Author's note: Given the length of time which has passed since this story was last updated, there really is no apology, explanation or excuse that would be sufficient.
Luckily, I know that's not what you're here for. So I'll simply get out of the way and let things resume. (If you're truly curious, see my profile page.)
13. Of Those Lost
The young boy clung to the upper rungs of the simple rope ladder, his breath manifesting as little clouds around him in the chill winter air. The snow-covered ground below him, now bathed in cold silver moonlight, seemed much further away than he'd remembered it being.
"Joey…?" His mother's voice drifted toward him from the house. "It's time, everything's ready! Where are…oh! What are you doing up there? You have to come inside, we're waiting for you!"
"I know, Mommy," the boy answered. "I'm coming, I just…" he trailed off helplessly.
"Are you okay, sweetie?" she asked.
"Yes…!" he called back, with stubborn bluster.
But she didn't believe him. "Hold on, I'll come and…"
"It's okay, Addie," his father's voice cut in. "You stay with Grant, I'll bring him in." He heard the front door open and close, followed by the sound of his father's distinctive footsteps crunching through the snow, toward him.
"It's Christmas Eve, Joey," the boy heard him say. "Your brother's waiting to open your presents, and you know how impatient he is. We'd better hurry back inside, don't you think?"
"I know," the boy told him, twisting to look back over his shoulder. "But…I had to come out and get your present." It was a pine cone, but not just any pine cone…it was a giant pine cone, the biggest one he'd ever found, almost as big as a football! He'd hidden it in the tree house in their front yard, so his brother wouldn't find it and use it for a hand grenade or something, and he'd spent the whole week painting it with intricate patterns of blue and orange and purple and silver and gold. He wanted it to be really special, and it was finally ready, but…after he'd climbed up and stuffed it into his jacket, when he went to climb back down the rope ladder, it seemed like someone had moved the ground further away than it was yesterday.
Maybe Grant had done it, to get back at him for hiding the pine cone.
"Did you find it?" his father asked.
"Yes…" the boy hesitated.
"What's wrong, then?"
"Nothing…I just…" he trailed off. He didn't want Daddy to know that he was scared. But when he looked down at the ground, all he could think about was what would happen if he fell. "…I'm stuck."
"You're stuck?" his father repeated.
The boy swallowed. "Uh-huh."
"Can I help?"
The boy looked down at his father's face. "I'm too high," he squeaked. "You can't reach."
"Then, climb down."
"But…I can't move!" the boy protested.
His father smiled, but a look of resolute certainty settled into his clear, blue eyes. It was a look the boy had seen before, and it meant that whatever his father said next was going to happen, would happen, no matter what, simply because he said so.
"Yes, you can. You just don't want to. But that doesn't mean you can't. You simply have to decide that you will, even though you don't want to, because that's what has to happen."
"But…" the boy deflated, he knew there was no longer any arguing. "…What if I fall?"
His father laughed. "Then I'll catch you," he replied. "But you're not going to fall."
The boy blinked. "How…how do you know?"
His father's smile was one of irresistible confidence.
"Because you're my son."
The boy swallowed again. Finally, he gripped the rope ladder firmly, and took a step down to the next rung.
Jericho stepped off the last rung of the access ladder leading down from the old bunker, the salty updraft from the bottom of the huge elevator shaft whistling around him as he descended, and the heavy boots of his current host body making far too much noise on the metal grating for his taste. Although no one in the H.I.V.E.'s base had questioned his comings and goings as of yet, or even given him a second look for that matter, it still felt prudent to try to attract as little attention as possible.
"I still don't understand how you knew where to find it," Sebastian muttered in his borrowed ear, referring to the small remote detonator which was now tucked discretely inside the breastplate they currently shared.
The message my father left with you told me where to look, Jericho signed to himself, after quickly glancing around to confirm that there were no potential witnesses nearby.
"But the message was so maddeningly vague," Sebastian argued. "All he told me was that he planned to hide the detonator 'where one might store a very colorful Christmas gift'. How did that tell you to look in a tree, of all places? To say nothing of which one?"
Mentally, Jericho sighed. You wouldn't understand, even if I tried to explain it.
"Clearly not. Well, the important thing is that now we have it. So, what are you waiting for? Trigger the charges!"
Jericho would have frowned had he been able to control his host's facial muscles. As it was, he had to wait until he'd finished descending the next ladder, which he'd begun while Sebastian was talking, before he could respond.
Not yet. I need to figure out how I'm going to rescue the Titans, first. Not to mention my sister.
Sebastian made a decidedly contemptuous sound. "If you must. Just don't let it get in the way of our mission."
They are my mission! Jericho signed emphatically as he made his way around the shaft to the next access ladder. They're depending on me. On us. If we fail, who else will be left to help them?
Several hundred miles to the northeast, the front doors of the Jump City Public Library slid open, allowing the early morning sun to cast a wide beam into the entry foyer. One of the desk clerks looked up from her paperwork, but the cheerful greeting she'd been about to utter died on her lips as a long, demonic-looking shadow – complete with horns – fell across the floor.
A young, slender girl stepped through the doorway wearing a long-sleeved, gothic-style black dress with matching black and purple-striped tights. The glossy black platform boots she wore made her appear several inches taller than she actually was, but what truly set her apart was her chalk-white skin, her pink, cat-like eyes, and her cotton candy-pink hair which rose into a pair of horn-like protrusions on either side of her head, casting the ominous shadow across the floor in front of her.
The clerk fumbled with her desk phone. "Se…security!" she cried, her voice rising in a quickly escalating panic.
The girl called Jinx abruptly stopped, turning her head toward the direction of the sound, and heaved an exasperated sigh upon seeing the terrified clerk. She took a step toward the front desk, raising a hand in a calming gesture, only to have the clerk quickly duck out of view, apparently expecting a hex to the face.
Again Jinx stopped, her eyes shifting briefly from her outstretched hand to the clerk's now-empty chair and back again. Her frown deepening, she dropped her hand back to her side and stepped up to the desk, peering over it at the cowering clerk.
"Hey. Relax," she told the woman. "I'm just here to meet the guy in the yellow and red suit. That's all." She took the extra step of clasping her hands behind her back, both to assist with balance as she leaned forward, and also hopefully to minimize the clerk's hex-phobia.
Clearly still terrified, the clerk hesitantly peeked over the top of the desk at her. "You're…you're here for him?"
"That's what I said," Jinx confirmed, struggling to maintain what little patience she could muster.
"Are you going to fight?"
Jinx rolled her eyes so hard it hurt. "No, we're not going to fight." Or at least not the way you mean, she added silently. "I don't do that stuff anymore. I'm just here to meet him, okay? That's all."
The woman seemed unconvinced. Or at least that was the conclusion Jinx drew from the fact that she continued to cower behind the desk.
The pink-haired girl frowned, trying to contain her growing annoyance. "This is the part where you tell me where to find him," she prompted.
Slowly, the woman climbed to her feet, keeping a wary eye on Jinx the entire time. She reached for her desk phone again…but hesitated.
"You're sure you're not going to–"
"We're dating, okay?!" Jinx snapped, her patience at an end. "Not that it's any of your business."
The woman stared at her, mouth agape. "Really?"
Jinx responded with a withering stare that would have made Raven proud, until the clerk finally got the message and picked up her blasted phone.
"Hi, Lisa? Yes, um…could you, uh, give me a location for our special guest, please? …Yes, him. …Okay…downstairs, archives."
Jinx turned to leave, but the clerk suddenly held up a hand to stop her. "—No, wait, now he's on the ground floor, in the southwest corner…um, I mean, upstairs, in the northwest corner…er, that is, third floor, east wing…"
"Forget it, I'll find him myself," Jinx muttered as she walked away.
She made her way to the third floor, studiously ignoring the various patrons and library employees who flinched, hid, or physically dove for cover as she passed. After catching a brief glimpse of a yellow-and-red blur toward the back of the room, she followed it to what she was somewhat relieved to discover was an isolated corner behind a tall bookshelf, where her 'date' was seated at a small table, along with a large stack of books.
"Hey, you finally made it!" Kid Flash cheerfully greeted her, pausing for a brief second as he thumbed through a thick hardcover volume at dizzying speed.
Jinx scowled, casting a brief glance around to make sure they were alone before she sat down. "Yeah, I kind of got held up downstairs at the front desk. Speaking of which, why did…" She blinked, having just noticed the cover of his book. "Why are you reading medical textbooks?"
He reached the end of the book as she spoke, closed it with a decisive thump, and dropped it on the stack. "I've been here for, like, ten minutes. I ran out of other stuff to read. Oh, hey! That reminds me. About halfway through the science section, I started thinking about your powers."
"Huh?" Jinx blinked again, taken aback by the abrupt shift in the conversation's direction. "What about them?"
"Their mechanics, the way they work. Specifically, I think…hmm." He paused briefly, as if choosing his words. "I think they…selectively destabilize the molecules of objects, to a greater or lesser extent. That's the best explanation I've been able to come up with so far, anyway."
She frowned. "Why?"
"Why does it matter?"
Now it was his turn to blink. "Because! It's…interesting! It's a puzzle. Haven't you ever thought about it?"
She sighed. "Of course I have, but it always leads to the same conclusion. My powers make bad things happen. That's what it all boils down to, no matter how you look at it. Why do you want to overcomplicate it? How or why doesn't really matter, it doesn't change anything."
He regarded her with bemusement. "Why do you still insist on thinking about it that way, after everything that's happened? The way you stopped Madam Rouge cold wasn't a bad thing. Neither was what you did in Paris, against the Brotherhood. Or yesterday, with Mirror Master!"
"I suspect they might disagree."
He paused briefly. "Well yeah, but…see, they're bad people, who were in the process of doing bad things. Therefore, their disagreement actually reinforces my point!" He grinned.
Jinx's eyebrows drew together. "Okay, now you're really reaching." He opened his mouth to reply and she quickly forged ahead, eager to change the subject. "Why did you want to meet here, of all places, anyway?"
He gestured to his stack of books. "Figured it'd be a chance to catch up on some light reading while I waited. Plus it's quiet, peaceful, relatively private, all that good stuff…" He paused, as if finally noticing the depth of her scowl. "Wait. Is there a problem? You said you 'got held up' at the front desk, what was that about?"
She unconsciously sunk down into her seat a bit. "Well…the last time I was in this library, I…sorta leveled half the building."
He stared at her in amazement for a long moment. "Seriously?" Then he cast an appraising glance around the room. "Which half?"
"It's not funny!" she hissed, sinking down further into her chair, not wanting to attract any more attention.
"It's a little funny."
She shot him an exasperated look. "Hey, aren't you supposed to be the one who's trying to reform me?"
He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "C'mon, I'm just saying, I can't even tell. They've obviously fixed everything. And anyway, this was a while ago, right? I'm sure everybody's forgotten all about it. Especially after what you and Cyborg did last Halloween, with those giant pumpkin things."
She remained hunched in her chair, scowling. "I'm just worried they might try to bill me on our way out."
He almost chuckled at that, but caught himself just in time…luckily for him, she thought, given the current trajectory of her mood. "Well, y'know…we don't have to leave through the door." He cocked an eyebrow suggestively.
She ignored him. "Okay, seriously, you still haven't told me what we're even doing in this town, anyway. I was finally starting to get halfways comfortable in Keystone, and then all of a sudden you call me up last night like, 'Oh, hey, by the way, could you meet me back in Jump tomorrow morning? You know, that place where most of the town still views you as a dangerous, bloodthirsty criminal? That'd be fun, 'kay bye.'"
Now it was his turn to frown. "I never said any of that 'bloodthirsty criminal' stuff."
"You know what I mean," she grated through clenched teeth as she glared at him.
He sighed. "Okay, sorry, I should've thought about all that before we came here. I guess I was distracted, but I still should've thought of it. Anyway, Robin called me up last night from some island in the south Pacific where they've been on a mission since the day before yesterday, said it was gonna take longer than expected, and asked if we could check in on things at the Tower just to make sure it hasn't been blown up or taken over by Control Freak or anything crazy like that. So that's the deal."
Jinx blinked. "What are they doing in the south Pacific?"
He paused just long enough for her to notice it. "They're on a mission."
She scowled, feeling her annoyance flare back up again. "You said that already. What, is it a secret or something?"
He sighed in resignation. "Okay, fine. They're...going up against Brother Blood."
She stared at him for a second. "And, you didn't want to tell me that because…?"
He grimaced, throwing up a hand in frustration. "Same reason you're upset about meeting here. I know there's history involved."
"Yeah, history. Past tense. May as well be ancient history, as far as I'm concerned." Her eyes narrowed. "If you're worried about my loyalties—"
"Whoa, I did not say that," he interrupted. "Or think it. Nor would I. C'mon, you know that."
Something in his voice and his eyes made her pause, then swallow the rest of her retort.
Several long seconds passed between them, in silence.
"All I'm saying," she stated quietly, keeping her eyes fixed on the table, "is that maybe I could have helped, or something. They could have asked."
"Yeah..." he sighed, then broke into a knowing smirk. "But would you have asked them, if it were you?"
She felt the corner of her mouth twitch. She glanced up at him for a second, then back down at the table for a few more before finally meeting his eye. "…No."
His smile widened. "Guess we're all coming from the same place after all, then, huh." With that, he abruptly stood. "C'mon, let's head over there. And who knows, if they're still not back yet, maybe they'll end up needing a H.I.V.E. consultant before it's all said and done, anyway."
She sighed. "When you put it that way, I think I'd rather be struck by lightning."
As he turned to leave, she suddenly realized that under the table, she'd been unconsciously clutching the hem of her skirt with both hands since the moment he'd said Brother Blood's name. She immediately let go, mentally berating herself as she did for indulging in such a childish gesture of weakness.
Her fist pressed against the floor, teeth grinding and eyes squeezed shut, Starfire fervently attempted to envision herself somewhere else.
She had spent much of the past hour doing this. So far, it was not working. She could not escape this hateful confinement, not even within the boundaries of her imagination.
But she had to find a way, and soon. She had to free herself, and her friends, and not only for the sake of Raven's suffering and Cyborg's deteriorating condition. For the first time since her arrival on Earth, she was beginning to feel herself gradually slipping into the mindless, desperate rage that had fueled her escape from the Gordanians. And she could not allow that to happen again, not here, and not now. If it did, she knew she would very likely injure herself and, worse yet, probably harm her friends as well.
Opening her eyes, she scanned the room for the hundredth time, trying to find something else to focus her attention on. There were six H.I.V.E. troopers loitering in the room, evidently assigned to guard duty, and three Cyclone robots, one standing next to each of the room's exits. Just as there had been every other time she had looked.
Robin, Wonder Girl and Beast Boy were still imprisoned alongside her, each within their own hateful golden orb of energy. A short distance in front of them, Raven continued to thrash and spasm in that cruel, primitive metal cage. And Cyborg remained slumped in the corner, dark and motionless.
Starfire considered asking Beast Boy if his acute senses could discern any helpful information about Cyborg's condition. Most importantly, whether or not he was even still alive, at all. But seeing the expression on the green boy's face...she hesitated, and decided not to ask.
She was not sure she truly wanted to know the answer.
All of this was the Brother Blood's doing. His and the Psimon's. She suddenly found herself wanting to smash them into pieces, to blow them apart with starbolts, to beat them beyond recognition with their own severed limbs. To destroy them utterly.
And as for Slade, she felt neither pity nor sympathy for him, even if Robin did. He deserved what had happened to him, and in truth, she was glad that he was finally gone.
These thoughts were unsettling. They were not normal for her. But they were also not completely alien to her, and that was what truly frightened her. She had felt this way once before, and the prospect of reverting to that state filled her with shame and dread.
Though she tried to avoid them, unwanted memories of the Gordanians again returned to her. The things they had done to her during her captivity had been far more terrible than her friends had ever known, or would ever know. They had treated her like an animal. Their cruelty had made her an animal, mindless and savage, and it had been that animal who violently fought her way free of their imprisonment and escaped to Earth.
It was not until after she met Robin that she was able to remember her true self, and return to the way she wanted to be, instead of what had been forced on her. And she had sworn to herself, on that day, that she would never, ever be that animal again.
But the longer she sat in this prison, surrounded by the suffering of those for whom she cared the most...the more she felt the animal trying to claw its way out of her, once again. She had been trying to summon the righteous fury that would allow her to produce starbolts, but this was not what she had wanted. It was fury, true, but it did not feel righteous. And it was gradually, but steadily, growing more difficult to deny it.
As her friend suffered through yet another torturous electrical jolt a few feet away, Starfire suddenly found herself wondering if this was how Raven felt much of the time.
A quiet voice abruptly interrupted her thoughts...something for which she was thankful.
"Beast Boy. Starfire. Wonder Girl."
It was Robin. Robin's voice.
She looked up.
Robin, however, was not looking up. He was still looking down at the floor while he spoke. Probably to avoid attracting the guards' attention, she realized with embarrassment, and quickly directed her own gaze elsewhere...even though there was nowhere else she wanted to be looking. But she pushed that feeling aside and focused on his words.
"Earlier, when Wonder Girl tried to break free, she was nearly able to overload the generator powering these...things...by herself. I'll bet if all three of you were to make an effort, all at the same time, you could get loose.
"Even if it works, it'll take some time," Wonder Girl pointed out. "The guards are bound to notice."
"It might be worth the risk." Robin cast a meaningful glance in Cyborg's direction. "We could be running out of time."
"That is a pretty clever plan!" an unfamiliar, feminine voice suddenly interrupted.
Starfire looked around in bewilderment, as she saw her three friends doing the same. The guards were all too far away to have spoken the words they had all just heard, and besides which, none of them appeared to be—
A blurry green shape suddenly became visible next to Raven's cage, and quickly resolved itself into a figure leaning against the bars...wearing a green dress in what Starfire understood to be an Oriental style, and a white mask which resembled a grinning feline face.
Cheshire. Starfire had forgotten about her ability to camouflage herself in plain view.
"Unfortunately," she continued, "it won't work, since they already know about it. Still, it was a clever idea."
Starfire felt her teeth grinding in renewed frustration.
"Joining a religious cult isn't your usual M.O., Cheshire," Robin observed, ignoring her statement. "You're more of a blade for hire. What are you getting out of all this?"
"The usual," she replied with a shrug, both her posture and her tone of voice maddeningly relaxed, even casual, in such close proximity to Raven's ongoing torment. "The H.I.V.E. is paying me very well to be Brother Blood's errand girl, at least for the moment. It isn't complicated."
"Earning a living – or even just surviving – probably will be, in the world he's trying to create," Wonder Girl pointed out.
The girl in the cat mask shrugged again. "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. I'm nothing if not adaptable, but I'm sure your little database would have told you that, too."
"That's not very forward-thinking," Robin scowled. "You ought to reconsider your options. No amount of money will be worth how this whole mess is ultimately going to play out."
"You know, that's almost precisely what Slade said," she remarked, pushing away from Raven's cage to lean toward Robin's enclosure. "Practically word for word. You really were two of a kind, weren't you? And in any case, I'd say I've made out better than him, so far."
Starfire did not need to look at Robin to know that his expression darkened in response.
"Yeah, well, the game ain't over yet," Beast Boy growled. "We've come back from worse than this."
Cheshire laughed, which made her grinning mask look all the more deranged. "This game was over before it began. It ended the minute you decided to trust Slade, and follow him here. From that point on, they've known every move you were going to make before you did. Which reminds me of the reason I came up here in the first place...say, boys?"
The guards looked up attentively.
"If our guests decide to try some daring escape plan..." Cheshire instructed them, "...say, for example, a cooperative effort to overload the power generator...Psimon says to execute them." She nodded toward Robin. "Starting with bird-boy, here."
With that, she turned to leave. But then she stopped, as if remembering some final detail, and turned back to Robin again.
"Oh, I almost forgot...I was going to ask you to say hi to Speedy for me, the next time you see him. But given the way things are looking now...I kind of doubt that you're actually going to be alive long enough to do that. So, it looks like I'll probably end up passing along your greeting, instead." She emitted a mocking-sad sigh. "Oh well, I guess that's life...or not. In either case, ciao!"
As Cheshire walked out of the room, passing one of the Brother Blood's personal guards on her way out, Starfire was quite certain that the fury she now felt rising in her belly was most definitely not righteous.
But it may have to do.
Strangely, the white-armored guard who'd just entered the room stopped just inside the doorway and simply stood there, staring at the floor in the middle of the room, as if having suddenly noticed something important. The H.I.V.E. guards took notice of this also, and after several seconds one of them got up and began walking toward the new arrival.
"This is our chance," Robin suddenly said in a low voice, his expression grim as he shot a meaningful glance at each of his friends in turn. "You guys ready?"
"What?!" Starfire exclaimed, nearly forgetting to keep her voice at a low volume. "But, Robin, what the Cheshire said-!"
"They will kill you as soon as we try to break free," Wonder Girl whispered, indicating the proximity of the five remaining guards with a nod of her head.
"It might be the only way for the rest of you – for any of us – to get out of this," Robin grimly insisted. His expression was as resolute as Starfire had ever seen him, and in light of his words, she found that highly distressing. "I mean it. This is it. I'm giving you a direct—"
Beast Boy's head abruptly shot up, his eyes wide, as the H.I.V.E. trooper exchanged greetings with the white-armored guard on the other side of the room. "Wait! Guys! Hold up!" he hissed urgently. "That dude, over there! That's—"
Aside from his mother's perfume and Mr. Wintergreen's cologne, the most prominent smell in the funeral home was a faint, musky scent of wood finish. Joseph Wilson supposed that made sense, all things considered, and was most likely preferable to the alternative. The room felt cold, but he wasn't quite sure if it was because of the outside temperature, or simply because that was how he felt.
He stood between his mother and his older brother, as he had many other times on many other formal, and often solemn occasions. Only this time, his mother was gripping his sleeve and sobbing quietly, while his brother lay in a polished oak casket, silent, cold and lifeless.
Joey stared down at Grant's face, his artistic eye subconsciously tracing every line, every crease, trying to memorize every last detail. The way his long hair cascaded down to his shoulders in waves of gold, exactly the same hue as Joey's own, shorter curls. And his expression, so much more peaceful and serene than it had ever been in life.
Meanwhile, his conscious mind was engaged in a desperate but ultimately futile struggle to deny the truth before him: his brother was dead. And no amount of denial or prayer or wishing or crying was going to change that fact.
It was true that their lives had taken divergent paths and gradually pulled them further and further apart, especially in the last few years; ever since Joey's 'accident'. But even so...Grant was his older brother. He'd never known life, never even considered life without him. And now he was never going to see him, nor be seen by him, never going to hear him laugh, or yell, or tell a bad joke ever again.
He was really, truly gone. And he never even got to say goodbye. Never got to tell him how much he'd always admired and looked up to him, how grateful he was for the things he'd learned from him...and now, he never would.
He heard the door to the sanctuary behind them open, and suddenly, his mother's hand left his shoulder and he felt her stiffen and bristle. "How dare you show your face here," she growled.
"I have just as much right to be here as you do. He was my son, too, after all."
Upon hearing the voice, Joey froze. His hand unconsciously went to the scar on his throat. It was years old and well-healed, at least on the surface, but that fateful night had been the last time he'd heard his father's voice…until this moment.
Turning, he wasn't quite sure exactly what he expected to see. He only knew that it was nothing like the sight which now greeted him.
His mother had left his side at the casket and was now confronting a man in the doorway, knuckles white, her anger palpable to Joey from across the room and with her back to him. As for the man, he towered over the short, trim brunette, but that was of little concern – Joey had seen his mother incapacitate men three times her size, with minimal effort. The long coat he wore was slightly damp from the rain outside, his gloved hands clasped at his waist in a posture that looked deliberately, inappropriately relaxed in the face of his mother's barely-restrained fury. His height, broad shoulders and obviously athletic build fit his father's silhouette as Joey remembered it, but beyond that...he was nearly unrecognizable.
"I've merely come to pay my respects," he said then, and his unmistakable voice instantly confirmed his identity.
Joey couldn't believe how much his father had changed. Of course there was the patch covering his right eye, now, and the jagged, vertical scar running up the side of his face underneath it. But that was the least of it. The young man had last seen him only a few years earlier, but his father appeared to have aged decades. His neatly-trimmed goatee was now a full beard, and his handsome, sculpted features had become weathered, and hardened into something much more intimidating – and he had always been an imposing figure.
Most startling of all was the fact that his hair, which had been the same golden hue as that of his sons, was now pure white. Not graying, not even silver, but white. And the color of his remaining eye, which had once been a deep, brilliant shade of blue, had somehow faded to a dull, cloudy gray.
"'Respect'?" Mother spat. "Is that supposed to be a joke? We both know the only people you 'respect' are the ones who pay you to murder, and that your 'professional reputation', in their eyes, is the only thing that's truly important to you. To pretend to care about your sons now is insulting; you never cared about them before."
"That is not true," Father said slowly, in a quiet, steady voice.
"Your words mean nothing," she continued, her voice dripping with contempt. "Your actions have proven that. That one of our sons would have to die before you'd even attempt to reach out to us—"
"It was out of respect," Father interrupted, his voice still even, "that I maintained my distance after the...incident. Respect for you, Adeline."
"You liar!" she snarled, her anger threatening to boil over. "Don't you dare try to turn this back on me! You lied to me for years, Slade. Years! About your job...about what you'd become...about everything. That isn't respect. It's an insult."
"I'm giving that up," he said quietly, maintaining steady eye contact with her. Joey didn't think he'd even noticed that he was there, yet.
"I...don't...care," Mother hissed, drawing out her words for maximum effect. "Even if I did believe you, which I don't. Too little, too late. Our son is dead. Nothing you say or do can change that. And for what? Simply because he wanted to be like his father, without any thought as to what that really meant."
For the first time, Joey saw cracks beginning to show in his father's tightly controlled expression. A flash of anger in his eye, a flaring of his nostrils, a twitch at the corner of his mouth.
Mother's voice dropped to a deadly whisper, but he could still hear her from where he stood. "Oh, and let me tell you. I will be looking into this personally, and very, very carefully. And if I find even the slightest hint of your name anywhere remotely near it, so help me, I will finish what I started with your eye."
At that, Father's eye narrowed. He abruptly reached into his coat, pulled out a handgun, chambered a round and then offered it to her, handle first.
"Why wait...?" he hissed, in a tone of voice Joey had never heard him use before, low, smooth, and menacing. "Here's your chance, Addie. Do it now, if you truly mean to."
"Don't...tempt...me," she growled through clenched teeth.
Suddenly, Mr. Wintergreen stepped between them. Joey had been so focused on his parents that he'd nearly forgotten he was present.
"Forgive me, Sir," he said, his voice quiet but stern, "but I think it would be best if you were to leave, now."
Father's expression darkened, his gaze shifting between the two people standing before him. "You too, Wintergreen...?"
Several tense seconds passed in silence as the three of them stood there in the doorway, none of them willing to give any ground.
Finally, Father appeared to deflate. "Very well..." he sighed, put away his gun, and turned to leave.
Joey exhaled, having only just realized he'd been holding his breath ever since the gun came out.
As he opened the door, Father stopped for a moment, and looked back over his shoulder at Mother.
"You should know, Adeline," he said, "that this was your final chance for resolution. I will never give you another opportunity."
She shook her head in amazement. "If you honestly thought there was any way we could ever possibly be a family again, after all you've done—"
"You know that's not what I meant."
And with that, he was gone.
Jericho stood and stared at the spot on the floor, near Raven's cage, where his father had died. He found his thoughts pulled, almost unwillingly, back to the last real memory he had of him. Not as the Titans' hated enemy, but as the father he'd lost.
And lost he was. Like Grant, now Father was really, truly gone, and this time, forever. He would never see him again, there was no question about it. There would never be an opportunity to ask him why he'd made the choices he'd made, why he'd done the things he'd done, or to tell him how much he'd hurt the people who loved him most, how angry he'd been at him, and for how long. He would never have the chance to say the things he'd rehearsed in his mind a thousand times over the years.
Any hopes he might have privately held out, however faint, for understanding or reconciliation were now lost. And just as with his brother, he was never able to say goodbye to him, either.
"Hail, Brother Sebastian," said the H.I.V.E. trooper who was suddenly standing in front of him. "Is there something you need?" he asked.
Jericho started, having momentarily forgotten that he wasn't in his own body, even as 'his' mouth spoke of its own volition. "I've come to relieve you," Sebastian told the guard.
Over the guard's soldier, Jericho saw Beast Boy's head suddenly snap up in recognition of Sebastian's voice.
The guard paused, frowning. "Really? I wasn't informed of...oh! Is this because the disposal team hasn't reported back yet?"
"That's right," Sebastian answered without missing a beat. "Go and find them."
The guard saluted and Jericho returned the gesture in kind, then he took up a position near the door, trying to look nonchalant, as the guard left the room through the doorway on the opposite wall. He was peripherally aware of Beast Boy whispering to the other Titans, and hoped the remaining guards wouldn't notice.
"What's wrong with you?!" Sebastian hissed in his ear.
Jericho paused to make sure the other guards in the room weren't looking before he answered, and even then, he took care to sign into his hand as subtly as he could.
Sorry. I...forgot where I was, for a second.
"How could you forget such a thing?! What are you, some sort of mental incompetent?"
Jericho would have scowled in annoyance, had he been able to. Normally, when I'm in another person's body, I'm aware of their mind; their thoughts, their memories, and that's a constant reminder that I'm 'not myself'. But since yours are hidden from me, it's...different. And also...
He hesitated, his eyes again drawn to that spot on the floor. Sebastian noticed this, since those eyes were also his.
"I thought you hated your father."
That doesn't mean I wanted to see him dead.
"Why not?" Sebastian sounded genuinely confused. "I hate my father, and thus, I fully intend to kill him. It's only natural."
Jericho winced inwardly. Not for me.
"Then you're weak."
With a sinking feeling, Jericho began to understand why Rose – his sister, he had to keep reminding himself – had said what she had about this boy. But he couldn't let himself be distracted by that, he had to focus.
There were now five H.I.V.E. troopers and three Cyclone androids remaining in the room. If the Titans were freed, he had no doubt that they could overcome them with relative ease. The only remaining question was...
I don't suppose you'd happen to know where my father would have planted his charges, exactly?
"He didn't tell me, precisely. But I strongly suspect his primary targets would have been the main power generators on levels five and six, so as to cripple the base's infrastructure while also causing maximum confusion and chaos."
Jericho found himself unconsciously nodding. That sounds like the approach he'd take, yes. He cast an appraising glance toward the translucent spheres of energy containing his friends. So, with any luck...setting off the charges will also free the Titans!
"Spectacular," Sebastian snapped impatiently. "Does that mean you're finally ready to get on with it?"
One of the most important lessons Jericho had learned, from both his parents, had been to never surrender to impatience. Even so, he had to concede that there seemed to be no better time than the present. So rather than answer, once he was sure the H.I.V.E. troopers weren't watching him, he simply reached for the device.
"One final thing," Sebastian whispered as he did so. "Remember, even after your friends are released, do not jump bodies again until both Brother Blood and Psimon have been dealt with. We must not reveal ourselves until the moment is right."
Though a bit puzzled by his host's choice of words, Jericho gave a quick nod as his hand closed around the detonator, recalling that only Sebastian was immune to both villains' psychic influence.
Bracing himself, he pressed the button.
At first, nothing happened. For one second, there was silence. Then two. Jericho began to wonder, to his horror, is this had somehow been yet another of his father's cruel tricks.
Then he felt, as much as heard, a series of low booms from somewhere below them, rapidly escalating in both number and volume.
The lights went out, abruptly plunging the room into near-total darkness, and at roughly the same time the floor physically jumped upward several inches, and then fell several more, knocking Jericho off his - and Sebastian's - feet. Even after that, the room continued to shake and pitch violently, and the panicked shouts of both the H.I.V.E. guards and the other Titans were drowned out by a deafening shriek of metal being torn apart, which seemed to reverberate throughout the entire mountain.
After several long seconds of darkness, a series of emergency lights lining the walls along the floor and ceiling flared to life, illuminating the room once again, though much more dimly than before. The ringing in Jericho's ears gradually reduced itself to a distant alarm wailing from somewhere, and shaking his head to clear it, he saw the H.I.V.E. troopers and Cyclones climbing unsteadily back to their feet. He could already smell smoke, and given the fact that the base's main generators were several floors – which translated into several hundred feet – below them, the damage inflicted by the charges must have been truly terrible.
He also saw, to his dismay, that the Titans were still imprisoned within those spheres of golden energy, save for Raven, who was still thrashing about in that metal cage.
"Of course...they're on a separate generator," Sebastian growled. "That large machine, against the opposite wall? See the wires connecting both the spheres, and the Gem's collar to it. We are going to have to destroy that, you and I."
Before Jericho could ask how he was supposed to single-handedly take down the five H.I.V.E. troopers and three Cyclones standing between him and the generator, his host began barking orders.
"You lot! Go and find out what just happened, immediately! I'll keep watch over the prisoners."
The troopers hesitated, exchanging uncertain glances amongst themselves.
"What are you waiting for?!" Sebastian practically exploded, the sudden ferocity in his voice startling even Jericho. It seemed to spur the guards into action as two of them obediently hustled out of the room, along with two of the three Cyclones.
"...And you?" he demanded of the three who remained, after a moment's pause. "Why do you yet stand before me?"
"Psimon specifically ordered us not to abandon our post under any circumstance," the nearest trooper answered, "no matter what happened."
"And what if Brother Blood bade you to go...?" Sebastian growled, his voice taking on an increasingly threatening tone. "With whom does your allegiance lie?"
Jericho's grip tightened on Sebastian's spear. He may not have possessed Rose's powers of foresight, but he did have enough training and personal experience to sense when a fight was coming.
The guards, in turn, gripped their rifles. One of them took a step forward and spoke, but whatever he said was drowned out by what sounded like a thunderclap, inside the room.
Wonder Girl had begun pounding on the walls of her enclosure again, and with renewed vigor, each blow sounding more forceful than the one before it. Beside her, Starfire unleashed a focused beam of energy from her eyes which sizzled and sparked and burned white-hot as it warred against the energy surrounding her. And Beast Boy...Jericho couldn't quite tell exactly what he was trying to transform into, but whatever it was, it was far too big for the confined space he was limited to.
All eyes turned to the prisoners, and to the power generator against the wall, which began to make an alarming grinding noise. Raising their weapons, the H.I.V.E. troopers began shouting various threats at the Titans.
"Here is our chance," Sebastian hissed in Jericho's ear. "Quickly, slay them!"
Ignoring his host's bloodthirsty outburst, the mute Titan quickly reversed his grip on the spear and delivered a carefully aimed blow with the butt end of the weapon to the head of the nearest H.I.V.E. guard, knocking him senseless. His two comrades whirled around in alarm as the unconscious body sprawled to the ground at their feet, but of greater concern was the Cyclone, which had already marked Jericho as an enemy and was advancing toward him, bring its sonic cannon to bear.
Jericho dodged to the side, buying himself an extra half-second as the Cyclone turned to track him. As it did so, he hefted the spear above his shoulder and threw it javelin-style, hoping that he was aiming for the right place. The weapon pierced the android's head and it staggered briefly, then toppled over backwards and did not move again, indicating that its CPU was indeed located in its cranium.
Before Jericho could even feel relieved at his luck the second guard leapt toward him, aiming to bash his head in with the butt of his rifle. Still slightly off-balance from throwing the spear, the mute Titan's evasive options were limited and he only had time to throw up an arm in a desperate attempt to shield himself. Fortunately, Sebastian's armor absorbed much of the impact, sparing him the broken bones he'd have likely sustained otherwise. Meanwhile, the other remaining guard was backing toward the doorway next to the generator, and appeared to be angling for a clean shot.
"So don't give him one." Jericho smiled inwardly, glad that for once the voice in his head was not Sebastian's but his mother's, remembered from countless self-defense lessons. He heeded her words, quickly launching himself back at the guard who'd attacked him, making sure to keep him between himself and the other trooper as they struggled.
As for his opponent, he attempted to take aim with his own rifle, allowing Jericho the opening he needed to swat the weapon out of his hands. As it clattered to the floor somewhere off to the side, the guard countered with a haymaker, which Jericho easily avoided despite the weight of Sebastian's cumbersome armor. He caught the trooper in a chokehold as he swung past him, and then simply held on until he felt the man go limp.
The Titan then turned to the final remaining guard, still holding on to his comrade as a potential human shield, but stopped short as he saw that the trooper was no longer aiming his weapon at him...he now had it leveled at the other Titans, who were still trapped in their golden prisons.
"Psimon was right!" the guard shouted, seeing his hesitation. "You are with them! Surrender, now, or they die."
"The throwing knives at my belt," Sebastian told Jericho calmly. "You can kill him before he finishes them all."
Jericho balked. The thought was repellant to him. It was not what he'd been taught, and perhaps more importantly, it definitely was not the Titans' way.
"Don't listen to him," Robin said urgently. For a wild second, Jericho wondered who he was referring to.
The H.I.V.E. trooper took aim. As he did so, a tall, armored figure emerged from the shadows of the doorway behind him, its hands reaching toward his head. A single practiced, efficient twist and the guard's gun fell to the floor, followed by his corpse.
Jericho stood and stared in complete and utter disbelief. Not at what had just been done, but at who had done it. He was dimly aware that the other Titans had ceased their attempts to free themselves, evidently just as thunderstruck as he was.
"That's...that's impossible," he heard Robin say.
Their apparent savior stepped over the guard's body, and fully into the light.
"I don't expect any of you will be especially happy to see me," sighed Slade.
Author's note: The Halloween incident mentioned during the discussion between Kid Flash and Jinx is a reference to The Phiend's superb story, Shadow Play. You should check it out.