This story was won by LostandAlone22 in a Sweet Charity auction. Thanks to Terri for the excellent beta!
It seemed, at first glance, like an ordinary scene: an alley in the city's retail district, filled with stacked wooden pallets and a few piles of folded cardboard boxes. Loading docks interrupted the gray cement walls at regular intervals, the companies' logos and the occasional splash of graffiti providing the only bright spots of color. This alley was no different from the one on the next block or the next. What made it interesting, at least to the man on the roof, was the group of people in the center facing off against one another.
On one side, a tall man with black hair and a shorter, dirty-blond-haired one flanked a woman whose long braid was the color of sunshine. Facing the trio were four men in trench coats and dark glasses who all seemed to be the epitome of a goon. The man on the roof regretted that he had only brought binoculars and not a listening device. He would have loved to know what the woman said to make the leader of the goons flush such a bright shade of red. Whatever it was, it proved enough to break the stalemate. One of the goons drew a weapon, and the fight was on.
Keeping his binoculars trained on the blond man, the watcher began to smile. It was exactly as the reports had claimed. The blond man was, without a doubt, altering his body composition to allow solid objects to move through. One of the goons' fists, a pair of bullets that couldn't possibly have missed, and finally a disturbed-looking goon all passed through the same space as the blond man, defying the laws of physics and delighting the watcher.
"Perfect," he murmured. "You're exactly what I need, Jesse Kilmartin. I'll be seeing you soon."
Brennan had always had an uneasy relationship with sleep. It wasn't that he didn't get enough, just that he could never get his body to conform to a specific schedule. Too much energy literally ran through his body at times for him to be able to relax.
When insomnia hit while the rest of the team was asleep, he'd usually hang out in the galley with a cup of tea and a book, trying to wind down. Whitman was always good for those times; Emerson or Wordsworth might have bored him to sleep faster, but the rhythm, the exuberance, the pure hope woven through Leaves of Grass somehow made a better fit for his mood.
A sound made him look up from his book. He wasn't entirely surprised to see Jesse walking into the galley, groping almost blindly into the cabinet for a mug before turning and finally spotting Brennan. His jump nearly sent the mug crashing to the floor, but a quick attempt at juggling saved the ceramic from certain doom.
"Morning," Brennan drawled, even though it was only true in the most literal of senses. "Can't sleep?"
"Too hyped from the fight today," Jesse said with a shrug, turning to fill the mug with water.
If it weren't for his shaking hands and the dark-smudged skin under his eyes, Brennan might have believed him. As it was, he suspected nightmares, and not for the first time.
He didn't say anything as Jesse nuked the water and dropped an infuser filled with loose tea into the mug. Adam insisted on "real" tea and swore they were all heathens for microwaving their water rather than bringing it to a proper boil on the range. Brennan thought Adam was incredibly anal, but he would admit to himself that the loose tea tasted better than instant.
Jesse sat down across the table, slowly twirling the infuser inside the cup. His gaze was fastened on the cloud of brown overtaking the clear water, effectively shutting Brennan out. That wasn't for the first time, either. It had become par for the course since Hillview Prison, since Brennan had tried with all his considerable power to murder his best friend.
And that was why he didn't say anything. Before Hillview, Brennan would have hounded Jesse's ass until Jess finally told him what was wrong. He'd lost that right, though, and it would be some time before he earned it back. He supposed he should just be happy that Jesse was even willing to be in the same room with him, but somehow it wasn't enough.
The somber silence was broken as Adam walked into the galley, looking as if he hadn't been to bed yet. He smiled when he saw Brennan and Jesse.
"Good, you're up. I've already woken up the girls. We've got a job."
He didn't say anything more until Shalimar and Emma wandered in, both looking vaguely sleep-rumpled. It was a look Brennan approved of.
"What's going on?" Shalimar asked around a yawn, dropping down next to Jesse and grabbing his tea mug for a long drink.
"We've got three New Mutants on the run from New Horizons, the latest subsidiary of Genomex," Adam answered. "They managed to escape the facility, but they haven't been able to shake their pursuers."
"So we just run interference, get them to a safe house, and cover any tracks they might have left?" Brennan asked. "Sounds simple enough."
"Well, yes, except for one thing."
"There's always one thing." Emma sighed. "What is it?"
"According to the escapees, New Horizons has a computer program that allows them to track New Mutants once they have a blood sample. No governors, no tracking devices--and since you can't change your blood, no way to block the program."
Jesse frowned. "How are they managing to do that? It's not like blood gives off radio signals or something. There's got to be something the program can latch on to."
Leaning back against the counter, Adam shook his head. "I don't know. I suspect there's something in the unique markers of a mutant's blood, but how the program is tracking them is something you're going to have to find out."
"You want me to hack in to their network?"
"Once again, it's not that simple. From everything I've been able to discover, the program they're using is on a separate mainframe that's not connected to any network. The only way to use--or delete--the program would be to physically access the mainframe."
"So which are we going to do, break in to New Horizons or rescue the escapees?" Brennan asked.
Shalimar frowned. "It would probably make more sense to destroy the program first if we have the time. Otherwise, wherever we put the escapees, they'll just be tracked down."
Adam sighed. "Unfortunately, we don't have that time. When I was contacted by Gerald, one of the New Mutants who escaped, he was convinced that they would be found in a matter of hours. No more than a day at most. He believes that New Horizons is coming after them with everything they've got because Gerald's group knows about the tracking program. In fact, they were some of the first test subjects. But you're right about the tracking program, Shalimar. As long as it's running, we can't successfully hide anyone who's in that database."
"So we split up." Brennan said, even though he wasn't totally happy with the idea. Under normal circumstances, sure. But with Jesse off his game, Brennan would feel better if they were all around to watch each other's backs.
Adam nodded. "You, Shalimar, and Emma will take care of the New Mutant escapees. I have a feeling it will take all three of you to keep them free from New Horizons' clutches until Jesse can get in and shut down the program."
Jesse sat up straighter, his expression brightening. Brennan bit back the protest that had nearly burst from his lips. He had a bad feeling about Jesse going out on his own, but he didn't dare say anything without driving a deeper wedge between himself and Jess than already existed. He'd shown too much lack of faith in Jesse's ability to survive Hillview. That Jesse still smarted from his comments, still felt the need to prove himself, was as evident as the eager look on Jesse's face as he and Adam talked about the specifics of breaking in to New Horizons.
Emma reached over and squeezed his hand, her eyes sympathetic.
He needs this, she mouthed, cutting a glance at Jesse.
Brennan sighed. Yeah, he did. And he could handle it; he'd been working for Mutant X long before Brennan came along, after all. Not to mention his abilities, which where better for self-defense than anyone else's on the team. He'd be fine.
Jesse walked up to the glass doors leading into the New Horizons office building. Catching sight of his reflection, he grinned wryly. The high-powered, buttoned-down look was one he'd been trying to escape most of his life. Wouldn't his mom be proud to see him now?
Certainly no one else seemed to think there was anything strange about his impression of a junior executive. He passed the security desk without the guard even glancing up. He waved the security badge Adam had provided at the scanner by the elevator, and it didn't even beep. Just a tiny green light and the whir of the elevator doors opening.
The plan was simple enough. Jesse was relying on the anonymity of a suit, tie, and briefcase to get him outside the room that contained the mainframe. He'd phase in, upload a virus, phase out, and be gone before anyone knew there was a problem. Hacking in to New Horizons' security system had shown that typically the card reader that allowed people into the room wasn't accessed until 9:00 each morning. Jesse had arrived at 8:00, but just in case someone had decided to come in early, he also had a dart gun with plenty of sedative-loaded ammunition.
The hall outside the mainframe's room was empty, both of people and any sort of art or decoration on the white walls. It was the cold, soulless corporation that Jesse had fought so hard to avoid his entire life. The skin on the back of his neck crawled. Shaking his head, he glanced around one last time and then leaned casually against the wall.
Phasing wasn't something he could ever explain to someone who couldn't experience it. It was a little like having water poured through him and a little like being at the heart of a dust storm. For those few seconds when he was passing through something, he could actually see the molecules that made up the matter, could feel them pulling and pushing at his own atoms in a constant longing for completion. If he stayed too long, he began to want the same thing.
The inside of the mainframe room was cool as he solidified, the air no doubt cranked up to compensate for the massive amounts of energy being used by the bank of hard drives attached to a single flatscreen monitor in the center of the room. In some ways, it reminded Jesse of Sanctuary's set-up. Without the cool swiveling chair, of course. Apparently New Horizons' computer technicians were expected to stand.
Crossing over to the array, Jesse looked it over with a professional eye. There would be one hard drive that was the master; unsurprisingly, it was the one closest to the monitor. A variety of graphics were flashing across the screen along with a column of scrolling data. He would have loved to have time to investigate it, but it was more important that the entire database be corrupted beyond repair before the first technician came in for the day.
He took the virus-laden flash drive out of his pocket and slipped it into the USB port. In less than a second, the graphics on the monitor started to pixelate. The data stream blinked, briefly switched to something that looked like the Cyrillic alphabet, then blacked out completely.
Jesse grinned with satisfaction as he disconnected the flash drive. It would take some time before the virus worked through all the data, but it was already well on its way. He'd just give it a few more minutes, until he was sure it was past the point of no return, and then he'd be on his way, too.
Once again, the guard didn't look up as Jesse left the elevator. He focused on looking intently at a sheaf of papers he'd pulled from his briefcase, keeping his head down as he passed the workers coming in the front doors. The last thing he needed was for someone to question him as he was leaving.
As he entered the parking garage, he began to relax. He was practically home-free; as soon as he got in the car, he'd contact Adam and report a job well-done.
He looked up sharply at the sound of his name, just in time to get a blast of mist in his face. He couldn't breathe, couldn't phase, couldn't see . . .
And then there was nothing.
Jesse's commlink showed up on the tracking program for the first time in a week. Adam and Emma were at Sanctuary when it happened, tracing the few leads that they had, while Brennan and Shalimar searched one of the few physical locations they'd managed to come up with. Adam's voice shook minutely as he directed them to the commlink's location, less than a mile from where they already were. They were all tired, all scared of what they'd find--or wouldn't find. It had been a long week.
It actually took less time to get to the coordinates Adam told them than to find a place where the Double Helix could park. Brennan had barely shut the ship down before he was running out the exit and toward the beach. Shalimar outstripped him easily, her feral senses seemingly guiding her in a specific direction. Brennan followed, automatically scanning the area for danger. They were on the beach under the bay area docks. Over the sound of the ocean, he could hear machinery and the shouts of workers in the distance as they unloaded a late shipment and transported it to the nearby warehouses, but there were no signs of life nearby. Just the concrete pilings that held up the docks and the occasional florescent security light making circles of brightness in the sand. At the edge of one circle, Shalimar skidded to a halt. Brennan sped up.
It was Jesse, and Brennan felt a surge of relief. It didn't last long. Shalimar was talking to Jesse, repeating his name, but Jesse wasn't responding. He was sitting against a concrete piling, his knees drawn up, bare feet pressed against the sand. He still had on the black suit pants and white dress shirt that he'd been wearing the last time Brennan saw him, but his hair was straggling into his face and he had a heavy growth of whiskers. Brennan couldn't see any sign of blood. What was worse, he didn't see any sign of recognition. Jesse was leaning--no, not leaning. Pushing back against the concrete. He was staring ahead as if Shalimar wasn't saying anything to him, wasn't even there.
Brennan crouched down, reaching out to squeeze Jesse's knee. He could feel faint tremors vibrating through Jesse's rigid body.
"Hey, bro, it's good to see you. How are you doing?"
His heart sank as Jesse didn't react at all. Shalimar pressed her hand against his cheek. Still, there was nothing.
"Let's get him home," Shalimar said, her eyes shadowed with worry.
Jesse could walk, although he stumbled even with Brennan and Shalimar steadying him. He hesitated as they reached the Double Helix, then moved forward again at Shalimar's gentle urging. Brennan guided him to a chair, doing a double-take when he realized that Jesse had pulled his feet up and was sitting cross-legged.
"Jess? Did you hurt your feet?"
He crouched down, gently turning one of Jesse's feet so that he could see the bottom. Other than a bit of redness and a fine coating of sand, Brennan couldn't see anything wrong. The skin was almost uncomfortably cold to the touch, though.
"You cold, bro?"
Sliding out of his jacket, Brennan draped it over Jesse's shoulders. Finally, there was a sign of awareness; Jesse grabbed it and pulled it tight around himself. Brennan exchanged a glance with Shalimar, seeing the same combination of fear and hope.
Jesse stayed silent on the ride home. He let Brennan lead him into Sanctuary, but didn't even flinch when Emma ran up and hugged him.
"Something's wrong with him," Brennan said as Adam walked up. "I don't think he really knows we're here."
Emma pulled back, frowning. She searched Jesse's eyes with her own.
"He doesn't," she said finally. "It's like there's nothing there, not on the surface. Like he's hiding."
"Let's get him to the lab," Adam said, sliding an arm around Jesse's shoulders. "Come on, Jesse. Let's get you checked out."
Jesse settled into the biobed without any argument. That was just wrong. Jesse was many things, but docile didn't even enter into the picture. He was always questioning, pushing, joking around, finding a way to stay on his feet figuratively even when he was literally lying down. Brennan had missed that quality; he wouldn't really feel like they had Jesse back until he saw it again. As it was, Jesse seemed diminished somehow, staring up at the ceiling with empty eyes as he clutched Brennan's jacket around him. They would find out what had happened and fix it, Brennan promised silently as he squeezed Jesse's shoulder and stepped back to let Adam run his scans.
After what felt like hours, Adam stepped back from the computer screen with a frown.
"What is it?" Shalimar demanded, turning from where she'd been pacing across the back of the lab. "What's wrong with him?"
"There are minor traces of a psychotropic drug in his system. I haven't done a full analysis, but at this point I'd guess that it is some sort of mood- or memory-altering drug." Adam sighed. "But that's not all the scan revealed. To put it simply, his molecular bonds have been irritated. Because of his mutation, Jesse normally has a remarkable amount of control over the transfer of molecules between atoms in his body. His body is capable of speeding up, slowing down, and altering the transfer in a way that would kill anyone without his mutation. Even so, there are still certain patterns and rhythms that his molecules follow, and those have been subtly disrupted. Not, thankfully, enough to kill him yet, but the irritation seems to be growing slowly over time."
"So can you fix it?" Brennan asked, cutting to the chase.
"Yes, I can set the EDD scanner to, in essence, recalibrate Jesse's molecular bonds. I'll have to go slowly to keep from exacerbating the problem, but he should be back to normal by morning."
"And that will make him--" Brennan gestured helplessly at Jesse's unseeing gaze, "wake up?"
Adam shrugged. "I don't know. If what we're seeing is from the drugs in his system, they should be fully metabolized by then. If the disruption of molecular bonds has caused him to withdraw to escape the discomfort, then he might be fine once he's restored to molecular normality. But if something else happened to him while he was gone--"
He shrugged again, turning to Emma with a questioning expression on his face. She just shook her head.
"I don't know," she answered. "I'm not getting anything more than what I already told you: it's like he's hiding."
"Then we can only hope that he comes out of hiding once he's healthy again," Adam said. "This is going to take a while, guys. Why don't you all get some sleep? It's been a long week."
The room is very small. Small enough that Jesse feels like the walls are squeezing him, but at least it isn't so tiny that he completely loses it. Metal covers everything: the walls, floor, ceiling--even the toilet and sink are stainless steel, and the bed is really just a metal bench with a vinyl-covered mattress. Almost by instinct, Jesse tries to phase through the nearest wall.
When he comes to, he feels like he's been turned inside out and squeezed through the eye of a needle, one atom at a time. His throat is raw from vomiting, and the smell of the mess beside him makes him heave again. He's curled on the floor. The feeling of being pulled and squeezed is all around him, especially strong wherever his skin touches the metal.
Somehow he scrambles to his feet and stumbles toward the bed. He feels like he's falling the entire way. As he collapses onto the mattress, some of the sensation fades. Able to think more clearly, he's faced with a stark truth: for one of the very few times in his life, he's truly trapped.
Brennan tried, he really did, but after an hour of tossing and turning, he knew it was no use. There was no way he'd be able to sleep until he knew Jesse was all right. He padded down the corridor to the lab, pulling up a chair so that he could sit by the biobed where Jesse lay. Jesse's eyes were closed, and if it weren't for the light of the scan running over him and the tight grip he still had on Brennan's jacket, Brennan would have just thought him asleep. Adam turned from where he'd been working at the computer.
"Couldn't sleep?" he asked.
"I already lost one friend this month. And this last week, I kept thinking..."
Adam nodded. They'd all had that thought at one point or another in the past seven days.
"I've been running a search on the warehouses in the district where you found Jesse," he said, breaking the somber silence. "Cross-checking against the dummy corporation that owned the car that he was kidnapped in, as well as any other organizations that might have interest in New Mutants. No matches so far, but the program just started running."
"You think he might have been in one of those warehouses all along?"
"Anything's possible at this point. We know he didn't move far once his commlink came back online, but whether he was in a shielded building or a shielded car is impossible to say at this point."
Brennan ran his hands down the flannel of his pants, digging the heels of his palms hard into his thighs.
"I'd like to find who did this to him," he said, more to himself than Adam. Adam wasn't big on revenge.
Not too surprisingly, Adam sighed.
"I'm more interesting in finding out how they did it. If there's some sort of weapon out there than can cause him this much damage, I'd like to have a countermeasure if possible."
Fair enough. Brennan would like that too, but he'd also like more. Ten minutes in a locked room with whoever had done this, for example. It wasn't just that someone had hurt Jesse. It was that they had hurt him badly enough that he didn't know when he was safe again. That the hurt had come so soon after another hurt that Brennan had caused and still hadn't sufficiently made up for. Taking out his guilt on the person who had kidnapped Jesse seemed like the perfect solution.
Adam sighed again, no doubt following the path of Brennan's thoughts. They sat mostly in silence, Adam puttering at the computer and Brennan watching Jesse and the monitors once Adam had shown him what to look for. It was nearly six in the morning when the scan stopped and Adam came over to the biobed.
"Everything's looking normal," he said, and gave Jesse's arm a firm pat. "Hey, Jess, time to wake up."
It took a few more pats, but Jesse's eyes eventually drifted open.
"Adam?" He looked around, eyes already starting to close. "Brennan?"
Adam squeezed his arm.
"Come on, Jesse, your own bed will be a lot more comfortable."
"M'kay." Jesse swung his feet off the bed and would have kept going down if Brennan hadn't caught him.
"Need a hand?" he asked, amused and relieved that Jesse seemed more or less with them at last.
"'m fine," Jesse insisted around a yawn. He was leaning on Brennan with no signs of stopping, though, so Brennan just snorted.
"Let's get you back to your room."
Jesse woke up pressed into the corner made by the wall and his bed. It was an odd sensation, not just because he usually slept sprawled out, but also because he didn't entirely want to move from the security of that position. He wondered what kind of dream he'd been having the night before. He couldn't remember anything weird. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he couldn't remember last night at all. Between the memory loss, the dull ache behind his eyes, and the general feeling of blah that ran through his whole body, he was starting to think he'd been at one hell of a party.
Feeling old, he unfolded himself from his bed and walked, staggering slightly, toward the galley. For some reason, he expected Brennan to be there like he had been the morning before. Instead it was Emma, humming softly to herself as she stirred a pot of something that smelled like vegetable soup. She turned as he came in, a smile spreading across her face.
"Jesse! You're awake!"
Then she came over and hugged him, which really wasn't part of their normal morning routine. Not that he was complaining, but it did make him wonder just what had happened at that party.
"Morning," he said, unable to keep the wariness from his voice completely. "What's up?"
Emma gave him a searching look. It was the one that said she was picking your brain, literally.
"You don't remember, do you?" she asked.
Oh, no. Jesse could feel the heat rising to his face. It wasn't that Emma wasn't totally hot, but she was practically his sister, and he couldn't--
She smacked his arm just hard enough to sting.
"Oh, shut up," she said, rolling her eyes. "Like that would ever happen."
Jesse wasn't sure if he should be relieved or insulted. Emma rolled her eyes again, no doubt picking up on that, too, and tugged him over to sit at the table.
"What is the last thing you remember before waking up today?" she asked.
Jesse frowned. There was an odd, mostly blank space in his memory, a spot like a sore tooth that he didn't quite dare to probe.
"New Horizons?" he ventured finally. "I went to destroy the database while you guys were helping the New Mutants. How did that work out, anyway?"
"Just fine," she answered, dismissing the subject with a wave. "Jesse, that was a week ago. You've been missing since you went to New Horizons. We only just found you last night."
"What? No, that was just yesterday. I would remember--" Jesse trailed off as Emma's compassionate gaze reminded him that he didn't remember, not really. He felt a tightness in his chest, the pressure of panic, and realized that he was pushing back into the reassuring solidness of the cushions behind him. "Where was I?"
"We don't know exactly. Your commlink wasn't transmitting. We couldn't find any traces of you; every lead we had ended up in a dead end. And then, last night, your commlink registered again down at the docks. You were pretty bad off."
Jesse shook his head.
Emma reached out and caught his hand between hers. Her skin was shockingly warm.
"We're going to find out what happened," she said gently. "And Adam treated you and said you'd be fine. There's no permanent injury. We're all just so glad you're home again."
Jesse just shook his head again. He didn't know why he was so freaked. It wasn't like he remembered anything bad happening. Except that was sort of the problem, wasn't it? He didn't remember a week of his life. Anything could have happened. He'd been stupid enough to let it happen, and then couldn't even manage to remember what had happened afterwards so they could catch whoever had kidnapped him.
"What was wrong with me?" he asked finally. "When you found me. What--"
"You'd been drugged, probably to mess up your memory. There was also something wrong with your molecular bonds, but Adam was able to fix that."
Emma somehow made it sound almost ordinary. Jesse knew molecular bonds, though; he had reason to understand them better than most people. They weren't something you just messed with without consequence.
"I need to talk to Adam."
Pushing past Emma, he walked quickly down the hall to the lab. As expected, Adam was there, doing something at the computer that Jesse didn't take the time to look at. He probably wouldn't understand it anyway.
Adam turned, smiling.
"Jesse! It's good to see you up. How are you feeling?"
"Fine, now. But what was wrong with me last night?"
Adam gestured to the biobed.
"Lie down and let me do a scan while I explain. I'd like to make sure everything's still on track."
Still was a vaguely reassuring word. Jesse climbed onto the bed, trying to breathe evenly and relax as Adam started the scan and gave him a quick rundown of his condition the night before. It was an explanation that gave him chills. His abilities made him nearly invincible in a lot of situations that would be deadly to ordinary people, but they also came with an intimate knowledge of how easy it was for something to alter the basic building blocks that made him exist. After all, he could do it on a whim. But he also knew how to put the pieces back before they suffered any permanent damage or decided they liked their freedom too much.
Adam's voice broke into his thoughts.
"The scan looks perfect now." He patted Jesse's shoulder. "I'd just like to get readings when you mass and phase, and then we'll be done."
"It's okay. No need to worry about that," Jesse said, hopping off the biobed. He was surprised to find that his heart was beating faster. It was probably just from sitting up too quickly.
"Jesse?" Adam's puzzled voice pulled him to a stop. "Is there a problem?"
He just really didn't feel like using his abilities. The very idea made him feel like the walls were moving in on him. Everything was a blur except Adam's shocked, concerned face. But nothing was wrong; he'd be fine as long as he got out of the lab and everyone left him alone.
Adam's voice was firm, kind, and the fear it shot through Jesse burned like anger.
"I said I'm fine," he snapped.
Forcing a deep breath, he massed. It was a familiar feeling: time standing still. His whole body felt weighted, purposeful, imminently solid. Then he let it go and felt his heartbeat rushing back into his ears, the sound of his breath remarkably loud as it rushed to fill his lungs. He exhaled, phasing--only he didn't. It was like crashing into a brick wall with every part of his body at the same time. He staggered. Adam caught him with a hand on his arm.
"I can't," Jesse whispered. "I can't do it. It's gone."
Hours later, Adam still hadn't figured out why Jesse couldn't phase at all, or why he could only mass about fifty percent of the time. Nothing in his vitals indicated any type of problem other than elevated stress levels whenever he tried to use his abilities. Jesse didn't have to have Adam's level of intelligence to figure that one out: he was scared of using his abilities, so scared that it created a mental block against using them at all.
Finally, Jesse had called it quits and gone back to his room. He was exhausted and aching, like he'd gone ten rounds with a prize fighter instead of sitting in the lab, trying and mostly failing to use his abilities. He headed straight for the shower, turning the hot water on full strength. The nearly scalding cascade took his breath and his attention. He let it. Nothing was exactly what he wanted to think about right that moment.
Unfortunately, moments, like hot water, eventually came to an end. Too soon, Jesse was shivering and thinking again. With a disgusted sigh, he shut off the faucet and stepped out to dry off. Staring at himself in the mirror, he tried to find signs of something, anything, that would tell him what had happened to him. His face was maybe a little thinner, and he didn't remember having dark circles under his eyes the last time he remembered looking in the mirror. The hollow below his ribs was a tiny bit more pronounced. Aside from that, there was nothing. No bruises. No scars. No visible reason why he'd suddenly turned into a coward who was afraid to use his own abilities. Somehow it would have been easier if he'd had a reason, an excuse, something to point out to the others to say, "This is what happened. This is why I'm no good to you anymore."
With a frustrated growl, he stalked out of the bathroom. He threw on some sweats and a t-shirt, then tugged on a flannel shirt over that when he realized he was still cold from his cold-water dousing at the end of his shower. He thought about going to get something to eat--who knew when he'd last had a meal?--but the thought of having to talk to anyone made him feel slightly nauseous. He couldn't handle their pity right now. Finally, he dropped down on his bed and closed his eyes, hoping to fall asleep quickly.
Instead, he got images of metal walls, metal floor pulsing against his eyelids. Closer, farther, closer, farther, until Jesse could feel his edges shredding from the pressure. He jerked his eyes open, heart pounding. What the hell? It was just what he needed; weird dreams to top off an otherwise stellar day. With a sigh, he rolled over, pressing into the reassuring solidity of the corner where the wall and mattress met, and closed his eyes again.
He knows it's a dream because he's had it so many times before. Brennan, face a mask of anger, reaching for him, growling, "You're such a screw-up. I'm sick of having to watch your back."
He tries to fade back through the wall and can't. Brennan's hands dig into his throat, pressing the air out. He can't breathe, can't speak. His vision goes black.
He's given up on sleep and is walking down a corridor that looks nothing like Sanctuary but still is Sanctuary. He stops, looking into a room with metal walls and a metal floor. He doesn't want to go in. There's a man inside. He can't see the man's face, but for some reason he expects the man to look like Adam. When the man speaks, it's with Adam's voice. Not Adam's real voice, but a voice that Jesse knows is Adam's even though it doesn't sound right.
"WE DON'T NEED YOU."
The voice thuds like a hammer, pounding each word into his mind.
"YOU CAN'T HANDLE IT. YOU'RE NOT STRONG ENOUGH. WE DON'T NEED YOU ANYMORE."
Adam sounds so calm, so regretful, that Jesse has no argument. They don't need him. Whatever good he could do the team with his abilities is gone now. He should leave before he gets one of them hurt.
He turns and walks away.
Jesse woke up feeling more exhausted than when he'd gone to sleep. He felt like he'd been dreaming all night, disturbing, fragmented dreams that felt too real when he was dreaming them, but then faded from his memory as he woke up. All he was left with was a feeling of dread that he couldn't even talk himself out of because he didn't know what had caused it. Which was kind of the story of his life lately. Jesse was coming to view that blank patch in his memory with loathing.
Getting up and facing the rest of the team was marginally better than dreaming again. Jesse got up and walked down the hall toward the galley, where he could hear the deeper rumbling of Adam and Brennan's voices mixed with Emma and Shal's lighter tones. He stopped at the doorway, for some reason reluctant to go in, until Shalimar looked up and saw him. A second later, he had his arms full as she hugged him tightly, and then Brennan's arm came around his shoulder and squeezed.
"Come sit down and eat," Shalimar said when she finally stepped back. "You must be starving!"
Jesse wasn't, really; in fact, the thought of eating made him feel a little sick. He wasn't stupid enough to say so, though, since it was Emma's soup on the table and she was touchy about her cooking. Even though almost everything she made was good, that time with the souffle not withstanding, she always expected it to go wrong. So Jesse let himself get scooted between the wall and Shalimar, accepted the bowl of vegetable soup and slices of garlic bread that Emma passed to him, and told Adam he was feeling fine and grinned at Brennan's lame sleeping beauty joke. He even took a bite of the soup, which immediately reminded his stomach that it existed and hadn't been fed in who knew how long. By the time he had wolfed down the rest of the meal, he was starting to feel more human and capable of coping. The feeling lasted about as long as it took Adam to shift the conversation from recent football games to finding Jesse's kidnapper.
"There was nothing unusual at any of the warehouses we checked out," Brennan said, probably for Jesse's benefit since no one else looked particularly surprised at the news. "Well, unless you count the one that held stock for a chain of adult toy stores."
"Spent some time looking around, did you?" Jesse asked, smirking. He was pretty sure it was Brennan's foot that connected with his shin, although it was impossible to be sure. Shalimar had some pretty big feet.
"Be that as it may," Adam interrupted, "the computer came up with a tenuous connection between the dummy corporation that owned the car Jesse was taken from New Horizons in and a building several blocks away from the docks. It's further than we were originally looking, but it's the best lead we have so far."
"We'll head over there after dinner," Shalimar said.
"I'm going with you."
Jesse let the words hang there. He was waiting for someone to bring up his lack of abilities, to say he would be a liability.
"Are you sure you're up to it?" Brennan asked. "Twenty-four hours ago, you were in pretty bad shape."
That wasn't quite as bad as "you're useless, so stay home where you won't cause any trouble." It wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of faith, either, but Jesse didn't want to focus on that.
"I need to go," he said. "I need to know what happened."
"Okay." Brennan gave him a faint smile. "It'll be good having you there to watch my back."
Jesse was pretty sure Brennan didn't know why he flinched. Jesse wasn't entirely sure why he flinched. He'd put Hillview behind him completely.
"It'll be good being there," he said firmly and focused on the chill of the wall against one arm and the warmth of Shalimar against the other.
As warehouses went, the one they were investigating was fairly boring: a reasonably clean exterior of concrete painted an innocuous gray, with a slightly lighter square near the front door where a sign had once hung. The front door was locked, but Brennan short-circuited the alarm and Shalimar applied a roundhouse kick right below the door handle that worked better than a lock pick. They all moved inside, spreading out into the nearly empty room. Five sets of footsteps echoed on the concrete floor.
Adam had come with the team, ostensibly because he wanted to investigate any devices that might have been used to keep Jesse captive. Jesse had a sneaking suspicion that he was also keeping an eye on Jesse to make sure he didn't collapse or lose his powers completely or start randomly phasing and massing. All of them were looking at him funny, clearly expecting him to fall apart or fail in some spectacular way. He was about ready to offer to go sit in the Helix and stay out of everyone's way.
"Did you hear something?" Shalimar asked suddenly.
Before anyone could answer, she was off, running lightly toward a corridor that led away from the large room. Jesse had an odd feeling, somewhere between dread and deja vu, as soon as he started down the hall himself. It was too much like his crazy dreams the night before. Then he stopped, staggering into the wall, as he stared into a room off the corridor that was covered in solid metal panels on the floor, walls, and ceiling.
Brennan was there, squeezing his shoulder and sounding concerned.
"I was here," Jesse whispered; he couldn't get enough air to speak louder. "In that room."
Brennan stepped forward and looked into the room. It was all Jesse could do not to yank him back. That room was a bad place. He didn't know why, but he was certain all the same.
"Okay," Brennan said finally. "Let's go tell the others what we've found, all right?"
He had to physically turn Jesse from the room and kept one hand on his back the whole way down the corridor. Jesse just followed Brennan's lead, barely registering his surroundings as images of metal walls closing in on him bombarded him. What was that place? What had happened to him there?
They finally reached the end of the corridor and turned to the left, entering what had probably once been an office. Shalimar, Emma, and Adam were facing off against a man that Jesse had no memory of, but recognized all the same. He was nearly as tall as Brennan, with salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly trimmed gray beard. His trousers and button-down dress shirt made him look more like a business man than a kidnapper.
"I'm telling you, I don't know what you're talking about," the man was saying. He blanched as his eyes met Jesse's. The man's hand went down to fiddle at his belt, and Shalimar stepped forward with a faint growl.
YOU WILL LET ME GO NOW.
It wasn't a sound, but it thudded into Jesse's mind like a hammer. His knees hit the floor as in front of him, Emma laughed.
"You have got to be kidding me," she said.
Brennan leaned down over Jesse. His hand on Jesse's back was steady, firm, like the concrete Jesse had his own hands pressed against.
"Jess? What's wrong?"
It was a flash of knowledge, more a mental picture than a real thought.
"On his belt," Jesse gasped. His head was pounding, his edges dissolving. The walls were nearly on top of him. He staggered to his feet. "I need to get out of here."
Brennan paused long enough to tell Shalimar to check out the guy's belt and then hurried after Jesse. He was in time to see the door across from the office swing shut. He was more than a little scared that he'd find Jesse in that same nearly catatonic state he'd been in when they found him on the beach. Instead, as he stepped out into the alley on the other side of the door, he saw Jesse sitting against the wall of the building, knees drawn up and forehead resting against them. Brennan moved over to crouch down beside him.
"What's up, bro?" he asked gently.
Jesse didn't answer at first, but since he didn't have that distant stare from the night on the beach, Brennan decided to give him a few minutes before Brennan panicked. Shifting position, he settled his own back against the wall and rested a hand on Jesse's shoulder, wanting Jess to know he was there.
It was several minutes before Jesse looked up, giving Brennan a faint, shaky smile before leaning his head back against the wall.
At first, Brennan thought that was going to be it, leaving him wondering if he should push for details or back off until they were somewhere more conducive to figuring things out than an alley. They were going to figure things out, though, that much he was sure of. Then Jesse sighed again and started talking, apparently not put off by the surroundings.
"I recognized some things in there. Not memories, really. I don't know what happened. Just that I'd seen that room and that man before. He did that--that thing--"
"The telepathy thing?"
"Yeah. I don't know what he said. I just remember the feeling."
"Okay. Well, that's good, right? Getting your memory back."
"But it's not a memory. It's..." Jesse shook his head. "It's like deja vu. Like I know I've seen it before, but I don't remember it at all."
"Well, maybe that guy in there will be able to fill in the blanks."
Jesse didn't sound too excited about the idea. They sat silently for a few minutes, Brennan trying to think of something to say that would make things better and Jesse staring blankly at the wall in front of them.
"I think I need to quit the team," Jesse said suddenly.
As shocks went, Brennan couldn't have delivered a better one himself. He stifled his immediate reaction, which was to grab Jesse and yell, "What the hell?" If he'd learned anything in the past few years, it was that Jesse dug in his heels when he felt threatened. Which actually made his last statement all the more inexplicable.
"Why?" Brennan asked when he was sure he could keep his voice calm.
"I'm too much of a liability without my abilities. You guys can't do your jobs if you're always watching my back."
He sounded so matter-of-fact that Brennan would have thought he didn't care if not for the lines of strain around his eyes and mouth.
"But you haven't lost your abilities," he pointed out. "You can't phase right now, but Adam said that was almost definitely temporary. And I guess you've forgotten, but we all watch each other's backs all the time."
Strain was turning to stubborn.
"I can't mass about half the time, either. There's no guarantee I'll get any of it back. And we rely on each other to handle our fair share of whatever gets thrown at us. I can't do that anymore."
Brennan took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his mind whirling. Jesse had been through too much lately. That had to be it. Hillview, being kidnapped, whatever had happened that had left him in such bad shape--Brennan had only been through part of that and he was exhausted. How much worse was it for Jesse? So now he was tired, scared of losing his abilities, and trying to be all noble about it. If the end result was more idiot than noble, Brennan could forgive him this once.
"Let's talk about it after we figure out what's going on with this guy we caught, okay?" he said. "How about you go bring the Double Helix in closer while I find out what's going on with Adam and the girls?"
Jesse gave him a look that said he wasn't fooled and wasn't changing his mind, but pushed himself up and held out a hand to Brennan anyway.
It turned out that Gary Cooke was a big-time thief, mostly of government weapons and experimental projects that various powers around the world were interested in. He was also an amateur inventor. What he wasn't, and wanted to be, was a New Mutant.
"He managed to replicate psionic powers to a certain extent," Adam said, punching a button on the computer keyboard that threw onto the screen a schematic of a device that looked a lot like the keypad to a burglar alarm.
"A very limited extent," Emma muttered. "The man had the finesse of a water buffalo."
"And yet, he was relatively effective against the non-psionics in the room," Adam pointed out. "We weren't moving to stop him. Only you, with your practice in shielding your mind, were able to completely ignore his suggestions."
Jesse was only half-listening to their discussion. He was staring at his hand on the lab table, watching it sometimes mass and never phase, no matter how hard he focused. At the moment, it was lying limp and totally useless. Kind of like him.
"With a machine," Emma said. "As soon as Shal took it away, he was helpless."
"Had a decent right hook, though," Shalimar said, rubbing the bruise on her cheekbone. "But more importantly, what did he do to Jesse?"
"He said he was trying to calibrate a device that would emulate Jesse's abilities," Adam replied. He punched more buttons and brought up a device that looked like a bigger version of the last one. "If he couldn't recruit Jesse to help with his robberies, he at least wanted to be able to mimic Jesse's powers. He had the room where Jesse was kept completely electromagnetized and and kept changing the frequencies. Unfortunately, Jesse tried to phase through the electromagnetic field, which knocked his molecular bonds out of whack. I suspect that the constant exposure to the oscillating electromagnetic field simply exacerbated the problem. Thankfully, Cooke realized that he was jeopardizing Jesse's health and decided to cut his losses. He gave Jesse a shot that was intended to eliminate his recent memories and set him free."
"Intended to?" Jesse asked skeptically. He eyed the device on the screen with loathing. It looked so innocuous to have totally derailed his life.
"You do have some residual memories," Adam said, shrugging. "If I had to guess, I'd say that the instability you were suffering at that point curtailed the drug's effectiveness somewhat."
"So that," Brennan gestured at the device on the screen, "whatever it is, is what screwed up Jesse's abilities?"
"I'm not sure. My tests show no lingering damage that would account for him not being able to phase. It's just as likely that his body remembers the incredible discomfort of trying to phase through the electromagnetic field and doesn't want to go through that kind of trauma again."
"So, basically, I'm a coward," Jesse said sourly. He made his fist mass, but couldn't hold it.
"No more so than someone who had attempted sky-diving, broke every bone in his body, and then was reluctant to jump out of a plane again after he'd healed," Adam said gently. "If I'm right, your subconscious is fighting against memories that your conscious mind can't access. A part of you is proceeding as if everything were normal, while another part knows that phasing is painful, even deadly for you, because the last time you tried, you were hurt badly. Until you've had some time to reconcile the two pieces of knowledge, you're going to struggle with any use of your abilities."
Jesse snorted. "Fat lot of good I'll be in the meantime."
Brennan smacked him on the shoulder.
"Don't be an ass. You've still got those mad computer skills, right?"
Jesse couldn't quite control his smirk.
"When did you turn twelve?"
"Before you, junior."
"Children, please," Adam interjected. "No more squabbling or I'll have to ground you."
For a moment, all Jesse could think was that he was pretty effectively grounded as it was, but then Brennan gave his shoulder a shove and said,
"Come on, junior. How about I show you how the big boys do a workout?"
"You're really pushing this junior thing," Jesse said, but he followed Brennan anyway. Brennan's teasing and the rolled eyes that Shalimar and Emma were sharing made him smile. It was a lot like having a real brother and sisters, aggravating at times but there when you needed them. He'd miss them when he left the team.
That last thought kept him quiet as he changed into workout clothes and joined Brennan to stretch. His muscles felt stiff and unused--no surprise there--and he made a mental note to keep up a decent workout routine when he was on his own. He had to keep making plans, keep moving ahead, because if he let himself think too deeply about leaving the team, he wasn't going to be able to do it. Yet he had to, for their sakes as much as--more than--his own. The trip to the warehouse earlier that day had proved he was right about leaving: he had been next to useless, and his abilities hadn't even been required. What would happen in a really bad situation? If something happened to Brennan or Shalimar or Emma because he couldn't hold up his end of the job or worse, froze and nearly collapsed like he had today, he... well, he would rather have curled up and died on that beach.
"Hey," Brennan said suddenly. "Give me a hand over here."
He was at the punching bag; he gestured for Jesse to brace it and slipped into a fighting stance. His first punch made the bag shake against Jesse's hands.
"So, that sounded pretty positive, didn't it?" Brennan said. "What Adam said about your abilities. It's just a matter of time till you get them back under control."
"Were we in the same conversation? Because that's not what I heard."
The next blow made him back up a step.
"Yeah? What did you hear?"
Jesse braced his feet and smiled bitterly.
"That it's a good thing I'm leaving, because you guys can't depend on me."
Brennan stopped, grabbing the bag to keep it from swinging.
"See, that's not what Adam said at all, Jess. Where are you getting this crap?"
Stepping back, Jesse moved over to the weight bench and sat down.
"I don't know, logic? You guys don't need someone who can't handle the job anymore." He lay back, getting a good grip on the weight bar. "Someone who's too scared--"
Brennan's hands closed over the top of the bar, pressing down just enough that Jesse couldn't lift up.
"Don't be an idiot," he snapped. "I've known you for two years, Jess, and I've seen you in some pretty bad situations. I've seen you scared, but I've never seen you give up. Where is this coming from?"
Jesse wanted to sit up, to get up and stalk away, but he couldn't quite get himself to give up the solidity of the weight bench against his back.
"I'm trying to do the right thing," he said tightly. "Why are you making it harder than it has to be?"
"Because it's not the right thing. Giving up on the team, leaving us, that's not right and never will be. You're the last person I'd ever expect to hear this from."
Brennan's eyes narrowed, an expression that from below him made him look angry. His voice, though, was calm and almost sympathetic.
"Not in a week, man. Not unless something happened to make him change. Emma?"
Emma's voice came through the commlink as clearly as if she were in the room.
"What's up, Bren?"
"Can you come to the workout room? Now?"
"Sure, I'll be right there."
Jesse forced himself to sit up. He didn't have any idea where Brennan was going with this, and he didn't like that at all. He'd had enough surprises for one week.
Emma seemed taken aback at the wary look Jesse gave her, or maybe it was just the residue of emotion in the room.
"What's going on, guys?" she asked.
"That device Cooke had, the one that made him telepathic--is there any way to see if he used it on Jesse?" Brennan asked.
"What? What does that have to do with--" Jesse started. The memory of Cooke's mental voice in his head was strong, almost like the last vestiges of a headache. He just didn't see what that had to do with him leaving.
"Jesse, just work with me here, okay?" Brennan said, moving around the weights to put a hand on Jesse's shoulder. The gesture was probably meant to calm him down; that it effectively kept him in one place might not have been Brennan's plan at all. "Emma?"
"I can look and see if there are any traces. Normally, Jesse, you'd have a clear memory of anything like that happening, especially given how clumsy Cooke was. But with most of your memories gone, I'll have to look for the--well, it's hard to explain. Sort of like you can't see the wind, but you can see the effects when leaves get blown around? I'll be looking for effects of him using the device."
"I don't think so," Jesse said. "No. What good would it do anyway?"
If Brennan's hand hadn't been on his shoulder, he would have been out of the room already. He could feel his heart beating in his ears, so loud that it was making his head hurt.
"Jesse? We've done this before. You know I won't hurt you, right?" Emma said, reaching out to squeeze his hand.
He couldn't stop himself from jerking back.
"It's just not necessary, okay? I mean, sure, he probably did use that thing, but what difference does it make?"
"No," Emma said sadly, almost to herself, "you don't know it won't hurt because someone did hurt you, didn't they? But I won't. Please, Jesse?"
If he hadn't trusted her literally with his life, if Brennan hadn't sat down on the bench behind him, a solid presence that he could also trust, he wouldn't have been able to manage a jerky nod.
"Okay. Just, don't--"
She smiled gently.
"I won't, Jess. I promise. In fact, I can help you think about something better, okay? A bird, an eagle, soaring over mountains on a clear, sunny day. Can you see that?"
He could. He knew it wasn't real, knew Emma had put the image in his mind, but at the same time, it was like flying. Warm sun on his face, wind blowing through his feathers hard enough that it felt like a solid thing, and pure, complete freedom.
"Okay, I'm done."
He blinked, abruptly back in the workout room. He felt calmer, lighter, as if a dark film had been lifted off his eyes. He sighed, then gave Emma a reassuring smile as she studied his face.
"What did you find?" Brennan asked.
"Well, there were definitely signs that Cooke had uses his so-called telepathy on you, Jesse." She smiled teasingly. "You're kind of a mess in there right now. Disconnected images, fragments of memories--it's like trying to find something under my bed when I was a little girl."
"Oh, great," Jesse said, but for some reason the image didn't bother him that much. "As long as there aren't any new life forms starting. That's what my mom always claimed would happen if I didn't clean out under my bed."
"Not exactly. There were some thoughts that I'm pretty sure Cooke planted, though. Some things that just didn't sound like your, um, 'voice,' for lack of a better word."
"I bet I can guess what they were," Brennan muttered.
"Very negative thoughts," Emma said, and Jesse was grateful that she didn't elaborate. "I did what I could to minimize their impact and make Cooke's 'voice' plain enough that you should be able to distinguish what's your thinking and what's his. I just don't understand why he wanted you to feel so--"
Useless, Jesse mentally finished for her. It made sense to him, now that his head was clear.
"He wanted me to change sides. Work for him. I think he was trying to break my loyalty to you guys."
"Good luck getting you to do anything you don't want to."
Jesse glanced back at him. They both knew how close Cooke had come to succeeding, but he didn't see any blame in Brennan's eyes. Just relief.
"You need to tell me if you start getting thoughts that don't seem right," Emma said, patting Jesse's knee. "I think I got everything, but it's hard to tell with everything so jumbled up and missing pieces."
Jesse leaned forward and gave her a hug.
"What about me?" Brennan protested. "I'm the one who figured out why you were going all Jekyll and Hyde on us."
"Aw, you want a hug, too?" Jesse asked. Letting go of Emma, he turned and wrapped his arms around Brennan, managing just the perfect angle to knock them both to the floor. He blamed his week of probable inactivity for the speed with which Brennan pinned him to the mat.
"Boys," Emma said with a heartfelt sigh.
It wasn't until the euphoria of Emma's vision wore off that Jesse was faced with reality: he still couldn't phase. Massing was nearly one hundred percent, but phasing was literally like running into a brick wall. No matter how calm he tried to be, no matter how much he visualized the thousands of times he'd phased with no problems, he just couldn't do it. Every time he failed, he got that little voice in the back of his mind reminding him that he wasn't good enough, would just hurt the team. Most of the time, it was Cooke's voice, but occasionally, it was his own. He threw himself into the computer side of the job, researching and hacking like a madman, and either avoided missions outside of Sanctuary or stayed behind in the Helix as backup support.
Thankfully, no one pushed him to do more, even though Jesse was sure Brennan wanted to. Shal just shrugged and started calling him their wheel man, while Emma gave him understanding smiles and, if Jesse had to bet, probably ran interference with Brennan. Adam reassured Jesse every few days that he'd get control again when his subconscious was ready. Jesse could only hope he was right.
It was almost two weeks after Jesse had returned to Sanctuary when Brennan came up behind him and patted the back of the computer chair he was sitting in.
"Come on, man, we're up."
"You remember the three New Mutants we were helping right before you disappeared?"
The "do you remember" conversations had become commonplace. Anything prior to a month before, Jesse had no more trouble remembering than anyone would. The past four weeks were hit-and-miss, though, with more miss than hit the closer the memory was to his kidnapping.
"Vaguely?" he said, getting up to follow Brennan when it became obvious that Brennan was headed for the bay where they kept the Double Helix and expected Jesse to follow.
"Gerald, his sister Janet, and her girlfriend Megan. We helped them get to a safe house while you were uploading a virus into New Horizons' databases to cover their tracks. Gerald's psionic, Janet's an electric elemental and Megan's a water elemental. She can do this thing where she puts about a tablespoon of beer in a glass of water and transforms the whole thing into beer. It tastes better than the original, too."
"I bet she's a hit at parties," Jesse said, pausing outside the Helix and grabbing Brennan's arm to stop him from getting aboard. "What does that have to do with us?"
"Janet just contacted me. They're afraid New Horizons has found the safe house we put them in. I told her we'd come check it out."
Jesse felt a now-familiar frisson of unease. He swallowed it back.
"Okay, but I'm driving."
The trip to the safe house didn't take long. Jesse kept the Helix cloaked as he settled her down in the empty lot diagonal to the house Brennan had pointed out as Gerald, Janet, and Megan's new home. It was nondescript, like most of their safe houses: a one story white cottage with a slightly run-down look to it. Jesse couldn't see anything from the outside that looked suspicious.
"I'll run in and talk to them, maybe take a look around the house," Brennan said. "You stay out here and keep watch for anyone with a New Horizons logo on their shirt or something, okay?"
"If only it were that simple."
He was grateful, although he'd never say it, that Brennan didn't make a big deal about him staying behind. As he watched Brennan walk up to the front door, he rested his hand against the Helix's console and tried, for at least the hundredth time, to make his hand lose solidity. As usual, there was nothing, not even a wavering around the edges. He sighed.
If he hadn't been sitting diagonal to the house, he never would have seen the two men in black turtlenecks who came to stand by a window at the side of the cottage. The angle would have been all wrong to spot them from in front of the house; no doubt they thought they were sufficiently hidden. But neither of them was Brennan, and Jesse was willing to bet that neither of them was Gerald, either. Whether unknowingly or not, Janet had set up a trap by calling them there.
Jesse's stomach clenched in a knot. He found himself pressing back against the chair and deliberately took a breath to make himself relax. He couldn't afford to panic. Unless he was drastically wrong, Brennan was in trouble, and Jesse was the only one available to help him. He thought about calling Shalimar and Emma, but they'd gone with Adam into the city to do some shopping. They were in a car, which meant they couldn't have gotten to him in much less than an hour. He was on his own.
He looked around carefully, weighing his options. If he moved the Helix over a block, he could probably come up the alley that ran behind the houses, approaching from the side where the two men weren't watching. If he was lucky, he'd be able to get close enough to see inside the house and scope out the best approach for getting inside without getting himself or Brennan hurt.
As plans went, this one worked fine right up until he reached the house. There were curtains blocking the back windows, so Jesse worked his way along the side of the house to where he could get a glimpse through the lace covering the living room windows. He couldn't see Brennan, but he could see two women and a man tied and gagged on a couch--presumably that would be Gerald, Janet, and Megan. At least they weren't in on the trap; that might make the rescue easier. He'd have to deal with fewer attackers, but then again, he'd also have to keep more hostages safe. Why wasn't anything ever easy?
Jesse sank down below the window, needing a moment to think. He had to get inside the house. Once, he would have just phased in, but now, he was going to have to get more creative. Breaking a window would be too noisy. Maybe the back door would be unlocked? Maybe he could create a diversion in the front yard and break a window anyway? Maybe he needed to get Brennan to teach him how to pick a lock. Just as soon as Jesse got him out of this situation in one piece.
A sudden commotion inside the house brought Jesse up to peer through the window again. The guys with turtlenecks had come into the room. This time, they had Brennan with them, and he didn't look like he was in good shape. One of them threw him on the floor like he was a rag doll and kicked his leg almost contemptuously.
"We're not going to get much out of him," the kicker said. "Maybe he is just a friend of the family and doesn't know anything."
"So what do you want to do with him?" the other guy said. They were both ignoring the three on the couch, who were watching with terrified eyes.
The kicker shrugged.
"Shoot him. We can make it look like an argument that got out of hand, and like these three got scared and took off after they shot him."
The other guy raised his gun. Jesse had half a second to be more scared than he could ever remember being, and then he was going through the wall at the man with the gun, his fist already massing before he hit the guy with his best roundhouse punch. That one wouldn't be getting up soon.
Two weeks of frustration, doubt, and fear were boiling over. He didn't even bother to mass when he went after the kicker. Just sharp, angry blows to his stomach and face, and then a kick when he hit the ground, just because.
Jesse spared a quick glance at Brennan, just enough to see that he was breathing even if he hadn't opened his eyes and that there was no visible blood. Slightly reassured, he went over to the couch and pulled out his pocketknife to cut the bonds of the girl closest to him. Handing her the knife to finish the job, he hurried back over to Brennan.
As he crouched down, he saw Brennan's eyes fluttering. Cautious relief fluttered in his stomach. Gently, he patted Brennan's cheek.
"Hey there, bro, time to wake up."
Slowly, Brennan opened his eyes and squinted at Jesse.
"Ow," he said with conviction.
"What did you do, block their guns with your head?"
Brennan sat up slowly, rubbing the back of his head, but his eyes looked clear and he seemed aware of everything. Jesse put a hand on his arm to steady him just in case.
Jesse looked up at the girl with the darker hair--probably Megan since she looked nothing like the other two.
"Thank you," she said. "They put these things in the back of our necks that kept us from using our powers, and then they tied us up so we couldn't even warn Brennan away from the house before they got a jump on him." She looked at Brennan. "I'm so sorry."
Brennan waved her off, still rubbing his head.
"All in a day's work," he said, wincing.
"Those things are probably transdermal governors," Jesse added, and grinned. "No extra charge for removing them."
"Thanks, man, really. Hey, that move you did, coming through the wall? That was totally cool."
Brennan shot Jesse a sharp glance, a slow smile forming.
"Yeah, it is pretty cool, isn't it?" Jesse said, looking over at the wall in question. He didn't really remember going through it. It had been pure instinct, the need to protect his friend.
And it hadn't hurt at all.
"You did it," Brennan said, his voice filled with quiet satisfaction. "I knew you would."
Jesse rolled his eyes, fighting off the smile that was threatening to split his face. He was back.
"Dude, you weren't exactly doing anything to rescue yourself. What choice did I have?"
"I was busy having a concussion. Anyway, I knew you'd show up to take care of things."
The matter-of-fact conviction in his voice was even better than the knowledge that Jesse had managed to phase.
"Yeah?" Jesse asked.