Chapter 6

Sunlight shown down on the city of Miami, bathing its towers in a golden glow and bestowing the radiant kiss of a new morning on the shining waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Fifty stories up, a man stood on the marble balcony of the most exclusive five-star penthouse suite the town had to offer, his elbows resting on the elaborately wrought iron railing, regarding the spectacle before him with the piercing gaze of an eagle surveying its kingdom. From far below the sights, scents and sounds, the music and energy of the awakening city, wafted its way up as if offering homage to this god visiting among them. Closing his eyes briefly, the man basked in the pulsating rhythm of the vibrant metropolis, benevolently accepting the inhabitants' just tribute, letting it wash over him in an invigorating wave. For Damien Acosta, it was no more than his due.

In the suite behind him a man in a white jacket and chef's toque stood before a serving cart, presiding over a grill on which a choice cut of steak was currently sizzling. Every so often the cook cast surreptitious glances at the tall, elegantly appointed man on the terrace whose dazzling white suit set a sharp contrast to his deep mocha skin, taking in his Rolex watch and diamond-and-onyx cufflinks with a speculative gleam that he was careful not to let show in his expression. It didn't matter to him if this guest requested the special service of having his meals prepared in his suite out of fussiness, paranoia or just plain hubris. His thoughts were centered on calculating the size of his gratuity if the breakfast met with approval, and doing everything he could to encourage the selection.

Damien was well aware of these glances without even bothering to turn around, because he understood the mindset of the chef and others like him. That was the thing about money. People were awestruck by it, and would do anything to get it. Show them the trappings of wealth, such as an impeccably tailored suit that cost more than they earned in a month, silk shirt, hand-stitched Italian leather shoes and accessories from Cartier's, and they fell all over themselves to cater to his every whim in the hope of garnering a fat tip. Add in a dash of the exotic or mysterious, and that awe became something akin to worship. The fawning amused Damien because he knew that, money or no, they would stampede like a flock of frightened sheep if they had any inkling of the truth about him.

Few people would have recognized his name; even fewer his face. He purposely kept a low profile, avoiding corporate boards and media, pulling strings from behind the curtain, and yet the ever-reaching tentacles of his influence were fast making him one of the most powerful men in the country. Like a predatory shadow he prowled the elite levels of the corporate jungle the way a shark glided through a school of fish, dining at will on only the choicest opportunities. This visit to Miami was no exception. Today a very lucrative niche company in the medical devices field would very quietly join his clandestine stable of money-spinning ventures. Its profits would then be channeled upward like all the others, to feed his growing power base. The board meeting was at 9:00 a.m.

It wasn't avarice that drove him, nor was it about building a business empire, although that could be stimulating at times. It was simply an acknowledgement of reality. Ambition required money to attain its objectives; the greater the ambition, the more cash was required. Money was the lifeblood, the fuel that drove the machine. Ambition nurtured money and made it grow, which in turn fed ambition. Together the two added up to power, and that was what Damien craved. Oh, not the common types of business position or political influence. Such things were fickle commodities, easily bought, and thus the meager aspirations of foolish, short-sighted men. They couldn't hope to understand the true meaning of power.

But he did.

For Damien Acosta was no ordinary man. He was the product of a cutting-edge biogenetics firm named Genomex, whose secret research into manipulation of the human genetic code had the unforeseen result of creating a group of men and women with a wide variety of superhuman abilities. The general public was unaware that these 'mutants' existed, and probably wouldn't believe it if they were told. Things like that were right up there with alien abductions, the province of kooks and movie studios. Fantasies like that didn't belong in the real world.

Damien's powers, however, were very real. The first was telekinesis, the ability to move objects with the power of his mind. The second and more formidable talent was telepathy. With this ability he could literally reach into another person's mind and not only read thoughts expressed in words, but also gather information gleaned from that person's normal senses; for example, hear what that person heard while connected to their mind. He could also implant his own thoughts, or force an action by sheer mental compulsion. This was what true power was all about – total domination; to hold in your hand not only the power of life and death, but the very essence of free will. With this ability he could eventually penetrate the hierarchy of every nation on earth, mold them to his will as a puppet master controls the strings of his marionettes, without them even knowing what was happening. Ultimately, he could own the world.

There were, however, a couple of obstacles he had to overcome. The first was locked into his own DNA. The genetic manipulation which gave the children of Genomex their extraordinary talents was also their death warrant. Because their genes were continuing to mutate, over time they could eventually morph out of control. He had heard stories of other mutants destabilizing to the point where their genes eventually ripped themselves apart, causing extremely painful, and in some cases explosive, death. Unless a treatment could be developed to permanently fix their genetic structures, that fate potentially awaited all mutants, himself included.

Although Damien hadn't experienced any major difficulties yet, he knew it was only a matter of time before his ongoing mutation caused his genes to destabilize, so from the beginning he made finding a cure his top priority. After all, what was the point of owning the world if you weren't alive to rule it? The first thing he did was to infiltrate a minor league chemical company called Naxcon and transform into a major, and hugely profitable, player in the industry. Next, he took some of the early profits and built a secret, cutting-edge genetics lab on the site, and brought in some of Genomex's top minds to jump-start the search for a cure.

As Naxcon continued to grow, Acosta began to branch out, quietly channeling money into interests in other industries. More cash poured in. Then a rival appeared in the form of Mason Eckhart, the former head of the once-mighty Genomex Corporation. Eckhart saw Naxcon as a way to rebuild Genomex and reclaim his empire. By deception and fraud he managed to insinuate himself into an executive position, and immediately began implementing his own agenda. Damien calmly let him. He wasn't threatened by Eckhart's covert takeover because he knew he could stop it in a heartbeat – literally - any time he chose. Eckhart held a number of Genomex's secrets, including the original research of Dr. Adam Kane, whose pioneering work in the field of gene technology became the therapies which created mutants in the first place. Chances were good that if a viable treatment was to be found, its roots would be traced there.

A cure for the mutant death sentence, however, was not what was uppermost in Eckhart's mind. His goals were more immediate. Just before the fall of Genomex his researchers created a process wherein mutant genes could be spliced into the DNA of ordinary people, giving them mutant abilities for a short period of time. The down side was that the process was unstable. Invariably the test subjects burned out their augmented genes quickly, killing them within a few months. Eckhart didn't care about that. What he cared about was that he now had a cadre of super-powered minions to do his bidding, people he could control but who wouldn't live long enough to turn on him. Once he rebuilt his domain, he could return to his mission of rounding up the 'anomalies' created at Genomex and eradicating them.

Though the process had no impact on the overall question of mutant instability, Acosta immediately saw how he could duplicate it for his own ends. He lost no time in setting up a new hidden facility completely separate from Naxcon, and lifted the process from his unwitting benefactor's supposedly secure computer files. Soon he had his own group of graftees in the field; common street thugs now enhanced with a variety of mutant abilities. He put these 'Special Forces Units', as he called them, to work carrying out small guerilla raids to weaken Naxcon's rivals. The results were mixed. Their actions resulted in a lot of business shifted over to Naxcon, but the operatives were imperfect models, self-destructing far too quickly. Still, they served his purposes well in the short term, and there were always more where they came from.

The second obstacle was a shadowy group of behind-the-scenes power brokers that called themselves The Dominion. Formed more than two hundred years ago, their self-proclaimed mission was to unobtrusively guide the progression of scientific discovery in a responsible way for the benefit of mankind, sometimes through funding of promising technology, other times covertly destroying that which they deemed too dangerous. At least that was their original mission. The current incarnation of their Governing Council had begun implementing a more evolved agenda, one that put them on a collision course with Damien's own objectives.

Their paths crossed for the first time a year ago when Acosta's people managed to acquire a very elusive and much sought-after mutant, a woman whose stable DNA and healing abilities held the key not only to solving the problem of mutant instability, but also to actually unlocking the complete human genetic code. With this woman, code-named Target Alpha as an indication of her importance, in his custody, he could take mutants to the next level, create a made-to-order army of super beings with stable genetic structures, even program in traits such as total loyalty and unquestioned obedience. A whole new phase of humanity, one under his total control, could emerge. The possibilities were endless.

The Dominion had much the same idea, and had the advantage of a worldwide, centuries-old organization to respond to this threat to their plans. They immediately sent a highly specialized and heavily armed force to Acosta's facility to wrest the woman away from him so they could use her for their own ends. What neither side counted on, though, was a wild card in the form of the woman's husband, a man with powers who mirrored Damien's own, backed by a formidable team of mutants who called themselves Mutant X. Though nominally under the control of the Dominion, and completely unaware of their superiors' machinations, Mutant X joined the husband in rescuing his wife, decimating Damien's Special Forces units in the process. Damien himself killed the Dominion's task force and destroyed his facility to keep it from falling into Dominion hands, but not before transferring vital blood samples and other extremely valuable data taken from Target Alpha to another, secret facility. The woman and her husband then disappeared.

And so began a deadly sort of chess game. While Damien sought to capitalize on the vital data obtained from Target Alpha, the Dominion sought vengeance for their murdered strike team, dedicating huge resources to tracking him down. They infiltrated his known businesses, searching for hidden links to others, even using sabotage in an attempt to draw him out and kill him. Damien struck back, influencing a Council member to kidnap five of his fellows. Two of the five ended up dead, as did his puppet.

Enraged, the Dominion redoubled their efforts, but Damien remained elusive. It rankled him to have to do so, but he was canny enough to know that he was not ready to take on such a powerful foe – not then, at any rate. He continued to work behind the scenes, sometimes using surrogates, other times utilizing different identities, quietly expanding his financial network, developing intelligence resources, recruiting and training his own paramilitary force, while his genetics team forged ahead with improving the mutant gene-grafting process.

His patient strategy paid off. His Special Forces units had not only been rebuilt, they had expanded significantly, and their expected life span had quadrupled. Under his direction small bands of them had begun targeting Dominion interests, providing some much needed training and experience in the use of their new powers while ravaging Dominion assets. The Council fired back, attacking his holdings in similar raids. These were small strikes in the overall scheme of things, two titans probing for their opponents' weaknesses before loosing their thunderbolts in earnest, with the general public unaware of the growing stakes. The storm clouds were gathering, though, and soon the battle for domination would erupt.

Sooner than the Dominion expected, in fact. Damien had just seen the latest figures, and they exceeded his expectations. He was already moving forces into position to strike in several places at once, including their headquarters, a location those pompous egotists thought a closely-guarded secret. Aided by intelligence from within the Council itself, he knew every move they made as soon as they made it, their plans as transparent as if he had been sitting in the Chamber beside them when they were made. Within the next two weeks the battle would be joined. With the Dominion annihilated, he would pick up the pieces of their fallen empire and take that next step toward his ultimate destiny. Nothing would stand in his way.

Damien straightened from the balcony and strode back into his suite just as the chef was about to call him. There was no chance or guesswork involved in the timing; he had known the second his meal was ready because he made it a habit to keep a basic telepathic awareness of the surface thoughts of anyone around him, whether it be a waiter at a restaurant or a stray baggage handler on the tarmac as he prepared to board his private jet. It was merely a matter of prudence, a precaution to forestall any unpleasant surprises the Dominion might have up its collective sleeve should they manage to locate him long enough to set up a hit. It had already happened once, but Damien sensed the assassin's thoughts in advance. The corpse was found the next day in a convenient dumpster.

Seating himself at the suite's smaller table, Damien unfolded the snowy white linen napkin and allowed himself to be served. The tangy aroma filled his nostrils, making his mouth water. There was nothing like steak and eggs for breakfast, and these were cooked to perfection. Piping hot coffee, a special Colombian blend, bubbled into his cup from a sterling silver pot, adding to the appetizing ambience. The chef then quietly withdrew to the serving cart, standing by unobtrusively in case any of the assorted side dishes waiting there should strike his patron's fancy. Damien nodded his approval and dug in hungrily.

He was about half way through his breakfast when his iPhone rang. Taking it out of his pocket and noting the caller, he answered on the second ring.

"Mr. Dawson."

"The package arrived yesterday as expected," the caller reported, "Fox and her mother will meet with the lawyer this morning. Her return flight is currently scheduled for this evening, but my electronic surveillance picked up a call to the airline checking on flights for tomorrow."

"Excellent!" Damien leaned back in his chair with a deep sense of satisfaction. "I will be flying to San Francisco as soon as I attend to some pertinent business. You are to watch it very carefully until I arrive."

"Would you like me to pick up and deliver this package?"

"Absolutely not." Acosta skimmed through a couple of screens on his iPhone and punched a few apps. "This acquisition needs to be made delicately, without anyone being the wiser, particularly the target herself. I will handle that personally. Just monitor this package until I arrive, which I expect to be around two o'clock this afternoon your time."

"I'll take care of it, Mr. Acosta."

"You will need to take certain precautions; she is a feral, and quite powerful. I'm sending you complete dossier."

"She'll never see a thing."

Acosta frowned. He didn't like the cockiness he was hearing.

"This package is of great interest to me, Mr. Dawson," he said frigidly. Dawson didn't appear to notice the warning.

"Don't worry, sir. I'll…handle it with care."

A small chuckle accompanied his joke. Acosta was not amused. The temperature in his voice lowered several degrees.

"See that you do."

Acosta ended the call abruptly with the single telekinetic pulse at the screen. Dawson was not one of his direct employees, but he had used this man on a contract basis in the past, and had found him to be skilled and reliable. As an added plus, he was already in the city, San Francisco being his base of operations. He would watch his quarry carefully, or be able to contain her if need be until he arrived. Damien was confident that he expressed the importance of the assignment on his man, and that it would be handled correctly. The last chess piece was about to be set into place. He set his iPhone on the table beside him and once more turned to his steak.

Everything was coming together just as he planned. There was, however, one major detail yet to be settled: Mutant X. The way they triumphed in the face of far superior odds had earned his caution and respect. Pound for pound, they were the Dominion's strongest and most versatile operational team, with an array of talents and impressive individual power levels. Even the Dominion Council feared them. True, they utilized them today, but Damien was well aware that the Council Master himself had already decreed their termination the moment they outlived their usefulness, a moment which was fast approaching. There were whispers that the team may be getting suspicious about the Dominion's true agenda. The Council wasn't about to risk their powerful pawns turning on them. They could do too much damage.

The very abilities that made the Dominion Council fear them were the reasons Acosta wanted them on his side. Unfortunately, three quarters of the team were stubborn idealists, plagued by absurd notions of right and wrong. They should have learned long ago, as he did, that morality was for lesser beings. Damien doubted very seriously that he could get them to join him willingly, even if he told them the truth about the Dominion's plans for them. Fortunately, he had another option at his disposal.

His plan revolved around the feral, Shalimar Fox. All he needed to do was separate her from her teammates long enough to invade her mind with his mental powers and subjugate her to his will. He could then use her to collect the rest of the team. Once completely under his influence, Mutant X would become the vanguard of his attack on the Dominion headquarters, a Trojan Horse of sorts that would open the door for the rest of his operatives. Those arrogant fools on the Council wouldn't know what hit them.

Fox was the obvious choice for two reasons. First, she was known to be susceptible to this type of attack, having once been under the mental sway of the renegade mutant Gabriel Ashlocke for a short time. Second, he had the perfect lever to isolate her from her friends without arousing suspicion. What prodigal daughter wouldn't jump at the chance to reconcile with her estranged family, particularly if there was potentially a large amount of money involved? Naxcon's original owner had been Nicholas Fox, Shalimar's father. Damien was aware that Fox had provided for his daughter in his will; he had in fact suggested a couple of the provisions after he discovered she was part of Mutant X. After Fox's death, Damien merely waited until the proper time and then had the man's former secretary conveniently 'find' the daughter's email address among Nicholas' effects. This information was forwarded to the widow only a couple of days ago. As expected, the widow got in touch with her daughter, and his prospective cat's paw had taken the bait. She was now isolated on the West Coast, with her teammates a couple of thousand miles away. Perfect.

Well, almost perfect. Fox moved just a little more quickly than he anticipated. Damien had planned to be in San Francisco before her, but first he had this other detail to get out of the way. This niche company he was about to take over had a couple of recalcitrant board members who required 'persuasion' to vote his way. Damien needed to deal with this in person, as his powers weren't effective over a long distance, and this particular acquisition was too important to him to delay. But no matter. It would only take a couple of hours of his time, and then he would be headed to San Francisco. In the meantime he just might sample one of the Danish pastries the chef had on his cart.

Impending conquest always sharpened his appetite.

Shalimar paused in the doorway of the penthouse's spacious kitchen with the surreal sense that she had stumbled through a time warp. Olivia Fox Sheffield stood presiding over a hot griddle built into the top of the stove, a long-sleeved, brightly-flowered apron protecting her ivory silk blouse and tailored black slacks from spattering bacon grease. Tongs in hand, she deftly turned over each thick slice, then dumped a container of chopped potatoes onto the grill beside the bacon. A skillet full of French toast was cooking beside the griddle, the occasional pop of its egg-batter coating adding to the homey sounds of breakfast. Orange juice was already on the table next to a jarringly familiar Sevres china teapot painted with delicate blue flowers.

How many times as a child, awakened as she was this morning by the distinctive sound and smell of sizzling bacon, had she come across the tableau now before her? Shalimar couldn't even begin to guess. If she closed her eyes she could almost believe herself to be back in those idyllic days, before all the misunderstandings and lies tore her family apart, to a time when an ordinary little girl had two ordinary, loving parents, and 'normal' was something taken for granted. But Shalimar did not close her eyes. She kept them open, squarely facing the fact that there was no going back to that simpler time. The child was long gone. In her place stood a woman grown, one who had been tested by battle and fire, and now stood proud and strong and in command of her own destiny. No longer shackled by the pain of her past, but linked once more to a family she had long forsaken, she could now look toward a future filled with possibilities. After all these years she had come full circle.

That didn't mean, however, that she couldn't enjoy this particular bit of nostalgia. French toast with bacon and hash browns was another fondly-remembered meal from her childhood. Shalimar shook loose the last cobwebs of memory and took a deep, appreciative sniff of the delicious scents wafting through the air. Olivia glanced over her shoulder at the sound.

"Good morning."

Shalimar smiled. "Good morning." Her gaze traveled around the room from the cooking food to the elegantly dressed table. As usual, her mother had everything well in hand, but she asked the question anyway.

"Anything I can help with?"

"Breakfast is almost ready."

Lacking anything more constructive to do, Shalimar sat down at the table. A manila folder, creased with age, lay in the center, the edges of some yellowed papers sticking out the end. Curious, she opened it. An ornate page full of loops, whorls and fancy script lay on top. The name on it leaped up at her.

It was her birth certificate.

This shouldn't surprise her, she thought as she hesitantly, almost reverently touched the elegant writing. They were due in the lawyer's office in about an hour, and naturally they would have to furnish some proof of her identity. She had her driver's license, of course, and a few other things, but this…this was an acknowledgement by the world that nearly twenty-eight years ago a baby girl named Shalimar Catherine Fox had been born to Nicholas and Olivia Fox, and she was seeing it for the first time in her life. Shalimar's heart swelled, filled with emotions that she couldn't even name. Then, gently, carefully, she laid it aside.

The rest of the papers were filled with small print and enough legalese to make her eyes cross. Probably they had something to do with her father's bequest. Her feelings were still mixed about that. Though it turned out he wasn't the villain she thought he was for all those years, still she wasn't quite ready to forgive him for not being able to accept her for who she was. She resented that particular, admittedly human, failing, and resented even more that he would try to use his money to make up for his feet of clay, in essence to buy her love. Things might have been different if he had lived; if she had known earlier what she did now. Maybe there would have been a chance for them to really reconcile. Shalimar would never know.

In the meantime, there was the practical aspect of the matter to consider. Lexa made a good point about the cash coming in handy for their looming battle with the Dominion. It could well be that this money might make an important difference in the safety and security of herself and her friends. Maybe this was some weird sort of karma, the universe's way of giving her father a chance to make amends from beyond the grave. Maybe by doing it in the only manner she could accept – for the welfare of her friends – she was being given a chance to come to terms with who her father really was and find a measure of peace.

And maybe it was all just wishful thinking.

Her gaze wandered to the painted teapot steaming gently on the table, matching cups at each place, feeling a sense of déjà vu that took her all the way back to her sixth birthday. Her mother had taken her to the china cabinet, an impressive thing of cherry wood and etched glass, and one of the few things in the house she was strictly prohibited from touching. After impressing upon her how very fragile the contents were, Olivia opened the doors and carefully selected two china cups so dainty and elegant they must surely have been made for a princess. The cups were only to be used on very special occasions, her mother explained. A young lady reaching the important milestone of six years old was one of those occasions. The awestruck little girl was then allowed to carry one, slowly and with both hands, to the table. Milk filled the cup that time instead of tea, but it still qualified as her first real tea party. Here it was, another link with her past. It was amazing that the set still existed, and in such perfect condition.

She poured herself a cup, lifting the tea to her lips with both hands. The soothing herbal aroma wafted up to her sensitive nostrils, permeating her senses and gently easing her into the morning. It was an excellent blend, and she made a mental note to ask her mother what it was so she could find some when she got back home, but it wasn't what she needed right now. What she really needed was coffee – extra large and brewed strong enough to melt the patterned silverware. The lighter caffeine of the tea just wasn't enough to bring order to her sleep-deprived brain. One would have thought that it was the ambiguity of her feelings regarding her father and his legacy that kept her up half the night, but that wasn't the case. Another, more vital, issue took precedence, occupying her thoughts, even her dreams, in a way that would no longer be denied.

Brennan.

The two of them had talked far into the night, calling a halt only when Shal's cell phone battery gave out. Sitting there in the dark, pouring her heart and soul out to him across the miles, she felt a profound change in the connection they shared, a sense of something deeper, something richer, blossoming between them across the miles. In some indefinable way his voice, his very essence, wrapped itself around her, gathered her into the warm shelter of his arms, and held her close against his heart. She could feel it as surely and as tangibly as she felt his embrace back at Sanctuary; how, she didn't even try to fathom. All she knew was that it was real, it was right…and that there was no place on earth that she would rather be.

And just like that, she knew.

It wasn't as if she hadn't recognized what was happening. The signs were all there. He had long been her partner of choice when on assignment, but lately they were spending more and more off time together as well, not really doing much, just hanging out. Their horseplay was becoming more spirited; there was an underlying current of building sexual excitement that gave an extra spice to their little sallies, a charge in the atmosphere between them that had nothing to do with his electrical powers. They were touching more too, and those touches, while outwardly desultory, were becoming more lingering, more familiar. She liked the natural way his arm curled around her shoulders or waist, the feel of his hard muscles under her hands, against her back or side when she leaned against him, the sense of security and contentment she found when she unconsciously insinuated herself into his casual embrace. In those moments there was a part of her that recognized they might well be heading toward becoming lovers, but she always shunted it aside. She was having too much fun to spoil things by risking such a plunge, and suspected he felt the same. There were probably other reasons as well on both sides, or maybe it was just as simple as each waiting for the other to make the first move. Either way they kept edging toward that precipice, holding back, yet unable to deny the inexorable pull that kept drawing them toward something which both knew instinctively would change them forever.

Shalimar knew what her reason was. In nearly every other relationship she ever had there came a point when she felt stifled, when her partner tried to rein in the wildness and independence that was so much a part of her nature. What she eventually came to realize was that she had been subconsciously afraid that Brennan would do the same thing. Becoming lovers would give him certain rights, including the right to question behavior that affected them as a couple, such as her late-night hunting forays into the city. Her biggest fear had been that he would use that right to cage her spirit, that their love would become a rope that would ultimately strangle her.

On the other hand, she could not respect a doormat, someone so weak that she could walk all over him. What she wanted, what she longed for, was a balance; a partnership in every sense of the word. Brennan matched her strength for strength, not only in battle, where he had long since accepted her as an equal, but in the more subtle challenges of character and will. He was definitely an alpha male, but what he proved to her in the last couple of days was that he could walk that tightrope between strength and dominance. The scene at the airport was the clincher. He stood tall in the face of her anger at the suggestion that he accompany her, asserting his right to be concerned, to feel for her, without any hint of apology or concession. At the same time, by laying the choice of whether or not he could accompany her in her hands, he recognized that it was in fact her decision to make. Though he very much wanted to do otherwise, he was able to restrain his own protective tendencies and set a boundary without any prompting from her. More importantly, he stuck to that boundary, without putting any pressure on her to change her mind. A year ago he wouldn't have done that. Oh, they would no doubt have their clashes in the future; they were too much alike in temperament to think otherwise. Still, the fact that he was able to do it at all spoke volumes on his understanding and respect for who she was deep inside. It melted the last of her resistance and allowed her to accept the truth she had kept hidden in her heart for months.

She loved him.

There had been other men in her life, men who had qualities she admired, but as she got to know him she came to realize that no one she ever met put the whole package together like Brennan Mulwray. He was all man, handsome and virile, with a sexy, absolutely ripped body, and he moved with a confidence and an athletic grace that reminded her of a jaguar on the prowl. There was also an aura of danger around him that wasn't limited to his powers or fighting skill; he was the quintessential street-raised 'bad boy', edgy and full of fire, with a wild streak in his soul that matched her own. He was a natural leader, too; the first into danger and the last one out, smart, quick, and dependable, with the heart of a lion and a will of tempered steel. Moreover, he had an iron-clad personal code of honor and integrity that raised him head and shoulders above the average street punk. Those characteristics made for a potent combination.

And he was powerful. Oh, my, yes, and that in itself was enticing. Shalimar figured out long ago that she needed someone who could at the very least hold his own with her, and Brennan fit that bill in spades. In addition to his top-of-the-charts electrical abilities, there was no denying that he had muscle to spare, and he knew how to use it. Though her feral powers made her faster, more agile and physically stronger than he, in their sparring sessions he countered her mutant abilities with his nearly-equal speed, a much longer reach both in the scope of his electrical powers and in hand-to-hand fighting, and extensive formal martial-arts training from a Green Beret mentor that she didn't have. In fact, a fair portion of her own skill came from his tutelage. He was also a very tricky fighter, with the intuitive ability to analyze an opponent's style on the fly and devise a counter strategy, something she discovered to her detriment on a number of occasions. He wasn't intimidated by her, either, which was a delightful novelty among the men she had known. What pleased her the most, though, was that once Brennan discovered what she could do, he didn't hold back because she was a woman, and a petite one at that. He took his lumps and administered several of his own, making no apology when he scored a telling hit, and expecting none when she did. In retrospect, that may have been when she started falling for the big elemental. This equality in battle, plus the respect his abilities demanded of her, was just as attractive, just as tantalizing, as everything else about him. From that beginning they eventually developed a bond so deep that they were able to communicate beyond words through an understanding of each other's nature based on battle, trust, and an intuitive insight into the very depths of the other's soul.

He was her mate.

The realization made her tighten her grip on the fragile cup nearly to the point of shattering it. In acknowledging that truth she could also admit that she wanted him, with a fierceness that made her body quiver at the very thought. Wanted, though, was way too mild a word for the currents of electricity that zinged through her nerves when she lay stretched out on top of him in the woods of Stormking Mountain. It was decidedly pale and bland when it came to describing what she felt in his bedroom. The sight of him approaching like that, with a look on his face she had never seen before, his sculpted muscles rippling under bare, gleaming skin, jazzed her senses nearly to flashpoint, and her entire body tingled with anticipation. Her breathing quickened when he leaned in so close, and her pulse thundered in her ears, her senses igniting like a forest fire. His scent was so compelling, so raw and elemental, so utterly male, that she could literally taste it…taste him. And suddenly, she wanted nothing so much as to do just that. The abruptness and overwhelming ferocity of that want, that need, blindsided her, making her freeze in her tracks. Shalimar had to keep her hands clenched rigidly at her sides, because in that moment she knew with absolute certainty that if she gave in to that impulse even for an instant, she wouldn't have been able to stop there. She would have been all over him, her hands roaming wildly over the sleek, hard flesh they ached to explore, her mouth savoring the taste of him, the chemical changes in his skin and scent as he became more and more aroused. They would have ended up in his bed in short order.

Confused and thoroughly rattled by the sheer force of her reaction, she panicked and skittered away like a frightened schoolgirl, seeking the first distraction that came to hand. The memory made her wince. That certainly hadn't been one of her better moments. Coming after the way she cried on his shoulder he must have thought her completely mental. Next time would be different. Shalimar knew what she wanted now. The time for hesitation was past. She didn't think he would be too hard to convince.

And then what? What about the future? Was there even a future for them, what with the Dominion, Adam, Mutant X, and the whole genetic time bomb thing?

Don't go there, she cautioned herself. Don't start thinking long term. Deal with the present first. One thing at a time. With that wise counsel Shalimar let her imagination return to a more interesting topic, speculating on how it would be to make love with him, seeing his eyes go hot and smoky with passion, feeling his lips scorching hers, those big, strong hands setting her body ablaze, stroking and seeking, while her smaller ones returned the favor. He would be an exciting lover, she decided, one that she wouldn't have to hold back with. Brennan would more than hold his own with her, and would give as good as he got. At the same time he would be sensitive to her needs, something he demonstrated again last night. She felt heat stirring in her blood at the thought. One thing was clear – they were going to have to do something about this situation once she got home. There was no way she was going to be able to hide her feelings from him any longer.

Her thoughts were rather abruptly interrupted by a plate of hot food sliding under her nose. Olivia brought a second plate to the other place setting opposite her daughter.

"So," she said, seating herself, apparently not noticing the younger woman's startled mien. She poured herself a cup of tea, then picked up her fork and started digging into a piece of French toast. "Tell me about your life. Your father said you worked in a clothing store. I must say I was surprised. I can't imagine you settling on an occupation so … confining."

Though the tone of the words was even and natural, Shalimar caught the older woman looking pointedly at her hands, and knew she was busted. They were not the hands of someone who handled fabric day in and day out, but those of someone who used them in much rougher ways. Obviously Olivia hadn't bought that story for a minute. But then, she had always been harder to fool than her father.

Well, Mom, it's like this – I'm part of a team of super-powered mutants, and we spend our time taking down the bad guys and saving the world. Yeah, that would go over big. Shalimar took another bite, chewing slowly as she tried to come up with something plausible. Nothing came to her, so she went with evasion.

"It's….complicated."

Olivia's eyes narrowed.

"Which means it's something you don't want me to know about – something either secretive, dangerous, or both."

Silence hung in the air. Shalimar industriously applied herself to her breakfast.

"All right, I won't pry. But do you like what you do? Do you find it fulfilling?"

"Most of the time."

"What about outside your job? Are you happy? Is there someone special in your life?"

Shalimar nearly choked on a forkful of hash browns. Like just about every other kid in the world, she had been half convinced that her mother could read her mind, particularly at the most inopportune times. Given that they hadn't seen each other in seventeen years, Shal hadn't expected the parental telepathy to still be functioning. It was more than a little disconcerting to have it suddenly resurface, especially considering what she had just been thinking about. She felt her cheeks redden. Olivia smiled knowingly.

"Yes, I can see that there is. Tell me about him."

"That's….also complicated."

"It usually is. Let me ask this - can he keep up with you? Does he know what you do? Can you be yourself with him?"

"We work together." Shalimar decided she could tell her mother that much at least. "He knows about my mutation; in fact, he has abilities of his own. And yes - he gets a little chauvinistic sometimes, but he does accept me for who I am."

"I would like to meet him sometime. He sounds very special."

A warm glow lit Shalimar's eyes. She raised her cup and took a swallow of the excellent tea, thinking of the word Olivia just supplied and how totally inadequate it was. 'Special' couldn't even begin to describe this man of fire and courage and so much more. The corners of her mouth quirked up in a secret little smile.

"You could say that."