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Authors note.

As always, my thanks to Neurparenthetical, whose untiring vigilance makes my illegible scribble readable. Any residual errors are left there purposely in order to give you guys something to do.

Enjoy. – and please, whatever you feel about the story feedback is always appreciated. I can’t improve if I don’t know where I am going wrong.

Caleb 14 – The Showdown

Saturday morning, I got up at four. Everyone else seemed to be having a lie-in. I did a couple of hours of martial arts and then decided to go out for a run. The dogs came with me, and I had a lot of fun running with four hounds loping along beside me or dashing off to investigate something or other before catching up to me again.

Breakfast was over by the time I got back, but Cheryl had saved me a plate - well, more of a tray - of food. My appetite seemed to have gone into overdrive since I’d ramped up my TK usage. That was another reason it had felt so wrong to accept money from Dean for the work I was doing. I must have been eating them out of house and home.

Having showered and eaten, I was just about to join the rest of the family on the deck when my phone rang. It was my mother. For a moment, my finger hovered over the ‘Reject Call’ button, but I figured I would have to speak to her at some point. With a sigh, I answered.

“Hello?” I said.

“Caleb?” she asked.

I toyed with several sarcastic responses but decided against. “Yes?”

“Where have you been?” she asked. “I have tried and tried calling you and you haven’t returned any of my calls.”

“I wasn’t in the mood for any more lies,” I said without heat.

“Lies?” she sounded genuinely puzzled. “What lies?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “let’s start with twenty years of lies about who I was. Of my power, of my family, of being manipulated into becoming another pawn of a living ancestor I never even knew existed.”

“You don’t understand, Caleb,” she said, “We had to…”

“No,” I interrupted her. “You didn’t. Your job was to prepare me to take on a massive responsibility, not to lie to me for my entire life and then present me to them on my twentieth birthday, a literal virgin sacrifice.”

“But we didn’t know,” she argued. “It was only when the amulet came off that we knew that you had any power at all.”

“More lies,” I said. I was getting angrier but managing to hold a measured tone. “Maggie already told me that she saw me when I was three days old, and even then, she knew that I was the most powerful user she had ever seen. There is no way that you didn’t know I had power, and that one day I would be faced with dealing with them, with zero warning or preparation.

“Don’t tell me that she didn’t tell you,” I continued, “because I won’t believe you. Not unless we are face to face and I can see you when you tell me. You know I’ll see the truth then, so if there is nothing else you would like to lie to me about, then I have things to do.”

“Caleb,” she repeated. She was full-on crying. “You don’t understand. We had to…”

“You already said that,” I interrupted her again. “You had to follow their instruction? By what law? By what right did they decree that you had to put your child in so much danger? You may as well have sat me in a room full of loaded guns and just hoped I didn’t figure out how to pull a trigger. I could have seriously hurt someone, killed someone even, and whose fault would it have been?

“Even if - and it’s a big if - I didn’t get into legal trouble, I would have had to live with what I had done for the rest of my life. All because you were too weak or stupid to put the needs of your own child before the edicts of ‘The Matriarch.’ So much for maternal instinct.

“So, if there’s nothing else, Mother, I have things I need to be doing.” I ended the call. I was surprised to find that I had tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t decide whether they were tears of rage or sadness.

I looked at my phone. The picture of Angela holding her shirt up to show me her ass was on the screen and I wondered. What if? What could have happened? How easy would it have been for me to make her come back to me, peel those painted-on jeans down and…

My phone’s screen shattered as it hit the wall.

I should have been told, warned, and better prepared. I could have done anything, hurt anyone.

I felt arms encircle me, pulling me into a motherly embrace. Cheryl was holding me, talking softly and assuring me that things would be okay. Gently, she led me into the living room, and sat me on the couch, taking a seat beside me and holding my hand.

“Caleb,” she said quietly, “let me help. Tell me what hurts.”

“I don’t know how to explain,” I said.

“Just say what you are feeling,” she responded. “I promise, I’m not here to criticize or judge you. I just want to help you find your way.”

“I just feel so alone,” I said. “I know that sounds stupid. I have three wonderful girlfriends, so how can I be alone? But everyone I thought I could rely on has lied to me my entire life. When you can’t trust your own parents - who raised you - to be honest, and responsible, and tell the truth, and then you find out your entire childhood has been some macabre parody of The Truman Show... how can you trust anyone after that?”

“What about the twins?” she asked gently.

“I love them,” I said, “I really do. But they are so free with their power; it’s like a drug. They use it to pep me up or settle me down, to get me to sleep at night. Just sometimes, I long for a night I can’t sleep. Sometimes I can’t tell if what I’m feeling is real or just something manufactured by them.

“When I was a kid, we used to get ice cream with sprinkles on, and I could never get enough sprinkles. So when I went to University and I could buy what I wanted, I got myself a whole bowl of sprinkles and ate them. I made myself sick, and now I can’t even look at the things.

“It’s kind of like that. There are too many sprinkles. I need some normalcy.”

“And Jules?” she asked. Strangely, there was no edge to her voice. I would have thought she’d have felt defensive on her daughter’s behalf. If she did, she hid it very well.

“…is the one person I am certain of,” I said. “But that puts so much pressure on her. It’s not fair. She is a beautiful young woman with enough of her own issues, without her having to take on mine.”

“I am prepared to bet,” Cheryl said, “that your parents love you too.”

“Then how could they lie to me all this time,” I asked, anguish in my voice, “and leave me so woefully unprepared?”

“Did they?” she asked. “Did they leave you unprepared?”

“They didn’t tell me about my powers,” I said, getting angry but trying not to raise my voice. I knew I wasn’t angry at her.

“Caleb,” she said softly, “I saw that picture, of that girl on your phone. She is very attractive. You had power. Once you realized that, why did you not just make her come to you, take off her clothes, and have sex with you?”

“What?” I was astounded she would even ask me that. “That would be rape. I could never do that to anyone.”

“Why not?” she asked. “I’m sure you could even make her feel like she wanted it in the first place - that it was her idea, even. So, where’s the harm? Who would care?”

“I would care!” my voice was starting to get an edge to it now.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because…”

“Because?”

“Because I was brought up to…” I tailed off.

She took my hand.

“Do your parents have power?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Not so you’d notice, no.”

“So, they had no way of controlling you,” she said, “or resisting your powers, even as a child. All they could do was bring you up to be the best person you could be. It looks to me like they did a pretty good job. The fact that you didn’t go out and force yourself on any good-looking person you could find speaks volumes not only about your personality but also about your upbringing. They prepared you as best they could with the tools they had.

“They had to defer to others with more power and experience regarding your powers. In hindsight, it may not have been the best course of action, but, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty. I can tell you this as a parent: there is no way that you could have turned out as well as you did, without a solid, loving family behind you.”

I sat, my hand still in hers, starting to feel a little ashamed about the way I had spoken to my mother. I had been angry and thought I had a right to be, and I possibly did to some extent, but I knew that Cheryl was right. Neither of my parents had any significant power, and they couldn’t have gone against the mighty Eversons and their edicts for keeping children in ignorance - especially since their own matriarch, Maggie Forbes, subscribed to that practice as well.

I swore then, that no child of mine would be touched by an amulet. They would be brought up with the full knowledge of their powers, and prepared for when they had to go out into the world and make their own way.

“Why don’t I see if your parents would like to come up here for a couple of days?” she asked. “They could meet Jules and get to know us, and maybe give you a chance to talk. Neutral ground.”

“Neutral?” I asked, and she smiled.

“Well,” she said. “They don’t need to know it’s your home turf, do they?”

I was touched by that, and by that point, I really had started to think of the farm as my home. It wasn’t the place, though; it was the people. I thought back to Dean’s half-joking offer of employment and knew for a fact I could do a lot worse.

“If you think that would be okay with Dean,” I said.

She huffed. “I’ll tell him it’s okay with him,” she said, then grinned. “I choose his skivvies too.”

I laughed.

Jules came into the living room and sat on the other side of me. “Here,” she said, handing me my phone.

“It’s a good thing we have the same phone,” she said. “I had a couple of spare screens.”

While Cheryl and I had been talking, she had repaired the phone I had smashed.

“Did you have to use that hot air thingummy?” I asked, knowing she had been dying to try it out.

She shook her head. “Not this time.” She looked into my eyes. “Caleb, do you remember Point One?” She was referring to the conversation from the diner.

I nodded, feeling even more ashamed, but despite what had happened in the diner, there was still some lingering uncertainty in my mind regarding the twins’ feelings.

“It’s okay to be scared,” she said, “and I understand that when you’re scared you get angry, and that’s okay too. But you can’t lose sight of the facts. I love you; Mary loves you; Amanda loves you. Ness loves you; Mom loves you, and your Sugar Daddy loves you too.” That raised a chuckle. “Your parents also love you. They made mistakes, sure, but they were not the ones manipulating you. They were being manipulated too.

“You can’t be angry at the entire world,” she went on. “You need someone on your side, and if not your parents and us, then who? At least speak to them, face to face, and then see how you feel.”

I nodded.

Cheryl held her hand out for my phone. “May I?” she asked.

I unlocked my phone and handed it to her. She looked at my recent calls, found my mother’s number, and called her. Jules took my hand and led me out of the room, while her mother spoke to mine.

The twins were out on the deck, and they both came over and enveloped me in a hug. I was expecting to be wrapped in feelings of love and trust, but there was nothing. I caught a fleeting thought from Amanda - ‘No sprinkles’ - and I realized. They were deliberately not using their powers. They must have overheard our conversation.

“Your parents will be here in the morning,” Cheryl said as she came out onto the deck and handed my phone back to me.

“But they live in…” I began.

“Dean is sending the jet for them,” she said, walking back into the house.

My jaw dropped and my eyes bugged out of my head.

I looked at Jules, and she shrugged. “Well, it’s a long drive,” she said as if that explained everything.

+++++

I was in the barn an hour later, training my TK. I was picking up bales of hay and moving them side to side. I had started with just one, and although it moved easily enough, I had wanted to start off gently. Now I was moving them twenty at a time. It wasn’t exactly uncomfortable, but I could feel that it was starting to become a little difficult. I guessed each bale weighed in at about six hundred pounds, so I was moving twelve thousand pounds back and forward. I had been doing that for about an hour and was starting to get tired.

I heard the door open behind me, and Mary’s voice. “Caleb.”

I turned to her, holding my arms out. She came and hugged me. She was a little stiff though, and I wondered why. I soon found out.

“Grandmother just called,” she said. “She is asking if she can come up with your parents.”

“That’s not really for me to say,” I said. “It’s not my jet, nor my house. You need to ask Cheryl.”

“I spoke to Cheryl and Dean,” she replied. “They both say it’s up to you. They are okay with her coming if you are, but if you say no, then it’s no.”

I was touched by their consideration, but I’d been hoping that the decision wouldn’t fall to me. I didn’t want to deny the twins access to their grandmother - they missed her - but I didn’t know if I was ready to see her yet. My ideas about how she might redeem herself had felt great when they’d just been ideas. The possibility of them becoming a reality shook my certainty. I also had worries about what she might get up to with access to the twins. I doubted very much that her manipulations were over. I really wanted to say no but knew that wasn’t realistic. If I didn’t let her come up, then the twins would likely want to go to hers at some point, and that would be worse.

I figured that if worse came to worst, I could probably hide in one corner of the Steadmans’ grand manor and barely even detect her presence.

“I don’t know that I’m ready to talk to her yet,” I said, “but I won’t object to her coming up. You and Amanda have missed her and should get the chance to see her. As long as she doesn’t try to corner me, I can be polite to her. Maybe when we meet face to face, I might feel different about talking to her.”

“Thank you,” she said and left the barn. I turned back toward the bales of hay and realized that during that whole conversation, the hay had been floating mid-air, waiting for me to direct it to its destination. I stacked it neatly back in position, feeling the true meaning of having a weight lifted from my mind as I set it down.

As I entered the kitchen, Ness came to me with a tray, holding several sandwiches and a drink.

“Here,” she said. “You get hungry when you have been training, and it’s at least a couple of hours until dinner.”

“You’ll make someone a lovely wife someday,” I quipped at her, and she smiled.

“One day,” she said, “I’m going to remind you that you said that.” She left me to my snack.

The mood wasn’t exactly somber for the rest of the day, but everyone seemed a little subdued. As we sat on the deck in the evening after dinner, I thought about my parents coming up the next day, and what I was going to say. When I went to bed, I lay staring at the ceiling for a long time. I was still awake when the girls came to bed a few hours later, and later still when they were all asleep. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

I dragged myself out of bed at four, feeling both restless and tired. I supposed I must have slept some, but it had been one of those nights where you’d see every hour in. I decided to give up on the idea of getting any more sleep.

I knew I was in the wrong frame of mind to do martial arts, so I decided to run. The dogs were happy to come along and before I knew it, I was out in the fields. I hadn’t really had a destination in mind, but I found myself in the north field, near the site of Jonas’s accident.

I went over to where the tractor was still lying, upside-down in the ditch. The ground around it had been churned up where they had tried to get a backhoe to pull the fifteen-thousand-pound machine out of the mud. They had not been successful because the backhoe didn’t have the brute force required to pull it free. Dean had inquired about getting heavy lifting gear, and someone was coming Monday to survey the site.

I looked at the tractor. I had been training my TK, lifting twelve thousand pounds of hay for an hour at a time. I looked around before setting my mind to pulling the machine out of the mud.

It was heavy. It felt much heavier than the hay. I guessed that as well as its own weight, there was still water in the cab, and it was also kind of stuck in the mud. I tried rocking it backward and forwards to break the seal and it made some rather disgusting noises as it came free.

I pulled again and the tractor started to move. I wouldn’t try to lift it into the air, just slide it further up until the side of the machine was further onto solid ground, then tilt it up once there was enough room, such that the roof would no longer snag on the opposite wall of the ditch.

I did feel my nose start to bleed again, and I wiped the blood away as I pushed harder. There was no pain, though. I decided I would stop if I got the pain again. Finally, I thought that the tractor was far enough up that I could rotate it back onto its wheels. For some reason that was actually easier. I wasn’t trying to lift the entire machine, just rotate it against the lip of the ditch. The lip did give way some, but I held the tractor from sliding back, and within a few minutes, I had it on its wheels. I pushed it a good ten feet from the ditch.

I heaved a sigh of relief. “That’s another weight off my mind,” I quipped to myself, grinning. After checking my nose had stopped bleeding, I started my run back toward the house. I was starting to feel more than a little hungry.

I felt cold wash over my back almost as soon as I got into the shower, and I turned to find Jules, naked, behind me.

“Here,” she said, “let me help.”

She began to wash me, top to toe.

“You have blood on your face,” she said. “What happened?”

“Just got a little carried away training,” I said. “I was fine; it didn’t hurt at all.”

“You need to be careful,” she said. “At least have someone with you when you try stuff like that. What would have happened if you’d passed out again?”

“I had someone with me,” I said. “I had all four dogs with me. It would have been like an episode of Lassie.”

She smiled. “Still,” she said. “Please, if you are going to do something you haven’t done before, at least let us know what you are doing.”

I nodded.

She completed my wash, head to toe, including all my ‘important little places.’ I thought back to something she had said a few weeks ago: that my body would stop reacting to her once it figured out it wasn’t worth wasting the resources. She had been right. Even though she had washed me everywhere, I had not become aroused at all. It was just pleasant, loving attention.

I returned the favor, and when we were both clean, we went down for breakfast. I cleared my plate for a second time.

“Wow!” said Ness. “Hungry much?” She smiled at me. Both she and Cheryl were used to my much-increased appetite by then, and so made allowances. I must have been a very expensive guest to feed.

Dean’s phone rang, and Cheryl shot him a look. She wasn’t a fan of phones at the table. He tilted it to her to show her the caller ID: Billy.

“Hey Billy,” he said, connecting the call. “What’s up?”

“You were where?” he asked. “It’s out?” He glanced at me.

“Yes, sorry,” he said. “An old pal of mine showed up with some gear and helped me out yesterday. I meant to tell you. No, just get it towed to the shed. Let’s see if it is salvageable. Okay, yeah, sorry again. Can you call them and tell them we don’t need it now? Okay, thanks.”

He ended the call and turned his eyes to me. I held his gaze, doing my best to look innocent.

“Don’t give me that wide-eyed innocent look,” he growled. “I have two girls and they are both far better at it than you.”

“What?” asked Cheryl, looking from Dean to me.

“Billy just called to tell me that a certain tractor is no longer in a certain ditch,” he said, “but is sitting pretty, back on its wheels in the north field.”

Cheryl turned her eyes to me.

“Caleb?”

“What?” I asked.

“What did you do?”

“Me?” I asked. “Nothing! I was just training my TK is all. I got bored with moving hay bales, and while I was out on my run, I decided to see if I could pull It out.”

“A hay bale weighs six hundred pounds,” Dean snapped. “That thing is thirteen thousand pounds.”

“You think I have been moving one bale at a time?” I asked him.

He opened his mouth and then closed it.

I sent him the memory of my previous day’s training, where I had been doing countless ‘reps’ with twelve thousand pounds of hay for an hour.

“I thought…” he said.

“You heard Vince,” I said. “His TK in Iraq could lift an APC with a tenth of my power. I just needed to train up a little. I promise, other than a little nosebleed, and being hungry, it wasn’t a problem. There was no pain or dizziness or anything else.”

“I guess that explains the appetite,” said Cheryl, “but please don’t do stuff like that alone. If you had had a problem…”

“I already gave him that lecture while we were in the shower,” Jules said.

I saw Ness’s eyes widen. Strangely, neither Dean nor Cheryl reacted.

“Did he listen?” Cheryl asked.

Jules looked at me. “I don’t know,” she said. “Did you?”

The gazes of the entire table focused on me, and I blushed, then nodded sheepishly.

“Then we’ll call that done,” said Dean, “and say thank you. The cost of hiring the gear to lift it out was one thing, but all that heavy equipment would have been difficult to get out there, and it would have torn up the pastures. You saved us a ton of grief.”

We were just finishing up breakfast when Dean got a text.

“That’s Gerry,” he said. “They just landed; they’ll be here in half an hour.”

My stomach tensed, and all of a sudden, eating that massive breakfast didn’t seem like such a good idea. Amanda’s arm sneaked around me. I could feel love and comfort from her, but I could also tell she wasn’t using her powers. It was my own empathy just picking up what she was feeling for me, and I liked that. It somehow felt more honest - more genuine.

I relaxed and kissed her cheek. “Thanks,” I said.

“What for?” she asked.

“For just being there,” I said. “I know it has been difficult - for you, especially, because you just have so much love, and are just trying to make everything right.”

“We’ll always be there for you,” she said. “All of us.”

When we heard the car on the drive, we all went out front to meet them. Dean, Cheryl, and Ness stood together. Mary, Amanda, and Jules stood with me. I found it interesting that the dogs, who had also come out to meet the car, had all taken station around me. The biggest of them, a bitch called Terra, sat beside me and pushed her head under my hand.

The car pulled up, and Dianna and my parents got out. The driver unloaded some cases from the trunk, and then drove off.

Meanwhile, everyone went to meet the guests - everyone except me. I stayed with the dogs.

I heard Jules being introduced to my parents as my girlfriend but didn’t see any surprise. Obviously, Dianna had brought them up to speed on that score. Ness did manage to shake them a little when she introduced herself to them as my new little sister.

Finally, my parents were walking in my direction. Dianna lagged behind, talking to the twins. I really didn’t know what to do, or say. My mother looked as nervous as I felt. My dad also hung back a little, sensing that she should be the one to open the conversation.

“Caleb,” she said, a little tremor in her voice.

“Mom,” I replied.

“She didn’t tell me,” she said. “Maggie Forbes looked me straight in the eye and told me that until you were twenty-one there would be no way to know if you had power.”

That was the truth. I could see it in her mind. She was offering me a memory. I took it, and saw for myself the lie that they had been told. Even back then, Maggie hadn’t looked any different - perhaps a little less grey in her hair, but not much.

I still didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t being difficult; I just couldn’t move. My mind was full of all the terrible things I had said to her, and the worse things I had thought about her - about them both.

“Mom,” I choked, “I’m…”

And then we were hugging and crying. I felt my dad’s arms encircle the pair of us.

By the time it was over, we were alone - apart from Terra, who had apparently stayed to provide moral support. Everyone else had decided to give us space to reconcile, knowing that we would go find them when we were ready.

“We have a lot to talk about,” Mom said, “but we have time. Can we go find the others?”

I nodded and led them into the house. I figured everyone would be out on the deck, and I was right.

Dianna caught my eye as I came through the door, but otherwise made no attempt to speak to me. She had obviously decided to let me make the first move, which suited me. I wasn’t sure if I would speak to her, or just leave her and the twins to catch up.

I took my parents over to where Dean and Cheryl were sitting with Ness and Jules, and we sat.

My mom looked at Cheryl. “Thank you for looking after him,” she said. “I was so worried for him. So much has happened in his life recently; he hasn’t known which way to turn.”

“He’s a good man,” said Cheryl, “caught up in a very strange set of circumstances. Until we met him, I had no idea that the powers he has were real, and I’m struggling to get my head around it. I have no idea how it must be for him suddenly being thrust into the middle of it, with no warning - not to mention a four-way relationship with the twins and my daughter.”

My mom frowned. “Does that not bother you?” she asked. “The thought of your daughter being in a relationship with a boy who already has two other girlfriends?”

Cheryl smiled. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “if you had asked me that question a month ago, I guess it would have bothered me. But there are two things that make the difference. Firstly, your de***********ion of their relationship isn’t correct. You say that Jules is in a relationship with a boy who has two other girls, but she isn’t. Jules is in a relationship with each of them. She loves them individually, and each of them loves her. So, rather than it being a boy with three girlfriends, it is four people whom all love each other.

“And secondly, they saved her life - Caleb, multiple times. Jules was ready to step off a six-story building, and the three reasons she didn’t are sitting with us. They could have left it at that, handed her over to medical professionals who would have probably medicated her, and I would have ended up with a broken, confused shell of a daughter with a lifetime of struggles ahead. Don’t get me wrong; I would still have been eternally grateful that they had saved her, but that’s not what they did. They took her in, brought her into their lives, surrounded her with their love, and accepted her for who she is. I now have a strong, healthy, and happy daughter, whom I know is in a good place with good people. So, to answer your question, no, it doesn’t bother me, I’m grateful for it.”

“He saved her multiple times?” asked my dad.

Dean grinned, and I groaned. I knew he would have to tell the story. I saw Cheryl’s lip quirk.

I hid my face in my hands as my parents chuckled at my embarrassment, but I could see that under the amusement was pride - pride in the boy that they had brought up, and in the man he had become. Cheryl’s words rang true. They had been the ones to raise me, and, even though I believed that I would make some different decisions with my own children, I knew then that some of theirs had flowed from Maggie Forbes’ deception. Moreover, I remembered all the many, many times in the past few months that I’d second-guessed and criticized my own decisions. Granted that those decisions had been ones I’d made for myself, but kids are kids. Someone has to be in charge of them for some period of time.

I knew I needed to acknowledge all of that, but I also had to, very gently, let them know that their job was done. They needed to accept that I would be making all of my own decisions from now on.

It didn’t feel like the right time for that discussion, though. I decided it could wait – maybe an hour, or a day, or maybe even a few weeks. I wanted one night, at least, where we could all just enjoy being an even-larger family.

Mary came over, carrying a large, old-looking book. She passed it to Jules. “Dianna brought this for us,” she said. “It’s what you might call the family grimoire. All the rituals known to the Everson family are faithfully documented. As she told us before, most people think it’s a load of mumbo-jumbo, but since our bond, there is a renewed interest from some quarters. It’s not the only copy, but it’s one of only twelve in existence. They are quite valuable, if not in a cash sense, then in a historical and sentimental sense, so please be careful with it. She says we can hold onto it until we are done.”

Jules nodded, and then looked across at Dianna, who was looking over. Jules glanced at me, a flash of uncertainty in her eyes.

“Go make up,” I said. “I’m not sure if I’m ready yet, but if you are, then it doesn’t worry me at all. I know you will always have my back.”

Jules smiled before leaning across to kiss me. “Always,” she said. She got up and went over to Dianna. I saw Dianna smile and then stand up, and the two of them hugged. The sight made me feel good.

Mary sat down in the chair that Jules had vacated.

“How are you girls doing?” asked my mother.

“It’s been an ‘interesting’ time,” said Mary. “We are doing our best to keep up, and I’m sure things will settle down - hopefully soon. We have two more years left of our degree. We could do with some peace to finish our education.

“As it is, we will have to go back two weeks early and hit the tail end of summer school so we can take our finals with those who needed to re-sit theirs. We might be in trouble if we fail any, but I’m confident we can get through this year okay.”

“Are you moving back into the dorms?” my dad asked. “Dianna told us that the house had been sold, and since Caleb ‘resigned,’ she can’t get him in anywhere else.”

I glanced at Dean. “Can I tell them you bought the house for Jules?”

He nodded slowly.

“We’re staying in the house,” I said. “Dean was the one that bought it, to give Jules some stability.”

Jules walked back over, and, seeing that there were no free seats, promptly curled up in my lap.

“I guess that makes me a kept man,” I said, putting my arm around her. She chuckled.

Ness stood up. “I’d best make a start on dinner,” she said.

“Want some help?” I asked, but she snorted.

“Yes please,” she scoffed. “You can help by staying the hell out of my kitchen. The last time you tried to help you burned the water for the potatoes. How can you even do that?”

“It’s a talent,” I said, and she ruffled my hair as she went past.

My parents looked at Ness’s retreating back, then at me, and finally at Cheryl and Dean.

“He’s the only one that won’t admit to it,” Cheryl said. “She has laid her claim, and the second she is eighteen…”

“And you are okay with that?” asked my dad.

Dean shrugged. “There’s time for her to change her mind,” he said, “I know her, and she won’t, but there is still time. Caleb has made it clear that he won’t even talk to her about it until she is of age. And I know he loves her as much as we do. She has adopted him as a big brother, so he can be comfortable in himself with how much he does love her.

“If they do end up together,” he concluded, “I will be happy, knowing that my daughter will be surrounded by people who love her and will take care of her.”

Jules reached up and gently pushed my mouth closed.

“And you girls?” my mother asked Mary.

“We promised Caleb we wouldn’t discuss it until she is eighteen,” she answered, “but we love our little sister dearly.”

I felt frustration from Ness over the bond.

“What’s up, Squirt?”

I felt her indignance. “Squirt?”

“It’s a sign of affection, a pet name.”

“I can’t get this jar open,” she thought.

“Show me,” I sent, wondering if I could do it from my chair.

She visualized the jar in front of her and I reached out with my TK. The jar popped open.

I felt her amusement. “That looked really creepy,” she thought. “How far away can you do that from?”

“I have no idea,” I returned. “I didn’t even know I could. Maybe we should test it sometime.”

“Sure, thanks for the help.”

“Anytime.”

Cheryl went to help Ness with dinner, and Dean and my dad started chatting about farm machinery. I was pleasantly lost in my own thoughts with Jules on my lap when my mom spoke.

“When are you going to speak to Maggie?” she asked.

“I wasn’t planning on speaking to her at all,” I responded.

“Caleb,” she said, “she isn’t just going to go away. She told us how powerful you are, and that if you weren’t going to work for her, then…”

“Maggie Forbes is a lying, manipulative bitch,” I stated firmly. “If she wants me to work for her, then she will have to come and ask, and make me a decent offer. I am done with being led around by the nose, or any other part of my anatomy.”

I smiled at Mary when I said that, to show I hadn’t been digging at her. She returned the smile; she understood.

“I can’t be a kept man all my life,” I went on. “I’m going to have to start paying my way. So, I need a decent job, with prospects and a decent salary. If she can offer me that, then I might consider going to work for her. If I get other offers, then I’ll have to consider them.”

“But she’s your…”

“It’s not a family business,” I said. “It’s the FBI. Her being related to me has no bearing on my wanting to work for them. From what I have seen of her as a person, I don’t really want to have anything to do with her. Maybe that will change if I get to know her, but our familial relationship has absolutely no bearing on my decision.

“I get that she’s a big deal in the Bureau and that she felt she had to make decisions about me based on that. And I can almost respect that. But none of those decisions were made about Caleb, her great-great-grandson. They were made about a man with a dangerous power. That’s fine. But she can’t have it both ways. She can’t now play the ‘family’ card when she finds that her big stick has suddenly turned into a wet noodle.

“You’ve done your part. Even though I still think your decision not to tell me about my powers was not the right one, we can agree to disagree on that. As Cheryl reminded me, you brought me up, and taught me my core morality and values. And it was that that prevented me from abusing my power more than I did when I figured it out. Cheryl thinks you did a good job, and so do I, so thank you.

“It’s time I made my own decisions. I’ll listen to advice, and consider it, but not just from you. I’ll be listening to Mary, Amanda, Jules, to Dean and Cheryl, and anyone else whose opinion I value. And then we - us four - will decide what’s best for us.”

My mother sat back in her chair. I could see the wheels turning. I looked at my father. I knew he wouldn’t really have much to say. He left these kinds of discussions to my mother.

Ness called us all in for dinner, and, even with the extra three people, the table was still only half full. The meal, as always, was amazing. Ness apparently wanted to become a chef and had taken over all the cooking in the household - especially when there were guests. Cheryl had gone in to help her, but only with the prep. Though we’d all gotten into the habit of helping her clear up after, she didn’t mind doing that part either.

When she had told me earlier to stay out of ‘her’ kitchen, she hadn’t been joking. She considered the kitchen to be her domain, and her parents, glad that she had such a passion, were happy to indulge her.

As we ate, I could feel Dianna’s eyes on me. I purposely didn’t look in her direction, engaging in light conversation with others. Since she was seated two places to my left, it wasn’t hard not to have to look at her. I felt her frustration, but she didn’t attempt to use her powers – I guess she had been warned about that – nor did she try and speak to me directly. She was waiting for me to make the first move. Tonight wasn’t going to be the night for that.

After dinner, Dean took three bottles of beer out onto the deck. Out of habit, I followed, and I would guess that someone clued my dad in, as he followed soon after.

We sat in companionable silence for a while, sipping at our beers. I think this was the first time he had seen me drink alcohol, but he didn’t make an issue of it.

We sat out there in total silence for an hour before the door opened and the others came out to join us. Jules quirked an eyebrow at me, and I shrugged. I had found it telling that my father had had nothing to say to me, nor I to him.

I looked at my watch; it was nine thirty. I was tired, having not slept the night before, and so I decided to go to bed. I kissed my mom, Cheryl and all the girls goodnight, nodded in Dianna’s direction, and went up to our room.

Amanda padded in a few minutes later as I lay down to sleep.

“Would it be okay if I joined you?” she asked.

“You have to ask?” I said. “This is your bed too.”

“I thought you wanted to be alone,” she said.

I shook my head.

She snuggled up against me, her head on my chest, and looked up at me.

“Go ahead,” I said a little wearily. I’d figured she was here to advocate for her grandmother.

“Are you going to speak to Grams?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly.

“But you said she could come,” she argued. “Wasn’t that so you could…”

“Not really,” I responded. “I said she could come so that you and Mary would get to see her. Not so that I could talk to her.”

“But I thought you had a plan?” she said.

“I do,” I replied, “but I’m not sure if I’m ready yet, or if she will even go for it. She may tell me to go fuck myself.”

“Please, Caleb,” she said, “you really hurt her at the house. She loves you and needs to know you forgive her.”

“That’s just it,” I said. “Right now, I don’t know that I do, or if I ever will. I know this puts both you and Mary in an impossible position, having two people you love at each other’s throats, but you need to let us resolve it between ourselves.”

“What did she do that was so bad?” she asked.

I sighed. I didn’t know where to start.

“She uses people,” I said, “and seems to have no qualms about doing so, no matter who it is. She used you and Mary to control me at my parents’ house. I have to believe she didn’t know about the bond. Jesus, if I thought she did, there could be no forgiveness ever. Even if I accept she didn’t know about the bond, I still have real problems with her whoring out her two granddaughters just to control me. And yes, I know you have different ideas about ‘sharing’ and sex, but when it comes right down to it, she wasn’t getting you to have sex with me for love, or even for pleasure. It was for control.

“Next,” I said, “she used Jules. She had lined up the house and the consultancy and the trainer, all so she could both keep me where she could keep an eye on me and push me in any direction she wanted. When I rebelled and told her no, she used Jules to persuade me that accepting all of the arrangements I had just rejected was the only way to keep her safe.

“I don’t know how much of what went on was her, and how much was ordered from above. But there are only so many times you can claim that you were only obeying orders. At some point, you have to question those orders. She claims to love me, and you too, and yet she had no qualms in manipulating you to get you to try and manipulate me in the house. She had to know I would see through it, so what does that say about her willingness to once again to throw you under the bus? Or maybe she was counting on the fact that the bond would mean I wouldn’t get angry with you.

“I can’t trust her, Amanda, and I know that will be hard for you to hear, given how much you love her, but it’s how I feel.”

Amanda looked defeated. I guessed that she had hoped to be able to convince me to move things along and enact my ‘revenge’ on Dianna, and then everything would be all right again. The more I thought about it, the less appetite I had for either the plan or the reconciliation.

I suspected that if I did end up joining the FBI, I would have to work with her. Even though I didn’t anticipate being happy about it to start, I could imagine a situation where a working relationship rebuilt some trust over time. For the moment, I agreed with Mary: we needed to get through the remaining two years of our study.

“She has to go back home tomorrow,” Amanda said. “She wants us to go with her.”

“Us?” I asked. “‘Us’ as in you and Mary, or ‘us’ as in all of us?”

“She would like you to come,” she said, “but if not, then Mary and I.”

“And once again she shows her colors,” I said. “Yet another manipulation. She is counting on the fact that I won’t want to be apart from you to force me to do what she wants me to do.”

“Mary, Jules, can we talk in our room please?” I sent over the bond.

I got positive responses from both, and soon they joined us.

“Amanda tells me that Dianna is going back home tomorrow and wants us to go with her,” I said, “and that if I don’t want to go, then she’s asked the twins to go without me. I’d like to hear what you guys think. Can she force you two to go?”

“She is our grandmother,” said Mary, “and Matriarch. If we disobeyed her ordering us home, we could be in trouble.”

“Whom with, exactly?”

“With her,” said Mary. “We are still only twenty. She controls our money. The money from our parents is in trust until we are twenty-one. She gives us free rein with it, but potentially that could change.”

I nodded. “Aside from that,” I said, “I expect she asked you to go too?”

Mary nodded.

“And do you want to go?” I asked.

Mary nodded again. “I know you are angry with her,” she said, “but she is still my grandmother, and I love her.”

“She asked me to go too,” said Jules. “She says I can have access to the Everson library and research the bond.”

I sighed. I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised that she would have assembled a diverse collection of carrots and sticks.

“So,” I said. “What does everyone think? Do you want to go or not?”

“I want to go,” said Amanda.

“Me too,” said Mary.

I looked at Jules. “Jules?”

She nodded.

“When?” I asked, trying and failing to hide my disappointment.

“We can leave after breakfast,” Jules said. “Daddy says it’s only a couple of hours away.”

I nodded. “And I presume your dad said you could go,” I asked, “and offered the use of his jet again?”

She nodded.

“FOR FUCK’S SAKE!” I yelled, making the three of them jump. “Can’t you even see it? She’s manipulating everyone around her. She is banking on the love of her granddaughters so that they don’t complain or interfere when she uses her powers to ‘soothe’ people to do what she wants them to do.

I looked at the twins. “Tell me she didn’t use her powers to persuade Dean to let her use the jet or to accede to his daughter, who was supposed to be spending at least a couple of weeks up here, to suddenly go with her on this so-called research mission.”

Neither of them would look me in the eye.

“Well?” I insisted, “Did she, or did she not use her power to persuade Jules to go and Dean to let her?”

“You know Grandmother,” Mary temporized, “She likes to make people comfortable when she is talking to them.”

“That’s a yes then,” I said.

“She used her power on me?” asked Jules, looking puzzled and a little hurt.

“Only to make sure you were comfortable with her,” said Amanda. “She remembers you being anxious about meeting her last time you met.”

“Daddy’s not anxious about meeting people,” countered Jules, “so why would she need to use her power on him?”

Amanda grimaced. “I guess she was a little bit naughty doing that,” she said, with an embarrassed laugh, “She was hoping he would offer us the use of the jet.”

Jules frowned at that. “So, she used her power to Compel him?”

“Not Compel,” said Mary hurriedly, “Grandmother can’t do that. Perhaps encourage would be a better word.”

“But why?” asked Jules

“This is her demonstrating that she has the power,” I said. “She is showing me that she can control you, tell you what to do and when, and you go ahead and do it. She thinks that by having that control over the women I love, she has me literally by the balls, and is relying on both my love for you and the bond to bring me in to line.

“It is a no-win situation for me. If I go, I put myself in her power. Who knows what will happen once I’m on her home turf? If I don’t go, you are effectively hostages, and who knows what she could do to an unprotected Norm while she has her under her direct influence?

“But she’s our grandmother,” Mary said tearfully.

“She was your grandmother when she ordered you to fuck me at my parents’ house so I would be controllable,” I countered. “She was your grandmother when she threw Amanda under the bus at our house. It seems that being your grandmother doesn’t rank high on her list of priorities unless wielding that title gets her what she wants.

“I would ask you not to go,” I said, “but even if you agreed this time, eventually she is going to persuade you, and we will have this discussion over and over again until she finally gets what she wants because each time it will seem more and more unreasonable of me to object. It’s a war of attrition that she thinks she can’t lose.

“Her and I are due a reckoning. She is abusing her powers to compel,” I saw Mary open her mouth to correct me but forged on, “Yes Mary – she is steamrollering people who have no power into going along with her wishes. It’s compulsion no matter what actual power she is using. If I thought it would do any good I would report her to her section chief for abuse of powers but we all know how that would go.

“Jules – I can’t tell you what to do, but you would be a fool to put yourself in her total control. Ask yourself, if she is prepared to abuse her power to get the use of your father’s jet, how much more would she do to gain control of me through you.”

I looked at Mary. “I guess this tells me where I stand. Bond or no bond I can never trust you. Either of you.”

I got out of bed and dressed.

“Where are you going?” asked Amanda, tears now running down her face, “Please Caleb, we need to talk about this.”

“I’m done talking,” I said, opening the door and leaving the bedroom. I didn’t exactly slam the door on the way out, but everyone heard it shut. I wanted some time to think - to consider my options - so I went out for a walk. I purposely didn’t take my phone with me. I didn’t want to be interrupted.

I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going, sticking to the vehicle tracks in the darkness while I ruminated.

I didn’t trust Dianna, nor did I want to go with her the next day. Heaven only knew what she had planned for me if I were in her domain. I could be drugged out of my power and then be helpless against anything she might decide to try and do.

I was furious with her manipulation of the twins and Jules. I had no doubt that she would wheedle every detail of my future plans out of them, especially Jules, who had no defense against her power. I just didn’t know what I could do to counter her. The more I thought about it, the more helpless I felt, and the more helpless I felt, the angrier I became.

If I relented, the precedent would be set. Dianna would know that she could leverage the girls to make me do things. If I wanted to approach the FBI again from a position of strength, I knew I couldn’t allow that to happen.

Another option I’d considered would be to just let the girls go, but I had pretty much already discounted that one too. I didn’t think she would physically hurt the girls - although I wouldn’t put anything past her - I felt that leaving Jules in her sole charge for an extended period of time was an especially bad idea. The twins were blinded by love, but at least they were powered. Jules’ heightened skepticism wouldn’t delay the inevitable by more than a few seconds.

The only way forward that I could see would be for me to speak to Dianna that very night - determine what I thought her plans were, and act accordingly. I hadn’t ruled out stripping her of her powers. I was certain I could do it, but I knew there would be serious repercussions for doing so. It would be a declaration of war.

I knew that I was too easily upset and too quick to anger and that I would need to be calm, rational, and objective when dealing with her. Despite James’ warning of the dangers, of how I might get locked into a permanent emotionless state, I decided to clamp down on my emotions in exactly the same way I had done during the takedown of Owen Booth.

Suddenly, my way forward was clear. It was simplicity itself. I would have grinned to myself if I had had the capability to feel the emotions required. I turned back toward the house.

The dogs met me as I arrived back but as soon as they got close, they pulled back, their tails and hindquarters drooping. Terra whined and backed away from me.

Inside, I found that everyone with the exception of Dianna and the girls had gone to bed. They were all sitting out on the deck, I could feel Dianna’s power laid across the three of them like a warm blanket. She was pouring love and trust over them like warm syrup.

I quashed Dianna’s power as I walked through the door. I felt all three girls start, and confusion, then a spike of anger from Jules, as she realized that once again, she had been controlled. She had originally come out to ‘discuss’ Dianna’s earlier use of her powers on her and her father. Dianna looked pissed.

“Still think she has your best interests at heart?” I sent through the bond to all three of them.

Amanda shivered and then looked at me, before letting out a soft “Oh, no!”

Dianna’s eyes narrowed. “What did you do?” she asked.

“I decided that I have been letting emotions drive me for too long,” I said. “That is how you have been able to lead me around this whole time. Whether it was my initial lust for the twins or my love for them and Jules, you have shamelessly exploited them to make me conform to your wishes. So, I have benched those emotions - locked them away so you can no longer control me.”

Dianna shook her head. “That is dangerous,” she said. “Without emotion, it will be much more difficult not to get corrupted by your power.”

“I spoke to Vince Wragge yesterday,” I said, ignoring her response.

Dianna looked surprised.

“He explained a few things that you seem to have forgotten to tell me,” I continued, “such as the fact that there are at least four other bloodlines in the U.S., and that it is only the Stotts that get crippled at birth by the ‘busybodies,’ as he described your family. Everyone else seems free to grow up learning about their powers.

“He also made me a very generous offer to go and work with him at the NSA, which, given your track record of manipulation, insincerity, and lies, seems incredibly attractive. What’s more, since I no longer have the emotional barriers, the work, which I might have found distasteful, no longer repels me.”

“What about the girls?” asked Dianna in a quiet voice.

“Well,” I said, “since I am no longer ruled by emotion, love doesn’t really mean anything to me anymore. The twins are just a chain linking me to you - a means by which you constantly try to manipulate me. Don’t get me wrong; I have no wish to harm any of the girls, but if they became a liability, there would be no compelling reason for me not to sever the bond permanently.”

Jules gasped, and Amanda and Mary both cried out. Although I had not yet severed the bond, they both remembered the agony it had caused them. I idly wondered what they were seeing from the bond just now. I wondered how the bond could enforce love in a person incapable of loving.

Dianna went white. “That would be a death sentence,” she whispered.

“No,” I said, “not a death sentence, merely exceptionally uncomfortable for them. But most importantly, it would not be illegal. In the absence of emotions, legality will have to be my measure.”

“Caleb?” It was Jules’s voice. She had tears flowing down her face. “I thought you loved us, loved me.”

“He has turned his emotions off,” responded Amanda. “He doesn’t feel anything anymore, for anyone.” She was crying also.

“You did this to him,” hissed Mary at Dianna. “You took a caring, loving man, and turned him into…”

“I had to protect…,” said Dianna.

“BULLSHIT!” yelled Amanda. “All our fucking lives, things have had to be the way that you wanted them. You manipulate or bully anyone who disagrees with you, and anyone that dares stand against you gets swamped by your power.

“You have to understand…,” Dianna tried again.

“Understand what?” asked Jules. “That Caleb was a threat? He wasn’t a threat to society, nor a threat to those without power - or at least he wasn’t until you stuck your fucking nose in. He was a threat to your control. You, being Ms. Big Dick FBI Bitch. You had to control him, and when whoring out your own granddaughters didn’t get you what you wanted, you used his nature to care for me, a suicidal girl, to make sure he did what you wanted. And here we are again. This invite to stay with you isn’t about spending time with your granddaughters, or me doing research, it’s you holding those he loved over his head like a fucking sword of Damocles.

“Well, CUNT,” she yelled, “he’s called your fucking bluff. How much of your power did you use on me to get me to want to go? How much did you use on my parents to allow it, or on Daddy to lend you his jet? Caleb was wrong. You are not as bad as those with Compulsion. You are much, much worse.”

“Why?” wailed Mary, “Why would you want to destroy the man we love, whom you say YOU love?”

“We trusted you,” Amanda sobbed, “Caleb was right. We didn’t believe you could do that to us, but he was right.”

“I think you’d better leave,” a growl from the doorway. Dean was standing there. Nobody had noticed him come out.

“There’s a car waiting to drive you into town,” he continued. “I’m sure you can find a hotel for the night. After that, well, that’s your business.”

Dianna stood. I noticed that she was crying also, but I had no interest in why that might be. I watched for her using her powers. I would squash that if she tried, but either she had no interest in doing so, or realized that I wouldn’t allow it.

Dean went to his daughter and embraced her. “Jules,” he said, “I’m so sorry.”

I followed Dianna to the front door of the house. Cheryl was standing there, Dianna’s case beside her. They didn’t speak. Dianna went outside where a car was waiting, engine running. Dianna got in, and the car drove away.

I turned to see everyone, standing, staring at me.

Mary and Amanda were holding hands. All the Steadman family were grouped together, almost looking like they were preparing for a family portrait: the parents at the back, and the two girls standing in front.

“Caleb?” Amanda broke the silence. “You need to undo what you did. Just like at the hospital.”

I considered that. I knew the time she was talking about, after taking down Owen Booth. I had let the emotions out of their cage. I recalled it had been a particularly unpleasant experience. I had felt a lot of pain, and something told me that this time it would be much worse. It made no logical sense to subject myself to that type of discomfort.

“Caleb.” It was Jules. “Please, I know it doesn’t matter to you right now, that you think you don’t need to feel emotions, that they are just a weakness to be exploited... and they can be. But they are also your greatest strength. They enable you to do things that you would never consider possible, to affect people in so many ways that you couldn’t do without them.”

Again, I was not sure I agreed. I could see how emotions were a weakness, but I couldn’t imagine how they might make me stronger. I was very strong already. I had a huge amount of power, and it seemed to be growing almost daily. I couldn’t see how emotions would help with that.

“Caleb.” It was Dean’s turn. “Battle’s over, son. You need to stand down. Being permanently stood-to brings battle fatigue, and that makes you sloppy and vulnerable. Jules is right. I know you see emotions as a weakness, but if you don’t have them, you can’t recognize them in others, which means you can’t predict how they are going to react. You might miss a pending attack, or preemptively attack when no threat is present, both of which would be very bad.”

I figured he’d scored one point out of two. My Empathy enabled me to perceive and manipulate emotions without having to feel them. I wouldn’t be vulnerable in that way; I wouldn’t miss anything, and would hardly ever misunderstand something. Being on full alert twenty-four-seven would be fatiguing, though, and I recalled my analysis from the hospital. Staying in an emotionless state would deprive me of all of my current allies. Even Dean’s sense of debt and duty would clash painfully with the negative reactions engendered by his wife and two daughters.

I reasoned that I’d have to find new allies. I wasn’t entirely sure the NSA would count, were I to actually sign on with them. I’d established fairly definitively that I’d be trading one Maggie Forbes for another. Another core truth of humanity was that the prioritization of emotional connections was endemic. My Empathy would allow me to force those connections artificially, but not consistently or reliably. That looped back around to the fatigue problem. I’d be able to use some combination of all of my powers to erect a passable facade, but it would be, quite literally, exhausting.

I heard the clicking of nails on the hardwood floor from behind me. Before I could turn, I felt a head pressed into my hand. I looked down to see Terra, the largest of the hounds, pushing her snout into my hand, looking for me to pet her.

Absently, as I considered Dean’s words, I rubbed at her head, scratching her behind the ears. I didn’t know why, but it felt good, relaxing, and comforting.

I realized too late that that was an emotional response, which I shouldn’t have been able to have.

I screamed.
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