Kala texted Dustin and Sebast, telling them she was working late. The lie grated on her, but she had little choice. It wasn’t as if she could tell either of them she was flying to Baltimore without even buying a plane ticket.
She’d gotten Jason’s message a little while earlier saying he was back from the meeting with Zatanna. Ha ha. No luck yet, going back later. Kala could feel the misery behind her twin’s short message, and simply had to see him for herself.
Campus security wasn’t prepared to deal with anything as fast as she was, so she knocked on his door just a few minutes after leaving work. “It’s open,” Jason called out from inside the room.
“Were you expecting someone?” Kala replied, walking in.
“Nope.” Jase was lying on his bed, looking morose, with Gazeera sprawling on his chest. The lizard’s tail dangled off the side of the bed; from nose to tail-tip, he was nearly as long as Jason was tall. In his old age, some of the iguana’s spikes had gotten bent or broken, and his skin was a duller olive than the bright green of his youth, but his burly jaw and throat-wattles were as magnificent as ever.
“Well, hello there, handsome,” Kala said, and tipped her head back, jerking her chin up repeatedly. Gazeera, dozing under Jason’s petting, woke up and turned toward her, returning the gesture.
“You know that’s how territorial males compete for females,” Jason informed her for at least the hundredth time. She was having some success at least; his tone had lightened and a hint of a smile played around his mouth.
Kala sat down beside her brother, petting Gazeera’s head with one hand, and patting Jason’s shoulder with the other. “Yeah, but he never read the book. It just how I greet my favorite lizards.”
When he looked up at her, Kala made the same gesture at him, and Jason finally laughed. “You’re nuts.”
“I’m not the one who wanted be Godzilla when I grew up,” she pointed out.
“No, you wanted to be Mothra. But you settled for rock star.” Jason grinned a little at that.
Kala smirked. “It was a letdown, you know, but I had to take fame and fortune over becoming a giant telepathic moth of possibly divine origin. Since I can’t read your mind, though, tell me the whole story.”
Jason sighed heavily. “Basically, this was just the diagnostic visit. Zatanna thinks she has an idea what happened, but it’s going to be a pain to figure out how to reverse it. The actual problem seems to be that my body is convinced that the lack of powers is normal now, so that’s why I’m not recharging. She’s gonna take apart the gauntlets the guy was wearing and see if there are any other enchantments on them, because that shouldn’t have happened. But apparently magic breaks its own rules whenever it wants.”
“Magic’s a rebel,” Kala opined.
“Not the good kind, either,” Jason replied morosely. “Kal, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. What if I never get my powers back?”
“Oh, we’re gonna get them back, no matter what has to be done,” she responded instantly.
“Yeah, but … if I have to drop out of the uniform, that means you could drop in.” Jason looked at her steadily when he said it, knowing his twin better than anyone else knew her.
And yes, there was a part of her that ached at not being able to wear the family crest. A part of her that bled at being called the Blur, at being thought of as just his accessory, a part that just knew she could rock a crimson cape trailing behind her.
The larger part of Kala’s soul said, No. She shook her head slowly. “I’m not ready for it, Jase. I don’t think I ever will be. It’s all right to pitch in and save your bacon now and then, but…. I’d step in if I had to. And not for very long, either.”
Her brother paused, still petting the sleepy iguana. “No matter what you think, Kal, General Zod didn’t screw you up for all time. You’re not anywhere near as broken as you think you are.”
She had to laugh. “No, Jase, you’re right. Dru-Zod didn’t break me. The cracks were always there; he just showed me where the faults lay.”
At that, Jason sat up, his eyes stormy, dumping a lapful of startled lizard onto her. He grabbed her shoulders and tugged her close, staring into her eyes. “You are not a fuck-up, Kal. You’re my sister. I know you. You can be a great big cheese toast sometimes, but you’re not messed up like that. You’re just as much a Super as I am.”
Kala looked at him with love and sorrow in her eyes; his belief in her always got her choked up. “I love you, Jase. But I know who I am, all the Empress of Earth jokes aside. I won’t take the risk of cracking under pressure.”
Jason growled and shook her with a mixture of exasperation and affection. “I’m gonna crack your head if you don’t stop thinking you’re some kind of colossal loser, Kal. Quit talking smack about my twin, you hear?”
She started laughing at last, and that was the moment two things happened simultaneously. Gazeera had had enough being tumbled about, and clambered away from both of them. And one of Jason’s roommates opened the door, standing stock-still and staring at the spectacle of Jason Kent—who carried a picture of a blonde named Cassie in his wallet—nose to nose with a dark-haired girl. “Um … sorry, you shoulda put a sock on the doorknob or something,” the guy said.
“What?! Gross! She’s my sister you freak!” Jason yelped, and Kala cackled.
Gazeera saw the door standing open, and made a break for freedom, scuttling off the bed and towards the unfortunate roommate. “Shut the door!” Kala and Jason yelled.
The guy saw a six-foot-long lizard with heavy jaws and long claws coming at him at high speed, and jumped out of the way. The twins both tried to jump off the bed at once and tripped over each other. Kala managed to get her feet under her first and caught Gazeera just at the doorway, scooping him up in both hands and tucking his tail under her arm. “Uh-unh, no sir, we are not having Gazeera versus the Johns-Hopkins student body tonight,” she scolded, rubbing his chin until he stopped flailing.
“Kal, you freakin’ stepped on me,” Jason protested.
“Dude, I told you to keep that thing in its cage!” the roommate complained.
“Don’t be such a chicken,” Kala said, glaring.
“Hey, I didn’t know I was gonna room with a guy who kept a damn dinosaur by his bed,” the guy shot back.
Kala lifted Gazeera up and kissed his head. “And he’s a precious dinosaur, yes he is. Seriously, man, this iguana is fourteen years old. Have some respect.”
By then Jason had gotten up and dusted himself off. “By the way, Kala, this is Howard. Howard, this is my twin sister, Kala.”
Still eyeballing the iguana, Howard said, “Yeah, now I believe she’s your sister. She’s just as weird as you.”
“Excuse you?!” Kala snapped, whirling on him. Gazeera hissed with the sudden movement. “I’ll have you know I am much, much weirder than Jase.”
Jason just dropped his head into his hands with a long-suffering sigh, and Kala laughed. On that note Howard picked up the book he’d come looking for and left. “Well, that was fun,” Kala remarked, sitting back down with a firm hold on the struggling lizard.
Her brother plopped down beside her. “Yeah, sure. Fun like a roller coaster right after dinner. Seriously, though, what are we gonna do?”
She shrugged, thinking. “Well … you were the one who wanted a normal life. Maybe now’s the time to take a shot at it.”
He gnawed the inside of his lip, an old habit whenever he was thoughtful and worried at the same time. “Maybe. You know, spring break’s coming up. And Grandpa Ben invited me out to the farmhouse any time I have time. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a week and just chill.”
Kala nodded. The paperwork had been finalized shortly after Martha’s passing. The Kent family home in Smallville was held in a living trust for Jason and Kala jointly, with Ben Hubbard guaranteed residence there as long as he lived. “I miss Smallville, and I know Dustin does, too. Maybe I can carve out a couple days and come join you.”
Jason looped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. “I’d like that, Kal.”
“Consider it done, brother mine,” she said, and his quiet smile was worth more than the cheers of a thousand fans.
Each day for the heir to both Wayne and al Ghul was full—and fully scheduled. Damian had little experience of other children, however, and could not have known how different his life was from theirs. The physical training alone would’ve drawn complaints from many adults, and that wasn’t all of it. Ra’s al Ghul would not allow an heir of his bloodline to let the mind atrophy while honing the body to perfection, so Damian was already several years ahead of the normal learning curve for his age.
Mornings were for physical training, mostly. Martial arts to develop his muscles and endurance, and weapons practice as well to familiarize him with the tools of his trade. He ran, biked, swum, practiced katas, did strength training, and of course sparred with his tutors, on a schedule that alternated activities based on the day.
Lunch was his largest meal, and his mother’s chefs ensured that he got all of the nutrition he needed. Damian probably had twice the caloric intake of an ordinary child, but he was lean, without barely a trace of ‘baby fat’ except in the roundness of his cheeks. He had never tasted refined sugar and had no conception of junk food. He did have a young boy’s craving for sweets; one chef in particular indulged him with desserts sweetened with honey, or iced fruit juices.
Fortified by lunch, his studies resumed. Mathematics, history, philosophy, chemistry, biology, physics, and languages occupied his afternoons, with a rest break in the middle of it all. As the only student, Damian had his instructors’ undivided attention. Most of his learning was hands-on and interactive, though he was also expected to complete assignments such as translations in his free time. That free time came only one day a week and in the evenings, unless a teacher was indisposed.
If he had done well during the day, Damian might be invited to dine with his grandfather and mother. He looked upon that as a special privilege, as he was meant to. No child of his bloodline would sit down to dinner with servants, so if he were not allowed at the family table he had to eat alone. Breakfast and lunch by himself weren’t so bad, giving him time to catch up on his reading for his studies, but he preferred the exalted company of the formal table.
He was nearly always out of his depth in the majority of the discussions over dinner, but both of them made a point of including him by asking about his day. His grandfather paid close attention, but his mother listened with more concern. They both knew, of course. Damian was not so naïve even at his tender age as to think his teachers didn’t report to those who paid them. Ra’s al Ghul was rarely impressed by his progress, but the days when he was not dismissive were victories for Damian.
Talia, however, was another matter entirely. In some ways she was the strictest individual in Damian’s life; if she suspected he was not performing to the best of his capability, one sharp look from her withered him more than all the exhortations of his tutors. Sometimes when he thought he was doing his best, that look and the warning arch of her brow would lead him to discover another notch of strength or brilliance. Damian dreaded disappointing her, and lived for her praise. He was not being raised with any particular direction on the matter of religion, Ra’s al Ghul preferring to manipulate doctrine rather than subscribe to it, so for all practical purposes he worshipped his mother.
The late evenings were his favorite times. Dinner over, assignments complete, perhaps a little recreation aside, he was always thoroughly tired. But he delayed going to bed as long as he could, taking the time to bathe and brush his teeth and perhaps even neaten up his room. All so that he would still be awake when his mother came in to wish him goodnight.
Perhaps she’d caught on, because Talia arrived as early as she could, prolonging the moments she could spend with her son in quiet reflection. They talked about his day—not the more formal and dutiful progress reports over dinner, but a leisurely conversation that allowed him to ramble about the things that interested him, and her to enlighten him further with examples from her own knowledge and experience. Damian believed his mother knew everything.
Sometimes there were stories. Damian remembered, when he was little and couldn’t yet handle the full regimen of mental and physical training, she told him tales to help him drift off to sleep or to occupy his restless mind. Talia told the best stories; even the boring bits of history came alive when she spoke them.
So it was no surprise when, after the last delaying tactic was defeated and Damian was in bed, he looked up at her and asked, “Ommi, tell me a story?” They practiced his languages even now, speaking English tonight, but he always called her by her title in Arabic. It was the first language for both of them and the most personal, no matter how many others they knew.
“What kind of story, habibi?” The endearment was only between them; in front of others she called him by his name.
“Tell me about Alexander,” Damian said, his eyes bright. He loved hearing of the ancient Greek king. It was fortunate for him that Ra’s al Ghul owned only well-trained horses, for if there had been a fractious black stallion in his stable, Damian might have tried to tame his own Bucephalus.
“I told you how Alexander conquered the Persians last night,” Talia chided.
He did not pout; it had never won him his way. Talia was implacable. “Then you choose,” Damian said. He almost hoped for one of the old stories, more than half mythical, of Arabian princes and thieves in disguise and treacherous djinn. But those fairytales seemed to belong more to his early childhood, with his mother preferring real stories now.
Talia smoothed his blanket thoughtfully, and then smiled. Damian loved that smile; he would do anything to earn it. “I will tell you of another man called ‘the Great’, then. A prince who was a warrior, a diplomat, a leader, and an architect. He reigned longer than any of his people before or since and is regarded as the greatest of all his kind. The monuments he raised are still regarded with awe to this day. Can you guess his name, habibi?”
There were a couple of possibilities, and trying to figure out which she meant was part of the fun. “Was his kingdom cold most of the year?” Damian asked, thinking perhaps Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia.
“Quite the opposite,” she replied.
A tropical part of the world, then. “Ramesses II?” Damian guessed.
Talia ruffled his hair. “My wise little one,” she murmured, obviously quite pleased, and Damian preened under the praise. As his mother told him of the life of the pharaoh, he began to doze, his mind drifting to a land ruled by the desert wind and the annual flooding of the Nile. Damian felt the unrelenting Egyptian sun on his skin, heard the rattle of palm leaves in the breeze, saw in his mind’s eye the great statues and obelisks. He rode in the pharaoh’s chariot to battle, re-conquering lands that had belonged to Egypt of old and adding new territories. Though he warred against the Hittites, Ramesses had eventually made peace with them, taking the Hittite king’s eldest daughter as one of his wives.
It was as fantastic a tale as any fairy-story, even better for being true. Damian’s eyelids drooped as Talia wound down the tale. “In the end, Ramesses the Great lived into his nineties, having ruled the greatest kingdom of that age for more than sixty years, and leaving a legacy of wealth and architecture behind him. In his life he had two hundred wives, a hundred sons, and sixty daughters, and upon his death at that extraordinary age, his thirteenth son Merneptah—himself already in his fifth decade—succeeded him. Many pharaohs took his name in an attempt to recall his glory, but none came close to accomplishing that goal.”
“I want to go to the temples of Abu Simbel,” Damian murmured, more than half asleep.
“They are very beautiful,” Talia told him, and then added musingly, “Perhaps I shall take you with me to see them.”
That woke Damian up again, his eyes as bright as any child told they were going to an amusement park. For him, the attraction was as much time with his mother as it was seeing the legendary temples. Still, he knew to behave with decorum no matter how exciting the prospect was. “I would like that very much.”
“We shall see. Sleep now, my little prince,” Talia murmured, and kissed him good night.