We come back to the story 5 months later. It is April and Spring, and most of the mountain is in beginning to sprout leaves and the early flowers are in bloom. Higher up, however, there is still snow and the cliff is riddled with several waterfalls from the snow melt.
Warning: Some Language . . . (Forgive any typos I might have missed)
Robin sat out on the porch and watched the night sky. You couldn't see the stars in Gotham City, the light pollution as well as the pollution-pollution blocked all but the brightest lights in the nighttime sky. In Gotham City, that would be the moon and that pretty much was it. The manor was better but, even then, Gotham City was too close and only the brightest stars were available on a clear night. He had almost forgotten the beauty of Milky Way.
He knew there were other planets out there circling some of those stars. He knew there were aliens that lived on some of them. Heck, he was friends with one of them and with the clone of another. Batman had even gone to a few of those planets on occasion. Robin hated those times when Bruce was gone so completely, that if an emergency came up and he needed him, it would take a month or more before he could get back, even with the help of alien technology that could get him from place to place faster by warping space or using shortcuts through wormholes. And if Batman needed him . . .? Robin hadn't had the means to follow on his own.
But for all that he hated when Batman traveled to those distant planets, Robin couldn't help but wish that, one day, he too would get to travel to the stars.
The door creaked behind him, alerting the boy that he was about to have company. He was good with that. He had had enough time by himself, too much, really . . . Healing had taken quite a while and then there had been all of the physical and occupational therapy he had to contend with. Maybe not as much as Roy, with the nerve damage he had received, but it had been a lot all the same. But when he stopped to consider what could have happened . . .
It was ironic, really, that he lived in a crime-ridden city with some of the worst, most demented baddies out there and Robin had almost bitten it way out here in the wilderness. All of them that had been on that train when the car had derailed had nearly died at some point, a couple of them more than once. Okay, that had been him that had attempted to check out more than once but all four of them had faced death during those few days and somehow managed to walk away from it.
Someone sat down on the step beside him. Robin didn't have to look to know that it was Conner. They had grown a lot closer since 'The Mission' despite their separate, respective recuperating times. He and Conner had managed to talk almost every day since. They were easily as good of friends now as he and Wally and, in some ways, better.
"It's deceptive, isn't it?' Robin said out loud after several long minutes.
"What is?" Conner asked, although Rob knew he understood exactly what he was talking about.
"How peaceful it is out here," Robin answered. "You'd never know just sitting here that you had practically kicked it just a few miles from here in the valley."
"Or that you nearly drowned in a frozen river or almost fell to your death while trying to avoid getting eaten by a cougar?" Conner added.
Robin winced. "Gee, thanks for pointing that out, Conner. I'll sleep better now," he said sarcastically.
Conner leaned over and bumped the younger boy's shoulder. "You brought it up first."
He had. Robin glanced over at the Kryptonian/human hybrid and grinned.
"We are so damned lucky, it's not even funny."
Conner smiled. He was doing that more often and more easily now. "If it isn't funny then why are you grinning like an idiot?"
"Just thinking of how weird it is that, after almost dying here, we come back the very first chance we get," Rob shook his head. "Our first weekend together as a team with no mission and what do we do?"
"Wally and M'gann had voted to go to the beach. So, did Kaldur, come to think of it," Conner murmured.
It was spring break and the beaches had been full of beautiful girls and beach volleyball. Made perfect sense that Walls had wanted to hang out there. But then Roy had shown up, the first time they had seen him since they had been rescued, and he had added his vote to Artemis, Conner's and his, and broken the tie. The four of them had wanted to return to the mountain again to see Ramón and Cecil.
Only Wally had seemed to mind. M'gann had been charmed by the crusty, old, mountain man and his pet fox, and Kaldur had never had the opportunity to meet them, although he had heard the stories several times. But Wally had come close to losing four of his friends on this mountain and he couldn't understand why anyone would want to relive that experience.
Nobody actually wanted to relive it. That's not why they wanted to come. The four of them just wanted to see the beauty this place without the full temper of Mother Nature bearing down on them. They wanted to see their new friend again and thank him for saving their lives, and to look the mountain in the proverbial eye and remind it that it hadn't won. In the end, they had and that counted for something, even if it had only happened because Batman and the Justice League had stepped in to rescue them.
They had survived. Life was good.
"Do you wish now that we had gone to the beach?" Robin asked him.
Conner stared up at the stars rather than look at him. "A little," he admitted. "I mean, I'm really glad we came back. Seeing Ramón and Cecil again was great but . . . I don't . . ." he sighed, his shoulders slumping a little. "I don't tell people this, especially not Superman . . . um, Clark, I mean."
Robin knew Conner still felt a little weird about calling Superman by his given name.
"What is it?" Robin prodded quietly.
"I . . . uh, I still get cold sometimes." Conner shivered then, almost as if talking about it brought it on.
"Really?" Robin glanced over at him, concerned. "The laser is still affecting you? Do you still have the scar or did that finally go away?"
"Listen, Rob, you can't tell," Conner insisted. "Promise me. You won't tell anyone. Not Batman and definitely not Wally. There's no way he'd keep his mouth shut."
"If something is wrong, though . . ." Robin argued but stopped when Conner stood up abruptly. "Conner, wait! Okay . . . I'm sorry. I promise . . . I won't tell anyone." When Conner continued to stand there, Robin prodded him. "Sit down. Please?"
Another moment passed, when Robin thought he had ruined that special trust they now shared, before Conner sat back down on the step.
"I lied . . ."
Robin blinked. "When? About what?"
"Just now," Conner admitted reluctantly. "It's not just occasionally. I'm cold all the time now. It's like the cold has sunk into my bones. It just doesn't go away."
"And you're cold right now?"
It was pretty cold out tonight. Not frigid like it had been when they were stuck here during the blizzard but the temperatures required a coat and Robin could see his breath when he talked. Conner was out in long sleeves and a light jacket. The jacket was new . . . Rob might've believed he wore it for Ramón but the biologist was already aware that Conner wasn't strictly human.
Conner nodded and another shiver shook his heavy frame. Robin scooted closer, leaning against his friend in an effort to share a bit of his heat. Conner smiled at him and put an arm around him. Robin didn't know how much good he was actually doing, all considering, but if anyone walked out here, they'd believe it was Conner who was keeping Robin warm rather than the other way around.
It might have been amusing but for the fact that his friend was suffering in silence. That wasn't funny at all.
"What about the scar? Is it still there?" Robin asked again.
"It's faded," Conner told him. "But you can still see it. You can feel it, too, if your hand rubs over it. The mark where the laser had hit me is still there, too. It kind of resembles a birth mark now."
Robin leaned back. "Let me see."
Conner sighed and tugged up the corner of his shirt. The mark was barely noticeable even in the bright starlight. Rob figured it was only a shade darker than Conner's natural skin tone. He reached out to run his fingers across it but it was smooth. Conner pulled his shirt back down and huddled under his jacket. Robin leaned into him again.
"Does M'gann know?" The two of them were still dating. If anyone would notice, it would be her.
"She knows," he snorted. "It's impossible to hide anything from M'gann for very long."
"What's she say?"
Conner shrugged. "She's worried, especially about the cold, but she keeps quiet. She doesn't like it, though. She wants me to tell Superman."
"Yeah, well, I sort of agree with her," Robin frowned at him. "Is this helping at all?" he asked, referring to their sharing heat.
Conner laughed. "A little. Getting uncomfortable?"
Robin snorted. "Sorry but you're not exactly my type, you know?"
Conner smirked. "And what type is that? Zatanna?"
Robin blushed hard enough it was noticeable in the starlight. "No," he denied forcefully. "I don't think I have a type yet."
Conner grinned. "Yes, you do. Ever since New Year's when she kissed you, your type has been dark-haired girls who like to talk backwards."
"Shut up," Robin groused as he shrugged off Conner's arm and returned to his previous spot. He was smiling, though. "She's way out of my league, and she's older than me."
"Not by that much. You just had your fourteenth birthday last month."
Robin rolled his eyes. "And she's just about to have hers next month. She'll be fifteen then."
Now Conner rolled his eyes. "So? She likes you. You definitely like her . . ."
"No, I don't," Robin denied automatically.
The older boy laughed again. "Who's lying now?"
Robin hung his head in defeat but he was smiling. "Yeah, okay. I admit it . . ."
Conner gave him a light shove and the smaller boy was nearly unseated.
"You know," Conner told him, "if we've learned nothing else from our time here, it's that time is fleeting and life is short, especially in this line of work. You have to live life and take every opportunity that it presents to you. You don't want your last breath to be one of regret."
Robin gaped at him. "That's . . . kind of depressing."
The other boy shrugged his shoulders. "It wasn't meant to be. It was supposed to be uplifting and, I don't know . . . freeing?"
"I never knew you to be philosophical before," Rob narrowed his eyes. "Are you sure you're not a clone of a clone?"
Conner grinned. "M'gann's got me watching reruns of Dr. Phil."
They both started laughing.
"What's all that ruckus out here?" Ramón asked as he exited the cabin. "You're going to wake up your friends and then no one will be getting any sleep."
Robin smiled up into the shaggy face of their friend. "I'm sorry if we woke you," he said.
"Nah, you didn't wake me," Ramón scoffed. "Cecil here did that for you."
The little white fox scrambled off of Ramón's shoulder and leapt toward Robin. Had the boy's reflexes been any slower, he wouldn't have been able to catch him in mid-air. Cecil chittered and squawked at him tumbling around in his lap before demanding his scratch. Robin had been trained well and immediately obliged him. After a few minutes, the fox scrambled up and leapt over into Conner's lap next.
Ramón leaned against the post and smiled down at the boys making much ado over the excitable animal.
"Never seen him take to folks like he has to you two," he commented casually. "He was downright mopey after we got home for weeks."
Robin looked pointedly out at the wilderness landscape. "You say that like this place is teaming with visitors. Conner and I are probably the only people he's ever been around besides you."
Ramón scoffed. "He's met folks before. Always been shy, distrusting of 'em. He's never had call to get to know 'em, though, like he had with you two."
Conner smiled at the fox's antics, laughing when the small animal scurried over his shoulder, behind his neck, and down the other side. "You hadn't anyone get trapped in you shack for a week by a blizzard before, you mean. Rob and I are the first?"
Ramón chuckled. "Well, I suppose that's so. You two are the first to enjoy the full hospitality of the Hotel Dupree Grande, with all her fine amenities." He said as Cecil jumped down from Conner's lap and ran out into the field in front of the cabin.
"And we appreciated all of them," Robin said as he climbed to his feet. The younger boy walked over and wrapped his arms around the crusty mountaineer. "You saved our lives and risked your own while doing so. We'll never forget that."
"Aw, here now." Ramón grumbled gruffly, kneeling down to return the hug. "Don't go getting all sentimental on me."
Conner hesitated a moment or two before he joined the pair. "Thank you," he murmured into the furry jacket, feeling a little awkward.
Ramón shoved them away, affectionately. "Go on with you. It's enough to make an old man all weepy-eyed."
"We're going to be headed home tomorrow," Robin reminded him. "You've been a pretty understanding host considering you've had six teenagers dumped in your lap over the weekend. We've probably eaten you out of house and home."
"Nonsense. It was a pleasure," Ramón replied, gruffly. "You all reminded me of what I've been missing out here."
Conner glanced around, his night vision making it possible to see the surrounding countryside with ease. Snow on the mountain peaks still, even some on this level in the places shielded from the sunlight. But the forest was no longer the winter wonderland it once was. Spring green was vibrant in the fields and early season blooms were bright patches of color here and there. The distant roar of a waterfall where the Spring melt rushed to join the river in the valley below . . .
"I don't think you are missing much," Conner said. "It's beautiful and really peaceful."
Ramón laughed. "Have I made a country boy out of you yet?"
Conner smiled. "Well, maybe not yet but I've learned to appreciate the beauty as well as the danger mountain offers."
They were interrupted by howling. Ramón's wolves sounded close, really close. Suddenly, Cecil burst out of the tree line beyond, a piece of white on the dark gray background of the starlit field. He ran in a streak towards the safety of Ramón and the cabin. Dark, inky shadows followed in his wake, easing out into the open. Ramón bent a knee as the fox leapt into his arms.
"What is it?" Robin asked warily. He stepped back up onto the porch. He still wore the scars from the cougar attack and had no desire to add to them.
"My wolf pack," Ramón wondered aloud as the small fox forewent his usual spot around the man's neck in favor of burrowing under his coat. "They've never ventured this close before. Usually that mountain lion's scat kept them at bay. That was the reason for the shack, you know, to enable me to stay an extended length deep in their territory."
Robin glanced at the trapper. "The same mountain lion that tried to eat me and Roy?"
"He's no longer here," Ramón reassured him. "Attacking humans isn't taken lightly. I didn't want to have to kill it, so I trapped him and had the rangers transport him several hundred miles from here in territory far from any beaten path."
A shape far larger than any of the timber wolves around it broke away from the group and padded forward. Recognizing it, Conner walked out to meet him.
"Wolf," he chided. "You shouldn't have brought them this close to the cabin. One of your new friends might decide to eat Cecil."
Ramón moved closer. He was still amazed at the size of Conner's wolf pet. The fact that the wolf also appeared to understand human speech was mind-boggling. He hadn't had much chance to study the anomalous beast as it had loped off into the surrounding woods as soon as the teens had exited their ship. It had returned only briefly once over the course of the long weekend.
"Here's someone I'd love to get to know better," Ramón said as he approached cautiously. "What accounts for his size and intelligence?"
Conner scratched at Wolf's favorite spots as he answered. "He was experimented on against his will. Kept as a test animal and then as a slave to the will of evil men."
Ramón frowned. "That's a dad-burned shame, that is. It's why I prefer to work in the wild rather than work out of a university laboratory. How is it he tolerates humans after that?"
Robin eased off of the porch but didn't stray far. "Conner saved him from the men who had held him captive. He destroyed the collar that controlled him."
"He was in the wrong environment anyway. We found him in a jungle. Couldn't have been comfortable for him," Conner explained. "After we destroyed the laboratory, he wanted to come back with us."
"He's been with Conner ever since," Robin finished.
"At least he hasn't indicated he was unhappy," Conner shrugged. "But he's never really had the opportunity to find a real home before." He tipped his head and caught Wolf's eye. "Do you like it here? We're going to be leaving in a few hours to go home. Do you want to come back with us or do you want to stay here, with this pack?"
Wolf looked back at the animals he had been running with over the weekend and then back to Conner, and whined.
"I'll understand if you want to be with your own kind," he said, quietly. It would hurt but he wouldn't take Wolf away from the pack if he considered them his family now.
Wolf licked Conner's face and turned around to somehow communicate silently with the pack. Ramón recognized a bit of the body language used but he suspected that a lot more was going on behind those golden eyes than was knowable. After a moment, the other wolves turned and loped back into the woods. Wolf nodded at Conner and followed the others back into what was left of the night.
Robin walked out to stand beside his friend. "What did that mean? Is he coming back with us or is he going to stay?"
Conner shrugged. "I'm not sure if that was a goodbye or he was saying he'd be back."
"A big boy like that probably eats a lot," Ramón murmured. His eyes narrowed in concentration. "If he were any normal wolf, I might be concerned about whether the local environment could support his addition to the local pack."
"Oh, I didn't think about that," Conner said worriedly. "Should I have discouraged him about staying?"
Ramón shook his head. "I weaned the pack last year. Had two taken to a new area to start up a new pack. There's no doubt your wolf would be the alpha of this pack. I doubt the current alpha would even challenge him for it. Do you think your animal could understand something as complex as population control and environmental impact?"
"He could understand it in simplistic terms to a degree." Conner said as he thought about it. "He's far above the average animal but he's still not quite human smart." He smiled sadly. "Not yet, anyway."
"I don't know about that," Robin inserted with a grin. "He's managed to manipulate everyone at the mountain into giving him extra treats and belly rubs on demand."
"If he comes back before we leave, I'll try to explain it to him," Conner told the mountain man. "I can't guarantee anything, however."
"We'll deal with it when the time comes, then," Ramón said. "Now, are you boys planning to get any sleep tonight or will you be watching the sun come up?"
"I suppose we better try or we'll be worthless tomorrow," Robin agreed.
"You mean, today." Conner bumped his shoulder again, causing Robin to stumble. The smaller boy sent him a warning glare.
"Did you two enjoy the mountain this time around?" Ramón asked as Cecil, sensing it was safe now, made his way up to his favorite spot. The biologist rubbed the fox's head in reassurance.
Here Robin grinned. He turned to talk as he walked backwards. "It was a blast, Ramón. We were able to go skiing, climbing, hiking, and fishing, although Kaldur beat everyone in that."
Conner snorted. "Until he realized we were going to be eating them and sent all of his back into the stream."
Ramón shook his head in awe. "Imagine being able to call the fish and have them jump out onto the shore like that. But he still ate with us that evening. You don't think we offended him, do you?"
Robin waved the concern away. "He had been just showing off for us. It was a game until then for him but he understands that fish is food for us. He says they eat fish in Atlantis as well but supplement it by farming like we do here. He told me there were some Atlantians that were even vegetarians, although he's not one of them."
Conner chuckled. "Wally's face when you told him we were eating barbequed beaver and beaver-tail soup . . ."
"You should have seen Batman and Agent A's face when I asked for beaver for dinner one time," Rob laughed. "I still need the recipe to take back with me."
"Is your Agent A going to try it?" Ramón asked, laughing along with them.
"Nah," Rob shook his head. "They don't carry beaver in the meat section at our local grocery."
Ramón rubbed a playful hand over the smaller boy's hair. "If you like, I can send you back with a beaver. I'll even do you the favor by skinning him for you."
Robin's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Could you?"
"Of course," he agreed, readily. Ramón was always ready for a prank, and it amused him to imagine the faceless Agent A requesting more of the mountain delicacy from the local butcher.
The trio grew quieter as they entered the cabin so as to not disturb the others. They moved carefully back to their own spots near the fire, stepping over the scattered bodies of their sleeping friends. Robin paused by the rocking chair in the corner to snatch another blanket that had been draped there. As Conner settled down, Rob tossed the extra cover over him.
"So you won't get cold," he whispered.
Conner smiled in thanks. Despite the cold of the higher elevation, he had enjoyed his stay and would be a little sad to go back. His mind turned to Wolf and he wondered if he had seen the last of his friend. He would deal with it, though, because all that mattered was that his friend was happy.
Sleep was finally creeping up on him when the warmth of a furry body nuzzled his chin and then attempted to slither under his covers. Conner lifted the blankets to grant Cecil entry. The fox usually preferred to bed down with Robin but must have felt his sadness and had come to console him. Comforted, Conner drifted off to the rhythm of the Cecil's heartbeat.
Conner and Kid Flash were carrying everyone's bags into the Bioship as the rest of the team said their goodbyes.
"Thank you so much for letting us come and stay with you. Your mountain is so beautiful now that Spring is finally here," M'gann said to their host.
"Likely a big change to what you're used to, eh?" Ramón asked her.
"From Mars? Most definitely. Our mountains are nothing like they are here," she assured him.
"That must be something to see, though," he said. "Do you ever miss it?"
"Sometimes," she admitted shyly. "The deep reds and purples of the Martian sunset are much different than those you see on earth."
M'gann moved into the ship to help make room to the baggage as Kaldur walked over to shake the older man's hand. "This was indeed a most pleasant trip. I greatly enjoyed the activities and the company very much."
"You should see it in summer," Ramón told him. "There is a hidden pool with crystal clear waters that does a body good after a hard day's hike through these parts."
Kaldur's eyes lit up. "If that is an invitation . . ."
"Mi casa es tu casa," Ramón laughed. "You young folks don't need to wait for an invitation to visit. Cecil certainly enjoyed the company."
At the mention of his name, Cecil broke away from where he was playing with the pinecones that Robin and Artemis had been tossing for him. As he ran over, Ramón obligingly bent and picked him up. The little fox squawked at the Atlantian from his new perch, making Kaldur laugh. No one could resist the small animal's charm.
"You should be careful, old man," Roy said as he came up and threw an arm around Kaldur's shoulders. "We might take you up on that. Another weekend or two of this madhouse and you'll be reminded of why you moved away from civilization in the first place."
Kaldur raised an eyebrow. "And why is that?" he asked for Ramón.
Roy looked surprised as if the answer was obvious. He spread an arm out as if to encompass the world in general as he replied with annoying ease. "People are annoying." He glanced over at Wally chatting with Artemis. "And some of those people more than others."
Robin laughed. "You talk a big game, Roy, but we all know that you love us."
"Where'd you come up with that crazy idea, runt?"
"You chose to come with us," Robin replied. "You sought us out and joined us for the weekend when you didn't have to." He ducked under Roy's playful grab at him. "Admit it! You love us," he flipped out of the archer's reach and ran when Roy made as if to chase him.
"It has been pleasant to have a chance to simply relax and enjoy one another's friendship without the responsibilities that come with our positions," Kaldur said softly. "The remoteness of your cabin ensures us of downtime without risk of interruption."
"You're all so dad-blamed young," Ramón said as he shook his head. "Too young to have such heavy burdens placed upon your shoulders like this."
Kaldur met the biologist's eyes. "It has been our choice," he explained. "None of us were coerced into becoming heroes and protectors of humanity. Every one of us made this decision for ourselves and, in many cases, fought hard for the right."
They both glanced at Robin, clearly the youngest of their team as he used Conner as a barrier between him and Roy. "Robin, for all that he is the youngest among us, was the first of us to take up the calling. He paved the way for the rest of us to begin training with our mentors and use our gifts and talents as a means to help others. He proved to the League and to society that youth does not mean incapable or irresponsible." Kaldur shared with him.
"I'll admit that the world has changed a lot since I retreated up here," Ramón snorted. "In my day, children were protected and cherished, not thrown into danger with the worst of humanity."
"Despite what it must seem like to you, I believe our mentors care deeply for each of us," Kaldur told him.
Ramón grunted and nodded, if somewhat reluctantly. "I saw a bit of that myself when your League swooped in to pull these young'uns' butts out of the fire." He grinned suddenly and bumped Kaldur's shoulder, startling the youth. "I was as surprised as two-peckered horny toad when they came busting through my door in those tights and masks and such."
If Kaldur was startled, it was no more than was Conner when he overheard the comment. He turned to Robin to assuage his curiosity.
"What's a pecker?" he asked.
Roy choked as Robin shrugged. "I'm not exactly sure."
"Ah, maybe I can clear this up." The archer leaned in and lowered his voice as he whispered to the other two boys.
Conner blinked. "Toads have two of those?"
"I didn't know that," Robin said, frowning.
Roy coughed into his hand. "Yeah, well, they're a special breed. There's only a few of them out there."
Robin looked skeptical. "Are you messing with us?"
Roy gave his most innocent look and waved an arm in Ramón's direction. "Your biologist said so."
Robin glanced over at the mountain man. "Really?"
Ramón grinned and winked. "Those right there are some mighty fine eatin', boys. You come back for a visit this summer and we'll catch us some and I'll fry a batch of 'em up for you."
Kaldur frowned in confusion. "I don't believe I've ever heard of this species before. They are a subspecies of the horned toad, you say?"
"What subspecies is that?" Artemis asked as she and Wally came out of the cabin.
Roy laughed. "Nothing important. I'll tell you both about it later, after we get back to our own mountain."
M'gann stepped into the door of the Bioship. "The ship is ready to go. Is that everything? We're not leaving anything behind, are we?"
"No, beautiful," Wally smiled. "Artie and I double-checked the cabin. We're good to go."
Artemis looked around. They were missing something . . . "Wait! Where's Wolf? Is he already on board?"
"No," the Martian responded. She looked out over the field but didn't see the animal. "Conner? Have you seen him?"
Conner's face fell slightly. "Late last night. He was with Ramón's wolf pack. I-I think he prefers it here, with his own kind, I mean," he told them. "We'll go on without him if he doesn't show up."
The shock on the faces of the boy's friends spoke well of the relationship between Conner and the giant wolf. Ramón hated to see the pair broken up, he could see that Conner loved the beast, but an animal that large and intelligent shouldn't be forced to live where he was unhappy.
"I'll keep an eye out on him, like I do all my wolves, young'un," Ramón rested a hand on his shoulder. "You can come and see him anytime you get the urge. You're always welcome."
"I . . . uh, I appreciate that, Ramón," Conner said. It was obvious that leaving his pet behind was distressing to him, however.
The woodsman smiled, a flash of straight, white teeth amidst the straggly, salt and pepper beard. "Don't you mean 'Old Oily'?"
Shock and embarrassment colored Robin and Conner's faces.
"How did you . . .?" The clone gaped.
"We're sorry, Ramón, if we hurt your feelings," Robin said quickly. "It wasn't intentional."
"I came up with that before I knew what to call you," Conner admitted. "I never meant it in a mean way, though. Honest."
Ramón laughed, a deep belly laugh that had the two boys exchanging hopeful glances. "Land's sakes! I've heard far worse said about me than that," he grinned. "And it ain't as though it weren't the truth. Baths around here in the winter are scarce. Too hard to break the ice and haul it inside, plus the time it takes to heat it. I sure ain't fond of no ice baths. This here ain't no polar bear club, I can tell you that."
Robin slumped in relief. "Thank you. We're really sorry," he repeated.
But the backwoods biologist just waved the apology away. "I was just teasing you, young'un. Ain't you never heard tell of the old saying 'sticks and stones will break your bones but words can never harm me?"
"But that's not true," Artemis corrected him. "Words can hurt."
He hummed a bit. "That, Missy, is only if you let them. You don't have let them, hear me?"
She smiled and gave him a hug. "We're going to miss you and all your crazy country sayings," she said and then whispered, "I'm going to miss you."
Ramón chuckled a bit; the sound rumbled beneath her ear, tickling. "Go on with you, now. I won't tell a soul," he winked at her. "Our secret."
As Artemis moved up into the Bioship, Roy stepped over and shook the man's hand. "You saved us. That means something to me. If you ever need me, or any of us, you just ask."
"And you keep a look out over your friends there. Make sure they don't go getting lost in the wilderness again without you," he replied.
Roy smiled and nodded. "Deal."
Wally shuffled over next. "I voted to go to the beach," he admitted with a smirk. "I didn't think I ever wanted to see this place again . . . But I'm glad we came. It really is beautiful up here."
Ramón grinned and slapped the speedster on the back. "Is that all you liked about the place?"
Wally smirked. "Okay, the beaver wasn't bad. Neither was that bacon we had this morning. Where'd you get bacon at way up here?"
"That, my boy, was top of the line opossum bacon you enjoyed with your quail eggs," Ramón announced. "The birds are laying down in the valley already. I had just stocked up the day before y'all arrived so they were still nice and fresh."
Wally paled and turned a little green. "Th-That was . . . opossum? Oh, my God!" He spun around and glared at Robin and Conner. "Did you two know about this and didn't tell me?"
Both were looking back, wide-eyed. "N-No," Robin denied. "We only knew about the beaver."
"Oh, the opossums wouldn't go out during a blizzard. They'd hole up until the storm was over, else stay in their dens until hunger forced them out," Ramón told them jovially. "They're way too lean during the cold months. Nah, Spring's the earliest time of the year to getcha a nice, fat opossum."
Ramón grinned at them, chuckling and shaking his head. "City folks . . ." He looked up at M'gann and waved her down. "C'mon down here and say goodbye to me proper-like, little green."
M'gann floated down from the ship's entrance because she knew how much the biologist enjoyed it. She landed gracefully in front of him.
"Danged if that ain't something," he murmured. It continued to amaze him every time he watched her. "I wanted to tell you again how much I enjoyed your baking."
Her eyes sparkled. "Really? I know the cookies were a little extra crispy around the edges . . . I wasn't used to cooking in a wood-burning stove."
"Those cookies were just perfect," he assured her. "I haven't had cookies in a coon's age. They were a welcome change. I hafta say that your biscuits came out nicely, though."
She blushed a little. "Well, that was because you helped. I've never made biscuits before this weekend."
"Well, you're an expert at it already," Ramón declared. "Little goat's milk butter and some honey . . . You just can't get more down home than that."
"That was goat's milk butter? Does that mean that the milk we drank was goat's milk, too?" Wally asked from the ship.
Ramón laughed. "Did you see any cows up 'round here?"
"No cows," Conner confirmed, "but I noticed there's a couple of goats around back by that outbuilding."
Kaldur patted Wally's shoulder and pulled him into the Bioship. "It was good milk and I could not tell the difference in the butter."
"But it was goat's milk and opossum . . ." Wally could still be heard whining.
"Yes, and beaver as well," Kaldur commiserated. "You ate four helpings."
"Don't remind me," the speedster groaned.
M'gann held Ramón's hand and touched his mind. I am thankful that you were there to save my friends and I am honored to be considered one of yours.
Ramón startled a moment. Then he relaxed and gave it a try himself. Can you hear me?
I can, she thought at him. Most Martians prefer to communicate in this fashion. I've been told it is rude amongst earthlings but you seemed so sincere in wanting to learn about my kind that I wanted to tell you thank you in the Martian way. She bit her lip nervously. "Are you offended?"
"Land's sakes, no, child," he assured her. "That there is what folks call telepathy, correct?"
M'gann smiled. "It is. I use it with the others only when we go on missions together. It is a more efficient and stealthy means of communication.
I look forward to learning more about it, then, he thought at her. And more about Martians in general when you come back for a visit.
You are a natural at this, M'gann told him. Perhaps you have some latent talent in this area. Another visit sounds pleasant. Take care of yourself, Ramón, and of Cecil, too.
Ramón grinned. "I will do surely that, little green. Now go on with you."
He set Cecil down as he turned to say his goodbyes to his boys, as he was coming to think on them. "Stay away from blizzard and frozen rivers as I won't be there to save your skins next time."
"We're going to miss you, Ramón," Robin admitted freely. He waited only until the big man bent a knee to throw his arms around his neck.
The woodsman hugged the boy back. "It will be too quiet now here 'bouts without you two getting into heaps of trouble," he said gruffly.
Cecil pawed at Robin's leg, squirming excitedly in the boy's arms when he picked him up. "I think I may miss you most of all," he told the little fox.
Cecil chittered at him and crawled up onto Robin's shoulder and leapt toward Conner. The older boy caught him deftly and scratched the animal in his favorite places.
"Don't you worry about Wolf," Conner told the fox. "I told him you were a friend but I wouldn't go turning my back on the others."
Cecil leapt back into Ramon's arms and quickly scampered up to his usual spot around the older man's neck.
"I keep an eye out of your wolf friend for you," Ramón promised again. He took Conner's hand that the clone held out but instead of shaking it, the biologist yanked the boy into his arms, giving him a bear hug and slapping him on the back. "But this just means that you'll have to come out often to see him, you understand."
"I'll do that," Conner told him. "Thank you . . . for everything."
The two boys were just turning to board the bioship when a bark had them both turning around. The great, white wolf stepped out of the trees followed by his new pack. Conner hesitated only a moment before walking out to meet him.
"Did you come to say goodbye?" Conner asked him and he rubbed the animal's scruff.
Wolf rubbed his head against Conner's chest and then padded off towards the bioship. He paused with one paw on the ramp and looked back at him. Conner blinked and glanced behind him at the wolf pack only to see the others slinking back into the shadows of the trees once more.
He spun around and grinned. "You're not staying?"
Wolf shook vigorously, whether to fluff his coat or to tell Conner 'no' didn't matter as the wolf turned and entered the ship without looking back. Robin grinned at Conner, happy that the clone wouldn't lose his friend.
"I guess he's coming with us after all," Conner said with a broad smile.
He bounded over back to the ship and entered behind the younger boy. They waved as the door lifted and melded back into the ship seamlessly. Seconds later the Bioship lifted into the air, hovered a moment and then shot off at a speed that left the tops of the surrounding pines swaying.
Ramón waved until the red ship disappeared over the peaks. He ruffled the top of Cecil's head fondly and headed back towards the cabin. Conner and Kaldur had left him enough wood to last through the following winter. The team had left him with a store of canned and dry goods they had brought with them as a gift.
The wind whistled through the treetops. It was normally a sound he enjoyed but, today, the wind sounded a bit forlorn and reminded Ramón of how isolated he was up here. It had been his choice, making the move up here and he never regretted it but maybe it was time to journey into town for a few supplies. He thought that, maybe this time, he would stay for a bit. The mountain could take care of itself for a few weeks on its own.
"How'd you like to take a hike with me, Cecil?" he said as he stomped inside the cabin. "You've never met Dale and his wife, have you? They own a general store down in the valley over yonder. Maybe we can get you a real toy to play with instead of them there pinecones," he declared cheerfully as he slammed the door behind him. "And Betty, at the diner in town, makes the world's best flapjacks! You haven't lived until you try a flapjack with some homegrown maple syrup . . ."
He set the fox down as he dug out his backpack. "We should stock up on the maple syrup, too, while we're down there. What do you say? Young Wally didn't seem too happy knowing he had scarfed down a pound or two of opossum bacon. Maybe the next time they visit, we can have us some flapjacks!"
Cecil chittered happily. He enjoyed hikes. He bounded around the cabin gleefully as Ramón set to packing the things he needed to make the hike into town. The older man thought that maybe he's even pick up a newspaper and see what sort of things were happening in the world that required the kind of folks that dressed up in capes and masks to go fixing 'em up.
Yes indeed, he'd been away for entirely too long.
Whew! This took a while to complete. I'd written this no less than four times. I needed a bit of a break to clear my head and come at this fresh. I apologize for the long wait. I'll admit, I was tempted a few times to just call it complete with Chapter 32, since everyone was safe, together, and on the mend but I had promised an epilogue. This is far more mellow than the story before it but hopefully not boring for all that no one is in the process of dying.
I would really appreciate it if you could leave me a review, not only of the chapter, but also what you thought of the story in general. Honestly, it went on far longer than I expected. I had planned for this to end with 23 or 24 chapters, instead, we have 33. I hope the time you invested into the story was worth it. If you loved it, please consider reviewing and faving it. ;D
Oh, for any who are interested. There are several deleted chapters from this story in Collections 2: What The Hell Was I Thinking? that I wrote before I switched out Kaldur (who was in the original version) with Roy. You'd be surprised how it changes with just one character. I also tell you why I chose to delete the scene/chapter. And I just added the 1st version of the epilogue to the collection as well - It is the new entry for Chapter 24.
If you haven't read Jaborandi, you should take a look. It is a fast-paced story that I wrote for Black Friar's YJ writing contest when this one grew too big.
I am currently writing something that is a bit different from my usual fare but with my trademark angsty, dark edge that you've probably come to expect. The chapters are long, so more bang for your buck here. The beginning might throw you a bit but don't let that stop you . . . It has a bit of a buildup but it is soooo worth the effort. It is filled with violence, danger unlike any I've presented you before, hurt/comfort, DaddyBats! and last but not least - lots of humor! The theme is a familiar one you've seen before but I've created an original and complex plot with twists and surprises for you. The story has gone EPIC! And it's called "The End of Everything".