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Authors note.

As always my thanks to Neurparenthetical, whose untiring vigilance makes my illegible scribble readable. Any residual errors are left there purposely in order to give you guys something to do.

Enjoy. – and please, whatever you feel about the story feedback is always appreciated. I can’t improve if I don’t know where I am going wrong.

Caleb 17 - The prodigal return

I was stunned. Over and over, I examined the memory. There was no doubt. It had been my power that had been in play. It appeared that I had done exactly what I had suspected Mary of doing. It was my thought that I wanted the twins in my life that had set the ball rolling, and I had somehow implanted it into the twins.

I pondered where that left me. As Jules had said, all we knew about the bond was that the participants had to be willing, but we didn’t know what they had to be willing to do. Was just the willingness to have sex enough, or did it require the willingness to be tied to the other person? Even if that were the case, would that willingness in Mary indicate love, or just that she was willing to sacrifice herself to make sure another evil Stott wasn’t let loose on the world? It seemed for every answer we got, another two questions came with it.

“Well?” asked Jules, breaking into my thoughts. I realized that I had been pondering for some time and they were waiting for a response.

“It came from me,” I said resignedly. “It was my own thought - my own desire. There was no other power active on me.”

“No other power?” asked Jules. “Why? What power was already active?”

“My own,” I said. “I guess that is how we ended up sharing with Dianna and my mother.”

Mary spoke. “We have been over our memories of that morning, time and time again. I saw that thought occur to me, and to Amanda. We thought the timing was purely because of our bond to each other. We often think of things at the same time. I didn’t see you push it onto us, but I was looking at your Compulsion. What if it was your Telepathy? That is much more subtle, and we very well could have missed it.”

“I didn’t have Telepathy then,” I argued.

“You didn’t know you had Telepathy then,” she responded. “You didn’t know you had Compulsion until Angela flashed her ass.”

Jules looked at me. “So isn’t that the answer you were looking for?” she asked, and then looked disappointed when I shook my head.

“Not completely,” I said, a feeling of dread building inside. “It answers the question about why we all thought we wanted a long-term future together.” I looked apologetically at the twins. “I am so sorry.”

“Caleb,” Mary said gently, “I know you don’t believe me, but I was thinking that well before we went into the bedroom. Both Amanda and I made a decision long ago, that no matter what else we got up to, we would save our virginities for the person we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with. We had already decided to give that to you.”

“But what if…”

“What if afterward you said you didn’t want commitment?” she asked, and I nodded.

“That’s not you, Caleb,” Amanda said. “Your sexuality had given you multiple opportunities to give your virginity away, and you didn’t. We could both see that you also were saving yourself. It’s possible you didn’t even know it yourself, but you were.

“That’s why Mary was so nervous when she asked you if you would share your first time with us. It has such a deeper meaning for all of us than perhaps you realized at the time. You may have planted that thought in our minds at that instant, but all it did was reinforce what we already knew.”

I took a deep breath. So many thoughts were rattling around in my head, not least of which was the possibility that I had been solely responsible for the bond.

“Okay,” I said, “I’m sure that Dianna said something about those to be bonded needing to be virgins.”

“It said that in the grimoire as well,” said Jules.

“According to the diary,” I recapped, “the participants needed to be willing, but as you said, a willingness to be there doesn’t indicate love. It could just have been lust. It’s a step forward for me at least to know my desire to be with the girls was mine and not planted, but it still doesn’t prove that the love I see through the bond from Mary is true.”

Amanda looked from Mary to me. “Why just Mary?” she asked. “If you can’t be sure about Mary, why are you sure about me?”

“There’s no easy way to answer that,” I said, “but you know what I said to Dianna. I know I love you, and I am certain in my heart that you love me, almost despite, rather than because of, what the bond is showing me.”

“If you can be that certain,” she asked, her eyes filling with tears, “then why can’t you be sure about my sister? How can you doubt her? She loves you just as much as I do. I feel it through our bond - hers and mine.”

“He doesn’t doubt the love,” Mary said quietly, placing her hand on her sister’s arm, “he just doesn’t trust its origin, and therefore doesn’t trust it, or me. As he said to Dianna, everything that has happened could be explained in one of two ways. Either I’m a cynical, lying, manipulative bitch, doing my best to uphold the Everson tradition of keeping the Stott bloodline under our heel, or I’m a loving, caring girlfriend, making choices - not necessarily the right ones, but with the motive of keeping my love safe and whole. The only difference is the love I feel for him. If it’s not real, then I’m the former, if it is real, then the latter.”

Jules slumped back in her chair. “So, I failed,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not over yet,” I said. “We still have one lead left. Let’s see what we can find out about what happened between Edward and Sarah after they married, and how she died. That could maybe give us a clue.”

We ate dinner in a subdued mood. Amanda was clinging to Mary like I might be about to evict her from the house, but I understood. She was caught in the middle and didn’t know where to turn. Jules didn’t seem to be taking any side, talking to us both like she had before, and not acknowledging any dispute between us.

After dinner, Mary and I cleared up, not speaking at all, and then I went for a shower before retiring to bed. It was early even for me, but for some reason, I was drained, and not in the Dianna definition of the word.

Josh and Louise had gone out earlier in the day and had not returned by the time I went to bed. They were still on summer break, and because they hadn’t run away, they had already taken their exams. I settled into bed, alone for once, and considered what I had learned. My thoughts about having the girls in my life had been truly mine. That made me happier than I thought it would. I really had wanted to be with them. It had not been a Compulsion or some other mind-control artifact that had made me feel that. If what Mary had said was true, then so had her and Amanda. But again, although I’d never for a second doubted Amanda’s motives, what of Mary’s? Was she a loving girlfriend or a fanatic, willing to give up her entire life in order to remain in control of someone like me? I wouldn’t put it past her family to do such a thing. They had a young man – whom I suspected wasn’t even gay - prepared to be a gay lover to me if that proved to be my preference. It seemed there was no end to their willingness to ‘take one for the team.’ I sniggered to myself as the thought that he would have had to take a lot more than one crossed my mind.

Mary and Jules were on either side of me when I awoke the next morning. Amanda was behind Jules, which was a favorite spot for her. I gazed down into the sleeping face of Mary. She was so beautiful that my breath caught. Although they were twins, and to everyone else Mary and Amanda were identical, to me they were totally different. Both of them were beautiful but in different ways. I sighed and slipped out from between the girls to start my daily regimen.

Just before eight, I showered and dressed. We were all going to travel together and have breakfast in the cafeteria before the day’s exams.

The day passed pretty much as expected, with one exception. I did something that I had never done before. I read my own mind. It was in the first exam when I was trying to remember a specific date. I knew I had read it, but I just couldn’t recall when so pulling up the memory was a non-starter. I would have had to have to sift through months of memories to find it.

Briefly, I toyed with the idea of ‘peeking’ into the head of the lecturer, who was invigilating the exam. I knew it would be in there, and that I could retrieve the information in a matter of seconds with nobody being any the wiser. I shook my head; I wasn’t going to do that to someone without their knowledge.

Then the thought struck me: if I could find that information in the head of someone else, was it possible for me to find it in my own? I turned my awareness inside and started to look around. The first thing I noticed about my own mind was that it was a goddamned mess. Random thoughts, facts, and information just lay scattered around like so much litter. I determined that I needed a good cleanup, but not just then. I needed that particular nugget. Suddenly, there it was: the information I had been looking for, lit up in neon lights. I couldn’t understand how that could be, but I also wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Exiting my own head, I began to write. The rest of the exams went much easier after that.

Something changed on day two of the exams.

An invigilator sat watching me – just me. There was one for the room, but there was a second one, who sat at the front, but always somewhere that he had a clear view of me. On the odd occasion that I glanced up, his eyes were always on me. I thought it a little odd but continued as I had the day before, answering the questions easily with my newfound access to every piece of information I had ever read, seen, heard, extrapolated, or imagined.

On day three, he sat beside me.

We had been directed to leave everything outside the room. Beyond every conceivable electronic device, we also weren’t allowed to take our bags in. We were provided paper and pencils to answer the questions, and, as I said, the invigilator sat right beside me, watching my every move. I had no idea what was going on, but I decided not to let it worry me, and once again answered the questions, finishing the papers easily within the allocated time.

“Done?” he asked when I closed my paper on the last exam.

I nodded, and he snatched it up and requested I follow him out of the room.

We ended up at the Dean’s office, and I was asked to wait outside while my escort went in. They kept me there for half an hour before the door opened and I was invited inside.

The Dean sat behind a large, leather-topped mahogany desk, devoid of everything other than some exam papers. I concluded quite quickly that they were mine, from all three days’ exams.

My head-of-year sat beside him, along with the university counselor. I took the empty seat in front of the desk, and the invigilator took his own seat.

The dean stared at me for a while. I sat, relaxed, not in the least bit intimidated by this power play. Eventually, he spoke.

“Caleb Stott,” he intoned, with the manner of one calling a criminal into court, “end of

year exams year two of our Criminology and criminal justice bachelor’s degree.”

I waited. He hadn’t told me anything I didn’t already know.

He sighed theatrically. I chose to embrace the contradiction. It was very obvious they were going to accuse me of cheating, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of a single credible reason why they would think I had.

“Mr. Stott,” he began, “here at the university, we are very proud of our students and their achievements, which is why it is so disappointing when we find out that one of those students has done something as reprehensible as cheat in his exams.”

“I presume that you are insinuating that I somehow cheated in my exams?” I asked.

“Not insinuating,” he snapped. “Stating a fact.”

“Facts are only facts if they are supported by evidence,” I countered. “What evidence do you have that I did anything wrong?”

“The results speak for themselves,” he said. “Prior to this week you were averaging a three point five GPA, enough to get your degree, but nothing stellar. This week you have aced every single exam paper. Aside from the two questions you missed on the first paper from day one, you didn’t get a single answer wrong. If you weren’t cheating, how is that possible?”

It had never occurred to me that by accessing my own memories, my academic standard would go up from just above average to something akin to genius. Prior to this set of exams, I had been wearing the amulet, so, despite working hard, my performance hadn’t been stellar. In the span of a single semester – well, plus most of the summer – I had been freed from the amulet and had grown into an incredible suite of psychic powers. Suddenly, it did seem quite so strange that some alarm bells triggered.

“Memory exercises,” I said. “I spent the last six weeks on an intensive memory mapping course, and now I have perfect recall of everything I have ever seen, heard, or read. That includes any conclusions or thoughts I had about that information at the time. You had me under close surveillance from day two, and we were practically strip-searched going into the exams today. Exactly how was I supposed to be cheating?”

The dean looked uncomfortably at the head of year. “We don’t know,” he said, “but we are prepared to allow you to drop out of the course, with nothing being entered in your record if you tell us. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to convene a full disciplinary hearing, with all the incumbent publicity and sanctions.”

“You obviously don’t believe me,” I said, “So you need proof. You have the syllabus and know what I have read and been taught. Ask me any questions you like. Alternatively, have your counselor test my memory – see if I have perfect recall now, as I claim to. I didn’t cheat, and I refute all allegations of so doing. If you convene a disciplinary hearing, I will fight it with every tool at my disposal, and when they find me not guilty of any wrongdoing, I will be coming back with a legal team to seek redress. If you’re aware of any reason why an accusation of cheating pursued through a university’s kangaroo court, with no evidence at all to support the charge, wouldn’t open you up to a defamation suit in a real court, by all means, go ahead.”

“When was Habeus Corpus first introduced in the U.S.?” my head of year snapped.

“August 20th 1787, at the Constitutional Convention. It was introduced by Charles Pinckney, a delegate from South Carolina. It was voted substantively on 28th August, and the first part passed unanimously. The second part passed by a vote of seven to three.” I answered immediately, having brought the image of the textbook to mind. I simply read it out. I even told them which textbook, chapter, and page number I was quoting.

They fired more questions at me. Then the counselor asked me to memorize a series of numbers. There were five hundred of them. She then asked me what was the twelfth number, the sixtieth, and the two-hundred-and-fourth.

I was in the dean’s office for nearly two hours. Eventually, they accepted that I hadn’t cheated. I was dismissed.

For an instant, I seriously considered asking for an apology, but then decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. I got out of my seat, bade them all good day, and left. A slight smile crept onto my face. All four people had started to squirm in their seats, an unrelievable itch suddenly making itself known in a very personal place.

The girls were all waiting in the cafeteria for me, and since I was hungry, we ate.

I told them what had transpired, and how I had had the idea to read my own mind, which had given me unprecedented access to all the information in my own brain. I gave them all the memory of the encounter in the dean’s office.

Amanda giggled. “You didn’t.”

I grinned at her. “They were never going to apologize,” I said, “so I thought a little payback was warranted. it’ll only last until this time tomorrow,”

I glanced across at Mary, expecting a disapproving scowl, and found her to be giggling like her sister.

“They deserved it,” she said. “Accusing you with no proof and trying to bully you into a confession. You could take legal action, you know.”

“I know, but it’s not worth it,” I said. “It will only hurt me and the school in the long run, so I’m content with my petty revenge. Besides, my grades are going to rocket now. A, I am no longer hobbled by the amulet, and B, I have perfect recall.”

All our exams were over, and I was pretty sure, following my trip to the Dean’s office, that I had passed. The others were equally confident, which left us with the weekend, and another week of holiday, before we had to be back for the final semester of the year.

That evening at home, things seemed to be almost back to normal. We all sat and chatted and watched some TV; there was no arguing and no animosity. Josh and Louise sat with us also, and I had a pretty good evening. I even stayed up late, not going to bed until after ten.

I was just settling down when I felt a nudge from the bond, from Ness.

“Hey, squirt.” I sent.

“Hey, Caleb,” she returned.

“Are you okay?” I asked, wondering if she was getting pain again. I figured that Jules was probably due before she was, and I hadn’t heard or felt anything from her.

“I’m good,” she sent. “I just got a little bit lonely and wanted to talk,”

“Any time. How are things up there?”

“Mom and Daddy are fine. I’m back at school now. There is a dance this weekend, and I have been asked to go by Bobby James.”

“So, are you going?”

“I guess.” She didn’t sound overly keen.

“You guess?”

“Bobby’s nice enough, but I don’t really like him like – like that.”

“Is there someone you do like like that?” I asked. In my defense, I was tired.

“Yeah,” she sent, but I don’t think he would want to go with me.”

“Have you asked him?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know?”

“I just know.”

Suddenly the light came on.

“It’s a shame,” I sent. “If I were not ten hours’ drive away, and this boy said no, I would ask you myself.”

I felt amusement. “Dick!” she sent. “You know who I mean.”

“We’ll be up for a few days at Christmas. And if I remember correctly your birthday falls just after we finish the winter semester in seven months. So how about I take you out then?”

I felt a surge of happiness and smiled to myself.

“Are you going to the dance with Bobby?”

“Probably. I don’t want to not go.”

“Just be careful,” I sent. “Boys his age can get some strange ideas, and make sure you don’t drink anything you didn’t pour yourself.”

“Boys his age?” I felt more amusement from her. “You aren’t much older, and you and I were in bed together. Did you get any strange ideas?”

I sent her an image of Dean shoveling dirt into an unmarked grave in the dead of night. I could almost hear her laughing.

“Just be careful,” I sent. “When is the dance?”

“Saturday night.”

“Have a good time.”

Since I didn’t hear anything more from her, I guessed she had fallen asleep, so I followed suit.

+++++

At eight forty-five the next morning, I was standing outside an impressive red brick building. I was a little nervous. I was about to brave the lioness in her own den, but I guessed it was the best way to deal with the situation I had created.

Not to put too fine a point on it I had fucked up. There had been mitigating circumstances no doubt, and I didn’t agree with everything that had been done to me, but Maggie hadn’t been wrong when she had said I had stormed off in a snit. I had thought long and hard about my career choices, and about all the different alphabet agencies I could apply to. The military was definitely out. I wasn’t going overseas, which pretty much immediately ruled out the CIA also. That left the Secret Service, Homeland, the NSA, and the FBI.

The Secret Service I had been warned off of; Homeland, despite the catchy name, also had overseas postings. The NSA... well, I didn’t want to be spying on my neighbors all day every day. The only place I actually wanted to work was the FBI. I needed to try and rebuild some bridges, but without becoming a puppet. I hoped I could make it work.

I checked my attire once again. I had my best – well my only - suit on, plus a tie. My hair was combed neatly and my shoes were shined. I walked up the steps and through the door.

After I passed through the ubiquitous metal detector, I was directed to a reception desk, where I informed them of my nine o’clock appointment. I was signed in, given a temporary pass to clip to my pocket, and directed to a seat. They informed me that someone would be down directly to escort me up.

That someone was James.

He smiled as he approached. I stood up and took his proffered hand.

“Good to see you,” he said, “follow me please.”

He led the way to an elevator and punched the button for the top floor.

Maggie’s’ office was obviously the biggest on the floor, and probably in the building. It reminded me of a lawyer’s office. A bookcase stuffed with leather-bound, legal-looking books lined the wall behind where she sat at a light oak desk. In front of the desk and off to the side a little was a low table with four chairs around it, presumably for informal meetings, and there was a single chair across from her at her desk. A spare chair stood to the side of her desk, angled toward the empty one.

Of course, there was also a flag on a stand in the back corner. A door, on the side wall, was closed. I presumed it hid her personal bathroom.

Maggie didn’t get up when I entered. She wasn’t playing power games - not pretending to be on the phone or reading something - she just watched me as I walked toward her and took the seat she indicated.

“I must say,” she said as I sat down, “I was surprised when Dianna said you would come to see me here.”

Since there wasn’t a question in that anywhere, I waited for her to speak again. She didn’t. I decided to move forward with my planned approach.

“I think,” I said, “given the way things went the last time we spoke, we should really be starting this meeting with an apology.”

I saw her face flush a little and she started to draw breath. I went on before she could speak.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I said and did some things that I now regret. I could rattle out any number of justifications, but that wouldn’t change the fact that what I did was wrong.”

She opened her mouth, closed it again, and then finally said, “What brought you to that realization?”

“I had a long chat with Major Vince Wragge from the NSA,” I said. “He wasn’t quite as, shall we say, direct as you were, but the message was the same. I needed to listen to the message and understand the situation.”

“The NSA made you an offer?” she asked.

“He said he would take me on in a New York minute,” I said. “They are doing background checks as we speak.”

She nodded. “So why are we here, Mr. Stott?” I winced, but didn’t correct her. It would sound condescending.

“I don’t really want to work for the NSA,” I said simply. “Sneaking around spying on my neighbors sounds too much like 1984 to me. Even Major Wragge told me I would probably not like the work, and I would be a much better fit elsewhere.”

“So, it was always a bargaining chip?” she said, looking a little impressed.

“Not just a bargaining chip,” I said. “A little security as well. I formulated the impression - and I don’t want you to think I am accusing anyone - that a viable option, should I not wish to join you, would be my elimination. I got scared. I needed an option that you couldn’t object to. I needed to show you that just because you and I were not friends, I wasn’t going to become an enemy of the state.”

“So, you gave yourself an alternative that meant you were still one of the good guys,” she said, “and still subject to oversight, although not by me.”

I nodded.

“Sound thinking,” she said. “How did you come up with that idea?”

“I had help,” I said. “Someone older and wiser helped me work it through.”

“So, I expect you have come with a list of demands?”

“Not demands,” I said. “Requests. Things I would like to happen if we can reach an agreement.”

“And if we can’t?” she asked.

“Then I’ll say thank you for your time and apply elsewhere.” I said mildly, “just like any other applicant. Perhaps sometime in the future, I might get to know my great-great-grandmother, but that would be totally separate from my professional life.”

She sat back in her chair and spread her palms. “The floor is yours.”

I spent a moment marshalling my thoughts.

“I am offering you access to the most powerful user you have seen in generations,” I began. She knew that already, but it was the central bargaining chip. “I have Compulsion, although I have only just started to train that properly, TK, which I have trained extensively, Telepathy, and Empathy. Even untrained as I am, I have taken down two Psi predators, a Norm predator, located a previously unknown user, and recaptured a drug dealer rapist and murderer and his gang.

“I don’t pretend that any of that was anything more than pure chance - being in the right places at the wrong times - but it shows that with the proper training, I could be a real asset to your organization.”

“And in return?”

“I want to be able to trust you,” I said bluntly, “and not be wondering if everything that is going on in my personal life is some kind of subtle manipulation. My family is not a lever by which you can pressure me into action. You told me that I needed to take the hits because bad guys wouldn’t hesitate to use my family against me. I accept that as the truth, but isn’t the corollary that anyone who uses my family against me is, by definition, a ‘bad guy?’

“As far as training goes, the gloves are off. Throw whatever you like at me, and I’ll stand or fall on my own abilities, as long as my family is not endangered for real. I’ll take the hits. Vince Wragge also told me I had all the prerequisites to be a Healer. If possible, I would like that training, please.

“Obviously, I need to finish my education. I have two years left. I am confident that I will get a good degree, but we might be jumping the gun a little even having this discussion just now. I would, however, like to know what my options are – or aren’t.

“Outside of that, a living wage. I will have a family to keep, and although they will also be earning, I eat a lot all of a sudden.”

“Is that it?” she asked.

“Two more things,” I said, and she inclined her head.

“I would kind of like to get to know my great-great-grandmother. I never even met my grandparents, and I have relatives I didn’t know about at all. The last few months have been a revelation.”

“And the other?”

“Twenty years of missed birthday, Christmas, and Thanksgiving gifts. I thought grandparents were supposed to spoil their grandchildren.”

She actually cracked a smile at that.

“Dianna told me about your two housemates,” she said, “and you using them to train your Compulsion.”

I nodded. “I was convinced by someone that I needed to train all my powers,” I said. “Their request seemed like an ideal opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.”

“Would you show me?” she asked. “It’s a touchy subject, but I need to know you aren’t abusing them.”

I offered her the memory, and she took it. Her eyes glazed for a moment, and then she chuckled.

“You were fairly extensive in your getting them to state their requests,” she said. “It was a good use of your Telepathy both to let them guide you in their fantasy and also watch for trouble, and nice to see you ask permission first. It was also nice to see you realize that not every need generated by a fantasy should be fulfilled. A horny mind can cause a lot of damage if not moderated.

“If all your ‘training sessions’ with them follow a similar pattern, I see no issues. We will have to request a random sampling to ensure things aren’t degenerating, but otherwise, I would say carry on.”

I nodded.

“First of all,” she began, “thank you for coming here today, and for the apology. I know that things have been, and are still, intense for you in both your personal and professional life. Believe me, it will get easier eventually – though it may get harder for a while at first. I have heard about your research into the bond, and Jules already reached out to Dianna to ask about the people the bond was created for. Unfortunately, since the family were Norms, their records are not part of the Everson Library. I do, however, happen to have a rather large department of interns, and I have set a couple of those to find out what they can. I’ll let Dianna know if anything turns up.”

I was surprised on two counts: one that Jules had already reached out to Dianna, and two, that Maggie would use her resources to try and help.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Trust is something that will take time to build,” she conceded. “We didn’t get off to the best start. The traditions of keeping Stott children isolated and ignorant, and blocking their power, have been causing us problems for many years. Dianna says that you will not allow any children of yours to be so treated. How do you propose to prevent it?”

“Very simply,” I said. “I will have myself sterilized before I will bring a child into such a situation.”

Her jaw dropped, and then she chuckled, and then she started to laugh properly.

“Well, Mr. Stott.”

“Please,” I said, “do you have to rub it in?”

She chuckled again.

“Caleb, you absolutely screwed me.”

I looked at her, puzzled.

“I thought I had found your hard stop,” she said. “Something I could use to pressure you into doing what you had so far managed to avoid. I wanted you to make a threat. To explain how you wouldn’t comply with a legal requirement because although it’s not actually law, I could get a court order in an instant. I wanted to put you in a no-win situation – a Kobayashi Maru, if you will, to see how you would deal with it. And you Kirked me. You changed the rules.

“No court in the land can compel you to have children against your will – and also, I’m sure you know that as the matriarch of the Stott line, I would be devastated to lose your bloodline. Well played.”

“I wasn’t actually playing,” I said.

“I know,” she said, “and that’s why it’s so powerful. You have proved that you have the will to do what it takes to uphold your own principles without going too far. I hope that over time, you will learn to trust us. I don’t deny that there are still some traditionalist Eversons who regard all Stott users as the spawn of Satan, but attitudes are changing. Our longevity doesn’t help the situation in that respect.

“You have actually helped quite a lot because you have proved them wrong on multiple occasions when they predicted you would go rogue. If you work with me, I am hopeful that we can change minds - and that, when it comes time for you to have children, there will be no requirement for them to be ‘abused,’ as you so aptly put it.

“Next, I would like you to restart your training with James. He said you were making good progress. You have missed a number of weeks, but I’m sure he can catch you up. I’ll have to look into Healer training. I was aware you had the prerequisites, but I don’t have anyone on staff with that skill. I agree it would be useful if I can find you a trainer.

“I agree that you need to finish your education, but I would also like for you to continue in your role as a consultant until you do. Our field agents were impressed with how smoothly the Booth takedown went They would be very happy to have you as a resource if you are willing. Obviously, since we are no longer providing you with accommodation, we would be happy to pay you a retainer of three thousand dollars a month. Sadly, I can’t offer you any other benefits, healthcare or dental. Those only come with a substantive role.

“For your information, the salary you can expect if you are successful with your application starts at ninety-five thousand per year. It’s quite a bit higher than a standard agent’s salary, but then, you have a much more sought-after skillset.”

I nodded, and she reached into her desk drawer, pulling out a small wallet. She tossed it to me, and I looked inside. It was my Consultant ID, but enclosed in a cool flop-down wallet, just as I had envisioned when I was showing the Vardys my ID.

“I even got you the cool wallet,” she said, and I blushed. “Let’s call it an advance on all those gifts I owe you.”

I regarded the ID for a moment, and then put it in my pocket. She took that as my acceptance and nodded.

“Welcome back,” she said. “I don’t expect everything to be smooth sailing from here on in. Life seldom is, and the powered community gets prickly about a lot of things. Perhaps, when things have settled down more, you might introduce me to the prospective mothers of my great-great-great grandchildren?”

I took that as the end of the meeting and stood.

“Thanks for your time,” I said. Maggie also stood and stepped around the desk. I was expecting a handshake. I got a hug.

“It’s good to have you back,” she said. “Let’s not do that again.”

James walked me out of the office and toward the elevators. “We can start training tomorrow,” he said. “Pick a place?”

“I’ve been working in our backyard,” I said. “As good as any, no?”

“Have you kept up your martial arts practice?” he asked. I nodded.

When the elevator arrived, we got in and he punched a button. It wasn’t the first floor.

“If you can spare me an hour,” he said, “then I can be prepared for tomorrow’s session. Otherwise, I might be wasting both our time.”

“I’m not really dressed for it,” I said.

“I’ve got a set of training clothes you can use,” he responded.

The floor we arrived on was a large gym, almost totally open-plan. There were training machines, treadmills, static bikes, cross trainers, various punchbags of different weights, a boxing ring, and a large training mat.

Over on the far side, two doors led off – I guessed to changing rooms since they were gender-marked.

I followed him into the male changing room, and he opened a locker and handed me a set of sweats. “You’ll have to go barefoot, but that should be fine for now,” he said.

He left me to it, and I got changed, joining him back out in the main room when I was ready.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s see what you got.”

He squared up to me. Before he could attack, he was on all fours, crawling around the mat and bleating like a lamb. I kept him there for thirty seconds before releasing him.

He sat back on his haunches and laughed ruefully. “I guess I forgot to mention: no powers.”

“Didn’t I mention that in training the gloves were off?” I asked innocently.

“Okay, smart ass,” he said, getting to his feet.

This time I let him launch his attack. I blocked; he spun, bringing his elbow around for a head strike, but I had already dropped into a scissor. Before he realized it, he was on his face on the mat. I locked in an ankle hold and put just enough pressure on to let him feel it. He tapped.

“How much practice are you doing a day?” he asked.

“Two to four hours.”

“Show me ‘Heidan Godan.’” That was one of many katas I’d learned.

I performed the kata.

“Show me ‘Kanku Dai.’”

Again I performed it. He shouted out another four katas before he asked for one I didn’t know.

“I don’t know that one,” I said, and he nodded.

“It seems that you have pretty-much assimilated everything I gave you so far,” he said. “Drop your shields and I’ll give you my final year’s instruction.”

I dropped my shields, expecting to be pulled into an illusion. I wasn’t disappointed.

As soon as my shields were down, the female dressing room door opened, and a little girl, about six years old, entered the gym.

“They got you again, Papa,” she said, grinning at me. I smiled at her and decided I would just break out which I did.

My shields were back up and my tell informed me I was back in reality.

“Fuck,” he said. “That was fast. How did you know?”

“I didn’t,” I said, grinning. “I assumed that’s what you were going to do. You are getting predictable in your old age.”

He grinned back. “Okay wise guy,” he said. “As you said, the gloves are off!”

He took me over to the free weights area. There was a rack stretching almost the full length of the gym, and the plates went from one kilo all the way up to one hundred.

He gestured at them.

“Show me your TK. Pick up whichever of the weights you can comfortably lift.”

I cocked an eyebrow at him as the whole rack, which, in its entirety, probably weighed only about six or seven thousand pounds, floated up off the floor.

“You did say you had been training your TK,” he remarked, almost to himself. “What’s the most you have lifted so far?”

“Not exactly sure,” I said. “Somewhere between thirteen and fifteen thousand pounds.”

He nodded. “You can put those down now,” he said. “How long could you have held that?”

“I held the hot tub in our yard,” I replied, “which I’m guessing weighs in between eight and ten thousand pounds, for four hours while I was doing katas. To be honest, I forgot I was holding it until I realized I was starving.”

“Right, right, the crack about eating a lot,” he said thoughtfully. “You must be using up a shitload of energy.”

“I’m considering a side career in competitive eating,” I replied, only half joking.

“How about your Telepathy?” he asked.

“I’ve used it a couple of times,” I said, “but it’s not something I can really practice. I did use it on myself during my exams, and nearly got expelled for cheating.”

“You read your own mind?” he asked. “Why?”

“I noticed that when I read someone’s mind, the information I want seems to present itself to me,” I explained. “Maybe I unconsciously ask a question and it responds – I don’t know. I was trying to remember something that I knew I had read, but couldn’t remember when, and when I read my own mind, again, the information was there, just waiting for me.”

“Interesting,” he said. “That might come in handy. Any other novel tricks you can do that I’ve never heard of before?”

“I was talking to one of the girls via the bond,” I said, “and she couldn’t open a jar, so I used my TK to do it I’m not sure if I just had the range to do it - I was probably only one hundred feet away - but I couldn’t see her, and I’m wondering if I used her as some kind of proxy.”

“Proxy is a thing,” he said. “The further the person is away from you, though, the harder it is. We should maybe do some testing, but we’d need to establish a link, or use someone you are already linked with.”

“I’ll ask one of the girls if they would be up for helping out,” I said.

“I’ll also find some volunteers for you to practice your Telepathy on,” he said.

“What, now?” I asked, “I can’t just…”

“We get students looking to make some fast money,” he said. “We tell them that we are looking into the possibility of ESP, and we throw a load of tests at them. They make cash, you get experience, and it’s a win-win. We even get their consent; they sign a waiver saying we are allowed to read their minds. They all laugh when they sign it, but it’s all above board and fully sanctioned.”

“And what happens if I stumble across something illegal while I’m in there?” I asked.

“We ignore it,” he said. “Our part of the waiver is that we will not prosecute any crimes that are revealed by having read their minds. Aside from that, if we started ‘discovering’ all their crimes, it would kind of give the game away. Obviously, if it is a serious crime, an anonymous tip might find its way to our investigators, but it would have to be a big thing.”

He braced himself for my outburst.

There was so much wrong with that scenario, but the ‘new me’ realized that I would be tilting at windmills all over again. Dean had told me not to sweat the small stuff. I was still figuring out what qualified, and I was still uncomfortable with just how much did to people like James and Maggie. I remembered what she’d said about the war on terror looking like a farce compared to the dangers they watched out for every single day. I felt a sudden weight. It wasn’t anyone’s powers. It was purely metaphorical, but I felt it on my chest and on my shoulders all the same.

I decided to save my next tantrum for something bigger, at least, and decided to try to throw James off instead.

“So, these students,” I said with a grin. “Are they good-looking?”

He seemed a little shocked for a second, but then grinned back. “They are not normally the ‘beautiful crowd,’” he said, “more the ‘nerd herd.’”

“Hey,” I said, “I’m a nerd!”

“Exactly my point,” he replied, but then his grin twisted up and he started to squirm, having suddenly developed a very annoying itch.

“Will you stop that?” he growled, cutting the connection before pointing me back in the direction of the changing rooms. “Go get changed. It’s time you were out of here.” He sent me on my way with his boot to my butt, laughing. We seemed to be back in a good place again.

When I got back to my truck, a meter maid was taking a picture in preparation for writing a ticket.

“Hi,” I said. “That’s my truck.”

“This is FBI parking only,” she said, looking me up and down.

“I’m a consultant with them,” I said, getting out my ID and trying to coolly flash it. I dropped it.

She grinned at me, and I blushed as I picked it up and showed her.

“You need to practice that move,” she said, and I blushed even more as she walked away, laughing.

I decided to stop off and get something to eat, so I pulled into a diner. They didn’t have any food challenges advertised, and I hadn’t really been training hard enough to build a big appetite, so I just ordered a couple of burgers and fries.

“Hey Jules,” I sent.

“Hey Caleb, how’d it go?” she asked.

“We’re all friends again, and they even called off the assassin,” I joked.

“Don’t even…”

“Maggie says you reached out to Dianna to find out about Edward Everson and his bride?” I sent. I felt a spike of guilt.

“Sorry,” she sent. “I should have asked you. Do you mind?”

“No need to apologize,” I returned. “You don’t need my permission to do anything. Maggie said that she has put a couple of her interns on it, to see what she can track down.”

Jules’ spike of suspicion made me smile.

“We’re all friends again,” I sent. “Shall we give them the benefit of the doubt?”

“Okay,” she agreed. “Are you on your way home?”

“Stopped for lunch,” I responded, “but I wanted to try something. Are you busy?”

“Lunch? It’s ten thirty!” I felt amusement. “Is Bilbo having his second breakfast?”

“What did you want to try?” she sent after seeing the picture I sent of me sticking my tongue out at her.

“Apparently I should be able to use my powers by proxy,” I sent, “using someone I can link to. I think I might have done it with Ness one time, but I wanted to test it.”

“What do you need me to do?” she asked.

“Show me what you can see.”

She was sitting out in the backyard, on the deck. I thought for a second about trying to lift the hot tub again, but remembered James telling me that distance makes things harder. I decided on one of the other chairs.

The chair lifted with no trouble. I felt some surprise from Jules.

“Can you feel that?” I asked her. “Is it hurting you in any way?”

“No, not at all,” she sent. “It was just weird seeing the chair suddenly levitate.” I felt a mischievous humor envelop her. “We have got to have a séance. We could scare the crap out of everybody.”

I laughed out loud, getting some funny looks from the other diners. I placed the chair down on the deck, and, given the ease with which I had picked it up, decided to do the sensible thing, and try the hot tub.

Getting Jules to look at the hot tub, I lifted it up. It was tough. Not nosebleed-tough, but tough. I figured that I was about twenty miles from home, and the hot tub weighed in at about eight to ten thousand pounds. The thought occurred that I could train harder with the same amount of weight by adding a proxy, and distance.

“Caleb,” Jules sent, “there’s someone at the door. You’ll have to put it down.”

I replaced the hot tub and Jules went to answer the door.

I called the waitress over.

“Did you want the check?” she asked, I shook my head.

“Can I get another three burgers, fries, and a shake please?” I was suddenly hungry again.

When I got home, all the girls were in the living room, waiting for me.

“Caleb,” Mary said, “we need to talk.”

I sensed that this wasn’t anything to do with any of the important matters, but more about something I was doing that they didn’t agree with. I sat down and waited.

“We’re starting to get a bit worried about your diet,” said Amanda.

“What about it?” I asked. “You know that training my abilities makes me hungry. I need the calories.”

“It’s not about the amount you are eating,” said Jules. “It’s more about WHAT you are eating. In short: crap.”

“What did you have for lunch?” asked Mary.

“Burger, fries, and a shake,” I said.

“Burger?” she clarified.

“Okay, five burgers, two lots of fries, and two shakes,” I admitted.

“We know you need to eat a lot,” said Mary, “but you need to eat more healthily. Your blood glucose must be through the roof, and heaven knows what your cholesterol will be doing if you carry on like that.”

I considered her point.

“I’ve been keeping track,” Mary said. “I estimated that you need something like ten to fifteen thousand calories a day on the days you train - more, if you do something extraordinary, like lifting a tractor out of a ditch.

“I have also been looking up what professional athletes, who need high-calorie intake, eat. I have come up with this.” She passed me a folder.

In it was a list of foods, and their calorific value, along with some suggested diets. I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting half a grapefruit and a celery leaf. The ***********ions were all substantial meals, and almost all of them were things I liked to eat - with options for snacks too. Yes, there was a lot more fruit and vegetables than I had been eating recently, but it all looked good.

“Two problems,” I said. “One, we don’t have any of this in the house, and two, even if we did, I can’t cook for shit.”

“Neither problem is insurmountable,” she said. “There is a superstore four miles away, we have a car, and we have money. And as for you not being able to cook, I will cook for now. I’m no chef like Ness, but at least I don’t burn the potato water. And soon neither will you because you are going to learn to cook.”

“I’m what now?” I asked.

“You heard me. And there are two reasons for that too.”

“Okay, you have my interest,” I said.

“One is because you are a twenty-first-century pansexual paragon of gender equality,” she said with a wry smile. “You need to be able to cook for yourself.”

“And the other?”

“It’s Ness’s birthday in seven months,” she said. “Can you imagine how much it would mean to her if you learned to cook, so you could cook her a meal on her birthday?”

I looked at Jules. She shook her head. “Not my idea.”

Amanda shook her head too.

“You were right,” Mary said, “when you said that I hadn’t taken care of Jules. I love Jules. You all know I do, but - and I’m sorry, Jules - against what I considered the stakes to be, her being overwhelmed by Dianna’s powers seemed insignificant. It had nothing to do with her being a Norm. It was all about you.

“You didn’t seem to understand what was at stake. Not only was I scared that you were going to become the man that even you were scared you would become, but there was a real possibility that if they felt a great enough threat from you, they were going to kill you. That agent outside the hospital wasn’t very subtle when he spoke about a sniper’s bullet.”

I didn’t tell her that was not his intent – or rather, that Dianna hadn’t thought it was. Things were getting complicated again, and I had little desire to make them even more so with distracting asides.

“I wanted to show you that I do love Jules and Ness as much as you guys do.” Mary sniffled a little before continuing. “I know you could easily attribute this to more manipulation – that I’m trying to make it look good - but I can’t do anything more to prove myself to you.” The sniffling turned ugly, and tears ran down her face.

I didn’t know what to say. On the one hand, I had made peace with Maggie - and even Dianna, for the most part - so it seemed unjust to keep holding out on Mary. On the other hand, it wasn’t just about making peace; it was about coming to a real understanding – whether that meant one of us agreeing the other was right, or finding a way to live with our disagreements longer term. Dianna and Maggie had bent a little. I’d bent a little. The situation with Mary was different. Her love for me was at war with her beliefs and her other loyalties.

She was trying, though. She’d bent about Compulsion. I’d bent about shutting off my emotions. She wasn’t doing quite as good a job conceding that she’d completely failed and betrayed Jules, but she was at least thinking about ways to apologize for the hurt that it had caused. As I’d told her in the car on our way back home, our relationship wasn’t just about us, either. It was about Amanda, Jules, Ness, and even Dianna.

I held in another big sigh. It was becoming a habit. I decided it was time to bend a little more.

“Only it hasn’t made any difference, has it?” she asked.

I looked into those beautiful golden eyes and nodded. “It’s made all the difference,” I said.

She seemed to look sad for a second. I felt through the bond that she hadn’t actually heard what I’d said. She’d been caught up in her own fear and expectation. It took another moment for the actual words to register, but they did.

“Really?” she asked hopefully, and I saw a similar expression of hope on her sister’s face. Her eyes brightened. It made them even more beautiful.

“Mary,” I said gently, “you and I are, in some ways, too much alike. I love you more than anything, and I would do anything to help and protect you. You feel the same way about me and will also do whatever you think is required to protect me, whether I approve or not. I can see that we are going to butt heads in the future, and that is okay. If I was interested in dumb, passive girls, I wouldn’t have chosen you two, or Jules.

“And make no mistake, I did choose you, all of you, just like you chose me,” I said, looking around the room. Both Mary and Amanda were crying.

“I have come to realize,” I said, “that, far from being a blessing, the bond is a curse, but not for the reasons you think. It’s a curse not because it binds us together, but because it made me doubt the truth of what I should always have known: that your love for me, like mine for you, is real. Mary, Amanda, what I have with Jules and Ness – that’s what I want to have with you. We need to figure out how to break this thing without hurting anybody, and then, with our eyes wide open, we can all decide together if that will be our next step.

“I am still pissed at what you allowed Dianna to do to Jules, but that’s okay too, because people who love each other can be angry with each other for a while. What you suggested tonight for Ness was a beautiful idea, and it shows me that you’re really trying, and you really care.

“Mary, I won’t apologize for butting heads with you, but just like you’re telling me that you hate that you caused Jules’s pain, I’m telling you the same: I hate that I’ve caused your pain. That said, though, I told Dianna that if I ever saw her abusing her powers like that again, I would report her to the Bureau. I’m giving you a similar warning. If I ever see you abusing your power to run roughshod over Norms, I will put you over my knee and paddle your ass until you can’t sit down.”

Mary flushed. Her nostrils flared and her pupils suddenly went huge.

“That’s me fucked then,” I heard Jules mutter, and Amanda giggled.

“No, it isn’t,” I said seriously, “because that isn’t all. Jules, you and Ness are equals in this relationship. All three of us – the ones with powers – are on notice about that. I’m pretty confident that my ass won’t get a paddling for failing to treat you right, but if I earn one, then I’ll let one or both of you do it.

“If Mary wants a paddling from me that badly,” I finished with a half-smile, “she can find some other way to earn it.”

“Can and will,” Amanda murmured happily.

I stood up, and so did Mary. Slowly, as if both of us were worried the other would startle and run away, we approached, and then she was in my arms, clinging to me and sobbing. Amanda joined us, and Jules was only seconds behind.

Mary looked up at me. She opened her mouth, maybe to apologize, maybe to tell me I was standing on her foot. I didn’t care. She didn’t get to speak. I leaned down and lost myself in her kiss.

We stood there, all together for a good while, and then Mary decided she needed to clean herself up. Her face was a little bit red and covered in tears. She and Amanda went into the bathroom.

I sat back down, and Jules curled up on my lap.

“They apologized, you know,” she said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Both of them,” she said. “Not together. Mary came to me first and told me how scared she had been that you were going to get hurt if she couldn’t make you see sense and that when Dianna used her powers on me, she decided to try and talk her down rather than call her out, so there would be less anger in the atmosphere when you got back. You just got back too early. She said she was sorry that I had had that done to me and promised she would never stand by and watch anyone abuse their powers again – no matter who.”

“What did Amanda say?” I asked with interest.

“In her own way, pretty much the same?” she said, her voice lilting upwards. “It actually sounded a lot more like what you just said, honestly. There was less explaining; I think Mary takes the lead whenever there’s planning and plotting to be done. But Amanda didn’t throw Mary under the bus. There was a lot more crying and hugging, too. I still feel bad sometimes, because I know that Amanda, especially, is a little lost when she can’t use her powers or sexual intimacy to show her love.

“On that note, can I ask a favor?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said.

“Can you tell the girls it’s all right to use their powers sometimes? I liked how they made me feel, and I miss going to sleep surrounded by love. I know the love is there, but we mere mortals can’t feel it like you can. Please?”

She looked up at my stunned face and must have read my thoughts, because she said, “Don’t give yourself a hard time about depriving me of the feeling. We’re just getting back to a good place. Let’s not go dark again.”

I flexed my power and surrounded Jules with love, trust, and gratitude.

She moaned and stretched like a cat being petted. “I missed that. Better than sex.”

I caught the knowing wink in the words, and it made me chuckle. I looked up and saw Mary and Amanda watching us. “Our little girl has missed feeling loved,” I told them. “I’ve been depriving her by making you guys too scared to use your powers. Can we make it up to her from now on?”

They both smiled. Jules was in for quite the trip, but I decided that that was okay. College kids and drugs were hardly strangers, after all.
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