Ties Never Binding: 23/?

Disclaimer: Phalanx and X-Groups belong to Marvel. Anything else you can assume is mine.

Author's Note: This took a little longer than expected, but maybe that's to be expected 'cause I've got about 80 other projects in production at the mo'. Whoops. (Yes, I am insane.) Anyway, next chap will be devoted (more or less) to just what the heck *happened* six years ago, so hang tight (hey, I've got comics to draw, remember ;)...

How do you like to spend your weekends? I usually try to find someplace quiet to curl up and read a good book. As it so happened, I was spending *this* particular Saturday sitting in a pile of damp leaves... in Oklahoma... with three relative strangers and an ex-supervillain... watching twins (one of which appeared to be about half a decade older than the other) have a little heart-to-heart as we were being stalked by several very large, very angry techno-organic beings known as the Phalanx. This was about as far from my idea of a perfect weekend as you can get.

Sometimes I really, *really* hate my life.

"I've missed you, Karen," Jason said, shoving his hands into his pockets and gazing at her from beneath a fringe of blond bangs. "Even moreso because I couldn't really talk to you... before. You know I don't want to hurt you can't you at least tell me why you're doing this?"

"Oh, I don't think so," Karen spat, setting her hands on her hips. "You *abandoned* me, Jason. You left me with a pathetic, soulless shell of yourself when I needed you the most. This is *your* fault, you son of a bitch."

Jason sighed. "Karen, I really don't think you should talk about our mother like that."

Karen glared at him. "You know what I mean, you bastard," she hissed. "You. Left. Me."

"I had no choice!" Jason snapped, taking a defiant step forward. "You *know* what the deal I made called for! Do you think I've *enjoyed* being trapped and manipulated and used for all these years?! There was nothing I could *do*!"

"Deal"..? I thought numbly as I watched accusations fly back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match. What on earth had Shr--had Jason gotten himself embroiled in..?

"Shut up!" Karen shrieked, her arm suddenly arcing towards Jason at an alarming speed. This in itself wouldn't have been nearly as alarming if it hadn't been for the fact that her arm flowed into a scythe in mid swing, flashing like a deadly streak of silver fire in the waning daylight.

My muscles spasmed as I instinctively tried to lunge for Jason to shove him out of harm's way, but he was already gone.

"I'm not going to pretend I was ever the better fighter," Jason commented as the techno-organic weapon missed his ear by a hair, "but I will tell you that there is no way on earth you're ever going to lay a hand on me when I can sense your actions before you make them, especially now that you've got enough of a foreign being laced through your cells that you're practically a whole other entity. My precognition is starting to work on you, Karry--that's proof enough that this Collective's warped you."


I saw Karen narrow her blank, pupiless eyes dangerously. This wasn't just angry, this was *seething*. "Listen to me," she snarled as her distended arm began to return to human size and shape. "*You don't control my life*. I've got a mind of my own, I've got a will of my own, and this is who I am. Maybe who I am isn't who I was before, but does that give you any right to try and change it?!"

Jason and Karen stared at each other for several long, timeless seconds. Then Jason spoke.

"Karry..." he began, his tone akin to a sigh, "I know you don't like being ordered... and that I'm the *last* person who has any right to order you. But I *know* something in you wants to break free of the Collective. You know it too."

Karen looked at him like he was insane. "Oh, do tell," she said sweetly. "What would ever give you *that* idea?"

Jason smiled wryly. "Well, for one, you don't seem overly concerned about accomplishing whatever kamikaze job the Phalanx assigned you," he replied, gesturing at their cousin. Derrick and Grace had moved over to where Vance and I were sitting (as well as Verney, although he didn't really count since he was still a little dazed from having encountered the wrong end of a tree trunk), and neither of them looked all that comfortable with being pointed out again.

"For another," Jason continued smoothly, without even giving Karen time to respond, "that little blade-thing you did with your arm was *not* the best trick you've got up your sleeve. If you *really* wanted me gone I would be dead by now."

Karen narrowed her eyes and braced her hands on her hips again. "Who said I wanted to kill you *now*?" she inquired frostily. Her eyes gleamed in the dim light. Soon it would be sunset...

"Because," Jason replied, tilting his head slightly, "I can see it in your mind. You want to get rid of me. You're almost *afraid* of me. Why is that?"

"*Afraid*?" Karen repeated incredulously. "Of a *human*?"

"Of your brother."

Karen's disgust was almost tangible. She shifted her weight to her left, her hip jutting out aggressively in a pose that reeked of disdain.

"YOU? Be serious. You're barely as much a threat to me as a piece of eggplant."

"Um... not to sound impatient, but weren't we supposed to have a plan..?" Derrick whispered to me. I jerked back to attention and suppressed a groan.

:Of course!: I sent in an "all broadcast" to the others. :Jason's buying us time we need to think up a plan, and *fast*!:

The other four were silent. I rubbed my neck worriedly. :Um... does anyone have any ideas..?:

:Er... not really,: Derrick admitted, and Grace shook her head. I looked askance at Vance--he shrugged helplessly. I glanced towards Verney and immediately abandoned that option. He looked seriously stunned from his little "experience" with the tree--Karen must have thrown him *hard*. I hoped he wasn't concussed...

:Excuse me,: Jason sent, a little desperately, :but would you people mind stepping it up a bit? I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to distract her...:

I winced apologetically. :I know! We're trying to get a plan together... ummm... well, let's stick to something simple. Grace, do you think you can pin her..?:

:I've done it before,: she replied, nodding minutely. :Help would be appreciated, but Derrick sprained his ankle when Karen tried to grab him...:

:I... will assist,: Verney thought shakily, rubbing his head.

I looked at him in concern. :Are you sure you're okay? You look like you hit that tree pretty hard.:

Verney dismissed it. :I am fine. I was merely somewhat stunned. I can assist in this, at least.:

:If you say so,: I said dubiously. :Vance, if she gets out of hand, can you put her out again?:

Vance flinched at the memory, but nodded. :No problem,: he replied, eying the increasingly irritated Karen warily, :but judging from what happened last time I'll only be able to do it once.:

I recalled the scream he'd given the first time he'd done it and couldn't say I blamed him.

:Okay,: I sent slowly, :I think we've got a plan. Jason?:

:Yeah?: He was currently in the middle of calling the Collective something that basically could be summed up as a glorified union of communist toasters. I think he was getting a little carried away.

:You hear all that?:

:Perfectly. You're good at multiple-links for a self-proclaimed amateur.:

I blushed a little. :Um, let's just call it skill by necessity, okay? But we're about ready now--Derrick?:


:I'm going to hook you up with Jason and I, all right? We're going to have to get this done *fast* from the looks of it...:

Derrick nodded slightly. :I'll do the best I can,: he promised, :but I'd just like to state again that I've never done anything even *remotely* resembling this before. Don't expect miracles:

:I'm not,: I informed him, pushing a strand of hair from my face, :but I can hope, can't I?:

A brief smile touched Derrick's lips. :I think we've found our optimist,: he chided. I shrugged.

:It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it.:

:But anyway,: Derrick put in, :I've got a minor problem. I sprained my ankle, remember? I'm going to need a little help.:

:I'll help you,: Jason volunteered. :But can you please hurry? I think I'm in trouble.:

I glanced at Karen. She looked *furious*. I sort of wished I'd been paying attention to half of what he'd been saying to her while we were devising a strategy...

:Okay, all ready?: There was a general consensus of agreement all around, and I nodded. :Okay--Jason, *move*. Grace, Verney, go!:

Jason dove to one side as Grace flashed into half-feline form and leapt over his head, striking Karen in the chest. Before Karen had a chance to recover Verney was behind her, pinning her arms to the ground as Grace straddled her waist and put her weight on the irate Phalanx's legs. Effectively immobilized, Karen let out a low, dangerous hissing sound, and I saw the metal of her arms begin to bulge...

Jason hurriedly scrambled to his feet as I hastily made my way to Karen's side, trying not to imagine what would happen if she calmed down enough to use her powers effectively. Jason quickly placed an arm around Derrick's shoulders and helped his cousin up, then all but threw both of them at Karen. Derrick turned white as his sprained ankle got partially caught on a rock, but held his tongue.

"Okay," Jason gasped as he and Derrick collapsed next to Karen's head, "do your stuff, Rick."

"I'll try," Derrick replied, already closing his eyes. He reached a slightly trembling hand towards Karen's forehead, and I saw tiny, glittering filaments extend from his fingertips...

Forcing my mind back to the task at hand, I quickly established a three-way link between myself, Jason, and Derrick. This being the case, I could "feel" as well as see the tiny threads of--wire?--burrow into Karen's "skin" and slide through the layers of metal into her microchip encrusted brain. I saw sweat dripping from Derrick's forehead and into his eyes as he struggled to work around the vital parts of her mind so as not to cause any damage. I wished I could help him, but this was *way* out of my league. I knew about *minds*, not brains. Now I knew why telepaths took mandatory anatomy lessons at the Academy... you had to know which parts of the body you could tweak, and how it would effect the person.

:This... is really... hard...: Derrick hissed telepathically as he wiped the perspiration out of his eyes with his free hand, panting audibly. :I... I don't know where to start... or what would hurt her...:

:I'll help you,: Jason assured him, placing his hand over Derrick's. His cousin favored him with a shaky smile and closed his eyes again to resume his work.

This was about the point where I became slightly uncomfortable. I could feel them working at it, true, but I wasn't really *doing* anything. I wanted to help, but what could I do..? I had absolutely no clue. I felt like a third wheel. They didn't really need me after all...

:Dawn!: Jason exclaimed so suddenly I gave a little yelp of surprise. He turned to face me, his eyes wide and features creased with strain.

:Y-yeah?: I replied, trying to scrape together what little shreds of dignity remained. Jason didn't seem to notice.

:We're in--but just barely,: he told me, his eyes glassy and somewhat unfocused. He was close enough that I could smell the acrid scent of his sweat and hear his rapid, uneven breath. Something was wrong here.

:What is it..?:

Jason took a deep breath. :I... think this was a mistake,: he replied. :We're too... closely related. Derrick's scared to death he'll be infected... and I'm not even sure if *I* can hold out... There's so many voices in here... it's easy to get lost...:

I swallowed hard. :So you need an outsider to help you keep yourselves together?: I responded. He nodded mutely, and I sighed. :Okay, I'll try... but I'm not sure how much help I'll be.:

:Any help at all would be more than welcome,: he assured me. :I half-suspected this might happen... 's why I wanted you to mindlink us...:

:Previous experiences?:

:...You might say that.:

Amazing. Whatever personality he was using at the moment, he *still* dropped infuriating little hints to something he obviously wasn't just going to out and tell me about. I briefly considered finding something large and heavy to bludgeon him with, but decided that could probably wait until we got rid of these pesky Borg-wannabes.

Without another word, I quietly slipped into the psionic channels Derrick had created by physically infiltrating Karen's brain. I was going to have the mother of all headaches by the time this day was over, expending energy left and right like this...

My thoughts skidded to a halt as I gazed upon the bizarre mindscape before us. It looked... well, as it had before. It was a very pretty scene, I had to admit--save that, as before, it was composed entirely of metal.

And that it was talking.

I barely noticed it at first, it was so faint, but I soon became aware of a dull, gentle murmuring in the background. Hoarse, rasping, incoherent whispers buzzed in my ears, as if trying to persuade me of something...

I ripped my attention away from the soft, silver promises and slammed my shields up, determined not to let it get to me. This must have been what Jason had been talking about, and Karen too--strange, alien voices, yet almost impossible to distinguish from your own. Even heavily shielded I could almost feel them on the edge of my awareness, scratching quietly but persistently at my mental walls. How on earth had Karen held up against them as long as she did without going mad..?

I noticed Jason and Derrick standing beside me, their faces squinched up with the effort of blocking out the quiet, insidious lies the strange beings murmured into their ears. Hastily I reached out and reinforced their shields with my own, which mostly involved spreading out a thin layer of "myself" to (hopefully) discourage some of the less determined whispers.

:Thank you,: Jason sent thankfully, smiling. I shrugged.

:Heh,: I grinned. :No problem. Just try not to make any sudden moves--this is getting tricky, and I'm running low on energy.:

:I know the feeling,: Jason replied sympathetically. Recalling how draining it had been for him to keep up Karen's defenses a few days ago, I was inclined to agree.

:My head is going to *hurt* tomorrow, though...: I psi-mumbled. Jason raised an eyebrow.

:Ever had a psionic hangover before?: he queried. I shrugged.

:Once or twice. But nothing that's going to be nearly as bad as this one.:

:Have fun, then.:

:Gee, thanks.:

:Guys...: Derrick said, a little distantly, :remember what we're here for..?:

:Oh, right,: I sent. :Uh... does anyone know where to start?:

:Probably with *me*,: came a feminine and decidedly hostile voice from behind us. :This *is* my mind, after all.: We turned as one to discover Karen glaring in our direction with an expression that would have soldered iron.

:We're here to help, Karry,: Jason assured her gently. His twin's reaction was comparable to that of someone who had just been told she had a face like a Chihuahua's rear end.

:WHO EVER SAID I NEEDED *HELP*?!: she exploded. The "ground" beneath our feet bucked violently, throwing me, Jason and Derrick onto our backs. I bit back a gasp of pain as the vicious silver blades of grass speared the more prone parts of my body, drawing blood.

Man, irony sucks. I *can* feel things on the astral plane, and the first thing I *do* feel is pain!

I heard Jason and Derrick moaning softly beside me and pulled myself to my knees, lolling my head towards them. Both were abraded by the lawn, Derrick more severely than Jason. A patch of grass had come dangerously close to his left eye, and he had an especially nasty cut on his cheek. We were all going to be in a world of pain by the time this confrontation was over...

And Jason, showing an astounding lack of self-preservation, blithely proceeded to make it worse.

:You're sick, Karen,: he pressed, wincing in silent pain at the flora gouging his palms as he pushed himself back up to his feet. :Mentally and physically. I know you don't feel it yourself, but I *do*. All the terror, all the pain, all the desperation... it's all up here, in *my* brain.:

Karen's lip curled in a sneer. "Do you have *any* idea how *stupid* and *pretentious* that sounded? Cut the melodrama and get to the damn point."

Jason looked exasperated. :Must you *always* do this?:

:I don't have the damn patience to wait for you to finish your dramatic spiel. I'm here for Derrick. That's *it*. Now either say it or get the hell out of my brain.:

:I've got a proposal for you.:

Although she lacked pupils, Karen gave us a *very* good impression that she was rolling her eyes.

:Why would I need anything from *you*?: she snorted derisively. :The Phalanx are here, and we have our cousin. He is our *only* concern at the moment, and we need no help from *you* to acquire him.:

Interesting, the way she kept slipping between "I" and "we". Was Jason right? Was it possible she hadn't been *completely* subverted..?

:I'm offering you something else,: Jason continued, hooking his thumbs around the loops on his jeans. :Something I bet you want more than Derrick right now.:

:Feh. What do you have that *I* would want?:


Ummm, that probably didn't come out right....

Karen blinked. :What?:

Jason made an expansive gesture, spreading his arms widely. :Me. You can assimilate me into your Collective. I won't fight it.:

I took a minute to wonder if Jason was insane. From what *I'd* seen so far he and Karen weren't on the best of terms. Why on earth would she want him as part of the Collective if she despised him..?

But one look at her face and I realized something wasn't quite adding up. Karen looked... excited. Eager, almost...

She must miss him... Miss him a *lot* to still be capable of missing him while she's under the Phalanx's influence...

:What's the catch?: Karen inquired suddenly, becoming suspicious.

:No catch,: Jason assured her. :BUT--first you have to talk to me.:


:Just us. I just feel like reminiscing.:

:Fair enough,: Karen replied, though she still looked wary. Derrick and I exchanged wide-eyed glances.

:ARE YOU INSANE?!: we exclaimed in perfect chorus. Jason winced.

:You can't sell yourself to the Collective--:

:What the hell are you *thinking*--:

:--I thought you were going to help *stop*--:

:--knew you were insane, but *this*--:

:I *know* what I'm doing,: Jason interrupted sharply. :Back down both of you and let me *work*, will you?!:

Reluctantly, I backed up a little. I turned to Derrick. :Your cousin is stark raving mad,: I informed him quietly.

:No arguments here,: Derrick agreed, looking worried. :Has he lost his mind?!:

Jason shot us a dark look. :At least keep your voices down when you're discussing my mental health!:

:Sorry,: Derrick apologized. :But you've got to admit this is *not* one of your smarter moves.:

:I know what I'm doing,: Jason repeated firmly. :Now...: he said, turning to Karen resolutely, we talk.:


:You. Me. Six years ago. Up to it?:

There was a strange gleam in Karen's white, vacant eyes as she lips formed one word.


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