Reunion

From the Story Arc: Red And Blue

Previous Story in the Arc: Friends Like These by Belladonna Aura (Saturday, July 02, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Within White Walls by Belladonna Aura (Wednesday, July 06, 2005)

(posted Monday, July 04, 2005)

Titian Paladin

He hadn't done anything like this in a while, but the old training was kicking in. Gairdner stood at attention, using every trick he knew to keep from drifting off himself. The room was quiet except for the deep breathing of both Bella and...

...he had not caught the name of her grandfather.

He was a sturdy, strong-looking man, her grandfather. To see someone like this struck a deep chord within the Paladin. Struck down like this, probably before his time, was not something Gairdner had ever thought of. Himself, he had always thought he would meet his end in battle, lord knew he had faced death numerous times. But what if he too were to live to that age?

The thought of lying helpless, comatose in a bed connected to machines...

An involuntary sound escaped him, almost a low cry. Bella woke with a start.

"...huhwhazza?..."

Her eyes flew open, and came to rest on him.

"My apologies, Miss Bella. I did not mean to wake you."

She waved it off, propping herself up. "How long was I out?"

He looked down at his watch. "About 6 hours, Miss."

She gave him a look of wonder. "You've been standing like that for 6 hours?"

"Yes, Miss."

She sighed, it sounded like gratitude. "Take a load off, Paladin. I'm up now."

He took a seat as instructed. They sat in silence, Bella had begun to watch her grandfather. Just... watching him. Her pose was as rigid as a sentry's, but the emotion pouring from her face was too much for even this bewildered soldier to ignore. He saw overwhelming love, worry, and so much anguish there, almost impossible in intensity.

And a history. He found he wanted to know. Respect for her, and this man he didn't know, seemed to demand it.

"Tell me about your grandfather."

____________________________________________________________________

Belladonna Aura

"I think he was a lot like Kid Crisis," she said, "When he was young. Definitely an enfant terrible when it came to Physics. Bachelor's from Purdue at 16, Masters from Harvard at 17, Doctorate at just a shade under 20, from MIT. Got recruited almost immediately to work on A-bombs under Oppiei---Robert Oppenheimer. But he was a lot less--inhibited than Kid is."

A small sound from Gairdner suggested that he didn't think Kid Crisis was inhibited. Bella smiled a little and elaborated. "There's a tradition at Purdue that the students in the Physics and Engineering Departments compete to see who can dye the fountain green in Saint Patrick's day first. Bear in mind that the University frowns on such things. Grampa found a way to do it without detection: he used a methane-filled balloon with a timer release to drop the packets into the fountain at exactly 12:01 AM. Tethered the balloon to the enter of the fountain using black fishing line, which didn't show. No way to tell who the balloon belonged to, and the pranksters well out of the way when the packets dropped. He did pranks like that all through college, the more public, the better. Had a prof he really hated; disassembled his little Bugatti and reassembled it in the man's lab so that it was the first thing he saw when he opened the door the next morning."

Paladin pondered that last. "I'm not sure I see the point," Gairdner replied.

"Partly it was the challenge, both intellectually and physically. Partly it was a way to pay back in irritation people he thought were intellectually stifling, and do it with humor." It was impossible to see that brightly burning intellect under the oxygen mask, the slackness of coma. "If there is one thing Grampa hates, it's a stuffed shirt." She scratched the back of her hand, absently. "Funny thing is that when he went to work for the AEC in Nevada, he got along pretty well with most of the military officers there. You'd think not, but he always understood the difference between the need for discipline and the demands of those whose minds were just inflexible. Which is why he got along great with Oppie, but with Teller, it was hate-at-first-sight."

She, of course, had never met Teller, but she had heard stories, and not just from Grampa.....

"He met Gramma there, actually. In those days, girls weren't supposed to interest themselves in things like physics, and even if they somehow made it through college, they were supposed to work a few years as a lab tech, then marry a nice graduate student and go have babies. Except Gramma had another idea. She got hired by the AEC and assigned to Teller, who proceeded to make fun of her, give her the 'kinder, kirche, kuche' speech every time he saw her, and turn her into his private janitorial staff with no responsibilities. Grampa found her crying her eyes out, got her calmed down, and took her to Oppie to get a transfer on the spot."

"like I said, with Teller, it was hate at first sight. When Teller sicced the anti-Communist dogs on Oppie and the AEC took Oppie's clearance away, and Teller started the H-bomb project, Grampa was furious. But Grampa was also smart, and he did one of the sneakiest things I have ever heard of."

Gairdner looked at her curiously. "What would that have been, Miss?" he asked.

She looked at that quiet face. "First, he consolidated what remained of Oppie's friends under himself, including Gramma. Then he got his department assigned only the projects that he knew were going to dead-end. And he did all of that by running breaking-and-entering jobs on the personnel office and changing the records whenever he needed to."

She glanced over at Gairdner, who was blinking thoughtfully. "Can you explain that reasoning to me, Miss?" he asked carefully.

"Sure." She stretched, then resumed her pose of watchfulness. "First of all, along with Oppie, there was a cadre of scientists who were absolutely opposed to developing the H-bomb---but where the heck else were they going to work? Grampa, for instance, all of his work was classified and unpublishable. Oppie lucked out getting a position at Princeton, but there weren't a lot of those to go around."

"Second, Grampa was always a scientist first, and in science, the dead-ends you chase can come up with as many interesting things as the more 'fruitful' lines of research."

"Third, the classification of 'dead-end' so far as Teller was concerned was anything that didn't end in a weapon. So Grampa and his crew got to look at a lot of great quantum physics and particle theory. All good science. They came up with some fantastic work, and since it wasn't weapons;-science they were able to get it declassified and publish pretty quickly. So they kept their jobs on that basis."

She wanted to hold Grampa's hand, tell him how smart and brave he had been to find ways around Teller, whose ego far outstripped his intellect---very much the opposite ot Oppie.

"Grampa married Gramma, made sure she got her PhD before they had kids, and they worked together in his lab. Dad was a real quiet baby and spent his infancy in the lab, in fact, in a file-cabinet drawer. Anytime someone came through that would have objected to a baby in the lab, they just slid the drawer closed and he'd drift off to sleep. That's prolly where I got my first set of mutant genes" She smiled, and then remembered something. When she'd been scrapbooking John Murdock's life she had called up her Mom and asked her to send all the family photos to a scanning service. She had all the DVDs with her. She reached down and opened her bag, pulled out the laptop, and revved everything up.

"Here--" she said, skipping through the photos till she came to the Los Alamos and Nevada stuff. "Here's the A-bomb crew---there's Grampa, here's Oppie---"

Grainy black and white photos, faded color ones she hadn't had retouched yet. The solemn, gleeful, or surprised faces stared back at her out of the past, the past she shared with the man on the bed.

She shared his past, and his genes. She hoped she shared his courage.

___________________________________________________________________

From: Belladonna Aura
To: Everbody and his dog
Subject: Status update

No change in Grampa. One of the Alliance people, Titian Paladin, turned up here on vacation and has been an absolute star. We managed to get the family to go home, sleep in real beds, while we took over. Thank you, all of you, for the notes and cards and gifts. TakeOut Taxi has been keeping us pretty much alive, since it turns out the public side of the cafeteria closes at nine....sheesh, you'd think we weren't in Vegas.

Bella

____________________________________________________________________

Sturmfront

Another memo from Belladonna Aura today. It was good, he thought, as he would have hated to see his trust misplaced. Not that one more disappointment in the world would have changed anything for him, but it was always nice to know you could believe in some things -or people- at least.

No-one was perfect, of course, least of all Sturmfront. He knew that too. And he did not ever expect anybody to accept that, only to be surprised when they did. His fault then for holding himself up to higher standards as everybody else would. All the things they said, all the things they thought he should know, he did know. But he was just one man who had to make these choices in the end, for better, or for worse.

So it came down to staying behind and trying to cover everybody's back in the event there was some crisis, internal or external, or being out there and being proactive.


Hell. Who would miss him anyways? Probably, no-one would even notice. They all had their own problems, after all. Be useful for a change, old man.


Stripping out of his comfortable and well-worn leathers, he dodged into the shower. He wondered -for the hundredth time- why he even bothered to turn on the water. A thought intercepted it coming out of the showerhead and dispersed it into a fine mist that caressed his skin at just the right temperature; refreshing but not shockingly cold. Being... different did have its perks. Likewise, drying up was just the act of evaporating the remaining moisture on his skin once he was certain he was clean. Perks indeed. Now, what to wear? And how to travel?

Sturmfront... no, Wolfgang Degenhardt this time, ended up in a simple black suit which did not quite go with the eyepatch and the combat boots, but one could not be avoided, and the other was a matter of comfort. MP3 player, cell phone, PDA, wallet and lighter. Cigarettes along the way. A few packs, just in case. No need for the rest. No time either. He brought his Hero ID Card just in case, but did not think to need it.

Was that it? He double-checked the PDA for the map. He would have to call in the odd favour to get his cell phone triangulated and reassure his position along the way, but it was still easier and more expedient than taking the plane.


"Bah. It will probably all be over for better or worse by the time I get there." He muttered to himself as he exited out of his apartment house and into the streets of Galaxy City.

'You will never know if you do not try, will you?'>/i>

"No, I suppose I will not..."


He took off, hovering up into the air, just slow enough to overhear a passing child say, "Look Ma, a flying pirate."

It was just enough to ruin his day, but at least he had music and cigarettes for the trip.

Then both kicked in and took him away.


We follow the taillights out of the city
Moving in a river of red
As the colours fade away from the dusky sunset
We roll for the darkness ahead

We are old, we are young, we are in this together
Vagabonds and children, prisoners forever
With pulses a-raging and eyes full of wonder
Kicking out behind us again


[[Lyrics from 'Vagabonds' by New Model Army]]

____________________________________________________________________

Belladonna Aura

The parents arrived, looking less like ghosts, Gramma with them. By now, Gairdner and she were deep into the family photographs, and she had the feeling that he wasn't just looking at them for politeness' sake.

"Good God," her father said, without preamble, as they all came in through the door and caught sight of the laptop screen. "I had forgotten that one."

"That one" was a shot taken the day that Grampa had been able to resign and take a teaching job at UNLV, where Gramma already was working. He had enough published papers by then that his "blank years" hadn't mattered.

It wasn't only Grampa who had been able to resign. His whole team had, en masse, scattering to new positions all over the globe, thanks to Grampa's careful strategy. Carefully crafted "parachutes," silver, if not gold. The group shot showed all of them at her father's birthday party, all arrayed in silly hats, mingling gleefully with the children. They had chosen to celebrate their freedom there, rather than at some more adult venue. It looked as if it suited them.

As Gramma explained the circumstances of the photo, she slipped over to Grampa's side and picked up his hand. On the off-chance that it wouldn't hurt, she had been firing off healing auras all along; now she checked his monitors, and noticed something.

The EEG showed improvement. Not a lot but---

She squeezed Grampa's hand. "You are the smartest, bravest guy I know, Grampa," she whispered into his ear, as the rest moved on to the next photos that chronicled Grampa's career as a professor. "You can fight out of this thing. I believe in you. You're my hero."

____________________________________________________________________

Titian Paladin

Gairdner felt a strange compulsion to contact his family.

Well, perhaps not so strange, given what he was witness to. Over the past year, he had fallen out of touch with Pops, and little Bethany had to be enrolled in junior high by now. As a marine, he had written to them dutifully every week, and had phoned home at least once a month. The first few months after donning these gauntlets and wearing a mask, he may have had an excuse. It was, after all, a most unusual period of adjustment for the straight-laced military man.

But now, it had been over a year. He felt like a bad son and brother.

His attention snapped back to Bella's grandmother, who was musing over the birthday photograph.

"This was the last time we were all together," she was saying, her fingers tracing the captured faces fondly. "Oh, we all tried to see each other after, of course, but we could never all come together again, not like... like this."

Gairdner gave her a tight smile. "Such reunions are often difficult to plan, Ma'am. At least you have memories such as these."

She nodded and smiled at him, and turned back to the photo. "Oh yes. Yes..."

As she continued to reminisce, with Bella's parents joining in, laughing, Gairdner felt both wonder and dejection. It was a comfortable warmth here in this small circle gathered over simple photos, while beneath it all, there was a creeping worry, melancholy. He only had to look up to see it. Bella, holding her grandfather's hand, wishing to hope, but perhaps there was none...

He saw Bella mutter something. He saw a spike in the EEG.

Hope.

____________________________________________________________________

Belladonna Aura

Paladin---Gairdner---had a way of getting things done. It seemed that there were bunkrooms for interns, and that several doctors also had cots in their offices. Things could happen for "celebrity superheroes" that wouldn't happen for anyone else. Bella found herself stretched out on a padded, flat surface---top bunk of a bunkbed---with the promise that someone would come get her in three hours after a power-nap, a shower, and a change of clothing.

She was just grateful that Shyft had gotten her out of that containment suit. There were no rad-leakage issues. Nothing like no longer being a biohazard....

She closed her eyes and waited for sleep. And that was when the "aha" moment popped up in her brain.

....why are you so angry and aggressive?

Holy crow....

Because I was getting bombarded with anger and aggression, of course. From all sides.

She'd been telempathic, to a very limited extent, before. Nothing like Flame, of course. Flame could sense things miles away---or at least, she had been able to. Now---

I wonder if we're kind of averaged now?

Whatever, it was clear that she was going to have to figure out how to block some of this out. It seemed to be way more empathic than telepathic, and that was why she hadn't copped to what was going on earlier. If she'd been hearing voices in her head, it would have been a lot clearer.

Unfortunately....that opened up a whole 'nother can of worms. What had happened between Zach and her---

If I'm projective as well as receptive...

Then what had happened could have been her daydreams imposed on reality; Zach responding not to his own feelings, but hers.

In that case, he would probably be relieved by her stiff little note.

She sighed, turned over, and let herself drift off. She had way more important things to worry about. Grampa was a higher priority than anything else.

Anything.