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[IC] A Heavy Metal Christmas


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The air was cold enough that James’ breath escaped his lungs in billowing white clouds of a much cleaner sort than was usual. He wasn’t smoking at the moment, having tossed his previous cigarette to hiss and sizzle on the cold asphalt at the side of the road. He’d put it out of its misery with the toe of his shoe, grinding it to an even greater degree of lifelessness before he’d taken the short walk up the path to the porch. Strands of multicolored lights dangled merrily from the gutters and spiraled down the columns in tight loops. A wreath hung from the door; cut from real pine, it still maintained some of its characteristic scent. Reduced by age, it was nevertheless a refreshing change from cigarette smoke and leather-scented aftershave.


From behind the door, Warne could hear music playing – the drums pounded softly within the house, the crashing cymbals clanged. It took him a moment, but James realized he was listening to a butchered rendition of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” The telekinetic shook his head; it was just so thoroughly Stone he had trouble justifying his surprise. What else would the AMP’s pilot be listening to on Christmas Eve but heavy metal?


A wind blew by, chilling Warne enough that he considered activating his force-field. Instead, he simply pulled his jacket tighter around his body. Lonely Point was true to its name, being a largely desolate peninsula unburdened by things like enough trees to dull the knife’s edge of winter cold. Home to the Lonely Point Naval Station, it also housed the maintenance bay of the Armored Mobility Platform, the incalculably expensive and oft-malfunctioning vehicle piloted by his AEGIS-assigned partner, Ethan Stone. Stone was employed at the Naval Station as a ‘consultant,’ on the AMP project, a convenient cover that was lent credibility by his former Air Force service and time spent as a MAX-armor pilot for the clandestine organization. Unbeknownst to his wife, Ethan flew the AMP and served his country as Upgrade, a bipedal jet-tank designed to showcase the United State’s expanding arsenal of experimental weapons technology.


It was a career that his wife wouldn’t have approved of, if she knew.

Edited by Sophistemon
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Ethan had accomplished what no other agent or soldier ever managed: drag Warne to a family dinner over the holidays.  The pilot deserved some kind of medal for it.  For his part, Warne scoffed at the distant music, but lacked his usual scowl.  Tonight he appeared, if anything, just a little squeamish.  This really, really wasn't his scene.  Still, Upgrade saved his life, and as far as partners went, the man wasn't so terrible.  Often infuriating, but Warne thought that about everybody. 


He adjusted the items in his arms to acquire a free hand; he'd brought a bottle of wine and a wrapped gift for the child.  The idea troubled him as he knocked on the door. 


Upgrade will expect me to actually speak to his daughter.  I never know what to say to kids...

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Warne's knocking echoed throughout the interior of the house. The music was interrupted by the momentary sound of muffled conversation before padded footsteps made their way towards the opposite side of the door. "Ho-ho-hold on!" boomed Ethan, as he turned the knob and pulled the door in. The pilot stood in the doorway dressed in fuzzy socks colored like an elf's pointed green shoes, well-worn bluejeans, a black undershirt, and a white apron emblazoned with a blood-red target and the words MISS THE COOK printed across the chest. A smear of fresh dough dotted the tip of his nose, the result of an absentminded itch. He smiled widely and stepped aside, using one arm to usher his friend in out of the cold. "Warne!" he bellowed. "You made it! Come in, man, take a load off."


It was like walking into a schmaltzy movie. Christmas lights were suspended from the walls, up where they met the ceiling, and a sprig of mistletoe hung from the door-frame, thankfully ignored by Warne's beaming host. The lights were red, white, and blue of course, in that order, casting a patriotic glow on the many pictures suspended beneath them. They all portrayed people -- never just one -- grinning whether they were aware of the camera or not. As Ethan took him inside, Warne bore witness to a lifetime's worth of past events: birthdays, graduations, celebrations, days at the park, vacations at the beach. Smiles, fun, laughter, family. Ethan was talking, though it took Warne a moment to divorce the words from his own internal monologue. "-glad you could make it. I wasn't sure, but the wife and I made enough for an army just in case. You won't believe how the missus can cook; sometimes I think she's a robot, but then I remember the baby..."


"Da-ad!" objected a voice, drawing the word out into two outraged syllables. "I'm already six! I'm not a baby anymore!" There, at the end of the short hall separating the entrance from the kitchen, stood Lilly. No taller than Warne's thigh, she had both hands balled up into fists and pressed into either side of her waist. Her face betrayed her false anger; it was cherubic, perhaps with the slightest whiff of mischief, but not at all upset. Ethan knelt, arms outstretched, and the girl ran up and wrapped her father in a hug, giggling as she burrowed her face in his shoulder.


"Don't I know it?" he asked, then looked up at Warne. "I swear, she's more mature than I am. She gets that from her mother."

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Everything about this home made Warne uncomfortable.  He followed Ethan with his hands in his pockets, the gifts underneath one arm.  Faced with such a wholesome place and people to match, mostly deprived of his usual suspicions that let him keep outsiders at a distance, he just wasn't sure how to react. 


I do like that apron, though, he admitted to himself.


Then Lilly appeared, and Warne's uneasiness intensified.  He could understand the general use of children, as they applied to the continuation of humanity, but the same could be said of dentists and tax agencies. 


"Hello...small human," he told her awkwardly.  Warne touched the wrapped box that he held against his side; was now the right time to offer it?  What was the procedure for this sort of thing?  Come to think of it, when was his last real Christmas, given that he never went to the office parties at the end of the year?  He...honestly couldn't remember. 

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Lilly giggled into Ethan's shoulder and raised her head to look at the visiting stranger. "You're silly!" she said, and then attempted to mimic his tone. "Hello... big human!" she said, and her smile was like a glowing crescent. It reminded Warne of Ethan's perpetually goofy grin, but the dimples it dug into her cheeks came either from her mother or were uniquely her own. Ethan laughed, a muted huffing that he tried to hide from Warne, and then disentangled himself from Lilly's embrace. The little girl obliged, then saw the box beneath Warne's arm. "Daddy!" she yelped. "Present!"


Ethan looked, saw the box, and quirked an eyebrow. "Hey, you didn't have to do that, man. It's good enough just having you here." Then, he winked and leaned in so that only Warne could hear him. "It's cool you did, though. She's gonna love you." Then, he reached up and gave the other agent a soft pat on the shoulder. "Come on into the kitchen, I want you to meet my wife. You aren't going to believe what she's whipped up in there. I try to help, but I'm really only good at the baking."

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"...Yyyyes, alright," Warne agreed hesitantly.  Having successfully navigated the perils of talking to a child, the hardened agent began to relax a bit.  He felt slightly less anxiety over meeting the wife of the family, who was at least an adult, but he also might have to lie to her, given the secrets Ethan kept.  Not that dishonesty was new to Warne. 


He followed his partner as requested.  "About the only thing I can make is whiskey over ice, so you're still ahead of me," he said with dry humor.  Small talk achieved!

Edited by Blarghy
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Ethan laugh, a warm fearless sound that echoed slightly from the walls of the hallway. "Remind me to tell you about the time I screwed up boiling water," he told his fellow agent, and his daughter giggled in response, remembering the story. She bounced alongside them as they walked, sometimes nearer to Warne than she was to her father, but eventually entered the kitchen behind them.


"That was with the gas stove, right?" asked a voice, and Warne looked away from Ethan to see a woman, all five feet and four inches of her, standing at the counter chopping a cucumber for the salad. Lilly, the daughter, had inherited her father's black, black hair but it was clear that she'd gotten her green, green eyes from Meryl Stone. Said eyes twinkled merrily on the face of the mother, who set aside the knife and dusted her hands on a floral-print apron. She extended one of them, the fingers dainty, the nails painted pink, towards the senior agent. "Merry Christmas, Agent Warne," she said. "My husband's told me so much about you; it's nice to finally meet you face to face."

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After a low chuckle at the story, Warne unconsciously slipped into old habits and shook Meryl's hand with professional stiffness.  "Merry Christmas, ma'am," he said in the same voice he had used for years now when meeting new people, the humorless FBI monotone that came so naturally to this man of stone.  At least tonight he realized afterward how he likely appeared, and tried to follow up with another joke.


"...Well, only one of those two can possibly be true," he added.  Privately, Warne wondered what his partner had said about him; he suspected little, or at least little of it true, which was probably for the best. 

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Meryl laughed, and it filled the room like the tinkling of a silver bell. There was no wonder, now, why Ethan had fallen for the woman that stood before them. Even if she'd been homely instead of comely... with a laugh like that, love was the inevitable result. "Don't be like that," she told the senior agent. "My husband's an excellent judge of character; that's why he married me." As she spoke, Ethan stepped to the side.


"Introductions are in order," he said. "Meryl, this is Agent James Warne, my associate at the L-P-N base. He and I collaborate now and again on, eh..." He raised his shoulders in a shrug. "Classified stuff, honey; you know how it is. Mostly, he helps the brass field-test the newly developed technology that I consult on." He turned to Adept. "Warne, this is my wife, Meryl. My daughter, Lilly, you've already met." The girl, who had been pilfering a treat from a Santa-shaped cookie jar on the counter, smiled with crumb-dusted lips at the mention of her name. Ethan turned and strode towards a locked cabinet tucked into a corner, opposite the refrigerator. He reached into his pocket, withdrew a keyring, and said "Can I get you anything, Warne? I've been nursing a bourbon, but I've got wine, vodka, even a brandy in here if that's more your speed." He opened the doors and started shifting bottles. "Oh, cognac! How long have you been hiding there?"

Edited by Sophistemon
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"The bourbon sounds nice," Warne accepted truthfully.  He wasn't big on drinking more than a glass or two when around other people--downing entire bottles was for lone nights in his hotel rooms, musing darkly on the past--but a little social alcohol seemed appropriate, and might help him relax.  While he waited, he considered the unexpected ease with which Ethan had lied.  The pilot continued to surprise him; he noted the specifics of their story for future reference.  After all these years of official cover stories, it came easily.


"...Can I help with anything?  As I said, I'm no cook, but I can follow instructions well enough."

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"Good choice!" Ethan said, and there was the brief clinking of glassware while he poured his guest a drink. He locked up the cabinet and then handed it over. "This'll warm you up, huh?" he asked, and laughed a bit. "That's to start. After dinner, we'll relax with some of Grandma Stone's patented eggnog recipe. May God rest that woman, she knew how to have a holly-jolly Christmas." He grinned, and his wife giggled at the oven.


"It's too strong," she complained, with only partial seriousness. "I think granny might have had a problem." She turned to face Warne and wagged a finger in his direction. "And, no, you can't help. You're a guest! Your only job is to sit down, snack while dinner's finishing up, and enjoy yourself. It'll be just a few more minutes." She waved a hand at the counter, which was laden down with cookies, some fudge, and a largely untouched vegetable platter. "Ethan, you're cluttering up my kitchen. Why not take mister Warne to the living room? You can put that present under the tree while you're there."


"Oh boy," said her husband, snapping to attention. He threw her a rapid salute and clicked his heels together. "Yes, sir! Right away, sir!" He reached over, grabbed himself a cookie -- chocolate chip, never oatmeal raisin -- and motioned for his partner to do the same. "C'mon, then. We might as well get out of her way. Lilly, you're with me! Come along, doll." His daughter nodded, grabbed herself a square of fudge, and then slipped down off the chair.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Warne watched their cheerful exchange, feeling a little more anxious again; he wasn't at all accustomed to the level of goodwill in the room.  He sipped his drink to occupy himself more than anything, and when directed to the snacks, he may've surprised the Stones by taking the veggie plate.  With it in one hand and the glass in his other--tempted but resisting the impulse to use his mind too--he followed his partner into the next room.  Warne at least understood the idea of Christmas trees, although he'd never put one up himself, much less decorated such a thing. 


Heh.  Granny Stone.  For some reason, the thought of an old woman with powerful eggnog amused him. 

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It wasn't just a Christmas tree -- it was the Christmas tree, the one you picture when you read those words and your brain fills up with the remembered scent of pine. Tall, green, festooned with tinsel and those multi-chromatic metallic baubles, it dominated a corner of the room... and was completely empty underneath. Santa hadn't arrived yet, you see, and so the presents were as of yet undelivered. This was a mass-produced home, created to house those who lived and worked on or nearby the Lonely Point Naval Base, and so there was no fireplace, nor a chimney. Instead, stockings were hung -- with care -- from a coat-rack mounted on the wall. There were five pegs, but only three stockings, hung with a spare peg between them. These, too, were as empty as the floor beneath the tree and for the very same reason. There was a cabinet in the corner dedicated to celebrating the Stone family's accomplishments. Spelling bee championships were arranged alongside college diplomas earned by Lilly and athletic trophies earned by Ethan, who had opted to forgo higher education in lieu of pursuing his dreams of flight. The pilot stood behind Warne and pointed to a diploma commemorating Meryl's MAeD. "She keeps telling me to go back to school on the G.I. Bill," he explained. "But I just don't have the time. Besides, could you picture me doing homework? I barely made it through through school the first time! Thank God for sports..." He coughed, catching himself, as Lilly glanced over. "Don't you go getting any ideas, now; it's the goal of a parent to have their children surpass them, which means you've got to be smarter than you mom and cooler than me."


Lilly shook her head. "Nuh-uh, daddy; can't do it -- mommy's too smart."


Ethan smiled. "Yeah, maybe so." Then, a moment later, he realized the jibe. "Hey!" Lilly giggled, then took a seat on the easy-chair, which left the couch for the two AEGIS agents. "Want to take a seat while we wait? It shouldn't be long, but maybe we could find something on the tube."


"The Grinch!" Lilly chimed. "Daddy, the Grinch!"


Ethan chuckled. "I was always more of a Santa Claus Conquers the Martians kind of kid, but sure; we'll try to find the Grinch. That okay with you, Warne?"

Edited by Sophistemon
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"Ah, yes, that sounds fine." 


The agent spent a long moment looking over the family trophies, feeling a little odd in the process.  He had never taken even a casual interest in the personal lives of his colleagues before; it was an odd experience, especially for a household so unlike his own.  Part of him wondered what could've been, in a different world...


But mostly he thought, with amusement, about whether Ethan had underlying motives in the movie choice.  Warne wouldn't put it past anybody to prompt a child to "accidentally" set up the situation, because he wouldn't put it past himself.  The Grinch, a misanthropic loner who just wants his neighbors to turn down the music so he can get some sleep, damn it.  Warne only remembered the old, original cartoon, but he certainly saw a kindred spirit there.  When he last watched it, he rooted for the titular character: you go, Grinch!  Make those inconsiderate Whos give you a little peace and quiet!  Sure, you should've first complained to the local authorities about noise regulations, but assuming that happened off-screen, his response was perfectly reasonable.


Warne decided to keep such thoughts to himself this time around. 


He went to the couch and sat the vegetable platter on one knee to watch the show, while he continued to sip his bourbon. 

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The Narrator spoke, drawing the three once again into the story of the Grinch on Mount Crumpit and the Whos down in Whoville, detailing their ongoing rivalry, clash, and eventual reconciliation. It's a touching story, as it was made to be, and interrupted only rarely by the occasional clattering sound from the kitchen and once, towards the end of the film, by a muffled thump on the roof. Ethan lifts his gaze from the television and looks up, chewing on the interior of his lip. His brows knit together in a look of confusion, and he's about to turn to Warne and ask if he'd heard it when his daughter speaks up.


"Santa?" she asks, her voice a hopeful whisper. "Daddy, was that Santa? He's early!"


Her father glances down at her, his look of concern replaced by an easy smile. "It's probably just some snow shifting, doll. You know Santa won't even leave the North Pole until after you're in bed."

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Warne did his absolute best not to roll his eyes--his parents, if you could call them such, never bothered with the Santa business--and to his credit, he at least turned his head away when he couldn't resist.  Under any other circumstance, he would've gone outside to investigate, but tonight had lulled him into a very thin measure of security.  Besides, the couch was comfortable, the bourbon was good, and the house was Stone's.  If Ethan didn't want to take a look, then he wasn't about to go flying around in the freezing winds for nothing.  The pilot was probably right, anyway; Warne agreed it was surely just the snow. 


Apart from a vague nod to Lilly, as though to assure her that he, too, knew the rules of the mythical, fat home-invader, he merely settled back against the cushions.  Maybe Christmas wasn't so terrible after all. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Moments passed -- during which the Grinch finished tying an antler to the head of Max the dog -- before there was another sound. The crunch of fresh snow, once and then twice. A thump, and the creak of something settling on the roof. Ethan's eyes flicked skyward, his brows furrowed, and his thumb depressed the remote control's 'pause' button. The movie halted and Lilly looked at him, her face scrunched with concern. "Daddy?" she asked. "What's wrong?" Her father looked down at her, smiling, but Warne could see his associate's eyes strained with the unusual presence of concern.


"Nothing, doll," he told her. "Do me a favor, okay? Go tell mommy to meet Buck in the basement, all right? I want you two to play hide-and-seek for a bit; I'm it, okay? I'll come find you in a bit." His daughter looked up at him, mouth twisting to speak, but he held up a finger. "Lilly, one. Don't make me get to two." She nodded, slid from the couch, and dashed towards the kitchen. The moment she was out of site, Ethan stood and strode for the door. "Come with me," he told the other agent. "There's someone on the roof."

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Warne didn't need much prodding.  He put down his empty glass and grabbed his coat on the way to the door.  This wasn't a bad change of pace, following up on someone else's paranoia for once.  Getting to pummel a home invader sounded like his kind of Christmas present, anyway.  Although being in the middle of a military base, if someone was creeping around on the roof, they probably had more in mind than stealing pricey electronics.


"I wasn't sure if you had hired your own Santa for the evening," Warne said dryly.  He thought about the oddness throughout Freedom City and added, "If that really is the fat man up there, you get to explain to your kid why we arrested him."

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"That's... actually a good idea," Ethan mused. "Maybe next year." He took his coat from the hook and slid it on before opening the door and ushering Warne back out into the cold. It was bitter and biting, with a low wind that tossed flakes hither and yon. The pilot trudged through the snow and stood in the yard to stare up at the roof. He squinted into the dark and shook his head. "I can't see anything," he admitted. "Do you mind, ah, checking?" He looked around, saw that there was nobody around, and nodded. "I know it's probably not a sanctioned use of your power and normally I wouldn't ask, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't a squirrel, you know?"

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"Sanctioned," Warne agreed with one simple term. 


He pulled his coat more tightly around himself and rose through the cold night air.  The agent flew to the roof's edge, his polished shoe-tips almost touching the gutters.  He cast his gaze around in a thorough, professional search.


"Rather dark..." he mumbled to himself as he struggled to see.

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A voice hissed in the darkness, the sound of it like a snake working its way through tall grass. "Warne," it said. "James Warne. I know you." Something shifted in the dark. A man, clad in metal, stood from a crouch. He stood tall, at least seven feet and maybe more. His face was a gruesome mask, all edges and planes, with a visor where the eyes should be. The visor glowed a dark and baleful red. His shoulders were broad, his arms covered in thick, overlapping plates of armor that dripped with melting snow. Something about the design, the tooling of the metal, struck a chord with the agent. It was the familiar unfamiliar, the sense of someone's hand at work. "He wants you, too. But not today. Today he wants Stone." His arm twitched, the wrist bent forward, and a blade emerged from the armored plating. Segmented, it snapped into place piece by piece and began to glow, heating in seconds until it was red-hot and sparking. "Today, you can live, if you run. But only if you run."

Edited by Sophistemon
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For a moment, in the dark, Warne's face betrayed rare fear as he made the connection.  If this person was associated with Mantis...that last encounter hardly went well for him.  But then, duty more than courage flooded back into his heart--two sizes too small!--and a different sort of feeling filled his brain.  He gathered that power like a deep breath.


"You have termites in your smile," he answered, his lingering nervousness manifesting as frivolity.  Whether or not this new villain understood the reference, he would definitely notice the unseen force that slammed into him.


"INTRUDER!" Warne then screamed as loudly as he could, flying up higher above the house in the hopes of at least staying beyond the range of that heated weapon.

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  • 1 month later...

The mental assault took the interloper by surprise, bashing into him with unimaginable force. He was pushed backwards across the roof, leaving furrows in the snow as he approached the edge, but planted his feet at the last moment and held what was left of his tenuous position. Warne, who had seen his mind tear even the most durable of things apart with the greatest of ease, is mildly unnerved to see that not occur here. The segmented armor plating that adorned the assassin's body, protecting what remained of the flesh beneath, functioned as intended. It folded beneath the assault, pressing close to the body, and weathered Adept's psionic attack. He looked at Warne, his placid mask of a face unreadable, and spread his arms so that the burning blades hissed in the snow. "Unwise," he growled. "But not unexpected. Two deaths, today. Maybe more. You could have stopped this, Warne. It could have been clean. Now, it won't be." With that, the assailant raised one of his arms, pointed the smoldering blade at Warne, and tilted his wrist. The red-hot knife launched from its housing in a blazing streak; if Warne didn't move, it would be a most uncomfortable impalement.


Down below, Ethan started at Warne's shout. That word, 'intruder,' sent a spark of cold fire sizzling down his back. He threw the door back open and dashed back into the house, already dialing his cellphone as he went. His daughter stood in the foyer, her eyes wide, and he scooped her up with his free hand, hoisting the giggling child over one shoulder like a sack of presents. "Meryl!" he called, trying to keep his daughter calm. "Meryl, I need you to take Lilly to the basement, okay? Get Buck and wait for me to come back." Meryl's face went white, and she took her daughter from her husband and thinned her lips.


"What's going on, Ethan?" she asked. "Who's here?" Her husband shook his head.


"I don't know, but I'm going to take care of it, okay? Warne's already up there; I'm going to call the base and let them know what's happening. I just want you safe, okay?"

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Warne only barely sidestepped the knife, using his mind to fly as much as his feet.  He nonetheless watched the blade scrape his force field's edge, and to his dismay, his protective bubble failed to stop or deflect this attack.  Shouts from down in the house further raised his adrenaline; he reminded himself that civilians were right below his feet, and if he couldn't hold back this madman with telekinetic power that often stood up to bullets and bombs, then a mundane roof had no chance.


"I can still stop this," he growled.  His brain flared for a second time; now the psychic waves didn't try to slam or squeeze, but simply contain.  If he could just take this fight away from the Stone house...


"Littering is illegal in this country," he indicated the fallen knife with a jut of his chin.  "So pick that up.


If Warne could maintain his grip--a big if--then he flung his enemy through the air in the same path as his heated weapon.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The armored plates compressed, syncing down into a tight sheath of protective metal that spared the intruder the bulk of Adept's psionic force. But there was little they could do to prevent the telekinetic lift, or the subsequent throw. Servos whined and micro-thrusters fired in a futile attempt to escape. If Adept could feel through his telekinetic power, he would note the armored man was much stronger than his build would indicate. It was for nothing, though, as he was hoisted into the air and thrown in the direction of his discarded blade. He was


"Going to reactivate your nervous system now," said the doctor. "There might be some momentary discomfort while the system calibrates." A switch was flipped, and agony tore through his frame like cold fire, arcing from one artificial nerve to the next in a cascading current of pain. He shrieked into the gag and thrashed his ruined body against the operating table, tearing free the IV that fed him saline and nutrients in such a way that the hole wept blood. The doctor sniffed and deactivated the machine. "Really, I thought you were a soldier," he scoffed. "If you can't handle a little pain then this was all for nothing."


falling, his thrusters unable to cope with the force of the telekinetic throw, and landed in a snowbank with a cushioned thud. He rolled, took to his feet, and snarled. "Not for nothing," he told himself. "Not ever again!" He lifted himself into the air and kicked the boosters, jet engines screaming into the night as he flew back to the house. There was no time to waste; he had people to kill and a debt to repay.


The garage door opened and Ethan reappeared, leather jacket warn over his tee-shirt and a helmet held in the crook of one arm. "Warne?" he called, and kicked the engine of his bike. "Warne, where are you? Is it taken care of?"

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