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A Whateley Academy Tale

Life's but a walking shadow

by Phoenix Spiritus

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

Macbeth, Macbeth, William Shakespeare

 

(Note - this story is a sequel to "One Woe Doth Tread Upon Another's Heel", which should be read before this story to fully understand what led up to Life's But a Walking Shadow.)

 

Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Early Afternoon
Turner Residence, Providence R.I.

Lily ran inside, plugged her phone into the charger and waited for the empty battery sign to change to a charging icon. Lily smiled and left the phone on the dining room sideboard as ran back to the garage, eager to finish helping her dad empty the trunk. With a cheerful grin she grabbed the smelly laundry bag with its week's worth of clothes, laughing at her Dad's exaggerated antics, pulling faces and pretending to cough from its smell. Lily carried the bag through to the laundry, dropping it beside the washing machine for her mom to wash later. 

With a laugh as he closed the trunk, her father smiled at Lily as she came back into the garage. "All done pumpkin," he called. "Why don't you run through and see if your mom needs a hand with Lunch? I'll just go turn on the comm systems and check in with Bill to make sure it's all still OK."

With a happy nod, Lily went back into the house. At the sound of her phone powering on, and the series of beeps telling her she had messages, she smiled and detoured to pick it up and check to see who had left her messages.

Coming out of the kitchen with a plate of sandwiches, Tabitha smiled at her daughter as she placed the food on the table. "Well aren't you the popular one?" she joked at all the message announcements her daughter's phone was making.

"They're all just Hank," Lily blushed.

"Ohh, and how much did he miss you?" Tabitha replied, walking up behind her and stealing a glance at the phone over her shoulder. "My word! Eleven voice mail messages for today alone?" she teased laughingly as Lily blushed bright red. Just then Lily's phone started ringing and Tabitha smiled wickedly. "Ooh! Here he is again! And you've no power on you cell and are going to have to answer it right here where your father and I can listen in!" she teased as her husband walked in and raised an eyebrow at his wife. Leaning close to the blushing Lily, Tabitha stage whispered, "Don't promise him anything I wouldn't do!"

With a furious blush at her mother's leer, and, more importantly, her reputation, Lily blindly answered the phone without checking the caller ID. "Hank!" she squeaked a little desperately. Almost immediately she stiffened, demanding "Who?" and then a little later "Speaking." Lily stood there listening for bit, looking confused, and then she admitted, "I'm his girlfriend. What is this about please?"

At the sound of those words, Falcon frowned and exchanged a look with his wife. Coming up beside her he put an arm around Tabitha's shoulders as the two of them look down at Lily in concern.

"Please, tell me what's happening?" Lily begged. Suddenly Lily turned white as snow and cried out "no!" in horror.

Eyes wide in distress, Tabitha reached out and pulled Lily to her as Lily fell against her mother, curled up around the phone crying and moaning "no" over and over again. Finally she collapsed to her knees, the phone clattering to the floor as Lily buried her face in hands weeping.

"Lily!" Tabitha demanded as she knelt to sweep her daughter back into her arms, "What's happening?"

"Hank!" Lily wept into her mother's shoulders. "He ... river ... was the police ... He didn't even try to swim!" she incoherently babbled into her mother's shoulder.

Gently prying his daughter from her mother's shoulder, Lily's dad turned her to face him, "Lily dear, what happened to Hank?" he asked softly. "Was there an accident? An incident?"

Lily stared at her father with horrified eyes. "They said, said," she hiccupped. "They said he jumped into the river himself, and, and, and he didn't even try to swim. They said he was trying to call me and then he ... then he ..." Lily looked into her father's eyes begging him to make it all better. "Then he jumped into the river to drown himself!" she wailed, collapsing to the floor, curled into a ball weeping as her parents stared at her horrified.

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Afternoon
Reilly Residence, Kansas City MO.

In shock as the call ended, Nikki stared numbly at her b-phone. An upgraded model of the phone Bunny had made for Ayla, with a few extra features her girlfriend had added to the matched pair of phones she'd made for herself and Nikki. Voice-over-IP so that they could talk to each other all summer long without using up either's minutes, built in video cameras that Bunny was determined to get working for video calls before the summer ended, bright shiny metal backs to use as mirrors, a larger, better color display, perfect for showing movies or photos that were recorded by the b-phone's camera.

Numb, the shock so great her emotions seemed absent, existing separately from her, Nikki with icy calm opened the web browser on her b-phone and looked up the price of a plane ticket to Washington. Without even checking she knew she didn't have enough money in her account to cover that. Next she looked up train tickets, not enough. She couldn't even afford to go there by bus.

Growling she cursed Solicitor and Carson and Ayla, even ... Nikki fell to her knees and started bawling. 

"I never want to see you again! You human!" Were these really going to be her last words to Hank? Her friend? Her saviour so many times? The poor 'boy' she and Toni had teased mercilessly as they learnt to be confident in their new bodies? Their newly found womanly wiles?

Nikki cried out in pain, wrapping her arms around herself and wept, crying out her torment, unaware of arms wrapped around her, hugging her, rocking her. Slowly she became aware that she was being clasped tightly to a breast, being rocked slowly back and forth as a hand gently stroked her head, of soothing, calming words being whispered into her ear.

Looking up Nikki recognised her Mom. Even the residual hurt of her Mom's betrayal barely flickered past her . The devastation she'd felt learning on the first day of break that far from helping her fight Solicitor, the idea of giving him her modelling money had been as much her parent's plan as it had been Mrs. Carson's. At the moment it didn't matter at all. Far from it. Nikki clutched tighter to her mother and started begging. "I need to g get to Washington. I n need to be there ... and ... and I can't afford the ticket …"

"What's wrong Nikki?" her mother asked softly, protectively cradling her and rocking her gently in her loving arms. "What has happened?" she ever so tenderly asked.

"Hank!" Nikki managed to get out, before breaking down again and weeping into her mother's shoulder. "I yelled at him and insulted him, and that's the last he ever heard from me!" she cried despairingly. "I didn't even say good-bye to him!"

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Afternoon
Wilson Residence, Colorado Springs CO.

"Ayla?" Jade asked hopefully as the phone was answered.

"Jade? Are you alright?" Ayla asked urgently, before, after a pause, he added softly, "Do you know about Hank?"

Jade nodded. "And Billie knows too, and Ayla! Billie teleported! She's trying to get to Washington and she doesn't know where Hank is, or anything. And she didn't take her phone, and she doesn't know anyone, and Ayla, I'm scared, Billie could be anywhere!"

Speaking softly to try and calm Jade, Ayla tried to make sense of what was happening. "So Billie teleported to Washington to get to Hank and she took nothing?"

"Just the clothes she was wearing," Jade agreed.

"What about her b-phone?" Ayla asked.

"Billie doesn't have one. Only Nikki does, because Bunny gave her the matching one to the one she made for herself, and you have one, and I have the two you bought us, well the one and all the parts Bunny got me for Shroud so that we can better integrate it with her as she can't see or talk in the same way we do, and the parts of a phone work better for integrating then the phone itself would." Realising she was babbling Jade took a deep breath. "Toni told us by calling Billie's Mom. Billie teleported as soon a Toni told her, she didn't even stop to think or plan or pack or anything, she just teleported!"

"Jade, Billie will be fine, Billie can teleport to the moon!" Ayla tried to comfort his friend.

"But she can't find her way!" Jade wailed. "She gets lost! She barely made it back to school last time!" Jade panicked while Ayla desperately thought.

Ayla took a deep breath before making his decision, then calmly he asked, "Jade, if I get you to Washington, do you think you can find Billie?"

"Yes," Jade said firmly and without doubt. Ayla nodded, accepted her confirmation of what he suspected. More then once, Jade had shown that she knew precisely where Billie was, and mostly what was happening, especially if it involved injuries to Billie.

"Can you get to the airport?" Ayla asked. Looking up to Mrs. Wilson, who was listening in using the cordless phone, Jade smiled her relief as Mrs. Wilson gave her a firm nod. "Yes Ayla," Jade announced happily.

"Fine," Ayla agreed. "I'd already organised a jet to take me to Washington, I'll get them to divert to Colorado Springs and pick you up, then we can go to Washington and find Billie."

"And Hank, don't forget Hank," Jade chirped, much more like her normal happy self.

After a moment of silence Ayla slowly replied. "Don't worry Jade, I haven't forgotten Hank," Ayla sighed sadly. "I'll call you back when I know the times," he finished.

"Yep, and I'll go pack for Billie and me!" Jade finished greatly perked up from how she had started the phone call. Hanging up the phone, Jade turned to Mrs. Wilson with a huge smile. "Don't worry Mrs. Wilson, I'll find Billie, and the first thing I'll do is make her phone home so that you can yell at her for being stupid!" Getting a relieved bark of a laughter from Mrs. Wilson, Jade smiled and ran off, happily calling out to the circling spinner and Kitty Compact to follow her "To the bedroom!"

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Late Evening

"Would you like me to spell you?" Robert asked from the back seat, penetrating Tabitha's concentration on the road, and the speculation going round and round in her head ever since her daughter's announcement of her boyfriend's ... Shaking her head, Tabitha turned to the rear view mirror, desperately seeking the eyes of her husband as her mind shied away from Hank's act. "She's finally fallen asleep," he smiled at her, indicating Lily with his eyes, sleeping cradled under his arm.

Tabitha smiled into the rearview mirror at her husband. "No dear," she replied with a shake of her head. "We've got enough gas to get there now, and I'd really prefer to be doing something, anything," she silently begged him with her eyes. "I'd just wake her up if we swapped." Understanding, her husband nodded and went back to stroking Lily's back, comforting her as best he could while she slept.

Turning back to face the road, Tabitha glanced at the signpost flashing past, glad that finally Washington was on it. They had decided that driving was the best way to get Lily to Washington. After the phone call, Tabitha had attempted to comfort Lily, while Robert had desperately updated their team on what was happening, leaving them to inform and comfort their own children, Lily's closest companions and friends of Hank's too, while he desperately turned to searching for the fastest way to get them all to Washington.

No seats were available on reasonably direct flights, and the thought of sitting around for hours in airports waiting for either stand-by seats, or trying to work connecting flights, was intolerable. Driving the four hundred miles was probably just as fast as mucking around with non-direct airplane schedules, so that's what they had done.

Both of them had breathed a sigh of relief that the distraught Lily had numbly climbed into the backseat of the car with her father without protest, as the option of Lily flying herself had been something they'd fearfully avoiding mentioning, Lily's current emotional and physical state made that option far too dangerous. Luckily, Lily had been too distraught to remember it herself, and she passively sat in the back seat of the car, alternately weeping into her father's arms, or staring blindly out the window, for the whole trip.

Arriving in the outskirts of Washington, Tabitha glanced at the satellite navigation system on the car's console, and carefully followed its directions, eventually entering the hospital carpark. Pulling up and turning off the engine she sat numbly staring at the sign for the hospital's morgue. "We're here," she announced finally. "You're sure Lily will be able to get in to him?" her eyes again desperately searched for her husband's.

"When I spoke with him at the gas station while you filled up, the detective who called Lily promised he'd make sure she was on the list," Robert assured her. With a sigh Tabitha nodded and reached for the door handle as her husband woke the sleeping girl.

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Tabitha looked into the room. Hank lying there, a woman her age sitting slumped in a chair beside him. Lily on the other side, desperately clutching Hank's hand and staring into his face, eyes red from weeping.

With a sigh Tabitha turned to the detective and held out Lily's phone. "I'm sorry, we wiped the voicemails, but there was nothing in them anyway. Hank must have been speed dialling and hanging right up after to do it again as soon as he got voicemail," she apologized. She pointed at the distressed Lily, "We deleted them because we didn't want her brooding over them for the whole four hundred mile drive to get here."

The detective grimaced and nodded as he took the phone, absently thanking her. "I was hoping they'd give us a clue as to why he'd want to take his own life."

Tabitha blurted a bleak laugh. "Where would you like to start?" she asked sadly.

The detective blinked before considering her carefully. "Why do you say that?" he asked casually. "His parents couldn't think of any reason he would do this."

Tabitha stared at the detective in disbelief. "You're kidding?" she blurted.

"So you're not surprised he attempted suicide?" the detective asked.

"Well, of course!" Tabitha exclaimed in distress. "I was sure that the help he was getting was working ..."

"He has been getting professional help?" the detective pressed. "He's tried to do this before?"

"Well no, his school ..." Tabitha took a deep breath and looked the detective in the eye. "Hank has had a simply horrible year," she explained. "But he hasn't been suicidal!" she glared at the detective. "Hank has been getting counselling regularly through his school all year, particularly after ..." she looked away from the detective with tears in her eyes.

"After?" the detective prompted urgently.

Tabitha frowned at the detective. "How much do you know of Hank?" she asked confused.

The detective gave her a hard look and then sighed. Turning a few pages back in his note book he read out. "Hank Declan, fifteen. Father is Colonel Roger Declan, recently attached to the Pentagon, mother is a homemaker. They moved here late last year after his father took up his new position at the Pentagon. Earlier today he was fished out of the Potomac by the crew of a river cruise ship just coming into dock after apparently throwing himself into the river in what looks like an attempted suicide." Looking directly at Tabitha the detective continued, "That's all I know of Hank Declan, Mrs. Turner. Now Ma'am, if you know something more that can help me understand this, I'd be very appreciative."

In horror Tabitha gasped, "Is that all they told you?!" Turning to the room she looked stricken towards the unconscious Hank.

"Ma'am?" demanded the detective. When Tabitha turned back he continued urgently. "Ma'am, if you know something, something that could help this investigation, I need to know!"

Tabitha sighed, absently glanced up and down the corridor, relieved when she found it was empty. Turning back to the detective she gave a nod. "About a year ago Hank manifested as a mutant," she started as the detective's eyes widened. "I don't know the details, but I know it was bad, culminating in troops, special forces, from the base he lived on with his family, hunting him down with tanks, machines guns and everything else. Instigated by his little brother, no less." The detective stared at her in disbelief. "After that, literally within hours of it, Hank was shipped off to a boarding school, a special one, one for mutants, where he met my daughter."

Taking off her glasses Tabitha looked the detective in the eye with her own mutant cat's eyes. Starting slightly at her mutant eyes, the detective swallowed hard as the implications of her words sank home.

Smiling tightly Tabitha nodded, putting back on her sunglasses to hide her eyes again. "While at school, Hank formed a tight friendship with a close group of friends. Unfortunately his friends have been less then lucky." Tabitha gave a quick, bleak laugh. "In fact, you could say atrociously unlucky," she corrected with a small sob, again glancing at Hank. Taking a deep breath she turned back to the detective. "On more than one occasion over the year, each of them has encountered extreme situations they somehow managed to just barely survive, mostly by luck." Tabitha's face became pained and she looked at Hank in distress. "Well, most of them," she whispered sadly.

Tabitha looked back at the disbelieving face of the detective and frowned. "Detective, you know how much mutants depend on the secrecy of their activities? Not just wish for privacy, but desperately need it to survive?" Reluctantly the detective nodded. "Then can I give you some information, strictly off the record and not even to be entered into you notebook, it's that important?" Frowning the detective contemplated her for a moment before nodding, pointedly closing his notebook and politely waiting. After an agonising glance at Hank, Tabitha turned back and took a deep breath. "Hank Declan is personally known to The Necromancer," she said softly to the detective's bug eyed stare. "Hank and his closest friends, they were all involved in defeating The Necromancer in his three latest attacks on Boston." The detective stared at her with his mouth open. "And The Necromancer isn't the only one ..."

"There's more?!" the detective exclaimed in shock.

Tabitha nodded. "Some of his friends more than others, but for Hank, I'm sure at least of Mimeo."

"Mimeo!"

Tabitha nodded sadly. "Hank and some of his friends were there when Mimeo broke out of Roxy C. They got beat up pretty badly and Mimeo stole their powers and pulled that Diamond Exchange heist right after using them. Rumors are he's called them his 'favorite' superhero team ever since, and has been trying to track them down."

"So you think the stress of being a mutant, and being chased by supervillians became too much, and that's why he did it?" the detective finally asked softly.

Tabitha shook her head. "No, those are nothing more than background," she answered sadly.

"Background?" the detective blurted. "There's more?" he demanded.

Tabitha nodded. "Probably the worse, just a couple of months ago his best friend, his roommate at the boarding school he was sent to, was murdered," she sighed.

"Murdered?" the detective exclaimed. "By one of those chasing him?"

Tabitha shook her head sadly. "No. Not by a supervillian. It was a racial attack. His friend was murdered by one of the other students at their school because he was Native American," she sighed.

"And you think this led to his suicide?"

Tabitha shook her head. "Not directly, probably not even indirectly," she sighed. Turning to look again at Hank with tears in her eyes. "I was there on his last day of school," she almost whispered. "There to pick up my daughter and to say goodbye to him." Turning back to the detective she looked him in the eye again. "Hank was sad, but he wasn't depressed. Definitely not suicidal. Whatever drove him to do it, whatever the issue was, it was something here. At home. With his family."

"Here?" the detective asked.

"Here," Tabitha confirmed, giving the detective a long silent look. At the detective's puzzled look she sighed and turned back to Hank. "This is Hank's first time in Washington," she explained. "His family moved here after Hank started at boarding school, and he hadn't been home since. During the year he spent his breaks with us," she admitted to the detective. "And from her conversations with him since the summer break started, Lily believes Hank wasn't very happy here." At the detectives enquiring glance she sighed and shook her head. "I don't know the details," she apologized. "Lily said Hank always changed the subject when she tried to get him to talk about it."

The detective sighed, nodded and put his notebook away. "You've been very helpful Mrs. Turner," he thanked her. "I'll make sure any sensitive information doesn't make it into any official report," he promised her before nodding his leave and turning away.

Worriedly Tabitha turned back to looking into the room, staring at Hank for a while, hoping she hadn't made things worse. With a sigh Tabitha entered the room. Pulling over two chairs to the side of Hank's bed, she got Lily to sit down, still desperately clutching Hank's hand. As she sat down beside her daughter, pulling her close and holding her tight, Lily turned to her with tears in her eyes, before burrowing into her side and weeping, still never letting go of Hank's hand which she'd claimed as her own.

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Late night
Thurgood Marshal Airport, Baltimore MD.

Not until she was sitting in the booth at the restaurant did Nikki wake from her funk enough to realise where her mother had been steering her after getting off the plane in Baltimore. "Mom?" she asked confused.

"We have a fifty minute drive ahead of us to get to Washington," her mother sighed. "And you've missed lunch and dinner, so have I. I need good coffee and a meal, and food would do you wonders too!"

Numbly letting her mother order for her, Nikki leant against her Mother's loving presence. Again she took out her phone and returned to flicking through the pictures she had on it of Hank, unconsciously stopping to stare blindly at the picture she'd taken of Hank, sitting in his favourite place, on the hill watching down on Poe and his friends, her guardian angel watching down on her, ready to protect her, until ...

Tears once more started leaking from Nikki's eyes.

Until she had forced him away. Called him human like it was a curse, something beneath her, something to be ashamed off.

Something she was ashamed off ...

A part of her past to be shunned, pushed away, forgotten till it was no longer there...

No more Hank ...

No more Ayla ...

No more anything human to get between her and a proper Legacy for Aunghadhail ...

Lucy Reilly returned the menu to the waitress, watching her leave before looking down at her daughter, tears coming to her eyes as she saw Nikki crying and studying a picture on her phone. Leaning down she put an arm around Nikki's shoulder and pulled her close, bending to kiss the top of Nikki's head as she rubbed her back.

At the touch of her mother's arm, reaching around to pull her tight, a little boy inside Nikki cried out in loneliness and loss and desperately clung to his mother, weeping. Turning to her mother Nikki cried, "Don't go away! Please, I love you! I don't want to lose you, don't leave me too!"

Clinging to her tightly, Nikki tried to burrow into her mother as her mother spoke soothingly to her. "I'm right here darling, I have no intention of leaving you! I'll always be here for you. Shh."

"But Hank. I. I. I called him, and I shouldn't have, and I'm not ashamed of being human, I don't want to not be human, I want to be your daughter! I do I do! Please don't leave me! Please don't stop being my, being my, I don't want to lose you! I don't!" Weeping openly, Nikki clung as tight as she could to her mother, the little boy inside her petrified of being alone, being without his mother.

"Oh Nikki! I will always be your mother, I will. Always." Murmuring sweet comforts, holding Nikki tight in her loving arms, Lucy comforted her distraught daughter until the shaking stopped, then the tears, and eventually Nikki even released somewhat her desperate clutching.

Taking Nikki's face gently in her hands, she brushed away her hair, revealing the tear streaked checks. As she ever so lovingly wiped away the tears, she smiled at her daughter and whispered, "Now darling, what bought that all on?"

Staring at the loving, open face of her mother, Nikki pleaded with her. "I. I. Hank. He. He warned me. Begged me. Told me I was pushing everyone away, asked if I wanted to give up my family. Pleaded with me, and I. And I. I called him human! Cursed at him. Told him I never wanted to see him again. And now I. And now he." Desperately Nikki flung herself into her mother's arms again. "I don't want to give you up. I don't want to lose everyone. Please! I'll be human, I'll be human, don't leave me! I don't want to be alone anymore!" Crying her heartbreak and loneliness, Nikki clung tightly to her mother like the lost little boy she felt inside.

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Late Night
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington DC.

Tabitha smiled as her husband walked into Hank's room. With a slight smile in return, he nodded and came up to crouch beside her chair. "I booked us into the hotel just up the road," he spoke quietly. "Single room, two double beds."

Tabitha smiled her thanks for his foresight to make sure that even sleeping, Lily would not be alone. Tabitha leaned over and rested her head against his, closing her eyes as he pulled her close, rubbing her back as he comforted her.

While continuing to hold his wife, Robert looked over her shoulder, contemplated Lily as she clutched Hank's hand, eyes only for his face. With a sigh he looked down again to Tabitha, turning her around to give her a loving kiss on the forehead. "Why don't you go get something to eat?" he suggested, knowing neither of them had eaten since that desperately unhappy time after Lily received the phone call. Between trying to comfort Lily, inform their team of events and organise how to get here, they had snatched sandwiches from the plate Tabitha had prepared for lunch before Lily's phone call had changed all their plans. At Tabitha's instinctual glance towards Lily, he hugged her again. "I'll stay here with Lily and Hank," he promised.

Nodding, Tabitha stood, swapping place with her husband as he took her seat and reached out to embrace Lily in his strong arms. As Lily settled in her father's embrace, still desperately gazing at Hank's face, Tabitha too stared down at Hank. Looking away, her eyes almost of their own will coming to rest on the confused, terrified, almost angry expression of Hank's mother. Remembering what the detective had said, what information had been given him by Hank's parents, Tabitha frowned and walked around the bed to crouch beside Hank's mother.

"Mrs. Declan?" Tabitha questioned softly, reaching out carefully to touch her shoulder. Jumping as though surprised, Hank's mother jerked her head around to stare blankly at her. "Mrs. Declan, have you eaten? I was just going to get something myself," Tabitha offered with an encouraging smile.

Jerkily Hank's mother shook her head. "It's OK," she said vaguely. "I had breakfast not to long ago." Eyes unseeing, she swung back around to stare blindly at her son.

"Mrs. Declan?" Tabitha once again tentatively reached out to touch her shoulder, waiting for her to turn to her again. "It's past time for dinner Mrs. Declan," she advised her, reaching out to pull her unresisting from her chair.

Exchanging looks of concern with her husband, Tabitha gently guided Hank's mother from the room, asking a nurse in the corridor where she might get something to eat. Tabitha took the listless woman with her to the hospital cafeteria and sat her down at an empty table, quickly getting her a tea to nurse while she went to get some food.

Tabitha purchased a plate of ready-made sandwiches, setting them down before Hank's mother worriedly. She smiled slightly in relief as, almost on autopilot, Hank's mother's hand slowly reached out to gather a sandwich, raised it to her mouth and absently took a bite and chewed, her eyes never leaving the cup of tea sitting on the table before her.

Once she was sure Mrs. Declan was settled and eating, Tabitha returned to the serving area and gathered a much more substantial meal for herself. Though she wasn't feeling particularly hungry, she made herself eat a proper meal, sitting before Hank's mother and slowly working her way through the meal. Tabitha even paused to fetch another tea for Mrs. Declan when she finished her's, one she accepted unseeingly, still just responding to what was happening around her, not seeming to process it at all.

Tabitha finished her meal silently, Mrs. Declan unresponsive to any of her attempts at conversation. Hank's mother sat hunched over, blindly staring down as she sipped from her tea like an automaton. Sighing Tabitha gathered their plates and cups onto a tray and returned them, before gently assisting Mrs. Declan to stand, starting the delicate process of guiding her through from the cafeteria and back to Hank.

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Late night
Thurgood Marshal Airport, Baltimore MD.

Lucy Reilly looked down at her daughter, finally eating her food listlessly, her phone turned off beside her plate.

Satisfied, Lucy mulled Nikki's declaration and frowned. Was it real? Was Nikki really seeing the consequences of her dedication to the idea of a legacy for Aunghadhail? She thought back to the traumatic phone call when it had been decided that the situation was so bad, extreme intervention was needed.

"Are we sure about this?" Lucy begged into the phone, imagining Mrs. Carson sitting at her desk with Sir Westmont, while Nikki's father sat at his own desk at DARPA, on a phone like she herself was.

"All her teachers have commented on her attitude," Mrs. Carson replied solemnly, "and from discrete questioning of her closest friends, they too are worried about it."

"But she's just a child, an upset grieving child. Do we have to be so extreme about a child's wish to remember her dead friend?"

"Mrs. Reilly," Sir Westmont spoke slowly and softly. "If it was only a child, and her actions a whimsy, we wouldn't be concerned. But she's not just a child, she's a Sidhe, and she has as her legacy an immense magical gift. At the moment she's made no vows, no promises, definitely no covenants, but she could!" Sir Westmont stated forcefully. "And if she does, she'll be bound by them, her magic will force her to carry out the actions of her vow whether she later changes her mind or not. The most innocent of words, delivered unwisely with passion at an inopportune time, could see the nightmare of Nikki leading the Sidhe and Faerie allies in racial war against the humans ..."

"Now listen here Sir Westmont!" Lucy Reilly interrupted angrily. "My daughter would not lead armies against humans!"

"Lucy," Nikki's father softly broke in. "If she swears an Oath to honour Aunghadhail's Legacy, it's almost inevitable that there will be a war," he explained. "The Sidhe Realms subjugated the human races, to raise again the Sidhe means to raise again the Kings and the Queens of the world, that cannot be done without war against the current countries of the world, and Nikki isn't listening to anyone who warns her that war is an inevitable consequence of what Aunghadhail always intended to do. Rebuilding Aunghadhail's Kingdom, sooner or later, is going to lead to a war of the races."

"But Nick! It's our daughter! How could you ever think she would ..."

"We don't think she knowingly would," Mrs Carson interrupted. "We fear vows she might make in innocence will force it of her," Mrs. Carson sighed. "Mrs. Reilly, your daughter is not listening to us. She's not hearing anybody warning her about her plans for Aunghadhail's legacy. Nikki is upset, she's emotional, she is not thinking straight and she's not listening to us or anyone else! Please, never ever think that we feel Nikki would do this of her own free choice, but we fear the emotional outburst, the unwise vow, the hasty declaration that would bind her in chains of magic to a destiny she has no idea will lead to such horror. Please Lucy, understand, it's not the actions of your child we fear, but an unwise and rash vow chaining her magically to future actions."

Lucy silently cried while she desperately thought of a better way, but finally she had to admit defeat. Tears in her eyes she conceded. "What is it you want my permission to do?" she quietly asked.

"Thank you Mrs. Reilly," Mrs. Carson thanked her in relief. "You have my word, as soon as Sir Westmont and myself become sure the crisis is past, we'll relieve the pressure on Nikki immediately."

Crying softly, Lucy nodded as Mrs. Carson laid out the plan for how to distract Nikki from her dangerous obsession with a Legacy for Aunghadhail.

Lucy studied her daughter and decided to risk it. Waiting until Nikki finished eating and put down her knife and fork, Lucy spoke quickly before Nikki could retrieve her phone from the table and again disappear into it. "Why do you worry so about being human?" she asked.

Flinching as though struck a blow, Nikki froze in the very act of reaching for her phone. Not looking to her mother, Nikki instead clasped her hands together, and placing them on the table in front of her, stared down at them. "I fought with Hank," she eventually replied softly, silently crying. "On the day we planted roses to remember Jamie and Aunghadhail. He showed me a pile of gold, warned me I was pushing away all who I knew, and begged me to stay his friend." Tears rolling down her face Nikki started sobbing. "And I ... I cursed him! I called him human like it was the most foul word I knew, and I screamed at him. I told him. I told him I ... I never wanted to see him ever again. And now. And now. Oh Mom!"

Turning around Nikki dived into her mother's arms and bawled her unhappiness as her mother gathered her close and softly stroked her back, again whispering comforts into her hair.

"Mistress is upset!" Appearing out of the shadows of the booth, Koehnes crawled into Nikki's lap and cuddled her mistress as best she could. Reaching down an arm, Nikki curled it around the brownie who had attached itself to her and held the brownie tight.

Lucy looked at the diminutive creature in Nikki's lap, and with a worried frown she tighten her own grip on her daughter almost unconsciously.

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Late Night
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington DC.

"Why would she do it?" Startled Tabitha turned back to find Hank's mother had fallen against the wall of the hospital corridor, sobbing.

"Mrs. Declan?" she asked softly, reaching out to touch her shoulder. They had barely set off from the cafeteria together when Mrs. Declan called out, surprising Tabitha as she had been almost unresponsive to her all the while they had been eating.

Tears streaming from her eyes, Hank's mother stared right through her. "Why?" she cried in anguish. "Hannah has always been a good girl! Always doing what is right, never causing trouble, always getting good grades. I never have to worry about Hannah, why would she do this to us?!" Slumping down the wall, landing on the floor in a pile of arms and legs, Hank's mother turned her face to the wall and wailed.

Unsure what to do, Tabitha was relieved when nurses streamed from the cafeteria towards them, even a couple of doctors came out. One of the nurses recognised Mrs. Declan, and quickly explained her circumstances. After a quick whispered conference, Mrs. Declan was efficiently bustled off to a spare room nearby, with a doctor firmly ordering her to rest, even going so far as to get her a dose of sleeping pills and sternly waiting for her to take them.

Wide-eyed Tabitha followed after, watching the nursing staff efficiently settle her into a bed, making sure she settled comfortably and waiting while she drifted off to sleep. It wasn't until she was shepherded from the room by the same nurses that she had a chance to process what Mrs. Declan had been saying. "Hannah?" Tabitha whispered horrified.

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Sunday, June 24th 2007 - Late Night
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington DC.

"Dear?" Robert called out quietly as he sat up straight and stared at his wife, who hovered just within the door of Hank's room, tearfully staring at Hank. With a muffled sob, Tabitha gave Robert the barest glance before she turned and fled from the room.

Stunned, Robert stared after his wife. Blinking rapidly in surprise, he gave Lily an agonising glance, sighing in relief at her obliviousness to her mother's antics. Quickly deciding, Robert stood and hurried across the room and out into the corridor, sighing in relief that Tabitha was just outside the door, curled up and crying as she leant against the wall there.

Robert stepped close and gathered his wife in his arms. "Shhh, Hank's not dead," he comforted her. "They are sure they got him out quickly, they don't even think his heart stopped beating. Shh, I'm sure he's going to be fine."

"But it's my fault! I told you to say no, to make him go home to his family ..."

"Shh, we both made the decision, we both decided to not let Lily invite Hank ..."

"But I told you to!" Tabitha wailed.

Turning his wife around in his arms, Robert kissed her tenderly. Pausing to wipe away her tears before he gave her a final kiss to the forehead. "Our decision," he stated firmly.

"But his parents!" she wailed falling onto his shoulder and clutching him tight. "His father's not even here, and his mother! She collapsed in the corridor, the nurses had to take her away, sedate her, weeping about him doing it to her, and she called him 'Hannah!' His own mom, and she calls him 'Hannah!'"

Sighing, Robert held his wife close, letting her cry it out, not attempting to correct her, not even sure if he wanted to defend Hank's parents to her, unhappily starting to question if he even could.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Very Early Morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

A noise at the door, a flash of color. Distracted, Lily glanced that way and gasped. Jumping up she dashed to the door and desperately dived into the arms of the red-haired, slightly fey girl there. "Nikki!" she cried out in relief, clutching the elfin beauty tight to her.

"How is he?" Nikki asked warily, glancing apprehensively to the bed, where Hank lay surrounded by monitors, pale white and unmoving, a teddy bear the only splash of colour on his pillow. With a quick glance around the room, Nikki saw that it was only Lily and her Mother keeping him company.

Tears falling freely, Lily wept into Nikki's shoulder. "He's not waking!" she wept. "They have him breathing normally, and they're sure his heart never stopped, but Nikki! He won't wake! Even for me." Sobbing into Nikki's chest, Lily held on tight.

Nikki's breath caught, convulsively she'd clutched Lily at the mention of Hank's heart, but raggedly she resumed breathing at the news it hadn't stopped. "Can I, can I examine him?" Nikki whispered apprehensively.

"Oh Nikki, would you?" Lily replied, eyes pleading up at her in desperation.

Nodding woodenly, Nikki licked her lips and followed Lily back to Hank's bedside. Looking down at the pale motionless figure on the bed, Nikki went pale herself and fearfully she reached out to tentatively touch Hank's hand, crying in relief when she found it still warm and full of life.

Collapsing, Nikki slumped to the chair Lily had been in, just clutched Hank's hand and weeping her thankfulness. Finally, getting her tears under control, Nikki took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She leant forwards and touched her forehead to the back of Hank's hand. Nikki slowed her breathing almost to a stop, as she entered a timeless moment, holding that position, her body becoming as still as the one in the bed.

Unconsciously holding their breaths, Lily, her Mother and Nikki's mom all desperately searched the two motionless teenagers for signs of movement, life, clues as to what was happening. Finally nature forced them one-by-one to resume breathing. When it became obvious the frozen moment was not ending, Tabitha stood. Walking around the bed, she wrapped her daughter in her arms, and dragging Lily back around the bed, where she resumed her seat, pulling Lily into her lap. "I expect we'll be waiting a while," she commented to Nikki's mother as she held Lily in her arms, comforting her.

"A while?" Nikki's mother asked worriedly.

Tabitha smiled and nodded. "One thing I've learnt about magic, if it doesn't happen quickly, you're likely to be waiting hours for it. Magic doesn't seem to be in any way interested in middle ways, it's always 'all or nothing'." Looking up at Nikki's mother, Tabitha smiled. "You look all in, exhausted. I'll watch Nikki for you, if you've just arrived I'm sure there are things you need to do?"

Lucy nodded. "Call her father. Work out where we can stay," she murmured absently, her attention still focused on her daughter.

"Go. I promise I'll watch her. Do what's necessary, so you can come back and give her the time she needs, there is a hotel across the road we've booked in," Tabitha advised her.

Finally turning from her daughter, Lucy smiled gratefully and nodded. With a gesture of comfort to her daughter, aborted sadly when she realised its futility, she turned and left the room, already digging in her purse for her phone. 

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Very Early Morning
Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, Colorado Springs CO.

As the Gulf Stream business jet came in for a landing, Ayla picked up his b-phone and frowned. Coming back into cell phone coverage, there was the normal string of notices from his news alerts and business wires, but there was no missed calls, no SMSes, no emails, no information about either Hank or Billie.

Carefully putting down his phone again, mindful to make sure his emotions were properly contained, Ayla turned and stared out the plane's window, hiding his frustration. All his money, all his contacts, and the quickest he could get to his friends in need was still hours!

As the small jet taxied from the runway and made its way to the parking apron, Ayla idly looked out, noticing a car parked waiting for them at the slot they were making for. Ayla blinked and then leaned forwards in disbelief, before, despite himself, he laughed and smiled.

Standing next to the car was his diminutive teammate and friend, Jade, and she was juggling suitcases. Not trying to carry too many, losing control and trying to gather them back up. No, Jade was standing alone in the middle of the airport apron, a huge smile on her face, calming tossing her suitcase, Billie's suitcase, and Jinn's backpack high into the air and catching them over and over again as she juggled the luggage with composure, like it was an everyday thing to toss around large suitcases almost as big as herself, full to the brim with clothes and electronics.

Smiling in spite of himself, Ayla unclipped his seatbelt and stood, making his way to the door as the stewardess opened it and lowered the stairs. There was no reason for Jade to be standing on an Airport tarmac in the early hours of the morning and juggling anything, let alone things as ridiculous as suitcases, but Jade knew he would be looking and she had wanted to make him laugh.

Abruptly, Ayla was glad for the detour to pick up Jade. She would be worried sick for her 'Oneesan', but Jade never let the worries of the future detract from the needs of the now. She'd known that Ayla would need a laugh, so she juggled suitcases. In Washington, when Jade had tracked down Billie, and Ayla didn't think for a moment that Jade would not do so, and swiftly, she'd know just as well what the rest of them would need, and he was glad to be bringing her to Washington to provide it.

Calmly descending the stairs, Ayla opened his arms in welcome as Jade excitedly ran to the plane and threw herself at him. Ayla pulled Jade close, standing for a timeless moment, Jade clasped to his heart as he drank in her love and joy, silently returning to the slightly trembling girl all the comfort and support he could.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Very Early Morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

"What's happening?" Nick Reilly demanded as soon as he answered the phone. "How is Hank? How is Nikki?"

"Hank's still unconscious," Lucy updated her ex-husband, Nikki's father. "And Nikki. Nikki is doing something magical, trying to contact him. Desperate her last words to Hank won't be her final words."

"Her last words?" Nick asked surprised.

"She called him a human, like it was a curse," Lucy informed him softly, "and said she never wanted to see him again."

Nick gasped. "Does she blame herself? Does she think her magic cursed him in truth?"

Lucy went pale and grasped the phone tightly in her hand. "Could it?!" she whispered horrified.

Silently Nick contemplated the question, as heart in her mouth Lucy awaited the answer with dread. "I honestly don't know," Nick finally replied. "But I'm damn sure I never want to find out. Forget I ever mentioned it, and pray Nikki never thinks it either."

Breathing raggedly, Lucy dully nodded. "I will," she promised.

"Other than that, how are things?" Nick asked.

"I've booked us into the hotel near the hospital, the same one Lily and her parents are staying at."

"Good, we'll be there tomorrow, well, later today," Nick promised. "I'll need to check in at The Pentagon daily, and make myself available for meetings on The Hill, but other then that, I'll be free to help you and Nikki."

Lucy debated bringing it up now or waiting. Finally she decided to tell him. "I think Hank's actions have bought Nikki's decision to a head," she said softly. "Apparently before they left school, Hank had a heart to heart with her about it, which lead to the confrontation where she called him human and said she never wanted to see him again. The shock of that wish possibly coming true seems to have stirred her emotions."

"And?" Nick pressed urgently.

"She cried into my shoulder and begged me not to leave her, weeping that she doesn't want to not be human," Lucy admitted with relief.

"Do you think she'll give up reclaiming a Legacy for Aunghadhail?" Nick whispered hopefully.

"Perhaps if I push?" Lucy suggested fearfully.

"Lucy, I have and always will trust your instincts with our children," she could hear the smile in his voice as he spoke. "If you think this shock is enough to resolve our issues, I trust you to do as you see fit if you find the right opportunity."

Smiling to herself Lucy nodded. "Thank you," she breathed relieved. "I believe the shock of Hank is enough to finally get her to see beyond the dreams of Aunghadhail."

"I hope it is too."

Hanging up, Lucy cradled the phone silently, before turning she made her way back from the waiting area to Hank's room.

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Nikki looked around and frowned. It was warm. It was dark. There was no sound, no light. Just ... emptiness.

"Hank?" she called out softly. "Hank?"

Moving was hard. Nothing hurt, but it was like her muscles had no power in them. Everything took so much effort. Everything was so hard. Laying back, her head pillowed on the soft ground, Nikki closed her eyes. Rest. Just rest. Gather her strength for later ...

With a banshee's wail Nikki jerked upright, her power pouring forth and banishing the dark in a raw explosion of light and noise.

Jerking to her feet, Nikki stood panting, looking left and right in fear, calling light to clothe her as she stared wide eyed around the featureless expanse, no sign of anything in any direction. Straining her eyes desperately, searching all around, finally Nikki saw the barest flicker of a light in the distance. As she watched the light grew brighter, and the merest impressions of people could be made out when suddenly …

Aunghadhail!

Nikki gasped in joy. Aunghadhail in all her glory rode at the van of a great Sidhe host, mounted on a white stead, clothed in her mithril armour, followed by the Sidhe nation in all their glory ridding behind her. Crying out in joy Nikki tried to run towards her, but found her limbs frozen. In desperation Nikki leaned yearningly towards Aunghadhail, urging her on, urging her to ride ever faster, ever onwards, closer and closer towards her.

A cry of fear and horror jerked down Nikki's eyes, and there kneeling in front of her finally was Hank. A Hank thrashing at invisible bonds as she was, but not one looking yearningly towards the approaching Aunghadhail, but one staring in horror, crying out in anguish, pulling hard at his invisible bonds as he struggled to get away from the approaching figure.

Startled, Nikki turned back. Puzzled Nikki watched the oncoming figures. Staring searchingly forward, slowly Nikki's eyes widened in growing realisation that Aunghadhail and her host charged not across an empty plain, but instead they rode through, and over, a huge crowd of people, knocking them down, ridding them under. Men, woman, children, mothers with babes in arms, it mattered not. Mercilessly the Sidhe host rode onwards, caring not as they knocked down and trampled under the people before them.

In horror Nikki watched as now those she knew were ridden down and trampled under the Sidhe host. Her teachers and her classmates, Jamie, Ayla, Jade, all of team Kimba. One by one trampled under the Sidhe hooves. Nikki stared as Hank cried out in anguish at every loss, then watched in horror as his family, then Lily's and finally Lily herself was trampled before him. Wailing in tandem with Hank, Nikki cried out as Aunghadhail's arm raised above Hank and Malachim's Feather readied for its inevitable, terrible task.

"Nikki please!" Hank called out beseechingly to the grim faced executioner he cowered before, an executioner whose raised arm began descending.

In a panic, Nikki once again released the scream of a banshee, raw power pouring forth from her, reaching out towards the terrible hand and its clutched sword ...

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Screeching out her horror, Nikki found herself standing again in the hospital room, looking down at Hank's white face, standing, holding his hand in an iron grip as she stood there panting, staring down at him, sharing his terror. Nikki panted and stared for a timeless moment, before bawling, she turned and ran blindly from the room.

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Pain! 

Too scared to whimper, the Leanan cowered frozen. A Queen's fury. She had felt the magic lashing out, and only the fact the Queen knew not where she was had saved her. The Queen's magic had ripped forth, almost randomly raging through prey. The Leanan, petrified, had cowered in the corners, certain the Queen in her anger was about to destroy her. Even after the Queen's abrupt departure she stayed cowering, hiding, terrified. Shaking in fear, waiting for the Queen's return. Terrified she worked to pull herself in. Everything, every part of her spread throughout prey and preys family, The Leanan desperately reeled in tight, cowering fearfully in her forgotten corner, desperately hiding from the Queen.

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Lucy's breath caught as she came around the corner to Hank's room, distressed to see leaning against the wall next to Hank's door a distraught Nikki, curled up and crying like her heart was breaking.

Rushing forwards Lucy gathered up her daughter in her arms and desperately pleaded. "What's wrong Nikki? Is it Hank?" she demanded fearfully, dreading the answer.

"N no," Nikki hiccuped. "He's still the same."

"Then what's wrong?" Lucy asked softly, breathing a sigh of relief.

"Hank! He. Nightmare. Me!" Nikki wept incoherently.

"Nikki?" Lucy gasped.

"Hank's nightmare is me!" Nikki cried, finally getting the words out. "He dreams about me with all Aunghadhail's glory and host, riding everyone down, riding him down. And it's merciless, and it's unstoppable and it's me! Not Aunghadhail! Not a nightmare! It's me! Hank's nightmare is me leading an unstoppable host riding down and killing all he holds dear." Burying her face in her mother's arms, Nikki wept inconsolably.

"Oh Nikki, it's not you ..." Lucy started to comfort her, when still crying Nikki interrupted.

"But Mom, it is! He dreams of a great Sidhe host, mounted and lead by me! We ride across a plain, a horde, mercilessly cutting down a great expanse of humanity, men, woman, children, everyone Hank knows and cares for, and it's me! I'm leading it!"

"And then mistress?" Koehnes asked, appearing beside her, eyes wide in anticipation. "What happens then mistress? Do you lead the Wild Hunt to victory? Do you cut down all the Humans who dare stand against you? Does the Wild Hunt bath in their blood as it was in the glory days?" Koehnes panted excitedly.

Nikki stared at Koehnes, eyes wide in horror, before she fell wailing into her mother's arms. "They cried out my name Mom. Hank, Toni, all of them. They called out in fear and terror, and it was Nikki they called!" she wept. "I'm what Hank fears, I'm who he's afraid off, it's all my fault, if I hadn't gone down this path he wouldn't be laying there, and I. And I ... I ... I don't know what to do!" Nikki wailed. "I want to honour Aung, Aunghadhail, but I don't want to lose Hank! I don't want to lose you! I don't want to lead a merciless Sidhe host!" Pleading up at her mother with tears in her eyes Nikki begged, "What should I do Mom? What should I do?"

Crying in relief as the moment she had been desperately praying for arrived, Lucy gently cupped her daughter's face in her hands, carefully wiping tears away with her thumbs. "Why don't we discuss that together?" she suggested to Nikki with a smile.

Nodding mutely, Nikki allowed her mother to lift her back onto her feet. Gently, Lucy steered Nikki down the corridor, to the empty waiting room she had just left.

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"So, what is it you want?" Lucy quietly asked her daughter, slumped dejectedly in a chair across from her, nursing a cup of tea. Alone in the empty waiting room, Koehnes banished from the room by Nikki when she'd once more demanded her Mistress reveal the end to her 'tale of the slaughter of Humans'. Lucy reached forwards to again cup her daughter's cheek softly in the palm of her hand. With the gentlest of pressures she raising Nikki's head so that she could look directly into her daughter's eyes, communicating her love and support all the ways she knew how.

"I don't know!" Nikki wailed, as Lucy quickly shifted from the seat across from Nikki, to the one beside her, gathering her daughter into her lap. 

Leaning down, Lucy gently kissed Nikki's forehead. "Of course you do dear. Let go of the confusion, listen to your heart. What is it your heart wants?" Lucy whispered supportively.

"You," Nikki mumbled. "Hank. Daddy, Bunny, Toni, Jade, Billie," the names tumbled out, and Lucy let them tumble, let Nikki cry out her sorrow as the names poured on. And on. And still on. More and more names, until Lucy smothered them by pulling Nikki into her shoulder. Letting the names becomes tears, and the tears become weeping. Patiently Lucy sat there, her daughter pulled tight to her chest as she rubbed Nikki's back and made soothing noises, waiting as her daughter wept and wept again.

When Nikki's crying finally stopped, she held Nikki close for a few more minutes, before finally she asked another simple question. "And what don't you want Nikki."

Nikki shuddered. "I don't want to be like that!" she cried hysterically. "To ... to ride them down. To not care. To be so ... so merciless. I don't care about being a Queen. I don't care about money. I don't care about Solicitor, I just want him to go away! Never come near me again! I want to be me!" Nikki wailed.

"You don't want to be the Sidhe Queen?" Lucy demanded.

"No Mom," Nikki sobbed. "She was merciless. She slaughtered thousands, and she didn't care. I don't want to be that person. I don't, I don't. I don't want to be that person!" Nikki sobbed into her mother's shoulder.

"You don't want to be the leader of the Sidhe?"

"No," Nikki sobbed again. "Not if it means," she blubbered. "Not if it means that!"

"You don't want to become Aunghadhail's Legacy?" Lucy pushed.

Crying into her mother's shoulder, great sobs of sorrow and guilt, Nikki shook her head, whispering again "no." Taking a deep breath Nikki controlled the tears and lifted her head from her mother's shoulder. "Never," she promised. "I couldn't do that! The Wild Hunt, the slaughter," Nikki shuddered in horror. "I'll .. I'll find some other way to honour Aunghadhail. I will, I promise. Some other way," she wept desperately.

Lucy let out a great sigh of relief and tenderly pulled Nikki closer to her. Holding Nikki for a timeless moment, she eventually let go and sat back. Reaching up to cup Nikki's face in her hands again, she stared sternly to her daughter. "Good!" she growled harshly down at Nikki. "I don't ever want to hear about this again!"

Lucy wiped the tears from Nikki's eye and cheeks, expression softening as tears came to her own eyes. "Nichole Susanne Reilly," she whispered. "Never scare me like that again!" she finished hoarsely, pulling Nikki to her breast desperately as she cried into her hair. "I thought I'd lost my baby forever!" Lucy wept, crushing Nikki to her, determined to never let her go again. Nikki hugging her back, weeping and cocooning herself in the welcoming and comforting love of her mother, the little boy inside her desperately crying out his fear as Mom finally came to cuddle away the terrors of the night.

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Nikki slowly entered the room again, leaning against her mother. At the sounds of crying, she turned and winced. Curled up in her mother's lap, Lily was weeping.

A slight stiffening of her mother was enough to signal Lily, and fearfully she looked up. With a gasp of joy, Lily leapt from her mother's arms, running to Nikki, before stopping fearfully before her, hand slightly raised in entreaty.

Tears coming to her own eyes at Lily's fearful stance, Nikki reached out tentatively to Lily, the gesture enough for Lily to complete her aborted impulse, and dive into Nikki's welcoming arms, the two girls crying openly as each clutched the other tight.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Early Morning
Above Washington D.C.

Ayla stared in wonder at the pint-sized chaos agent, curled up in the decadent armchair of the  Gulfstream jet, snoring cutely as she slept clutching her stuffed cabbit to her chest.

Snorting quietly, rolling his eyes at the 'little girl snores' Jade was doing, Ayla stared at her, trying to catch Jade faking the 'little girl sleeping' scene. Shaking his head at the wink the cabbit gave him, unable to catch Jade in trickery, Ayla instead turned back to his b-phone, finishing a series of email correspondences for the phone to send as soon as they descended back into network range again.

A discrete ding, and an unobtrusive light let Ayla know the pilot was starting his descent into Washington. Checking his seatbelt, Ayla glanced to Jade where the cabbit was busy doing the same for her. Looking up Ayla nodded to the stewardess as she came back, letting her check both his and Jade's seat belts and gather up the remains of their light snack before she retreated to the Gulfstream's galley again and her own pre-landing checklist.

Watching the lights of the roads and buildings streaming past, Ayla frowned and hoped that this time when he landed and returned to network access he'd have some news about the whereabouts of either Billie or Hank.

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As soon as the plane finished taxiing, Jade jumped up from her seat where she'd appeared to be asleep, grabbing the backpack with her 'sister' in it and ran for the exit to the jet. Jade stopped just out of the way of the stewardess almost singing "Limo! Limo! Limo!" as she did an impromptu jig. Opening the aircraft door and securing the stairs, the stewardess turned and gestured to Jade, allowing her to exit the plane.

Crying out in delight, Jade impulsively hugged the stewardess, before turning to the exit and almost flying down the stairs, running over to the open door of the waiting limo, again dancing in excitement there as she waited for Ayla to follow.

Turning back to the plane, Jade fidgeted as Ayla finalised the details of the aircraft hire. Jade danced impatiently beside the limo, finally calling out petulantly to Ayla as he started to cross from the plane to where the limo waited. "Hurry up Ayla, we've got to go save Billie!"

"Jade, we don't even know where Billie is," Ayla reminded her as he arrived at the limo. "Washington is a large place, she could be anywhere and I've not received any word from any of my news services about any disturbances in Washington that sound like her."

"Blthhh!" Jade replied blowing him a raspberry and diving into the limo before him. "Billie's at the Pentagon waiting for us to go pick her up!"

"How do you know that Jade?" Ayla asked cautiously as he climbed into the limo behind Jade.

"Well durr!" Jade rolled her eyes. "All we know from Hank is that his family moved to Washington because his father has a job at the Pentagon! Of course Billie's gone looking for Hank's father so that she can find out which hospital Hank's in! Where else could she go?"

Blinking, Ayla sighed ruefully at the simple logic of Jade's deduction. Signalling the driver, Ayla ordered him to drive to the Pentagon.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Nikki stared down at Hank again, this time holding Lily's hand in hers as well. "Are you sure?" she asked the girl fearfully. Gripping Nikki's hand tight, Lily gave Nikki a steely look and nodded once, silently urging her to hurry. With a sigh, Nikki reached forwards, touching their hands to Hank's, closing her eyes.

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Nikki stood on a featureless plain, dirt stretching out to the horizon. A movement beside her caused her to turn and smile. Still holding her tightly, Lily looked around the plain puzzled.

"Where are we?" Lily asked.

"Kayda would say we are in Hank's dreamspace," Nikki replied.

"And you?" Lily asked turning to her companion fearfully.

Nikki looked around silently. "We are in Hank's subconscious," she finally stated. "The world his mind makes, to envelope and protect his consciousness while it sleeps."

Lily blinked. "And the difference is?"

"Usually nothing," Nikki admitted. "But this is deeper. More personal," Nikki mused. "The dreamspace is at least partially a public space, this ..." Nikki looked around frowning. "This is all about protection."

"Is it dangerous?" Lily asked warily, glancing nervously around too.

Nikki silently contemplated the vast plains. "It was in the shared madness of Skybolt and Cavalier that Aunghadhail was killed," she eventually whispered to Lily's stunned gasp. "And Hank jumped into a river to drown himself," Nikki continued grimly. "Madness may be here as well."

"You think Hank will harm us?" Lily cried.

Nikki stood with tears filling from her eyes. "Hank fears me," she croaked. "I rejected him and cursed him and set my feet on a path of devastation and warfare, a Path where Hank fears I'll destroy him and all that he holds dear," she continued weeping. "Why should he not defend himself from me?"

Lily stared at Nikki in horror, when Nikki's suddenly heightened attention dragged her eyes away from the distraught girl. Staring out across the plain, Lily turned to where a dust cloud approached them. Tightening her grip on Nikki's hand, Lily faced it and swallowed.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Morning
The Pentagon, Washington D.C.

"Billie, Billie, Billie," Jade sang as she skipped down the path to the Pentagon. Stopping before the Marine guard at the door, she smiled delightedly towards him. "Excuse me?" she called politely. "If a girl, a few years older then me, came here asking to speak to a Colonel working with top secret weapons, where would she be taken?"

The marine in full dress uniform smiled. "She'd be taken to the security post and held until her parents came to collect her," he informed her.

"And where is the security post? We're here to fetch her!" Jade asked with a smile, indicating the limo Ayla was still getting out off.

Glancing at the limo, the marine indicated the door behind them. "Through here, turn immediately right and follow the signs."

"Thank you!" Jade smiled happily, giving a small jump of delight before turning wide brown eyes on the involuntarily smiling Marine. "My sister's friends with Colonel Declan's son, Hank," Jade pleaded softly. "And she wanted to find the Colonel to ask him what hospital Hank is in. Hank fell into the river at Washington Harbour. Could you perhaps tell me what hospitals are near there? Which ones they would most likely take a him to?" Jade begged him, hands clasped together, big sad eyes seeming to fill her whole face.

The marine knelt down and reached out to pat Jade on the shoulder. "If it was my friend, I'd start by calling Georgetown University Hospital," he suggested with a smile. "It's just a few blocks from the Harbour, and has an excellent emergency department."

Impulsively hugging the marine in thanks, Jade dashed back down the path to grab hold of Ayla and pull him along. "Billie's in the security post to the right, and Hank's at Georgetown University Hospital!" she carolled dragging the stunned Ayla along. Ayla absently nodded to the Marine guard as they went past and into the Pentagon, while Jade waved enthusiastic thanks to him.

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Dreamspace

Serenely floating along, Hank cruised at head height above the plain, looking neither left nor right as he approached. Smiling, Lily started to move forward to meet him, when Nikki jerked her back. Startled, Lily turned to Nikki.

"That's not Hank," Nikki firmly stated, pulling Lily to the side and watching grimly as it glided past without so much as glancing in their direction.

Distressed, Lily looked back and forth between the receding Hank and the frowning Nikki, before finally she stared pleadingly at Nikki. "Nikki?"

Nikki sighed. "It's some sort of sentry," she shrugged. "Patrolling for ..." Nikki stared after the figure in confusion.

"Nikki?"

Nikki sighed and turned to Lily. "I don't know Lily. I thought ..." Nikki glanced at the retreating figure again, tears in her eyes.

"Nikki?" Lily demanded fearfully.

"I'm sorry Lily," Nikki turned back to her, giving the distressed girl a hug of comfort. "After last time, I assumed it was me he was afraid off, that the sentry was for me, but ..."

"Perhaps because you were with me?" Lily suggested hopefully.

"No, ..." Nikki drawled, again turning to stare after the sentry. "If that was the case, it should have acknowledge you somehow, not ignored us ..."

At a gasp from Lily, Nikki turned back to her and hugged her again. "It's not like that Lily, it's really not! That wasn't Hank, it was just a sentry, it's looking for something specific, that's all it does, it means nothing that it ignored you," she assured the girl. "Hank's afraid of something, and his subconscious is looking for it is all, and the sentry isn't going to respond to anything but that."

"What is Hank so afraid off?" Lily sniff. "He. He. The river, oh what is he so afraid off?" she wailed.

"I don't know," Nikki whispered. "I thought it was me. His nightmare, it was me! It was everything I was becoming, and he was terrified. But ..."

"But the sentry ignored you too ..." Lily whispered.

Standing, holding Lily as much for her comfort as Lily's, Nikki stared after the sentry in confusion.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Morning
The Pentagon, Washington D.C.

"Well?" Jade asked as Ayla disconnected the call with a smile.

"They are not allowed to give out information on patients except to family," Ayla reported smiling.

Jade frowned. "Why are you happy about that?" she asked confused.

"They called him a patient," Ayla explained still smiling happily. "If he was not there, they would have told me so instead." Ayla reached down and hugged Jade close. "You found him Jade," he whispered happily. "You found Hank."

Jade smiled happily, returning the hug before breaking loose and running to the counter and pointing. "Billie!" she cried happily, waving excitedly to the wide-eyed stare of her blue-haired Oneesan.

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Dreamspace

Nikki and Lily stared at the vast chasm, impenetrable blackness surrounded an island with a featureless grey wall all around it, like a castle with a moat. Lily looked, and for as far as she could see, there was neither windows nor doors nor openings of any type in the walls of the island.

After staring at the island with its featureless wall for a while, Nikki deliberately walked to the end of the chasm, and using the heel of her boot drew an arrow in the dirt pointing at it. With a last contemplative examination of the featureless wall, Nikki turned  and starting to walk along the edge of the chasm.

"Nikki?" Lily called as she hurried to follow.

"Call it a hunch," Nikki said without turning, continuing to walk along the edge.

"What is it?" Lily asking, glancing at the island.

"I think it's Hank's conscious," Nikki replied. "It's where I feel he is."

"Hank is an island?" Lily asked confused.

Nikki giggled. "No, that's more protection," she assured Lily. "Hank is himself, just on the island, inside the walls."

"So why aren't we going to him?" Lily demanded.

"I'm looking for a way in," Nikki stated. "That's what we're doing now."

"Oh!" Lily smiled and ran to catch up to Nikki again. After a while of walking Lily glanced into the chasm and its blackness. "What's down there?" she asked curiously.

"Nothing," Nikki replied absently, stopping to stare back up at the island, looking left and right, and all along the top of the walls.

"Maybe there is a way in down there?" Lily suggested walking to the edge and staring down, trying to pierce the darkness.

"No Lily, there is literally nothing down there," Nikki explained. "Hanks mind didn't put anything there at all."

"Huh?" Lily asked turning to Nikki. Nikki pointed towards the ground, looking down Lily saw the arrow Nikki had drawn in the dirt before they started walking around the chasm. Looking up at Nikki, Lily frowned her confusion.

"Hank's cut himself totally off from his subconscious," Nikki stated. "No links at all, which is why he's in a coma."

"What?" Lily demanded.

Nikki walked up to Lily and stood looking down into the nothingness of the chasm. "That's Hank," she stated, pointing across to the island surrounded by its featureless wall. "In there is everything that makes Hank, Hank. All his memories, all his personality. Everything." She turned and waved to the featureless plain surrounding them. "This is Hank's subconscious. All the parts of Hank that work without him. Breathing, sleeping, everything."

"Aren't they the same?" Lily asked confused.

Nikki nodded and pointed to the chasm. "This shouldn't be here," she stated. "It all should be one. It all should be merged, there should be parts of Hank's personality all over these plains. Dreams, memories, it should be everywhere. Learning to swim. Learning to ride a bike. How to run, everything should be mixed up and connected. But it's not."

"Nikki? What does it mean?" Lily asked wide-eyed looking around the featureless plain.

Nikki sighed and stared at the walled island. "It means, until we bridge this chasm and breach that wall, Hank's not going to wake up."

Lily stared all around, finally turning back to Nikki. "With what? We've seen nothing walking all the way here, just endless dirt. What are we supposed to do, fill the chasm with dirt?"

Nikki picked up a small rock and threw it into the chasm, listening. With a sigh she wiping her hands and turned back to Lily. "I don't think that will work. Something tells me nothing from this side can cross that chasm, only Hank can do so from within."

"What about magic?" Lily demanded.

Nikki shook her head. "This is Hank's mind. Anything I do is forcing a change on Hank, it's too dangerous."

"Dangerous?"

"I'm ... I don't have Aunghadhail. I ... I don't know how. I ... I don't want to break," Nikki paused and took a deep breath. Turning to Lily, eyes wide with unshed tears, she whispered voice trembling. "If. If I blow a hole in that wall, what would it do to Hank?" She asked, the fear in her voice obvious. "That wall is his mind!" Nikki wailed, the tears finally leaking out.

Lily shuddered, stepping forward to hug Nikki to her. "Then what?" she whispered.

Nikki sighed, hugging Lily back in thanks before stepping back and turning to the wall, staring at it. "There's got to be a way to contact Hank, get him to see us," Nikki murmured, absently she sank down and sat, pulling up her knees to her chest and staring across at the wall.

"Nikki?" Lily demanded crossly.

"I'm thinking," Nikki absently replied.

"Nikki!" Lily half shrieked.

Nikki turned and gave Lily a sour look. "If you want to yell, yell at the island, try calling to Hank, see if you can get a response."

"Will it work?" Lily begged.

"Well, it couldn't hurt," Nikki shrugged her shoulders and returned to staring at the walled island.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Morning
The Pentagon, Washington D.C.

As Billie followed the scowling Marine through the door, Jade ran up to her and gave her a huge hug, before stepping back and rummaging though her bag.

"Jade?" Billie asked puzzled.

"Sorry, I promised and ..." Smiling triumphantly, Jade pulled out her b-phone and waved it towards Billie, before carefully dialling it and holding it out to her. "I promised your Mom!" Jade explained. "Said I'd get you to call her as soon as we found you, so she could yell at you and stuff for running away like that!"

Regarding the phone like a spitting snake, Billie reluctantly reached out and accepted it, tentatively putting it to her ear as the stern Marine chuckled in amused delight. 

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Dreamspace

"Can't you breach it? Use your magic to make land?" Lily demanded of Nikki, hoarse from yelling at the unresponsive island.

Nikki sighed. "It's his mind Lily. It's all complicated things like being able to walk, talk, breath! If I got it wrong Hank may lose his ability to walk, not be able to control his PK field, forget how to breath, anything could happen!"

"Can't you, you know," Lily wiggled her fingers. "Magic?"

"Would you really trust me to correctly reconnect everything between Hank conscious and subconscious minds? To know Hank so well I could know and connect properly all of it?" Nikki demanded of Lily.

Lily sighed and shook her head. Slumping down next to Nikki, they both turned back to studying the island.

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Fearfully the Leanan cowered. Too scared to whimper. Too scared to move. The Queen was back, and the Leanan felt her. Roving free. Walking through the mind of prey, her power wavering back and forth as she searched. Prodded and probed everywhere.

The Leanan whimpered, pushing further back into the crack, hiding deeper in the crevasse of prey she was cowering in as she felt the Queen's searching pass close. Desperately she pulled and pulled, drawing back into herself all the threads she'd spent weeks weaving through prey. Hiding.

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Nikki laughed suddenly, and jumped up joyfully.

"Nikki?" Lily enquired warily, also standing.

"It's a castle!" Nikki exclaimed happily.

"Yes? So?" Lily asked confused.

"A man's home is his castle!" Nikki giggled. "So what is home to Hank?" Nikki turned to Lily and raised an eyebrow.

"Huh?"

"What is home? When you think of home, what do you think of?" Nikki pressed.

"Um, my home in Providence?" Lily guessed.

"Correct, and what about Hank?"

"Well, no, that's my home. I guess Hank thinks of ..." Lily stopped and frowned. "Not here," she declared firmly. "Hank hasn't been at all happy since he came to Washington. I suppose maybe some other army camp …"

Lily paused, giving the amused Nikki a puzzled look. Nikki cocked her head suggestively, prodding Lily with a look. Lily stared at her confused, before she blurted out "Poe Cottage!" excitedly.

"Yep!" Nikki giggled. "I bet you anything, behind those walls is a perfect replica of Poe Cottage, complete with hill for Hank to sit on and stare down broodingly. And what's on the top of Poe cottage?" Nikki asked Lily with a smirk, handing a phone she manifested out of nothing to Lily.

"A cell tower!" Lily breathed, reaching eagerly for the phone.

Line Break broken

Once again Hank pressed the dial, and listened listlessly to the message. "Hello! You have reached the phone of Lily Turner. Please leave a message so I can get back to you!"

Automatically, Hank pressed the call end button, and reached for the redial when a shimmering before him drew his attention. Blinking he stared at a smiling Lily, happily standing before him.

With a happy cry, Lily ran up to Hank, diving onto him and hugging him. Overjoyed, she smiled at him. "Hank! Its time to wake up now!"

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Blinking stunned, Lily found herself holding Nikki's hand and staring down at Hank. Desperately she turned wide-eyed to stare on Nikki.

"Well?" The equally desperate Nikki demanded of her.

"I ... I hugged him, and said it was time to wake up, then ..." Lily shrugged her confusion, before both of them turned back, frantically searched Hank's face for signs of awakening.

"Did he just ...?" Nikki wondered.

"Look! He frowned!" Lily cried joyfully, reaching out to clasp Hank's hand. "Hank? Can you hear me? Hank? It's Lily!"

Darkness. Slowly retreating. So tired. So difficult. Voices. Lily. He could hear Lily ...

"He smiled!" Lily cried, tears falling down her cheeks as she wept her happiness. Leaning forward, face almost touching Hank's, Lily clasped his hand and begged. "Hank?" she wept. "Hank? Please wake up!" she coaxed him.

"Why?" Hank asked blinking up at her puzzled. "Am I late for class?"

"Oh Hank!" Lily cried joyfully, throwing herself across him and weeping as she hugged him, a bemused Hank hugging her back, looking around at the hospital room and the people gathered, all joyously crowding close to him. Turning, his eyes-widening in surprise, Hank stared at Nikki, here with him too.

"What happened?" he blurted out. "Where is this?"

Just at that moment a nurse wondered in, before pausing shocked at the vista before her. "He's awake!" she exclaimed, turning and dashing from the room, calling for a doctor.

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Once the doctor was satisfied andthe nurses finished examining him and updating their charts, Hank finally had time to look around and take in those who were there. As soon as the doctor and nurses left, Lily again stepped up, desperately clutching Hank, pulling herself tight to him as Hank hugged her back just as hard, tears falling from both their eyes.

Finally they released, and as Lily stepped back, Hank looked up to Nikki and swallowed. Nikki looked away, shrinking into herself before she took a deep breath and deliberately turned back to face Hank. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I never meant ... I didn't mean." Tears falling freely Nikki stood looking pleadingly towards Hank, and at his automatic raising of his arms, she rushed crying into them, clinging to Hank tightly and crying into his chest. "I'm so, so sorry," she blubbered. "You were right, and I was so angry, and I was wrong and I'm sorry, I'm sorry ..." Crying together, Hank and Nikki clung to each other.

The storm of tears passed, Nikki released Hank and looked him in the eye. "I'm sorry Hank," she forced herself to say. "You were just telling me the things I needed to hear, being a friend to me, and I." Swallowing, Nikki paused to wipe her eyes. "I ... I shouldn't have said what I did. I ... I shouldn't have taken my fears out on you like that." Crying again Nikki had to look away, stare down at the floor. "Can you," she whispered. "Can you ever forgive me?" she desperately begged.

Nikki stood there, arms clasped tight to herself as she stared at the floor, withdrawing further and further into herself the longer the silence lasted. "Thank you," Hank finally croaked, causing Nikki to gasp and stare incredulously up at him.

"Thank you for forgiving me," Hank repeated tearfully, as with a cry of relief Nikki once again dived into his arms.

Lucy smiled, tears in her eyes, standing by the door to Hank's room watching as Lily and Nikki fussed over Hank. Adjusting the bed, his pillows, fetching him something to eat and drink, finally settling down in chairs on either side of him.

As the two girls settled, and Hank slowly began to eat his meal, Lucy watched as he took a careful look around. Wincing, she exchanged an anguished look with Lily's mother, Tabitha, both noticed the quickly concealed hurt in Hank's eyes as he carefully noted who was in the room, and especially, who was not. As Hank's face carefully blanked and he resumed eating, Tabitha and Lucy sighed at Hank's hidden pain that his family wasn't present.

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Bustling in as Hank finished eating, a nurse swept aside the tray with the remains of Hank's breakfast, and briskly checked his vitals. Finishing that, she swept the girl's and their mother's out of his room, firmly shutting the door behind them, leaving herself alone with Hank.

At the raised eyebrow of her mother, Lily blushed. "She's removing the catheter," she explained.

Smiling, Tabitha reached down and hugged her daughter. Letting go, she gently steered Lily to Nikki, the two girl's reaching out to clutch each other again. "I'll go fetch his mother," Tabitha explained. "I know which room they put her in." With a glance at Lucy who nodded her agreement, Tabitha set off down the corridor at a swift walk.

Nikki and Lily hovered by Hank's door for a while, before Lucy was able to persuade them to sit on the seats there instead. It was a few minutes later when Lily looked up, becoming still and warily watching as a disheveled woman all but ran down the corridor. With a cry of "Hannah!" Hank's Mom pushed through the door and into Hank's room.

Following behind, Tabitha arrived just as the two girls jumped up from their seat. The four of them crowded the door, listening as Hank's mother cried her relief. Tabitha was just letting out a sigh of relief, when a change in tone caused her to exchange glances of shock with Lucy as Hank's mother started berating him. Just as Tabitha reached forward, intending to push through the door and intervene, the nurse barked and suddenly the door opened. Hank's mother was summarily ejected into the corridor by the nurse and the door slammed shut, locking behind her.

Slumping against the corridor, Hank's mother wept. "Why? Why would she do all that? What's wrong with her? She was the good one! She's always been the good one!" Turning to the door, she started banging on it, crying out. "Hannah! Hannah!"

"It's Hank!"

Fist clenched at her sides, tears in her eyes, Lily stood breathing heavily, glaring at Hank's mother.

"But she ..."

"He!" Lily screeched. "He! Hank is a boy! He's been a boy for a year, and it was you who forced him to start calling himself Hank! The least you could do is remember to do it yourself!"

"Now dear, Hannah ..."

"Hank!" Lily screeched in fury, fists turning white as she squeezed them tight, her face red, eyes blazing. Lily took a step towards the cowering woman. "His name is Hank!!"

"Dear ..." Hank's mother quavered, fearfully eyeing the furious Lily.

"He prefers to be called 'Hank' now," Lily growled, "and to be thought of as male, as you'd know if you had even bothered to talk to him properly this year, rather then lecture him or order him." Lily stepped forward, forcing Hank's mother against the door through the force of her fury. "Did you even care that his best friend died? Did you even know? Jamie, his roommate and best friend, murdered and what did you do? Did you call him? Did you try and comfort him? No! You made sure he was getting counselling!"

"I ..."

"And when he comes home, did you welcome him? Did you rejoice? No! You shunned him, you don't even have a picture in the place of him at all! Fifteen years, and not a single memory of Hank anywhere to be seen!"

"Hannah ..."

"Hank!" Lily's lunge towards Hank's mother was caught by Tabitha, who spun her daughter away from the cowering woman, clutching her now weeping child to her breast.

With Tabitha between her and Lily, Hank's mother drew a ragged breath, standing up and fixing her clothes. "Really," she exclaimed looking towards Lily and her mother. "I just don't know what that school is teaching! If she was my daughter, you can be assured, I wouldn't be treating her like that. A hug? She deserves ..." face paling she stopped, swallowing in fear.

"How I treat my daughter?" Cold fury dripped off every word as Tabitha let go of Lily and turned to confront Hank's mother. "Your son lies in hospital because of everything you've done to him, and you feel the right to lecture me on how I treat my daughter?" Tabitha whispered taking a step forward. "Your son comes home, and within days he's so traumatised he's weeping on the phone to my daughter. Is so abandoned by his family, he eats meals alone in a park. Is so distraught he's having nightmares and calling my daughter at three in the morning, and it's my parenting skills you feel the need to comment on?" Tabitha demanded.

By now Tabitha was face to face with Hank's mother, who again cowered, back pushed against the door to Hank's room.

"I ..."

"Go!" Tabitha thundered, furious and trying to hold herself back.

Desperately looking from the cold fury of Tabitha's face, to the accusatory glares of the other's present, with a whimper Hank's mother turned and ran down the corridor.

Stepping into the corridor just in time to see Hank's mother scamper away, Robert carefully made his way to his wife. "Dear?" he enquired softly.

Weeping, Tabitha turned and threw herself into his arms, crying hysterically as the tension left her. Puzzled, Robert pulled his wife tight to him, searching the faces of the others there, looking for an explanation.

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"I wish we could just spirit him away, take Hank and Lily and run back to Providence with them," Tabitha sighed, curled up in the lap of her husband as the two of them watched Lily and Hank try and comfort each other after Hank's mother's departure, Tabitha finally bringing her husband up-to-speed on all that he had missed.

"We're heroes, we don't steal," her husband reminded her firmly, still holding his upset wife tight.

"That's not what you said when we retrieved the Seal of Solomon," Tabitha reminded him wickedly, as her husband stiffened and went red in embarrassment. "Oh now dear, don't be like that," Tabitha wiggled round and playful kissed him. "You had lots of fun being bad for a change!" she teased as she nuzzled him. "Admit it, you like the bad girls. Me back in my black sneaksuit, infiltrating the Syndicate base, it all excited you! I never felt so warm and safe as I did when your big strong arms wrapped around me tight as soon as I came out."

"I was scared I was going to lose you," Robert replied, smiling as he bent to kiss her.

"You were turned on by me and my bad girl thief's suit," Tabitha snorted. "Admit it, you've loved me as your Cape Squad wife, but you liked me better as a Mastermind thief," she teased.

"I have always and forever loved you as you!" her husband smiled, leaning forward to give her another kiss, this one deep and long, knowing that after the confrontation between her and Hank's mother, his wife needed a concrete affirmation that despite her unorthodox upbringing and career, she wasn't failing in her duties as a wife and mother.

"Mmm," Tabitha all but purred, curling up in his lap with the slightest smile and a faint blush. "You say the nicest things," she complimented her husband happily.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Late Morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Watching the Army Colonel march down the corridor, Robert frowned and shifted slightly. Tabitha had told him everything she'd been able to ferret out of both Lily and Hank, and the marching tin-pot soldier on his way to confront Hank looked like trouble to him.

Robert squinted, studying carefully Hank's father as he marched down the corridor, looking for any signs of desperation, hope. Love. When all he saw was anger and determination, Robert stepped to the centre of the corridor and blocked the Colonel from Hank's room, frowning deeply with his arms hanging ready for physical action if such became necessary. After this morning's events, Hank barely awake, totally unsure of what was happening, then the disgusting tirade from his mother, the last thing Hank needed this morning was another dressing down from a parent over his 'lack of consideration' for their needs.

"Stand aside," the Colonel growled without pleasantries.

"No," Robert stated simply, setting himself firmly in the Colonel's path. "Until I'm satisfied you are acting in Hank's best interests, I won't."

The Colonel's face whitened in anger, and he drew himself talk glaring at Robert. "Hank is my son, and I'll thank you to remember it's my will that decides his interests, not yours!" he thundered.

"Spoken with such love and compassion," Robert couldn't help snarling, disgusted at the complete lack of empathy both of Hank's parents displayed to him, caring only for their own inconveniences.

"I'm the father, I decide what will and won't be happening with my child, now stand aside or I'll order the lot of you to be kept away from him."

"Despite the obvious fact he'd prefer to be with any of us rather then any of you?"

"He's my son and it's my family! What I say goes and you can keep your overactive sensibilities out of my family's affairs!" the Colonel growled at him.

"Such a caring father, eh?" Robert growled, glaring at the Colonel in contempt. "Do you even know how much you've made Hank feel like he doesn't have a home or family? How much he's cried while talking to my daughter about how ... hellish ... it is to be with you, his 'family'? How much he wishes he was anywhere but here?"

Colonel Declan stuttered, jaw open. "I ..."

"You've made him feel totally unwelcome, totally unloved. And you want to claim to be his loving father?"

The colonel clenched his jaw. "I'm am his father. My will …"

"If I have to," Robert interrupted. "I will contact our team's attorneys. I'll have them file papers for Hank's emancipation from this hellhole you call a family," Robert whispered with a cold smile, leaning forward, face inches from the Colonel. "And given the Wall Street address of the law firm we have on retainer, you can bet your ass that within two hours, I'll have an injunction against any of you being within half a mile of Hank!" he promised. "Is that how you want to play it? Is that your will?" Robert demanded. "Or are you all going to pull your head out of your ass and realise just how badly you're hurting Hank? Maybe start acting like you care about him as a son, as family?"

The Colonel started at Robert and the steely, clenched-jaw manner in which he delivered his little speech, leaving it clear beyond doubt that Robert was deadly serious. No-one had stood up to the Colonel this forcefully in a long time - in the Army, it just wasn't done!

"If you think I'm going to let you get away with causing such emotional pain to my daughter's boyfriend, then you better think again." Robert crossed his arms defiantly, staring eye-to-eye at the Colonel. After ten or fifteen very awkward seconds of silence, Robert reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. Still glaring at the Colonel, he pressed a few buttons; the beeping of the phone dialling was clearly audible in the deathly silence of the standoff.

Seeing that he wasn't bluffing, the Colonel folded. "No, wait," he practically begged.

Turning back Robert stared at the Colonel, arms cross over his chest as he waited.

"I love him, we both do!" the Colonel blurted. "It's just," fists clenched, eyes screwed shut in anger, he growled, "It's all supposed to be over! The change, the mutation! It's all fixed! He's in a great school, nobody knows about his changes and it's all supposed to be fixed!" Taking a calming breath he turned away and stared down the corridor.

Puzzled Robert studied the Colonel, wondering what was going though his mind. Slowly the Colonel turned back, and Robert was surprised at the change of expression. No longer was a Colonel looking back at him, all military discipline and command presence, now he saw a vulnerable father. "Is it true?" the father whispered to him.

"Pardon?" Robert asked perplexed.

"Is it true?" the father repeated. "What your wife told the detective about Hank, about his school, about the the fights? The villains? His friend. Is it true?!"

Robert blinked. "All of it," he said finally, eyes widening as Hank's fathers shoulders slumped. "You didn't know?!" he blurted stunned.

Eyes narrowing in anger, Robert watched the Army Colonel re-emerge. "What kind of a monster do you think I am?!" he angrily demanded. "I've had multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, do you think I don't recognise PTSD when I see it? I just never thought to look for it in my son! From High School!"

"You son has hardly had the most normal of years," Robert sighed.

"Tell me," Hank's father asked softly. Warily Robert watched him, until the scared father in the Army Colonel before him reached out to his soul with his eyes and begged him, "Please. Tell me what my son has not told either myself or his mother. Tell me what really has been happening with our child for the last year."

Sighing softly, Robert nodded. He looked around briefly before pointing back down the corridor. "There is a waiting room down here that was empty the last time I went past, and it has a door."

Leading an almost different man along the corridor, still in the uniform of an Army Colonel, but no longer marching, no longer striding along in command and in control. Robert lead Hank's father to the small waiting room, closing the door and fetched a cup of hospital coffee for him before sitting down and starting. "My daughter Lily and her friends started attending Whateley late, after the school year had already commenced, and by the time she arrived Hank and his friends were already legends amongst the students ..."

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Robert watched as Hank's father numbly stared down at his half empty coffee cup, slowly turning it round and round in his hands as he sat in thought at the completion of the tale of all the hijinks and escapades his son had been in that year, as well as the true nature of the close friendship between Hank and his murdered 'roommate'.

"Remind me to have a chat to that school about some of those little things that somehow aren't making it into their report cards and parental communications," he muttered finally before abruptly he stood and stalked to the other side of the room to drop his unfinished coffee into the bin. "I've got to get out of here. Too many bad memories, too many good men lost ..."

Pushing through the door, Hank's father strode off down the corridor. On a whim Robert quickly stood and followed after him, catching up as he stalked out the main hospital entrance, and turned to walk down the path to the park that was beside the hospital.

Robert followed Hank's father as he wondered the paths of the garden, not really paying attention to where he was going, his thoughts all turned inwards, thinking. Robert couldn't help but smile as he saw Hank's favourite meditation enacted by his father, idly Robert wondered if Hank's father liked perching and looking down on his responsibilities too, as Hank did.

"He grew up," Hank's father sighed unexpectedly.

"Pardon?" Robert replied, wondering if he had meant to address him.

"Hank. He grew up, turned into a man, he's no longer the little girl I protected, or the darling, perfect daughter of Marge's." Stopping Hank's father stared forward silently for a long time before finally he spoke again. "We missed all of it, our fault not his. We sent away our daughter to protect her, to keep her safe, and then we got so caught up in our own worlds, she became a man, came back someone we never expected, so different to what we thought we knew, we never stopped to wonder why! And we missed all of it!"

Robert stood silently, unsure of what he could say. Finally Hank's father turned to him, and with sincerity spoke. "Thank you."

"What?" Robert blurted, startled to hear the last thing he would ever have expected.

"Thank you. You, your daughter, your family. Thank you," Hank's father repeated with soft spoken sincerity. "I know we haven't been there for Hank like he needed. Like he deserved. And that Lily, that your entire family, has stepped up to cover for our mistakes, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all that your family has done for my son. And no, your offer is not needed. There will be no need to call your lawyers. Changes need to be made, but I promise you, my wife and I love our son, and we will make those changes, and starting right now, we'll make sure that he knows he still has a loving family to support him."

Stunned Robert could only nod his head, staring in wonder at the changed man in front of him. Silently they stood together before with a grunt Hank's father turned and started making his way back towards the hospital.

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"Oh no!" Robert moaned as he saw who was getting out of a Limo at the main entrance to the hospital.

Crouched, ready for action, Hank's dad wearily scanned the scene. "Trouble?" he demanded softly.

Robert sighed. "Not like that, at least I hope not!" At Hank's father's glare he winced. "Some of Hank's closest friends. Unfortunately, all of them together tend to, um, attract trouble. Don't worry, I'll take care of it, I'll take them to see Hank, you should find your wife."

Watching the three girls quickly stride into the hospital warily, Hank's father gave Robert a long searching look, before nodding and striding off towards the hospital car park.

Grimacing, Robert sighed and at a jog made his way for the hospital entrance, hoping to catch up to Ayla, Billie and Jade and steer them away from any potential problems before their mannerisms and abilities caused any issues. He really didn't need to know what problems Ayla would find to 'fix', what crises Billie could manufacture out of thin air, or anything Jade would do if not watched like a hawk.

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Ayla cautiously watched Billie and Jade make an entrance to Hank's room, Jade having Billie blushing, and Hank and Nikki bursting into surprised laughter almost immediately. Glancing around the room, seeing only Lily and Mrs. Turner there, no sign of Hank's family, Ayla started to frown when a hand came down on his shoulder and a laughing Mr. Turner smiled at him.

"Leave it Ayla," Lily's father advised.

"Sir?" Ayla asked puzzled.

"For a change, leave it to the adults Ayla," Lily's father repeated. "It was a misunderstanding. Hank never told his parents about any of the things that had been happening to him this year, so they didn't know to watch him carefully, and they missed the signs."

Ayla's expression closed in and Lily's father sighed. "Parents aren't infallible Ayla," Robert reminded him. "That doesn't mean they don't love Hank. Give them a chance Ayla, they know what to look for this time, and you never know, maybe they can help."

Ayla turned mulish and Robert smiled again, inordinately pleased at proof that the business paragon was still actually just a normal teenager. "You know his father is a combat veteran?" he prompted softly.

Ayla nodded reluctantly. "Hank mentioned he'd been posted to Iraq and Afghanistan," Ayla conceded.

"Do you think he might have experiences similar to those Hank has faced?" Robert raised an eyebrow. "Be able to relate with him? Have experience and suggestions on how to cope now that he knows truly what his son is going though?" he pointedly asked.

Blushing Ayla nodded, getting Lily's father's point. Smiling Robert gave Ayla a push into the room. "Go, be with your friends, prepare the others for when Hank's mother and father arrive. I believe they will need to have some privacy."

With a nod, Ayla allowed himself to be pushed into the room, smiling at Hank's wide-eyed delight on seeing him.

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Seeing the arrivals at the door, Robert gave his wife a discrete squeeze and a stern look. Glancing towards the door, where Hank's father and mother had just nervously slipped in, Tabitha gave Robert a scowl, before stepping forward to gather Lily and make their way out. As Nikki and her mother said their goodbyes to Hank, Ayla gathered up Jade and Billie and herded them from the room too. Exchanging nods with Hank's father, Robert exited the room, leaving Hank alone with his parents. Firmly closing the door, Robert lent against it and examined those in the corridor.

"Are you guarding the door from us, or standing ready to rush to Hank's defence?"

Robert smiled at his wife, holding out his arms to her and gathering her into them. "Both dear," he replied softly, kissing her tenderly. "But I feel Colonel Declan is genuine in his remorse."

Robert stood tightly holding his wife before giving her a kiss and a gentle push. "Go. Take Lily to the hotel room," he suggested passing her the keys. "Hank has a very difficult years worth of experiences he needs to discuss with his family, done right it should take hours. You and Lily are exhausted, catch a nap, make Lily eat something." Nodding agreement, Tabitha kissed her husband and gathered Lily under her arm, holding her close as she escorted her down the corridor. 

"We're off too," Lucy said as Robert turned back to her after watching his wife and daughter leave. "Nikki's father and her brother will be arriving soon, we're off for a family meal, to sort out more of those 'difficult year's worth of experiences' you were speaking off." Robert glanced at the still withdrawn Nikki and nodded. Nikki's emotions were obviously still very raw after the emotional reunion with Hank, and the way she quickly retreated to the comfort of her mother's arms after farewelling her friends suggested issues still being worked through.

With a final wave, Nikki and her mom also left arm-in-arm, and Robert turned back to the final three, Ayla, Billie and Jade, and he couldn't help but frown at them. "Can I ask what you three plan on doing?" he half growled.

Billie stared down chastised, Ayla regarded him stoically, but Jade just grinned widely up at him. "We're gonna hunt down Hank's brother and punish him for being such a poopy-head to Hank!" she shouted excitedly.

Eyes-widening in terror, Robert stepped forward not quite sure what he was going to do, when Ayla sighed and gave Jade a quelling glare. "I'm taking them to the hotel for lunch Sir," he explained. "Then I was going to take Billie and Jade for a bit of shopping, maybe a bit of sightseeing, something to do while we wait for Lily to call and tell us Hank is free again."

Robert sighed, and moved to lean back agains the door again. "Enjoy yourselves," he shooed them off. "I'll call you if anything changes here."

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Afternoon
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Robert looked up and smiled, putting away the book he had been reading in the bag at his feet, before standing to greet his wife and daughter.

"Late lunch for Hank and his parents." Lily lifted up the takeaway bags to show him.

"And for you too dear," Tabitha smiled at her husband, handing over a bag to him before stretching up and kissing him. "How are things?" she whispered, eyes darting to the door separating them from Hank and his parents.

"I'd say you timed it perfectly," Robert smiled back, waving Lily up to the door.

Timidly, Lily knocked on the door, quickly opening it on the call of "come in!"

Arm over his wife's shoulder, as she leant into him with an arm around his waist, Robert followed Lily into Hank's room, immediately noticing the vastly improved atmosphere. Hank wasn't just smiling for Lily, he was a lot more relaxed, sitting in bed comfortably, not stiffly as he had been before. While Hank's father was standing tall and straight, staring out the window, it wasn't a distancing stare, just that of a man pausing to enjoy the view. And Hank's mother was fussing over Hank, hands darting to pour him a drink, flicking out to straighten his sheet, fiddle with the collar of his pyjamas, sitting, only to remain perched attentively on the edge of her chair.

Eyes lighting up as Lily held up the food bags, Hank sat up cross legged on his bed and dragged the table into place before him. Indicating Lily should sit on the foot of the bed opposite him, Hank hesitantly reached out to his mother, encouraging her to sit on the edge of the bed next to him as Lily sorted the food out on the table. When Hank's father stepped up to the bed, Hank started, then shuffled over closer to his mother, leaving room for his father to sit down too next to him. Tears in his eyes, Hank held his mother's and father's hands tight while his father quietly murmured grace. Then, with a nod to Lily, Hank's father reached out and accepted a burger from her, claiming a small space on the hospital table for himself as he unwrapped it and started to eat, thoughtfully watching Lily interact with Hank.

With a sigh of relief, Robert pulled his wife tight and admired the scene of Hank eating contentedly with his parents. Then with a tug, he guided Tabitha to a corner where a couple of chairs sat next to another table, and eagerly opening the takeaway bag of food he shared it with his wife before starting to eat too.

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Monday, June 25th 2007 - Night
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Hank smiled and slid down in his bed. Lily had kissed him goodnight before leaving with her parents to return to her hotel room. Ayla had escorted Billie and Jade off to their hotel after a loud and noisy 'conference call' he'd arranged for Toni and others of Hank's friends, so that all of them could hear that he was OK. And his father had said a long goodbye before leaving Hank to sleep, his mother sitting by to his bed, her floral scent tickling his nostrils.

Smiling Hank fell asleep, comforted by his mother's scent. A smell he could remember all through childhood comforting him as he drifted to sleep when sick.

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The Leanan stirred. Prey was asleep, but she felt the stirrings of a dream. Prey frowned and terrified the Leanan reached out, capturing the dark stirrings, stopping them running together. Petrified the Queen would see, that she would come back, the Leanan pushed into prey and sought out his dreams. Pushing, pushing, so desperately pushing. The Leanan found images of Rival, memories of happiness, dreams of happiness, anything she could to stop prey dreaming of the darkness.

Collapsing she quivered, crying in relief as prey smiled and turned over, pleasant dreams cradling his sleep. As the crisis passed, the Leanan stirred, and carefully, carefully, ever so carefully she stared unravelling her strands again, pushing them out, inserting them again into the dark recesses of Prey's mind, seeking out darkness. But this time, rather then nurturing and growing them, the Leanan trapped and extinguished them.

She couldn't fight Queen. She couldn't survive against Queen. Queen must not come back. She needed to hide. Prey needed to hide her. Queen must not suspect. Darkness must be banished from Prey.

Prey would hide her. Prey would protect her. She must protect Prey.

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Tuesday, June 26th 2007 - Morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Just after Hank finished breakfast and the tray was taken away, Jade bounced into the room followed by Ayla and Billie. "I told you it was fine," Jade commented to Ayla, watching the nurse remove Hank's breakfast tray as Hank's mother straightened a pillow behind Hank. "Hank's already had breakfast, there was no need for you to bring him another one."

At the implications of Jade's comment, Hank eye's immediately swung to Ayla's hands, and the takeaway tray he was carrying. Seeing Hank's nostrils flair, Jade sighed as Ayla triumphantly placed the tray he had been cradling before Hank and removed the lid with a flourish.

Eyes widening, smile lighting up his entire face, Hank eagerly reached for the bagel perfection revealed before him, and with no indication of the huge breakfast he had already consumed, dug in happily.

As Hank consumed his second breakfast, Jade climbed onto the bed, and ruffling in her backpack presented Hank with a package as he finished his bagels and Ayla removed the takeaway tray to the bin.

"What's this?" Hank ask curiously shaking the brightly wrapped package cautiously.

"Entertainment for the next few days while you're confined to this room," Jade explained smiling.

Giving Jade a penetrating stare, which she returned with a serene smile, Hank cautiously started unwrapping the package. "A board game?" Hank noted puzzled, turning the box over in his hands.

Jade smiled. "Uh huh! It's a board game we can all play! It's a trading game, so Ayla should love it, I heard some of the other girls talking about it at Whateley, so when I saw it yesterday I knew we had to get it! It'll be great!"

"A trading board game?" Hank confirmed, still puzzled.

"How else are we going to keep Ayla from disappearing into his b-phone all day?" Jade asked, glaring at Ayla who was already checking his email on the offending b-phone. "And this sounded way more fun then Monopoly, which we all know Ayla's memorised the cheats for already."

"Strategies Jade, Strategies. Not cheats," Ayla absently corrected her.

"Right!" Jade drawled, rolling her eyes and reaching out to put her hand over Ayla's screen. "No looking up the strategies for this one then," she chastised him.

"I was just looking up the rules ..." Ayla protested, twitching the phone in an attempt to remove Jade's hand.

"Put the phone away Ayla," Billie growled. "The rules are in the box, I like the idea of playing a game where we are all on the same level for a change, it's new to all of us, let's see who actually is the best at this."

Eyes widening as he realised Ayla had no idea how to play the game either, Hank eagerly unwrapped the box, passing the Spanish rules booklet over to Ayla as he kept the English one for himself. Billie and Jade, meanwhile, eagerly started unpacking the board and the game's tokens as Hank's mother settled into her chair, smiling slightly at their excited antics.

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Tuesday, June 26th 2007 - Late Morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

"So where's Nikki this morning?" Lily asked Jade, having arrived just in time to start playing with them.

Jade giggled. "Nikki has to call Whateley. Mrs. Carson and her parents are having another talk with her about her 'future'."

"Mrs. Carson is apologising for the Solicitor deception," Ayla said softly. When everyone turned to him and stared, Ayla winced. "Ah, there was no Solicitor lawsuit," Ayla explained. "It was just something thought up by Mrs. Carson, Sir Westmont and Nikki's father."

Billie's eyes narrowed and she gazed at Ayla. "The Solicitor case wasn't real?" she demanded. Ayla shook his head. "And you've know this since when?" she growled.

Ayla sighed. "Since Mrs. Carson called me into her office and forbade me from trying to 'help' Nikki," he admitted sorrowfully.

"And when was that?" Billie pressed.

"Immediately after she tricked Nikki," Ayla admitted reluctantly.

"So you've know all along?" Jade screeched outraged. Ayla nodded his head, looking down at the floor in shame.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Jade demanded hurt.

Despite his usual stoic business demeanour, Ayla squirmed. "Because Mrs. Carson threatened to give back all the money for the Poe and Hawthorne renovations, and then expel me if I revealed the deceit to anyone," Ayla admitted miserably, still looking only at the floor. "She said both Nikki's parents were in agreement, as well as her Mystical Arts teachers, her mentors and herself. You know how Nikki has been since Aunghadhail ..." Ayla looked up pleading for understanding, and was shocked to see smirks on the faces of his teammates.

"So it is you who are paying for the Poe and Hawthorne renovations!" Jade crowed. "Nikki was certain it was you, since both Poe and Hawthorne are being renovated. Especially after nothing changed with Jamie's death, ruling out Ms. Guzman!"

"So, what's it going to be like?" Lily asked intrigued. "Is there going to be gold plate in all the bathrooms? Are we going to have heaters in all our rooms? Is it going to be lush like Melville?"

"It's going to be all new," Ayla stumbled shocked. "Inside and out, all the fittings are being replaced."

"With the best money can buy?" Jade asked excitedly.

"I've only chosen a select few things ..." Ayla tried to downplay his involvement.

"Like the bathrooms?" Jade asked excitedly. "There're all gonna be fixed up right? Hydroflux and heaters?"

"Mrs. Carson did say they asked Hydroflux to consult on the bathrooms," Ayla admitted.

"For the boys too?" Hank asked wide-eyed.

"Um, yes?" Ayla watched as Lily and Hank exchanged smirks. "You're not upset?" Ayla finally blurted.

"That you paid for Poe and Hawthorne to be renovated?" Jade questioned. "Why? Nearly everyone in Poe picked you as being responsible for that already!"

"No, Nikki ..."

"You didn't want to hide that from us right?" Jade asked to Ayla's shaken head. "They forced you to?" Ayla nodded reluctantly. "So, it's not you then, right?" Jade shrugged.

Ayla blinked at Jade's easy acceptance. Glancing at Billie who shrugged, Ayla turned to Hank. "Hank?" he pleaded.

"I don't think Nikki's going to get over it easily," Hank warned. "But she can hardly complain about you obeying Mrs. Carson, her parents and Sir Westmont, when it's obvious she'd do the same too." Hank shrugged. "You might need to give her some time, more importantly, you might think about taking some acting lessons."

Ayla's face blanked. "I have a very good business face," Ayla stated. "Nobody can read me by looking at me."

"No," Hank agreed smirking at him. "Nobody could tell from your face or expression anything, but watching you tell a lie is excruciating, it's like you're being forced to eat fast food or something," Hank laughed, with Jade and Billie joining in.

At the sound of the door opening, everyone turned, desperately trying to blank their expressions as Nikki entered the room.

Warily Nikki looked back and forth between her friends. "Why do I get the feeling you were all talking about me?" she asked stopping in the middle of the room.

"Oh no, we were all laughing at Ayla!" Jade assured her.

"How his whole body tenses and scrunches up when he lies," Hank sniggered.

Nikki turned to Ayla and smiled. "It is kind of obvious when he tries," she agreed. "I'm not sure how such a bastion of the business world ever thrived with such a massive defect," she laughed.

"You don't need to lie and cheat to succeed at business," Ayla all but snarled. "The best deals are the ones that are mutually beneficial for everyone."

"Good thing they're the kind you like then," Hank offered. "Because you truly suck at lying," he finished breaking down with laughter everyone shared.

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Tuesday, June 27th 2007 - Lunch
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Jade skipped happily into Hank's room, carrying a couple of large bags of food, delivered to the hospital under orders from Ayla, enough food for lunch for all those gathered. While Jade roped in Lily and Hank's mother to help distribute the food, Ayla warily approached Nikki.

"Nikki? Can we talk? Privately?" After a pause to consider Ayla's expressionless face carefully, Nikki nodded once, allowing Ayla to guide her from the room and into a nearby empty waiting room.

"I'm sorry," Ayla apologised as soon as they were alone. "Mrs. Carson told me from the start the the Solicitor lawsuit was a ruse, and I ... I ..."

"It's alright Ayla," Nikki sighed softly, staring ahead blindly, not facing Ayla. "Mom and Mrs. Carson explained. They said they they pressured you to not tell me. To ..." Nikki stopped, tears rolling down her cheeks.

"I should have done so anyway" Ayla declared fiercely. "It was wrong what they were doing. It was cruel. And ..." Ayla stopped, tears falling from his eyes. "I'm supposed to be your friend. I'm supposed to have your back ... It hurt you so ..."

Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, Ayla turned, staring for the door.

"Ayla, I'm sorry too," Nikki all but whispered to his back, stopping Ayla's exit, causing him to stand shock still.

"I ... I shouldn't have attacked you," Nikki continued. "That was wrong, way past wrong." Nikki paused, tears streaming down her face, fist clenched tightly by her sides. "You were just doing what you thought you had to do ... What everyone said you had to do."

Ayla stood still, staring at the door. "I'm sorry Ayla," Nikki whispered.

Ayla stood waiting, seeing if there was more. Finally he sighed and whispered back. "I'm sorry too Nikki." With a final sigh Ayla stepped forward and opened the door, leaving Nikki silently crying behind.

Hank watched Ayla silently return alone, his whole body language depressed. Sighing Hank wordlessly held out a wrapped roll, inviting Ayla to perch on his bed and eat. While Ayla sat on his bed, robotically bitting and chewing as he stared sightlessly out the window, Hank watched the equally as somber Nikki return, wordlessly greeted with a hug and cuddle by Jade, as she steered Nikki to a large chair where she handed Nikki a roll too, seating herself beside Nikki and holding her as Nikki slowly ate.

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Tuesday, June 26th 2007 - Afternoon
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

"Hank?" Lily paused, chewing her lip nervously. Finally she plucked up the courage and blurted out. "Why did you jump into the river Hank? Why didn't you even try to swim?" Tears pouring down her check, she desperately looked to Hank, begging to understand.

Turning pure white, Hank stammered out a denial. "I ... I didn't!"

"Hank! The police, everyone! They had to fish you from the river and everything!" Lily cried out, betrayed by his denial.

"Lily, I didn't jump!" Hank insisted. "I was trying to call you, and then Jay and Mom … Dad … and there's no pictures of me, and I couldn't call you, and I couldn't help Jamie, and then Nikki ..." Rolling over from Lily, Hank buried his face in his pillow and wept, great sobs that shook his body as slowly his knees pulled up to his chest and he clutched the pillow tight.

"Hank?" Lily cried, reaching out to him. When Hank didn't respond, Lily turned desperately to her mother. A puzzled frown on her face, Tabitha turned to Hank's mother.

"Dear? Han ... Hank?" his mother reached out to tenderly stroke Hank's face, wiping away the tears. "What happened?" she asked softly.

"You and Dad. You took a photo with J ... Jay," Hank mumbled into the pillow. "Just ... just the three of you. And ... and I called Lily, and it was her voicemail ... and then ... and then I thought I saw Nikki. And ... and I kept calling Lily and ..."

"And then?" Hank's mom gently prompted.

"I don't know. I was staring at the phone, and then it started falling, falling. And ... it just goes dark ..."

"But you didn't jump?" his mother prompted.

"Jump where?"

"Do you remember hitting the water?" Tabitha pressed. Hank stared at her blankly, without a word he shook his head no. As Lily finally managed to gather Hank into a hug, Tabitha exchanged a wordless look with his mother.

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Tuesday, June 26th 2007 - Late Afternoon
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

"Well doctor?" Colonel Declan demanded after waiting for the Doctor's response to his wife's question.

"It makes sense," the doctor finally admitted. "There was no water in his lungs when he was bought in, he was fished out of the river fast and there is no indications of heart stoppage. The prolonged coma was always out of normal for the symptoms he presented. No bumps or bruises to the head or face, no contusions, no reason at all to suspect head trauma. I suppose, some sort of event or seizure could explain it." The doctor paused and stared thoughtfully, before turning back to Hank's mother. "You said he remembers the phone falling, but not himself?"

"He said it all went black," she confirmed.

"It fits," the doctor shrugged. "He's definitely insistent he didn't jump." The doctor absently tapped his pen on the table as he stared thoughtfully at the X-rays and CAT scans on the light box. Finally he looked directly to Colonel Declan. "I'll get some more tests done. This make much more sense to me then the previous supposition, that he attempted suicide."

"Will he be alright?" demanded Hank's mom.

"Difficult to tell. Has he passed out before?" The doctor asked looking back and forth.

"Never," Tabitha stated firmly. "Not since he manifested."

Tabitha turned to Hank's mother, who shook her head. "Not before then either," she agreed.

The doctor looked back and forth between Mr. and Mrs. Declan. "And there is no history of seizures in either of your families?" Both shook their heads no. "Hmmm."

"Doctor?" Hank's mother pressed timidly. "What do you think it is?"

The doctor smiled at her reassuringly. "With no history, and no previous fainting spells, I suspect it's just a simple hormone imbalance bought about by puberty, and then the effects of stress." The doctor shrugged and smiled. "It's actually pretty common during puberty, the body growing, new chemicals surging through their systems, teenagers stressing over the simplest of things. It all just becomes too much and they feint, and then because of where he was perched ..." The doctor shrugged. "I'll do some tests tomorrow, and if the test come out as I expect, I'll be happy to release him the day after."

"Really?" Mrs. Declan gasped happily.

"Really," the doctor assured her.

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Wednesday, June 27th 2007 - Afternoon
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

"I have to go to the bathroom," Hank abruptly declared, rolling over and getting out of his bed. After a morning spent all over the hospital waiting for tests, Hank had returned to his room and his friends barely in time for lunch.

Lily glanced across at Nikki and frowned. Once again Nikki was studying Hank with a worried expression. As Hank almost ran for the bathroom, Lily fearfully turned to Nikki.

"Nikki?" she begged. "Something's bothering you about Hank, what is it?" Lily demanded quietly of the girl who had been standing in the corner of the room by herself all day since her parents had left her there this morning.

"Nothing, it's just ...." Nikki glanced over to where Hank was closing the bathroom door and frowned.

"Nikki!" Lily growled.

Nikki sighed. "Why was it so barren?" she demanded.

"What?" Lily blinked in surprise.

"His subconscious. Why was it so barren?" Nikki repeated. "The first time, it was full. Plains of people, Sidhe horde, people fighting, Hank. Me. It was a full on nightmare! Then, nothing! Empty. Why was it so empty?" she demanded again of Lily.

"Maybe he was healing?" Lily suggested uncertainly.

"Then why was his conscience completely separated?" Nikki pressed. "Why did we need to breach his island castle?" Lily stood stunned, mouth open to reply, but nothing come out. "Exactly!" Nikki snapped. "It doesn't make sense! He was still all forted up against something, but it was all barren and empty, what was he so afraid of?" she glared at Lily, demanding the answer from her.

Lily shrugged and shook her head. As Nikki drew breath to continue, she was interrupted by her phone ringing. Angrily Nikki retrieved her phone and glared at it before looking puzzled. "Why would Kayda be calling me?" she wondered aloud, answering the call. "Hello? ... Kayda? What's up? Is something wrong? ... But ... I'm in the middle of ..." Nikki paled and gulped. "Um, I'm going to have to work on getting tickets .... No, I'm in Washington, DC, and ... Okay. See you in a bit." Nikki hung up her phone and stared at it.

"Tickets?" Lily demanded, glaring at Nikki.

"Kayda has an emergency, and she needs me," Nikki replied softly, apologetically.

"But! Hank!" Lily half screeched.

"She's getting the National Guard to fly me," Nikki moaned. "She really does need me ..."

"Kayda!?" Lily demanded stunned. "The National Guard? Kayda!?" Lily repeated disbelievingly.

Nikki nodded. "I need to find my father," she excused herself. "They're organising a helicopter to pick me up."

As Nikki turned and started to leave, Lily jumped and quickly grabbed her. "Are you going to ..." she nodded to where Ayla, Jade and Billie where waiting for Hank to finish in the bathroom.

Nikki smiled. "After I talk to my father, I'll tell them," she promised turning back to the door, already dialling a number on her phone as she left at a half trot.

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"Where's Nikki?" Hank asked puzzled as he finally exited the ensuite bathroom.

"She … she had to leave," Lily murmured.

"Leave?" Hank demanded.

"Her father … soldiers came and escorted her to a helicopter. Kayda … Kayda called, and Nikki had to leave."

"Kayda?" Hank repeated puzzled, to Lily's helpless shrug.

"Kayda had word of a World Tree Seed," Ayla softly explained to Hank's wide-eyed stare of disbelief. "And one of the snake things that have been attacking her and her family took it. She called Nikki to help her track it down and retrieve the seed."

"Just Nikki?" Hank demanded hurt.

"We, we can't fight a snake demon," Ayla explained. "Only Kayda and Nikki are protected. Its tainted, like the Voodoo Wolves, apparently worse then BKCRMWDJVG," Ayla stated shuddering.

"But …"

Ayla reached forward and grabbed Hank's shoulder. "We'd have only been making it harder for Nikki by going," he insisted.

Nodding woodenly, Hank turned and climbed back into bed, lying down to stare up at the ceiling.

Billie watched silently as Lily attempted to rouse the sullen Hank, when the door opened and Mrs. Declan rushed through.

"Good news!" Hank's mother smiled as she rushed to her son. "The doctors are certain it'll be fine to release you tomorrow!"

As Hank smiled tentatively to his mother, Billie took a deep breath and stepped forward. "Jade and I will be leaving tonight too," she declared.

"You're not teleporting?" Hank gasped, turning to her.

Billie blushed. "No, Ayla's dropping us off on his way back to California," she admitted. "He still has that jet on standby, so ..."

Hank blinked and turned to Ayla. "Jet on standby ...?"

Ayla blushed. "In case ..."

Jade bounded up and hugged Hank. "You know Ayla, always worrying, always planning. Anyway, Billie's mom is getting insistent, and since Ayla was about to release the jet anyway, and you're going to be busy with your family when you get out, we're all heading home too!"

"Don't worry Hank, we'll all come by and say goodbye before we leave for the airport!" Jade assured him. "Not like Nikki, running out to a helicopter without so much as a wave just because someone called out the National Guard for her!"

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Thursday, June 28th 2007 - Mid morning
Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C.

Hank stood staring out the window, watching Ayla, Jade and Billie get into a limo and drive away.

"Well, we're off," Robert announced abruptly, holding out a hand for Hank to shake as he turned from the window.

"You're going?" Hank blinked, turning to Lily who just smiled at him, not moving from where she was happily pressed up against his side.

"Yep, gotta get back to the job," Robert agreed. "Tabitha and I just got back from a weeks vacation before we rushed down here, the others have carried our slack long enough."

Hank again glanced at the smirking Lily, before confused he demanded. "What about Lily?"

"What about Lily?" Tabitha shrugged. "Its summer break, and she spent last week hiking the wilderness. Some time off isn't going to kill her." Stepping forward she gave her daughter a long hug. "Don't forget to call," she admonished, before giving Hank a hug too.

Stunned Hank watched as Lily's parents left, pausing to wave goodbye at the door. Finally Lily couldn't take it anymore and burst out laughing, hugging her confused boyfriend to her. "Sometimes you are just so dense," she laughed happily. "Mom worked it out with your parents, I'm going to stay with you for a while," Lily sighed happily.

"With me?" Hank blinked. "Really?"

"Yep! Really!" Lily confirmed as Hank swept her into a tight hug.

When they let go Hank's mother was there smiling at them. "Ready to leave?" she asked softly. Nodding Hank bent down to pick up his dufflebag when his mother stepped forward and stopped him. Timidly she reached around and hugged him to her. "I'm happy you are coming home Hank."

"Thank you Mom," Hank whispered, carefully hugging his mother back. "I'm happy to be going home."

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Signing the release forms and the insurance papers, Hank's Mother handed them back to the admin assistant and at her nod, turned and smiled at Hank, standing with his arm around Lily's shoulders. Coming up to them, she stepped forward and once more pulled Hank close, hugging him to her, cheek to cheek. She stepped back, allowing her hand to stay cupping Hank's face, before smiling she turned and led Hank and Lily from the hospital, bending to pick up Lily's bag as Hank shouldered his own duffle.

Trailed by Jay, the three of them made their way through the hospital carpark to Hank's mother's car. Hank put Lily's case in the trunk along with his own duffle, before happily getting in the back seat with Lily, oblivious to the sullen glare of Jay as he climbed into the front passenger's seat. Hank cuddled and smiled down at Lily as his mother drove, occasionally glancing into her rear-view mirror and smiling as she watched them.

Hank's mother unlocked the front door, turning to smile her welcome to Lily before sighing in exasperation as Jay push past and rushed off into the house. Stepping inside, she turned and enfolded Hank in another hug as he followed her.

"Welcome home dear," she whispered fiercely as she clutched him tight to her, crying silently onto his shoulder.

"I'm happy to be home," Hank whispered back through tears as he too reached around to hug his mother tight.

With a final hug, Hank's mother released him before stepping back, wiping her eyes. With a happy smile she gave Lily a silent nod of welcome too. Hank stepped back, shifting his duffle on his shoulder and bent down, picking up Lily's bag he had dropped to embrace his mother. Glancing back at Lily in invitation, Hank started for the stairs.

Reaching out quickly his mother stopped him. "Not that way dear, your father has a surprise for you." With a glance to check they were following her, she lead them to a door Hank hadn't noticed before. Opening the door, she inviting Hank to go first.

Hank gave his mother a puzzled frown, but with a shrug Hank led the way down some stairs and into the basement. At the bottom of the stairs, Hank fumbled around until he found the light switch, turning it on and then looking around in amazement. To his right, the bedroom furniture he remembered from his room at Fort Brag was back. No posters on the wall, and the bedspread and wall colours were a more neutral colours then they had been in Fort Brag, but still ... All his own furniture, personal items he had left at Fort Brag, unpacked and returned to their places, all waiting for him.

To the left was a small fitness area, dominated by what looked like a custom weight machine. Eyes wide in surprise, Hank walk over to it and touch its screen, smiling in pleasure at its indicated resistance settings in the thousands of pounds.

Turning to the man standing next to weight machine, Hank unconsciously straightened. Tentatively he took a couple of steps closer and smiled. "Thank you sir," he offered to his father.

Smiling back, his father took a step closer, arm coming up and hand gripping Hank's shoulder. "I'm sorry it wasn't ready for the start of the summer break," he said softly, staring into Hank's face as Hank stood stiffly before him. Hank's eyes widened as unexpectedly his father stepped forward again, this time leaning down to put both hands around his sons shoulders and drag him into an embrace. "This is your home son," he said gruffly, Hank surprised to hear tears in his voice. "I'm sorry that the things I did ever made you feel otherwise."

Surprised Hank reached out, and putting his arms around his father's back he tentatively hugged him back. "I'm happy to be home," Hank murmured, tears leaking down his face, as he pulled his father tight, feeling the shaking in his own father's arms as he too tightened the embrace.

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Lily watched relieved as Hank finished hanging his clothes in his wardrobe, finally unpacking his duffle after nearly three weeks being back with his family. Looking around the basement, Lily spotted the small pile of boxes shipped back from Whateley and smiled to see the well travelled cardboard box on top. Going over to the pile, she picked up the box and carried it to Hank, holding it out to him as he turned from the wardrobe.

Smiling at Lily, Hank took the box from her, and turned back to the wardrobe, stopping at a growled "uh uh" from Lily. Turning slowly, puzzled, he looked back to Lily. With a frown and a firm gesture Lily pointed to his book shelf. Blinking slowly Hank stared at Lily blankly, until with another growl she emphatically pointed again at his book shelf.

Reluctantly Hank carried his precious 'Hannah' box over to his bookshelf, putting it down carefully. Lily happily opened it and reached in to pull out his DVDs. Taking them to the bookshelf, Lily carefully organised them to her liking as Hank slowly did the same with the books from the box. When that was done, Lily reached into the box and took out the two barbie dolls, firmly handing them to Hank.

"You know where they go," she said softly to the mute Hank, standing there staring down at the dolls. Nodding slowly, Hank turned to the bookshelf. Reaching up placed both of the dolls on the top shelf, sitting them looking out regally over his new room.

Unexpectedly pleased to see the two dolls enthroned on the top shelf again, Hank turn with a smile to retrieve Teddy to set him up high too, when he saw the box was empty. Turning to the bed he saw a mischievous Lily regarding him with a smirk, sitting crosslegged on his bed, Teddy firmly ensconced in her lap.

"Teddy bears belong on the bed," she informed him, laughter in her eyes before her expression turned serious. Reaching down, she retrieved a package from the bed and held out the flat, wrapped object towards him. "Ayla helped me get you this, when I told him you didn't have one. Nikki and Jade choose the frame, it's as much from your team as it is from me." Biting her lip, Lily held out the object, eyes begging him to take it.

Slowly reaching forward, Hank took the package, sitting down on the bed and dropping it into his lap. Glancing again at Lily's wary expression, he slowly undid the wrappings, revealing the contents. A medium sized picture frame, one designed to hold a single photo. Turning it over Hank's breath caught and tears filled to his eyes. Fearfully he reached out a trembling finger to slowly trace one of the figures. Jamie. Jamie in the dress she'd treasured, lying down on a porch swing, her head cradled in the lap of a radiant Ms. Guzman, her guardian looking down lovingly as she ran fingers through Jamie's hair.

"Thank you," Hank whispered clutching the photo to his chest, tears pouring down his checks. "Thank you."

Smiling happily, Lily leaned forward and put her arms around her boyfriend, holding him tight as he cried into her shoulder.

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Sunday, July 3rd 2007 - Early Evening
Washington DC

Stepping through the portal into the twilight, Nikki looked up and smiled at the two people waiting for her, a boy and a girl sitting at a picnic table in a park, watching the ducks swimming on a pond. "Fancy you still being here," Nikki smiled at the other girl as she sat down opposite them. With an answering smile the girl stuck out her tongue and snuggled closer to the boy.

"You really have one?" Hank asked awed as he absently wrapped an arm around the snuggling Lily.

Nikki smirked and summoned forth a golden glowing seed, displaying it to Hank and Lily in her cupped hands. "Behold Aunghadhail," she whispered before looking up and laughing at Hank's wide-eyed, panicked expression. “Relax, the name is a remembrance, a Legacy, nothing more," she assured him with a smile.

Relieved, Hank nodded his understanding. Basking in its golden glow, Hank and Lily stared at the Seed in wonder before Hank eventually dragged his eyes back to Nikki's. "What now?" he asked her.

Nikki shrugged. “I can’t keep it long in Whateley’s secure magical storage, it needs to be planted in the earth so that it can survive and grow. I’ll have to do that soon, there is no way it can wait till I've finished school."

Startled, Lily glanced back at the seed and then to Nikki, puzzlement all over her face.

Nikki chuckled, looking lovingly down at the seed. “I may have forgotten to tell Carson and Circe a few special affinities I now have for the Seed,” she admitted. "The vault keeps the Seed safe from others, but it's no barrier between me and the Seed."

"How come you need to plant it?" Hank queried, delicately leaving the topic of Nikki's subterfuge against Whateley's headmistress and its head of Mystic Arts. "Didn't Kayda's grandmother have it for years?"

"Um," Nikki blushed. "It wasn't glowing before," she admitted. "Its now germinated, it needs to be planted, allowed to grow," she explained awkwardly.

"Oops?" Hank suggested wickedly, chuckling at Nikki's embarrassed nod. "Is there a special place it needs to grow?" Hank asked softly. “Have you somewhere picked already?”

Nikki shook her head. "It can grow anywhere it can tap the leylines, though places with too much iron warp the lines and are not the best, so I shouldn't plant it in a city. Wildernesses are good, the leylines are strong and undisturbed, perfect for the tree to grow strong and fast." Nikki paused. "I was thinking I might plant it in the grove," she suggested looking up at Hank.

Hank nodded his understanding, "There is power there, and protection." Frowning Hank looked concerned at Nikki. "The seed can look after itself right?" Hank checked. "You don't have to be there twenty-four seven to protect it?"

Nikki nodded. "Once planted and the correct spells cast, the seed will internalise it's magic. Everything will be focused inside it on growing, nothing will escape. You could stand right next to it and not feel a thing, there is no way to scry a World Tree sapling with magic," she promised him. "Until it matures and awakens, it is impervious to magical searching. And once awoken, it will protect itself."

"Until then though, it'll need your care?" Hank guessed.

Nikki smiled wryly. "It takes time for a World Tree to grow, and nurturing and guidance to make sure it grows true and strong." After a final wondering stare, Nikki returned the seed to where she had summoned it from and stood, coming around the table to enfold Hank in her arms and hold him tight. “I need you Hank," she whispered fiercely. "Please. Don't ever believe again that I do not."

Nodding slightly Hank held her tight too, only reluctantly letting her go. Stepping up to Lily, Nikki gave her a silent plea, smiling in relief at Lily's quick glance at Hank and firm nod. With a hug of farewell to Lily, Nikki turned from them and created another portal, pausing to turn back and wave goodbye before she stepped through and closed it after herself.

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Enchanted she followed her mother, tucked in tight to her side as they lead the great host of the court's mightiest Ladies through the forest and to the Burning Grove. Aunghadhail had not seen the Burning Grove before, her maidenhood and Welcoming Ceremony not due for many years yet, but her mother had insisted and fetched her herself, leading Aunghadhail to the front of the court and calmly facing down the disapproving looks.

"This is Aunghadhail's legacy," her mother had calmly stated, "and the planting of a new World Tree is so infrequent, all opportunities should be grasped to pass on to the next Daughter of the Burning Grove the knowledge of how it is done." Understanding flashed across the faces of those present, and in a great wave the Ladies genuflected to her mother, conceding their agreement.

Through the forests her mother lead them, pale fairy light illuminating their way through the moonless night, to where ahead Aunghadhail observed a white glow. As the host arrived at the top of a hill, the Queen paused, reaching down to take the hand of her daughter and lead her to the edge of a small cliff looking down into the sheltered valley below them. Lighting up from a fire within, great towering trees reached from the ground far below, to the sky way above. Lighting that sky with a pale white light that rivalled a moon's full brightness.

"The Burning Grove my daughter," her mother whispered, kneeling down beside Aunghadhail to whisper directly into her ear. "Home of the World Trees of the Five Fold Court. Our power and our Legacy. Come child, it is time you learned the proper care of our peoples strength." Whispering a spell that echoed through the confines of Aunghadhail's mind, the Queen reached forwards to touch a finger to her daughter's brow, and knowledge that Aunghadhail hadn't know she knew rose from the very fibres of her being.

Nikki stirred, the Queen's whispered spell working its magic on her too. She could now feel the moment of midnight approaching, the midnight of the first new moon since the Summer's Solstice, the one time a year that a World Tree Seed could be planted successfully.

Nikki woke with start, blinking at the TV she had fallen asleep in front off. Absently she switched off the TV and sat and thought, sorting out the knowledge that had been revealed to her. Tonight was special. The World Tree Seed, if planted in the Grove tonight, would establish itself and grow. If she didn't plant it tonight, it would be a year before the circumstances would combine again to allow the planting of the Seed.

Nikki sat, mulling again her father’s warnings, delivered through her mother when she had first arrived at Whateley. He had warned that once knowledge of the World Tree Seed's existence became known, international politics would intervene, sparking international chaos as those that understood the true power of a World Tree manoeuvred to bring it under their control, irrespective of what Nikki herself may desire.

Thinking and worrying like she had almost constantly since her mother had delivered her father's warnings, Nikki smiled as an almost off-hand comment of her mother's finally made sense. "It is easier to beg forgiveness then to seek permission," her mother had said. Finally understanding what her mother had been suggesting she do, Nikki stood and summoned the World Tree Seed to herself, despite the Seed having been placed inside the strongest magically protected vault the school had at its disposal, a vault Mrs. Carson and Circe had thought powerful enough to prevent even Nikki from retrieving the seed.

Cupping the World Tree Seed in her hands, feeling the life within straining to be free, Nikki stood and slipped from her room, ghosting through the guest cottage, slipping out through the front door unnoticed and raced the approaching Midnight across the grounds of Whateley Academy, to the Grove she could feel calling her, summoning the Seed she cradled carefully to her breast.

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"Do you know what you have done child?" Circe whispered in horror to the serene vision stepping forth from the Grove in front of them.

Smiling in compassion, Nikki regarded the assembled authorities before her. Mrs. Carson, Circe, a contingent of security officers and, of course, her mother, standing behind the others. Her mother regarded Nikki proudly, an arm wrapped around her brother’s shoulders, an expression of triumph in her eyes as she watched Nikki, flashing to exultation as Nikki answered Circe’s accusation.

"I planted the World Seed into the fertile ground of the Grove at midnight of the first new moon after the Summer's Solstice." Including both Circe and Mrs. Carson in her serene regard, she smiled again. "The knowledge of how to care for a World Tree is contained within the very core of a Daughter of the Burning Oak, so yes, I do know what it is that I have done."

"How?" whispered Circe.

"A dream. A Spell. A moment echoing down through time," Nikki answered. "The whispered words of the Spell of Remembrance spoken into the ear of Aunghadhail by her mother, heard by the very core of my being," Nikki calmly replied.

"You have Aunghadhail's memories!" Carson accused, turning to glare at Nikki's mother in betrayal.

"I have the ancestral knowledge of the Daughters of the Burning Grove, awakened in me by the Spell of Remembrance, nothing more," Nikki disagreed forcefully. "It is the knowledge necessary to care for and protect the World Trees."

"And you think this gives you the right to decide for the whole human race where a World Tree will be planted?" Circe demanded.

Nikki regarded Circe in serene stillness, before blinking once and replying. "The Seed needed to be planted in a fertile Grove, at midnight on the first New Moon after a Summer's Solstice. Providence had bought forth all the requirements at precisely the time when a World Tree Seed came into my possession. Call it Fate, call it Kismet, call it arrogance, but no, I did not consider it wise to leave a World Tree Seed unplanted in such a time of global political instability, so that it could be fought over, contested for like a prize. Now there is a fait accompli for them to deal with instead, a much less dangerous prospect for all."

Growling, Circe addressed Nikki's mother. "And you deem fit to tell me that Aunghadhail's legacy no more shadow's your daughter's decisions?"

Laughing Lucy Reilly dragged her son past the cordon of upset officials and onwards to her daughter. "If you think tonight's actions are the decisions of a dead Sidhe Queen, you have no true knowledge of Nichole Susanne Reilly," she growled back, smiling radiantly at her daughter, who dropped the serene act to bounce joyously into her arms. With an arm around each of her children, Lucy Reilly turned and regarded those arrayed before them. "What's done is done," she stated. "No amount of remonstrations will change it," she glared at them. "I'm taking my children back to their beds, any lingering details can be addressed properly in the morning," she declared. Clasping Nikki tight to her side, she serenely walked back past the line of accusers, absently leaning down to kiss Nikki in motherly love, basking in the happiness of having both her children with her.

Fin

Comments   

+5 # NeoMagus 2016-10-19 05:14
Said it before, and I'll say it again. Phoenix, you are a master at tugging on heartstrings. Another fine piece of work.
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0 # Ianron 2016-10-19 21:07
Another great chapter
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+1 # Dpragan 2016-10-29 19:15
I am SOOO glad that I let several stories build up before reading them or I would have been freaked that you were killing off the Kimba's one at a time. (Paranoia third door to the left)

Hmm Hank now has head-space with a spirit one that once was parasitical and is now trying to hide itself by being hopefully symbiotic.

Hmm something to be pondered on.
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+1 # n3glv 2016-11-20 05:08
Almost like the Leanan has been domesticated?
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0 # Pyro Hawk 2016-12-11 00:22
It's going to be interesting to see how Hank having the Leanan inside his mind will develop... Very, very interesting...
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0 # tmf 2017-03-05 21:18
Is Hank a Pseudo-Avatar, an Avatar 0 or something else ?
Good story. Hopping to see more soon.

Speaking of Avatar what could be Jade rating or classification as one ?
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0 # Phoenix Spiritus 2017-03-07 04:34
Hi TMF,

No Hank is not an Avatar and the Leanen is not a spirt :)

Lots of people are getting the wrong impression of what the Leanen actually is :P
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0 # tmf 2017-03-07 20:56
If I'm not mistaking, a Leanen is a self aware curse. It can also be a virus, a cancer, a parasite... That's why I advance the term Pseudo-Avatar for Hank, the more it help Hank the "less" chance the Queen will be back to destroy it.
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0 # Club 2017-04-08 23:11
When did the Kimbas find out about Tennyo teleporting? She didn't tell them after Easter break, and I don't remember her doing it in any other stories.

In fact, I specifically remember her resolving to keep it secret.
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0 # Phoenix Spiritus 2017-04-10 06:27
Resolving to do something, and actually keeping it secret from Jade are two different things :D
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