written by Laura Boeff
Evening was starting to settle around the manor house of Anna LeFrez, filling the sky with warm, hazy threads of orange and gold tinted clouds, against which the silhouettes of sea birds could be seen free-wheeling in the fading hours of the day.
“It’s good to be home,” Kate said softly, pressing a cup of coffee into Ace Cooper’s hand as he returned to the parlor where everyone was gathered. A tired smile graced Ace’s lips and reached tired eyes, making them shine.
“It’s the best thing,” he avowed, meaning it. It was great to be home, even if this wasn’t technically his true home. Only the Magic Express held that honor. But it was a familiar, safe haven and perhaps a better place for them to be at this moment. The flight had been -thankfully- as uneventful as it had been frustrating. The frustration coming from the fact Ace had to do the flying and once again leave Cosmo’s welfare in the hands of others, even if those others might be the closest friends either of them had.
Not that there was much for him to do. The only assistance he could offer was guiding his friend from the plane to the waiting car and then to the house and one of its many guests bedrooms. All along Cosmo had grown less and less aware of his surroundings, his body finally giving in to both the torture it had survived at the hands of Colonel Shawn, and the magic he’d summoned.
“Wouldn’t it be wise to take Cosmo to a doctor?” Savannah asked, concerned, her own adopted daughter Fran curled up like a kitten at her side, sleeping and -Ace hoped- dreaming good dreams.
“No. Cosmo doesn’t like doctors on a good day.. after what he’s been through...” Ace shook his head. “Tubes and needles and tests are the last thing he needs.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Vega muttered darkly, and Ace could only agree, sipping his coffee. He felt the hot, bitter liquid roll down his throat and welcomed its heat in a gut that was only now beginning to thaw.
“We’ll see how he is after some sleep. Rest is what he needs now,” the magician decided, pacing over to one window, staring out at the sky and losing himself in the view. “Some rest and some peaceful dreams.”
Halls. Running down halls, a klaxon’s blare filling the air all around him. Shouts. The sounds of footfalls, growing closer... closer... And the halls kept going. They were endless and white, such a stark, monotonous white. His chest heaved with exertion. His body pulsed with pain and magic, such aching, building magic; coursing through him and yet not his to command. All wrong. All wrong!!!
Run. It was all he could do. It was what he wanted to do. Run away from the voices, the feet pounding sharp behind him, the cacophony in the air and the magic all around him.
A gun shot rang out and he flinched without thought, then hope blossomed anew in him. A door! A single, unremarkable door was there at the end of the hall. He cried out in joy, in desperation and collided into it, hands scrambling for the knob. More gun shots twanged all around him; sent plaster showering across his face as he turned the knob fervently and hauled the door open.
It was another room, another white, foreboding room but there was more; there was Ace. He laughed in near hysteria at the sight of his friend and partner. Ace had come! Ace had come to get him out of this hell-hole! Laughing, sobbing, staggering, Cosmo went running toward the magician, reaching out to him.
“You shouldn’t have run,” a cold, so very cold voice declared with sick amusement. And from behind Ace out stepped Shawn, Colonel Sebastian Shawn and Cosmo’s feet skidded on the slick floor and went out from under him in his desperate bid to halt his forward momentum. He came to a stop a dozen feet out and stared up at Ace, who looked down at him with sad resignation in his eyes.
“Escape attempts must be punished,” Colonel Shawn went on, his gun sliding from its holster in a whisper of metal on leather and coming to rest, not aimed at Cosmo, but aimed at Ace, the long barrel pressed against the older magician’s temple.
“Ace? Ace, get out of here,” he managed to rasp. “Leave me!” The magician could. Escaping impossible situations was what his friend was best at.
“There is no escape, Cosmo,” Ace intoned dully. “You shouldn’t have tried to get away.”
“No. Indeed you shouldn’t have,” Shawn agreed and smiled. “And now, for the punishment.” And the hammer came back on the gun. No! He was going to shoot Ace. Ace was going to die because he tried to escape. Ace was going to die because of him.
And the hammer fell and the crack-boom filled the room, ripped into his body and cleaved through his very soul.
A strangled gurgle was the only sound to escape as Ace went hard to the floor, knees impacting sharply into the carpet. The coffee cup in his hand went tumbling pell-mell and splattered everywhere without notice as he was overwhelmed with despair, such a deep, aching despair, that it stole the very breath from his lungs and left him gasping.
“Ace? Ace?!” It was Kate, or maybe Vega, calling his name. There were hands on his arms, trying to help him up, but they were not heeded. As before, as at the military base, he knew, on a deep, almost instinctual level he knew where to go, where he was needed. There were startled cries as he pushed the helping hands aside and leapt to his feet. He tore down the hall and to the bedroom where Cosmo had been left to recover, ignoring the surprise exclamations that he left in his wake.
Ace threw the door open and found Cosmo sitting up in his bed, red hair wild, face covered in sweat and breathing labored, chest heaving with every desperate attempt to gather oxygen. The young man turned on his partner, eyes wide and dilated, the black of his pupils swallowing the pale gray iris.
Was this real?
What was real anymore?!
Cosmo stared in shock as Ace came to him but was afraid, so deathly afraid. Another Virtual Reality? Dimly, somewhere in the depths of his mind, he remembered: the V.R. The torture chamber that made nightmare after nightmare. The base. The cell. The hell-hole he’d been stolen too.
Ace was here. Ace was here to die. To condemn him. To abandon him.
The magician reached out but he drew back without thought. And Ace looked at him; looked hurt; looked worried, which was a way Cosmo had not seen him look before in his other nightmares.
Was this real?! Was this really Ace?
He remembered.... strange things. Halls that he walked through. Men that he threw aside. Remembered.. power... such frightening, exhilarating power...
But there was no power now. There was only pain. Raw pain over channels ripped open. Like the first time. He felt like the first time his magic had blossomed into full existence, and everything was painful, everything was amplified and magnified and...
He felt others....
Other magic users. Other sources of Power that sawed at his perception like barb-wire across an open wound. The others. The other prisoners. This *wasn’t* real. This was the V.R.
This was hell!
“Cosmo. Cosmo you’re safe,” Ace called again as his young friend flinched away from him, rolled out of the other side of the bed and staggered to his feet. Wide, fearful eyes flitted around the room, darted to him, away, to him again. “You’ve had a nightmare, that’s all. You are safe.”
He remembered well enough his own time in the V.R. chamber. Remembered the nightmares that plagued him for weeks after. Remembered the times he questioned his sanity and the times he woke and did not know if he’d woken into the real world or one generated by computers, unable to tell V.R. from nightmare; nightmare from V.R.
“Cosmo, focus on me.”
“Not real,” Cosmo whispered, voice strained and distant. The magic throbbed and pulsed around the young man, almost bubbling in answer to his despair and it set Ace’s teeth on edge, the brutal, untamed feel of it.
“Cosmo, you are safe. You are no longer at the military base. We came and got you. Do you remember?” Ace pressed oh so gently, oh so very gently.
“No.” Cosmo shook his head in denial. “I can feel them.” Then his eyes locked on Ace with a strange, cold kind of determination. “You’re lying!”
It hurt, it hurt him deep inside to hear such an accusation come from Cosmo, but he banished the emotion. Cosmo was not in his right mind, and understandably so.
“I am not lying. You’re safe now,” Ace assured, stepping closer.
“Stop this. Stop this now!” Cosmo demanded, eyes elsewhere, as if looking for his unseen tormentors. The magic surged and twisted and started to build uncontrolled around the younger magician.
“Cosmo, this is not Virtual Reality. This is not a dream. You are safe.”
“Liar!” It came out a wild shriek. “I can feel them! All of them. I can feel them!”
“Ace?” And Kate was there, looking in the door, and behind her Vega and the others.
The others! Ace almost cursed. Of course! The others. Cosmo was sensing all of the magic users in close proximity. No wonder he still thought himself trapped in Colonel Shawn’s clutches. It was almost never that he ever sensed another magic user besides Ace, let alone four others.
“See, Cosmo? See, it’s just Kate.” Ace gestured Kate to him and she came, smiling warmly toward the disheveled young man, though her eyes held only worry. “It’s her you’re sensing, and Savannah and Fran. You remember Fran?”
It became obvious that he did. Something akin to comprehension flitted through Cosmo’s eyes and he looked suddenly unsure.
“We got everyone out, Cosmo. *You* got everyone out. You might not remember right now, but it is the truth,” Ace said calmly, but firmly.
Cosmo swayed for a moment, frowned, then simply crumpled down into a ragged heap without a sound. Ace rushed forward and this time his partner did not flinch away as he reached for him. Cosmo started to tremble, body shuddering as Ace gathered him protectively into his arms. Cosmo seemed unaware of him, looking around blindly for a moment and Ace just held on. He knew what Cosmo was going through. Knew the young man was trying to separate the nightmare from the reality. He caught Kate’s gaze, the Nature Mage’s green-gray eyes glittering with concern.
“How about you take everyone into town? I’m sure Margaret can put them up,” he said softly. Kate glanced at the shivering Cosmo and nodded her understanding.
“We’ll clear the area,” she promised, and bundled Vega, who’d also entered, and Savanna who hung in the door, out, closing the door behind.
Ace was thankful for her comprehension. What Cosmo had gone through... Channels had been ripped open and there was no knowing the damage that had been done. The changes that had been made. Almost without thought, Ace’s hand came up to Cosmo’s left temple. Drew through the thick white stripe there, tinged with sweat. It was the visible proof of the event that Ace could still not believe had taken place.
Cosmo turned on him then, looked at him lost and befuddled. A frown drew his brows together.
This time, soft, uncertain and somehow all the more frightening for it. Ace hadn’t even thought about earlier, when his own name had ripped into his mind in a feral scream. Then he had only thought of the pain, the despair emanating from the focal point he now held in his arms.
“It’s me, Cosmo. The real me. You are safe,” Ace said plainly and simply, refusing -for now- to think about how his name had whispered through his mind.
“It’s you?” this time words, real words, and delivered just as uncertainly. “Ace?”
He nodded and smiled. “Yup.”
And then Cosmo jerked-- looked around all of a sudden.
“Kate’s taken the others to town. I know you’re sensing them and it’s confusing you. Everything’s okay. Everyone is okay and you are safe.”
That finally seemed to do it. Cosmo let out a sob, and slumped into him, shaking madly. Only a single tear trickled over his cheek but it didn’t not diminish in any way the young man’s reaction.
“I want this to be real. Let this be real,” Cosmo whispered to himself.
“It is real,” Ace swore, hugging his friend fiercely, albeit carefully. “It’s all real.”
And now more tears came. Tears of exhaustion, of relief, and Cosmo did not deny them as they fell. “Ace,” he all but gasped, hands coming up to clutch at his shirt. “Oh God, Ace.”
“I know, Cosmo. I know,” Ace assured, and he did. It was disconcerting how he knew-- he felt it. He felt such relief, such despair, such uncertainty, and even the slightest hint of hope and he knew, he knew with every fiber of his being it came from Cosmo.
“You okay?” Cosmo asked suddenly, eyes flicking up to him and searching in a disoriented way. The young man repeated his inquiry “You okay?”
“I’m fine, Cosmo,” Ace almost laughed. “I’m better than fine, I’m great. You’re back! When you went missing...” He shook his head, no words fit to describe what he had felt. But Cosmo didn’t need words. Never needed words anymore.
“Sorry,” his partner mumbled, to Ace’s shock.
“Don’t be. Dear Lord, Cosmo, don’t be sorry. None of this is your fault!”
“I know. I know but...” Cosmo shook his head. “I should have been able to do something. Do more. Should have been able to at least let you know...”
Ace gave Cosmo a reassuring squeeze. “You did do something, Cosmo. You did everything, Cosmo! You stopped Shawn. You helped free everyone.”
At the Colonel’s name Cosmo flinched and curled in on himself unconsciously, even as he looked up into Ace’s face in confusion.
“I did?” he asked tremulously.
“You did,” he confirmed, but the confusion did not leave the disbelieving gray eyes staring up at him. “What do you remember last, Cosmo?”
Cosmo frowned. “I.. remember planning to escape. Fran had been helping me. I.. I was going to make a run for the computer room, to get a message to you,” he started softly, his frown deepening as the story progressed. “I got away from the guards and made it to the computer control and then...” He shook his head as if trying to shake the memory loose. “Then...”
And then the change had happened. And then Ace had felt something he’d never felt in his entire life; the absolute and true absence of the Magic Force.
Carefully, Ace untangled himself from his partner and helped Cosmo up. The young man went, unprotesting, to be delivered back onto the bed and watched with mute puzzlement as Ace drew a blanket around his shoulders. Then Ace looked around the room and spied what he needed on the dressing table. He retrieved the small mirror and held it out to Cosmo as he sat on the bed beside him.
“What?” Cosmo asked, a wave of confusion mixed with annoyance seeming to ripple over the magician’s senses. Ace barely suppressed the shudder that sensation gave him and instead focused on putting the mirror in Cosmo’s hand and raising it up to eye level.
For a moment, Cosmo just looked blankly into the mirror, making a face, then his eyes widened and his jaw went slack. Ace felt the fingers beneath his go limp and held the mirror for the young man as Cosmo leaned forward slightly, staring.
“Ace?” Fear sang in Cosmo’s voice. Fear and utter incomprehension as his left hand came up and hovered, but did not touch, as if he was afraid to give tactile credence to the image in the mirror.
It came back to him. Not in a mad rush, but in shards, in wild and warped glimpses. Whispers. Whispers in his mind and words-- words he knew and yet didn’t know. He felt suddenly light-headed and swayed, slouching into Ace without realizing it, hand falling from the mirror altogether and Ace thankfully lowering it from view.
Stripe. A white stripe. A single strange and yet unmistakable white stripe.
A stripe he shouldn’t have.
“You became the Magician, Cosmo.” Ace’s voice floated to him as if far away.
“No,” he murmured in denial. Not him. Not Cosmo. He no longer hated his magic, but he sure as heck didn’t want more of it. Yes, he wanted to learn to tame what he had, but as to expanding on that power, no way in hell!
But the whispers. The whispers in the back of his mind. Whispers that promised him survival, not so with much words, but in a way more intimate and primal.
“No,” he said again, shaking his head. “No.”
“Yes, Cosmo. I don’t know how you did it, but you did,” Ace countered gently, his arm coming up around him, but Cosmo was too numb to feel it. “I felt it. I saw what it did to you. You did become the Magician.”
Lying. Ace had to be lying!
“I’m not lying, Cosmo,” Ace said, as if reading his thoughts, eyes tightening slightly. “I would never lie to you.”
And he wouldn’t. Ace wouldn’t lie to him. He knew it. He felt it. Felt it to his very core, the truth radiating off his friend. Hesitantly he touched the mirror handle still clasped loosely in Ace’s hand. Guided it back up and stared at the unwelcomed alteration in his bright red hair. His fingers lifted, hesitated, and then touched the mussed up stripe.
Real. It was real. The white strains were damp with his own sweat, but real, and drew over his finger in sticky clumps. He tugged at one such clump experimentally and felt his scalp pull in response. The white was pure-- stark and pure and went all the way down to the roots.
It couldn’t be.
But it was.
But it shouldn’t be.
“I..” he started uncertainly, then turned to his partner. “I..” he tried again and failed again just as miserably. It was too much. All of this was too much.
“It’s okay, Cosmo. Here.” He did not fight as Ace helped him lay in the bed, his body now too numb and boneless to resist. “Just rest for awhile. You hungry? When was the last time you ate?”
Cosmo had to think a moment. “Sunday.”
He nodded. “They didn’t feed me. At least, I don’t remember them doing that. Wasn’t hungry though. The drugs. I think that was because of the drugs”
Ace let out a heavy sigh and brushed his hand along Cosmo’s arm. “I’m not surprised they used drugs.”
“It messed me up,” Cosmo went on, lost momentarily in his own memories. “It messed up my magic. I couldn’t use it. Couldn’t even vent it. It hurt. It hurt so much and it only kept building and building..”
The hand on his arm tightened and he was shaken from his spiraling ruminations. He looked up to Ace, frowning. “It still hurts.” And it did. Every magic channel was wide open and bleeding and never had he felt so disconnected from the power housed in his own body.
Ace nodded. “I don’t doubt. What you did...” A hooded look, a disturbed look glittered in the magician’s gray-blue eyes but before Cosmo could say more it was chased away with a smile. Albeit a tired one, but a sincere one, and one that seemed to reach into Cosmo with a reassurance words could not match.
“Do you think you’re up to eating?” the older man asked. “We should get something into you.”
Cosmo thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. His stomach had become a permanent knot and just the thought of food, drew it tighter.
“No. Not yet. Thanks.” Then he frowned. Ulene. What about Ulene? He hadn’t even thought about her. He hadn’t been able to honestly, wrapped up in his own desperate situation and drugged, confused haze. “Ulene. Is Ulene okay? Did they hurt her? Is she..”
“She’s fine, Cosmo,” Ace interrupted gently. “I called her the moment we got back. She’s coming here as soon as she can.”
“She is?” For reasons he could, and could not name, he suddenly didn’t want his girlfriend here. He didn’t want her to see the stripe. To see what he had... become.
Ace squeezed his arm, drawing his attention back to the magician again.
“It’ll be okay, Cosmo. I promise.”
It will? he wondered to himself, eyelids closing as a wave of exhaustion rolled over him. It will? He wished he could believe that. He wished he could believe Ace.
“It will be, Cosmo. I promise,” Ace said softly, his voice going slowly away. Blindly, Cosmo took his partner’s hand and clung onto it, knowing he was dropping back into the realm of sleep and terrified to go, but powerless to prevent it against the desires of a body pushed to far. But for as long as he could, as long as he was able, he concentrated on the hand in his own. Focused on the link and the light and life of the soul he was tied into, and prayed, prayed for no dreams in the coming darkness.
Vega sat patiently in the sitting room. He lounged back on an extremely comfortable, over-stuffed couch, studying the ornate, but cozy room around him. Steam whisked off of his coffee mug -which he’d just refreshed- and swirled lazily up into the air. The house was almost totally silent, except for the hint of movement that emanated from the hall, the detective’s ears tuning immediatly into the sound.
Ace Cooper came out, rubbing a hand across tired features. But for all his exhaustion there was also a generous amount of satisfaction and relief that Cosmo was found.
“How’s he doing?” The question took the magician totally off guard and the younger man jerked in surprise, momentarily at lost before he located the source of the question. God, Ace needed sleep. It was almost never the man was caught off his guard that badly.
“You didn’t think I was about to let Kate bundle me off, did you?” Vega asked, amusement, and no little condemnation, in his voice. As if *he* was about to leave at a time like this.
“Vega, you’ve done more than you’re fair share..”
“Shut up, Ace,” the older man interrupted him unrepentingly. “Cosmo’s my friend too, and...”
And.... Vega’s voice trailed off as he looked into the depths of his coffee cup. Cosmo was his friend. Perhaps he wasn’t as close to Cosmo as he was with Ace in some ways, but that did not diminish in anyway the relationship he had with the young man.
And yet, that friendship, grown out of years of trust and mutual respect, still hadn’t been enough in the end, had it?
The Lieutenant jumped and looked guiltily up at Ace.
“Sorry. Just...” A shrug and then a gesture. “Sit down before you fall down.”
Good advice that Ace took, dropping heavily onto the couch, alongside his friend.
“So how is he doing?” Vega asked again, offering up his cup of coffee.
“He’s... doing. I guess that’s all I can ask for,” Ace sighed, taking the proffered mug and drinking deeply. Then he leaned back, going limp into the couches depths. “I was able to help him out of his nightmare. It took a little time, but he was able to distinguish reality from nightmare and I know from my own V.R. experience how truly hard that can be.”
“Does he remember, what he did-- became?”
Ace frowned and shook his head slowly. “No, not really. At least, not at this moment. I tried to explain what he did, but I don’t think he’s quite grasped it.”
“He’s not alone,” Vega declared and took his cup back, slugging down a sip. “When I saw him I...”
“It was frightening,” Ace filled in the pregnant pause.
“Terrifying,” Vega added with a hefty sigh, fingers fiddling along the handle of his cup. When he’d seen Cosmo-- as the Magician. Worse, as the Magician totally out of control...
A hand dropped heavily onto his shoulder and he jumped, startled.
“It’s bothering you, isn’t it?” Ace asked, eyeing him speculatively.
No, he wanted to say, but like heck if that was the truth.
“Yes, it does, but... but what bothers me more is how I reacted. Even after all this time, after all my experiences with both you and him...” Vega shook his head and looked to his best friend. A man he had all but raised himself. “I drew on him, Ace! I drew my gun on Cosmo!”
“I doubt he was even aware of you when you did.”
“That’s not the point, Ace!” Vega snapped, brooding darkly. “It’s the fact that.. that I did it at all. It was the fact of how scared I was, when I saw Cosmo. How scared I was when I saw the magic, his magic, and just how powerful that magic was.” He drew a tremulous breath. “It frightened me on a level I had never been aware. It made me afraid and feel so damn helpless, and because of my helplessness I drew my gun. It was a gut reaction and that’s what scares me the most.”
“Would it help to know I was just as scared? If not more so,” Ace asked mildly, apparently unfazed by the detective’s confession.
“It doesn’t matter. Even scared all you wanted to do was help Cosmo. Me.. me, I just wanted him.. what he’d become, to go away.”
“He probably shares your sentiment.”
“This is not a joke, Ace!”
And now he had the magician’s full attention and both eyebrows went up. “Am I laughing?” Ace asked, dead serious. Then, with that damn changeable manner of his, smiled kindly. “Don’t beat yourself up for it, Derek. We are creatures of instinct. It is that very human nature to react to the unexpected, or unexplained, that makes my business possible.”
“It still doesn’t excuse what I did,” Vega pressed.
“Don’t know why I bother when he’s like this. It’s like talking to a brick wall,” Ace muttered half-aside. Vega glared at him, but all he received for his dark look was a tired smirk. “Yes, I know for you, drawing on Cosmo was something you’d never imagine ever doing. Nor did I ever imagine a time when I would *not* feel the Magic Force around me. But just as I overcame the fear of my sudden powerlessness, so did you overcome yours, and in the end, all that really matters is that we got Cosmo back safely.”
Vega blinked and kicked himself in the pants for not even thinking about that earlier. Chasson had said that all of the Magic Force had suddenly disappeared, had been sucked up for the lack of a better description. The power that Ace drew on, the magic that was as much a part of him as the blood in his veins, was suddenly gone. And worse than gone, turned against him, and he, even with no defenses whatsoever, still tried to help Cosmo despite his own powerlessness.
“Are you okay?” Vega asked.
Ace nodded. “I’m fine. Tired, but fine.”
“Then get some sleep.”
“You should take it.”
Ace looked at him, gray eyes glittering. “I’ll take it if you promise to take mine and not just sit out here brooding.”
“I do not brooding.”
“I do not sulk!” Vega glared at his friend and Ace just watched him with that too wise look of his. In the end, he gave up. It was a fight lost from the fore, he supposed. It did not relieve the guilt inside him, the tiny note of dread at his own fearful reaction, but Ace was right, brooding would solve nothing. Accepting would.
“Get some sleep, Ace,” he said simply, to be rewarded by a smile, albeit a slightly smug one, but a smile nonetheless.
The magician heaved himself ponderously off the couch, clapping the Lieutenant on the shoulder. “Night, Derek.”
“No!” It was a weak gasp of desperation as Cosmo launched upright in his bed, gulping for air as the world around him slammed hard into his shattered and abused senses.
He reached without thought to Ace, instinctively grasping for the link as his life-line to sanity. What he received was not dark, or foreboding, but relaxed and strangely content. Emotions that would have put him at ease except for the presence of one other; another source of power. He tuned into the disturbance in the magic fabric around him without thought, feeling panic rise in him till memory supplied him with the identity. Kate. The signature had the cool, pleasant feel of Kate’s magic.
If Kate was here, and here was not the Magic Express, then here had to be the house in Whitewater. But it was not easy to let go the almost nauseating fear that this wasn’t real, and Cosmo stared about in momentary dread, searching for the tell-tale signs of Virtual Reality. Sought the horrors that would explode out of the tranquil surroundings. The dangers that would arise without warning.
All that happened was that the sun continued to sneak pass drawn curtains and paint his room in warm, gold hints of daylight.
He waited, one minute, then two, and felt his pounding heart slow. Through the link he was aware of Ace with astounding clarity and in all this time the magician had radiated nothing negative, save perhaps a hint of annoyance that, even so, was still laced with affection.
It was real. He was safe. And it was the sweetest relief he’d ever felt as he struggled to untangle himself from the blankets, standing on shaky feet, gulping against the wave of vertigo. Every magic sense, every mundane sense, seemed to be on overload right now. He blinked against his messed up vision, seeing both the world around him and the occasionally wisps of Power that this house was imbued with. Man, was he messed up. But even though.. he still moved. Still made it across the room and to the door, catching the handle and then the door-frame, resting momentarily against it. Beyond the door was an expanse of hall with framed pieces of art and pictures; some of the pictures were of Ace, both the young and older versions.
Cosmo smiled for the first time in days. Ace. He was safe. This was real and the sensation of relief only grew with his every step down the hall.
“Sorry, but he insisted in saying good-bye in person, before he headed back.” Kate’s voice wafted through the air as Cosmo made it to the parlor. He caught sight of the Nature Mage at the door, talking to his partner. Ace looked like he’d just rolled out of bed himself. His hair was mussed, even though it looked like the magician had tried to comb it in place, and his cloths, while presentable, were hardly up to the Ace's meticulous standards. Doubly so since he was only wearing his yellow striped black pants and white shirt, sans even shoes and socks. Looking pretty ragged, bro, he couldn’t help but think with a smile.
And then the magician turned, eyes speed focusing on him as if he’d heard him.
“Hey,” he said by way of greeting as his older friend came to him, grinning, a hand reaching out to clamp lightly onto his shoulder. He reached up and touched it in kind.
“Hey, yourself,” Ace chuckled, eyes darting over him worriedly. “How are you feeling?”
A shrug was all he could manage. “Tired and whacked. Really whacked.”
“And looking it,” Ace teased affectionately and Cosmo graced him with a playful glare, reveling in the normalcy of their banter.
“You’re one to talk.” Then he turned to Kate and blinked against his damn vision. “Morning, Kate.”
“Morning, Cosmo,” Kate returned and reached out to swallow him in a hug. One he didn’t mind, returning the embrace with what little strength he seemed to possess. “It’s great to see you up.”
“It’s great... to just be here,” he said with an honesty that hurt. Her smile, like Ace’s was compassionate and understanding and she nodded, then looked up to his partner.
“I’ll tell Chasson it’s okay to come in now,” she said, turning before the older man could protest.
Chasson? The name didn’t ring a bell as he watched Kate go to the door and wave to someone outside. And then, a moment later, his senses caught it. Another magic user, but not-- wrong and yet not wrong.
He wasn’t even aware that Ace moved closer as Kate returned; trailing her a man perhaps just entering middle-age with a slender build and blond hair.
“Cosmo, you probably don’t remember him, but this is Alexander Chasson. He helped us to find you and the others,” Kate introduced her companion.
“Morning.” Chasson bowed his head in greeting, not offering his hand and Cosmo, for some reason, being relieved he didn’t.
“Morning,” he returned warily. Now he remembered why the signature seemed so familiar. The little girl. It had the same feel as the little girl that had been used to ensnare him.
“Cosmo?” Ace’s voice carried a soft note of concern and it startled him.
“It’s okay. Kate explained your Mage Sense and I.. probably feel a bit odd to you,” Chasson said by way of explanation, if not apology.
“Mechanical,” Cosmo blurted suddenly, frowning darkly. “Like the other one.”
And now it was Chasson’s turn to look startled. “Other one?”
“Yes, other one. A girl, a little girl that they used to capture me. She... she had the same kind of cold feel you have. Almost artificial, and yet not.” He couldn’t help the hard edge that came to his voice as he recounted the feeling. The bait that had been used to ensnare him. The snare that had led to the -days?- of torture to follow.
“It’s okay, Cosmo,” Ace said calmly, voice cutting through the white haze of his rising anger, and the magic which was building sluggishly around him. “Chasson is one of the good-guys. He even saved your life, for which I shall be forever in his debt.” The last he said with a nod to the blond man who seemed thrown even more off kilter. But he recovered quickly and smiled.
“No debt owed, Cooper. We both got what we wanted in the end. That’s all that matters.”
“Perhaps. But if you ever need anything,” Ace said genially.
This guy had saved him? Saved his life? Cosmo sure as heck didn’t remember it but if Ace said it was true...
“Thanks. Thanks for saving me,” he offered quietly, still having trouble just getting pass the *false* feel of this other magic user, and the memories that generated.
Chasson accepted his thanks with a nod and a thoughtful look, then a look that seemed just as thoughtful but along a different line as he turned toward Kate.
“Though, if Ms. Morrigan doesn’t mind, I might contact her in the future? For cases and such.”
Kate blinked for a moment, then smiled hesitantly. “Of course. I wouldn’t mind at all.”
Okay? Why was Ace feeling so damn amused? God, the holes in his memory were big enough to drive a truck through. A truck, by the way, Cosmo was sure had run him over in the process.
“I’d better get going if I’m going to make it to the airport on time.” Chasson now reached out his hand, first to Ace, who took it unhesitatingly and then to Cosmo. Cosmo accepted, not quite suppressing the cold shiver that danced up his spine when he came into physical contact with the man and his cold magic.
“You know where to reach me if you have need,” he said and Ace nodded.
“And you know where to reach me,” the magician returned.
“Here. I’ll walk you out,” Kate offered and Chasson seemed pleased, if not a little embarrassed to accept.
“Have a good trip,” Cosmo offered for the lack of anything better to say and then, the stranger who’d supposedly saved his life, was gone.
“I think I need some things explained to me,” he muttered, not completely under his breath.
“I know, partner,” Ace said, steering him about. “How about we sit down and I’ll try to fill you in?”
“Sounds like a... good...”
Cosmo words faltered into silence as he caught sight of his reflection in a decorative mirror mounted on the wall. He stumbled toward it, head cocked to one side. Ace followed silently as the young man stared hard at his reflection. Then, slowly, his hand went up to the white streak that swept back along his left temple, fingers brushing through the thick strands.
And he’d thought it’d been a dream. The strange memories of Ace telling him he’d become the Magician-- The Magician! And the even stranger dreams, or mayhap memories of before that.
He shook his head slowly, stumbling back.
The younger man jerked back at Ace’s touch, eyes flashing toward him, wide, uncertain. Ace watched him, compassion in his eyes and a certainty that Cosmo neither wanted to see, or feel.
“It wasn’t a nightmare, was it?” he said, almost to himself.
“No, it wasn’t.”
“You showed me.. last night, didn’t you?”
A nod. “Yes, after you woke up from your nightmare, but you weren’t real cognitive then.”
“Not feeling real cognitive now,” he muttered, feeling, of all things, angry. He turned and stared at the white intruder in his bright red locks. *That* was not suppose to be there. *That* was not welcomed.
“Sit.” It was an order and one he obeyed numbly.
“It can’t be, Ace. Not me,” he hissed darkly.
“That was my thought when I first felt it happen,” Ace chuckled ruefully, sitting beside him. “But it did happen.”
“How? When? WHY!?!”
The last came out a wail. Him? The Magician? No way in hell did he want that power! No way in hell did he want that responsibility!
“I don’t know why, Cosmo. Perhaps it was not so much one thing, but a combination of things. The drugs; your dire situation; the ones around you also in need of help. For whatever reason, or by whatever methods, you did summon the full of the Magic Force and wrapped it around you.”
“I didn’t control it though,” he said as he remembered. The killing urge, the bloodlust rushing through his already besieged mind and him fighting it, and losing, losing to the power behind that killing desire.
“No. No, you weren’t in control when we found you. The Magic Force controlled you. Was using you as a focus to vent its power.”
“How did we get you free? That’s where Chasson came in. For the lack of a better description he drained the Magic Force from you until it could no longer maintain its control over you.”
“I can’t handle this, Ace. I can’t,” he said, and he couldn’t, feeling his body shake with just the thought of the power he’d called. “I don’t want to be The Magician! That’s your job and you’re welcome to it!!”
“I know. I know,” Ace assured him, both with his words and a hug. “But there is no ignoring what you’ve done, Cosmo. Or the changes that it has brought about.”
“Changes?” He looked feverishly up to his friend, both annoyed and alarmed at how uncomfortable the magician looked. “There’s more?!”
Ace nodded slowly. “Afraid so. Ever since.. ever since you became the Magician there have been other changes. To the link I think.”
The link. Immediatly Cosmo focused on it and found it just as bright, if not more so, as ever.
“It’s not gone, but.. amplified I think. Even I’m aware of it, though, I’ll admit, not in a real empathic sense,” Ace continued.
“I overloaded it?” he ventured uncertainly.
“To some degree yes. Altered it to another.”
“What do you mean.. altered?”
Now the magician seemed really hesitant and it did nothing for Cosmo’s empty stomach which was now doing flip-flops.
“I can hear you, Cosmo. Your thoughts.”
He blinked. Once, twice, three times.
“I’ve heard you, your voice in my mind.”
“All the time?!”
“No.. no I think just on matters relating to me specifically,” Ace answered slowly.
“Like when I walked in the room,” Cosmo murmured, realization sinking in.
“Yes. I heard that crack about looking ragged.”
He felt ill. Ill, lightheaded, confused and just downright terrified.
And it only got worse.
And there was Ulene, followed by Kate. His mouth dropped open soundlessly as he found himself enveloped in a hug, kisses landing across his face. He wanted to return those gestures, to return that affection, but found himself floundering.
Without thought he stood up, a bit too fast and swayed, the room tilting sideways as he broke free of Ulene's embrace.
“Cosmo?” Dismay was evident in her voice, her eyes dancing over his face, grazing across the white stripe in his hair and hesitating there with a flicker of curiosity. What he was, what he had become, that stripe was the earmark of all those changes. Would she be able to handle it, handle everything Ace had told him? He wasn’t able to, so how could he expect Ulene to? And that was perhaps what hurt him, panicked him the most; the thought of facing her rejection once again.
“Cosmo.” Ace’s voice, and strong and steady as the hand that came around him. “I think you’d better lie back down. I’ll have Kate make some soup up for you. We need you to eat.”
“Okay,” he muttered dazedly, not flinching as Ulene took his hand, her eyes still watching him with love, indisputable love, but bewilderment as well. He did not pull away but she did let go as Ace guided him back to his room.
Ulene could only watched helplessly as Ace delivered Cosmo back to his bed, tucking her lover in. For a moment, the gray eyes flashed over to her then just as quickly away but not before she saw the pain and.. shame in them, and ached all the more to reach out for him, to reassure him.
But she held back as Ace said something softly to his partner then retreated, pulling the door close behind him.
And here, Ulene thought that this nightmare was over with at last. Never had a night passed more slowly for her. Sleep was not even on her list of things to do as she paced and paced, occasionally double checked her luggage, and paced some more. This clenched it, she needed to get her own car! She had no transportation herself and her parents were both on the road with their own vehicles. But, good to her word, her friend Stephanie had relinquished her null-grav at the ripe hour of six in the morning, just after she’d finished her shift at the hospital where she interned. Ulene had only told her that Cosmo had been in an accident out of town and that was enough to satisfy Stephanie, her older friend shooing her on her way between breathless thank you’s and good-byes.
She’d followed the map she’d generated from the address Mr. Cooper had given her like a woman obsessed. Cosmo was okay. Cosmo was safe and resting in the magician’s house in Whitewater. It was all she wanted to hear. It meant everything. The void in her life that was caused from Cosmo’s disappearance had been all enveloping, and never in her life had she felt so alone.
Mr. Cooper had tried to be strong during Cosmo’s disappearance, but it was a shaky facade to even the untrained eye. She knew Cosmo and Mr. Cooper were, and always would be, partners and best friends, but to see it so displayed by the superstar was both reassuring as it was frightening. Reassuring that Mr. Cooper would do everything in his considerable power, magic or mundane, to bring Cosmo back, and frightening that the situation had so shaken his ever calm and confident being.
But Cosmo was rescued, that was what was important. She didn’t have the details -yet- but that mattered so very little to her right now. Safe. Cosmo was safe and back in Mr. Cooper’s protection and that meant everything in the world to her. To see him again. To hold him again and to kiss him again...
But to be rebuffed?
“Ulene,” a warm voice interrupted her cold thoughts. “I’m glad you finally made it.” It was Mr. Cooper and he smiled at her kindly. At least someone seemed happy to see her.
“Is he okay, Mr. Cooper? ” she asked shakily. “Did I do something wrong?”
Ace Cooper took a deep breath and released it slowly. “To your first question: yes and no. To your second: no, you did nothing wrong.”
“I can’t say those answers are the ones I really want to hear,” she muttered, and he smiled sadly.
"They're the only ones I can give.” Then he caught her arm and steered her about. “How about we go to the kitchen? I think I hear a couple mugs of coca calling our names.”
“What happened?” she asked on the way, relenting. One moment, she knew Mr. Cooper was doing all in his power to find Cosmo, and next, he was found and returned.
“The military,” the magician said softly, voice hardening. “A nut case called Colonel Shawn convinced some big-wigs to let him form a unit manned with magic users. Magic users broken to his will by any means necessary.”
She stared up in horror up at the older man. Military? Someone had kidnapped Cosmo to brainwash him into submission for use as a weapon? It was, she knew, one of Cosmo’s and Mr. Cooper’s greatest fear, but to hear that that fear had become a reality... It only drove home harder the need for magic users -true magic users- to hide their abilities. A fact she not too long ago had come to terms with. Both the reality that true magic users existed, and that the man she loved was one of them.
“How.. how were they.. trying to break him?” she asked tremulously as they reached the kitchen where Kate was busying herself preparing some soup. It was the last thing she wanted to know, but the first thing she needed to know, if she was in any way to be able to help and support Cosmo after his experience.
If he would let her help him.
“Virtual Realty and drugs. An effective combination I’m afraid,” Cooper answered bitterly.
“Was Cosmo the only one?”
“No. There were others. Children mostly.”
A short nod. “Yes. Children. Cosmo was the oldest and the most powerful magic user they’d ever attempted to break. It was the last mistake they ever made.”
“Cosmo broke out, didn’t he?”
Another nod and smile of satisfaction as Ace held out a chair for her politely, two cups of cocoa appearing before them courtesy of Kate. “Yes, he did. He made it possible for everyone to get out, even though it almost cost him his life.”
That did not surprise Ulene. Cosmo loved kids. The thought that someone might be kidnapping, let alone torturing children for their own means, would only harden every ounce of courage the younger magician had. It was one of the many reasons she loved him. His courage. His sense of right in a very wrong world.
“Why.. why did he not like seeing me?” she asked quietly, dreading the answer. Dreading the thought that something had so altered Cosmo. Had altered the way he felt for her. “Does.. does it have to do with that stripe? He didn’t seem to like it when I noticed it.”
Cooper reached out and patted her hand. “How about I tell you a story?” he offered.
Kate took the bowl from Cosmo’s unsteady hands, not happy that the young man hadn’t finished off the meager portion of soup, but pleased he’d been able to eat any of it at all.
“Is that sitting okay?” she asked, setting the bowl aside.
“Yeah. Yeah, feel a little better. Thanks, Kate,” Cosmo murmured softly, not making for very good company. Not that Kate could say she expected as such, but she had hoped to see a bit more life in the young magician. But then, given everything he’d gone through, everything that happened, perhaps she was hoping for too much, too soon.
“Can.. can you feel it, Kate?”
The question caught her off guard and she blinked her puzzlement at Cosmo.
“The Magic Force... the.. change in me,” he clarified, almost shyly.
Cosmo’s aura. While Kate had no Mage Sensing skill, such as the young magician, she was aware of the Magic Force both men radiated in close proximity. And now, Cosmo’s signature was as bright and chafing as Ace’s, if not more so for the uncontrolled nature of it.
“Yes. I can feel the change,” she answered honestly and Cosmo seemed to wilt.
“I’m sorry. I know it hurts.”
“Wrong; it doesn’t hurt, Cosmo,” Kate corrected him immediately. “It isn’t.. pleasant, but it isn’t painful.” Then a smug smile. “And nothing I can’t shield against. Shields are my specialty you know.”
Her smile reached Cosmo and his eyes brightened, ever so marginally. “That’s what Ace always says.”
“And he’s right.” She reached out and patted his hand. “I know you’ve been though some major changes, Cosmo. And I know it’s impossible not to think about them, but maybe, just a for a little while, you should try and get some rest.”
“Don’t want to sleep,” he muttered rebelliously.
And taciturn silence was her answer. A silence she’d met time and time again in Ace, whenever he was trying to deal with a personal demon. The saying ‘Like father, like son,’ came to mind and made her smile.
“Would you like to know about that stripe of yours?” she asked.
He flinched and frowned at her. “I thought you said I shouldn’t think about it.”
“But you’re not going to take my advice, are you? So I might as well try to tell you something useful.”
“You did this to Ace a lot growing up, didn’t you?”
“All the time. And ask him if it didn’t help.”
Cosmo just looked at her for a moment, then collapsed into the bed and shook his head. “I’ll try to get some sleep,” he murmured in defeat.
Kate frowned, that being the last thing she’d expect. Apparently the thought of nightmares was not nearly as unbearable as the thought of talking about what he’d done.
“Are you sure, Cosmo? I don’t mind talking. And we don’t have to talk about anything magical, if you don’t want to.”
“As if I could think of anything else right now,” Cosmo sighed wistfully, and suddenly looked much older than his nineteen years. Kate knew some of Cosmo’s history and what the young man had seen and survived would have done in the hardiest of souls. But even his insurmountable spirit seemed to have reached its limit and it hurt Kate to see a soul as bright and vibrant as Cosmo’s floundering in this new darkness.
“How about, I tell you an Ace story?”
*That* seemed to pull the young man from his melancholy.
“When Ace lived here?”
“Yup. It was just a year after Ace had come to live here. Just after Easter and it involved the local laundry and some pink Easter egg dye tablets.”
And Kate happily started a tale of better days and more innocent times to her attentive audience of one.
Vega had just ambled from the shower, feeling a world better for being clean and for the fact that this day had dawned (well, more like afternooned since he’d slept in) with him knowing just where Cosmo was. He’d been roused from the sleep he’d found late into the night by Ulene’s arrival. From what he’d overheard, something had gone wrong, but given what had happened in the last three days, Vega wasn’t the least surprised Cosmo was feeling a bit overwhelmed. As he headed toward the kitchen he caught sight of Kate exiting the teen’s room.
“Everything okay?” Vega asked as Kate quietly shut the door.
“Just fine. A little food and a bedtime story seemed to have done the trick.”
“Bedtime, story?” Vega raised an amused eyebrow. “Which one?”
“Ace and the Easter egg dye.”
And that ripped a laugh out of the older man.
“Did you mention it was you that came up with the whole idea?”
Kate smiled innocently. “I might have glossed over that part.” Which only made Vega laugh all the harder.
“I’m afraid to ask,” Ace muttered plenty loud enough as they entered the kitchen. Ulene was sitting there, staring somberly into the remnants of her cocoa, lost in her own thoughts.
“Just reliving with Cosmo some childhood memories,” Kate said simply.
Ace groaned and slapped a hand across his face.
“Not the laundry mat story.”
And a grin was all he got from the Nature Mage.
“You know, Kate, this means I’ll have to tell him story about the mud puddle and the blender,” Ace returned, with a wicked grin.
Kate’s eyes widened. “You wouldn’t dare!”
“Watch me!” And both of them broke out laughing and it was a wonderful sound. But the joy did not touch young Ulene, who only watched, distant.
“You okay, kid?” Vega asked quietly, patting her on the shoulder. He didn’t know Ulene real well, and regretted it, but the young woman had never seemed comfortable around Ace or the other people that inhabited the world famous magician’s life.
Everyone but Cosmo.
“Overwhelmed, I guess,” she admitted. “I.. Just trying to understand..”
Vega smiled, and pulled a chair up alongside her. “I know, kid, I know. Real magic. I’ve known about it for over twenty years and still, every time I see Ace or Cosmo pull a stunt, I can’t help but get a little chill up my spine.”
“I don’t want that,” she told him bluntly. “I don’t want to be afraid forever of the magic. Especially now, with what Cosmo’s done.”
“Oh, it’s not fear, not normally. I’ll admit, once in a great while the magic can be scary. But, normally, it’s just awe. I mean, magic, that which shouldn’t exist but does. It can be a bit incomprehensible.”
“I can relate to the incomprehensible part,” Ulene sighed with a wry smile.
“You’re in good company then with Derek,” Ace piped in. Vega threw him a look, but not a harsh one. He knew the game the magician was playing and went along. And it seemed to be working. Ulene smiled tentatively and looked around with a little less apprehension.
“Cosmo’s lucky, to have you guys for friends. I’m sorry I’ve.. I haven’t tried to get to know you guys better, earlier,” Ulene confessed shyly. Vega smiled and Ace looked ready to beam.
“It’s never too late,” the magician assured, reaching out to pat her arm.
“Thanks, Mr. Cooper.” And Ace winced.
“Ace. Please. I hate being called Mr. Cooper.”
“What’s wrong, Ace? Make you sound old?” Kate teased.
“The blender, Kate. Just you remember that blender,” he warned, rising. “I’ll be with Cosmo if I’m needed.”
“How about we get you settled in, Ulene? I get the feeling you’re going to be here awhile,” Kate offered.
Ulene’s smile faded. “If Cosmo will let me,” she said morosely.
“It’s not you, Ulene. Cosmo... he’s just a bit overwhelmed himself right now. And, quite honestly, scared. Not that I can blame him,” Ace sighed somberly. “He needs time. And, he needs his friends. More now than ever.”
Ulene looked up at the elder magician and Vega smiled privately at the flash of determination that came to her eyes. It looked a whole lot like the one in Ace’s own gray gaze.
“Then I guess I better get settled in.”
Cosmo thrashed, body arching in his bed. In the world of his dream he was hearing it. The whispering. The soft words that brought hard power.
No! He cringed back. No! He wanted nothing to do with it. Nothing! Cosmo twisted, trying to outrun the words that weren’t words at all, but soft sounds of torture to his ears.
Though the fragments of his memory were few and far between, they were enough. And never again was the verdict. He had to touched the power once, wrapped it around him for the sake of his very survival. Not again. Not ever. He didn’t want the responsibility. Not now, not ever.
No... no, no....
Ace heard Cosmo’s soft plea, looking up from the book he had be reading. The teen was thrashing slightly on his bed, body trembling.
Immediately he rose from the chair which he had claimed as his guard post and went to Cosmo’s side, the young man’s movements growing more violent, as if he was fighting something, denying something. Then Ace felt it. The Magic Force stirring, gathering around the teen as if trying to claim him as its own again. As Ace had once been claimed.
“Cosmo... wake up, Cosmo,” he whispered softly, wisely not touching his friend. Cosmo had to come out of his sleep on his own.
Ace sent both his thoughts and his words.
Cosmo jerked at his name. It seemed to echo around him, the word rising above the whisper of power. He grabbed at it-- clung to it like a drowning man and pulled himself out of the darkness.
With a gasp, Cosmo sat up, hands clutching at the coverlet as Ace’s hand came to rest reassuringly on his shoulder.
“Easy, Cosmo. Easy.”
-Ace?- Cosmo said it as well as thought it, both versions confused and frightened.
“It was a dream, Cosmo. You were having a dream,” Ace assured, but Cosmo immediately shook his head fiercely.
“No. No wasn’t a dream. Heard it. Heard the damn voices,” he stammered madly, eyes flickering up at him. “Do you hear them? Telling you.. to...”
Ace sighed and sat on the bed, keeping his hand on the trembling shoulder. He knew what Cosmo was talking about. The voice of the Magic Force; wanting to be used; wanting to be released. It, like the magic powers it brought, had to be tamed, trained.
“Yes, I did the first time. Heard it for awhile afterwards until I learned to control the transformation,” he told him gently.
Cosmo’s eyes went wide. “I don’t want to do that again, Ace. Never!”
Ace sighed sadly. He understood the fear. God, he’d been so terrified when he’d felt the power rush through him the first time. He had felt like a god-- and it scared him like nothing else. To have that power. To be responsible for its use. Cosmo was even less incline than Ace to accept it.
“Never, Ace. I’m never doing it again,” Cosmo hissed vehemently, fingers clenching on the blankets. “Never!”
“You may not have a choice,” Ace said softly, as it seemed he didn’t.
Cosmo jerked and a snarl escaped his lips. “Why? Why do I never get a choice?! I didn’t want this magic, but I accepted it. Wasn’t that enough? What more do I have to give, Ace? My soul?!” he demanded shrilly, trembling. Cosmo was too worn by what had happened in the past days to deal with this. Any of it. He was starting to loose it. Ready to fling it all out the window with a scream.
-I don’t want to fucking hear it!-
Ace flinched as the thought went directly into his mind with all the politeness of an ice pick. Cosmo blinked and looked at him, horror creeping into his eyes.
“I did it again, didn’t I?” he murmured. “I’m sorry, Ace, I...”
“It’s okay, Cosmo,” Ace assured quickly. “It’s okay.”
“God, Ace... I..” Cosmo snarled, fists clenching. “What the hell is happening to me? I shouldn’t be able to get in your head like that! I don’t *want* to be able to get in your head like that!”
Ace hurriedly wrapped his large hand around his partner’s.
“It is okay, Cosmo. You’ll learn to control it. And perhaps it will lessen. Right now you’re very sensitive to the Magic Force.”
Cosmo shook his head miserably.
“Shouldn’t get in your head like that,” he muttered. “Shouldn’t be able to do any of this.”
“But you can. You are. And there’s no changing that,” Ace countered kindly, but firmly. Then: “Are you reading my thoughts?” He hadn’t had a chance to ask before, and truth was, honestly didn’t want to ask, somewhat afraid of the answer. But, the fact couldn’t be ignored forever.
“I...” Cosmo sighed. “No, but I suspect if I tried I could,” he confessed. “I’ve been avoiding even thinking about it.” Then a biter laugh. “Been avoiding thinking all together.”
Ace nodded. “Thank you. We will train that ability as well. And work on my own shields. It is another step for you, Cosmo. No more.”
“Don’t want to do it again,” Cosmo muttered in defeat. “Don’t want to.”
Ace squeezed the clenched hand in his. “I know, Cosmo. But, what you’ve become cannot be ignored. No matter how much both of us may wish otherwise. And remember, what you can do is not an evil thing. It is powerful, yes, but not bad, or good for that matter. It is you that decides that.”
“That’s what scares me,” Cosmo said softly.
“There’s no reason to be scared, Cosmo.” Ace smiled. “I have nothing but the greatest faith that you will always use your powers wisely. For the right reasons.”
Cosmo looked up tentatively and Ace caught and held his gaze.
“You’ve never given me reason to think otherwise, Cosmo. Believe that in yourself and there is nothing to fear.”
Cosmo just looked at him, then sighed.
“Just don’t want it, Ace. Just don’t.”
“I know, but it’s yours. There’s no changing that.”
“Yeah,” Cosmo snorted. “That’s the part that sucks.”
“Am I interrupting?”
Both turned in surprise to find Ulene peeking in the door.
“I heard voices. I was hoping Cosmo was awake.”
“Ulene,” The word dropped with all the grace of cinderblock from Cosmo’s lips.
“Come in, Ulene,” Ace invited her, to receive a panicked look from his partner. But unlike before, Ulene did not retreat in the face of Cosmo’s fear, but confronted it head on and entered.
“I was just going to the kitchen, to dig up something to eat,” he explained, rising. Cosmo made a gurgle of protest but Ace ignored it. “I’ll check in on you two a little later.” And he beat a hasty retreat before Cosmo could intervene.
The door closed and Cosmo didn’t quite edit in time the dark thought he shot Ace’s way. He groaned silently *knowing* that thought had probably been unintentionally heard by his partner. A fact only driven home for sure by the amusement that flared through the link.
“Cosmo?” Ulene called softly, approaching, offering a warm smile that made him want to crawl under the blankets and hide all the more.
“It’s okay, Cosmo,” she said so very gently, coming to sit on the side of the bed. “Ace explained everything that has happened.”
“Everything?” Cosmo squeaked, head jerking up to her. And Ulene smiled, fingers going up and without hesitation to his temple, brushing along the stripe in his hair.
“Everything,” she confirmed even as he flinched away.
Cosmo shook his head, fingers clawing into the blanket even as he looked at everything except the woman beside him.
“Ulene.. you can’t.. you can’t understand. What I’ve done... You can’t..”
“I don’t understand. Not entirely. But...” Ulene caught his chin and made him look at her-- no small effort. “But, I want to try and understand. I wish you’d let me try and help you. You trusted me enough to tell me about your magic. I know, I know I acted like a jerk when you did, but now I understand what an incredible gift you gave me, trusting me like that. Please, let me return that gift and help you if I can.” Then a crooked smile. “Even if all I can do is be a cheerleader on the side-lines.”
“You’d look good in cheerleader outfit, “ he said without thinking, and her laugh and playful whack were his reward. But it did not relieve the tension in him.
“Ulene...” Cosmo gestured helplessly. “*I* don’t even know what I’ve done, or how I’ve done it. I... I could hurt you and it would kill me, kill me to put you at risk like that.”
“I’m not made of spun glass, Cosmo. And can’t you learn to control it? Like Mr. Coo.. Ace does.”
Cosmo looked down at his hands uncertainly. Could he? Could he control the Power? Did he want to control this new Power? The answer was no, but as Ace said, and as he knew on an instinctual level, he didn’t seem to have any choice. What he’d done. What he’d become...
“Ulene... I.. I can’t expect you to accept this. I mean, what I can do, what I’ll be able to do.. it’s..”
“It’s amazing, it’s terrifying and it’s a part of you,” Ulene filled in firmly. “And there’s no changing that. And it won’t change how I feel for you. My love didn’t disappear when you first told me about your magic and it’s certainly not going to evaporate now. Please, don’t shut me out if I can help. I love you.” And her lips brushed against his in a kiss and she hovered only a hair’s breadth away. “I love you, Cosmo. Magic and all.” The truth was there, in her steady and sure gaze.
Something in him suddenly unwound and he could finally look at her without feeling despair. “It... it won’t be easy, Ulene. Any of it. I haven’t got all my memory back and what I’ve been through...” He shuddered without thought. What he’d survived. What he did remember.
A warm touch to his face anchored him back in the here and now.
“I know, and that’s why I want to help. Have a little faith in me. Don’t push me away because you think you’ll scare me, or freak me out. Please?”
“You wouldn’t go even if I tried,” he muttered, giving in at last. And Ulene wouldn’t. It was one of the reasons he loved her. Her loyalty and sheer stubbornness.
“Probably not, but I’d much prefer it if I was invited to stay,” she countered tenderly, smiling radiantly at him.
“Stay,” he decided, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her into the bed. She went with a sweet laugh and, for the first time since his rescue, Cosmo could feel a sense of normalness in his suddenly not so normal world.
Outside, neither lover noticed the soft sound of movement in the hall as Ace kindly put a homemade ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door knob.
Kate smiled as she peered into the reading room where she found Ace snuggled into one of the old easy chairs looking, thank the gods, relaxed for the first time in days. Cosmo’s disappearance and his inability to help in any way had absolutely eaten holes in the magician soul. To see him smiling as he leafed through one of Anna’s photo albums was as much a relief to Kate as it was for Ace.
Ace slowly turned the page of the photo album laying across his lap. Anna had always had a love for the old style two dimensional photographs. She’d always claimed they caught the essence of the moment better than a 3D hologram could. That because a photo was two dimensional, it depended on your memories to complete the picture, and in that way, made it more personal.
Apparently her belief had rubbed onto Ace as well. Kate knew he had an extensive collection of photo albums himself and most of those pictures involved Cosmo, Zina and himself. It was good to know that trio was going to continue for years to come.
“Hey,” she called by way of polite warning as she wandered in, wiping the well worn dish towel over her hands.
His eyes flicked across it, then to her, a dark brow arching as he sighed. “Kate, I told you I would help you with the dishes,” he said, annoyed. Kate knew Ace had been made absolutely insane by having to play fifth wheel the last several days. So much so, he was even willing to resort to doing lowly dishes, just to at least feel he was helping out in some fashion.
“Don’t get worked up, Ace. There will be plenty of dishes in the future to deal with,” Kate reprimanded him with a smile, and a towel, which she tossed in his direction. His fingers flicked out almost without thought and turned the damp projectile into so many glittering butterflies.
Kate cocked an eyebrow at him, not looking impressed.
“You keep doing that and I won’t have any linens left.”
Ace laughed and waved his hand again. The butterflies reformed and the dish towel fell to the floor with a soggy thump.
“Show off,” Kate sighed, picking up the towel and setting it aside.
“And enjoying every minute of it,” Ace declared, with a grin that said he indeed was.
“I don’t doubt it.” Kate sat beside him, looking in the album still in his lap. “Once you came to grips with your magic, you took to it like a fish to water.” She could not imagine how it must have felt for him, the complete disappearance of the Magic Force when Cosmo had become the Magician. Temporary as it had been, to be cut off from that normally ever present sense of Power had to be disconcerting.
Ace looked with her, smiling at the picture of her and him. She with the water hose, he sopping wet and black hair dripping into his face. Black hair graced with three white stripes.
“It was always a part of me, no matter how much I tried to think otherwise,” he said, bemused.
“That’s what Anna always said, that you and the magic were inseparable.” Words of truth Anna had used to assure as much as convince Ace in his early years of insecurity.
“God, I miss her,” he sighed wistfully.
“I know,” Kate said softly, then looked around the house. “I guess that’s why I love living here. She’s still here in spirit. And sometimes, just sometimes, you can almost feel her presence with you.”
Ace looked with her. “Yes, you can,” he agreed quietly, the smile in his eyes as much as on his face speaking of the volumes of emotion the magician held for his teacher, if not adopted mother.
They savored the moment of peace with the reverence it deserved, but then the moment passed. The world moved on and chores still needed doing.
“Well, better get to the laundry now,” Kate sighed, pushing herself up.
“Here, I’ll help,” Ace offered, rising.
“With laundry? Not a chance!” Kate declared firmly. “I’ve seen what you can do to a sweater.”
Ace glared. “It was just that one time and besides, I am not a free loader, thank you very much. I am fully capable in helping out in some fashion. It’s not like I’ve been able to do much these last couple of days.” The last came out sharply, Ace not even realizing his fingers had curled into a fist till half a heartbeat later, to his chagrin.
Kate looked at him and smiled tenderly, touching his hand and taking it into hers even as he willed himself to relax. “I know how frustrating things have been for you, Ace, but that’s in the past now. Now, you’ve got to get yourself ready for the future. Now it is your turn to do something, the most important thing; help Cosmo through all of this. And the laundry and the dishes don’t mean squat when compared to that.” And she meant it.
Ace heaved a sigh and gave into her wisdom with a sheepish grin. “I know, but I still can’t help but feel I’m imposing on you, and all the others.”
“That’s what friendship is all about, Ace. We want to help in every way possible, even if it’s by making a cup of coffee, or cleaning a few dishes,” she assured lightly.
Ace let out a little laugh and just shook his head.
“And besides, you’ll be busy soon enough,” Kate reminded him.
He nodded, his eye flicking down the hallway to the guest bedrooms.
“Teaching Cosmo. All over again.”
And all over again began the next day.
Ace lounged comfortably on the back porch enjoying the warm afternoon sun, which was just managing to sneak past the eaves and land across his feet. He was even more pleased to see Cosmo join him, the screen door swinging close with a well worn squeak as the young man wandered to edges of the sunshine. Out here in the daylight his fair complexion seemed even more washed out, but he looked far more with it now. Apparently his partner’s afternoon nap had been thankfully dream free. The same could not be said for his night’s rest, Cosmo having woken from a particularly violent nightmare. It had taken both Ulene and Ace to bring the young man out of the vicious cycle his V.R. influenced dream had locked him into and anchor him back into realty. But they had succeed, and that was all that mattered.
“Hey, partner. Glad to see you’re looking better.” And Cosmo was. He was still pale, still a little shaky, but vastly improved from yesterday. Being surrounded by his friends, his family, seemed to be the very best balm for Cosmo’s tattered soul. And everyone gave a hundred and ten percent. From Ace and Ulene’s self appointed task of guarding the young magician’s sleep against the dark specters of his time in V.R., to Kate and Vega contenting themselves with trying to feed the teenager at every opportunity.
But the darkness was far from purged and it showed in his face, in his brooding stare out toward the ocean. It showed even more in the magic currents that were hissing darkly around his friend.
“I know there’s no avoiding it,” Cosmo said, without preamble.
The magic. What it had done to him. What it had made him. Ace listened intently, patiently, pleased and proud that Cosmo had found the strength to accept the changes in himself. For a moment the young man was quiet. Then he ran a hand through his hair, the white strands shimmering amongst the red.
“I.. I’m not ready to deal with the big problems, just yet. Just the little ones for now.” Cosmo looked at him, as if seeking some kind of permission. “Is that okay?”
Is that okay? It hurt that Cosmo felt he had to ask. As if Ace was demanding something Cosmo was not willing to give. “Whatever you want to do, Cosmo, whenever your ready to do it, that is what’s okay. I’ll help you however I can, but what we do is entirely in your hands.” He projected his sincerity and his love from the very depths of his soul for the empath to receive “All I want is for you to be okay. It has been all I’ve ever wanted.”
Always. From the beginning to now.
Cosmo looked at him a moment, shuffled self-consciously and nodded, a hint of a smile touching his lips.
“I know. Thanks, Ace. Thanks for everything.”
“That’s what friends are for.” Ace smiled warmly.
“Yeah,” Cosmo said softly, staring out at the rolling water again. “Yeah.”
The silence dragged on as Cosmo simply stared out at the ocean. Whether by instinct, or because of the altered link, Ace knew something in particular was eating at Cosmo. A darkness he didn’t seem to know how to lift from his soul.
“You said you wanted to start on the small problems,” Ace started, wanting to steer Cosmo away from his pensive mood. “How about working on venting?” Beyond the mild malnutrition and nightmares was the problem that came with the drugs that had been used to keep Cosmo under control. They had thrown his body out of whack, and while they lingered in his system even the most basic things were difficult, particularly venting.
Cosmo smiled slightly. “Sounds like a plan.”
It didn’t go well. At least, from Cosmo’s point of view. It took every ounce of the younger magician’s skill to simply harness his scattered magic, and even then, all he could do was release it in a wild torrent that sent the couch sliding back to the wall and knocked the easy chair over all together. It left Cosmo trembling in Ace’s embrace, the elder magician all that kept the younger from falling to the floor.
“You did it” Ace praised softly.
A bitter snort was his reply. “Yeah, I did,” Cosmo muttered, eyeing the damage unhappily, fingers curling into a fist. “God, it’s like being a beginner all over again. I’m better than this!”
“Yes, you are, and you will be again. The drugs are still in your system. Your control will come back with a little time, and you just have to accept it,” Ace assured him gently.
“Like I’ve got to accept that the military will punish Colonel Shawn? Like I have to accept that he’s never going to go after another magic user again?” Cosmo snapped viscously; then wilted, the fight dying from his as face as fast as it had burned to life.
“I’m sorry, Ace. I didn’t mean to snap at ya. It’s just... I..” Cosmo faltered, and shook his head in frustration. “I dreamt of Shawn last night. And.. and I can’t seem to shake it. I’m sorry.”
Ace gave Cosmo a small hug. So that was the taint on his partner’s spirit. “It’s okay, Cosmo. There’s no need to apologize. Want to tell me about it? Your dream.”
Cosmo was silent a moment. He looked down at his feet and then back up, but not seeing really anything. When he spoke his voice a soft and far away.
“He was doing it again. Kidnapping magic users, both young and old this time, and he was doing any and every kind of torture to break him to his will.” Cosmo drew a shaky breath, body ridged. “It was all happening again and all I could do was watch. I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t end it.”
Ace’s hand moved over his partner’s back in small, reassuring circles.
“It was only a dream, Cosmo. Not a pleasant one, but still, only a dream,” he consoled.
Cosmo looked up to him, eyes haunted. “Was it? How do we know that, Ace? How do we know that.. that the military won’t let him try again?”
“Faith. Faith that people are generally good and will do the right thing,” was all Ace could offer. “Chasson believed in the General when he said he wouldn’t let this happen again, and I trust Chasson’s opinion.”
“And if we’re wrong?” Cosmo prodded relentlessly.
“Then we’re wrong,” Ace admitted. “And we try to do everything we can to correct that wrong.”
The younger man let out a cruel laugh. “The 'too little, too late' theory, eh? Not exactly the reassurance I wanted, bud.”
“It’s the only reassurance I can give, Cosmo. Lying to you wouldn’t help anything. Not that I could get away with lying to you anyway,” Ace said simply, without heat. Something in his candor struck a cord in his friend. Cosmo blinked for a moment, lost, then dropped his head, red hair falling over his face and his shoulders slumped.
“I’m sorry, man. You’re the last person I should be giving hell to. I don’t mean to take this out on you. I don’t.”
“*Don’t* apologize, Cosmo. You’ve got to get it out of your system for your own good, and I know, I understand just how frustrating this is for you.”
“I’m projecting?” the teen asked worriedly.
“No. But I’ve been down the same road as you. Don’t dwell on Shawn or what he’s done. He’d like that too much. Don’t give him the satisfaction, okay? There’s a lot better things in life to concentrate on than a twisted man like him.”
Cosmo looked at him and nodded. “’kay.”
“You know, there are easier ways to move the furniture.”
If looks could kill, Vega would be dead were he stood in the doorway. But the Lieutenant only smiled into Cosmo’s dark glare and Ace shook his head at their friends irreverent humor.
“How you feeling? That help?” Ace asked, redirecting his partner’s attention. Cosmo was silent a moment, and then nodded slowly.
“Helped. But still...” But still was a long way from the control that Cosmo normally had.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Ace told him. Like every step with magic, the little ones were just as important as the big ones. “And that’s all that matters.”
“Hey, if you’re up to it, Savannah and Fran would like to stop in and visit. They’re heading out tomorrow morning with me and were hoping to say goodbye to you both,” Vega offered and that seemed to brighten up Cosmo some.
“That would be wonderful,” Ace said and meant it.
Cosmo had expected to feel a certain amount of apprehension when he saw Vega’s car rolling up the drive in the early evening. After all, the only reason he knew Fran was because of their time spent together in that madman’s government sanctioned hell. But, it didn’t come as Cosmo moved out onto the porch to greet their guests. Instead, he felt a smile pull his lips up as Fran threw herself happily into his arms, hugging him fiercely. Her aura had become as much of a life-line to his sanity as his link to Ace, and he hadn’t realize how much he’d missed it till he sensed the young Spirit Walker again.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Cosmo,” Fran greeted him, grinning, black hair shining in the setting sun.
“It’s good to be feeling better.” And it was. “How are you doing, kiddo?”
A shadow flitted over her eyes and Cosmo couldn’t help but feel a stab of rage at its existence.
“I’m okay. I’m back with Savannah and that’s all that matters,” the young girl said with a somberness borne from her experience. But her smile was genuine as she looked up to her adopted mother. Cosmo remembered Savannah only in the briefest way from the plane flight back. Even then, details were sketchy.
“It is good to see you up and about,” the Indian woman offered with a hug that Cosmo could not refuse. “I cannot thank you enough for helping get Fran out of there. Never enough.”
“Thank Fran. She did as much, if not more than me, with her Spirit Walking,” he told Savannah honestly, playfully ruffling Fran’s hair. Something he’d never had the chance to do during their entire time together in the lab. Fran rolled her eyes and shoved his hand away, but never stopped grinning.
“How about everyone come in?” Ace offered. “Dinner won’t be ready for a few minutes, but we can relax in the parlor till then.”
“Wonderful. I’d offer to help, but I know how Kate is in the kitchen,” Savannah laughed.
“Can I stay out here, for a little while and just look about?” Fran asked, still smiling, but the smile no longer so genuine. And Cosmo understood why. Fran had been a prisoner for several weeks before he too was captured; to be outside again, to be somewhere full of life and beauty and to not have walls hemming you in meant everything.
“I can show you about, if you’d like?” he offered.
“A good idea,” Ace said, and Cosmo felt his understanding. “I’ll call you two as soon as dinner is ready.”
“Thank you,” Fran said, taking his hand, the smile now back in full force.
The tour started with the gardens, which were spectacular. But then, being tended by a Nature Mage, what else would you except? A winding path led to the rocky crags that separated the boundaries of the yard from the restless water of the ocean.
“There’s nothing like this were Savannah and I live. It’s mostly desert, there.”
“Deserts can be beautiful.”
“They can be. And dangerous,” Fran said as they reached a weather worn stone bench.
“Oh yeah, I know that,” Cosmo chuckled ruefully, sitting. He’d run into trouble in the desert one time too many for his own comfort. But somehow always managed to get out of trouble again. Well, with the help of Ace more often than not.
Fran settled on the bench beside him and for a moment they just watched the ocean. How it rhythmically rushed up to the shore, crashed and settled back again. Always the same, always different.
“It’s peaceful here, watching the water,” Fran murmured.
“It is. I’m glad I’m here, it makes things...” he let the sentence die. Fran was the last person who needed to hear of his own problems. She’d gone through as much, if not more, than him. But his faux pas seemed to be the opening the young girl was looking for.
“Do you think he’s still out there? Colonel Shawn.”
“Out there hurting people?” Cosmo clarified, “No, probably not.” And wished he felt more certain about saying that.
“I’ve had nightmares, about him. About that place,” Fran said, voice a haunted whisper and he found himself putting an arm around her and pulling her into a hug.
“Me too. But they’re just nightmares. They’re not real and they’re not the V.R.” he said softly, as much to assure her as himself. It was easier than he’d expected to talk to Fran about this. Easier than it was to talk to Ulene and Ace because she knew. She’d gone through this as well and could understand in a way they never would.
“I know, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” she said bitterly.
“No,” Cosmo sighed. “No, it doesn’t. But you’ve got Savannah now, and I’m sure she helps.”
At that Fran brightened. “Yeah, she does. It sounds silly, but she holds me and rubs my hair back and sings to me until I finally calm down.”
“There’s nothing silly about that,” Cosmo assured. “Ace helps me the same way. Well, except for the singing part.”
“Do you think they’ll ever stop? The nightmares?” Fran looked up to him as if his opinion would be the only one she would believe.
“They will, in time,” he answered, meaning it. “You won’t ever forget it, what happened, neither will I, but the nightmares will go away.”
“Not soon enough,” Fran said quietly, hugging him.
And he squeezed her back. “Hear you there, kiddo.”
And a few minutes past in comfortable silence, then Cosmo noticed Fran was looking at him. More specifically, she was looking at the white stripe in his hair. For a moment he was stunned. He hadn’t even thought about it, or been self-conscious when both Fran and Savannah had seen him with it.
“Savannah says the magic gave you that stripe. You’re more powerful now, aren’t you?” she asked with innocent curiosity.
And Fran nodded. “I thought so. Your aura’s changed and when I saw you, I knew something had changed it.”
Change. Oh yeah. Big time change.
“I’m glad you wrecked that place. I wish I could have done that,” Fran remarked enviously.
“Can’t say I honestly remember,” Cosmo sighed, then shook his head. “But truth is, I’d rather not dwell on it. I don’t like having to use my magic, any of it, like that. Magic shouldn’t be used to hurt people. I know, sometimes you don’t have a choice, but still...”
Fran nodded silently beside him, a silence broken suddenly by a loud shout from Vega that made them both jump.
And apparently, Vega thought everyone in the whole county needed to know it.
“Guess this means dinners ready,” Cosmo declared sarcastically, smiling.
“Great,” Fran exclaimed, “I’m starved.”
Ace was hard pressed to remember a meal that had tasted better. But then, it wasn’t so much the fare, as it was the company. You would also be hard pressed to believe that these were people who, only two days ago, had been desperately searching for their loved ones. But then, nothing was to be gained, he guessed, on dwelling, and it was great just to relax and talk and laugh and to do little magic tricks for everyone’s entertainment. Well, everyone but Vega, since he tended to be on the receiving end of most of Ace’s tricks. But even he was relaxed and laughing and tossing the occasional rogue napkin at Ace, and that had only added to the laughter, especially from Fran, which was a joy for him. Cosmo had been equally amused, a bit more restrained, but seemingly to thoroughly enjoy himself as much as the others. Particularly the points when Vega got razed.
Ace wished he knew what had caused that to change.
Something had happened to Cosmo. Something illusive that Ace couldn’t quite put his finger on. He’d watched from a discrete distance as Fran had said her good-byes to Cosmo. Her and Savannah were accompanying Vega back to Electro City in the morning. >From there they would catch a flight and at last be able to return home. Their departure seemed to only weigh more and more heavily on the young man, till Ace found him staring out the foyer window, watching Vega’s car drift out of sight down the drive. And after that, Cosmo had lost his happy air. He’d become thoughtful, if not downright pensive. Ace wanted him to smile again. Wanted, perhaps a bit hopelessly, for the joy and relax camaraderie that had been found at dinner to take hold and forever banish the foul taint the last days had written across all their hearts.
Yes, hopeless thinking, but then -Ace smiled slightly at himself- he was nothing if not the optimist.
An optimism he wasn’t going to give up quite yet. If anything had come out of this evening, it was the evidence that the drugs seemed to be finally clearing from Cosmo’s system.
The young magician seemed totally unaware of it, but setting on the decorative table by the foyer window, out which the teen stared, a decorative figurine danced in a silent pirouette beneath the slight motions of Cosmo’s hand. His attention was on the drive, where the tail lights for Vega’s car could just been seen gliding out of sight.
“It’s good to see your venting skills are back to normal,” Ace said, pleased, though he felt a tug of worry at how his partner started. The figure bobbled to a rough stop and Cosmo look down at it almost stricken.
“I.. I didn’t even realize,” he stammered, frowning. Ace understood that frown. He was used to that, using his magic with minimal effort, if not without conscious thought; Cosmo was not, to say the least.
“Are you okay, Cosmo?” Ace asked softly. His friend’s gaze skittered away back to the window and the car long gone.
“I don’t know.”
An honest answer at least. Even if it wasn’t the one Ace wanted to hear.
“How about getting some sleep? I don’t know about you, but this old man is tired,” Ace piped.
Cosmo’s lip quirked up and the magician was graced with a side-long glance. At least his partner’s sense of humor hadn’t entirely vanished.
But it was too damn subdued for Ace’s taste.
“No,” Cosmo sighed, looking back out to the car that was only a memory now. “Not.. not feeling like sleeping right now.”
“What do you feel like right now?” Ace asked.
Cosmo was a silent a moment, frowned slightly, then shook his head. “Wish I knew,” was the verdict. “Wish I knew.”
Ace nodded his understanding, dropped his hand companionably on Cosmo’s shoulder and squeezed gently. His partner gave him a grateful look and a tired smile.
“What’s everyone staring at?” Ulene asked pleasantly, coming up along Cosmo’s other side. Her arm went around his waist as she looked out the window with them.
“Nothing in particular,” Cosmo said, though Ace knew it wasn’t quite the truth. Just what Cosmo was looking for, wasn’t what either his companions could see.
“Dinner was great tonight. Ms. Morrigan really outdid herself.”
Ms. Morrigan. Ace barely restrained a chuckle at that. If Kate heard that, she’d groan just as bad as he when Ulene called him Mr. Cooper.
“She sure did,” Cosmo admitted. “Didn’t hurt she wouldn’t let anyone within fifteen feet of the kitchen while she was getting everything ready.” This was said with a meaningful glance in Ace’s direction. Being on the receiving end of Cosmo’s teasing made him want to grin, but he went along and frowned with mock annoyance.
“And what do you mean by that crack?”
As if Cosmo couldn’t feel his happiness. Cosmo laughed and Ulene as well, though she still seemed a little uneasy around him. But she was getting better and Ace was overjoyed that he and Ulene were finally getting to know each other. He could only wish it had been under better circumstances.
“It’s getting late. We should be getting to bed,” Ulene suggested with her best smile and a little hug.
Cosmo’s earlier joy evaporated to be replaced by a look of uncertainty. Sleep was no sanctuary for the young man. Not now. And probably not for a awhile.
“I.. I don’t feel like sleeping, just yet,” he said softly. There was no missing the underlying tremor in his voice. Ulene threw Ace a quick glance of worry that he shared, but it never touched her smile, or her voice as she leaned a little more into her boyfriend and whispered.
“I just said we should go to bed. Who said anything about sleeping?”
The look on Cosmo’s face almost made Ace choke in laughter. As it was, he barely clamped his jaw shut -a very large grin trying to do its best to escape- and pretended he hadn’t quite heard what she had said.
Cosmo was more than a little beet red, no matter how hard he tried not to be. Not so much at Ulene’s suggestion, but the fact she’d made it anywhere near Ace’s general vicinity. Bravo for the young lady! That was a way to get Cosmo out of his funk.
“Well, either way, this magician is going to get some sleep, “Ace declared cheerfully. “Goodnight you two.”
“Goodnight, Mr.. Goodnight, Ace,” Ulene corrected herself with a shy smile.
“Night, bro,” Cosmo added with a look that said that ‘no, he hadn’t fooled his empathic partner in the least’.
So what if he hadn’t? Ace could go to sleep this night knowing Cosmo was in good hands.
...call on us...
“Leave me alone.” A plea, an order, a desperate hope.
He shook his head in denial, though it was a useless gesture.
“No.. no.. no...”
And in a blink he was staring up at the ceiling, eyes wide and blind, the breath clinging in his throat as he gulped like a fish out of a water. For long moments Cosmo just lay there, staring at the ceiling fan that drifted in lazy circles above the bed.
Bed. He was in bed and Ulene was curled up and sleeping soundly beside him, exhausted by the last days events just like everyone else was.
Everyone except the stupid voices in his head.
Cosmo groaned and threw an arm up over his face. They weren’t going away. They were getting louder. Louder and more demanding, refusing to be ignored.
Carefully, Cosmo rolled out of bed, feeling the sheets cling to his sweat streaked body. Morning was just peeking over the horizon and he knew he didn’t want to try and get any more sleep. Getting cleaned up did sound good, however. He grabbed a clean shirt and pants from the pile of clothes Ulene had brought with her and tipped toed out the door. She had more than earned the right to sleep in and he wasn’t going to begrudge her of it.
Heading down the hall to the bathroom Cosmo heaved a sigh. He’d hoped what had happened last night would have become less poignant with a good night’s, well, maybe not good, but a night’s sleep. If anything, it had became only more so.
Shutting the bathroom door behind him, Cosmo tossed his clothes across the sink and paused to look in the mirror. He touched the stripe and studied it intently. It didn’t look too bad, did it? Truth was, he’d find it kind of cool if not for...
Getting the shower running Cosmo tried to make his mind flat-line. Tried to get himself to not think of anything as he stepped beneath the warm stream of water, letting it beat into the tense muscles of his back.
It wasn’t working.
He couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everything. The base. Shawn. Himself.
And more to the point, what she’d said. What it meant.
It was late and time for Fran and Savannah to go back to Margaret’s. They were leaving at the crack of dawn tomorrow, going to Electro City with Vega where they would catch a flight back home.
Home. Fran said the word with such relish and Cosmo shared her sentiments. Grabbing her in a bear hug, he lifted her off the ground, the young teen letting out a laugh and hugging him back just as ardently. Then he’d put her back on her feet, she looking up at him.
“I’m glad. I’m glad you got the Power, Cosmo,” she said, so out of the blue that it left him blinking, dumbfounded.
“Why?” He barely managed to keep from blurting it out.
Fran smiled in a too wise kind of way. “Because you’re one of the good-guys.”
One of the good-guys. Yeah, he supposed he was, but the hear it-- hear from Fran. Faith. Something about Fran’s faith, the faith of that young girl had touched him to the quick. It was not blind faith. Fran had seen too much, survived too much to be lured by blind faith. She saw something in him. Something important about him having the Power.
Something that scared him like nothing else.
Cosmo shook his head, soaping himself up and focusing for a moment on just getting clean. Or trying to focus on getting clean, but still, he couldn’t stop thinking. He knew there was no ignoring what he’d become. Knew Ace had faith in his abilities. Fran had faith in his abilities.
But did he have faith in his abilities?
Cosmo frowned, turning to let the soapy lather sluice off his body. And what if he refused the gift given, but not returnable? That was another question seriously in need of asking. Was there any refusing it at all?
No. Of course not. He of all people should know better than to ask a question like that. His world was filled with the magic. And when he’d lost it for a brief stint due to Brian Thomas, he’d come to a chilling realization that bitch and moan as he might, he would rather die with his magic, then live without it.
That, and it wasn’t like the Magic Force was being a passive player this time. It was getting downright obnoxious, if Cosmo had to confess.
And frightening for its determination.
Cosmo spun the faucets off, stepping out, water spattering onto the bathroom rug as he reached for a towel. He turned and looked at himself in the condensation hazed mirror. Foggy though his image might be, there was no missing the white stripe mixed in with the red. He moved his hand across the mirror to bring his own image into sharper focus. Stared for a moment.
His Power was what Shawn had craved. His Power was what Fran admired.
Cosmo frowned thoughtfully.
Good-guy. One of the good-guys. Like Ace.
Like Ace. And Cosmo smiled suddenly as if a light switch had been thrown. He knew the world of good Ace had done with his power. He’d seen the wonders he’d worked. Time and time again, life and limb of innocent and guilty alike had been saved by the Magician.
Maybe.. just maybe he...
Ace! He needed to talk to Ace, he decided, wrapping the towel around his waist, reaching for the door. He really needed to talk to Ace about...
“Yikes!” Cosmo had the heart attack of his life when he opened the bathroom door to find his older partner lounging against the frame.
“Morning, Cosmo,” the magician said, smiling.
Gasping for breath and grabbing the door jamb for balance, Cosmo recovered from his shock and looked up at his friend. Ace was clad only in a fuzzy bathrobe, hair mussed, and sleep still glinting in his eyes. Guilt welled up in him.
“I was projecting again, wasn’t I?”
“Like letting loose with an air-horn in a library,” Ace informed him cheerfully.
“Man..” Cosmo shook his head. “I’m sorry, dude. We have *got* to work on that. I didn’t mean too..”
“It’s okay, Cosmo,” Ace assured, pushing off the door frame. “How about we get dressed and meet in the living room?”
“Yeah. Okay.” Cosmo felt himself turning beet red. “Ace, I’m sorry..”
But his partner just waved it off. “See you in five.”
The sun now filled the living room, washing through the high, vaulted windows in warm, friendly waves. It washed over Ace, casting sharp shadows across his body as he leaned against the fireplace mantel, a serious look on his face as Cosmo paced ceaselessly in front of him.
Ace listened as Cosmo explained what had happened the night before, both pleased and amazed. Pleased that Cosmo's earlier reticent mood seemed to be finally lifted like some unseen weight from his shoulders. Amazed that this change had been brought about by the words of a young, twelve year old girl.
But there was more to it than that, he knew. Cosmo had come to the same realization he had, long ago. No, he did not want the power, or the responsibility, but he had it. There was no denying that, and worse, ignoring the new power could be an even greater threat to not only Cosmo, but those around him. That left only one choice: learn. Learn to use it, to harness it, for good or for ill.
That and Shawn played a roll. Men like him, men of evil intent and the people they preyed on. Cosmo despised being a victim, but despised even more other innocent people being victims. And the thought that Shawn, or people like him, would always be out there only added fuel to his fire.
Fran’s faith, in a way, all their faith in this young man seemed to have finally tipped the scale.
“I can’t ignore it anymore, Ace,” Cosmo said at last, with an air of certainty. “It’s not going to leave me alone and.. and I guess I’m just avoiding the inevitable.”
Ace nodded. “Probably.”
“I... I need to do this.. but..”
“But you’re scared silly?” Ace offered, without judgment.
“Way beyond silly,” Cosmo snorted, and shook his head. “But it’s not just that. I.. I don’t know if I can do this. The change.”
“I think you can,” Ace said, with conviction.
“But what about controlling it?” Cosmo demanded. “You said I wasn’t in control last time. What’s to say I might not be in control this time?”
Ace looked at his partner thoughtfully, his brow creased. He did not doubt Cosmo could do this again, become the Magician, but it was a serious question whether he could control it.
“Last time, you were drugged, you were desperate, and you were fighting for your life,” Ace spoke at last. “Those obstacles have been removed, but, truth is, we won’t know till we try.”
We. The word seemed to help. It let Cosmo know he wasn’t alone. Would not be alone with this. Now, perhaps more than ever, Cosmo needed Ace’s help and he would not let his friend down.
Cosmo smiled, sensing for sure his conviction, since Ace was doing his best to project.
“Man. Guess that means I’m ready for my first magic lesson,” he heaved, not entirely with as much confidence as Ace would hope for. But who was he to talk? It’d taken Vega, Anna, Kate and three days to pass before he even *thought* about trying to become the Magician again.
“Are you sure, Cosmo? You’ve only just recovered.” That was the other worry. While his magic was back, Cosmo still was not in peek physical shape yet.
“I..” Cosmo hesitated, seemed almost ready to back out, then shook his head. “I don’t think I have much choice.”
By the look, Ace had pegged that one dead on. The voice of the Magic Force. A real pain in the ass when it wanted to be. Ace pushed himself off the mantle and walked up to his partner. Brought his hand up and rested it on a strong shoulder, squeezing firmly.
“You can do it, Cosmo. We can do this.”
Cosmo blushed slightly, ducked his head and a smile hinted at his lips.
“Thanks, bro. Thanks.”
Ace nodded and let his hand drop and stepped back.
“Well, I guess no better time then the present.”
Cosmo looked less than enthused. “Yeah. I guess so.”
Ace laughed gently. “You can do it.”
Cosmo still didn’t look confident, but nodded his determination to make the attempt. “So.. where should we go to try?”
Ace looked about the large, empty room and shrugged. “Why not here?”
Cosmo frowned, looked with him, then at him. “If I blow out all the windows, I’m not paying for it!”
Ace froze, then busted out laughing. He’d actually forgotten that for a moment. This was the room he’d blown out all the windows the first time he’d become the Magician.
“Fair enough! Though I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Cosmo rolled his eyes and shook his arms out. “Okay.. I can do this...” the young man said softly to himself. “I can...”
“You can,” Ace interrupted. “But first, shut up and relax.”
Cosmo graced him with a glare, but only for a moment, closing his eyes and letting his arms drop to his sides.
“That’s it. Just breathe. Do nothing more than breathe.” Ace fell into their old routine. He let his voice move in sweeping lilts, rising and falling like gently waves of water. And just as before, Cosmo responded. His breathing eased out and muscles in his body visibly relaxed.
But unlike times before, Ace felt the power collecting, not dispersing. Gathering around the young magician.
“What do you hear?” he asked so very softly, adapting their routine. Cosmo’s brow furrowed ever so slightly.
“Listen. Listen and you’ll understand.” The way Anna had taught him, guided him and here, in this very same house, in this very same room, he was continuing her legacy. A chill raced up his spine and more as the magic seemed to bunch up around Cosmo.
“Yes... hear...” Cosmo’s voice was soft... little more than a whisper. And then a smile. So slight as to be almost nonexistent. Then his apprentice’s eyes snapped open with such speed that Ace jumped. He shivered at the almost silvery hue the gray eyes had taken as Cosmo’s voice ripped clean and clear through the room.
“Powers of Magic, open thy Force to me!”
And that was when all hell broke loose -along with a few vases- as Ace fell back. Light, brilliant, bright, orange and red light laced with purple enveloped the younger man in a crescendo of power the magician felt to his very bones. And in less than a heartbeat it came to a climax with an almost audible snap.
Ace stared wide eyed as Cosmo gasped for breath, swaying unsteadily, looking around momentarily lost. It was somewhat unnerving for the elder magician to be a witness of the transformation, instead of the center of it. He’d adamantly declared he’d never honestly expected to see anyone else perform it in his life time.
That had all changed.
“Cosmo?” Ace called, steadying his unsteady partner. He felt the Power washing off his young friend and suffered the odd sensation that their roles had been reversed. “You okay?”
“I... “ Cosmo shook his head. Once, twice..
“I think.. I think the Magic Force is trying to like.. take over again.”
“Refuse it,” Ace said firmly.
“Not that easy.”
“It has to be. You are not the Magic Force’s puppet. It gave you this gift, but that does not mean it controls you because of it.”
“Focus on me. Can you do that?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Cosmo’s breathing steadied and he grew a little more firm in his footing. The altered, streamlined glasses lifted to Ace and he met those hidden eyes.
“It’s there, in the background, but I ain’t giving in, bud. I’m in control.”
“Good.” Ace patted his arm. “When you feel that control slipping, let me know and we’ll try your release. In time, the control will be automatic and without thought.”
“Yeah.. yeah..” Cosmo said. Then: “So. What do you think?”
Ace paused, studying his partner. It was Cosmo, he had to admit. He could see the influence his own costume had in how Cosmo wrapped the magic force around him, but there was no denying the younger Magician’s individual interpretation. He pulled the gray coat aside to find a stylized half face design across the red and orange shirt. Like his own signet and yet, very much not.
Cosmo looked with him, as if seeing it all for the first time, which, Ace supposed, he was.
“Wow,” was the young man’s response. A whisper and a shout all at once.
“Yup, wow,” Ace agreed.
“Are you okay? Is this messing you up like last time?” Cosmo asked worriedly.
“No.” Ace frowned slightly, not having noticed, but realizing this time was a bit different. The Magic Force was still there, greatly reduced, to a level he probably couldn’t cast so much as a minor levitate without clashing directly with Cosmo’s magic use, but not entirely sucked away like the first time. “No. I can still sense some remnant of the Magic Force, though it is meager. From my own experience I think the first time is the worse time.”
“I’ll second that. And I don’t even remember,” Cosmo rumbled, moving around the room.
“How do you feel, Cosmo?”
“I...” The teen hesitated, licked his lips and frowned. “I fell.. powerful. I mean..”
“Do you want to try and cast?” Ace asked.
“Heck no!” Cosmo shook his head in emphasis. “One step at a time here.”
Ace nodded. “The best approach.” Then watched as Cosmo stepped into a shadow cast by the rising sun cutting through the window, frowned, stepped out, then into again. Then he pulled off his glasses, studying them curiously.
Ace approached. “What’s wrong?”
Cosmo wore a confused expression. “They don’t mess with my vision,” he declared. “When I move into dark spaces it doesn’t seem to effect how well I can see.”
The question *how* was clearly in his voice. Ace smiled slightly.
“They’ve become imbued.”
The confused expression did not improve. Ace’s smiled widened.
“They’ve absorbed the magic you naturally radiate. Your aura. Let’s face it, you’re never without them. I wouldn’t doubt your coat has taken on similar properties. Haven’t you noticed that my cape is not necessarily normal?”
Cosmo’s eyes brightened with understanding. “Yeah. That’s why I always sort of felt a tingle, even before my magic broke through.”
Ace nodded. “Yes. It has absorbed quite a sum of magical energy over time, to the point its become a magical entity in itself. I’ve had that cape since the beginning.”
“So, you’re saying my stuff is becoming the same way?”
“Some of it. The glasses probably since you *always* wear them.”
Cosmo smirked and then winced, swaying again.
“I think.. think it’s time to let go,” Cosmo said, voice shaky.
“Okay, you can do this.”
“Still not paying for the windows.”
Ace smiled. “Let’s go for not breaking them. Release with a thought, a single thought. Form a command in your mind, sort of the ultimate refusal. Use that command every time. Let your body relax totally, your mind, your spirit and use that command,” Ace explained quickly, but clearly.
“Okay.” Cosmo nodded, getting his bearing back and pulling away slightly. “Relax.”
“Yes,” Ace said softly. “Relax and will the power away. Your will against its will.”
“Relax,” Cosmo murmured. “Relax.”
“You can do it, Cosmo,” Ace encouraged. “Just keep yourself relaxed and in control.”
Sweat beaded across his partner’s face. Muscles started to tense and Ace began to worry. He felt the Magic Force, as if it was trying to hold onto the young man, as if it was fighting him-- which it was. Volatile were the powers of magic. Not necessarily an intelligent entity, but a force of will still to be reckoned with.
A battle that Cosmo seemed to be loosing.
Ace felt panic rising him, then crushed it ruthlessly. Instead he calmed. Forced himself and his voice to be steady.
“Relax, Cosmo.” An order and almost inviolate in its intensity. “Relax, focus, release.” If need be Ace was ready to try and draw the power away himself. Not a maneuver he relished, since it probably would not be pleasant for either one of them, but he was ready to do it, if he had to.
But the need did not come. Something in Ace’s determination filtered through and Cosmo went momentarily limp and in that moment, it happened. The transition was brief, little less than a second, if that, and it was like a supernova had been unleashed. The air vibrated as Cosmo refused the gift and sent it away with a gasp that was echoed by the wash of power that exploded out of him and back into the magic fabric around them.
“Gotcha,” Ace gasped, getting his bearings just fast enough to catch Cosmo. His friend hung limply in his arms, blinking madly.
“I did it.” It was said with awe.
“You did,” Ace confirmed, just as awed, and justifiably proud.
Cosmo looked up, looked around, then looked at him.
“Let’s not do that again for awhile, okay?” the teen said and Ace laughed.
“Deal!” He released his hold as Cosmo got his feet again, but stayed near as the young man studied the damage he had done. The windows weren’t shattered, but two vases were in pieces and a number of picture frames had their glass cracked into intricate spiderwebs.
“Can’t believe I did it,” he whispered.
“You did,” a new voice intruded; Kate’s voice as she peeked in. “Talk about your wake up calls.”
Cosmo blushed. “Sorry.”
Kate laughed and behind her was Ulene looking in, perhaps not quite comprehending what had just happened, but knowing a turning point had been reached.
“I think some breakfast is in order. Then, nothing else, just a day of relaxing,” Ace decided.
Cosmo looked up at him uncertainly. “You sure? I..”
“You just started. And took one hell of a leap today, partner.” Ace clapped him on the shoulder and steered him unobtrusively into Ulene’s embrace. “We’ve got a lot of work for us in the future, but that doesn’t mean we have to try and do it all in one day.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll get things going in the kitchen,” Kate declared, leaving, but not without a touch to Cosmo’s arm in congratulations.
“Kate said you did it. Became the Magician again,” Ulene said softly.
Cosmo nodded. “Yeah.” He looked to Ace and grinned. “Yeah. I did. Thanks, Ace.”
Ace accepted with a small nod and a proud smile. “Let’s get something to eat. Then, I don’t know about you two, but I need a shower.”
The wind ruffled his hair and it felt wonderful. Ace sat, back pressed against the rocks. They radiated the heat from the day and were a welcome warmth in the coming coolness of evening. Cosmo was beside him, slouched against him, asleep. The morning had gone as planed.. sort of. Okay, so Ace *was* a neat freak and couldn’t resist enjoying a nice, long shower before catching the tail end of breakfast. Anyway, it wasn’t like Kate hadn’t made enough to feed a small army, which as a good thing since Cosmo’s appetite had come back with a vengeance. After that, they relaxed and willed the day away.
The hike up the cliffs had been Ulene’s idea. Get Cosmo out, get him about and he saw her logic. Being cooped up inside was not the way the young man lived his life, and being active, getting outside would do him a world of good. It would get his mind off everything. The bad, and the good that had come from all of this. So up the long winding cliffs they went, enjoying the view and talking about simple things, avoiding discussion’s on magic, or what had happened.
While the hike had been relaxing, it was also taxing. Ace had seen the slight strain in his younger partner as they settled. The sleep had come -not surprisingly- shortly after they’d sat down and now Ace cradled Cosmo against him, the red head resting on his shoulder as the teen snored softly.
“There you are,” a soft voice whispered. Ace looked up and over to Kate who was coming up the trail. He smiled. Not that she didn’t know where they were at all times. She was a Nature Mage after all.
Kate unfolded a blanket she carried and settled it around Cosmo, the young man stirring slightly and burrowing closer to Ace. He frowned at the slight projection of unease. Kate’s mage aura. Cosmo was sensing it and reacting. After what had happened he was probably a touch paranoid. Ace simply tried to project reassurance. Comfort. Let his contentment into his thoughts for Cosmo to receive. It seemed to work, the teen relaxing and his transmissions becoming a flat-line again.
Ace looked up into the worried green-gray eyes and nodded.
“Yes. He’s just projecting a little,” Ace answered just as softly, feeling an immense warmth at the connection he currently had with the young man. He’d always wanted to share Cosmo’s empathy, to understand it, and now, in a way, he did. Not be his own magic though, but by Cosmo’s, the teen sharing his thoughts with the older man, and not always the best ones.
“Projecting?” she asked curiously, settling beside him. Ace smiled. Kate, researcher to the end.
“Ever since Cosmo became the Magician he’s been.. projecting his thoughts into my head. Only thoughts that seem to directly related to me. Some emotions too,” he explained. “He suspects he could read my thoughts if he wanted to, but I don’t think we’ll try our hand at that just yet.”
“Is he okay?”
“As well as can be. Can’t say I ever expected what he’s done. Cosmo summoning the full Magic Force... Opening himself up to it completely has brought about amazing changes,” Ace said softly, nudging some red hair from his friends face. Cosmo muttered sleepily and smiled slightly.
“Amazing he did it at all. Only once in a great while, maybe even a century, does a magic user actually manage to achieve what you achieved, Ace. Unheard of there being two at the same time. And a master and an apprentice on top of it,” she said with wonder. Then chuckled. “Got the stripe too.”
Ace nodded. Indeed-- though it was not as contrasting as Ace’s own white strips, it still stood out. Would always stand out.
“Yeah.... He hasn’t said anything, but I think he’s starting to accept it. Kind of thinks it’s cool. I’ve been catching him looking in mirrors and reflective surfaces more and more.”
“Yeah, I’ve caught him doing that too,” Kate chuckled.
“Like me,” Ace said softly, with some pride. “He’s proud to be a little bit like me.”
“Projecting that much?”
“Occasionally. Anything concerning me directly. The link seems to be on overload at the moment. He’s not happy about that, but we’ll adapt.”
“Yeah, that’s what magic is all about: adaptation,” Kate sighed, nodding.
Yes, it was. Magic was never fixed, always different from one moment to the next. The wielders of its power had to be equally in motion, evolving with the power.
"We’ll get through it. Together,” Ace said, with absolute confidence.
Kate smiled and nodded, then turned, looking down the cliff. Below, the long drive to the house snaked past, and coming slowly down that drive was a vehicle. A military vehicle.
“What is it?” Cosmo’s sleepy voice. Ace cursed himself for not hiding his alarm.
“Don’t know,” he confessed, rising. Kate rose with him and the car came to a stop in the middle of the drive, beneath them. Waiting.
Cosmo rose as well, just catching the blanket as it tumbled away. He looked at Ace and then the car.
“Only one way to find out,” Ace decided. “How about you stay up here, in case there’s trouble?” He raised a questioning eyebrow to Kate and she nodded curtly. Up here, Kate could wield her nature magic with devastating results. Feeling better for the backup, Ace set off down the hill, Cosmo in tow.
The car stayed as it was till they reached the bottom of the hill. Only then did a driver hop out. A military man, army from the uniform. A uniform too familiar to Ace. And to Cosmo. Ace felt the magic crackling to his unease and unconsciously drew closer to his partner’s side as the driver opened the back passenger door.
And out stepped General Hopkins.
For a moment, Ace flashed back to the destroyed lab; to this man, who’d been there just in time to clean up the mess. If only he’d been as vigilant about stopping Shawn as he was about sweeping the whole incident under the rug, Ace might be a little more welcoming.
“Mr. Cooper. Mr. Cosmo,” the General said by way of greeting, nodding politely at them.
“How did you find us?” Ace demanded, without preamble. The thought of this man following him set his nerves on edge. He’d relinquished to Hopkin’s orders at the base out of common sense, but like hell if he was going to relinquish anymore.
The General, as if sensing Ace’s mood, explained promptly. “You are not exactly a man who can hide in a crowd, Mr. Cooper. This house is in your name. Since I could not reach you at your Electro City residence, this seemed like the next best choice.”
It made sense, but didn’t answer the question ‘why was the General looking for him?’
“I’m sure you’re wondering why,” the General continued, paused and reached into the back seat. He drew out an unremarkable, plain manila envelope. This he held out, not to Ace, but to Cosmo. Cosmo looked at Hopkin’s hard for a moment, then took the envelope. Opened it.
“What are these?” Cosmo asked warily.
“Colonel Sebastian Shawn’s commitment papers. Or a copy of them at least. The good Colonel is going to spend some time with his former commander, Colonel Gillian, in the Tibras Military Mental Institute. A good, long time.”
Cosmo’s eyes widened in alarm. “Did I do that? Messed him up that bad?” He said it to Ace, and Ace did not have the answer, but the General did.
“No. But it’s as good as place as any for him.” And the General seemed absolutely pleased by that. “Not like anyone’s going to take anything he says seriously in an environment like that.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Ace wanted to know. The General offering information was not something *he* was comfortable with.
“Call it part of the damage control. A little reassurance that I am a man of my word and I will do everything in my power to keep this from happening again,” Hopkins said seriously. Then a hint of a smile actually dared to venture on his lips. “The military has enough problems without facing the wraith of the.. magic community. Especially its most powerful citizens.”
Ace was not at all happy that the General looked at both Cosmo and *him* when he said that.
“Keep him there,” Cosmo said, looking up and pinning Hopkin’s beneath his dire hawk gaze. “Him and everyone like him.” There was threat beneath the young magician’s softly spoken words, a threat only a fool would ignore.
The General was no fool.
“I will. You can count on that.” And not being a man for chit-chat the General simply nodded cordially to them both. “Good-day, gentleman.”
“Good-day, General,” Ace returned and Hopkin’s turned smartly about and headed back to his waiting car.
They watched in silence as the car turned around and just as abruptly as it had arrived, departed.
Ace looked at Cosmo who was bouncing the manila folder in his hand thoughtfully.
“You feel better now? Knowing about Shawn?”
Cosmo paused for moment before answering, then nodded. “About him being locked up? Yeah, I guess so. I... I can’t help hating him, wanting to... “ Cosmo let the thought die but Ace knew what he meant. He himself had pondered bringing a painful end to the warped Colonel Sebastian Shawn. Better, perhaps, someone else had done the honors for them.
Then Cosmo looked up at him thoughtfully. “You were right, Ace,” he said suddenly. “About having faith.” Cosmo looked after the car dwindling in the distance. “About believing that people are generally good.”
Ace looked with him and felt a little twinge of relief that he was right. “It’s good to know,” he confessed. “It makes what we do, all the more worthwhile.”
“What we do,” Cosmo chuckled. Weighed the folder in his hand and suddenly grinned. “What we do, partner!”
“Partner!” Ace laughed, then draped an arm around Cosmo’s shoulder, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial level. “Know what? Kate was helping Ulene make a cake when we went on our hike, and I just bet you it’s done and waiting, all unprotected in the kitchen.”
Cosmo looked at him; looked up to where Kate was stilling waiting on top of the hill, and then back to him.
“Bet we can beat her to it.”
Ace grinned. “You’re on!”
And the two of them took for the house with a flustered “Hey?” from Kate echoing behind them.