Linda Danvers took a smoother to the curve of the clay, carefully easing the rough edge before she set the smoother down and took hold of the carver. She let her hands glide over the clay, searching out the hidden shape. When she found herself etching the nub for a wing, her hands shook; she took a deep breath and stepped away, setting down the wire shaper. She rubbed her hand on the side of her jeans and then rubbed the back of her neck, sweat pricking the fine hairs at her nape.
There it was--the old fear, the despair, the loneliness--until she turned numb and cold and couldn't feel anymore.
Linda shook her head and turned her back to the half-formed statue, resisting the urge to destroy it and the memories of all of the emotions that it brought out in her. Instead, she washed her hands and headed outside, hoping the sunlight might help with her mood. It had been months since she had last seen her friends and family, and she quite often found herself thinking she should worry about them--how her parents were with Wally, if Mattie had actually managed to marry Cutter, if they missed her as much as she was supposed to miss them.
When she had left everyone she knew, she thought it would be temporary, that she would get over her grief about her actions in regard to Kara and move on, maybe give herself the opportunity to connect with the people she loved again, maybe even see if the Spectre would be able to tell her where he had placed Ariella. The burst of painful hope and sadness made Linda's chest ache, and she wrapped her arms around herself, clutching her arms tightly as she walked down the street.
She preferred to be incognito these days.
She bought herself a coffee at the Starbucks around the corner and nursed it, sipping the scalding liquid carefully, as though it were strong enough to cause her pain.
She figured that the rest of her day would pass like normal--she would finish her walk around the small town she was living in, and then maybe go down to the local flea market. Later, maybe she would put out her little table and see if she could sell some of the smaller sculptures lingering in her apartment. She looked at her watch and sighed at the date; another week had gone by and she hadn't even noticed it. Maybe she wouldn't put her sculptures out, after all--it was so much effort to try and sell, and she thought she might be tapped out for the day. Besides, people probably bought them out of pity.
Linda made her way down the street and back to her tiny apartment, sidestepping a group of homeless people huddled just outside one of the alleys, the sun still high in the sky. She bypassed her living room, where the unfinished, soulless sculpture still stood, and flopped facedown on the bed.
Gotham was so tall and tightly packed that the light was dim, almost enough for Linda to think maybe it was later in the evening instead of early in the afternoon. She felt the dim light kind of suited her mood. A passing thought, she wondered if she would ever really feel anything again after the things she had done.
The Presence, the Spectre--they had tried to give her solace.
They had failed.
Linda had spent a year in Gotham, and sometimes she couldn't believe how quickly time had passed--others, she couldn't believe it moved so slowly. She felt like she was in a constant stasis, a life encased in molasses. She couldn't believe how much she missed being two-in-one, how reassuring it had been to be part of Matrix, part of the Schechina. It was better than being human.
She managed to get out of bed, leaving the covers a rumpled mess, and trudged into the living room to throw out the half-formed sculpture from the day before. It crumbled in her hands, but she used her telekinesis to gather it all up and deposit it into the trash can.
"Way to be depressed, Linda," she muttered to herself. "You're pathetic."
But she wasn't depressed. She was numb. She made it back to her room and lay down on her bed again, wondering if she should go back to sleep. It wasn't like she ever had anything to do anyway, especially on a -- Linda cracked an eye open and looked at the clock. It was four p.m. on a Wednesday, and she vaguely remembered promising her neighbor that she would go down to the soup kitchen on Ash and help feed the homeless. Sure enough, almost as if she'd conjured Sally, there was a knock on her front door.
Linda staggered up and shoved a hand through her hair, moving toward the door with a sleepy sort of bemusement. As she suspected, there was Sally, beaming a bright, toothy smile.
"Hi, Linda!" Sally said cheerfully. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yeah," Linda sighed. "Just give me a sec to find my shoes."
"Sure," Sally said, and wandered in after Linda when Linda left the door open.
Linda found her shoes turned over beneath the one table she had in the apartment and jammed her feet in them, turning around to find Sally looking curiously at her blank walls.
"I'm ready to go." Linda made a motion at Sally as she grabbed her keys from their place on the counter and then followed Sally out.
"You know," Sally said as she walked down the stairs ahead of Linda, "your apartment is really depressing. You don't even have anything on the walls."
"What can I say?" Linda laughed. It sounded false to her, but Sally never noticed. "I'm a poor, starving artist. I can't afford things to put on my walls. Not things that I like, anyway."
"Oh, you're an artiste." Sally dug into her purse for a stack of flyers. They came to the entrance of their apartment complex, and she paused to hand one of the flyers to the group of homeless men taking residence in the side alley. "Soup kitchen's going to be open in an hour or so," she reminded them as she flipped her blond hair over her shoulder. The men gave Sally a look somewhere between frustration and surliness, and Linda ushered her away before they started calling Sally nasty names like they did last week.
"Leave them alone," Linda said simply. "If they're hungry, they'll show up. If they don't ... Well, they'll try to rob someone and Batman will kick their teeth in."
"Hey." Sally poked Linda in the arm, and Linda pretended to wince and rubbed the spot like it was sore. "Just because we live in Gotham doesn't mean we should give up common decency."
"Spare me the lecture, Sally. I know all about it." Linda attempted a grin, but it felt fake on her face, so she let it slide off.
Sally kept up the happy chatter as they walked down to the soup kitchen, as they donned their aprons and pinned up their hair, as they took their places at the soup line. Finally, when people started coming in to eat, Sally turned from Linda to talk to people as they came to her. Linda supposed she was being uncharitable, thinking Sally so annoying, but she couldn't help it. Supergirl would have given her a thumbs up for the happy, but Linda simply couldn't care less. Sally was like comfortable white noise--always there in the back of Linda's mind, but no one had to actually pay attention to get the effect.
After they were finished, Linda and Sally helped clean up the kitchen and stacked the chairs before going home. It wasn't that long of a walk, but you never put your guard down when you were walking at night in Gotham. Sally pulled her sweater tightly around her and clutched at Linda's arm, biting her lip as her eyes darted nervously toward every shadow.
"If you were going to be so freaked out," Linda said, voice dry, "we should've left earlier."
"I'm not scared," Sally insisted, and then shrieked when a rat scurried in front of them.
"Yeah, I can tell by the screams." They made their way safely back to their floor, and Linda waved goodbye as she unlocked her door and slipped inside. Once the door closed, Linda removed her shoes and dropped the keys in their customary place. She didn't turn on any lights. She had a cold dinner of Fruit Loops and washed the dishes before going back into her room. She was about to flop down on the bed, as had become her custom, when a change in the sky stopped her. Instead of going to bed and not sleeping, she decided to sit on the armchair next to the window. The Bat Signal had been lit. She never could sleep when it was on.
Eventually, the light went out, and Linda could breathe again.
Life continued on normally for Linda, or at least, as normally as possible. She created silly things out of clay and sold some of them, helped the neighborhood with only a little urging from Sally, and waited to see if it would ever make a difference for her.
It never did.
Linda carefully kept an eye on the heroes of the world. The people who thought they knew her considered her a fan of capes, but it was both simple and complicated. She wanted to make sure superhero community never found her, never asked her to become Supergirl again, because she had failed so horribly the first time, but she also understood that she had gifts, and some would say--a requirement to use them for good. That's what Clark would have thought, anyway. Linda decided it didn't matter what she did; there were more than enough heroes to handle the threat of the world.
A new Supergirl, even.
This was exactly what she wanted, Linda told herself. She had wanted the world to move on without her. She had wanted a life of anonymity.
"Are you all right, dear?" a sweet old lady asked Linda, and Linda blinked, realizing that she wasn't even paying attention to how well her statues were selling.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Linda said automatically, but she felt a vague sort of surprise to realize that she was lying.
Her stomach was tied in knots, and she felt a little feverish. She hadn't felt sick since the last time she'd been human rather than meta. Linda ignored the shake of her fingers and her growing weakness, selling a few more statues before packing up for the day. She trudged home, going wearily to her apartment and dropping her things gently in the corner before going into the kitchen and making herself a cup of tea.
She drank it carefully and then put the cup in the sink when she was finished, alternately sweating and freezing as she made her way to her bed. Linda kicked off her shoes and curled into the blankets, each shudder of cold almost painful in its intensity.
She stared out the window in a feverish haze; the sky was red, fissures lining the clouds like the world was one big jigsaw puzzle that was getting ready to fall apart any second. She could hear screaming in the streets, the sound of breaking glass and gunshots. Gotham had never been particularly stable, but strange threats like the sky breaking apart above them only made people's worse nature bubble up through the cracks.
Linda rolled off the bed and crawled to the windowsill, pulling herself up. She saw a couple of street kids break into the electronics store next door and sighed to herself. Regardless of how she felt, Gotham City was now her town, and if Batman weren't here to defend it, well--at least she could defend her own city block. She ignored the cramping of her stomach and the clammy feel of her skin as she moved away from the window, inch by slow inch. She blamed Clark completely for this impossible determination, this need that not even the emptiness inside her could kill completely. She reached into a drawer of her dresser and pulled out a bandanna, tying it across the lower half of her face before she opened her window and jumped out, using her flight to soften her landing.
"Hey, kids," Linda said, tapping one of the boys on the shoulder, "ever heard of something called the After School Specials? Stealing is bad."
She smacked them on the behind with a little of her strength, causing them to howl. The boy on the left threw a punch at her. Linda winced, but it was his hand that was mangled by the impact.
"Now." Linda gave the other boy an exasperated look, and he went running, stumbling over some of the garbage and debris in the street. Linda sighed again and tossed the kid with the broken hand over her shoulder, flying him to a hospital. She looked for one that wasn't being troubled by the growing riots that she saw brewing on the streets, and then flew away, heading back toward her apartment.
There was a flutter of movement in front of her, and Linda barely had enough time to stop her flight before the Rock of Eternity popped up in her path. She zoomed around it, wishing for nothing more than to lock herself up in her crappy apartment and let the world go to hell without her help. Everything was mixed up--She wanted to stop, she wanted to hide, but she also wanted to find out why the Rock of Eternity had appeared over Gotham in the first place, but she had no idea of what was going on, no idea if the world was really ending or if this was another hiccup. Linda couldn't help but look down at the citizens of the city that she now called home. For every punk trying to use this disaster to steal to loot, there was someone trying to get home, a cop trying to hold the line. A sudden chill of guilt lodged in Linda's stomach, and she turned to look at the Rock of Eternity, looked around to see if she could find its guardian.
Captain Marvel was there, far below her on the street, but he looked completely out of it, and that made Linda more nervous than anything. She flew closer to the rock and looked at it long enough to know that she didn't want the thing in her city, so she put her hands against it and pushed. The surface was warm beneath her palms, and she pushed until her muscles were straining. Nausea curled in the pit of her stomach, leaving her shaky and disoriented. She focused on the craggy rock beneath her hands and let out a grunt as she pushed. She sucked in a deep breath and wedged her shoulder against the rocky surface, shoving it with all her might. In the next moment, the Rock of Eternity exploded and she spun in the air, flung by the force of the explosion into the asphalt below.
Linda groaned and picked herself up, dusting gravel from her face and checking to make sure her bandanna was still in place--the superhero thing was much easier with a wig--and then looked around, unnerved by the sudden flare of activity around her. After more than a year of being inactive, she wasn't used to being a superhero anymore, wasn't used to how loud everything was and the rush of adrenaline that sharpened every second. She could hear the roar of fire in the streets, glass shattering in the windows as falling rock pelted the ground. Linda spun around, hearing the cries of injured people. She stopped at the side of a bleeding woman, determined it should be okay to move her, and went to the hospital yet again to drop her off. There was a whistling sound behind her as she flew back to her apartment and she instinctively ducked, somersaulting in the air, and watched as a ghost darted over her head and then zigzagged toward someone on the street. Linda flew toward him, but the ghost got there first, disappearing into the man's chest without a sound.
"I took it because I wanted something to—" he was saying to himself when she got close enough to hear what he was saying. "I wanted it, I wanted—"
"It's mine!" a woman screamed somewhere to Linda's right. "It's mine, it's all mine, it's—"
Linda was at a loss. She knew how to handle super villains, how to save victims--that was all fine and dandy--but how was she supposed to deal when the victims were freaking nuts? She found herself hoping that this really was the end of the world as she flew back into the sky and headed for her apartment again. The nausea was coming back full force, running over her in fierce waves, and she could barely keep her concentration enough to fly, let alone police a city that didn't even know she existed.
Some windows on her building had been shattered in the short time she had been away, and she paused briefly at each one to make sure her neighbors were safe before she flew into her apartment window, barely making it inside before she crashed down on her floor, her stomach heaving, bile burning her throat and stinging up her nose. She tore the bandanna from her face and balled it into the corner, laying there on the floor. Linda didn't know how long she laid on the carpet, gasping for air, but it felt like forever. She eventually got up enough strength to crawl into her bed, where she flopped down on her back and passed out.
She dreamed about Clark and her parents, of Wally the God-Boy, Mattie's laugh, Cutter's smile, all fading to dust. Linda was in her parents' living room, the Garden of Eden, Metropolis, spinning through each location faster and faster until--
Linda was in a field with Comet and Blithe; the grass was a deep and vibrant green, the sky the most perfect blue Linda had ever seen. Her vision blurred out at the edges, like she was looking at them from a long ways away.
Blithe scoffed and shook her head. "I guess this is it, sweet cheeks. This is my last curtain call. Can't say it was a pleasure."
Comet stepped up to Linda and cupped her face in his large, warm palms. "Goodbye, Linda." He hesitated for a moment, and then Andy was there, almost lost inside Comet's large armor, as sad as Linda had ever seen her. When she spoke, her voice was soft. "I wish..."
"Guys," Linda whispered, but they faded away, just like everything else in her dream--
Linda bolted up in her bed, sweat making her shirt stick uncomfortably to her skin. From the looks of it, she had been tossing and turning for a while, the sheets and blankets hopelessly tangled. Linda expected to feel dizzy, weak, but she got up without any problem. She looked out the window, and it looked like it was a normal Gotham day, the sun peeking through the breaks of concrete and brink. Apparently, whatever had been wrong with the universe before, it was now set to right. She had known the heroes would take care of it.
She got up and was able to scramble eggs for breakfast, eating them without any threat of her stomach roiling, without anything out of the ordinary. Now that her fever was finished, it was sort of dreamy in the back of Linda's mind, impossible to focus on but always lingering. She had been sick. She definitely knew that. Was it something that she had picked up in the timeline she'd been in? If that were the case, wouldn't it have affected her long before now? Linda shook her head. There were too many questions, and quite frankly, she didn't care about the answers. Life would still go on the way it had been, and this would be one more strange incident she could dismiss.
She washed the dishes, took a shower and changed into a fresh pair of jeans and a t-shirt, tying her short dark hair back for convenience and before heading out to do a little grocery shopping. The corner store was always a touch expensive, but the people there were really nice, so she always tried to make a detour to buy at least something from them, even if it was only milk or bread.
It was brighter than usual in Gotham, and Linda slipped her rarely-used sunglasses over her eyes as she walked. She got to her normal spot and frowned, tilting her sunglasses down her nose so she could stare at the sign. This had definitely been a grocery store last night, but now it was a motorcycle dealership.
It looked like it had been here for years.
"What the hell is going on here?" Linda asked herself, and she looked around, paying attention to her surroundings for the first time. The street was mostly the same, but there was something about the architecture, the light, that was different than what it had been even just a day before.
It was probably a superhero thing, Linda reasoned as she turned on her heel and headed home. She would just stay in her apartment until all the fallout was over and the villain of the week was defeated. It was a good, solid plan that had seen her through several random Gotham City crises, so there was no point in worrying about it.
Linda walked back to her apartment building and fished her keys out of purse as she headed to her floor, but when she reached where her apartment had been, she found nothing but a clean, solid wall. "What?" Linda asked herself, pressing a hand against the wall as if to test its solidity. She turned around in confusion and spotted Sally coming up the stairs. "Sally!" she exclaimed, "The weirdest thing happ..." Linda fell silent at the curious, distant look Sally was giving her, blue eyes kind, but wary.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" Sally asked hesitantly, staring at Linda.
"There was an apartment here--" Linda tried, but she fell silent again at Sally's baffled look and the slow shake of her head.
"There are three apartments per floor and mine's the one closest to the stairs. Have you gotten lost? Is there someone I can call for you?"
"I--" Linda looked back at the wall and dropped her hand down to her side. "No, I'm good. I think I just got lost. Sorry."
Sally gave a half-hearted smile and headed to her own apartment.
Linda stood in the corridor for a moment, and looked at the wall where her apartment had been less than twenty minutes, ago utterly confused at this turn of events It came to her in a sort of vague, distant way that maybe this was just the world telling her to go home.
So she did.
There was nothing left.
Linda took a deep breath, closed her eyes and counted to ten. She opened her eyes and saw nothing but trees and a small patch of clearing off to her left.
Leesburg was gone.
She thought of her mother, her little brother, her father, the house that she had been born in, all wiped away like marker from a dry erase board.
Linda slowly walked, moving down the road for miles and miles until she found another city, and then she went into the library to borrow the free Internet.
It was like none of them had ever existed. Linda pushed her hand through her hair and took a deep breath. She figured that she should cry.
In the end, Linda found herself in Gotham again for the simple fact that she had nowhere else to go. She searched her pockets and came up with twenty five dollars and fifty cents. It was enough to get food for a couple of days if she were frugal, and maybe then she would figure out what to do from there. It was at times like these she missed the Chaos Stream, as vile as that sounded, because at the least it had given her a sense of purpose.
Linda sighed and took a seat on the stairs of the building that used to house her apartment, wondering what she was going to do. Linda didn't even know if her identification was going to be worth anything.
Linda leaned against the stairs and looked up. It was Sally. "Hey."
Sally plopped down next to Linda and propped her chin in her hands. "How are you at waitressing?"
Life happens that way sometimes, Linda realized. You can lose everything, but you still continue forward, putting one foot in front of the other, minute after minute, day after day. Linda went from that weird girl Sally found on the street to the new waitress at the Smoky Joe. Mr. Ferguson from apartment 3B moved out, and it only made sense that Linda take his place. Each layer that Linda peeled away made room for something else, a façade of morality and kindness that served her well in their tiny neighborhood.
Even Gotham had its bright spots, and Linda soaked it in, took her place in this new world like the old one had never existed. She didn't forget the people that she lost, but she didn't linger. The people she had once loved were gone; now she looked on toward the future.
And whenever she came across a hero, Linda cast her eyes to the ground and did not think about the life where she had been one of them.
The sound of shattering woke Linda up from vivid dreams of darkness and being unable to find her way, and she looked around quickly, snagging a pair of jeans from the dresser and pulling them on before thinking better of it and taking off her pajama top to get dressed correctly. There was another sound of shattering, closer this time, and she looked out her window to see that the world had gone completely insane.
Row after row of people filled the streets, their eyes glowing such a fierce crimson that Linda could see the light from her window. Cars were overturned and burning in the roads, and everywhere she looked, people were screaming, going down before the ranks before they inevitably joined them. Her heart pounded in her chest and her mouth went dry. They were chanting something, but she couldn't hear them as she stumbled away from the open window before they noticed her. There was something wrong, something horrible going on, but she didn't have the right to interfere, not anymore, not after what she had done. Where was Batman? Or anyone? Something ached in her chest, and her heart skipped a beat at the sensation. It was like an ember that had burned brightly for a second, a remnant of her soul flickering in realization, and for a moment she thought that surely they needed her help. When the streets of Gotham were like this, surely they needed--
The shattering she had heard before sounded again, closer, and there came a ceaseless pounding on the door, like footsteps, like drums, deep in her head. She stood in the center of her tiny, dingy living room and didn't know what to expect, frozen in place by the suddenness of change.
"...+ fear + despair + self..."
Linda strained her ears, flying an inch from the floor to prevent the sound of her footsteps giving her away. There was a groan of wood as the door began to bend inward, and Linda used her telekinesis to support the cheap paneling. The chant was getting louder, more insistent, and part of the door gave way, crumpled against her TK as a manicured hand scratched at the air.
"...÷ condemnation ÷ misunderstanding x guilt..."
That burning ember of feeling in Linda's chest burnt out in a flare of panic and fear and desperation, and she listened to the thousands of people outside her door, out in the world, and realized they were all saying the same thing.
"...n=y where y=hope and n=folly..."
Linda could feel everything slipping away into the void of hopelessness, because they were right. Love equaled lies. Life equaled Death. Self--
She remembered, and in remembering was reborn. The way Supergirl had found her, the most pitiful, pathetic excuse for a human there had ever been, and how she had sacrificed everything to save her because she believed in right and truth and second chances.
Linda stumbled back, fell onto the floor even as that numb, dead part inside of her, that insane part of her that could touch darkness, reached out and found the loud, roiling anti-life in the people outside her door and quietly snuffed it like a candle.
Linda gasped, suddenly cold in the silence, and shifted to her hands and knees, inching quietly toward the door. The hand that had been clawing at her force field was now hanging limply from the hole torn into the door, and Linda shoved the hand out of her door before risking a look outside. They were all there piled in front of her door. There was Sally, lying like a rag doll on the ground, Mrs. Bennett from down the hall, the guy that did their maintenance. Linda thought his name might have been Burt, or Denny, and some dim part of her dies a little more at the realization that she didn't even know the names of half these people.
Linda opened her door and reached for the first body she found, pressing her fingers against the neck and finding no pulse, as she had half expected. She moved on to the next, and the next, listening warily for any further chanting, for any movement whatsoever. They were all gone. She scrubbed a hand over her face and raised her head, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling. She had killed--not super-villains, not criminals--but people. People. And she had dared...dared to think that maybe...
Linda heard footsteps on the stairs, the chant beginning again, and she calmly stood and walked over to Sally's apartment. It was open, as if she hadn't cared about anything inside. She probably hadn't. Linda stepped inside and locked the door behind her before checking on the windows. She tugged the curtains closed against the increasing light brought by the flames and then sank down to the floor, putting her arms over her head and closing her eyes.
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman--if there was a world to save, they would do it.
Linda broke anything she touched.
In the end, it was Wonder Woman who saved them. Linda remembers once when they had met--only it wasn't Linda, but Mae, and she hungered for Mae's guidance in a way that she hadn't since the day that she put Kara in the space ship and sent her to death.
Earth born angel was just code for finally knowing how to do the right thing.
Linda could hear talk in the streets at how the mayor was taking an awful long time getting these empty and destroyed buildings purged, and Linda almost wanted to ask one of the many survivors if they thought a fresh coat of paint was going to stop the memory of what they had done while under the control of Darkseid.
Linda went to the funerals of everyone who she had murdered in that hallway. She owed them all at least that much, to let them know that they weren't forgotten in the midst of all the dead. She was beginning to think that the only thing she carried with her anymore were ghosts. After Sally's funeral, Linda went to Smoky Joe's, and instead of working, they closed down the bar and the staff had a little goodbye of their own. To the city, to Sally, to being crazy enough to stay in Gotham despite everything.
After each shot, the alcohol burned in Linda's stomach until the warmth had spread through her entire body, leaving her relaxed and comfortable. Linda had thought that her powers would prevent her from getting drunk, but she had forgotten that although she was super strong and invulnerable, she was also human, with a human metabolism.
It was nice, being able to forget for a change. Even so, with every drink Linda took, she was reminded of her old life, of Buzz and the way she had murdered her pastor and his mistress. So she drank enough to forget that, too.
Linda woke up the next morning splayed over her bed, her head aching slightly and her mouth dry. She didn't remember making her way over to the apartment building. It was cordoned off as a crime scene, but then again, so was half the city; this was the first time she had ever felt like a squatter. She got off of her bed and flew out the window, her memories of last night vague except for one thing--she didn't have any dreams.
More than ever, Linda felt like she was living on the outskirts of her own life, a ghost fading out between the lines. She had been an angel, had all but spoken to God. It should have brought her faith back, but all she could think of was how she had been used until she was no longer needed, and now she didn't know how to live a normal life anymore.
Screw it. A beer sounded good right now.
Linda left work when they closed the bar, ignoring the concerned looks that her boss Fred gave her. She never drank when she was on shift, just at the end. It wasn't like she had anything else to spend her money on anyway. Most days, she slept in empty buildings, flew to a river outside of Gotham when she needed to get clean, saved some money to rent a hotel room when she wanted a bed. She had never been like this before, itinerant, a gypsy. It was relieving, not having anything to tie her down. She weaved a little, swaying back and forth on her feet as she walked out. Linda sauntered down the narrow streets of Gotham, warm despite the slight chill in the air, and leaned against a wall for a moment when her head started to spin.
When Linda opened her eyes, she found herself in the middle of a group of women in a small wooden hold of some sort. Her hands were tied behind her back, a cloth gag shoved in her mouth, and her head was aching faintly. The other women around her were crying, and that made her head pound even more. She unobtrusively broke the rope around her wrist and pulled the gag from her face, taking a moment to look around. Wood, a group of women about her age, the rocking of water. A boat, then. What the hell was she doing on a boat?
A door opened to her left, and a man with light hair and dark eyes stepped inside. He was holding a gun and looking over the other women with a dispassionate expression on his face.
Linda stood and dusted her jeans off. "Hey, buddy, I didn't sign up for a cruise. How about letting me off the Love Boat?" The man aimed a gun at her and squeezed the trigger. Linda couldn't help the grin that tugged at her lips as the bullet ricocheted off of her skull and bounced somewhere farther into the boat. "That never gets old." Linda lifted into the air, scoffing at the women crying beneath her, and yanked the guy up by his collar, bringing him close."Just wanted to say that kidnapping a drunk lady isn't cool at all, jerk," Linda said. "Makes me just want to punch you in the face."
So she did.
Renee Montoya flitted from shadow to shadow until dock six was in sight, and then slowed down, taking a moment to tug her gloves firmly on her hands and to adjust her fedora. She had been hearing about a human trafficking ring for the last couple of weeks and had followed the rumors until she found out about that night. She was kind of amused, in a flattered sort of way. Ever since she had helped those immigrants, people from all over were coming to her with stories of lost loved ones.
She didn't mind, though. That was one of the great things about being a detective, first and foremost, the little moments where, if you're lucky, everything works out fine in the end. This particular case fascinated her most for a simple reason, however--she had stumbled on it by accident. She had gone running in Hub City one evening to keep her conditioning up, and she had came upon someone who she originally thought was a mugger. She had taken him down with a couple of punches and a well-aimed kick, and then she had turned to see if his victim was okay. The girl was wary, disoriented and a little confused from what Renee could see, and she looked like she had been living on the streets for a couple of months.
Renee had ended up taking her to a homeless shelter, but the girl had told Renee that it hadn't been the first time guys had gone after her. She wouldn't say any more after that, but Renee gave her the email address anyway. When she got home, sure enough, there was an email waiting for her.
It had stated that the attempted kidnapping of that girl wasn't the first that had happened, and that others had actually succeeded in taking some of the girls off the street. It only took a little bit of research to find out that none of these people existed, and that in and of itself was very interesting. Renee wouldn't have thought anything of it, but the girl she had saved told her friends about Renee, and each time one of them came to her and told her of a blond, dark-eyed Englishman who was after those that lived under the radar.
Renee hated it here. Gotham was one of those cities that took and took, sucking you dry until you had nothing left to give. Once, she had loved it. Now, it made her think of everything that she lost--Harvey, Crispin, Kate. It didn't surprise her that a trafficking ring was here, either. Renee was just about to creep on board when a big, broad, muscular guy came crashing through the door of the boat she had been watching, the wood splintering under his weight, and a small, dark-haired woman gave him a great left hook that sent him flying into the water.
"Oh, don't you dare!" Renee heard the girl yell, and then she was flying--flying--down to the water, picking him up and depositing him onto the dock.
A meta human, then. What the hell was going on in Gotham, nowadays? Another goon lumbered out from below decks, but the woman didn't seem to notice him, so Renee swung down and cut him off with a kick to the stomach, followed by a quick chop of her hand to the back of his neck.
"Watch your back, lady," Renee said. "You never know what's sneaking up behind you."
"Oh," the woman said, her voice dismissive as she made sure her guy was out for the count and turned to Renee. "Thank----ohmygod!" The woman stumbled back over her own feet and sat on the guy she'd just saved from the river as she stared up at Renee. "What's wrong with your face?"
"I guess you metas don't know the importance of having a mask?" Renee asked wryly, looking around to see if they'd missed any security. If not, then it was pretty light; they must not have expected someone to come busting into their party. "I'm The Question."
"Then what's the answer?" the woman asked with a cheeky grin.
Renee rolled her eyes so hard she was glad she was wearing a mask. "Like I've never heard that before," she said, and ventured further out on the dock, into the boat to make sure there was no one left. No one, except a bunch of tied up women. Okay, then. "You're safe. Come on." Renee went down into the hold and began to untie the ropes and gags, and they filed quietly out one by one.
Once Renee finished untying the last woman, she hopped back up onto the dock, surprised to see all of them just milling around like no one knew what to do. The meta human was still sitting on her goon, looking up at the cloudy sky. Renee gave her an intense look--dirty chucks, torn jeans--she looked like a normal twenty-something, but there was something off about her, something off about all the women she had found. She went over to the woman, crouching down beside her. "Have you asked if any of them need help?"
"No," the woman said, looking at Renee with clear, blue eyes.
Renee laughed quietly to herself. "Some hero you are."
"I'm not a hero." Sharp, defensive. Renee decided to save that question for later.
"Fine," Renee said, and stood, facing the rest of the girls. "I'm going to notify the police that you're here. Are there any family members you want contacted?"
"What family?" one woman asked bitterly. "I have no family." The rest of the women shook their heads in dawning realization. "I figured getting kidnapped and killed was the perfect coda to having my entire life vanish from the record books."
"What do you mean?" Renee asked.
Another woman turned to Renee. "I used to be a pianist. I woke up one day and found out that my family never existed, and they didn't have me listed in the database for social security. I'd just been left behind by the damned universe." There was a rising murmur of agreement from the other women, and Renee tried to piece it all together, but it was a jigsaw, and she was missing some important shapes.
"You just woke up one day, and everyone who knew you was gone," the meta human said from behind Renee.
Renee turned toward the woman. "What's your name?"
"Linda," Linda said. "Linda Danvers. My father was a police officer in Leesburg. My home city is gone. There's another Leesburg in Virginia, and I thought maybe it had just changed over, but there wasn't anyone I knew there."
"Do you ladies have anywhere to stay?" Renee asked. "I can arrange for transport."
"We can take care of ourselves," another woman piped up. "I've been doing it for a year. I don't need help from you now."
Renee took a deep breath. "All right," she withdrew a picture from her inner pocket of her jacket. "You don't want my help. I get it. But I need yours. Do you know who this is?" A couple of the women looked at the picture and shook their heads, others just ignored her and wandered off.
"Let me see," Linda said, and Renee handed her the picture, watched the way her eyes grew large and round. "That's Buzz."
"Buzz," Renee said. "Care to share the details?"
Linda made a face of distaste. "He's my ex-boyfriend. He's a demon--er, ex-demon, I guess--but I hadn't seen him since we defeated Lilith in the Garden of Eden."
Renee blinked. "Hoo-kay. Got a last name that goes with that?"
"He's just Buzz," Linda said slowly. "I bet if you find a subsidiary of the Chaos Stream, you'd find him."
"Uh huh." Renee looked Linda up and down, filing away the term 'Chaos Stream' for later consideration. "Thanks." Renee turned away, and she heard the rustling behind her as Linda stood. She put the picture back into her jacket and walked back, away from the dock and toward the Gotham warehouses, where her car was waiting.
"You don't believe me," Linda said flatly, and Renee turned back toward her, folding her arms over her chest.
"Your breath smells like alcohol," Renee said, cool and calm. "Your hair smells like river water and baking soda. You're obviously transient, and I think everything you say should be taken with a grain of salt."
"I used to be--" Linda began, cheeks flushing from anger, "I used to be--"
"Used to be doesn't mean much," Renee said, but then she softened her tone. "You're meta. What are you doing out here? The Bats don't like it when super humans show up in their city."
"Oh, yeah, because it's my joy in life to make people mad at me. I've been living in Gotham for a long time. I'm not out getting into trouble, so there's no reason why I can't just be left alone."
"You were a mask too, weren't you?"
"I used to be Supergirl before I became transient," Linda confessed quietly.
"Supergirl?" Renee tried to think back to the last Supergirl she had seen. "You--"
"Don't have the torso for it?"
"--don't sound Kryptonian, is what I was going to say."
"Listen," Linda said, fervent and quiet. "I know it's ridiculous. I know you don't think I can help. But I'm super strong, and I swear that's Buzz, and I have to find him, see if he remembers me at all. I have to know if I'm really alone. Please."
Renee stared at Linda for a long time, long enough for Linda to move from hopeful to worried, chewing on her bottom lip. Renee adjusted her fedora. "If I take you with me, we're going to have some ground rules here, right?"
"Rules?" Linda folded her arms over her chest, shifting from foot to foot. Renee noticed that Linda's eyes flitted to her face every once in a while, as though she couldn't bear to look at the blank canvas of Renee's face.
"Yeah," Renee said. "First, no alcohol. Drink, and I drop you like a hot potato."
Linda opened and closed her mouth for a while, and Renee could understand the indecision. If Linda had gone through what the other women swore to, the very fact of having reality rewritten until you were no longer a part of it--that was hard. It was hard for normal people; hell, she still ached for a beer sometimes, especially after she had seen Victor come back from the dead to destroy her and Tot. There were some things you couldn't get over. That you couldn't run away from.
"I'm serious, Linda," Renee intoned.
Linda took a deep breath and nodded.
"Okay." Renee motioned for Linda to follow her and started walking, heading toward her car. "Second, you don't move unless I tell you to. The worst thing about you powered types is that you run in without thinking about the consequences, but almost anywhere you turn, there are civilians. And civilians mean casualties. I'm going to train you to use your strength only when you need it. You're lucky you didn't kill that guy when you punched him through the door, you know. He's not invulnerable."
"I am," Linda said.
"You are?" Renee asked as they reached her car.
"Great." Renee opened her door and slid into her seat, buckling her seat belt. "That means I'll hide behind you when the bullets go flying. You coming?" She closed the door and waited until Linda climbed into the passenger seat. "Third," Renee continued, "you seem like a nice girl and all, but I'm not trusting you with my identity yet, so I'm putting you up in a hotel tonight. Got any problems with that?"
"No," Linda said, and bowed her head. Renee ignored it and focused on her driving. It was pretty late at night, and for once the traffic wasn't trying to kill her. They made decent time onto the highway, and Renee cleared her throat expectantly. "What?"
"It's time to talk," Renee said. "Tell me everything."
Linda nodded and took a breath. "Before I developed my powers, I met Buzz. He convinced me to do some--really bad things. After my powers showed up, he seemed like maybe he was reforming, but with him, you're never sure, you know? He's a demon. That's not really redemption stuff. I haven't seen him in forever."
Renee nodded, keeping her eyes on the road. "Okay, let's forget him for now. What about you? What are your powers?"
"Oh, the usual, I guess," Linda said. "Super strength, flight, invulnerability, telekinesis."
"And it strikes me that I live in a world where that's the usual," Renee said, voice dry.
"Freaky, isn't it?" Linda agreed, and then went silent.
There was something off about her that bothered Renee, more than being homeless and potentially part of a different world--and she hated that, how her own world had gone from being a cop, being a detective, to amounting to nothing more than another cape, where she can say things like 'potentially a part of a different world' without even blinking an eye--that made Renee want to take a step back and really look. Linda's smile was fake. When she talked, Linda was a little silly, but there were moments when it sounded like she was waiting for a cue, and if she didn't get it, she would falter into silence.
Renee left Linda alone for now, taking her cell phone and calling the Gotham PD. She left an anonymous tip so the GCPD could scoop up the guys that Renee and Linda had left at the dock, and then turned into the first hotel she saw. "At any rate, this guy--Buzz, you called him?-- I managed to track him down to Gotham, but I don't know what he's doing there. It sounds like this kidnapping ring has been careful in its victims. I'd guess that all of them have the same story that you guys on the boat gave me tonight. But what's the endgame?"
"Maybe he's looking for something," Linda suggested.
It startled Renee a moment to hear the response; she'd mostly been talking to herself, but really, it was too much of a coincidence to hear of so many insist on the same problem. That had to be the connection. He was collecting people who had slipped through the cracks, who no longer belonged. Renee remembered enough about how the Rock of Eternity had splintered in Gotham years ago, and she almost wanted to ask the Spectre and the Radiant what God's plan was, exactly. If it was as simple as erasing the things He didn't like in the first place, then why make such a mistake in the first place? Trying to figure out motive on such a grand scale just made Renee's head hurt, so she pushed it to the back of her mind and got out of the car.
"Potentially," Renee said, leaning against her car as Linda stepped out of the passenger's side. "But what is it he's looking for? That's the question."
"When I first met him," Linda said, her voice soft and thoughtful, "he was the leader of a Satanic cult."
"Great," Renee sighed, "just what Gotham needs. Another cult." Renee found herself almost hoping that Linda couldn't be trusted, if that meant another cult wouldn't spring up. She was getting sick and tired of the Religion of Crime. "Do you need me to spot you some cash?"
"That's really nice," Linda said, her lips turning up into a small smirk, "but I can get my own room, don't worry."
"Okay," Renee nodded. "About fourteen miles east, there's a sheltered place that you can't see from the road. Meet me there, and we'll start working on your finesse. Ten sharp."
"Got it." Linda nodded and went into the hotel to purchase her room. Renee stood outside for a long moment, debating whether she should leave Linda there or not, but Renee's night had only just begun, and she didn't want the other woman in the way.
"Renee?" Tot's voice rang, small and clear in her ear. "Are you really taking that girl under your wing?"
"She's meta." Renee had said that so many times she felt like she was using that as an excuse. She kept her hands on the steering wheel, making her way through the crowded Gotham streets once more with the ease of long practice. "And if she's right, then she's going to make the rest of the investigation pretty easy."
"I hope you know what you're doing."
"I never know what I'm doing. That's part of the fun." Renee pulled up at the Gotham County Coroner's office. After parking and checking to see if anyone would see her, she slipped through the doors, sticking to the shadows and bypassing the staff in the waiting room. As usual, Frankie was working late. She hoped he might know something, maybe have some details she missed.
Frankie gasped at the sound of Renee's footsteps, the click of the door closing. "Jesus, lady! Some warning next time!"
"Cut the crap, Frankie." Renee walked over to the head of the autopsy bay, picking up a folder sitting on the counter and flipping through it nonchalantly, scanning the list of names.
"Is that you, Renee?" Frankie stared at her with wide eyes. She gave him a small wave, and he laughed. "I heard you were a cape now. Where've you been hiding yourself?"
"I take up in Hub City now." Renee tapped the spine of the folder against her gloved palm. "Right now, though, I have an investigation, and I think you can help me."
"What do you need?"
"How many Jane Does do you have here right now?"
Frankie pushed his glasses up his nose as he thought. "I think I have about nineteen."
"That's funny." Renee set the file back down on the counter and crossed her arms. "On your admissions, you have twenty-six listed."
"Twenty-six? Are you sure?" Frankie draped a sheet over the corpse he had been looking at and waved a hand at her, leading her to the refrigerator units of the morgue storage. He counted all of his tenants and, sure enough, when he finished his count was twenty-six.
"Do you need to go back to grade school and work on those counting skills?" Renee was grateful for her mask, because it hid the disgust she could feel twisting her face as she zipped open one of the body bags and looked at the victim inside. It wasn't the worst thing she had ever seen, but between the Religion of Crime and the regular Gotham psychos, killers from out of town were obvious. They might as well sign their work. Renee looked over Jane Doe number one and noticed symbols carved into her skin. The marks were clear and precise, with no signs of hesitancy.
"Funny," Frankie said, scratching his balding head. "I don't remember seeing these before, but obviously they've been here. Some of them look like they've been here a very long time. I've got to let someone know about this."
"Thanks," Renee mused, taking a quick look at the other six bodies Frankie had counted to verify that the markings were the same. It didn't look like this was a kidnapping ring after all. This was very clearly ritualistic murder. The fact that Frankie hadn't remembered them could also be another clue. If these were people forgotten because they didn't belong here anymore, would there be anyone to remember them once they'd died?
Renee was waiting at the rendezvous spot for Linda the next morning. She had spent most of the night trying to pick up additional leads, but the women from the boat had scattered like leaves, and the only people who had been out that night were the usual Gotham types. She was still wearing her mask, her hair and clothing changed with the application of the binary gas. She wished she could find someone to vouch for Linda, but in lieu of that, she had to do what she had to do, as uncomfortable as it made her.
Linda came flying over the horizon and landed nimbly before Renee, who gave her a slow look. Linda must have gone shopping that morning, because she had black combat boots, a short black skirt, a white mid-drift shirt and a bright yellow wig over her dark hair, and Renee was shaking her head before Linda had the opportunity to speak.
"What's wrong?" Linda asked with a frown.
"Are you trying to hit on me?" Renee gestured at the skirt and the--well, the whole outfit, really.
"What?" Linda looked down at herself, her forehead creased in confusion. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
"You really fought crime in a skirt?" Renee circled around.
Linda nodded. "It's flashy, isn't it? It's pretty close to what I've always worn."
"No comment," Renee said. "Superman doesn't know how to dress, either."
"Superman isn't just a crime fighter," Linda said hotly--and that meant there was totally something there. Interesting. "He's a hero and a role model. It's important that he's visible because it means people won't forget him."
"I woke the sleeping giant," Renee laughed. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." She stepped away and carefully slipped off her trench coat and the fedora, folding the coat and placing it carefully out of the way, the fedora on top. "Enough chatting. Attack me."
"Come at me," Renee encouraged. "Don't hold back."
"Um," Linda scratched the side of her head. "I thought the point of this was not to squish normal people?"
"I'm betting that you're so used to fighting other super-powered people that you won't even be able to touch me," Renee said, and smiled behind her mask.
Renee watched as Linda picked herself up off the ground and dusted herself off, taking a moment to enjoy the view as Linda shook out her hair and took a deep breath. "You're not too bad."
"Says the lady who's been kicking my butt for the last two hours," Linda said with a laugh.
"I have talent." Renee sauntered over to her folded jacket, putting her fedora back on. "Now, I need to get some sleep, so let's say we meet back here and head into Gotham tonight, see if we can find this Buzz character around anywhere and shake some noise out of him."
"Sounds good," Linda said, and she waved goodbye as she took to the skies again.
Renee ran a hand briskly through her hair and drove to her own hotel room. It was frustrating that Hub City and Gotham were so far apart and that when she was chasing a case, she couldn't go home to sleep in her own bed. She sprayed the binary gas as she drove, her hair darkening to normal and her face becoming visible again, and she tossed the fedora into the backseat of her car as the rest of her outfit changed color. By the time she reached her hotel, she looked perfectly normal, and no one even took a second look at her as she climbed the stairs to her room on the second floor. Renee locked the door behind her and took the time for a shower. Once she was finished, she went to her bed and fell asleep, complete and immediate.
Renee woke at about nine in the evening and stretched some vague soreness out of her muscles before she got dressed and left her hotel room in plenty of time to meet Linda. She reminded herself that they were going to have to think of a codename for Linda, because she certainly couldn't go by Supergirl anymore, and any variation of that just sounded kind of silly. Renee wondered what she was doing; after all, she had always had a bad track record with partners, and she tended to work better alone as it was. They didn't even share a common connection like the one she and Helena had. Still, Renee had an instinct that said Linda was good, if a bit raw and untrained, and she would be useful with her knowledge and abilities. It just seemed so convenient that Linda had shown up just as Renee was getting closer to the ringleader, and she was going to be completely out of luck if Linda was shadier than she seemed.
Still. Renee survived one psycho cult. She was sure she could survive another.
Even if it did involve a super strong, invulnerable woman who talked about religious theology more than her mother.
As she anticipated, Renee ended up being quite a bit early, and she spent some time looking over the notes she had made to herself about the people potentially involved with her current case, and she also took a moment to check her email to see if she'd received any other requests.
Renee heard Linda touch down, the crunch of her footsteps betraying her arrival. It didn't sound like she was trying to hide at all, and Renee thought that she was either as genuine as she appeared, or she was a better actor than Renee had thought.
"Wow," Linda said, and Renee looked up as Linda leaned against the car, her shadow falling over Renee. "Are you always this early to the party?"
"Or late," Renee said with a small laugh. "Ready to go?"
"Sure. Car or Linda Airlines?"
"I prefer car," Renee said dryly. "And we need to think of a codename for you while we're at it. I can't keep calling you Linda. And I refuse to call you Super-anything."
"Ouch." Linda went over to the passenger seat again, and Renee was a little amused at how easily Linda had just taken it over. "Why do I need one, anyway? It's not like I really exist."
"Even if your story about being from a version of the universe that we've forgotten is true--and I'm not saying it isn't, because I've seen enough to think it's possible--eventually, you'll build a life here. And if you continue to live the life of a cape, then you'll want a name to protect the people that you care about."
"No." Linda stared out the window, her voice soft. "No. I don't want a real life anymore."
"That's a loaded statement." Renee stared out the windshield, tapping her gloved fingers on the steering wheel. "Life happens whether you want it or not."
Linda shrugged, a slow lift and fall of her shoulders, and remained silent.
"How did you gain your powers, anyway? Was it natural? Were you born with them?"
"No." Linda shrugged again. "Buzz murdered me."
Renee didn't know what to say to that, her heart aching with pity from the simple way Linda had delivered it. Renee had never been murdered. She hoped she wouldn't get to find out what it felt like.
"Anyway." Renee cleared her throat and gestured at the glove box, and Linda gave her a suspicious look before she pressed the button to open it and look inside. "It's not going to bite you, Linda. I carry an extra radio transceiver just in case. Put it on."
Linda stared at it for so long that Renee wondered if she had fallen asleep, but then Linda looked at Renee as though she might be able to see through the mask to the face beneath. "Thank you."
"It's for my benefit, too." Renee gave Linda a brief nod. "I'm just human."
"You're pretty cool." Linda put the transceiver in her ear, where it was hidden nicely by her wig. "Even if your face does creep me out."
They got back to Gotham quickly, and Linda went flying off to who knew where, potentially to see if she could track down Buzz. Renee decided to do things the old-fashioned way--just beat up the bad guys until they talked.
The only problem, she discovered, was that no one knew or cared about a group that was only preying on street people who weren't important anyway. It annoyed and frustrated her in the way that Gotham always did when she was trying to hunt down a lead. It felt good to take that frustration out on the criminals who lived here.
Renee was in the middle of her third scrimmage when someone swooped down from the rooftops and took out the other two guys Renee had been fighting. She turned, half expecting it to be Batman, half--
And that second half was right. Kate. Batwoman. Renee loved that outfit.
"What brings you out to Gotham?" Batwoman asked as she finished tying up the low level criminals and rose to her feet, giving Renee a teasing smile. "Missed me that much, did you?"
"Didn't your father ever teach you to tone down that ego?" Renee joked, but she saw the slight stiffening of Kate's spine, her smile tilting down a little at the corners. Something was going on there, then. Another thing on Kate that she didn't know.
"What can I say? Redheads are fiery." Batwoman said, propping a hand on her hip.
"Preaching to the choir," Renee muttered. "Anyway, got an anonymous request for help. Sounds like another cult is being set up in Gotham."
"Damn, I hate cults. We have our hands full already with Intergang and all of the other everyday punks that think they can set up shop. I'd been hearing about one, recently--a new kidnapping ring? Is that the same one that you're talking about?"
"It's worse than that. We've got bodies." Renee shook her head. "I've got a picture of a guy that might be the ringleader." She showed the picture to Batwoman, who stared down at it, silent and intense. "Look familiar at all?"
"Haven't seen him." Batwoman shook her head and handed Renee the photo. "But now I know to keep an eye on him--"
She went silent as Renee heard a swoosh of sound, and Linda started chattering immediately. "I didn't see him when I did my recon, but I--oh. Sorry. Didn't realize there was someone there."
"And who is this?" Batwoman asked, her eyes narrowing behind the mask.
"I'm Linda." Linda gave Batwoman a small smile. "The Question here is letting me help out with an investigation."
Batwoman gave Renee a look that made her feel like she'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, and it made her scowl behind her mask. "We're working on a code name for her so that she'll stop blurting out her name everywhere she goes. Maybe Grackle."
"Grackle?" Linda burst out. "What the heck is a Grackle?"
"It's a bird," Batwoman said, lips curling into a smile.
"What is it with Gotham and their flying things?" Linda cocked her head and looked at the thugs at their feet. "I'm going to go try again. Be back in a few." Linda took off into the sky, and Batwoman turned to Renee.
"Why are you keeping her around? She looks like a mess."
"I think she's a good kid." Renee watched Linda fly away. "Besides, I kinda like the view."
Batwoman shook her head. "I can't really argue with that." She unhooked her grapple pistol from her belt and shot it toward the overhang of a building. "There are two things Linda needs: pants and a sports bra."
"Take a copy of this." Renee reached into her jacket and handed Kate a copy of the picture. "See what you can find out." Kate blew Renee a kiss, pressed the trigger on her grapple and shot toward the roof before Renee could respond.
"I heard all of that." Linda's voice was small but crystal clear in Renee's ear.
Renee laughed. "Then get your butt back over here. We'll go shopping and get you a real costume."
"Ten-four," Linda answered; Renee just shook her head and began to track down her next punching bag.
Kate Kane was tired of cults and criminals thinking they could just plant themselves in Gotham. It felt almost like celebrity stalking, and she wondered if people thought of Gotham that way. Hey, this is where the Batman lives, she imagined them saying, let's see if we can cause trouble and maybe we'll even get pictures! Thing was, Kate wasn't very forgiving of those tourist criminal types, especially since they took important time away from fighting the serious issues that plagued the city. And while it was painful--fantastic--that Renee was in Gotham again, it didn't surprise Kate that it had to do with another cult rearing its head. It seemed to be the only time Kate ever saw Renee anymore.
She didn't know if that was a curse or a blessing.
The night was quiet, relatively speaking, and Kate only ran into the usual small-time crooks that she usually found. She didn't see Linda or Renee again, but Gotham was a big city, and they were going through a huge haystack to find a tiny needle. When the darkness edged from black to the gray before dawn, Kate made her way back to her penthouse to put her costume up and collapse into bed.
She woke up, took a shower, got dressed. Now that Kate was an active crime fighter, her life had taken on a strict schedule, reminiscent of her time in the army, and it was refreshing, reassuring to surrender to the structure.
When night rolled around again, Batwoman was ready. If the goons on the street wouldn't tell her anything about the mysterious guy in the picture, then she would go to them. She started at the nightclub of the Penguin, it was easy enough—she gave him a flirtatious smile and he let it spill that he didn't know anything about this guy, had never seen him, in fact.
She crossed the Penguin's name off her mental list of suspects and continued moving forward. She even stopped by Oracle's place to ask about the man, and Oracle promised to keep her eyes and ears open.
Kate went home, got out of her costume and went to sleep. She got up after four hours of sleep, took a shower, and made a brief appearance at a charity auction where she flirted with one of the waitresses but didn't buy anything, and then went right back out on the streets, remembering to keep an eye out for the blond guy from Renee's picture. She actually found Renee and Linda long before she found anyone else--if only for the fact that Linda tromped around like she had never heard of the word delicacy--on the roof of one of the tall buildings in the uptown business district.
"Nice to see you in an actual costume." Kate landed nimbly next to Linda, who jumped and then straightened, smoothing her palms over her black jeans. It was nice and simple--the combat boots from yesterday, black jeans, a white undershirt with a black mesh top, and a mask covering her face.
"I feel like the dread pirate Roberts," Linda complained, fidgeting with the edge of the mask and pulling it over her the bridge of her nose.
"You look like him, too," Renee quipped.
"Enough chatting around the water cooler." Kate set a hand on her hip. "Have you guys found anything yet, or am I late to the party?"
"I haven't seen Buzz yet," Linda admitted, looking back and forth over the streets and staring intently any time she found something that might have been unusual.
"Are you absolutely sure you know who this guy is?" Renee asked. "Because I can't help but think you're blowing smoke. I can't find anything on this guy except for the one picture I managed to pull off a security camera."
"The only way I can prove it is if we find him," Linda said. "But I know him. Are you sure that he's behind all of this?"
"Either that, or there's a really good shape shifter out there."
"I would suppose that you don't have super hearing, then?" Kate asked. "What exactly can you do, just fly?"
"I'm strong." Linda looked as though she had decided that she couldn't see anything on this rooftop and floated a couple of inches in the air. "I can fly. I'm invulnerable. Telekinesis."
"A grab bag of tricks, then." Linda flew to another rooftop, and Kate shot out her grapple, giving Renee a suggestive smile as she slid her free arm around Renee's waist. "Wanna catch a ride?"
Renee slipped her own arms around Kate's waist, and Kate knew even without seeing Renee's face that she had gotten a smile. "When you put it that way, how can I refuse?"
Kate followed after Linda, carefully scouting out each place and stopping on occasion to stop a mugging or robbery. They actually struck pay dirt in one of the alleys near Robinson Park, much to Kate's surprise. A man had snatched up a little boy, and Linda just walked up to him and threw a punch that sent him flying. Kate was there to tie him up with a bola. Kate was about to compliment Linda on her timing, but when she turned to her, Linda's eyes were blank as if she'd turned completely inward.
"Linda?" Renee asked once, two times. On the third, Linda stirred and blinked, returning from whatever memory had caught her attention.
"I'm sorry," Linda said, shaking her head and focusing on Kate and Renee. "What did you want me to do?"
"It looks like the boy was drugged," Renee said. "You said you've lived in this city for over a year, so could you fly him over to Gotham Gen?"
"Of course." Linda scooped up the child and went speeding off into the night.
That left Kate and Renee alone with the kidnapper.
"I'm going to be a cliché and say there are two ways that we can do this," Kate said, leaning close to the man and staring at him. "You tell us what we want to know, and I'll make this easy."
"And if I don't, you'll play good cop, bad cop," the kidnapper sneered. "I know the drill. I think I'll just wait for the GCPD, thanks."
"Listen." Renee prowled forward and pulled the picture from her jacket. "This guy. Kidnapping. Know anything?"
"I'm not telling you anything--"
"Good," Kate purred. "I was hoping that you'd say that—"
Kate and Renee whirled around at the sound of a loud crash, and Renee put her hand up to her ear. "Linda's found them," she said, and they both went running toward the sound that they had heard. It was only a couple of seconds before she could hear Linda talking--like she thought, no delicacy. Fortunately for her, Gothamites tended to turn their backs on anything that wasn't in the ordinary.
"Buzz? That really is you, isn't it?" Linda was saying as Renee and Kate got to the scene. Kate carefully removed some of her batarangs from her belt, raising her hand to throw them, but Renee shook her head, creeping closer, watching Linda and Buzz together.
"Linda?" The Buzz that Kate saw now only vaguely resembled the Buzz in the picture--he still had blond hair, but his skin was darker, pinker in tone, and small horns protruded from his forehead. Kate shook her head as though that would change what she saw, but when she opened her eyes again the scene was still the same. "Fancy meeting you here, luv."
"You'll pardon me if I say I'm not thrilled, right?" Linda popped up with a punch, knocking Buzz back. "What the hell is wrong with you? When I saw you last--"
"--I had faded away. Poof, to nothing," Buzz acknowledged, raising his hands in a mocking gesture. "Funny how the Presence rewards someone, en't it?" His voice softened. "I was finished. It was over for me. And then I wake up on this forsaken planet again, and--" Buzz turned away from Linda, looking around. Kate signaled to Renee and they parted, easing around Linda and Buzz to flank him. "What's the point, I ask you? You do good, try to make up for the things you've done, and what does it get you?" Buzz answered before Linda could, "I'll tell you where. On a bloody world where you get to exist past your time."
"That's not how--it's supposed to be," Linda said, and Buzz scoffed.
"Exactly," He looked off to the left, and Kate followed his gaze, seeing a barely there distortion in the air. "Instead there's only old Buzz, getting buggered again. I prayed, Linda, do you understand? I prayed. And God didn't answer, but Baalzebub did."
"There's still time, Buzz," Linda said, taking a step forward. "You can stop."
"You haven't had much luck with your new friends, have you?" Buzz asked. "No use hiding in the shadows, I can see you." Kate threw her batarangs, pissed that she'd been made, but he destroyed them easily with a flick of his wrist. "Not very hospitable, are they?"
"What you're doing is wrong." Linda's voice was grave when she responded. "Stop, and give yourself up."
"Do you think you're one of the normal people now?" Kate ducked off to the side as Renee fired her energy pistol. It seemed to hit him, but he just gave Renee a baleful look and brushed at a singe mark on his jacket before turning back to Linda. "You aren't normal. You never will be. Not like these ladies are."
"I'm tired of talking, so I'm just going to beat the crap out of you." Linda leapt toward Buzz, moving so fast that she was a blur, but Kate saw Buzz drop a knife from his sleeve and slash out at Linda, forcing her to stop short. Linda looked at her arm in a horrified sort of surprise, blood flowing from the long gash in her skin, and she pressed a gloved hand to the wound. Buzz flicked the blood from the knife, and the distortion in the air devoured it, rippling in agitation.
"I'm going to bring the demons back." Buzz tossed the knife from palm to palm, his eyes on Linda. "You, me, those other bints I cut, we've all got something. We're all forgotten. We slipped through. Kill enough of us, and I bet we'll be able to get something else to come through."
Kate charged Buzz, letting her muscles control each movement from the kick to Buzz's knee to the twist of his arm behind his back, but all he did was laugh. "You'll be my masterpiece, Linda. Just like you were meant to be." He did something, a twist of his wrist, but something went through Kate and sent her flying back. "And then I'll kill these two, just for kicks."
"I can't believe I trusted you," Linda spat, vibrating with anger as she began to float up.
"You both talk a lot," Renee said, and Kate had half a second to realize that big, brawny guys were starting to pop out of the woodwork, surrounding the four of them with a single-minded intensity. Cult, Kate remembered. Bodies.
Renee fired her energy pistol at Buzz again and pushed the button on her belt for a cloud of binary gas, distracting him long enough for Kate to dive back into the shadows. Conveniently, the cultists remained in place, and it felt like they were doing it just to waste her time. Fortunately, she liked to have her time wasted. Kate took it out on them with every hard punch, every kick, taking pleasure in the sound of bones and cartilage cracking beneath her blows.
Kate heard a boom, as though a bomb had gone off in the center of Gotham, and she instinctively closed her eyes as the concussive force of the blast picked her up and slammed her against the brick building.
She didn't know how long she'd been out—it could have been seconds or hours, but when Kate looked around, there was no Batman, and everyone was down and out for the count, except for Linda, who sat in the middle of the destruction like she was sitting in a park. Kate groaned, fumbling for the comm that Oracle had given her the time she had worked with the Birds, and she managed to get out some sort of message that said she had everything under control and that Batman didn't have to come and harass them.
She pushed herself to her feet with a grunt, grateful for the durability of her suit, and went over to Renee, snagging her crushed hat and checking her for injuries, feeling paranoid and jumpy all the while she was keeping an eye on Renee.
Kate couldn't help the tiny shiver of her hands, the relief that swept through her as Renee stirred, and she couldn't help the shaky, tender way she whispered, "Hey."
"What the hell was that?" Renee asked, trying to sit upward.
"I haven't a clue," Kate admitted, supporting Renee with an arm around her back. Renee managed to sit up with a hiss of breath, and Kate helped her before they slowly limped their way over to Linda. Kate looked around—she didn't see Buzz, but the trash in the area had been whirled around like a tornado had hit. The gang of creeps that she and Renee had been fighting was out for the count, but breathing. "Linda?"
There was no response.
"Hey," Renee said impatiently. "I think you have a little explaining to do. Where's Buzz?"
"He's gone," Linda answered for the first time since Kate and Renee had woken up.
"Gone?" Kate asked impatiently. She shook her head. "I'm going to make sure no one was hurt in that weird explosion. You keep an eye on her." Renee nodded as Kate stalked away. After a thorough look, Kate decided she was grateful for being so close to Robinson Park--not very many people had gone there since it had been Poison Ivy's territory, and it looked like Luthor's buildings were up to code on random superhero explosions. It looked like the only people who had gotten hurt were the members of the kidnapping ring. Kate supposed she should be thankful for small favors.
When Kate came back to the others, she was a little calmer. "We need to talk."
"I've called the GCPD for these guys." Renee thumbed over her shoulder at the gang, all of whom were neatly tied up.
Kate nodded her thanks, and whipped out her grapple pistol, heading to one of the roofs where they could have a private conversation. Linda and Renee followed up a moment later. "Now." Kate looked at Linda, who didn't look at all like she had before they found Buzz, her eyes distant and her body turned away. She looked like she wasn't in her head anymore. The light was there, but no one was home. "What just happened back there?"
"I—" Linda stared at her gloved palms, and Kate fought the urge to tap her foot impatiently.
"We've been working together for several days now." Renee put her hand on Linda's shoulder. "I know you've been holding back. This is your chance to make us understand."
"You blew someone up so completely that there isn't even paste left," Kate said in exasperation. "You've got to tell us everything."
And Linda did.
She told them of the girl she had once been, how she had been seduced into evil by Buzz until he killed her to bring demons into the world, but how the Supergirl she knew in her world had saved her. How she became a hero, an angel, until Supergirl fell. She talked about the long search to find her, about meeting another Supergirl--how many were there, anyway?--and about how she had a life and a family that had been wiped away when she was forced to return back to her place. She told them about the power that she had, that she could touch the darkness in the living, and how using that had destroyed her soul. And finally, she explained what Buzz had meant by calling her his masterpiece. Eventually, her story brought them full circle, and she had nothing left to say.
They were all silent for a long moment.
"It looks like we'll need an amendment to the rules." Renee toyed with the sleeve of her jacket for a moment before nodding and facing Linda's direction. "Rule number four, don't ever use that power again. You don't need it. It's convenient, just like murder."
Linda flinched, and Kate continued. "Fortunately for you, we aren't heroes. We don't strive to those Superman ideals here. We're soldiers."
Linda looked up at them, and her eyes were bright. "I don't deserve--"
"Let's not talk about who deserves what." Kate inhaled. "That just opens a can of worms that we don't need to worry about right now. I do know that if Buzz is one of the transients that you two were talking about, then that's dangerous. How many more are out there, plotting things under our radar?"
"So, if we team up--" Linda ventured.
"Then we're global." Renee put her hand on her hip and fell silent. Kate watched Renee and Linda nervously, surprised that the idea had come so easily to her.
"Okay," Linda's voice was soft and hurried. "If you guys want to, okay."
"I think I'm willing to try it," Renee said slowly. "After all, it's possible something like this might never happen again."
"It's a deal." Kate turned away from them and couldn't help but think that after all the time she had spent flying solo, she had walked right into a team without blinking. Costumes were funny that way. "But first--Linda, we really need to give you a code name."