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Episode 6: Christmas Presence

Chapter Text

The Trager family was happily sitting around the breakfast table enjoying the scrambled eggs and a stack of golden pancakes.

Josh asked, "Could you pass the pancakes?"

Kyle held the plate for him and he speared one off the shrinking stack and put it on his plate. Nicole raised an eyebrow at him.

"What?" He asked, defensively.

"That's your fifth pancake," she tilted her head and gave him a mock stern look.

"I'm a growing boy," Josh protested. "And Jessi makes good pancakes." Jessi smiled at him.

Nicole turned to Lori, "Lori, it's getting to be time to be sending in college applications. Have you been thinking about where you want to go?"

"It would be nice to go to UDub. I could stay closer to home, Dad is there, I'm used to going there regularly for my performances, and Mark is there, too."

"In reverse order of priority," Nicole observed with a knowing smile. "You can't pick your college just because you are dating someone from UDub. This is your whole life we are talking about."

"It is a good school," Stephen protested. "Unless Lori really wants to go out of state, UDub is certainly a place she should consider."

"I agree," Nicole said. "Lori, if you think you would like to go to UDub you should definitely apply there. But you should also think about other places too. It's a big decision and you shouldn't just settle on UDub because it's comfortable. Plus you might not get in. You need some back-ups."

"All right," Lori said without enthusiasm. "But I really would like to go to UDub. I like it, I've spent time there and it feels comfortable to me."

"That's fine, it's a good school," Nicole agreed. "I just want you to consider alternatives."

Stephen looked at Kyle, "I assume that when you graduate high school you and Jessi are going to college as well -- not that you need to take the classes."

"We want to lead as normal lives as possible," Kyle nodded. "So we should go to college, too. I've also thought we would go to UDub. We work at the Latnok office there, Kesdet Consulting is nearby, and I don't want to go far from home." He looked at Jessi, "We haven't talked about this. What do you want to do?"

"I want to go wherever you do," Jessi said without hesitation. "We're a team. I don't care where it is." She looked at Nicole, "I don't think I want to move far from home either. I'm still getting used to having one."

Nicole smiled at her, "Shouldn't you be considering MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford -- one of the top schools?"

"Cassidy is at MIT," Jessi said with a frown. "We can't go there."

Kyle smiled, "It doesn't matter where we go. We just want to spend time with other people. That's the lesson we need most. We have our own studies. Our work is here."

Nicole looked at Stephen who shrugged, "For intellectual challenges, they'll be on their own no matter where they are. It makes sense for them to stay in the vicinity."

Nicole nodded, "I will admit, I like the idea of having you nearby. Both of you," she added looking at Jessi. Jessi smiled at her. "You should probably submit your applications as well, although I doubt you will have any trouble getting in."

"They won't," Stephen said, chuckling.

College is an important step in most people's lives. After eighteen years at home with their parents, it represents a time when children exercise their independence to varying degrees. Some stay close to home for comfort or for financial reasons some go thousands of miles away. Jessi and I had lived with the Tragers for only a short time. Neither of us wanted to go far away from our home. We missed those years.

Stephen turned to Jessi and asked, "Has your computer model come to a conclusion yet?"

Jessi said, "It's still running. It has at least another week to go."

Stephen nodded, "So you're just waiting?"

"We've been looking at assembly techniques in case the model demonstrates that our idea will work, but we're mostly waiting for it to finish," Jessi said.

Kyle looked at Jessi and hesitantly said, "Jessi, since we don't have anything we need to do, would you like to go to the movies after we're done at Latnok?"

"Are you asking me on a date?" Jessi's eyes brightened.

"Sure," Kyle said with a smile. "I said we would go out again."

As Jessie's excitement grew, she said, "We'll have to leave the office early today so I have time to get ready."

Kyle looked puzzled. He said, "We could just go there from Latnok."

Nicole said, "Kyle, you have to let a girl get ready for a date."

Lori looked at Jessi, "Absolutely. We have to pick out clothes and everything."

Kyle looked confused, as though carried away by forces he had unwittingly released. "I guess I should change for the date too."

"That would be wise," Stephen assured him with a knowing smile.

Chapter Text

Kyle and Jessi got out of her Corvette at the UDub parking lot. As they walked toward the science building, Jessi took Kyle's hand and smiled at him.

I could tell Jessi was happy about going on our date that night. I was also looking forward to it. The more I let myself accept my feelings for Jessi, the more I enjoyed being with her. And the more I worried about how I would deal with the decisions I knew I would face when Amanda came home.

When Kyle and Jessi came down the steps to the Latnok work area they were met by Mark, who told them that Brian Taylor wanted to see them in his office. They knocked on his door and were met with his response, "Come in." As they entered, they were surprised to see Grace Kingsley sitting in the chair at the end of the desk to his right. He gestured toward her, "As you can see, we have a visitor."

Grace said, "Hello, Kyle, Jessi. Brian tells me that you're both working comfortably here with him in charge. I'm glad to hear that, you two are important to all of us."

"Hello," Kyle said cautiously. He and Jessi sat in the chairs in front of the desk at Brian's gesture.

Brian took a breath to begin, "Grace has been talking to me about your Latnok investigations. I think it would be fair to say that she's concerned about your priorities."

Grace nodded, "I understand that the two of you are young and idealistic. I was young and idealistic once myself. Everyone in Latnok was -- that's why Adam collected us for the organization in the first place."

"Adam's goals were good," Kyle protested. "There are many things we could do to improve the world. We think that Latnok should do more of them, we are wasting a lot of our potential."

"I completely agree," Grace said. "I am happy to see the zeal of youth taking on that task again. I think we could all get excited about it." She smiled, "But, from what happened at the last meeting, and the assignment Ben Crossgate gave you, you seem to be focused on investigating parts of Latnok that you want to discourage rather than finding things to encourage."

"There are things that should be stopped," Jessi insisted. "Not everything that Latnok does is good. Sometimes people are hurt, even killed." She looked sharply at Grace.

Grace ignored the challenge and said, placating, "I understand. There are things I don't agree with, myself. But I think that a more positive approach would yield a faster return. Perhaps you should be looking at areas you like and encouraging them. Everyone has areas that they feel proprietary about, their personal fiefdoms. Why disturb them when you're so new to the board? Stake out your own area. Let people see what you can do for a few months or even years before trying to reform what is currently in place."

"And we should just let those things go on?" Kyle frowned.

"Why not," Grace leaned forward. "Put your efforts where they will do the most good. Build things up rather than tear them down."

Grace's pulse rate and respiration were high, she was perspiring slightly. Grace was afraid. She was desperate to get us to stop investigating Latnok. Whatever had frightened Grace was certainly cause for us to be cautious.

"You have a point," Kyle said, after a moment. "We may be going about this wrong." Jessi looked at him in surprise. He turned to her, "We've just taken on a consulting agreement with Madacorp. Maybe we should focus our efforts there."

As I spoke, I concentrated on the message "Jessi, go along with this".

Jessi blinked, then smiled almost imperceptibly, "You're right. I have a lot of things I want to do with their drug development program. We can make some real improvements. Emily wants our help."

Kyle turned to Grace with a frown, "But Ben Crossgate has given us an assignment for the board meeting. It's our first assignment from the Latnok board. I don't want to ignore it."

Grace smiled, "Don't worry about that. You can tell him that you haven't really found anything to back up the concerns you mentioned. You haven't, have you?"

"No," Kyle shook his head. "We've been busy with Madacorp."

"Then tell Ben that. He can take the item off the agenda for now," Grace said. "It will make some people who are nervous about you stepping on their toes relax."

"I can do that," Kyle nodded slowly. "If you don't think people will be disappointed. I don't want to disappoint anyone."

"Everyone will understand," Grace smiled. "I'm glad you are both being reasonable about this."

Grace's pulse was starting to drop. She was beginning to be convinced that her argument had been persuasive.

"We want to be reasonable," Kyle assured her. "It's important to put our efforts where they will do the most good."

"I think that working with Madacorp will do that," Grace assured him. "It was one of Adam's first creations, after all." She took a breath then turned to Brian, "I have an appointment that I'm already late for, so I have to go. You seem to have things well in hand, here." She got up and shook Kyle's and Jessi's hands as she headed toward the door. Brian went to the door and opened it for her.

She told him, "I'll be in touch later."

He shook her hand and she left the room and headed in the direction of the stairs. Brian closed the door and looked at Kyle and Jessi.

Kyle smiled, "I think I could use some coffee."

Brian smiled and nodded. "That's a great idea. Why don't we do that in about fifteen minutes, I have a couple of things to take care of first." He glanced meaningfully at the door.

Kyle nodded. They got up and left the room, going to Jessi's workstation to open up the display and sit in front of it.

After a few minutes, Brian joined them and said, "Let's go get that coffee."

They went to the usual coffee kiosk and got some coffee before sitting at an outdoor table.

Brian said, "You two handled that well. Something has happened to get Grace really upset. She felt the need to intervene directly. That's not her usual style."

"She seemed outwardly calm, but I could tell that something was frightening her," Kyle agreed. "What do you think it was?"

"At a guess," Brian said. "I would say that her allies are getting impatient. She had been willing to rely on having me get you to slow down."

"Which is what you did," Kyle pointed out.

Brian shrugged, "I just encouraged you to move carefully. I haven't tried to discourage you, just proposed strategy."

"That's true," Kyle reluctantly agreed.

"We can't give up," Jessi insisted. "What she said sounds good, but as long as those things are going on, they are always going to see us as a danger. We can't hide from them."

"I think you're right," Brian nodded. "But you should be even more careful. You need to tell Tom Foss about this."

"I thought you didn't trust Foss," Kyle frowned.

"I don't get along with Tom," Brian said. "That doesn't mean I don't trust him. He's completely loyal to you. He'd do anything to protect you."

After a moment's hesitation, Kyle asked, "Then why did you change Adam's message to make me not trust him?"

"What message?"

"The message 'Don't trust Foss'," Kyle explained. "Adam left me a coded message."

"Kyle, I don't know anything about that message," Brian assured him. "If Adam left you a coded message, I can't believe that anyone would have been able to change it. You or Jessi are probably the only ones who would have the ability to do that."

"Why would Adam tell me not to trust Foss?" Kyle asked.

"I don't know," Brian shrugged. "Maybe he wanted you to rely on your own judgment rather than putting your trust in anyone else. He often refused to follow Tom's advice, even though he knew Tom meant well. He thought Tom was too cautious."

That phrase stirred a memory. My holographic memory went back to the time in Adam's study. I had been worried about letting the video connection to the Tragers go too long when Adam had fallen. He had told me to let him worry about that. I had said, "We should tell Foss". His response had been, "No, He's too cautious. He'll want us to leave here, there's still too much to do." And then he had walked around his desk and said, "I want you to remember this moment." That's when he put the disk into the book. Perhaps Brian was right. Maybe Adam was telling me that when I had advanced enough to get his message I should rely on myself instead of trusting Foss to know what to do. It had worked. From that point on, I had become more confident in my own judgment.

Kyle said to Brian, "You might be right. I'll tell Foss so that he can increase security."

Brian leaned forward, "Kyle, I know you don't trust me, and that's all right, I guess I earned that distrust. I just want you to know that the most important thing to me is Jessi and you. You are the embodiment of Adam's dreams. He was my best friend and I shared those dreams. I want to see you achieve your destiny. I'll help you anyway I can."

"Adam said that you had been working in your own interests," Kyle challenged.

"Adam and I did have disagreements. I admit it. He's dead now, and I think I'll let them remain between the two of us."

Kyle frowned at him, "You were helping Ballantine get the Zzyzx information at Madacorp."

"I was," Brian agreed. "The two of you are far more valuable than the Zzyzx data ever was. I wanted to get you both out with your brains intact. I was willing for him to get it as the price. When he became too reckless with your safety I called Mike Kasperson."

"I didn't want them to have that data," Kyle said.

"I didn't want them to hurt you or Jessi," Brian said.

By monitoring his heart rate and other physiological signs, I could tell that Brian believed what he had said. What he had told us was the truth as he knew it. He had, by his own admission, not told us all the truth, but I could tell he sincerely wanted to protect us. The only place where he tried to deceive was a very minor one. It was clear that he was more passionate about protecting Jessi than me. I forgave him for that because I felt the same way.

Chapter Text

Kyle and Jessi walked out the front door of the Trager House and headed for her Corvette. They had both changed clothes and gotten ready for their date. Jessi had obviously had some help from Lori in getting ready and carried herself in a subtly more graceful manner.

As we walked toward the car, there was a change in the dynamic between us. Usually as we went from place to place, Jessi and I moved as a team, focused on what we were trying to get done. Tonight Jessi had spent time with Lori getting ready for our date. She had made an effort to try to look more attractive for me, to make our date special. Knowing what she was doing, I had dressed to show her that I considered it special as well. Even in this, we acted in concert, as a team, with our goal to make each other happy. I could feel her energy as we walked. I could have closed my eyes and known exactly where she was. We were always connected.

They reached the 'vette and got in. Jessi sat behind the wheel; they exchanged smiles and pulled out, heading for the movies. They drove through the evening without speaking, each of them glancing at the other from time to time and smiling until they got to the parking lot for the theater. Jessi parked the car and as they walked toward the theater, Kyle reached out and took her hand. They walked up to the ticked booth hand in hand.

"Two for the nine o'clock show," Kyle told the ticket seller. He got the tickets and offered his arm to Jessi. They went into the theater together.

Once inside, Jessi said, "I'll buy us some popcorn."

As they watched the movie, Kyle put his arm around Jessi's shoulders and she rested her head on his chest.

Sitting in the movies with Amanda had always had an aspect of mystery about it. I had always been uncertain about what I should be doing while we watched. I was unsure of whether she wanted my arm around her or not. Amanda had experience dating and I tried to fit into her expectations. With Jessi, there was no feeling of uncertainty. I held her and she sat as closely to me as she could as we watched the movie and shared a large tub of popcorn and each other's company. We knew exactly how each other felt.

As they came out of the movie, Kyle said, "The CGI effects were very nice. They are getting much more realistic."

Jessi observed, "Our computer system would work for CGI. The multi-processor sharing arrangement that works for the model would also make for an efficient CGI platform."

Kyle smiled, "You want to start making movies now?"

"No," Jessi said, "I just can't help thinking. It comes automatically."

"I know," Kyle said. "It's hard to turn it off."

"I don't want to be doing software design," Jessi said. "I just want to enjoy being with you."

"I do too," Kyle agreed. "What would you like to do now? Would you like to get some hot cocoa?"

"I liked sitting with you in the theater. Do you think we could just go somewhere and sit together for a while?"

"Where would you like to go?" Kyle asked.

"We could go to my apartment," Jessi suggested. "I know Lori said that was a bad idea, but you wouldn't try to force me to do anything I didn't want to do."

"Of course not," Kyle said. "I still don't think that's a good idea, though." He paused for a moment and continued, "Why don't we get some hot cocoa and take it to the park. We can sit together on the bench."

Jessi looked doubtful, "Isn't it getting too cold to sit in the park at night?"

Kyle smiled engagingly, "We could sit close together. And we can control our body temperature, at least for a while."

"That's true," Jessi said. "My apartment would be warmer, though."

"Maybe some other time," Kyle said.

They got some hot cocoa to go and drove to the park near their house.

As they cuddled together, arms around each other, sipping their cocoa, they looked at the night scene. A number of the neighboring houses had Christmas lights up providing a multi-colored view.

"The Christmas lights make the night festive, don't they." Kyle said. As he said the word 'Christmas' he felt Jessi's mood darken.

"It's almost Christmas," Jessi sighed. "That means Amanda. It's been wonderful to have you be with me. Are you going to be with Amanda again, when she comes back?"

"I don't know what I am going to do, Jessi," Kyle confessed. "I have feelings for both of you. You know that."

Jessi said in a quiet voice, "Are your feelings for her stronger than for me?"

"Feelings can't really be compared," Kyle said. "You are both so different. All I know is that when I think of not being with either of you, I feel terrible."

Jessi's arm tightened comfortingly around Kyle.

Kyle said, "Jessi, let's not worry about that now. Let's enjoy our evening together." He kissed her, and they settled in again.

After a moment, Jessi commented, "This is my first Christmas at the Trager house." She thought a moment, "I think it really is my first Christmas. I have memories of other Christmases but they were planted by Madacorp."

"It must be strange to have false memories," Kyle said.

"They've been fading," Jessi said. "It's like remembering a movie instead of real life. Let me show you."

Jessi opened her mind to me and she shared with me a memory of an early Christmas. She and Emily, who was a teenager, were decorating a tree while another woman, their mother watched. Jessi was right. The false memory didn't have the clarity of our holographic recall. Perhaps it could have fooled someone without our ability to access our memories in detail. It didn't feel real.

"I see what you mean," Kyle nodded. "It's obviously not real. Were they always like this?"

"I don't know," Jessi shook her head. "I think they've faded. When you showed me how to access my memories holographically, my false memories became obviously wrong."

"We are making real memories now," Kyle assured her. "You will be spending Christmas as part of a real family."

"I should get Christmas presents for the family," Jessi said. "Nicole said I could give gifts at normal gift giving times like Christmas, but I shouldn't spend too much. I don't know what I should get them."

"I think that it's the intentions that count," Kyle said.

"I could get Lori a new guitar," Jessi suggested. "She's still using Stephen's."

"She would like that," Kyle agreed. "But if you are going to get something like that you should probably talk to Nicole first, she might think it was too expensive."

"I don't know what to get Josh," Jessi frowned. "What does Josh want?"

"Josh wants Andy," Kyle smiled. "But you could probably get him a computer game."

"I couldn't buy Andy for Josh," Jessi said, still frowning. "It would be too expensive."

"You can't buy people," Kyle said with a smile.

"I could hire his mother so that they could move back to Seattle," Jessi suggested. "Nicole wouldn't approve, that would take a lot of money."

"I think Andy's mother likes her job."

"I bet there could be a job in Seattle she would like," Jessi said.

"Maybe," Kyle said doubtfully. "I don't think that's an appropriate Christmas gift, though. You should get him a computer game."

"I could do that," Jessi agreed. "What do you think I should get Stephen and Nicole?"

"I don't know," Kyle said. "I'm worried about that too. They don't seem to need anything."

They sat for a while in silence, enjoying each other's company. Finally Kyle said, "My cocoa's gone, how about yours?"

"Mine's gone too," Jessi said, reluctantly.

"We should probably go home now," Kyle sighed.

Jessi reluctantly released him and they got up from the bench. They headed back to the Trager house. When they reached the door, Jessi stopped and looked at Kyle expectantly, a smile on her face. "We're at my doorstep," she said.

Kyle laughed and took her in his arms and kissed her. When the kiss ended, she wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly, pressing her head into his shoulder. They stood for a moment and then he opened the door for her and they went inside.

Chapter Text

Sunday morning, after breakfast, Josh was playing G-Force with Andy as usual. They finished off the last foe and got the victory screen. "Again?" Andy typed.

"Not enough time," Josh responded. "Video chat?"

"Ok," Andy responded and logged off. In a moment they were looking at each other.

"I still haven't heard anything from Katie," Josh said.

"I haven't either," Andy said. "We didn't treat her very well, Josh."

"I liked her," Josh said. "She was really nice, and fun to be with. If I wasn't in love with you, it might have worked. But it just made it obvious just how much I wanted to be with you. I wound up hurting her."

"I didn't mean for her to get hurt," Andy said. "I just wanted you to have somebody."

"Well, I already do," Josh said. "I have you."

"I'm stuck here in Cleveland," Andy said. "It's going to be a long time before we're together again."

"I know," Josh said. "Before you left, you told me that the part I liked most about our relationship would be gone." He shrugged, "You were partially right. Being with you, touching you was the part I liked most, but playing G-Force with you, talking to you, I like those parts too. And we still have them."

"They're the bright spot of the week for me," Andy said. "Because I get to kick your ass."

"I think there was a fair amount of mutual kicking," Josh objected.

"You're not counting when that ugly green creature had me distracted?" Andy asked.

"It was a fair shot," Josh protested.

"It was totally a cheap shot," Andy said.

"You just don't want to admit I'm a superior G-Force player," Josh said. His tone changed and he continued, "Is it any better at school?"

"I'm getting by," Andy said. "I'm looking forward to Christmas break."

"Me too," Josh said. "It'll be a lot easier to schedule our G-Force games."

"And other things," Andy teasingly played with a button on her shirt.

"There's that to look forward too," Josh agreed. "Have you had any luck with your mothers?"

"There's been some progress," Andy nodded. "I was going to tell you about that. They said that if we are still together next summer that you could come for a visit. You'd have to sleep on the couch." She smiled, "And I think they'll probably padlock my room."

"That's good news," Josh said, brightening. "Not the padlock part, of course."

"It's still months away," Andy said.

"We're half way there," Josh said. "And it means that I can look forward to an actual visit. I'll be able to save enough money by summer." He looked at the time on the computer and said, "Speaking of saving money, I've got to go to work now. Do you want to chat again tonight?"

"Give me a call after dinner," Andy said. "I'll stay up for it."

"Talk to you later, Andy," Josh said. And then more quietly, "I love you."

"I love you too, Josh," Andy replied.

Chapter Text

Kyle was sitting in his room working on his computer when he turned to see Jessi come in his door.

I had become used to listening to Jessi's heartbeat as she moved around the house. I had heard it coming toward my door and noticed it increasing in rate as she got near. If she were listening to my heart beat, she would have noticed it speed up in response.

"What are you working on?" Jessi asked.

"I was looking into small marketing and public relations firms," Kyle said, "looking for some candidates."

"Did you find any?"

"I found three that might fit the profile," Kyle gestured toward the computer, "small companies, with a minimal presence in entertainment marketing."

"Do you think the plan will work?" Jessi asked.

"It might, some investment, along with Kesdet Consulting's assistance could certainly help any of them," Kyle said. "Do you want me to see if any of them are interested?

"If you think it might work, go ahead," Jessi agreed. "We are going to be busy with something else, though. The model has just finished running."

"What's the result?" Kyle asked. "Does the design work?"

"The results confirm our design. The final numbers were very close to what we estimated."

"It will work," Kyle nodded. "That's great news. Now we have to try to build a prototype. Are you still thinking of using self assembly, guided by magnetic and electric fields?"

"That's the only way I can see to get the precise lattice structure that we designed," Jessi said. "Let me show you the design."

They sat at his computer and Jessi called up a variety of displays showing the equipment she was describing.

"Can we buy the parts for this off the shelf," Kyle asked.

"Most of it," Jessi nodded. "The mechanism to generate the magnetic fields we will have to build ourselves to get the responsiveness we need."

"You intend to guide the atoms into place in a gaseous deposition," Kyle observed. "Your design uses lasers to track them. Can you get the resolution high enough?"

"We are going to have to use UV lasers, but they are already available for integrated circuit manufacturing, so that won't be difficult to obtain," Jessi said. "We're probably going to tie up our computer system managing the process."

"A production line would use dedicated systems," Kyle said. "Have you calculated the assembly time?"

"I think it will take about a week for the prototype assembly," Jessi said. "We still have to build the equipment. There are a lot of details to work out."

"This is going to be expensive, Jessi," Kyle frowned. "We can use my part of the money we're getting from Madacorp, but most of it will have to come from you. Do you want to spend that?"

"Of course," Jessi insisted. "This is our project. My solar cell license is paying more than we expected. I have plenty of money. And, it's an investment. When it works the return will be high." She thought a moment and added, "You should take some of your share of the Kesdet Consulting fees so that you can have more money to spend."

"I don't need anything," Kyle shrugged.

"You could buy a new car," Jessi suggested.

"I don't need a new car. I like the one I have. We bought it together," Kyle said. "And I usually ride in your car anyway."

"You can't take Amanda on dates in my car," Jessi argued. "She might like going out in a new car."

"I don't think the car I drive is going to make any difference," Kyle said. He looked uncertain and continued, "I'm not even sure I'm going to be able to take her on dates when she gets back."

Chapter Text

Lori walked alongside Mark through the crisp evening air as they traversed the maze of building on the UDub campus. She was carrying her guitar case and a notebook of songs.

"I'm not ready to record a CD," Lori said.

"I just want to have you get a few tracks down in a professional quality studio," Mark assured her. "We're not going to try to record a whole CD. I have a couple of studio hours reserved."

"They'll let me use it?" Lori asked hesitatingly.

"No," Mark smiled. "But they'll let me use it -- and that amounts to the same thing. If anyone gives me trouble I'll tell them that you're providing audio for a computer project I'm doing on audio patterns."

"I forget that you're a computer genius," Lori smiled.

They came to Raitt Hall, a large three story stone building. Mark led the way in the door and down the hall. He got to the door of the sound studio and used a key code to get in. There was a large room with microphones and speakers and a smaller control room separated by a glass window.

"This is bigger than I expected," Lori looked around the room.

"They can put instrument ensembles in here," Mark explained. "What we need to do is simple. I'm just going to mic you and your guitar."

Mark got a chair for Lori and positioned the microphones. Next he went into the control booth and spoke to her over the intercom, saying, "Let's get a sound test. Just start playing the first song."

Lori started playing and singing the first song, while she was singing, Mark came in and rearranged a couple of microphones then went back in the booth. He repeated this process a couple of times.

When she reached the end of the song, Mark said, "All right, I like that. Let's start over and I will record. Don't worry about being perfect, this is mostly practice anyway."

Lori sang through the song. When she finished, Mark said, "That was good, but you sounded a little tight. I think the environment is making you nervous."

"I keep being afraid someone is going to come in and ask me what I am doing here," Lori said.

"Don't worry about it, I'm allowed to use the facilities," Mark assured her. "Forget the environment. Just sing your song to me."

Lori sang the song over and looked through the glass at Mark when she finished.

Mark told her, "That was good. If we were making a professional CD I'd have you sing it a number of times, but I just want to get good quality recordings of your better songs and give you some practice. Let's move on to the next one."

After she had sung a number of songs, when she came to the end of the current song, Mark left the booth and came into the room, "We've
been doing this for almost two hours. We just have time to put things away. I'm burning the tracks to disk now."

After storing the equipment, he retrieved the disk and led her out of the studio, making sure that the door closed behind them. As they left Raitt Hall, Lori said, "I'm exhausted, I didn't know it would be that hard."

"The problem with recording something is you don't have any audience feedback to help you maintain your energy. You have to do it all yourself. I planned a visit to the student center after this for some refreshments. You're going to need them after putting out energy like that."

As they walked across the campus toward the well-lit student center, Lori kept looking around at the buildings and the people moving between them.

Mark asked her, "Thinking about being here next year?"

"I am," she admitted. "It's beginning to feel like something that I can imagine myself doing."

Chapter Text

Kyle and Jessi got out of the Corvette and stood in front of the building that held the offices of RL and Associates. Kyle was wearing a grey wool suit and carrying a new briefcase. Jessi was wearing a wool jacket and skirt with a cream blouse. Kyle looked down at his suit uncomfortably.

Jessi smiled and adjusted his tie, "You look nice in a suit." She stepped back and looked him over, "I think I like you in it."

"You look very nice too," Kyle said. "That's a nice outfit."

"Nicole helped me pick it," Jessi smiled, "She said it would give me a business look."

"The books say that natural fibers give a professional look," Kyle said. "Nicole agreed." He frowned, "I'm more comfortable in my normal clothes, though."

"You said we needed to have a business look for dealing with companies," Jessi reminded him.

"The Latnok people know who we are. They don't care what we wear. To other people we just look like teenagers. If we want them to take us seriously we have dress the part," Kyle said.

They took the elevator to the fourth floor where the RL Associates suite was and went in the door. The receptionist looked up at their approach, "May I help you?"

Kyle said, "Kyle Trager and Jessi Taylor to see Ronald Legge."

She looked down at her papers and then spoke into her headset, "Mr. Legge, your appointment is here." She looked back up at them, "Mr. Legge will be with you in a moment."

Within a minute a medium height, middle aged man with thinning hair came down the hallway. He seemed slightly taken aback when he saw them but introduced himself, "Mr. Trager, Ms. Taylor, I'm Ron Legge. Why don't you come back to my office?" He led them past several offices, and waved them into his office which was large and richly decorated. At one end of the room was his desk, there was a small table with chairs at the other side. He led them to the table and they sat down.

I could tell that he was uncomfortable with our age. It made me glad that we had decided to have Nicole help us get business clothing for meetings like this. I hoped that what we had brought in my new briefcase would overcome his concerns.

Ron said with a slightly furrowed brow, "Your emails indicated that you were considering investing in RL Associates. I currently have only a couple of partners and was not looking to add any others. Your emails were intriguing though, and I thought we should at least talk."

Kyle nodded, "RL Associates is one of a number of small marketing and public relations firms in the Seattle area. You've been in business for ten years and have been steadily adding clients. From comments you made in a recent newspaper interview, we know you would like to expand into the area of media promotions. To do this, you would need staff, market research and some capital. Kesdet Consulting thinks we can help you with all of this."

"I admit that I'd like to expand and it's hard to get conventional financing in this economic environment," Ron said frankly. "What type of involvement are you proposing?"

Jessi said, "We would like to assist with your market research. We are willing to provide some capital as well. Our goal is to be silent partners. We wouldn't want any publicity."

Ron frowned, "I looked up Kesdet Consulting. There isn't much I can find out other than you have a great credit rating. You don't seem to be doing anything in our industry. I'm not sure how you could help. What type of research assistance are you suggesting?"

Kyle explained, "We specialize in innovative research techniques. We have some proprietary approaches we use to gather data." He opened his briefcase and took out one of the papers he had prepared. He handed it to Ron, "Here is an analysis of how your pricing compares to that of your competitors. The numbers are estimates, of course."

Ron looked at the numbers and looked up with a puzzled expression, "I don't know how you got this information, everyone is secretive about their pricing. Your estimates on our fees are very accurate. Are the others as good?"

Kyle smiled, "They should be. We did a regression analysis of all published financial data from the various customers of these firms and were able to extract the amount of spending they were doing. Cross correlating it with the actual advertising allowed us to determine the underlying fee schedules out with at least five percent accuracy."

Ron blinked, "You can do that? This is very useful to know."

"As I said, Kesdet Consulting has unusual research techniques." Kyle handed over some more sheets. "Here are twenty prospects in the media promotion area that are dissatisfied with the results they are currently being given and are considering changing to other agencies. They would be good sales prospects if you were expanding into that area."

"How did you get this?" Ron asked, incredulously.

Jessi said, "Our techniques are proprietary." She smiled and said, "The data is good."

We had done a survey of all social media in the Seattle area looking for accounts held by employees who were potential customers and looked for the occasional comments made about their meetings and other daily issues. A vast amount of confidential corporate information is sprinkled among the millions of social media posts.

"And you're willing to add some cash?" Ron prompted, "On what terms?"

"What we are really providing is the research." Kyle gestured toward the paper with an open hand, "We think this data, as well as additional ongoing research would be very helpful in expanding your business, but you need some capital to effectively use it. We would provide that capital, for an equity share in your company." He pulled more papers out of his briefcase and said, "Our lawyers have drawn up this proposal. It provides for an initial investment, the expected equity, and some ongoing consulting fees. It also provides for a mechanism that allows you to repurchase the equity giving Kesdet a modest profit if your business expands as expected. As I said, we're primarily interested in providing the research. The investment is to allow you to make use of it."

Ron took the papers, "Obviously I'll have to have to look at this in detail. I will admit, this information," he tapped the marketing sheet, "could be incredibly valuable. The last part of your proposal is puzzling, though. You want me to hire this woman, 'Summer Jensen' to head the creative department on this expansion. What's your connection to her?"

"We're aware of her reputation," Kyle said. "We've looked at her resume and history. We think she would be a good fit for the project." He smiled engagingly, "We're good at research." He handed Ron the final packet from his briefcase.

Ron said, "I called around and she has a good reputation in the area, technically. She's never headed a department here in Seattle before, although I hear she's currently doing that in Cleveland." He paused for a moment and asked, "What if I don't think she's a good fit?"

"Then we don't have a deal," Jessi said, bluntly.

Ron raised his eyebrows, "Ok, that's clear. Well, I'll have to read through this." He tapped the agreement Kyle had written, "If I'm interested in exploring this further, I'll have to talk to Summer Jensen and see if we fit and if she's interested." He looked at the table as he thought. He took a breath and looked up, "I didn't expect this meeting to go anywhere, but I thought I would at least listen to you. You've surprised me. Let me do my own research and I'll get back to you. We may be able to do some business."

He rose and Kyle and Jessi did as well. He led them to the front area and shook their hands saying, "Thanks for coming. I'll give you a call."

"I'll look forward to it," Kyle said. And he and Jessi left the suite and went back to the elevator.

Jessi said, "This is a lot of effort. I hope Josh appreciates it."

"Josh can't know," Kyle said. "If it works, though, it will make him happy."

"You're always wanting to make people happy," Jessi said.

"It was also an interesting challenge," Kyle admitted. "And we got to do it together."

"We did," Jessi agreed smiling. "And I got to see you in that suit."

Chapter Text

Brad Keels was looking out the window of his hotel suite when there was a knock on the door. After checking, he opened the door to admit a tall muscular man of about fifty with tightly trimmed graying hair. His most distinguishing feature was a scar pattern on the left side of his face where he had obviously had skin grafts. He was followed by an alert man in his thirties with dark hair and an obvious military bearing. Keels closed the door behind them.

"Colonel Kieferts, I'm glad you could make it," Keels welcomed him. "Would you like something to drink?" He indicated the amply stocked bar.

"Thank you," Keiferts said, going to the bar. He poured himself a generous glass of Scotch and turned back to Keels, "I don't think you've met Atkins before." He gestured toward the younger man, "He's my new aid." Noting Keels' surprise he said, "I ran into a firefight a couple of months ago and lost Williams."

Keels nodded toward Atkins then turned back to Kieferts, "I'm sorry to hear that, I'm glad to see you're all right."

"Things are heating up out there," Kieferts said.

That's our plan, after all," Keels shrugged. "I was worried that you would have trouble getting here."

"The streets are not that unstable, yet," Kieferts said. "I have the necessary resources to move about."

"Well, it's too volatile for me to be able to travel to your base," Keels observed.

"I don't want that much traffic anyway. It draws attention." Kieferts' gesture indicated the room. "Besides, it's good to get out of the heat into some nice surroundings. I've been in the field a lot lately."

"I can assure you a nice dinner," Keels smiled. "The hotel has an excellent chef."

Kieferts waved his hand in a mild gesture of dismissal, "What I need is weaponry. We are low on RPG's and could use some ammo. The locals seem to think that warfare involves expending a lot of ammo with no particular target in mind."

"I've got supplies arranged," Keels said. "Let's sit down and talk." He indicated a table and a couple of chairs at the side of the room. Kieferts sat down and set his glass on the table. Atkins remained semi relaxed, but alert, at the door.

Keels handed a piece of paper to Kieferts, "This is what I have in the pipeline. You should be getting it within the next week through the usual channels."

Kieferts nodded, "That will help. We should be able to resupply the locals for at least the next month with this."

"Do you still think we are two to three months from the government falling?" Keels asked.

"I think we're still on track," Kieferts said. He waved the paper, "We'll need more after this."

"I'll get it moving," Keels assured him. "I've also transferred another two million into your account."

Kieferts smiled, "Good, my men need to be paid." He set the paper down, "The one worry I have is outside interference. The government has been calling for international help to put down the insurgency and they are starting to get some encouraging responses. If that happens, then two or three months will turn into years."

"I have a solution to that," Keels nodded. He went to the room's safe and opened it. He removed a small case and carried it back to the table. He opened the case. It had a number of small brown bottles in individual foam pockets.

"What's this?" Kieferts asked, picking up a bottle, holding it up to the light.

"Weaponized Anthrax," Keels said. Kieferts raised an eyebrow and put the bottle gingerly back into the case. Keels continued, "This has been specially engineered to match the genetic profile of old Soviet Union samples. A good friend of mine made it up for me. It can't be traced back to the lab that made it."

"What do intend for me to do with it?" Kieferts stared at the case with a frown.

"Spread a little around some of the villages supporting the insurgency," Keels explained. "It will look like the government is using biological weapons against their own people. No one will come to their aid after that. And since they had good relations with the Soviet Union in the past, it will look like they had been given the stuff back then, records are spotty."

"So I'm supposed to use it on our allies," Kieferts raised his eyebrows. "You know, I think that will work. You are a devious SOB."

"I play to win," Keels said coldly. He glanced at Atkins by the door and said, "Colonel, I have a private favor to ask of you, unrelated to this operation."

Kieferts looked at Atkins and said, "Could you give us a bit of space?"

"Yes sir," Atkins went out the door closing it behind him. Kieferts looked back to Keels questioningly.

"I have an op I want to run in Seattle," Keels said. "I need to have someone disappear."

"I would think that you would have plenty of resources that could handle a simple hit," Kieferts said. Why come to me?

"This has to be done flawlessly," Keels explained. "The target has security, ex military. There are other aspects that will make it tricky. I hope you can find a man to do the job for me."

"I've got a guy or two in mind," Kieferts nodded. "What are you offering?"

"A quarter million," Keels said.

"Seriously? You could get it done for fifty G's, probably less," Kieferts objected.

Keels said, "Fifty thousand for the hit, two hundred thousand for perfection. There are constraints that I will brief him on when you send him to me. He needs to be a professional who doesn't mind that the target is a teenage girl. She needs to disappear quietly without a trace."

"You intrigue me," Kieferts smiled thinly, rising. "But I know better than to pry into your affairs. I'm sure I can get you what you need."

Keels walked him to the door, "Thank you, Colonel. Dinner at eight?"

"My pleasure," Kieferts extended his hand. They shook and he left the room.

Chapter Text

Foss had put down mats in the back of the Kesdet Consulting facility for the lesson he had promised Jessi. Kyle, Jessi and Declan stood on the mats, looking uncertainly at him.

"I've been thinking about the abilities Kyle and Jessi bring to this. I think we can get them proficient quickly using the unique skills they have," Foss looked at Declan, "Unfortunately, you are going to have to learn to do this the hard way -- just like I did."

"What do you want us to do?" Jessi asked.

"I've never seen either of you in a fight," Foss said. "I'd like to see where we are starting."

"I've seen Kyle in a fight," Declan said. He smiled at the memory, "Kyle just ducked while the other guy kept swinging at him. The guy couldn't lay a finger on him. He got pretty frustrated."

"I didn't want to hit anyone," Kyle explained. "I hoped he would see it was useless and stop."

Foss picked up a police baton and announced, "I am going to try attacking each of you with this. I want you to react as though I were an opponent who you wanted to stop but didn't want to damage more than necessary ... Please." He approached Kyle and swung at him over and over. Each time, Kyle ducked, sidestepped or otherwise kept Foss from landing a blow.

After a minute of this, Foss stopped and smiled, "Well, it certainly is frustrating. The problem is, Kyle, that it doesn't end the fight. You could have multiple opponents or something else you need to do. You need to be able to not just be safe but to have the fight be over quickly." He turned to Jessi, "Now I am going to try with you." He approached her and swung the club. She caught the baton with her left hand and struck Foss with her open right hand in the center of the chest. He flew back four feet and landed on the mat. He lay there catching his breath for a moment and then sat up.

Jessi went to him and helped him up. "Are you all right?" She asked, with a look of concern on her face.

He stretched and said, "I'm fine. I would say that Jessi clearly has the edge in taking out an opponent." Jessi beamed triumphantly at Kyle, "but perhaps not with the precision that would be ideal." Jessi's smile faded. "Adam Baylin told me that his body was the same as anyone else's he just had better control of it. Is that the same with the two of you?"

"We have the same muscles, but we can trigger all the fibers at the same time," Kyle said. "This lets us generate more force than other people."

"But your tendons and joints are no stronger," Foss said. "So when you use a lot of force you risk damaging yourself."

"We can sense that and stop just before doing damage," Jessi said.

Foss nodded, "I am going to be focusing on getting the most effect for the least effort. I think that even for you, that's a good idea. There are two basic strategies that various martial arts study. You either strike your opponent or knock them down. Of course you can do both. I want to focus on knocking an attacker down today. That will probably be more in keeping with Kyle's desire not to hit anyone and will give Jessi better control over force levels." He looked at Declan, "Declan, I'm going to demonstrate on you. Come over and stand here." He indicated the spot in front of him.

Declan smiled, "I get to be the dummy."

"The technical term is Uke," Foss corrected him, smiling, "To be honest, I'm not sure what would happen if I tried this with Kyle or Jessi. Are you ready?" Declan nodded. Foss reached out with his right hand and pushed on Declan's left shoulder while pulling back on his right shoulder with his left hand. Simultaneously he swept Declan's foot and Declan went down backwards. As he fell, Foss held onto his shirt and kept him from landing hard. Foss looked at Kyle and asked, "What did I do?"

Kyle said, "You knocked him off balance by twisting his body and pushed his leg out from under him. You also held onto him to keep him from landing hard."

"Exactly," Foss agreed. "I put him in a position where he was off balance and denied him the use of the leg to regain it. I was able to control how hard he landed. If I had pushed instead of pulled he might have landed hard enough that the fight would have been over immediately. In any case it would take time for him to get up and be a threat again."

Jessi said, "You control the strength of the impact by pushing or pulling as he falls."

"With a minimum of my own strength," Foss said. "Traditionally, when someone learns to do this in Judo or Jujitsu, you spend years learning technique. You learn various ways of disturbing an opponent's balance and exploiting that. You have to practice it over and over again so that you can recognize an opportunity and select the proper response at combat speed. When you become advanced, the techniques blend together and you simply become aware of the opportunity and exploit it without thinking of it as a specific throw."

"You calculate the motion vector and determine the displacement necessary to cause the opponent to fall," Kyle summarized.

"Well, you might be able to do that, the rest of us have to do it through extensive practice," Foss said.

"How do you get your opponent to be off balance," Jessi said.

"That's the easy part -- for you. People who are moving are always off balance. When we walk, we lift up a foot and start to fall forward. We catch ourselves with that foot shift our weight to it, and then pick up the next foot." Foss walked slowly, exaggerating the process. He continued, "At every step, there is a moment when the forward foot is just about to touch the ground but you have started to shift your weight off of the back foot. You have committed yourself to the step. At that moment it takes a minimum amount of force to move the foot out of its normal path since there is no weight on it. A small amount of force on the upper body can accelerate the process. A highly skilled martial artist can precisely time their effort in conjunction with the step." He grinned at them, "You should be able to do that right away."

"That seems simple," Jessi said. "Can we try?"

"All right," Foss said, "I'm going to come at you again." He picked up the baton and stepped toward Jessi swinging it. As he stepped, she swept his leg and guided him harmlessly to the floor."

"Wow," Declan said. "I couldn't even see that happen."

Kyle said, "She did just what Foss told us to do."

Jessi helped pull Foss up. He said, "That's what I thought would happen." This should give you a tool you can use to stop a fight right away. And, Kyle, you don't have to hurt anyone, you can just set them on the ground."

"But you can make them land hard if you want to," Jessi said with a grin.

Foss smiled and said, "Yes, you can. Let's try a number of variations on attack and see how you do. Declan, you work with Kyle, I'll work with Jessi."

They tried a variety of attacks but both Foss and Declan found themselves instantly on the ground every time they tried. Kyle and Jessi seemed to be able to guide them down with ease.

Finally, Foss called a halt, "There's one more aspect of this that I want you to get some practice on. Jessi, I want you to make me land harder. You need to be able to put an opponent down and have them likely to stay there." He moved tried to strike Jessi and went down with more force. "Hai," he called out breaking his fall with an arm slap. He lay there for a moment catching his breath.

Jessi frowned and helped him to his feet, "Was that too hard?"

"That was exactly what I wanted you to do," Foss assured her. "You could have done it a little harder without damaging me. Of course if you wanted to damage me, then I think you could."

"It's easy," Jessi said. "I can calculate how much force I am applying to get a specific impact speed."

Foss stretched, working the kinks out of his back muscles, "I think that's enough for today. I hope that gives you something to work with."

"It does," Jessi said. "Thank you, Tom."

Chapter Text

When Jessi stopped the car, Lori looked at her and smiled, "I'm almost getting used to this."

Jessi commented, "Your heart rate is almost normal, usually it's elevated."

Lori looked at her and sighed, then got out of the car and got her guitar out of the back. The rest of the family had followed in the family car. They parked nearby and joined the two of them as they walked toward the door of 'Pockets'. Jessi hung back and reached for Kyle's hand. As she took it she frowned and looked at him.

"I'm sorry," Kyle said. "I was just thinking."

"About Amanda."

Kyle looked sheepish, "I was." He looked at her and said, "I know it's hard."

"She isn't home yet," Jessi said with a hint of bitterness. Kyle squeezed her hand reassuringly.

Mark was waiting at the door as usual. He encompassed the group with the wave of an arm, "Lori Trager and her entourage."

Lori kissed him and they went in the door. Lori said, "It's not as crowded as last time. Am I chasing the customers away?"

Mark shook his head, smiling, "The semester ended yesterday, some of the students have already headed home for Christmas. This is a fine crowd for the season."

"If you say so," Lori said dubiously. They went to the table they usually sat at and found Gary Baker removing the 'reserved' sign.

Gary said, "I'm looking forward to your set tonight. I'll call you up to the stage at eight, if that's all right."

"I'll be ready," Lori said.

Stephen said, pointing, "We'll be over there." He and Nicole went to a smaller table a distance away.

The waiter came and took their drink orders.

Lori looked around and said, "It's strange, I am getting used to this."

Declan walked up to their table, "Hi guys."

Lori asked, "Where's Jackie?"

Declan said, "She had a red-eye last night back to Nebraska to spend Christmas with her family."

Lori said, "Would you like to sit with us?"

Declan glanced at Mark who said, "Yes, sit with us." Declan sat down next to Josh.

"Thanks for coming," Lori said.

"I wouldn't miss it," Declan assured her. "It's not every day you get to hear yourself roasted in public."

"There are only a couple of songs about you," Lori protested.

The waiter arrived with their sodas, noted Declan's order and left once more. After drinking some of her soda, Lori took a deep breath and announced, "It's about that time again."

Mark said, "Good luck." There were other murmurs of 'good luck' as she went to the stage area.

Lori came out on stage and was seated on tall stool with a microphone for her and another for her guitar. Gary Baker went to an extra microphone on the side and said, "And tonight we have a returning artist, Lori Trager." There was a warm applause and Lori strummed the A minor that opened the first song.

As she sang the audience quieted and listened. Jessi put her head on Kyle's shoulder and her hand on his upper arm. After a moment, he moved and put his arm around her and she looked at him with a small smile then leaned into him to listen.

As Lori moved into the next song in E, her voice brightened as she moved into a happier song, at least by Lori Trager's standards.

Declan turned to Mark and said, "She's really getting better, Mark. You seem to be really good for her."

Mark said, "It's all her work. I don't really do anything."

"She doesn't seem to be on the emotional roller coaster she was on when we were dating"

"I think she's still that way," Mark disagreed. "It just goes into her music now. She's putting it to use."

The next song was in D minor back to a sorrowful note. It was a song of betrayal and loss.

"I think that's you, there," Mark said to Declan.

"Thanks," Declan said.

The forty five minutes went smoothly and soon Lori finished her last song, one with fire and a bit of determination. She left the stage to strong applause and returned to the table breathing hard flushed.

"You were great," Mark said. "That was your best set yet."

Lori said, "That was still a long time up there." She drank deeply from her soda.

Gary Baker came back to the table leading a woman in her late twenties, he said. "Lori, I'd like you to meet Robin Benson. She works for an A&R/Artist Management agency. I gave her a call and suggested that she come tonight."

"Hi, Lori," Robin said holding out her hand which Lori automatically shook, "I'm glad I came. Gary has a good ear. I'd like to talk to you about your music."

Mark got up offering her his chair and she sat down. He got a chair from a neighboring table and pulled it up to the table on the other side from Lori for himself.

Robin said, "My agency, 'Music Seen', represents artists, singers, songwriters to the various labels. I specialize in songs from the woman's perspective and I like your work. We might be able to do something with it."

Lori frowned, "I am nowhere near ready to play professionally."

Robin smiled, "It's not your performance skills that attracted me -- you're not bad, but you do still need seasoning. It's your words that I am interested in. You have a poetic style and you touch some basic truths. One of the things we do is place songs with recording artists. If one of your songs does well, the royalties can be impressive."

"Do you really think you could do that?" Lori asked, doubtfully.

"I think there's a good chance," Robin shrugged, "There are no guarantees, of course. Would you be interested in letting us try?"

"If you think you can," Lori said, clearly doubtful. "What do I have to do?"

"I would want to get a demo disk of some of your work that I can take to my agency," Robin explained. "If my boss likes it, and he usually listens to me, then we'll sign a representation agreement and try pushing it to labels that have artists who would fit with your message. If we place a song, we split the royalties. Do you have a demo disk?"

"No, I don't," Lori shook her head and then noticed Mark holding up a disk. Lori turned to him and said, "What! Did you know about this?"

Mark shrugged, "Gary told me that he had invited someone and I thought we should have it in case. I didn't want to make you nervous." He handed the disk to Lori.

"We are so going to talk about this." Lori glared at him for a moment longer and then turned to Robin. She handed her the disk and warned, "I should probably talk to my parents about this."

Robin looked dubious, "I'd like to get started as soon as possible."

Lori pointed to the table where Stephen and Nicole sat, "They're right over there. We can just go over now. It will be easier if you explain it than if I try to do it second hand."

"All right," Robin said. She, Lori and Mark got up and headed toward Stephen and Nicole.

Chapter Text

At the Trager breakfast table the next morning, the family gathered for the traditional Saturday morning pancake breakfast.

"I thought last night was your best performance," Kyle said.

"It felt that way to me," Lori agreed. "From the time we arrived and through the whole set it all seemed more comfortable and familiar."

"Your voice didn't show nervousness and you didn't make as many mistakes as you usually do," Jessi observed. "I thought you were good."

Lori winced and said, "Thank you, Jessi. Coming from you, that's high praise."

"But the real surprise was that agent showing up," Stephen said.

"Do you think she's legitimate?" Nicole frowned. "This isn't some scam, is it?"

"I checked the agency on the web," Kyle reported. "They're a legitimate agency. They list Robin Bensen as an agent. They seem to represent a number of songwriters who are getting songs performed."

"She said she still has to get her boss to agree," Lori said.

Nicole said, "If they do, they'll want Lori to sign a representation contract. Should we have a lawyer look at that?"

Kyle offered, "I can do that. I've read law books on contracts."

"Kyle writes the contracts for Kesdet Consulting," Jessi explained.

Stephen said, "Well, then if you need it you have legal representation."

"That's if they like my demo disk," Lori cautioned.

"Are you scheduled for any more performances?" Josh asked.

"Gary didn't say anything," Lori said. "Mark says that he told him that he would be setting up the spring schedule after the holidays."

"So you'll have a break from performing?" Nicole asked.

Lori said, "I'm not going to be performing for a while, but I admit I have a temptation to run upstairs and work on my songs, it's exciting to have an agent looking at them." She sighed, "But I have college applications to write. Back to the 'Who am I' essay all over again."

"I can help you," Jessi offered. She glanced at Nicole, "If that is all right?"

"There's nothing wrong with helping Lori on her college applications," Nicole assured her.

"Thank you," Lori said. "I'd appreciate it." She drained her juice glass and left the table heading up stairs.

Stephen said, "So how is that project of yours coming, the one that we built the computer for?"

Jessi said, "We're still waiting for all of the equipment we need to build the prototype. We are building some parts ourselves."

"So your modeling worked?" Stephen asked.

"It agreed with what Kyle and I thought."

"I'm looking forward to seeing what you build," Stephen said. "You've both been rather mysterious about the goal."

"We don't want to say anything until we know it works," Kyle smiled.

Josh ate the last of his pancakes and said, "I have my Saturday morning G-force game with Andy. We're looking forward to having more time to play over the holidays."

"Does Katie still join you?" Nicole asked.

"Neither of us has heard from her," Josh shook his head. "She hasn't been to the Rack, either. I don't think I treated her well."

"You didn't deliberately mean to lead her on," Nicole said.

"But that's what happened," Josh said. "And it's my fault." He sighed and left to go to his room.

Stephen said, "I have some office hours this morning over at UDub, so I'm heading over there. I should be back by mid afternoon." He left the table as well.

Nicole asked, "Are the two of you going to UDub today too?"

"I don't think so," Jessi said pushing a piece of pancake around on her plate.

Nicole looked at Kyle who explained, "Amanda's home. She got back last night." He ate the last of his pancake and said, "I have to talk to her today, I think I am going to go to my room and pace."

"I didn't think pacing helped," Nicole observed.

"It doesn't," Kyle admitted with a smile, "but I do it anyway." He left for his room.

Jessi stayed behind, looking glumly at her plate, still pushing the last piece of pancake around with her fork.

Nicole sipped her tea and commented, "I bet we're both worried about the same thing."

Jessi looked up and asked, "What's that?"

"We're both wondering what you're going to do if Kyle gets back together with Amanda."

"I need him, Nicole," Jessi said. "He makes me safe and happy. I need that. I don't know what I'll do if he's back with Amanda. He's supposed to be with me."

Nicole said, "Love doesn't follow logic. You can't control who you love. If they get back together you'll still live here with your family. You and Kyle will still be partners, working on your projects. You will have Kesdet and Latnok in common."

"But I want him to be with me."

"I understand that, Jessi," Nicole said. "You may have to be patient. I think that whatever happens, the two of you are going to be closely tied together your whole life."

"Unless I go away like Sarah did," Jessi said.

"I never met Sarah," Nicole said, "so I don't know her reasons. But from what I've heard of the story it wasn't a good choice for her or Adam. They both might have been better off if she had stayed."

"I think so, too." Jessi sat for a moment and asked fearfully, "Nicole, what do you think is going to happen?"

"I don't know," Nicole admitted shaking her head. She spread her hands, "I could see their relationship going either way." She smiled grimly at Jessi, "Whatever happens, I don't think Kyle is going to be entirely happy with the result."

"I don't want Kyle to be unhappy."

"Neither do I," Nicole agreed. "But he will be. If they get back together, he'll feel bad about what it means for you. If they don't get back together, he's likely to be depressed and focused on his loss. It might feel to you like a rejection. If that happens, be patient with him and let him deal with it."

"I will, Nicole," Jessi promised.

Chapter Text

As Josh and Andy finished their game of G-Force, Andy messaged, "Time to chat?"

"Yes, I have to leave for work in a half an hour," Josh messaged.

In a moment they had the video chat up and could see each other.

"We kick ass, don't we," Josh said.

"That we do," Andy agreed. "In the G-Force world we are awesome."

Josh said, "It's going to be great to have the whole holiday season to play together. I have some time scheduled at the Rack but I've kept all my mornings open and we'll have evenings too."

About that," Andy said hesitantly. "I have a little bad news." Seeing the look on Josh's face, she hastened to add, "It's not very bad. After Christmas my mother has a business trip she wants me to go on with her. I'm going to be away for three or four days."

"That's three or four days of our time," Josh complained. "I was looking forward to spending a lot of time together."

"We'll still have plenty of time," Andy consoled him. "I'll be back home by New Years."

"Where are you going?" Josh was still upset. "Why do you have to go with her?"

"I don't know," Andy shrugged. "She said plans were still up in the air. She told me that she thought we didn't get to spend enough time together." She smiled tolerantly and said, "Josh, you'll live."

"I suppose so," Josh agreed glumly. He took a deep breath to control his disappointment and changed the subject, "Hey, you know what happened last night at Lori's performance? An agent came up and wanted to represent her."

"Lori's going to make CDs?" Andy said, slightly incredulous. "I thought I had been just kidding."

"They don't want to record her, they want to market her songwriting," Josh explained. "Well that's what the agent said. She still has to convince her boss."

"There can be serious money in that," Andy told him. "My mother knows things about that industry. She does package designs for various labels."

Josh said, "I'm going to have to go to work soon. Are we going to be able to chat later tonight?"

"I'll be in my pajamas waiting for your call."

"I'm looking forward to that," Josh said.

"I thought you would be," Andy smiled.

Chapter Text

Kyle approached the Bloom house with hesitation. He rang the doorbell and Amanda answered the door.

"We have to talk," they said in unison as they saw each other.

Amanda smiled with a hint of sadness, "Do you want to walk down to the park?"

"That would be fine," Kyle agreed.

She closed the door behind her and Kyle put his arms around her. They kissed hesitantly and then turned and started toward the park. After a few steps, Kyle reached out and took her hand. She looked up at him and they smiled at each other.

As they walked, Kyle asked, "How was New York?"

"It was really great," Amanda said. "I learned a lot of new music and some different techniques. They have some really good teachers and I got a lot of practice time in. It was good to have time to focus on my music."

"You'll have to play some for me," Kyle said encouragingly.

"I will," Amanda said, smiling.

When they reached the park, they sat on a bench. Kyle put his arm on the back of the bench but Amanda didn't relax into it, she stayed somewhat upright, her posture troubled. They sat for a moment in silence looking at the children playing.

"I took Jessi dancing and to the movies," Kyle confessed.

Amanda looked at him and asked, "Do you have feelings for her?"

"I think I do," Kyle admitted reluctantly. "I have feelings for both of you. I can't stand the thought of being without either of you."

"It's been obvious for a long time. At least you realize it now," Amanda sighed. She sat in silence for a moment and then said in a subdued voice, "I can't compete with Jessi."

"It's not a competition," Kyle said. "That's not how love works."

"Jessi treats it as a competition."

"Jessi treats everything as a competition," Kyle said with a smile.

"It is, for her," Amanda said. "And she's good at it. She's good at a lot of things." She took a breath, "Kyle I don't think I can be with you."

"Why not?"

"I can't live in the world that you do," Amanda explained. "When you were the sweet boy next door with the cheerful smile and unusual abilities it was wonderful and magic. You were kind, and thoughtful and mysterious. It was very romantic." She sighed, "But then the mysteries started worrying me. I knew things were happening and that you wouldn't tell me about them. Now that you have, I know it was much worse than anything I imagined, things were happening to me. I didn't know how dangerous it was." She looked at Kyle and asked, hesitatingly, "Is it still dangerous?"

Kyle assured her, "We're working on it. We have a plan."

"And I'm not a part of it," Amanda said flatly. She looked down at the ground for a moment then looked at Kyle, "It bothers me that you took Jessi dancing and to the movies. But it bothers me more that all the time we were together, when you needed someone to help you, you always turned to Jessi. I asked you to let me in over and over, but you always kept me out."

"I've always wanted to protect you, to keep you safe."

"I'm not a child, Kyle. I wanted to share your life. I can't really, can I?" Amanda sadly said. "I can't do the things that Jessi can do, the things that you can do. She thinks the two of you are meant to be together." She took a long breath and continued, "And maybe she's right, you both are alike. Even when I didn't know why, I could tell that the two of you shared a special connection. I could feel it getting stronger, coming between us. I think she is your soul mate. She's the one you saved the night the gypsy warned you."

"Your music touches my soul," Kyle argued. "I'm always happy when I'm with you."

"I'm happy when I'm with you too, Kyle," Amanda admitted. "But that's not enough. I want to be with someone who I can share life with. You are an amazing person. You are going to do amazing things for the world. You are going to need to be with someone who can help you, someone like you."

"You could help me," Kyle insisted.

"You know that's not true," Amanda said. "If I could have helped you, you would have asked me before. You go to Jessi because you know she can. You even asked Jessi to protect me."

"You were in danger and you wouldn't let me protect you."

"And if Jessi were in danger, would you ask me to protect her?" Amanda asked.

Kyle looked down and didn't answer.

"Of course not," Amanda said with a hint of bitterness. She looked out over the park for a while then turned to Kyle with tears in her eyes and said, "I'm going to miss that wonderful smile of yours." She leaned over, kissed him on the cheek and stood up, saying, "She better take good care of you." Kyle started to rise and she put her hand on his shoulder. "Let me walk home alone, Kyle. I need to be alone now."

Amanda turned and walked away.

I watched Amanda walk away and knew that she was really gone. When she had left for the conservatory, I had felt her starting to pull away from me, to build a wall between us. I had always been afraid that she wouldn't like who I really was. It was one of the reasons I had hesitated to tell her my story. Once I did, she never felt completely comfortable and safe again, she had always been afraid of the life I lead. Of the life that Jessi and I lead. Maybe Jessi and I really were soul mates. I only knew that a part of my heart had walked away with Amanda and that I would never get it back.

Chapter Text

When Kyle arrived back at the Trager house, he encountered Nicole sitting at the Kitchen table drinking a cup of tea. She looked at the expression on his face and said, "I'm sorry, Kyle. Do you want to talk about it?"

"Amanda doesn't want to be with me anymore."

Nicole said, "I've made some tea. Would you like some?" She indicated the chair across the table from her.

Kyle sighed, "I think I'll have some juice. He poured a glass of orange juice and sat down. He took a drink and looked at it while Nicole waited patiently. Finally, he said, "She doesn't think that she can live in the world that Jessi and I live in. She's afraid of Latnok and the dangers that it involves."

Nicole nodded, "That's not an unreasonable fear, Kyle, especially for a girl Amanda's age."

He took another sip of orange juice and added, "She doesn't like that I always turn to Jessi to help me. She thinks that because Jessi and I are connected we are meant to be together. That's what Jessi thinks, too."

"What do you think?"

"Since I first heard Amanda's music and saw her, she's been special to me," Kyle said. "I don't want to lose her." He looked at his juice for a while, and then added, "Jessi is like me, she can do what I can do," he smiled slightly and added, "Sometimes more. We are connected, we sense each others feelings. Maybe we are meant to be together."

"Maybe you are, maybe not," Nicole shrugged. "You have to choose to be with someone who will make you happy, and who you can make happy. It could be Jessi. It could be someone you haven't even met yet. It could even be Amanda. As she grows up she may become more able to handle the life you lead. This is not a decision you have to make today."

"Jessi says I make her feel safe and happy."

"Does she make you feel happy?" Nicole asked.

"Sometimes," Kyle admitted, "although, today, I don't feel very happy."

"That's understandable," Nicole nodded. "You are suffering a real loss. You need time to grieve."

"I do," Kyle admitted. "My tub is a really great place for that." He finished his juice and got up. As he headed for his room, Nicole stood up and met him, giving him a comforting hug. He held onto her for a minute and then went into his room. She watched him leave with a sympathetic look.

In his room, he paused to look at Amanda's picture on his wall. After a moment, he sighed and climbed into his tub and sat staring at the wall.

As I sat in my tub, I had to face the fact that there was nothing more I could do to fix things with Amanda. Amanda had broken up with me before and I had been depressed for days. Declan had taken me out and gotten me drunk, an experience I never wanted to repeat. This time, the depression didn't feel as deep. Maybe it was practice that made it easier. Maybe I had been expecting it. I had a nagging thought that at least Jessi would be happy. I focused my hearing and could hear Amanda in her house. Her heartbeat showed that she was depressed as well. After a while, she went to the piano I had given her and began to play. The music was new. Perhaps this was the music she had learned in New York that she had promised to play for me. As I lay listening to the music, I heard Jessi come to my door.

Jessi came quietly through the door with a concerned expression.

Kyle said, "Jessi, I don't feel like talking."

"I know. I can sense how you feel. It's filling the whole house. I just want to sit with you for a while."

Kyle looked back at the wall, tacitly agreeing. Jessi pulled up a chair next to his tub and sat down next to him, gently placing a hand at the base of his neck. She tilted her head and listened for a moment, commenting, "She's got a new repertoire."

Kyle murmured, "I think it's from her New York trip."

"It sounds nice."

When Jessi had entered the room I had not wanted to have to deal with her, but her quiet presence and her hand gently massaging the back of my neck was comforting. While I had my barriers up, there was still a feeling of concern and affection flowing through the connection between us. We sat together, listening to what was, probably, Amanda's goodbye concert. She played several songs, most of them from her new repertoire and then began to play 'It could be you'. She was playing it because she considered it a connection to me, but Jessi and I knew its history and thought of it as Adam and Sarah's song. When she played the first few chords, there had been a surge of energy from Jessi's hand as she reacted but then she lowered the energy flow once more. Finally Amanda finished and I heard her close the lid on the piano. The concert was over.

They sat quietly for a while. Finally Kyle looked up at Jessi and said, "Thank you." He took a breath, "Maybe we could go to Kesdet and work on our project? I think I need to be busy. It might also help to be farther away from her house."

Jessi smiled and her expression brightened. "That sounds like a good idea," she said. "I want to go change and then I'll be ready."

"All right," Kyle agreed. Jessi put the chair back and left the room. Kyle slowly got out of the tub and went to look at the picture of Amanda. After a moment, he took it down from the wall and carefully put it away. With one final sigh at the sight of the empty spot, he straightened and went to join Jessi.

Chapter Text

Mark unlocked the door to his dorm room and opened it, letting Lori in. He said, "I still think we'd be more comfortable at Jessi's apartment."

"I wanted to see what your room was like," Lori said. "You said your roommate was away for Christmas, so it seemed like a good time. I'm hoping to come to UDub next year, so I want to spend more time on campus."

"It's just a dorm room," Mark looked at her with a twinkle in his eye and said, "I'm thinking of getting my own apartment, though."

"If you could afford your own apartment, why are you staying in a dorm room?" Lori asked.

"I could get something nicer but it never seemed to be worth the trouble and this is convenient to the campus and everything I need to do," Mark said. He smiled and added, "My priorities might be changing, and I'm having a good year. We all are with Kyle and Jessi at the Latnok office. I've got a nice grant for some computer research ideas that Jessi encouraged me to follow."

"Jessi said that most of the students talk to Kyle," Lori said. "She doesn't think that anyone wants to talk to her."

"She's intimidating, that's true," Mark agreed. "But I can get by that, most people seem to have a problem doing so."

Lori walked around the room looking at the desks, bookcases and posters on the wall, she said, "It seems pretty small. I have more room for one person in my bedroom."

"That's dorm life," Mark said. "He sat down on the bed and patted the space next to him, asking, "Do you want to try out the tiny bed?"

"I suspected that was part of the tour," She sat next to him. She kissed him and they started to lie back but then she sat up and said, "I forgot to tell you, I got a call from Robin Benson. She says her boss likes my songs. They want me to come in after the New Year and sign some paperwork then they'll try to place my songs."

Mark sat back up, "That's great news. Soon we'll be hearing Lori Trager's words on the radio, depressing the entire nation."

Lori gave him a playful punch, "They're not all depressing. And, anyway, there's no guarantee that she's going to be able to get anyone interested in them. All I'm doing is giving her permission to try."

"You are definitely the glass half empty, girl."

"I don't want to be disappointed," Lori protested.

"So is that what you want on your tombstone?" Mark asked. "At least she wasn't disappointed. You need to hope for more in life."

"You don't always get what you want."

"But you have to try," Mark countered. "Oh, and while we are talking about news, I heard from Gary. He'd like to have you on stage for another evening at the end of January or beginning of February, if you want to keep doing it."

"You were right," Lori said. "It gives me a goal for my songs. And, I'm beginning to like singing to an audience."

"You could be doing it for fame and fortune, if Robin comes through," Mark teased.

"The glass may be one quarter empty," Lori smiled.

"Lori, what will I ever do with you?" Mark asked.

"I'm sure you'll think of something," Lori said lying back down.

Chapter Text

Morning found the Trager family sitting lazily around the breakfast table. Kyle was sinking sour patch kids into his cereal with a spoon. Christmas day had cheered him up some, but he was still not his usual cheerful self. Josh had no sour patch kids in his, but he was poking at it anyway.

Stephen turned to Josh, "I thought you would be playing G-Force with Andy non stop?"

Josh sighed, "Andy is on a business trip with her mother. She won't be back until New Years. I don't know why her mother made her go along. We were going to have the whole vacation together."

Nicole offered, "Sometimes a mother wants to spend time with her son or daughter, I can understand that. You all grow up so fast."

"Not fast enough," Josh grumbled. "It's going to be years before we go to college."

Stephen said, "I'm sorry, Josh. I know it's hard, you are going to have to be patient."

"Yeah," Josh went back to poking at his cereal.

Nicole looked at Jessi and said, "Stephen and I were talking, the holidays are a time for family. Would you like to invite Brian over for dinner? I don't think he has any family other than you."

"Why would I do that?" Jessi asked. "This is my family."

"Of course it is," Nicole reassured her. "But he is a part of your history. I know he cares about you."

"He doesn't care about me," Jessi objected. "All he wanted from me was to impress Latnok so they'd let him back in. He didn't care what happened to me."

"I know he didn't treat you well," Nicole admitted. "And I'm glad you're here with us, but when he talked to me, he sounded like he really does care for you and wants the best for you even if he didn't do a good job when you were with him. He admits that he treated you poorly."

"I don't trust him," Jessi said. "We know he isn't telling us the whole truth."

"You and Kyle said that he is being helpful," Nicole said. "I'm not talking about trust, just dinner with your family. He is your biological father. It would be good to maintain some connection."

"He didn't act like my father," Jessi protested. She turned to Stephen and said, "Stephen acts more like my father, he helped me buy my car. He said he thinks of me as one of his daughters."

"I do, Jessi," Stephen agreed. He took a breath and continued, "When Nicole and I got married, I had a terrible argument with my father. We only spoke once after that and it didn't go well. He was never a part of our lives, he never saw his grandchildren. The last time I saw him; he had had a stroke and was comatose. The doctors said he was gone but Kyle was able to reach him and communicate his message that he still cared. I don't know what I could have done differently, but I regret not maintaining some connection to him. Once someone is gone, it's too late."

"You think I should keep a connection to Brian?" Jessi asked.

"It's only a dinner," Stephen said. "I think connections to people are important."

"All right," Jessi agreed reluctantly. "We can have him over for dinner."

Kyle looked at Nicole with concern, and asked, "You aren't going to want to invite Grace to dinner are you?"

Nicole shook her head and said, "I'm afraid my Christmas spirit doesn't stretch that far."

"Good," Kyle said. "That's a relief. I don't want her anywhere near my family."

"Everyone is so cheery here, it puts me in the mood to work on one of my songs," Lori said. "I think I'll go up to my room and practice on my new guitar." She looked at Jessi and they exchanged smiles. She left the table and went to her room.

As they sat there, Kyle tilted his head, listening, and then smiled at Jessi. She listened and smiled back. Nicole noticed the exchange and raised an eyebrow.

Kyle suggested, "Josh, I think you need to get the door."

Josh looked up from his soggy cereal, "The doorbell didn't ring." The doorbell rang. Josh laughed and said, "Kyle and his super hearing." He got up and went to the door.

Nicole asked, "What's up with you two?"

"Andy!" Josh's happy shout came from the doorway.

"What did you do?" Nicole asked, incredulous.

"I heard her outside, talking to her mother," Kyle said. Nicole gave him a suspicious look.

"That's not what I meant," Nicole said.

They all looked in the direction of the front door waiting for Josh to reappear. Stephen said, "I think the greeting may be taking a while."

In a moment Josh and Andy came into view with big smiles and their arms wrapped around each other. They were followed by a tall, thin woman with curly long reddish blonde hair.

Andy said, "Hello Tragers," and waved. She half turned and indicated the woman behind her, saying, "This is one of my mothers, Summer Jensen."

Nicole rose in greeting, "This is quite a surprise. It's great to see you again, Andy. And it's good to finally meet you Summer. I'm Nicole, and this is Stephen. Would you like something to drink? Coffee, tea, juice?"

Summer said, "Tea would be great. Do you have something herbal?"

"I'm drinking peppermint in honor of the season, but I always have chamomile."

"Peppermint sounds great," Summer said.

"Sit down and I'll pour you some," Nicole offered.

"Andy and I are going to go catch up," Josh led her toward the stairway leading up to his bedroom.

Nicole said, "'Catch up' in the living room."

Summer laughed.

Josh started to frown but couldn't wipe the smile off his face. They turned and headed for the living room couch.

As Nicole poured the tea, Stephen said, "Josh was just complaining about you taking Andy away on a business trip."

"I didn't tell Andy where we were going until we got to the airport," Summer admitted. "I wanted to surprise her." She sipped the tea, "This is good."

Nicole said, "So how long are you in town? It's going to take a real effort to pry those two apart again, you know."

"Well, we plan to be back in Cleveland by New Years," Summer explained. "Andy and I have to get back to help Faith pack. It won't be as hard to pry them apart as you think. We're moving back to Seattle."

Nicole said, "Josh gave me the impression you were settled in Cleveland for good."

"Faith and I didn't really like Cleveland, and, well you know about Andy," Summer said. "I had a good job, though, as creative director and was willing to put up with Cleveland. An offer came up that was too good to pass up."

Nicole looked at Kyle and Jessi who were smiling, then back at Summer, "You have a new job here?"

"Yes, an agency called RL and Associates is expanding into media promotions which is my specialty. Apparently they just got a big investor and want to build a separate department to service that market. Ron Legge called me and told me he'd heard about me and he wanted me to build it from scratch as Creative Director. I get to pick my own staff, and have a bit of a raise. And we all get to come back to Seattle."

"That does sound exciting," Nicole agreed.

"Yes, we just had a breakfast meeting with Ron. We finalized the deal and he gave me some budget figures. I have to hire a couple of artists and get the whole thing up and running. He says he has some hot prospects and he wants to be able to follow up on them so he's anxious to get going. I have meetings today with a couple of people I've worked with in the past who I like. I'm trying to build my staff."

"It sounds like you have a busy couple of days scheduled," Nicole nodded.

"Yes. I don't want to drag Andy away from Josh. Actually I'm not sure I could. Could she stay here today? She'd need to get a ride to our hotel tonight," Summer said.

"I'm sure that can be arranged," Nicole smiled. "She's welcome to stay for dinner. You're invited as well, of course."

"That would be nice," Summer said, "But one of my meetings is over dinner so I'll be tied up. I appreciate you letting Andy visit."

"We like Andy a lot," Nicole assured her. "It's no trouble."

Summer finished her tea, setting the cup down, "I really have to get going. I squeezed this side trip in. I couldn't make Andy wait any longer." She stood up.

Nicole rose as well, saying, "You're both welcome to hang out here while you're in town."

"I'm sure Andy will be," Summer said. She headed for the door. As she passed the living room she said, "I'm going. Behave yourself."

"Mom," Andy gave the traditional teenage complaint.

After Summer left, Nicole sat back down and looked at Kyle and Jessi. She said, "All right, what's the story."

"It was an investment," Jessi said.

Kyle added, "Kesdet Consulting is going to help them with market positioning and prospects. We're going to make a profit. RL & Associates will do quite well. And Summer has a nice job."

Nicole frowned, "I'm uncomfortable with the amount of manipulating you are doing with their lives."

Kyle smiled, "We were just able to see a way of making connections that benefitted everyone. We are going to be silent partners. That's our deal with Ron."

"It probably is best that we keep this confidential," Nicole advised them. "It might undermine Summer's confidence if she knew the degree to which the two of you set this up. People don't like to feel manipulated."

"I didn't think of that," Kyle said, concerned.

Jessi said, "But Josh and Andy will be happy, and Summer and Faith too."

Nicole smiled, "Yes they will. Just be careful in the future."

"We will," Kyle said. Jessi nodded.

Out in the living room, Andy snuggled down against Josh and said, "I didn't think I was ever going to be able to do this again."

"What?" Josh asked.

"Lie here in your arms," Andy said.

"I told you that I would wait for you," Josh said. "Didn't you believe me?"

"I thought that something would come up," Andy said. "I never believed that it would be my mom getting a job back in Seattle."

"Well, I was planning on waiting as long as it took," Josh said. "I'm glad I don't have to wait until next summer." Andy kissed him. Josh said, "I'm supposed to work at the Rack this afternoon. I could take the day off and see if Jessi will loan us the key to her apartment?"

Andy said, "Could we work up to that? We haven't even held hands for months. I'm still getting used to the sudden idea that I'm moving back."

Josh looked disappointed. "You don't want to."

"Not this afternoon, anyway," Andy smiled. "Why don't we both go to the Rack? I can drink a smoothie and harass you while you work."

"All right," Josh agreed easily, "But after dinner, are we at least going to be able to..." he moved his hand from her shoulder toward her chest.

She picked it up, laughing, "You'll have to see what you can get away with."

Chapter Text

Jessi stood in the doorway to Lori's room and hesitantly knocked on the doorframe. Lori looked up from her spot on the bed where she was strumming her guitar and smiled.

"Come on in, Jessi."

Jessi smiled and came into the room, pausing to lean over and turn the tuning knob on the D string of Lori's guitar an eighth turn, explaining, "The new strings are still stretching."

"Thank you," Lori said. "I could tell something was a little off." She raised the guitar slightly, "This has a really nice sound, thank you."

"You're welcome," Jessi said. "I liked the resonances in that particular one. All wood is slightly different. The wood in that one generates complex harmonics."

"Well, I just know it sounds great," Lori shrugged. She looked at Jessi, assessing her mood and asked, "Is something bothering you?"

"Kyle isn't with Amanda anymore," Jessi explained. "But he isn't with me either. I thought if he wasn't with Amanda, he would be with me. I know he has feelings for me."

"Even though he isn't with her, he still has feelings for her," Lori told her. "It's going to take him time to get over them. It's common that someone would not want to start a new relationship the moment an old one ends."

"Nicole said I should be patient with him," Jessi said. "I'm trying to do that." She sat for a moment in indecision and then said, "I was wondering if I should offer to have sex with him. Raymond wanted to have sex with me. Do you think Kyle would want to?"

"No," Lori said, sitting up suddenly. She set her guitar down and said earnestly, "Don't do that! You should not become intimate until your relationship is at the right stage. Having sex before you are ready can ruin a relationship. That would be a really bad idea."

"You don't think that Kyle would want to?"

"He's a teenage boy, of course he would want to," Lori laughed. "You have to wait until you are both ready, until your relationship has reached the proper level of intimacy and sharing."

Jessi frowned, "We already share our feelings. We can sense how each other feels anywhere in the house. We've let each other into our minds and shared our memories. How intimate should we be first?"

Lori stared at her for a moment in thought, "Well, it's going to be different for different people -- and very different for the two of you. But at the very least you should wait until both of you are confident that you are with each other. You should not do it when Kyle is still confused about what he wants." She added with a smile, "The steps on the way can be a lot of fun, don't rush to the end of the journey. Take your time."

Jessi frowned, "But how do I get him to be with me."

"Patience is probably the answer," Lori said. "But you can probably help the process along with sexing up your image. He likes your red top. You could get more like that."

"Would you go shopping with me and help me pick some things out?"

"Of course I will," Lori agreed. "You can always get me to go shopping."

Chapter Text

Jessi turned the braised pork chops to check how done they were, and then went back to making the salad. Nicole stepped into the kitchen and asked, "Are you sure you don't want any help?"

Jessi smiled, "Everything is going fine, Nicole. It will all be done at the scheduled time."

"Of course it will," Nicole chuckled and went back into the dining room to poke at the place settings.

Stephen asked, "How's she doing?"

"Cooking a big meal is no challenge to her, of course," Nicole shrugged. "She does seem to be enjoying the process. I thought that if she prepared the dinner, she would feel more secure. Brian's impending presence makes her insecure."

"You're sure this is a good idea?" Stephen asked with a look of concern.

"The fact that he makes her feel insecure means that she feels a connection to him, she defied him to come here but it still troubles her," Nicole explained. "I think him being a guest of our family may help redefine their relationship into something that she can be more comfortable with."

"What about Brian Taylor?"

"I take him at his word that he agrees that the best place for Jessi is here," Nicole said. "Although part of tonight's invitation is to show him how much at home she is. He said he wanted to build a new relationship with her, this gives him an opportunity to show he accepts her in this role."

"So it's a test," Stephen smiled.

"It's a holiday dinner," Nicole shrugged. "Let's not put too much weight on it." The doorbell rang and she went and opened it to find Brian Taylor standing on the step, uncertainly, holding a bottle of wine.

"Thank you for inviting me, Nicole," Brian said. "I admit I was a little surprised to get your invitation."

"It's the holidays, Brian," Nicole said. "Family should get together, even when circumstances are unusual." She took the bottle of wine and handed it to Stephen saying, "Would you put that on the table." She turned back to Brian, "Let me get your coat. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, Jessi's just finishing."

"Jessi's making dinner?" Brian asked.

"Since you were the guest, she liked the idea of making dinner," Nicole explained.

"Does she do a lot of cooking?" Brian asked.

Stephen said, "Usually she just makes pancakes on Saturday morning."

"Jessi's pancakes have become a key part of our Saturday mornings," Nicole told him. "Food ties families together."

"Hence the dinner tonight," Brian observed.

Nicole nodded to him. "Let me see how it's coming," she said stepping into the dining room. "What's the schedule, Jessi?" She asked through the doorway.

Jessi answered, "Dinner will be ready in three minutes and thirty seven seconds."

Nicole raised an eyebrow and said, "Stephen, will you gather the family? I guess we are about to eat."

In three minutes and thirty seven seconds, the family was gathered around the table and Jessi brought out the pork chops, the mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and fresh baked rolls as well as a large salad.

"Stephen, would you like to pour the wine?" Nicole suggested.

Stephen poured wine, with a small amount in the teenagers' glasses -- Kyle had indicated enough almost instantly.

Nicole raised her glass and said, "To family."

Everyone took a sip and then started passing dishes around. When the plates had been filled there was a notable lack of conversation as people began to eat.

Josh said, "This is really good, Jessi. I thought you could just make pancakes. You've been holding out on us."

"Cooking is time and temperature," Jessi explained. "It's simple."

"Spice is a judgment," Nicole disagreed. "I'm not sure that is subject to mathematics."

"It is," Jessi countered. "Although without knowing the personal taste of all of the diners the calculation of the optimal blend has some uncertainties."

"How would you calculate optimal blend?" Kyle asked curious. "Do you try to achieve the same level of satisfaction in each guest or do you have a weighting system?"

"You have to consider significant dislikes at a higher weight, but you can consider which guest is most likely to be interested in an individual dish."

"It gets like that a lot around here," Nicole said with a smile at Brian's reaction.

"This is very good, Jessi," Brian said. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Josh, who had worked his way through most of his plate said, "So you knew Adam Baylin when he was young. What was he like? Was he like Kyle?"

Brian was surprised at the question and looked to Nicole who said, "Josh and Lori know all about Latnok and the experiment that gave us Kyle and Jessi."

Brian nodded and explained, "I knew Adam since we were both your age. He was a lot like Kyle. Of course Kyle's abilities are much greater. He can do things that Adam spent years of his adult life learning to do. Their personalities are very similar though."

Nicole said, "We just met Adam once. He seemed very shy and uncomfortable around us. Kyle is outgoing, people like him."

"Adam became more withdrawn and shy as time went on," Brian explained. "Especially after he became disillusioned with the directions that Latnok was taking."

"After my mother left," Jessi stated.

Brian nodded, "He never really got over his breakup with Sarah. I think that took the will out of him to fight the changes in Latnok."

"What happened between them," Nicole asked.

"It was a long time ago, Nicole," Brian said, "and mostly between the two of them. I don't really know all the details. I just know that he was devastated."

Kyle exchanged glance with Jessi.

When Brian talked about Adam Baylin and Latnok his heart rate and other physiological signs always indicated that he was being honest, relating the past as he remembered it. But every time he approached the subject of the breakup and Jessi's leaving there was a spike in his physiology. It was the one area where he was clearly hiding something. Had he been involved in causing Sarah to leave Latnok?

"And was Sarah annoying like Jessi?" Lori asked. "Always pointing out your mistakes?" She smiled at Jessi to indicate that she was mostly teasing. Jessi returned the smile.

Brian smiled at the exchange, "Sarah was brilliant, and competitive. She wanted to be the best, and usually was. She could be less than tactful about it sometimes."

"So they were both a lot like Kyle and Jessi," Stephen said.

"To a degree," Brian said. He frowned a moment in thought and elaborated, "But only to a degree. It would be a mistake to consider them as the same. Kyle and Jessi are operating at a much more advanced level than they did. Jessi's solar cell invention has more effect than anything they did at an equivalent age. I've also heard that the two of them are making a major difference over at Madacorp."

"I knew they were doing some consulting for Madacorp," Stephen said. "I still have bad memories of that place."

"That was not a good time," Brian agreed. "I was there ostensibly as an observer and didn't have much power over Ballantine. I put most of my effort into trying to get Kyle and Jessi out of there with their brains intact. I finally called in help and they shut down the project and put Emily Hollander in charge."

"She seemed pretty capable," Stephen commented. Nicole frowned slightly at this.

"I hear she's doing a great job," Brian agreed, "Mike Kasperson tells me that revenues are up and they have some really good technology in the pipeline. He gives Kyle and Jessi credit for the improvement." He took a sip of wine and shrugged, "But I live with Latnok all the time. It would be nice to hear about something else for a change. What's happening in the Trager household?"

The conversation drifted into subjects like Lori's contact with the agent and Andy's return from Cleveland. After they had finished the dinner, Jessi brought out the apple pie she had made and served it to general acclaim. Finally the meal was finished and Brian prepared to leave.

As they saw him out the door, Brian said, "I haven't had a family meal in a very long time." He looked at Jessi and said, "You're very lucky to have this."

"I know," Jessi turned to smile at Nicole.

"And thank you for inviting me, Nicole," Brian added.

"We'll do it again some time," Nicole said.

"I'll look forward to it," Brian nodded, then turned and went down the walk to his car.

After she closed the door, Nicole turned to them, "I think that went well. He certainly seemed sincere." She turned to Kyle, questioningly.

Kyle nodded, "He generally was. The only exception is when he talks about Sarah leaving Latnok. He's hiding something about that, he may have been involved."

Nicole said, "Jessi that was a wonderful meal. How do you feel about tonight?"

"It felt good to cook for the family." Jessi smiled. "I feel at home, Nicole."

"You are home," Nicole assured her.

Chapter Text

As Kyle and Jessi walked up to the theater, Jessi said, "Since I invited you this time, I'll buy the tickets."

"Then I'll buy the popcorn," Kyle said with a smile.

When Jessi had asked me to go to the movies I had been surprised and hesitated for a moment before agreeing. The beginnings of a disappointed expression on her face caused me to agree. I had known that Jessi wanted me to take her on another date but if I started dating her regularly would that mean I was accepting Amanda's decision that we could not be together? I had accepted her decision in my head, but not my heart. There was no reason to believe that Amanda would change her mind and being with Jessi could be very nice, especially when she was happy. Going to the movies with her made her happy.

As they sat in the theatre, once more they sat comfortably together. Kyle held his arm around her. Jessi rested her head against his shoulder. At one point, Kyle gently kissed her forehead and she looked up at him with sparkling eyes and he kissed her. Then they settled back together to watch the movie.

As they were leaving the theater Jessi said, "A movie about money, power, corruption and danger. That's what we are fighting at Latnok."

"Does it bother you?" Kyle asked. "Should we have gone to something more romantic?"

"I don't mind. It didn't bother me. Anyway, it's romantic, going with you," Jessi said. "Where do you want to go now? We could get some more cocoa and sit in the park, but it's cold and damp. I have cocoa at my apartment if you want to go there. You said we might go there some other time. "

Kyle frowned, "Do you think that's a good idea?"

"It was a bad idea with Raymond," Jessi said. "But I'm not worried about you." She looked at him and asked mischievously, "Should I be."

"Of course not," Kyle assured her. "We can go for a little while if you'd like -- it is cold tonight and it's going to rain some more soon. We can't sit outside very comfortably."

When they arrived at the apartment, Jessi unlocked the door and let Kyle in. She gestured toward the couch, "Why don't you sit down on the couch while I make some cocoa. Would you like some popcorn? I have some of that, too."

"I don't think I want any more popcorn," Kyle said. "We ate a lot at the theater."

In a moment Jessi came out with two cups of cocoa and set one on the coffee table in front of Kyle and the other next to it. She remarked, "I had to replace the coffee table after I threw Raymond on top of the old one."

"Jessi, I'm sorry that happened to you," Kyle said.

"That's the other reason I wanted to come here tonight," Jessi explained. "I want to make better memories sitting on this couch." She sat down on the couch next to him.

"The other reason," Kyle looked puzzled. "What's the first reason?"

Jessi put her hands on both sides of his head and kissed him. When she stopped, she said, "That, of course."

Kyle obviously enjoyed the kiss but started to become hesitant. Jessi laughed, "Don't worry. You're not going to have to throw me on top of my new coffee table." She thought for a moment and said, "I don't think you could, anyway." Her eyes sparkled. "Let's drink our cocoa."

They sat drinking their cocoa, with Jessi leaning against Kyle and his arm around her as they had in the movies. When they finished drinking and set their cups down, Jessi looked up at Kyle and he kissed her gently. She turned her upper body and lay down on his lap. He put his arms around her and she stroked the sides of his head. They looked into each other's eyes. "This feels good," She said.

Jessi's eyes were glittering and deep as I looked into them. They seemed like deep pools that I could sink into, and I began to. Then, suddenly, I could see out of her eyes and see myself as if in a mirror. A nicer looking version of me than I saw in the mirror at home. I got a feeling of being two people, myself looking down at her and her, looking up at me. I leaned down and kissed her and experienced the kiss from both points of view. I felt like I was in a cloud of energy, the room vibrating around me. I began to get dizzy.

Kyle sat up and looked away, breaking the connection. "Did you feel that too?"

"Yes," Jessie said, breathlessly. "Do I really look like that?"

"You do to me," Kyle told her. "We better stop. That was very intense."

Jessi sat up, "It certainly was." She looked shyly at him and said wonderingly, "I was beautiful."

"Of course you are," Kyle assured her with a smile. "I think that's all I can take tonight. We better go home now."

When they arrived at the front door of the Trager home, Kyle turned to Jessi and said, "You took me out tonight. Tonight we are on my front door."

Jessi laughed and kissed him. Then they went inside.

Chapter Text

It was late evening when Kyle and Jessi pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant. It was a beautiful building with wood and stone accent. One end, facing the valley below, was floor to ceiling windows allowing the diners to take full advantage of the view.

They entered and approached the Maitre d' and gave him Kyle's name.

He said, "The other member of your party has already been seated. Would you like to follow me?" He led them through the restaurant. The stone pillars and wood beam construction gave a feeling of solidity to the room which was filled with elegantly set tables. Their table was near the floor to ceiling windows giving a view of the sparkling lights in the valley below. Ryan Melland, a tall man with thinning brown hair waited there for them.

As they approached, he rose to greet them, "Kyle, Jessi, I hope you don't mind. I got here a bit early."

"Of course not," Kyle assured him. He shook hands with Ryan who also shook hands with Jessi and they all sat down. The Maitre d' said, "Your waiter will be with you in a moment," and presented them with menus.

After he left, Ryan said, "I was really glad to get your call. I had wanted to talk to you at the board meeting but there really wasn't time. I'd really like to get to know the two of you better."

"We should have time tonight," Kyle indicated the coming waiter and added, "But first, I think we have to order our dinner."

Jessi ordered the Artichoke Tortellini and Kyle ordered the King Salmon while Ryan chose a New York Steak. After they ordered their meals, the waiter left.

When he was out of earshot, Ryan said, "You told me that you could do Adam's trick with moving a glass of water?"

Kyle smiled and Ryan's water glass moved a couple of inches to the side.

Ryan shook his head, "That still amazes me. Adam told me it was because you could alter the polarity of the fluid in your body and that would interact with the contents of the glass. It's really the fluid that you're moving."

"That's true," Jessi agreed, "but what about this?" The spoon on the right of Ryan's plate floated about an inch over the table for a moment and then set gently back into place.

Ryan objected, "Adam told me it had to be a fluid."

"Fluids are easier," Jessi said. "But we can also interact with the atomic fields in objects."

Kyle said, "Jessi is better at that than I am."

Ryan nodded, "So you really have advanced beyond Adam's abilities. That makes sense. You were in those pods for so long. I wonder if there is a limit to how much a brain develops. If you had been in for another few years would you be even more developed?"

"We would have even less chance of a normal life than we do now," Kyle said abruptly.

"I suppose so," Ryan said. "I get caught up in the excitement of the science and forget that we are talking about real people with real lives. Do you think you missed things being in the pod so long?"

Jessi said flatly, "I just had my first Christmas. I have no childhood memories of Christmas. I had no childhood at all."

Ryan's enthusiasm dimmed, "I guess you did miss a lot. I'm sorry."

Sarah had said that the people of Latnok were not evil, just scientists with a clinical perspective. Ryan's attitude reflected that bias, he was so excited about the science that he lost sight of the underlying humanity and the need to meet human needs. But Latnok had become more than just scientists, in the intervening years some of them had become involved in darker activities, real evil. In the face of that, Ryan's technical bias seemed much easier to work with.

Kyle said, "It's good to be excited about science. You just can't forget that there are real people involved."

"I think we did lose sight of that," Ryan admitted. He thought for a moment then said, "Kyle, I'm very sorry for the test we put you through when we kidnapped you and your prom date. Grace and some of the others convinced us that we needed to see a full test of what you could do. They assured us that no one would be harmed. I shouldn't have gone along with that."

"No, you shouldn't," Kyle was blunt.

"It was a mistake," Ryan agreed. He took a breath and switched topics, "At your first board meeting you said that you thought there might be less drastic ways of improving human brains. Do you have any further thoughts on that?"

"Not yet," Kyle admitted. "We are still learning what we can do and expanding our own abilities. We haven't focused on other people yet. We are, of course, hesitant to interfere with someone else's brain."

"I can understand that," Ryan nodded. "And you're against repeating the experiment that generated you?"

"We don't want to rob anyone else of their childhood," Jessi said.

"That's one of the prices we paid for our abilities," Kyle said. "Let's see what we can do with them before we go further on that path."

"That seems prudent," Ryan agreed.

"What concerns us the most, at the moment, is Latnok itself," Kyle said. "The organization has strayed from what Adam intended."

"That's certainly true," Ryan said. "Adam brought us together to make great advancements in science. And there was a lot of good work in the beginning, but people got more interested in the money than the science. I've tried to stay focused on science, to keep the excitement that comes with discovery. Latnok isn't what we dreamed it would be, though."

"We want to bring Latnok back to what it was intended to be," Kyle said.

"This is an era of great discoveries," Jessi said, "There is a lot of good work to be done."

"And we can make this world better with the result of our work," Kyle added. "Will you help us?"

"I want to," Ryan nodded. "But some of the players in this game are pretty rough. They have a lot of money and power at stake." He spread his hands, appealingly, "They shot Adam Baylin. I thought we all loved Adam." He looked down at the table for a moment and then looked up, "It was hard to see him lying there in a coma, his marvelous brain trying desperately to knit his body back together again."

"We saw him there," Kyle said.

"Then you know why I'm afraid," Ryan said.

"Who on the board are you afraid of?" Kyle asked. "Who has given up on the dream that inspired all of you?"

"That's two questions," Ryan observed, "and I think the answers may overlap. That's part of the problem, not being sure." He thought a moment and said, "I'm definitely afraid of Keels, he has some crazy ideas involving warfare. Milworth has always been interested in artificial pathogens. Adam never approved of that. Kingley seems to be an organizer of that group. They usually get Tamblyn, Fairburn and Lukeson to go along."

"So half the board," Jessi summarized.

"I'm not sure where you draw the line between the ones who are dangerous and the ones who are just going along," Ryan explained. "But the rest of us really can't get much done. Crossgate wants to, but he always gets out maneuvered."

"We're going to change that," Kyle said. "Will you join us?"

Ryan looked at him for some time and said, "The two of you are advanced beyond Adam. I believe you can do it." He reached out his hand and shook Kyle's, saying, "You can count on me -- for Adam."

Jessi reached out her hand and he shook it as well. She said, "And for Sarah."

Ryan smiled, "You do look so much like her." He looked back to Kyle and added, "And you look like Adam. It is like the old days back again. Let's hope we can do better this time."

Ryan Melland had been less enthusiastic about our new direction for Latnok than Allana Sellars, but he did seem generally friendly to us and willing to work along with us. We had not found anything questionable that he had been involved in and his heart rate and other biometric data indicated that he was being honest with us. I felt that he could be an asset. How many more assets would we find among the members of the Latnok board? The more we talked to people like Mike, Allana and Ryan, the more I felt that our decision to work with them was the right one. But sooner or later we would encounter a snake in the garden.

Chapter Text

It was late at night when Kyle woke up to the sound of someone coming into his room. He started to get up, looking toward the door and saw Jessi in the doorway. She smiled at him and then gently closed the door, quietly locking it behind her.

"What are you doing?" Kyle asked. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm being discreet," Jessi explained. "Nicole said we should be discreet."

"Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"I want to sleep in your arms again," Jessi said. "I can get back to my bed by morning."

I remembered the last time Jessi had slept in my tub with me. It had felt warm and comfortable. Jessi wanted to have that feeling again. So did I.

Kyle opened his arms invitingly and Jessi climbed in, gently resting against his shoulder and placing her hand on his bare chest. Kyle put his arm round her and she looked up at him and they gently kissed. Then Jessi sighed and rested her head against his chest.

Kyle said in a quiet voice, "I've been thinking about the other night at your apartment when we shared our experience of each other. We've shared memories, but we've never shared our conscious perception, except possibly when we've sent a message."

"That was more like sending a memory," Jessi said thoughtfully. "This was as it was happening. I could see what you were seeing. We were still separate people but I had access to your senses."

"That was how I felt, too," Kyle paused for a moment and then continued, "Since then, I've had an impression that our connection has strengthened. I seem to be sensing your emotions more clearly than before."

"I've felt yours too," Jessi agreed. "I thought that maybe it was just that I wanted to be closer to you."

"Maybe it's part of us becoming a couple," Kyle suggested.

"Are we a couple?" Jessi asked, her eyes sparkling.

"We're becoming one," Kyle said. He hesitated.

"I know you still have feelings for Amanda," Jessi said. "At 'Pockets' Mark said that when you're close to someone it never goes away completely. That will be stronger for us with our holographic memories. Lori also told me I should be patient." She smiled at him, "You're worth waiting for." She gently kissed his chest.

Kyle shivered, "That electrical current again. I feel your energy. When we are close it's like two magnetic fields combining to make a stronger one."

"That's what we are," Jessi said, "stronger together."

Chapter Text

Amanda finished making the smoothie and gave it to the waiting customer, putting his payment in the register and giving him the change.

Josh said, "It's really good to have you back. They never found anyone to replace you and it got pretty busy, especially right after school.

Amanda said, "My mother told me I needed to keep a job, and I'm used to this one." She glanced at the table where Kyle usually sat and continued, "It isn't as much fun as it used to be."

Josh followed her glance, "I don't think he'll be coming in. He hasn't been coming in much since you left."

Amanda blushed, "I don't know whether I'm afraid he'll come in, or that he won't. It's hard to be in places we used to be in together."

Josh said, "If you don't want to talk to him right now, you could go into the storeroom for a break. That will be all right."

Amanda looked gratefully at him, "Thank you, Josh. I'll do my share. I don't want to make you do extra."

"Just if you need to," Josh said. "I understand."

Amanda gave him a sad smile and went out to wipe down the tables. As the day went on she became more comfortable until she looked up and saw Nate Harrison, waiting at the counter.

She looked at Josh and then took a breath and went up to him, saying, "What can I get for you?"

"You said you'd be back at Christmas, and here you are."

"What would you like, Nate," Amanda said more firmly.

"You make good Lattes," Nate said with a smile. "I'll have one."

Amanda nodded, "All right," and went over to make a latte for him.

As she was doing it, Josh came to her and asked, "Do you want me to serve him?"

"No, Josh, I really have to be able to do my job," Amanda said. "Thank you, anyway."

She gave Nate his Latte and took his money, making change. He asked, "Why are you so cool?" He glanced around the store and added, "Are you afraid Kyle will come in?"

Amanda, spurred by the challenging note in his voice said, "Kyle and I aren't together anymore." She looked as if she wished she could take it back.

Nate's eyebrows rose, "Oh, that's news." He looked at her as he took a sip of his latte, then ventured, "Would you be interested in taking in a movie sometime?"

"I'm not ready to date again, Nate," Amanda said. "Even if I was, I don't think it would be a good idea for us to go out."

"I thought we had a spark until the whole Kyle thing got in the way," Nate protested. "But I understand that you're not ready to think about it. I've been listening to the Satie you sent me. I'd like to talk about it if you get a break." Amanda frowned and he continued, "I'll be right over there." He pointed to a table and then left the counter to go sit at the table, positioned so that he could watch her.

For the next twenty minutes, Amanda served customers, cleaned the counter, and collected glassware all the while watching Nate sitting there sipping his latte. Finally, she sighed and mixed herself a smoothie. She went over to the table and sat down saying, "I can only sit for a few minutes."

Nate smiled, "I listened to the Satie you sent and looked up more on the internet. I find it's good music to work to. At first I was attracted by the Gymnopedies but lately the Gnossienes are what I'm choosing. I think well when I'm listening to them. Should I be looking at anyone else?"

Amanda thought for a moment, "He has a unique style. There are some influences in Ravel's early piano works. You might like some of them."

Fifteen minutes later they were still talking when Amanda said, "I have to get back to work. I've been on break too long. It isn't fair to Josh."

Nate suggested, "Maybe I'll drop by tomorrow and we can continue our discussion?"

Amanda hesitated and then agreed, "I suppose so, as long as I'm not busy."

As she went back to the counter Nate left the Rack with a wave. Amanda watched him go with a small frown on her face.

Chapter Text

Grace admired the large images of rural Provence hanging between the white pillars as she sipped her Tuscan Merlot.

She looked back at Michael Cassidy, "How's your tenderloin?"

"As good as ever," Cassidy said. "And your swordfish?"

"The piquillo pepper sets it off nicely," Grace nodded. She looked around with a smile, "I could come here to eat more often."

"But you didn't come here just to eat," Michael pointed out. "Or to see my smiling face, something must have changed."

Grace sighed, "No, I came to brief you on developments. I thought I could control the situation, but things are getting out of hand."

"The two of them are a quite a pair. They certainly played me. And nearly tore me apart while they were at it."

"Actually, they're probably the lesser of my problems," Grace explained. "I'm having trouble with Keels. He's losing patience and is inclined to take action. I think he may make an attempt on Jessi soon, in spite of my efforts to keep things on a peaceful basis."

"Kyle and Jessi are getting too close?" Cassidy asked.

"No," Grace shook her head slightly. "That's just the thing. I think I've gotten them convinced that they should go slow. They are currently working with Madacorp. I'm hoping to let them play with that for a while. There's nothing sensitive left there, they can do whatever they want with it without affecting our other activities."

"So what's the problem?"

"Keels isn't satisfied. He's into some pretty ugly activities and is convinced that they will go after him first," Grace shrugged. "And he's probably right -- if they go after anyone. He said he's going to put together an operation to take out Jessi. He says there's still time before he decides to go but I don't trust him."

"You know my feeling on that account," Cassidy said. "I say more power to him. She's dangerous and uncontrollable. I think we'll all be better off if she's out of the picture."

"I think you're overreacting," Grace objected. "I know she's excitable and that she's angry with you..."

"She was tearing my insides apart with her mind," Cassidy said forcefully. "I am not overreacting. Let's just sit back and let Keels take care of the problem. I'll certainly sleep easier."

"I don't think he can be as careful as he thinks he can," Grace said. "I'm not convinced that he can accomplish this without leaving traces that show he was involved. And once he crosses that Rubicon he's going to find himself in the crosshairs, and the rest of us might take collateral damage."

"You think Kyle would avenge her?" Cassidy asked. "She seems the violent one."

"I think Kyle would be driven to the breaking point by someone killing Jessi," Grace said. "And it's even possible that Keels might fail and then we would have the two of them on the warpath."

"So you think we should just close shop?" Cassidy asked. "Just give up?"

"I told you I am getting out of a lot of projects," Grace said. "Yours is the only one that I am determined to pursue. You need to be very careful, though. What's the current status?"

"The selected embryoblasts have been moved to the pods and are developing normally in the fluid, the pods are working properly," Cassidy reported. "We've now made it into the fetal stage. They're up to about an inch and half long and developing normally. There's every reason to believe they will continue to grow."

Grace nodded, "Do you have all the data you need for development and subsequent removal? The removal was the big problem at Zzyzx."

"Assuming we want to go ahead with the removal," Cassidy said. "Zzyzx found significant value in the dormant stage, we could stop there."

"That's unsustainable," Grace objected. "We are going to want viable individuals."

"I have most of what I need," Cassidy nodded. "My guy back there is still digging through the archives trying to piece together the remaining files I need. He's good with computers. Kyle did a really good job of deleting the primary copy and main backups."

"You can't leave him there for too long," Grace warned. "Kyle and Jessi will eventually catch on to what he's doing and follow the trail. That could lead to you."

"I want to get him out of there," Cassidy agreed. "But he's showing signs of resistance."

"What's the problem?" Grace frowned.

"He's interested in a girl," Cassidy frowned. "It will take some doing."

"Do what you have to," Grace said dismissively. "Michael, this is going to be my last trip here for a while. I need to stay away from you until we see how the whole situation develops."

"Well, I guess you should enjoy your swordfish then," Cassidy said. "We won't be eating here for a while."