Author: Rysler (email@example.com)
Pairing: Lilly Rush (Cold Case)/Barbara Gordon (DCU)
Category: Drama, Romance
Warnings: Explicit sex, graphic violence, child abuse, suggestions of drug use
Summary: Detective Lilly Rush re-opens a five year old case of a runaway and follows his path to Gotham City.
Notes: Takes place during Season 1 of Cold Case. Thanks and affection to Cercatrice, The Man from Planet X, and Blackwell for editing and plotting.
Eric whimpered as fingers tightened in his hair until he was forced to kneel on the tarred rooftop. Rocks stuck into his knees. The stereo blasted from the interior of the halfway house, drowning out his own weak noises. The music came from below him and he felt the vibrations under his sneakers.
"This'll be easier," the man holding his hair said, "With a little hit of--"
"No!" He cringed. "You know I don't do that stuff."
"Then get the fuck on with it!" The man yanked him forward. The bass pounding beneath them seemed to amplify his words.
He felt tears streaming down his face. "I don't want--" Eric had lived in the halfway house or on the streets of Gotham for over a year. He'd had to do...things. But always for money, or for a clean bed. Never out of fear. The fear repulsed him, and he shrank into himself even as the man's grip on him tightened.
"You want to eat, don't you? Pay up!"
"No..." Eric begged. He just wanted it to end. He was tired of trying to make it on the streets at fourteen. The halfway house was his last stop on his way out of town.
A black shadow blocked out what little light came from a streetlight. Eric's eyes widened as a figure seemingly made from the night itself loomed over the scene, and then sank to the rooftop and grabbed the shoulder of Eric's attacker.
Eric shouted as the dark figure shoved the other man. The man screamed in pain and his sounds were no more audible over the stereo than Eric's cries. Only Batman had heard them.
Eric scrambled backwards...
* * *
Lilly stood on the steps outside a train station. Gotham City stretched before her. She'd Mapquested ten blocks to the police station, and was tempted to walk the distance, rather than take one of the cabs waiting in queue in front of her. She wondered if it was safe to walk. The immediate area around the station looked all right--No graffiti, no beggars, no loiterers. In fact, the streets were cleaner than she'd expected. She walked down the steps and headed east, wondering what she'd say to the Gotham City Police Department on a Saturday morning, with no warrant, no open case, and no permission from her Lieutenant to be here.
The streets were quiet. Despite patches of muddy snow in alleyways and under stoops, the temperature was a brisk 40 degrees and Lilly unwrapped her scarf, letting the tails hang down her jacket. Cool air brushed her neck, welcoming her to Gotham. The sunlight made everything--if not warm--at least bright and alive. Lilly inhaled, taking in the scents of rotting trash, car exhaust, and morning dew. She could almost picture herself in Philadelphia. This city wasn't what she'd been told to expect...
* * *
Two Days Earlier
The fat detective, Nick Vera, had something useless to say on every subject. "They say Gotham's haunted, you know." Vera paused for dramatic effect, glancing away from Lilly and toward an imaginary audience. "By bats."
"By bats?" Scotty, Lilly's young partner, snorted. "Urban legend. Kid's stuff."
"I dunno, Lil," Stillman said at her shoulder. "Remember that earthquake a few years back? And that other thing? Gotham's had a lot of hurt, and a lot of help, in things we haven't seen in Philly." Tom Stillman was the Lieutenant of the cold case squad, and Lilly had learned he was also a source of vast knowledge, and unlike Vera, generally reliable.
She lifted a Gotham postcard, turning it to study a clocktower photographed at sunset on the front. "How did they recover?"
"Industrialists," Vera said, before Stillman could speak. "Lex Luther and Bruce Wayne refused to pull out. This was before the Indian outsourcing. And there's the port. Economy brought Gotham back to life."
"That's one theory," Stillman said, patiently. "There are others."
Scotty laughed. "That the bats did it?"
"If you ask me..." Vera said. No one was asking him, but Lilly pretended to give him her attention anyway as he continued, "There's too much money in Gotham now. It's a decayed decadence that attracts predators and entrepreneurs."
"What is it, Las Vegas?" Scotty snorted.
"Social development theory or not," Stillman said, turning his attention to Lilly, "I'm not sure you have a case. Some boy runs away to Gotham five years ago, and you want to chase after him? Turn it over to Missing Persons."
"It's a cold one, boss."
Stillman shook his head. "There's no crime. The police have enough to do without investigating things that aren't crimes."
Lilly frowned. "You don't think the sister's death last week, the mother coming to us now, has any elements of a crime?"
"We're not investigating the sister," he said.
Vera cleared his throat. "We might, though, if we had some sort of statement from the boy."
"Catch 22. And, Rose Coswald is dead."
"So, boss, do you mind if I head up there on the weekend?" Lilly asked as she tapped the postcard against her palm.
"Your time is your time, Lil. But personally I think you could make better use of it."
"It'll almost be like a vacation." She tapped the postcard, sealed in plastic, against her chin.
Vera cracked his neck, and said, "If I were running away, I'd go to Metropolis. Nice, clean. What does a bat-haunted city like Gotham have to offer?"
Lilly shrugged. "More hiding places."
* * *
The police station was two blocks away, and Lilly could see its banner hanging from a building on the left-hand side of the street. She was still torn about what to say to strangers, when her argument to her own squad had failed. A case had been filed with the local Philadelphia and Gotham PDs when the disappearance had happened in April, 1999. The FBI had done their own investigation. The mother, coming into the cold case squad three days ago, hadn't had much to offer. Maybe something in the notes would help the GCPD get a line on this boy. Something more than just his name.
The traffic light changed. Lilly shrugged her shoulder satchel around to her waist, and fiddled with the buckle. She stepped off the curb.
"Stop!" A hand grabbed her coat and yanked her backward. Lilly stumbled as her heel hit the curb, but the hand against her back leveraged her and she managed to stand on her feet. A car whizzed past her and careened into a left turn. Lilly panted. The hand let go of her coat. Her heart pounded in her ears, and she inhaled to dilute the sudden rush of adrenaline at nearly being killed in her first half hour in Gotham City.
She turned around to thank her savior. A woman in a wheelchair was smirking at her. She had red hair that was straight and loose around her shoulders. "Wow," Lilly said, and then caught herself. "You have quick reflexes."
The woman demurred. "A necessity in my job."
"What job is that?"
The woman's eyelashes fluttered as she seemed to consider her response. "I'm a--librarian. Retired, really," she finally said, and gestured at the wheelchair.
Lilly nodded, though the information seemed incongruent. What kind of city was this, where the librarians had the reflexes of a streetfighter? She began wrapping her scarf back around her neck. "Thank you. That could have been ugly."
The woman's lips turned into a calculated smile. "You're welcome. Don't see many folks wandering into Gotham's trickiest intersection. Tourist?"
"Detective." Lilly said automatically. She offered her hand. "Lilly Rush, from Philly."
"Barbara Gordon." Barbara shook Lilly's hand. "Are you here on a case?"
"Sort of. I was on my way to the police station, actually."
"Do you have a card?" Barbara asked. Lilly reached into her coat pocket and slid a card out. She offered it to Barbara.
"Thanks." Barbara studied it. "Give the police my name, and they'll be more open to helping you, I think."
"Why your name?" Lilly shook her head. A close-call and a woman in a wheelchair putting her on the road to police cooperation? Cops didn't believe in coincidences. Ever. "Are you one of those Gotham vigilantes?"
"Hardly." Barbara's smile brightened. "My daddy's the police commissioner."
Lilly closed her eyes against the sunshine. "Hey, Barbara..."
"All that bat stuff I hear about Gotham..."
Barbara laughed. "Someone thought it would make a good story 70 years ago." She was facing away from Lilly, and wheeling south. "Don't believe everything you hear."
"Don't worry, I'm a detective," Lilly said, and headed north. Under her breath, she continued, "I know when someone is withholding information."
She put the conversation out of her mind and focused only on her surroundings until she had crossed the intersection. Once safe on the other side, with the bold letters GCPD fifty feet in front of her, she allowed her thoughts to return to Barbara Gordon. The woman she had briefly met was beautiful, and seemed to wield a crafty intelligence. Lilly hoped she would see the stranger again. Barbara had taken her card, but Lilly had not been given a way to contact her in return. She sighed. Women who appeared from thin-air like guardian angels probably vanished just as quickly. Maybe she'd imagined the whole thing. Maybe Gotham was haunted.
Lilly pushed open the glass door of the precinct. The front room was large, with a sergeant's station immediately to her right, and desks scattered in pairs throughout the room. Hallways, presumably to the uniformed officers' lockers and the interrogation rooms, opened at the back of the room, along with a makeshift enclosed office where the captain probably was. She headed toward the room.
A dark-haired woman about her height stepped into her path. "Lilly Rush?"
Lilly stepped back, creating space between herself and the woman, who was grinning and looked too young for the immaculate suit she was wearing--a detective's uniform. "Yes. I'm Lilly Rush." She glanced around the squad again. For all its ordinariness, she could have been in a squad back in Philadelphia. Gotham, haunted? By paperwork, maybe.
The woman stuck out her hand. "Renee Montoya. I'm the detective who's been assigned to assist you while you're in Gotham."
"How did you know--"
"Phone call." Renee winked. "You have friends in high places."
"I had no idea."
"She must like you. Barbara asks for a lot of things, but never to help a stranger." She shrugged. "Anyway, what exactly is the case? Serial killer run off from Philly?"
You mean, Lilly thought, What could be so important a commissioner's favor was called in? She looked away from Renee's curious expression, toward the side wall, and poster that read, 'Report all vigilantism to the GCPD,' and said, "It's just a missing boy named Eric Coswald."
Renee wrote out the name on a slip of paper for a clerk to pull the file, while Lilly pulled out her notes, and recounted what Eric's mother had told the investigating detective five years ago...
* * *
"Are you gonna tell on me, little brother?" Rose leaned over Eric's slender form. He had pressed himself against the wall next to his bed, trying to make himself small, invisible to her. He pushed his face into the comforter, but it was like an ostrich hiding its head--his whole body was exposed to the morning sunlight coming through the blinds, and to his sister's rage. He wondered what she was going to do to him now.
Eric lifted his head for a moment, looking for an escape route. Through his tears, the video game and death metal posters on the walls blurred with Rose's looming figure into a single demonic threat.
Rose slammed the heel of her hand against Eric's back, aiming for his kidney. She wanted maximum damage, minimal evidence. She'd already gotten in trouble, once, for clawing his face.
Eric screamed in pain. "Stop it!"
She hit him again. "You going to run to mommy? Be mommy's little boy?" She pushed her thumb into his back, and his shriek became piercing and incoherent. She jumped back, glancing around to see if anyone had seen or heard.
Eric rolled over onto his back and glared at her. "Stop it. Stop it!"
Rose saw the tears streaming down his face. Heard the footsteps approaching. She'd done enough. She backed away.
"Stop it!" Eric shouted.
Mrs. Coswald came into the bedroom. Her blouse was half-buttoned and her hair was already coming out of its bun. "What's going on?"
"You said to wake Eric up." Rose shrugged. "He didn't want to."
Mrs. Coswald sighed. "Eric, stop being a baby. It's time to go to school."
Rose smirked and went toward the kitchen for breakfast.
"Honestly, Eric," his mother said, watching him wipe his tears off his cheeks. "She's your sister. She loves you."
Eric wanted to say, And don't you?
* * *
"That was the closest the mother ever came to catching her daughter in the act. She said she saw a look in Rose's eyes that frightened her. But it was only that one time. Rose was careful about not repeating. So she dismissed it until Eric vanished."
"And a year later, they were up to burn marks?" Renee asked. She was holding a manila folder open, and studying the report of a Gotham investigator. "I can see the injustice of it all, but... It looks like a pretty clear-cut case for a runaway to me. Gotham gets a lot of lost boys" She shrugged.
Lilly dropped the clocktower postcard onto the folder Renee held. "Except something in Gotham found him. And it was even worse than what was happening at home."
Renee flipped over the postcard. "All right. Well, let's recanvas the area where this was mailed. Maybe memories sharpen and lips loosen as time passes."
"Sometimes." Lilly shoved her hands into her coat pockets.
* * *
They spent the next two hours talking to shopkeepers, street vendors, and loiterers. No one remembered seeing Eric Coswald four years ago. A few people thought they might have seen him in the last week. "Maybe we should call it a day," Lilly suggested, after a disenchanting conversation with a gas station attendant.
Renee nodded. "I have other cases that need my attention. Maybe tomorrow, we'll catch a break." They turned east. Renee had parked her squad car in a vacant lot two blocks away.
"Gotham feels different than home," Lilly said conversationally. "I feel like I'm being watched. I know it's weird. But I'm used to doing the watching."
"What's Philadelphia like?" Renee asked.
"Cold. Gray. Old. Maybe it's just dealing with cold cases. You get the impression that nothing ever changes. But I'm probably warped from my childh...er, work. In the springtime, the city is beautiful."
"Are you in control? You get to shape the outcome of your cases?"
"Yes. I feel that way. Even if it isn't always really true." Lilly glanced to her side, where Renee strode forward with a determined gait. "Not here?"
Renee shrugged. "Not always."
At the car, Lilly opened the passenger side door, and then looked over the roof at her partner. "Renee?"
"Yeah?" Renee paused, leaning against the door.
"Do you--can I--trust Barbara Gordon?"
Renee considered, and then met Lilly's eyes. "Yes." Her tone was firm. "As far as she'll let you."
Lilly got into the car.
* * *
The squad car dropped Lilly off in front of her hotel. She re-adjusted the bag on her shoulder and smiled at the doorman. Her cell phone rang. Pausing in the doorway, she dug it out of her pocket and flipped it open. Blocked number. She put it back and walked into the hotel.
As she pushed the elevator button, the phone rang again. She sighed and opened it. She put the phone to her ear. "Rush."
"It's Barbara Gordon." The throaty voice of Lilly's savior vibrated against her ear.
Lilly cradled the phone. "I owe you a lot."
"Just doing my job," Barbara said.
There was a silence. Lilly could hear her own breathing against the mouthpiece. She parted her lips so the air would escape more easily. "Still, I'd like to thank you. Maybe coffee?"
Her heart pounding added to the cacophony of her breathing. The elevator's bell rang as it arrived. She ignored it.
Barbara seemed to hesitate. "Sure," she said, and then paused again. "There's a shop right across from your hotel. We could meet there in an hour."
How did you know that? Lilly wrinkled her nose. "Is there something else?"
"Renee faxed me the case notes. I'd like to...help."
"I have a feeling you'd be very helpful."
* * *
Lilly hit mute on the television set and opened a binder. She was sitting on her bed, settled against the headboard. The hotel room was clean and ordinary. The lamp at the beside table cast a comforting golden light on her case files. She spread documents out on the comforter, hoping something would jump out at her. She'd left Barbara after lattes an hour ago, and then showered and turned on the television in an attempt to relax.
The postcard with the clocktower was still being sold in the hotel's gift shop. Lilly had purchased one. Now, she pulled it out of her notebook. The glossy picture, not worn and stained from a mother's constant tears, showed the silhouettes of birds in the background. Only, sea gulls were the only birds that fly at twilight, and these weren't gulls. Lilly realized they were bats. She sucked in her breath. They must be bats.
The files from both cities were nearly bare, showing a one-sheet report on the disappearance, and a second page on the follow-up a year later. Lilly sighed and opened her own notebook on the case. The police files in front of her contained statements by Eric's schoolfriend, Amy Rodel, and his English teacher, Jacob Huang. Between them, they painted a vivid picture of Eric's last day in Philadelphia...
* * *
"I feel a premonition that girl's gonna make me fall, she's into new sensations new kicks in the candle light, she's got a new addiction for every day and night..." Eric tapped his pencil against his seat to the rhythm of the obnoxious song stuck in his head. He sat in a desk next to the window in a classroom. His dark eyeliner and the black-and-white streaked hair enhanced his sullen expression. The lights were out. The teacher was showing a film about the civil war. Eric was supposed to be taking notes, but all he had managed to write on his paper was, "It's worse."
"Eric." Amy, his only friend because he let her cheat off his tests, leaned over to hiss at him. "How do you spell Ulysses?"
"How the fuck should I know?" He said. He stared out the window, where everything was brighter. The classroom he was trapped in was dingy and smelled like old paper and body odor, a mix that made him faintly nauseous at the beginning of each day. Leaving, he was sure, would make him feel less sick.
Amy asked, "What's going on? You know how to spell shit."
The teacher peered at Eric through the darkness. "Is everything all right, Mr. Coswal--"
He turned around, trying to think of some apology. "Eric!" Amy grabbed his arm. Eric's wrist was exposed by the tug, and shadowy bruises mottled his forearm, punctuated by swollen red marks and circular scars. "Holy crap. Have you burning yourself? Cutting yourself?"
"No!" Eric bit his lip. He felt like he was suffocating. He slammed his notebook shut and stood, stumbling out of the classroom. Outside, away from there, maybe he could breathe.
Huang followed him as far as the door. "Eric!"
Eric paused in the hallway. "I would never--" He looked down at his bruised arm. He stared at the burns on his skin. "It was Rosa."
Huang glanced into the classroom to make sure everyone was still in their seats. When he looked back at the hallway, it was empty. He was the last person to see Eric Coswald in Philadelphia.
* * *
Lilly looked out her window. She was six stories up, and Gotham seemed large and magnificent as its lights glittered against the night. She could hear traffic below her, and wondered if this was what Eric had seen when he arrived.
A shadow crossed the window, blocking out the lights of the city. Lilly pressed herself against the headboard. She thought she'd seen the outline of horns. And pointed wings. Maybe it was the case, exhausting her, messing with her head. She should probably call it a night and try with fresh eyes, tomorrow. It was hard to sleep on a case. Hard to sleep in a strange city.
Hard to sleep with monsters lurking outside her bedroom window.
* * *
Lilly's cell phone rang at 8 AM. She'd been picking at her breakfast and reading case notes for an hour, reluctant to call on Renee without something to offer. The diner across from the hotel was bright and cheery, making her slightly embarrassed that she worried about the city the night before.
"Hey," Barbara's warm voice came through the line. "It's Barbara. I have some information."
Lilly checked her watch, and frowned. "Did you work all night?"
A pause. "Sort of. Mind if I come over? I don't want to discuss it in public."
"Come on over. Room 612." Lilly grinned at the receiver and gestured for the check.
Twenty minutes later, Lilly opened the door to Barbara's knock, and moved out of the way as the woman wheeled herself into the room. Wondering if Barbara had already been on her way when she made the phone call, Lilly casually watched her roll herself to the corner desk and set up a laptop.
Lilly settled on the bed that dominated the cheap hotel room, pushing around her stacks of papers. "Renee and I haven't found much so far," she said. She kept her eyes on the files, away from Barbara, knowing her ego was about to be crushed. Strange city or not, a detective should have more to show after a day's work than sore feet. Maybe this is what Renee meant, about not being in control. Did the police just hang around and wait for evidence as a rule? Studying the fine bones shifting in Barbara's cheeks and the way the corners of her eyes crinkles as she smiled, Lilly forgave her. Just this once.
Barbara grinned as she shifted herself to the desk chair. "I have. I've tracked Eric from his bus trip to a halfway house in Gotham."
"Halfway house residents are registered with the tax rolls. No one just thought to cross-reference Eric with welfare, and they aren't electronic, anyway. Just papers filed with the local courts. Well, not all electronic..." Barbara looked sheepish. She said, "Eric set up an email account while he was there. And after wrestling with Yahoo! over their privacy clause and their five year old magnetic tape backups, we have copies of all his letters." She pulled a stapled stack of paper from her book bag and handed it to Lilly.
"Privately-funded, so no oversight. I'm not sure how Eric managed to get in without being tracked. Even the scummiest places have waiting lists. Maybe he made a friend."
Lilly bit her lip, unwilling to delve in to the kinds of friends a scared kid on unfamiliar streets would make. She skimmed the top sheet. "Was he writing people back home?"
"Looks like. And asking for money."
"Why didn't he write his mom?" Lilly flipped a page.
Barbara shrugged. "Runaway syndrome. He was trying to cut ties. Maybe he blamed her for Rose's attacks. Maybe he was just scared."
Lilly flipped to the end. "September, 1999. The home was kicking him out."
"Being 13 years old isn't pretty in even the best of situations."
"So the emails end." Lilly re-read the last printout. "Then what?"
Barbara shrugged. "He went underground. To the streets, I guess. We have our contacts, but...no one remembers what happened back then." She tilted her head to study Lilly. "How do you handle cold cases as your entire job? The frustration? I pride myself on staying current, even predicting the future from time to time. The past is...the past."
Lilly shrugged. "Someone always remembers. It's just a matter of finding them."
"The address for the home is on the cover."
Lilly nodded. "I'll go there tomorrow." She looked up from the pages and at Barbara. "Do you think--?"
Barbara closed her eyes. "Yes. I think he's dead."
Lilly remained silent, studying the still figure hunched over the laptop. Without the wheelchair, without that damned intelligent gaze, without the case, Barbara Gordon was just a beautiful woman in her hotel room. Lilly watched her shoulders rise and fall with her breaths, and tried to think of something appropriate to say if she was caught staring.
"Why this hotel?" Barbara finally asked, changing the subject. "It's the oldest in Gotham, and there's no TV, no direct internet hookup, no back support." She turned around to see Lilly again, and made a face.
Lilly glanced out the window. "The view's nice, though. It's all I can afford, on a cop's salary. If you think this is second-hand you should see my cats."
"Philadelphia doesn't have the resources Gotham has," Barbara said
Lilly watched a bird--really a bird this time--land on her window ledge, peck at the glass, and fly away again. "I do what I can with what I'm given." She looked back, saw Barbara looking at the wheelchair, and winced.
"You haven't said you're sorry yet," Barbara said, folding her hands over her stomach. "Everyone says they're sorry."
"When people say they're sorry for the things in my life... It never really helps. Just embarrasses me." Lilly set down the papers. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Barbara bit her lip. "No. Do you?"
Lilly looked back at the window. "Not really."
"Another time, then." Barbara stretched. "I've got to go. In the afternoon, I'll start collecting morgue photos. You do your...'interview'...thing."
"Hey, don't knock detective work. Interviews are essential."
Barbara looked amused as she shut down her laptop. "Why is that, Detective Rush?"
"People always say more than they think they're saying." Lilly winked. She got up to open the door. "I really appreciate all your help. You don't have to...do this. But I'm grateful."
"It's what I do." Barbara wheeled herself through the doorway. "I'll be in touch."
"Barbara," Lilly called, as Barbara was halfway to the elevator. "I wouldn't mind taking you out, after all this is over, as a thank you." She lowered her voice, saying the next words almost to herself. "It's not often I get to spend time with such a beautiful woman." She threw it out there, hoping for a reaction. Common interrogation tactic. 1 in 10 chance Barbara would lawyer-up. 8 in 10 chance she'd pretend she hadn't heard it.
Barbara looked over her shoulder. "Thanks." She smiled, and headed for the elevator.
Lilly shut the door.
* * *
Lilly and Renee stood in front of the man who was employed to run the home. He had tattoos on each shoulder revealed by a stained tank top. Track marks between his fingers made them guess at his side business. The halfway house behind him looked in worse shape than he was--a four-story ramshackle structure that could be a poster child for condemned building, covered in gang graffiti. Two rusted cars were on blocks in the dirt patch between the building and the barbed wire fence.
Donald Thirr folded his arms and stared at Lilly. "Look," he said, growling, "I already told her everything." He jerked his head at Renee.
"And now you're telling me." Lilly leaned in. "You threw a boy out of here four years ago."
"I throw boys out every day," the man said. "Half of them go home to their parents, half of them end up on the streets. It's the ones that stay that succeed. Why does no one care about them? The good kids? It's always about the degenerates."
"I'll tell the evening news." Lilly sucked in her breath. "Which street did he end up on?"
"Ninth and Roswell." Donald smiled, showing crooked teeth. He let his arms fall to his sides. "Pimp named Rolando." He rolled the 'R', with a smirk at Renee.
Renee turned around. "Let's go."
"But--" Lilly faltered.
"I know Rolando."
Lilly nodded, but held onto Renee's arm to keep her from walking out. "What was Eric like?"
Donald laughed. "What was he like?"
"That's what I'm asking." Lilly said.
"Just another stupid-ass punk..."
* * *
The computer had been donated to the halfway house by a charity that also paid for the internet connection in the interest of educational opportunities for underprivileged children. Eric typed at the keyboard, focusing on each letter. His shoulders were hunched, and his head was down to protect himself from the smacks that were being delivered upside his head.
"Hurry up!" Another boy, dressed in sagging jeans and a stained undershirt, slapped Eric again.
Eric cringed. "I got another three minutes!"
"Only if you can hold onto the computer long enough." The boy laughed, and grabbed Eric's shoulder, shoving him out of the chair.
Eric cried out in pain as he hit the floor. "Stop it!"
The other kid clicked the mouse and sent the email Eric had been composing. "See? All good."
"I wasn't done yet." Eric scrambled to his feet, wiping at tears on his cheeks.
The boy glanced at him. "Dude, you're crying? Over this? Weak."
Laughter from behind them caught Eric's attention. He turned around to see Donald sneering at him. "Looks like your three minutes are up, Eric."
Eric ran to the bathroom--there was no where else in the halfway house where he could really be alone--and sat in a stall, shivering. This is better than home, he kept telling himself, it's still better...
* * *
"He was pathetic," Donald said. "If you want my opinion, Montoya, you're wasting my tax dollars looking for the loser."
Lilly pushed past him and went out the door.
Renee said, "No one asked you."
* * *
The pimp had emerged from his lair, a fast food Chinese joint on the corner, as soon as Renee set foot on the block. Now he was offering his cooperation. "Please, sister." Rolando straightened the gold chain around his neck and peered over small, round glasses at Renee. "I ain't seen little Eric in half a decade now."
"It's been four years." Lilly stepped forward, forcing him to move back. "And you remember his name."
"Of course." Rolando smiled. "Cute kid."
"So where is he?"
Rolando glanced at Renee. "I run a business. I don't need Montoya and the rodent patrol up my ass."
Lilly patted Renee's arm. Renee put her sunglasses back on, and shrugged. "I'm going to go talk to the merchandise."
Alone with Rolando on the street corner, Lilly hounded him. "I'm not from Gotham. I don't care what you do here. Tell me what I want to know, and I won't tell Renee how uncooperative you are."
Rolando blew out his cheeks in an exasperated sigh. He fiddled with a gaudy ring on this thumb. "Eric was fine, for awhile. You know. He was 13, and it didn't matter that he only wanted it gentle, that he cried whenever it got too rough. You know. But--"
"He was getting older," Lilly said.
"Righto. And hungrier. And his hair didn't have that Pert Plus shine anymore."
"Maybe you should have taken better care of your goods," Lilly said.
Rolando shrugged. "You can't help them that don't want help."
"So what happened? Don't tell me a John swept him off his feet and took him to Metropolis."
"I told him to go back to where he came from..."
* * *
Rolando opened the door to Eric's room, a slanted attic corner with a bare mattress on the floor, and found Eric by the skylight, looking out at the city. "Eric..."
"It's so beautiful here," Eric said, not looking back at the pimp. "I know the stories, but I'm not afraid of the dark. Not here. I always was at home. That was when Rose would--" He stopped.
"Eric." Rolando sighed. He leaned against the window ledge and looked sideways at Eric. "I've been getting complaints. You're too--."
"Weak. I know. I'm too pathetic to even be some guy's sissy. I don't mean to." Eric inhaled, trying not to cry. "It just.. It hurts so bad, and I get tense. I'm sorry."
Rolando shook his head. "Eric... You're dead weight. Go on."
"I can't." He closed his eyes, blocking out the sight of Gotham.
"You can't stay here."
* * *
"You're ever so charitable," Lilly said. "Where did he end up?"
Rolando shrugged. "Back where he started?"
Lilly furrowed her brow. "The home."
"At least they'd feed him." With a wave of his fingertips, Rolando turned and stepped into the Chinese restaurant.
Lilly walked around the corner of the building, into the alleyway. She closed her eyes. She heard someone come up behind her, and then Renee was there, touching her shoulder, offering her a water bottle.
"He seemed awfully nice for a child peddler," Lilly said as she took a swig of water.
"He's not that nice. Just putting on a show for us in the daylight. None of the prostitutes remember Eric," Renee said. "They come and go, too often, too anonymously. But--"
"The evil sticks around." Lilly wiped at her mouth. She straightened. "Rolando said Eric went back to the home."
Renee looked out at the street. "That's interesting."
* * *
Lilly walked back to her hotel at dusk. She'd dropped Renee off at the precinct, and needed space to think. The shadows moving at the tops of buildings and along the streets no longer spooked her. She saw why Gotham City needed its mythology. She wanted to believe it herself, but she couldn't. She had to believe in her own city.
She kept her head down as the dusk settled into darkness and the wind blew through the skyscrapers. Yesterday, Gotham had seemed so bright--before she'd really looked closely.
Her phone rang. Barbara Gordon was waiting for her at the police vaults.
* * *
Lilly walked into a bright office in the basement of Gotham Central. Barbara sat at a desk. The room seemed more garishly lit by the fluorescent bulbs than the squads in the above floors which had the advantage of sunlight. Barbara's hair under the light seemed to hold a fiery tint, and Lilly enjoyed just looking at her.
She was typing at a laptop, as usual, but stopped when Lilly approached. A plastic container, the size of a cake box, sat on the desk, filled with grey dirt. Or sand. A number was written on masking tape across the lid. Lilly stared at it.
Barbara cleared her throat. "I found Eric."
"How?" Lilly sat down in the chair across from the desk.
"Thirr. It happened in his territory..."
* * *
Eric crouched beside a short wall on the rooftop. He was shivering, even though the night was warm. Spring was turning into summer. The city lights illuminated the rooftop and he hid against the shadows, tired of being exposed. Tired of being weak. He opened a bag of Cheetos, and after a fervent look around, opened the bag. The foil crackled.
The rooftop door swung open, and Thirr stormed into view. He looked around and saw Eric crouching. "Who gave you that food?" He yelled, striding over. "Which of the boys has been passing it to you?"
"I won't tell!" Eric pressed himself against the wall.
"Then you'd better pay for it yourself. This isn't a shelter, Eric." Thirr sneered.
"I know." Tears formed at the corner of Eric's eyes. "I can pay. Like usual."
"Did Rolando teach you well before he sent you back?"
Eric hesitated as he reached for Thirr's belt buckle. "Are there others like me?"
"They're all like you." Thirr laughed. "Hopeless."
When the monster came, Eric clung to the brick ledge behind him. Blood spattered onto his cheek. Thirr was a rag doll in Batman's arms. Eric turned away. His eyes clouded with tears. He blinked at the glittering, washed out city. If he could just get away from the violence behind him, he could do better. He could learn to fly, like superheroes did.
"No!" He heard the shout behind him, heard a thick, dead thud against the rooftop. He looked over his shoulder to see Batman charging toward him. Eric leapt. The bat, after all, could fly after him, if that's what the fates foretold. He fell backwards, weightless in free-fall, and saw two black horns above the ledge...
* * *
Lilly studied the canister holding Eric's ashes. "How do you know he fell off the rooftop? Wasn't pushed?" When Barbara didn't answer, she looked over at the woman. "Barbara?"
"The positioning of the body. And... there was a witness."
"What?" Lilly leaned forward. "Who?"
"I can't tell you." She looked at Lilly with an expression so closed Lilly knew she'd never hear his name.
Lilly sighed. "Why wasn't Thirr caught before? Why wasn't Eric identified? Why--"
"Why did I have to look through the pictures of 28 of boys between the ages of 10 and 16 who died between May of 2000 and now," Barbara said in a tightly-controlled voice.
Lilly saw her clenching the edge of the desk with white knuckles. She reached over and covered Barbara's hand with hers. "How?"
"No identification. It happened two months after the postcard was sent. And Thirr wasn't a suspect because he ran a shelter." Barbara spat the last words. She turned her hand in Lilly's and grasped her fingers.
"Why no fingerprints?"
"Prints were taken, and DNA, before the cremation. Just never put into the system. It was a suicide. No crime."
Lilly ran her thumb over Barbara's knuckles. "Can we prove any of it?"
Barbara looked straight ahead. "No."
"It's okay," Lilly said. She studied their linked hands. "At least I have something to take to Mrs. Coswald."
Barbara nodded. "And we'll be watching Thirr. He's done it before. We can catch him the act."
"I owe you," Lilly said. She refrained from asking who 'we' meant.
Barbara shook her head. "It's what I do."
Lilly nodded. "When I get back to Philly, maybe I can glean something from the emails that sheds some light on the problems between him and Rose." She released Barbara's hand.
"You did mention dinner." At Lilly's smile, Barbara sat up straighter, closing the laptop. "I'm still interested in learning more about what you do." She offered a smile. "You'd be surprised how few people tell me about real police work. It's boring, or unladylike, or something."
"Unladylike?" Lilly laughed. "Boy, the things I could tell you... "
Barbara grinned, and leaned over to pick up her computer case. "And," she said, as she straightened up. "You're an attractive woman, too."
* * *
They sat across from each other in a booth at a steak house. If it was a chain restaurant, Lilly had never heard of it. "So, how come you're not a cop?" She asked Barbara over their salads. "You seem very--"
Barbara groaned and put her forehead in her hand. "Please don't say 'cop-like.'"
"Observant," Lilly said.
"Well, being around the commissioner, I got sort of oversaturated. And, I wanted to do something different."
"Like be a librarian?"
Barbara looked away. "No."
Lilly nodded. She took another bite of salad.
"You don't push." Barbara sipped her merlot. "That's--"
"Interesting." Barbara bit the inside of her cheek.
"I've found," Lilly said, putting down her fork, "That after years of holding in secrets, most people want to talk. Need to talk. Even the skells. So--" She shrugged. "I listen. Besides, you're not a suspect. I don't need a confession." She leaned back in her chair and studied Barbara. "Haven't you already told me more than you intended?"
Barbara leaned forward. "Yes. So, what do you want?"
"A little more." Lilly reached her hand across the table. "Maybe a little less."
Barbara placed her hand in Lilly's, but looked down at the tablecloth.
"Do you have someone waiting at home?"
Barbara idly caressed Lilly's fingers. "No. Not anymore." She looked up. "Do you?"
Barbara grinned. "So. Tell me about your cats..."
They talked. Lilly was good at compartmentalizing her grief. She could save Eric Coswald's pain inside her, and enjoy a stranger's company. But, looking into Barbara Gordon's eyes across a candlelit table, looking at a woman whose attention was entirely focused on her, she knew that Barbara was even better at managing terror than she was. Lilly wondered what responsibilities Barbara had set aside in order to join her for dinner. She parted her lips to ask, but Barbara interrupted her. "Can we go to your place? Mine is so..." She hesitated. "Messy."
Lilly's smile faltered, but she found the boldness to put into her voice. "I do have daily maids."
"Lucky you. It's so hard to find good help these days." Barbara lifted her hand. "Check."
Lilly watched a waiter scurry over. She wondered if it was the wheelchair, the pedigree, or the wealth that got Barbara what she wanted. Or, considering her own part in what Barbara wanted, simple warmth.
Barbara read her expression. "I have everything I want," she said, wheeling herself to Lilly's side, "But frequent dates with beautiful people."
Lilly got her coat.
* * *
The message light was blinking on the phone when Lilly entered her hotel room. She sat on the far side of the bed and picked up the receiver. "It's my partner back in Philly," she whispered to Barbara, who had wheeled herself over to the room's desk and picked up the phone to dial out the other line.
Lilly called her partner back. "Hey, Lil," Scotty's voice came through the line. "I just wanted to let you know, we got those emails yesterday, and tracked one of the recipients here in Philly. Eric's best friend. At least, back in the day. There's a big jump between middle school and high school."
"Did he have any new information?" Lilly asked.
"The cops talked to him at the time, and a year later when the mother got the postcard. He mentioned the emails then--but it had been four months since he'd gotten any. But, here's the thing, Lil, he got a phone call a month after the postcard. Eric was begging for money again."
Lilly felt the bed shift under Barbara's weight as the woman sat next to her. Then she felt Barbara's hand on her back. Not moving, just steadying Lilly. Lilly smiled against the receiver.
"Anyway, he says he didn't send him any," Scotty reported over the line, "Thought he would use it on drugs."
"He wouldn't have used it on drugs," Lilly said. She leaned back against Barbara's hand.
"Yeah, well, the kid told Eric his sister had moved out, and the mother was looking for him...Eric said he'd get a bus ticket. That's the last anyone heard of him."
Lilly closed her eyes. "So he went to Thirr for money."
"Maybe," Scotty said. "We're gonna go through the sister's computer, too. See if she had any correspondence, or a diary."
"So much for this not being a case."
"Yeah, well," Scotty chuckled through the line. "There's a body now. So it's a crime."
"I wish it didn't have to work that way."
"Me too, Lil."
Lilly hung up the phone. She turned around to see Barbara leaning against the pillows, watching her. "Did you catch that?"
"Mmhm. Heard most of it through the phone. Your partner thinks there's gonna be a break?"
"He'll push at it until something snaps."
"Ah, now I see," Barbara said with a lazy grin. "Good cop, bad cop. I just got the good cop."
"I can be bad," Lilly said, and leaned down to kiss her. She didn't think about the complications or the rules of decorum, she just reacted and took her moment.
Barbara chuckled, lifting herself against Lilly. She put her hands on Lilly's shoulders and tugged her closer. Lilly responded by parting her mouth against the kiss. Barbara's tongue swept out to taste her upper lip, and then retreated, beckoning Lilly further.
Lilly marveled at the responsiveness of this woman she'd barely touched, barely knew. Barbara yielded to her. Lilly entered Barbara's mouth, felt the wet heat as Barbara sucked her tongue, and then drew back. She studied Barbara's features and reached out a hand to brush stray hairs away from her face. "I've never done this before."
Barbara looked at her seriously, and then quirked a brow.
Lilly blinked. "Oh, no, I mean--" She gestured at Barbara's body and blushed. "I haven't, I mean, of course I have..." She placed her hand on Barbara's thigh, and hesitated. "I don't want to hurt you."
"I won't let you hurt me." Barbara grinned.
Laughing, Lilly rolled over onto her stomach. She buried her head in a pillow.
"So, you've never had sex in a hotel room with a complete stranger?" Barbara smirked. She placed her hand on Lilly's back.
Lilly choked back a laugh. "I would never say. But if... You're worried, I've got the blood test in my briefcase."
Barbara slipped her hand under Lilly's shirt. "I'm not worried. Are you?"
Lilly rolled over onto her back. She met Barbara's eyes. "I'm a little nervous. I've never done this before."
"Let me help." Barbara's head descended. Her mouth found Lilly's. Lilly sighed against her lips, and wrapped her arms around Barbara's neck. She felt Barbara's warm weight against her side, felt Barbara's tongue against hers, and wondered at the aggressiveness of a woman so disarming on the surface. Not that she thought of Barbara as weak, not after the way she was yanked out of traffic.
Now, as Lilly's lower lip was tugged between Barbara's teeth, as she moaned and arched against her, she could openly revel in Barbara's strength. She cupped the back of Barbara's neck and massaged the corded muscles.
Barbara shifted, moving her mouth to Lilly's jaw, sucking, and then slipping down to her throat. Lilly gasped. Her skin tingled where Barbara left wet imprints. Red hair fell across her face and neck and tickled her. Barbara's hand slipped under her shirt again, stroking the curve of Lilly's back, dancing her fingers past the her strap, along the spine, dragging Lilly's shirt upward. Lilly kissed along Barbara's jaw. Barbara scratched lightly at the center of Lilly's back, between her shoulder blades.
She balanced on one muscled forearm, leaving only one hand, and her mouth, free to possess Lilly. When her hand slid across Lilly's side and back to her stomach to suggestively tug at the hem of Lilly's shirt, she felt lips curl into a smile against her jaw.
Lilly moved her lips to whisper against Barbara's ear. "I spent all day in the slums and we didn't discuss showering."
"Too late now."
Lilly chuckled and sat up. Barbara curled, propping herself up on one elbow to watch Lilly pull her shirt over her head. Lilly reached around herself to unclasp her bra. She twisted, her abdomen thrust toward Barbara with her contortion. The bra fell loosely off her shoulders, and Barbara caught a loop in her finger and pulled it forward. Lilly obliged by pushing out her arms. She smiled as Barbara moved toward her, wrapping one strong arm around her waist.
"Only women, huh?" Barbara asked, before tasting the skin just below the collarbone.
"That's the way it has to be." Lilly pressed her nose against Barbara's hair. She grinned as Barbara nuzzled her chest, then shifted up to kiss her throat. Barbara's lips were soft and tickling and her heart beat faster under the fluttering touches. Her hands strayed down Barbara's back to feel taut muscles shift. "Your turn," she said.
Barbara sat up straight and unbuttoned the top buttons of her shirt, and then drew it over her head and tossed it at Lilly. Lilly laughed, burying her face in the fabric. She looked up to see Barbara bare before her. Two thick, pale circles of scar tissue marked her abdomen, two inches away from her belly button. Lilly gasped before she could stop herself.
"What...?" Barbara frowned at Lilly's expression, and then followed her gaze to her own body. "Oh. I forget what you don't know."
Lilly raised an eyebrow.
Barbara slowly grinned. "At least in the heat of the moment."
"Bullethole. Large caliber, close range."
"I'm not your case, Lilly."
It may have been the first time Barbara had used her name directly. Lilly looked up. She wet her lips. "Solved, then?"
"Solved." Barbara reached out her hand.
Lilly took it, leveraging to settle against Barbara's side and hug her shoulders. "I'm sorry. That was just unexpected."
"Because I'm such a confident power monger?" Barbara kissed the hollow of Lilly's neck.
"Something like that."
"There's violence everywhere."
Lilly glanced around the quiet hotel room. Outside the narrow window, Gotham glittered. She saw no sign of shadows. "I know." She urged Barbara back against the pillows and kissed her. Her hand slid down Barbara's body, squeezing a breast, stroking her abdomen, and then finding the button of her pants.
Barbara bit into Lilly's lip. She whispered against Lilly's answering moan, "I want to watch." Her hand covered Lilly's at her waist for emphasis.
Lilly lifted her head. "You want to...?" She looked at their hands. "You can't--" She tried to pull back, but Barbara grabbed her wrist.
"I want to watch," Barbara said again.
Lilly leaned back on her knees. She circled Barbara's belly button with her index finger, and then deftly pulled open the top button of her pants. Barbara's stomach rose and fell under her hand, and Lilly wanted to lean down and taste the pale, scarred skin, but she knew that would block Barbara's view. Having to resist touching Barbara, even briefly, increased Lilly's desire. She closed her eyes and concentrated on pulling the zipper of Barbara's pants down. Her patience was rewarded by Barbara's soft moan. She opened her eyes.
"Can you...?" Lilly asked, sliding her hand into the open pants and under Barbara's panties to cup Barbara's center. She felt heat beyond the crinkled curls that pressed against her palm.
Barbara reached down, covering Lilly's hand with her own. "I can't feel anything," she said. Her grip tightened on Lilly's wrist. Barbara turned her head and whispered against Lilly's ear. "But when you touch me I can still get wet." She guided Lilly's fingers against her. "I can still get hot. You can still enter me."
Lilly moaned. She rolled onto Barbara, straddling her thigh, sighing as Barbara's hands came up to hold her hips and guide her movements. She explored the strength underneath her--the broad shoulders, the chest flexing with each breath, the intensity of Barbara's expression. She saw sweat on Barbara's shoulder glinting under the city lights and bent down to taste the salt. Barbara's grip tightened. Lilly smiled. Barbara's skin was hot and slick. She slid back on Barbara's thighs and nuzzled the side of her breast. "I want to make you come," she said.
"You can certainly drive me crazy." Barbara exhaled.
Lilly felt Barbara's contractions under her. "I drive you crazy? Like this?" She grazed her teeth across Barbara's breast, then blew against the nipple, that was already hard and straining toward her lips. "Or like this?" She licked the tip.
Barbara gritted her teeth. "Just by talking," she said as she stared at the ceiling.
"Oh," Lilly said. She lapped at the nipple once more, rolling her tongue around the stiff point, before drawing back to grin at Barbara. "So that's what all the high tech communications in your bag is for. Phone sex."
Barbara's eyes closed. "You have no idea."
Lilly laughed. She closed her lips around Barbara's other nipple, settling against her to suckle. She took the whole peak of Barbara's breast into her mouth, inhaled, and let it slide out again, wet with saliva, while she flicked the nipple with her tongue. The saliva cooled on Barbara's skin, causing her to shiver and force more of her breast into Lilly's mouth. Lilly obliged by increasing suction. Her hand roved over Barbara's upper body, fondling her breast, stroking her shoulder, even massaging Barbara's wrist and hand.
"So good," Barbara said, giving herself over to Lilly's touches. "Men never know what to do with...breasts..."
So, it doesn't have to be this way, for you, Lilly thought. She bit gently into Barbara's nipple.
Lilly pulled the distended nipple with her upper teeth, and then released it so that it sprang back as she lifted her head. She reached up to brush hair out of Barbara's face. "You like it rough?" She stroked Barbara's lip with her thumb.
"No." Barbara kissed the pad of Lilly's thumb. "Just hard."
Lilly's thumb slipped between Barbara's lips as she resumed her urgent suckling. Barbara's heart beat near her ear. She listened for tempo, and for a hitch in Barbara's breathing, that would tell her when she was close. Barbara's hands were now buried in her hair, holding her in place. The fingers massaging her scalp were distracting to the point of bliss, and Lilly's mouth tightened around Barbara's breast to compensate.
Barbara's gasps for breath became rapid and urgent. She bit into Lilly's thumb, and then tugged Lilly upward, and they kissed. "I'm-- " She tried to explain, before giving herself over to Lilly's tongue thrusting in her mouth, and Lilly's breasts pressing against hers. The warm skin grazed across sensitized nipples, and Lilly was still managing to stroke her everywhere, with her mouth over Barbara's so firmly Barbara had to breathe through her nose, and she thought she'd either black out or come, so she came, yanking her mouth away from Lilly's and crying out.
Lilly felt Barbara convulse under her touch. She kissed Barbara's forehead and closed eyelids. "Wow."
Barbara opened one eye, and smirked.
"Almost like a real girl." Lilly grinned.
"Shut up." Barbara wrapped her arms around Lilly's waist and dragged her down to the comforter. "Shut up, shut up, shut up." She rolled on top of Lilly, pinning her against the bed, and tickled her. Lilly laughed and squirmed, weakly trying to push Barbara off. "Incapacitated in two point six seconds. Not bad for a cripple, is it?" She lightened her gouges against Lilly's ribs.
Lilly kept laughing.
"Some big tough city detective." Barbara said, and kissed her.
Lilly responded to the kiss, pressing against Barbara's mouth, before sagging back to the pillow. "Conquered by a nerd. Don't tell the squad, I'll never live it down."
Barbara drummed her fingers against Lilly's side.
Lilly yelped. "Mercy! I'm sorry!"
Barbara grinned. She rolled onto her back, turning her head sideways to watch Lilly. "Take off your pants."
"Oh god. Don't be insecure after what we just did. I know ways of killing you."
"All right, all right." Lilly chuckled, and slid off the bed, standing beside it. "Should I play music?"
"I'm going to count to two point six." Barbara glared at her. "One..."
Lilly dropped her slacks. She pushed her underwear down and stepped out of them, letting Barbara have a long look at her body before she knelt on the bed.
"This'll be easier," Barbara said, beckoning to Lilly, "If you're on top."
Lilly straddled Barbara, smiling when Barbara found her hips, sliding one hand around her to feel her ass. "What will?"
Barbara pulled her higher, and then let go of Lilly to lean back against the pillows, until Lilly was crouching over her, holding onto the headboard. "This will," she said, as she kissed Lilly's center.
Lilly moaned. She looked down to see Barbara's mouth working between her legs, and reached down to guide Barbara's head. Leaning forward and pressing her forehead against the wall, she gave herself over to the heat of Barbara's tongue lapping at her. Barbara's hands squeezed her ass, supporting her so she could freely find a rhythm against her mouth.
Barbara's tongue slipped inside her, and Lilly resisted pressing down, smothering Barbara, for more of the wet, rough touch against her lower lips. She could see her own juices on Barbara's cheeks, and Barbara's kisses against her clitoris sent spasms throughout her body. She shut her eyes, unwilling to come too soon, wanting to control the reception of pleasure. Dimly she knew Barbara would take her where Barbara wanted her to go.
"I want you to come," Barbara said against her center, and the vibrating sensation of the words against her pushed Lilly to orgasm. She gasped, falling forward and pushing her face into the pillow. Barbara lapped at her clitoris, riding her trembling. When Lilly's hips sagged, Barbara's lips left her, and she was able to turn and collapse onto her side, panting.
Barbara shifted and grinned at Lilly. "You taste... nothing like cheesesteak."
Lilly hit her with a pillow.
* * *
When they were sated and rested, when Lilly was stretched out on the damp sheets with her head in Barbara's lap, Barbara turned on the television and hit mute. She stroked Lilly's hair and occasionally the curve of her ear, as she watched the stock ticker. Lilly peeked up at her face, reading its intense expression in the flickering light. "Do you watch a lot of television?"
"Endlessly." Barbara sighed. When she offered no further explanation, Lilly closed her eyes, and dozed in the comfort of Barbara's embrace before Barbara cleared her throat. "What about you?"
Lilly stretched. "I'm not sure if my TV even works."
Barbara chuckled. "What do you do for fun?"
"I fight crime." Lilly said.
Barbara leaned down and kissed her. "Me, too."
"Stay." Lilly ran her hand along Barbara's thigh.
Barbara looked away, toward the window. "I can't. The nights don't belong to me."
When she had gone, Lilly stretched out on the bed, closing her eyes against the darkness. The warm memories of Barbara and sex mingled with the dark stories she'd heard from Rolando and Thirr and Barbara herself. Eric was dead. Barbara had gone. Lilly was left alone with a closed case. Barbara had assured her that justice would be done, but for once, it wasn't Lilly placing the handcuffs on anyone. She felt redundant, but she knew she wasn't, really. Lilly had the burden of dealing with the final victim.
* * *
Lilly sat on a couch that smelled like dust and Febreeze next to Scotty, who had been going through Rose Coswald's computers for a day and a half, working with her on a case that wasn't a case.
"We found her journal." Scotty winked. "Not a suicide note, but... She was pretty hysterical those last few months, and let the internet know it. Lots of rage." He cleared his throat, and looked directly at Mrs. Coswald. She flinched when she saw his eyes, but she was paying attention. "Every other post was about Eric," he said.
"But he was gone..." Mrs. Coswald said wonderingly.
"You know what they say." Scotty folded his arms. "Death is that state in which one exists only in the memory of others. She couldn't forget him. And neither could you. When did you start to think all the tattletales Eric told you were true?"
"When Eric left, I started to wonder--but Rose was so good, back then. Attentive. She took care of me. Held me together when I thought I'd fall apart. My boy had--" Mrs. Coswald put her head in her hands. "--He was gone. But Rose was there. Don't think I didn't thank God every day for that."
Lilly looked at the weeping woman in front of her and tried to picture Rose as the good seed. Still focused on the strange image her mind conjured, she asked, "When did it all change?"
"After the postcard. When we couldn't find him again, even when I went to Gotham, and I felt--I felt I'd done everything possible. I..." She closed her lips on the last words.
Lilly said them aloud. "You let him go."
Mrs. Coswald sagged. "I started getting out. Going to the church socials more. Bingo nights. Even a few long walks with some gentlemen." She forced a laugh. "Rose was a teenager. She became unruly. I got phone calls from school." She lifted her head and met Lilly's gaze. "When she was 16 she moved in with some friends."
"Until--" Lilly prompted.
Mrs. Coswald's face contorted with a sob. "Until the police came..."
* * *
"Let us know when you're ready," The officer said, gently holding her elbow. "And we'll lift the curtain."
Mrs. Coswald was finding it difficult to breathe. "I'm ready," she said, finally, when she'd gathered enough of the stale morgue air.
The officer reached out and turned the Venetian blinds.
"Oh, God." Mrs. Coswald stumbled as her knees buckled.
A body, illuminated by the matte blue light of the autopsy room, lay on a slab in front of them. A white sheet covered her to her shoulders. Her head was visible, gray and mute, and a dark gash showed at her neck, crisscrossed with stitches in thick wire holding together a line of brackish blood.
"How?" Mrs. Coswald asked.
"Strength of will, ma'am."
She stared at the body. Rose was so still--sleeping so peacefully in death. The repose made her unrecognizable, like a stranger had died. "You said," Mrs. Coswald said hoarsely, ignoring the tears on her cheeks, "There was a note."
The officer offered a photocopied paper.
"It's worse," Mrs. Coswald read. "Ha, ha. Rose."
"Do you know what it means?"
Mrs. Coswald closed her eyes. "I never did."
* * *
"Why'd she do it?" Scotty asked. He rubbed his furrowed brow, and looked sideways at her.
"I loved her. I tried to love her. I felt--guilty--for being so happy when Eric was born. She was all I had left, afterward. My only child." Mrs. Coswald inhaled. "But I never stopped wanting Eric, too."
"Did you blame her for his disappearance?"
"No, I... No." Mrs. Coswald studied her hands. "But she blamed herself. I could tell. And that was infectious."
* * *
As they walked down the front steps, away from the Coswald residence, Scotty winced against the early spring chill and frowned. "That poor kid."
"Rose. She either had to sit back and passively watch someone else be loved in her place, or she could take an active role in her own destruction. Damned, either way. Five years, being haunted like that."
"That's the thing about cold ones," Lilly said, turning around to take one last look at the house. When she turned around, she thought she saw Eric Coswald on the street corner. He was smaller than she'd imagined. Skinny. But he was smiling. She stared, unwilling to let the moment to pass, to let him vanish back into her imagination. "They're never really cold."
When she'd dropped Scotty off and walked into the breezeway at her apartment, she found a vase with a single pale lilly on her welcome mat, and an letter next to it. She opened the envelope. One open-date train ticket to Gotham City was inside, along with a note. "One night stands can happen twice."
Lilly unlocked her door and picked up the vase. She set it on the coffee table inside and went to open her living room curtains. Night had fallen on Philadelphia, less gloriously than on Gotham, but it was the same sky. She smiled. It was good to have allies.
Author's Note: Attempts at accuracy portraying Barbara Gordon's sexuality assisted by:
Palmer, Sara, Ph.D. Spinal Cord Injury: A Guide for Living. A Johns Hopkins Press Health Book. Baltimore and London, 2000.