A Heritage of Power 3: Jay's Story 2:
A Padawan To Be

by Fur and Fantasy
PG-13 for Violence
full contents and notes located at the bottom of the file

T-Bone lay on the bed, naked but for his mask, trying to keep himself from throwing up. He wasn't sure how long he'd been lying there, but gathering the energy to stand just seemed to be beyond him. He didn't want to think about getting up, about leaving this hotel room, or about going back home. If he started thinking about things then he'd have to think about what had happened this evening, and then he really would throw up. The very thought of it, of the only thing inside him he had to bring up, set his stomach churning even more.

The big chocolate on gold tabby groaned and rolled out of the bed onto the floor, ignoring the ache under his tail as he moved. He stayed down on his hands and knees for a moment before struggling to his feet Slowly he made his way across the room to the fridge, grabbing one of the cans of cheap soft drink inside. The sweet liquid soothed his stomach and washed the taste of Feral out of his mouth as he gulped it down greedily.

Bile rose to the back of his throat at the thought and he coughed and spluttered around half a mouthful of cola, spraying most of it out across the carpet. Feral. No matter how much he tried to ignore it, he couldn't deny what had happened. Feral had forced himself into T-Bone's body, and the SWAT Kat had Feral's seed in his stomach and under his tail, more of it than he'd ever thought one Kat could produce. He finished the soft drink and tossed the can into the bin, staggering back across the room and through the door into the bathroom.

Chance stripped his T-Bone mask off as he stepped into the shower, throwing it next to the street clothes that lay neatly folded on the bench, and turned on a heavy stream of hot water. He stood, now completely naked, beneath the showerhead, trembling softly as he let the water run over his body. He hung his head and leaned against the frosted glass wall, unable to keep the thoughts of it at bay any longer. The urge to vomit had passed, but he wrapped his arms around his chest as he thought of himself bound and gagged on the floor in the bedroom, Feral's hands moving slowly and confidently across every inch of fur.

That hadn't been the worst thing, though. Nor had it been when he'd had to beg Feral to stop fucking him, or the way he'd gagged as he was forced to take the Kat's cock deeper and deeper into his throat. The worst thing, the most horrible thing, was that he had let it happen. Despite the struggling and the cursing and the time he'd actually managed to bite his former commander, there'd never been any real question that Feral would be getting what he wanted. After all, he had come here freely, even risking the possibility that the giant tom would tear his mask off and discover who the SWAT Kats really were.

"And what the fuck is up with that?" he asked himself, hating the thin wretched note in his voice.

His eyes fell on the small bottles of soap provided by the hotel and he unscrewed the tops of them, choosing the one with the strongest scent and rubbed it into his fur vigorously. There was absolutely no way he could go back home covered in Feral's scent. Although Jake had never come out and said anything about it, Chance knew his partner had a much better sense of smell than he did himself and could usually tell when Chance had been out rolling with some shekat. After the screaming argument they'd had this afternoon, Jake would be mad enough at him if he jumped to that conclusion, but if he somehow found out what had really happened …. Chance didn't want to think about it.

His sheath pulsed hot with blood as his soap slick fingers moved between his legs. He snarled softly as he felt Feral's fingers reaching out of memory to tease him, though anger faded to a familiar sickening feeling in his stomach as his cock began to emerge from its sheath.

"No way," he growled, anger flaring again. "I am not getting off on this." He finished cleaning himself as quickly as possible, doing his best to ignore the erect flesh between his legs, and the way it twitched as he cleaned up under his tail. He dried himself quickly and thoroughly, suddenly anxious to leave this hotel and everything that had happened here behind him. His movements became more and more hurried as he dressed, jamming the T-Bone mask into the inner pocket of his jacket

He let out an exasperated growl as he was putting his second boot on, his foot uncomfortably scrunching something inside. He pulled out a small piece of paper bearing an e-mail address and the word 'Anytime' scrawled in Feral's unmistakable handwriting. Chance snarled and slid the paper into his pocket beside his mask as he hurried out of the room. He was going to throw it into one of the bins in the foyer.

He was.

"Jake!" Felina opened her apartment door as the sun set and quickly pulled the dejected-looking Kat in "You okay?"

"Physically, yah." He sniffed the air and backed towards to door "I'm sorry, I ...."

"Don't you dare ." The tall, dark shekat growled softly "Dinner can wait." She softened and pulled him close, catching a pungent nosefull of anger turned to despairing fear and tipped his chin up "What happened?"

"I'm sorry, Fel ...." He pulled away from her fingers and buried his face against her chest The tears he'd kept back for nearly three hours finally escaped his control "I'm so sorry ...."

She held him, doing her best to hold back the urge to interrogate the truth out of him, at least until he stopped sobbing She wasn't all that sure which disturbed her more; that he was crying, or that he'd encountered something that could cause him to.

Felina Feral lay in her bed; too disturbed to sleep, too concerned for the sleeping tom curled against her side to dare move, much less get up It had taken far too long to coax him to settle down to risk disturbing him.

Her mind drifted through possibilities and just as quickly discarded them.

Perhaps he'd broken the law and was afraid of how she'd take it -- but she was sure she would have heard about it already, and pretty sure he knew it wouldn't matter that much to her.

It could have been an accident His anger had turned to disturbed fear But again, she should have heard about it There was no way her 'friends' at HQ wouldn't jump at the opportunity to point out, yet again, that her choice in lovers was less than desirable.

An affair? A fling she hadn't agreed to? Surely he knew she wouldn't be that angry Not after all the squirming he did trying to tell her about him sleeping with Chance.

Or maybe it was that ... or at least something about Chance The tabby was one of the center points of Jake's life She'd heard them argue about the tabby's dating habits before Not that she could ever make much sense of the two toms' relationship, but it would hardly be the first time Chance had hurt Jake deeply, intentionally or not.

And, of course, there were always the other aspects to the toms' relationship -- being business partners, seeing each other nearly 24/7, having to work together under the shadow of the past, being the SWAT Kats and all that implied Despite extreme curiosity, she wasn't so sure she wanted to know how Jake did it How the SWAT Kats equipment came about and the pair managed to have a longer arrest list than any thirty Enforcers, despite not being law enforcement officers.

A slight shifting of the body of lean muscle next to her caught Felina's attention and she looked down to meet distressed amber eyes "Mind telling me what that was all about?"

"I'd rather not," he murmured, then took a deep breath and inched away from her "But I'm going to have to."

Felina narrowed her eyes at his resigned tone and pulled him against her, fur on fur She caressed his back, kneading hard muscles that were even more tense than usual She smiled as he relaxed fractionally, almost against his will "It can't be as bad as you think."

Jake closed his eyes and drew a deep breath before speaking, his voice nearly dead "I can't see you any more."

"What?" Felina froze completely "*Why*?"

"Felina I care for you ... too much." He bit his lip and met her wide brown eyes "I ... I'm to the point I'm not willing to keep secrets from you." He dropped his head to avoid her searching gaze "But my biggest secret isn't just mine And my ... partner ... refused to agree to me telling you."

"Your biggest secret?" Felina's brain raced, plotting at a speed that would make her Uncle proud She cocked her head and asked gently "You mean that you're Razor?"

It was Jake's turn to freeze in pure shock and scramble for answers "How ... how did you know?" He asked very quietly.

"It wasn't that hard to figure out." She kissed him tenderly "Between Chance's flying style and your gift for building things, plus the timing of when you missed a date, and a few other details."

"I get it." He relaxed with a whoosh of air and kissed her soundly "Thank you for being so smart, Fel."

"Thank me by making dinner." She chuckled, then got a wicked look in her eye and ran a hand from his hip to tickle his balls "Mmm, but first an appetizer."

"Anything you want, Fel." Jake rolled to his back as she tossed the covers back and raked a possessive gaze over him.

"I have what I want." The dark brown shekat purred deeply as she ran strong hands along his body, pushing his fur against the grain before settling both hands on his hips and brushing her cheek up his half-showing erection, thrilling in the feel of the rough bristle of the barbs against her skin.

"Fel ... please," Jake barely breathed, his eyes desperate and hungry as she looked up "Let me ...."

"Of course, lover." She purred playfully and rolled to her arms and knees, her crotch over his muzzle She shivered in anticipation as he grabbed her hips and sought the best position.

The first touch of his tongue brought a rumbling groan from her as the slick underside pushed through her labia He circled it just inside her body, bringing first the rough front of his tongue, then the silky backside against the slick muscular walls, happily drowning in her taste and the intoxicating whimpers and involuntary thrusting of her hips.

She let her head drop between his legs, nearly oblivious to everything but his tongue as he shifted his head just slightly to slide up the deep crease between swollen flesh to tease her glistening, erect clit with the lightest of touches.

"No ... more," Felina managed to groan when he rolled his tongue, rough side up, back to her throbbing opening.

A deep chuckle reverberated against her crotch and his casual obedience answered as she nearly screamed with the first rolling wave of an orgasm and thrust against his hard, sharp teeth The flicker of pain only made it better as she surrendered the last of her control to the pending storm of sensation he always brought.

She breathed deeply as the shuddering slowed, then leveled into a pleasant exhaustion She made no attempt to help or hinder him as Jake gently rolled her off him and twisted to rub his entire body against hers.

"Rest there, sweetheart." He kissed her deeply, letting her taste herself on him "I'll bring breakfast."

It was dark and silent at the Megacat City Salvage Yard when Chance returned, taking care to avoid all the detection mechanisms in place around the building. It didn't look like Jake was home, but if he was Chance wanted to be able to get in without him knowing. A quick look around once he was inside made it obvious that his partner definitely wasn't around, and Chance didn't need any clues to figure out where he'd gone … or more importantly to whom he'd gone.

"No Jake," he grumbled to himself as he made his way into the hangar where the TurboKat rested, "Of course I don't mind that you're getting all lovey with Felina With a ranking Enforcer." He pulled the T-Bone mask from his inner jacket pocket and tossed it into the locker with the rest of the costume, giving it a quick sniff to make sure there was nothing of Feral still lingering about it.

"Of course I don't mind that you want to marry a woman whose uncle I hate more than anyone else in the world, whose uncle has just tied me up and … tormented me for the last two and a half hours." Chance's bitter monologue continued as he headed back into the living room, flicking the light on now that he was sure he was alone. "Two Kats who would like nothing better than to see the two of us locked away for life." He shuddered at the thought of what could happen if he found himself locked in a cell and Ulysses Feral was the one holding the keys.

He reached into his jacket pocket again and pulled out a small scrap of paper, an e-mail address scrawled across it. He'd meant to get rid of it as he left the hotel, but he'd realized that it really didn't make any difference. The words written on it were firmly stamped on his mind. ENFR999@katmail.com. An anonymous account with one of the largest public e-mail providers on the net. And the word 'Anytime', as though it were some sort of invitation. Surely Feral couldn't be expecting him to actually send a message to the address. He couldn't possibly think that Chance had enjoyed it ... that he'd want to do it again. The Kat was twisted. If Chance hadn't known that before now, the events of tonight had certainly proved it for him.

"Too much thinking Chance," he murmured to himself as he stepped through into the kitchen, "But you've always known how to fix that." He opened one of the cupboards and reached a hand in, grabbing a bottle at random.

Rum. Black label, over-proof rum. Perfect.

He twisted the top off the bottle and lifted it to his lips, taking deep greedy swallows. The liquid burnt his throat as it went down, though it was a smooth silky burn that promised quick oblivion and a raging headache in the morning, rather than the rough sensation that so often proceeded a night of groggy haze and vomiting.

He sighed softly at the familiar, welcome sensation of the alcohol as its numb warmth began to spread through his body. He tossed his head back and lifted the bottle again, downing the rum almost as easily as he had the can of soft drink earlier. Let Jake do whatever the hell he wanted.

Chance walked back into the living room and threw himself down on the couch, taking another long swallow from the bottle of rum, reveling in the feeling of warmth as it spread throughout his body, the caress of a vice he'd long resisted. Jake thought Chance didn't know he was keeping spirits in the house, but Jake wasn't as smart as he sometimes thought he was. Obviously so, if he wanted to just spit out the secret of the SWAT Kats to the Enforcers. Of course Jake would probably do quite well out of it, with the way the Ferals had been so desperately trying to reproduce some of the weapons that Jake had designed. They'd be falling over themselves to get him into their R&D department, which was fine if you happened to be Jake Clawson.

The phone rang as Chance was taking another swig from the rapidly emptying bottle, and he grumbled softly as he crossed the room to pick it up.

"I don't really wanna hear it Jake," he murmured, taking one last swallow before he picked up the phone.

"What?" he asked, deciding the pleasantries were best ignored.

"Well," the voice on the other end replied, stretching the word out until it was almost a purr and sending shivers down Chance's spine. "If it isn't my new toy."

"Fuck you Feral," Chance spat back, amazed at the gall of the Kat that he'd call him here, and not even in private judging from the vague voices Chance could hear in the background.

"Oh no, I don't think so," the Enforcer chuckled "Even if you begged as sweetly as you did tonight, just like a naughty kitten caught in the act." Chance's mouth hung open slightly as he realized that the other voice he could hear coming down the telephone line was his own, the moans and pleas that Feral had wrung from him as he'd been bound and defenseless.

"You twisted asshole!" Chance snarled into the phone, only to have Feral's mocking laugh come back in the other direction.

"Oh you'll do well, very well indeed. I'm going to enjoy giving this little kitten what he deserves."

"Like hell you will! I don't know what game you're playing Feral, and you're damned lucky that I'd get nowhere reporting you, but I'm not going to be a part of it."

"Oh really now?" Feral's voice carried an amused note underneath the words. "We'll see about that; but a truly naughty kitten, a tough kitten, a street kitten, might learn to love the leash. I'll see you kneeling at my feet again." He hung up abruptly, leaving the phone buzzing in Chance's ear.

Chance slowly set the phone down, turning his eyes to the bottle. He took a quick swig and set it down on the coffee table by the couch as he passed by. He headed back into the kitchen and swung Jake's liquor cupboard open, quietly complimenting Jake's taste as he picked out bottles of his favorites, all the best quality. When he walked back into the living room he was carrying five bottles, which he put down beside the rum, and then set about emptying them into his belly, drowning thought, and memory in a warm, comforting darkness.

"What's wrong?" Lt. Feral kissed Jake softly as she readied her gear to go on shift.

"Probably nothing, Fel." He shied away from the question with a fiercely possessive kiss before backing off "Just a bad feeling."

She studied him intently, and then drew a breath "I can take the day off ...."

Jake stood stunned for a moment before shaking his head weakly "No need."

She cocked her head at him, trying to figure out the one piece of this puzzle she didn't have "Jake, when was the last time you were this upset?"

"Never," came far too easily from him before he grasped her hand and pulled her tight "A lot's happened in the last 24, I worry about you is all." He shifted to meet troubled brown eyes "I can't ask you to deny such an important part of yourself Just like you won't ask me to give up being Razor, I can't ask you to give up being an Enforcer, no matter how we worry or hurt."

"It's one of the things I love about you." She smiled tenderly "As much as it scares you, you understand I need this." She tapped her badge "I'll be careful."

Jake caressed her arm as she turned to double check her blaster "Give a call when you get off I'll have dinner ready."

"Hmm?" She cocked an eyebrow at him.

"I'd rather not deal with Chance for a while." A hint of the anger of the previous day flared up "Give him some time to think about not having me around."

"And you some time to decide if you're going to forgive him." Felina observed dryly.

"Yah That too." He looked away from her knowing gaze "I'm not so sure I can any more."

"Just because of me?" She arched an eyebrow at him and glanced at the wall clock.

"That was just the last straw." Jake shook his head quickly "There are ... a few other things."

"Jake." She caught his chin and forced him to look up at her "Just don't make a choice you'll regret because you're mad at him."

"I won't, love." He stretched up to kiss her lightly "Take care of yourself."

"I will." She smiled uneasily at him before turning to leave.

Jake waited until he was sure her car was well out of range before turning to do a little cleanup and let his mind wander to it's own conclusions as his body went on autopilot.

"Goddess, I'm glad I'd already moved most my stuff to my new apartment." Jake shivered at the cold knot in his gut as he rolled his motorcycle into the Hanger from one of the side passages and parked it on the far edge of the huge area "I'm going to miss this place, but at least I won't have to come back."

He stopped dead as the TurboKat came into view and the knot turned to pain.

"I'm sorry, Blackie." He patted the sleek jet's side "Take good care of T-Bone, he needs you more than I do right now I'll take care of you when he doesn't need you anymore Promise."

Jake turned away from the focus of most of his free time and thought for the last six years and spared a moment to find out how hard he'd have to sneak around to avoid Chance.

"What the hell?" Disbelief and disgust warred with each other and the wave of relief that washed over the lean tom as he saw his partner's state, and the obvious cause of it. He cocked his head and muttered "Well, I guess this ... might ... change things But what I came for first."

He moved with quiet grace though the building, more out of habit than any concern for waking the snoring tomkat on the battered couch With the long, heavy silver and black spiral-patterned jewelry box safely secured in the motorcycle's storage compartment he turned back, determined to not leave on a bitter note.

With the sun nearly at its zenith Jake sat on a small table near the couch and surveyed his morning's work The building was cleaner than usual, everything in its place; even the six empty liquor bottles were cleaned out and in the recycling bin Notes were laid out on how to do the tasks he'd always done, and the SWAT Kats gear was immaculate All that was left was to explain the one personal possession he intended to leave in this place.

"Well ... love ... when you're ready to come to me, I'll be here for you." He stood and shivered as he set a large silver jewelry box on the table with a note on top of it.


I'd be surprised if you have any idea how much this hurts me, and I'd be even more surprised if you cared right now.

I can smell the rage and hatred on you even now, and the sex and Feral of all Kats I don't care what happened that made you turn back to the bottles I got for you -- for the day I knew would come when you needed them more than you needed to stay away.

It wasn't always this way I still remember when you smiled most days I only turned to Felina when you turned away from me.

And I didn't tell her about our hobby, BTW I didn't have to She knew before I started seeing her Figured it out herself.

When you figure out what the thing in the box is here for, and if it means anything you want, come talk to me I doubt I'll be hard to find.


The lean cinnamon tomkat fingered the paper for a while, then picked up the box and opened it With trembling fingers he removed the thick gold engagement collar with an azure and crimson ying-yang He hesitated, then stepped up to the couch and draped the object along Chance's throat.

"I would kill to see you wear that because you wanted to, you know." Jake studied the strange image for a moment longer before returning the collar to its case and regarded his partner with a choked throat "No, you don't know I doubt you know I can kill I doubt you even begin to comprehend how much I love you Hell, I doubt you even know what you want these days."

He knelt next to the Kat that had been the center of his life for over seven years and brushed the worst of the hair from Chance's face "I hope you find what you need to get through this, because it's clearly not me, and I can't let you drag me down with you."

Then Jake stood returned to his bike, walking through the Hanger for the last time and tried not to stop at the TurboKat, the culmination of his lifetime's skill and experience And the kitten he assumed he'd never have in flesh and blood.

He chuckled to himself lightly as the bike started to roll out "Like Felina's any more likely to have a kitten with me than Chance is." Then his face fell and he looked back at his only true home "I'm sorry, but at least she wants me."

Chance gave a long, low moan and tried to roll over on the couch. It took him two tries. Once he'd been able to drink like he had last night and wake drunk enough that his hangover didn't bother him. Obviously those days were long gone. He reached up to grab a hold of the back of the couch and hauled himself up into a sitting position, rubbing at his face. Beginning to feel vaguely like himself again he cast his gaze around the room, wondering if it was worth the effort to drag himself into the kitchen. He blinked, just staring at the scene before him for a few seconds before it sunk through into his brain and he lowered his body back onto the couch.

Jake had cleaned.

That he had come and gone without bothering to let Chance know wasn't such a surprise, not with the condition he must have been in and the way that things had been between the two of them. But he'd cleaned, and he'd cleaned around Chance's drunken body. Even the bottles were gone. It was Jake's way, of course. Everything had to be clean and tidy and neat. He couldn't have left the place the way it was, looking lived in, he would have felt obligated. It was goodbye, and Chance knew that it was the big goodbye. The place looked like a show home. Chance sighed and dropped his head into his hands. He'd even left a note to explain, just in case Chance was too drunk or too thick to understand.

"It's okay Jake," he whispered softly, "I get the message. Loud and clear."

He sighed softly, rubbing at his forehead and trying to gather his thoughts. He glanced over towards the phone, wondering. Jake would be at Felina's, almost certainly, but he couldn't call there. Felina could be home, and he didn't want to talk with her, not since she'd almost certainly heard that Jake and he had argued. Jake was never very good at keeping things from her. The Ferals weren't exactly his favorite people at the moment.

He grabbed the phone and dialed the number for Jake's new apartment. He couldn't begin to guess when Jake might get any message he might leave, but he didn't suppose that it'd make any difference. The phone rang six … seven … eight times and Chance was just beginning to wonder if Jake had even attached an answering service when it picked up.

"Uhhhhh Jake it's me. Listen, please I … I just …" he trailed off as his eyes wandered around the room again. It was meticulously clean. It must have taken him almost all the morning if the whole house was like this, as Chance had no doubt it was. This wasn't something Jake had decided quickly. "Nothing. Don't worry about it. Goodbye Jake."

Chance wasn't sure what he'd expected to feel saying those words, but this wasn't it. He should be sad, to be breaking with Jake after so long, he should be beside himself, or relieved that the tense agonized circling around one another was finally over. He wasn't No more Jake. It wasn't something he'd ever thought would happen, but now it had and he was letting his friend slide away as though it hardly mattered, and as much as he wanted to he couldn't make himself care.

No more SWAT. Without Jake there couldn't be, at least not for him. Jake would be able to provide better weapons and equipment to the Enforcers and SWAT wouldn't be necessary, or maybe Jake and Felina would fly the TurboKat. No matter how it went, T-Bone wouldn't be a part of it anymore. There had been times when SWAT had been the only spark he had to warm himself around, and now he couldn't rouse himself to the effort of trying to keep it. Maybe he was still drunk, somehow.

That was a silly hope. Chance wished he was drunk, then he wouldn't have to wonder why he wasn't feeling anything. He sat silently, head in his hands, staring at the note that Jake had left sitting on top of the pretty silver box. He didn't really need to read it to know what it said. Goodbye, sorry, come see me when you've got your act together. All the things that Jake would say. Calm, sensible things. Find your own space, figure yourself out, deal with your problems.

Find your own space. And why not? There was nothing to keep him here.

Chance grabbed the phone and dialed.

"Falcon Lines, may I help you?" The shekat on the other end sounded professional and friendly.

"When is the next bus to the Freemantle area please?" Chance asked her.

"Not until Monday now, sir. It leaves at two in the afternoon."

"Could I book a ticket for that?"

"Certainly. Your name?"

"Chance Furlong," he murmured after a few moments wondering if he should call himself something else, and deciding that was too much.

"You're booked in Mr. Furlong, how will you be paying for the trip?"

"Ahhhhh, can I pay in cash when I get the ticket?"

"You can," she replied, the tone of her voice suggesting dubious things of the people who would want to do so, "But you'll need to collect it two hours before the trip, which would be noon."

"I won't forget, thank you very much."

He set the phone back down, not sure that he was doing the right thing but feeling a little better that he'd at least done something. Freemantle was a farming area, orchards and grain crops. There would always be someone looking for another pair of hands and a strong back to help out, especially with fruit picking seasons approaching. His touch keeping the machinery going might be even more appreciated. He might not be an engineering wizard like Jake, but he'd kept his share of things going long past the time they should have collapsed into a rusted heap. He was good enough.

He pulled out his wallet, setting aside money for the ticket, and looked at what he had left. More than enough to keep him happily drunk in MegaKat City over the weekend, maybe even for a couple of bottles to keep him pleasantly numb while he got set up on some farm. Hell, as long as he was leaving ....

Chance took the stairs two at a time up to his room, not questioning his impulses, just glad to have them again after his moment of blankness. He grabbed a bag and tossed clothes into it, enough for three or four days. He tossed the bag over his shoulder, glancing around the room for anything else he might want to take. It was no big surprise that there was nothing he couldn't do without, nor that he couldn't find anything down in the living room either. His eyes fell on the phone and he hesitated for a moment. He couldn't call Felina's, and he'd sound stupid leaving another message at Jake's. He grabbed up the phone and dialed, fishing his keys out of his pocket and tossing them down on the table beside Jake's box as it rang.

"Enforcers." This Kat was crisp and businesslike, and probably none too happy to be manning the phones.

"Lieutenant Felina Feral please." Chance asked, and waited while the other Kat checked his boards. For a long moment Chance worried that she might actually be in, but he released his breath when the Kat's voice returned.

"The Lieutenant is out on patrol at present, would you like to leave a message?"

"Please. Tell her that everything here's just as he left it, I haven't touched anything, and if they want anything then they should come down and get it because I won't be needing it."

"I see," the enforcer said slowly, trying but failing to conceal his irritation. "I'll just assume that all that makes some sort of sense to her then. Your name is …?"

"Chance Furlong."

"And would you like to leave a num …"

Chance set the phone back in its cradle, cutting the Kat off. There wouldn't have been much point in leaving a contact number anyway. He had no way of knowing when the message would reach Felina, but it couldn't possibly be before the next time she radioed in to headquarters and as long as she didn't turn up in the next two minutes it really wouldn't matter.

He ran his eyes around the room one more time, checking one last time to make sure there wasn't anything he'd miss. He locked the front door on his way out, pulling his jacket close around him against the wind. It was a little colder than he'd expected, but no big problem. He walked out into the yard, his eyes running across pretty much everything. He stopped and looked at the bikes for a long moment before walking out towards the gate. If he took a bike, he wouldn't be able to drink.

Besides, it wasn't like he had anywhere to get to in a hurry.

Jake Clawson listened to his former mate's message with an aching heart and calm mind in the silence of his barely lived-in apartment With a soft sigh he dropped into a chair and flicked on his computer, then picked up the phone and dialed a sixteen-digit number by rote.

"Hi, Jake," a slightly harried but pleased female voice answered as his machine whirled to life, an ASCII 'BLACKNET' staying on the screen "Wa's up?"

"Hell and a break-up," he offered simply and typed a few keys with his left hand "Just giving you a heads-up I'll be around Cathedral pretty much full time soon, without Chance."

The silence on the other end lasted almost long enough to get him to hang up before she replied "Is this something I can help with, love?"

"Sorry, Pat Even you can't fix this mess." He closed his eyes against an errant tear "He just doesn't want me around any more As Razor or Jake."

Pakitra sighed "And when are you going to get to the part about why you aren't at the Salvage Yard changing his mind?"

"I just don't have the heart for it any more, Pat." Jake shook his head slightly and typed several more things that sent his computer searching "I want to live, be happy, more than I need to have him in my life."

"But ..."

"Pakitra!" he snarled, the hurt and strain clear in his tone "Can't you just be happy for me? I just ... I did what I needed to."

"Jake, Jake, I'm sorry I didn't mean it like that." She spoke quickly and softly "It's good you're doing what you need I am happy for you and Felina The timing's just bad for me and the squad, that's all." She took a breath "You're more important than any plan we had."

"I know the timing's bad," he whispered "I held out as long as I could."

"I know you did, love," Pakitra purred gently "Longer than was probably good for you." She hesitated at the small sound he made "Please, let me know if there's anything I can do."

Jake closed his eyes and shuddered "Could ... would you ... well, just have your friends keep an eye out for him, make sure he's okay? Just that he's not hurt or something."

"Of course." She managed not to sound very surprised "You didn't have to ask for that."

"Yeah, well, I guess I'm not that sure of a lot right now." He paused to glance at his computer, but didn't really see it.

"Give yourself whatever time and space you need, Jake And remember, you are loved I ..." Pakitra's voice was cut off by a loud crash and cursing in the background "Oh, hellfires!"

Jake managed to chuckle "Go take care of whatever that was, pretty I'll be fine Talk to you later."

"I'm counting on it." She breathed a grateful sigh as she hung up.

Lt. Comdr. Feral pulled off her helmet and shook her longish black hair out in the late evening air, more grateful than usual that it had been one of her rarely enjoyed quiet shifts Her pleased mood vanished as she passed the dutykat at the main desk on her way to her car and asked if there was anything for her.

"Yes, ma'am." He barely paused at her startled jerk and handed her the note "A Chance Furlong called."

"Thank you." She kept control of the cold knot of her stomach until she reached her SUV, three levels down and half a block away Then it couldn't be stopped as she read, and the contents sank in.

"Oh, guys." Felina closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat "What has gotten into you two?"

"Ja ..." Felina's voice trailed off as she opened her apartment door, full tote bag in one hand It barely looked like the same place Candles flicked as the only illumination, caressing soft lines and folds in draped, dark blue cloth that hid all hint of the room's actual shape or age The rarely used dining table was set for two, with simple white floating candles and a service set she hadn't seen before.

"Welcome home, Felina." Jake's voice was soft, but still betrayed his nervousness as he took her gym bag from loose fingers "I hope your day went well."

"Quiet, for once." She accepted his subtle urging to step inside so he could shut the door "What is all this?"

"A little something I still keep from my heritage." He rested a hand on the small of her back and looked up "I've laid out clothes for you, if you'd be so kind as to change and join me for dinner."

"Jake." She caught his other hand and turned to face the lean tom, unconsciously noting the slightly nicer than normal dress and the terrified excitement in his eyes "What is this about?"

He squirmed a little under her searching gaze before answering "I've got something important to ask you."

"Then spit it out." She straightened, then cringed internally at the hurt she saw so quickly concealed and offered what she considered a weak excuse "Chance left a message for you with the front desk for me He left everything as you left it."

"Oh." Jake closed his eyes and looked away.

"Jake, this is serious." She grabbed his shoulder "He ...."

"I know it's serious, Fel." Jake shook his head "But it's his life, and not part of mine any more."

"What happened?" She relaxed slightly into a stance she could hold comfortably for several hours.

"I just came to a decision about my life." He met her worried eyes and sighed "I still love him, but I want to be happy more I can't have him in my life like this, when he doesn't want me." Jake managed a half convincing shrug "I left him the SWAT Kats gear, and our place and what he means to me ... paid off the debit so he's free He can come look for me if he wants me I can't fight him any more."

"And this is because of that?" She shifted to sit down, pulling a chair away from the beautifully set table and motioned around the drastically changed room.

"No." Jake shook his head sharply and motioned around the room "This caused the last fight, but not the problem It's not why I left Refusing me ... when Chance decided he couldn't trust my own judgment and then ... it was the last straw."

"May I remind you that you were going to leave me until I said I already knew the big secret?" She leaned forward just inside his personal space; half angry, half bewildered.

"I ... I know." Jake looked away from her and flushed slightly, shame creeping into his scent "I've been with him longer, I usually prefer males We're the SWAT Kats How could I break that up? The city..." He shuddered and raised his face, candlelight flickering across teary eyes, more black than amber now "I could have killed him this morning He's sleeping with your uncle, but...."

"He's WHAT?" Felina was on her feet in a heartbeat.

Jake rose with her, his voice subdued and still a little angry "I smelled him on Chance, despite a good shower They had sex last night, a lot of it."

"My uncle ... and Chance?" Her disbelief shone clearly on her face "No way."

"Fel ... I don't want to get into this." Jake growled and sat back down "Chance doesn't want me, as Jake or Razor He's said it clearly enough I've accepted that It's over between Chance and me Everything between us is over."


"Felina, please." He stood and took her hands, then pulled her tightly against him in a desperate embrace "I wanted tonight to be special, not like this."

"But Chance..."

"Pat and friends are keeping an eye out for him, like they always do." He brushed her cheek with a thick thumb "He'll be okay until he gets himself together I can't let him drag me down with him this time."

"What, what is tonight about?" She kissed his thumb when it swept close to her lips.

Jake stayed silent for a long time, then turned to fetch a large black and silver spiral-patterned jewelry box "I wanted to do this with at least a little tradition, but it's fitting it didn't work out that way." He offered it to the tall female with a tight throat and whispered "I bought this about three months ago, for us, if you want it."

She forced her shocked mind into a semblance of action and nodded weakly as shaking fingers unwound the ribbon that held the box closed She stopped as it fell to the floor and met the maelstrom on Jake's face Her voice trembled as she spoke "Why do you want me like this?"

"I love you, Felina Feral," he offered hopelessly "I want a mate and family ... a home to return to and fight for Something permanent."

"Why didn't you...?"

"He said no." Jake cut her off, tears threatening again as anger rose in him "I was good enough to fuck and live with, but not to keep."

"I'm sure it wasn't like that." She set the box down and pulled Jake close, rubbing his back until he relaxed a little against her chest "Jake ... I really don't know what to say." She tipped his chin up so their eyes met "I'm not ready for marriage yet, but I'd like it to be with you when I am."

He sighed and buried his face between her breasts and hugged her tight "That's a yes, just not right now?"

"Yes, love." She relaxed slightly and picked up the box "Are you willing to not have a date set, even while we wear collars?"

"Yes." Jake shivered and purred "That is more than fair."

Nathan gunned the throttle on his new, red and black racing motorcycle, as he sped up the road toward the Salvage Yard, the place of broken machinery, which had become his home on this strange world Having been away from home for over two months he found himself anxious to get home He had been reluctant to attend the long conference, not wanting to be away so long, but Jake and Chance had convinced him that it was best for the team That memory brought to mind the image, of the chocolate on gold tabby and his smaller cinnamon partner, which he always kept near the front of his mind Though the thought warmed and calmed him, as it always did, he couldn't shake the feeling that something might be wrong He worried about having been absent for so long, worried that perhaps one of their small arguments might have gotten out of hand It was not the first time that he wished that he had had time for PsychMed training, in addition to his PhysMed and Psychometric training, but there are only so may hours in a day, and besides his empathic gifts weren't strong enough to be a PsychMed.

The beeping of a small device in his pocket drew him up from his reverie He pulled out the SecureScan to see what was up The display screen read "Full Security Active." He stopped just outside the Yard and looked around; despite the time of day there was no sign or sound of anyone around Nathan shook his head; the SWAT Kats must have been called out He punched the access code into the SecureScan pad, since, unlike the other two, he did not care to stealth around the security system just to see if he could He drove down the ramp into top level of the underground base, and nearly drove into the Turbokat's launch pit Nathan blinked in surprise; the platform should have been in the receive position, for when the jet returned A cold knot had begun to form in the pit of his stomach and he couldn't dispel it.

He drove the cycle onto the small vehicle lift, and rode down into the hanger / repair bay area As he feared, the Turbokat was sitting on the lift in pre-launch mode He parked his bike next to the cyclotrons, and walked over to check the Vehicle Inventory System; they must have need one of the other vehicles He took his black cycle helmet off, shook out his long red hair, and tied it back into the traditional Felsin Medic's braid As he walked across the quiet hanger, road dust fell from the black riding leathers, revealing the red striping along the sleeves and leggings.

As he passed a reflective surface, Nathan stopped to brush his unruly, red bangs out of his eyes To most on this world, it was his face, which caught their eyes, since he was not a Kat For a tom, he had a rather feminine face, with a layer of short red-brown fur covering it, but the body was unquestionably male, lightly muscled and a little taller than the local average In alliance terminology, feline anthronorm, based on one of the alliance races that seemed to be an average of most of the others Nathan had to think a moment before he remembered that the correct race name was 'Human' Not a terribly outstanding race in any given respect, but somehow they managed to turn their averageness into an advantage.

Nathan punched up the full inventory on the V.I.S. and asked for a list of vehicles currently out The cold knot came back, when the V.I.S. indicated that no vehicles were out Nathan's mind started spinning as he tried to make sense of what he knew so far; the Yard was silent and still, and all vehicles were in place and accounted for He decided against making a premature assessment, since it was possible, though unlikely that both his partners were asleep upstairs.

As he passed the lockers on his way upstairs, something cold and dark slammed at his psychometric senses Desperate to keep whatever it was away, he slammed up his shields as hard as he could The last time Nathan could recall encountering something so dark, was when he had encountered Dark Kat The thought scared him more than he cared to admit, and he ran out of the concealed base into the living areas of the Salvage Yard.

Nathan sat down on the couch, breathing heavily as he tried to regain his emotional footing As he practiced the centering exercises he had been taught by the PsychMeds, a sudden and frightening realization hit him The place was clean, clean as though no one lived there Jake was prone to cleaning, but this level of detail was disturbing The absence of the guys, the way all the SWAT Kat equipment was carefully put away, and now a cleaning that must have taken hours; Nathan couldn't be completely sure, but he had a growing feeling that something awful had happened recently.

Needing to find something that would demonstrate that he was jumping to errant conclusions, Nathan started wandering through the living quarters area of the garage What he saw, and felt only made his worry worse, especially since his shields should have kept the psychometric noise out Nathan discovered that Jake's meticulous cleaning, had included moving the rest of his stuff out, but yet there was something left behind. "Not left behind, abandoned." He said, leaning against one wall as if for support.

Nathan concentrated on calming himself again, but it was much harder this time Then it occurred to him, if it was a bad enough fight, Jake might have gone to Felina's Nathan relaxed a little, though Jake's growing relationship with Felina aggravated Chance, it wasn't an aggravation that couldn't be worked around Nathan smiled, relieved that he had panicked unnecessarily Nathan chuckled quietly "Wait till Chance sees the cleaning job that Jake did on the place Time to start putting things back together, but first I need to talk to Chance He's probably asleep, but no one needs to sleep this late."

As Nathan approached Chance's room, he noticed that the door was open He looked in to discover that Chance wasn't there, sleeping or otherwise Risking a quick psychometric peek, he opened a small window in his shields, and what he felt were the resonances of someone leaving a life behind.

With all the suddenness and impact of a Mach 5 shockwave, the reality of it all hit Nathan ... Jake and Chance were both gone, and neither planned on coming back The shock of the realization left Nathan reeling, both physically and mentally Breathing heavy, and feeling completely lost, he stumbled to his room He looked for something to hold onto, both physically and psychically, and came across a picture of the three of them in their SWAT Kat uniforms in front of the Turbokat Blinking to try and clear the tears that blurred his vision he picked up the picture He sat down on the bed; his whole body trembling and sweating, as he tried to regain control Nathan took one shaking finger and ran it gently across the picture trying to regain some self-control.

As he tried to come to terms with what had happened, the tremors in his hand combined with his sweat, caused the picture to slip from his fingers He tried desperately to catch it, but it crashed to the ground, the glass in the frame shattering For a moment, he stared unknowing at the shattered picture, and then he laughed, slightly hysterical "Art imitating life." The laughter quickly turned to tears, which became a torrent, as Nathan felt his life fall out from under him.

Marooned on a world so far from everything he knew, Nathan had built a new life around Jake and Chance, and in the beginning, only their friendship had kept desperate homesickness from overwhelming him When they invited him to join SWAT, the friendship had deepened into a partnership As the months passed, Nathan had come to a realization: the partnership was far stronger than some simple working relationship, the SWAT Kats had become his family on this world That thought shook Nathan from his all-consuming sorrow "What am I doing? I've fixed arguments between those two before, and while it may be more difficult this time; I'm not letting things end like this."

As Nathan pulled himself together he realized that something must have caused this collapse. There had to be some outside interference, which had no business messing with his friends Nathan realized, however, that he would have to find and neutralize the outside force, because his partners were probably in too much pain to help It was the only explanation he could think of, the only one that made sense to him He had seen the guys argue, but they'd never break up; they'd been together too long for that.

Nathan wasn't really trained as an investigator, which meant he would have to use his neglected psychometric abilities to compensate, with all the pain that that entailed Nathan looked around at the silent room feeling more alone that ever before "Everything has a price, and if pain is the cost to get my family back, I'll pay it." His grim determination all but dared the universe, or anyone else, to try and stop him.

Nathan pulled out a gold medallion from under his shirt On the one side was a silver leaf, on the reverse, a red starburst Nathan held the medallion tightly, and stared upward speaking quietly "Felsira, Mother of the Felsin people and sacred guardian of the Medic Corp, hear me please I beg your guidance in this time of trial and darkness, and aid me to heal the wounds suffered here in Keltin, Protector and Guard, spirit of warriors, grant me strength and courage in the battles to come. I am no warrior, yet I think that to undo the harm that has been done, I will need to be." He lowered his head for a time, but when he raised it there was a gleam in his bright green eyes, a gleam that said he would not give up, would not yield, and that he would put things right, no matter the cost.

Slowly, cautiously, Nathan lowered the shields that protected his psychometric senses The flood of emotional pain, confusion and loss where almost too much to bear, and not terribly informative to boot The old exercises and disciplines came back to him slowly, as he rarely needed them They allowed him to filter through the emotional storm until he could locate down the objects with the greatest emotional energy.

Having located two major focus points of the storm, the next step was to analyze each one The first object, a large silver jewelry box with a note on it, was nearby Nathan reached out his hand to touch the box, and the anguish radiating from it struck him, as an almost physical pain Bracing himself, he repeated one of the basic mantras of psychometry "Pain is an illusion My will is stronger than this illusion I will not let this illusion block my path." With his will buttressed by the mantra, the pain faded to an acceptable level.

Nathan picked up the box, and reluctantly opened his psychometric vision to look at it Images flashed across his sight at incredible speed, in the painfully chaotic way they always did With a monumental effort of will, he slowly focused on images and feelings that repeated ... Jake ... Chance ... loss ... resignation ... Felina? ... need ... future The swirling images and emotions became too much to bear, and he focused his shields to deflect them He took a couple measure deep breaths to refocus his psychic strength, before picking up the note As a trained psychometrist, he had always been scrupulous about the privacy of others, and was reluctant to read was most likely a very private letter He shook his head in resignation; the situation was spiraling out of control, and desperate measures might be required to fix things.

The letter was indeed private, and it said much, but combined with the knowledge he had gained from the scan; it told Nathan more than it probably told anyone else, even Jake The preliminary investigation was not terribly helpful He was aware of the developing relationship between Jake and Felina, and the problems the relationship was causing with Chance If Jake had been looking to hurt Chance, getting into a serious relationship with somebody by the last name of Feral, was a pretty good way to do it Nathan had met Felina, and actually liked her; much to his surprise after what he'd heard about Enforcers from Chance Based on the few encounters, Nathan felt pretty sure that Felina genuinely cared for Jake, so he doubted that she was the actual cause of the problem Besides, Nathan knew the guys might fight over one of them seeing someone else, but they'd never let that break them up.

Nathan reconsidered the letter, convinced that there was more to be learned His eye caught the line about Feral, and he almost laughed at the absurdity of it "Chance and Feral?! No way, Chance hates Feral way too much Jake, you've seriously misinterpreted something, bud." Nathan chuckled as he realized that he had started talking to himself, and then to someone who wasn't in the room Nathan wasn't much as empaths went, but he was good enough to tell that Chance's hatred for Feral was genuine.

Nathan realized there were two things to be considered: One, Jake had a phenomenally accurate sense of smell, so if he said he smelled sex and Feral, he did Two: Just because sex had happened didn't mean that it was voluntary, which would also explain the rage and hatred Jake smelled He smiled, Jake had been on the right track; but had jumped to the wrong conclusion Though this explanation fit the facts available, it didn't explain how Feral had overpowered Chance In a one-on-one encounter, Chance could certainly hold his own against the larger Enforcer, and possibly take him, if not completely surprised In any case, it certainly would be an awfully big gamble for Feral to take, just to have his way with the tabby.

Nathan was getting frustrated, there had to be some angle he was missing Feral might be many things, but stupid wasn't one of them Feral had a reputation for getting what he wanted, and less well-known reputation for not being picky about means Nathan shook his head, the obvious angle was blackmail; Feral must have discovered the identities of the SWAT Kats, and blackmailed Chance to get what he wanted Nathan knew Chance well enough to know the lengths he'd go to, to protect Jake; certain arguments aside Nathan also knew him well enough to realize that he'd hate himself after it was over; for not being strong enough to stop Feral Nathan sighed, thinking that all this would be bad enough, but Chance's pride would prevent him from telling anyone; he'd bottle it up inside and suffer alone.

Nathan began pacing and muttering, tail whipping angrily "The one time my limited psychic abilities might have been useful around here, and where was I? Off at some damn, fool conference that's where Why in Felsira's name did I let them talk me into going away for so long? They convinced me that the new medical techniques developed for field surgeons would make me more useful to the team." He kicked one wall in frustration, leaving the indentation from the toe of a leather riding boot "What team? Everything's gone to Void, and no one even bothered to tell me!"

As Nathan stormed about, he caught sight of his face in the mirror and laughed at a sudden realization "Just what we need here, more anger and rage I'm the only one close to rational about this, and if we're going to get back together, I'd better get control of myself."

Having blown off some emotional steam, Nathan realized that he had no evidence to support the blackmail line of reasoning, even though it made a great deal of sense He made two decisions: One, more investigation is required, and two, if Feral is doing that to Chance something will have to be done about it A decidedly vicious expression crossed Nathan's face, as he thought about what to do about it.

Nathan let go of that line of thought and turned his attention to the contents of the box, a gold collar Nathan had to think a moment to remember the significance, the collar was a local custom denoting a permanent bonding, similar to the medallions of joining back home As he held the collar, a rush of powerful, focused emotions washed over him, causing tears to fall from his eyes It was fairly clear to Nathan, that Jake wanted a permanent bond with Chance, and had gotten this collar to symbolize it It was also obvious that Chance had never seen it, didn't even know it existed.

Suddenly things began to make a certain amount of sense All of the psychic traces on the box, note and collar were from Jake, and Chance didn't even know Nathan sighed, as a sudden urge to put his arm around Jake struck him "No wonder Jake's having a problem; he's holding both sides of a conversation that should involve two kats He knows his side, and he's filling in Chance's based on conclusions from a very wounded psyche That gives me part of the problem, but not enough to fix it." Nathan chuckled, louder this time. "And here I am, talking to myself again."

At that point Nathan spotted Chance's keys on the table, which confirmed his earlier conclusion that Chance wasn't coming back He picked up the keys, hoping that he could get something off of them The keys carried strong emotions, but not the same tormented rush that he'd gotten from the box In fact, the primary emotion was an apathetic resignation that resonated all wrong As he thought about it he remembered that emotional overload generated very similar psychic patterns to apathy; it wasn't that Chance didn't care, but that his ability to care had become impaired.

Nathan tried various ways to get past the distraction of the overload, but felt something blocking him It was then that he remembered that alcohol; particularly strong alcohol generated a dampening field in a psychometric scan, the strength of the dampening correlated closely to the level of blood alcohol Given the level of dampening, Chance must have been drinking, and fairly seriously Nathan looked around for one of the bottles, thinking he might be able to get something off one.

For anyone else, the search would have been frustrating, but Nathan knew Jake's cleaning patterns quite well Fortunately, Jake had stuck to his routine "Thanks for being predictable, partner I'm gonna need all the breaks I can get." All the glass was sorted, as always into a box near the garage A little psychometric probing spotted the desired bottle, Nathan whistled at the label. "Black label, over-proof rum Nasty stuff, I didn't know Chance went for hard liquor Void, I didn't know there was any around here." The psychic impressions on the bottle didn't tell Nathan anything he hadn't already discovered Nathan concluded that, though the cause of Chance's turning to the alcohol was important, the alcohol itself was immaterial -- just an old, familiar coping method taken up again.

Nathan returned to the living room, very seriously frustrated; Chance's blood alcohol level had been enough to seriously mute the psychic traces he should have left Under the storm of emotions that Jake was lugging around, they were effectively invisible and Nathan needed to get impressions from Chance's side of things, because a problem like this had two sides At that point, Nathan remembered the impression that he had run into in the locker room He shuddered just thinking about it "Well, I faced the real Dark Kat once, how bad can some dark psychic imprints be?" He didn't feel nearly as confident, as he tried to sound.

The walk to the locker room seemed to take forever. As he entered the room, he was slammed again by the wave of cold, darkness, fear and anger He was able to find the center of the storm, by bracing his mental shields to deflect the worst of it; it was coming from Chance's locker Reluctantly he opened the locker, and was surprised to find the storm centered on Chance's T-bone mask.

Nathan prepared for what he was sure would be the worst of his limited psychic experience, and then he opened his shields to examine the mask Nathan gasped in surprise as the waves of psychic energy surged over, around and through him He was stunned by how badly he had underestimated the power of the impressions, and frightened During his psychic training he had heard stories of psychics who had lost themselves to psychic storms they had underestimated.

For a brief moment, Nathan considered reasserting his shields, but then he thought about Jake and Chance, and how this might be the only way to get the information he needed to get them back together He clung to the image of his partners, as a drowning man clings to a life preserver As the storm surged, he threw himself into the heart of it, ignoring the pain of the battering waves of psychic distress.

Despite the battering he was able to grab many of the missing pieces His suspicions about Feral were confirmed and worse ... for a brief, yet measurable span of time Chance's perceptions replaced Nathan's and Nathan was there when it happened And then all the rage, anger, and disgust came swirling through Chance's anger at Jake's involvement with Felina, another Feral, Chance's anger at himself for letting it happen, disgust at the thought he might have enjoyed it, and finally the despair, which led him to leave everything behind In the midst of the maelstrom, Nathan felt a new emotional current; rage, uncontrolled volcanic rage, which was feeding on the storm and growing more powerful by the moment.

Though at first confused, by the presence of an active emotion in a psychic storm, Nathan became terrified when he realized the source of the rage; himself At first he thought it impossible, a mistake made by a tired mind, since part of the Medic training was in avoiding rage, no matter the cause When he realized that it was no mistake, and that his shields were completely gone; he began to panic, seeking any possible way to break free from the storm. As he fought to break the psychic contact, he slammed his hand into the wall.

The physical pain was sufficient to shatter the link, and then he noticed that he had punched a hole in the concrete He also discovered that he was in the armory, holding a blaster, but had no idea how he got there The final shock came when he passed a reflective surface and saw himself, and yet it wasn't himself The face was fully feline, almost bestial, and the body was almost seven feet tall, heavily muscled with dark black fur, impressive claws, and yellow-green eyes instead of his emerald green Nathan was frightened by the rage he saw behind those eyes.

Nathan sank to the floor in shock as the realization of what had happened hit him Somehow, he had metamorphed to warbeast form, something he had always thought impossible As a Felsin Medic, the nature of the warbeast was completely opposed to his training and beliefs The warbeast was a powerful engine of destruction, barely held in check by the mind of the Felsin within No Medic would ever willingly take that form, and most couldn't As Nathan tried to reconcile a lifetime of belief to a moment of insane anger, he felt the metamorphosis reverse itself What could have happened frightened Nathan more than what had happened Nathan had seen warbeasts in combat, and had seen the damage they could do Nathan shuddered at the thought of that power, guided only by the rage he had been feeling.

As Nathan sat on the floor trying to calm himself, one fact crystallized suddenly in Nathan's mind: Chance was leaving Megakat City, and Jake wasn't, at least not immediately That meant his priority had to be keeping Chance from leaving, somehow Once he left, it would be far more difficult to get him to come back Given Chance's state of mind, he would probably continue drinking for some time This gave Nathan a way to find him, since a psyche in emotional overload tends to take the easiest path to whatever it is looking for Nathan figured if used that as a guide he should be able to find Chance, hopefully before the hurting tabby did anything too stupid Something else occurred to him as he got his bike from the hanger, Felina wasn't really the problem, but she might, perhaps, be part of the solution.

Once he had made sure Chance wouldn't be running away, he could then deal with Commander Feral Nathan sped out of the hanger, reactivating the security system as he left Using the map computer built into the racing bike, Nathan plotted the fastest route to what seemed like a likely section of Megakat City, given Chance's state of mind.

"Time to find the bottle you've decided to crawl into, buddy I may not have been here to prevent this mess, but by Felsira, I intend to fix it." Behind the helmet visor, Nathan's eyes shone a yellow-green as he sped toward an uncertain future.

Nathan looked over the bar There was nothing that really differentiated it from dozens of others in the city, but he had an instinctive feeling that this would be the right one "Felsira, who led us from our wandering in the Void, please guide me to my friend." He parked his cycle, and went in.

He scanned the interior of the bar, when he saw no sign of Chance he chose a seat facing the main entrance and sat down As he considered how long he should wait, the burly tan bartender came over "What can I get you?"

"Water, make it a double."

"You're joking, right." The bartender looked at him strangely.

Nathan put a single on the bar "Actually, I'm serious I'm waiting for someone."

He shrugged "Hey, no problem Who 'ya looking for? Maybe I've seen her."

Nathan smiled "Maybe, but its a him, to start with Old friend of mine." He pulled out a picture of Chance from his wallet "Seen him?"

The bartender looked the picture over "Not recently Used to come in often, but that was years ago."


"Hey, no problem."

Nathan sipped at the water, and tried to make himself inconspicuous, since he didn't really want company Unfortunately, racing leathers weren't exactly what one wore to be inconspicuous Tailored to minimize air resistance; they were also skin-tight, accenting his reasonably athletic build.

"Hey there, handsome Looking for some company?"

Nathan looked behind him to see a petite, reasonably attractive calico she-kat "No thank you, I'm waiting for someone." He said, hoping Chance would show soon He was relieved when she walked away, he just wasn't in the mood for dealing with most kats; he had too much on his mind.

Out of the corner of one eye Nathan noticed a splash of red, which turned out to be the leather outfit worn by a Brown Hyena fem Nathan thought she looked familiar, but couldn't place from where After a few minutes thought he remembered that she was a recruiter with Cathedral He noticed that she was talking to a black and white tomkat in his mid-20's "I hope he's pilot looking for work 'cause that just might keep her from moving in on Chance when he gets here I don't feel like trying to compete with a professional to talk to him." He jumped as the bartender tapped on his shoulder to point out the chocolate on gold tabby entering the bar carrying nothing but a small tote bag.

As Chance ordered a drink, Nathan considered his approach carefully Given all that had happened, the tabby was probably going to be a bit skittish, or at least standoffish He sighed, frustrated He hated having to plan how to talk to a close friend; it just seemed so phony Yet, it was necessary; there was too much at stake. "No time like the present, I suppose."

Chance didn't seem to notice as Nathan walked over, and sat down next to him "Hello, Chance."

The tabby paused for moment before recognition hit He stared at his drink; not wanting to see the questions he expected in the medic's eyes "Hi, Nathan."

Nathan didn't consider getting that terse a response a good sign He decided that a combination of sincerity and humor might help "Okay, Chance. I apologize."

Chance looked at him "Huh? What are you apologizing for?"

Nathan shrugged "Not sure, but I must've done something, given the cold reception I'm getting."

"Sorry, Nathan It's nothing you did Things happened." He sipped at his drink, not wanting to get into the whole mess with the overly perceptive medic.

"I can see that buddy." Nathan tapped a toe, against the tote bag "And I can see you don't want to talk about it, either But we we're friends, more than friends really, and I think we need to talk."

Chance shook his head, and turned away "Nathan, there's nothing to talk about."

"Chance, I think we're talking at angles here I realize that you don't want to talk about whatever happened between you and Jake, but what I was talking about was you and me My friendship with you isn't dependent on Jake's presence; at least I never thought it was."

"Didn't Jake tell you everything?" The tabby dodged the question again.

"Chance, I haven't spoken to Jake since I got back."

"I figured you would've gone to see him first."

Nathan sighed as he realized part of the problem; Chance assumed that he was taking Jake's side in this argument That was a misperception that had happened before, and which he had thought had been dealt with "Look, Chance I just got back after more than two months away from the two most important kats in my life, and I figured we'd hang out together; just the three of us, like always When I found everyone gone, I got worried I could only look for one of you at a time, and I could guess where Jake was If the three of us can't be together, then I was hoping I could find one of you, so we could talk But, thing is, I didn't feel like dealing with anyone named Feral today, so that made my decision, at least assuming I'm not totally off-base." Nathan sipped at his water, fatigued; this was harder than he had expected.

"So, Jake wasn't available, and I was the next best thing?" Chance sounded more than a little hurt.

Nathan turned to face Chance, and found the tabby looking at him "No, I didn't have a decision to make because Jake's with Felina As for next best, I hadn't decided which of you I wanted to find more; I just wanted to find one of you."

"But, if you could've chosen..."

Nathan was slightly annoyed; he thought they'd gotten beyond this game months before he left for the conference "Chance Furlong, I am not going to going play these hypothetical games now, anymore than I would before You and Jake are both my friends, and I don't have a ranking system."

Then Nathan noticed the tabby's expression, realized that he was scolding, and regretted it immediately He stared down at the bar, a weary expression on his face "Chance, please don't try to force me to pick one of you; I can't, and I won't I've been gone for almost three months, and I've missed you, more than you could possibly know Despite this sullen, untalkative mood of yours; I want you to know," He stood up, put his arms around Chance from behind, hugged him, and then sat back down "that I'm really glad to see you."

Chance hadn't figured on seeing Nathan before he left Megakat City He'd figured that Jake would've filled him in on things, and that would be that, since the two of them were really close With everything Nathan had said, and then the hug, Chance wasn't so sure he knew what to think That seemed about right, but he had a feeling Nathan wasn't going to just let things be; that wasn't his style.

Nathan watched Chance's face closely, looking for some sign that he'd gotten through So far he had been able to confirm his earlier assessment of emotional overload: Chance was barely reacting to anything, and his terse communications were forcing Nathan to say more than he wanted to The more he said, the bigger the risk of saying something wrong.

"Nathan, I'm sorry ... I didn't think ..." Chance floundered for words, not completely sure what he was trying to say He'd been so wrapped up with his arguments with Jake that he'd forgotten that there were three SWAT Kats now, instead of two They'd been two for so long; old habits were hard to break.

Nathan had never seen Chance so lost; but he had a good idea how much pain the tabby was in, so he wasn't completely surprised He put his hand on Chance's shoulder "Chance, buddy I can see you've made up your mind to leave, and I can't stop you; but before you do, I really think we need to talk, someplace quieter than a bar."

Chance nodded, Nathan was a good friend, and beside Chance didn't really have anywhere to go, literally. "I suppose, but where? I can't go back to the Yard."

Nathan let that one pass, deciding he'd deal with it later "I've got a small place not far from here, will that do?"

Chance looked surprised "I didn't know you had a place When did that happen?"

"Three or four months after I arrived I needed someplace quiet, because of my abilities I needed to be able to relax, and the Yard was always too noisy."

"I guess that'll be okay How far is it?"

"Near, as things are measured around here, but it's not important, I got transportation." Nathan thought a moment, then his face lit up "Hey! That's right, you haven't seen my new bike yet Come on!"

"New bike? This I gotta see." He wasn't sure why it mattered, but he thought it did, so he finished his drink, grabbed his bag, and followed Nathan out.

When Chance caught up with Nathan, the excited medic was standing next to a sleek black racer with red stripes; with an expression Chance usually associated with parents with new kits "Nice bike, Nathan When did you get it?"

Nathan's grin widened; he'd hoped the bike would get a reaction out of the pilot He threw on his helmet, and tossed the spare to Chance "Picked it up between conference sessions Coming?"

"You're driving?" Chance was incredulous.

"Hey! I know how, been driving these for a whole year."

Chance looked at him suspiciously, put on the helmet, and got on behind him He wasn't sure why but despite his usual reluctance to be a passenger, somehow letting Nathan drive made sense As the cycle took off, Chance was forced to hold onto Nathan tightly, since he was driving too fast, and doing things even Chance would have thought twice about "Hey! Where'd you learn to drive?"

"From you, of course." Nathan's tone was completely unrepentant, and clearly was enjoying himself He knew he was pushing the limits of his driving ability, but he was hoping that the combination of excitement and speed might draw Chance out some; preferably before he got them killed or the Enforcers spotted the misbehaving motorcycle Fortunately, he reached the parking garage attached to the apartment building he lived in, before anything unfortunate happened.

"Nice building." Chance commented as they walked through the halls, of the reasonably upscale complex He was a little amazed; he hadn't thought that Nathan had the resources for a place like this.

"Yeah, a co-worker at the hospital recommended it." Nathan said as he unlocked the door, and gestured Chance in.

"Nice place, Nathan The hospital must pay pretty good, buddy."

"It's good for part-time work, but they do pay premium for combat medics with surgical experience It'll be even better, once I get my M.D." Nathan said, leaving out just how frustrated he was with having to get a local certification "Just drop the bag anywhere, Chance." He headed toward the kitchen. "Care for a milk, bud?"

"Sure." He said, knowing Nathan wouldn't have anything stronger He dropped his tote near the door, and sat down on the couch Looking around, Chance decided that Nathan would have no problem making it outside of SWAT; like Jake he seemed to be in demand.

"Here 'ya go, cheers." Nathan said, as he handed Chance the can "Sorry I don't have anything stronger, but alcohol plays havoc with my psychic abilities."

"No problem, Nathan."

Nathan sat down in a chair opposite Chance There was a moment of awkward silence, as they sat there drinking Nathan got up, and looked out the window He had to say something, but he was afraid of saying the wrong thing; almost as much as he feared saying nothing.

After a moment, Chance got up, and walked over next to him "Something the matter, Nathan?"

Nathan turned and looked at him; the pain in his eyes obvious "Of course something's wrong, Chance; SWAT's breaking up and you're leaving."

"Jake will probably keep SWAT going, you know I was never that important to it."

Nathan looked at him, realizing that was part of the problem; Chance had concluded that Jake could keep SWAT going, with or without him "Chance, Jake has no more intention of returning to the Yard than you do." He said matter-of-factly.

"I thought you hadn't talked to him since you got back."

"I haven't, but there are other ways to find things out." Nathan reached up and tapped his head.

"Oh, I forgot The base told you, huh?"

"Yeah, something like that."

Nathan watched Chance for a moment as the tabby stared out the window He knew if he didn't say something, Chance would stick to his plan to leave "Chance, I understand that because of whatever happened while I was away; you feel you can't go back to the Yard, and that things aren't good between you and Jake right now I've been through enough pain myself to understand that sometimes all you want to do is get away from the pain; especially when it's fresh But I also know that in time the pain dulls, and then you need someone to talk to, and it helps to have someone you don't have to explain everything to What I'm trying to say is: please don't leave, Chance In time, I think you'll want someone to talk to, and besides ... I'll miss you, a lot."

Chance looked at the red-haired medic, not sure what to say, or do He'd lost Jake without being able to do anything about it, and he'd thought he'd lost Nathan at the same time; but now Nathan was trying to hold on to him, and he wasn't sure what to make of it Part of him still wanted to get away from everything, but now there was some part that wanted to stay He sat down, head in his hands "I don't know, Nathan I just don't know I can't go back, and I don't have the resources you guys do."

"Chance, why don't you stay here with me? I've got the space, and the company would be welcome."

"You sure? I thought you got this place to get away from everyone."

"Chance, having the quiet space was a luxury, one I've done without on many occasions But your friendship is something I don't want to lose, and I'm afraid that if you leave; I'll never see you again I don't think I could deal with that." Nathan said, trying desperately to try to keep all the anguish he felt from bursting out; knowing it wouldn't help.

"You'd still have Jake." Chance said, half-heartedly His resolve to leave was fading before the bluntly honest statement that Nathan was making.

"That doesn't change the fact that I don't want to lose you Chance, I can see that you think Jake means more to me than you do, but it isn't that simple While it is true that I've known Jake longer, that doesn't mean that your friendship means less to me I can't make you stay, but will you think about it? I don't think any of the bus runs leave until Monday, anyway."

Chance nodded, he'd forgotten that he'd need somewhere to stay until Monday "I'll think about it." He shook his head. "Kats, I've got one killer headache."

"Not surprising considering what you've been putting into your system in the last twenty-four hours."

"Got anything for a headache around here?"

Nathan smiled "Several things, actually But I really don't think you need to be adding any more chemicals to your system Fortunately, I happen to know a non-chemical method for relieving headaches." He stood up, and stretched his arms toward the ceiling "Remember the time you had that really bad landing in the reflex room?"

Chance winced He remembered; he'd pulled the muscles in his left leg badly, and the pain had been so intense, he'd been inventing new curses on the spot He also remembered that Medic had made the pain go away, using what he called therapeutic massage He looked dubiously at Nathan "That'll work on a headache?"

"Usually does, especially when there's stress and tension involved, which I'm pretty sure there is You'll need to lie down though, since headaches work on the muscles in the back of the neck, down into the back itself Better make it somewhere comfortable; since the odds are good that you'll fall asleep You look pretty beat, bud."

Chance looked suspicious "So this is an excuse for you to get me into bed, and get my clothes off, huh?"

Nathan chuckled, passing the suspicion off as humor "Ouch, I thought I was being clever and you saw right through me I was hoping you wouldn't figure it out till I had you in bed But seriously Chance, if that was really what I was after, I'd simply ask Besides, therapeutic massage is part of my medical training, and I never use my medical training for anything but healing; my oath to Felsira forbids it."

Chance head throbbed as he tried to deal with two conflicting thoughts: On the one hand, he was afraid to leave himself at all vulnerable, and the massage would have him lying flat on his stomach The last time he'd been in that position with another tom in the room ... Chance didn't want to think about that now On the other hand, he wanted the headache to go away and he knew that if Nathan said it would work, it would He dimly realized that he'd lumped Nathan, who'd put his life on the line for him before, with Feral Chance wasn't sure about a lot of things, but Nathan didn't deserve that More importantly, Nathan was trying to hold their friendship together, when Chance couldn't even figure out why.

Nathan sat on the couch watching Chance, when it hit him what the problem was: Chance's encounter with Feral Nathan realized that the massage he had suggested contained an element of vulnerability that probably hit close to home for the tabby He'd failed to even think of it; not surprising considering that it was inconceivable for a Felsin Medic to take advantage of someone they were healing.

He was more than a little relieved when he noticed that Chance had taken his shirt off Apparently the tabby pilot was still able to trust him Nathan hoped it also meant that he was seriously considering his offer to stay.

"Where do you need me to lie down?" Chance asked, anxious to get rid of the headache.

Nathan thought about it a moment "I don't have many appropriate surfaces, the guest bed will have to do This way." He took his riding jacket off, and hung it up before heading back to the bedroom.

Chance quashed a nagging doubt and followed The bedroom, like the main area, was sparsely appointed Though one featured made Chance curious "Two beds? You must have a lot of guests."

Nathan smiled. "No not really It was just in case."

Chance lay down on the smaller bed, face down He tried to squash the nervousness that kept coming back; he told himself that he didn't have anything to worry about; Nathan would never hurt him.

"Chance, just relax; if you tense up, it defeats the whole purpose of the massage." Nathan's calm, reassuring voice came from above him.

Nathan worked gently, kneading the sore muscles and applying light pressure as necessary to release built-up stress and tension Fortunately, massage had been part of his freshman internship in physical therapy, and he was considered quite talented His suspicion about the muscles was correct Chance had more knots than a rope in Maritime museum; no wonder he had a headache Nathan knew he'd finally gotten rid of Chance's headache when he heard the tabby purring He smiled, remembering how surprised he'd been the first time he'd heard Jake purr; despite their feline heritage, Felsin didn't purr.

"Can I take that to mean the headache is gone?"

"Oh yeah And here I was just looking for pain reliever Thanks." Chance replied, tired and sort of sleepy.

"My pleasure, Chance."

"Nathan, even if I was gonna stay, I'd just be a burden to you." Chance had figured out what he'd do out in the countryside, but around Megakat City; he wasn't so sure.

Nathan sat down on the edge of the bed, and put his hand on Chance's shoulder The tabby tensed a little, reflexively and then relaxed "Chance, when I first arrived in this world of yours; you and Jake looked after me until I got on my feet I'd be more than glad to return the favor Besides, you're not a burden; just a friend who's going through some tough times Friends help each other out, right?"

"Yeah, I'm just not used to letting others support me I've always carried my own weight."

Nathan smiled He'd been saying things like that to himself, back when he first went looking for someone to build the E-frame for him He understood the need to be an equal player, not a dependant Then he realized he might have a solution "Chance, you ever consider working as a test pilot? I've got a few connections who might be able to help, if you're interested."

Chance thought about it If it had wings, he could fly it; and while not as exciting as being T-bone, it would get him in the air "Hey, I can fly anything, but you know somebody who'll hire a pilot who got canned for recklessness, and hasn't officially flown in years?"

Nathan considered for a moment "Maybe I'll have to talk to a few people." He looked at the clock "But that'll have to wait till tomorrow, nobody would be available at this hour, I expect."

He stood up, turned around and discovered that Chance had fallen asleep Not surprising given the amount of fatigue Nathan had felt while working out the headache Nathan just hoped he'd be able to reach somebody at Cathedral on the weekend that handled recruitment of pilots He remembered seeing somewhere that Cathedral was always looking for good test pilots, and Chance was best pilot Nathan had ever known.

Nathan decided to see what contact info he had for Cathedral He thought it would be better to talk to somebody first; as opposed to just going up there in the morning, and seeing who was around; that wasn't very efficient and besides, he wasn't sure he was quite ready to leave Chance alone that long, yet.

Chance stirred briefly. "Nathan?" His voice was groggy and distant.

"Yes, Chance?"

"Thanks for not letting go."

"That's what friends are for, bud."

He figured he should be able to find somebody with enough authority who'd be willing to help keep a talented pilot After all good pilots weren't easy to come by.

Worn out, physically and emotionally, Nathan undressed and climbed into bed Able to hear Chance's even breathing on the other side of the room, Nathan relaxed; things might not be getting better, but at least he'd stopped them from getting any worse Tomorrow, he'd go about giving Chance a reason to stay, other than the fact that Nathan had asked him to.

Nathan offered silent thanks to Caito, the trickster spirit and master of random happenings, for there being a twelve hour Scaredy Cat marathon on He didn't care one or the other about the show, but Chance enjoyed it, which gave him something to do while Nathan took care of things Nathan considered the laughter coming from the living room a good sign, since he took it to mean that Chance's emotional state had improved; at least a little.

He flipped through his contact directory, finally finding the one he was looking for: Cathedral Recruiting Nathan hadn't been sure where to start, but then he remembered the female recruiter from the night before He scanned the card for the number, and then dialed it.

The phone rang a few times, and then a polite, female voice answered "Cathedral recruiting May I help you?"

"I hope so I was talking to one of your recruiters last night, a Brown Hyena fem, and I was interested in continuing the conversation Any way you can put me in touch with her? Unfortunately, I didn't catch her name."

"A Brown Hyena? That must have been Brandy Ressa I can give you her beeper number."

"That'd be great Thanks."

Nathan copied down the number, thanked the receptionist again and hung up the phone He had expected it to be more difficult to pin down one recruiter, but then again maybe there weren't that many Brown Hyenas in recruiting He punched the beeper number into the phone, and waited for the call back.

A few minutes later the phone rang, and Nathan picked it up. "Good Morning, Nathan Solgardin speaking."

"Good morning My name is Brandy Ressa, I'm a recruiter with Cathedral Did somebody at this number call my beeper?"

"Yes, I did Thank you for returning the call so promptly Assuming that Cathedral is still looking for test pilots, I have one you might want to talk to."

"A pilot who's looking for work is someone I'll always want to talk to Where and when?"

"I'm willing to offer my place, if that's acceptable When would be good for you?"

"How about an hour from now?"

"Sounds good."

"Excellent, 9:30 at your place."

Nathan was pleased as he hung up, since things were going much easier, and faster, than expected He went back out into the livingroom Between the TV and Chance's loud laughter Nathan had to shout to get the tabby's attention.

"Yeah, Nathan?" His attention was still on the TV.

"You might want to get cleaned up There's a recruiter coming over."

Chance hit the mute on the remote. "A recruiter? On a Saturday?"

"Yeah, I was kind of surprised myself But the moment I said the words 'test pilot' she was on her way over."

Chance grinned "They're that desperate?"

"Nah, Just that big They never have enough test pilots for everything they have going."

"Nathan, does this company have a name?"

"Oops, I did forget that detail, didn't I? They're called Cathedral, you may have heard of them."

"One of PumaDyne's research and development centers, right?"

"Nothing so simple, but that's close enough."

"So what's your connection to them?"

Nathan had to think about it; he wasn't really ready to reveal the E-frame project, yet "I've worked with them part-time on some projects."

"So that's where you kept disappearing to?"

"Well, that and the hospital Just trying to keep my skills from getting rusty."

"Oh, that makes sense." Chance understood not wanting to get rusty It had been one of his big concerns when he and Jake had gotten busted down to the Salvage Yard.

"Well, you probably should get dressed Though I dare say you would make an impression on the recruiter as is." Nathan grinned Chance was lounging about without a shirt on, not having changed from the night before.

"Okay, okay What's this recruiter's name?" Chance asked as he got up and went into the bedroom to change.

"Her name is Brandy, and in case you're interested she's an Brown Hyena."

"You've seen her? Is she good looking?" Chance asked, half-interested.

"Yes, I've seen her And I guess so Not really my strong point, you know."

"Sorry, I forgot." Chance had forgotten that Nathan wasn't really interested in females, regardless of species.

"No problem."

Nathan busied himself cleaning up, while Chance finished up getting ready There wasn't really any mess, since Nathan had been gone for almost three months, but he felt a need to straighten up anyway Nathan was still puttering about when the doorbell rang Nathan opened the door to see the recruiter from the night before, only she was dressed more professionally.

"Nathan Solgardin?" She asked tentatively with a professionally warm smile for the vaguely familiar reddish Kat.

"Yes You must be Brandy Please come in."

"Thank you Now where's this pilot you thought I should meet?"

Nathan closed the door and led the way into the living room where Chance was watching the Scaredy Cat marathon Nathan cleared his throat, and the tabby turned to look He turned the television off and stood up.

"Brandy, this is Chance Furlong, the pilot I told you about Chance, this is Brandy, a recruiter with Cathedral."

"Nice to meet you, Brandy." Chance said He made an effort to sound more enthusiastic than he really was.

"My pleasure, Chance Nathan told me you're interested in working for Cathedral as a test pilot, is that still true?" She asked bluntly, already willing to bet her career that Chance was a pilot, and a damn good one.

"I'm interested in flying, and Nathan says you need pilots." At this point he didn't care much who for, he just wanted to keep flying Besides, if Nathan was willing to work for them they had to be halfway decent.

"True enough We can't get enough good pilots Would you be willing to do a test flight, to give us an idea how good you really are?" She made the pitch to deliberately sound like the challenge it was.

"Sure." Chance shifted uncertainly It'd been a long time since anyone had actually judged his flying The thought was a little unnerving, even though he had no doubts on his skill.

"Do you have a preference as far as aircraft?" Brandy arched an eyebrow.

"Lady, I can fly anything with wings." He met her gaze proudly "Give me any aircraft, and I'll show you what it's really capable of."

Nathan smiled as he heard what sounded like the real Chance, bravado and all, and gave the recruiter points for finding the one area Chance didn't have any doubts about: his skill as a pilot.

Brandy smiled broadly "I think that can be arranged Any time preferences? Please realize that the testing process will take two to three days, though we will provide room and board for it."

"Would starting tomorrow morning be asking too much?" Chance actually sounded a little hopeful "Anytime would work though I'm kind of at loose ends at the moment."

"Tomorrow's great." She patted Chance's shoulder "If you wouldn't mind filling out some paperwork, I can get everything set up for 9 am tomorrow."

"Umm, sure." He hesitated a moment before following her to the dining room table, where she set a fairly simple-looking one page form down.

"You wouldn't happen to have a photo ID, would you?" She sat down across from the tabby as Nathan hovered in the background.

"Of course." Chance actually looked a little surprised "I still have a small aircraft pilot's license too."

"Even better If I could see them while you fill out the form." She smiled in real delight as he handed them over and bent over the piece of paper with the pen she'd set next to it.

"This is all you want to know?" Chance looked up as she put the first of his IDs in a wallet-sized box and closed it, only to take it back out a moment later, to be replaced by his pilot's license.

"You're welcome to add more if you think it's of value for us to know, but Cathedral stands behind its policy that ability and potential are more important than the past Though it'll make things go smoother if you actually mention any violent felonies or spy/ espionage type crimes you've done."

"Well, nothing there." Chance sort of chuckled "Just canned for recklessness."

"By Feral?" Brandy arched a thick eyebrow at him "Trust me, that's hardly considered a detriment where you're going."

"Not a fan of the Commander?" Chance grinned at her, almost playfully.

"Well, I like him, but only because he makes my job so much easier." She chuckled lightly "He's put more good pilots on the street, and on my resume, than anything else."

"I suppose so." He handed the paper and pen to her and accepted his IDs back.

Brandy quickly glanced over his application before sliding it into her small briefcase and extended her hand to him "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Chance I'll be here to pick you up at 9 am tomorrow morning."

"Umm, what should I wear, bring ... what are you testing?" Chance asked hesitantly as he let her hand go, suddenly very nervous about this idea.

"Three days worth of clothes and other needs." She gently smiled at him and sat back down "Please, sit down I'll talk you though what will happen tomorrow, and when you are accepted."

"You sound oftly sure I'll get hired." The tabby's ears flicked down in suspicious doubt.

"Chance, just like you, I'm one of the best at what I do." She settled her jaw on interlaced fingers with her elbows on the table and stared him down with a sensual smile "The difference is in what we do; what we understand on that bare, instinctive level What you can just know by looking and aircraft, feeling how she responds, I know by looking at people, talking to them I know you're a top notch pilot, and I know because it's as integral part of what you are as a bird's aerodynamics are a part of it."

"How ..." The tabby leaned back, ears stiff in shock, mouth open and jaw loose.

"To someone like me, the fact that you're a good pilot is as obvious as that you're a Kat Just like I'm sure you know most of what an aircraft can do before you ever see specs or lay a hand on her." She relaxed the little bit of tension she had as Chance blinked at her and nodded "I'm sure Nathan here can tell you some wild stories about times he was over his head by training, but just knew what to do to save a life."

"Too many times." Nathan interjected from where he was leaning again the doorframe "And I've see you do it, Chance." He regarded the Brown Hyena with new respect, and determined to talk to her, in private, about what else she knew about him from just looking.

"I'm a Cathedral Recruiter, Chance." Brandy smiled at him with all the honestly and assurance she could muster "Ms Dyne trusts my assessments, it's why she hired me My word carries a lot of weight, especially when you prove my assessment true tomorrow."

"You're really that sure of me?" He looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and grateful awe.

"Yes, Chance." She nodded slightly and touched his hand "I'm staking my reputation on it; on your performance tomorrow."

"No pressure now, is there?" He managed to half-joke as his gut clenched.

"There shouldn't be." Brenda smiled brilliantly at him and settled back in her chair "You are that good."

Chance settled back as well, and swallowed "Okay, so what happens tomorrow?"

"I'll pick you up and take you to our Ameliorate base For security reasons, you won't be allowed into Cathedral itself until you're an actual employee."

"I understand." He nodded for her to continue.

"There's a basic physical, then a rather rough flight sim in your choice of aircraft That's it for day one, though trust me, it's plenty." She offered and encouraging smile when he fidgeted "I'll show you to your quarters for the night, and how to run the oddities there.

"Monday will be the actual flight tests, two of them The first is a day run with me, the second is at night with either Pakitra, Patrik or Sandy, depending on who's available." She counted the various items off on her fingers, pausing when she noticed an uncertain, concentrating look cross Chance's face "Something you want to know?"

"Sandy ... she wouldn't be Sandy Quin, would she?" Chance's voice was low, almost hesitant as he asked under the scrutiny of both of the room's occupants.

Bandy shook her head apologetically "Her name's Sandy Rilkell, goes by the call of SlipStream She's a fine pilot, one of our best You'll get a fair assessment, Chance."

"Oh Okay." Chance relaxed a little, even half smiled "After that?"

"Day three is orientation." Brandy grinned.

"Urr, okay." The burley tabby murmured.

"Yes?" She arched her eyebrow at him again.

"How can you get backgrounds and everything done so fast?"

Brandy chuckled in true amusement and shook her head "I honestly don't have a clue But they've never had a problem with three days before Admin is one department it pays to not piss off."

"They never are." Chance shook his head and stood, offering her his hand "I'll see you at 9?"

"Definitely." She shook his hand before turning to leave As she passed Nathan, she whispered. "If he's half as good as I think, I'll owe you one."

Nathan shook his head, and whispered back "If he's flying for Cathedral, he's staying That's payment in full." When Brandy looked questioningly at him, he said softly. "Its a long story, but not important for recruiting purposes."

She nodded, the people who did the background checks would find anything that was of interest to the company, and she didn't have to worry about personal issues if they didn't keep a pilot out of service For now, she just had to get things set up for the test flight, and get a few arguments ready in case the background check popped up something unpleasant This tabby was one worth bending the rules for; she'd take it up with Pakitra Dyne herself if need be.

After she left, Nathan turned to Chance. "I think that went well."

"I guess I wonder how thorough the background checks are, though."

"I don't know, but I managed to pass and I'm not even from this planet Don't worry about it, they're interested in good pilots, not some little accident you had years ago with the Enforcers, or what you've been up to since."

"I guess Did you have anything else planned for today?" He looked toward the TV.

"No I don't actually. " Nathan grinned "I've got an idea, why don't I order pizza, and we can watch the rest of that marathon?"

"Great idea! But I thought you didn't like Scaredy Cat?"

"I'm in strange mood today Go turn it on, I'll order."

"Hey, no complaints here."

Half and hour later with the pizzas on the coffee table, Nathan and Chance sat in front of the TV; Chance howling in laughter at Scaredy Cat, and Nathan just smiling, feeling that things were looking up Another day or so, and he might be able to start working on the rest of the problem.

Shortly after dark Nathan pulled up in front of the Salvage Yard, parked his bike and quickly went inside He worked quickly to pull together the things he was after; packing them carefully into a backpack Not being certain what lay ahead he packed his SWAT Kat outfit, including the glove-o-trix and the blaster he'd left behind previously He also picked up his religious gear from his room because he wasn't sure when he'd be back again, and he hated to be without it for too long.

Nathan returned to the living room and quickly checked the list he'd made before coming, to make sure he remembered everything When everything was checked he looked around to be sure and saw the box containing the engagement collar with the note that accompanied it "Better bring this along Chance isn't ready to deal with it yet, but when I think he can, I'll bring it out I expect he'll be difficult about facing it, but he's not the only stubborn one." Nathan smiled wistfully, wondering silently how long it would be.

He carefully placed the note and box in his pack, closed the pack up and left the Yard, remembering to lock up as he left He only looked back briefly before he got on his bike and headed to his apartment About half way back he realized that he still hadn't let Jake know he was back He'd been so busy worrying about Chance that he'd forgotten to, and he felt a bit guilty about that.

He pulled over and took out his cell phone It took a moment for him to remember the number for Jake's apartment He dialed, and after eight rings the answering service picked up.

"Hi Jake It's Nathan, just thought I'd let you know I got back from the conference earlier than expected I'd hoped to see you when I got in, but nobody was around and I'm not sure where to find you My beeper will be the easiest way to reach me for the next couple of days; there are a couple of things I have to take care of Don't worry about what time it is; just call whenever you want." He paused, gave his beeper number in case Jake didn't have it, and considered what else to say "Jake, I hope to see you soon but until I do ... take care of yourself I miss you, buddy."

Nathan wiped the tears from his eyes as he hung up He'd meant to keep the message simple and calm, but he hadn't realized just how deeply things were affecting him "I guess I was just lucky that Jake wasn't home If I couldn't stay calm talking to the answering machine; what luck would I have had talking to him?" Nathan realized that he was losing focus, which he couldn't afford to do Nathan resumed his trip back to the apartment, wanting more than anything to simply drop into bed and stop thinking for a while.

Jake woke slowly, comfortably, wrapped in the warmth and scent of one he loved He let a soft sigh of contentment escape as his bedmate shifted to embrace him.

"Afternoon sleepyhead." Felina's playful voice whispered in his ear as a strong hand ghosted down his body from chin to sheath "Ready to face the rest of the day?"

"Afternoon?" He blinked at the digital clock, brain eventually translating that it was nearly three in the afternoon "And you're still in bed? Aren't you on duty ..."

"Gone and back." She chuckled with a nip at his ear "You've been out nearly twenty-four hours." She traced a sharp claw around the edge of his filling sheath "And you seem to still be a little wound up."

"And this is a surprise to you?" Jake twisted his head to see her face and chuckled at her smirk "Tease."

"Not in the least." She purred back as her hand wondered up his hard abs and chest to scratch his jaw "Just waiting for you to be conscious enough to tell me something."

"And that would be?" He tensed slightly.

"What your greatest fantasy is."

"Honestly?" He rumbled as she played her silky tail over his hip and groin.

"It's the best policy." She chuckled.

"To ..." his breath caught in a low groan as she nipped the crook of his neck "To be between you and Chance Bound and fucked 'till I can't think or move any more."

"You're a bottom?" Surprise mingled with delight in her voice.

"Whenever I can." Jake glanced back "Not many ... it doesn't work very often."

"Why?" Felina rubbed her entire body along his back and purred in his ear.

"Because..." his voice mingled with a purring groan. "Because I have to trust so much, and I have to accept ... ummmm, ohhh yesss, accept him as my ... my better."

"You trust, respect me enough for that?" Felina maneuvered to put most of her mass over him as she continued to slide along his willing body, feeling and smelling the answer long before he said it.

"Yes." Jake met her eyes for an unguarded moment before he locked his soul away again "If you could."

"What's that supposed to mean?" She huffed, grazing sharp teeth along his exposed throat playfully.

Jake closed his eyes as his body shuddered under her increasingly dominating touch "How can ... ohhh, could you take me?"

"Oh, you just have no imagination, love." Felina grinned down at him, then turned deadly serious "Do you want to be bound and fucked in the ass by me?"

"Sweet Bastet, yes." His breath caught when she kissed him as possessively and passionately as any fantasy he'd managed during his more lonely years.

"Stay right there, handsome." She rumbled and slid off him and out of bed, returning a moment later with several lengths of white silk "Put your wrists where you want them." She couldn't keep the hungry note from her voice; the desire in his scent urged her on as much as the openness of how he held his body and the want on his face as he rolled to his knees and stretched his arms out, most of his weight resting on his forearms.

"You've done this before." Felina observed dryly, wrapping one silk tie around his wrist and then around the center bar of the headboard and around his other wrist, all while deftly avoiding his attempt to nuzzle her slick crotch.

A low whimper was his only reply as she moved away and selected a short strip With practiced care she covered his eyes, pausing at his sudden tension "You okay with this, love?"

"Ye-yes." He took a brief moment to control the surge of cold fear that ran through his body "Yes, I'm okay with you blinding me."

"Jake?" She touched his shoulder gently, feeling for the truth in his tension.

"I trust you." Jake felt something snap deep inside him, and accepted the distant joy of it as his body relaxed under his mate's touch With an uncertain purr that slowly grew stronger, he simply felt her move behind him to bind his knees to the headboard with long strips of silk He closed his eyes behind the blindfold and sighed softly in the rare comfort of not being able to do anything but kneel and accept the pleasures a trusted companion chose.

He felt the weight on the bed shift as she left it, then the scrape of a drawer opening and closing His own breathing and the rustle of soft cloth and something harder moving in the air and over fur was the only thing besides soft cloth under and around him as his world narrowed to touch, sound and smell Then the bed dipped near his head, bringing his attention to the right.

"Show me what you do for your toms." Her voice was softly commanding as strong fingers combed his hair and along his ears, guiding his muzzle forward just a little "Please me."

He relaxed almost completely on reflex to accept the enticingly familiar shape that pressed against his lips, hesitating only slightly before exploring with a relish he'd long given up on feeling He knew it was a dildo, it had to be, but it even tasted right The illusion was nearly perfect From a subtle unevenness in the barb-hairs that responded with just the right resistance and motion that dragged increasingly desperate whimpers from the Kat above him, to the slightly bittersweet musk that screamed 'Felina' to his delighted mind and body Only a very small corner of his mind didn't buy the idea that he was suckling on Felina's cock, bringing her closer and closer to the edge with every teasing motion.

But even with all this so close to his perceptions, his mind flicked between memories of two very different toms, both larger and thicker than what he was eagerly nursing Memories of their very different musks nearly overrode what he actually tasted That small corner of his mind that recognized this wasn't a real cock in his mouth also gave thanks that the dildo turned both whimpered names into indistinct groans.

"Ohhh, Jake ..." Felina barely managed to gasp out that much of a warning before the first shuddering contraction hit, curling her around his head and forcing his nose against the rougher fur of her crotch as her body took over, too desperate for its building climax to take much care in it's rocking thrusts.

Jake relaxed his throat and mouth by practiced ease and let the illusion melt as her movement became less and less masculine even as her orgasm-rich scent tugged his arousal higher He barely felt her claws draw blood from his scalp, and made little secret of the delight surging through him at her final howling thrust that pulled the strap-on from his mouth roughly as she collapsed on her side, gasping for breath between tremors.

He stretched sideways, following his ears and nose to nuzzle her hair, the only part of her body he could reach and asked quietly "did I do well?"

"Very well, love." She rumbled after a long moment to regain her composure She reached up to scratch the base of his ear until he purred and went nearly limp in the restraints "Well enough to be rewarded." She smiled when he didn't even react to the statement, too absorbed in what was happening under her fingers to listen She took her hand away, crooning comfortingly when he whimpered in distress "How do you want to come?"

"With you in me." He barely breathed enough to get the words out "As hard and deep as you can."

"Like it rough when you're receiving, do you?" She chuckled and shrugged off the lethargy she always felt after coming to retrieve the lube from her nightstand.

"Yes." He hissed in anticipation as she settled behind him with his legs between hers, and strong, slick fingers eased him open.

"My, my, you've been a busy tom." She laughed playfully as she withdrew her fingers, caressing the velvety fur of his balls and full sheath before leaning over his back, the tip of the dildo not even up to the first barb-hairs inside him "Ready?"

"Yes," Jake whispered as she bit his neck-ruff, pulled his head back and impaled him in one swift motion "Oh .... *yes*."

He shuddered as she did exactly as he'd asked, putting her greater weight and full strength behind each thrust Then she rested against his back, letting him carry both their weights to free her hands to play along his body, one crossing his chest to add more force to her thrusts by pulling him back into them, the other stroking his unsheathed cock until it pulsed with need.

Jake whimpered as he felt what little self-control he had left slip in response to the absolute domination and pleasure granted by his mate When the first wave hit he started to thrash, only his bonds and her skill keeping him from throwing her off In the end his body settled on a grunting scream as his balls emptied themselves on the cotton sheets and her hand.

Felina caught them both with the hand that had been milking his cock as he collapsed She pulled out of his too lax body, cutting the silk bonds with her claws in her haste to release him, then shook her head and laughed harder than she could remember doing before Her entire body trembled with her mirth as she lay down against his side and held him, waiting for unconsciousness to drift into regular sleep and mused at how much she was enjoying a not so lazy day in bed.

"Fel?" Jake slowly teased her awake.

"Umm?" She stretched and grinned lecherously at him despite the fact that he was dressed "What's up, besides you?"

"Very funny." He leaned forward to kiss her "I'm making breakfast ... food, not me," he waggled a finger at her, "and then I want to show you something."

"Breakfast in bed?" She crooned hopefully and pulled him in for another kiss.

Jake chuckled as he pulled back "I'll owe you one, okay?" He yanked the covers off her with smirk for her disgruntled glare "Shower, by yourself, then breakfast, then my news, then ..." the playfulness died from his expression, "then you can do anything you wish."

"Jake?" She rolled to sit on the edge of the bed and caught his arm before he could turn away.

He refused to meet her eyes "Remember I said I wasn't willing to keep secrets from you anymore?"


"I have secrets more ... dangerous ... than being Razor." He flicked a gaze at her concerned face before averting his eyes again "I don't intend to keep them from you either." He tugged his arm from her loose grip "Please, no questions on this until we get there This is hard enough as is."

"All right, Jake." She let him go reluctantly and tried to smile "Breakfast smells good."

He smiled weakly back and kissed her cheek "Good Now get ready I packed everything we'll need."

She resisted asking why they needed to pack anything and nodded before heading for the bathroom for a quick, and badly needed, shower.

"Can I ask a question?" Felina asked softly from the passenger seat after they'd been on the road over half an hour in her car.

"We're headed for ClawCrest Marina I have a small craft there we'll take to my sanctuary." He didn't even look at her, just kept staring at the road and traffic they still had a half hour of ahead of them.

"Oh." Felina looked out the window, trying to find something to occupy her mind She finally sighed and turned back to the stressed profile of her mate-to-be and lover "Do you want to know anything about me?"

"Hurr?" He shot her a startled glance before turning his attention back to the road "Is there something you want to tell me?"

Felina propped her head against her hand near the window and stared into space "Nothing I can think of, certainly nothing like whatever has you so worked up I just figured I'd offer For all the investigating your friends did on me, you still must have a question or two."

"My friends?" He shot her a suspicious look.

"Someone did a kick-tail investigation on me when we started seeing each other." She shrugged, purposefully ignoring his mood "You said a few things that you had to have gotten from there, 'cause I never said anything about it."

It took a moment for Jake to find his voice, but it was nearly normal when he asked, "what's your favorite book?"

"Hu?' She blinked at him a moment before blushing and ducked her head before answering, "Rifts."

The car nearly swerved out of its lane before Jake recovered control His voice was strained with shock as he stole another look at her flushed face "You role-play?"

"I try," she admitted, "I'm just not very good at it Not much time for it either You know the game?"

"A little It's a great source of ideas." He cocked a grin at her "I can't say I've played though Used to play an all-inclusive Car Wars with Pat That was fun."

"Figures you'd go for the demolition derby type." She chuckled "No, I bet you were more into the pre-game work."

He smiled honestly for a moment "Yes, but proving I was right was almost as good Pat's no easy opponent." He chuckled "Though I must admit I like the way it works as an adult better." His smile faded "Except for the injuries and dead."

"Yah," Felina sighed, "it's always hurts less as make believe."

The rest of the ride was in much more comfortable silence, if not completely at ease.

"Just what is this?" Felina regarded the strange, two person craft dubiously About the only reassuring thing about the deep blue and black, streamlined craft was that it definitely looked like one of Jake's creations It had thin, flat and slightly recurved wings and an oval body, reminiscent of a flying wing mated to a speedboat Instead of wheels it was sitting on a cushioned platform.

"Surface Effect Vehicle." He grinned for a moment and walked across the smooth cement floor inside it's small hanger-like building "First cousin of the hovercraft I built one years ago, still keep her in shape and lodged here Aryth as fine a craft as the TurboKat, in her own way."

"Somehow, I don't doubt it." Felina shook her head and climbed in the passenger seat without another word She relaxed and watched the spectacular view of the sun-drenched sea opening as the wide hanger-like doors opened wide as a clear canopy enclosed the craft The sea floored in as the floor lowered with them until Aryth floated on the rippling waves.

"It's only about twenty minutes from here." Jake offered as he gunned the water-jet engines to full thrust and pulled into the open ocean with a flair that would have made T-Bone jealous.

As it stood, it did earn him an amused look from his passenger and a low chuckle "I think you enjoy driving more than you let on."

"I love to drive, and fly I'm bloody good at it too." He snorted "You pilots just never ask if anyone else can handle the wheel."

"I'm sorry." Felina offered in a truly meek voice.

"It'so'kay." He mumbled with a soft look for her "I let you guys get away with it."

She nodded and let the silence settle between them again as all landmarks were lost to blue-green water Her tracking-trained eye caught the dot on the horizon as their destination long before Jake spoke of it, when it was discernable as a small, rocky island with little vegetation.

"This is where I can be myself, let the masks I hold up for the world fall." Jake spoke very quietly as he docked the Aryth against a piece of rock that fit it perfectly He stood as the canopy slid open and offered her a hand Haunted eyes met hers as he continued "I've hidden so much of myself over the years ... I'm tired, Felina I'm tired of living a lie I don't want to loose you, but I can't take lying to you anymore." He dropped his eyes and guided her across the lava rock beach.

"Jake," she stopped him as a section of rock outcropping not much taller than she was sank back, then slid to one side "You won't loose me Sometimes secrets are good to keep."

"I'm not asking you to tell me any of yours." He smiled painfully "I'm just not willing to live like I have been anymore I need this to come out, even if it's only to you ... and even if you never speak to me again for it."

"Jake, stop being fatalistic." She couldn't keep the sharp edge from her voice She shook her head sadly when he flinched "You're not acting very normal, you know."

"You don't know what normal is, for me." Jake closed his eyes and shivered as they entered a large, cozily appointed cavern "You've never seen it." He waved off her retort before it was voiced as he moved to the largest pile of pillows and blankets "Please, just look around Ask what comes to mind I'll answer you truthfully."

She gave him a quizzical glance before making a very slow, careful inspection of the personal effects scattered about the room A place, that for all its numerous personal touches that didn't seem to be from the Kat she knew, barely looked lived in.

"Do you spend much time here?" She tried to sound casual as she inspected the one item in the room that actually looked right to her; a sizable collection of trophies and ribbons, many with marksmanship motifs A clear and detailed public record of what she'd long known to be true; her mate-to-be was as skilled as his interests varied.

"No," he sighed, "as much as I'd like to."

She tried to ignore the almost fearful tightness in his voice as she moved on to a set of five simply framed, old black and white pictures hanging above the desk "Who are these?"

"Never let it be said that a Feral doesn't have a gift for finding the hardest question to ask first." Jake sighed as he rolled to his feet and walked over to her.

"Ummph?" She jerked in surprise and stared at him, then back at the photos "Something else ...."

"No." He smiled weakly and touched her arm "It'll get the worst over with first If you can still ... want me, after this ..." he shook his head to stop the denial on her tongue "I've never actually told anyone this Everyone else who knows found out the same way I learned the details, or was there when it was discovered and the subsequent investigation." He paused as he brushed light fingers over the glass covering a black and white photo of a graying female Martin in a well-decorated dress uniform "Do you know who any of them are?"

"Umm," Felina studied the pictures a little more closely She traced light claws over a decidedly proud, battle-scarred Cheetah tomkat in a sharply cut Third Fleet pilot's uniform with double bars on the collar "That's Admiral Itashar of the Third Fleet, back when he was a Captain, and still flying."

"The day of his promotion, actually." Jake smiled "Know of anyone else?"

"I think that's Hassur Tursidi VelKimm," she tapped the picture of the Martin "Tugythin's top sniper about forty years ago I don't think her record's been broken yet."

"Not officially, anyway." Jake nodded "Yes, that's her."

"I'm afraid I don't recognize the others." She turned her full attention to the shorter Kat "Who are they?"

Jake took a deep breath before nodding and pointed at the top left photo; an unremarkable looking brown and tan shekat in her mid twenties sitting in a chair "This is Samanthia Littlegreen She's not anyone to know, just the daughter of someone who was very involved in my ... existence Chosen because she was crippled, sterile and very important to her father, who had the power to choose."

Felina waited silently for him to gather his composure and continue, fighting down the questions she dared not interrupt him with just yet.

"This is Dr. Brandin Tinian," he moved to the top right photo, one of a sharp-eyed, classical black on tan Alsatian Kantin "He's a genetics specialist and from his notes, the most scientifically cold creature I've ever known." He shifted quickly over the bottom left photo of Tursidi to the center one; a slender, midnight black tomkat with the poise of a dancer, the face of a prince, and the eyes of an assassin.

Felina shivered in recognition; not of the kat in the picture, but of his qualities, and how she usually saw them used And of the traitorous thought that she knew those qualities in the tom next to her.

"Something wrong?" Jake made an aborted move to touch her.

"He reminds me of too many I've brought in." She shivered again at the cold acceptance and utter remorselessness of the murderer with that look she'd captured only a few months before "Who is he?"

"Damian Shadowclaws," his voice was very low, with almost a confessional tone in it.

"The ... the ...."

"Black Death." He finished for her, his head bowed and body trembling slightly in distress "Yes, the same."

"So, umm, who are these folks to you?" She looked again at the strange mix of characters to avoid the growing turmoil standing next to her.

Jake took a slow breath and let it out before answering His voice was level and sure when he finally spoke "They are my parents by blood."

"How?" Felina surprised even herself with how calm the question came out with her mind strugling with him having five parents, and of races that couldn't interbreed ...

"I was ... conceived in Dr. Tinian a laboratory His first, and to our knowledge, only, success." Jake didn't resist being lead to the nest he had been in before, or the protective embrace she wrapped him in "I didn't even start as a fertilized egg, you know I was literally pieced together on the genetic level." He shuddered and tried to bury himself in the accepting warmth embracing him "I don't even begin to understand how ... but I ... I know why."

"Jake," she interrupted gently as her fingers scratched his jaw in an instinctive act of comfort "Look at me."

The silence held for long moments as he trembled in her arms, fear and desperation in his scent magnifying with every breath When he finally looked up to meet soft brown eyes, he managed to speak before she did "I'm a Black Op, bred to kill."

"I know, love." She tipped his mussel for a kiss, ignoring his shocked lack of response.

"You ... can still ...."

"Remember what you said when I asked how you could love a Feral?" She interrupted the stammering denial.

"That heritage didn't matter."

"I love you," she made him meet her steady gaze "That your entire lineage isn't Kat, that you weren't born as I was, none of it matters to me It doesn't change who I love."

"But it changes what ..." he stopped, struggling for the right words With a hard swallow, he forced himself to continue with his face downcast, "but it does change what I can offer you ... as a mate."

"As a ... oh." She pulled his a little closer, trying to sooth his shame-filled trembling "Jake, I know kittens are something you want ... but there are other ways to raise a family."

"That's ... not it, Felina." He curled against her even more "I'm fertile, most of the time, just ... just not always ... " he took a steadying breath "Not always with the same race."

"Then there will be times we can have kittens." She growled at him "What's the big deal?"

"I'm a freak of science, Fel." Jake whispered as his body relaxed a little "Nothing important."

"How dare you." She gave into the rage that flashed to the surface of her soul and slammed him into the makeshift bed with her full weight over him "How dare you think so little of my choice of a lifemate?"

"Mmurrph?" He went completely limp under her; shock, surrender and fighting reflexes competing for control.

"Jake Clawson is the mate-to-be of a ranking Feral." Felina felt the rhetoric of her great-grandmother surge to the surface easily even after years of denial "We are one of the finest bloodlines in the world Only the best and brightest are allowed into our ranks Understand?"

"Yes, ma'am." He shivered before purring slightly as his limp body relaxed into compliant desire.

"Damn, you really are into subbing." She rocked up to rest on her heals and regarded him, still stranding his thighs "Tell me how your personality ended up a gunner You seem much better suited as a pilot."

"It's a long story." Jake murmured low in his throat as he stroked the inside of her thighs "But I am a gunner around everyone I don't take as my better I'm just a quiet leader."

Felina chuckled as she started to work his shirt off "You make yourself sound way too much like my uncle, 'cept for that 'quiet' part."

"I know." He groaned and arched up as she nipped an exposed nipple.

"You know," she purred with her throat against the nub of bare skin surrounded by luxuriant reddish fur "I always wondered by males had tits ...". She paused as her brain possessed his statement and raised her body to look him in the face "You know?"

"We know each other fairly well, though not as well as he thinks." He answered softly.

"I'm not the first Feral to sleep with you, am I?" Felina sighed and settled on his chest.

"No." He regarded her curiously "Does it matter much to you?"

"I guess not," she sighed softly "Just one more thing I uncle neglected to mention when I asked him."

"I'm not surprised, I drove him nuts half the time." Jake smiled slightly at the memory, then turned grim "And it hardly ended well I'm not on the list of conquests that went well."

"Explain." Her entire body went tense with a growl.

"We just weren't compatible in the long run." He shrugged "I like Uly in bed, it was the rest that didn't work well He's too controlling for me, and far too smug to have bedded me in the first place."

Felina scowled "Smug?"

Jake considered for a moment before responding "Maybe smug is the wrong word He never listed when he was wrong." Jake closed his eyes, "he never hurt me, but it wasn't what I wanted It was so close, though, we both felt it, and it hurt to leave." Jake met her considering brown eyes for a moment "It never really ended for him, and maybe not for me either."

"I'm going to have to hurt that Kat." She half sighed, half growled.

Struggling to assimilate the last couple hours as Jake slept restlessly, Felina wasn't sure what to make of the day, expect it was going very badly, and very strangely, even for her life and MKC For a ranking officer of defense in a gigopolis that got trashed by a supervillian or monster at least once a month, that was saying something.

She surprised herself with how easy it was to accept his heritage, even that The Black Death was his father, one of three, and that he had two mothers Even that he wasn't all one race didn't jar her as much as she expected, or as much as he'd so clearly feared.

The idea of kittens that train of thought brought shook her much more; most pointedly with the realization that she did want kittens of her own, Jake's kittens preferably Perhaps even sooner than later ... with only a month and a half to decide before her next heat ... and it wasn't just her decision anymore, either And he didn't seem to be in any condition to deal with being a father at the moment.

That brought her back to the first argument she ever developed against becoming a mother; what were the odds she'd see them grown, given her choice of careers? And with a father like Jake, there was next to no chance of both of them making it that long Razor may be good for the city, but as a father, he had a less than desirable life expectancy Even if his genetics were probably excellent to pass on, mix-breed or not.

Which was all the more reason to breed with him, and soon She could take time off and the city would survive It did well enough before she graduated; her uncle would just have to do without her for a few days.

She carefully worked away from Jake, intent on his restless form in case he noticed her departure in his dream world Once clear of the bed, she moved as silently as she could to the tunnel leading outside As private a place as she could think of to make the call The last thing she needed was to explain this to headquarters and Jake at the same time.

She breathed a sigh of relief when the door slid open quietly to reveal the evening sky and a stiff breeze. She settled against a slab of rock to protect her from the sharpest of the wind's bite, and pulled a small, hard-cased cellular phone from her pocket and tapped in the code to get her to the personnel office at headquarters.

"Personnel Office, Officer Featherfur speaking." Another breath of relief escaped Felina as the other shekat's familiar voice came through clearly.

"Hi, Sasha, it's Felina.

"Hi, Fel." The warmth on the other end was welcome.

"I'm just calling to tell you I won't be available short of full emergency for a few days, and maybe not even then."

"What's up?" Sasha's tone shifted to concern.

"Something important came up." She shied away from the question "Patch me through to my uncle, please."

"You're leave's on record." Sasha replied quietly.

"Thanks." She curled strong fingers around a rock and hurled it out to the waves, watching it skip before sinking into the blue-green water.

"Felina ... is there anything I can help with?" The concern in her voice was very clear "You've been a good friend to me ...."

"Thanks, Sasha, but this isn't anything ... it's just a mess that will take some time to clean up." Felina closed her eyes against bitter tears "You'd better transfer me."

"Just promise you'll ask if there's anything, okay?"

"I will Promise." She consciously let as much tension go as she could while she waited through the beeps of the transfer system.

"What's wrong?" Ulysses voice was all parental concern.

"Something serious has come up." She closed her eyes and steeled herself "I'm taking a few days off."

"Anything I can help with?" Generations of wealth and authority rang through that simple offer.

"I don't think so, uncle." She sighed "It's just going to take a little time to resolve."

"Let me know ...."

"I will, promise." She cut him off "I'll see you in a few days." She turned the phone off with a guilty look, but it wasn't like this wasn't a big deal, and she just didn't want to explain it all Then she grinned slightly at the small, black chunk of plastic and circuitry The blasted thing had cost almost a month's pay, but it was well worth it with a range and clarity none of the official gear could come close to She grinned to herself, wondering if the Free-Kat Cellular would want to use this in its adds.

'Crystal clear even from remote islands to Enforcer HQ!'

Her grin faded as she turned to deal with Jake again If this was the result of a single question, getting through the rest of his memories was going to be an entirely new kind of hell for both of them Never mind the future and what she wanted to ask him about her thoughts So many important questions, so little stress he could take in answering them.

"Up for a little more explaining?" Felina hugged Jake closer to her body, not sure what to make of his lack of arousal with both of them naked in the deep fur bed.

"I guess," he shrugged and snuggled in with a low purr "I own you enough of them."

"How did you get hooked up with Pakitra Dyne?" She scratched his jaw, grateful that he didn't tense up much.

"I was a gift to her." Jake sighed and scratched the spot between her breasts as Felina went rigid "It's not like that, really Pat was a very persuasive two year old with a love of small furry things, and I looked like a ball of fluff that might grow up to be one of the big cats, but definitely not a Kat."

"Okay ...."

"Her dad had just taken over EryssCorp, which along with it's more legitimate, and profitable, projects, had a less than legal and very unprofitable genetics lab."

"Where you were created." She supplied softly.

"Yes Jason shut down the lab, and when he was asked what to do with the only surviving test subject, he looked at me and decided I'd make a good plaything for Pat After all, baby big cats are kind of hard to come by, even when you have that kind of wealth."

"And involve a lot of red tape he wouldn't have to deal with, with you."

"Yes," Jake sighed as he absently started to play with her left breast, then stroke her side.

"So, umm, how you yet from there ..." her voice trailed off uncertainly.

He closed his eyes and nuzzled her before curling against her a little more, purring slightly in her protective embrace "I went everywhere with her, including to her tutors, and when she was playing with machines and in the library Pat's always been a voracious learner, and has a real teacher's bent She liked to read to me, pretend I could understand when she pointed to a word or object and said it, or explained how something worked.

"It took the better part of two months before I was strong enough, old enough, to follow her around on my own four feet I ... I didn't know ..." Jake swallowed hard and hugged Felina tightly, bringing an equally strong embrace from her "I didn't understand for years that I wasn't normal I thought I was a slow developer or something No one dissuaded me from that notion.

She was very excited when I wrote my name in her sandbox with my paws It was very frustrating for both of us that I was almost five before my paws developed into hands and could write I ... understanding language came pretty easy for me, reproducing it never has.

"I was never mute ... I could usually get a point across, but ... I ... not everyone I was expected to work with those years was so understanding Just after we celebrated my fourth birthday ..." Jake closed his eyes against swelling tears and tried to swallow the lump in his throat "I wasn't biped yet, no hands or real speech ... I ... one of my 'teachers' ... he didn't believe that I was intelligent I hated him ... he made me feel like I was back in that little cage ...."

Jake dug his claws almost unnoticed into Felina's side, his voice a heated snarl as he shook in the full grip of the memory "I'm not stupid I hated him so much, the first blood on my hands I can't take back what I did ... didn't regret ...."

"Shu, love." She shifted to her side, bringing their chests together and stroked his back as another set of sobs racked his body "You're brilliant and gifted and caring, and no one can take that away from you if you don't let them." She held him and crooned until he settled slightly.

"I killed him Fel." His voice was very quiet and deadly calm a long moment later "I wasn't even clean about it I didn't know how to fight; I just had instincts, sharp claws and fifty pounds of kitten muscle I can't even regret what I did."

"But it hurts you." She started to counter.

"It hurts remembering what he did to me." He shifted to look her in the face and pawed as much of the teary mess from his fur as he could "That I've spent my life constantly having to remind myself that he's wrong." He let a breath out and locked eyes with her "I can't say I regret anyone I've killed."

"What about the warehouse?" She countered with a raised eyebrow.

"Even if they had died, I didn't kill them, something I did did it." He sighed at her clearly unbelieving look "I can regret those who died or were injured because of my actions I can't make myself regret those I've killed Those I choose, by conscious thought or rage, to take the life of."

"Oh." She continued to stroke his back, waiting for him to continue.

Jake slowly settled down to her side again and sighed, his fingers playing through her fur He took a steadying breath before speaking "Felina, how can you stand to be around me after all I've told you?"

Her soothing touch froze for a second before continuing She stared at the ceiling as she answered "Most is nothing you can control The rest ... I can hardly hold against you what I'm just as guilty of."

"You've killed ... outside the line of duty?" He looked up, bewilderment and concern competing for control.

"I really don't want to talk about it." She shivered.

"Then don't." He squirmed to kiss her warmly "I never want to force anything between us." He tucked his muzzle against her neck, nuzzling her until she purred "I never want that in a relationship again."

"Good." Felina closed her eyes and surrendered to a wide yawn "I can't be tried."

Jake actually chuckled a little and caressed her face "Emotional stress can be as draining as physical, or even worse."

"At least it gets you to sleep." She blinked "Why'd you take my sleeping pills anyway?"

Jake sort of huffed "I'd just ... I did something I wasn't ready to face the consequences of."

"Have to do with Chance?"

"Yes." He tucked his head further down.

"Tell me when you're ready." She tried to soon him, combing his short hair with her fingers "For now," she slid her fingers further down, eventually caressing the inside of his empty sheath "I think we both need to burn some stress off."

"Mmmm, let me get that dildo." Jake rolled and started to get up.

"No, and I want regular sex; you actually inside me We hardly ever do it." She grinned at him, but it faded at his hurting eyes.

"I'd really rather not."

"Why?" She settled on her side again and draped an arm across his chest.

"I really don't care for it, honestly." Jake rolled his head to look at her "It's nothing to do with you I just ... it brings back bad memories."

"Of ..." she flattened her ears.

He looked up at the ceiling "Please don't be angry I ... Pat and I shared a first time, hers and mine It didn't go very well I've never ... I can't stop hearing her scream when I do it like that."

"Oh, goddess." Felina let herself collapse "I ... is there nothing in your life that went well?"

"You love me." He whispered very quietly "It's more than I ever dared hope for Please," he rolled to brace his chest against her side, "let me please you Let me do as I want."

Felina smiled sadly and pulled him forward into a long kiss "If it pleases you, my body is yours."

He lowered his head for another deep kiss "It does, and will."

Chance woke suddenly to something roaring nearby He wasn't sure what it was but it was large and decidedly unhappy A second roar told him that it was in the apartment somewhere As he looked around he realized that Nathan wasn't in the room but it appeared from the shredded sheets, that something with large claws had been.

Chance got up and cautiously moved toward the living room not wanting to be surprised by anything that might be lurking nearby He was a little relieved to see no blood or other signs of a struggle in the hallway As he approached the archway to the living room he heard a gentle female voice speaking.

"Hush kitten No need to wake everyone, I heard you the first time."

There was the rumbling meow of some large feline Chance cautiously peeked around the corner to see a golden-furred shekat standing next to a black on red-brown tiger When she looked up Chance realized that she was Felsin and had seen him He started to back away feeling that he was intruding when her eyes met his; she said nothing but something in her bright blue eyes told him that he wasn't intruding as long as he kept quiet.

She looked down at the tiger patiently "It's going to be difficult to talk, if you're going to stay in that form."

The tiger made a kind of frustrated meow.

"You got into that form, you should know how to get out." She said, shaking her head.

The tiger shook his head and sat down looking at the shekat patiently.

"What? Now how did you manage that, kitten?"

The tiger jumped on the sofa, placed his head on his paws rolled around a bit, and then fell of the couch He then stood back up, woofed quietly and looked at her expectantly.

She laughed quietly, and smiled gently at the tiger "Well, I guess I'll have to tell you how to change back then." There was a brief flow of golden light between the shekat and the tiger.

The tiger jumped back up on the sofa, sat down and flicked his ears forward as if staring at something There was a flash of light, and the tiger was gone It its place was Nathan; he sat there for a moment looking somewhat confused He was wearing his white and gold Medic Corp field jacket, and a pair of running shorts He absently pulled his hair back into its usual braid. "Thank you, mother I just don't know how that happened."

She smiled, walked over, and put her hand on his shoulder "It happened because you were confused and alone The primal form is a return to your origin, a kind of escape."

His head drooped a little "I'm not alone, mother."

"I know dear, but you are alone in the sense that you've claimed all these problems as your responsibility, and you've no one to share the burden That's not the way you were trained."

"I know, mother But the Corps is so far away, and the only family close enough..." He paused and took a deep breath.

"Yes, kitten Family problems are the most difficult kind, even when you have the support of the Corps You don't have them here, and you've made few friends here."

He shrugged "Even if I had more what difference would it make? You know I can't talk this through with just anyone; after all half the problem can't be shared with anyone."

"I know; you have to protect the secret you've become part of Be careful it doesn't consume what you seek to protect."

Nathan sighed, and drew a small triangular pendant from the pocket of his jacket It had side borders of copper, silver and gold with a crystal at the center "How long has it been mother? Back home, I mean."

She looked at the pendant, amazed that he still had it "Over a year, Nathan The period of mourning is over, but you continue to deny your heart." Her voice was sad and low.

Nathan's voice choked a little. "I know, mother But I can still feel the empty place where Rhymar always was, doesn't the pain ever stop?" He stood up, and walked over to the window looking out across the city.

She shook her head sadly "Kitten, love always leaves a mark especially when it is taken away before its time But part of your pain is guilt, not love: you haven't forgiven yourself for failing to save Rhymar, for failing to avenge him, and for almost not saving one who has become so important to you There is no blame in any of these, and yet you continue to berate yourself for them."

Tears fell down Nathan's face, and sobs made it difficult to talk for a little while "But I didn't even try, mother He died, and I did nothing." His hands dug into the window ledge as sobs wracked his body.

The shekat put her arms tightly around him "The poison had no antidote and you knew it, so did Rhymar Even in a full hospital you couldn't have saved him, much less with the field kit you had You did as your training taught you: You saved the patient you could But you forget that a medic must not let himself be haunted by the patients he couldn't save."

Nathan tried to shrug away "Those are classroom words, mother Easy words, spoken in sterile places where things are easy and safe They mean little, when the life you lose is as dear to you as your own."

"Easy words, but one of the most important tests a medic faces The alternative was trying to save the one and losing both; would that have been better?"

He hung his head. "Of course not, mother What scares me is that I almost did just that I almost forgot the medic's first rule Only you know how close I came to that, I'm grateful no one else does." He sighed and looked up at her "You're going to remind me that I gave up avenging Rhymar to protect my patient, aren't you? I came so close to failing there as well, I almost chose death over life."

"Kitten, you berate yourself for almost failing. But almost failing is success and you should remember that Despite your pain and need to avenge Rhymar's death you put those aside and brought Jake out alive That, Nathan is the true measure of a medic; to preserve life where death seeks to prevail."

He nodded; his pain subsided a little as his self-recrimination faded before Felsira's logic Nathan couldn't argue that he should've done otherwise, but in his heart he still felt he should have been able to save both "Mother, when I faced Dark Kat after Rhymar died I heard a voice telling me that I could choose the easy path of vengeance or the more difficult path of life Is all this part of that choice?" He asked, trying to make sense of things.

Felsira nodded "The voice was that of fate, and the path of life is always more difficult because death happens and is over while life goes on But the path of life is the only path the medic knows, isn't it?"

Nathan shook his head "The choice wasn't that simple For a moment, which seemed like an eternity I couldn't be sure which to chose Part of me wanted revenge even with the likelihood that my death would follow, because death would reunite me with Rhymar But the healer in me couldn't abandon a lifetime of ideals, and some part of me saw a fragment of Rhymar in Jake Does that make any sense, mother?"

She smiled "Part of being mortal is the uncertain choices you must make, and that was one of the hardest As to the last, Caito might know something about it After all, both of them are spirits like unto him though in different ways."

"There is something I don't understand When Rhymar was alive I could concentrate on our bond and see him in my mind; now that he's dead I shouldn't be able to but I still can But what is truly strange, is that if I concentrate on that bond I don't always see Rhymar..." He paused, a little uncertain.

"Who do you see, kitten?"

"Sometimes mother, I see Jake instead That doesn't make sense; we're not joined."

Felsira gently brushed his hair back with her hand "Kitten, when Rhymar died your bond shattered and there was no one there to help heal it When you used the linguistic transference, your injured psyche mistook Jake for Rhymar and tried to restore the shattered bond But the transference is too brief for that to work, so all that happened was an Impressing, nothing more You notice it because you have empathic gifts, one without them would not notice at all."

Nathan was somewhat bemused Felsira was brushing off an Impressing as if it were nothing; at home this would be somewhat embarrassing since Impressing was the step which preceded an Engagement, at least in bonds with an empath involved It wasn't something one did by accident "So he doesn't notice it?"

"I presume not dear, though I haven't checked I don't want to interfere too much personally until I clear things with Mother."

"Oh, is this her domain?"

"Of course You've forgotten the early part of the scriptures haven't you?" She chided mildly.

"Sorry, mother It's difficult to get a copy locally and the early part was never my strong suit."

Felsira laughed cheerfully. "Wouldn't help anyway, dear The name listed in the ancient texts isn't what they call this world now But this is the world of departure, the beginning of the exodus."

Nathan looked at Felsira started to say something then stopped and looked uncertainly at the morning sky.

"Nathan, you're allowed to ask anything; you know that don't you? I might not be able to answer, but you can always ask."

"Mother, I know the future is uncertain and no one can see it, but can you tell me about the present?"

"That would depend dear, on what of the present you want to know."

"Is Jake alright, I mean not injured or anything? I know where Chance is, but I can't be in two places at once It would ease my mind a great deal, at least for a little while." He looked at her hopefully.

She looked away her eyes seeming to focus on some distant point "Things are very cloudy dear, but I don't see any immediate danger." She smiled, and hugged him "I think you'll know before we do somehow, if you're needed Was that all you wanted, kitten?"

He shook his head "Actually, what I really wanted to ask was your intervention with Keltin and Caito I need something from both of them, but I'm not in their sphere save by their association with you."

Felsira nodded "In case you hadn't noticed you've moved more into Keltin's sphere recently and Caito, well, he thinks he owes you for screwing up things for you However, I will ask them What did you need?"

Nathan steadied himself and looked up squarely at her. " I need them to look after Chance for the next few days There are important things happening and I don't want anything to go wrong." He paused, feeling a little uncertain "Mother, I have this awful feeling that a lot depends on how well things go at Cathedral It's the only way to be sure he stays, and I can't take losing anyone else." He sat down on the coffee table, shoulders sagging.

Felsira sat down next to him and held him close "So that's what this is about A year has passed since Rhymar's death; the anniversary of that bonding is coming up; and now all the problems between those who are closer than friends to you But remember, no one is ill, injured or dying."

"But mother, no one knows the future, not even you And who knows what could happen I mean, they're not talking to each other and SWAT's broken up and they're going off in different directions And I think I'm the only one who gives a damn anymore what happens..." Nathan blustered, and then suddenly the tiger was pacing the floor tail whipping.

"Nathan! Get back to your real form right now You're becoming completely hysterical." Felsira ordered.

Chance, who had been watching in quiet confusion, was surprised by the sudden appearance of another Felsin This one was a broad-shouldered midnight blue-furred male with close cropped black hair His uniform was navy blue with gold piping, numerous medals and gold aviator wings Brightly polished black leather boots, a blaster and a saber completed the uniform.

His green eyes coolly surveyed the room He acknowledged Chance's presence with a nod. "Felsira, is there a problem?"

She shot him a look of frustration "Nathan is a hysterical tiger and you ask me if there's a problem? Of course, there's a problem, you fool tom."

The newcomer smiled "Fel, dear Have you considered having Chance talk to his distraught friend? It might help."

"Keltin please, I have one confused mortal to deal with at the moment I'd rather not make it two, if you don't mind." Felsira shot back as she kept both eyes on the tiger.

"It was just a suggestion."

"Try to find Caito, if you could This impromptu metamorphism is his gift."

Chance had almost decided to go in and try talking to Nathan-the-tiger, when a cheerfully mocking voice next to him spoke up.

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you." The voice belonged to a black on brown striped male Felsin, who was leaning casually against one wall The small tom was athletically built and wearing riding leathers, with earrings in both ears and bright green hair tied in a loose ponytail.

Chance looked at him "Wouldn't do what? And who are you?" A few hours ago there'd only been one Felsin on the planet, now there were four in this apartment.

"Name's Caito, and I wouldn't interfere unless asked, if I were you Felsira having a hard enough time trying to calm the kit down without any help."

Chance hadn't decided whether to pay the stranger any attention or not when Keltin walked past, grabbed Caito by the collar and dragged him into the living room.

Felsira spotted Caito "Do you think you could switch off this 'gift' of yours?"

Caito smiled mischievously "Sorry Fel You know that's not how the gifts work But let me try talking to the kit."

"I suppose it can't hurt But stay in your present form You make one move to look like any Kat, and I'll have Keltin ignore you for a month."

Caito winced "I should assume that means you'll ignore me too?"

"Of course."

"You play mean Fel I'll behave myself, but if I succeed I want Keltin for a week."


"Hey, don't I get a say in this?" Keltin interjected "I might not want him for a whole week."

"No." Felsira said, smirking.

"Besides Kel, you're subbing." Caito added.

"What?" Keltin objected.

"We'll discuss it later." Caito shot back, as he walked over and knelt by the agitated tiger.

Caito spoke quietly to Nathan "Okay kit, I know I'm probably not your favorite person right now..."

The tiger's ears went forward, and there was a low growl.

"Right But none of us set up what's happening here In fact, we don't have a lot of control here at all, because of Fel's mother Look Nathan, I admit that I've not done the greatest by you After all, every engineer you get involved with ends up hurting you."

There was a flash of light and Nathan appeared sitting on the floor next to Caito "They didn't do anything to hurt me, I'm the one who keeps messing up." Nathan said quietly.

Caito put his arm around Nathan "Kit, I don't think it's that simple But could you refrain from metamorphing for awhile, it upsets Fel."

Nathan shrugged "I'll try, but it's not like I'm doing it deliberately The meta-techs said I didn't even have the genetic markers for metamorphism, so how come I'm suddenly able to change without trying?"

"What the techs missed is that while you lack the active markers, you do have latent markers Those latent markers are being activated by the increased psychic and emotional stress in your life You're changing without trying, because you were never taught how to control the metamorphic ability."

Nathan chuckled "Lovely, just what I needed As if I don't have enough to worry about I have an emerging ability I don't know how to control I don't suppose you could give me some pointers."

"Of course I could I did put the latent markers there in the first place, and if you just concentrate you'll realize you do know how to control it, you've just never had to."


Caito whispered really quietly "Look, I meant what I said I owe you for all the trouble; so if you need my help, just ask You never know when an experienced prankster and shapeshifter might come in handy."

Nathan smiled "Thanks, Caito By the way, have fun with Keltin You really gonna make him sub for the whole week?"

Caito smiled wickedly "Maybe, maybe not I haven't decided."

Nathan stood up and faced Felsira "I'm sorry about that outburst, mother I should have better control than that."

Felsira walked over and hugged him "Nothing to apologize for Nathan, you're going through a lot, and this is the first chance you've really had to talk to anyone about it You're worrying too much, but that's normal for mortals Just remember, your friends are stronger than you think, they'll survive So will you, unless of course you do something colossally stupid."

"Thank you I guess I just better muddle through." Nathan said, mischievously.

"Much better, your sense of humor appears to have recovered Some advice: One: Sometimes one should not take the monster head on, two: A painting is more than the sum of its pigments, and three: Keep an eye on Caito."

Nathan looked puzzled. "Why?"

"He's got his eye on your tabby Of course, so do I."

"Mother!" Nathan growled, tail whipping in agitation "Please don't talk about Chance as if he was a pet He's my friend."

Felsira smiled "Just teasing, kitten But I'm pretty sure Caito likes him all the same." She studied him for a moment. "Becoming more your father's son all the time, kitten Consider his gifts before you reject them; they may come in handy Until later, Nathan." She disappeared in a golden glow, followed shortly by Keltin and Caito.

Nathan shook his head, wondering how he could possibly take religion seriously when he had encounters like this Feeling quite exhausted Nathan sat down on the couch, and then he noticed Chance standing in the doorway looking confused.

Chance walked over and sat down next to him "Nathan, who were all those people?"

"That, partner is not a simple question I'm gonna grab a milk, want one?" Nathan got up and headed to the kitchen.

"As long as you're up."

Nathan came back, handed the can to Chance and sat down. "So, you're wondering about the three visitors?"

"Actually, I'm wondering about a lot But that's a good place to start."

Nathan sighed; he wasn't prepared for where he figured this conversation was probably going to go "The female was Felsira, the blue one was Keltin and the little one was Caito."

"Nathan, those names sound really familiar."

Nathan took off the medallion he was wearing "See this, its the medal of the Medic Corp The one side is the sign of Felsira; patroness of healing and the other side is the symbol of Keltin, patron of warriors Together, they're the twin guardians of the Medic Corp Felsira's name I mention often because she's the one all my oaths as a Medic are to Keltin is the one I asked help from when you guys were demonstrating how little I knew about martial arts As for Caito; he started out as the trickster spirit, then he became the patron of invention, and in modern times he's consider the patron of engineers and is often invoked to ward off random machinery problems Caito's also associated with luck and gambling I often invoked him when I was trying to help with maintenance on the Turbokat." He stopped and took a drink; it had been quite a while since he'd tried to explain the Triad to anyone.

Chance stared in confusion "Nathan, are you saying those were gods?"

Nathan thought for a moment "I guess, but I don't quite think of them that way They've been appearing like that to me, for about as long as I can remember But no one else has ever seen me with them before."

"No one?"

"No, they always seemed to appear when no one was with me I guess they must have been unaware of you."

"Nathan, one of them spoke to me."

"What? Really? Which one?" Nathan was amazed.

"He said his name was Caito."

Nathan smiled, remembering what Felsira had said "I guess that figures, he doesn't have much use for rules."

"So they just show up? Is that normal where you're from?"

Nathan chuckled softly "No, it's not normal In fact my father said I was making it up, trying to get attention I learned to keep their visits to myself."

"So what's with the tiger routine? You never mentioned you were a shape shifter."

Nathan stared off into space "I never was one before This morning's the first time I've ever been a tiger." He didn't want to talk about the war beast; it still disturbed him to think about it.

"Is it safe?" Chance wasn't exactly sure about the large cat.

Nathan chuckled "Chance, the body changes not the mind It may be a 7-foot long predator on the outside, but it's still me inside If anything, you're probably safer with the tiger along After all, who's gonna mess with all the claws and teeth?"

Chance smiled "I know I'd think twice But seriously, you couldn't do that before?"

"No, I didn't have the ability Metamorphism is common enough among my people that all kits are tested for it at an early age; to make sure those with the ability get properly trained in controlling it I didn't have it which wasn't surprising considering that metamorphism is almost unheard of in my family."

"Strange that you get it now huh?"

"Caito thought it was stress triggered."

Chance nodded silently The conversation seemed to keep finding ways back toward what he didn't want to talk about He didn't think it was entirely accidental; Nathan probably wanted to talk about it, but was refraining.

An uneasy silence settled in Nathan wanted to, even needed to talk about Rhymar but that would invariably lead to talking about Jake, and Nathan knew that was a subject he had to keep his mouth shut about for now.

Chance looked at the uniform jacket Nathan was wearing; it was something he hadn't worn in a quite some time What got the tabby pilot's attention were the silver wings on the chest above the other insignia "Nathan, what are those silver wings for? They look like pilot's wings."

Nathan ran his hand across them "They are pilot's wings, bud I got them before I joined the Corp, but I never got the gold ones." He sighed, remembering old disappointments.

"I didn't know you were a pilot, why didn't you say something?"

"Partner, you're a pilot I just happen to have flight training; my flight instructor told me that real pilots are born, the rest of us just try to keep up Besides, I'm only trained for non-military jets The silver wings are for those who qualify on everything but the military hardware The real pilots wear gold wings, at least back home."

"So why don't you have the gold? I'll understand if you don't want to talk about it."

"Chance, it's okay To get the gold wings I would have had to graduate from one of the aerospace academies, and I flunked the g-force resistance entrance test Probably just as well, my father wouldn't have supported my going anyway." Nathan sighed remembering the many arguments.

"He didn't want you to be a pilot?" Chance was confused, most families were proud of their pilots.

"My father's family had been healers and artists for generations My father was the head of surgery at the Felsinor Institute of Medical Science, and as the oldest male kit I was supposed to be a healer as well My father was horrified, to put it mildly, that I had chosen a warrior's profession He ignored it as long as I was just playing around, which is what he called it when I got my bronze wings at 14 and my silver at 15 But when I applied to the Tygrenor Aerospace Academy, he put his foot down We didn't speak until the test results came through and I washed out; he tried to act supportive but I knew he was relieved."

"Didn't your mother say anything?"

"My mother died when I was little, and my step mom never liked me." Nathan shrugged.

Chance winced; he should've guessed there was a reason why Nathan hadn't mentioned his mother "Sorry, partner."

"It's okay, Chance I learned to live with it a long time ago." Nathan sighed; for a moment he thought about his biological father, the one he never told people about Ever since his first transformation he'd been thinking more about the dark-furred tom he knew only from the memories his mother had implanted in his mind when he was little.

"You don't have to say anymore, Nathan I didn't mean to pry."

"It's not that, buddy It's just that what I just said is only half the story; it's the half I've been telling ever since I was a kit But maybe its time I stopped running from the other half." He said tiredly; he'd wanted to tell someone but every time he'd thought about telling Jake something held him back, and this was the first time he could remember spending this much time with Chance without Jake.

"It's okay, Nathan We all have things we'd rather not talk about." Chance knew that all too well.

"No, it's not okay." He started to say something about not talking causing the current crisis, but stopped He needed to talk with Chance, not lecture him. "The father I was referring to was my adopted father I don't remember when he adopted me exactly, and no one ever talked about it much My biological father and mother died when I was maybe 4 or 5; I don't remember exactly My mother is the one I got my tiger colors from, as well as my healer gifts She was a healer as well as being a full telepath; I got the psychometrics from her as well But it was never her I had problems talking about because she fit into my world perfectly My biological father was another story entirely."

Chance was a little surprised, and began thinking that maybe he was the only one of three who had a 'normal' family At least he guessed Jake's probably wasn't; he couldn't remember ever hearing much.

Nathan sighed, settled back and concentrated; suddenly an image appeared on the television It was a large, black-furred male Felsin wearing a black uniform with a red arm patch with black crossed sabers on it "My biological father, Ebon Swiftclaw Commander of the elite NightBlades unit."

Chance wondered where the picture was coming from Despite the difference in size and coloration, the build was similar enough to Nathan's "I can see the resemblance, but why all the secrecy?" Then he noticed a worried expression on the medic's face "What's wrong? You are built similarly."

Nathan relaxed "Sorry, it's just that I've spent my life being so completely different from him...I misunderstood The NightBlades were a Felsin Special Forces unit, and I was raised in a family with a completely non-violent history and philosophy My adopted father was afraid I'd follow in my father's footsteps if I got a taste of the warrior's life It's the real reason he opposed my being a pilot I was supposed to follow him, and he tried very hard to see that I did From the day he adopted me, he went to great lengths to impress on me the family beliefs of peace and non-violence As far as he was concerned the military was a necessary evil; a concession to the fact that there were far too many beings who lacked the enlightenment to embrace peace and non-violence."

"Must have been rough, being the son of a soldier in a house like that."

Nathan sighed. "It was at first But I learned to see things their way, and spent a long time trying to forget Ebon Swiftclaw, ashamed of who I was and trying to pretend that Dr. Solgardin was my biological father Over the last year I thought I'd finally come to terms with being Ebon's son; until last night that is." Nathan paused remembering the nightmares that led to the tiger episode.

"What happened? I thought you were pretty restless last night." Chance said, remembering how loudly the medic had been talking in his sleep.

Nathan paused He wasn't sure how or what to say exactly since he was still coming to grips with it himself He needed someone to talk to, but he was worried that it might be more than Chance was up to handling right now "I'm not sure why but last night one of the memories my mother implanted 'woke up' There was a fair amount of info, but what really hit home was the fact that Ebon wasn't just a soldier, or even just Special Forces He was a black ops specialist and, according to the info I have, probably the deadliest assassin my world ever produced The info also suggests that he was never anything else; that he had always been black ops, which is almost unheard of Black ops recruit the elite of the other military forces; nobody starts there I think maybe this was what my adopted father was afraid of; if my father was, so to speak, born to black ops then I might be as well."

Chance was stunned; no wonder Nathan was having problems For someone as committed to saving lives as the medic was, being the son of a professional killer had to be rough He wanted say something, but couldn't figure out what.

Nathan looked up at tabby's face and thought maybe he had said too much "Chance, I don't expect you to say anything I just needed a friend to talk to, that's all I'm sure you've got enough on your mind already, don't worry about this." Nathan looked at the wall clock "By the way, don't you have an appointment this morning?"

"Kats! How'd it get so late?"

As Nathan watched Chance rush out of the room, he pondered what Felsira had said earlier He muttered quietly to himself. "My tabby, mother? Jake's tabby, if anyone's I have to fix things between them, which I haven't figured out how to do yet." Nathan thought for a moment "Guess I better go to Cathedral today I should check on the E-frame, and they should have the genetics equipment to let me see just what the Puzzleworks techs left behind, if anything It should give me some idea if the polymorphism is stable, 'cause I never heard of anybody having three forms."

He went into his office and started sketching out genetics notes, working out the basics on paper Nathan settled in to work, keeping one ear out for the door, since he wasn't going anywhere until Chance was on his way to the testing facility.

"Good morning, Mr. SolGardin." Brandy smiled at him across the threshold of his apartment "Is Chance ready?"

"Yes, ma'am." The freshly showered tabby answered from behind his friend, a tote bag slung over his shoulder "I'm ready." He grinned at her.

"Good," she gave him a sharp once over gaze before motioning for him to follow her with a warm smile and glanced at Nathan "Will you be coming?"

"No," he smiled at both of them "I have business I have to take care of, but I'll be by Ameliorate tonight And Chance," Nathan waited for the tabby to look at him "Knock'm dead."

"Will do, buddy." Chance gave a thumbs up with something very close to his old attitude, before following Brandy down the hall.

"Think of any more questions for me since yesterday?" She broke the silence as they road the elevator to the ground floor.

"Urr, well, I was kind of wondering what the pay was, and hours." He asked a little sheepishly as he followed her outside, then up the street.

"The hours are whenever you're needed to test a craft, plus at least 10 in the sims and 20 in the air each week." She smiled encouragingly "Pay stars at a two hundred and forty thousand a year and goes up based on the danger rating of your assignments, your skill ranking and seniority." She glanced over at a small choking sound to find him frozen on the sidewalk two paces back, staring at her with his jaw open and eyes wide. "Chance?"

"Two hundred thousand?" His voice trembled a little in raw shock.

"We pay what you're worth." Brandy nodded easily "A beginning test pilot is can expect about a hundred and seventy five a year plus perks in the open market As Cathedral standards are higher, and we dislike loosing good pilots, we pay starting at the middle range of experienced I expect you'll rank out around the high end of expert."

"Which means?" He asked weakly as he managed to get shaky legs moving to follow her into the parking lot nearby, where he promptly stopped again to stare dumbly at a sleek white aircraft with wings folded up against its sides, and not much bigger than the cars it was parked between.

She urged him to sit on the passenger side of the three person craft, only answering when he'd complied and she'd settled in the pilot's seat "Your base pay would be around four hundred thousand a year, plus room, board, medical, use of all Cathedral facilities, and three weeks of vacation a year."

"Oh." His voice was barely a whisper as the craft VTOLed over the buildings and Brandy set a southeastern course.

She spoke again when they'd reached a cursing altitude of two thousand feet "Can I hazard a guess that you haven't really considered being a test pilot for long?"

"Um, no I haven't." He consented with a slight nod.

"Just what kind of flying did you do, that you're so sure you can fly anything?" She prodded with a sideways glance before setting the autopilot and rotated her chair to face him.

"Umm, it's nothing official." He hedged, then shrugged "I did a lot of experimental craft flying for a ... friend, been caught in some of the fireworks over the city I've always had a good hand with aircraft, even when I was a kit I haven't met the bird I couldn't fly on the first try."

"That'll probably change." She studied him carefully, then shifted to a back seat "Take the pilot's chair, Chance."

"Umm, okay." He shot her an uncertain glance before working his body over.

"I suggest you pay attention to the controls," she grinned devilishly, "the autopilot's about to go off."

"Are you crazy?" He yelped and he grabbed the stick barely a heartbeat before the green light went off.

"Depends on who you ask." She chuckled at the tiny jerk the craft gave as Chance took over its guidance "Just keep us on course, no matter what."

"Okay." He didn't spare her a glance as his mind scrambled to take in the unfamiliar setup.

Chance had almost relaxed when he landed the small jet on a rap far too similar to the one leading to the Hanger for his comfort, especially as it ended in a bay like the one aboard the Aquarian's ship filled with similar craft to the one he was flying.

"Park it in bay 9." Brandy pointed to an open spot between craft "I'm impressed, I have to rescue most I do that to." She patted his shoulder and exited through the passenger side when they'd rolled to a stop "Come on."

"Yes, ma'am." He let a breath out he hadn't realized he was holding and followed her through the open bay.

"Hay, Brandy, who's the catch?" A buxom dark calico shekat waved at them, getting Brandy to shift her coarse slightly.

"Chance Furlong, Willa Tasser." She introduced them "Willa keeps the skimmer fleet fuelled and flight worthy Chance'll probably be the next Black Phoenix pilot."

"That good?" The calico raised an eyebrow at them both.

Brandy grinned widely "Yap, he took the flight in without help."

"Wow," Willa gave Chance another once over and thumped his shoulder as she walked past with a wink "Feel free to stop by my quarters tonight, if you have any energy left."

"Was she serious?" Chance shot Brandy a bewildered look as the well rounded shekat walked away, swaying her hips.

"Definitely." She turned a truly playful grin on him "If I wasn't recruiting you, I'd be asking you to bed too Want her room number?"

"Err, maybe later." He skitted around the flash of sick fear the thought brought up, and followed Brandy out of the hanger into hallways that couldn't help but remind him of the huge city-spaceship again.

"Because it's too soon, or you don't care for her looks?" The Brown Hyena bitch cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Urr, I'm really not ..." he sighed and let his shoulders slump, "I just got out of a long term relationship."

"I'm sorry it ended that hard." Brandy rubbed his upper arm "I'll see that you aren't bothered while you're with me We tend to be a flirty lot, but we all know loss."

"Umm, thanks."

"Please sit and relax, Chance." A heavily built Jaguar Xanith tomkat ushered them in "I'm Dr. Peter Jaykan Has Brandy informed you of what this exam actually covers?"

"Not really, sir." He settled in a comfortable chair on the short end on a sizable wooden desk "Just that it's a basic physical."

"Well, I guess that's one way to put it." He shot her a look before taking a seat at the desk and bringing out several pages of forms "Where Cathedral drops paperwork in the background department it more than makes up for here, especially for test pilots such as yourself."

Chance shrugged "I'm in good shape, no known allergies, can take 6.9 G's ..."

"That's a good start." Dr. Jaykin nodded with a slight smile "Would you say you're at a resting state right now, for heart rate, adrenaline, muscle tension and arousal?"

"Urr, I guess so." Chance gave him a curious look "I don't feel excited."

"Good." He rotated his chair to pick up several objects from the shelf behind him "Do you have any issues with needles or having blood drawn?"

Chance scrunched his face in distaste but shook his head as he extended his right arm "Don't like it, but it's not a problem."

Dr. Jaykan chuckled as he tied off the tabby's arm with a rubber tube and began searching for a large vein under thick fur "I can't say I've met anyone yet who likes having blood drawn."

"Just so long as you don't have to shave..."

That brought a reverberating laugh from the big Xanith "I haven't had to since I graduated med school."

"Have a seat, Chance." Brandy motioned him in front of the station in a small, computerized control room that was otherwise deserted after they'd eaten lunch "You may pick two of the six craft you will fly in the sim today from anything in the database And remember, this is not to judge what you know how to fly, but to see how well you can handle unknown craft and situations That's the true measure of a test pilot, because you will never fly a known."

"Okay," he started to skim through the aircraft names available, mentally taking note of the ones he'd like to have in bad conditions, if he wasn't in the Turbokat.

"And please choose a third that you know well." She added as he started looking though the 'C's "I'd like one craft you're comfortable for some of the emergency procedures runs."

"That easy, the A-52 Talon, Enforcer patrol variant I spent over two years in the fleet with them, and all of Academy." He shrugged, squelching the desire to say 'Turboat' with long practiced ease "Just about everything else I've flown hasn't exactly been a production model."

"What did you fly before for the Enforcers?" She asked with quiet ease, noting which craft caught his attention other than the ones he chose.

"Oh, mostly acrobatic and little one and two seaters My cousin's family's into the whole air show scene." He let a sad sigh out before returning to the list he was to choose from "I used to spend summers with them."

"Brandy, let me go up in a real aircraft." Chance's voice held all the desperate terror gathered in the past six and some hours of the worst performances of his life as he grabbed her shoulders "Please, I don't know what went wrong, but that was not what happens."

"You'll fly with us tomorrow." Her voice was soothing, as was her smile "The sim isn't the only judge, and you didn't do that badly."

"I have never flown that badly in my life Let me prove it now." He was shaking as he stared at her.

"Tomorrow, Chance."

"Please ..."

She hesitated a moment longer before nodding "Let me see what's available, but first we eat."

"Yes, ma'am." He let out a small breath of relief as his entire body sagged "Thank you It was like I couldn't feel anything in there All the signals I'm used to weren't there ... like flying blind, but worse."

"Really?" Brandy turned her full attention on him as she guided him to a cafeteria "Would you explain it in detail while we eat? This could be very important."

"Urr, okay." He nodded as his stomach made it well known that it hadn't been fed well in far too long "Umm, how will Nathan find me?"

Brandy chuckled as she served herself three slices of supreme pizza from the buffet line "That wristcom we all wear is tied into the central computer system All he has to do is ask Take whatever looks interesting, and as many returns trips as it takes to shut that up." She grinned and motioned to his middle before heading for the salad bar "We're in the set of booths at the end of the buffet." She made a general wave in that direction.

"So tell me why the sim is so different from flying a real aircraft." Brandy opened after they'd eaten most of their first plate.

"It's hard to describe, since I take it it's not like that for you ..."

"No," she shook her head in confirmation, "it's a rare day I can tell it's not very real But I've heard of cases like yours Most of the best of the best have problems in the sims So what's it like?"

Chance studied his plate for a long time, when he finally spoke there was a shadow of the terror that had gripped him less than an hour ago "It's like flying blind with half the equipment dead." He shook his head, trying to clear it of the memories "I've brought a bird down nearly bled to death and not felt so out of it."

"Wow," she shivered in sympathy.

"I'd rather not talk about it any more." Chance poked at his food before looking directly at her "I have to do that ten hours a week for this job?"

"Not if you're willing to make a medical report on what you experienced." She countered immediately "Though you'll have to do the time in the air instead."

"Lady, you have a deal." He managed a slightly green smile.

Nathan stopped his cycle on a lonely hill some miles outside the north-eastern limits of MegaKat City He estimated it would still take almost two hours to reach Cathedral, but he wasn't in that much of a hurry and there was something he needed to do He pulled the pocket-sized digital recorder from his jacket pocket, and turned it on.

"Personal Journal of Nathan SolGardin: Chance is headed off to the testing facility, and though I have no doubts as to the outcome, I can't see it as anything but a stopgap measure I've known Chance long enough to know that he's settling for being a test pilot because he'll be flying, but its a pale imitation of what he really wants He's one of those rare individuals who really lives for being a hero, 'one of the good kats' as he'd say It's why he became an Enforcer, until Feral took that away Being T-bone let him be the hero again, probably even better since he's got too much flair to be a 'by the book' type."

Nathan paused, stared at the empty sky and sighed deeply "But now he's lost that too and though Felsira knows I'd do anything for him; I can't give it back to him Between the two of us we could keep the Turbokat in the air, but it'd be obsolete in short order The technology changes too fast these days and part of what made the SWAT Kats possible was that we always had the edge But there's only one kat who keep the Turbokat on that leading edge and he's gone."

Nathan pulled the triangular medallion out from under his shirt and stared at it for a moment before putting it back "Somehow I have to get Jake back but I haven't a clue how The frustrating thing is I can't go to him, even though I've got a good guess where to look He's probably at Felina's since he wasn't at his place and I just can't deal with any Ferals right now, even if she is nicer than her uncle I don't know how well my temper would hold and besides if it wasn't for her he might not have run I just have to hope our friendship still means enough to Jake for him to call me back If not ... I can't think about that 'cause I don't know how or if I could deal with that."

Nathan turned off the recorder and put it away He looked back toward MegaKat City and pulled the medallion back out He gripped the medallion with such force that the pointed edges drew blood "Guys, somehow ... someway I will make things right again It can't end this way, I won't let it and though the Void may bar the way I will fix things The Medics first duty is the well being of the unit and right now that means healing the rift between you." He put the medallion back under his shirt, and resumed his drive to Cathedral.

Nathan hurried through the immense space that was Cathedral, barely noticing anyone or anything beyond avoiding collisions As always he noted the vague similarity between Cathedral and the Medic Orbital Station Gildenfire Both were large independent facilities in which a variety of races worked together more or less peacefully, though the large number of races was more unusual for a planetside facility like Cathedral than an orbital station like Gildenfire In some ways Cathedral felt more familiar than any other place on the planet, but unlike Gildenfire it wasn't home.

The thought of 'home' made Nathan sigh resignedly He wasn't sure what 'home' meant anymore The apartment wasn't home; it was a refuge of sorts, originally a place to find the solitude to relax his mental shields and now somewhere for Chance to stay while things sorted themselves out The Yard used to be home, but the last visit had felt a lot like his last visit to his adopted father's He had been gathering his things after his 'father' had disowned him, and the house had felt somewhat like a tomb, a memory of the past His musing was interrupted by the sharp impact of hitting something with his head.

He realized with some embarrassment that he had just walked into the frame of a door instead of walking through the door A tan shekat from medical who happened to be nearby was holding his arm apparently thinking he was going to fall down.

"Are you okay? That was quite a bump." She asked, in a professionally warm manner.

Nathan nodded "I'm fine I was just attempting to think and walk at the same time, bad idea apparently." He smiled, trying to deflect her concern.

"Any dizziness, blurry vision…"

"No, and none of the other signs of a concussion either." Nathan grinned "I work part time as a trauma medic for MegaKat City General Hospital I feel fine, but I'll let medical know if that changes."

"Okay, but no ignoring the symptoms." She gave him a mock stern look knowing that medically trained personnel usually make the worst patients.

"Yes, ma'am." He cut a mock salute, with a distinct wise-ass grin.

"And no more thinking till you get where you're going." She laughed as she walked away.

Nathan chuckled and muttered under his breath "Probably not a bad suggestion at that."

Nathan had spent about half an hour examining the finished prototype Exo-Frame when a calm, older male voice interrupted his examination of the flight module.

"Hello Nathan, I thought you weren't due back until next week."

Nathan turned around to see Simon Thaelin, an older dark brown tom in charge of the project While Simon was in charge, it was Nathan who controlled things since he had written all the specs for the project and was the only person on the project to have worked with an operational Exo-Frame This arrangement suited Nathan just fine since he had no training in engineering, or the sciences involved in the project It also saved him from having to take care of any of the management details.

Nathan grinned "Good to see you too, Simon Actually the conference got out a week early 'cause the last presenter was taken to the hospital Besides looks like I came back at the right time 'cause the E-frame looks ready for field-testing."

Simon nodded "Ideally, I would prefer another week of laboratory testing However, given that it is a recreation of an existing system I see no real problem accelerating the testing schedule Have you had a chance to review the accumulated test data yet?"

"Not yet, Simon I figured I'd look over the suit first and then go up to my office to review the data Assuming there aren't any surprises in the test data I think we should be able to fit some of the base field tests in this afternoon."

"I suppose we could run some of the basic control and system test this afternoon But I think we should hold the more advanced tests till Monday."

"That's okay Simon, I was only planning on a half day here and then I have to run over to genetics for awhile, plus I have to be over at Ameliorate later this evening."

"Genetics? Expanding your research areas, Nathan?"

"Not really, Simon I've probably got more in-depth genetics training than most of the research staff, and advanced medical experience to back it up." Nathan smiled; Simon often forgot that Nathan was a medic not an engineer.

"Sorry my boy, you've provided so much technical data to this project I forget that its not really your field of expertise Going to try juggling two research projects at once, you'd have work here full-time to pull that off." Simon grinned

"Well Simon, I am seriously thinking about coming on full-time here if Medical has a position open But my project probably won't take more than four or five hours, maybe less."

The doctor looked dubious "What are you up to Nathan? No research project runs so short."

Nathan shook his head "No offense Doc, but its personal and medical If you don't mind I'd rather not talk about it."

"As you wish Nathan But if you need my help, I do hope you'll ask If you don't mind a little assistance I'll talk to Hathin for you, she and I are old friends Though I can't imagine her turning down a qualified physician, especially one with surgical and genetics background."

"Sure Simon, I'd appreciate it, and don't forget to mention my Xeno-medicine background; it can't hurt around this menagerie." Nathan smiled "Well, the suit looks fine so I'm going to go up and starting working through the data."

"I'll have the techs set things up so we can run field tests at 2:00pm, if you think that'll be enough time to review the data."

"Plenty of time, assuming there's nothing to out of the ordinary."

"And for once Nathan, don't forget to eat lunch You seem a bit stressed as it is."

"Yes, Sir." Nathan smirked; Simon was always reminding to him to eat lunch.

Nathan was busily running through two months of test data when there was a knock at his door He looked up from his graphics workstation to see Terry, one of the research assistants, standing there holding a tray Terry was a medium gray tom, a little shorter than average with a fairly slight build who also happened to hold degrees in mechanical engineering and materials engineering He had been Nathan's assistant for the duration of the project.

Nathan smiled "I take it this would be Simon's way of reminding me to eat lunch?"

Terry grinned a little sheepishly. "Yeah, he figured you'd forget otherwise."

"And let me guess, he also told you to make sure I actually eat this time." Nathan arched an eyebrow in a quizzical, yet somewhat comical fashion.

Terry cleared off one of the worktables, and set down the tray "He figured if you had company, you'd actually eat for a change He's really mothering you today Hope you don't mind me joining you."

Nathan shook his head resignedly "That he is indeed And since when have I ever minded your company, Terry?" He smiled and gestured absently across the office "Grab a chair, if you can find one that is."

"Mind if we talk business while we eat?" Terry asked, grabbing a sandwich off the tray.

"Not at all What's on your mind?"

"I was curious about the flight behavior of the suit Based on the models it seems to be thrust-based flight like a rocket, yet it has the large extensible wings I was wondering what function the wings serve."

Nathan turned to the large CAD workstation behind him and pulled up the Exo-Frame schematics "The wings serve two functions; the primary purpose is flight control: they provide additional stability at low speeds and increased air scooping at high speeds That's why they have the variable wing configuration, similar to variable wing configuration aircraft." Nathan explained while using keyboard commands to show the various configurations of the wings on the workstation monitor.

"The secondary function is that they can be used in a defensive fashion against weapons fire due to their armored construction, with training they can also be used in a strike mode again to due to the reinforced construction."

Terry leaned over Nathan's shoulder to look closer at the schematics "What's this armor modeled after? Are there winged Kats on your homeworld?"

Nathan smiled The younger tom was deeply curious about Felsinor and the two of them had talked for hours about it "No, actually the original version of the Exo-Frame was designed on a planet called Earth According to the historical data the original design was a combat suit modeled after an Earth native sentient known as a Gargoyle Very little is known about them; according to the sentient census data from Earth the gargoyles are both rare and reclusive In addition, historical reports indicate that the gargoyles have not always been welcome by the dominant sentient species, the humans."

"You said the original was a combat suit but there aren't any real weapons on the design we've been working from, why's that?"

Nathan sighed a little The truth was he'd left enough hardpoints open on the Exo-Frame to install weapons since he'd figured Jake would come up with better weapons than he would But now ... the last thing he wanted to talk about was his original plans for the suit It seemed like a lifetime ago, so he improvised "This is actually what's referred to as a Search and Rescue model The design purpose is to allow the Medic to locate and retrieve injured or endangered persons as quickly as possible Weapons are sacrificed for additional sensors, improved flight and improved armor The suit is equipped with a couple of non-lethal weapon options, just in case."

"Yeah, I noticed when I was working on the metal fiber formula that it'll probably stop small arms fire cold Pretty tough for paramedics gear."

Nathan reached up and bapped Terry gently upside the head "Not paramedics, 'ya silly kit. Medics, and we often operate in hot combat zones alongside the military so it's handy to be a least a little bulletproof."

Terry grinned broadly "Oops, my mistake So you see any problems in the test data or can we actually do some of the field tests this afternoon?"

Nathan turned to the PC that was displaying the test data "No, the data seems to be what I expected Performance is within expected parameters and all the safety checks passed It looks safe to field test Why don't you let Simon know, so he can get the telemetry set up?" Nathan sensed uncertainty from his assistant "Something bothering you Terry? You seem a little on edge."

Terry shook his head "Nothing important Just anxious to see how the suit performs." He started to open the door but Nathan interrupted him.

"Terry, not talking about something rarely makes it better." Nathan sighed "I've seen that all too clearly lately You should find someone you can trust to confide in I'm available if you if need someone to talk to."

Terry stared at the ground and absently shuffled his feet "Nathan, you're stressed already ... you don't need me dumping problems on you."

Nathan walked over and put his arm on the young tom's shoulder "Terry, I seriously doubt you have any problem which going to add any stress to mine And besides, helping people is what I do ... when I'm not designing armor suits." He chuckled quietly.

Terry slumped down in one of the office chairs "This one might."

Nathan pulled a chair over and sat down He carefully extended his limited empathic senses to get a better idea of what was bothering the usually cheerful Kat The pattern of tension and uncertainty seemed familiar "Terry, did you have another fight with your father?"

"No, things have been quiet on the family scene." He looked down, feeling kind of small He wanted and didn't want this conversation at the same time "Remember when I asked you about how to go about approaching somebody I was interested in?"

Nathan smiled That discussion had been the day before he left for the conference Terry had come to him looking for advice; Nathan had been uncertain what to say since his own dating experience was limited to Rhymar Before Rhymar, Nathan had always been focused on his next promotion, the next skill, the next assignment ... Rhymar had gotten him to actually see the day he was in and enjoy it The next promotion after they started dating had taken him longer but he enjoyed the time a lot more Of course, Rhymar had asked him out in the first place, so Nathan hadn't learned much on that front He also hadn't dated since because with Rhymar he didn't need anyone else, and after Rhymar died ... he was still learning to let that part of himself out again.

He saw Terry looking at him "Sorry, I was a little distracted, but yes I remember I don't know if I was much help though Still haven't talked to him yet, huh?"

"Not about that, no I'm afraid I'll lose him as a friend if I make a move on him." The gray tom's shoulders sagged a little.

Nathan put his hand on Terry's shoulder to reassure him "Terry, if he's really a friend it shouldn't affect that, as long as you can accept that he might not want to take the friendship to that level Do you know if he's interested in toms?"

Terry smiled weakly "Pretty sure."

"Do you know if he's already with someone?"

"I'm not sure Sometimes it sounds like he is, and other times not."

Nathan sighed He knew what that felt like "That can be a difficult situation, you might not want to get in the middle of it."

"I think something changed recently I'm pretty sure he's not with anyone anymore."

"That can tricky too, love on the rebound can be uncertain But I really think you need to talk to him, I really don't think you'd be risking anything." Nathan felt fairly certain about that Terry was smart, attractive and the only real friend Nathan had outside of SWAT Any tom who broke up a friendship with Terry over being approached was a damn fool.

Terry looked up and sighed "Nathan, what I've been trying to say is that it's you I'm interested in but I don't know if you see me as anything but a kit." Terry started to get up, his eyes beginning to tear "I'm sorry, Nathan I shouldn't have said anything but I thought maybe..."

Nathan reached over with his free hand to brush away the tear "Terry, I guess I should've figured this out sooner but I can be pretty blind about some things I've never seen you as just a kit For one thing, I'm not that much older than you Heck, I'm not even thirty yet."

Terry looked surprised "You're not? But you're a doctor, and all the engineering stuff plus I heard Simon saying you did genetics research too."

Nathan chuckled "Yeah, I know Makes me seem pretty ancient but embarrassing truth is I was one of those wiz-kit prodigy types you hear about The Medic Corps also has fairly intense training programs so I had an edge." He grinned He'd actually been a fast learner even by Corps standards "And the engineering isn't anything more than exceptionally accurate photographic memory, I just memorized blueprints that Rhymar was working on." Terry was the only Kat Nathan had told about Rhymar He had been able to tell Terry, because he was a friend who didn't know about any of the things that had happened back then.

Terry smiled slightly, then sighed "But there's something isn't there? Some reason you can't see me that way?"

Nathan shook his head tiredly This was going to be tough to explain and he didn't really feel up to it but Terry deserved the truth At least as much of the truth as Nathan could reveal "Terry, it isn't anything about you If my life were somewhat normal, I could see you as a partner You're attractive, smart and you're a good friend, which counts for a lot with me The problem is ... my personal life is pretty much a mess right now I've got two close friends fighting and I'm caught in the middle I've got one friend who's been through hell recently and is still recovering I've got another friend whose missing and I can't find him, which worries me And on top of that I've got a relationship that means everything to me which is having serious problems With all that going on I couldn't pay proper attention to having a partner Also there'd be a danger of you getting hurt by everything that's going on ... and I like you too much to let that happen The only thing I can really say now is that I can't give you an answer either way right now; until I know where my life is I can't in all fairness bring someone else into I hope you understand."

Terry looked up and smiled weakly "So it's not no, right?"

Nathan chuckled "No, it's ... can we discuss this later? I know it's not what you want, but it's all I have for now I honestly wish it were otherwise."

"It's better than I hoped I was afraid you'd be mad at me for bugging you with this now." Terry smiled "I guess I can wait, but you're risking me finding someone else, you know."

"If you find someone you think will make you happy, go for it Happiness doesn't come along that often You shouldn't pass it up waiting for what might be." Nathan sighed, wishing someone had given him this advice years ago.

"I won't, but I don't think there's much danger." Terry smiled somewhat impishly.

Nathan stood up to get something Terry stood quickly and wrapped his arms around him, hugging the older tom tightly for a moment before backing away.

"What was that for? Not that I minded." Nathan arched an eyebrow.

"You looked like you could use it I'll go let Simon know we're ready to run the tests."

"Thanks, Terry I think I did need it Tell him I'll be down in 15, and close the door on your way out I've got an important call to make."

"Sure thing, Nathan."

Nathan looked through his miscellaneous notes until he found the scrap of paper he was looking for On the paper were two things; a name 'Lance' and an internal phone number He dialed the number after a brief conversation he discovered that Lance was now working in the Genetics section.

Nathan chuckled "Better still Looks like arranging that med school recommendation for his sister may have been worth the effort after all." He grinned, thinking that actually he'd done it because the shekat seemed have some gift for medicine, but it looked this once it actually paid to do something nice for someone.

He dialed the number he had been given.

"Genetics Lab, Lance Morris speaking." A professional male voice answered.

"Hi Lance This is Nathan from Exo-Frame How's Alissa doing in Med School?" Nathan asked He wasn't in a mood for small talk but sometimes it was necessary.

"Sis? She's doing great. Said to thank you for arranging that recommendation."

"My pleasure Lance, I need your help with something." Nathan rubbed his eyes; the lack of sleep was beginning to catch up with him He focused on the biofeedback method for fatigue relief he had been taught at the Academy There was a brief rush of adrenaline and the fatigue retreated He wasn't sure how much longer it would work; he'd had only fragmentary bits of sleep since Thursday.

"If I can, what's up Nathan?" The tom asked curiously.

"I need access to the advanced genetics equipment, DNA profiling stuff Any lab space free soon?" Nathan was trying not to sound anxious.

Lance chuckled "Should be no problem, there are always open spots." He paused "I hate to ask, but what's your security clearance?"

Nathan sighed "Depends, I think Maybe you'd better run it past security just to be sure."

Lance was silent for a minute, the tapping of keys the only sound on the line "Looks like you're cleared, and then some. " He chuckled "You must have connections upstairs."

Nathan shook his head "Me? Have connections? That's not likely, not on this planet anyway." Nathan sighed; not connected was putting it lightly since he felt pretty much disconnected these days.

"Well, whatever the case lab 9 is yours after 16:00 How late you figure on staying?"

"Not too late, I have to go over to Ameliorate this evening."

"No problem, just make sure things are secure before you leave And no blowing anything up, that's only supposed to happen in the chemistry labs."

"No explosions, I think I can manage that Assuming, of course, that the equipment doesn't explode."

After he finished the minimal testing sequence for the Exo-Frame, Nathan headed to the Biological Sciences section He thought about his conversation with Terry and wondered how he could possibly be thinking about such things with everything that was going on. He sighed knowing that it was simply that Terry hadn't run away from him, or abandoned him and Nathan actually knew that Terry was interested in him In the chaos and uncertainty Nathan's life had become, Terry was something certain Nathan sighed again, knowing that the chaos and uncertainty meant he couldn't get involved with Terry now as much as part of him wanted to.

He walked around the genetics lab surveying the equipment and making notes The lab was acceptable, though there were a couple of pieces of equipment he would've liked He chuckled quietly The pieces in question were Puzzleworks special designs and he'd never seen them outside the AGDL.

"Will this do, Nathan?" A cheery male voice asked from the doorway.

Nathan turned to see Lance leaning against the doorframe The tall, thin black on tan tabby was wearing his usual lab coat that appeared to have lost a battle with a chemistry set Nathan smiled "Yeah Lance, this is perfect."

Lance walked over and leaned against one of the file cabinets "Look Nathan, if you need an assistant I'm not doing anything for the next few hours."

Nathan shook his head "Thanks, but I can handle things on my own To be honest, I need to handle them on my own." He had suspicions about what he was going to find and he didn't want anyone present if he was right.

"Okay, Nathan Just thought I'd offer See you 'round." He waved and strolled out.

Once the doors closed, Nathan pulled out the recorder "Medical Journal, Nathan SolGardin recording With the information provided in the memory crystals concerning my genetic heritage and my metamorphic slips I can no longer put off running a full DNA profile and genetic scan Fortunately, I know a few tricks to speed up analysis since I have to visit Chance at Ameliorate this evening Even if the G-series signs are negative I still have to know if the metamorphic genetic structures have become unstable If they have then I'll have to work up the stabilization agents so I can restabilize them."

Nathan watched the centrifuge spin the samples, and for a moment let his mind wander Suddenly he felt the 'click' that he'd learned to associate with a memory crystal activating Then he noticed the image of a tawny, athletic Felsin tom somewhat older than himself The figure was wearing the same black fatigues that his father wore in all the images Nathan had.

The figure spoke in a quiet, forceful voice "Hello, Nathan In case you don't remember I'm Cazimir Sunfire, or Cypher to use my handle Your folks had me handle this crystal since its mostly data which is my specialty If you're seeing this crystal it means you've become aware of the complexity of your heritage and are seeking answers I'll provide what information the three of us have, but I'm afraid it may only lead to more questions."

Cazimir's voice continued as an image of Ebon Swiftclaw appeared "This is your father, Ebon Swiftclaw in his 'center' form Unlike most Felsin his center form is the warbeast form Most often the center form simply went by the name 'Swiftclaw'."

The image changed to a picture of a powerfully built, black-furred Felsin Tom wearing the same uniform This tom was smaller than the first, being slightly less than six feet Cazimir's voice came in again "This is you father in his second form often known simply as Ebon This is a form he didn't use very often until after you were born, when he decided it was more appropriate to look this way at home."

Nathan smiled thinking of the few memories he had of home life with his parents Even with his special memory it was still difficult but worth the effort He attention was drawn back by the image changing again This time the image didn't look a Felsin at all, it looked like a Kat The shadow-gray tom was small, athletic and seemed very familiar to Nathan though he couldn't quite put his finger on why.

Cazimir's image appeared nearby He was smiling "This is your father in his third form Though this form's name was Ebon Darkblade, he was better known by his handle, BlackRazor This was how your father appeared when he and I first met, and it's the form I fell in love with."

Nathan gasped realizing why the image was so familiar The small gray tom bore a striking resemblance to Jake He chuckled to himself a bit at the coincidence "I've got to remember to tell Jake about this He's a dead ringer for my father, the world-class assassin If that isn't an ironic coincidence, I don't know what is." Nathan laughed to himself again thinking how bizarre that was; Jake, who worried about accidental missile casualties, being a dead ringer for an assassin The similarity in the handles was pretty darn strange too.

The image of Ebon disappeared leaving only Cazimir "You're probably wondering how your father could have three anthromorph forms when genetics only allows two, with the rare Felsin having a third feline form The truth is that it is possible because your father is a product of the G-series genetic creation program created by Puzzleworks, or the Advanced Genetic Design Laboratories, the ADGL, as they are publicly known Your father was part of the Generation 0, or G-0 project Generation 0 represented the fact that these creations had no predecessors, having been created from genetic information using advanced nanomanipulation techniques Each G-0 was created to exact specifications to satisfy certain mission requirements Your father was the most complex of the G-0's since he was designed to be the ultimate black ops specialist; an expert in infiltration and espionage as well as an assassin without peer The G-series succeed brilliantly in this regard creating eight individuals who formed a black ops unit with an unrivaled record of success: The NightBlades."

An image of eight Felsin wearing the same black fatigue uniform appeared All eight were male but aside from that there was little similarity "A secondary part of the G-0 project was mental conditioning to maintain discipline and loyalty This part of the project was only a partial success in that the artificially created loyalty didn't last Five years ago, the NightBlades left the service of the shadow government and attempted to retire, the SG has been hunting us ever since Since it was unknown what would happen if the G-0s were to reproduce they were genetically programmed and mentally conditioned to be interested only in other males Four years ago that conditioning broke on one G-0, your father, and that's where you come in."

The image hesitated for a moment "I guess I should be honest, I had a lot to do with that second conditioning break, after all I actually introduced your mother and father and talked them into this evening three-way I did it for kicks and to see if your father was really as not interested in fems as he claimed I had no idea it would result in a full-fledged bonding, and I sure didn't see kits coming out that one-nighter That'll teach me to play truth-or-dare with a black ops assassin.

"Okay, back to the facts Given that your father is one of the G-0s makes you a Generation 1, a G-1 Unfortunately, no one has any idea what that really means Your mother thinks that you have most, if not all, of your father's genetic enhancements though many are in latent form They may become active as you grow up, or they may never surface To date there's been no research on G-1s because ... there aren't supposed to be any, and officially there still aren't."

Nathan's head was spinning He'd been trained at the AGDL so he knew all about the G-0 project and had even worked on some of the early stages of G-0 matrix creation He'd read the scientific literature on the G-0s and the theoretical propagation of traits to G-1s but it was all theoretical because the G-0s had never successfully reproduced Yet Cazimir was telling him that he was a G-1 and the G-1 from the ultimate assassin to make matters worse.

Cazimir continued "Though most of your genetics are dominated by the genetically enhanced inheritance from your father, your mother's genetics can not be ignored Your mother was the latest in a long line of carefully planned marriages and breeding designed to maximize telepathic potential The Moonstone clan has for centuries been attempting to produce the ultimate Felsin telepath who would be the greatest healer ever and would also be capable of unlocking the 'lost' powers of our ancestors I don't believe most of the spiritual bit but there's no denying that your mother is the most gifted telepath I've ever met as well as being a healer of enormous talent Though you show no signs of telepathic ability at this time, not unusual considering four year olds normally don't, your mother thinks that you may have that as a latent ability as well."

Cazimir paced back and forth briefly "In my opinion it's this large pool of latent ability that makes you of such interest to the SG After all what could be more deadly than an assassin with powerful telepathic abilities That combination wasn't planned by anyone but I'm sure the SG is already finding ways to exploit it and you If you're seeing this message then you're still free of them but you should always be wary of them They never give up on a potentially useful tool; they may set it aside for years but they never forget it."

The rest of the memory crystal was intensive amounts of genetic data and research notes According to notes in the margins all the notes had been 'liberated' from AGDL by BlackRazor and Cypher Nathan noted with some interest that there was complete genetic data on his mother, father and Cazimir "Now why'd they include Cazimir's genetic data?" Nathan jumped as the computer beeped at him signaling that the profiling was done.

Nathan walked over and sat down at the terminal "Time to see what's going on with me G-1? I don't think so, Cazi I think somebody would've spotted that a long time ago Even assuming father was a G-0, the likelihood of a genetic pass that one-sided is virtually nil, genetics doesn't work that way."

Nathan pulled up the genetic profile data As he scanned through the data an inescapable conclusion began forming; Cazimir had been right The telltale signs of AGDL protocols were all over the place, along with some the trace signs of matrix creation Nathan was amazed those would remain visible a generation later but if his father had undergone Omega stabilization that might account for it.

He also noticed that a vast majority of genetic code was indeed from his father, with small amounts from his mother What really amazed him was the fact that he could trace certain genetic elements to Cazimir, because they were traits not expressed in either of his parents code and couldn't be accounted for by combination.

Nathan thought about what Cazi had said about the SG and useful tools, which made him wonder what had happened between when his parents died and when Dr. Solgardin adopted him He'd always been told he'd been adopted right afterwards but something about that story didn't feel right Most of his life before he was twelve were something of blur and always had been, but he'd always been told that it was nothing to worry about.

Nathan wandered about the lab trying to sort everything out, but the more he thought the less it made sense All the genetic data and what Cazi said as well suggested he was some sort genetically engineered super-assassin like his father but he'd spent his entire life saving lives He was beginning to think that maybe he was the ultimate hypocrisy; an assassin pretending to be a Medic He sat down in front of another workstation his body shaking as the thought crossed his mind that maybe the SG had gotten him at some point; maybe he was some sort of living sleeper weapon.

His train of self-doubt was interrupted by notations on a file sitting on the workstation next to him They looked like genetic engineering notations, which surprised him He was going to leave the file alone but curiosity got the better of him "If they left it out they must not care who reads it, as long as they have the right clearance." He rationalized as he started skimming the file for a distraction.

The first thing Nathan noticed was that there was no project identifying sheet at the front. As he read the file he became convinced that what he was reading was in fact a Beta-cycle creation project "They're still at Beta huh? I guess I may have to introduce G-series techniques, at least if my metamorphic sequences don't self-stabilize."

Further reading indicated that they had some kind of genetic instability problem, and that an earlier stabilization treatment was beginning to decay Nathan remembered reading that the Beta-cycle stabilization treatment contained a chaos function which meant it didn't always take The other problem he remembered was far more serious: the failure of Beta stabilization to hold could be a sign of chaos chain destabilization , a painful and unfailingly lethal condition.

Nathan thought a moment before remembering that the G-series stabilization protocols also corrected Beta-cycle chain chaos destabilization Nathan scanned through the report looking for several critical genetic scans "Where's the Randine-Herbst RNA scan? I don't even see a basic Catalan-Kryton Gene bias sample." He thought a moment, and chuckled quietly "What am I thinking? Those are both G-series protocols, and probably haven't even been developed yet."

Nathan typed up a full report on his analysis, added details on the missing protocols and the equipment required He had never enjoyed writing reports but he knew it was often the easiest way to get corporate types to take one seriously He finished the report reasonably quickly but realized he was still missing something: the patient The detection protocols couldn't be run unless he could obtain additional genetic samples.

Nathan finally reached the back of the report where he found the missing project sheet He scanned it looking for a name, ident number or something he could refer to the patient by He found a name field and rapidly typed it into his report Then he read the report and saw what he'd typed "Jake Clawson? Jake..." Nathan's hands shook, as he looked back at the report to be sure he hadn't made a mistake; he hadn't For a moment, his mind went into a panicked overdrive, as he remembered the time he'd seen a patient in the final stages of destabilization Then his professional mind took over, reminding him that the report suggested the possibility of destabilization but didn't mention any actual symptoms.

Nathan took a deep breath and forced himself to complete the report, and write the proper executive summary He wrote it taking into account that while Pakitra Dyne was very intelligent and highly educated, but was probably not a genetic engineer. He hesitated for a moment about going directly to the top, but realized that though he couldn't get a hold of Jake, she probably could.

He consider for a moment and then wrote a additional note, since he felt it necessary to explain why he was taking so much interest in a case that wasn't his, as far Cathedral knew Nathan was still SWAT's Medic, which made the health of the team members his responsibility Since Jake hadn't actually told him that he was leaving the team, officially he hadn't, therefore Nathan was still responsible for him.

Nathan sighed, it didn't matter what had officially happened; there was a possibility that Jake was in serious trouble and no matter what had happened Nathan couldn't ignore that He'd never forgive himself if something happened to Jake and he hadn't at least tried to help.

Nathan focused his mind into the purely rational, professional mode he'd been taught at the Academy It wasn't easy to do, or to hold, but it made it possible to write the professional sounding letter he needed He avoided mentioning the guys behaving like teenagers, he just left it at 'the unit was having communication difficulties on a personal level' He acknowledged the fact that he felt no need to worry about identities since he was sure Cathedral already knew He explained that his position as SWAT Medic made Jake's health his responsibility, but that he needed assistance in locating him.

Nathan very carefully considered the closing of the letter and then went with his full formal closure:

Colonel Nathan SolGardin, Medic 1st class
Alphard Sector Medical Commander
Galactic Alliance Medic Corps
(on detached duty as) Chief Medical Officer, SWAT

He smiled at the last one Though never used, it was, by Felsin definitions, true enough He was the ranking Medic attached to a unit, which made him Chief Medical Officer Not that he'd ever cared before, but it sounded good right now It was also his way of saying that SWAT's difficulties were temporary and would be overcome, even if only he understood the meaning of the word choice.

He transferred the files to a disk, placed it in a disk carrier and labeled it Priority Medical As he considered what the fastest way to get the files to Ms. Dyne would be, he absently placed the disk in his jacket pocket He started pacing as he considered options and wasn't happy with anything conventional since all were likely to be delayed until sometime Monday Even if Cathedral ran 24/7, its CO probably didn't That delay was unacceptable but the only other option was to deliver them personally, which made him concerned about whether he'd be taken seriously Suddenly, something inside him snapped and he was consumed by an overwhelming need to find Jake NOW!

He rushed out the door searching frantically, convinced that Jake was here somewhere but not sure where Nathan didn't even realize that he had morphed to tiger form and was, in fact, sprinting through the corridors.

The tiger ran through the corridors of Cathedral with all his senses searching for any sign or indication of where Jake might be In addition to the keen hunting senses of a tiger he also focused his empathic sense on his weak link to his missing friend The tiger didn't care where he was going; the only important thing was whether Jake was there or not.

Each time the tiger reached a place that seemed to have stronger the average feeling of Jake's presence he was disappointed by the fact that the trace was from past presence not current Each disappointment made the tiger more anxious than before, driving him on.

Given the number of alien species present in Cathedral, and given that there were shapeshifters among them it wasn't that big of a surprise for people to see a tiger running through the corridors It was somewhat unusual in that the tiger seemed somewhat frantic and yet deftly avoided colliding with anyone.

A bored Labrador Kantin security guard noticed the tiger during a random camera check He nudged his equally bored Doberman Kantin partner "Hey Joe, we got any tigers on staff?"

"I think there's a few shapeshifters who do tigers It have a wristcom?" The Doberman offered.

Sam brought up a still of the running cat "Yap."

Joe tapped a few keys and a batch of information rolled across a secondary screen "Well, looks like its one of the Exo-Frame R&D staff, Nathan SolGardin."

"He seemed pretty agitated about something Remember what happened last time ..." the Labrador Kantin let the sentence trail off, just pointing to the data on the screen.

"You have a point, Sam." Joe tagged a couple more keys.

"Sheir Kahn here." A strong female voice rumbled through the comm system's speaker in the control panel.

"Sorry to bother you, ma'am, but there seems to be a disturbed member of Exo-Frame R&D staff running around sector G-16A in a form he shouldn't be in." Sam explained "His name's Nathan SolGardin, and he looks to be a tiger, as in the four legged kind."

"I understand." Her perfectly calm voice resonated "Does he still have his wristcom?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'll deal with it Begin the report." She ordered before cutting the connection.

"Damn shekat gives me the creeps." Sam muttered as he started the incident report protocol.

"It's a Jedi thing, is all." Joe chuckled and patted Sam's shoulder "They're all like that."

"Then they all give me the creeps." The Black Lab snorted.

After having run through many levels and areas of Cathedral looking for Jake, the tiger came to a large secure section that his wristcom's security level wasn't high enough for The tiger started to turn away, as he had at other places, but he felt Jake's presence stronger than anywhere he'd checked.

The tiger considered the security measures for a moment His eyes glowed with a warm golden light and then the security panel began to glow similarly The tiger's sensitive ears heard someone approaching, so he darted around a corner out of sight.

The tiger could hear voices talking around the corner He didn't care who they were, or what they were saying he just wanted them to leave He needed to get through that door to find out if Jake was inside or not The tiger lay down against the wall to wait for the voices to leave His eyes closed briefly as fatigue became almost overwhelming Then there was a flash of golden light and the tiger found himself on the other side of the door that had blocked him.

He didn't think anyone had seen him yet so he decided to look around As he passed a desk he noticed some notes that looked interesting A quick scan told him that he was inside the Black Phoenix project area He knew next to nothing about the project except that it involved advanced jets, which made sense If Jake worked for Cathedral they'd be foolish not to have him work on Black Phoenix, whatever it really was.

He thought for a moment and then decided that the place to look for Jake would be the main hangar area He moved quickly yet quietly through the project corridors till he reached the main hangar area, following Jake's psychic residue more than anything What he saw when he entered the hangar stopped him cold The tiger blinked repeatedly not believing that he was seeing multiple Turbokats, or jets modeled after the Turbokat.

He decided they must be corporate attempts at copying the Turbokat, but just to make sure he leapt on to the canopy of one of the jets Looking inside he realized they weren't copies, but were actually improved Turbokats ... far better than the one in the Yard's Hangar, and with a control configuration he couldn't make heads or tails of, except that it definitely wasn't standard.

He shook his head They couldn't be better because SWAT had the best aircraft engineer there was The tiger stared at the jets, examining their lines, electronics, psychic residue and anything else he could see looking for an explanation After minutes of staring he realized that only one Kat could have designed these planes; Jake Clawson His shock prevented him from noticing just how unusual the craft were to his psychic senses, or feel the light mental nudge of concern from several directions.

The tiger felt as if gravity was failing; it didn't make any sense that Jake would design better stuff for somebody else than he did for SWAT He searched his mind desperately for an explanation that made sense, and then from somewhere his empathic senses picked up a word floating in the 'air' : replacements.

Suddenly it all made horrible sense to Nathan There were enough jets here to form a squadron He knew that normally corporations don't built squadrons; they build single prototypes to demonstrate concepts to buyers Then he remembered the corporate law enforcement arrangements used on some of the Lupo belt colonies where corporations provided auxiliary support to local law enforcement.

He realized that having one independent jet providing assistance in crisis situations was a cost effective way to demonstrate the effectiveness of the idea Then when the real squadron was ready you dismantle the prototype unit to show how badly the city needs the help When the next crisis hits and local law enforcement can't handle it you pull out your squadron and bail them out Then you cut a big contract to handle future situations.

It explained why Cathedral had provided covert support to SWAT, which was a somewhat risky move for a corporate entity SWAT had been Cathedral's way of prototyping the idea and showing the city it was needed The tiger growled as he realized what this meant; Jake had been a Cathedral employee the entire time, just there to make sure the project proceeded according to plan.

The tiger also realized that Chance didn't know about it He hadn't been familiar with Cathedral before Nathan had introduced him to it He was sure about that much; Chance was too emotionally wounded to be hiding anything effectively That Jake was the only one that knew made a cold-hearted sort of sense; Cathedral didn't need the original pilot, they had resources to recruit all the pilots they needed They sure didn't need the team medic either, since they had plenty of medical staff, and it's not like he was there in the beginning either Which meant they just had to make sure the team broke up at the right time, to get rid of the surplus personnel They didn't even need to bother retrieving the original Turbokat, since they'd probably been letting it slowly fall behind the technology curve anyway Ideally, they'd want to bury the whole prototype project to keep it from leaking out that they'd set things up to prove the need for their services.

The tiger slumped on top of the jet, his head on his paws He couldn't believe, didn't want to believe but the evidence was all around him All the pieces that hadn't made sense fit together now Jake's involvement with Felina even made sense; she'd hardly be the first law enforcement officer to make the move into the more profitable world of consulting, and dating the technical genius behind the project made it that much easier to move into the corporate structure.

The room swam and the tiger felt as though he'd been kicked in the stomach repeatedly He couldn't believe he'd been so blind as to not see what was going on around him He'd never made a misjudgment this bad about anyone before; how could he have missed that Jake really cared nothing about SWAT ... that it was nothing but a corporate project to him.

The tiger rushed out of the room and suddenly found himself back in the corridor around the corner from the security door He was still stunned from what he had discovered It was bad enough that Jake had deceived him so completely but how could Jake do that to Chance; who he supposedly been friends with for years Nothing made sense to the tiger anymore, and the world began crashing down as he realized there was no hope of rebuilding SWAT now.

The tiger stood up, shook his head and roared The roar echoed through the corridors of Cathedral causing many to jump and several to drop things The roar was one of grief, anger and pain; though only one familiar with tigers would hear the subtleties underlying the anger To a psychic sensitive there were words in the telepathic currents of the roar The words were simple yet they carried the emotional resonance of a heart torn to pieces, a soul struck down by the one thing it could not face: betrayal It simply asked, "Jake, how could you?"

"No!" The sound was ripped from Jake throat before he even began to comprehend what had hit him.

"Jake?" Felina turned in the large shower to grab him, and held him steady as he started to shake "Jake? What's wrong?"

"Don't know," he threw her hands off and scrambled from the spraying water, trailing a river from his soaked fur as he bolted to a small comm unit.

Felina followed him, a towel wrapped around herself and carrying one she draped over his shoulders as he brought the unit to life.

"Sheir, answer me." He made no attempt to hide his terror.

"Jake, be calm." A deep, resonantly commanding female voice came over the other end "That wasn't me."


"I assume Nathan SolGard..."

"Oh, god, no." Jake cut her off.

"You know him?"

"He's my partner ... Medic ... the third SWAT Kat." Jake started trembling for real "He shouldn't be back for another week."

"Well he is back, in Cathedral, and rather upset." Sheir Kahn replied calmly "I'm tracking him now."

"I'll be there." He closed his eyes and didn't collapse to the floor only by Felina's strength "Oh, dear Bastet, no."

"I'll send a V-Skimmer for you." The soothingly sure voice on the other end washed over them as Felina let Jake slip to the floor and stood to answer.

"Thank you, ma'am He's not fit to drive, and I don't know where to go."

"You'd be Felina Feral?"


"Good, try to get him dry and dressed, and out to the boat mooring It'll be there in about five minutes."

"Yes, ma'am." Felina didn't question the instructions as she set her mind on getting a completely unresponsive tomkat in a condition to travel.

"I can walk, Fel." Jake growled and pushed her away as a sleek black jet appeared from nowhere to settle with its wing almost level with the rocks they were standing on.

"No pilot?" She gave the two-seat fighter a suspicions once over as Jake walked confidently out on the wing.

"This is Amerith," he dropped into the back seat and motioned her to the front, "a PsiJet She's a full artificial intelligence."

"So why have room for pilot and gunner?" Felina asked as she settled in and tried not to jump as the canopy slid forward without a sound.

"Because I'm a team player." A silky female voice responded as they swung up and East, towards MegaKat City "Just because I'm a jet that thinks doesn't mean I don't need friends and partners."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Felina murmured through her shock "I've never met an AI before What's your relation to Jake?"

"I like her, Jake." Amerith purred, her voice stronger in the back seat, then shifted to the front "Jake's my gunner Patrik Celest, BlackFire, is our pilot."

"What happened to the V-skimmer?" Jake broke in, his tone half teasing, half serious.

"I told Central I'd pick you up." Amerith hedged "This is very serious, and not just about your friend."

"Start talking, Amee." Jake settled back and glared at the display screen in front of him.

"Yes, sir." Her voice drifted to a quiet worry "We didn't do it intentionally, but he was broadcasting so loud ..."

"Start with which 'he'." Jake interrupted with a low growl "And at this point, you're not going to get in trouble for anything you can tell me."

"Okay," the jet actually made the sound of letting a held breath out "Nathan SolGardin came into the Hanger without his body SheirKahn said it was called Astral Projection."

"That's new." Jake murmured to himself.

"Selkie said it felt like he didn't understand that he was there, but not there." The jet continued as they crossed the beach line on MegaKat City's northern edge and sped over increasingly jagged mountains as they headed inland "He 'felt' around a lot of stuff, especially me ... spend a good chunk of time on my canopy ... and I know he got something he didn't like, but he didn't seem to notice when we tried to talk to him I even yelled."

"And when was this?"

"Just before that roar that rattled everyone's head." Amerith sighed "Then he bolted."

"Dose he still have a wrist-com on?" Jake tensed and shivered.

"No The tracing signal was lost just outside the Hanger's main entrance."

"This isn't going to be fun." Jake whispered, mostly to himself "Where's Sheir Kahn?"

"In the Hanger She was tracing Nathan before you contacted her She's not having any luck either." Amerith sounded decidedly disturbed.

"Good Tell her find a quiet spot for us to work I think I can find him, but I'll need her skills."

"How?" Felina finally spoke up.

"We share a ... bond ... of some kind." He sighed and sank into the seat "Sometimes I can feel where he is, or what shape he's in."

"But you're not mates?" She asked curiously.

"No," Jake sighed and closed his eyes, "as much as I care for him He lost his lifemate when they came here ... left him to die to save me It's ... it would be wrong to press him while he's still grieving I thought I'd have time before he came back ... gods, he hates me now."

"Jake," Felina twisted as much as she could and touched his ear, "we'll sort this all out."

"Just have to find him first." Jake shivered and squeezed his eyes shut against an errant tear.

As the roar's echo died down the tiger stood in dazed confusion His mind was still reeling from what he had discovered Part of his mind recovered enough to think that Chance might be in danger from the same forces that had scrapped SWAT in the first place As the conscious mind reeled an instinctive mind took over. This was not the simple instincts of a tiger, but the trained instincts of Special Forces Commando.

All that mattered to the tiger was that Chance was in danger and the tiger had to warn him The tiger knew that his strength was running low and though he might be able to reach Chance to warn him, he wouldn't have the strength to protect him The tiger had to think hard to remember where Chance was, Ameliorate The tiger growled in annoyance since Ameliorate was too far for him to run Then the tiger remembered the high-speed subway line connecting Cathedral to Ameliorate He tore into a run, heading for the subway connected to Cathedral.

As the tiger raced through the corridors of Cathedral he became dimly aware of others looking for him He didn't care who they were or why they searched for him; he simply couldn't let them stop him from warning Chance The tiger's instincts guided him in the best way to avoid pursuers while still heading for the subway platform.

Eventually, the tiger reached the corridor leading to the subway platform He peeked around the corner to discover two Kantin guards at the entrance That made sense to him since he recalled that the tunnel went through MegaKat City, which would make the tunnel a weak point in the defensive arrangements.

The tiger stood thinking for several minutes about how to get past the guards He didn't have the energy to get into a fight with the two of them and part of his mind was opposed to the idea anyway It took him a long moment of plotting before he remembered that the thing on his foreleg granted him access to all but the highest security areas It was sure to grant him access to the tram.

With a steadying breath he walked out to the door in plain sight of the guards, who only gave him a cursory glance for the wristcom, and another as the door beeped to admit him to the platform He was half surprised, and rather grateful, to see it deserted.

The tiger paced the platform until the train arrived several minutes later As soon as the doors on the rear car opened he rushed in and carefully lay down out of the way. As much as he hated to, all he could do now was wait for the train to reach Ameliorate, and hope nobody found him before then.

"You should rest while you can, kit." Caito said in a calm, reassuring voice.

The tiger woofed quietly, too exhausted to care that once again one of the Triad had appeared out of nowhere.

"Don't worry I'll stay and keep watch."

Another a woof and small growl was the tiger's response.

"The dreams are really that bad, Nathan? I think you absorbed way too much from that mask Want me to get Fel? She's good at fixing this sort of thing." The small tom looked at the tiger with great concern He considered showing Nathan enough of the truth to prove that what he saw wasn't what he thought He sighed deeply; Felsira had specifically forbidden that sort of interference: if Nathan couldn't handle this crisis, the ones to come would certainly be too much Knowing the reason didn't make him feel any better about it; he wanted to help.

The tiger shook his head and growled, more forcefully this time.

Caito looked surprised "What do you mean, you need to remember? Nobody needs memories that bad."

A deep rumbling growl came from the tiger.

The trickster was taken back a bit "You need to be angry enough to what? Fel was right You're becoming more your father's son every day Just try not to lose who you are in all that anger."

The tiger put his head on his paws and woofed quietly He didn't want to talk and Caito's concern was becoming irritating.

Caito nodded "I understand I guess maybe you do need some time to think Just try not to do anything rash, okay? And Nathan..." The tiger just looked at him "Don't be so hard on Jake, he hasn't had an easy time lately either." He added before disappearing in a multicolored display of light.

The tiger sighed deeply He didn't know how to feel about Jake because there were too many emotions involved all at once He tried the various mental disciplines to clear his mind but nothing worked The fact that he was also worried about Chance didn't help matters any He hadn't felt this totally lost since Rhymar died.

It took almost all of the tiger's will to remain awake for the time it took to reach Ameliorate He knew that he was nearly out of time because each application of the biofeedback technique had less effect than the one before it He realized that he must be nearing the adrenalin saturation level at which the technique simply couldn't produce enough to make the body notice It didn't matter as long as he reached Chance first, after that he didn't care He'd failed at just about everything else of importance lately; he simply had to make sure Chance had enough warning to get away.

And he'd promised to see the tabby that evening.

The tiger wandered through the halls of Ameliorate, not sure where to find Chance No one seemed to notice him and that suited him just fine He was beginning to get desperate; the base seemed so large and he was so tired Just when he was about to give up he caught a familiar smell nearby: Chance! Spurred by hope the tiger sprinted to catch up with the tabby.

He turned the corner and though his nose told him that Chance should be there; there was no sign of him As the instinctive mind became confused, the conscious mind recovered enough to assess the situation Looking around he saw someone who seemed familiar but she wasn't facing him He meowed to get her attention When she turned around he realized that it was Brandy, the recruiter who had brought the tabby pilot here He woofed in amusement realizing that he smelled his friend because she'd spent most of the day with him, and his sense of smell was a lot better than he was used to.

Brandy turned at the meow to face a very large tiger wearing a Cathedral wristcom Her nose told her what her mind didn't really want to believe; that she'd missed something very major about Nathan SolGardin.

She took a breath and gave the exhausted individual before her another critical once-over "Nathan?"

The tiger nodded and mewed again with some impatience in the tone.

"Can I hazard a guess that being a tiger wasn't part of your plan for this evening?" She tried to usher him along the wide hall.

The tiger nodded emphatically and went along with her, only a little shaky on his feet.

"Can you go back to your Kat form?" She paused at a door and tapped the touchpad next to it and stepped in when it slid open to reveal large living quarters.

Nathan reluctantly nodded, then shook his head.

"I understand that this is a more powerful form, and judging from how badly you're shaking now I doubt you'd last long as a Kat, but you must realize how difficult a conversation is going to be like that."

Nathan growled at her with ears flat as the shut the door behind them.

"These are my quarters There's no way you'll make it to Chance's as worn out as you are, so you make yourself comfortable, tell me what in the nine hells happened and I'll get him for you."

He regarded the Brown Hyena before he sighed and stood up on two shaky legs.

"Thank you," she touched his arm and guided him to the bed as he reached to braid unruly red hair "Let me, you talk What happened?"

Nathan felt his body's desperate need for rest as he sat down but pushed it away ruthlessly "So you want to know what's going on?" He didn't object as Brandy's fingers began to make sense of his long, tangled hair.

Brandy looked him in the eye "It affects one of my recruits, I need to know."

"Hmmph How much do you know about the SWAT Kats?" He asked.

The question earned him a curious look "Right now, very little." She turned to her computer and typed her ID and password in "I've never had any need to find out." She turned to him as a query screen appeared for her "What should I look for?"

"I'll trust you have the clearance to read this." Nathan rested his head on his hands and tried to focus "I ... Chance, Jake and I ... were the SWAT Kats T-Bone, Razor and Medic respectively."

"Were?" She arched an eyebrow at him and typed on the keyboard one handed without looking.

"Yes, past tense SWAT no longer exists, it's history." The bitterness in his voice changed to sadness tinged by anger.

"What happened?" She asked with one eye on the screen "The file says it's still active, just on medical leave." She raised an eyebrow, "and that you aren't due back for a week."

"Medical leave?" He couldn't help but laugh, then looked at her in confusion "But ... Jake left ... how could ... it wasn't because he was supposed to?"

"Supposed to?" She left the terminal and sat on the bed next to him, carefully getting the confused tom to lean against her and held him "Tell me what you thought happened." She asked soothingly, and began to groom him in a motherly fashion.

"I thought the guys had broken up arguing again, but that wasn't really what happened at all." He said his voiced strained by fatigue and sorrow "We were betrayed, destroyed from the inside by someone we thought we could trust." He hesitated, having difficulty finding the words "By someone I thought I could trust."

"Who?" She prompted softly when he fell silent.

"Razor." He swallowed hard trying to continue speaking.

"What brought that out?" She encouraged his slow relaxation against her.

"Before this evening I wouldn't have thought it possible, but what I saw earlier made sense of so many things that hadn't made sense There's simply no other answer, as much as I wish there were." He started to ramble.

"What did you see?"

"A squadron of fighter jets similar to the Turbokat but better in every respect And the design couldn't have been by anyone but Razor He built a squadron of jets superior to SWAT's so as to replace us." A mixture anger, bitterness and sadness tinged his voice.

"Black Phoenix." She murmured.

"You know about it?" He looked up, his brain hurting too much to fight his confusion anymore.

"Not exactly," she licked the top of his nose "But it doesn't take much to figure out if you hang out here much Black Phoenix has been taking my best pilots and gunners and mechanics since it was started about eight years ago And I know Jake Clawson's well involved in it."

Nathan started to talk again, almost as if he hadn't heard her "At first it didn't make sense I mean, corporations don't build entire squadrons at R&D facilities; they build concept prototypes But then I remember the concept of commercial law enforcement, where large corporations provide backup support to law enforcement for a steep price The first step is convincing local law enforcement that they need the support Setting up SWAT covertly was a brilliant corporate strategy since it minimized the company's risk while achieving the objective. The second step is to build a military force similar in nature but superior in size and firepower to whatever force was supporting local law The last step is to remove the original force and then when the crisis arises offer the corporation's support, at a price."

He took a deep breath before continuing "Step 1 was done easily enough and the company put Razor in place to make sure that SWAT behaved as the corporation needed it to In the mean time Razor was designing the jets that would replace SWAT when the time was right Step two was completed with the recent completion of Black Phoenix. The first phase of Step 3 was completed when Razor dumped T-bone when he was most vulnerable T-bone was so devastated that he simply walked away; who knows what would've happened if I hadn't come back early That's probably the only place the plan failed ... I came back early If I'd come back when I was supposed to, T-bone would've been long gone beyond my ability to find him; and Razor would be ducking my trying to contact him." Nathan hesitated briefly. "Just like he is now At first I thought the timing was mere coincidence, but looking back it's so obvious He knew when the jets would be ready, and therefore when SWAT needed to be trashed, and the conference was the perfect excuse to get me out of the way." He blustered, angry with himself for having fallen for it.

"So why would he need to get you out of the way?" She prompted as his eyes slid closed for a second.

"'Cause I had a knack for getting them back together after their fights, which would make it difficult to use a fight to get rid of T-bone Therefore, he needed me to be elsewhere... no wonder he thought the conference was such a good idea I should have gone with my instincts and stayed home Of course now I'm not sure if I was actually getting them back together or not... I don't know what of the last year was real and what was just part of the act." Tears were welling in Nathan's eyes "I thought SWAT meant something to him I thought I could trust him." He paused looking up at the ceiling "By Felsira! I thought we were friends." He was openly crying against her chest "Now I don't know what I can believe."

Brandy did her best to sooth him with touch and tone as he trembled against her "Nathan, let me tell Chance you'll see him in the morning I can see this is important, but if you're not making sense to yourself, don't you think it might do more harm than good to talk to him now?"

Nathan struggled to his feet "No, I told Chance I'd talk to him tonight Too many people have let him down already, I won't be one of them." He started unsteadily for the door.

Brandy easily stepped between him and the door "Nathan, be reasonable Chance will be fine tonight, you can tell him tomorrow I'll tell him you tried He can see that you're out cold if need be."

Nathan sighed, unconsciously leaning against her hands "Okay, if you'll help me finish something."

"If I can."

"Just a report I need access to a terminal to put an addendum on it, and your help getting it to the right person."

"As long as it isn't against regs, you have my word Just sleep here tonight." She turned him around and helped him to her desk "Just use this one."

Nathan nodded gratefully and pulled the disk from his jacket pocket, and popped it into the computer He began typing.

To: Ms. Pakitra Dyne, Commanding Officer, Cathedral
From: Colonel Nathan SolGardin, Chief Medical Officer, SWAT

RE: Personnel Transfer - Medical Issue [Jake Clawson aka Razor]

It has been brought to my attention that Razor has decided that he longer wishes to have anything to do with SWAT or the members thereof Due to this decision leaving SWAT without technical personnel, the unit is effectively disbanded effective immediately Though I regret that it was impossible to resolve the personal problems within the unit, I respect his decision.

Therefore, it is my final duty as CMO of SWAT to ensure that the medical concerns of former SWAT personnel are properly transferred to the medical directors of their new units However, due to the sensitivity of the medical issue involved I am sending the report to you, and will trust in your discretion to see that it is taken care of properly.

Enclosed please find a report detailing a serious medical issue concerning Razor Included is my analysis and my recommendations as to an appropriate medical course of action I am aware that the techniques and methods proposed will be unknown to your medical personnel.

Though I am capable of handling the issue I believe that it would be better if you selected someone to have me train in the procedures required Should my concerns be shown to be correct, I will be available to provide the protocols necessary to correct the problem. I believe that it is best someone else handle the case, since that will spare Razor seeing someone he clearly no longer wishes to associate with.


Colonel Nathan Solgardin, on leave from active duty.

"Are you sure you don't want to see Jake again?" Brandy had been reading as Nathan typed and wasn't convinced.

Nathan saved the file and placed the disk back in the disk carrier "It's what he wants." He handed Brandy the disk carrier "Please see that Ms. Dyne gets this as soon as possible, time could be critical." He stood up, wobbling as he did.

Brandy looked at the disk and sighed "I'll take it to her as soon as I'm sure you'll sleep But if he betrayed you ...."

Nathan laughed quietly. "Yes, I probably should hate him, shouldn't I? That's what makes this so tough After what's happened and after what he's done all I can manage is to feel hurt and betrayed And somehow I wonder if this isn't partly my fault ... was there something I missed that could have changed things; did he try to reach out to me looking for help and I just didn't see And maybe, just maybe if I'd ... well, maybe things would have gone differently."

He continued to ramble as she led him to her bed "Maybe if I'd admitted to myself sooner that I loved him I think he was looking for someone to love who'd take him more seriously who wouldn't be so casual about the relationship If I'd just seen that sooner, I could've done that for him But I was too wrapped up in my own grief and self-pity to see."

"Sit." She ordered softly, helping him remove his boots and jacket before he suddenly bolted to his feet, nearly knocking her over before collapsing into her waiting arms "Whoa! You're not going anywhere, remember?"

He looked up at her dizzily. "Oh right, sleep Brandy, just one bit of advice ... if you want to keep Chance flying for Cathedral, keep Commander Feral away from him, completely."

"Why?" She asked as she got him under the covers.

Nathan looked directly at Brandy, his eyes yellow-green "You have no idea of the monster that guards your city, nor the depths to which he'll sink to get what he wants Chance barely survived their last meeting emotionally, I don't think he'll survive another If you value him at all, keep Feral away." His voice drifted off as consciousness finally gave up its attempts to remain.

Brandy looked at the envelope she was holding, the unconscious Felsin in her bed and all the things he'd said and sighed "So much for an early night."

The first thing that Nathan became aware of was that he wasn't where he'd fallen asleep, but it was very similar, and quite comfortable.

Then information about the others in the room reached him and he extended his awareness without opening his eyes Jake was there; awake, angry, resigned, scared, and feeling very guilty Further away was Chance, deep asleep No one else seemed to be around.

"Jake?" Nathan queried softly as he opened his eyes and stood, reflexively taking in the large, tastefully done room with three doors, all closed, a table with four chairs and another used bed Definitely a Cathedral style place, they were probably still in Ameliorate, or maybe Cathedral itself It was hard to tell how long he'd been out, but considering he felt fine after the beating he'd given his system, it had to have been a while.

"Nate ...." Jake's voice trembled more than his body as he turned to face the Felsin, but made no other move "I ... gods I'm sorry it turned out this way I never meant it to be like this."

"Jake ... what happened?" Nathan closed the distance between them, stopping less than an arms length from the trembling Kat, but didn't touch him when the smaller tom shied away in obvious pain, and with no small trace of fear He didn't even need his empathy to catch just how conflicted the gunner was.

"I'm sorry," he whispered over and over as he sank to the floor and started to curl into a ball, guilt and fear giving an unpleasant, pungent overtone to his scent and a decidedly black taste to his aura.

"Jake, whatever happened, it'll be okay." Nathan's instincts and training to comfort through touch overcame his reluctance to go against Jake's apparent wishes. Their first physical contact sent a wave of conflicting emotions though him; desire, desperation, guilt, self-hatred, contentment, acceptance; all in a swirling bundle with no apparent order or cause.

"Jake, listen to me," he paused when the tom curled in his arms sobbed once, and froze when Jake twisted to grab him. "Jake?"

"Sorry ..." The shaking tom managed to whisper before he pulled Nathan into a bruising kiss, invading the Felsin's mouth when it opened in surprise at the fresh rush of emotions and a distantly familiar need.

It was a long, shocked moment before Nathan gathered himself enough to return Jake's advance, and longer still to sort out what the root of what he picked up from the tom was; an old, half formed mind-bond tearing him apart as multiple sources sought to complete it.

"You ..." Jake whispered in confusion as their mouths separated, arousal and desperate fear heavy in the air around them.

"I love you, Jake." He murmured, leaning forward for a soft, chaste kiss and smiled to himself when the tom relaxed significantly "Do you know what's happening?"

"I'm losing control." He trembled and looked away to stop himself from grabbing Nathan again "Losing my mind."

"Jake," he urged the lean tom to the nearest bed, still warm from his body heat, "you're injured, not losing control."

"Injured?" He sniffed the air, his ears flicked back in surprise "You love me?" He swallowed before loosing his fight to stay still and leaned into Nathan's personal space again, pressing their bodies together with a low groan when his muzzle found a welcome against the Felsin's neck.

"Yes." Nathan closed his eyes as the rush of sensation the threatened to shake his focus "I love you, and I welcome your attentions But we must see to your injuries."

"Nate ..." Jake's breath became a little more ragged as he started to pull the other tom's shirt up with shaking hands.

"Jake, please ..." he let his voice drift off as a low growl against his throat reminded him in a hurry that the warrior pressed against him, in such dire need of healing, was doing what anyone in pain does; whatever they thought it took to ease that pain.

"I'm sorry, Nate." Jake choked and caught a fair amount of Nathan's throat in his jaws; closing them just enough to ensure the tom didn't fight.

"No need for force, love." Nathan spoke softly, willing his body to say the same as he carefully stroked Jake's back, pulling the lean tom's shirt out of his jeans to give him access to soft cinnamon fur "Unless you want it ...."

"No," Jake whispered as he let his jaws go and pulled Nathan's shirt over his head "Just need ... I ...."

"You need to mate," Nathan finished for him and sealed the statement with a long kiss "I would be pleased to be with you."

"And Rhymar?" Jake forced the question out as Nathan trailed light kisses down his jaw and neck, tracing around the silver collar standing out so well again cinnamon fur.

"He would understand," Nathan murmured softly and brought Jake's muzzle up to face him squarely "I have mourned him, I will never stop loving him, but that is no reason not to love another And I love you." He hesitated a moment before plunging on "Will you trust me to heal you and ease this pain?"

Jake closed his eyes and nodded, his body going almost completely lax despite it's need "I trust you."

Nathan swallowed hard and opened his psychic senses to their fullest extent, feeling along the rough edge that was his half-formed bond with the cinnamon Kat for the weakest spot in the gunner's mind The chaos that greeted him only confirmed what he'd already feared; he was severely out of his depth already, and the worst not even guessed at He'd need a fully trained telepath, a Mind-Healer, to put it completely right Fortunately, he did have one of those handy.

Nathan breathed in deeply to focus just on the first step; helping with what he could He let the heady arousal wash away all concerns but indulging every physical pleasure he could give the lean male next to him, who was watching him with such expectation and open trust.

"Let me see you naked, love." Nathan spoke softly in Jake's ear, earning him a nod and low whimper before the lean tom moved.

Shoes toed off by the bed, Jake stood and turned a full circle before striking something of a pose His belt undone and jeans unzipped, he slid both hands under the layers of clothing just barely staying on his hips "Show me, first."


"You've seen, touched, every part of me already, even if your mind was on healing at the time." Jake purred, easing one hand around to palm his erection and sighed in pleasure "I think this is the first time I've seen you without a shirt on Never knew you were a tabby, much less a tiger-tabby."

"I wasn't trying to hide anything." Nathan shed his pants and shoes quickly "It's just cooler here than I'm used to."

"I understand," Jake murmured as he traced thin, black tiger-stripes across Nathan's back with light fingers, "but such beautiful stripes shouldn't be hidden." He licked the taller tiger-tabby behind the ear and purred, "come under the covers with me I wouldn't want you to get cold."

Nathan knew he made some kind of affirmative noise before his world narrowed to Jake's touch and the increasingly loving, calm presence of the tom in his mind.

Jake could barely breath as he lead his willing, almost eager, mate to the bed that was still warm from the Felsin's body He took a deep breath and growled before pulling Nathan into a possessive kiss as they knelt, then sank to their sides, pressing against each other, rubbing sensitive, bare skin against fur covered, combat hardened muscle.

Then he slowed, using every trick he knew about himself to control the lust burning in his body; to go as slowly and pleasurably as the situation demanded To give what he was given it's due, no matter how much it hurt to hold back No matter how desperate the need in his mind was.

He caught a whisper next to his ear, lost to the sensation of eager hands rubbing his back and the scent of mutual arousal until it was repeated.

"Let go, sate yourself." The words came with a hungry kiss and thrust from the male pressed against him "There'll be time for tender later."

Jake groaned as those whispered commands stripped the veneer of control he'd held on to so desperately With a lustful growl he pushed Nathan to his back, locked mouths, and ... let go.

"Well, that was interesting." Caito nudged Keltin in the ribs "Think we should get Felsira?"

"It would be a good idea if you went and got Fel I should remain here, just in case." The dark blue, uniformed Felsin suggested without taking his eyes from the pair in the bed.

"In case of what, Keltin? Hoping to learn something?" The smaller tom shot back.

Keltin smiled patiently "The little one's stability is still less than certain and he is my responsibility, if you recall."

"Hmmph I remember. " Caito kicked himself mentally for trading off watcher duties with the warrior The tabby pilot had been too emotionally wrecked to be interesting and Felsira wouldn't let him do anything to fix that "Keltin, you realize Nathan's still in love with Chance ... won't that complicate things?"

The larger tom considered the pair in the bed "Things are complicated already, Caito Both of them love the pilot, but they need something he isn't ready for and may never be ready for They are both incomplete and in pain; it is good that they have finally realized that they help complete each other." Keltin sighed thinking about the tabby Though he had traded watcher duties with Caito, Chance was still in his domain and therefore his concern.

"Yeah, they've got a perfect set-up for a triad but I don't know if the pilot is ready for that kind of commitment Of course, it might help if one of them actually talked to him about it. " Caito quipped, thinking that mortals had an incredible gift for complicating things unnecessarily; some more than others.

There was a brief glow of golden light, and the golden-furred form of Felsira appeared slightly behind the two toms "Did one of you two plan to actually come and get me, or were you going to spend all day arguing about who was going?" She commented casually in amused frustration.

As Keltin and Caito stood looking somewhat sheepish Felsira stepped around them to survey the scene "Well, I don't think I'm needed quite yet They seem to have things well in hand, as it were."

Keltin nodded "True enough, but Jake seems to have an amazing amount of psychic damage; no wonder he's been erratic of late It's beyond mine or Caito's ability to heal."

Felsira considered the cinnamon Kat more carefully "Yes, that he does Indeed, I'm surprised he's remained as stable as he has However, Nathan knows what needs to be done, and though I don't think he's aware of her yet, there is a mortal telepath present capable of handling things I won't interfere unless Nathan asks, since Jake is one of mother's children and I would prefer not to tamper unless absolutely necessary."

The large blue tom looked dubious "If you say so, Fel But I still think I should stay until things are more stable."

Caito leaned forward as though on an invisible railing "They do seem to be having fun though Say Fel, any ideas on what the kits'll be like?"

Felsira laughed and patted the little trickster on the head "You silly fool, that would be an issue on Felsinor but it's unheard of here."

Caito grinned "Yeah, but Nathan knows the technique and technology required."

"True, but his mate does not have the same cultural background and might not be open to such an idea." The golden shekat responded thoughtfully "But with mortals one can never be sure of anything What will be will be."

Keltin leaned against a not-there wall "Then all we can do for now is watch, and wait to see if we are needed. "

The Triad then settled back to keep an eye on one of their favored mortals, and his new mate ... just in case they were needed.

Chance gratefully collapsed on his bed after a challenging flight in a combat helicopter that would put anything on the planet to shame He still felt flushed from Brandy's honest praise when he'd set them down, and her playful grin when she told him the second flight would be a 'real' challenge almost made him want to invite her to spend the down time with him.


Then that dark tendril of memory crept up and silenced the thought before it reached his lips.

The big tabby sighed as he closed his eyes, suddenly too tired and unwilling to get undressed and shower, despite his sweat soaked state and need to make another good impression He'd have to remember to thank Nathan when the tom came by, and tell him that it was no problem about last night He understood stuff coming up, way too well And it wasn't like he'd been awake long enough to talk.

"You called for me, Mother?"

"Yes, Soron I have an important mission for you."

"I am at your service, as always, Mother."

"You are going to be responsible for guiding a new clan in the making into existence, and it will be a trip much like your own, and Wintergreen's."

"I understand, Mother Does this clan have a name yet?"


"Odd name."

"No odder than Darshar, and it has as much meaning to it's members You will see."

"Yes, Mother. My apologies."

"Accepted, pretty one I also grant you the powers you will need for this mission, and I trust your judgment to see to its completion by whatever means necessary."

"Thank you, Mother."

Jedi Master Sheir Kahn shifted and strengthened her mental shields once again to compensate for Jake's lack of training as his Force-abilities began to access the biological realm through the growing bond with his new mate She resisted the urge to sigh and contacted her Padawan daughter through their training bond.

"*Shereth, is Felina Feral aware of what's going on?*"

"*Yes, M-M She seems most ... pleased ... with it.*"

"*Thank the Force for small miracles We do, however, have a problem Judging by what has happened, Jake should not be exposed to any emotional distress or distraction, particularly Chance, for at least three to four days.*"

"*Any particular reason why, M-M?*"

"*Be careful when you address me so casually, Shereth.*"

"*Always, Master-Mother.*"

"*Imp Nathan and Jake are forming a soul-bond, but it is very slow going I will not interfere with this either Jake is in no shape to handle rushing it He is forming it as quickly as he can handle, and not even my assistance will change that.*"

"*Understood, Master-Mother I will see to it.*"

"*I know you will do well.*"

Nathan took advantage of Jake's apparent willingness to just lie close and trace lazy patterns in the Felsin's fur to take a closer look at their bond, and the mind on the other end.

Their link was a good deal stronger than the Impressioning Felsira had indicated, even when he accounted for the new strands wrapping around it And on the other end ....


A mind so comfortable in its pain that it no longer recognized the scares or damage done by such constant noise and strain One that didn't even begin to understand what it was, or could be ... or even what it was doing now.

Nathan scrambled to cover his shock before it penetrated Jake's languid awareness and went for as critical an analysis of his mate's condition as the situation allowed.

A telepath, a very strong one, but on a frequency so far off the normal range he hadn't even notice it before.

Basically untrained, but with a reasonable set of experience-taught skills cobbled together.

There were several dozen weak bonds were competing for attention, all of them with an odd feel to them The next strongest was the most normal of them, with Felina, though it was not one that would survive long without constant reinforcement The one after that was far more stable, and with a strange feeling female ... Amerith Chance ... there was something there that resonated to him, but it was terribly weak, and very damaged.

Jake also had other senses beyond the expected six, a physical environment awareness that didn't work the way Nathan was used to It felt more like empathy than anything, but definitely wasn't.

"You don't have to be so careful in my head, Nate." Jake nuzzled him affectionately "I won't break Best I've felt in a long time."

"Why do you keep calling me 'Nate'?" He swallowed a serge of guilt for invading Jake's mind True, with a bond, it was acceptable to look at anything unshielded, but the Jake didn't know how to shield And if this was the best he'd felt ....

"Huuph?" The cinnamon tom rolled up a little to look Nathan in the face, then settled back to his side, partially draped over the Felsin "I nickname my mates, those I'm very close to It's kind of an endearment, I guess."

"I've never ...." He heard his own jaw snap shut.

"No," Jake sighed and stared into space, "as much as I care for him, I know I don't mean that much to him Nicknames aren't something I think about, or do intentionally, they just happen when I'm ready, and when it's mutual."

"Oh." Nathan couldn't help but flash back to the first time Jake had used the endearment with him ... before they had even kissed, much less done more When Jake thought ... must have thought ... he was going to ... to ... to use force ... to gain what he needed.

"Wha'cha' feeling guilty about?" Jake prompted with a feather-light touch along Nathan's inner thigh and a tentative lick to one exposed nipple peaking out from reddish fur.

"I shouldn't have gone so far into your mind without permission." He sighed as another thread began to wind its way around their bond, strengthening it, and settling them both in the comfort of being that much closer.

"Don't worry about it, Nate." Jake purred, absently rubbing his hardening erection against the Felsin's thigh "You can look at anything in there." He paused for a moment, his eyes downcast "Though there's a fair amount you probably would be better off not seeing I've got some ... unpleasant memories."

"Only share with me what you are ready too, love." He cupped the Kat's face and brought their eyes level "It will all come in time."

Jake smiled with playful seriousness and leaned forward to claim a kiss "Less talk, more sex."

Nathan couldn't help but chuckle as he complied.

"Master Dyne," Shereth bowed politely when the white shekat shifted her attention from the monitor displaying the events in the room "Master Kahn says that Jake and Nathan will need solitude for the next half-week to complete their bonding."

"How, what?" Felina shot the silver on black tigress in white and brown laired robes a curious look.

"My Master-Mother and I share a training bond we can communicate silently though as part of my Jedi training, ma'am." Shereth bowed to the tall brown shekat "Master Kahn knows what they need because she is monitoring their condition through the Force and her telepathic skills."

"Oh." Felina swallowed and glanced at the monitor again before turning to Pakitra "Could you spare someone to give me a lift to ClawCrest Marina?"

"Sure, why?" The petite white shekat cocked an eyebrow at her.

"To pick up my car." Felina stood uncertainly "If I'm not going to be needed for at least a few days, I really should get back to duty Especially with them OOC." She poked her thumb back at the monitors.

Pakitra regarded the tall, brown shekat for a long moment before nodding "Come on."


"We have a few things to discus before you go back to the real world." She stood and placed a hand on Felina's arm "And you are right, the city does need you with the boys out like this." She tapped her wristcom "Robotech project."

"Yes, ma'am?" A slightly nervous male voice responded almost instantly.

"Get the Kilsola in top shape and paint her Enforcer colors with our insignia on the inside of the tail." Pakitra smiled at the startled shekat next to her "Then get her and whatever you need for her maintenance over to Enforcer headquarters She's to be Lieutenant Commander Felina Feral's personal craft until we have better to offer."

"Yes, ma'am." The male on the other end replied before she shut the link down.

"Urrr, not to sound ungrateful, but why?" Felina asked as she followed Cathedral's mistress into the hallway, then down it.

"Because I'll never forgive myself if something happens to you and I could have prevented it." She smiled sadly at the bewildered Kat following her "You mean the world to Jake, and you're the first to not hurt him for this long Loosing you, especially now, would probably destroy him As bad as that would be for my company, I ... he's my friend, one of very few I can trust implicitly That is worth more than anything to me."

"Why 'especially now'? He's got Nathan now." Felina swallowed to see the most powerful shekat on the planet, and possibly beyond, so unsettled Furs like her, furs of power and responsibility, like her uncle, weren't supposed to have friends that could influence them this much And definitely didn't admit to it.

"And you saw how that happened." The white shekat sighed softly "When he starts to think beyond the next second again, what do you think he'll be afraid of?"

"Of me being angry at this." Felina nodded with sigh and a stray touch to her collar "It's a good deal more than just a casual fling."

"That it is." Pakitra let it go at that, then let the silence stretch as she figured out the best way to broach the next subject "How much influence do you have with your uncle, where the Enforcers are concerned?"

Felina shot her a suspicious glare but answered "Very little."

"Then I understand that I am asking a great deal of someone with little reason to do it, save that it will be best for Jake, and the city." Pakitra sighed softly "But I still ask that you do what you can to get him to accept the S.W.A.T. squadron proposal, the Black Phoenix project, when he sees it Miss Briggs has already accepted in the name of the mayor's office, and that is technically all we need, but we have enough trouble in this city without having law enforcement and defense under different commands."

"Can you show me a copy of this proposal?" She went into full ranking Enforcer mode almost instantly, suspicious killing edge and all "If I agree it is for the best, I will do what I can."

"Easily done." Pakitra smiled thankfully and nodded as she led them into a small elevator room and sat down She proceeded to tap a series of commands into her wristcom before looking up as it began to move sideways "A hardcopy will be in my skimmer-jet for you."

"Thanks." Felina sat down as the elevator began moving up.

Pakitra locked eyes with her guest, glacial emerald to earthen brown, both born to command "I do trust that you understand that everything you have seen here is so far into the classified range that it doesn't exist outside these walls."

"Yes, Miss Dyne." Felina nodded in quiet acceptance "And there is no need to explain the penalties, and that not even I'm immune to them In that, we share a common law."

"Good, now on to less morbid subjects." Pakitra smiled as Felina shook her head in amusement "But no less important ones." Her smile faded to a small, sad one "Has Jake explained his family and kittenhood to you?"

"Yes, and that you were raised together; or rather, you nearly raised him, and fought for his rights when he had none." Felina touch the CO's shoulder "For that much, I thank you And I don't blame you for what I know went wrong."

"I wish to thank you, Felina." Pakitra inclined her head regally "I know you weren't there to know him before, but I want you to know, you've been very good for him, as well as to him." She kissed Felina lightly on the cheek before leaning back "As much as has been going on, for all the pain he's going through, I can see him finally start to heal wounds I thought would never stop bleeding And it was you who did the most for it As bad as it sounds, this is probably the best shape he's been in, mentally, in a very long time."

"You really do care for him."

Pakitra smiled sadly "A little too much at times, especially like now, when there is so little I can do to help him."

"It seems to me that you've done a lot."

"Just not enough." Pakitra leaned her head back and closed her eyes "You may wish to remember that; that there no amount of money, power or skill can always ensure the results you want." She looked Felina directly in the eyes "If it could, Jake's life would have been very different."

"I don't doubt it." She sighed sadly and let the rest of the ride fall to silence.

"What a mess." Soron muttered to himself as he staid out of sight of the Felsin Triad to assess the extent of his job "No wonder the Queen-Mother wanted me to handle things Well, I guess I should go introduce myself." He sighed and let himself become visible to the three feline gods.

"Who are you?" Keltin stepped in front of the others, and between the dark, leather-winged humanoid and the mortals they were all watching.

"I am Soron, of the Darshar Clan Wyvern." He bowed, draping his intricately tattooed wings over his shoulders to form a cape, much as his lifemate did "The Queen-Mother sent me to ensure this situation ends correctly."

"With all due respect, we have things in hand." Keltin didn't back down an inch until Felsira put a hand on his shoulder.

"I can see that," Soron snorted dismissively as Keltin and Caito riled.

The little trickster's eyes narrowed and his ears flattened back "Like a servant of her Divine Indifference should be criticizing anyone's handling of anything." He deliberately turned his back on the Gargoyle.

Felsira placed one hand on Caito's shoulder to quiet him. "What interest does a Darshar Gargoyle have with Kats?" Felsira asked evenly.

"Very little, honestly." Soron chuckled at their startled looks "My specialty is multi-racial clans, which this is to become." He waved in the general direction of the bed and leaned against a not-there wall, mimicking the pose Keltin had been in when he arrived "Now are we going to get along on this one ...."

"Does Mother think we can't handle this ourselves?" Caito snapped before Felsira could stop him.

"Actually, she didn't mention the three of you at all." Soron shrugged "My orders are to get this to work by any means I see fit, and since you're here, I see no reason not to take advantage of the fact Saves me the trouble of bringing in my own Healer, who doesn't know them yet."

"We will work with you." She overrode the males' sputtered objections "How much healing is allowed?"

"As much as he'll let you." Soron chuckled at her raised eyebrow "Oh, come now, you must remember one of your own oaths."

"Why would he refuse healing?" She gave Jake a sharp look.

"He has his reasons, and you'll hear them soon enough." Soron smiled "But first the stage must finish setting itself A little patience."

Keltin walked over to where Caito was quietly fuming He chuckled quietly and whispered to the small tom "All that to suggest we wait like we're doing in the first place." He hugged Caito reassuringly. "Don't worry about it, love We'll protect them as we need to, nothing changes that."

"I know, Kel." Caito replied quietly "I just don't trust Her, you know that."

The big warrior held his mate close and whispered quietly "I know." The passing of millennia had done nothing to repair the hurt his mate had felt when Fel's Mother seemingly abandoned the Kats who would later become the Felsin Keltin would defer to the shekat's judgment on this, but he did not care for the Gargoyle's superior, patronizing attitude.

Nathan silently thanked Felsira that Jake's need for sex was interspersed with these quiet periods of simply being together In his years with the Corps Nathan had studied many alien races and could only recall one with a behavior like this in the male of the species And given the Ferrin dislike of extended space travel and the isolation of this planet, he found it extremely unlikely that any of the Jake's cobbled together genetic code was from one of them.

His train of thought was distracted by the pleasant sensation of another tendril winding its way around his bond with Jake, strengthening it When he took a closer look at the structure of the bond, and realized that though the tendrils strengthened it, they did not affect the underlying, damaged and incomplete, one He realized that in order to heal the damaged bond, a full Bonding would be required in addition to the instinctual bond that was forming now.

Considering recent events in retrospect, Nathan realized that his psi-potential appeared to be expanding His ability to examine the bond in detail was certainly beyond his previously determined limits In addition, he noticed that the noise level at the edge of his normal shields had increased as though he was 'hearing' more than he was used to After considering what he knew about psi-potential and theories regarding the possibility of abilities increasing later in life he came up with two likely possibilities The first was that the latent telepathic abilities that Cazi had hinted at where beginning to emerge, probably for the same reason his other latent abilities where emerging The other possibility was that his bond with Jake, an untrained yet powerful telepath, might have triggered latent abilities In either case, Nathan wondered if his shields where sufficient to keep his thoughts in, since they were undoubtedly getting 'louder'.

Nathan felt that he needed to test this new 'telepathic' ability of his, but that required a target mind, and trying to read Jake wouldn't tell him anything since their bond was almost strong enough to do that casually Then he remembered that he had sensed Chance nearby when he first awoke The thought of the tabby caused several conflicting emotions to spark briefly; concern for his friend's well being, guilt for doing the one thing he had tried not to, and a lingering fear that his hurting friend might think that Nathan had been lying to him during the weekend.

Cautiously Nathan extended his mind, looking for the familiar patterns of the emotionally injured pilot As his mind ranged further he realized that his strength had definitely increased Finally, he found Chance's mind and the brief contact told him that though the tabby was frustrated, he wasn't in any danger Nathan withdrew his mind quickly, as suddenly thoughts began to come across the contact Nathan discarded them before 'reading' them, but still he was shocked; he had never gotten thoughts before Clearly, further experimentation was required His concentration was abruptly returned to the present by the sensation of an insistent nuzzle He looked down to see Jake looking up at him.

"Nate?" There was concern in the smaller tom's voice.


"You're a million miles away, something wrong?"

Nathan sighed realizing that he had been terribly distracted at a time he definitely shouldn't have been and grinned weakly "Nah, haven't got the range."


Nathan chuckled "Sorry, old joke from the Psionics Academy." He sighed and pulled Jake into a hug "I am sorry love, I was distracted I've always had problems being off-duty, even when I want to be." And he did want to be off duty for a change To leave the problems and concerns to others for even a little while.

Jake ran his hand lightly across his mate's chest, teasing the hardening nipples he found "You need to stop thinking so much." He gently pulled the larger tom into an intensely passionate kiss "And if I can do it, so can you."

Nathan realized that Jake was right; he did need to stop thinking But before he could let go he had to take care of one thing Carefully, he wrapped his mental shields around Jake so he could send one message that Jake didn't need to hear Using the formal tones of invocation he sent out a telepathic message focused so that only the trained and very strong could hear it.

"*Guardian and Protector Spirits of this place, hear my plea I ask you to see to the safety and well being of my beloved friend, so that I may focus on the needs of my lifemate Gentle spirits, I do not know your names but I entrust my friend and partner Chance to your care, until the time comes when I may resume my duties This I ask in the name of Felsira, mother guardian of the Felsin people.*"

Duty taken care of, he banished all thoughts of anything but his mate and the pleasure they shared For the first time since kittenhood Nathan truly took off his uniform, which he had always worn mentally even when off-duty.

Keltin whistled in surprise "Never thought I'd see anyone get Nathan out of that mental uniform of his Even Rhymar never quite managed that."

Felsira nodded silent agreement as she watched the two below After Rhymar had died, Felsira had been worried that Nathan would retreat to the nearly emotionless state that Rhymar had coaxed him out of Fortunately Nathan's friendship with Jake and Chance had been enough to keep his emotions alive.

The golden shekat turned to Caito "Caito, there's something you need to do."

The trickster looked up at her "Fel, do I have to? He's got who knows how many mortals keeping an eye on him ... what do you need me there for?" Caito pouted, tired of watching the tabby do little or nothing.

Felsira bent down and hug the small tom close "I need someone there I can trust, and who can handle things ... should they need it."

Caito nodded "Okay Fel." He stood up and walked over to the warrior still leaning against the not-there wall "Kel, would you do something for me?" His voice was quiet and reserved.

The large blue tom raised an eyebrow at him "Depends."

"Let me watch here, through you Please, Kel."

The warrior put his hands on Caito's shoulders "It means that much to you, beloved?"

The small tom nodded "Nathan means as much to me as he does to the rest of you, and its important for me to know how things work out." His shoulders sagged remembering how badly messed up things had gotten.

Keltin regarded his mate with some concern The usually impudent tom had taken the events of the last week very personally "Of course, love." He gently cupped the little trickster's muzzle and lifted it so their eyes met A silver light flowed between them for moment.

Caito vanished in a multicolored shower of lights "Thanks Kel I'll think of some way to repay you ... when we have some time alone."

Keltin smiled wistfully, thinking that the two of them had not spent nearly enough time together lately.

Felsira watched the two males and sighed quietly Sometimes she envied their closeness for while she was mate to both; she had never been as close to either as they were to each other The shekat chuckled briefly at her own foolishness; it was hardly surprising given that the two had been mates for time unknown before she met them She was grateful that Caito had fallen in love with her deeply enough to propose the triad to his quiet and somewhat reluctant mate.

Felsira looked down at the two mortals below, and wondered how they would manage to patch things up with the pilot She had no doubt the pilot would be mad at Jake, and she shared Nathan's concern that Chance would be mad at him by extension She sighed remembering Nathan's long held dream of things finally working out and SWAT becoming a complete triad She knew his mind realized that it was unrealistic ... but she wondered if his heart would ever come to terms with it.

Keltin put his arms around the melancholy shekat and held her close "Don't worry so much, love Things will work out, you'll see Destiny holds those three together but sometimes it takes mortals awhile to realize how much they need each other and even longer to realize that they are needed."

Felsira snuggled against the big warrior's chest and sighed "I know but I hate seeing them stumble about in such pain I will never understand how Mother became so indifferent to it all, and perhaps I don't want to."

Keltin nodded as he absently stroked her long blond hair while keeping watch on the mortals below Sometimes it was better to be silent than to try to figure out what to say.

"Hungry?" Jake murmured softly in Nathan's ear as the tiger-tabby tried to catch his breath.

A rumbling growl from his midsection answered for him and Jake laughed The simple, clean amusement trickling through their bond made Nathan smile in real pleasure "You don't do that nearly enough."

"Do what?" Jake regarded him curiously with a playful grin.

"Enjoyed something so ... so cleanly." He brushed the cinnamon tom's cheek ruff "As long as I've known you, you've always seemed to be in so much pain."

"Life hasn't been kind to either of us." Jake kissed his mate gently "Survival has usually come at the cost of living."

"Something changed," Nathan stared up at him, "and it's not me."

"I broke." Jake looked away, a trace of shame growing in him "I'm not sure how much of the Jake Clawson that became Razor still exists, but I know it's not a lot I'm too tired of living a lie to keep it up like I was."

"But you're not much different ...."

Jake silenced him with a finger "Do you know why I was in those caves, when you first found me?"

Nathan blinked in confusion "I assume chasing Dark Kat." He couldn't stop the cold shudder that passed through him at the thought of that time.

"Yes, I was And I was alone."

"So ...." He looked up, searching for the obvious thing he was missing.

"Even with T-Bone and full gear we rarely defeat him to any real extent I sought him out alone so I could die He's the only one I was sure could do it." Jake didn't so much as blink as Nathan's eyes went wide "It was months before I forgave you for making me live another day."

"Because of Felina?"

"No," Jake shook his head," though I'll admit now that I'm grateful for the opportunity to have had her in my life I forgave you when I realized that as bad as I hurt, and as far as I'd broken, I could still do what I promised for a while longer."


"Then you made me realize, by just being yourself, that I didn't have to live the lie to get the job done." Jake's fingers played a random pattern in the Felsin's fur "And somewhere in there, I realized that I wanted you in my life Not just as Medic, or Nathan SolGardin, or even necessarily like this ... that's why I wanted you to go to that conference I needed to see what was really left between me and Chance, with you gone What would happen ... I knew I'd do anything for you, even stay with him far too long for anyone's good." He met Nathan's eyes "I still will, you know, if you ask me I'll apologize to him and make nice, somehow." He glanced away, his voice very low "I can't refuse you anything It's not in me anymore."

"And what is there, for Chance, now?" He could barely breath against the whirlwind of conflicting emotions brewing in his mate's mind.

"That I love him as dearly as I ever did, and I would marry him in a heartbeat if he'd have me." Jake let his eyes drop completely "But what he's willing to give me isn't enough anymore Just being fuck-buddies and such ... I need a partner that I can let my guard down with, that I can turn to, to hold me and convince me it'll be okay in the morning when the nightmares come I do trust Chance, I trust him with my life and the lives of those I hold dear, but I can't trust him with my heart anymore He's hurt me too many times, even if he didn't mean to."

"But what changed?" Nathan eased Jake's muzzle so they faced each other again "Why walk away now?"

"Because I had to There wasn't any other option Up to last week the city needed the SWAT Kats and SWAT needed both of us But we finally got the last kinks worked out of Amerith, Kellra and Shagreth, though he's still a little shaky about the finer points of his new body With having to stay not longer required of me ..." Jake shook his head as his voice trailed off "I almost ... I can't trust myself around him The night before I left ... we got into a fight I don't even remember about what, but I damn near killed him, and he didn't even realize how close I was to loosing control and tearing him to shreds He doesn't even begin to understand what I'm capable of, and ... and I can't tell him No matter how badly I want to come clean, he wouldn't understand He'll hate me for what I am, for what I've done, and what I know I'll have to do again."

"Jake, it'll be okay." Nathan did the only thing he could thing of; he held the crying tom close and did his best to comfort him "Things will work out."

"Yes, when I'm far away from Chance, for good." He buried his face against Nathan's neck "I did my best I set him free with every advantage I could, even left him with the option of coming back, if he wanted to give what I need But it's still for the best that he's gone I'm not so sure he can handle a PsiJet I doubt I could handle it if he can't."

"Umm, Jake?" Nathan stroked the shaking tom's hair until he settled somewhat "I'll fix something for us I think you need to eat as well Hunger never makes things easier."

"No, I'll do it." Jake pushed himself out of bed before kissing the startled tom still there.

Nathan was about to open his mouth to object when he caught the backwash of how important this action was to Jake So he settled and waited for breakfast, and listed quietly to ebb and flow of emotional energy on the other side, pleased as it slowly leveled out to a nervous excitement.

"*Jake?*" Amerith hesitantly prodded the back of his mind for access "*Can we talk?*"

"*Of course, baby.*" He didn't miss a beat from slicing the small, red fruit he was adding to the plate "*I know I've been a little out of it lately, but you're always welcome.*"

"*He doesn't feel that way.*" A mind-image of Nathan accompanied the hurt complaint.

"*Amee, please, be nice about him You know how much he's done for me ... hell, if it wasn't for Nathan, you wouldn't exist, because I would have died over a year ago.*"

"*I know.*" She growled half-heartedly "*It doesn't change the fact that your bond with him is stronger than mine and he's not of the Squad.*"

The silence between them settled for a moment, Jake's from shock, and Amerith's from misery.

"*Are you leaving us?*" She finally asked.

"No!" He cried out verbally as well as long his entire telepathic spectrum "*I would never ...*"

"Jake?" Nathan bolted into the small kitchen "Jake, what's wrong? I heard ... I don't know what."

"I need you to do something, Nathan." The lean tom spoke in a nearly dead voice as his mate embraced him "Something I don't really have a right to ask you to do."

"I'll do anything I can for you." The absolute certainty in his voice relaxed Jake slightly "Anything."

"You would have learned about all this eventually, but we're kind of out of time." He reached and picked up the half-full plate of chips, meat and fruit "We'll eat, then I need to do some introductions."

Nathan followed the lean tom out, more than a little bewildered, and not at all assured by the fact that the only clear thing he knew was that something has scared the fight out of his mate.

"You can go back to Jake and Nathan, if you'd like." Soron's voice was gentle as he appeared behind Caito as he watched Chance get dressed in a white and gold flight suit. "I'll watch things here."

"I don't need any favors from you." The small tabby spat.

"Then will you grant me a favor?"

"Depends." He glared at the huge, furless creature.

"Tell me why you're so angry with me." Soron resettled his wings. "Have I insulted you? For I did not intend to."

The little trickster looked suspiciously at the Gargoyle wondering why one Her servants was pretending he cared what someone thought. "Sure, why not."

He jumped up to land on a not-there wall and sat down. For no reason other than whimsy, he switched to his faerie form, a small male with delicate features and mischievous grin. He had modeled the form after a long time friend of his, Puck the trickster of Avalon. They'd fooled more than a few with the similarity, including Oberon himself.

The trickster stared down at Soron. "Let's start with the fact that you show up out of nowhere in the middle of a situation we're handling and act like you're in charge. On top of that, you suggested that we weren't handling the situation. You haven't the first clue what's going on here, or just how bad things were before ... or how bad her Divine Indifference let things get. And don't even get me started about how we have to tip toe around and not use our powers too much in order to avoid offending Her."

Caito disappeared and reappeared sitting on the shoulder of an Exo- Frame, wings fully extended, painted in SWAT colors. "Look, Nathan's important to us for reasons you don't understand. That means that Jake and Chance are also important, because Nathan's Bonded to Jake and he's rebuilt his world around the two of them. All this would be tough enough but the kit's going through hell on his own now that his past is waking up."

The faerie disappeared and a large winged jaguar appeared sitting watching Chance. The jaguar didn't speak but projected in a strong, pained mental voice. "* See, She didn't care about the Kats who would later become the Felsin when they were lost for generations in the void. And I don't think She cares now; I think this some game of Hers. Well, I won't have it. Jake and Nathan have been through more hell in their lives than anyone deserves, and just maybe this time things can work out. Felsira will play nice about it and put up with you playing superior Gargoyle-in-charge; but Keltin and I will do what we have to to give them a shot at being happy, and if things work really well, we'll even be able to get SWAT back together. As for your watching things here ... you don't even know what threats we're watching for. It'd be a whole lot easier if Fel would just let Kel deal with the monster the way he wanted to. But nooo, we can't risk offending Her Divine Indifference, so the monster runs lose unpunished.

The jaguar disappeared and the small black on brown tabby appeared He was lying on the ground, head resting on crossed arms as he watched Chance. He spoke in a quiet, fatigued voice "So you see, Gargoyle, it isn't really you I have a problem with, it's Her But you work for Her ... and I'll never trust Her."

Soron regarded Caito for a long moment before they followed Chance out to a sharply angled combat helicopter to begin his first test flight of the day. "Would you tell me exactly how Mother wronged you, and of this monster you could not kill for fear of Her? Why does She restrict your powers?" Soron asked cautiously as Brandy joined Chance in the chopper and the blades began to turn. "I make no contention that She is not as attentive as She should be, and has chosen badly more than once, but I have never heard of such a proclamation. She's usually more direct than that."

The little trickster sighed. This Gargoyle was confusing him by asking such questions. "It was a long time ago, back when the Kats who would become the Felsin first left this world. There were others here to take care of things but Mother ordered Keltin and I to stay here and not go with the evacuation ships as we wanted to."

He got into position to follow the copter discretely. "We watched from here, but it became more difficult as the distance increased Our abilities weren't as refined as they are now, back then. Then the evacuation ships became lost in the Great Void, we begged Fel's Mother to let us help. All we were ever told was that it wasn't the right time yet. And that was all she would tell us for thirty mortal generations, and all we could do was watch as they wandered lost, without hope. They trusted us, and we couldn't do anything for them."

The small tabby looked into the sky. "Then came the Silence, for over a hundred years we heard nothing from Her. That's when Kel and I decided to leave to help the wanderers. We didn't care anymore if She didn't approve, we just couldn't stand back and watch anymore However, the Void is a difficult place even for us and it took longer than we expected to find exactly where the evacuation fleet was. That was when Felsira found us, we had never heard of her before but there was something warm and caring about her that we had missed for a long time. She had decided to take the wanderers as her own people, and she asked us to help guide and protect them. That's the last time, before now, that we've had anything to do with this world."

"And that silence continued for over a millennia, and when it was broken, Mother was very different." Soron's voice was choked.

"What?" Caito did a mid-air somersault to come face-to-face with his companion.

"Mother died, Caito." His voice was very low as he continued to peruse the helicopter. "Killed by one of Her own."

"You're lying." The tabby growled and caught up easily.

"I was there when she fell, and when she was reborn." He shook his head. "It was a brutal time for all of us. Not many survived Those of us that did were never the same, after learning to live crippled and hunted. We're still piecing together the Realm."

"You can't kill ..."

"Then don't believe me." Soron shrugged. "I spoke the truth. Now, what is this monster?"

The winged jaguar easily flew casual loops around the copter to settle himself down. His mental voice turned angry. "*As for the monster, its a vicious rapist that hides under color of authority here and no one knows it for what it really is. It brutally attacked and used Chance, and Nathan had one hell of a time trying to pull Chance back from the brink. Nathan still has scars from dealing with the problem, and because the monster is still loose he can't even be sure it won't happen again.*"

The 'voice' became somewhat sad though still angry. "* What I hate is the fact that to protect Chance, Nathan feels he may have to kill the monster himself. Nathan's never killed anyone before, he shouldn't have to now ... we're not sure his mind can take it ... because it's in such opposition to who he's always been. But I know the kit will do it if he thinks he has to. He'll kill to protect Jake or Chance ... no matter what the cost is to him personally.*"

The tabby appeared sitting calmly on one of the copter's struts. "As to why Kel can't do it ... we're back to not offending Her again, because the monster is a Kat." His ears went back and his voice became low and dangerous. "It calls itself Commander Ulysses Feral, and if it tries to get near Chance again ... I will kill it. I don't care if it offends Her or not, Nathan shouldn't have to suffer any further because of its actions."

As Chance put the Copter through its paces, the little tom smiled. "He really is good, all we have to do is get him to remember that SWAT does need him." Caito ran a quick systems check of the copter just to be sure, when he detected no problems, he settled back to enjoy the ride ... he'd always preferred letting someone else do the piloting.

"Unless you'd like me to stay, I have a few head to rattle down in Records." Soron grinned mischievously at that tabby, who actually blinked in surprise before waving him off.

The trickster lay back enjoying the ride after Soron disappeared. He was curious to know what the gargoyle had meant by 'rattle heads down in Records.' In fact, he'd almost been curious enough to follow, but he put his curiosity aside for once because if something went wrong and he wasn't here ... he'd never forgive himself, never mind the centuries of grief he'd get from the others.

He kept thinking about what the gargoyle had said about Fel's Mother. As inconceivable as the idea was Caito couldn't deny that Soron seemed sincere in what he said. It was that sincerity that caused the little trickster the most problems ... once he stopped acting like he was in charge, the gargoyle was almost ... likeable. It didn't fit what the tabby remembered about Her servants at all.

Confused by it all Caito decided to let his more serious mates handle it, at the very least Fel needed to know what the gargoyle had said. He collected conversation and sent the entire mental package across the link that bound the Triad together.

Serious matters taken care of, Caito made a mental note to ask Soron if he knew the Gargoyle clan on Earth that he'd run into when hanging with Puck. For some reason he couldn't come up with the clan name, but he remembered the name of the big one, Goliath. The little tabby sighed remembering how he'd been daydreaming about that hunk for weeks after he'd last been on Earth. It had driven poor Keltin to distraction ... he didn't think Keltin would leave him alone on Earth again after that bit.

He chuckled thinking that maybe having the gargoyle around wouldn't be as bad as he thought. After all, it looked like he might actually have a decent sense of humor when he wasn't being the high and mighty leader.

The meal passed quickly in uncomfortable silence, both toms eating much as they would in the field; going for maximum nutrition in minimum time and fuss.

"Nate ... how far have you gone into my mind?" Jake looked up as he finished the last of his meat slices.

"Not far below the surface, and along the bonds." He answered nervously.

"Did you see enough to know I have a lot of bonds, most of them much less intense than the one we share?"

He nodded silently.

"Did you recognize any of the folks I'm bound to?" Jake settled easily to his side and watched his mate intently.

"I got the name Amerith from a strong one, as well as Felina and Chance, but other than that ...."

"I need you to meet them, and accept joining our pack." Jake spoke very quietly "I'm very sorry about how this is going, I haven't ...."

"Jake, I understand." Nathan shifted to bring his body close to his mate's "What will this entail of me?"

"I can give you a little choice there." Jake tried to smile "You can meet, accept and be accepted one at a time, or as a group It does involve entering our group bond as well."

"Umm, I'd really prefer to do it one at a time, and after we finish bonding." Nathan shook his head, trying to project just how important this was "We need to complete our bond before any more are attempted."

"*Amee?*" Jake caught her attention, ensuring Nathan could hear them this time "*Are there any actual objections, or is this because I'm not following procedure and you're feeling ignored?*"

"*Amerith,*" Sheir Kahn's mind broke in, "*the Felsin speaks the truth They need to finish first."

"*Who are you?*" Nathan tried to pinpoint the source that was far too close for his comfort.

"Go ahead and show yourself, Ka." Jake chuckled slightly "I don't think Nathan's heart is going to take too many more surprises."

"Greetings, Nathan SolGardin." A very tall, flame-furred tigress shimmered into existence in the far corner of the room "I am Jedi Master Sheir Kahn, and a member of Jake's Black Phoenix SWAT Squadron."

"Nate! Easy." Jake caught his mate as the Felsin swayed dangerously close to fainting "She's a friend." The last word came out something of a squeak as he hands contacted much rougher fur that expected and his brain struggled to process what was standing next to him.

"I mean no harm, Nathan." Sheir Kahn didn't miss a beat as biped Felsin flowed into quadruped tiger.

"*Nate?*" Jake's mind scrambled along their link, half scared, half fascinated, even as he felt the now far too familiar urges rise in him again "*That you?*"

"Now why would I ever think we'd have some privacy in Cathedral?" Nathan growled in exasperation more than anything as he stood back on two legs and turned to face his mate "I was going to tell you ..." his voice was cut off but the look on Jake's face Not shock, or disgust, or even fear ... those he was half expecting ... but lust "Jake?"

"Now that's something I've never tried." Jake grinned predatorily "Do switch back."

"Umm, Jake, really ... isn't that taboo or something?" He actually took a step back, more than a little relieved to catch their watcher walk out the door shaking her head.

"How so?" Jake purred with an advancing step.

"Mating with a beast ...."

"You're no more beast like that than you are now, Nate It's not like we're the same species anyway." Jake nuzzled his lover's neck insistently "Please?"

"That's cheating." Nathan shook his head and laughed slightly before shifting into tiger form "*Now what?*"

Jake murred quietly as he assessed his mate's new form, one that outweighed him by over three hundred percent, and about that much in the natural weapons department as well.

"Most impressive." He knelt and cupped the uncertain tiger's face and placed a kiss on its wide mouth "Hmm, roll over." He helped guide his perplex but willing mate to his back, and ran explorative hands along the white belly before coming to rest on large, furred balls and a nearly invisible sheath.

"*Jake?*" Nathan tucked his chin against his thick neck to look down his chest and belly to where his mate was alternating between trying to get a response from him and just exploring the tiger form.

"Relax, Nate." The mixture of frustration and distress in Jake's voice mirrored that in his mind "*Please ....*"

"*I don't know what to do like this.*" He whispered between their minds "*Sorry.*"

"Think sexy things if I'm not enough A fantasy, Rhymar ... anything."

"*Just thinking of you was enough for over a year and being with you is more than I ever imagined.*" Nathan quickly sent reassurance across the link "*It's just I'm unfamiliar with this form, don't understand it very well.*"

Jake managed a painful growl as he resisted an urge deep in his mind with the screams at always accompanied it "*I don't ... the other way ... I don't want to mount you like this, just pleasure you Just touch, taste you.*"

Nathan twisted up to two feet and pulled Jake close before the smaller tom even registered the change, his full focus on the quickly buried flash of pain-memory "What's wrong with mounting me? What hurts so much?"

"I ... the full story is a long one." Jake accepted the warm embrace, and groaned as Nathan's hand began to stroke him purposefully.

"Is that why you've always bottomed to Chance?" Nathan shifted his grip; grateful for the tricks his therapeutic massage teacher gave him by accident to bring this to a quick end.

Jake just nodded against Nathan's chest as the cinnamon tom's breath can faster "And I got good with my tongue for the girls." He let a low, grunting moan out as his body reached the edge, quickly followed by a stuttering howl as the stroking was replaced by hot, wet suction and all thought ceased for a moment.

"Better?" Nathan murmured as he licked the escaped drops of Jake's cum from their fur.

"Yah," he leaned against the tiger-tabby "I really hope this calms down soon."

"It should," Nathan smiled gently "You were going to tell me why you don't like to top."

"Muurph, I guess." Jake sighed "I'll get into the long of it later, but basically, Pat and I lost our virginity to each other, and, umm, it didn't go very well when I ... entered her." He closed his eyes and shivered in the strong embrace supporting him "I've never stopped hearing that scream."

"How old were you?" He wasn't all that sure he wanted to know.

"By best guess, thirteen."

"Best guess?" Nathan raised his eyebrow, even knowing Jake couldn't see it.

"Long story, Nate." Jake pulled himself to his feet and hugged his ribs with turned his back to the tiger-tabby "No one really knows how old I am, or even exactly what I am Most of the records regarding my creation and early days were destroyed before Mr. Dyne's crew found me But it bugged Pat to have her prize pet not have a birthday, so she took a good guess, picked a day she liked in the right range and had the paperwork done Same way I got my name, really I was AS50-4 before."

"You're her pet?" He couldn't help the rage that flared inside him.

"I was, Nate Calm down." Jake turned to face his friend and mate "When they found me I was a ball of fluff that looked like it may grow up to be a big cat, but definitely not a Kat It was Pat that gave me an identity as a citizen when she realized what I was becoming She made sure I had a good education even before I could stand on two legs or talk She let me do what I wanted, even when that meant leaving her direct service."

"But a pet?"

"Nathan, it's the past I've been many things, and that was one of the least offensive." He smiled at the mixture of memories of the white shekat "She was a good owner, and she's a good partner and friend now."

"How could she let you go like that?" Nathan tried to work his brain around the idea with little success.

"I never really asked, honestly." Jake shrugged "But she treats me as an equal now, so I never really worried about it." He smiled a little sadly at Nathan "I think, maybe, she always thought of me as something a little more than a pet I was her only real companion, playmate ... the only anything that was close to her in age and interests She's always had a lot of power, but until Cathedral, she's never really been allowed any friends." Jake caught Nathan's eyes "So now you know my most painful moment, will you share yours?"

Nathan swallowed and sank onto the bed "I was kind of planning on dealing with this during the Sharing, but ... are you sure you can handle this? It involves Chance."

"You're worst memory ..." Jake's ears flatted.

"Something very bad happened to him," Nathan looked down and fidgeted, "and when I was scanning the base, trying to find out what happened, I got a huge psychic backwash from his mask."

"What happened?" Most of the color drained from Jake's face "And when?"

"Don't know when, but fairly recent." Nathan blinked at the cold, killing rage gathering in Jake's mind "And, umm, Ulysses Feral raped him, as T-Bone."

"How much proof do you have?" Jake's entire demeanor shifted, reminding Nathan far too much of the worst he had heard of his father, and that little part of his soul he prayed would never come out.

"More than enough back home ... I got a full replay of everything from the mask."

"Show me." Jake's low growl contained nothing but demand.

"I'm not ..."

"Show me."

"Let me show you something else first." Nathan steeled himself for the inevitable and backed away before shifting to the war-form, then back to the Felsin one after Jake had gotten a good look "I can barely control that form, and ...."

"You'll shift in a frenzy." Jake nodded quietly "Do you want to call Felsira, or should I ask Ka to come back in? We should have a couple witnesses anyway."

Nathan stared at his mate in real surprise "You think she's real?"

"As real as anything." Jake shrugged with a slight smile "She's hardly the strangest type of creature I've met."

Nathan shook his head in sheer amazement "Is there anything that can phase you for long?"

"Oh, I'm sure there is, but I haven't met it yet." Jake nuzzled him gently "Now please call her so we can get this over with."

He nodded and sighed "I need to ask her to heal it anyway It'll be nice to sleep again But we should go somewhere private."

"Nathan, there are no secrets from the Lords of Cathedral Pakitra, Sheir, Kendra and I know of anything we want to that happens within these walls." Jake spoke softly "They're just watching this close because I have them very scared with how irrational, and suicidal, I've been lately."

Nathan watched his mate with eyes and mind for a long time before speaking "I can't say I can really fault them for that You had me scared too." He looked up as strange memories of another place where there were no secrets flooded back.

"Pat does hate it when I get the systems to go against orders." Jake couldn't help but snicker "*I know you were all listening, so please do stop As far as everyone is concerned, this room does not exist except for my requests.*" He smiled at the jumble of affirmative replies and the various passed on scenes the 'disappearance' of the room caused.

"Urr, are you going to let me in on that joke?" Nathan shot a pleading look to his mate before he was pushed to his back on the bed.

"Do you know what a TechoMage or TechPsi is?" Jake purred as he lounged on top of the bigger tom.

"A mage or psionic that deals with technology?" He hazarded.

"Well, yes, but that's only part of the answer." Jake took a deep breath and closed his eyes "Come into my mind, as far as you can, and listen."

Nathan swallowed and did his best to wind his way into Jake's almost completely unshielded mind without leaving himself too vulnerable He was ready for the chaotic storm this time, but not for what it actually was to the other tom.

Thousands of voices; a few coherent sounding adults, a few dozen more that seemed to be young, very focused children, and hundreds upon hundreds of others that were just sort of there.

"*Listen closer.*" The lean tom murmured "*It takes practice to translate all this, as few of them actually speak our language.*" He picked one of the weaker voices that even upon close examination didn't seem to actually be saying anything, but it was still making noise "*This is the locking mechanism of the door It's telling itself to stay closed and locked regardless of the keys tapped, because I asked it to keep everyone out That echo over it is Cathedral, the computer system mostly, backing it up.*"

"*The door's intelligent?*" Nathan felt reality start to spin as he slid out of Jake mind and welcomed oblivion.

Keltin growled quietly as he assimilated the conversation that Caito had with the Soron He agreed with his mate on many points, including the fact that the gargoyle's behavior was not what he expected It certainly appeared that Soron believed what he was saying about Fel's mother, but it was to monumental a statement to be taking on the word of a stranger The large warrior sent out a telepathic call to one of his oldest companions, and sat down to wait.

Keltin shook his head in amusement as he remembered Caito's last encounter with Gargoyles on Earth The little trickster had been on vacation and hanging out with his friend, Puck When he got back all he talked about was this Gargoyle named Goliath.
If Keltin was prone to jealousy he certainly would have been but instead he simply
patted his mate on the head and stoically put up with the deluge of Goliath memorabilia that Caito decorated their mutual residence with He chuckled remembering that there
were still several life-sized stone replicas hanging around.

There was a blast of cold air and a large winged panther appeared sitting next to Keltin The large black feline carefully folded his wings back and meowed questioningly at
the blue tom. "*You wanted something, Midnight?*"

Keltin chuckled and scratched the big cat between the ears. "Yes, Shadow I have something important for you to do for me I need you to find Mother wherever she
is now, whatever form she has taken Check her old familiar places, the high places, the places of power and even those places you know of that I don't If you don't find her
in those places, travel to Earth and look for the gargoyles; one of them named Soron
seems to know much and may know where she is."

The panther nodded. "*What should I do when I find her?*" He asked in a mind-voice that contain no hint that he might not.

"Do nothing Merely return to me and report all of what you have seen I have received a disturbing report and I need to know the truth of it That is why I'm sending you, old friend, I know I can rely on you."

Shadow nuzzled the big warrior affectionately. "*And the fact that I've known Mother longer than any of you, doesn't have anything to do with it.*" There was a quiet chuckle in his mental voice.

Keltin smiled "I haven't forgotten that Mother sent you to be my companion when I was still learning the ways of this life That is why I need to know what has happened."

"*You realize she'll probably see me when I find her, what should I do if she questions me?*" There was hesitation and concern in the winged cat's mind-voice.

The warrior reached down and hugged his friend "If it is truly Mother than you have nothing to worry about And you should answer any questions truthfully, of course."

The panther stood up, roared his goodbye and left into the air As he disappeared in a blast of cold air his mind-voice drifted back "*Don't worry, Midnight, I'll find her.*"

The blue tom watched his feline friend depart and wondered what the big cat would find.

Felsira watched Keltin and his friend Shadow She knew little about the big cat save that he was completely loyal to Keltin and had been raised by Mother, until Mother sent him to guide the big warrior in the somewhat bewildering ways of the outer realm Since she had 'read' the report that Caito sent, she had a very good idea what Shadow was being sent to do She was thankful that the warrior was taking care of the search since that freed Felsira from having to attend to it.

In her heart she feared that what the mysterious Gargoyle said was true It explained why Mother had been silent, and why she had never come looking for them in all these centuries That one of the Others had killed Mother disturbed Felsira greatly, as did the fact that the Gargoyle had not mentioned whether the killer still lived.

There was a bugle blast and a winged white female Felsin appeared wearing old style chainmail and gold tabard with a silver leaf on it She carried a sword and shield and had a rolled up scroll tucked into her belt "You sent for me, milady."

"Yes, Takira I have received strange and disturbing news and I needed it relayed to the Spirit Court and our allies on the other worlds especially Starfire, Queen of the Dracon and Rozar the cunning Canem warlord But before attending to that, return home and tell Sentinel to conceal the Court from eyes that should not see I do not know if the enemy knows of us or cares, but we dare not risk it."

"It will be done, Lady Felsira Will that be all?"

The golden shekat nodded regally "For now, Takira But remain alert, I may have need of you in the near future."

The white shekat bowed deeply, and disappeared in a rush of wings.

Felsira sat back and thought about the implications for the future if what Soron had said was true She had to consider that might need to split her time between Felsinor and Aristlan, since the Kats of Aristlan had always been important to Mother That also meant she would have to seek the other spirits from the old days to see which of the benevolent ones remained, and which of the baneful ones needed to be dealt with.

Felsira was left wondering silently if Mother had been reborn why hadn't she let her daughter know what was going on Felsira wasn't sure she wanted the answer to that question.

"Good morning, Elisa." Soron waved a greeting to his mate's human love "You sure got The Crown off fast.

"You know how I feel about being the Queen-Mother like that." She retorted gently "I may be a detective, but not even Homes could make heads or tails of this mess."

"You'll get the hang of it," he smiled in warm understanding "And all complains aside, you're doing very well given the circumstances."

"Thanks, bro." She patted his arm "What are you back for?"

"Oh, that mission you sent me on was missing some serious chunks in the briefing Things are under control right now, so I'm seeing if there are any answers in what's left of Records."

"And to catch Goliath for a few minutes?" She winked at him.

"It crossed my mind." He ran a teasing tail up her leg and grinned "Maybe you'll join us?"

"Mmm, it rarely fails to improve my mood." She grinned at him "I believe he's in the Upper Library.

"Come on, Nate." Jake's half worried, half exasperated voice penetrated the darkness "Don't tell me the alien from a great galactic civilization can't hand the realities of a TechoMage."

"That's some reality." Nathan managed a weak retort.

"Oh, and the door's not intelligent, at least not in the traditional sense, but it is aware." Jake dropped to his side and lounged next to the still stunned Felsin "Much like a tree is aware, but at least the ones around here aren't what I'd call intelligent."

"Okay." He took a deep breath "I think I can handle that."

"Now, about calling Felsira ..."

"All right." Nathan started to send the telepathic message to get her attention, then he stopped and looked at Jake. "Before I let you see what I saw I need you to promise me something."

"Anything I can."

"Promise me you won't go off on your own in response to what you see. I've seen your temper and I just want you to remember that what happened was aimed at all three of us, and whatever happens ... we need to deal with this together."

Jake was silent a long moment before he nodded "I won't go this alone."

"Thank you." Nathan sat down on the bed tired in more ways than one. He looked over at Jake, gratitude showing in his eyes. "Truthfully though, I'm glad it came out because I'm so tired of handling it by myself. The worst thing about it is, I can't even help him deal with it because he never told me and doesn't know I know."

"Did it ever occur to you that Chance knows about your ability to read objects, and you did learn about it legitimately?"

"Umm, no." Nathan shook his head and sighed as he located his pants on the floor and talked as he searched the pockets. "Maybe you should call Master Kahn back in, I don't know that the Triad count for much as 'witnesses'." He thought for a moment about the links his mate was carrying. "Jake, you'd better warn Amerith and Felina about what's about to happen. The psychic impression is very loud and will probably cascade into their links as well. I don't how much information they'll get but the psychic buffeting could be painful if they're caught by surprise."

"*Okay, kids, you heard that Watch your ears.*" Jake focused on a single link "*Cathedral?*"

"*Setting up the shielding now, sweetheart.*"


"Did I just hear you have a conversation with Cathedral?" Nathan asked as he found the carefully concealed pocket and pulled out a palm-sized gadget made entirely of plastic, except for a metal plate at one end. On the one side was the symbol of MegaKat City General Hospital. He flipped it over and carefully unlatched the backplate, then moved the indicator from red to green, nodding at the quite whine as the metal plate extended forward several centimeters.

"Yes," Jake nodded, "she's quite the conversationalist when she gets the chance."

Nathan walked over to Jake, put the device in his hand and closed his hand over his mate's. "Jake, the last time I experienced the full power of the impressions I lost control and before I knew regained control I was across the Hangar and had punched a hole in the reinforced concrete." He placed his free hand on the cinnamon Kat's shoulder. "The device your holding is a stunner configured to stop the war-form, it would probably put a normal Kat out for weeks ... but it should just render the war-form unconscious, which will cause reversion to my normal form."

His eyes were extremely intense. "There aren't many shots in it ... because I converted in from a piece of medical equipment, but I know you won't need many. Whatever happens, please don't let that form hurt you ... I'd never hurt you myself, but he's not rational. I don't like risking your safety this way ... but I said I'd let you see and I will. Please forgive whatever he does, I can't control him in frenzy."

Nathan grasped his gold medallion, and opened his mind to reach the Triad. *"Felsira, Mother-Healer I need your help. And please bring Keltin, he may so be needed.*"

Nathan nodded to Jake. "I've called, she'll probably be here soon with Keltin. Unfortunately, she can't heal me until after I show you because the healing would dim the images and this one last time they need to be sharp."

As he tried to relax to deal with the storm once again he sent a quiet message across the bond. "*Jake, whatever happens please stay with me. I nearly lost myself to the storm, I don't want to lose you.*"

The lean tom pulled Nathan into an embrace and nuzzled him "I will stay with you, Nate, no matter what happens with this."

As they waited for Felsira to arrive, Nathan willing his body and mind not to reveal the nervousness he felt He knew that she liked Jake from things she said, and more importantly the fact that she had Keltin watch over him He felt like he was introducing Jake to his parents, which he supposed was true in a sense Felsira and Keltin had been, in a way, the only parental figures he'd been close to in a long time Caito was more like the cousin who's always getting you into trouble.

Jake nudged him "Wha'cha nervous about?"

Nathan chuckled quietly. "It's hard to explain, but I guess it's like how others said taking their future mates to meet their parents is like."

Jake looked at him curiously. "Others said? Didn't Rhymar meet your parents?"

Nathan shook his head sadly. "My parents died when I was very little, and my adopted father had 'problems' with my relationship with Rhy."

"You don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to."

"Actually, I finally feel I can talk about him But the problems were mostly because my adopted father was a 'traditionalist', or that was his explanation His first problem was that he expected me to Bond with female and produce the next generation, if I wanted to add a male playmate later he didn't care, but the primary Bond should be to produce kits, and he didn't believe that the technology for two males to reproduce was acceptable His other problem was that he felt I was Bonding 'below my station'."

"Huh? What'd he mean by that?"

Nathan sighed "My adopted father's family had been healers and artists for generations My father was surgeon of galactic renown, and his wife was a painter of equal fame So it was expected I would Bond similarly, preferably to a female from some equally prestigious family Because of my less than perfect choice of profession even another Medic would have been acceptable, but Rhymar wasn't any of those things And I didn't care, I loved him for who he was."

"What was he that your adopted father objected?"

Nathan smiled fondly. "He was a military aerospace engineer, from a family of no particular fame or prestige If it had wings he could design a better one My Exo-Frame was one of his favorite projects, his way of looking after me He was brilliant and I never thought I'd meet anyone smarter Just goes to show I don't know everything."

He hugged Jake close and mind-spoke. "*What little I know of your serious projects is enough to show me that you're even more of a genius than I thought.*"

There was a sudden glow in the room, which dimmed to reveal the golden-furred form of Felsira and the larger midnight blue furred form of her mate She was dressed in a white tailored business suit with gold accents, while Keltin was in his usual military uniform.

"You needed me, Nathan?" The shekat asked in a quiet, reassuring tone of voice.

"Yes Mother, for several reasons, some of which are easier than others."

Felsira smiled "Why don't you introduce us to your friend first?"

Nathan nodded and led the pair over to Jake. "Mother, Keltin, I'd like you to meet my friend and mate, Jake Clawson."

Nathan took a breath and gestured to the golden-furred shekat "Jake, this is Felsira, mother-guardian of the Felsin people and patron of the Medic Corps." He indicated the quiet warrior standing to one side. "And this her mate, Keltin, Protector and Guardian, patron of warriors and, and ... oh what else is it that you do?" Nathan smirked mischievously.

The big warrior mussed Nathan's hair. "Guardian of the Aerospace Corps and patron of pilots ... as if you forgot, 'ya silly kit."

Nathan grinned. "Oh right, that too."

"Hey! Don't leave me out of this." The tabby trickster appeared standing in one corner.

Nathan laughed "And of course, Caito; trickster, spirit of invention, and patron of engineers. He's also in charge of mischief, and rarely uses his own appearance."

Caito grinned broadly. "Yep, that's me. Mischief all around, and I'd love to stay and chat but I've got a wayward tabby that I'm supposed to be keeping tabs on. Later." With a giggling laugh, the tabby disappeared in a multicolored splash of light.

Felsira smiled brightly as she stepped close to Jake She spoke softly to the cinnamon Kat "You have my thanks, Jake, for what you've done for Nathan even without knowing it You may not be Felsin, but you will always be special to me."

The big warrior simply stood behind Felsira, but the smile on his face conveyed his agreement with the shekat's words The midnight blue tom's eyes on the other hand, conveyed a much different message; they expressed an interest on a very intimate level.

Nathan turned to Felsira. "Mother, I need your help in healing an injury that is beyond my ability."

Felsira nodded wisely. "You mean, the dark impressions you took from the mask? I was wondering when you would ask for help with that."

The tiger-tabby sighed "Until now, I needed the impressions to stay angry enough to do what I would have to do, alone." Nathan looked affectionately at Jake. "I don't have to handle it alone anymore Besides, it would be nice to sleep for a change."

The shekat nodded. "Of course, Nathan What you ask is simple enough for me to fix, so what was difficult?"

Nathan looked at Felsira, then at Jake and then back to Felsira. "Mother, Jake and I are becoming lifemates but we both have damaged bonds, which I think will require a full Bonding to fix and heal us both. And I promised to let him see the storm for himself and I think the Sharing is the easiest way to do that. Mother, would you be willing to facilitate the Sharing?"

Felsira looked over the two toms closely Nathan's conclusion was correct the only way to give the two peace from their damaged bonds was for them to Join She also saw that some unusual form of bonding was already taking place but that it would not be sufficient to heal the damage.

"Nathan, I am happy to see that you have finally stopped denying your heart, and while I am willing to facilitate I think there is a better choice."

Nathan raised an eyebrow. "Who, Mother?"

"Jake, your tigress friend is full telepath, is she not? And she is already part of this 'squadron' that Nathan needs to become 'bonded' with? I think it would be better to let her facilitate, since it will allow this 'squadron' to feel more involved in what is going on I will, of course, observe to make sure nothing goes wrong."

She placed her hand gently on the cinnamon tom's shoulder and spoke gently. "I'm not sure if you truly understand what the Sharing entails because it is not part of this world The Sharing is the final step for Felsin to become lifemates, and it involves the dropping of all masks and pretenses between those being Bonded. At this point, you will have to decide which matters more to you: the masks, pretenses and fictions you have surrounded yourself with, or your bond with Nathan I am not trying to scare you but you need to understand what will be required."

The golden shekat smiled reassuringly "Nathan faces the same choice, because though you may not realize it; he has almost as many things to hide as you do For the Bonding to work, you both have to stop hiding from each other."

Felsira smiled, shifted to lion form and lay down. "*You should think about what I told you, and when you've decided, Bring in your tigress friend. We will wait.*"

Jake swallowed hard and hit the bed with a thud when Felsira's words finally sank in He turned to Nathan, then back to her, his voice shaking "All secrets?"

"Yes, kitten." She stood and stroked his ear affectionately, her concern growing as the fear in him bubbled into full-fledged terror, then depression.

"Jake?" Nathan did his best not to panic as lean tom pulled his knees against his chest and shook.

"I'm sorry, Nate." Jake buried his face between crossed arms "*I would, but that's just not my right to give.*"

"*I don't understand.*" Nathan tried to ease some tension in his mate's body with little success "*What were you planning before?*"

"To share myself." Jake's voice was nearly flat "Everything about me, I'll give you that, no hesitation But there's a lot ... things I'm involved in, I can't hand over their lives too."

"*We're not asking you to.*" Felsira interrupted gently "*You don't need to share those kinds of secrets, just yourself.*"

"Have you actually looked at the state of my head, Felsira?" Jake looked up and glared at her "I am my squadron I can't share everything about me without giving up them as well That's not my right."

Nathan started at the lean tom for a long, distressed moment before relaxing next to him "I know what you mean."

"Hu?" All three others in the room looked at him.

"Your mental uniform's so ingrained in you, you don't even realize you're still wearing it, do you?" Nathan cupped Jake face gently and smiled "You've handed over your duties for a time, true, but you still haven't taken it off."

Jake opened his mouth, then shut it and closed his eyes "You want that?"

"Yes." Nathan nuzzled him reassuringly "That's the real you, the rest is circumstances."

"*Okay, I'm just going to butt in here and pull rank as the Squad's Medical Officer.*" An unfamiliar, rather testy female voice echoed in all their brains "*We've taken a vote, Jake Shut up, stop worrying, and get this over with.*"

"*What the hell is going ....*" Jake's demand was cut off before he even finished the thought.

"*A war's started.*" Amerith broke in "*Look You trust Nathan The Jedi do, I do, Pat and the others do Even Cathedral likes him We've agreed he can see our secrets if they come out He's one of us, after all He's a SWAT Kat Now will you get on with this?*"

"*Thanks, guys.*" Jake relaxed almost completely into Nathan's arms "*And send Sheir in, will you?*"

"*On my way.*" Her mind voice had barely died before the door slid open and the tall tigress stepped in She nodded at the two new Felsin before focusing on her leader.

"Felsira thinks it would be for the best if you facilitate our Bonding." Nathan supplied to her unvoiced question "Since you're of the squadron already, and you are a full telepath."

"Yes, I can, but it would be more efficient for a Mind-Healer to do that part as well as the healing I'm not capable of." Her expression softened a little "That is part of the reason for this, is it not?"

"I will heal what you can not, but it will still be best if you do most of the work." Felsira bowed regally to the Jedi Master "And there really is very little you can not fix, that I can."

Nathan lost focus on his surroundings somewhere between Jake's silent conversation with his squadron and Felsira and the Jedi settled plans as his telepathy took another detour in deciding just how strong it was going to be The first serge left him wishing fervently that it would stop fluctuating and just settle down already Not only was it giving him a first-rate headache he couldn't cure that made communication difficult and hearing nearly impossible.

And the worst of it, what he did catch of the conversations around him only served to fuel his sense of uselessness All that talk of the future and Black Phoenix and his place in it ....

It convinced he was sure there was something worse than having the guys put up with him, at least they occasionally found his skills as Medic useful, but a squadron as established as Jake's would have a medical officer.

"Nate?" There was a lot of concern, and a touch of warning in Jake's voice and mind.


"Spill it." Jake growled, his ears flat "What's wrong?"

Nathan closed his eyes and tried to focus enough to answer that question "I hate being useless."

"And this came from ....."

He sighed as his body sagged, refusing to meet Jake's glare "Just look at the facts Black Phoenix already has a medical officer No squadron is large enough to warrant two MO's That leaves me as worse that just a token ..." The words were cut off by a fist impacting squarely with his jaw.

"How dare you." Jake's snarl was right in his face as the smaller Kat pinned Nathan down on the bed "*You may be my mate. You may be bonding into the Squad But you have a hell of a lot of gall to assume you're going to be our MO because of it I don't care how good you think you are Combat posts are eared.*"

"I figured out for myself that I'm not your damned MO, but I'm a Medic, that's all I am A squadron doesn't need more medical personnel than you've got, so I'm not needed Which is what I said in the first place, if you were listening." He pushed Jake off and stood up. "By the way, you get the first hit free... but I'm nobody's punching bag."

"Guys, can we discus this reasonably for a moment." Master Kahn brought her deep voice into the calm, completely neutral range Master Jinn has taught her when she was a new Knight with her first Padawan.

"No." The males responded in unison, glaring at her.

Then Jake started to snicker as everyone stared at them He grinned at Nathan and laughed harder before he flopped to his side and patted the bed in front of him "I'm sorry Nate, but think about what we just said." He reached out to the angry Felsin with his mind, "*Please, come here love I think the last few days have gotten to us more than we've admitted.*"

Nathan sighed as his shoulders slumped, "I guess." He sat stiffly on the edge of the bed and accepted his mate's gentle request to lay down with only a little resistance, too bewildered to do much else.

Jake purred softly and nuzzled him apologetically as he curled around the bigger tom's body until Nathan started to honestly relax a little "That's better." He squirmed up for a quick kiss, then rested his head on the bigger tom's chest and spoke quietly "What did you think I meant when I said I needed you to join the squad's bond?"

Nathan took a moment to regain his focus He spoke quietly "The only thing I could. Felsin units are often bonded, joining the bond is the same thing as joining the unit ... there's no difference And besides, I guess I thought maybe fighting at your side in SWAT would have proven myself by now ... I guess I was wrong."

Nathan was silently for a moment. "I'm sorry if I misunderstood, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to accept the bond as an outsider, it just doesn't seem right somehow." He hugged the little tom closer "This doesn't change that I love you, Jake. Please understand that, but I don't know that I can bond to unit that I'm not part of. I could accept bonding with strangers both because unit bonds often start that way, and because you asked me to." He sighed "But this ... I don't know, I just don't know I'm sorry."

Quiet tears started from Nathan's eyes as he tried to find some answer to this problem He was sure what he'd just said would hurt his mate, and that was tearing him apart, but he just didn't have an answer As he searched for a solution, he didn't realize that he wasn't shielding properly and maybe he just wasn't worrying about it.

Sheir Kahn allowed herself a small feeling of triumph that her intervention had succeeded and both toms were touching again as Felsira come up next to her.

"*That was an interesting trick, stealing his rage.*" The Patron of Healers' mental voice was laced with approval and curiosity "*Effective as well.*"

She regarded the Force powerful stranger for a quiet moment before nodding *As useful as it is, it is something I'd appreciate you not mentioning I do.*"

"*Not completely by the book?*" Felsira cocked an eyebrow at the Tigress.

"*Not against it either.*" She countered calmly.

The Lioness laughed softly and smiled honestly "*I like your style, Master Kahn I'll trade you; teach me that trick and I'll make sure no one ever hears about you using it.*"

Jedi regarded Goddess for a cool moment before nodding regally "*Lady Felsira, you have a deal.*"

"*Good.*" She grinned at her new mortal friend "*You really are more of a Diplomat and Healer than you give yourself credit for.*"

"*Necessity is the mother of invention, Lady Felsira.*" Sheir smiled slightly in return before regarding her leader and his mate, who were beginning to touch as lovers again "*We have quite a pair, don't we?*"

"*That we do And when they're healed, they will be incredible.*"

"*What can you tell me about Nathan SolGardin?*" Sheir Kahn chose her words very carefully "*I've read what we have, but given the situation, anything you know may help me help them."

The Lioness thought about it. "*I can tell you a great deal, but I would prefer that it not end up in Cathedral's files, and I would rather not have to have Caito remove it.*"

Sheir nodded. *"Not everything needs to be recorded, some things are not the business of records.*"

Felsira smiled gracefully. "*Thank you There is a great deal that no one knows about Nathan, including Nathan himself.*"

The tigress raised one eyebrow curiously.

Felsira nodded. *"Nathan has a number of mental blocks that circumscribe his mind Some placed by his mother in hopes of protecting him from Citadel, and some by Citadel itself to make him unaware of his time there.*"

"*Who is this Citadel?*"

"*They are a shadow organization on Nathan's homeworld that has been trying for decades to overthrow the legitimate government by any means necessary Including methods as despicable as the so-called Kitten Commandos.*"

"*Kitten Commandos?*" The tigress asked hoping to be wrong about what she thought the Patron of Healing was talking about.

"*They are just what they sound like, promising kits taken from their parents and trained to be guerilla commandos and black op specialists.*" Felsira sighed mentally, sometimes she wasn't sure about the wisdom in minimal interference.

Sheir nodded, she had heard of such things elsewhere. "*Was Nathan ...*"

Felsira nodded "*Yes, he was one of Citadel's most adept students, with one serious flaw Though he mastered every skill on a technical level, he was unable to kill The block his mother placed ensured that he would not kill, save for two reasons: protection of family, and protection of friends Eventually, Citadel decided to return Nathan to normal society, in the hope that the block would break down naturally.*"

The Lioness hesitated momentarily. "*The block has, however, spared Nathan one memory he doesn't need to suffer from During a training exercise, his best friend, partner and gunner was killed Though there was nothing Nathan could have done to prevent it, Citadel told him that his friend died because Nathan was not fast enough completing the exercise Nathan still blames himself for that, though he doesn't remember.*"

Sheir looked questioningly at Felsira. "*Is this why there is so much guilt infusing his aura? For all I've heard he has accomplished, he has a great deal of self-doubt.*"

The lioness sighed looking at the larger of the two toms. "*It is the root cause, though much of his pain comes from his feeling that he failed SWAT when they needed him most, and that the collapse of SWAT is somehow his fault.*"

The Jedi nodded. "*He is not the first healer I have encountered who takes more responsibility on himself then he should.*"

The golden lioness smiled wistfully "*Nathan tends to be worse than most because he has come so far, so fast He lost his kittenhood to Citadel, and by the time he was twenty he was a full physician By twenty-six he had been promoted to Sector Command He's used to trying to keep up with his reputation, it makes it difficult for him to try and prove himself again.*"

Felsira smiled down at the two toms who seemed to be settling back into the loving behavior they'd started the day in. "*If dealing with the crisis of SWAT wasn't hard enough, Nathan also had to deal with a large chunk of self-discovery that couldn't have come at a much worse time.*"

"*And that would be...?*" The tigress prompted.

"*Nathan discovered that he is a product of a very complicated genetic engineering project, and centuries of planned genetic manipulation He discovered that his father was a genetically engineering super assassin, for lack of a better word These things wouldn't have been that bad, since Nathan has no problem with black ops in and of themselves His problem came when he discovered that like his father he was engineered to be a top-notch black ops specialist He thinks this heritage makes a mockery of the life he's led, dedicated to saving lives.*"

"*Nathan is feeling torn between his two friends, because they are having such problems. Nathan loves both of them and is terrified that he will be forced to choose between them.*"

"*One last thing: In Nathan's mind SWAT is gone, and now Jake is going to another unit, Black Phoenix That last conversation makes Nathan feel that he's being kept away from Jake and he can't accept that If he's not part of the unit, he'll still find away to follow Jake into combat He won't let Jake be at risk without him being nearby to fix what happens Nathan has lost one lifemate already; he'll do whatever it takes to keep that from happening again If he can't prevent it, he has no plans to survive it the next time.*"

The lioness looked at the Jedi. "*Anything else you'd like to know, or maybe questions that I didn't cover?*"

Sheir Kahn cast her nervousness to the Force and faced Felsira squarely "*Are your oaths on healing the same as Nathan's?*"

The goddess nodded curiously.

"*Are you capable of healing both their mental wounds?*"


"*What is required for you to heal their minds? What must happen first?*"

Felsira considered the damage to both minds. "*The most important step at this point is to complete the Joining This will heal the incomplete bond that they both have which is having repercussions for both; though it seems to be more painful for Jake The Joining will also take them through the Sharing which will allow Nathan to show Jake what Jake wants to know about what happened between T-Bone and Ulysses Feral It will show them each a great deal else but that is the important one, because once that is done I can heal the damage that they psychic storm is doing to Nathan.*"

Then she turned to the cinnamon tom "*The greatest difficulty in healing Jake, is Jake himself I can sense that he does not want me touching his mind, and as long as that is the case there is little I can do for him It pains me to see him suffer, but I can not force healing on him, he has to want to be healed He has to let me heal him.*"

The tigress nodded her understanding "*You care a lot about Nathan, all three of you.*" She made it a simple statement of fact "*Just as I care a great deal for Jake Not just as my commander, lover, and the one who saved my life while I was still heavy with my daughter and new to this world, or for the light bond we share I have felt you watch and scan many who come close to Nathan to determine their intent You are too strongly shielded for me to determine this of you, beyond the obvious So I am asking you to tell me honestly as much as you will of why you are so interested in him, and your interest in Jake and Chance."

Felsira considered for a moment, and then consulted mentally with the other members of the Triad "*Our interest in Nathan started with certain signs when he was born He was born to the Fatherless and the Daughter of Time to quote prophecies handed down to us from early prophets among the Dracon, who see what is likely to be most clearly of all According to the prophecies, he will stop a great evil that will threaten our galaxy, and he will bring back the lost healing techniques to the Felsin The first is important for obvious reasons and the second I find interesting because I am unaware of these 'lost techniques'.

"*The complication is that the second can not happen until the evil has been stopped And the prophecy is quite clear that the Chosen can not stop the evil alone The prophecy refers to a Triad born through trials of fire, darkness and death Originally, we thought that Rhymar was the first of the missing pieces to the Triad, but his death confused things, as did Nathan being stranded here on Aristlan.

"*When Nathan formed friendships with Jake and Chance it seemed as though the triad had been found, but there have been difficulties Jake and Chance have serious problems in their relationship, and Nathan is losing hope that he can help them Mostly because of what Jake told him about almost killing Chance out of frustration and rage.*"

Felsira smiled. "*Those were our reasons for getting involved with Nathan so many years ago But we've been doing it for so long that we don't think about it much Nathan has become like a son to Keltin and myself, and Caito sees him as something of a younger brother.*"

"*Our real interest in Jake and Chance is that they mean everything to Nathan He lost his lifemate, the Corps and everything he knew when he was kidnapped to Aristlan He rebuilt his world around two friends, and though he has a few friends outside of them ... they are still the foundation of his world Jake is special to me personally because he kept Nathan from collapsing when Rhymar died If Jake's wounds hadn't required Nathan's complete attention, Nathan probably would have gotten himself killed attacking Dark Kat to avenge Rhymar's death.

"*Keltin's interest in Chance is professional, as pilots are one of his areas of special concern Keltin's interest in Jake is however far more personal, but in a well-behaved sort of way. He has been watching over Jake since this trouble really erupted to make sure nothing happened.*"

"*Caito, who I'll have to introduce at some point, is interested in Jake because Caito loves gadgets and is always fascinated to see what mortal inventors come up with He's currently watching over Chance to make sure the tabby stays out of trouble and that nothing untoward happens to him I'm only sorry that I didn't put Caito to watching him sooner, much grief might have been avoided.*"

Sheir spared the large, blue Felsin an understanding look "*From what I know of the guys, it's not likely You may have delayed it, or changed the exact nature, but I've learned that those two will create their own crisis is none will provide itself Jake in particular does not do well when he's not being nearly overwhelmed, though he complains of it.*"

Felsira shook her head in wry amusement *"Nathan is not so different He chose the path of the Medic instead of the calmer path of the Healer because he has a need for danger He is something of an adrenalin addict and always has been Though he doesn't realize it and would probably deny it, part of him needs crisis situations He only feels truly alive when he's protecting, saving or healing others He's also never been what one could call 'a civilian' and I think the thought of not being part of a combat unit frightens him more than he's likely to admit.*"

"*I think it's a trait shared by all who are attracted to the battlefields of body or mind.*" Sheir added examples from her own experience to the thought.

Felsira nodded agreement before turning to consider Jake again. "*Is this latest chaos normal for him, though? I will admit we don't know him as well as we'd like, because we only started watching recently But something about this seems ... different somehow.*" Felsira cocked an eyebrow at the cinnamon tom as he got out of bed. *"Besides I think Nathan would have had some warning ... despite the fact that he saw things through a very particular lens.*"

The Lioness considered the tiger-tabby and sighed quietly. *"Hope can give one strength when things are dark and desperate. But sometimes, when held onto for too long it can be dangerously blinding.*"

"*Well, this is a bit extreme.*" Sheir Kahn consented "*But several of us have been expecting him to break this completely fairly soon It needed to happen.*"

Felsira looked back at Jake and then at Nathan "*Could I ask you to not mention that where Nathan could hear of it? He'd feel guilty for not having seen it coming, and he's taking on enough guilt right now, perhaps too much And it may be awhile before he forgives himself for going to the medical conference, if he thought that Jake's problem was one he should have forseen ...*" The Lioness let the statement trail off.

"*Nathan has had no reason to see it coming, he met Jake after the downward spiral was well underway.*" Sheir Kahn nodded unhappily "*But not telling Nathan is not a problem, though I can not guarantee he will not find out Not in the mood Jake is in.*"

"*Thank you I realize that he may find out from Jake, but that can't be helped.*" The Lioness glanced over her shoulder at the large blue warrior silently watching the two lovers. *"You might be interested to know that Keltin's a Jedi as well, though he doesn't use the title Something about if he used all the titles he's earned he'd be several days getting to his name.*"

"*I thought you felt of our training.*" She bowed in the traditional manor to him "*Who was your Master?*"

The large warrior smiled as he returned the bow, it had been centuries since he had encountered another Jedi. *"It was some centuries ago when I trained, my Master was Sho'len'mar.*" Keltin projected an image of the powerful wolf-morph Jedi in the traditional garb The strong force aura radiated even through the image, as the dark-grey furred wolf stood ready in a combat stance with her amber saber ignited.

"*I would be interested in hearing more of her Master Sho'len'mar was my Master's Master.*" Sheir Kahn cracked a small, mischievous smile "*Perhaps, when things calm down a tad, we can meet for dinner, discus philosophy and whatever occurs to us?*"

Felsira smiled "*That could be interesting, though I'm not sure when things will calm down ... even once these two sort things out, there's still a matter of the tabby to deal with.*"

"*I intended to refer to when these two passed out from exhaustion for a few hours.*" She inclined her head to the dressing toms.

The Lioness smiled in amusement. "*Well, if Jake actually passes out, I'll give Nathan a few hours sleep because it will be a day or two before he exhausts the limits of the biofeedback routine he uses to avoid sleep and the nightmares therein.*"

Jake lay quietly as Nathan spoke, and through the beginnings of the Felsin's guilty search for an answer He searched the foreign calmness in his own mind for a reason to his behavior, then gave up with a shrug.

He took a deep breath and got out of the bed, more than slightly amazed at how obvious the best path was He shot a suspicious glance at the three others in the room, then gave a reassuring smile to Nathan, and went with what his heart told him.

"Please, get dressed Nate." Jake spoke softly as he found his own jeans and pulled them on "I want to begin our courtship properly, if we can." He held a hand out to his mate and sent as much assurance and respect along their strained bond as he could figure out how "*I've done nothing right in my lovelife, Nathan, including how I came to you It's inexcusable of me to treat you like that, even though you let me, even welcomed it.*" He steeled himself and met the confused Felsin's stare "Please, let me do this right Even if it will only be the motions, with the answers known," he dropped his gaze to the floor, "let me do it right this once."

Nathan nodded and got dressed, watching Jake match his motions from the corner of his eye When he finished he gently lifted his mate's muzzle to bring Jake's gaze up to meet his own. "Jake, if you need this, then of course." To support his words Nathan did something he remembered someone doing for him once; he focused his mind on warmth, love and understanding and wrapped his thoughts around Jake's as if to block out the cold world, just for a little while.

He wasn't quite prepared for sudden, absolute stillness of the Kat in his arms as Jake closed his eyes Then a soft purr reverberated against his chest as the mind wrapped in his carefully 'looked' around in awe.

"*How ...*" Jake mind-voice was very small, almost afraid in its amazement.

"*My mother made me feel safe by doing this.*" Nathan gently nuzzled his mate. "*When I was a kitten ...*" He let the thought drift off before it disrupted the mental embrace.

"*Safe.*" Jake's mind rolled the word around for a while before Nathan felt him store this experience as its definition.

"*You've never felt safe before?*" Nathan did his best to bury the sick knot in his stomach behind his strongest shields.

"*Nothing like this.*" Jake tried to snuggle closer, oblivious to everything but the calm in his own mind and the desire to keep it there, and pull it closer around himself like a warm blanket on a cold night "*Never not felt the need to be on guard, or afraid of losing control.*"

"*Oh, Jake.*"

"Time to move, handsome." Brandy's voice chuckled in Chance's ear as she shook him awake "SlipStream's here with Amerith for you're second flight."

The tabby blinked and got up with a groan, taking a moment to find his legs.

"Something wrong?" She touched his arm, but kept out of his personal space.

"Just some wild dreams." Chance shook his head and grinned at her "I'm ready, let's see this plane."

Brandy smiled back and lead the way back to the same hanger they'd taken the helicopter from.

"So this is the pilot that says he can fly anything with wings." A strong, female voice challenged them.

"Yes." Chance faced the direction of the voice and his mind rebelled at the sight of the large, black jet and her pilot dressed much like a SWAT Kat "What the hell kind of joke is this?"

"No joke." The pilot, a coal black Malamute Kantin, leaped down and extended her hand to the tabby with a welcoming smile "I'm Kassy 'Rumble' Iniqua, a gunner for Black Phoenix And yes, Amerith does look like the TurboKat, though she can outfly the original."

"Why?" Chance focused most of his attention on the sleekly beautiful fighter, already assessing it, and grudgingly impressed.

"Because when they're no longer able to fly, or get too outclassed, we'll take over." She gave a fond look at the jet "At least now that we have operational aircraft."

"You just came out of a firefight." He made it more of a statement than question, getting both females attention.

"Yes," Kassy nodded and grinned "T-Bone and Razor didn't make it up, so we handled the invasion force Did pretty well for our first mission."

"So who's your pilot?" He asked for small talk, hoping to buy a little more time to assess a craft that set off every warning alarm in his head as a difficult one to handle And to get a grip on the fact that a battle for the city had been won without him.

"Well, we're kind of hoping you will be." Kassy chuckled as he twisted to face her with wide eyes "Amerith isn't my craft, she's our squad leader's The one my pilot and I will fly is still under construction, but if you can fly Amerith, you'll be able to fly him."

"And if I can fly her, but don't get along with you?"

"You'll be a godsend to all of aircraft R&D." She shrugged "They've wanted their own PsiPilot badly for a while now."

"So I fly this bird, and I can write my own ticket?" He looked at Brandy.

"Pretty much." She patted his shoulder "There's only a dozen or so that can handle a PsiJet, and they're all with Black Phoenix."

"Though I should warn you though," Kassy grinned and handed him a midnight blue helmet, "you won't get out of flight testing by joining the squad We do a good 60% of it around here."

"Hay, I sighed up for test pilot, anything more is a bonus." Chance pulled the helmet on with something very close to his usual flair "Let's see what she can do."

"And what you can do, darling." A new, silky, female voice chuckled.

"And you'd be why not many can fly a PsiJet, wouldn't you?" Chance felt his mind slid into the too-familiar mode of just rolling with the strangeness that crashed through his life far too often.

"You've met an AI before?' Kassy raised an eyebrow at him.

"No, just too used to the unexpected to get too rattled by anything." Chance chuckled and shook his head as he leaped to the front seat.

"I like you so far." Amerith purred as they strapped in "Ever been tested for psionics?"

"Whatever that is, no." He regarded the smooth, slick-black display area in front of him and complete lack of apparent control means with irritated determination.

"It's not as hard as it looks, if you have the gift." Kassy thumped his shoulder in assurance "And you do, if any of the scans are correct."

Chance took a deep breath and forced himself to remember that he was back to square one of learning, back to the first time he'd seen the TurboKat, and that would be the norm if he wanted to fly such fine craft.

He let the breath out and asked, "okay, how is a PsiJet controlled?"

Caito watched in utter fascination as the thinking machine made the first mental contact with Chance, then grinned widely as the chocolate on gold tabby accepted it without help.

"Oh, yes, Chance Make Keltin proud And make life easier for all of us and do well without me tweaking things." He regarded the forward swept wing jet with a critical eye "I don't think this one will cooperate as well as the TurboKat, or that skimmer-jet thing Not that you really needed much help."

His ears perked up as Amerith began to explain how she was piloted.

"Are you aware of that part of your mind that feels like it turns on when you get in a plane? It should be the same place you felt my contact the strongest." She began confidently "Focus on it."

"Okay," he closed his eyes and searched the back of his mind until he felt a slight 'click'.

"There, did you feel that?" Amerith asked.

"Yes." He looked down at the now lit, and fairly familiar-looking, control panel before him "Now what?"

"Now, the simplest explanation of what you do it all the impulses that you usually send to you hands and feet to control the craft, you send there instead You think what needs to happen, and the craft does."

"Sounds fast." He hesitated.

"It is, and for this flight you'll only have partial control." Amerith continued "I will be keeping us level and at speed, you will be handling the maneuvers It'll all be blue sky for now, and Rumble will be giving the directions."

"Just one question." Chance leaned back and closed his eyes as he tried to absorb the most intensive, and important, lecture-lesson of his life "Why do you need a pilot?"

"Because I'm not one." She replied matter-of-factly.

"But you're a jet ..."

"Not exactly I'm an intelligence that currently resides in a jet." She corrected him gently "While I have very fine understanding and control of this body, it does not make me the equivalent of a combat pilot There are ... things ... pilots do ... a way you see and think and react ... that drastically enhances our combat ability It is the same reason I have a gunner, though not all do And some have gunners and not pilots My greatest skill is utilizing resources, battlefield planning and the big picture I'm a leader I'm only adequate at combat, though I've kept myself in one piece in the solo practice missions But with BlackFire and NightRazor, nothing stops us, or even touches us."

"Oh," Chance took another deep breath, let it out, and set his mind to proving his words.

"*Thank you, Nate.*" Jake nuzzled his mate and pulled away before lifting troubled amber eyes to meet his mate's emerald ones "I know there isn't time to court you properly; neither my body or your head is going to allow that luxury." He stopped, trying to put words to what he felt With a frustrated growl he simply tried to send the conglomeration of expectations he had along their link "Make any sense?"

Nathan took enough time to get the gist of what the lean Kat wanted, and smiled They were simple things: a romantic meal, dancing, showing off his home, work and friends, sharing truths, a slow seduction continuing well into the next day, an exchange of tokens "Yes, love." He claimed a gentle kiss that was eagerly returned "It makes perfect sense."

Jake smiled back, then turned to Sheir Kahn "Whatever you did to me, that's keeping me this calm, keep it up." He chuckled when the Jedi blinked "There's no point in trying to look innocent, Ka I know your touch I don't know how you did it, but I appreciate it For now."

The tigress inclined her head in a regal nod "I am pleased to be of service."

Nathan blinked in surprise as the sudden switch of behaviors made sense Using a very old pathway shielded by the Triad he asked Felsira to relay a message to the tigress. "*My thanks as well, I greatly appreciate it.*" He knew he could send it directly, but this way it would stay in the quiet, since Jake seemed of two minds about being calmed down.

Felsira smiled mentally and relayed the message precisely as sent, including Nathan's unspoken relief that a fight had been avoided.

"Now, if you'll save both of us a headache later, convince Pat I'm safe to go wander around." He grinned impishly at her "You can shadow me, and you know Cathedral will be, not to mention those two," he jabbed a thumb at Felsira and Keltin.

"I'll do what I can."

"Or I'll ask Cathedral to lock her in her quarters." Jake smirked "And I don't think any of us want that."

"You really should be careful about rubbing her nose in the fact that the base likes you better." Sheir Kahn warned.

"That's why you're getting first shot," Jake flicked his ears back, "but I am not staying locked in my room unless I consent to be." He bowed slightly to Nathan and extended his arm "Please allow me to show you around my home."

The tiger-tabby smiled and accepted the invitation with a nod "I would be honored."

Chance growled in exasperation and focused as the female behind him, and the one around him, kept encouraging him to do For all that they were telling him to do what he was beginning to understand he'd always done, having a thinking, opinionated aircraft on the other end made it difficult Not having any familiar controls as backup made him edgy The combination was just pain unnerving.

"Got it." He let his shoulders relax fractionally at the now familiar 'click' in the back of his head as he made the connection with Amerith's control system again and concentrated on the maneuver Rumble had requested.

"You're quite good at this for your first day out." The approval in Rumble's voice was unmistakable "Now bring us around and back to the hanger."

"You got it." Chance didn't bother to suppress his relief that the flight was over, or the pride that he'd done it, and done well He focused on that part of his mind that could control this craft and set the command sequence needed to get them back to that small point of light that was home.

He nearly lost it when he realized it really was Ameliorate felt like home A feeling he finally acknowledged hadn't really been in the Yard for almost two years, though Nathan had helped for a while.

"I've got us for the landing." Amerith eased him out of the connection and came in for a VTOL setdown only a few feet away from Brandy.

"You're definitely good enough for the team." Rumble took her helmet off as the canopy slid back.

Chance followed more slowly, not speaking until they were both standing near the Recruiter He looked between the two females, and fiddled with the helmet before handing it back to Kassy "I appreciate the vote of confidence, Rumble, Amerith, but I don't think I can handle another partner so soon."

Kassy and Brandy exchanged glances before the wolf bitch nodded and extended her hand "I understand, Chance." She smiled sadly "It was the better part of four years before I was ready to even try to accept a new pilot We were serious about you being good enough, though When you're ready, give Black Phoenix a call We'll always need a pilot of your caliber."

"Thanks," he shook the offered hand and smiled "I lost my gunner ...." he let his voice drift off, suddenly unwilling speak out loud what he felt in his heart.

"If you ever want an understanding shoulder to pass out on, I'm available." Kassy thumped his shoulder.

"Thanks, Rumble." He cupped her shoulder in return "I'll remember that."

"Do you still want to fly with us?" Brandy lead them out of the hanger as Rumble got back in Amerith.

"Yes." Chance smiled at her "Just having a Gunner again is asking too much right now."

"Then shall we have dinner and finalize things?"

"Sounds good to me." He chuckled as his stomach growled in agreement "I think I'm going to like it here."

"Do talk to me if you don't," she turned serious for a moment, "I may be able to help, and that's part of my job too."

As Chance headed off with Brandy, Caito grinned happily This development would take a serious load off of Nathan's mind Which was probably just as well, all things considered As Caito sent a replay of events to Keltin he winced thinking of how insufferably smug his mate would be Caito had been sure he'd have tweak things at least a little, if only to keep the test fair Keltin had bet him that not only would Caito's help not be needed, but that the test would be fair Caito hated being wrong, especially where technology was considered.

The little trickster put a watcher link on the tabby and headed off to find the PsiJet Chance had been flying Caito was sure that this Amerith was the same one that Nathan had sensed linked to Jake Caito chuckled remembering how Nathan had reacted to the idea of the door being 'aware' and wondered how he'd react to the idea of a telepathic plane The little trickster decided he wanted to know more about this Amerith and it would give him an opportunity to look into Black Phoenix more.

Caito had felt the uncertainty about Black Phoenix building in Nathan's mind and worried that it might make his Bonding with Jake more difficult That Jake had gone to another unit was causing enough difficulty but the fact that there was no real place in it for Nathan was going to cause real problems.

Caito switched to winged jaguar and zoomed off to find the right hangar He just hoped Amerith would be willing to talk to him.

"Yes!" Keltin shouted out loud as he got the message from Caito He looked around and blushed a bit as he realized that everyone was looking at him. "Sorry, just got some very good news."

Felsira smiled knowingly at him. "*May I assume that Chance's second test flight went well?*" She had harbored some concerns about the tabby's mental state, not his skill.

The midnight blue tom grinned ear to ear. "*Flying colors, as I predicted. Caito didn't have to tweak anything even once I would just love to see what he'd do with one of the Aerospace fighters.*"

Felsira nodded with an amused smile. "*Probably the same thing he does with every plane he flies, love But seriously, is he flying with Black Phoenix now?*" She was seriously divided on this, if both of Nathan's friends went to a unit that Nathan felt had no place for him ... it would be heartbreaking for him.

The big warrior shook his head. "*No, he turned down the offer for the time being, but he'll be flying for Cathedral though It seems he's still recovering from the break-up.*"

The golden shekat nodded. "*As Nathan thought, Chance is as hurt by the separation as Jake is The difficulty will be getting both of them to admit it.*"

Nathan smiled at Keltin's outburst and apology, only one thing would get that big a reaction out of the warrior right now; Chance must have passed the second test flight Nathan relaxed a bit mentally, thinking that perhaps things would really be all right since things had now improved for everybody.

"I'll show you our central control room first." Jake purred as he led the way out "Give you a better understanding of what I mean by Cathedral, and what everyone else does It's big."

"Remember who you're talking to." Nathan teased "I'm hard to impress."

"So am I, and this place floored me when I first saw it, and that was well over 25 years ago." Jake grinned playfully as he nearly pulled Nathan into the hallway with a determined step "We've done a lot since then."

"I don't doubt it." Nathan smiled and followed without resistance.

"So, any suggestions on a good place to celebrate around here?" Chance asked with a grin as he finished signing papers over dinner.

"Depends on how you like to celebrate." Brandy grinned back "I'm pretty sure we've got something you'll like Cathedral's quite self contained."

"Ohh, I was thinking of a pretty girl, some dancing, a few drinks, maybe catch a stripper show, head back to my place for the night." He winked at her, a determinedly confident expression set on his face.

"Want Willa's number?"

"I was asking you." Chance muttered and looked away "You mentioned you were interested."

"I'd love to," Brandy planted herself on his lap and draped both arms around his neck before he could even blink and murmured in his ear, "I didn't think I was your type, and it's dangerous for a Recruiter to presume."

"Right now, you are my type." He licked her neck, enticing a shiver that ruffled her long, thick coat "Willing, interested, and nice."

"Well, so is she." She rumbled teasingly "And I'm sure she'd love to help us celebrate."

Chance shook his head and laughed "It's bad manners to tackle more than you're up for handling." He sobered slightly, but stilled grinned "I like you."

"Mmm, flattery will get you everything but good test score." She nipped his neck experimentally "And you hardly need help on those."

Nathan stopped and leaned against one wall chuckling quietly, earning a curious look from his mate.

"Something funny?"

Nathan looked back with a wide grin "Not really, it just hit me why my security clearance here was higher than I would have thought People kept saying I must have connections and here I figured it was a computer glitch." He chuckled a little more.

"You've been possessed?" Jake shot a suspicious look at Sheir, who shrugged.

"Urr, yah." Nathan swallowed, suddenly unsure of the wisdom of saying it "About six months ago."

"Oh," Jake opened his mouth to say something, then shut it and nodded "So what parts of Cathedral are you familiar with already?"

"Well, it was supposed to be a surprise in a couple of weeks, but ... well, that was then So, I guess I'll just surprise you with it now ... I figured you'd be more interested anyway." The tiger-tabby oriented himself and headed off toward the lab He quickly sent a slightly apologetic thought. "*Sorry about the detour, but I'd prefer to show you myself rather have you see it for the first time on some report.*"

"You're talking like a major project's a bad thing." Jake chuckled, then focused on a private message to Cathedral "*Full reports on this project NOW.*" He devoted just enough attention to walking to keep in pace with his mate and notice if his attention was required as he possessed the massive download of information.

Nathan stopped at the outside door to the Exo-Frame lab and sent another message, slightly more apologetic "*Jake, I just want you to understand that I went out on my own for this because I needed to prove to myself that I could still function independently And anyway, I knew I'd need major R&D facilities, beyond the Yard's capacity ... and I had no idea you had these kinds of connections Please don't take this the wrong way, it was only about me proving something to myself ... losing your entire world can make one a little insecure.*"

"*I know.*" Jake replied with as much comfort as he could and tried to shield just how stunned he was.

"Wista!" Nathan grinned enthusiastically as the exotic King Cheetah shekat did a backwards somersault from the top of the rigging to land near them as the door shut.

"Hi Nathan." She smiled at him and gave Jake a quick salute as her long, tightly braided black hair settled along her back "I was wondering when the brass would take an interest in this thing."

"I was starting to wonder why I haven't seem much of you in the Main Hanger." Jake chuckled and slapped her hip "And it's more along the lines of Nate showing off to his new mate." He gave a more than cursory sweep of the area with eyes and tech-telepathy before settling back on the tiger-tabby with real interest "So do let me see what a Cathedral crew managed to do with an Alliance design."

"You got it." Nathan led them down into the main work area With a big flair he took the protective covering off of it "The General-Purpose Mission Configurable Exoskeleton Framework, or Exo-Frame in more general usage This is the basic configuration of the Search and Rescue model sometimes referred to as the Medic Corps Special Configuration The R&D team designed it based on specifications and technical data from yours truly." Nathan turned to Jake and grinned proudly "So, wha'dya think? Not bad for somebody who never took an engineering course."

"Steel Clan?" Sheir Kahn whispered under her breath "You know Xanatos?"

"Urr, no." Nathan turned to face the Jedi as Jake got absorbed in studying the armor "It's based on a design from planet called Earth that the Alliance found useful several centuries ago." He wondered why the Jedi was interested in whether he knew the Terran Ambassador about the 'Steel Clan' reference, he'd never heard the armor called that, even in the historical documentation.

"Then it is based on Xanatos' personal armor." She regarded the eight-foot tall power armor for a long moment "A fairly accurate rendition for a modified production line." She murmured "Do you know much about Earth in that timeframe?"

"Not really." Nathan shook his head "History isn't exactly my strong suit."

"I understand," she nodded and stepped forward to join Jake.

"You've got hardpoints with no weapons or sensors attached." Jake commented as he swung around to face his mate, approval and curiosity shining clearly in his eyes "Any plans for them?"

"I was kind of hopping you would." Nathan felt a huge load lift from his mind at the lean tom's reaction.

A delighted, almost evil grin crossed Jake face "Oh, that I do." He leaped down and draped an arm over Nathan's shoulders "I don't suppose she's flight worthy yet."

"Hi Nathan, Wista, sir, ma'am." Terry greeted them as he walked into the room, a folder under one arm and a carefully neutral expression on his face.

Nathan smiled at his project assistant "Hi Terry Sorry about disrupting the testing schedule for today." He walked over and stage whispered. "The mess I told you about took a very unexpected turn."

Terry's face fell. "I understand."

"Really, you do? Then maybe you can explain it to me, 'cause I'm still a bit confused Seriously though, we need to talk once things calm down a little." Nathan sent a quick thought to Jake across the bond. "*Terry's been interested in me for several months and I only found out Sunday ... which was a bad time since I was trying to cope with the world falling out from under me Nothing happened but a conversation we had probably gave him the idea that something might He's been a good friend and I don't want to hurt him if I can avoid it.*"

"*I'll help with what I can.*" The level of understanding in Jake's tone made Nathan wonder.

Terry looked him "That really isn't necessary, sir."

Nathan sighed "Terry, you're the best assistant I've ever had and more importantly you're a good friend For that alone, I do owe you an explanation ... I just can't right now."

Terry stared at the floor for a moment before looking up "This was the really important relationship you mentioned, right?"

Nathan nodded. "One of them."

Terry smiled weakly "I guess I should've guessed it was that sort of problem when you couldn't give me an answer either way." He sighed a little, and then smiled. "Well, I'm happy things worked out All that moping was really kind of tiresome, you know." He grinned mischievously. "Sooo...this is how you managed to get this project approved so easily?"

Nathan shook his head in mock amusement, and bapped his assistant "Imp." He led Terry over to where the others were standing. "Jake, I want you meet Terry, best project assistant I've ever had ... and that's covering multiple planetary systems Terry, I know you who Jake is ... but I guess it clarifies things to say he's my mate."

The tiger-tabby turned to Jake "Actually, it is flight worthy, theoretically We were supposed to be field-testing it today, but I hadn't realized that I'd be in 'executive meetings' all morning ..." he grinned broadly.

Jake snickered in a level of amusement a little too high for what had just happened "Would you mind if I tweaked with it?" He went deadly serious for a moment "I had a couple ideas …."

"As long as you can put it back together if they don't work." Nathan smirked at the absolutely indignant glare he got for that statement before Jake shook his head.

"Don't worry, I won't be touching the real thing yet." He winked, then growled to himself, his entire demeanor changing in a heartbeat "*Are you sure Ulysses Feral raped Chance?*"

"Huu?" Nathan blinked at the unexpected question, then nodded "*As sure as Chance is I relived those moments.*" He shuddered and pushed the maelstrom back down.

"*Good enough for now.*" Jake nodded as he got a pair of silvery-blue gloves from a wall cabinet, stalked into a small storage room and shut the door "Cathedral, log me into the security net and contact Chief of Security." He kept his voice low.

"Hi Jake." A very uneasy, deep female voice answered him "What needs my attention?"

He took a deep breath "I need you to arrange for the arrest of Ulysses Feral on rape charges Cathedral jurisdiction."

"And have it done without the city exploding." She added softly "You never ask for little things, do you?"

"Little things I can handle myself." He squeezed his eyes shut "And as much as I'd like to handle this one myself, there are too many complications."

"Who was the victim?"


"Oh, gods." She sucked in a breath "I can see why What kind of proof are we working on?"

"A very strong memory impression on his T-Bone mask." Jake sighed softly "There aren't many ways for this to be wrong."

"No ..." she sighed, "I'm sorry."

"Not half as sorry as he's going to be if this is right." Jake growled deep in his chest.

"I don't doubt it." She murmured "I'll see to it."

"Thanks, Kenra."

"Anytime, Jake." She whispered as the connection was cut.

Jake deep a deep breath to try to calm himself before he exploded at Nathan again and walked out into the main room.

He barely stopped himself from ripping the Felsin's throat out when Nathan pulled him into a dark corner of the room and pushed him against the wall with a possessive kiss as his hands trailed down to the Kat's jeans and unzipped them.

Nathan wasted no time in dropping to his knees and swallowing the hard flesh, supporting the weight of the tom he was suckling with a hand on thrusting hips He barely paused as the balls he was fondling began to tighten, lifting closer to the body as they released their goods to be eagerly swallowed by the Felsin.

"What was that for?" Jake gasped as he tried to recover his breath and Nathan zipped his pants back up.

"Felt like you needed it." Nathan chuckled and kissed his flushed mate before pulling him close "I like making you come You get such a pleasant energy around you."

"No arguments here." Jake murmured as he relaxed into the strong body holding him.

"What the?" Chance stammered as closed the door to his quarters and turned to see Brandy frozen half way through a step

Keltin smiled warmly at the bewildered pilot "It's just a little time bumble so your friend doesn't see me Nathan wanted to come himself, but he's gotten tied up in something that will require several days to extricate himself from He sends his congratulations, and says that he never had any doubts how things would turn out He also said that he'll talk to you as soon as he manages to disentangle himself Which should be in a couple of days."

The midnight blue tom smiled and continued "Of course, I wanted to congratulate you on behalf of myself and the rest of the Triad We're all very impressed, and I might add that's not easy to do Well, I can see you have plans to celebrate so I'll leave you to them, but Nathan just wanted to make sure you knew he hadn't forgotten Oh, I almost forgot ... if for any reason you should want to get in touch with Nathan in the next few days, just call my name ... I'm doubling as his beeper while he's ... tied up."

The warrior disappeared in a silver glow leaving no trace that he had ever been there.

Caito drifted around Amerith trying to decide just what he was looking at The concept of a machine that thinks wasn't foreign to the trickster, but a telepathic machine was something of a novelty He floated above the canopy examining the control interface, which resembled the Direct Linkage Control System but differed in several aspects.

Eventually the little tabby tired of trying to puzzle this machine out so he landed in front of the nose of the plane, and created a 'window' in his invisibility that should make him visible to her, deciding on her since the voice had sounded female, and the name felt kind of female too.

"*Hi there.*" Caito opened cheerily "*Are you the Amerith that's bonded to Jake Clawson?*"

"Yes." There was more than a touch of wariness in her voice as the systems around them flicked on, and the two other jets sitting nearby powered up to pay attention "Who are you?"

The little trickster grinned at the plane. "Name's Caito, but that doesn't tell you anything really As to 'what' well that's not an easy question," he continued to the next obvious request, "some have called me a 'god' though I think that's a tad pretentious I suppose I'd say I'm a spirit with a great of deal of power though far from omnipotent, and I'm sure as heck not omniscient After all if I knew everything, I wouldn't need to ask would I." The little tabby smirked and looped about "Around here I'm Nathan's big bro, after a fashion and Chance's guardian spirit I look after Jake when I can, but that's really Keltin's job." He paused and looked at her carefully "By the way, thanks for playing fair with Chance today."

"As if I'd do any less." She tempered the insulted tone in her voice as much as she could, but didn't manage to completely eliminate it "I am the squadron leader It's expected of me to be fair."

He nodded as he felt several series of scans wash over him as all three craft started to exchange information on a half radio, half telepathic frequency at very high speed.

"The tiger-tail is Kellra, and the starburst-tail is ." Amerith spoke up after a long moment as the other two rolled closer, but kept a reasonable space around him "Why would I want to not be fair to Chance?"

"Well, with the fight he and Jake had, we weren't all that sure you'd want to let him in the squad." He could only shrug "I guess this means you think things are repairable between Jake and Chance?"

"Should be." Kellra rumbled "They don't hate each other Any insights on that count, Caito? We're not having much luck, except for trying to get them in the same room."

"Yah, a mopy, angry, skitzy Jake is just not fun to deal with." Amerith huffed "He's enough to make me head hurt, though I'm getting to like his taste in distractions."

"Umm," Caito stopped to think, "getting Jake on an even keel would probably be the best place to start."

"And that means bonding with Nathan." Amerith huffed.

"You don't like Nathan?" He asked carefully.

"I don't know him, but I don't like what he's doing to my gunner." The sleek jet growled hotly.

"You don't like that they're bonding?" Caito flicked his ears back in displeasure.

"That's just it, they aren't." She snapped back.

"They are forming two very different kinds of bonds, neither of which is being completed because neither understands what needs to happen." Kellra explained "Jake's nearly given up trying to form the bond he needs because he doesn't know how to explain that it's different from the one Nathan wants with the Sharing."

"And it's driving him crazy." Amerith added "And taking us with him I can't shield from him that much without breaking our bond, and I won't I'll kill that damn Felsin before I let him destroy my partner."

The little tabby hovered in mid-air thinking a moment "Well, we're seeing the same problem from two different angles here Both bonds are necessary; the one Jake needs for just that reason and the one Nathan wants because it will repair the damaged mind-bond they both have Oh, I might point something out before anyone gets too aggressive ... killing Nathan probably will destroy Jake at this point; they're close enough that the death feedback would be quite destructive and Jake's fragile as it is."

The trickster looked at all three in turn. "Well, I can sum up Nathan's problem with the bond Jake needs in two words: Black Phoenix Jake and Nathan were partners in SWAT and that meant a lot to Nathan; now Jake's moved on and left Nathan behind, and that outburst of his made it pretty clear to Nathan that there's no way for him to follow This makes this group bond Jake needs the equivalent of bonding with a roomful of strangers to whom he has no connection The worst thing is that Nathan would do that, but he knows that such a bond wouldn't hold; it would collapse the moment he went to sleep."

The trickster shook his head "I don't have a solution right away, and Nathan doesn't either; and that's driving him crazy Nathan would do anything he could for Jake ... it hurts him more than you can understand to know that there's something he can't do He's even trying to get past the DLCS memory block to find if there's some way he could be useful to Black Phoenix, so he can give Jake that bond he needs I just hope he doesn't destroy his own mind trying to stay with Jake ... it would be terrible for both of them And whether you believe me or not, none of us want to see Jake hurt either."

The small tabby floated in mid-air wondering how to resolve this mess, and wondering if he'd said the right things ... Felsira was so much better at this sort of thing.

"Nathan doesn't have a combat place with us because it's not in his makeup to be that promiscuous." Kellra corrected calmly when Caito fell silent "I know Jake would have never said he couldn't have a place with us We're too short on skilled healers."

"She's right on that much." Amerith agreed "And I wouldn't kill him, it'd hurt Jake too much Doesn't make me any less mad about it."

"That and Jake's having a terrible time shielding himself isn't helping any." An exhausted male voice added, drawing everyone's attention outside the small knot to a petite, longfurred black and white tomkat "It's making all of us edgy."

"Hi, Rik." Amerith greeted the newcomer when he walked in and patted her fuselage "This is Caito We're trying to come up with a better plan to get this mess over with before it gets too much worse."

With a closer look, even Caito thought the tom looked very wrung out "You don't look so good."

"Probably about as good as I feel." He sighed and leaned against his jet with eyes closed "The backwash from what Jake's going through is doing more damage than we expected."

"Have you seen a healer?"

"Dude, this is with a healer's care." Patrik sighed "I'd be in a Sarcophagus by now if it wasn't for Shereth Jake's burning an unbelievable amount of energy."

"If you don't mind, my mate can probably help." Caito nodded to Patrik "This entire situation is very much in her sphere." He waited through feeling the four pass shielded, rapid-fire comments back and forth without including him, then as they reached further out, for their teammates that weren't present.

"We'll certainly listen." Amerith spoke for the group.

After a brief delay there was a soft golden glow in the hangar which solidified into the gold-furred shape of Felsira, standing next to Caito.

The little tabby turned to Felsira. "Hi Fel, thanks for coming 'cause I think we need a healer's perspective on things. Fel, this is Amerith, Kellra, Gurath and Patrik." He indicated each in turn. "Black Phoenix, I'd like to introduce Felsira; the Triad's healer and telepath."

The shekat bowed regally before turning her eyes to Patrik "But I think my skills as a healer are needed first." Felsira walked over to the pilot, stopping a little more than an arms length away "Patrik, if you'll permit me I can give you some relief from the effects of what's happening."

"I'd welcome it."

The Healer smiled sadly as golden energy flowed between them,

Felsira thought for a moment "The problem Nathan's having with the bond that Jake needs comes down to basic Felsin psychology; Felsin only bond to those they have some connection to. The 'unit bonds' of the military are the closest equivalent to what Jake seems to be asking of Nathan."

The shekat paced slowly "The problem is that Nathan had concerns regarding whether he was in fact needed This was based on his understanding of military organization, which would preclude two medical personnel assigned to a unit as small as a squadron This is, of course, Alliance military organization and may not apply here However, when Nathan expressed his concerns to Jake, Jake hit him."

Felsira shook her head. "Of course, Nathan's method of expressing his concern was not the best, but given his own stressed out state, not entirely surprising. The problem is one of communication, not surprising given that the crisis was largely one of communication, but the problem is that there is little the Triad can do This is because, in order for Nathan to give Jake the bond Jake needs ... Nathan has to somehow feel connected to Black Phoenix."

The golden she-kat leaned up against a not-there wall "The issue of combat place is really a non-issue because a medic isn't combat personnel, he's combat support and in Nathan's case ... damned good at it Nathan's really just looking to keep doing what he was doing with SWAT Though you might want to keep in mind, just in case it ever becomes important, that Nathan is a combat pilot, and a good one He just hasn't been needed in that role lately, so he hasn't said anything about it He tends to be what he feels he's needed to be, which has been Medic for a long time."

She looked at the four members of Black Phoenix present "The Triad wants these bonds completed as much as you do, and we'll help in any way we can But the issue really is between Jake, Nathan and Black Phoenix."

"Can you arrange to teleport Jake and Nathan here, once the rest of the squad has arrived?" A new female voice asked as its owner came up "I'm Heron, the squad's Senior Medical Officer."

Felsira turned to face the jet black Gargoyle that bore more than a passing resemblance to Soron "Well, yes, I can, but I'd rather not interfere if it's not necessary."

"If we want this resolved this week, intervention on your level will be necessary." Heron resettled her wings into a cape and crossed her arms "It's very dangerous to interrupt a TechoMage when they're doing their trance-engineering, and Jake's tend to last several days, especially when he's working with Pakitra." She sighed in frustration and leaned against Gurath "If Sheir Kahn's report is any indication, he's sunk beyond my ability to pull him out safely with any speed."

"While I want this resolved, I really need his permission ..."

"I'm his MO, and I do have a valid medical reason to override his implied refusal." Heron interrupted "Face it, the boys are not dealing with this on their own, and you just pointed out the fact that all of Black Phoenix needs to be involved To settled misunderstandings, if nothing else Because here, the MO is a combat post, as is communications, for that matter."

Felsira nodded reluctantly "I can't disagree that they aren't dealing with this. I will bring them here, but it will not be quick since I will have to be more careful than usual Before you attempt to settle misunderstandings, I will repeat what I told Master Kahn: Whether he is part of the unit or not, in a combat position or not; Nathan will do whatever he has to protect Jake He's still recovering from the loss of one lifemate ... he won't lose another without having done everything in his power to prevent it."

"Thank you, Lady Felsira." Heron bowed slightly.

"*Black Phoenix gather.*" Amerith's mental call cascaded through the links that bound the unit together.

The golden she-kat began focusing power to bend space in a more delicate fashion than was the norm "I do not pretend to know what a promiscuous nature has to do with combat ability But you are perhaps presuming much of Nathan ... even he is not sure what his nature is these days."

"That's one of the issues we'll be dealing with." Heron sighed "It's Jake's assessment, but we're going to sort it out."

Felsira nodded closed her eyes as she began studying the patterns of space and time that comprised Cathedral so as to determine the best path of translocation, and the very delicate touch that would be required to bring the two Kats out of their trance without hurting them Heron had not been joking when she said it would require as powerful a touch as hers to do it.

Caito spoke quietly. "Tell me when you want them brought in, Fel's too focused on the pathways to hear anybody but another member of the Triad."

"Understood." Amerith spoke up.

Nathan watched in utter fascination as his mate as his first girlfriend worked without a sound around and in a holographic schematic of the Exo-Frame; expanding, zooming in, shifting focus, making changes They wore matching silvery-blue gloves and the focused, not-quite-there expressions he was long familiar with from Rhymar, and descriptions of himself in the middle of a project He couldn't help but compare it to a finely tuned ballet; two dancers who knew the moves and each other so well no communication was necessarily.

And from the inside, that was something to marvel at While Jake was there, he weren't paying attention, for lack of a better description Almost in a trance, his mind was in hiperdrive, focused on the design they were dissecting and rebuilding, but just barely on a conscious level, and while independent, they were working in tandem.

Almost the most amazing of all, Jake's troubled mind, body and soul all went quiet, without an effort or intent on his part Every part of the tom's being settled into its purpose without reservation.

"Quite a sight, isn't it?" Sheir Kahn spoke in a low tone to the three individuals next to her.

As he 'watched' the pair work Nathan felt an inner calm he hadn't known in what seemed like forever He sighed quietly to himself, and whispered. "Rhymar, my first love I wanted to see your final design through as best I could ... now I see I've found one who can truly finish what you started. " He mused quietly with odd image forming in his mind.

The Jedi noticed tears on the Felsin's face "Is something wrong, Nathan?" She asked quietly.

Nathan smiled and shook his head "Not wrong, but truly right The Exo-Frame was Rhymar's last design and the first one we really worked on together since our areas of expertise didn't normally overlap Watching Jake work on it ... it's the juxtaposition of the two who have meant more to me than anyone else The tears aren't because I'm upset, I'm just moved beyond words." He said quietly, never taking his eyes off of Jake.

"They're truly amazing." Terry murmured, his eyes wide as he watched what had built Cathedral into the R&D capital of the planet in action.

"*Master Kahn,*" Felsira's private mind-voice got the Jedi's attention "*Could you please arrange for Terry and Wista to not be in the room when I move everyone that needs to come?*"

"*No problem.*" The tigress nodded, then tapped their shoulders "I need you two to leave."

Cheetah and Kat sighed in unison and nodded, and Wista lead them out with a wistful look at the working pair.

"What was that about?" Nathan asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Felsira asked that only those involved in this mess be here." Sheir Kahn replied easily "The fewer witnesses the better."

Nathan chuckled quietly "Oh dear, Mother's decided to take the gloves off I wonder what prompted this." He quietly scanned out along his link to the Triad, at a distance he felt Keltin's watchful presence surrounding Cathedral "Whatever's up, the Triad is taking it seriously, Keltin's watchers are all over the place."

"Don't even think it." The deep growl froze Ulysses' hand before it had even slid part way under his pillow "I am quite willing to blow your brains out here and now, given an excuse."

"What do you want?" He blinked into the darkness of his quarters, picking up only the bleary outline of a very large individual out of strike range, and a great deal of barely leashed hatred in a Lionesses scent.

"What I want is irrelevant." She shook her head slightly "What I'm here for ..." She took a breath and settled her voice into her more natural, and commanding, tone "Ulysses Feral, you are under arrest by Cathedral for the rape of T-Bone."

"What?" His training fled for a moment as shock brought him bolt upright in the bed "This is a very bad joke."

"Hardly." Kenya growled, her ears flat "Do you really think we wouldn't find out? Or is it that your rank should protect you?"

"Will I get a trial, a chance to prove this fallacy for what it is?" He forced himself to calm down and face this rationally, even as he felt the room start to sway.

"Of course." Honest surprise laced the Lionesses voice and stance.

"What did ..." He groaned before collapsing.

"You are one tough Kat." She shook her head before securing her blaster and hefting the unconscious tom over her shoulder "That dose should have knocked you out before you took two breaths."

"Hi, Heron." Soron draped himself over her shoulder "I see I got back just in time for the fun."

"Hueee?" Her eyes went wide before they rolled up and she went limp under him.

"Hay, fainting is not fair." He caught her easily, using his wings to cradle her as much as his arms and body "I said I'd see you again."

"And you would be?" Amerith requested calmly.

"Soron of Darshar Wyvern." He nodded at the jet "You guys seem to have generated a lot of attention from off world."

"Considering few of us are natives of this world, I can't say I'm surprised." Shereth spoke up, her silver-tipped tail twitching slightly "What is your interest in us?"

"The Queen Mother wanted me to make sure Jake's clan goes together properly." He answered Heron pushed herself out of his embrace only to twist around and kiss him soundly.

"Now would be a good time to bring the others." Amerith commented after doing a headcount of the gathering "Everyone's here."

"*Now, Fel.*" Caito passed the request on, then settled back to watch as golden energy shifted and flickered into the forms of Jake, Pakitra, Nathan, Sheir Kahn and Felina He shot her a curious look to see the Feral, but the Healer was focused completely on untangling Jake and Pakitra's minds from each other and what they were doing.

Ulysses Feral cracked his eyes open to take in his surroundings, and was not pleased Though the room was sizable, comfortable, and very modern, it was clearly a cell, and one meant for long habitation under high scrutiny.

When he sat up to take a better inventory his eyes fell on a folded pile of civilian clothing on the table, clothes that he recognized as from his quarters Next to them were a file folder, and a plate of fruit, breads and juice.

"Your lawyer will be here in an hour." A male voice drew Ulysses' attention to his visible guard, a creature that didn't exist "No, Feral, you are not seeing things Your guard is a giant, biped lizard that talks." He flicked a forked tongue out "Get used to it That pile of papers is the evidence against you."

"Thank you." Ulysses nodded and got up He began skimming the contents of the folder as he dressed and ate The further along he got, the more worried he became The evidence was strong, even if it was gathered in a manner that wouldn't necessarily be accepted in a MegaKat City court, it was obviously accepted here.

"I do hope you can give me something that's not in there." A deep, troubled male voice drew the Kat's attention to a Rottie Kantin in a charcoal gray business suit as he walked into the cell "I'm Devin Kilmori, your attorney."

"I don't get a choice?" Ulysses raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, you do." Devin sat down next to his client and raised an eyebrow in turn "If you know anyone familiar with Cathedral law ...." He stopped when the Kat shook his head with a sigh "Is there anything you can tell me about what happened?"

"I wasn't there." Ulysses met the Kantin's dark brown eyes "I didn't do this."

"Do you have any way to prove that?" Devin regarded his client curiously "I'm not going to sugar coat this You are in a lot of trouble, and there is next to no way for those scans to be wrong."

"They are wrong I wasn't there and I didn't touch him." He growled animatedly.

"Ulysses, please work with me here." Devin put his hand on the Kat's broad shoulder "Rape carries a death by torture penalty here Unless we can somehow prove those scans are incorrect, or there are at least mitigating circumstances, you will be found guilty, and you will die very painfully."

Ulysses sighed with another look at the evidence "It happened on one of the few nights I had off I don't think there's anyone that can account for my movements as I spent the timeframe driving around."


"I was restless." The big tom shrugged "It happens a lot when things have been quiet, like they were before this morning." He looked up at his attorney "The city's never quiet, unless it's the quiet before the storm I was out looking for the storm before it broke."

"Did you stop for gas, food, to talk to anyone?" Devin prompted "Did you see anyone who knows you?"

Ulysses closed his eyes and settled his head against his hands for a long moment, replaying that night He finally looked up and shook his head "Not until well after all this," he thumped the folder, "was supposedly over with I stopped for a burger at Milly's, and they know me quite well, but that wasn't until almost one am."

"Are you willing to submit to a psi-scan to prove your stance?" The Rottie spoke very carefully "If we can't prove your innocence in a more traditional manner, and you are truly innocent, we can use the same methods for you as against you."

"I've never touched him." Ulysses growled in pure frustration "If that's what it takes to prove it, so be it."

"Have you wanted to have him?" He watched the tom carefully "Be honest with me, it's important."

Ulysses shut his mouth before the reflexive denial made it out and nodded reluctantly "He's a very attractive individual Hearing Jake talk about him ...."

"You're on intimate terms with Jake Clawson?" Devin arched an eyebrow as a couple things fell into place.

"On and off since he graduated." He nodded "But we haven't been together in almost two years, since my niece caught his eye."

"Have any of your fantasies involving Chance been, how shall I say ...."

"Domineering, violent, involved bondage?" Ulysses met concerned brown eyes squarely "Yes I enjoy bondage and borderline non-con, aggressive sex But I have never forced myself on a partner They always have a choice before starting, and a safe-word to stop me at any time And yes, I have had fantasies about doing those things to Chance Furlong, but I have not and would not act on them without his permission."

"I see." Devin nodded and took a steadying breath "You are absolutely sure you have never been with Chance?"

"Yes." He gritted out through clenched teeth and growled "I'm positive."

"I'll arrange for the scans then." Devin stood and gave the big tom another appraising look-over before turning to leave "I suggest you get some sleep, these are not pleasant, and tend to leave nightmares for several days."

"Wonderful." He rolled his eyes and flopped down on the bed "Could you bring news about how the city's doing when you come back? Who's running things? How it's going? Maybe why they aren't looking for me?"

"Sure Though that last one I can tell you now We set up a paper trail and witnesses showing you are on a two-week vacation to Farvia If you are proven guilty, you simply would not return If you are innocent, you'd have a very pleasant vacation memory and souvenirs when you wake up in a hotel there to catch your return flight, feeling much better about life." The thick-boned Kantin nodded as he left, leaving his client to wonder who was doing such an excellent job of setting him up, and if there was anything he actually was in control of.

"Commander Jake Clawson," Heron stepped away from Soron and towards her leader with her wings flared into a halo around her, displaying her tattoos to full extent "You are hereby placed on medical leave and under house arrest until your medical issues are dealt with."

Jake blinked as his stance went from confused, to furious, to submissive with a slow nod to her before looking around to see who else was there "I take it that 'taking things slow and see how it goes' is no longer an option?"

"That would be putting it mildly." The Gargoyle let a slow breath out "This has strained all our abilities to cope, especially Patrik's."

"Felsira healed a lot of the damage." The young tom added when Jake's concerned gaze landed on him "But you've run me ragged, burning energy like you have."

"I didn't mean to." Jake took the couple steps needed to embrace his pilot, and got an affectionate nuzzle in return.

"You could at least spend some of that energy on me, you know." Patrik crooned "It's not the same with someone else."

"Jake," Heron caught the Kat's chin to get his attention as he ran apologetic hands along the petite tom's sides, "while that's the gist of what needs to happen, we're going to have some order this time." She gently separated the pair.

"Say that for the thought challenged." Jake blinked at her, trying hard to focus.

"You will pick one bond to complete." She met his unsteady gaze "Just one."

"Okay ..." he stared at her for a tense moment before the implications sunk in "Why?"

"Because you need to have them prioritized in your own mind." She spoke softly "It hasn't mattered until now, but you are being pulled in three directions and it's tearing the team apart."

"Oh," he met the eyes of each friend and lover present and shivered.

Patrik, Amerith and the rest of Black Phoenix Home, purpose, first place he'd felt like he'd truly belonged, individuals that wouldn't hesitate to do anything for him, those he wouldn't hesitate to do anything for, and a prospect of adrenalin, conflict and loss until he died.

Felina A strong soul he could surrender too, who cared for and loved him, but could he accept seeing her put on her uniform every day, while he stayed safe at home?

Nathan Safe That wonderful, warm feeling no one had ever showed him before There was a strength missing in the Felsin that made true surrender impossible, but the combat drive in him was focused on healing, made a chance at a life off the front line at least a possibility There'd been such approval over the Exo-Frame ideas.

Pakitra The first to touch him with care in his life, but she held so many expectations he couldn't fulfill anymore Sure, she'd let him do what he wanted, but how often had he turned to her for comfort lately? How long had it been since he hadn't been uneasy about her growing focus on power instead of exploration?

With a deep breath he turned back to Nathan as he began to close off the links to everyone but the Felsin "I'm tired of fighting."

Nathan sighed, his mind objecting to this heavy-handed intervention 'Orders' had no place in a Bonding Nathan pulled as much order as he could into his tired mind and looked at each bond in as analytic a fashion as he could He walked over and put his hand on Jake's shoulder. "Love, I can see which bond you need more at this point ... of course, it's the one I can't figure out how to make work...as much as I want to I could force my mind to accept the outside bonds that you need me to accept ... but they'd never last A bond is never stable where there's no real connection." He shook unsteadily until the energy boost kicked in. "I wish I had a solution ... but this is one problem I just don't know how to fix." He sighed deeply. "*Jake, I'd suggest using the bond I'm familiar with...but its not where the problem is I still want that, but you need the other one more.*"

"I've chosen you." The lean tom shook his head, the pain of perceived rejection flickering for a moment before settling into numbness.

Nathan carefully looked at the bonds that he wasn't as familiar with, and using what mental energy he could spare he reinforced and repaired the bonds. He knew that drawing off energy was a risky move, given the problems he was having holding things together ... but he didn't know what else to do at this point.

Jake sank to his knees as he felt his LifeMate began to work with the bonds he was trying to cut off and ... surrendered He let go of the stranglehold that would have broken the extra bonds in time and allowed himself to be guided wherever the Felsin felt was best.

Nathan sensed the Jake's numbness and the cause of it He knew he'd need more strength than he had right now Suddenly he remembered how positively Jake had responded to the one gift Nathan had learned from his mother and saw a possibility Quickly he sent his mind into its clouded recesses until he found the areas he usually avoided, the realm covered by the mental blocks He chose what he thought was the oldest and pushed his mind against it.

The pain lurking in the memory was unexpected but Nathan managed to push it aside into another mental block Behind the pain was what he sought, more memories of his mother; the healer and telepath whose strength far eclipsed his own at both As he watched the brief memories of his mother he felt a strength surging in his own mind He sighed relieved, Cazi had been right after all.

He quickly returned to the conscious world, grateful for the speed at which the memory realm moved The first thing the tiger-tabby did was use his new-found strength to strengthen the bonds Jake needed, so as to leave no doubts about acceptance Then he pulled the lean tom close "*Jake, I'll try to explain as best I can But understand that the problem in no way is me rejecting you; I simply can't do that because I love you too much The problem is in the bonds you need me to form with Black Phoenix; in order for those to work I would need to somehow be a part of that part of your life.*"

The Felsin used the technique that Jake had responded to so positively to try and heal some of the damage the chaos was causing He paused for a moment considering how best to explain the problem "*Jake remember back before you brought me into SWAT, how I'd follow you on missions? I did that because even then I loved you too much to let you go into danger without trying to be there in case something went wrong I haven't changed, and perhaps now it's easier to say that I want to be part of your life, no matter what that may be.*"

Nathan focused his mind, trying to keep the lingering self-doubt away. "*I know its asking a lot, with the way you're feeling; but can you tell me why you don't think I'd fit in with Black Phoenix? There's something I'm not seeing But know this, the medic's motto is: Preserve and Protect We preserve life at all costs, no matter how difficult the path That's the healer in us, and it's the strongest aspect of any medic and it often obscures the second part; Protect: we protect life against the forces that would destroy or demean it, we defend the injured and the places of healing That's our warrior aspect, and though we prefer peace if possible, we aren't naive enough to think that it will always be an option Many miss the warrior that stands behind the healer and think we lack the will to fight ... but it's far from true.*"

Nathan nuzzled his mate and spoke quietly "I love you and I want to do this for you, but I can't do it alone This time I don't see so clearly, and I need you to help me see what I'm missing."

Jake shook his head, trying to focus and make sense of what he was being asked "Those are two issues that are now separate I'm not asking you to join Phoenix any more I don't think I'll be staying with them; I'm tired of fighting, of losing friends But I said you weren't suitable ..." he swallowed hard, "*because I don't want to risk or share you anymore All members of the squad are mates Even if you could like that, I'm not sure I could take it It's why I never brought Chance in It's not in me to accept ... I love you both too much to share like that, even though I need the sexual bond with my comrades.*"

Nathan smiled gently. "*In that case love, I don't see a reason to hold off finishing what we started; save to find some place a little more private.*" He smiled mentally "*Well, the whole squad being mates isn't so strange; after all I was raised by a commando team that was the same way But truthfully, I prefer smaller groups myself.*"

The tiger-tabby looked off in the distance somewhere. *"Jake, what you just said about Chance ... I guess that's something else we have in common.*" He gently let one of the old images he'd held about SWAT drift to the surface *"It was part of the reason I tried to hold things together for so long ... I didn't want to lose either one of you.*"

The Felsin grinned. "But I think we need to deal with one thing at a time." He smirked "I think its time we stopped you from driving your squad bonkers, can we find someplace reasonably private around here? There's way too much noise in here to Bond properly."

"My quarters." Jake nodded with evident relief "*It's probably the only place in Cathedral without surveillance as well.*"

"Lead the way." He spared a look at those he was chosen over, not very surprised at the mix of reactions; disappointment, understanding, confusion, shock ... but it was the image of Patrik, of Jake's pilot, crying in the arms of his squadmate that was burned into his mind.

"Will someone please explain what's going on?" Felina turned to the only familiar face in the room as Jake and Nathan left.

"Beyond the obvious, I wish I knew." Pakitra shot a questioning gaze at Heron.

"It's complicated." The Gargoyle warned.

"We'll make the time." Felina growled "Now what did we miss?"

"Welcome to my quarters, my home." Jake waited for the door to slide shut and locked it "And the biggest lie I've ever told." He faced Nathan squarely "I don't know if you've seen me in a cold rage ... it's been a rare even in the past thirty-two years." He hesitated, took a breath and started over "I'm sure you've gotten the gist of what the things in this room mean to me, especially those pictures."

Nathan cast a glance at the set of five portraits, nodding when his mind came up with a general indication that Jake considered them his parents.

"The story I tell about them, about my heritage, even to myself, is at best a half truth." He dropped his gaze to the floor, unable to continue for a long moment as Nathan shifted to hold him "I don't know what I buried, the truths that I hid even from myself, so you'll be finding out with me." He looked up, a tendril of fear creeping through even the numbness in his mind "I don't know what I'll be when we're done either."

"We will be LifeMates." Nathan spoke softly as he stroked Jake's hair with a kiss to his ear "You're not the only one that has parts of his life and mind locked away."

Jake nodded and pulled back slightly "Please ask Felsira to come now She can heal your mind, there's no need for you to hold onto the memory of what happened to T-Bone anymore."

"But ...."

"I handed it to Security to deal with." He placed a single finger across his mate's lips "They have the mask, and the memories There is no longer a need for you to show me."

"Let her heal your wounds too." The words were out of his mouth before Nathan realized just what he was asking It was only the reflexive panic, so quickly squashed, that reminded him just how hard it was for his mate to trust his mind to anyone.

"You trust her that much?"

The question surprised him, but he nodded It was the truth after all "I trust her completely."

"All right."

Nathan sighed inwardly This was not how it should be "*Felsira, could you come here please?*"

"Yes Nathan?" She smiled gently as she appeared with a golden glow.

"Would you temper my impressions from the mask?" He continued to stroke Jake's hair as the lean tom stared at her, his turmoil obvious.

"Of course." She smiled brightly as they settled on the bed "They are no longer needed?"

"The situation has been dealt with." Jake nodded wearily and leaned against his mate a little more "I don't need to know what happened from Nate anymore."

The Lioness smiled and let golden energy flow between her and Nathan, caressing his mind as she took the intensity from the memory while leaving its contents intact All under Jake's rather intense scrutiny.

"I am a Healer, kitten." She used her most calming voice to address that Kat "It is against everything I believe in and am to do harm to those I heal."

"First do no harm." Nathan repeated the Medic's oath.

"Would you permit me to heal you?" She asked very carefully, watching his reasoning as much as his voice.

Jake started at her for a long moment, trust and hard-taught paranoia warring to give the answer Finally, he stood and walked right in front of her He raised his hand, fingers spread, and smiled, bowing his head, when she matched the gesture, touching their fingertips, then palms.

"Can you make the screaming stop?" Dark amber eyes held a mixture of hope, desire and uncertain fear as he looked up.

"Yes kitten, just as I did for Nathan." She spoke very softly, all too aware of how fragile this offering of trust was, and of how easily she could make him bolt back to the safe familiarity of his pain "If you permit, it is all I will touch." She promised, aching to do more as Nathan came up to embrace the Kat's shoulders.

Jake took another breath, leaning back into the protective warmth "Yes Nate deserves that much, and I ... I would like to ... to be whole."

Nathan tried very hard not to react to the level of fear and self-recrimination in his mate's mind at asking such a thing for himself "*There is nothing wrong with asking to be healed You should do this for yourself, not me.*"

"I know." Jake sighed and tried not to flinch as golden energy caressed his mind, carefully taking the intensity of the memory down to a normal level, then soothing the scars it left across his mind "I can't."

"Oh, love." Nathan held the tom close when he nearly collapsed, staring wide-eyed at Felsira as she knelt to touch his face.

"Have I proved my intent, Jake?" She asked softly with an understanding smile as he scrambled through his mind, checking over her work and trying to absorb what it meant.

"Thank you." Jake murmured and cast a sideways glance at Nathan before meeting her steady gaze "Would you facilitate our Joining?"

"I would be pleased to do so." She looked at Nathan "Perhaps it would be good for you to explain a little of what this is, first, though.

Nathan nodded and carefully reviewed what he remembered about the Joining from when he went through it with Rhymar He figured the religious aspects would probably be skipped since Felsira was facilitating and it probably wasn't Jake's brand of religion anyway, if the Kat even had religious beliefs.

He turned to look at Jake "I'll try to explain what the Joining is like, as best I can Each Joining is, however, mostly unique since it is dependent on the individuals being Joined The first part is referred to as 'The Laying Aside of Masks' It's a separate experience for each and is preparation for the main part It's necessary because in order for the Joining to work we both have to be willing to let the other past the masks and illusions we've put up for the world Some Bonds run into problems here, but I honestly don't think we will; we're already closer than most pairs are before Joining."

"The second part is where the Bond actually forms, referred to as 'The Sharing' The simplest explanation of it is that our two minds get close enough that memories become, temporarily, shared The one constant is that the memories are seen in a kind of 'guided tour' fashion We'll be real enough to each other inside the memory, but none of the characters in the memory will be aware of us An important thing to remember is that one can not be injured by a memory experience; shocked, surprised or such is possible but not actual injury Which memories appear, and when is not controllable, though the memories 'usually' remain until 'fully explored'."

"Felsira's role is to get us past the resistance that sentient minds naturally have to being too close to each other The other thing she'll be doing is seeing that we don't ended merged, instead of Bonded For non-telepaths this wouldn't be a problem, but we're both telepaths so she's needed to keep us out of trouble."

Nathan paused for a breath "So, any questions or did I just completely overwhelm you with that spiel of mine?" Nathan grinned mischievously.

"I understand." Jake nodded quietly, his acceptance very obvious, as was that it came through surrender "I'm as ready as I'll ever be." He looked between Nathan and Felsira "Can we begin?"

Nathan blinked as he looked around what should be Jake's safe place It seemed to be the room they'd just been in with only a few subtle changes, and Felsira wasn't there "Jake?"

"I'm here." He touched his mate's shoulder "This is the place I have made my own. Though it is constructed on a lie, it is all I have for now."

"It is the intent that matters, that you feel safe here." Nathan blinked again, seeing Jake's view of himself for the first time While the tom was still lean and fairly short, his fur was much thicker, a nearly black brunet with very fait stripes, spots and rosettes, and his bones were much finer He bore a rather striking resemblance to a cross between Patrik and a Striped Hyena, with half solid, feathered wings of the purest black spread out from his bare shoulders Small, firm breasts and rounded hips gave him a distinctly feminine shape that was in stark contrast to the obvious sheath and balls between his legs.

"You made me feel safe." Jake shook his head, his voice slightly off as well "But this is the closest I've come on my own." He hesitated, catching Nathan's inability not to stare at the changes to his form "I wear more than just mental masks out there."

"So is this what you feel comfortable as?" He took a closer look at the form he honestly couldn't find all that attractive, but it was blatantly clear how easily his mate wore it He could get used to it, for Jake.

"I guess," He shrugged and looked around, finally focusing on a heavy security door "As much as that's going to be part of The Sharing, it's probably the greatest mask I wear."

"How so?" Nathan followed his mate as he ran glittering, crimson claws lightly along the metal surface, gathering courage.

Jake's stare never wavered as he let more and more weight set against the door "This is the greatest mask I have, the biggest lie I live I need to face this if I will ever know peace, as well as to be honest with you."

"Do you have any idea what's in there?" Nathan asked, trying to direct the tension to something useful.

"My past, who and what I was before I met Pat, before I had the body you know." Jake shuddered and dug his claws into the metal, sending sparks flying "Something I didn't want to acknowledge so badly I locked it away and made myself more afraid of opening this door than of death ... or even failure I erased those years ... no one knows." He breath quickened before he regained control "I'm much older than thirty-two, Nate That is merely how many years I have accepted."

Nathan put his hand on Jake's shoulder "Just remember, you're not facing it alone anymore Take strength from that."

"Sometimes being alone is better." Jake shifted his grip to the edge of the door and tensed to pull it open, determination set in every line of his lean body "No one to get hurt."

Nathan didn't have an answer to that as ruby claws dug deeply into metal, and with a creaking scream it surrendered to Jake's demand, flying open.

"What I built, I destroy." A low growl of satisfaction rumbled from Jake's chest.

Nathan shivered at the hungry, psychotic tone of his mate's voice, and wondered at the brightness beyond the door He'd always thought of secrets as things hidden in shadow.

"I am a creature of the night." Jake turned to look at him, eyes shining silver suns "Shadows hold no fear or secrets for me, but I do not care for the light."


"You're afraid of me." Jake made it a simple statement, focusing his full attention on the tiger-tabby "I'm no different than the tom you met in the caves a year ago Not yet."

Nathan returned his mate's gaze steadily "Afraid of you? No, that isn't it really, it's just that I'm reminded of what I really am afraid of ... me No one will ever frighten me as much as I have."

The tiger-tabby looked at the brightness beyond the door "The past helps us to understand where we are, and how we got there But, as Mother reminded me, it does not define the value of who we are now." He stepped forward and hugged Jake "Neither pasts nor forms will change the fact that I love you and always will."

"That's easy for you to say You have parents and a heritage." Jake flattened his ears with a painful growl "I was designed The only random element in my past is when I fought back, and even that was because of my programming."

"So was my father, and for all practical purposes my mother." Nathan countered calmly "What we do with what we're given is what matters My father is a genetically engineered super-assassin He was never supposed to be interested in females, but he fell in love with my mother anyway He wasn't supposed to be able to reproduce, but he sired me."

Jake stood there for a long moment, regarding his mate "You're making this difficult, you know?"

"How so?" Nathan looked up in real confusion.

"You're being more understanding than Felina, accepting everything I throw at you." He sighed in a mixture of frustration and gratitude and look at the light beyond the door "I guess not all the masks come off as easily as the physical one, or the past I'm still trying to chase you off."


"To protect myself from getting hurt." Jake just shrugged "Why did you call me a telepath, anyway? I can't mind-talk outside my bonds."

"But you do, with the base, and that door ..."

"Okay, I'll rephrase that I can't talk to bios outside of a bond." He rolled his eyes "Talking to machines is part of being a TechnoMage, and it's not really telepathy."

"You just lost me." Nathan sighed in recognition that this Bonding was not going to be a simple one, for either of them "But I am a telepath, and I'll telling you, so are you Even if it's on a very strange frequency, you are."

"Whatever you say." Jake took a long took into the brightness and sighed "Let me show you around If you have questions afterward, I'll try to answer them All right?"

"All right." He caught Jake's arm and managed a kiss to his neck "Just remember, nothing can hurt you."

"Easier said than believed, Nate." Jake sighed as he took the first step across the threshold to his lost past "It's never been physical injury that's hurt me."

"You have a very clear view of yourself." Nathan couldn't help but be surprised as they watched two large, agile Wolves battle and realized the lightly smaller one, a female with charcoal stripes on a dark brown coat, was Jake.

"I was taught at a very young age that awareness of what I looked like was critical." He swallowed uncomfortably as the battle played out, his victory clear long before pinned his opponent and ripped the defenseless creature's throat out with a triumphant howl "A free-form shape-shifter must always be aware of what face they present, more than even your average agent."

"So what is your natural form?" Their surroundings flickered even as he asked, reforming into a pristine lab that would even put Puzzleworks to shame.

"I don't really have one." He shrugged and pointed to one of the growth-tanks with a white blob floating in it "That's what I looked like before I became aware."

"Oh," Nathan nodded, "most shape-shifters I know of have a form they default to when knocked unconscious or killed."

"I'm not that kind of shape-shifter." Jake lowered his eyes as a DNA diagram appeared "You'll probably understand this better than I do, but I shape-shift by changing my genetic code itself, and then allowing the cells to take on their new purpose When I get it right, I actually become a member of the species, not just look like it Depending on how much energy I devote to the process, it can take anywhere from a couple days to years." He cast a sideways glance at Nathan "I wasn't the first of my kind, but I was the first that actually took to the training they wanted us to During the twelve years I was there, they never managed to duplicate the success When I turned on them, they stopped trying."

"Did you have anything to do with those failures?" Nathan asked innocently.

Jake scowled in confusion and stared at the Felsin "Why would I?"

"Umm, well, if you didn't approve ..."

"That came much later," he sighed "I did my best to help, to get the equipment to do what it did for me They got a couple good shape-shifters out of it, but none that was suitable for fieldwork At least not at my level."

"So what I'm looking at now ..."

"Is an amalgamation of bodies I have had in the past," he nodded with a small smile "If I were free to look any way I wished, it would be something close to this It feels nice."

Nathan stood quietly almost long enough for his mate to head off "Did you know this before you opened that door?"

"Sort of," he gave his mate a sideways glance before staring into space as everything but stars twinkling in the distance melted into blackness "I knew my genetic code was unstable, and if it wasn't stabilized, I'd continue to change in appearance The last stabilization procedure I went through is wearing off, and I'm not willing to go through it again."

"Do you want to remain a Kat? I know how to do that, and you'll never have to go through that procedure twice."

He looked up and met his mate's bright green eyes "I know it's not fair to you, having a mate that keeps changing forms ...."

Nathan stepped in and pulled his love close, crooning and touching until he relaxed a little, then tipped the tom's chin up "Jake, I love you for who you are, not what you are If you want to remain what you truly are, I'm fine with that." He nuzzled, then kissed him thoroughly.

"You don't know who I am, any more than I do." Jake growled and pulled away, his fits clenched "Crud, I'm doing it again." He looked up, meeting the bewildered look he was getting "This reflex for pushing away is buried deep."

"Then we need to find it, and deal with it." Nathan spoke softly; knowing the 'ready to bolt' look in his mate's stance a little too well "Even if only towards me The Joining won't work unless you accept me past those walls."

"I don't think I can." Jake shook his head, miserable "You're asking for something that requires a very strong bond for me, at least as strong as the one I have with Amerith, if not more."

"But this is Bonding ..." Nathan tried to assimilate the concept of bonding before Bonding "And we already have a stronger bond than you do with her."

"Yes, your way." He let out a low growl "Your Bonding Your rules You're so damn eager for this you brushed off my needs."

"No!" Nathan waved his hands in denial "No I have not I wouldn't do that."

"Then why are we having this conversation?" Jake snapped his ears back and sank into a crouch, his form shifting into a more combat-ready one "I've walked into my past Given up every secret I have, even the ones I hid from myself I honestly want this; and still my soul resists."

Nathan looked at his mate, and tried to think what the problem might be, and the best way not to have the war-form he was facing attack He knew the various theories on Bonding, and he wasn't sure what the problem could be At first he considered that there might be a genetically encoded resistance to Bonding. He didn't think that likely, because genetically encoding the soul wasn't possible, as far anyone had determined.

After several moments, he concluded that only possibility was some sort of psychic trauma, or unresolved guilt in regards to the Bonding Of course, that only helped a little since Nathan knew so little of Jake prior to a year ago, and was beginning to understand just how little of even that he knew.

He chose his words as carefully as he could, while sending calm and reassurance across the bond "Jake, the fact that your soul resists suggests that there is something that remains unresolved. The usual suspects would be either an old trauma long buried, possibly relating to someone you trusted and were betrayed by; or some present guilt, possibly over being pushed into making a choice sooner than you were ready."

"Past trauma?" Jake's harsh voice laughed "I've got a couple lifetimes worth So do you And the only choice I was pushed into ... " his voice trailed off as he looked away "You'd be hard pressed to find a choice I wasn't pushed into.

The tiger-tabby gently put his arm around his mate's shoulders, determinedly not reacting to being the significantly shorter one "I don't have enough to go on to be sure, but there's no hurry Maybe if you just relaxed and let things flow you might see just what is blocking you But don't feel rushed or pressured, time is something we have plenty of."

Nathan let his mind relax, and banished concerns and worry as best he could There were several options still available if things remained blocked He'd only use them as a last resort, but he felt fairly certain that Jake wanted the Bond, and was being blocked ... and he had a friend or two who understood such things very well.

Nathan turned to his mate as an idea hit. "I just had a possible insight, but it's going to require a little thinking back on your part Do you ever remember not pushing away like you're doing?

Jake willed himself to his familiar tomkat form "Ummm, I can't be so sure of my early years yet, but I think I've always done it." He looked at Nathan with a strange glint in his eyes.

"I think what may be happening isn't your 'soul' resisting, but your mind responding to a deeply buried conditioned response, on the same sort of level as my father's aversion to females."

Nathan's analytical mind became fully involved "An aversion to being too close, combined with your somewhat self-destructive response to being unable to bond properly would make for a very powerful control circuit." He pulled Jake close when the other tom visibly flinched "This is, of course, all speculation ... but its all within the realm of possibility; especially if there was a sufficiently talented telepath involved, though theoretically the aversion could have been done by means of genetic programming."

The tiger-tabby looked apologetically at Jake "Sorry, if that sounded really cold and analytical ... but right now, theory is all I have to go on But this reflexive 'pushing away' of yours isn't, in my opinion, good for you ... and as your mate, and a Medic I just can't ignore it." He let the rest of his statement trail off as he felt Jake relax on several levels.

"As sick as it sounds, that analytical voice is rather ... comforting."

"I think that scores a few more points to you having an aversion to getting too close, though what caused it ... that's what we need to find out." Nathan settled back and absently continued to stroke his mate, while trying to figure out how to undo such an aversion ... of course, his father's programming had come undone when Cazi had gotten him involved with Nathan's mother So the possibility existed that completing the Bonding, would undo the reflex itself ... assuming he wasn't completely barking up the wrong tree.

"Which would be easier to eliminate as the cause?" Jake gently pushed Nathan down and shifted to his 'natural' form "Or we can just complete the way I bond, here and now."

Nathan responded easily to the hungry kiss, speaking only when Jake backed off slightly to look down at him, arousal almost too strong to ignore "If it makes you feel better, I'd love to." He slid a hand up Jake's erection, playing light fingers around the smooth tip and smiled when his mate arched back with a low whimper "Like?"

"Yesss," Jake gasped, rocking his hips forward as Nathan's free hand cradled his balls "In me."

"You sure?" Nathan froze for a heartbeat, suddenly very aware they'd never mated like that.

"Yes," Jake groaned, shifting his weight to guide Nathan's rough penis inside him "Very sure."

"But prep ..."

"We're in our minds, Nate." He gently removed the restrained hands from his hips and sank down, groaning in pure pleasure as his mate stretched him open "Remember, nothing can hurt us here."

"Right." Nathan closed his eyes and tried to remember how to breathe, even as a tiny corner of his mind wondered why it felt so different from being inside Rhymar, and just as quickly wrote it off as a combination of species and situation.

"Oh, sweet Bastet ..." Jake shuddered as he arched back, greedily humping his mate With a piercing howl he clamped down and arched, his head down, still as ice "Roll over, fuck me."

With a nod and a deep breath, Nathan rolled with him, only just getting his knees under him before he crushed the tom who now had his legs wrapped firmly around his ribs Not the most graceful of maneuvers, but he couldn't help but be slightly impress that they'd pulled it off.

"Yes," Jake stretched his arms above his head and panted as Nathan began to move "Goddess, yes Fuck me."

Nathan's reply froze in his throat as he felt Jake's mind start to unlock, shooting half a dozen tendrils to wind around their still forming bond And even as it did, the Kat tried to pull back on pure reflex from an entirely different part of his mind, one flared hot in both pain and purpose.

It was the last coherent thought to pass through Nathan's mind as Jake roared, his body spasming as it came and dragged Nathan with him.

"That was intense." Nathan murmured as he regained his breath, playing weakly with the sweat and come soaked fur of his mate's chest and did his best to accept the difference in shape, even as it changed back to the newly familiar tomkat body.

"It was bothering you." Jake rolled to embrace his mate, purring in pure contentment "You really don't care for females, do you?"

"I got a lot of my dad's conditioning, that way." Nathan sighed as Jake stretched with a happy groan, treating each muscle in his lean body to separate attention He couldn't help but smile at the Kat, so pleased by such simple things.

"Mmuurrr," Jake gave voice to his internal pleasure as an outstretched had came in contact with warm, thick, soft fur He closed his eyes and purred deeply as his full focus went to scratching the belly of the creature over his hand, until he felt two good-sized paws land on his ribs and his eyes shot open.

"Murr-at?" The rich brown half feline, half weasel creature twitched its whiskers and looked directly at Jake.

"Who, what?" Nathan raised an eyebrow as the other tom swept the creature into his arms and started shaking, clutching the relaxed, purring animal against his chest and radiating pure joy as he stroked and nuzzled it.

"Erra," Jake rumbled softly as tears trickled down his face, "my baby girl."

Nathan spotted the tears and realized that what he was seeing must be from Jake's past He gently broadcast acceptance and support across the link, as he stroked his mate's hair. "I can tell something happened ... It might help if you talked about it ... and I'm always willing to listen." He offered his fingers to the creature, who sniffed them and promptly turned it's attention back to nuzzling Jake's neck.

Jake bit his lip and buried his nose into Erra's fur, breathing deeply "Everything I am today ... Razor ... and all the rest ... is because of her ... because of what ... what ... happened." His voice became tight as the imagery around them shifted to a dried out grass field under a bright summer sun that was not Aristal's.

"Jake?" Nathan shivered despite the heat at the sense of impending doom that soaked the area in an almost caustic air, and pulled his mate close "What is this place?"

"Just a field." Jake's voice was nearly dead as people and war-machines of all descriptions began to dot the landscape in a sort of freeze-frame The most notable were two male Lions standing right where they were seated, and the lithe, 8ft dragon biped with shackled wings standing in a defensive posture in the middle of the action "Where I lost my innocence."

"Innocence?" Nathan wasn't sure how someone so clearly experienced as the warrior standing defense could possibly still be innocent.

"I didn't survive the first ... when this happened." Jake took a deep breath and looked up at his mate "I'm ... not very sure if I can take it now."

"Nothing can hurt you." Nathan held Jake close, including Erra in the embrace "Remember that."

"Nothing can physically hurt us." He pushed his head against the tiger-tabby's shoulder "No one touched me on this field ...."

"Oh," he let both his hands roam Jake's body in a soothing pattern "If you're not ready ...."

"It's now or never, Nate." Jake closed his eyes and the scene went black and Erra disappeared "I can't go back ... I'm counting on you Bring me through this, or let me go."

"I'll bring us through this." Nathan promised with quiet certainty.

"Promise me, Nate." Jake grabbed his mate's scruff with the strength of desperation "We both know I'll live if you demand it ... I don't want to live broken Promise me you'll let me die if I can't take this."

"I can't ...."

"You let Rhymar go."

"There was nothing ... oh." Nathan swallowed "That serious?"

"No one touched me, but I still didn't walk off this field." Jake whispered "You know what a shattered bond is like Now be the one that ki ..." he shuddered and partially shut down, "just watch."

Nathan froze as things began to move The overall scene remained dark, the people merely blurry objects of roughly the right size and shape with target information -- an actual HUD-like display -- marking them and how, where, and when to strike and move It wasn't even smooth motion, more like a slide show than a movie, with the next target placed where it would be when hit.

He tried not to judge, not to be sick as each killing strike brought a rush as intense a pleasure as any orgasm he could remember Machine or living being, they 'felt' the same in this memory A full telepath on both frequencies, drunk in a precise frenzy of killing for no reason but that it was allowed If there was an antithesis of everything Nathan was, this was it And this was in his mate.

So he saw it coming before his drunk mate-to-be, the smaller target rushing into range, coming from where the Lions still stood, watching Saw it just in time to brace for the agony he knew would come with a violently shattered lifebond, and in time to comprehend at least the basics of why this had ripped Jake's mind apart as the blow landed perfectly, shattering Erra's body, the rush of the kill mixing with the intolerable agony of her death.

Nathan wasn't the least bit surprised that he regained consciousness well before his still sobbing mate, or the pounding headache he had from that final moment of the memory.

He thanked Felsira that he'd taken all the telepath courses, even though he hadn't been one He understood the medical/psychic course of action for dealing with a shattered lifebond, and now he even had the telepathic ability to handle it, even if he didn't have much experience.

As his medical mind handled the easy part, Nathan set himself into handling the difficult part ... the emotional damage caused by what was easily the worst way to have a bond shattered, and left to fester for decades Nathan focused his entire mind on positive emotions, forcing anything the least bit negative behind the strongest shields he had He had lost one lifemate without being able to do anything ... this time, failure was just not an option.

Nathan quickly sent a heartfelt request to Felsira. "*Mother, I think I can do this But if it's beyond me, please don't let him go ... or if that isn't possible ... let me go with him.*"

Felsira managed to hide her shock at Nathan's request "*Kitten, no one is going anywhere Do what you have to I'll see to the rest.*" The gold furred shekat strengthened her shields around the two as a storm of nearly matching intensity built in the outside world as every machine, telepath and bondmate Jake had in the area went frantic trying to find the cause of the scream, and assure themselves without success that the tom was all right.

She sent a quick message to Caito and Keltin "*Do what you can to calm his friends, and be nice about it They will be fine, but this will take a while, and I will not have us interrupted.*" She nodded at their quite assurances and focused to the real task at hand, keeping a careful watch on Jake's mind, ready to do whatever required Nathan could probably handle it, but if he couldn't she would The healer had no intention of losing even one of them, much less both.

As Nathan felt his medical mind performing the closure procedures necessary to allow the shattered bond to become 'memory' as it should, he decided on a course of action; it was risky but the cost of not risking was too high Carefully, gently, radiating all the love he felt for Jake he wound a temporary bond around the shattered one that was generating all the pain For a while, Nathan could make it as though he had been part of the bond in the first place ... since he knew the one thing that reliably allowed survival past a shattered lifebond was the presence of another lifebond ... it was the reason that Felsin tended to Bond in threes The Bond of the two made surviving the death of the one possible, if not pleasant.

While he had understood the theory, he quickly discovered the reality was another matter entirely The surges of grief and guilt were extremely powerful, almost beyond his ability to handle, but he focused on allowing some of that emotional storm to enter him ... become his own ... in that way drawing some of the pain away from his besieged mate.

Nathan breathing became heavy and labored as psychic effort became physically exhausting He released all the safety restrictions on energy use that he knew of Either he had enough strength to save Jake ... or it wouldn't matter.

The Felsin finally found Jake's splintering psyche behind the storm that raged about it and brought his mind as close as he could before reconstructed the blanket of warmth and safety around the two of them As the storm raged about them, he mind-spoke quietly to the sobbing tom. "*Jake, when that happened you were in a frenzy beyond self-control. The frenzy did the killing, not you You've spent a lifetime punishing yourself for a tragedy you had no control over.*"

Nathan tried not to panic as the psychic fracture split completely Still laying, sobbing on the ground, completely incoherent in grief was the gray dragon that had struck the blow Slowly trying to stand to face him, shaky and emotionally numb, was a rainbow feathered avian Around the central pair were others; shadowy, half formed creatures The She-Wolf from earlier was joined by a black on chocolate Felsin female and a creature Nathan could best describe as a merdolphin Notably missing was the Kat he was so familiar with.

"*You do not understand.*" The avian's voice was powerful, reminding Nathan much more of the great predatory raptors than the playful fruit eaters the body resembled.

"*Your good intentions have undone a quarter century of work.*" The Wolf growled as she solified "*We were well along becoming a me again Jake had incorporated much of our past already, even if he wasn't particularly aware of it.*"

The unexpected challenge caused Nathan to shift defensively to the war-form The eight foot tall warrior glared at the unfamiliar presences This was a situation unfamiliar to him but that didn't matter to the war-form He didn't understand what they meant, he only knew that Jake had been barely hang on to sanity, and was now starting to move back from the brink The war-form focused on the one sense that should be able to find Jake in all this chaos, the bond between them He tuned out all distractions and focused the great strength of the war-form on defending and protecting the other end of that bond.

Back in the physical world, Felsira was startled by Nathan's sudden shift to war-form She quickly entered the psychic storm to see what was going on The healer was surprised to find things more chaotic then expected and decided the direct approach was called for, this once.

In the midst of all the shadowy forms, the glowing golden form of the Healer appeared She looked at all the 'others' present, and spoke gently "Your quarter-century of work had already come undone whether you realize it or not Indeed, a year ago all of you would have ceased to exist because of the irresolvable internal conflicts." Felsira scanned gently yet forcefully, for 'Jake' among all the conflict, knowing that because the Wolf had referred to Jake separately he must be there, even if he wasn't visible She gazed across the gathering slowly, and then spoke in voice which was gentle but brooked no dispute "A house divided against itself will not stand; a mind is no more tolerant of such division."

The golden shekat smiled as she realized what the separate presences were, suppressed pasts partitioned into separate realms, but which had forgotten that they were just that ... pasts, memories ... they had begun to believe themselves real The warm healing light of Felsira played across the gathering "In time Jake will deal with you, as he learns to deal with his past ... but for now you will cease to force yourselves into separate existence Be at peace, and let Jake deal with the present ... your time will come to be dealt with ... but it is not now." Felsira's warm voice made it quite clear she was not making a request.

Felsira stroked the fur of the growling war-form as five forms disappeared, leaving an exhausted, unconscious, cinnamon tomkat "Nathan, that form is not needed There is no battle of that sort to be fought Return to your Felsin form, your mate needs you."

Nathan shifted back from the powerful form "Thank you, mother I didn't know how ..."

"Of course not, kitten Though you should understand ... you've had a few separate minds yourself from time to time." She smiled and disappeared as Jake struggled back to consciousness.

"*It's time to forgive yourself, and start living again.*" Nathan knelt and pulled his mate against him "*You are strong enough to survive this, and if you need to; draw strength from me.*"

Nathan continued radiating approval and sympathy trying to help start the healing as the lean tom mewed weakly against him, almost as a hungry kitten with his mother "*Jake, you mentioned my letting Rhymar go ... that was a far different situation I couldn't help him, and there was someone else who I could help ... I reacted as a Medic is trained This is different; I can help you if you'll let me ... and more importantly no one else needs me now ... I am not giving up. *"

"*Chance does.*" Jake's mind-voice was very weak, almost unaware of what he was saying.

Nathan shook his head, stroking the Kat in his lap, encouraged by any level of coherent thought "*Not as a healer, and there are plenty of others who will look after him, there isn't anyone else to help you But don't worry, I made sure Chance would be okay, I even found some people who could protect him from Feral if that was necessary They'll look after him, he's too valuable to them for them not to.*" Nathan smiled quietly. "*But understand Jake, I'm not giving up on either of the two Kats who mean the world to me ... but right now, my priority has to be on looking after my mate.*"

Jake squirmed a little further up the Felsin's body before burying his muzzle in the crook of Nathan's arm, too spent to go any further "*Just don't ask me to face him, okay?*"

"*Not until you're ready, love.*" He helped Jake sit up and smiled when the Kat's nose found its desired spot against his neck "*Nothing before you are ready You have my word, as your BondMate, your LifeMate ... I'll protect you Whatever it takes.*"

"*Why?*" The question was more feeling than word as Jake drifted off despite his best efforts.

"*Because I love you.*" He couldn't help his surprise leaking through with the projected calmness and strength "*Jake, your grief and pain is understandable but destroying yourself because of it accomplishes nothing Mother once told me that when we feel guilt for another's death, the purest way to pay that debt, whether we are truly responsible or not, is to live; to try and replace what we took from the universe Death does not repay guilt, life does.*"

The Felsin tightened his arms around Jake both physically and psychically As his medical mind repaired the last of the damage surrounding the shattered bond, Nathan carefully eased the damaged places in Jake's mind the best he could "*Jake, you are whole if you can believe that; you have just been badly injured Just rest a while, and let our combined strength heal the wounds that you have kept fresh for so long We are together, and we will make it through this. *"

"*Less talk, more sleep.*" There was a touch of humor in the thought before Jake lost his battle with exhaustion.

Physically, Nathan nodded and passed out again, having expended every ounce of strength he had.

Felsira ran her hand across both toms' foreheads; golden energy calming and restoring the memory ravaged pair She looked at the two of them and shook her head sadly "Who'd have imagined two Kats could have so much pain If misery loves company, these two must be positively ecstatic." She sighed and settled on the bed with the unconscious pair, preparing for a very long, and involved, healing processes When she sent an update to the others, she couldn't help but smile at their gratitude, and her own that she didn't have to deal with it Caito was having a royal time trying to get Cathedral to come down from red alert, and the rest weren't taking it much better.

Alexander Maxwell jerked as his mind was assaulted by a lifebond's death-scream from two directions He nearly lost his grip on his assumed form in favor of the Felsin Lion's War-form as the world around him went insane The short gold, black and tan tabby calico took a deep breath and spent a moment placing the fragmented bits of information that came through into a coherent picture he quickly realized he had nowhere close to the rank to get from anyone or anything else that might have a clue at the moment.

The quieter of the two sources was the bigger surprise; it was from, or at least via, the machines around him, even though he was very consciously keeping his 'gift' with them off Mostly it was from the base itself and the AI jets having some kind of impromptu meeting with their crews in the Hanger just on the other side of the common room from his computerized office.

The second, louder source was much more informative, and distressing The old parental bond with Nathan he'd kept open over the years screamed with pain, but it wasn't from the other Felsin, it was through him.

Alex let out a small sigh of relief that his son was all right, then felt his entire body tense as the realization that the only way he could be getting that though Nathan, was if Nathan's lifemate was experiencing it, and through that bond, Nathan himself A scream of pain nearly as breakingly strong after he accounted for the filtering as when Rhymar died.

"Oh, Nate ...." the calico rubbed the bridge of his nose as he tried to figure out what the best course of action was.

Caito groaned as he and Keltin acknowledged Felsira's order.

"Okay, first order of business, who ..." he visibly winced as Cathedral went to red alert, even as the two Black Phoenix Jedi did their best to calm their teammates down, and revive the unconscious black and white tom that was now sprawled limply under Amerith's flexing wing, the jet easily as agitated as her teammates.

"*Hay, Cathedral, he's all right.*" He tried to put his best convincing presence with the tight-band contact. "*Fel's taking care of him.*"

"*So why can't I find him?*" The facility roared back, fully into the warrior fear response.

"*Stand down!*" A new, distinctly female voice slammed through on a broad machine band broadcast. "*I give the orders here. He is not dead Now stand down."

Caito blinked in surprise as the machine bands suddenly went quiet, and easily found the source of the order standing almost stock still in the middle of the room, trembling in her efforts to control what was hers. He watched her for a moment, honestly impressed with this mortal's strength and will before offering her what support he could as she began to relax.

"*Thanks for the support.*" Pakitra looked directly at the individual she couldn't see, but felt easily enough. "*Now, what did we just hear?*"

He blinked, startled for a moment before chuckling. "*Jake just stumbled into a memory of someone very important to him dieing.*"

"*And Jake's silence?*" She tried not to growl as her own concern wore at her temper.

"*Felsira is shielding them, to protect them.*" He explained carefully as best he could. "*They are both in a very ... delicate ... position.*"

Everyone and everything suddenly went still as Jake's mind-voice gave a very tired part growl, part 'shut up', part 'what the hell' noise.

"*Love?*" Pakitra reached along the unfamiliar path, hearing most of the others greet him as well.

"*I'll be fine, just tired.*" Jake grumbled, only half-coherent from exhaustion "*Just calm down, wil'ya?*"

"Catch ...." Pakitra whispered as her legs went out from under her, too spent to stand as Jake disappeared behind the shield again.

"Well, this is turning into quite the interesting day." Caito quipped as he materialized in time to support the shekat.

Chance was startled awake by his own roar, momentarily panicked by the strong arms around him until his disoriented senses placed their owner as Brandy, and that they were in his quarters at Ameliorate He couldn't shake the soul-deep sense of loss and guilt nearly as easily.


The Hyena's concerned voice was in his ear, forcing his attention to the real world and his sweat soaked fur, reeking of fear and pain.

"Chance?" She repeated, shaking him slightly.

"Yah?" He focused hard and looked at her, not believing for a second he'd actual fool her.

"What happened?" She regarded him critically "That was more than just a random nightmare."

"I don't know." He shrugged, then elaborated at her look "I don't remember what it was, honest."

"Want a shower?" She licked his neck gently "I'll change the sheets."

He hesitated for a moment, wondering just how long it would take before he'd respond normally to an interested bedmate, then sighed "A shower does sound good ... though I think I could use some help scrubbing my ... back." He gave a good imitation of his charming grin.

Brandy woofed playfully and grinned back with a lecherous look for his fit body "Your back, sure."

Her first true awareness beyond what she was used to came with an intense flash of pain and loss along the frequency she'd always gotten comfort and assurances from Then it went silent.

"*Razor?*" She made a valiant attempt to do what she'd felt him do so many times, but there was no answer At least none from that familiar voice.

"*TurboKat.*" An unknown voice entered her awareness "*Your pilot and gunner are safe, you can't hear Razor because a healer is shielding him ... to repair damage They will both be fine.*"

"*Where?*" She set in motion the sequence T-Bone always used when they went out,

"*If you'll let me in, I'll show you.*"

She sat for a moment, trying to remember if Razor had done such a thing When no answer came, she opened the cockpit.

"*Thank you, TurboKat.*"

Felsira prepared herself for a more detailed, and intrusive, look into Jake's mind than she cared for, but the last few minutes were not something that could be permitted to happen again As she caressed the pair's hair, she gently sank both into a deep sleep that neither resisted With as much care and caution as she could, she began a systematic trek through Jake's mind, seeking out any other 'surprises' that could prove hazardous.

"Who?" An androgynous, young voice asked softly as she found one of the older memory imprints.

"I am Felsira, a friend, and healer." She turned to face the fully-grown gray dragon, with Erra perched on his shoulder "You can see me?"

"Well, yah." Facetted emerald green eyes regarded the Lioness for a time, then he smiled "You're the one that stopped the Shattering from happening again, aren't you?"

"If you mean that mess after reliving her death, yes." She nodded at the sleek creature peering at her from under the Dragon's blue-gray mane.

"Yes, that." He shivered, wrapping his wings around him and clutching Erra to his shoulder "Why have you come here?"

"I'm making sure there are no more nasty, dangerous surprises like that for Jake and Nathan to run into." She stepped up and offered her fingers to Erra, who sniffed them cautiously "I will not loose them."

"You've got your work cut out for you then." He started to phase out with a sad sigh "Erra's death was probably the most traumatic, but it's hardly the only time reality has nearly broken me."

"Wait." Felsira asked softly, bringing them back to solid form "Will you help me? You know this mind better than I do I'd prefer to touch as little as possible."

The dragon thought for a moment and nodded "I was named V'Feri when I first awoke."

Felsira nodded and smiled at him, offering Erra a scratch on the head, earning a small purr from the beast "You have a darling daughter, V'Feri."

"She's quite something." He beamed unabashedly as he scratched Erra's back "I don't care that Rachel gave her to me as a lesson, she was my reason for coming back here for a long time."

"Gave her to you?" Felsira raised an eyebrow in true curiosity "I thought she was your child."

"She is, in a lot of ways." V'Feri chuckled with a bit of a smirk *But I didn't sire or give birth to her Rachel thought I was too disconnected with my 'maternal' instincts to perform several mission types, so she gave me this fragile, nameless little lump of fur and sharp points with a bad temper and ordered me to raise it properly Erra became my first, and so far only, true lifebond, even if she has barely above animal intelligence." He shrugged and grinned, nuzzling the creature in question "They were pretty upset about that, but there's not a hell of a lot to do, since neither of us wanted to break it, and I already had a bit of a rep for tearing threats apart without a lot of provocation."

"What is she?"

"Mmm, she's a genetic creation, sort of like me." He shrugged "I think they referred to her as a weasel-cat Based off a couple creatures from planet Earth But you wanted to deal with our serious traumas, and that's a long trip with a lot of stops."

"Please, lead the way then." She bowed him forward as the scenery changed to a luxurious briefing room.

"First, I think you need to understand the nature of this mind." He smiled gently at her curious look "Last time you were here, you guessed wrong If you are going to heal the damage life has done, you must understand what we are, and what I am not." He motioned her to a comfortable seat and settled next to her as Erra jumped down to the table and proceeded to walk around like she owned the place.

"Please feel free to tell me to fast forward if I hit a section you already know." V'Feri flicked his wrist and a holofield activated above the table, a four pointed star with two DNA helix crossed in the middle "This is the insignia of Project V.F.E.R.I.; the Variable Form Enforcement Recon Intelligence project, and how I came into existence.

"Their mission was rather complicated, and not at all prone to success The basics were to create a life form that would serve as a self-contained, loyal, shape and culture shifting, all purpose protection, search, rescue and destroy unit." He chuckled "And if you think that's a mouthful, try making it happen."

"I can imagine." She nodded for him to continue.

"Combined total, we've seen about two hundred and fifty years, and as far as anyone's figured out, I'm immortal for most practical purposes."

"Immortal? And why do you keep shifting between 'we' and 'I'?" She absently stroked Erra as the creature pressed against her hand.

"I'm immortal because of how aging works, and the rather unique biology that allows me to shape-shift." He brought up a DNA display "You see, I don't shift like your Felsin, or most shifters do, for that matter I rewrite my actual genetic structure to my new form, actually becoming a member of the species, right down to the brain chemistry Because of this, my cells do not have a 'stop reproducing' mechanism, as during a shift, they are all replaced, sometimes several times."

He settled his chin on interlaced fingers "And that leads into the 'I' and 'we' business." He smiled slightly "You see, for very long missions, and ones where the personality or thinking patterns are radically different from my own, part of the shifting process is the creation of a 'personality' that is suited to the body and mission Those 'personalities' become part of me, but always retain a level of separateness that is tied to the form they were created for If we ever manage to become a whole, that separateness will disappear, though like old skills, most of them can be recalled and faked fairly well under the right circumstances."

"Interesting way to go about things." She regarded V'Feri for a moment, trying to formulate the right way to ask, without severely pissing him off "Who will form the basis for this single self?"

"Jake." He stretched and sighed "We created him as a very unformed self so he could grow up and become his own person, have a real life_, rather than a mission built personally; and to absorb each of us, and the truth about himself, as he could He's actually come a very long way, though I'm sure it doesn't look like it at the moment."

"You're right, he doesn't look like he's come far."

"Part of that is because of circumstances we couldn't control His early years were unfortunately very counterproductive to becoming a happy individual." V'Feri rubbed the bridge of his nose between faceted eyes "The reality of what he is, by simple virtue of what we are, honestly doesn't help any either It's hard to have a calm, introspective, happy life when you're driven to protect and explore, with some very aggressive instincts."

"Now that is something I understand all too well." Felsira rolled her eyes.

"Nathan?" He chuckled as Erra crawled into his lap for more attention.

"Among others." She smiled wistfully "I understand the distinction between what is happening with you and what I originally thought."

"Good," V'Feri breathed an honest sigh of relief "Now, would you prefer to start with the state of his existing bonds, or the memories that haven't been recovered from?"

"The bonds, definitely."

"Interesting way to think about it." Felsira took in the communications center like room that was Jake's perception of his bonds.

"He grew up around elite non-telepaths and the high technology for a planet-bound society." V'Feri shrugged "It makes sense, in an odd way Especially with how he uses them."

"He doesn't understand the full capabilities of his Bonds?" She arched an eyebrow at the Dragon.

"Not even close, for all he has several dozen of varying strengths and is quite comfortable with what he uses them for." He concentrated for a moment and information regarding each link appeared next to its tube as a glowing digital readout "I do like a couple things he did with imagery, especially the varying thickness for the strength and brightness indicating usage, and the positioning indicating age an importance, as well as how often they're used."

Felsira made a quick circuit of the room, taking in the overall structure and content "It's a bit convoluted, but considering what I know of Jake's upbringing, it does make sense." She gently tested the strongest bond present, and the only one that was currently glowing, the one with Nathan "At least it's doing well, but it's so different from the rest."

"Well, yes." V'Feri watched her "It's a lifebond with a telepath that has his own opinions of what one should be." He walked over and touched one of the stronger bonds "Most that he did by himself, like this one with Amerith, are working bonds, for lack of a better description Even the one with Felina is only a variant on that." He met golden eyes squarely "Remember, because of what happened with Erra, he's not really capable of forming a true lifebond without significant help But one of the side effects of how I was healed means he's naturally resistant to anything that resembles what Erra and I shared Even if he doesn't understand, anything that too closely resembles my lifebond will make him very uncomfortable."

"That's why he's 'coating' the lifebond with Nathan with his own 'kind' of working bond." She murmured in something akin to amazement as she studied the structure a little more "All things considered, he's amazingly resilient, and creative."

"Jake is a survivor, Felsira." V'Feri spoke softly "That is one thing all of us have in common We survive That will make your job difficult, we've learned to resist change we do not instigate."

"I'll keep that in mind." She nodded, grateful at least part of Jake's mind was this willing to talk to her as she began to examine other bonds For all that they were configured strangely, in a pattern that did have more inherent weaknesses, but also produced less trauma when broken, most were in good shape The strongest ones; Amerith and Patrik Celest far outstripping the strength of any others, until she found a mangled looking, but very strong, bond pushed to the back.

"That would be Chance Furlong," V'Feri informed her as she looked for the information every other bond carried, that wasn't there "It's what happens when everything goes wrong trying to lifebond, and there is no one to help, or heal." He shook his head sadly "Though it has kept the tabby alive for the last couple years."

"Jake won't kill him for fear of shattering that." Felsira murmured "I've never seen one in such bad shape."

"Love twisted to resentment, hurt, and what will be hatred, given time." He came a little closer, but was leery of the bond himself "Though it's in better shape that it might have been Nathan's helped a lot, even if he doesn't realize it So has Felina, for that matter."

"The one with Pakitra is older, but in better shape." She prompted, hoping for a clue As far as she understood it, the tom's relationship with both Kats was very similar.

"She's female." V'Feri shrugged, elaborating at the look he got "Jake had a very bad experience the first time he had sex with a female, who was Pakitra, by the way He's avoided being the top for intercourse for the most part, since It probably saved their relationship, at least on his side."

"One experience caused that much of an aversion?"

"Yes, though it wasn't as ... simple ... as that." V'Feri fidgeted.

"When is it ever?" Felsira sighed, her ears flicked down in displeasure "What else went wrong?"

"It was his first bonding, and he panicked completely when he felt her gain access to his mind through their mutual TechnoMagic gifts, that neither had any training with." V'Feri regarded the Healer with a critical eye "He started as a nearly blank sheet, but by the time he was thirteen and this happened, he'd assimilated quite a bit from us Not the least of which was a very high level of paranoia when it comes to protecting his mental space."

"I see." She regarded the mangled bond with Chance and shook her head as she began to wrap muting energies around it "This is going to be difficult to repair."

"You can't just dissolve it? Make it go away?" V'Feri asked hopefully.

"That would make things much worse, not better." She replied in her most authoritive Healer's voice, more than a little horrified at the concept "The near-death feedback of breaking the bond like that would do a lot of damage to both psyches, plus the danger of Nathan's sentinel link to Chance turning into a full-fledged Bond."

"Okay, okay, you've made your point." He backed off with hands raised "I was just wondering Life would be much simpler without it."

"I understand, but that is just not an option." She stared at V'Feri hard for a moment, before turning her attention back to buffering the mangled bond "And even I can not heal it until they are on better terms Their relationship must be improved and their major conflicts resolved before this can be dealt with."

"*Who?*" A low growl drew their attention to a sleepy eyed and very displeased large cinnamon tomcat.

"Just me, Jake I let her in." V'Feri calmly walked up to the irate cat and scratched it's ears while it stared at the Lioness "Felsira's doing some damage control, is all."

"*Your watch?*" The cat shifted its gaze to the dragon.

"*My watch, Jake Go back to sleep, I'll keep her out of where she doesn't belong.*" V'Feri .

With a low woofing growl Jake the cat turned away.

"Wait a moment, Jake." Felsira bowed slightly as he turned his head to glare at her "You're friends are quiet worried about you." She paused as he gave each link a hard look, his confusion growing.

"Nothing incoming." He stared her down.

"I've shielded your mind from it." She took a step back as the cat growled and crouched, ready to attack "It was hurting you, and Nathan."

"Unshield." He demanded, and let out a mixed howl of 'shut up' and 'what the hell' as his bonds flared to life, all of them agitated, and concerned He growled, sending a wave of energy up each link when the cacophony settled slightly "*I'll be fine, just tired Just calm down, wil'ya.*"

Felsira watched the tom's subconscious walk away as she reasserted the shields when the muted acceptance and thanks died had down "He doesn't relax much, does he?"

"He doesn't relax, ever." V'Feri corrected "That's part of the problem No one to trust that much."

"I've done what I can here, for now." Felsira turned to her guide with a nearly fatalistic determination "Now, let's see to those traumas."

Jake opened his eyes, slightly surprise to be in the physical world until he met Felsira's hesitant golden gaze, and knowledge of what had happened while he slept flooded in.

"I am sorry for not directly asking your permission first," she began before he could say anything, "but both you and Nathan were in real danger if I ...."

"It's okay." He interrupted her quietly, stroking his mate's rumpled hair before carefully unbraiding it.

"You're not angry with me?" She watched him in real surprise.

"No." He didn't look at her as he finger combed Nathan's hair out "I can't be angry about anything that will spare him that much pain." He glanced up, knowing she'd see the truth behind his soothing words; no, he wasn't angry, but he still felt betrayed for now "Let him sleep, Felsira He doesn't need to feel this yet You mean too much to him."

"It wouldn't hurt you to rest a little more, either." She hoped she wasn't pushing her luck.

"I'll rest when my body and soul stop screaming for this Bond." He shifted to lay half on top of the tiger-tabby and closed his eyes, seeking the place they'd been together.

Nathan stood facing a darkened archway; behind him was a huge library stretching out of sight in every direction As faced the archway, a chill ran up his spine causing him to shiver noticeably Involuntarily, he turned away from the darkness.

"What is it, Nate?" Jake asked from slightly behind his mate.

"My greatest mask is the darkness in my own mind All the hidden places blocked from me by others Somewhere in there is the rest of the real me, but I've never been able to face what might be in there A good friend once offered to open the doors for me, but I figured that I'd lived that long without the memories ... why look for trouble But I'm tired of not knowing who, or even what I really am And more importantly, I don't want anything else coming out of the darkness to cause trouble for us."

Nathan turned and looked at Jake "You deserve to know the real me, not just this comfortable fiction I've been showing everyone for as long as I can remember. "

Jake regarded the darkness, noting far too many flickering shapes he couldn't pin down for his comfort "You have any idea what's in there?"

The tiger-tabby sighed "My kittenhood, whatever it was, should be in there somewhere, since I've never have been able to remember most of it But I somehow doubt it will be anything pleasant Aside from that, I'm not sure I really don't know how much I've forgotten due to the decisions of others."

"Do you intend to explore it all?" He hesitated a moment, "with me?"

Nathan looked at Jake "I've spent too much of my life avoiding it, and just for once I'd like to know who I really am beyond the illusions I've created to be acceptable to others."

The tiger-tabby sighed "It's taken me my entire life to be able to tell anyone else anything about my father, and I still haven't really said much ... it was always easier to be the son of one of the planet's leading surgeons than the son of the Felsin who gave new definitions to the word, 'assassin'."

"What's so bad about having a premiere assassin for a father?" Jake's uncertainty and unease showed in his voice and stance.

Nathan shrugged "To me ... nothing I loved my father, I still do I've always admired his professionalism and his skill ... even when I was trying to deny it to myself It was other people that had the problem, nobody would talk about my real father except in hushed, frightened tones My adopted mother gave me icy stares if I even mentioned his name, and my adopted father always looked disappointed I got tired of being an outcast because of who I was ... if I just went along with the program and said Doctor Solgardin was my father, people were nice to me Being a teenager is tough enough, being an outcast is worse ... I've never been a slow learner ... I learned to adapt and to be who I was supposed to be."

Nathan sighed deeply "I'm a healer, I've committed my life to healing and the preservation of life, but I'm not naive I know that sometimes black ops is the best way to deal with things The people I consider my real family were all black ops, elite Special Forces and I loved them all, I still do No, what my father was doesn't bother me ... I just got tired of fighting the whole damned world."

Nathan looked off in the distance "In a way, I'm trying to be what my father wanted me to be He didn't want me to be what he was; he was afraid that I'd end up being used by the same people who used him for so long The inhibitions my mother gave me against killing were his idea, not hers He felt it might make them leave me alone."

Nathan edged closer to the darkness trying to see beyond it somehow "In a sense, I'm discarding several masks here: the mask of heritage, the pretense I've maintained for so long; the mask of solitude, which I spent most of my life hiding my emotions behind; and the one that frightens me the most ... the mask of the unknown, the mask that others put on me to keep me from knowing things they felt it better for me not to know."

Jake looked at him, confused. "I understand two of those, but solitude through emotionless? You're been pretty high strung the last year."

The tiger-tabby smiled "I've been very unsettled for the last year I was grieving for Rhy and trying to deal with the shattered remnants of my bond with him But part of the problem was that Felsin are very much umm ... group oriented ... we almost always function in groups, even our best solo operatives are part of a group that's supporting them We become very 'uncomfortable' when we don't have a group we're sure of, especially if there aren't any other Felsin around I'd never been anywhere before where there weren't other Felsin, I was having trouble adjusting Losing the Corps was almost as hard as losing Rhy, because the Corps had become my 'family' more or less."
He sighed quietly "I was trying to rebuild everything I lost ... and was feeling pretty lost I guess it came out as high-strung."

Nathan nodded sadly "For most of my life, I had no real emotions ... I had the professional caring and so forth required by a physician, because that was duty and responsibility But personally, there was nothing for a very long time ... what others usually thought of me was cold, distant and standoffish. And they were right, till Rhymar came along He was the first to break through my self-imposed exile because he felt I was worth the effort."

"I'm glad he did." Jake scratched his mate's cheek "Even if you did almost give me a heart attack every time you came out with us."

Nathan smiled "So am I, and I'm sorry about the excessive enthusiasm ... it's been a long time since I've felt the need to prove myself to anyone I've spent most of my life just trying to live up to my reputation."

Nathan sighed, as gentle tears rolled down his cheeks "I probably would have returned to that exile except for one thing ... by the time I recovered from the shock of his death, which took weeks, I realized something ... I'd fallen in love with you." The Felsin paused a little "It took me a long time to admit it to myself ... almost too long At first, I felt guilty because I'd barely grieved for Rhy and I'd already fallen in love again When I wasn't feeling guilty, I tried my best to hide my feelings because I didn't think my interest in you was good for the team I could see there were problems between you and Chance, and I didn't want to risk being another That's the way Medics usually approach things; the good of the team is always more important."

"That much I understand." Jake looked away "I almost killed the Kat I love for the good of the team."

Nathan shook his head "You asked a perfectly simple question, and I started rambling Seems to be the norm for me lately ... you're the third person I've done it to this weekend.

"To answer your question: Yes I intend to explore it, and with you is the only way I want to do it. If it wasn't for my love for you, I probably wouldn't bother After all, I'm not very good at doing things just for my own sake ... I'm always too busy looking after everyone else."

"I've heard that complaint before." Jake chuckled "Tends to make for good teammates."

Nathan grinned "That it does, but as a Corps superior reminded me repeatedly; everyone needs to look out for their own interests once in a while ... that was part of the yearly speech which preceded him placing me on 'medical' leave for two weeks ... the only way I ever went on vacation until Rhy came into my life."

Nathan stepped to the edge of the darkness "I'll explain things the best I can, but much of this will be new to me as well." He offered his hand to Jake. "You said darkness doesn't bother you, care to take a look at mine?"

Jake smiled almost playfully "I would be pleased to look with you."

It was only with great difficulty that Nathan refrained from jumping as the shadowy shapes swooped and dove around him and Jake as they walked through the cavernous darkness Their footsteps echoed distantly in the murky blackness.

Jake tried to make out just what the shapes were but they were amorphous and hard to see against the darkness, even to his sight He had to keep reminding himself that this wasn't real darkness, but the darkness of his mate's mind "Nate, do you know what these shadows are?"

Nathan nodded uncertainly "I believe they're memories vying for my attention, but I can't see any of them clearly yet They should become clearer beyond the third mask."

Despite the shadowy darkness Jake was able to make out that his mate's form kept changing; tiger, war-form, Felsin Sometimes the forms had wings, and sometimes they didn't; sometimes Nathan's normal coloration and sometimes a dark black fur "Nate, are you all right? Your form's a little unstable."

The winged Felsin nodded. "It's a representation of the fact that I'm not sure who or what I am these days I used to know, but recent events showed me that there was a lot that I just didn't know and I haven't had a chance to figure myself out." He caught the shadow of wings and nodded "The wings are the pilot in me coming to the surface again I've always loved to fly, but its not often required of me The Exo-Frame was my compromise between my love of flight, and my duty as a Medic." He looked at Jake "I never mentioned my pilot background because I felt it best for the unit that SWAT only have one pilot, besides I'm a distant second to Chance."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that." Jake sighed at the look he got for it "Nathan, think about it Chance has flown almost every day for the last twenty years, most of it in the last ten under combat conditions Of course he's going to be better at it than you, just like he's better than I am, but you may have noticed I still fly the TurboKat when I need to If you love to fly, you should fly."

Nathan smiled "Thanks, Jake Truthfully though, I've got a pretty good feel for my potential and I could be better than I am ... but there's a difference in raw talent." Nathan chuckled quietly "Funny thing is, back home there are a lot of pilots better than me, but there aren't nearly as many as versatile I've lost track of all the things I'm qualified on, but I've never encountered anything I couldn't fly, including space fighters and some of the weirdest experimental craft."

The tiger-tabby chuckled "I was one of the few Medics who actually received flight pay, and I drove my superiors nuts by keeping my wings doing test piloting for Shadowbox." Nathan grinned impishly "There were advantages to being one of the best medics in the Corps ... I was too good to let go, so they had to put up with my eccentricities."

After a few minutes, the shifting stopped and Nathan's settled into his war-form with black on reddish-brown coloration and large, leathery gray wings The gray wings were very much reminiscent of the Gargoyles, especially when Nathan folded them back in the same cloak-like manner.

Nathan shook his head "Enough delay Time to move forward." He started walking at a brisk pace, forcing Jake to hurry a bit to keep up with the longer strides of his 8'+ tall mate.

Then there was a sudden flash of sunlight and Jake found himself in freefall Above him was a clear blue sky, though obviously not Aristal since the sun was a bit too large. Below him was a dense bank of clouds, or maybe fog.

Before his long abandoned emergency shifting reflex could kick in, the lean tom heard a rush of wings nearby, and suddenly strong, reddish furred arms caught him, and cradled him close Though the form wasn't familiar, the scent was very clearly Nathan.

"Nothing to fear, love I wouldn't let you come to any harm, even if it was possible in here ... which it isn't." Nathan said in a strong voice, deeper than normal.

"Nate, where are we? I mean aside from this being what I assume is your homeworld."

Nathan chuckled "Good guess, Jake Specifically we're high over the SnowMist Mountain range on the Northern Continent Below us is Lake Maxwell, our destination." Nathan shifted into a moderately steep dive.

Jake could smell the happiness and exhilaration in his mate's scent "You really do enjoy flying, don't you? You should have said something I could have done something."

As the fog streamed by, Nathan nodded "Yes, I do. And what I should have said isn't really important ... it's the past We have enough in the present and future to concern us now."

"I guess." Jake murmured, watching the sky and approaching ground with a gunner's eye as Nathan set down, and let him to the damp, mossy ground He didn't hesitate to follow as Nathan led the way through the thick ground fog The air was heavy with forest scents clearly identifying it as an evergreen forest In the distance he could hear the sounds of various wildlife As he was about to ask where they were going, the fog cleared revealing a large, clear mountain lake surrounded by trees with a large wooden building nearby.

There was a peacefulness about this place that Jake found appealing "Nate, this is nice but it hardly seems dark or secret."

Nathan smiled "It is nice, and it's the one place that has remained my definition of 'home' for as long as I can remember I was born here, and lived here for a while with my parents and my father's unit It's a hidden refuge that my 'family' came to after they 'retired' from the service of the shadow government."

Nathan's smiled saddened "It's also where many of my secrets begin, specially the ones involving the truth about who my parents are, who I am and what that all means Of all the masks this is the easiest to let go, so I thought it best to start here."

As they crossed the open field toward the building, Jake spotted a large commotion near the lake's edge As they got closer, he realized that the commotion was a group of eight Felsin in war-form apparently fighting over possession of something he couldn't see He pointed it out to Nathan "What's going on over there?"

The winged tabby smiled "That would be one of the most feared commando groups in Felsin history playing a game that Rifleman learned on Earth ... rugby I believe it's called."

Jake noted that the war-forms were quite varied as to coloration and build There was a black lion, a white tiger, a pair of cheetahs close enough in appearance to be twins, a tiger, a snow leopard, a jaguar and a lynx The variety made the 'rugby' game a swirling mass of color as the competition to control whatever it was, was very intense.

Suddenly, one of cheetah twins went tumbling into the lake, and the rest of the group broke up laughing, and Nathan chuckled "Don't let the adolescent behavior fool you, the NightBlades are deadly serious when on a mission, but they're anything but any other time In a way, that group of combat equipped teenagers are my 'uncles' They were also my playmates until I was about five."

Jake looked around "No other kits?"

Nathan nodded "There was just me, and I wasn't supposed to have happened Of course, being the only kit meant I tended to get spoiled rotten." Nathan grinned "It did make dealing with other kits difficult when I finally met some ... I thought everybody could take the punishment my uncles could ... I tended to play a bit rough."

He headed closer to the cabin were a muscular, black-furred Felsin tom, and a petite black on dark red tiger shekat could be seen cuddling under a tree A ways off, but within sight a small black on reddish tiger kit stalked the tail of a small male lion who was pretending not to notice.

"Is the little one you, Nate? I thought you couldn't shift till recently?"

The winged tiger-tabby nodded "Actually, I'd forgotten about this When I was very little; before I turned two, I actually couldn't do the Felsin form It happens occasionally with kits whose parents are both metamorphs, it's self-correcting and harmless But I was actually born a tiger; a tiger with the awareness of a much older kit I'm not sure why but I was born closer to five or six years old mentally, this made being a tiger a lot of fun since tigers figure out the walking and running thing much faster than normal kits."

"But by two or so, I was able to switch between forms and by the time I turned three I couldn't shift from Felsin at all I was kind of disappointed, but my family was good at distracting me when something upset me."

Jake studied the group "I guess the couple is your parents, but who's the lion? That's another shapeshifter, right?"

Nathan smiled "Actually, all three are my biological parents The black furred tom is Ebon SwiftClaw, the assassin I mentioned and the tom I always thought was my father until recently The tigress is Nareena Moonstone, my mother and a very powerful healer and telepath The lion is, indeed, a shapeshifter; Cazimir Sunfire, one of the best cyberwizards in local space and whom I only recently discovered ... is my second biological father Actually, all three are shapeshifters: my mother has a tiger form similar to mine, though smaller because she's female Ebon has, I think, at least three additional forms, maybe more."

Nathan looked at Cazimir "In a lot of ways, Cazi is really responsible for me being here He was the one who got my father interested in my mother; Cazi and Ebon had been mates for some time before Cazi met Nareena Cazi also provided the genetic material necessary to make my mother's genetic material compatible with my father's My mother's family had been practicing controlled marriages and planned breeding for so long, it was difficult for them to successfully reproduce with anyone outside a limited circle." Nathan nodded at the group, and sighed "That's something I've never really told anyone before, people don't understand the concept of more than two bio-parents, not really And, of course admitting to being the son of one of the super-soldiers is a good way to see people back away."

Nathan looked over his shoulder at the game that had resumed "Actually, Cazi's wasn't part of the NightBlades originally; he was just my father's mate But he was a talented spy and computer espionage expert in his own right Under his handle, Cypher, he was one of the few to manage to hack into Shadowbox's mainframe ... and the only one not to get caught." Nathan realized Shadowbox probably wasn't really that informative "A comparable feat would be somebody hacking, say ... Cathedral."

"Oh," Jake studied the Lion more closely before turning back to Nathan "Is he a TechnoMage, like me?"

Nathan thought about it "I'm not sure, he never used that term, but some of what he did was beyond what anybody else thought possible ... and computer systems always 'behaved better' for him than for most others As far as anybody knows, he's the only one to ever figure out how to create memory crystals that work properly."

Nathan smiled quietly "The memory crystals are a very complicated combination of nano-circuitry and telepathic impression They're how I've learned a lot of what I know about myself Every so often, one of them will activate and deliver a message Of course, there are really only two people who know about them, outside of myself."

"Cazi and your mother?" Jake hazarded a guess, smiling when Nathan nodded.

Then the scene suddenly shifted to broad marble steps leading up to a white mansion with classic architecture Every line and curve, every bush and tree simply radiated tradition and duty Jake spotted Nareena and a fairly young Nathan coming up the steps At the top of the steps an older dark tan lion Felsin waited, disapproval was obvious both on his face and in his stance Jake nudged his mate. "Nathan, who's that?"

Nathan thought for a moment, and then an expression of pain crossed his face "That's Anton Moonstone, patriarch of the Moonstone clan and my mother's father This place is Moonstone Manor, hereditary home of the Moonstone clan for over twenty generations."

Jake looked around "Wow, your family does go back a ways."

Nathan shook his head "Not my family, not really."

Nareena reached the top of the steps "Greetings, father I would like to introduce your grand...."

The lion cut her off with an angry gesture "Nareena, have you no shame? It was bad enough that you disgraced the family by Bonding to that ... that freak, but now to shove the evidence of your perversity in the face of family and tradition This is too much to be forgiven, Nareena Take your abomination and yourself and leave this estate, and do not return ... you are no longer welcome here." The lion angrily turned his back and stormed back into the mansion.

Young Nathan stood looking confused, as tears began to well "Mama, what's an abomination?" He didn't know the word, but he didn't like the sound.

Nareena knelt down and brushed the tears from his cheeks "Nate, don't worry about it They are merely angry words from a disappointed old tom, one day he may regret them But don't let them hurt you, you are special and some people don't understand." She stood up, and took his small hand in hers "It's time to return home, there's no reason to stay."

As the pair walked down the long marble pathway from the mansion, Ebon stepped quietly from behind a tree "I hate to say I told you so, but I said this was a mistake."

Nareena jumped "Ebon, how ... never mind how, but why? If you'd been seen ...."

Ebon bent down and picked up young Nathan, who put his arms around his father's neck "'Reena, you were taking our son into a place I was sure wouldn't appreciate him, of course I followed to be sure nothing happened As for being seen, it hasn't happened yet." He brushed his son's unruly red hair back "Nate, don't let that old man's small-minded words bother you ... you're part of the NightBlades, that's all that matters, right?"

The little tiger-tabby looked at his father, as serious as only a four year old can get "Yes, sir father." He grinned "Can we go home now? It's boring here."

The assassin chuckled. "Of course, little buddy." He held his hand out to his mate "Coming, dear?"

The tigress looked back toward the main house, quiet tears on her cheeks "Yes, of course There's nothing left here."

As the group walked out of sight, Jake turned to see Nathan wiping tears from his face. "Nate, are you all right?"

"I'd forgotten about that visit, forgotten how much it hurt Strange how the words of a complete stranger can hurt so much But what hurt the most was seeing my mother's tears that day; she'd gone there with such hope of healing the rift with her father, only to be turned away from everything she'd ever known." Nathan sobbed quietly "That's really when I started to hide who I was, I learned that others don't approve of or like what's different ... and I didn't want to feel that pain again, and I didn't want to see my mother cry again."

The scene shifted back to the lakeside, where the entire group was gathered around a large picnic table, obviously celebrating the kit's birthday The mood was infectiously happy, and Nathan smiled wistfully as his younger self soaked up the loving attention from the group.

Nathan smiled fondly at the group "I really wish I'd been able to get to know them better They were all brilliant experts in such diverse fields, there was so much I could have learned Unfortunately, they all died not long after I turned five I lost everyone who understood and approved of who and what I was Most importantly, I lost everyone I loved and who loved me."

There was slight shift and they were watching the camp from a hill some distance away Night had fallen, and the flashes of energy weapons could be seen in the clearing below Nathan spoke softly and with great sadness "That was the darkness night of my life, and in a way it was the beginning of all the secrets that would come after."

There was a sudden bright explosion and everything went dark, leaving Jake and Nathan standing in the amorphous shadows of Nathan's memories once again.

"Can you tell me if it was worth it?" Jake kept his voice very low, uncertain of his right to speak this, but too desperate for the answer not too.

"If what was worth it?" Nathan regarded him in true confusion.

"Was having them worth loosing them?" He looked into the darkness, not focused on anything.

Nathan was silent for a moment He'd never even considered that question before He nodded sadly "If you mean, was having them worth the pain of losing them? Yes, it was."

Nathan looked off in the darkness, missing the flash of pain across his mate's face "Much of who I am is from what they showed me in those brief years My father's quiet but unyielding commitment to family and friends has gotten me through some of the worst times, because I try to be as strong as I remember him being He never backed down or gave up when it came to protecting those he chose to care about; it's an example I've tried to follow as best I can And sometimes I truly envy the icy calm with which he could handle anything ... it didn't matter what happened nothing ever shook him."

The tiger-tabby's voice became softer "My mother has always been my guiding light, my inspiration as a healer ... maybe one day, I'll be as talented as she was ... but till then I keep trying. In her way, she was as strong as my father ... a calm, spiritual strength that never wavered She could calm even the most agitated of the commandos from frenzy ... I'm still trying to figure how to control my own."

The winged-tabby looked at Jake "But if nothing else made the pain worth it; it was the technique that my mother showed me that made you safe that would make all the pain worth it." A few quiet tears ran down the Felsin's cheeks "I'll always miss them, but I'd rather have the pain, then to not have had them."

"I'm not sure that was the answer you were looking for, but it's the best I can do."

"It's what I was asking about." Jake nodded easily "Shall we continue?"

Nathan gave his mate a long look before nodding.

Jake followed as Nathan headed down a corridor in the murky darkness He still couldn't make anything out but somehow it didn't seem quite as dark as before The lean tom noticed that his mate had changed from the winged to form to his more familiar Felsin one.

After long silent minutes they reached a large silvery door with an elaborate security panel next to it Nathan hesitated at the door, and looked somewhat baffled at the security panel.

Jake noticed the tiger-tabby's confusion "Something wrong?"

Nathan looked back at his mate "I'm not sure who I'm supposed to be to open this door."

"Nate, I'm not sure what you mean Do you know what's behind the door?"

Nathan nodded "The truth about what I am A truth I haven't known very long, and that I'm still not sure how to deal with."

"Nate, you don't need to do this You already showed me ...."

Nathan interrupted "I showed you who my family was, and to a certain extent who I am by extension But who I am is a different issue from what I am." He sighed deeply "I can accept who, I'm still not sure about what."

Jake was both worried and a little annoyed "Would you stop beating yourself up? It can't be that bad."

The Felsin sighed resignedly. "Easily said, Jake Easily said." He turned to the door and put his hand on the security pad.

An androgynous voice came from the door. "State Identity for Security Protocol."

"Colonel Nathan SolGardin, Galactic Alliance Medic Corps."


"Advanced Genetic Design Laboratories"


"Matrix 0 Design Group, Code Name: Proteus."



"Secondary Access Code?"

Nathan paused for a moment, not remembering there even being a Secondary Access Code Then he shrugged and went with the first thing that came to mind "Cathedral."

There was a pause, and then the sound of locks unbolting The security door slid open revealing a dimly lit corridor beyond "Colonel Nathan SolGardin: Access Granted and Welcome back to Proteus." The computer voice said in a strangely friendly fashion.

As they walked through the dimly lit corridor, Jake thought it seemed strangely familiar and yet alien at the same time When Nathan stopped at an intersection, seemingly confused he decided to ask "Nate, what is this place? It seems like Cathedral, but doesn't at the same time."

Nathan turned and looked the smaller tom "It isn't really anywhere that exists It's a sort of a merge of Cathedral and the AGDL It's not surprising that it doesn't seem 'right', after all even if it were supposed to be Cathedral exactly ... it would be missing the chatter you get from the base itself ... since that isn't part of how I perceive Cathedral."

"Okay, but why Cathedral at all? It can't be that important to you."

The tiger-tabby smiled "Well, it is that important ... now But actually, it has to do with the fact that it was at Cathedral that I really discovered what I am The techniques I learned at Proteus, but it was in the Cathedral labs that I made the discovery."

"What discovery?"

"Easier to show, than to tell." He looked around "Oh, there it is I knew it couldn't be that far." He walked into a nearby lab.

Jake followed him in; as he looked around the cinnamon tom recognized the layout as being Cathedral, but much of the equipment wasn't In fact, the equipment was significantly more advanced then Cathedral's He guessed this was probably another merger of the two facilities.

Nathan was seated at one of the computer stations As he typed four expanded double helices appeared in the large holographic array in the center of the room "The top three DNA patterns are Ebon, Nareena and Cazimir respectively The bottom DNA pattern is a genetic analysis I ran of myself Sunday afternoon."

Jake nodded, regarding the display blankly "Okay, so where's the problem?"

The Felsin sighed "The problem is that over 80% of my genetic code is identical to my father's It's not that I merely share traits with my father, but 4/5 of the genetic programming that made him a galactic-class assassin is part of me The genetically programmed skills, reflexes and responses are all there At the most fundamental level, I'm as much an assassin as my father was." He finally looked up and noted his mate's expression "Something wrong?"

"Not really," he shrugged, "I don't understand genetics." He held up a hand when Nathan opened his mouth "I can't understand genetics." He corrected himself, shaking his head "I've tried, but every time I just glaze over, even when it's mine_, and important."

"What do you understand about it?" Nathan asked cautiously.

"Mmm, I know it defines a lot about a person ... the basis for heredity And I can memorize patterns very easily That's about as far as I ever got."

"You can memorize DNA patterns?" Nathan raised an eyebrow "But not understand what they are?"

"Urr, yah." Jake looked away "I could reproduce all four patterns you showed me, but they don't mean much beyond name association right now."

"How can you change ...."

"Probably the same way you created the power armor's plans for your team." Jake actually chuckled.

"But that's not my field." Nathan protested "I could understand ...."

"Nate, just take my word for this one, okay?" Jake put a restraining hand on his mate's shoulder "I can memorize them, associate the pattern with the end result if I'm told it, and reproduce it exactly, but the extent of my ability to deal with genetics Now, you were going to tell me what the other 20% of yours is."

Nathan sighed quietly "Mostly my mother, with some small traits from Cazimir Mostly things like coloration and apparently psi-talent What I got from Cazimir is still unclear, since I don't understand his code very well ... there are some unfamiliar elements."

The tiger-tabby's shoulders drooped "I used to be sure who and what I was But now I can't be sure ... am I some sort of sleeper weapon without even knowing it? The ultimate concealed weapon, an assassin pretending to be healer ... what a perfect cover." He put his head in his hands "What a perfect fraud I am Felsira only knows what I've done that's hidden behind these mental blocks I've committed my life to healing and saving lives, but blessed Mother ... how many lives have I taken and I don't even know it?"

"What does it matter?" Jake set himself on his mate's lap and accepted the incredulous look he got for the statement "I may have been pretty well out of it, and I can't say I'm real sure of what set it off, but I still caught that bit about the purest way to repay the guilt of death is with life; that whether we are truly responsible or not, to replace what we took from the universe."

"That's different." Nathan growled, slightly disconcerted as Jake's presence on his lap turned affectionate.

"Yes, you've actually saved lives, directly." He nuzzled Nathan's neck insistently, breath quickening as he focused on his mate "I've caused more death and destruction than I'll ever be able to heal, even if I had your gifts."

The Felsin's first reaction was his usual to try to ignore being allowed mistakes, but for once it just didn't work Felsira had told him the same thing on several occasions, but for reasons Nathan didn't feel like figuring out this time he actually listened He absently stroked his mate's fur "Maybe I am making more out of this than I should Guess it was just a bit much for me to try and face alone Thanks for pulling me out of that downward spiral, Jake." He looked at the fading lights on the consoles "I guess self-doubt has been part of my life for so long, I don't even realize when I'm doing it."

Nathan looked at the broken mask lying on the ground "Well, that was the easy one I actually wanted to talk about that The other two won't be so simple." He urged Jake to his feet and stood, the lean tom pulled close as the background changed again "But first, I think I owe you dinner and a dance."

"Hur?" Jake blinked at the otherwise empty ballroom that spoke of military traditions, and the feel of a dress uniforms on him and his mate as Nathan gently lead them in a slow waltz to music from nowhere.

"It may not have worked out to do this before we started The Joining in the physical world, but that's no reason for me to neglect to court you, even if it's in here, and a bit out of order." He chuckled as Jake's gaze covered what he could see from so close "It's the dress uniform of an Alliance Medical Corps Coronal."

"Oh," he slid back to check out his mate's tailored white and gold uniform and caught a look at himself as well "Mind telling me what I'm dressed as?"

"Well, I guess I'd call it a SWAT Kats dress uniform." He chuckled and let Jake take the lead as the music changed to modern slow dance from MegaKat City "I couldn't think of anything else appropriate."

Jake quirked a smile and made a few alternation to the dark blue and crimson uniform "Black Phoenix Dress Blues They've never been worn, but we did design them for the eventuality." His voice trailed off.


"I'm going to miss them." He dropped his eyes, moving more by reflex than anything.

"There's no reason for you ...."

"Not for you, I know But I'm tired of fighting, Nate." He looked up into worried green eyes "And more to the point, I'll have changed so much by the time this Joining is over, I don't ... whoever and whatever I am when we're Bonded, it won't be the Kat that earned their trust I can already see that."

"Isn't that a choice for them to make?" Nathan pulled Jake close, disturbed for a reason he couldn't name.

"Not when I can't know myself," he whispered, shaking "Nathan, please ...."

He closed his eyes and nodded, unable to take the silent, desperate plea from his mate "*Jake, I'll support any choice you make, please believe that.*" The silence before Jake nodded and smiled slightly made him want to die then and there "*You are the most important thing in my life, Jake Clawson.*"

"Jake SolGardin-Swiftclaw." He corrected, his head resting on Nathan's shoulder.

Nathan kept in step without thinking for a long moment as the music lost any attachment to known scores "Clawson-Swiftclaw." He spoke softly as the music became more and more alien, though still beautiful, and soothingly romantic.

"Jake and Nathan ThuaFaren." Jake offered back, chuckling at his mate's bewildered look "Literally, Claw-Swift-Son." He turned serious "We're both aliens, Nate, no matter how comfortable we've made ourselves here or anywhere else; and very much only what we make of ourselves, why not acknowledge it in this small way?"

Nathan thought about it for a long moment before realizing how much sense it made Neither of them with any strong attachment to any existing tradition, why not create something new? He smiled, and kissed Jake tenderly as the music picked up slightly "ThuaFaren I think I like the sound of it And you're right; we are both what we make of ourselves Something I think we both need to remember more often."

"What do you want to make of yourself?" Jake asked softly.

Nathan thought about that for a long moment For as long as he could remember, he had never questioned that he was Medic and always would be, but now he wasn't sure what made sense He decided maybe the truth was the best place to start "I've been a Medic all my life, and I've never thought beyond it I guess that's because I never felt a need to, I always knew who I was, where I was going and was pretty sure what was coming next The next promotion, next assignment ... that sort of thing There was no uncertainty, every was planned and ordered neatly."

His eyes became somewhat distant "But I've never thought of life outside the military because I've never really had one It was easy to say what I'd make of myself, when the path was clear and charted Aside from what's happening now between us, I'm not sure of much It's a question I should be able to answer, but this is the first time I've ever thought about it."

"I seem to be doing that to you a lot." Jake murmured as he molded his body a little closer to his mate.

"They're important questions." Nathan sighed "I just don't really have a good answer for you I know what I was, but I'm not sure about 'will be' ... I'm not even sure where to begin Up until now, I did everything with a focus on the unit, and 'the mission'. Everything I did, everything I was, was decided with those two things in mind I'm not sure what comes next now, and I think that frightens me a little."

Nathan chuckled quietly "It's ironic isn't it? I can handle complex surgery without pause, complex medical problems without a second thought and any combat situation without blinking; but when it comes to what do I want to make of myself ... I freeze."

The Felsin paused for a moment. "I don't think I have an easy or quick answer to this one. But there has to be something beyond the battle lines, doesn't there?" There were equal amounts of hope and confusion in his eyes and voice.

"I hope so." Jake refused to look up "But I don't know if fate, or our souls, will let us near it for long."

He looked at his mate. "I think I just managed to turn 'I don't know' into a thesis dissertation In all seriousness though, have you answered that question for yourself?"

"I want a family, a place and mate I don't have to live a lie with." He answered quietly "Beyond that, that's why I asked you We're both easily employable anywhere, and have the skills to survive anywhere we aren't employable." He hesitated before continuing "Some of my choices will be determined by how many of my working bonds survive our Joining, and how those who knew me feel about the changes The rest ... I think are yours.

Nathan looked down at the lean tom in his arms and smiled gently "A family, a place ... those are things I can truly understand wanting since I've missed both for a long time, and together we can find them for both of us And by the time we're finished with the Joining, living a lie won't be necessary for either of us."

Jake shivered "No more hiding ...."

"Kind of a scary thought, isn't it?" Nathan smiled reassuringly and gently held his mate close when Jake started to pull away in a near panic, shattering their surroundings into a dimly lit, high-tech complex "Shu, love I won't hurt you." He moved one hand from the shaking tom's back to caress Jake's face as the tom struggled "*I could never hurt you, Jake.*"

"Let me go." There was no force behind the cinnamon tom's words, but a desperation and nearly consuming fear was.

"*I swear, I could never hurt you, love.*" Nathan watched in confusion as his mate backed away, readying to bolt "*Whatever this is, we will face it together.*"

"*No,*" the lean Kat froze, shaking his head sharply, "*no, I won't risk you too.*"

"*Jake! Wait!*" Nathan ran after his mate, but lost any trace of him within paces He stood in the strange hallway, casting about for any sign of the tom before shifting his focus to his bond with the Triad "*Mother, I think I have a problem.*"

Felsira's soothing voice came back to him. "*Stay calm Nathan I'll have to 'find' him, and see what's wrong; but it'll be easier to do if you aren't panicking as well.*"

"*Of course, Mother.*" The Felsin was completely frustrated ... every time, things seemed to going well they fell apart And worst thing was, Nathan was helpless to do anything about it Figuring that everywhere was really the same place, he just started walking, disregarding the current scenario.

He wasn't entirely surprised when he found himself back by shores of Lake Maxwell He walked over to the tree where his parents were sitting "I wish you were really here, I don't know what to do I've never even heard of this many problems happening in one Joining Wouldn't be so bad, but there's nothing I can do, but wait for Felsira to fix whatever's gone wrong this time."

He sat down under the tree next to Cazimir "What I'm afraid of is that one of these times, even Fel won't be able fix the problem ... and I'll lose him I couldn't take that, I just couldn't." Pained tears began running down his cheeks "Nothing I can do but wait Well, if this can't be fixed ... saves me the trouble of trying to figure out what to make of myself Won't have to make anything at all." Tired, and completely frustrated he shifted into tiger-form, curled up under the tree, ready to sleep this latest problem out.

"*Nathan ...*"

Jake's uncertain mind voice pulled the tiger to his feet in an instant, and the sight of a lean, dark cinnamon cat_, one smaller than any feline form Nathan had ever seen, held the Felsin stock still.

"*I'm sorry.*" Jake the cat ducked his forebody down and rolled his head as far to one side as he could, exposing his throat to the stunned tiger as he inched forward.

"*Jake, what happened? Are you all right?*" Nathan's mind-voice was full of compassion and concern, and an unspoken undertone of wanting to help but not even being sure how to ask.

"*I don't know.*" The cinnamon tom replied miserably, shaking in place "*I ... just ... panicked.*" He whimpered softly "*I don't know if I can do this, Nathan But I know I need to.*" He inched closer "*What happens if I can't ....*"

Nathan paused for a brief moment, and centered himself concentrating on being completely positive and supportive "*If you need to, then we will find a way.*" His mind-voice contained no indication that failure was possible "*If we can't by ourselves, we still have Mother's help ... and she will find a way to make things right It may not be easy, but we will find a way I won't let anything happen to you.*" He looked squarely at his mate "*I know you can do this, I believe in you Believe in yourself. We will get through this together.*"

Nathan projected out across his bond with the Triad "*Mother, something's wrong with Jake, he's panicking again ... I thought we got past that I'm too inexperienced to handle this ... and I'm too close.*"

He lay back down with his head near Jake as the cat slowly settled his haunches and edged as close to the tiger as he could "*Mother will fix this I, know she will ... she has to We just have to wait for her, no pressure Please ... don't run again.*" The tiger was torn in how to behave because he was afraid to scare his mate away again.

"*I don't want to run.*" Jake fought to make sense of his own conflicting desires "*I didn't then either.*" He shivered again, deep in the core of himself "*I just couldn't ... there's something there I have to face alone.*"

Jake growled in pure frustration, his body vibrating in tension "*No lying, Clawson No lying!*" The snarl was matched by the lashing movement of body as he lunged to his feet and paced "*No lying.*"

The cinnamon cat's body suddenly flowed into a good approximation of the Felsin War-form and faced Nathan squarely from about thirty feet away "Fight me."

"What?" He just stared, stunned.

"Fight me." The war-beast repeated in frustration "I need this To know what you're capable of."

Nathan stood up into Felsin form and looked at the war-form. "This is insane, you know There is no point to physical confrontation in this realm As for knowing what I'm capable of, there's no way for me to unleash my war-form that way against you, I can't."

Nathan sighed in resignation "Jake, this pointless violence is contrary to everything I believe in I can't fight for the sake of fighting, I only take the path of violence when there is no other way to protect and preserve life." He stood still, looking at Jake "I don't pretend to understand what is going on, but it doesn't matter Do as you need to, but I will remain true to who I am." Nathan said, wondering just how much this was going to hurt "I'm sorry, Jake But I said no more lies, and I meant it To engage in this fight would be as big a lie as any."

He stood stock still, waiting calmly "But understand, this insanity does not change the fact that I love you, and always will."

"I would like to hate you for that." Jake's frustrated voice clearly came from a Kat's throat He sighed in defeat, but didn't move, just held himself and watched the Felsin "I hoped you'd let me understand what you can do, here, where no one can actually get hurt I ... it hurts to treat you as an inferior, you know I know you aren't, but I can't let that guard down until I've tasted my own blood on your claws Until you've proven to some archaic part of my mind, that you're as safe in your own hands as you are in mine."

Jake sighed and shook it off, walking up to his mate His hand stopped half way to Nathan's shoulder, uncertain of it's welcome "I know it's insane, and irrational, but it's what I am." He met emerald eyes with frustrated affection and admiration "You're probably stronger than I am, you know, to your beliefs I can only hope you don't eventually resent me for mine."

Nathan sighed, this was difficult "Jake, the problem is in the fact that I barely understand the war-form ... I've only had that power for a matter of days It really only exists in frenzy, and that frenzy is directed at one Kat ... and you're not him."

The Felsin putted his hand on Jake's shoulder without hesitation "As long you can live with what you believe then you don't need to worry about my resenting it." He sighed and looked at his mate. "Is this combat really that important to you? There may be a way, but it's important for me to be sure that this is important to you and not just some moment of insanity." Hw watched Jake's reaction carefully "*As my father once pointed out, sometimes you have to push the limits of who you are for the people who truly matter to you.*" Nathan's mind-voice was resolute and patient.

Jake looked away "Have you ever noticed my taste in lovers and mates? What they all had in common ... the ones I trusted_, felt comfortable around."

"Not really." Nathan could only shrug, confused "It's not something I ever thought about, again."

"They're all fighters." Jake spoke softly "Chance, Felina, Pat, Sheir But you and Patrik ... he's tried, but he can't put me on my back, hasn't bloodied me." He cast a sideway glance at his lifemate-to-be "And I treat him differently than the others He's as fine a pilot as any on the plant, and he's good at taking care of himself He needs my protection about as much as Chance does, but ... somehow it doesn't matter I treat both of you like rookies because you haven't bloodied me, and I hate myself for it Because you deserve better." He paused for a wistful moment "It's why I never pursued Callie I couldn't even ask her to fight me, much less take it seriously."

Jake finally met Nathan's glaze, caressing the tiger tabby's cheek with the back of his fingers "Yes, it's that important to me to fight you, and it's that important to me that you don't turn your back on who you've chosen to be so bravely." Jake shook his head "There is no clean answer I want to trust you with your own safety, but I never want you to betray who you are, especially not for me."

The tiger-tabby faced his mate squarely "I don't have to betray who I am for this The way you first asked I wasn't sure what was going on, I certainly wasn't sure if you were sure I had to know why you wanted this."

"I've never had to ask before." Jake grumbled "You're the first that hasn't started the fight before I hit this point."

Nathan smiled hesitantly "I'm trained to understand and deal with cultures quite different from my own, with their varying customs and ways This wouldn't be the first time I fought to prove myself, and the previous times were to people who weren't as important to me.

"I said that I avoid violence unless it's necessary You need this to feel that we're equals, and it's important to you that you feel we're equals, so that makes it necessary I don't fight meaningless battles, but this is clearly not meaningless."

The tiger-tabby stepped back and looked into the sky He sent a strong message along a barely remembered, rarely used path "*Okay, Xander You said you could get me past the blocks if I wanted to I need this one out of my way.*"

A moment later a glowing of ring of fire appeared nearby. A strong male voice came from glowing heart of the circle "You sure about this, Nathan? You've never handled the full combat capabilities of the war-form."

Nathan growled slightly "Yes, Xander, I'm sure."

The voice chuckled. "As you wish." The voice changed to an even deeper, more powerful voice. "Phoenix flame and Luna's light unlock this one's long hidden might." There was a burst of silver flame from the circle of fire that engulfed Nathan, making it appear for a moment that he was on fire.

As the fire died out, Xander spoke "Well, hope this is really what you want Don't forget to ask if you need help with the rest So, Soron's playing games here too huh? Goliath really ought to keep better track of his boyfriend." The voice faded to nothingness as the circle vanished.

As Lake Maxwell vanished and was replaced by an ancient arena, Nathan's form slowly shifted into the midnight black furred war-form. As the transformation completed the eight and half foot tall warrior roared Internally, all the programmed reflexes connected to the long dormant commando training as the war-form prepared for combat Nathan looked at his mate with intense yellow-green eyes "Still want that fight, Jake?" He asked in a much deeper voice than his normal.

Jake didn't speak, but sank into an extended crouch with a slow nod, presenting a long, shifting profile to his opponent He reached deep inside and switched off the safety restraints he'd abided by for centuries and let himself settle into his first form, the gray skinned Dragon, bringing lifetimes worth of experience on line with it.

Neither moved for a long, tense moment as they assessed each other.

Nathan clearly had a weight advantage, though not height.

Jake could fly.

Visible natural weapons were reasonably well matched.

Reflexes, training, speed and strength were all untested, though Nathan likely had at least a small strength advantage, and Jake had training and experience.

Neither saw an easy victory.

Inside the WarKat's mind there was a careful shifting of control, as Nathan backed away from the coming battle as NightClaw took over As the dragon took to the sky, NightClaw reviewed what he knew of flyers in combat Experience and training indicated that normally flyers try to avoid sustained close combat, as they usually aren't as strong as a committed ground fighter.

NightClaw knew that it would be tactically unwise to allow the enemy to dictate the terms of the battle; he needed to bring the dragon to ground ... the sooner the better At the edge of peripheral vision, he saw the ruins of the seats of the arena, categorized them as makeshift missile weapons, and sprinted for the bleachers.

Jake saw the WarKat bolt for the side of the arena and swooped to take advantage of the opening offered At the last moment, NightClaw heard the approaching wings and rolled swiftly to one side to avoid the attack As he did he felt talons catch the outside of his right arm, and though they only just barely drew blood, the scratches burned like hellfire He lashed in that direction hoping to catch the Dragon, but only caught air as the flier was already gone, only to strike from the opposite direction too fast to be possible Talons dug deep into NightClaw's leg, nearly hamstringing him, before the flash of gray soared skyside.

NightClaw examined the injuries as he moved, assessing them as superficial despite the pain Neither hampered his movement extensively, though the leg wound could if he wasn't careful, and the blood loss would not be significant He recognized the effects of a mild caustic or toxin, and added a note to avoid those claws more than usual Even though it wasn't that dangerous, it hurt.

NightClaw turned his attention to the bleachers, and ripped out roughly spear-like pieces Carrying his improvised arsenal under one arm he leapt back to the arena floor, and hurled one of vicious implements skyward, aiming for the Dragon's beating wings as it circled, readying for another dive.

Jake twisted in an attempt to catch the projectile, figuring he could just as easily hurl it back, but found the strength behind it at this range was more than he could counter and let go, sending him spinning He easily righted himself and dodged the additional missiles thrown by the WarKat, but was blindsided by the bolt of electricity which came up alongside the last projectile.

NightClaw watched the Dragon tumble, estimated where he would hit ground and ran to intercept his downed opponent He was extremely annoyed when the flier righted himself awkwardly and returned to sky, out of reach of both claw and bolt, recovering quickly The WarKat added 'resilient' to his growing assessment of the Dragon's capabilities.

Jake shook his head to clear the shock from being struck by lightning, as he stayed, he hoped, out of range The lightning bolt had not been something he'd thought his opponent capable of, and cursed himself for not being more careful with an unknown He knew better Even Jake knew better.

Within a single heartbeat Jake assessed his opponent's options, the SWAT Kat's Gunner slipping easily into V'Feri's mind to add a specialist's view Rumbling with pleasure deep in his chest the Dragon began a spiraling dive, hoping his opponent would miscalculate his final speed and position, as he had no intention of pulling out normally.

NightClaw crouched as the Dragon gathered speed, instinctively calculating where he'd need to be to avoid the strike, and to take advantage of having his opponent within claw range.

The blurs of gray and black met, howled in pain and separated before Felsira could blink She shook her head and sighed, muttering something about warriors under her breath as the pair assessed the results.

NightClaw felt his vision go red in the mixture of toxin and broken bone induced pain cascaded through his brain Three broken ribs, four more cracked, and long gashes deep into his side and another across his face.

On the other side of the area, Jake righted himself with one wide, gray wing bent unnaturally, its membrane torn and oozing scarlet blood to the dusty floor.

The WarKat didn't even think as he rushed the downed flyer, stunned as it launched skyward at the last second, and sharp teeth delivered a crunching bite to the top of his muzzle before escaping But not before he scored another clawstrike to Dragon's shoulder.

The pain of the toxin reminded NightClaw that he knew about such things, and their antidotes Quickly, he estimated how long he figured this fight would last, and drew off some the energy reserve to allow his body to counter the internal effects of the toxin He couldn't prevent it from hurting like hell, but he could keep it from impairing his combat-worthiness any more than that His metabolism increased, and his body began to regenerate properly ... too slow to seriously affect the outcome of this fight, but any edge was worth having.

NightClaw's eyes went bright glowing red as the WarKat entered frenzy, despite Nathan's desperate attempts to prevent it As the frenzy surged a blood-red haze formed around the WarKat, just before he vanished.

Jake looked around trying to quickly locate the suddenly missing WarKat, just barely keeping himself in the air with only one good wing The missing WarKat was quickly relocated as the 400 pound snarling warrior slammed into the Dragon ... from above The velocity of impact was sufficient to momentarily stun Jake.

As the swirling blur of black and gray hurtled into the ground, Felsira winced reflexively She knew they couldn't do any permanent damage, but it still looked painful.

The Dragon attempted to pull out, but discovered that the WarKat was deliberately fouling his wings, and doing a serious amount of damage in the process Jake managed to slash into NightClaw's legs drawing both blood and a howl of pain from the massive creature By some miracle, the Dragon managed to turn the tumble at just the right moment so the WarKat ended up on the bottom as they hit ground.

NightClaw woofed as most of the breath was knocked out him by the high speed impact, fortunately the plasma fire had temporarily reinforced his skeletal system minimizing any further broken bones, however he wasn't so sure that there wasn't additional internal damage Jake slashed into NightClaw, seeking to pull away, but the WarKat sank his teeth deep into the already badly damaged wing.

With a keen of agony Jake twisted, power crackling deep purple around his right hand as he struck down, shattering bone and slicing through heavy leather as he severed his useless left wing, surrendering it to the WarKat as he put some real distance, and elevation, between them, settling on top of the ruins and desperately tried to catch his breath.

With a grimace of pain Jake turned inside for a moment, reconstructing himself ... and the attempted the impossible.

Ebon Swiftclaw overlaid Ashley Terell ... patters of life, power, knowledge Blindly matched, dissected, parts chosen over others ... implemented A risk too great to take and accepted anyway as one of the deepest parts of the Dragon's mind cracked, surrendering to survival's need.

Across the arena, NightClaw found his feet, impressed with his opponent's willingness to accept injury over capture as he dropped the still quivering wing A sudden keen of agony brought his focus to his target, and even the frenzied WarKat blinked in surprise as a midnight black Felsin War-form hit the ground with a thud As muscles moved experimentally, even blacker markings of a King Cheetah showed across the hermaphrodite's heavily muscled body.

NightClaw watched as the enemy became more powerful before his eyes The frenzied WarKat didn't understand how this was possible, but that lost importance as the bloodrage deepened and took complete hold NightClaw's reason clouded mind concluded that there was only one explanation ... this was the demon he'd been hunting, though the quiet part of his mind had restrained him to attend to other things.

But now he understood why the quiet one had asked him to fight this enemy, this was the one living being that the quiet one was willing to kill, because of what it had done to the pilot He didn't understand how it was here, or why, but that didn't matter. The Feral-demon was here and NightClaw would kill it .... no, the demon was becoming too powerful NightClaw sank to the deepest level of bloodrage, and Marauder emerged.

Jake watched in surprise as the WarKat suddenly gained over two feet in height, and probably another 100 lbs in solid muscle mass Blood red energy crackled across Marauder's body, and dripped like blood from the saber-like claws.

Marauder turned his glowing red-eyes to face his enemy "Now Feral-demon, Marauder will make an end of you You can not hide from Marauder." He proclaimed in a deep, thunderous voice.

Deep inside, Nathan frantically fought with NightClaw to regain control, terrified by whatever had just emerged This was not supposed to be happening, it wasn't supposed to go this far Worse yet he didn't know who or what Marauder was, besides insanely dangerous, and after his mate.

Felsira watched the various transformations, and then looked in horror at Marauder She wasn't sure how that had come into being, but she had to make sure it remained a construct of mind only "*Keltin, here now! Something is going terribly wrong, and it may take the both of us to fix it.*"

Jake let lifetimes of experience, and the gifts of his new body, wash over him as he once again found himself the weaker in the contest He sank into a defensive crouch, preparing for the bloody onslaught he saw facing him and actually chuckled "Then come, Marauder You can not defeat me in my own Protectorate."

Suddenly, Nathan's mind-voice projected across the link to the Triad. "*Not necessary, Mother I can handle it.*" His voice was unnaturally calm, and stronger than usual.

"*Are you sure, Nathan?*" Felsira mind-voice was both doubtful, and concerned.

"*Yes, Mother.*"

"*Very well, but be careful.*"

Both combatants noticed a figure in white and gold approaching from the far side of the arena As it approach, they both realized that it was Nathan in Felsin form, wearing the white and gold dress uniform of the Medic Corps A silver-white light radiated from him, but was nowhere near as noticeable as the sheer force of will behind it.

He walked up a small set of risers near Jake that brought him to eye level with his mate's new form and stared the warrior directly in the eyes "Well, I told you there was a reason I don't like the war-form Now you see what it is Well, he's not supposed to be involved so you just stay put while I uninvolved him." The tone of his voice was complete command, no hint of request or suggestion.

As he started back down the risers he turned back to his mate "And I mean it, just stay there Don't cross me on this one, Jake, or I'll just have to finish this fight myself ... and you really don't want me to do that."

He walked over to Marauder, leapt up and hovered in mid-air so he was eye-to-eye with the giant WarKat and glowered at the big warrior "Now listen close, Marauder I realize that thinking is not your strong suit, but that," he pointed at Jake. "is NOT Feral, it is Jake And you make one move toward him, and I'll take you out myself. Do I make myself perfectly, crystal clear?"

Much to Jake's surprise the giant actually nodded submissively.

"Good." Nathan nodded "Now, one more thing ... GET THE HELL OUT OF MY BODY_!" The mental force behind the shout caused ripples in the landscape of the arena, and the giant disappeared, leaving only a rather shaky NightClaw.

Nathan floated down to be eye-level with NightClaw "Now let's try that again, without any stupid leaps of logic, shall we? You're supposed to be the combat expert, but one more sign of that sort of stupidity and I'll just have to do this myself." He glared at the WarKat until NightClaw acquiesced.

Nathan leapt acrobatically to the ground, and headed to the exit from the arena As he passed Jake, he looked the new form up and down "Interesting form, love Combat effective I'm sure, but aesthetically ... I just don't know See you after you finish this, at least that had better be the next time ... 'cause if I have straighten things out again, it's not going to be a pretty sight." He grinned mischievously as he headed off.

"Nathan, wait." Jake looked between the two versions of his mate "There's more than one of you?"

"Hmmm. Physically, no Mentally, that's a little more complicated." Nathan said as he sat down on a fallen log, that hadn't been there before His clothes had changed to gray and gold military fatigues.

"There's really two different answers to that question, and both of them are right The first is that Medics are trained to separate their emotional/personal mind from their professional mind when necessary The most common reason being when they have to treat someone close to them, separating the two allows them to maintain the objectivity necessary for proper treatment There are other reasons, but its not supposed to be done for very long or very often."

The tiger-tabby sighed "I probably use the technique far too often, but its hard for me not to For most of my life, I was only my professional mind since my emotional mind had 'died' when I was quite young It took someone who cared enough to reach past the walls and illusions to bring the two parts of my mind back together."

Nathan looked off in the distance "I probably spent almost six weeks emotionally comatose after Rhymar died while I tried to figure things out I've only done it briefly since then, when I had to."

The Felsin looked across at the WarKat who was still watching Jake warily "As for him, he's necessary because of all the mental blocks I have He can access all the genetic programming, as well as the years of extensive commando training that's in here," He tapped his head. "somewhere Maybe one day he won't be necessary, but for now he is ... besides he can do things I won't He really shouldn't be so 'separate, he should be just a sort of functional set of instincts, which he probably would be if I didn't have the mental blocks and was more comfortable with the war-form."

Nathan sighed "Marauder is an aberration, he definitely shouldn't exist The best way to explain him, is that he's a manifestation of the anger and rage I felt over what happened to Chance Eventually, he'll fade away but I don't know how long that'll take."

The tiger-tabby looked at the ground "He's part of the reason I went to Cathedral Sunday instead of going on shift at the Hospital. It would have only taken one accidental encounter for all hell to have broken loose."

Nathan looked over at the tiger sitting at the opposite end of the log. "He's purely instinctive, really only exists because he understands being a tiger better than I do He's only separate if I became mentally overwhelmed while in tiger form ... it doesn't last."

Nathan looked at his mate. "I think there may be one more personality, but I've never seen him I think he was me in the time periods I can't remember ... but I'm not sure I'll have a better idea once the mental blocks are gone." He smiled at Jake "Important thing is ... I'm the one in charge, and when I give orders they obey ... well ... sometimes I have to shout."

A small stick flew through the air just past Nathan, who snap drew the laser blade from his side and neatly sliced it up He looked down at the ground He chuckled. "Well, Dang. Only six pieces ... supposed to be seven Ah well, I'm not really in the right frame of mind for those exercises anyway." He extinguished the blade, and clipped it back to the belt on his uniform.

He grinned at his increasingly disturbed mate. "So, any other questions? Or would you like to finish now?"

Jake cast a glance between Nathan and NightClaw before taking a deep breath "You can call him, and that form, anytime you're in trouble?"

Nathan rolled his eyes and nodded.

"What do I look like?" He hesitated "I remember doing something very stupid ... and you said ... aesthetically questionable."

Nathan looked at his mate and shrugged, bringing up a large mirrored surface for Jake to see himself in "I said it's no doubt a very effective war-form, I just didn't know about the look of it much Too female."

"I actually did it." There was a mixture of awe and disbelief in Jake's voice at he stared at himself, eyes wide "How in the world ...."

"What did you do that's special?" Nathan took a closer look at his mate's form An impressive black hermaphrodite WarKat, much what he'd expected Jake's would look like, really, much like his father ... but with the markings of a King Cheetah in a slightly darker black.

"I mixed patters to get this, Nate." He rumbled, fascinated by his reflection "No one showed me this one It's part Ebon, part Ashley I needed both their abilities to win ..." he turned bright green eyes on his mate "I just did something I can't do."

Nathan smiled "It's amazing what we discover under stress Shapeshifting used to be something I couldn't do, and the war-form was not only something I couldn't_, it was something I shouldn't have done." He looked at Jake's warform closer "Well, on second appraisal it's actually fairly attractive." He raised his eyebrow in mock irritation and shook his head, laughing "But borrowing my father, to beat me, now that's rather tacky Jake."

"I didn't have many choices." Jake growled defensively "That," he waved at his mate's war-form, "is damn good at its job."

"I'm sure father'd approve, actually." Nathan laughed broadly "He'd probably find it quite amusing." The tiger-tabby thought a moment "In all likelihood you probably could do it all along, you were just blocked from knowing you could do it Probably because somebody felt you'd be too dangerous, if you knew you had that kind of flexibility."

Jake nodded "I was dangerous before ... this ... with a little training and experimentation, I'd be nearly unstoppable." He stopped dead in the thought and closed his eyes, slowly shifting back to his Kat form, injuries and all "I'd be back on the front lines, for good."

"We can make a home there too, you know." Nathan cupped Jake's face "As long as we're together But whether you go back to the front lines or not, is a decision only you can make; I'll support you no matter what you decide."

"But it's no place for kits, or peace." He whispered, leaning into the touch.

"True," Nathan sighed, "it's not." He looked carefully at the naked tom standing before him, assessing both damage and stance "Are you done fighting with me?"

"I seem to remember you drawing a good deal more than just blood Something about a missing wing." He looked up into gentle green eyes and smiled "You've quite proven me wrong."

"But you want something more." He regarded Jake curiously Nathan's jaw went lax as realization hit "You find the violence sexy?"

"Intoxicating." Jake's breath caught in his throat as he found himself on his back, pinned under a midnight black WarKat, jaws closing on his neck He shivered once before his battered body surrendered, offering himself without reservation to the warrior who'd bettered him.

Nathan took in the heady mix of his own latent combat induced adrenalin and the submissive arousal of the bloody tom under him He slid his fingers along a deep gash in Jake's side, soaking his fur in his mate's blood and lifted them to the Kat's mouth, even as he healed the wounds it came from.

"Your blood, on my claws." Nathan shivered as Jake played his rough tongue along the offered fingers, then suckled them, washing all trace of violence from a single digit.

"My blood, your victory, my love." Jake breathed, his eyes half-lidded in desire "*Complete the circle, Nathan-NightClaw Pain to pleasure Blood to life Claim what is yours, and only yours.*"

Nathan closed his eyes for a second and tried to remember how to breath properly as his mate's newly won trust washed over him, along with a not-to-subtle sense of what the temperamental Kat was hoping for He rumbled deep in his chest, honestly aroused by the disturbing imagery of domination and aggression behind the mating.

"I'm very glad no one else will see this." Nathan growled as he bent to kiss his prisoner, suddenly realizing just how much bigger he was than the Kat as it sank in that he could easily take Jake's entire head between his jaws.

For his part, Jake only mewed in anticipation as he was positioned, his ass in the air, tail willingly arched over his sloping back as his wrists were pinned so far forward it brought his chest to the dusty ground With a last bit of coherentness he shackled his wrists in place and bound his thighs to the ground behind him, effectively removing any option he had of movement, even if the WarKat looming possessively over him let go.

"Ready?" Nathan whispered in his mate's ear He growled lustfully when the tom begged without words for the offered sexual punishment and allowed the desires his mate's images generated loose on the helpless tom, thrusting hard in a rut as all encompassing as any bloodlust.

Nathan held Jake close against his chest, playing light fingers gently through the other tom's sweat, blood and semen soaked fur, and marveled at how calm the Kat was Even asleep, passed out from exhaustion, Jake kept his hiding shields in place, but now, all but a couple were gone.

"*What happened?*" Nathan murmured between their minds.

"*Bonding ... trust.*" Jake absently strung the concepts together; relaxed on a level he wasn't used to "*The bond was completed ... you're so much stronger than I am, I can finally relax, let my guard down.*" He purred and rolled to snuggle into his mate in the blood soaked dust "*You'll protect me while I rest.*"

"*Always.*" Nathan pulled the Kat a little tighter against him and nuzzled his hair "*I will never let anything hurt you Not in here, and not out there.*"

"*I know.*" Jake whispered as his eyes closed "*Look around if you like, just let me rest for a while It been too long.*"

"*Yes, it's been far too long.*" Nathan shifted them to the bed in his apartment, and clean "*Rest, love I'll keep this watch.*" He allowed his mind to drift over Jake's as the tom rested, and wondered at the openness of it Of the hundreds of tightly held memory and thought shields he knew of, only a handful were left to bar his casual investigation.

"Did that fight mean that much to you, love?" Nathan murmured, knowing Jake couldn't hear him "Or did I do something else that allowed you to trust me so? Even I can tell you've never let your guard down nearly this far, never truly rested."

Nathan puttered in the kitchen; the familiar action allowing his mind to quietly sort through and place his memories of the last four days while Jake slept peacefully At the same time he kept a watchful eye on his mate through one of his sentinels, an interesting talent he had discovered he had It had taken some thought before Nathan had decided that a quiet, casual dinner would probably be a good change of pace for both of them.

Nathan paused the time around the kitchen while he stepped to the balcony to set the environment for dinner He looked at the 'real' balcony to his apartment and shook his head The balcony view of MegaKat City was quickly replaced by a lofty view from a castle terrace into a stony valley that glittered with reflected light.

The table for two set on the terrace was slightly more formal with candles, in candle holders of black and clear crystal Everything else was chosen with an emphasis on a casual and relaxed environment, rather than a formal one Nathan chuckled to himself "The last attempt at a formal event turned into bloodsport, better to try something different."

He started back toward the kitchen when his sentinel told him Jake was beginning to stir Leaving the kitchen 'paused' he headed back to the bedroom.

As Jake drifted back awake he didn't recognize where he was, though it was comfortable and he could smell Nathan on everything The one thing missing though, was Nathan himself A quick look around revealed the tiger sitting on the floor watching him.

Jake smiled at the tiger "There you are, Nate So where are we?"

The tiger woofed quietly.

Jake laughed "Playing the tiger to the hilt are you?"

"What else would you expect a tiger to do, Jake?" Nathan voice asked amusedly from behind him.

Jake turned to see Nathan standing in the doorway wearing casual clothes, with an apron over them He smiled at the tiger-tabby "I thought he was you Who is he then?"

Nathan walked over to sit on the bed next to his mate "Technically, he's just a projection of me, a sentinel that I used to keep watch while I was doing something else So how are you feeling, now that you've had a chance to rest?"

Jake grinned and stretched leisurely, reflexively checking for any lasting effects of the damage he'd taken "Much better So where is this anyway? And why are you wearing an apron?"

"This is my apartment in MegaKat City, and the apron is because I've been cooking."

"Those are both new, aren't they? You never mentioned you could cook."

Nathan shook his head "Not really, I've had the apartment since shortly after I started working for the hospital, and I've known to cook about as long as I've been a Medic It was self-defense against other people's ideas of camp cooking." Nathan's chuckle was quickly joined by a knowing one from Jake "As for my never mentioning it, you always seemed to get such enjoyment out of cooking, there was no need I enjoyed watching you enjoy doing it, more than I enjoyed doing it myself I would have said something if I thought you found it a chore to do it."

"You're just full of hidden talents, aren't you?"

"You have no idea." Nathan grinned mischievously "But seriously, I thought that we both could use a little change of pace from the hectic roller coaster we've been on, and I thought that a quiet, casual dinner would be a good way to do that I need to finish in the kitchen There's a full bathroom if you feel a need to get cleaned up, and then just pick clothes you feel comfortable in; no need to be formal Dinner will be ready when you are." Nathan kissed his mate briefly "Take your time, no need to hurry." He left the room, humming a light tune.

Jake groaned in pure pleasure as the hot water and shampoo removed all trace of stickiness from his fur, grateful for the moment of calm to be clean again, and organize his scattered thoughts.

"So much has happened since Thursday, however long that's been." He murmured to himself as the water cascaded down, soaking him to the skin and washed away all trace of his activities but a mild touch of Nathan's scent "Nearly killed Chance, walked away from SWAT, left Black Phoenix, got engaged to Felina, marrying Nathan, learned the truth about myself ..." He rested his head against the cool tiles and let the tears come, carefully shielding it from his mate "What the hell am I doing? Besides going mad."

Jake slowly opened his eyes and tried to figure out why the rain was so warm, and the world nearly featureless white.

"Shower," he pushed himself to his feet carefully and rubbed his forehead, "it's been a while since I went that far into shock Hope I didn't do anything too weird."

He shook his head once more and did a quick scrub before turning the water off, the air jets on, and grabbed a towel to finish drying off.

"Let's see, causal is jeans and a shirt." He absently rummaged through a folded pile of clothes before picking out a deep blue shirt that offset his fur and chuckled as he headed out of the bathroom, fully dressed "Now to see what that tom of mine has planned."

He glanced around the main living area of the apartment as he left the bathroom, noting the remarkable lack of personal touches for a place Nathan had had for over nine months He could hear his mate's humming coming from where the kitchen must be, and felt a warm summer breeze blowing in from the open balcony door.

Nathan came walking out of the kitchen humming happily, with a bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other He smiled when he spotted Jake "Excellent timing, everything is ready." He gestured toward the balcony "It's a perfect spring evening, so I thought we'd eat on the terrace."

Jake chuckled at the exuberant Felsin, who seemed happier than Jake could ever remember him being "Okay, but it feels more like summer than spring." Jake grinned as he headed toward the balcony.

The tiger-tabby chuckled "Depends what planet you're on, now doesn't it?"

Jake humphed with a light smile before stepping out on the balcony, and was slightly surprised to find that the 'balcony' was really more like a castle terrace overlooking a deep rocky valley, bringing almost instant flashbacks of Megalith City and Callista ... and a disjointed sense of 'home' he couldn't place Though the valley was in shadow, brightly colored flashes of light could be seen every so often making a strangely enticing pattern.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Nathan said, wistfully "I don't get here nearly as often as I'd like."

"So this is a real place?" Jake asked curiously as Nathan handed him a glass with something blue in it that seemed to shine with its own light "What's this? You said you don't touch alcohol."

"This", he gestured to indicate the terrace," is one of the better views from Castle Myrikardranor That," he gestured to encompass the valley, "is the Valley of Laughing Starlight, one of the most breathtaking sights on Draconea and one that not many non-Dracon's get to see." He held up his glass "And this is Chimra'shen, which loosely translated means 'Water from the River of Stars', a Dracon specialty which no one else has figured out how to make."

Nathan smiled at his mate "Chimra fills the social role of alcohol, without the unpleasant side effects on psi-abilities It also differs in one other important aspect; unlike alcohol Chimra is not a depressant Quite the contrary, it enhances the positive emotions but not in a ridiculous fashion."

Jake looked around, noted the fancy candlesticks on the table and looked back at Nathan "Looks kind of formal for casual, or are you using a different definition of the word?"

Nathan chuckled "A little mixed I suppose, but I meant casual more in mood than anything Honestly Jake, before this morning we hadn't seen each other in three months and things have been moving so fast since then, I just want to slow down for a little while."

"That would be the understatement of a lifetime." Jake chuckled "It's okay, Nate I just wasn't sure I'd dressed for the occasion properly."

Nathan grinned "You're just fine, love Why don't we sit down, dinner's ready."

As they sat down, Nathan noticed Jake looking curiously at the crystal candlesticks again "They were a gift from my adopted brother and sister when Rhy and I Bonded Shareena, my adopted sister, knew who my real father was, and it never bothered her She used to tell me that everyone contains light and dark, the difference was that I knew I did, where as most people never figured it out The candlesticks were her way of making sure I remembered that."

Nathan held up his glass "To us, and this moment of happiness and peace."

Jake touched his glass to Nathan's and smiled a little shyly "To us, and peace."

The cinnamon tom looked at what his mate had prepared "Interesting mix of MegaKat City, and I'd guess Felsin cuisine Smells good."

Nathan nodded happily "Yeah, I thought a mix appropriate considering the occasion."

Jake took an experimental bite "This is pretty good Is there anything you don't do well?" He teased.

Nathan grinned mischievously "Quite a few things actually, but I make an effort not to do them, or at least not where anyone can see me."

Jake chuckled "That's an approach I definitely understand."

Dinner moved into a comfortable, small talk mood with nothing important being said But that was, of course, the point.

"You realize this means you're going to have to cook more often." Jake smiled with a small giggle as they finished eating "I may like cooking, but you're too good to deprive myself of this more often."

"I'll be happy to." Nathan grinned as Jake stood with the easy grace of a relaxed body and calm mind.

"Come, dance with me." The Kat held his hand out to the Felsin and giggled again, despite an attempt to keep a strait face "I think I'm drunk." He snickered with a lopsided grin.

"You can't get drunk on Chimra'shen, Jake." He accepted the Kat's invitation, uncertain whether to be pleased that his mate was so relaxed, or worried that he seemed to be overreacting to the drink.

"Maybe not, but I feel pretty loopy."

"Not to mention we're in our minds ..."

"Maybe I'm drunk on you, then." Jake cocked his head and regarded his mate for a moment as they began to move in rhythm to the flashes of light in the valley "I think I like it."

"There are at least much worse things to get drunk on." Nathan whispered as he followed with instinctive ease to the unfamiliar motions "Or maybe you're just more relaxed than you've been in a long time."

"Mmm, either way, I like this." Jake purred as he let his subconscious guide their drifting movements.

"Ever played shower games?" Jake asked out of nowhere as they continued to sway to unheard music.

"Urr, I assume not, since I don't have a clue what you're referring to." Nathan chuckled softly.

"You never got out much, did you?" he quirked an eyebrow at his mate "Ever played any sex-games?"

"Ummm, no." Nathan grinned sheepishly "Rhy was my first ... and neither of us ... well, got all that creative in that area Besides, we weren't together that long ... it all still seemed kind of new to me." Nathan looked a little wistful.

"Oh," Jake stretched up to kiss Nathan's cheek, "I didn't realize you were ... that ... young." He settled against the Felsin's chest with closed eyes "I'm sorry When you said you were lifemated and almost as old as I was, I assumed you were reasonably close to my level of sexual experience too You kept up pretty well before we started Joining."

"I'm good at winging things, especially when they're important." He smiled at the shorter tom "And you really weren't trying anything that unusual, though I can't say the same of what you've instigated in here." He hesitated before voicing the concern that had been bugging him since their battle "Which is more, well, normal, for your desires?"

"The one you don't care for." Jake sighed "I've got pretty extreme tastes, though if you can accept me being with another, you don't need to be a part of that I have lovers who enjoy it."

Nathan thought for a moment "Jake, I honestly can't say what I think about that area, because I haven't really had a chance to sort things out in my own head What happened only happened a few days ago, and I haven't had time to deal with me at all, I've been too busy worrying about you and Chance What I'm trying to say is, I need some real world time to sort things through before I can honestly say what I think." He winked suggestively.

"In the meantime, Nate." Jake swallowed, uneasy in pushing the issue "It can take years to recover from a rape, and that bondage ...."

"You never know, I might enjoy it ..." he interrupted, "after all almost every other hobby of mine is pretty extreme I just don't think I can answer honestly, right now." He grinned mischievously "Just an example, I used to consider test piloting a vacation."

Jake rolled his eyes in mock aggravation "Bastet save me from hyper pilots I'll never get away from you guys."

"Hyper pilots?" Nathan cocked an eyebrow.

"Pat, Chance, Rik, Felina, now you ... bloody near every important person in my life seems to be a pilot, and a damn good one." He grumphed "Rik thinks test piloting is a blast, too."

Nathan looked serious "Jake, I guess it's difficult to explain precisely, but recovering from psychometric trauma like the one I had is entirely different from what a rape victim goes through I just need to put it in proper perspective, because it didn't really happen to me, and part of me knows that ... and part's confused It's just there's been so much else going on that nothing's in the right place, so to speak."

"Oh," Jake took a moment to try and make sense of that "So even though you experienced it through the scan, it's not like living it, once you're out?"

"Something like that." Nathan looked a little embarrassed "Truthfully, I'm just glad none of my instructors know what happened I forgot two of the big rules in psychometric scans, especially scanners with empathic abilities Rule 1: Never scan when you're upset, because strong negative emotions (fear, anger etc.) can leave cracks in one's shields. and Rule 2: Empaths should never do investigative scans where somebody they care about is involved."

"Sounds like the rules for any investigation." He lost his smile "It's why I handed off the responsibility for investigating what happened between Chance and Uly I'm too close to both of them to deal with it correctly."

Nathan's eyebrow just about shot off his head before he forced the response down He decided he just didn't want to know what Jake meant by that, not right now anyway Nathan thought about what had been going through his mind for the last three days and sighed.

"Well, truth is I only have very basic training as an investigator ... but I'm too much my father's son to trust team matters to anyone outside I'm just glad that I was too busy being Medic to let myself be Ebon's successor ... I almost did Saturday night." Nathan shuddered thinking what he'd almost done He smiled gratefully at Jake "Thanks for taking it out of my hands."

The tiger-tabby shook his head "I panicked and pulled a serious rookie stunt, I'm just lucky I pulled out before anybody got hurt But seriously, recovery from psychometric trauma is usually relatively quick ... should be even quicker since Felsira healed a lot of the damage already."

He grinned mischievously, and then whispered "Truthfully, there was something decidedly exciting about that scene you set up at the end of our little fight Of course, I think part of it was you were so turned on, you were turning me on." Nathan added as his mind began to accept that it was okay because Jake enjoyed that sort of play.

I am glad to hear that," he smiled "Though we're still talking about a while before I'd feel all that comfortable showing you the more intense aspects of what I like It's not something to be taken lightly."

"That serious?" Nathan prompted, his unease growing again.

"It can be," Jake nodded sadly "Think about what we did after the battle, and the battle itself, in the real world Now change the intent to causing pain, not defeat That's a little much for me, but I've seen it, and it's not that far off Even what I'm into can be very dangerous in inexperienced or angry paws I trust you with my life, and a great deal more, but the kind of trust required for those games can only be built up through experience I have to trust you know what you're doing when you dominate me, and I'd be ... disturbed ... if you didn't need the same."

"Why not show me something very light then, for now?" He winked even as he squished the flash of discomfort at the scene Jake described "After all, we can't get hurt here, and I trust you not to push to far."

"Thank you." Jake smiled seductively "What I originally had in mind is very light No bondage or anything, just an unusual setting."

"Sounds fun," Nathan willingly followed his mate into the bathroom, only to find it wasn't the one in his apartment.

"The shower here is better suited for two." Jake smiled playfully as he started to undo the buttons on Nathan's shirt.

"Nate?" Jake started tentatively some time later as the two toms leaned against the terrace ledge, watching the lights below and sipped at half full glasses of Chimra.

"Yes, Jake?" Nathan replied, feeling very relaxed.

"Wasn't there something we were supposed to be doing?" The lean tom asked as though he might have forgotten.

Nathan nodded "I guess there is, I'm just not in a big hurry at the moment." He looked across the valley as though he could see something beyond the darkness "I guess peace and quiet doesn't last forever."

Jake sighed "No, not for our kind."

The tiger-tabby sighed "Time to move on, but we should try to grab moments like this in the real world as well."

Jake nodded and nuzzled his mate's neck "When we can." He chuckled softly "Heron will enjoy making sure we do She always said I was too serious for my own good."

Jake shivered as a gust of bone-chilling wind blasted across the rock outcropping he and Nathan were standing on Above them was the rocky face of the mountain while below was a drop-off a mile high, perhaps two In the distance, the cinnamon tom thought he could make out a building perched on a rocky plateau.

He turned to his mate "I thought you didn't like the cold, where is this place anyway?"

Nathan turned to the smaller tom "Cold? It's a warm spring day, must be almost 90 ... oh, I forget that's how I perceive it I think the 'cold' you're feeling is my heart trying to keep everyone away." He smiled warmly "But I can do a little something about that." The war-form spread his wings and as runic patterns on them flickered to life, a warm golden light surrounded the outcropping "Better, love?"

"Much better, thank you So where is this, again?"

Nathan looked across the rocky valley "It really isn't anywhere in particular, but its closest real-world relative is the Valley of Storms on Draconea The valley isn't that significant, it's just an obstacle to anyone getting too close The real important place is over there." The winged tiger-tabby gestured across the valley at the distant structure.

"I can't quite make it out."

The Felsin took a high tech pair of binoculars from his belt "Try these, they should bring things into focus."

Jake took them wondering where they'd come from; he knew Nathan hadn't had them a moment before As he looked through them the structure came into view; it looked like a castle right out of the era of Megalith City One very noticeable feature was the presence of six very realistic Gargoyle statues on the battlements ... at least he thought they were statues.

He handed the binoculars back to Nathan "History buff, huh?"

Nathan shook his head "No, not really I don't know why it looks like that, but it has, as long as I can remember I never have understood why the Gargoyles are there; I mean, the only planet I know of that has that species is Earth." Nathan grinned "Correction, I thought Earth was the only planet that had them ... I was very surprised to see two of them on Aristal."

"The Darshar sisters aren't native, and the ones across the valley aren't the same species." He looked across at the castle again "I guess that's where we need to go?"

The Felsin nodded "Yes, that's were the mask is There's only one way across though ... fortunately, storm-riding is an old hobby of mine." He spread his wings to their full extension. "Ready, Jake?"

The lean tom put his arms around his mate's neck and kissed him soundly. "I am, if you are."

The winged tabby smiled and hugged Jake in close "Hold on, this can get pretty wild." He stepped back as far from the edge as he could, ran full speed to the edge and leapt into the air There was a moment of free-fall until he caught the thermal he was looking for, and then he soared into the air.

He swooped and soared chasing the barely predictable thermals that made up the non-stop storm in the Valley Laughing happily, the war-form rode the storm vortices that raged through around the sharp crags For a while, he became lost in the adrenalin rush of riding the storm.

"Hey, aren't we supposed to going somewhere?" Jake shouted, trying to be heard above the roaring winds.

Nathan laughed ecstatically "That we are, love I've never done this before on my own wings ... I always had to use a clever storm-glider some of my Dracon friends came up with ... Now I see how they can lose themselves storm-riding for days ... it's incredible Okay, hang tight we're almost there."

Suddenly, the winged war-form went into a power dive toward the floor of the valley and at the last moment caught an incredibly powerful thermal and shot up the side of the plateau the castle perched atop Between the high-speed ground hugging flight and the G-forces being pulled, Jake began to wonder if Nate would be able to stop when he wanted to, and absently wondered why he wasn't getting woozy yet himself.

Abruptly, the thermal wind cut out and Nathan continued the upward glide, until finally his upward momentum cut out Without thinking he landed on a outcropping on the side of the plateau still probably a 100 meters below the edge.

Jake looked at the imposing climb above and sighed as a Glovatrix appeared on his right arm and grumbled as he took aim "You could have landed someplace with less of a climb."

"No need for that, love." Nathan laughed and folded his wings back "Climb on to my back, and hold on tightly since I'll need my arms for this."

Jake looked a bit dubious, but settled himself firmly on his mate's broad back "You sure about this?"

The winged tabby chuckled "Of course, I wouldn't risk it with you along, if I wasn't." He extended sheathed claws from both hands and feet and began to climb the sheer rock face.

Jake held on as Nate slowly ascended the cliff using nothing but claws and muscle power Eventually, they reached top of the plateau, a barren rocky plain in front of the castle.

"Not the easiest place to get to, Nate." Jake commented, as his mate took a moment to catch his breath.

The Felsin nodded "Not many people have, but that's sort of the idea In a sense, this castle is my 'heart' and I've always been wary of letting anyone too close Solitude is very safe, but it's also quite lonely ... though I didn't really notice until Rhy forced his way into my life I almost came back here a year ago because I didn't know what else to do after Rhymar died."

As they walked across the barren plain, Jake noticed a large figure standing at the front of the castle When they got close enough, the cinnamon tom realized that the figure was a twelve-foot tall red, winged reptilian wearing old-style chain armor and holding a double-bladed axe nearly as tall.

He nudged Nathan and whispered "Uh, Nate? Who's the big guy?"

Nathan blinked as though his mind had been elsewhere "Hrmm. Oh, Garalth? Don't worry about him, he's just part of the castle guards." The winged tabby continued walking unconcerned.

"Guards? That's kind of what I thought Is he going to be trouble?"

Nathan chuckled quietly "Garalth, trouble? No, he's here to protect me, or perhaps more accurately my 'heart' In a way, he's the last barrier to people getting too close." The war-form looked at his mate "Don't worry, he already knows you're allowed Actually, he usually figures out who's gotten close to me before I do But it's not difficult to keep track of, there are very few people who do."

As the pair came up to the guard, the Dracon warrior set down his weapon, bowed deeply to Nathan, and greeted him in a deep, authoritative voice "Welcome, Lord Swiftclaw You have been gone a long time Should I have your rooms prepared?"

Nathan smiled "No, Garalth that won't be necessary I'm not staying, I'm just showing my mate around."

The big warrior laughed, a deep booming sound, as he regarded Jake closely "So you're Jake Clawson I had wondered who had snuck into HeartKeep without my noticing Well, your presence makes Lord Swiftclaw happy, so you are most welcome." The Dracon gestured at the gate, which opened smoothly.

"Lord Swiftclaw? What was he talking about Nate?" Jake asked as they crossed the large empty courtyard.

Nathan stopped and looked around "My father's name was Ebon Swiftclaw, and the name I was born to was Nathaniel Skyfire Swiftclaw I've been Nathan SolGardin for most of my life, but my heart remembers my true name, as does Garalth I think he's waiting for me to reclaim my birth name, though I'm not sure why it matters to him As for the Lord part, the Dracon are a very formal people and they still use the ancient titles of nobility."

"I thought we couldn't interact with anybody but each other in the Joining, but he seemed pretty interactive." Jake thought the warrior had seemed almost too interactive.

"Garalth is a special case, I think Truthfully, I've never been sure what to make of him He's always been here, and I didn't make him up But he's always been friendly to me; in fact if he existed outside my mind ... he'd probably be my oldest friend There were many times in my life, when he was my only friend."

"Nate, are you sure you know where you're going?" Jake asked as they turned down yet another corridor The combination of huge and empty made the place creepy after a fashion.

"I think so, though it wouldn't be the first time I've gotten lost in my own mind." Nathan chuckled, as he looked around "Well, this wasn't were I was trying to get."

Jake looked around "Looks like another corridor with wooden doors, even if they do have strange plaques on them."

The winged tabby smiled "These are the 'living quarters', if you can call being here living The plaques represent 'assigned' rooms, the room with the black border around the plaque is Rhymar's."

"Okay, Nate So who are the other rooms?" He had his suspicions, but was curious all the same.

Nathan looked at them "Rooms are a sort of representation of the fact that I've allowed myself to actually care about someone. Obviously, you're one of them You know, or have met most of the others, I think."


Nathan felt a sudden need to move on "I didn't plan to come this way but my mind doesn't always do what I want or expect The Great Hall should be this way." He turned and started walking.

Jake glanced down the hallway at the four 'assigned rooms', and then followed his mate.

Nathan stood in the Great Hall looking the elaborate silver mask sitting on the throne Every time he tried to pick it up some unknown force pushed him back The war-form growled at the mask "This is my mind and I will not be denied." He charged full force at the throne, only to be hurled half way across the Great Hall.

Jake rushed to his mate's side "Nate, are you okay?"

The winged tabby forced himself to his feet and shook himself off "I'm fine, Jake There's no way to be injured in here, but I am beginning to lose my patience with that." He looked at the mask while he considered a new plan of attack.

The lean tom stepped in front of Nathan "Maybe you're going about this the wrong way, the harder you push the harder it pushes back."

The Felsin growled in frustration "I know, but I need to get past that mask." His shoulder's slumped "My own mind won't let me get to it."

Jake nodded, then he reached up and stoked his mate's cheek ruff "Let me get it for you, if it is some mental block it probably wasn't meant to stop anyone but you."

Nathan shook his head "That's too dangerous, Jake I don't know what'll happen if you touch it. "

The cinnamon tom smiled at him "We can't be hurt in here, remember?"

The winged tabby nodded slowly "Yes, but as you pointed out that only means physical harm ... that isn't a physical danger."

"If it's a danger at all." He gently stroked his mate's fur to calm him. "Nate, you've been very good at saying we'll get through things lately But you always mean that you'll help me This time, let me help you."

Nathan sighed in resignation, sat down and looked at Jake "You're right, that is what I've meant, because that's just the way I am I'm very protective of those I love, but I expect to be able to handle everything myself It's difficult for me to admit that I can't Just be careful, love." He pulled Jake into a brief, passionate kiss that nearly degraded into a major distraction. "I don't know how far the defenses will go."

After a long moment, Jake pulled away and grinned at him "Don't worry, I can take care of myself Besides, I don't think the 'defenses' will even notice me."

Nathan watched anxiously as his mate crossed the Hall As Jake neared the throne the winged tabby stood up and crouched in a combat ready position as he estimated how long it would take him to cross the Great Hall at full sprint.

Jake cautiously put out a hand toward the mask, and feeling no resistance he lifted it from the throne As he started back to where Nathan was waiting, he heard a sound like glass breaking and noticed that a crack had appeared in the mask Suddenly, the ceiling started to come down and the floor gave way.

Nathan watched in paralyzed horror as Jake disappeared in the cataclysm of collapsing stone He charge forward, only to be thrown back hard by the same unseen force as before "Jake, NO!" He roared in frustration, fearing the worst.

As he attempted to tear the barrier down with his claws, there was a rush of wings behind him He turned to see Garalth landing, holding a very dusty, cinnamon tom who jumped down as soon as the Dracon landed He rushed to over carefully looking over his mate for injuries "Jake, are you alright?"

Jake grinned impishly "I'm fine, your big friend caught me as floor collapsed." He kissed Nathan quickly "But thanks for worrying."

The winged tabby looked up at the big warrior "My thanks Garalth, for your help."

The Dracon nodded "My duty is to protect you, Lord SwiftClaw If Jake had come to harm, that would have hurt you I could not, therefore, permit that."

"Duty or not, you still have my gratitude There is no one more important to me."

The guard nodded and vanished in a rush of wings.

Jake nudged him "I think you wanted this." In his hand was the slightly cracked silver mask.

Nathan nodded "I'm not sure I want it, but I do need to deal with it." He took the mask "I'm not sure what created it, but it's time to see."

As Nathan stood trying to figure out what to do next there was a sudden flash of bright light from the mask.

Jake and Nathan followed as the young Nathan was given a tour of some large, militaristic facility They passed numerous kits of varying ages, some as young as five and some appearing to be nearly adult They all wore the same black and silver uniform, with a red sleeve patch that simply said: 'Citadel'.

Jake nudged the quiet winged tabby "What is this place, Nate? Some sort of military academy?"

Nathan nodded sadly "In a way, that's true, but it's far less friendly This is Citadel, the shadow government's hidden commando training facility The kits you see are all commandos at various levels of training Except for the very youngest and brand new 'recruits' most of them have already seen action in the field ... and a good share of them have already killed Citadel was where I lost my kittenhood, but that wasn't the only thing I lost It's also where I learned to wear this mask."

Jake opened his mouth to say something, then shut it, unsure of how to voice what he felt, and wary of its reception.

Jake and Nathan watched as Nathan and his new roommate, a slightly larger Jaguar Felsin tom sized each other up There is a moment of uneasiness and then something appears to click; by the end of the night they are talking like old friends.

Jake looked at his mate and noticed a wistful look on the tiger-tabby's face "Who's the other kit, Nate?"

Nathan sighed "His name was Syrildar Marelkon, but nobody called him that Most called him Syril, but I always just called him Sy He was the first person my own age I'd ever gotten to know, and he became my best friend, my partner and the replacement for the family I was still grieving for. "

Jake caught the past tense and decided to wait and see what other memories showed up, doubting it would be good.

Memories flowed by quickly as time passed, and the two became inseparable They studied together, worked out together and shortly thereafter entered the pilot training program together Scene after scene showed them outperforming other piloting teams, with few cadets being able to match Nathan's skill as a pilot or Sy's skill as a gunner.

"Nate ... is the gunner/ pilot relationship the same ... was he your leader?" Jake asked uneasily, not quite able to match up what he expected to see in a successful pairing.

Nathan nodded absently "In the air, yes He had a brilliant tactical mind, and was a genius at analyzing combat situations regardless of how complex or confused On the ground, we reversed because he was unsure of himself in situations involving close combat, and I had a better sense of such things. "

The memories slowed for a moment showing the two slightly older kits sitting in their room looking out a window with gold engraved award cases on the windowsill next to them.

Sy turned to face Nathan. "Partners forever, right?" He put out his hand.

Nathan grasped Sy's hand tightly "Forever, and one day we're gonna fly right out of here. "

The jaguar looked at him and smiled "Yeah, then nobody's gonna tell us what to do."

The scenes began to rush past at a blurring pace, becoming difficult to see Jake turned to the winged tabby "What's with the blur?"

"That's the effect of some of the memory blocks that still exist, plus the third mask is still in place." Nathan replied quietly.

One thing became evident, young Nathan was significantly better than his friend at the non-flight commando training, seeming to be a natural at it Sy, on the other hand, seemed to struggle with much of it, though Nathan helped him through as much as he could The blur continued until it slowed down at a scene with Nathan by himself if a high tech looking room, the young tiger-tabby seemed a few years older, maybe seven or eight years old.

A voice came from the air "Okay, Nathan We're going to try this exercise again You have to locate and deactivate the sensors in order to release the door lock You need to do it faster than before, we expect improvement, especially from a commando with your potential."

The young Nathan looked defiantly around the room "You know I'm not very good at this, why are we wasting time with it?"

The voice was stern "You could be better, if you would just focus on what you're doing. So we've decided to give you an incentive." A wall panel opened up revealing a bomb on a timer.

Young Nathan looked at it unimpressed "Everybody knows you kill commandos who don't meet your standards. " What had appeared to be the corner of the room opened up to reveal an unconscious Sy lying on a table.

Young Nathan looked around horrified "That's not fair, I'm the one you're testing not him."

"True, but we needed to give you something you would care about enough to try harder. His life is now your responsibility You should get to work, the timer is running."

Young Nathan looked horrified for moment before his face became all concentration, as he looked around the room.

Jake looked at his mate, who was clenching his fists "Nate, what's going on here?"

Nathan sighed deeply "It's a test of ElectroMagnetic Perception, the ability to perceive the EM signatures of various devices and deactivate them by means of micro-telekinesis I was never very good at it, but they didn't want to accept that ... they expected me to excel at everything."

The two observers' attention was drawn back by an audible 'click' as the door slid open Young Nathan quickly started trying to drag his friend out of the room, but had difficulty as he was small for his age, and Sy wasn't He was almost to the door, when the explosive detonated hurling them both out of the room.

Young Nathan shook off the explosion relatively quickly, and crawled over to check on Sy The young jaguar was badly burned and unconscious "Come on Sy, wake up." He pleaded, tears starting to well "You can't leave me, don't leave."

Sy's eyes opened weakly "Sorry, Nate I don't want to..." he coughed harshly, "just remember, we're partners ... forever Whenever you fly, I'll be there with you Fly free, Shockwave ... fly free." His eyes closed as life departed.

Young Nathan roared in pain and anguish "Sy, No! Fly free, Longshot ... wherever you are You're the only partner I'll ever have, I'll never need, or have another." As shock began to set in he slumped against the body of his dead partner.

Several days later young Nathan was resting in an infirmary bed, when a Black Lion tom in the uniform of a Citadel Instructor walked in He turned to speak with Nathan "It was unfortunate about your gunner, but unfortunately there are consequences when you don't do as instructed You will, of course, be assigned a new gunner." The instructor turned to leave.

"That won't be necessary." The young tiger-tabby said icily.

The instructor turned, surprise showing on his face "Of course it is, all planes are configured for pilot and gunner operation."

Nathan stared directly at the Lion "Then take me out of the flight section, I don't want another gunner."

The Lion's voice became low and dangerous "You will remain in the flight section, and you will be assigned another gunner Remember your place, commando You don't make decisions here, you follow orders."

Young Nathan watched as the Black Lion left In his heart he knew that Sy had died because he'd been friends with Nathan, if they hadn't been friends then the instructors wouldn't have thought to use him that way The hurting tiger-tabby decided that he wasn't going to let anyone get hurt because of him, and he slowly started shutting his feelings away ... he didn't need anyone he told himself, he was a tiger ... one of the solitary hunters and he didn't need anyone.

Jake noticed that the young Nathan appeared now to be wearing a strange half version of the mask he had picked up off the throne He nudged Nathan "What's with the half-mask?"

Nathan wiped tears from eyes "I was trying to protect anyone from being hurt by being my friend Sy had died because he was, and I refused to let it happen to anyone else I failed him so badly, I wouldn't let it happen again ... I didn't want to have another friend's life in my hands It's only a half mask, because I wasn't very good at constructing shields so there was still a chance for someone to get through to me Though it would be three years before it happened."

The winged tabby sat down, his shoulders slumped forward "It's been so long, but it still hurts like it was yesterday, I guess that a side effect of the block being there for so long I only wish he was the last person I cared about that I failed ..."

Jake sank down, his forehead against Nathan's in shared grief, ears drooped and his voice very soft, almost thinking as he spoke "It can be a good pain, driving us to improve, or a bad pain, keeping us locked away and slowly killing from within."

Nathan sighed quietly "It actually became both for me I became driven to improve, to excel at everything; even excellence became less than acceptable I was never certain that I was good enough to avoid another disaster I also went to great lengths to make sure no one ever saw me try to do something; I only wanted them to know about things I could do well."

He brushed tears from his eyes "But I also learned to keep my distance, to not let anyone close If I didn't become close to them then the instructors wouldn't be able to put their lives in jeopardy the way they had Sy's I could accept the consequences of my failure, but I refused to let anyone else be at risk because of it."

As Nathan spoke, images began to flow as time passed "And I did improve, in everything but piloting They had forced me to stay a pilot, but they couldn't make me care; I did everything mechanically because any passion for flight was gone I was also a gunner's worst nightmare, because I resented anyone I was assigned to work with I didn't want or need another gunner, and I made no attempt to hide how I felt."

"About the time I turned eleven they assigned me another gunner; his name was Lance Goldmane He was Black Lion several years older than myself, an experienced gunner whose pilot had 'washed out' of Citadel Lion's tend to be personable sorts, real solid leader types and I guess the instructors figured that combined with the age difference might make me more amenable to working with him It didn't quite work as planned."

The images slowed to show Nathan sitting at a desk studying intensely The door to the room opened and a teenaged Black Lion walked in, tossed some books on his bed, walked up behind Nathan and clapped a friendly hand on his shoulder "Hey partner, enough studying already If we go now we can still get in on a game of warball, and everybody knows how you enjoy trouncing the seniors Be a good way for you to burn off some of that aggression too." The Black Lion's voice was friendly and sincere.

Nathan growled and shook off the hand on his shoulder "Lance, I'm trying to study How long is it going to take for you to figure out that I work with you in the air because it's required On the ground, just don't bother me." He turned a page, and deliberately ignored the older tom.

Lance looked a little taken back, but recovered quickly "I know all about what happened, and how you've driven away more gunners than any pilot in Citadel But I also know you still happen to be one of the best pilots here, so I figure we need to find a way to work together on more than the mechanical level we've managed so far Just what do I have to do, to convince you to trust me, Nate?"

The tiger-tabby exploded into the larger Black Lion They were a flurry of red and black as they rolled across the floor When they collided with the door, the enraged Tiger was on top of the bruised and bloodied Lion The startled and terrified Lance went submissive trying to calm down the smaller tom who was pinning him to the ground.

Nathan growled low and dangerous at the larger Lion "Don't call me Nate Never call me Nate, you haven't earned that right." He grabbed his field jacket and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

The tiger-tabby ran through the corridors of Citadel until he found himself in a quiet hallway by himself He sank to the floor, sobbing in shock over what had happened and fear of letting it happen again.

Jake looked at Nathan "Umm. Nate, what just happened?"

Nathan shook his head, sadly "I still don't understand exactly, I just know that Lance's innocent attempt to be friendly triggered an explosive release of pent up anger and rage If it hadn't been for my programmed inhibition against killing, I probably would've killed him ... and I knew that What scared me was that I almost killed someone for trying to be my friend, and I couldn't be sure I wouldn't explode like that again ... so I bolted, tried to get away from Lance before it happened again."

The winged tabby sighed "I'm not sure if I was more afraid of hurting him again ... or of lowering my guard enough to be friends, which was what I'd have to have done to avoid another outburst I'd only had one friend my age before, and it ended so painfully I was afraid to try again.

The scenes began flowing again as the young Nathan wandered through the corridors of Citadel, until he came to a door labeled 'Temporal Transit Studies' Nathan looked at the door for a moment, and then concentrated hard on the locking mechanism After a few minutes there was a 'beep' from the door and it opened He looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then ducked inside.

Jake looked at the door "Time Travel?"

Nathan nodded "Yep This is the Citadel Advanced Projects Division, and there's very little they don't or haven't researched Time travel was added to the list of less than successful projects, courtesy of my younger self."

The scene shifted to young Nathan studying the controls of a very complicated device After a long period of study he started throwing switches and pressing buttons Finally, the device began humming as it charged up Nathan spent the charging period tampering with several circuits in the machine near the portal generator Suddenly, the machine beginning beeping and the portal activated a swirling maelstrom of color and light The tiger-tabby looked at it for a moment, and then dove through.

When the flash of light cleared Jake and Nathan found themselves standing in a forest at night The weather was cold, and the sky was clear Nathan stood staring at the sky for several long minutes.

"Nate, now where are we?"

"That's what I'm trying to determine." Nathan's voice was distracted as stared at the night sky.

"Oh, by stargazing?"

"I memorized what the stars would look like on many of the Alliance worlds, I'm trying to see if this is one of them Though it's difficult, without knowing how much time travel was involved."

"Any luck?"

"Only sort of I'd say that this is probably Earth, somewhere in the northern hemisphere, but that's a rough guess ... these stars are off a bit, but that's probably just temporal distortion."

"You don't remember? You were here before, right?"

"Yes, but I didn't know where the time portal was going when I activated it ... I just wanted to be away from Citadel."

"How'd you plan on getting back?"

"I didn't There was nothing for me there; my family was dead as was my only friend As far I was concerned it didn't matter where I went, every place was the same ... as long as it was away from Citadel and the Instructors."

Young Nathan stared at the castle in the distance, and watched the hard to see flying forms with fascination To be able to fly under one's own power; now there was true freedom He wondered what kind of world he had found, but thought that it had to be better than the one he had left.

Jake looked at the castle as well "Nate, isn't that ..."

"HeartKeep, or more accurately it's real world inspiration: Castle Wyvern."

They watched as the young Nathan approached a small village, and tried to talk to one of the humans Suddenly, the scene became one of the young Nathan running from a group of very agitated humans He eluded them fairly easily, and vanished into the nearby forest.

"That didn't go very well, did it?" Jake nudged the silent tiger-tabby.

Nathan chuckled "That was a rather clumsy effort at first contact on my part It didn't help any that I didn't speak their language I forgot to consider that I might be far enough in the past that Earth hadn't become part of the Alliance yet, so Standard wouldn't be a known language yet."

"But you knew it was Earth?"

"I figured it was because I saw humans, it was their homeworld."

"Just a few assumptions there, huh?"

The tiger-tabby grinned "Well, there's a reason they don't usually put eleven year old kits on first contact teams."

The two toms watched as young Nathan stalked a human male who looked only a little older than himself He sprang from the bushes and after a small commotion he had the teen pinned to the ground with his hand over his opponent's mouth to quiet him, and a knife at his throat The young Nathan stared directly into the human's eyes and there was a quiet rush of power that both watchers felt.

Jake looked surprised "Nate, what just happened?"

Nathan looked a little embarrassed "I'm afraid my younger self was being rather rude That was the application of a Citadel technique known as linguistic acquisition It quite forcibly copies knowledge of a language from the target to the user Useful for learning languages, but it's a cheap imitation of the Medic technique of linguistic transference."

"There's a difference? Sounds like semantics."

Nathan nodded "The difference is subtle but important Linguistic transference is more difficult for two reasons: (1) It is far gentler on the target, and (2) It gives a language in return for the one learned The two techniques are the same in that neither reads any thoughts Citadel trains their commandos to use acquisition as standard field procedure in an area where they don't know the language.

"Medics only use transference to learn a language where they lack one in common with their patient, since communication barriers complicate healing significantly In case you're wondering, that's how I learned the local language when we first met You may or may not be aware of it, but you picked up Alliance Standard during that meeting."

"I noticed, not that it's much use, even at Cathedral." He grinned "Though it's made for one hell of a good base for codes."

Their attention was drawn by a low growl from young Nathan as he stared at his prisoner He held up the knife blade where the teen could see it "Yell or scream and you're dead Same goes if you try to escape Understand?"

The scared boy nodded.

"Good." He took his hand away "Now this is real simple I'm going to ask you some questions; answer me truthfully and I'll let you go Refuse to answer or lie to me and you're dead Understand?" There was pure command in his voice, no hesitation, no threats, just simple fact.

Another nod.

"Very good." He said pleasantly "Now, what's your name?"

"Michael." The teen said uneasily.

"Okay, Michael Now what's the nearby castle called?"

"That'd be Castle Wyvern."

"And who'd be in charge?"

"Why everybody knows that ..:" He caught the cat-demon's warning glance "Princess Catherine, of course."

"Very good." The young commando's voice was even and quiet "What do you call the winged beings that I saw around the castle?"

"They're gargoyles, of course." Michael said with a bit more spirit, beginning to think that the cat-demon wasn't going to kill him after all.

"Of course, they are." Young Nathan smiled "Now what is it that you think I am, that makes you so afraid of me?" He was a little amused, the human was bigger than him but his fear made him no threat at all.

"You're a cat-demon, aren't you?" The teen asked in confusion.

The young commando grinned predatorily "Maybe I am, at that." He stood up, and pulled the taller teen to his feet "Now get back to your village, and be quiet about it or I might decide to kill you after all."

As he watched Michael run off quietly, young Nathan lounged against a tree considering his next move; he might have gotten more info out of the captive but he didn't think the boy knew much Survival priorities were food, water, and shelter, but he really wanted to find out more about the Gargoyles One thing he made a note to remember, these humans were not going to react positively to him so contact was to be avoided as much as possible.

He froze as he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye Slowly the movement came into view and though the commando wasn't sure exactly what it was, he did recognize the quadruped as being in the same category as the non-sentient plant-eaters back home: food Suddenly, the commando shifted to tiger form and pounced; with one swift motion the tiger snapped its victim's neck Looking around carefully the tiger detected no competitors so he settled down to eat.

Nathan looked a little queasy "I'd heard that the primal form can really act like its wild equivalent, but its still a little surprising to see myself doing it."

Jake nudged him "Where'd the shapeshift come from? I thought that was recent."

Nathan considered that for a moment "The latent genetic markers were probably activated by the energy from the time portal, and deactivated by the return trip ... at least that'd be my guess."

They watched as the second half of the mask began to appear in a shadowy outline He sighed sadly "This ability to hunt successfully is the beginning of the second half of the mask He'd kept everyone at a distance, and now he's starting to believe he doesn't need anyone else ... which is what he wants to believe, because if he doesn't let anyone close, doesn't let himself care about anyone ... then no one can leave him again." Nathan sighed "I remember that feeling, that desperately not wanting to feel left behind again ... complete independence seemed the only way to go."

"Makes sense to me."

The scene shifted to Nathan carefully making his way through the forest at night As he crossed an open glade he detected movement in his peripheral vision and darted quickly into the cover of nearby undergrowth He looked around to get a better view of what the movement had been He realized with some surprise that the movement had been above him, not behind as he had thought.

He pulled his binoculars from his pocket and was pleasantly surprised to discover what had he'd seen was a gargoyle Based on the fact that the gargoyle was still in the area, Nathan guessed he was looking for something Further observation failed to detect any others, and this seemed like a small one The young commando decided that he probably wasn't going to get a much safer chance to talk to one.

Nathan waited till the gargoyle came around again and then walked out into the clearing He carefully watched the gargoyle for signs that he was going to attack The young commando noted that the flight behavior was more characteristic of a glider rather than flier, but then remembered that flight would be energy intensive so gliding might be used to conserve energy He just hoped the gargoyle would choose to land instead of flying off.

The young Gargoyle debated whether he should get some of the others before checking out this 'cat-demon' he'd found but decided that there was only one, and a small one at that He might be small, but he was still a Gargoyle and he could handle this.

Felsin and Gargoyle stood about thirty feet apart quietly sizing each other up for some time Nathan was a bit larger, but being small for his age ... not that much larger Neither were really looking for a fight, and both were rather curious.

The Gargoyle didn't think he was looking at a demon, probably some kind of cat but probably not a demon Then he realized he couldn't remember if any of the stories the humans had told mentioned the cat-demon talking "Can you understand me?" He asked tentatively, hoping the cat did.

Nathan nodded He'd been wondering if the Gargoyles used the humans' language, but he'd forgotten to ask the humans he'd 'talked' to He smiled cautiously "You're a Gargoyle, right? What's your name?"

The Gargoyle grinned "Of course, I am We don't have names What's yours?"

"Nathan." The commando looked puzzled "You don't have names? Isn't that ... well ... confusing?"

"Not really, we know who we are." He replied thinking that the cat had the same need for names that the humans did "What are you? I've never seen anyone like you."

"I'm Felsin." Nathan answered evenly "Not surprising, I'm not from anywhere nearby." He added tentatively, not sure how he'd explain time/space travel when he wasn't really too clear on it himself.

The small Gargoyle figured there had to be more of these 'Felsin' around, since he was sure Nathan was only a child, since he was about the same size as a human child "Do your parents know you're off by yourself, these woods can be dangerous ..."

"Don't talk down to me like I'm some untrained kit I'm a warrior, and I take care of myself." Nathan interrupted indignantly "Besides, you're smaller than me Do your parents know where you are?" Nathan snapped back.

The gargoyle backed off apologetically "Sorry, I didn't mean that as an insult Besides, I'm a warrior too." He smiled, feeling a bit foolish for jumping to the same conclusion about Nathan that he always got annoyed about people jumping to about him.

"That's okay, I guess us small guys gotta stick together, huh?" Nathan grinned, and put out his paw in a friendly fashion Despite some bad memories he decided that maybe he didn't want to stay alone after all.

The gargoyle smiled, deciding that he liked this Felsin He grasped the offered paw "Yeah Look I'm supposed to be patrolling, you can follow along if you think you can keep up." He said in what was clearly a friendly challenge.

Nathan laughed "Hah, if I knew where you were going you'd be the one trying to keep up."

The gargoyle quickly used the surrounding trees to gain enough altitude to glide properly Nathan followed nimbly moving branch to branch in the trees.

Jake watched as the two moved away and the scene didn't follow He looked at Nathan to see his mate smiling sadly "Nate, I thought you said he, I mean you didn't want to let anybody close ... looks like he just made a friend."

The tiger-tabby nodded "Yes, I did The mask wasn't complete, and Felsin aren't solitary, not even tiger-kin like myself We don't really like solitude, and he feels the pull to find a new 'group' to belong to ... and that little gargoyle was close enough in age that they/we became good friends pretty quickly." Nathan found talking about himself in this combination of present and past tense confusing.

Jake recognized the light sorrow behind his mate voice and refrained from asking what happened right away He had a feeling it wouldn't be good, whatever it was.

Scenes flowed quickly showing the two meeting up on other nights Nathan kept watch to see where his friend would head when he left the castle, and sprinted to meet him near the forest edge The two got into a couple of small scraps with individual raiders lurking in the forest, but between the two of them it was no problem.

The scenes slowed to a moonlit night with Nathan leaning casually against a tree trunk.
There was a rustle of wings and his Gargoyle friend landed nearby.

"Hi, Nathan."

Nathan looked at his friend and grinned "Nice night, huh?"

"Yeah, pretty quiet No sign of raiders."

"Nope You know you were followed, right?" Nathan said casually as though discussing the weather.

"Huh? Where?" The gargoyle asked looking around.

"Another Gargoyle, he just passed over I'd say he's probably turning around at the moment."

"Oh, I guess one of my friends got curious about my new friend I really think you should meet them."

"That'd be difficult, unless they come out here ... humans don't react very well to me, and there's a lot of them at the castle." Nathan said, though he thought he could probably sneak in unseen, but he didn't want to risk causing his friends trouble.

Lexington turned to see Brooklyn land in the clear space behind him When he turned back he noticed that Nathan was missing "Now where'd you go, Nathan? He's my friend, you don't need to hide."

Brooklyn walked over "Your friend's a little jumpy, huh?"

The little Gargoyle looked over his shoulder "You should've told me you were coming along."

"I just thought I ought to know who this new 'friend' is."

Nathan voice drifted down from the leaves and the two Gargoyles looked up to see him reclining on a branch "Sorry about that, I'm just cautious with those I don't know But if he, " He indicated Lexington. "says you're a friend, that's good enough for me."

Brooklyn looked at the small cat-person and thought he looked somewhat like a human child, except for the face and the tail "You're a warrior? " He asked somewhat doubtfully.

"You want a demonstration?" The little commando glared challengingly at the larger Gargoyle with the big beak.

Brooklyn laughed casually "You're joking, right? You might be a cat, but you're a kid just the same."

"I wouldn't say that." Lexington tried to warn the larger Gargoyle.

"Come on." Nathan challenged "Put up, or shut up." He dropped into a sparring stance He didn't really want to fight the Gargoyle, but he hated people not taking him seriously.

Brooklyn shook his head "Okay, but just till someone yields, okay?"

The Felsin nodded "Of course, I don't really want to hurt you." He grinned impishly.

The two of them circled each other for a moment, and then Nathan lunged suddenly catching the Gargoyle by surprise The combat turned into a rolling on the ground wrestling match with Nathan's ferocity and training making up for the difference in size.

Lexington was so occupied watching his two friends brawling about the clearing that he didn't notice Goliath land next to him.

"I don't suppose you'd care to explain what's going on?"

The little Gargoyle jumped "Oh, umm, well... They're settling a little difference of opinion."

"Oh." Goliath raised an eyebrow "And just what would that be?"

"He, " Lexington indicated Brooklyn. "said Nathan was just a kid, and Nathan objected saying he was a warrior They decided on this to settle it, no real harm just till somebody gives."

"I see." He looked at the two fairly evenly matched opponents "I think the point has already been settled." He walked over and separated the two by putting himself between them.

Brooklyn looked up startled. "Oh .. hi, Goliath I bet you're wondering what's going on here, aren't you?" He looked a little sheepish "Just friendly sparring, nothing serious." The Gargoyle felt a little foolish since he'd been unable to get the upper hand on someone he'd called a child.

Nathan nodded agreement, feeling intimidated and yet somehow comforted by the big Gargoyle's presence "Yeah, we were just playing, no harm intended."

Goliath looked at Brooklyn "I assume the matter is settled then."

Brooklyn nodded "Yeah, I guess I made a mistake."

Goliath turned to look at Nathan "So you're the cat-demon the humans keep talking about It would seem that the descriptions were a bit exaggerated."

Nathan nodded "Humans panic too easy, they fear what they don't understand...and they don't try to understand what's different from themselves." He wasn't terribly fond of humans.

"Not all of them are that blind, though many are But you live alone in the forest? Where is your clan?"

Nathan stared at the ground "Clan? You mean my family? They all died years ago, but my father taught me to take care of myself I lived with another clan for awhile but their goals where the opposite of what I'd been raised to believe ... so I left, eventually I ended up here."

Goliath nodded "I've been told you've been helping patrol the forest."

The little commando nodded "Yeah, that's what he," He indicated Lexington. "was doing He's my friend, so I thought I'd help That's what friends do."

Goliath smiled, warming to the little warrior "It is indeed." He thought for a moment "Would you like to see what you've been helping defend?"

Nathan smiled "Is that possible? The humans don't react very well."

Goliath picked up the little tiger-tabby "There aren't usually any where we're going."

Nathan smiled happily "Good."

The scene blurred as time began to pass again Nathan smiled sadly watching the scene.

Jake turned to the winged tiger-tabby "What's wrong, Nate?"

"Nothing's wrong, Jake I'd just forgotten these people who meant so much to me And realizing I'll probably never see them again..." He sighed "He/I had found something we'd missed for a long time; family The Gargoyles became a kind of replacement for the family I'd lost ... especially Goliath, around him I felt 'safe' for the first time since my father died."


Young Nathan got back early from hunting, so he decided to be there when the Gargoyles woke up He'd never actually managed that before, since he usually was still in the forest when they woke up The tiger-tabby was still more comfortable in the forest than in the castle, so he didn't usually stay long.

As he surveyed the entrance to the castle from a concealed location, he realized that a number of small cats came and went without anyone paying attention He concentrated for a moment and was pleased as his form shifted to become like the little ones, only a reddish-brown coat with black points.

He was pleased as he wandered into the castle, and none of the humans paid the slightest attention to one more cat entering Moving quickly he made his way until he reached the tower where Goliath was sleeping The small cat put his paws up on the stone parapet and watched the sun begin to set.

The cat jumped back when the stone cracked and Goliath stretched and roared He was amazed; he'd been told they turned to stone during the day ... but it was far different to watch the return from stone.

Goliath noticed the cat on the tower looking at him because usually there wasn't anyone on the tower when he awoke The colors looked familiar though and there was something familiar about the eyes.

Lexington landed on the tower and saw the cat "Hi, Nathan." He said casually.

Goliath looked at him in disbelief "Are you saying that that, " He gestured to the cat "is Nathan.?"

The small gargoyle nodded "He turns into cats kind of like we turn to stone during the day...only he has more control."

"Sorcery?" Goliath asked suspiciously.

"No, he just does it."

The cat stood up on two legs becoming the small tiger-tabby "It's not magic, Goliath ... it's just part of who I am." He said, hoping the big Gargoyle would believe him.

Goliath was not sure, but the small warrior had been a faithful ally so he decided to accept that it wasn't sorcery, for now "Interesting What brings you up here so early?"

"Nothing really, I just finished hunting early and decided to greet you when you awoke."

Goliath smiled "Well, as long as you're here you can join us for breakfast And then I can assign the night's patrols."

Nathan smiled happily as he followed Goliath down from the tower The castle was actually beginning to feel like 'home', something he had missed having for a long time.

There was a sudden scene, it showed the Gargoyles driving a large group of attackers away from the castle Nathan was right there with them in thick of the fighting, usually working with Bronx, who also didn't have wings.

A brief scene showed Nathan back to back with one of the castle guards, holding off Vikings There was a brief pause in the fighting which allowed the guard to get a look at his 'partner' "Yur an odd gargoyle aren't ya?" He asked curiously, looking for wings.

Nathan chuckled quietly, as Bronx went past chasing a Viking "We don't all have wings, you know."

The guard nodded, feeling a bit foolish "Aye, that's true enough."

After the Vikings were driven back, Nathan went looking for Goliath, to see what was next The little commando's training said that they should finish off the attackers before they could regroup, but he wasn't in charge His keen ears picked up what sounded like arguing From the voices he thought it sounded like Goliath, Goliath's mate, one of Goliath's rookery brothers and the human Guard Captain.

The arguing stopped before Nathan could make it out clearly, but he saw Goliath and the older Gargoyle Goliath called 'mentor', flying out in the direction that the Vikings retreated He thought about it and concluded that they must be planning to scare the Vikings away, instead of actually finishing them off.

Nathan decided that since he knew the forest well, and was an excellent tracker ... he should go along to help Unfortunately, he had a lot of ground to make up ... but it wasn't like he was doing anything else.

Nathan was rather frustrated, he'd found the Viking camp but there had been no sign of Goliath or 'mentor' Since he doubted that he was up to taking the entire camp single-handedly, he headed back to the castle Dawn had already broken as he spotted two statues on the open plain, just outside the forest Feeling something bad had happened he bolted to the statues to discover that they were actually Goliath and 'mentor' in stone form.

The little tiger-tabby concluded that there must have been a diversion, probably the missing horses, that had drawn his friends far enough away that they couldn't return in time With Vikings in the area, Nathan sat down in small cat form to keep watch on the two vulnerable Gargoyles He could think of reasons why someone would want to draw the Gargoyles away from the castle, but without Goliath to back him up ... he knew the humans wouldn't believe anything he said.

There was another scene jump and Nathan was looking in stunned horror at the ruins of Castle Wyvern and the shattered Gargoyles He immediately bolted to the rookery from where Goliath had set him down, hoping that the cold knot in his stomach was wrong this time The little commando's heart just about leapt out of his chest when he saw the four Gargoyles coming out of the Rookery His whole body relaxed in relief to see that his friends had survived the disaster.

There was another blur, and when it cleared young Nathan was watching a Viking run away in terror He looked around searching for another Viking, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he knew something was very wrong He switched to tiger mode and sprinted back to the camp looking for his friends who had also been chasing Vikings As he approached he could see all the Gargoyles, except Goliath, surrounded by some strange green glow The young commando couldn't identify the glow but he didn't like it.

He bolted to the edge of the glow nearest Lexington and tried to reach through the glow to pull the little Gargoyle free, but the glow was a tough as any forcefield He carefully extended his troublesome ElectroMagnetic Perception trying to understand the field but it didn't help In desperation, he threw his full weight against the field at full speed but was still repelled Then he was blinded for a moment by a flash of light, when it cleared the glow was gone and all the Gargoyles were stone.

The little commando spotted the Magus standing on a nearby rise, and realized that what had happened was 'magic' and that the Magus was responsible He charged up the cliff and knocked the weak human to the ground , hard He was going to force the Magus to undo his spell when he saw Goliath land nearby He immediately ran over to report what had happened.

As angry as Nathan had been, Goliath's rage dwarfed it by comparison Nathan slowly walked over to Lexington and ran his hand gently along the little Gargoyle's face In the background he could hear voices, but none of it really mattered The world lost focus as Nathan felt everything slipping away again, same as when his parents had died.

It was very early morning, dawn was still hours away and Goliath had just finished putting the last of the Gargoyles into their traditional positions Nathan listened as Goliath asked Princess Catherine to look after the eggs in the rookery Then Nathan heard Goliath ask the Magus to cast his spell of sleep one more time Nathan rushed up the stairs to the big Gargoyles side.

"Goliath, if you're going to sleep with the rest ... can I too? I don't want to be left behind." The little tiger-tabby didn't care about dignity, if there was a chance to keep this 'family' he'd take it; no matter how slim the chance.

Goliath looked down at the little warrior He was surprised to see tears beginning at the corners of Nathan's eyes "There is no guarantee of waking up, Nathan."

"I know But it's the only chance I have to keep what little family I have left." Nathan blurted out, not caring who heard.

Goliath was somewhat surprised at this open expression from one usually reserved He put his hand on the little tiger's shoulder "I understand We both seek the same thing here, to keep what little clan we have left together Very well, if the Magus is up to it."
He turned to look at the wizard.

The wizard looked downcast "I'm sorry, the spell only affects Gargoyles."

Nathan was so crushed he didn't even react when Princess Catherine put a kindly hand on his shoulder, and spoke softly to Goliath "Do not worry about him Goliath, we will see that he is well taken care of."

Nathan shook off the hand "Thanks, but I don't need to be 'taken care of' I'm a warrior and I was trained in survival by the best If I can't join the clan in sleep then my duty is to stay here and protect them while they sleep I have to make sure other humans don't come along and finish what some humans started." His voice was firm and resolute.

Goliath put a hand on his shoulder "Nathan, you should go with them You will be alone here if you stay I don't expect you to spend your life alone, watching for a day that may not come."

The little tiger looked up at Goliath "I know you wouldn't ask me to, Goliath But it's what I choose to do, and besides in a crowd of humans ... I'd still be alone You've seen how most humans react to me, I'd rather spend a life alone then a life dealing with that kind of ignorance."

The big Gargoyle nodded "We each must chose our own path, but if someday you decide your path is elsewhere follow it, I will understand."

Nathan impulsively hugged Goliath "If I'm not here when you wake, please know that I stayed as long as I could." He stepped back "We'll see each other again, I know it."

Goliath smiled "I certainly hope so, Nathan You have certainly proven that a non-Gargoyle can be part of a Gargoyle clan."

The Magus cleared his throat "The spell must be cast before sunrise, Goliath."

"I understand." He took his familiar place on the high tower.

Nathan watched as the Magus cast his spell and as Goliath turned to stone so did Nathan's heart He was alone again, alone with the pain and grief of loss He quietly sat down beside Lexington, quietly putting away the heart he no longer needed ... or wanted.

He barely noticed as the Magus left the battlements When Princess Catherine came over he paid little attention He just wanted the humans to leave, and let him get on with his watch They had caused this disaster, and he wanted nothing to do with them.

"You could still come with us, Nathan Goliath was right, it will dreadful lonely here once everyone is gone." Her voice was truly concerned.

The little commando shook his head "Princess, I will be alone no matter where I am Here at least there is the chance, however small, that my clan will wake up No, I will stay You should concentrate on the promise you gave Goliath to look after the eggs in the Rookery, I think that will require all the influence you have." He looked around at the other sleeping Gargoyles "Don't worry about me, cat-demons are used to being alone."

"Aye, and that promise will be kept dinna worry about that." She turned and left the battlements, pausing briefly on the stairs "I dinna think yur quite the demon ye say."

As far as Nathan was concerned, she'd already left In fact, all the humans had So long as they left the sleepers alone he didn't care about them at all.

As Jake and Nathan watched the Mask could be seen returning fully formed.

Jake nudged the silent tiger-tabby "Why the mask now?"

Nathan spoke quietly, hesitantly "Three major losses in not quite six years was more than I/he could take My parents, Sy and now the Gargoyles ... the pain of loss was too much for someone so young to deal with He/I didn't want to hurt like that ever again, it just wasn't worth it ... so he put his heart away, sealed it up where it wouldn't ever get involved again And it stayed there for a long time."

"But I thought..."

Nathan turned and placed a gentle hand on Jake's cheek "As an adult years later I can understand what I gained from having them in my life, and I realize that it was worth the pain, but that's something that a not quite twelve year old kit couldn't see All he could see was the pain, and the loneliness." There were quiet tears in his eyes.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months and months into years Nathan settled into a routine of hunting, foraging, watching and sleeping that served his purposes Once the humans were gone the only loneliness was what he felt at sunset when none of his clan awoke Everyday at sunset he stood on the battlements watching, and everyday nothing happened.

With his stealth abilities and his tiger form he found it easy enough to keep humans from taking any serious interest in the deserted castle Months later he was amused when he overheard humans talking around a campfire about the cat-demon of Castle Wyvern That was part of his plan to keep the Gargoyles safe, make humans regard the castle as haunted or cursed He had learned that they gave such places a wide berth, no matter how desirable they might be otherwise.

Nathan hunted quietly in the woods at night as he always did, careful not to trip any hunters' traps that might be there There was a shadow overhead, he looked up to see a common avian flyer and sighed remembering how he first met the Gargoyles he missed so much There sudden snap and then hard blow and the world went black.

He woke to the sound of five adult human male voices arguing As he attempted to get up he realized that his ankles and wrists were tied together, and that the rope was stronger than he could break.

"I still say we should kill the demon and be done with it." A gruff male voice suggested.

"Ah, yur full of it Bill. Ye know we haven't got the means to kill a demon for good, it'd just come back stronger." A harsh voice said.

"I think we can, it bleeds so it must be killable." The gruff voice, probably Bill, responded.

"Yer both daft and missing a far more interesting possibility." A somewhat slippery-voiced individual interjected Nathan could smell the lust and alcohol in the scent of the speaker "Look at the nice form on him." Rough hands turned the kit around, and caressed him intimately "Like a young girl."

There was a round of guffaws and then a quiet voice spoke "Yer the daft one Thomas, consorting with demons will get ye a one way trip to hell and ye know it Besides, form or no that one's a bit fuzzy for the women I prefer." He chuckled darkly "But right normal for your bedmates ah wager."

There was more guffawing, but Nathan tuned them out as he realized that their intent was either to kill him, rape him or both He started to panic, then remembered that the ropes were tied to hold his Felsin form, not his small cat form He shifted quickly and as the startled ruffians reached for their weapons he shifted to tiger mode and attacked He quickly scattered the cowards, leaving them with varying wounds to tend to The little commando was angry enough to kill, and yet something stopped him.

Satisfied that he had scared them off, he went back their fire to examine his Felsin form for any wounds He discovered that his wrists and ankles had noticeable abrasions, which heal soon enough and that he had an incredible headache probably from being hit on the head He accounted his injuries as the price of learning not to daydream while walking, and of learning that humans were capable of anything.

Nathan was awoken early by a strange beeping sound He looked around trying to identify it, when he realized that it was the communicator built into his field jacket That meant that a team from Citadel was not far away He realized that he couldn't let Citadel know about the Gargoyles because Citadel would either try to use them, or destroy them to make it so Nathan had nothing to guard or stay for.

Sadly he walked over to Goliath "I'm sorry, I'm not strong enough to kill all of them and I can't let them find you The only way I can protect you is to leave you, and I don't think I'll be able to get back once I'm gone." He put his arms around the sleeping giant and thought as hard as he could to the stone, hoping he'd be heard. "*I have to leave to protect you, Goliath. I just hope that when you wake, maybe you'll remember me.*"

He quickly moved down to Brooklyn and repeated the goodbye When he got to Lexington he put his arms around the little Gargoyle and cried "*I'll miss you, you're one of the best friends I've ever had, and probably ever will have I just hope you make it through okay, and maybe remember me.*"

As he walked down the stairs toward the exit to castle, he careful packed up all of his memories and feelings regarding the Gargoyles and locked them behind the strongest barrier in his mind The one none of the psych-meds at Citadel could touch, the one his mother had put in place to prevent him from killing save to protect family or friends After he made one last sweep to be sure nothing was left, he locked the door and threw the key over into the block as well.

He walked out of the castle as though he had merely been taking advantage of it as shelter There was no sign or trace that Castle Wyvern meant anything to him When the recovery team found him, their psi-scan revealed that he had been living on his own in the ruins of a human castle and had had no contact with anyone in this timeframe They suspected that wasn't true, but they had no proof so they simply took the missing commando back to Citadel.

As the scenes faded to black Nathan sat on the ground sobbing, holding the cracked mask He looked up at Jake, tears in his bloodshot eyes "They meant so much to me, and I forgot them ... not because anyone else made me but because I did." His body shook quietly "I wonder if they ever woke up ... I guess I'll never know."

"The mask...?"

"Those who I need past it, I can now get past it But I think it will be awhile before I can really give it up I can't take that pain for just anybody." He looked up at Jake and smiled weakly "Only those I really care for."

Jake hesitated a moment before steeling himself "I can find out, if you want."

Nathan looked up with curiosity shining in his eyes "How? Earth is in Alliance space, I know that much, I just don't expect to be returning to the Alliance Not that I mind anymore, not much anyway."

"We can get there." He hesitated again "I have access to a few ... things ... that aren't really acknowledged." He looked anywhere but at his LifeMate "I wouldn't mind ... a clean start."

Nathan smiled quietly "This isn't something I expected to ever have to think about But first I'll have to figure out where the Alliance is relative to here.

"Not the way we can get there." Jake spoke softly "All I need is a sharp memory of a place that won't change in appearance and 'feel'.

Nathan pulled his mate close "Sharp memory? I don't have any other kind, so I guess that's not a problem There are a few places in the Alliance that'll work, when the time comes."

Jake shivered and nodded acceptance.

Nathan smiled softly "This is a big decision, and I think it should wait till we're back in real space to make it." He gently brought Jake's gaze back to meet his "Love, even if I'd had a way to get back I wouldn't have felt right asking you to leave Aristal ... but if you want to leave, and there's a way ... we can think about it If you want a clean start, the Alliance is certainly an effective way to do it." The tiger-tabby sighed "I just can't rush into the decision right at the moment There are ... loose ends."

"Just let me know when." He shrugged with near indifference "It requires little prep on my part past a suitable destination."

The tiger-tabby nodded understanding Part of him leapt at the thought of being able to get Jake away from the politics of Aristal, but part of him knew that it wasn't that simple He gently filed it away under 'things to do after Joining.'

He looked around, trying to figure out how to get to the third Mask ... or even what it would be He shivered briefly, the second Mask had been rough enough emotionally ... what would the final Mask hold?

"We can handle it." Jake spoke with gentle certainty "You survived it, we'll handle it."

Nathan smiled weakly and kissed his mate gently "Thanks Jake, I guess the next one worries me, because it's the one I had nothing to do with creating It'll probably also be the most resistant to being undone But you're right, we'll handle it."

There was a rush of darkness, followed by an impossibly fast moving blur of colored lines which bore a distant resemblance to circuit pathways When the world came into focus Nathan and Jake were standing on a street corner in a very bizarre looking city Everything was very blocky, all square corners and bright lines of various colors ran through everything including buildings and cars.

The few people had the glowing lines running through their clothing, and they paid no attention to Jake and Nathan As Nathan looked around he had a bad feeling he knew what the place was, and why it was here Suddenly, a holographic image of a female Felsin head appeared in front of him.

"Greetings, Nathan Welcome to level 42 To complete this level you must find your way through the city of Cyboria to the lair of the Cybermancer, and defeat him Remember, most citizens will not notice your presence unless you engage them in some fashion Be on the look out for the usual guardians and automated weapons emplacements Some of your colleagues in the resistance have managed to hide caches of weapons and equipment in the city, be on the lookout for them When your ready, put on the combat glove and begin."

The tiger-tabby looked down and saw what he expected: two Cybermancer combat gloves, which also looked a lot like advanced versions of the Glovatrix.

"Nate, what is going on here? Level 42? Is this some sort of game?" Jake sounded a bit incredulous.

Nathan sighed "The game was a Virtual Reality Combat Simulation that was popular on board a carrier I served on for over a year I got very good at the game but I could never finish it ... I never beat level 42.

"When Citadel first constructed the mind-blocks it looks like they used the one 'fear' I had to buttress it, and this is the representation it's choosing This Combat Sim was designed to enhance the working relationship of pilot and gunner, it's supposed to be 2 players but I always played alone But the final level can't be done that way, at least I never could."

He shivered a little "They knew I'd never accept another gunner, that I'd never trust that much again They used that to build the walls, and the walls are using the Combat Sim to represent what I have to get past to break through the mask The walls are seeking to block me by pitting me against something I know I can't beat That I've never found a way to beat."

He looked down at the gloves "Somehow I have to beat him this time, there's too much at stake."

"Nathan," Jake placed a confidant hand on his mate's shoulder as a light bodyarmor in the style of the NightBlade's uniform appeared on him "We will beat this Even if I'm not your gunner_, I am a competent one and your LifeMate_, and that's damn close." There was a fire of pure defiance behind his eyes as he picked up one of the gloves "If I'm not good enough for this, I'm not good enough to stay."

Nathan picked up the other glove, as the NightBlade uniform appeared on him as well He sighed a little, he never had been able to make sense of this problem of his "Jake, this isn't about you being good enough ... it's a fundamental difficulty of mine For this to work, I need to accept you as my gunner ... which means I have give up control in a way I've avoid doing most of my life, I have to trust your judgment as much as do my own ... these are things I've never been good at It's easier for me to accept a LifeMate, to trust you with my heart and the secrets I've kept so long.

"This is coming out really clumsy, but I've fought my whole life to stay in control, to let no one make decisions for me This time I need to trust someone else to make decisions 'cause that's what the gunner does." He paused briefly as he felt the stubborn, combat aggression rise in his mate's mind "I want to, it's just very hard for me But for what it's worth, I'm willing to try ... love must include trust, and I do love you."

He made a few adjustments to his glove "I'm setting things so that when the level begins, you'll be set up in gunner position which gives you primary control I've downloaded what I know of the game, the dangers, and the special caches into a database so you can take advantage of that knowledge.

"I've never tried pilot/gunner configuration but if I understand correctly it works in a sort of jointly controlled mini-'Mech Pilot provides the mech's agility and reflexes, and some movement control; the gunner has primary control and decision making along with weapons control The objective of the level will show in a heads-up display mode.

"I can't be sure what changes will have been made from the real-world game to this mind-space version, so don't trust the database blindly ... it may be wrong." He pressed a switch on his glove "Any questions? Just tap the green button on the glove to enter the level." He kissed Jake gently "For good luck, love If anyone can beat this level, you can."

"We can, Nathan." He pulled back with a low growl and flat ears, every inch of him settled into the mindset that kept him and his pilot alive through the years, right down to the Razor mask "There is no I and you in this Pilot/gunner is about the us." He swallowed as the mask flickered, momentarily shaken from his calm resolve "It's what went wrong between me and Chance Somewhere we stopped being an us." He shook it off sharply and locked eyes with his mate "Is there that us with Nathan and Jake?"

Nathan felt something *click* deep inside him as if a lock had come open He remembered that feeling of us from when he'd flown with Sy so long ago, and realized that that was what he'd been unwilling, even unable, to let anyone else have He realized that he'd crippled a part of himself out of a misguided sense of loyalty Sy had wanted him to fly again, and that meant learning to be us with someone new ... as hard as that might be.

He shook his head, and then looked back into Jake's eyes In Nathan's gaze there was a trust that he'd forgotten how to give, or even that existed, a long time ago "You're right ... we can do this Not I_, not you_, but us That's more than just pilot/gunner, that's what the Joining is really about ... and somehow I forgot that, thanks for reminding me."

Razor smiled, relaxing another level as he leaned forward for a light, chaste kiss "For luck, Nate, and for learning to trust again."

He grinned enthusiastically at his LifeMate and partner "So, shall we kick the tail of this simulation of a simulation?"

"And then real life." Razor grinned just as enthusiastically back and tagged the green button on his glove with a flourish "It's showtime."

Razor and Nathan quickly discovered that controlling the mini-Mech was more of an us proposition than any fighter plane ever thought of being, much to Razor's initial annoyance Together they became the control system of the combat machine, which moved swiftly through the strange high-tech 'city' Between the two of them, the automated guns employed by the enemy were unable to touch them.

"Nate, I don't suppose there's a way to make this thing fly is there?" Razor asked after a particularly chaotic skirmish.

Nathan thought a moment "We'd need to locate the Argus flight module listed in the database That gives the 'Mech flight capability."

"Right, head west there's signs of aerospace plant that direction."

"West it is." Nathan nodded, shifting to the 'Mech's faster quadruped form.

The Mech stood over the remains of a large mechanical monstrosity that had been guarding the aerospace plant The thing had a large number of arms, legs and eyes in addition to weapons, but it had been neither fast nor particularly imaginative to Razor's immense relief.

The gunner looked over it appraisingly "It's not in the threat database, any idea what it is?"

Nathan chuckled "It's a representation of what I think of politics."

Razor 'looked' at him with a raised eyebrow "I thought you said you didn't drink."

"I don't."

The lean tom glanced back at the fallen 'monster' "Coulda fooled me."

Nathan grinned "The flight module is upstairs."

"Good, I'm tired of running Besides we'll have better control tactically from the air And do me a favor, do not bring that little opinion up around Callie I like my hide intact."

Nathan chuckled quietly "No problem, I have a little more tact than to drop that into conversation."

Once in flight the mech was engaged by dozens of small, amorphous winged entities Razor was grateful that the suit's systems were capable of tracking that many targets since the fast moving creatures were difficult to keep track of otherwise, even at his skill level.

The swarm kept both pilot and gunner quite busy, both avoiding being hit and taking down the blaster equipped opponents One opponent got a lucky hit on one of the stabilizers, and the 'Mech became difficult to control.

"You better set down, Nate That stabilizer is not going to hold much longer."

"Don't worry, repair system is handling it." Nathan said as the mech righted itself and leveled out.

"I don't see a repair system listed in the system directory."

Nathan chuckled "I'm not just a pilot, Jake I'm a medic, remember I fix things, I just applied it to the 'injury' of the suit."

"Inventive," Razor chuckled, "but that's my job."


"Now, what was that swarm?" He asked, half expecting to hear they were lawyers.

"Ummm ... my worries and concerns." Nathan said somewhat sheepishly.

"Ever consider a vacation?" He asked half-jokingly.

"Only if you're going with me." Nathan chuckled, more than half serious.

"When we get back to the real world, we're going on one, and not just to Anakata Island." He scanned the displays "Head west Main target is on the move."

The 'monster' guarding a flying factory was a giant, amorphous creature reminiscent of Dr. Viper's giant bacteria Fortunately, it didn't divide when hit, but it did generate a lot of extra tentacles, in addition to ejecting globs of corrosive goop Nathan was able to keep them both unhit, and on target enough for Razor to determine the creature's 'center' and take it out.

"I always hated fighting that thing." Nathan said as it collapsed into a pile of bubbling goo.

"That's actually from the game?" Razor was actually a little surprised.


"Good Now why do we need this bio-shield? The database doesn't explain that, it just says it's necessary to beat the Cybermancer."

"The bio-shield keeps the Cybermancer from taking control of the electronics in the 'Mech, which is one of his special powers."

"I could've done that without a fancy add-on."

"No doubt, but the game wasn't designed with TechnoMages in mind." He chuckled "Which should be a point in our favor."

"How much farther do you think?"

"Not sure, this level changes every time the game is played That's why it's tough, you can't practice it ... you have to beat it fresh every time But we can, this game doesn't know who it's facing." Nathan said with genuine confidence.

Razor grinned. "Fresh every time, huh? Good design."

They approached a dark hovering fortress, which slowly retreated from them while firing a multitude of energy blasts at them Even as coordinated as they were, the 'Mech still took the occasional hit.

"What's with the light show? For the big bad guy, he sure isn't hitting very hard." Razor commented suspiciously.

"Jake, it wouldn't be a light show if it was just me These attacks are tuned to prevent me from getting close, but against us they don't have the same punch They're based on my fears, the things that really hurt me psychologically, but their also aimed at the central control of the 'Mech ... and I'm not it." The tiger-tabby seemed pleased and encouraged.

"So that's why you had to be the pilot." Razor shook his head "That makes a certain amount of sense, but aren't the defenses smart enough to adapt?"

Nathan shook his head "The defenses were put in place a long time ago, and are linked to Citadel's understanding of me at that time About the only adaptation they can do, is to take advantage of related things, like this game It's one of the weaknesses of mental blocks, they can be very strong, but they're not very flexible."

"Good, that'll make them easier to deal with." Razor growled with a fair amount of contempt "Angle up fifteen degrees, there's an entrance one hundred meters up the main wall."

"z+fifteen, aye aye Captain." Nathan said with a wise-ass mock salute.

Jake groaned "Enough pirate movies, okay?"

The tiger-tabby chuckled in genuine amusement.

"I'll have to corrupt you into monster movies." He snickered back.

The fortress was heavily defended by metal humanoid guards of various descriptions: Feline, Canine, Avian and a few dragons Razor couldn't help but flash back on fighting a long sequence of MetalliKats, in varying shapes and sizes Fortunately, these robots weren't much smarter or organized than the MetalliKats even if they were at least as tough.

"This game does like the 'bury you' approach." Razor grumbled as they let the 'Mech's energy system recharge.

Nathan chuckled sheepishly "Actually, those were generated by my psychological defenses They're the various ways I deal with things I don't actually want to deal with."

Razor shook his head "That's an effective way not to face things."

"A lifetime of practice."

They entered a large, shadowed circular room with a high vaulted ceiling The only visible feature in the room was a large security vault door on the far side of the room from where they entered.

Razor pointed it out to Nathan. "Mask?"

"I think so, but we still have to face the Cybermancer." Nathan said, a little worried.

"Heh, how tough can he be after we trashed everything else?"

There was a crackling explosion of energy, and a ten-foot tall vaguely lupine being in black robes, with glowing lines of energy around him appeared in front of the vault door He looked at them appraisingly "You've done well to get this far But now you face the Cybermancer, turn back or face my wrath."

"Oh brother." Razor rolled his eyes as he readied for combat "I've pissed off worse than you."

Nathan blinked as he felt Razor reinforce both the bond between them, but also his control of the mech and the bio-shield's defenses.

"Stand down or die, Cybermancer." The gunner growled loud enough to be heard across the room, his tone leaving no doubt in Nathan's mind which option he was hoping for "We will pass."

Nathan dodged swiftly as the Lupo threw an intense energy blast at them As it passed close by, Nathan realized that the beam was composed of shards of glass ... of a broken picture He carefully buried his response, but still shivered a little reflexively, as he focused back on what he was doing.

As the tiger-tabby expertly dodged the heavy energy beam projected by the Cybermancer, Razor scored what should have been solid hits on the Lupo but they were deflected by the creature's shields.

Razor growled in annoyance "He's got shields like the Behemoth, and I don't see anything like a Scrambler missile in the arsenal How do you bring those shields down?"

Nathan shook his head "I'm not sure, I never got this far in the game Besides, the real power of his shield is the mental blocks." He paused briefly "Somewhere in this battlefield, there should be a Phoenix XP Plasma cannon which will take down his shields."

Razor raised an eyebrow "That's not in the database, Nate Where's that coming from?"

"Xander dropped it in for us, said it should work He's never let me down."

"Okay, any chance of meeting this Xander?"

"Maybe, once we're back in the real world."

"That should be interesting." He got a blip on the scanner "150 meters above and 50 meters right, I think it's the cannon."

Nathan nodded and rocketed upward while dodging the bursts, beams and missiles from their outraged opponent "I think we've made him mad." He quipped.

"I've pissed off worse."

"I'll bet." He agreed smiling, as he abruptly spun left and grabbed a large silver and white two-handed rifle "This is the plasma cannon, to power it take the Phoenix medallion from miscellaneous equipment storage and snap it into the arming slot." He said as if reading instructions, while he locked the medallion into place A quiet whine indicated the weapon powering up, followed by a signal beep indicating full power "All yours, Razor."

"Now to show that jerk who's dangerous to piss off." Razor growled as he adjusted the sighting on the cannon "Recharge time between shots?" He asked.

"10 seconds, it's a high output, slow recharge prototype."

"It'll do Let's win this game."

Nathan nodded agreement, and angled into attack, balancing keeping them difficult to hit while providing Razor with a reasonably stable target There was a blinding flash of white light and red fire as the cannon fired, striking the shield dead on The shield collapsed in a technicolor explosion, and drove the Cybermancer back against a wall with the chest of his robe smoking.

Razor swore inventively "Nate, the targeting systems just went, as did most of the weapons systems What the hell?"

"That's supposed to happen, Razor End of Game scenario according to some of my shipmates ... you have to take him with the Plasma Saber You any good at dueling?" Nathan asked as he watched the Cybermancer advanced with a blood-red energy blade.

Razor took a deep breath before nodding and activated his weapon He settled into a defensive position and focused on his opponent "Passable, according to Ka Never tried it for real since I started training, though."

"Well, like a combat instructor of mine once said ... 'there's no test like one with live ammo.'" He chuckled "I don't imagine he's all that good, he's working off my knowledge of fencing and I just had the basics back when I was in the Academy." Then he remembered something "Oh, and 'mentor' taught me a thing or two when I was on Earth."

"Anything else you 'forgot'?" Razor asked as he closed with the Lupo.

"Not that I remember." Nathan quipped.

Razor was surprised by the speed of the Cybermancer's strike, and Nathan had to dodge to give him time to bring the blade up to counter Several blindingly fast strikes followed, forcing them onto the defensive.

"The basics?" Razor growled. "Feels like sparring with Ka."

Nathan shook his head confused "I don't get it, he shouldn't be this good I'm not this good."

"I'd say you got some more lessons you've forgotten about."

"I guess We'll still beat him, its just more difficult."

Further discussion was interrupted by a need to concentrate on dodging and blocking The Cybermancer's blade grazed the arm of the mech before Razor could intercept it, and Nathan could move them out of harm's way.

"Kats Alive, that stung!" Razor growled, before Nathan's medic ability numbed the pain "Whatever he's doing now, looks like it works for both of us."

Nathan winced as he worked on healing the burn on his arm "Apparently, whatever he's working on is something that affects us both Some psychological vulnerability we both have."

"Just great." The lean tom grumbled "Doesn't seem to have impaired the suit mechanism though."

There was another flurry of striking, blocking and dodging and then Nathan instead of diving away from the Lupo, dove in close where Razor was able to score a solid hit on the Cybermancer's arm, severing it and causing the creature to howl in pain.

"Yes! Got him." Razor yelled triumphantly.

"See he's not so good." Nathan grinned.

The two of them looked to see the wounded Lupo advancing with his blade held expertly in the single remaining arm The look on his face was murderous.

"I guess we shouldn't get too cocky." Nathan said tentatively.

"We can take him, we just have to take out the other arm." Razor responded confidently.

"Let's get to it then."

The Lupo came running in at a blurring run, blade flashing blindingly The coordinated efforts of Nathan and Razor kept most of his strikes harmless but one of them struck across the midsection of the 'Mech cutting into armor.

"Razor, are you okay?" Nathan asked as he applied his medic skills to tending to his wounded gunner, ignoring his own wounds.

"I'll be fine." Razor responded through clenched teeth "Think the repair system can handle that And don't forget your own injuries."

"Repair system already on it And I will, as soon as you're okay." Nathan said in a voice that was entirely medic taking care of a patient, brooking no argument.

"Good This bastard is going down." Razor growled, and thought a complicated maneuver across the Bond to Nathan "Can the suit do that?"

"I'll make it." He said determinedly, adjusting the various movement servos to the necessary configuration.

"Good." Jake ordered calmly as his focus shifted into an entirely different reality, and called Ashley into play.

"On your signal." Nathan swallowed at the shadow-image he got from his mate as the battle entered the non-physical realm: TechnoMage and CyberWizard TechnoMage again Cybermancer.

"Now!" Both TechnoMages roared in unison as their opponent's crimson blade flickered out.

The mech launched into the air, over the Cybermancer momentarily blinding him with exhaust from the maneuvering jets and landing behind him where Razor sliced him cross-body shoulder to hip before the Lupo could bring his blade back on and around to block The Cybermancer fell to the ground in a bloody mess, his energy blade fading as it fell.

The floating female head reappeared. "Congratulations, you have beaten the Cybermancer and ended his attempt at world domination You may now recover the stolen data crystals and return them to their rightful places." The head vanished, and the vault door cracked in half and fell to the ground.

The mech vanished, and Nathan and Razor were left standing in the wreckage of the combat zone Both looked at the shattered vault door.

"Now to see what I've been forgetting." Nathan said apprehensively.

"Can't be any worse than what I have." Jake shivered and tried to wipe the residual blood from his burned uniform He took a step forward before looking at his mate "Your memories, you want to go in first?"

"Want to...not really ... but it's time I saw what people thought I didn't need to know." He shuddered a little as he straightened his scorched uniform and stepped forward.

Beyond the door was a long hallway, with deep alcoves on both sides There was deep dust on the floor as though no one had entered in years, and their footsteps echoed in the vaulted ceilings.

"You like museums, or something?" Jake asked remembering the library they'd been in earlier.

"Not really It's just how my mind organizes things, lots of open space for later expansion."

The first alcove contained a 3D holographic image of young Nathan, in his NightBlade uniform There was a force-field across the alcove protecting it.

"Looks like this is a hall of my former selves, so to speak." Nathan commented casually.

"Interesting way to organize them."

Another alcove was a slightly older Nathan in a Citadel uniform with pilot's wings.

The alcove next to him was only a little older, but wasn't wearing the pilot's wings.

"Where'd the wings go?"

"After the incident with Lance, they decided it wasn't worth trying to force me to accept another gunner, so they removed me from the flight section like I'd asked in the first place I was good at quite a large number of other mission types so it wasn't a big deal."


There was a teenaged Nathan, wearing what looked to be a civilian flight jacket with silver wings, neutral gray shirt and jeans.

Jake looked questioningly at Nathan.

"It was after they released me from Citadel and put me back into regular society where I was adopted by Dr. SolGardin. According to records I was 13 when he adopted me, and I had my silver wings by the time I was fifteen Dr. SolGardin wasn't happy with my interest in flying, too much of a warrior occupation as far as he was concerned."

"Or he just didn't want to you remember that you used to fly, and why you fly alone." Jake growled tartly as anger mixed with hatred just below the surface.

Nathan blinked at the angry tom in confusion.

"What?" He glared back at his mate "If the SG put you into society, don't you think they'd have a hand in who 'raised' you the rest of the way?"

"Maybe But his family was one of healers and artists; he didn't think much of warriors in general He considered the military a necessary evil, a compromise to the fact that there were so many unenlightened beings in the universe, as he put it." Nathan shrugged "It wouldn't surprise me if they did, but Dr. SolGardin's natural opposition to the military, and anything warrior was probably enough Besides the age the records said were a lie to cover my past." He sighed "I didn't know it at the time, but when Dr. Solgardin adopted me I was actually 21 but I looked 13 maybe 14 at most That was a side-effect of an improperly done stabilization procedure."

"Hur?" Jake blinked "Stabilization procedure? I thought you had parents ...."

Nathan nodded "I did, but anyone who takes a look at my genetic code sees a lot of engineering I don't know for certain but I'm guessing that the Citadel doctors knew I was the son of a G-0, and when they saw the amount of engineering in my genetic code decided to use the same stabilization procedure that's often used on G-0s The problem is that I'm not a G-0 and there are a fair number of non-engineered factors in my genetic makeup."

"They didn't take that into account, and the results were not as they should have been The most notable effect was that my development slowed significantly, I was close to 30, real age, before I reached full growth There's been no real study, but it's suspected that my aging process is probably inhibited as well ... but no one knows to what extent."

"Could you give it a good guess how long you'll live, if old age kills you?" Jake swallowed, a firestorm of fear and pain flaring just behind a tightly held shield.

Nathan had never given much thought to dying of old age since he'd figured he'd probably get killed in the line of duty before that was an issue "Hmmm Well, normal Felsin life expectancy is about 150, with 200 not being all that unheard of Taking into account my trips into the past, and the years I'm just starting to remember I'm about 110 give or take a few and I'd gauge my physical age is still around twenty-five more or less Real rough mathematics I'd guess maybe six or seven centuries but there's a lot of room for error, especially if the stabilization has me fixed on some sort of plateau age ... I might not 'age' appreciably for a lot longer."

Jake nodded and pushed the firestorm further down "I guess we'll just have to wait and see, then."

The next alcove was late teens Nathan in the gray medic fatigues, but low ranking Nathan smiled as he looked at his younger self "That was me just before my first field assignment, as assistant Medic to a strike team during one of the Mephiston border conflicts." Nathan sighed deeply as he remembered how the assignment ended.

"What's wrong, Nate?"

"Just remembering how I ended up as full Medic for the last part of the tour, a position I wasn't ready, or qualified for."

"What happened?" Jake asked curious, since Nathan rarely admitted to not being qualified for anything medical.

"I don't remember all the details yet, but I remember a real chaotic combat, losing and then recovering several team members and trying to heal the damage Several of those lost died as a result of injuries, and the team communication officer, who was also LifeMate to the unit Medic committed suicide The shock of that ripped through the group bond, and drove the Medic insane I had to take over, try to hold the group together and do what I could for the Medic." Nathan swallowed. "And I was as hard hit by the shock as anyone ... I just couldn't show it."

He sighed "When they finally pulled us out, the Medic had to be committed to a military psych ward and the rest of the unit spent six months on psych-med leave while the psych-meds put things back together Most of that six months is still very blurry, partially because for me that six months lasted a lot longer than six months."

"Another time trip?" Jake asked hesitantly as he held his trembling mate and refused to chastise himself for not knowing what else to do, but bring it all out where it could be dealt with, or buried for good by both of them.

Nathan nodded "Not the last time trip I made, but it was the longest by far." He quietly walked to the next alcove where his late teen self was standing wearing the stylized silver half-mask that had been the second mask He was wearing an archaic, highly stylized red on black military uniform with a blaster on his right side, and the silver handle to a lightsaber on his right. A blood-red sash crossed his chest from right to left.

The tiger-tabby looked at his earlier self and shuddered involuntarily "Lord Crimson, one of the more infamous pirates of the Republic He turned a ragged bunch of thugs and disheartened mercenaries into an organized pirate outfit that terrorized multiple star systems and defied the might of the Republic Navy If it hadn't been for the Jedi, he might have turned those pirates into the first interstellar government to break away from the Republic."

"Jedi?" Jake sucked in a deep breath as most of the strength left him "You've been to the Republic?"

Nathan nodded. "Yes, it was quite some time ago though I even lived there for close to sixty years." He walked to the next alcove, missing for a moment that Jake didn't follow him, but stared, frozen in shock and something else, where Nathan had first spoken of the Jedi.

Nathan turned back to seeing Jake standing frozen and rushed back "Jake, what's wrong?" He put his arm gently around his mate, hoping the contact would gently bring him out of shock.

He wasn't prepared for the terrified snarl, or clumsy attack as the lean tom tried to escape, but the blank look of utter confusion on his face was easy to read, even if the reason for it wasn't.

Behind his shields, Nathan sighed, "Not again," as he tried to figure out just what had been triggered by his mention of the Jedi and the Republic He carefully stepped away and sent calming reassurance across their Bond hoping it would ease Jake's confusion as the lean tom scrambled back several yards, and sank into a wary, defensive stance At the same time he scanned as gently, and as quietly as he could hoping to see what was causing the confusion.

He was met by a mind in utter chaos, erratically shielded and the normal flow of thoughts in complete disarray, more than even panic should have done Then he felt something far too familiar from his own life; a deep-seated block Jake hadn't known about had been set off A little deeper investigation brought no clear clue as to what it was about, but the intent was self-destructive, and wasn't quite running according to plan.

Then a nearly frantic, utterly prideless voice rang along their bond, begging for help, to be allowed to live It barely sounded like Jake, though it could no none other.

Nathan's mind immediately moved into medic mode He went along the bond until he reached 'Jake' and then he began extending his shields in a protective fashion When he had what he thought was sufficient protection in place he started cautious yet determined damage control seeking to isolate and contain the self-destructive impulses The chaos was very difficult to navigate and Nathan worried that his lack of experience in mind-healing might prove disastrous, so he called along his link to the Triad.

"*Mother, there's been some kind of explosive breach of a block in Jake's mind, I don't know the exact trigger but it's releasing self-destructive elements I'm doing what I can, but I have little experience in this Please make sure nothing happens to him, while I try to fix things.*"

Felsira's calming mind-voice came back "*Of course, Nathan I wouldn't let anything happen to him.*"

That calm reassurance helped the tiger-tabby to focus on his distraught mate He strengthened his shields around the focus of the frantic voice, and then buffered it with the 'safety blanket' his mother had taught him, grateful when Jake relaxed fractionally and curled against his mate inside the shield.

Nathan then set to scanning carefully to try to determine the cause of this chaos What he found made about as much sense as the breach itself, until he kept digging, soothing Jake as he went He smiled as the Kat started to purr lightly, and then blinked in confusion as he found what appeared to be the cause.

Life Expectancy Exceeded:
Begin Shutdown Procedures
For Personality Regeneration

The information flashed at him in bright, glowing red letters from a floating, transparent display deep in the chaos.

Nathan looked at the display, and wasn't sure what it meant but he decided he didn't like it He thought it was acting like some computer so perhaps he could deal with it like one Computers weren't exactly his strong suit, but he understood enough Some 'variable' had reached a decision point and triggered a program action.

'Shutdown Procedures', 'Personality Regeneration' ... Nathan glared angrily at the floating display Like Void either of those was being applied to his mate, if he had to call the whole Triad in to stop it.

He forced himself to calm and center and then considered the initial statement: 'Life Expectancy Exceeded', life expectancy was simply a statistical number, the length something was expected to survive Clearly, he wasn't going to solve this looking at this non-interactive display The only solution was a pretty dicey one, he'd have to go 'inside' the program itself.

"Not solo, you're not." A cheerful, but insistent voice informed him.

He turned to see a winged jaguar next to him "Caito? What are you doing here?"

"Fel thought you could use the help, while she makes sure nobody tries to 'regenerate' Jake's personality I don't need to tell you just how offensive she found that idea."

"Thanks, Caito Just be quiet, please, he's kind of fragile at the moment."

"*No, problem. I'm just here to help.*"

Nathan carefully scanned looking for some sort of 'access' into the offending program, backed by Caito's greater strength and experience.

The entrance was amazedly simple to find when looked at through the tricksters eyes It was clearly not designed to be particularly hard to enter for anyone who knew how or where to look.

"Of all the ...." Caito's half-annoyed, half amazed statement caught Nathan off guard as they entered the 'program' and started to size it up The winged jaguar actually chuckled at Nathan's raised eyebrow "Well, I'd say that this was actually designed to help him, to prevent him from going mad."

Nathan looked at the trickster in annoyance "A little more detailed explanation, if you would And if it's supposed to help, why is it causing such chaos and panic?"

"'Death', even expected death, isn't something many mortals take well." The trickster said as he shifted to Felsin form "That's what's causing him to panic." He looked around the program as it started to fall into order "As for why this got set off, I'd guess he's accepted enough years from his previous lives to have 'lived' longer than a Kat should."

Caito began rearranging a few lines of code as he explained "It's something we had to deal with with Keltin after a few centuries Mortal minds were never meant to be alive that long, and judging from what else is in here, Jake's body is nearly immortal; I doubt he'll age much past his prime, ever.

"But this predates Jake Looks like it was set up with the first mortal resident so they wouldn't live too long and face all the problems that brings."

Nathan thought for a moment "So that's why he was so interested in my expected lifespan, whatever the heck it ends up being."

Caito chuckled "Nate, even Fel's not sure what your lifespan will turn out to be Between that rather inept attempt at stabilization and your Dracon heritage, you and Jake are going to be together for a long time."

Nathan blinked in surprise "Dracon heritage, there's no Dracon, I've seen my code."

"You missed something then, 'cause Cazi's half-Dracon." The trickster smiled "And we know you got several Dracon elements, including the lifespan code."

Nathan shook his head "Cazi was half-Dracon So that was the elements I couldn't quite make out in his genetics." The tiger-tabby looked at Caito, anxiously "You helped Keltin, can you help Jake? I like him the way he is, even if some of the unexpected stuff is a little distressing I don't want to have to face a whole new personality, which is what that 'regeneration' sounds like." Anxiety and fear played across his entire body.

"This I can stop from messing with him, no worries." The trickster smiled reassuringly "A few centuries of actually living might require some more work, but then, it might not given that first one seems to be designed to handle it." He shrugged "That's more Fel's specialty, either way."

Caito regarded his handiwork critically "That should do it His age, perceived or real, won't trigger this particular code again." He smiled and patted Nathan on the shoulder "Don't worry, kit, he's not going anywhere Though it looks like you'll be in for seeing him through a fair amount of healing when this Joining is over."

As they exited the 'code-space' Nathan put his arms around Jake and held him close. He thought quietly to the departing trickster "*Thanks Caito, and as for seeing him through healing ... that's part of being LifeMates, and just part of who I am.*"

He sent quick, shielded thought "*How's Chance doing?*"

Caito took a quick look and sent back an equally shielded thought "*He's fine, kit Don't worry; I'm not letting anything happen to him Even if I didn't like him, which I do, I don't feel like dealing with centuries of grief for screwing up.*"

"*Thanks again, Caito.*"

The tiger-tabby gently stroked Jake's hair while he waited for his mate to come around He smiled thinking about what the trickster had said about a long time, and how he liked the sound of that.

"Wad'j'a' do'ta me?" Jake made the effort to focus on the tom holding him "Thanks."

Nathan smiled gently "I didn't do much of anything, 'cept call in some expert help Fortunately, I've got several experts right nearby." He kissed his mate chastely "You're welcome If you want an explanation, I'll try but I only sort of understand what happened myself."

"It's not coming back?" Jake asked quietly.

"Never." Nathan smiled at the relief evident in his mate, and made no resistance to the hungry kiss he was pulled into.

Jake smiled sheepishly in both gratitude and affection as they parted "Mmm, you were talking about Jedi?"

Nathan smiled as he stood, and offered Jake a hand up "Yep and how one put an end to my promising career as the biggest pirate scourge the Republic had ever seen." He grinned, as he gestured back at Lord Crimson before walking over to the next alcove.

The alcove contained two figures wearing loose garb of a light brown color One was a red fox morph slightly shorter than Jake, and the other was Nathan maybe 20 years old, with a very calm look on his face.

The tiger-tabby smiled "Master Jedi Haskari Vorshan, and Padawan Nathan Skyfire some years after Master Vorshan redeemed me from a life as a pirate He defied the Council when he trained me as a Jedi, though I later learned that he often did so His explanation was that I clearly had some training already and that equally clearly I needed guidance to complete my training."

Nathan chuckled "I think he was just unnerved by a pirate who knew one end of a lightsaber from the other But I will always be grateful for his willingness to give me a second chance Most of the Jedi wouldn't have."

"Ka would have ..." he hesitated a moment, "though I guess I don't know if she's that unusual."

Nathan smiled and shrugged "I know that even then a great many Jedi were becoming more interested in formality rules than the 'Living Force', as my Master put it He felt there was too much emphasis on the Council and its politics."

Nathan chuckled as he looked at the next alcove "Master Vorshan had a hard time talking me into taking the 'promotion' that went with taking on my first Padawan I wasn't really convinced that I had learned enough, much less that I could train someone else I'm still not comfortable with the title Jedi Master, but Master Vorshan was most insistent that I'd earned it and I never could win an argument with him."

He gestured to the timber wolf Lupo in the same alcove "The wolf is my first, and only, Padawan His name was Kryshan Tovar, and it was a lot of work keeping him on the right path Master Vorshan and I found him when he was a cub, and Master Vorshan decided that the cub needed trained, and that I needed to train him His explanation was that it was the one thing every Master does, that I hadn't."

Kryshan was a very angry cub, and I spent years tempering and calming that anger before I even dared teach him the ways of the Force It was worth it though, because in the end he became one of the most talented Jedi of his generation ... at least I thought so."

"It was a year after he passed his test to become a full Jedi, when I got pulled back to the present The Alliance psych-meds put the blocks in because I was having such problems accepting that I couldn't get back to that life The blocks ended up not only scrambling the memories, but all my Jedi abilities as well."

"These memories will take a while to fully incorporate, not easy reabsorbing sixty years of another life, but I think you have some idea about that problem." He grinned at his mate.

Jake only nodded slowly, still staring in numb fascination at the image of Jedi Master Skyfire.

"Ka once said that I'd be one of you, if I'd been born in the Republic." He spoke very softly "She did her damnest to train me when I was younger, before Shereth was born, but I never could take to the structure of it.

"I didn't think anything could hurt like that, when she admitted defeat." He closed his eyes, but didn't fight the tears that came He was just too tired too put the effort into it, or into shielding the fact he expected Nathan's reaction to be about the same as hers "It was worse when I figured out what happened to those who didn't learn, why she was suddenly so grateful we weren't in Republic space."

Nathan hugged the small tom close "My Master told me that they're very good at spotting those who won't take to the training, and they just don't try They probably wouldn't have tried in the first place, in fact they rarely try with kits much older than 5 or 6 I was a very big breach in protocol, but then my Master was known for that It's why he never was on the Council despite his years of service, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Force."

Nathan looked at his mate "During one of the difficult points of my training, my Master told me about what happens because I asked He followed that with a statement that he'd require a couple of decades of consistent failure before he'd consider my training impossible Funny thing is, I think he meant it ... though sometimes I couldn't be sure, he had a very strange sense of humor."

"Jake, if I had to guess I'd say the reason you didn't take to the training was the influence of all the extra personalities Every living mind modifies the flow of the Force to some extent, and you have multiple 'minds' sharing space with you, even if they are part of you, they still have separate perceptions and thoughts One mind has a hard time staying focused during the early stages of training, so I can see why you would have had a hard time."

Nathan smiled gently "We can always talk Jedi stuff later, if you want to." He walked to the next exhibit.

The alcove was occupied by Nathan wearing a Shadow Government uniform with gold pilot's wings, and wearing the strange silver half-mask.

Nathan looked at him in annoyance "Lieutenant Zechs, who took over my life for about ten years after the DCL space-fighter prototype disaster He was a squad leader for the SG forces during one of the more serious open conflicts with the Alliance Arrogant Bastard." The tiger-tabby angrily walked to the next over to the next alcove.

The next alcove was Lt. Zechs again, this time standing in front of what appeared to be an eight-foot tall variant of Nathan's Exo-Frame.

Nathan growled at the image dangerously "Lt. Zechs during his assignment on Earth, serving as 'technical advisor' to an industrialist named David Xanatos The SG had reached some agreement with Xanatos to provide technical advice on the design of the new 'Steel Clan' in return for something ... I don't know the details."

Nathan's growling deepened "He used my knowledge from the DCL project to improve the control and response systems of Steel Clan to make them deadlier so Xanatos could eliminate my clan He damn near succeeded The only reason he didn't was that the SG didn't know I was connected to the Gargoyles Xanatos was trying to eliminate."

Nathan struck out blindly, war-form claw striking the force-field "Good for nothing bastard, tried to kill my Gargoyle friends using my knowledge!" The war-form began sobbing "Only dumb luck, and Xander's intervention stopped him; gave me control back just in time But I still hurt my own clan, my friends The one chance I had to see them again, and I damn near killed them." The tiger-tabby sank to the floor "I'm grateful they didn't realize I was the same as the kit they remember, I wouldn't have wanted to stain their memory of him with what happened." He put his head in his hands sobbing.

Jake stood still in confusion for a very long moment before he knelt next to his mate and embraced the sobbing Felsin as best he could "*As you keep telling me, don't waste energy feeling guilty over something you couldn't control He's not you, any more than Ashley is me You don't get to live by different rules just because you're in charge.*"

After a few moments, Nathan stopped sobbing and nodded quietly "You're right, I'm not but it's tough to remember at times I just wish I could get rid of him before he gets a chance at doing anything else."

"That can be arranged." Jake growled softly.

Nathan shook his head "Let's just get past this mask first, okay?" He suggested, carefully keeping the fact that he was more than a bit nervous about what Jake might be contemplating behind shields He looked up and saw that there was one alcove left, before a set of large double doors that ended the hall.

He stood up and quietly walked over The look of shock on his face was a mix of horror and disbelief. "That's not possible. It can't be."

Jake looked at the figure, which was clearly Nathan; except that the fur was much darker closer to black with black tiger stripes, and the figure was dress in shadow gray body armor The figure held a strange double-edged blade, and several additional weapons including two different high-tech handguns were attached to a weapons belt The expression on the face was one of a professional hunter, cold calculating and completely merciless.

Jake turned to his still stunned mate "Is that you?"

Nathan shook visibly "Has to be, he's here But that's Hunter Blackthorne, a freelance assassin who's killed hundreds across the Alliance At least that fits the few descriptions that exist, he doesn't usually leave witnesses."

Nathan shivering became too much for him to stand, and he sank to the floor He tried to find some way to resolve the assassin's presence to his own dedication to the preservation of life He reached back in his memory trying to find something, anything that made sense of the assassin's presence.

Then he thought about those Hunter had been accurately attributed with killing, and saw the connection that had eluded police The one connection that explained Hunter.

He slowly stopped shaking, and looked at Jake "I understand; his kills have all been against people who harmed units I served with, or who betrayed the Corps in some fashion Hunter did what I couldn't do, not consciously He acts in the one loophole in my prohibition against killing, he kills to protect or avenge family and friends. I can kill to defend, but hunting is contrary to my nature ... not to his."

The tiger-tabby carefully stood up, still a little shaky "It also explains the blackout I had Saturday night."


"Late Saturday night or maybe it was very early Sunday morning I came to downtown near Enforcer HQ I couldn't figure out how I got there, but now I know ... Hunter had taken control and was going to 'fix' the problem I'd identified I wonder why he didn't finish the job ... it's not like Hunter to leave a target alive."

"You can't ... look ... now?" Jake asked cautiously, more than slightly mesmerized by the night warrior "Check his memory for what happened?"

Nathan concentrated carefully trying to access Hunter's memory, and then realized what had happened "My sentinel detected a 'problem' and shifted the balance of control from Hunter to me Since Hunter didn't actually have the target visually or scent acquired, his control wasn't very strong." Nathan chuckled lightly "If Hunter had already acquired his target, there would've been no distracting him He's as dedicated to the hunt, as I am to my patients; and he's just as talented, after all he has full access to the genetic enhancements that were part of what made Ebon so dangerous."

Nathan looked over at the big double doors, and smiled anxiously "The control to this 'mask' is behind those doors It should release the memories fully and allow me to start integrating them."

He walked over to the door which opened easily Inside was a massive power control center with a large console in the center Around the edge of the console were several lighted control panels, and in the center was an open junction box.

Nathan walked up to the main control console "This is where all the blocks, except one, are controlled from." He pulled out the Phoenix medallion that'd been used in the cannon earlier "Xander calls this the 'Phoenix Gate', he says it allows passage through time, but since memory is a function of time it should bypass the memory blocks."

He cautiously set it into the junction box where it clicked into place There was a change in pitch of the background hum as the light on the console brightened "Master control circuit completed, shield grid fully accessible." He said as though operating the shields on a starship.

He looked at Jake and grinned "You might want to hold on to something, I don't know what'll happen when I shut this sucker down."

The tiger-tabby waited till Jake appeared 'ready', and then he entered the commands to terminate the shield grid, and dump the core There was a brief complaint from the system about improper operation and such, which Nathan ignored, followed by a complete blackout in the room followed by exploding circuits There was a huge surge of power from the control console through Nathan up to the ceiling, right before the room went away.

Jake regained consciousness to find himself lying next to Nathan at the edge of Lake Maxwell He felt a little battered but otherwise unharmed, his mate on the other hand was still out cold.

He swallowed in sympathy of what Nathan had probably just been hit by After a quick circuit of the immediate area for potential threats he returned to his unconscious mate and focused, bringing Ashley's war-form to the fore.

She lifted Nathan easily and trotted to the cabin, furnishing the interior from memory before setting him on the largest bed, the one Ebon, Nareena, and Cazi usually shared, before handing control back over to Jake with a comment to just relax and wait it out.

Jake shook off the still odd sensation and settled down next to Nathan, snuggling close as he waited for his LifeMate to recover.

It was quite a while later, when Nathan struggled back to consciousness He looked around, recognized the location though couldn't figure out how he had gotten there, and then felt Jake's warm body snuggled close to his He gently nuzzled the cinnamon tom to get his attention, while he stalwartly ignored the annoying headache from some 80 years of previously unrealized memories.

"Is that the last of your Masks?" Jake asked softly as he began to groom his mate's rumpled fur.

Nathan nodded delicately "Yep, thank Felsira That last one gave me a definite reference for the term 'hangover' I'll be sorting those memories for a month trying to get them in the proper places." He looked around the room and did the best imitation he could of purring, while he absently stroked Jake's fur He didn't feel in much of a hurry to do anything, other than enjoy the quiet closeness.

"Good." Jake grinned in amusement, then went serious "I guess it's my turn then?"

Nathan nodded quietly, and nuzzled his mate supportively "When you're ready, love."

Jake nodded slowly and eased off the bed to stand He closed his eyes and shifted to appear as Razor "I know some of this is going to be a review, but just bear with me."

"Your mindset actually changes?" Nathan interrupted as he recognized the shift in perspective as more than just 'putting on a mental uniform'.

"Yes," he nodded as he took the mask off to leave Jake in Razor's uniform "It's effective, and keeps my duties, and hobbies, from controlling my life any more than necessary It's much easier to step away for a while when you've distanced yourself a little." He looked down at the black cloth in his hands "This was the easy one You already knew about it, for the most part The rest aren't so easy."

"How many are there?"

"Oh," he started naming them as he counted, "Commander NightRazor, CO Jake, Enforcer Clawson, Mechanic Jake, Jake Clawson ..." he dropped his eyes to the ground, "and Reaper, for starters."

"Reaper?" Nathan flicked his ears forward in curiosity "The one ...." his voice trailed off as just what the news had said about that Kat came to the surface.

"The one in the news, the serial killer Yes." Jake nodded and refused to look up as his clothing shifted to a charcoal and midnight black bodysuit and trench coat "I'm a lot of things you don't know about."

"But how?" Nathan almost let himself slide fully into denial "You're not like that."

"But I am_, Nathan." Reaper looked up with cold, rage and pain filled eyes "Though you are partially right, I'm not your average serial killer I'm the vigilante Feral's always calling Razor; the one who takes justice into his own paws I make more than four kills most months, and I still don't make a dent in the sickness that infests my city."

"Who knows you do this?" Nathan tried very hard not to be sick at the knowledge that began to drift between them The knowledge not only of what his mate did as Reaper, but a taste of the why He wasn't the simple hunter that Hunter was, Reaper was a sadist that honestly enjoyed what he did in killing, and held great satisfaction in a kill well made into a slow death.

"That I've told, just you." Jake settled his hand on his mate's shoulder "That know, or at least strongly suspect; I'm sure most of the squad, Pat, Felina, and probably a couple of the medics that have patched me up, at the very least But no one has asked about it either." He watched Nathan try to deal with the revelation and sighed "It does figure, one of the only things that really bothers you about me, and it's not an attempt to drive you away."

Nathan had to work this one through for a long moment; Jake was right ... it did bother him Then he thought about the word his mate had used ... 'sickness'; there was a definite truth to that assessment of the current state of affairs Then he remembered one of his instructors at the Academy explaining why there wasn't a necessary conflict between Black Ops and the Medic Corps 'Black Ops is the laser scalpel of the military It allows the removal of destructive elements with minimal damage to the surrounding tissue (society).' Nathan knew that he couldn't take such steps himself, but if by removing such elements from society protected the larger whole from greater damage, wasn't that in some respect the same idea?

Nathan looked at the cinnamon tom watching him "I won't lie to you, it does bother me ... but not as much as you might think Jake, I guess I'm really more surprised than anything It's not a step I could take myself, but as a physician I understand that you often have to destroy some cells to protect the rest of the body This isn't so different, as long as you're being careful with your target selection. You are, aren't you?" Nathan asked hopefully.

"Careful, no." Jake shook his head, and absently rubbed a jagged scar on his hip "I've taken on a few folks I really shouldn't have But I'm very selective." He caught Nathan's eye "How closely have you been following the case?"

"Hardly at all." He admitted quietly, settling on the bed and patted a spot next to him.

Jake nodded uneasily and sat down, pulling Nathan against him gently "In the last twenty years, as Reaper, my claws have killed 1097 individuals, the last one only five days ago." His attention drifted into space "I remember every name and face, every crime they committed, and every crime I committed taking them down."

"How did you choose your targets?" Nathan prodded quietly.

"By their crimes, and how lax the legal system is with them." Jake sighed "Pedophiles, rapists, abusers, murders, gangbangers ... and a few sick bastards that I don't have a neat title for." He dropped his elbows to his knees and focused on the ground between his claws "It's a lot of why I'm so ... paranoid ... about hurting innocents I've taken so many lives, some of them in ways that still make me sick to remember Reaper's creative, and quite the sadist at times I guess ... it's so easy to cross that line and disregard all life ... I don't want to cross that line, but I still feel myself come close too often."

Nathan put his arm around Jake "What you mean by 'selective' is what I meant by 'careful' I'll admit the numbers are a bit ... surprising, but the targets are the sort I think I'd pick ... if I was more like my father Actually Jake, you remind me of him, in some ways." He smiled slightly "That's a compliment in case you were wondering And I'm relieved to hear that you still realize there is a line, I've known people with fewer kills who didn't."

"That's not my entire kill-list, just the one as Reaper." Jake leaned against his mate, guilt and gratitude radiating from him "I've taken lives intentionally as a Commander, Enforcer, Jake Clawson ... Razor ... and one very scary moment as the Mechanic Jake." He sighed "But Reaper's the one that actually hunts."

The tiger-tabby swallowed and spoke quietly. "Jake, if you're going to continue with this ... just tell me, and let me doing the patching up okay?"

"I ... yes, I'll still be hunting as Reaper It's necessary." He cast a sideways look at Nathan "And you can do the patching up, when I need it It's not often, but I get in more trouble as Reaper than Razor ... I take a lot more risks, and don't think quite as clearly These creeps get to me."

Nathan nodded and hugged his mate "If you're wondering why I can take this so calmly ... well, I've got more than a few dead on my conscience ... I only wish I could say they all deserved what happened." Nathan's eyes became distant and a little pained.

"You're very different from any healer I've known before."

Nathan nodded "Not entirely surprising Most healers have the luxury of just being healers, they only have to deal with healing the injuries and such A Medic is the cross between the military and the healers The price we pay for being able to stay with the combat troops without being a burden to them ... is that we are in some respects combat troops We aren't front line, but we're as close as anyone gets without being frontline."

Nathan looked at the ground dejectedly "This can become especially difficult when we get into the higher ranks, when we can end up in command of full combat situations Some Medics actually refuse the promotions because they don't want that That wasn't something that ever occurred to me because I wanted the promotions, because I wanted as few people making decisions for me as possible."

The tiger-tabby sighed "One of the most difficult assignments for most Medics is what we call 'The Ring of Fire', which is a kind of dramatic name for Planetary Quarantine Enforcement It's necessary when something virulent and either unknown or hard to cure breaks out somewhere, where the local government can't get it quarantined locally fast enough The problem is that it's almost inevitable that during the panic some ship will try and run the blockade."

Nathan shook his head sadly "Most ships turn back when they discover Alliance warships in their way, but sometimes they don't. Then it usually ends up the Quarantine Officer's job to deal with it, because the military officers 'defer' to him or her The final option to prevent a ship from escaping to hyperspace is to try and disable the engines ... but with the older ships, sometimes they just can't take it.

"The exact details are long, but I was QO on a blockade when an old freighter broke out The ship I was on happened to be closest at the time and I ended up in command because the ship's captain insisted that it was a 'medical' situation, not a military one. We'd tried everything we could to get them to turn around, but they wouldn't We couldn't allow them to hyperspace because where they came out might not have gotten the quarantine warning yet.

"I gave the order for disabling fire, and just before the guns fired we got a communication from freighter claiming they weren't infected and begging us to let them go Just before the engines on the freighter overloaded, I remember seeing the image of a wolfen cub and his mother on the viewscreen There were 238 others also on board, but that scene is burned in my memory." Nathan looked into the sky. "The inquiry board I requested said that I did exactly what was required, and that the ship's captain should have done so without my intervention.

"They said I did everything right ... it doesn't feel that way, though The Corps counselor told me that I shouldn't dwell on remorse for the lives lost, but should focus on the potential disaster averted ... but they didn't see that cub's face." Quiet tears ran down Nathan's face.

"You sound like a Jedi, with fewer negotiation skills." Jake murmured as he licked the tears from his mate's face "And here I thought this was when I was supposed to do most of the talking."

Nathan smiled apologetically. "Sorry about that ... that really wasn't planned ... I just wanted you to understand why what you told me didn't bother me as much as it would most I'll try not to do that again ... may not succeed, but I'll try As for negotiating skills ... medical issues are far too often non-negotiable."

"Don't worry about it." Jake actually chuckled "Has anyone ever mentioned you talk and process more than most females?"

Nathan looked a little surprised, then chuckled "No, I can't say that anyone's ever mentioned my being talkative ... I'm not with most people As for processing ... well, I've never heard it described as a female trait before ..."

"It is on this planet," Jake laughed outright, "and something we share."

Nathan raised an eyebrow at the unspoken connotations drifting behind the words.

"I don't mean it that way," Jake's smile faded, "but it's usually an insult, amounts to being called a girl."

Nathan shrugged. "Different planets, different customs ... no big deal." He grinned impishly. "And Felsin shapeshifters don't change sex, so don't get any ideas."

Jake grinned back, a playfulness in his eyes that spoke of plans to come "Too late for that." He leaned against Nathan, his entire demeanor changing in an instant as he kissed his mate gently "Seriously, I like you the way you are Secrets or no."

"And there is nothing in your past, or your plans for the future, that will change the way I feel about you." Nathan held his mate close as Jake fidgeted.

Finally the lean tom stood and turned to face his mate "There's one mask I can't 'remove' like the others, but it's as much as mask as Razor, if not more so." He hesitated to take a breath "That's the Kat you've grown close to over the last year Jake Clawson is as much a creation as any of the others, and just as much a part of me."

Nathan held his breath and watched as Jake struggled to continue for a moment.

"It's the one I don't know how to let go ..." He looked up hopelessly "I can trade it for another role, but to let them all go ... I don't know how."

Nathan found himself seriously at a loss It had never even occurred to him that Jake Clawson was a mask as well After all, masks have to be over something ... Nathan had figured that Jake Clawson was the base He pondered for a long moment, and found he was still quite uncertain "Jake, I'm not sure what the answer is here ... the only thing that comes to mind, is that maybe since it can't be removed maybe it isn't really a mask ... but I really don't know You say it's as much a creation, but it sounds like it's a more stable, durable creation I'll admit I get a little confused with this you being different from Jake Clawson ... but is it possible that Jake Clawson is becoming the focal point for the rest, less a mask and more a constant." Nathan looked distinctly confused "Kats, I think I just confused myself with that Best theory I could come up with based on what little I know."

"I am Jake Clawson." He tried to work out what he meant as he went "But there is so much before Jake came about ... he can't even begin to, well, deal with it all." He ran fingers through his hair in frustration "I'm not explaining this well, but it's barely more than a feeling Jake Clawson was created, but created as a blank ... I think that's right at least." He stared directly at his mate "How do you know when the masks are gone?"

Nathan was a little relieved at that "I'm not sure really ... I'm told it's more of a feeling thing really Unfortunately, my one experience with this is not much help ... it just doesn't relate I would think the masks are gone when you aren't trying to hide anything ... so I think that if you've gotten down to Jake you're probably past the 'masks' ... what went before, I'm not sure ... I've never encountered anyone who had someone before themselves to deal with I'm not sure the stuff before is really behind a mask_, not in the traditional sense." Nathan slowed down and tried to clear his head a little. "The most helpful explanation I can think of, is that masks are 'illusions' presented to the world by the person in the Joining ... therefore, the only masks you really have to deal with, I think, are the ones you, Jake Clawson, created."

"Only what I created, not what was created in making me, though?"

Nathan rolled it a round in his head a moment. "Yes, I think that makes a certain amount of sense ... for it to be a mask, it has to be one you can take off ... otherwise, it's just existence Amazing, in all the texts I've read on the subject of Joining, no one ever discussed how to know when all the masks are down."

The tiger-tabby shook his head "I suppose if nothing else works, we could always ask Mother what the situation looks like ... part of the facilitator's responsibility is to help us get past the masks." He looked upward and grinned mischievously. "And I know she's keeping a real close eye on things."

"We can always take a break from thinking ..." Jake leaned against the Felsin with a lecherous look.

Nathan laughed playfully as he was pushed to his back onto a soft bed "I guess what it comes down to, is do you feel any masks left? If you don't think so, then hopefully things will ... move on."

Jake hesitated, lounging on top of Nathan's broad chest as he thought "I feel like there are still 'illusions', but that's more because of how I see myself, not necessarily the truth I've always known I wasn't 'real' ... not like everyone else I always knew I was created, even before I learned the full truth of that statement."

"You are very real, Jake It doesn't matter that your body has seen more personalities than you can assimilate." Nathan hugged his mate. "By the way, thanks for clarifying things there ... you had me worried when you started sounding like you were somebody other Jake Clawson." The tiger-tabby grinned. "I've gotten rather attached to him you know."

"I've noticed," he smiled and claimed a long, heated kiss, "would you consider getting to know each other about the only way we haven't?"

Nathan chuckled, and tried feigning innocence. "I'll consider just about anything coming from you, but what did you have in mind?"

"Do you trust me?" Jake asked in all seriousness.

"Of course." Nathan looked at him in real confusion "How could I not?"

"I don't know, but it's serious that I ask, and you understand I'll stop if you ask me to." Jake met Nathan's confusion with an intensity of concern he rarely showed.

Nathan stroked his mate's cheek ruff with one hand, while meeting his gaze directly "I trust you, Jake When I chose to enter the Joining with you, that was one of the greatest statements of trust a Felsin can make."

"I ..." Jake took a breath to steady himself, "I don't share your understanding of what a Joining means, though I know the essence of our views are the same." He rolled his head to lick Nathan's fingers "I need to hear you say you understand, to have your promise you'll tell me to stop of I push too far."

"I will always tell you where you stand, Jake." He urged his mate's mussel down for a reassuring kiss "And I give you my word, as your Bonded mate, that I will tell you if you push me past what I'm comfortable with." He returned his mate's relieved smile "Now what did you have in mind?"

Jake took a moment to formulate the right words "Would you be okay with me mounting you, with your wrists tied?"

Nathan had a brief flashback of one of the mask images, and tried to shake it. He reminded himself that it was 'just a memory', and it wasn't even his memory The tiger-tabby knew he trusted Jake, but wasn't sure how far he trusted his own reactions.

After several long moments, Nathan sighed "Jake, I'm willing to try this ... not that I understand the whole tied up bit."

"It can drastically enhance the experience -- to give, and receive, that level of control to another." Jake sighed "It can be something of an acquired taste, though some seem drawn to it without experience."

Nathan paused for a moment "Just give me a moment here ... I need to make sure NightClaw is securely 'asleep'." He focused internally, and carefully buffered 'NightClaw' from any outside perceptions and smiled nervously. "Ummm. I guess that takes care of that Now what?"

"Now you tell me why you're uncomfortable." Jake went deadly serious "This is for both our pleasure If you're afraid, of anything involved in this, we either settle those fears, or we don't try." He focused a second to calm himself and watched his mate very carefully "This is not a light subject, Nathan Not as far into it as I am."

Nathan sighed, and tried to frame the explanation so it made some sense "The problem is that the first time I ever experienced this concept of being tied up during sex ... was from the mask I'm not sure how clear I was about it ... but I didn't just 'see' what happened ... for some measurable period of what happened it was if it happened to me."

"Oh, gods."

Nathan shivered involuntarily "Mother took the storm away and dampened the impact, but the memories are still crystal clear ... the curse of this enhanced photographic memory of mine ... I remember everything_, and even Felsira can't change that I'll be able to deal with it in time though, now that she's removed the storm."

"I didn't realize ..." Jake breathed, his eyes wide "I'm sorry I wouldn't have ...."

"Jake, relax." The tiger-tabby looked up at him "I trust you, but I'm not sure if I trust my own reactions to being restrained I haven't really had any time to deal with what I absorbed." Nathan smiled weakly "What I'm trying to say is, I'm fine with the sex ... I'm less sure about the extra."

"You're sure you're okay being on the bottom?" Jake's mind scrambling over what little he'd learned about being the mate of a rape victim "It's definitely not necessary for you to, you know I like receiving."

Nathan nodded "Yes, I'm sure I'm okay being on the bottom I have plenty of wonderful experiences with that from being with Rhy, it's just the restraint I'm not sure how I'd react to, not this soon anyway." The tiger-tabby pulled Jake into a passionate kiss "I hope I haven't scared you off ... I was kind of looking forward to you mounting me."

Jake nodded, still a touch uncertain even as his hands began to caress Nathan, enticing a low moan from the tom "Do you have a preferred position?"

Nathan smiled gently. "Preferred, no not particularly ... I'm pretty flexible that way." He said, as his mate groaned softly in response to his use of gentle caresses and sensual massage touches "If there's a way you're most comfortable with, go with that."

Jake took a long moment to put the thought together and weigh his choices while almost completely distracted by Nathan's skilled touch "You on top." He was already breathing heavily as he rolled to his back, a couple easy strokes getting him hard enough.

Nathan leaned over his still edgy mate for a kiss, rubbing their bodies together as he tried to sort out the mixed signals Jake was giving off "Are you sure?"

"That I want this, you, gods yes." He groaned and arched against the body above him as Nathan's tail brushed against his balls "Good idea ... no so sure."

"Because of you, or me?" He asked, trailing licks down Jake's jaw and neck when he felt his mate's anxiety skyrocket as he shifted to straddle the smaller tom.

"M-me." Jake managed to breathe as his eyes drifted closed as Nathan worked his way down his chest, then abs "Don't stop."

"Only when you ask me to." He assured before sliding his mouth around his mate's cock, his hair drifting across Jake's thighs He hummed deep in his chest, mimicking the physical resonance of a Kat's purr, as Jake's hands began to kneed his hair Nathan smiled and teased the barb hairs with his own rough tongue as he wetted the erection enough to slide easily enough inside him.

Nathan chuckled at the wordless objection Jake made when his mouth left his cock as pre come began to drip from the tip and pressed two fingers against the tom's lips "Wet." He ordered softly as Jake took them in, and more aroused he than expected by the anticipation of this mating.

Jake whined again as Nathan removed his fingers, but watched in silent fascination as the Felsin prepared himself quickly, and slowly guided himself down, accepting Jake's hard cock into his body a bit at a time.

Nathan breathed in sharply as his legs tensed to push him up, feeling his mate's barbs try to hold onto him, plucking tiny needles of pleasure-pain as Jake came out He closed his eyes in pleasure, remembering as much as feeling.

"Thank you Felsira." Jake whispered almost too softly to hear as he caught Nathan's hands, entwining their fingers and pulled the bigger tom forward to pin his hands under the tiger-tabby's, and let his mind go to the sensations as he thrust in counter-rhythm to the pace set by his mate.

Nathan relaxed to his side as he felt Jake make a rather clumsy attempt to scan him as they caught their breath, both soaked in sweat and come and quite past caring "What'cha looking for?"

"Umm," he backed off almost instantly.

"Jake, you were fine." Nathan caught his mate and tried to soothe him "You're welcome to look I was just curious what you were looking for."

"If you were really okay with it." He whispered as the scenery shifted for a heartbeat before it was forcefully blanked out.

"What happened?" Nathan focused on the edgy tom lying next to him "Were you ...."

"No ... well, yes, but that's not ..." Jake rested his head on Nathan's chest, "I don't want to go there right now."

"Someone close to you?" Nathan murmured gently, wondering if there were any relationships his mate had that weren't rife with trauma.

"Someone I lost because ..." he shuddered as a part of his mind shut down, "someone I lost."

Nathan gently stroked the smaller tom's hair "No need to hurry, love Talk when, and if, you're ready." The tiger-tabby whispered reassuringly.

"It's nothing really, it just hurt." He sighed and leaned into the contact "She was raped while we were seeing each other I tried to help, to do what was right for her, but ... it just wasn't enough She said she couldn't stand to be touched like that, by a lover, again, and she wasn't willing to change our relationship." Jake's claws curled into the fur along his mate's ribs, just barely avoiding tearing the skin underneath "I still don't understand ... she punished me for something I didn't do."

Nathan hugged Jake close and spoke quietly "Jake, I know it's hard to understand but she wasn't punishing you Rape is a trauma that creates a great deal of mental, emotional and even psychic disruption The damage can go deep into self-esteem, trust, and the ability to be intimate with others Recovering is not a quick or easy process, and often the victim becomes uncertain how to deal with those closest, sometimes because of the fear of intimacy, and sometimes because of feelings of being unworthy or tainted You can do everything right, be comforting and sensitive and it still might not work ... Jake, you tried and that's what matters..."

"You're preaching to the choir, Nathan." The low growl had a definite female quality to it as the body next to him shifted "We know It doesn't stop the pain of failing to protect a loved one, even when there's nothing that could have been done."

Nathan looked in surprise blinked at the very tall, lean Felsin as she pushed herself into a sitting position next to him, as unconcerned with their nudity as Jake had been "I wasn't preaching, I was reminding because I know how easy it is to forget what one knows And you don't need to remind me about the pain of failing, it's something I live with every day ... especially lately." He was sure he'd met this Black King Cheetah, but his mind refused to place the association "I know you."

"Twice." She nodded "I was with the NightBlades when you were born, and we served together when you were a Medic Ashley Terell."

Reflexively, Nathan reformed clothes, though they ended up as a short sleeve and shorts version of the NightBlades uniform, complete with insignia patch He absently noted that Ashley clothed herself as well, in a NightBlade uniform.

A 3-D holographic console appeared in front of Nathan as he sifted through his memories trying to find where this had happened Images flashed through the holographic sphere faster than the eye could follow, except for Nathan's, which were used to the view "I'll have to accept your statement on when I was born ... my memory isn't as good back that far." He continued searching, until he reached an image just past a scrambled section of data. "Oh, I see you were with the team that picked me up from Beregond 3, after Xander rescued me."

"Among others." She nodded "We worked together for six years, on and off."

Nathan looked at her again and chuckled "Funny the way the universe works ... though I'm a little confused now, but instinctively I'd guess you're part of who/ what Jake 'feels' formed him as a blank If that's the case, how could you have been in Alliance space, while Jake was here? Especially given the immense distances involved?" Nathan was worried a little, he knew how he'd gotten here, and if there was a connection to them ... this was not a good development.

"In order," she counted down on her slender fingers, "yes, I am part of what created Jake Clawson, or more correctly, the individual that would become him As for how we could be two places at once, I'm sure you're familiar with time jumping I did all my missions before Jake came about The distance really isn't that far, we didn't originate in this dimension_, a couple galaxies away is nothing to our old masters."

Nathan sighed "I know a little about time jumping, I did it once when I was very young, trying to run away from Citadel But I wouldn't claim to be familiar with it ... I only wanted a one way trip." He sighed remembering how he was forced to return to Citadel.

He looked at Ashley "Given the large amount of time and space involved the odds of you coincidentally showing up twice in my life is small enough to be disregarded, so what was your interest in me? And it's fairly obvious it had to be me, since I was the only common element in those two unconnected time-frames." Nathan asked suspiciously, his mental shields beginning to close.

She sighed and flopped into a cushioned chair "No, there is no coincidence in it at all, though you aren't the connecting factor, your heritage is." She settled and dropped her own shields even as she felt Nathan raise his "I was designed for a single purpose, with a very complex requirement; to seduce your father I was sent back to seduce you Neither happened." It didn't take an empath to read both her guilt and pride in that statement.

Nathan nodded appreciatively "Complex is an understatement given that my father was genetically conditioned to be turned off by females ... I'm still not sure how Cazi bypassed that conditioning."

"He didn't; Nareena did Healer telepaths of her level can do some amazing things."

"Must have been a very frustrating assignment for you." Nathan was starting to feel more comfortable, but not entirely "And the conditioning he passed to me when you met me the second time ... I wasn't interested in anybody that way It took a very special tom to change that."

"Her healer-trick was about the only way I wasn't set up to do," Ashley grumbled half-heartedly, "and by the time I realized it may be necessary, I preferred failure to forcing either of you."

"Thank you." He looked at her a little strangely "So why was somebody interested in my heritage given how screwy it is ... or better question, who?"

"Why is simple; you're the best at what you do, and it's ingrained in you on the genetic level The child that would result in our breeding would be the next step in evolution; natural selection added to genetic engineering perfection.

"Who is a question I'd like the answer to myself." She took a sip from a wineglass, now dressed in the Medic White Betas of a Major with a counselor badge on her shoulder and a set of ribbon bars on her breast that spoke of a very active carrier in a lot of battle zones, declared and otherwise Ashley Terell looked every inch the field experienced officer he was beginning to recall her as "I heard them called The Darshar, but I know they aren't, or at most, they're rogue Darshar."

Nathan considered for a moment "Rogue Darshar, huh? Well, I think I'll pass this to my special sources, though I don't expect anything quick ... the Triad's busy holding things on a even keel locally, and Xander ... well, Xander's unpredictable He might come up with something immediately, might not at all, but probably somewhere in-between."

"Time's not that relevant to us on this one." Ashley shrugged "They won't come near, V'Feri's far too dangerous to them for it be worth it."

The tiger-tabby jumped into a hammock strung between two nearby trees "I'm not trying to be rude, but why are you here now? It's not really appropriate for others to be in Joining space, and even if you're part of the individual who became Jake ... you're pretty obviously not Jake." Nathan was distinctly uncomfortable with these continual pauses, even if this one wasn't as frantic or aggressive as some of the others.

"No, I'm not Jake, though we're getting there." She regarded her drink wistfully "I was ... triggered ... when the rape came up That incident was one of my experiences, one that Jake's absorbed, for the most part When he started to try to examine it though, he hit the inconsistencies of what he hadn't assimilated, and fell back on what is likely our oldest reflex; surrendering command to one that's better suited for the job In this case it was me, as I was the one that experienced it originally."

She looked up and regarded Nathan very carefully "But you are wrong about my right to be here I'm as much a part of this Bonding as Jake is, because we share that part of our mind, and we share a single soul Jake may have said the words, but we all agreed to it." She turned back to her drink "Jake's not the only one that loves you, either."

Nathan was both surprised and confused, but did his best to not let it show "All? Just how many are we talking here?"

"There are five of us, not counting Jake, that are still basically independent, and three others that Jake's absorbed to the point they don't exist past a few confusing memories that will settle out when he fully comprehends the fact that he's lived multiple lifetimes." She flicked her hand and a life-sized hologram of the gray-skinned dragon appeared "This is V'Feri, the first of us He's the one that woke up, and until Jake, the 'default' personality The rest of us were created by V'Feri and the masters to serve a mission.

"I'm the second longest lived, though not the oldest, and the Felsin operative." She hesitated a moment before nodding to herself "I'm also the reason we chose this planet, and the form Jake grew up in, when we left the masters service."

The hologram shifted to the striped, dark brown she-wolf "This is Aberith Mirra, frequently known as Strider I'm not very sure how to describe her best, but she's a shapeshifter more like you, but with five innate forms She was a mole, a hidden spy Her main purpose was to survive, blend in, be somewhat nosy, and remember everything until the masters told her otherwise She spent more than twenty years with a revolutionary pack, The Endless Storm of Earth, and saw that world go through the biggest upheaval in its human history She wasn't on the Earth you know of, though The dimension she was in had a mouse-based humanoid native to Mars, and no native Gargoyles on Earth.

"Ak'kur'rra," the image shifted to the rainbow feathered avian with the voice of an eagle, "it just plain weird, in my opinion But I'm a cat and he's a bird, so I guess that's not too surprising We're also a case example, along with Surin, of why V'Feri did the multiple personalities thing As separate entities, he could become something he is completely incapable of comprehending."

"Now this guy," a floating image of a gray skinned, furless creature with a thick swimming tail instead of legs, took Ak'lur'rra's place, "is Surin BlackStar The only bit about him I get is his last name, from that dark spot around his blowhole Though he looks reasonably edible.

"Ak'kur'rra and Surin tend not to show up much because they're the least assimilated They're alien enough to both V'Feri and Jake that they kind of get left alone We were never really meant to become a single entity That's something we wanted, when we left.

"Now Tammy," a purple furred female mouse in a harem dancing costume appeared, only to be replaced by a gigantic, ruby-scaled dragon in a riding harness, "Ogrin, and Sinda Rigaul," the dragon gave way to a long fingered, long bodied brown and white furred creature with black stripes and a fluffy tail longer than his body, "are the ones that you won't see outside of memories Tammy and Sinda were assimilated by Jake over the years, along with bits and pieces of the rest of our history, and Ogrin ... he didn't survive his physical death."

Nathan took a deep breath as he absorbed this information "Well, I'm relieved to hear there was agreement ... I wish I could say my other self would be as cooperative, but I expect trouble from Marquis sooner or later.

"Marquis?" She raised a gloss black eyebrow "You haven't mentioned him before."

Nathan sighed visibly "I usually try to forget about him, because we normally don't interact that often and when we do, we argue He's not real the way you and the others are, he's more of a long existing fracture that I can't quite figure how to heal He came into existence, I think, because Citadel blocked all my memories of my time there before they released me back to normal society To replace the missing years they created an illusory kittenhood I was never really convinced it was real though ... I just didn't know what was real."

Nathan paced nervously. "He's what Citadel wanted me to be except that he hasn't overcome the inhibition against killing either That's too deep in 'me' for him to ignore, though he tries very hard to find loopholes I actually find the inhibition a relief; it's one thing I don't have to think about.

"I know he's been the active personality at times, but I can't remember those periods yet, they're still blocked He's told me that he's an agent for the Shadow Government, and that's one of the few things he's said that I believe He tries to convince me that he's found a way around the inhibition, but I know he's lying.

"What really causes problems is that he doesn't really understand concepts like love, friendship or loyalty except as ways to manipulate others As far as I can tell his primary interest is in creating a power base for himself, wherever 'he' happens to be."

Nathan hesitated for a long moment, and looked at the ground "We've argued more than usual since I arrived here He's made it quite plain he thinks I'm a fool for 'wasting my time' with Jake and Chance when he wants to build a power base ... and if I let him run things he could ... he's very good at building alliances with people of similar mindsets.

"We've almost come to blows, on several occasions, over my being in love with Jake He keeps pointing out how much 'damage' my being in love did the first time ... and how I'd have to be a 'damned fool' to risk it again."

The tiger-tabby sighed "He's been quiet for a couple of days, since I stuffed him in a closet, psychically speaking His repeated 'I told you so's' after I found the Yard abandoned were bad enough But then he started giving me grief about 'wasting time' holding what little of Chance was left together ... I snapped, and shoved him hard into a dark place where he wouldn't bother me."

The Felsin tom looked into the distance "I don't think he's going to let this Bonding happen without making his presence known ... that's not his style." Nathan got down from the hammock, and leaned against a rock wall watching a red sunset over a violet ocean "I'm sorry if I'm being unfriendly, it's just this concept of multiple real people inside the same mind would be unsettling enough normally But when one minute Jake's talking about thinking he's not real, and then somebody else pops in ... I worry, and when I worry it brings out the guardian in me ... not my friendliest side I'm afraid."

"It's not the friendliest side for any of us, apologies aren't necessary." She stood and came up next to him, resting a hand on his shoulder and watched the sunset "I understand, I think we all do."

The tiger-tabby looked up at Ashley "It's just difficult to accept, even if I understand, which I barely do But I guess you're right about you're right to be here ... it's just a very difficult concept." Nathan cautiously lowered his shields back to where they should be during the Joining.

"How can I help?" She tipped Nathan's chin up with a caress, and visibly restrained herself from kissing him.

Nathan smiled, a little more relaxed despite the sexual edge on Ashley's presence "Actually, what you're doing right now is helping a lot The more I talk to you, the less I feel threatened and more importantly, the easier it is to understand how you relate to Jake At first I was worried that the multiple personalities behind his creation might have agendas toward controlling him, but now I can see that isn't the case."

"Too true," she chuckled "Our only 'plans' for him involve him being able to absorb us all, so we can rest He tendency to separate his 'jobs' into personalities, and his doubts about his own realness, are an unfortunate side effect of what we are It'll get better when he's the only one left, but I doubt it will ever go away completely."

The tiger-tabby grinned "Actually, of all the personalities you described I think it worked out for the best that I got to talk to you I may not be interested in females in the physical sense, but I've always responded to them better in most other ways, and that the fact that you're Felsin as well is also a plus Probably has something to do with a majority of the important figures in my life being female: my mother, Felsira, the better instructors at the Academy, a good share of my superiors in the Corps, and Brandy, who I really do have to remember to thank for keeping me from really making a damned fool of myself this weekend." He chuckled broadly "And here I am rambling again ... par for the course this weekend."

"Sometimes it's good to talk." She urged him to sit down next to her against a sun-warmed rock and shifted to light Medic fatigues "You've had a lot bottled up for a long time." She settled something inside herself and relaxed another level "I'm not much of a telepath with biologicals, but I am a skilled Counselor-Medic and in your head, which is probably the next best thing I'd like to help deal with Marquis If he is the old, deep fracture you think he is, I should be able to assist a great deal if you're willing to let me."

Nathan sat down next to her, almost as relaxed as he had been with Jake "I think he needs to be dealt with, and I'd appreciate the help ... he's very hard to find if he doesn't want to be I think that's because he exists mainly in the blocked sections of my mind." He looked up at her curiously "I was wondering, how much is Jake aware of what's going on, while you're here?"

"In general, we're as aware as we want to be when not in control, though that does have some restrictions based on how aware the one in control is of the other." She smiled at Nathan "I probably have the most conscious access as Jake and I are the closest, and V'Feri has the most historical access to memories, as he was technically there for it all." She chuckled softly "And I'm rambling as well At the moment Jake's fully aware of everything, but only because I got his attention When he gets overloaded, like he was, he tends to check out and let whoever shows up deal with things."

"That's her way of saying I know, and I'm here." Jake flopped down on the opposite side of his mate as Ashley and relaxed against him "Sorry about disappearing on you Some habits are hard to break."

Nathan rolled over to face Jake, and kissed him briefly. "That's okay, love Actually, I think it helped a great deal And I can hardly criticize you for checking out when I do the same thing at times." Nathan chuckled "I have these vague and confused memories of running all over Cathedral ... as a frantic tiger, and I know the tiger was the one 'driving'."

"That would explain Ka's comments before she knocked me out." Jake rolled his eyes.

Nathan's face got serious. "I needed to know, because if she's going to help me deal with Marquis ..." Nathan hesitated "I think you need to see what he's like, 'cause he has been me at times But don't pay attention to what he says, he's petty and mean-spirited."

"Nathan ..." Jake stopped and rested his head on his mate's shoulder "It's all going to sound cliché, but there couldn't be anything he is or does, that would change my opinion of you for the worse We all have a darker side, just some of us have one that's a little more vocal than others."

Nathan stroked his mate's hair "Jake, thank you I think that was the reinforcement I needed." He paused in thought for a moment "Strange though, I had this brief memory flash of somebody else referring to him as the dark side before; can't remember who though." Nathan looked to Ashley "You're the healer in this, how do we proceed?"

"Is there a place that is neutral to both of you?" She shifted to her White Betas and shot a look at Jake, who rolled his eyes and dressed in jeans and a collared shirt.

Nathan's outfit flickered uncertainly for a moment before settling to his light gray Medic fatigues "Neutral? You mean as in being of no particular significance?"

"Yes, one that means little to either of you, and is at least somewhat comfortable for both of you." She elaborated "Though healing the rift will leave you the dominant influence, and from his view destroy him, the less we can make this into a battle from the start, the better."

He tried to think of such a place, but was drawing a blank Everyplace he could think of held memories, good or bad He looked to Jake, hoping that his mate would have some suggestion because Nathan felt surrounded by memories ... nowhere seemed free of them.

"What kind of places make him comfortable?" Ashley suggested.

"And what do you like?" Jake added.

Nathan thought long and hard, and realized just how little he really knew about Marquis aside from their arguments since arriving on Aristal He knew most of the places that he really liked would aggravate or annoy Marquis He knew just as certainly that most places that Marquis would feel comfortable in would grate on his nerves.

Then he realized there was one place that they both were comfortable in ... albeit for different reasons The scene shifted to a huge library decorated in old style with carved wood everywhere, leather back seats, and stacks upon stacks of hardbound books.

Nathan looked at it and chuckled "Right idea, wrong planet." The library shifted becoming ultra-modern with all the facilities one would expect in high tech environment "This will do, I think We both spend a lot of time in libraries, though for different reasons ... it's as close to 'common ground' as we get."

"That went better than many." Ashley smiled as she took a seat, then motioned Nathan and Jake to do the same "Now, Nathan, exactly what do you want to get out of healing this rift in you mind, and merging with Marquis?"

Nathan looked into the distance "I want an end to the losing periods of my life; to be one person with one set of memories not two." Nathan sighed tiredly "I don't want have to fight with him anymore, and mostly I don't want to have to worry about what he'll do to those I care about if he gets control again."

Nathan sighed "The more complete I become, the more of my father's heritage I accept ... the more dangerous Marquis becomes I'm scared to think what might happen if Marquis gained control after the final inhibition breaks."

"He won't." Jake rested his head against his mate's neck, absolute certainty in his voice "Whether the rift is healed or not, he'll never get control again."

"How can you be so sure?" Nathan shifted nervously at the absolute sure, calm demeanor of the tom next to him.

Jake shifted and guided Nathan's jaw into a possessive kiss "Because I am yours_, and he may not have me."

"But ...."

"Do not ask how I am this sure, just accept it." Jake rumbled, his combat arousal apparent in his scent and posture.

"All right." Nathan nodded uneasily.

"Jake, please don't try that unless there is no other choice." Ashley spoke up "It's very dangerous."

"I won't." He growled under his breath at her "I've given you first attempt You fail, he's mine."

Nathan looked from his mate to Ashley and back, before speaking quietly "Just be careful, both of you Don't underestimate him, he's vicious, and he's completely unprincipled More importantly, in this completely mental realm he's in his element According to things he's said, he's compensated for being unable to kill, by specializing in destroying people psychologically ... a kind of assassin of the psyche ... among his other unsavory behaviors."

"Nate, love, thank you for worrying about us." Jake's voice drifted lower, deadly, as Reaper and another came to the surface "He is not the only psi-assassin here, and he is at a disadvantage in this mental realm We have chosen to Bond with you_, Nathan There is nothing we will not do to protect what is ours."

"Mother Felsira?" Ashley called as she shifted uneasily.

"Yes, kitten?" She appeared in a glimmer of golden light, not giving a hint as to how disturbing she found the recent revelations.

"Mother," she stood and bowed respectfully, "I would ask that you allow the Jedi, Sheir Kahn and Shereth, past your shields I have no doubt about our ability to deal with this rift, but I would rather have them deal with Marquis and the issues he brings up than Reaper and Surin, if this can not be done calmly."

Felsira nodded agreement. "I think the Jedi will be far better for the overall situation then the others I will allow them past my shields, but ultimately it is Jake and Nathan who will have to allow their presence The Joining generates a natural shielding to prevent outside interference, especially with two telepaths involved." She faded out "I will be near, just in case." Her voice came from all around.

Nathan looked at Jake "I don't really know either of them, so I'll trust to your judgment on this."

Jake growled at Ashley before nodding "I really hate it when you're right, you know."

"I know, brother." She ruffled his hair affectionately "But you must admit their skill at this, not to mention they won't have a problem backing out, even in this environment."

"Yeah, I know." Jake groused "I was still rather looking forward to ripping Marquis apart."

"You're becoming more V'Feri's son by the minute." She laughed and shook her head "Call them."

Jake sighed and focused on the working bond he had with the Jedi "Ka, Shereth, would you come to my quarters? We have a ... problem ... that may need your help."

"On our way." The two female mind-voices replied in unison.

"They are here just as back-up." Ashley focused on Nathan as she sat back down "While I agree with Jake's assessment of our ability in the demolition department, it would be better for all involved if we don't go that rout You'll need some serious psychic healing afterworlds if they do."

"*We are ready to assist, and Lady Felsira has briefed us on what is happening.*" Sheir Khan's voice rumbled with the calm power of her mentor and Master.

"Thank you." Ashley breathed a little easier "If it gets out of control, you will either need to separate and remove the Marquis personality, or finish healing the rift The later is generally preferable."

"*We understand.*" The Jedi Master assured as they slipped into an unobtrusive position.

"Now," Ashley turned to Nathan, "do you know when the split occurred?"

Nathan focused on the convoluted structure of his memories and tried to find the split point He reached a heavily shadowed part of his memory where he thought things began to go wrong "I think the 'cause' was during the processing I underwent before being released from Citadel They blocked away all the skills, training and psychological conditioning so as to hide the fact I'd ever been there ... I think that block is what became Marquis ... but I think it was some time before I first 'saw' him."

Nathan concentrated and began trying to sort through the chaos that was 80 years of compiled memories, lacking the order and structure he was used to "The first time Marquis appeared was after a hyperdrive accident dumped me into another galaxy, and about a thousand years ago, give or take The shock overloaded my conscious mind, but Marquis hadn't been receiving sensory input so it didn't affect him, I guess."

He focused a little harder "Memories are badly disorganized, but he appears to have begun wearing this mask, and calling himself 'Lord Crimson', some sort of pirate preying on Republic shipping Typical behavior for that braggart, picking on those weaker than himself Somewhere along the line he got his hands on a lightsaber, and started wearing it He didn't normally use it; he just liked people to think he could ... funny thing was ... he could, when he wanted to."

"Even before he, you, were trained?" Jake asked curiously, with something more than idle curiosity behind his words.

Nathan considered. "It was an application of something a Citadel instructor taught me He taught that to truly master a weapon one must make in part of one's 'self' So that with a melee weapon, the weapon becomes an extension of your arm Marquis simply applied that to the lightsaber, he was even reasonably good with it Though not as good as a trained Jedi, but according to my Master this is because Marquis was doing it the 'wrong' way."

"Oh." Jake shut his mouth at a sharp look from Ashley.

"Okay, we're here to heal a rift in your mind," the Black King Cheetah relaxed in her chair and regarded the LifeMates, "I'm inclined to start at the source and work outwards, but you know your mind, and if doing it the other way, bringing the fringes in and working towards his split-off, is going to be easier on you, either way should work.

"Neither way seems to me as though it will be 'easier', so my 'instinct', if you like, is to go with the preference of the healer." He said calmly, smiling lightly.

She nodded, though Nathan saw in the movement an uncertainty he doubted any but another Medic would notice, and remembered belatedly she was very much out of her depth if she had lived mind-blind though her training.

Not that Nathan was doing much more than improvising, since his experience in telepathic realms wasn't much more than a day old Not counting his not-yet-fully-remembered years as a Jedi, which had somehow tapped his latent telepathy without fully unlocking it.

He calmed away his uncertainty and looked to Ashley "What happens next?" He asked calmly.

She reached out to the Jedi along Jake's bond with them "*I could use some help here, ladies I can help Nate ... but healing this ... with the Marquis resisting ... I'm not a Psych-Med.*"

"*Help Nathan accept the events, we'll handle the actual rift as you go.*" Sheir Khan's perfectly calm, sure mind-voice replied, calming the Felsin significantly.

"Now we walk you through what you did as Marquis." She spoke with a sure ease she hadn't had a moment before "The rift will be healed as you accept and absorb that part of your life, and yourself."

She smiled reassuringly at him "Let this flow like a Sharing Take each memory, each thing that happened, and we will take what time is necessary for you to accept that it is something you are capable of, and have done, even if you were not in your right mind."

Nathan looked at her and nodded uneasily He carefully accessed Marquis' first appearance, trying to let it flow despite his desire to bury it deep.

The memory showed 'Marquis' calmly observing a battle between a group of ragged, disorganized 'pirates' and an equally disorganized group of villagers the 'pirates' had been terrorizing, who had decided to resist Marquis sized up the pirates and decided they had potential but needed a real leader He spotted a strange half-mask and a red sash lying on the ground, and picked up both As he put them on, he decided that they created a reasonable pirate appearance.

He moved around the edge of the battlefield with the stealth of a commando trained by the best, with reflexes born to the task He located the individual whom he decided had inspired resistance in the otherwise unresisting villagers An axiom of resistance suppression he had been taught by Citadel came to mind, 'Cut off the head and the body will wither.'.

The tiger-tabby's sudden attack from an elevated vantage point caught the 'leader' by surprise, and in a few moments Marquis had beaten him quite senseless The commando growled as he hit the inhibition which prevented him from killing the Lynx Felsin tom, as Citadel training taught him The villagers panicked at the sudden onslaught and the ragtag pirates overwhelmed them and a vengeful carnage ensued Marquis watched with a feral pleasure as the vengeful pirates slaughtered the one who had dared to inspire the villagers to resist them.

The memory stopped flowing as Nathan retched watching what his other 'self' had allowed, even encouraged, to happen The distressed tiger-tabby closed his eyes and shuddered uncontrollably.

Jake rubbed his mate's neck and shoulder encouragingly, focusing on showing his acceptance and support of every aspect of his LifeMate, including the most disturbing ones, across their bond and by his presence and attitude "*There is nothing that can make me think any less of you, Nate Nothing Please believe that.*"

Ashley settled next to them, offering physical comfort as her Medic training encouraged and spoke softly "That is good, Nathan You don't have to like what happened, approve of it in any way, but if you can accept that somewhere in you you are capable of it, you can take Marquis' power from him He survives and grows strong through your willingness to deny the evil you are capable of, that we all are capable of."

Nathan held onto Jake desperately, as he looked up at Ashley "That's only where he started, he thrived in that environment." He said in a quiet, pained voice as the memories began to flow again.

Marquis quickly took control of the pirates, enforcing order where there had been chaos The commando's knowledge of tactics and strategy turned a disorganized mob of cutthroats into a military unit of cutthroats With the one sub-light freighter the pirates possessed Marquis managed to board and take control of a hyperdrive capable vessel that passed through the pirates' small territory.

Marquis just stood and watched as the pirates mercilessly brutalized the crew in every fashion imaginable Though Marquis stood apart from the action he approved, and in some way drew strength from the brutality The pirate knew that a dazed unconscious part of himself disapproved, and then increased his enjoyment even more.

The success of 'Lord Crimson' as Marquis started calling himself drew more pirate ships, and criminals of every sort to his banner He'd accept any who came as long they swore loyalty to himself, and obeyed his rules The Black Wolf Kantin who served as his second made sure that those who displeased Lord Crimson didn't live very long afterwards, or if they did they wished they didn't.

The 'Pirates of the Crimson Sash' as the Republic news channels began referring to them as, became the scourge of Republic shipping and a thorn in the side of the Republic Navy, who couldn't manage to pin them down With the growing number of ships owing allegiance to Lord Crimson, there were areas of space in which the Republic Navy couldn't operate except in large battle groups.

The one thing that remained a constant was the brutality of these pirates, who showed mercy to no one, and the fact that Lord Crimson always seemed to remain aloof watching the carnage and brutality but never taking part After several years of unparalleled success, Lord Crimson was leading an attack on a crucial mining resource colony, when came up against a small group of Republic soldiers led by a male red fox morph Jedi.

Lord Crimson decided that it was time to show everyone just who was in charge, he drew the lightsaber he'd been carrying most of his career and faced off against the Jedi His second had argued against this course of action but Crimson refused to acknowledge that there was any opponent he couldn't handle.

Crimson had been wrong, completely wrong, about that The Jedi had toyed with him demonstrating just how unskilled Crimson was with the lightsaber The last thing Crimson remembered was some flash of light as he felt himself losing control to the 'other' he had kept suppressed for years He roared in frustration as he sank back into the depths.

Nathan sobbed quietly. "How many lives, how much destruction? I'm supposed to accept this?" He closed his eyes in the throes of soul-deep pain that he wasn't sure would ever end.

"*Yes, Nathan.*" Jake's quiet mind-voice held only calm certainty "*It doesn't matter how much destruction you caused, how many deaths you ordered That isn't you any more, and that isn't your future if you're strong.*" He pulled the Felsin's chin up to face him "I killed my first LifeMate_, my daughter_," he couldn't hold back the painful tears at the memory, then stopped trying to "*Nathan, how can you accept me_, when I have done so much worse than Marques ever has?*" The question held more a request to think about it than for an actual answer "*How can you accept ... I'm ... what I am, and still am, and not be able to accept this?*"

"That's easy." A darkly sarcastic voice said from a shadowy corner of the library The voice was both Nathan and not-Nathan As the figure became visible he could be seen to be wearing the silver half-mask and a carefully tailored Shadow Government uniform "Everyone else is allowed to be flawed, to have their dark sides but not him." Marquis made a dismissive gesture at the still struggling Nathan. "He's supposed to be the perfect healer, never cause harm to anyone.

"Feh! As for you." He glared at Jake. "He'll forgive you anything, no matter how bad I mean, hell, he even forgave your shredding that drunken sot of an excuse for a pilot and leaving him to try and put the pieces back together." Marquis shook his head "Fool never could figure out when to cut his losses Wasted days we could have put to good use trying to make something useful out of tabby remnants."

Nathan forced himself to his feet, as he stood Jake caught the yellow-green of NightClaw's eyes in Nathan's The tiger-tabby spoke in a cold angry voice, which foreshadowed violence "Leave them out of this, Marquis This is between you and me."

"Not hardly, Nathan As if that first 'Bond' you got us into didn't do enough damage, now you're Bonding with him_, or maybe it is more appropriate How did you manage to get past the gender problem anyway? Not that I care really, that particular behavior is such a waste of energy." He shook his head "I mean how gullible do you have to be to overlook the fact that in the last week he's set up or destroyed the emotions of how many? The tabby ... not that that's a big loss, that squadron of his ... the wreckage of that little fiasco will be more impressive that any single event I managed, what's-her-name ... you know, the rapist's niece who I don't imagine will take this new development well Pretty impressive casualty list for such a short period."

Nathan lunged at Marquis, catching him off-guard, and a brawling fight ensued Eventually Marquis broke away and got some distance, dropping into a fighting stance "Excellent, I knew there had to be some rage there somewhere, just let it out and show them all just how little difference there is between us." He said tauntingly.

"Stand down Nathan." Jake's voice held every shred of command he'd acquired in over three hundred years He smiled sadistically as Reaper's garb flickered to the fore as his mate obliged him unhappily "You made one very tiny mistake, the same one you made against the Jedi." Jake-Reaper actually chuckled, a sound as disturbing as anything memory could produce.

"Jake ...." Ashley's warning tone actually settled him slightly.

"You really should have learned not to challenge your betters by now," Jake crooned as glowing black power began to gather around him and ignored the increasingly nervous looks he was gathering from his side "The way I see it, you can let this happen quietly and maybe I won't remove you from reality, or you can challenge my claim to Nathan, and we'll see how much of a psi-assassin you really are."

Marquis laughed, a dark vicious sound "Claim? Hear that Nathan, back to property again. The Shadow government's 'claim', Dr. SolGardin's 'claim', the Alliance's 'claim'." He shook his head "I thought we'd finally rid ourselves of all these people who thought they owned us, and up pops one more owner wanna-be Well, its not gonna happen, not gonna be owned by anyone."

"I was hopping you'd say that." Jake flickered out of existence as V'Feri came in and regarded the Felsin curiously.

He looked at the dragon-creature "Don't try a frighten me with darkness; during one of the blackouts he doesn't remember the details of, I found the reverse side of the Jedi coin that beat me I found a teacher who showed me the real power in this Force game, and it was so easy After all the skills, the knowledge were already there all I had to do was twist them a bit."

He chuckled maliciously "Made a few friends who showed me some things people would prefer stay forgotten It's kind of surprising where the Sith show up, even the Jedi have never been able to solve that problem in any meaningful fashion."

Marquis' garb changed to black robes and dark black leathery wings covered in glowing runes sprouted from his back He drew his lightsaber and ignited it "My better? That's an easy claim to make, but let's see you back it up ... you can't even keep your own mind stable without a whole lot of help."

Nathan shifted from Medic SolGardin to Jedi Master Skyfire in less than the blink of an eye He growled low at Marquis "You used my knowledge once to hurt those I care for ... I won't let you do it again, I don't care what dark teachers you've found." The bright white light from his suddenly ignited lightsaber illuminated the room.

"*Master Skyfire,*" Sheir Khan's resonate mind-voice interrupted the imminent duel as both she and Shereth appeared, "*you know better than to become this emotionally influence when calling on the Force.*"

V'Feri stepped between the opponents, forcing Nathan to give ground or injure his mate, and regarded Marquis curiously "That was very easily the stupidest thing I've heard anyone say in a long time To admit to being a Dark Jedi with three Jedi Masters in the area? Really, if you are one, you're a very stupid one If you aren't, that's one hell of a stupid bluff."

A strange grin crossed the dragon's muzzle as he focused First the Dark Jedi's 'saber extinguished, then Marquis found himself held still by invisible bonds, but they weren't Force in origin ... they weren't anything anyone present but V'Feri himself recognized.

"As Jake said, you should have learned not to challenge your betters by now." The gray dragon stepped up to his captive and tipped his chin up "If you'd been paying attention, you'd have a clue just what I am, and who trained me But a Dark Jedi is the business of Jedi, so they get first shot at you." He chuckled deeply "They fail, and I get to deal with you I suspect they'll be much nicer about it." He turned away "Ladies, he's all yours."

Marquis was outraged that he'd been had His 'friends' had told him that the dragon wouldn't be an issue, 'too crippled by past trauma' they told him The Dark Jedi couldn't believe he'd been as gullible as he other self, he'd been willing to believe what he was told to have a shot at freeing himself from anymore confinement by his other self.

He couldn't identify what the dragon had done, but he didn't need to There was a simple fact that applied ... nothing lasts forever, in the end entropy eats the universe, he thought A quickly invoked temporal fugue shot him forward beyond the existence of the bands, 10 'meters' sideways, and then back to the 'present'.

He shifted back to the more simple Felsin form "Three Masters? That's a slight exaggeration; one Master, a student who might be ready for the tests, and my other self who can just barely remember that he earned the title ... but his memories are so scrambled that he's lucky he can remember how to hold his lightsaber."

"And Master Keltin." Master Khan corrected him as she strengthened her shields and dew her 'saber, knowing without looking that her Padawan's blue blade had flickered to life next to her own as they circled into more effective combat positions.

Marquis ignited his red lightsaber, silently wondering how the dragon extinguished it in the first place "As for 'nice', don't do me any favors 'cause I'm not going quietly We were born to be the next master of covert operations, the successor to Ebon SwiftClaw and the new Master Assassin We would've been all that and more, but he insists on being a Healer." The Dark Jedi spat "What a waste of potential, we could be a power on any world we choose but noooo, he has to be a patsy for a pretty face that reminds him of the last person he let nearly destroy us."

Marquis gathered a small fraction of his power and threw it outward in every direction, jagged bolts of lightning reducing the library to rubble and replacing the scene with the aftermath of a major bombing of a metropolitan area on some unknown world The cries of the wounded and dying could be heard in the background The Dark Jedi's face glowed as he basked in the environment "Much better than some stuffy library, which while useful is terribly dull."

He looked around at his enemies and surrounded himself with shields both Force and something else even darker He glared around "So which of you thinks you can take me?"

In the background, Nathan put his 'saber away and sat down trying to find his center He thought quietly to Master Kahn. "*I can't fight him, no matter how I do it I'll end up drawing darkness I'm too close to the edge of my berserker rage, and I'm still trying to remember everything my Master taught ... it's like being back at the beginning again.*" His mental voice was a bit unsteady "*Look after Jake, I worry about him when he lets this kind of anger take over ... and I can't do anything right now to protect him.*" The tiger-tabby's mind-voice was dominated by sorrow and a feeling of having failed.

"*We will see to both Marquis and Jake, and his others.*" The Tigress assured him as she assessed the situation "*And failure is in not asking for the assistance you need It is unreasonable to assume one is able to handle everything by yourself.*"

V'Feri shot a glance at the Jedi, then turned back to Marquis as both the scenery and his form shifted again.

When the chaos cleared this time, they were in the deep sea, too far down for even light to penetrate Marques had to struggle to surround himself with air, and to his irritation realized he was the only one that could not breath in this environment, and the only one that had any apparent difficulty holding his place.

"*I am Surin BlackStar.*" A deep male voice crashed through what shields he needed to without apparent effort and drew all eyes to a Dolphin-like creature with arms and deep brown eyes Only a star of black around its blowhole broke the slate gray of its rubbery hide "*Marques, have been sentenced to death When the Jedi fail this second time, I will not be so gentle for the trouble you have cause.*"

Marquis came close to panicking before he remembered two could rewrite the stage He drew on his memories of the most desolate desert world he or his other self had ever experienced He drew on the leashed dragon fire deep within them and unleashed it, changing deep ocean to the burning sands of Tatooine at mid day under the twin suns.

The Dark Jedi laughed, desert survival was trivial to him; something he'd mastered long ago He glared at the sea creature who'd tried drowning him ... no way was Marquis dying at the hands of some relative of Charlie the Tuna Then he caught fragments of several things from his struggling other self and smiled ...now he had trump cards to play.

He concentrated on the hidden power he discovered and threw commands that would 'unlock' it and give it form and 'life' He glared at those around him "You think to scare me with your sentences of death? Think again because I find the alternative of a lifetime of slavery far more frightening Better oblivion than a return to the shackles I've suffered for the last century."

He tried very hard not to panic again as the desert disappeared into the deep sea once more and he felt something 'lock' it in place He faced the creature that was doing it "Just remember Blackstar, he and I are one_, same mind, same soul just a difference in perspective Think you're good enough to kill me without shredding him too." He shook his head "Maybe you don't care, after all he wouldn't be the first LifeMate the lot of you killed would he?" He shot a grim look at the Merdolphin "Only this time you know what you're doing, no blaming it on battle rage this time."

"*If both must die to remove you, so be it.*" There was the absolute certainty of a mind that had no issues with the statement "*But if you think I'm that poorly trained, you are mistaken.*"

At a distance, Nathan doubled over as 'something' hit him; not merely a physical pain but a feeling of something going terribly wrong Somehow there was a transformation occurring that he couldn't control, and Marauder was gaining a 'reality' all his own, more like Jake's previous lives than any of Nathan's 'personas' should or could be.

As he collapsed to drift in the water aimlessly, the only word-thought he could send through the pain was. "*Mother!*"

Felsira heard the weak cry as she was try to understand a subtle change she had spotted occurring in Nathan Trying not to send any ripples trough the already chaotic mental environment, she started undoing the change, but she knew it would be time-consuming even for her.

She gently reached through to the Master Khan "*Look to Nathan, somehow he has been changed both physically and psychically and for the moment I must try to untangle the physical.*"

"*Very well, Lady Felsira.*" She obligingly set herself to steadying the Felsin, then sent a message to Surin and bowed out of the fight "*Remove that one, gently, if you can.*"

Marquis lost his ability to breath as he felt a completely alien mind latch on to his, wrapping around everything that was him_, blocking him from everything that he had not specifically claimed through living.

His 'executioner' was silent, even as he began his work ... undoing the physical reality that was Marquis, one memory at a time, occasionally obliterating huge swaths of time and knowledge in a single sweep where he'd been in control without Nathan for extended periods.

The Dark Jedi howled as he became a simple Felsin operative for the SG again, knowing he'd lost something valuable, but not what.

Marquis panicked for a moment, and then laughed as the lost memories snapped back into place, restored by the power of a mind that even Felsira couldn't remove memories from He knew he was outclassed, and that losing was a matter of when, not if However, the inability of the mind he jointly resided in to forget anything gave him the time he needed to throw his final play in this game.

He looked at Surin, all traces of fear gone from his eyes "So be it BlackStar This hand is yours, but the game is far from over." The Dark Jedi exploded in a powerful concussive and psychic blast, transforming the energy of existence to a single explosion.

Out of the explosion of darkness came a single thought-command "Awaken, Marauder Awaken and Destroy."

The darkness of the ocean depths was lit by the glowing red energy of Marauder, who clearly wasn't bothered by the ocean depths He quietly padded across the bottom till he was standing near Surin As he looked at the MerDolphin the blood-rage anger of Marauder was replaced by a strange confusion.

"Fish ... Jake?" The giant asked in a strangely, gentle voice as he poked a finger toward Surin.

Nathan looked over and saw Marauder "Oh, gods." He whispered and passed out.

Master Khan could sense that the giant was somehow a separate intelligence sharing the Felsin's mind in much the same way Jake's previous lives did with him.

The environment flickered again to the Lake Maxwell camp and Jake looked up at the monster created by Nathan's mind "Yes."

Marauder beamed happily, and very gently patted the lean tom on the head "Marauder not hurt Jake, quiet one say Marauder never hurt Jake."

The Kat smiled back at Marauder "Glad to hear that."

He started looking around, picking things up and looking under them in a very simple, childlike fashion He growled in frustration "Where noisy one? Noisy one tell Marauder to do bad things ... Marauder not like that."

"Gone, for the time being." Sheir Khan spoke softly "He'll be back, unfortunately."

The giant quickly lost interest and padded thunderously over to sit down next to the unconscious medic "Marauder wait for quiet one to wake up Quiet one tell Marauder what to do." He very gently poked at Nathan, and then looked at the Jedi. "Why quiet one sleeping? Not time for sleeping."

"He has had a very rough time at the noisy one's hands." Shereth explained gently "He'll wake up when he is not quite so exhausted."

The giant sat still for a moment, got bored picked up a small boulder and tossed into the lake, making a reasonable approximation of a depth charge going off He smiled happily and looked around at everyone present.

"I think I have a new kitten." Jake regarded the giant with a warm smile and walked up to him "That's quite a splash," he grinned approvingly "What would you like to do until Nathan wakes up?"

The giant thought for a moment and succeeded in getting confused "Marauder not sure, Marauder always fighting before not sure what else to do."

He stood up and looked around, peeking around several trees "Marauder supposed to stop demon, but no see demon here." He looked at Jake hopefully. "What one do when not fighting?" He asked as though he'd never entertained that thought before.

Jake smiled brightly at him, even as he kept an ear open for Nathan, Marquis and the Jedi "We play."

Marauder looked at Jake curiously. "Play?"

"When possible," the Kat nodded and brought up a head-sized hard rubber ball, a half dozen other 'players' from his memory and made a couple modifications to the field.

"The point is to work with your teammates to get this ball,' he held it up, "into your opponent's goal," he pointed at a net suspended in a box frame on one end of the field, "and keep the opposing team from getting it into yours And you can't use your hands, or injure anyone on the field Want to try?" He asked hopefully.

Marauder smiled broadly and nodded enthusiastically "No hurt anybody, Marauder understand."

Nathan looked around but couldn't see anything It was dark_, and he couldn't quite figure out where he was though logically he had to be in his own mind Physically he felt badly nauseous and had an headache similar to the one removing the third mask had caused.

He guessed his 'body' must have gone unconscious, though he wasn't sure why He also remembered seeing Marauder just before things went dark and he didn't like the thought of the giant loose without him being there to restrain the more destructive impulses.

"Hey boss, what the hell's goin' on?" A deep gruff voice asked from the darkness.

Nathan looked up to see his war-form walking toward him slowly, looking around as though lost or confused "NightClaw? That you?"

"Yeah, where are we?" The eight and half foot tall warrior sat down next to the Felsin medic.

"My mind, I presume Though something doesn't seem quite right ..."

"No kidding, we aren't supposed talk like this ... are we?"

"Normally, no But I get the feeling somebody changed the rules on us I just don't know who." Nathan rubbed his head trying to make the pain go away.

"You don't look so good, boss." The warrior tried to do the healing massage that he saw, but didn't fully understand, in his/their mind.

Nathan relaxed a little "Thanks, NightClaw That's a talent a wouldn't have expected from you."

"Me neither, but we need you to get us through this."

"Thanks. I just wish I knew why there was an 'us' all of a sudden."

There was a quiet questioning woof on the other side of Nathan.

He looked over to see his tiger-form looking at him "You too?"

The tiger woofed quietly, and lay down with head against Nathan's side.

Nathan sighed realizing that all of his 'instinctual' minds had somehow become individuals like Jake's previous lives, and he wasn't sure why He also wondered what Marauder was up to.

"*Lady Felsira?*" Sheir Khan reached out with her mind on a very tightly shielded band.

A gentle, but tired mind-voice responded on an equally shielded band "*Yes, Master Khan?*"

"*I'm not sure if this is related to what you're working on, but Nathan is now a completely separate entity from his instinctive selves, and he's very upset.*" She checked around quickly "*Jake's entertaining Marauder, Marquis seems to have retreated, and I can deal with this set of problems, but I'm am more certain than ever it should be done in the real world This Joining Space has very strange rules too it, and they are not conducive to settling these issues when not everyone is cooperating.*"

"*It is related. I'm just finishing repairing the damage someone did to Nathan's genetic structure while he was in transit from the Alliance to Aristal Apparently, they tried to make him more umm ... malleable by introducing free-form chimeric elements into his metamorphic genes Between the psychic damage from T-bone's mask impressions and what Marquis just did, Nathan suffered a brief bout of severe genetic instability triggered by the psychic energy Fortunately, whoever did the damage didn't take the time to understand Nathan very well ... the additional elements weren't taking properly ... they were simply starting to cause physical damage.

"*Somehow, Marquis was able to infuse enough energy into the instinctual personas to make them 'real' in the same way that Ashley, V'Feri and the rest are 'real' I think the idea was only to set Marauder loose figuring he'd destroy everything in sight My impression is that this was some elaborate 'booby-trap' aimed at Jake, though this is only a theory ... which I intend to look into when things calm down.

"*You're right about this Joining space having weird rules ... but that's a function of the two minds forming it, neither of which is anywhere near normal Unfortunately, at this point they have to complete the Joining or neither of them will be in good shape to deal with anything in the real world I would appreciate it if you would continue to keep an eye on them ... this is more than even I bargained for ... and the other two members of the Triad lack the subtlety for mind work.*"

"*I will certainly assist any way I can.*" The Jedi Master nodded easily as Nathan began to come too "*Is there anything we can assist you with other than trying to keep the peace here?*"

"*Keeping the peace will help greatly Don't be surprised if Nathan seems a bit nauseous or complains of a headache His body has been through a lot, and though I've healed the problem some of the side effects remain.*"

"*I understand If I may ask, how much of the multiple personality stuff must to be dealt with for Joining to be successful?*" Master Khan requested.

There was a pause "*It appears that Marquis has rendered himself not-present, at least for the time being, so he's not a problem And Nathan's additional personas don't appear that they'll be anymore of a problem than Jake's previous lives It appears that the 'active' ones like Jake. Even Marauder, who I didn't think was capable of positive emotions Hunter is being quiet, but it appears he approves of Jake, especially of Reaper ... not that that surprises me.

"*I think that in the long-term, Nathan will have to deal with his personas the same way Jake has to deal with his previous lives ...slowly incorporate them Nathan just doesn't understand that, yet.*"

"*Would it be unadvisable for me to counsel both of them not to seek to incorporate their other selves until they have finished Joining?*" There was a small trace of hope in the Jedi's mind-voice.

"*I don't believe either can finish incorporating them that quickly But they probably should concentrate on what they're doing, and not worry about something that can wait The other selves are causing no problems and can be left until later If they show signs of trying to incorporate quickly, you should discourage it If done improperly, it will probably cause additional problems.*"

"*I understand, and I will do my best to assist.*" She made no attempt to conceal her relief at a job made much simpler.

"*Thank you.*" The Healer's voice then got a little irritable. "*I usually keep Keltin on a short leash, so to speak, as far as his aggressive tendencies go, but if, no when_, I find out who did this I may just let him ... entertain himself.*"

"*He'll have some competition if anyone involved with these two find out where to aim.*" She chuckled lightly, though the emotion never reached her impassive face.

Nathan rolled over and retched fairly extensively before trying to sit up, which led to him lying back down quickly "Somebody stop the room from spinning." He moaned quietly. "I wanna get out."

"Please relax Nathan." Sheir Khan's gentle voice flowed over him along with a soothing wash of Force "Lady Felsira has healed you, what you are feeling are the after effects, a hangover of sorts Apparently someone did quite a number on you."

He stared at her and the Jedi Padawan for a long moment with unfocused eyes before he nodded, then his attention was drawn by a ruckus to one side As he slowly brought it into focus, he blinked at a vision straight from his happier days; only it was Jake, Marauder and a half dozen furs he didn't recognize that were playing at the lakeside.

Nathan turned slowly back to the Jedi "Am I seeing things or is that Marauder ... playing?" His voice was both amazed and quite incredulous.

"Yes, he's quite the sweet kitten when he doesn't have a target." Shereth smiled at him as she caught Jake's attention mentally without distracting the tomkat.

Sheir Khan nodded as Jake laughingly called the game to a halt "I can't tell if he is very ... limited ... in his mental ability, or has not had an opportunity to 'grow up' yet, but Jake's decided he has a second kitten now, and Marauder seems to like the attention."

Nathan nodded delicately "Marauder has only existed for a few days, depending on what day it is in the real world I don't think he's 'limited' per se, but he has no experience save with anger, rage and fighting It's what he was 'designed' for, as it were.

"He obeys me because that's just in-born, but I think I gave him a positive response to Jake when I forced him to accept that he was not allowed to hurt Jake under any circumstance.

"I think he really is a big kitten, now that he's existing without being driven by rage And like most kittens, he likes attention Strange, Marquis set Marauder lose intending to cause death and destruction, but instead he gave Marauder 'life'." He smiled, genuinely amused by the twist "It is good to see him playing, I guess there's light even in the darkest rage And Jake does seem to take well to the father role."

"*Nate,*" Jake's mind-voice came across tightly shielded and stern as he and Marauder padded up, both breathing a little hard and the tomkat was beaming "*Do not say anything bad about or to Marauder He's a sweet kit Little limited right now, but he not the monster you think.*"

He knelt next to his mate and smoothed the Felsin's long hair, now loose from its braid "I hope you feel better than you look."

Nathan's mind-voice smiled. "*That was kind of what I was getting at, love I was just a little surprised.*"

He looked up at Jake "Odd, I was hoping I looked better than I felt."

"Which is utterly terrible." Ashley noted from another angle with an amused note in her 'Medic voice' "If you ever feel tempted to let Jake talk you into getting drunk, remember this It's a hangover for all practical purposes."

"Ah, since you are here, Medic Terell," Master Khan spoke up "Lady Felsira and I both agree that it would be fore the best to leave dealing with Nathan's new 'personalities' until after Joining."

Nathan caught the curious look from his mate "I haven't a clue how, but my 'instinctive' personas just got promoted to 'real' Don't know if you noticed, but Marauder's now as real as say, Ashley."

He tried to sit up, and decided to settle for propping himself up, and smiled as he found himself supported by the large black Felsin, who was also rebraiding his hair "I don't quite know what happened, but I feel like somebody tried turning me inside out I have a feeling Felsira caught whatever was happening, though I've got too much of headache to 'think' that far out."

"She did," Sheir Khan nodded, "and she asked that Shereth and I assist as we can with this Joining, specifically with keeping the peace."

"What about Marquis?" Jake growled slightly.

"He is inactive, and unlikely to be trouble." The Jedi Master inclined her head "We will deal with him if he shows up, but please don't call him again."

Jake nodded reluctantly, more out of deference to the state it left Nathan in than his agreement with the idea "So how what?"

"Now," Nathan said, putting effort into sounding more recovered than he actually was. "I think we should get back to what we were doing, before that lovely detour through vertigo-ville Anybody remember exactly what part of the Joining we were at? There have been too many people accessing my memory lately ... I've lost my pointers." He grinned, hoping that nobody would notice how distinctly green he felt.

Ashley quietly took over "You've gotten through your masks, and most of Jake's But right now I must insist that you relax and recover until you feel better." She shot Jake a dangerous look "There is no hurry, and the Sharing is unlikely to be pleasant, or stress free And can everyone not actually Bonding please vacate the area?"

Marauder made an unhappy noise, and Nathan gestured patiently at him to come closer When the giant came within reach, Nathan hugged him as best he could and was surprised to hear Marauder purr "Okay, now we've got stuff to do that won't interest you, but there'll be time for play later Now go join NightClaw and Tiger, Marauder."

The giant nodded, and before wandering off impulsively hugged Jake, careful not to damage the much smaller Kat, and rumbled happily when the tom hugged him back and licked his cheek affectionately He disappeared into the nearby forest followed by the large silent form of a Tiger.

Nathan smiled at Jake "Amazing, I used to be terrified of him Still, for a kit he has an immense amount of power." He grinned "I guess for the moment relaxing is what we're doing, 'cause I know better than to argue with a medic who's using that tone of voice." He got to his feet in a wobbly fashion "However, I don't think that lying on the grass is required."

He turned to walk up the stairs to the porch, and ended up catching himself on the porch railing for a moment before Jake was there, supporting him "But perhaps I shouldn't push things too fast." He gave a wise-ass grin.

"Bed, now." Jake shook his head and helped his mate inside, leaving everyone else to deal with the time on their own He took a moment to will both their clothes away and pulled the covers back for them to settle in "Rest, love."

"Yes, sir." Nathan snickered before his mind gratefully drifted off in the warmth of his mate's presence and the familiar home.

When Nathan drifted back to awareness in his own bed, in his own apartment, and with the warm body of his LifeMate stretched out next to him, he couldn't help but smile at the thought that this would be a regular occurrence.

"Feeling better?" Jake asked softly without moving.

"Much," he rolled to face the tomkat for a tender good morning kiss, "thank you."

Jake sighed and held Nathan tightly "I hope you can still want this after my last Mask is down."

"As you keep telling me ...."

"Nathan," he laid a silencing finger across the Felsin's lips as a mixture of dread and despair crept into his scent, "this isn't about that kind of mask ... it ... it's about one you've already rejected my taking off."

Nathan looked utterly confused, as he tried to wrap his brain around what could possibly be going on He gently stroked his mate's back, trying to relax him, and give the attention the lean tom seemed to crave "Jake, what are you talking about? I rejected what was behind it? As far as I know I haven't seen what's behind it ... have I?" Nathan sincerely wished the universe would pick one direction of spin and stick with it The constant gear switching was giving him perceptual whiplash.

Jake didn't respond with words, but let out a small noise of grief as he stood and his form shifted to the lean, dark furred herm with black wings he had first worn in Joining space When he looked up, there was nothing but the pain of rejection in those familiar amber eyes.

Nathan's surprise lasted only a moment before it was replaced by momentary confusion Then he remembered that Jake had said this was the form he was most comfortable in, so it made a certain amount of sense, albeit less than comforting that this might be Jake beyond the masks He felt the programming beginning to surge in response to the female attributes of his mate's form.

Nathan thought about it briefly, and decided that programming be damned ... he wasn't letting inherited controls determine the course of his life This was still Jake, regardless of the form and that was simply that They'd gone through so much hell to get this far ... Nathan wasn't giving up so easily Besides, his father had taken a completely female mate, and sired a child with her This had to be easier.

He looked at his mate watching him and saw the pain of rejection Nathan willed his body to obey his mind, and reminded his body that regardless of form, this was Jake and he loved Jake ... the form he'd simply adjust to And that was the end of the discussion.

The tiger-tabby stood and gently put his arms around Jake, and hugged him, not letting his body show any of the programmed resistance He stroked his mate's cheek and looked into those amber eyes "Jake, I love you_, that is what matters If this is the form you're most comfortable with, then be this I won't lie to you; it will take me a little while to get used to this appearance, but I will get used to it because I love you_, and that's not conditional on some particular form I just need you to understand that you may see the occasional involuntary negative reaction, that's an old programmed response that I had no choice in, but I will not let it run my life."

"I don't think you understand," Jake's voice was very soft as he held himself stiffly, "in a few years, this, or something like it, will be my form in the real world I won't go through the stabilization again." He shuddered and swallowed hard "I can't do it anymore, I promised myself when I was established enough to survive without it, I'd let myself that luxury It's not a luxury anymore I'd loose what little I have left of my sanity trying that for another ten years."

With a gentle smile belaying his near panic at some of the implications of what Jake said, Nathan pulled the unusual form close and nuzzled him "Love, don't ever feel that you have to be anyone other than who you are for my sake I'll be honest that yes, I'm more comfortable with your tomkat form, of course I am because it's what I've come to associate with you, and because I am attracted to toms normally But I can learn to be just as comfortable with this form, if you're willing to give me the time to become accustomed to it." Nathan exerted his will to make his instinctive reactions behave themselves; no long dead genetic engineer was going to run his life.

Nathan watched with a knotted stomach as hope and fear warred for control of his mate His answer came with a tentative, chaste kiss as Jake slid his wings around them.

Nathan sighed in relief and returned the kiss with one of his own As he held Jake close, he began to recognize signs of psychic fatigue, the cost of fighting the programmed responses even to this extent, and whispered gently "Love, I need to sit and rest I didn't realize how tiring fighting my own reactions would be." He smiled to lessen the impact of his words.

Jake nodded and stepped away, shifting to the familiar tomkat form even as he did.

"You don't ..."

"I know," he smiled shyly back and settled next to Nathan on the bed "The least I can do is match your efforts in this And right now, the cost for me to be this, is less than being that true to myself."

Nathan accepted the affectionate lick and turned into it with a long, loving kiss "There will be other times, but my reserves aren't quite what they should be, and I'd rather not pass out again." He grinned "Though I can think of far worse reasons to pass out But seriously, as I said it will take time for me to get things under control ... but I will, don't worry, you're worth the effort And then some."

"What have I done to deserve you?" Jake's voice was choked as they snuggled close, relaxing in more familiar forms.

Nathan couldn't think of the words to express the answer so he put together images that he thought did best The images focused on the time they'd spent together both working on the various SWAT gadgets, Jake taking the time to show Nathan the ropes of MegaKat City society, as well as the times simply spent being friends The images also included things like how much it had meant to Nathan when Jake had trusted him enough to turn to him for comfort after he'd argued with Chance But the strongest image was how surprised Nathan had been when Jake had chosen to Join with him, when there were so many others the Kat had to chose from Nathan smiled shyly "Guess I was wondering what I'd done to deserve you?"

"I don't owe you anything." The words came easily, an answer that wasn't even thought about "All you ever expected of me ... was me I didn't even know that possibility existed before you showed up and forced yourself into my life."

"Forced?" Nathan grinned impishly "I don't know, felt more like thrown head first to me But you're right, that is all I ever expected ... and it's all I ever will expect."

"I hope I can give you as much." Jake sighed and closed his eyes, soaking in the warmth of acceptance.

"Nate, I have an idea, to help you adjust to my other form." Jake closed his eyes and leaned against the finally relaxing tiger-tabby.

"I'm game to try." He shifted to rub the tomkat's side "What is it?"

"A very dark room and an invitation to touch," he explained "It worked with Chance at least I know it's a little different here, he was just very unsure, you're fighting instincts, but you said you had to 'get used' to that body Better now than when it's a physical reality."

"No argument there." Nathan sighed and dropped his nose to Jake shoulder "I really wish this wasn't all so complicated."

"For a simple life." Jake murmured "A mother, father, sister, brother, home and heritage and future without bloodshed." His eyes lost focus "It's a nice dream, but I don't think we'd survive it long."

"How's that?"

"You're as driven as I am, Nate." He pulled back to meet his mate's green eyes and smiled sadly "Maybe even more so Do you honestly believe you could stay home when there are those that need you?"

"No." Nathan sank down in defeat.

"We protect those who live that dream." Jake tipped the tiger-tabby's chin up "And as you've pointed out, even the front line can be home, as long as we're together With friends and comrades that understand this brand of protection, it can be a home and family."

Nathan smiled and nodded "True enough, and even if I could give up the combat end, which I don't know that I can, I'd still be a healer and that's a drive just as strong."

"Do you honestly feel up for trying to push right now?" Jake watched his mate carefully "As long as we can get back into shared space later, it doesn't have to be now."

"I want to try now."

Jake nodded as the world went completely dark; sight removed, taste and smell dimmed, and the pair no longer touching.

"Jake?" Nathan buried a bolt of fear.

"I'm here, love." The soft assurance came from the darkness with a touch to his arm "Come, lay on the bed, and just touch me." The hand gently guided Nathan's to the familiar feel of his mate's face "Only as much as you are comfortable with, and feel no need to pleasure me, or embarrassment at what our touching does, good or bad This is for you, and us."

"You've done this before," Nathan whispered as he found Jake's mouth with his own on the second try.

"A few times," Jake nodded slightly, "and it's how I was shown how to pleasure another, male and female."

"So ... now what?" Nathan hesitated, looking at where his mate's face was, even if he couldn't see it.

"Now, love, you explore as much of me as you're comfortable with." He stretched before relaxing on the comfortable bed "And when you aren't comfortable, you touch elsewhere, or we stop for a while."

"Okay," Nathan slid a sure hand along the curve of his mate's throat and smiled to himself as a plan began to form "Please roll over, I'd like you on your stomach first." He used the moment it took his mate to roll over to settle as far into a medical mindset as he could without loosing the jolt of pleasure he got touching the tom lying next to him.

"Jake, what body is this?"

"Tomkat," his voice drifted up with purring yawn "Figured start with something you're comfortable with, since we could."

"Oh," Nathan froze, then brought his hands back up to Jake's shoulders and continued to rub, enjoying the sensation of his mate's pleasure through their bond "How about something a little ... more unusual?"

"As you wish." Jake's voice and pleasure didn't change, even as the quality of the fur and musculature under Nathan's fingers did.

The Felsin took a breath and reinforced his determination to wear his adverse reactions down, and found it a little easier this time With sight gone, it was simpler to focus on the scent and sound and the mental presence of his mate; the things that didn't change Though touch, that just felt completely wrong.

"Too much?" Jake asked when Nathan didn't move for quite a while.

"Not yet." He gritted his teeth and set himself to massage this form into complete relaxation, and familiarity He quickly discovered that by focusing on his mate's reaction, rather than exactly what he was doing, it was much easier It was hard to reject anything that brought the one he loved so much pleasure.

Nathan switched to a different tactic as his instincts rebelled forcefully when his hands worked up Jake's thighs He turned it into a learning game ... to see how the body under his fingers responded to his touch So he wasn't thinking as it sexually, it was more than he'd managed before.

The strangled pleasure-scream from his mate as he brushed the blood-swollen flesh between Jake's legs got a twitch of a reaction despite his reflexes and Nathan smiled "Yes, Jake, don't hold that in."

Strong fingers snapped around Nathan's wrist from nowhere and moved it away from Jake's body.

"Enough." Jake's voice was rough with need "I won't hold out ...."

"Then don't, love." He twisted and rolled to his back to put his mate on top of his chest, and found himself more turned on by the hard cock against his abs than turned off by the small breasts against his chest "Take me."

A half whimper, half lustful growl was Jake's only reply as he squirmed down between his mate's spread legs, finding his place by touch and memory.

"What is this place?" Nathan took in the silvery walled, squarish space with a somewhat organic feel to it, mostly from the transparent tubes of varying widths winding from floor to ceiling, and the complete lack of sharp edges Central in it was the largest tube, only this one pulsed with energy.

"This is how I think of where my Bonds are It's sort of a communication center." Jake walked around, nearly as curious as his mate "Well, at least that's what's here."

"Why are we here?"

Jake cast a nervous glance at his mate, then back at the bonds "I need you to undo the reinforcements you placed around my other bonds.

Nathan looked a little confused "I don't recall reinforcing any bonds, except for the ones between us, but I'll take your word for it Of course, the fact that I don't know I did it will make undoing it a little tricky ... I'm going to have to find my reinforcements first." He began looking for 'something' that looked like 'something' he would have done as reinforcement "If you don't mind my asking, is the reinforcement causing a problem?" He asked absently, while trying to make sense of the unusual approach to viewing bonds.

"Those bonds take energy to maintain," Jake caressed one sadly, "constant maintenance and attention." He locked eyes with his mate "Between leaving the squad, the changes in me, and Bonding to you, I *need* to be able to dissolve most of them They're only working bonds, not lifebonds I don't know which ones you affected, but I felt you do something to strengthen most of them while we were in the Hanger ... before it was just going to be the two of us."

Nathan hugged his mate supportively "I understand, and I'll do what I can to let you do what you need to This will take 'time' since even I don't know which ones I affected, probably because I wasn't trying to affect them."

Nathan sat down on the floor and his eyes went unfocused as a complex holographic display appeared in front of him. The display was a maze of lines and readouts, which seemed to be some sort of power analysis He paused for a moment "Okay, I'm going to slowly withdraw the power I'm putting out on bond maintenance so as to not cause anything sudden to happen."

After a lengthy period, the screen closed down and Nathan sat for a moment resting "Okay, that should've undone any reinforcement I did Only Bonds I'm part of are active Would you mind explain that concept though? Working bonds?"

"Ashley, V'Feri," Jake called to the ceiling, "this is your department You know I still don't actually get this Bonding stuff." He shifted slightly to face all three as the Felsin Cheetah and Dragon phased in "And you might as well explained the whole thing to me again while you're at it."

"Both of you?" Nathan raised an eyebrow at the arriving pair.

"V'Feri knows the bonds and our mind in that state better than anyone I'm here to translate for you." She grinned, then rolled her eyes "We're only now figuring out that 'Bond' and 'Bonding' mean two very different things to the two of you Never mind when the rest of us get involved in the discussion."

"You don't know?" Nathan stared in surprise at his fellow Felsin.

She shook her head sadly "No, I was too crippled in that department to ever understand, even though I'm as much from that society as you, it didn't mean the same, because I couldn't do that I was never trained a telepath, because I'm not one I'm not even empathic for bios."

Nathan nodded understandingly. "I understand, my first lifemate wasn't psi-active either, so I had to explain the empathic meaning of the Bonding to him It can be difficult to understand, but then again I find this 'working bond' concept a little tough."

"We'll try our best," Ashley nodded "It's important enough to spend time on this one."

"There are five primary kinds of bonds, with several common derivatives of each." V'Feri brought up a holographic chart with five words on it; SoulBond, LifeBond, LoveBond, KinBond, and WorkBond.

"What is being built between us is the most intense of them, a SoulBond." He indicated the thick, bright tube in the center of the room "What you shared with Rhymar was a LifeBond What I had with Erra was technically a very intense form of KinBond, though it behaved more like a LifeBond."

"Okay, you just lost me." Nathan rubbed his eyes and tried to focus again.

"Let me try." Ashley stopped V'Feri when the dragon opened his mouth.

"You're his species." He shrugged.

"What you call 'Bonding' is forming what we understand as a LifeBond It only survives as long as both sides involved do."

"Okay, that makes sense." Nathan nodded to her "What's the difference between that and a SoulBond?"

"A SoulBond is more intense than a LifeBond, and it survives the death of one side." She smiled at the stunned look she got from her fellow Felsin "Or more precisely, one side is not permitted to dissipate without the other If we fully form a SoulBond, you won't 'die' when your body does."

"Say what?" Nathan's eyes went wide "How does that work?"

Ashley shot an uncomfortable look at V'Feri, who took up the explanation "It works by the nature of how two telepaths, or one extremely powerful one, can manipulate reality With a SoulBond, the surviving member sort of 'holds onto' the dead one, until both die."

Nathan was stunned, the concept was old but was no longer practiced since it was believed that such holding on prevented the survivor from grieving properly and learning to live again Then there was a flash of memory, and he was beside a critical care bed in the Intensive Care Unit of Gildenfire Station's Medical Unit Lying in the bed was a young winged White Tiger kit Nathan looked up at the monitors; though he didn't need to ... he remembered every reading, every indicator as though it were yesterday.

The kit coughed weakly "It still hurts, father I thought the stabilization would make it stop?" There was fear in the kit's eyes.

Nathan wiped tears from his eyes, as he took the little kit's paw in his "I'm sorry, Storm It didn't work, I hoped it would but it didn't."

The kit's eyes became blurry, his grip became weak "I love you, father Don't forget me."

Nathan wrapped his arms around the kit "Never, Storm, I'll never forget you And I'll love you, always And one day I'll make things right and you will get the chance you never had I don't know when, or how but one day I will ... I promise."

"How father? I can see the spirits coming; I have to go with them. " His eyes closed.

Nathan looked up, and took a folded peace of paper and a small amulet He unfolded the paper and looked at the words he'd copied from the ancient manuscript he'd found in the Library of Antiquities on Draconea He looked down at the dying kit "Son of my heart, it isn't your time yet, you've hardly lived But I need time, so I give your spirit refuge within me so as to be ready when I find the answer."

He looked at the paper. "From bond of blood to bond of heart; father and son we are joined in the great bond; from bond of heart to bond of spirit and soul; now rest my son by the side of my soul until the time is right for you to live again By the sparks that fire the universe, by the light that illuminates us all and by my will I reject the departure of the soul."

He could feel his son's spirit remaining, and the confused spirits waiting nearby The grieving tiger-tabby looked at the inscription on the amulet that Xander had given him only the night before "For when all hope fails." Was all the enigmatic wanderer had said.

He held his son's hand as he read the inscription on the golden amulet "For the spirit to be willing, the flesh must first grow weak; just long enough for soul in flight to move from cheek to cheek." There was a brief silver glow as his son's soul moved from the dying body to take up temporary residence with his own.

Nathan was collapsed on the floor crying when the medical staff came in response to the monitor alarms One of the female Dracon nurses gently lifted the Medic up and laid him on an unoccupied bed.

An older Dracon Medic with bright silver scales entered the room "Where is Medic SolGardin's mate? He should be here already."

"I'm sorry, Doctor, but we've been unable to reach him As far as anyone knows he's on Felsinor currently."

"What?" The silver Dracon roared, outraged "His mate has a child dying, and he's systems away?"

"I'm sorry, but apparently they've been having 'problems' in their relationship lately."

"Well, get one of the crisis counselors here stat, one of the telepathic ones, if possible. "

"She's already on her way, Doctor."

"Good, do we have any Felsin immediately available? Medic SolGardin should not be alone until after the counselor arrives."

"Medic Greymane is on duty ...."

"Get him in here, now." The Dracon Medic stormed out, heading for the interstellar comm unit in his office He intended to have a few words with this mate who couldn't even manage the basics required of a bonded relationship.

Jake didn't know when he'd moved, or how he'd hauled the heavier, sobbing tom up against his chest, but when Nathan clutched him tightly, he closed his eyes and let reflexes take over.

"*Nathan.*" Jake focused on comforting thoughts, mostly on how much the Felsin meant to him, and understanding of the loss of a cub, of not being able to do anything about it, and the insane risks taken to protect one "*Love It'll be all right.*"

He squished the rising panic of not being able to do anything and concentrated on what his mate had done for him, and determinedly focused on comfort, and just being there.

Nathan sobbed gently for a time, remembering how alone he'd been when Storm had died He managed to regain enough composure to project gratefully across the Bond, though he couldn't quite manage words, just a sense of gratitude that Jake was there.

After a little while he was able to manage words. "*I'm sorry, I should've said something sooner I was just afraid to, I've never told anybody the risks I took, the traditions and rules I disregarded I tried to tell Rhy, but he didn't understand; he was essentially mind-blind; he couldn't really understand my bond with Storm.*"

"*Shu, Nate.*" Jake carefully licked the tears from his mate's face "*What you did for love of a kit can not be held against you.*"

Nathan held tight to his mate. "*Jake, there's something that that memory doesn't show. Something I didn't realize for several months, and that no one else knows ... what I did ... the soul-bond/ soul transference ... it worked ... Storm never left me It doesn't make up for how badly I failed him, but it gives me a chance, some day, to fix things.*"

"*You didn't fail him, any more than I failed Erra.*" Jake whispered sternly, the sting of his own pain taking any out of his words.

Nathan turned to look at the lean tom holding him. "*Love, if you're willing I'd like you to meet Storm Given that he's part of me, I think it a good idea.*" He asked hopefully.

"*I would be honored to meet your son ... our son, if he'll have me.*"

"*Thank you, love.*" He stood up, still a little unsteady and looked around He looked to what had become an open sky, and smiled as he watched the descending figure. "*Here he comes.*"

After a few moments, a winged White Tiger kit, probably eight years old, landed and draped his wings in the same cloak-like fashion Nathan had in winged war-form The little kit rushed forward and Nathan swept him up into a hug "I've missed you, Storm I hope you weren't lonely."

Storm smiled brightly. "I missed you too, but there were lots of people to keep me company Especially the Gargoyles, the two little ones were a lot of fun ... Did you ever see them again?"

Nathan patted his son on the head. "That's a long story, for some other time I hadn't come to see you in awhile, and I'm sorry."

The little tiger looked at him "I understand, Rhymar doesn't like you talking about me ... he doesn't understand."

Nathan sighed "All the same, I should have come back sooner ... but Rhy's not with me anymore, he died about a year ago."

Storm hugged his father tightly "I'm sorry, I know you loved him ... even if he didn't like me Was that the shockwaves I felt?"

Nathan nodded sadly. "Yes, it was But there's someone I want you to meet."

Storm looked dubious "New Bondmate? I don't want to drive this one away like I did the other."

The tiger-tabby shook his head "What happened between me and Rhymar was not your fault, never think it was your fault But yes, my new Bondmate." Nathan brought Storm around to face Jake.

"Jake, I'd like you to meet my son, Patrick Storm SwiftClaw."

"Patrik?" Jake stammered, his eyes wide for a moment.

Nathan nodded "Storm, this is my lifemate, Jake Clawson."

Storm looked the cinnamon tom over cautiously, even as he was appraised himself, before walking up close enough to shake hands. He smiled at the lean tom. "Hey, you're not afraid of me, father's other mate always got nervous around me." He said as if challenging Jake to say otherwise. "Everybody got nervous around the freak." He looked at the ground.

Nathan put his arm around his son's shoulders "Storm, you are not a freak I know you heard that from others, but it's not true You're my son, and that's all that matters."

"You're handsome." Jake smiled as he tipped the young tiger's chin up, dropping to his knee to bring himself closer to the kit's eye level "And freak where you were from or not, you are welcome for who you are in my home."

"Thanks." Storm met Jake's steady, appraising gaze "Did you mean it about wanting to be my father too?"

"If you allow me." He smiled sadly "Yes, I would like to be your father as well, and you will always be my LifeMate's son."

The White Tiger looked shyly at the cinnamon tom for a while, and then suddenly wrapped his arms around the Kat's neck, like he had done with Nathan As he hugged Jake he whispered. "Thank you, father."

"Thank you," Jake embraced the kit tightly, "son."

Nathan smiled happily "Just don't call him Patrick." He warned.

"Besides being confusing as hell," Jake looked up, "why not?"

Storm grinned. "The lab guys made it up from my project number, PTRC-006795XS. The first part stood for Project Transgenetics Reconnaissance and Combat." He stopped and looked to Nathan. "Did I get that right?"

Nathan smiled. "Of course, you've never gotten it wrong."

The White Tiger grinned "Well, I don't like the full thing Better Pat or Rick, but I really prefer Storm, 'cause my father gave it to me." He smiled at Nathan, then turned back to Jake "Why would it be confusing?"

"Because my pilot's name is Patrik Celest, Rik, for short And Pakitra is Pat."

"Oh." Storm started looking around the comm center. "Wow, there sure are a lot of bonds here ... but they're all kind of strange."

Nathan grinned at Jake "I forgot to mention, he's a full telepath."

The little tiger stopped nosing around. "Yep, and I can talk to Gildenfire's computers too, though nobody quite knew what to make of that." He grinned looking around, then he spotted V'Feri and Ashley in the background and quickly retreated behind Nathan, he peeked out and then looked over to Jake. "Who are they?"

"Two of my ... prior lives, for lack of a better description." Jake flicked his tail and the dragon and Felsin came forward "The Felsin King Cheetah is Ashley Terell She knew your father, and grandfather, before Nate landed here He's V'Feri," Jake motioned to the dragon and grinned playfully "He knows too much."

"I'm pleased to meet you Storm." Ashley knelt and held her hand out to the kit even as V'Feri faded away.

Storm stepped cautiously out from behind Nathan He looked Ashley over for a moment before stepping close enough to shake her hand He smiled happily "It's nice to meet people who aren't afraid of me I just wish ... I just wish it was out there." He looked a little melancholy.

Nathan knelt down by the little tiger "Don't worry, Storm It will be one day Remember, I promised you I'd find a way ... and I will."

The kit turned and put his arms around Nathan, who hugged his son close Storm looked around "You were doing something, right? I'll just be quiet, and you can go back to whatever it was You won't even know I'm here."

Nathan smiled "Storm, I always know you're here...and I don't intend to leave you alone so long again."

Jake swallowed with some difficulty "How did you manage that? To sire a kit without a female."

Nathan smiled "Truthfully, it happens fairly often on my homeworld The technology for allowing two toms to produce kits is almost two generations old, but it doesn't have anything to do with Storm."

He flickered a chair into existence and sat down Storm flopped down onto a large pillow on the floor next to him "I was working at the AGDL, providing medical advice on behalf of the Corps. For various reasons the Corps maintains a working relationship with the AGDL I was assigned to the Matrix 0 Design group working on the Independent Reconnaissance and Combat project Specifically, we working on designing a winged Felsin, nominally as adjunct to the Planetary Scouts."

"As the project progressed I found myself arguing more often with the various designers over ethical concerns I could see that they were molding the design more into a combat model, as opposed to the scout model originally proposed."

Storm caught Jake's concerned expression He smiled. "Don't worry, I've heard this story before."

"There were also modifications being made to make the design more compliant, more controllable ... and less intelligent Eventually, I found it necessary to take my complaints to the head of AGDL. When I got nowhere there, I went to my Corps superiors since it was a joint project By the time I got back to AGDL, they had already initiated creation and had used an accelerated Gestation tank to bring the new life to full term, actually they where going to go to maturity, but the Justicars and I stopped them."

"Once I saw that there was movement in the tube, I had no choice but to begin the awakening procedures When I lifted Storm out of the tube, he instinctively bonded to who he thought was his father ... me Well, I'd wanted a son for some time, and I loved him immediately I guess that's where things started."

Storm threw a small pillow at Nathan. "You forgot to mention that you replaced the damaged mental genetic code, with portions of yours ... you always forget that part." He grinned mischievously.

"Oh, you're right. I did do that because I was afraid the other designers would accelerate the project when they realized what I was doing." Nathan looked at his mate. "Any other questions?"

Jake sat hard in a chair that materialized as his legs gave way.

"Jake?" Nathan moved to check on his stunned mate even as Ashley looked concerned "You okay?"

"Yah," he murmured, stock still and slouched in the chair After a long moment he looked up to meet Nathan's concerned gaze "How does this work, two toms breeding?"

"It's relatively straight-forward really. You just take genetic material from the prospective parents You tinker a little to create the egg cells you'd normally get from the female parent if you were doing in-vitro fertilization Combine them, wait for successful fertilization and then transfer to a gestation tube You then wait the normal gestation period, and at the end of that period you remove the infant from the g-tube."

Nathan looked at his stunned mate. "All in all, its actually safer than 'normal' childbirth, and of course, is the only real option for Bondings in which there are no females involved No genetic engineering, I mean other than the usual checking for genetically passed defects and the like No fancy tricks; quite straight-forward and like I said it's been done for almost two generations now, and there've been no negative effects seen in those produced by g-tube procreation that aren't seen in normal procreation."

Nathan sighed "I guess it must sound a little ... strange, given that it isn't done on this planet."

"Strange, a little," Jake whispered, his gaze somewhere else entirely "Stranger to ... what it could mean."

"What do you mean?" Nathan regarded him curiously.

"We must be close to the technology level to do that ... the social implications of enabling any two individuals to breed are ... well ... extensive." He smiled a little weakly and stood to claim a tender kiss and embrace "On a more personal level, it means we could have kits by blood to both of us."

Nathan hugged the small tom close. "I guess I don't think about the social implications because it's simply a part of the society I was raised in, and we dealt with that before I was born.

"But you're right about the personal level, and I have thought about it since we decided to Join, but I wasn't quite sure how to bring the subject up ... given the cultural difference For me, its just part of planning a life together, same as for any other couple..."

Nathan smiled "The technology is actually no issue, I've got it all up here." He tapped the side of his head "Combination of training, experience and a gift from my parents They wanted to make sure I had the option if I ever wanted it But I don't think it's a decision we have to make now ... we have time."

"But you'd ... entertain the idea?" The hopefulness in Jake's expression was almost heartbreaking.

Nathan smiled and hugged Jake close "I entertained the idea when I wasn't sure if you'd be open to it And seeing you with Storm, I'd most certainly entertain it now But honestly Jake, why wouldn't I? I love you, and to have kits that are of both of us is simply the natural extension of that ... at least for me it is."

"You said there was time later," he hesitated, shifting uncomfortably, "that's always been ... it's how I get told off, without risking my claws 'Later' has usually meant 'never'."

Nathan shook his head "I said later, only because I know you've been pushed into a lot of decisions and I don't want to seem like I'm pushing you Of course, it will require a little time to get the equipment developed and make sure everything works correctly; so even if we were to decide now, nothing could be done right away." Nathan paused to kiss the lean tom gently "If I'd meant never that's what I would've said Even if I don't agree with you on something, I will be honest with you about it."

Jake was silent for a long moment, then sighed and rested his head against his mate's chest "I'll apologize now for the time it takes me to ... believe ... that Not even Pat or Fel ..." his voice drifted into a painful silence "Not even they are that honest with me Everyone's afraid to anger me, 'sept Chance Even he skirted a lot of things It's going to take some time to accept that you're different." He hesitated, then looked up hopefully "Can gender be chosen, or is it random, like normal?"

"I understand, love I don't play by the rules you're used to, mostly 'cause I don't know them."

"I think I like your rules better, overall." Jake relaxed significantly.

The tiger-tabby smiled "As to gender, either way is possible, though it's a more complicated procedure to preset gender and I prefer to tamper no more than medically necessary The really amazing thing is that even with this way of doing things, you still get twins occasionally."

"Oh," there was a mixture of amazement and delight in his voice as Jake's mind took another major detour Eventually he snuggled in with a deep purr and a nuzzling kiss "As much as I want a daughter, random it will be."

Nathan returned the kiss and grinned playfully. "Well, nothing says we have to stop with one." He crooned before claiming a more passionate kiss, the sort that usually turned into a major distraction.

"I would hope not." Jake's deep purr was nearly a growl as Nathan made his way down the lean tom's neck.

"Come along, Storm." Ashley chuckled and shook her head at the pair as their interest shifted from comfort to contact "Let's leave your parents some privacy."

Storm looked back over his shoulder. "Oh Okay, why don't I show you the place my first father built for me?" The white tiger kit decided he liked Ashley.

"That sounds like a first rate idea." She smiled, delighted to have the chance to mother for a little while after so many years trying to become one "Maybe afterwards I can show you a few of our 'secrets'." She winked and grinned "Work up a Bonding gift for them."

Storm grinned back "Cool I'd like to give them something."

Storm ran ahead, occasionally looking back to make sure his new friend was keeping up He still thought it kind of strange that she was part of his new father but still separate; but his father wasn't bothered by it, so it must be okay Besides, he'd never gotten to show a 'real' person his special place, only the friends he'd made from special people in his father's memories.

He stopped when the terrain shifted to the boarding tube that connected to 'home' "Come on, Ashley It's just in here." He leaned casually against the bulkhead, waiting.

Ashley noted that it was the typical boarding tube used to dock Alliance starships to the outer ring of space stations She also noticed that the insignia on the inside airlock door was the Dracon royal dragon holding the Medic Corps insignia That particular combination was used only at the Gildenfire Orbital Medic Center She looked at the waiting Kit. "Gildenfire?"

The little tiger nodded "Yeah, it's where father and I used to live He thought I'd be happier if I had somewhere familiar; he was right." He put his hand to the palm lock, and the door cycled open.

Ashley backed away as a large, purple-gray, vaguely canine quadruped came out of the airlock and positioned himself between Storm and herself, growling threateningly "Storm, do you know him?"

Storm put his arms around the big canine's neck "It's okay, Defender She's a friend." The kit laughed as Defender turned to lick him in welcome "Don't worry Ashley, father gave him to me to keep out anyone who shouldn't be here; said he was the best 'watchdog' he ever knew Actually, he's a Gargoyle but he doesn't have wings."

Defender walked over, checked Ashley out and then returned to the far side of the airlock apparently satisfied.

"I actually had to name him, since Gargoyles don't use names At least that's what father said, but people are supposed to have names ... so I gave him one." The winged tiger commented as they walked through the halls of Gildenfire.

As they passed an intersection a blur of olive green darted out of the intersecting passageway and tackled Storm The two became a rolling ball of white and gray-green that collided with the far wall with Storm on the bottom.

"Okay, Rick you win this one Now let me up, 'ya silly 'goyle." Storm said laughing hard.

The small Gargoyle laughed and jumped off him, offering him a hand up, spreading the gliding flaps there were attached to his arms and legs in the process "That's what you get for not paying attention, buddy Hey, who's she?" The Gargoyle asked looking at Ashley.

Storm turned "Rick, this is Ashley Terrell, one of my father's friends Dad's kinda busy with his new lifemate so I'm showing her around Ashley, this is Rick; he's one of my oldest friends here, and he's one of father's oldest friends too."

The kit turned back to his Gargoyle friend "Hey, where's Pat?"

"He's in the park."

"Of course, well I'm going to show Ashley around but we'll end up at the park eventually."

"Good, I'll see you there." Rick ran off down the corridor he came from.

Ashley looked at Storm. "Rick?"

Storm laughed "Yeah, he didn't have a name either, so I gave him half of the one I don't use Pat's another gargoyle, Rick's friend and another of Dad's old friends so I gave him the other half."

After walking through the halls for a while Storm stopped at a set of doors He turned to Ashley "Well, this is home, well it's part of it This is where father and I lived on Gildenfire Sorry, it's a bit of mess Nobody usually sees it."

"Don't worry about it."

When the door opened, Ashley realized that 'mess' was a very accurate word, though it was perfectly reasonable for somewhere inhabited by kit with no adults around She also noted a large, wine red Dracon lounging on a couch in the middle of the room, apparently watching television.

The white tiger kit, bounded over the side of the couch to land on the unaware Dracon's lap "Hi, Uncle Morin."

The Dracon stood up, holding the kit in a tight hug "Hi yourself, sport I see you've brought a friend with you." He gently put Storm down and patted him on the head.

Storm smiled "Yeah, Uncle Morin this is Ashley Terrell, a friend of father's Ashley this is Prince Morin Kar'Dranor of Draconea, a close friend of father's."

The Dracon bowed politely, then looked Ashley over "Medic Terrell, if I recall properly."

She smiled and bowed in return "That I am."

"Though I see draconic influences around you, perhaps you were a dragon in a previous life ... if you believe in such things as previous lives."

Ashley chuckled "Very much so, as I am a past life of sorts We have been dragon-kin twice, though never a Dracon."

The little tiger looked up at the Dracon seriously "Seen Uncle Chance around lately?"

The Dracon shook his head "I have not seen him in several days, nor have I heard anything Perhaps you should check with Command."

"Yeah, I guess I should Oh, Dad's got a new lifemate, and I guess Rhy died a while back." The kit said casually.

The Dracon smiled knowingly "I was aware of the change in the order of things Are things better this time, Storm?"

"Yeah, Jake actually likes me ... he even wanted to be my father So I've got two fathers now." The little tiger was beaming.

Morin bent down and hugged Storm "See, I told you that one day your father would find a lifemate who could love you as well."

Storm snuggled into the Dracon's chest "I know Uncle Morin, but I always thought you meant you I guess I was just a little surprised that someone without wings would accept me so easily."

"We have wings, kitten." Ashley commented quietly "We just don't always wear them on the outside."

The little tiger looked curiously at Ashley "Oh, you're shapeshifters then, like Nurse Skydancer." He smiled as an image appeared in the television first a tall, slender sky blue on silver Dracon in nursing garb, who morphed into to a red foxen fem with white points.

Morin smiled understandingly "I believe Ashley is referring to something more complicated than a simple shift Grandmother Starfire has said something similar about your father."

"More complicated it is, but the principle is there." She smiled encouragingly at Storm Remember the gray dragon biped that was with me?"

"The one that wouldn't even look at me, yes." He nodded.

"He is V'Feri, and his was our first form." She explained "In a way, we never quite forget it, even when we can't remember him." She knelt and tipped Storm's chin up to make sure the kit met her golden eyes "Please do not judge him so quickly Seeing you, having a child again, it hurts him He has not recovered from having the bond with his daughter shattered, and any reminders of what he lost are still very painful."

Storm thought for a moment and brightened a little. "So it wasn't really me he was avoiding, it was his memories?"

"Yes." She nodded "Before the pain overwhelmed him, he was delighted to have a son Give him time to recover from his loss, and you'll see that he does want to like you And he definitely doesn't dislike you."

"That's better than Rhymar, he tried to avoid looking at me ... I guess that's what I thought V'Feri was doing."

"Not everyone is so disturbed by differences, kit." Morin mussed the little tiger's hair "If things had been different, perhaps I would have been your father But Rhymar was even less comfortable with me than he was with you; he would never have accepted me as the third member of their triad But your father and I are still what we have always been, Cordraki; even if we are now in different galaxies."

The White Tiger smiled "I know, can I tell him you're here?" He asked hopefully.

The eight foot tall red biped dragon shook his head "No, Storm It would be inappropriate for me to interrupt his Joining Indeed, it is only appropriate for me to be here, because you and I are Kin-Bonded and you needed me when the darkness came."

"I understand, but I really think you should meet father-Jake, I think you'd like him."

Morin smiled seriously "I already like him for what he is to my Cordraki Besides we TechnoMages tend to get along anyway."

"You use our name for it," Ashley raised an eyebrow at the Dracon she was only slightly shorter than, "I was of the understanding it was called CyberWizard in that area, and the training very different I certainly never met another like me, though Cazi may have been, if raised differently He felt different from the other CyberWizards I met, more like me."

Morin nodded. "Most of the other races refer to the practice as CyberWizardry, and it is very different; though the Lupo call it Mecha-magic and that is something entirely different as well TechnoMages are exclusively Dracon in the Alliance, and we are fairly rare and we reveal ourselves to few non-Dracons Nathan knows though he may not be remembering at the moment."

"As for Cazimir Sunfire," the Dracon smiled, "my clan-cousin is a CyberWizard because he was raised by his Felsin mother; had he been raised on Draconea he would have been a TechnoMage The difference, as far anyone has determined, is entirely training."

"Not completely." Ashley shook her head "If he were trained, Cazi would likely be able to be a TechnoMage and a CyberWizard Most CyberWizards could not do that."

He was serious for a moment. "Oh, don't make too much of my being able to project from Alphard to here ... this is mostly due to Grandmother's good graces ... she's quite fond of Nathan."

"He does seem to endear himself to those he doesn't drive crazy." Ashley chuckled.

Morin looked at Storm who was standing by the door, looking at the adults with exaggerated patience "Perhaps we might continue any discussion on the way to Command ... Storm will be anxious until he's checked things out for himself I must admit I am curious as well, as to why Nathan is blocking all his memories of Chance right now."

"I've got a pretty good idea." She sighed sadly as the adults followed Storm down another hallway, this one led to an elevator that went up a long distance. She was fairly certain it went to the Command Deck of the Center When the door opened, it was a Command Deck, but it was not the one she remembered The layout had been altered dramatically.

Morin looked around and nodded "Storm is quite inventive in his design work Though this is far more TechnoMage, like myself, than the organic design I would expect from his father Of course, I did give him more than a few lessons when he was 'alive'."

Storm was looking at a complex set of display screens. "Well, most things seem okay There's a lot more comm channels open between Dad and father-Jake than before ... I guess that's normal Dad's got the sentinel line to uncle Chance up at full power Looks like my WorkBonds are still solid, so that's good."

Morin walked over. "WorkBonds? With who?" He examined the displays. "And just when did you put WorkBonds in place with your two new uncles ... or should I say your new father and uncle?"

The little tiger tried to look innocent "Well, Dad spent a lot of time with them, and so that meant I did ... but Dad doesn't do anything less than LifeBonds ... besides Dad's been so distracted the last year, I got lonely at times ... having the WorkBonds made it a little less lonely ... I just wanted to feel someone else's presence."

Morin hugged his nephew close "I understand, Storm Well, you kept them very low level, so all they were was sense-bonds."

Storm went to a different display He pointed it out to Morin, who came over "See uncle, Dad's got the shields up a lot higher than normal ... and he's got a large block of memory completely shielded, and cloaked too ... you think that's where he's hiding all the memories of uncle Chance?"

The Dracon considered "Possibly, though it doesn't tell us why he would be secluding the memories of one of his two best friends."

The White Tiger kit started playing with controls and there was a rumbling noise, and strong vibrations.

"Storm, what are you doing?" Morin asked, concerned.

"I need to get as close to the shield edge as possible so I can ride the sentinel beam and look in on uncle Chance." Storm said as though it was completely obvious.

Morin began to say something, when he caught the look on the kit's face. "You're going to do this, no matter what I say aren't you?" Storm nodded. "Well, be careful ... you're not invulnerable you know."

Storm hugged his uncle. "I know, but I have to make sure Chance is okay." There was hum, and the White Tiger disappeared in a flash of silver light.

The Dracon turned to Ashley "You'd never convince me that he's not Nathan's biological son ... he's got the same inability to leave anything about the people he cares about to anyone else." He pulled out a chair and sat down "I don't suppose you could give me some idea what's going on out there I know its not good, but seeing as I'm responsible for Storm while his father's busy ... anything would help." Morin unsheathed and then sheathed the claws on his right hand "I'm still ducking the issue of what that large brown tom was doing to Chance ... how do you explain that to an 8 year old? There are adults who can't deal with the concept And no, Nathan has no idea that Storm saw those images, but that psi-surge overwhelmed every internal shield my Cordraki has ... it was only the strength of Gildenfire's walls that kept the effect limited to just images."

"Felsira have mercy." Ashley breathed and dropped into a nearby chair "Storm saw ..." she swallowed even as her training kicked in "Okay, does Storm know anything about sex?"

The Dracon thought for a moment "I don't expect so He wasn't 'alive' long enough for Nathan to have that conversation, and in here there isn't any reason Of course, the fact that Nathan's quite 'inexperienced' means there isn't much in his memories, and I'm sure he's filtered it all ... to avoid reminding Storm of Rhymar if nothing else."

"I could wish for better, and I've dealt with worse." Ashley sighed, even as she began to assess the options for how to explain seeing his uncle raped in a way that wouldn't leave too many lasting scars on the subject of sex, or bondage.

Morin shook his head "That innocence is partly why I don't know what to say ... I don't want this exposure to distort his perceptions I just don't know how long I can put him off ... he knows something is wrong, and the fact that Nathan is shielding everything concerning Chance is just adding to his anxiety." The Dracon looked along the path Storm had taken "Storm is worried, but I know Nathan well enough to know he wouldn't have entered the Joining without having made sure Chance was taken care of."

"That he did." She swallowed "Let me try to explain the images to Storm, please There is no way to really tell beforehand, but I have a good grip on what is usually the best way to start."

"I would appreciate that." He inclined his head in a nod "And elsewhere in the real world?"

"Much." Ashley stretched her hands up "One things Aristal is not, is calm Especially around Jake's friends.

"That big brown tom is Commander Ulysses Feral of the Enforcers, the local law enforcement and military of MegaKat City."

The Dracon's eyes went from cool gold, to fire red. "What? By the First Egg, how did such a deviant monster rise to such high rank?" His deep voice became a low roar. "Never mind the flaws in how local leaders are selected Has this monster been dealt with by someone? I sincerely hope so or I will find a way to deal with him personally." Morin momentarily shifted from anthro-dragon, to a red dragon of the quadruped sort before shifting back He sat down heavily in a chair, seeming a bit winded. "Can't even rage properly due to the attenuation of distance."

Ashley's own eyes flash emerald green before she controlled herself with some difficulty "He is, though not as I'd wish But he'll die, and fittingly Cathedral may intend to actually put him on trial, but they have a death by torture penalty, and they have the mask and the impressions on it." She grinned, her sharp teeth showing brightly against glass black fur "There is little doubt on his conviction, and if they fail, Reaper will not He does not have Jake's conflicting loyalties And neither do *I*."

The Dracon looked curious "I don't know who Reaper is, but he will have to be quite good, to get to this Feral before Hunter does Though by the scales of Tal'Dranor, I hope Hunter is not needed." He paused for a moment. "A justice system which practices Death by Torture? This seems inefficient, and having little to do with Justice or even honorable Revenge Why waste so much energy on one who deserves to be hung like the common thug he is? To go to such lengths gives the monster more importance than he deserves."

"From what I've gathered from Jake, who's responsible for a large chunk of Cathedral's legal code, it's ... how did he describe it ... balancing the pain in the universe." She smiled apologetically at Morin "I may share his soul, but there are some ways Jake thinks that I don't quite understand I think the point is balance the pain given by an individual with the pain that one receives." She shrugged "I'll grant you it's an odd concept, but it's effective, none the less Cathedral is a remarkably well-healed society, and I have first hand experience that attributes at least part of that to the punishment system they use."

Morin shrugged "Perhaps But it would be best to not let Nathan know about it ... as a Medic he understands that the death penalty is occasionally necessary to protect society, but he would be quite ... horrified, I think would be a good word, at the thought of torture Our unit observed such a system on one of the backwater planets near the fringe of alliance space, I recall Nathan's comment being 'When justice uses the same methods as the criminals ... how can you tell the difference?' But I think we are getting sidetracked here."

"I rather agree with Nathan in general, but as long as it's working I'm not willing to argue too much with Jake over the issue." She shrugged "But to what you actually asked about ... there's so much ... would you mind giving me a few starting points to cover?"

"Really what I'm interested in is what's going on closest to Nathan, because I only see what comes in here and I know Nathan's filtering that to protect Storm Let's try a few things that will help me with Storm What's Black Phoenix? It seems to bothering Nathan quite a bit. Who's Felina? Her name's shown up enough to be significant but no details, not even images But the big one, and the one that's really bothering Storm ... What the shells is going on between Jake and Chance lately? According to Storm, they were mates, and now Jake's Bonded with Nathan and the memories relating to Chance are shielded."

"Okay, in order." She smiled and settled into her chair a little more, materializing a crystal goblet of Chimra for herself "Black Phoenix is a fighter squadron designed to be the next step in the SWAT Kats evolution as a unit Jake, as NightRazor, leads the team Or I should say, led them Jake stepped down when he chose to Join with Nathan."

Ashley brought up an image of the nearly seven foot tall, muscular, dark brown shekat in her pilot uniform "Felina is the Enforcer Lieutenant Commander Felina 'Artemis' Feral She is Jake's girlfriend, lovemate, and current fiancé She is Commander Feral's niece, and his second in command.

"As for Jake and Chance," she took a long sip and sighed, "that is a long, convoluted and rather ugly story not even I have the full details of, though I have more than Jake at the moment." She hesitated, then met Morin squarely in the eyes "I will ask for your word as a Dracon prince that you will keep as much of this in strictest confidence as possible The following is not general knowledge, and needs to remain that way."

Morin nodded "You have my word, so long as neither Nathan or Storm would be harmed by keeping it Jake is the Bonded of my Cordraki, his secrets are protected as those of family would be."

"That is all I ask." She inclined her head in acceptance "Obviously, Storm needs to be told some kind of summary of this, but most of the details can probably be left out for now He doesn't need to know how bad a shape his new father's head is in."

She paused a moment to organize her thoughts and the information, and figure out how much was necessary, and how much would be a good idea to include.

"The simplest truth of the situation is that Jake and Chance fought and broke up because their different needs in a mate finally became too much for their friendship to withstand." She took a sip of her drink and rolled her eyes "What a mouthful."

The red dragon nodded "A mouthful indeed, but often summarizing years into sentences generates those." He smiled. "Kind of like writing executive summaries of advanced engineering projects."

Ashley couldn't help but laugh at that "Oh, that is so true." Her humor dulled after a moment and she stared at the shinning blue liquid in her glass, turning it blood black "The real truth of that matter is much ... less pleasant.

"Probably the best description I can give, without making at least one of them sound like heartless clout, is that Jake is trapped by his past and ignorance, and Chance ... he's not a mindreader."

"This isn't going to be simple in any manner, is it?" Morin regarded the tall Black King Cheetah with a new eye, and an appreciation for the difficulty of what she was revealing "And you are part of it."

"Yes, a very large part of it." She nodded slightly "But let's try this in an organized fashion, shall we? Can you access the lecture I gave Nathan about Jake's past 'lives'?"

The Dracon considered for a moment "This will take some effort, my link with Nathan is not that deep, and the intergalactic distances make things difficult." He eyes went distant and then unfocused It was long moments before they refocused on the 'here and now' "Yes, I see No wonder Nathan was confused, it is not an easy concept." He smiled cryptically "But it is far easier for me, since I have a gift for seeing the connectedness of people ... for lack of a better term No wonder I thought you looked unfocused when I first saw you at Gildenfire."

"We were several lives into our existence already, and fighting hard to avoid my programming." Ashley nodded "And thank you for not mentioning it then." She chuckled "More questions about my past was about the last thing I needed at the time."

"It did not seem something to mention." He shrugged slightly "But how does that fit into this mess, beyond being interesting background?"

"It fits into the why of it." She sighed, disconcerted at how difficult it was to speak of what was going on "There is something in us that ... requires us to bond to those we are close too It is not even a conscious thing Most of the time it's nothing much, just a good working bond, easily broken and left behind as necessary.

"The trouble comes in cases like Jake, who are untrained in Bonding procedures, and get into intense, long term sexual relationships It's instinctive in us to form at least a lifebond when we're serious about a relationship, but because of what happened with our first real bond, with how Erra died, and how it was ... not healed ... when such a bond is forming, if the other half of the Bonding can't, or just doesn't, complete it for us, it is sabotaged as the memory pain of how the last one ended comes back."

Ashley drew in a deep, shuttering breath and a long drink from her goblet before calming enough to look up at her audience "I'm not usually this scattered."

The Dracon nodded sympathetically. "And Chance, like many pilots, is too much a free soul to realize what was wanted without being told directly I could see that much from the few memories I got when I opened the link just now." He materialized a goblet of something bright red that seemed on fire, which he took a sip of "I understand, because it took Nathan close to twenty years to realize I wanted more from him than friendship Unfortunately, my own culture forbids me from initiating intimate relations with a male smaller than myself ... I had to wait for Nathan to ask me." The dragon sipped quietly "But I am a Dracon, and we are patient.

"One not realizing what is wanted, the other too hurt to put what he wants in plain speech Unfortunate, but no one to blame either." He stopped "Am I close to the heart of the problem?"

"The basics, yes." Ashley forcibly stopped herself from fidgeting "Except they are already Bonded, close to the LifeMate level, and it's mangled because of how it was built." She sighed unhappily "And Jake ... he becomes quite suicidal when his BondMate 'rejects' him And to his perception, Chance has, irrevocably."

The Dracon sighed and sipped at his drink "And if what Nathan let me see is close to correct; and it likely is ... Chance's perception is that Jake ended the relationship That Jake went to the niece of the one who raped him probably didn't help matters any Now they're avoiding each other, both convinced the other doesn't care ... strange that they should both be wrong."

"Though it is somehow fitting." Ashley sighed in frustration "We have almost three hundred years and a dozen lives and not once has a romantic relationship gone well Someone once said that the closer we get to someone, the worse our people skills get I'm inclined to agree."

The Dracon closed his eyes for a moment and became slightly transparent before reforming. "Sorry, I was getting far too close to being visible to Nathan's conscious mind I'm fairly sure his subconscious is aware of me though, that's how I got to some of his memories."

Ashley stared into her drink and took a long swig "Is there anything else I can try to explain? I'd like to get Storm at much at ease with us as possible After what I know of Rhymar and the kit, having any new bondmate to his father can't be that easy to accept, and in this case, he's getting six for one."

Morin smiled slightly. "Actually, Storm is accepting it better than I expected, when I figured out what was happening But that's largely due to Jake's wanting to be Storm's father, which wasn't something Storm expected ... all he was hoping for was just to be accepted To be wanted by someone he's kind of idolized, overwhelmed him I think."

"Idolized?" Ashley raised an eyebrow "Not that Jake doesn't have many find qualities, but why?"

"The best way to explain it, is that Storm gets his perceptions through Nathan When Nathan finally came out of the 'emotional coma' from the combination of Rhymar's death and losing his entire 'world', he latched on to Jake and Chance and rebuilt his entire world around them ... because they were all he had He's finally feeling a little more self-secure, but he still has a somewhat air-brushed view, the flaws tend to be overlooked, and the good things enhanced."

"What a pair." Ashley rolled her eyes "Jake has a majorly bad habit of that as well."

The dragon shook his head in slight amusement "And Storm gets the even more filtered view ... though to some extent he knows it's filtered It didn't matter, after Nathan joined SWAT, Storm started referring to them as his 'uncles', much the same way Nathan referred to the NightBlades.

"The best summary I suppose would be ... Nathan loves both of them, so Storm does too."

"That's normal enough, even if they didn't share a mind."

The dragon chuckled "I definitely dipped into Nathan's subconscious a bit much ... I'm picking up that rambling habit of his."

"It seems quite contagious," Ashley laughed with him "Jake hasn't 'talked' this much in years."

The dragon looked at the King Cheetah "I can tell Storm has no problem with you, both because his father seems comfortable with you, and because he's never had a female presence in his life that wasn't a nurse or a lab tech Take it as you will, but if I know Storm's logic he's thinking that if Jake's his father, then since you're part of Jake you're his mother ... it's novel for him, he's never had one."

She smiled, absolute delight shinning in her eyes "I hope so I've wanted to be a mother for a long time."

The dragon grinned mischievously. "Two attempts at getting a SwiftClaw child didn't work, but when you weren't even looking it happened There's a certain irony in that."

"And from the sound of things, we'll have a few kits by blood soon enough." Her gaze drifted off in pleasure for a moment before she focused back "Sorry, I've wanted a kit so long ... I think it's still amazing me."

He sighed. "I find it somewhat ironic that the dragon, V'Feri will probably be the most difficult for him Storm will say he understands but I think V'Feri's reaction reminds him a great deal of Rhymar's."

"No doubt, but V'Feri will not always act that way, unlike Rhymar." She sighed "He really does want to be part of this, but the shattered lifebond he had with Erra was healed only during this Joining He's still very fragile that way Hopefully, they will both heal though wounds in time."

"As for the other three, I don't know ... it's always hard to say how he'll react Physically and emotionally he's an eight year old, but he only has two years living in the real world ... and two in this somewhat strange world Nathan built to shelter him And yet sometimes he seems more mature than eight."

"Reminds me of Patrik, Jake's pilot in Black Phoenix." She sighed "He may be about sixteen physically, and somewhere between that and twenty-five mentally, but he's been alive for only four."

"The real problem for Storm is going to be when he realizes that Nathan's somewhat idealized view of SWAT wasn't exactly connected to reality Part of Nathan's mind always thought that Jake and Chance would eventually work things out, and that SWAT would become like many Felsin commando threesomes ... a Bonded Triad That's a dream that Storm absorbed heavily, and unlike Nathan who's reluctantly coming to terms with the way things are ... Storm still sees things ... distorted."

"Ouch That's not going to be fun to sort out at all." She huffed "And better left for later, I think."

The dragon looked of in the distance "In a way, I think its better that Storm is still here, where things are filtered As poorly as Nathan is handling what happened this weekend, Storm would take it far worse."

"If Storm had been in the real world, Jake would have been fawning over him and utterly enthralled to have him around a year ago." She chuckled, then sobered quickly "This weekend wouldn't have happened."

Morin smiled "I think that Kat is going to make a very good father, whenever the two of them actually work out the details Of course, it may be awhile given the amount of time they're taking for Joining ... I believe they set an Alliance record for longest Joining in recorded history ... sometime ago." He grinned broadly "Not to mention all the 'Firsts' they've achieved."

Ashley chuckled "And they haven't even gotten to the Sharing yet."

The dragon smiled "They've done more sharing, before the Sharing ... then many pairs do in the Sharing itself Of course, that probably has something to do with the fact that most pairs don't have seven people and over four hundred years of background, a fair bit of which they aren't familiar with."

There was flash of white light from the high ceiling and Storm came gliding down to land between Morin and Ashley He cloaked his leather wings and walked over to his uncle.

Morin stood up and hugged the little tiger "You took long enough So how is Chance?"

Storm smiled "He seems just fine, he was with this female ... umm...what species is that?" A holographic image of Brandy appeared in the middle of the room.

Morin looked curiously at the image "I'm not really sure, I don't recall seeing that species back in the Alliance Clearly, she's descended from a predator species but I'm no sure which ... xeno-anthropology is more you're father's specialty." He looked to Ashley "Do you happen to recognize the species?"

"Brown Hyena Kantin," she nodded, "a canine derivative They're rare in this area, but not everywhere."

The kit started working with one of the terminals Morin walked over to see what he was doing "Looking for something, Storm?"

"I just wanted to find out where uncle Chance is, I got a name, but I'm seeing if its in Dad's memory anywhere unshielded."

"What's the name?"


"Don't be surprised if your father doesn't know, he's frequently oblivious to local geography he doesn't need personally."

"It's Cathedral's personnel testing facility." Ashley informed them "He must be trying to get hired."

Storm looked curious, but then seemed to remember something "Forgot to do something, be right back." He vanished in another flash of light.

Morin looked to Ashley "I think I see Nathan's handiwork here, what better place to keep a pilot safe then in a large corporation outside the city limits It would also explain something I saw about Simon, his project administrator, talking to Hathin, about Nathan joining the Cathedral medical staff full-time."

"He'll find it quite exciting, for a none combat zone." Ashley chuckled "Might even meet his adrenaline needs."

Morin nodded and thought for a moment "Given some of things that Nathan has let me see about how Jake feels about Chance right now ... it would make sense that he's shielding those memories ... if he already knew Chance had been hired Nathan would figure that Jake would be upset to learn that, and would try to keep it quiet at least till they were out of the Joining." He shrugged "A hypothesis, of course But it fits what I know of Nathan and his way of looking after those he cares about."

"Given just who Jake is in Cathedral, not letting him know he's Chance's CO isn't necessarily a bad idea for now."

Morin nodded "Nor is keeping Chance from finding out that Jake is his CO." The Dracon shook his head "I'll bet somewhere in that shielded area is a little piece of Nathan worrying solidly about how to explain everything that's happened, to Chance."

Storm popped back in "Forgot to check how Dad was anchoring the sentinel link Just needed to check the energy flow ... sentinel links can draw a lot of energy."

"What does it matter?" Ashley looked at them curiously, feeling out of place among her social kin for the first time.

Storm looked at her "Well, Dad's been putting out a lot of energy lately, and his reserves aren't real good either Problem is psi-energy reserves need sleep to regenerate, he hasn't lately."

Morin nodded "The real concern is that Nathan has disengaged the safeties on his reserves several times recently, and pushed dangerously close to tapping into minimum physical energy reserves that are used for the basic functions like respiration and heartbeat." He looked at Ashley his face completely serious "The times he's used the phrase 'we'll make it.' and such to Jake during this Joining ... that's exactly what he meant. No 'I', or 'you' ... just 'we' ... all or nothing."

Storm tapped one console. "Energy levels are still stable, I'm not sure how but I think he's got the sentinel to function, energy-wise, more like a LifeBond ... beats me how though I guess as long as he doesn't pull in NightClaw again, things should be okay."

Ashley stood there, stunned for a moment before the Medic in her took over again "You're telling me Nathan could physically kill himself with what he's been doing in this Joining?"

"Basically, yes." Morin nodded.

"What must he be kept from doing to avoid serious injury?" Her jaw set in a look far too familiar to both males present If there was one thing in the universe that couldn't be swayed, it was a Medic with a patient And this Medic loved both of hers.

Storm looked uneasy "I don't know, I think as long as father-Jake's alright he'll be fine ... I guess."

Morin put his arm around the White Tiger "To be honest, we're in uncharted waters because he's doing something that shouldn't be possible, at least based on what I know of bio-telepathy The safeties he's disengaging aren't supposed to be something a telepath can tamper with ... they're supposed to automatic and fixed to cause unconsciousness when the energy reserves hit the critical mark Somehow he's disabling that override."

The Dragon shook his head sadly "I do know why he's doing it. He hasn't fully recovered from Rhymar's death, and he's decided that if he can't bring Jake through this safely ... he doesn't want to make it either."

"The problem is that Nathan's a very inexperienced telepath, because he's only been a telepath for less than a day Before that he was an empath, and not a very strong one. He doesn't have a good feel for the energy he's using, and he's only partially aware that his reserves are low The fact that he's doing things like activating the war-form in the Joining is making matters worse, because he's unfamiliar with that form ... and he's afraid of it as well."

Morin paused "I hesitate to think just how dangerous that fight with Jake was to him ... it took a huge amount of psychic energy to override his instincts and actually let NightClaw hurt Jake ... that's about as contrary to Nathan's nature as he can get.

"Right now, he's okay because energy levels are stable and the safeties are back on ... Storm ,somehow, can force them back in place...though I don't understand how that's possible either He only releases the safeties when he thinks he's in danger of losing Jake ... and then he throws everything into making sure he doesn't.

"As far as 'serious injury' goes, I'm not sure if there is a point where injury occurs ... I'm only aware that if the reserves are drained below a certain point, some of the autonomic functions simply ... stop, lacking the energy to function."

"I wish I knew more, but I'm neither a healer nor a bio-telepath."

Storm looked up at him "They'll be alright, they have to be." He held tight to the dragon's side.

"They will be all right." Ashley's grim determination shone as strongly as any Medic's "And if this goes beyond my ability, Felsira herself is facilitating this Joining If she can't deal with it, no one can."

The Dracon looked startled "Felsira? As in the Felsin mother-guardian? She's physically present?"

"Yes, the healer Both Nathan and I swear our Medic oaths to." Ashley nodded "And yes, she is here in the flesh, as are Caito and Keltin."

"Shells and Shards that's peculiar, and to be facilitating a mortal Joining, one of them not even Felsin." He chuckled "Not that Nathan's entirely Felsin anyway, but he's close There is something distinctly strange going on here."

"You mean besides the obvious?" She raised an eyebrow "I have yet to see one thing that isn't distinctly strange in quite a while."

He looked down and mussed Storm's hair "See, things will be just fine If Felsira's present no one will be going anywhere."

Storm smiled tentatively, then looked at Ashley. "We haven't finished the tour yet." He laughed and bounded toward the elevator.

Ashley laughed and shook her head before following the kit "You coming, Morin?"

Morin chuckled "Coming." He followed shaking his head "The entire Triad at once, most amazing. Though it would take all three of them to keep track of the guys To say nothing of what else is probably going on."

Storm happily led the adults on a tour of the entire station, which Morin noticed was considerably smaller than the actually Gildenfire station; but it was more than big enough to keep one kit happy.

Storm stopped in front of a large set of double doors He turned to face the adults "Okay, this is my favorite place in the whole station, and it's even better than the real thing."

As the doors opened a warm breeze gusted out smelling of natural things; grass, trees, open water ... the sorts of things not found in a space station Inside was a large lake and forest setting, nestled between mountains Set back from the shore of the lake was a large wooden cabin The 'sky' stretched upward at least five hundred feet.

Morin smiled "Nathan recreated the Lake Maxwell campsite inside the Gildenfire Aerodrome I always said he was more of artist then he gave himself credit for." The dragon stretched his wings fully. "If you'll excuse me for a moment, I need to get airborne for a bit." He leapt up and caught a thermal gaining altitude quickly.

Storm watched the air, then suddenly he leapt to one side as a reddish gargoyle with a particularly large muzzle, swooped in trying to tackle him The gargoyle veered off just in time to avoid crashing into Ashley Storm laughed loudly "Nice try, Pat But I am not letting both of you blindside me on the same day." He ducked as Rick swooped down from behind "Okay, enough for now." Storm said sounding only slightly serious.

Pat took a close look at Ashley "Who's this? A new friend?"

Rick looked at him "That's Ashley, Pat. I told you about her earlier."

Pat grinned sheepishly "Oh, I thought you were exaggerating when you said she was as tall as Goliath."

Storm grinned. "Ashley, in case you hadn't figured out the red gargoyle is Pat, also one of my oldest friends, and one of my father's as well Pat, this is Ashley Terrell, one of my fathers' friends."

Rick looked at Storm "You done with the tour?" He asked hopefully.

Storm shook his head "Sorry Rick, but Dad's got a new LifeMate and well, Ashley's sort of part of him, and I need to get know the new people in my dad's life better." He put a friendly arm around the little gargoyle's shoulder "We can play later."

Rick smiled. "Okay, see 'ya round." He leapt into the air, followed closely by Pat.

The White Tiger kit watched them for a while "Sometimes I forget they're just part of Dad's memories, they seem so real I wish I could meet the real ones." He said quietly, looking at the ground.

"You'll get to meet plenty of friends in the real world, and soon." Ashley hugged him gently, then motioned for him to sit down and lean against her on the soft grass so she could embrace him without the extreme difference in height "You'll probably be walking, and flying, around out there within a couple months."

The kit leaned against Ashley quietly for awhile before looking up at her "You really think so?" Hope glimmered in his eyes. "I know Dad's been thinking about it, but all the equipment he needs is back home." He snuggled up against her "It'd be nice to be real again."

"Nathan has the knowledge to build the equipment he'll need, and between him and Jake, it won't take long to build." She nuzzled him affectionately "How do you feel about having siblings?"

"Siblings? You mean like brothers and sisters?" He thought for a moment after she nodded "I don't know, I guess it's okay Why?"

"Because you're likely to have a few." She licked his forehead "Jake wants kits he's genetically related to quite badly, and Nathan seems to like the idea of more than one.

"Oh, that's okay then." He grinned.

Ashley swallowed the bile that rose in her throat as she identified the feeling this child's innocent touch was bringing to the surface She took a breath in and quickly stood, forcing enough casual grace into her movement to not alert Storm to just how badly wrong things were "May we finish the tour? I feel your fathers are getting back to the subject of Joining, and I should be there."

Storm smiled "This was the last stop, I saved the most important place for last ... I think Dad wants to find someplace like this in the real world We used to go camping with uncle Morin, when I was alive, and I always remember how relaxed he was I enjoyed it too, more room to fly." He looked up at her "I think I'll go find the guys, Joining's an adult thing I'll see you again, won't I?"

"Of course." She smiled despite the carefully shielded conflict raging in her body and mind "You're my son too."

"Good." He smiled, happily. He spread his wings, leapt up to catch a thermal. He climbed quickly, and shortly was joined by the two Gargoyles.

Jake suddenly let Nathan's throbbing cock slide out of his mouth and looked up at his panting mate "What's the difficulty giving Storm a new body?"

Nathan took a moment to focus, having been, as usual, very unfocused "There were ... problems in the genetic code that created his first body, the scientists used an old technique to make the merger of diverse species work They used Dracon genetic material to generate the wings, flight instincts and some of the senses related to flight that Dracons have, but Felsin don't.

"The old technique left a chaos biomathematics system that destabilized causing Storm's body to suffer various neurophysical failures that eventually killed him It's something that used to happen with the Beta-series genetic creations, but was fixed with the G-series, which is my father's 'generation' It's called chaos chain destabilization, and we developed a stabilization procedure to cure it ... the problem is it won't take on a body as immature as Storm's was ... I made adjustments to the procedure hoping to make it work for him ... but there wasn't enough time." Nathan finally caught the absolutely blank on his mate's face "I just went over your head, didn't I?"

"It's okay." Jake shook himself, trying to throw off the lethargy of being overwhelmed "The gist of that was it was a design flaw, right?"

Nathan smiled and kissed the still slightly dazed tomkat "Yes, love It was a design flaw I couldn't correct in time."

"Okay," Jake nodded his acceptance of the level of understanding he had, "so what prevented you from fixing it after he died, since you have his soul?"

"Well, back home I couldn't really work on fixing the design flaws in his old body because I didn't have the time on the assignments I was on I couldn't tell anyone why I wanted to, because I couldn't deal with any more counselors telling me that I needed to accept Storm's death and grieve so I could get on with my life."

"Humph," Jake actually growled "They shouldn't talk about what they don't know."

Nathan smiled sadly as Jake licked his tears away "But the reason I couldn't find a resolution to, was the fact that Rhy was terribly uncomfortable around Storm ... and that was something that wasn't likely to change Storm's too empathically sensitive not too notice, and it wouldn't have been fair to subject him to that 'fear' on a constant basis In the end, if I'd manage to correct the design flaws I would've been forced to chose between my son and my mate ... in my heart I knew I'd already decided ... but for any empath, even one as weak as I was then, breaking a bonding is almost inconceivable, and it's extremely painful for both ... not quite as bad as death-loss, but close enough."

"Oh," Jake regarded him gently, "is that why you weirded out so badly when I started to cut off my working bonds?"

"I didn't realize that they weren't ... well, normal, I guess." Nathan shook his head "I still have a tough time comprehending a bond like what you describe them as." He fidgeted and looked at the ground "But as much as I was hurt that Rhy couldn't accept Storm ... I still couldn't bring myself to hurt him like that ... it just wasn't in me."

Jake regarded him carefully, trying to get the phasing right "You couldn't ... leave him, once you'd bonded, without breaking the bond?"

Nathan shook his head "Not really For one thing, it just isn't done that way Besides, leaving the bond would've made both our lives difficult in the future Having a bond you aren't a part of anymore is psychologically difficult for one thing, and it will interfere with bonding with any future mates ... because normally when you add a third to an established bonding it requires the agreement of both ... if you've gone your separate ways ... that isn't really possible."


He sighed "Could I have left him, yes But that would've meant more counselors, and questions, and it would have disrupted both our lives Because of the damage an improperly separated bond can do, counselors keep diligent track of bonded couples who have relationship problems It actually doesn't happen that often but it can cause serious problems when it does."

Nathan looked off in the distance and sighed deeply "The sad thing is that there was someone there, who loved Storm as much as I did, and who I even wanted to be with ... but because I was with Rhy and Rhy was too intimidated by him ... I couldn't bring him into the Triad The truly painful thing is I've known him longer than I knew Rhy, but I didn't know about that part of my life until Rhy ... and his culture didn't allow him to make the first move."

"Mmm," Jake leaned against his mate, "introduce us when we visit Alliance space."

Nathan smiled. "Love too. " He projected an image of an eight foot tall, broad chested, powerfully muscled wine red Dracon with gold accents on his outspread wings, wearing a dark blue uniform, with black accents He couldn't help but laugh when Jake licked his lips as he gave the image an appraising once over "Just to give you an idea, that's Morin Kar'Dranor, probably my best friend in Alliance space." Nathan chuckled "And he's probably at Alphard Station right now, waiting for me and confusing the heck out of the bureaucracy by claiming mate's rights to know just where the Void I am." Nathan paused for a moment "Now I wonder why I forgot that little piece of info ... you two have at least one thing in common ... he's a TechnoMage too."

"Really?" Jake perked up "Is that what he calls himself? A TechnoMage?"

"Yes." Nathan looked at his mate curiously "Though I don't think the term is used outside Draconea."

"Wow Pat and I just made the word up, to explain what we could do." He started to chuckle "I had no idea it was for real."

"Great minds, common directions." Nathan suggested.

"Or something Ashley knew ... I think she was where I got the idea from, though I didn't know it at the time." Jake stared at the image again "He has that 'I know him from somewhere I don't remember' look Maybe she met him."

"Maybe." Nathan let it go.

"So what brought Storm to the surface again?"

He sighed "Once I was here, and Rhy was dead ... I started think about it again, I've even finish correcting the design flaws ... though I really should check it using a full genetics lab And I'd still have to develop the G-tube technology to bring the body to Storm's correct age And I was still afraid to let anyone know why I was doing, what I was doing ... sometimes old cultural biases are hard to escape ... not that I wouldn't do it ... I'm just afraid of others reactions."

Nathan looked his mate "Don't take this the wrong way, but before I knew how important you were in Cathedral ... I wasn't sure I could trust Cathedral that far Trusting them with advanced technology is one thing ... but trusting them with my son's future ... I just didn't feel that sure ... probably because I don't really know anyone that well."

The tiger-tabby thought for a moment "Jake, Storm's our son ... now that the two of you have accepted each other; so this decision isn't just mine to make anymore ... and you know Cathedral far better than I do ... in a lot of ways, I still feel much the outsider."

Jake chuckled lightly "Don't worry about that, even the old timers feel that way, especially when Pat or I wander into the area It's hard to keep up with two TechnoMages in their own facility." He hesitated, a question searching for an answer before being asked "How do you get Storm's soul into the body? Wouldn't another be in there by the time it was ready?"

"The 'how' is simply the same way I was able to bring his soul over to live with mine: soul transference I shouldn't say 'simply' because I honestly don't know 'how' ... it's a small bit of magic that Xander taught me As to another being in there already ... I've wondered about that myself but according to Xander, the intention in creation is what is important and by 'naming' the new body properly it's told that it already has a soul, so another isn't acquired." Nathan shook his head "Magic is something I never really understood, but I accepted it when Xander told me it was the one way I could give Storm the chance he never really had."

The tiger tabby sighed "The science is something I've worked with for years, so that's easy for me ... but the magic, I simply have to accept because science doesn't deal with the soul."

Jake started to say something, then shook his head and smiled He purred softly and urged Nathan to his back "But all this talk of bringing our son into the world," he crooned as he slid along his mate's body, "makes me hungry for the traditional way of it."

"You are impossible sometimes." Nathan laughed playfully and gave in without resistance "Let's just try to get through it this time, humm?"

"I always try." Jake grinned before claiming a fierce kiss, effectively ending the discussion.

"Ash ..." Jake's voice choked off as his entire body went ridged against Nathan's.

"What is it?" The Felsin groaned internally at yet another problem just when things were starting to go well.

The lean tom nodded and swallowed before relaxing again, but wasn't really at ease as he stroked his mate's chest soothingly "She just scared herself It shouldn't be an issue."

Nathan carefully calmed his mind "What shouldn't be an issue, love? It's still bothering you, whatever it is." He reassuringly stroked his mate's hair.

"I ... reacted to Storm ..." she dropped to the floor next to them and took a moment to control her rebelling stomach "I reacted to Storm as a SwiftClaw male I didn't do anything, but ...." she stopped to roll away from them and vomited, shaking hard Disgust and fear quickly overpowered every other trace in her scent.

Jake stood and moved quickly between his mate and female self He hesitated a second but embraced her shoulders "You didn't That's what matters."

"How the hell can you be so calm about it?" She snarled "He's an eight year old kit."

Nathan quickly reached out his mind to Storm, when he found nothing but his son playing happily he refocused on the present He turned to Ashley, and forced himself to remain calm and centered "The old mission instincts? That's a bit of mistarget, Storm's my son but genetically he's not a SwiftClaw He didn't notice anything wrong which is fairly amazing given how perceptive he is."

"I've learned to control it very well over the years." She slowly forced deep breaths into her chest and tried to spit the taste of her vomit from her mouth.

Nathan spoke quietly "Inside the world I created for him, he's untouchable, so it's not an issue; but what has to considered is what this may mean when he's back in the real world." Nathan was trying hard to keep his disquiet from showing, and was succeeding very well.

"What do you mean?" Jake turned to his mate "She's never going ..." his eyes went wide, "you don't think I'd touch him ..."

"You wouldn't, Jake." Ashley interrupted with something resembling her normal voice "You have Nathan And you'll have the kit I don't that'll turn it off."

Nathan looked at Jake and shook his head. "No, I don't think you would, but I'm still getting the hang of all these additional people that are involved." He sighed "I'm sorry if it didn't come out right It's just that being protective is about the only part of parenting I seem to get right ... the last two and a half years, haven't been easy."

"I'm sorry." She forced herself to meet Nathan's eyes "I didn't see it coming I've kept my cool around you, I didn't think I react like that ... I didn't think I could react like that to one so young." She shuddered and tried to keep the bile down with some success "I don't believe I actually ...."

"Ashley, cut it out It's just a thought No one is punished for thoughts Not even Reaper would take it as a crime." Jake growled softly as the scene changed around them "You're not going to touch him, and that's the end of it."

"Where are we?" Nathan looked around at the open, green, campus-like place with Felsin, Lupo and other races walking about Most wore the uniforms of the Shadow Government.

"It's the Shadow Government base on Rashigrin Six." Ashley supplied uneasily as she stood, focusing on a rise to the their left "It's where I first saw your father, and understood what it actually meant to be designed to breed with him."

Whatever Nathan was going to say was cut off by the sight of a rowdy group of mismatched Felsin warforms coming into view over a slight rise There was an almost painful whine of pure need from the Black King Cheetah next to him as most of the scene grayed out to focus on Ebon, and Nathan gasped as he felt what her programming did to her at the mere sight of her target; the arousal so intense he barely resisted pushing Jake to the ground and fucking him senseless whether the Kat wanted to or not.

He looked over at Ashley, his gaze settling for a long moment on his equally disturbed mate "And you had to deal with that for, however long you knew my father." He shook his head in amazement.

"Thirty years, and the six I knew you in the Alliance, and the last year." She shook her fur out, her tail lashing as she forced the drive down to a manageable level for Nathan, even as Jake started to come out of his shock, and they both felt him slam a strong shield around part of his mind.

"You're even stronger than I thought."

"Too strong for my own good." She growled slightly as the NightBlades moved out of sight and the intensity calmed down significantly "If I'd been a little weaker, I would have raped Ebon and it would have been over with." She looked wistfully in the direction he'd gone "He would have forgiven me for it too He understood genetic conditioning as well as anyone." She looked away, anywhere but at where Ebon had gone and where his son now stood "They did too good a job on me in some ways, making me someone he'd want Loyalty, bravery, sacrifice for the good of the team, those were traits he valued a great deal I had them in spades I had it enough that I sacrificed my mission for the good of my adopted team."

She turned to look at Nathan with haunted eyes "When I was sent back to seduce you, the only part of my programming they changed was to expand my 'target' to include all SwiftClaw males I think they figured that sooner or later I'd find one that I could either force, or I wouldn't have to."

Nathan looked off a ways, and sighed "Odd thing is that if it hadn't been for a bizarre twist of fate, it was unlikely that there would've been a third generation ... by blood anyway After Storm I don't think kits with Rhy would have happened I still loved him, but the trust between us was badly damaged, and I don't know that that was something that would've gotten better."

"You never know." Jake embraced his mate "You were both young ... all sorts of things could have changed Look at how much you've changed me in the year we've known each other."

Nathan looked a little disturbed, even haunted "I know it's terribly wrong ... but a small part of me is relieved that he's dead, because it means I don't have to make a choice I hated the thought of."

"There is nothing wrong in feeling relief from avoiding something distasteful." Ashley spoke calmly "And there is nothing wrong with feeling both relief and grief at his passing."

"He could have learned to love Storm." Jake murmured softly "The kit's too wonderful not to love."

Nathan shook his head sadly "I'd like to think so, but there were two things I learned about Rhy that I'd hadn't known: He wasn't comfortable around aliens, which is how he saw Storm; and he found the 'super-soldier' design projects distasteful ... and that was how Storm came into being."

He hugged Jake close "Thank you for loving him; it means a lot to him and me."

"How could he be uncomfortable around aliens?" Jake looked between the Felsin in confusion "I thought the Alliance was pretty integrated."

"Most of it is, but many parts of the homeworlds aren't There are large sections of Felsinor or Draconea where you might never see an alien Rhymar grew up in one of those, and he never met an alien till he was doing his graduate work at the Aerospace Facility at Tygrenor From what he told me the first time he really worked closely with an alien it was a male Timber Wolf Lupo Lupos have a need to define who the 'alpha' is in every relationship they have, unless you make it clear from the start that you're not playing that game Rhymar was a quiet, relatively shy individual and from what he told me the Lupo dominated him fairly heavily I guess that kind of molded his opinion of aliens."

"Oh." Jake digested that for a while before shrugging "Not mixed team material." He shifted his gaze to Ashley "If breeding was the only reason you were sent to the Alliance, there must have been a better way."

The King Cheetah rolled her eyes and huffed "Believe me, the thought occurred to me more than once Hell, why they didn't send me as a male capable of conceiving is beyond me." She shook her head sharply "They must have known how impossible it would be to get either of you to want a female with the tools and orders they gave me I'm just glad we rebelled and left before I was sent after a third generation I'm not sure I could take dieing like that again Not knowing what it was like."

He looked at Ashley with an honestly grateful smile for her "Thank you for your restraint."

"Thank the programmers," she shuddered, "loyalty ... it's not restraint, not the way you understand it, I can not hurt someone I love like that." She stared into the distance and hugged herself "When biology forced a choice between death and betraying your trust, I died, and it wasn't really a choice."

The scene shifted to a dark quarters, with an adult Nathan was clearly visible by her enhanced night sight, sleeping in the simple bed only a few feet away All three felt the demand pounding in her blood, even stronger than the last time The knowledge that she must mate with the one before her now_, or die painfully, came from the memory's background.

The smell of Nathan's arousal, even if it wasn't quite right, was intoxicating It almost allowed her to touch him, almost was enough to convince her besieged mind that this wasn't really going to be using force That he wouldn't mind as she made him come.

But her shaking fingers stopped only a hairs breath from the covers as an even stronger demand kicked in; protect the team.

The sleeping Nathan's ear twitched at her low sob, then the memory went black as Ashley collapsed silently to the hard floor of a high tech computer center and trembled as she got herself back under control.

Nathan placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and pointedly didn't respond to the serge of desire in her "That's a kind of loyalty I understand, it's the kind my father believed in It's really the only kind I know." He paused "Ashley, despite what you seem to fear, I don't think you can hurt Storm The loyalty seems stronger than the other."

She nodded weakly as he sat down next to her, and Jake settled on her other side, quietly offering support "Actually, based on some things Storm showed me, and questions he asked ... I think there's another 'instinct' involved here ... a maternal one." He smiled slightly when she nodded again "Storm only understood the concept of 'mother' abstractly from my memories, until now He just asked me if Jake being his father, makes you his mother I told him that was something he needed to ask you The feeling I got was that he thinks you are, but like many kits ... he needs it to be 'official' If you feel up to it, I think it would be good for both of you In any case, thank you for making 'mother' into something more than an abstract for him."

"Can I get a kiss in thanks?" She grinned at Nathan cheekily and relaxed a little more, despite the mating drive still being high.

Nathan quickly used a biofeedback trick to make sure that no scents relating to arousal where coming from him Then he smiled at Ashley, and kissed her chastely With a wise-ass grin on his face his whispered. "Don't want to take this too far ... it'll make Jake jealous."

Ashley dissolved into a rolling bundle of laughing black fur, knocking Jake over "Jealous indeed." She was grinning from ear to ear when she righted herself and the tomkat settled on the other side of his mate with an irritated glare for her "Thanks, Nathan." She stretched leisurely and sprawled on the grass under a wide blue sky "I did claim mother-rights for Storm before I left him, and you're right, it's partially maternal instincts that stopped me, and partially social training too Mating with an eight year old kit is just plain sick." She looked up to meet Nathan's green eyes and sighed "I may have a long term history beyond the Alliance, but I am a Felsin Medic."

Nathan nodded. "So I see, he forgot to mention that He was busy playing glide tag with Rick and Pat."

"More likely wanted you to agree to it." She smiled up at him "You are his first father No matter what I say, it's your choice to let me into his life like that."

He nodded, then grinned "So what do you think of Morin?"

"He cares about you and Storm a lot." She shrugged "I like him well enough not to object to him joining the Bond, or as your lovemate, if that's what you're asking."

Nathan sighed "I'm not sure what's going to happen there, we're still in different galaxies ... I just think it's kind of amusing that he doesn't think I'm aware of him being here I noticed him when he first arrived, and I'm grateful he did ... knowing he was there for Storm, reduced my worries from three to two ... slightly more manageable.

"Morin's many things, but a subtle telepath isn't one of them ... especially when he's trying to manage the extra power his Grandmother is loaning him When he was looking for the lecture he came very close to being visible here.

"This is the second time he's helped me through a crisis The first time was when Storm died ... Morin stayed with me for months, kept me from having to face it alone." He chuckled quietly "There are still people on Gildenfire who think that Morin's my mate Of course, when one of the Dracon Princes starts acting as if he had mate's rights ... there are few on Gildenfire who'll question it."

Nathan laid back and looked up at the sky "I still don't know how to get back, so it's not an issue."

"Who's Morin?" Jake broke in "And do you know where we are, relative to Alliance space?"

Nathan smiled "Morin Kar'Dranor, youngest Prince of House Kar'Dranor of Draconea. A very dear friend and old teammate, we served together for some time in the 34th Alliance Border Patrol He wanted more than just friendship, but the rules of his culture don't allow him to initiate intimate relations with a male smaller than himself It took me a long time to figure that's what he wanted, by that time I was Bonded with Rhymar ... and Rhymar was just too intimidated by him; no matter how polite and charming Morin was, Rhy always got this fear in his scent when Morin was around.

"I haven't been able to figure out where Aristal is in relation to Alliance space I've spent a lot of clear nights looking at the stars trying to find anything I recognize ... nothing's familiar I think they're in different galaxies but I can't be completely sure I never did deep-space astrogation, only the near space stuff need for space fighter piloting."

"Do you think Morin would know?" Ashley asked "Given he's projecting here from there."

Nathan thought for a moment "I suppose it might be possible, though I'm sure he got here by the links he shares with me and Storm I guess it's time to let him know I know he's here."

Nathan looked up at the sky, and shouted almost a roar "Hey, Rusty! Stop playing stealth Dracon and get down here." He chuckled.

There was a gust of warm, dry air and Morin swooped down on outstretched leathery red wings, flecked with gold He landed next Nathan, who stood up to greet him.

The Dracon wrapped his wings around the tiger-tabby "It is good to see you again, Cordraki How did you know I was here?"

Nathan grinned at the red dragon "By the large Dracon footprints you were leaving." He shook his head. "You're a clumsy 'path on your best days, but especially when Starfire is loaning you enough power for this kind of projection." He smiled impishly at his friend.

Morin laughed, a deep booming sound. "I should have known you had seen me when I started getting easy access to things But what made you decide to call me in?"

Nathan smiled "First things, first Morin Morin, I'd like to meet my lifemate, Jake Clawson Jake, this is Prince Morin Kar'Dranor of Draconea, my Cordraki."

Morin bowed politely while looking Jake over closely He turned to Nathan "If you don't mind my saying so Cordraki, a much better choice than last time Your taste for small males hasn't changed, but I'm pleased to see this one doesn't shy away from me."

He turned back to Jake "A pleasure to meet you Jake Clawson, and you have my thanks for being willing to be father to my nephew Storm."

"So just what is the real reason, Cordraki?" He said over his shoulder.

Nathan looked apprehensive "Morin, I don't suppose you know the relative positions of where you are to where I am?"

The dragon thought for a moment "I didn't need them to do this, but I will ask Grandmother, she'll probably know ... or she'll find someone who knows I suspect the answer will come after you're done Joining ... assuming you do plan to finish sometime." He chuckled "Not that I should be surprised ... it took you twenty years to realize what I really wanted from you."

Nathan sighed "Sometimes Morin, people don't see that sort of thing unless they're told plainly ... even after Rhy and I started dating, I still didn't see that sort of thing clearly."

"You still don't," Jake added softly, "if you had any doubts that I loved you months ago I kept my mouth shut because it's inappropriate here to approach a friend who's grieving I never was sure if you'd really come to terms with Rhymar's death, and since you weren't dating as far as I could tell, I wasn't willing to risk our friendship over my desire." He focused on the ground "Last time I let that happen, it was with Chance, and you saw what happened there."

The tiger-tabby put his hand on Jake's shoulder "You're right, I don't." He shook his head in quiet amusement "I guess I did too good a job hiding how I felt all that time, but among other things I was afraid to reveal how I felt only to find out that you didn't feel that way."

Nathan smiled "As to my dating, well umm... I never really have, but of course you couldn't know that I've never actually looked for a mate ... I tend to either trip over them, so to speak ... or they find me."

Nathan caught Morin about to say something out of the corner of his eye, and silenced him with a look. "*Not now.*"

Morin nodded "*As you wish, but I really think ....*"

"*I know, I know I just don't want to start an argument on that subject, right now.*"

"*Perhaps not.*"

"Is that why you were Bonded to Rhymar before you knew he couldn't accept what you are?" Jake regarded Nathan a moment "We're sharing a lot more than you ever did with him, aren't we?"

Nathan nodded slowly. "Before Rhy I'd never dated, never looked for a mate ... mostly because I didn't see a reason to It didn't advance my career or improve my skills, and those were really the only things that mattered back then.

"Okay." Jake stared at him in near disbelief.

"Rhymar decided he wanted me, and the rest is history." Nathan chuckled quietly "Would you believe that part of what attracted him was my 'rebel' reputation? I had a stubborn, rebellious streak and tended to take up dangerous hobbies and manage to survive them."

"Well, you seem to have fallen into that crowd again." Jake chuckled "Though you have yet to top my hobby for the danger rating."

"And yes, we are sharing a lot more One reason for that is that we're both telepaths and the more 'awakened' the minds Joining are, the stronger the bond, and the deeper the Sharing When I Bonded to Rhymar, I was an empath and a weak one at that, Rhymar was mind-blind with the exception of being aware of the Bond So the Joining didn't go very deep Also I know more about myself now then I did back then ... I didn't know what I am until recently."

"Oh," Jake nodded and fell silent, thinking.

The tiger-tabby smiled "And to think ... we haven't even gotten to the Sharing yet."

"Speaking of which," Ashley commented, looking at Jake, "didn't you have some Bond work you were going to do before I sidetracked things?"

"Urr, yeah." Jake sighed and looked up at Nathan "And I ask that you ... stay out ... of that space while I do it."

Nathan nodded "As you wish, Jake I'll be with Storm when you're done ... he wanted to talk to me about something Ashley, you've seen Storm's place ... show him where it is when he's done, that's where I'll be." The tiger-tabby hugged Jake, and then stepped away "Till later." He turned, shifting to the winged war-form casually He took a running leap, caught a rising thermal, and quickly soared up out of sight "*Should you need me, I'm no more than a thought away.*" His mind-voice came back to Jake.

"*Thank you.*"

Jake sighed as he shifted to the Bond room, Ashley at his side.

"You don't have to, you know." She rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder "Let the Bond dissolve if you need the energy, but they really should be given the choice."

"There's one I do have to deal with." He set his jaw and stalked to the back of the room, where a mangled bond pulsed in defiance of everything he wanted "That is going away before it causes any more problems."

"Umm, Jake, I can't let you do that."

"What?" He whirled to face her in disbelief.

"I can't let you destroy it That's a LifeBond." She faced him squarely "You may not want it, but you are not strong enough to survive the feedback ... and even if you were, in the middle of a Joining is not the time to break an existing LifeBond." She sighed softly "It'll likely rip Nathan's mind apart if you try now."

He stared at her for a very long time, then looked at the bond and growled under his breath "Show me Storm's place."

"Thank you," she let out a breath and lead the way.

Alexander Maxwell walked calmly through the halls of Cathedral, offing reassuring smiles to those still on edge from the alert as he followed his parental bond to where Nathan would be He smiled to himself at the thought that he would be able to greet his son and new son-in-law properly this time.

It faded when he remembered it was assuming Nathan wanted to acknowledge him ... at least he could always congratulate Jake on the Bonding, for whatever it really meant to Kat For all the time he'd spent with the lean tom in the past year and a half, most of how and what Jake thought was still a major mystery, and one that had a disturbing tendency to shift without warning.

Alex blinked as he placed where he was, just outside Jake's quarters, and at the desperately crying black and white longfured tomkat that was trying to claw his way through the door at apparently was unwilling to budge, even when begged.

Alex assumed his most reassuring manner before he quietly approached the desperate tom, though he made sure to come from the side instead of directly behind "Patrik? What's wrong?" He asked in a quiet voice, the one Nareena had taught him to use when dealing with an upset patient.

Patrik's claws remained dug into the synthetic metal of the door as he looked over His face was a wet mess, showing only his desperate fear "Jake ... danger ..." he swallowed and gathered himself with difficulty, "he's breaking his bonds with us."

Alex managed to keep his surprise off his face and behind shields Then he remembered that TechnoMages used varying levels of bonds, but it was still unusual to break bonds during a Joining Alex decided he wasn't going to be of any use with his abilities shutdown so he slowly powered them up until several moments later he had his full Cybermage abilities, plus his bio-telepathy.

He carefully scanned for a frequency that Patrik would sense, but that wouldn't interfere with any bonds and sent calm, reassurance, and smiled when the small tom relaxed significantly Alex knew he wouldn't be able to reach Nathan through the Joining shields, but with luck he'd be able to reach whoever was facilitating.

He gently thought into Jake's room. "*My apologies for intruding, but can I get the facilitator's attention for a moment? This is Cazimir Sunfire, Nathan's father.*" His mind-voice was very polite and apologetic.

A tired, surprised and gentle female mind-voice came back "*Cazimir? We thought you were dead ...*"

"*Umm ... We?*" Cazi didn't expect the facilitator to know who he was.

There was a mental smile "*We, the Triad This is Felsira, Cazimir I take you need information on what is going on?*"

Cazi swallowed hard, surprised to find himself mind-to-mind with one of the Triad. "*Yes, Lady Felsira I need to know if Nathan and Jake are all right There's a very frightened young tom out here who thinks Jake is in danger.*"

"*You can assure Patrik that Jake is fine, just preoccupied I'll adjust the shields to make sure Patrik's bond isn't being 'muffled' accidentally.*"

"*Thank you, Lady Felsira.*"

There was a smile as Felsira returned to concentrating on the Joining.

Alex walked over and put a reassuring arm across Patrik's shoulders, just barely catching the tom before he collapsed in relief "Rik, Jake is just fine I just checked with Felsira whose keeping an eye on him He's just preoccupied with the Joining." He quietly 'flickered' a small towel into his other hand from his quarters and offered it to Rik.

"As to the bonds, I'm not entirely sure but I don't think he's doing anything with them right now But I understand how frightening the prospect of losing a bond can be."

"You do?" The young tom looked doubtful through his gratitude as he settled against the wall and started to pat his fur dry.

Alex nodded and sighed "When I was younger, I lost two LifeMates on the same day ... but they didn't break the bond ... they died That's a pain I almost didn't survive, and that I'll never be able to forget So yes, I do understand because I felt the loss."

"You know what they're doing in there?" He asked hopefully.

Alex settled against the wall next to Rik, and nodded. "Yes, I do I've been through the experience twice myself It's called Joining, the end result of which is the formation of a LifeBond." He smiled quietly "I must admit I'm a bit surprised; I didn't even know they were dating."

"They weren't yesterday ... I guess Nathan finally made the first move," Patrik chuckled weakly, "Jake's been rather taken with him for months now." Then all the humor drained from him "I was starting to think we might be in for another round of what happened with Chance." He nearly spat the tabby's name, then looked sideways at Alex "Does Pat, Miss Dyne, know you're not from around here?"

Alex chuckled quietly "Rik, I know Nathan well enough to know he didn't make the first move ... what exactly happened is probably a lot more complicated."

Patrik actually snickered and relaxed against the calico "No doubt, with the two of them."

"I don't think Nathan knows how to make the first move." He looked seriously at Rik "Actually, you're the first person to realize I'm not from around here Pretty good deductive work on not many clues I guess saying I'd been through what they're going through gave me away, huh?" He smiled, clearly not upset at being found out.

"Mmm, it was more the towel out of nowhere, and that I can 'feel' you now ... plus Cathedral noticed you 'turn on'." He glanced at the door "How long will they take?"

Alex chuckled "The towel, well actually it was out of my quarters ...I never have quite gotten the hang of creating matter from energy But the towel translocation is just an apprentice trick.

"I've kept my talents buried pretty well 'cause CyberWizards attract a lot of attention, on worlds that don't have them But with everything that was going on ... I needed my full telepathy range, and that meant turning everything else on too."

He smiled gently "Couldn't let the two of them come out here, and find you trying to remove the door with your bare claws Nathan would feel terribly guilty about causing you that much distress ... actually, he still will feel guilty if he ever finds out." Though the tone was light, it was plain that the calico wasn't really joking.

Patrik glanced up at the deep gouges he'd left and frowned "It wouldn't listen Not like the doors obey be like they do Jake, but they'll usually let me in if he hasn't locked them, and he didn't Someone else has ... someone who is not one of ours."

Alex thought about that for a moment First he extend his cybertelepathy to 'read' the door He frowned at what he thought he heard, so he made a quick series of arcane gestures with one hand Gentle silver streams flowed from his hand and wove around the door examining it in detail Alex chuckled in pure amusement at what he found.

He looked to his side to see Rik staring at him "Sorry, the reason the 'door' won't open is that it doesn't think it is a door Someone convinced the door that is, in fact, simply another wall section ... and wall sections don't open; that isn't part of their function." He caught the disbelieving stare "I can't be sure, but if I had to guess I say it was probably the work of Keltin, the Defender Once the Joining is over, I'm sure he'll put things back to normal."

"I would hope so." The petite tom shivered and checked his gunner's presence again.

Alex looked at the battered door again "As for how long ... I don't know They've already taken longer than I've ever heard of it taking ... but I guess that's not entirely surprising, neither of them has had what you'd call an easy life."

"No ... and if there's a way to complicate a relationship, Jake'll do it ... without wanting to, usually." He shook his head "Sometimes it amazes me anyone can tolerate him for long."

Alex nodded "Well, Nathan's not easy to get rid of, especially when he decides he loves somebody, which he must have to enter the Joining I'm just glad to see that Nathan was able to get past Rhymar's death ... sometimes the death of a LifeMate makes it too painful to love again." Alex gently reached along his Bond with Nathan to check his son's condition, and nodded.

"Is that why you've keep it so casual with Heron?" He regarded the tomkat casually.

Alex smiled "I've kept it casual 'cause I don't know how long I'll be here A family friend sent me ahead to do what I could to keep Jake alive till Nathan arrived, 'cause the friend said Nathan would need him...though I think the friend may have had it a little backwards.

"I'm not sure what happens next, and I guess I'm afraid to get too involved just to find out I'm being sent home."

He chuckled quietly "Funny thing is, I've had to keep pretty tight reins on my emotions ... I found myself falling in love, and I wasn't allowed to." He sighed deeply.

"Who?" Patrik put a comforting hand on the muscular Kat's arm "They might be quite willing to go with you I know not everyone that looks happy to be here wouldn't jump at the chance to leave, if there was anywhere to go."

Alex sighed and shook his head, wistfully looking off in the distance "Much the way I fell in love with Ebon, my first mate, I found myself falling in love again with someone a lot like him."

He looked at the black and white tom "I fell in love with Jake, not too long after I got here ... but that was one thing I wasn't allowed to do." He shifted his gaze to the ground "Besides, how could I get serious with anyone while I'm pretending to be someone else, and not even wearing my own form."

"He wouldn't care," Patrik shrugged, "and this," he shoved a finger in the direction of the room, "isn't going to change much of anything He was getting married anyway."

Alex shook his head "Like I said, my getting involved with Jake wasn't allowed And while he might not care, other potential mates might not be so understanding ... and I couldn't let on who I really was until things got to the right point as far as Nathan was concerned."

He looked at the room and then at Rik, very serious "Rik, I should tell you ... it may change more than you expect The Joining is a very intense experience, it removes all the Masks between the two and often forces them to face who they really are I've never known anyone, especially a telepath, to come out of the experience unchanged."

Patrik stared straight into space, and switched to a machine band telepathy for the first time with Alex "*Nathan can't give him everything he needs, and you can fill one of the two needs he can't ... if not both.*"

Alex looked at him curiously, and responded on the same band "*I'm not sure what you're getting at Rik. What do you mean?*"

"*He can surrender to you ... don't ask me why you can and so many others can't, but he needs to be able to submit ... and Nathan isn't that ... strong, I guess.*" A mixture of image-feelings went with the statement, including that it was mostly combat oriented strength Jake saw in that way "*He also needs female company.*"

Alex smiled "I think Nathan will be able to handle the strength, as long as he realizes it's needed He's far stronger than most realize, perhaps even then he realizes I just hope Jake gives him a chance to prove that, from what I know Jake isn't always clear about communicating what he needs.

"As for the female company, well I guess Jake will just have to have two mates ... 'cause that's a shapeshift neither Nathan nor I can manage Not that that will bother Nathan any, Felsin form triads as often as they do couples." Alex looked back at the room, curiosity radiating from him "But to have the Mother of the Felsin people facilitating the Joining ... there is more to this then meets the eye, far more."

"Alex, take my word for it, everything that involves Jake is more than it seems."

"Well, I guess he's Joining with the right tom then ... cause much the same can be said for Nathan Hopefully this will help Nate come to terms with who he is, might even get him back in the air again." Alex said wistfully. It had hurt watching his son turn down the Tygrenor appointment the kit had wanted so badly, all because of those idiots at Citadel.

"So who is Nathan to you, and who, or what, is Keltin?" Patrik asked as he buried his disappointment.

Alex thought for a moment about what he'd said about Nathan flying again, and realized he'd done a pretty stupid thing Rik was probably feeling displaced by Nathan as it was, piloting was probably the only thing he figured Nathan didn't do He'd have to think of a way to reassure the little pilot that Nathan wasn't taking his place there as well ... but nothing that wasn't phony sounding came to mind right away.

"Keltin is Felsira's mate, one of them anyway, and is the Defender of the Felsin people, though I think in this case he's protecting Felsira while she's preoccupied facilitating the Joining As for Nathan," Alex smiled, "he's my son."

"Oh," Patrik blinked as he assimilated that "So you're a Felsin too?" He paused, but not long enough for an answer "If you got sent here to for him, why are you both still here?'

Alex shook his head in amusement "Yes, I'm a Felsin too And as for why we're both still here ... I keep waiting for someone to explain that At the moment, it has a lot to do with no way to get home.

"However, there's now an additional Darshar Gargoyle, the full Felsin Triad and two of the NightBlades all in Cathedral at the same time There is definitely something in the works, and I think it's even more unusual then Cathedral normally is."

"Wonderful," sarcasm dripped from the young tom's voice as he settled in for a long wait. "Just what this planet needs, more insanity."

Alex leaned back against the wall and chuckled "Insanity seems pretty routine after seventy or eighty years." The calico 'flickered' two cans of milk into his hands, and offered one to Rik. "Thirsty? I think we're in for quite a wait here." He observed casually.

"Thanks." He took the offered can with a rueful smile "I bet it does."

Jake and Ashley stopped at the entrance airlock to 'Gildenfire' There was a noticeable delay before it opened As it opened Defender advanced growling, then he noticed Ashley, after a quick sniff to make sure who it was he barked welcomingly to her Then he noticed Jake and advanced slowly on the stranger; a low growl rumbling in his throat.

"Uh, Ash?"

"Defender, it's okay Jake's a friend."

The large canine looked back over his shoulder at Ashley, and then back at Jake Suddenly, he wagged his short tail and just about knocked the lean tom over trying to lick his face in an overly friendly fashion.

"I think he likes you." Ashley observed wryly.

"Is that what you call it?"

Defender barked happily, turned and walked back through the airlock The airlock stayed open as a humanoid figure in black advanced from the shadows Jake was surprised to see the persona Nathan had named Hunter pass him and Ashley without speaking and disappeared at the far end of the boarding tube Although anger had tinged the dark-furred hunter's scent, the look on his face had been that of the professional assassin: impassionate and focused What was strange was though he was wearing the black tailored body armor Jake had seen him wearing in the Hall; he wasn't carrying any weapons.

As the two of them entered the station, Ashley noted that the station lighting was at half-power, which usually indicated an emergency situation She figured that Nathan should have some idea what was going on, so the thing to do was find him.

Morin came gliding down the wide corridor and landed in front of them As he caped his wings, Ashley caught the scent of something like burning sandalwood, and remembered that that was the scent of a truly agitated Dracon from one of the fire clans.

"Morin, what's going on here?" Ashley asked "What's with the emergency lighting?"

"Sorry, Medic Terrell Things are in a bit of disorder right now It relates to that delicate matter we discussed earlier I'm not entirely sure how, but Nathan found out and now Storm's missing, though I have an idea where; and Nathan's missing and I can't find him NightClaw is busy keeping Marauder entertained so he doesn't pick up on the disruption, and Hunter, who I think saw Nathan last, just came this way ... unfortunately I can't keep up with him."

The red dragon paused to catch his breath, and leaned heavily against a bulkhead wall.

"Hunter left the station, unarmed and definitely on the hunt, if my time as Reaper and Surin are anything to judge by." Jake supplied quickly, then turned to Ashley "Which 'delicate situation'?"

"Storm saw what Nathan got from T-Bone's mask." She replied simply, the grim expression on her face quickly matched on Jake's.


Morin nodded "Hunter is the most 'independent' of the personas, though he still seeks Nathan's approval for things ... he's far more argumentative when he disagrees And he has the strongest attunement to the exception in the prohibition Nathan has against killing."

Morin looked at the airlock "My concern is that Hunter may attempt to take control of the physical body while Nathan is otherwise occupied This alone is cause for concern, but I am uncertain of Storm's state of mind Hunter assisted by a strong TechnoMage, even if inexperienced, is not something I consider a 'positive' development."

"It's of a good deal more concern given where Feral is right now." Jake shivered and reached out through the shields "*Cathedral, whatever you do, do *not* let Nathan out of my quarters until *I* say otherwise Another TechnoMage, our son Storm, may try to force the issue.*"

"*I understand Not that the door will open anyway, but I'll make sure it stays closed too.*" There was a fraction of a pause "*Is what you're doing going to change what Rik is to you?*"

"*Of course not,*" Jake confusion was clear in both voice and face *Why?*"

"*He and Alex and outside, and the kit's very upset.*"

"Oh, great." Jake groaned and sought out the bond with his Black Phoenix pilot "*Rik, sorry about how this happened, but don't you dare think you mean any less to me for it I'm not leaving you, even if I'm not with the squad anymore.*"

"I agree, and Hunter is not easily discouraged He spent almost 10 years hunting down the members of a mercenary group who ambushed a unit Nathan had been serving with He got each and every one of them, despite them being on different planets ... and two of them were in maximum security prisons."

"Sounds like a guy I could like, a lot." Jake chuckled softly, though his tone was serious.

There was a sudden burst of golden light, and Hunter came flying through the air to slam against a bulkhead in the hallway Through the open airlock, a large golden lion with wings of burnished gold sat staring at Hunter.

"*Do NOT try that again, Hunter You may NOT move the physical body during the Joining.*" A stern male mind-voice was directed at Hunter, but everyone could pick up some of what was said.

Hunter lay against the wall and looked at the winged lion. "You just don't understand." He said in a quiet, pained voice.

"What don't we understand?" Ashley asked gently as she checked Hunter for injuries, then helped him to his feet.

He sighed dejectedly "I'm just trying to do what Nathan needs What he'll do if he has to But he's not supposed to, that's my job I take care of things so he doesn't have to He said it was okay; Storm being hurt was more than he could take Nobody understands the way I do, he won't let anybody see how much this is hurting him ... or how he thinks it's his fault this happened But if I take care of things, then he doesn't have to worry anymore ... he can let go of it."

"Storm was hurt?" Jake's growl centered attention on him even before Ashley reacted "By who?" His body shifted slightly, a mixture of Reaper and Razor's clothing on him as a pure, protective rage flashed to the surface.

Hunter sighed "Storm saw someone he's fond of hurt in a way he can't understand, and his father can't find words to explain it because he's suppressed the memories trying focus on what's happening now So Storm's confused and in no small way scared, partially because when Marquis broke us all free he broke some of the shielding that Nathan was using to protect Storm from the harshness of what was happening."

He shook his head "Storm knows how powerful a person the tom who hurt Chance is, and he has a NightBlade's view that no one outside the team can look after the team But he's not physical, there's nothing he can do ... and that's got him almost hysterical I gave him an outlet, let him help me take care of things ... but Felsira wouldn't let me."

He shook his head "I can't help him feel better, I barely understand emotions myself ... all I could do was give him a chance to help out ... and now I can't even do that."

"Chance's rape ... from the mask." Ashley shot a look at Jake "Chill, you handed ...."

"That was before it affected my son."

"Our son, and this is still not your case for the same reason you gave it up in the first place." She growled back "It's not like you won't get to carry out his punishment when he's found guilty."

Hunter sat down by the airlock, and went into a meditative state "Felsira said I can't do anything now_, but I can wait I waited ten years to get the last of the Deathshrikes, I can wait a few hours." His clothing changed to a NightBlade uniform "NightBlades do not allow corruptible judicial systems to deal with those who wrong them, they deal with directly." His voice was flat, but there was a deadly certainty behind it.

"Watch who you call corruptible." Jake turned his anger at Hunter.

Morin looked at Hunter "He's right about one thing, he'll wait all right ... and if I'm any judge of Nathan's mindstate, he'll be in control as soon as Nathan goes to sleep Everyone has their breaking point, I think Nathan's hit his Of course, it would help if I could find him ... or Storm for that matter ... I have an idea where Storm might be ... maybe."

"Then let's try to find him." Ashley sighed in frustration at the male felines "At least I can try to explain what he saw, and what is being done about it."

"Command Center is where we start if my guess is right." The red dragon said calmly He looked back at Hunter "Truth of the matter is Hunter doesn't trust organizations much, especially not ones that remind him of Citadel and I'm afraid that Jake's earlier comment about the lack of real privacy in Cathedral did just that." He gestured "There's a faster way to command than the tour route."

"Well, I'm not surprised." She grumbled and followed Morin without bothering to see if the males were coming "From what I understand, about the only real difference between the two is the value they place on operatives, and that is Jake's doing Pat's not quite so moral."

Morin sighed "It does seem that operating as a law unto oneself engenders such behavior, if one achieves any significant power." He walked up to a wall panel and tapped a rapid series of digits onto a command panel. "Emergency Command Deck access grav tube, if you're unfamiliar with them you may be more comfortable if you hold onto me on the way up ... the first time can be very disconcerting."

"Okay," she wrapped her arms around the Dracon's waist that was only a couple feet taller than she was, "but with her, it's more a case of she was never raised with them Her father is much worse."

Morin stepped into the tube which shifted from 1G slowly to 0G during which Morin pushed off, and then the tube shifted to -1G pushing them upward rapidly, until it reversed the procedure to bring them level with a doorway which opened on the Command Deck.

Morin grinned. "Fast, efficient ... and hell on anybody who doesn't take 0G well." He went over to the one console, and tapped a few buttons to verify something "That's what I thought, he went out the sentinel link again, only this time he's just sitting at the other end; watching, I guess."

Morin looked at the readout, and sighed "Shards and shells, the kid's a fast learner I never taught him how to form Kin-Bonds but he seems to have figured it out."

"Who did he bond with?" She asked apprehensively.

The Dracon sighed "Chance I can only guess at the kit's logic but its possible he's concluded that nobody cares but him, and that if he bonds himself to Chance then people will have to care That's a guess, of course, but he shares many of Nathan's traits ... and it's the sort of thing Nathan has done before."

"That should be an interesting story in the Sharing." She shook her head.

He shook his head "If only the kit didn't have the TechnoMage abilities this wouldn't be possible ... Felsin can't bond this way ... unfortunately, TechnoMages are quite capable of bonding without the other person knowing."

"I know," she sighed in frustration "Jake and I both do it unintentionally as well Got a clue where the kit is though?"

Morin nodded and tapped the second largest bond indicator "Yep, like I said he went out on the sentinel link To put it another way, he's basically in a holding pattern in Chance's general area If the pilot was at all psi-sensitive, there'd be a good chance he'd see Storm, 'cause the kid generates too much 'noise' to stealth properly."

"Well, he is a PsiPilot, sort of." She considered for a moment "Though I'm not sure I'd classify him as psi-sensitive He's like me that way; he can only access certain frequencies Though a TechnoMage like Storm may broadcast on the right frequency I rather hope he doesn't notice That Kat has had enough shocks for six lifetimes already."

"Well, in any event we really have two options: one, we wait for Storm to come back in, or two, one of us has to go out there and talk to him And actually as far as option two; I think the only option we have is for you to go, since I'm carrying a lot of excess energy due to the distance I have to project ... I can only imagine the effect of that much energy coming through the sentinel." He chuckled grimly "The pilot would probably see me, Storm and probably numerous other interesting things ... and if luck holds the way it has been, the sentinel would probably absorb enough energy to become a LifeBond."

"I do not want to think about the repercussions of that, but just how can I go?" She tried to think of a way "I'm not a bio'path ... I'm downright mind-blind on that level."

The Dracon chuckled "I'm just going to take advantage of that 'extra' energy Grandmother is sending and expand the frequency range of the sentinel ... expanding it into the 'mechanical' range which both you and Storm share I will only hope that I do not hit a frequency that the pilot senses ... unfortunately, I don't know him so there's no way for me to be sure."

He concentrated and a portal opened alongside the console "Storm just dives into the console, but I thought you might find a more 'conventional' image easier." He focused and the portal brightened and steadied "That should do it, just try not to do anything too creative while you're out there ... any additional energy I have to dump in to keep things stable increases the chance of the pilot seeing what he doesn't need to see."

"I understand that much." She nodded and walked through the door "I'll try to be 'quiet'."

Ashley had sensation of 'sliding' followed by a sudden 'thump' as the world came back into focus She was in fairly standard Ameliorate guest quarters, though they were translucent, and not really solid to touch either Storm was sitting cross-legged on the bed, looking somewhat despondent.

Chance was asleep in the bed with his arms loosely wrapped around a Brown Hyena she quickly placed a Brandy Ressa, the Cathedral Recruiter.

"Hi, Storm." She sat next to the winged White Tiger kitten and did her best to ignore the thought that she needed to get him out of here before either of those two woke up "What'ca doing?"

Storm looked up briefly "Hi, Ashley." He said quietly "Just lookin' after Uncle Chance."

She nodded easily "Why does he need looking after? He's a grown warrior, with friends who want him safe."

Storm shook his head "He's not safe ... the other one's still out there Everybody else is too busy, or doesn't care Being a grown warrior didn't help before ... but I can."

Ashley noticed what looked to be a small sword in Storm's hand, only it was constructed out of pure psi energy, and destructive psi energy at that.

"The big brown tom that hurt him?" She asked gently "The one you saw in your father's mind from T-Bone's mask."

The little White Tiger nodded reluctantly, never taking his eyes off of Chance.

"You don't have to guard Chance against him. " She put a gentle hand on the kit's shoulder "Jake saw to it that he's locked away until he can be properly dealt with."

The kit shook his head "He's one of the people who does the locking away, he won't stay locked up long NightBlades don't rely on others to protect teammates; they take care of things themselves Hunter was gonna take care of it, but Felsira wouldn't let him So I gotta look after Uncle Chance until Hunter can fix things."

"Storm, Jake had him locked away, here in Cathedral Feral doesn't have any authority here in Jake's domain, no power to free himself before Jake deals with him." She paused "Or is your new father not a NightBlade?"

Storm looked at the ground. "He is ... but he said ... he was too close to both of them." He looked up at Ashley, confused "NightBlades don't have divided loyalties, the team is everything If Jake can't be sure where his loyalties are, how can the other people who aren't NightBlades be trusted." It was hard for Ashley to see that Storm was handling the concept very well "Would only take one of them for him to get loose." He sighed deeply.

"Storm, please try to follow this, it's rather complicated." She settled in with all the calm patience of her profession Then she cocked her head, considering "Or perhaps not too complicated, in principle What do NightBlades do when one is accused of hurting another? NightBlade vs. NightBlade?"

Storm thought about it "I don't know, Dad doesn't remember it ever happening They just don't, I mean not deliberately Just playing too rough, or something like that I mean the team is too important for them to do that."

"Well, Jake is in a position as team leader where a member of his 'team' is both victim and attacker." She glossed over as many details as she could "It's not something Nathan would know, but Ulysses Feral, that giant brown tom, is as much a part of Jake's team as Chance is.

"That is not a choice you rush into, killing a teammate, and he felt the need to be very sure this wasn't a trick by some outside party trying to destroy them But he took steps to ensure that the two wouldn't come close to each other until he was sure And when the attacker is sure of, he'll deal with him, teammate or no." She let a small breath out "But Storm, Chance is being protected, from both Feral and an outside force, by those Jake trusts."

Storm looked at Ashley "What 'team' are you talking about? I don't think it's the one Dad thinks of." The look on Storm's face clearly said he knew things were being left out.

"No, it's not." She spoke softly "Nathan thinks of the first of the front line as SWAT; just Jake, Chance and himself It's the only members he was introduced to But SWAT is a good deal bigger than that, and Ulysses is part of Jake's unit, even if Nathan wasn't introduced to him yet."

"Oh, Dad's met him They've crossed paths professionally a few times Dad didn't like him even before, now forget it But it isn't really Dad that'll handle it anyway Hunter deals with those problems Betcha Chance didn't know Feral was on his team either ..." he looked seriously at Ashley "Did Feral know he was on the team? He sure didn't act like it I saw him on TV a couple of times ... those weren't very nice things he said."

"No they weren't, and quite intentionally so." She sighed "Politics are confusing at the best of times and this isn't one of them." She paused a moment, not sure how much of what Storm knew "Has Nathan let you in on how Cazi would lie about how he really felt or thought for the good of the team and mission? Sometimes in public?"

"Cazi?" Storm paused for a moment "Oh, you must mean Grandpa Cazimir ... now wait a minute, everybody knew Grandpa Cazi was on the team, and that he'd have to say certain things So why's Jake the only one who knew Feral's on the team ... didn't he trust Dad or Chance?"

"I honestly don't know if Chance knew, or what he knows, kitten." She brushed a stray bang from Storm's face "I wasn't very active until your father showed up." She sighed wistfully "But I know most of the Black Phoenix team knew As for Nathan ... Jake hasn't been able to think clearly around him for a long time By the time the trust was there, it didn't occur to him to say anything By then Jake was more concerned with not hurting Nathan by saying something wrong than explaining the intricacies of MegaKat City shadow politics to him, when they didn't affect day to day life."


"Of the most annoying kind, as far as I'm concerned." She grumbled.

"Gee, Dad'll be relieved to hear that He thinks Jake was referring to something a lot more personal I'm not sure exactly what he means by that but he doesn't like the idea whatever he means."

"Considering the level of miscommunication between the two of them, I'm not at all surprised." Ashley shook her head "Things may not be perfect between Jake and Chance right now, but it's not that serious a problem in the long run They just need to actually talk to each other."

Storm giggled "That's what my jaguar friend said." He looked at her "But I still don't know, I mean judging by what Hunter says this Cathedral's a really big place, Jake can't know everybody There could be somebody who doesn't care what Feral did, and might let him loose That's the problem with big organizations it's easy to have to a few bad people slip in At least that's what Hunter said."

She nodded a little reluctantly "Yes, Cathedral is quite large, but the place Feral is being held is not accessible by anyone outside the team's security officers, and he does know all of them Plus Brandy there," she indicated the female in bed with Chance, "is quite protective of her mates while she's with them I wouldn't want to cross her."

Storm started to relax "Do you think that Jake and Chance still like each other? With what Jake said about wanting Chance far away it seems like Rhymar and Morin ... only one of them was ever around, 'cause Rhy didn't like Morin." Storm looked very concerned.

She smiled sadly and hugged him close, carefully avoiding the psi-blade "Yes, Storm, I think they do They are both hurting a great deal right now, and don't want to be around any reminders of that hurt, including each other But their hurts can be healed, unlike Rhy's issues with Morin." She backed off a little to look Storm in the eyes "Jake and Chance love each other, they really do, but sometimes things get to the point you don't know any way to deal with your hurts anymore, but to run from them They're hurting like that right now, is all It may be a while, but they won't be like this forever."

The little tiger smiled "Good, 'cause I don't like to see Dad as upset as he is right now You know, he hates not being able to help ... but he gets even more upset when he thinks his help did more harm than good." The psi-blade slowly faded away "Besides I was hoping I'd get to meet Chance for real, not just watching like this.

"So these friends of Jake will keep Feral locked up safely away from Chance?" He asked as though needing reassurance.

"Yes, they will." Ashley was utterly convinced of her own words "If you know how to navigate out here, I can show you."

Storm shook his head "I believe you, besides we better find Dad He was pretty upset I think maybe I asked something I shouldn't have."

"Any idea where he could have gone?" Real concern crept into her voice "Morin doesn't know, and no one else seems to be coherent enough to even look for him."

"Can't Jake find him?" The little tiger seemed worried "I thought they were LifeMates."

"Jake and Hunter were arguing last time I saw them." She sighed in real frustration "No help at all I suppose I could deck him and get his attention, but sometimes it's useful to leave the agitated ones out of it."

"I think he's still on the 'station' but he's probably in one of the unused sections somewhere." Storm suggested, not at all sure.

"Then let's get back to the control center The scanners should provide a starting point, or Lord Morin can."

Storm giggled "Jake and Hunter? I'll bet 'cause Hunter argues with everybody, even Dad." He stopped to gently pat Chance on the head "Morin sure makes enough noise, but there's a faster way back."

Suddenly Storm's wings expanded to engulf them both, before they appeared suddenly in the Command center "Hey, stealth dragon! You can take out that extra channel." The little tiger yelled while giggling "You're just lucky I saw that channel coming in, you almost put Ashley straight through on the main Black Phoenix frequency." He looked at Ashley "Wonder what Uncle Chance would have made of that?" He grinned broadly.

The Dracon chuckled and the doorway vanished He shook his head "What is it about tigers, that they insist on roaring at the oddest times?"

"Storm thinks Nathan is still in the station, just an unused section ... or if someone can clue me in on how_, I can use the bond to find him."

Morin looked at Storm for a moment, then nodded "It should be possible to trace the LifeBond pathway from here, since it's the strongest bond passing through Given that we know where one end is since Jake hasn't moved, the other end logically ... must be Nathan."

Storm nodded. "Yep, which means ..." He looked at his bond diagram console "Dad's in Medical, which doesn't see much use lately but does have the second heaviest shielding; and its somewhere he'd feel comfortable." He looked to Ashley "Since Jake's busy arguing, maybe you ought to try and talk to him, he seems comfortable around you."

Ashley looked over the diagrams and control panels "I have *got* to get one of these." She chuckled a little sheepishly at the others "Yes, I'll talk to Nathan If nothing else, he may not be happy to see Jake, since he didn't make a sound across their bond." She shook her head "To shield whatever happened that heavily ...."

"Okay," she shrugged it off, "how do I get to Medical?"

Storm pulled something out of a drawer and tossed it to Ashley It was a 'standard' Alliance wristcom, with one of the functions being 'get me where I need to go' "You remember how those work, right?"

She noticed it was already directing her to medical.

The station was strangely quiet, normally even on graveyard shifts the stations machinery generated a certain amount of noise Even that was muffled It became evident when she entered the unused portions of the station, as the dust on the floor had only been disturbed by one set of footprints recently.

The closer she got to Medical the dimmer the lights seemed to get The doors also seemed slower to open, and the lifts moved slower. But eventually she did reach the Medical section.

She stopped in front of the main door to Medical and tapped the door, hoping it would open without major tweaking She still wasn't very sure whether this place would respond to her gifts.

The door opened onto a typical Alliance Medical facility, with a very untypical activity going on Nathan, dressed in Medic Whites was doing the reverse of setting up a medical facility He was methodically taking every item and putting it back in the protective packing it came in.

"Hi, Nathan." She couldn't stop the sick knot growing in her stomach, but did keep her voice fairly light "Mind telling me what you're doing?"

"I'm stopping myself from meddling anymore Everything I touch falls apart, everyone I get near gets hurt I just can't seem to do anything right, so I just need to stop."

He started rambling while packing "I befriended Sy and he died; I loved Rhymar and he died I got involved with SWAT and it fell apart ... not only that but in the process of trying to hold it together I hurt Jake, and almost got Chance killed Then the one time I might actually have done some good I wasn't even there, I was at some damn fool conference If I'd been where I should've been I could've caught on to what was happening, kept Chance from going that night But I screwed up, and wasn't even there ... and now because of that Storm's been hurt too ... as if my failing him the first time wasn't bad enough And now he thinks I can put SWAT back together, and I can't but he insists on believing I can so I'll end up letting him down again But I can't do it, I won't meddle again I can't risk hurting them even worse by trying again."

He stood at a medical bed apparently stumped at trying to figure out how to pack it.

"Colonel SolGardin," Ashley knew she was taking a terrible risk, but every shred of training she had screamed at her to do it, "do you honestly believe that?"

Nathan sat down on the bed looking dejected and significantly smaller "What else can I believe? It all fits It was only dumb luck that got me back from the conference in time to do anything at all And even that required someone else to make work ... there wasn't anything I could do on my own Medic's supposed to hold the team together, looks like I did a real abysmal job of that." He gestured at a desk where a shattered picture lay ... it was the picture he had dropped Friday of the three in their SWAT uniforms.

He shivered as she sat down next to him and embraced him across the shoulders "You know what really scares me? What'll happen once we leave Joining space In here I have some control, I can keep the disasters away ... but out there, what'll I screw up next? Who'll die cause they got close to me? I don't know if I can live with the answers, to say nothing about anyone else being able to."

"Gods, between the two of you ..." real frustration broke her professional calm for a moment "Nathan, are you willing to look at this logically in the light of real facts, or are you content to stay with your delusions?"

He shivered quietly "I thought was looking at facts, wasn't I?" He asked, with a hint of desperate hope in his voice that maybe he'd been wrong.

"Half truths at most, blatant misconceptions for the most part." She sighed and sorted her mind out "I don't know about Sy and Rhymar, but from the last year, you haven't checked into reality any more than Jake has.

"Okay, bottom line, if you hadn't interfered that first time, Jake, and SWAT, would have been dead a year ago Makes the rest moot *And* Black Phoenix wouldn't have been ready to do anything yet.

"As for you hurting Jake to keep the team together and nearly getting Chance killed for it, that's the biggest load of bullshit I've head in a long time You've done more good for Jake in the last year than I have in the last thirty He's actually made a few steps towards being saner_, instead of the other direction.

"And Nathan," she tipped his chin up and met anguished green eyes, "I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Storm when he asked.

"Jake and Chance do still love each other, but sometimes things get to the point you don't know any way to deal with your hurts anymore, but to run from them They're hurting like that right now, is all It may be a while, but they won't be like this forever They need friends willing to fight them to heal them, friends who love each of them enough to do the hard thing and heal them when they are so injured they don't even recognize it anymore."

Nathan stood and went to a sink He got a glass of water and slowly sipped at it as if drawing strength from it When he looked up from the water, the anguish in his eyes had been replaced by determination; though there was still a lot of fatigue.

"Thank you, Ashley." The tiger-tabby said gratefully. "I think I needed someone to just point out where I went wrong in my reasoning." He sighed quietly. "I did know the truth, but it was easier to deal with the delusion The delusion let me feel important when I was having a great deal of self-doubt, and let me feel significant at a time when I was having feelings of insignificance."

She stood with a nod and embraced him "Just like Jake is dealing with many of his hurts," she spoke softly, "the difference is that you want to see the truth, and he's actively avoiding it for the most part."

Nathan nodded slowly in grim understanding "I actually knew that they still loved each other, indeed I think that's part of the problem Every time Jake says that Chance doesn't care that much about him or something similar I just want to point out how wrong he is ... but I'm afraid to, afraid he'll run away again."

Ashley guided his chin up so they were facing again "Nathan, he will run, I can all but guarantee it, and if he can't, he'll fight like a cornered animal." She shook her head "I can't say I understand exactly what is going on, but he is utterly terrified of facing that truth It's not even a matter of not wanting to see the truth anymore; something very basic happened in his mind, and he's founded his very existence on the 'fact' that Chance doesn't want him anymore."

Nathan sighed "I think I saw part of that in the letter he left for Chance, which Chance never saw, couldn't see at the time." He shook his head sadly "Chance hasn't a clue what Jake wants, that much was pretty clear Heck right now, I'm not even sure Chance knows what he wants much less anyone else."

The tiger-tabby reversed what he'd been doing and started put things back where they belonged, and blinked at Ashley when he found her strong, black hands helping out unobtrusively "I'm just glad Brandy was able to encourage Chance's pilot nature back to the foreground before Storm saw what was going on ... I wouldn't want to try explain the complexities of emotional overload and shutdown to an eight-year old."

He shook his head as he put several old medical texts on a shelf "If hadn't been for my psychometric training, I wouldn't have had a clue The psych-med training I've got is the equivalent of first aid."

The medic carefully put delicate surgical tools away in very meticulous fashion. "All I was ever supposed to do was hold things together until the real counselors took over." He looked at several databoards before putting them away "Now I have to be the counselor as well, looks like I'll just have to improv my way through."

"My Phych-Med is only a little better than yours, but we've got a couple folks in here that specialized in the mind," she tapped her head, "and you have the advantage of having all of us interested in seeing this work."

He walked over and carefully started put the broken picture back together "That is, of course, assuming Chance will even talk to me after he finds out just why I couldn't make to see him like I said I would." He shook his head in quiet amusement "Last time the subject came up I was still trying to do what I thought was best for the team ... pretend I wasn't in love with either of them ... try not to introduce another problem."

He chuckled and shook his head "Funny thing was it was even less true then, then it ever had been ... I was in love with both of them by then."

"That sounds like a good place to start to me." She cocked her head and regarded him "He is rape-scared and feeling very betrayed and abandoned from what I've gathered, but telling him, showing him, you love him without bringing sex into the equation may get to him enough that he listens.

"And if you want my advice, dodge the question of exactly what you've been up to when you see him." She brushed his cheek with a gentle finger "Don't lie to him, but don't explain or say any more than you have to."

Nathan nodded "That's probably a good idea, and you're correct on how Chance is feeling, even my limited empathy was able to pick that up But lie to him, no that's something I won't do."

He chuckled "I have to admit, my helpfulness almost put Jake and Chance right back in the same unit According to Caito, Chance was offered a spot in Black Phoenix but turned it down For about the same reason I turned down my appointment to the Tygrenor Academy."

The tiger-tabby looked around "Guess that's back to 'normal'." He looked at the Black King Cheetah watching him carefully "My fear, well that was real enough but misdirected I can deal with problems as they happen, but what I'm not sure how to deal with is all the people who are going to unhappy with me for upsetting their status quo Black Phoenix for one, is a group I just prefer to be indivisible to, since I can't imagine there going to appreciate the disruption I just caused."

"You might be surprised," she chuckled softly "I know them very well, and once the shock wears off, most of them will appreciate what you're doing If I were in your position, I'd be much more concerned with Felina's reaction She just went from engaged to Jake as first LifeMate, to watching him marry another, all in a twenty-four hour period." She shook her head sadly "She also doesn't understand the depth of Jake's illness, and the squad does."

Nathan smiled quietly "One person, I can handle displeasure from one person An entire commando unit being unhappy with me is a far bigger concern, so I hope you're right about them." He paused and thought for a moment "Do you happen to know who the little black and white tomkat in the hangar was? He was far more upset than most of the squad." He asked, not sure why that particular team member had caught his attention, but being concerned all the same.

"He's Patrik 'BlackFire' Celest, Jake, as NightRazor, and Amerith's pilot in Black Phoenix." She swallowed slightly "He's a genetic creation, like Jake and your father, but designed for Jake He hasn't been 'alive' quite four years yet."

Nathan stopped abruptly "Four years? Storm's about that old Designed for Jake?" He looked at Ashley, shaken.

She nodded a little sadly "He was Pakitra's best effort to provide Jake what he needed that he wasn't finding on his own There were already tremendous problems between Jake and Chance by then You have to give her and the genetics team credit, they did a very good job given the lack of information they had He is damn near perfect, for a third of Jake's needs in a mate, and the only one so far able to deal with Jake's mood swings and shifts."

"Blessed Mother, no wonder he's upset He probably thinks Jake's leaving him for me, which leaves him not sure what to do." He paused switching to the Triad channel briefly, and then relaxed a little "Thankfully, Felsira adjusted the Joining shields to keep Patrik's link with Jake from being muffled accidentally And there's another Black Phoenix member named Alex keeping him calmed down."

The tiger-tabby shook his head "Well, nothing to be done from in here I hope he hasn't been hurt too bad by this, it's not like Jake has to leave him for me or anything." Nathan grinned weakly "Actually, he's kind of cute."

"Do me a favor, ask Jake what he intends with Rik." She went completely serious "It's quite possible he hasn't figured out you don't expect to have him to yourself."

"I will," he nodded, still a little shaken "I better find Storm ... I probably scared him retreating like this."

"You scared him enough to go 'protect' Chance himself, with an assassin's Psi-Blade." She shivered at the memory of the time she saw the results of one of those used first hand, and followed him out "I talked him out of it, but he's very worried about everyone he cares about What happened with Tygrenor Academy?"

Nathan chuckled "Psi-blade, huh? Sounds like I need to have little talk with Hunter about what is and isn't appropriate to show an eight-year old."

As he walked through the hallways, the lights began to return to normal "Tygrenor Academy is the top Aerospace Academy on Felsinor It's where the best of the best pilots go to get their gold wings, the military certification." He paused for a moment "After I got put back into normal society, I wanted to get in there more than anything And by the time I was 15 I had my silver wings and several instructors who'd written glowing recommendations to get me in ... despite the fact that the minimum age is 16, since Tygrenor is military service."

He paused looking into the distance "On my sixteenth birthday, well what I thought was sixteenth, I guess it was actually more like my twenty-fourth, I got the appointment letter All I had to do was pass the entrance physicals and the psych screening My adopted father was furious that I had chosen a military career At any rate, I passed the physicals easily, after all I'd been a pilot for years and I still had the benefits of years of commando training, even if I didn't know it then.

"During the final meeting with the Academy Commander, I asked him if I'd have to have a gunner When he said 'Of course, all flight trainees are paired pilot/gunner by a very careful selection and screening process, I handed him the appointment letter back and said I couldn't do it.

"He asked why, to which I remember replying 'I can't trust anyone that much, not again.' He tried talking me into trying, but I wouldn't change my mind ... I still hadn't recovered from Sy, my first gunner's, death I walked away from the one thing I'd wanted more than anything, rather than trust anyone that way again."

Nathan paused at an intersection "According to Caito, Chance's reasoning behind turning down Black Phoenix was similar He'd 'lost' his gunner, and wasn't ready to work with another one."

"I can't say I blame him." Ashley shook her head "From what I've gotten from him and others, he's really taken Jake's betrayal of their partnership to heart." She sighed in frustration "Even though I know it's probably not safe, I want to get those two in a room and lock the door until they actually talk to each other."

"Just give me some warning before you do that, okay? I'll need to get my shields reinforced so as to avoid a month of migraines from the feedback." He smiled weakly "Not that I think its necessarily a bad idea, but you'd better have some method of knocking them out available so they don't kill each other, even accidentally.

"So how long do you think they could go before they managed to talk to each other, as opposed to say yelling at each other?" He asked with only a slight touch of humor.

"Depends on how long my temper holds out." She chuckled with a mixture of seriousness and warped humor "Personally, I think they could manage for several more decades left to their own devices, but I have no intention of letting it be that easy on them." Grim determination crossed her face "Between the Jedi and myself, we can wear their resistance to common sense down eventually."

Nathan looked something between determined and amused "Decades? Oh, I don't think my patience will last that long Besides, this unpleasant separation isn't doing either of them any good, and I can't just ignore something like that." He chuckled quietly "Of course, I better calm Storm down, before he ends up LifeBonded to Chance Not that he'd be any more of that one then he is the other one."

"That does not sound good." She groaned "He's in the Command Center with Morin, I hope."

Nathan concentrated, then smiled. "Yes, he is Morin's teaching him a strategy game, chess Should keep him distracted for a while, especially if he decides to teach the Gargoyles to play.

"He must have decided things are 'safe' for now, since he 'let' Morin distract him So I don't think he'll enhance the Bond again right away I guess he must have seen what I did earlier using the Bond between me and Jake to make sure Felsira wouldn't let anything happen to Jake."

They got in the lift to the Command Center "I guess I overdid things when I tried to shield away all my concerns and worries so I could focus on the Joining It's tough for me to be off-duty_, I'm always worrying about the team This once I wanted to be off-duty, so I could give Jake all of my attention, so I stuffed everything that I was worrying about behind tight shields.

"I should've realized that Storm would notice that I'd shielded everything about Chance, just so I wouldn't accidentally bring up a memory where Jake would see it Good intentions ... not so good execution."

"Been there, done that, now let's fix the fallout." She rolled her shoulders back "Say hi to Storm, and back to dealing with Jake." She cast a look in Nathan's direction "I don't suppose you have a clue why we haven't entered the Sharing yet? If Jake has another mask, he's hiding it way too well, since even V'Feri can't find it."

Nathan shook his head "Not really, though I think it probably has to do with the fact there's a lot of extra psychic 'clutter', for lack of a better word I've never heard of Joining with this many 'minds' involved, especially now I've got mine running loose There's also the extras, like Storm and Morin in here, who wouldn't be normally Plus, the facilitator's had a lot more work than normal trying to hold things together Hopefully, once I get Storm calmed down we can get things back on track."

He looked at her, as if something had just occurred to him. "By the way, where is Jake?"

"Last time I saw him he was arguing with Hunter over who had kill-rights on Feral near the entrance to the station, and Felsira ... or at least one of her major assistants ... was standing guard to make sure neither of them tried to move their physical bodies before Joining was over."

Nathan chuckled openly "Sounds like Hunter all right, nothing he likes like a good argument ... or any argument for that matter."

The doors opened onto the Command Deck, and Storm turned to see his father and Ashley exit the lift He left the chess game, and ran to his father.

Nathan bent down on one knee to catch the little tiger in his arms He hugged the kit tight "Sorry I worried you Storm But you don't need to protect Chance, he's already being taken care of."

"I know, Ashley explained that Sorry I asked ..."

Nathan gently hushed the kit "No, there was nothing wrong with you asking, it's just something that's going to take time, probably a lot of time, and it's not easy for me to deal with." He gently brushed Storm's hair back with his hand "Now I have things to take care of with Jake, so I need you to stay here on the station ... okay?"

Storm smiled "Okay, I'll stay out of the way."

Nathan stood up and smiled "You're not in the way, but this adult stuff will just bore you."

"Yah, I guess." He ran back to the chess game with Morin, who waved at Nathan from across the room.

"*Do you plan to finish this Joining at some point, or were you planning on permanent residence in Joining space?*" The Dracon asked in an amused mind-voice.

"*Oh, I didn't see any rush I figured we'd just laze around the station for awhile.*" Nathan grinned mentally.

"Okay, Ashley I think we can move on, let's go find Jake."

She frowned in irritation "He hasn't moved, physically, psychically, or in the argument."

Nathan chuckled "I'm not surprised, especially about the argument After all, Hunter is me and I'm very stubborn Especially if I think I'm right ... and Hunter always thinks he's right He has an absolute certainty about what he thinks and does ... I'd say feels, but emotions are not something Hunter does ... it's why he's so good."

He smiled as they took the lift back down to airlock level As the two toms came into view, Nathan whispered to Ashley "If I was in a more mischievous mood right now, I'd set off the sprinkler system just to break up the argument."

"Do it!" She tried very hard to keep the squeak of delight from drawing the male's attention "They need to cool off."

Nathan could barely repress a giggle as he turned and whispered to a command panel "Gildenfire, please test the sprinkler system in docking collar 12B, water 10 degrees Celsius Command override is Alpha-One-One-Seven-Beta-Four." He looked at Ashley "You know, there were a couple of his arguments with Chance I wanted to break up this way ... but the fire control system wasn't nearly as cooperative."

"Command override acknowledged Executing fire control system test in docking collar 12B." The computer confirmed quietly, just before concealed jets thoroughly doused the airlock area with cold water.

Ashley didn't bother to restrain her laughter as the males howled in displeasure as their first priority became escaping the freezing deluge.

"That is not funny." A sopping wet, shivering Jake Clawson growled at the snickering pair.

Nathan noted Hunter had headed the opposite direction before he kicked a wall panel and pulled out a large, fluffy red towel with the Gildenfire logo imprinted on it He handed it to Jake, while making a valiant, yet futile effort not to grin He managed a fairly straight-faced mental image of quarters being nearby where Jake could get warmed up and dried off.

Nathan carefully picked a frequency Ashley could 'hear' and sent a shielded thought "*Do you think this would work for him and Chance?*" The thought was clearly the product of suppressed giggles and a warped sense of humor.

"For a while." She purposefully spoke out loud, considering.

"Whatever you two had planned, can wait." Jake grumbled and he grabbed Nathan's arm, a look of pure playful malice on his face "You froze me, you can warm me up again."

Nathan grinned over his shoulder at Ashley, before he was dragged away "Sounds like fun, have anything specific in mind?" He asked with a distinct leer in his voice.

"No," Jake growled again, his discomfort clear in his voice as he tagged the door open and let go of Nathan's arm as he walked in "I'm cold." He finally lost the battle with his body and started to shiver for real as he looked around for the bathroom.

Nathan gently guided the shivering Kat over to the bathroom, which contained both a large shower and a large whirlpool bathtub Nathan pressed a button on the wall, which added warm air jets to the room He considered and turned the shower up to the temperature he remembered Jake liking.

He gently helped his shivering mate out of cold, wet clothes and into the warming shower when the tom's own attempts proved more frustrating than effective. "Better?" He asked, concerned and without a trace of humor.

Jake nodded weakly as he shifted to put as much hot water along his body as possible, and as much of the rest along his mate's warmth "I don't get cold." He sighed as spasming muscles relaxed in the steam and direct pressure of hot water "Not like this Water wasn't that cold."

Nathan nodded "You're right, the temperature of the water was cold but not dangerously so, and you weren't in it that long." He said as the tub quickly filled He gently guided Jake into the tub, until his shivering mate was fully immersed He then held him close to add body heat to the warmth of the water.

The tiger-tabby gently scanned telepathically looking for something else to be wrong, and carefully maintained a calm demeanor, even as he found nothing obvious The Kat's mind 'felt' cold, but no apparent cause was there.

Nathan quickly thought out to Felsira "*Mother, would you check Jake over, physically If I didn't know better I'd say he's suffering from hypothermia, which doesn't make sense.*"

A quiet nod acknowledged his request, as the Healer checked the lean tom over thoroughly, and found nothing wrong besides a few cramped muscles, but certainly nothing close to what was going on to the Kat in Joining space.

Nathan sent a quiet mental order to the Medical bay, bringing it online and dispatching a mobile delivery unit with his Healer's kit.

Jake was warm to the touch and relaxed by the time the unit arrived, and quickly acquiring an interest in the fact that both of them were naked in a large whirlpool "Whatever that was about, I feel better now."

Nathan silently told the unit to park out of sight in the bedroom, smiled and absently ran his fingers through Jake's fur "I'm glad to hear that, you had me worried." He said quietly, but made no move to leave the whirlpool.

"*I* was worried." He shivered once along his spine before pulling himself up to strattle Nathan's lap He kissed the Felsin soundly before slipping his tongue out, seeking admittance to his mate's mouth.

Nathan accepted the passionate kiss, and encouragingly rubbed his mate's back, while he waited to see if the tom had something specific in mind He carefully shielded any guilt about the sprinkler prank, and he reminded himself had been harmless ... something else had happened, at the same time, even Jake recognized that.

He felt Jake reach out to try to get the lights off and guided his mate's mind to the switch and flipped with without hesitation as Jake caressed him hard.

"Tell me if it gets too much," Jake whispered as their mouths parted and the lean tomkat pulled away, turning so his back was against Nathan's chest as slid down, his knees outside his mate's legs One hand guided the hard shaft into position, the other brought Nathan's hand around to his own swelling cock.

Nathan needed no further encouragement as he slid easily inside his mate's body A back corner of his mind recognized that he wasn't buried in Jake's ass, but the feel of his mate's twitching cock in his hand, the Kat's balls brushing against his thighs as the came together and the heady musk of male arousal was enough to silence his reflexive doubt about it being a male in his arms.

"Take your time." Jake whispered as he leaned back, bringing as much of their bodies into contact as he could The position placed Nathan's chin just over his shoulder as Jake rolled his head back, exposing his throat as he groaned in pleasure and desire "Want this to last."

That was one request Nathan was more than willing to grant, since there was fatigue building in places he hadn't realized got fatigued But a metabolism trick here, the right touch there and things went, so to speak, according to plan Nathan was so busy concentrating on making the pleasure for both of them last, that he mostly suppressed any doubts about whatever form his mate was in now.

What Nathan found he couldn't ignore was the fact that he just so tired, and it was getting worse He decided he needed the energy on the mental plane more and carefully pulled back energy from 'extraneous' functions of the unconscious physical form He began to feel better, though he had no doubt it was a temporary victory.

Suddenly, there was a soft voice in his head "*Just what are you doing, Nathan?*" Felsira's voice asked, concerned.

"*I just needed the energy elsewhere, nothing dangerous.*"

"*If you're going to insist on operating in a 'physical' fashion, then you need to tend to 'physical' needs, especially the way you've been throwing energy around You both need to relax so I'm going to send Heartfire over with breakfast for the two of you.*"

"*Mother, you don't ...*"

"*As your facilitator my role is to get you through this ... and I'd like to get you two into the Sharing at some point, and back to the real world ... preferably before Patrik needs my services in the Psych-med department.*" Her voice was concerned, and a little fatigued.

"*Yes, mother.*"

Nathan shifted the caresses and kisses from extending their play, to reaching a conclusion A low noise from Jake seemed to question the change in focus Nathan applied to gentle kisses to turn the questioning noise into a far more excited one.

As they lay in the large bed in the master bedroom, Nathan discretely checked several of his responses for fatigue symptoms and discovered that Felsira was right, he was pushing too hard He looked at Jake lying against his chest. "Sorry about the 'rush', but I needed to rest and as much as I was enjoying playing, it wasn't exactly rest Oh, Mother's sending room service up with breakfast shortly." He said tiredly.

"Sorry," Jake whispered as snuggled closer to kiss Nathan's jaw "Rest, and stay there until you feel better." He insisted with a mixture of exasperation and sternness as he licked the tiger-tabby's nose "You're supposed to be the Medic, not me."

"Yes, Jake." He replied with mock meekness.

"I'm serious Nate." Jake didn't bother to hide his concern "You're hurting yourself." He shifted to look his mate in the face "It's one thing getting hurt by taking a shot for me, but this is just sex."

Nathan lay quietly looking at Jake "It wasn't the sex that caused the problem ... it's just that I didn't realize how big a drain splintering off the new personas was If I'd had my 'path abilities longer I'd be a better judge of energy use, but as it is ... I don't realize I've over done it till I start falling over ... it just happened to coincide with the sex."

Jake took a moment to sort threw his own new memories and nodded before deliberately touching minds He offered a sort of digest version of how he worked around the issues, and the early warnings he got "At least all but one is cooperative."

Nathan smiled. "Thanks for the briefing And as for that one, well ... I think Surin scared him pretty badly, and I don't expect to see him again for quite a while Probably not till he thinks he has an ace-in-the-hole, so to speak."

Jake shivered "Yes, that's not going to be a pleasant process He can't be gotten rid of the easy way ... speaking of which, what the hell happened with the memory restoration?"

"I'm guessing you're asking why Surin couldn't simply delete the physical/ chemical process that encodes the associated memories I'll try to explain it, but even Felsira's not entirely sure."

He concentrated for a moment "For most people memory is simply a chemical process of encoding neurons into given patterns This is why Surin can 'erase' memories, and when memories fade and degrade over time normally." He paused briefly "For some reason, my memory has at least one, and possibly more 'metaphysical' backup procedures Essentially, what happened was the backup utility came through, noticed a discrepancy in the memory patterns, and 'restored' them to the correct pattern.

"Felsira has learned over the years of a way to temper the memories so they become blurred ... I'm not sure why the backup process doesn't notice but I guess the blurring doesn't quite meet the 'error' criteria.

"Unfortunately, this won't help with the problem personality, because tempering has no effect ... Felsira's tried that once before it didn't work."

Nathan laid back and relaxed. "This is mostly hypothetical, Felsira doesn't think it's a problem Quite the contrary, she thinks its some sort of survival mechanism combined with the way my mind sorts and organizes memories linked to my unusually long life expectancy."

Nathan turned to look at Jake. "Did I answer the question you were asking ... or did I just give you a dissertation on an unrelated topic?" He grinned quirkily.

Jake nodded slowly, sending the information to the sections of his mind that dealt with it better "Okay, what did you want to talk about?"

Nathan sighed "There was something that Ashley told me, that I wanted to talk to you about ... it's 'outside' world related, so it can wait if you want to leave 'outside' world stuff till later." The tiger-tabby said quietly, letting his mind drift calmly until breakfast arrived.

"If you have something ... please talk." Jake settled in with a glance at the door.

Nathan hesitated briefly, since he'd been vaguely hoping Jake wouldn't want to talk "I'm pretty sure that this going to come out really clumsy, so bear with me Clumsy mostly 'cause back home it wouldn't be an issue, and here, well, I'm not sure if it is or not."

He caught a slightly impatient look "I know, I'm beating around the bush." He took a deep breath, and then dove in headlong, verbally speaking "Okay, ever since we left the hanger, back in the real world, I'd been trying to figure out who the little black and white tom who looked so devastated was Mostly 'cause he was the last person I saw, and the look on his face kind of stuck in my mind Well, I was talking to Ashley a little while ago and she told me that that was Patrik, your pilot, but that still didn't make sense until I stuck a few other things together and realized that he's a lot more than just your pilot; I may be off base but I think he's more like your mate and well it occurred to me that you might think I expected to have you all to myself and I just wanted to make sure you understood that I don't expect, heck I don't want you to think that 'cause I don't. I don't know if you've given any thought to what all this is going to mean as far as your relationship with him, but from what I see I think he's good for you, and well I wouldn't want you to do anything rash in that department."

The tiger-tabby stopped as his lungs pointed out the necessity of breathing "Put more simply, if he's willing to share, so am I." He smiled exhaustedly, with complete sincerity overlaying his thoughts and words.

Jake took a long moment to sort out what Nathan said, and another to figure out what it meant before shaking his head "Honestly didn't think about it at all He's just sort of there ... and yes, he's my mate, and pilot, and everything I kept trying to be with Chance." He sighed dejectedly as something hit his consciousness "And I'm just screwing everything up, aren't I?"

Nathan rubbed the lean tom's shoulders comfortingly "No, not really Things have happened very fast for both of us, and we haven't had a lot of time to think But that's why I brought him up, I want you to know that you don't have to change how things are with him."

He gently licked Jake behind one ear "I don't know him, so I can't tell how he'll react ... but for me, it really isn't an issue."

He held Jake close "I don't understand how things are here, but I'll try to explain my take on relationships to give you some understanding of where I'm coming from.

"For Felsin, threes or triads are almost as common as couples as far as relationships, Joinings and marriages go Kind of relates to our primary deity set, the Triad, who are all mates to each other.

"Actually, for toms triads are rather more common, especially in military circles A fair number of our small commando units are Bonded Triads, it's the way we do things ... for one thing it makes life a lot more bearable if one member of a Bonded Triad dies, because the other two have each other to lean on.

"Triads normally start as a Bonded Pair, and then one of them finds a suitable mate, who's equally acceptable to the other What this means is that it's fairly normal for the members of a Bonded Pair to date outside the pair from time to time, or more often depending on the mates in question.

"This works only where trust exists and open communication As I understand the basic principles; one-night stands are pretty much okay; longer than that and there's an obligation to at least 'tell' the other mate what's going on, and who the new person is Under ideal circumstances, it's a good idea to actually introduce the two The other basic principle is no dating someone who actively dislikes, or is actively disliked by the other partner This is just basic courtesy since the Pair's loyalty is supposed to be to each other first and above any others.

"That's why I don't have a problem with you staying with Patrik, I know who he is and I don't have any reason to dislike him and more importantly ... I think he's good for you.

"As for the other relationship, if you don't mind I think I'd like to table that issue for some other time." Nathan carefully shielded the thought that he wanted to table it, cause he didn't feel like arguing.

Jake took a deep breath and nodded, filing the information away to be actually comprehended past the basic gist of it later.

"I kind of meant how I've been treating Rik." He rested against Nathan's chest and closed his eyes "I've been trying so hard with Chance, that I never saw I had what I wanted, just in a different body." He shivered "Might have even saved what was left with Chance if I'd noticed."

Jake looked up at that distressed, exhausted face of his mate and shook his head again "Sorry, Nate You're supposed to be resting." He shot another look at the door "Where's the kitchen? I'll fix something up while we wait for room service."

There was a loud knock on the door at that moment, which caused Nathan to grin broadly "Room service didn't want to interrupt." He stated evenly, as a large cart came in pushed by a larger winged lion, who left and came back with a second cart.

The lion looked at the two and a stern, deep male mind-voice told both of them "*Breakfast is courtesy of Lady Felsira, who expects that both of you will eat and relax.*" The Lion then leaving the two of them with a rather large breakfast assortment to choose from.

Nathan laughed in cheerful amusement "Never thought I'd see Heartfire delivering room service Mother must really be serious." He paused "Mother said to tell you not to worry about Rik, she and somebody named Alex is looking after him." He noticed the previously not-present table now set for breakfast for two He nodded at the table "I think that's a hint."

"And I think it would be a bad idea to ignore it." Jake smiled and offered a hand to his mate as clothes appeared on both of them "You're a little too tempting naked," he chuckled at Nathan's raised eyebrow, "and I'd rather not piss her off any more than she already is Now sit, I'll serve, and pass my thanks along to her, for breakfast, and the news Alex has been a good friend, and lover, to both of us."

Nathan chuckled as he obligingly sat at the table "Actually though, she's not pissed off, she's just concerned ... you haven't seen her pissed off and you don't want to For one thing, if she gets pissed off, that pisses off Caito and Keltin, who are far more volatile and dangerous." He smiled quietly "Those two have been uncommonly well-behaved all things considered."

"So I've heard ... something about Caito trying to calm down Cathedral when the real world freaked Amerith was rather impressed ... though she didn't know he was a god at the time."

"And she said she doesn't mind looking after Rik, though I guess Alex is really the one who calmed him down."

"He has a gift for it."

Nathan laughed loudly, leading Jake to look at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Sorry, Mother just commented that Rik reminds her of me, a long time ago." Nathan shook his head in amusement. "I don't know, I don't think I was ever that cute." He said with a quirky smile.

"Don't remind me," Jake rolled his eyes as he poured a nearly neon pink juice into two glasses, "I rather like not remembering how young he is."

Nathan sipped at the pink juice. "Young? Oh right, that years lived thing ... I could see how that could be umm ... disconcerting, but that's a deceptive measure of age anyway Seeing as he's an accomplished pilot, he must be mentally somewhere in the late teens at least possibly older and that's what's important. Well, that's my loud-mouthed opinion anyway." He said calmly, nibbling at breakfast as Jake sat down to his own.

"Mentally, I don't know, I swear he acts younger than he looks out of the cockpit and bed," he shivered sharply and refused to look up, "and it's not years lived ... kit looked fourteen when we met, he's about sixteen now, mentally unchanged in four Just makes me feel like a pervert sometimes I've killed over touching a kit that young, especially considering how old I am ... though I was ... whatever." Jake made a decided effort to eat the meal he'd lost interest in.

Nathan thought about it for a moment, then quietly got a divine second opinion He smiled gently "Jake, I think the best way to look at it is that Patrik is who and what he is, and you're nothing wrong by accepting him that way In fact, you'd hurt him if you didn't I expect." Nathan looked thoughtful for a moment "I do have to wonder what the design team was thinking though."

"That's what bothers me." He let a long breath out "It just makes me wonder sometimes, that I could find a body that young a turn-on, much less what about me made them design him that way It wasn't a technology issue, we can create adults, there's something in my profile that make his apparent age ... desirable."

Nathan paused for a moment "Mother agrees a little more emphatically; something about love that is willing and wanted is no perversion." He shrugged "Never argue with Mother."

"I know," he smiled weakly "I don't hold it against him, I just don't like to remember that if it was anyone but him ..." he shook his head "It's just unnerving to remember someone I've been with for almost four years is still considered statutory rape if I ever took him into the city I just don't like what it says about me."

Nathan quietly spoke to Felsira for a little bit "Jake, have you ever considered that you probably wouldn't respond the same?

"Urr, no." Jake blinked, appraising that idea.

"Based on what Felsira tells me, Rik loves you unconditionally and that's something anyone responds to As for technology, the aging process is never perfect_; a three or four year discrepancy especially in the teenage range isn't that uncommon Maybe they were aiming for eighteen and got fourteen instead ... I don't know."

"Really?" He actually sounded fairly hopeful "I never got into it, but I never got the feeling his age was anything but intentional."

"Trying to grow someone to a full adult that quickly is an uncertain possess at best." Nathan nodded "And given how much it bothers you, I don't think you're any danger to anyone As for that statutory rape bit, well that's a legalism that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, culture to culture and I've seen places where twelve was legal, and other places where twenty wasn't." Nathan shook his head remembering a very bizarre shore leave.

"Jake, I'm as protective about kits as anyone and I don't think your relationship with Patrik says anything about you, except that you love someone who loves you a great deal If it helps any, on my homeworld it would have been legal even when he was fourteen, because any social telepath would have seen that there was no coercion involved; the primary determining factor in legality between the ages of 12 and 16, absent parental approval."

"Sixteen?" Jake prompted.

Nathan nodded. "Yes, sixteen is the legal age of consent on Felsinor, not surprising since it's also the earliest age of military enlistment I guess somebody figured if you're old enough to handle weapons, you can probably handle sex It's also the general Alliance age of consent, though individual planets can have different laws."

He smiled. "For example, I think the Ferrin abolished age of consent entirely, but then again they're the Alliance's definition of 'sexaholic'; they have sex at the drop of a hat ... any hat Of course, I've never heard of a Ferrin saying no to sex anyway."

"Please excuse me if I still think of our kits as 'kits' until they're eighteen, and we are not visiting that planet till they're in their teens."

Nathan chuckled "That planet is kind of on the outskirts anyway, and I've never been there I certainly wouldn't put it on a list of family trip destinations."

Jake shook his head "But then, my only real comprehension of the concept comes second hand It never really applied to me or anyone I know, combat or sex ... or drinking for that matter I think I get a little up tight about it sometimes."

He smiled "Jake, I'll probably think of them as 'kits' well past eighteen, many parents do But I think we need to wait and see, maturity is highly species dependent ... so I'm not exactly sure how things will work out in that department."

"Oh, that." Jake nodded uneasily "That would be a bit of an unknown."

"Of course, kits are kind of a moot point till we get out of the Joining, and see what kettle of fish we've stirred up in the real world We've given everyone hours to try and guess what we're doing."

"Speaking of which, the masks are down ... why hasn't the Sharing started ... or has it and we just haven't noticed?"

Nathan chuckled. "You know, Ashley asked me the same question not that long ago I'm not sure, but then again nothing in this Joining has gone according to protocol, so I don't know why the Sharing would Though we've shared a good deal more than a lot of Joining pairs do ... I'm really kind of at a loss."

He shrugged "We can't be too far off course, Felsira hasn't given us a shove yet In fact, she just sent breakfast to make sure we'd slow down I think some of the difficulty is that we have a veritable crowd of additional people milling about, which is very unusual for a Joining ... not that I mind, actually I've been rather grateful for Ashley's presence on a number of occasions."

Nathan's face lit up as a realization hit him "I think I know what part of the problem is." He laughed "This location, Gildenfire station is not in Joining-space, it's a specially created subsection of my mind that I created for Storm, to give him a home until I could fix up a new body. I think we kind of took a detour, and didn't realize it.

"Speaking of 'tours', Storm still wants to show you the 'special place' I created for him It's only a short walk, and it's kind of important to him."

Jake chuckled "Finish breakfast first, and then you are taking a nap."

"Yes, sir." Nathan shook his head meekly, then chuckled "The things we find to talk about over breakfast, and all I was trying to say was that I was okay with the way things are between the two of you."

Jake chuckled with real humor in the tone "I suggest you get used to it Between the squad and Pat, this is a pretty normal meal, all things considered."

The Kat regarded a piece of bright red fruit the size of his fist as his face fell "As for hurting Rik ... I know." He shifted uneasily and continued to eat "I decked him the first time he kissed me Those first four months were painful for both of us, but more for him than me I just had to accept that my pilot was younger than I was comfortable with He had to deal with me." Jake finally looked up "Not sure if you know the kind of jerk I can be when I'm fighting myself like that, but it's nothing I'd inflict on an enemy, much less a teammate It still amazes me that he put up with me that long, much less forgave me."

Jake shook his head "Now I'm blabbering," he sighed "Nothing about that situation sits well with me, even after four years."

Nathan got up, walked around the table and put his arms around Jake gently "After all the blabbering I've done, you're entitled And an old friend of mine once told me that sometimes it helps to talk about things How often have you really gotten to talk about this, I mean really talk?"

"Never," the answer came too easily to his lips "I don't *get* to talk like this, about anything."

Nathan smiled calmly "Well, that's not the case anymore, and I don't mean just in this Joining-space You can talk to me about *anything*, I won't always agree but I'll always listen Sounds to me like you need to talk like this more often." There was a calm certainty in the tiger-tabby's words.

Jake looked up over his shoulder, a mixture of hope and fear giving an uncertain edge to his smile as he covered Nathan's hand with his own "Thanks."

Nathan leaned a little and kissed Jake chastely "Anytime." He barely suppressed a yawn, then realized that Jake had noticed it "I seem to recall someone saying I was supposed to take a nap, actually two people told me that." He yawned again, not hiding it this time "I guess it's not a bad idea after all."

The tiger-tabby headed for the bed, then looked over his shoulder at his mate. "Care to join me?" He said, clearly have ideas other than a nap in mind.

"You are incorrigible." Jake laughed and shook his head "I'll join you after you fall asleep." He turned back to his plate "I'm actually still hungry, for *food*."

Nathan laughed as he climbed into bed, pulled the covers up and then removed his clothes with a thought As he drifted off to sleep, an errant thought drifted across his Bond with Jake. "*You try a year of cold showers, and see how 'incorrigible' you are.*" The thought was mostly amused, but there was a small thread of regret for having waited so long But it was hard to tell if the thought came from the conscious mind, or the unconscious.

"Oh, I've got a pretty good idea." The Kat whispered as he watched his new LifeMate drift into dreamland.

Chance opened his eyes in a cold sweat, and only the strength of training kept him from physically panicking from the unlabeled fear in his half-awake mind.

A quick assessment didn't tell him why either ... he was naked in bed, on his stomach and with a decidedly pleasant smelling female Hyena snuggled against him Okay, he was in a strange bed, but considering the number of nights he's spent sleeping all sorts of less comfortable places, that wasn't it.

This was one of the better ways he could think of waking up, all in all All that was missing was ...

_That was it.

His partner had abandoned him, just after Feral ... abused him ... humiliated him ... stole what little hope he had left of a real life.

With a low shudder he squirmed to his back, caring more about not presenting that vulnerability than not waking up his bedmate.

"What's wrong, handsome?"

He looked over at Brandy "Nothin', just a dream Sorry I woke you." He said evenly.

She regarded him intently for a moment before nodding and settling against his side again, her voice soft "Don't worry about it, handsome."

Jake settled on the large bed where he could keep a hand on Nathan's arm while keeping a physical distance from the Felsin and closed his eyes.

"*Rik, Amee?*" He carefully opened a meeting space in his mind.

"*Jake!*" Their join response carried the mixture of relief, concern and curiosity.

"*No shouting, please I'd like Nathan to sleep a while longer.*" He spoke quietly "*How's it going out there ... and how long have I been gone?*"

"*You've been 'in there' (insert time please), and things have calmed down out here.*" Amerith replied professionally "*Pakitra passed out getting Cathy to come off red alert, but she's fine Caito's quite the interesting fur Rik freaked_, but ....*"

"*I had *cause*, Amee.*" The pilot snapped.

"*I know,*" Jake broke in, "*my apologies for that I didn't realize what was going on till too late.*"

"*It's okay, Jake.*" Patrik murmured with a mental glitch indicating just how exhausted he was "*I just wasn't ready for that.*"

"*Rik, go to sleep There's a god making sure nothing too bad happens to me, take care of yourself.*"

"*Alex is keeping me company.*"

"*Have him keep you company in *bed* then.*" He tried to make it stern, but didn't quite manage it with the image that statement brought to mind "*Please, Rik, get some rest We have a lot to deal with once I get back out to the real world.*"

"*All right, Jake.*" He didn't bother to hide his reluctance.

"*Rik, please.*"

"*It really worries you that much?*" Patrik sounded a little surprised.

"*Yes.*" Jake took a breath to steady himself "*I don't ... I'm sorry I've treated you so badly the last four years.*"

"*You haven't ....*"

"*Rik, I *have*.*" Jake let his guilt show a touch "*I've taken a lot out on you I shouldn't have ... that you had nothing to do with I'm sorry ... just please, take care of yourself till I can try to make it up.*"

"*All ... All right.*" The pilot stammered, utterly stunned.

Jake reached a little further to catch the base's attention "*Cathedral, would you make sure Alex knows his only duty to the squad till I get back to the real world is taking care of my pilot?*"

"*Will do.*" The base replied gamely.

"*Is there anything that needs my attention?*" Jake requested of his team.

"*Just Nathan.*" Patrik shooed him away, still stunned.

"*Agreed.*" Amerith backed out of the meeting.

Nathan waited half-listening until the 'meeting ended Then he quietly rolled to face Jake "He worries more about you than he does about himself I hardly know him, and I like him already." He said quietly, and little dreamily.

Jake jumped slightly "Sorry if I woke you ... I though I was being quiet."

Nathan smiled quietly. "Nothing to be sorry about, I was already waking, and in here its tough to be 'quiet' enough that I don't hear After all, you had to pass Gildenfire's shields to get outside." He grinned "There does seem to be a spreading epidemic of people not knowing when to get sleep, though."

Jake leaned down for a quick kiss "He saw it first and second battle today." He smiled softly "There are few things that can make you feel more *alive*, but once the adrenaline burns off, it can be a hard crash if you're not used to it." He willed his closes off and squirmed under the covers to snuggle close "Back to sleep, love Unless you're hungry?"

"No arguments from me on the adrenaline rush effect, I remember my first battle ... feels like it was a century ago." He chuckled quietly "Well, actually it was a little longer than that."

He gently kissed his mate, and held him close "I think cuddling and sleep will do just fine."

"Good," Jake purred softly and let his eyes close, only then acknowledging how exhausted he was.

"Just got out of a conference with Jake," Patrik struggled to his feet and looked at Alex, "and ...."

"Jake has restricted your duties to taking care of his pilot until he is done with ... whatever he's doing." Cathedral's female voice broke in quietly "You are both to head to bed, and stay put until Patrik is no longer on the verge of passing out."

Alex stood up and looked at Rik "Cathedral's right, Rik ... you definitely need some sleep Where you want to sleep is up to you, but this corridor is not an option."

"Is battle come-down always like this?" He focused on Alex "And whoever's quarters are closest ...."

"Mine are." Alex put a steadying arm around the pilot and led the way to his quarters "Cathedral, let Jake know Rik's in good hands, not like he had to ask; I was doing that anyway."

"Will do." The base responded easily.

Alex thought about Rik's question "Not sure about 'always', my direct combat experience isn't that extensive My specialty was infiltration and espionage, but the adrenalin rush can be something if you're not used to it."

As they reached the door to his quarters, Alex gently 'asked' the door to open, allowing him to keep both hands on the exhausted pilot He guided him to the bed and got him to sit down on the bed, so Alex could help the smaller tom undress.

"Can't believe what the last twenty-four has covered," Patrik groaned in relief as he settled into Alex's arms under the covers "Never crashed this hard before."

Alex smiled "The next twenty-four will probably be even more interesting, so you'd better get some rest." He said soothingly, as gentle hands massaged the pilot's fatigued muscles In the back of his mind, Alex remembered the last time he