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Gwendolyn Stewart

A romance novelist with empathic abilities.

0 · 1,069 views · located in Present Day

a character in “The Other Kind of Roommate”, as played by Ten

Description

Name: Gwendolyn Stewart
Age: 25
Gender: Female
Bio: A romance novelist who has experienced moderate success and she is busy trying to write the next big thing to wow her fans and her publisher. A typical shut-in with nosy tendencies, she also possesses some empathic ability that she cannot control.

So begins...

Gwendolyn Stewart's Story

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#, as written by Ten
Despair fought against hope within her as she watched the young man struggle against his bounds and twitch erratically, his attention focusing and blurring on her so much she could not tell how much of what she was saying got through. A sense of relief burst within her when he recognized the word pancakes and was instantly hooked onto the conversation - with a little bit of Xander's helpful prodding. But instead of easing his thought processes, it only seemed to cloud them and throw them into an even bigger spiral. He remembered the questions but it was like he was answering with what she wanted to hear instead of giving her the actual answers. And the thing that dominated his mind was pancakes and the desire for his reward.

When Xander interjected and got the boy to say his name was Peter - and she knew that was not his name, even though for this moment he thought it was - her shoulders slumped in dismay. Whoever he was before whatever had happened to him, he'd been so damaged by it, he was barely even a human being anymore. Reaching deeper, she could still catch glimmers of it, so she knew he was still in there, but she couldn't help feeling helpless in reaching it.

Alex's voice drifted to her in that echoing way she began to find comforting - she could almost trick herself that he was talking in her head and not Xander's - and she waited for him to give her something to ask him. Faced with how disturbed the young man was, she was beginning to feel incredibly lost not having ever dealt with this type of thing before. Alex's suggestions were good ones and she was about to pose them to the guy but then Xander had to pipe up with answers of his own.

Gwen didn't know why it made her mad, but she'd assumed when he'd stepped away that he was giving up and allowing her to take over. His constant butting in - although filled with useful and pertinent information - made her feel like he was trying to make it seem like her method wasn't working just so she'd admit defeat and allow him to zap the young man, 'Peter', to high heaven. If he kept up like this, she wasn't going to even ask any more questions because he'd have proven them all irrelevant in some way.

"Listen, I thank you, for your input and everything, but you had your turn," she said to him calmly, trying not to sound as snippy as she felt. "Just relax over there. I haven't given up yet."

Turning back to Peter, she folded her arms and adopted the patient tone she'd had before, even though patient was far from what she was feeling. "I need you to tell me about when you escaped the lab. What do you remember?" She paused and bit her bottom lip before continuing on. "How long ago was it? Do you know? How long have you been running?" Xander might be confident about how much time they had but he didn't know how long ago the kid had escaped. It could have been just enough time for the whole "team" of Agents to have been assembled and sent after him. Afterall, Xander had said the boy was being trailed, hadn't he?

"The people following you, what can you tell me about them? Do you know how they might find you?" she searched his eyes for that glimmer she'd seen before and recoiled for a second at what she saw there in it's place. "Remember, pancakes, as many as you'd like. Just tell me what you know." Focus, she pleaded silently.

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#, as written by Ten
The internal struggle he went through held her transfixed, watching both inside and out as he fought for a response while all the while clinging to the promise of a breakfast meal to keep himself rooted. Inside she could feel that struggle, almost like he was fighting tooth and nail for some kind of focus. What was this constantly shifting consciousness? What had they done to this boy? His response came out in the rush it normally did, but seemed drawn out as well and for several moments, she stood there blinking wondering what had happened. Even hearing Alex say her name in low tones, she did not turn away, waiting for whatever had happened to occur again. But then Peter was answering her questions again, while internally she felt flung around in a tornado trying to keep up with him.

And of course as he described things, verbally they didn't make sense but she got a few flashes of him being put into a chair, the one he'd shown her before of someone else being put into it. Seeing it from his eyes, even for the small second that she did, was a horrific thing. The image of him being strapped into the machine and even his associated feelings towards the event was something that would never leave her, seared into her own nightmares as it was.

Again, Xander offered his own input but she did not protest or get angry this time, a cold hitting her in the pit of her stomach to hear his theory on what was wrong with this kid. Was that what the shifting consciousness was? Did he really have...Agents in his brain? But when she was inside his head, she didn't hear anybody else, not like she did with Alex. Peter dwindled down to incoherently pleading for pancakes and she looked at Xander when he stood up. At his offer of breakfast, she felt her own stomach rumble hungrily, having not eaten dinner or anything else yesterday and with a wary glance at Peter, she approached Xander where he stood by the phone.

"I'd like something, please, anything will be alright. And can we stay here long enough to eat it this time?" her tone was teasing and she smiled but looking back over at the bound teenager her face grew serious. It was several minutes before she spoke again, turning back to him. "If what you said is true, about him, why can't I hear anyone talking inside? Like I do with you? All that's going on in there is he's jumping all over the place, like he can't stay focused on one thing for more than a few seconds."

Talking with him normally like this suddenly reminded her of earlier and she let her eyes fall downward. Even after all that planning while she'd been getting ready, to sweet talk him into a better mood, after her continued antagonism upon rejoining him, she wasn't really sure how to apologize. She felt like she still needed to, despite his return to good-spirits, because she really was sorry. But at the same time, she felt kinda dumb if she brought it up now when he probably didn't even care anymore.

"How's your face?" she asked suddenly, then quickly moved to correct herself. "I mean--from when i hit you. With the pillow." No, he'd definitely not look at her like she was an idiot now. Remembering that he'd mostly been worried about her hitting him with something else if it ever happened again, she decided to try and assuage his worry. "i was conscious," she shrugged. "When I beaned you. I mean, I knew what I grabbed; I knew what I was doing." Oh, waitaminute, that sounded bad.

"That is--what I meant to say..." she paused for a moment and tried to think of a way to fix what she'd said and came up with only one thing. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again." By now, a healthy blush had collected in her cheeks and she was trying to look anywhere but at his face and found her eyes trailed down to his toe. The tape binding his first two toes together on that foot had held through the night and the swelling had gone down a lot, but it was still ugly and bruised.

Gwen reached out and touched it from the inside and could feel it pulsing painfully, but she looked up at him and asked about it anyway. "How does your foot feel? You should probably stay off of it while you can." There was a very real possibility that he could develop a permanent limp if he didn't start taking care of it, and that had nothing to do whether he could feel the pain in it or not.

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#, as written by Ten
There was that smile again. It was so good to see him not upset at her anymore and she made a note to herself to be gentle with him, lest she get tossed onto his grumpy side again. And of course, the banter between the two was semi-entertaining, but mostly she was enjoying the feeling of having returned, for just a few minutes at least, to a time where they were not running away. Gwen wanted that so badly. It was only day two and she was already feeling strung out and worn thin with the constant highs and lows. The only way she was able to go on right now was with the hope there would eventually be an end to it all. She needed to believe in that.

It was also nice to be thanked by him for something he'd been ignoring - and thus, she'd assumed he wouldn't even have noticed it - but the moment passed by when he was once again talking about their new companion. He surprised her by actually admitting that he didn't know something but as was typical for him, he seemed frustrated by this fact and did so almost begrudgingly. As he went into the "event" she'd sensed a moment ago - she'd known they'd felt it to, at least she knew Alex had - he brought up some interesting questions that she hadn't considered when it had happened.

She didn't really know what it was, when it had occurred, but had assumed it had something to do with his powers. She wasn't exactly sure of everything the kid was capable of, so she didn't know what it was limited to. But taking Xander for his word, she'd assumed Peter could teleport. Whatever else was involved, she hadn't thought to ask, thinking that she would be told - she had to stop doing that. Now apparently he was only supposed to teleport and nothing else - well, only if it was reasonably related. The mention of the other Peter put her on edge, especially with Alex's associations with the story they'd told her about, but she shoved it away. No, Xander was trying to help them. He was connected to all this as much as they were and even though he'd been one of them, it didn't make sense to keep running like he was now if he was still on their side.

With everything that he'd said so far, she really didn't have too many ideas, none that withstood her own internal scrutiny to fit into all the spaces anyways - she'd been leaning towards Alex's theory of time travel until Xander had shot it down. And then Peter had his own idea to add to the conversation and she looked at him as if he were crazy. What did he mean exactly? There were dead Agents in his head? Or was he talking about something completely different? Even steeped deep in his mind while he said it, she could not make sense of the words and how they connected, if at all, to the current conversation. After knowing what people thought and felt, it was frustrating to suddenly know all these things with someone but not being able to make sense of them.

Then Xander was handing her a pair of goggles from his bag, something she'd noticed before when she'd reorganized everything but had not thought anything of it. From what he said, she gathered that they would somehow help them find out where the Agents were and...he was handing them to her! For a moment, she blinked at him, a smile slowly spreading on her face, before she reached forward and took them from him. Turning them over in her hands, she figured out how to put them on and proceeded to ignore both of them in favor of her new toy.

Sliding them on over her neck, she continued to look them over, trying to figure out what buttons did what before she put them into position over her eyes. Orange light swept over her vision and she gasped with a laugh as she looked about the room. Then something started happening that she didn't realize she had control over - as she turned around in a circle in the middle of the floor different objects in the room were zoomed in on for a brief moment, with an analysis of them popping up on the screen.

With a giggle and without turning towards him she said to Xander, "I now know the make and model and manufacture number of the TV! And everything inside the bar and how much they all cost!" She laughed again and said in excited tones, "This. Is. So. Cool!" Then she stopped and frowned. "Those windows aren't locked very good. Geez, glad no one decided to break in! Do you know how much you paid for this room? Some security! Tsk!"

Turning around more she faced Xander and the same thing happened as before, except the information that came up was some sort of file. She squinted at him for a few moments but other than a physical description and a heading, there was nothing else. Number 05? Geez, how many cases are there? 10? He'd said he'd been after hundreds of cases hadn't he? Always the exaggerator. At least she thought that before she turned to "Peter".

Instantly on the screen for him came up a name and brief physical description - which she now knew had to do with the goggles analysis rather than something actually on file and she only knew this because it made a note that he was currently physically restrained and how well. She scoffed briefly at it's determination that the bounds she'd made were "moderate".

"Nathan - #35, successful transfer. Does that mean you were right? It called you a success," she couldn't help laugh a little. She was feeling giddy and enjoying this way too much. Slipping them off of her face she said aloud, "Hey, I was thinking, maybe what we felt before was him trying to teleport the room or something. Maybe there's a limit to his powers and it didn't work?" She shrugged a little and eagerly put the goggles back on, adjusting instantly to the orange light that seemed to illuminate everything.

Then she stopped as something foreign popped up before her eyes.

WTF? Were have u ben?


Some words flowed before her on the screen as if someone had sent her a message. "Oh, shit... Someone's talking to me..." she murmured nervously. A keyboard came up in front of her face as well and after a moment of trying to manipulate it with her hands, she realized she had to type by thinking.

Just one second. busy.

At first it was slow going as she tried to think of each letter first, but once she got to the word "second" she had moved smoothly into place mentally. Having operated a keyboard for a living she had no trouble after that, but she was suddenly looking at Xander again, seeing him through everything that was up on her screens right now and asked, "What do I say?"

Were r u? A hotel? lol

It was only then that she realized she must have been sending information about the room to someone else on a receiving end. Suddenly having the goggles on wasn't fun anymore and she moved her hands worriedly in Xander's general direction. "Help!"

Setting

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Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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#, as written by Ten
She hadn't expected him to take them from her, but she offered no complaints when he came over and slipped them off of her head, instantly putting them on himself. Watching worriedly, she listened to him try and order them breakfast, while attempting to still see the conversation he was having with the anonymous texter by probing his eyes. Meanwhile, locked with his senses as she was, she could hear the person he was speaking to on the phone. Standing there, barely a foot apart from him, she didn't even really see or sense anything in front of her own face anymore due to the amount of multitasking he was putting her senses through.

Even feeling a little dispirited about the lack of pancakes - she should have thought to order something last night for them! - she was mostly focused on the conversation he was now typing out to the other Agent through the goggles, which continued to fascinate her. This gadget was like something out of a spy movie and it seemed too cool to be real, but here it was in front of her, being used. The language used by the other person, this "Gary", was not something she'd expect from an Agent, but rather a boy much the same age as their friend Nathan over there, and she felt her preconceptions about the people running this show alter quite a bit.

And apparently they were old pals. Her reaction to Xander's knowing the guy was much the same as Alex's and she couldn't help feeling a little unsettled by his familiar tone while discussing this "Gary" person. Gwen wanted to trust him but it was moments like these that made it hard for her to do so and she understood Alex's paranoia. Maybe it was seeing how easily he could turn his moods around this morning, suddenly hating her over one little thing - which would be understandable to just about anyone else who wasn't a conceited baby - that made her realize his loyalties could be just as flimsy. But then again, he'd forgiven her pretty quickly as well, and that meant something didn't it?

Even though she felt it was being smarter than she had been before to be more wary of him and his motives, she couldn't help also feeling like she was jumping over simple shadows and making a bigger deal out of things than they really were. In her current situation it was a double edged sword: if he was going to turn on them, she was still very attached to the guy, a bit like Alex, as if she didn't have a choice between walking away and getting captured. But if he wasn't, then she was being suspicious for nothing and he really was betraying those he'd worked with this whole time and had been sticking his neck out for her when he really would have been better off throwing her under the bus to get away himself. It was a hard situation and all she could do was stay with him and watch and wait for now. If she eventually collected enough knowledge she might be able to leave him and try to hide from Agents on her own...

When the man on the phone told Xander he'd need to come down to the restaurant in order to get breakfast, she of course was willing to be reasonable. But predictably, Xander wasn't. Folding her arms, she disengaged from him long enough to give him a disapproving look at his sob story about a "son" who'd just gotten out of the hospital and was terminally ill. For pancakes. It wasn't the fact that he was lying to a stranger - no, she understood that it was necessary for their survival to break the truth when talking to people they didn't know - but this hardly fit into that category. The man was an unbelievably spoiled brat, always demanding his own way over the smallest things and making up a story that was excessively dramatic.

When he hung up, she merely shook her head and reconnected with him as he finished up the second conversation he'd been having with the less than impressive Agent. She didn't really understand what he was talking about when he said 'resetting the system', but her eyes widened a bit when he mentioned Stephanie. Relaxing when he explained it, she looked at the goggles in his hands with a bit more soberness than when he'd first handed them to her. In the midst of her excitement, she'd forgotten why he'd given them to her in the first place. Now she felt a bit foolish for playing with them as she had.

And just when she thought the situation wasn't already filled with tension, he decided to inform her about the side-effects of the goggles. As they were placed upon her head, she gave him a level look and said, "Thanks. Fun toy."

Although, Gwen had to admit, she didn't feel any different than before she'd put them on. The pain he described sounded awful and she kept expecting something to start hurting but nothing happened and she'd actually been wearing them even while he'd had them on. She considered telling him she was alright, but then she thought of Alex and what he'd have to go through when the headache finally hit him, and decided to let him search for aspirin for her. Maybe when he found some, she could convince him to take some for Alex too. With his complaint about the man's whining, she knew exactly what she was going to say to convince him.

Turning back to the goggles that still sat upon the crown of her head, and now realizing what he'd meant about them being "reset", she slipped them down over her eyes with more determination than she had before. Enough playing, time to get serious. Well...at least until she'd found out the necessary information. Taking a deep breath she waited for a link to Stephanie to appear and opened it.

Apparently, the woman was wearing goggles or something just like she was and she could see through them. Technically, it wasn't through her eyes but it basically was the same thing. She was sitting in the backseat of a car, and instead of orange, everything had a slight oily green tinge to it. Not overly so, like the goggles, but a bit like looking through a tinted glass. Sunglasses?

The car was nice and roomy, with smooth shiny leather seats and in the driver's seat was a very large man she did not recognize. But she instantly froze when she saw the Frenchman from Alex's memory sitting in the front passenger seat. They were together! The woman who was after her was with the man pursuing Alex and Xander! Of course, they'd found each other and were working together! She was more disheartened by the fact than surprised, as she'd been secretly hoping - based on what Xander had told her about the Agency - that it was some complex bureaucracy where nobody talked to each other and fumbled to complete assignments. Her hope that they'd each be left chasing their tails before picking up her and Xander's trail was completely crushed. Now it was only a matter of time.

Stretches of highway passed by windows that were also tinted but there didn't appear to be any cars with them, almost as if they were on a special, secluded road of some kind. The signs that they passed however were the same and Gwen was able to identify where they were. They'd just passed Afton so they were about 20 minutes out of the city where she and Alex had lived. That gave them an hour and 45 minutes - probably less if there wasn't a speed limit and other cars on the road. She was about to break off the link when she saw the woman turn to the other occupant of the back seat, bringing him into view for the first time. A young man, in his early 20s sat huddled uncomfortably in the seat next to her. His skin was gray and glistening with a sheen of sweat, his hair matted down by it and his eyes were glazed with a terrible haunted look. He looked like he was in pain and extremely ill.

Had they...captured someone? It only took her a minute to realize that he was one of them by the suit he was wearing - there was an identifiable pattern on his left shoulder that mimicked the one on the side of the goggles - and she further assumed that he was the previous owner of the pair she was wearing. Remembering how Xander had stolen them off of a guy in the hallway where she'd fought Stephanie, she swallowed thickly to compare the image of her memory to the sickly thing she saw now. Curious, she started to reach forward through the goggles and see if she couldn't hear some of what was going on.

Sitting slowly on the edge of the bed, her lips curled up in a small smile as she connected with the woman who had been able to block her before. It was an exciting feeling, not only because she'd broken through somehow, but also because she fancied herself sneaky at not being detected. She blamed this on the distance between them and even that was an amazing feat to have accomplished.

Voices came through and now she was no longer looking through the goggles but actually seeing through Stephanie's eyes and glasses which she saw now were of the same kind of technology as the goggles. The woman had turned to the young man sitting next to her and spoke in a completely deadpan voice that came in a hollow and echoed way to Gwen's ears. "We couldn't have taken an Agency aircraft?" she asked, no emotion entering her voice whatsoever. Deeper inside, Gwen could feel a glimmer of annoyance from the woman however and she felt a wave of triumph run through her own mind that there was absolutely no static at all. She got the sense that Stephanie was blaming her partner for something but the connection was so faint, she couldn't detect what it was.

The woman turned away from him in disgust of his current condition and watched the road that passed outside her window. Then the Agent began to think about Gwen, a sense of victory filling her even as impatience battled within.
All of a sudden, Gwen was taken aback by the surge of emotion coming from the woman and all directed at her. There was an obsessive quality to it, an eagerness bordering on hysteria, and something akin to...hunger in her thoughts of Gwen. Sitting on the bed in the hotel room, Gwen felt her heart drop through her feet and her whole body grow cold, swallowing thickly at the woman's insane desire to consume her. It had the same texture as someone might feel towards idolizing a celebrity and wanting to be them and live like they did, but taken to such an extreme level, she couldn't help but feel deeply disturbed by it all.

And towering over all these thoughts was an overbearing confidence of reaching her intended goal. There was not a sliver of doubt in Stephanie's mind whether she would eventually own Gwen's mind and body. Following the train of thought, she realized it came from the information she possessed; they'd already pinpointed the direction they needed to go. There had been reports of an unexplained incident in a woman's clothing store in the city of Vestal. The type of incident that was Alexander's trademark. And they were heading in a beeline straight for them.


Gwen glared at nothing in particular as she realized that it was all Xander's fault. Instead of just helping her pay for the clothes she'd gotten, he'd zapped the woman in Sally's Boutique for no reason. If he wasn't secretly working for the Agency, then he was doing a piss poor job of proving otherwise by constantly leaving behind a trail! He would most definitely get a stern talking to after she was done here.

As thoughts of Gwen faded from Stephanie's mind, she caught her thinking of her idiot partner and even worrying about him a little bit. There was a general and deeply hidden, amount of dislike for the man working with her, but underneath it, even deeper, she sensed there was a bit of fondness as well. Probing just a bit further as Stephanie thought about how she could help the man without seeming to help him, Gwen came upon a few thoughts that hinted at a crush on her partner. Uncontrollably, a smile appeared on her face again and she said aloud in a sing-song voice, "♫ Somebody's got a boyfriend! ♪" That was just the kind of thing Stephanie needed! A healthy distraction and a normal relationship to get her mind off of this twisted obsession.

Gwen gripped the bed for balance as her vision changed a little bit with Stephanie jerking upright in her seat and looking wildly around the car. "Something's wrong..." the woman murmured in a monotone that Gwen was beginning to find annoying.

For a few minutes, Gwen sat tense upon the edge of the bed, not moving or making a sound, waiting for the woman to calm down. Finally Stephanie sat back in her seat waving off the look from the Frenchman - whom she now knew was named Benoit, thanks to Stephanie's thoughts of him - her body still rigid and on alert, her mind racing and trying to figure out what had just happened. She'd...felt something. No! She'd heard something inside her head.

Without thinking, Gwen mumbled in an amazed tone, "She heard me...?" wondering what the implications of that were. Could she make herself be heard in other people's heads? Or did the goggles allow this to happen for some reason?

The reaction in Stephanie was immediate, having already been on alert when Gwen had spoken the first time. With a clawed hand, she grabbed at the glasses on her face and tossed them up towards the front seats of the car, letting them hit the front windshield with a small "Tonk!" sound. Anger of an unbelievable degree filled the woman and Gwen recoiled physically with her mouth gaping open in horror at the amount of rage that was spilling forth from the woman's body.

She'd at first thought it had been the glasses that was the cause and now knew that whatever had invaded her consciousness was still inside her independent of the gadget. And it pissed her off. With a growl of frustration totally out of character for her, she screamed "What the fuck!??" her body trembling with rage. Gwen started to tremble too, but for different reasons, rooted in place and struggling to disengage herself but unsure of how to do so at this distance. And she could feel parts of Stephanie's mind closing down with heavy reverberating slams that grew louder as they neared where she was in the woman's consciousness.

Reaching with a clawed hand, her face contorted with rage, she grabbed a fistful of Jean's shirt and stared with insane eyes. "STOP THE FUCKING CAR!!!"

Only when he complied - after looking to the Frenchman for an uneasy nod of approval first - did she let go of him, her breathing coming in labored gasps as she jerked the car door open and stepped out onto the empty stretch of road.
Gwen was locked in this one part of consciousness in Stephanie's mind, unable to move from it or hide anywhere else and she was starting to emit panicked gasps, her hands clutching the sheets of the bed underneath her. Pacing on the asphalt in her black highheels, the static returned and Gwen felt her nose start to gush blood as it filled her head with a higher pitch than she'd ever experienced before.

Panting and coming to a stop, Stephanie grabbed her own head in her hands and began to scream as loud as she could. Back in the hotel, Gwen's own scream of pain came in unison as she was shoved violently out of the woman's head.

Stephanie stood for a few moments, her shoulders shaking as she slowly let go of her head and began to laugh loudly. Not having laughed at all in years, it was an alien sound to her ears, but it bubbled up from her throat as naturally as if she'd done it yesterday. When it died down, she turned to the three men, who were all waiting and watching her, and with a breathless smile proudly said, "She's reached the next stage in her development, gentlemen. And they now know, we're on our way." Placidly, she smoothed the mask back into place and re-entered the car.
***********************


As soon as she was let go, Gwen fell off of the bed and began to curl up in a fetal position on the floor, her whole body shuddering uncontrollably. A headache blasted through her skull, like an echo of the static, pulsing behind her eyelids and ringing in her ears and she rolled from side to side on the ground in an attempt to get away from it, to assuage it somehow. In the process, she pushed the goggles up off of her face and sat up enough to gag and drool and bleed on the carpet, her eyes tearing from the dry heave that had wracked her body as the sound in her head made her feel sick. With a soft moan, she lay like that for a while, her face pressed into the floor and trying to collect the pieces of her brain that had been splattered across the wall.

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She drifted in darkness, suspended. Neither warm nor cold, content and comfortable in the lack of sensory input and aware of a vague sense of pain somewhere behind her. Like lying nestled in front of a fireplace, she could feel the heat and light of it on her back but she felt no desire to return to it. A low buzzing could be heard from that direction and she shivered and curled more into herself to erase thoughts of the menacing sound, letting the soothing emptiness fill her and turn her into nothing.

Gwen lay there for what felt like hours and days unconnected from her body in one of the deeper recesses of her mind, time seeming to stretch around her and yet speeding by with every half-breath. After what seemed like forever, she began to wonder idly to herself where she was, a feeling of discontent seeping into her consciousness. As nice as it was to be so separated and cocooned, she knew that this was not where she belonged. How did I get here? Like a fire roaring to life suddenly, the pain she'd noticed earlier flared against her back at the question and she snuggled away from it, letting her mind slip once again into the void.

Eventually, her thoughts were wandering again and the questions came more forcefully than before and she did not shudder away from the buzzing and the pain that seemed to grow the more she thought of these things. Something had happened. She'd been hurt. Alex. All other thoughts had left her wandering lost, slowly edging towards the light and blazing heat, but this one memory of the man she knew brought her surging up into consciousness. Along with it came flooding back the memory of their situation: he was running from someone. Her? No. They'd been running together. They'd left their apartment behind where they'd lived as neighbors. The taxi. The hotel. The goggles. Stephanie.

Blinking rapidly at the light filling her vision, she squinted as a loud and piercing hum consumed her head, throbbing painfully through her skull. Distantly, as if through a fog, she heard a voice and it was saying her name, asking her something. Turning her face a little bit she looked up and immediately recognized Alex, a feeling of indescribable joy filling her to see him. He'd regained control of his body! Finally, he was no longer trapped! But then as the voice became clearer and her vision as well, she realized it wasn't him but the man he shared a mind and body with. Xander. That's right... Xander was in the body right now, because of whatever had happened in the apartment.

Xander! That's right!
The goggles! Remembering what had happened while she'd had them on, she realized she needed to tell him about it. They didn't have much time. The static that had filled Stephanie's mind and severed her from their connection was all she could feel inside her own head right now and for some reason, as consciousness and awareness flooded back to her, control of her body came slower, the waves of static making it difficult to communicate with her limbs.

For several more minutes, she attempted to speak, moving her lips in a parody of speech with no noise coming forth, making her feel frustrated and helpless. The discordant noise subsided a few notches before she was finally able to form words and even then it felt like a tremendous effort and expense.

"They're coming..." he needed to know, he had to understand what she'd seen. "They know..." Her voice dwindled down to a breathless gasp and she winced painfully, an urgency coursing through her and yet pain keeping her immobile.

Weakly she reached out a hand to touch him, to hold onto him and raise herself up, but the first pass it made against him, her fingers slid uselessly over his shirt, not even having the power to grab on. She waited for several more minutes, feeling every second tick by, pounded into her skull by the static that just didn't seem to want to fade, before trying again with more confidence. Grasping his arm and shoulder, she sat up on the floor only letting go of him when she was sure she could support her own weight.

"We need to go now... They're on their way here and they know where we are... Benoit...the French guy Alex told me about was with her and they're working together..." Speech returned to her fluidly, leaving her just barely gasping between sentences. The static had been reduced to a low hum in her head that caused her discomfort but was somewhat tolerable. "I...don't know what happened... I got stuck inside her head and she did something... She pushed me out but it was more... Now there's nothing but white-noise everywhere and it hurts like a son of a bitch."

Gwen lightly touched a hand to her forehead when she realized she couldn't hear Alex. Trying to reach out to him, the buzzing grew in volume and lanced through her head with a vicious pain, causing her to retreat immediately. She wasn't sure if that was a result of something Stephanie had done or if she did it to herself by connecting with the woman long distance. Either way, she decided not to try to force it right now, lest she be left a mindless, pain-filled mess.

Struggling to rise, she had a bit of difficulty and held her hand out to Xander for some assistance. "We need to get out of here now." A bitterness filled her tongue and her stomach growled fitfully as she realized once again that if the pancakes weren't here yet, then they'd need to grab something else while getting away. They couldn't abandon meals forever - if the Agents didn't catch up to them by catching them off guard, they eventually would when the both of them collapsed from lack of nutrients. At the moment, despite knowing why the Agents knew where they were, she decided not to bring it up. Now was not the time to argue about who's fault it was; they just needed to get away.

The incessant murmuring of their new companion caught her attention as well and she glanced in his direction, slightly worried about what they were going to do with him. Nathan still struggled against his bounds, spouting nonsense as he did before and she made even less sense of it all now without the benefit of knowing what he was thinking.

"Running-running-time to run again-stuck in a corner-always catch up-need to keep running-pancakes-" Needless to say, it was not the most comforting train of conversation.

**********************


Slipping back into the her seat again, Stephanie let out a bored sigh, her mask once more firmly in place. What a fantastic experience that had been! Even as angry as it had made her to be violated in such a manner, what she learned from it was absolutely priceless and filled her with even more pride for her target. So much so, she felt excited to share the new information with her companions.

"Oh, I doubt he'll leave her behind. I don't know much about Alexander as far as character goes, but if he's keeping her around mainly for the usefulness of her powers, then he most definitely will stay with her now," as usual, her voice had returned to the placid monotone, her face staring blankly ahead out the front windshield. "Before today, her newly awakened powers gave her the ability to hear the thoughts of others and to feel their emotions as if they were her own. She connected with me somehow - through those glasses, I know, possibly using a form of similar technology... such as the goggles they stole from my partner..."

She glanced at Jason apathetically, wondering what that news would mean to him, not having much information on his connection with the suit in the first place, but understanding it's absence was having a detrimental effect upon him. She only hoped that his own skills and strengths would not decline as time went on, because she did not want to have to part with him. He was the most informed on their current project and although not trained to resist Gwen's abilities, he was her biggest asset and...she enjoyed working with him. Thinking of that made her remember Gwen's comment drifting through her head and she internally smirked at the teasing tone the other woman had used. No, it was not meant to be. Ever. Not in their line of work and it was definitely pointless to engage in such frivolous relations when after capturing Gwen, a relationship wouldn't even be possible. It didn't mean she stopped caring about the man's health and sanity, as much as she seemed to show otherwise. It was best not to encourage the appearance of feelings towards him.

"She can span a wider range through long distance connections now," she continued, turning back to the front seats of the car without another glance at Jason. "Telephones, and direct links like live television feeds and possibly even computers. That means she's already passed the second step which is access to memory. The next and final stage is the ability to manipulate not only thought, memory and emotion, but even action." A hint of her fervor entered into her dull tone, but she corrected herself as she went on.

"Not to worry though. At this point, her abilities are still so new, she's like a toddler trying to fly a jet plane. She's pushing buttons and making things happen, but her control is weak and she has no real understanding of what she's doing or how. We...were hooked together for a while. Even after she realized I was aware of her presence, she did not let go and I think it was because she didn't know how. Even a full connection over the distance between us should be a breeze to break away from on her own and yet she struggled until I forcibly severed the link. As a result, she should be sore for a while and unable to use her powers, but it's a temporary stun and she'll recover them quickly."

Pausing then, Stephanie glanced around the car and out the windows for a moment and spoke again. "I'm sorry to say that I wasn't paying too close attention and I do not know how long we were connected before I became aware of it," even in an apology she did not let emotion enter her voice. "I was looking out the windows for a while, so she's probably seen where we are by the road signs and maybe even has a bit of information...that I'd rather she not have, but it's not important. And now that I know where she is in her development, I will not let my guard down again..." Alright, that was enough, she was done apologizing now. "We might be able to make it there with her still disabled and catch them while they're on their way out. No doubt, they will try to escape now that they know we're nearing their destination."

There was a slight prod in her words, hoping to spur Benoit into action. Earlier, back at the apartment, she'd decided to wait, watch and learn from him, but so far it had been torture. The eagerness for capture had not left her and had festered like a spoiled wound in the past 14 hours. She'd tried to remain civil and tried to stay firm in keeping patient, knowing that it was necessary to think things through in order to succeed, but she could not help getting the feeling there were plans that were not being shared. So a lot of the time they were left lounging around as if they had all the time in the world. With how fast Gwen was developing, she knew that was not the case and it frustrated her beyond belief.

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So, this was why they had been going so slow. Understanding blossomed within the deeper layers of her mind, as the two Agents in the front seat explained Alexander's habitual movements and how they caught up with him. With comprehension of their plan came a calmness that settled in and eased her impatience but not by much. They still had a limited time before Gwen would become too powerful to deal with face-to-face, and although she still had a lot of control to develop, the clock was ticking. She was confident in her ability to deal with Gwen, even at full power, but with her powers at full maturity it would make things unnecessarily difficult. If only they'd gotten her the night before last, they wouldn't even be dealing with all these problems now.

Stephanie was jolted from her thoughts by the sudden attention drawn to Jason and his explosion at the man driving made her cringe inside, as did the resulting jerk of the vehicle to a stop in the road. Sighing hollowly as the two men argued and stared each other down, she internally twisted and turned, giving Jason the blackest look she could muster through her mask. She'd started this case full of arrogance and obsession and had learned to get along with others calling the shots and even sharing information that she'd never given anyone before. Things that were almost like a diary for her, secret things she'd become more invested in than her own personal intimacies and guarded as if her life depended on it.

And yet her partner seemed to be reacting in the opposite way. She had no idea what set the two men at odds - in their current situation as professional adults, it hardly seemed necessary for them to both act this way - but she was growing tired of it. Jason, as a part of her team, represented her and her goals and he insisted on making her look bad by squabbling with the other Agent like a child. When Benoit or anyone looked at Jason they would automatically see her as well and judge their team accordingly; afterall, she did the same thing when she turned to look at the man driving needing to be reprimanded in front of her. She felt it reflected poorly on Benoit even as she worried about how Jason's behavior looked to the other two men. She felt like a rookie when working with them. There was no need to assure them of that fact by her colleague acting like an idiot.

But then he surprised her with the offer of an apology, explaining his behavior as a result of his having lost the goggles that went with his suit and she suddenly felt guilty since she'd been the one to tell him Gwen had been using them to spy on her. Stephanie had been more than aware of his current condition - a lot like a junkie going through withdrawal - and still she'd callously offered up information that could prove even more disastrous to him. His current irritability was partly her fault. However, she did not let the sympathy or the guilt show, preferring to ignore him completely as if his predicament and even his return to civility in the midst of it were of no consequence to her. While inwardly she worried about what she could possibly do to help him. What would happen if the goggles were not eventually retrieved? Was this something he could recover from?

Her internal musings were brought to a halt as Benoit addressed her again, smooth as ever moving onto a new topic of discussion while graciously accepting Jason's apology. She thought for several moments, estimating quickly in her head how fast the young woman's abilities would reach their final conclusion. This part was key, for it decided their exact time-line and how much of it they had left before Gwen became more of a problem.

"There are limits to what she'll eventually be able to accomplish and it is all related to her core empathic abilities. She experiences everything as if other people's emotions, thoughts and their lives were her own and were happening to and being thought by her. When she reaches the final stage she really will, in a broad sense, own all these experiences and thoughts as if they were hers in origin. Since they are not and she stands apart from it all, outside looking in, it gives her the power to change them, manipulating them with suggestion. So, intrinsically, it is basically an intensifying of already existing powers and circumstances."

"As for how long," she sighed through her nose before continuing. "She has possessed her abilities and been working with them actively for less than 24 hours and has already reached the third stage of development. This goes way beyond the charts and predictions I've made based on my study of her life and I think it has accelerated due to being around Alexander when his own powers are released. Her ability to sense both ends of such intense exchanges probably has the effect of stretching and exercising her abilities, like 10 days of practice capitalized within a few seconds."

"However, the final stages - extending her range over longer distances, controlling her psychic presence, and mastering manipulation to a degree where it will become harmful to us - will definitely take time and effort. She cannot just learn these things overnight, not to the point where she can wield them as they were meant to be. So, taking into account Alexander's usage of his mind 'overload' powers and the regular effort it would take her to master the last stages, I estimate that we have about a week. Maybe a few days more if Alexander restricts himself to using his powers only once a day."

Throughout her analysis, Stephanie had maintained a hollow and guarded tone and when she ended, she blinked levelly at her companions, hoping that the information she'd provided would be sufficient for their purposes. She very rarely got the chance to talk about Gwen in all her years of being on the woman's case and was finding despite the paranoia that Benoit would somehow steal the glory of her case and double cross her, she rather enjoyed talking about her. Gwen afterall, was her favorite subject.

*********


It was nice to see him almost completely unaffected by what she'd told him. Actually, no it wasn't. They were still going to wait for pancakes? Was he crazy? She was starting to feel anxious as he once again decided - despite Alex's protests which she still couldn't hear but were obvious from the one sided conversation - that they were going to take their time as if nothing had changed. Hanging onto him weakly as he lifted her and placed her on the bed, she wanted to try and convince him, but couldn't get a word in edge-wise as he left her side to go use the phone. Gwen was pleased at least that he was planning ahead, although she would have preferred they leave now to get the greatest head start they could achieve.

Just about to put in her own two cents about the necessity of such a plan, her mouth instantly shut when Xander started addressing his other half in an angered tone. It made her apprehensive about trying to get him to change plans, since whatever Alex was saying was getting him to dig in his heels about his current goals even to the point where they were arguing about who had them into and out of more trouble in the past. Of course, Xander would win out for both sides, but still despite his assertion that he did everything for a reason, she couldn't help feeling that familiar paranoia that he wasn't completely sincere.

Sitting upon the bed now, her mind numb and buzzing, she sighed in frustration being forced to wait, especially since encountering Stephanie again made her extremely anxious about a rematch face-to-face and knowing the woman was on her way. Her worried musings about how the next fight would go if use of her powers didn't return by that point were interrupted as Xander spoke to her again. There was something in his manner that made her blush briefly, a sense of concern that she very rarely got from him and she took the bottle of aspirin he'd tossed to her, not really sure what to say.

"Thank you," was all she managed before he was leaving her side to enter the unused bathroom and shutting the door. Immediately, she reached out to sense what the conversation was about but the static flared like a bunch of fireworks exploding in her brain and made her lie back on the bed with a moan of pain. Gasping lightly, she tried to shake the headache off while uncapping the bottle in her hands but it did not fade until several minutes after she'd popped two pills into her mouth.

By this time, control of her limbs and body had completely returned and when she sat up again, she scooted to the edge of the bed and let her feet rest on the ground. Looking down at the carpet, she saw a few red droplets marring the clean beige next to the abandoned goggles which had completely slipped off her head while Xander had been with her. Touching her face for a moment, she did remember getting the nose bleed and assumed that Xander had helped it stop. It made her feel foolish for her suspicions. No, he was trying to help her and he was right, just as he'd told Alex; so far he hadn't gotten them caught and had plenty of opportunities since she'd been with him to turn the both of them in. It was okay. Everything was going to be okay. She just needed to trust him.

Standing up from the bed, she reached down and picked up the goggles, looking down at them as she turned them over in her hands and was about to put them back on, when Nathan caught her attention. He was pulling on the curtain ropes that she'd tied around his hands and almost had one of his wrists free. "Hey! Stop that!" she said in as authoritative a voice as she could muster as she approached him.

"You may be the one they want - YOU may be - but not me - they won't take me back - !" his tongue flapped quick as ever and just as insane as before and he jerked his arm violently against his binding, almost easing it out from between the ropes by the time she came to stand before him. "Finishing it - they still need me - but they want you - I can get away - I can get away-!"

Gwen wasn't sure what to do exactly. At first, she'd set the goggles aside and started to fight him to pull his ropes tighter, but then stopped. What was the point? Were they even keeping him for anything? For several minutes, she contemplated letting him go and whatever happened would happen, but then shook her head. Xander might get upset with her if he still had plans for this kid - although she still wasn't sure how they were going to check out of the hotel and run with the teenager tied to the chair. It seemed like a plan that would more than likely hinder them.

So then she worried about how to convince Nate to stay. Before, they'd used the promise of food but if she untied him there was nothing stopping him from teleporting away from the room and leaving their sights probably forever. And suddenly he was grimacing at her, almost seeming to bite towards her arm as she pulled the ropes tighter and more firmly around his wrists. Needless to say, such action totally erased any thoughts she might have had of releasing him.

"They do still want you," she said as she finished with the ropes, tugging the knots so he'd have more difficulty loosening them again. "Just think about it, Nathan. If we stick together we can protect each other. Don't you see? We can stay ahead of them and stay away from them a lot easier with more people watching our backs." It was still uncertain whether they could trust him or even depend on him and he didn't seem convinced by her reasoning. She knew he still had to be hungry so she sighed and said, "What about pancakes? You still have time to eat. If you leave now, you can't come back and I'll eat your stack so you don't get any."

He glanced at her as if she were retarded, his face taking on a skeptical and even condescending cast. But when she folded her arms and raised her eyebrows a little in a gesture articulating a firm stance, the smile faded from his lips and he began to look worried again but for a different reason this time. Satisfied, Gwen left his side to go sit on the couch next to his chair and slipped the goggles on over her head, letting them rest on her neck for the moment, just enjoying the feel of them on her skin for right now. And she didn't bother testing whether she could hear his thoughts or not, the static still ever-present in her mind and making her feel empty and alone. She hoped her powers would return soon, because as it was, she was walking around blindly without them.

Roused from her idle reverie when there came a knock at the door, she rose from her seat just as Xander emerged from the bathroom. Immediately upon the announcement of the voice beyond the door, Nathan had started to sway eagerly in his chair, bobbing his head like a parrot, his voice insisting upon what the room service clerk offered. "Pancakes-pancakes-pancakes-gotta get out of here-eat and run-eat and run-pancakes-"

Seeing Xander fresh from the shower with dark, uneven hair, wetly spiked on one side and wearing clean clothes, she felt that familiar flutter in her gut that she occasionally got when looking at him. And it only intensified when as he passed through the living room into the entry hall, he gave her a grin that melted her insides. God, why did he always do that? she thought with a slight irritation, even as a voice deep inside hoped that he never stopped. Before Xander had reached the door, Nathan was starting to grow more incessant with his yammering and she stood beside him and gave him a swift, light smack on the back of the head. It wasn't a hard blow by any means but he immediately shut up and glared at her, much to her amusement.

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Just when she felt like she had something of importance to contribute to their new team and had grown comfortable with working with them, Stephanie was made to feel like she'd barely given them anything they couldn't have figured out by themselves. A lot of it had to do with a lack of knowledge on her part; there were things about Alexander she still didn't know. His record as far as using his powers and what his personality was like were still a puzzle waiting for large chunks of pieces to be filled in. So she assumed and guessed a lot.

Sure, she'd known about the members on her team who had been killed and she also knew about the incident they were following here in Vestal, but most of these situations could be explained away as necessary for his survival and attempts to get himself and Gwen out of trouble. How was she suppose to know the man used it flippantly unless she was told? And Benoit had asked before he'd offered anything by way of a personality analysis that would suggest otherwise.

And then there was Benoit's whole demeanor, the smug arrogance that both expected these things to be obvious to her and yet rubbing it in her face that he knew things she did not. But, annoying character flaws aside, at least he was being forthcoming and that definitely was something. Her expectations of this teamwork they were currently doing was not for the long term. She hoped to acquire Gwen with his help but it was mostly for him to handle the Alexander part of the equation that was the reason they'd joined forces at all. So any information he provided was useful so long as the two remained together. If Benoit eventually decided to abandon her and Jason when he got what he wanted, she would not feel like she'd lost out in the alliance they'd made. The whole point was to separate the pair to make getting Gwendolyn easier.

As Benoit went on, explaining the relationship Alexander had to other Agents who'd been on his case, she started to fit the pieces together from what he'd previously told them. So, Alexander, the guest, had been in the running with these other Agents and had been selected for transfer before it had been disrupted and he'd escaped with the Agency's property. The internal squabbles between Agents did not concern her, so long as they didn't get in her way - and ironically enough, Benoit turned to her with that self-satisfied little smirk on his face and asked her exactly that.

Her face remained blank as she answered coldly, "I would have been cooperative and moved on. It's just a job."

It was a bald faced lie and even just the thought of hypothetically losing the rights to Gwen made her internally grit her teeth. Gwen was hers, and her life. Nobody else's. End. Of. Story. However, it wouldn't do to seem unprofessional, now would it? From what she could tell of Jean's behavior towards both her and her partner, he couldn't wait until they didn't need each other anymore - the feeling was mutual but she didn't mind their help - and she feared that if she continued to look incompetent and unstable to the other two, that they may abandon her without waiting for either of them to capture their targets. As long as Alexander was with her, Gwen would be practically untouchable and they'd continue to repeat scenarios like in the apartment building without a collaborative effort with the other two Agents.

Stephanie turned away after that, allowing Jason to pick up the conversation for a few moments and she gazed out the window watching as the city grew denser around their car, small residential houses and shops passing by on either side of the street they were on and slowly growing into larger, more closely knit houses and bigger businesses. Her attention was drawn once again when Jean addressed her and she internally rolled her eyes at his sneering jab. Yes, she knew all about Alexander's average use of power, didn't she? Oh, wait, no she didn't! Shut up, Sasquatch. Next time you ask for a fucking estimate, make sure you lay down all the facts that could possibly be relevant. Maybe THEN you'll be able to judge me.

Suddenly she blinked at the hostility bristling within her and glanced in Jason's direction, realizing what must have been his problem with the other two this whole time. They were annoying, arrogant jerk-offs - she got it now. Buuuut...she did not find it any harder to blame Jason for his tendency to argue with them. However that was how she felt about all emotional displays. Sometimes, she forgot that she'd had years of training to control her own emotions to the point where she could turn them on and off like pressing buttons and keep them hidden. So, she found other people's constantly letting them run loose to be a sign of weakness and vulgar display, often wondering what was wrong with them to allow themselves to become so out of control.

The explanation about the lenses he was wearing was another surprise she had not known about and felt both a tug of confidence in their ability to reach their goals by working with these two men and another cloud of resentment forming. What had she had when she'd entered the field? What special contraptions did she have in order to help her capture Gwen? She had nothing up her sleeve except the specialized equipment that Jason had offered - but was now missing - and her years of training to counteract and diffuse the target's abilities.

Of course, then again, Gwen was not suppose to have been trouble to apprehend. At the most, Stephanie had expected that if she needed to enter the field with Gwen on the run, that she'd be simple enough to track - not understanding what was going on or who was following her, even with the chance of developing her powers early without encountering Alexander - and able to capture her with barely any difficulty. Alexander had completely thrown a wrench into everything she'd been working on these past 5 years and she wanted to say it wasn't her fault, but as an Agent, she felt it just added to the list of reasons why she was not as prepared as she should be.

Again, she was being asked for information on Gwen and to make predictions based on what she'd been told. Benoit's analysis of his target and how he would possibly react to traveling with Gwen and how it would benefit them was rather astute and revealing and mirrored well with her own predictions about Gwen. She was still formulating her answer when Jason interrupted and Benoit offered up new information about Alexander's state of being. Making a slight alteration of her internal dissection, Stephanie let out a bored sigh and spoke.

"Physical training. Several months ago after an incident, Gwen took a series of women's self-defense classes and even moved up to their advanced courses at the local community center in her old neighborhood. In fact, she used such against me when I engaged her physically yesterday, seeking to subdue her. She has a routine she practices almost every day and it automatically kicked in when we fought."

She did not mention her own short comings in that fight and how her internal walls had not been properly fortified but did go on to explain, "In conjunction with her abilities, she could prove to be formidable in hand-to-hand combat. What she lacks in strength, she will make up for in speed and being able to predict another's actions with absolute accuracy 2-5 seconds before it is set into motion. As a result of her health conscious diet and regular exercise, she is not frail or easy to break and can bounce back pretty easily from a physical onslaught such as being chased for long stretches or being beaten. Even with the crippling and unfamiliar pain of the mental and psychic stress she has and will be going through, I think she will prove to be rather resilient and not easily kept in a vulnerable state."

Glancing out the windows, Stephanie paused and thought over what else Benoit had said about Alexander. "This might prove to be irrelevant, but since you mentioned Alexander's weakness of heart due to Gwen's presence, I feel inclined to inform you of my own understandings of Gwen's behavior in regards to their new...relationship. The information I have on Gwen spans over most of her adult life ever since the Agency first became aware of her. This includes a bit of history from her childhood and her...dating and occupational record."

She stopped for a moment and remembered how many times she'd reviewed Gwendolyn's secret files and a dissection of her younger years. Her father had abandoned both her and her mother to live his life with another woman and family running a lucrative business in the city. Occasionally he would return to pay support for Gwen and would shower the young girl with gifts. This caused some turmoil to brew between mother and father and Gwen, who had grown to idolize the man who had sired her, not knowing the full story behind her parents' relationship, began to resent and blame her mother for his constant absence. Every relationship she'd had with men from that point on was a reflection of this parental connection.

"This past year or so she's had difficulty letting anyone in and has been nursing wounds that have left her guarded and untrusting. But she desperately seeks that companionship and connection again and I think that the arduous conditions and traumatic experiences she is going through right now will draw her closer to Alexander. Normally, she is not a blind follower and in most of her relationships, she has taken the lead and made the necessary decisions. She doesn't like not being aware of what is going on and being helpless. But from what you've told me, and from what I've observed so far, I think she will more than likely bend to whatever Alexander wants."

"She's a hopeless romantic looking for a hero to save her in this time of crises where things she doesn't understand are happening all around her at a fast pace. A man worthy enough to submit to, whom she feels safe to give control. Again, I'm not sure exactly how noble or charming this "prince" is, but if he saves her life enough times, she will follow him wherever he leads her and most likely risk her own life if she thinks it'll help him."

She fell silent for a few minutes as the businesses outside the windows grew into more retail based enterprises. "Like I mentioned before, I don't know how useful this information will be to YOU, but it will help in predicting her behavior just in case wounding Alexander's heart and soul doesn't work out. There's always another angle and weakness to exploit."

****


Gwen sighed in exasperation as the cart was pushed into the room, staring in dismay at the trays laid out upon it. They would most certainly need the whole hour Xander had set up for the taxi to be called to finish this whole meal. She would probably eat half a stack at the most, so she really hoped he didn't expect to finish everything. Ignoring Nathan's annoying insistence, she took the tray Xander offered her with an uneasy smile and sat down at the living room table before removing the lid. The stack of pancakes had been made uniformly and neatly into the shape of hearts. No cutting was involved and they were all almost perfectly shaped. She smiled softly before picking up her fork and knife and started to cut into them.

She kept up an easy pace, opting to put strawberries and the red sauce they were mixed with on her stack, trying not to rush herself but not dilly-dallying either and keeping an idle eye on what else was going on and attempting to interpret the one-sided conversation Xander was having with the still blocked Alex. It was hard to follow what the questions were that these answers went to and she found herself wincing in pain when she tried to touch Alex again only to be blasted with a sharp wave of static. It was just a small push against the barrier and she stopped as soon as the pain came, so it didn't last very long, but she was stuck for several seconds not chewing the current mouthful and waiting for it to stop hurting her. This had to stop soon. She hated being in the dark.

She was about halfway done with the top two pancakes on the stack when Xander drew her attention again as if Alex was telling him something about the kid. Looking at him, she wasn't sure what they were on about until he indicated one of the pitchers of syrup and inquired about what Nathan wanted with them.

She stopped and murmured, "Oh no... Don't..." in disgust when he made it clear he planned to allow the kid to drink straight from the pitcher. There was no way that was healthy and although she didn't understand why he wanted the syrup, she wasn't fond of the kid being made sick by consuming it straight like that. Especially not this rich, thick mixture made specially by the hotel.

Having stopped eating while she watched, she saw it before he did when the kid was done and said his name, "Xander..." before he finally removed the pitcher from the boy's mouth. The whole front of his lips and chin and neck were drenched in the stuff and she sneered a little bit, knowing how sticky he was going to be now. And of course, Xander was naturally amused.

Then her fork and knife dropped from limp fingers to clatter against her plate when the boy spoke in a clear and articulate sentence. Not that running and garbled nonsensical way he'd spoken in ever since he'd started talking, but actual sentences with the appropriate number of nouns, verbs and adjectives for each, clear endings and beginnings and fully understandable meanings. What the hell had just happened? Gwen sat staring with her mouth hanging open and her eyes wide for several moments as Xander became fully introduced to their suddenly normal companion.

Physically, she recoiled as if he'd lashed out at her when he looked in her direction and said her name, again articulating what he had before that he was happy she was alive because apparently she was suppose to be dead. And a chill filled her bones the more he went on about what was currently going on with him. She'd seen some of what had been done to him and knew that what he was currently talking about was Agency business...and now he was thinking and talking coherently. That meant he couldn't be trusted. Standing up from her seat at the table she neared where the other two were and looked at the kid with a piercing and suspicious gaze.

"Why do you keep on saying that? What has given you the impression that I was dead? And why is this a good thing for YOU? Why do you even care?" then she stopped and shook her head throwing up her hands to stave off any answers he might give. "No, you know what? I don't care. Anything you say will probably be a lie anyway."

Moving closer to Xander, she turned towards him without letting Nathan - or whoever he was now - out of her sight and spoke in low, urgent tones to Xander. "Do your thing - zap him and let's get out of here, please!" she begged, the fear she felt starting to creep into her voice and she cast a worried look at the young man tied to the chair. "He's got people in his head and you have to know what that means, especially with him being listed as a 'successful transfer'. This is like with that Peter guy and I just know it'll end badly. We should just leave him..."

She looked away from Nathan long enough to search Xander's face and eyes anxiously, hoping he'd see reason. At this moment, the static clouded her thoughts and made it very difficult to read people and she felt incredibly paranoid about not being able to sense anything from the bound teenager. She didn't know how he could possibly convince her that he was on their side but at the moment she wasn't looking forward to it. They didn't need him and whatever trouble he was caught up in.

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Just when she thought she was merely tolerating the man, he always seemed to renew the reasons why she was fond of and respected him. Ever the smooth business man, Benoit presented her with options that gave her enough freedom and control within their temporary partnership to do as she pleased with her case, while still focusing congruently on his own. Both he and his right hand, Jean, could be haughty and conceited at times, but they did not allow it to get in the way of their ability to cooperate. She was internally grateful for that and it made her let her guard down even more around them, especially when he complimented her input.

It was not his approval she sought, technically, but rather she wanted to keep herself useful to him - that last shred of paranoia would not go away no matter how much he seemed to "enjoy" having her and her partner around. Maybe it had something to do with his manner, or maybe it was the fact that if their places were reversed, she would not hesitate to drop him at her earliest convenience, but either way, when he stopped thinking she had important information regarding her target, she assumed the partnership would dissolve. He didn't need her to capture Alexander.

Despite all this, she did not mind going slow, understanding that for now, she needed to run at their pace. When they were ready to pursue Alexander, that would be her opportunity to engage Gwen again. Blankly, as close as she would get to a smile, she said, "Breakfast sounds lovely - as long as they serve a good omelet, I don't really care where."

Turning away from Benoit her eyes fell of their own accord onto Jason and suddenly she didn't feel so sure anymore. She needed to do something for him and she couldn't help feeling like there was an almost visible clock ticking over his head as well. A thought to take him aside and inquire about his condition flittered across her mind - he had been trained to use the suit and no doubt knew what he needed to correct whatever had been done to him, wouldn't he? - but she shoved it away. No, she could not let him know that she cared about him. That left her only one option, the only thing she knew might help him. They needed to get back what he'd lost, to make the suit whole again.

Thinking it over, she realized that they had a rare opportunity at this moment that she could possibly take advantage of, but it was a very slim chance. "I do have a few ideas I would like to share with you and get your input," Stephanie said to Benoit in an empty voice. "There are a few things, first: I think our chances of capturing the targets increases significantly if they are separated. Despite her abilities, and until they reach full power, Gwen will be somewhat easy to manipulate but not with Alexander there with her. Second, there is a window of opportunity open right now that I may not get a second time. Gwen is stunned and will stay that way for at least a little while - as soon as Alexander uses his powers, it will jump start her focus and she may get them back. But if he is wearing down, as you say, and ready to collapse soon, a time when they are both vulnerable may overlap. I would like to try and capture her before they run off again.

"If Alexander can be distracted for long enough, he may collapse before he has a chance to play the hero like he did before. And we'd have both of them basically handed to us on a silver platter." And Jason's goggles as well. Sitting back smoothly in her seat, she adjusted the front of her red suit jacket so the lower hem laid unwrinkled across her lap.

"If you do not want to move in that fast, then there is an alternative method for getting them separated that will work just as well. If your man cannot stop himself using his powers within the time it takes us to reach them, then we can go a more subtle route. When I am within range of her, my mental signature will be detected by her. No doubt when she connected to me through the glasses, she thought she was being a clever little sleuth. I have no doubt she will try to spy on us again."

Her lips shifted a little and she held her head high. "However, I am now on constant alert for her presence, which I am now able to detect as well as she can me. I propose that if you wish to wait until Xander feels safe enough to let his guard down for you to strike, that we take the opportunity when it comes up to implant a bit of misinformation and seeds of doubt. If she does not know we are aware and waiting - which the illusion is very easy to achieve - she will take anything thought or said to be the truth. If we were to give her a reason not to trust Alexander, I could get her to leave him on her own - which even just a little suspicion right now could shatter her idolization of him. Then it's only a matter of snatching her up and using her as bait for him. That is, if you think he'll fall for it."

There. Both of these plans could be executed within the week - the first had a deadline today of course, but the other had at least until Gwen had gained complete control of her abilities, which Stephanie still estimated about 5-7 days before that would happen. She still didn't know how long Jason had before he became completely unable to work anymore, but it was all she could - and would - do to help him. She would not bring herself to care anymore than that and she would not disrupt the appearance that she only wanted to achieve her own goals, while simultaneously helping him with his. Glancing in his direction again, she gave him a cold, stony look that articulated pure, violent hate through her unshakable facade and turned away as if he had fallen off the edge of the world with the direction of her gaze.

****

Gwen didn't like being ignored. Especially not now when she was already feeling completely helpless. She wanted to smack his face when he called her crazy - She? She was the crazy one??? - and she wanted to hit him over the head with something and drag him off somewhere away from this accented freak. But she also wanted to trust him, no, she needed to. So, glaring at him, she physically jerked her arms in a small tantrum, just after he'd called her twitchy, and she stood off to the side to alternate between glaring uneasily at Xander and the stranger while they "chatted". And all the while, static continued to keep her from hearing anything except exactly what was said and that meant any input from Alex was missing. She was alone.

But in reality she wasn't and since they weren't leaving, she was drawn back into the conversation against her will as the not so young man started to answer her questions. As much as she narrowed her eyes at what he said, suspicious of every word because she could not detect if it was truth or not, she hung on his voice with interest, unable to stave off her own curiosity. Every time he said her name however, she felt a chill run through her and her defenses instantly lock up around her. Never before in her life had she been this jumpy and paranoid, but the one thing other than Xander that had kept her alive these past 15 hours had been her ability to see into other people's heads. And now she was completely blind without it. She was even having difficulty trusting Xander without being able to comfort herself with Alex's presence.

The story "David" told about the lab sounded familiar with what she'd caught a glimpse of from the kid's - or whoever's - mind when they'd tried interrogating him before, but Xander brought up the exact thing that made her suspicious about it. From the sound of it, he'd probably worked at the facility and was trying to play it off as this "pause-while-escaping" bull. As he went on however, she grew more and more uncertain about whether or not he was lying and for several minutes she struggled with the desire to believe him and the fear that she would be wrong if she did so. And Xander was no help at all, unreadable as always, seeming aloof and as if everything in the world were a funny game to be played. She couldn't tell if it was an act or not and instead of making her feel confident that he had everything in control, it made her feel even more alone and anxious, like she was the only one concerned about whether this guy was looking to kill them or not.

Gwen stood just a little apart from them both and was listening intently again as the guy started to go into his relationship with the other people all stuffed into this body together. Strawberries and syrup? Her body went cold when he described the situation they were now in with Xander and she looked at him with a bit of concern lighting her eyes. Was that what was happening to him? She glanced back at David when he asked which of them had another person in their head and she clamped her mouth shut tightly, the paranoia instantly putting her back on the defensive. Then she gave Xander a distraught look when he pointed at her, saying she was the one with someone in her head. Instantly she realized he had a reason for keeping it from the guy so adjusted her expression to a more neutral one so as not to break the ruse he was setting up. But David's warning still made her shiver a little bit, and from his questions, she knew Xander was concerned about it as well, despite his light tone.

When suddenly control was handed over to her, she struggled not to give Xander the same bug-eyed glare she'd given him before and kept her face placid as she looked at the tied young man. Okay, questions, questions. Even after everything he'd said, she both wanted to believe it was true and wanted to tell herself he was lying... but if it was true, then the information was more than useful, it was necessary. But with his attention on her again she felt the paranoia kick in at full drive and she glared at him as if she wanted to kill him. That's right. Xander couldn't switch out with Alex and his exhaustion spells would only be getting worse as time went on and he would die. Did that mean Alex would die with him or would he get his body back? And how long would coffee or whatever help?

She felt like she wanted to cry and like she was losing control. Not for herself of course, but for Xander and Alex and what had been done to them and was going to happen to them. Not only was she helpless right now because of this stupid static in her head, but now she couldn't even help the men who'd protected her. "If you don't even know of a cure," she said suddenly angry at the talky kid. "Then what fucking good are you?"

Needing to get away from him she stalked into the entry hall where his bag still sat. He probably thought she wouldn't look inside because of the mess that was filling it and leaking onto the floor. For that exact reason, she grabbed it up by the strap and dragged it back to her seat. Sitting on the edge of the couch, she merely glanced at David before pulling from the moistened bottom of the thing and upending it in the middle of the carpet.

Noodles of pasta, little chunks of seafood and meat and crumbly chunks of soggy dessert all slathered in an oily, thick saucy mixture spilled out in a small mountain on the floor. Without blinking or recoiling from it, she tucked her hair behind her ears and began to sift through it looking for the "pictures" he'd supposedly tossed in there while attempting to leave the lab he'd been stuck in. She could not go diving within his brain, but she could look through this other shit to find at least some smidgen of physical truth. Amidst the food there were several sheets of soaked paper in there and bringing them out from the pile with dirtied hands, she shook them free of sauce and started to look through them. Like he'd said, a lot of them appeared to be pictures, but a few were files, their pages stained by sauce and food squashed into the paper they were written on.

"So, we know you're not a complete liar," she said without looking at him, her voice dripping with vitriol, staring at a photograph of a man she didn't recognize. "But it all seems like such a likely story that you carry these with you. Wouldn't it make more sense if these were your cases and you were working with them all along?" She angrily smacked the files down upon the nearby coffee table with a wet slap and stood up, coming to stand over him with a penetrating gaze.

"And you seem awfully knowledgeable about all of this, knowing about stuff that suggests to me more than a cursory look over some files or a few eavesdropped conversations between doctors - REALLY? You were, what? Like a little kid pretending to sleep while mommy comes to check in on you and they just happen to discuss important information at your bedside? How fucking retarded do we look?"

Inside, Gwen was terrified while outwardly she was seething. She didn't understand what was coming over her and didn't even think to stop it as she grabbed up his shirt and pointed at him threateningly, her voice growing louder and out of control. "Why did they send you after us? Were you to wait until he dies and recover the body or was it something they couldn't wait for and sent you to FUCKING FINISH THE JOB!?"

The adrenaline was really pumping now and there was no going back, her restraint and any sense she had left gone out the window, replaced by anger and fear. The static burned behind her temple seemingly growing louder inside her head and only making her madder. Speaking in a lower voice she said, "I got news for you, stupid fucker. That trick ain't gonna work a second time!" It was like Peter and Stephanie - they all wanted to play pretend and get one over on them. They all wanted control.

Without thinking about it first, she bent her elbow and snapped it forward quickly, aiming for his face, not even with a clear goal in mind but just wanting to hurt him. Hurt him for all the lies she could not see and for the life that was no longer hers.

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Stephanie waited patiently for Benoit to go over the plans she'd proposed. His input was important to her, especially when it concerned Alexander. If he thought it was more important to wait and take their time then she would take it slow and wait for the right opportunities instead of forcing herself to plan for situations she could not foresee yet. If the chance came up however, and there was an opening, she'd take it whether Alexander was a present threat or not. She had to.

In the silence of the car her attention was drawn to Jason as he murmured his plans to skip another meal and in her deeper mental layers she felt a burst of concern. He hadn't eaten anything except the nutrition bar she'd given him yesterday either. This was not good. She could tell from the way he said it that he was probably having difficulty connecting with anything other than the desire to have his goggles returned, but the threat it posed if he continued to deny himself the basic necessities worried her. The other men on their team already thought it was useless to bring him along - and under normal circumstances, she'd agree - so if he continued to make himself a weakness, there was no doubt it would reflect badly on her to keep him around. Even though she liked him, she was not going to let Jason make her look like a weak link in the Agency.

Seated comfortably in the cozy restaurant the other two men had chosen, Stephanie began to look through the menu when Benoit finally spoke, drawing her attention instantly. Alright, so that was good news. She figured that her first plan was a long shot with how they described Alexander's current habitual use of his powers, but she'd had a slim hope that it would have worked - she so desperately wanted to try and get Gwen within her clutches again, even just to make the attempt - which was why she'd suggested the second idea she'd had.

The conversation was momentarily disrupted as a waiter approached the table to advise Benoit about the cigarette he still had between his lips. Stephanie blinked apathetically as Jean proceeded to punch and then threaten the man before being corrected by his lead. For once, she felt a boost of pride that even as conceited and arrogant as Jean played himself out to be, he was still just unsophisticated muscle and the opportunities where it showed were pleasing to watch. He didn't seem too unraveled by the situation and that was the only sobering thing about it - he did not realize how foolish he made himself seem to her and her 'lowly' companion.

Setting the menu aside as she listened to what else Benoit had to say, she was inwardly satisfied that he approved. Even the concerns he brought up about whether or not Alexander would even be drawn to Gwen as bait were reasonable and despite the urgency she felt - and the lack of need for her to risk her target for their case - she felt drawn to help them out. After all these years of constantly chasing after Alexander and failed attempts to recapture the man, Gwen presented a very real weakness that could end up being the success for both of them. Why not share the wealth and help them out? Afterall, they were all on a team right now, working together.

"I do not mind waiting," she said plainly, not even looking in Jason's direction as she spoke. "It's been about 24 hours and right now the connection is still fresh and new and pumped full of adrenaline. I'll give her a bit more time to solidify something on his end and then we'll move forward. It might take her a while to gather up enough courage and confidence to make a second attempt at spying, anyways."

Picking up her own menu, she began to look through it more thoroughly, picking out the things she wanted. When the newly appointed waiter came by, an uneasy, yet polite smile coming to his face, she instantly chimed in with her orders. "I will get the stuffed French toast with a few sausage links on the side. And he," she nodded lightly in Jason's direction. "Will have the breakfast sampler, please." Without another look at their server, she folded up her menu and pushed it to the edge of the table. While Benoit and Jean went over their orders, she leaned in close to Jason and spoke low in his ear. There was very little chance that the two men across from them wouldn't eavesdrop even if she left with him for a moment, so she kept her conversation brief and without too much prejudice against their team-mates.

"I am growing impatient with you. You may think that your presence is necessary, but let me assure you, at this moment in time, that couldn't be further from the truth," her voice was barely above a whisper but even so it held no inflection, her tone flat and dead. "Currently, you're being tolerated with the hope of eventually reconnecting you with what you have lost - if it is at all still useful to you - so that you may finish your job and do what you have been assigned to do. And make no mistake, Jason, right now your purpose is to serve me and aid ME in capturing the target. I don't pretend to know what you're going through right now but you have not stopped possessing the potential for what I need."

"You are the only one on my team left who knows almost as much about Gwen as I do - besides our current company - and I trust you, above all others. I need you by my side and I need you in the best shape you can be in to help me with this. In return, I will do my best to help you with whatever you're going through, but if all you're going to be is something for me to trip over while I pursue her, then I will end your misery right here and now, myself. So," she sat back just a little bit, still speaking in those low tones. "You will choke down the breakfast I have ordered for you the best that you can and keep your energy and strength up. Do you understand?"

She was and always had been a terrible babysitter.

----------------

The feeling of her elbow smashing into his face sent her heart racing even faster than before, a rush spilling over the static buzzing in her brain as anger flushed her cheeks and made her pull her arm back for a second go against his cheek. There wasn't enough time for her to stop the blow when she saw the kid's face transform into a bestial grimace, teeth bared and gnashing out towards the limb quickly approaching his jaw. Like magic, she felt Xander there, a calming presence as his arms slid into place around her, one hand on her waist and the other on the arm not raised and ready to strike, sweeping her smoothly and effortlessly to the side and out of harms way.

Blinking in surprise and still hyper-sensitive from the adrenaline pumping through her, Gwen tried to make sense of what Xander was now talking about - not to her, of course, he was still ignoring her because she was fucking useless, but to Alex whom was still lost in the fuzzy crinkling that would not fade from her internal ears. However from the tone he took with some of his responses, he was only half-listening to Alex either and she found herself frustrated with him, even as she was frustrated with herself. She couldn't take this anymore. Was he concerned about what was going on or not? Did he care that Agents were on their way? Did he care that this fool had so many holes in his story they could wear it to a polka dot ball and be the height of fashion?

But when he stepped forward and sent a frying pulse into the kid's brain again, Gwen didn't have a moment to continue feeling worried, a tiny gasp leaving her as she felt the mental poke searing through the teenager's skull filling her own along with it. Things didn't immediately rush back to her, slowly fading in like an old television set being turned on, the picture becoming more solid and clear after a few minutes of warming up. Occasionally she was aware of being addressed by David but she was barely acknowledging either of them anymore as visions of what he was thinking and remembering flashed before her eyes, growing more frequent as her powers gained back their lost strength.

Xander pressed the questions she'd asked in her fit of paranoia and a soft picture formed in her mind of the facility David had been in - sterile floors and white sheeted beds, with smooth, shining metallic surfaces and glass sealed walls. Most of the time the images were fuzzy, as if half-seen through closed eyelids, an occasional drowsy flutter of eyelashes that left everything blurry. But at one point, she did see the room he was in more clearly and she assumed that was when he was finally making his escape. Before that however, he was strapped to a bed, the body restrained - it didn't matter, he couldn't move his limbs anyways. He was stuck so deep inside, it was like he was a part of the body and not, sensations felt through a thick fog and control nonexistent.

The memory jumped over spans of moments and days and through the haze she heard voices echoing into his consciousness - doctors, she immediately thought, but something more, almost military. Their shiny black shoes clacked heavily over the tiled floors as they walked in a group towards the bedside, approving smiles and interrogative paranoia in their voices - depending on who was speaking. It was like they were talking about a top secret weapon being developed half the time and the other half it was like they were discussing an alien autopsy - their voices matter-of-fact and distant but with a measure of curiosity that hinted at fear and a desire to control.

Everything she saw up to this point confirmed the words that came out of his mouth and she almost jumped for joy in the middle of the room with the burst of excitement that coursed through her. He was telling the truth! And she knew it! God, it had been so scary to feel so alone and empty, Agents breathing down their necks, feeling like this was a repeat of the situations Alex and Xander had described to her before, everyone a possible enemy and everyone looking to victimize her. And now she knew - she KNEW what was real and what was not! That, more than the fact that he was telling the truth made her extremely happy.

With a sigh of relief escaping her lips, she listened alertly to the rest of their conversation, allowing more visions to fill her head as he spoke - Gwen's smile faltered as she got a look at the section of the facility where the bodies were kept, every bone inside her clattering with a sudden chill. Rows and rows of sleeping bodies in liquid filled tanks standing in the room in endless lines, like packed sardines, each one glowing with an unearthly yellow green and the room filled with a threaded hum like a giant beast's lungs filling and emptying all around her.

How many people was that? In the room she occupied in the memory, the containers nearby on the one end of the room she was standing said #H07-0585-LPK and #H07-0584-LIP etc. and the rows spread out before her by the thousands. Somehow, intuitively, she knew this wasn't the only room they had like this and it made her feel ill to think of how many were failures and how many were successes. How were they allowed to do this without anyone knowing or even suspecting? How could they even get away with it? Who were these people?

Gwen was shaken from the memory with Xander's new announcement that their companion was now joining their group and for once she was only slightly dismayed by his decision. She found herself more distracted by the direction he gave her about the goggles she still had on around her neck than she was concerned about the kid anymore. Find out where they were keeping the tanks of people - that she could most certainly do, and she was excited to try now that she was feeling useful again. But she stopped once more, distracted by the new points that Alex brought up. He was right. David's reaction to Xander's decision was not whole-heartedly with them - although there was a mixture of excitement that he'd be released, he was also trepidatious about accompanying them with what he thought Gwen could do. There was a threat there...as if he felt he needed to protect himself in some way and was planning to leave them when he got the chance, and she knew he'd fight them tooth and nail if they tried to stop him or posed any danger to him. He would not be caught like this again, not by them or anyone else.

Xander's response however sent a shiver up her spine with the deathly hollow tone he took while he said it, no remorse in his voice, just plain, terse, death-like promise. Life was merely an obstacle to him. Like a mirror, she could feel that same shiver run through both Alex and their new friend, although the teenager's thought processes jumped a lot more defensively than Alex's did. She knew what he was going to do before it happened and even though the trays and cart were a foot or two away, she stepped back reflexively as everything on it exploded with loud metal clangs and pops as tray covers and plates spontaneously combusted, food and heated strawberry sauce and syrup flying everywhere and splattering walls like carnage from a car bomb. She could feel the satisfaction coursing through David and she shrunk back a little bit at his threat, before another gasp left her when Xander sliced into the guy's head again with a quick, forceful jolt. Well, there was always that.

David slumped down in his chair instantly, no more thoughts or emotions coming from him or the other occupant of his mind, just dead emptiness emitting the slow hum of life. At Xander's direction, she stopped staring into space and instantly started to slip the goggles back onto her face.

"Let's hope that if anything does go wrong, you'll still have that option," she said in a sardonic tone, as her vision filled with orange light. It was right about then that she realized she was hearing Alex's internal voice speaking and in a burst of excitement she said,

Alex!

For a few moments, she just stood there, realizing she hadn't spoken aloud but felt like he'd still heard her. She didn't know how to recreate the effect, repeating in her mind a few times, Hello? Hello? Can you hear me now? before she realized it was not the same and gave up. Oh, well. Just another weird thing...

Looking around the room, the little blurbs of information popped up all over the place and with a quick mental swipe she stopped it from doing that while clearing them away. So, he wanted her to find the place David had been kept, the facility with the rows of bodies - no doubt to find his own and get back into it, like David had said - which was a plan she whole-heartedly agreed with. Enough of this double body and mind crap. People weren't meant to share forms like this, which was no doubt why Xander was spiraling out of control, and after everything he'd done for her, she wanted to help him out as well.

And also, she really wanted to help Alex. He was in her exact same place with people wanting to do things to him because of the powers he possessed, except he'd actually been taken already, always shoved aside and tossed around like a rag doll within his own body. He shouldn't have to share and what the Agency had done to him was unfair, especially when he was hanging onto the coattails of a dying man. She didn't understand why they were doing this - if they knew the risks and that people were dying because of the transfers, then why continue? She only saw it as the pursuit of knowledge and trying to kill off those they perceived as dangerous; Experimentation on people for the sake of it. Once they'd returned Alex and Xander to normal - if -, if there was an opportunity to stop them from continuing to do this, she wanted to take it.

Not really sure what she was looking for yet, Gwen opened up the main navigation screen in the goggles and started looking through the options for anything having to do with location or an incubation facility or even a lab. Every time she thought she'd found what she was looking for, a new screen popped up blocking her access by asking for a code of some kind. Something she did not have.

A groan of irritation left her lips as she made her way to the couch and sat down. "Just...hang on a minute... This is going to take a little while..." she bit her lips nervously as she thought over what she had to do - she needed the codes from somebody who knew them. Xander might know but he was currently busy and he was expecting her to come up with answers quickly. After her recent erratic behavior and his own trouble with connecting with the goggles - which still might have an averse affect on him and cause him to slow down even further - she couldn't ask him to put them on and try again. He was depending on her.

So, she worked with what she had. Only hesitating for a moment longer, she brought up the previous connection that had been made with the glasses Stephanie had been wearing. The breath she'd been holding came out in a rush as she realized the woman was no longer wearing them but although they were no longer on her face, they were in a semi-sleep mode and she could see through them still. Well, that plan was a bust, and she was just about to give up and ask Xander for help when it occurred to her, Stephanie hadn't been the only one wearing glasses in the car when Gwen had spied on her earlier. Both Benoit and the driver had been wearing them and also...the sickly man who'd been in the seat next to her. The previous owner of the goggles would have that information! What had been his name? It was a J something; John? James? Joseph? She couldn't remember.

Looking through Stephanie's glasses, there was a small option that led to another open connection with the name "Jean" above it. Yes! Jean! That had been it! Clicking on it, Gwen was taken away from the link with Stephanie's glasses and put in contact with someone else's. Looking through the guy's glasses, she instantly knew that it was the man who'd been looking ill in the backseat, as when he looked around the table he was sitting at, it visually accounted for the other people who'd been in the car with him. After being in this viewpoint with Stephanie, it was odd seeing the woman's face and body as she sat next to the hunched over young man. Biting her lips even harder, Gwen took in a deep breath and pressed forward into the guy's mind, making sure to keep silent and slithering through his consciousness like a wraith, a barely felt shadow.

The first thing that hit her was the realization that his name was not "Jean". It was "Jason". Of course! That was Stephanie's partner, the man who'd previously owned the goggles and whom the anonymous textspeaker "Gary" had mentioned as well. But why was he wearing Jean's glasses? From the man's thoughts and emotions, Gwen was able to identify the unnamed Frenchman, the companion to this Benoit character, as Jean and not just from deduction either. Amidst the illness and aching longing that filled Jason, she could feel a sense of contempt for both men on the other side of the table - something about a sort of rivalry and being treated as less than person. Apparently, the guy's on Alex and Xander's trail were jerks - according to Jason, anyways.

There were also thoughts of the goggles she was now wearing and once again, Gwen found herself taken aback by the feverish obsession that throbbed within him when he considered the missing part of his "suit". Just as there had been with Stephanie, there was an almost inhuman level to the grotesque need inside him, obliterating to a degree the parts of him that were even a man - he became this feeling of need and longing and yearning, every nerve in his body screaming to be reconnected with the technology they'd lost, making her rub her arms in reflex.

What was wrong with these people? Jesus... The emotions were brought somewhat back down to earth by the feelings of hate he had for whomever currently had the goggles and a lot of anxiety and worry about his fate if they were not returned to him. There was a sense of sympathy inside her towards his plight, but she did not let it go further than that. These were the people looking for her. They sought to turn her into whatever was currently happening to Xander. It was either her or them and anything she could do to cripple them and keep them a few more steps behind was worth not getting her brain smooshed with someone else's.

Back in the hotel room, she felt an electric tremor shoot up her spine and knew that the front desk had the taxi out front waiting for them. A second later, the phone in the room rang and looking in Xander's direction, she clicked her fingers and pointed at it, silently mouthing "Taxi", being sure not to say it aloud. She didn't know if Jason would be able to hear or not, but she didn't want him to know about her presence before she was ready for him to. It didn't matter because a moment later she came to the realization that without the goggles, there was very slim chance he was going to consciously think about the codes to open up the lab and facility files. That meant she'd have to go digging in memories he wasn't currently thinking about.

But of course, she didn't know she'd be detected by doing that before she actually made the attempt, leaving the sphere of his conscious focus and delving into the unoccupied parts of his mind. Following a trail of thought about the goggles, she came upon the section where his memory of using them was kept, her psychic presence shoving through the darkness and probing through the unimportant information. Some of it, she picked out and stowed away in her own mind, but she stopped doing that once she sensed he knew something was wrong. Then she was speeding through it all, going as fast as she could, not caring if he could feel her or knew what she was doing. Then...he began to do odd things...

It was nothing like it had been with Stephanie, although the guy did try to shut down a few layers of his mind, she did not feel them getting closer to her like she had in the female Agent's mind. It was more like he'd slam a few internal doors and then...slam them again, as if he were having trouble keeping them closed. The noise was unsettling but it did not bother her. What DID bother her was now his focus was situated right on top of her and the memories she was going through. Like a man trying to bury something or possibly shove her out, he sped ahead of her and began throwing memories out at her - some related to the goggles and some not - burrowing deeper in the pile she'd been digging in. Disoriented, she stayed where she was trying to hang on amidst all the cacophony going on in his mind and suddenly found one of the memories he'd tossed out at her was a bunch of his personal codes. And not just for operating the goggles either.

"Oh. Thank you," she said with a surprised smile and instantly cut off the connection. Lifting the goggles off of her face, she gave Xander a bright blue-eyed smile and said, "Okay. We can go now."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Tommy McConaugh Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Stephanie's slender glass of sweetened milk jostled on the table just as she put another forkful of fluffy egg-soaked toast into her mouth. Looking at Jason levelly she tried to assess what was wrong with him - just more tremors from his withdrawal she supposed - internally rolling her eyes as he choked down more of the required breakfast she'd gotten for him. He could be such a baby. But so long as he was still obeying orders and keeping himself in enough shape to remain conscious and alert, she was happy. Well, as happy as she'd allow herself to be.

The mixed berries and whip cream swirling in her current mouthful, being savored on her tongue, were smoothed down her throat in a quick swallow as her partner spoke up. She drank from her glass of milk in an aloof fashion even as she listened intently, setting it down quickly and looking at the man sitting next to her with a hollowed gaze. He knew what? How? Stephanie's eyes fell on Benoit as his face bloomed with sudden euphoric comprehension. Within her deeper layers, she followed suit, understanding filling her with an urgent excitement as he went over the new plan.

"Brilliant," she said in monotone, keeping a firm lid on the electric energy now pulsing through her body. They had a plan and Alexander was headed for a specific location - somewhere they could prepare and wait for them to arrive. "I will be ready."

She knew exactly what she was going to think as well. Alexander the 'guest' had been an Agent - something she wasn't entirely sure Gwen knew yet, but no doubt she had some inkling - and it was only a matter of exaggerating the possibility that once he was returned to his original body, he would turn around and capture both targets and hand them over to the Agency. She wasn't sure if that was something he would do and after all he'd put the Agency through, it would take a lot more than just a show of good teamwork to get him returned to his previous position. After stealing from the Agency and killing his own people it was unlikely he would just be accepted back into the fold with open arms. Then again, because of his continued resilience there was a chance they'd value him just as much as they did their precious cases.

Nevermind. It didn't matter what he would do, just that the doubt she instilled was plausible enough for Gwen to fear him. If he was no longer safe, if he was no longer protecting her and it became clear he was only looking out for his own interests, she would not stay. Not only that but she'd be incredibly hurt by such revelations and doubts and most likely clam up again like she had this past year. Leaving her vulnerable and weak. A smile touched Stephanie's internal layers as her heart thundered in joy. Gwendolyn, you will be mine.

As soon as Benoit made the connection with the labs and Alexander wanting to get his body back, Stephanie instantly knew what he was talking about. She'd seen those containment chambers and the transfer units and had worked closely with a few others who were being trained on different cases to eventually make the leap into a target's body. In her mind, the rooms full of storage tanks were beautiful and she envisioned her own form held in suspension within one of them, her body left an empty shell, sleeping peacefully in life that wasn't life. Leaving behind this old form to control the body and powers of another. She could not wait. There were of course cases where the targets did not mesh well with those who entered the body and both were lost, but she had every confidence in the program's validity. She wanted that body, no matter the sacrifices she might have to endure. She'd already given everything to this case and the Agency itself. There really was nothing left for her to lose.

Thinking of the labs made Stephanie glance at her partner, even as Benoit finished detailing to his right hand about what to tell the Agency and where to move the target's body. How did he come by this sudden knowledge about where the targets were heading? Surreptitiously, her eyes followed the movement as he removed his sunglasses and tucked them away and she narrowed her gaze a little. It was definitely his specialty to gather and analyze information but this new direction had a predictive element that they hadn't had before. Had she missed something in their conversation that would point to Alexander going to the labs? And why out of the blue would he try and return to his body now? What had changed?

As they all finished breakfast, Stephanie continued to turn it over in her mind, chewing on it even as she chewed the plump and meaty sausage links that she'd ordered. She tried to remain positive and to cultivate the official lies she would be mentally feeding Gwen, while also going over the process of body transfer as it had been taught to her - just in preparation; something she did when she was bored and not thinking fixedly about Gwendolyn - but the wondering thoughts about Jason would not leave her alone. It was only after they'd paid the check and settled back into the car that it finally clicked for her. Seated in the plush leather of the backseat she looked up front just as Benoit got into the car. The glasses he'd loaned her had fallen onto the floor where his feet were and as he got in he picked them up and looked them over to assess the damage. Since they were okay, he handed them back to her and she took them with a murmured "Thank you" looking them over herself before tucking them thoughtfully into an inner pocket of her red suit jacket.

Then of course she remembered the last time she'd put them on and why she felt a measure of dread to return them to her face. And then, she looked over at Jason, remembering how he'd taken his own off after that big reveal at breakfast. She'd contacted him, hadn't she? Of course! Alexander had most likely used his powers a few times by now and released Gwen from the block Stephanie had put on her. And for whatever reason, she must have tried to spy again. Finding Stephanie inaccessible at this distance without the glasses she'd been wearing, she'd jumped and made a connection with her partner instead. They still were not close enough for Gwen's maximum distance of 1 mile while using her powers - a gap which she could breech with help from a communication device linked directly to another human being - so it was very plausible that she'd invaded Jason's consciousness and gone digging for something. Depending on what she had been looking for and how well Jason was with hiding things mentally, he would be able to infer where they were headed.

The more Stephanie thought about it, the more sure of it she became. Satisfied with the conclusions she'd reached, she leaned in close to him to whisper conspiratorially in his ear. "When they first assigned you to this case, I originally scoffed that they would select someone without an ounce of mental training. You had no experience with the type of work the others on my team had done and you stood out because of it," her lips drew nearer to his ear and despite the emotionless tone she adopted as always, there was an underlying pleasantness, an almost musical quality to her whisper. "But your reputation preceded you, and I was told you were an expert in covert operations. And I'll admit, even having very little knowledge of what it was or what it did, I was impressed with your proficiency and record regarding use of the technology you wear. I thought, 'if anyone could get her without a hitch, including all possible scenarios that could go wrong, this guy is it.' She would have been plucked from her life in the cleanest most efficient way possible. So, I accepted the application with high hopes and absolute confidence that when I sent out the order for her collection, in a few hours I'd have completed my mission and gotten what I wanted."

She paused and licked her thin, darkly lipsticked lips to wet them, the slender, pink appendage moving awfully close to Jason's neck where her mouth currently hovered just below his ear. Her voice when it came, held a bit of smoky tone to it, tantalizingly lacking emotion but enough that there was something audibly there, flittering from between her lips. "And you have done nothing but disappoint me. Every chance you get, you shove in my face how foolish and utterly stupid my decision to accept you was. I will admit, there have been minor redemptions where I felt my faith in you bolstered by a display of knowledge and skill. But when it mattered, you failed, again and again." Her body was closer now, just barely touching his arm through his power suit, the warmth of her presence felt more than any real physical contact. If anyone looked into the backseat, she merely appeared to be sharing a private conversation with him and there was nothing untoward in the way she was currently positioned - from an outside party observing, that is.

"However, for once, Fate shines her grace upon you, as your most recent failure," yes, she was letting him know- She KNEW. "Has proven incredibly instrumental in what we are going to accomplish. For once, your ineptitude and lack of training has given us an advantage to plan ahead and catch her by surprise, and will be the deciding factor on whether we succeed." A minuscule twitch curled the edges of her lips upward in the hint of a smile and the energy she felt broke through for a moment as she shifted in her seat to draw closer to him, rubbing her bosom against him lightly before retreating just an inch. Her breath, sweet with the light tang of berries and powdered sugar could be felt upon his neck and her voice came out slower, pronouncing each word with delicate care so he understood. "For that, I am most grateful...to have made that final decision... Despite the fact that you have holes in your defenses and you are weaker than what I would have preferred you to be... I feel it was meant to be..."

And suddenly she was gone, having drawn back to her side of the car, smoothing down her jacket and her mask fitting firmly back into place, looking straight ahead without another glance at him. From the way she'd spoken to him and the overt hints in her posture and gestures, he would have to be a complete idiot to not know that she was at least very pleased with him - if he was even more observant, he would understand that she was not only fond of him but even attracted to him. The whole conversation and the way she'd spoken was incredibly inappropriate for a lead to speak to a subordinate in such a way, but she just couldn't help it. She was so very happy - ecstatic about the current plan of events - she didn't care what he thought of her anymore.

*******

The proud smile on her face was replaced by a more serious expression and she was up even as Xander turned and headed out the door, following quickly after him like a slender and petite shadow. He definitely was more on edge now, planning ahead and thinking aloud about the possible pitfalls that awaited to trip them up. Finally, it wasn't a completely cool veneer, but a detectable anxiety that she could sense from both his words and as an undercurrent of the emotions running through him right now. Instead of feeling satisfied that the "great Xander" actually worried about something, she felt even more apprehensive than she had when he was constantly cracking jokes and rolling the constant threat off of his back.

And of course, the way he described what they were going up against didn't boost her confidence either - blinking at him in dismay when he turned to her with that cryptic warning. What the hell? So, she didn't have the Agent 'skillz' that he had. As long as she kept a handle on her powers and didn't lose them again, she would provide enough of a compliment to his abilities to matter. She was sure of it. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mr. Perfect. Guess you'll be doing this dance alone then, right? And no doubt any help he DID get would not receive any gratitude because he was so awesome, he wouldn't need it.

Alex, as usual, was worried as well and he brought up a lot of the same concerns she had thought of but again, Xander brushed it off like he was barely listening - and he wasn't. There was a lot going on in his mind - all of it suggested at and hinted through a mental wall she still could not push through - and the current conversation, namely Alex's concerns, were not the first thing occupying the man's mind.

Her senses were open as they entered the ground floor and proceeded through the lobby, feeling the shock and nervous curiosity from not only other guests who occupied the main floor but also the staff as well. Nervously, she pushed the goggles down so they were resting on her neck again, offering uneasy smiles to anyone who met her gaze. It didn't help much and these people would remember them. So by the time they reached the taxi cab, she was more than relieved, an uneasy shiver running through her, about the same time as it did through Alex when Xander shoved the unconscious kid into the car first.

Again, she found herself standing beside a taxi, being handed money by Xander and given instructions about where to go. She knew even just from this that he was probably not going to be conscious in a few minutes and would need her to keep track of things and protect him. Although this was the part of their time together that she hated the most, being expected to know what to do in a situation where she pretty much knew only what was in front of her, she accepted it with a sigh and got into the car next to him. She could do this especially now since she in fact DID know where they were going and what they were doing. Sort of.

"Where to?" the cab driver asked in a heavy Brooklyn accent. The man had a thin, long face, short, salt and pepper hair, thick, dark eyebrows and small eyes and lips and from what she could tell by his mental landscape, this guy was a lot more different than Sal had been.

Drawn out of the current conversation between Xander and Alex, she leaned forward across the seat and asked him, "Have you heard of the city, Elmira?" It had been one of the nearest locations nestled deep in Jason's memories, and she wasn't entirely certain that Xander's body would be there, but it was worth a shot.

"Yeah, I her'd of it," Tommy McConaugh said with a shrug. In his mind a sketchy mental map appeared - even more rough and less detailed than the one for Vestal that Sal had thought of - and he estimated the distance between the two cities to be about 39 miles. If this broad thought they were going there, she could forget about it. Tommy wasn't going to go that out of the way unless there was promise of a job out there to take him back. It was just the way he was - although he liked money, he was extremely lazy and rarely if ever went for these long distance jobs.

"Well, I need you to take us near there. I will pay you double the owed amount when we get there," she said, knowing before she even offered that it would make up for the trip being so long.

But Tommy wasn't the sort to be easily placated and turned back around in his seat begrudgingly. "Yeah, a'right," he said with a sigh and pulled away from the curb in front of the hotel. The bitch better have the money, he thought to himself. At least she looked like she might be able to afford it, otherwise he woulda just said 'no' and kicked her out. And like most cabbies, he peered into his rearview mirror to look over the occupants of the back seat, finding both guys sitting with her to be asleep or something. Looked like, for a while at least, this would be a quiet drive.

With that dealt with, Gwen finally settled back in her seat, turning to Xander to find him leaning back with his eyes closed. For a moment, she felt that familiar fear from the last time she'd been in a taxi with him, but when she reached out, she realized it wasn't the same. He actually was sleeping this time. Looking over at the other body in the back seat, she wondered anxiously what she would do if David or the other one inside Nathan's body woke up. How would she convince him to not blow the car up?

Needing comfort, she reached out for Alex just as he turned to talk to her and she smiled a little that they'd thought of that at the same time. She didn't even glance at the taxi driver as she spoke in a low voice towards his ear. "The nearest facility is just outside of Elmira - and it will take us just under an hour to get there. I don't think we'll need to stop--"

"Excuse me?" Tommy's loud, accented voice interrupted, causing Gwen to look up at him. "Wazzat you say?" Looking at the guys in the backseat with her, neither had responded when either she or Tommy had spoken, so he naturally assumed she was saying something to him.

"I'm sorry," Gwen said with a nervous smile and tucking her hair behind her ear. "I guess...I was just sort of...talking to myself." An embarrassed laugh escaped her throat and she shrugged. "You know...how sometimes people do... Just to work through ideas or...comfort themselves when they're alone."

Tommy cocked a thick eyebrow at her in the rearview mirror and shook his head apathetically. "Actually, I don't know that. The only people I know about who talk to themselves are crazy folks. Are you a crazy person?" Even though his tone was light, there was something very antagonistic about what he was saying and the vibes she got from him were somewhat threatening and making her nervous.

"Um, well..." she stammered, but Tommy wasn't waiting for an answer and spoke over her.

"Because I don't rent my cab to no loonies. Ain't enough money in tha world to pay for that kinda pain in the ass." The way he was looking at her now through the rearview mirror made her swallow thickly. Even sensing that he was really just more scared of her and the possibility of insanity than any real threat to her, it was very uncomfortable to be within view of that penetrating gaze. All he wanted was for her to shut up and stop acting weird. He didn't like people who acted weird.

"I'm sorry," she finally said, nodding her head apologetically, hoping to placate him. "I just thought my friend was still awake, but he's not..." Immediately, his expression relaxed and he was no longer watching her as intensely as before, accepting that answer as an easy mistake to make. Turning to look at Xander, she was still lamenting over how she was going to communicate with Alex when Tommy invaded her thoughts again.

"Late night, huh?" he asked in a conversational tone. "Guys got tuckered out, yeah? What was ya doin'? Big party in the city? My girl and I like to party late too, so I know how these guys feel..."

Now that he was set at ease, Tommy was in a talkative mood and since it was going to be a long drive he was getting a head start on keeping himself occupied. "Yeah, listen, I've got a bit of a hangover from it - the party we were at - so if you don't mind..."

"Oh, yeah, sure! No problem. I know what that's like." Realizing his mistake, he waved at her nonchalantly with a small understanding laugh and turned back to the front seat to leave her alone. But she wasn't. Pressing her lips together, she started to lean towards Xander's body, thinking that if she could get close enough and whisper to him, that it would escape the cab driver's notice, but as soon as she started to lean, Tommy's eyes were up in the rearview, casting a smile in her direction. She gave him one back and sat back into her seat with a sigh.

Dammit! What was she going to do? With Tommy feeling uneasy about nutjobs as his fares, she wouldn't be able to get away with as much as she had with Sal, who'd been much more willing to accept that people were weird if it meant he got the money to make up for the trouble. But she needed to talk to him. It was then that she remembered the weird thing that had happened in the hotel - Alex hadn't reacted to it when it occurred, so maybe it had been nothing, but she'd felt like, for a split second at least, she'd made a connection with him mentally.

But she still didn't know how she did it. In the hotel, it had been a burst of excitement in realizing she could hear Alex again and the moment had been a slip where she'd spoken but hadn't spoken aloud. How was she suppose to recreate that here? Under Tommy's constant scrutiny and threat, she didn't really have a choice.

Watching Xander's form from the corner of her eyes she tried reaching out and thinking at the same time. Alex? Alex can you hear me? Nothing. That wasn't it. It sounded hollow like normal thoughts inside one's head normally were. Letting out a breath, and running a hand through her hair, she decided to try again, reaching out even deeper this time and practically clinging to Alex's consciousness. But apparently that wasn't it either. For 10-15 minutes, she sat there trying again and again, doing different things attempting to reconnect with him somehow, but every time she was left with her internal voice bouncing and echoing inside her own head.

Finally, at the 20 minute mark, with the car speeding out of the city and onto the highway, she focused on Alex but didn't put pressure between them, allowing his thoughts to flow into her and not fighting to pin them down. Since she'd just about given up, she wasn't really paying attention when her voice echoed inside his head,

Alex. Alex. Alex. Alex. Alex. Are you there? Can you hear me? I've been calling all day. Can you hear me?

She didn't even realize it but the next moment she was sighing and singing in both of their heads, the rest of the lyrics to the song she remembered. ♪ I'd wish they'd fix the wires cause my baby don't know, that I'm leaving in the morning and I'm ready to go. Can you hear me? Can you hear me at all? Gotta get the operator make a telephone call...♬

Setting

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Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Tommy McConaugh Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Sitting with her hand supporting her head with her elbow caught in the window, she was going through the rest of the synthesized beat and melody in her head when she heard Alex's echoey voice overlap it. Slowly turning to face him with a cocked eyebrow, she got a curious expression on her face as she wondered if that was what she thought it was. The audible air in the cab was silent, all except for the small noises - the hum of the engine, the hushed whisper of the tires over the miles of road, the little creaks of the metal bracers that held the seats together, etc. There wasn't anything to hear...except what was still going on in her head right now.

It was finally confirmed when she felt a blossom of toe-tapping recognition from Xander's consciousness and his lips opened to emit his murmured voice. Oh my God! They both heard me! I made contact! Even as a sense of triumph filled her at having achieved what she was trying to do, embarrassment followed quickly after as Alex addressed her about the cab driver playing the radio. She couldn't believe she'd been playing that song in his head and he'd heard it! But thankfully, he didn't realize it had come from her and thought it was the radio playing, so as he argued with a practically sleep-talking Xander she took the opportunity to let the song in her head dwindle down in volume until it disappeared completely. Enough of that. At least Xander shared her tastes. Born in 1985, Gwen grew up listening to the music her mother liked and in her moment of hopelessness, the song about a bad telephone connection from her youth had popped into her head to comfort her.

And of course, with his eyes fixated on the road, Tommy didn't even notice that Xander had been speaking, the car jerking slightly to smash David's face against the other window as the cabbie swerved through the traffic. The blare of the horn followed the quick change of lanes, along with Tommy's angered voice, "Eh! Come on! Outta the way, fruitcake! Yeah!? Your mothah!" And every new exemplary phrase was followed by a very visual gesture in response to whatever else the other motorists were doing. Gwen only probed deep enough to know that Tommy was feeling impatient driving behind soccer mom vans and geriatric Volkswagens, so she left him to continue being diplomatic with their fellow drivers to lean toward Xander's slumbering ear.

"Yes, Alex, I can hear you," she said in a hushed whisper, wincing as Tommy put a bit of pressure on the breaks and glared into the rearview mirror.

"Don't you ride my ass!" he said, his eyes not even focused on the people sharing the taxi with him, but looking beyond out the back window as the soccer mom van inched closer to his bumper, trying to pressure him to move faster. Tommy of course responded by slowing down. "See what happens when you ride my ass? Yeah!? Shake it, ya crazy broad!" And then he was driving normal, the tragedy having been averted and he glanced down at Gwen in the rearview. "Sorry, Miss. The nutjobs is tryin' ta take ovar tha road today. I gotta tell ya, these batshit crazy Vestal drivers--ya know?"

She cast him a chagrined smile but he missed it completely as his attention was diverted elsewhere. Even so, from his mental map, she could tell they would be at their destination in about 10 or 15 minutes. With him properly distracted she leaned towards Xander again and spoke in a low voice.

"We're almost there. I really hope he has a better plan than just storming the place, Alex. I mean, with him, it'll either miraculously work out for no sane or plausible reason or everything will expectantly fall apart with us running away by the skin of our teeth. Again. And I know he'd argue that last time that wasn't his idea, but he did it at Roasters too. They were following us before that, but still Mr. Big Shot decided he needed his coffee."

The engine roared loudly as Tommy sped up a bit, looking aggressively out his right side window at someone trying to pass him. "What!? What!? Huh? You want to be first? I say, you wanna be first!? Tough titty said the kitty when the milk went dry! You wanted to go slow when I was behind ya! Now ya gonna stay at tha back a' tha line toots!"

Gwen drowned him out with a sigh and turned to look the sleeping body next to her over. As relaxed as his facial features were right now, she could almost imagine that when his eyes would pop open, it would be Alex filling that space. It had been too long since she'd seen his anxious eyes and uneasy, lopsided grin. It was becoming too normal to expect to see that cool gaze regarding her with the ready and sarcastically charming grin instead. Ignoring the further drama that Tommy was having with the other drivers and forgetting her earlier embarrassment, she relaxed and pulsed at him,

I really hope this works. Getting his body back, I mean.

She looked down at his hand resting limply on his leg and she wanted to hold it and have Alex feel her comforting touch, but she knew he wouldn't.

I really miss you...

It was hard being a babysitter constantly, especially when Xander did all sorts of ruinous things to her emotions.

"Criminy!" Tommy exclaimed as he turned off the main highway and the blare of another horn zoomed past the taxi as the other driver flew by. "What I tell ya? It'll be about 5 minutes to drive through Elmira, lady. Jus' lemme know where ya wanna stop."

She nodded silently and made a mark on her own mental map where she'd seen the facility in Jason's memories. They were so close.

****


After her little heart-to-heart with Jason, Stephanie had gone back to obsessively cultivating the lies she was going to feed Gwen but it all came to a halt as Jean spoke. In favor of Jason's propensity for asking the right questions, she was silent as the conversation unfolded and Benoit explained the new situation to them. Even as the plan was redirected successfully, she found herself locked within an internal struggle deep beneath the flawless mask she constantly wore. The plan made perfect sense and would most certainly ensure a greater chance of success - rushing things now would not only fail but backfire horribly on them.

But the obsession raged deep within her and she felt herself struggling with the extra time weight it put on them. Even just the few added minutes drove her insane. She was so close! So close she could almost feel what it was like to be GWEN! She needed it more than anything right now. After all the years of preparation of molding herself to be the best tool to use against the psychic, of letting her own personal life and relationships dwindle to ash, she was hungry for the final result to come to fruition. She was hungry for a new life and new body. For deeper human connection again. It was too late for her now in her own form without jeopardizing everything she'd worked for. The only way she would ever get the love that Gwen wrote about, that Gwen was capable of feeling was if Stephanie became her.

With a heavy sigh, she shoved these tumultuous emotions deeper inside and looked around the car in a bored fashion, her eyes falling upon her partner. Well, since they had some more time on their hands... Leaning close but not as close as before she spoke in a level monotone, her hand coming to rest on the seat between them and supporting her weight. "So, the goggles," she started, keeping an eye out the windows and not even really looking at him. "Without them, what happens? How long do you have - do you know? I only ask because I think it would be important for me to know if there was a certain time-line when I can expect you to become completely useless - or insane, or whatever - just so that I can act appropriately and remove you from duty at a time when it does not hinder me to keep you around. Unless, I can expect you to do so for yourself..."

Alright, so she was being a little bitchy to him now because she was feeling grumpy about her own issues. Even so, leaning in close to him like this felt almost like a magnetic pull that she could not deny or fight against. "She contacted me using the goggles... Does that hinder things? Will it help you if we re-unite them with the suit?" As she uttered the last word, her hand on the seat beside him moved slightly to brush a slender fingertip against his leg. It was a flirtatious gesture while still indicating the suit he wore in a gentle way. See? She could be...friendly...or whatever.

"Or now that she's used them, would it just be better to put a bullet in your head?" Okay. So, maybe she just enjoyed threatening him as well. Even so, her finger, with a long, well groomed fingernail, did not stop it's gentle caress. "I need to know these things, Jason. For the benefit of the mission."

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Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Tommy McConaugh Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Stephanie might not have been psychic, but she could feel the emotions moving through her partner like an undecided storm just from the small bit of contact in her finger still lightly brushing against him. She would have liked to look directly at him and see them all playing out across his features, but she refused to face him right now. He had this way about his eyes that brought out a sense of empathy in her and right now she was enjoying unsettling him too much.

It was hard to say if the fear he displayed was a normal reaction to her being a lead Agent or if it had to do with her specifically - and not having the complete suit probably had an affect on his reactions as well, although she'd detected a measure of anxiety from him before he'd lost the goggles. Either way, the sense of power it gave her was exhilarating. Although on the outside nobody would be able to tell she was feeling anything other than bored, inside she was like a live-wire, pulsing with every pause in his voice to swallow thickly or nervous glance at her from the corner of his eye that she caught sight of peripherally. She'd found a new, interesting toy in Jason.

The most fascinating thing about it all was that she could tell he wanted nothing more right now than to move away from her, to break off contact of any kind. If he did such a thing, of course, she'd react with anger and punish him severely, but he wouldn't be wrong. Instead, rather than risk her more violent wrath, and despite it making him uncomfortable, he stayed put. More importantly, he said nothing. She had to admit that getting his heart rate up was very intriguing, but she also liked her ability to push him around. How far would he let her go before he decided to smack her hand away and demand some space?

Not that she let her new entertainment distract her, his reactions to every little gentle scrape of her nail and the pleasurable feeling she got as a result of it, occupying about 1/3 of her attention span. The rest she devoted to listening and planning with the information he provided. 6 days? She'd been right in her original estimates then - he and Gwen were operating on the same time-line. At least until he got back what was his. Her attention was diverted back to him right around the time Benoit was intruding upon the conversation as well. So, Jason had hidden talents that made him even more useful. Internally she grinned, pleased with the information and practically dreaming about what it would be like once they arrived to engage the targets again. It felt like this car ride had been going on forever.

Once again, they found the Frenchmen joining the conversation as Jean decided to input a possible solution to Jason's current problem. The soft scratching of her nail against the fabric of his suit slowed somewhat as she felt beneath her fingertip the muscles in his leg tense with a pulsating jolt as he responded to the other man's barbs. Yes, they had mentioned that there were drugs available for dealing with his condition and they'd said before that Jason's refusal to take them was the reason why he was experiencing such a severe withdrawal.

It was a very stupid thing for him to do - if there were safeguards in place to keep him from suffering the more detrimental effects, then not taking them, even with the supposed addictive qualities of the drugs, was not a smart move. But there was a part of Stephanie that admired him for standing strong against weakening himself in such a way. An addiction in and of itself was a weakness and although the suit acted that way in the first place, he still had enough mind not to get himself tied up in more knots than he could handle - if you could call his 6 day limit "handling" it. Anyways, it was still really foolish.

When Gwen came up in conversation, Stephanie's finger had returned to it's more repetitive stroking, almost in a comforting and calming gesture for him as she heard the dismay enter his voice and fill the silence that followed as he trailed off uselessly. Poor baby. Not only had they stolen his toy but Gwen was playing with it and making it hers - that brought up an interesting question, didn't it?

The fight at Elmira was going to be grand, she could tell. Not only would Stephanie be more prepared this time with all her walls in place, but Gwen would also be a little more used to her powers as well. Not enough to threaten Stephanie, but it might be hard to unsettle her with the consuming effects of her mental blocks. At least not at the level she'd previously employed them which Gwen had only gotten a taste of what Stephanie could do before. Trying to read Stephanie's mind would be like landing and skidding face first on asphalt at 90 mph. She couldn't wait.

Her attention was diverted back to Jason briefly as he finally grew silent and she could feel the placation coming off of him in waves. There was still a sense of anxiety about him, but she suspected it had nothing to do with her caressing finger. He'd grown at ease with her threatening/flirtatious touch. Time to step it up.

Scooting over so she sat right in the middle between the two front seats, she put her hand fully on his leg about mid-thigh to give her leverage and push herself forward so her head poked between Benoit and Jean. As she intruded upon their conversation, she kept her hand where it was, merely resting on his now tense leg.

"So, let me get this straight, just to make sure I understand the whole plan as it stands now - I do apologize if I've gotten anything mixed up, but your accent tends to make things difficult," she said in monotone. "His body is at Elmira but we're moving it to Charlton and clearing Elmira out of all security so they have access to the labs and computers and will probably figure out what we've done and where to go. But we're going to meet them at Elmira anyways and cause some moderate trouble - hopefully get them both if we can, but not force it if it's not in the cards - and try and get the goggles back from them," at this point, her hand curled around his thigh putting a bit of pressure and digging her nails into him, the muscles in his leg instantly jolting tensely in a very satisfying way. Her body obscured any view of her hand and the leg it was on from the sight of those in the front seat, so if he made any noise, no one but she would know why.

"But we're hoping for them to proceed to Charlton, where the body is going to be along with the equipment for a transfer, and we'll follow them there where there WILL be security and opposition for them to fight. And we're going to wait until Alexander is in the process of reversing the transfer before we make our final move. Is that right?"

Oh my God, he's trembling, she thought with a small inner squeal of delight, her fingernails digging into his suit so tightly there was no doubt he could feel it on some level and a slight tremor rippled beneath her fingers through his muscles. How much does it take, Jason? she thought airily as she scraped her nails like claws further up his thigh towards his groin, only stopping inches away when they made an offensive noise on his suit. Move. I dare you. Better yet, say something, you big pussy. Cry out for your French friends to save you.

"Like I've mentioned before, as soon as I'm within range, she will be able to detect me - if she's not overly preoccupied - and will no doubt attempt to read my thoughts if she thinks she can catch me unawares, in an attempt to get a head start on anything we might be planning."

No longer was this a quiet gesture with a way to explain it away as something innocent or misunderstood. He may not be able to feel the full pinch of her manicure - she knew the suit gave him some level of resistance - but he felt something and there was no ignoring it. It would be easy for her to silence him quickly if he said anything, but the question was, would he? Or would he keep quiet...like a good boy? Either way, this was the most entertaining car ride they'd all been in together and the lust for battle raged through her veins even as she awaited confirmation of the plan as she assumed it was going to play out.

To further exacerbate things, she turned back to Jason briefly and asked, "I do not know much about the suit, so I'm not really sure what resistance Gwendolyn has against them. Since she seems to have a natural skill for using them it appears they have not harmed her. But will it have any other affect on her?"

Her dull green eyes stared at him from over her shoulder full of emptiness and her face revealed nothing. She did release the pressure and stopped digging her nails into him so he could answer her however, she did not take her hand from his leg.
****


Xander was speaking long before his eyes were open again and she was relieved to have him here and not lost to the deeper sleep when the exhaustion took him over. His input thus far had been minimal as far as usefulness until he finally opened his eyes and Alex asked him more directly about what they were going to do. Through all of this thus far she wasn't distracted by his light banter and was fixated on getting an answer. When he admitted that there was no plan, she was not as disappointed as she thought she should be. Had she really expected anything less? At Xander's question, Gwen nodded her head lightly with a resigned quirk to her lips. Yes, she'd pretty much known he probably didn't have a plan.

Okay, so not storming the place, and he was still going to kill people. Got it. Wait...where did that leave her? At the mention of the building on the hill, she saw the place in Tommy's mind before she actually turned her own eyes to look at it. Jesus, where was Obvious Man when you needed him?

"Whoa, this is some freaky shit," Tommy uttered as he drove steadily towards the tall building. "Are you guys on the X-Files or sumethin'?"

Gwen gave the guy a look. What an idiot. Why did everyone who encountered Xander - including her - associate what he was involved in with movies or television? It really was too insane to be truly happening and it had only taken her a little over 24 hours of being immersed in his world for her to start taking it for granted.

Then Alex and Xander were busily talking about coffee - a sentimental moment of almost goodbye between them - as she started to reach out and mentally probe the place. The circumference for the entire building was about a mile wide, so when she reached into it, she could feel just about everyone inside and thus had a clear map and idea of every inch. Her attention was drawn back to Xander when he addressed her and she listened to what he had to say patiently. She...could stay here? What? That hadn't even occurred to her as a possible option and now that it was available, she wasn't sure whether she would take it or not.

With how heavily her heart was beating thinking about how vulnerable she'd be walking into this lion's den, her heart nearly exploded when she thought of Xander and Alex going in there alone and possibly not coming back. She sat in the car for a few minutes longer going over it in her head and idly playing with the goggles still strapped loosely around her neck, before she made her choice. No. There was no way she was going to let them go in there alone. Not that they really needed her help, but it wouldn't hurt to have an extra set of hands around.

Reaching into her pocket, she handed the credit card Xander had given her to Tommy and said, "Charge double, remember?" He nodded in a chagrined way, feeling uncharacteristically flattered by Xander's praise and wanting to stick around to find out what these strange folks were up to, but charged her double just like she'd originally promised him. As he handed the card back, he looked at her like he wanted to say something and she probed his head impatiently to find out what it was.

Tell the Smoking Man ole' Tommy said 'Hi'. He licked his lips as he reached with the card across the seat barrier to give it back to her and he was going to say it before Gwen shook her head.

"Oh, my God. For real. Just shut up." This wasn't the X-Files! He looked somewhat deflated by the tone she took with him, but he said nothing as she slipped out of the car and quickly caught up to Xander.

"Sorry, I couldn't do it," she said as she caught up with him, watching as Tommy drove off back down the hill. "Somebody would have died by the time you got back. This way, at least people you DON'T like can meet the end of my jujutsu wielding fist."

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Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Her eyes now latched onto his face looked him over with a piercing gaze watching every shifting facial muscle and interpreting it accordingly - and she was wallowing in the reactions she was producing in him. Would he be a big cry baby and try to tell on her? Maybe he thought if he made a big enough fuss he might slip it by her before her clawed hand attacked his balls and choked off anything that might come from his throat. Again, the suit would protect him from some of that but not all. She sat with just a bit of tension in the limb that occupied his lap, like a spider poised on his mid-thigh, her green eyes fixated on his lips waiting for him to try to rush a protest out.

But when his voice came, it carried an answer to her question and she sat for a moment or two blinking at him before she registered what he said. Oh my... He's not going to say anything, is he? It was hard to say exactly what she was feeling. After feeling all that buildup coursing through the muscles in his leg, his buttocks practically squirming in his seat in a futile attempt to ignore her offending hand, she had most definitely expected some sort of explosion. She'd not only expected it, but had been absolutely certain that the first thing he'd do when given the opportunity to speak was cry 'Rape!' But this...what was this exactly? Maybe he was still planning on doing so. Maybe he was still going to give in.

Turning back to the front she kept her attention on Benoit as he spoke and did not return her gaze to the backseat, her hand continuing to dominate his lap, waiting for the words of sweet protest, desiring on a deeper level to harm him further. How delicious would that be? When they left the car next it would not be the suit making him limp. And he would have learned a very valuable lesson, she was more than eager to teach. Stephanie no longer remembered how this game had started, but it no longer mattered; she was playing it and she would win. The stakes were set just so, he would lose either way.

There was another part in the conversation when she felt him breathing heavier and she was almost certain this was going to be it. Are you going to talk back to me, little man? And he did! Well, in the vaguest sense, anyway. The reaction to his use of the title to describe their occupational relationship was hidden within deeper layers inside her where she laughed uproariously at the little emphasis he put on the word. Ohhh, yes, sweety, I know you're upset, but you gotta give me more, she thought with an inner chuckle. When Benoit spoke, his voice held a bit of amusement as well and she didn't readily detect what it was about but was already ignoring him, waiting for Jason to just spit it out. Perched as she was between the seats, she could just spy his face in the rearview mirror. Annoyance danced across his features briefly but then his lips were set in a firm unmoving line and he turned away from the people in the front seat to look out the window. He... He really wasn't going to speak up, was he?

His refusing to say anything when it was clear his personal space was being violated so intrusively, meant that he recognized the consequences and potential for swift punishment. He was bending to her authority. But at the same time, on another level, there was a power struggle. He was ignoring her, not giving her behavior the attention it deserved. He should reprimand her! He should be outraged! He had allies in this car - sort of - who would not think twice about putting in a report if he issued such a scandalous complaint. The way she was touching him and especially where wasn't even the half of it - if he felt "assaulted" she could be torn apart in the Agency. He refused to be her victim...but by doing that, he was further prolonging his victimization. It was...both submissive and dominant. And she was enjoying it a lot more than she should.

When the realization finally hit her that she was going to get away with fondling, groping and pinching his leg as much as she pleased, she sat for several more moments silently turning it over. Her hand was no longer crouched and tense on his upper thigh, but had relaxed as she smoothed it forward towards his knee, feeling the tough fabric of his suit under the fullness of her palm and fingertips. Then it was traveling back again, inching slowly, her fingers splaying out to touch as much of him as possible without moving her hand too much. She let it move even further back until her wrist and forearm bumped into his stomach and stopped, her fingers relaxing and splaying even more in the area where his leg met the rest of his hips. Pinky and ring finger dangled near his groin, resting there lightly, no pressure, no stroking, just achingly close...

"Alright, I'm glad I've got all that cleared up," she said to Benoit with a nod, drawing circles in Jason's inner thigh with her fingers. "I have to admit it was a little less linear in my head as you were putting the pieces together over the past hour or so." Finally, she was moving to sit back in her seat, her hand patting Jason's leg in a neutral manner - except for everything she'd just done of course, but if Jean or Benoit happened to glance back, it would look like a mere attention getting gesture. Which it was.

Turning to look at him, her hands placed smoothly back in her own personal space, she said, "Writing up a report about this sounds like a good idea as something for you to take care of. It'll all be over soon, so it should have a neat and tidy beginning and end. That'll be all...for now." She waited for him to nod in assent before inwardly smiling. Good boy, she thought pleasantly, turning away from him more than satisfied with this new dynamic. Too bad they wouldn't have too much longer to play this fun little game. She would have enjoyed pushing him to his ultimate limits.

****

Even with the adrenaline pumping through her and worry creasing her brow, Gwen cracked a smile when she sensed that Xander was pleased to have her along. Through the murky cloud of his consciousness, it was like a sliver of sunshine making it through and it filled her with another burst of confidence. She would try not to disappoint him.

The building loomed large and foreboding, filling her vision of the horizon as they got closer and a shiver of fear coursed through her. Unlike Xander and even Alex who dealt with this kind of thing all the time, she was not the Secret Agent type. As a young girl she'd tried to sneak into a movie theater with some friends and had been the one to get them all caught. That was the extent of her "covert" experience. Hopefully her powers would give her a greater edge this time around - so far, they seemed to help her find pain and trouble - they would need to. She couldn't afford to get her friends caught.

Gwen's attention was drawn away from the building as she felt David stir and looked over at him just as he murmured sleepily, his eyes blinking groggily as Xander greeted him in a mockingly friendly manner. Great, him again. How exactly were they going to do this with Xander lugging him around as extra baggage? They couldn't exactly trust him. Especially since he was barely awake and already he was starting to bend the truth. Alright, so he didn't exactly recognize this exact building, but he had already put a few of the pieces together that this was an Agency building before he started to play stupid. Luckily, Xander did not need to be psychic to pick up on it and she smiled nervously when he reprimanded him and called the guy a pedophile. Only he had the ability to, amidst everything they were facing, make her smile like that.

As soon as he said what they were looking for, Gwen's eyes went back to the building and scoured it's flawless surface for anything that might give. And truly, it was flawless to her eyes - there was nothing to indicated a hidden door of any kind. She was distracted as she felt David start to rouse even more, eager to put his feet on the ground and high-tail it out of there, before finally asking to be given the ability to walk on his own two feet. An image of her and Xander's heads exploding in a juicy mess appeared in his mind before Xander turned to him to threaten him in a cold manner. She didn't need to take her eyes off of the building to feel the confusion rippling off of the teenager and a bit of fear as well.

He kind of knew they were at an Agency building but he didn't understand why they were here. Usually people like them made an effort to break out of these places rather than break back in. At first, he totally didn't make the connection to the information he'd given them earlier about the cure being to return the host back to it's original body - maybe it was more of a theory than an actual fact? He seemed so certain though... Searching his memories, there really was no proof of what he'd said being the solution- he hadn't overheard it from someone or read it in a file, it was pure conjecture - but it was okay because his reasoning was sound. This would work. And once he realized this as a possibility for being here, he placated himself with waiting to see if this would all work out. Afterall, he was running out of time as well. If they could find his body too...

A sigh of frustration left her throat as she looked over the building again and again finding nothing staring her back in the face. Whatever he said was here was not here, or at least not visually found. When he pointed, her eyes zoomed to look for it but on her own she could not see it. It wasn't until she probed Xander's mind - like reaching into the cloud cover and randomly pulling stuff out - did she see what he was talking about. Releasing the thought, she tried to see it with her own eyes and it took her a while before she could make it out. Slowly, she looked over at Xander, blinking her blue eyes in amazement just as Alex had a very similar thought; Again, she found herself wondering who the Agency even was. Maybe Tommy had been right. Maybe the Agency was a government...er....agency like the FBI.

She was on his heels as he walked over to the corner, her eyes adjusting to the ladder that hadn't been there a moment before as Xander reached out to grab it, making it seemingly appear spontaneously. Glancing around, they were alone on the hilltop and no one had been alerted to their presence on the inside yet. This felt wrong. She put a hand on his arm to stay him as her blue eyes made their way from the surrounding area back to his face.

Alex, she pulsed internally, finding that she preferred to confide her concerns to him rather than voice them aloud where David could hear. This doesn't seem right... I mean, isn't this place guarded? Don't they have alarms and...junk? We approached within full view of anybody inside in a frigging taxi for crying out loud and I can hear it inside - nobody has blinked an eye and there are no bells going off either. Can any-old-body just walk up here and poke the walls until they find an entrance? Or do they only worry about turning folks away once they're inside? It just feels...really easy, doesn't it?

She didn't mean to worry him, but if they brought her along to do her psychic thing, then she felt obligated to let them know about anything she sensed. After all the opposition we've faced elsewhere this seems sloppy...

She wasn't trying to cause any problems for them but she could smell a trap and she knew Xander had to have felt it too. With a shrug she turned away from the ladder and said, "I'm not climbing up the side of a building, Secret Agent Man. Not when there are easier entrances around. Everybody in this building got in here in one way or another and there has to be an easily accessible emergency exit that they all know about." Although with what the Agency had displayed so far in regards to human life, she would not be surprised if there was a fire or something and they left no way for their employees to escape burning death.

Stepping off to the side for a moment, she put the goggles onto her face and began to look over the building that had been impenetrable a moment before. Of course, not only did the ladder and the front doors appear as clear as day but information popped up on her screen to indicate another door along the other side of the building. Motioning with her hand, she didn't wait for him to follow her along the other side, keeping an ear out to make sure any alarms didn't go off. So far, so good.

Reaching the hidden doorway that she could see as if it were any other normal door, she eagerly stepped in front of the keypad beside it, pressing her lips together nervously. Probing the minds of a few people who'd used the back entrance, she realized they all had personal codes rather than a general one that worked for this entrance. But that also meant she couldn't steal one from anyone who was currently inside. Bringing up the list of codes she'd stolen from Jason, she worried her lip and cracked the fingers of her right hand in an agitated manner. A lot of these weren't even labeled...

Turning to Xander, looking him over in orange light she asked, "How many tries do I get before something bad happens?" At the look both Xander and David gave her, she broke an uneasy smile and waved her hand at him anxiously. "Nevermind!Nevermind! I know what I'm doing!"

Turning back to the keypad, she bored over the list of codes trying to figure out which one she could use for this door, if any. About half of them were labeled and only half of the labeled ones made identifiable sense, the titles next to them practically in code themselves. There was one titled "HQ" but she was neither certain that it was for a specific place, would work for a lab, etc. or if it was even a door pass at all. Not even wanting to try one of the untitled ones - she just KNEW she only got one try at this - she punched in the numeral and letter code, cringing as she waited to hear the sirens go off. Instead the keypad chirped and the lock clicked and she was bouncing excitedly next to Xander as it opened into a dark hallway with a sliding whoosh.

"Yes! Yes! Yes!" her arms flew around him as she pushed the goggles up on her face and she kissed his cheek happily, before letting him go and proceeding forth as if nothing had happened.

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She couldn't be more proud of herself as she turned back to look at the darkened hallway sitting open before them. These goggles were amazing and she definitely planned on hanging onto them for as long as possible - at least for as long as the Agency continued to be a threat. Not only did they connect her to the Agency computer systems - and although she needed codes to really unlock anything too important - they also connected her to the two most dangerous people in her life right now. Stephanie and her partner, Jason. And then there was, of course this Gary person who might be able to be tricked again into giving her links and access to so much more. And anything she didn't get from him, she'd just steal from Jason's knowledge of the goggles. Coupled with her natural powers of invading people's minds - including even Agents - she could be uncatchable!

Mentally reaching into the room ahead of them, Gwen proceeded forth without fear, albeit still cautious about setting off alarms, but she knew there was no one else in there. Even so, she jumped a little and clung to Alex's presence when the door shut quickly behind them, leaving them in darkness. She knew Xander was adjusting a light of some kind before the room actually became illuminated, feeling his hand manipulating the toggle to turn them on. Blinking with a slight squint at first, she turned in a circle and let her eyes wander over the large open space.

It was like...an illusion or something. There were most definitely people here - she knew there were - but they did not occupy the above ground floor. In fact it looked to be nothing more than a large warehouse of some kind. The colors of everything hurt her eyes a little, making her feel like it was both extremely bright and too dark at the same time, causing her to squint as she looked around. She couldn't tell if it was the color of the walls or the lights or what, but either way it held a note of menace that she could feel through her skin. The tower of crates surrounding them was a bit stifling, even though there was plenty of space for them to walk between them, but once they came to the open area in the middle of the building, it wasn't much better. The expansive emptiness combined with the shadows wrapped around them sent a shiver up her spine and made her cling to the corridor of crates for something to keep her rooted.

Gwen turned back to look at the two men with her as Xander started to address David with the expected questions. David might not have been here before, but the other in his head certainly had. She felt her shoulders tense as Xander began to call out for the other "insane" one - the one that had tried to bite her and freaked her out with all of that mental skipping - and she frowned at his back as he continued to insist on asking her for assistance.

No don't!-WHY!? she pulsed to Alex hoping that Xander might be able to hear her protest as well, like he had in the car.

God! Was he insane? This was not the place to unleash THAT thing, especially not when so much depended on them remaining undetected and getting out safely. Wasn't there enough unpredictability in this situation as it is? But of course, whether Xander or Alex heard her, it fell on deaf ears as the other rose to consciousness and she felt David slip down into a cloud of murky black. It was odd, she could still feel him there, but more like a faded pattern on the wall than an actual presence. She did not know if he could see or hear anything that was currently going on - he was untouchable in his current state.

And of course, the constantly shifting mental landscape of the "Banshee" set her on edge and turned her stomach, but she kept her protests to herself hoping to glean something useful from that warped and diseased mind. Immediately the banshee returned to her quick spurts of speech, both repetitive and overzealous at the same time. In Gwen's mind, she could see images of the building on the hill and feel a cosmic push and pull surrounding her body as she traveled further and further away from the facility. So when Xander answered her that they'd "brought her back" for only a minute, she knew right away that was not what the banshee meant.

She's been here before.

Finally the possessed teenager devolved into the rapid repetition of the phrase and Gwen tried to search her memories before being jolted around by her neck where ever the banshee's consciousness currently focused.

She's been in this room...I think...

It was hard to say exactly when the banshee had teleported out of here and what room she'd been in, her memories flying like a news reel over a familiar looking crate and blue-white lights that washed the color out of everything - but she wasn't completely certain if there weren't crates somewhere else and how much of the different rooms in this building were painted this way. And her memories were a bit harder to cling to, even diving past the circle of the banshee's mental focus - what she was currently consciously thinking about - everything seemed to alter around her like she was standing inside a kaleidoscope, things half-seen and hinted at before it all twisted and changed shape around her.

So, when Xander started talking about getting the banshee into her own body, Gwen immediately felt a bunch of red flags go up in her mind. Would that even be a good idea? Sure, her current situation was what had supposedly destroyed the "woman's" psyche in the first place - according to David - but at this point was it even salvageable? But who knew? Maybe being returned to her own body would help level her out and return some semblance of sanity.

As the new obsession took hold in the teenager's mind and he started to dig at the floor like a rodent in the bottom of a cage, Gwen got a flash in her mind of a door that opened into the floor. Other than that image repeated, the banshee had nothing to offer by way of a clue and Gwen perked up when Xander turned to her for the answers. Within the odd light, her bright blue eyes had turned a drab shade but still sparkled brightly as she gave him a small smile and nodded.

"Uh, sure. I can try," she didn't like sounding so uncertain, especially when he turned to her with such a confident expectancy, but it was truthfully how she felt. Finding the first door and even opening it had been mostly based on luck and the rest was being made up as she went along.

Slipping the goggles back over her eyes, she smiled slowly as the orange light illuminated the whole space, beyond the beam of light that they stood in, like night vision goggles almost, except the bright color made it seem like the room was filled with daylight. Still facing the doorway that they'd come from, she looked over the crates piled on top of each other, curiosity making her allow the little pop-ups of information cover her screen as she looked them over.

"What the--?" she lifted the goggles up just so they covered her eyebrows and gave Xander a level look. "How many frigging mouthwashes, toothbrushes, and little shampoo bottles do these guys frigging need? Honestly." She shook her head at him as if she were severely disappointed in him even though he kept saying he was just an ex-Agent - and she really was. She'd fully expected there to be high-tech weaponry or other gadgetry of some kind in those boxes. Not a supply of toiletries and things she'd expect to see in someone's luggage. Slipping the goggles back down she murmured, "The energy bars I can understand, though." What with all the running and chasing these people did.

Shaking off that distraction, she moved her eyesight further into the building, looking over the walls that stretched out a mile away from end to end and about half a mile wide in the middle. It's like an airplane hangar or something, she thought as she looked for and found the "front doors" that Xander had pointed out first when they'd been outside. Letting her eyes trail up, she singled out the doorway where they would have come in on the roof with an elevated walkway underneath it that just hovered over empty space. From the pop-up windows of information, she identified that the walkway moved on a track that could be operated both manually and mechanically and was mainly used for accessing the system of lights on the ceiling. With how tall the building was, it was expected that a step-ladder would not cut it when a lightbulb needed changing, she supposed.

Turning back to the front doors along the opposite wall from the back door, which were obscured by darkness, a few feet away from it a pop-up of information pointed to a spot on the ground. The information stated was a code that she suspected identified the base number of the building they were in. Stepping forward, she disappeared out of the circle of light, only stopping to motion to Xander before she was completely swallowed by the darkness.

As she neared the spot to stand over it, all she saw at first was a symbol about 15 feet wide on all sides. "There's something painted on the ground," she said absently, being careful not to stand on it as she tried to see what it was a picture of. "A big arrow or something, in a circle." In the light of the goggles, it wasn't actual colors but a hinted at design, the different shades just a few notches lighter and darker than the color of the actual floor. If the lights were on over here, it would probably fade right into the ground and barely be noticed at all.

Gwen moved quickly around it coming to stand with her back to the front doors before stepping forward onto it. "The Agency logo?" she asked Xander, not even really aware of his location at the moment. She was still looking over the circle itself, exploring every inch of it and curiously placed her feet on the two small triangles in the middle of the much larger one - they were the appropriate size and distance apart from each other for her to stand comfortable with a foot on each one.

A small exclamation left her throat as she felt energy surge beneath her in a loud hum and the floor seemed to jolt slightly before she was moving downward sinking below the floor. It moved so fast, she barely got to the edge of the thing before she was left looking up from the large hole that it made in the floor of the warehouse. Moving the goggles off of her face, her voice came echoing up the well with a slightly anxious note as she watched the light from the room above grow distant as the elevator descended.

"Alex-ex-ex-ex!"

****

After all that excitement, going back to her silent thoughts was both a curse and a relief. On the one hand, it was nice to slip right back into her obsessive planning and thoughts of Gwen, going over familiar territory and anticipating the coming fight and how it would play out. On the other, she found her body still heated and pumping with delight over what she'd just experienced while "playing" with Jason. Even as a teenage girl, Stephanie had possessed a sadistic nature. As a 17 year old young woman, she'd been recruited into the main facilities of the Agency after spending a few years making her way through several professional fighting classes and competitions.

As a preteen, she'd had a habit of antagonizing her fellow classmates and ruthlessly beating them in fights. Even as a girly cheerleader in highschool, she'd been known for getting physical to solve arguments and establish her dominance. Her mother and father had signed her up for kick-boxing and martial arts classes to help channel that violent energy into something useful. It didn't really help much, except that after years of gathering only the most submissive and loyal peers around her, she could manipulate them into doing her dirty work for her, often delegating aggressive tasks to the other girls and young men within her inner circle of friends. And she'd also learned how to pummel the shit out of someone without leaving a mark. Coupled with a fantastic grade point average, there was very little she couldn't get away with by her senior year.

After being contacted by the Agency for a possible job opportunity - something low management at first - she no longer sought to become "Queen" of her school and possibly the college she'd been planning to go to, but replaced it with the desire to become a part of something much bigger than herself. Short of joining the military or finding religion, the Agency offered not only fulfillment of that but a use for every gift she'd developed in her young life and the promise of unlocking the full extent of her potential. For the first few years, she'd trained to become an Agent, while keeping a job in the main computer facilities and helping manage the systems of files and reports from the Agents in the field. Not a lot of information was open to her at that time and it wasn't until she'd upgraded to Agent status that she got a hint of what the Agency was really about.

At that point, she'd found her true calling in life, whether it was helping keep an eye on different targets in the field, or working briefly in the labs as an assistant to lead Agents. The total disregard for free will and the human experimentation appealed greatly to her right away as well as the goal of controlling those with abnormal abilities. It was a cause she believed in whole-heartedly and had dedicated her entire adult life to helping them achieve it.

In the past several years since taking on Gwen's case, her idle interests and desire for violence had been stifled and set aside, hidden within her deeper layers as something unnecessary and inconsequential. For some peculiar reason, Jason reawakened these desires and made her remember what it was like to cause someone pain and discomfort and to manipulate them into doing exactly what she wanted them to do. And she felt a bit dismayed that she'd let herself get so out of practice with it. Where had the dreams and hobbies of her youth gone?

No. Nevermind. It was not important. This was not something she wanted to pursue. As much enjoyment as she'd gotten out of tormenting her partner and twisting him around her naughty, probing fingers, Gwen and her desire to possess the other woman's body had fled from her mind several times, completely replaced with the joy of making Jason squirm and fantasies of what else she could get away with right underneath the French Agents' noses. Short of failure, that was the worst thing that could happen.

She was losing sight of herself and her goals. Stupid Jason and his distracting...delicious vulnerabilities. How could she expect to achieve anything if she let herself get side-tracked so easily? She glanced at him from the corner of her eyes watching as his hand went to his leg and scratched it slightly, causing an imperceptible shiver to course through her. God, how she wanted to tease him and hurt him some more... So weak and so strong, how satisfying it would be to break him... No! God dammit!

Nothing showed through the flawless mask of her face even as she battled within, trying to lock away these old memories and troublesome emotions rearing their ugly heads. She needed to stay focused! It was almost over and he would be out of her hair for good! No more taunting her with his boyish good looks just begging to be forced to break down and cry like a baby in her wounding arms. Or better yet...the other way around...

Okay! Enough! Where had her self-control gone!? This couldn't get any worse. They were mere minutes away from the first part of the most crucial plan that would decide the rest of her life and here she was wrestling with old demons. The past has no power over me! Enough! The sight of the Elmira lab, a large grey slab of concrete and mortar, broad and menacing on the hilltop, helped ease her back into focus and quiet the hormones and wild imaginings in her heart. Gwen. It will almost be over. This torment will be ended finally.

After Benoit finished speaking, she nodded in assent, taking a deep and calming breath even as she turned back to Jason. It probably wasn't important right now, but it was also a test in reestablishing control of her inner layers, talking to him without allowing herself to get sucked back into fantasies of pain and torture involving him.

"For your report, I would like it to be concise and complete. Just the necessary details to establish a chronological order of events, but no need to write down where we ate lunch or the intricacies of our conversations," she probably didn't need to tell him that, but she felt like mentioning it. There would be no misunderstanding of what she expected from him - once she had Gwen in her grasp, the last thing she'd want to do was delay her transfer with sending paperwork back to be re-edited and needing to deal with him further. The whole point of him making a report was so that she wouldn't have to and could deal with other, more important things.

"That includes the first failure to capture the target, which I take full responsibility for - the necessary information should have come from me and not a third party where it got lost in translation - as well as the second when she escaped my grasp in the apartment building. In light of our inevitable success, our ability to adapt and learn from mistakes will be all the more meaningful rather than sweeping it under the rug as if it never happened."

She did not feel it was necessary to tell him NOT to mention her abuse, knowing that he was embarrassed enough by it and also that he wouldn't dare defy her like that. Especially not when she was going to be the first to approve the report before it would be sent in to the higher-ups.

As the car approached the facility standing upon the hill, she felt a sense of triumph that she'd kept such a handle on herself and her thoughts after her most recent loss of control. And then she felt slightly ill that she was even celebrating something that should have been second nature to her. It would be a miracle if she didn't end up killing her partner in the next 3 minutes they had left to wait, just to banish him and these abhorrent desires from her heart once and for all. Stupid...beautiful man...

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Gwen's blue eyes searched the hole above, her brow creased with worry even as she moved farther down and away from the floor of the warehouse. When she felt the body of the banshee fly through the air and land with a loud thump nearby on the platform, she blinked in the kid's direction with a renewed tension in her bones. In the half-light that grew as they descended, she could see the teenager roll over from his back onto his knees, even as she felt the aching pain in her side from where the banshee had landed. The disorientation of having been thrown and falling did not last long and the woman's mind was working back at regular flighty speed in a matter of seconds.

Her hair standing on end, Gwen stood still as a statue watching the other even as she scrabbled frightfully, reaching out for Alex's consciousness, a bit of relief easing in her shoulders when she realized the platform had respawned above and they were following after. Upon reaching the end of the line, she swayed slightly on her feet and the banshee flew past her into the wide open room and Gwen followed at a wary distance, keeping a mental eye on the teenager as she let her gaze wander over the new space. A few minutes later, she turned to regard Xander with a sheepish smile even as he tried to calm Alex down by looking in her direction, stifling a need to giggle as relief washed over Alex when he realized she was okay. She frowned however at Xander's comment, mentally reaching out to feel how sick he actually was - in light of what he normally tolerated as far as discomfort and pain she determined that he'd be alright before withdrawing her senses.

Almost immediately after, her attention was drawn to the banshee as she crouched upon the floor muttering over and over the words "Down there." In her mind, Gwen got a flash of the seemingly endless rows of bodies in green glowing water-filled tanks and she shivered even as she curiously felt the same reaction within the banshee. It was agonizing how much the woman inside the teenager's head did not want to be here and Gwen felt a wave of sympathy course through her. Along with it came the flash of the room she'd seen before where David woke up strapped to a bed and she knew immediately that it wasn't on this floor and that the banshee was indicating it was further down below them along with the tanks of bodies. Looking up she waited for the boys to stop arguing before Xander turned to her with the proposition that they split up.

All at once, she found herself torn. For one thing, she did not fully trust either the banshee or David and they both kind of freaked her out acting like wild-cards that could possibly threaten her. She did not want to leave Xander's side. But the way he presented the options to her, made her feel like he was expecting her to do so. Would he resent her if she said 'no' and insisted on going with him? Would he feel like she was useless for making him hold her hand through this? Finding herself faced with the realization that he wasn't always going to be there to save her just in the nick of time she figured there was no time like the present to start weening herself from her dependency on him. Besides, he seemed to have a habit of getting into trouble and a knack for getting out of it. He didn't need her to constantly be there to be another thing for him to worry about.

She felt warmed by Alex's continued protests and the fact that his general worry and anxiety was now including a concern for her safety, but she was also confident that she could handle this. After all she'd done for him so far, she was not going to let him down and force him to carry her weight and his own. Not when she had something to offer. And already Xander was backing away down the hallway, urging her to make the final decision.

"I'll be okay," she said a lot more tremulously than she wanted to, clearing her throat to make her voice come out more determined. Time to show some initiative and be strong. "I think I know what she wants - and it is a 'she'; it might be a boy's body, but the person inside is a woman right now - I mean, I think I know where she wants to go. This is where they were kept, so, with her knowledge of the terrain, I should be able to find my way." She didn't mention that she was going to try and find the room that David had told them about with her file and picture. Afterall, they were here for Xander, right?

She paused to give Alex a reassuring smile, pulsing at him a feeling of comfort. "Don't worry, I'll keep track of where you guys are. I'm like a walkie-talkie - if you find something just think it to me. Since I'm not going to jump every time you think of my name, the code word is "bravo". Try not to say or think of it unless you want to say something directly to me. And if I have any trouble, I'll just pulse back."

Turning to the teenager, she knelt in front of him and gingerly removed his hands from holding his head. “Down. There. Down. There. Down. There.”

"Stop, stop. Shhhh," she said softly, waiting for the banshee to jeer defensively in her direction knowing that she now at least had the woman's attention. "Listen, I'm going to find your body. You come with me and help, alright?"

The animal glare left the teenager's eyes and they cleared to an unsettling, ecstatic expression. "My body. My body. My body. My body." came the repetitious response. Gwen nodded in assent and stood, allowing the banshee to rise to her feet as well. The woman in the kid's body followed as Gwen walked down the hallway towards Xander, making it to the end where the two directions branched off. Then the kid started to move toward the left side, so Gwen moved to follow after her, turning back to smile and wink at Alex and Xander. "I'm not made of glass," she said, trying to appear confident, but her smile faded a bit early before she was turning down the left hallway.

Without looking back, and jogging lightly after the faster moving teenager, she pulsed to Alex,

I'll see you guys in ten.

before she fell silent and focused on the task at hand. There were doors lining either side of the hall, broken by large empty expanses of wall and she could feel people inside the rooms. But she did not stop to look at them, instead preferring to mostly follow the banshee who moved as if she knew where she was going. Reaching out, Gwen could sense that a lot of this was familiar to the woman, but as of yet, she could not determine an exact destination from her thoughts.

The moment came when they turned a corner further down and the banshee came to a skidded stop in front of a windowless door. It was positioned on the right side in the middle of the hall and the rest of the hallway continued on beyond it. The teenager leaned against the wall and looked at Gwen expectantly, tapping a finger in the direction of the keypad by the door. All of the doors thus far had been windowless with small, code-like signs on the wall beside them and keypads resting flush into the wall level with where a handle should be. But none of the doors had any handles and she suspected that they swung open automatically like the back door to the warehouse-thing upstairs.

"Find my body - codes - codes - codes - files - find my body - My body - My body - My body -" the banshee muttered in quick succession.

Reaching forward into the room mentally, Gwen sensed several men, mostly in early to late twenties, were working at a computer which covered one wall completely in a holographic screen and a few of them operated by typing in the air with special gloves. Looking at the banshee, the woman was muttering to herself about her body and Gwen bit her lip trying to think of a plan. She wanted to get into this room and onto that computer - it would be an easy way to access any files and information and since it was already in operation, she suspected she wouldn't need too many, if any, codes to get through Agency road blocks. But then there was the banshee. She could have let Xander know about it then and waited for him to arrive, but then she would be allowing him to do all of the work, and she still wanted to prove that she was at least somewhat capable of doing things on her own.

Turning fully to the teenager, Gwen said in a low voice, "Alright, listen, I need to get into this room and I need to find a way to get on the computer in there. But there's people in there and we gotta find a way to disable them without them setting off any alarms." She paused for a moment and then hesitantly asked, "Is David in there? Maybe he can help?"

The banshee glared harshly and her voice, which had been muttering the same phrase over and over again this whole time, grew in volume and almost angrily insistent. "My body! My body! My body--!"

Stifling the fear coursing through her, Gwen reached out and roughly grabbed the kid by the ear and jerked his head violently while pulsing inside his mind trying to mimic a tone of voice that Xander might use.

Annoying sound.

The banshee's eyes opened wide and blinked at the echoey voice inside her head and instantly shut up but she didn't fear Gwen, so she still threatened to make trouble. Well, it had been worth a try and when she'd left with the teenager she hadn't really planned how she was going to control the other person.

Look, I can't frigging find your body unless you be good and keep quiet, understand? So just shut the hell up or figure out a way to help me.

Roughly, Gwen released the kid's ear and shoved him away as she turned back to the door. Wiping sweat off her palm, she searched the codes from Jason's memories and zeroed in on one titled "DPASL" which she'd originally thought was code for something. Since the sign by the door identified this as the "Data Processing Archive System Lab", she was betting they were one and the same and stabbed the keys of the pad by the door.

Like the one for the back door, the keypad chirped in mechanical approval and the door swung open. Nobody immediately turned towards her - apparently somebody had just left a few minutes ago and they were expecting them to return; she'd have to keep that in mind - and quickly, she slipped the goggles off her head and shoved them into her back pocket, pushing her full, brunette locks onto her shoulders. As she stepped into the room lit up by a bright bluish light from the computer screen, the guy in front of the computer working on it the most saw her red shirt out of the corner of his eye and looked at her.

Melvin Willett quickly looked her up and down in her civilian clothes - as opposed to the drab lab coat and black and gray uniforms of the others in the room and the rest of the facility - and stepped forward with a scowl. "Who are you? How did you get in here?" Immediately, the other men in the room, who'd been going through information on the screen a mile a minute, stopped what they were doing and turned to the door as well. At first Gwen froze and frantically tried to come up with something that wouldn't immediately get her kicked out.

Remembering what Xander had said and already realizing that 4 of the 7 "men" were virgins still, she went with the first thing that popped in her head. "Whoooooaaaaa..." she said in a parody of amazement, her bright blue eyes blinking slow as she looked around the room. "Are you guys for real? Do you... work for the FBI? Are you looking for terrorists?" While she spoke, she made sure to smile prettily like she'd just stumbled onto the coolest thing in the world and couldn't be more impressed, her eyes sparkling with awe as she looked over each of the men. A few of them glanced at each other like they didn't know what to make of her - had they been caught? This had never happened before. Usually security stopped anybody from making it this far.

Melvin was a tight-ass though. "Listen, lady. You can't be in here. Trey, take her out of here. Everybody else, get back to work."

"Trey" was a 23 year old rookie with glasses and he hesitated, looking from Gwen to Melvin and back before finally stepping forward. Gwen brushed the hand that tried to grasp her elbow away with ease and walked past him to point at the gloves on Melvin's hands with a squeal of joy. "Those are some crazy gadgets! How do they work? Oh. My. Gosh! ... Are you guys secret agents?" She was holding Melvin's hand now and stopped her inspection of the gloves he was wearing to look at him knowingly, giggling in a flirty way. He wasn't buying it and jerked his hand from her grasp with an embarrassed glare.

"You have to leave now--!"

"So, tough, aren't you?" she asked, hooking a finger into the belt loop on her jeans, the weight of her hand hanging from them opening the gap between the hem of her already too short shirt and her waistband to show more flesh than was peeking through before. She cocked her head to the side a little and batted her eyes, her hair falling in wavy curls over her shoulders. "Issuing orders and all that - I bet you're somebody important aren't you?"

Probing his mind, she could feel him start to loosen even before his expression relaxed, knowing that a woman had never looked at him like this before. He'd taken this job at the Agency hoping to use his computer skills to do something important and cool - with an organization like the Agency, he'd imagined he would no longer be just a tech geek. He'd be a freaking AGENT. Girls were always falling all over the covert guys in the movies, even the tech-savvy guys got a girl interested in them sometimes. But since joining 4 years ago, he'd been greatly disappointed to realize that not only were there no hot women who would even look at him, but the hierarchy from the outside world was pretty much the same in here. He was as valuable as the information he had access to and was nothing more than a tool for filing and accessing data.

But here was this woman. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere, wandering off the city street no doubt, who just happened to arrive on a day when they didn't have security to bar the way. And not only that, but she was available and interested in him. It was like a gift from heaven.
Straightening up and squaring his shoulders, he adopted a smug look on his face. "Actually, I'm head of this department. The Lead Computer Filing Systems Operator." He smiled as her eyes twinkled in amazement, and he lifted up the gloves that covered the first two fingers of each of his hands and thumbs in black nylon, with glowing holographic squares on all six of the fingertips. "As for these babies, how about you come over here and I'll show you what they can do."

"Mel..." one of the other guys spoke up warily, but instantly shut his mouth from the look that was cast his way. What was he worried about? She was just an innocent bimbo. She probably wouldn't understand half of what he said anyways. What harm could she do?

Walking over to the console that some of the guys had been sitting behind, the top of it was flat but reached just above her waist. She moved towards it like she wanted to sit down and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder for support, looking at him expectantly. He waited a moment, watching curiously, then blushed a little bit when he realized what she wanted him to do, reaching forward to lift her by the waist with both hands and setting her upon the top of the console. Her body felt so warm and light beneath his fingertips, even through the gloves, and he felt his whole body grow hot and cold as he released her and turned back to the large holographic screen, encouraged by her lovely smile.

Thinking that it was finally time to include Xander and Alex in some of this, she pulsed to him,

I found a big computer and someone to show me how to use it.

Although truthfully, she already knew how from probing the guy's memories. Now she was just looking for an opportunity to disable them all...which didn't seem to be presenting itself. She'd gotten in here, but if she made any move towards any of them it would alert the others. And they all had access to something that would set off alarms. Oh. Wait a second... Didn't they all say/think something about security not being anywhere in the building? Well, that made things considerably easier didn't it?

Also, P.S. I found a new boyfriend. Sorry. These techies are hawwwwwt.

She pulsed that to him just as Mel turned away from her and she waited for the two guys sitting at the console behind her to stare at her ass before jerking her hand out to karate chop Melvin on the back of the neck. He fell with only the slightest noise and she swung around on the top of the console, her legs flying out to catch the two behind her across the temples, letting them slump to the ground soundlessly. Her heart was thundering in her chest by the time she turned on the next two guys, surprise and inexperience rooting them in place helplessly as she punched the first one in the face, elbowed the second in the gut and swung her foot out to sweep the other off his feet. They weren't hurt too terribly bad but none of them wanted to get up, preferring to either play dead or just bleed helplessly until help arrived.

The other guys in the room however were a bit older than the rest and had a bit more training than the others, and it staved off a 'these guys like it rough' joke that she would have pulsed to Xander. She was on her guard as the one approached her with a determined look on his face, slender, wiry muscles rippling beneath his uniform and his glasses catching the blue light of the screen as he circled her. The other guy took the moment however to press a button and as a result, red lights began to flash somewhere in the ceiling and a bell-like alarm started to ring throughout the building. Well, shit. Hopefully Xander wasn't in the middle of something important and she'd just screwed it up or something.

As her new opponent charged towards her fluidly, Gwen blocked his attacks and stayed ahead of him effortlessly, moving across what empty space there was in the room to practically dance with him. Then she went instantly rigid as a familiar pulse began to grow overhead and she almost fell as he tried to trip her. She'd been so distracted and it had been so long since she'd felt it, she hadn't recognized it at first. That signature... The black hole was here. She could feel it, like a hungry emptiness somewhere above her head like it was just on the other side of the wall of metal and rock, burrowing and trying to break through. The guy was still trying to hit her in the face as she pulsed to Alex,

We've got company. Crazy woman and entourage have entered the building.

Annoyed with the man currently engaging her, she stopped defending and found an opening through which to smash her fist into his jaw, knocking him off his feet with an explosion of air.

I repeat. Stephanie and friends have arrived--

Her voice cut off as she was knocked off her feet by a swift kick from the fallen man to her shins. It was when the man rolled over on top of her, pinning her wrists to the ground and twisting her legs with his own that she knew she was in trouble.

****


She was busily awaiting the moment when they would strike when she found herself paying attention to her partner out of the corner of her eyes again. Every little gesture and facial expression was made note of and she felt a burst of concern over his condition. That was quickly followed by a rush of boiling hot anger - she was not going to care about him! He's a grown man and she'd already explained and threatened him with what would happen if he screwed this up or got in her way. They were seconds breath away from the time when they would strike and here he was, falling asleep!

Imperceptibly, she ground her teeth at the sound of his voice, feeling herself relax just a few notches when she realized he was just as eager to get this over with as she was. She tried not to think about how much alike they were and when he fell silent finally, she adjusted the breast of her suit before speaking in that intense monotone. "I agree. Everything hinges on things coming together at the right time and working seamlessly to better control the outcome. A little patience and waiting for the moments to appear is crucial for making it all work," she watched the building on the hill, even as she spoke to Jason, preferring not to look at him right now lest she have a break down of control like before. That was the last thing she needed right now.

"When we get in there, I want you to engage her first. She should be set off guard and disoriented by my presence, so it should level the playing field as far as her abilities go," she glanced at him then, letting her eyes wander over him as if sizing him up before coming to rest apathetically on his face again. "But I'm sure it's not an advantage you'll need." Even as emotionless as her tone was there was the hint of a sardonic jab in her voice. There was very little she expected him to be able to do on his own right now.

"You can wear her down for me and possibly even get your goggles back if you manage to incapacitate her," unlikely was the thing left unsaid but still plainly heard after her statements. "Either way, it'll give you the opportunity to be somewhat useful, rather than sending you off to a corner where you won't get hurt and you can just look pretty." She jerked her head back to the building then as a very low hum filled the air and she identified it as an alarm.

"It's time," she announced with just the slightest robotic fervor and quickly opened the car door and proceeded ahead of the others to the cloaked front doors, not bothering to wait for them. Putting her own entry code into the keypad, she breathed deeply as the double doors swung open, all of her internal blocks and walls going up rigidly, branching outward and forming a thick cloud of empty whitenoise around herself. She was here Gwen. And she was ready for a rematch.

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Looking up into the man's angered face, she sensed that he was the most experienced as far as training went than any of the others in the room. But that still wasn't saying a lot. Still just a temp in this department, he was training to become a field Agent and going through the classes that would turn his body into a killing machine and his mind into the apathetic hole that would allow him to do the work that the Agency would order him to do. With a history of pinching babies and playing cruel tricks on senile old ladies in a nursing home he worked at for several summers, he was a 1/4 of the way there.

Struggling with him, she made it impossible for him to divide his strength to hold her still and choke her or disable her in some way. Even as divided as her attention was between Stephanie's looming consciousness, the alarms, her opponent's wrestling with his training and her, and keeping an ear out for Xander, she was somewhat distantly aware of the banshee's thoughts. As scattered as they were, she got the feeling something was going on - something she was not aware of and was beyond her senses - but the woman was terrified and desperately desiring to be out of this room and this place, so much so she would literally jump out of the skin she was occupying just to get away...from something...

Gwen was still in the midst of trying to buck the tech-Agent-in-training loose when the alarms and red lights stopped. She blinked up at eyes that were just as surprised as her own, all at once knowing that the banshee had done something to help, and trying to take the moment of vulnerability in her opponent to knock the freak off - unsuccessfully. She didn't have to fight with him much longer however as the man was lifted from her and pummeled into submission by the teenager previously known as Nathan. Breathing heavily while lying on the floor, Gwen offered up a silent prayer of thanks to whoever, promising that when they got out of this and if they did not get the banshee's body back, she would give the teenager frigging diabetes with how much syrup she'd shove down the woman's throat. In gratitude, of course.

But as she was lifted to her feet, the smile on her face froze when she realized a few minutes late that it was not the banshee who'd saved her. After dealing with the woman on her own and feeling the fear coursing through her body - a lot like the same fear that plagued Gwen in situations like these - she felt like she'd reached a certain kinship, or at the very least a sympathetic understanding of the woman's plight. David on the other hand was still an unknown variable and thus a threat, so Gwen found herself once again wary as she stood and he released her hand.

"If we stayed at the hotel, it would have ended up the same," she said in response to his comment, trying not to look as cautious as she felt. "Except we wouldn't be here because we wanted to be."

Again, Gwen found herself pulled in several different directions. So far, the emptiness above was staying stationary so she didn't worry about that too much, and while fighting the computer tech guys she'd heard Alex call out her codeword. But reaching out to him now, she realized they were preoccupied and had probably just wanted to make sure she was alright. She didn't have time to get the warm fuzzies over that as she was drawn within the internal drama that was the banshee's mind and what she could sense from David.

Despite the almost cheerful tone David adopted when responding to the woman in his head, Gwen knew that when she said "Get out" she wasn't talking about leaving this place. She wanted to switch places with him and take control of the body - he wasn't letting her do something that she wanted. "He can take care of himself," she said in response to his suggestion about Xander, while still probing through the scatter of the banshee's thoughts - the way David ignored her was a lot like Xander treated Alex half the time.

So, the banshee wanted to find her body but that plan didn't jibe well with David's own concern for survival. Gwen found herself once again feeling sorry for the woman who shared a head with this creep and also a little guilty as she remembered that had been what she'd said to get the banshee to go along with her. But he was right - they didn't have time and they didn't have a plan. It was unreasonable to take the time right now to try and search for something she didn't even know what she was looking for - she wasn't going to exactly look through the computer for "the banshee's" file, was she? And all she had to go on at the moment were the names David and Nathan and she wasn't sure how far that would get her. There were too many unknowns and now the woman was panicking at the thought of leaving here without making the attempt.

Before Gwen had the chance to try and come up with a reason why she wasn't going to "zap" him, the banshee fell silent at his threat and Gwen felt another pang of sorrow from the woman. Maybe...maybe they could just at least find out where the body was? Just for now even though they might not be able to do anything about it yet, just so they would know and could come back for it later. Did they have time for that though? He was looking at her expectantly now and she hadn't said anything for a while, so with a small smile, she held up a finger to him and murmured, "Just...give me a minute... Need to, um, consult with...my other half."

Turning slightly away from him, she cleared her mind and held a few fingers delicately to her temple before reaching out to Stephanie. It was the only thing she could think of to do right now to find out how much time they had to waste on what would probably turn out to be a wild goose chase. Who better to find that out from than the person waiting and breathing down their necks? Through the layers of stone and metal in the ceiling, Gwen let herself float up, enveloped by the cloud of static that she'd come to recognize as Stephanie's fragmented psyche. Unlike the time Gwen had faced off against her however, the cloud gave way around her letting her through to the woman's consciousness.

Remembering the pain and consequences of the last time she'd connected with the Agent, she was wary and touched her mind lightly, just peeking inside for a few moments to find out the plan. What she did not realize was that the Agent was waiting and prepared for her, the enclosed layers of her mind shut off from each other, focusing on only the things she wanted Gwen to see. As soon as Stephanie felt the tentative mental pull that she identified as a foreign consciousness, she continued to feed ignorance into the upper layer of her mind and like a tape player began to repeat in her mind the practiced thoughts she'd planned ahead of time.

Perfect. Everything was going perfectly. They'd followed them here and were barring off their exit. Despite the confidence she felt in the current plan, she was more invested in what she termed as "Plan C" if it turned out that Gwen and Alexander escaped from them this time. It didn't take any probing from Gwen to find out what the plan was, as Stephanie was so excited about it she began thinking it over once again in a way someone might replay a well-liked song in their head when they were in a good mood. No doubt Alexander has gotten our message by now and will be heading to Charlton where his body is being kept.

Charlton! Yes! That's where they needed to go! Wait...what did she mean by "our message"? Listening further, Stephanie continued. As soon as his reward is secured and the transfer is finished, he will hand her over to me and I will finally have what I want. The surge of grotesque delight inside the woman made Gwen feel ill, almost as much as the plan she was currently describing - lightly probing further to find out what exactly his "reward" would be, Gwen almost lost her footing as her knees grew weak - Alexander the guest will be pardoned for his escape with Agency property and Alexander the host will be given immunity from further Agency influence. was the response.

Oh God... Alexander the host... She was talking about Alex! The whole plotting with the Agency thing was something she might have expected from Xander since he used to work with them...but Alex too? And there was no doubt in Gwen's mind that what was being thought was the truth because a few moments later, Stephanie registered angered shock when she became aware of Gwen's presence, immediately lashing out at her like she had before. It hit nothing but empty air however, because Gwen was already drawing away from her as soon as she knew she'd been discovered. It had to be true then - they were Stephanie's own private thoughts while she hadn't known anyone had been listening, and Gwen knew that was when most people were particularly honest.

Back down within her own mind again, Gwen swayed uneasily on her feet, turning to look back at David as if she didn't recognize him. What was she going to do now? The men she'd trusted - no, the men she'd loved were planning on betraying her to the Agency. After all she'd sensed from Alex and how open he'd been up to this point, she couldn't believe that he would do that to her. Maybe Xander knew that and was intentionally keeping him in the dark about it until he got into his old body? If that was true then Alex hadn't really turned on her...yet. But given the chance to live a normal life and to stop running...would he give that up for her? A nobody? Up to this point he hadn't really responded to her except out of concern for her well-being and safety, but it was platonic at best.

Well, now she knew where they needed to go and also knew that they were being expected there. And now she knew for certain that Xander couldn't be trusted - so the question became 'when' was she going to leave them? The thought of it almost made her want to break down and crumple to the floor amongst the techies and just let the Agency have what they wanted that way. Wasn't anyone safe? Wasn't there anybody that she could trust? If they weren't working for the Agency then they were terrible people - it was just one thing after another in her life and she felt a weary weight dragging at her shoulders.

No. She couldn't give up. So she'd been wrong and had made a bad decision trusting them - it could be corrected. But for now, she needed them to help her get out of here. She'd just play along until she had a moment - Xander would probably pass out again at some point before they were able to reach Charlton, unless he got his hands on some coffee. She would wait until then.

Shaken from her thoughts, she gasped as she heard her name said aloud and reached out to catch the angry tone in Xander's voice. Now knowing what she knew about him, she ground her teeth and glared into space, berating herself for the fact that she'd been so foolish to even fall for him - he probably promised them he could manipulate her into going with him, didn't he?

Yes, sir! she pulsed back to him with a jeering version of a mental salute.

Roughly, she grabbed ahold of David's shirt and began to pull him with her as she headed back towards the door. "Alright, enough playing! It's time to go, cheeky!" her voice took on a coarse volume and after making it to the doorway, she let him go and stalked ahead at a fast pace, not even caring what he did or didn't do anymore.

By the way, it's in Charlton. Your precious body.
she pulsed at Xander. But I bet you already knew that, didn't you?

At the bend in the hallway, they met up with the group of lab technicians that had passed Xander and she hid with David against an alcove in a doorway until they had gone by and rounded another corner further down. Meeting up with Xander in the hallway by the elevator, she gave him a penetrating look and began roughly pawing through his brain, searching for any inkling of his eventual betrayal. When she saw the rows of bodies in green tanks in his recent memory, her eyes opened wide briefly and she pulsed at Alex,

You found her and David's bodies? Why didn't you say anything? Are you not planning on helping them? I promised Maggie I would find it! You HEARD me say that to her!

It wasn't until she inspected the memory that she realized the woman's - the banshee's - name was Margaret Nygaard, and she felt even more guilty that now they were going to leave without helping her out. Hadn't she told him to tell her when he found something important? Why had he been silent about finding that room? And why was she still unable to read all of Xander's thoughts? What was he hiding from her? It was true wasn't it? The whole thing Stephanie had planned. It was real.

"Is there anything else you haven't told me?" she asked aloud, glaring at the man who'd once been able to turn her insides to mush with just a grin. "You know what? Nevermind. Let's just get out of here before we become a part of the sardine collection. They're waiting for us upstairs." Reaching out, the whole top floor was obscured by an impenetrable wall of shadow and whitenoise, so she couldn't tell how much back-up they'd brought. "I think it's just the four but the walking black hole makes it hard to see anything around her."

Turning to him with a facetious look in her eye she said, "Who knows. Maybe if we're lucky, they'll make it easy on us and we'll be able to slip right on by..." Hint hint, you traitorous bastard.

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Here it was, the final moments before the next showdown. She was electrified, ecstatic. Nothing could take away the absolute confidence she felt. The first part of the plan had been a success. Just as expected, Gwen had reached out to her and had dug around in the pile of false information that Stephanie had laid out for her. There had been some truth to it all - like the new location of Alexander's body - but for the most part it was all lies. And she'd cut off contact before Gwen had too much time to dig any deeper, also continuing the ruse that the psychic had caught her off guard again.

It was damaging information and would increase not only Gwen's doubts about Alexander but about herself as well. Leaving the young woman wrapped up in vulnerable emotions and making her weak as she tried to get away from him. Stephanie watched as the elevator disk lit up and they continued to wait with nothing happening. Jason asked confused about the delay, and Stephanie grinned internally, knowing what it probably was. It meant, either Gwen or Alexander would be coming up alone--

Another? Hm, that was interesting. So they'd picked up someone else along the way. It wasn't something they'd anticipated but she doubted it changed much. Gwen had already fixated on Alexander back at the apartment - her writing a book about him had been evidence of that. It was unlikely that Gwen would be shaken loose from that fixation so easily. Well, now the possibility was most definitely open with the seeds having been planted for their trust to crumble. She wasn't worried and she mentally rolled her eyes as Benoit got upset and angry over not knowing about this other person or being able to identify them.

She almost smiled at Jason as he was dragged forward by Jean and slowly lowered from sight on the disk. Waiting for the thing to respawn, she turned to Benoit and idly asked, "What is the name? You said there was only a name and a file number. Who is it?"

----------


Why couldn't he just be the way he seemed? Why couldn't there be one man, just ONE who could be everything she liked and hated about him and actually love her back? And why did they always try to victimize her? Did she have a frigging sign on her forehead? Or did she just have a talent - a hidden super power - for attracting narcissistic men? Now more than ever she felt the weight of all that had happened pushing down on her. She just wanted it to be over and to have a relationship with someone that the worst thing that would happen if he lied and betrayed her would be he cheated on her with someone else. As opposed to actually endangering her life and selling her out to the "bad guys".

She stood beside him in the hallway near the elevators and she just stared at him trying to make it fit, trying to just hate him for what he was planning on doing - and Xander had the nerve to pretend he didn't remember the city, even after she'd just said it. Gimme a break, Mr. I-Need-To-Find-My-Body! His plan to break in here was almost as faulty as the banshee's insistence that they search the computer for her own in the middle of everything and just about as neurotically fervent.

At the same time as wanting to get away from him, of just leaving and never seeing him again, she also found herself wanting an explanation. After what she'd been through, she really did feel like everyone knew something she didn't - which was really odd considering that she could read just about everyone's thoughts - as if there was something that was wrong about her. She could almost make herself believe that he'd chosen her for some reason, right from the beginning. And that possibility, more than anything else, made her feel incredibly wounded. It made her realize how much she'd liked him and how much she'd invested in him and for him to turn around and cut her like he was going to... She'd been so stupid...

Brought back to the present by David's inclusion into the conversation - oh, right. She'd forgotten about him a little bit - she agreed that they should try and find something to defend themselves with. Gwen's powers gave her only a slight advantage over what these people were supposedly capable of, and even compared to what the techies had known how to do with their training, it was right at her level. With Stephanie's impenetrable wall of static, if Gwen went up there, she would be stuck with normal taijutsu without any psychic advantage - anyone within a few feet of Stephanie would be enveloped within the static as well - and she would be useless like that.

But Xander's alternative plan was not one she agreed with. Oh, right. He was going to go up there and "beat them up" and come back down to get David and her and everything would be hunky-dory? No. She knew what was likely to happen - he'd go up there and in the cloak of Stephanie's block, they'd all have a little meeting and hash out the details of the deal they were going to make. Then their Agent friends would disperse "defeated" and he'd come down and proceed to drag her to Charlton where he'd get his reward and hand her over. Nice try. She was done playing the fool.

"No. I'm going with you now," she said and started forward after him, stopping in her tracks as he did, doubling over and gripping his head in both hands. Something was wrong. Reaching out mentally, she gasped harshly and nearly fell over as the pounding pain in his head assaulted her as well. Instantly, jarred and vulnerable, she retreated from him and closed him off from her senses, blinking and breathing heavily as she stared at him. And still in her head she remembered the terrifying sound of Alex screaming in agony.

It seemed like all of her previous hatred for him disappeared and sympathy and confusion filled it's place. The goggles. He'd said they'd give him a really bad headache, didn't he? Well, now he had it and she suddenly was at a loss for what to do, but desperately wanting to help him. They didn't have time to sit around and wait for it to run it's course, but she had no idea how to solve it. "Alex?" she asked hesitantly reaching out a hand to him, feeling sorry that she'd been so angry before, almost as if this sudden excruciating pain was her fault.

Then David was suddenly leaving - she'd been mildly aware of the conversation he'd been having with Maggie but hadn't been paying too much attention, completely focused on what was happening to the ever-ready hero. As he walked past her, telling her what he was planning, she whipped her head around to give him an anxious, blue-eyed look, before she was left glaring after him. "What the hell, David? Thanks a lot, you coward!"

She kept a link up with him even as he disappeared around a corner, but then she found herself looking back at the lowering elevator and the man standing upon the disk platform. Her breathing came in labored gasps and she quivered in place as she looked him over, his tall, wide bulk of muscle and flesh being more than enough to crush her without blinking, and she realized just how utterly helpless she was. There was nothing she could do before he'd stepped forward and was smashing his fist into Xander's body, making her flinch in response, looking towards the empty hallway where David had disappeared as if he might return suddenly to help her somehow.

So many distractions. She hadn't even noticed he was there until her head was jerked back and her air was cut off with a sharp yank of the goggles strap. Surprise clouded her mind and her hands flew up to grip the front of the goggles to pull them back and stop him from trying to choke her, frantically reaching out mentally to try and figure out who was attacking her. She figured it out just as he spoke and she was able to get a few images from his head before he reacted and closed her off.

"Jason!!" she gasped aloud, her right hand flying back to catch him in the face. He saw it coming a mile away however and easily tossed his head out of the way. Her left elbow came shooting back into him right on the heels of his dodge and she caught him in the gut, but he wouldn't let go. The blow had landed but seemed to bounce right off of him. She couldn't do anything so long as he had a hold on them, his grip on them as fierce as if his life depended on it - from her previous times connecting with him, she knew it did.

Gwen was loathe to give them up. Not only were they her new special thing that gave her an extra special boost with her powers - and plus, she really liked them and enjoyed using them - but she knew once he had them, his suit would be complete again and his already present physical advantage would go up. As it was, every time he pulled on them, she felt her air cut off and dizzyness overcame her - she couldn't fight him like this. She had to give them up.

Tucking her chin and pulling back against the goggles with her hands, she stretched the strap and slid her face through them, her hair briefly tangling with the machinery of the eyepieces before she slipped away from him. Her breathing coming labored now, a hand went to her throat and she looked for him but couldn't find him. He was invisible! Like the ladder and the doorways had been! Shit! And he was doing a good job of keeping her from seeing too far into his mind - probably something he'd learned from Stephanie although he hadn't done this good of a job last time.

Physically and mentally, she wasn't going to win - but really all she needed to do was distract him enough to get away. The best she could do was unsettle him in some way. "There. Happy now? Don't feel too bad that I got your little text buddy Gary to destroy everything on them. He's such an idiot, he did it, no questions asked with lots of "lol's" and "hugs"."

She knew that would mean a lot to him, that she'd had the system reset and he'd have to start everything over. She just hoped that maybe he'd be distracted enough to actually try and ask Gary right now, giving her enough time to do something. Glancing at Xander and the other guy, she bit her lip and turned back searching the empty hallway for her opponent. There was a temporary blip of thought just a few feet from her and she circled away from it warily before he disappeared again.

Something else, something else! She had to get away from him so she could help Xander! Where the fuck was David!? "So, Stephanie, huh? You like a dominant woman who shoves you around like that? Like to be owned by your ladies? And everyone knows. Does that get you off, Jason? Got a little bit of a humiliation fetish?" Off to her right, between her and Xander and Jean now, she felt another pulse of emotion and she moved further away from him back towards the elevator with a smirk on her face. "Or are you just too big of a pussy to do anything about it? She's a spoiled brat. A child. and you let her get away with so much - for what? A perfect record? Give me a break. You either like her molesting you, or you've got no spine at all. And like I said - and I should know - they all know about it. Sure, someone who follows orders makes a good team player and they might promote you or whatever - but it's unlikely they'll ever let someone like you lead others. Specially with how weak the suit makes you."

She was running out of things to bait him with - although the particular memories she had grabbed before he'd shut her off had really surprised her. When she'd originally thought that Stephanie should pursue Jason in a relationship, she hadn't had that in mind. The woman seemed incapable of healthy social interaction. And now she didn't feel anything from him at all. She had no clue where he was, but she was standing right in front of the still cycling elevator, her feet light and ready to move out of the way as soon as he made an angered dive at her. That is...if he would at all.

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"Jason?" Where was he? Why wasn't he attacking? What was he waiting for? Had she really distracted him so much or was he busy gushing and mooning over his goggles? Gwen could see either one being the case but she also knew that Jason was a lot more professional than his partner gave him credit for. Still, she could hope and pray for a miracle.

Right around the same time as Jason's attention was diverted, she too found herself looking toward Xander and the Arnold Schwarzenegger clone fighting him. But she had a totally different perspective of things. Audibly, she was aware of the noise and what was being said between them - and she even had a nice view of inside Jean's head, which his attention totally focused on his "target" gave her a bit more free reign, his memories just so happened to discredit the "plan" Stephanie had been thinking of while Gwen had been eavesdropping. She'd planned to trick Gwen and now she didn't know whether to be angry about that, feel really dumb that she'd fallen for it, or relieved that at least Xander wasn't planning on betraying her afterall. At least not like that...

To top it all off, she could feel him charging up. It was different than the other times he'd used his powers and she almost completely forgot about Jason or anyone else in her surroundings as her mind and body were filled with waves of sensation. At first, the low hum could almost be described as a pleasurable tickle in her temple and the base of her neck, her body being stroked with hundreds of feathers at the same time. It stopped for a moment and she blinked at the scene before her, feeling a jolt of sympathy as Xander was thrown against the terminal by the behemoth that seemed right on the edge of allowing himself to kill the man with a crushing squeeze on his windpipe.

Then the sensation was back again and she moaned in a low whisper, trembling against the wall near the elevator, as the sensation grew to a sharp point and became fixated and aimed through the lenses on Jean's face. It was becoming too much and she hastily cut off all connection she had to Jean, Xander or anyone else nearby, trying to shut it out behind a wall inside herself. But it had no effect on what he was doing and it just got more and more intense, like it was growing. A feeling of dread assaulted her then, and she shook her head weakly, wanting to say anything to stop it as if something terrible would happen to her at the end of it. Every bone in her body ached and quivered with a chill as she watched and felt the power grow within him.

Gwen was barely conscious of her surroundings anymore - Jason, the looming threat of Stephanie, the battle between the two men - so she did not see Xander grin before he let loose. Nor did she hear Jason murmur aloud to himself as the burst of mental flame scorched the air. Suddenly she felt a bit of deja vu, like she was standing in front of Roaster's again. The air was thick and enveloped her, hugging close to her skin and rushing over it swiftly. And everything seemed to slow down to a crawl.

The first thing she noticed was the man now screaming and cursing in the terminal, and it was almost like she could look right through him. Every memory and thought was like a puzzle piece clearly identified and separated from the others, all neatly arrayed together in his mind. And more than that, she saw the parts of his brain that operated his focus, that gave him access to these memories, and the parts of his mind that operated nerves and muscles. They were so clear to her, it was like she'd be able to reach out and touch them, could pull them like puppet strings. In the cloud of water-air that she was stuck inside, she couldn't manipulate them now, so she was content with just watching, every nerve and line of muscles glistening in her sights, like copper wires in a circuit board.

She watched him die, the parts of his mind that were so illuminated to her vision slowly fading into a gray nothingness and she knew the moment that his consciousness - the part of Jean that was Jean - left and it was before everything had completely shut off. Gwen could feel it though and he was gone. Slowly, as if moving through molasses, her eyes turned to Xander and she saw everything the same way. Things that had been hidden from her before were clear as day and she saw the part of him that was separate, the part that was Alex inside him and she could feel the pain still echoing through the man. It could be manipulated too, like if she reached out and pulled at it, the pain would come away from him and leave.

Turning to look closer to herself, she also saw Jason, clear as day, and she could feel the connection he had with the suit, almost like a string she could tug if she wanted to. What was all of this? She didn't have much time to wonder or study everything longer as a voice broke through and the water-logged air dissipated around her like a wall of dusty crumbs collapsing under its own weight.


Everything was gone. She looked at Xander and she looked at Jean and she looked where she knew Jason was standing - or at least where he'd been a second ago, as he'd disappeared again - and they were normal. She couldn't see into them at all. Reaching out tentatively she was met by a foggy cloud, as if all of a sudden she was being assaulted by a really bad sinus headache. It made her feel groggy and numb, like her face was puffy and swollen except it was her brain instead.

Looking at the source of the voice that had broken the spell she'd been under, she immediately recognized David but knew without needing to see his thoughts, that it wasn't the 42 year old Australian in the driver's seat right now. For one, he didn't have the accent and for another...there was just something different about him. He looked the same, but the way he held himself and spoke was almost physically identifiable as a completely different person. It certainly wasn't Maggie though... but she'd said Nathan was dead, hadn't she?

He was talking to her. Shaking her head a little to clear it, unsuccessfully, she tried to focus on what he was saying and the directions he gave for another way out. That made her eyes widen and she glanced back at the elevator just behind her. Another way out. She could get out of this without running into Stephanie. And that made her remember Jean's memories that she'd gotten ahold of before he'd died. That bitch. She'd almost completely destroyed everything. That was the last time Gwen was ever trusting anything that came from that awful woman.

But what was going on with...Nathan? Who was he and why was he suddenly sounding like he knew what was going on? As if he were in charge or something... What was happening? At the moment, after what she'd just been through, it was hard to concentrate and order her thoughts beyond the necessary things. So, when Xander wheezed in her direction, getting to his feet and walking down the direction that the kid had indicated, she followed behind him without a word, feeling like her skull was full of cotton. Unlike with the block Stephanie had put on her, her current state did not unsettle her as much. It was more like a throbbing muscle, sore after a really intense workout rather than actually being cut-off from her senses. They were still there, it just hurt and ached to use her powers right now.

Keeping herself walking straight was enough of an effort as she let Xander lead the way through the hallways, swaying uneasily on her feet every time they turned a corner and looking around at everything with somewhat glazed eyes. In a way it was like being drugged - not that she'd had experience with that, although she did experiment in high-school with a few things. Walking along behind Xander trying to keep up with him - it didn't seem fair that he should be wounded and still able to move so fast - she couldn't find her tongue or the ability to say anything. Not that now was the time for chatting, but she did feel ashamed that she'd almost fallen for Stephanie's trick. She'd been so ready to hate him and hurt him to protect herself...

Whatever. It was done and over with. It was not going to be useful to their survival for her to mope about every mistake. She'd just have to make it up to him and continue to contribute the best she could. He was all she had now and she could not let go. Arriving at the contraption "Nathan" had described, it looked like a very large bullet with a door in the side and a tunnel leading away at either end of it. Following fuzzily after Xander as he opened the door, there were two rows of chairs, three chairs for each. She almost tripped and fell trying to navigate over to one, plopping down heavily into a seat before Xander closed the door and took his own. She was not even focused enough to notice as he buckled himself in and waited a few moments before buckling her in as well.

If he spoke to her at all, she wasn't aware of it at the moment, lost in thought, her mind buzzing over what had happened and what she'd heard. It couldn't just be simple, could it? No, every time they found anything out, THAT was the time when things had to be flipped on their frigging heads. So lost in the numb emptiness that qualified for thought right now, she didn't notice they were moving until they came to a rushing stop, the outside of the slender "car" humming as it braked on the magnetic rail. In her mind it felt like she'd been sitting forever, but her body behaved differently as she rose from her seat with a groan, loathe to move about anymore today.

Was he saying something? She looked at him but his lips weren't moving, so she turned away without another thought and stepped from the tube onto asphalt. The sun was still out but currently shadowed over them and taking a deep breath of fresh air helped clear up the fog in her head somewhat, despite the slight odor that clung to it. But still she did not feel confident to use her tongue coherently and looked around the alley they'd appeared in, watching as the "bullet" retracted back into the pavement seamlessly. The street the alley let out onto was adjacent to a bus station that declared it "Elmira City Transit" and as her head began to clear even more she nodded in comprehension. They were back in the main city.

Looking out to the street that bordered the alley they were in, Gwen watched as a few people occasionally passed by, but none of them looked into the crevice or even seemed to notice her and Xander at all. The buildings that bordered them on either side was a mom and pop shoe store and a music store that sold instruments. The shoe store had apartments on the upper floor so the roof was taller on that side than the other. The sun was making it's decent into the early evening, so most of the alley was cast in shadow, reflecting off the side of the taller building. Reaching out softly, Gwen could feel her powers coming back to her as the fog in her head slowly cleared and with it's absence, she regained the use of her voice. Looking out at the people on the street however, she did not see into them like she had inside the lab. Touching different minds, it was exactly as it had been before the incident, although her head was still a little sore from before and stretching out wasn't the most comfortable for her right now. What was that, though? What had she seen?

Turning to Xander, she was met with his mostly hidden thoughts again, although she could feel everything that was happening to his body. If she looked hard enough, she remembered where the pain and strain on his throat had been and could almost pretend that she could see what it was doing to him. But it was just a flimsy memory for her. Something she couldn't touch. Clearing her throat she spoke up, sounding almost like she was still drugged at first before the animation returned to her voice. "What was that back there? What you did to Jean - that Agent you were fighting... That was different than what you've done before. A LOT different. It was like being struck by lightning..." Her voice had taken on just a hint of awe as she spoke, her blue eyes bright as she stared at him, before she trailed off and shook her head silently.

God, that sounded stupid. She didn't know how else to explain it from her end though. The charge up of his powers like that and then unleashing them - it had hurt but not in the strictest sense. How could she articulate that it had been incredibly painful and yet gloriously beautiful at the same time? The fact that she felt like telling him made her feel like an idiot too. Why would he care right now? They had other things to worry about and he was no doubt from the pain he was going through at the moment feeling like crap. He wouldn't want to hear about her girlish experiences in response to what he could do.

Lifting her eyes back up to him, Gwen changed the subject, her voice coming out clearer when she spoke again. "And what about Nathan? What was that? Margaret, the banshee, said he was dead - it was just her and David inside the kid's head. I was... Everything was really fuzzy back there, after you did...that thing, so I couldn't sense anything. I don't know if that was even really him or...someone else. I don't know how that's possible but then there was the whole stance he took with the other Agent, like he had authority over him or something. And issuing orders to you and me... I mean, I don't mean to argue with a good plan of escape, but...that was really weird."

It almost reminded her of what she had suspected Xander would have done if he'd taken the elevator upstairs without her and that in turn made her feel guilty about being suspicious of him in the first place. Vaguely, she remembered the things he'd said to Jean while they'd fought and the larger man's desire to just kill Xander and end the trouble he'd put him through. Not only that, but the memory of Stephanie detailing a plan to trick Gwen into leaving Xander, convinced her that it was all fake. And she'd fallen for it completely without question. Looking back, all of the inconsistencies became apparent to her - for instance, why would Stephanie let her guard down like that in the first place. They knew she and Xander were there in the building somewhere and Stephanie was not an idiot. She should have immediately taken anything the woman thought with caution just for the fact that Stephanie let her in without seeming to notice. Again she found herself promising not to let the woman's thoughts destroy her like that ever again.

Looking back at Xander now, she felt incredibly sorry for being such an idiot. "I wanted to say I'm sorry for being angry earlier. Stephanie..she tricked me..." No, that wasn't good. She couldn't blame it all on the Agent, not when it was glaringly obvious if she'd just taken the time to stop and think about it - but deep down she knew why she'd jumped to believe in the plot between Xander and the Agents. Somewhere inside her she was waiting for him to fail her. For him to turn out like all the other men in her life. She just couldn't believe that he was everything he presented himself to be. For someone like her, who continuously kept everything out on her sleeve, she was just waiting for someone to take advantage...

"How is Alex? He screamed in my ear last time I reached out to him..." Looking at the blood still marring his chin - he must have wiped some of it away during their ride here - she thought about the pain in his throat and how the Agent had almost broken his neck and windpipe. "You're lucky Jean didn't crush your throat - he wanted to and he could have," she said with a slightly worried tone. When she spoke again there was a deeper level of confidence in her voice. "Your neck will be alright. It will heal pretty quickly." As she spoke those words something odd happened to her voice, almost filling with an echoing quality. It wasn't something she'd ever experienced before but it did not last long and it was just a minor thing, so she shrugged it off, turning back to look at the street.

"So what do we do now? How much energy do you have left?"

***

Strangely enough, the more impatient Benoit seemed to get, the less it affected Stephanie. Although it was troubling that someone - even a superior Agent - would interfere with their capture efforts, it was not as troubling, since they'd basically planned for the possibility of the targets' escape anyway. In fact, that was the point. Stephanie was used to having superior Agents issuing her orders and the only thing that really bothered her about the current situation was the unknown factor. Who was this and why were they doing this? And no, she had no clue what the case designation of "remodeled success" meant.

In her emotionless voice she said, "I worked briefly on Nathan's case as a part of a team with several others. It was where I first started to develop ideas about my Emotion Desensitization Training, as Nathan had the ability to put people into different stages of sleep. Like hypnosis, he could put someone in a trance, or even knock them out completely. Before I was reassigned, they'd just finished a body transfer with him. A woman who could teleport was put into his head - Margaret Nygaard. I didn't work very long with them though, and I never kept up to date with it - naturally my own case took up the rest of my time - so I'm not sure where he currently is in the program or what they have planned for him."

Her eyes grew distant with memory. "He was a sweet kid though, just 13 years old at the time when I was on his case." There was the hint of something else in her voice, almost an undercurrent of pleasure. Relishing the memory of the fear in the preteen as he'd been strapped down and forced into the transfer machine. The image was one that would never leave her and she couldn't wait to see that same look of helpless terror on Gwen's face once she was put into the same position. Nathan. What was going on with him now? How far had he progressed? And what did he have to do with the targets?

After a few moments the elevator came to life again and she felt Benoit standing beside her relax a little bit as they both stepped forward onto the disk. Whatever was going on down there had come to an end and now they were being allowed to move below. Mentally, she got herself ready to engage Gwen but instantly let the walls fall as they came within sight of the lower floor. She was gone and there was no trace of the other either. Had they left together? No matter. It still could have been out of convenience. They would eventually separate, if not before Charlton then as soon as they arrived there. She had no doubt, this plan would work.

Spying Jason, even through the cloaking device he had on, Stephanie approached him with a wolf-like saunter. "Did you get what you wanted?" she asked as she stood in front of him with an edge to her voice. Lightning quick, her arm whipped out and she caught a fistful of his hair, her fingers sinking into his curly locks and tightening painfully against his scalp. She'd noticed the dead body lying a few feet down the hall near the terminals and from it's bulk, she determined that it was Jean. "Tell me everything that happened and leave nothing out."

She was not angry, in fact, she was somewhat pleased and only slightly bewildered about the current scene. She'd just gotten excited at the sight of her partner and felt the unshakable desire to hurt him a little bit. Releasing him with a rough jerk, she awaited an answer and surveyed the surrounding area with a bored gaze, intoxicated by the memory of what his hair had felt like in her grip and the sensation of his body jolting in response to her wounding touch.

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It felt as if he were shrinking smaller or moving backwards and Gwen looked at him sharply as he started coughing again. Was he...disappearing? But then there was someone in his place and immediately she knew who it was but she couldn't believe it. The change that came over him was practically on a physical level, the way he held himself completely different from the way Xander stood and gestured. And pain was registering all over throughout his body as he wobbled on his feet and fell to the ground as if someone abruptly smacked him with a hammer like a whack-a-mole.

"Alex!" she exclaimed as she rushed forward to kneel by his side

Someone passing by the alley had noticed the sudden movement and noise, but they couldn't be bothered enough to stop and see if she needed help. Her eyes wandered worriedly over his features as his vision slowly cleared and she could hear Xander's voice echoing inside his head. They'd switched places! He was back! As he slowly came back to himself and struggled to speak, she looked him over with a mixture of pure adoring joy and mooning tenderness over the pain that was currently assaulting him and keeping him from returning completely to her. Even as she listened to Xander answer her questions, her eyes were all for Alex and she couldn't stop smiling.

The joy of his return overwhelmed her then and suddenly she found herself with lips latched onto his, kissing him beneath the brunette curtain of her shoulder-length hair. Her lips were gentle yet insistent as they moved and stroked against his, tugging and suckling lightly, her hands running through his hair over and over and lightly tugging on the darkened locks in a passionate need to touch him. Gwen did not break away from him as her hands moved down to touch him, rubbing at his chest and shoulders, feeling his arms hesitate over holding her slender body. She didn't give him long to think it over before she realized she was hurting him - well, he was hurting all over and she wasn't helping things by smooching him and rubbing at him - and she finally pulled away. It wasn't until she was looking at him with tears streaming down her cheeks that she realized she'd been crying at all.

"Sorry..." she said a little breathlessly, smiling sheepishly as she wiped at her face. "It's just... I was so scared he was going to get you killed before I could ever see you again. Before I got a chance to..." It had been an ever present fear that suddenly Xander would collapse in the street and not wake up again, leaving her alone, Alex left somewhere on the wind. Or that possibly he'd go fighting someone else and end up killing the whole damn body beyond repair. As it was, he'd gotten pretty frigging close. But Alex was back! He was here and it would all be alright now. They were together again and she didn't have to be alone.

As her tears cleared and she sniffled and weakly laughed the vestiges of her sadness away, she registered all of the things Xander had said. Alright, weird power thing was new, they were not going to run into Nathan again, and they could never trust Agents, not even him. Got it. And great, so he was basically letting her know that she had been right to be suspicious and paranoid about him. Strangely she was not mad at him for being disloyal to the little group the three of them had formed together. What she was mad about was the fact that going to Charlton would basically be helping him too and could and probably would end up being their downfall.

She felt a surge of protectiveness flash through her at the thought of him doing something to Alex. She was so sick of this! Now that she had him back, she was not going to let Xander or anybody ruin anything else for them. Since he was only looking out for himself, she wasn't even going to really consider him in their plans anymore. He had now become an after-thought and a threat and they would deal with him when they had no other choice, just to shut him up and keep him happy. But no matter what, she was not going to let them have Alex. They'd need to kill her first.

That brought up thoughts of his current state of being and she delved deep into his body, wincing harshly as she felt the pain from getting brutally beaten by Agent Hercules. He needed a hospital and professional care - there was too much wrong that she didn't know how to fix. But looking back at the now cloaked entryway to the labs, she knew they didn't have time. They couldn't stay in the city and it was very important for them to make it in and out of Charlton before the Agents got there. Otherwise, they'd find themselves walking into a hornets nest and unable to get out again, let alone achieve what they were going there for in the first place.

Turning back to Alex her eyes met his with an anxious, yet very direct look. "I'm sorry... We can't go to the hospital right now. I probably made us late enough as it is," it was a subtle reference to her taking the time to make-out with him - how long had their lips been locked? It felt like it had gone on for hours. She could still taste him and the slight metallic bitterness of the blood still in his mouth, her lips feeling slightly puffy as she ran her tongue over the bottom one as if she were just wetting it. "Any more delays and we might as well forget the whole thing with how hard they're going to make it on us." she looked him up and down again and focused on his neck, arm and then his toe before she looked him in the eyes again, her gaze filling with cerulean blue.

"You need to feel better now and we need to hurry and get out of here. We have to leave your pain behind so we can make it through this." Her voice took on an echoed tone as if it were bouncing off the walls of the alley and still swirling in the air around them. Gwen felt it in her tongue and mouth like a numb buzzing but she did not hear it. So she shrugged and cast it out of her mind as an after-effect of the kiss they'd shared.

Glancing towards the alleyway mouth, she once again spied the bus station and she could sense it from here - none of the buses idling right now would leave the city, and any of the others that would needed a ticket to get them out of here. And that might involve a bit of waiting as different schedules were considered. Reaching out further, Gwen couldn't sense if there was a taxi service here or not - the city seemed big enough, but the few people walking near enough for her to reach were either content with walking or took the buses on a regular basis. She did however know that there was a coffee shop a few blocks from here. Not Starbucks. Great, Xander would not be happy.

Turning back to Alex, the tears on her face had dried and she tucked her hair behind her ear as she spoke, "There's a coffee shop nearby but it's not the right one... And the bus station is the nearest transportation to getting us out of here." She paused and bit her lip worriedly. "What do you want to do? Are you going to be alright enough to get out of the city now?"

***

Slightly dismayed that there was no audible response to her assault on his scalp - and barely a flicker of emotion registered upon his face - she listened to Jason's report patiently, nodding her head slightly as she looked around. Everything was going according to the bigger plan - well except for Jean's death of course, but she didn't really experience any loss for him. Not like Benoit apparently was. If anything, Jason had been the one she hadn't expected to survive - in her mind she envisioned stepping from the elevator only to be told by the bodies laying about that while Jason had been engaging the target, Alexander had dealt with Jean and came after Jason as well in some grand display of heroics on her behalf. With the current scene and Jason still conscious it made her wonder what had really happened to facilitate the targets' escape. Although it made her incredibly suspicious, she was glad to see him still alive.

As he gave a more detailed report to Benoit, Stephanie made note of every minuscule expression that passed over his face and felt a tremble of excitement to see him upset about Gwen rewriting the goggles enough to work for her. Poor baby, she thought with an internal smirk. Outwardly her expression remained stoic as ever, even as she internally raised an eyebrow at the description of Alexander's "new" powers, which Benoit was intent on denying. If anyone should know all that Alexander was capable of, it would be the other Lead Agent. On the other hand, Jason had been down here and she trusted his observational skills. Added onto this new development was a bit of worry that whatever Alexander had done might have had an effect on Gwen's powers that she had not accounted for - enough power to be visually seen when his abilities were not normally visible - there was no way that her target had not been affected by that. But how much? Would it be enough for her to reach the final stages or did they still have time?

A ripple went through her inner layers as a new voice was added to the atmosphere and they all turned to regard a stranger approaching them from down the hallway. It was not someone she immediately recognized, but from his general appearance, she guessed that he was a lab tech. As he continued to speak and she watched Benoit's reactions to the man, she quickly amended her first impressions. There was a history there and immediately she recognized a certain degree of deference in Benoit's posture and expressions even if they came out twisted with chagrin and loathing. So, she figured out that the man was higher up on the foodchain than any of them even before Jason started asking questions and the man explained exactly how high he was. Also, right away, Stephanie felt a wave of fondness for him.

As the conversation between the newcomer, Eric, and Benoit evolved she experienced a great deal of delight watching as the Lead Agent with whom she and her partner had been traveling became completely ruffled and helpless in the face of the other man's authority. She did not particularly care for the boisterous amount of emotion the man showed - kissing her hand was completely inappropriate, but she allowed it while staring at him in a bored manner - and it disgusted her how incredibly obnoxious he was... But there was something underneath that she liked about it. It was as if the emotions he displayed were both genuine and a mask - something malicious, threatening, and pathological beneath the surface of every smile and cheerfully said word. His energy as chaotic and completely unprofessional as she found it, was strangely magnetic.

She could have been wrong about the undercurrent she sensed, but she doubted it, especially with the flippant manner in which he hungered after the body of their fallen comrade - barely grown cold yet from hitting the ground without a soul. Stephanie had very little respect for the dead, herself, but there was something delightfully sinister in the way this man worked. Everything he said was a manipulation, even him complimenting her was intended to strike through the cold exterior of her multi-layered psyche and set her at ease - she wouldn't admit it, not even to herself, but his lips lightly brushing the back of her hand had sent a flutter in her gut. Even so, she'd idly brushed her hand against the bottom hems of her suit jacket in a gesture that could have been her smoothing out wrinkles or wiping the sensation of his touch and kiss away.

And learning about who he actually was - not just his rank within the Agency but his actual field of expertise - Stephanie's eyes widened just a smidgen and her heart began pounding heavily in her chest. Of course! The man was a legend and here she was meeting him! Everything she'd ever wish to know about the body transfer process, he would know - there was so much she wanted to ask him! But before she could get the chance, he was joyously gushing over something new he'd developed as he called forth a familiar face from around the corner he'd come from.

There was no mistaking the child she'd originally worked with, his features obscured by a layer of dirt and filth, now grown into a young man. The years had been hard on him apparently, his body slender beyond what was healthy and his skin and clothes covered in grime, not to mention the current state he was in with the headband he had on. Intrigued, she waited eagerly for Eric to eventually reveal it's purpose, but other than sparking her interest further, he let the secret lie, dangling the hidden knowledge before them. That was annoying, but then she forgot all about being irritated when he mentioned that he was coming with them.

Even as Benoit said "No" Stephanie was thinking an excited "Yes!" in response to such a plan of action. He'd be traveling with them! A higher level Agent and not only that but the original genius behind the transfer program! And despite Benoit's resistance, it didn't take long for Eric to shut the man up with another jolt of manipulation and a hint of distraction that was wonderful to see register as a bad taste in Benoit's mouth. Not only would this trip become productive on a whole other level with an A-1 helping and guiding them, but it would be entertaining as hell. And what better way to occupy her time than to be given a show and a toy while in pursuit of her target?

Cold as ever, she watched with awe buzzing in her internal layers as Eric proceeded over to Jean's body and after a few moments fell to the ground in a heap. Her eyes never left the spectacle as the hazy purple cloud appeared and moved progressively from one body to the next and she blinked in a minor show of surprise as Jean sat up with a wide grin on his face. God, that was beautiful. She could not help the admiration that flowed through her as she watched him talk and then rise up from his sitting position, seamlessly fitting into the body that was not his. And at that moment she not only felt an intense amount of respect for him, but she was even a bit jealous. How she wanted that - to wear someone else's skin. To become someone else... She yearned for it so much it made her heart ache painfully. Soon, she reminded herself. It will all be mine too very, very soon.

As he turned to the rest of them with that ever-ready grin on his borrowed face, Stephanie glanced at Benoit for just a split second before stepping forward and speaking. "I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I am very glad you'll be joining us," from her monotone, one would not have been able to guess that she was feeling anything other than bored. Which was exactly why she'd stated aloud her own feelings regarding his presence. "I will admit that I'm experiencing a bit of a fangirl moment for having the opportunity to meet you." There was no squealing or giggling though - nothing but a blank emotionless stare. "I hope you will not be averse to me picking your brain while you're with us. Anything you'd be willing to share about your particular skill-set, I'd love to hear about it." Affection was not expressed in any sense of the word, as the deadpan voice continued on.

"As for where we are headed, we are now in phase two of a plan that was developed on the way here, the first part of which was allowing the targets access to this lab for the sole purpose of directing them to Charlton - where the target, Alexander's, body is going to be. Phase two involves waiting for Alexander to be in the middle of transferring Alexander the guest back into his original body, giving my partner and I an opportune moment to take advantage of Stewart's vulnerability and isolation to capture her while at the same time leaving Alexander vulnerable as well. It is for this reason that pursuing the targets is not the important part of the plan, but rather meeting them there. I have complete confidence in the abilities of this plan to work, particularly since I've recently weakened my target's emotional resolve and thrown a wrench into the relationship dynamic between the two targets."

She paused and glanced around dully before meeting the man's gaze again. "We have a car waiting outside."

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Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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All at once, Gwen was of the mind to actually feel embarrassed about kissing Alex, but only when she got a headful of Xander's commentary about it. As he first referred to it as "mouth-rape" she blushed and turned to look away, while nervously tucking her hair behind her ears again. Then Alex decided to play along and goad him on it and the ex-Agent had the nerve to allude to them having sex! Not only that, but he had the audacity to suggest that she'd even consider allowing such a thing while he was still occupying Alex's head!

Gwen fully admitted that she liked Alex and that she was physically attracted to him - what she'd originally considered a sexual attraction to Xander had merely been her attempt to cling to someone who could protect her, she now realized. But after a while he proved to be less and less predictable and began wearing her down with her constant need to second guess him and demanding she look after him while at the same time she was left trying to keep up with his longer stride. As a result, she pined and yearned for some stability in personality, someone she could depend on to think clearly and rationally and she realized he'd been the voice echoing in her and Xander's heads all along.

So there was the possibility that now her attraction to Alex was along the same vein as it had been with Xander - and she fully recognized that - but it was more that she wanted to be around him and found comfort in his physical presence rather than a desire to jump his bones - although there was that as well. Even though her behavior towards Xander had suggested otherwise earlier on, she was not the type of person to just give everything away for free, especially not to someone she barely knew. Despite the impression she must have left him with, after flirting with him and then kissing Alex the way she just did, she still found enough self-pride to get defensive about his suggestion that she was a slut.

If he were still physically in the body, she would have slapped him as hard as she could. Thinking that, she was glad again that he wasn't. For a moment longer, she considered kissing Alex again just to prove to the stupid bastard in the "backseat" that she didn't care what he thought, but she figured that wouldn't be fair to Alex to let the stupid ex-Agent constantly dictate how their relationship developed. He was here with her now and they could move forward however they liked. She did however, pause at the opening of the alley to give him another bright smile, reaching forward to rub off a bit of dried blood still crusting on the edge of his chin, before leading the way to the coffee shop. He wasn't a baby and it hadn't been a mothering gesture but another display of her need to touch him again.

As they walked, she hadn't realized just how much she'd missed him until she kept glancing at him and feeling excited to see him in the body, instead of that haughty, wolf-like strut that Xander always adopted. His steps were still a bit pained and she felt a pulse of sympathy and worry for him; but mostly she was excited. So excited, in fact, that she started talking and didn't stop, her voice coming out with an eagerness like a schoolgirl chatting with her best friend.

"It was really awful back there," she said almost gravely. "I didn't think we'd make it out of there alive. The guy fighting you - I mean, Xander - he was so big, when he missed a hit, he put a dent in the walls. And then he started throwing him around... When he grabbed your neck, it was like from your chin down to your shoulder disappeared within his massive fingers."

She held her hands up to her own neck as they walked along, to illustrate what she meant, although her hands were comically slender in comparison to what she described. "And he just started squeezing and I could feel it, there was barely anything holding him back from crushing you and before Xander zapped him, he was just about to break his - I mean your - neck."

She'd been really worried, not only for Xander, but through the whole thing wondering if Alex was alright. Ever since she'd needed to shut him off because of the pain he'd been going through - no. It had been way before that. Gwen had been worried about him ever since Xander had passed out in the taxi for the first time and Alex had been unable to control the body. It felt like it had been a week ago...

She shook her head and let out a sigh and then her eyes opened wide and she gasped a little as she turned to him and touched him lightly on the shoulder. "And when Xander zapped him it was bigger than anything I've seen him do! It was beautiful, like nothing I've ever felt before - well, it was a bit like back at Roaster's and I was underwater again for a while..."

That made her think of the veins of brass she'd seen inside Xander and the two Agents and how every thought and memory had been open to her eyes as if she could reach out and touch them. She still didn't understand what that was and she was silent for a few moments wondering, her eyes trailing after a small Oriental woman walking in the opposite direction, looking at her as if the circuits and strings would show up again. But they didn't and she shook her head and turned back to Alex, her expression brightening as she met his gaze again.

"And my fight wasn't a day in the park either," she said with a humored shrug. "That jerk, Jason, stole my goggles - well, I guess they were his really - and he almost choked me trying to pull them off. Like a little whiny brat yanking on them from behind me." She rolled her eyes as if she were talking about a child throwing an embarrassing tantrum in public. "And then he went invisible like the ladder and the doors outside that building, and that would have been fine if I could have felt anything from him. I didn't have any trouble getting into his head before and he even seemed like he didn't know what he was doing - but THIS time..." She shook her head again and let out a harsh breath. "He musta been getting pointers from Stephanie or at least gotten his act together on the ride here."

Gwen's eyes lit up with sudden hilarity and she giggled and skipped ahead a few feet, stopping to wait for Alex to catch up before she continued walking beside him. It took her a few minutes to recover from the private joke enough to let him in on it. "On the way here, apparently Stephanie took out her pent up frustrations on him, and ended up groping and using his thigh and practically his crotch for a scratching post in the backseat of the car!" she snickered again before continuing on, her hand lightly touching him before drawing away. "These people are like something from a soap opera, I swear! And the little spoiled brat just sat there and took it - although, frankly, considering what he was up against, I don't blame him. The woman is...insane. I mean, seriously, there is something wrong with her."

"The few times I've connected with her, it's like she's not even real inside - everybody has a solid structure within that I can explore. She's full of stairs that lead nowhere and endless rows of paper walls that I can't see through." She shook her head in wonderment. "And I don't think it's something that can be fixed - even when I touched the real her, when I first used the goggles, everything about her was twisted and broken. She's obsessed with me for some reason. I mean, I know I'm her "target" or whatever, but her pursuit is almost...personal. It's almost like she wants to eat me." She stopped and shook her head, blushing and laughing a bit nervously. "I mean, not like cannibal or anything weird... It's hard to explain."

"And then there's that thing she does with her thoughts - like she shuts everything down inside and it gets really loud, so much that even when I don't touch her mind, I can feel it and I can't hear anybody else," they were nearing the coffee shop now, green cursive lettering above the door declaring it "Mandy's Cafe". By this point she'd calmed down in her excitement a lot and spoke in a sober tone. "That's why I want to hurry and get us out of here. So we can get to Charlton and get you what you need and you can be free finally - no offense Xander, but honestly, you're a bit of a ball and chain sometimes." She made a pointed gesture with her eyes at the coffee shop they were nearing and cast him a teasing grin. They were making this stop for him, afterall, and if it had just been her and Alex, they wouldn't have made the stop.

The grin slowly vanished once more as they neared the doors to the establishment and she said, "But the point is... I really don't like being around her. Not only does it feel like she actually is trying to swallow me right in the middle of everything, but it cuts me off from feeling anything. Even my own thoughts. I can't fight her like that - you saw what happened in the hallway back at our apartment building. She's like a demon and she won't stop until I'm completely worn down. So, if we can find Xander's body and get him in there without facing her, then all the better."

A person leaving the coffee shop opened the door for them and let them inside and she finally fell silent, taking in a deep breath and letting it out. She remembered the last time they were in a non-Starbucks establishment, and she was not eager for Xander to repeat his routine of making a scene just because they weren't at his favorite restaurant. But as they walked through the doors, and approached the counter of the cozy place, she became aware of someone else already harassing the employee working the place.

"Just do it right, this time!" the smoke-weathered feminine voice said harshly. "I need to hurry and catch a bus."

"Alright," the man in his early thirties said while standing at the machines behind the counter, busily putting whipped cream topping on her order. "And... you wanted just caramel drizzle on this?" He turned to look at her uncertainly with a bit of worry creasing his brow. This was the third time he'd fulfilled this order, but after the second time, she'd changed her mind from the chocolate and caramel mix. Dean had a feeling she'd done that just to mess with him - she'd been complaining about needing to catch a bus for the past 20 minutes she'd been here.

Osono glared at him and said, "If you guys just offered a Caramel Frappuccino, we wouldn't be having all this difficulty."

The man did a double-take at her, once again making note of the short blonde, spiked hair, nose ring and jacket with torn sleeves at the shoulders. "This isn't Starbucks!"

The woman let out a sigh and nodded her head. "I'm really glad you understand the core problem, Dean. Now do that over before I have to set you on fire. There's chocolate drizzle on it."

"Dean" had been in the middle of putting a neat plastic covering over it as she'd said that and he realized he hadn't been paying attention to what he'd been doing and added chocolate drizzle to her order again. As his shoulders slumped he went about preparing her drink again repeating over and over to himself the word "caramel".

Standing beside Alex a few feet away from her in line, Gwen raised an eyebrow at the woman's flippant threat, and her eyes widened briefly to realize the woman actually meant it, and she glanced sideways at Alex as the woman's ranting reminded her heavily of Xander. But after a few moments, Osono decided to behave - merely picking up stirring straws from a small container on the counter by the register and idly tossing them at Dean's back while he remade the coffee she'd wanted - so Gwen turned away and began thinking back over what she'd told Alex.

There was one part of their time in the labs that she hadn't recounted to him yet and it was an important part: Stephanie had played a trick on her. That brought up the question of "why" she would even go through the trouble of making something up and thinking it right when Gwen decided to reach out to her. Remembering her own reaction to the false information and the memories she'd gotten from Jean in a moment when he'd been focused on Xander, she understood the reason for the ruse. She also realized that on some level Stephanie could sense when Gwen touched her mind - enough to know when to start thinking over that fake plan; she doubted Stephanie had sat there thinking it over and over blindly.

Turning to Alex she said in lower tones, "I realize that it seems awfully unrealistic to try and plan not to meet up with her again - even attempting to avoid it seems like encouraging a false hope. She did something weird back there at the...facility or whatever you want to call it. When I knew she was in the building, I tried to reach out to her to see if I couldn't spy on her a little bit. I think she knew I was watching her though - she started thinking to herself about a deal she and the other Agents," she paused and looked around then, but nobody was near enough to hear her speak in that low voice - who bought coffee at 4 in the afternoon? "About a deal they were making with you and Xander. The main idea was that you'd both get immunity from the Agency's influence if you handed me over to them in Charlton."

She blushed slightly to remember how angry and hurt she'd been to hear that. Looking at Alex now, she couldn't believe she'd fallen for it. He couldn't. He wouldn't do that to her. Shaking her head slightly, she continued on, ignoring the exclamations from the woman still ordering coffee. "Anyways, I think she did it to make us split up and... she probably doesn't know that I know the plan was fake. I don't know... I just thought I'd mention it as something we could possibly plan for to catch her - them - off guard, maybe."

Osono was done with her order now and tossing a crumpled $10 at the bedraggled Dean, before swiftly turning away with her drink gripped in one hand. Walking by, she roughly nudged Alex's shoulder and sneered at him, not stopping to call over her shoulder, "Watch it, turd-face!" before she was wandering out the doors of the establishment. Gwen looked at Alex worriedly and probed his shoulder mentally to assess the damage, but other than what was already wrong with him, she couldn't tell the difference. Still, it made her mad that people could be so rude.

Dean finished wiping the counter and sweeping the 2 dozen stirring straws littering the floor behind the counter into a pile before he breathed a sigh of relief and turned to them with a clear expression. After what the guy had just been through, Gwen felt kinda bad that he still had to fulfill Xander's order yet. Looking over the menu, she realized she was hungry and needed something in her stomach before they left the city. Turning to Alex she asked, "Could I get a cinnamon twist?" It felt pathetic to ask, but after he'd bent her bank card in two, she didn't have much of a choice. She was broke.

***

There was that energy again, that magnetism in his voice and every expression. Even knowing the motivation behind it, she could not help feeling flattered and humbled when his tone became so respectful towards her. And his calling her "his dear lady" and "Miss March" made her blush internally. Never before had she made a connection with her last name and Playboy magazine until he said it, and it had been a long time since anyone had spoken to her that way, let alone called her a "lady". And who was saying it only compounded the glowing feeling she experienced within her inner mental layers.

As once again, Benoit and Eric devolved into the sparring that went on between them, she took the moment to look over at Jason, wondering how different things were going to be with the A-1 now on their team. It hadn't been something she'd considered until now, but Jason's current occupation as her "toy" might be cut short with Eric in the same car with them. She doubted she would be able to get away with as much and although she assumed her assault on Jason's leg had gone unnoticed by both the French Agents, she had very little doubt it would slip past Eric, no matter how well she thought she was hiding it. It made her feel a little remiss that she wasn't going to be able entertain herself that way anymore.

Stephanie's attention was drawn back to the current situation as Benoit angrily waltzed past and boarded the elevator in a huff. She internally rolled her eyes while staring blankly after him, wondering if he was going to be a big baby for the rest of the time Eric was on the team. She understood on some level that it had to do with grief and the fact that the A-1 was wearing his dead partner like a muscled suit, but still, she felt a measure of scorn towards his display of emotion. There had only been one or two people in her life that she would consider herself having gotten "close" to on a personal level, but even if she was in Benoit's place with them, she was simply too fascinated by the body transfer process to feel any amount of pain or loss from the disrespectful way that Eric would wear their skin.

For several moments, Stephanie felt a burst of rage filled jealousy crashing like a wave against an oceanside cliff within her, barely a ripple registering on her face, as Eric turned to Jason and began asking him about HER case and target. Who did the little twerp think he was? Although she did admit, he was technically her assistant on the case and thus, Eric was right to ask him for an updated report - but he still could have asked her and been within line. As she listened to Jason recount what exactly he'd been trying to tell Benoit about, she completely forgot about pouting.

Charging? That didn't sound good... There was definitely no way Gwen had not been affected by that and Stephanie felt a pulse of fear deep within that the target had rushed ahead of schedule as a result. Stephanie's iron will and training would still work, as would any other Lead Agent's general training, but that last bit of room for error was completely gone. Even if Gwen hadn't had time to practice her new skills by the time they encountered her again in Charlton or where ever she ran off to, if Stephanie wasn't on her guard constantly while engaging her in battle, it would be all the opening Gwen would need.

At that thought, Stephanie found herself once again looking at Jason and her eyes narrowed. Alright, so now she was completely clear on what had happened to Jean - and they even had a very obvious visual to go along with the story, besides the walking talking previously dead man. But what had happened between Jason and Gwen? Looking around the hallways and the terminals, Stephanie made note of the different dents in the walls and immediately attributed them to Jean's fists. Looking over Jason's body, she noticed that even the withdrawal that had been crippling him for most of the trip thus far had dissipated, leaving him standing upright and fit as ever. Had he taken the emphasis on phase 2 too literally and just let her go? Had Gwen done something? Or...had Jason just willfully let them both go?

It was an absurd thought, but she couldn't help having it and as she walked ahead of the other two men towards the elevator, the thought continued to needle at her, even as she dutifully responded to the questions asked of her. "Stewart has the ability to think and feel the thoughts and emotions of those around her. I'm absolutely positive, sir, that at your level of training, you will have no difficulty blocking her abilities. As far as anything special, you'd have to watch out for... There's nothing extraordinary. She will eventually develop the power of suggestion, but it will only work on the weak-minded."

Standing beside Jason on the elevator, she waited until Eric had glanced away and the disk beneath their feet began it's ascent, before she reached behind and grabbed her partner's ass in a small squeeze. He clenched delightfully before she let her hand fall back to her side. All thoughts she'd had previously, worrying about the A-1 detecting her harassment of her colleague were completely absent. At this particular moment, even as she hid the fact she'd touched Jason at all, she really didn't care if the higher ranked Agent knew what she'd done.

"The "wrench" I deployed recently was a side-plan I came up with after it became apparent that Stewart was using my partner's stolen goggles to connect with us psychically over long-distance in an attempt to spy on us. I correctly predicted that she would make the attempt again once we were within range of her powers - which is 1 mile, by the way - and I decided to use the opportunity to inspire suspicion and fear towards her traveling companion, Alexander. It's my belief that separating the two of them will make Gwen considerably more vulnerable to capture."

"Since she now believes that the man who's hands she's put her life into is planning on making a deal with us and double crossing her, she will no doubt desire to leave him, especially as his behavior - as he grows more rushed to reconnect with his previous form - encourages such a belief. By the time they reach Charlton, she will no doubt take the opportunity to leave him behind and venture on her own. So even if we do not capture her at the facility in Charlton for whatever unforeseen reason, she will be alone and defenseless and it should be a piece of cake to snatch her up after that."

As they stepped off of the platform, she could not take it any longer and swiftly put out a hand to stop Jason from following Eric out the front doors. "If it's alright, sir," she said to the A-1 Agent who stopped and cocked a questioning eyebrow back at her. "I would like a moment alone with my partner. Nothing personal - I just need to go over something regarding the case." He paused to think about it and she dove ahead, "We'll just be one minute, sir. I won't be long." He seemed to consider something for a moment longer but finally gave her the okay and headed out the front doors of the building, the heavy metal clanging shut behind him, leaving the two Agents alone in a limited circle of light.

Stephanie barely waited a moment for the fading daylight to disappear from the room before she turned to Jason and swiftly delved her fingers into the curly locks on the back of his head. Wrenching him forward, her fist tightened it's hold on him and her mouth cut off any verbal protest or cry of pain he might have uttered. It was not a kiss in the strictest sense of the word but more of her smashing her face into his mouth-to-mouth, her breathing going up a few tempos as she swayed her head from side to side roughly. Then it was all teeth, and she was biting and abusing his bottom lip harshly, tugging and pulling on it until she heard him give in and groan softly in pain, before she finally let go and drew back to look at him coldly.

She did not release her hold on his hair as she stared into him but took a moment or two to calm her breathing before she spoke in her characteristic monotone. "What happened, Jason? Hm? What really happened? Oh sure, I was there when you gave your reports, but an Agent is dead, the target is gone, and ...there's not a scratch on you." Her grip tightened briefly as if she meant to correct that, but she quickly continued on. "Did Alexander threaten to fry your mind too? Were you scared after watching Jean fall to the ground with a hole in his sunglasses? It's perfectly understandable, but what I'm having difficulty comprehending is what happened before that."

"You must have had some time to engage the target. Did you? All Agents are given some amount of mental training, or did you fumble with that just like you did with your goggles? I see you got them back and I'm very happy for you." She did not sound happy at that moment. "Did you just slip them off of her face and then huddle off in a corner to tend to your wounded computer system? Or did you actually put a little effort into fighting with her? The point was to make it NOT look like we wanted them to get away. Did you screw up again?"

Stephanie pulled him closer so that they were cheek-to-cheek but not touching, all except for her hand in his hair, and with her lips hovering at his ear she said, "She read your mind, didn't she? Did she know things? Embarrassing things? Did it get you flustered? Were you distracted?" Her voice drew lower down to a whisper as she came to the next part. "Did she say things in an odd tone of voice? Did she make...suggestions that you couldn't seem to refuse? Is that how she got away?"

Pulling back from him, she searched his features with those hollow, dead eyes and found no recognition in response to her words. She'd confused him a bit, it seemed. But the paranoia that what had happened to Jean had awakened Gwen's powers fully would not leave her alone. Maybe something else had happened.

"If I find out later that her powers have reached the last levels and that you knew about it this whole time without saying anything, you will have to wait until after 6 months of medical leave before you'll be able to re-apply for a new assignment. Understand?" As she asked the last question, she roughly jerked his head as she shoved him away and let go, giving him her version of a glare as she awaited his response. Just a few more minutes of alone time left - any further explanation he had to offer to enlighten how he was able to escape unharmed would have to be given quickly, but she would not be satisfied until she got it.

The one thing she was most paranoid about was that for some other reason Jason had let the target go. She wanted to know that she could trust him when the time came to execute part 2 of this plan - she would get Gwen's body with or without his help, but she would not stand for it if he got in her way. Eric got a new body and switched skins seemingly whenever he felt like it - with a minor bit of procedure thrown in of course - and after watching him fill Jean's shoes so effortlessly, it increased her feverish need to be inside Gwen. Her own flesh was beginning to itch and ache, growing weary and tight, like someone winding a tourniquet around her core. She needed to get out and right now, Jason's assurances that he was not going to betray her - or hadn't already - was crucial to her not ending his life on the spot. NO ONE would threaten her new life. ... No matter how delicious their cries of pain tasted...