FANDOM: Birds of Prey TV
RATING: PG15 (to be safe – some violence, some bad language… not much sex…)
SEQUENCE/INSTALLMENT NOTE: continued from Alternate Lives.
SPOILERS: the last episode (probably others too).
DISCLAIMER: I don’t own Birds of Prey or any character created by WB used in this story. I’m making no profit on this and wouldn’t want to – as it’s ‘borrowed gods’. This is pure fun – and an entertaining way of passing the time when one is bored out of ones mind.
MORE DISCLAIMER: I don’t own the Angel-verse or any character created by Joss Whedon and Company. I’m making no profit on this…
AUTHOR'S NOTE: English is still not my first language, so despite ‘beta-ing’ please excuse any strange grammar or wordings…
SECOND AUTHOR'S NOTE: I had some requests for a sequel to Alternate Lives. At first I was against the idea – I don’t like sequels. I’m a sucker for happy endings and in sequels the happiness is bound to be messed with… Although, when watching The Mummy, on a gray winter’s day here in the cold north, I suddenly had a story coming to me in a flash. It demanded to be written, so I had to give it my attention. I do hope you enjoy it :)
SPECIAL THANKS: Thanks to my beta-reader Erin, for putting down time and effort into this story. Thank you! :)
SUMMARY: The story is a direct sequel to Alternate Lives.
ARCHIVING: as you like it, at... Jinx's Storyland.
E-MAIL: Jinx at firstname.lastname@example.org
"You can't have her! She is not yours! Be gone - ere the gods will condemn you both!"
She refused. "You are just jealous! You want her all to yourself..."
"Ignorant child!" he shouted and the walls trembled with his power. He raised his staff and the storm that blew against the altar forced her to her knees. She didn't know what he was doing there, this wasn't his place. He wasn't supposed to be here. "How dare you speak of things of which you know nothing? The Goddess is her destiny! This cannot change - she was born to be who she is and no man nor god has the power to oppose those ancient laws. And especially not some lovesick youngster..."
She loves me too, she thought. You should know that, you ambitious... She caught herself - to blaspheme against a priest even in thought could cost one dearly. She struggled to her feet and leaned against the altar; her sword made a ringing sound in the hard wind, as it hit the stone.
"LEAVE!" he shouted through the storm, but she shook her head. "You fool!" he called. "How dare you oppose the gods and the ancient code? She cannot be yours. She belongs to the Goddess!
It was the last thing she remembered, before the world went dark.
Or maybe it wasn't the very last thing, after all...
Later came death... and she was to blame. She had lost them both - and it was all her fault.
"It looked like a Mayan pyramid", Dinah said. She leaned slightly on the railing, looking down at the training-ground and at the woman practicing her martial-arts technique in the arena below the indoor balcony. The padded floor and walls of the almost completely circular room made the arena a perfect place to practice flinging weapons and opponents without causing damage either to the interior or to people.
The arched windows high above the balcony let in some of the early morning light and caressed the sweat-streaked body of the red-haired woman in the arena. She expertly swirled a staff between her hands, her face creased in concentration.
"I think it's called a ziggurat", Dinah added with a frown.
"Huh?" I said, completely lost in Barbara's motions in the arena below; I couldn't take my eyes off her.
"My dream. The one I told you about. It looked like a Mayan pyramid. I think there was some kind of temple too. It was such a strange drea... Are you even listening to me, Helena?" Dinah added somewhat indignantly.
"Sure, sparrow", I said, at the same time appreciating Barbara's well-muscled shoulders. I just love her shoulders, I thought, thinking about how I longed to kiss them the way I had the night before. And the night before that, and the night...
"Sparrow?" Dinah grunted. "Whatever happened to Ladyhawk?"
"Great!" The blonde teenager threw out her arms. "You two! You're like teenagers with raging hormones...!"
"You're the teenager", I said without turning my head to look at the girl. Barbara spun around, kicked high in the air and then in a flash went over to handstand. Slowly she lifted one hand and stood straight as a pole on the other, breathing evenly. Wow! I thought breathlessly. That's new. I never knew she could do that.
"So, that registered", Dinah said gloomily.
"Besides, sparrows are cool." I had to say something. "Aren't those the ones that went ballistic in that movie - The Birds, or something? You know - the Hitchcock..."
"I believe those were starlings", Dinah said affronted. "Or gulls... There's a slight difference between a sparrow and a gull, you know. And I so don't wanna be a gull!"
"Chill, will you."
"Chill? Great. You know, it wouldn't kill you to pay some attention to other people around here."
"I do. I pay attention to Barbara. See?" I pointed down at the woman in the arena. Barbara still held her pose on one hand, but when Dinah turned to look at her she balanced herself on two hands and then rolled on to her feet, grabbing her staff as she did so.
"Someone other than her."
"She's like a goddess", I sighed and leaned my arms on the railing. I was only half registering Dinah's presence beside me, as the sight of Barbara triggered sensations I enjoyed contemplating while I watched the slightly older woman exercise. A month had past since we became lovers and I still couldn't believe my luck. I could wake up in the middle of the night wondering if everything had been a dream, but then I would hear Barbara breathing softly beside me and knew that I had truly been blessed. I would feel the warmth of her body and then I would smile, almost laugh out loud. Some nights Barbara woke up and found me watching. Then we would make love.
"I'm not arguing with you, but if I agree..." Dinah frowned. "If I agreed the way you mean it, I don't know what that would mean. Either way..." She caught herself as I glanced at her. "She is beautiful", she hurriedly said. "Why don't you go down to her?"
I shook my head. "I like watching", I said and turned my attention back to the arena: Barbara was strikingly beautiful when she practised with her staff. The metal glistened in the sun as the staff swirled like an almost invisible spear of sunlight between her hands, around her supple body and above her head. "Besides", I added distractedly. "Sparrow is only for when you're out of the mask."
Dinah sniffed beside me, but didn't answer. I glanced at her and noticed a slight blush on her cheeks.
"What is it?"
"It's not me", Dinah said and blushed even harder. I arched an eyebrow at her. "It's you", the teenager said. It took a moment for me to register, but then I blushed as hard as Dinah and averted my face from the girl with a slight growl.
"Dinah!" I swore under my breath.
"I'm sorry!" the girl exclaimed. "You know I can't help it! My telepathic powers are growing and they're not completely under control yet..."
"It shouldn't be lawful for you to be around people until you've learned to control your empathic abilities."
"Is it my fault you can't control your hormones every time you look at Barbara?" Dinah objected, still blushing. "It's not as if I even have to make use of my telepathic abilities... I mean", she hurriedly added, "even if I knew how to make use of them, and not just let them run rampant on me every time someone lets their emotions get out of control. And - as I was saying, it's not as if I need telepathy to see what's on your mind. It's plainly written on your face, any way." She almost glared at me, as if it was my fault entirely that both of us were embarrassed and not hers for intruding on my thoughts and emotions.
"Great", I grumbled. "You know..."
"I said I was sorry! Do you think this is fun for me?"
We glared at each other until I gave in with a sigh and turned away. Dinah was right: I shouldn't let my... affection for Barbara be so obvious around other people. Barbara didn't seem to have such a problem. The thought worried me a little.
"What?" Dinah said immediately and I turned my gaze towards the girl. "You're frowning at her", Dinah added, by way of explaining. "I didn't 'read' you, or anything."
I sighed. "Why are you here, sparrow?"
Dinah made a face at me, but then shrugged. "I thought I was talking to you, but obviously your mind is someplace else." She smiled cheekily to take the sting off the words. "And it's obvious your mind is in the gutter..."
"Dinah!" I blushed again and resented myself for it. I never used to blush like that, but as soon as Barbara looked at me, or even at the mention of her name, my face turned as red as that of a teenager caught in the act of doing something naughty.
Dinah laughed at me. "I'll leave you two to..."
Dinah silenced and I turned my attention to the arena when I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. Below the balcony a tall, handsome man stepped out into the arena.
"Dick", I mumbled and only vaguely noticed the strange glance Dinah gave me.
It was Barbara who had told Dick and Dinah about our intimate relationship. She had done so two days after we first made love and I hadn't been present; we both had thought it wise for me not to be there. The three of them were such a tight-knit group and even though I had felt welcome since Blackbird and the death of the Joker's son I knew they would want some privacy discussing the new, surprising events. Later both Dick and Dinah had welcomed me with open arms; especially the girl, she had embraced me and told me how happy she was for us. And Dick was glad to see Barbara so happy again, he'd said.
And all had been well for about two weeks. Then something changed.
"Babs", Dick called out and Barbara caught herself. The staff stopped in one movement and she dried sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand.
"Dick", she said with a smile. "Have you come to challenge me?"
"As a matter of fact... Yes."
Dick smiled and I watched as the two of them exchanged teasing remarks and began to fight each other.
I leaned slightly forward over the railing, my hands gripping the steel bar as Barbara and Dick engaged in a wrestling match. "Don't you think he is a little too close-encountered with her?" I said with a dark frown.
"Helena", Dinah said mildly. "They've known each other for years. There's no need for you to be all jealous..."
"Who said I was jealous?" I immediately straightened my back. "I'm not jealous."
"Helena..." Dinah looked at the railing and my eyes followed hers.
"Oh", I said with a slight blush as I noticed the crooked way the iron-bars had bent beneath my hands. I shrugged apologetically. "Well, maybe I am - a little... jealous, that is. It's stupid", I added in a low mumble. When Dinah didn't say anything I looked up at her. "Right?"
"Don't worry. I know you don't have anything to fear. Barbara loves you..."
"Sure", I muttered and looked away, giving in to the fear that had haunted me the past two weeks. I wasn't used to happiness and I didn't like to admit what was brewing inside of me, but sometimes... Sometimes I feared I didn't deserve Barbara. I feared the other woman would either tire of me, or that death would snatch her away from me - just as it had my mother.
My eyes went to the windows above us as I fought with the fear welling up inside of me. On some levels I knew it was irrational, but it didn't change the startling intensity of it. "You said it - they've known each other for years. They have so much more that tie them together. And I..."
"You, what?" Dinah said softly and put a hand on my arm. "What, Helena?"
"And I'm just... a nobody."
"You're stupid", Dinah stated and leaned back against the wall behind her, close to the open steel-door that led to the winding stair in the hallway. She crossed her arms and looked at me.
"What?" I snarled, startled by her frank statement when I had opened myself to her and made myself vulnerable.
"Well, you called me a gull - I get to call you stupid."
"I didn't call you..." I sighed. "Right - whatever." I turned and looked down at the arena. I really liked Dinah, but this wasn't a conversation I was supposed to have with the younger girl.
Everything in my life had changed over the last few months and I felt vulnerable and lost. At the same time I was happier than I could ever remember being. It's tough to change... To let life change you, I thought. Barbara had changed too; she laughed so much more and was so much more relaxed with everyone. She also worked less hours at her company, to everyone's relief. Our relationship seemed perfect and I... My need for Barbara sometimes frightened me and when I thought about it I feared Barbara just didn't need me the same way. Then again - the other woman seemed to know me so well; some nights, after we'd made love, she took my hands in hers and looked me in the eyes. "Don't be afraid", she said. "We are going to last." And then I was happy. And then I believed.
And then came moments like this, when jealousy overwhelmed me and made me doubt everything I believed.
All had been well those first two weeks, but then something had happened and I still couldn't pin down what. It had been something in Dick's way of looking at Barbara and I: something dark in his eyes that hadn't been there before. A gleam I hadn't recognised or understood, but it had chilled my bones. Slowly since that first time I had come to fear it when he looked at us - or at Barbara or me as individuals. It seemed to seethe with... anger, rage almost. And beneath it there was this warning telling me to stay away, to leave Barbara alone. Telling me that she belonged to him, not to me.
I looked down at the floor below. What I saw pushed all air out of my lungs and I couldn't breath: Dick held Barbara down and pinned her with his hands and knees to the floor, as he sat on her. The red-haired woman laughed so much she seemed unable to catch her breath to keep up the fight.
"That is cheating!" she said.
"You were always ticklish", the man said with a mischievous grin.
I turned away with clenched jaws.
"Helena", Dinah tried again and stepped forward. A glance in the direction of the redhead and her opponent caught her for a second. Then she turned back to me. "Um, you know I sometimes pick up on things I'm not supposed to and I know for a fact that Barbara loves you."
"Oh, really?" I said icily and turned away from the arena. I went to the door and Dinah followed me down the stairs.
"Yeah, really", the girl said. "Don't be a fool and throw away what you two have because you're afraid to lose it."
I stopped and turned around. I felt darkness and anger claim me and my fists clenched at my side. "What do you know? They were lovers one time..."
Dinah blushed. "Eh, actually, I didn't know that... I'm not sure I wanted to know that." She shook her head as if to clear it from distracting thoughts. "Where does this come from, suddenly?" she asked worriedly. "Why are you afraid? Barbara chose you. Of all people since Mike died, you are the one she... I've seen you two together. You're so happy. If I ever have a relationship, that's the way I want it."
"It's not suddenly", I said as I turned away. I couldn't explain it - it felt as if I was losing Barbara and it was stupid, I knew it. I had no reason at all to doubt Barbara's love for me. Dinah was right: we were happy together and when Barbara looked at me sometimes... I could see that love right there, in Barbara's intense, green eyes. I could hear it in Barbara's voice and I knew it whenever we made love. And then... Then Dick would glance at me - at both of us - and there would be a cold, cold chill running down my back and I would think: I'm losing her. She's leaving me. And the fear I felt in those moments... It chilled my heart, my bones - my soul.
I halted at the open door to the arena at the foot of the stairs and looked inside. The stairs continued down, to the floors below, and a corridor stretched out behind me. Dinah stopped by my side and touched my shoulder.
"You need to talk to her", the girl said lowly.
I nodded. Barbara and Dick were on their feet again, facing each other; Barbara held her staff, smiling. Dick held a mace.
"I know, princess", I whispered. "I know."
"Let's see what you got, pretty boy", Barbara said, gesturing for Dick to move forward.
"You know what I got, Babs."
Barbara laughed at him and I lost myself in the sound. That laugh... It always soothed all my worries, but not now. I watched as Dick threw himself forward and then I watched as Barbara, without visible cause, moaned and fell over.
"What...?" Dinah whispered.
Dick caught himself with an effort and almost hit himself in the head with the mace in his attempt to stop himself from hurting Barbara.
"Barbara!" I was at Barbara's side even before Dick. I threw myself to the floor and took Barbara's head in my lap, glaring up at Dick. "What did you do to her?"
"What? I didn't..." He looked lost, bewildered. "I swear, I didn't even... touch her."
"I'm here. I'm right here." I caressed Barbara's forehead, holding the other woman as close to me as was possible without suffocating her.
"Oh!" Barbara closed her eyes. A slight shiver went through her and I felt the same cold chill of fear as before.
"Barbara! Barbara - don't..." Don't leave me, don't leave me, don't leave me... I would surely die.
"I'm fine." Barbara made an effort to sit up and I had to let her go.
"Barbara?" Dinah came closer and looked down at us with a worried frown. "Are you...?"
"I'm just fine, Dinah. Honest." Barbara smiled at the girl and then looked at my probably worried face. "Look at you. I just fell over, it won't kill me..."
"He nearly did", I snarled and fixed my gaze at Dick with convex-shaped eyes that had changed in pure anger and worry.
"I didn't do anything", Dick snarled and threw away the mace with an annoyed gesture. "Goddess - what's eating you, anyway?" He turned away and left the arena before even Barbara had time to call him back.
"Dick, what..." Barbara silenced and frowned, looking at me by her side. "What on earth was that about?" she demanded to know. "Have you two had an argument, or something?"
"Or something", I mumbled, now ashamed of my reaction. I had no right to blame Dick - I had seen the whole thing myself and he hadn't even been close to Barbara. Besides, I knew this wasn't the first time something like this had happened. "What...? What happened?" I asked, raising my gaze and noticing that Barbara was turning her x-ray look on me. I held my lovers gaze for a moment, unwilling to reveal anything, before Barbara relaxed and touched her forehead with a small sigh.
"Don't know, actually. I must have strained myself. Too much physical exercise before breakfast, perhaps."
"But... that hasn't happened before. Has it?" Dinah asked concerned.
Barbara shook her head as she rose. Then she seemed to lose her balance again and I was at her side, supporting her.
"Oh, this is strange... Maybe I'm coming down with something."
"I think you should go straight to bed", I said, lifting up Barbara in one fluid motion and holding her close to me.
"Is that your recommendation, Dr Kyle?" Barbara asked in a low, throaty voice and slid a finger down my cheek, to the corner of my mouth. I closed my eyes for a brief second.
"To... rest", I said with difficulty.
"Uh... I'm going to see what's up with Dick", Dinah said awkwardly and - or so I figured - more than a little embarrassed.
When Dinah was gone we looked at each other and Barbara's expression suddenly turned serious, seeing something in my face.
"This is what happened the other night, isn't it?" I asked, thinking of an event neither Dick nor Dinah knew anything of.
Batgirl and I had been having fun with some criminals, tailing them in the shadows and driving them closer to the police-station without them even noticing it, when Batgirl suddenly fell over. Luckily she had been safe on the top of a building and not hanging on a wire several feet above ground. She had said she'd been fine, that she had only lost her breath for a second, and I hadn't thought much about it. Until now.
"Yes, it is. Hel, it's not..." Barbara hesitated. "That was not the first time. And it has happened since."
I blinked. "But you said..."
"I know. I'm sorry. I lied."
I blinked again. "You - what...? God damn it, Barbara! Why...?" I almost dropped the other woman in my anger - or threw her, more accurately - but before I had time to do any of it the look on Barbara's face caught me.
"I'm afraid, Helena."
It threw me completely. I didn't know what to say and could only stare down at the woman in my arms. The woman I now knew I loved more than life itself. The woman whom I knew - or at least suspected - had never feared anything in her life.
"I... I have never felt this way before. What happens is... When it comes over me... It's..." Barbara closed her eyes and begun crying, leaning against my chest.
Oh, God - what am I suppose to do?
"It's like... I'm dying, Helena. Every time it hits me it's like I'm dying. All life is just... sucked right out of me. And then... I'm back. I don't... I don't know..."
"Hush." I finally collected myself and kissed Barbara on the forehead. "Hush, baby blue - it's gonna be all right. We've been through worse, right? We'll figure this one out too." God - what if I lose her? Don't, please - oh, God, don't make me lose her! "I'll take you to bed and you're staying there until we've gotten a proper medical opinion."
Barbara raised her head and looked at me. "You are afraid too." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah, I am." There was no way of denying it - no use, either.
I carried Barbara all the way through the Clock Tower, to Barbara's house adjacent to the headquarters. If we needed a doctor he or she would need to make a house-call.
"But I feel perfectly fine now", Barbara objected as I put her to bed.
"Don't argue with me on this one. This one you won't win."
Then Barbara smiled and leaned back in bed. "I like it when you get all bossy on me." She grinned. "So, what about joining me, then?"
I swallowed, seeing her spread out like that on the bed. "You ought to take it slow", I said. "We don't know..."
"Oh, we will take it slow..." she said in a voice that made me blush to the roots of my hair.
"Uh, hum", I said.
Barbara smiled softly, with something teasingly sexy in her look that made me swallow again, as she reached up for me. Her hands went about my neck and as she pulled me closer to kiss me I felt all my resistant leave my body.
Oh, oh god... I shouldn't... Then all thoughts left my mind and I reached for the woman in my arms. I kissed her and felt her hands work at my clothes. I helped her. It always surprised me how instantly aroused she could make me by only kissing me. Her lips and her mouth were just... heaven.
"Oh, please Helena", she moaned close to my ear. I tore off her blouse and kissed her naked skin above the bra. "Yes..." she whispered, leaning back against the bed.
Making love to the different bed-mates I'd had after my mother's death had always been with a sense of desperation, anger and frustration - a need that left a hollow feeling after being satisfied. Sometimes my lust had also been borne of hatred and when those men filled me and I climaxed there had been nothing more than a sense of emptiness, of darkness. With Barbara, already the first time and every time since then, it was different.
With Barbara it was true passion - a need that engulfed me in a fire only her touch and her kisses could satiate. Not even before my mother's death had I felt anything like it. Never. And I knew I would never have that same feeling again with anyone else. Barbara fulfilled not only the needs of my body, but she filled my soul and my heart. Every touch was like a caress that brought us closer, made us almost one person. Every time we made love it was like the first time and still I remembered everything about her body from the previous time I touched and kissed her. I knew every line and curve of her body, just as she knew mine. She had so much passion and gentleness in her, and so much playfulness it was almost an adventure making love to her.
I loved her. I loved her fully. And when she touched me I knew she loved me back.
"I need you, Helena. Please..." Her mouth was close to my ear and she was naked now. My fingers traced the lines of her breasts, softly touching her nipples... Her kisses made me dizzy. I felt my body burning, I was wet between my thighs; I wouldn't be able to hold on much longer.
"Barbara..." I whispered in a strained voice, feeling her mouth move further down my body. My legs spread on their own when her tongue softly caressed the tender skin on the insides of my thighs. I felt my eyes changing from normal to vertical slits - a predator's eyes.
Her mouth was wet and warm and I made a low, growling sound in my throat.
"Only one night", I heard her whisper. I didn't get that and in the next instant I had forgotten all about it. Her tongue prodded at my most sensitive part with a warmth, a tenderness and an urgency that made me arc my back in bed, calling her name. Oh, my goddess - how I love this woman! Please, let her be mine...
"I've been to the doctor", Barbara said afterwards, when we lay naked in her bed. She snuggled close to me and I held her tight, feeling relaxed, but also worried as she reminded me about her strange condition. I hadn't wanted to make love to her, but how could I resist when she looked at me and pleaded with me and pouted in such a sexy way? I simply had to give in.
"And?" I asked, almost holding my breath, even though I knew she would have told me already if it had been something serious. She caressed my chest and I felt a tightening between my legs as her fingertips gently grazed my breast and almost, almost touched my nipple. Not now, for God's sake! I berated myself and tried to concentrate on what she was telling me.
"Guess what they told me?" She sniffed a little, mostly indignantly. "Panic-attacks."
"Panic-attacks?" I said dumbly, not getting it.
"Yeah, that's what they said I had. Panic-attacks my ass! Wouldn't you say I'm the least likely person to suffer from panic-attacks?" She sat up, almost glaring at me, as if this whole thing was my fault. I frowned at her and tilted my head to one side.
"Well..." I couldn't help making fun of her - she was so cute when she was indignant. Her glare deepened and I grinned at her, to make her know I was pulling her leg. "Next to Alfred", I said and she relaxed with a smile.
"Well, of course... Silly me."
She leaned back into my embrace and kissed my neck. I suppressed a shiver and cursed inwardly.
"So, panic-attacks?" I said and tried to sound almost indifferent. She didn't show it now, but she had seemed almost terrified when I carried her to her room before and the memory of that still brought fear to my heart. Not that I wanted her to know it. Most likely she already did. Most likely she wouldn't show me her fear so openly again because she knew it frightened me. I cursed both myself and her for that.
"Dr Harvey said it sounded like panic-attacks, the way I described it. But I explained to him I have never been more relaxed or happy in my life. I don't get it." Barbara shrugged. "Dr. Harvey said that sometimes, after a long period of stressful living, when we relax... attacks can happen. And..." She frowned. "Also, he wondered if I had some added responsibilities lately."
She rolled over to her stomach and looked at me.
"What? Am I an added responsibility?"
"Sometimes you're like a second child", she said with a teasing smile.
"Oh, yeah?" I asked, grinning, and leaned forward to caress her buttocks. "Would a child do... this?" My hand slid along her back in a not at all innocent way that made her shiver. I even noticed a slight blush on her cheeks.
"Maybe not a child, then", I heard her mumble, then she was serious again and sat up. "But I do... worry", she added. There was something vulnerable about her that I recognized from before, when we had discussed our relationship. It was seldom she showed it, being who she was - a woman of many roles - but when she did her heart was in her eyes and I loved her more than ever.
"You don't have to. I would never leave you", I said, taking her hands in mine.
"Not... that." She lowered her head and looked away for a second.
"Barbara?" I asked worriedly. I hesitantly reached for her, but she looked up before I had time to touch her.
"I'm frightened that you will die. I know it's silly and I know it's not rational and I know..."
"Hush." I put a finger across her lips, silencing her. I wasn't used to being the sensible one, but I needed to do something to stop my own fears from showing. "I won't die, Barbara. Promise. Cross my heart." I did just that, as her eyes were fixed on me. The green, intense look unnerved me as it had so many times even before I knew her the way I knew her in that moment.
"You can't promise that", she finally said, slowly and with a quiet calm I recognized. She shook her head. "None of us can promise that. The gods do what they willst with us."
"Barbara..." Willst? I thought, bewildered. She looked strange and she was using a funny dialect. Did she do a crash-course in Shakespeare?
"No. I'm sorry. I just..." She put her hand to my cheek. "I'm sorry I worried you. I will consult Dr. Harvey again - there must be something he can do." She grimaced. "Except filling me with pills and sending me off to a shrink. That would be the last thing I need. Can you imagine Batgirl on a couch, telling her life's story to a nutty psychologist?"
The thought made me smile. "Not really. No more so than I can imagine Huntress on that couch."
"That'd be the day", she agreed and pushed some of my dark, unruly curls from my forehead. "I love you so, Helena", she said intensely. "I think that the thought of losing you... Maybe that's what causes these panic-attacks. I lost Mike so brutally and I do have enemies... we both do, now."
I nodded, not sure of what to say. Didn't I fear losing her just as much? That jealous-streak within me, making me lash out at Dick like that... I took her hand in mine and squeezed gently. "If that's what this is... We'll deal with it together."
"Thank you, Helena", she said softly and kissed me gently on my lips. It was a mere brush of her lips against mine, but it instantly aroused me. She noticed and smiled mischievously - that teasing smile Batgirl used to give me in the beginning of our acquaintance, which made me blush. "No, no - I really need to get going", she said, rising.
"I thought I was sending the doctor to you?" I objected, instantly worried that she was getting out of bed.
"Well, I was thinking I want them to do some tests." She pulled some clothes from her cupboard and went towards the bathroom.
When did she do the thinking? I thought, whishing I was as multi-skilled as she in processing my thoughts. I only had to look at her naked body and all thoughts except the one about what I wanted to do with that naked body went out my head - like soap-bubbles through an open window.
"They test better at the hospital", she added with a grin, looking over her shoulder. "By the way..." Something else had caught her mind and she frowned at me, halting in the doorway to the bathroom. "What was that with you and Dick? You said you've had an argument."
"Or something", I muttered. I looked up and noticed the inquiring look on her face. With a sigh I gave in and shrugged. "Nothing. It's just..." I didn't know what to say. How could I explain the looks Dick had given us individually or both together? It seemed silly, now that I was with her and he wasn't present, but... There was this nagging feeling in the back of my head that Dick either didn't approve of me being Barbara Gordon's lover, for whatever reason - mainly the one that I was a woman. Or - the second conclusion, which I wasn't far from reaching after the morning's display of affection in the arena - he wanted her for himself.
"You are not jealous, are you?" Barbara suddenly asked and I gasped for air, a surprised reaction I couldn't hide.
"No! No, of course not - that would be... silly. No, I'm not jealous, I just... I had..." I stopped, as she was laughing at me.
"No?" she asked with an arched eyebrow, coming closer. "Because..." She leaned a knee against the mattress and slid a finger down my cheekbone. Her voice was low and hoarse and I hated her for the way she could see straight through me and for the way she made me feel. But it was hate in a very loving way. "Because..." she went on and leaned in to kiss me, although she didn't. "I would find it very, very... arousing."
I closed my eyes. Goddess, what is she doing to me?
When I looked up Barbara had left the bed and stood leaning against the doorframe to the bathroom. She smiled at me - Batgirls devilish grin. "Are you coming? Or do I have to shower all by my lonesome?"
"I thought you were in a hurry", I grumbled. Clever, Huntress. Real clever comeback, I thought, mentally kicking myself. Barbara laughed at me, but her eyes were tender and gentle when I moved closer.
"Don't leave me", she said and I didn't know what to say. I almost chocked on the emotions her look stirred within me and nodded only, before I followed her to the shower.
When I arrived at my office at Gordon Technologies detective Reese and an unknown woman waited for me in reception. Since I was late for work I had phoned Glynis, my excellent secretary, earlier to have her cancel one of my meetings that morning. This made it possible for me to attend to my somewhat unexpected visitors.
My appointment at the hospital hadn't left me much the wiser - except that I had forced them to schedule a date for some tests. Maybe it was panic-attacks I suffered from, but I wasn't buying that notion until I had ruled out any other possibilities. Ido not suffer from panic-attacks! I thought wryly. I do not. I didn't care that even in my own mind I sounded like a three year old child having a tantrum. Panic-attacks just didn't happen to Barbara Gordon slash Batgirl, slash Oracle. I had not carried the weight of Gotham City since I was a teenager - well, part of the weight - by being a person having panic-attacks.
Maybe there was some unknown, hidden heart-disease I suffered from without being aware of it. Whatever it was it truly frightened me: for once in my life I wasn't in control - it was a strange, upsetting experience.
"Ms Gordon." Detective Reese was on his feet as soon as I stepped out of the elevator; he and the woman with him had been sitting on one of the couches in reception. Behind the front desk Glynis raised an eyebrow in a silent question to me and I nodded; she went back to her papers behind the desk.
"Detective", I said shortly, with that tone of voice I always used when entering Gordon Technologies, and then almost caught my breath as I turned my eyes to Reese's companion. I had never seen the woman before and still I was sure I knew her, but that wasn't what almost made me bite my tongue. She was... And she seemed as caught by surprise seeing me as I was by seeing her.
I found my composure first and smiled. I didn't know what she saw in my face or in my eyes, but something brought a slight blush to her cheeks and she averted her eyes from mine for a brief moment. I was glad - it took all my self-control not to let detective Reese notice something was out of the ordinary.
Before meeting Helena I had never caught myself glancing in another woman's direction; I had never even considered it. As far as I knew no woman had ever been interested in me either - or at least, not to my knowledge. Since I begun sleeping with Helena - sleeping being not entirely correct - I had caught myself lingering over the shape of other women. Not too openly - Helena was very perceptive, indeed. The thought always made me smile.
The fact was that other women - some women; particular women - seemed to turn their heads toward me, as if something had changed in my appearances. As if they suddenly knew something that most men never would even consider of me. It was as if these women knew the change that had been wrought within me by Helena and that they appreciated it.
The blonde woman before me didn't seem to me to be one of these women, but the way she had averted her eyes... the way she had caught my look - it was there, either she knew it or not. That was not what startled me. What startled me was that I - as a woman - appreciated her, the way a man would appreciate her. My goddess, I thought - too wrapped up in my own inner, sudden revelations to reflect upon why I would call to a goddess. This is... unexpected. And somewhat thrilling, I realized as Batgirl grinned within me with sudden amusement.
"Ms Gordon, allow me to introduce Ms Lockley. She has come from Los Angeles to see you."
"You have?" I was intrigued. I had never either seen her or heard of her. Bummer, one part of me complained, but I pushed away that particular thought. The thought of Helena made me sober - I loved Huntress and there was no way anyone could come between us. Despite that I found I had to catch myself before I glanced down at the woman's legs. Apparently Batgirl within me had already noticed them. Shapely legs...
Ms Lockley was dressed in a dark blue suit: a dress that cut right below her knees and a jacket covering a white blouse which was a little too open at the throat. Her skin seemed smooth and there was a necklace around her neck: a silver cross with a dark, purple stone at the centre. Her hair was blonde and shoulder length, her eyes a light blue, almost grey.
"Actually..." Ms Lockley hesitated and glanced over her shoulder at my secretary. For some reason I suspected this blond, guarded woman of my own age to be a cop. Something about her movements and the way she looked about her, even something in the way she regarded me, alerted me. Besides the appreciation I had seen in her eyes when she first held my gaze she seemed to be evaluating my worth as a person. "Could we talk in private?"
I nodded. "Of course", I said, gesturing towards my office behind the high glass windows. "After you."
I glanced inquiringly at Reese, but he only shrugged and shook his head with a slight movement, letting me know it was best I spoke to Ms Lockley. I followed the woman, closed the door when Reese had passed me and then made my way to my desk, where I put down my briefcase and sat down, waiting for them to speak.
Reese sat down while Lockley took her time looking around; I noticed she admired the view. Again my eyes travelled the length of her body, but I made sure Reese wasn't aware of it - or that my thoughts weren't reflected in my face or in my eyes. The woman didn't seem to me to be the type to wear a suit - not if she was a cop; her movements indicated she would prefer jeans and maybe a looser jacket.
She turned around, glancing down at her dress with a slight smile as if she'd been reading my mind. "This is not my own choice of apparel, Ms Gordon", she said, almost wryly, and I wondered if she had noticed me glancing at her in the reflection off the windows. If she had she sure was one perceptive woman. She gestured towards Reese. "Detective Reese here thought it would be best if I dressed... suitably to make sure you would admit me."
I arched an eyebrow towards Reese.
"Also to avoid gossip, Ms Gordon", he hurriedly said, twisting uncomfortably in his seat. He knew better than to call me by name when he was in my office, even though we had known each other for years.
"You are a cop", I said, looking directly at Lockley. She stood with her back towards the high windows; the midday lights shone around her and hid her face in the shadows, but she shrugged.
"I used to be", she said, moving towards the desk and sat down, not directly beside Reese - she left an empty seat between them. She didn't take her perceptive eyes from me and I held her gaze, as if this was a competition neither would want to lose.
"Ms Lockley is a private investigator", Reese finally said, when the silence between us grew too heavy. I arched another eyebrow and leaned back in my chair. I crossed my legs and absently swirled a pen between my fingers.
"I'm investigating a series of murders", the woman said, leaning slightly forward. If I lowered my eyes I would see her cleavage. Again I thought of Helena and refrained from the temptation. "Real gruesome murders - the killer picks young teenagers with nothing in common other than they are about the same age, same height and are blonde."
My fingers stopped and I caught the pen in my hand. I frowned at this stranger, thinking of Dinah. There was something I ought to remember about Dinah, but the thought slipped my mind. He is coming for her, finally... It was a fleeting thought and gone before I could catch it. Who? I asked myself, but there was no answer - only this sense of dread, suddenly sweeping through me. I leaned forward against the desk.
"Tell me", I said coldly, feeling the bitch I became when I entered Barbara Gordon's office snapping into place. I noticed the quick exchange of looks between Reese and the PI and almost punched down the pen against the table. "Tell me!" I snapped, glaring at the woman. "Why are you here, Ms Lockley? What do you want with me?"
"Actually", Lockley said, more cautious than before. "A friend sent me here. You see, there are no clues to who committed these murders and both the police and the FBI are left rather... clueless." She smiled bitterly at her own words. "Someone I know told me I needed to see Barbara Gordon in Gotham City." She shrugged. "I had never heard of this place, although I am familiar with your name... now."
You are? I thought, but focused on her story. "Is there anything linking me with the murders? Is that why you have come?"
"You tell me." Lockley leaned back in her seat, regarding me levelly. "I had nothing to lose, coming here. My friend... is not a cop, nor has he anything to do with upholding the laws in any way. He is more... a friend of a friend." She made a slight, almost apologetic and surely unconscious gesture with her hand.
"I am not sure what you are getting at, Ms Lockley", I said and Reese's chair squeaked when he moved in it, leaning forward towards the desk with a pleading look in his eyes.
"She has led him straight to Dinah, detective", I said coldly, looking at Reese and having no clue what so ever what I was talking about. "I am not having her wrecking Dinah's life like that."
"What...?" Reese said, as confused as I would have felt had I stopped to consider what I was doing. Lockley gasped softly, looking at me with wide eyes.
I rose. "This meeting is over. I'm sorry, but I can be of no help to..."
I felt it coming. I had learned to recognize the signs, as people with epilepsy would. That was one thing I wanted to be tested for: epilepsy. What would happen if I was Batgirl fighting criminals and having an epilepsy-attack in the middle of a show-down?
I felt it coming. It was a creeping feeling, a tingling in my skull and in my hands and in my legs... I reached out to steady myself, to sit down. I felt darkness sneak upon me, as dusk on a still sunny day. With the darkness came a voice I didn't recognize - not my own, for once. "She is your lover, in an alternate world - in a different life..." I saw Lockley's face before me, the worry in her eyes, and I knew I could trust her.
"Miss Gordon?" She rose from her chair, reaching for me.
Imagine that, I thought, before my world exploded in a pain I had never known before. And there was fire and blood...
"What?" he said with his back towards me. He leaned over the kitchen-table and was studying some papers, probably related to his work.
I had discussed my jealousy towards Dick with Barbara and her only advice - besides that I shouldn't let my fear control me - was to talk to him. So there I was, trying to break a pattern of years of avoidance to actually talk about something that pained me. I had never been good at that, not even when my mother was alive.
"I want to... apologize", I said. Actually, when he turned towards me almost leering all I wanted to do was kick his teeth in. I suppressed that emotion and breathed deeply. When did all this happen? Since when did I feel this... this suppressed rage towards Dick? I liked Dick. He was my brother - sort of. I hadn't had a problem with him until... Well, he did warn Barbara not to bring me when Patch went down. Although - to be fair to him - he did have a point.
No, it begun when Barbara told him she was in love with me. That's when it changed. That's when he changed. Maybe not immediately, but that's when the foundations were laid. This... this leering - that wasn't Dick. Neither Dick nor Nightwing were so... disrespectful, so plainly unlikeable. The thing was, he wasn't like this when Barbara or Dinah were around - or at least not as openly.
"Do you?" he said, still leering. "For fucking her, or for letting me know how much you enjoy it? You know - you aren't the first to have her. She will tire of you. When the flames die out, there will be nothing left. She is just another whore and the fire will..."
I punched him. I knocked him flat out and looked at his body as it lay sprawled across the table. The first thought that came to mind was that I was glad Alfred wasn't about - not to see me strike Dick, but for him not to have overheard what Dick called Barbara.
I can't believe he just said that, I thought, the anger within me receding and leaving a tiny speck of fear and even larger confusion. What the hell is going on with us?
I didn't know what to do with Dick, so I left him on the table. It wouldn't be a good idea for me to stick around and have another go at him if the first thing he said when he woke up wasn't an apology. First I needed to do some thinking. About what I wasn't sure - that was what I needed to think about.
I left the Clock Tower to take a stroll in the park, but when I passed Gordon Technologies I stopped just outside the headquarters. Something strange was going on - a bunch of people stood in front of the gates, looking bewildered and lost.
"What has happened?" I asked someone, an older man.
"Haven't you heard?" he said, grabbing me. "It was on the radio, just a minute ago."
"What?" I felt a cold hand squeezing my heart. Barbara...
"Barbara Gordon has been brought to the hospital. They don't..."
I didn't stay to listen. I swirled around, making my way to a nearby alley. From there I could scale the buildings and make my way to the hospital in a shorter time than it would take by using taxi.
I didn't get that far. In a dark alley, just before I was about to climb a tall building, someone stopped me.
"You have to wake up."
I turned around, facing an older, dark-skinned woman with a million wrinkles in her face. Dark eyes penetrated me, nailed me to the spot. Not even the thought of losing Barbara could make me move. Barbara... But I was lost in the eyes of something much older. The woman raised a hand and grazed my forehead, sketching an invisible mark of some kind on my skin.
"You've got to wake up, child - before he comes. Before history twists and turns and burns you all again... Remember your dreams."
My dreams? Dinah had been talking about dreams that same morning. I've got to go! Barbara...
"Let go!" I twisted loose and scrambled up the nearest fire escape.
"Wake up! Don't let him find you sleeping!"
I'm awake! I wanted to shout, but kept climbing. I turned on my intercom and tried to reach Barbara, but there was no sound on the other end. I usually turned off my intercom when she went to her office - I still wasn't very fond of business-Barbara, as Dinah once had called her. Although she was very sexy.
The thought made me sniffle and I realized I was crying as I flew above the rooftops towards New Gotham City Hospital.
Dinah! I suddenly remembered the girl in college and wondered if she had heard the news. I tried reaching her as well on the intercom, but there wasn't any answer either. Oh, Goddess of the dark and of the moon - don't let her die! I'll do anything!
When I reached the hospital I asked for Barbara Gordon at the front desk and then used the stairs to reach the third floor, where I had been told she was being held. I used the stairs more out of fear that I would crash the elevator if it went too slow than because I wanted to avoid people.
On the third floor I looked around for the right corridor and then made my way to Barbara's room. I was about to crash through the closed doors when a stranger - a blond woman I had never seen before - stepped out in front of me. I reached for her to throw her out of my way, but it seemed she had anticipated my move because she stepped back a pace and avoided my grasp. Her move made me lose my balance for a second and I growled at her; my eyes changed and became dangerous.
"Get out of my way or I'll kill you", I said in a voice that had scared many criminals, but the woman didn't even flinch. She looked me straight in the eye and said, with absolute authority:
"You are not helping, fighter. Stand down."
Something about her determination and the way she held her ground in front of me made me cool down a little, but I still glared at her.
"You can't do anything for her", she added more gently. "Let them do what they are trained to do."
I frowned at her, feeling my eyes changing back to normal. "You're a cop?" I asked. I had thought she must be a nurse, but her appearance didn't fit. For one thing she was dressed like a lawyer.
I turned and found Reese by my side. The sight made me relax a little; the woman must be with him. I had no clue to what they were doing with Barbara at the hospital, but it made me feel better that she hadn't been completely alone when she was brought in. Unless...
"She wasn't shot or anything?" I asked him worriedly. He shook his head and gestured to the blond woman.
"This is Kate, she is a private investigator. We were with Barbara when..." He silenced and frowned. "We don't know what happened."
"She seemed to have an attack of some sorts", the blond woman said. "Like a hell of a migraine-attack. She kept screaming..."
I didn't want to know that. "Migraine? She never had migraines." She never had panic-attacks either. I frowned.
"They've been running some tests. CAT-scans and..."
Shit! I felt the color drain from my face and there was a ringing sound in my ears, preventing me from hearing the rest of Kate's words. A fucking tumor! Not this - oh, fuck... Not this!
"We've just managed to get the reporters away", Reese added. "You know what they are like when it comes to Barbara. And with what happened only two months ago..."
I nodded, but Kate looked confused.
"What happened?" she asked. I turned away and looked in direction of Barbara's room, not answering.
"She... was kidnapped", Reese said.
Kate gasped softly. "Oh, yes - I remember", I heard her whisper softly under her breath. "She seems to be well liked in this town", she added, looking at me.
"She is", I said curtly.
"Everyone loves Barbara", Reese said smoothly, glancing at me. I didn't pay him any attention. Maybe I should have asked what a private investigator and a detective were doing with Barbara, but all I could think of was that the woman I loved was going to die.
"She'll be fine, I'm sure of it", Kate suddenly said and touched my arm with a gentle gesture. I looked at her and found the same inner strength with her as I had found in Barbara when we first met. Although, with Kate there was an almost hidden sorrow in the depths of her eyes - something near melancholy, as if she had seen and lived through darkest hell and fought her way back out of it, but had never been able to forget what she had seen.
I shook my head, not able to find my voice. I glanced towards Barbara's room. And then I heard it, a soft sound almost not noticeable. It wouldn't have been, except for my enhanced hearing. "Something is wrong", I said and stepped past Kate before she had the time to catch me. She and Reese followed close behind me as I rushed towards Barbara's room and threw the doors open. A nurse coming from the helpdesk in the corridor prevented Reese from entering, but Kate and I hurried through the doors.
The room was an ordinary Hospital room, spacious and with a grand view through large windows. There was a restroom to the right of the doors, there was only one bed amongst a lot of technical equipments closer to the windows.
Barbara stood by the bed in a long, white gown, with tubes and wires to her wrists and her nostrils. Two doctors in white coats stood in front of her, flanked by two female nurses and one male nurse. They all tried to talk to Barbara, who tore the wires from her face and arms without listening to them. She yanked so hard on the wires she almost toppled the monitors on the other side of the bed. The screen measuring her heartbeat made a beeping sound and then went dead.
"Miss Gordon..." one doctor tried, as the other subtly gestured to the male nurse to move closer.
"I'm leaving", Barbara said and moved forward. There was something strange about her, but I couldn't tell what as I looked at her. Something was different about her face, about her eyes, in the same way something had been different about Dick the last time I saw him.
The male nurse and one of the doctors moved in and grabbed Barbara's arms.
"We can't let you leave yet, Ms Gordon", the other doctor said.
"Let me go!"
I stared at Barbara, hearing the strength in her voice. Her face wrinkled and we all felt a gust of wind charging through the room. Kate grabbed hold of me as we stumbled against the wall, pushed by an invisible force. The two men holding Barbara were thrown through the room, against the wall beside me and Kate. They fell to the floor and remained unmoving.
"You mere mortals will not dictate my movements! I walk amongst the gods..." Barbara pointed at the remaining doctor and the nurses; one held on to the bed and the other to an armchair by the window. The wind subsided and died away.
Barbara held the gaze of the doctor for a moment longer, then she paled and toppled over.
"Barbara!" I yelled and rushed forward, but the doctor was in my way and already at Barbara's side.
"Get her out!" he ordered the nurses and gestured towards me, as he checked on my unconscious lover.
"No!" I growled. "She needs me here..."
Kate was suddenly by my side and pulled gently at my arm.
"No..." I whispered, seeing Barbara's white face on the floor. In the next moment the room was filled with nurses and people and Kate and I were ushered towards the doors before I had time to do anything about it. "No!" I yelled again and was about to make an effort to reach Barbara, who was being laid on the bed, when Reese reached us.
"Helena", he said urgently. "Helena - listen!"
"What?" I snapped at him, growling. It took him aback for a second, but then he caught himself and held my gaze.
"There's been an explosion at Dinah's school..."
I blinked. My mind was so set on Barbara I couldn't process anything else at the moment. What the hell did just happen? Barbara had thrown those two men across the room as if it had been nothing. And that voice... And her face... And now she was lying as if dead again.
"I just heard it on the radio, out here..." Reese gestured towards the hallway behind us. We were still standing in the doorway to Barbara's room. "Not more than a minute ago... There's been an explosion at Dinah's school", he repeated slowly, holding my gaze.
Dinah! What was going on? This whole thing was a mess: Barbara, Dick and now Dinah. I felt as overwhelmed as I had at the time when I just met Barbara Gordon and Batgirl. Things happened in a speed I couldn't keep up with.
I glanced at the room and the doctors working with Barbara.
"Barbara mentioned Dinah", Kate said. "She was worried about her."
I nodded and made my decision. Fuck! Dinah... "Take care of her", I asked Kate, almost pleading. I didn't know if the other woman understood just how much Barbara meant to me, but she nodded.
"I will", she said softly.
"Reese..." I turned towards the detective.
"I need to be there", he said. "Want to catch a ride with me?"
I shook my head. "I don't use cars..." I said somewhat distractedly. This statement caused Kate to frown and to take a closer look at me. She was about to ask me something when a team of nurses and another doctor moved in through the doors.
"Move - move, out of the way!" one woman said, clearing the way.
"Please, people - move out of the room and let us work", the new doctor, a woman this time, said.
We followed orders and moved out in the hallway. Reese made his way to the elevator and I was about to disappear towards the stairs when Kate caught me.
"You are not using the sewers, are you?" she asked, eyeing me almost suspiciously.
The sewers? What does she think I am? A goddamn rat? "The sewers?" I said disgustedly.
"Dark and brooding, wearing a long coat in the middle of the day, on a sunny day... Shying away from daylight, growling with eyes like an animal. Seems strange to me. Enough to make me wonder..."
"Fuck! I don't have time for this..." Suddenly I knew I needed to be with Dinah. If Barbara woke up and heard the news... Dinah. Goddess, keep her safe. Goddess? This was the first time I reflected upon my choice of deity. Goddess... I had called upon the goddess the whole day. Which fucking goddess is that? What was it Barbara had said? She walks with gods? Where the hell did thatcome from?
"Do you fear crosses?"
Before I knew it Kate held a silver cross to my face.
"What the...? Get out of my face", I growled, batting at her hand. "Fuck - you people!" I glared at her. "What's your fucking problem?"
Kate shrugged. "Just checking. Needed to be sure I wasn't dealing with another undead with a soul. I'm not particularly fond of surprises."
Who the fuck is? I thought, growling in my mind. I almost spat at the woman. "Undead? You think I'm a vampire? God, woman - you have serious problems."
"Yeah, and you are the least of it", she said, as coolly as if she discussed the breed of a neighbor's dog. I held her gaze, trying to read her thoughts, but she held her ground and I didn't have time to make a scene to frighten her to show her true self - besides, with Barbara in mind I figured it wouldn't work anyway. I growled one more time and then left by way of the stairs.
It wouldn't take long to get to the high school. When I reached the roof of the hospital I could see the smoke rising from that direction and I felt my heart grow cold. Princess, I thought, regretting I had called her sparrow that morning; regretting I had not listened to her telling me about her dreams...
Dreams? That woman... she told me to remember my dreams. There was no time to remember my dreams as I once again rushed across the rooftops, fighting a cold fear in my stomach. Barbara... And now Dinah. Would I lose them both?
It was only a small part of the New Gotham High School that had been exposed to the explosion, but that part was completely destroyed. Black smoke curled itself towards the blue sky, bringing ashes and the smell of destruction with it in the wind. Crumbled walls, glistening steel and burnt debris greeted me as I reached the building. The fire department was there and I noticed Reese arriving at the same time. People, mostly firemen and anonymous individuals in white suits, walked across the rubble looking for whatever they are looking for after a fire. Dead bodies... I pushed the thought aside.
I slid to the ground behind a hidden alley and walked up to the front of the school, were students stood gathered with their respective classes and their teachers.
I turned around, feeling a rush of relief as I heard Dinah's voice behind me. She broke free from her class and from a female teacher trying to hold her back and ran towards me. I could see tears on her soot-smeared face. She threw herself in my arms and the teacher who was coming after her stopped hesitantly when I gestured towards her.
"Oh, thank God you are here!" Dinah sobbed.
"Thank God you are all right", I said with feeling. "What happened?"
Dinah pulled away from me, drying her tears and smearing the black on her face across her cheeks. "It was a gas-leak, or so they said. I think it was. I could..." She shivered. "I saw it. It was that woman who showed me. She said I needed to get the people out of the room."
"The woman? What woman?"
But Dinah didn't hear me, she was too wrapped up in her own emotions and in her need to tell the story.
"It was the editorial room. There were hardly any people, but I got them out and..." She glanced about her and leaned forward, adding in a whispering voice: "I put a force field around us. I didn't know I could use my energy-spheres to do that..."
"And no one noticed?" I asked lowly, trying not to berate her for her action - it had probably saved her life.
Dinah shook her head. "They thought it was the blast from the explosion that went all bluish around us. A few people got hurt, but no one died." She shuddered. "It could have been so bad. If that woman hadn't found me..."
"What woman?" I asked again.
"Old", Dinah said. "She looked... parched. You know, like old parchment - all dark and wrinkled and shriveled... But her eyes, they were like burning coal. I was on my way to the editorial..."
For some reason this caught my attention. "You are writing for the school-paper?"
Dinah blushed. "Well, no... Let's just say I have an... um, interest in the school-paper."
"Well, Dinah - my, my, what will Barbara say? A love-interest... And you who were going all snappish on my hormones this morning." Despite the serious situation we were in I couldn't help but grin at the girl; the relief I felt as I found her alive fuelled me. Her blush deepened.
"Um, well... Anyway", she rushed on, "I was on my way there when this woman turned up out of nowhere, looking like a bag lady or something. She caught me and I thought she wanted to do some begging, so I handed her my apple, which was all I had at the time, but she looked at me and said there was going to be an accident and that I must get all the people out of the room. First I didn't listen, I mean - why should I?" She shrugged. "You hear all crazy things all the time and I wasn't going to make a fool out of myself in front of..." Dinah stopped and glanced at me. "In front of everyone. But then she took my hand and I saw... this broken pipe, the janitor smoking and the building going... Boom!" She silenced and closed her eyes for a moment. "I saw all these people die..." she whispered.
"You did well, Dinah", I said and squeezed her shoulder. "You did very well."
Dinah took a deep breath and looked up at me. "Yeah, I did, didn't I?" she said with a weak smile. "I wonder who that woman was", she added with a frown.
"Me too", I murmured. "Me too."
When I woke up I felt dizzy and nauseous, much like that time not long ago when I woke up after the beating Boyd had put me through. I felt someone's presence close to me and turned my head, expecting to find Helena. It wasn't.
"Ms Lockley", I said with a weak smile. The blond woman sat in a chair by the hospital bed and leaned forward when I spoke. She took my hand in hers.
"You'll be fine", she said. "You've given them a hard time, but you'll be fine."
I closed my eyes. "Do they know what's wrong with me?" I asked.
"No, not yet..."
I sighed and opened my eyes again, feeling better by the minute. Her hands were soft and warm.
"How... How are you feeling?" Lockley asked me.
"Disregarding the fact that I feel as if I've survived having an elephant dumped on my head?" I said wryly and maybe a little too sarcastically.
"And I hear that you are feeling better..." Lockley said sardonically, pulling her hands from mine. Her tone of voice made me remember the way I had treated her in my office.
"Look", I said, gesturing with one hand. "Ms Lockley, I'm..." I caught myself as someone entered the room and we both turned our heads towards the newcomer.
"My god, Barbara!" Dick said, hurrying towards my bed. He bent over and kissed my cheek, but I could only stare at him. He had the largest bruise I'd ever seen, right between his eyes. His nose was swollen to almost double its size.
"My god, Dick", I said. "What on earth has happened to you?"
Dick made a face and waved away my concern with a flippant gesture. "Never mind. I fell into a..."
"A fist, maybe?" the blonde private investigator said ironically by my side. He turned his gaze towards her and I noticed the way his eyes narrowed, as if he knew her - or recognized her from somewhere. I also noticed - with more than a little amusement - the way he was eyeing her shoulders and legs. My, my, Batgirl was teasing inside my head and I had to hide a smile.
"Dick", I said. "Do you know where Helena is? Does she know I'm here?"
Dick hesitated for a moment. "Barbara..." he said, somewhat tentatively. "There's been..."
I felt a cold, cold chill creeping up my neck. "Who? Which one is it? Dinah or Helena? Dick - tell me!"
"It's fine. They are both fine." Lockley put a hand on my shoulder and gently, but quite firmly, pushed me back against the pillows. I noticed Dick glancing at her. "Your friend has been here. She was worried about you, but there was some disturbance at the high school. She went to get this Dinah you were worried about."
"They are fine?" I asked suspiciously.
"Yes. Reese is with them. He phoned me. They are on their way over here."
I relaxed and looked at Dick. "What happened?"
"I... don't know." Dick shrugged and looked at the blond woman. "Alfred phoned me to let me know you were in the hospital. He's at the manor today. Then I heard the news about the school in my car on the way over here. No one has been killed, but there has been some people injured."
"There was one victim", Lockley said. "The janitor." She glanced at Dick. "Reese told me", she added. She rose and extended her hand towards him across my bed. "Hi, by the way. I'm private investigator Lockley. And you are?"
I arched an amused eyebrow at the two of them. Dick was eyeing the woman's hand as if it was a snake intending to bite him. Finally he gave in and extended his hand.
"Dick Grayson", he mumbled as they shook hands and I noticed with interest the sudden, appreciative look in Dick's eyes as he held the P.I:s hand.
"You ought to get that bruise taken care of", Lockley said, indicating the swelling. "After all, we are at a hospital."
"She's right, Dick", I said gently, looking at him. I noticed the strain leaving his face and he nodded.
The bruise really disfigured his features. I wondered what had happened to him, but something in his way of avoiding my eyes when I had asked him about it had awakened a suspicion in me. In the shower with Helena earlier in the morning we had discussed her problem with Dick and I had suggested she talk to him. What I hadn't told her was that Dick had come to me some time before, voicing a quite incomprehensible and irrational fear that Helena wasn't to be trusted. He had seemed almost fretful, accusing her of being a wolf in sheep's clothing and saying she would abandon us all when we needed her the most. I had told him I trusted her and that I loved her and if he had a problem with her he would need to discuss it with her himself, because I wouldn't turn my back on her. I had been so busy worrying about my own condition the last two weeks that I hadn't really followed up on his and Helena's relationship until that morning. I wondered if they finally had come to blows. If they had I would see if it changed anything between them, otherwise I would have to have a talk with them.
"I will. I was just so worried", he said, more relaxed now. "What happened to you?" he added with a slight frown.
"I don't know. And I don't expect the doctors will be able to tell me. Will you see to it that I can leave the hospital when I want to?"
"I'll see what I can do", he agreed with a determined set of his jaw. "I'll do my best."
I knew Dick; his best was usually enough to move mountains.
Lockley sat down by my side as Dick left the room and I looked inquiringly at her. "What happened at the school?" I wondered.
"A gas-leak. Some parts of the building exploded and went up in smoke. The explosion was probably triggered by the janitor, who was having a break and was smoking were he wasn't suppose to smoke. No students were seriously injured, although some have been effected by the smoke. I guess they were lucky."
"They must have been", I agreed. I held Lockley's gaze and tried to read her. She seemed to be a tough woman - I supposed you had to be to have been a cop in Los Angeles. She was hard to read and there was something guarded about her that made it difficult to tell what she was thinking, but I had four different people living inside my head and in the resent month I had come to know another very difficult person to read. "Thank you for staying", I said gently, reaching for her. "There was no need for you to do so."
She took my hand and squeezed it a little, giving me a small smile. "I had nothing better to do."
"You'll do anything to catch a killer, won't you?" I asked, half humorously and half seriously. Apparently my words must have struck a chord, because she averted her eyes.
"No matter the cost", I heard her whisper and I realized there were some truths in this woman's past that had been dearly paid for. She looked up, catching me looking at her and pulled a face. "Sometimes... Sometimes what we find would have been better left buried."
"Except even rotting corpses find their way to the surface", I said softly and she nodded.
"Yeah, they do. They surely do."
I took a deep breath and, to break the mood, said: "So, why don't you tell me what you need me for and I'll see what I can do."
"That's just it, Ms Gordon..." Lockley hesitated. "I'm not sure. The only thing my friend... my friends friend said was to find you and here I am..."
"And here you are. Do you always go on wild goose chases?" I asked good-naturedly, arching an eyebrow at her. It made her laugh. Hearing it I realized I liked her laughter.
"Oh, yes - yes, I do! Everyone who knows me will tell you that."
It made me smile. "Well, I have found myself engaged in one or two wild goose chases in my day. Perhaps we will..." I silenced, interrupted by the noise of doors opening. I turned my head to find a nurse trying to prevent some people from entering my room. After a few heartbeats I noticed Helena almost pushing the nurse before her to get to my bed. The sight made me smile and I reached out a hand to my dark, beautiful lover.
"You can't..." the nurse was saying, but then Helena twirled her about and dropped her in the armchair by the windows, before hurrying back to me.
"Barbara..." she said, almost choking.
" Sshhh", I said, grabbing her by the collar and pulling her towards me. "Don't speak."
And then I kissed her. She put her arms around me and almost pulled me out of bed and I held her around her neck, feeling her soft lips pressed against mine.
It was not until later I remembered that we weren't alone. This is just the perfect way to out myself, I thought wryly as I let go of Helena and sunk back to bed. I smiled at her and reached to caress her cheek.
"I'm glad to see you", I said.
"Ma'm", the nurse said demandingly behind Helena's back.
"Please, give me some time with my friends", I said. I looked at the nurse and she relented.
"Fifteen minutes", she said and I nodded.
"Where's...?" I began when the nurse left the room and in the next instant Dinah was at my side, embracing me.
"Princess, are you all right?"
"Yeah, I am. Are you?" Dinah pulled back, eyeing me closely. "You look fine. You feel... queasy."
"I feel a bit nauseous", I admitted with a grimace. I noticed Lockley eyeing Dinah with a sharp look and realized she was thinking about the murders that had been committed in L.A; Dinah fitted the descriptions of the dead girls perfectly.
"Do you remember anything?" Helena suddenly asked, with a strange look on her face.
"Remember? What should I remember? I know who is president and what year it is. I had a migraine attack, not amnesia."
Helena twitched when I looked at her and I knew she was hiding something. The glance she directed at Lockley made it obvious that they shared something.
"Dinah, Helena", I said turning to the private investigator on my other side. "This is..."
"Kate", Helena said immediately. "We've met."
Kate? I glanced at the two of them and then nodded. There was a strange gleam in Helena's eyes as she watched Lockley. Kate... And there was something else, something almost contented in the blond woman's face as she watched Helena. As if she had been searching for something for a long time and finally found it.
"Right. Fine... Ms Lockley is a private investigator", I told Dinah. "She has come to Gotham following a lead."
"Which ended... with you?" Dinah said strangely cautiously, glancing at Lockley. Kate...
"It's difficult to explain", the blond woman said, almost apologetically, and rose from her chair. "I would like to talk to... all of you when the circumstances are better. Ms Gordon..." she looked down at me and smiled almost shyly. "Please, call me Kate."
I held her gaze and nodded, struggling to sit up. Helena instantly leaned forward and helped me. "Fine, Kate. Please, call me Barbara." I smiled wryly. "Any woman who has seen me in bed should call me Barbara", I added, not knowing why. The remark made Kate clear her throat and by my side Helena scowled at me. The sight made me laugh and I kissed her quickly on the lips. "Don't you worry, you are the only one for me", I whispered, only for her ears.
"Hum", she muttered, but I noticed the slight smile at the corner of her lips.
"So, how come you are here with Barbara, any way?" Dinah asked, still eyeing Kate with this strange, hesitant look.
"Oh, I was with her at her office when she had... the attack." Kate frowned slightly at me. "I do apologize for getting on your wrong side at the time", she added. "It was not my intention to upset you."
"So, you've met Business-Barbara, have you? Huh", Helena said, with a pointed glance at me.
"Don't let her rub you the wrong way, Kate", Dinah said, suddenly smiling at me. "Business-Barbara would get upset with a saint."
"Hey!" I said, feeling it was time I defended myself, but when both Helena and Dinah laughed I had to give in with a shrug. "They're right", I said to Kate. "Come to my place tonight and we'll have a much more relaxed conversation."
"Don't bring Reese", Dinah instantly said and I gave her a surprised look. "Well, she shouldn't..." the teenager said and blushed a little. "You know, because... because..."
Because if we end up discussing Batgirl and company it wouldn't be such a good idea to have Reese around, I thought, realizing what Dinah was getting at.
"Because he has that meeting with the mayor tonight and he shouldn't need to feel that he have to cancel that", Helena lied smoothly, picking up on the lead. "Right?"
"Right", Dinah said relieved. "That's it."
"Fine. I'll just..."
"Where is Reese, anyway?" I interrupted Kate, looking around the room. "I thought he was coming with you?"
"Oh, he was. He stopped to talk to someone in the hallway", Dinah said.
"Will you even be home tonight?" Kate asked me. "The hospital might not let you go."
"They'll let her go", Helena said in her drawling voice and I smiled at her. If Dick couldn't handle the doctors Helena would carry me out of there. Well, I did prefer to walk, but...
At that moment the strangest thing happened: Dick entered the room. No one noticed him at first, except me - everyone else's attention was on me and their backs were towards the doors. He came closer and stopped a few steps behind Dinah. Someone had taken care of his bruise; it was wrapped in a white pad, with some white plaster covering the ridge of his nose. Looking at him, seeing him standing there between Dinah and Helena, I felt the darkness sneaking up on me again. Only this time there was no pain and no blackness. I simply felt myself almost floating out of my body... and in the next instant I found myself hovering above the room and the people in it. I saw them standing there and myself lying on the bed below. It was an uncanny experience, but I felt no fear. Instead I felt... almost at peace. This had not happened to me before - all the other times I had only lost consciousness. Except at the office, when the incredible pain had hit me.
"Dick", I heard Helena say, with ice in her voice.
"Helena", Dick said and I knew, just by watching them from above, that she indeed was the one who had given him that bruise. I also knew, by the look in his eyes, that he knew he had deserved it. What on earth did he do? I wondered. In the same moment the monitor registering my heartbeats beeped and the rhythmical motion on the screen reduced to a level green line. It signaled the end of my existence.
Then I heard a voice, not my own. It was neither female nor male. I recognized it from before in the office, from before the pain and the fire had claimed me.
"Listen now, my child. You are all gathered again and the time is set."
I looked around, but I only felt the roof pressing against my back - it was an intriguingly strange sensation, in addition to seeing myself and everything from above. There was no other person in that room except for my friends. And they stared at me and at the monitor with terrified expressions on their faces.
"Who...what are you?" I asked inwardly, blocking the look on Helena's face from my mind.
"Remember this. Time has gone by, but not until now has the board been set with this particular pattern. This pattern has been the key to hisprison. Hehas awakened and he will come for you all. Remember this. Only you and the priest together can prevent him from taking control. You must join your powers and destroy him once and for all. Only you and the priest. Let the others care for the girl. Let the warriors protect the princess, as is their job. Remember this."
"Wait!" I screamed within me, fearing the strange voice would go away. "What is this?"
"You will know. Remember... your dreams."
"But... do you know why this is happening to me? Do you know... why I am dying all the time?"
"Because that is what you did... then. You died in fire and blood covered the land. You must not fail, this time..."
I jerked bolt upright in bed, gasping for air. The impact of returning to my body hit me like a hammer and it took a moment for me to recognize where I was. I looked up at the worried faces about me, sinking back into my body. That was an experience I never had before, I thought wryly, when I had come to my senses.
"Are you... are you all right?" It was Dick, leaning forward beside Helena.
"I'm fine. We need to get out of here." I pulled away the blanket and rose from the bed.
"Barbara..." Dinah looked at me with pale cheeks. "You... you died."
"I know", I said, looking around for my clothes.
"The doctors will be here any minute", Kate said.
"They will believe the monitor went off because I pulled the wires", I said, finding my clothes neatly folded in the closet beside the restroom.
"What if it happens again?" Helena asked worriedly. There was something stiff in her eyes I knew I must deal with later. I could imagine what she had gone through seeing me die. If it had been me standing by her bed, seeing her... The thought made me repress a cold shiver.
"It won't", I said shortly, certain that my days of panic-attacks and dying were over. Without consideration I turned my back towards them, pulled off the gown and put on my clothes. In the next moment the doors flew open and another team of paramedics rushed in.
"You have no right to hold me here against my will", I stated before anyone had time to interfere with me. "I do not have a contagious disease, nor am I incapable of making my own decisions. Now, please let me pass."
Whatever reasons the hospital might have had to let Barbara stay we wouldn't know. She and Dick soon had the doctors apologizing for keeping her so long - even if it had been a necessity! Then we were on our way. We all traveled in the elevator like some happy family, but it wasn't until then my heart finally started beating with some regularity again. She had diedfor goodness sake!
"Would either of you care to tell me what Dick did to get you to hit him so hard, Helena?" Barbara suddenly said as soon as the doors closed.
"What? I didn't..." I started to object.
"What? How did you...?" Dick said.
And Reese looked at me and smiled. "Did you really...?"
"Oh, boy", I heard Dinah sigh behind me. "Told you, you should have talked to her... or him", she added grumbling, glancing at me.
"Could we just drop this, Barbara?" Dick asked. "Believe me, you don't want to know."
"Surely not", I growled behind his back and he glanced at me with pale cheeks.
"I did deserve it", he admitted. "I deserved a knife twisting in my heart for what I... said."
"You bloody well do", I grumbled. Beside me Kate arched an eyebrow in my direction.
"Are you always this friendly?"
"I'm confused", I said. "I get testy when I'm confused."
"Which she always is", Dinah said with a grin. "But she has her good moments."
"I was an ass", Dick went on, ignoring us in the background. "I don't know what happened. It was as if I suddenly became someone else... It was strange."
"Freaky", I said, remembering Barbara's face when she threw those two men through the room before. "It was fucking freaky."
"I tell you what is freaky", Reese said. "Those murders Kate is investigating. I'm not so sure you should leave the hospital, Barbara, but it's your call. Will you take your time to talk to Kate about her lead?"
"I will", Barbara said after a moment.
"She's known to be a little of a Mulder", Reese added with a smile, watching Kate. "So don't think she's nuts because she asks weird questions."
"Funny, detective", Kate said dryly.
"Mulder?" I asked.
"X-Files", Dinah said immediately. "You know."
"Hum", I said. That would explain the vampires, I thought, noticing the way Barbara glanced at Kate. There was something appreciative in her eyes as she watched the blond woman and I felt my jaws tightening, but then Barbara looked at me and winked. I love you, she mouthed to me and I grinned at her.
"Fine, Reese", Barbara said and turned away from me when the elevator stopped. "I'll give Kate all the help I can." She stepped out of the elevator, followed by the rest of us, and turned to the blond private investigator. "Where are you staying, Kate?"
"At some shabby hotel in the older part of Gotham", Kate said, gesturing briefly with one hand. "It wouldn't do to meet there, but..."
"You'll stay with me. Dick, will you please phone Alfred and let him know to have dinner for... five. Reese?"
"No, thanks. I'm busy tonight."
"Meeting the mayor, I heard", Kate said, looking at him. Dinah almost choked and turned away, hiding her blushing face behind a fake cough. Barbara looked at me with an amused expression and I was trying hard to keep a straight face.
"The mayor? No, I'm..."
"Dick, did you bring the car?" Barbara interrupted smoothly. "I didn't bring mine, unfortunately." She smiled quickly and caught us all by the radiance of that smile. Dinah grinned back and I noticed Kate relax a little for the first time since I'd met her.
"I did", Dick said hastily, with the cell phone to his ear. "Hold on... Alfred, it's Dick..." He turned away.
"Good", Barbara resumed. "Kate - get your stuff at the hotel and come to my place. You know where it is?"
"I do, but this isn't necessary. I'll do fine..."
Barbara waved away her protests with one hand, moving towards the exit. I followed her, grinning at Kate's almost lost expression. When Barbara got something in her head it was difficult persuading her to change her mind. I knew - I had tried and failed many times the last two months. The most difficult part was when Barbara kept moving, running away from any discussion that would have ensued. It was a perfect persuasion-technique: she just didn't take no for an answer.
I waved at Kate. "See you later!" I said and then added, as I stepped out of the doors and into the sunlight: "Look - I don't sizzle!"
It made her laugh.
"Why on earth would you sizzle?" Barbara asked with an amused look, but I only shook my head and she didn't push. Dinah came out to the pavement and joined us as we waited for Dick. I noticed Kate and detective Reese walk out and disappear together along the street.
"Dinah", Barbara said slowly and I noticed she too watched the blond woman and the cop as they walked away. "What was that with you and Kate?"
Huh? I thought and wondered what I had been missing out on. Dinah hesitated.
"I... I don't know, Barbara. I can't feel her."
"How do you mean?" Barbara turned her sharp eyes towards the girl.
"You know, the way I feel other people. With my telepathy and the emotions. It's like... she's not there. I picked up on it almost immediately. That's what made me so... wary about her. But I trust her."
Barbara frowned. "Isn't that strange?" I heard her mumble. I silently agreed. I wondered about the woman myself - she seemed a bit strange to be a private investigator. And Mulderof all people?
"And Barbara...?" Dinah said.
"I can't..." The girl swallowed. "I can't feel you anymore, either."
Barbara's head snapped around. She didn't say anything, but her eyes spoke volumes. Dinah paled beneath the scrutiny.
"Are you sure?" Barbara finally asked.
"Yes. I don't... I don't feel you. I can feel that man..." Dinah gestured towards a man pushing an empty wheelchair nearby. "And Helena, she's as messed up as usual..." She grinned at me and I made a face at her. "But you... You're like thin air."
"When did this happen?"
"Now. Almost now, I mean. Before, when you... You died, Barbara."
"You think Kate has died too?" was my first question. Dinah gasped, but Barbara frowned in concentration.
"Maybe. But that's a little farfetched, don't you think?"
"You did die, Barbara", I said. "We all saw it on the screen. Your heartbeats went blank... not even for a minute, but it did happen."
"I know", she said, looking away.
"You know? You know what, then? Who says you won't die again? Why are you not in there" - I pointed at the building beside me, losing my composure for a minute - "and see that you don't die for real the next time?" I was frightened and confused and it made me angry. "And now you want to have a complete stranger as a house-guest... It's mad, Barbara! That's what it is!"
"If you don't calm down people will think you are the mad one", Barbara said, looking around.
"I don't fucking care!" I almost shouted and Dinah winced. "I could have lost you both today", I added, somewhat calmer, holding Barbara's gaze. "You do not know what that was like..."
"I've lost someone once, Helena", Barbara said gently, taking my hand and calming me with a look. "I do know what it's like, being left alive."
I gasped, not wanting to be reminded of her first love. She must have seen it in my face, because she touched my cheek and smiled softly at me.
"What happened in there won't happen again, Helena. I know this for a fact."
"How?" I asked, wondering how she could be so sure. "How can you be sure? We don't even know what it was, what happened."
"I have an inkling", she said hesitantly. "You probably won't believe it, but it's a theory."
"It's not... It's not all", I said, needing to tell her about what happened in the hospital when I first got there.
"Something happened, right?" she asked. "Something I did and don't remember?"
I nodded; for once glad she could read people so well.
"Tell me in the car", she said softly.
"I have something to tell you too", Dinah said and I was reminded about the strange woman both of us had met that day. I wondered if we would meet her again.
"Why do you want Kate to stay with you?" Dick asked on our way to Barbara's house beside the Clock Tower. He was calm and the question carried neither accusations nor objections. He simply wanted to know what Barbara had seen in the other woman worth trusting in such a way.
"I honestly don't know, Dick", Barbara said. "But with all these strange things going on... I think she is a part of it."
"A part of what, exactly?" I asked, from the backseat beside Dinah in Dick's car. I could have scaled the buildings on my way back to the Clock Tower, but I wanted to be close to Barbara - even if it meant going in a car.
"This all seems very strange to me", Dick said. "But with what happened to me today..." He shook his head. "I felt so filthy when I woke up. Almost... violated. As if I had been... used and then discarded." He shuddered.
Neither of us had repeated the words Dick had used when he accused Barbara earlier that day, but we had tried to describe what had taken place between us. I had also tried to describe what had happened when Barbara threw the doctor and the nurse across the room. Then it had not only been the way Barbara looked and acted, but also the storm sweeping through the room - like the beginnings of a hurricane.
"Obsessed", I said.
"Obsessed?" Dinah said.
"Yeah. No, I mean... what's that word again? Possessed..."
"Like in that movie? The Exorcist?" Dinah asked.
"Yeah, that's the one."
Barbara didn't say anything. She was looking out the side window and I knew her well enough now to know she was calculating our options and soon would reach a conclusion.
"Barbara?" I asked.
"It's a jigsaw", she said, as if she had been waiting for my question. "And as yet we don't have all the pieces. We need more pieces", she added. She turned and looked at me. "We need Kate. I don't know how, but she is an important part of this... pattern, which we don't see clearly yet."
Dick sighed. "And I thought we were in for a vacation, after Patch and all."
"What are you complaining about?" I grumbled, faking annoyance. "We've had a vacation. A whole month, in fact. Isn't that swell?"
It made him laugh and I grinned. It felt good to hear him laugh again; we had been too serious around each other lately. I noticed Barbara's grateful look in the mirror and winked at her. Bring it on, I thought. Whatever is coming we're gonna deal with it.
If I had known what was coming I wouldn't have been so confident.
"Some strange things have happened today", Barbara said. She was pacing back and forth in front of us in her living room; behind her the curtains covered the high windows, preventing anyone from looking in. She had changed clothes and was dressed in plain, dark blue trousers and a tight, green blouse. Her manner was that of Oracle and I had to bite my tongue each time I was asking her something, not to use the wrong name in front of Kate.
I sat on the arm of the couch, with Dinah beside me on the couch. Dick leaned on the doorframe to the hallway and Kate sat in the armchair.
Kate too had changed clothes and was dressed in jeans and a dark t-shirt. The armchair she was sitting in was the same one Barbara had been sitting in that night almost two months ago when she returned from the hospital. I remembered the way she had held me that night, when I was crying and mourning my mother. It felt like a lifetime ago.
There had been some house-calls from reporters asking about Barbara's health. Dick had dealt with them. "Allergy shock", he had told them. "Ms Gordon had an allergic reaction, but is fine now. She will be resting a few days and needs peace and quiet." A news team had turned up at the door-step and Barbara had given a short interview, which had been airing at the evening news. Other than that she had been left alone by the media.
Alfred had served tea and raw vegetables with two different sauces as appetizers for the main course, which he was busy preparing in the kitchen.
Barbara halted and turned to Kate. "You witnessed some of it today, at the hospital."
Kate only nodded and waited for Barbara to continue.
"You seem unruffled."
Kate shrugged. "I've seen a lot of strange things."
"All right, then. I reckon that before we deal with what happened today we need an update on your story."
Kate seemed to hesitate, but then agreed with a nod. "Fine, but I warn you - some things may be hard to believe."
"Agent Mulder to the rescue!" Dinah said with a high-pitched voice, grinning. "Um, sorry", she added, blushing slightly when Kate glanced at her. "I wasn't making fun of you. I like the X-Files. Mulder's cute..."
"Stop talking, sparrow", I said softly and she clamped a hand over her mouth. Kate had a surprised look on her face, but the corners of her mouth twitched, as if she were fighting back a smile. I wondered if she was used to teenager's sometimes flimsy remarks.
"Well..." she finally said and turned back to Barbara. "A year ago... I died."
I blinked. Dick straightened up by the door and Dinah gasped softly, but Barbara held Kate's eyes and didn't even blink.
"After that... my life changed. I felt I had been given a second chance and for awhile..." Kate frowned. "For awhile I knew... peace. But the things I had seen and known before my death still haunted me and I realized I couldn't go on as if nothing had happened. As if I... didn't know what was happening in the world. Or more precisely - in the shadows of the world. I have a friend who is a private investigator, investing something I would categorize as 'strange occurrences'."
"Ghosts and possessions?" Dick asked with a frown. Kate shrugged again.
"Amongst other things. I took his example and began investigating things that others won't deal with. I've seen... strange things. Creatures moving in the dark, in the shadows..."
"She wanted me to use the sewers", I said. She turned her sharp eyes at me.
"That was not what I said", she objected.
"The sewers?" Dinah made a face. "Helena would never enter the sewers. She won't even wear a mask because she says it makes her look shabby. Oh!" she added and blushed when she realized what she had said. "I mean, if she ever would need to wear a mask. As if to a costume party. We had a costume party and she said..."
Kate watched her with a curious expression.
"Dinah", Barbara said gently. "I don't think Kate is interested in our parties."
"Um, no, Barbara", Dinah mumbled. "Sorry..."
"She asked if I was a vampire", I said, shrugging - drawing the attention from Dinah's slip of the tongue.
"Interesting", Barbara said in a low voice.
"I do not expect you to believe the things I've seen", Kate said. She didn't apologize, it was said in a matter-of-fact kind of tone and there was nothing crazed or upset in her expressions. "Any way, one friend of this friend of mine has a special... talent. When someone sings, he can see their future."
"Sings? Like... what?" I frowned. "Musicals?"
"Any kind of music. I've heard even the humming of a tune is enough for him to see what he sees."
"And you went singing for him?" Barbara asked intently.
Kate nodded, looking at her. "I did. The whole of L.A. is in turmoil after these killings and one of the victims parents asked me to look into it. Two weeks ago I went to this guy and sang to him. He told me some... things. He said I needed to go look for Barbara Gordon in Gotham City and that I should follow the bat to find her..." Kate made a face. "I haven't really seen a bat since I got here."
I held my breath, but Barbara nodded.
"Go on", she said.
"I know detective Reese from when I was a cop and I remembered he lived here. I phoned him and wondered if he could set up a meeting."
"Is that everything this seer said?" Barbara asked.
Kate didn't answer immediately and I got the feeling she was hiding something.
"No, he did say some other things, but most of it is private." She glanced in my direction. "Although, he did say I would run with the Black Panther again and that I must protect the small bird."
"What... kind of bird?" I asked. "Did he know? I mean, did he know more than he was telling you?
"No, not really. He always says it's tricky, reading people's futures like that. Sometimes he sees what's going to happen, and other times he only gets these messages he doesn't understand. He thought it might be a hawk, but he said it was too small to be a bird of prey. It was more like a..." She frowned. "Actually, I think the word he used would have been... sparrow." She looked from me to Dinah.
"Bats and birds and black panthers", Dick said and moved across the room. He passed Barbara and sat down on the other end of the couch.
"And you don't know at all why he would send you to me?" Barbara began pacing again.
"No. He didn't know either. All he said was, that if I wanted answers I needed to find you. I was supposed to come last week, but then there was another killing and I had to stay to follow up a possible lead. That turned out to have nothing to do with this case."
"When did you arrive here?" Barbara asked.
"That's logical", Barbara said softly, mostly to herself, but I failed to understand what Kate's arrival had to do with anything.
"Yeah, well..." Kate hesitated.
"There's more?" Barbara asked.
"Sort of... Last year, after my... death, I had this dream. It was so vivid and so real; I can still remember every detail of it. It stayed with me and it haunted me until I met you this morning."
Barbara didn't say anything. She waited patiently for Kate to tell the story at her own pace.
"When I was told two weeks ago that I needed to find someone named Barbara Gordon, I did my research. I think I've read everything about you that I need to know." Kate glanced at Dinah and Dick. "I knew about you two..." She looked at me. "You were a surprise."
"To me too", Barbara said, so softly that only I could hear her. I looked straight at her and saw only love and caring in her green eyes when she looked back at me.
"I'm a surprise to most people", I said and Kate smiled wryly.
"I recall telling you I don't like surprises", she said. I let her have it and only shrugged. "What I didn't expect", she resumed, again looking at Barbara, "was that you would be the woman in my dream." Kate made a small gesture with her hand. "I had seen pictures of you, of course, but somehow that wasn't the same. When I saw you today I recognized you as that woman..."
"Which woman?" Barbara asked almost in a whisper. The look on her face worried me; she seemed to pale suddenly and I feared she would faint on us again.
"You stood in front of an altar, plainly dressed. And you challenged someone in the dark. I know it was a man, I think he was a priest. I couldn't see his face, it was hidden by a cloak and shadows. There was power there, almost like... an electrical charge - like thunder. Then you turned to me. You held a staff in your hands and you pointed it at me. I remember, I carried a sword. You ordered me to leave. I remember the smell in the room... something burnt, like incense. You ordered me to protect..."
"The princess", Barbara whispered.
Kate nodded. "Yes." Her voice was hoarse and she didn't take her eyes off Barbara. No one moved in what seemed like ages, before both Barbara and Kate at the same time turned away from each other.
Princess... I watched Dinah beside me. The girl seemed intent on Kate and I wondered if she was trying to read her, although she had said she couldn't. Protect the princess... Protect the bird... Dinah. Protect from what? A serial killer? I looked up at Kate.
"How many girls has this killer murdered?"
"Six", Kate said. "With a month between each. Always at full moon."
"There's a cliché", Dick mumbled and Kate quickly glanced at him.
"Maybe", she said. "But right now it gives us two weeks before he strikes again."
"You think what happened to us and Kate's dream are connected somehow with the serial killer?" Dick asked Barbara with a slight frown on his face.
"I think there is a possibility, yes. What is it?" she added when Dick hesitated.
"Um, what happened today with me..." Dick explained, glancing in my direction. "It wasn't the first time it happened. I've felt it before. Today was just... Today was just the first time this thing spoke through me."
"The way it did through Barbara", Kate said.
"You believe it was the same... thing?" Barbara frowned. "So, when was the first time, Dick?" she added, looking at Dick.
"I can't say specifically, but... almost two weeks ago I noticed something strange for the first time. It was then the dreams began."
"The dreams?" It was Kate this time, but I sat bolt upright beside Dinah.
What the fuck is it with everyone's dreams? I thought distractedly.
"I've been dreaming about a temple", Dinah said.
"I thought it was a pyramid?" I said.
"Both. I remember both. It was a strange dream - in the temple there was this huge snake..." She shuddered. "It wanted to eat me. But I remember an altar, too", she added, gesturing towards Kate. "And Huntress was there, dressed like a warrior..." She smiled at me. "Like Xena. And there was this..."
"Huntress?" Kate asked.
"She calls Helena that on occasion", Barbara said easily. "They have these pet names for each other. It's rather cute", she added with an almost lofty comment that made me hide a smile. "Go on, Dinah."
"I've had these dreams for awhile now", Dinah said. "Remember?" She was looking almost expectantly at Barbara. "I told you about the first one... two weeks ago", she finished lamely, looking disconcertedly at Dick.
"I have a vague recollection", Barbara said with a frown. "Remind me, pigeon."
Dinah took a deep breath, for once ignoring Barbara and Dick's favorite pet name for her. "Right. In my first dream I was only a small child, walking down long, narrow corridors - I remember the dust and a faint smell of... incense, too."
Kate nodded softly as Dinah glanced at her; I could see the blond woman was intently focused on every word that was spoken, not only by Dinah. Kate seemed to be a large predator, watching, waiting for the right moment to attack, coiled up like a... snake? No, like a lioness preparing herself for the deadly leap. The thought made me shiver, for some reason I couldn't comprehend.
In the next moment Dinah said: "Then, in the next moment, I stood in a great, magnificent hall. I was dressed in silk and ribbons and jewellery and I was surrounded by several guards. I believe they belonged to some kind of unit - they all wore the same uniforms and all were women." She turned to look at me. "You were there - you were the youngest of them, looking all proud." She smiled. "In my dream I knew you had just been chosen to run with the... pack." She frowned, thinking - remembering her dream. "In other dreams you've been there, too. Dressed like these women, always guarding me. You were there..."
"Me?" Kate said when Dinah turned to her.
"Yes. You led them. You were..." Dinah smiled. "You were bossy, but you were the best. You trained Helena. And these women, they had tattoos on their cheeks... Large cats on each cheek, like a... Like a black panther..." Dinah finished in almost a whisper.
"Ah, I see." Kate nodded, almost satisfied. I wondered what she saw. I didn't see anything - in fact, all this talk about dreams made me... edgy.
"That's all?" Barbara asked, still with a slight frown on her face.
"Most of it. There's more stuff, things I've only seen - like grand scenes from a nature movie: pyramids, jungles, temples, magnificent sunrises making me feel happy, lakes and an ocean almost crystal." She made a face. "There is one thing... The temple. I don't like it. There's a woman in there scaring the living daylights out of me. But there's another temple, too, and I like that much better. There's a man in there, a priest... He is always kind to me."
"Fine", Barbara said when Dinah silenced. "Dick, what about your dreams?"
"They... make me feel filthy." Dick shuddered. "There's so much anger in me when I'm in those dreams. Anger and bitterness and... I think, jealousy. I only dream the same sequence over and over again." He scowled. "Actually, I do believe I'm supposed to be a priest. It would explain why I'm so angry at this woman..."
"Another woman..." I said. "It would explain... you know." I made a face and touched my forehead. "It would explain the reason why you now look like half a mummy."
"You think?" he said sarcastically and Barbara let her gaze fly between us.
"You still don't want to tell me what it was about?" she asked.
"No!" Dick and I said at the same time.
"He was very rude", I added. "Just leave it at that."
"Yes", Dick agreed hastily. "Anyway, the woman in my dream... It's two women, actually. It's the same scenario, but the woman is different from time to time. One of them I blame for her actions, the other... The other I envy and almost hate."
"Barbara and me", I said, surprising myself - for once feeling I got the hang of things. Dick met my gaze and nodded.
"Yes, you and Barbara. I've been..." He paused and rubbed his forehead, above the white padding on his face. "I've been fighting these feelings in my real life, too. It's as if the dreams have been invading more than my nights, almost... slipping into my waking hours, trying to take control. I've managed to keep the emotions at bay, but... I tried to talk to you about it", he added, looking at Barbara. "You know..."
Barbara nodded, but remained silent. Again I wondered what that was about - she hadn't told me about any serious discussions with Dick.
"I thought maybe if I talked about it, it would go away." Dick shrugged. "It didn't, really. And today, today something just... shifted and I felt this person I was in my dreams take control and lash out at Helena."
"That sure was a priestly act if ever I saw one", I mumbled. "Like Hitler in a holy man's robe."
"There is one... strange thing about it", Dick added with a confused expression. "Not strange, but more... odd." He looked at Barbara. "You wore tattoos too. Not on your face, but on your arms. Bats... Several of them, in different sizes."
"'Goddess of the dark moon'", I whispered, suddenly remembering who I had called upon on the rooftops, as I was racing towards the hospital.
"What did you just say?" Dinah said, looking up at me. I shook my head.
"Nothing. I was only thinking..."
"What about you, Helena?" Barbara suddenly said, turning towards me. "You had any strange dreams or experiences lately?"
"As if it's not enough having both you and Dick going all... schizophrenic on me?" I shook my head again. "No, thank you very much. I'm freaked enough as it is - if anything like that happened to me... I would run and not look back until I reached the bloody moon."
"No dreams either?"
"None I can remember", I said honestly. I really had tried to remember my dreams since my meeting with that bloody woman, but it was all a blank.
"So, we have the black cats, we have the bats..." Kate glanced at Dinah. "We probably have the little bird... It seems as if I was right coming here, even if nothing is explained and there have only been more questions than answers today." She nodded at Barbara. "You think you are exposed to some kind of... possession?"
"I don't know, I..." Barbara silenced and resumed her pacing back and forth, fingering her glasses. "I don't know much about possessions. Would that concern - demon possession? Or possessions of a human soul? Or even by... animals?"
"I've seen, and heard of, all of the above", Kate said levelly. Dick glanced at her and Dinah looked impressed. I frowned at Kate.
"Vampires", I sniffed sarcastically.
Kate turned to me with a wry smile. "You really have an attitude problem, don't you, fighter?" she said.
"Bite me", I said, which made her laugh - a short, cynical laugh, before she eyed me closely.
"I think that would be your... occupation", she said, before she turned away from me.
What the...? Fuck!
"You know what?" I said and rose from the couch. I went over to Kate's chair. "All these strange things begun when you turned up here today. Maybe it's you we ought to investigate."
"You have a problem, Ms Kyle?" Kate said coolly, looking up at me.
"Yeah", I drawled. "I do. So you stand up, and I'll tell you what my problem is."
She held my gaze, then did as I asked her and rose from the chair.
"Helena", Barbara warned behind me. I ignored her. This woman - this private investigator - rubbed me the wrong way somehow and I wasn't sure why. I didn't let go of her eyes and she didn't back down.
"You are my problem", I said heatedly, pocking Kate with a finger on her chest bone. "You coming here, claiming to be some kind of... ghost hunter..." I was glad I didn't use the term ghost buster, which would probably have Dinah in fits of laughter. "You are my problem. You come here, meet with Barbara and in the next instant she's in the hospital..."
"Helena, you can't think that she had something to..."
I ignored Dick, holding Kate's eyes.
"You..." I growled, again pocking at her.
"Stand down, fighter", Kate said with authority, just like she had at the hospital. And in that moment I recognized why I didn't like her. Some part of me wanted to obey; it was an instant, instinctive reaction to her words, her attitude, her look... Another part of me - the part that was me, Huntress - wanted to spit in her face. I growled, fighting an inward battle as Kate held my gaze, forcing me - commanding me, without a word - to stand down before her.
"I will not stand down", I hissed, still not moving.
"Will you fight me?" she asked and now there was something else in her eyes, something - or someone - other than Kate Lockley, private investigator. Again some part of me wanted to back away, feeling that if I did fight her I would not win - and again, the part that was Huntress, and even Helena Kyle, wanted to wipe the floor with her.
Before I had time to come to a decision someone interfered.
I heard Dick's voice above the sudden howling wind sweeping through the room and in the next instant both Kate and I were thrown across the room. I landed on the couch beside Dinah and Kate ended up hitting her back against the wall beside the door to the hallway. It must have hurt, I remembered thinking as I noticed her hit the back of her head on the doorpost. In the next moment I stared at Dick, standing in front of the curtains with his arms apart and with a stricken look on his face.
"What the... fuck?" I said.
The sudden gust of wind that had swept Kate and me apart died out.
"Oh, my..." Dick said, slightly pale.
"Dinah..." Barbara said, berating the girl.
"It wasn't me! I didn't do that!" Dinah said, defending herself. "I swear, cross my heart and hope to..."
"Don't say!" Barbara said instantly and the sharp tone of her voice made Dinah shut her mouth. "Don't say... things like that", Barbara added, gently.
"This is... what happened at the hospital", Kate said, struggling to her legs and rubbing the back of her head.
Barbara turned to her with a surprised look on her face. "But I didn't do this."
"Um, I think..." Dick scratched the back of his head. I hadn't taken my eyes off him.
"He did it", I said, pointing at him. I felt as if I was accusing him of some crime he would be burnt at the stake for. He looked at me with a lost expression and I suddenly felt sorry for him. Not only had I knocked him unconscious the same day, now I was blaming him for something that was my fault. I shouldn't have lost my temper like that, lashing out at Kate.
"How... did you do that?" Kate asked just then, stretching her back. "What did you do?"
Dick blushed. "You were bickering like children", he said. "I had this urge to... teach you a lesson." He looked about himself. "I don't know what happened. All I wanted was for you two to stop arguing, and in the next moment..." He shrugged, again looking like a lost child. I didn't blame him. After what I had just been through with Kate I felt a little queasy myself.
"Right, so what ever is affecting us it also gives us the power to... it gives us powers", Barbara said. She eyed Kate closely. "Something just happened to you, too, didn't it? You asked Helena to step down, like she was a soldier and you her superior."
"I did, didn't I?" Kate looked embarrassed. "I'm really sorry... I didn't... This has never happened to me before."
"What? You ordering people around?" I grinned at her. "You seemed pretty good at it." I shrugged. "For what it's worth... I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have charged at you like that."
Kate relaxed and nodded and then we both turned to Barbara, as if we expected her to have all the answers to our strange behavior.
"Kate..." Barbara paused. "You say you are used to strange things?"
When Kate nodded Barbara looked first at me and then Dinah, before she glanced at Dick.
"You wanna tell her?" Dick murmured at her side.
"Before you tell me anything", Kate said, interrupting and looking at Barbara. "There are some things that I do know..."
Barbara narrowed her eyes at her. "What do you mean?"
"I might not have seen a bat since I arrived here, but it doesn't mean I haven't heard plenty about one... or two." Kate looked at Dinah and me before she went to sit down in the armchair again. "I have seen strange people, but her..." She gestured towards me. "What are you? Some X-man, or X-woman?"
"Please", I said. "That's an insult."
Kate smiled. "I was always fascinated by the X-men. Humans, but not. Struggling to survive in a world that feared them. Cyclops was my favorite - a leader, wanting do what was right."
I had always preferred Wolverine, myself. "I'm meta", I heard myself say. What was the use of hiding, anyway? This woman talked about vampires and strange guys seeing the future when someone sings; she had seen my eyes change shape and color and then Barbara and Dick command the winds to throw people about and that part was the freakiest thing.
"They are called meta-humans", Barbara said. "It is a genetic thing. Some people say it's the next step in evolution, but for now they are forced to stay hidden and keep their abilities a secret."
"They?" Kate said, still eyeing me.
"We are a secret community", I said, shrugging. "My mother was one of them."
"Dinah is too", Barbara explained. "She is a telepath and has telekinetic abilities."
"You can move objects with your mind?" Kate said, impressed.
Dinah grinned. "Anything not heavier than five elephants."
"Three", Barbara said dryly. "She likes to exaggerate."
"Hey - I've been practicing!"
"And you?" Kate turned to me. "What do you do?"
"I don't do anything." I stretched out on the couch, much like a lazy cat, and gave her a slow smile.
"Helena has extra-ordinary strength and speed and enhanced hearing and sight", Barbara explained in her Oracle-voice. "Her mother was a cat."
Kate blinked. "Not literally, I hope."
Dick laughed and I glared at him. "What?" he said. "It was funny."
"Not literally", Barbara assured.
"It would explain your eyes, I suppose", Kate said, gesturing towards me. "And you two?"
Dick and Barbara exchanged a quick look.
"Not us. We are humans", Dick said.
"I haven't heard of... meta-humans before", Kate went on. "There are enough strange things happening in L.A. to keep me busy. But when I talked to Reese on the phone he explained a few things about Old and New Gotham to me."
"Like what?" Dick asked cautiously and Kate turned to him.
"Like about the bizarre criminals you have here - and about the vigilantes that seem to keep this town 'clean'. He did mention a few bats", she added, glancing in Barbara's direction. "Batman, Batgirl, someone named... Darkwing, or something..."
"Nightwing", Dick grumbled beneath his breath and I fought to keep my face blank when Kate glanced at me.
"Huh?" I said and shrugged.
"And something about a blizzard on rollerblades..."
Dinah beamed and I considered renaming her Blizzard. She'd love that, I thought with an inward grin.
"She's named Ladyhawk", Barbara said, leaning on the windowsill. "Actually, Huntress named her. She thought Pigeon wouldn't do for such a courageous creature..."
"Well, it wouldn't", Dinah said, faking offence. "I mean, it's like naming Batman... Insect, or something."
"Bats are not insects, sparrow", I said with a grin.
"Well, how about... The Black Fly."
"Is that the best you can do?" I teased.
"Hey - you are supposed to be on my side!"
I laughed. "I am, I named you - right?" I looked at Dick. "Darkwing is quite cool, you know."
"Humph", he said, crossing his arms and looking insulted.
Kate looked from one to the other with a small smile. "It is you, then?" she asked.
"I'm Huntress", I said and rose to take a bow. I let the coat swirl about me to give more effect to my words.
"'The thing that criminals fear...'", Dinah said in a spooky voice with a grin and made my coat flutter behind my back with some of her abilities. Kate looked away, but I saw she was struggling to hide a grin. Dinah had that effect on most people.
"Nightwing, at your service", Dick said darkly and stepped forward. Then he blushed. "That would probably have sounded much more impressive if I didn't have a large bandage on my face."
"And if he was in his suit, wearing his mask", I added. "He really is quite handsome - any woman's dream."
"And a lot of men's too, to his dismay", Dinah filled in with another grin. This time Kate laughed out loud and Dick rubbed his chin with an embarrassed smile.
"I see", Kate said, still smiling and looking at Dick. "So, you are Gotham's vigilante team. Let me guess" - she turned to Barbara by the windows. "You must be Batgirl."
It wasn't a question and Barbara shrugged easily.
"But you are human?"
"Then why...? Why are you doing this?"
There was a slight frown on Barbara's face before she answered. "Don't we all have our reasons?" she asked.
Kate glanced at Dick's now serious face and nodded. "I guess we do", she agreed softly. "But about these meta-humans... What can I expect?"
"Even if you could meet anyone that willingly told you, or showed you, what they are..." I said.
"Different things", Barbara said. "A little like X-men, I reckon. But metas only control themselves, not so much their environment - unless you have telekinesis like Dinah."
"There's one guy", I volunteered, "who has an incredible memory. He remembers everything in his life - sound, smell" - I made a face at that memory, for private reasons; Gibson Kafka always had to refer to the way I smelled - "touch... anything you can think of. In some ways it makes him incredibly smart... but also slightly insane."
"There's one guy that melts into shadows", Dinah explained.
"And one that turns himself into water", I said, somewhat dismayed at the memory. Barbara noticed and smiled at me.
"Huntress had a close encounter with him. He tried to drown her. I saved her life."
"You did not save my life!" I strongly objected, but Dick grinned and the look in Barbara's eyes suddenly made me remember those first days almost two months ago, when we met for the first time. It stirred my desire and I twitched on the couch. "You may have saved my dignity..." I conceded and leaned back, holding Barbara's gaze.
"Jeez, Helena!" Dinah was up and about in two seconds blank, angrily staring down at me, and I blushed, averting my face.
"Not my bloody fault", I mumbled.
Kate eyed us curiously, before Barbara pulled us back to what was important.
"I trust I don't have to tell you to guard this secret with your life?" she said, looking at Kate. "People have died... We have all lost people close to us, because of what we do."
"I understand", Kate said solemnly. "I promise, I will not betray your trust."
"Hrm, pardon me, Miss Barbara..."
Alfred stood in the doorway, looking at us.
"Uhum, there has been a delivery, Miss Barbara", he said.
"A delivery?" Barbara said wonderingly.
"These." Alfred reached down for something beside the door and pulled out a large bouquet of red roses. "From Mr. Brixton."
I felt a strange cold stab against my heart and quickly looked at Barbara. She looked surprised.
"Oh, my", she said.
"There's a card", Alfred went on, fingering the card fastened to the flowers.
"Oh, I'll read it later, Alfred. Please put them in water. I guess he was worried hearing the news today. I'll phone him later."
"Yes, Miss Barbara." Alfred nodded with his usual stoicism. He had handled my relationship with Barbara with surprising calm for a man his age; I guessed he had seen a lot in his years as butler to Bruce Wayne and Batman. Although he hadn't shouted for joy when Barbara told him how things were he didn't seem to disapprove of our relationship either. He probably wanted to see if it was something long lasting before he took anything for granted.
I glanced at Barbara and felt a stab of doubt in my heart. Maybe he was right, I thought. Maybe I shouldn't take anything for granted either. Barbara did love me, I was sure of it, but sometimes it was as if she wasn't present in the moment when we discussed something. As if I wasn't right there beside her.
As if my presence didn't mean anything. The thought made me swallow and I averted my eyes from the bunch of red roses in Alfred's arms.
"Dinner will be served in five minutes. I suggest you be on time - or the food will go cold."
"Thank you, Alfred", Barbara said. "We won't be late."
"Humph", Alfred said, glancing at all of us. "I'll believe it when I see it", he said, before he left.
"Who's Wade?" Kate asked when Alfred was out of earshot.
"Oh", Barbara waved away her question with a carefree gesture. "No one important."
I wonder if I will be 'no one important' in a few months, I thought fleetingly and then instantly berated myself for the thought when Barbara looked at me with such warmth my heart seemed to melt.
"And he is in on this?" Kate added, meaning Alfred.
"Oh, yeah!" Dick said. "We couldn't do what we do without Alfred's support."
Kate nodded thoughtfully.
"I've never seen any vampires around here", I said, to no one in particular. Kate raised her head and looked at me with an amused smile.
"I believe they would find this city far too crowded."
"So, do we have a plan?" Dick asked Barbara. "Do we even know what we are dealing with?"
Barbara straightened and resumed her previous pacing across the floor; she was in full Oracle mood at that moment. "I rely on technology", she said. "My life is basically centered around advanced technology." She frowned in concentration as she talked, but kept pacing. "Tell me that you have developed a technical gadget to make it possible to read peoples minds, or to transfer pictures from a mind to a television screen... Tell me that you have found a way to make blind people see in color and in dimensions and allow deaf people to hear Beethoven... And I will believe you." She stopped and looked at us. "But magic" - she waved her hands in the air - "and fairies and aliens... I don't know." She frowned. "Well, maybe aliens." She sighed and resumed her pacing, with her hands on her back. "Still, the facts are... One wise man once suggested that when all facts has been considered and if they point in one direction and all other options have been proven wrong, the one truth left, how ever improbable it is, must be correct."
"Shakespeare?" I asked, confused.
"Sherlock Holmes", Kate said with a small smile, glancing at me.
"Huh", I said and shrugged. "So, what?" I asked Oracle. "Do we believe in fairies now?"
"There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio...'" Kate mumbled.
"Horatio?" Dinah asked.
"It's only a saying", Kate said with an apologetic shrug.
"That's Shakespeare", I said and she nodded at me.
"We need to tie this up", Dick said. "What is it, exactly, that we are working on?"
"Ah, well, if I knew that... this wouldn't be so..."
"Frustrating", I said.
"Puzzling", Barbara said. "There is definitely something strange going on. And unless we all are going insane... or are the star-cast of a slightly altered Truman Show, it is connected somehow."
"Right", Kate said, leaning forward in her chair with a look of concentration. "But if it is possession we are all possessed by the same thing. Wouldn't that be strange, considering I don't know you and...? Well."
"Possession by a group of people? Or souls, I mean?" Dinah said. "I've seen something like it on television. We are all possessed by different souls that have a past together and now want to clear the air..."
"Sounds like a bad episode of Oprah", I said.
"Maybe it's not possession at all..." I heard Barbara say, and in that moment, for a brief second in time, I noticed it again: she was hiding something from us. I straightened, remembering when I first had learned that Barbara kept secrets from Dick and Dinah: she had known who it was coming after her in that building with the kidnapping. She had known who it was who wanted to kill her. Patchy... It wasn't him now - Patch was dead, as dead could be. I suddenly realized that Barbara hadn't told us about her dreams.
Barbara must have noticed something different in my posture; she looked at me and shook her head slightly. I knew what she was saying: Wait. She wanted me to trust her. So I did.
I leaned back in the couch, watching Dinah glance at Dick with barely concealed exhilaration. I wondered what that was about. Maybe she had read some of his thoughts... I glanced at Dick, but he was looking at Kate with a concentrated look on his face. It didn't make me any the wiser.
"What are you thinking?" Kate asked Barbara.
"I think, what we are facing is old..."
"An old enemy, trying to manipulate our brains?" Dinah said. "Oh, like that man... what was his name again? The one that trespassed in our minds? Doing some hypnotism?"
"Ketterly? No." Barbara shook her head. "I mean old, as in ancient... Some ancient force we don't know anything about."
"Um, I don't want to go all Scully on you", Dick said, glancing at Kate, "but... Ancient force? Like what? Demons?"
"Demons?" Barbara shrugged. "What are demons? If ancient people met a person from the future with a car they might consider her a demon... It's all in the interpretation."
"Right. But 'force'?"
"Reincarnation", I said, surprising them all. They looked at me and I snapped my fingers. "That's it. That's what you mean, right?" I looked at Barbara with a feeling of delight. "You know, the shark thing - and all." I grinned at her. "I probably did bite you."
"I would be sorely disappointed if you didn't, kitten", Barbara said with a grin and I beamed at her.
"I'm right, am I not? Yeah, I'm clever."
Dick shook his head at me with an amused smile while Kate looked confused.
"Private joke", Barbara said, waving away her question. "The point is, I believe Helena is right. The dreams are not possessions from other souls, they are memories from our own past lives."
"God!" Dick explained and we looked at him.
"What is it?" Barbara asked with a worried frown.
"I was a priest! No wonder I can't get a woman! I probably turned them all down and now they don't think I'm interested."
Dinah laughed at him. "You are worse than Huntress. You two - you are so vain."
I grinned. "Serves you right - maybe you did have a boyfriend then."
"God help me..."
"Serious, people - please", Barbara said with an exasperated sigh. "Children", she added with a grin that took the edge of her annoyance.
"It would make more sense", Kate said thoughtfully. "And coming in contact with each other brought back these memories." She looked at Barbara with sudden gravity. "You did order me to protect the princess", she said almost in a whisper.
"I did", Barbara said and we all looked at Dinah.
"Oh, o no..." Dinah said, turning pale.
When I went on patrol that night I had more unanswered questions and speculations in my head than I had had when Dinah told me about the strange, older woman that had warned her about the explosions. Reincarnation and past lives wreaking havoc on this life? Dick - a bloody priest? And Kate? What was her story? And that old woman again - she played a large part in my questions.
The dinner had been surprisingly comfortable. In an unspoken agreement we didn't discuss anything that had to do with Kate's reason for visiting Gotham. We touched safe subjects: Barbara's engagement to Wade, Dinah's achievements in school, Dick's work as an attorney at Barbara's company. Ordinary stuff. Or almost ordinary; we soon turned to meta-humans. Kate was fascinated by the subject and wanted to know how Dinah managed to be a normal teenager while also being a respected crime-fighter. Dinah didn't disappoint - I always thought she could talk the ears of an elephant and she didn't prove me wrong. Although Kate was a very good listener.
When I went out to patrol Dinah wanted to come, but this time Barbara and I were in agreement, for once. Neither of us thought it safe to have her patrolling without back-up.
The look on Dinah's face as both Barbara and I turned to her and said no when she eagerly wanted to join me had reminded me of that night when Barbara and I made love for the first time. Barbara had been so overprotective of Dinah at the time and I had defended the teenager's right to go on patrol. Tonight I wondered if Barbara's objections then had been part of what was happening to us now; some kind of premonition of the future and of the danger that was awaiting Dinah. The thought was strange and a little scary. Barbara had been a little too overprotective of Dinah since Patchy's death and maybe she hadn't been wrong.
Nightwing had to stay at the Clock Tower - due to his mishap: his colliding with my fist. Not even a mask would cover that bruise. And I wouldn't let Batgirl patrol until I was sure she wouldn't have another panic-attack - or whatever it was. That left Dinah and me and since we weren't sure what to expect from Kate's unknown killer we didn't want to take any chances. Dinah sulked, of course - I would have too - but when Barbara told her she could give Kate the grand tour of the Clock Tower she lit up like a candle.
Thinking of the girl made me smile in the dark. It still fascinated me how Dinah could be such a mature crime-fighter, blazing across the city on her rollerblades and catching the most fearsome criminals without even flinching, and at the same time be such a child. I had been a child like that: I still remembered the agony of my first crush, the prom and my first kiss... Even though my mother trained me I had known nothing of the Joker, or of the darkness that lurked within me, waiting to be awakened by a twist of fate. Considering it I realized that, despite my mother's nocturnal adventures, I had had a much more normal upbringing than Dinah, who at such a young age had lost her mother and even been forced to testify against her mother's killer. And then, being brought up by Barbara, in the company of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson - all three famous vigilantes. Maybe it wasn't so strange she wanted to be a child when she was allowed. And Barbara did an excellent job with her.
I crouched low in the shadows above a jeweler store and looked down at two dark figures moving about below me. I whistled slowly, a tune without melody. It had been a slow night, but maybe it was picking up...
"Hello, guys!" I called and let myself fall from the ledge where I had been hiding, landing behind one dark-clad burglar.
"Fuck!" I heard him swear and as he swirled around towards me he dropped the bag he was holding to pull a gun.
"Not nice", I said in a sulky voice and kicked the gun out of his hands. "I've been waiting for some fun, and all you wanna do is... shoot me."
I ducked, turned around and punched the second burglar in the face. He staggered backwards.
All things considered, I thought as I was entertaining myself, it had been a pleasant dinner. Even Alfred had enjoyed himself; Kate was really sweet to him.
Kate... The blond woman was... interesting. She held herself aloof, even though she talked and laughed with us. It seemed she had difficulty trusting people. All she really had told us about herself was that her father had been a cop - and that he had died on duty. I had seen the look in her eyes as she told us this and figured she probably blamed herself for his death. It was probably not her fault that he died, but that had nothing to do with it. I knew what it was like - surviving a parent. I knew what it was like having to deal with the grief and the guilt and the numb rage.
"Hey!" I called, as the first guy ran off. "I'm not done with you!"
I picked up the lid from a dustbin that had toppled over and threw it at him. It hit him in the back of the head and he fell over. He lay unmoving on the ground and I gave myself a high five in my mind. "Why to go, Huntress", I mumbled as I gathered the two burglars and tied them with their own rope. Both of them were unconscious. I left them by the door together with the bags of jewellery and money they had been stealing and made my way back up the roof. I could hear sirens and noticed the flashing light of a police car. Someone would soon pick up the bad-boys.
"Huntress - you there?" I heard Oracle's smooth, efficient voice in my ear.
I grinned when I remembered Kate's confused look as Dinah introduced her to Oracle: "The one that constructs all the high-tech gadgets around here."
"All fine", I said. The burglars had been ordinary humans, not metas, and it had been an effortless fight. Effortless and boring. Give me some killer robots, I thought. That'd do. "Some thugs, nothing to worry about. Too easy, as a matter of fact."
"You know, you really ought to get yourself a mask."
"And spoil my good looks? I don't think so."
Barbara chuckled. "Right. I forgot. What on earth was I thinking?"
"Beats me", I said with a grin.
"Dinah's gone to bed... finally. And Kate too. She had a rough day."
"She's a private investigator. She's probably used to it."
There was a short silence on the other end.
"You really trust her, don't you?" I said into the silence.
"Yeah, I do. Otherwise I wouldn't have invited her home."
"Yeah. I wondered about that."
"You don't trust her? I know you don't like her..."
I grinned. "I do like her. She's bossy, but she is ok. She reminds me a bit of you when we first met."
"Not too much, I hope."
"Hey! I've seen the way you flirt with her."
"You know where my heart lies", Barbara said and I felt the now familiar tightening in my chest when I thought of her loving me.
"I do", I said hoarsely. I really did.
"Helena... I don't want you to be out there right now."
I swallowed and turned around on the roof. I knew she was serious when I heard her call me by my real name instead of Huntress. "I don't want to be out here right now either."
"Will you come home?"
"I'm on my way."
We didn't make love that night. We held each other close, whispering soft words, declaring our love to each other, gently touching naked skin... I heard her heartbeat, I held her tight. We spoke softly about love and the future, about dreams and hopes and fears. I felt it as if I could have lost her that day and she understood my fears and soothed them. I couldn't remember a lover I had felt so close to, so safe with and so loved by. To lose her... would be my death.
"You held out on us today", I finally said, when we were almost drifting off to sleep. I didn't want to sleep; I wanted to stay like that forever - holding her, feeling her heartbeat so close to mine, caressing her hair, sliding my fingers across naked skin...
"I did. I didn't want to upset Dinah. It's better we talk alone tomorrow, when she is at school."
"You're sending her to school despite today's events?"
"It was only a gas-leak; Reese assured me about that - it wasn't a criminal act aimed at Dinah. And no - I don't feel comfortable sending her off to school, but what can we do? We can't stop living each time our lives are threatened, can we? Then we would never have a life at all. Besides, Kate said the killer doesn't strike until the full moon. It gives us time to plan."
"What is it that you know?" I wondered. "And, you never told us about your dreams."
"So, you noticed?" she said softly. "I was wondering if you were going to bring that up."
I smiled. She played with some of the dark curls around my forehead and kissed my cheek, softly, tenderly.
"I have dreams... Mostly with you in them."
My smile widened. "Oh, yeah?"
"Yeah." She rose half way, leaning on an elbow with her chin in the palm of her hand. She watched me with green, intense eyes. There was a small smile in the corners of her full lips, playing softly, but not showing itself completely. "You're always in my dreams."
"Lucky you", I said, pushing away some of her red hair from her eyes.
"Mm, lucky me", she agreed, smiling fully this time. Then she became serious and returned to my arms. She moved closer and I held her tight. "When I... died, today, someone spoke to me. I heard this voice... I don't know where it came from, or who, or what, it was. It told me some things - warned me. It said only the priest and I could stop what was coming. It said only our powers could stop him."
"Him?" My voice had a catch in it and I swallowed.
"It didn't say more than that. Only him. I didn't understand. I mean - what priest? And I don't have any powers."
"That was before you knew what had happened at the hospital", I mumbled.
"Yes. And before Dick's explanation regarding his dreams. That wind today, which parted you and Kate... Did I do that too, at the hospital?"
"So there is some power, we just don't know how to use it. I wonder where it comes from."
I could hear she was puzzled; she probably frowned in concentration in that moment.
"The voice said I should let the warriors care for the princess, that that was their job. Dinah's dreams confirmed you and Kate are the warriors. You and I have been calling Dinah princess the whole day today, I suddenly noticed. Must be our memories playing tricks on us, or trying to alert us to what's going on."
"To whatever is going on", I said, sighing.
"Well, yeah. There is that slightly annoying factor. But we made some progress today, I think."
I nodded in agreement.
"Good." Barbara yawned. "I think I need to sleep now. I had a tough day..."
I smiled. "You're a vigilante. You're used to it."
It made her chuckle; I could feel her body move against mine.
"You sleep", I said softly. "I'll keep you safe."
"Thank you, kitten", she mumbled, before she drifted off to sleep.
We were awakened quite abruptly by the telephone. Since we were at Barbara's house I let her answer. I checked the alarm clock and grumbled; it wasn't even seven o'clock.
"Hello?" Barbara said sleepily. "Yes, this is she..."
This better be important, I thought grumpily and moved closer to Barbara's warm body, pulling the blankets with me. At the same time Barbara stiffened.
"When?" she said, grabbing the telephone until her knuckles whitened. It was the only sign that she was in some way affected by what she heard on the other end of the line. I sat up and studied her worriedly. "Yes..." she went on. "Yes... How? Yes... Could you tell me if he had any visitors and when? Yes, I understand. Yes, thank you. I do appreciate it. Thanks." Barbara hung up and stared at the phone lost in thoughts. Finally she took a deep breath and turned to me. "We have a problem", she said, stone faced. "The Joker has escaped."
"Thank you, Reese. I'm glad you managed to arrange something so quickly", Barbara said, waving good-bye to Dinah at the main entrance to her home. The teenager walked rather gloomily down to the police car waiting for her by the sidewalk, while detective Reese stood in the doorway. He nodded at Barbara's words.
"Any time, Barbara. The Commissioner didn't even think twice about it. Everyone knows this is a serious matter for you. We'll have a man guard her every minute of the day, even in the classroom."
Barbara made a face. "She won't like it, but I won't take any chances."
"You better not", Reese agreed. "Everything I've heard about this man... We'll guard her with our lives." He nodded. "I'll talk to you later."
Barbara was just about to close the door when Dick came running along the sidewalk. He waved at Dinah and said a brief hello to Reese, before he stood in the doorway. Barbara stepped aside to let him in.
"Barbara - I just heard", he said breathlessly as the door closed behind him. "Are you all right?" he added with a worried expression.
"Oh, Dick", Barbara said and embraced him. He held her close for a moment, closing his eyes with a pained expression that went straight to my heart.
I stood by the stairs in the hallway, watching them. The strange thing was, that the jealousy that had been such a problem for me the last two weeks had died away. I didn't feel a thing when Dick embraced Barbara, only sadness for the situation and a deep compassion for Dick. He cared so much about Barbara and I just had to love him for it.
When he let her go he looked at me.
"Are you all right?" he asked and I nodded. I hadn't really been a part of the whole Joker-hysteria. The fact that he was my father's biggest nemesis didn't really affect my life. Maybe it should, but the last time I met the man he had been a dribbling fool. I couldn't comprehend how he could be sane enough now to arrange his escape.
"Thank you for coming, Dick. We need to talk."
"What's happened?" Kate asked, coming down the stairs. We looked up at her. I for my part had forgotten all about her and it seemed Dick had as well; he stared at her as if he hadn't seen her in his entire life. As if any man that had caught a glance at her would ever forget her. Must be that priest part of him, I thought dryly. She was dressed as she was the night before in plain jeans and a tight t-shirt.
"Oh, good", Barbara said. "We need to talk, Kate."
"You've arranged police escort for Dinah?" the blond woman said as she came to a halt beside me, at the foot of the stairs. "That went quick. How did you manage that?"
"Oh, no, that's not related to your killer. We have our own private serial manic on the loose." Barbara sighed. "It's a long story, but I doubt it has anything to do with why you are here or why our lives suddenly seem to be copying The Mummy, part two."
I blinked at the remark. I didn't even know Barbara had watched the first movie.
"So?" Kate asked and I turned my attention back to her. "Dinah really needs a police escort?"
"Yes. We've had an escape from Arkam Asylum this night", Dick said. "The Joker is a highly dangerous criminal and his first priority will be to..."
"Kill me", Barbara said matter-of-factly. "Or wait, no that will be his second priority", she added cynically. "His first will be to eliminate any one and everyone I love or care for, or even so much as smile at."
"Oh", Kate said. She frowned. "The Joker? I read about him when I did my research about you and Gotham. He is one of those super-villains, isn't he?"
"He is no meta", I said. "He's human, but he's..." I tried to find the right words.
"Quite nuts, psychotic, depressive, with no mercy, a stranger to words like 'love, peace, beauty' and happy to kill anything that gets in his way - be it a puppy, a newborn or... us." Dick glanced at Barbara and added: "Batman used to be his favorite sport to hunt, but we are sure he has changed target."
Kate looked at Barbara and something in Barbara's face must have given her away. "He has a reason to hate you?" Kate asked.
"Oh, yeah", Barbara said icily and I felt a cold, cold chill running down my back. "I only caused the death of the two people in life he actually did love."
Kate stood unmoved as she watched Barbara. Then she nodded slowly; it was difficult to tell what she was thinking, but I wasn't trying hard - my focus was on Barbara.
"Barbara..." I said softly and moved towards her. Dick stepped aside without a word and I put a hand on Barbara's shoulder. She leaned in towards me - only briefly, but I felt her relax as I touched her and heard her sigh, before she pulled away. She gave me a brief, grateful look and I nodded.
"The police will be guarding Dinah", Barbara went on. "I would rather send her away until we recapture the Joker, but..."
"But then my killer might get to her", Kate said softly. "This is really bad timing."
Barbara nodded. She glanced at Dick and I. "The Joker wasn't the only one to escape. They believe Shadow helped him."
"Shadow!" I exclaimed. "But they promised he was chained for life in his cell?"
"Well", Barbara said wryly. "Can you blame them? It is difficult to keep someone behind bars who can use the slightest shadow to escape. Be glad it wasn't Slick, your Mr. Waterpool-guy." She turned to Kate. "We will update you on our bad guy - I think it is wise if you do the same with yours. I'll have Alfred make some breakfast and we can discuss while eating."
"I suggest we eat first", Kate said. "At least when it concerns my killer - I won't be particularly hungry when I'm talking about him."
Barbara nodded. "Fine. I need to make some phone calls first, to take care of business. Helena, will you talk to Alfred?"
"If I know Alfred he's cooking an English breakfast right about - now..."
"Ah, isn't it the lovely Huntress, coming for a social call?" Gibson Kafka said when I later that day strolled into his bar, the No Man's Land. The place was gloomy and quite deserted; it was still early in the day and the bar didn't open to the public until nightfall.
The young meta-human stood behind the counter, cleaning glass's and rearranging bottles on the glass-shelves behind his back. I didn't know why I had come to see him, except maybe to ask for a favor. Gibson Kafka could be difficult with people, but he adored Dinah.
"To what do I owe this honor?" he said with a mock bow.
I pulled out a high barstool and sat down with a sigh. "I'm not really in the mood, Gibson."
Kate had been right: after hearing about the killer she was looking for, even I felt a little queasy and was glad we had already eaten. It hadn't been a pretty picture she made - and the photographs she showed us of the victims didn't help.
"Ah, trouble in paradise - perhaps?" He sniffed in the air around me. "Ah, lavender - not your bar of soap. How is Ms Gordon doing, pretty Huntress?"
I only shook my head and he gave me a hasty smile, then frowned and ducked behind the counter. When he turned up again he held a beer-bottle in his hand.
"It's too early in the day, Gibson."
"Big cat on the prowl", he grinned. "Didn't used to stop you. Drinking early, smashing and bashing someone's head at noon... like a cowboy movie, or a lioness on the plain."
"I'm on the straight path now, Gibson. Remember?"
He sighed and put away the bottle. "Less for Gibson, then. No big cat for Gibson. The bat caught the cat." He grinned again, almost wickedly this time.
"She did", I agreed. "She sure did."
He pulled the towel from his shoulder and rubbed it against an already clean beer-glass as he studied me with a close look.
"You have worry-wrinkles on your forehead", he said. "Doesn't go well with your complexion."
"Thanks", I said sarcastically. That's all I need - to grow old before my time.
Gibson shrugged. "Always a pleasure." He frowned. "Remember - this guy is looking for you."
"Thin, nervous, kind of clumsy... meta."
"Yeah? What did he want?"
"He wanted Huntress' protection."
I held his gaze. "Tell me again, Gibson. From the beginning. You know I'm no body-guard."
"He'd heard of you. Said his name was Cam Anderson and these... What, you know him?" Gibson asked curiously when he noticed my reaction.
I nodded slowly. "I think we went to school together. Same year, different class. I remember him because he was such a... klutz. Everyone picked on him." I frowned. "I wonder what happened to him."
"He says the bounty-hunters are after him for something he didn't do. He wants you to protect him."
"I didn't even know he was meta", I went on, unfocused. "Do you know what his abilities are?"
Gibson waved his hand. "He didn't tell, I didn't ask. It's not polite, you know."
"Right", I said dryly. "What about those bounty-hunters? What do they say he did?"
"Don't know. He didn't tell, but he was scared for his life. Listen..." Gibson leaned forward across the counter, whispering in confidence to me. "Beware the bounty-hunters. No good to play with."
"I know", I said. I had heard of them before, but never met them. They were reputed to consist of a group of ordinary humans, hunting down criminal meta-humans. Much like Batgirl and company, the difference being that the bounty-hunters killed relentlessly and not always the guilty parties. They were assassins rather than upholders of the law and the rumors spread suggested that anyone could pay them to kill a meta. They weren't a pleasant bunch of guys and nothing a lonely, innocent meta-human wanted on his or her tail.
"Right. And Cam Anderson has heard about Huntress, the wild one - he figured you are the only one able to protect him."
"It's all I need", I grumbled. "Did he leave an address or a number?"
"Nope. He said he would call again."
"I don't know what I can do about this. You think he is innocent?"
"He seemed anxious enough for an innocent man." Gibson nodded and polished the counter with his towel. "I believe."
"Fuck!" I rubbed my forehead with two fingers. "Will you call me if he comes again? You know the number to work."
Gibson nodded again, eyeing me closely. "You really are worried about something", he said.
"Look, Gibson." I met his gaze. "Will you do me a favor? It's about Dinah. She's in danger."
"Lady Ladyhawk?" Gibson twisted the towel between his hands.
"The Joker has escaped..."
"I know. I've heard... The Trickster will come for Ms Gordon." Gibson paled. "He will come for Ms Kyle and the little one..."
"He will", I confirmed. "But that's not all. There's a serial killer on the loose and we believe he has his eyes set on Dinah. If you hear or see anything, however small it is..."
"I'll guard", Gibson said and straightened his back. "I will guard your secrets with my life - and keep all my senses alert."
"Thank you, Gibson", I said with a small sigh of relief.
"Ms Gordon has friends here, you know", Gibson added, almost shyly. "We've seen the news. Metas at the bar - they like her. They'll keep an eye out for the Joker."
"Thank them too. And the news teams - they've been a pest around the house today."
He nodded. "Anything else I can do for you, big cat?"
"You don't happen to know where I can find a good seer, do you?" I frowned. "You know, a psychic?"
Barbara had sent me on this stupid mission. What did I know about psychics? What did anyone know about psychics? Were they even listed in the yellow pages? Maybe other people were interested in the other-worldly, but I was too busy living in the present to know anything about psychics.
Barbara had to deal with some stuff concerning Gordon Technologies, Dick was busy with his job and Kate... I wasn't sure what Kate was doing. Maybe I should have asked her to come along. Maybe she knew more about psychics - considering her talk about vampires.
Gibson frowned. "I've heard of some. They are no good, though. Money-makers, profiteers... They know nothing. No..." He shook his head and then focused on me. "If you want the real deal you have to visit the swamps. You'll have to find Nan Rover - she'll give you what you need, dealing with the spiritual world. Always talking to some one or other not of this world, knowing things we don't."
"Fine." In the bloody swamps? "I have to go to the swamps... Please", I almost pleaded. "Tell me there's someone else, someone not hiding in the back of the beyond?"
"Go there, near the harbor. Leave now - I have work to do."
Fine, I thought, slightly offended. First he wants me, then he wants me gone. "Thanks, Gibson", I said and waved at him.
I left No Man's Land and made my way to the harbor, still thinking about the mission Barbara had sent me on. A psychic? I remembered my reaction when she told me we needed someone clairvoyant. "A what?" I had asked. "A psychic", Kate had explained.
Barbara had explained that to figure out what was going on with our previous lives - if that was what we were dealing with - we needed someone that actually knew something about it. "Everyone has their area of expertise", she had said. "We need to find someone who knows everything there is to know about past lives."
I would rather have gone looking for that strange, old woman Dinah and I had encountered, but Barbara wondered what prevented me from doing both. And so here I was, on my way to the swamps.
It took me awhile to get to the harbor and it wasn't until halfway there I wondered why I hadn't taken my bike. It was still new to me and most of the time I forgot I even had it - it had been a gift from Barbara. "So you can actually keep up with me in the dark", she had said, winking. It had made me laugh.
The pictures Kate had shown us a few hours before came unbidden to my mind as I descended a tall building close to the harbor; there were no other buildings after that point in the direction I was heading, so I would have to walk the streets like an ordinary human the rest of the way.
The snap shots of the victims Kate had laid before us had been in black and white, but it had been enough for Barbara to go pale. I guessed it had more to do with the fact that the victims were young girls Dinah's age than the sight of the slashed throats. Kate had told us the police - picking up on the newspaper's nickname for the killer - had named the perpetrator Moonkiller. They weren't even sure it was a man, but it was considered probable by the method the killer had used. All the girls had been stripped naked, but there were no trace of sexual molestation of any kind. All of them were found hanged upside down, tied with black leather stripes around their ankles and with their arms tied on their backs. Their throats had been slit and their bodies drained of blood.
According to the forensics the bodies had hanged upside down for at least three days and the last drop of blood had been squeezed out of them. Somehow they had been kept alive during the whole procedure for three days. The mass of blood at the crime scenes had been horrific.
The strangest thing, Kate said, was that the killer left no trace. "It's as if he came and went out of nowhere", she had said. "No one has seen the girls talk to a stranger and the places where they were found hadn't been clinically cleaned, so he didn't bother with cleaning up after himself. There were traces of the girls at the scenes: they found their clothes, some personal belongings... but nothing that indicated there had been a second person. All that blood and still no trace whatsoever of a second individual at the scenes, except the girls. And, there was no physical evidence of violence on the girls' bodies. How the heck did he manage to hang them upside down without sedating them or knocking them unconscious? There's no evidence of either. And how did he keep them alive for three days?"
The crime scenes were secluded areas around Los Angeles; emptied and abandoned buildings, or on two occasions in a park. And the police had precisely nothing on the killer. That didn't bode well for Dinah, according to my prognosis. On the other hand - Dinah had me, Nightwing and a pissed of Batgirl to deal with. I had seen Barbara Gordon in a rage on one of her business meetings just two weeks ago - it had not been a pleasant sight. She was worried about Dinah right now, but when that worry subsided... Hell, not even I wanted to be in this killer's shoes if he even as much as thought about the girl.
In the meantime - I was on a psychic hunt.
Oh, why didn't I object to this mission? I thought with a sigh as I left the city behind me. Gotham's swamp interconnected with parts of the harbour. It consisted of some islands open for official use: tourists that could walk along a marked track or pay to get a guided tour in a motorboat through the overgrown channels.
The swamp wasn't very deep, but it did on occasions hide one or two villains plotting the downfall of Gotham City.
As I entered the realm of the swamps there wasn't much of a road to stick to. I kept to the official track, pretending to spy for birds when I on a few occasions passed city-people having a stroll in the wild.
I remembered the last time I had been to the swamp - the day Patchy died. It was strange; the boy had been on my mind the whole day. Or maybe not that strange at all, considering whom had escaped from Arkham.
And where the hell am I going to find a psychic out here? There's only birds and... well, not bees, but... What are those? I hoped the insects I had seen weren't overgrown meta-mosquitoes... I so did not want to end up with an allergic reaction causing red blotches on my face. They should put up signs: 'Psychics this way...' Fuck, this will take ages!
Then it hit me. Close to the warehouse where Patchy had been hiding there was an old cottage - almost ruined really. I'd heard rumors there was someone living there, but hadn't paid it much attention. Why would I? I didn't really care about someone insane enough to live in the swamp. Besides, the last year I had been busy with other things. Revenging my mother's death. Almost getting killed.
Falling in love.
The thought of Barbara immediately brought a smile to my face. It was strange how the thought of her always cheered me up. My own multi-personal vigilante, I thought compassionately.
It turned out my hunch had been right. When I arrived at the cottage - which was placed on something like a peninsula in miniature, wedged between the ocean and the swamp - there actually was a sign. It said: Nan Rover. It wasn't much, but it was all I needed to know.
Before I had time to knock on the door it opened. I didn't know what I had expected, but the woman looking at me wasn't quite it. Or looking might have been the wrong choice of words.
"Nan Rover?" I asked.
Later I would realize that I had expected Nan Rover to turn out to be that old woman who had warned Dinah about the gas leak - the same woman instructing me to pay attention to my dreams. It wasn't.
Nan Rover was a young woman my own age, Native American, with long, dark hair and smooth skin; I envied her complexion on first sight. She was slender, dressed in jeans and a red, long-sleeved shirt, wearing sandals. She was also - quite unquestionably - blind.
White-eyes stared unblinking at me in the doorway.
"Yes. I'm Nan Rover."
"Um..." I didn't know how to proceed from there. "Um, hi. I'm... glad I found you. Do you... see?"
Fuck! That was the dumbest question in a lifetime!
"Sorry!" I hastily added. "Not like... I mean... Are you a psychic? Because if you are we might need a little help..."
The woman hadn't moved a muscle, but this time she nodded.
"Yes, I see..." she said slowly.
She sees? Sees what? She actually sees, or she sees I need help, or even what help we need? Hell! I didn't know the first thing about psychics. How was one supposed to act around them? Did they read your mind? If they do, I wonder if Dinah is psychic...?
"So, you scan people - or what?"
This time Nan Rover smiled. She had a lovely smile - I had to ask her what skin-cream she used.
"You are not used to this, are you?"
"Um, no. Is it that obvious?"
She chuckled. "I call it a reading. Some call it a séance, but I prefer reading. It's like that, you know - reading from the Book of Life."
"Huh", I said and twisted uncomfortably before her. She smiled again.
"I'll do a reading for you and your friends. Will tonight be fine? I sense it's urgent."
"Oh, yes - perfect! Um, do we come here, or...?"
"Yes, at half past seven."
"Great! Fine, I'll see you... I mean, we'll meet again, then."
I heard her chuckle again as I left.
"Wait!" she suddenly called out after me and there was slight desperation in her voice that made me come to an immediate halt. I turned around. She waved at me to come closer and I returned to the cottage.
"He tells you it is too late for him."
I felt a cold chill down my spine. "Who does?" To my embarrassment my voice cracked a little and I cleared it with blushing cheeks.
"No name... He says to thank you for being kind to him in high school. He says... you would know him as the klutz."
"What...? What... happened?"
"You must beware, he says... Beware, the Trickster is changing shape."
The Joker! The Joker killed Cam? Why, in heaven's name?
Nan Rover took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "He's gone", she said.
"He's dead", I whispered. "My god! He asked for my help and now he's..."
The young Indian reached for me and touched my arm. "We can't help them all", she said softly. "Go now, and help those you can. Self blame will only slow you down."
"Hush", she said. "Go now - we'll meet again." She smiled. "I'll see you again."
I nodded, sure now that she actually could see - but maybe not the way ordinary people did. "Thank you", I added. "Thank you for the message."
I left the cottage and was planning to return to the city when I was struck by an odd urge to see the place where Patchy had killed himself. I didn't really know why I wanted to stop by the building, but I remembered the anger that had burned within me that day; the rage that had turned me against Barbara, until Dick told me her tragic story. Maybe I needed some closure - they say it's human nature to need closure and that it's important for our capacity to psychologically move on in life. I didn't know, all I knew was that when I reached the building were Patchy had met his end I forgot everything about psychological terms, for there - below the low windows of the abandoned warehouse - was Reeves, AKA Shadow.
I immediately stepped back amongst the trees. It was late afternoon and the low sun cast long shadows across the open area, and amongst the trees the shadows grew thick. I was well concealed.
Shadow walked by as if he was on a Sunday-stroll, not even looking around. I guessed he figured he was quite alone and safe out there. He's as short and ugly as I remember him, I thought, crouching low amongst the thick branches of the vegetation. Ordinarily I would have put up a chase, trying to hunt the bastard down, but as it was I reckoned it was better to wait until I got back to the Clock Tower to report to Barbara. It would benefit us more if Shadow and the Joker thought we didn't know about their hideout. It was quite clever, actually, to pick this place as a headquarters. We would probably have overlooked it, thinking no one would use it again since the last raid. Well, on the other hand - maybe Barbara would have wanted to check it out anyway and maybe the Joker counted on that. Maybe he was setting a trap for us. And maybe Shadow only visited the building for the same reason I did: to get closure.
I suppressed a sigh. It had been easier for me when I was only catching bad guys in the older part of the city - less thinking and more head bashing, as Gibson had put it. I silently slid into the shadows and left the place.
"Crap. Crap, crap and crap..." Dinah complained. She paced back and forth in the headquarters at the Clock Tower, in front of Delphi. Barbara looked up from her analysis and glanced at the girl with a bemused expression, while I leaned on the desk beside her. I had just returned and informed Oracle about the visit to Gibson, to Nan Rover and about the unexpected sighting of Shadow when Dinah came rushing out of the elevator.
"That bad, huh?" Barbara asked.
"Bad?" Dinah looked up. "Bad is..." She threw out her arms. "Bad is not even close... Fuck!"
"Dinah", Barbara berated.
Dinah blushed. "Helena swears all the time", she said, looking at me. I blinked.
"Yeah, well - she doesn't know any better", Barbara said calmly and I blinked again, staring at her.
Dinah sighed and came to a halt by the stairs. She sat down on the steps with her chin in the palm of her hands, leaning her elbows on her thighs. "Sorry", she mumbled.
"You'd rather be dead?" Barbara asked her, removing her glasses.
"Barbara - it's high school! Of course I'd rather be dead!"
"It's just..." Again Dinah threw out her arms with an exasperated sigh. "It's the worst possible timing right now to have two police officers following me around in school."
"Oh?" Barbara was arching an eyebrow at her. "Who are you trying to impress?"
Dinah flushed and stood up in one fluid motion. "Um, no one?" she said, which sounded more like a question. She glanced at me and noticed me grinning. I tried hiding it, but it was too late. She glared at me. "No one in particular", she added, more assured the second time. "I'm going to do my homework."
Dinah turned around to ascend the stairs at the same moment the elevator opened and Kate stepped out.
"Kate!" Dinah exclaimed, leaning over the railing. "How nice to see you! Will you watch me practice? We can do some kicks and punches in the arena..."
"Oh, hi", Kate said, a bit overwhelmed by the openhearted welcome.
"Dinah - I thought you were going to do homework?"
Dinah turned her head to Barbara with a grimace. "I can be dead tomorrow. This is the perfect time and excuse to skip homework for awhile."
"You could actually also survive", Barbara said dryly. "Imagine how embarrassing it would be if you failed your exams because you didn't open your books."
"You are always spoiling my fun", Dinah said, sighing.
"Yeah, that's probably part of my karma", Barbara said flatly, making Kate hide a smile.
"I really do like this place", the blond woman said as she moved towards us. "A fighting arena and a gym with a boxing-ring."
"It's handy", I said with a shrug, as if it was all my doing. I grinned at Barbara when she glanced pointedly at me.
"Alfred let me in, by the way", Kate added, looking over her shoulder at the elevator. The doors had closed and it made a low, humming sound as it went down again. "He said you were here. Hope you don't mind?"
"Oh, not at all." Barbara shook her head and gestured towards the documents spread out before her on the desk. "I've been going through some leads for what the Joker might be up to. It's not very reassuring. Dinah", she added and caught the girls eyes. "Do your homework and come down later. We have some things to discuss and then we are visiting a psychic."
"Cool!" Dinah grinned excitedly and hurried up the stairs. She disappeared behind the door to the narrower stair leading to the other floors.
"She seems to handle this whole thing pretty well", Kate observed.
"She's a teenager", I said. "Tell them the world is going to end tomorrow and they worry about a zit - or see it as the perfect excuse not to do homework."
"She's worried", Barbara said, surprisingly enough. "But she deals with it."
"You've talked to her?" I asked, looking down at her.
"Yeah, I did - this morning. She's aware of the dangers. I just... I just need to let her behave as normal as possible."
"That's probably a good thing", Kate agreed.
"I sure hope so. Dick is on his way", Barbara added. "There're some more things we need to go over..."
"More talking", I sighed.
"I know it's boring, but it's all we can do at the moment. I did some research on psychic readings. It seems you have to be specific about what you're asking; otherwise it can result in pretty vague answers. We can't afford 'vague' at the moment."
"I'm more of a doer", I said. "Can't I just go scouting Shadow's hang-out?"
Oracle hesitated. "It could be a good idea, but on the other hand..."
"I know, too risky. Besides, it's not as if I could grab him or anything. He would just slide through my fingers again."
"Shadow?" Kate asked. "The meta-human that escaped?"
"The one and only." I turned to Barbara. "Do you still have that light-ray thingy you constructed for him the last time?"
"I left it with the police, but I think I have a spare one somewhere. The point is - we could phone the police, but the Joker is too clever to be caught by them at the moment. I'm not even sure he is in that building. But maybe you are right. You should go check it out."
"Thank you", I beamed at her.
"But wait until Dick is back. We need..."
At that moment we heard the elevator arriving at our floor and a second later Dick stepped out.
"Oh, good - here he..." Barbara silenced when she saw Dick's face as he walked towards us. "What is it?" she said and rose to stand between Kate and I.
Dick looked grim. "There's been a murder", he said. "Reese just phoned me. There was a greeting from the Joker to Barbara Gordon."
"What is it?" Barbara said with an icy tone. I glanced at her - I would have expected her to ask who.
"It said: 'Secret places, secret people - I know you, do you see... me? Concealed, concealed in plain sight - what am I?'" Dick held Barbara's gaze. "It came with a playing card - the Joker."
"And the victim?"
Dick shook his head. "Unknown to us. Reese's people have identified him as a Cam Anderson, but..."
I gasped. "My goddess!"
Kate looked strangely at me and I realized I had called upon the unknown deity again.
"What is it, Huntress?" Barbara asked sharply.
"That's him. The guy I told you about - who was looking for me." I hadn't told her his name before - it hadn't seemed necessary. I looked at Dick. "He was meta."
"This is what I was afraid of", Barbara said and glanced at the papers on her desk.
"What is it?" Kate asked in a low voice.
Barbara shook her head. "God damn", she mumbled softly. "Dick", she went on, suddenly with a frown on her face. "Did Reese tell you where they found the body?"
"They got an anonymous phone call. The body was left at..." He hesitated. "The body was left at almost the exact spot Patch Parker killed himself."
"Fuck!" I said heatedly and Kate blinked, looking at me.
"I second that", Barbara said.
I will never know the touch of a lover, nor the kiss of a man. I will never know the loving embrace of one I love, or the tender caress of his hands. I will not know love the way it is made between woman and man. Why not? Because I belong to another - I belong to something higher than both woman and man. I belong to the Goddess - I am hers with my body and soul, and no other will ever have the right to lay claim to me... Nor would I have the right or the wish to follow them if they asked. Once I didn't care. Once I never looked at another and knew in my heart the right path for me to follow was one of servitude. I looked at those men wooing me and wanted them not - my heart was set on another path. I became a priestess.
Today... Woe is me, woe is me - I have fallen. Because I look not at a man, but at a woman - and my body burns for her. My skin tingles when she is near, my heart lurches in its cage and my knees grow so week as if I was filled with the power of the Goddess - although I am not, but only with desire for another woman. I close my eyes and there she is - wild and beautiful and daring. And her eyes burn and her lips... Those lips. I cannot sleep, I cannot think, I cannot even pray - for my heart is full of longing and she is all I want.
Thus have I fallen and so is my life shattered... I see only death ahead of us.
"I have dreams", I had told her. "Mostly with you in them..."
It was true. I did dream and it was Helena I longed for in those dreams - it was her body I caressed and kissed and wanted so much nothing else in the entire world mattered. And so - therefore - it was my fault after all... It was my fault that that world burned, in the end.
But I also remembered... That morning, right before the phone call woke me up to the realities of this world, I heard that voice again. In my dream I was kneeling in front of the altar with the great bat, praying for my soul and the souls of those who were in my care, and I heard the voice. It was a woman's voice this time, but I knew it to be the same. It said: "I give you one night..." That had been all, but it had brought me peace.
"So, this is what we know when it comes to Moonkiller", I said and looked around at the people before me. Kate looked focused, Helena smiled at me, Dick nodded and Dinah tried hard not to look worried. I felt for her, but I also knew that I couldn't leave her out of what was coming. She needed to be a part of it, to grow. She needed to know I trusted her.
Alfred just passed by with a tray, cleaning up the desserts. He was worried too, but as usual he didn't show it or let it affect his duties. Seeing him I was reminded that I needed to phone Wade to thank him for the flowers.
"There are no leads whatsoever. One of Kate's contacts has said that it's as if the girls hanged themselves upside down and slit their own throats, if it had been physically possible. Although, it was suspected that the murders were performed as some kind of satanic ritual. We don't know. I myself tend to believe that if it were satanic the perpetrator would leave some symbols behind. Anything. And if so there would be some kind of trace." I shook my head and began to pace about the room. "We have absolutely no leads and yet we believe the killer will come for Dinah. Why? We don't know. If we trusted common sense alone we wouldn't have this discussion, but I think I speak for us all when I say - it is time we trust our guts. And my gut tells me we are on the right track. Any objections?"
I looked at them, but their faces were grim. Only Dinah looked around with an uncertain expression. Her police escort waited outside the house: four cops circling the building with intercoms and guns. They wanted to place one with us inside too, but I had objected to that. It was difficult, having police surveillance and hiding ones secret identity at the same time. The press had chased me the whole day too, trying to get my comments on the Joker's escape. I had answered some questions, but they weren't satisfied. I knew I would have to hold a press conference one of these days, but right at that moment it wasn't my priority.
"Good." I resumed my pacing. "Maybe tonight's session with the psychic Huntress found us will prove to be worth something. We'll wait and see after tonight."
I glanced at Helena and she nodded slowly with a confident look. For someone who had never considered the spirit world before she sure trusted Nan Rover. The Native American must have made an impression.
Helena had never gone back to the warehouse by the river. After the news about where Cam Anderson's body had been found we both knew it wouldn't do any good. The Joker wasn't there and neither would Reeves be. Shadow had only dropped the body off when Helena noticed him earlier. I knew she had blamed herself for not checking out the site but it wouldn't have made a difference. She would only have found a dead body, nothing more. And if Shadow had spied her he would have wondered what she was doing in the middle of nowhere. He might even have managed to find Nan Rover and that would have been disastrous.
We needed the psychic, I was sure of it. There was no one else that could tell us about what was happening to us. Possession or no possession.
"Now, in regards to the Joker..." Just thinking about him made me angry. Not the white-hot rage of the past when Mike died, but a cold, freezing anger - slowly spreading, like a glacier sure of its victory over the conquered land. My worry had subsided and was replaced by righteous fury. You are not taking those I love! I thought, almost vehemently. I felt like a lioness fighting for her cubs - and I knew I had the love, the strength and the support of a real lioness behind me; Helena wouldn't let me go through this on my own. "He killed a virtually unknown man to leave a message for us. Could anyone tell me why?" I knew, of course. I had suspected it when I got the phone call from Arkam's warden and I had known for sure not many hours later.
"But he is not unknown, right?" Kate said, leaning slightly forward in the couch. I had come to recognize the focused expression on her face. She was quite clever, but there were some things she didn't know and therefore couldn't possibly understand. "Helena knew him."
"He was never a friend", Helena objected. "He didn't seem to have many friends, everyone always picked on him because he was so clumsy. Not that it matters now, I guess. I mean, I hadn't seen him since high school. There was a reunion a couple of months ago, but I didn't go. I didn't feel very sociable at the time", she added, grumbling. Kate glanced at her and I could read the blond woman's face quite clearly: she plainly wondered if Helena ever felt sociable. The sight, and the thought of Helena's grumpiness, made me relax a little.
"Except, he did ask you for protection", Kate persisted. "That must mean something."
"Only if it was Helena he wanted to see", Dick calmly explained. "But he asked for Huntress and there's nothing that points to him knowing her real identity."
"She doesn't wear a mask", Kate pointed out. "How hard is it to know her real identity?"
"Wait a minute...!" Helena straightened and glared at Kate.
"Excuse me", Kate said, gesturing with one hand. She didn't sound apologetic at all. "But... Anyone catching a glimpse of you would recognize you."
Helena stared at the blond woman.
"Kate has a point, Helena", Dick said. "In regards to the mask", he added.
I noticed Dinah looking at him, hiding a grin, and wondered if the girl had come to the same conclusion about him and Kate as I had. Helena on the other hand... she was clueless, as usual. I found it rather sweet.
"Well, tell that to Reese", Helena growled, quite annoyed, and I had to hide a smile.
"Reese? What's he got to do with it?" Kate looked confused.
"He saw her in a fight once", Dinah said with a smile. "He still hasn't recognized her. It's difficult for Helena to comprehend, as she believes herself to be - as you so nicely put it - unforgettable."
"Sparrow", Helena growled, glaring at Dinah, but the quiet gleam in her eyes took the edge of her dangerous expression and Dinah grinned at her.
"I see", Kate said with a smile she didn't bother to hide. "Still", she went on in a more serious manner. "Cam Anderson asked for Helena's... Sorry" - she caught Helena's expression and threw up her arms in an apology - "Huntress's, protection even before the Joker escaped."
"True, but that doesn't mean anything, either", Dinah said. "The bounty-hunters could have been contacted from inside Arkam. The Joker could have planned Cam's death even before he escaped."
"Which again leads us to why", Kate said with a frown.
"We know why", Dick said and looked at me. I nodded, barely noticeably, and he went on: "We never found the converter."
"Oh!" Dinah said and I saw Helena blink for a second; she hadn't considered it. Now she glanced at me, but I nodded at Dick's words.
"No, we didn't", I said. I looked at Kate and explained. "After Patch Parker's death the police found a lot of advanced technologies stored at his headquarter. They didn't know what to do with it, so they let my company have it - for research. It's not usual procedure, but I have contacts."
"Of course", Kate said softly.
"I went through all the equipment myself, but the one device I was most interested in was missing. We haven't found it. It's the meta-human converter..."
"The one that made the Joker's son a meta-human?" Kate breathed deeply. "I understand. You think he used it on this... on Cam?"
"I'm sure of it. We know Cam was a meta-human - there are no other reasons for the Joker to hunt him down and to kill him."
"But we don't know what Cam's meta-human abilities were", Dinah said with a frown. "The Joker could have become... anything."
"Ah, but you see - that's the thing. He has told us what he has become. Remember? The message he left..."
"'Can you see... me?'" Helena quoted. "You think he is invisible?" She frowned.
"The thought has crossed my mind", I said, "but wouldn't he have phrased the last sentence differently in that case?"
"'Concealed in plain sight...'" Dick mumbled. "It sounds invisible to me."
"No." I wasn't sure. "No..."
"He probably would word it differently", Helena mused. "Like... invisibility is not really there, is it? It's not even concealed, it's just..." She shrugged. "I don't know what I mean..."
"To be concealed in plain sight is something in front of you that you don't see... If you don't see it, it's invisible." Dick frowned.
"Or camouflaged", Kate said slowly. "It happened to me once. I was chasing this demon and it hid in front of a wall - I didn't see it, because it took the shape and color of the wall. It melted in with the surroundings almost perfectly... What?" she added when she noticed all of us staring at her.
"Whoa! Back up, rewind..." Helena almost rose from the chair. "Did you just say demon?"
"I think I did. Do you have a problem with that?" Kate arched an eyebrow at Huntress, who blinked and fell back in the chair.
"No problem." Helena shook her head. "Uh um. No, no - no problem at all."
"Good", Kate said with a finality that closed the subject.
"I'd go with the camouflage thing", Dinah said. "See? Cam - camouflage. It's too neat not to mean something."
"You can't be serious?" Helena said. "You can't base a meta-human ability on a name."
"Why not?" Dinah objected. "Happens all the time. Helena - Huntress. Batgirl - Barbara..."
"Dinah - Sparrow", Helena said and the teenager made a face at her. "On the other hand..." Helena turned her attention to Dick. "Maybe it was supposed to be Darkwing. Ever considered a change of name?"
"I already had one", Dick mumbled and I must fake a cough to hide my laugh. Kate looked curiously at me.
"What?" Helena said inquisitively. "I haven't heard about this. What did you used to be called?"
Dick clenched his jaws.
"Tell me. You know Dinah will, any way", Helena teased and Dick gave in with a sigh. He mumbled something inaudible. Or, at least inaudible for most of us - Helena burst into laughter.
"What?" Kate asked. "What did he say?"
"Oh, no! You've got to be kidding me!" Helena almost fell off the chair, laughing. Her laughter infected Dinah, who started to giggle at Dick's mortified expression.
"He's not", I said. "He changed his name after he graduated from law school." I looked at Kate with a smile. "He used to be called Robin. Batman and Robin..."
"Enough!" Dick pleaded and I noticed his ears were red - he always blushed to the tip of his ears. "Right, I was young, ok?" He glared at Helena, who tried to calm down.
"Huh", she said and nodded. "Ok, huh..." Then she had another fit of laughter and Dick threw out his arms.
"I give up", he sighed.
Kate shook her head in amusement, then caught my look. "A chameleon, then?" she said and brought us back to business. I nodded.
"It could be either... Or a transparent one, maybe."
"No, Gibson says there's already a transparent meta... Some place in Agra, or somewhere?" Dinah frowned.
"Agra is in India", I said flatly.
"Oh. Well, it could have been Akron, too."
"Right", I said. "In any case I'm going to construct some devices that will neutralize the meta-human ability - either it's a metabolism that makes the Joker invisible or camouflaged. You said Cam was clumsy?" I asked Helena and she nodded. "It probably had something to do with his ability. The constant change could have affected his neurology. I imagine his cerebellum could have suffered some damages and that would bring about an impaired motor control..."
"Please, Barbara", Dinah said.
"He'd be clumsy, as a side effect to his meta-human abilities", I explained. "Also", I went on, thinking out loud. "The camouflage would probably not be completely invisible... No, it would create a... Yes, as he moved about in front of dead objects, flat objects would take on a three-dimensional effect. It would create a flicker, a shimmer in the air when he moves... If that's so, it would make it a little easier for us."
"If this Cam was clumsy and the Joker now has his abilities, wouldn't that make him a klutz too?" Kate asked, but I shook my head.
"I doubt it. The guy Patchy stole his abilities from suffered major migraine attacks every so often, but Patchy managed to work around that. Whatever side effects the original meta has, I believe the 'fakers' have erased."
"So, you'll work on your... devices. But in the meantime the Joker could turn up... anywhere."
"I'm afraid so", I said. "But... We need to keep in mind that although he somehow managed to hire the bounty hunters, he only escaped jail today. He will need time to organize himself."
"It would help if we knew what he was going to do", Kate said with a frown. "Criminals always have a motive.
"True", Dick said. "Knowing the Joker, there will be death and more death."
"He will have two priorities", I said. "The first is to hurt the people I love and to kill me. The second is either to destroy Gotham and New Gotham, or to take control of the city. If it's the first he will only need Shadow to do his bidding, if it's the second he'll need an army. We will plan for both eventualities."
There was so much more we needed to discuss, so much more they needed to know, but as I glanced at my wristwatch I noticed it was time for us to leave. Nan Rover was expecting us.
"I wish there was more to actually do", Helena complained in my intercom on our way to the swamps. She drove her bike with Dinah on the back. I drove alone on my bike, while Dick and Kate went in his car. We traveled to Nan Rover's place as ourselves - not as our alter egos. It would have been too difficult to explain why Batgirl and company needed spiritual advice. Although - considering the work we did around the city, maybe it wasn't so weird after all.
We had managed to sneak away from a few clingy reporters and I had left word to Reese to command the cops guarding the house to stay at the house until we returned. He wasn't happy about it, especially since I refused to tell him where we were going, but he had known not to challenge my wish.
"I know it's a lot of talk, but it's important talk. The general best prepared is the one who will win the war. Any victory lies in the details and I need to know I've covered the smallest ones."
I heard Helena sigh and knew she felt frustrated. She was used to action, not to sit around and do nothing. I just needed to get her to see that what we did wasn't nothing. Kate understood; she had been a cop. Research was important - going over and over the same information again and again, to find the one, missing clue that would solve it all. My father had done it lots of times.
"I just feel... incompetent. I hate that feeling."
"You are not incompetent", I objected softly. "I need you by my side. The thought of you is what keeps me going. If I didn't have you..." I didn't finish the sentence.
"You would have coped", I heard Helena say in a low voice. "That's what you do."
Maybe, but I would be less humane, I thought to myself, knowing that if Helena hadn't been there I would have closed myself to anyone trying to reach me and dealt only with how to defeat the Joker. As it was... She made me relax; she even managed to make me laugh. It meant more to me than she would probably ever know.
When we reached Nan Rover's cottage the young woman waited for us in the door. She greeted us with a smile, but didn't touch us, before she let us in to her home.
The inside was surprisingly comfortable, considering the way the cottage looked from the outside. Nan Rover moved about with startling ease; either she knew perfectly well were everything was, or Helena had been right about the fact that she actually did see in some way, although she was quite disturbingly blind.
"Please, sit down in a circle on the pillows", the woman said and gestured towards the large pillows in different colors on the floor in the main room. There were two doors leading from the room - both were closed.
Burning candles lit up the entire room and there was a vague scent of incense. It made me remember my dream again.
I sat down on the floor between Helena and Dinah. Kate sat on Helena's other side and Dick on Dinah's other side. Nan Rover sat down opposite me, between Kate and Dick. It left a small space in the middle, were a white candle was burning.
"Everything has been prepared", Nan Rover said, making fluttering gestures with her hands above the candle. "No need to procrastinate. Please, take each others hands..."
We did as she told us; I felt Helena gently squeeze my hand.
"Close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few moments. Just to relax."
I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. On either side I heard Dinah and Helena do the same. I felt a sudden warmth from Dinah's hand.
"Relax", Nan Rover said in a low voice. "Relax...Forget your worries and let go of your mind."
Easy for her to say, I thought. What worries would she carry on her shoulders?
Then, in a sudden flash, I heard that voice again.
"Did you not choose your own burdens?" it asked me and I felt a flush of shame, not because the voice rebuked me, but because there was such gentle understanding and compassion in it. "Did you not choose to carry the staff into this life? And who are you to assume the weight of another's burden?"
"Relax", Nan Rover said again and I was abruptly brought back to my own reality.
I opened my eyes.
"Good", the young woman said. "Now, keep holding hands if you want to - otherwise let go, and open your eyes."
Both Helena and Dinah held on to my hands and I didn't let go of them.
"You have come to find serious answers. I will not lecture you... I will tell you what you need to know, who and what I speak to matters not at this time. Listen only. If you question what I have to say you should not have come. Ask what you must to find those answers relevant to your quest, but nothing else will I answer. If you want a crash-course in clairvoyance, seek another seer." Nan Rover briefly closed her eyes. "I have meditated on this matter since I met the cat this afternoon", she said and then looked straight at me. "I have found many things. You are all in grave danger."
"We think we know that", I said. "We have come to find answers..."
The woman nodded. "I have what you seek. Follow me - close your eyes and I will show you."
As soon as I closed my eyes again my head started spinning - it felt as if I was moving at incredible speed through a dark, winding tunnel. The effect soon died away and I found myself looking at black and white movie sequences.
There was Helena as a child of ten, twelve: dressed in rags and on bare feet she made her way to the entrance of a large temple, which seemed eastern - like temples in China or Thailand. It was obvious she didn't belong there. She sneaked around, but was discovered by... me. I was young, no older than sixteen, but I knew as soon as I saw myself, that I was feared. I brought the child with me and left her in the care of a woman warrior - Kate.
Then the pictures swirled and turned... Years apparently went by. A child was born, a girl - I held her in my arms and baptized her, in fire. It left a scar on her cheek, in the shape of a crescent. She would fear me through life, for the tests I had to put her through. She was the youngest princess, the seventh girl - it had some significance I as Barbara Gordon couldn't comprehend.
We lived in a peaceful place, a vast empire ruled by the imperial family - but dark clouds took shape on the horizon, danger lurked in the shadows. I was a priestess with great power; I commanded fire and air. Dick, as a priest, commanded water, but also air - just like me. There was a third priest - I suddenly knew this without having to see him; he served a different god, not the goddess Dick and I had sworn allegiance to. He commanded earth... and he served the snake god.
Then, in a flash, I as the priestess met the now older Helena - a beautiful warrior, sworn to protect the princess.
I gasped and pulled away my hands from Helena and Dinah as I rushed to my feet, eyes wide opened. I remember!
I remembered everything - or, almost everything.
Nan Rover looked up at me with her disconcertingly white eyes. "Look - you only see your part of the picture, you do not have the full view. Fear not."
I swallowed and nodded, but remained standing. I looked down at the others: Helena was crying silently, Dinah's face was pale; Dick's mouth was open in a wordless scream and Kate looked as if she was fighting the battle of her life - knowing what I now knew, I knew she probably was.
It had been a peaceful life, until the snake god wanted more power. His priest caused earthquakes, saying the gods were unhappy with the people. Dick and I caught him in the act and he was disrobed as a priest - shunned and cast out from the empire. Dick and I would rather have killed him, knowing he would cause trouble in the future, but the Emperor - my god, it's Bruce! - was a fair man and did not believe in death-penalties. Some years later, when the youngest princess - that would be Dinah - was in her teens, the priest returned. On one night - the one night my goddess had allowed me to spend with my secret love - he killed all the imperial family except Dinah. I had been so consumed with my desire for the warrior, I never noticed the signs calling for my attention. Dick blamed me for it afterwards, calling me a whore and other filthy names. He had been scared and I hadn't rebuked him.
There was a great fight. Kate died saving Dinah's life. Helena... Helena lost track of her mission because of her love for me. My goddess fought with the snake god and died... I died with her in fire. Dick... I didn't know what happened to the priest. I didn't know what happened to Helena or Dinah, either. I was gone by then.
"Oh, fuck!" Helena whispered and opened her eyes. She caught me looking at her and suddenly seemed conscious of the tears on her cheeks. She averted her face and dried her cheeks.
"Uh huh", Dinah seconded.
Kate took a deep breath and opened her eyes. She looked directly at me, but her eyes were still unfocused. When they cleared she turned her attention to Dinah.
"You died, saving me..." Dinah said and reached across the open space and the candle to touch Kate. Kate too reached for her and squeezed her hand with a soft smile.
"I believe it was worth it", she said. "Although, I wonder what happened next. It feels as if..." She frowned. "It feels as if I have always wondered what happened next."
"The Snake god died with his priest in fire", Dick said slowly, with a slight frown on his face. He didn't look at any of us, but gazed almost lost into the flames of the candle in front of us. "Barbara... died too, with the goddess. Also in fire. I believe it was her fire."
"My fire?" I didn't remember that part. All I remembered was that I failed. I failed to save my goddess and I failed to save Dinah.
"My mother", Dinah said slowly, almost stunned. "It was my mother in this life. Isn't that funny? And my father... It was Bruce." She looked almost expectantly at me. "Did you see it, too?"
I nodded with a tight feeling in my throat.
"He took her away", Helena said, sounding hurt. "I searched all the earth for her and didn't find her until... I was dying."
Dinah turned to her. "You did find me", she said softly.
Helena nodded. "I failed you and everything I believed in and I spent the rest of my life finding you."
"Dick took me away", Dinah explained. "The empire crumbled and was lost in war, in fire and blood. Dick brought me across the world, where I grew up as a farmer's daughter." She smiled happily. "That was Wade Brixton."
I shook my head in wonder.
"When I was a woman, with children of my own - this old warrior woman came my way. She had been in a fight and was bleeding badly. She was dying and she looked awful, but I did recognize her..."
It was strange, I reflected, how Dinah suddenly seemed older, more mature as she was speaking - as if the life she remembered clung to her and changed her mannerism.
"I had been searching so long for you", Helena said, sounding as weary as she probably had been in that moment of death, but also with a tinge of contentment.
"And you found me", Dinah said fondly. "It meant a great deal to me."
"To me too", Helena said gruffly.
I sat down, pondering what we knew.
"It still beats me why that snake god wanted the princess in the first place", Kate said. "Apparently he is still hunting her, but to what purpose? And..." She caught herself and glanced at Nan Rover, apparently suddenly remembering that we weren't alone.
"He wanted power. More power", Dick said darkly.
"He was a fucking god!" Helena exclaimed. "How much more power did he want?"
"He wasn't a full god", I mused. "What are gods, exactly?"
They looked at me and out of the corner of my eye I noticed Nan Rover smiling.
"What are gods?" Dinah asked, grimacing. "Rulers of the world."
"Why did the snake god need his priest to clear the way for him?" Kate asked, confused.
"Exactly", I said.
"Because... there were other gods, preventing him from ruling as a dictator", Helena said, somewhat hesitantly. "Gods were never my area of expertise", she added gloomily. "Fuck", she added as the realization hit her. I had wondered when it would. "Gods! What on earth are we discussing? For all we know what just happened to us could be... could be - mass hypnotism! Yeah! That's it." She glowered at the Native American.
"I still have a serial killer on my tail", Dinah said dryly. "I'll believe anything that prevents him from killing me."
"I'll buy that", Kate said calmly. "The snake lead - it's actually consistent with a lead connected to Moonkiller."
We all looked questioningly at her.
"But you said...?" Dick said.
Kate nodded. "I'll tell you about it later. It was thought to be a mess-up; it was disregarded as evidence or deemed not valid for the case. I had forgotten about it." She looked at me. "The Spaniards were seen as gods to the Mayans."
I nodded. I remembered the face of my goddess - I woman with dark, gleaming eyes. "There has been different gods throughout the ages", I said. "Some gods had their own gods. Usually they are named gods simply because they have powers ordinary people lack."
"Metas", Dick whispered. "My god, could it be that simple?"
"'There is nothing new under the sun...'" Kate quoted. "The Bible", she added as Helena looked at her.
"Maybe the meta-gene has been around since then, but lain dormant..."
"Remember", Nan Rover suddenly said, in a calm, even voice. "What you experienced was not necessarily part of this world. Worlds... there are different worlds and different times, co-existing with our own."
Kate nodded. "I've heard about a world with no shrimps", she said.
"That'd be heaven", Dinah said.
"Sure", Helena said sarcastically. "That'd be as stupid as a world with only shrimps."
Nan Rover smiled. "Maybe, but facts remain... I've seen what you have seen. I do know about metas and I'm not blind to this world, although many believe I am." She looked around at us. "There is danger ahead. It is connected to this particular past life and I do believe the reason why you failed was that you did not trust each other. You were divided. Instead of letting love grow between you all, you let envy, self-blame and fear block you. Love is the only way. Without it, nothing can meld together."
I nodded, recognizing her words as true.
"But we were not metas", Dick said, indicating the two of us. "We were humans, but we had power..."
"Ah, good priest - do not underestimate the power of humans. Power... comes in many different forms. True power lies in the will. Doesn't your good Book state that if you have the faith of a mustard-seed, you can move mountains? Faith is will - it's wanting and passion and desire for things dreamed of, for things envisioned on the screen of our minds eye. Believe it, envision it - and it shall be yours. True gods know no limitations - they believe in their right to be one with the Universe and they exercise that right..."
"And the prize for misusing that right is our karma", I said slowly, sensing something falling into place within me.
Nan Rover nodded. "Free will, it will always have consequences."
"So", Kate said. "We have an ber meta-human on our tail." She frowned. "And what of the priest? Is he reincarnated like we are, and does he have powers? Maybe we are dealing with both of them..."
"More fucking questions", Helena growled. "Will it never end?"
The pattern is the key, I thought, remembering what the voice had told me.
"There were killings back then too", Dick suddenly said. He looked at me. "Remember? The six sisters..."
I gasped. "Of course! That's it! He is re-enacting the Ma'ahel!"
"The what?" Dinah frowned. "Please, Barbara, sometimes I just don't get you at all. What's that - gibberish?"
"It's Sumerian - it means 'to rise' or 'ascend'", I said distractedly and turned my attention back to Dick. "The ritual of Ma'ahel - sacrifice the seven virgins and rise as a god."
"But he already was a god!" Helena objected for the second time. I turned excitedly towards her.
"No - no, that's just it. He wasn't. He had certain powers, but they were limited. The young princess was a meta-human. I was her teacher - I trained her to become a goddess. That's why he wanted her blood. He wanted her powers - they would ensure he had more power then the other gods, than the other metas..." I nodded. "That's it", I mumbled and almost snapped my fingers. My mind spun and I could see everything so clearly. All the pieces fell into place. "Yeah, that's it", I mused silently. I knew what we had to do. I looked up at Nan Rover. "Thank you, for everything. I hope we haven't brought danger to you?"
The young woman shook her head. "We all have our ways and our role in the great pattern. Remember, people we know come again and again into our lives. We live - and we die. Only the great Universe knows our fates. We are all destined to become gods, in the end."
I rose. My head was spinning. I almost, almost could catch the pattern of which she was speaking. I could almost see what mankind was destined to become, but I knew it was not for a mere mortal like me to hold such powerful secrets. I had been the trainer of gods once - it would have to suffice.
"Thank you", I repeated. "Maybe we will see you again."
Nan Rover smiled. "I am sure we will."
"I'm still confused", Helena said as we left Nan Rovers cottage. She swung a leg across her motorbike and put the helmet on her head. "Is it the Snake priest, or the Snake god that's Moonkiller? And... were they really metas?"
"Not metas as we know it", I said, contemplating my plan as I fastened my helmet beneath my chin. "They were more powerful than any living meta today. Remember - they were considered gods, even amongst a people whose priests and priestess could command the elements. Something must have set them apart."
"Their ability to shape-change, I believe", Dick said thoughtfully. "We may have commanded the elements around us, but the gods and goddesses could change themselves. Like Shadow, and Slick." He looked at Kate. "The water-guy", he added, explaining.
"But they are not gods - they're just... creeps", Helena objected indignantly.
"Yeah, but in those days - or in that world, they had even more power. It's different. It was different", Dick mumbled.
"Right - and in this life... If the Snake god feeds on Dinah's blood he will get her powers. Perverting powers like telepathy would mean he could control people's minds and also, since Dinah is able to sense other people's feelings, he would be able to make people feel what he wants them to feel."
"The ultimate god-power", Dick mumbled.
"Right." This time I did snap my fingers. "Now - the difficult part will be to prevent them from killing Dinah and stealing her meta-human abilities."
"Yes, please", Dinah said, slightly pale. She sat behind Helena with the helmet in her hands.
"You know", Helena drawled. "He could just ask the Joker for that converter-thing."
We all looked at her for a moment.
"He will not", Dick suddenly said in a strange voice. "They are from different worlds and different times. Water and oil doesn't mesh, neither does pagan religion and computers. The Snake is of a different breed - he won't need technology. In his world he was revered as a god, he will not be satisfied with anything less here. He will take this world and plunge it into darkness. He will destroy it and let fire fall from the sky, then he will take control of the people and let them serve him for an eternity... Unless he is stopped."
Kate blinked, probably sensing something was off with Dick. Helena only stared at him.
"Yeah. Right", she said and kicked her bike, starting it. She pulled down the visor on her helmet. "I've had enough of small talk. I'll take Dinah to the Clock Tower, then I'll go on patrol."
And she drove off without another word. The last I saw of them in the dark was Dinah putting on her helmet.
"I fear she will run from her responsibility again", Dick said, seeing them disappear amongst the shadows.
"Don't", I said. "Nan Rover was right - we need to stand united. This time we'll need to be a team. Otherwise..." I couldn't finish the sentence.
"Otherwise we'll end up dead - or worse, slaves to a crawling creature", Kate said. She patted Dick on his shoulder. "I'll drive", she said and took the keys from his hand, before she walked off in the direction of where they'd parked the car. He followed her with his eyes and she glanced back, winking at him.
"You and I", I said, looking at Dick. "We have a lot of work to do."
He frowned, looking back at me. "What do you mean?"
"We have to reawaken our own powers. If the Snake god is back, that means our goddess is too. It means - that we must learn how to control the elements again."
Power, I thought as I worked out that morning, was a strange thing. It could mean so much, in so many different ways - and it still came down to... plain control. If you had control - then you had power. And I felt out of control. I felt powerless.
It had been five days since we visited Nan Rover. I had hardly seen Barbara since then. I had been hiding - she had been working.
Wade Brixton had come by; he had made a house call the morning after our visit to Nan Rover. She had stepped out on the front to talk to him and I had felt queasy during the whole twenty minutes she was gone, not sure why - I knew she didn't regret leaving him for me, but... Insecurity in love can be a pain - I wasn't really used to it, but Barbara meant so much to me and sometimes being with her, when she had other things on her mind, I wasn't sure I meant as much to her as she did to me. Her mind could just drift off to some unknown place I couldn't follow and ever so often I would remember Dinah's remark, before there ever was anything between Barbara and me. She had been talking about Wade: "He's quite smart, but nowhere near her IQ."
If Dinah thought Wade Brixton was dumb, what would Barbara think of me? Maybe she was physically attracted to me, but what did I have to offer? Besides, I had failed Dinah in a past life - Barbara was bound to think something bad about that.
I didn't turn to look at private investigator Kate Lockley as I pulled at the heavy weights. Or heavy for anyone but me - I didn't even know what I was doing in there, except blowing off some steam. Hardly seeing Barbara included not having sex with her and I missed her touch, her kisses, just to be able to hold her close.
And, she had asked me to keep doing what I was doing: "Dick and I need to practice - you just keep doing what you always do; look sexy, catch the bad guys and weight-lift."
I had never bothered to tell her I only weight-lifted to keep her company.
"Hi", I said almost curtly. Kate didn't seem to mind; she was probably used to it since our first encounter. Come to think of it - we had never been properly introduced.
"Haven't seen you around in awhile."
I only mumbled something inaudible.
"Barbara said you have your own apartment."
So, they had been discussing me, had they? I pulled harder at the weights.
"I asked her where you were", Kate said, as if she had been reading my mind; she was almost as good as Barbara at reading people. "I think she misses you", Kate added.
"Oh, yeah?" I said bitingly, feeling a scorching pain in my chest. "So, where is she now, then?"
"She and Dick are creating a thunderstorm in the arena."
"They're arguing?" I let go of the handles and turned to the blond woman.
"Oh, no. I mean, they are literally creating a thunderstorm in the arena." Kate smiled wryly. "It's gonna be hell on the decor."
I frowned. "I don't get it."
Kate eyed me closely. "Do you have any idea at all what Barbara and Dick has been doing these days?"
"Of course", I said affronted. "They've been practicing. Meditating and... stuff."
"Sure." Kate shook her head. "You know, it wouldn't kill you to show more interest in her..."
I flinched, but then was instantly filled with a cold rage. "Fuck you! Who are you to talk to me like that?" I pointed at her, leaning close to her and feeling my eyes change. "You don't know a shit!"
"I do believe you are scared", she said calmly. "And there's no need to yell at me - I hear you perfectly well, thank you." Then she sighed and shook her head. "I'm not one to give advice in romantic matters, but I do know that relationships in general tend to mess up if communication fails."
I drew back. I knew she was right; Dinah had told me the same thing. It was ironic, that a teenager would be smarter than me. "I've been working late", I said. "My apartment is right above my work-place, it's easier for me to stay there. Besides, Barbara needs to think. She thinks better when I'm not around."
"Is that what you believe?" Kate said softly. Again she shook her head. "It's not my call", she added. "Anyway", she went on. "Barbara and Dick have made progress in their priestly businesses. I was watching them from the stairs in the arena today when it suddenly started raining... inside. I think that was Dick's doing. Then Barbara made lightning. It was all very spectacular."
I stared at her. "You are joking, right? I mean... you can't be so damn cool about it if it was true."
Kate looked at me and held my gaze. "How many times must I tell you I have seen stranger things?"
I opened my mouth, but closed it again when I didn't know what to say. "Fine. So they are making storms?" How the hell did that happen?
"I think it's the memories affecting them. They..." Kate paused. "If I understand it right they draw knowledge about these things from that previous lifetime. Wesley could explain it better..."
"Wesley?" I asked.
"Oh, just some guy - a real bookie, but he is handy to have around when things are unexplained even for those who are used to the unexplained..."
I suddenly wondered what her story was. I was used to people like Shadow and Mr. Waterpool. Slick... But that was different; it had a completely natural explanation - about genetics and evolution and everything... Still, I was freaked by this whole thing. If she didn't think psychics, past lives and people making thunderstorms indoors was strange... What the hell would spook her?
On the other hand, she might be quite nuts.
"Barbara thinks they only have these... powers now because the goddess from our past life has awakened, or is awakening. That's why we are remembering things."
I nodded. I had figured that all on my own. "And the goddess is here because somehow the Snake god has returned... or reappeared - or only appeared..." I scowled. "Would it be 'returned' if it never had been in this world before? Still, it has returned to hunt us..."
Kate nodded. "That's why I figured maybe you would like to help me work-out."
I blinked. "Work-out?"
"Fight", she said with a simple gesture.
"Oh." I paused. "You want to fight me?"
She nodded and I smiled slowly. Oh, yeah...
"The arena is taken", Kate went on; at the same time she turned around and glanced at the ring farther off in the room. "But you have that boxing ring..."
"It'll do fine", I assured and immediately started walking towards it. I glanced back at her. "You dressed for it?"
She looked down at her jeans and t-shirt with a shrug. "Will have to do."
"Perfect - come on then."
I hadn't seen Kate fight. She looked agile and muscular, and she was a former cop - I imagined she kept herself in shape, but she was an ordinary human after all. She wouldn't stand a chance against me and in that moment it pleased me immensely. For some reason I had this strange and almost reckless need to beat her in a fight. We entered the ring and stood facing each other.
"You know martial arts?" I asked.
"I had some karate-classes once, will it do?"
I sniffed. "Karate is outdated."
"Show me, then", she said with a simple gesture.
I grinned. "My pleasure."
I made a quick move to grab her and to throw her over my shoulder, but in one, fluid motion she stepped aside and almost managed to knock me over by elbowing me in my side.
Fuck! I almost swore, but again didn't want to give her the pleasure of seeing that she had surprised me. Instead I rolled over on the floor and kicked at her. She jumped, dived to one side and rolled over too.
We came to our feet at the same time and without another word we were at each other's throats. I completely forgot she was on the same side as me and went at her with all my force; with all my meta-human speed and strength. It startled me to no end that she blocked my every attack and even managed to strike back at me. Few people, even metas, were able to hold their own when facing me in a fight. I couldn't believe that this ordinary - quite beautiful and pretty smart, but no meta - woman gave me such a hard time.
I moved faster, was more alert, more agile and stronger than anytime before, but I still couldn't beat a fucking human. At least - which was a small comfort at the time - she couldn't beat me either. She tried, but I wouldn't give her a chance to pin me down.
Around and around the ring we went; throwing each other, kicking, punching and even wrestling at one time, but neither of us managed to get a decent advantage. Neither of us gave in.
In the end I found myself sweating and almost panting in one corner of the ring, glaring at the blond woman. Fuck! No one had ever giving me a tough time like that. What the hell is going on? "What the fuck are you?" I snarled at her.
She breathed as heavily as me and her t-shirt was plastered to her upper body; she stood leaning slightly forward, with her hands on her thighs. She shook her head. "I'm human. I just..." She straightened her back and took a deep breath. "I've felt these changes within me the past few days. I needed to... find out what they were about. It must be the Black Panther-thing. You know, from our past life..."
"Hell..." I mumbled. "Everyone is changing but me."
Kate shook her head. "Not Dinah either, even though she was dreaming. There's no need for you to change, you're already..." She gestured at me, apparently for lack of words. "You're already a panther."
I frowned. "Did you have a sudden urge to... swing a sword?" I asked and she blinked. In the next moment she laughed out loud.
"I did", she said, still smiling. "You too? You think we are as good as Xena with a sword in our hands?"
I felt a slow grin spread across my face. "We don't really have any swords here, but I know a way we can find out if we are as good. Same time tomorrow and I'll have the swords for us?"
She pushed some blond curls from her eyes and dried the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. "Agreed. I will wipe the floor with you, you wait and see."
Kate smiled and it was my turn to laugh aloud. My laughter died as I turned my head and became aware of Barbara across the room. She stood by the door and looked at us with an inscrutable expression.
When she noticed me looking she moved across the room, making her way through the exercise equipment.
"Hi, Barbara", Kate said and stepped out of the ring. "I trust the weather is back to normal in the arena?"
"Oh, yeah", Barbara said with an amused smile. "Alfred's gonna have a fit - it will cost a fortune to redo the walls and the floors."
Kate laughed. "At least it keeps him busy, arranging for it." She glanced back at me. "Thanks for the exercise, Helena. I'll see you later, right now I'm going for a much needed shower."
Both Barbara and I watched Kate leave in mutual silence; we didn't look at each other.
"Are you free today, Huntress?" Barbara finally asked; her face impassive, her voice even. I felt a tight cramp clutching at my chest.
I nodded, not sure of what to say or do. I felt it as if I were falling into a black pit of darkness. Just looking at her made me want her, need her... But she seemed so aloof; I didn't know what to do. So I did what I always had done when I was uncertain of something: I pretended I didn't care.
"You wanted something?" I asked and stepped out of the ring. She had stopped a few feet away and didn't come closer. She eyed me almost cautiously.
"I thought maybe we could talk..."
"Sure." I shrugged. "Need a shower first, though. Fine with you?" I arched an eyebrow at her and she nodded.
"Of course. I don't allege to hold any claim over you."
It was plainly said, without either accusation or hurt. I remember her being that way in the beginning, but her words made me flinch.
"Fine, then", I said gruffly and passed her at a safe distance. Fuck, fuck, fuck! Why don't I just tell her what I... what I want? What the hell is wrong with me? God - I miss her!
"I'll wait for you in my room... here at the Clock Tower", she called after me. I raised an arm and waved at her without looking back at her.
I had a shower, but I couldn't stop wondering what Barbara wanted to talk to me about. Even if I wanted to see her as quickly as possible I didn't want to seem too eager either, so I deliberately prolonged the shower and the choosing of clothes - even if there wasn't much to choose from. I settled on the blue and red t-shirt I had been given on my first stay at the Clock Tower - it had a rose on it - and a pair of dark trousers.
Here we go, I thought when I was finally done. How did that saying go again? To grab the bull by the horns...? Or was it its balls?
Barbara waited for me, sitting in the armchair in her front room - the lounge, as I called it. It was there we had shared our first kiss - or second, technically speaking, but I really didn't count the first as a proper kiss. I had come back to the Clock Tower late one night... She had been waiting for me by the windows then, with her back towards the door, and later there had been this vulnerable expression in her eyes I still hadn't forgotten.
She had told me she loved me.
"Helena..." There was a catch in her voice that didn't show on her face, or in her eyes. She silenced and I waited in the doorway. "Won't you - won't you come in?" she finally asked and gestured towards the sofa beside her.
I closed the door behind me, remembering that first time we kissed. I doubted we would end up making love this time, but my whole being hoped for it and I wasn't going to interrupt anything that might happen to get up to close a fucking door.
She rose from the armchair as I moved forward. As she did so I stopped in the middle of the room.
"You wanted to talk to me?" I could hear my own voice; it was sharp and indifferent at the same time.
Barbara nodded. "I did. I haven't... I haven't seen you for a few days."
"I've been busy. Working, patrolling..."
"Patrolling, yes." She nodded and seemed slightly distracted, or maybe it was thoughtful.
I had been patrolling, but I had done so on my own terms - without Dinah and without Oracle's voice in my ear. I had also gone back to patrolling the shadier streets of Old Gotham.
I had cut myself off from the Clock Tower and the friends I had found there. From the love I had found there. Why? I couldn't answer that. I wasn't a particularly self-analytical person - I went where my emotions took me and most of the time... Most of the time, I had to agree, they led me completely astray. Rage, hurt, pain - it amounted to the same thing: I ended up alone and brooding and with a desperate urge to bash someone's head in.
Then Barbara looked straight at me with her green, intense eyes and said: "I have the feeling you've been avoiding me. Could you please tell me if it's so, or if I only imagine it?"
As if Barbara Gordon would ever imagine something. If she saw something then that was the way it was - not like me, who feared illusions and fed them with my fear until they were more real than reality itself.
I didn't know what to say. I looked at her and she took a step towards me with something pleadingly in her eyes that I didn't recognize.
"Helena, please... If you want out, just say so. But maybe, maybe you could just stay until we've dealt with Snake and the Joker. I... I need you to take care of Dinah..."
I kept on staring at her, while the sense of falling into an abyss became even stronger - it felt as if the abyss was closing in on me, burying me in its mass. I couldn't speak.
"I don't... want to lose you, but I don't want to tie you down either. If you've tired of me, please just... let me know. Please, tell it to my face. Don't shut me out like this..."
I gasped, shaking my head. "No, no, no..." I said incoherently. She frowned and this time I noticed that her eyes were moist. She was on the verge of tears and I was just... You are a fucking ass, Helena Kyle! You can't judge a person for shit!
"I love you", I hurriedly said, before everything went wrong. I had seen enough of damn romantic movies were relationships got messed up because people didn't tell each other they loved each other. Fuck - and what have I been doing these past few days? "I love you and please let me finish..." I knew she would, I just didn't know what I was going to say. So I silenced and stared at her again.
"Are you... still jealous about Dick?" she asked hesitantly. "You seemed to be fine with him after my visit to the hospital. You were fine until we went to Nan Rover..."
"You changed", I said before I had time to catch myself. "You changed..." I repeated and I realized that was when the problem started.
She frowned, apparently not seeing my point. "I..."
"You changed!" I wanted to dig at her as I had with Kate, but caught myself. "You became all..." - I waved my hand, not finding the words to describe what I had been experiencing - "strange and distant. It was as if I didn't mean anything to you anymore... And", I went on, warming to the subject now. "I'm not even sure I do. I mean, sometimes I'm the world to you - or so you say... And in the next moment you talk about some technical gadget I don't get the first thing about. Why do you even do that? You know I'm not as smart as you, you know I don't have a degree in... whatever - anything! You know I'm just... Fuck!" I lost the words, but Barbara was still looking at me, listening.
"I didn't know this was such a big problem for you", she said after awhile, when I remained silent.
"Well, no - me neither", I said grumpily, almost not audible.
There was a slight frown on Barbara's face when she said: "Helena, your gift is your meta-human abilities - mine... is my mind. It's all I've got. Don't you think I sometimes believe you would be happier with someone that could give you a real challenge and maybe once in awhile kick your ass? Don't you think I... sometimes fear you would leave me because I won't be what you need, or want in regards to speed and physical strength?"
Again I was at loss for words. Again I only stared at her. "Really?" I finally managed to ask; it was more of a whisper.
"Yeah, really", she said, nodding.
"How...? How do you... deal with it?"
She smiled then and my heart lurched wildly behind my ribs. "I trust you mean it when you say you love me... And I trust what I see in your eyes when you watch me, thinking that I don't notice."
I blushed at that and I noticed the compassion and the love in her eyes when she observed it.
"I trust the way you touch me when we make love, and the way you kiss me. When I have doubts I look at you and in your eyes I see all I need to know. In time, if..." She hesitated, with a brief, vulnerable glance at me. "In time, if we stay together, I know this trust will grow and I won't doubt your love for me. I will know, even if you are not there to look at me and to smile at me, that you love me."
I swallowed, moved by her words. No one had ever spoken to me like that.
"Helena, this is still so new to us... For both of us. Neither of us trusts easily and neither of us... believes we are entitled to be happy. In some ways we are still strangers to each other, it will take time to get to know each other completely and to function as a couple. As we did the other night." She looked at me. "You know, when we only talked."
I nodded. I had felt it too. It had been one of our best nights, even though we didn't actually do anything.
"And our lives are not the most suitable for a steady relationship..."
"Lousy work hours, getting your brain bashed and getting no credit for it..." I mumbled wryly.
"Things like that, yeah", she said with an easy smile. "But we need to talk. Or to at least let each other know how we feel. We will probably argue, seeing how pigheaded you are..."
"Hey!" I objected, and catching the amused expression in her eyes I made a face at her. "I know someone at least as pigheaded."
"Well, of course - Dinah has picked up on some of your lesser qualities", Barbara countered effortlessly. "I'm working on ridding her of them."
"Damn", I said softly, more to myself than to her. I remembered Dick's words to me one of the first times we met. "Don't challenge her - you won't win!" But I loved a challenge. At that moment, though, I let her have it.
"But seriously", she went on, catching my eyes. "If there's something you are upset with, you should just let me know."
"I... It's just that - sometimes I don't know there is a problem. I didn't know it upset me that you sometimes just... drift off someplace, when you are working. It's difficult for me, because..." I blushed. "I want to be the centre of your attention."
She smiled at that. "You are the centre of my attention - just not all the time. I have..." She frowned.
"Duties, responsibilities - I know." I gestured, annoyed at myself. "I know that, I just don't understand how you do it. Your mind works at so many different levels at the same time - it's difficult for mere mortals to keep up. I believe I feel inferior to you..."
"The way I feel inferior to you when I struggle to lift not even the heaviest weight and you pretend you have to struggle to lift the heaviest one?" Barbara asked ironically with an arched eyebrow. I blushed again.
"Shit", I mumbled. "Couldn't you just... pretend you didn't know that?"
She looked at me and her smiled died out. "There is more to it, isn't it?"
I nodded. There was something else that had been gnawing at me. "We are so secret all the time. Secret missions, secret identities..."
"Secret loves...?" she asked softly.
I nodded. "I... I know what your life is like - always in the spotlight for one or another charity event or business convention, but..."
"Will you marry me?"
I blinked. "What...?" My voice was hardly audible and I was looking for clues in her face to find out if she was pulling my leg, but her expression was more sincere than I had ever seen it and her eyes... They seemed to burn holes in me.
"Will you marry me, Helena Kyle?"
I swallowed and suddenly felt eerily light headed.
"I will give you the grandest wedding ever seen - with the highest officials from around the world as guests, with the most expensive designers and interior-decorators and wedding planers. I will tell the world and show the world who has won my heart."
"Would you...? Would you do that for me?" I whispered.
"I'd do anything for you", she said, as sincerely as before - but then her more humorous side surfaced for a moment and she made a face. "Unless it involves dancing naked at New Gotham City Square or having a threesome", she added wryly.
"Helena... I don't like keeping our relationship a secret anymore than you do. I just thought... I thought it would be better for you to begin with. You're not used to the hysterical attention one can get from the media."
"I've had a taste of it, living with you lately", I said.
"I did kiss you at the hospital", she said and I blushed again, remembering that kiss.
"Uh hum", I said, tight mouthed.
"And I told Wade..."
I blinked, surprised. "You did?"
"Yes, I did. He took it surprisingly well, considering. I think he felt better about it, actually, than he would have had I been seeing a man." She frowned. "He did say it explained a lot of things and I'm still not sure if I ought to take that as an insult or as a compliment."
The latter, I thought, but didn't say anything. Instead I looked at her and said: "I would accept your offer, but I don't believe there are legal same-sex marriages."
"Who cares?" Barbara waved her hand with an air of confidence. "We make our own ceremony and invite family and friends and everyone who wants to come. And the press - they will need to know. They can spread the news." She smiled fondly at me. "Will you?"
Again I felt a heavy pressure on my chest, but this time I was fighting tears of happiness. "I think I finally will need to get myself a mask, then."
It made her laugh and I just melted, hearing that laughter.
"Oh, Helena - you don't know how much I've missed you these past days", she said and moved towards me.
"I have an inkling", I mumbled as I reached for her. She had time to touch my face with her fingers before I pulled her close to me and kissed her.
"I have a plan", Barbara said after our lovemaking. I rested my head on her naked chest and could hear the steady, rhythmical beatings of her heart. I closed my eyes and sighed happily.
"Of course I do."
Her tone of voice made me chuckle.
"But Helena, I need you to..."
"Take care of Dinah", I said seriously. "I know."
"That too." Barbara hesitated. "I need you to trust me, I need you to know that... Even though my mind is someplace else it doesn't mean I love you less."
I swallowed and nodded.
"It's like... When you fight, you need to concentrate on the fight - there's no way you could consider me at the same moment when you are fighting for your life. Or, if you do, it could distract you enough to get you killed..."
Tell me about it, I thought. It had happened a few times in the beginning - when Batgirl and I fought together I would suddenly be distracted by the way she moved, her voice, even the fucking way her hair moved behind her. It had earned me a couple of nicks.
"It doesn't mean you forget me. My mind works that same way too - when I ponder a question I do kind of block everything that's not related to the matter from my mind. And emotions are too distracting so I block them too. The point is... Since I fell in love with you my mind is even sharper than before and only the knowledge that you are around, wherever you are at the moment my mind is working, makes me concentrate even better and come to more accurate conclusions. You... make me a better thinker."
"And you make me a better fighter", I said - which was true, despite the first week's... misfortunes.
"Before you I was too serious - but you make me relax, you question me and you make me laugh at myself and at the seriousness of the subjects. I've come to realize I need that. And", Barbara added sharply, looking down at me, "if I ever hear you call yourself dumb again I'm personally gonna lobotomize you and then we can talk about dumbness. I need you and I love you just the way you are."
"I get that now, thank you", I said and spun around to look at her. She was so beautiful. I grinned at her. "Do I get a wedding ring?"
Later in the evening, following Helena's and my making up and lovemaking, we were all gathered at the headquarters in the Clock Tower. We had pulled up some chairs and sat assembled in a semi-circle in front of Delphi.
"Helena says you have a plan", Kate said.
I nodded. I had thought it over; I wasn't sure it would work, but it was worth a try. "We need a battle-field", I said. "It's always an advantage if you can make your own choice in that regard."
"You've found a place?" Huntress asked, looking intently at me and I nodded.
"I have." I held her gaze a moment longer than necessary, contemplating how only a few hours ago she had moaned beneath me and made me feel like a true woman again. I had missed her desperately those past five days and the thought of her leaving me had left me with a cold dread. She had started acting strangely since she returned to my house that morning after the visit to Nan Rover: oddly aloof and indifferent. Maybe in her eyes I had been acting strange too - or so she had said. And instead of talking to each other about it we had just... alienated each other.
I knew I wasn't an easy person to live with - I'd had enough men like Wade telling me that - and I guessed I had to be aware of my flaws to prevent something like that happening again. Although, it did take two to tango and we would have to work on our relationship together. I reckoned that was part of the challenge and the adventure of being in a relationship. And if you wanted it badly enough - you would live the vision, not only dream about it.
Before coming to the meeting I had made a special order with one of the finest jewellers in the country. Two wedding-rings in white gold. Helena didn't know about it, it was going to be a surprise. I hoped she would like them: I had given a description of what I wanted to the jeweller and he had promised to send me a picture of a prototype in the morning by e-mail. I realized I was looking forward to seeing it. The cat and the bat...
The idea of marriage had been playing in my mind for a while now, although Helena and I had just begun dating. Maybe it was crazy, getting married to someone you hardly knew - even if "married" probably wasn't the proper word for what we were going to do, although it would mean the same. But Helena... I had known the first time we made love that Helena/Huntress was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I had known true love once and I had despaired of ever finding it again. I knew what was real and what wasn't - and I would give up anything within reason to keep what was real for the rest of my life.
I turned to Delphi and pushed some buttons to find the right screen. "This", I said, showing them the abandoned steel-factory protruding like an enormous fortress on a small island right outside Gotham's coast. There was a bridge leading straight to it, but it had been closed off since the factory shut down. "This factory shut down only two months ago", I said. "There was trouble with the owner and the workers went on strike. The union was involved, but it ended when the owner turned out to be a gambler and was exposed as being bankrupt. The factory had to be closed, no one offered to buy it and the workers had to go."
"That sucks", Kate said.
"Oh, don't worry", Dick said, smiling at me. He had removed his bandage - the "duct tape", as he put it - and looked considerably better without it, despite the fact that he still wore a substantial bruise right between his eyes; it was a wonder Helena hadn't crushed his nose. "Barbara got them settled", he told Kate. "Some had to move to other parts of the country, but they didn't seem to mind. They were just happy they had a job."
Kate looked at me. "You really do have contacts, don't you?"
I simply shrugged. "What's the use of having money and fame if you can't use it for the greater good?"
"Wish everyone was as considerate", Kate mumbled.
"Any way - I've been scouting" - I noticed Helena's sudden look at me, but tried to ignore it; she had been patrolling somewhere and cut off her intercom, so I had had no way of contacting her that night - "and this place is ideal for us. We can fight and we can hide in there. I've printed the drawings showing both the interior and the exterior - I want you all to study those and memorize them as best you can: stairs, corridors, boiler-room, basement, roof... Everything. We'll go there soon, to match the prints with reality. Any questions?"
"You want us to face Moonkiller there?" Kate asked.
"Yes. You have told us Moonkiller... or Snake, as I would like to rename him, abducts his victims on the first day of the full moon. He will find Dinah. At the factory Dick and I will join powers and... hopefully kill that ancient god, who apparently refuses to stay dead."
"You are using Dinah as bait", Kate said, looking at the girl.
"There's no other way", Dick said seriously. "If there was..." He silenced and looked at me.
"He will come for her and there is no other force in this world that can stop him, but Dick and I", I said. "Therefore..."
"I need to be where you are", Dinah said and nodded. "I get it. Don't worry." She made a face. "I'll show that snake what a hawk does to crawling beasts."
"Way to go, sparrow", Huntress said with a grin.
"I'm soon putting on my mask", Dinah said, faking a sulking attitude. "I can't stand hearing you calling me that again..."
"What about the Joker?" Kate turned to me.
"Yeah, I've been thinking", I said. "At first I was pissed at the lousy timing that he escaped right now, with Snake and all, but then it hit me - the timing couldn't be more perfect." I looked at Dick.
"Your powers", Huntress said and nodded. "I see."
"Dick and I, and even Kate, have powers now that the Joker won't expect. But, and here's the rub - I believe these powers to be only temporary. We only have them right now to defeat Snake."
"You mean Kate will lose her powers again?" Helena looked at Kate. "What a bummer."
Kate smiled softly. "I won't care as long as I survive."
"Yeah, I imagine that goes for all of us", I agreed. "Now - today I will send an invitation to the Joker. I will ask him to meet us at the steel-factory on the same night as we're expecting Snake."
"Is that wise?" Dick wondered. "Fighting on two fronts?"
"I know, but if try to fight the Joker earlier... We could fail and one of us could be dead. Who will then stop Snake?" I turned to Kate, Helena and Dinah one at a time. "You three - it will be your mission to stop the Joker. And Kate and Huntress - I charge you two to keep Dinah alive."
The two women - one blond and one dark - nodded.
"Now - we need to go through everything we know about Snake and the Joker. We begin with the Joker. Kate?" I looked at the private investigator.
"Right." She straightened in her chair and pulled out a notepad. "I've spoken to Reese. He's been keeping me informed about the case" - she glanced at me - "apparently on Commissioner Drakes command."
"I was engaged to his brother - he does whatever I ask him to", I said. Kate knew parts of my past, but she didn't know any details about Mike's death. She knew almost everything about Patch Parker, but not that I killed his mother in cold blood. I suddenly wondered what she would think of that.
Kate nodded. "There have been a few break-ins that could be attributed to the Joker. The latest in a chemical lab. In neither case has there been any trace of the Joker, but always the calling card: the Joker. In one case there was a surveillance camera, but all the recording showed was a blurred motion in front of the screen before the camera was smashed. Technicians blame it on technical disturbances, caused by some technical gadget I wouldn't be able to name..."
"Welcome to the club", Huntress mumbled, then grinned at me. I returned the smile.
"So, you were probably right about the camouflage", Dick said. "Cam was a Chameleon, not invisible."
"Perhaps", I said.
"That's all the police got. There are no traces of him." Kate flipped over her notepad and put it back in the breast-pocket of her denim-shirt.
"There's some talk in Old Gotham, though", Helena said. "He has recruited some idiots to work for him. No metas, though - except for Shadow, as far as we know."
"Good. Thanks, Huntress", I said with a grateful smile. Then I added: "There are still some questions in regards to the Joker."
"Why didn't Patch rescue him from prison?" Dick asked.
"And how about his insanity?" Helena said, gesturing seemingly upset. "When did he become sane? Well, if he ever could be called that..."
"The warden of Arkam Asylum has on my request faxed me copies of the Visitor's book at the prison and also some other information. Through this I now know two things: who visited the Joker and who his cellmate was."
"Tell us", Dick said.
"Patch, right?" Kate said almost immediately. "His son visited him?"
I nodded. "He did. Patch visited Arkam twice. The first time was the day before the riot at Arkam Asylum."
Dick whistled. "But why didn't he rescue him?"
"I don't think that was his intention. The warden told me that his source had informed him that when Patch left Arkam the first time he didn't look happy and the Joker had been making fun of him. The guards remembered Patch because of his eyes..."
"His eyes?" Kate asked.
"They were mismatched", Dinah explained.
"Patchy was..." I paused. I could still remember his words and the look in his eyes... I hadn't talked to anyone about what went on between Patchy and me on that roof, that night when he died. "I only wanted someone to love me..." I would always carry that with me, the knowledge that some bad guys could have been different had they had a different life. Just like Helena or I could have become... killers. Life wasn't black and white and sometimes it was hard making out the true colors. "I think Patch went to see his father to tell him about his achievements and his plans. I think the Joker, either because of his insanity or because he is what he is, laughed him down. At the time of the riot at Arkam we didn't know the connection between Patch and the Joker. There was no reason for us to ask why the Joker wasn't rescued. I have considered the event and I believe Patch caused a riot only to show his father he was serious and that he was someone to be counted on. Maybe the plan to rescue Clayface was born at that first meeting with the Joker - a secondary effect, if you will, of his plan to kill me. Patch wanted to show the Joker he could obliterate both Selena Kyle's daughter and me - he wanted Clayface to do it, to close the circle. Clayface had failed once; he would get a second chance."
"Closure", Helena mumbled and I glanced at her with a slight nod.
"So the riot at Arkam was nothing more than a..." Kate searched for words. "What? A childish attempt to win his fathers approval?"
"Yes." I nodded.
That was the sad thing about Patchy - he had had his own secret identity, so secret it had been mostly hidden even from himself: a part of him wanted to be a good man. A part of him wanted to be a hero. Be it to his father, or to the world. But that wish was so deeply buried within him, beneath the debris of hate and rage he had collected since his mother was killed, that it didn't get a chance to show its true face.
"The second visit came the day before he killed himself. We can only imagine what went on between them then. Had the Joker realized his son was someone to be proud of and to count on getting him out of jail? Did Patch plan a second escape to free the Joker? We don't know. We busted his headquarter and Patch killed himself. But..." I silenced.
"Patch told the Joker about the converter", Dick said. He had risen from his chair while I was talking and was pacing in front of us. "He told him where he had hid it, in case something happened to him."
"When Shadow escaped he simply took the Joker with him. He had served his son, he could serve the father", Helena said. "And they say there is 'no loyalty amongst thieves'. Huh!"
"Unless the escape was the Joker's plan", Kate mused. "The riot at Arkam and his son's death must have affected him in some ways. Perhaps he finally snapped out of the insanity."
"What about his cellmate?" Dinah asked, looking at me. "You said something...?"
"His cellmate for two months... is a former psychologist and hypnotist, by the name of..."
"Oh, my...!" Dinah gasped. "Really? Larry Ketterly?"
"Imagine my surprise", I said dryly. "The warden told me they thought the Joker and the Shrink, as they call him, would be a perfect match."
"Who is this... Shrink?" Kate wondered.
"Yeah", Helena said, looking questioningly at Dinah and me. "You mentioned him a few days ago, didn't you?"
"He was a serial killer we faced a few years back", I explained. "Not a very pleasant type. He had Nightwing trying to kill Batman..."
Dick shuddered. "I remember the feeling. It felt much like the same as what happened to me the other day, which caused this..." He touched his forehead. "Like someone else was in my mind."
"In a way someone was", I said. "Dr. Ketterly was a psychologist experimenting with hypnotisms and neurology. To begin with he had an idealistic vision to help people with his uncanny ability to enter other people's minds that he developed, but a talent like that... It twisted him. In the end he crossed the line and began killing his own patients."
"They keep him on medication that neutralizes his abilities", Dick added. "To keep him from harming others."
"Ketterly was placed with the Joker for a reason", I said. "The warden told me one of the guards had found it funny - like a match made in heaven. It had been done over the heads, or under the noses in this case, of the ordinary decision makers. The warden didn't know anything about it until a few weeks later - at the time the Joker had seemed to improve so they let the Shrink stay with him."
"Great!" Helena threw out her arms. "They cured the worst super villain of them all."
"Well, yeah - but that's not the whole point. You see, that guard that placed them together. It turned out he was bribed to do so... By a young guy with mismatched eyes."
"Oh, god", Dick sighed and hid his face in his hands. I could only nod. Patch had done his homework. I could only grieve for the loss of such brilliance in the world; he would have done wonders if he had been one of the good guys.
"Imagine this", I said. "Dr. Ketterly somehow manages to cure the Joker... either with his abilities or just by his vast knowledge of... Well, of insane people. What happens then?"
"The Joker kills him", Kate said slowly. "There was a mention of a dead convict on the news, connected to the Jokers escape. Reese mentioned it too, but not even he knew who it was."
"I asked them to keep it quiet", I said. "The Joker likes to get credit for what he has done - I wasn't giving him that one. Some people would see him as a savior for killing the Shrink and he is anything but."
"Agreed", Dick said with a chill in his voice.
"Eventually it will leak out, but until then he will rage for not been given the credit he deserves."
We lapsed into a thoughtful silence as we considered what had been discussed. Then Dinah turned her head towards Kate and brought us back to the present and the next issue on our agenda.
"About... Snake. You said the other day that you had some evidence consistent with... whatever we went through in a past life."
It surprised me slightly how naturally Dinah took the past lives-business. Perhaps it was the dreams she'd had.
Kate had already told me about the evidence, but I listened as she informed the others.
"On the last girl there were found traces of a previously unknown specie of snake. It had also human-DNA in it, but it was considered worthless as so much was messed up with the snake-DNA. It was found mixed with the girl's own blood, taken from her chin, right above the cut. The girl was examined, but there was no other trace of snake on her or in the surroundings - except on the tree she was hanging from, right where the rope tied her to the branch and this was also mixed with her blood. It was speculated that a snake had passed by and continued on its way."
"And no one thought it could somehow be connected to the killer?" Helena asked.
"At first, yes. But there hadn't been any traces on the other girls. It's possible that it just hadn't been discovered because it hadn't been looked for. It was proposed that we dig up the other girls to check for it. We thought maybe the killer dealt with foreign snakes in some ways."
"But it hasn't been done?" Dick asked.
"No, not that it would do much good right now. Right?" Kate looked at Dick and us and I shook my head. "You mentioned some ritual?" she added.
"The 'uprising', yeah. The ritual varies, depending on your ultimate victim. In this case she is young, blond and a virgin..."
Dinah blushed. I hope, I thought distractedly when I noticed Helena's grin.
"The ritual, which is a remnant from the past life we were living and doesn't exist in this world, states that the kill needs to be copied six times, to let the final kill be the seventh. Seven was a holy number for our gods..."
"I remember", Kate nodded. "The princess was the seventh daughter."
"They were all killed by the full moon", Helena said, looking pale for the first time. Perhaps she too blamed herself for that night.
"Why not kill everybody at once over one full moon?" Dinah asked, also slightly pale. "Wouldn't that have saved him time?"
"Perhaps it must be done this way in this world, in this time..." I shrugged. "I really don't know. I do know he will come for you the next time." Or it has something to do with the pattern, I suddenly thought as I remembered my reaction when Kate first came to see me in my office. Maybe he didn't know what he was looking for, or who he was looking for, until the pattern had been set... I wondered what that meant.
There was a moment's silence.
"So, Snake is really a meta-human - with powers like a demon?" Kate finally said.
"We don't know what powers demons have", Helena said and her attempt at sounding even when she looked at Kate made me smile.
"Yes, probably", I said. "Snake needed to bathe in the blood of six victims before Dinah. When he has bathed in hers he will not only win her powers, but also increase his own powers. I remember him bringing darkness the last time we faced him. He clouded the skies..."
"I remember him as a gigantic snake", Dick said with a nod.
"Me too", Kate said with a shudder.
"He had his own army", Dinah said. "They had a... cobra on their chests. They brought war upon the land afterwards."
"Ah - Boyd", I said. "Imagine that." I remembered the face of the business man who had tried to kill me a few months before. I also remembered the face of a special force's guard within the empire. The eyes were the same, even if the faces were different. Different times, a different world, two different men with the same soul.
"Everything is connected, isn't it?" Dinah said, sounding stunned.
I nodded. We carry our consequences with us through our lives, be they good or bad. "Dinah - the force field?"
Dinah nodded and rose. "I've been practicing", she said and closed her eyes in concentration. After a few seconds she gasped softly as a bluish, vibrating force field materialized around her and completely surrounded her. She opened her eyes and looked at us. I could see her lips move as she said something, but couldn't hear her voice.
"Wow, Dinah - that's amazing!" Dick said, wide-eyed.
Dinah grimaced, again mouthing something at us that we didn't hear.
"What does it do?" Helena asked and stepped closer. She reached for the force field.
"No!" Dinah's scream suddenly echoed in the room as the force field dissolved just as Helena's hand went through it. Helena was left with a hand in the air and Dinah was scowling hard at her. "Madness, Huntress! Have you never heard - curiosity killed the cat?"
"Um, must have missed that", Helena said sheepishly. "What does it do?" she added.
"It protects me, from everything. Anything that touches it just goes... sizzling. Poof!" Dinah gestured with her hands.
"Really?" Helena said amazed.
"Really", Dinah said sternly, looking at her. "Wanna test it?"
"Um, no - I trust you, sparrow." Helena grinned.
"Fine! That's it!" I'm putting on my mask!"
As Dinah fumbled with her mask, tied to her belt, I watched the others.
"The Joker is bound to have some insurance when he comes to meet us - something nasty like a nuclear bomb or poison for the city's water reserves. Anything. We won't know what it is and he won't tell us until it is too late for us to do anything about it."
"We need Dinah to get close to him", Helena said. "Maybe she can tell."
"Right. And when we know we phone Reese. As Batgirl I will inform him and Commissioner Drake to keep all resources at hand that night. We will probably need it to save the city." I took a deep breath. "How does that sound as a battle plan?"
"I will be sure to let you know once we have survived", Dick said wryly.
"If we survive", Helena said looking at me. Then she grinned. "If we don't... I'll kick your butt in our next life."
That was it. That was our plan. Get the enemies together and kick their asses. I liked that - it would save me from dying of boredom. Talking just wasn't my thing.
Over the following days we practiced, studied, planned and practiced some more. I had a natural skill with weapons, but my main advantage was my genetically enhanced speed and strength and my martial arts skills. Or it had been, until I found myself with a sword in my hand.
Kate's hunch had been right: we were both extremely professional in swordplay, although she had never used one before and I had only used one a couple of times when training with my mother. Kate and I swung the swords like two experienced warriors - just like Xena - and the ringing of steel became as normal a sound in the Clock Tower as lightning and winds with the strength of hurricanes.
Barbara and I made a point of touching base with each other every day, so we wouldn't end up hurting again. We talked and shared plans and ideas with each other, but it wasn't until the night before the showdown I finally realized something. It was a frightening thought and that was probably why it hadn't occurred to me before: it scared me shitless.
"Barbara", I said as we were preparing to go to bed.
"Uhum?" she said, brushing her teeth in the bathroom. She looked at me in the mirror with an arched eyebrow.
God - how can I love someone so much? I thought and forgot what I was about for a moment. Then, because the realization was connected with my love for her, I instantly remembered. I let her finish brushing her teeth and we returned to her bedroom - our bedroom - at the Clock Tower.
"You wanted to talk about something?"
I did. I didn't know how to bring it up, so I went straight ahead - as always. "You don't expect to survive, do you?" I said in a strained voice.
She gasped softly and reached for me, instantly seeing and wanting to soothe my pain. "Helena..."
"I suddenly realized..." I said, again fighting to find the right words. "I suddenly remembered when you were so afraid, that day..." That day only two weeks ago - although it felt like a lifetime - when she fell down in the arena and I carried her to her bedroom. There had been real fear in her eyes then, real fear for me to soothe. But I had been scared too and she had needed to care for me. I had not seen that fear since. I knew it wasn't because she hid it from me, but because she had come to terms with what she thought would be her fate. "Your talk about marriage and..."
"No", she said immediately, sternly, and put a finger to my lips. Her eyes didn't let go of mine. "No, don't think that. I plan for the future because I'm going to do everything I can to survive. Everything - do you hear me?"
I nodded. It wasn't wise to challenge her when she talked like that.
"Yes, I believe there is a possibility that I will die. I don't rule that out. There is always a possibility that I will die, doing what we are doing - but this time is different. This time I don't know what we are facing and the only thing we do know is that I died the last time we faced it. I wasn't strong enough to defeat him then and I don't know if I am now. But..." She caressed my cheek. "I am resolved to survive. I am resolved to marry you. Remember what Nan Rover said? She said we should envision our dreams and they would come true. Well, that's what I'm doing - I'm envisioning."
I took a deep breath. "But, Barbara..."
"I feel helpless", I said. "I wish there was something I could do, but there isn't... This is for you and Dick alone and I..." I almost sobbed. "I can't stand losing you again."
"Hush, kitten", she said softly and kissed me. When she pulled back she dried the tears off my cheeks. "The more my powers grow the more I remember that life, so long ago and far away. It was my decision to invite you to my bed that night. All the blame was mine; none of it fell on you. Not the death of the Emperor's family, or mine. I invited you - I let you come to me..."
"But if I had resisted... If I had been strong and..." I swallowed. Could I have denied her? Would I ever be able to deny her, in any lifetime? "I couldn't save you from the fire and then I lost Dinah. Dick took her away from me, because... because I wasn't worthy anymore."
"He did what he thought was right", Barbara said. "We all do, one way or another. In this life you are a hero. In this life you are worthy. And you will remain worthy. I trust you fully."
"I failed..." I whispered.
"We all did", she said. "I failed the most. I failed you... I never let you know until the very end that I loved you."
"I remember", I said, still whispering. Flames licking the interior of the temple, burning, burning... Barbara, the priestess, turning from the flames towards me. "I love you..." Her last words as she stepped into the flames.
"I think that's why it is so important to me now that I'm allowed to show you my love. Helena..." Barbara smiled softly at me.
"Let go of the past. All of it. We are here and now. And we will prevail." She kissed me and leaned forward, whispering in my ear. "And if we die I will find you again. I will always find you."
Then she kissed me again and I forgot everything else, but her hands and lips and oh, so lovely, naked skin...
We crossed the bridge to the island just before twilight: Kate and Nightwing rode on his bike; Batgirl rode her own and Ladyhawk rode with me. We had been nervous the whole day that Snake would turn up and snatch Dinah from the Clock Tower, but nothing had happened. Kate had said the other girls had last been seen at twilight, so Snake was bound to turn up soon. And the Joker probably already waited for us at the closed down factory.
When we arrived at the grey area and parked our bikes by the fence surrounding the massive steel building there was a low, humming noise from inside.
"He has started up the machines", Barbara said.
"The Joker?" Kate asked, walking towards her. They stood together and watched the dark building looming straight before us while Dick and I kept an eye on Dinah. Both Kate and I carried long swords at our sides.
I made a face. "It will be hell on my sensitive ears", I said. Batgirl turned around and grinned at me.
"It makes you a better fighter when you are in pain, kitten."
"Shall we?" Nightwing went forward with Ladyhawk at his side.
Batgirl nodded with a grim face. "Lets", she said frostily.
We entered the factory through a small steel backdoor; it closed behind us with a thundering sound and we stopped to look around, crouching in the shadows.
We had visited the factory before, just as Barbara had planned, and I remembered the dark and the damp smell, but at that moment it also smelt of heated metal, of tar and oil and burning flames. The noise was already deafening even though we hadn't entered the main working area yet.
"Why did he do this?" Ladyhawk asked; it was hardly audible over the din.
"To distract us", Kate answered. The sword hung at her side, but she held a gun in her hands. She looked like a real cop - except for the sword.
"To amuse himself", Nightwing added.
"Come on", Batgirl said and waved at us. We followed her, hiding in the shadows. We knew where we were heading: to one of the main halls, where a large area of the floor would be cleared and it would be difficult for Snake to hide if he wanted Dinah. The downside was that the Joker or his men could more easily take a shot at us.
"I feel their presence", Ladyhawk said. "I think they know we're here."
Batgirl only nodded.
Dinah had wanted to use her rollerblades that night, but both Barbara and I had objected. We knew she was a professional roller, who could do more tricks than the best of them - flipping in the air, running up and down stairs as if on flat ground - but the factory wasn't a place for rollerblades and one mistake could cost her her life.
Ordinarily we would have split up, but with Snake on his way we needed to stick together to protect Ladyhawk. I knew she hated being the cause of all this mess, but she handled herself well. Again I was amazed at her composure. I hadn't had half her maturity at her age, only concerning myself with boys and clothes.
Suddenly a gunshot echoed and we took cover. The bullet hit the floor a few feet ahead of Batgirl. It had hardly hit the floor before one of her batarangs left her hand, then another. The black stars swirled in the air with a speed impossible to follow. I couldn't see what Batgirl was aiming at, as there was a tower of steel-barrels in my way, but I imagined one of the batarangs hit its target as we heard a low scream of pain and then the sound of ringing metal. The shooter must have dropped his gun and it must have fallen down some stairs, because the ringing went on for a while. Batgirl threw another batarang, catching one of the others as it came back down to her.
"He's out", she whispered, waving us forward. "Huntress - his gun..."
"Here, use these..." Kate handed me a couple of hand-cuffs and I nodded. I moved quickly and silently towards the stairs behind the steel-barrels where a slender built man was laying head down, with his arms spread. I emptied his gun and threw away the magazine, before I cuffed the unconscious man to a steel-pipe at the foot of the stairs. Judging by the bump on the side of his forehead he'd be out for a while.
As I straightened another man came running at me from the stairs. He seemed to come out of nowhere from the shadows and he aimed a high kick at me. I moved aside and felt his foot graze my shoulder, before I smashed him in the face. He fell hard on his back on the stairs and remained motionless.
"Alright, Huntress?" Batgirl asked in the intercom.
"Idiot man, did he really think that would work? Why didn't he just aim at me?"
I heard Batgirl chuckle in my ear. "Men", she said pointedly.
"I heard that!" Nightwing interrupted. "Don't judge us all by one idiot..."
"Would a dozen do?" Kate asked with a soft laugh; she had borrowed spare intercom jewellery from Barbara.
Nightwing sighed exaggeratedly as we moved on.
We slipped ahead in the dark for at least five more minutes without anything happening. The noise and the smell from the machines was all around us; thumping engines, blazing fires, the grinding of metal against metal... And the shadows, the steel of the interior and the concrete floor.
Then suddenly, to our surprise, we found a dead guy on the floor. He was lying on his back beneath a ledge several feet up, leading to an open vault. There were no stairs nearby.
"He's all... blue", Ladyhawk remarked, noting the guys face. "What do you think happened? Did he fall down?" She looked up at the ledge. A gun was lying discarded a few inches away from her feet.
"He's dead..." Kate said. She had knelt and taken the pulse.
"I could have told you that", I said dryly. If the guy's blue face hadn't told me, the fact that his neck was broken would have.
Kate shook her head. "Look at these marks..." She lifted his arms and showed us dark, twisting bruises. "It's like something crushed him to death."
"Crushed?" Ladyhawk said. "You mean, like an elephant stepping on him?"
I looked at her. "Where do you get it all from?" I asked, genuinely amazed. "How would they get an Elephant in here?"
"It was just a metaphor", Ladyhawk said, shrugging.
Kate made a face. "No, more like a snake hugging him to death, crushing each bone in his body."
"He's here." Batgirl looked around with a cautious glance. "And he doesn't like to share his prey..."
Good for us, bad for the Joker, I thought as we moved on, with even more caution this time. Best if he wasn't here at all...
A few minutes later we became witnesses to what had killed the guy beneath the ledge. I had seen a few strange things since I was introduced to the meta-community, but this was by far the most disgusting. On the other hand - I had never really liked snakes.
Two of the Jokers men had been guarding a smaller hall with only one machine. There were two doors: the one we had entered and the one we needed to pass to get to our destination. The machine was a large, bulky thing with a mouth and pointy looking teeth of steel, but it was turned off. On the machine one of the guys was lying with open mouth and dim eyes staring into the beyond. The other guy was at that moment being crushed to death by a human snake.
The meta-human, Snake, was winded precisely like a boa constrictor around the Joker's lackey, slowly crushing each bone in his body. The man was immobile, staring ahead with glazed eyes as the human snake wound itself another time around his body - this time around the face. A few moments later the man's body relaxed, went limp and sagged in the embrace of its enemy.
"Elastic guy", Ladyhawk mumbled. "Like Mr. Fantastic..."
There was nothing fantastic about this creature - it was only immensely gross - as it let go of the dead body and pulled together its own lengthened body. It grew limbs; arms and legs and feet as we watched in stunned silence, until a perfect human stood between us and the door we needed to exit.
The man smiled at us - a smirk, making his eyes glisten. He had yellow, staring eyes - the pupil a black slit, not much different from my own eyes. But there was maliciousness in his expression I had never experienced before; it went straight to my bone and chilled me.
"You have come", he said in a low, hoarse voice, whispering. An extremely long tongue slid out between his teeth and went back in again. He only looked at Dinah, who stood between Kate and I.
In the next moment the snake man was hurled across the room where he hit the farthest wall.
"Run!" Batgirl shouted.
I wanted to turn around and fight the man Ladyhawk had thrown into the wall, but Batgirl grabbed me and pushed me ahead of her - after Dinah.
"Ba...!" I caught myself - I had almost shouted her name.
"I'm coming!" she assured me. "Go!"
Kate went first. She quickly checked the outer hall and waved at us to follow. Batgirl followed behind, closing the door right in front of Snake.
With his powers I expected him to blast open the steel door to come after us, but at first nothing happened as we cautiously moved along the hall, keeping an eye out for the Joker.
"Look!" Ladyhawk whispered and pointed.
I turned to look and noticed something moving beneath the door, at the two inches wide opening between the door and the floor. It was Snake; like his namesake he had flattened himself to the floor and was sliding through. I grimaced. I didn't know why this meta-human disgusted me so - it probably had something to do with the bizarreness of it: at the same time it was a slithering beast it kept its human face intact. It made it all so... macabre.
"Come on", I said, gently pushing Dinah forward.
The hall was large, with several entrances on the ground floor. It was empty except for high piles of large paper boxes in every corner; double piles reaching almost to the ledge running along two walls above us. The ledge was on the short wall behind us and on the longer wall to the left of us. The ledge was protected by a steel railing and had two entrances, one on each wall. A steel stairway was leading up to it right behind Batgirl, who moved ahead of us.
The staircase made me remember that song... Stairway to heaven. I wondered if that was where we were heading...
"Back to the wall", Batgirl ordered; Ladyhawk, Kate and I followed her advice. Above us I heard someone on the ledge and in the next moment I saw three thugs with machine guns moving on the ledge on the wall to the left. Above us I heard cackling laughter, which I remembered from a visit to Arkam Asylum. The Joker had arrived.
"Welcome - to the arena of Death", the Joker said in a distinguished voice; the pitch was slightly off. Only Batgirl could see him, as she was the only one standing far enough out on the floor. Nightwing kept an eye on Snake, who was slithering his way out beneath the door.
"I thought I'd be the one welcoming you, since I invited you here", Batgirl said mockingly.
"Batgirl..." Nightwing said lowly. She didn't turn her head to take her eyes off the Joker, but she knew what Nightwing indicated: Snake was out of the room. I saw him crack his neck to get it into place and then he looked at us and grinned.
"Cover us!" Batgirl called out to the rest of us and Ladyhawk, Kate and I ran up the stairs. On the ledge on the other wall the three thugs aimed at us all.
"No!" The Joker called. "Not yet!"
What happened to Snake I couldn't tell. Ladyhawk shot her blue energy-spheres at the three thugs on the other ledge as we rushed up the stairs. Two of them ducked to safety behind the doorframe, as the third toppled screaming over the ledge.
When we reached the ledge the Joker was gone. Four thugs with guns greeted us. I whirled about and knocked the gun out of the nearest guy's hands.
"There's ten, including Shadow" I heard Batgirl say.
"I need to get to the Joker!" Ladyhawk called as she kicked the gun out of another thug's hands. At her side Kate shot one in the arm and then in the leg, to prevent him from running off.
The fourth aimed and took a shot at Ladyhawk, but in an instant the bluish force field was around her and the bullet melted away. I took care not to touch the force field - it would be ironic if that killed me.
The force field went down almost instantly again and the gun was pulled from the thug's hands by an invisible force.
"You've seen something?" I asked and threw one of our opponents over the railing. Another one followed quickly - courtesy of Kate, who'd seemed to remember she didn't need a gun in a close up fight.
"Maybe, but it was too flashy - I couldn't get hold of it... Bottles and a ticking watch..."
Hell, a bomb!
"Right", I said determined. "Let's get these out of the way..."
At the same moment a loud bang was heard - a thundering almost splitting my skull - followed by sudden lightning out of nowhere. Fucking hell! I thought and watched as Batgirl and Nightwing stood hand in hand facing Snake. The man was spitting at them, but was still smirking.
"Come on!" Kate said sternly. "They'll handle this."
I hesitated, held back by fear of losing Barbara, but then gave in. In one, fluid motion I turned around and rushed out the door, closely followed by Ladyhawk and Kate.
"Left", Ladyhawk said immediately. We had reached another ledge, steel enforced and suspended in the air by thick wires fastened in the dark ceiling high above us. It split in three sections: straight ahead, to the right and to the left. We turned left, chasing the three thugs we could see. The Joker was nowhere to be seen.
Below us there was another hall - filled with working machines: one of them was a massive oven with flames licking the air. Someone pointed a machinegun at us from the floor, but Ladyhawk threw an energy ball at him, knocking him unconscious. The three guys ahead of us disappeared through a door.
"I go first", I said when we reached it, kicking the door open. It swung back and revealed a man with a machine gun pointing straight at me.
I would have been dead if it hadn't been for Dinah and her sudden ability to create protecting force fields; the bullets disappeared into it with a sizzling sound. And then Kate was there and forcefully kicked the guys ass. He fell over - unconscious - and Dinah let go of the force field around me.
We stood in a short corridor, with stairs running up and down beside us.
"Thanks for clearing the way, Huntress", Ladyhawk said with a grin.
"Damn", I said softly. "Thanks..."
"You're welcome. Come on - I think he's close..."
I only noticed the slight blur out of the corner of my eye. At first I wondered if I had damaged my eye, before the realization hit me with full force.
"Down!" I screamed and threw myself at Ladyhawk. In the next moment I was hit full force in my face by an invisible fist. This must be my karma for hitting Dick... I later remembered thinking.
"The neutralizer!" Kate called as my back hit the wall beside the door.
"Got it!" Ladyhawk called back. "Where is he?"
"Can't see what's there - hiding, hiding..." The Joker's voice was close to me. Again I noticed the blur and this time I had time to duck.
"Look out!" Ladyhawk directed the small, crystalline device Oracle had constructed at the blur in front of us. A thin ray, like a laser, shot through the air. "Shit - missed him..."
"Bye, bye! Bye and gone..."
Ladyhawk was punched in the chest by the blur and stumbled backwards. As she reached out to steady herself the neutralizer was knocked from her hand.
"Force field!" I yelled, but it was already up. In the next moment the Joker was visible, standing outside the force field with a gun in his hand. His face was powdered white and his mouth was extremely large and red.
"Shiny things", he said, eying the force field. I wished he would reach out to touch it, but he didn't. "Shiny little things..." He looked at the neutralizer in his hand, smiled and threw it on the floor, where he stepped hard on it. It smashed to pieces.
"Huntress, I've seen the bomb", Ladyhawk said with urgency. "It's here - on the roof! And I don't think there's much time."
The Joker looked up and pointed the gun at us, but he didn't shoot.
"He can't hear us, right?" I asked, remembering when Dinah had first demonstrated her ability for us.
Ladyhawk shook her head. "No."
The Joker went on babbling about what he was going to do to us, how he had a surprise for us and Barbara Gordon. I only listened with half an ear to his manic babbling.
"Will the force field move with us if we move?" I asked.
"I think so..."
"Let's move, then!"
As one we moved towards the Joker, and when the force field forced him backwards up the stairs he cut his babbling and looked affronted at us.
"Run!" Kate called and we ran after him. He slipped and fell on the stairs, but scrambled to his feet - swearing and threatening us, before he turned around and fled up the remains of the stairs.
"Let him run!" I called as the Joker disappeared behind a door to the right. "We need to get to the roof..."
"I think I know where we are", Kate said, looking about her; there was a red sign by the door letting us know which staircase and which floor we were on.
"Me too", Ladyhawk said. "If we turn left, down the stairs on the other corridor and through the room with the concrete blender there's a door that will take us to a ladder..."
"Let's move", I said again.
Ladyhawk dropped the force field and we moved in the direction she had indicated, which was opposite to the way the Joker had escaped.
We reached a room of medium size, equipped with a fire extinguisher, some iron stakes, shovels and a large drum, rolling about it's own axis, filled with concrete. Behind the concrete blender the concrete floor had been damaged. There had been a large, gaping whole the last time we visited the place - but now it was filled with wet concrete.
"The door!" Ladyhawk pointed towards the exit behind the wet floor. "We can't reach it!"
"It will dry up", I said, realizing two things. One: that the slightest delay could be fatal if we didn't reach the bomb on time - and two: that the wet concrete had very recently been applied to the floor; whoever had done it couldn't be far off.
Then Ladyhawk spun around. "Look out!" she called. "We're not alone..."
In the next moment the shadows on the walls disengaged, moved away from the wall and took the shape of a man. The man held a knife in his hand and he thrust it against Kate.
Kate skipped aside, but the man quickly held out a leg and she stumbled across it - almost falling down into the wet concrete. She caught herself at the last minute, grabbing hold of Shadow - our latest assailant. It wouldn't surprise me if he had been with the Joker in the staircase, lurking about in the shadows and waiting to prevent us from reaching the bomb.
Reeves - the name I had learnt from Barbara was Shadow's real name - smirked at Kate and thrust the knife towards her a second time. This time she wasn't able to avoid it as cleanly as before. I saw the stern resolution in her face when she steeled herself to meet the shining blade.
In the next moment there was a sudden movement: the whole building shook in a thunderous explosion, as if caught in an earthquake. Shadow lost his balance and missed Kate by an inch, while she almost toppled on to him.
"What the fuck...?" Barbara...! I thought as I struggled to stay on my feet. By my side Ladyhawk grabbed hold of one of the iron stakes to lean on it.
The building steadied itself and everything went calm. Kate and Shadow moved at the same time; Kate to kick the knife out of his hand and Shadow to take the time to disappear.
"Scum!" Kate called out as she missed him by the fraction of a heartbeat.
We all looked about the room while the concrete blender continued to roll around, creating an annoyingly loud noise.
Ladyhawk had armed herself with the iron-rod and intensely looked about for any signs of moving shadows. Kate had loosened the small flashlight from her belt that Oracle had provided us with to fight Shadow.
Before I knew it Shadow was suddenly by my side, this time coming for me with the knife. I twisted away just at the right time and threw a punch at him, but he was gone before I had a chance to reach him.
"Lights!" Ladyhawk called and pulled out her own flashlight. She and Kate shone at me and the light was so bright almost all shadows faded to the background, disappearing. There were a few sharp shadows left and they all led to the still wet concrete floor.
"Hold!" I lifted a hand. "Kate - wait!" I looked about me; there were no shadows close to me and none close to Ladyhawk. "Now!" I called and lit my own bright-light device and directed it toward Kate. "Don't move!" I demanded and we waited. A few silent heartbeats went by and we stood immobile. Then suddenly there was a movement beneath the wet concrete, like when a shark swims close to the surface without showing itself.
"Light the floor!" I commanded and we turned our flashlights towards the wet concrete; it kept on moving, twisting - like some kind of insect beneath someone's skin. When the movement broke through the surface a loud, angry growl could be heard. The concrete moved and slithered and finally took the shape of a man.
"Hold the lights", I said. "Hold him..."
It took another few minutes of keeping the flashlights directed at the floor, and at the moving statue rising from it, before the concrete stiffened. Shadow was now trapped in concrete - a statue with an ugly face, with a mouth opened to a silent, everlasting scream. He was completely covered in dried concrete - a grotesque statue, with arms raised in either anger or in a plea towards the ceiling. Towards the gods.
Shadow - Reeves - would never walk among the living again; he had suffocated to death. A horrible end, even for him.
"Come on!" Ladyhawk urged and put away her flash light. She moved toward the entrance and pulled the door open. Kate and I followed.
The door revealed a steel ledge on the outside of the massive building - and a steel ladder. Ladyhawk didn't hesitate; she swung her leg around the ladder and began ascending. I followed her and then Kate followed me.
"Barbara?" I softly called through the intercom, but there was no answer. I refused to let that scare me, she and Dick were probably just too busy facing Snake to answer. Fuck! Don't die on me, don't die...
When we reached the roof we were greeted by an unpleasant surprise.
"Fuck", I whispered as I stood in front of the massive explosives rigged on the rooftop. The whole area in front of us held explosives connected to each other by thin wires, but also to shining bottles containing a yellowish liquid.
"The bomb setting the whole thing off should be near a fan - one of those large drums..." Ladyhawk said and scanned the area. "I saw it when the Joker hit me in the chest."
"There", Kate said and pointed to the right of us, by the edge of the roof not far off.
"What are those bottles?" Ladyhawk asked as we warily hurried towards the drum.
"Probably something poisonous", Kate explained. "Barbara told me that the chemicals stolen at that lab last week, when mixed together would produce a highly corrosive toxin. When the explosives goes off..."
"And with the wind..." I said, feeling the brisk breeze from the sea. It blew in across the island and moved towards the city of Gotham. "It would spread with the wind across the city..."
"We must stop it from happening. Should we phone Reese?" Kate said and picked up her cell phone.
"No time", Ladyhawk said in a voice that chilled me. I turned to Dinah and followed her gaze: she had found the bomb.
"Oh, my..." Kate said.
"Fucking hell", I said and stared at the red, shining numbers on the display attached to the bomb. It had less than two minutes left.
"What should we do? One wrong move trying to disarm the thing and the whole building could explode..."
"Anyone who have some hidden knowledge about disarming bombs from a previous life?" I asked with an arched eyebrow, although I felt a slow dread creeping up on me.
"Oracle always guides Nightwing and me through things like this", Ladyhawk said, looking down at the bomb. "But I guess..."
"Guys - we need to do something", Kate said. "Think!"
"Easy for you to say!" I snapped.
"Stop it", Ladyhawk said and raised her arms above her head. "I need to concentrate." And she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. In only a few seconds a bluish shimmer began to gleam around our feet. The shimmer grew until it reached our knees, our thighs, our waist... The force field didn't contain us this time, but instead it enveloped the entire roof. We stood on the edge of it, looking at the energy spreading out like a huge, shining blanket. The energy rose until it contained the roof in a shining, half bubble.
"Dinah", I whispered as I noticed the perspiration on her face.
"I... must do... it", the girl whispered with pale lips. "The city..."
I reached for her and tried to lend her some of my strength by touching her; Kate did the same, putting a hand on her shoulder. In the next moment the whole roof exploded.
The explosion shook the whole building, just like the previous earthquake. Kate and I supported Ladyhawk so she wouldn't fall.
The force field held; within it an explosion of fire and smoke rose, tainting the clearness of the blue energy.
"By all the gods", I whispered, seeing Dinah holding back such an amount of destruction. She went down on one knee, still with Kate and I by her side. The smoke and the fire raged within the force field, but now on a smaller scale.
"I... I have it now", Ladyhawk said with difficulty. "I... have it under... control..."
"You are doing fine", I said and squeezed her shoulder.
It took another moment, but then the fires died down and the smoke gave way to a brownish cloud. Ladyhawk struggled to her feat.
"I... must..." she said and raised her arms without explanation of what she needed to do. Soon we found out ourselves as the force field began shrinking: the bluish light and the brownish smoke within it were drawn together, tighter and tighter. In the end - after how long neither of us could say afterwards - the force field was small enough to contain a three year old child. It was almost black now, with toxic content.
"What on earth shall we do with it?" Kate whispered. "We can't let it go - it would spread and still be toxic.
"The sea - we could dump it in the sea", I suggested.
"That would be illegal dumping of toxic waste", Ladyhawk said, sounding strained. I didn't know if she meant it as a joke or not.
"I know. The oven - it's running, thanks to the Joker", Kate said. "Remember? We passed it on our way before. It's huge and would probably burn away everything."
"Probably? What if it doesn't? What if it makes it worse? Or even explodes again?"
"I'll contain it", Ladyhawk said.
"Are you sure? It could be..." I silenced as Dinah's eyes gave me a pointed look. "Oh, yeah - right. What you just did was... Um." I paused. "Let's go, then. Let's get rid of this and find the Joker. Then we need to check up on..." I didn't say it and I didn't need to. Kate and Ladyhawk looked as worried as I felt. Don't die, I thought. Please, Barbara - don't leave me.
One look at Snake and I forgot everything else around me. The man's smirking made me want to smash his face with my bare fist, which surprised me: I wasn't usually so vengeful - it was generally Huntress who couldn't hold her temper. Something about Snake must have ticked me off and I knew it wasn't his crimes - it was something about the way he held himself and something in that smug smile that was plastered on his face. It made me sick.
"Are you with me?" I asked Nightwing and moved a step forward. Behind me I heard Huntress and the rest climb the stairs. "There're only ten, including Shadow", I told Huntress on the intercom, before I pushed her from my conscience; if she said something I didn't hear it.
"I'm here", Nightwing said.
Snake had been moving towards us, slowly at first, but now he attacked in a rush: he bared his teeth at us and pulled his arms close to his side.
"Now!" I called and raised my arms. At my side Nightwing did the same and we called upon the elements as we had done so long ago - in a different world, in a different time.
When we first begun practicing it had been dreadful; neither Dick nor I had been able to consciously draw forth the power we knew we had within us. In the end we had to begin to provoke each other to get angry enough to channel the power we'd had in our past lives as priestess and priest. When we had done that a few times it finally had been easier and when I faced Snake I hardly had to think about what I was doing: I cleared my mind and pictured myself as the priestess I had been, standing in front of an altar in a deep temple and calling upon the essence of fire and air. I only had to be that priestess in my mind to get the elements to obey me.
To create fire and lightning out of the smallest particles was a... thrill. To call forth and have fire flame all around you, to direct lightning and command the winds - it was power... It filled me with a sense of power I had never felt before, and it was exhilarating.
I called upon that power and let lightning flash forth, at the same time Dick created a thunderous noise and both of us directed strong winds against Snake. He withstood the winds, but tumbled and fell several feet backwards as the thunder echoed around us and the lightning struck him in the chest.
Snake lay motionless for a few moments on the concrete floor and Nightwing and I exchanged a silent glance. Then the man moved, picked himself up, shook himself and dusted himself off before he again turned to look at us with a grin.
"Is that the best you can do?" he asked disdainfully.
"Again!" Nightwing called and we raised our arms. Lightning and thunder and heavy winds were thrown at Snake, but this time he evaded our attacks.
"Is that the best you can do?" he laughed at us with a hissing, frightful laughter. "Is that your best? I will show you what to fear!"
Snake raised his arms into the air, summoning whatever powers were his in an unknown language.
"Barbara - can you hear me?" Dick asked in my head - he didn't use his intercom, I could hear him directly in my head, through some sort of telepathy.
"Loud and clear!" I send back at him.
"Now, when he's busy!"
Snake looked at us with a strange, yellowish stare and smiled. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he had the time I invoked a lightning bolt that went straight from my hands and struck him in his chest. Snake was thrown across the room and hit the wall beside the door he had crawled under before. Unfortunately he didn't loose consciousness this time.
"You shouldn't have done that", he said as he rose and cracked his neck from side to side. "You pissed me off royally this time..."
At least I had wiped that smug smirk off his face.
"Now - tremble before me!"
In the next instant, before Dick or I had time to react, the earth moved under our feet. The whole building shook and trembled and I was thrown to the floor. Nightwing managed to stay on his feet and as the disruption continued he and Snake rushed against each other.
"Dick!" I called inwardly, the second before the two men clashed together.
Nightwing ducked beneath Snake's fists and managed to land a blow that threw the other man to the floor. The shaking subsided and I rushed to my feet.
"Dick - together! Now!" I reached for Nightwing and he took my hands. Snake rolled around on the floor, spitting at us.
"Now!" Dick called within me.
Dick and I joined powers as we had practiced; I felt his presence within me - strong and powerful. I opened myself to him and his powers flowed into me - just like mine did into him. Together we created an electric charge that shimmered in the room - a sphere of energies consuming everything standing in its way: it was a raging fire, of ice and white energy.
"Take this - you son of a bitch!" Nightwing called as we let loose our powers and directed it at Snake.
Snake threw back his head - laughing. "You are children! Babies - you won't stop me. I have my Master behind me." He raised his arms against the ceiling, calling: "Master, Master - come now to me!"
In the next instant the fire we had directed at him hit him with full force and he screamed. The bluish flames licked his skin and set his dark hair on fire. His scream was a shriek of pain and rage. We heard him call for his Master with the last of his breath, before there was nothing but a pile of bones and ashes left of him.
I let go of Dick's hand and lowered my other hand. "Is he gone? That was easy..." I said, a little stunned.
"A little too easy", Nightwing said.
We looked around us, waiting for Snake to suddenly come back to life - as if in a bad B-horror movie.
"What, or who, do you reckon is his Master...?" Nightwing asked cautiously. Then he silenced, as his eyes fell on what I was watching.
By the door leading to the room where Snake had left a couple of the Joker's guys crushed to death there stood an older woman. She was a little hunched back, with grey tresses in her mass of black, unruly hair. It was too far to estimate the color of her eyes, but she stared at Nightwing and me across the floor. She didn't say anything - she just stood there, unmoving.
My first thought was: What the hell is a nice old lady doing here? But then, as she watched us, I suddenly remembered something.
"Oh, dear..." I whispered.
"Old lady", Nightwing said, moving slightly forward. "You shouldn't be here..."
"Dick", I said softly and he turned to look at me with silent surprise in his eyes. "We forgot about the priest..." I said. At first he looked confused, but then he remembered and I noticed confusion turn to realization in his look.
"Oh, shit!" he said softly.
At the same moment darkness was upon us. Not a darkness caused by the turning off of lamps and lights in a room, but darkness void of spiritual light, of humanity; of joy, laughter and love. It filled the entire hall - a swirling vortex of dark energy claiming every, tiny aspect of light in the room and we stood in it: in this sinister, deadly, shining darkness.
At the centre of the dark there was a flickering light: a sickening green color growing in size and shape. It seemed to be a portal - swirling like the darkness around us. And in this portal, out from the hellish, green light, came a man. He moved like a shadow against the surrounding darkness - against the green light - and as he stepped forward Nightwing and I stepped back.
I felt a fear I had never experienced before - it chilled my heart, my bone and my very soul. I knew I was going to die as I watched the shadow of a man move towards us. I had died once before, facing this darkness. Beside me I knew Dick, too, trembled with fear.
Rising behind the man, a phantom-image against the green light and the darkness, was the shape of a large snake: a cobra the size of an ancient dinosaur. It wasn't a solid image - darkness and smoke and fire held it together. And it wasn't a living snake, but it was the very essence of the man moving before us. That image was the true image of the shadow moving in the dark.
"I have come!" His voice hissed around us - filled us and made our bodies tremble with the sheer power of it. "I have come - and there is no goddess to save you now!"
If indeed ancient gods had walked the earth, this entity had been one of them. There was no questioning it. We are all going to die, I thought - not in fear, but with cold realization of the reality of our situation. Then I thought: Goddess...? And in a flash I understood what we must do. I turned to Dick.
"Dick? You know what we must do..."
He looked at me and then nodded slowly. "Yes."
That was all, but he held out his hands in front of him and I put the palm of my hands against his. We needed to hurry - and we needed to do it right the first time. As before we opened up to each other and let our powers fill us, flow back and forth between us. But this time, instead of directing it towards something, we let it build, and build within us. We began to glow; there was a shimmer about us - blue flames bursting out all around us, from our feet and rising higher and higher around and between us. We broke the contact with each other and stepped back a few steps. Our light cut through the darkness of the god that had come to conquer this world, but it wouldn't stop him. There was only one thing that would have the power to stop him.
Only gods could defeat other gods.
As the power between Dick and I grew stronger and brighter the hall in which we stood began trembling, it shook and shivered like a sinking old ship. We opened ourselves completely to each other and to our pasts and I felt Dick change - something within him seemed to grow; he expanded and become more than what he was. I felt the same happening to myself; I felt larger, as if I could contain the whole universe. The power between us swelled and burned - it would consume everything dead and decayed and it had been created for one purpose only.
"No!" The Cobra god called in pure rage, but it was too late. The old woman by the door had been overlooked and now she stepped into the flames - the consuming, transmuting fire of eternal life. Her head was thrown back and her arms flew out at her sides as she screamed. The blue flames completely embraced her - and it was all over in a second.
An old woman had stepped into the flames, but it was a goddess that was reborn in them.
"It's only by dying we can be born to eternal life", I heard a voice I remembered inside me.
And out from the flames stepped a younger woman, with dark skin and hair as black as ravens wings. Her eyes gleamed, black as a night strewn with sparkling stars. Behind her the flames died out as she lifted herself from the ground - straight up in the air. Around her, behind her, within her was the shape of her true form: the bat. It flapped its wings in eager anticipation of a fight. It was huge and black and around it stood a different kind of darkness: a darkness that was gentle as a summer night, beautiful as a night with glistening snow beneath the full moon.
"Thank you, my priestess, for bringing me back to life. Thank you, my priest", I heard within me. When I looked at Dick I noticed tears on his cheeks. He had taken off his mask and held it in his hands. I took off my mask and watched in silence as the two deities from an ancient time, from another world and another life, faced each other. The giant snake and the giant bat.
There had been a battle once. I remembered it well now. Some of us had died.
The walls in the hall shook as the two giant phantom images collided. The dark-skinned woman was still suspended in thin air - unmovable she stared at the dark shadow of the man standing in the centre of the hall. Neither of them moved, or even blinked, as the almost translucent shapes of the giant bat and the giant cobra crashed into each other. The cobra raised its head to strike at the bat, but the bat dived under its coils and aimed for its neck with its teeth. The cobra hissed and slithered away in another direction - the darkness followed them as they moved about the room.
I instinctively knew that if any one else entered the room the only thing they would see would be a man and a woman standing staring at each other - they wouldn't see what Dick and I saw: the battle between souls. The battle between what once had been - and maybe still was - a god and a goddess.
I couldn't say how long the fight went on. Dick and I were consumed by the battle and we stood by our goddess, strengthening her with our powers - sending them to her in shimmering waves of bluish flames. The Cobra god had been strengthened before by the murders his priest - Snake - had committed for his benefit. Our goddess was strong, but without our support she would have been defeated.
The phantom bat and the cobra fought on - the world trembled and darkness threatened to overwhelm us, but for Dick and I nothing outside that circle existed: only that man and that woman facing each other.
"I will prevail!"
The shadowy man's voice suddenly was heard like a loud thunder clap and the cobra raised its head to his voice.
"Your time has come, traitor!" the woman answered.
In the next moment both of them raised their arms into the air. A loud humming, or chanting, was heard.
"Brace yourselves, children..." I heard within me and in the next moment the world exploded in blinding light and sparkling, dark stars.
It was the last thing I remembered before drifting off and losing consciousness.
I didn't know how long I had been unconscious when I felt a soft lightness touching my cheek.
I knew that voice and opened my eyes. The darkness was gone and the hall was again filled with light from the naked lamps in the ceiling.
"My goddess", I mumbled weakly and struggled to sit up.
"You did well, my child", the woman before me said. Dick was lying beside me, still unconscious.
"He's... he's - gone?" My voice was hoarse.
"Yes - this time I defeated him. Thanks to you and my priest..." She glanced at Dick. "He will be fine", she added.
I rubbed my forehead. I felt different, more like my old self again. The power within me had subsided. It was still there, but not as strong anymore.
"You will soon forget the art of conjuring fire and commanding the winds." The woman - she seemed to be my own age, but I knew she was so much older - smiled softly at me. "Everything will be back to normal. Or, almost everything... I'll leave you a gift." She smiled again and I noticed a teasing sparkle in her gleaming eyes.
"What... happened, really?" I looked around, still struggling with the aftermath of the last collision between the bat and the cobra.
The woman - a goddess - nodded slowly. "I will tell you."
And she did. She filled in the blanks Dick and I had missed and I listened carefully; I would have to inform the others later. When she was finished I nodded thoughtfully.
"It was such a long time ago", I said, sadly.
"It was such a tragedy", she said and looked at me. "I gave you that night, you know. You mustn't blame yourself for that."
I gasped softly, staring at her.
"There was a prophesy. I never told you. It said: 'when the cat lies with the bat - the empire will fall'. I knew what had to come and I knew you could not have done anything to stop it. Loving the warrior that night saved your life - and hers. And thus... it saved mine."
"Yours?" I whispered.
"Yes." She smiled compassionately. "You died to preserve my life, just as Cobra's priest died to preserve his. Both of you sacrificed your blood and your lives according to an ancient ritual, which would ensure that neither my enemy nor I would die completely. We were left bound between worlds, until the time was right for us to finish our ancient battle. Thus we could return to this world, in this day and this age..."
I turned to where the bones and ashes that was all that was left of Snake still lay. "And his priest died before him this time - he won't be brought back again."
"No - he is truly gone, now. And if the Universe is merciful, he will never be reincarnated with so much power again, until he has learned humbleness and how to love anew."
I shook my head. "So much - so much we don't know and wouldn't understand about the ways of... the divine."
"We are all divine, in one way or another. That is all we need to remember, to return home." The goddess smiled softly and touched my cheek. "You gave your life for me - I will give you a gift."
And then, without warning, she leaned in to kiss me. It was no chaste kiss on the cheek, but she kissed me thoroughly - like only one other woman had kissed me before. Still, there was nothing sexual or remotely erotic about it - it just... was. It meant nothing, and it meant all - because she was a goddess.
When she pulled away from me I took a deep breath and looked at her. She smiled mildly, but also teasingly. I remembered her being that way, when I served her so many, many ages ago.
"I will leave you now..."
"Where...?" I had to clear my throat. "Where will you go?"
"I will live, and love, and die... as all humans do - and even some of us who are considered to be divine."
She nodded and turned away. The great bat suddenly loomed around her again - an invisible companion to anyone who wasn't a true seer. I knew that in a couple of days I wouldn't be able to see that bat anymore, if I was to meet the woman on the streets.
Then she was gone - and the bat with her.
I stared out into empty space for a few moments, contemplating the things she had said, what had happened and the kiss we had shared. I wondered if life would ever be the same again.
"Oh, Dick..." I said and turned towards him. "Are you alright?"
He rubbed the small of his neck. "Better than when Helena knocked me out." He looked up and around. "Are we dead and this is the version of hell where we are forced to live out our entire life dying again and again and again...?"
"Have some faith, will you", I said, grinning at him. He looked at me with wide eyes.
"We won?" He laughed. "Oh, God - let us never, ever have to go through that again", he said in earnest.
I shook my head. "I doubt we will."
"Although, I like my new powers..." He grinned at me and I had to laugh. I didn't want to disappoint him by reminding him that we would lose our powers again in a few days. We lived only one life at a time - we were not priest and priestess in this life and so those powers didn't belong to us. They weren't part of who we were in our present life.
"Marvellous", I said, faking Alfred's British accent.
"Although..." Dick's face grew serious and he paled as his gaze went to something on the ledge above us. "We are not quite done yet..."
I turned to look at what had caught his attention and felt my heart grow cold. My God! Oh, no - Wade!
The Joker stood at the ledge above us right beside the stairs, leaning on the railing. One hand held Wade around the neck, the other pointed a gun at Wade's temple. Wade stood unmoving with wide, frightened eyes. He was tied with his hands at his back and was gagged with duct tape across his mouth.
"I thought it best to have an extra insurance... Two are better than one", the Joker said, laughing. "Don't you think?" He cocked his head to one side and despite the ridiculous make-up I could see some similarities between him and his son. Again I was struck with sadness as I recalled the tragic events that had created a criminal like Patchy. He had only wanted to be loved...
But the Joker could never have loved his son. I had told Kate that I had caused the death of the two people the Joker loved in his life. I didn't believe it to be quite true that he had loved his son, although he and his lover Harley Quinn certainly would have created havoc around Gotham City if the two of them had been let lose together. No, the Joker loved the idea of loving something. He loved to pretend he was as normal as the next door neighbour and his family - living up to the traditional ideal of society: dog, car, house and loving his children. At the same time he would cause mayhem all around him - caring nothing for none of the above.
Patchy had been different. He still had something of his humanity intact. He was a lost soul, looking for approval and love. The Joker had left his soul behind a long time ago.
"Let him go, please", I said as I moved a step forward. I knew there was nothing I could say to the Joker to let go of Wade, but I wasn't going to provoke him.
"Love him, don't you?" The Joker laughed.
"I care for him, yes", I said.
"I've heard differently, since coming out from behind the bars... Wedding bells have been ringing..."
"Not anymore", I said and shook my head. "Let him go - it's me you want."
Wade made some inaudible noise and shook his head. I wasn't sure he had noticed Dick or my outfit yet. I fleetingly considered if he wondered what we were doing there, in the middle of nowhere.
"Yes..." The Joker grinned and leaned slightly forward over the railing, dragging Wade with him. "But I don't want to kill you - yet. You do know you have to suffer first."
"Well, kill him then and have it over with", Dick said angrily. The Joker turned his face towards him with an offended grimace.
"You I will deal with later, lawyer scum", he said disdainfully.
When the Joker's attention was engaged elsewhere I moved abruptly and embraced the power that was still active within me. I didn't dare direct such a powerful blast as I had against Snake earlier for fear of killing the Joker - who was only human, after all; and I had killed enough - but I focused the lightning at him nonetheless. It took him in the arm and threw him backwards with full force. He dropped the gun, which fell over the railing and down at the floor in front of Dick, but he pulled Wade with him in his fall. Wade hit the back of his head on the doorframe and collapsed, as the Joker struggled to remain on his feet.
In the next moment a much longed-for figure rushed out the door beside Wade.
"Huntress - the Joker!" I called. "Ladyhawk - you there? Protect Wade!"
Helena didn't hesitate for one second - she was out the door and aimed directly at the Joker. Kate followed closely and as the two of them dived for the villain Dinah enclosed Wade in a force-field.
In the next moment, just before Helena and Kate reached the Joker he disappeared in a blur.
"Damn!" I heard Helena's beloved voice call out.
"Look out!" Kate pointed at something further down the stairs, but I couldn't see anything.
"There!" Dick said and rushed forward; in the next instant he fell backwards as if hit by an invisible force. I noticed a quick blur, a soft shimmer in the air right before me, but before I had time to reach for it, it was gone again.
Dick rushed to my side and we looked around, back to back, for any sign of the Joker.
"Look out!" Ladyhawk pointed in front of us and in the next instant the gun the Joker had dropped floated in thin air, right before the Joker became visible again. He aimed and shot at us.
"No!" I heard Helena scream before Dinah's force-field suddenly was in place.
God, I thought. Will I ever stop almost dying today?
This time it was Dinah's upset voice I heard. The Joker didn't stop. He rushed towards Dick and I, wildly shooting. If he didn't slow down he would collide with us and that would be the end of him. If Dinah didn't let down the force-field that would make a killer out of her, however unwillingly.
I knew she would never risk letting down the force-field - any of the Joker's bullets could hit us. I also knew she couldn't hear us from within the force-field, so there was no use calling out to her.
"I'm here." He moved quickly to take my hand.
I wasn't about to let Dinah be responsible for someone's death like that. It was one thing to cause someone's death in self-defense, another to kill someone when you didn't mean to.
Dick and I joined powers one more time. The strength of our combined forces cut through Dinah's force-field and we hurled ourselves at the Joker at the same time. One of his bullets grazed my shoulder, but not enough to slow me down. It was only a scratch.
The bullet would have taken me in the head if I hadn't dodged it and it was only later I would remember the odd sense of djP vu that had come over me as he pointed that gun at me, as if someplace deep within me - in a forgotten dream - I had experienced that scene before and felt the impact of a bullet hitting me.
"Down!" Dick yelled and crashed into the Joker at the same time as I kicked the gun from the Joker's hand. The Joker twisted himself free from Dick and then was gone again, disappeared in a blurry motion.
I quickly bent to pick up the gun. I emptied the magazine, but held on to the gun.
"Where the fuck is he?" Helena called from the ledge. She stood in front of Wade; the force-field was gone, but Wade still lay unconscious on the floor.
Kate swore as something hit her in the chest and she fell backwards at the top of the stairs.
"There!" she called and pointed at something blurry moving away from her, in the direction of the other door.
"Go!" I ordered and picked up my mask. Dick did the same and we put them on to conceal our faces. "Ladyhawk - stay here and guard Wade!"
I climbed the stairs followed by Nightwing and gestured towards the younger girl; Huntress and Kate were already in pursuit of the Joker.
"Protect the innocent", I said. Ladyhawk nodded and I followed Nightwing through the other door.
We reached an open ledge, high above a hall with working machines below us. The ledge split in three directions: left, right and straight forward. Huntress was on her way to the other side, using wires and thick chains holding up the air borne ledge to cross the area. There were other air borne ledges parallel to the one in front of us, all connected with wires and cables.
"He's on the middle ledge", Helena said in the intercom. And then I noticed it; the shimmering blur moving across the bridge, trying to reach the door on the other side.
The Joker's escape was cut short when Huntress reached the other side of the ledge and blocked the door.
The blur disappeared, but reappeared in a shimmer transforming the Joker back to a man. He looked around, grinned and then climbed the railing.
"Don't be a fool!" I called out to him.
"We will meet again, darling Ms Gordon", he called to me, grinning with his large, red mouth. He turned his attention to a cable hanging loosely in front of him and took the leap.
"No!" I called, because he couldn't see it from where he was standing - the view was hidden behind another steel construction: the cable he was aiming for wasn't fastened.
As the Joker caught the cable to swing himself from one air borne bridge to a ledge on his right the cable slid over the wire where it had been resting and fell with the Joker to the floor far below. The cable and the Joker hit the floor. The man lay motionless, with his neck at an awkward angle.
"Oh, God!" Kate whispered.
I nodded, but didn't say anything. Deep within me I knew it was over. Finally.
"We killed the Joker", Nightwing said, sounding a bit stunned.
I must let Bruce know, I thought. Then I raised my head and found myself looking across the bridge at Helena. She was looking right back at me.
"Is it over now, Barbara?" I heard her ask in my ear. I nodded.
"It is over", I said, to no one in particular.
I couldn't tell how relieved I was when I heard Barbara's word declaring the night's adventures over. Whatever had happened between her, Dick and Snake had ended with his death and our survival. Barbara wouldn't die this time. She would live and could continue to love me. That was all that mattered.
It wasn't until a couple of hours later I would get to hear the full story of what had happened that night, but before that we had some matters to deal with. Purely routine, but still...
After the bomb, and after the toxic waste had been disposed of in the large furnace - Dinah had successfully managed to enclose the chemical substance and the flames until the smoke was clear again and the poison disposed of - we had phoned Reese to let him know the Joker was at the island.
The police showed up shortly after the Joker's death, having thousands of questions which we couldn't answer truthfully without making them believe we were nuts - those were Dinah's words. Clever as always Batgirl already had thought of some plausible explanations about a gang-related showdown between criminals of Gotham. "With the Joker on the loose the old criminals were bound to feel threatened", she had told Reese. "They challenged him and this is the end result."
She didn't give any details about anything, but left it to them to draw their own conclusions. And Wade... Well, his memory was quite fussy when he woke up. All he could remember was that a short, ugly man had held a gun to his head and kidnapped him. The rest was a blur. He did have some vague memories of Barbara, but he figured that he had been dreaming - a left over from the drug-induced sleep they had forced upon him at the abduction. No one was going to dispute that.
We pretty much left the clean-up to the police. There wasn't really anything anyone of us could do, so we left rather quickly after the police's arrival.
After the return to the Clock Tower and our usual gathering in the kitchen around the table and the food Alfred had prepared for us - as always when we'd had a showdown with Gotham's criminals - Batgirl removed her mask and said in her Oracle voice: "Bummer - I know it's over, but I'm still concerned about the converter Patchy left for his father. We still don't know where it is. Batgirl let Reese know to look for a technical machine that could cause trouble for Gotham City, but it could be anywhere. My guess, though, is that he hid it in that building where Huntress and I confronted the robots a few months ago."
"Where you were held captive?" Dick said. "But that building was empty when the police arrived?"
"They didn't check it thoroughly - I bet there is a hidden room beneath the floor..."
I knew Oracle's bets always won out, so I wouldn't dispute her. Dick nodded too.
"Um, I don't think we have to worry about it", Dinah suddenly said, swallowing down her sandwich. "When I was close to the Joker I saw him in a vision smashing a complex machine to pieces. Could that be it?"
Kate frowned. "Why would he destroy something like that?"
"To prevent other criminals from using it", Barbara said and finally sat down to eat. She nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, that would probably be it. The Joker wouldn't risk someone getting stronger than him by stealing it from him. He was more paranoid in that regard than his son. Thanks, Dinah", she added with a smile to the girl. "You've done wonders tonight."
"Really", Kate agreed, looking at the girl who blushed at the compliments.
"Yeah", I agreed and Dinah looked at me.
"Does that mean you won't call me Sparrow anymore?" she asked hopefully. I grinned at her.
"Time will tell, princess. Time will tell", I said.
At that both Dinah and Kate turned to Barbara and Dick, reminded of the showdown with Snake. I glanced at Barbara.
"What did actually happen tonight?" Kate asked after a moment.
Dick and Oracle exchanged a look and finally Barbara nodded. She looked at us and took a deep breath before she told us about Snake and Cobra and the goddess.
"Wow", Dinah said, astonished, when Barbara was done. "She was a goddess?" She grinned. "I met a goddess?"
"An ber meta", I pointed out, feeling a bit jealous for some reason. "Not really a goddess..."
"But she was powerful", Dick said, pouring some tea. "They both were", he added thoughtfully.
"So - Snake was the priest and it was he who killed the girls in L.A.?" Kate asked. "He was Moonkiller?"
Barbara - or Oracle, more like it - nodded. "His skin was poisonous. The poison would paralyze his victims, so they couldn't resist. In that way he could hang up the girls and cut their throat. The poison would stay in the body for two or three days, lasting until the girls were drained of blood. The poison would also prevent the blood from coagulating. It had the same effect as that of leeches, making the blood flow freely. There would be no trace of it afterwards. Cobra - the higher meta-human, or the god - showered in the blood as it flowed from the girls. Because of his abilities he wouldn't leave a trace."
"And all this was in preparation for killing Dinah?" Kate said. Oracle nodded.
"Once the ritual of Ma'ahel had begun he wouldn't be able to interrupt it. And once the sixth girl had been killed the seventh must be his final victim: Dinah, in this case. The thing was, he didn't know who or were Dinah was..."
"But he knew you", Dick said, gesturing towards Kate.
"Me?" Kate said, looking shocked for the first time that I could remember.
"Snake was an ordinary meta-human to begin with, with no memories of his past life as a priest", Dick explained. "Then not quite a year ago he came across a man called Michael Boyd, here in Gotham, and all his memories from the previous reincarnation were restored. Boyd was obviously involved with us in that past life, one way or another, but he didn't remember it. Whatever past he and Snake shared, from the time they met all Snake could think about was how he would awaken his long sleeping Master again - the Cobra god. He went to L.A. to find a way to reawaken his Master, maybe through the help of some demons. I believe that's the reason he went to L.A." Dick shrugged. "What happened we don't know. The point is - he managed to reawaken Cobra."
"And in L.A. he found you", Barbara added, looking at Kate. "Neither Cobra nor Snake knew were to find Dinah, but..."
"Remembering me they thought I would lead them to her", Kate whispered with pale cheeks. "Oh, my god! That's just what I did!"
"Shit", I mumbled softly under my breath. "That's why they murdered one girl a month, to give Kate time to find Dinah, or lead them on the way."
"Well, yeah - and here we are", Barbara said, gesturing with both her hands.
"Well, I don't know about you", Dinah said and leaned back in her chair with a relieved look on her face. "But I'm sure glad I'm rid of those cops. Finally I can have a social life again!"
Two weeks after the showdown with the Joker and Cobra things were pretty much back to normal. Dinah had lost her ability to create force-fields - it had apparently been some kind of memory and talent from her past life. Dick and Barbara couldn't create thunder and lightning anymore and Kate was back to being an ordinary human without super-powers born of her memories as a warrior in a past life.
And I was pretty much as I had always been: an overgrown cat, according to Dinah. A lioness, according to my lover.
Barbara had given me an engagement ring - a simple band in white gold, with inscriptions on the outside, intertwined with an intricate pattern and tiny, tiny specks of blue stones, saying: Beyond the ends of time, my love. I loved it. I would have loved whatever she had given me, but I loved it because she had put in words what she felt for me - for everyone to see.
And on the inside of the ring - where no one would see it - there were the most exquisite carvings of a bat and a cat.
That day, two weeks after the Joker's death, I found Barbara practicing in the arena. In the replaced arena: the padding on the floor and on the walls had been replaced after the indoor rain Barbara and Dick had managed to create. She was practicing with her staff - doing only slow movements, as in a yoga or tai'chi style.
I stopped at the railing and looked down at her, loving the sight of her and knowing - finally knowing full heartedly - that I belonged to her and she to me. I could see her smile and knew she knew I was there.
"I know you're there", she said and it was my turn to smile. I swung my legs over the ledge and smoothly fell down to the floor below.
"Do you know when Kate will return to L.A.?" I asked as I moved forward. Barbara straightened her back and stretched a bit.
"I don't reckon she will", she said. "I think, the better question would be what alias to pick for her. We need a name - and you and Dinah seem so good at making up names." She grinned at me.
"I don't get it", I said with a frown. "Is she staying?"
"Oh, dear", Barbara said with a sigh and put away her staff. "You're cute, but sometimes you're really nave." She slid her arms around my neck and kissed me on the corner of my mouth. "Mmm, that's nice..."
We kissed for awhile and I forgot everything about Kate, but when Barbara let me go she resumed, as if we hadn't been interrupted: "I believe Kate and Dick has taken a fancy to each other."
"Huh? Oh! Oh, no - you don't mean...? Wow!" I shook my head. "No, I completely missed that."
"I figured", Barbara said dryly. Then she smiled sweetly at me, still with her arms around my neck. "I love you", she said simply and I blushed. She sometimes had this way about her - sweet and innocent like a young girl and when she looked at me that way I felt young and completely lost in her presence.
"Um, me too", I mumbled and she laughed at me.
"I have a surprise", she said and stepped back.
"If I had been a man I would have asked if you were pregnant", I said wryly; she almost glowed when I was looking at her.
"She left me a gift", she said. "I guess she didn't think it would fit a bat to be earth-bound."
I frowned. "Who? What do you mean?"
"The goddess - or whatever she was. Look."
Barbara spread her arms and closed her eyes. At first nothing happened, but then I suddenly became aware she was moving. Or not moving, exactly - she was hovering... She was hovering in the air!
"Oh, my... goddess", I whispered and almost sat down on the floor. Barbara opened her eyes and grinned at me.
"What do you think? Handy, don't you agree? I have been practicing a little, but it's quite difficult."
Barbara kept on rising into the air; she hung with her feet even with my waist.
"Fuck - I'm jealous", I said, a simple statement.
Barbara lowered herself and moved towards me with a soft smile.
"What about Dick?" I asked.
"I do think she left a gift for him too, but I don't know if it's the same." Barbara sat down and then lay herself flat on her back; I looked down at her. "Come", she said, smiling. "I can't carry you like Superman does with Lois - you would be dragged behind me, I suspect. But..." Her smile widened. "I can do this. Lie on top of me."
I hesitated, but then curiously did as she asked me.
"Feel..." she whispered and after a moment I felt it. We both lifted into the air.
"Oh, it's amazing", I grinned.
She laughed and her eyes sparkled in such a way that I just had to kiss her. As I did we fell back on the floor with a thud.
"Ups, sorry..." I said sheepishly.
"Some more practice is required", she said. "Oh, my back..."
I rolled off her in the same moment that Dinah entered the door by the ledge. She looked down at us.
"At it again, are you?" she said, faking sarcasm.
"Hey, sparrow", I said grinning, to hide the fact that she was making me blush with what she hinted at.
For a moment I thought the girl was going to put out her tongue at me, but she only sniffed and turned her attention to Barbara.
"I only came to tell you I'll be late tonight. I have a date." Dinah grinned and winked at us. "See ya!"
"What? Did she just say a date? Oh, God!"
Before I knew what was happening Barbara was up from the floor, running towards the stairs. What the fuck...? Someone's not ready to let her child grow up... I thought amusedly.
"Someone's not using her brains", I added loudly as an afterthought, calling after Barbara; laughing. "Fly, why don't you - batie?"
She stopped to look at me, then grinned and suddenly she was high in the air, aiming for the ledge and the door.
"Oh, shit..." I ducked my head as Barbara almost hit hers in the doorpost. Then I lost sight of her, but a second later I heard Dinah in the corridor above me.
"Barbara? Oh, my God - look out!"
Dinah's warning was followed by a loud crash and I hid my face in my hands, laughing so hard I could hardly stand on my legs.
All was well in the Clock Tower. Everything was back to normal.
As normal could be, when living a life like ours.