Chapter 11 - 13

Morning. The same girl from last night awoke every one with quiet knocks at their chosen room, telling that breakfast was available for anyone that wanted it and departing, leaving people to dress, shower and come down.

Breakfast, as it turns out was a buffet like arrangement set out on big table. A bay window looked out over a pool and large patio. There was fruit, light pastries and more traditional breakfast fare.

The sleepy look vanished from Gina's face the instant she laid eyes on the food. "Yes!" She grabbed up a plate and shamelessly started piling it on.

After everyone had fixed a plate and sat down, Blaze stepped in. She was dressed in a suit and skirt. Swallowing a mouthful, Gina grinned, "Ya look all respectable now."

"Ah, what would you know, ya little fart?" Blaze smiled at her and walked up to give her a hug. She looked at Clay and Willow.

Clay flashed her a grin and pulled a chair out for her. He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You okay?"

"Nothing a crate of Excedrin couldn't cure….Thanks."

Things really got quiet when Belle walked in. The white jumpsuit-like outfit she had on managed to look both very large and just barely enough at the same time. Thus it did little to conceal the shape she was in: walking wounded. She'd made an effort to clean herself up, but soap and water couldn't do anything for the shadows around her.

Belle was still alert, though; the instincts were still there. Her eyes took in the scene at a glance, noticing who wasn't there as much as who was. Then she sighed, and walked over toward the table without a table. Words were useless.

Gina looked around, question on her mind but kept quiet.

Blaze walked over and kissed Belle softly on one cheek. "How are you?" she asked.

Belle looked down at Blaze and spoke softly. "Fucked. Like I haven't been in ages. But forget me: what about you? What are you doing here? For that matter, what were you doing at the hospital?"

Clay sat down and frowned into his breakfast. He was tired mentally. Tring to remember who he was, who 'they' were and trying to keep everyone alive was exhausting. He pushed his food around, making incomprehensible patterns with the eggs and hash browns. Akemi, Trevor… he rubbed his eyes and wished he could take some time for himself, but… He sighed and determinedly begin eating, seeming angry at his food for some reason. Anger could be good, it could keep you sharp. It could also kill you. He had heard that from someone… who?… With an anger grunt he tossed his fork on the plate and got up to get himself a glass.

Willow looked up from her half-empty plate, concerned. "Something wrong?" she asked softly, as Clay sat back down.

Clay shook his head and gave her a small smile, "Just tired."

Gina sighed and starting picking at her food.

"We'd heard about what happened to you. I wanted to know you were all right. We'd taken Akemi to a streetdoc, and while we were there the news about what had happened had come. The commotion happened there at the hospital. I just got here this morning. I did some surgery of my own on Lauren, and when she was stabilized, Hamil brought me here. That about sums it up." Blaze looked at the tired giantess. "Sit down, eat, recharge. Doctor's orders!" She smiled as she turned to pull out a chair.

As she listened to Blaze, Belle snatched up a plate and piled up whatever came into reach. She let her body run on learned reflexes, and it acted on one of the professional soldier's most deeply ingrained: eat, sleep, shit and fuck when you have the chance. Two down, two to go.

Then she sat down across from Clay, and shoveled the food into her mouth. This wasn't eating, it was consumption. She didn't care what it tasted like; she needed the energy. The contents of the plate disappeared rapidly, and soon she got up for seconds.

Sitting down again, Belle started stuffing her face again, when her eyes met Clay's, and she put down her fork. "OK, we've both got things to get off our chests," she said, "and no telling how much time we have before the next mad-bomber wannabe materializes out of nowhere to blow us all to Hell. So let's do it while we can. I'll start.

"When you showed up on my doorstep, however long ago it was, you risked the lives of everyone in my club just by being there. I had no choice but to shut it down myself, in order to save my customers, and the people who depend on me. And all because you had one of the biggest psychos I've ever met, coming to kill you. I had to throw away the only thing I've ever done in my life that didn't center around killing people, all for a bunch of dangerous strangers who didn't mean anything to me.

"But one look in your eyes right now, and I can't hate you for that anymore. You tried to do right by the people who depend on you, just as I tried to do right by those who matter to me. And we've both fucked up royally. I couldn't defend my people or my territory, when they needed me most. As for you…" A single, all-encompassing glance finished that statement.

Gee, I can feel the love, Gina thought not looking up from her food. Jus' keep your mouth shut, kid, she silently advised herself, this is as close as he gets. She? He? Oh man… that was way too much information last night…

"And I was wrong about you--all of you. You're not the monster here. I am. Inside as well as out. Before you'd showed up, I'd spent a couple of years thinking I could leave my past behind, start a new life. Ironic, I guess: I can't forget, and you can't remember. And we'd both rather it were the other way around.

"But it's caught up with me, and then some. And I've learned a few things about myself that make me realize I have no business calling anyone inhuman. So I've decided to stop denying what I am. No more running away. No more fooling myself."

"I don't think you're a monster." Blaze whispered softly.

Belle turned to Blaze with eyes whose shadows testified to the fact that the real wounds inflicted on her ran deeper than skin. "You can say that only because you don't know me--don't know what I've done," she replied flatly, without expression--making a statement of fact, nothing more. There was barely a semblance of feeling behind anything she was saying.

"OK, your turn."

"Well…I'm kinda wonderin'…what the hell that was all about the hospital…" Gina said quietly.

"That reminds me. The girl that was shot, Lauren? She'll pull through. Where's the other girl that was here?"

Gina shrugged.

Belle looked at her. "You'll have to find somebody who's got the answers to tell you that one," she said. "I know what happened. I don't know why. Maybe that old lady just got tired of being left in that waiting room, and decided to do the hospital equivalent of 'going postal'. If anybody's got a better explanation, I'm listening. In the meantime, Willow," she continued, turning her gaze on the teenage ??blonde, "I think you can clear up something else, as far as the hospital goes. Namely, the last time I saw you, some asshole with a hand grenade drove away with you in the back of his van. All of us here and more besides couldn't stop that one shithead from kidnapping you. Next thing I know, you show up at the hospital with Charlotte, and a bounty hunter name of Rally Vincent is missing a chunk of her memory after having been seen with a girl who fits your general description. I have a pretty good idea what must have happened, but I'd like to hear it in your words.

As Willow's story wound to its conclusion, Belle's eyes narrowed. "Uh-HUH," she nodded. "That fills in the blanks. So. Just another psycho mind reader. What a surprise. And Charlotte says I bring nothing but trouble. Funny that he should want to be on a first-name basis with you." She snorted. "I should've guessed she'd send Girl Friday, rather than go herself. None of this explains her sending me running around town trying to find you beforehand, though, except for making the point that I might as well not have bothered. Well before I'd picked up any trail at all, she knew exactly where to send Lauren. Whatever she may say about my contacts, she's the only one with the answers, the only one with the power. And I admit it, now that she's rubbed my nose in it.

"Another psycho…mutha fuckin" Gina muttered, bit her tongue. She threw up her hands as Belle's reply came to an end looking at Clay and Willow with a "can you believe this?" expression.

Gina turned back to Belle, "Umm… ok… what story were you listening to? The one I heard said that Charlotte keyed into Willow when she tried to find and help us out when those freaks where shootin' up the place… Willow's kinda… loud sometimes."

Belle brought her gaze to bear on Gina, who saw in those shadowed eyes that something was missing--the light she remembered seeing there before wasn't there now. Nothing living shouldn't have eyes like those, or sound like this. "I know. She's shouted into my head too. The story's the same in any case."

Belle continued, "Now I would've said it wasn't very smart of her to bring you back out into the open once she'd gotten you out of the way. After that business at the hospital, and from what you say about what happened to the others, though, there is no such thing as a 'safe house' anymore. You were probably as safe at the hospital as you would have been anyplace else. I.e., not much. There's no place to hide from a mind reader, after all. Hell, I'm just counting the minutes until somebody blows this place up. Seems to me we're overdue."

"Oh, and Blaze? What's this about taking Akemi to a streetdoc? What the fuck happened to you? Before you went to the hospital, that is."

"Some assholes attacked the safehouse we went to. They were… like us. Mind powers of sorts. I tried to burn them out, almost succeeded. Could have brought the whole house down…" Blaze shook her head. "Turns out I didn't need to. After the lead asshole shot Akemi, he turned the gun on Clay. I was going to burn the Templates, but he shot me first. As he turned back to Clay, Trevor put his hands on the walls. They came down. We ran, and the whole damned house collapsed on all of them. Killed Trevor, and probably the dickheads still in the house. We took a van, Gina pointed us to the doc. Guess he owed her a favor or something. Took us in, patched up Akemi. She stayed there, couldn't be moved. I'll ask Ms. St. Clair about that later. Then we heard about you, and went to the hospital. That's the nutshell version of it. After Lauren was shot, SHE came around, and it was doctor mode until last night, after the operation. I fell asleep, then Hamil brought me here after I woke up this morning."

Deep breath. "In other words, once again they knew exactly where to find you. And once again, you never stood a chance. I'm glad all of you are all right, for what it's worth. And I feel like shit for not having been there. I could've taken bullets meant for someone else. It'd be the most good I've done anybody since all this shit started. Though I wonder why Charlotte didn't send anyone to get you guys when she was collecting Willow. And again, I would've said that going into a public place like a hospital was not very bright, under normal circumstances. But these are anything but normal, right? And anyway, now you're with Charlotte. I guess she's the only one who has any chance of helping you. I was out of options right from the start. All the things that used to work, don't work anymore. Can't go forward, can't go back…I don't know what to do."

Throwing down her fork, Gina pushed away from the table and headed for the door. She paused at the threshold, turned and spat out, "it was because a me… I fucked up lookin' for Willow and somebody… somebody jumped in my head and… rode me all that time… that's how they found out… not causa Charlotte, not causa Willow…'cause I was stupid, ok!?" Her eyes were bright with tears, but she sniffed, holding them back. "And… and you shouldn't be talkin' about your dad like that… she cares about you… you're lucky to have someone that does…" Whirling, she ran out of the room.

Belle wondered for a moment what Gina was referring to, but in her emotionally drained state, couldn't follow the train of thought for very long. It was apparent by now to everyone that the blonde giantess was running almost entirely on instinct and inertia. Her self-confidence had taken a far worse beating than even that which her body had sustained. The words were there, but there was hardly any feeling at all behind them. She was numb, and getting more so.

Charlotte stepped in, dressed in white, a floor length skirt and loose silk blouse. Barely sidestepping the dashing girl she looked after, then turned to the group, meeting a collective stare from them.

Charlotte, too, noticed the shadows. Belle was worse off than even she had thought. She would likely recover from her physical injuries, but the inner damage had caught up with her, and not just from the last several days. No, their encounters had brought to the fore all the years of emotional fallout which Belle had kept pushed out of the way, telling herself that she was tough enough to stand it.

And it didn't look like she could recover from that fallout unaided. Her own resources were all but exhausted. Charlotte also knew the truth of her offspring never having anyone to rely on but herself, knew that even if it occurred to Belle that she couldn't go it alone any longer, she wouldn't know how to ask for help, or worse, wouldn't letdown her guard long enough to trust anyone to help her. The demands, the survival imperatives of the life she'd had to lead thus far wouldn't allow her to make herself that vulnerable. And there was another catch-22: even if Belle admitted to herself that she needed help, the one person in the world who could help her was also the last person in the world to whom she would turn. Like the wounded animal she was, the haze of her pain blurred her perceptions: she couldn't tell friend from foe, and was now lashing out at everyone who got close. Was there a way to break the stalemate?

"Gina, wait! Blaze started after the girl, then stopped as Charlotte came in the room. "Your friend Lauren is going to be fine." She told her. "Excuse me." Blaze ran off in search of the little girl.

"Than-" Charlotte stopped as Blaze ran on. She sighed and took a seat, serving herself in silence. She was tired, a soul deep weariness the like of which hadn't plagued her for decades. Nothing worked, every option seemed to bring only more turmoil. Lauren… why didn't I listen to you…

Clay cleared his throat, "Okaaaaaaayyyyy, " he turned and looked at Belle.

"I think you and I are the same on this point. Apologizes don't come easy to us. I am sorry we involved you, hadn't quite realized what we were up against. I know you have a problem with me. That's fine. But Willow keeps pointing out that we need someone who does this sorta thing for a living. And since I don't trust Bill further then I could toss him…"

Clay shrugged, took a deep breath, "Name your price. I will do whatever you ask if you lend us your expertise."

Belle moved her head ponderously, as if it had become a weight on her shoulders, until Clay found himself staring directly into the shadows that clouded her eyes. "My…'expertise'…" she said thickly. Her breath was coming shorter and shorter, and her face looked increasingly flushed, except for the black where the shining sapphires of her eyes should have been.

"I could teach you how to kill with your bare hands… or just about any weapon you care to name," she continued after a moment. "But the difference between that, and what you do with your thoughts… is bigger than the gap between a knight in armor, with his lance and charger, and the muskets and bronze cannon of the Gunpowder Revolution…

"My 'expertise' won't do you any good. I can show you how to be a good example of my kind, but not how to be like your own kind. Only others of your own kind can do that…

"If you want to kill someone, you only have to think of it and it happens. The methods I know are useless to you as a spear would be to a rifleman, and even harder to defend against by us primitives than firearms… I can think of one thing I can give you which you need: a sense of history… But before that…"

"Now just hold on. If I could kill someone with a thought, both Bill and that other bastard would be pushing up daisies. The enemy isn't just using mind powers Belle. Christ! Gina has more control over her gifts then I do right now! "

Suddenly, and with even more visible effort, Belle turned to Willow. One huge hand reached out, covering both of the smaller woman's. Its touch was warm. Very warm. "I can still hear you screaming in my head…Make it stop, goddammit…"

As these last words tumbled out of her mouth, Belle's eyes rolled back in her head, and she pitched forward, striking the table with an impact like falling timber. The physical and emotional shocks she had suffered had finally proven too much.

"Oh my God…I tried to tell her…" Charlotte whispered, standing. Taking up the fallen Belle, she started out of the room.

Clay stood, running his hand through his hair, "Is there anything we can do?"

"I truly don't know if they're anything, anyone can do." Charlotte said quietly.

Willow followed, as well. "Belle said she could still hear my scream… perhaps I could help somehow," she suggested.

Charlotte shook her head, "No… it's not you… what she's hearing… I think its coming from within her, not from you or anyone else. She's made it plain she doesn't want me to help her…and even if she did I don't know what do to…"

Clay nodded, "Then you don't do anything. She comes through this or not on her own."

Clay held up his hand to forestall any protests, "Whoa before anyone jumps down my throat. Strength, her own, is important to Belle. If she leans on anyone now, she see herself doing it forever. Then you would be better to pop a .45 through her temple."

Blaze caught up with Gina in the room she'd used. Knees drawn up to her chin, she sat in the middle of the bed, eyes closed but still noticed when Blaze entered. "What do ya want?"

Blaze sat down on the bed. "It wasn't your fault, kiddo. They tried to do the same thing to me, but got burned by the fire in my head. I barely control it, Gina. Back in the house, I was going to do what Trevor did, but with fire. He pulled me back in time, and you got us safe. Where would I be without your help? You know more about the streets than I do. You're important, Gina. To Willow, to Clay… to me. They killed my little brother, you know." Blaze pulled her cigarettes out of a pocket and lit one. "If I find them, I'll burn them, just like this smoke. Hey, we need to snap out of this. Who's gonna keep me out of trouble if you aren't around, huh?"

Despite her mood, Gina smiled a bit.

"C'mon, kiddo. What say you and me go back? I could use some serious coffee!"

Gina nodded and slipped off the bed. "What is with Belle though… its like she's scared shitless o' everybody…"

"I hadn't thought of that. You could be right. Let's go." Taking Gina by the hand, they went back to the dining room.

It was empty when they got back. Gina looked around. "what the fuck?"

"Where the hell did everyone go?" Blaze looked around the rooms nearby, just in case. "Any suggestions, Gina?"

As she asked, Willow and Clay returned trailed by Charlotte. She paused in the doorway, looking back over her shoulder for a moment then walked to the table and resumed her seat.

"So? What's the story? What's going on here? Ms. St. Clair? I could use a good explanation right about now……" Blaze said.

"Couldn't we all…" Charlotte said, not looking up. "Forgive me… I shouldn't be so curt as we all seem to he in this together. I'll answer what questions I can."

"Why did you come to our assistance? Do you know who is hunting us, and why? And what's wrong with Belle? How's that for a start?" Blaze lit up another cigarette, waiting expectantly.

Charlotte nodded once, glancing with some disapproval at the cigarette. "I know some of what you ask. I can't pretend to know it all. The organization… it calls itself Fenris, unofficially. It exists in all the cracks, the shadow of the governmental and military complex." She pauses, "I'm slipping into the dramatic aren't I… boiled to the basics its like any other group of power hungry people, working beyond the law. As for why… your mental abilities make you a likely target… from what Belle has told me, you, Willow, are likely a product of their experimentation. As for Belle… she's undergone many shocks as of late… physical and emotional. I think her world view is very fragile at its heart…"

"Could be. Maybe she's just gone beyond even her own endurance. I hate to see her like this. I… we need her, especially if this is going to be as rough as it has been. What can we do to help?"

"Be with her… she needs someone… perhaps you are that person…"

Willow made a face. "I have no problem seeing my parents working for people like that."

"So it would seem," Willow shrugged. She couldn't make herself feel any real remorse over her parents' fate. Probably never would.

"Apparently they displeased them." Charlotte said quietly. "Them and other employers."

Fenris… Clay frowned to himself, the word striking cords in his memory, "I… You… What do you know about us?"

**"Not much beyond what Belle told me, my own conjecture and other things… gathered." Charlotte said then turned a pointed gaze on Clay. "You… I know the most of Jason. You work… worked for Fenris at one time."

A small smirking smile crossed her face for an instant. "Or were created by them…though I suspect its much the same thing…" She sighed, shaking her head. "I'm quite weary and getting irritable. I apologize. Belle told me that you were being hunted for something called Templates that Jason evidently stole from them."

Gina nodded,"yeah whatever they were those punks had a major hard on ta get 'em back… but they got trashed when Trevor well…" She trailed off. "But I guess that don' get us off the shit list huh?"

Chuckling Charlotte said, "Perhaps bumped down a few steps though…"

"Please explain, " Clay frowned, not liking the feeling that Charlotte was making light of Trevor's sacrifice. Trevor had been one of his people.

"If the primary reason they were seeking you was the Templates, then that reason has been… noisily removed. Perhaps that pursuit will relent somewhat," Charlotte explained.

"I disagree. Without the Templates, the next best thing is to see how their 'success' plays out. I did this to myself. I'd heard someone say they'd never seen a talent like mine. The template wasn't supposed to do… this." Blaze fought to keep the power down. "I tell you, though. I'd like nothing better than to finish what I started back at that house. Enough of that. Would you tell me where Belle is at? I'd like to see her." Throughout the little speech, Blaze's demeanor changed, becoming fiery, like her hair, then calm again in asking about Belle. Maybe we need each other, she thought.

"She's in the west wing." Charlotte gestured in the proper direction.

"What 'bout Jim?" Gina asked, looking up suddenly,"they were chasin' him too…"

Charlotte sighed quietly, turning to gaze out into the garden again. "No…no they weren't… that man worked for another organization, looking for Willow's parents as it turns out. His employers wanted Blaze as well, believing she is some sort of traitor." She held up a hand at Blaze's puzzled look. "Fortunately, he didn't know anything about Fenris. I think he was strictly an accidental participant. His people should take care of him."

A small frown creased Gina's features. Kinda liked him, she thought, not like he was a bad guy…all her friends were leaving. "SO…where's he now?"

"I…he's on his way to report in. He thinks Blaze is dead and the trail to you severed." Her voice final, certain. Taking a long drink of juice, she turned to Blaze. "Corrine Walthers was under their employ as well. A physician and biochemist that went rogue, according to his briefing under the influence of Jason Williamson."

Clay sighed, "That's me right, " he mumbled through his hands. Damn headaches.

Willow frowned thoughtfully. "It's you, love," she said, looking at Jason. "It all seems to point back at you--or at least, your name keeps popping up. This is beyond coincidence… I think we need to know what you were up to." She shifted her gaze to Charlotte, the question clear.

"At this point, your guess would be as good as mine… if not better," the blonde shrugged slightly.

"I don't like that worth a damn!" Blaze says. "But until Belle is better, I'm sticking around. Clay, we can work out the rest later. If you don't mind?" Blaze went off in the direction Charlotte pointed.

Clay gazed after Blaze, puzzled by her outburst, and then he looked back at the others. "I know Belle thinks I'm faking, " he cleared his throat, "But I really have no memories beyond waking up near Willow's place. Willow tried once before to… to go past my block or whatever it is. I think. I think we should try again. "

"I don't think it's a block." Charlotte said,"I thinks its…damage of some sort."

"That answers a lot…" Gina said.

Clay shot a look at Gina and then shifted his gaze back to Charlotte, "What makes you think that?"

Gina shrugged. "It does."

"From the way it… feels," Charlotte said, at a loss for words.

"Yes… it would answer a lot. It would explain why both Blaze and Jason have the same problem with memory after taking the Templates," Willow mused. "But is it temporary or permanent…?"

Shaking her head, Charlotte turned to look back out the window. She didn't know. After a moment she stood,"please excuse me…feel free to use what ever you like on the estate." She stepped out of the room.

Blaze stepped into the back room and saw Belle. She looked pale and somehow smaller now, only slow breathing disturbing the her deathlike stillness.

Blaze assessed her condition as much as she was able, then sat next to her on the bed. "Damn it, Belle! You don't get to do this. This is taking self-sacrifice too far. You have strengths and knowledge that we need, if there's any chance of getting out of this mess. You've got to snap out of this….please?" Sighing, Blaze went to the doorway and lit another cigarette, and stood outside the door, looking in.

Belle awoke. In the same place twice in a row, for the first time since… since all of this had started. She stared at the ceiling, her eyelids the only part of herself moving. The echoes of the girl Willow's screaming in her brain had gone, taking her body's false-immune response along with it.

That attempt by her body to fight off that which it could neither understand nor affect, with the only weapons at its disposal, inadequate as they were, symbolized everything she had come across thus far.

But understanding of just what she lacked began to dawn, as her head cleared. That, and what she owed. "Life… and death… and life… and death… and life… and death… and life… and death…" came the words, through a mouth cracked and parched. Belle stopped, swallowed, licked her lips, and went on, speaking to the room: "I was wrong about you. I admit it. Help me. I wasn't wrong when I said I don't know what to do, even if I was half out of my head when I said it."

Silence. More silence. Nonetheless, Belle did not doubt that Charlotte knew everything that went on under her roof. She'd heard. Whether she would answer was another question. Pain and anger aside, she hadn't exactly been responsive to the woman(?) before.

Belle felt Blaze's presence more so than saw or heard her.

Sighing heavily, Belle closed her eyes, then opened them again. She sat up, stark naked, and swung her feet to the floor. "I don't know how long you've been there," she said in Blaze's general direction, running fingers through hair in classic style.

"Fuck, I don't know how long I've been here, let alone how long it's been now since the shit started hitting the fan. But right now, I need something to drink, and I need a phone. Would you get them for me? Oh, and if you breathe smoke at me, I'll make you eat that cigarette." There was tremendous fatigue still in her voice, but also a realization that she had things to do.

"Coffee, tea, or me?" Blaze responded, no expression on her face. "You've been down for 2 days, near as I can figure, maybe one more. As for the smoke, I'll try not to offend you. Soup, juice, or water?"

Blaze tossed Belle her cellular phone. "Don't know if it still works, but you're welcome to try. I'll see what I can do about the rest. Blaze walked off to find a kitchen. She'd better snap out of it soon, or there'll be trouble… She thought to herself.

At least three days… "Whatever you can find," Belle replied with a wave of her hand. "You're the doctor." When she was alone, she closed her eyes and sighed again. Three days… she muttered to herself again. Whatever's going to happen has happened already. Whether the people I care about are alive or dead, there's nothing I can do for them now… except avenge them… Her head sagged, and she covered her face in her hands. "Fuck it… I've got to know if they're all right. I can't think of anything else… Can't stand the thought that I fucked up when they needed me the most! And in such a stupid way, too…"

Several moments after this outburst, she turned and stared almost abstractedly at the object lying next to her on the bed. Then she shook her head, blinked, and picked it up. As she switched it on to see if it still had any juice, Belle made a note to thank Blaze for loaning it to her, as well as for putting up with her generally shitty condition. Even if Belle had been minding her own business before this mess was dumped in her lap, Blaze was as much a victim as she was.

Holding the phone to her ear, Belle realized it would be bad to use it even if it still worked. The enemy had made no mistake save one thus far that she could spot. They were too good not to be monitoring this phone number. More than enough time had passed for them to track it down.

Putting the phone back down, Belle waited for Blaze to return. After which, she would look around the house. Someone with as much information and other power as Charlotte controlled would surely have at least one phone line in this place which couldn't be traced to her. Free cryptic would do the rest.

Blaze returned with some coffee, a plate of pastries, and a small bowl of fruit. "Sorry. This was all I could find at the moment. We'll get you something more substantial later on."

"Don't mention it," Belle replied, trying to crack wise. "Even in a place like this, I guess beggars still can't be choosers." The attempt sounded weak even to her own ears.

Blaze walked up and sat down next to the blonde. "YOU worried about your friends? We can find out about them. I'm sure there's a phone around here somewhere. The battery dead in mine? At least I think it's mine. I can't remember exactly."

Belle knocked back the coffee, then sighed. "Thanks. Really. I've been acting like an asshole, and I know it. A big part of it is that I've let down people I'm responsible for. My reputation and I were the bulletproof shield for that club and everyone in it since I reopened the place almost three years ago. Now the only thing that's got more holes in it than I do is my reputation. But before I can even try to help my people, you people pop in out of nowhere, and suddenly I've got to help you find and kill your invisible enemy before he realizes what a boner he's pulled. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. Story of my life."

She paused to eat some of the pastries and fruit, holding the dishes out for Blaze. "I'm not mad at you people anymore," she went on, eyeing the redhead. "You were just running scared, and I've been 100% frustrated by everything that's happened. But there's nowhere to run from something like this. These fuckers are too good. So no, I didn't use that phone. If it is yours, the enemy will have had plenty of time to trace your number. And Charlotte must have at least one ultra-secure line in this place. I'll find out where it is after I finish this. At least, I've got to know who's still alive and who isn't."

After eating everything that Blaze didn't touch, Belle got up and stretched. Then she turned, hands on hips, so that the two of them were face-to-face, her piercing sapphire eyes boring into the other woman's. "You know," she said, "it occurs to me that the last time we were alone in a room together, we were rudely interrupted. And there's no telling how long it'll be before the shit hits the fan again. You wanna pick up where we left off?"

"I wasn't sure you were going to ask." Blaze replied, turning her head a bit. Looking back to Belle, she says, "Well? What are you waiting for?"

"Nothing", the giantess replied. There was a husky growl in her voice, and a shit-eating grin split her face as she lunged from a standing start. In a flash, she had Blaze pinned down on the bed, on her back. She took a moment to take in the view, and give Blaze a chance to do likewise, before she started tearing through the redhead's clothes--like she would do to any obstacle in her way.

"Good thing the outfit wasn't mine…" Blaze laughs. Reaching up, she pulled Belle down and kissed her furiously. "I missed you," she says.

Fatigue and her recovering body perhaps slowed Belle's progress a tad but she needed this, a chance to escape, and NOT to think for a time. As excitement overtook her conscious thought, Belle vaguely felt a trembling tightness between her legs, mingling with the familiar warmth and growing moisture. It was… pleasant, highly so and unlike anything she'd felt before. With a sliding pop, she…emerged, erect. The coarse fabric of her clothes and the tatters of Blaze's outfit against this most sensitive flesh sent a tremor through the amazon, a jolt straight to her fevered brain.

Belle could almost feel her eyes glazing over. She didn't even care that Blaze's mouth tasted of cigarette smoke. She'd had the experience of a weight between her legs many times, but having it actually alive, and attached to her body, was so different it was surreal. She raised herself up, tugging and tearing off her clothes and looked down at it, her long blonde hair obscuring Blaze's view in the process. Then she met the redhead's gaze again, and Blaze saw the lust writ large there. But she could hardly believe it when she followed Belle's hand with her eyes as it moved between her legs, there to grasp an unmistakable cock, in a place where she already knew firsthand that a cunt existed. A brief rationale part of her mind saw the small differences in it, more tapered, almost missile like, jutting up from her Belle's lush blonde pubes. Any doubts she had as to its reality, though, were dispelled when Belle guided it to her redheaded mons, and started thrusting her hips. Blaze realized that this was not at all what she had expected, physically or emotionally.

The smooth taper head slid easily within, piercing Blaze in one sharp motion. It felt huge, impossibly long and thick. Blaze arched, eyes rolling back in her head, a gasp torn from her throat, pleasure shock all mingled in a guttural cry as she was filled to her total depth. Her nail dug into Belle's shoulders.

Not knowing what to think anymore, Blaze went with the moment. Nothing in her shattered memories compared to this… She cried out, tensing her muscles, determined to make this pleasure mutual…

The last coherent thought Belle had was to hold herself up on her hands and knees; like as not, she would crush Blaze if she lay atop her, especially with the force she was using just then. The position, combined with the difference in their sizes, forced Blaze to tip her pelvis up to an awkward degree in order to meet Belle's ramrodding as a result. The height difference also meant that the redhead alternately found herself staring up at Belle's tits, filling her field of vision, and being smothered by them. By that point, Belle was beyond knowing. Her R-complex (or the equivalent in her species) had taken over, and she pounded away. The headboard smacked the wall, and the bed itself began to creak. It may have been built with unusually large people in mind, but even Charlotte did not have the sheer muscle mass of her offspring. And that offspring was in the grip of something she neither understood, nor had had any preparation for. She grunted savagely with each thrust of her cock--which, while not out of proportion to the rest of her body, ranked as impressive however you looked at it--into Blaze's cunt, which was burning in more ways than one. The moment they'd started had been the point of no return; whatever was happening between them in this moment, they had no choice but to see it through. There was no finesse, no tenderness here: this was rut, pure and simple.

Blaze felt the burning, started to become one with it… the fire, the heat, it was all a part of her. She embraced it, joined it, feeling the fire build in her head once again… glorious burning, all

consuming, soon… soon…

Blaze burned, ached to release her fire all at once… but held back. No… slowly… let it simmer and build. Pushing, grinding she met Belle stroke for stroke, motion for passion ragged horse breaths tearing from her throat as she was taken again and again, harder faster until she exploded, a nova bursting in front of her eyes. To Belle it was if Blaze's body took on a glow surging with power that seemed to fill her well driving her on, past instinct to a new realm of union unlike any she'd felt before. Her pleasure was Blaze's, Blaze's hers. they were one, a seething animal mass pushing toward ultimate fulfillment.

Normally very passionate to begin with, Belle enjoyed all these new sensations, even if she didn't entirely understand them. She gave herself over to what was happening, the two of them riding the crest to a single peak. When it hit, the orgasm--which seemed to come from both of them at once--caused her to explode within and without. She could hardly tell which of them was doing what. Was it her cock erupting inside of Blaze's cunt, or was it the other way round? Or was it both? And as wave after wave of pleasure crashed down over them, it ceased to matter. Belle froze, buried to the hilt between Blaze's thighs. Then she reared up, threw her head back and roared at the top of her lungs. Nothing human could have made that awesome sound. It went on and on, until finally release came, and the two of them became distinctly themselves again. With a last effort, Belle heaved herself over onto her back, and lay gasping for air.

When she could talk again (and how long had it been since fucking had left her out of breath for any length of time, she thought), she realized that there was nothing that could be said. Words couldn't express what they had experienced. Nor was there any point in trying. Instead, Belle tried to apologize for reaming Blaze, tried to explain that she didn't know it would happen like that, never had happened to her like that. She wanted to tell Blaze that nobody had ever told her that it could happen, let alone what to expect. That, and how sorry she was that Blaze had to find out in this way just how inhuman Belle really was.

But one look at Blaze's face brought back everything they had just shared, and her worries, if not dispelled, faded by comparison. She reached out and pulled the redhead on top of her, kissed her gently. "Well, at least you can't get knocked up," she said with a smile as Blaze stretched out with room to spare.

"Thanks. I needed that," Belle said. "Sorry for being so rough. That's never happened to me before," she added unnecessarily.

After lying in that way for a while in silence, and having assured herself that the cock had retracted again, Belle gently rolled Blaze to the side and got up. Rising to her full height, she stretched, then looked down at herself. "Definitely out of shape," she said, frowning. "Been too long." Then she headed out the door, indifferent to her nudity. "Got to get back in touch with the world."

Blaze stretched, still a bit awed at what had just happened. She was curious now, the power within her had come to the forefront, but she had been able to contain it. She didn't know how, she usually didn't have that much control. Enough of this, she thought. She got up and headed for a shower. Time for a fresh start, she thought.

As Belle looked around, it occurred to her that even in her earlier delirium, she hadn't seen anything that looked like an information source--no telephones, no computers, no TV, no books or newspapers. Still, in a place as big as this, who knew where it might all be. There had to be something substantial somewhere, though. Charlotte couldn't function without information.

To increase her chances of finding what she was looking for, Belle went to the far end of the West Wing, the part of the house where she was already. From there, she started looking through every room, systematically.

It didn't take her long to find the others after looking in a couple of other bedrooms., all still in the sitting room she remember from before.

[move this]

The grunting, shouts and ever growing creak and thuds from the other room, made all look up. "What the fuck?" Gina muttered, eyes wide.

Clay shook his head with a small laugh he reached over and tousled Gina's hair, "Exactly angel, exactly right."

Gina rolled her eyes and sighed. "Guess it was about time… "

Then Clay frowned and continued staring out the window. Damage? What was… I… Jason… God, this is all so confusing.

They smelled Belle before they saw her. Not only did she reek freshly of sweat and sex, but she was also still giving off pheromones, though not to the extent that she had been earlier. Blaze was still breathing air steeped in supercharged musk by comparison.

The sight of the others brought Belle up short. She surveyed the faces arrayed before her, then said, "Oh. Maybe it hasn't been as long as I thought. Have any of you seen a phone in this place? Or a computer? TV? Newspapers? Anything with current info about the real world in it?" Then she paused and looked around again. "Come to think of it," she went on, "where's our bleach-blonde… host… gotten to?"

"Whoa… You better find a shower first…" Gina said, taking step back, nose wrinkled.

Belle found it mildly ironic that Gina, who had lived no one knew how long on the streets, should get on her high horse about body odors. Still, the kid had a point: like a lot of other things, she couldn't count on having a chance to get cleaned up again any time soon. Besides, she could do without this particular hassle the next time she talked to Charlotte. "Your wish is my command," she said with that deep rumble that was in her a laugh. Punctuating the remark with a mock bow, Belle turned and left. Looking around, though, she had the same problem as before: she didn't know where to find anything in this place. Oh well, she mused as she struck out again, in a place this size, there's got to be another shower around somewhere. I just hope we don't get blown up while I'm getting clean again.

Swinging by the room she had just vacated, she went in to see if there was a bathroom attached to it. Indeed there was and Blaze was in it, already starting a shower. She looked up as Belle stepped in, smiled slightly. She thought Belle should be careful of her bandages but didn't mind sharing the shower.

"So, my dear. Any other changes I should know about?" Blaze looked meaningfully between Belle's legs. She looked up again and smiled. "We should get clean, then talk to Charlotte. There's some more answers I'd like to have. What do you think?" Grabbing the soap, she began to lather up the blonde, being careful of her bandages.

After what Belle had already put said bandages through, a little more moisture wasn't going to make that much difference. "I think we've got to stop meeting like this," the giantess deadpanned as she raised her arms. "People are liable to talk."

"You think they're not talking already? After this morning, the nearest cemetery is probably talking…"

A moment later, she sighed as Blaze's hands ran over her abdomen and legs. "I've been thinking pretty much the same thing," she rumbled. "Nobody wants to know more about what's happening to me than I do. My… mother… tried very hard to make me think I was human, even to raising me with a human… father. So I don't know any more about this--" she pointed at her crotch-- "than I do about anything else that's going on."

She bent low so Blaze could reach the upper part of her body. "Charlie hasn't even begun to answer all the questions she's raised, about a lot of things. She may have nothing but our best interests at heart, but that doesn't mean she's telling us the whole story." Blaze could feel the tension in Belle's giant frame as her hands ran over every square inch of skin, hear it in her voice.

Once Blaze was finished, Belle stepped under the shower. Taking the much-reduced bar of soap, she got down on her knees and began returning the favor. She might be trying to act like Charlotte was her only concern, but the redhead could see the stress whose touch still lingered in her own hands. She'd probably never been this trapped, this helpless, before. It must be driving her crazy.

"Belle?" Blaze asked, looking down on the blonde's head. "You don't have to do this alone… if you don't want to. Remember? You've got my back, and I've got yours…" she leaned down and kissed Belle, letting the water splash them both.

Belle was about to say, "I don't want to do this, period," when Blaze's lips cut her off. The kneeling lioness was frankly surprised by how swiftly and unself-consciously the redhead crossed through that dangerous space--dangerous, that is, because this time they were both as close to being in their right minds as they were likely to be. For an instant, Belle wondered if the woman's amnesia itself could account for it: was she able to cut through these boundaries because she did not recognize that they were even there? She didn't dwell on it just then, though, as this was one crisis with which she knew, or thought she knew, how to cope, for a change. She returned Blaze's kiss in equal measure.

Presently, she broke the kiss, and stood up. "Come on," she said. "Let's get out of here." Belle turned off the water and grabbed a towel as she stepped out. As she used it to give the shorter woman a vigorous rubdown, Belle said, "Thanks. It's nice to know where I stand. Let's hope it'll make a difference."

Blaze took another towel to dry Belle off, being careful of the bandages and wounds.

After a moment, she continued, "You go find Charlie, talk to her first. But I'll tell you right now, she as good as told me that she let Fenris's mastermind pull the wool over her eyes for forty years. So take her information with a grain or two of salt. I still can't figure out why they haven't killed her yet, though, with all that she does know about them. On the other hand, I can't figure out why she went from brunette to blonde overnight, either. So what the hell.

"I think Charlotte is a lot more than she seems, Belle." blaze replied.

"'More than she seems', indeed." Belle echoed. "You know, that's exactly my point." And she finished drying Blaze off in silence.

"Right now, though, I've got to see what the tactical possibilities of this place are", she mused, "see if there's any way to defend any part of this place with what we've got to work with, and what our escape routes are. I've got a feeling that even with a trained garrison and real artillery, this place would still be a cracker box, and we have neither…Though that hardly matters when you have an enemy who can pull the ultimate Trojan Horse maneuver. And I need to get info from outside, like I said before. Can't waste any more time. The enemy has too much going for it as it is. I need to get my shit together, and hope it's not too little too late."

"Belle, you need to rest." Before the blonde could say anything, Blaze raised her hand. "At least until I get your bandages changed and those wounds cleaned out. No arguments. You can't 'get your shit together' if you are sickened by a staph infection!" blaze reached out and took her by the hand. "Come with me. We'll find what we need, then you can do your thing."

For a moment, the giantess didn't move. Her eyes narrowed to slits. If she dug in her heels for real, that would be that, even in her present condition. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the mirror over the sink. Turning full on to face her own reflection, Belle sang in what for her was a soft voice, "Ask the mirror on the wall/Who's the biggest fool of all/Bet you feel small/It happens to us all…"

Then she turned, looking down so she could look Blaze in the eye. "I think you've got your priorities ass-backwards," she said in her normal voice, "but OK. Let's go." As she let herself be led back into the hall, she added, "This time, let's find a room with a phone in it. Or a computer. Shit, I'd even settle for TV or a newspaper at this point."

Blaze squeezed Belle's hand. "I'll see what I can do. Right now, we need to get you re-bandaged. Then we'll find what you need. All right?" Blaze looked up at the woman she knew could break her in half if she was of a mind… the haunted look seemed to be fading, replaced by determination. Blaze knew she would help her in any way she could. "C'mon blondie. Let's get you patched up."

As they walked down the hall, Belle looked all around, taking her first good look at the place since they had been brought there. She checked every door they passed, opening every one that wasn't locked, looking inside for furniture, windows, other doors, anything. She also felt along the walls, noted the locations of stairways and other hallways, common rooms, doorways, looked for garages…everything she saw, heard and felt, she was filtering through her combat experience and tactical expertise. And she kept on going until they found a room that would suit both of them.

"Belle? Are we looking for anything in particular? I just need to find something to dress those wounds with. Then you can search to your heart's content. Besides, I need to find a couple of things myself." Blaze watched Belle's face, searching for any signs of the previous despair or emptiness.

The rooms in this wing didn't seem to have televisions or what most would consider "modern" amenities. Belle and Blaze heard footsteps coming up the hall in their direction. Looking back, they saw a tall woman rounding a corner. She was lean and sleek, built for speed and grace moving with an almost feral air, accentuated by the leather body suit clinging to her supple form. Her hair was cut in a short buzz, dark brown. Stopping just short of the pair she looked Belle up and down, arching one eyebrow. Her eyes was slate gray, the color of wet concrete.

[I believe Reunion goes here]

[shift back to Gina/Clay/Willow]

Gina sighed and turned back to Clay and Willow. Belle had a major attitude sometimes but she was about all they had a the moment. "Guys what are we gonna do about Akemi?" she asked. running her fingers through her hair.

Willow looked from the girl to Clay, and responded, "I don't know, Gina. We can't just leave her, but going back to get her might put both her and us in danger." As if we weren't in enough already…

"Yeah… but we can' jus' leave her… look… lemme go back with some a' Charlotte's folks… no one cares about me." Gina said.

"My ears are burning." Charlotte spoke up from the door. No one had seen her there and her voice sent a collective jump throughout the room.

Willow started, then whirled to face Charlotte. She relaxed when she saw who it was.

"Please don't do that," she said almost plaintively. She paused slightly, then continued, "There's someone else who was with us… we had to leave her with a medic, but, well… we can't leave her there."

"Blaze mentioned this, I'd be more than happy to provide you with transportation." Charlotte nodded. "Did she come through here?"

"Blaze? I haven't seen her recently…"

Blaze chose the moment to step in. Gina blinked. "Now this is starting to get spooky."

"Most of the people in this house are psychic, and you're surprised when they show up after you mention their names?" Willow chuckled. So it is weird, but if I don't find something in all this to laugh about I'll end up crying…

"Hey she sets stuff on fire not read minds" Gina said, trying to huff but losing it in a burst of giggles.

"Hello, everyone. Nice place you have here, Ms. St. Clair. Oh, can I have someone get some cigarettes for me? Mark said I should ask you."

"Ah," Charlotte nodded. "I'll have some brought to your room. Is there a brand you like?"

"Marlboro Mediums, if that's all right." blaze smiled at Gina's attempts not to laugh.

"Gina and Willow wanted to arrange to have Ms. Tanaka picked up as soon as possible, Blaze. I think that should be handled first then Lauren. Akemi's position seems more precarious at the moment."

"Particularly since Fenris may already know about Akemi--through Clay," Willow added.

"Well, we are more sure of Lauren's safety than Akemi's. Let's get her first, make sure she is in someplace safe. I can check on the doc's work, too. He was very kind to us…"

"Who's Mark?" Gina asked, turning to pick the strawberries.

Blaze smiled, looking at Gina, then Willow. "This really cute guy I saw swimming back by the pool. Did you know there was a pool in here? He likes to swim in… it, I guess…"

Thought she was a dyke, Gina thought glancing up at Blaze but kept the thought to herself.

Belle stepped into the room. Looking at the assemblage, Belle cracked, "All roads lead to Rome, it seems."

"Ah. Belle. we were just preparing to leave. If you'd like to get dressed we could arrange for you to be dropped by your home. I imagine you have things you wish to do." Charlotte said. "There should be little danger in your returning home if you wish."

The big blonde was still highly skeptical of this. But Charlotte was right: there were things she only do--and get--back under her own roof. It took her about half a second to add it up. "Five minutes?" she asked. "Where do I meet you? And are you going to pick me up later? Where do we go from here?"

"I'll leave the details up to you." Charlotte said.

"Yeah, right…" Blaze mumbled. "Like that's been our luck so far…" Out loud she said, "Let's get all of us together, then we can figure out what we're going to do next."

"I think the gangs all here," Clay said, looking around. "Just seems like some people are missing."

"Absent friends?" Belle said. The meaning needed no elaboration. "Well, let's see," she continued, "I don't know what it is you're leaving to do, but if you're coming back my way after you're done, how about picking me up again an hour or two after you drop me off? Either that, or tell me where we can rendezvous, and I'll see if I can pick up my car--assuming there's anything left to pick up after everything that's happened, that is."

"We are going to check on Lauren. I expect to spend some time there. Gina and Clay are going to recover their friend Akemi. About 3 or 4 hours seems reasonable."

"Oh yeah," Belle nodded, "that should be more than enough time to find out just how extensive the damage is. All right, either pick me up on your way back, or tell me where I can meet you. I'll be right back." And she went to get dressed, thinking as she did that her real clothes were not the least of what she needed just then.

[mill11 Willow goes here in parallel with the following paragraphs]

Taking a nondescript van, they dropped off Belle before heading to pick up Akemi. Gina suggested she and Clay got up to talk to the doc and try to explain just what the hell happened. Charlotte people watched the neighborhood with professional disdain but for her part Gina almost seemed to glad to be back in "familiar" territory as she headed up the back steps with Clay.

"Tell him I said hi." Blaze said to Gina as they left. She sat watching Charlotte, alternating glances between her and the door that Gina and Clay went to.

"Charlotte?" blaze asked. "What are we going to do now? It's not like I have a life to return to…"

"I honestly don't know what to say." Charlotte said. "If you like, I can see what I can do for you. Your talents are unique and intriguing… aside from that… you've helped me… helped someone very important to me." She took Blaze's hand. "I owe you more than I can ever repay."

"I'd like that. I seem to have my skills intact at least most of the time. I'll never practice in a hospital or anything, though. I'm glad I was able to help her." Blaze looked down at Charlotte's hand, then back up into her eyes. "I'm not sure what to do about the burning. It comes and goes, almost like it's alive. And once it starts… it's very hard to stop. Lauren felt it, I think. I get that impression."

"She is a very adept sensitive…there's little doubt she did… ahh, here they come…" she looked up as Gina stepped back into the alley. The little girl crossed over and opened the side door. Clay came down a moment later, carrying Akemi in his arms.

"I'd like to discuss my 'talent' more later, if that's all right with you." She leaned over and opened the door for Gina & Clay. "Hey, guys. How is she? Any problems?"

"You're the doctor, you tell me…" Clay said, placing her back. His expression didn't match the snap in the comment. He smiled at Blaze. "I think she's ok… "

"I'm certain she'll be fine." Charlotte said, looking at the pale Oriental girl with an expression of recognition. After a moment she lifted her eyes to Clay, amber eyes seeming to glow ever so faintly. "Will you let her go?" It was a simple question but it hung in the air, heavy. Clay felt all eyes turn to him, questioning, accusatory? He couldn't tell.

Interesting choice of words… Blaze thought. "Well, let's get the hell out of here, huh? We can talk on the way to see Lauren."

"Agreed." Charlotte said, motioning to the driver. The van pulled out of the alley quickly heading for better climes. Turning her attention back to Akemi, Charlotte rested a hand on the young woman's temple. A distant look crossed her face, her mouth going a bit slack. A sigh, soft, little more than a whisper of air escaped her. "God…what have you done to her…" she murmured, sitting back, flushed and breathing hard. Slowly the composed mask slipped back over her features.

"What does that mean?" Blaze asked. "What has who done to her? Do you mean she's like the rest of us?"

"The one you call Clay, he has… enchanted her." Seeing the incredulous looks running across the faces of the other passengers, Charlotte explained, "Not in a magical sense, but has used his abilities to weave himself into her mind as fundamental necessary thing, built himself into her pleasure centers, her emotional well being. So through a job of it I have not seen in sometime."

"I….see. It's possible he could have done this more than once?" She looked at Clay. Is that why I remember you and not much else, Clay? You just use your abilities to take any woman you want? Did you do that to Willow too? Or was it Jason that did it? Which one are you?" The temperature in the van rose a couple of degrees, as Blaze seemed to get agitated.

"Blaze… control… it'll do none of us any good," Charlotte whispered.

Blaze struggled to regain control of herself… she didn't want to hurt anyone. "I'm sorry, Clay. This whole situation has been rather… unnerving. I don't understand what has happened, and it seems like the more I learn, the less I understand."

Gina sat back, "No shit… hell 'least You an' Willow knew something 'bout all this trippy head game psycho shit before…" Her words were bitter but there was little real punch behind them. She was a tired little girl, lashing out in response as it was the only way she knew. Perhaps even she sensed that, going quiet and staring out the window at the passing cityscape.

Charlotte merely nodded and sighed. Perhaps not bringing Willow had been a mistake. She knew Clay's mind better than anyone here, perhaps she could provide some assistance, but too late for regrets now.

Clay lowered his head into his hands, eyes squeezed shut. More to hold them in his head than anything else. Gina moved closer, leaning against him. "Clay…its ok… I'm here." she looked up at the other, face set, the determination not quite reaching her eyes as she tried to stare down Charlotte. "Let up off him…ok…he's sick…real sick and he don't remember."

Charlotte was impassive, just turned to look out the window.

Lauren's hideaway turned out to be one of those private clinics that more resembled a spa than a hospital. Charlotte had them come around to a private entrance near the rear of the building. Inside it was cool, clean and relaxing, none of the sterile coldness of the typical hospital. A young redheaded nurse escorted them up to Lauren who lay in a spacious room, more of bed room a bed set in the center over looking a bay window giving a few of the gardens. She lay with er eyes closed under fine sheets. As the group entered, a small smile crept over her features. Charlotte went right to her side kneeling down and taking one hand in hers. "Lauren…" she whispered.

"Mistress." the word held no doubt, no hesitation. It was a term, an endearment she meant from the core of her being. Lauren copped Charlotte's cheek. "I feel your pain."

"It's lessened seeing you…. it's for you." Charlotte replied and kissed her, long softly on the lips…

Gina felt like a voyeur. "Um…I'm gonna go find the candy machine or somethin'." Muttering this she backed into the hall.

Blaze walked up next to Charlotte, not wanting to interrupt. When they were finished, she spoke up. "I'm glad to see you are doing so well, Lauren. If you're going to take a bullet for us, the least you can do is be well. Are they taking good care of you here? I'd like to check the wound myself, if that's all right with you."

Looking up at Blaze, Lauren smiled slightly. "I'm sorry, I've been rude. You saved my life…and here I am ignoring you." Charlotte squeezed her hand softly, but said nothing. "Yes, very good care and well, you are my original physician." She laughed softly.

Blaze chuckled back, feeling humor for the first time in a while…. "Yeah, and wait until you get my bill. Seriously, it's been a long time since I did any surgery. I'm glad it went so well." Taking on a professional demeanor, Blaze moved the blankets and Lauren's gown to examine the wound. "Before I check, Lauren, I must ask. Does my touch make you uncomfortable? It seemed to at one point before the surgery, but I can't remember clearly."

"No, no it doesn't I was disturbed for a moment by what I sensed in you." she replied, laying back to allow Blaze a better look. "Charlotte's explained what it was to me." Lauren's wound was coming along quite well, in fact better than thought she should expect.

"Glad to hear it. You heal fast. Very fast, apparently." Blaze probed gently around the wounded area, then covered Lauren back up. She leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, then stood back up. "I'm glad to see you doing so well. Get out of that bed soon, ok?"

"The care here…is very good. its not me." Lauren said, stressing the words very good. "but my recovery is more a tribute to you're skills than my health and yes I can't wait to get out of this bed."

Charlotte took Blaze's hand,"I said before but I can't stress it enough…thank you…thank you so much for saving her."

"I'm just glad I was able to remember how to do it." Blaze smiled. "I'm glad it meant so much……" she broke off. "So, when do they think you can get out of here? Cherries Jubilee on me." She winked, wondering if they would get the joke.

Lauren chuckled softly. "A few days and the doctor says I should be up on my feet again."

"Don't rush yourself. Take all the time you need…I want you whole." Charlotte whispered, squeezing Lauren's hand.

Gina returned, peeking around the doorway. Seemingly satisfied the emotional intensity had died down, she stepped in walking up beside Clay.

"Actually I don't know about the rest of you. But a meal does sound like a good plan." Charlotte said, standing, still holding Lauren's hand. The blonde woman kissed her fingers softly then released her hand. I'll be back, love… she made no attempt to shield her communication, nor the emotion it carried. A symbol of trust those that shared it. Even Gina smiled.

Must be nice… Blaze thought wistfully.

She lead them down to a cozy dining area. It was empty except for them. "So…shall I order the cherries now or wait until desert?" she smiled at Blaze.

"Oh, let's wait for dessert. It'll be less hazardous that way." She smiled back, glad to be able to relax, at least for a little while. "What time do we need to pick up Belle?"

"We still have a couple of hours and I sense she's enjoying herself."Charlotte said with a wistful, oddly knowing smile. "I'd like to spend some time with Lauren… after we eat."

Gina slipped into a sent next to Clay. She was more than willing to take up the void left by Willow. Easing her chair as close as she could without sitting in his lap she kept shooting him little "looks" when she thought no one was looking.

Blaze noticed Gina with an idle smile. Have to talk to her later, I guess. Clay seems to have that effect whether he wants to or not. "Well, Ms. St. Clair, let's save the cherries for when Lauren is all better. I want her to enjoy them too."

"You're a kind woman. I want to help you…though there's little I can do to repay you for all you've done…." she sighed softly, then motioned for a server. As the others ordered, St Claire regarded Blaze for a long moment then asked. "what do you think of my daughter?"

"Belle? She's like… a volcano, I'd guess. All that energy and power, just waiting to erupt. Not to mention a hothead… She's the one I'd want at my back in a fight, though. Definitely."

"She does seem volatile." Charlotte agreed. "Full of the passion of youth… and its rage sadly. There has been so little love for her…at least it seems so…do you…care for her?" Her voice softened.

"Well, in a strange sense, I do. She's like….an anchor. A solid base in a reality I seem to be unable to completely grasp. Like a rock, or a buoy to mark where I need to be. Does that answer your question?"

"Yes, yes it does…I think she needs that as well." Charlotte nodded and seemed to content to let the subject drop.

After eating, Charlotte returned to Lauren's side, leaving Gina, Clay and Blaze to their own devices. Gina stuck close to Clay, a puppy on a very short leash but if he noticed Blaze couldn't read it, nothing much disturbed those vaguely distant eyes, those picture perfect features. It was strange how even now she could long for him, need him, Now that she knew what she'd done to that girl, her, perhaps even Willow. Sighing in frustration, she went out to smoke. Wandering the clinic grounds, the redhead patently ignore the nasty glances she got from some of the staff for her habits, once snapping the finger at one particularly obnoxious biddy of a nurse. The hot rush of smoke and nicotine did its jobs and she felt together enough to handle dealing with people after awhile. Just in time for Charlotte to herd them back to the car for the return.

Hell, I'm a doctor. I'll smoke if I damned well please. Besides, I don't think they want to see how I REALLY smoke… she grinned sardonically.

On the road, she mentioned she'd talked with Mark. "He and Willow found that she's had some revelation from her Talent. The drawing she composed at the hospital just before the attack. That's all I'd like to say in the car." With that she turned back to the window. "Belle will meet us later."

"Is she all right?" Blaze asked. "Medically, I mean?"

"If you mean Belle, then yes I think she is." Charlotte replied.

Arriving back at the house, they all filed into one of the library, or perhaps just one of them. The room was filled with shelves and books of all shape and description, taking up two floors. Rich dark oak walls, leather chairs and heavy handcrafted tables lent an air of age and solemn prestige to the room. You found yourself speaking in a whisper unconsciously, even Gina was stunned looking about with low whistle.

Willow and the boy Blaze recognized as Mark were waiting for them. He smiled and gave a small wave to Blaze, Gina and Clay. "Hello, good to finally meet all of you. A trust things went well?" Gina shot Blaze a look that said "you weren't kidding were you?"

Blaze just smiles and shakes her head a bit. "Pretty well. Lauren is healing well, and she should be out of there in no time."

Mark seemed really pleased to hear that. "Great! Willow and I have been looking into a few things…well…Willow came up with something. Her drawing. You're not going to believe who they are."

There was a long moment of silence. "Well, ya want us ta fuckin' guess?!" Gina blurted.

"Well? Out with it!" Blaze looked at Willow. "Unless you want me to throw you in the pool, or something." She smiled. "Seriously, Willow. After the way you freaked over those in the hospital, I'd really like to know."

"Apparently, the second drawing--the man--is one Miles O'Grady. I did another drawing of him earlier this afternoon. And," Willow paused slightly, "according to Mark, the woman who went berserk at the hospital was one of his followers."

Mark nodded,"more so according to the news but yes, she was reported to be in O'Grady's movement."

"And she goes postal and shots up a hospital…nice church…" Gina said, then looked up at Willow. "You read her mind or somethin'?"

"It was on the news," Willow replied. "That she was one of his followers, I mean." She sighed. "And there's no real proof that O'Grady had anything to do with what happened. But even if he didn't… something about all this doesn't feel right."

"Oh." Gina looked sheepish, chastised and disappointed all at the same time.

"Yeah, and Belle was there… considering her position… I mean O'Grady doesn't have the most liberal standpoint," Mark put it.

"On what? Who did this lady go there to rampage on? Did she have a target, or was she shooting randomly? That's the question, I should think. Now, who is this O'Grady, anyway?"

"On anything…" Mark said, shaking his head. "A real fundamentalist. The only other fatality was an abortion doctor also being looked after on that floor."

Gina snapped her fingers, "Yeah, I heard 'bout this guy… buncha Bible beaters stirring up shit down on the Strip…hassling the clubs, shit like that…been goin' on fer awhile but just now startin' being in the news."

"Apparently, O'Grady's built his movement up from a small ministry to a major one--with a TV show and everything--in a matter of only a few months. Somehow I just don't see Hudson City as a real Christian fundamentalist kind of town," Willow put in.

"No fuckin' way…" Gina said. "yo guys think he sent somebody ta wack Belle?"

Mark shrugged. "Its an interesting coincidence at least."

"Interesting is not the word I'd use, Mark. If that's the case, he may have just asked for more than he can handle." Blaze fumed, searching for her lighter.

"If you'll excuse me." Charlotte said, voice barely above a whisper and stepped from the room.

Rubbing his temples, Clay stepped over to Willow and gave her a tired smile. "No rest for the wicked, eh?" He cupped her chin leaned forward and kissed her softly. She trembled, the touch electric, a warm rush down her spine. Willow sighed faintly, leaning into the kiss.

Blaze an angry glint in Gina's eyes, just a moment before she turned and started rummaging threw the book case. This just wasn't good. She needed a cigarette.

Oh, boy….and I bet Clay has no idea at all. How is this gonna go? "Mark, toss me a smoke, will you please?" Blaze looked between him and Willow.

Charlotte returned. "Belle is on her way. Perhaps a half hour. Lets say we freshen up and meet her in the main wing." she suggested.

Willow nodded in Charlotte's direction. "Sounds good…"

On the road out of town, Belle punched up the number she had for Weng Chow again. "I know I said 72 hours, but things have changed. I've seen the reports in the papers about the hospital splatter job, and I've got a pretty good idea who's responsible, and who their target was. What I need to know are the things that the police aren't making public, like whether the old biddy was doped up, or if she's said anything, like who put her up to it, where she got the gun, that sort of thing. The sort of things that only someone like you could find out. Also, the political bible-thumper O'Grady, whose cult the biddy was a member of. I hear he's got some kind of march planned for the Strip on Sunday. See what you can find out about him, as well as whatever you can dig up about this march, including whether he's got a permit or not."

"One more thing. I need background info on Charlotte St. Clair and her businesses, including how far back they go, who founded them, if it wasn't St. Clair herself, and photos if possible. And use your own discretion in deciding how far to go with any of these. Upload whatever you get with the usual encryption. And thanks."

For the moment, freshening up was the furthest thing from Willow's mind. Clay's hands and lips stirred a fire in her body, driving thought, shame, anything but sensation to the furthest reaches her mind. She felt him undoing her top, breath washing over her suddenly wonderfully bare skin.

"Willow," he panted her name again and again punctuated with urgent kisses. Eyes closed she leaned back against the wall, content to let him do what he willed…

"Willow…Sweet Willow." her blood went cold. It wasn't Clay's voice, but that clotted moist rumbling thing from her visions. The hands on her were cold, moist clawing not caressing, holding her back….

Willow stiffened, and her eyes shot open, trying to verify what her senses were telling her.

It was Clay. Thank God, she exhaled slowly trying to calm her hammering heart. "Willow, Willow what's wrong?" Clay whispered holding her by the shoulders. He pulled her into his arm and held her tightly. It helped.

Willow shuddered, clasping Clay tightly to her. It was a few moments before she spoke. "It was… you'd been 'replaced' by one of the more… horrid things from my visions."

"Shh, shh, its all right, I'm here." he whispered into her hair stroking her back and slowly rocking her. "Its just a vision. it can't hurt you. I won't let it."

Willow continued to hold him tightly for a long while after that, then raised her head and kissed Clay softly. "Thanks." It came to her. Just popped into her head. A high school. It was there. The thing that was haunting her was there……

Gina and Blaze were the first to arrive, the younger girl silent and brooding as she stepped inside. Finding a couch, she dropped onto giving Blaze a noncommittal grunt of a greeting before finding a patch of floor to stare at.

"What's up, kiddo? Anything I can help with?" Blaze asked. She's got it bad… she thought. I need a smoke… should have stopped for a pack on our way back…

Shrugging, Gina kept up her long stare at the floor. Then she looked up. "What do you think a' Clay?"

"Honestly? I try not to." Blaze said with a slight smile. "It's like thinking about candy bars when you have diabetes. You really want them, but you can't have them cause they can hurt you. Of course, he has that effect on most women." Blaze looked directly at Gina as she said this.

"Whatever…" It was barely a whisper, spat out between lips clenched tight in teen angst.

"Gina, it's ok. I'm not surprised, and he IS attractive. The question is, what are you going to do about it?"

A sharp retort springing to her lips, Gina shot Blaze a look then stopped, swallowed and looked down again. She didn't say anything and it took a moment for Blaze to notice she was shaking slightly, shuddering with small smothered sobs.

Blaze knelt down next to Gina. "Oh honey, I'm sorry. I should have realized how hard this would be." She put her arms around the girl. "It's ok to cry once in a while, you know. Even I do." Mentally, Blaze was kicking herself for saying what she had. Stupid stupid stupid!!!

Gina pulled away, wiping her eyes with back of her hand. "Ain' cryin' ok…" She turned her back to Blaze and said nothing more.

"Sure, Gina. Whatever you say." Blaze turned back and sat down, wishing even more for a cigarette.

Charlotte met Belle at the door. "Welcome, please follow me." she beckoned, turning to stepping into the foyer. "I must say you made good time. The business you wanted to take care of is well in hand I hope?"

With six duralumin cases of varying sizes in her arms, which she handled like they were toys, Belle stopped in the doorway. "I hope so," she replied, recalling as she did so the things she had said to Latoya and Kurita about doing what had to be done. Then she started off again, following Charlotte's back. "Where's the fire?" she asked, getting herself back on track.

"That remains to be seen", Charlotte replied as she lead Belle into a waiting room. Blaze and Gina waited there, the child sitting on the couch with her knees drawn up to her chin. Blaze was pacing, lost in thought and fumbling her hands, likely wishing for cigarette.

"Hi, Belle. Nice to see you so mobile…." Blaze said.

" 'sup…" Gina nodded from the couch.

Belle stayed by the door and set down her cases, four of which were of more or less conventional attache case size, while the other two were each easily as large as all the smaller ones put together. "Hey, Gina. I was hoping somebody could tell me." Straightening up so that she had the wall at her back, arms at her sides, she looked at Charlotte. "So are you gonna tell me what this is all about?" It was more statement than question.

"Once Clay, Willow and Mark arrive we will begin." Charlotte said.

Belle was silent and unmoving for several moments. She had to remind herself that Charlotte seemed to do things entirely at her own pace, regardless of the urgency. This was in stark contrast to the need for immediate, decisive action which situations had always demanded of herself. Maybe that was what happened to you when you got to be as old as Charlotte said she was.

"So what's keeping them?" she asked at length. Before anyone could reply, she promptly added, "Forget I asked," remembering who they were talking about. One name was unfamiliar, though: "Now who's this 'Mark' character you mentioned? I haven't heard that name before--though someone else came close."

"Tell me about it…" Blaze mumbled. Taking her lighter out of her pocket, she flicked it idly, watching the small flame…at times seeming entranced, other times just bored.

"He's a young man I'm sponsoring," Charlotte glanced up from the small note she was reading. "He seems to have gotten pulled into all this as well. Willow has a knack for drawing people to her…a blessing and a curse." Setting aside the sheet of paper with a small sigh, Charlotte sat back, crossed her legs and looked from person to person, lingering on Gina for a moment.

"A little discrimination about the company she keeps wouldn't hurt, no." Belle's face was impassive, but behind her shades, her eyes took in everything. "Dare I ask what you're sponsoring this guy Mark for?"

"He is a gifted young man, deprived by circumstances of ample opportunity to use those talents. I hate to see waste. I've seen far to much of it. Talented individuals are rare." Again she looked at the Gina but with a slight smile.

"My ears are burning", sounding slightly amused, Mark stepped in from the hall. Still dressed in the light slacks and sweater, he seemed the very picture of upper class college student, lacking the slight hint of burn around the eyes though. As Blaze had said, he was strikingly handsome, fine featured, sculpted body perfectly proportioned. It wasn't a model's good looks though, but a more natural handsome look that, while perhaps not as potent as Clay's, had an appeal. He smiled, not terribly taken aback by Belle,"Hi, you must Angelique's sister…"

Belle was on the verge of shouting at Charlotte to stop being so damn' obtuse when Mark walked in. She turned to look in his direction, sizing him up at a glance. Not bad, she told herself. I can't fault Charlotte's taste, that's for sure. Aloud she drawled, "That's what they tell me. So tell me about yourself. What do you do that makes you so special to the Lady Of The Manor? And take your time. Everyone else is."

He shrugged, walking over to the couch,"I don't think I'm anything special. Ms. St. Clair's just been kind." he smiled at Charlotte then looked back at Belle. "As for what I do, it seems its mostly take up space here between semesters."

"Mark, modesty is a virtue but denying you're talents is never wise. Mark is a gifted mathematician and computer theorist. He's started some groundbreaking work in the several fields, mainly system architecture and optical computer design" Charlotte returned the smile warmly, gesturing for him to sit beside her.

"Man… hope Gates don' put a hit out on ya…" Gina said.

Belle tracked Mark as he moved where Charlotte indicated. Behind her shaded eyes and expressionless face, she was thinking, I had a feeling his brain wasn't the only thing she was interested in. I hope he gives her her money's worth, that's all… Then another thought struck her: That plus the other stuff means he's another fucking noncombatant. Terrific.

Willow arrived, lead in by Clay. Already frail looking she was even more drawn than usual, pale and a haunted look was in her eyes. Clay only seemed to have eyes for her, scarcely looking around the room as he lead her to the couch.

Mark looked at her with wide eyes. He'd seen her a short while ago and she'd been fine. A bit at a loss for what to do, he opted on staying out of the way.

Still unhappy with the girl for bushwhacking her and thus saving that wacko old biddy's life instead, nonetheless even Belle reacted to the sight of Willow's renewed distress. "What the fuck's happened to you now?" she asked in characteristic fashion, but with what might have been a hint of concern, had anyone been paying attention.

Charlotte stood and walked over to Willow placing a hand on her shoulder. "Your visions?"

Willow looked up at Charlotte, almost startled, and nodded.

As soon as she heard the words "your visions," Belle resumed her place, not with her back to the wall, but rather, with the wall at her back. Whatever this was, it wasn't the reason Charlotte had originally sent for her. Everyone else except her was bamboozled by the kid again, though, so she kept an eye on all of them, and their surroundings.

Blaze instantly put out the lighter and moved next to Willow. "You ok, darling? You look like you've been through the wringer." The doctor was coming out, and she shot Clay a questioning look. "You sit down, I'll get you some juice or something."

Willow nodded. "Thank you." Her voice was quiet.

Clay nodded, sitting and holding Willow's hand. His eyes never left her, not for an instant.

Willow sipped at the offering, color slowly returning to her face. She finished it off, licking the last of it from her lips.

"I had another vision…" Willow's voice trailed off.

From the couch, Gina rolled her eyes, sitting back and fixing Willow in a hard stare.

"When you feel up to it…tell us." Charlotte said, returning to her seat.

Belle noted Gina's reaction to Willow, and how different it was from everyone else. It also wasn't hard to guess why she was acting that way. And it only increased her sense of being the sole rational person in the room. She nudged one of her long cases with a toe, ready to pop it open and start making use of its contents if necessary.

"Belle, sit and calm down", Charlotte found herself exasperated and the strained edge in her voice betrayed that. It was a both concern and frustration, perhaps a hint of guilt at things left undone. She'd been so broken, so conditioned to living life as a hunted animal that she couldn't ever release that little knot of tension, never let her guard down for a moment lest she be swept away by some ill wind. Settling back beside Mark, she continued in a softer tone," Willow's had very traumatic shock. Clairvoyant experiences are just as real as life, perhaps more so, they touch on senses normally muted and feed directly into the psyche."

Belle alone heard the rest. We are normally not attuned to such experiences. Its one of the limits of our abilities. Willow's are particular intense. What I don't understand is why Gina didn't sense it.

Another oblique reference to Gina. This was getting monotonous, Belle thought.

Gina glanced up, almost as if she'd heard her name looking between Belle and Charlotte suspiciously. Getting up she headed for the door, "I gotta pee…" She sidestepped Angelique as she entered. Those who were watching closely might have noticed Gina started her evasion perhaps a second before the tall young woman appeared in the doorway.

That was interesting….maybe Gina is more than she seems…

Angelique had changed for the evening, dressed now in a tight black leather micro-mini laced along her thighs and silk off the shoulder blouse that swept low over, bearing just enough cleavage to raise interest. A pair of black "fuck me" pumps and diamond tear drop earrings along with a touch of makeup to accentuate the sharp beauty of her features completed the picture. Looking back from Gina, Angelique grinned at Belle,"Sister… oh my… moving in?" she looked over the assorted cases.

WOW! Blaze thought. Nice outfit…

Belle didn't budge. She turned her head enough that Angelique saw herself reflected in the shades. "Tools of the trade," she said coolly. "If this is 'a game,'then I'm playing it with proper equipment." This outfit of Angelique's only served to enhance Belle's impression of her as a rich little girl playing dress-up, trying to look "bad" because it was somehow "fashionable."

"Ahm, big bad guns and assorted toys…well have fun… anyway, I wanted ask you if you wanted to go clubbing," she asked Mark, grinning. "My treat."

"I don't know, seems like things are getting…"

Charlotte cut him off. "You might as well go and relax for a bit. This isn't something that you really need to concern yourself with just yet." she motioned him go with a small smile. Mark stood, all though plainly with reluctance and joined Angelique by the door.

Belle was there on business. And at the moment, this was just another distraction. She turned back so that she was facing in Charlotte's direction again. "I'm here because you sent for me," Belle said evenly. Her voice and stance reflected the calm of the professional at work. "And whatever you called me for, it wasn't this."She inclined her head slightly in Willow's direction. "So get to the point. Tell me what you did call me for."

"I called you here due mainly to concern for your safety", the smile faded when she turned back to her daughter,"there's a strong possibility the events at the hospital may have been tied into you as well. The woman that went mad, she was a follower of a religious movement in town, one that's recently been applying a great deal of pressure on the area where you make your business. She shot one person in the ward, perhaps you were next on the list." Charlotte sighed. "Not a definite but worth consideration. In any case, Willow seems attuned to the event to some degree and I think it bears looking into to but this new vision seems…stronger than the images of the reverend?"

Willow finally began to speak. "It was… ugly, black and clotted, with a voice that made me wish I was somewhere, anywhere else. I've seen it before… dreams and other visions. I don't know what… or who it is. But it's evil. It's at a high school right now…"

Mark raised an eyebrow sharing a look with Angelique. Charlotte thought a moment. "This…thing… what did it or does it say to you?"

"It's not so much what it says, as how it says it," Willow replied, her voice returning to normal. "And its sense of timing… Clay and I were…" She blushed faintly. "Ah, nevermind."

"High school? You mean like kids and all?" Blaze looked confused for a moment. "How do we keep it from hurting any kids?"

"When did this turn into a horror movie?" Angelique stage whispered to Mark but withered under a look from Charlotte.

Though Angelique was standing right next to her, nonetheless Belle wasn't fazed by Charlotte. Her eyes narrowed for a moment behind her shades as she noted the action-reaction between the two of them, but that was all.

"I think that girl--Fandora?--from the hospital has something to do with it, too," Willow continued. "She was in my dream, anyway… and so was that thing."

Again, nothing changed outwardly. But Belle's feelings at hearing that name again were decidedly jumbled. She almost ripsnorts at the image of herself anywhere near a high school, however.

"We should go then, take this person down," Clay said, gently squeezing Willow's hand. "He's been playing games with you for days…its too much." he looked into Willow's eyes,"I said I'd protect you…"

"I know," Willow replied, returning his look, "but I'm not sure that it's something you can protect me from." Or even if you should.

"I can…I will." he whispered, nuzzling her hair.

"You don't seem to think this…being is as non human as Willow puts it," Charlotte noted with some curiosity.

Clay shook his head slightly, "No… I think its someone, not something…" he trailed off, not quite sure why he felt so and again frustrated at the source of these of the strange feelings.

Of course, Belle says to herself. The only bogeymen are those which humans create themselves. Occam's Razor strikes again. The thought of Occam's Razor lingers in her mind after that…

"And I thought I had a fun evening planned…" Angelique drawled then turned on her heel, "I'll have to get you to tell me all about it." She left barely giving Mark a chance to say some quick good byes before following. Charlotte shook her head, sighing softly.

"I certainly won't stop you if you wish to go but at least allow me to provide some assistance." Charlotte offered reaching for a phone.

"Now that depends on who we can trust, doesn't it? We haven't seemed to have much luck in that department…." Blaze looked around. "Willow? Is that girl Fandora in trouble? I mean, could you gather anything like that from what you saw?"

Willow shook her head. "All I got was where it was… there was no impression of why, or who else was there."

That girl is as likely as not to be at the center of any trouble around her, or I'm no judge, Belle confirmed to herself before returning to her ruminations on Occam's Razor.

Charlotte dialed, worry lines etched deep in her face. She spoke quietly into the unit.

"Hold it, Charlotte," Belle said suddenly. "I can't get up close and personal, but I can drive, and provide backup."

Pausing, Charlotte quirked an eyebrow, "If you wish…but I think more might be needed." With that, she continued her call.

"Actually, maybe it'd be better…safer if you stayed here," Clay said after some thought. "This…well who ever the hell it is has something for you."

Oh was that the wrong thing to say… Blaze thought with a smile. Like Belle isn't going to be after whoever tried to get her…

Without missing a beat, Belle asked, "How do you know?"

Clay looked up at Belle quizzically, "This guys been haunting Willow for days now…messing around in her head, I'd call that personal."

This time, Belle turned her head, like it was mounted on well-oiled gimbals, until she was actually facing him. "Don't tell me what I already know," she replied. "I'm asking how you know that it has something to do with me, and why I shouldn't get involved."

Clay looked Belle slowly from head to foot and back again, the corner of his mouth curling up. "I don't think it has anything to do with you," he answered cooly then turned back to Charlotte.

Blaze walked over to Belle. "Just remember, I've got your back," she said softly. She turned to look over at Charlotte. "What exactly do you have in mind?"

"Taking a cue from Belle, more direct action. I've been told its an area where I'm lacking." Was that the ghost of a smile that flinted across Charlotte's cooly beautiful features. It was so fleeting it was difficult to tell. "If this entity has revealed itself… now may be the best chance."

"Or it's a fuckin' trap…" Gina said as she stepped, shooting Willow and Clay a glance before turning her attention back to Charlotte. It was a ludicrous little tableau, the small girl standing almost defiantly in the doorway meeting Charlotte's look head on there faces' mirror images of worried thought. "I mean, its like it let 'er know this time… and well…people been usin' Willow to fuck with us a whole lot…." Again she looked at Willow, this time though there was no anger it was almost, almost an apology. "Just like they did me…" she added in a whisper that only Belle and Blaze heard.

She's still blaming herself, Blaze thought. They tried it with me, but the fire burned them off… the fire… Blaze shook her head softly, looking over at Gina, then back to Charlotte. "True, they have used us in nasty ways. I think it's time for some payback. One way or another."

"You're both right," Belle said, looking from the smallest to the largest person in the room (after herself). "The only way to spring a trap is to walk into it. But there is a world of difference between being caught in a trap, and letting a trap catch you."

What the fuck's that 'pposed to mean? Gina thought, rolling her eyes back at Belle.

"Indeed…still, reconnaissance is in order. I must agree with Clay, however, perhaps it would be best for Willow to remain here for the time being. Her teleempathic powers seem to broadcast to this being or at least he is attuned to them." Charlotte said, standing and walking over to Gina. She kneeled, leaning close and placing her hands on the girl's shoulders. There was an intense silence, Gina's face scrolling through a range of emotions. Then with a solemn finality, she nodded.

What the heck? Blaze thought. Well, maybe Charlotte can reach her… I can't… "So, how long will this reconnaissance take?" she asked Charlotte.

Glancing at Belle, Charlotte replied,"I'll leave that to the experts."

At this, Belle said to the room at-large, "Reconnaissance, huh? OK, there's exactly one person in this room who could get anywhere near a high school without sticking out like a sore thumb." This was punctuated by a nod at Willow. "By going, she'll trip whatever trap the bogeyman's laid for her, and that will be when we can catch him off-guard. It's like you said, Charlotte: they're in tune with one another. But if she doesn't show up, and anyone else does, he'll know someone's on to him, and split. We'll lose any advantage we might have had. If she stays here, she may be safe for a little while, but it's just prolonging the inevitable. He wants her, for whatever reason, and that means she's the only one who can flush him out. She's his weakness. The rest of us don't even know what to look for, and we couldn't find out before it was too late, not if past experience is anything to go by. Once she brings him into the open, though, that's that. The bogeyman can't stand the light of day."

"Well, if we go now, school'll be closed…not so hard ta break into one a night…" Gina put in then met the various looks her announcement received. "Oh don' look so surprised…I've been near a school once…them's the big buildings with the books…" Slipping into teenage angst mode as effortlessly as fish takes to water, she folded her arms and grumped.

Willow spoke up. "There's more. I had… not really a vision, more of a visitation, earlier, before you got back. Not a bad one, for once. I still don't know who it was…" She paused slightly, savoring the memory. In the wake of her latest vision, it helped. "She? said that Fandora needed help… and seemed to think that I'm the person to provide it."

"Which is it, Willow? Good or bad? Do you come or not? It's going to be your decision on this one……" Gods! How much am I taking on faith here? Blaze thought. If I couldn't make things burn….I'd be >out of here in a flash!

Charlotte waited for Willow's decision. Willow could feel Clay silently urging her to stay, squeezing her hand softly.

"She's right, kid," Belle added. "Everything I've said so far is free advice, which is usually worth what you paid for it. But remember this: your enemy is in your head--literally and figuratively. That means there's no place you can hide."

Willow was silent for a long moment. He's not going to be happy, she thought, glancing at Clay, but I can't hide behind him forever. "I'm going," she said, softly.

No, Clay was not happy. Willow could sense it as easily as she knew how she felt, perhaps even better as there was no doubt, no self delusion involved in what she felt pouring from him. Just a heartfelt sense of worry and something more, fear, fear of her coming to harm and fear of being left alone, alone with nothing but shattered memories. A stranger to himself. It was tribute to how far he'd come that he didn't; argue, didn't even voice a small protest instead squeezing Willow's hand and smiling that boyish little grin of his. "Sounds like a party…"

Willow looked up at him gratefully. No, not really, but thank you… I'm not sure I could have gone through with this if he'd protested.

"Fine," Belle said. "Now we need to decide who else is going, and exactly what we do when we get there. I'm staying out of the line of fire."

Wouldn't have it any other way… Clay thought. "Well, we're going to need something a little less flashy than the limos…" he glanced at Charlotte who merely nodded,"Looks like Willow, Blaze Belle and-"

"Me…" Gina said,"I got this sensitive thing goin'…maybe I can tell something…" she shrugged slightly.

"My man will accompany you as well. He should be here shortly," Charlotte said,"please, all of you… don't take an unnecessary risks, ascertain what or who this is for now then we can formulate some way to combat it."

Willow nodded. "I'm not going to take any foolish risks, but I'm not going to let it dictate my actions. Or persist in scaring me half to death every other day, either."

"OK," Belle said. "While we're waiting, we can decide on transportation. I'll ride outrigger in my own car, unless no one else here can drive, in which case I'll drive the getaway vehicle. By the way, who is our mystery guest, and just what can he do? And come to think of it, why didn't you send for him before now?"

"Lets just say he's very experienced at what he does much as you are daughter. As for why I haven't called for him before. This is the first time, at least for me, I've been able to act instead of react. it is refreshing…"

"I can drive." Blaze says. "As for firepower, well….We have plenty of that." Turning to Belle, she says, "Notice I didn't say enough?" She smiles a bit sadly. "Who knows what might or might not be enough?"

Belle appeared to ignore the cases which she had at her feet. By way of reply to the redhead, she thought for a moment, then asked, conversationally, "Anybody got a nuke?" It was impossible to tell if she were kidding.

"Not at the moment…" Charlotte replied dryly.

"Christ, seen cheerier funerals…" Gina muttered and immediately regretted that analogy.