6961/In Erebos: The Ascent

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In Erebos: The Ascent
Date of Scene: 16 July 2021
Location: Tartarus
Synopsis: Some of the Titans climb a staircase.
Cast of Characters: Donna Troy, Caitlin Fairchild, Nadia Pym-van Dyne, Kian, Terry O'Neil, Gar Logan, Damian Wayne, Dick Grayson

Donna Troy has posed:
    "Either we beat them here, or they don't exist," Donna says, peering back down the passage way that leads into this chamber, in the opposite direction from the stairs. "I couldn't say anything in front of her, but the person we just met?" she glances at Terry. "...Who might or might not have been the goddess Hekate. Well, we don't know for sure that she was telling the truth. There may be no army of centaurs, it could have been a trick. We didn't all have to come."

    She sighs softly. "But yeah, arguing against you guys is not? anyway. There's dust here, but not much disturbance. Someone or something came through here not that long ago, a few days or weeks, but twenty thousand hooves have not passed by. Thing is, I'm not certain that? the stairway branches. They may have come another way, and we might meet them on the stairs. That would be bad. If they are coming, we'll want to meet them at the top. There's a huge cavern there, but the entrance is a choke point. We'll try to hold them there as long as possible, because they won't be able to come more than four or five abreast and we'll have a numerical advantage if we're beyond the mouth. They'll break through eventually though, and then it'll be a pitched battle. But the time that happens I hope to have an army of Amazons ready for them. When we get to the top? I'll go to the gate to try to get help. The rest of you? Nightwing, could you form everyone into a defensive position at the top?"

    Donna makes her way to the bottom of the staircase, placing one foot on the bottom step, and unslings her lasso. "I can't tell you how long the staircase is. It'll take a few hours to get up if all goes well, but it may feel longer to you. Possibly much longer." Her eyes go from Titan to Titan, as she loses herself in thought for a moment.

    "Okay. Look, I can't really explain this. But the staircase doesn't want you to use it, going up or down. It'll try to trick you into turning back and go the way you came. You'll probably see things that aren't real. The magic behind this can be very subtle, or very direct. You might think you've got separated from the group. You might think that everyone else has turned around and is heading back for some really good reason. You might think you are on a different staircase altogether. You might meet something on the staircase, and it may be real or it may not. This isn't going to be easy. The only advice I can give you is to keep going up. Just remember that. Up. Whatever else happens, keep telling yourself: up. Everything else is a lie. Probably."

    Donna hands one end of her lasso to Caitlin. "Cait, tie it to your arm. Tie it well. We'll go single file, roped together. Best chance of not losing anyone. I've done this journey before, so I'll take the rear. Good luck, everyone. And -- thank you."

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
Without hesitation, Caitlin accepts the rope from Donna. She stares at the mystical lariat for a second, trying to think, then loops it around her wrist once with a simple hitch knot. Hopefully no one will get pulled off their feet during the hazy ascent-- 'pulling the team's whole weight' can be a literal statement where Caitlin's strength is concerned.

Caitlin murmurs two quiet prayers under her breath: the first an affirmation of her oath to her sisters and the goddesses who watch over them, and the second a prayer to the Almighty for the strength she'll need.

Caitlin's religious life has gotten complicated lately.

Up the stairs she goes, step by step. The ascent is tense, then slow, and then boring, in short order. It's a long plodding path that grinds at the mind, more than the body.

Caitlin jolts awake with a start. Did she fall asleep while walking? Is that even possible? She blinks rapidly and looks around... her room in Titan's Tower?

"Hello?" Caitlin steps into the rec room trepidatiously. No familiar faces. No friends. A message buzzes in her ear: "Cait, we're all downstairs," comes Donna's voice. "You're late! Come join us!"

Caitlin starts towards the elevator, a strangely dissonant sensation that feels akin to walking through water. It doesn't feel right...

...but if her friends are all downstairs, that's where she needs to go. Isn't it?

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
Nadia jumps down from Caitlin's shoulder, returning to her normal size as she goes. This is one climb she is going to have to make under her own power. Taking the length of the lasso's rope when offered to her, she loops it around her own wrist before passing on the remaining slack in turn.

There is definitely a pause as she glances up the massive staircase, so long it disappears from sight in the haze and distance. They're just stairs right? This will be fine, all she has to do is go up. Kerberos was just a doggo, right? But she has a feeling in the pit of her stomach, a gnawing unease that things will not be so easy this time. But when Caitlin begins the ascent, Nadia follows after her beginning the climb, one foot in front of the other.

'Everything else is a lie. Probably.' Those words from Donna stick in the mind of the girl raised in the Red Room. She turns them over in her mind again and again as she trudges up the stairs. That was Nadia's life for so long. In that place everything was lies, the only reliable truth was the science she could test and verify for herself.

It seemed like she'd only spaced out for a moment when Nadia suddenly blinks and looks around. "Wait where is everyone?" She looks around frantically, because suddenly everyone else is gone. The stairs are gone, too. She blinks again at her surroundings. Before her are a series of metal loops bolted into the wall, a ladder leading upward. The walls of the place are cold cement and the furnishings brutally spartan. She knows this place, it's the Soviet era bunker where she spent the first fifteen years of her life, the Red Room.

"Nadia!" A familiar voice calls from behind her.

Kian has posed:
    Even with Donna's lasso looped around his wrist, Kían does not release Terry's hand.  The cat's tilt-a-whirl mind gives him, oddly, something to focus on that isn't their surroundings.  He has no idea what might be thrown at him, physically or psychologically.  But physically, he has to just keep walking forwards and upwards.  And psychologically... well, being distracted just might help.
    "Nnh.  Stairs," he comments after a few minutes.  "They are for wingless children.  'Up' woul' be a lot easier if I coul' jus' fly there."  He glances back towards Donna.  "I know.  No flyin'."
    Still, he glances up towards the ceiling as if assessing whether there was enough room to get airborne.
    You know, just in case.
    His pace slows, and his hand tightens on Terry's, when he looks forward again.  {/Is the passage getting narrower?/}  There's just the beginning thrill of panic twined around that thought.

Donna Troy has posed:
    "Fly if you like, Kian," Donna calls up the line. "But there isn't much room. And you need to stay with the group. And stay on the rope." One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Seven heads bobbing up and down ahead of her in the gloom. She has been this way before. Down and up again. They can do this - all it takes is focus. Left foot forwards, right foot forwards, climb. Climb. Climb. It had been tougher for her sisters. It'll be tougher on her team-mates. The Amazon had no doubt that the blessings the goddesses had granted her, the adopted daughter of Queen Hippolyta, helped her be less strongly affected by the magic here. She was there for her sisters. She's there for her team-mates. No problem.

    One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

    From a side-passage, a woman quietly joins them, coming into step beside Donna. She's beautiful, dark-haired, dressed in an inappropriately sheer robe, with bare feet. She's carrying a torch. Donna glances at the woman to her side, and keeps walking.

    "Not going to say hello?" the woman says after a few minutes of silent ascent. Donna shrugs her shoulders quickly, says 'Hello', and keeps walking. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

    After a few more minutes, the woman frowns. "Rude," she declares. "Typical Amazon. So arrogant. You Amazons think you're so important, but you're not. You're just a failed power-play, you know that? Athena's little army. As much to undermine Hera's authority as it was to undermine Ares'. Why do you think the Mother wasn't one of the five? And why do you think Hermes and Hephaestos were involved, when they're not even goddesses?"

    Donna shrugs again.

Terry O'Neil has posed:
?Terry is uncharacteristically quiet once the magical lasso is tied around his arm. It is not the effect of the lasso by itself, although that does squirm against his bicep like a ribbon of ants. Divine magic is not at work here, or else he would be giggling puddle on the ground right now, but there is /something/ to the magic of the Amazons that is giving him a slight mystical allergic reaction. Flecks of order coalesce and swirl around him, making him feel slightly constricted, but with enough room to breathe.

Terry frowns, suddenly brought to wakefulness out of his own thoughts by Kian's own thought. "Closing in?" the Cheshire Cat asks, frowning. His green eyes survey the panorama around him, and he is moving across the very face of the world, like a scarab inching painfully over the ageless expanse of a mighty redwood, its size unfathomable.

"They aren't closing in... they are..." the cat's voice falters for a second as he fishes for the right word. "Enormous..."

There are no walls, and every step in this staircase is akin to a wide mesa that borders with another, taller and unconquerable.

He was so small and so insignificant. Beside him strode giants- Troia, towering into the sky, her features a blur of blue and her boots releasing small earthquakes with every step.

He stops dead in his tracks, paralyzed to the core. He was smallness itself, nothingness. He could hide in the cracks of the stone steps and he would never be found. And none would notice- why should they? He was so insignificant.

Kian has posed:
    And this is another problem.
    Is that really Donna telling Kían he can fly, or is that an illusion designed to mislead the birdman into a trap?  He had been warned not to fly before, quite firmly, and now without warning it's all right?
    For the moment, his feet stay on the ground.
    Terry's reaction... surprises him, pulling him out of his incipient claustrophobic fit, moreso than being jerked to a stop when his teammate froze.
    He had already closed his eyes defensively when it seemed the path was narrowing.  He realizes that there's an opportunity here for him, and immerses himself in what Terry sees -- and positively /exults/ in it.  Vast open spaces, nothing even remotely threatening to close him in, like the skies on his own world.
    He gets alongside Terry and curls a wing around his shoulders, trying to urge him forwards, trying to share the sense of joy he's able to pull from the vision without strengthening the vision itself.
    Telepathy is a tricky thing, even when you've grown up with it.

Donna Troy has posed:
    One.Two. Three. Four. Five. Six... six... there. Seven. "FOCUS everyone!" Donna calls forwards, giving a little jerk of her lasso to help wake people up.

    Donna and the mysterious woman, unseen and unheard by the rest of the group, continue to walk abreast a few minutes more before the woman gives a frustrated grumble. "Why do you think nobody cares that you Amazons no longer serve your purpose, hidden away on your island? It's because you didn't work out. Ares and Eris outmaneuvered Athena, made you obsolete. Just a failed push for position among the Olympians, no longer relevant to anyone. Even Athena doesn't know what to do with you any more. Your continued existence is nothing more than a mild embarrassment."

    Donna stays silent. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

    "No. You're worse! Worse than the other Amazons. High-and-mighty Princess Troia. You think you're so important, just because Hippolyta adopted you! At least the other Amazons went through real hardships. All you did was be raised in a palace. I saw you last time you were here, barking orders to your sisters whenever they strayed, when you were supposed to be just one of the patrol. Just like you are with your companions now. High-and-mighty princess Troia, everyone should do what she says, because she's a /princess/."

    Donna gives an amused snort. "Swing and a miss," she replies to the strange woman walking at her side. "If you think the 'princess' thing is going to hit home, you're way off base. Still, that tells me you're not my subconscious or you wouldn't have tried /that/ angle of attack. Are you one of the Lampades then?"

    The woman purses her lips for a few moments, then nods at Donna. "At least you asked. Cautious. You were careful not to name the key-holder too. Unlike your over-enthusiastic Wonderlander friend up ahead. Announcing to the world that he believed Hekate would deign to talk to him, as if he were more than the dregs of some mortal sorcerer's foolish subconscious, arising out of the chaos where Dream meets the Fae Realms."

    Donna raises an eyebrow. "Is that what Wonderland is?" she asks. "But you forget he is more than that. He has helped save the world. He fights for what is right. He's a hero. They all are. You know what that means."

    It's the woman's turn to remain silent a while before she replies, in a musing tone, "She kind of liked him. Or was amused by him, at least. She has a soft spot for the Fae, you know. And Wonderlanders are almost Fae. Fae-adjacent. You're lucky you met her, not the king. Hades doesn't like Fae coming here. They're always extra trouble."

    Donna grins. 'Extra trouble' isn't a bad description of Vorpal's role with the Titans, after all. Addressing Hekate like that had been such a /Terry/ thing.

    Wait. FOCUS, Troia. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

Terry O'Neil has posed:
So vast, and so little. He is a grain of sand in a desert, a quarter-note lost in the middle of a Wagnerian opera, all leit and no motif. There is an attempt to snap out of it, but the current sweeps the human half of Terry away, even though Kian's urgings manage to get his feet moving mechanically. He appears unaware of the Akiar's presence.

A emptiness, and a great expanse of nothingness, whose vault looms over him, and Terry feels his knees grow faint, suddenly under the apprehension that he is about to fall upwards into that merciless sky.

And then there is a touch of feathers and a whispering of wings, and his heart jumps into his throat and his pulse quickens. A reflex older than words fires off inside him, harkening to twilight days hidden in caves and crawling through the underbrush, fleeing under the certaintythat something in the sky was coming to get him!

"No!" he means to shout, but he can only whisper, as he makes a hasty sideways retreat, away from the pesence.

And with each step, his feet get closer and closer to the edge...

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
"Hold on, kiddo."

The voice is one that Caitlin has never heard with her own ears, but it's one that she knows as well as any other. She turns, quickly, and her eyes fall on a face she's seen only in photographs.

Alexander Fairchild smiles at her from down the hall, the expression full of a complex range of rueful resignation and patriarchal pride.

"Daddy?!" Caitlin starts towards him, away from the elevator. Eyes round and widen and her weight shifts over her toes.

Abruptly Alexander is right in front of her, somehow both the height he was in life and the height with which children regard their parents. He grabs her shoulders and pulls her stumbling in one direction. "No, I mean--"

The vision flickers out and Caitlin stumbles two paces towards the wall on her left. The wall to her right-- well, it's not a wall. It's a void up and down, lit by some invisible force and heavy with the air of the Underworld. Had she not stumbled, she'd have gone right off the edge. And possibly taken the Titans for quite a tumble.

"--hold on!" She lurches back into the dreamworld, and Alex drops one hand while keeping the other gripped firmly around her tricep.

"What--" Caitlin looks around. "I'm not home? This isn't home? How are you here?" A babbling well of questions starts, and Alex cuts them off with a raised palm and a 'shhhh' drawn over them.

"Listen. I'll explain, but /listen/," he hisses, and grips her arm. In life Alex couldn't have dimpled her arm, but it turns out in a dream, Parental Arm-Gripping Powers persist.

"You're in danger," he tells her, voice low. "Tartarus is clouding your mind, but you've got Donna's lasso around your wrist."

The Tower in her dream rumbles to the sound of distant thunder. "You need to stay focused because you can't drift off here. Tartarus wants you to go *down*. The Lasso's helping to fight but you can't rely on it. Those two forces are getting near that... that kill switch in your brain." In Tartarus, Caitlin's face goes pale with a clammy sweat despite their ascension.

"You -can not- drift off, Caitie," he tells her. "Because you'll kill your friends, or Tartarus is going to take you."

In the distance, another thundering peal clashes outside the Tower-- but it's more a screech of fury and incoherent rage than it is a sound nature produces.

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
To anyone watching her outside of the illusions, the normally effervescent and energetic Nadia's expression seems to have gone blank. It seems like her pace may have slowed, though it is hard to tell as she continues to be dragged along by Caitlin in front of her. It is perhaps a good thing in the end as it provides some extra dead weight holding Caitlin back when she stumbles. But for all intents and purposes save some very robotic trudging along, it's like Nadia isn't home right now.

*    *    *

One hand on the ladder rungs, the rungs that will take her to freedom, the outside world and her father that she has only been able to dream of after the stories they told her, Nadia looks back and there is her one friend in this world, Ying.

"Nadia stop! What are you doing?!" The tall raven haired Chinese teenager calls out as she runs towards her.

"Ying? Wait what?" There is a moment of confusion on Nadia's part, was Ying supposed to be in this memory?

"Nadia, you can't go! Don't leave me!" Ying's words cut like a knife. It's true. She left her best, only friend behind when she escaped the Red Room. "Mother told me if you stay we can be together again!"

Briefly, Nadia's grip begins to loosen upon the ladder rungs as she listens to Ying, before gripping them even more tightly again. "No, Ying. I'm sorry. You're not supposed to be here." She takes a deep breath. "I did leave you behind, I had no idea where you were after we were separated for being friends. But I also came back for, you're safe now. This isn't real." She tells the specter of her friend as she begins to climb up towards the hatch, towards freedom.

"NO! NADIA! YOU CAN'T GO!!! COME BACK!!!" Ying dashes forward and begins climbing after Nadia in a panicked frenzy.

There is a harrowing moment when the shade of her best friend manages to grab Nadia's ankle and she stumbles on the stairs, but ultimately kicks free opening the bunker's hatch and emerging into... Titans Tower?

Donna Troy has posed:
    "You're right, that was a mistake."

    It has been a while since either of the two at the back of the column ascending the stairs have spoken. Minutes? Hours? Time doesn't seem subject to meaningful measurement, here on the stairway. Donna glances at the mystical woman at her side, and responds with an only half-curious "Hmm?"

    "The whole arrogance thing. I've been giving it some thought and you're right, it makes no sense. I mean your sister is /Wonder Woman/, right?"

    Donna shrugs and turns back to the ascent, counting heads again. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

    "You were in the public eye first. By five years, even. You were famous. Loved. A hero to millions. Troia of the Titans! An inspiration. Of all of us, of all those who's power comes from Olympus, it was you who was best known and best regarded. Do you think the Twelve appreciated that? Being usurped by a false Amazon? Gods like worship, you know. Did you ever think about in those terms? That every poster of you on a teenage boy's bedroom wall was a shrine, that every time someone invoked the name of the Titans and pleaded for your aid in their hours of need, they were praying to you? But then you turn your back for five minutes and the next thing you know your sister shows up and overnight she becomes an inspiration and a hero to billions."

    "What are you now, Troia? A hero, an idol, a godling? No, you are /Diana's sister/. Your light is gone and you are illuminated only by the fire of her glory. You do it yourself too, you know. You introduce yourself to people as her sister. Yet it's you who paved her way. John to her Christ, your head and your achievements served up on the salver of public curiosity. You are no longer even yourself, you are a factoid about Diana. A piece of trivia, your own striving just a footnote in her story. Don't you think that's sad?"

    "I think you're trying to provoke me, Lampad. Nothing more." One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

    "No, this is me being sympathetic. I mean who does Diana turn to? Cassandra, not you. Wonder Girl. Shouldn't /you/ have been Wonder Girl, Troia? But no. Now she is Diana's protege and confidante. They share something you will never have - Cassandra is Diana's real sister, real family. Not some adopted stray like you. Can you tell me that doesn't rankle even just a little bit?"

    "Really? Is this your angle now?" Donna asks with a derisive snort. " I could not be more proud of what Cassie has achieved, or more pleased for her. I adore her, and she's great for Diana."

    The Lampad shifts her torch to her other hand and grins brightly at Donna. "And that's what I mean. You think of what's good for Cassie, what's good for Diana. Not what's good for Troia. You're not arrogant at all, just hopelessly, hopelessly lost. Look at you now, marching to the defense of Themyscira in Amazonian armor conjured for you by my mistress because you couldn't find it in yourself to dress the part. Your own armor was destroyed and you never replaced it. Aikaterine in her Themysciran armor is more Amazon than you, right now. And what do you dress in, instead? As one of your so-called Titans? Look at the little one, in her wasp armor. Or your old friend with the sticks in his gorgeous black-and-blue. The small assassin, in his bright colors and his scowl. Even the shape-shifter has a costume that declares him a hero of this new world you have adopted, this America. You love them all, you'd die for every one of them, but you refuse to dress like them. Instead you hide yourself in costume of civilian clothing, incapable of deciding if you are Amazon or Titan. Pretending you are neither. It's sad, really."

    One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.

Kian has posed:
    {/You are *not* going to fall!/}
    Kían's mental tone is sharp, almost peremptory.  "/Tenár'h/," he says, switching to speaking aloud.  "*/Tenár'h/*," he repeats more firmly, "I will *not* let you fall."  The mental link between the two deepens.  {/You *can not* fall./}
    The mind link deepens further: the feel of the wing around Terry's shoulder changes.  It doesn't go away; if anything, Kían asserts his own presence, trying to break through the haze of fear.
    And pushes harder, mind to mind, making the connection closer and closer until Terry can feel the weight of wings on his /own/ back.
    {/You *can not* fall,/} Kían repeats firmly.

Terry O'Neil has posed:
He cannot fall, it was an impossibility. How could you fall when feathers blossomed from your back like that? With only a few strokes, he could rise above the toil and trouble of the ants below. Had he? Yes, he had always had wings, had always been part of him. He simply had chosen not to use them until now.

Precisely what his reasoning had been, he couldn't quite recall, but that is now unimportant- beating the air, the powerful wings carry him into the air, soaring past the mesas, past the plateaus, and passing between the ponderous steps of the giants, only to gain the sky and move past their colossal heads into the gut-wrenching void, hanging above the world with only faint mists below, endless blue above, and a burning eye in the skyt, glaring down on him.

"I cannot fall..." he says, arms spread to each side "I cannot fall..."

But is it his imagination, or is that glare in the sky getting hotter, and larger?

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
Disoriented by the sudden change of scenery, Nadia's balance becomes unsteady for a moment. Outside of the dream she nearly stumbles again before being tugged along by the rope.

"The tower? How did I..." Get from the Red Room to Titans Tower on the other side of the world? It's a valid question, but she's still not thinking completely clearly and pushes it aside for the moment. "This is the hangar, that's... that's right I just finished the new propulsion system for the T-Jet."

Memories come flooding back unbidden as she 'remembers' what she was doing just moments before. "That's right." She says to herself looking down at the note in her hand that she was just about to tape to the external diagnostic console for the T-Jet. "They have my Dad, everyone is in danger because of me. I have to go back."

Nadia finishes taping the note to the console and turns to go. 'As long as my Dad is safe, as long as my friends are safe, it doesn't matter what happens to me.' She thinks as she walks back towards the elevator. '...right?'

Standing in front of the elevator, something felt wrong. Nadia's extended index finger hovered in front of the 'down' button. That's where she needed to go right? She had to go down to leave the tower and head to the Russian Consulate to turn herself in.

'Just remember that. Up.' Donna's words come back to her.

"No. This is wrong. I mean it's right but it's wrong." Nadia speaks to herself out loud now. Thinking out loud her father sometimes called it and she was prone to doing it too. "This is how the memory goes, this is what happened, but it's wrong. I was being so stupid."

'Everything else is a lie. Probably.'

Donna's first words came back to her again. This was a lie. It was the truth but also a lie. If there was one thing Nadia had learned from the Red Room, it was that even the truth can be a lie and this truth was a lie, it was not her, not anymore.

Jabbing a finger into the 'up' button the entire tower seems to shake as if registering its displeasure with the young woman. "Up." Nadia says to herself as she steps inside and the elevator zips upward towards the roof.

When the doors open however, what greets her is not the roof, what greets her is Despair.

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
"Caitlin." Alex is still speaking to her, but his face wobbles with distortion. "Listen, you have to -focus-. We need to get you out of here."

"But-- how can you be here?" Caitlin's dumbfounded by his presence, and the way reality shifts and blurs around them.

"It's-- I'm not /here/," Alex explains. He looks around, then points at the door back to Caitlin's room. "Okay. Through there. No matter what, no matter what you hear, don't go *down*. Take the doors."

Alex vanishes with the next pounding roar that shakes the Tower. Caitlin looks around, uncertain, then starts towards her 'room'. Touching the door control slides it open, and Caitlin steps through into--

--Columbia University. Low Library. First day. Students milling around, moving, faceless blurs in the crowd.

Alex reappears next to Caitlin and looks down at her, with surprise on his face. "It's been quite a while since you looked like that," he says with an amused tone.

Caitlin looks at herself and yelps. She's much closer to the ground now. Hair somehow frizzy and greasy all at once. Heavy glasses, badly fitting jeans, and a cheap gray hoodie she's almost swimming in. Plus she's five-five and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, and skinny as a rail. "What is going on here?" she demands of her father-- because none of the passers-by are probably worried. Or real.

"Look, we're in ... kind of an in-between place," Alex explains. "Tartarus is close to the underworlds, to the places souls go. Between that, the rope, the staircase, and that little bit of my personality fragment still in here--" he taps Caitlin's forehead. "Well it was enough for me to... slip through the cracks."

He blinks in surprise at Caitlin's expression; stricken, confused, conflicted, worshipful, overwhelmed. "Uh... you're still the tallest two year old I've ever seen," he offers.

Caitlin crashes into him with a sobbing hug and presses her face against his sternum. Awkward and uncertain, Alex hugs her back with a hesitancy that grows into a reassuring embrace. He pats her head and for lack of knowing what else to do, simply holds her tight while Caitlin cries it out. He's got a little misty-eyed spiritual tears in his eyes as well.

It's not every day that the blurred lines between reality and afterlife intersect on a team of superheroes making the perilous journey up from Tartarus while clinging to a magical rope, after all.

More precious still, though, is the spirit of the long-dead soldier being able to hug his daughter. And despite the looming danger around them, they both take a long few seconds to let the hug speak what they don't have time to say.

Then in the distance, at the base of the steps, screams and shouts erupt. Caitlin looks up to see a pair of Dominators stepping out from their crashed ship, energy weapons in hand.

She takes one pace towards the stairs-- and then Alex grabs her. "No! It's a trick! C'mon, quickly!" He tugs her up the stairs, trying to get Caitlin to move towards the library instead.

Donna Troy has posed:
    The Tower is empty. Troia doesn't need to look, she knows it already. It's all so /familiar/. The stone walls and the high pillars of Titan's Tower's main room echo her own footsteps back at her, and there's not another sound. She slows her steps up the marble stairway leading to the dorms, Caitlin's name dying on her lips. There are no other sounds. Troia knows because she has dreamed this dream before, many times, since Doomsday. She feels herself start to turn on the stairs, and she knows from memory where she is going next.


    Down to the memorial room. Down to the place where she will see every niche but her own filled with a statue of the fallen. She is the last Titan, and all the rest are dead. She knows it already, but knowing doesn't lessen the dread of anticipation, or free her from the inevitability of making the journey down to see those filled niches for herself. Down.

    ""Why do you think my mistress gave you the saffron robes first?" Troia blinks and looks down at her feet, half-turned on the stair, one dangling over the edge, ready to take a step down. She turns back and continues upwards.

    "Because it amused her, I suppose," she replies. "Your mistress isn't someone I'd try to second-guess." One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.

    "More specifically. Why would she do /that/, Troia Krokopeplos? Everything she does has meaning. What do you think it meant?"

    "That she was trying to provoke me. Like you are. Beyond that I couldn't care less." One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

    Troia continues the ascent in silence, the Lampad beside her frowning. "You're not much fun, Troia," she says after a while. "You're too serious. You're rigid as the stone these stairs are carved from. I'm not sure the Amazons were good for you after all. You should be nicer to me. I could help you. In fact I /am/ helping you, you know. But I could help you more. I could tell you who your mother is."

    "I know who my mother is," Troia replies quickly, a little too sharply.

    "Your real mother, Troia. The one who gave birth to you. You show such little curiosity about her. It's not natural."

    One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. "FOCUS everyone! Up! Up! Keep going!" Donna's voice is a little too loud. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.

Gar Logan has posed:
"Left, left, left right left!"

Gar, looped in and close to Kian and Terry, takes the steps evenly at first, trying to lighten the mood with a military-style cadence. Real ones, the raunchier the better, but in this case he uses it as a way to focus, to keep his breathing and his pace even.

"I don't know, but I've been told! Being a Titan means you never fold!"
"We all live in Titans Tower! Vorpal smells and needs a shower!"
"Kian's got wings and he can fly! Way way up there in the sky!"
"Donna's cool and she can fight! Always tries to do what's right!"
"Raven's scary and that's no joke! What's she hiding in that cloak?"
"Caitlin makes all the food! Baked and fried and even stewed!"
"Nadia buzzes like a bee! She can get as small as me!"
"Robin's grouchy and really small! But he always gives his all!"
"Everyone loves Nightwing's butt! Must be what makes him strut!"
"Beast Boy's awesome and the best! Have to focus to pass this test!"
"Sound off, one two!"

He trails off by the time he's finished, because something to one side draws his attention. It's his parents, waving to him as they begin to descend the stairs. "Garfield, come here! It's us! We found a way down the waterfall safely and we've been trying to find you ever since! We can be together again, as a family!"

"Yeah, right," Gar answers with a frown, even though seeing them again gives him pause and causes his eyes to shift away briefly. "That's like the first thing I expected you to throw at me. I know they're gone, and they're not coming back. I've already faced that. Besides, it's not that hard to find me. I'm a Titan."

As he reaches out, he feels feathers and a wing, drawing himself closer to Kian, which in turn brings him more in contact with Vorpal as well. The three of them have been thorough some things, and in a part of his mind he is aware of Kian's sense that things are closing in around him, of Vorpal feeling small and insignificant. "Steady, guys..we can do this. Remember, we're all together here. We've got each other."

"But you forgot us, didn't you?" comes another voice he hears. Mento. Steve Dayton. His adoptive father. "You like my money, but you couldn't wait to get away from us and go off and join the Titans, could you? You really just wanted to be there all along and you had to settle for the Doom Patrol, didn't you? You don't even think about us, and we're the ones who helped save your life. Where's the thanks? Where's the gratitude?"

For the first time since starting his path up the stairway, Gar hesitates. "No, it's not like that..." he insists, holding up a hand, shaking his head.

Kian has posed:
    The birdman welcomes Gar's closer connection to the mind link and responds with the mental equivalent of a hug, but circumstances with the feline have suddenly taken a turn that needs immediate attention.  {/Oh, for... Vorpal!  /Terry/!  *Tenár'h*!!/} Kían 'sends with increasing 'volume' -- why did the farmer hit the donkey with a two-by-four?  To get its attention.  {/'Not going to fall' and 'go for orbit' are not the same thing!  Just because you're not going to hit the ground doesn't mean you don't have a ceiling!  Level flight, /tenár'h/, level flight./}
    Mind-to-mind, he demonstrates as best he can, trying to lead Terry into something more closely resembling a nice, level glide rather than a rocket launch.
    {/Follow me.  I know how to fly.  I would not steer you wrong.  I would *never* steer you wrong./}

Terry O'Neil has posed:
Terry is struggling to stay away from the sun. The warmth, the brightness. It is so inviting-

And then there's Kian flying by his side, trying to keep him steady. It works quite well, for a time, and there is almost a certain quality to the sky, as if it were to burst with impatience. "You've never steered me wrong. You and Gar. Without you-"


Where was Gar?

The thread of Gar's thoughts come feeding into him through their telepathic contact, and the sky becomes cloudy and then, pitch black as the sun is snuffed out.

He's no longer flying. His bare feet were on the ground, but the ground beneath his feet feels... strange. It's not the cold stone. It's also not warm. It befuddles him.

But not as much as the figure staring at him from out of the shadows, dimly lit by a light source that isn't immediately visible. Within Vorpal's mindscape, something else moves, pushing a massive column of darkness to force Kian out, out, /OUT!/

"... dad?" he asks, frowning. The profile looks... very close to his, but clearly older, far more filled out and stronger.

"Dad!" He calls out, and starts running towards the figure.

Only for it to vanish.

He turns around, and he does so out on the staircase as well. "Dad?"

"You've forgotten... everything," the voice floats down the darkness, downwards. "Do you want to know why you're here?"

Terry takes a step downwards. "Here?"
"Why you are alive."
"You know..."
"You know and you never told me?" his voice raises.

The other voice comes up to him again.

"You didn't care enough to find out. You let yourself become Beast Boy's plaything."
"What? How dare-"
"How dare I? How dare you presume. He will grow tired of you and leave you for something wilder, more exciting. Newer. That's what he does."
"You are wro-"
"How could he stay? We both know the truth. You are not who you say you are."

The Cheshire's fists clench tighter, and he starts taking several steps further down. "You! You---"
"You are nothing more than a lesser version of me."
"If you want to be... more... catch me."

Gar Logan has posed:
Wait, why is Vorpal ascending toward the sun? What's really going on here? It's difficult to make sense of some of this, and while Gar receives that sense of a hug from Kian, there is something greater happening, a larger danger in play.

"We care about you, Gar. And we miss you. Things haven't been the same since you left." Elasti-Girl, Rita Farr, the other half of his adoptive parents, tries to appeal to him in a different way, yet there's something beneath the surface that hints at it being less than honest.

Gar says, "I miss you too, and I'll visit soon, but..there's stuff we gotta deal with first, stuff that can't wait. Have to keep going." Does he care about them? Yes. They /are/ important to him, and helped him prepare for being a Titan whether they know it or not. It's more complicated than he can deal with right now, however. He speeds up his pace to leave them, hearing Mento's voice calling after him.

"I knew it! Leaving us again! It's what you do, boy!"

Kian has posed:
    Evicted from Terry's mind, disoriented, Kían hasn't even a moment to regain his bearings when everything goes blue for him.
    Kían hadn't been introduced to Douglas Adams yet, or he might have gotten a giggle out of thinking /Oh no, not again!/
    Right now in the birdman's mind there's no room for humor, accidental or otherwise.  Where is he?  No, he knows, he's been here before, he's being given another chance, all he has to to is arrest his fall and go back.
    He takes to the air, even though in his mind he already /is/ in the air, tugging on the rope binding them all together, straining upwards.
    The hole he fell through, it's still there, he can see the inside of the starship faintly through the blue haze.
    He can go back *home*!
    He can go back...
    Go back...
    Go back!

Donna Troy has posed:
    "So..." the Lampad begins after a short silence.

    "No, I'm not interested," Donna replies curtly. "Hippolyta's my mother. Someone else gave birth to me, but I never knew her. I was lost at sea, and I doubt even Poseidon was paying attention. Nobody knows who she was, and I'm not going to let you pretending you do distract me." Her eyes look at the group ahead. Terry looks like he's being a bit erratic, but Gar and Kian are staying close to him. The three seem to be looking after each other. Good. The rest seem to me moving a bit mechanically. Donna has seen behavior in other, Amazon companions, that previous time she was here.

    "Oh no. /Everyone/ knows, Troia. Apart from you." The Lampad doesn't pause a moment before changing the subject. "So, why did you abandon the demon-witch? You shouldn't have left her alone. One of you could have stayed. /You/ could have stayed. Aikaterine's an Amazon. Couldn't you trust her to lead this mission? Or do you always have to do everything yourself, Troia, because you don't trust anyone apart from yourself? Was it so important you came along that you were prepared to abandon your lover in Tartarus? Maybe some part of you thinks that's where she should be. Did you consider that?"

    Donna grits her teeth. "We left her at the gate, and she'll be home long before us. She can look after herself. I trust her, Lampad. I trust all of them. You can't fight beside someone unless you can trust them."

    "You left her with my mistress. Do you trust my mistress too?"

    The motion is too swift for the eye. Her mother likes to joke that Donna had been granted the boon of Hermes' silver tongue, but there are times when she moves with a speed that can startle a speedster, at least for a moment. The Lampad's eyes widen for a moment as she finds herself lifted off the ground by her neck, held out over an abyss that may or may not be there. Her fingers clutch at Donna's, but she can't shift them. "Be very careful, Lampad," Donna hisses. "If you have something to say, say it."

    The pair stare at each other for a few moments, and the Lampad lowers her eyes. "It was just talk," she says. Donna keeps staring at her a little longer, then lowers her to the ground with a nod before resuming the march upwards.

    "It better be," Donna says, not looking back.

    The Lampad looks up in silence, remaining still on the step, watching the Titans make their difficult progress. After a while, she raises her torch high, and the light seems to momentarily brighten, illuminating the walls, the stairs, the ceiling and the Titans with a simple, clean, homely light, granting the Titans - at least those not too deeply lost in their own minds - glimmer of clarity.

Terry O'Neil has posed:
"Come back!" Vorpal almost screams, taking several steps down, chasing after that voice, that voice that has been missing since the day he was born. That voice with all the answers, the absence of which gnaws at the foundation of his confidence every day of his life, even as he is too afraid to acknowledge it. "Don't leave me-!"

There, down several flights, a barely-dinstinguishable Cheshire figure, looking at up at him.

"You don't dare."

Things become a little more muddled now, as if several realities were trying to overlap each other. On top of the staircase with his waiting father, there is the curvature of the air and the whistling wind. A spaceship, and... Kian, flying away from him.


Turning around, he starts racing up the steps that shouldn't be there, across the firmament. He stumbles, though, and falls forward, his hand reaching out grasp for something before he falls into the nothingness below, a failure in his quest to keep Kian from leaving.

And at that moment, a faint light pierces the convergence of worlds, and there is a leg in front of him as he tumbles forward. He'd know its owner anywhere by its shape, even without the telltale green hue. The Cheshire cat's hand darts froward and grabs Gar's leg, even as the clarity threatens to recede into the illusion again. "Gar! Gar! Kian!" he says. Can Gar even hear him?
Is Gar even there?
Where are they again?

Damian Wayne has posed:
     Damian had done a pretty good job of ignoring those apparitions around him so far. But it wasn't until now that a man appeared to him, about as tall as Bruce Wayne, but gaunt, silver hair on his temples, and a bit of a Fu Manchu beard on his face. "Damian." The apparition of Ra's said, looking to the boy in the Robin outfit. "You are -not- my grandfather." Robin says aloud, keeping on his way up the stairs. "You should know I can be anywhere you tread on this earth, boy." Damian kept ignoring him. "You know it to be true. You know you aren't meant for this life. You are meant for greater things, meant to surpass -me-."

"I have surpassed you, I chose an honorable path."

"You chose to join The Detective, you are the Demon's Hand. You know that you cannot escape what you are. What -I- made you to be."

  "I escaped you once, and I still have." Robin's continuing discourse with the Ra's that isn't keeps nagging at him as he trudges forward.

Gar Logan has posed:
There is a hazy awareness of the things Vorpal and Kian are dealing with, but Gar is still fending off his own issues with the trickery of the stairs. Just about the time that light brightens things around everyone, it seems to cut through the haze of uncertainty, creating something to focus on. This is right as he says something.

"I'm..not going to leave you."

Who it's intended for is not specified, but maybe it's for whoever needs to hear it.

Then there's a hand clinging to his leg, a familiar-feeling one, and he /thinks/ he sees Kian trying to fly away again. How far he'd get while tethered to the others remains to be seen, but he does like Vorpal and reaches out to claim one of Kian's legs as well. {/Together. Need to stay together./}

And he..sings to them in their heads, just the two of them:

So close, no matter how far
Couldn't be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are
And nothing else matters

Never opened myself this way
Life is ours, we live it our way
All these words, I don't just say
And nothing else matters

Trust I seek and I find in you
Every day for us something new
Open mind for a different view
And nothing else matters

Thanks, Metallica. Really.

Kian has posed:
    It's *so close*!
    Kían brings his wings down hard, but the way back home doesn't get any closer, and the blue haze pales and lightens and whitens and...
    ...and that is a cavern roof over him, and Terry is calling his name, and Gar is pulling him back, physically, not from home, but /to/ home.
    He stops straining upwards, /back/wards, and drops down to the steps again, and throws an arm around Gar's shoulders, looking for Terry as well.  {I'm sorry.  I wouldn't leave you, not like that./}  He looks around, forcing himself to see walls, ceiling, steps, teammates.  The way to the ship was an illusion, one he tells himself he probably should have been ready for.  {I'm sorry/,} he repeats.  {I was... unprepared./}

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
Elevator? Roof? No, another disorienting shift later events have become much more recent as Nadia finds herself in the Department X facility beneath the Greenland ice sheet face to face with Despair.

Despair, aka Otchaya Kudrin, aka the sinister copy of Nadia created by the head of the Red Room with all of Nadia's knowledge and potential but none of her kindness or desire to help others, only unflinching loyalty to Mother.

Tiny, then suddenly full sized Despair delivers a vicious spinning kick to Nadia's gut that sends her flying back and knocks the wind out of her. It takes a moment for the surprise to wear off, she's not used to fighting against her own brand of Shrink-Fu. On the stairs Nadia stumbles again, but thankfully the lasso is there to catch her, even as she wheezes like someone actually did just plant a solid hit straight into her gut.

She remembers this, the shock of this moment, coming face to face with Despair after managing to rescue the Red Room Science Class members. It was like looking into a mirror, a really dark (and painful) mirror.

Otchaya wasn't like Hope, the Ant-Girl who came through from that twisted doppelganger world. That girl wasn't Nadia, she saw that for herself when she visited the doppelganger in her cell after she was captured. Hope had had a completely different life, experiences, even DNA after further genetic tampering from her father. Otchaya was different though, she was, is, a copy of Nadia. Their body was the same, their memories were the same, the only difference was a few mental tweaks to her personality plucking out all the goodness and replacing it with exactly what Mother wanted, unflinching loyalty no matter what was asked of her.

Nadia grits her teeth as she stands up again, locking eyes with her dark double. They had been fighting for what seemed like forever. It was partly to buy time for Hawkeye and the others to go and help Natasha, but part of her also felt she had to deal with Otchaya herself, even if she wasn't sure how.

"Don't you think you should go and help them?" Otchaya laughs, "You have no idea what they are dealing with down there, I'm a walk in the park compared to that." It was slightly unnerving at the time, the way Otchaya didn't seem to value herself at all as long as she was helping mother, and yet now looking back Nadia is able to recognize that exact self-destructiveness in herself if you replace mother for real people with real full lives.

"I can't do everything!" Nadia pants back at her foe. "You have no idea how much I want to go down there and help them, or maybe you do, but you're the one in front of me now, the one that I have to deal with and I just have to trust my friends to handle what they have to deal with. I believe in them!" Nadia shouts at her double unloading a combined plasma blast from both gauntlets as she does.

"Too slow by half!" Despair taunts, using her own size shifting powers to wink out of view, dodging the blast, before reappearing again. "You really think you're ready to 'deal' with /me/? Naive little Nadia, so kind, so compassionate. You're nowhere near ready for this. Now go help your friends! That's what you do, right? Naive compassionate little Nadia." She sneers before extending vicious looking vibroblades from her gauntlets and lunging at Nadia again.

"You're out of date Despair!" Nadia vanishes only to reappear flip-kicking Despair with a vicious boot connecting underneath her chin. "The version of me you know, you knew. That isn't me anymore! I am going to trust my friends and move forward! I will defeat you!" The last words are punctuated by a blast from one of Nadia's plasma blasters that catches the momentarily stunned Despair square in the chest.

As the blast connects though, the worlds seems to melt away in another disorienting change of scenery that leaves Nadia standing in Natasha Romanoff's recovery room at The Playground.

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
"Nadia? Nadia! Snap out of it!" The bright fluorescent hospital lights of the medical bay shine down from above as Black Widow's voice reaches her.

Terry O'Neil has posed:
Vorpal clasps his hand firmly around Gar's wrist, and another one around Kian's, forcing himself to move and ground himself into the telepathic contact of the two others.

"Don't apologize. Nobody is quite prepared for... this." He pauses, and the thought is shared with the two others: Except, maybe, for Donna.

"... we should establish contact... with the others. Just in cas-" he pauses, and realizes that in his Cheshire shape, his mind might be too much for the others. Kian might serve as a filter to keep his chaos from overwhelming Gar, but could he do the same for so many other people? That might be too much of a strain.

"Change of plans," he says, and shoves himself in between Gar and Kian, an arm clasped firmly around each other's waist. "Hold on to me. Don't let go. No matter what we hear, no matter what we see, don't let go. And if you see any one of our team-mates running or walking past you, grab them. But don't let go of me."

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
"Huh? What? Oh sorry Natasha, guess I just spaced out for a moment." Nadia blinks looking around at the SHIELD medical bay where Natasha is convalescing after the injuries she sustained in Greenland. Even as her mind remains foggy, half subsumed by the memories that the stares are throwing at her, she remembers this, too. The night that Natasha told her that Lyudmila Antonovna Kudrin, Mother, the larger than life figure who ran the Red Room with an iron fist, was dead.

Even now she could scarcely believe it. It seemed impossible. This was the woman who always had plans B through Z and a few more besides, who would chase a deserter around the world to bring them back, who was always watching, and always had everyone right where she wanted them. Dead.

"Thank you for telling me." Nadia gives Natasha a hug, which the other woman actually humors her for.

"Yeah." Natasha says softly. "Sorry to spring it on you. I just didn't want to sit on it and hit you with it while everyone's busy or..." Natasha shrugs, "... happy, or something."

Nadia smiles at her older friend, a strange bond existing between them through similar childhood experiences and more recently a number of shared adventures to bring down the Red Room, before she turns to go. "I'll come visit again soon, with more cookies."

Stepping towards the door, Nadia swings it open to leave only to stop dead in her tracks. There standing before her is the ghastly wizened elderly cyborg form of none other than Mother.

For a moment, the young woman is struck speechless. "But you said!" She cries out turning to look back in Natasha's direction, only Natasha isn't there. In her place is an open bulkhead hatch and a shaft leading deep underground, down to the Red Room.

"There's no point in running Dear." The wizened old woman's cybernetic jaw curls into a sinister smile. "You know that I will always be" She points a bony metal finger at Nadia's head. "In here." The crooked smile widens, "You'll never be free. Not of me."

Nadia stares at the figure of Mother with wide eyes as they face each other in the impossible landscape that is both Natasha's recovery room and the Siberian tundra where the Red Room exists. "You're not real." She says as much for her own benefit as to the shade of Mother.

"Real? Nadia Dear, since when have I ever cared what is real? I am Mother, the truth is what I make it and if as the Zoroastrians say Truth is reality, then I am as real as I choose to be. You don't even know what is real anymore, do you?"

The question cuts through Nadia like a knife. This shade is more cunning than the others, seems to know even the things she refuses to admit to herself. "Science is truth!" She shouts at Mother defiantly. "You can't control what can be measured, tested, and proven!"

"Only science? You poor deluded child. If that's what you think then you should go back down through the hatch behind you. I'll give you all the science you could ever want, I always have haven't I? Go on." Mother makes a shoo-ing motion towards the hatch to usher Nadia along.

"NO!" Nadia screams at the faux maternal cyborg hag. "I.. I want more than just Science! My friends! My family!" Her entire body tenses, hands balling into fists as she stares at Mother defiantly.

"Oh really? Careful now, Nadia. You can't measure or test friends and family? What if it is all a lie? You know how good I am at lies. Are you really sure they are your friends? You know what I am capable of, you know they could all be my agents and not even know it just waiting for the right signal to betray you and haul you right back to me." The smile she gives the young woman is entirely to beatific for the horror of her visage.

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
"NO! No! No! No! No! No! I can't live that way anymore! I won't live that way anymore! What if? Are you really sure? Could be? Enough hypotheticals! I can't live in a world of hypotheticals! No one can. Is there a chance things could go wrong? Yes. Can I ever be completely safe from bad things happening? No. But I choose, I choose to believe in my friends! In my family! In the people I care about and I know they care about me too! Something you never did!" She pauses to take a breath. "Goodbye Mother." As the final words are uttered, Nadia produces one of the EMP Grenades she made as Christmas presents for all of the Titans last year. In a single swift motion the device is armed and shoved straight into the wizened old cyborg's chest.

Mother can only stare in shock as the electromagnetic pulses course through her mostly robotic cyborg form causing her electronic systems to fail one after another. Her body begins to wildly spasm, violently convulsing, before collapsing into a smoking sizzling heap of elderly flesh and high tech scrap.

As Mother goes down, the strange hybrid memory world fades in turn and Nadia finds herself back on the seemingly endless stairs, but still alone.

Donna Troy has posed:
    'Seek the spirit of truth above all things, so that you may understand both spirit and matter. Conquer the mists of ignorance that enwrap the soul, and you shall have the means to distinguish between good and evil.' Donna's voice seem to echo in the empty stairwell, words spoken to Nadia just a few months ago. What had Donna called it? The Law of Someone-or-other. How can truth have a spirit?

    Nadia's no longer alone. Beside her, Donna walks steadily up the stairs. The rest of the group are still nowhere to be seen, but there's Donna. For some reason back in the saffron robes she had briefly been dressed in by that strange woman at the gate. Had that really been Hekate, the goddess of magic? What does that even mean? "There are some sorcerers who will tell you that magic is really not that different from science, Nadia," Donna says. "There are rules to casting a spell. They would tell you that magic is inherently /predictable/. That while we do not understand the mechanism, the art of magic is truly empirical. Others will argue that such sorcerers merely display the limits of their knowledge. What rules does this stairway follow? It can't be some form of mechanistic spell. It's to situational, too unpredictable. Rather this is what happens when a divine will imposes itself on reality, as we experience it."

    Donna turns and smiles at Nadia, as the pair continue to ascend the stairs. "Some things cannot be measured and quantified. Can you measure the friendships that you have developed since you joined us, in any meaningful way? You can describe the experiences you have had since escaping the Red Room in mechanistic terms, but will that ever express the power those experiences have, or explain their meaning? The reductionist might argue that we simply lack a fine enough tool to measure such things, that the clockwork of the universe goes on turning regardless of our inability to see more than the merest fraction of the cogs and gears that make it turn. Perhaps they are right... but if so, the only tool sophisticated enough to measure the universe is the universe itself."

    "Science is a way to conquer the mists of ignorance, Nadia. But it is an insufficient tool, because a thing cannot contain itself, and one requires abstractions to see a picture that is larger than oneself. Magic is an abstraction; so too are emotions. They are no less for that, for those abstractions allow us a vision of things we could not otherwise truly see. Sometimes things cannot be proven or disproven, yet they can still be true or false. Studying the pathways of neurons and the electrochemical patterns of your brain might allow you to measure love, but the /truth/ of love arises in our experience of it, not from our knowledge of it. There are things you will never be able to measure, Nadia. Things that science will never answer for you. But you will find ways to know the truth of them, regardless."

    Donna pats Nadia on the shoulder, and gives her another smile. "Keep climbing, Nadia. You're getting near to the top. One last push. One last battle. Whatever else happens, keep telling yourself: up."

    The stairs stretch on and up, as if forever, but nothing is forever. There must be an end, somewhere ahead. Somewhere up. That, at least, can be a comforting truth. Nadia's journey continues, but Donna is no longer beside her.

Terry O'Neil has posed:
"... no matter what, don't let go."

And march. One. Two. Three. Four. One. Two. Three. Four. Arm in arm, up the stairs, to fates unknown and perils rare. Like the band of Thebes-

No, bad association, bad association, like a band of... band of-

Mist. Fog.

Terry blinks, because the world is becoming hazy as the fog rolls in, and he is surprised because he doesn't remember there being any fog before... but then again, this is Saint Martin's island, and you can never count on the weather when Fall rolls in.

It's Fall. That explains why he's wearing that denim jacket that has definitely seen better days, the one that his mother has threatened to throw out multiple times because it's worn and the colors have faded- but it's a familiar thing to him and it brings him comfort.

The park is also familiar, even now that it seems like someone's half-remembered memory, its details blurry in the pea-souper that is rolling in from the sea. Even through all of that, the Tower is still visible, even if it is just an enormous Tau-shaped silhouette standing against the grey.

It is so tall, it is almost impossible, and impassable as well as unreachable.

Like he has done dozes of times before, he stands on one of the benches and stands on tiptoe, his sneakers precariously balanced, to try to get a glance. It is a foolish, childish gesture, but he does it anyways, like the first time. But he might as well be an ant standing on the edge of a blade of grass, trying to look at a Redwood tree.

So tall. So far away.

Donna Troy has posed:
    Donna sits on the park bench, her camera on her lap, just as she had over a year ago. It had been spring then. Dark glasses cover her eyes, and her hair is tied up in an unfamiliar braid. Beside her on the bench is a half-eaten sub, largely forgotten in that old reverie. Her leather jacket is a startling golden saffron color rather than the black it had been, echoing the fall colors of the trees, but that's just detail.

    "It is a nice day," she says, as if to agree to a statement unspoken, a strange comment when the mists are rolling in. Her voice is smoke and honey. "I'm sorry, my sandwich is hogging the bench," she says, drawing it closer to herself to give Terry room to for his acrobatics on the bench beside her.

    She turns her attention from Terry, to the screen on the back of the expensively professional looking camera on her lap, thumbing the controls to scroll through the images stored on the camera's memory card. "They say it will be sunny tomorrow, though. It'll be easier to see the tower then. Metropolis in fall... you can never get enough of it. Too much fog here. Too much obscured. Still, I was on Themyscira yesterday. Fall there is golden and sunny, and you can see for miles."

Terry O'Neil has posed:
It's a very Terry thing to not realize there is a woman there when focusing on the tower. Other boy shis age might have gotten hung up immediately on how beautiful she is- and she /is/ beautiful, even with those sunglasses obscuring her features. "I'm sorry!" he apologizes, looking down at the sub with apprehension in case he might have stepped into it. That's when he notices the camera, and hears her compliments of the day.

"I guess it is nice... if you like the rolling fog. Some people find it romantic..." He doesn't, not this particular moment. If anything, it makes things more foreboding, the tower more looming than it usually it.

There is a word that catches his attention, and his foot twists on the bench as a result of his lack of attention, and the next thing he knows he is sprawled on the green, fall broken by bushes, and skin broken by their branches. He extricates himself from the green mess with the celerity of wounded pride and embarrassment and, trying to keep his voice in check and failing catastrophically at it, he asks "Wait, you said... Themyscira?"

Donna Troy has posed:
    Donna takes off her glasses and looks down at Terry where he has fallen, her face expressionless. After a few moments she puts the camera down beside her and reaches a hand out, offering him help getting up. "Don't let yourself get distracted, Terry O'Neil. You were reaching up for the Tower, and because you stopped paying attention you fell down instead. Didn't I tell you to keep going up? Keep telling yourself: up. My very words."

    Donna takes hold of Terry's wrist and helps him to his feet effortlessly. "Your problem is that you keep thinking things are too far above you, and you lose faith in your ability to complete the journey." She nods her head in the direction of the tower, sunlight glinting from the T-shaped heights even through the fog. "That's where you dream of being, isn't it? Up there. All the way at the top of the Tower. How many years have you dreamed of being able to scale those heights, to stand there and look out over Metropolis the way the Titans do? A fair few, I think. I remember you telling me of the time when April broke her arm, trying to fly. You were at the top of a barn then, wasn't it? It must have seemed very high to you then, even though it was just a way to imagine the much greater height you knew that you could only scale in fantasy."

    Donna smiles her wide smile, big eyes glinting with amusement. "It's all imagination really though, Terry. I mean the height of it. I've been to the top of the Tower so many times, and honestly... oh the view is great, no question. But it's not as high as you think it is."

Terry O'Neil has posed:
As Terry gets up with the woman's help, he is transfixed by the words that he's hearing. They strike the way things said to him by a perfect stranger shouldn't, and that fact alone pierces a little of the fog.

Green eyes widen as he takes her face in and some jolt of memory gives signs of life. For a moment, they are at loft on top of the barn, and April's dark hair is the last thing that is seen going down, as she jumps down. There's plenty of hay down there, which is what saves April's life. Even though the fall injures her, her shout has, for a brief moment, a jubilant quality to it before it turns into a cry of pain.

But that was memory, wasn't it? They were never /there/, they are at the park. There is fog all around, and this woman with eyes full of knowledge is saying things to him-

He takes a step back, away from her, instinctively, and his sneaker splashes on a small puddle. "N-no, I know my place. I don't belong /there!/ I know my place- I-"

Is it a trick of the fog? There seems to be a figure standing behind him. When the wind blows this way or that, the fog almost seems to hint a woman of advance age, stooped and swaddled in some form of monochromatic, formless habit, that try, as much as possible, to efface any hint that its wearer was ever a woman at all. As Terry speaks, it is almost as if she is speaking as well, coiling around his words.

"I- I'm not like them," he looks towards the tower, and back to Donna, "How much more those who dwell in houses of clay delusional could I be? I'm just... just nobody whose foundation is the dust, nobody of importance- who are crushed before the moth!"

The fog twists again. The rectory is dark, because it is raining outside, but the glare from the stern face sitting behind the desk might as well be a spotlight. "Just who do you think you /are/?" the man says. He doesn't need to bellow. His is the kind of voice, the kind of quiet gravel that can wear away at your soul with barely uttered disapproval. "You need to learn humility, Terrence O'Neil!" and a book is placed in front of him. Upon the corner, the words 'JOB 38' are inscribed, and in numbered versicles, it reads:

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion?s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you raise your voice to the clouds
and cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
Do they report to you, ?Here we are??
Who gives the ibis wisdom
or gives the rooster understanding?
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
when the dust becomes hard
and the clods of earth stick together?

Who do you think you ARE, Terrence O'Neil?

"-I'm nobody, lady!" he takes another step back, and starts to pivot, trying to remember where he parked his car so he can sprint away. Away from the Tower. Away from the park. But most importantly, away from /those eyes/.

Donna Troy has posed:
    "And you are the cat-man then? Because when you said you were nobody, you were not speaking the truth." Donna smiles an enigmatic smile. "I think there are a lot of voices in your mind," she says in that accent that has become so familiar over the months. "Not just you and the cat, but voices from the past, too. Voices of authority. Voices that spoke with such surety that you can not help but believe them to be true, even when are nothing more than the foolish babblings of guilt, of a self-loathing of weak-minded people who attempt to make themselves appear strong by reflecting that self-loathing onto you. Usually it is not wise to keep the council of such voices. They fester."

    Donna switches the camera on again, and scrolls through images on the screen until she finds a particular one. She holds the camera out to Terry for him to see the image on the little screen. "This is a photo I took a few months ago," she says. "It tells a story. Can you see the story in this one?"

    The image on the screen is not a typical pap photo. The skyline of Metropolis is visible in the background, and below the plane of the image. It must have been taken from somewhere high up. The park they are in is faintly visible down below, and St. Martin's island fades into the obscurity of haze behind. It doesn't take long to realize it must have been taken on the roof of Titan's tower.

     The foreground is full of color. The red, black and gold of Cassie's outfit, the chrome of Victor's cyborg parts, the orange and black of Nadia's armor. The green of Gar, front and center, grinning a wild toothy grin at the camera, one arm wrapped tightly around Terry's shoulder while the other hand knuckles the ginger of Terry's hair, grinning almost as wide beside him.

    One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good. Donna -- the real Donna -- keeps walking up the stairs, her eyes fixed on her team-mates. Caitlin's movements are a little erratic, but Donna trusts Caitlin. She'll see it through. Nadia and the two Robins are walking mechanically, sure signs that there attentions are elsewhere, but their progress is steady. Just ahead of her Kian, Gar and Terry are walking close together, helping each other along. She wonders what Terry is thinking, or seeing. She suspects this journey is particularly hard on him - he has that sort of mind.

    Troia Krokokhiton stands up from the bench. "You're a /Titan/, Terry. You have already reached far higher than the owners of those dismal voices ever reached. You have flown higher than the moon to be a hero, and as you rise up into the sky the owners of those voices reach out their crabbed hands to clutch your ankles and try to pull you down again, because the higher you go the more obvious it is that it is they who remain mired in the mud of mundanity. They do not wish you to ascend, because they are scared to. They fear Babel while you reach for the stars. Most of all, they fear you rising because every inch you climb, every step you take, proves how very misguided they are, how the true sin is not in reaching, but telling others not to reach."

    Donna flicks a switch, the image on her camera screen vanishing. "Up, Terry. Keep going up. The voices do not believe in you, /but I do/. Whatever else happens, keep telling yourself: up. Everything else is a lie."

    Donna turns and walks away into the fog. Upwards.

Terry O'Neil has posed:
Terry /freezes/ all of a sudden, eyes wide. Could she read his mind? How does she know about the voices? He is about to deny it, but it becomes pretty evident that it would be futile. He glances at the image that Donna shows him on her camera, and a powerful longing appears in his eyes.

"Yes. That's me." And then, softer, "That's me."

The fog seems to coil around him more, almost having a tangible presence. Robed arms reaching to pull him back, hands to wrap around his wrists. "These people, they are-" he stops himself. What are they? Your boyfriend's team-mates?

One step forward, a splash on the puddle. The fog tears away as he moves, "My family..."

He walks. Even as Donna vanishes in the mist, he walks and swings his arms this way and that, dislodging whatever remnants of fog there were. He's walking with a hard pace. One. Two. Three. Four. Towards the tower. Up. Up.

"I will be there, Troia." One. Two. Three. Four...

Dick Grayson has posed:
    During all of this, Nightwing was moving steadily up the stairs with the lasso wrapped around his wrist. For a long time, nothing interrupted his travel up the stairs.

    Then that changed.

    Looming over him was the figure of Batman, even bigger and darker than the real thing. He slowly shook his cowled head, saying "You would end up in trouble again. You were a disappointment, did you know that? Why do you think I ended up getting more Robins? I was looking for one that really understood the fight, who could carry on my work. You ran off to play in Metropolis with the Titans while I tried to hold Gotham together despite itself."

    The figure seemed to get even larger, then one arm lifts and points down the stairs, "Go back. You may as well stay in Tartarus since you abandoned your work in Gotham to be some kind of poster boy for superheros."

    Nightwing shakes his head, closing his eyes for a moment. "Batman would never say that. I know the truth." He steps forward without opening his eyes. There's a moment of chill, then he opens his eyes and looks around. The figure of Batman is nowhere to be seen, and he is still moving up the stairs with Troia's lasso wrapped around his wrist.

Kian has posed:
    Walking is not something Kían is used to.  It's what you do when a thing is only a couple steps away, it's not how you actually get anywhere.
    It's what you do when you're a *child*, before your wings have grown in, when you still haven't earned your name.  Ta'Kái'Erýn.  Second-child of Kái and Erýn.  That had been Kían... another life ago.
    He can't seem to get a rhythm for it.  He's a creature of the air, not of the ground, he shouldn't be bumping along like this, he's not made to bump along like this.
    "Nnh."  He shakes his head once, to clear the cobwebs out, and glances around to take stock of how his /tavár'yw/ and /tenár'yw/ are doing.  Still moving.  No end in sight, not even to his hawk-like vision.
    Kían closes his eyes, and distracts himself with the bright colors of Terry's mind.  It's really not unlike mindflight, except without the astringent taste it leaves on the back of the tongue.  He's gathered that most places on Earth have ridiculous rules against recreational psychoactives.
    Earth is weird.
    And then, like he'd been injected with a counteractant, the touch of Terry's mind slips away from him.  He opens his eyes... but it remains dark.  /Did/ he open his eyes?  He's actually not sure.
    Something in Kían wants to sit bolt upright, but his body isn't responding, won't respond.  He can hear a flurry of activity around him, and excited words... excited words in /Akiár'shak/.
    «He moved!  I saw him move!»
    Kían wills his eyes open.  Everything is blurry, but there's enough detail to tell he's inside a medunit, just not the one in his own home.  Where--?
    Something moves -- some*one* moves into his field of vision, a blur of gold and red.  «Kíi?  Kían?»
    Kían's mouth is dry, and doesn't want to work right, but his mind reaches out.  {/Raká?  Where am I?  What happened?  What are you doing on Earth?/}
    Confusion.  {/Earth?/}
    {/It's... never mind.  It's the world I ended up on after the accident on Flight 442./}
    Hesitation.  Concern.  {/Kíi /tenár'h/... you've been in a coma for a year and a half.  You collapsed when the ship went into tachyon drive and you've been here at the Imperial University Hospital ever since the ship landed./}

Kian has posed:
    More confusion, and this time it's Kían's own.  {/Coma?/}
    Raká glanced over to the door; Kían didn't, but he could feel the mind of the doctor as she came in, feel her mind brush over his by way of preliminary examination, feel Raká's mind re-enter his more closely.  {/Yes.  I... they let me stay here to keep watch over you.  Your parents have been visiting every month; they were just here not two days ago./}  He looks up again at the doctor, pleadingly.  «Tána q'Syr, can we please open the medunit?»
    «One moment.»  The doctor busied herself with readings, making sure everything looked nominal, and then nodded once at Raká.  «Yes.  And welcome back, Kían.  Your family is being notified that you've awakened.  I'm sure you can hardly wait to see them.  I'll see about getting a tri-d in here so you can see them.»
    «Y-yes, of course.»  Kían was staring.  Tána?  Not... Donna?  She looked like the woman he knew as Donna, except of course a normal height, and with wings like any normal person should have.
    Could it all have been the product of a mind in shutdown, keeping itself occupied until the body was ready to start working again?
    Did he imagine Donna?  And Rae?  And Vic?  And Cait?
    And Robin, and Nightwing, and all the others?
    Oh, Gods.  And Gar and Terry too?
    There was a slight hiss as the medunit unsealed; as soon as the opening was large enough, Raká's hands were wrapped around his.  {/Who are all those... those... they look adult, but they have no wings./}
    {/My... friends?  I /can't/ have imagined all that, can I?  Were you able to reach my mind at all, 'Ka?  While I was... away?/}
    {/I tried, /tenár'h/, but you were too deeply gone.  Did you really see all of these... people?/}
    Kían nods.  {/It was all so real.  It still feels... real?  I remember... but... Gods, /tenár'h/, I just don't know.  But... here I am.  It must have been a dream, a hallucination, something?/}  He doesn't sound wholly convinced, and Raká squeezes his hand.
    Tána /q'Syr/ interrupted gently, «Raká, they have Kían's family on the main tri-d down the hall.  Would you go speak with them?  I think they'd like to hear the news from you.»
    Raká squeezed Kían's hand again, then left to pass along the good news.

Donna Troy has posed:
     <<Try not to exert yourself,>> Tána q'Syr says, resting a gentle hand on Kian's chest. <<Your muscles have atrophied in the time you have been unconscious.>> She continues to study the readouts of the medunit before looking back to Kian. The ridge of feathers atop her wings ruffle and her eyes widen, expressions of amusement.

    {/One of those wingless adults you dreamed of looks like me. Others look like Terí k'Syr and Kar' k'Syr. They have spent much time with you during your coma, looking after you. If they were here, you might be telling them: you were there, and you were there... It must be that your perceptions were not wholly asleep while you were, wouldn't you say?/}

    It's so different, speaking once more to Akiár. The true mind-touch. Unlike with humans, at this range physical contact is not even necessary. She walks to the door, looking through it down the hallway for a moment before returning her attention to Kian. {/You must have lots of questions, Kian. But do not over-exert your mind, either. You are safe. You are with friends. Try to remain calm. It seems that your mind has created an artifical reality when it was undergoing this period of severe stress. Have you ever studied Lekar k'kishár? He wrote about how a traumatized mind can create for itself a fantasy of security. Something to believe in that provides a reality that brings comfort. He might suggest that in your case, some subconscious level of awareness that you were isolated from your loved ones might trigger a response whereby you create for yourself a scenario that grants you a new home, and new loved ones./}

    She looks at him speculatively, head tilted to one side. {/I imagine you are very disoriented. Perhaps there are parts of your mind that are rebelling against what you are currently experiencing? Wondering if your awakening here is in fact the illusion, and all that you had experienced before, on this /Earth/, with these wingless adults, is the true reality?/}

Kian has posed:
    {/I.../} Kían starts, and then his mind just trails off as he tries to take in everything.  Imagined?  All of it?  No, that can't be possible...
    ...can it?
    {/I've never studied philosophy,/} he replies lamely.  {/And I would hesitate to say I experienced security or comfort.  Mostly confusion.  Not my idea of a fantasy./}  He tries not to think about the early days of terror, the initial loneliness, the struggle to be understood surrounded by people without the mind touch.  Fantasy of *security*?
    One more reason not to study philosophy.
    Kían sits up just a little at a noise from the door: Téri /k'Syr/.  Looking very like the human-form of Terry /tenár/, except of a normal height, and wings in the black-and-white motley of a woodpecker.
    Immediately behind, Kar /k'Syr/, green-winged like a parrot, even with little tufts of green down at his sideburns.  Alongside him is another doctor.  She's pale, with long black hair and black wings with an indigo sheen.  Kían is sure somehow that her name is Réi q'Syr, and he seems completely discombobulated by her -- whether it's the cheery smile and the bounce in her walk, or the fact that her arm is around Kar's waist, or both, is hard to say.
    As if he wasn't already disoriented....

Donna Troy has posed:
    Tána nods her head in greeting as the other doctors arrive, eager to see their patient revived. {/Colleagues, by all appearances Kian has recovered fully from his trauma. We were just discussing the activities of his mind though. Perhaps he will show you where he has been since the accident aboard flight 422. I think you will find it most curious./}

    She retreats into the room a little as the others enter, and for a moment she glances in the direction of Réi q'Syr and Kar /k'Syr/, an odd expression passing over her features briefly. <<Did you not have a sense of /home/ though, Kian?>> she asks, reverting to vocal communication for the moment. <<That is a common thread in such cases. The sense of home is a powerful driving force. When we feel lost, we seek home. When our minds are in a disturbed state due to physical stresses, the subconscious mind is prone to create the illusion of home to make us feel safe, and to distract us from the physical dangers that might be present.>> She smiles at Kian, resting a hand gently on his shoulder. <<After all, there's no place like home.>>

    The mind touch from Tána /q'Syr/ is feather-light, tightly focussed, and private. {/Did Téri ever get around to showing you 'The Wizard of Oz'?/} she asks. The thought-forms don't seem to make sense. There's no context by which to understand them, and what is 'Oz'? It's almost like something someone would have said on /Earth/.

Kian has posed:
    {/I.../} Kían starts again, still watching Kar and Réi with a sort of otherworldly detachment.  He coughs delicately, and his voice his hoarse and dry.  «May I have some water, please?  ...thank you.  I don't know that I had a sense of home, but I found one,» he says, watching both Téri and Kar /k'Syr'yw/ as though something isn't quite right with them, and trying very hard not to think about the many things that don't seem quite right about Réi /q'Syr/.
    The switch back to mental contact carries him with it, and it's the kind of question Donna might well have asked on Earth, and gets part of a perfectly normal answer: {/No, not yet, but Terry /tenár'h/ has threa -- *what did you just ask me*?!/}  He's staring disbelievingly at Donna... Tána... he just doesn't know anymore.

Donna Troy has posed:
    Tána q'Syr gives Kian an enigmatic smile, and steps away to fill a paper cup with water for him. The medical staff exchange meaningful glances and fall silent a while, conversing in private mind-speak in that annoying and slightly patronizing manner that medical staff are prone to doing. It's Tána who breaks the silence again when she returns to hand him the cup of water.

    <<Yes, such a redactive intervention would probably be indicated in a situation like this, at least in normal circumstances,>> she says, obviously chosing to continue the mental conversation with the other medical staff aloud. <<And it wouldn't be particularly invasive. Supressing the memetic interconnection would reduce the importance the mind gives to such memories without actually excising the memories entirely. But that's a decision for Kian to make, don't you all think? It is, after all, not up to us to decide the importance of his various memories. And we must concentrate on his physical rehabilitation first. He still has a long way to climb.>>

    It's such an odd metaphor to make. A long way to climb? That's just not a phrase. Or at least not a phrase that makes sense to someone with wings. To a life-form that evolved from wingless tree-dwellers, maybe.

    Tána smiles at Kian. She even smiles like Donna does, with an unusually wide smile. <<Don't you agree? The important thing is to get you up again, before you have to worry too much about what is or isn't a lie. Up and on your feet.>> Such strange metaphors. <<That's the only advice I can give you right now. Up. Keep going up.>> She gives his shoulder a gentle squeeze. <<Whatever else happens, keep telling yourself: up. Everything else may or may not be a lie, but focus on that and you won't have to worry about truth quite yet.>>

Terry O'Neil has posed:
Téri raises an eyebrow and focuses on Kian, his facial expression rather unusual. At times, the lighting casts odd shadows across his face when he moves his head this way and that. Something strange around the lips, as if they were parted, and occasionally the eyes have the wrong shade to them.

<<Tána is correct. You cannot allow yourself to be lax in your recovery- and cannot allow yourself to stall by trying to cleave illusion from fantasy while you're in such a delicate condition. A downwards trajectory is ill-advised."

He glances at the others in the room, and there is a brief glint of green in his eyes. <<Far too many philosophers have wasted precious time debating whether we are all mad here or not. You need not concern yourself with that.>>

And just as he turns around to tend to something in the room- make notes on a report, perhaps? There's a solitary thought that comes.


Kian has posed:
    A little thrill of fear runs through Kían at mention of redaction -- it was a possibility he'd feared if he ever got home again, but they *can't* redact him for a dream.
    Can they?
    No, it can't have been a dream.  Except... what proof does he have?  Out of all the experiences he's had, he hasn't even got a scar.
    Climb?  Kían doesn't climb things, he flies over them.  That was an odd thing to say.  Not anything Tána /q'Syr/ would say.
    But it *is* something Donna /tavár/ would say.  That, and 'up'.
    Up.  In /English/.  "/Khe, h'varák'e/... no, I am not insane," he says, carefully enunciating the English, the only thing he /has/ brought back with him, staring at Téri's back.
    Really, the wings do suit him.
    {/Tenár'h./}  "On Earth, Gar and Terry were... *are* my /tenár'yw/," he says, staying in English, although he does 'broadcast' a translation.  "An' Réi... /Rae/ is yours, Tán -- Donna.  An' if she fin's out about what I haf seen here," he adds, watching Gar and R... Kar and Réi together, "she will throw me into a wall again.  but it iss *not* a fantasy worl'.  I can not haf invented a whole language, especially not one as mad as Engliss."
    Up.  He sits up.
    "Donna said up.  Always up."

Donna Troy has posed:
    Tána picks up a penlight from the medical station and returns to Kian's side, resting one hand on his shoulder where he sits. <<You're moving. Good. Apparently your muscles aren't atrophied by lying still for a year and a half after all. Keep your eyes open, Kian. I want to test your light reflex.>> She activates the small light, shining it in Kian's face. {/Sometimes a little light can help to guide you in the darkness. This tool seems more apt than an LCD screen, at least. More similar to the kind of thing I am used to carrying./}

    The light of the torch flickers warmly in Kian's vision. With it seems to come a rythmic sound, like several sets of feet steadily climbing a flight of stairs.<<As I said, the stressed mind is prone to create the illusion of home, to distract us from the dangers around us. I'm sure it must be very confusing to you, Kian, but I think you're getting there. Always up, yes. That's good advice in a situation like this.>>

     She understood! She understood Kian's words, spoken in English. Tána q'Syr gives him another wide smile "Everything else is a lie," she tells him.

    The light shining in Kian's eyes seems to flare a moment before fading, and it takes a while for the after-images to subside and let him see properly in the dim light again. The staircase, leading ever up. The hard stone wall on one side, a great abyss on the other. His /tavár'yw/ and /tenár'yw/ are around him. Everyone still marching up, pace slowed by fatigue, but step by weary step, the keep going up.

    A glimmer of light catches Kian's eye, and glancing behind him, he sees Donna, at her normal unreasonable height, without wings, eyes fixed on the group ahead of her. When she sees Kian glancing back she gives him a quick smile. And yet...

    For just a moment there seems to be another woman walking beside Donna. One who looks very like her, but shorter. Winged. In her hand a small penlight flashes. The source of the glimmer that had caught his eye? Surely not, for almost as soon as Kian sees the image of this other woman, of /Tána q'Syr/, she's gone. Must have been a trick of the light.

Donna Troy has posed:
    How long has it been? It feels interminable. Even the best-trained muscles ache, but not as much as they would if it had been as long as it feel. Time pieces say minutes, which is impossible. Time seems to have little meaning here. Damian has been walking beside R'as for some time in silence now. Ahead of him and behind him, the team continues upwards. Sometimes one or other member of the team moves or behaves erratically, no doubt affected by the strange properties Donna had described, but the march continues upwards.

    "You never did truly escape me, Damain," Ra's says at last. Yes, Damian too is witnessing the effects of this magic. Of course Ra's is not here. Surely Damain's will is too strong to fall for these tricks.

    "After all, do you not walk beside me now?" The faintest of smiles creases the weather-worn face, and Ra's strokes idly at the wisps of his beard. "Of course I am not here. I did not create a fool, Damian. You have been warned you might meet those who were not real, and here I am. An image summoned from your subconscious by the ancient magic of these stairs. Why me, boy? Why not the Detective? Ask yourself that."

Damian Wayne has posed:
     Damian kept going, he knew there was an objective for them to get to, he knew that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

  "I walk beside a mental image of Ra's al Ghul. The distilled culmination of my experiences with the real Ra's. You, are the mind killer. You are the little death that brings total obliteration."

  Damian paraphrases and uses Muad'Dib's mantra to give him strength, something he's done since he was small. "You are the one because The Detective would only encourage me in this endeavor." Robin continues, one foot in front of the other. "The magic knows that Ra's al Ghul is the one who has had the most influence in my life. While Batman only has had two years."

Donna Troy has posed:
    "And yet it is the Detective you have chosen to follow, while you reject the wisdom I have taught you," Ra's counters. "If the purpose of all this was to turn you from your path, would it not be better to send you the avatar of the man you willingly follow? You said you have chosen an honorable path. You do not consider my path honorable, and would not take it. You disappoint me Damain, I thought you more rational than that."

    Ra's throws his head back and laughs, the sound echoing from the stone wall against which the staircase leans, and out over the great pit on the other side.

    "You overestimate the Detective, and you underestimate me. Does it surprise you to know that I do not mind? I have planned greatness for you, Damian. To achieve greatness, you still have much to learn. Your time with the Detective will teach you things that you would not learn under me."

    "Let me ask you this then, boy. Below you, you leave a place of unimaginable power. A place where allies could be sought, where treasures could be uncovered, that could help you surpass all that even I have ever achieved. And yet you march on with your friends to go to the aid of a people you resent, because they dismiss you for your gender. The facts pray on your mind."

    "And yet... upwards, Damian. I do not tell you to turn around. I accompany you upwards. I walk beside you. Keep going up, I encourage it. Why is that?"

Damian Wayne has posed:
     "Ancient magic almost never makes sense. I learned that from you." Damian comments, giving Ra's a bit of side eye. "Perhaps it knows how I desire combat. And..." The boy goes quiet, and closes his eyes, reaching out using his other senses. <What if I am going down, and think that I am going up?>

Donna Troy has posed:
"You turn your back on greatness because you desire combat," Ra's echoes, a hint of mockery undisguised in his voice. "I shall take that to mean 'Damian does not choose to answer this question'. I shall answer for you then: Because you believe it is the path the Detective would have chosen."

    Ra's falls silent for a while; no clear answer comes to Damian for the question he pondered. Yet had he got turned around, if he were going down, wouldn't one of the other Titans intervened? Hopefully.

    "There was a time when I considered the possibility that the Detective might be a worthy successor," Ra's muses, his eyes steady on Damian as he continues tirelessly up the stairs, his long legs taking the steps easily. "His mind is too limited though. He mistakes morality for obsession. You have already surpassed him in this respect. He seeks to save Gotham, but will not kill to do so, and because of that Gotham will not be saved. He claims to protect lives, but his reluctance to take a few lives has cost many. Is that wisdom?"

Damian Wayne has posed:
     Damian's frown turns to a scowl momentarily. "Take it as a 'fuck off, apparition' if it helps you sleep at night. I do not care." His eyes open again, ready to come back to this reality, as he continues to trudge back up the stairs. "It is the path he would have taken." He states as a matter of fact, but it was not until Ra's last volley that he stopped his trek again.

  "No. It is not. It makes sense that the recidivism in Gotham would be to execute ones like The Joker who kill and maim indiscriminately for the betterment of the many."

Donna Troy has posed:
    "Yet killing the Jokerwould be my path, not his. And in time, it will be the path you tread. Because you know it is the correct path," Ra's says. He favors Damian with a rare smile. "You will not escape what I made you to be, Damian. Because I made you to be /intelligent/. I don't need to you follow me to walk in my path. I only need you to think for yourself."

    Ra's rests a hand on Damian's shoulder. "But you are walking no path and standing still. Keep climbing boy. I know you are curious to see Themyiscira. You hope that you can add the training of the Amazons to the training of the League. That too is intelligence."

    Ra's keeps climbing the stairs, keeping pace with the group of Titans roped together by Donna's lasso. "A secret to the world, so recently uncovered. Of course I have known about Themyscira a long time. There are rumors, scraps, in the old histories. Dismissed until recently by almost all as legend. But there are far greater hints too, if you know where to look for them. I read about the island in a manuscript I found in a monastery in the Carpathians some three hundred years ago. For a time I sought it out myself, before deciding it was a fool's errand. And yet here you are. Surpassing me."

Damian Wayne has posed:
     "You encourage me, only to attempt to dissuade me later, do you not?" He asks of the vision of Ra's. "Or is the magic much more cunning than once believed? As if I couldn't have been dissuaded by mere tricks of the mind." It stood to witness that if the incantation were truly so knowledgeable, that it would also know when the climber would not be fooled. "Tell me, Grandfather. Is that close to the truth of it? If you are genuinely here to encourage me, then what does this power want of me?"

  His footfalls are much easier for a bit, having gained a third wind.

Donna Troy has posed:
    Ra's gives a low, throaty rumbling chuckle. The sound should sound out of place, yet somehow it fits. A deep, cthonic sort of a laugh that sounds at home in the underworld. "Perhaps your iron will that cannot be deterred by such tricks of the mind dissuades the magic at work here from even trying, boy. Perhaps it has surrendered to your superiority and seeks only to amuse you with these visions."

    Ra's falls silent a while, simply taking the stairs one after the other at Damian's side, a creasing at the corners of his eyes the only sign of amusement.

    "Long ago, I visited Cordova, in Al-Andalus. After the time of its greatness. The Reconquista had returned it to the hands of the infidel. I wish I could have seen it in its time of true greatness, under the Umayyads. Did you know that at one time, fully one in one thousand of the world's people lived in that great city? Still the mudejar scholars retained much of the old wisdom the barbarians tried to drive away. And there was a philosopher there, a Rabbi Yochai, from whom I learned much. His name is largely forgotten, but he was a more learned man than Miamondes or Averroes ever were, the greatest mind that great city ever bore. He taught me many secrets of the workings of the mind, Damian. How to shape the minds of others to your will, how to put ideas in their minds they will believe their own. How to create false beliefs and false realities. I have not told you this before, so how is it that your mind is able to summon up this knowledge?"

    Ra's turns to Damian with a knowing smile. "The magic of this place is not affecting you, boy. I have seen to that. Consider it a gift. In return, you will show me this island I long ago sought to find for myself. A fair deal, I think."

Damian Wayne has posed:
     "If that is the case, then I admit...I missed speaking with you." It may not actually be his grandfather, and Ra's may not exactly be the kind of grandfather that would take him fishing, more like make him climb a mountain without safety gear. But he was family, and despite some of the things done to him, Damian loved Ra's and Talia because they are his family.

  "Then Themyscieran soil will hold the weight of the al Ghul line. And I will learn all I can from their champions." Damian resolved himself for it, but it was something he'd wanted for a long time now.

Donna Troy has posed:
    Ra's curls his lips into a grin. "Yes, Damian," he says. His hand goes to his chin, thumb and forefinger caressing the sides of his beard. "Learn all you can. Become better. Discover that which I cannot teach you, and that the Detective cannot teach you, to add to what you know."

    "And then, in time, you will tell me the secrets you have learned there. Sooner or later. Don't try to deny it, boy. You will reveal them to me because you will find a reason to do so, whether you know it or not. One day it will seem to you the most reasonable thing in the world."

    "And then those secrets will be /mine/".

    Ra's lets his grin grow into a smirk, and for a moment the torchlight reflects off his teeth, drawing the eye. A triumphant expression. One Damian had seen so often in the past. During the many lessons. During the Year of Blood. Whenever his Grandfather felt that he was getting his way. Whenever he thought he thought Damian was taking a step in the right direction. In /his/ direction. Ra's takes a step to the side, to stand by the wall, arms folded across his chest, leaving Damian to continue his journey upwards alone. Other Titans walk past him, none seeming to see him there. Ra's eyes remain focused on his grandson, and the smirk never falters. "You cannot escape what I made you!" his voice calls up to Damian.

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
Nadia takes a step forward upon the empty staircase, she's breathing heavily and the emotional exhaustion of all of these ordeals is starting to weigh upon her. When suddenly the strangely dressed Donna appears next to her wearing that saffron robe again.

'Up. Everything else is a lie. Probably.' At this point Donna's words when they started out have become a mantra of sorts as she keeps repeating them to herself. Nadia studies this new Donna closely, she clearly doesn't believe she is the real one, another test, another trick of these stairs. Yet as the new Donna continues talking, Nadia finds herself mostly nodding along in agreement as Probably Not Donna puts words to thoughts and conclusions she has been slowly forming for herself over the past year.

She's still not entirely sure about magic, but then Donna is urging her onward and by this point the mind of the girl accustomed to lies within lies is racing trying to figure out the trick. But it just ends with that admonition to continue upward and onward. By the time she realizes there is no trick and has so many questions, Donna of the Stairs is already gone and she is alone again.

One foot in front of the other, she's almost there or so Stairs Donna told her. Maybe it was a trick. 'Up.' Nadia reminds herself again. 'Up. Everything else is a lie. Probably.' One step after another Nadia trudges her way up the seemingly infinite staircase.

A scream breaks the silence. "Nadia!" Calls a voice from behind her, followed by the sound of scuffling of all things. It is a very familiar voice, one which causes Nadia to freeze. She's heard that voice only twice before, once when the Red Room had used it to try and force her to return of her own will and once in a video her father had found buried in an old Pym Technologies storage room of early Pym particles research.

This was the worst lie of all.

'Don't turn around! Don't turn around!' Nadia thought to herself, even as she was already turning around. How could she not?

The scenery changed again. For the first time Nadia was in a place she didn't remember or at least that she had never seen before. She was standing on a staircase still, looking down into a foyer, and surrounded by signs in a language she couldn't understand. But she knows where she is, her father had told her this story when she came to him with questions about what really happened to her mother and down below in the foyer before her very eyes was Maria Trovaya being dragged away against her will by Hungarian government enforcers.

"Nadia! Don't let them take me!" Maria cries out again as the pair of thick burly men in dark sunglasses drag her kicking and screaming towards a pair of double doors. Somehow Nadia knows, just knows, there was no coming back from whatever lies beyond those doors.

In the moment 'Up' is forgotten. "STOP!" Nadia screams at the men, but the stone faced enforcers just keep dragging her mother away. Nadia had thought she had made peace with this history. She visited her mother's grave to say goodbye. She has a Step-Mom who was one of the most amazing people she has ever met that she loves dearly. This should be no different than that time in Siberia when she shoved an EMP grenade into the chest of the Red Room's fake. But that was a robot and this one seems so real and needs her help.

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
In the real world the Nadia begins to turn, even pulling against the tug of the lasso looped around her arm. In the Hungarian government office the Waspette raises both her gauntlets firing energy blasts down the stairs at the two enforcers.

The shots find their mark and yet seem to do nothing. The agents barely even seem to notice her as they continue to drag Maria away. There is a rising sense of panic within Nadia and she is about to fly down there when she feels a hand on her shoulder stopping her.

"Nadia you can't change the past. If you go down there you are not coming back." Comes the voice of Janet van Dyne, who is suddenly standing behind Nadia a little further up the stairs in a very stylish saffron robe.

"Let me go! I have to help her!" Nadia struggles against Janet's grip.

"Nadia! NADIA!" There is the sound of a slap as Janet's hand impacts the side of Nadia's face.

"Ow! Janet that hurt! Wait Janet?! When did..how did you get here?" Nadia looks down the stairs at her birth mother being dragged away and up the stairs at her step-mother.

"Are you listening now kiddo? You can't change this. It happened. But," Janet guides Nadia's head so that her eyes fall upon a shuttered window. "You can see it in a new light, aim for that."

Nadia's eyes stray back towards Maria being dragged away, she can't help it. There's no time to lose, they're nearing the doors. She does as Janet instructed, pointing one of her gauntlets in the direction of the window and fires off a powerful burst of plasma. Cracks appear in the shutters and small bits of light can be seen but apparently it won't be that easy, confronting the past never is.

"Come on! Come on!" Nadia brings up her other arm and fires both gauntlet at the window simultaneously. More cracks apear, and the existing ones grow wider. Soon the energy blasts become a near constant stream as Nadia tosses all of the firepower she has at the window and finally in a single brilliant moment of clarity it gives way.

Clean homely light shines through the window as the broken shutters fall away. As the light falls upon the men dragging away Maria they vanish, the entire Hungarian building vanishes, too. Just Nadia and Maria now standing face to face back on the stairs again. Some distance further up there is also the saffron robed Janet holding a torch that seems to cast that clean homely light.

"Mom?! Is it really you?!" Nadia throws her arms around Maria giving her a big hug. "What? How is this possible? But Janet said I can't change it..." She falls silent a moment. "I can't, can I?"

"Shhh Nadia listen to me." Maria whispers to her in her Hungarian accented English. "I am not sure what you are doing in the underworld." Maria glances up at the saffron robed torch bearing Janet. "But it seems someone has decided to give us both a present."

Nadia tries to wrap her mind around it and ultimately just gives up deciding this must be one of those magic abstractions Donna was talking about and thinking too much is just going to ruin it. "Mom! Come on! If we go up these stairs we can get out of here!"

Nadia Pym-van Dyne has posed:
"Nadia." Maria's voice is quiet but firm. "I'm dead Nadia. I'm not really here, not truly. I don't know how the magic that has allowed us this moment works, but I do know I can't climb these stairs with you. That is something that you must do together with your friends."

"But!" Nadia begins to protest but Maria silences her placing a finger to the girl's lips.

"Shhhh Nadia. It's okay. I lived my life and I want you to know I am happy you are living yours. You are my Nadia, my hope, my greatest achievement. I knew you would escape from them and I couldn't be happier that you have found friends." Maria glances up the stairs towards the torch bearing Janet. "And family. I'm sorry that I can't be there to hold your hand as you face the trials ahead but you still have your father and you've found a wonderful mother. Don't forget her either Nadia, she's waiting for you."

"Mom... I love you Mom." Nadia wipes tears away from her eyes with the back of one of her gauntlets. "I wish I could remember what time we actually had together."

"I know Nadia and I love you, too. You don't know how much I've wished for this chance, to hold my little girl who was taken away from me, all grown up." Maria wraps Nadia in a warm motherly embrace. "Then remember this hug instead Nadia. I know that I will treasure this memory."

Time loses meaning in a place like this. Mother and daughter remain locked in an embrace for what feels like a very long time and yet still painfully short before Maria finally tells Nadia, "Thank you Nadia. Knowing you are happy and free, growing into a wonderful young woman, I can rest and be at peace. Now go. Up. She's waiting. They're all waiting."

"Goodbye Mom." Nadia wipes away more tears as Maria fades away, but they just won't stop coming. In her heart though, she understands. Something within Nadia as well is finally at peace.

In the distance the saffron robed Janet seems to have reached some sort of summit, holding her torch aloft to light the way for Nadia to follow.

Nadia takes her next step forward and just like that the saffron robed Janet is gone and she is back among her friends, roped together with Donna's lasso, climbing the stairs behind Caitlin. But the tears just won't stop coming.

To the eyes of everyone else, Nadia's vacant expression finally clears only to be replaced by more tears than anyone has ever seen her cry. She tries to wipe her eyes every few steps but they show no signs of stopping as she trudges onward up the final leg of the ascent.

Donna Troy has posed:
    One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good. Ahead of her, Donna sees Caitlin continuing the lead as if sleepwalking. Good old reliable Caitlin. Donna's rock. Behind her, Nadia is crying, but she's still moving upwards. Damian seems focused, full of determination. Donna can't help wondering what the two have seen, and how this journey will effect them. Dick focused in a different way, walking with great calmness. Donna can tell he's doing his best to let everything wash over him. Just in front of her, Gar, Terry and Kian are walking close together, helping each other forwards. The bond between the three has become ever stronger over the months, and it feels good to see. They will look after each other.

    One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Good.

    Beside Donna, the Lampad gives out a soft sigh. "What?" Donna asks, a little sharply.

    "This is tiring," the Lampad replies. "I feel like I'm climbing these stairs for all of you. So, uh... about your mother..."

    "No. I'm not interested. You want me to dangle you over the edge again?" Donna says.

    The Lampad grimaces. "I'd heard you were nice, Troia," she says. "But I'm not seeing it. You're rude. Unwelcoming. I've been helping, you know. And you haven't even asked my name."

    "You didn't ask mine either."

    The Lampad blinks at Donna a few times. "I already know your name," she says.

    "And that's my point. You want to keep walking with us, feel free. But shut up about my mother."

    "You don't frighten me, Troia."


    The Lampad lets out a sigh. The pair walk together in silence a while "I'm here because my mistress told me to accompany you. I represent her. You wouldn't dare threaten her."

    "If she threatened the people I care about, yes I would."

    "But I'm not. You might not see it, but I've been helping them. Helping all of you."

    "You said it yourself, Lampad. You're here because your mistress ordered you to be. Don't expect my thanks for that. It's possible I owe your mistress my thanks, but frankly I'm going to want to find out why she's doing all of this before I decide that."

    "I might have helped you even without orders," the Lampad replies, her expression a little sour. "I think I'd prefer to have you as a friend than an enemy. Not because I'm scared of you. Because I think it would be less work."

    Donna can't help chuckle at the comment, and shakes her head a little.

    "You're nearly at the top," the Lampad says. "Six hundred more steps. I'm going to leave you now. But I'm going to tell you something. There was a prophecy about you. Did you know that?"

    "I've had a hint. I don't care."

    "Well I know what it was. And it's a joke. A huge joke. Just a misunderstanding. It's shaped your life, and it's just a joke. If you ever find out, you'll laugh. Good bye, Troia."

    "Good bye," Donna replies as the Lampad turns and starts descending the stairs again.

    "And thank you."

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
Caitlin and her father grab hands and fairly fly up the steps to the library. Faceless students, echoes of college days, are dashed to smoke by their passage. The two of them bound past imposing granite columns, haul open the doors--

-- and step into a cool, marble-white room with a high domed ceiling and no furniture save for a dais and a throne set atop it.

"Where are we? Rome?" Alex inquires, baffled. He turns a circle, frowns at the white sandy beaches and impossibly blue sky that have replaced the campus quad. "This looks like the Aegean."

Caitlin exhales a held breath, leaning forward to rest her hands on her thighs for balance. She looks down at herself. Now back to her proper size, and with a little relief to see fragile stick-skinny arms replaced by hard-earned muscles. The details of the room come to her quickly; statuary, marble columns, intricate artwork maintained diligently against the elements.

"It's Themyscira, dad," she says. Another roar in the distance makes them both twitch. Fear shudders across  Caitlin's shoulders. It seems distant, muted somehow, and that distance produces a relieved sigh.

"No shit," Alex murmurs. He looks around the throne room, at the towering status of the five goddesses between the great pillars that support the roof. Warm air from the beach rapidly cools when it passes under the shaded marble. Caitlin moves to one of the statues, puts fingertips to her lips, and touches Athena's feet. "Thank you," she whispers up at the statue.

"This is no doing of mine, Aikaterine." The voice is regal and poised, full of unimpeachable authority. Caitlin whirls and her eyes go wide at the sight of Athena herself materializing in the throne room, though clad in tunic and sandals instead of spear and aegis.

"And you know the penalty for bringing men to the island," Athena says, voice hard. There's a subtle amusement in her eyes and a slight smile at the corner of her mouth. She approaches Caitlin with a dancers sure grace. "Even ghosts."

Alex steps sideways and puts himself between Caitlin and Athena, posture tense and ready for hostilities. "Who are you calling ghost, lady?" he says. "No one's doing a thing to Caitlin while I'm here."

"/Dad/!" Caitlin hisses. "This is-- this is Athena. The /goddess/," she emphasizes. He looks back at her for confirmation, her eyes widening pointedly and lips pressing into thin lines.

"Well it's still not her fault. She didn't bring me here, I just tagged along," he says, stubbornly.

Athena's brows lift in amused surprise and she gestures with one hand. Alexander yelps in protest as invisible forces simply move him along a broad arc, out of Athena's path.

"I suppose we can forgive it this once," Athena says with a soothing smile and more gentle tone. Caitlin sighs in relief and Athena touches her shoulder reassuringly. "Mortals have little control over where they flee in their memories."

In the distance, another anguished roar, an animal cry that rattles the granite underfoot. Tension returns to Athena's face. "I must speak quickly, child, because time is limited. You are still ascending the steps of Erebos. Your friends are struggling with the shades and spectres of their own past. Now your demon is coming for you as well."

Fair skin pales even more. Caitlin paces, hands steepled over her mouth. "Can you stop it?"

"I cannot," Athena says, with sincere regret.

Alex speaks up. "What? Why not? You're a goddess, right? Just--" his fingers snap once in the air.

"You know what follows is Caitlin's will to survive," Athena tells Alexander. "It is primal and powerful. Should it overpower her, here, in the dream, it will haul her conscious mind into darkness and take control. It sees everyone as a threat, and all it knows is violence."

"And the only ones with me on the stairs are my friends," Caitlin says, miserably.

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
The goddess looks to Alexander. "I am not omnipotent, Alexander Fairchild," Athena says calmly. "Especially not in Tartarus. I come here with my family only, and in force, and only when we must. It is not a place for anyone to linger, even the Goddess of Wisdom. I am here now only because Aikaterine's memories opened a bridge for me. But the link is... tenuous. It cannot be maintained for long."

"Okay, so, we fight it. The head on approach," Alex says, and smacks a fist into his palm.

"It is part of her," Athena points out. "I would have to harm Aikaterine to force it to submit. And even if I could do so, it would weaken her even more over the course of her life to have me kill a part of her." Her garb shimmers, and battle-armor manifests around her. Spear, helmet, goatskin breastplate; the helmet cuts low over Athena's eyes, giving her a more menacing appearance. "Here I do not have the power I wield in my domains. But for you, a daughter of Themyscira... I can delay it for a time. Not long. I can trap it in mazes and shadows. Confound and confuse it. Enough for you and your father to talk," Athena says, nodding at Alexander.

"T-talk?" Caitlin stammers.

"Talk," Athena repeats. "I cannot defeat your fears, and I cannot counsel you on how to fight yourself. But I can buy you precious minutes here in in the Dreaming, and each is worth a score of the same in the waking world. When your nightmare comes, you will have to face it or flee. In the meanwhile--" she lifts the hand clutching her spear, gestures at Caitlin and Alex. "This is an opportunity rare beyond measure, Aikaterine. Make the best of it."

Athena vanishes into a fast-dissolving cloud of mists, and Caitlin twists her hands into one another in visible duress. She looks around with a frantic expression, uncertain of what to do.

The contrast with Alexander could not be sharper; he moves to the tiled steps and sits on them with a comfortable ease. "Well, goddess says we've got time to talk. So?" hands gesture eloquently, spreading and then dropping again. "Let's talk."

"I don't--Daddy, there's something bad coming, I need to--to think about how to deal with it?"

At a sound behind her, Caitlin turns, only to see Alexander calmly sitting atop the marble throne.

"Daddy!" she hisses, voice squeaking. "Get off the throne!" She whispers as if afraid her words will carry.

"Why are you whispering?" Alexander asks, mimicking her whispers with a hoarse sotto voce. "Who else is gonna hear it?" He grins at Caitlin's discomfort, and when she starts scowling he throws a leg up over the arm of the chair and slouches into it even more bonelessly.

"Oh my gosh," Caitlin mutters, and covers her face with her hands.

"Listen, you might as well relax," Alexander says. He gets to his feet and beckons Caitlin. "C'mon. Athena said we have time to talk, so, let's talk. Come take a seat."

"I'm not sitting on the throne."

"C'mon. You can't tell me you haven't thought about it," Alexander wheedles. There is an implacable charm to the man's grin, something a little roguish and boyish at once. Caitlin looks left and right, pinking at the ears, then stamps her foot once.

"Okay. Fine. For a /minute/," she stresses, and heads up the dais. The towering redhead pauses, staring at the intricately carved slab.

"Caitlin. We're in your dreams, remember? Who is gonna even remember this come daytime?"

She pauses, takes a deep breath, and sits heavily on the seat. When no lightning smites her down, Caitlin exhales the tension away and opens her eyes.

"So what?s with this 'Aikaterine' business?" Alex inquires. "Didn?t like the name Caitlin?"

"It's an Amazon tradition," Caitlin clarifies. "Or, well, I mean--I" assume it is. It's my name on the island."

"That's a shame," Alex clucks. "I named you after my favorite Vegas stripper."

"What!?" Caitlin's eyes bug out alongside an aghast squeak. Alexander bursts into laughter."

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
"Hah! Your face," he chortles. "No. Caitlin was your grandma's middle name. Guess they pulled it out of my memory." He walks around the dais, regarding the imposing throne and the posture even dream-Caitlin carefully maintains. "My little girl. Queen of the Amazons," Alexander says with a grin. He rests an arm over the back of the chair. "That'd be something to see."

"I'm pretty sure I'm dead last in the line of succession, daddy," Caitlin mutters. She looks up at him with a perplexed expression. "Wait, how much -do- you see from, uh...?"

The hesitation isn't missed, and Alex laughs at the worry on Caitlin's concerned features. "Don't worry kiddo, I'm not in Hell," he promises her. "Or... well, I guess I'm not in Heaven. I don't remember pitchforks and fire, but I don't really remember pearly gates and white wings, either," he admits. "It's... I remember trying to see you, before, but it's all murky and hazy. And I don't remember much of being a man while on the other side. Now that I'm here, I remember my life and stuff, but I can't remember anything from the other side. Not even what I was doing up until you pulled me down here."

"I didn't do that intentionally," Caitlin protests.

"Well it wasn't my decision. I just felt something like..." he frowns. "I can't remember what. All I knew is that you were in danger and suddenly I was in your brainbox."

"I'm just gonna chalk this one up to spooky underworld magic, then," Caitlin mutters.

There is a pause as she and Alex look at each other. He gestures vaguely with one hand, prompting a blink from Caitlin. "Well?" he asks. "She said talk. Let's talk."

"I-- about what?" Caitlin says. She pinks. "I didn't mean it like that. I can't-- I don't--" she exhales a gust of air from a jutted-out lower lip, making her loose bangs dance. "I've got a million questions and I can't think of a single one," she admits.

"Damn. I was stalling for the same reason," Alex says. He smiles ruefully. "Uh... okay. So you're doing the superhero thing, that much I remember," he tells her. "And Athena said something about a 'Donna'? She a friend of yours?"

Caitlin nods up at him. "Best friend. First real friend, too, come to think of it," she adds. "She didn't know me before--" Caitlin gestures at herself. "Before the change." A fragmented memory floats by; a stick-skinny Caitlin, a shadowy figure threatening her, the redhead's body cracking and ripping as it rebuilds itself into an imposing new frame in a matter of minutes. "The incident happened my freshman year. Me 'n Donna met a few months after that, there was a fight in this restaurant, and I got shot. Didn't hurt," she adds, quickly. "Then later, during the alien invasion, she was looking for allies and looked me up. Together with a couple other friends, we founded the Titans. That was almost ten years ago, now." More fragmented memories float past: the earliest members of the Titans, each of them excited youths eager to prove their mettle.

Alex's brows lift. "So my little girl's a cape," he mutters. "That's pretty wild. Last I remember was seeing the Fantastic Four fighting that Doctor Doom guy. And Superman, stopping the airplane." He refocuses on Caitlin. "Easy to understand why you'd get in with that crowd. I hope you've got plans to go back to school though. Education's everything in life. A lifetime of being a fighter is hard on the knees."

Caitlin smiles, a little prideful and apologetic that she's about to correct Alexander. "I, uh... I stayed in school, actually. I'm a licensed professional engineer in New York. And I've got a Doctorate in genetics. Superman was tangentially kind of my thesis project. We're friends."

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
"Holy shit," Alexander remarks. He misses Caitlin's wince, looking away and shaking his head in stunned bemusement. "I don't even know what to say to that. /Doctor/ Fairchild." There is marvel in his voice. "You're definitely an improvement on my genetics, then. We've got a long and storied history of being Irish barfighters in this country, with periodic bouts of being barfighting laborers or soldiers who get in pub brawls."

"Oh." The reaction to Alex's assessment of her cultural heritage is a little crestfallen.

"It is what it is," Alex shrugs. "Nature versus nurture. My dad was an ass to me, his dad was an ass to him. I always told myself if I got the chance, I'd try to break the cycle someday. Not sure how much of me rubbed off on you before I bit it, but..."

Caitlin bites her lower lip and looks at her feet, then up at Alex. "I... I hate to ask this, but..." curiosity drives her past hesitation. "Uncle Billy, he never talked much about how you rescued me. Neither would Alex."


"Uh, Alex Peabody. Uncle Billy named him after... well, you." The news brings blinking surprise to Alex's face.

"Anyway, they wouldn't tell me much. I've got... bits and pieces up here," she says, touching her temple. "But it's hazy. It's all VR simulator stuff, or neuro-induction overlays. All Alex would tell me is that they hauled the learning equipment out with me, and he made some tweaks to it to help me land on my feet once I was, uh. Decanted."

Alex's face goes still. He brushes his palm over his mouth, looking away, then down, then at Caitlin. "Yeah. Okay. I guess you'd want to know," he says. He takes a slow breath. "It was, uh... I guess about ten, twelve years ago," he hazards. "My memory was starting to go. I'd wake up in a strange house. Sometimes a strange city. It'd take me a few hours to remember where I worked, what my job was. And we'd--" he gestures at Caitlin, hesitates. "You.... Shit, this is gonna be tough," he asides.

"Your, uh, -clone-, would keep coming to me with the same problems. 'Can you show me how to reset this clock'. 'I'm not ready for this History test'."

He looks skywards, thinking. "Then one day I get home and two guys blindside me. Almost had me cold, used some kind of gas in my face. Of all the dumb luck-- I sneezed. Blew it away from my face and right at one of them. So we ended up in a drunk punch-out, and I came out on top. Then I realized you were gone."

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
Alex looks down at his palm, thumb rubbing slow circles over the creases. "Tore the world apart, looking for you. Called in every favor I had. Burned a few bridges. We put it together that they were resetting my brain, resetting you, again and again. Trying to find the right... I don't know. Conditions? Situation? Finally Slade comes to me and says, 'We've got a lead'. So I call up the rest of the crew, the old Team 7 guys. Rode on the facility where they had you, hatted up, and went in. Blind, no intel, no nothing."

He shakes his head. "It was a slaughter. A bunch of professional tough guys, and we got our asses kicked. We just weren't ready for any of it. We were all former Special Forces--Marines, SEALs, Green Berets. Bunch of us had some government-enhanced metabolism. I saw three of the hardest dudes I ever met get gutted by an eight-year old girl with knives in her fists."

Caitlin covers her mouth, eyes a bit damp. Alex continues with that same low, forced monotone. "Anyway, we come around this corner and there's this giant-ass laboratory. Bunch of ... tanks. Vats," he amends. "They were growing you. Er, clones of you. Bunch of them. Some were little girls, some were like you are now."

"I cleared the corner and was staring at one of the tanks. Not paying attention. Walked right into a right cross. I heard my neck break." Caitlin starts crying in earnest, shoulders rocking with silent sobs. "I heard Slade draw down, three shots. You-- she--" he coughs, looks away. His eyes water like Caitlin's. "I couldn't move. Hit the ground, facing each other. All I could do is stare at your... /her/ face, and we both kinda just..." His voice fades. "Watched the lights go out."

"Oh daddy," Caitlin whispers, and tries to brush away fast-spilling tears. They shatter into glass motes when they hit the ground and evaporate into so much glittering mist.

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
Alex clears his throat. Apparently, even ghosts can get choked up. "We all had a deal, the team. If anything happened to one of us, we'd take care of the families. The kids. Did it for Slade's boy, Joe. Guess Billy took on this one." He looks at Caitlin with an uncertain gesture. A hand reaches, hesitates, then touches her shoulder. "Hey. It's OK. I knew up front it was a one-way ride. Guys in my line of work, soldiers, mercs- we don't have a long shelf life." He steps around to the front of the throne and hunkers down into a squat, taking Caitlin's hands to look up into her face. "I mean it. I could have bit it so many different ways. Dead in a ditch in Somalia, barfight in Brazil. I almost got stepped on by an elephant, once. Now -that- would be embarassing." He flashes that grin at Caitlin again and she blurts out a laugh between choking sniffles.

"I went down fighting, taking care of the most important thing in the world. You. That's a good way to go," he reassures her.

Caitlin continues to sniffle and cry, but nods at his words. It takes a trembling few seconds for her to recover her aplomb; grief clings to her shoulders like a wet cloak, but the weeping subsides quickly.

"Listen." Alex squeezes Caitlin's fingers in his hands. "At the time I didn't remember much. I guess being on this side of the veil, the memory wipes, they aren't a thing anymore. I know how happy I was to see you. I'd tuck you in at night. Make you lunches. It's all a bit jumbled and mixed up, but I know I was absolutely and completely -happy- when we were together. I never thought I'd be a father, to be honest," he confesses. "I still don't know if you've got a mom out there or not. But I was one proud papa, and hearing what you've done with your life... I'll never get a chance to say this again, but I am -still- proud of you." He grins lopsidedly up at Caitlin.

Caitlin leans forward impulsively and puts her arms around Alexander's shoulders, and he hugs her back just as hard. They hold the embrace for a long time, and finally break when their relief and sorrow are expended.

"So... speaking of kids," Alex says. Caitlin's brow lifts. "Any chance you're gonna be telling my grandkids about meeting me in the afterlife? Someone special out there?"

Caitlin snorts back a laugh. "Probably not anytime soon," she says, with a rueful headshake. "I've got too much on my plate right now. Dating in the community isn't exactly simple. Let alone, get married and do the kids thing. And the Titans are a big team now, there are about twenty of us. Some of them are the same age I was when I started, they need... I'unno. Help. Guidance. Family dinners on Sunday." She smiles with a bittersweet expression. "I wish I could cook you a good Sunday gravy. I don't even know what kind of food you like."

"I was never a picky eater, kid," Alex says, and gets to his feet with a grin. "But it sounds like you're living your life clean and healthy. Keep doing that."

"I will," Caitlin promises.

A thundering quake sends shudders all through the throne room. Caitlin shoots to her feet; Alex tenses into readiness. "What is that?" Alex demands.

Caitlin starts trembling.

"It's /her/," she says. Her face is pale, body rigid; instead of a fighting stance, her hands are curled into terrified fists at her side.

Caitlin Fairchild has posed:
"Caitlin. Caitlin!" Alex shakes Caitlin's arm in the dreamworld. This time, she doesn't budge-- frozen like the statues around her and simultaneously trembling in fear.

"You have to stop it!" Alex raises his voice and tries to get in front of her line of sight. "Caitlin, do you hear me? You have to stop it. Only you can!"

"I can't. I can't," Caitlin sobs. Her voice wavers and breaks and her eyes stay glued to the door to the great hall. It quakes violently as something hits it.

On the stairs of Erebos, Caitlin's shoulders twitch in a heavy shudder.

"If you don't stop it your friends are going to get hurt!" Alex yells. The dreamscape around her thins, melting away; consciousness fading out as the furious presence on the other side of those doors draws closer. Statuary disappears into runoff that vaporizes into smoke, then nothingness; darkness claims the skies of Themyscira in Caitlin's mind, transitioning from the opacity of dark stormclouds to the blackness of a deep eclipse, then yet darker still.

The doors fly off the hinges and Alexander whirls. It's Caitlin-- sort of. Red hair is scraggly and tangled as if by prolonged damp. Tubes and stents are bandaged to her soaking wet skin, and endless amounts of some blue-green fluid flows from her bandages and leaves murky outlines with each footstep.

She locks eyes with Caitlin and starts advancing. No slow and deliberate stride, no theatrics; the waterlogged thing just steps out at her with a brisk pace that would be businesslike if she weren't so feral.

"Stay away from her!" Alex shouts, and charges at the spectral entity. A leaping lunge carries him across the distance in a single bound, and the doppleganger swats him aside with one hand. Alex 'ooofs' and his form disintegrates into the same swirling mist as the rest of Caitlin's consciousness continues to melt away.

"Safe." The strange mirror-image keeps moving to Caitlin, making her stumble backwards.


"Not safe here. Will make us safe." The mirror reaches forward and Caitlin tries to avoid grasping fingers, buying herself only precious moments.

"You'll hurt my friends! Our friends!" she pleads, teary-eyed.

"Yes. Safest alone. Be safe."

Upon the stairs of Erebos Caitlin's feet stop moving, incurring an almost inevitable pileup as she obstructs the stairs.

"No!" Caitlin screams. Terrified, pleading, almost frantic, she casts about for an escape path. The doppleganger looms higher, towering over her dream-form as her awareness is sublimated into her unconscious mind.

"No! NO! NO!" The screams crack the darkness around the stairs, a volume that seems almost profane in their sepulchural ascent. Caitlin shudders out of the misty reverie and starts yanking on the rope tied to her wrist. The hitch knot is swiftly pulled loose and she flings the rope aside.

"Nooo!" Caitlin screams in the dream, and flings herself backwards off the fading marble dais as the shadow's fingers reach for her.

"Nooo!" Caitlin screams, shaking the walls of Erebos awake-- and with a desperate lunge, hurls herself off the side of the infinite stairs.

Donna Troy has posed:
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Sev... Six. Gods damn it, Cait!