Going Home
by Charlie Ball


Alex's bags were waiting by the door when the cab driver rang the bell. He had hoped he'd be able to give Sarah a call before his departure, but the cabbie had shown up sooner than he'd expected. He hoped she was well and, as the thought occurred to him, he knew she was. It was an odd sensation and one he couldn't explain but he shrugged and helped the cabbie down with the heaviest of his three bags. The man was apparently at the end of his shift and didn't seem in the best of physical condition.

It would be a fine mess all 'round if the poor man collapsed on my front steps...

******

The trip to London was mercifully uneventful. He was, however, surprised to see who was waiting for him at the gate.

"Mother? What are you doing here?"

The Lady Allyson St. John-Smythe, Duchess of Gloucester, was waiting patiently at the gate. She was not an exceptionally tall woman, standing only 1.6 meters in height, yet her manner and bearing seemed to add significantly to her stature. Her hair was a few shades darker than her son's and, although much longer, was styled such that it did not hide her face. To the casual observer, one might have thought her to be an older sister. On closer inspection, however, the faint lines that surrounded her eyes hinted at her true age. It was also plain to see where Alex had gotten his piercing, green eyes.

She raised her eyebrows slightly and embraced her son, replying, "I'm happy to see you as well," she said. "I think, however, the several months you've spent in America have caused your manners to deteriorate."

"I'm sorry, mother. Of course I'm happy to see you," said Alex, apologetically. "I just didn't expect to see you here at the airport." Alex tensed suddenly and a worried expression appeared on his face.

"Is there something wrong? Is father--"

"Your father is the same, Alex," his mother replied softly. "Nothing has changed." In a lighter tone, she added, "I just haven't seen you for four months and didn't feel like waiting the extra two hours. You'll understand when you have children of your own."

Alex relaxed visibly and they headed out into the concourse. There was a brief, awkward silence that was finally broken by his mother.

"So, how was your flight?"

Alex smiled slightly and said, "It was long, but only slightly boring. I managed to pick up a few CDs to listen to for the trip over but I'll have to find some more for the return."

"Were they that bad? I've heard some of the more... colorful musicians over there can be a bit much to take.", asked his mother.

"Oh, no it isn't that, it's just that now that I've heard them, I don't really need to listen to them again. They're pretty much stored up here now," Alex said, tapping his head at the temple. "My memory for sound pretty much eliminates the need."

"Oh, yes. I'd forgotten," said Lady Allyson wryly. "It's probably a good thing you're an honest young man or the recording industry would likely collapse overnight..."

******

A short while later, the two were on there way back to the family estates. The trip was just over two hours, allowing for traffic. His mother allowed him the luxury of staring out the window at the passing countryside in silence. The countryside seemed different somehow, although, other than seasonal differences, there was very little that had changed in the four months he had been away. After some reflection he concluded that it was he who had changed, not his home. The thought saddened him a little.

He turned away from the window to see his mother watching him with a curious look on her face.

"Is everything all right?" she asked, a note of concern in her voice.

"Yes," he said quietly, then added with a forced smile, "Or at least it will be. It's been an... eventful week and one that I'd rather not relive."

His mother, mercifully, did not press for more details. He did not know if he'd ever be able to discuss the events that transpired in New Orleans with her. He was certain he didn't want to share the dreams he'd been having.

The car finally pulled onto the road leading to the manor. It was a fairly short, winding thing that threaded its way through a stand of old oak trees. Alex had never learned exactly how old they were, but they had to have stood there for more than a century. There was no one in the area that could remember a time the trees weren't there. The car stopped in front of the manor and the chauffer opened the door to let the passengers out. He then drove away but not before promising that Alex's bags would be in his rooms shortly.

The manor itself was just as he remembered it. Everything about it spoke of age and stability, from the ivy-laden brickwork to the neatly manicured lawns and hedges. There was little snow to be seen this time of year but that would likely change in another month. As they approached the front door, it was opened by the butler, Maurice. Alex waited for his mother to enter and followed her inside.

From the outside, there was little in the way of decoration to note the season but that changed as he entered the front hall. All throughout the manor, there were boughs of holly and a sprig of mistletoe here and there. There was a Christmas tree in the entrance hall and a veritable host of other decorations and knick-knacks that related in some way to the holiday season.

"Welcome home, Your Grace," said the butler, bowing his head slightly as Lady Allyson entered the Hall. Barely able to conceal his smile, he continued "Master Alex. It's good to see you. I trust you are in good health?"

It was only the long hours of having manners and proper decorum drummed into him from an early age that prevented Alex from picking the man up and hugging him right then and there.

"I'm well, thank you Maurice," said Alex smiling widely. "You and the staff have done a wonderful job with the decorations. I hadn't realized just how much I was looking forward to coming home until just now."

It was true. Alex felt better now than he had in weeks, as if the familiar sights and sounds had dispelled a dark cloud. As much as he liked his place in New York, this was still home to him and it would likely always be that way.

"Thank you, sir. I'll relay that to the staff." Addressing both Alex and his mother, Maurice continued. "Would either of you care for something to eat?"

"Thank you, Maurice," said Alex's mother. "I'm not very hungry myself," she continued, "but from the thunderous roar of my son's stomach, I'd say he could use a bite. Give us a few moments to get settled."

Maurice smiled and took their coats. "Then I shall get something at once, ma'am. It wouldn't do for him to be overcome by a lack of nourishment so close to Christmas."

"Ah, that's what was missing," said Alex, dryly. "I've been experiencing a lack of quality abuse while in the States. This makes up for it nicely..."

******

Capt. Timothy Andrews drew near to the gate of the Royal Elite's fortress in Dundalk. He no longer wore the uniform issued by Her Majesty's government. Instead, he wore plain, dark clothing. The vehicle, one of the few that had not been destroyed in the initial attack, was also plain and unadorned. He had commandeered it, threatening the creature with the wrath of the Royal Elite if he were detained.

Andrews stopped at yet another checkpoint. He had lost count of the number of times he been stopped by the demonic mutants of Autocrat's legions. Each time, he presented the round medallion that served both as a pass and signified his rank in Autocrat's forces. Each time, the creatures eyed him suspiciously, some even threatened him, but ultimately they all allowed him to proceed.

He abandoned the vehicle fifty meters before the gate. If he were allowed to live, it would still be there when he returned. If not, it didn't matter anyway.

Entering the massive structure, he made his way to the chamber to which he had been instructed to go. The room was large, though not cavernous, and dimly lit. As he entered, the lights came up, revealing a single, high-backed chair next to which was table. Andrews walked into the chamber and stood before the chair. To have taken a seat would have been to invite a quick, painful and very lasting death.

Andrews waited for nearly an hour before he was graced by the presence of one of the Royal Elite. He bowed as the large form of Mastodon entered the room, a large tankard in one hand and an equally large sandwich in the other. The highborn sat down in the room's only chair and took another bite of his sandwich before acknowledging Andrews' presence.

"So," he started, sounding annoyed, "what's so important that you have to waste my time in person rather than just send us a message?"

Andrews drew a breath, as he tried to figure out how to couch his request to the brutish man. He had to inform without sounding condescending -- no small task in this case.

"As my lord is no doubt aware, I have been assigned to keep watch on Alexander St. John-Smythe, son of the Duke of Gloucester." Andrews snatched a quick look at Mastodon, noting that the man seemed to be paying more attention to his fingernails than to his underling. "In addition, I was assigned to assess his abilities and keep the Royal Elite informed of his progress. I ha-"

"Yes, I know all that!" growled the highborn. "Get to the point before you've used up my patience!"

"Yes, my lord," replied Andrews in a subdued voice. "I've encountered a situation that I have been unable to resolve, despite the resources the royal Elite have placed at my disposal. There is an individual, called Weaver, who -- despite our best efforts -- has free and uncontrolled access to St. John-Smythe. We have been unable to determine his identity or his purpose and our efforts to capture and eliminate him have yielded no results. I have come to request aid in disposing of Weaver before he can interfere with Lord Autocrat's plans for St. John-Smythe."

There was a pause as Mastodon finished brushing crumbs from his shirt.

"That doesn't sound too difficult," said Mastodon, finally. The large man was about to continue when he was interrupted by a third voice.

"There's a little more to it than that, I'm afraid," said a young oriental as he entered. Brainchild was wearing his customary leather jacket and equally customary sneer. "What the good captain has failed to say is that they don't even know what this Weaver looks like -- they only have a voice print. He also has a tendency to appear and disappear at will and without a trace."

Andrews went a little pale and swallowed. Mastodon was not known for his even temper and there was no way to gauge how he would handle the new information. Brainchild continued, seeming to concentrate and seem completely relaxed at the same time.

"They've tried every form of surveillance they have at their disposal. They've tried collecting minute DNA traces when our dear Alex has been away. They've even tried hiring a mercenary to take out Weaver," said the telepath. "All of these attempts have failed." Turning to look at Andrews, Brainchild asked, "You do know the price of failure, don't you captain?"

Andrews swallowed, and tried to speak but his voice caught in his throat. Before he could make a second attempt to speak, Mastodon spoke.

"So this Weaver is slippery. Should still be easy enough to deal with. Anything else?" he asked Andrews.

Brainchild cut in before Andrews could reply.

"He also doesn't hold your intelligence in very high esteem -- it seems he thinks of you as something of a brute, even somewhat unstable..."

"Oh he does, does he?" said Mastodon, roughly grabbing Andrews by his left arm. The sound of breaking bone was just barely exceeded by Andrews stifled cry. Mastodon lifted the man and shook him like a rag doll. "Well, let's see if we can't change his opinion of me a bit."

"No concussions please, Mastodon. He might have a little more information in his head and I'll need it in one piece if we're going to extract it. Just hold him there..." Mastodon gripped Andrews by the back of his collar and held him a few inches above the floor. Brainchild drew closer and stood right in front of Andrews.

"For shame captain," he said. "You shouldn't be forming opinions of your betters. Now quit squirming. This is going to hurt. A lot..."

Andrews' expression had gone from nervousness to pain to outright fear. Just as he felt Brainchild touch his mind, he heard a third voice.

"That's enough Brainchild." The voice was not overly loud but it reeked of authority. Brainchild stopped immediately, though his expression was one of concealed annoyance. Mastodon stood immediately, moving faster than one would expect, given his size.

Autocrat entered the small room. His armor was polished to the point of glowing and his cloak swirled majestically around his frame. His every move spoke of vast, yet tightly controlled power. The cables that emerged and reentered his armor at various points did nothing to detract from the force of his presence.

"Ordinarily, I'd let you indulge yourself for his insubordination but he is still useful to us," said Autocrat. He paused, seeming to absorb all that had happened in the room thus far and plot out a variety of resulting scenarios.

"I believe that you, Brainchild," he continued, "may be best suited to handle the Weaver problem. Get what information the captain has and go to New York. Eliminate Weaver and begin working on young Alexander to bring him into the fold."

"Yes, my liege." replied Brainchild.

Mastodon looked as though he wanted to protest Autocrat's choice - but he wisely kept his mouth closed.

******

The next day was Christmas Eve. Alex awoke early, despite having been up for so long. His body clock had not quite yet made the transition to the new time zone and, after a fruitless attempt to go back to sleep, decided to get up. He quickly showered and went downstairs to get a quick bite to eat. He had intended to get a muffin or some fruit but the cook took one look at him and led him over to the table and made him sit.

"Really, Master Alex, how do you expect to stay healthy -"

"But--"

"I mean, look at you! What have you been eating in America? You're wasting away!"

"Wasting awa--"

And so it went for a full five minutes with Alex barely able to get two or three syllables out. Finally he relented and ended up eating a far more substantial meal than he had intended.

The previous evening, he had called and left messages with both Jessica and Gerry. He apologized for not calling them sooner and invited them for lunch, if they hadn't already made other plans. It was now mid-morning and he hadn't heard from them. He decided to use the time to catch up on what was going on in the world.

As he made his way to the study, the only place his mother had allowed a television set, Maurice caught his eye and, checking over his shoulder, waved him over to a side hallway.

"What can I do for you, Maurice?" asked Alex, a little curious as to the cloak and dagger routine.

In a low tone, the butler answered, "I wanted to inform you that the items that you'd had sent from America arrived yesterday. I hope you don't mind, but I've taken the liberty of wrapping them."

Alex had almost forgotten the gifts he had bought only a few weeks ago. Was it only a few weeks? Thought Alex. It seems so much longer...

"Thank you Maurice. That was quite thoughtful of you. Where -- ?"

"Oh, I've put them in the closet in your room," said Maurice, looking around, "top shelf on the left." After a moment, he added, "My apologies for my rather conspiratorial manner, but your mother, if you'll pardon my saying so, has a way of being where you least expect her."

Alex smiled, remembering. "No apologies necessary. I don't think I'll ever forget the time she sent me to my room when I was eight. I made some sarcastic remark about the situation being unfair when I thought she couldn't hear me. I rounded the corner and there she was. I remember being very hungry that night... That reminds me, I don't think I ever thanked you for the sandwich you snuck up to me that night."

"Oh, no thanks are necessary, sir," replied the butler. "I remember a few hungry nights from my childhood as well. I occasionally disagreed with my father as to what I should and shouldn't have to eat. Those particular lessons are often the most... memorable."

"Well, thanks just the same," said Alex. "If anyone calls, I'm going to be in the study catching up on local events."

Maurice's expression clouded slightly, prompting Alex to ask, "What is it? Does this have anything to do with the 'Irish trouble' mother was speaking of when she called me in the States?"

"I'm afraid so, sir. I could tell you, but I'm certain you'll get far more detail from the television. I'd recommend alternating between CNN and BBC2. CNN will give you a quick synopsis and I'm certain BBC2 can fill in the gaps."

"Well what's going on then?"

"Ireland has been devastated by the Royal Elite, sir. It... well, it's bad. As I said, the media will be able to tell you more."

Alex headed into the study and turned on the television. Maurice had been correct. It was bad.

What video footage there was showed that the characteristically green, Irish countryside had been blasted and was now scorched and barren. There were few cities left standing and what structures there were looked military in nature. There was even footage of the Government team, The Ensigns. Unfortunately, most of the footage was intended for public relations video. There was very little of substance relating their activities against the Royal Elite.

There were also reports of internment camps where all manner of atrocities were committed, as though Hitler had revised his notes and improved on ways to degrade his captives. Alex watched for several hours, his spirits sinking with every report. When the reports began to sound similar, he turned off the television. There was precious little new information and they news service had begun to rehash the details already established.

After a while, Alex noted that it was well after lunch and it was unlikely that either Jessica or Gerry would be dropping by. He decided to give a call to the Ministry for Metahuman Affairs to see if there were anything else he could learn. Due to the Christmas holiday, there were few people there to take his call.

Then he remembered Xavier Kingston and asked for him. He still had not properly thanked the young lab tech who had mad his costume, even if it's design was something of an embarrassment. The man was uncharacteristically young for the position he held but the costume he had made for Alex was proof that he knew his stuff.

"This is Kingston, Merry Christmas..."

"And a Merry Christmas to you as well. This is Alexander St. John-Smythe. I'm glad I was able to reach you."

"Hello!" replied the lab tech. "How have you been? I hope my uncle hasn't been making your life too miserable. I'm told he can be a little rough on new students..."

Kingston was referring to Juca, the capoeira mestre who was responsible for Alex's martial arts training.

"Not at all. Actually, I think it's going pretty well. He's even had me help out with some of the newer students. Anyway, I'm glad I caught you. I wasn't sure you'd be there, what with the Christmas holiday and all.

"Ordinarily, I'd be on holiday myself. I only came in to archive some files and do a little system maintenance while Pewitt is away. He never lets me do it while he's in the lab and it's just asking for trouble to let it go. It seems that the only time I can get anything done is when he's away." After a moment's pause, he asked, "I've been meaning to ask you. Have you had the chance to use your costume yet?"

"Yes. I did," replied Alex quietly.

"Were there any problems with it? I'm sorry I didn't have time to test it, but -"

"Oh no, no. There weren't any problems with it. It worked quite well, actually. You're to be commended, especially with that mp3 player you came up with. I just wish the circumstance that I had to use it had been different, is all." Forcing a smile, Alex continued, "actually, my only real complaint is the design. I knew I should have burned those sketches when they first showed them to me."

"What do you mean? I thought it looked rather smashing," said Kingston, grinning widely. "With your build and the way it was designed to fit, I'd bet your biggest problem is remembering the names and numbers of all the women who've been hitting on you." Alex could almost see the grin on the other man's face.

"It might be like that where you live," answered Alex. "But if I walked around the streets of New York dressed like that, I'd likely get laughed off the street unless there was some hulking monstrosity to distract them."

"Oh, come on. I bet you--"

Alex could hear the warning beep from the computer that interrupted Kingston.

"What's the problem? Is it sticking out it's tongue at you or something?" quipped Alex.

"Sort of. It's denying me access to a fairly large part of the database," replied the lab tech.

"Well then, I should let you go so you can get out of there on time. Listen, if you can make it, I'd like to invite you 'round for dinner or something, say on the twenty-seventh?"

There was a brief silence before Xavier answered. "Oh, I'm sorry. Yeah sure, I'd love to come. That is," continued Kingston with a smile, "if I can get out of dinner with the Queen. Sometimes, my social calendar can be such a burden."

"I can relate," replied Alex dryly. "I'll see you then, about seven o'clock-ish."

"I'll be there. What should I wear?"

"Oh, nothing too fancy -- dress casual I suppose. I don't know what my mother has planned yet, but I know it wont be a full formal..."

"Okay, I'll see you then... Now what in the world is wrong with this thing...", said the lab tech as he hung up, annoyance creeping into his voice.

******

Christmas Eve came and went with the usual ceremony. There were some carolers and the lighting of the Yule Log. At his mother's insistence, Alex wrote out a brief note to Father Christmas to go onto the fire and thus be sent up the chimney to him. He'd felt a little foolish while doing it, but there was something oddly comforting about it once it was done. The only thing he'd written on the note was "peace of mind."

Christmas morning came and gifts were exchanged. His mother, as was her custom, was fairly extravagant with her gifts both to Alex and to the staff. While mingling with the staff didn't, as a rule, generally occur, this time of year had a tendency to blur the line between the family and the household staff. She also made a fuss over the jewelry he'd gotten her while in New York, even though the pieces he'd bought paled in comparison to what she already owned.

There was an excellent brunch and a little later that afternoon, everyone settled down to watch the Queen's address. Afterwards, Alex stood up and excused himself. His mother followed him out into the hall.

"I wish you wouldn't go, Alex," she said, concern filling her voice. "The doctors say that he doesn't hear anything at all. I really don't think he'd mind."

"I have to, mother," said Alex softly. "It's been far too long since I've seen him and someone should go. It is Christmas after all."

"I know, dear. But it's been seven years. I honestly don't think there's any hope of him recovering."

Alex smiled at his mother, his eyes slightly glistening.

"There's always hope, mother. Always."

His mother pulled his head down and she kissed him on the forehead.

"Please drive carefully. The roads are slick and the weatherman said there's a chance of snow tonight."

"I will, mother."

Alex drew on his coat, got the keys to his car and headed out the door.

A short while later, he was standing outside the door to his father's room. He stood there for a few minutes, working up the courage to enter and finally stepped inside.

Richard St.John-Smythe, Duke of Gloucester, lay on the bed, tubes running in and out of his body - this one supplying his air, that one supplying his food, the other one carrying the waste from his body. There were several monitors connected to him monitoring his vital signs. There was one, however, that didn't seem to be functioning. On closer inspection, he realized that it was the monitor that measured brain activity. The lines were all flat.

He closed the door and took off his coat. He then pulled a chair over to sit next to the bed. He wasn't sure how to begin. He wanted to tell him about Sarah. He wanted to weep. He wanted desperately to apologize for putting him in this condition. Everyone had always told him not to blame himself, that he couldn't have prevented the accident. But they hadn't been there...

******

...Alex was eleven years old. They had just come from attending a football match. The weather had been sunny and warm, an excellent day for the game. His father, Richard, had decided that to drive back with the top down on the convertible.

Alex was in the passenger seat of the Roadster, playing with his new football. His father had bought it for him before they left and made him promise not to take it out of the box before they got home. Alex reluctantly agreed and had sullenly gotten into the car.

Looking to his right, he could see that his father was concentrating on the road. The music was playing quite loudly, something by an American band, but he wasn't sure who.

He won't mind, I'm sure. I just want to look at it, he found himself reasoning. He carefully opened the box and removed the ball from it. He carefully placed the box on the floor of the car trying to hold onto the ball at the same time.

Suddenly the ball got away from him, seeming to leap out of his hands. Horrified, Alex saw the ball bounce toward his father's side of the car, heading for the floor. Alex tried to grab the ball before it could go too far but it was too late. As if in slow motion, he watched the toy lodge itself under the brake pedal just as the car rounded a bend. His father had been driving very fast and, because he couldn't slow down, the car started to roll...

Some time later, someone else drove past and saw the accident. Alex was sitting fifty meters away from the wreckage. He had stopped crying and merely sat staring at the wreckage in silence. It was generally regarded a miracle that Alex had escaped unharmed. His father had not been so fortunate.

He had been rushed to hospital as soon as the ambulance arrived. The paramedics had been able to keep him alive long enough to get him on life support equipment. While his body could be kept alive on life support indefinitely, there was no longer evidence of any brain function. Alex had overheard the doctors speaking to his mother about taking him off of life support and had immediately begun begging them not to do it. Ultimately, he had made such a commotion that it had take four orderlies to hold him down while he was sedated.

When he regained consciousness, his mother assured him that they would not take him off of the life support equipment until there was absolutely no hope left...

******

After he'd sat there for a while, he cleared his throat and began speaking...

"Hello, father. I'm sorry it's been so long since I came for a visit. A lot of things have happened in the last few months." Alex drew a deep breath, fighting back the tears that threatened to roll down his face and continued.

"I'm attending Juilliard now. I'm living in a flat not too far from..."

******

It was late when Alex returned home. He went up to his room and closed the door. He undressed and climbed into the large bed that stood against the far wall. Ignoring the tears that began to roll down his cheeks, he turned over and eventually fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

A short while later, his mother came in and checked on him. Pulling the blankets up to his neck, she brushed the hair from his face and kissed him lightly on the forehead. "Good night, son, " she whispered and then returned to her own room, a single tear running down her own cheek.

******

The next day, he divided his time between listening to and playing a variety of tunes. It was interrupted only by lunch, which he and his mother prepared for the staff. The staff was traditionally given Boxing Day off and, at least in their household, roles were somewhat reversed between staff and employer. While no culinary masters, Alex and his mother did fairly well by themselves and the staff seemed to enjoy themselves immensely.

It was later that evening, after all of the washing up had been completed, that Alex received a call.

"Hello?"

"Hi Alex, this is Gerry."

"Gerry! I'm glad you called," said Alex. "I was afraid I wouldn't get the chance to talk to you before I headed back to the America."

"Well, I just got your message and thought I'd call. Sorry I missed lunch the other day, but Jess and I were busy with last minute shopping and--"

"No need for an apology, it was me who called you at the last minute. So how are you and Jessica?"

"Oh we're doing well. Jess is planning a trip across Europe in the spring and I'll be starting at Cambridge soon. Did I mention I'd been accepted?..."

The two spoke for a while longer and Alex invited the pair over for dinner the next evening. Gerry was characteristically cautious. He had never felt comfortable about committing other people to a plan of action before first discussing with them.

"... If Jess hasn't planned anything, we'll be there."

"Good. I'll see you then... But if you can't make it, just call and let me know. I'll understand."

They said their good-byes and Alex hung up the phone. Alex and Gerry had once been rivals for the affections of Jessica. Gerry had ultimately won out. Heading up to his room, he realized that, instead of feeling any sort of anxiety, he was genuinely looking forward to seeing his friends again.

******

The next evening, Xavier Kingston showed up at the door and was admitted by the butler. Maurice showed him to the study where Alex was sitting in front of the television, hoping to pick up more information regarding the invasion of Ireland. As Kingston entered the room, Alex stood, extending his had to his new friend.

"I'm glad you could make it. Can I get you anything to drink?" he asked. Xavier pulled out a small device that looked a little like a cell phone and as he finished tuning about the room, he said a little nervously, "I've discovered something you should be aware of but I'm not quite sure how to tell to you. It's regarding that computer problem I ran into when we spoke the day before last."

"What is it? And what is that device you just waved about the room? This is starting to feel a bit like an old spy flick..."

Xavier shrugged. "Sorry, I just wanted to be sure we didn't have any extra ears hanging about the room."

"Extra ears? What are you talking about?"

"They've been watching you, Alex. A lot. Nearly every day since you moved to the States. The amount of data is staggering -- sensor logs, phone taps, surveillance tapes, both video and audio. You'd think they were trying to gather evidence for some assassination plot, if it weren't for the sensor logs."

"They? Who are you talking about - and what about these sensor logs?"

"If I were a betting man, I'd point the finger at Andrews and Pewitt. They've done a pretty good job at covering their tracks but I'm pretty certain they're behind it. They've recorded data on you during every work-out you've ever done in your flat," said the lab tech.

"My flat?"

"Yes, the entire place is wired. Sensors, sound, video. This is some heavy duty stuff. They recorded everything Alex."

Alex got a sinking feeling .

"Everything? Even with Sar-"

"Everything," replied Kingston, pulling out a silver disc and handing it to Alex. "I've made a copy of the... less sensitive highlights, just in case you want to file charges or something."

"Damn," was all that Alex was able to say. Finally, Alex asked, "Is there any indication of why they're doing this?"

"Not really, but it seems like they were collecting data and sending it on to someone else. Unfortunately, there's no indication who they're sending it to..."

Walking confidently down the street,... was Vamp "... Youngling. I know of your dependence on music. Do you honestly think you can touch me let alone kill me?"

"I think I know," replied Alex. Alex had wondered how Vamp had known about the relationship between music and his powers. The curiosity had been brushed aside in the chaos that followed. "They've been sending it to the Royal Elite."

Xavier's Response was a low whistle followed by a "Are you sure?"

Alex told him some of what transpired in New Orleans. Outside of the Ministry, he hadn't really discussed the discovery of how his powers manifested. He was pretty sure neither his mother nor Gerry would have mentioned it.

After a brief silence, Alex turned to Xavier and asked, "is there any way you can... well, lose those files, or at least some of them?"

"I'm afraid not," said Kingston. The lab tech paused, watching the expression on Alex's face turn from tentative hope to dejection. "It seems there's nothing left to delete -- the original files, as well as the back-ups, have unfortunately vanished without a trace. I'm thinking that some bumbling lab technician accidentally did a complete wipe of the server. A terrible mess. I don't think any of the data will ever be recovered. All of that work, just gone in a puff of electromagnetic smoke..."

"You, my friend, have an overly developed sense of the dramatic," said Alex, a mixture of relief and worry washing over him. "I don't mean to sound paranoid or anything, but is it safe for you there? I'd hate for anything to happen to you on my account..."

"Oh, I don't foresee any problems. As good as they were at covering their tracks, I'm better." Kingston smiled and added, "the benefits of a misspent youth. Besides, when he finds out it's all gone, I wouldn't miss the look on Pewitt's face for the Crown."

"'Mis-spent Youth?'-Where did you grow up, the Monolith?"

Just then, the bell rang and a moment later, Gerry and Jessica were shown in to the room. A short while later the other guests arrived and for a while, the problem was pushed to the back of Alex's mind. But not forgotten.

The evening progressed, through conversation, dinner and more conversation. Alex's distraction was taken as mild discomfort at seeing Gerry and Jessica together, behaving the way young couples tend to do. It did, however, seem to Alex that they seemed to be overdoing the "young couple" routine. After a while, Alex's mother politely withdrew, allowing the younger people time to themselves.

"Gods, I thought she'd never leave," said Jessica after she'd left. Alex's eyebrows lifted in surprise, but he let the remark slide.

"So, how's life in New York?" asked Jessica. "It must be terribly exciting being there on your own."

"Oh, it has it's moments, but it's rarely anything more than a rude cabbie. Besides, school tends to keep me fairly busy."

"Poor Alex. Always studying - it must be murder on your social life," Jessica said sweetly. After a moment, she added, "So you don't have any girlfriends in America? Have you managed to keep a secret from us all these years? Perhaps I should have been jealous about you and Gerry..."

Alex had to do something of a double take. It wasn't like Jessica to gossip let alone speculate on matters of sexual preference, at least not in mixed company. If he hadn't known better, he'd have sworn that she was trying to stir up trouble.

He replied by saying, "Actually, I've met someone very nice. A rather remarkable girl by the name of Sarah Steiner."

"Sarah Steiner... Where have I heard that name?" asked Gerry, genuinely puzzled.

"Oh, come on Gerry. You were practically drooling over the pictures in that magazine when you saw them," chided Jessica. "It's that Knock-out person."

"I never -" responded Gerry defensively.

"I'm only teasing, Gerry. Besides, that other chap, Omega, -- Tommy Champion is it? -- was quite easy on the eyes as well..."

Alex was having a little difficulty believing his ears. Xavier seemed to find something very interesting to look at an the far wall and appeared to be oblivious to the current conversation.

Gerry, looking somewhat ruffled by Jessica's last comment, leaned toward Alex in a conspiratorial manner and asked, "so... What's she like?"

Alex's eyes narrowed a little.

"She's very bright, responsible, well informed and joy to be around. I don't--"

"No, no, no. I mean, what's she like? You know, in be--"

"I don't think I like the direction you're taking this conversation, Gerry," said Alex with a touch of steel in his voice. "I think it would be best if you let the subject drop... Now."

"Getting a bit touchy, aren't we?" he said. Looking at Jessica, he added, "I'm thinking maybe all that time at that lofty, elite music school has given our dear Alex something of a superiority complex. A little too good for your old friends now, are you?" he finished looking back at Alex.

Alex had had about enough. He stood up and stared directly at both them.

"My 'old friends' had a good deal more social grace than I've witnessed tonight. Perhaps you'd rather discuss your change of heart instead of speculating about my lifestyle or making unfounded assumptions.

Gerry looked as though he were actually going to take a swing at Alex when Jessica intervened.

"You should know better than that, Gerry," admonished Jessica. "We're sorry, Alex. I think maybe Gerry has had a little too much to drink. It might be best if we headed out. I mean, it is getting late..."

"I understand," said Alex, allowing the matter to slide. The couple said good night and departed.

"Wow. Are they usually like that?" asked Xavier.

"No. In fact, I've never known either of them to behave like that. I mean, Gerry's always had an active imagination where girls were concerned but he was never that... blatant. And Jessica - I don't understand..."

"Well, people do change. Listen, I should be going as well. I need to get into the lab early tomorrow morning and finish up a few things

"Then I won't detain you," said Alex. "I really appreciate your efforts, Mr. Kingston. I won't forget it."

"Please, call me Xavier. 'Mr. Kingston' reminds me a little too much of an old professor of mine. And here, you'll need this when you go back to New York."

Kingston handed Alex the device he'd used earlier and quickly showed Alex how it worked. It wouldn't jam the surveillance devices but it would detect their presence and help pinpoint where they were placed.

"Anyway, if I get to New York, maybe I'll look you up. I've... heard that your sound system is first rate. I'd love to see it for myself..."

******

The next day, Alex got up and packed for the return flight to New York. He'd found a few CDs on his bedside table, all classical pieces. No doubt a gift -- and perhaps a subtle hint -- from his mother. Closing the clasps on his bags, he set them down by the door for one of the staff to take down and, humming something by Bach, headed downstairs.

Breakfast was light, a welcome change from the heavy meals of the last few days. He passed the time by chatting with his mother about the piece he was working on for school and his plans in general for the near future.

She was intrigued when he mentioned getting together with Sarah for New Year's Eve and asked quite a few questions about her. After a while, Alex begged for a glass of water before continuing with the interrogation. His mother smiled and took the hint, saying, "She sounds like a lovely young woman. I think I'd like to meet her sometime..."

He said goodbye to Maurice and the staff and headed to the airport with his mother. They said their good-byes at the gate and Alex boarded the plane. The return trip was as uneventful as the flight home.

From several rows back, a young oriental, working on a high-end, laptop computer occasionally glanced in Alex's direction and smiled...

Soon, he'd say to himself and then return to his work.
 

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