PANTHEON, PUBLIC RELATIONS: STROKE

OCTOBER 2036, JOHN HOPKINS HOSPITAL, BALTIMORE

"Your mother has had a stroke," the doctor informed Will.

It was four hours, twenty-nine minutes after the fact and Will had 'ported down from the Academy as soon as he had gotten the news. Which was only six minutes ago and he was going to rip his mother's aide of the day to shreds once he got his hands on him.

"I tripped," Betsy said.

She was sitting up in the hospital bed, her spine ramrod straight. Her hands were folded in her lap and if not for the hospital gown, she could have been heading one of her board meetings. Not one silver hair had escaped her chignon and her makeup was still perfect. But the right corner of her mouth was drooping just a little and because Will had listened to her voice all his life, he could hear the slight slur in it.

"What do you mean, you tripped?" Will snarled. "You're a ninja, you don't trip!"

He had been commended by all his instructors at the Academy, including Harry, for his control and his even temper. He was glad they couldn't see him now, but he had the feeling they'd understand, having met his mother.

"The stroke was very mild," the doctor continued hurriedly. "We localised it to the left hemisphere, but there's hardly any bleeding, no increased intercranial pressure and we're expecting a full recovery."

"My heel caught in the carpet," Betsy said. "I tripped."

Will could see the familiar hardening around her mouth that meant that discussion was over. It had used to be even more impressive until an assassin's knife had slashed her from temple to chin. Queen of Euphemisms that she was, she had called the surgery that reconstructed her face for "her little facelift". And now the stroke was not a stroke, it was a trip.

"No," he said and the doctor was wise enough to back away from the family reunion, "when you trip you get up again. A stroke, and you end up in the hospital."

Or it kills you. Not this time and maybe not the next one either, but soon. He didn't know her real age and doubted she did; what he did know was how much she had worked and how hard she had used herself, body and mind.

"You say pot-ah-to, I say pot-a-to," Betsy told him in a petulant voice, dabbing delicately at her nose with a Kleenex.

Will saw the pride and defiance in her face. The nosebleed had stopped. So had the bleeding from eyes and ears which so had frightened the EMTs. It was only the beginning of the end.

He walked over to the bed and sat down, careful not to jostle her. He adjusted the lamp by the bed and the shadows in the room became sharp and defined.

"Come," they said, but he wouldn't heed them, not today.

"Mama," he said, taking her hand. "Let's go home."