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A note from pwtucker

Thank you Coronary and Whisps for the reviews!

James extended an arm over the sofa’s back and said nothing. Absorbed Bjørn’s words as the others blew up all around them.

“Are you kidding me?” asked Serenity. “You saying you could have done any of this better than James? It’s because of him that we’re even in this room, that there even is a Blue Light -”

Becca leaned forward. “You notice how many people we lost when we were forced to become Blue Light? Where’s Sarah?”

“Yo, Sarah made her own call,” said Denzel.

“Which was to ditch our ka-tet once it became obvious we were being played by the military,” said Becca. “Sure we got something out of the deal, but we lost - what - almost a fifth of our people?”

Serenity stood. “The mayor killed his sorry ass, and we lost all protection. What was James supposed to do? Tell the CIA and US Army to go fuck itself? You weren’t there. You have no idea what our options were.”

“What I would have suggested,” said Bjørn smoothly, “would have been to call their bluff. We have through James the ability to reach literal millions of concerned citizens. If we had crafted a video and released it on TikTok explaining what was happening to us, and how we were absolutely sure the military would boost and not seek to control us, that would have created sufficient pressure to force them to leave us alone.”

Joanna looked from one person to the next. “What’s to have stopped them from simply arresting all of us?”

Bjørn’s smile turned pitying. “The military has no ability to arrest American citizens. Even the CIA has no law enforcement function. Now, if the FBI had gotten involved, we’d be talking, but we’ve not crossed state lines nor committed federal crimes. Which means it would have fallen to state jurisdiction, the NYPD or the New York State Police. But with the mayor out of the picture, that would have fallen on Governor Bell. Whom, as it turns out, I’m friends with.”

Serenity glared at Bjørn, momentarily speechless, then rallied. “Jessica told us they were talking about calling us an illegal militia. That would have made it easy for the FBI to get on our asses.”

“Actually, that would probably fallen to the Department of Homeland Security. But that’s why we would get the public behind us, Serenity.” Bjørn’s voice was warm, practically honeyed. “James is a celebrity for a reason: he’s brought hope to the masses, shown how we can fight these demons. How do you think the country would have responded if they locked him up for killing demons?”

Becca nodded. “If they detained us, they’d have been forced to let us go once they realize the country was rising up against them. Leaving us in a position of real power. We’d have flexed and shown we can’t be fucked with. But instead, James buckled, and not only did we lose people, but now we have to do what the military says.”

“The military’s been pretty sharp about this,” said Jason quietly. “There’s no better entity out there for mobilizing armed force and logistics. As far as I can tell, Colonel Hackworth is delivering on his promises. How would we have defended the demon symbols without the guns and armor?”

Bjørn raised both hands. “Look, this isn’t meant to be a public trial. All I’m saying is that I know how these systems work. I could call the governor -”

“Then why haven’t you?” demanded Serenity.

“Yeah,” said Yadriel, bobbing his head and sitting forward. “Why ain’t you been pulling those strings already?”

“Because I didn’t want to step on James’s shoes, and every time I found out what was going on, it was already too late.” Bjørn shrugged. “What would a call to the governor do once James had already agreed to Blue Light? That’s precisely why I should be involved. I can make the calls as needed, not play catch-up every time James returns to the Marriott.”

James kept quiet, continued to listen.

“So, what you saying, man?” Denzel shifted on the couch. “You going to be the one who talks to Hackworth and shit? You’re not the major. He wouldn’t talk to you.”

“I’m sure I could be promoted.” Bjørn didn’t seem concerned. “But yes. I would interface with the military leadership, local, state, and federal governance. I would shepherd Blue Light - which it seems we’re stuck with for now - through the halls of power and prevent our being ambushed again as soon as some other petty power broker gets upset at how we’re upending the old order. James would be inward facing and would continue his admirable job in leading the actual members of our organization. It would be a partnership. Truly.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Serenity, tone flat. “You once had all this power, and now that the world’s changed, you just want it back again. You’d muscle James out and within a few weeks be in complete control. This partnership ploy is bullshit.”

“Serenity,” said Bjørn, “your skepticism wounds me. I may have been the Bear of Wall Street, but I’m well aware of how deficient I am when it comes to James’s outreach potential and connection with the members of Blue Light.” He grinned. “I’m barely likeable, whereas everyone seems to adore him. How could I ever compete with that?”

Olaf had been listening with a deep frown, his mane of blonde hair hanging about his broad shoulders, and now he gave a curt shake of his head. “I do not like it. I drive all the way across the country because of James and his example. He gives hope.”

“Yeah,” said Yadriel. “I hear what you’re putting down, Bjørn, and I’ve got mad respect for what you accomplished here and all, but I’m gonna keep my faith in James.”

“Don’t think I need to announce my vote,” said Serenity with false sweetness.

Joanna rubbed her arm. “Does it have to be one or the other? Surely we can use Bjørn’s connections and keep James in charge?”

“That an option?” asked Denzel, tone alert. “Bjørn? Is this an all or nothing deal?”

“Of course not.” Bjørn sipped from his drink. “But my efficacy will be greatly lessened if I’m not at the negotiation table. And there’s one other facet to my argument that I believe is being overlooked.”

“And what’s that?” asked Serenity. “How big your wallet is?”

“No,” said Bjørn coldly. “I’ll demonstrate. Serenity, please sit down.

His words sounded no different, didn’t rise in volume, nor even grew in intensity, but to James it suddenly felt as if nails had been drawn down a chalkboard or a huge wave had crashed upon a storm-wracked coastline. A sense of power washed over them all, and Serenity immediately sat, her eyes going wide.

“Now, I’ve refrained from using this power for obvious reasons, but it is quite powerful. I’ve yet to test its full extent, as we’ve been focused on shooting demons, but I think it could give us a massive edge against Fabricators, and possibly even our own kind. For example.” Bjørn’s eyes glittered. “Serenity, vote in favor of my argument.

Serenity’s face went pale, her hands curled into fists, and she started to shiver. Her jaw worked, her eyes bulged, and a low moan sounded from the depths of her throat.

James stood up.

Bjørn glanced at him, read his expression, and waved his hand. “Enough. Forget my last request.”

Serenity fell back with a gasp, beads of sweat prickling her brow.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” cried Olaf, moving protectively before Serenity.

“Yo man, that was fucked up,” spat Yadriel.

Even Becca looked taken aback.

“Serenity?” James kept his voice level. “You all right?”

She wiped her sleeve across her brow then glared at Bjørn. “Sure. I forgot my Ma Deuce, though. Let me go grab it.”

“Bjørn,” said James. “With me.” And he walked past the man to a set of sliding doors, which he pulled open so that he could step out onto a broad balcony.

It was more of a small garden, complete with manicured bushes, potted plants, and what looked like real grass growing between the elegant flagstones. A low table was set before patio furniture, and the railing was made of pure glass.

Bjørn emerged, glowering, brows lowered. “You don’t get to command me like that.”

James turned and placed his hands on his hips. Stared at the other man, and Bjørn locked gazes with him and stared right back.

The other man’s eyes were dark, his gaze fierce, intense, proud, dominating, predatory. It was like engaging in a stare down with a wolf. The kind of animal that would lunge at your throat before it admitted weakness and looked away.

James’s heart was pounding, great, heavy beats like a man nailing rail ties to the tracks. The sight of Serenity struggling like that had sent a bolt of jagged horror, fury, and disgust through him.

Once he might have simply moved in and clocked Bjørn across the jaw.

But he was older, wiser, made bitter and knowing by hard living. Punching Bjørn would only have ended their ka-tet there and then.

And maybe it had to end. But he’d not do so with a brawl in the man’s million-dollar apartment.

“You owe Serenity an apology.”

Bjørn grimaced and stepped past James to place his hands on the railing and look out over the city. “Let’s dispense with pretenses for but a moment, shall we?”

James half turned to face Bjørn’s profile.

“We are both survivors, you and I,” continued Bjørn. “We lived in different jungles, but I think there’s more in common between the streets and the boardrooms than people give credit. Both are peopled by predators, and if you’re going to survive, much less thrive in either, you need to be sharp. You need to know when to fade away into the background, and when to emerge for the kill.”

James crossed his arms.

“This is a war. Over a billion people have already died.” Now Bjørn did look at him. “More will die, and soon. How many will we lose before we stop pretending the world is as it was? Will it take another billion? Four? At what point will humanity admit that the old, civilized, nice ways of doing things are holding us back? That if we are to survive these Pits we will need to up our game and be as ruthless as our foes?”

Still James said nothing.

Bjørn waited, eyebrows raised, then grimaced. “I don’t enjoy this. But I will do whatever’s necessary to survive. If that means using this power I chose to increase our chances of success, then so be it. Fuck free will. And fuck respecting an idiot’s right to make his own decisions if they imperil our chances of surviving. This power, Inspire, can be used to open doors for us, James. I can get the generals to do what we ask. The CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security - they will no longer be a problem. Because what I don’t think anybody has understood yet, but which has been clear to me from day 1 is that these powers, these abilities we’ve been given, they’ve fundamentally changed the playing field. Those of us who can call down lightning or command minds should be in charge. Those who make Manna bread and - what - walls? They need to do what they’re told. They’re no longer our equals. Literally. Their survival depends on us. And if they don’t see it, we will force them to see it.”

Bjørn stepped closer, his voice feverish. “We are the new aristocracy of this world. The rightful leaders. We shall protect them, defend them, but in exchange they must obey what we demand and allow us to do our jobs to the best of our ability. You see this, don’t you? There is no point in pretending things haven’t changed, and those who accept it first shall inherit the earth.” Bjørn grinned and spread his arms wide. “We shall rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the helpless people that move along the ground.”

“Hmmph,” grunted James.

Bjørn dropped his arms to his sides. “Tell me you see this, James. You’re just like me. A leader of men. A survivor. Tell me you understand.”

“You lied.”

“I what?”

“You said you didn’t enjoy this. But I saw your eyes while you watched Serenity struggle. You enjoyed the shit out of that.”

Bjørn’s frown was one of genuine confusion. “What? I’ll apologize to her. That’s not a problem. And sure, it was gratifying to finally stop her from insulting me, but it won’t happen again.”

“I’m not so sure.” James studied Bjørn. Really looked at him. “You’re a dangerous man, Bjørn. Use your power on me.”

Again Bjørn looked baffled. “What? Why?”

“Humor me. Tell me to slap myself.”

The pause drew out, and then Bjørn shrugged. “Very well. Slap yourself, James.

A wild compulsion swept over him. His thoughts narrowed until only Bjørn’s words echoed within his mind, filling him with a fierce, overwhelming desire to obey. Nothing would be better than to slap the shit out of himself, to do as he was told.

To obey.

James inhaled deeply, lowered his chin, and mastered himself. It felt like drawing back from the edge of a building, resisting the siren call to throw himself into oblivion.

When he exhaled, the compulsion lessened, became negligible. “There. Now we know. Your power doesn’t work on me, Bjørn. Is that clear?”

Bjørn’s eyes narrowed.

“You won’t use it on a member of this crew again. You won’t use it on any member of Blue Light, nor anybody else without good reason. Because no. I don’t agree. We’re no new aristocracy. We’re just some people who got lucky and will do our best to help the others.”

James took a step forward so that he was face-to-face with the other man. The air between them crackled with tension. “For a moment back there, you’d convinced me. I was going to agree to your suggestion. But then you went and pulled this shit, and my confidence in you vanished. So yes, I’ll welcome your help with these matters going forward. But no. You’re not making major, and you’re not handling shit without me. We clear?”

Bjørn’s jaw clenched and his nostrils flared. James got ready for the punch. He’d take it. The man probably hit hard, but James was sure he’d been hit harder.

Finally, after an aching ten or so seconds, Bjørn smiled. “Of course, James. This is your show. I was just trying to help.”

“Good.” James relaxed a fraction. “And I want your help. Your powers can make a huge difference when used right. Stick around. We’ll figure this out.”

“Sure,” said Bjørn. “Glad we got to chat. It’s always valuable to course correct. I can see I was way off base.”

“Good man,” said James, and patted him by the shoulder as he stepped by him. “Get ready. We’re heading to the Marriott. This has been nice, but it’s time to get back to work.”

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