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Interlude Thirtyfour point One, The Day After

The time dilation had shaken up everything in Port Alexander. All across town the citizens of the city tried to return to their routines after so much had been shaken up. Not unlike those they watched over, the members of the Protectors spent the day after the fall of the Shield dealing with mundane concerns. PC had to work extra hard shuffling schedules to allow debriefing time. At her suggestion, the Team gathered for dinner at the Fortress. The only one outside the active members present was Mara Bryce. Before Defender began, she excused herself from the table.

"I'm going to go play video games in the Lounge. Knock'em dead, Tiger," she said before kissing her husband. "I love the new costume, by the way. Have a good meeting, guys."

Alden Bryce blushed, wishing he was wearing his mask. He nodded to the chuckles and smirks all around the table. "Let's get this started. PC, could you please bring up the projections so we can go over our last two battles. Sting, the show is yours."

"Well, what I wanted to talk about is more procedural than tactical." Sting said. "I want to wait until the debriefing part of the debriefing is done. However, I will say that our team tactics, especially during the second battle, are improving. We're becoming masters of the "swarm" maneuver, and no one really had to deal with a one-on-one foe for any length of time except myself and Merlynne, and although Merlynne fell in her battle, I'lll chalk that to "game nerves" more than anything else."

Sting took the two battles and outlined what he thought was promising and what needed improvement. Years of experience with X's and O's came to the forefront. His training with the U.N. made him the best suited to teaching tactics to the team. To his credit, he was tactful and informative. After twenty minutes of "game film," he asked Defender if there was anything else tactical to be discussed.

"No, I think we can move on to other issues. I've got some concerns, but they can wait. Sting, you wished to discuss something relating to our associate membership, I believe," Defender said.

"I do." Sting said. "We worked with two very capable heroes in the Company, and worked well with them. Both integrated fairly well in terms of team tactics and interpersonal relations, although Siberian Star less so in that regard. I want to...I guess make a motion...that we approach Siberian Star about an associate membership...but that we offer full membership to Flex. Since we initially worked with him in our trip to the past, he has grown much, both as a hero and as a person, and I feel he's at a stage in his development that he would really benefit in working with us on a more regular basis. I wanted to gauge everyone's thoughts on this."

The Wanderer spoke up, "I second the motion of full membership to Flex. He has proven himself time and again. Besides, he will come in handy when it comes reaching things on the top shelf in the kitchen!"

Defender drew both his hands to his chest in an exaggerated motion to himself. "Clings to walls and leaps really far. Like, hello? Geesh, don't you guys think I have any value?"

The alien in black disappeared and popped back into existance beside Defender patting him on the back, "Now now, you're gosh darn important too. Not stretchy, but important nevertheless." Again the pop of displaced air sounded and he was gone for a few minutes before rematerialzing with another bowl of macaroni and cheese...with chocolate sauce.

Defender ran his hand through his hair. "I will admit that he impressed me this time out. I had thought him reckless, but he proved me wrong. He followed instruction well. He's brave. There is but one question to be answered. Can he be trusted with our secrets?"

Sting paused before he continued. "I do see your point, though, Alden. I think when we approach Flex, we explain to him that part of what makes us work is that the full-timers know each other behind the mask and have built a trust...and that we need him to do the same in order to begin to build that trust. I think he will...I get the sense that he really wants to not be an outsider anymore, and he tries hard...sometimes too do the right thing. I don't see betrayal in him."

"Betrayal? No. I don't think he's the type. But betrayal is not the only way secrets get out." Defender toward the door to the lounge. "We all have things to protect."

He paused in thought. "Lorelei? What do you think about Flex being offered full membership?"

Lorelei paused thoughtfully. "I agree with Dad. I think we should invite Flex over...heck, for dinner. We're a family, right? Then we explain to him that we are interested in his being a full member, but that we need to know that he can be trusted with our secrets, by trusting us with his. That's fair, I feel.

"That's the official vote, then. Four for his admission under the condition of disclosure. Let's address Siberian Star as associate member. Does anyone have any concerns about the Russian?" Defender asked.

"I'll abstain from this one." Sting said. "My history with Russian heroes is spotty at best."

When no one else spoke, Sting finally spoke again. "OK, I lied, I don't abstain. He's good in a fight, and his abilities compliment ours well. However, I found him to be very terse and brusque...except with the reporters, whom he played to like an entertainer. I get the sense that he's trying to be as public as possible with his exploits."

Sting paused before continuing. "Being associated with the Protectors would give him the notoriety that he seeks, I'm sure. And although he was standoffish, he wasn't contrary...he went with the flow and was invaluable in our fight with the Company. Trying to filter out any bias I may have, I don't have concern enough to *NOT* offer associate membership at this time."

The Wanderer spoke up. "I'm not sure we have enough information yet, although he does take a good photo. We could always ask our newest member Flex, he knows him better than any of us."

"Then we'll table this vote until Flex is on-board. So, who would like to extend the invitation to Flex?" Defender asked.

A black gloved hand shot up, the Wanderer struggled mightily to keep his seat, "Me me, pick me."

"Wanderer, if you would, don't tell him about the group membership yet. Simply invite him to meet with us over dinner one evening, as we want to discuss the recent case with him." Sting said. "I think he might be more pleasantly surprised that way. And I love surprises."

"Will do." The Wanderer looked cheery, "can we wear funny hats? Funny hats always make surprises more festive." Blank stares broke his mood and the man in black pulled out his communicator and punched in Flex's number. The message was short and cryptic, Flex was to meet him at a warehouse and to be prepared to be debriefed concerning The Company case. Satisfied, the Wanderer clapped the phone shut and looked on, "what are we having for dinner?"

Defender said, "Lorelei, could you call and reserve the back room at Mikhailov's for tomorrow night? I think we would cause less of a stir if we were out of the public eye."

"I'll take care of it." PC said. "However, we've got one more associate membership situation to deal with."

"And that would be?" Sting said.

"Team Defender." PC said. "I'm infinitely curious as to how that came about. Care to enlighten us, boss?"

Defender arched an eyebrow. "I'm not sure what you are getting at?"

"What I'm getting at is that apparently out of the blue you now have a support team of various and sundry young wunderkinds that either recently came about or has been one of your best kept secrets." PC said. "Seeing as how you've always been about keeping us legit and level, I have to not only assume that they're a recent addition to your bag of tricks, but that they probably had something to do with your turnaround after the Queen escapade from being an eyelash from quitting the Protectors to coming back hale, hearty and more confident in your leadership than I've ever seen you be." She smiled impishly. "Trust me, I'm going somewhere with this, but as I said, I'm curious as to how it all came about."

"You've spoken with Karen a few times in past. She works for Alden Bryce. You see, there was this convention that Mara was the guest at..."

Defender got himself another soft drink and began to relate the story of how he founded Team Defender. [As described in Interludes 32.3.1 through 32.3.4. - Editor] His tale was one of the most lively ones the team had ever come from him. He told them of how Karen discovered his identity and how the entire thing was really her doing.

"For a while I've considered assembling a team to assist you here. I've been through a half-dozen plans of how to do it and protect our secrets. Nothing ever worked out. Then this sort of fell into my lap. They are young, skilled, and idealistic. I was going to let them work together for a while and get some training in that way. I wasn't going to offer their services until they had some experience in. And they have been invaluable to me. The scariest thing is that I'm learning I'm a closet Science Fiction fan."

"Come, be one of us!" PC said laughing. "Seriously, I agree, they're great. And I would LOVE to have some people closer to my own age that are "into the game", so to speak. Besides, I need to take a vacation SOMETIME..."

PC looked at the rest of the team. "Since I'm a full-timer, I get to nominate too, right? On Alden's recommendation, I would like to nominate Team Defender for membership, so that they and I can learn from one another and we can make the behind the scenes stuff more effective for you guys. I love the idea of the secondary base in case PA gets cut off or our base at some point gets infiltrated. And I think I can learn from them as well. These guys could very well be the support crew, along with me, we keep talking about but not able to pull of yet."

PC smiled meekly. "Besides, Ichiro's kinda fun."

"You should meet them at the first chance you get. I've got to do something nice for them with all the work they did during the case with the Company. Do you have any suggestions?"

"Why don't we invite *them* over too?" PC said. "Truthfully, Alden, if you're worried about being in public, it makes more sense to simply have a dinner party here. I know you were off making babies over Christmas, but we had quite the nice dinner party here. We could speak with Flex prior to the festivities, then your folks come in, and we hang out here. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think they might get into a hands-on tour of the Fortress. What do you think?"

"I'd like to hold off on bringing them here just yet. They have a lot in common with you. In that fact, you have a lot in common with Flex. You are all young and idealistic. The difference is that you grew up with a father who as doing this before you were born. You inherently understand the risks you take by being in this Fortress. They are still coming to terms with the dangers they might be facing by helping us. I don't want them swept up in the excitement of working with the Protectors. I want them to come into this sober and understanding. They just met the Protectors in person for the first time yesterday. To bring them down here tomorrow would be too much, too soon.

"I trust them with my identity. In truth, I have no choice. That is my own fault... my own stupidity. They could just as easily chosen to blackmail me as help me. Each of you has a secret you protect. It must be your decisions to trust these kids with those secrets. You should each get to know them before we invite them over to see the family scrap-book. As Flex may shortly be joining us in this clubhouse, that will be his choice as well.

"Plus there is the issue of security and getting a van full of college kids here without drawing attention to ourselves." Defender smiled at PC. "Besides, what sort of first date would a 'tour of work' really be?"

"Plus there is the issue of security and getting a van full of college kids here without drawing attention to ourselves." Defender smiled at PC. "Besides, what sort of first date would a 'tour of work' really be?"

"OK," Sting said. "Let's compromise. Private, but not here. Easily doable. We can use the Dutchmen's Lounge at the Dome. Yeah, the inside of the Dome itself is going to need work, but the upper skyboxes were untouched and there was no real structural damage, so I got off light there. Well, at least my insurance company did." Sting grinned as he continued. "We'll be left alone; I can simply leave word with my staff that the Protectors requested use of the facilities. What are they going to do, say no to the owner? Well have food, drinks of all sorts, chocolate sauce...oh yeah, and some other surprises too. Besides, having an aerial view of how lucky we were to survive this one might help us get a little perspective on things."

Sting ran his fingers through his now greying hair before stopping midway. "Oops, copyright infringement, please don't sue me, Alden. What do you think, boss?"

Defender frowned at Sting's jibe before thinking for a moment. "It is fine by me, only if you are planning to reveal your identity to them. As for Flex, we need to approach him first and separately. This should be a big deal for him. We should make it as solemn an occasion as possible. Mikhailov's for dinner tomorrow? Back room?"

"Yeah, I'll take care of the reservations. And the only identity those kids will need to know is mine, or don't you think the head honcho's only child wouldn't use the family luxury box from time to time for her own parties?" Lorelei said. "Remember, they'd see me in person at this shindig anyways, that won't really be a secret they can't research on their own, if they're as good as you say. They might as well know me. The actual masked heroes can wait until YOU think they're ready. Good compromise?"

"Fair enough," Defender said. "Is there anymore business?"

When no one else spoke up, "Then I guess we'll just adjourn to the training room for a good half hour of stress relief."

	*		*		*		*
Elsewhere ...

Finally having finished the aborted roof repair job, Jim sat back to enjoy his coffee - lukewarm as it now was.

Lost in his thoughts, it took him a moment to realise that his communicator was vibrating urgently in his pocket. Flipping it open, after checking he was still alone, he answered.

"Flex here..."

It was the Wanderer, delivering his short and cryptic message about a meeting. Flex repeated the information back and hung up. Although there was nothing strange in the Wanderers message the invitation to meet up, Flex was both curious and of the compensations in this business, besides the powers, his past accomplishments, at least part of the time, was the friends that Flex had made.

Wanderer, Sting, Defender, the Siberian Star...he could go on. All different and all friends or companions by association. Companions who he had been thrown together with. It might not be a kind of friendship that one talks about. Its not like he could call them up for a beer. But there was some kind of unspoken bond, that being in a life and death situation with such people, creates.

Although not a religious man Jim was suddenly struck by a feeling off euphoria, which overtook him . A sense of warm well being, but with no one to acknowledge or share it with it, felt oddly incomplete. "Oh well thank you..." He said to no one and everyone.

Then having drunk his coffee, he got to work clearing up.

	*		*		*		*
PC, as per usual, was the first one at Mikhailov's, making sure everything was done to specifications. She had made sure that the table in the back room was round, in order to help Flex be more at ease...she found that round tables helped equalize the presence of those seated there. Satisfied that everything was as it needed to be, she ordered a Captain's and Coke and waited for the other four to arrive. Dressed in a blazing dark red cocktail dress, she felt a tad overdressed for the occasion, but she had felt like dressing up, and had intended on going clubbing afterwards, so it fit.

Taking a sip, she looked at the door, awaiting the arrival of...someone else.

Elsewhere, the appointed time came and the Wanderer leaned up against the side of a warehouse highlighted by a lone lightbulb that hung overhead. It did little to deter crime as the myriad of graffitti attested to but it was an effort. The alien looked out over the parking lot and took a draw on his licorice cigarette, wondering if the trashcan across the way was Flex, or maybe the soda can rolling around by the wind....

Jim looked across at the clock. That afternoon had been so slow, after several weeks worth of intense action, he had been ready for a break. Although the humdrum of his 'normal' life was a good touch stone for reality, to much down time was also a bit of a drag.

Finally it was time to go. He activated his flexible skin and altered his work cloths and shifted into his Flex form. Reaching out through the window to the roof ledge above. He effortlessly pulled himself up to the roof by means of his elongated arm. Then swiftly and with as little fuss as possible, made his silent way over the rooftops to the appointed meeting place.

At the front of the warehouse, having first looked around to make sure that all was as it should be, Flex saw the Wanderer waiting below. He appeared to be smoking - or at least attempting to smoke. Flex knew he wasn't what he seemed and had an innate curiosity about all things human. "Perhaps smoking was his 'latest thing'!" Flex mused.

slipping quietly over the wall he moved softly down the side of the wall, until he was closer to the Wanderer. Then he allowed his neck to elongate forward until he was facing the Wanderer and at which point he said, "Naughty, naughty. You know you shouldn't be smoking behind the abandoned warehouse. What will mother say?"

Not waiting for a response, flex simple leapt of the wall to the floor to face Wanderer.

The alien jumped and teleported a few feet ahead to end up facing Flex. Had he need to breathe he might have choked, instead he just reached into his mouth and extracted the licorice stick.

"Ok, so what's happening? This has the air of a mystery about it!"

"There's trouble, biiiiiiiig trouble," mused the Wanderer trying to sound as official as possible. "Mikhailov's, know the place? There is supposed to be some meeting down there by some heavyweights. I thought you'd like to come join the party."

Flex nodded, taking on a more serious tone as they got down to business, "So what are we doing surveillance, or do you need me to go in and eve's drop in disguise?" This strange meeting intrigued Flex, he knew of no such meeting according to his sources - although his sources weren't always in the know. If it was big like Wanderer seemed to indicate he was sure they, and then he, would have got wind of it.

Flex let himself speculate with Wanderer out loud, "You say this is big! I think we could be dealing with some outsiders. I can't be certain but if it is big, like you say, then I am sure I would have heard something - especially if it was within Port Al criminal fraternity. Which leads me to think that it might be an outside group."

Flex let the silence sit more comfortably for a little longer before he suddenly it seemed strange the Wanderer knew all this.

"So how did you find out about this meeting in the first place?" He asked as casually as possible.

"I have my sources...sources not of this world," replied mysteriously punctuating it with an dramatic "Duh-duh-duuuuuhhhhn." He checked his wristwatch and continued, "Nevertheless, it is about time."

Flex raised an eye brow at this. It wasn't that he disbelieved the Wanderer, but even this sounded a little melodramtic for him.

As the two heroes made their way across town to Mikhailov's the Wanderer stopped outside and caught Flex by the shoulder. "What do you know about the circus, the Circus of Crime?"

Flex had to think about this. After all he was still relatively new to the hero business and his knowledge of super powered criminals didn't extend much beyond the ones he and the Protectors had battled. He hated to admit it, but he had no idea ho this group was.

"I...err. I must admit I've never heard of them. Are they native to Port Alexander? Or are they from outside like I suspected?" Flex tried to sound like he might have something still up his sleeve. He'd felt the need to prove himself around the Wanderer, but all of a sudden it seemed terribly important that he looked at least partially competent.

"They're imports," said the Wanderer looking on at the restaurant. "They are meeting in the private dining room, and we need to infiltrate their meeting. Can you make yourself look like a clown?" Flex's surprise prompted the Wanderer to clarify. "You know, a pasty white face, big red nose, green fright wig. Maybe a sparkly jumpsuit with frills."

Flex looked the Wanderer in the eye. "Are you kidding me! There actually dress up as clowns and what not! This could be tricky. I mean, don't clowns have individual designs or some such? For me to get in unrecognised I would need to know what they looked like. I don't suppose you have a picture do you?" Flex took this opportunity to stare hard at the Wanderer something didn't seem right, but Flex couldn't put his finger on it.

"Right you are," agreed the man in black. "However, the circus is a syndicate across the globe. Tonight's meeting is like a convention. Not every member will know the others so we need someone inside and I thought of you and your unique talents." The Wanderer appeared calm and composed.

"OK, that makes a lot more sense. But wouldn't there be some sort of entry code. I guess password sounds a bit silly, but you know what I mean? Is there, some sort of code word to show that I am a member of this syndicate?"

"They're clowns!" explained the Wanderer. "You don't need much more than that, except for maybe gigantic shoes. I know you can do that!" The Wanderer fought back a laugh and looked again at his watch knowing that everyone should be in place soon.

Back at the restaurant ...

Defender had chosen Mikhailov's for several reasons. The food was always good. The "executive room" in the back was well suited to meetings of a delicate nature. The staff were discreet and understood the need for privacy. After all, Mikhailov's was one of the places the rich and famous of Port Alexander could go when they wanted to go out without being in the public eye.

Their side entrance doubled as access to the kitchens. A left turn would have you surrounded by six burner cook tops and food prep stations. A right turn lead you to a short hallway. It was accessible from the main dining room, but difficult to accidentally stumble upon. Several unmarked doors sat closed at all times. One was the executive room and that was Defender's destination. The doorman at the side entrance, stationed just inside and out of public view, had informed him someone else was waiting. He checked his watch. It was too early for the Wanderer to have arrived with his charge.

So, he was not surprised that Lorelei was early. That was not to say he was not surprised. She was dressed to the nines and Defender was amazed that she had made such an effort. He could not remember the last time he had seen her outside of her work clothes. Or, for that matter, the last time he had seen her looking so content.

"I'm sorry. I must have the wrong room," Defender said. "I was expecting boring men prepared to discuss business."

"Well, I figured these boring men could use a nice bit of eye candy to liven things up. However, I don't think Flex was to have met Mara yet, so I did my best to fill in." Lorelei said, grinning impishly. "Besides, that's my job, to make sure things are ready for you." Lorelei spied their waiter walking by. "Mischa, if you would please, we have another arrival." Lorelei looked at Defender. "What's your poison, boss?"

"Last time I had anything serious to drink, I ended up hiring a whole new staff," Defender said. "Mountain Dew. Neat."

The waiter nodded and soon returned with Defender's drink. Lorelei took another swig of her Captains and Coke and looked at Defender. "Before anyone else gets here, there was something I wanted to ask you." Lorelei said. "Are you still mad at my dad? I get the sense there's still some tension there."

"I don't think I was ever mad at him," Defender said. "Frustrated with... maybe. But I was never anger. So, I'm not sure what you are sensing. Do you have a specific example or is it more of a woman's intuition thing?"

Lorelei's cell phone rang, and PC held up a finger to answer it. "Lorelei Crosby. Oh, hi Dad. No, it's just Defender and me at the restaurant right now. You'll be here in a few? OK, we'll be waiting. What do you want to drink? OK, thanks, bye." She closed the cell and pulled the waiter back into the room. "Mischa, a Pete's Wicked Lager, please, for someone else at the table, and also a tall glass of whole milk with a side pitcher of chocolate syrup...they like to mix it themselves."

"Yes, ma'am." the Russian waiter said as he left the room.

Lorelei looked at Defender. "I didn't want him ordering the syrup by itself." She said, smiling. "And it was more of an observational thing than anything else." She paused for a second. "Look, if Dad knew I told you this, he'd kill me. But there's a part of him that's got a big chip on his shoulder about his time with the Peacekeepers. He was more or less the comic relief of the team, and although he enjoyed that, they never took him seriously as a strategist or a potential leader. I think that's why he jumps on your toes sometimes...he wants to make sure all the bases were covered...and for a time there, you were unsure enough of yourself that I think he lost patience. Part of him feels very contrite about it, but he's also too embarassed about it to talk to you just yet."

PC took a sip of her drink before continuing. "He seemed more at ease after this mission, but in general, he's torn when out in the field. You tell him he's better suited as a tactical planner than you, but in the field, he doesn't feel comfortable disagreeing with your battle plans, all dating back to the Queen mission. He cares about the team, and whether he'll admit it to himself or not he enjoys having battle respect with the team, but he cares about you more, Alden, and he feels as if he's offended you with his actions. At the same time, he has no interest in being team leader, because you're better at the human resources aspect of making a team happen. He's afraid to talk to you about it...but as the person responsible for keeping this team humming, and as a concerned daughter, I thought you should know where his mind is right now...if, of course, you understand what I just said, because I'm not sure I did."

"Part of being in charge is the ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of those who work for you. You don't send a second baseman into right field. In the field, I know that the Wanderer will chose his own target regardless of any direction I give him. And generally speaking, he has a better eye for who he should go after than I. Sting is much more experienced in the field than I will ever be. That's where I look for his input. And yesterday was not an exception. From now on, I'm going to let Sting run the post-mission breakdowns. He's an old coach and I want those skills turned toward the team more."

Defender frowned. "Has he offended me? No. I think he might occasionally try to hard. And he does make assumptions about how I might react towards things a lot. I'm sure I do things that annoy the hell out of him. It is all part of working together and being friends. It's nothing I would lose sleep over, Lorelei."

"Fair enough." Lorelei said. "Although the "old coach" is somewhat funny because that's his other area of lifelong frustration. He had to buy a team to be able to have input in it. It's why he went into broadcasting after one saw him as a teacher. " She smiled at Defender and touched his hand, as one friend would another. "I'm glad someone has."

At that moment, Sting entered the room. "Sorry I'm la...uh, err, am I interrupting something, guys?" he said, witnessing Lorelei's hand over Defenders.

"Actually, I was attempting to seduce your daughter to add her to my vast stable of women," Defender quipped. "Nah, we were just discussing a mutual friend."

"Well, considering your married *AND* now have about 3-4 college-age women as your support staff, one would have to wonder." Sting fired back. "Although once you're bald at 35 for running your fingers through the air all the time, they may reconsider." He sat down, pulled his mask up, and sipped his beer. "Mmmm, nothing like a microbrew. Any idea when the guest of honor gets here?"

"The Wanderer said he would stall him until I sent a signal that we were all here. Give me just a second." Defender pressed a button on his communicator to signal the Wanderer. "That should do it."

By now, Flex felt slightly stupid, but then the feeling that somehow this whole thing seemed... odd ... wouldn't leave him either. Still he'd never known the Wanderer to be anything other than a honourable man. "Then again", Flex had to concede, "how much do I actually know of him other, than what I have seen when we have been on the job. I really don't know him well at all."

Still unable to shake the odd feeling about the whole scenario, Flex nonetheless complied and changed quickly and quietly into the best clown he could think of. His red hair sprang out of either side of his large domed head. His bulbous red nose, would have put Rudolph to shame. And as for his cloths, well bright, loud and garish were not terms that really did the whole look, justice.

"Ok I am ready - how do I look?" Flex asked a wide eyed Wanderer.

"Perfect! I'd hire you to rob a bank," exclaimed the Wanderer. He dropped his voice, "My sources tell me that they are meeting in the private executive banquet room. Just tell the maitre d' that you are expected back there. His name is Dima and he may give you a suspicious look, but insist that you are for the party back there."

"Dima, right got it. Well wish me luck. I will keep my com line open so you can be ready in case anything goes wrong."

With that Flex flipped, flopped as best he could, into the expensive looking restaurant. Once he spotted the maitre d' he lowered his voice and said, "I'm here for the special party. You know in the back room." He winked for effect, but decided that, given his attire, this was probably unnecessary.

"Ah yes. Very good. This way, if you please sir." Flex followed obediantly. As he walked across the resturant he suddenly realised that everyone, even the waiters had suddenly gone very quite. "Strange," Flex thought, "maybe the others came in a back way. I hope I haven't blown my cover!"

Before he had time to think about it he was standing outside the door. He paused for a moment, so as to get his voice and body language correct before throwing open the door and shouting, "Ha Ha. Blood good to see you all - you scally wags."

"Ummm...bloody good to see you too." Sting said, stifling a giggle. Flex realized that he was looking at PC, Sting and Defender, all quaffing drinks. "I'm sorry, but the Ringling Brothers dinner is two blocks down the street."

For a moment, Flex was completely disorientated. Having walked in expecting one thing, only to see something else, was confusing enough. Once the momentary time had passed for him to readjust his mental frame of reference, he suddenly realised that he had been had.

"Wanderer, I will...I...Argh. I cannot believe I fell for that."

Shifting back into his usual form, Flex sat down. Although he could feel the others alternating between laughter and incredulity before he could face them he had to start breathing again. He went to open his mouth, but didn't really know what to say...

"Wanderer, huh?" Sting said. He agreed that that was pretty funny, but he also knew that now Flex was a bundle of nerves. "That's OK, here's how we get him back." He called the waiter over. "Sir, I have an unusual request. I would like an order of Guinness Extra Stout, room temperature, only served in a receptacle exactly like THAT one." He pointed at the pitcher of chocolate syrup sitting in the table.

"Of...course, sir." The waiter said, walking away as Sting grabbed the syrup on the table and hid it under his chair. "Remember, Flex, don't get flustered...get even."

Flex, nodded in gratitude. Sting had given him a way not only to get even, but also to help him adjust to the company. He waited for the porting 'prankster' to arrive, all the while keeping his face straight as possible.

A pop of air signaled the appearance of the Wanderer who promptly took a seat. "Ah, ever the diligent worker. Flex, we don't work *all* the time!" He eyed the pitcher of chocholate and smiled to Lorelei before reaching for it.

Knowing what the chocolate was switched for only moments earlier, made the next moments all the sweeter for Flex...

The Wanderer reveled in his trickster glory snatching up the pitcher and bringing it to his lips. With a greave heave he thrust it back expecting the viscuous black necter to flow and instead being surprised by its contents. With hysterics unseen before the man in black sputtered, coughed, teleported haphazardly, and flopped around with high pithced squeals until he finally wore himself out.

"Smooooooooooooooth," was all he could say from his prone position on the floor. Slowly he rolled over to his knees and staggered to his feet.

With a grin that would be considered evil had it been on anyone but a Protector, Sting high-fived Flex before helping Wanderer up. "See, Flex? Vengeance is sweet. Or in this case, smooooooooooooooooooooooth." Sting then pulled the real pitcher from under the table and gave it to the Wanderer. "Here, need a chaser?"

Gladly, he reached out for the goodness that was chocolate. And it was good.

Laughing almost as much as the others. Bringing himself back under = control, Flex felt better for the whole joke being played on him. = Slowly and mainly by not looking the Wanderers way, Flex was able to = breath again so as to be able to ask, " what...what's this = all about?"

"Last time we spoke, I mentioned that I did not approve of your tactics," Defender said. "What I should have said was that I did not approve of your old tactics. During the affair with the Company, you proved yourself. You put your extremely long neck on the line for people you barely knew, you took direction from someone whom you owed nothing, and you selflessly stood between the villainy of the Company and those who could not protect themselves. In the short time you have been active in Port Alexander, you have matured as a hero. In light of this, we've decided to have this little banquet in your honor."

Defender paused to allow it to sink in. "And, we've come with a proposition. Sting, would you like to do the honors?"

"Oh, sure, make me do the heavy lifting." Sting joked. "Flex, I'll be the first to admit that when we first met, you SEVERELY rubbed me the wrong way. You were reckless, didn't understand teamwork concepts, and could have very well left us stuck in medieval times. Which might have been appropriate once I had gotten medieval on your rubber ass." Sting paused to chuckle so Flex knewwhere he was coming from.

"But you've taken the time to grow, hone your craft, and since then you've done significant good to Port Alexander. The Company case in particular you stepped up your game, and proven yourself a capable, mature hero. Because of this, the current active membership have discussed the possibility of offering you full membership into the Protectors, and we agreed, unanimously, that that would be a good idea."

Flex didn't know what to say. His mouth dropped open. Fortunatly he had the presence of mind to make sure that he took what was being said seriously. It would have been easy to joke around, to pass over his shock with some silly and childish action. Fortunetly Sting interrupted his thougths as he continued.

"However," Sting said before Flex could say anything, "The difference between associating with us and being a part of us is a bit more vast than some groups. In truth, we are more than superheroes; we're a family. We know all about each other, good, bad and indifferent. We all have various histories, again, good, bad and indifferent. But we all know one another, inside and outside the mask, and although the intiial impetus of that was a necessity, it has, I feel, made us stronger, as paranormals and as people."

"To be a part of us means that we have to trust you, Flex, with our secrets. Therefore, as your final step into membership, we would like you to trust us with yours. Before you say anything, keep in mind that we have access to high-tech equipment and an information database second to none, all operated by a crack computer-savvy mind. We might already know everything about you, we might not. However, if you tell us a false story, we may already have you nailed...or may nail you at some point if we think what you tell us doesn't wash. In light of that, I would recommend you simply be straightforward with us. There isn't a person at this table that doesn't have things in their life that could threaten that life dearly if they got out; therefore, whoever becomes a part of us we need to know we can trust our lives with, with secrets that would go to your your secrets would go with ours."

Sting leaned back and took a drink of his lager. "So, Flex, tell us about yourself." He said.

Had hadn't banked on this. Being Flex gave him unprecedented power over his features, he could literally be anyone. But he was someone, someone with a past. A past that even now hung over him like a bad odour. He didn't know what to do. What was more, what would the Wanderer say when he knew that mild mannered handy man Jim Reid was in fact, Flex. Would he insist he was sacked, on grounds of endangering the house hold?

Flex did the only thing his racing mind could think of, he stalled.

"Err, well first of all thanks. I am really grateful and some what humbled to be asked. Truth be told, when I first met you I was rather arrogant. At times I think I even deserved a place. Life has a way of putting you in your place sometimes, no matter how deserving you might think you are."

Flex sat back as he looked around he saw PC who had only met once before - he noticed how pretty she looked...he realised he was getting distracted and so brought his mind back to the task at hand.

"Well, I am not sure what else to tell you. You know that I am a rejected experiment of Saruva's. I came by my powers by accident - I don't deserve them. And well, to be honest I didn't know of anywhere that taught you how to be responsible super hero let alone a team player. So I have kinda learnt the hard way. I thought a lot about what I did wrong, when we were trapped back in time. And my biggest regret since, was that I didn't have a second chance to prove myself. Not that I am blaming you."

Flex began to feel more and more flustered. He knew he was waffling, he worried that the point about Saruva would lead the more astute of the group, to realise to ask what his connection with Saruva was. He didn't want to loose this second chance but how far could he trust them. How far would they be prepared to trust him.

Taking a deep breath, Flex realised he had to know. "Look, I want this. I want this so bad... Well, being a hero alone in this town is tough. And, well anyway, you say joining is about being part of a family. How does this family feel about prodigals? Is there a place for someone with a past, trying to make right?"

There he had said it now he took a deep breath and waited. "This is it kiddo," He told himself, "make or break."

Sting was the first to reply. "I think many crimefighters, to some degree, have checkered pasts. Some more serious than others." Sting paused for a moment. "I've personally done things I haven't been proud of. The worst of the lot was I have killed. It was in the line of duty, and the person whom I killed most assuredly would qualify for the death penalty in a court of law...but at that moment, I didn't kill out of necessity. I did it out of rage. And I carried that guilt with me for a long, long time. But I've learned to live with it over time, and although part of me is always afraid it can happen again, I at least balance it somewhat with how I've grown as a hero since then. Bad choices can be for the good if you choose to learn from them. But, in a technical sense, I have killed in the line of duty. I'm not here to excuse that, but to simply give an example that whatever is obviously weighing on're not the only one in the world who has something li! ke that in their past. The question is, have you grown from it, and has it made you a better person?"

"Flex, we asked you to be a part of the team because we think we can trust you to be a member of the team. You have proven yourself in battle. You have just one more thing to prove to us. That is that we can trust you. If you've broken laws in the past, it is irrelevant. You have done many things to make it right. If you are still committing crimes, then we have another situation all together."

Defender stood and crossed his arms across his chest as if he were about to be laid to rest. "Ever see one of those trust exercises where one person stands with his arms crossed like this? Everyone else stands behind him and he has to trust they will catch him when they fall. The exercise itself is rather pedantic, but it does make a good point. Being part of a team means knowing that someone will be there to back you. More so, it means that you know that *you* will be there to back someone else up. It is about sacrifice and trust. But a team that is true is stronger than the individual members combined. That is what the Protectors are.

"We have had our missteps. We all make mistakes. But as a team, we accept each other and work together. Everyone is taken seriously and everyone has input. Membership means access to the headquarters, our records, even our personal lives. This is why we need proof of trust. But trust cannot be built on false ground. If you feel your past is so heinous that we will not accept you, then we should enjoy this evening's meal and go our separate ways. As we do not know your past, only you can judge if it should remain a secret."

Standing now directly before Flex, Defender continued. "The crux of the situation is that you have to trust us... to know us before you can commit to the team. Look into my eyes and judge for yourself how I will react to your secret. Look into the Wanderer's eyes, and Sting's, and PC's. Then, if you are comfortable with that trust, tell us your birth name."

Flex nodded first in response to what Sting said then to what Defender challenged him with. He took a deep breath and then steadied himself, glad that he was sitting down.

What of you Wanderer? Truth be told my past we have taken care of and I can speak of that openly in a moment. But it isn't just my past that may be a problem but my present as well. How would you feel if the person under this mask was someone you already knew? Someone who you had trusted with a role in there 'civilian' identity. Would you feel the same as Defender and Sting?

Flex waited, of the two questions he had asked this was the more difficult. His past, was past being Flex was one way of setting that straight. But what of his present?

The Wanderer piped up, "I have lived for over four centuries of your earth years and met many people and here, there, and everywhere. History flows into the present, which rushes into the future and in all cases I've learned that the wave empties into the same body of time. I have no problems with whatever you tell us."

"Hmm. Well that is reassuring. Because it isn't just what I say but who I am." With what seemed to be the hardest change he had ever brought about, Flex allowed his mask to melt back revealing the slim, youthful features of Jim Reed.

Once he'd taken a moment to adjust to the strange sensation of finally revealing who he was he went on.

"My name is Jim Reed, I was born in this country but my Father, was British worked for the British Government. He married out here to a native of Port Alexander. Quiet some time after I was born and some years into his official duties we were recalled to England. We stayed there for some time and that is where my father died. My mother never got over his death and my father's family, who were rich, pulled all the right strings and made sure that his money didn't leave British shores. With little to keep us, we returned to Port Alexander.

I as always a little runt, in our family - my parents had me quite late in life and I was never physically strong. So when we moved back with no money we took up residence in the Parts. Well a boy who can't get by physically, has to use his brains. And as you know its not hard to find trouble in made room, always hoping to maybe do some good from within, but never having the guts to step out and risk it. It was the wrong crowd to be with but then that was easier than going home and watching my mother slowly deteriorate. She never go over the death of my father and our circumstances conspired to tip her over. Within a few short years, welfare officers had taken her to a nice quite place to live out her days. By which time I had left school and plunged right into gang life. It was among these hardened criminals I found a substitute family.

I played to my strengths, keeping out of trouble as best I could. But then I got put forward for this job. I was to be a guinea pig for Saruva. Turns out he had someone steal some samples of a strange symbiotic substance. Don't know where it came from, but he was interested to see if its properties could be used to bond with a human. I was the test subject. It went well, but after my 'recreation' Saruva wanted to push me, I lost control, gaining mass and size - out of control I smash the place up. I escaped as the place came down around me into the sewers, where the cold and wet snapped me out of my destructive rage

I had been changed and the powers I had gained gave me a chance not to be the underdog anymore, but to choose a new path and a new life. I literally could be anyone, or I could be the me I should have been. Should have been, save for the way things had gone the way that they did. So I decided to start where I could. I found a job with the Wanderer No More House and started to earn a living - an honest one. Boy it was sure hard getting used to Sarge being around. Imagine a ex-con and a ex-cop in the same house." Jim laughed, it finally felt good to say all this to someone.

"You know I was too gutless to stand up to the gangs, so I joined them. Then when I had these powers I really felt the need make things right again. And that is about it!"

Jim looked down for a moment. "Well, I hear confession is good for the soul. I think I have said quite a bit. I am what I am - I can't change the past but I am doing my best to make a better present. If, after all that you'll have me, then I will happily come on board."

The Wanderer cried out "Bravo! I love a good story, especially a true one." He teleported to Flex's side and patted him on the back, "I would have never guessed that the House ended up helping out more than I had initially intended. And you are correct, Sarge is quite the snooper, but he stamped you A-OK. And I do the same for the Protectors!"

"Wow! Great!" Obviously pleased with the Wanderers display, Jim settled back even more relieved.

"As we said, your past had no bearing on our accepting you. We merely wished your trust. You should probably shift back to your Flex identity before the waiter comes back. After dinner, we'll head over to the Fortress and get you set up with the security system. You can meet the real Protectors then." Defender extended his hand. "Welcome to the team, Flex."

Jim, grasped the outstretched hand feeling the strong assuring grip and for a moment felt a real surge of pleasure. "At last my life has really began to take a turn for the better. Wow this was going to be good." He thought to himself.

Then he allowed his face mask to peal back over his real face. Just in time to order up some food as a waiter popped back in.

"Boo-yah!" Sting said. "Can't wait to get you in a training room, sunshine. I've got a particularly nasty combat maneuver I think we can team up on. Think slingshots and an inch high missile. Let's eat. Evening's on us, Flex, so order up."

Flex nodded, he was really glad that this time he had really hit the right note with Sting. He saw his wisdom and his experience as two things he really lacked. Talk of training and team work, was just what he needed. Up until now working 'unofficially' had meant just following orders and having to be told what to do. Team work allowed for another type of dynamic all together.

As the evening kicked off, spirits were high. The Wanderer, however at times, seemed distant staring into his glass of chocolate and watching from his seated position.

Sting, seated near the Wanderer, whispered in his ear. "OK, I've NEVER known you to be the death of the party. What's bothering you?"

He sighed. "Nothing really, well it IS something. But nothing to put a damper on Flex's evening. When we get back to the Fortres, I need to get on the agenda."

"Fair enough," Sting whispered. "Protectors stuff, or something else?"

"A little of the former, a lot of the latter," he replied cryptically. With a smile he reassured Sting, "Everything will be fine, it always is." He stood up and called out, "Conga line!" as he trotted out to the floor.

Defender looked toward PC with a smirk. When her eyes lit up, Defender smiled and followed her out to the floor.

Flex laughed, the irrepressible Wanderer had struck again. He followed suit, "When in Rome..." he smiled at PC and Defender following the Wanderer out.

The party conga'ed out into the street then collapsed in laughter before splitting up to rendezvous at the Fortress.

The Wanderer shared a cab with Flex down to the waterfront and filled him in on their methods of getting out to the base. Soon Flex was passing into the hidden elevator, and then past the underwater tunnel and onto the monorail out to the former EAGLES' NEST.

In main tunnel, just shy of the door to the interior of the Fortress, Defender stopped the company. "Sting, you and Wanderer keep Flex busy while I get the security systems portable scanner. PC, I'll need you at the main console."

After a few minutes, Defender returned with a piece of electronic equipment. He waved the others in and began to work on Flex. He took finger, retina, and voice prints. He read all of Flex's body measurements, being even more meticulus than the average, demented tailor. Once they were done, he asked Flex to shift to his normal identity and the process continued.

"You will only be able to freely move about inside in one of these two forms. We can program some flexibility in the algorithms to take some basic changes into account, but you will have to be in one of your two base forms when passing security checkpoints. We have some visitors' markers you can wear inside if you need to be in another form while inside."

Flex nodded fascinated, but equally baffled by the extent of security and the steps he had to take to make sure he didn't get fried in the base. Again it brought home to him just how important the Protectors were -their security had to be tight. "Anyone of a dozen known gangs would pay big to get the location of this base," Flex mused to himself, "let alone the Super villain fraternity."

Defender finally finished and motioned for Flex to try and open the door himself. He pointed out all the security cameras, "Wave to PC."

"Now after all this security you got me waving to gain entry. Nice!" Flex laughed. "This truly is another world. You guys have an awesome set up. But I don't blame you..." Flex felt a little choked up, knowing what he was finally being trusted with. In many ways he really felt like he was coming home.

Finally done, Defender lead Flex into the Fortress. Without a word, he lead him through the submarine pen, the Control Dome and to the Residence Dome. The two entered the Lounge, where the others were waiting. They stood before the Hall of Heroes displays.

"Flex, this is our remembrance of those who cam before us. Here we commemorate the original Eagles, the Peacekeepers, Ka-sador, and the Beggar King. In the witness of such great heroes, we recognize you as a member of the Protectors and charge you with the defends of Port Alexander and her citizens.

Flex let his mask melt back, again feeling the slight sense of discomfort at being so open about his identity. Looking around he realised the bases had a sense of age, of destiny pressing down about her. This hall of heroes was a fitting place to celebrate the triumphs and deeds of the team.

"And in the comfort of our off-duty lounge, we welcome you to our family. Defender removed his mask, revealing his face for the first time to the new member. When we are here, you can call me Alden. Alden Bryce."

Flex grabbed Alden's hand warmly. "You look younger with the mask off." He noted as he returned Aldens warm handshake.

"Oooh, time for the big reveal." Sting said jovially. "Allow me to be next." He removed the mask, and the first thing that struck Flex was the long blonde hair was part of the mask...underneath was a brown-haired (ok, a little gray at the temples) man whom he remembered from the television. "Alexander Crosby, owner of the Port Alexander Dutchmen, at your leisure."

"Wow, sir it's an honour. Although I want to set a precedent by being open from the start, and say that I never really appreciated the game, as much as soccer. It must be the Englishman still lurking in me." Flex laughed again, it felt good to be honest about himself with...friends. "You've got your work cut out getting the stadium and field into some sort of usable order. How on earth do you find the time..." Flex was cut off by PC who spoke up introducing herself, "Showoff." PC said, smiling. "I don't wear a mask, but since I'm not out in the field I'm considered the big secret of the group. Actually, I was pulled in by him!" she said, pointing. "My name is Lorelei Crosby. I'm Alex's daughter." PC looked at Wanderer. "You next, champ?"

After smiling a little longer than he intended and forgetting, in his fluster to let go of Lorelei's hand, Flex turned to the Wanderer curious to know what secrets this stranger had hidden in his past.

"You should know by now that the Wanderer has no secrets," Defender said. "What you see is what you get. Although, that's still as confusing as anything else."

"Yes that seems to fit. Boss your mask has ever been your weird sense of humour." Taking it all in as best as he could, Flex looked back to the assembled heroes and felt hugely inadequate. He had never been so close to anyone outside of his own small family. Now here he was, with some of Port Alexander's most notable, notables.

He wanted to tell them how he felt, how privileged a bum like him felt to be part of such a group. Especially since his powers were not earnt, or deserved but bestowed by accident. But Flex didn't always feel so eloquently versed with words and he worried that his meaning might lose some of its sincerity if he tried to hard to say anything more. "No," He thought, "Better to let my actions, do the talking for me instead." So he smiled and joked and simply tried to be himself, what else could he offer?

"Well, he has at least one." Sting said. "But he said he wanted to talk to us here, so it shouldn't be a secret for much longer."

With the others Flex looked back curiously at the Wanderer.

"Regardless, tonight is Flex's big night. So, who wants to give the new kid the tour?" Defender asked. "PC, you have spent the most time down here. Would you like the honor?"

The Wanderer stood, "Yes, by all means. My announcement can wait a little longer."

"OK, I'm game." PC said. "Anyone else coming with?"

"No thanks, I'll stay put." Sting said. "I've seen the place."

With PC leading the way, she gave Flex a thorough tour of the facilities, including the main console banks ("Don't touch. My toys." PC said smiling), the training facilities ("We're working on this slowly, I'm hoping we can upgrade it fairly soon with some top notch training materials.), and the labs. The tour eventually came through the living quarters. "I'm not sure what your living situation is at WNM, but we do have some apartments here at the base if you want to take advantage of it."

Flex had tried to take it all in but in one go it was all very impressive and also very overwhelming. "Well tempting as it is to have my digs here. I think it I am still needed at the house. Perhaps I can keep a 'lamp lite' in one of the rooms if I need be, but otherwise I stick with what I got.

Flex thanked PC for showing him around then headed back to where the rest were situated. Now that he had been shown everything and suitably inducted he thought about a quick patrol on the way home. As he headed back into the he thought about a quick patrol on the way home. As he headed back into the main lounge area he sat with the others. Listening.

"Ok well this has been the evening to top all evenings. I am not sure that going back to work tomorrow is going to be easy. But I do need to work tomorrow so I thought I might take in a patrol on the way home. Anyone care to join me?"

The Wanderer begged off, "Not tonight." A final congratulatory handshake saw the alien descend down the stairs to the Residence Dome.

"I'd love to, but I've a pregnant wife to get home to. Oh, one finally thing. Before you leave, coordinate with Lorelei so that she gets your schedule and usual patrol route into the database. Our training session this week is Thursday evening. Show up if you can. Next week's schedule's not done yet, so you'll be taken into consideration. Enjoy the night air, Flex."

Defender smiled, made his goodbyes, and headed out.

Last Updated 9 February 2004