by Rachel EhrlichAuthor's note: "HaTikvah" is the Israeli national anthem; translation: "The Hope".
"Any last words, rebel?"
Jessica Wilson ignored the taunt, as she ignored the damp coldness of the brick wall she'd been thrown against. She continued her quiet recitation of the Shema , with more feeling than usual, for today, she knew she would die.
To her left, her mother-in-law turned a defiant glare on their enemy. "Nothing you shouldn't already know, Gyrich," Adeline Kane spat. "You're going down, your whole corrupt government, and killing us won't stop that. It won't even slow it."
"Yes, yes, I've heard it all before," Gyrich replied absently, turning away from his prisoners to shout another series of orders to his men. Behind them, Kane Manor was in flames, its destruction being filmed for later use in government propaganda.
As their executions would be.
Jessica shivered, but only with the cold, not with fear. Very shortly now, she would be reunited with most, if not all, of her family. Her young children had been murdered over a year ago, her husband abducted and enslaved by the mutant-hating government that presently controlled the United States. She could only hope he had not survived long in the Hound kennels; most Hounds didn't.
'Rose and her family escaped,' Adeline signed to her while Gyrich was preoccupied. 'Emil managed to teleport them to safety.'
'Where?' Jessica asked, not that it would make any difference.
'Gotham City Resistance Post, of course.'
Jessica smiled. The Graysons would take good care of them. 'Of course.'
"Ahab," Gyrich called as the Hound Master approached with three of his black-clad charges. "Find anything?"
Ahab nodded, handing one of the Hound's leashes to the National Security Advisor. "X2H did a fine hunting job; he remembered all the potential hiding places here. We flushed out a couple of rebels, but they chose to go down shooting."
Gyrich patted the Hound's head absently. "Good boy, X2H. Good Hound." He turned his attention back to Ahab. "See anything here you need?"
Ahab shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. And with the Hound turnover rate as high as it is, we definitely need new members in the pack. But there weren't any candidates here."
Gyrich's reply was cut off as Hound X2H bolted away from him, pulling him off-balance as the leash stretched taught. "What the hell --? Hound! Heel!" Gyrich tugged on the leash, but was uncharacteristically ignored. He turned to Ahab in search of an explanation.
Ahab shrugged. "You wanted him here because he remembered the house. Did you think he wouldn't also remember its occupants?" He handed the other two Hounds to Gyrich in exchange for X2H. Using his cybernetically-enhanced strength, he grabbed the errant Hound by the collar and lifted him into the air. "Disobeyal merits punishment, Hound," he growled, throwing X2H to the ground and placing one foot on his neck. Casually, he reached for the whip coiled at his hip.
Jessica frowned as she watched Ahab discipline the Hound. That was no way to treat an animal, much less a human being. But then, that was the root of the problem -- Ahab and his kind didn't view mutants as human beings.
She almost intervened, then thought the better of it. The beating the Hound was now enduring would doubtless be made far worse, just to spite her, if she protested the abuse. Still, it made her feel like an accomplice to the crime to stand by and do nothing. She offered all she had: a heartfelt prayer.
For as much as it was worth. None of her other prayers, numerous though they were, had helped the situation.
Gyrich was selecting soldiers from his battalion; those picked began walking toward Jessica and Adeline. Her stomach tightened; their time was up. Adeline squeezed her hand in quiet reassurance and she smiled briefly at her mother-in-law. She wasn't afraid to die, but that didn't mean she was eager for it.
Someone was watching her, staring at her with an intensity that sparked her awareness. She turned, scanning the crowd of government officials; no one's attention was on her. The reporters were checking their comm-links, the soldiers readying their weapons and laughing with one another. Gyrich had handed the other two Hounds back to Ahab and was barking orders to his troops once again.
The Hound. The one Ahab had punished, now crouching submissively at his master's feet. She, who of all people should have known better, had overlooked them as a possible source of her feeling. He was staring, not in her direction, but directly at her. The moment she looked at him, she understood why.
She was looking into the eyes of her husband.
Her body was in motion long before her mind had the opportunity to comprehend what she had seen. Desperation lent speed to her limbs, for she would have no second chance. The soldiers moved to block her; it would be a race, then, to see who won.
Risking another vicious attack, he reached out to her as she neared. Her hand grabbed his, the fingers of her other hand gliding gently over the mask that covered his face. "I love you, Joseph," she whispered as the soldiers caught up to her, pulling her away. "Always remember that!"
Adeline caught her as the soldiers threw her back against the wall, and she collapsed into her mother-in-law's arms, sobbing. Far crueler than anything they had done to Joseph physically was to force him to witness their deaths. Adeline stroked her hair, murmuring comforting words she knew her deaf daughter-in-law couldn't hear.
The soldiers had formed a line and were taking aim. Adeline turned Jessica so that she was once more facing Joseph. As one, both women crossed their arms over their chests. Let Gyrich think it was some secret message for the Resistance; the only message it contained was for Joseph. Through her tears, her eyes met his one last time.
Her world ended in a hail of bullets.
"If it was solely up to me, all mutants would be strictly regulated, with mandatory registration and harsh penalties for the flagrant use of dangerous powers."
"Asshole." Rose swore under her breath at the image of the man seated in front of her while she munched on the last of her toast. It was never a good idea to watch the old Archive VR vids during breakfast; they inevitably gave her indigestion.
"But Mr. Gyrich," the interviewer protested, "how can you deny the good that some mutants represent, such as those associated with the Justice League of America or the Avengers?"
The scowl of the President's National Security Advisor seemed uncomfortably up close and personal in the vid. "I don't deny it, just as no one can deny the equally important threat posed by other mutants such as the Brotherhood of Evil or that Trigon creature who threatened New York City last month. But without those villains, we would have no need of superheroes; Senator Kelly's Superpowers Registration Act would allow us to eliminate the supercriminals while being no more than a slight inconvenience to others."
"Yeah, right; I believe that." Rose pulled off the VR headset and returned it to its holder on the nearby shelf. Slight inconvenience . Was that the new buzzword for genocide? She'd long ago lost track of how many friends and relatives had been slaughtered by the government.
Things hadn't changed any, since then.
The bigots had come to power the way bigots always do, through the apathy of the masses. Too late did the population realize that the narrow-minded rhetoric of the last Presidential campaign was anything but hot air. By the time the grassroots opposition began to coalesce, the Sentinels had already begun their massacre of mutants across the country.
The American Resistance Coalition opposed all that the Sentinels and their creators were attempting to do to humanity. They would stop at nothing -- or at least, at very little -- to prevent the metal monstrosities from prevailing. Organized into East- and West-Coast Resistance Networks, they operated through State and City Posts; the City Posts received their orders from the State Posts, which received their orders from the Coast Networks. This, of course, was on the rare occasion when their missions actually contained such a degree of organization; more frequently, they simply reached for whatever opportunity presented itself.
The Gotham City Resistance Post was luckier than most, in that they had the perfect cover for their operations in the form of Wayne Manor. No one inside or outside of the government would have ever begun to suspect that laid-back, not-overly-bright playboy Bruce Wayne was, in reality, the organizational mastermind behind the Post. Combined with the equally impressive skills of his former partner, Dick Grayson, and the current Batman, Tim Drake, the Gotham City Post had been more effective in battling the government than Posts twice their size.
They had stormed the South Bronx Containment Facility to free powerful mutants like Magneto; ambushed government raids in order to kidnap and deprogram Hounds; assassinated key politicians, as well as the rich individuals who supported them; bombed Sentinel manufacturing plants; and planted spies throughout all major business and political institutions. It was a no-holds-barred war for nothing less than the future of humanity, for the Sentinels had made it clear that when their genetic cleansing of America was done, they would move on to the other countries of the world.
And those countries, in turn, had made it clear that they would stop at nothing to prevent that.
It was a hell of a situation in which to raise kids, and not for the first time, Rose questioned her choice of starting a family. Not that she didn't love her children -- of course she did -- but like all parents, she wanted a decent future for them, and it was the one thing no one could guarantee.
But there had never been guarantees, she told herself as she took her breakfast dishes back to the kitchen. Her husband could have told her that in an instant; it was a lesson he'd learned at a very early age. Her own mother hadn't had any guarantees, either of living in her native Cambodia or simply living long enough to see her grandchildren. One never gave up hoping, though.
She rinsed off her dishes and set them in the dishwasher, then did the same for the two sets of children's dishes sitting on the counter. She started the dishwasher cycle, wiped her hands dry on a nearby dishtowel, and stared out the window, lost in daydreams of happier times.
Tension gripped her immediately. Dick's voice had that soft, soothing quality to it that he added whenever there was bad news to impart. She turned to face him, and she knew what he had to tell her.
"Again?" she asked, hoping it wasn't true.
No such luck. "Again," he sighed. "Kory had been keeping him under surveillance, so she was able to get to him in time. I don't know if he didn't realize that she was watching or if he just didn't care."
Her shoulders slumped. "That's twice in as many months, Dick. When is he going to stop? When he succeeds?"
He placed his hand gently on her shoulder. "You know what he's been through, Rose. Two months is nothing; he'll need two years -- or more -- to make a full recovery." If he ever did; but that remained unspoken. "Why don't you go see him? He's in the hospital wing, room 7."
She nodded absently and wandered off. Jessica had told her that Holocaust survivors had the same problems, the high suicide rate a symptom of "survivor's guilt". Maybe she would have been suicidal too, if she'd witnessed the deaths of her children, her spouse, and her mother. Well, mother she had witnessed, and it had left its scars. Perhaps she shouldn't be so quick to judge.
Garfield Logan was already there, as emerald green as he had been in the Titans' day. He had learned long ago that his green coloration was nothing more than the manifestation of his subconscious childhood fears about the serum that gave him his powers; since that time, he usually preferred his normal appearance of sandy blonde hair and sky blue eyes. Today, though, he was trying to bring back better memories, of better times, in the hope that it would help his brother-in-law.
Sedated as he obviously was, Joseph didn't notice.
Rose pulled up a seat next to Gar and gave him a quick kiss before sitting down. "How is he?"
Gar shrugged. "Just what it looks like, hon. I've been talking to him, but even if he can hear me, I don't know that it does any good. It never did any good with Steve, even when I thought that it had."
Rose sighed. Steve Dayton's death had been a product of his own insanity, but that had never stopped Gar from blaming himself, just as he blamed himself for the deaths of Rita Farr, the Doom Patrol, and his parents. She couldn't really understand that perspective; when her mother was killed, the only people she blamed were her uncle and her father, and rightly so.
Especially her father. Slade Wilson had been told when his grandchildren, Hadassah and David, had been murdered by the Sentinels. He had been told when Joseph was taken away to the Hound kennels, and when his ex-wife and daughter-in-law were executed as 'security risks'. He hadn't left Kenya for any of it, just as he hadn't left when Gar sent him an invitation to their wedding. Rose didn't think it was because he was concerned about the Sentinels targeting him as a mutant, although they certainly would have; he could have met them safely in Canada.
But he had never even replied.
Her gaze shifted from the bloodstained bandages wrapped tightly around her brother's wrists up to the IV tubes in his arm. Did they have the right to force him to live when he clearly didn't want to anymore? Which was more selfish, their desire to keep him, or his desire to leave? She knew her own desires were selfish, but she couldn't help it; apart from her husband and children, he was the only relative she had left.
Other than their father.
With his hair cut so short it could barely curl, Joseph looked a lot like Slade, almost enough to make Rose uncomfortable. Repeated laser treatments were removing the Hound marks that had been tattooed on his face, and with each session, the angular cheekbones and cleft chin that he shared with his father became more evident.
There were other similarities. He had almost as many scars as their father did, the most noticeable of which was an inch-wide burn scar that ran down the side of his right arm from the shoulder all the way to the wrist. A couple of puckered dimples in his abdomen looked like old bullet wounds, and she could see the tips of the numerous whip scars that curled around his ribs and shoulders. The old scar across his throat was the only scar from before the war. The explanation for the other injuries was burned onto his left shoulder, and she rubbed her own left shoulder, unable to suppress a shudder at the sight of the Hound identification brand.
"He'll be OK, sweetheart," Gar murmured, giving her a hug. She wiped away a tear she hadn't realized was there and nodded mutely, wanting to believe, but knowing better. Joseph had shown no signs of improvement in the months he'd been free of the Hound kennels, and it was no secret that the suicide rate of ex-Hounds was well over 50%. Neither she nor Gar knew what to do or say to counter that.
"Mommy?" She turned to the tentative whisper to see her daughter Lily looking up at her pensively. Rita Marie stood behind her older sister, trying to see around her mother.
"Is Uncle Joey sick again, mommy?" Rita asked.
"Yes, honey," she replied, lifting Lily onto Gar's lap and taking Rita onto her own. "But he'll get better, just like last time."
Lily was still watching her mother. "Why is Uncle Joey always sad, mommy?"
Rose glanced at Gar, uncertain of what to say. How could she convey the horrors her brother had seen and experienced? She wouldn't even want to burden her daughters with that sort of knowledge. "Because Aunt Jessie isn't here anymore," she answered. It was truth enough, and it satisfied her daughter's curiosity.
The quiet echo of a deep voice silenced the question forming on Rita's lips. The girls slid off their parents' laps and ducked behind their father's chair moments before the two men entered the room.
"I understand your reservations, Aharon, but you know I wouldn't request it if you weren't the best qualified for the mission. You are the only one who can make it succeed."
The white-haired man sighed. "I know, Bruce; just as you know that I've no desire to put myself in that position again. But I promise you, I'll consider it." Realizing that this was as much of an answer as he would get for the moment, Bruce nodded and left abruptly, without acknowledging the others in the room.
Gar was the first to speak. "'Aharon'? I thought your name was 'Erik'."
"'Erik Magnus Lehnsherr'," he smiled, as with a fond recollection. "A cover, born of necessity. My people suffered enough, both in the Holocaust and during the millennia that preceded it. What do you think would have been the response, had the world known the most hated mutant on the planet was of Jewish descent? They would have banded together to finish what the Nazis began, and though I had turned my back on God in the camps, I never turned my back on my heritage." He smiled as the girls poked their heads out from either side of Gar's chair. "I am no more Romani than you are. I am Aharon Moishe HaLevi, a Polish Jew."
"Your real name is irrelevant," Rose said coldly. "You're Magneto, and in a large way, you're responsible for the situation we're all in."
He looked at her with undisguised pity. "If you truly believe that, then there is less hope for our future than I thought. The government's actions are its own, and would have been taken regardless of what I -- or any other mutant -- did or failed to do. Hatred and intolerance are unreasoning, and as such, require no logical event or person on which to place blame. That Magneto was a name to be feared is of no consequence; had I never existed, you would still find yourself in this situation. It is the very nature of humanity to destroy that which is different." He sighed. "I just wish Charles had learned that in time."
"Doesn't Bruce have something for you to do?" she asked pointedly, glancing at the door.
"He does," he confirmed, watching as Lily and Rita returned to their parents' laps. "My current assignment is to help your brother. For me to do that effectively, however, would require your absence."
That didn't sit well. "What would you know about what those bastards did to him?" she snapped. "You weren't a Hound -- and we busted you out of the South Bronx Containment Facility less than a month after you'd been put there. What makes you think you have more right to be here than his family and friends?"
Aharon held up his left arm, which bore a faded tattoo: 214782. He usually wore long sleeves to conceal the number, but the heat of the Gotham summer had driven even the Master of Magnetism to wearing short sleeved shirts. "My 'name', such as it was, in Auschwitz," he said simply, looking down at his arm. "Don't speak to me of horrors, child; you haven't seen a quarter of what I have."
She turned away sharply to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes. "Over two years," she whispered, clutching her daughter tightly. She glanced back at him over her shoulder. "Have you heard the stories, then? Do you know what's done to Hounds? What does your past experience tell you? How can I reach him?"
"You can't." Brutal, but honest; that had always been his style. "You're family, true, but he needs someone who understands completely what he's been through. You don't. I do. It's as simple as that."
She almost refused. Rose was a stubborn woman, and she didn't like not being in control of a situation. For all that she was no relation to Adeline Kane, she had so many of the woman's characteristics that she may as well have been Joseph's full sister. The presence of her children was the deciding factor; though they never spoke of it, they picked up on the tensions of the adults around them, and life in a Resistance Post was tense enough without adding to the situation with petty personal conflicts. If Bruce thought that Aharon was better for Joseph than Rose and Gar were, so be it; they would have their time when he left.
With a nod to Gar, she stood up and carried Rita from the room. His daughter perched on one broad shoulder, Gar glanced down at Joseph, then up at Aharon. "Do your best," he said quietly. "He needs it."
Aharon nodded once, remaining where he stood even after Gar had left the room. Rose's accusations had irritated him more than he'd let on. Of course he knew about the Hound training techniques. They weren't public knowledge, but between Oracle and Searchers, Inc., the Resistance had managed to infiltrate most of the government's computer systems. What wasn't known to or believed by the general populace was common knowledge to any Resistance personnel who cared to know.
And Aharon definitely cared to know.
Hounds were drugged immediately after capture in order to prevent them from effectively using their powers in self-defense. The men were savagely beaten, the women gang-raped; terror techniques taken straight from the Nazi death camps. All were then strapped down on tables and branded with the Hound ID that would be their names for as long as they survived in the kennels.
Electroshock treatments followed, one session every half hour for three hours. This time, the severe pain was only a side effect; the true purpose of the ECT was to induce amnesia and disorientation, which conditioned the new Hounds for the next phase of their training: 72 hours in a sensory-deprivation chamber, with nonstop subliminal conditioning commands embedded in the white noise of the chamber's sound system. If the Hounds weren't completely insane by the end of their initial training, they were certainly in no shape to effectively resist their keepers.
Those who survived initial training were given the crew cuts and facial tattoos so distinctive of Hounds and assigned to units based on their powers. Those assigned to the Termination Teams were the luckiest; their high-risk position meant that they would most likely be killed in less than a year. The Termination Team Hounds were generally telepaths and energy-projectors -- powers that were useful in vicious combat.
Because of the high mortality rate, the government was constantly searching for replacement Hounds. The Acquisition Team Hounds were the empaths, possessors, and telekinetics -- powers that could capture enemies with minimal harm. Unfortunately, their powers usually insured that they either did not see battle or that they were not seriously injured by it. The end result was a prolonged life in the kennels that drained them of what little humanity they retained with every day that passed. These were the Hounds most likely to be rescued in Resistance raids, but they were also the most severely damaged by their experiences, since the abuse present in their initial training decreased only slightly for their remaining time in the kennels.
Slowly, he made his way to the chair vacated by Rose and sat down. Reaching Joseph would require dredging up unpleasant memories, perhaps even reopening old wounds. It was not something he enjoyed doing, but if it saved lives, he would do it as often as necessary, regardless of the cost to himself.
He studied the motionless figure on the bed before him. How many Hounds had he seen in this condition, lost in the depths of despair? And before that, how many Holocaust survivors? All in all, far too many. And of those, far too many again dead by their own hand.
But Joseph wasn't dead yet, and it was Aharon's job to keep him from getting there.
"Bruce assures me that your mutant metabolism should have burned off the mild sedative by now," he mentioned casually.
Continued silence was his only answer.
"And just how long do you plan on lying there, sulking like a petulant child?"
'Until you leave,' came the curt response.
"Then you'll be here a very long time, since I have no intention of leaving."
Cold fury burned in the green eyes that snapped open to glare at him. 'I heard what you told Rose. Auschwitz was over fifty years ago. Congratulations, you survived. But what I'm dealing with is a little more immediate and raw than dusty memories that are half a century old.'
"Fifty years!" Aharon spat. "Fifty lifetimes would not be enough to rid me of the anger and pain of what happened in that death camp! Do you think you're the only one who's ever suffered? Do you imagine that that Hound kennels were worse than Auschwitz? I can tell you horror stories that would make the kennels seem like kindergarten playrooms!"
'I'm not interested,' Joseph replied angrily. 'Either in your meaningless comparisons or in anyone else's suffering. I've spent my entire life caring about other people. How dare you tell me that even now, after everything I've been through, I have no right to be concerned with myself! You didn't survive the camps by caring about how others were doing; by what right to do demand for me to have such compassion? No one had any for me!'
"And no one will have any for you," Aharon shot back. "That's my point! If you are going to survive, you'll have to do it on your own. No one can help you; no one will help you."
'Then no one will be terribly put out when I decide I'd rather not survive,' Joseph snarled. He flashed his bandaged wrists. 'And if that's the case, how many times will I have to do this before they get the message?'
"What message? That you aren't man enough to withstand some hardship? Jessica would certainly be proud of that ."
'Jessica is dead.' The calm precision of the signs belied the raging turmoil of emotions that lay underneath. 'I watched her get shot to bloody rags. Like I watched my mother die. Like I watched a Sentinel vaporize my children.'
"As I watched my daughter Anya burn to death in an arson fire!" Aharon retorted. "As I watched my wife's love for me die, to be replaced by loathing! Like you Americans would say, 'Join the club'!"
'What part of "I don't care" didn't you understand?'
"Bullshit, you don't care. Are you trying to convince me that you're too stupid to know how to commit suicide properly? If you truly didn't care, you'd already be dead."
Joseph's hands clenched into tight fists in an effort to contain himself. He failed. Tears spilled down his cheeks; whether from pain or anger -- or both -- Aharon couldn't say, but their presence was a good sign, even if Joseph didn't know it. 'If you understood the way you claim to, you wouldn't be trying to force me to live with such horrors as I've seen.'
Leaning forward, Aharon gripped Joseph's shoulders and spoke, softly yet earnestly, words that he told to precious few people.
"When I was a child, all the Jews in my village were taken to a mass grave and shot by the Nazis. I saved myself by subconsciously using my powers, but still I fell into the pit. I was buried beneath the bodies of my parents and sister; I was covered with their blood. The lye the guards were shoveling into the pit burned my flesh as I struggled to get back out. It took a long time to dig my way out of that grave, and once I had escaped, I found myself utterly alone in the world, unable to return to the one place I knew for fear of being shot by those who knew me for what I was. The boy I was died in that grave; the man I am emerged from it. If I could survive that, and all that came after, then you can survive this."
For the moment, at least, the anger had died, leaving only bitterness and despair. 'Do you have any idea how many people I helped the government kill? How many friends? How many people I condemned to life as a Hound, because of what I did?'
Aharon nodded. "As many as died by my hand in the camps, when I failed to use my powers in their defense, when I stole their food to feed myself, when I ingratiated myself with the commandant so that he would choose someone else to be shot at random. We do what we must to survive, Joseph; in that, we are all alike. Do you imagine that your friend Dick has never pulled the trigger on someone when he had to? He may not have enjoyed it, he may have even despised it, but he did it all the same. You have done no worse than any of us, and at least you have the excuse of having no choice in the matter."
Taking a roll of gauze from the bedside table, he deftly removed the IV from Joseph's arm and bandaged the small puncture wound. Then he rose from his seat and walked to a nearby closet. Pulling Joseph's clothes from their hangers, he tossed them on the bed. "Get dressed. There's somewhere else you need to be."
Joseph looked down at the clothes, then up at Aharon. 'Where?'
Curiosity. Aharon smiled to himself; a good sign, indeed. "The sooner you get dressed, the sooner you'll see."
He led Joseph out of the infirmary and up to the attic. "Many Holocaust survivors wrote about their experiences, to preserve an eyewitness account for history and to warn future generations of the peril that lies in hatred," he said as they climbed the last of the stairs. He swung open the door to reveal a fully-stocked art studio. "You are an artist; you can do the same -- if for no other reason than to get the emotions out where you can deal with them. It will not be easy. It will not be pretty. But it is necessary."
Leaving Joseph in the studio, Aharon descended to the main floor to find Bruce waiting for him. "Your choice of therapy is certainly... unorthodox."
Aharon shrugged. "He is known the world over for his ability to draw emotion out of mere canvas. Perhaps it is time for people to see the emotions he lives with now. It could even help others, as the works of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel have; time, as they say, will tell."
"And you? Will you also help others, or will you be content to watch?"
One silver-white eyebrow arched upward. "This, you call giving me time to think about it?"
"The war won't wait for you, Aharon. The Sentinels won't wait. In half a year, maybe less, they'll be ready to mobilize against the other nations. Canada has already allowed the European Union to build missile sites along the border. We will have exactly one chance to stop the Sentinels, and for that to be successful, we need you, and your power, at the heart of it."
It had been five years since Bruce Wayne had donned the mantle of Batman, but he had lost none of his analytical, organizational, or persuasive skills. He didn't have to blatantly mention past history, as others might have done. He knew exactly what Aharon's weaknesses were and used them subtly and surely.
"They know me, my friend," Aharon sighed. "How will you reconcile my escape with my return to the Containment Facility?"
Bruce's expression didn't waiver, as though Aharon's decision had never been in doubt. "Sentinels are just computers," he said, leading Aharon in the direction of the mansion's R & D wing. "They store a vast amount of information, and they can use that knowledge to adapt their behavior, but they can't truly think. As long as your disguise is innovative and complete, it could be the most ridiculous concept on the planet and still work perfectly." He unlocked a large mahogany door and stood aside so as not to impede Aharon's view.
"A wheelchair??" For a man who had lived as long as Aharon, and who had seen as many things, he had no ability to conceal his dismay. Perhaps if he had mastered his emotions more thoroughly, Magneto would not have been unsuccessful in his many bids to take over control of the Earth.
"In addition to being unanticipated, this ferrous-alloy wheelchair can be converted into a weapon at the proper time. Keep in mind that any disguise is effective if it's perfect. In order for this to be a perfect disguise, it will require training, so from now until the day we send you back to the Containment Facility, you need to practice being in that chair."
"Charles," he murmured, "you will always have the last laugh, will you not?" He sat in the chair and found it oddly comfortable. Not surprising, really, since Bruce would have had it designed specifically to fit his proportions. "A clever idea, to be sure, but you know as well as I that Sentinels use alpha-wave scans in addition to visual images to identify mutants. My mind will betray me the moment I come with scanning range."
Bruce picked up what appeared to be an ordinary inhibitor collar. "By the time we're ready to send you back, we'll have finished this cloaking device. It will mask your power levels as well as your alpha-waves with a more generic pattern."
Both men turned toward the door, where Dick Grayson stood. As the official Commander of the Gotham City Resistance Post, he answered to no one... technically. In reality, there was little that went on in Gotham, whether in the R.P. or outside of it, that Bruce did not control in some fashion or another. As long as Dick was given the space to do what he did best, he didn't seem to have a problem working with his former mentor in such close quarters.
Working with the former Magneto, however, was another matter. Neither Bruce nor Dick entirely trusted Aharon, though neither could deny his contributions to the Resistance. His past history simply couldn't be ignored, and while Aharon understood that, it still irritated him. No matter that he would have been equally suspicious were their roles reversed.
"I suppose now is as good a time as any to begin practicing," he said casually, rolling the wheelchair with surprising accuracy toward the door. Dick stepped aside to allow him to pass, watching silently as Aharon maneuvered the chair down the hall and around the corner. Once he was out of sight, Dick gently closed the heavy wooden door and turned back to Bruce.
"I thought that after Bane, you never wanted to set eyes on a wheelchair again."
"Not for myself," he conceded. "But wheelchairs are wonderful tools of humility, and that's one of many things Aharon has yet to learn." He set the collar back on the desk and sat down, motioning for Dick to do likewise. "How's the family?"
Dick smiled. "As usual, Mariand'r calls the shots. Other than her hair, I swear that kid is a perfect clone of Kory; if this next one turns out the same way, I'm going to suspect that Tamaraneans might be parthenogenic."
"Her girls are shy, but they seem to be doing fine. It helps that Gar is still so playful with them. I'm not sure that a Resistance Post is the best place for them to grow up, but since they may well be mutants, I can't deny that it's the safest place." Dick leaned forward slightly. "But I know you're really asking about Joe."
Bruce sighed. "He can't stay here, Dick. Everything we are, everything we do -- it's too much for him. He needs a place where he can relax and recuperate. Wayne Manor isn't it."
"Don't tell me you want to send him to Kenya, Bruce," Dick said, knowing full well that was exactly what his foster father was telling him.
"Is there something in his relationship with his father I should know about?"
Dick shrugged, for once at a loss for words. "Slade is just... Slade. He's not what I would picture as the patient, empathic sort one would want for a person trying to overcome the sort of trauma Joe's been through."
"Wintergreen mellowed him quite a bit over the years, son. He isn't the same Deathstroke the Terminator you remember from your Titans days."
"Wintergreen died last year," Dick reminded him unnecessarily, "and even though Slade is officially retired, that doesn't mean he's lightened up. Adeline described him as a 'cold, self-centered bastard', and while she had her biases, her assessment of him was dead-on. How much can a person like that change?"
"You might be surprised," Bruce replied, but didn't elaborate. "You never told her, did you?"
The 'her' was Rose, of course. "He'll recover," Dick bristled.
"I'm not in denial, Bruce; I know it's a very small chance, given the length of his captivity. But why dash her hopes when there's a possibility they'll be fulfilled?"
"She'll stand in the way if she doesn't know," Bruce reasoned. "You know how stubborn she is. You'll need her backing if you want the transition to go smoothly."
Dick shook his head. "Considering her feelings about Slade, she may not back it, regardless."
Bruce nodded to himself. "Perhaps we should contemplate informing her of her father's substantial role in our operations."
"Speaking of which..." Dick proffered the piece of paper he'd been holding during their chat. "R & D sent us a message, via Russia this time. They estimate another three months maximum before they have working models."
Bruce scanned the message. "Kaia Kapp is a superb engineer." Knowing Bruce as he did, Dick recognized the intensity of that compliment. That Bruce had said anything at all was surprising; he was a man of few words when it came to discussing other people. If Dick ever met the former Hound, he would have to convey Bruce's praise to her; he could only hope she would be able to understand it.
Dick shifted in his seat. "This whole plan hinges on Aharon," he observed with obvious discomfort. "Do you really trust him that much?"
The former Batman's face was unreadable. "I have to, Dick. He's the only one with the power level we need to pull this off. The jammer will free all the mutants in the Containment Facility, but only the raw force of Magneto can destroy the Sentinels' main compound and that damned Nimrod machine. If we have to take Aharon out after that, we can."
Dick wasn't so certain, but that was an argument he didn't want to start again; at least, not tonight. "If they survive their mission, maybe the Rasputins can keep him under control."
"Kate has always been the voice of reason," he agreed. Dick grinned; ever since Kate Pryde-Rasputin had convinced her fellow former-X-Men to work undercover at the Containment Facility, Bruce had held her in high regard. Doing what you were told was certainly one way to get on Bruce's good side. Maybe even the best way.
Following that logic, he let the issue drop. If Bruce trusted Aharon enough to give the man the opportunity to take control of what would be left of the Sentinel computer system -- and, in effect, gain control of American government in the process -- he would just have to trust that Bruce knew what he was doing.
If unrest was brewing, there was no evidence of it. The months that passed were quiet, at least within the halls of Wayne Manor. Aharon perfected his use of the wheelchair, Rose taught Lily, Rita, and Mariand'r the basics of martial arts, Gar flew a couple of reconnaissance missions as a crow, and Koriand'r Grayson gave birth to a son she named for her late brother, Ryand'r.
Like an autistic child, Joseph had focused completely on his artwork, to the extent that he spent day and night in the studio, sleeping curled up in one corner whenever he got tired. After two years in a concrete cell, the wooden floor must have seemed like a luxury; so far, Rose had met with no success in getting him to sleep in a bed. The one time she had entered his bedroom late at night to check on him, she had found him sleeping on the rug at the foot of the bed. It made her cry to realize that her brother no longer saw himself as human, and avoided furniture like a well-trained pet.
Dick had advised her to let Joseph set the rate of his recovery, so she had long ago stopped trying to force him to come down to the dining room for meals and simply brought food up to the attic for him. He had gotten used to her visits, and no longer flinched when she walked into the room. That, at least, had raised her spirits, and allowed her to hope for a day when her brother would once again be the man she knew.
She knocked on the studio door to announce her presence, then entered. As she bent to pick up the dishes, she noticed that Joseph was not in the studio. Immediately, her eyes darted to the window, but it was still closed and locked, and she sighed in relief. Most likely he was taking a shower; that was one thing no one had needed to prod him to do. He had actually smiled the first time Rose had shown him the bathroom attached to his bedroom in Wayne Manor. Privacy was a foreign concept for Hounds.
This was a perfect opportunity for her to peruse the work he had done in the past few months. He had never told her she couldn't look around while he was there -- he wouldn't dare say such a thing to anyone, these days -- but she knew that her presence made him uncomfortable when she didn't have a specific reason for being in the studio, so she had never asked.
The first painting she saw had been titled "Life in the Kennels"; it was a still-life, which in itself spoke volumes. The bare concrete room that served as a setting housed a small, battered wooden table, its perspective deliberately warped to provide a better view of what lay on it. At first glance, the items seemed to be mere tools, but a closer look revealed them to be well-worn torture implements, casually displayed on the table as though their very existence was not an obscenity. Light from a barred window set high in the wall cast a prison-grid shadow over the scene, imparting an oppressive, claustrophobic feel to the painting.
The next one was no cheerier. "The Hunt" featured a soldier walking through the deserted rubble of an abandoned town, the leashes of half a dozen Hounds wound tightly in one hand, a loaded gun in the other. Instead of their usual studded black outfits, the Hounds wore striped Holocaust camp uniforms, their ID brands replaced by the various Nazi symbols used to categorize prisoners. One of the Hounds pointed to the quarry, and the soldier's gun was aimed in the same direction: straight at the viewer. You're next , the painting whispered ominously. Rose quickly moved on.
She had known that the paintings would be dark in their portrayals of suffering and death, but she had forgotten how well her brother could make the viewer feel those emotions. Canvas after canvas screamed silently in oils, watercolors, and chalks. There was even one in crayon: "Third Birthday", drawn as if by a child's hand, of an overturned birthday cake lying on the floor, next to the massive impression of a Sentinel's footprint pressed into the wooden floorboards. Presents, charred and half-crushed, lay scattered at the corners of the canvas.
She almost didn't want to see what Joseph had just completed. The intensity of the images and emotions in the pictures was increasing, as though what had been allowed to only trickle out at first was now being released at full throttle. Her curiosity drove her onward, and she lifted the sheet off the canvas that, though finished, was still on the easel.
The dishes in her other hand slipped from her nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor.
A woman lay on the ground, her head thrown back, her glassy eyes staring sightlessly out at Rose. Blood soaked her dress, streaked her face, blended with the auburn strands of hair that were spread around her like an elaborate headdress. The background figures -- her killers? -- were mere impressionistic streaks of blue, black, and grey; cold contrast to the warm scarlet tones that decorated her ghostly-pale face. Rose dropped the sheet back over the painting and sank to her knees, sobbing. She didn't need to read the title to know that it was simply, elegantly, "Jessica".
"They're powerful images, are they not?" a quiet voice asked. Rose looked up sharply, anger covering her embarrassment at having been seen crying over a painting. Aharon didn't seem to notice, his gaze lost among the paintings. "Bruce is arranging to have them displayed in the Louvre in return for covert aid from the French government."
"Why aren't you in your wheelchair?" Rose muttered, gathering the fallen dishes.
He picked up the glass from where it had rolled and held it out to her. "I saw you come up here. I thought perhaps you might need an outlet for the emotions your brother's work can evoke."
She wiped her eyes again, a little less self-consciously. "You sound like you're familiar with his work."
"I am," he smiled. "You may think it terribly out of character, but I greatly enjoy art, and your brother is exceedingly talented. True, his previous works were much more... placid... but darker themes have their place. And what better way to show the world the hell that America has become?" He lifted the cover from the painting Rose had been looking at; she saw the corners of his mouth tighten in response. "His wife?"
Carefully, he replaced the covering, the memory of lost love shining sadly in his eyes. "If only I had the skill to honor Magda so," he whispered, more to himself than to Rose. In that instant, Rose saw Aharon not as a conquest-obsessed madman, but as a man much like her brother, who had lived through more than his fair share of pain and horror. Impulsively, she placed one hand on his arm in silent sympathy.
After a moment, he sighed and turned to face her. "I'm returning to the Containment Facility tomorrow. If all goes as planned I'll be back in a month or so." He rested his hands on her shoulders. "Be well, you and your family. And don't fear for Joseph; he will recover, I promise you. It may take him years, but eventually, you'll recognize him as your brother. He wouldn't have made it even this far, otherwise."
"Thank you," she murmured, staring down at the floor as he turned and walked out of the studio.
Surprised as she had been by Aharon's words, she was even more surprised by her own anticipation of his return a month later. The intervening time had been eventful, what with the transfer of Joe's paintings to the Louvre, her daughters' birthday party, and her brother actually initiating a conversation with her. Even Dick had commented on her unusually high spirits. Rose, however, was of the opinion that for every good event, there was something unpleasant waiting just about the corner. So she was convinced that when he asked her and Gar for a private audience one day, it was in preparation for some very bad news.
She was wrong.
"Canada??" she gasped, echoing Dick's last word. "Why?"
He smiled. "Everyone needs a vacation, Rose. Kory, Mariand'r, and I were just there, about three weeks before Ryan was born. You'll love it."
"And the unspoken Ulterior Motive, oh fearless leader?" Gar asked with a grin, knowing Dick as well as he did.
Dick shrugged. "Just courier work; it won't affect your vacation. The R & D team will drop off the last part of the jammer, and you'll keep it safe until your contact in the Canadian Resistance Army arrives. However, I'd like it if you took Joe and Mariand'r with you. Joe because he needs it, and Mariand'r because she's quite the handful when she doesn't have anyone else her age to play with."
Suspicious as always, Rose asked, "What's going on that you want all the kids up in Canada?"
He couldn't help but smile. "You got me, Rose. Yes, there's that, too. We're preparing for our big strike against the Sentinel base, and although we don't anticipate any government action against Wayne Manor, we can't ever be certain. I'd feel better with the girls out of the way... just in case." He tossed her a set of keys. "Emil will 'port you up there in a couple of hours. Don't forget your toothbrushes."
Emil -- the former villain Warp from the Society of Sin -- was more than just the Gotham City Resistance Post's resident teleporter. He was also their covert connection to the French government, and through them, the rest of the United Nations. One of the few people privileged to spend time at Bruce Wayne's cabin, he was able to teleport them directly into the living room.
All that most people knew about the cabin was that it was in Canada, and that Bruce himself never used it. Those with an eye for detail and good knowledge of geography could deduce that it was in Alberta, as the imposing Rocky Mountains rose up to touch the western sky. At night, the only illumination was from the glowing ribbon of light that was the Milky Way, indicating that they were well away from the larger cities of Edmonton and Calgary.
As with all buildings owned by Bruce, the cabin was a veritable mansion, complete with a live-in cook and maid, both of whom were either Canadian Resistance Army members or sympathizers. As such, everything about the cabin was impeccably well-kept, including the boats that were moored in the nearby lake. Only the old gravel road through the meadow that lead to the property was overgrown, and Rose suspected that was intentional. With teleporters available for supplies, roads were unnecessary; perhaps the cook and maid were teleporters themselves.
It was early enough in the day that they decided to eat lunch out by the lake. Everything they would need was prepared for them while they unpacked, and since it was summer, Rose allowed the girls to go swimming first. Gar unfurled the oversized tablecloth for them to sit on while Mariand'r chased Lily and Rita through the shallow water at the lake's edge.
Joseph sat down at one corner of the tablecloth, looking more relaxed than Rose had seen him in all the months he'd been at Wayne Manor. By now it was obvious that the fewer people there were, more comfortable he felt. He had never been alone in all the time Rose had known him; when he hadn't been with Jessica, he'd been with his friends or his mother. Dick had confided to her that previously, Joseph had strongly disliked being alone, almost to the point of fearing it. Clearly, his time in the kennels had changed that.
Suddenly, Joseph shrank down, curling into a ball to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Rose and Gar were immediately alert, scanning their surroundings to detect whatever it was that had triggered Joseph's reaction.
Gar pointed to the far edge of the meadow, where a small cloud of dust was gently rising. "Someone's headed this way; hold down the fort, hon, while I check it out." Changing into a falcon, he flew rapidly over to where the disturbance was while Rose gathered the children from the water and tried to reassure her brother that everything was fine.
When the Jeep crested the hill, she could see that her husband was riding in the back, which would have eased her mind if she hadn't also seen who was driving the vehicle. Clenching her fists, she took a deep breath and waited as her father stopped the car midway across the meadow and got out to continue the rest of the way on foot.
The third passenger took to the air, soaring over Slade's head and diving down again to skim over the tall grass before alighting in front of Rose. She was of average height and a somewhat slender build, much like Jessica had been. Unlike Jessica, her red hair was cut in a short bob, framing a freckled face marred by laser treatments.
Picking up on the tensions of the adults, Mariand'r let loose with a starbolt meant to warn off the former Hound. Immediately, the woman dropped into a battle crouch, electricity crackling around her clenched fists. Upon seeing that her adversary was a mere child, she froze, looking up at Rose for instruction.
Rose motioned for her to rise, shooting a warning glance at the impulsive half-Tamaranean child not to repeat that particular mistake. She made no movement as the woman leaned forward and inspected her face closely. One emerald green eye stared at Rose with crystal clarity; the other was useless, the clouded lens showing milky white through the permanently dilated pupil. Her left ear was also barely functional, if the hearing aid was any indication. The damage appeared to be related to the scar that ran from her left temple down to her nose, a mark similar to the smaller scar on Rose's cheek.
That thought clearly had passed through the ex-Hound's mind, as she reached out and gently ran her finger over Rose's scar. Her eyes flicked over to Joseph, who had uncurled and was staring back at her, but she made no move to approach him.
A series of shrill whistles pierced the air and the woman wheeled around, staring at Slade as he approached. He made a motion with his hands to indicate a small square object, then pointed back at the Jeep. She nodded once and took to the air again, her blue jumpsuit blending into the cloudless sky.
Rose turned a glare on her father. "You whistled for her? Like a dog?"
Slade met his daughter's eyes, his face impassive. "You saw the scars, Rose," he said quietly. "Kaia is a brilliant scientist and an accomplished pianist, but she's aphasic from the brain damage. Spoken words are wasted on her; even sign language is difficult. If it wasn't for her empathy, she'd be completely cut off from other people. Her intellect isn't impaired, but she can't tell a soul what's going on in her head. Not easily, at any rate."
Any reply Rose might have made was cut off by Kaia's return. She landed next to Slade and presented him with what looked like a cut-down shoebox. He smiled at her as he took it; she stepped back and looked away, uncomfortable with even that slight praise.
Slade handed the box to Rose. "Give this to Logan when you see him. It's the last part of the jammer Bruce has been waiting for."
" You're part of the R & D team?" she asked, staring down at the package in her hands.
One white eyebrow twitched upward. "No, but even scientists need a place to sleep, and have food on the table. I provide both, and my place is 30 kilometers from the nearest civilization, which makes it pretty damn secure. Grayson did tell you that I'd meet you here, didn't he?"
"Uh... not exactly," Gar spoke up when Rose failed to. "He told us someone from R & D. The only other thing he said was that we were to pass it on to our C.R.A. contact."
"Logan; the former Wolverine," Slade clarified. "He'll be by tomorrow, probably after sundown. A word of warning -- you won't detect him until he's right here, so don't be alarmed."
Kaia tapped his arm and he looked over at her. She pointed to herself and then to Joseph, and Slade nodded. Immediately, she dropped to all fours and slowly sidled closer to Joseph, keeping her eyes on the tablecloth. Hounds were never direct with anyone; direct action meant confrontation, and in a Hound's universe, confrontation always ended in violence.
He watched her as she approached, not retreating from her, but not reaching out to her, either. She waited until she was right in front of him, then slowly extended her hands toward him and tapped a complex pattern on his arm, her fingers gliding over his sleeve as they would over a keyboard.
Which was exactly what she was doing.
Whatever music she had chosen was familiar to Joseph, and as she stopped, he reciprocated, his fingers dancing an accompaniment down her leg. It was an odd form of communication, but it worked; she looked up at him with a smile on her face, and he smiled back at her.
Trust established, she touched his temples and pointed to her eyes. He looked at her quizzically; her motions had too wide a range of possible interpretations. She tried again, holding her hands around her neck like a collar and indicating the two of them. He shook his head and shrugged.
Frustrated, she turned to Slade and motioned for him to join them. Rose was amazed to see that her father knew perfectly well how to move around ex-Hounds; he was slow and deliberate, not making eye contact until he had settled himself next to them. Somehow, she had never expected that sort of patience or understanding from him.
Kaia was making more gestures, mostly her own creations mixed with an occasional ASL word. Slade seemed to comprehend her without too much difficulty. "She's asking if you know her, son," he said to Joseph, keeping his eyes on Kaia. "She thinks you may have worked together." Unbuttoning the top of her jumpsuit, she pulled the collar aside far enough to reveal her ID brand: Z9H.
Joseph nodded slowly. 'I know you.'
Clearly, though, he had known her before her injuries. He touched her face near her blind eye, his fingers running lightly over her cheek to rest near her equally-damaged ear. 'Why?' he asked.
Her ability to sign was less impaired than her ability to speak, but it still did not flow smoothly. Pantomiming a Hunt, she indicated a small quarry -- a child. She pointed to herself and pretended to catch the child. Glancing around furtively, she brought her powers to bear in a bolt of electricity that shot from one palm to the other. It seemed that she was implying she had killed the child, to spare him or her the miserable existence of a Hound. She hung her head as if expecting punishment, then signed, 'Master angry.'
Master. So Ahab had done this. He had probably intended to beat her to death, then reconsidered. Most of the mutants left were quiet powers, so Hounds were scarce these days, and even errant ones couldn't be killed with impunity. Especially when life in the kennels was a far greater punishment than death could ever be.
She started to say something else, but stopped when she saw Slade's hand move. Slowly, he put his hand on Joseph's shoulder and waited until the tension left his son's body before looking over at him. "Joe, there's a place for you in Kenya. I'd like it if you came home."
Joseph glanced from his father to his sister, then looked down again, uncertain. Kaia touched his leg to get his attention, indicating many people and shaking her head to negate her actions. She smiled, allowing her body to slump into a pose of casual relaxation. Even her awkward attempts at communication could convey her attraction to Kenya: no people; very peaceful.
Rose bit her lip. She had plenty to say about her father's request, but she didn't want to say any of it in front of her brother. It would open too many old wounds, cause him too much stress. And her comments might devolve into a fight, which would upset the children. Keeping her peace, however, was simply not a part of her psyche.
Slade surprised her again by acknowledging that. He motioned to the Jeep parked halfway across the meadow. "Head out," he told his daughter. "I'll meet you there."
Flashing a reassuring smile at Gar, she began walking toward the Jeep, keeping the anger out of her posture for the sake of her watching children. There was no denying that her desire to have Joseph stay in Gotham was purely selfish, but by the same token, she wanted what was best for him. She just didn't think that being with their father qualified.
She reached the Jeep and froze. Tucked behind the seats were brightly-wrapped packages complete with bows. A closer inspection revealed the names of all three of the girls. Her father, the heartless mercenary, bringing presents to children?
"I know it's too late for your girls' birthdays and too early for Mariand'r's, but it was the only opportunity I had to bring something without having to go through either Kenyan or Canadian customs."
Rose bit back a scathing retort. This was likely to get heated enough without starting off viciously. She kept her eyes on the presents. "If you care so much about kids, why weren't you ever there for us? Or even for Hadassah and David, for that matter?"
"It was too dangerous for me to be there for you, Rose," he said quietly. "I thought you knew that, after what Wade did to you and Lily. I didn't want to see you get hurt again -- or worse, killed -- just because I was your father. The only way to keep you safe was to cut all ties with you. Did you think I was just being spiteful when I told Steele not to let Wintergreen adopt you? Wintergreen was my best friend, and that was every bit as dangerous as being my daughter, or son, or even ex-wife. I learned that lesson a long time ago, on too many different occasions."
"Deathstroke the Terminator is history!" she snarled, wheeling around to face him. "Your enemies are history! What's your excuse now?"
Slade looked down and sighed. "For you? You hate me Rose, and not without reason. If you wanted me in your life, I would've gladly accepted, but you didn't, and I understand why. Gar sent me the wedding invitation; I actually considered attending, for the briefest of moments... until I realized that my presence would probably ruin what should have been your special day. My absence was the only gift I could give you; I thought you would appreciate it. I'm sorry if you didn't."
"Dassi and David didn't hate you. Where were you when they needed you? Or Jessica? Or even Addie, for god's sake!"
The pain in Slade's eye was evident even to Rose. "I would have given anything to have been able to prevent their deaths. Anything . But all I received were after-the-fact notices. What could I have done? There was no point in leaving Kenya; there weren't even any funerals to attend. Wintergreen had to hide the tape of Addie's execution so that I would stop watching it, just like he'd had to hold me back when Grayson told me that Joe had been captured. I was ready to charge headlong into the Hound kennels to rescue him, knowing that even with my abilities it would be a wasted effort. I settled for helping Wayne's resistance cell in exchange for his focusing on freeing Joe. Is it so wrong for me to want my son to come home?"
"Is that why you brought Kaia along? To help persuade him?" She knew she was being uncharitable, but the comment was out of her mouth before she could stop it.
Slade seemed genuinely shocked to hear her say that. "Kaia is a co-leader of the R & D team; she has the right to go on any mission she chooses. She hates leaving Kenya, but she wanted to go on this one so that she could meet Joe again. Hounds rarely trust anyone, even each other, but he was always nice to her, so she likes him. If that 'persuades' him to come to Kenya, fine, but that isn't why she's here."
She stiffened as her father rested his hands on her shoulders, and fought the urge to shake him off. "I can't change what happened, Rose," he whispered. "All I can do is apologize. I'm sorry."
It was up to her. Slade had said everything he was going to say; what happened next depended entirely on what words came out of her mouth. She knew what she wanted to say. She knew what Gar wanted her to say.
What came out of her mouth was what her mother would have wanted her to say.
"We're up here for a week; why don't you and Kaia stay awhile? It would give Joe some time to think about where he wants to be, and... you'll have a chance to meet your grandkids." And your daughter, finally .
He crushed her against his chest with the strength of his embrace, and for the first time in fifteen years, she didn't resent his presence. "C'mon, let's surprise the kids with the presents... dad," she added shyly.
Everyone was staring at them -- Gar with obvious relief, Joe with amazement, and Kaia with curiosity. Lily and Rita, of course, were fixated on the colorful presents their mother and grandfather were carrying, and could barely contain their anticipation. Only Mariand'r looked bored by the whole scene.
"Thank you, granddaddy," the girls squealed in unison when Rose told them who had brought them the presents. She handed the third package to the astonished Mariand'r, who glanced up at Slade and broke into a grin.
The presents were beautifully handcarved African animals in a variety of woods. Each girl had four, and no two were alike. They immediately set about playing "savannah", Lily's lioness alternately chasing Rita's giraffe and Mariand'r's gazelle. A crocodile, a zebra, a rhino, and an oryx were gathered in and around an imaginary water hole; waiting on the sidelines were a large snake, a hyena, a baboon, and a male lion. Joseph had picked up one of the animals and was staring hard at it, his expression unreadable. Only when he set it down next to the zebra did Rose see what it was.
Painful as it was for her, she made no move to distract him from the memories. The most important part of Hound rehabilitation was allowing the person to think their own thoughts and make their own decisions. If those thoughts and decisions were unpleasant, so be it; they could live with the consequences like everyone else. But that didn't make it any easier to watch.
Kaia had no such compunction about squashing depressing feelings, perhaps because her power forced her to feel the emotions of those around her. She slid her hands up Joseph's arms and over his shoulders, tiny sparks of electricity jumping between her fingertips, and Rose was amazed to see him visibly relax. In any other situation, she might have been horrified to witness such blatant emotional manipulation, but this time, she was thankful.
With the girls ignoring lunch in favor of play, there was plenty of food to go around. Like Joseph, Kaia made no move to take anything for herself, waiting patiently until Slade offered her something. She didn't bother pretending to follow the conversation, opting instead to play a guessing game with Joseph, each of them performing increasingly complex melodies on the tablecloth that served as a keyboard. If either of them was winning, it was impossible for anyone else to tell, but it was obvious to all that both were having fun.
After lunch, she even convinced him to go flying with her, looping high into the air before plummeting down to buzz the treetops. She never tired of aerial maneuvers, unlike Rose, who quickly grew bored watching them. Gar, on the other hand, turned into a merlin and joined in the fun.
"She enjoys anything that gives her a sense of freedom and control," Slade explained, smiling as Kaia traversed the lake, her hands trailing in the water. "Most empaths don't get flight as a by-product of their mutation, so she's lucky." When Rose didn't see the connection, he continued, "Her powers are bioelectrical, very narrowly-focused for an empath. Electricity and magnetism are linked forces, so controlling one allows for a certain amount of control over the other. But how she uses those forces to fly is a question that's probably better asked of Aharon than of me." He sighed. "If it wasn't for that damn head injury, she could tell you herself; it's all physics, and she's very good at that."
"It's hard for her, isn't it?" Rose asked.
Slade nodded. "We almost lost her because of it. As much as empaths need occasional isolation, they also need contact with others, and not being able to communicate makes that contact pretty useless. I have to admit, saving her was my personal victory; it didn't really make up for all the times I wasn't there for you and Joe, but it was something."
Rose looked up as Kaia soared overhead, chasing after Gar. It felt uncomfortable to ask, but she was too curious not to. "Are you two...?"
He almost choked on his iced tea, then shook his head, his expression grim. "You know what happens to female Hounds, Rose," he said quietly, even though Kaia wouldn't have understood had she overheard. "I'm amazed she's as relaxed around Joe as she is; she's never that way with me or any of the men on the R & D team. She's not afraid of us -- with her power to control the nervous system, she could kill us all if she wanted to. But she's wary, and she definitely doesn't like to be touched unless it's just to get her attention."
"Doesn't her anxiety affect the rest of the team?"
Slade smiled. "You only think scientists are beyond emotional drama until you have to work with them. Kaia's inhibitions are nothing compared to the theatrics some of the other R & D members have pulled. Oddly enough, it's the men who have the temper tantrums; the women are usually very professional. Go figure. And of the men, our resident flaming queen is by far the most mature." He finished his iced tea and looked over at the girls, who were splashing each other in the lake and trying to catch small fish in the shallows. "Speaking of emotional dramas, how's the family?"
"Rita takes after me, unfortunately," Rose admitted with a laugh. "Headstrong to a fault. Fortunately, Lily is the manipulative one, so Rita usually ends up doing what her sister wants and not the other way around, which is good, since Lily adheres to rules better. I thank my lucky stars they weren't identical twins; two Ritas would be more than even Gar could handle. Mariand'r, of course, bosses everyone around, just like her father."
"How old is Mariand'r?"
"A half-year older than Lily, who just turned six. But she acts like she's oh-so-old-and-wise. I don't know if that's a Tamaranean trait, or just her."
Clouds began gathering overhead, accompanied by a slight but noticeable drop in temperature. Kaia immediately landed nearby, accustomed to Kenyan thunderstorms that developed rapidly and frequently turned severe. To be caught aloft in such weather, generating strong electromagnetic fields, was to invite a lightning strike. By the same token, it was unwise to remain in or near a large body of water.
"Lily, Rita, time to come in. You too, Mariand'r," Rose called. All three girls obediently came out of the water, shrieking giddily as the air chilled them. Rose and Gar held out large towels and the girls ran to them, eager to be wrapped in the warm, dry cotton. Kaia watched, her face a mask of envy, then turned on her heel and strode stiffly back toward the Jeep.
"What's wrong?" Gar asked, surprised by the sudden turn of events. "What did we do?"
"Nothing," Slade sighed. "She always wanted a family and now she can't have one. You can't really blame her for being bitter about it."
"I'm sure she could find some way around her communication barrier," Rose said. "Couldn't she? She's an empath, after all."
Her father gave her an odd look, then shrugged. "That's only part of the problem. The bigger one is that all female Hounds are sterilized -- or 'spayed', as the government calls it. They don't want to hassle with female cycles or unwanted pregnancies, so part of the initial training for females involves a hysterectomy. That's why there are fewer female than male Hounds; most of them don't survive the physical stress of their initial training." He glanced over toward the Jeep. "I have to go calm her down before she starts affecting everyone."
Joseph placed a hand on his father's arm. 'No, let me.'
He could feel the emotions radiating from her as he approached -- anguish, longing, and despair, all with a strong undercurrent of self-loathing, coupled with anger for feeling any of those emotions in the first place. Slowly, he placed his hands on her shoulders; even with her back turned she was aware of his presence, yet she still flinched. He massaged her neck and shoulders lightly, working out the tension in her muscles, and she made no effort to pull away from him. Only when he moved to face her did she abruptly turn away, holding up one hand to hide her ruined visage from his gaze.
It was a familiar feeling. How often had he wanted to smash the bathroom mirror rather than face the image it threw back at him? He had never been vain, but that didn't mean he cared to be confronted with what the government had seen fit to do to him. She hadn't seemed shy about her appearance before, but an unpredictably fickle nature was the hallmark of most empaths. Gently, he moved her hand aside, tilting her face up so that she could clearly see the similar damage that he made no attempt to conceal.
'Not fair!' she signed angrily, tears spilling down her cheeks. He wasn't sure if she was referring to her induced barrenness, her appearance, or both, but either way, he agreed. It was an accurate assessment of life as a whole, and not just for those unlucky enough to have been Hounds. Jessica would have shrugged it off as God's will and made the best of it, but he had never had her strong faith, and never would, now.
Instead, he held Kaia in a loose embrace, letting her feel the mixed joy and pain evoked by the memories of his lost family. What she couldn't have for herself, at least she could experience vicariously.
The rumble of not-so-distant thunder triggered a swift retreat to the safety of the cabin, after hurriedly gathering up children, toys, and picnic items. Slade and Kaia watched the children while the others unpacked; not expecting to stay for any length of time, neither of them had brought along any personal items. Fortunately, the cabin was stocked with all the basic necessities, and the maid, who was indeed a teleporter, volunteered to flit off to Calgary on a quick shopping spree.
The day passed quickly, Slade telling tales of life in Kenya and Gar relating stories of his daughters' antics. Aware of Kaia's social isolation in this situation, Mariand'r offered her coloring books, which were eagerly accepted. Rose smiled at the sight of a grown woman coloring pictures with crayons, wondering if the head trauma had left Kaia colorblind as well as aphasic. She may have been a virtual genius with numbers, but she was no artist.
Dinner, when it came, was a very structured affair, requiring their timely presence at the dinner table. Joseph and Kaia were clearly uncomfortable with the arrangement, sitting rigidly in their seats, but neither of them tried to leave. Slade seemed oblivious to it, which may have been his way of forcing them to get reacquainted with everyday human activities. More power to him if it worked; Rose's attempt to do the same with Joseph had been a dismal failure.
Discipline, apparently, was the key to successfully deprogramming Hounds. It wasn't surprising, really, since they were used to it -- or more accurately, terrified by it. Rose hadn't the heart to use the technique with Joseph after everything he'd been through, even if it was supposedly for his own good, but Slade was of the opinion that one could never have too much discipline.
It kept Joseph and Kaia at the table until dinner ended, at which point both of them bolted as soon as it was clear they were permitted to leave. Slade sighed to himself the moment they were out of the room, looking for all the world like any other tired old man.
The children weren't about to be weighed down by the adults' exhaustion. "Play horsie with us, grampa!" they demanded, tugging at his sleeves until he consented. Rose had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the incongruous image of Deathstroke the Terminator romping in circles around the living room on all fours, giving rides to his granddaughters. Gar had no such self-restraint, and laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. Even Joseph smiled at the sight of it, though it was a smile tinged with bittersweet memories.
Kaia and Mariand'r, absorbed once again in coloring books, ignored the equine escapades.
Eventually, the girls were forced to relinquish their pony in favor of pajamas, a decision that met with the usual complaints. Their parents were having none of it, vacation or no, and the children were hustled off to bed by their father. Taking advantage of the momentary lull in activity, Slade pulled Rose aside.
"Is there a bedroom on the other side of the cabin?" Slade asked her.
Rose shrugged. "I don't know; I guess there isn't any reason why they would have to be restricted to only one wing. I can ask the maid. Why?"
He motioned toward Kaia, who was admiring the new pajamas the maid had bought for her in Calgary. "She projects emotions as well as receiving them, and at night, her shields drop. Unless you want to dream about being a Hound, I'd suggest keeping her as far away from everyone else as possible."
"She won't mind, being isolated like that?"
Slade shrugged. "I don't know if she minds or not, but she's used to it, and she understands why it has to be that way. It's probably easier for her as well, since empathy is usually a double-edged sword; this way, she won't have other people's dreams impinging on her, either."
As it so happened, there were no bedrooms elsewhere in the cabin, but there was a den large enough to accommodate one of the beds, and with the help of the maid, the necessary bedroom furniture was teleported to that room for Kaia's use.
The following day was leisurely, filled with outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, and even some water-skiing on the lake. Gar, Mariand'r, and Kaia played a game of flying tag while the others sunned themselves on the deck of the boat, unwinding from the stresses of their everyday lives. Only when the warmth began to creep from the air did they reluctantly head back indoors.
After a day of nothing but play, the children were more willing to head to their bedrooms when the time came for them to retire. The adults stayed up, sipping wine or brandy and trading reminiscences. All except Kaia, of course, who was scribbling intently on a piece of paper.
Without warning, Kaia let out a strangled squeak, dropped her pencil, and dove into Joseph's arms. It had been apparent to everyone that the ex-Hound's dislike of male contact didn't seem to apply to Joseph, though why he should be an exception remained a mystery.
"Logan's here," Slade announced, as if that explained everything.
Gar went to open the door. Their visitor acknowledged his presence with a nod before growling, "Cripes, Wilson, where's your brain? You know I scare the gal; you two should'a been gone yesterday."
Slade shrugged nonchalantly. "Couldn't pass up the offer to be with my grandkids."
"What's the point in a third-party rendezvous when the first party's still here?" Logan muttered, pulling out a cigar. "Don't worry," he smiled at Rose's frown, "I ain't stayin' long. Just business."
"Why's Kaia so afraid of you?" Gar asked, handing the jammer part to Logan.
Neither one so much as glanced in her direction, knowing that would only upset her more. "Can't rightly say, kid; I spook empaths. Happened to that other one you worked with, too."
"Raven." Gar remembered his teammate's hysterical response to Darkseid's presence, but he hadn't recalled any trepidation on her part in regard to Wolverine or any of his fellow X-Men. Then again, that was long before Raven got used to showing her emotions; if Logan said she'd been frightened, then she had been.
"Yup, that's the one," Logan said, lighting his cigar. "What's she up to these days?"
"Er... well, she died a while ago, but then kinda came back, only evil," Gar explained. "Then she died again, and came back again, but without her body. But at least she was herself after that. I haven't seen her in years, though."
"Sounds just like Jeannie," Logan muttered. "There's one on every team." Tipping his hat to Rose, he said, "See you folks later, then. Have a nice vacation," and was gone before anyone could respond.
Kaia grabbed her paper and pencil and flew off to her makeshift bedroom, too stressed to remain in the company of others. Her departure was the excuse for everyone else to call it a day as well, and they headed off to their separate rooms.
Kaia was fine the next morning, bouncing up to the breakfast table wearing a bright yellow sundress that left very little to the imagination. True, it wasn't something she had bought for herself, but the fact that she would wear it was a shock to everyone but Slade, who was used to people removing most of their clothing as a means of coping with the intense heat of a Kenyan day. She must not have been feeling self-conscious, because the dress bared not only her ID brand but numerous scars on her arms, shoulders, and legs.
She was in an infectiously chipper mood, and soon everyone at the table was in high spirits. It took no effort whatsoever to convince Joseph that he should accompany her on an exploratory outing, and they headed out immediately after breakfast. Slade watched them go, keeping to himself the thought that Kaia really shouldn't be out flying in such a short dress.
They had only flown a couple of miles when Kaia touched down in a small rocky meadow. The rocks strewn everywhere one looked had been deposited by glaciers during the Ice Age, and ranged in size from pebbles to boulders. It made strolling through the waist-high grass more difficult, but it was also much more interesting, as brightly-colored skinks and snakes darted out from between the rocks. With child-like glee, Kaia snatched a sunning garter snake off a rock, petting its head as she admired the bright green and yellow stripes that ran down its back. She replaced it gingerly on its rock and it quickly vanished into the grass, deeply offended at the interruption of its routine.
Thirty-five minutes was all it took to explore the meadow, much to Kaia's disappointment. They were pondering their next destination when a gunshot echoed through the surrounding forest, startling them both. It had sounded very close, though that could be deceiving; large, loud guns made sounds that carried well for miles.
Before they could decide whether or not it would be prudent for them to leave, a flash of color emerging from the trees caught their attention. A group of at least a dozen men was heading their way, dressed too conspicuously to pass for hunters. Odd, since all of them were armed, and Canada was not yet a country at war.
Most of the men hung back at the edge of the woods, watching as four of their number proceeded into the meadow directly toward Joseph and Kaia. Their leader was a big man, both in height and girth, who carried a rifle like it was a natural extension of his arm.
Kaia slid behind Joseph, clutching the back of his shirt. He could do nothing to assuage her fear, as he felt no better about their predicament than did she. It didn't help when the big man said, in a voice loud enough for Joseph to hear him clearly, "Well I'll be go to hell, boys -- look what we found!"
Joseph dropped his gaze as the men approached, a tension that was only partly radiated from Kaia twisting his stomach. This was not an innocent encounter, that much he could tell without asking. Perhaps, if they were lucky, they would only be harassed for a while and released.
Understandably, Joseph no longer believed much in luck.
"Yer mighty quiet for Yanks," the big man laughed, stopping a few feet away. "Most of the ones I've met would talk the hind legs off a donkey. That lot thinks they own the world -- like they don't put their pants on one leg at a time!"
"Bloody gorillas, them Yanks," another one muttered, "'specially them muties. Useful as a back pocket on a shirt! Cause of all the trouble south of the border, eh? Wouldn't want 'em comin' up here, bringing those troubles with 'em, would we?"
"Truth," the first man agreed, staring hard at Joseph. "You Yanks wouldn't happen to be muties, wouldja?" He pushed the muzzle of his gun under Joseph's chin, forcing his head up. "Those're some right strange scars you got on your face, fella."
"Get a look at this one," the third on chuckled, pulling a trembling Kaia away from Joseph. "She's two miles of dirt road after a rainstorm!" Kaia glared at him, understanding his condescending tone if not his words.
The first man turned away from Joseph and moved toward Kaia. "Not quite as bad from the neck down, eh?"
Joseph's reaction was instantaneous. He whirled around, his foot connecting with the man's ear and sending him sprawling into the grass. He targeted the man who had insulted Kaia next, knocking the gun from his hand with another kick and following through with a punch to the jaw.
The man hadn't hit the ground before gunshots rang out.
Kaia shrieked. She had felt bullets tear through flesh before, but only on assignment. Hounds were shot by Resistance members, who were in turn shot by government troops. Joseph had fallen, a man with a gun advancing menacingly. Men with guns, shooting Hounds, meant that she was on assignment -- and being on assignment meant killing the enemy.
Bolts of bioelectrical energy shot from her hands, electrocuting the two men still standing. One of the men Joseph had taken down stirred, reaching for his gun, and she closed a mental fist around his heart, silencing all the neural regulatory signals that would have maintained a steady beat. He dropped back to the ground and did not move again. The other man, the big one, seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't want him coming to and attacking her unexpectedly, so she sent a cell-killing electrical pulse through his brainstem.
Having secured the immediate vicinity, she sank down, hiding herself in the tall grass. The others were approaching cautiously; she could feel their fear as well as their anger. There were too many of them for her to attack all at once, especially at long range. Letting them get closer, though, meant giving them a better opportunity to kill her -- and Joseph.
She hesitated. Her primary mission was to kill the enemy. To do so, she should leave her present position and creep through the grass so that she could attack from an unexpected location. But doing that would leave Joseph unprotected. He was unconscious, having hit his head on a rock when he fell, and therefore defenseless.
The enemy was converging on them, circling around to cut off any escape. They didn't know the range of her power, nor did they know that she could fly, but she couldn't use either of those traits to her advantage without abandoning Joseph. She knew she wasn't supposed to put the life of another Hound before the success of her mission -- she would be punished for it, for sure -- but this wasn't just any other Hound. This was Joseph. She had to protect him; it was only fair.
Closing her eyes, she concentrated on the men. One of them was braver than the others, and had struck out on his own, a good twenty feet ahead of the rest of the group. To take him out would give the impression that he was closing in on her position, so she chose a different target, one in the middle of the group, and fried his brain with a grand mal seizure.
Predictably, the men panicked, backing away from their dying friend and firing shots randomly into the grass around them. Another man clutched his chest and fell, gasping, but instead of causing the others to run, it strengthened their resolve to rid themselves of the source of the threat. The group solidified and began to run toward the place where Kaia was hiding.
The brave man got there first, his gun a small but still deadly .22 caliber. Kaia hissed at him, shielding Joseph with her own body. It was an empty bluff, really; she could generate electromagnetic shields if she had to, but they were too weak to deflect bullets, and a .22 produced no substantial kick to throw off the aim.
What succeeded in throwing off his aim was Slade's flying tackle. Gar flew on toward the rest of the men, changing into a gorilla and flinging his opponents in all directions. Grabbing one of the fallen guns, Slade backed him up with firepower, taking out the rest of the men.
He turned, seeing Joseph lying motionless, and ran forward, but a low growl from Kaia stopped him in his tracks. She was still in Hound mode, and he wasn't dressed in the familiar kennel keeper's uniform that was her sole voice of authority. He repeated the series of shrill whistles he had previously used to get her attention, hoping that it might jar her into the present.
It did. She blinked, startled, and slowly got to her feet, only to drop to her knees again when she remembered Joseph. Slade knelt next to her and looked down at his son. Joseph's face was far too pale, and the bullet wounds couldn't account for that -- one was merely a graze, the other a relatively minor injury to the thigh. Slade pressed his fingertips against the cold skin of his son's neck, feeling the feeble pulse which indicated that life had not yet drained from the still form. His chest barely moved with the shallowness of his breath, but he didn't show any signs of cyanosis -- yet.
Which only meant that his body lived. If the head injury was too severe, he could be brain-dead; Slade had no way to check for that. At least there was no external sign of bleeding, though the paleness and low blood pressure may have indicated hemorrhaging. He forced his mind to concentrate on the present, away from the possibility that Joseph would not recover.
"Garfield," he called, not looking up to see if his son-in-law had even heard him. In a flash Gar was there, crouched beside Slade. "Take Joe back to the cabin, and make sure you keep his head elevated. I'll clean things up here."
Gar nodded, knowing better than to ask questions. "Clean things up" most likely meant getting rid of any survivors who might otherwise decide to return at a later date. As with everyone else who was living through the Sentinel War, he had learned to keep his moral objections to himself.
Kaia paused momentarily before following Gar into the air. Slade ignored their departure, just as Gar ignored the sound of gunshots that echoed in his wake.
"How is he?" Slade asked Rose when he arrived back at the cabin three hours later.
"I think he'll be OK," she smiled, clearly relieved that her brother was still alive. "He woke up a couple hours ago. He's got a contusion, but if I interpreted Kaia correctly, it's not a severe one, so he should be fine after a few days of bed rest. Lord knows he's survived worse."
Slade looked skeptical. "Kaia's an engineer, not a doctor."
Rose shrugged. "She's an empath whose specialty is nerves. If she says he'll be OK, she ought to know." She handed him some papers. "See if you agree. Her artwork isn't professional, but you can follow it."
Slade glanced over the papers. Using crude stick figures, Kaia had drawn the confrontation, showing Joseph being shot and striking the back of his head on a rock as he fell. She then drew a cut-away view of a head, with a lumpy structure that could only be the brain colored in bruised, unhealthy purples in the front and back. Stars and unhappy faces decorated the paper around the injured areas.
The next page began with a series of clock faces that he took to mean the passage of time -- certainly not a specific interval, since the position of the hands didn't follow chronologically. The next picture was another cut-away view, but this time the brain was all healthy pinkish grey, with no stars. The final image had a stick figure that had to be Joseph, judging by the curly blonde hair, who was now smiling, joined by a stick figure with a patch over one eye. Slade hadn't seen himself represented as a stick figure since Grant and Joseph were children, and it was mildly amusing to be drawn in such a fashion after so many years.
He made his way to Joseph's room, not surprised to find Kaia sitting by his bed, one hand resting on his chest, the other on his forehead. She sat upright, but her eyes were closed, as if in a trance.
"What's she doing?" Gar whispered, peeking into the room over Slade's shoulder.
"Scanning," he explained. "Sometimes nerve damage doesn't show up right away, so she's monitoring his nervous system for any changes. Expect her to stay there for about six hours, and don't interrupt her; she's liable to go into defensive mode and attack you before she realizes who you are." He glanced back at Gar. "Goodnight," he said, before heading off to his own room.
Gar watched him leave. He and Slade had formed an odd sort of father-son bond ever since the incident with Terra so long ago, but he would never understand Slade's willingness to go about life as usual when a family member was injured. The only ones who could keep Slade by their bedsides were Wintergreen and Adeline, neither of whom had been comfortable with such intense vigilance. With their deaths, it frequently appeared like Slade had no ties to bind him to others; his displays of affection were always sporadic, and according to Rose, too frequently suspiciously shallow. Perhaps that would change with his new ties to Rose and his grandchildren, and with Joseph's presence in Kenya, if he chose to go.
The incident put something of a damper on the rest of the week. They continued to stay at the cabin, but now Slade went on daily patrols of the surrounding acres. Rose and Gar kept a closer watch on the children, while Kaia stayed with Joseph as he recuperated.
Rose stood in her bedroom, staring at herself in the mirror. It was their last day in the cabin; in an hour, Emil would arrive to take them home. She fingered the delicate gold locket that hung on a chain around her neck. It wasn't like she'd never see him again, but the selfish part of her was reluctant to let her brother go. Staying in her room wouldn't change anything, though; it would only rob her of her last private conversation with Joseph. Even though she knew the answer, she had to ask; it was important that the final decision was clearly his.
She knocked softly on his door before peeking inside the room. He was sitting on the bed for once, reading over a handwritten musical score. The lack of a title -- or any other wording -- was an indication that the music had been written by Kaia; he had made some comments in the margin and changed some of the notes, using a different color of ink.
He was wearing only a pair of shorts, but Rose no longer found that odd. Although she didn't think it was warm enough to be without a shirt, the kennels were housed in the subterranean labyrinth of the Pentagon basement levels. Since Hounds weren't given clothes to wear unless they were on assignment, they quickly grew used to living in colder temperatures.
"That looks new," Rose smiled, indicating the sheets of music.
He nodded. 'Kaia wrote it after dinner a few days ago, and wanted me to look over it. It's not very complex, but it's a nice melody.'
She sat on the bed next to him. "She really seems to like you."
Unexpectedly, he looked away, his hand absently rubbing the burn scar on his right arm. After a minute, he turned back to Rose. 'I protected her once. From a keeper.'
Rose's eyes widened in astonishment. To attack a keeper was usually a death sentence for a Hound, and not an easy death, either. For a Hound to risk such punishment was rare enough, but to risk it for another Hound was unheard of. No wonder Kaia liked him.
Her gaze fell on the scar, noticing for the first time the matching one that ran down his leg. Like most Hound injuries, it had been deliberately inflicted; now she knew why. Hounds weren't treated kindly even when they were well-behaved, so punishment for poor behavior tended to be vicious. She shuddered to think of the other things that had been done to him, that had left only psychological scars in their wake.
"That was kind of you to defend her," she praised him.
He stared at the floor between them for a long moment before responding. 'I -- it was Jessica all over again.'
She rested her hand on his knee sympathetically. Joseph was too empathic to willingly stand by while someone else was abused, and when it came to sexual abuse, he was fiercely protective. Jessica had taken a long time to recover from what Number One had done to her, and Joseph never forgot her pain. Anything which reminded him of that was likely to bring out his most aggressive response.
Rose slipped the locket she was wearing over her head and held it out to him. Her brother looked at it, then at her, taking it only when she assured him that it was OK. He opened it and froze, staring down at the tiny but clearly recognizable photos of his late wife and mother.
"Jess gave it to me a week before the government raid," she told him quietly. "We all knew it was coming, you know; we just thought we'd have more time to escape. She acted like it was for me, but I always understood what she couldn't bring herself to admit: that I was to give it to you in the event that she didn't survive the war and you did." She smiled briefly at the memory of her sister-in-law. "I added the picture of your mom afterward. Jess always got along so well with Addie, it was so silly, but I was actually jealous. Gar's such a sweetheart; he knew exactly what to say to make me feel better."
'Why didn't she leave?' he asked. 'You got your whole family away. Why couldn't she have come, too?'
Rose's own guilt on that matter washed over her, choking off any immediate response. She'd known at the time that Jessica wouldn't come with them any more than Adeline would, but she'd still tried to convince both women to leave, to no avail. "She couldn't, Joey," she whispered, sliding her arms around his shoulders. "She was the government's primary target, she and Addie both. If they were gone, the government would have kept coming after us all. This way, Gyrich convinced himself that the heart of the Resistance was killed at Kane Manor. Jess and Addie sacrificed themselves to give the rest of us a fighting chance."
His hand closed over the locket, tears spilling down his cheeks. The time he'd spent in the kennels wasn't the source of his pain, Rose realized; those years were horrible, but like other painful events in his past, he could overcome them, eventually. The loss of his family, though, was a deadly blow. It was that loss which had crushed his spirit when the government's abuse couldn't, which had driven him to attempt suicide when the thought of life without his family was too much for him to face.
Being in Kenya with his father was exactly what he needed now. It didn't matter that they had never been close; they were family. It had been right there in his paintings, all along. How could she have not seen it?
"You ready to go to Kenya?" she asked, running her fingers soothingly through his curly hair.
He nodded, wiping his eyes with the back of one hand.
With a brief hug, she whispered, "I'll be back," and went to find Kaia.
The empath was sitting on the front porch, basking in the last warmth of the setting sun. What little she had brought with her -- or had been bought for her -- was packed in shopping bags that rested on the steps in front of her. She turned to face Rose as the other woman approached, but made no other move.
"Eager to get back home, huh?" Rose smiled, seating herself on the steps near Kaia's feet. Kaia said nothing, but pulled her feet away from Rose, as if it was unfitting for her to be too near the other woman, much less seated above her. Rose ignored the typical ex-Hound timidity and placed her hand on Kaia's to get her attention.
"Take care of my brother, OK?"
Kaia stared at her, and Rose blushed, feeling stupid. Of course her words had meant nothing, and she didn't know Kaia's improvised signs well enough to talk to her that way. It had been silly to even try; typical of what happens when one acts from feelings instead of logic. She sighed and stood up to leave.
Amazingly, Kaia stopped her. It was the first time Rose had seen her initiate an action with someone other than Slade or Joe, and she wondered what could be important enough to prompt the meek redhead into such bold conduct.
Kaia pulled a pad of paper from one of her bags and dug deeper for a pencil. She then proceeded to draw a scene with her usual stick figures and handed it to Rose. The faces of the figures were the only real clue as to who each one represented. The central figure had a pattern of radiating lines on its face -- Hound marks -- and curly hair, which could only have been Joseph. To his left, a shorter figure with similar facial markings held out both hands to him in a welcoming gesture. Hearts were drawn around the hands and over the head. The figure to the right was in a similar position, only this one was taller than Joseph, and had a dark circle where his right eye should have been. In the background was a large house, an even larger mountain, and a brightly shining sun.
It seemed that Kaia had understood her after all.
Slade approached from where the Jeep was still parked in the field and smiled at Rose. Grabbing Kaia's bags, he motioned toward the car with his head and she nodded. She wrapped Rose in a quick and completely unexpected hug, then flew off before Rose could begin to reciprocate.
"She likes you," Slade explained before carrying the last of the bags to the Jeep.
The others filed out of the cabin to say goodbye. While their transport back to Wayne Manor would be from the convenience of the cabin's living room, the trip to Kenya required travelling to Medicine Hat to meet up with a teleporter who lived there. She would send them to her contact in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, who could transport them as far as Recife, Brazil. The third leg of the journey was to N'Djamena, in Chad, and from there, one of the R & D team members -- the yellow-eyed Jamaal DeGavah -- would bring them home to the wilds of Kenya. Such were the hassles of lengthy travel, as few teleporters had the strength for ports of more than a few thousand miles.
Joseph knelt in front of his nieces and hugged them both goodbye, eliciting solemn promises from them to be good for their parents and to write to him. Lily even volunteered to spend summers with him, to which he smiled and told her she'd have to ask her mother for permission.
'Look out for my little sister,' he told Gar. 'And... thanks for everything.'
Gar grinned. "Hey, you're talking to the expert, here; I haven't been married to her for seven years without learning a thing or two -- like hiding under the bed when she's angry, or raiding Dick's chocolate stash to ward off a PMS attack. We'll be fine, don't you worry." He gave his brother-in-law a heartfelt hug. "Don't get eaten by a lion, OK? And remember -- ask before drawing any pictures of elephants. They get touchy about those wrinkles, you know."
He turned to Rose, neither of them able to find the words to express what they felt. They hugged each other tightly, silently communicating all they'd shared as well as all they'd lost. As she drew back, looking up at him, she realized that Aharon had been right; even now, she could see in his eyes the first tentative glimmer of the brother she knew and loved.
"Keep in touch," she whispered.
He kissed her forehead and smiled before turning and walking toward the Jeep. Kaia wrapped her arms around his shoulders as he settled into the front seat. With a wave that was almost a salute, Slade started the engine and turned the Jeep away from the cabin, heading down the path that would take the three of them halfway around the world.
The path toward home.
Author's postscript: Magneto's "real" name was chosen on the basis of his personal characteristics. Aaron (Aharon) was the first High Priest, very regal of bearing and charged with keeping the Law. Moses (Moishe), his brother, was the greatest of prophets, and one of the few men to speak directly with God. Both were of the tribe of Levi (HaLevi), the priestly caste. The name is thus the most charismatic, talented, and gifted name I could derive. © 2000 by Rachel Ehrlich Joseph Wilson, Rose Worth, Gar Logan, Dick Grayson, Koriand'r, Gotham city, Emil LaSalle, Bruce Wayne, and Slade Wilson © DC Comics Magneto, Hounds, and Sentinels © Marvel Comics Lily Logan, Rita Marie Logan, Kaia Kapp, Magneto's "real" name, and the American Resistance Coalition © Rachel Ehrlich