated, often using one another in choreographed maneuvers they practiced over and over in the Lab until they had it down pat.

          There were so many ways they could have approached the fight – Brad or any of the Mentalists could have killed their Enemies with their Minds or their Avatars.  Ken didn’t want to tip their hand yet to the Enemy just how powerful they had become so they handled the fight physically with minimal psychic intervention.  The Mentalists reflected all the bullets, but aside from that all ten men simply mowed their opponents down like a hot knife through butter with their hands, elbows, legs, feet, and the occasional head-butt. 

          As soon as they had arrived, Bill’s and Patrick’s Avatars were on overdrive at the Evil of everyone that surrounded them.  Not the town itself, or the residents, but the terrorists.  They had given themselves over willingly to the Enemy, and in doing so they forfeited their lives.  None of the men held back – the weapons they had forged themselves into were devastating to the Enemy.  They were a blur of death, their forms shining brightly in the Spiritual Realm as they decimated their foes. 

          The entire fight was filmed – Brad and Darren made sure the media van was recording everything.  Before they left it was the plan to get the recording and leak it onto YouTube to show the rescue and the terrorists getting their asses handed to them.  The doctor was not a fan of that idea, but Ken insisted.  There was no way to identify any of the Team with their head coverings.  He knew many people would think it was a hoax, but he wanted to shove it in the Enemy’s face, and let them know their effort failed, and failed publicly.

          The hostages were still bound, and their heads were covered.  Even amidst the noise of the initial gunfire they held still, not understanding exactly what was happening but trusting the Voice that spoke into their Hearts and Minds.

          To them, the fight seemed to take forever, but in truth it lasted a little over three minutes.  The only reason it took so long is that there were so many opponents it took some time for all of them to come into arms reach to die.  Coincidentally, the music ended just as the last of the bodies fell – and then the Market was deathly silent for a few seconds.

          Once the noise stopped, Jacob felt the ropes vanish as Darren freed all of them from their bindings.  Brad, Lane, Loy, Darren, and Bill all knelt down and took off the sacks covering their heads.

          Brad was calm as he asked, “You guys ready to get out of here?”

          The men squinted, and all of them had tears of relief in their eyes.  They were in bad shape.  Brad noticed that the sacks that had covered their heads had runes embroidered with silver threading in the lining. 

          Brad:  Dar?

          Darren:  Yeah those hoods were keeping me from grabbing them.  I’m going to take one of these back to the doc to look at. 

          Ken and the others kept a defensive ring around the hostages while Brad and his group helped them try to stand up.  They could barely stand.  They had decided before the fight that any healing would wait until after they were back in Australia.

          Jake’s voice was weak as he said, “Fuck me Sirs, I’m glad to see you.  I wasn’t sure what you were going to do after that guy knocked me for a loop.”

          Ken knew they weren’t scot-free yet.  Orophir still hadn’t made an appearance and they were still ready and prepared for whatever came next.

          Even as Ken had that thought Orophir stepped into the Market clearing from around the corner.  He was human sized but dressed in the same robes that Istariel and his cousins usually wore – except Orophir’s robes were jet black and his cowl was pulled back revealing his inhumanly handsome face.

          Orophir’s voice was rich and deep, and he smiled as he said, “Bravo.  You made that look easy.”

          Ken’s voice was hard and confident as he retorted, “We’ve already kicked your ass once Orophir, even with the Amulet you used then, and there were only four of us.”

          Orophir was calm but he had a slight frown on his face at Ken’s words.  How did they know his name, and what was he referring too?

          “You knew we wouldn’t have any trouble with these men.  Why did you sacrifice them?”

          “I know that after he has killed you, Azaziel with be hungry and will need to feed.  I am not here to fight you myself – this area is under his Dominion and you will have to face him.  I am merely here to observe.”

          They all felt the cold knot in their guts that indicated danger.  Ken and the other Bodies heard the sound of wings high up in the sky, even through the howling winds. In the flashes of lightning they made out a figure, larger than a human with bat like wings flying in the clouds.

          Lane’s eyes flashed white and he saw what was about to happen with Jacob and the others if they weren’t protected.

          Lane shouted, “Guys!  Put the sacks back over your heads fast!  Hurry!  No matter what you see or hear don’t take them off or you’re goners!”  Jake and the others hadn’t seen Azaziel yet, but they already felt the chill of his presence, and it struck fear into their hearts.  They felt the urgency of Lane’s words through the Link and they scrambled to put the hoods back on, not knowing why, but realizing it would save their lives.

          Through Patrick’s Avatar they saw that Azaziel was a Fallen Angel – a Demon from Beyond the Pale.  His huge form dove down out of the skies, and the ground shook with the impact as his huge form hit the ground.  His massive body flexed and the bat like wings stretched across the entire Market as he let out a bellow of challenge to The Order.

          Brad wove all their Energy centers into a bright white Ribbon and formed a dome over all of them with the hostages in the center.  Azaziel revealed himself in his True Form momentarily, a cloud of seething Darkness, trying to overwhelm them with his Aura and obliterate the humans they were trying to protect.  He wasn’t an Arch-Angel like their grandparents, but he was strong and as old as Creation – and Evil down to his core. Their Avatars flared in response, strengthening all of them. 

          Ken’s words filled them with Strength and Conviction as he shouted in his Mind:  Hold him!  Fight it off! 

          They felt this aspect of Ken’s Avatar before – the way his Avatar knitted theirs together, holding them seamlessly and forging them all into a single Power.  The first time was back when Rick had his first Awakening and the Enemy had tried to kill him – when Ken had shouted his response to the Enemy and was heard all over the city of Atlanta.  His Avatar was like a key that locked them all together.

          Everyone dug deep, delving into their partners, their Souls One and letting their Light be their defense against Azaziel’s Darkness.  Brad felt it again – how their Avatars flared and filled them with a Power to match what they faced.  His Mind made the same connections as before and his epiphany was the same as it was in the alternate reality.  He also realized he had known this before – that time in the alternate reality in the fight with Leroy.  He knew his memory had been altered, and he was pretty sure he knew by whom, and it pissed him off.  He was going to have a talk with Raphael about that soon.

          They were enough. 

          They stood there, facing Azaziel in a defensive posture, seemingly unfazed, and Ken said, “Is that all you got?”

          Azaziel’s black eyes widened slightly in surprise, and then they heard his voice in their Minds.  It sounded like rocks crumbling, it was so deep:  I will break you half-breeds.  You cannot stand against me.

          Lane:  These guys need to come up with more original catch phrases of doom.  I feel like we’re fighting Durin's Bane.

          There was a short silence.

          Lane:  Come on guys!  You know…the Balrog of Moria in The Lord of the Rings?

          Kevin:  Yeah but didn’t he kick Gandalf’s ass?

          Lane:  In the pansy ass movie he did, but not in the books.  In the books you know that Gandalf was a Maia…a lesser angelic spirit, kind of like us.  He was basically a Nephelem.

          Kevin:  Fuck me… this Demon guy said that on purpose.  He knows you’re a Tolkien fanatic, and knew if he could get you started you’d quote the entire fucking Silmarillion to us, and we’d die of boredom.

          There was a smattering of mental snickers through the Link at Kevin’s comment.

          Lane:  Hey Kev, don’t be dissin’ Tolkien man; he’s the shit.

          Bryan:  God I love my nerd.

          Ken couldn’t help but smile with everyone, but he didn’t want them to relax too much:  OK ladies… more focus less chatter.  We have a Demon’s ass to kick.

          With their Avatars forged into One, the tattoos on their shoulders had transformed into the single complex Rune, and in the darkness of the morning their shoulders were bright, emitting brilliant arcs of color like small flares.  Just as he had done in the alternate reality, Brad unlocked them completely and shared the knowledge of how he did so with all of them.

 

<><><> 

 

          Patrick’s Vision was filled with the tension in the Physical Realm reflecting the confrontation from the Spiritual side of reality.  A cold rain started pouring down from the sky – the lightning was so thick it was like a constant strobe light.  The flashes of Power through the Heavens were reflected in their white eyes as they faced the Evil they were born to battle.

          Ken’s mind shot back to 1992, here in Syria, on the morning the Team got on the helicopter to fake their own deaths.  There had been a storm that morning over the Mediterranean Sea and he remembered thinking even then that storms seemed to follow the pivotal moments in their lives.  He recalled the storms that hit Atlanta the morning of their first Major Awakening – the last Procedure the doctor put them through that activated their Nephelem Heritage. 

          The thought was fleeting but profoundly impactful in its significance.           

         

<><><> 

 

          Barachiel sent out the call for them to gather as soon as he felt Azaziel’s presence.  Each of the other nine Arch-Angels appeared instantly as they slipped out of Time and into the pocket dimension Raphael had created for this specific purpose.

          Raphael sighed, “This was inevitable.  The spirals leading to the Confrontation are too close.”

          Michael frowned in resignation, “Yes, Raf, they are.”

          Gabriel said, “It is futile to continue our intervention at this point.  We will have to let the course of events proceed as they will.”

          Raphael responded, “I agree Gabriel.  In retrospect I think we never should have the first time, although our intentions were pure.  Brad has realized that I was the one who altered his memory.  I hope he will forgive me.”

          Uriel, who rarely spoke in these meetings, said, “Our intervention failed because our motives were to protect our interests rather than the benefit of our grandchildren.”

          Raphael smiled, “Ahh Uriel… you speak so seldom, but when you do your Wisdom often surpasses my own.  I believe you are right.  Even we are not infallible.”

          Michael looked down on the fight that was just starting and said, “Let us hope they prevail.”

          They were all silent as they watched…saddened already with either outcome.  If any of their Grandchildren perished their plans would come to ruin…but they all remembered Azaziel when he was first created.  He had been a pure creature of Light before the Dark One corrupted him.  Even though he was Evil now, they would still mourn his destruction if he was vanquished.

 

<><><> 

 

          Brad’s Mind took every tactical thought each one of them had and combined them into a strategy.  They attacked as two groups of five – Ken, Bryan, Kevin, Patrick, and Rick launched themselves physically at Azaziel.  The force of their bodies hit him; and the impact echoed through the Market as they grappled with his huge form, pinning his arms and legs, causing his huge wings to flutter trying to help him keep his balance and not go down.

          Brad, Lane, Darren, Loy, and Bill all launched thick white chains of Power, wrapping them around Azaziel and confining his movements.  He bellowed with rage and at the pain their Light caused as it burned against his very nature.

          He was strong – an elemental creature of Evil - and in his anger he flexed and his Aura exploded with dark power.  Everyone was thrown back, but Darren was ready – they all blinked and their trajectories were reversed and they twisted their Bodies with inhuman agility and were right back on him, relentless in their attack.

          There were old and powerful spirits in the region that kept themselves hidden against the Evil of the Enemy, and Loy called to them to join the fight. The air was thick with spirits as they flew around the ghostly image of the Tree of Life.  Ethereal branches and roots appeared as Bryan’s Avatar flared emerald green, wrapping themselves around Azaziel’s body.

 

          <><><>

 

          “Oh my!”

          The doctor and Henry watched the fight on the Operations board, both tense and afraid at what they were watching.  The doctor knew what it was they fought, and his heart nearly stopped when Azaziel first revealed himself.

          He and Henry couldn’t see the Spiritual side of the battle on the screen, but they knew what was happening.

          In short order his own massive intellect pieced together the puzzle surrounding his young charges, and he had the same epiphany that Brad did. A very brief moment of anger coursed through him that he had been used against his will and treated like a puppet in their creation – but that thought quickly turned to one of thankfulness.  What the men were now…what he saw and knowing he was partly responsible for them was humbling – and he sent a silent prayer of thanks for what his sons had become.

 

          <><><>

 

          Orophir watched in disbelief as the Warriors of the Order fought Azaziel.  He had heard the rumors of their strength and courage but he never believed they could stand against a Demon of Azaziel’s might.

          His father had told him not to interfere, but as the fight wore on he saw the very real chance that Azaziel could lose.

          Orophir’s hand went inside of his robe and pulled out an Amulet, but before he could put it on a hand gripped his own with incredible strength.

          “No.”

          Orophir’s head snapped around in surprise and looked right into the eyes of Istariel.

          “You will not interfere.”

          As Istariel spoke, his three cousins appeared beside him.  Orophir wasn’t prepared to fight them and didn’t like surprises.  He lowered his hands in frustration and watched the fight continue.

 

<><><> 

 

          They had Azaziel pinned down – it took everything they had but they held him.  They were equal to the task just like Brad knew they would be.  In order to destroy Azaziel they would have to find a way to reach even further inside themselves.

          Kevin and Rick both felt a tugging in their Minds – their Avatars surged, catching them off guard.  They had both felt this once before – back in the parking lot of the Waffle House when the black suited Agent of the Enemy attacked them – the night they met Greg Rawlins.  To Kevin, just as it did back then, the feeling of resetting this creature before them felt right.  Rick’s Avatar felt the Truth of what Azaziel was – what he started out as; an Angel.  Destroying Azaziel would send a loud and clear message to the Enemy – but resetting him would be like sending a nuclear bomb.

          Tactically it would be difficult.  They were already stretched to their limit just holding Azaziel down.  Lane remembered what he did in the cavern when they needed to stop Leroy – after Brad’s epiphany about their Avatars they now had a complete understanding of how they worked. 

          Once again, he knew that there was no Music in Creation strong enough for what they needed in this fight.  What Kevin and Rick would need was only available inside of them – inside of Bill and Loy.

          With Ken’s Avatar locking them all into One, Lane looked with Pat’s Understanding at his two Brothers’ Souls – the half in each of them and the half in their partner.  He Listened to the Hearts of his two Brothers, and his Avatar wove them together.  The crystalline song was beautiful – he remembered the Song in Bryan’s Soul that soothed Leroy and how powerful it was.  There were no words, just the Music of their existence – the warm yellow light and the incredible Love inside them, unconditional and pure.

          All of them heard it as Lane pushed it into Kevin and Rick, immersing them in the Songs of their lover’s Soul – the very essence of their being and the parts of them that belonged together.  Kevin and Rick were already merged with their partners, and with all the Team, but what they heard filled them in a way that nothing ever had.  Tears started streaming down their faces, and their breath caught in their big bodies as Power flooded into him – it gave them what they needed to be more than equal to the task.

 

<><><> 

         

          Rick was already helping to pin Azaziel down – his physical strength stretched to the limit in holding one of Azaziel’s powerful legs.  White tendrils of Energy seeped from his Avatar and disappeared into the Demon’s grotesquely muscled body.  The knots of Hate and Evil that had existed inside Azaziel for eons started to Unravel as Rick’s Avatar, backed by all of his Brothers’, made itself felt.

          Kevin had one of Azaziel’s huge arms pinned behind his back in a hammer lock – using his entire body to intertwine his own limbs for leverage.  He let his Avatar loose as it pulled from all of them and struck like a spear into Azaziel’s Demonic Soul.

          When all the men were together, fully merged as they were, there was an intangible ‘something extra’ about their Avatars – the doctor had sensed it and knew that was what the Enemy feared most about them: their ability, when working in concert, to overwrite the Curse and restore Creation to its originally intended state.  While The Master lived, the Curse would continue to lay over all of reality in both the Physical and the Spiritual Realms, but these men, with effort, could restore or affect individual beings. 

          The effort to confine Azaziel was superhuman, and Kevin’s body showed the strain.  The Velcro bindings of his assault suit stretched and came apart on his shoulders, arms, and chest as he flexed and tensed his body in his efforts.  Bill sensed the distraction and with his mind he removed the pieces that were coming apart – he didn’t want them to hamper Kevin’s efforts in any way. 

          His muscular body, now bare from the waste up, was red with effort – rivulets of sweat dripping off every rock hard piece of corded muscle and making his skin slick.  The striations of his shoulders, arms, and chest were incredible, and the dark hair covering his torso was matted down.  His chest heaved with the effort of taking in enough oxygen to support the efforts of his body.

          The Velcro bindings of Rick’s suit had come apart as well.  He shrugged them off, exposing his own incredible physique.  Sweat oozed from every pore of his own body as every muscle, ligament, and tendon was tight in his efforts to hold the Demon.

          Ken changed his position enough to put a hand on each of their sweaty backs, continuing to use his legs to scissor Azaziel’s torso – he was literally trying to will more of his own strength into his Brothers.  All of them were working in concert to make this possible, but Kevin and Rick were the focal point of all their power – Pat’s Understanding, Brad’s Compassion, Brian’s gentle nature and connection to Life, Lane’s connection to the Music of Creation and how it infused everything, Ken’s Conviction and Strength of Will, Bill’s Knowledge of Reality, Darren’s connection to the Physical Realm and his ability to manipulate it, and Loy’s connection to the Spirit World.

          The two men felt his warm hands on their flesh and it had the desired effect.  As deeply as they were inside one another the sensation of Ken’s physical support not only gave them comfort, but bolstered their efforts and helped them push even harder.

 

<><><> 

 

          Azaziel screamed as their Light burned into him causing him pain.  Initially it was just the power of their Auras, fueled by their emotional connections to one another that burned him, but as Kevin let his Avatar go, the Light turned liquid and started pouring into the Demon.  His wings trembled and flapped in desperation, and his bellow of rage quickly turned into a scream of agony. 

          Ken saw it first…a single white feather appeared on one of his leathery wings.  It was oddly bright in the dark of the morning and against the ruddy purple hide.  A few seconds later another appeared and slowly feathers started filling in as the Demon kept screaming and trying to wrest himself out of their grasp and escape the excruciating pain he was in – the feeling of being stripped away.  The liquid Light was like a purifying fire, literally burning the Evil out of him.

          Their Light filled him – reaching down into every dark crevice in his black existence.  Azaziel was a powerful entity and old as Creation – he had gone over to the Dark One eons ago and the Light he was born with had been snuffed out of existence long ago.  The barren landscape of his Soul was vast, but it was slowly filling up with what they poured into him.

          They felt terror in him along with the pain – Bill reached out and touched Azaziel and Read him, cutting through his Shields and Protections as if they didn’t exist – to Bill’s Avatar they didn’t.  What he Read struck him like a physical blow, but he felt driven to do it.  With his own Avatar magnified a hundredfold by his Brothers he absorbed all the knowledge of who and what Azaziel was.  His entire existence was laid bare to all of them.

          They now understood Azaziel’s fear – it wasn’t fear of the Dark One or retaliation.  He had sundered himself from Home so long ago he was afraid he could never return.  After all the millennia of servitude to the Dark how would he ever be allowed to go Home?  The fear of being an outcast and separated from the Light is what terrified him.

          Something happened then that caught all of them by surprise – the black storm clouds parted in the sky and a ray of sunshine came down like a halo around Azaziel.  The white feathers of his wings glowed brilliantly in the sunlight as the rest of his body became more human – the inhuman grace and beauty of an Angel was returning.

 

<><><> 

 

          Michael and the others stood dumbfounded as they watched the scene unfold.  What their grandchildren were doing was outside any outcome they could possibly have foreseen.

          Every time one of their Brothers fell to the Dark One and was consumed by Evil they felt the pain and loss of losing a loved one.  Half of the Infinite Host had gone over to Luke in the Rebellion, and the War had been ongoing ever since.  Now the cosmic scales tipped in favor of the Light by one – half of infinity plus the newborn Azaziel. 

          All of Creation seemed to pause, as if it too was stunned by what just occurred.  Tears flowed down the faces of the ten Arch-Angels – tears of joy for the return of a Brother they thought lost to them forever.  As one, all ten of them vanished with the sound of fluttering wings.

 

<><><> 

                                                                            

          Azaziel’s giant form, now beautiful once again, went limp.  Tears were streaming down his face, leftover from the pain of the Transformation he had suffered.  He was a new being – as new as the day he was created and he had no memories of his servitude to the Dark One.  The fear they felt in him seconds before was gone as if it never existed.

          The only sound now was the quieting wind and the heavy breath of all the men.  The rain stopped. They relaxed their hold on Azaziel and slid off him but were still vigilant in case their actions had any unforeseen consequences. 

          Brad saw Orophir surrounded by Istariel and his three cousins.  The look of disbelief on Orophir’s face spoke volumes.

          Ken was so proud of everyone he was about to burst. They all felt it through the Link as they heard his words:  Fuck me fellas, I don’t even know what to say.  We did it – all of us.  I always tell B there’s nothin’ we can’t do if we stick together, and by God today we just proved that beyond any doubt.  There are no men anywhere I’d rather have by my side.

          They all knew that Ken included the doctor, Albrecht, and Henry in his thought.

          He got that little kid grin on his handsome sweaty face and thought: You guys rock!

          Ricky and Kevin were about to collapse and Ken knelt between both of them and put his arms over their shoulders.  He pulled their heads closer and kissed the top of each of their heads and gave their bare shoulders firm squeezes of comfort.  He sent a private thought to both of them: Well done guys.

          His praise and the love he expressed for them warmed both men as they recovered.

          Bill and Loy picked up the pieces of their partners’ Assault suits and helped them get dressed – the wind was dying down, but it was still extremely cold out, and their sweat was freezing.

          Lane and Bryan moved over to the hostages.  With a grin Lane said, “It’s OK guys.  Take off the sacks.  And don’t go screaming like little girls when you see what’s going on.”

          Jake was the first one to see the huge form of Azaziel, on the ground in tears looking around in confusion. The sight of the Angel, so large and with his wings spread out on the ground nearly covering the width of the Market, was shocking.   He also saw Orophir, Istariel, and the other Nephelem standing off to one side in their robes – they were human sized, but still were a shock to see.

          PFC Rich Hampton did scream like a little girl and fainted.  Even though Brad felt sorry for him, he had to smirk and said out loud, “Well that apple didn’t fall farm from the tree, did it?”

          There was a sound of fluttering wings as Michael and the Arch-Angels appeared around the Market.  Uriel looked at the bodies covering the Market – they had only been dead a few minutes, and he would convey their Souls to the next phase of their existence soon.

          Michael approached Ken saying, “Ken…there aren’t words to express what you have accomplished today.  We were watching and already mourning – we were going to lose one or more of our grandchildren, or an old friend and Brother.  You managed to make it so we didn’t experience either but only joy.  I am so proud of you.”

          Ken accepted the praise knowing it was meant just for him, but Ken turned it into praise of the Team and not just himself.  Michael realized Ken would never take the credit personally, even as their leader.  

          Brad looked at Raphael and his voice was cold as he said, “You have some explaining to do.”

          Raphael looked sad, and was quiet in his response, “Can we talk?  After we get Azaziel situated I’d like to settle this between us.”

          Brad nodded in acknowledgement, and then moved off towards Istariel and Orophir.

          Lane saw inside of Jacob and the other three men that they were about to completely freak out – they could feel the Auras of the Arch-Angels and they were terrified – the presence of such powerful beings was overwhelming to mortals.  He slipped their Minds into neutral and they stopped moving.

          Bryan looked at Lane said, “Good thinkin’.  They’ve dealt with enough for now.”

 

<><><> 

                                                                                                         

           As Michael and the others made their way to greet their now newborn Brother, Brad approached Orophir.  He nodded to Istariel and his cousins in greeting and said, “Thanks.  I realize you probably stopped him from interfering and we’re grateful.  I’m not sure we would have succeeded if we had to deal with him at the same time.”

          His gaze was hard as he turned it to Orophir, “You and I have met before…or another version of you.  What Ken said was right…we kicked your ass.  We aren’t sure about your involvement, but you had better tread lightly.  I will make it my life’s mission to end yours if you interfere with us anymore in any way.”

          “Consider this a gift.”  Brad raised his hands to his chest and a small ball of light appeared out of his body and bobbed over to Orophir.  It was the memory of Orophir’s death in the alternate reality.  It showed the fight with Ken, Bryan, Lane, and Brad and how it ended badly for him.

          It was like a bucket of ice water hit Orophir as he absorbed the memories and made them his own.  He realized it was his father that killed the other version of himself for failing.  It drove a wedge of fear into him – he had the same desires and wants of feeling accepted by his father, but seeing how casually his counterpart was killed he realized, as badly as he wanted to think otherwise, that his father would do that to him in this reality as well if it suited his purposes.

          He was not willing to betray his father, at least not yet.  He knew if he revealed his identity to Michael and the others they would act.  His mind was spinning with emotions, and Brad could see it.  He was still fully merged with everyone and his Avatar was magnified making him extremely sensitive to what he was witnessing.

          Brad’s Intuition told him he had planted a seed of doubt in Orophir, and he needed to let it grow.  If they held him captive, even if they could, that seed would not grow.

          Brad looked at Istariel and said, “Let him go.”

          “Brad Wilson, are you sure?  He can cause much mischief and disruption to our cause.”

          “I’m sure Istariel.  Please trust me on this.”

          “Very well.”

          Orophir vanished across the Veil.   The Amulet he wore would keep him hidden even from his father.  Once across the Veil he had no body to shed tears, but his Spiritual form was in much pain it would have been evident to anyone he came in contact with. He was all alone as he always had been.

          Orophir saw what existed in the half-breeds – the power of their Auras was so strong it was almost blinding to him.  The warmth they exuded was new to him – his father had kept him shielded and isolated his entire upbringing.  He was hurt and confused and not sure what to do.

 

<><><> 

 

          Once Orophir and the other Nephelem were gone, Brad made his way back over to Ken, who was with the hostages.

          Uriel stood apart from the other Arch-Angels, who had formed a ring around Azaziel.  The smiles on their faces to their grandchildren said everything they needed to convey. 

          Raphael sent a private thought to Brad:  I will come to you soon to discuss all of this. With the sound of fluttering wings they vanished leaving Uriel behind.

          Uriel looked at Bryan and said, “Wait until after I am gone before you release their minds. Tighten your Protection over them.”

          Uriel took on his true form – he became a being of pure white Light, filling the Market area.  He spread out his wings and gathered the Souls of all the dead men, pulling them into his embrace.

          A deep moment of Compassion hit the Team for the Souls of the men who had turned themselves over to Evil.  As mortals, they never truly understood the consequences of their actions, and now they were paying the price – for eternity.  They felt no regret at the deaths, but were still saddened by the loss of life and at what price they would now pay for their decisions. 

          The Enemy now knew beyond any doubt that The Order was back and stronger than ever.

          Ken:  Dar can you take us back to Australia?  I know some soldiers who need to be with their families.

          Darren grinned:  10-4, Boss.  He added with a dimpled grin:  Don’t forget to tip your driver, ladies.

          They all gathered together in a circle around the hostages and disappeared.

         The dark clouds broke immediately and the sun shone bright – the strain on reality was gone with the ending of the confrontation between the Light and the Dark.  The town was quiet now in the early morning. The only sound was the slight breeze.

          The camera was still recording – the scene showed all the bodies lying about.  Suddenly a man appeared in their midst.  He didn’t look happy.

          He paused and then looked directly into the camera.  His eyes flashed black, and the recording ended as the camera was obliterated.

         The doctor ended the satellite link and had the full digital recording.  He smiled grimly to himself.  Henry had never heard him cuss but the doctor said quietly as he looked at the screen, “Take that, you son-of-a-bitch.  Now you know who you are dealing with!” 

 

 

 

Ok that’s it for Chapter 21… I hope you enjoyed it!  Now to get started on Chapter 22!  What could possibly happen next?  Beats me - who comes up with this stuff?

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