Reality Dreaming

Pairings: Jesse / Brennan Jesse / Ashlocke

Rating: R - angst, mention of non-con, occasional nasty language

Archive: Yes to WWOMB, if anyone else would like it then please, just ask.

Feedback: Yes. Please.

Disclaimers: Not mine. Tribune Entertainment (or something like that anyway!) hold the honours. I merely borrow to kill time.

Summary: Ashlocke takes his 'issues' with Adam and Mutant X to an all new and personal level.

Warnings: Non graphic mentions of rape

Notes: Self beta'd.

Narrated by Jesse - first person, present tense, and Brennan - second person, past tense. Sorry if this is confusing (although each section is clearly marked) but when I started writing it I didn't feel confident of getting a hang of Brennan in the first person (my preferred 'style').

Oh! And lots and lots of hugs and gratitude to those who kindly sent me feedback for my first MX fic - this is for you!


Prologue *

~ Brennan ~

"Hey guys, I'm back," Brennan called out to an oddly silent Sanctuary, a frown trading places with the grin he'd been wearing ever since bounding out of the car and making his way inside. He'd been away for two days helping a group of new mutants settle into their new lives and was pleased to be back home. The task had been an easy one, the new mutants themselves affable and willing to do whatever he told them but he'd still found himself longing to be back at Sanctuary. Although he hadn't thought of it before he knew now more than ever that his solo days were behind him. Sanctuary was home to everything he held dear and he'd hated being separated from it.

He'd particularly hated being apart from Jesse. As silly as the logical part of his brain told him it was, that two days apart was hardly the beginning of the end, he'd missed his lover tremendously.

Stifling a sigh and wondering where everyone was, Brennan tried again. "Anyone?" he yelled out, his voice echoing back at him and increasing his unease. According to his watch everyone should have been up hours ago. His earlier good mood deserting him, he made his way to his room and dumped his overnight bag onto the bed. His room looked exactly the same as it had when he'd left it, right down to the unmade bed and pile of dirty clothes slung haphazardly over the desk. Given Jesse's penchant not only for cleaning but also for sneaking into his room to sleep when he wasn't there, this surprised Brennan. He'd been positive that Jesse would have passed through and restored everything to his version of clean and tidy. It was, after all, what he usually did.

What the hell was going on?

Patience being little more than another name for the game of Solitaire as far as Brennan was concerned, he turned around and headed back out of his room, determined to get to the bottom of the weirdness he'd come home to. A quick peek into Jesse's room as he passed it told him nothing. The bed was made and everything was in its rightful place. Knowing Jess as he did Brennan couldn't even tell if he'd actually slept there. It didn't help. Shalimar and Emma's rooms on the other hand showed distinct signs of life. Both beds were unmade and the lingering scent of perfume hanging in the air told Brennan that their occupants had been through recently.

Brennan felt as though he'd just fallen down the rabbit hole. It was close to midday and Sanctuary was giving every impression of emulating a ghost town. He didn't get it. Everything had sounded okay yesterday afternoon when he'd called in to say that everyone was settled and that he was on his way back.

Yesterday afternoon. Less than twenty-four hours ago. It suddenly seemed like an exceptionally long time.

Leaving the bedrooms, the aroma of fresh coffee replaced that of the perfume and, taking the hint, Brennan headed for the kitchen. Reaching it he found Adam, Shalimar and Emma all sitting hunched over the table. They were all still in their sleepwear, cups of coffee clutched in their pale hands. Apart from looking as though they'd been pulled through a hedge backwards they also looked as though they'd just woken up. The hair on the back of Brennan's neck stood on end as he looked at them.

"Where's Jesse?" he asked, inwardly cringing at how loud his voice sounded in the silent kitchen.

Three sets of identically blank eyes turned to stare at him although it was only Shalimar who answered.

"We thought he was with you."


~ Jesse ~

I wake feeling both disorientated and as though I've been run over by a truck. A big truck at that. You name it and it hurts. My head, my shoulders, my chest, my...

Oh... God...


Parts of me hurt that have no right to hurt.

I don't think I want to know why.

Gingerly struggling into a sitting position, I slowly convince my eyes that they do actually want to stay open and, with extreme effort, take in my surroundings. The realisation that I have no idea where I am hits me with all the force of a sledgehammer. Fear settles over me, fighting the pain and confusion in my head for the title of most dominant emotion.

Where am I? How'd I get here? Why am I hurting?

Taking a deep breath, I force myself not to give into fully-fledged panic and concentrate on making sense of what little I do know. Although it's hard I somehow manage it. I'm dressed in extremely loose fitting white silk pyjamas and the leopard print blanket covering me is both wonderfully warm and gloriously soft. The room I'm in, and there's no two ways about it, is a bedroom.

A bedroom I have no recollection of ever having been in before.

An Oak cupboard and dresser, both Middle Eastern in design, take up one wall while another is covered in heavy velvet drapes. I can only assume that they're covering windows. As much as I want to get up and look I have this sneaking suspicion that my legs aren't in the mood to hold me up and resign myself to staying in bed. Call it misguided pride but I don't really want my first encounter with the bedroom's owner to be from a crumpled position on the floor.

Candles, predominately vanilla scented going by their delicate aroma, flicker on every available surface. They're the only light in the room. I don't know whether it's night or day. A quick glance at my wrist confirms that my watch is gone. I don't know what concerns me more - the pain, not knowing where I am, or the fact that I don't know how long I've been here. Through the golden glow of the candles I can see extensive bruising where my watch should be. The bruises are mirrored on my other wrist. Caused by cuffs or rope? I was restrained? As with just about everything I have no freakin' idea. A number of abrasions and other small cuts also mark my wrists and hands.

Defence wounds.

Defence wounds caused fighting off what? Or should that be fighting off who?

I suddenly realise that I have no desire to see the rest of my injuries. If the pain coming from my lower body is any indicator then just call me a new fan of the ignorance is bliss theory.

Not having what you'd exactly call a lot to cheer about I derive a small degree of comfort from the fact that I'm at least not tied up. I'm alone in a bedroom and, for now at least, appear to be safe. For all I know I'm here for my own good, that the owner of the bedroom isn't holding me captive and actually happens to be looking after me.

Or they could be the person who did this to me.

When the door opens and a man walks slowly into the room I lose the plot entirely and, pulling the blanket up to my chin, cower on the bed, trembling. I do this not because I want to appear so pathetic that he'll turn around and leave me alone in disgust but because I can't help myself. Like the room the man rings no bells of recognition in my memory banks. Tall. Slim. Dark wavy hair. Attractive.

Nope. If I've seen him before I don't remember it.

Smiling reassuringly, the man walks over to the bed and sits on the foot of it. My nerves getting the better of me I immediately retract my feet and scoot further up the mattress. I'm so scared that I swear I can hear my own heartbeat.

"There's no need to worry, Jesse," the man murmurs gently, standing up and taking a step away from the bed, his gestures no doubt meant to reiterate that he means me no harm. "You're safe now. I'm not going to hurt you. My name's Gabriel, Gabriel Ashlocke. I rescued you from Mutant X."


end prologue

~ Brennan ~

"Maybe he's been kidnapped," Emma suggested dully, her gaze fixed on the mug of coffee she held gripped in both hands. "What with his family being rich and everything..." She trailed off and gave a slight shrug. "God, I don't know."

"It's a possibility," Shalimar replied unenthusiastically, pausing mid pace to give a dismissive shake of her hair. "I s'pose. Then again so's the possibility that he was abducted by aliens or caught up in a cult of Elvis spotters. Admit it. We know squat."

"That's not entirely true," Adam interjected from his position in front of the computer terminal. "We know that Jesse's not where he should be and that we have to do everything in our power to locate him."

"If that counts for knowing something, Adam, I think you need to redefine your definition," Shalimar retorted drily as, with another flick of her hair, she resumed her pacing. "This sucks. Why are we just lurking around here when Jesse's out there needing us, huh?"

"Because we don't know what we might be getting ourselves into," Emma responded quietly. "I know you want to get out there and find him, Shal, we all do, but Adam's right. We need to make sense of things before we venture out. Think about it. What help would we be to Jesse if we walked into a trap?"

"None!" Shalimar snapped, her eyes flashing gold as emotion got the better of her, "But at least I'd fucking feel as though I was doing something!"

Brennan sighed heavily and toyed with the silver band he held in his left hand. Jesse's ring. They'd found it in the pocket of Shalimar's coat, the one she'd worn out last night. She had no idea how it had gotten there. It was just another thing that made no sense. Closing his hand around the ring, making a fist, Brennan slumped back in his seat and tried to run through what little he knew.

At half past three yesterday, less than twenty-four hours ago when Brennan had called Sanctuary to check in, everything had seemed fine. Nothing out of the ordinary was happening and neither Jesse nor Emma, both of whom he'd talked to, had made any plans for the evening. Emma had mentioned a new Anne Rice novel that she was wanting to get stuck into and Jesse had thought about running a check on Sanctuary's security system. Both were of the opinion that Shalimar, who was once again swearing off dating after her last date had turned into an octopus not of the new mutant variety, was contemplating visiting a couple of safe-houses before vegging out in front of television. Brennan hadn't asked about Adam. What Adam did on his rare forays into the big wide world was Adam's business.

Somewhere along the line everything had changed though. Shalimar went clubbing. The stamps on her wrists attested to the number of clubs she'd visited. Perry's. Heaven. Diva. Oasis. She'd done them all. Not that she could remember much about any of them. All she could remember with any degree of clarity was waking up late morning, in her own bed, feeling like death warmed up. And, no, she couldn't remember how she got there.

Both Emma and Adam had similar stories. For reasons she couldn't remember Emma had gone to an all night movie-marathon at one of the Megaplex's in the city. If not for the ticket stubs that were retrieved from the pocket of her jeans telling her she wouldn't have had a clue in respect to what movies she'd seen. Like Shalimar she couldn't recall how she got back to Sanctuary or why she'd decided to go out in the first place. She also felt drained.

A receipt in Adam's wallet told of an expensive meal at Chloe's, a seafood restaurant renowned for its lobster. Adam didn't even particularly like seafood, let alone lobster. Going on the total Adam had either had guests or he'd drained the bar. He couldn't tell whether the headache pounding in his temples was caused by overindulgence or something else. He too remembered nothing of his evening.

No one could remember when it was that they'd last seen Jesse. The Beamer, his current car of choice, wasn't in the garage. Shalimar had tried to locate the car using the GPS but it wasn't responding. The others were as much in the dark as he was. Emma's attempts to reach Jesse Psionically hadn't achieved anything either. It was as if both the car and its driver had disappeared off the face of the earth. Fear gnawed at Brennan, making him restless. He wanted to scream but knew it wouldn't do him any good, that he had to keep focussed.

The one thing they were all certain of was that wherever Jesse was he wasn't there of his own volition. Of all the team, with perhaps the notable exception of where his father was involved, Jesse was the most responsible when it came to reporting in. Regular as clockwork, if Jess was meant to check in he did. On the dot. He even lectured the others about their less than exemplary skills when it came to reporting in. Although it hadn't been voiced everyone also knew that he'd been looking forward to Brennan's return and would have had every intention of being around to greet him.

"So what do you suggest?" Brennan queried softly, interrupting Shalimar's latest diatribe about wanting to get out there and kick some as yet unknown butt. Like the Feral, Brennan hated just sitting around feeling helpless. He wanted to be doing something. *Anything*. The mere thought of Jesse being possibly injured and in danger was akin to his own version of hell.

Adam sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, his expression unreadable. "For the want of a better suggestion how about we start by retracing our steps last night," he stated. "I'll go back to Chloe's while you two," he indicated to Shalimar and Emma, "can team up and check out both the cinema and the clubs. Ask around, see if anyone remembers you. Check any surveillance tapes. I don't know what you're looking for but there may be something that grabs your attention. We can't discount Ashlocke's involvement so perhaps play careful attention for any of the Links lurking around. How does that sound?"

"It's a *start*," Shalimar scowled, spinning on her heels and striding out of the room. "Come on Em, let's get dressed and get the hell out of here."

Emma stood up and nodded. Passing Brennan on the way to the door, she paused and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry. We'll find him," she murmured gently before slipping out of the room.

"What about me?" Brennan asked, turning his attention to Adam. "What can I do?"

Adam shrugged tiredly. "You can drive around and see if you can spot the BMW if you like," he suggested. "Until I get the results of our blood tests back I won't know if what we experienced last night was courtesy of a chemical or a Psionic so, I'm sorry Brennan, you're pretty much on your own. Believe me though when I say that I won't give up until I make sense of this and Jesse's back with us."

"That makes four of us then," Brennan muttered, standing up and digging the keys to the Mustang out of his pocket. Driving around wasn't much but at least he'd finally feel as though he was doing something.


~ Jesse ~

I keep my eyes screwed tightly closed as the doctor examines me. Still a card-carrying member of the ignorance is bliss school of thought, I just don't want to know. I know I hurt and, to hell with curiosity, that's enough. *More* than enough in fact.

Latex covered fingers skim over my exposed flesh, gently prodding and probing. I wish I was elsewhere. Just about anywhere would do. Working his way down, the doctor seems to pay an inordinate amount of attention to the back of my neck. I want to get dressed, for him to get his hands off me, but I stand stock still, concentrating on my breathing. Ashlocke insisted that I allow the doctor to check me over. He said he'd never be able to live with himself if I was seriously injured and he didn't know. Not wanting to know myself I capitulated for Ashlocke's sake, to put his mind at rest, nothing more.

Ashlocke. For some reason I don't think of him as Gabriele. Ashlocke just seems to suit him better.

Whoever he is.

Hours have passed since I first woke up and I'm still none the wiser as to what happened to me or why I'm here. I've tried to think back but my memory seems to have some pretty major gaps in it. I can remember my childhood and early adult years with ease. The apple pie my mother used to get the cook to make for me, my cat Pippa who used to stalk next door's poodle, learning to drive, the uncertainty my new mutant abilities installed not only in me but also in those around me - everything's crystal clear. Then... Then nothing. It's like I've lost something like five years of my life. It disturbs me. A lot.

God! Get over my neck already, doc. Obvious my discomfort at having to be naked isn't impacting on the good doctor in the slightest. While I'm all for him being thorough I wish he'd fucking get a move on.

Clearing his throat, the doctor finally removes his fingers from the back of my neck. "Not to worry, Mr Kilmartin, the scar will heal over time," he announces solemnly, his tone of voice indicating that I should know what he's talking about. I don't but can't be bothered seeking clarification. As with everything I can't remember anything ever having been done to my neck and file it away as just another point to add to my ever-growing list of concerns.

I try to think happy thoughts as the doctor continues his examination. It's close to impossible. Not only don't I want the doctor touching me but I'm also somewhat lacking in happy things to think about. Trying to find a silver lining in the fact that I'm alive doesn't exactly work. So I'm alive, so what? I know nothing, have nothing, and I'm afraid. Yay me. I don't think. The closest I can get to a happy thought -- of sorts -- is Ashlocke. Instinct tells me to trust him, that he means it when he says he's not going to hurt me. Having nothing else to believe in, I want to believe him. Desperately. Something tells me that right now he knows me better than I know myself.

Forcing myself to remain calm, I'm dealing with the doctor's touch until his fingers skip below my waist. I then tense, wanting nothing more than to get away from his invasive touch. Sensing this, the doctor starts to murmur meaningless words of reassurance but, trapped by the terror of memories that I can't quite place, I can barely hear him. When his hand moves between my thighs I whimper and start to tremble. My legs feel as though they're going to give way beneath me and I mentally will to doctor to hurry up.

I have no idea how I get through what follows. I think I focus more on the silent tears streaming down my cheeks than I do on what his fingers are doing.

When he's finally finished he pats me on the shoulder, tells me that he'll be in the other room talking to Mr Ashlocke and that I can get dressed now. I don't open my eyes until I hear the soft click of the door closing. For a moment I just stand there, a void taking up temporary residence in my head as I wait for my legs to stop shaking. Once I feel as though I'm able to move without falling straight on my ass I walk over to the vanity unit and snatch up the clean pyjamas Ashlocke had left for me. My reflection in the wall mirror is something I decline to check out. I already suspect I look like I feel without having to see the proof.

Only once I'm dressed, this time in black silk pyjamas, the twin of the white pair I had on earlier, do I stop trembling. I feel wretched and don't understand why Ashlocke is bothering with me. God knows it's not as though I could possibly be of any use to him. Even if he's just a Good Samaritan I can't help but feel having to deal with me and my considerable problems is well and truly going above and beyond the call of duty.

Wanting to get away both from the mirror and the bright light needed by the doctor for his examination, I walk out of the en suite and back into the bedroom where I first woke up. To my decidedly pitiful relief the only light in the room still comes from the myriad candles. Looking around, I note that the bed has been made and that there's a tray containing coffee, water, and sandwiches sitting on the bedside table. Not knowing what else to do, not to mention not exactly feeling up to anything, I make my way over to the bed and crawl onto the mattress. I ache all over and hope that the doctor gives me something for the pain before he leaves. A small voice whispers in my head that I'm being too complacent, that I should care more about my situation, but I dismiss it. Not knowing any better I'm as well off here as anywhere.

Before I can decide whether or not it would be okay for me to get back into bed proper, Ashlocke returns to the room. In his hand he carries what looks to be a small box of painkillers. I don't know what I'm happier to see, him or the pills. If I didn't have so many questions that I wanted answered I'd see if he'd give me something to make me sleep.

"How are you feeling?" Ashlocke queries softly, placing the pills on the tray and hesitantly sitting on the edge of the mattress. The look of concern on his face makes me feel unworthy of all his care and attention.

"Terrible," I admit, my voice sounding as small as I feel. "I... I ache all over and... and I didn't like the doctor's examination very much..."

"It's okay, Jesse," Ashlocke replies, picking the packet of pills back up and popping two out of their protective wrapper. "I'm sorry if Dr Schmidt made you feel uncomfortable but I feel better now that I know you've been checked over by a professional. Now, he's left these for me to take away some of the pain and to also act as a healing agent. I'm taking it you'd like a couple now?"

I nod. "Please." After I've swallowed the two pills and a fair slug of water from the glass Ashlocke hands me, I add, "I'm sorry for being such a nuisance. You're being very kind to me and I don't know how I'm ever going to be able to repay you."

"Don't think you have to repay me, Jesse, as you don't," Ashlocke murmurs, taking the glass from me and returning it to the tray. "Rescuing new mutants like yourself is what I do. I suppose you could call it my life's work."

"Rescuing?" I query, hugging my knees to my chest and, for the first time, meeting Ashlocke's intense gaze. "Rescuing new mutants from who?"

"From Mutant X and their false tales of hope and freedom," Ashlocke explains, his eyes flashing. "That's where I got you from, Jesse. I'm only sorry that I left it to late, allowing them time to do to you what they did. Adam says he's every new mutant's best friend but he's a monster. Knowing that he uses sub-dermal governors to control his group just makes me so angry. If I could I'd wipe out Mutant X forever. Unfortunately though I can't and have to content myself with mounting rescue missions whenever I can. Believe me when I say that you're safe now, Jesse. I'll never let Adam or any of the others hurt you ever again."

"I..." I sigh heavily and shake my head. "I don't remember any of it," I confess softly. "Please. Tell me. I... I want to know."

"You don't, you know," Ashlocke replies gently, his gaze holding mine, imploring me to let the issue drop. "You're hurting enough already. Knowing what they did to you won't help."

"I want to know," I repeat. "Please. I *need* to know. Who are Mutant X? What did they do to me?"

"I don't think you're ready for this," Ashlocke sighs, "but, if it will go some small way in assisting to put your mind at ease then I'm willing to do as you wish. Not wanting to voice it, I'd rather, with your permission of course, share your past with you Psionically. Like yourself I'm a new mutant only I'm a Psionic, not a Molecular. I just think this would be the easier way of doing it."

"Go for it," I murmur nervously as, with a resigned shrug, Ashlocke leans closer and places a hand on either side of my temple.

"I'm sorry, Jesse," he whispers, "so sorry."

I open my mouth to tell him that he has nothing to apologise for but then the images start and I quite literally lose the ability to speak.

Oh God... Ashlocke was right and I was wrong. I'm not ready for this. Not by a long shot.

... I'm running down a dark and deserted alleyway. A man and a woman are chasing after me. I know that I have to get away from them and, in my fear, turn into a dead end. The ensuing fight is short but far from sweet. I swear the crack of my arm breaking could have been heard for miles. A bolt of electricity coming from the man's fingers brings me down and the woman, a Feral by the unnatural glow in her eyes, keeps me down.

... I'm strapped to some sort of dentist's chair in what looks to be a laboratory. A man wearing a white coat stands over me, his eyes and his expression as cold as ice. Moving around behind me, he pushes my head down and, without warning, embeds something into the back of neck. When I scream he slaps me and says that I'm his now.

... I'm running down an alleyway again, a pamphlet clutched in my hand. Desperate to escape Mutant X, I'm looking for The Strand as I know that they'll help me. Although I'd tried to be careful I know that Mutant X are on to me and that they're not far behind. Just as I see the door that I know will lead me to The Strand a piercing pain emanates from the governor in my neck and I fall to my knees. My pursuers are on me before I have time to get back on my feet. The leader sneers and tells me that I'm going to have to pay for my lack of faith.

... I'm naked and on my knees, my wrists cuffed behind my back. An audience of three, one male, two female, stand in front of me to witness my shame. The leader, the Feral, and the Psionic. The only one missing is the big Elemental, the one who scares me even more than the leader does. Knowing that I have no dignity left to me I start to beg them for mercy. They just laugh. The Psionic makes me believe that I'm choking for a minute or two, making them laugh even harder. When they've finished they step apart, allowing the Elemental to walk between them. He's naked. And hard. When he hauls me to my feet and shoves me against the wall I bite my lip so hard to stop from screaming that my mouth fills with the metallic taste of blood. No... This can't be...

"No! No, no, no! Make it stop. Oh please God make it stop!"

Images suddenly giving way to reality, I find myself being clutched to Ashlocke's chest, his arms around my waist, my hands clenched around his shirt, my head buried into the crook of his neck. I'm sobbing so hard that I feel as though I'm in danger of hyperventilating.


~ Brennan ~

Two weeks.

Two weeks had past since Jesse had disappeared and they had nothing.


Not a Goddamn thing.

No leads and, as the days moved into double figures, increasingly little hope. Not a second went by that Brennan didn't want to punch something out of sheer frustration.

Frustration and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. And fear. And disbelief. And futile anger. The cocktail of emotions in his head was like a bomb waiting to go off.

There were times when Brennan honestly wondered whether he was going mad. Not that the thought really bothered him greatly. So what if he lost his marbles and started howling at the moon in the middle of the day? In a perverse way insanity would probably be preferable to the hell he was facing every day anyway.

Two weeks.


Nothing that had proven useful at any rate.

The BMW, well, what was left of it, had been found on the grounds of a disused industrial estate on the outskirts of the city. It had been stripped bare. The police who found it put it down to the work of local car thieves. A careless fingerprint left on the doorframe proved them correct and a juvenile offender going by the tag of Pagan had been pulled. Pagan, while well and truly a few fries short of a Happy Meal, cooperated with police enquiries and Emma confirmed that he'd been telling the truth when he said he'd picked the car up from out the front of a Blockbuster on the other side of the town. He'd thought it was his lucky night as the tank was full of gas and the keys were still in the ignition. The geek behind the counter at Blockbuster couldn't remember the car arriving.

Surveillance footage from Shalimar's, Emma's, and Adam's night on the town told them little other than confirming that they'd been where their receipts or door stamps told them. Shalimar had danced up a storm and fended off hordes of admirers. Emma had watched one bad movie after another and Adam had enjoyed two bottles of the most expensive champagne Chloe's had to offer. Of Jesse there was no sign. Footage from the security camera in the garage showed him driving the Beamer out of Sanctuary just after seven and that was it.

Two weeks.

Two slow and incredibly drawn out weeks that were easily proving to be the worst of Brennan's life. Sanctuary just wasn't the same without Jesse. Hell, *nothing* was the same without him. Everywhere Brennan looked he expected to see him and when he wasn't there, wasn't where he *should* be, the pain was like nothing on earth. The tears that he could constantly feel welling were getting harder and harder to quash. Sleep was something he could only remember. The nights were the worst. Not even sleeping in Jesse's bedroom, immersing himself in his lover's achingly familiar scent, helped. If anything it increased the pain.

Visits to all of Jesse's favourite haunts had heralded nothing. No one had seen him. It was though he'd literally ceased to exist. Although nobody wanted to hear it Adam was slowly beginning to cautiously suggest that there was a chance that he could be dead. Shalimar had lashed out and broken a computer monitor when he'd first mentioned the possibility. Emma had cried. Brennan himself had walked out of the room.


Brennan didn't even want to contemplate it.

Jesse couldn't be dead. He just couldn't.


He just couldn't be. If he was then...


Brennan refused to think about it. Jesse was still out there, *somewhere*, and he wasn't going to rest until he'd found him. Whatever it took. Brennan didn't care if he had to move heaven and hell and everything in between, he was going to find Jesse. Somehow. The thought of him not returning, of Mutant X carrying on without him, was unthinkable. Nor was it going to be allowed to eventuate. Not if Brennan had anything to do with it.

Two weeks.


Even if there had been any clues they were long cold now.

Fuck! Fuck it to Goddamn hell and back!

While Brennan never thought he'd live to see the day he almost missed the GSA. If Mason Eckhart was still around making life a misery for new mutants then it would have been a pretty safe bet that he would have been the one behind Jesse's disappearance. The GSA Brennan could deal with. Above everything else they'd been a predictable bunch. Sneaky, yeah, but predictable. Mutant X had always been able to thwart them. Then some misguided idiot just had to come along and release Gabriel Ashlocke, causing their carefully guarded boundaries to disintegrate. In a strange way it was a case of come back Eckhart, all is forgiven.


The conscienceless psychopath was someone Brennan would be all too happy to blame for Jesse going missing only -- just to make things that little bit more difficult -- Ashlocke too had disappeared from the radar. Although Adam had been carefully monitoring the situation neither Ashlocke or any of his acolytes, the Links, had said or done squat since the day before Jesse drove the Beamer out of the garage and disappeared off into the sunset. For all they could ascertain Ashlocke may have shut up shop and scurried out of town, Links, as always, in tow. Like rats following the Pied Piper, wherever Ashlocke was there were always Links in close proximity.

Failing Ashlocke just up and leaving, and going on the nut job's less than exemplary history this was more likely, he was head down ass up plotting his next attempt at world domination. Ashlocke, unlike Eckhart and his army of grunts, was far from predictable. Eckhart for all his considerable faults wasn't insane. Unlike Ashlocke.

If he had Jesse then he'd done a freakin' marvellous job of covering his tracks.

The thought of Ashlocke getting his talons into his lover was, oddly enough, something else Brennan didn't want to think about. When it came to Ashlocke, Brennan was of the opinion that keeping him alive in a pod was actually far too good for him.

"Thought I'd find you in here."

Shalimar's voice breaking into his repetitive and going nowhere in a hurry thoughts, Brennan dragged his attention away from the ceiling and sat up. He had no idea how long he'd been lying on Jesse's bed for. Murmuring, "Hey," Brennan patted the mattress next to him and worked hard on dredging up a smile for the Feral. The look on her face as she sat down told him he need not have bothered.

"Doing anything exciting?" Shalimar queried dully, her fingers smoothing out non-existent wrinkles in the comforter as she avoided Brennan's gaze. Like everyone else inside the cavernous depths of Stormking Mountain she looked exhausted.

"Thinking about going shopping for some new jeans," Brennan retorted facetiously, failing to feel the need to state the obvious. "You?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of boots myself," Shalimar replied flatly, her eyes flashing as she suddenly looked up and caught Brennan's eyes. "God Bren! I don't know about you but I'm going stir crazy in here. Emma's sleeping off another headache, Adam's trying to conjure up leads in the lab and... And I can't take it anymore! This not knowing is doing my head in. I'd even rather it if..."

"If we knew for sure that he was dead," Brennan finished quietly, swinging his legs over the edge of the mattress and shuffling closer to Shalimar. Although saying it hurt, it was true. If -- please God no -- the unthinkable was true and Jesse was dead then knowing it was far preferable to still living with the delusion of hope. "I know..."

Shalimar shook her head, her brown eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Even thinking it hurts," she mumbled, tilting her head and hiding her grief behind her hair. "Do you think..." Trailing off, she swallowed hard, unable to voice the obvious.

"No, no I don't," Brennan whispered, more to himself than Shalimar. "I... I know I'm not a Psionic or anything but..."

"But something inside you says that you'd know if he was," Shalimar murmured, cutting Brennan off. "That's what I feel too. Although I can't sense him I like to think that I'd somehow know if... if he was no longer with us."

Brennan nodded. "Me too," he responded softly. "I know Emma hasn't been able to locate so much as a hint of a hit but something tells me that he's still alive. It may be nothing more than blind hope but, I dunno, I don't think it is."

"I don't think it is either," Shalimar stated, sweeping her hair back from her face and once again raising her eyes to meet Brennan's. "Let's get out of here for a while," she suggested, abruptly standing up and extending her hand to the Elemental.

"Sounds good to me," Brennan agreed, taking the proffered hand and letting Shalimar haul him to his feet. Even going over the same old tired ground would be better than wasting another hour or four moping in Jesse's bedroom. "Got anywhere in particular in mind?"

Shalimar shrugged. "Nope. Dunno about you but I feel in the mood to try sniffing out some Links again," she muttered. "Even scum has to poke their nose out of the ground at some stage and I don't really think I need to add that I want to be there when they do."

"You lead and I'll follow," Brennan replied. "Don't worry, Shal. This isn't over. Not by a long shot."


~ Jesse ~

The nightmare giving up its hold over me, I wake with a strangled sounding gasp, the sight of the familiar candle lit room as always an immense relief. I'm beginning to think that while I might be free from Mutant X I'm never going to be free of the nightmares that feel compelled to make me live what they did to me over and over and over again. Every night I wake up gasping and drenched in sweat, the bedding tangled around me. Some nights I scream so loudly that I wake Ashlocke up and, ignoring my protests, he stays with me until morning, his hand constantly stroking my hair, soothing me.

I still don't know why he puts up with me. The way I see it I should be in an institution for those too helpless and pathetic to look after themselves. God knows I'm no use to anyone. The sight of my own shadow nearly causes me to jump out of my skin. With the exception of Ashlocke I can't bear to have anyone near me. An acquaintance of Ashlocke's was visiting the other day and he poked his head into my room while looking for the bathroom. If he saw me at all it would have only been as a blur before his eyes as I bolted into the en suite to hide. What I thought he was going to do to me I truly don't know.

Close to three weeks have past and I'm still firmly ensconced in Ashlocke's apartment. He keeps mentioning moving me into his underground, setting me up with a new identity far away from the treacherous reach of Mutant X, but so far nothing's come of it. I don't know whether this is because my lack of enthusiasm for the concept puts him off or because for some unknown reason he genuinely likes having me around. While I can't for the life of me see how the latter could be the case I have to admit that I'm kinda hoping that's what it is. I feel safe with Ashlocke.

Safe, protected, and cared for.

And right now those three things mean the world to me. Although Ashlocke's given me the loan of a car and my wallet's full of cash, I haven't once left the apartment, preferring instead to spend my time either in the living room with its state-of-the-art home entertainment system or reading in my bedroom. The mere thought of leaving the apartment, of venturing out into the big bad world, makes me break out into a cold sweat. Going outside represents the threat of running into Mutant X and that's the last thing I want. Oh God is that the last thing I want. If I ever see any of them again it will be too soon. Far, *far* too soon. I'm still having difficulties coming to terms with what they did to me. While the physical injuries are fading I know I'll carry the mental scars until the day I die.

I still can't look at myself without cringing. I'm also beginning to wonder whether I'll ever be able to shower with the light on again. I put almost as much effort into avoiding the sight of my own body as I do deflecting the issue of going outside. Again, I don't know what Ashlocke gets out of my presence. I feel like some form of parasitic life form, good for nothing other than sucking dry its host.

Not that Ashlocke himself ever does anything to make me feel this way. No. It's just me and the mass of dark thoughts swirling relentlessly around in my head. Ashlocke is the very embodiment of the perfect host. Anything I want he gets for me. If I need him he's there. Any sense of happiness I'm capable of attaining is linked directly to Ashlocke. Sometimes when we're talking I almost feel as though I'm normal. We talk a lot too. It still surprises me that he actually listens to what I have to say. I know I shouldn't but I rely on him. He alone makes me feel as though life is still worth living. As clichéd as it sounds I honestly believe that without him I'd be nothing. If not for Ashlocke I wouldn't have the strength to carry on.

I trust him, unconditionally, with the pitiful excuse that passes for my life. He's given me no reason not to. Not only have I the run of his entire apartment but I've also got unlimited access to his computer and its files on both new mutants and Mutant X. If he's hidden anything from me he's done a good job of it. I know that if I wanted to I could walk straight out the door and he wouldn't stop me. Needless to say I don't, but it's nice knowing that I could if I wanted to. I spend my days mooching around feeling sorry for myself yet instead of lecturing me he leaves me to my own devices. If I want to talk he's always there. I have this feeling I could sponge of Ashlocke for the rest of my life and he'd let me. Although I don't understand his motives for looking after me the way he is, I like him. He doesn't make me feel like a freak.

And for once I'm not talking about my Molecular status either.

Every time I think about breaking free of my lethargy and doing something for myself my mind turns to thoughts of Mutant X and I quickly decide that I'm better off just staying put. The thought of falling prey to them again terrifies me. I'd rather die than be forced back into being part of their team. The records Ashlocke has on them makes for nauseating reading. I could only read a couple of pages before shutting the computer down in disgust. My memories of my time with them and what they did to me comes and goes. I'd like them to go for good. The nightmares too. In fact I'd give anything to have my memory wiped clear of that particular period of my life once and for all.

My breathing finally back under control, I pull the leopard print blanket up to my chin and close my eyes. Although I'm hoping to sleep through until dawn my subconscious has other ideas and I quickly slip into another nightmare. In this one the Elemental from Mutant X is standing at the foot of my bed, electricity sparking from his fingers. He tells me that I'll never be free and that he'd like another go at me. When he makes to grab my ankles my subconscious takes pity on me and I wake up. Screaming. I wake up screaming hysterically, the delicate glow of the candles suddenly not bright enough for me. Within seconds Ashlocke is in the room. I'm so distraught that I can't even bring myself to look at him.

"Hey, Jess," he murmurs gently, reaching out and touching my shoulder, causing me to flinch. "Come on, it's okay. You're safe. Everything's okay. They're not going to get you. I won't let them."

I shake my head, not trusting myself to speak without sounding like I'm panicking. Because I feel even more vulnerable lying down I struggle into a sitting position. Yet again I'm shaking like a leaf. Given my new penchant for trembling I now know what it would feel like to suffer from Parkinson's. To my dismay I can feel tears welling in my eyes. I try to blink them away but that only produces more. Silent tears slide down my cheeks as I long for the ground to open up and swallow me.

Christ. Shoot me now and put me out of my obvious misery.

"Come on, Jess... Shhh... It's okay. I'm not going to let anyone hurt you," Ashlocke states soothingly, taking a seat on the mattress. How my loopy behaviour isn't pushing his buttons escapes me. I'm a patient person but, hell, the way I'm behaving is even pushing my patience to its limits.

"He... He was here," I whimper, shaking my head again. 'The Elemental... Brennan. He was here. For me. He was here for me."

"No he wasn't. It was just a dream, a horrible dream," Ashlocke replies, suddenly reaching for me and pulling me into his arms. I'm so stunned that, with one final hiccup of breath, I stop crying and freeze. Apart from that night when I sobbed myself to sleep in his arms Ashlocke has made no attempt to touch me. When he doesn't let go I begin to realise how good it feels being embraced and, wriggling, wrap my arms around his back, returning the hug.

It feels wonderful. For the first time in far too long I actually feel good.

We remain entwined for what feels like minutes. The dream gives up its hold on me and I lose myself in the feeling of warm flesh pressed against mine. When moist lips tentatively brush across mine I don't protest, returning the kiss instinctively. It feels right.

It's Ashlocke who breaks the kiss. Releasing me, he runs both hands through his hair and looks at me through wide eyes, his expression one of mortification. "Oh God! Jesse, I *so* sorry," he exclaims breathlessly. "I... Shit! I didn't mean to do that, to take advantage of you... Not after what you've been through. I apologise. It... Ah... It was wrong of me and it won't happen again. It's just... shit... you mean so much to me that I got carried away in the heat of the moment. I'm sorry. Please don't hold it against me. The last thing I want to do is ever hurt you."

Cocking my head to one side I look at Ashlocke, missing the feel of his body against mine more than listening to what he's saying. Mere seconds pass as I quickly make my decision. "What if I didn't want you to stop?" I murmur softly, feeling myself blush at the stupidity of my question. Yeah. Right. Like he'd want used goods like me. Let's face it, I doubt I'd want me either.

"You can't mean that," Ashlocke states gently, taking my hand in his and squeezing it. "I'm sorry for doing what I did and I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive me. I overstepped my boundaries and I'd hate it if you gave yourself to me because you thought you had to pay me back for what I've done for you. Believe me when I say that you don't owe me anything. You're my guest and my friend. The fact that you'd so much as think of offering yourself to me is thanks enough."

"What if I want you to want me?" I whisper, clutching his hand tightly and lifting my head so I can look into his eyes. "If you want me I'm yours. I'd... Ah... I'd understand if you didn't want anything to do with me though. I know that I'm not exactly factory fresh."

"Not your fault," Ashlocke murmurs. "None of it's your fault. And I don't want you to ever think that it is. You're just another victim of Mutant X... one I've come to care greatly for. As much as I want this I don't want you to think that you have to. It's better if we just pretend it never happened."

"Don't have to, *want* to," I reply simply. "Please... It... It would actually mean a lot to me." Barring making the first move, the idea of which my nerves are emphatically against, that's me done. There's nothing more I can think of saying that would convince Ashlocke that I know what it is I'm doing. It's true. Although I hadn't thought about it before -- I mean, why would I? -- I want Ashlocke. He's kind to me, I enjoy his company, and... And I need to reclaim my own body.

After a few tediously slow seconds have ticked past, Ashlocke nods, a brilliant smile lighting up his face. "Your wish is my command," he states quietly. "I have only one request though, one that I won't be swayed on, and that's that you promise to say something if it gets too much for you. I refuse to hurt you or make you feel uncomfortable in any way. Promise me, Jess, promise that you'll speak out if I do something that you don't like."

I nod, Ashlocke's concerns for my delicate sensibilities confirming in my mind that I've made the right decision. "I promise."

What follows easily outstrips my greatest expectations. Ashlocke not only ensures that I'm constantly in charge but he also achieves what I'd thought to be impossible and makes me feel good about myself. If I've ever had such a thorough and attentive lover before I can't remember it. When he enters me he does so with such care that I hardly feel any pain at all, only intense pleasure. It's a far cry from the last time. A far, *far cry.

Afterwards, the scent of our lovemaking intermingling with the vanilla candles, we fall asleep in each other's arms. My sleep this time is thankfully free from nightmares and I don't wake until morning.


~ Brennan ~

His fingers tingling from the force of the electrical pulse he'd just thrown, Brennan watched the Ashlocke simulation momentarily smoulder on the Dojo floor before disappearing into the ether, a cold dispassionate expression on his face. Not for the first time, nor he suspected the last, he wished it had been the real Ashlocke lying dead at his feet.

While there was still nothing to suggest that Ashlocke had been involved in Jesse's disappearance Brennan was too much of a cynic to believe in consequences. In his mind the only reason Looney Tunes Ashlocke was currently out of the game was because he had, albeit for reasons completely fucking unknown, Jesse. End of story. If Adam wanted to think along the lines that possibly Ashlocke too was being held somewhere against his will then, well, that was Adam's look out. Brennan didn't believe it for a second. Nor did he have any time for Adam's other suggestion, that perhaps the two disappearances were completely unrelated. They were related alright. He couldn't see how they couldn't be.

Wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, Brennan stepped off the Dojo mat and sat down on the steps. He'd been fighting Ashlocke simulations for hours now and was exhausted, drained. The tiredness in his bones wasn't enough to make him sleep though. These days nothing could grant him a peaceful night's rest. Physical activity tired his body but not his mind and the sleeping pills Adam had adapted so as not to interfere with his new mutant blood work gave him nightmares that would have given Stephen King the heebie-jeebies. Having little choice in the matter, Brennan had come to accept that he simply wasn't meant to sleep. Not without having Jesse nearby at any rate.

Too late, the damage having already been done, Brennan realised why he'd never allowed himself to fall in love before. The helplessness he felt at not being able to find Jess, to rescue him, hurt too much. Love, more than anything, was pain. The pain of not knowing. The pain of having failed. It was like a cancerous tumour that was slowly taking him over. He couldn't remember the last time he'd smiled or heard the sound of laughter ringing through Sanctuary.

Stormking Mountain was empty without Jesse. They all felt it. Talking about his disappearance was becoming more and more difficult. Adam and Emma kept having to correct themselves and apologise for using the past tense when speaking about him Shalimar was sinking into despondency, her usual vitality having deserted her in favour of uncharacteristic depression. Just as Brennan wore Jesse's ring Shalimar all but lived in one of his white shirts. She even slept in it. When Emma suggested that perhaps the time had come to wash the shirt Shalimar had lashed out at the Psionic, missing her face by mere centimetres. They'd then both clung together, crying. Adam had learnt to keep his thoughts of Jesse being dead to himself. No one believed him to be dead. The one suggestion they'd all willingly accepted of Adam's was that if -- not that they thought of it in terms of 'ifs' -- Jesse was still alive he was quite possibly being cloaked by a powerful Psionic. If nothing else it would explain why Emma hadn't been able to sense him.

Two weeks had with excruciating slowness turned into three. Apart from the date and the added worry lines on everyone's faces nothing had changed. Still no Jesse. Still no signs of Ashlocke. Still no leads.

Still nothing.

Brennan didn't know for how much longer he'd be able to keep it together. The desire to drop to his knees and scream entreaties to an unknown deity was becoming harder and harder to control. As was his temper. Working out in the Dojo with the simulations was the only way he could stop himself from punching holes in walls. He was constantly on edge. Not even his beloved Walt Whitman could offer any words of wisdom or peace. In all his life Brennan had never felt so useless. Knowing that there wasn't a damn thing he could do was like the worst torture imaginable. Being trapped for all eternity in a pod was, to his way of thinking, humane compared to the blackness in his soul. He missed Jesse with quite literally all of his heart. The thought of not ever seeing him again was something Brennan constantly fought to ignore.

It astonished him that even with all of Sanctuary's technology and Adam's brains and far reaching network of contacts that Jesse could have so easily just disappeared. Even for Ashlocke it was quite amazing. And, contrary to Adam's doubts, Brennan's instinct told him that Ashlocke had to be the one pulling the strings. While he didn't care to think about what he'd possibly want with Jesse it was definitely right up his alley. Cunning and designed to hit Mutant X right where it hurt. Oh yeah. It had Ashlocke's trademark evilness all over it. Shalimar thought so too.

Sighing, Brennan rubbed both hands over his face and contemplated getting in a few more rounds against some simulation Ashlocke's. Although Adam frowned on the personalisation of the simulations Jesse had gone behind his back and programmed Ashlocke's likeness into the computer as a surprise for Shalimar. As surprises go it was a roaring success. Three Ashlocke's down in less than a minute on only her first attempt. As hard as he'd tried Brennan hadn't been able to beat Shalimar's score. He was working on it though. With extreme prejudice.

Three weeks. Although he hadn't said anything yet Brennan was beginning to sense that Adam was starting to get antsy. The underground was suffering through their tunnel vision and he doubted Adam would be able to turn a blind eye to it for much longer. He already knew what his answer was going to be when Adam finally got around to raising the point though and that was to wave goodbye. As much as Mutant X meant to Brennan, Jesse meant far more. If Adam pulled the plug of their admittedly going nowhere investigation then he was going to walk. It's been great knowing you and thanks for the memories, but I've gotta be off now. Part of Brennan suspected that Shalimar wouldn't be far behind him. Possibly even Emma as well. Not that he really wanted to find out.

Deciding that he well and truly had fuck all else to do with his time other than beat on a few more Ashlocke's, Brennan stood up and was about to walk back into the Dojo when Shalimar came flying down the corridor. Emma wasn't far behind her. It was the most alive Brennan had seen either of them for weeks. His heart gave a hopeful lurch in his chest. "Tell me it's good news," he called out, quickly jogging down the steps and meeting them at the bottom.

"Better than good," Shalimar replied brightly, her glee obvious as she bounced up and down, unable to stand still. "Ashlocke's been spotted enjoying a plate of spag bol at Mama Maria's. Maria herself just called Adam with the news. He's already in the Helix, firing her up."

"Mama Maria's?" Brennan raised an eyebrow questioningly. "Isn't that, like, a bit in your face? I mean, of all the places in town to choose to announce his return to the scene he goes for the one restaurant owned by a new mutant? A new mutant that everyone including Blind Harry knows is a long time friend of Adam's? *Hello*. Am I the only one having doubts about this set up?"

Shalimar shrugged. "Don't care. He could have every Link in the freakin' Strand there lying in wait for us and I'm still there with bells on," she retorted. "Come on Bren, you with us or do you wanna stay here and perfect your new Mr Doubtful act? I thought you'd be all fired up at the chance to get a little Ashlocke action."

Brennan snorted. "Of course I'm in," he exclaimed huffily, wondering why he had a slightly bad feeling about all of this. Ashlocke wasn't one for doing things by mistake. He was at Mama Maria's because he wanted Mutant X to find him and, well, that could be a bit of a problem. His concerns then died a quick death as Emma placed her hand gently on his shoulder, fixed luminous eyes on his and murmured what he'd been waiting three weeks to hear.

"Maria thinks Jesse is with him."


~ Jesse ~

"Thanks, but no thanks," I reply, smiling and only just managing to resist the compulsion to pat my stomach. "Really. I couldn't eat another bite." Well, not without running the risk of exploding anyway. I'm so full that I think it would only take an after dinner mint to push me over the edge.

"Are you sure I can't tempt you?" Gina, our waitress for the evening, smiles, wafting the dessert menu once again in front of me. "The Mississippi mud cake is to die for."

I shake my head, wondering what it will take to get her to accept no as an answer. "I don't doubt it for a second," I respond, "but, really, I'm full. If I'd known about the mud cake I wouldn't have eaten so much bread. Maybe next time."

Gina shrugs good-naturedly and finally retracts the menu out from under my nose. "Your loss," she mutters cheerfully. "Just holler if you change your mind."

"Will do," I murmur, mentally breathing a sigh of relief as Gina ambles off and rolling my eyes at Ashlocke. "I was beginning to get the impression that she wasn't going to leave until I'd ordered something," I laugh, settling back in my chair and grinning. Although I hadn't wanted to go out for dinner -- leave the apartment! Eeeek! -- I have to admit that I've had a wonderful evening. Good company, good food. I don't know what more I could have possibly asked for.

"I think her mothering instincts were wanting to fatten you up," Ashlocke responds, returning my smile. "She's right though, the mud cake here is exquisite."

"Don't you start," I mock complain. "I'm full, okay? In fact I'm so full that I doubt I'll have to eat for the next fortnight. If I eat any more you'll have to roll me out of here."

Laughing, Ashlocke waves his napkin at me in surrender. "Okay, okay. Nothing more for you. I get it."

"Good," I retort, unable to stop myself from grinning inanely. For the first time in God knows how long I'm feeling incredibly happy. The past few days have been, not to put a too fine a point on them or anything, close to perfect. I'm even slowly beginning to feel as though I've got some control over my life again. To my delight Ashlocke's stopped mentioning moving me into the underground. Although I know it's presumptuous of me I'm kinda hoping that's because he wants me to stay with him. Speaking for myself here, I know I want to stay with him. With Ashlocke I can actually believe that everything's going to be okay. It's a novel feeling, one that, after everything I've been through, I don't really want to lose.

"Enjoy yourself?" Ashlocke queries, swallowing the last of his wine and signalling for the bill. "I know you didn't really want to come out tonight and I'm hoping that it hasn't been as horrible as you expected it to be."

"I've had a great time," I reply. "Really. I'm glad you talked me into coming. Once more I'm left feeling as though I'll never be able to repay you for everything you've done for me."

"We've been through this before," Ashlocke responds, his expression solemn. "You don't owe me anything and I don't want you to ever think that you do. You're my friend, someone I care greatly for. There isn't anything I wouldn't gladly do for you. Knowing that you return my affection is more than payment enough."

I blush and start to toy with my glass of Coke. I'm still coming to grips with the fact that Ashlocke genuinely seems to feel something for me. He murmured that he thought he was falling in love with me this morning. I was so stunned that I couldn't reply. Love me? How? Why? Let's face it, I don't exactly offer him anything worthy of writing home about. Pitifully though, I want him to love me, for the interest and care he shows me to be real. My old life being something I never want to revisit, he's all that I have. While he thinks he might love me I know already that what I feel for him has to be love. It has to be. With Ashlocke I feel, in a somewhat extreme triumph of hope over experience, special. He also makes me feel something that I honestly doubted I'd ever feel again, and that's clean. When he touches me I can feel the darkness and shame of my past dissolving.

"So, now that you've survived your first foray back into the land of the living," Ashlocke murmurs, "is there anywhere else that you'd like to go this evening? Shopping? Clubbing? A jog around the park to work off the ten pounds you seem to think you've just put on?"

"Um..." I shake my head, unable to think of anywhere I feel a pressing need to go. "I'd be happy just to go back home... ah..." Pausing, I hurriedly correct myself. "Er... back to your apartment. Unless of course there's somewhere you want to go."

"I have nowhere I particularly want to go," Ashlocke replies, handing over platinum Visa card to Gina as she offers him the bill on a small silver tray. He doesn't so much as glance at the total. "As for going back home -- and it is your home now, Jesse, for as long as you want it to be -- that suits me just fine. In fact I think it sounds like a great idea. We've got our entire future ahead of us to reacclimatise you to the outside world."

"Works for me," I smile, a warm fuzzy feeling spreading through me at Ashlocke's words. Our entire future... Cool. If that doesn't sound promising then I don't know what does.

Once the bill is finalised and Gina's disappointment at not having been able to force-feed me dessert has been allayed by a generous tip, we're ready to go. As I did when we arrived I pay more attention to my feet as I walk towards the door than I do the people around me. I'm still not big on the whole eye contact deal. Ashlocke, yeah, Dr Schmidt, if I *have* to, everyone else though, not a chance. They might be a spy for Mutant X. Ashlocke tries not to mention them but I know that he's afraid; not only for me but also that they might one day succeed in undoing all his hard work in setting up the new mutant underground. I try not to think of them at all but it's close to impossible. The thought of them haunts me.

The night air cool on our faces, we stroll hand in hand down the street towards where the car is parked. We're almost there when Ashlocke suddenly stops and glances warily over his shoulder. Although I can't sense anything the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and a feeling of fear slides over me, chasing away my earlier happiness. I tighten my grip on Ashlocke's hand, my nerves tingling.

"Shit." Ashlocke swears softly under his breath. "I think we've got company. Fuck! Jesse, I'm so sorry, I never thought they'd be on to us so damn quickly."

"No..." This can't be happening. I'm so frightened that for a second I swear my heart literally stops beating. "I..." Oh God. I'm so not ready for this. Instinct tells me to run, to get the fuck out of here, but my legs feel as though they've turned to Jell-O. I shake my head numbly. It's about all I'm good for.

Letting go of my hand, Ashlocke plants a quick kiss on my lips and pushes me away. "Go," he shouts agitatedly. "Get out of here Jesse while you still can. I can look after myself."

"I... I won't leave you," I whisper, a tremor of desperation in my voice. If they're going to take Ashlocke down then I'm going with him. It's not really like I have anything else to fight for. Slowly turning around, what I see immediately makes me regret ever having opening my mouth.

Mutant X. All four of them. The whole team.

"Jesse! Just go! Get away!"

I can hear Ashlocke yelling at me, what's more I even have enough intelligence left to agree with him, but I make no attempt to move. I can't. Bunny in the headlights of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler had nothing on it. Terror holds me captive.

Mutant X. Ready to fight. Her eyes glowing orange, the Feral, crouched in attack position. The Psionic, her gaze burning a hole in my skull. Standing to the back, not wanting to get his hands dirty, the leader.

"Jesse! Please. For me."

Oh God...

The Elemental, a ball of blue light pulsing between his hands, his eyes fixed on mine, his mouth silently saying my name.

"*Jesse*! Get the fuck out of here!"

The arc of electricity that hits Ashlocke in the chest fells him immediately. It's over within seconds, finished before it even really started. My knees buckling, I follow him to the ground.

Too late...

Too late I realise if I'd moved in front of him and massed I could have saved him. Ashlocke's dead and it's all my fault. He would have been better off if he'd never met me.

I feel something fracture in my brain as I gather Ashlocke in my arms, hugging him for one last time. I'm too numb to cry, my only real emotion being a longing for oblivion. Mutant X form a circle around me but I don't look up. They can do with me as they see fit. I don't care.

"Adam?" My stomach clenches as I recognise the Elemental's voice. "What the freak is going on here?" The bastard, oddly enough, sounds about as out of it as I feel.

"Ashlocke appears have cast some sort of Psionic spell over Jesse. All being well I'll be able to reverse it once we get him back to Sanctuary. Emma, are you able to reach him?"

"I... I'm trying but I just don't seem able to get through. I think Ashlocke's still managing to somehow cloak him. Hey... Hey, Jess, it's us..."

Clutching Ashlocke's body closer, I bury my head into his chest and try to ignore how badly I'm shaking.

"Brennan..." The leader again. "... I hate to ask but I want you to hit him with a zap of low voltage, just enough to knock him out so we can get him back home."

"I... God Adam, no, no I can't. I mean, what if I misjudged and..."

"Let me." The Feral. I should have known.

I put up no resistance as she wrenches Ashlocke away from me. I want to but can't. Useless. No good. Failure.

"Think happy thoughts, Jess. We only hurt the ones we love."

Her fist then impacts on the side of my head and everything goes blissfully black. My last thought is that I hope to never wake up.


~ Brennan ~

It was Shalimar who broke the silence. They'd all been thinking it but it took the Feral to actually voice it.

"He's not dead."

The he, of course, being Ashlocke.

"We should be so lucky," Brennan replied, his voice sounding as drained as he felt. "I..." Running his fingers through his hair, he shook his head; the past sixty or so minutes making no sense to him whatsoever. "I only hit him with enough voltage to get him away from Jesse. When he went down like the sack of shit that he is I thought..." Trailing off, Brennan shook his head again. "You've gotta admit the performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination."

"Only a nomination?" Shalimar snorted. "I'd have said the little statue would have been in the bag. I've never seen anything quite like it. You've gotta admit it was convincing."

"Very," Emma agreed softly, as, changing positions, she kicked off her shoes and curled up on the sofa. "It was so good that I couldn't sense him. Don't ask me how but I think he must have tricked his body into believing that it was actually momentarily dead. And, remember, Adam couldn't get a pulse."

"All I remember was Adam wanting to cart the bastard's body back here," Shalimar retorted with a scowl. "I'm glad those people chose that exact moment to stagger down the street or I'm sure he wouldn't have taken no for an answer. I don't care what Adam reckons, I wish Ashlocke was dead. Scum like him don't deserve the air they breathe." Pausing, she kicked back into the armchair and added defiantly, "And I'm not just saying that 'cos the fucker's decided now would be a good time to return to my head."

"He's back?" Emma queried worriedly, reaching across the short distance that separated the sofa from the armchair and putting her hand on Shalimar's arm. "Why didn't you say something?"

"And spoil the party atmosphere?" Shalimar sighed, a pained expression crossing her face. "I thought you all pretty much knew for yourselves without me sharing the fact that he was in my head, laughing at how he'd got one over all of us."

"Christ!" Brennan exclaimed angrily, the control he'd been fighting to keep threatening to desert him. "Everything's just a game to that asshole! I don't know what I was thinking. I should have fried him when I had the chance. Hell, it's not like I didn't want to. When I saw him with..." He couldn't say it. Thinking it was more than bad enough. Jesse and Ashlocke. Ashlocke and Jesse. Together. Ashlocke giving every impression of wanting to protect Jesse. Jesse's extreme grief and shock over Ashlocke's dying swan performance. The look of sheer terror in Jesse's eyes as he'd stared at them, too shocked to move.

"You couldn't kill him, Brennan, and you know it," Emma murmured. "You may have wanted to but you'd never have done it. Killing would lower yourself to his level and you're stronger than that."

"I wanted to," Brennan repeated dully, sinking down onto the floor and settling with his back pressed against the wall. He resisted the urge to glance at his watch as he knew he'd be lucky if five minutes had passed since he'd last looked. Time was crawling by so slowly that it was in danger of coming to a complete halt. The sooner Adam came out of the lab with the diagnosis the better. Instead of the relief he'd been expecting to experience at knowing that Jesse was safe Brennan just felt uneasy. Very uneasy in fact. Things were far from right. Jesse was back but it didn't take a genius to know that he was different.

Different in ways that Brennan didn't even want to imagine.

"Join the club," Shalimar muttered, wincing as she tried to keep Ashlocke out of her mind. "Goddamn it! I can deal with him trying to peer down my top and trying to get into my pants more than I can this self-congratulatory laughter. It's like he's wanting to rub our faces in it."

"That's exactly what he's wanting to do," Emma replied, squeezing her hand around Shalimar's arm. "Come on, Shal, just ignore him. If you don't pay him any attention you'll push him out."

"Easy for you to say," Shalimar ground out, closing her eyes and rubbing her temples. After a few seconds she opened her eyes and smiled triumphantly. "All gone. For now. Think he now knows in uncertain terms how much I *didn't* miss him the last three weeks."

"I knew you could do it," Emma smiled tiredly and, with one last squeeze, released her hold on Shalimar's forearm. "You know, whatever's going on here, we're going to get through it. All of us. We've got Jesse back. We should be celebrating."

"Yeah." Brennan sighed. "We should. Only, I don't know about you guys, celebrating couldn't be further from my mind." He swallowed hard and started to pick at his fingernails, unable to look either Shalimar or Emma in the eye. "You saw Jess... Unless he was aiming for the best supporting Oscar I have to say that he seemed pretty keen to stay with Ashlocke. Hell, I don't think I'd be too far off if I said he was *desperate* to stay with the asshole."

"It wasn't an act," Emma murmured slowly. "Although I still can't get any read from Jesse what we saw, from his mind at least, was very real. Brennan's right, he wanted to stay with Ashlocke. I also think that he saw us..."

"As the bad guys," Shalimar interrupted, finishing Emma's sentence for her, her voice sad. "I've never seen anyone so terrified before. I... God! I can still see the look of abject fear in his eyes as I pulled Ashlocke away from him. Whatever Ashlocke did to him he did a good job of it."

"But why?" Emma whispered, asking the question Brennan suspected was lurking in the backs of everyone's minds. "Why would Ashlocke target Jesse? I don't get it. If we assume that he was behind everything from the very get go, that he masterminded that lost night that started things, why would he go to so much trouble to get Jesse?"

"Maybe he didn't care who he got his tentacles into," Shalimar offered, meeting Brennan's gaze as he looked up and giving a slight shrug. "Who knows with that psychopath. Jesse may have been the only one to stray close enough to his trap. As for why? Well, why not? If he wanted to succeed in pushing all of our buttons then look at how spectacularly he's succeeded. Look at how much the past three weeks have sucked big time. We've all been so caught up in our concerns over Jesse that we've neglected the underground and even taken out some of our rage on each other. Christ, no wonder Ashlocke's laughing his rocks off. Not only has he had Jess to play with but he's also no doubt been safe in the knowledge that we've been running around in circles, tearing our hair out."

"I should have killed him when I had the chance," Brennan muttered monotonously. "Anyone who derives pleasure from the misery of others doesn't deserve, as Shal said, to breathe. Killing him would be a community service."

"And his death would still weigh heavily on your soul," Adam stated quietly from the doorway. His poker face on, he looked exhausted. "I understand the way you're feeling Brennan, all of you, and, yeah, part of me would love to pull the trigger on him myself, but we can't allow ourselves to feel that way. Our hatred is what he wants, like a vampire he feeds on it, his perceived hold over us growing stronger by the day. I know it isn't easy, but we've got to ignore him. Ashlocke isn't our concern now, Jesse is."

"How is he?" Shalimar asked, standing up and moving towards Adam. "He's going to be okay, yeah?"

"Physically he's more or less fine," Adam replied, leaning against the doorframe. To Brennan he seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "It's more his mental state that I'm worried about. Ashlocke appears to have an incredibly strong Psionic hold over him."

"What do you mean he's more or less okay physically?" Brennan muttered, needing all the details he could get. He didn't particularly *want* to know all of the specifics but on the other hand he felt as though he *needed* to know. "Don't try to fob us off here, Adam. We're adults, we can handle the truth."

Adam sighed, nodding his capitulation. "As you wish," he murmured, pushing himself away from the doorframe and walking over to the armchair Shalimar had just gotten out of. Once he'd seated himself, he continued. "Predominately, Jesse seems to be in quite good health. What little weight he's lost isn't anything to worry about. What does raise cause for concern though are the myriad fading abrasions and bruises that litter his body. Although they show signs of having been cared for, the fact that they're even there is a worry. To put it plainly he shows signs of having been beaten, quite badly beaten in fact. There was also a mark at the base of his neck that indicated to me that... ah... a sub-dermal governor had been implanted. On the plus side though, everything seems to be healing nicely. I'd say most of his injuries occurred very close to the time when he first went missing."

Watching Emma's hand fly to her mouth and all colour drain from her face, Brennan knew that Adam was still hiding something. "And? Tell us the rest of it," he demanded, standing up and striding over to Adam.

"Brennan, I don't..." Adam started to say, only to sigh heavily as Brennan angrily shook his head. "Okay. If you insist. Jesse shows signs of having been sexually assaulted. There are also marks on his body that I believe are indicative of him having been hit by electrical pulses. This leads me to believe that he was most likely abused by an Elemental. Of course this doesn't rule out Ashlocke himself. Again though, whatever took place appears to have happened close to three weeks ago."

His head spinning, Brennan choked back nausea and, too numb to offer any resistance, allowed Shalimar to guide him over to the sofa. He couldn't think of a single solitary thing to say. Nothing coherent anyway.

"Anything else you want to hit us with?" Shalimar muttered, squeezing down next to Brennan and draping herself over his shoulders. "Come on, Adam, we're down already. You may as well get it over and done with. Let's face it, surely you've told us the worst of it."

"Not exactly," Adam murmured gently. "Jesse sees us as one hundred percent the bad guys. To him, in his current state, we're holding him against his will and we're going to hurt him. I also think that Ashlocke has somehow managed to make him believe that we're the ones responsible for his injuries."

Brennan moaned, the true implications of Adam's words jumping uninvited into his head. If Adam was right then Jesse believed that he was the who raped him... Unable to keep his dinner down any longer, Brennan jumped to his feet and bolted out of the room.

The last thing he heard before barging into the bathroom was Adam's voice effectively kicking him while he was already down.

"Because of Jesse's mental state, and I stress that this is in his best interests, I've had to implant him with a governor. It's the only way I can guarantee we'll be able to keep him here."


~ Jesse ~

It's now official. No questions asked, a done deal. Signed, sealed, and delivered. I'm in hell. Somewhere in my pathetic excuse for a life I offended someone or something big and important and now I'm paying for it.

And how.

Ashlocke's dead and I'm back where I started.

Trapped fast. Doomed.

In hell.

My fingernails are caked in blood from my futile efforts to get the governor out of my neck. I stare at the blood and feel nothing. I wish I'd severed an artery. Numb doesn't even begin to describe how I'm feeling. It goes without saying that I wish I was dead. My head is a void. A deep, dark, and relentless void. Every thought comes with its own brand of agony and I long to close my eyes safe in the knowledge that I'll never open them again. Knowing that it's unlikely to happen merely adds to my anguish.

Ashlocke's dead. I failed him. He saved me and I let him down. Mutant X once again has me. They can do with me as they see fit and there's nothing I can do about it. Everything Ashlocke did for me was for nothing.


Oh yeah. Whoever or whatever I pissed off is well tetchy with me.

Hugging my knees closer to my chest, I press myself further into the corner and fail dismally in my attempt to think happy thoughts. Pah! Happy thoughts. Yeah. As if. I have nothing to be happy about.

I want to die.

Putting me out of my misery would be the only humane thing to do. Keeping me here, trapped in this cell and rapidly going out of my mind, is just cruel. I don't know what Mutant X want with me and nor do I want to. If they expect me to drop to my knees and dutifully do whatever they tell me then have I got news for them. It'll take more than the fucking governor to make me play nice. They might have the numbers, the control, and the power, but I've got something better, something more powerful than anything they can throw at me. And that's a terminal lack of interest. Unlike them I don't care if I live or die.

Their false concern is eating at me. It's like they're taking it in turns to come and baby-sit. I'm hardly ever left alone. The pity in their eyes would be laughable if it didn't make me so sick to the stomach. The same goes for their meaningless words of reassurance. I swear they get off on the sound of their own voices.

"It's okay, Jess, you're safe now."

"We all love you and want you to know that we'll do whatever it takes to make you better again."

"Don't worry Jess, we won't let Ashlocke get to you ever again."

"C'mon Jess, you're home now. Everything's going to be fine. I promise."

Home. Safe. Love.

They have a funny way of showing it, that's for sure. Real fucking funny.

The leader, Adam, says that I'm in this containment cell thing for my own good. He also says that once I've got mind back I'll be allowed out. My mind back? What's that? Code for once he's managed to brainwash me again? The way they're all pretending to be my friend is just about the last straw. I'd rather they just got it, whatever it is they want with me, all out in the open and be done with it. God knows it'd be preferable to this nauseating lovey-dovey treatment I'm getting.

I don't know whether they know, or for that matter even care, that I can still remember what it was they did to me, that my skin wants to migrate straight off my body at the sight of the Elemental. He's the worst of the lot of them. The way he looks at me when he comes and issues forth with his bullshit platitudes makes me want to scream. He reached out to touch me earlier and I did scream. It caused him to react as though he'd been burnt. The tears that sprung into his eyes, I have to say, were a nice touch.

"C'mon Jess. You're safe now. Everything's going to be okay. Remember, I love you."

He loves me. Uh-huh. That's why he did what he did to me. Of course. You always rape the one you love.

I both hate and fear him more than any of the others. When he's around my terror is so great that it's all I can do to remember to breathe. The others don't exactly encourage feelings of warmth in me but at least breathing doesn't become an issue when they're around. I think he knows this and that's why he's forever lurking outside my cell.

"Please, Jess. Look at me. It's me, Brennan. I'd never hurt you. C'mon, you've got to believe me. I... I love you. You mean everything to me."

His voice has all the impact of shards of glass. When he goes the sigh of relief that comes out of my mouth at the sight of his retreating back can be felt in every fibre of my body. I don't think about what I'll do if he tries to touch me again.

The cell thing I'm in offers nowhere for me to go. With the front wall being made of glass instead of bars I feel like a freakin' goldfish. The only furniture in the room...cell... whatever... is a bed. A toilet and washbasin are half hidden behind a waist high dividing wall. It presents little in the way of privacy. The one and only thing I do want, a shower, I don't have. They keep bringing me books and magazines, and offering me the use of a laptop but I pay them no attention. I ignore the meals they're giving me too. Showing that they're nothing if not cunning and manipulative they keep dishing up my favourite food. It unnerves me to think how much they know about me. The Feral cries whenever she passes through while the Psionic just stares, no doubt trying to read my mind. They at least know better than to try to touch me.

I'm a Molecular yet, huddled here on the floor, I feel more like a Feral. I'm certainly giving every impression of behaving like a wild animal. Sometimes I swear I can even hear myself keening.

Although I've been here for, I'd hazard a guess, over a day now, barring quick trips to the toilet I haven't moved from my balled up position in the corner. Yet again I've lost my watch, meaning time has no hold over me. I'm too on edge to sleep. I think of Ashlocke, my saviour, lying dead on the cold concrete and the sense of loss I feel is like nothing I've ever experienced before. He died trying to save me. It should have been me. I'm the one who should have died. Because of me the underground no longer has its leader and all the hard work Ashlocke did to protect new mutants is going to unravel.

My fault. Everything's going to shit all because of me. I should have gone into the underground when Ashlocke first wanted me to. It would have been better for everyone. His death haunts me even more than the concerns I hold for myself do.

It's comforting to know that I'm trapped in here for my own good. No. Really. It is. I mean, God forbid the concept of freedom went to my head or anything and I became unruly. Not that there's much chance I'll ever really taste freedom again. I'm here now, back where I started, and here I'll stay. The governor in my neck is the equivalent of being handed down a life sentence.

Burying my head into my folded arms, I close my eyes and once more pray for oblivion.


~ Brennan ~

For the first time since moving into Sanctuary the Serenity Garden wasn't living up to its name. The water was bubbling quietly, the Koi Carp were swimming along and doing their bit for the whole Feng Shui deal and, well, as far as Brennan was concerned it was all just failing miserably. Calming thoughts were the last thing on his mind. Then again, faced with all the hatred, dismay, misery and impotent rage circling in his head, the Garden really didn't stand a chance.

Not that any of it was exactly the Garden's fault. Brennan could have been sitting just about anywhere and he would have felt exactly the same. Jesse had been back at Sanctuary for over twenty-four hours now yet in a twisted way he felt even worse than he had when his lover had still been missing. Ironically the not knowing was better than the knowing. Brennan had imagined a lot of scenarios to possibly explain Jesse's disappearance but none of them, not even the ones that to his mind were the worst of the lot, came close to what Ashlocke had actually done. He couldn't help but feel that perhaps in hindsight the questions were far better off left unanswered.

Oh yeah. *Way* better off left unanswered. The hideous truth regarding Ashlocke's actions beat the fruits of his imagination hands down. Knowing what Ashlocke or one of his minions had done to Jess defied comprehension and gave Brennan a new understanding of the concept of grief. As with everything, he didn't want to think about it.

The only thing stopping Brennan from screaming was the fear that once he started he'd never be able to stop. A veil of grief hung heavily over him, setting him apart from his friends and leaving him ensnared in his own lifeless company. The knowledge of what Jesse had been through was like a giant hand reaching into his chest cavity and squeezing his heart dry. As he was becoming increasingly used to, Brennan felt useless, as though there was nothing he was capable of doing. Like everything, the feeling hurt. A lot. Everything hurt. The look of fear in Jesse's eyes when he'd foolishly made the mistake of trying to touch him he suspected would stay with him until his dying days.

"I thought I'd find you watching over Jesse," Adam commented, walking silently into the Garden, his voice only slightly rousing Brennan from his stupor.

Brennan shrugged, his attempt at nonchalance failing dismally as he was too tired to put any effort into his gesture. "No point," he muttered dully, glancing without interest at Adam before returning his attention to the fish swimming in listless circles in the pond. Although Jesse had names for the fish they all looked the same to Brennan. Silly as it was, not remembering the names Jess had given them added to his feelings of failure. Small things. It didn't take much.

"You don't mean that," Adam replied matter-of-factly, hunkering down next to Brennan. "Want to talk about it?"

"Not particularly, no," Brennan mumbled, giving a dismissive shake of his head. What he wanted was to be left the hell alone. Didn't want to talk. Didn't want to think. Didn't even really want to be conscious. He didn't bother telling Adam this though. Again, there was no point. No wasn't an option, Adam was just being polite. "How about you? Feeling like a chat?"

"I do as it happens," Adam stated calmly, settling himself cross-legged on the floor, mirroring Brennan's position. 'You may not feel like it, but I think we need to talk."

"Fine. Whatever," Brennan sighed, his gaze still drawn to brightly coloured fish. A dim part of his memory recalled that one of them was called Aragorn but he had no idea which one. "We'll talk. Let's talk. You first though. What do you want to talk about? The weather? Baseball? Why a scum sucking lowlife like Ashlocke is able to slither around on the face of the earth? You pick."

"I thought we could talk about Jess, about what happened to him," Adam responded softly, clearly unperturbed by Brennan's less than obliging attitude. "Do you want to tell me why you're hiding here and not joining Shalimar and Emma in keeping watch over Jesse? I thought, given the relationship the pair of you have, you wouldn't have wanted to leave his side."

"I'm the last person he wants anywhere near him," Brennan murmured flatly, unable to stop himself from flinching. "C'mon Adam, there's no need to pussyfoot around. You know exactly why I'm keeping my distance. Jess thinks I'm Jeffrey Dahmer, Hitler and Osama bin Laden rolled up into one great big terrifying package. The look of fear in his eyes when he can bring himself to look at me makes me want the ground to open up and swallow me whole." Whoever it was who said it was good to talk, lied. Brennan so didn't want to be having this conversation. If thinking about it was bad than actually having to voice what he was feeling was about a hundred times worse.

Adam nodded understandingly. "That's because he thinks you were the one who..."

"Don't say it," Brennan interrupted, his voice barely above that of a whisper, "please. I don't want to hear it. Look Adam, you know as well as I do that it's better if I just stay away. Jesse wants nothing to do with me. In his eyes I'm the Big Bad and I think he's been through enough without me lurking around, upsetting him further."

"In his eyes we're all part of the Big Bad," Adam replied mildly. "It won't last though. The Psionic hold Ashlocke has over him will have to give shortly and then the healing process will be able to be started in earnest. Ashlocke's strong but I'm confident he won't be able to keep up the hold much longer as it'll be draining too much of his already depleting energy."

"Ashlocke!" The name tasted like poison in Brennan's mouth and he turned to face Adam, his eyes blazing. "Tell me Adam, what's the bastard getting out of this, huh? Why all the freakin' effort? I don't get any of it. If he wanted to make us hurt then why didn't he just throw the Links at us? This..." He trailed off, embarrassed at his outburst and hating how much power Ashlocke's name held over him. "This is just unbearable."

"And that's exactly why he's done it," Adam murmured. "His aim was to cause maximum pain and disruption to our lives and he's succeeded, spectacularly so. Not only has he destroyed Jesse emotionally but he's also, by doing so, managed to impact heavily on the rest of us. First we had the three weeks of uncertainty while Jess was gone and now we've got the feelings of rage and dismay over what's been done to him. Not to mention, just as an added bonus, the horror of watching him look to us as being the cause of his pain. As plans go, and believe me when I say I don't mean this admiringly, it's quite exceptional. He's had us flailing from the very get go. Hell, we're still flailing."

"So Ashlocke's won. Go Ashlocke," Brennan muttered flatly, slowly finding himself being drawn into the conversation. "Why do I get the feeling that we were just like sitting ducks? Hell, we never even suspected anything was up. For three weeks now he's been leading us on a merry dance and, let's face it, if he hadn't slipped up by going to Mama Maria's we'd still be in the dark. I'm surprised he hasn't set up his own Proxy Blue site to crow about his victory."

"He knows in himself and that's enough," Adam replied slowly. "What he did he did for personal reasons. I'm also convinced that his trip to Mama Maria's wasn't a slip up on his behalf and was actually intentional. Everything was planned to perfection. From the very beginning, as you just mentioned, we were behind the eight ball. First he used his Psionic powers to draw us all out of Sanctuary, scattering us and affecting our memories -- and I'm still working on how he managed that -- then he hid Jesse for three weeks, leaving us effectively clueless. The showdown at Maria's was part of it. Think about it. It not only played into the story he'd fed Jesse about how we were basically out to get him but it also gave Jess back to us, effortlessly highlighting how we'd never come close to stopping him. You've got to admit he put a lot of effort into it."

"I'll be sure to give him a gold star next time our paths cross then, shall I?" Brennan retorted drily. A question weighing heavily on his mind, he then shrugged and decided that he may as well voice it. If anyone had an answer it would be Adam. "Why Jesse, huh? Of all of us, why did he target Jess?" he murmured, all too aware of the slightly plaintive sound of his voice.

"I've been thinking about that myself," Adam responded, "and I think it's because he knew he'd be guaranteed the greatest success with Jesse. Shalimar he's tried and failed to subdue before. Emma's Psionic powers are too great for him. While he'd still be able to dupe her he'd never be able to keep the deception going. You... Well, I think you, Brennan, would be seen as something like too much of a threat. Your natural suspicion and scepticism also would have made it difficult for him to keep you under control. Jesse on the other hand, well... Of all the team Jess is the one who carries around the most excess emotional baggage. We mightn't doubt his abilities, the imperative part he plays in the team, but he does. His insecurities and vulnerabilities would have made him the perfect target. While the rest of us are just perhaps natural born cynics or were forced to accept at a very age that Father Christmas doesn't exist, Jesse still wants to believe the best of people. As with all of Ashlocke's moves targeting Jesse was both cunning and extremely calculated. Believe me when I say that you don't want to dwell on the extent of the damage he's caused."

"The man doesn't deserve to live," Brennan muttered sourly, his hands reflexively curling into fists. He didn't add that he believed Adam and that no, he well and truly didn't want to dwell on it. "If fucking with peoples heads is what he does to get his rocks off then he simply doesn't deserve the privilege of being allowed to live."

"Killing him isn't the answer," Adam responded quietly. "I can understand your anger but, think about it, Ashlocke's death isn't going to undo what's already been done. It's not going to put Jesse back together again or make anyone smile any sooner."

"I'd still feel better about things if I was standing over his lifeless body," Brennan retorted bluntly. "I'm sorry Adam, I know you feel responsible for him, but the guy's a waste of space."

"Let's try it a different way then," Adam stated patiently. "You have two hypothetical choices, Brennan. One is, no questions asked, you get to kill Ashlocke. Game, as you say, over. The other is Jesse willingly allowing you to hug him. What would you choose?"

Brennan slowly shook his head, Adam once again having surprised him with his ability to effortlessly cut through the confusion and anger in his head, simplifying everything immensely. "It's hypothetical. What's the..."


"Jesse." Brennan sighed miserably. Put to him so simply, it wasn't even a question he had to think about. "When you put it that way there's no question about it. As much as I want Ashlocke dead I want Jesse well again more... Far more."

"That's what I was hoping you'd say," Adam replied, smiling at Brennan as the Elemental risked a fleeting glance in his direction. "Hating Ashlocke is only natural. Right now we all, and, yes, I'm including myself, do. As I said the other night though, it's what he wants. What's done is done. We can't alter the past just as we can't give Ashlocke the hatred and suffering he wants. He may have orchestrated all of this but he's not going to win. We're stronger than that, Brennan. We're down, and we're hurting, but we'll still get there in the end. Jesse mightn't be himself but at least he's home. It's a start. A good one. He despises and fears you now, but it won't last. We'll get through this. All of us. We just have to be patient and work together."

"You make it sound easy," Brennan murmured, willing himself to believe that what Adam was saying was correct. To his relief it wasn't that difficult. The sudden prospect of having hope again making for more than a pleasant change. Fight. Oh yeah. That was one thing he was definitely good at. "God knows I want for us to get there but... but it's hard, you know... What Ashlocke's done just makes my skin crawl. You're right though, we can't let the bastard win. It'll just take time, yeah?"

"Time, effort, and love," Adam stated softly. "All of which I like to think we have in abundance. Stop mentally berating yourself Brennan. As you said earlier, there's no point. None of us could have stopped Ashlocke. Jesse *will* recover. No one here will accept any other outcome. Have faith. You know as well as any of us that he's stronger than Ashlocke no doubt gives him credit for. It's not going to be easy though, none of it. What it is going to be however is worth it."

Brennan smiled softly and lifted his head to meet Adam's gaze. "When you put it like that I might just have to confess to having seen the light," he commented lightly. He was then saved from having to think of anything else to say by Emma coming running into the Garden. One look at the Psionic's flushed and anxious face was enough to make Brennan wonder whether he'd spoken too soon.

"Adam, Brennan, you've got to come quickly. Ashlocke's taken control of Shalimar and he's using her to bring reality crashing down around Jesse's ears!"


~ Jesse ~

Nope. Closing my eyes doesn't help. Nor does repeatedly shaking my head. While I'm at it scrabbling backwards and well and truly cornering myself isn't exactly a good move either.

Okay. Fair enough. Three strikes and I'm out. Batter up.

"Stop being so pathetic Jesse. You're eyes aren't playing tricks on you, the Psionic bitch isn't fucking with your head and clicking your heels together three times ain't gonna get you back to Kansas. Face it, you can space out all you damn well want and it isn't going to change the fact that you've been fucked over."

I shake my head. Again. And again it doesn't help.

I'd say this can't be happening but of course it can. This is me and the joke that is my life we're talking about here. *Anything's* possible.

The voice coming out of the Feral is achingly familiar but the mean, harsh words aren't. Honestly. There's just no help for it. My life sucks. One minute I'm minding my own business sitting on the floor of my very own personal cell ruing the state of my existence while the Feral and Psionic -- my baby sitters ever since the Elemental for reasons best known to himself decided I wasn't worth the effort of taunting -- played Snap on the other side of the glass and the next all hell is breaking loose. When the Feral hauled back and, without warning, slapped the Psionic I originally put it down to the fact that the Psionic must have just 'Snapped' her and that she was a severely sore loser. Two things then happened to rapidly change my mind. First the Feral got up and strolled casually into my cell and, second, the Psionic all but bolted from the room, her placid expression about as animated as I'd seen it. And...

And now...

Opening my eyes, I hesitantly drag my head up and, to my extreme shock, find myself staring not at the Feral but at...

No! Okay. I change my mind. This *can't* be happening. Even for Mutant X this is taking the floorshow too far. Way, *way* too far.

"Ashlocke?" I whisper, recognising the face in front of me but not the cold, callous expression or dull, lifeless eyes. Where'd he come from? Has he come to rescue me? Where's the Feral gone? Is he just a figment of my fractured imagination? The distinct lack of hope I've been cultivating for the last however many hours makes me lean towards the last option. He's not real. He couldn't be. I saw the Elemental kill him. "I... I thought you were dead." If in doubt, state the obvious. Works every time.

The Probably Not Ashlocke laughs hollowly. "That's always been one of your many problems, Jess, you think too much," he states flatly, cocking his head to one side, his gaze sliding dismissively over me. "Had a look in the mirror recently? You're a mess. Personally I don't know why Adam is even bothering to try to put you back together again. Me, I'd cut my losses and start again. It's not like there isn't plenty of Moleculars out there with your limited abilities. Still, Adam always did go in for lost causes."

"Ashlocke?" I repeat doubtfully, certain now that the man in front of me isn't the Ashlocke I know. The Ashlocke who looked after me and wanted to protect me from Mutant X would have never spoken like that. He loved me... Right? "What's happening?" Asking the obvious, particularly when all rational thought is trying to escape through your ears, I find is just as good as stating it.

"You have no idea how long I've been waiting to do this," the Probably Not Ashlocke replies, smirking as he leans forward and roughly grabs my face between his hands. I try to struggle, to pull back, but I may as well save my energy. He's too strong. "Here you go Jess, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the fucking truth! Enjoy. I know I am."

"Ash..." I don't get to finish saying his name before the images start flooding into my head. My mouth drops open into a silent scream as everything I'd thought to be real disintegrates around me. Images, like a slideshow set on fast forward, flash before my eyes.

*My* memories.

... Adam handing me a solid silver ring, Shalimar standing next to him, her eyes glittering as she admires her own ring.

... Emma asleep in the middle of the Dojo, exhausted after a run in with the GSA, her legs in her quaint little girl over-the-knee socks curled under her.

... Brennan, a faint pink tinge colouring his cheeks as he sits naked on the edge of the bed, reading poetry to me.

... Mutant X, all five of us, our expressions equal parts solemn and determined, vowing to combat Ashlocke.

... An unknown car park. I'm standing next to the BMW, unsure as to how I got there and wondering where the others are, instinct telling me to be afraid.

... Ashlocke watching calmly as a man I've never seen before holds me against a wall and tears off my clothes.

... A candle lit bedroom, Ashlocke staring into my eyes, drawing me into his fantastic world of make believe.

... Waking up next to Ashlocke, his arm draped possessively over my chest.

No... Oh please God, no...

Not wanting to see any more, I moan, hoping Ashlocke will put a halt to the trip down memory lane. If all he wanted was for me to see the light then I've seen it. Oh boy have I seen it.

Okay. I get it. You've fucked with my memory. Seriously. I understand. You can stop now.

"No... Please..." When he gives no indication of letting up I start to beg. Let's face it, it's not like I've got any dignity left to lose. Suddenly, just as I'm beginning to wonder whether Ashlocke's intention is to actually make my head explode, voices start to mingle with the pictures. Anything being better than the images, I desperately try to concentrate on them. This in turn makes me feel as though I'm being pulled in two different directions simultaneously. I start to whimper, the pressure in my head becoming unbearable.

"Come on Shalimar! Push him out! If you can't beat him for yourself then do it for Jesse."

"Emma's right, Shalimar. You've got to beat him. Remember, you're the one in control here, not Ashlocke."

"For God's sake Adam, do something!" Brennan, I note dimly, sounds hysterical. I don't understand why they're all yelling at Shalimar though. She's not even here. If she is I can't sense her.

"Come on Shal, you can do it." Emma again. "He's only in you because you're allowing him to. You've got to stand up to him and push him out. Only you can do it. Close yourself off and break free."

Everything then happens at once.

Strong hands pull me away from the Definitely Not Ashlocke as reality shimmers and distorts. With an anguished scream the Definitely Not Ashlocke disappears in a flash, leaving a very frantic looking Shalimar in his place. Weakened by playing host, she sways for a couple of seconds before crumpling to the floor, sobbing hysterically.

Knowing exactly how she feels, I shake off the hands on my shoulders and, crawling over to Shalimar, gather her into my arms. She slumps against me as, crying, we cling to each other, both lost in the horror of what Ashlocke's put us through. Without a word, Brennan and Emma sink down on the floor, joining us. Brennan settles behind me, his arms gliding around my waist, holding me tight. All together again, we huddle on the floor, embracing for all we're worth.

And all of a sudden I know that I'm really home.

Messed up and scarred, sure, but back home. ~ Brennan ~

"And there I was thinking you'd be spending some serious quality time with the bed bugs," Emma commented, wandering up behind Brennan and ruffling his hair.

"Oi! Watch the hair," Brennan mock protested, smiling as he ducked away from Emma's hand. "As for sleep? Pah. Sleep's for losers."

"Speak for yourself," Emma retorted, pulling up a chair next to Brennan and sinking down into it. "I'm beat. I feel as though I could sleep for a fortnight *easy*. In fact I was just on my way to bed then when I decided I'd better come check out the tap-tapping of keyboard keys. So, here I am. Whatcha doin'?"

"Updating my Live Journal. You know, the adventures of an electrifying sex god," Brennan replied blithely. "Surely you've got it bookmarked. As journals go it's up there with the best."

Emma laughed and rolled her eyes. "In your dreams stud muffin, in your dreams. C'mon, fess up. What are you doing camped out in front of a computer anyway? Surely you've got better things to do with your time. Hell, I can think of two without even trying."

"Take a guess," Brennan murmured, shrugging. "Sleep can wait, hell I feel better right now than I have in weeks, and Jess and Shalimar are still bonding in the Garden, right? I'm just wanting to get a head start."

"You're trying to identify the guy Ashlocke had..." Emma trailed off. "You know," she finished blandly, her gaze fixed solidly on the monitor.

"I know," Brennan muttered, no more willing to voice it than Emma. It had happened and there was nothing any of them could do to change that, but it didn't mean they had to speak of it. "And, yeah, I'm trying to find the bastard's details. You're able to get a read from Jess again, right? Did you get anything out of him that'd help narrow the list of likely suspects?"

"I only got flashes from him," Emma replied, barely stifling a yawn. "I didn't think it would be fair to stroll uninvited through his mind right at the moment so I didn't really try. The only reason I tried at all was to confirm that Ashlocke's hold over him was well and truly history." Pausing, she smiled softly, her smile not quite reaching her tired eyes. "You'll be pleased to know that it is. The only person in Jess' head at the moment is Jess himself. Same goes for Shal."

Brennan sighed, his hands resting unmoving on the keyboard. "Thank God for small mercies," he murmured, controlling himself from issuing forth with what little he thought of Ashlocke. While launching into a diatribe would make him feel vaguely better it just wasn't worth dredging up the amount of vitriol required. "Are you sure you didn't pick up anything of use though?" Brennan continued hopefully. "I agree entirely about now not being the time to push Jess for details but if you caught a whiff of anything that could be useful I'd love to hear it. The whole male Elemental deal isn't exactly narrowing the field as I'd like it to be."

"Big. He was definitely big," Emma stated slowly, frowning in concentration. "Oh, and he had dreadlocks. I'm..." Emma shook her head, clearly agitated. "I'm sorry Brennan, but I can't do this. Not now. The images I'm getting aren't something I really want. Can't you just let it slip for a while? I don't know how knowing who it was is going to help you anyway, unless you're planning on going against Adam and seeking revenge."

"Speaking for myself here, I want to feed the asshole his own balls," Shalimar declared venomously as, entering the room, she strolled over to join them. "Him and Ashlocke. Dunno about either of you, but the sense of achievement that'd give me would be like nothing else on earth."

Brennan nodded his agreement. "Oh yeah, it'd work nicely for me too," he muttered sourly, "only I wasn't planning on stopping at the balls."

"I knew there was a reason I liked you," Shalimar murmured, draping her arms around Brennan and leaning against his back, her hair tickling his neck. "God... I tell you, if it wasn't for the fact I don't want to leave Jess I'd be out there right now hunting them both down. Fuck Adam and his revenge is beneath us speech. Ashlocke deserves to pay for what he's done."

"I know you're hurting, Shal," Emma whispered, reaching out and placing her hand on the Feral's arm, "but..."

"But nothing!" Shalimar interrupted, scowling. "There are no buts, Emma, *none*. Not only is Ashlocke responsible for Jess' current state but he also had the freakin' nerve to use me to slap Jess in the face with reality. You might be able to imagine how that makes me feel but let me tell you that you wouldn't even be close. The whole time he was in my head, sharing those horrible things with Jess, I was fully aware of what was happening and there was nothing I could do about it! He *used* me to hurt one of the most important, most *precious* people in my life. I'm sorry Emma, but there's just no way you could know how that makes me feel."

"I'm sorry, Shal," Emma replied quietly, giving her friend's arm a reassuring squeeze before standing up and yawning. "You're right, I can only guess how it makes you feel. What I am confident of however is that now isn't the time to go after Ashlocke. He's had his sick fun. Contrary to how much you both might want to seek revenge we have to put Jesse first. Fuck Ashlocke. We go after him now and his sense of victory continues. For all we know he might have the Links lying in wait for us. My advice is to let him go, let him think he's beaten us. The fact that we know he hasn't, that he's not worthy of our time, is enough. Evil always loses in the end. When the time comes we'll defeat him. On our terms, not his. And we'll do so as a complete team."

Shalimar looked intently at Emma, her expression one of quiet surprise. "When did you become so wise?" she murmured, a slight smile tugging at her lips. "I'm not saying I wouldn't be out of here in a second if I could guarantee I'd be able to find either of them but, yeah, you've got a point. What about you, Bren, what do you reckon? We don't give the bastard the satisfaction of going after him and concentrate all our efforts on keeping Jess together?"

"Given the eloquent way Ms De Lauro here presented her case I have to say that I'm apt to agree," Brennan replied, backing his response up by quickly reaching across the desk and turning off the computer monitor. "To use her exact words, and I think you're beginning to have a detrimental effect on her here, Shal, *fuck* Ashlocke."

"Watch it you!" Shalimar laughed, the first true smile lighting up her face that Brennan had seen in a long time. "I'll have you know that I've got a fucking delicate way with words."

Brennan smirked. "Ah... Delicate. Is that what it is?"

Shalimar playfully cuffed Brennan across the back of the head. "That's quite enough out of you," she retorted, moving across to Emma and giving the Psionic a quick hug. "Come on, let's go check that Adam hasn't fallen asleep in the lab before turning in ourselves. I'm sure Mr Never Said A Rude Word In His Life here has somewhere he'd rather be."

"Bed," Emma murmured, mimicking the way Homer Simpson draws out the word 'donuts'. "Lead the way. No, actually, let me lead the way. That way if I fall asleep in the corridor you can pick me up and carry me. Night Bren, and don't worry about things. Everything will work out fine."

"My sentiments exactly," Shalimar smiled, linking arms with Emma. "Stop moping around Bren and go see Jess. He's still by the pond, no doubt reintroducing himself to those damn fish he's so fond of. While he mightn't have said so in as many words I know he's waiting for you."

"I'm going, I'm going," Brennan mumbled, getting up from his chair and waving good night to Shalimar and Emma before slowly making his way to the Garden. His heart beat nervously in his chest as he walked. Although Ashlocke had brought reality crashing down around Jesse a couple of hours ago this was the first time he was going to be alone with his lover. First Adam had wanted to check him over and then Shalimar had had to assure herself that he was okay and didn't blame her for the reality check. As much as Brennan had wanted to be with Jess he didn't begrudge either of the others getting in first. Besides, he knew his time would come.

Walking into the Garden, Brennan spotted Jesse sitting cross-legged on the small bridge and, clearing his throat so as to alert him to his presence and not scare him, made his way over. His attention focused on the pond, Jesse didn't look up. Brennan was struck by how fragile he seemed. Pale, exhausted, and incredibly fragile.

"Don't even think it, it's not deep enough," Brennan murmured lightly, not knowing what to say and going with the first lame ass thing that jumped into his head. The second it was out of his mouth he regretted it and inwardly cringed.

"How'd you know that's what I was thinking?" Jesse whispered, looking up, his cloudy blue eyes unable to meet Brennan's.

"I know you, Jess," Brennan replied, crouching down next to the Molecular. "I know how your brain operates and I also know that you'd never do it."

"Then right now you know me better than I do," Jesse sighed, his gaze sliding back to ever-present Koi Carp.

When it became apparent that he wasn't going to say anything else Brennan sat down and decided, what the hell, he may as well keep trying. "How are you feeling?" he queried quietly, longing to wrap Jess in his arms but not quite daring to. If there was any chance he'd freak out or phase -- which he could now that Adam had removed the governor -- to get away then Brennan simply didn't want to risk it.

"You *so* don't want to know," Jesse murmured flatly, giving a dismissive shake of his head. "Thanks for asking though."

"Is it okay if I sit with you?" Brennan asked, ignoring Jesse's less than enthusiastic reply. "If you want to be alone I'll go, but..."

"Please," Jesse interrupted, "stay. The last thing I want is to be alone. Don't want to talk, and I definitely don't want to think, but I don't want to be alone either. Go figure, you know."

"What about all the fish, don't they count as company?" Brennan smiled, relieved that Jesse didn't want him to leave. Not talk about things? He could do that. With bells on. He'd take spending time with his lover any way he could get it.

"They can't hug me," Jesse whispered, looking towards Brennan, his cheeks blushing pink. The pain in his eyes made Brennan flinch. Not needing telling twice though, he shuffled across to Jesse and gently draped his arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. "Like this you mean?" he murmured quietly, mentally crossing his fingers that he'd done the right thing.

Jesse gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Like this," he confirmed, relaxing against Brennan with a deep shuddery breath. "Very much like this."

Brennan's smile broadened and he planted a soft kiss on Jess' cheek. "So, wanna attempt to teach me the names of these fish of yours?" he queried lightly, pointing with his free hand to a particularly colourful specimen swimming around in front of them. "Don't tell me, let me guess... That's Aragorn, right?"

Muffled laughter escaped Jesse's lips, thrilling Brennan. "That's Legolas, you fool," he murmured, sitting up slightly and peering across the pond. "There's Aragorn, over near the other end. Look, they don't look anything alike. If I tell you their names again do you promise to try and remember this time?"

"Promise," Brennan grinned, giving Jesse another quick kiss and loving how he let him. Odd as the situation was -- discussing fish names? -- Brennan couldn't think of anywhere else he'd rather be. Albeit impersonally, Jess was talking and he was allowing himself to be touched.

As starting points went it was a good one.

A very good one.


~ Jesse ~

Stepping out of the shower, my skin all withered from the amount of time I spent under the water, I grab a towel and start to dry myself off. My reflection still not being something I'm in a rush to see I keep my back to the mirror above the vanity unit. Once I'm dry and dressed in -- quite possibly the world's unsexiest night attire -- a t-shirt and baggy sweat pants, I clean my teeth in the basin, my eyes tightly closed so as to avoid any chance of catching sight of myself. If I look as empty as I feel then I just don't want to know about it.

As clean as I'm likely to get, I turn the bathroom light off and walk back out into my bedroom. A neon tube above the bed paints the room a soft, vaguely surreal blue colour. I had it put there ages ago because I thought it was kinda cool. Now it strikes me as a handy night-light. Sprawled across the bed is Brennan, fast asleep and snoring the way he only does when he's truly exhausted. He said he'd wait for me to return from the bathroom, that he wanted to tuck me in. I hadn't thought I took that long in the shower. The time however on the digital clock on the bedside table tells me differently. Forty minutes. Wow. My how time flies when you're having fun. No wonder Brennan gave up and went to sleep.

Hovering near the bed, I look at Brennan sleeping and hesitate over what to do. What I want is to crawl onto the bed and cuddle up next to him. While I don't think he'd mind something still stops me. I mean, what if he doesn't want me next to him? What if he's used the time I spent in the bathroom to decide that the time had come to cut his losses and get away from me as fast as he possibly could? Hell, it's not like I'd be able to blame him.

You know, used goods and all that. God knows I'm not exactly what you'd call a prize. He knows about the unknown man, they all do, but Ashlocke? Ashlocke's still my sordid secret.

He did come to me in the Garden though.

Then again, that could have been because Shalimar told him to. The way he put his arm around me and kissed my cheek could have been a gift from Emma.

Paranoia. Gotta love its ability to make a bad thing worse.

But, okay, think logically here Jess, if that's the case what's he still doing in my room? Could it possibly be because I don't disgust him? I know Brennan's loyalty is second to none but, seriously, if he wanted to end it I wouldn't... *couldn't* hold it against him. How could I?

Hugging myself, I take a step back from the bed and sigh, fact and fiction still battling it out for comprehension in my head. The facts are slowly, *very* slowly beginning to claim victory. In a way I don't quite know how I feel about this. The facts hurt even more and cut even deeper than the fiction. Abducted. Beaten. Raped. Tricked into believing that my friends were behind it all, that *Brennan* had been my abuser. Tricked into believing Ashlocke was my friend, that he cared about me. Tricked into believing Ashlocke was dead, that I'd failed him. And then, just for the cherry on top, having Ashlocke use Shalimar to return me to reality, the *real* reality. Violated doesn't even begin to come close to how I feel. Nor does disgusted.

As different as we are, Brennan and I are good together. While we mightn't have a lot in common it's never really mattered. An ex-crim might be an odd choice for a poor little rich boy -- and vice versa -- but out pasts have never really come into it. I love him. He makes me happy. Simplistic, yeah, but true.

When he first came to me last year and said, 'how about it?', I thought he was making fun of me, that he'd noticed the way I was forever making a point of hanging around with him and was wanting to let me know that he was fully aware of my pathetic little crush. Not wanting to be just another conquest, I brushed off his offer and tried to put all thoughts of the cocky Elemental out of my mind. Brennan however didn't give up. In fact he dug his heels in and all but courted me. Much to Shalimar and Emma's great amusement he even sent me red roses on Valentine's Day. What else could I do? I had to, not that it was what you'd exactly call a big ask, relent. The look of sheer delight on his face when I returned his, 'how about it?' was truly something to behold and we've been together ever since. As love stories go it's not an overly fascinating one. No angst, no misunderstandings, no cheating - just general uncomplicated contentment. We've been lucky.

Until now.

How can I expect things to go back to how they were?

Not knowing what to do, and feeling at complete loss, I move back towards the bed and tentatively sit down on the edge of the mattress. Burying my head in my hands, I breathe deeply, trying to stave off the urge to cry. Ashlocke's released me from his mindscape but I still feel as though I'm in hell. There's a part of me that I'm trying desperately to ignore that wonders whether I'll ever feel normal again. Well, my version thereof anyway.


Shit. And now I've gone and woken Brennan. There's no help for it. I'm an idiot. No wonder Ashlocke chose me for his little game of mind fuck.

Sensing Brennan crawl over and sit next to me, I rub my hands over my face and sigh dejectedly. "I'm sorry," I whisper plainly, staring at a spectacularly uninteresting spot on the carpet as though my life depended on it.

"Sorry for what?" Brennan murmurs sleepily, his body close enough to mine for me to feel the warmth emanating from it "For waking me up? Don't be silly, Jess. I shouldn't have fallen asleep anyway."

I shake my head. "Not just for waking you. For everything. I'm sorry for everything."

"I don't get it. You've got nothing to apologise for," Brennan replies, sounding puzzled. "C'mon Jess, what's up? If you want to talk about anything I'm here for you. I'm... I'm always here for you. You know that."

"I..." Goddamn it! What possessed me to open my fool mouth in the first place. "I'm sorry," I repeat, a hint of agitation creeping into my voice. "I'm sorry for everything that's happened and I'm sorry for the pain I've put everyone though! You don't have to, any of you, worry about me. I'm not worth..."

"Shhh..." Brennan interrupts, draping his arm around my shoulders and hugging me to him. "If you want to talk then that's fine but I'll tell you now that I'm not just going to sit here and listen to you say things like that. Hell, I don't even want you to *think* them. You've got nothing to apologise for. None of this is your fault, Jess. You couldn't have stopped Ashlocke any more than the rest of us could."

I close my eyes, the threat of tears suddenly becoming more real. "But..." Here goes nothing. Brennan's got to know the truth. And the sooner he knows it the better, right? "But I could have," I mumble, shaking my head again. "Maybe... I... I don't know. He wasn't going to but... but... Oh God Brennan! I wanted him to. Get that? Because I only knew what he was allowing me to know I *wanted* him to do it. I... I... wanted... him..."

"Huh?" Brennan grunts, now sounding more confused than puzzled. "You're not making much sense here, Jess. *What* did you want Ashlocke to do?"

"I wanted him to make love to me," I whisper, the words falling out of my mouth in a rush. "I thought he genuinely cared about me and I was hurting and I wanted to feel good about myself and I let him and... and I even loved him! Are you listening to me, Brennan? I *willingly* had sex with Ashlocke. I know you know about the..."

Nope. Can't say it. Skip it. Move on

"... one I had no say in, I don't even know or want to know who he was, but Ashlocke was different. I'm... Oh God... I'm..." Swallowing hard, tears start to stream down my face as, waiting for him to remove his arm from my shoulders and stalk out of the room in disgust, I hesitantly glance at Brennan. "I'm sorry but I'm unclean, tainted," I finish hollowly. "You... You have to know."

My piece said, my dirty secret out in the open, I start to cry in earnest. Common sense tells me that I'm not helping myself, that the damage is already done, but I can't stop. Always having been too emotional for my own good I cry not only for myself but for the others as well, for all the pain and uncertainty they've been through. I hope Brennan doesn't make too much noise when he storms out. The last thing I want is for Shalimar to be woken up. Her grief as strong as mine she'd never accept that I was okay with Brennan not wanting to have anything to do with me.

To my astonishment Brennan makes no attempt to leave. In fact, wonders truly never ceasing, he hugs me tighter and whispers that it's going to okay over and over again in my ear.

"It doesn't matter, Jess, not to me and not to anyone. You weren't yourself. Given the way Ashlocke was wielding control it could have been any of us and we most likely would have reacted exactly the same way," Brennan murmurs soothingly as I gradually begin to calm down, my need to listen to what he has to say greater than my need to waste more energy on crying. "Don't blame yourself and don't worry about it. I know the bastard's hurt you, hell, he's hurt all of us, but you're home now, safe where you belong. You're not unclean or tainted and, again, I don't want you to even think along those lines. As horrible as the word is, you're the victim here, Jess. You -- we all were -- played by an expert. You didn't have a choice about any of it. Now, listen up, I love you. I love you as much as I did three weeks ago if not, thanks to having been made to face the thought of life without you, even more. C'mon Jess, the time has come to think happy thoughts. You're stronger than Ashlocke and you're not going to let the bastard beat you like this."

"But..." Here I go again. Querying the obvious. "You don't hate me?" I mumble faintly, blinking tears out of my eyes and peering at Brennan. "Even though..."

"I could never hate you," Brennan interrupts, using his free hand to ferret a thankfully clean looking handkerchief out of his pocket and using it to gently wipe my face. "This particular statement might be beginning to sound repetitive but, what can I say, it's the truth. What's done is done, Jess. We can't alter it and we don't have a miracle cure to make it all go away. What we do have is each other... And Shalimar, and Emma, and Adam. We're all here for you and we'll all fight with you. It mightn't be easy but you've got to admit it'll be worth it."

Sniffing, I nod, barely believing my luck. Brennan doesn't hate me. Woo-hoo! Happy days may very well have a chance of coming again. "Very much worth it," I whisper, all the tension I've been bottling up finally leaving me. "Love you too, you know," I add softly, relaxing against Brennan. "Together. Together we'll get through this, yeah?"

"Oh yeah, without a doubt," Brennan replies softly. "It'll be okay, Jess, trust me. Now, come on, enough of this for one night... or day... or whatever it currently is, I think it's time to get you into bed. What do you say?"

"Too tired to argue," I murmur blithely, standing up and immediately missing the feel of Brennan's arm around me. "Joining me?" I add hopefully, knowing that he'll be leaving it to me to make the offer, that he'll never crowd or guilt trip me into doing anything I'm not ready for.

Brennan smiles, his expression one of exhaustion and relief. "Love to."

Within minutes we're in bed, Brennan once again holding me tight. My head resting on my lover's chest, my lover's who's going to stand by me, I realise that, yeah, everything *is* going to be okay.

Make the most of your perceived victory Ashlocke. Your time will come.




~ Brennan ~

"Are you *sure* we shouldn't intervene?" Brennan queried worriedly, shooting

Shalimar an anxious look. "There's, like, three of them now."

"Wow, Bren, your counting skills are coming along in leaps and bounds," Shalimar retorted cheerfully, her eyes never leaving the fight being played out in front of them. "You're right, there's three of them but I still think he'll be able to handle 'em."

"This isn't a simulation, you know, Shal," Brennan muttered, every instinct in his body screaming that he should move out of the shadows and help Jesse. "I *know* that this is a whole *proving himself* deal, both to himself and the rest of us, but, come on, we didn't know there'd be three of them. I really think at least one of should go join in."

Placing her hand on Brennan's arm, Shalimar shook her head. "No. Not yet," she replied, grinning as with a massed fist Jesse sent the biggest of the Links crashing into a world of pain and unconsciousness. "If things get away from Jess then don't you worry, I'll be over there in a shot. Hell, they get the upper hand and I tell you now you'll be lagging in my wake. He's doing okay though, look. One down and two to go. Chill, Bren. We're here. There's nothing that can really go wrong." Pausing, she flinched as one of the men caught Jesse unawares and landed a forceful punch into his gut. "Ouch. That's gotta hurt."

Brennan sighed. "You still think..." Trailing off, he didn't get to finish what he'd been going to say as, at an opportune moment, Jesse phased, causing the two men to slam into each other. One hit the ground on his own accord, the other quickly helped along by a couple of well-aimed kicks. And, just like that, it was over.

"Told you," Shalimar stated proudly, running across to Jesse and slapping him on the back. "Way to go. I knew you could do it!"

"Glad you did," Jesse panted, wincing as he straightened up and glanced dismissively at the three unconscious men on the warehouse floor. "Where the hell were you?" he continued teasingly as Brennan helped the scared witless Tele-Cyber Ashlocke had been hoping to recruit from her hidey spot under the table. "I was getting my ass kicked out here while you two were doing what exactly? Point scoring?"

"Never doubted you, Jess," Brennan bluffed, smiling reassuringly at the young Tele-Cyber who was clutching his hand as though her life depended on it. "It's okay, you're safe now," he told her softly. "We're from Mutant X. These goons here must have somehow intercepted your email to us but, as you can see, they're not a problem any more so let's do what we came here for and get you to a safe house."

The girl, known only as Kiana, nodded, her eyes wide and fixed on Jesse. "Cool fighting," she murmured, her awe obvious.

"Tell me about it," Brennan grinned, laughing as the Molecular blushed at the praise. "You wouldn't even know that he's been out of the game for nearly six weeks."

"No way," Kiana stated with an adamant shake of her head.

"Yes way," Jesse replied, gallantly taking Shalimar's hand and helping her step over the body of the prone Link that lay at their feet. "But I'm okay now."

"Very okay," Kiana breathed appreciatively, taking the words straight out of Brennan's mouth.

Oh yeah. Very okay indeed. Brennan hoped that when the Links went limping back to Ashlocke they told him who it was that had beaten them to a pulp. He liked the idea of Ashlocke knowing that, ultimately, his nefarious little plot had failed. Jesse wasn't going to *be* fine, he already was. Healthy, relaxed, and with the past all but entirely behind him.

Mutant X were back at full strength and ready to take on anything Ashlocke threw at them.

All in all, as far as Brennan was concerned, life was pretty damn good.


~ Jesse ~

Leaving Brennan and his ever-present poetry book -- Walt Whitman, natch -- on the bed, I walk into the bathroom, newly formed habit making me shut the door behind me. Silly, I know. It's not like I have anything to hide from Brennan, that he's never seen me naked before.

Well, not that he has recently.

Ever since... what happened (and let's just leave it at that)... I've been avoiding, as in like the plague, so much as *thinking* about sex. Hugging, kissing, sleeping huddled together isn't an issue. Hell, they're great. Taking things further though?


As far as I'm come, as good as I feel about things now, I'm still not exactly comfortable in my own skin. I've got the art of shaving without the aid of a mirror down pat and I still spend far too long in the shower. I'm down to only one shower a day though, which is a step in the right direction. If Brennan's getting impatient with my born again shy virgin attitude he's doing an exceptionally good job of keeping it to himself. I don't think he is though. What's more I think when he says that he'll wait until the proverbial cows come home for me to be ready that he means it.

Brennan's been great, he really has. Everyone's been wonderful but Brennan in particular has kept me grounded, stopping me from succumbing to the welcoming arms of self-misery. As much as it sounds like a Hallmark sentiment, I'd be lost without him. If ever I need him he's always there for me. Patient, calming, loving. I can only hope that what little I give in return is enough for him. Every step forward I've made I've only done so because he's been by my side.

If I'd needed his help in the warehouse today he would have come. No doubt about it. Same goes for Shalimar. Emma and Adam too, if they'd been there. I'm glad they didn't come to my aid though, that they left me to it. I'm not saying I was full of confidence for my own abilities or that there weren't moments when I honestly thought I was going to get my head kicked in but, well, being left to my own devices meant a lot to me. As did Kiana's praise. I proved today, probably more to myself than anyone else, that I'm back to full strength, that I can once again pull my weight in the team. Needless to say it feels great. I needed the three weeks I spent skulking around Sanctuary but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I'm glad they're over and done with.

Ashlocke's still out there but I seek neither retribution nor revenge. Justice would be nice, but I can wait. I have better things to do with my time than mope and feel sorry for myself. New mutants to protect, a life to lead, friends to tease, a lover to...

What am I hiding from?

Turning away from the shower that I've been staring blankly at as my mind wandered, I hesitantly lift my head and look into the mirror. My own face stares back at me, not that of a scared and scarred victim. Skin too pale, circles under eyes too dark, eyes too blue - the image is nonetheless a familiar one. I smile and my face lights up. I laugh and my reflection tells me that my amusement is genuine. It feels good. In fact *everything* suddenly feels good.

And I know something that will feel even better.

I'm not hiding any more, from anything. I'll never be exactly the same as I was before any of this but I'll come close. Damn close.

Moving away from the mirror, I open the door and poke my head into the bedroom.

"Hey Brennan, wanna share a shower and wash my back?"

~ end ~


Created on ... April 29, 2003