Unfinished Sympathy

by Rachel Ehrlich

Author's Note: This story is a sequel to "Friend Or Foe".

To the casual observer, she was travelling alone, arriving at La Guardia Airport in New York city from Blüdhaven. She carried neither luggage nor purse, but she didn't appear distressed at the absence of accoutrements. Her step was hurried with excitement, and she fairly flew through the terminal to the cabs waiting outside.

"Mineola," she told the driver as she slid into the backseat. "Take Grand Central Parkway," she added, knowing that the driver would take the most circuitous route unless directed otherwise.

She gazed out the window as the cab sped off, taking in the sights of a city she hadn't seen in months. Odd that she would miss it, considering that she normally visited no more than annually, and then only for the sake of her parents. But perhaps she was not the one feeling sentimental about the place; her unseen companion had lived there most of his life.

As the cab neared her destination, she directed the driver to her parents' house, slid out the back door, and tipped him generously. He grinned at her and roared off in typical New York cabbie fashion, leaving her alone on the sidewalk in front of the house that looked no different than when she'd last seen it, a lifetime ago.

Joseph phased out and she smiled at him. 'I can't believe it,' she signed, 'I'm actually nervous about seeing my parents again!' She shook her head at her own silliness and headed up the stairs; he followed a few steps behind.

The woman who answered the knock at the door was petite and leaning toward plumpness, though she could not yet truly be considered fat. Her hair, dyed a darker black than it normally would have been at her age, was piled high on her head, as if to make up for her lack of stature. The simple dress she wore was as black as her hair, and was a match for the veil she had drawn over her face.

The veil hid her expression, but the hand she placed on her chest displayed her shock. "David!!" she called, her voice louder than one would have expected from such a tiny woman. "David, Jessica's returned!" In two steps, she had pulled her daughter into an embrace, sobbing in joyful Hebrew, "Baruch HaShem, kalahee he bayeet!"

A man appeared in the doorway, also dressed head to foot in black, his grey beard turning white with age. "Chaya, is it true?" he asked his wife, trying to see past her mound of hair. Jessica held out her hand to him, and the embrace became communal.

After an emotional minute, Jessica broke free of her parents and eyed them with concern. "Eema, abba, you're sitting shiva! Who died?"

"Bubaleh," her mother said gently, "we all thought you had! We just knew something terrible had happened when you didn't show up for Yom Kippur services. The police – I tell you , why do we even pay for them? They told me they could do nothing until you were gone 72 hours, and even then they did nothing. So good they were at doing nothing! I called your work; I thought, maybe they'd had an emergency and asked you to return, though why you would go and not tell your mother, I wouldn't know. But they said you weren't there, and none of your friends could tell me, either. Nearly 200 days you were gone, bubaleh, and your poor parents with one foot in the grave!"

Jessica held her mother's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "I'm safe now, eema. I'm all right."

Her mother nodded, wiping her eyes beneath her veil, and peered over her daughter's shoulder. "And who is this you've brought with you?" she asked.

Jessica automatically reached out to Joseph and stopped herself, her hand dropping back to her side. "This is the man who saved my life. Eema, abba, this is Joseph Wilson. Joseph, these are my parents, David and Chaya Cassel."

David stepped forward and embraced Joseph firmly before holding him at arm's length with a heartfelt grip on his shoulders. "Any man who saves my daughter is as a son to me. If ever there is anything you need, ask of me, and you shall have it."

'Thank you,' Joseph signed.

David's bushy eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Eh? You speak her language?" He turned to his daughter, a troubled look on his face. "What can this mean, I wonder?" A wave of his hand indicated Joseph. "Surely this is the work of HaShem." Jessica blushed and dropped her eyes, leaving Joseph unsure of what had just transpired.

"Come, all of you, inside," her mother announced, ushering them into the house and gesturing for them to sit in the living room. Divesting herself of her veil, she immediately went into the kitchen and began to prepare food for everyone.

Jessica shot a poorly-suppressed smile at Joseph as they sat on separate chairs. 'Welcome to a Jewish household. Prepare to be stuffed full of food.'

Chaya returned quickly with tea and honey cake, which she served to everyone before sitting down. Immediately, she fixed her daughter with a penetrating stare. "You've lost so much weight, Jessica – you're just bones! Have another slice of cake, bubaleh; you'll catch cold being so thin."

"Yes, eema," Jessica replied dutifully.

"And where did you get that black eye?" her mother gasped, outraged that anyone would dare strike her daughter.

Jessica paled, her fingers touching her bruised face as though to hide from her mother's inspection. Too late for that, now. "I was kidnapped by a gang of criminals," she explained. "Joseph was being held prisoner by them, too. We were lucky to escape before they killed us both."

"But what would they want with you?" Chaya persisted. "New York is home to hundreds of good doctors, and thousands of bad ones. They could have taken anyone!" Her eyes widened when her daughter failed to respond. "Bubaleh, they didn't – they didn't do anything more than hit you... did they?"

Jessica closed her eyes, a pained expression on her face. "They were evil men, eema," she whispered, staring at the floor. "Killers. If something as sacred as human life meant nothing to them, why should anything else?"

Her parents exchanged glances, clearly horrified. "But... what about Chaim?" her mother asked.

"That's over," Jessica stated firmly. She glanced up at her mother. "You'll tell him, won't you? It will make him feel better if he doesn't have to be the one to reject me."

"Jessica –"

"Eema, I'm very tired," she interrupted. "May we please continue this later? I'd like to take a nap." She looked pointedly at Joseph. "I'm sure Joseph is tired, too. We've had a very trying day."

"Of course," her mother said, not even trying to disguise her offense at being so rudely cut off.

They were shown to separate rooms. Joseph sat on the bed, wondering if Jessica was really tired or if that had been a polite excuse to end her mother's interrogation. Whether or not she had been telling the truth, he found that he could use some rest; she had taken a nap on the flight to New York, but he had to stay awake while using his powers. He lay down and closed his eyes.

The next time his eyes opened, half an hour had passed. He stretched, yawned, and rose, feeling much better. He also wanted to talk to Jessica, but wasn't sure what the protocol was in such an obviously segregated household. Perhaps he wouldn't even be able to see her alone; it might be taboo to try. After debating the issue for ten minutes, he got up and went to her room.

She had changed outfits, and now wore an ankle-length cobalt turtleneck dress with delicate silver embroidery at the hem and cuffs. It was unique enough to be home-made, although whoever had sewn it obviously knew how to make dresses; it clung to her body, flattering her figure without being too tight. Her hair peeked out from the edges of a matching scarf that framed her face.

She was just hanging up the phone, and not looking happy about it. He waved from the doorway to catch her attention. Her expression brightened when she saw him and she beckoned him to enter, indicating the empty chair at her vanity.

He started to close the door but she stopped him with a vigorous shake of her head. 'It would give the wrong impression for unmarried people of the opposite sex to be alone behind closed doors,' she explained.

He smiled as he sat down. 'We've already been there,' he reminded her.

'But not in my parents' house,' she replied, 'and that's not something they need to know, at any rate.'

He gave her a sympathetic look. 'And they don't need to know the truth of why you were kidnapped?'

She sighed and looked away. 'What was I supposed to say? "Father, it was your fault that I was targeted, it was your fault I couldn't leave"? You saw what it did to them to have the knowledge I gave; what good would more specifics do? My father is old, and he has a bad heart. If he knew his past actions were linked to my... dishonor...' She shook her head. 'That would kill him.'

'But you will tell Chaim?' he asked.

She looked at him strangely, trying to figure out his motivation for asking such a question. 'No,' she answered, 'only that our engagement is off, for the reasons I gave my parents.' Given the nature of the relationship they had shared, he was clearly disturbed by the fact that she was engaged, so she decided to give him a better explanation.

'Chaim Leberman and I were betrothed by our parents at a very young age. We were to be married several years ago, but I decided to go to medical school. My parents didn't have a son, and someone had to go to medical school,' she joked. He smiled, and she continued. 'The wedding was postponed until my graduation next year. But an Orthodox bride is expected to be a virgin, and Chaim would not be pleased that his was not. He would have been too kind to reject me, even though it is his right to do so, but I know how it would have been between us. He would have been contemptuous, as though I had not done enough to prevent what had happened. And I found that after what I'd been through, I have no desire to be treated poorly for the rest of my life.'

'Is he, too, held to such rigid standards?'

She laughed. 'No, of course not; what would be the point? The woman is a virgin to guarantee the paternity of the children, which is important – one's clan status is passed through the father. It has nothing to do with "repressing female sexuality", as these modern feminists would have everyone believe. So restricting single men is just silly. As long as they only have such relationships with non-Jewish woman, they aren't ruining anyone's chances for marriage later on.'

He didn't look convinced. 'Did you love him?'

'I barely knew him.'

He shook his head, confused. 'Why would you agree to such a marriage?'

She smiled gently. 'Arranged marriages can be good, just as marriages supposedly for love can go bad. My parents have a good arranged marriage. One can marry for respect, and love may come later. But respect can only be had between equals, and now... now I'm not good enough for Chaim, and we both know it. So he is free to marry elsewhere.'

'As are you.'

She shrugged and looked away. 'I suppose. Few men would marry me, now.'

He reached out to her, but she shook her head quickly – no physical contact between unmarried men and women was permitted in Orthodox households. 'A non-Orthodox wouldn't care about that, you know,' he told her.

'I – that wasn't an option, before,' she admitted. 'But thank you.' She made a dismissive gesture. 'You're kind, to sit here and listen to me prattle on about my boring problems! We should call your parents, to tell them the good news.' She picked up the phone. 'What's their number?'

'My parents are divorced,' he said.

She put down the phone. 'I'm sorry.'

He smiled sadly. 'So am I. My father lives in Kenya; I can contact him later. We can call my mother.'

She dialed the number he gave her and waited for a response. Just when it seemed like no one was home, someone answered the phone. "Hello, is Miss Adeline Wilson there?" she asked. A pause. "Oh. Well, when do you expect her back? ...Germany?? ...I'm calling on behalf of her son – no, he isn't dead, that's why we're calling. ...Castle Waller. Thank you. Goodbye."

She turned back to Joseph with a wry smile. "Your mother's quite the jet-setter. I was told she was supposed to be at her family estate in England, but apparently she's in Germany at a 'Castle Waller'. I suppose that's some resort."

He laughed. 'No, it's her... friend,' he explained. 'She runs a company with global contacts called Searchers, Inc. He – Waller – was one of her employees, who is now something more.'

'You aren't comfortable with that,' she observed.

He shrugged. 'It's silly of me. I know my parents aren't going to get back together; they can't stand each other, from what I can tell. But somehow it doesn't feel right to see them dating other people. Just wishful thinking, I guess. It's childish.'

'Some people would say that all optimism is childish. I prefer to think of it as striving for tikkun olam – improving the world.'

He smiled, but didn't reply to her. Instead, he reached for the pad of paper that lay on the table near the phone and wrote down a long string of numbers before handing the pad to her. 'That's for Castle Waller, including a Searchers, Inc. credit number. I'd like to contact my mother as soon as possible. Mr. Waller refers to her by her maiden name, Kane.'

'I understand,' she said gently, picking up the phone once again. The wait was longer this time, on account of the intercontinental connection. "Güten Tag, Fraülein Jessica Cassel am Apparat. Sind Herr Waller zu Hause? ...Ach, nein – es tut meir leid! Und Fraü Wilson? ...Bitte – Fraü Kane? ...Ich verstehe. Danke schön. Auf Wiedersehen."

Her face was pale as she turned back to Joseph. 'Mr. Waller is in the hospital. He was attacked by masked intruders a month ago, and very nearly killed. His maid was quite distraught, moreso when I asked about your mother.' She bit her lip, not wanting to convey the unpleasant information she had learned, but knowing that she had to. 'They kidnapped your mother. The maid didn't know why, and didn't know if Waller would know why. But she's been missing this past month now.'

Joseph was on his feet instantly, heading for the door. She followed quickly and grabbed his arm, forgetting her own restrictions in her haste to stop him. "Joseph, where are you going?" she asked, releasing her hold on him as she realized what she was doing.

'I have to go to Germany,' he told her urgently. 'I have to find my mother.'

'I'll come with you.' The statement was out before she thought about it, or what it would mean to her parents to have her leave again so soon after returning. For reasons she didn't want to examine, that knowledge didn't bother her.

He didn't protest, waiting with subdued impatience as she packed the basic necessities for their trip. As she finished, she noticed her mother standing in the doorway, looking at her questioningly.

"Eema, Joseph's mother is in trouble in Germany. We have to go help her; I'll return as soon as I can."

Chaya gasped at the mention of their destination. "Germany! Bubaleh, no self-respecting Jewish girl would set foot on that tainted soil! Whatever would you need to go there for, and leave your parents, just when we've found you again?"

Jessica slung her bag over her shoulder and gave her mother a brief but heartfelt hug. "Eema, I'll be fine. Joseph needs me to come along; he doesn't speak German, and I doubt anyone there knows ASL."

"You barely speak any German yourself," her mother argued.

She waved away her mother's complaint. "Yiddish is close enough to German. We'll get by." She ushered Joseph out of the room and down the hall. "I'll call you nightly, eema. Don't fret; nothing will happen to me, I promise."

They called a cab, went through the same routine with her father, and finally made their escape as the cab pulled up to the curb. "New Hyde Park," she said to the driver before turning to Joseph. 'I love my parents dearly, but as you can see, they're quite smothering. It almost makes me wish I'd been born a boy; they aren't coddled so intensely.' She thought about that for a moment, then added, 'Usually.'

They were met at the door of Adeline Kane's condominium by a black woman wearing a low-cut top and the tightest spandex pants Jessica had ever seen. She politely said nothing, even when the woman flung herself at Joseph and hugged him fiercely. "Joey! I didn't believe it when I was told, but – oh, hon, I'm so glad the stories about your death weren't true! Your mom was really fallin' apart; heck, we were ALL fallin' apart! Most've us have been with your mom since you were just a little 'un, an' we all remember seein' you grow up." She kissed him on the cheek and stepped back, apparently noticing Jessica for the first time. "Pradip said someone had called, an' here I didn't believe him. You must be her."

She nodded. "Dr. Jessica Cassel," she said, shaking the woman's hand.

The woman smiled at her. "Call me Amber. C'mon in, both of you. Joey, hon, what are you wearin'? Those clothes look like they're three sizes too large."

'They are,' he laughed. 'Are any of my things still here, so I can change?'

Amber swatted him playfully. "As if Addie could bear to part with anythin' of yours! It took her two years to even consider gettin' rid of all Grant's stuff. Your room's untouched, hon; we'll wait for you down here."

She led Jessica into the kitchen and set water boiling for coffee. "You hungry?"

Jessica hesitated. "Do you have any hard-boiled eggs?" she asked.

Amber stared at her. "I could make some, but we've got better things to eat here than that! Got some wonderful pork chops I could heat up, or even a sirloin steak, if you're really hungry."

"I'm sorry," she apologized, "I can't eat any of that. I'm Jewish, and your food isn't kosher. Your kitchen and utensils haven't been kashered. Technically, I can't even eat parve foods – neutral ones – here, but I am hungry, so I wouldn't mind an egg. Or plain salad, if you have it."

Amber laid a hand on her arm and smiled. "Hon, don't you worry, I can make you anythin' you like. Eggs 'n' salad, comin' right up."

As her offer of assistance was firmly declined, Jessica sat at the kitchen table, hands folded in her lap, feeling uncommonly useless. Despite being attired like a streetwalker, Amber seemed like a very nice, sensible woman, just the sort of person Jessica would have assumed Joseph's mother would associate with. She didn't understand how a respectable woman could dress so immodestly, but she didn't know any way to ask without sounding condescending, so she kept her peace.

Then again, dressing modestly hadn't helped her any when it came to Number One.

She quickly wiped away the tears that sprang to her eyes, hoping that Amber wouldn't catch the movement in her peripheral vision. The last thing she wanted to do was explain her current emotional state to a complete stranger.

The kitchen door swung open and Joseph entered. She wasn't sure if it was merely coincidence or if he had deliberately matched his clothes to hers; his polo shirt was a shade of blue very close to that of her dress. It was one of the currently-popular cotton/spandex mixtures, and while it wasn't nearly as skin-tight as Amber's pants, it certainly gave her a good sense of what lay beneath the fabric. She felt an unexpected rush of desire and looked away, embarrassed.

Joseph caught her expression and smiled, but said nothing. Oblivious to it all, Amber turned around and handed him a cup of coffee. She handed another to Jessica and set her own on the table after dumping in three heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a dash of cream. Refusing to let Joseph help either, she set the salad and eggs in front of Jessica while she and Joseph had the pork chops.

Having observed where the cups were kept, Jessica rose before Amber could offer to do it and removed a cup and a small bowl from the shelf. She filled the cup half full of water and returned to the table. Setting the bowl down, she held the cup over it and poured the water over each of her hands. Closing her eyes, she mumbled a brief blessing, sat down, and recited another blessing. She noticed Amber giving her sidelong glances as she reached for her fork, but neither she nor Joseph made any comment. Still, Jessica instantly felt supremely incongruous – another strange experience for her.

Amber was the one who broke the silence. "Joey, hon, there's somethin' I have to tell you about your mom."

'She's been kidnapped,' he said. 'We called Castle Waller.'

Amber nodded, seemingly unsurprised. "That's not all; the bastards also attacked Kane Manor in a raid last week, killin' four people an' woundin' nine others. Funny thing is, all they did was access the computer system to find the location of a scattered suit of armor. You know, that dented old Greek helmet your great-great-granddaddy found? I can't figure why they'd want it so bad, but your dad's on the case, too, so don't you worry none; with everyone lookin', we'll find Addie in no time, now."

'I want to go to Germany.'

This, too, didn't appear to surprise Amber. "I'd take you, hon, but I'm coordinatin' the info at this end, an' Addie'd kill me for leavin' the post unmanned. But I can book a flight for you out of JFK International."

'Yes. For two, as soon as possible.'

They finished lunch, Joseph and Jessica clearing the table while Amber went to make their travel arrangements. Jessica shot several glances at the kitchen door when Amber left, trying to decide whether or not she should try to prop it open. She blushed when she realized Joseph was looking at her, and shook her head.

'Don't bother,' she told him. 'It's not a door that can be locked, so I can rationalize it as not being a true door.' She smiled. 'But thank you for noticing.'

Amber met up with them as they left the kitchen and headed for the living room. "Here you go, hon," she said, handing a sheet of paper to Joseph. "Sorry I couldn't get it any sooner, but most flights are booked solid on account of President's Day. So three a.m. it is."

'Germany is one day and six hours ahead of us,' Jessica observed, 'so we'll arrive at nine a.m., which isn't too late to get started, I'd imagine. We'll fly into Berlin, right? How far is Castle Waller from there?'

"About two hours by car," Amber said, "but you'll arrive later than nine, 'cause you have a one-hour layover in Amsterdam. Hank'll meet you at the airport an' drive you to Castle Waller; he's down south, by the town of Riesa." She handed Jessica a passport. "You'll need this for the trip."

"This is a forgery!" Jessica exclaimed, shocked.

Amber smiled tolerantly. "So what, hon? If it keeps you out of trouble with the authorities, it's done its job. It's just bureaucratic paperwork, anyway; not like we were fakin' somethin' important." Joseph took his without comment and absently shoved it in his pocket. "Joey, hon, I've gotta get back to work. If you need anythin', though, you just come to me, OK?" She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, waved to Jessica, and headed back to the main Searchers, Inc. computer room.

Jessica sat down on a nearby couch and looked up at Joseph. 'What now?'

He shrugged. 'I wish we didn't have to wait so long for the flight. I hate feeling useless.'

'But surely there were times with the Titans when you were forced to wait,' she countered. 'Did you mind, then?'

He shook his head. 'My mother's life wasn't in danger. That changes everything.'

'Tell me about her,' she said, hoping to give him something on which he could focus other than his inability to set off in search of his mother. 'She's probably nothing like my eema.'

He walked over to an antique armoire in the corner and opened one of the doors. Selecting two of the many binders stored there, he returned to where she waited and sat beside her. He handed one of the binders to her and she opened it, smiling at the pictures she saw.

'Your mother's wedding dress is lovely,' she commented. Staring harder at the picture, she looked at Joseph, then back at the photo, and finally, back at Joseph. 'You really look a lot like your father! The main difference is in the eyes.' She smiled. 'You have much nicer eyes.'

One eyebrow twitched upward. 'You didn't seem to think so the first time you saw them,' he noted. 'You looked like you'd seen a ghost.'

She sighed. 'There's a saying, you know: "Be careful what you wish for – you might get it". Your medical file had your photo in it, a picture of you with the Titans. Every day I would take that photo out and stare at it, praying that I hadn't done you any permanent harm, hoping that someday I would have the chance to meet you again, to apologize for what I'd done. But wanting something and having it happen are two different things. In my heart, I wasn't truly prepared to see you,' she admitted. 'I didn't really even think that you were still alive. So when I found myself face to face with you, I feared the worst.'

'I wouldn't have hurt you.'

She smiled. 'I know that, now. I had no way of knowing that then. Your medical file didn't contain any information about your forgiving nature.'

'I'll bet it didn't contain this, either,' he said, flipping through the second photo album. He came to the page he was looking for and handed the album to her.

It was a family portrait. The absence of a scar on Joseph's throat indicated that the photo was taken before his fourth birthday, though it couldn't have been too much earlier than that. She was surprised to see an older boy in the picture as well, and she pointed to him quizzically.

'That's my brother, Grant,' he explained. 'He died five years ago.'

Did the horrors in his life never cease? Anything she could say was inadequate, but she said it anyway. 'I'm sorry. I have no idea what that must feel like; both of my sisters are still alive.'

'I didn't know you had sisters.'

'You aren't the only one who suffers from the title "baby of the family",' she grinned. 'Rebecca is five years older, Helene seven, and both are married with children of their own. Sometimes I think I have no sisters, only three eemahot.'

He laughed. 'Yes, Grant was forever telling me what to do – and enforcing his opinion with his fists. Many times I wished I'd had an older sister instead of an older brother.'

She shook her head. 'Don't fool yourself. An older sister would hit you, too; mine did.'

They spent the next few hours going through the photo albums, reminiscing over simpler days and startling similarities in their pasts. When they'd finished with both albums, she closed the cover gently, stroking the silk embroidery on it with one finger. 'I wish my family had such albums. We have old photos, and pictures of my sisters, but none of me. My abba, you see, was overly impressed with technological advances, and when hand-held film recorders hit the market, he never used a camera again. But I think he has my entire life documented on reel after reel of grainy eight-millimeter film.'

She stood up and stretched as he returned the photo albums to the armoire. 'You should pack what you need for the trip now so that you can go over it later, in case you've forgotten something.'

He nodded. 'It won't take long; I travel as lightly as you do.'

She followed him to his room and watched silently as he packed; it was a swift, efficient procedure that had been honed by years of practice. Whether that practice had been voluntary or not, she couldn't say; she had grown up in Chicago and stayed there until adulthood, when she and her parents moved to separate cities. Though she knew he had been born in England, she had always assumed that he had been raised solely in New York, but she had never actually asked.

He set the bag by the door and turned to face her. She looked him over critically, then broke into a grin. 'With your permission, there's something I just have to do now.'

"Now that's the Joey I remember," Amber commented when they came down for dinner later that evening. "You did a nice job with the hair, Jessica."

Jessica smiled. 'Only because curly hair is wonderful at hiding bad haircuts.' She sat across from Joseph at the table, knowing better than to offer yet again her assistance in the kitchen.

Dinner was a vegetarian dish that met all the basic requirements of kashrut, and Jessica was touched by the obvious effort to include her. Amber had even set out the cup of water and bowl for her to perform the ritual handwashing. The last remnants of her earlier feelings of alienation evaporated swiftly.

The conversation deliberately skirted the issue of Adeline's whereabouts, and Jessica noted with increasing unease Joseph's agitation; he had barely touched his food, he glanced at the clock every five minutes, and he inadvertently tuned out the conversation, which Amber patiently repeated every time she asked him a question. Finally, even Amber had had enough.

"Hon," she said firmly, placing her hand over his, "you are goin' squirrelly on me. Go upstairs an' play your music, or meditate, or somethin', 'cause you've got another six hours before we leave for the airport, an' this anxiety isn't gonna do you any good."

Joseph acquiesced, heading upstairs while Jessica helped Amber clear away the dishes. By the time she also went upstairs, his door was closed. She knocked softly, not wanting to disturb him if he had already retired for the night. The door opened and he smiled at her, standing aside to allow her to enter. Almost as an afterthought, he remembered to keep the door open for the duration of her visit.

'I'm sorry if my engagement bothered you,' she said without preamble. It had been on her mind all day, but she hadn't found the opportunity to broach the topic. 'I didn't mention it because I didn't know you would care, but you must believe me, it was ended the first time Number One forced me into his bed.'

'I believe you,' he replied. 'It was more the… familiarity of the situation that bothered me. You really don't have to worry about it.'

'Familiarity?' she asked. 'You, too, were engaged?'

He nodded. 'Years ago.' He didn't elaborate.

She found herself irritated by the knowledge. No, she realized, not irritated – jealous. It was not an emotion she would have expected herself to have. 'You didn't marry her,' she pressed. 'Why not? Had she also been dishonored?'

His eyebrows quirked upward, surprised by her vehemence. 'Only by her own actions,' he explained. 'I believe she honestly loved me, but not as much as she loved money and power. And I didn't want to be part of her father's criminal organization, even indirectly.'

She looked away abruptly. 'I'm sorry, that was inappropriate of me to ask.' Wandering over to the window, she gazed out across the New York skyline, illuminated against the darkness of the night sky by the countless electric lights that blazed from the windows of every building. It looked the way it always had, and yet, everything about it was different somehow.

Or maybe she was the one who was different now.

"I feel so lost," she admitted. "Adrift in a sea of doubts. Before, I had my faith, and the certainty of my life, to sustain me. Now, I feel as though I have nothing. I have no future. I can't speak openly to my parents about what I've been through. God has become distant to me. I don't know why He allowed such evil things to happen to me; I feel… betrayed."

His hands rested lightly on her shoulders, and she stiffened at the contact. He pulled away quickly and she spun around to face him. 'Why you?' she demanded. 'Why does your touch make me feel safe – happy, even? Why has God given me feelings for you, when you are a goy, and forbidden to me? What is the meaning of this?'

'Perhaps I am no longer forbidden to you,' he suggested. 'Is it possible that God wants you to consider that?'

'Anything is possible,' she replied, 'but to put us both through so much pain, only so that we would meet? I can think of easier introductions.'

He smiled. 'But would an easier introduction have led to the feelings we have for each other now? You would have remained engaged, and so dismissed me as forbidden. I would not have pursued you for that reason, but even if I had, I would not have been able to break through the barrier of your religion. You had to be the one to do that.'

"But I have no desire to abandon my religion," she whispered.

He kissed the back of her hand. 'You don't have to. If God wills that we be together, how is accepting that against your religion?'

She shrugged. 'I don't know. Maybe it isn't. Maybe I only thought it was.' She shook her head, confused. 'Jews don't believe in luck and coincidence, you know. Everything is the work of HaShem, of God. That's why abba was concerned when he met you; he knew God put us together for a reason. Of course, that was only problematical when I was engaged, but there is still the issue of my status. Now that I've been dishonored –'

'I wish you would stop referring to yourself that way,' he interrupted her. 'A woman can dishonor herself through her behavior, but never by what others do to her. It wasn't your fault that you were raped –' she flinched at the word '– so you shouldn't blame yourself for it and act as though you are any less of a good person because of it.' When she made no response, he continued, 'I understand how it makes you feel. Cheap. Dirty. Like something to be used and thrown away. And it's hard not to blame yourself, even indirectly, because you always feel like there was something you could have done, some way you could have prevented it all, but the reality is, you couldn't. The sooner you accept that, the easier it will get.'

'That's what you've read in some journal, is it?' she asked, with more sarcasm than she might have intended.

'That's what I know from personal experience.' He looked away, obviously uncomfortable with the topic, and she was too stunned by the revelation to press him for a more immediate explanation. He pushed away from the window and paced around the room, finally sitting down at the edge of the bed, tension evident in his rigid posture.

'You wouldn't have read about it in my medical history; the doctors were too busy trying to save my life to check for any less-critical damage. And no one wanted to think about child abuse back then, anyway; it was just something unfortunate that happened to other people's kids. But the Jackal didn't like children, so he entrusted me to his henchmen, one of whom was quite a pedophile. I was freed about 48 hours after I'd been kidnapped, but that was 48 hours too late.'

'But – your mother knew, didn't she?'

He shook his head. 'How could I tell her? I was too young to really understand what had been done to me, other than that it had hurt. I could no longer speak, and I hadn't yet learned to write. There was a long period of time when I couldn't communicate anything to anyone, and during that time my parents divorced. After that, I decided that my mother had been through enough, and there was no point in burdening her with more knowledge of things that she could do nothing about.

'It didn't bother me much until years later, when I was old enough to realize what had happened. Everything you're feeling now, everything you have yet to feel – I've already been there.'

'You never told her, did you?' she asked, knowing the answer. 'Just as I won't tell my parents about some of the things that happened.'

'As you said before, what would be the point? The Jackal and his henchmen are dead; that's as much punishment as they'll get – in this lifetime, at any rate. All it would do is make my mother even more upset over an incident she's never forgotten and for which she'll never forgive my father for being its cause.'

She moved hesitantly toward him, paused, and walked to the door instead, closing it softly. Returning to the window, she pulled down the shade and closed the drapes, then sat down beside him on the bed.

For the longest time they simply sat there, her hand resting gently on his, overwhelmed by emotion. At length, she squeezed his hand reassuringly and looked up at him. 'As horrifying as it was, what Number One did to me at least had the benefit of happening all in one fell swoop. It was a terrible time in my life, but it was just one, big event. But you... every time you pick yourself up from one disaster, you're struck by another. It's enough to challenge even the strongest faith.'

He smiled briefly, but said nothing in response.

Silence gives assent, she thought. Shifting position, she leaned behind him and began to massage his shoulders, trying to work the stress from his taut frame. "Relax," she murmured in his ear, sliding her hands under his shirt and down his chest. "Let me add to the good memories in your life."

She pulled him down on the bed, and he didn't resist.

They were woken hours later by a knock on the door. "Up an' at 'em, you two," Amber called from the hallway. "We leave in an hour."

"Thank you," Jessica replied, reluctantly disentangling herself from Joseph. Sliding out of bed, she stepped over her discarded dress and headed for the shower. It was nice that his bedroom had a suite design with an attached bathroom – not that Amber didn't know what had gone on, but this way, everything could remain politely unspoken.

The warm water felt good on her skin, and she realized that Joseph wasn't the only one who had been too tense lately. In the back of her mind, she knew her mother wouldn't let her break her engagement so lightly, regardless of what had happened to her, and she didn't have the strength to deal with that confrontation. She had to face it sometime, though; running around the world with Joseph was not a permanent alternative to the situation.

She relinquished the shower to Joseph, got dressed, and headed downstairs, still pondering her dilemma. Sleeping with Joseph had only complicated things, and not just emotionally; Chaim might be able to overlook forcible rape, but not willful adultery. In fact, he was religiously required not to overlook such an act, even if he would have otherwise chosen to do so. Was she just trying to give him an unassailable reason to reject her, or were her feelings for Joseph truly strong enough to overcome her moral upbringing and better sense? She wasn't sure she really knew.

Rummaging through her duffel, she pulled out a small makeup bag and did her best to conceal the bruises on her face while she waited for Joseph to come downstairs. She didn't usually wear much makeup, so her efforts were limited in their effectiveness, but it was still better than she'd looked before.

Once Joseph was ready they left, Amber driving them on the brief trip to the airport. With no luggage to check in, they went directly to the gate and waited for their flight to arrive. Fortunately there was a small bookstore nearby in which they could pass the time.

They were among the first to board once the plane arrived at the terminal. Their seats were first class, a novelty for Jessica but clearly not for Joseph. He smiled as she marveled at the luxury of the accommodations he had always taken for granted when flying on long trips. The large seats were arranged in pairs, and he offered her the window seat so that men walking down the aisle wouldn't accidentally brush against her.

'Do you think Waller has the best information on your mother's whereabouts?' she asked once they were in the air. 'Perhaps we should be going to England, instead.'

He shook his head. 'Amber already told us everything that Searchers, Inc. knows. Waller hasn't reported what he knows, because he's been in the hospital. If the suspects are local to Germany, we'll be that much closer to apprehending them, and if not, Waller has all the resources of any Searchers, Inc. employee, so we won't have lost anything by not going to England.'

'So you don't mind visiting him, even though you disapprove of your mother's relationship with him?'

He laughed. 'I wouldn't go so far as to say I disapprove,' he corrected her. 'I just… wish it wasn't necessary. But I can't fault his treatment of her; he worships the ground she walks on, and after what she went through with dad, she deserves that kind of pampering.'

She chewed on her lip but didn't say anything. 'I won't be offended,' he told her. 'Go ahead and ask.' She blushed, but took him up on the offer. 'What did your father do that destroyed their marriage? Was he unfaithful to her?'

'Not in the way you mean it,' he replied. 'He lied to her about his being a mercenary, and because she didn't know, she wasn't prepared when his enemies came after me. Maybe she could have forgiven him for that, I don't know, but after my throat was slashed, there was no hope of a reconciliation. She blamed him for it, and later, for Grant's death as well. He hasn't made lots of mistakes, but the few mistakes he did make were very big ones.'

'And do you also see him as responsible for what happened?' she asked.

His expression answered her question, but she waited for his response anyway. 'I… I don't know. Yes, of course he was responsible, in that his actions were the cause of my kidnapping, but it isn't as though he wanted me to be hurt. He really did try to prevent it, although mom would say he didn't try hard enough. As for Grant, no, I don't hold him responsible for that; Grant was the sort of person prone to reckless anger, and I suspect he would have met with an early end regardless of what dad did.'

'She divorced him, then? In Jewish law, only men have the power to write a get, a divorce decree. But they must have their wife's consent for it to be effective.'

'What if it's the wife who wants the divorce, and not the husband?'

She shrugged. 'It depends; if he's only standing in her way out of spite, or if he's abusive, he can be forced into writing a get by the local rabbis. If he's a good man who is trying to mend the marriage, then she, too, should try, instead of seeking an end to it. But in the end, she could probably find a sympathetic rabbi who would help her coerce the husband into writing a get, if she really wanted one. Personally, I don't think much of divorce, except in extreme cases; these days, too many people choose to run away from their problems instead of dealing with them. It's hardly helpful.'

'And that's why you're here with me, instead of talking to Chaim and your parents?' he asked with gentle sarcasm.

It was obvious that he'd offended her, but she shrugged it off. 'I never claimed to be better than human; we all have our faults, and perhaps this is mine. But if your eema was anything like mine, you'd understand the desire to avoid talking about delicate issues with her. It's a no-win scenario if you've chosen any path other than hers.'

'Well,' he smiled, 'my mother can be quite forceful about getting her way as well.'

Their conversation was interrupted by the flight attendant serving food, which gave her the chance to reflect on her reaction to his comment. Why should it have bothered her, when she had admitted the same thing to herself back at his mother's place? She could only conclude that she disliked being so transparent to him, though if that was the case, she had better get used to the feeling; he seemed to be an unusually observant individual.

Her stomach rumbled, bringing her attention back to the present. Fortunately, the first class offerings were substantially better than those of coach, so she was able to find foods that she could eat. She was hungrier than she'd realized, and was a little embarrassed by the amount she ate, even though a good portion of it had been fruit. Conversely, he had eaten very little, and she had to prod him to eat more, so that he would have the energy to find his mother.

The combination of food and the soothing hum of the plane's systems caused her to drift off slowly, moving from quiet contemplation into sleep. But this was no gentle rest; she slept fitfully, her head tossing back and forth on the cushioned headrest. "No," she murmured, her hands jerking forward as though trying to push something – or someone – away. "No... please, no." Her voice remained quiet, but the rising panic in her tone compelled him to action. He grabbed her shoulder and shook her firmly enough to wake her from her nightmare.

Her eyes snapped open, but it was evident that she was not yet free of the terror that had gripped her. She stared at him wildly, her body frozen into immobility by the strength of her fear. He stroked her cheek gently, trying to bring her fully awake, and gradually she became more aware of her surroundings.

"Joseph?" she asked hesitantly, still uncertain as to where she was and what had happened. He nodded. "I… where… was I dreaming?"

'Yes,' he told her, 'but you're free now. We've been free for days. And Number One is dead; he can't hurt you anymore.'

'It was so real,' she signed, then switched to speech because her hands were shaking so badly. "All the pain, all the fear, all the humiliation – it was like I was back there again in reality." She tried to blink back her tears, but failed.

He raised the armrest between them and pulled her closer; she was still too distraught to even mention the taboo, much less move to correct it.

'I know,' he consoled her. 'The nightmares will take a long time to go away. And just when you think you've gotten past them, they'll return. But you will get past them. You've survived the worst part already; all you need to do now is force yourself to forget the rest. You're alive; Number One isn't. You won. The rest of your life is in your hands from here on out.'

Her belief in his assertion did nothing to improve her emotional state, and she stayed pressed against him for the remainder of the flight, his physical presence her only sense of security. She was beyond caring what the other people on the plane might think; they had no way of knowing she wasn't married to Joseph, no way of realizing what taboos she was violating. Their ignorance didn't make her actions correct, though, and she was mildly shocked to discover that she didn't much care about that, either.

So she made no apologies for her proximity when they disembarked in Berlin and met the Searchers, Inc. employee who would take them to Castle Waller. As it happened, Hank McCoy was also a doctor, and he spent most of the trip informing her of Germany's recent technological advances in the field of cranial imaging and microsurgery. Joseph made no attempt to feign interest in the conversation, even though Hank had shown the courtesy of speaking in English.

They were both relieved when the car pulled up at the gates to Castle Waller, so much so that the car had barely come to a halt before they were out and walking toward the imposing double doors of the main entry. The woman who answered the door appeared to be much older than the one with whom Jessica had spoken earlier, and they quickly discovered that there was not one but an entire team of maids employed by Waller.

This woman spoke no English, which made gathering the necessary information slow and cumbersome. Eventually, though, they learned that they had been misled; Waller had been released from the hospital nearly a week ago, and was now gone yet again. The maid didn't know why he had chosen to leave when he was barely able to stand, but she did know that he'd demanded travel arrangements to Hong Kong while in the company of two older gentlemen, one of whom wore an eye patch.

'He's with my father and Wintergreen,' he told Jessica as they returned to the waiting car. 'Frankly, I'm surprised by that; I was under the impression that Waller hates my father more than my mother does.'

'Perhaps they were able to set aside their differences for your mother's sake,' she suggested.

He opened the door and slid into the backseat next to her. 'Hank, why would Waller go with my father to Hong Kong?'

The other man looked thoughtful. "Couldn't tell you, son, but let's dial up Searchers, Inc. with that question." Using the car's built-in computer, he rapidly discovered the most plausible explanation. "Looks like you've got relatives there," he told Joseph. "Raymond Kane, your mother's cousin, and his daughter, Mayflower. They must have information about that old suit of armor; maybe they even have a piece of it – which might make them targets, too."

'So my mother's kidnappers aren't local to this area? Not someone with a grudge against Waller, or foreigners?'

Hank shook his head. "Doesn't seem to be shaping up that way, though I wouldn't discount anything just yet." He noticed the look on Joseph's face and sighed. "I suppose you'll be wanting to head out to Hong Kong."

He nodded.

"Just like your mom," Hank chuckled, turning the car back toward Berlin.

The ride back to the airport was shrouded in disappointed silence. He was no closer to finding his mother, and now he had wasted a day tracking down someone who was halfway across the globe. What was happening to her during all of this? Was she still alive? Would he be too late to save her, like his father had been too late to save him, all those years ago?

She noticed his mounting anxiety and slid her arms around his waist, giving him an encouraging hug. His arm encircled her shoulders in response, drawing strength from her presence as she did from his.

'What will we do once we reach Hong Kong?' she asked.

He shrugged. 'Ask Raymond for help, I guess. I don't really know; this is all very overwhelming. If we're lucky, we'll catch up to Waller and my father and work with them. If not...'

'We'll manage,' she smiled. 'Someone's bound to find her; Searchers, Inc., Waller, or us. With so many people looking, she can't go missing much longer.'

'If she's still alive,' he added grimly.

'She's alive,' she replied firmly. 'They killed four people at Kane Manor, just to get information. They almost killed Waller. If they wanted her dead, they wouldn't have bothered to kidnap her first. So you should assume she's alive until and unless we find out otherwise.'

He smiled at her. 'And you said you'd lost your optimism.'

She kissed her fingertips and touched them to his lips. 'I found it again when I met you.'

Ignoring Hank's presence, he pulled her closer and kissed her. She hesitated for a fleeting moment before responding with more enthusiasm than was proper. Some things in life were too good for restraint.

Hank dropped them off at the same terminal where he'd picked them up, and they scanned the airline schedules, trying to find one with a nonstop flight from Germany to Hong Kong. Most flights made a refueling stop, either in Israel or in India, which added an hour or two to the flight time, but at least they wouldn't have to switch planes. All that was left was to find out which flights had available seating at such short notice.

A hand grabbed his shoulder in a vise-like grip, whirling him around and pinning him against the wall. The man who glared down at him was wearing a conservative business suit that concealed most of his very powerful frame, though his neck muscles bulged above his open collar. His other hand was held down at his side, but clenched in a fist that was clearly ready for instant action should the need arise.

They had never met, but the face was familiar from the Titans' files. 'Red Star?'

"Why have you returned?" the Russian snarled in English. "Are you planning to endanger civilians this time? Where are your horned henchmen, Azarath?"

Jessica intervened, squeezing herself between the two men. "You are mistaken," she explained. "You refer to incidents in which Joseph had no role. If he seems familiar, it is because another wore his face. Your anger is not with him."

Why he should believe her was uncertain, but he did, releasing Joseph and stepping back. "Is this true?" he asked the former Titan.

Joseph nodded. 'We were captured by the Wildebeests six months ago. We've only been free these past few days.' Seeing the lack of comprehension on the other man's face, Jessica quickly translated for him. Evidently he needed no further explanation; he seemed satisfied with what he'd been told.

Realizing that she was still standing defensively between them, he smiled down at her and said, "I am Leonid Kovar. For a brief while, I worked alongside the Titans." He turned back to Joseph. "I apologize for my behavior; certainly, I have no wish to assault a friend. Especially as the Titans were short on friends when last I saw them."

'You were with the team recently?' Joseph asked. 'How are they?'

"This is not one of their better times," Leonid replied, succinctly relating how he had quit the team when it had come under the control of the U.S. government. "I returned to Russia and to my training as a scientist. In fact, I am here in Germany for a conference on shared space technology; I was awaiting my return flight when I spotted you. If I may be so bold as to ask, why are you here?"

Joseph described their situation, and Leonid listened intently. "These attacks are undoubtedly the actions of a well-armed group," he observed. "They strike with speed and strength, and are willing to kill. You will require more power than you currently have in order to win a battle against them; I offer my assistance."

Against Jessica's better judgment, the offer was accepted, and the three of them booked a flight to Hong Kong. Considering first class to be a shameful waste of money, Leonid flew coach, and Jessica was not at all displeased by the physical distance between them. Perhaps it was an overgeneralization on her part, but Russians were notorious anti-Semites, and she wasn't prone to trusting them on a whim. Despite the fact that Leonid was apparently a former teammate of Joseph's, he still made her apprehensive, particularly after the way he'd confronted Joseph, and the less she had to deal with him, the better.

Neither one of them made any attempt to stay awake, especially since this flight was even longer than their last one. This time, though, it was Joseph who awoke with a start, his heart pounding in fear. A glance in Jessica's direction confirmed that she was still asleep, and for that, at least, he was thankful. She already blamed herself for what the Wildebeests had forced her to do to him; it wouldn't do to let her see just how traumatized he'd really been by it all.

He tried to pass it off as just another hazard of being a Titan, but for once, he wasn't buying it. True or not, it was all too much – the battles, the injuries, the deaths of close friends, the neverending stress. He was an artist, a musician, a poet; why had he allowed his life to take such a violent path? He didn't enjoy it, as Kory did; he didn't need it, as Donna did; he wasn't too obsessed to quit, as Dick was. He had to refocus on what was truly important to him, and once he'd found his mother, he was determined to do just that.

It was time for a new chapter in his life. He had made wonderful friends in the Titans, but his future was not with them. What he needed now was peace. What he needed now was someone who understood him, who could give his life the stability he craved. What he needed now was... Jessica.

He studied her as she slept. They'd been through hell together and escaped alive, if not whole. She had chosen to accompany him when she had no reason to do so, save for their mutual attraction. Her goals for the future were the same as his. Perhaps she was right when she said that God had put them together for a reason.

He almost woke her, then thought the better of it. What he had wanted to ask her could wait; even if she agreed, nothing would be done immediately, so there was no point in interrupting her much-needed rest.

No longer in the mood to sleep, he turned in his seat, trying to catch a glimpse of Leonid. The Russian was talking quietly on a cell phone, and Joseph didn't want to disturb him simply because he was bored. Instead, he took some of the stationary the airline provided to first class passengers and began writing letters to friends he hadn't seen in months and who were probably as convinced of his death as everyone else had been.

A dozen letters later, the plane began its approach to the airport. He nudged Jessica awake and placed the letters in his bag in preparation for landing. Since none of them had checked-in luggage, they quickly made it out of the airport and into the heart of Hong Kong's capital city, Victoria.

Finding Raymond Kane's house was hardly difficult; the sprawling mansion dominated the cliff overlooking the city's main harbor in a very ostentatiously Western display of wealth. It took them five minutes just to climb all the stairs to the front door.

Chinese society did not hold women in high regard. That meant Jessica was not the best choice to do the talking, but Joseph couldn't and Leonid didn't know enough of the situation to persuade the help to let them speak with Raymond, so she was chosen by default. Trying to mask her apprehension, she took a deep breath and knocked on the ornate, gilded door.

"Hello," she said when an old woman answered. "Is Mr. Raymond Kane at home? We would like to speak with him."

The woman gave her the blank look of someone who does not understand the language being spoken. She turned away and barked an order in Chinese to a younger woman who happened to walk by; the young woman took off at a run.

"No Kane," the woman told Jessica, waving her hand dismissively.

"His daughter, then," she persisted. "Mayflower Kane. May we see her?"

Now the woman looked uneasy. If she understood nothing else, she recognized the names, though that didn't seem to sway her any.

At length, an equally old man came to the door. He exchanged rapid-fire Chinese with the woman, who abruptly turned and left. The man looked past Jessica to Joseph and Leonid. "Much apologies, bad tragedy at Kane house. Mr. Kane and daughter not here anymore."

"Not here?" she asked. "They've gone?"

The man nodded, but kept his eyes on Joseph and Leonid. "Forever gone to ancestors."

She gasped, one hand pressed to her mouth. "They're dead?" She turned to Joseph, her eyes wide. 'What do we do now?' Behind her, the man smiled, bowed, and closed the door.

For a moment Joseph looked utterly lost. 'Soh-leng Cui,' he signed slowly. 'She lives here. We need to find her.'

"Soh-leng Cui," she said aloud for Leonid's benefit. "Is she a Searchers, Inc. employee?"

He nodded. 'But I don't know where she lives.'

Wandering back down to the docks, they came across a small phone booth, but there was no directory. "If I spoke Chinese, I would call the operator for her number; she could give us directions to her place," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't speak Chinese."

Leonid stepped forward and lifted the phone receiver. He punched several buttons and rattled off an impressively long sentence in Mandarin. He waited, then asked, "Cui Soh-leng?" He must have reached her, because he nodded at Joseph and continued his conversation. After several minutes he hung up.

"She will send a car for us," he told them.

'I didn't realize you spoke Chinese,' Joseph said, impressed.

Leonid shrugged. "The topic never arose with the Titans, and there was little need to mention it, lest it appear boastful. It seems that I have a talent for languages; with varying fluency, I speak Russian, English, German, Mandarin Chinese, and Polish."

The car that pulled up in front of them ten minutes later was neither new nor spacious, but they managed to fit. Soh-leng grinned at them as they squeezed into the back seat. "Joseph, you naughty boy, giving us all a fright like that! Don't you even think of dying on us!"

He smiled. 'It won't cross my mind, I promise.'

"It's good to see you again, little one," she told him, laughter dancing in her eyes. Jessica guessed the nickname was an in-joke; at six feet in height, Joseph towered over the petite Asian woman even when they were both seated. She wasn't certain if Soh-leng reached the five-foot mark; Jessica, too, seemed much taller than her hostess.

Soh-leng gestured to her driver and they were off, flying haphazardly down the streets of Hong Kong, missing pedestrians and other drivers by the smallest of margins. "So," she said casually, "you tried to contact Raymond Kane. What did you discover?"

"That he and his daughter are dead," Jessica said. "No one would tell us more than that."

Soh-leng nodded. "Of course not. Rumor has it that Kane was mixed up with Triad – that's the Chinese mafia – and that they killed him for double-crossing them. If that's true, no one wants to talk about it for fear of their own life."

'Rumor?' Joseph asked. 'Then you believe otherwise?'

Soh-leng waved one hand in the air absently. "Triad could easily have killed him. But your father was here when Raymond and Mayflower died, so their deaths could also be related to whatever situation your mother is embroiled in. We really don't have much information available to us; it is as difficult as it is dangerous to try to infiltrate Triad."

"The people at Kane's house mentioned Triad," Leonid confirmed. "You are correct, they appeared frightened, so perhaps it is more than mere rumor. But they also spoke of a 'Morel', and that is not a Chinese name."

The car swerved around a farmer's goat-drawn cart and pulled into the driveway of Soh-leng's house. "Kane was a gun-runner, among other things," she clarified. "Maybe Morel was his contact, or a buyer. Let's ask Searchers, Inc. about it."

Within minutes, Soh-leng had set up a teleconference with Amber in the U.S. and Phillip at Kane Manor in England. According to information from Waller, Morel was indeed behind the kidnapping of Adeline; he was also heading a well-armed group of young mercenaries. Soh-leng glanced at Joseph; the Raymond Kane puzzle piece just fell into place.

"Raymond had a piece of the armor, too," Phillip reported. "Have you recovered it, Soh-leng?"

She shook her head. "It was on his yacht, which was blown up right after he died. I suspect Morel's mercs got it."

"What is the importance of this armor?" Leonid asked.

Amber laughed. "Good question, hon – we've been askin' ourselves that for weeks. Kane family legend states there's some significance to the little holes that pit each piece, but so far, no one's been able to tell what that significance might be." She reached for something out of video range. "Lemme fax you some drawings of the armor; maybe you can make somethin' of it."

Soh-leng handed the faxes to Joseph, who glanced over them quickly and gave them to Leonid. No one really expected the mystery to be solved by a few faxes, which made it all the more stunning when Leonid announced, "This is a star map."

"How do you know?" Phillip asked, sounding more than a little miffed.

Leonid smiled. "Astronomy is a useful hobby for someone who works in the field of space technology. These maps are crude, and the stars have shifted somewhat since they were made, but they remain recognizable. The helmet points directly above, the gauntlets to the north and south, the breastplate to the east and on the back, the west. But I still do not understand why anyone would chisel a star map on a suit of armor."

"It's believed that the map leads to the location of buried treasure," Phillip explained. "At least, that's what Josiah Kane thought. Apparently Morel agrees, or he wouldn't have been so intent on gathering all the pieces. Now all we have to do is determine where on earth the map is supposed to indicate; it's owner was believed to have been an Egyptian, but that doesn't mean he stayed in Egypt."

"I'm feedin' the information into the computer right now," Amber said. "It'll calculate where the person would have to have been standin' to see the helmet's constellation directly overhead."

"How old are these markings?" Leonid wondered.

"Relatively young, compared to the age of the armor," Phillip informed him. "They are thought to be about two thousand years old."

"Take that into account in your calculations," he warned Amber. "The stars have shifted enough in that time to throw off your position by nearly a kilometer."

"It's done, honey," she replied, "an' it looks like the apple didn't fall far from the tree after all – Egypt it is. The Arabian Desert, southeast of Cairo." She caught Joseph's eye through the video link. "Sit tight, Joey, an' I'll set up the travel arrangements for you. After this is all done, you'll have enough frequent-flyer miles to go anywhere in the world!"

Their flight left in less than two hours, so they had to make haste back to the airport. Leonid had declined Amber's attempt to book him a first class reservation, and again sat back in the coach section, apart from Joseph and Jessica.

By now Joseph was so restless that he could barely sit still. They had spent days hopping from country to country in search of his mother, and at last they were catching up to her – but first, he would have to sit through nearly an entire day of air travel.

Again.

At least being held prisoner in a tiny concrete room for months on end had gotten him accustomed to sitting for extended periods of time. He had long ago passed the point where his muscles would spasm with painful cramps from the prolonged inactivity. But the monotony of captivity had done nothing to help him deal with the anxiety of not being able to help where he was needed.

Jessica ordered a glass of wine for him, which he hesitated to drink. 'It will calm your nerves, and it isn't enough to incapacitate you. With any luck it will help you get some sleep so you can function at peak efficiency once we arrive. Drink it,' she ordered.

He acquiesced, the shadow of a smile crossing his lips. For someone who stressed being modest and discreet, she was unusually effective at getting her own way – all without pulling medical rank. Heaven help the person unwise enough to ignore her professional advice.

Even so, the flight was rough for all of them, and he knew that after he got home to New York, it would be a long time before he chose to set foot on an airplane again. He had already completely lost track of both the day of the week and the time of day; any more air travel, and he would forget what year it was.

Two burly men met them as they cleared customs, both wearing dark glasses and baseball caps. Nothing about their appearance screamed "secret agent"; they may as well have been tourists waiting for friends to arrive. Jessica pressed closer to Joseph; public impropriety was better than being dragged off to God-knows-where by strange men.

She'd done that before, and was in no hurry to ever do it again.

When the men spoke, it was in Russian, though that seemed to be no surprise to Leonid. His response was respectful, but wary; he'd been the victim of too many government schemes to maintain the blind allegiance he'd previously possessed. After a brief exchange, he turned to Joseph and Jessica. "We are to accompany them," he said simply, indicating the Russian agents with a wave of his hand. "They will take us where we need to go."

They were herded into a battered old van parked just outside the doors of the main terminal. Now keenly alert to such details, Jessica noticed that their door had no window or inside handle. Like it or not, they were prisoners – again. She closed her eyes and prayed that Leonid was correct in trusting the men with their welfare.

Two hours later, the van came to a halt in the middle of a barren patch of dirt at the base of a small rocky outcropping. Stepping out of the van, they were struck by the sudden chill in the air; night had already fallen, and taken most of the day's heat with it. The Russian agents switched on the flashlights they had stored in the van and began walking to the far end of the outcropping, beckoning for the others to follow. They did so, hesitantly at first, until they saw their destination.

Hidden under a camouflage tarp was a spy helicopter: streamlined, armed, and painted black. Doubtless it was capable of impressive speed and distance in the air, despite being able to hold half a dozen people. With practiced ease, the agents uncovered the helicopter and folded the tarp, storing it in a small compartment that appeared to have been designed solely for that purpose. Leonid, Joseph, and Jessica were ushered into the back of the helicopter while the agents took the front piloting seats. In less than a minute they were airborne, veering away from the outcropping and toward the vast expanse of desert southwest of the city.

They used no visible light to illuminate their flight path. Instead, the helicopter was equipped with sonar, infrared scanners, and a global positioning unit to determine their present location. Even the blades seemed to make less noise than a regular helicopter. Their progress was excellent, though toward what, the passengers couldn't say.

Finally, one of the agents turned in his seat to address them. "We, too, have been following Deathstroke, for like us, he tracks Jacques Morel," he explained in English. "You know about Morel, yes?"

It was too dark in the helicopter for sign language, and the agents were probably unfamiliar with ASL, anyway. When it became clear that Jessica would not be the one to speak to them, Leonid replied, "We know that he is responsible for the kidnapping of Deathstroke's ex-wife, Adeline. We know that he seeks a fabled treasure linked to a suit of armor in the possession of Adeline's family. Is there something else of which we should be aware?"

The agent nodded sagely. "Much more. Morel is an international smuggler and drug-runner, but that need not concern you. What may well concern you is that he is also Adeline Wilson's first husband."

Jessica and Leonid both turned to look at Joseph, who was staring at the Russian agent in stunned disbelief. 'That's not true,' he signed, a hint of anger in the forcefulness of his motions. 'It can't be true.'

The Russian lit a cigarette and gave Joseph a sympathetic smile. "My apologies, but the information is accurate. What can I tell you? She was younger than you are now when she married him. Young girls are stupid when they are in love." He exhaled a stream of smoke and shrugged with one shoulder. "At least she wised up enough to divorce him – not that she chose much better the second time around, eh?"

When Joseph made no response, the agent shrugged again and turned back to the controls. Jessica slid her hand over his with unspoken sympathy. "Your mother has a right to her privacy," she whispered in his ear. "Don't think less of her just because she made some mistakes in her youth; she's still a good mother, and she still loves you."

For a moment it looked as though he would disagree, but he only nodded wearily. 'Thank you.'

The rest of the journey was made in silence. When the helicopter landed gently next to another that had been left by the entrance to some ancient ruins, the agent again turned around. "They are all in there – Morel, Deathstroke, Adeline Wilson. The two of you may do as you please here."

Jessica glanced at Leonid. "Leonid is not joining us?"

The agent chuckled. "Red Star has fulfilled his assignment; now, he goes home. That he was in Germany at all was merely good timing, but once we had observed Castle Waller, and knew you to be involved, it was easier to have him assist you than for us to do all the work ourselves. It would not be in Mother Russia's best interest to reveal our presence at this time, but one way or another, Morel will be dealt with here. As the Germans say, 'Endes gut, alles gut'." He motioned for them to leave.

They waved farewell to Leonid and moved away from the helicopter. If the others were inside the ruins, they were deep inside, for no light shone from the tunnel that was the only entrance. At least it would be warmer inside the ruins; frigid winds had kicked up, adding to the desert's chill.

The region was plunged into near-total darkness as the Russian helicopter left, and she felt a surge of panic. He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and slowly they made their way into the tunnel, keeping in contact with one wall to guide them. The faint light from the full moon was quickly absorbed by the inky blackness in the ruins, and they could only hope that the tunnel didn't branch – or worse, have pitfall traps. Carefully, they made their way down a flight of shallow, uneven stairs, travelling in what they hoped was a straight line, until they saw a flicker of light through a doorway ahead, and heard voices raised in anger.

Familiar voices, to Joseph at any rate. He took off at a run, heedless of potential dangers, and she hurried to catch up to him. He froze at edge of the light, staring in horror at the scene unfolding in front of him. Only when she finally reached him and saw what was happening did she understand.

Morel had taken Adeline hostage, holding an ancient but still deadly sword against her throat. Slade, too, had drawn his sword, and the two men faced each other angrily. It was a scene straight out of Joseph's past, albeit with altered roles, and she could see the effect it had on him; he was paralyzed, reliving terrifying memories triggered by the situation they were in.

But Adeline was no helpless three-year-old. She rammed her elbow into Morel's ribs, twisting free of his grasp. The maneuver cost her, though, as the sword bit deeply into the side of her neck. She stumbled and fell, clutching her throat as Slade attacked Morel in a blind rage. Jessica's instincts took over and she rushed forward to help, Joseph right behind her.

Waller and Wintergreen were already at her side, using a strip of cloth torn from Waller's shirt as a bandage. Jessica could see from the position of the bloodstains that the sword had just missed the vital jugular vein, which meant that the wound, though doubtlessly painful, was not critical.

"Keep a constant pressure on it," she told Waller, dropping to her knees beside him. "She's lost more than enough blood to flush the wound; now we have to get it to clot. And she'll need stitches as soon as possible, to stabilize the subdermal tissue connections and minimize the scar."

"Who the heck are you?" Waller asked indignantly.

She shoved him aside impatiently. "A doctor," she snapped, pressing on the wound herself when it was clear that Waller was ignoring her advice. "Miss Kane, don't turn your head too much; the sword damaged your sternocleidomastoid muscle."

Adeline, too, was ignoring her advice, but with better reason. "Joseph," she gasped, "oh honey, you're alive! You're all right!" Instantly, mother and son were locked in a tight embrace, leaving Jessica to sit and watch along with Waller and Wintergreen. She hardly minded; she found that anything which made Joseph happy had her automatic approval.

Adeline wasn't the only one who had noticed Joseph's presence; Slade turned in the midst of his battle to stare at the son he'd thought he'd been forced to kill. "Joe?" he asked hesitantly, forgetting Morel entirely. "Joe, is that really you?" His reaction was understandable, if ill-timed. Joseph looked up at his father just as Morel rammed his sword into Slade's back. With the point of the sword protruding under his sternum, Slade fell to his knees, a look of dazed disbelief on his face.

Though presently victorious, Morel was not without mistakes of his own. He had failed to research anything about Joseph, and so was unconcerned about meeting his furious glare with one of icy indifference. As Joseph's eyes darkened, Morel realized his error.

The knowledge didn't help him. Joseph phased out of Morel immediately and instantly attacked him, slamming him against the wall with a kick to the stomach. Slumped on the ground, Morel still managed to pull a knife from his belt, but Joseph kicked it from his hand with contemptuous ease. Dropping to one knee, he grabbed Morel's collar in one hand, pinned him to the sandy floor, and proceeded to pummel him unconscious.

Jessica knelt beside him cautiously and gave him a quizzical look. He smiled to let her know that he was fine, that his anger was fully expended. She still looked uneasy; with a quick glance behind her, she quickly signed, 'What sort of experiment did your father undergo in the Army?'

He shrugged. 'I have no idea. Something about resisting truth serum, I think. Why?'

She pointed to where Wintergreen was helping a shaky Slade to his feet. 'That was a mortal wound,' she said. 'After Wintergreen pulled the sword out, he should have hemorrhaged to death by now. Not only is he alive, the wound has healed. Entirely.'

He nodded. 'It would take an instantly-fatal injury to kill him, and he knows it.'

'I wonder what effect his altered biochemistry had on you.' He appeared confused, so she continued, 'Perhaps you have more mutations than just the ability to possess people. It's something to think about, at any rate.' She got to her feet and walked back to where Slade stood; after a quick glance at Morel, Joseph followed.

The tension in the air was palpable as he approached his father. For what seemed like an eternity, the two men just looked at each other, neither one offering to break the awkward silence between them. Finally, Slade asked, "Then it wasn't you in Azarath after all?"

Joseph shook his head. 'Nightwing told me what happened.'

"You understand, then?" his father implored. "That I had to save everyone? That there was no other choice?"

There was a noticeable hesitation before he answered. 'Yes,' he signed, but he didn't look pleased.

Slade rested his hands on Joseph's shoulders. "I swear I didn't want to, son. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Your mother and I both love you very much; you know we do."

Jessica knew enough to understand that the smile he gave his father was merely a front, a happy face painted over a heart that had been broken too many times at too young an age. If Slade also knew it, he gave no indication, hugging his son as if there had never been any friction between them.

The display of familial affection was shattered by the sound of gunshots echoing through the cavernous ruins. As one, they turned to see Adeline standing over Morel's body, the barrel of her gun still smoking.

"I promised Interpol I'd kill him," she explained, seeing the shocked expression on her son's face. "And even if I hadn't, I still had reasons to see that bastard dead." She holstered the weapon casually and walked over to Joseph. "But I don't care about him, I want to know about you. What happened, honey? We heard such awful things, and I don't know anymore what parts were true."

He recounted the events of the past six months to his parents, who were amazed to learn that a clone had replaced their son for months before the incident in Azarath, fooling all of them into believing that nothing was wrong. It was the clone who had fought beside the Titans only to betray them; the clone who had died a violent death at Slade's hands, while Joseph languished in the Wildebeests' prison cell.

"But it all worked out in the end," Slade sighed. "I would have given anything not to have had to do what I did, thinking that it was you. But you're all right, and I thank God for that."

"Well, it's certainly no thanks to you," Adeline scoffed. "I never thought I'd hear myself say it, but I'm glad he was kidnapped by the Wildebeests – if he hadn't, he'd be dead now, because of you. Just like Grant is dead because of you!"

"Addie –" Slade began, but Joseph cut him off.

'Stop it!' he yelled with furious signs, surprising all of them with his anger. 'Stop it! I'm sick of all your arguing! Why does it always come to this? All I ever wanted from the two of you was the one thing you never bothered to provide – a normal family.' His hands clenched into fists and he closed his eyes, taking a deep breath in an attempt to control the flood of his emotions.

When he continued, it was in a much more sedate tone, though clearly he was still upset. 'Why can't you treat each other with basic respect? You don't have to love each other. You don't even have to like each other. But is it too much to ask that you behave civilly in each other's company? For me?'

His parents appeared suitably chagrined. Before either of them could speak in their defense, he added, 'We all have secrets from our past,' glancing at Morel's body before looking pointedly at his mother, 'but we can't keep dragging them out as excuses for present behavior. It has to end sometime, and I'm asking that the time be now. If not forever, then at least until after the wedding.'

"Wedding??" Adeline and Slade chorused.

'Wedding?' Jessica echoed, stunned.

Joseph smiled at her. 'Marry me!' When she continued to stare blankly at him, he prodded, 'You can't reject the will of God.'

Her eyebrow arched. 'God's will has some very specific requirements attached to it. Are you willing to keep kosher, obey Shabbat restrictions, and raise our children as Jews?' He nodded, and she grinned helplessly. 'Very well then, I humbly accept the will of God and will gladly marry you. You are, after all, my basherte; my promised one.'

She pulled the scarf from her head as his arms encircled her and used it to cover them both with a makeshift chuppah that shielded their passionate kiss from the eyes of the others who were present. As they separated, she veiled herself with her scarf, in a tradition as old as the Biblical account of Rivka and Yitzchak. Her eyes gleamed above the cobalt fabric, reflecting the smile that was now hidden from view.

Adeline was the first to find her voice. "I take it you haven't set a date yet."

He looked to Jessica. 'You'll want to finish your internship in Phoenix first, right?'

She shook her head. 'They assumed the worst months ago and had me replaced. It doesn't matter; I can sign on with a New York hospital just as easily. Whatever time is good for you will work for me.'

'The sooner the better, then,' he proclaimed. 'Three months from now, to give ourselves time to schedule everything and notify everyone.'

She glanced around at the others in the room. "At this point, it's traditional to wish us 'Mazel Tov' –congratulations."

As four voices rang out in unison, she turned and winked at him. For the present, he had succeeded in integrating the disparate factors of his family. Only time would tell if the harmony would last.

They were content to take it one day at a time.

© 1999 by Rachel Ehrlich

Joseph Wilson, Adeline Wilson, Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, Leonid Kovar/Red Star, Waller, Wintergreen, Amber, Phillip, Jacques Morel, Searchers Inc, and Kane Manor © DC Comics

Dr. Jessica Cassel , David Cassel, Chaya Cassel, and Soh-leng Cui © Rachel Ehrlich