Friday, January 30, 2015

Gaithersburg Stole

I have a bad habit of browsing Amazon under my husband's account and then adding things to his wish list because I'm too lazy (or I forget) to log in as myself.  (Besides, he's the one with Amazon Prime, so...)

Somewhere else on the Internet (probably Ravelry) I discovered a link to this book:
Amazon listing here.

I put it on his wish list for later; I don't actually have many physical crochet books, and the ones I do have are stitch-teaching guides with small projects in them that I would never do (like wire crochet for jewelry).

So when my wonderful in-laws were looking for Christmas gifts on the Panda's Amazon list, they knew that this book hadn't been put on the list by their son.  They bought it for me, along with a $50 gift card to Hobby Lobby...which is where I purchased the yarn for this:

The only problem with this picture is that I'm a derp.
This is the wrong side of the finished piece.

This is the Gaithersburg Stole pattern from somewhere in the middle of the book, and I crocheted it with Hobby Lobby's I Love This Yarn!  in Royal.  It took me 4.5 skeins of yarn, and I did not do the tassels originally pictured:

It's nothing personal against the pattern; I just know my personal propensity to drag things through dirt, leaves, etc.  Fringe attracts all sorts of stuff, and if I ever had to wash the piece...I can't imagine the nightmare.

So, I chose to do a different edging:

This is the Pom Pom Edge pattern by Robin Sanchez.

This is a gorgeous wrap, and I made it specifically for Shadowmoor (my LARP chapter), as blue is one of my guild colors.  But it's fancy enough to wear for work and I've received compliments both times I've brought it in.  (Would you believe they keep the AC on in my building year-round?)

Of course, making this stole for myself was the primary reason I haven't done much work on Guude...but I'm recovering!  I did his hands last night, so maybe I'll be able to assemble his arms today!

In any case, have a great weekend, and craft on!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Groots Galore

I promise I haven't been idle, beyond my obvious propensity to play LotRO over the weekend!  I recently shipped two orders out from my Etsy store, and the one for Canada had a little extra surprise in it.

You might remember the post I did before Christmas about the Baby Groot.

He proved to be quite the popular little fellow when I put him up on my Facebook page, and I had requests to make more and sell them in my Etsy store.

Unfortunately, licensing issues occur and all that legal fiddle-faddle, so that's never going to happen.

I did, however, make a second one for a friend of the Panda's up in Ohio:

A surprise for his wife, so I haven't posted it on Facebook.

And although I'm not ready to release all the details, I made a third Groot who is now somewhere in Canada:

I added a few extra rounds this time, as an experiment.

I can totally give Baby Groot out as a gift, and nobody's the wiser.  Plus, if I include them as bonuses in shipments I do, I can simply say, "They're unsellable due to copyright issues.  It's a gift; enjoy!"

I've cleaned up a few other projects in my Ravelry list, and had the pleasure of going back to working on Guude last week.  I hope to do more of that tonight before LotRO with DSCA and Deevius!

The to-do list:

1)  Guude plushie
2)  VintageBeef plushie
3)  Enderman
4)  Purple & black scarf
5)  Minecraft Cake Pillow (v2.0!)

...and then all of the new Facebook Art Trades for 2015!  I'm really looking forward to them!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Weekend Activities: Lord of the Rings Online

Context:  It isn't often that when somebody asks you, "So what did you do this weekend?" that you can reply with:

"Oh, I escaped from Isengard this weekend.  How 'bout you?"

But that's totally what I did.

And I had to break out before tonight (Monday night) in order to meet my kinswomen in Rohan for our weekly questing.  I'm showing up in my prison clothes.  And I'm guessing I have explaining to do.

I wanted to share the summation I e-mailed to my friend Drew about the entire affair.  Please bear in mind that this was originally a communication between Tolkien nerds!

What did I do this weekend…prepare for the epic.

Well, on Friday I discovered a few cosmetic items in LotRO that I wanted, and they were part of the Epic Quest line…and I wasn’t too far away from getting them…or so I thought…

Plus, I logged in to find that 1) I was furthest behind in levels at 76, and 2) it was bonus crafting XP weekend, and I had some crafting I needed to do for the level 30 characters we’re going to be starting soon.
But I didn’t read far enough ahead in the quest chain to learn what was coming.

When I last did epic quests, we had rallied the Rangers of the North together, led by Halbarad to help supplement Aragorn’s forces.  We were also entering negotiations with the Dunlendings, specifically the Falcon Clan, to have them join our side in the war.  So, the Rangers (Saeradan, Corunir, Lothrandir, Braigiar, Golodir, Radanir, Halbarad, Daervunn, Calenglad, Prestadir, Candac—to name a few), whom I’ve met and have bailed out of trouble more times than I can count, in addition to Elladan and Elrohir, are all abroad in Dunland.  Most are in the Falcon Clan village, helping with day-to-day tasks.

While they were doing that, DSCA, Deevius, and I sojourned in Rohan for awhile.  We obtained our warsteeds and are still working on controlling them, performing quests in that land.

Saturday, I decided to go back and pursue the EQs alone.  I did some quests in the Gravenwood, where Prince Theodred was encamped.  With him, he had Saeradan, distantly elsewhere in the wood were a couple more Rangers.  No trouble; I assisted them with gathering intelligence; I even made it to the Gap of Rohan and found another Ranger encampment within the Ring, held by Dagoras.

But then I received word that Lothrandir and I were to question the captive Lheu Brenin (leader of the Falcon Clan) had in his dungeon.  I thought nothing of it; I had questioned him before, as he was one of Saruman’s emissaries.


Figurative back-stabbing and literal betrayal took place in the dungeon, and the next thing I knew, I had been carted off to Isengard with Lothrandir.  They separated us—Saruman was taking no chances with Lothrandir.  And I warned him:  "You're going to regret not killing me. Because I'm coming for you."

Meanwhile, I was put to work in the depths, shackled and being bossed around by Uruk-Hai.  I had to clean up slop in the kitchen, empty the slop bucket…you get the idea.  Every once in awhile, surly Uruks would try to attack me, and then my Uruk-Hai “guardian” would help me fight them off.  I ended Saturday down in the dungeons, after learning that one of the prisoners down there used to be the Steward of Isengard.  He had been betrayed by Wormtongue, and wanted to tell me his story.

(Needless to say, I couldn’t quest with DSCA and Deevius tonight while LOCKED IN ISENGARD.)

Sunday, I listened to Acca’s story (and took pictures of Isengard before it fell into shadow).  Acca, another Rohirrim prisoner, and I put together an escape plan.  I cleaned up weapons in the foundry, all while pocketing pinches of black powder.  I then went to the surface and planted the black powder around the gears of one of the war machines.

Once that was accomplished, I stole the keys from an Uruk-Hai jailor and was on my way to let Acca and the Rohirrim out, when I was stopped by Dunlendings that were also being held captive.  As much as I had plans to raze the Falcon Clan’s village to the ground, nobody deserves to die in Isengard.  So I let them out…turns out there were at least a dozen of them.

The Rohirrim instructs them to make their way to the surface in small groups, so as not to attract attention.  While one of us sets off the powder charges, everyone else escapes through an overlooked passage that Acca told us about.  Acca volunteered to be the one to do it; he said his home was Isengard…not like us, who had lives outside of this place.

Well…the Uruk guarding the war machine got suspicious, and beat Acca to death.  The Rohirrim told me to keep the Uruk busy while he set off the explosions.  In the resulting chaos, we made it out and as far as the Gravenwood, but the Rohirrim did not survive to reach Theodred’s camp.  I went on alone, only to find that Radanir had made it to the encampment, to report on Lheu Brenin’s treachery.  He and Braigiar had escaped the dungeon together, but in their escape, they were both mobbed and Braigiar died.  Prince Theodred promised us that he would take his men and make a forward encampment outside the village.  With him he took two lieutenants, two soldiers, and one elderly Dunlanding woman. Though injured, Radanir came, too.

I went with them, and started prepping the village to be taken by Theodred and his men.  I disabled their traps, stole provisions, reclaimed Braigiar’s body from where it was left in the streets…and slaughtered as many of those traitors as I came across.  At first I was just going to kill as many of them as it took to get the provisions and get Braigiar…but along the way I acquired bloodrage tunnel vision.

Anyway.  Then Theodred, his lieutenants, and I went to free the remaining Rangers in the dungeon.  Once freed, Golodir told me to make haste; Lheu Brenin had taken Halbarad and the sons of Elrond below. 

(As an aside, you have to understand: I’m from Rivendell.  I grew up with Elladan and Elrohir.  I’m like the idiot little kid from down the street that grows up and leaves town and everybody breathes a sigh of relief.  And here was my chance to save the princes of my homeland.  My cuddlemuffins, as I call them. To make a My Little Pony reference: I am Derpy Hooves.)

To the battle cry of, “I’m coming, snugglemuffins!” I charged off to free these men.  I arrived in the lower dungeon level to find that they had completely subdued all three guards and had handily saved themselves.  -_-;;

The four of us go chasing off after Lheu Brenin, whom we find standing on a narrow stone bridge, with the remainder of the Falcon Clan behind him.  And then he monologues about how we have lost this day.  He and his people have the maze of tunnels below the dungeon memorized, and there’s no way we can follow.  And now we have to go abroad and tell the story about how we were bested by the Falcon Clan.  And if it weren’t for Halbarad telling me ‘no’, I would totally have charged in and thrown Lheu Brenin off of that bridge.

Thus, we retreated.  Back at Theodred’s camp in the Gravenwood, Halbarad made the decision to send me with Theodred into Rohan, to hold the Ford of Isen against Saruman’s forces.

(To give you context, I’ve been helping out the Rangers since Level 20.  I’m level 78 now.)

To be told that I needed to say my goodbyes because my journey with them was over was *very* sad.  But in particular, Saeradan:

“Halbarad told me his decision, and I will not speak against it. But I will miss you, Keywen, and I wish you might still travel with us.”

'You have a skill beyond strength of arms or the reach of knowledge, Keywen. You find friends wherever you tread, and where they cannot be found you make them with kindness and generosity. Halbarad does not realize how close he came to spending the rest of his days in the prison-caves of Tûr Morva, but I do.”

“Consider this, my friend, and do not forget it: Prince Théodred was at this camp for days before you escaped from Isengard and held council with me. But he did not move to rescue my kin until he spoke with you. Nay, do not console me! I am not ashamed. Your ability to rally people to your side is yours alone, and it is a power you must not forget. It has saved many lives already, and I know it will again.”

And then Corunir:

“You are leaving us now? How can this be Halbarad's decision?”

*Corunir stares at his feet for a short moment before he meets your gaze again.*

“I suppose the Prince of Rohan has need of you. I cannot blame Halbarad for wanting you to help hold the fords of the Isen. I think your tale of the army Saruman is preparing within Isengard shook him deeply, and if that crossing is lost then the kingdom of Rohan will surely follow.  We have been through a great deal, Keywen, have we not? It seemed we would stay within the musty library of Zudrugund with Nár and Frithgeir for the rest of our days, did it not?”

But it was Radanir who finally made my elf eyes tear up:

“Sit with me a moment, Keywen. I know you are leaving us, and that Théodred has need of you at the fords. That is the way of it, is it not? We go where we are needed. The Grey Company owes its freedom to you and to the Prince of Rohan, and this is how Halbarad seeks to repay the debt to Théodred. Perhaps he thinks our debt to you is too deep to repay so easily?”

*Radanir raises an eyebrow and subjects you to close scrutiny.*

“Once this is all over, if such a thing is possible, you and I will meet at some tavern in some peaceful land, and I will buy you a drink and you will buy me three, and we will remember this day and laugh at our cares.”

All. The. FEELS.

I was a wreck.  (This was the quest that had the items I wanted, too.  Little did I know the cost.)

And finally, Halbarad’s last words:

“I am not one for long farewells, my friend. Know that you are one of us, with ties not of blood but rather strengthened by blood: the blood of our foes. Our roads entwined this far, and may do so again, but for now it is the time of leave-taking.”

“Keywen, it has been an honour to travel with you. The Grey Company owes you much and more.”


*long, heavy sigh*

And then I hauled my cute elven butt back to where I last saw DSCA and Deevius.  Still in my prison outfit.

And that…is what I did this weekend.

If you decide to try The Lord of the Rings Online experience, you'll find me and my kinship on the Arkenstone server.  Though it has it's flaws, we Tolkien fangirls have been thoroughly enjoying touring Middle-earth as the biggest bunch of rednecks you've ever seen.  I encourage you to come and try it out!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Crochet Test: Kitty Puff

If any of you follow BlameTheController on his livestreams (and I'm not saying you must), you might have picked up on his sewing projects of the catblobs.

For the other 98% of you, BTC owns two large cats, which he affectionately calls his catblobs.  Lately, he's been sewing/making (okay, I don't watch the livestreams, but I see screenshots on Twitter) stuffed blobs that could be classified as slightly creepy:

KeishaMaKainn (one of the builders from the Broken Buttons) posted an adorable picture in our team Skype chat with what she had thought the plushies were going to look like:

Well, this looks like a crochet project in the making...

Here's the result from my first attempt:

Clearly smaller, and the ears need work.

In relation to a Minecraft plushie:

So tiny!  But yet, at home.

So the ears were taken from an amigurumi wolf pattern, which might be part of the problem.  I made them smaller, but I don't like the way the base of the ears taper where they get sewn on, so I need to find a more feline-looking alternative.

Also, I would prefer to make the body bigger, but I was playing with the last few yards of a skein, and didn't want to run out.

So, look for Kitty Puff 2.0 sometime in the future...

One last close-up:

Aww, so cozy!

Don't worry, I'll be back with more Minecraft plushies before you know it!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fanfic: Batman Beyond

In this previous post, I talked about why I write fanfiction.  Lately, I've been appreciating Dragon Age: Origins, and have posted a few fanfiction journal entries here on this blog (and only here).  Small, encapsulated works are probably better for me, since I have a noted problem of finishing anything.

Also, I have recently watched quite a bit of Supernatural, and might take a short detour into the land of Winchesters and '67 Impalas to express my thanks to that fandom for the sillier episodes (I don't watch the really scary ones...).

But, there are plenty of other fandoms I've appreciated in the past that never made it to my page, and instead they sit in my Google Drive, where from time to time I peruse them for my own enjoyment.

Allow me to share one of these with you today: Batman Beyond and Justice League.

(It should be noted that the primary original character in the following got her start here, in the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers fandom.  Also, these are snippets, not a complete fanfiction.)

Enjoi!  ^_^

==  <>  ==

Terry didn’t even bother with the evening news report; he had a project and an essay to try and rush through before his phone could ring. His mother left the news on when she was working in the kitchen, and at the moment she was checking the weather report which flashed up on the screen’s sidebar every eight minutes.

“...and in other news today,ChronoWorks has called a press conference to unveil what they are calling a ‘breakthrough’ in time stream manipulation. Several foreign companies have expressed an interest in the remarkable new technology, and CEO Norris Blackwell had this to say…”
His mother turned the volume down as Matt came out of his bedroom. “Mom, can I watch Metrazoid? I finished my homework.”

Terry sighed a little under his breath. Oh for the days when homework was merely a ten-minute formality as opposed to actual work.

“Sure,” his mother replied somewhat absently as the news report went on to discuss the opening of a new public attraction--it sounded like a large greenhouse or something. Terry really wasn’t paying attention. His mind was already at work framing a thesis statement for the essay, “What dominant motifs demonstrate the protagonist’s inner struggle in Eyewitness Murder?” He’d never even liked the early 2000s authors, but he’d had to pick a book, and that one had been the shortest.

“I’ll be working in my room,” Terry said to the room in general, privately hoping that he’d have at least two hours to himself before the usual evening crime wave began.

“Okay, honey,” his mother said, shutting off the news. “I’ll call you for dinner.”

==  <>  ==

Meanwhile, the lead project engineer of ChronoWorks’ newest, most popular discovery was burning the midnight oil. The numbers had to be exactly right, down to last thousandth of a place. Dr. Connery triple and then quadruple-checked his calculations, sweat beading on his broad forehead.

“The rings are all warmed up and freshly cleaned,” Dr. Craig reported from the far end of the room, Connery’s lone assistant in the endeavor.

Connery keyed in his calculations, allowing the targeting computer several seconds to digest the formulas. “Computations are processing now,” he said, trying to keep a tremble out of his voice.

Craig looked over his shoulder to the trans-dimensional gateway, sitting serenely atop its base like some pristine sculpture. The titanium bands were still extended into their round, cage-like formation.

The computer finished analyzing the calculations and slowly, the rings rotated and folded so that they nested within one another. The wide, outer ring gleamed mysteriously as the power buildup began to thrum in the capacitors arranged behind the structure. Tiny arcs of blue lightning began to dance around the round frame.

“Power at fifty percent,” Craig reported, his voice deceptively calm as the sheer energy in the room threatened to make his hair stand on end.

“Cooling systems online,” Connery said, glancing left at a readout. “Engaging the first two rings.”

The thinnest rings rotated out of their resting place and begin to spin around slowly. One revolved horizontally, the other vertically.

“Sixty percent,” Craig intoned, and Connery made a couple adjustments. Rings three and four detached and began to circle diagonally to the first rings, and opposite of one another.

The arcs of lightning grew larger, and Connery licked his suddenly-dry lips nervously. It looked like the dampening field might not protect them, despite the engineering team’s finest efforts in the past two weeks.

“Seventy-five percent,” Craig said, the pitch of his voice rising slightly to be heard over the now-rumbling capacitors. Rings five and six sprang into motion under Connery’s direction.

At ninety percent, all eight rings were spinning, and a glow began to build within the center of the cage, pulsing rhythmically as the rings began to build up speed.

“One hundred percent power--” Connery started to say, but the first of the large lightning arcs crackled overhead and he ducked reflexively. In that moment, he took his eyes off of the computer panels.

“Power spike!” Craig shouted as the white light from the machine grew to blinding intensity. Sparks showered around him as the lightning from the outer ring struck out at all corners of the room.

“Shut it down!” Connery slammed his palm down on his emergency kill switch, and Craig did the same.

The fevered whine of the rings began to die down, and the light sputtered out almost instantly, leaving the room dimly illuminated by the panel readouts.

And then something moved in the gloom--a small figure darted away from the machine and deeper into the shadows.

“What the--did you see that?” Craig demanded, pointing.

Connery was shaking so badly from the failed experiment that he didn’t hear Craig the first time.

“Theo, did you see that?” Craig repeated, groping in a nearby footlocker for a flashlight.

“Unh. No...what is it?” Connery asked, trying to clear the blurred spots from his vision enough to see.

Craig found a flashlight and flicked it on. “Hello?” he called boldly, stepping carefully over still-smoking strike-points from the lightning. There was no reply, and Craig kept moving forward, sweeping the beam back and forth methodically, searching behind every stand of computers and servers for what he thought he’d seen.

There! The edge of the beam’s light caught a person’s foot just before it vanished around the edge of a tall panel of monitoring equipment.

“I see you,” Craig said, growing bolder with certainty. “Come out!” His mind spun through the options--a reporter? Industrial espionage? “Don’t make me call security!”

By that time Connery had managed to find his way to the far wall where the emergency power switch was housed. He flipped it on, and high-mounted spotlights flickered on around the perimeter of the room. Connery turned left--and his jaw dropped open.

Standing between him and the pursuing Crag was a pale little girl. Her brown eyes were huge and her black hair was wild and unkempt. There were no shoes on her feet, and she held her hands close to her as if afraid of her surroundings. Her gaze darted from Craig to Connery and then back to Craig, as if unsure what to do.

“What the--who are you?” Connery blurted, suddenly overwhelmed by terror. What had the machine done? What error had he made in his calculations to cause this?

“Doctor?” Craig prompted. “We can’t let her leave.” He was keenly aware of the precarious position he and his coworker found themselves in. If the girl escaped now, then the cat was out of the bag that their time stream machine worked as a time-traveling device, not just as a way to revisit history and possibly glimpse the future.

But Connery remained frozen by the realization that he had just broken several laws of physics and didn't reply.

Craig acted; he dashed to a secure communications console and depressed the emergency call. “Security to Lab One. Now!”

A distant siren started up as the guards on duty followed protocol, but the girl didn’t appear to want to wait around for the guards to arrive.

“Now, don’t move,” Craig said to her as she tensed, tightening her posture defensively. “We’re not going to hurt you, okay? We just...need to find out what happened.”

“San!” the girl shouted, as if it were one of the only words she used. She seemed to know what sirens meant, and she abruptly ran across the room, away from the scientists near the only door. Craig relaxed slightly; there was no way out over there except some very high windows twelve feet from the ground.

The girl vanished from sight around a bank of computers and Craig cast a sideways look at Connery before moving to follow her. There was a distant pounding of footsteps; the security team was just outside. In a moment it would all be over.

And then a dark-furred creature climbed atop the computers the girl had disappeared behind. It was quivering from the tip of it’s fox-like nose to the end of its cat-like tail as it appeared to gauge the distance between the computer bank and the closest window.

Craig saw what the animal intended to do a split-second too late. “No!” he cried, but the animal had already launched itself into the air, hitting a crack in the window no doubt caused by the lightning from earlier. The glass shattered into a hundred pieces, and the animal tumbled through and out of sight.

“Doctor Connery? Doctor Craig?” De la Russe from security moved quickly into the room, his sidearm held firmly. “What happened?”

“We had an intruder,” Craig reported, already gathering his thoughts. “Call in all your men. And contact animal control. An intelligent alien animal is on the loose out there and we have to find her--it--before…” he couldn’t finish the sentence. “Just find it. It’s brown and a little bigger than a cat.” Craig tried to recall the brief glimpse he’d had of it from the emergency lights before it had escaped. “It had a white spot around one eye.”

“Immediately,” De la Russe said, gesturing to the two men with him.

Craig directed one last look at Connery before shaking his head. The situation had to be contained, and quickly.

== <> ==

The cat-like animal in question had landed with somewhat less grace than anticipated amidst a shower of glass shards. It recovered its balance, shook its head, and immediately bolted for the nearest shadow, which happened to be behind a crate. The sirens were still wailing distantly, their sound muffled by the walls of the wide, squat building belonging to ChronoWorks.

She scented the air carefully, trying to identify anything familiar in the wide, open air of this new and strange location. Footsteps rounded the far edge of the nearest wall, heading directly toward the glimmering shards of glass caught in the handheld searchlights of the security team.

“Look! A trail,” one of them said. She ducked further behind the crate, whiskers quivering. Dark blood matted the fur on her right front paw, but she could do nothing about it as she broke from cover and ran across a large expanse of hard ground. Headlights blinded her and she froze in the middle of the street, her ears going back in terror.

The security guards had to pull up short as a hovercar streaked by, sure for a moment that the cat-creature was going to be ironed out on the pavement. Then the car was gone in a flash of tail lights and the trail of bloody pawprints continued.

“It’s faster than we thought,” De la Russe said. “We’ll have to get cycles. Squads of two, and remember to take it alive.”

== <> ==

“Something’s up,” Bruce Wayne mused to himself from where he sat at his super-computer. 

“Yeah? Please say it’s something simple like a robbery,” Terry said over the comm.

“No. It looks like an entire security squadron lost something.” Bruce tried to refine the imagery from a street camera. A company name or insignia might help him narrow it down. “They’re out in teams; some on cycles, others searching through bushes and trees.”

There was a pause as Terry tried to puzzle out what could be missing. “An escaped...test subject?”

“Maybe.” The older man tapped a few more buttons and squinted at the screen. “It looks like…Broxholm Security. They contract out to many different companies.”

“Well, I’m already out. Got anything else you want me to do? Pick up some milk, maybe?” Bruce didn’t respond to Terry’s jibe. “Hey wait. Did someone make a call to animal control?”

Without batting an eye, Bruce switched screens, tapping into the appropriate call logs. “The only company that fits is ChronoWorks.”

“Yeah, I saw a report about time streams or something...they’ve got a press conference real soon about--”

“I’ve been monitoring them for years,” Bruce said, steepling his fingers as he considered. “My thought was that if they actually got close to true time travel, Wayne Enterprises would acquire them. But they’re a small company, founded by museum curators and history professors that just wanted to view the past, not interfere with the timelines. Very little funding meant slow progress. Now, though, I’d guess they finally made something that works.”

“Just not in the way they expected,” Terry summarized. “So we’ve got a time-traveling animal on the loose?”

“I’ll try to get the security tape from the ChronoWorks lab, but it’ll take time,” Bruce said, preparing a hacking suite on a side panel. Then he suddenly straightened in his chair and grabbed for his cane, causing Ace to sit up suddenly. Bruce limped over to one of the many storage units resting in the shadows and pulled a key out of his pocket.

From within, he removed a small, airtight canister containing a white cardigan just starting to yellow with age, as well as another smaller container. He’d preserved the contents the best that he could. After all, this was the inciting incident.

“Terry, listen carefully. I need you to come back and get Ace in order to track the animal. It’s vitally important,” Bruce stressed.

“Now suddenly you know exactly what it is?” Terry’s voice came back incredulously.

“Trust me, I don’t have time to argue. You and Ace have to locate her before anybody else does,” the former Batman insisted. He removed the old cardigan from the container and called Ace over.

“I need you to find her, boy,” Bruce told Ace seriously. “But she’s different--she has two smells.” Ace took several deep sniffs of the sweater, before Bruce unscrewed the lid of the smaller container. Inside was a small pile of brown fur. Ace wagged his tail in acknowledgement of both scents, and Bruce smiled grimly.

“This has to work,” he said aloud to himself. “It has to.”

== <> ==

Terry and Ace approached the scene of the escape warily. As Batman, Terry was used to hanging back in the shadows until the time was right to strike. But he also didn't want Ace to rush off without him...or for any of the circling animal control vehicles to get the wrong idea.

As it turned out, Ace hadn't even needed to get near the scene of the escape, which had been roped off and was now guarded by two surly-looking security guards. The large dog had picked up a trail of blood, which was good news for them, but bad news for whatever it was they were searching for.

“It’s called a kasli,” Bruce had told Terry. The young man squinted at the old picture, taken in a time where digital photography hadn't yet been commonplace. “And you've got to be extremely careful. Don’t let her touch you, or Ace.”

“Woah, wait,” Terry protested. “How do you know all of this? We haven’t even seen--”

“Trust me, it’s complicated. I’ll tell you more when we have her safely here,” Bruce insisted.

Ace’s barking brought Terry back to the present. From the sound it it, it was going to be one heck of a story. 

“Ugh, no, not the sewers,” Terry muttered under his breath. Ace’s nose was good, but was it good enough to track the kasli through hundreds of kilometers of slimy concrete tunnels dripping with all of Gotham’s refuse? He checked the immediate area; so far it appeared that none of the security teams had found the trail.

Ace nosed around the broken grating and managed to squeeze himself through. Terry eyed the small opening and sighed. With a heat laser, he carved a slightly larger entrance and wriggled inside. He nearly gagged when he saw a couple of large, bloated rat corpses floating in a puddle of brackish water. There were fresh scratch and bite marks on the dead rats as if they had tangled with something recently. But that didn’t account for the rapid decomposition...Terry swallowed hard.

“Uhum, Bruce? Any particular reason why I shouldn’t touch it?” Terry asked.

“Let’s just say it would be very bad for your health,” Bruce said dryly. “The batsuit should protect you unless it gets compromised. But she could hurt Ace.”

“I’m beginning to see that,” Terry said as Ace moved forward into the dark. Terry grabbed a handheld spotlight from his utility belt and switched it on. A muddy trail occasionally spotted with dark blood disappeared deeper into the pipe system.

“Come on, boy,” Terry said to his companion as he navigated over a cross-pipe and avoided tangling his ears in a mossy overhead growth.

Fifteen more minutes of searching led the duo to a three-way intersection. Ace didn’t hesitate; he headed left and Terry followed. Shortly after a sharp turn, Terry spotted a small, brown furred ball curled up under a tangled mass of sickly green vines.

“I got her,” Terry said softly. “Ace, stay back.” He reached forward carefully and picked up the kasli. The picture had been accurate, right down to the white spots on the face and paw. The opposite paw was the injured one, but the animal was so caked in mud and other substances that it would probably be better just to take her back to the batcave.

“Is she offering any resistance?” Bruce asked.

“No, I think it--she--is tired out,” Terry said. “And she’s lost some blood.”

“That’s right...she’s not even ten years old yet,” Bruce mused in a tone that meant he was talking more to himself than to his protege.

“We’re on our way back,” Terry said in anticipation of Bruce’s next order.

“I’ll have the lights on.”

== <> ==   

“So you know her from sometime in the past?” Terry asked.

“From my time in the Justice League,” Bruce answered, watching the monitor beneath the small medical isolation unit. “Her name is Azalea. At least, it was then. She’s a highly-protected secret in the U.S. government, even today.”

“Just because she can shape-shift?” Terry asked with a shrug. “I’m sure you’ve come across hundreds of people during your lifetime--”

“Shape-shifting’s just a parlor trick,” Bruce said. “Her real ability...she can heal anybody from just about anything.”

“Well, then why keep that a secret?” Terry asked.

“Because it’s made some pretty desperate and powerful people try to kidnap her,” Bruce said, his mouth drawing down into an even grimmer frown than normal. “That’s what happened… the Justice League was exposed to a chemical compound while responding to a distress call. I had to get creative, fast and that meant finding someone who could heal a wide range of physiology in a short amount of time. I...I contacted her and asked for her help...but it was a trap. I just put her on the radar for somebody else to find.”

“But she must have been older then.”

“ was strange. The first time she met me...she knew who I was.”

“So you’re telling me that she remembers this? All of this?” Terry asked.

“No,” Bruce said. “Her owners from her time will wipe most of her memory when we send her back.”

“Wait, her owners?” Terry’s dark brows drew together in a flash of anger. “You’re telling me right now she’s a slave?”

“I did say it was complicated.” Bruce tapped the head of his cane against one of the readouts. “Looks like the toxin system’s working pretty hard. See that green liquid; that’s the poison I didn’t want you or Ace coming in contact with.”

“All right, I’ve been patient,” Terry said firmly. “Is there any chance this entire mess has a beginning?”

Bruce eyed the young man. “All right. I’ve got some files you should see.”

“Any chance these ‘files’ are top secret?”

“Of course,” Bruce said. “It took me a few years to get through the Area 51 firewalls and security, but it was worth it.”

“You mean, like the Roswell aliens Area 51?” Terry asked incredulously.

“It’s like CADMUS, but primarily for the western half of the U.S. You thought it was a rumor?” Bruce said dryly. “After all you’ve seen?”

“, I guess not.”

Bruce pinned him with a long look. “Uh huh.” He turned his back on the small medical unit which continued to thrum in the background and headed back to his supercomputer. “Certain cities are known for their defending superheroes. Gotham City is under Batman’s protection. Metropolis is Superman’s personal project.”

“Star City is Green Arrow’s territory,” Terry filled in.

“Exactly. And Angel Grove had a team, too. You weren’t even born; this was back in my early career as Batman. They had their typical villains; their equivalent of Joker and Harley Quinn--they’d put one scheme down and then be back in a week or two with something new.”

“Good to know that villains are almost never original,” Terry quipped.

“In 1994, the team turned back a serious alien invasion--a group of aliens known for pyroforming particular worlds. In doing so, they rescued a single slave who had helped them destroy the alien threat.”

“Azalea.” Terry repeated the name somewhat blankly.

“But this Azalea is from before that,” Bruce explained. “She hasn’t met a human before.”

“And we’re her first contact? She’s gonna think humans are all psychopaths with a need to dress up like bats,” Terry said half-seriously.

“You can read it all for yourself,” Bruce said. “My abridged version means you have to listen without poking fun.”

“Sorry,” Terry replied, only sounding slightly contrite.

“In our timeline as we know it, she’ll be sent back to where she belongs. As near as I can tell, the World Burners will use their technology to scan her memories and remove anything she knew about Earth. And based on what she sees here, they’ll decide to mount an attack in 1994.”

“Well, we can keep her here,” Terry said. “She shouldn’t have to go back to being a slave.”

“Don’t you think I haven’t thought of that?” Bruce sounded tired, rather than angry. “We’d be rewriting the entire timeline of her life, including people she would have saved.”

“Maybe they wouldn’t need saving if the alien attack never happens. And the aliens won’t know about Earth if she stays here,” Terry pointed out.

“And her family? There’s too many variables. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from other time travel, it’s not to change anything,” Bruce said.

A mechanical beep from the isolation unit interrupted the conversation. With a soft whisper, the system shut down and the saline solution drained away, leaving the animal inside in a wet, limp ball on the bottom. Bruce took a small blanket from a nearby table and carefully opened the unit. He lifted the kasli, who was just beginning to stir, and presented the bundle to Terry.

The young man stared down at the dark-furred creature with mild incomprehension. Her eyes opened just a little and she began to blink as awareness returned. And then the kasli’s brown eyes shot open wide and she tried to gather enough strength to squirm free.

Terry’s arms tightened reflexively as she struggled in vain to disentangle herself from the blanket. “Hey, it’s okay,” he assured her, rubbing behind her ears as if trying to console a kitten. And then Terry froze as a new feeling passed over him. It was...warm and almost comfortingly familiar. He was so distracted by it that he didn’t notice the kasli grow still in his arms. “What...what is that?” he managed after a moment, the question directed at Bruce.

Bruce had reseated himself in his chair and was watching Terry with a faintly reminiscent look on his face. “That’s her healing gift. She’s empathic, or telepathic. I’ve never been entirely sure. She can sense your intentions, and will naturally bond with someone she believes she can trust. The bond...if sunshine could touch your soul, I imagine that’s how it feels.”

“You’re not wrong,” Terry agreed, leaning back against one of the computer panels. The kasli had curled tighter against him, and some form of purring thrummed through her.

== <> ==

“What is it people say? The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Flash muttered under his breath as he paced the floor of the Watchtower’s sickbay.

“Do not lose hope,” J’onn said weakly from the tall chair that had become his base of operations. “The computer is analyzing everything it can.”

“But all it can tell us is that the virus, if that’s what it is, is synthetic--made by someone. Without--” Flash put a hand to his head as his vision doubled. “Uh oh.”

“Not you, too,” Hawkgirl said from her own bed.

“It’s like it hits those of us with the most power the hardest,” J’onn summarized. “First Superman, then Wonder Woman. The Green Lantern is better when he does not use his ring. It was only a matter of time before you felt the effects, as well.”

“And where is Batman?” John Stewart asked. “Seems he’d be the least affected.”

“He is,” J’onn agreed. “But I suspect that he’s already experiencing fatigue.”

“And by ‘suspect’ you mean you read his mind?”

J’onn didn’t answer; instead he punched a new query into the computer.

== <> ==

There. It had been no more than a shadow of a memory at first. There were plenty of other people in world with ‘gifts’ or ‘powers’ or other unexplained talents. He had all of the data in his supercomputer, but it was pulled from so many different databases all over the planet that the search was taking more time than he’d anticipated.

Azalea Aleah Haven. He was lucky; she was one of the first early registered extraterrestrials--she had a secret transponder which would make her easy to locate.

Batman pulled a tracking device from his utility belt, wincing as the muscles in his fingers and arms protested. The spasms were getting worse, but he knew there was no time to delay. He opened Azalea’s file and adjusted the tracking device’s frequency detector, while at the same time aligning his feed from the Watchtower to track the same transponder signature over North America.

“J’onn, this is Batman. I’ve sent the Watchtower a transponder signal to track. I think it’s our only chance,” he said over his communicator.

“Received. Acquiring signal,” J’onn’s voice came back, sounding extra faint despite the distance. “Pinpointed in New York. Transmitting better coordinates to you now.”

“Tell everyone to hold on,” Batman said, pocketing the handheld tracking device and dashing over to his jet. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”


“Trust me.” He gritted his teeth as his left knee constricted with a sharp stabbing pain. “I’m the only one left who can do this.” The jet’s canopy closed and he lifted off as soon as the engines flared to life.

== <> ==

There was just one problem with his approach, he realized later. Night wasn’t going to fall for at least three more hours, and he wasn’t sure that the other Justice League members had that much time left. It wasn’t that Batman didn’t go out in daylight...but it was a rare occurrence even in Gotham City. And it wasn’t very often that Batman walked up to the front door of someone’s house and asked to see a teenager.

But that was what very nearly happened, until he caught the target leaving the house in favor of a tree fort in the backyard. It was perfect; in less than five minutes he had dropped in from above, shielded from any inquiring eyes in the house by the tree’s thick foliage.

Azalea appeared to be a normal teenager, but Batman had practically memorized her entire file in order to make sure she could be trusted with the sensitive information he would have to share with her out of necessity. Her alien appearance had been completely masked from casual eyes; she wore her hair in long bangs to hide the scar over her eye, as well as wrist-warmer type gloves fitted with prosthetic fingers to disguise her normal eight fingers. At the moment, she had her nose buried in a book and was not paying the slightest attention to the open skylight in her tree fort.

“Excuse me,” he said quietly, so as not to completely startle her. He’d seen in the file that she was a jumpy sort, prone to startle easily and run first rather than stand her ground.

As he suspected, she dropped her book and backed into the closest corner for cover, her brown eyes darting in all directions before fastening on his masked face. “You...what do you want?” she asked after recovering her voice.

“Normally my reputation precedes me,” Batman said quietly. “I need your help.” He fought to hide another spasm of pain as it hit his legs and lower back.

“You’re hurt,” Azalea said, as if she could already sense it, and her alarmed posture vanished. “Come down, please.” And that seemed to be all there was to it. She didn't ask any more questions; not how he had found her, or how he knew about her healing ability.

He dropped heavily to the plank floor, and couldn't conceal the agony it caused him. “It’s not just me--the entire Justice League has been hit by some kind of bioweapon.”

“Your hand,” Azalea said in a no-nonsense sort of voice. She pulled her own fingerless gloves off--a prosthetic finger coming with each of them. He didn't need to be told twice; he slid his right glove off and held his hand out to her.

She pressed it between her palms and her gaze grew distant. At first, Batman didn't feel anything, and then suddenly he was aware that he could sense someone else’s presence, as if from a great distance. A warm, almost glowing sensation moved through him all at once, banishing all the effects of the virus instantaneously. But then the feeling reached out to the dark corner of his mind--the place he kept the deepest part of himself--and hesitated. Then suddenly in a blinding mental flash, he sensed Azalea’s overwhelmed emotions.

She dropped his hand suddenly and drew away from him. Batman wasn't sure what had just happened--why the strong reaction?

“You...B-Bruce. I do know you.” Azalea’s eyes were bright with tears. “We've...met before.”

“I...I don’t understand,” he had to confess, at a sudden loss. His real identity? How would she know that?

“Of course,” she agreed, wiping hastily at her face with her hands. “I’m sorry. I've waited so long to say thank you--but you said there were more that needed help.” Azalea pulled her gloves back on and fished around on the floor for a hat, which she pulled down over her bangs. “How are we getting to your friends?”

“I have a jet that will take us up to the Watchtower--it’s a space station,” he said, still puzzled. Batman refocused his mind on his main reason for coming. “There are six others, but they contracted the virus a lot sooner than I did, and with worse side effects.”

She gathered up her bookbag and dumped out it’s school contents, before stuffing a few other things inside--a blanket, a sweater, a spray bottle, and a few books. Then Azalea ripped a piece of paper from a notebook, jotted a quick note, and pinned it beneath what looked like a much-loved teddy bear. “Okay, let’s go.”

== <> ==

The pain in Flash’s legs was now so great that he couldn’t stand for more than a minute, much less move at supersonic speeds. Under weak protest, GL had forced him to take up residence on the bed next to Shayera.

“J’onn, I’m on my way back,” Batman’s voice came over the comms. “I have what we need.”

“J’onn’s out like Superman and Diana,” John said, pacing uneasily back and forth, refusing to let the aches in his knees and back stop him. “You’d better hurry; Hawkgirl’s becoming difficult to keep awake and Flash is in bad shape.”

“ETA fifteen minutes. Have the landing bay clear.”

“Roger that.” It seemed like the longest wait of his life, watching Shayera toss and turn, seeing feathers fall from her once-full wings. Then there was a far-off, distant rumble, followed by the soft whisk of the elevator, which deposited Batman and a teenage girl in the sickbay. She stepped out from behind the broad-shouldered hero, her eyes roving over the four occupied beds.

“Green Lantern, tell her everything J’onn figured out about this virus,” Batman said.

“It hits everybody differently, but the end is always the same,” GL replied. “It’s like it targets our...talents." He pressed some buttons on the panel in front of the sleeping J’onn. “And we know that it’s an artificial virus, manufactured by somebody who lured us to that planet--”

“Which planet?” Azalea asked quickly.

“Havelock,” the Green Lantern replied. “It’s out in the Tavedra system.”

“Show me a picture,” she said. As the pinkish-red planet streaked with white clouds spun slowly on the screen, Azalea shook her head. “I don’t recognize it.”

“It may have just been bait,” GL pointed out.

“Batman has told me a little of you and your friends,” Azalea said. “I do not know how much each will take, so we should start right away.” She removed her hat and combed her hair up into a hasty ponytail.

GL exchanged a look with Batman. “How much what?” he asked the other man quietly as Azalea went to Superman’s bed and pulled off her gloves.

“How much of her healing power,” Batman explained. He seemed unusually quiet. “She told me about some of the side effects. She’s particularly worried about healing J’onn because he’s a telepath.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“She’s already healed me from the virus, and I could sense her while she did it. And according to her, humans can’t really ‘talk back’ to her unless they’ve had psychic conditioning. She encountered a couple of them--they were from a colony of humans with special talents--and when she did, healing them nearly killed her.”

John Stewart rocked back on his heels. “Does that mean she can’t treat J’onn?”

“No, Azalea promised to try. But J’onn has to understand that he shouldn’t fight her,” Batman said. “And if something should go very wrong--”

At that moment, Superman opened his eyes, blinked extensively, and sat up with one hand to his head. “Unh, what happened?” he asked slowly.

“No, don’t move,” Azalea commanded. “You’re stronger than anyone I’ve ever healed, and that means I can’t restore all your strength right away. The virus is gone, but it will take time for all your abilities to recover.”

“I...I understand,” Superman acknowledged. He turned and looked down the row of beds. “Oh...oh no.”

“It’s okay,” Azalea tried to assure him. “I will help them all, I promise.” She moved to Wonder Woman.

“I can explain,” Batman told Superman quietly. “But let her work.”

“I’ve...that was so different,” the man of steel said, pushing himself back so that he could sit up. “Where did you find--?”

“Her name’s Azalea,” Batman replied. “Did the Kryptonians ever hear of the planet Eys Saetmai?”

“Not that I know of,” Superman said, thinking it over. “But space travel hasn't always been my forte.”

“It doesn’t exist anymore; it was destroyed by the World Burners over ten years ago,” Batman said.

Superman’s eyebrows went up. “Now them I have heard of.”

Diana gasped and bolted upright, hands poised to knock Azalea aside as her warrior training perceived a threat. “Little sister,” she said in surprise, dropping her arms. “I thank you for healing me.”

“You’re welcome,” Azalea said. “I wasn’t aware that any Amazons had left Themyscira.”

“Only for very important reasons,” Diana replied.

“Sorry, have you two met before?” John asked.

“No,” Wonder Woman said, standing. “At least, I have not met this Eys Sylmai before. But her people are known to the Amazons. We sought them out when a plague threatened us fifteen years ago--I was just a girl. One of them agreed to accompany my mother to Themyscira.”

“Aleah,” Azalea said. “She was a legend of my people.”

“We grieved greatly when your world perished,” the Amazon said, placing her hand on Azalea’s shoulder. The girl only dropped her gaze and nodded, walking over to stand between Hawkgirl and the Flash. When she touched the Flash’s arm, he stirred and opened his eyes, squinting up at the unknown silhouette above him.

“Wait, what about--” the Green Lantern began, but Azalea held up her hand to stop him.

“I know. But it takes only a little to heal a human. I don’t want to chance…” She didn’t finish the sentence, but Batman understood. In case she wasn’t able to finish later, she wanted to save as many lives as possible.

“What…” Flash tried to say as Azalea laid her hands on either side of his face. Her gaze grew distant, and the young superhero relaxed as her presence bonded to his. It was over in a couple of minutes, and the Flash sprang to his feet and zipped across the room as if nothing had happened. “Wow, I feel great. Hungry, but great!”

Green Lantern eyed the alien girl closely; she didn’t appear any different now than when she had first entered the room, with the exception of how brightly the scar above her left eye stood out against the paleness of her face.

“John Stewart,” she said to him. “Please let me do what I can.” And Azalea held her hands out to him. Reluctantly, he held out his left hand, and she pressed it between her own. A warm, cleansing feeling washed through him, and he couldn’t help the sigh of relief he felt as sore muscles relaxed for the first time in what seemed like forever.

It took him a moment to come back to himself, and when he did, Azalea had gone to Shayera’s side. She studied Hawkgirl’s birdlike features for a long moment, before reaching out and tracing the ragged edge of one wing. “I have never seen anyone like your Hawkgirl,” she confessed softly. Azalea closed her eyes and clasped Hawkgirl’s hand. “She...she’s like a wall.” A furrow appeared between her eyebrows as she tried to push against the mental barrier. “I can’t get through it.”

Azalea opened her eyes again and said something under her breath in a sibilant language. Flexing the crooked fingers of her left hand, she paced back and forth a little. “Please, John Stewart. If you would help me by waking her, maybe she will understand enough to let me in.”

“You got it,” Green Lantern agreed, moving to Shayera’s other side. He gently shook her shoulders, and after a few seconds, Hawkgirl’s eyes fluttered open. “Hey, we have somebody here who’s going to get rid of that virus.”

Shayera’s answer was barely audible. “Okay...but…”

“No buts,” he told her seriously. “We need you to do one thing first. If you can, let the healer through your mental defenses.”

At that, Hawkgirl stiffened and tried to move, but she was too weak. “I can’t just--that’s years of training.” Her protest died as a squeak.

“Just try, okay?” Green Lantern’s voice took on a rough edge. He wasn’t even sure she was aware of anybody else in the room, and he didn’t care. He didn’t want to see her suffer like this.

“All right,” she whispered.

At GL’s nod, Azalea took up her former position and closed her eyes once more. “Better,” was the only word she said before focusing entirely on her task. Long, interminable moments dragged by, longer than any of the other healing sessions had taken.

“Shayera? Stay with me,” John said, touching her cheek.

“I know,” she answered faintly. “Trying...I’m…” She sagged suddenly as she lost consciousness.

“No!” John said between clenched teeth. He glanced swiftly at Azalea, who was standing rigidly in place, as if she’d been turned into a statue. And then, for just a second, her outline wavered. He blinked, but the effect continued.

“What is that?” Flash asked. “Looks like some kind of--”

“Animal. It’s her animal form,” Wonder Woman said. “All Eys Sylmai people that have come of age have one.”

“But what does it mean?” Batman asked the Amazon.

“I don’t know,” Wonder Woman confessed. “Aleah used hers to travel--she was a reyneera, a kind of large bird with golden feathers. Often she would also use it when she was resting. Mother asked her why once, but she never really answered the question.”

Azalea’s form had stabilized once more, but her rigid posture had faltered. She dropped her head, as if focusing harder, willing her healing power to get through whatever Hawkgirl’s training had put in her path. And then she stiffened, her ponytail whipping wildly as her head snapped backward. Her mouth opened in a silent cry, and if the Flash hadn’t darted forward, she might have fallen.

“She’s got bite marks!” The young superhero drew back from Azalea. The skin on her arms was scored with fang punctures, and the girl shuddered, her face pale and damp with sweat. She jerked again, and more markings, this time scratches, ripped up her upper arms and into her hair.

“It’s like Hawkgirl’s defenses are manifesting as physical things she can see and feel,” Superman said. He was sitting on the edge of his bed now, attempting to summon the strength to stand. “If that’s the case, then she has to fight through it.”

Flash steadied Azalea as she twisted, dodging something only she could see. And then abruptly, she went limp. Her hands slipped from Hawkgirl, and Flash found himself holding her up. The fang-marks on her body faded, as did the scratches.

“S-sorry…” Azalea panted, straightening up. “That was very difficult…” She passed her good hand over her eyes and took a few deep breaths.

“What was it? What did you see?” Batman asked.

“Snakes--a forest full of snakes and thorny vines. But I was born in a jungle,” Azalea said with a small smile. “She could not keep me out.” She looked down at Hawkgirl. “She will sleep for a little while, but she will be fine now. After I help J’onn J’onzz, I can do other healing, like her wings.”

“No,” Batman said firmly. “It’s taken enough out of you already, and you don’t know what healing J’onn will do. You’re taking a break when this is over.”

Azalea didn’t bother to argue; she went over to the comatose Martian and stood before him. “You said he uses his telepathy by choice, yes?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s like he turns it on and off,” Green Lantern agreed. “If he uses it too often, then it can overwhelm him.”

She nodded and reached out. “Whatever happens,” she cautioned the superheroes, “do not interrupt.” Her four-fingered hands were dwarfed by J’onn’s green ones, and she knelt as her eyes drifted closed for the last time. The dark, mottled patches on J’onn’s skin began to fade almost immediately. And then J’onn’s bronze-tinted eyes opened wide.

“J’onn! You’re--!” Wonder Woman began to exclaim, but she gasped in shock as the Martian jumped to his feet and cast Azalea aside.

“Uhn!” The girl hit a wall panel and did not rise. Wonder Woman ran to her side.

“What are you--?” Green Lantern demanded, but J’onn beat him to an explanation.

“It’s a trap!” the Martian Manhunter said sharply. “The feedback from the telepathic connection--”

“Too late,” Azalea whispered, and everybody in the room save Hawkgirl flinched as a wave of terror washed over them. “I--I can’t stop it!” The words resounded loudly, and the blind panic accompanying them was almost crippling.

J’onn waved one hand in front of his face, as if batting the empathic broadcast away. His eyes glowed for a moment as he raised his own mental barriers against Azalea. “That’s what they really wanted,” he said, walking over to Azalea where she had been helped into a sitting position by Diana. “They wanted to find you, child.”

“J’onn, stop it,” Wonder Woman said, as images of reptilian faces hidden by dark cloaks washed over her mind’s eye. “Stop scaring her--she can’t control her thoughts.”

“Apologies, but you all must know what I do,” J’onn said, dropping into a crouch so that he could look Azalea in the eye. “That was the entire point of this virus--to lead them to you.”

A distant memory of pain stabbed through those who could sense it. An overwhelming feeling of trapped helplessness began to build, so powerful that Flash began to twitch and dart in small bursts around the room.

“What are we gonna do?” he asked. “We can’t stay here--we--”

“First, you’re going to calm down,” Superman ordered. “Just because the virus turned Azalea into a homing beacon for whoever started this does not mean we’re at a disadvantage.”

“What do you mean? We have no idea who might be coming for her,” Green Lantern said.

“Not yet,” J’onn said. “But the knowledge of my people is thousands of years old. And the Lantern Corps might be able to help us narrow the search, too.”

“Let’s get to work on it,” Superman said with a nod. “The more we know, the better we can prepare.” He managed to stand up. “I’ll work with the computers until I get my strength back. Batman, if you would show Azalea’s files to J’onn and Diana, maybe they can help turn up new leads.”

“I’ll start asking around in the Corps,” Green Lantern said.

“What about me? What do I do?” Flash asked, still jittering around nervously.

“I want you to check every entrance on the Watchtower,” Superman told him. “Check that the seals are in place, the security systems are functioning, and then we’ll begin fortifications.”

“On it,” Flash said, and was gone in a blur.

“J’onn, can’t you do something to...quiet her thoughts?” Batman asked, removing a data drive from his utility belt. He found Azalea’s juvenile fear hauntingly familiar. He had to maintain a keen focus on his own sense of self in order to keep the world straight.

“I can dampen them, but it’s not a permanent solution. I must find a way to reverse what happened, and I can’t do that if I’m distracted,” J’onn pointed out.

“Well, we can’t help if we’re distracted,” Wonder Woman shot back. Beside her, Azalea curled into a ball, hugging her knees, trying frantically to think of something calm. The patter of her thought process was dizzying as multitudes of images flashed by, but her panic wasn't subsiding.

Blindly, she reached out for the one person she already knew. Her hand caught the edge of Batman’s cape and held on pleadingly. Batman stared down at her, his expression unreadable.

“Please,” Azalea said softly. “Trust me.” You’re the one who saved me.

“You saved her? When?” Diana asked.

Angel remembers it.

“Angel?” Batman repeated, recalling the name from the file he had on the disc in his hand. “Your kasli form.” Azalea nodded, and the flow of images slowed and settled into a warm, brown area. That thought seemed simple and calm enough for the moment. Wonder Woman stood and helped Azalea up.

“Batman, let J’onn and I look at the file. You can fill in any details when we’re finished,” she said, holding out her hand. A muscle in Batman’s face might have twitched, but he handed the data drive over without any comment. “Your presence clearly comforts her,” Diana said softly. “That may be enough for now.” And she left them alone.

Azalea walked over to the panoramic view of the stars and stood staring out. The warm feeling the thought of her animal form gave her wavered for a second, to be replaced by the dark blot of a distant planet against the starscape. The world was crawling with flames, eating hungrily across the black surface of the planet, erasing everything--the image of a steel door snapped down abruptly, cutting off Azalea’s memory, and she shook her head as if to refocus her thoughts on something else.

“I didn’t miss space,” she said quietly, turning her back on the stars. “Nothing good ever happened here.” The faceless steel door was still firmly in place as she looked at Batman with open curiosity.

“You don’t even know that we’ll meet,” she said to him. “You will be older--older and far more tired.’ll know things about me. And that means I must have told them to you.”

Batman folded his arms, allowing his dark cape to fall closed, becoming the iconic dark figure that struck fear into many. He felt Azalea’s surprise at seeing his stance, but she brushed it away after a moment.

“We might not have much time,” she said quietly. “And whatever my ‘file’ might tell you, it does not hold the information you will need. I will be eight, and you will be the first human I heal. But then I will be made to forget everything after that--they will erase it.”

“The World Burners,” Batman said. “The invaders who captured you.” A cloaked figure with reptilian features just visible beneath its hood flashed through his mind’s eye.

“Yes,” Azalea said. “There will be a time travel accident, and I will be brought to your city. You will send your young friend after me, as well as your dog.”

“What young friend?” Batman began to ask, but another mental image silenced him. This one was vague and heavily affected by emotional coloring--the teenage boy had dark hair and pale eyes, but more than that Azalea remembered his curiosity and his fierce protectiveness. They framed the indistinct face like living paint.

“I can’t tell you his name,” Azalea said. “This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am here because the World Burners attacked the Earth and lost. But the World Burners attacked the Earth because I showed it to them. They took my memories of my...visit...with you and decided that they should...experiment on your world--” she paused and took a deep breath, and the solid steel of her mental door holding back her childhood memories wavered for a moment.

“But they did not understand that it was time travel. Or that there were so many out there willing to defend the Earth,” Azalea went on, refocusing her thoughts. “The attack happened seven years ago, and then I was free. The rest you already know. So you see, this is your human concept of destiny.”

“I don’t believe in destiny,” Batman told her firmly.

“You don’t believe that destiny is fixed,” Azalea pointed out. “Destiny is merely a conclusion. The outcome is sometimes out of our hands.” She glanced around the Watchtower. “As it is with this. Now that I know this moment of my life has finally come, I am free from the script.”

A peculiar feeling accompanied her words;

== <> ==

“I can hear them,” J’onn said softly, his bronze eyes alight as he stared into middle space. “I hear their call--” He stiffened suddenly and his hands went to his head.

In the protective circle of Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash, Azalea was doing her best not to cower. But the telepathic presence was building, pressing down on her with the inexorable force of a hundred, then a thousand other minds. The superheroes, who for so long had sensed images and brief feelings of her thoughts, flinched as she tried to keep the doors of her memory shut. Yet the assault was unending, and try as J’onn might he couldn’t keep his telepathic shield up.

With a long, echoing cry, the Watchtower seemed to dissolve like dust, leaving the five of them in a primordial jungle. Heavy shadows hid all but their immediate surroundings, and Wonder Woman glanced behind her to see Azalea on her knees, refusing to lift her face from the ground.

“I can’t...I’m sorry,” she whispered. “They’re making me do this...I c-can’t…” Azalea drew in a breath and tried to stand. Tear tracks marked her face and she had to set her jaw to keep her lower lip from trembling. “Whatever happens, you must let it. It is nothing more than a memory, and it is better that you watch and do nothing.”

As she spoke Azalea appeared to dwindle in size. Her hair grew unruly, and her clothing was replaced by a thin hide shirt and leggings. The scar over her eye vanished, and she flexed all eight of her strong fingers, the crippling damage to her left hand undone.

“But Azalea--” Wonder Woman began.

“This is who I am in this memory,” Azalea said in her teenage voice. “It will not be easy for you to watch, but you can’t change it.” She turned in a circle as if to get her bearings, and then took off running, slapping aside huge leaves that sprang up out of the darkness to bar her path. Without hesitation, Batman followed her, Flash just behind. J’onn and Wonder Woman took to the air in order to avoid stumbling in the blackness, dodging various trees and vines.

“Oh Hera--look!” Wonder Woman said, pointing up through the dense canopy. A humongous teardrop-shaped spaceship dominated the sky, and as they watched, tiny pods detached themselves from the smooth surface and descended toward the earth.

The jungle was awash with ominous sounds--the shrieks and growls of disturbed fauna, coupled with the noise from the alien landing pods filling the air. The Flash pulled up even with Batman, who was trailing young Azalea as close as he dared. “What is this?” he asked the dark knight.

“It’s the day her world died,” Batman answered shortly.

“The ones searching for her want confirmation that she is from Eys Saetmai. This is her final memory of her world, and the story of how she survived,” J’onn said, phasing through a large tree.

Ahead of them, Azalea’s calls echoed back: “Anassa! Dysi!” Over and over, those two names.

“Her parents,” Batman filled in, before anyone could ask. He paused as Azalea screeched to a halt on the forest path, doubling back to look at something. She squatted down, hearing the rasping words coming from a creature in the road.

“ me…” came a wheezing voice as Azalea went closer.

“Be still,” she said softly. “I will heal y--”

A scream, very nearby. Unease trickled down the superheroes’ spines. What was going on--were they near a village? More shouting, followed by the cacophony of a disturbance. The Flash darted away before anybody could stop him.

“Flash--!” J’onn called after him, but the young man didn't appear to notice.

“No, Azalea look out!” Wonder Woman’s sudden move forward was halted by Batman.

“Help,” the choked voice pleaded from in front of Azalea, who was glancing fearfully in the direction of the commotion. She didn't even appear to see the small, five-fingered hand reaching for her face.

Azalea stiffened with pain, and there was the faint smell of burnt flesh. But she held herself up and her eyes closed in concentration, presumably pushing out with her healing power. Then the small girl pulled free from the touch, gasping and gingerly touching the red mark over her eye. It was like a brand, searing and burning long after contact had been broken. Azalea scrambled backward, putting distance between her and the burning touch. She was trying to get her feet under her, to get up and run to the distressed calls of those in her camp.

But the alien--the lizard-like World Burner--she had just healed now sprang lightly up and barred her path. “You saved my life,” he said. “I will now save yours.”

“I want to go back!” Azalea shouted, her voice now thin and piercing. “My people can help me; something is wrong; I must find them!”

“No!” the alien forbade her, but he was interrupted by the noise of someone or something coming up the forest path from the direction of the camp.

“Flash, is that you?” Wonder Woman called, but there was no reply. Instead, there came the strange sibilant accent of the World Burners.

“Rasyl, where are you?” a commanding voice called. Azalea backed away, preparing to melt into the shadows, but her path was suddenly blocked as more of the lizard-like creatures surrounded her and the young World Burner.

Batman and Wonder Woman stood on either side of Azalea, looking straight into the triangular faces of the aliens that were invading this world. The aliens did not notice the trespassers in the memory, and instead tightened the perimeter of their circle. They were so close that Batman could feel the heat coming from their bodies through the mesh of his suit.

Azalea tensed, her gaze scanning their defenses for a hole. Then she moved, dodging around the young World Burner and making for a slight gap between two of the taller aliens. But one of them caught her by the back of her tunic and without any apparent effort, lifted her off of the ground. Her bare feet kicked at the air, and her small hands had balled into fists as she yelled and yelled for help in the vain hope that somebody might hear her.

“Anassa! Help me, Anassaaaaaa!” Her motions slowed, but Azalea’s volume increased as she shouted for her father. “Dysi, please help me!”

The World Burner suspending Azalea in midair prepared to clap a hand over Azalea’s mouth, but the smaller lizard-alien barked a sharp order. “No, she helped me. She can have her life as thanks.”

A rustle of disagreement passed through the ring of scaled aliens. “You cannot, Rasyl. This one is to be killed like all of them. Or did you not read your orders?” Scorn was evident in one of the tall alien’s voice as he addressed Rasyl.

Rasyl bristled and hissed as his authority was challenged. “I know my orders. Can you not hear their screaming? They are healing each other to death. This one--” and he pointed to Azalea who was dangling in silence, “--had her own water and was away at the eating time.”

Wonder Woman gasped, covering her mouth with one hand. “No. No, no, no…” Tears filled her eyes and her hands clenched into fists. “That’s how they did it. I never imagined…”

“The water supply,” J’onn confirmed. “They developed a toxin specifically to reverse the healing ability of her people. It must be like having your mind turned inside out.”

“J’onn J’onzz,” Azalea said very softly. “You will want to raise your mental shields now.” Her gaze was still locked on the World Burners around her.

“Azalea? Stop, you don’t have to finish this,” Batman said. His hands came out from under his cape, ready to wrestle her free from her captor.

“Yes, I do,” she contradicted in a whisper. “It won’t end unless I do. Remember, don’t touch anything. And try to keep up.” With that, Azalea twisted wildly, and the World Burner holding her lost his grip. She fell to the ground with an oof! and scrabbled away in the direction of the village, still hoping for the safety of her home.

As the World Burners began to pursue, she ducked off of the path and melted into the foliage. J’onn and Diana followed by air, leaving Batman to navigate the dark jungle on foot. Azalea slid down a fallen tree trunk, leaped over a sleeping snake, and wove through a stand of vines that hummed faintly at her passing. Like a hulking shadow, Batman followed, his steps only marginally louder than hers.

And then the four of them burst into the forest clearing. Azalea froze in place, twigs and leaves tangled in her wild hair as she looked at what had once been her home. An inexplicable shroud of death hung over the camp, passed to Batman and Wonder Woman through Azalea’s perception. It hit them harder than any physical blow, tearing at their emotional barriers and attempting to overwhelm them with the emptiness where life had once thrived. For a moment, there was no other feeling--not the heat from the cookfires or the breeze through the canopy.

Then Azalea moved forward, as if in a trance. She passed the bodies of her village family--men, women, and children. The wounds were varied and grotesque; testifying to the variety of sicknesses that had afflicted them in their final moments.

Flash stood waiting by the main firepit, his head hung as he stared into the dancing flames. J’onn and Wonder Woman went to him, and he stared blankly at them. “All the screams...that’s all they were. It’s like the ghosts of these people were just...they were still here.”

“Because Azalea doesn’t actually know how it happened. All she saw was the result,” J’onn said in a distant voice.

“Ardsi?” Azalea’s voice floated to them from across the camp. A brief flash of her thoughts showed a wizened old man, and a tent painted with bright images. And there was something else...for the first time, they sensed the feeling of life as Azalea did--a unique aura, almost like a familiar scent.

“J’onn, does she see everything this way?” Flash asked hoarsely.

“Yes,” J’onn replied. “Any who have the telepathic or empathic gift sense others far differently.” He gazed around at all the death as if trying not to see it. “I had thought I had seen the end of planet-wide destruction...I was wrong.”

World Burners began to emerge from the surrounding jungle, ostensibly checking on their handiwork. J’onn caught the Flash’s arm as the young hero tensed. A sudden wind whipped up and the smaller pods Wonder Woman had seen in the sky began to land around the edge of the camp.

Distantly, the faint life that they had sensed faded away. Their feeling of Azalea’s sorrow gave way to fear as the lizard people moved among the tents, searching for her. A spike of terror seemed to pass through the heroes, and a tall World Burner strode into view, Azalea suspended from his grip. But she was staring at somebody on the ground; one of the bent and broken bodies, and her emotions calmed. A new sense of strength filled her, washing away her anger. A distant remembrance of a man--her father--gave her enough composure as the abducting alien took her towards one of the pod-like ship.

And then the memory froze. “Enough,” Azalea said firmly, freeing herself and dropping to the ground. She slowly grew again into her proper shape. “You have seen enough of this to know what I am.” Her tone hardened as she addressed the sky; the invisible telepaths who were watching. “Now either you tell me what you want, or I will take you to a memory so dark that you will beg to have light put back in your souls.” And despite the way her voice shook and she trembled with exhaustion, there was only absolute truth in her threat.

A tremble passed through the air, and suddenly the surroundings faded, as if going out of focus. And the open sharing of Azalea’s thoughts abruptly ceased, leaving the heroes internally alone once more.

“Uh, what a relief,” the Flash said quietly, rubbing his temples. Wonder Woman looked around, as did J’onn.

“We’re on that planet again,” Wonder Woman said with no real surprise.

“Havelock,” J’onn agreed. “There was no life the first time, and I sense no life now.”

As if in response to his words, a spectral figure in a white cloak materialized. “That is because this is merely a projection, J’onn J’onzz. I have verified the identity of Azalea Aleah. Now surrender her to us.”

“Who is ‘us’?” Wonder Woman challenged. Behind her, Batman knelt and lifted Azalea to her feet. She was breathing heavily, clearly tired from struggling against the projection, and she grasped his arm almost reflexively to keep herself standing.

“You put her through that all so you could make sure she was telling the truth?” the caped avenger ground out. He alone had followed Azalea past her father’s mangled body to save the one life that remained in her village...and as parting shot, even the final part of her coming of age rite had been denied her, and she had left her world without even a name from her people.

“Thoughts can be tampered with; memories as well. We, the Collective, have monitored her and found no deception.” The words were simple and devoid of inflection.

“J’onn, can you disrupt their projection?” Batman asked. He knew that they were in the Watchtower, and that this fabricated charade had gone on long enough.

“A Martian could no more affect our superior telepathy than the Eys Sylmai could,” the cloaked figure replied. “You see, we are a higher form of evolution--we have transcended physical form and now exist where and when we want.”

“Well, if you don’t have a physical body, then what could you possibly want with Azalea?” Wonder Woman asked the figure in white. “She’s a healer, not a mind-reader.”

“We have detected...cancerous cells in our awareness,” the embodiment replied. “Someone with her empathic bond could be absorbed into our consciousness to repair the damage.”

“‘Absorbed’?” the Flash repeated. “You mean, you’d take her mind right out of her body? You can’t do that!”

“We can,” the being said. “She’ll be free of her crippled shape--she will be one with us and never fear pain of the flesh again.”

“What about pain of the soul?” J’onn countered swiftly. “You’ll just make her a prisoner again!”

“We cannot persuade you otherwise,” the white figure intoned. “So we will not try. Our consciousness must be preserved as one of the highest forms of evolution.” The spectral being took a single step forward. “You will join us, Azalea Aleah. Or as you were meant to be known...Fienni.”

At that, Azalea grew as still as stone. “H-how can you know that? Only an elder of my people--”

“Highly gifted with the deepest of healing powers can sense a soul name. Now come, Fienni.” The white-cloaked embodiment raised a hand toward her, as if beckoning.

Unbidden, Azalea took her first step away from the superheroes. Then another, and a third step. The white light surrounding the summoning figure blazed even brighter, washing out its outline completely. Azalea didn't even flinch or shade her eyes--she walked as one entranced, until Batman blocked her path.

“Stop, Azalea!” he told her, grabbing her by the shoulders. “This can’t be what you want!”

“My people are bound to help all those who ask,” Azalea replied in a calm, almost emotionless tone.

“But you’re the only one of your people left! There is no one else like you!” he said harshly. “And leaving us won’t change that! They’re more strangers to you than we are.”

And for a brief instant, Azalea’s eyes cleared. “Bruce...don’t let them take me,” she whispered so only he could hear. “They’re strong...stronger than anyone I've ever met.”

“Then fight them!” he said sharply as she twisted in his grasp and tried to keep moving toward the spectral figure. Her right hand grasped at something inside her left glove--it took him a moment to see that she’d detached the prosthetic finger. Then there was a glint of metal, and Azalea jammed the hidden needle into her hip.

“Let go of me!” she gasped. “I can finish this.” And though he wasn’t sure why, Batman obeyed.

“No!” the voice of the white figure cried out, reverberating as many voices cried out. “What did you do?” Azalea lunged forward, hands outstretched. She was engulfed by the radiant light and it pulsed brighter, so that the four superheroes had to completely look away.

“No! You cannot kill us…”

And there was the sudden sound of a body hitting the sandy ground, and then a crackling noise as if an overload was building up. The white light began to strobe, flickering chaotically.

“Not kill,” Azalea said, lifting her face from the ground. “Just cripple. You will never harm others with your gifts again.”


Batman threw himself flat beside Azalea, covering them both with his cape as the white light shattered into sharp fractals that evaporated on contact, along with the illusion of being back on Havelock. Instead, the silver bulkheads and panels of the Watchtower reappeared as if the whole thing had been a bad dream.

J’onn bent down and picked up the hidden injector that had fallen from Azalea’s grasp. “It must be some type of poison,” he said aloud.

“The same poison the World Burners used on her people,” Batman guessed, pulling himself into a crouch.

“Will it kill her?” the Flash asked, the eyeholes of his mask crinkling in worry.

“No,” Azalea answered distinctly, sitting up and rubbing the shoulder she’d landed on. “I’ll just...wish it will. Stay back!” she warned Wonder Woman, who made a move as if to help her up. “You saw what happened to the people on my planet--the same will happen to you. I have hurt humans before...when I was like this.” She winced and stood up.

“One question,” Batman asked. “Could you have killed the Collective?”

Azalea looked at the expressionless triangles of his eyes. “Yes. The poison reverses my ability to heal anyone into being able to harm anyone. Enough harm and the body fails eventually.” She dropped her gaze. “But I couldn’t let them--the Collective--manipulate you or anyone else.” Azalea shut her brown eyes for a moment and just shook her head hopelessly.

“How long will it take for the poison to run its course?” Diana asked.

“A few days, as Angel,” Azalea replied distantly. “A week as myself.”


“Please, I shouldn’t stay here and endanger you,” Azalea said abruptly, turning back to the loose semi-circle of superheroes. “I've...I must go home.” Fienni, you should have come to us.

“The Watchtower has superior medical facilities,” J’onn pointed out. “The poison could be cured in a few hours.”

“No!” Azalea all but shouted, her hands balling into fists. She took a deep breath and tried to calm her tone of voice. She took her spent injector and replaced it within her glove. “No, this is something only my family can do.” You will never be free now, Fienni.

J’onn exchanged glances with the Flash, who shrugged. Wonder Woman opened her mouth to say something, but Batman forestalled her. “It’s all right; we’ll go back in my jet.” At his nod, Azalea all but ran to collect her backpack and rushed to the elevator.

Batman gave a quick, unseen nod to J’onn before following.

Diana waited a few extra seconds after the elevator doors closed before blurting her original question. “What happened to her? It’s like a complete personality shift!”

“She’s terrified,” J’onn said. “That poison has made her into the same monster that killed her people, and separated her from others.” He suppressed a shiver. “But with the use of her soul name, she would have done anything the Collective said, if she hadn’t turned herself into a weapon.”

“Huh, it’s that powerful?” the Flash asked.

“Whether or not it’s powerful isn’t the case,” J’onn said. “It’s the value to Azalea that is the problem. Even if the Collective lied and made up the name Fienni, all she knows is that they are more powerful, they know all about her lost people, and they could force their way into her mind. The Collective used that to their advantage.”

“Right up until it blew up in their faces,” Wonder Woman pointed out. “Why didn’t they see that coming?”

J’onn turned away and went to a group of consoles. “They did not expect it from the older, wiser Azalea. They had seen the young, broken child taken from a jungle, not the one who had lived through years of slavery and torture.” He took a sample dish and brushed his finger across it before sliding it into an analyzer.

“Whatcha doing?” Flash asked.

“I isolated a sample of the poison from the injector. The medical computer will break it down so that we may replicate it, and provide a cure...just in case.”

== <> ==

A shadowy, cat-like shape passed silently through the iron fence enclosing the Wayne estate. The animal didn’t look around; it proceeded directly toward the dark mansion hulking at the top of the hill like a crouching giant. The wind ruffled the brown fur on the animal’s back, and it raised its head as if to catch a familiar scent.

Then the black silhouette of a dog detached itself from the decorative bushes on the east side of the building, growling low in its throat as the other animal approached.

The cat creature showed no fear; it merely stopped in place and waited for Ace to draw closer. The old guard dog, fur well-silvered with age, paused in confusion as he remembered very distantly the evening he had tracked that same scent all over Gotham City’s sewer system. Then with a slight whine and wag of his tail, he went forward and nuzzled the other animal. It accepted the recognition with a flick of it’s prehensile tail and a brief purr before continuing on its original course for the house. Ace paced at it’s side, heading for the hidden door he used to come and go.

She followed Ace inside, the musty and dim interior feeling close and oppressive to her animal senses. Inky shadows washed most of the color out of the rooms, broken only by faint lattice-work illuminations from the windows.

The only light in the house burned with a muted yellow glow, and it was at the elbow of a bent, old man dozing fitfully in an armchair that now dwarfed him. The thick, plush carpet masked Ace’s footfalls, as well as the kasli’s. The light picked up the white streaks along the animal’s muzzle and paws, for it was much older than it had been than at it’s last visit to the Wayne manor.

Ace nudged the man’s clenched, age-spotted hand with his nose, and he stirred. “Hm. Who did you find creeping around out there?” Bruce asked his loyal friend. His cloudy eyes searched the immediate area before landing on the strange animal.

“You?” Bruce asked quietly. “It’s been years since you--”

The kasli forestalled any complaint by jumping up to join Bruce in the chair, favoring one leg due to arthritis. It settled beside him, tucking it’s silvered paws beneath its body. Hesitantly, Bruce reached out and laid shaky fingers on the animal’s head, and her brown eyes closed in apparent pleasure.

A feeling he had ached to remember stole over him--a radiating, alive warmth that seeped through his frail limbs, quelling aches and fortifying faltering systems that had been put through years of abuse in the line of protection and defense. The weight of tiredness and age seemed to lift gradually, and for the first time in years, he felt as if he could hold his head up again.

Come with me, she whispered to him. I want to show you something. And there materialized in his mind’s eye a young girl he had seen years ago. Her black hair framed her face, but the bangs did not hide the scar over her left eye. She reached out with her small, four-fingered hand. Don’t be afraid, Bruce Wayne.

He didn't hesitate--he roused his inner self and took her hand. His strong grip engulfed her tiny fingers, and it was as if she pulled him through an invisible waterfall. He looked back over his shoulder, and there was his body, sitting asleep in his old armchair, one hand still on the kasli’s back. The rest of the room had disappeared--it was only the chair and its occupants that he saw, and when he turned back to Azalea, he didn't see them again.

Azalea did not release his hand as she walked with him across an endless, rolling plain of knee high grass whose horizon was lost in the distance. Invisible fingers of wind swirled patterns through the blades as they merely walked, enjoying the freedom of being able to move unhindered by arthritis or a cane.

When Bruce looked down, it was to see tears standing in Azalea’s brown eyes. He sensed the joy in her heart, so sudden and so great that she had no other way to express it as she gazed across the sun-dappled field. It was her expression of heaven--the best place she could imagine being. No walls to contain her, only endless freedom to romp in golden sunlight across endless acres of grassland without fear.

“Why are you showing me this?” Bruce asked.

“Because I never get to share this,” she answered simply. “I've never had the chance before. This is as old as I could ever have imagined being, and each day I feel like it could be my last day.”

A white, furry head poked up out of the grass a few feet away. The large ears clearly identified the animal, and Azalea let go of Bruce’s hand to go over and pick it up. The rabbit was almost too large for her small arms, but it made the best of it, looking around at Bruce with its pink eyes. For a moment, Azalea snuggled her face into the rabbit’s fur, just before another rabbit, this one smaller and predominantly gray in color but equally as unafraid stuck it’s nose out of the grass and sat up on its hindquarters as if to demand to know what Azalea was doing with its friend.

“Okay, MacGyver, I’ll give her back,” Azalea said, kissing the white rabbit smartly on its wiggling nose before putting it back down. The pair of lagomorphs dashed off again into the grass, and every so often the tips of their ears or the whites of their tails could be seen as they frolicked.