It's an uncharacteristically quiet night in Gotham, which is unfortunate because Kate has an overwhelming desire to punch someone.
This is her second patrol of the night. Sleep had eluded her after her first; she awoke breathless from a dream she's been having often lately. In the dream Beth's face morphed into Alice and then back again until it was her sister, twelve years old, falling from Kate's grasp to her death when Kate could no longer hold on. Their father stood in the background, face cold and impassive.
Rather than lie awake in bed, Kate elected to don her gear again and hit the streets. If it wasn’t so damn quiet, it would be the perfect solution to her restlessness and exhaustion.
She stomps in frustration. The move sends up a spray of water from one of many puddles covering the roof where she's currently perched. Were anyone else present to witness the action, the gesture would make her look more like a petulant child than a superhero worthy of membership in the Bat family. A sudden unreasonable paranoia has her looking over her shoulder for any sign of Batman or his cohorts watching her.
The sound of a scuffle interrupts her search. A quick glance down confirms the noise is coming from the alley directly below her. She immediately feels her body come to life and her tension ease. Adrenaline fuels her as she breaks into a run and leaps off the roof onto the fire escape below.
Three men are advancing on a woman and a teenage girl. (Mother and daughter, Kate assumes.) The older woman is shielding the girl with her with her body and the men are slowly backing them into a corner, blocking the only escape route.
A few more quick leaps down the levels of the fire escape and Kate's at the perfect level to swing from the railing. Kate feels the satisfying sting of impact as her boots connect with the chest of the thug closest to the two women, knocking him into the man behind him. The two men let out surprised shouts as they tumble to the ground. Kate lands with an energetic bounce then, feet firmly planted, puts her body between the women and the one man still standing.
She smiles as she sees a look of panic on his face. He wasn't expecting a fight and she is more than ready for one. She advances on him, her movements slow and deliberate as she backs him into a wall just as he did his victims. He stands his ground, even attempting a swing at her, though his fear is obvious to Kate. She slams her hands against his shoulders, pining him to the wall behind him, and pushes up until his feet are no longer touching the ground.
"You picked a bad night to be scumbag in my vicinity," she says, her voice deep and threatening.
She allows herself to revel in the rush of having the thug ready to beg for mercy. The sudden look of relief on his face despite her advantage alerts her that something is wrong. She hears footsteps directly behind her and quickly throws her elbows back. It's enough to send the two men staggering but, in the process, she's released the man in front of her and his fist is connecting with her face before she has a chance to raise her arms to defend herself. Kate rolls with the punch but feels the sting as the man's ring cuts into her cheek.
She expects the two men behind her to come back at her. All her senses are on high alert so they won’t get the advantage on her again. But they don't return. She processes the sound of a fist connecting with flesh, a pained grunt, shuffling feet and comes to the conclusion that she has assistance.
She lands a swift kick to the knee of the man in front of her and, when his leg begins to give way beneath him, she jabs her elbow into his head which sends him slamming into the wall behind him. He crumbles, clearly unconscious.
Kate turns to see who has been keeping his two cronies distracted. A familiar faceless figure stands with one of the other men sprawled on the ground near her feet also unconscious. The last man standing is no match for The Question. Kate takes the moment to admire Renee's form as Renee blocks his punch and delivers one of her own, sending him crashing into the fire escape and then to the ground.
With the last of the would-be robbers taken care of, Renee turns her head towards Kate. "The woman and the girl took off," Renee says, gesturing down the alleyway to the street. "Police are on the way so we should get going too."
They travel roofs and fire escapes until they're blocks away from the scene of the fight. They return to street level when they’re far enough away that they won’t run into the police.
“Nice night for an ass kicking.” Renee bounces energetically on the balls of her feet to add emphasis.
“I suppose,” Kate replies, her tone noticeably less cheerful than Renee’s. Normally Kate would share in Renee’s enthusiasm but her usual post-fight high is dampened by her error.
Renee seems to pick up on Kate’s foul mood and they walk silently for a while. Kate can feel her limbs growing heavier as the last of the adrenaline fades and her exhaustion returns.
When they pass under a flickering streetlight, Renee pauses and her hand comes to touch Kate's face, just below Kate's mask. Kate had felt a stabbing pain the second the scumbag's fist had connected but it isn't until Renee pulls her hand away and Kate sees the dark shimmer of blood that Kate realizes she's actually bleeding.
"That must hurt," Renee says.
"Barely noticed," Kate replies dismissively.
For a moment, Renee looks like she might ask something. Kate takes a breath and waits. But Renee pauses as if reconsidering and, when she speaks again, her tone is light. "Lucky I showed up when I did." As she speaks, she flexes her fingers to make a fist and then release it.
"I would have been fine. I could have handled twice as many easily," Kate replies icily. She could have handled three times as many if she'd been on top of her game. She was sloppy and it's that as much as Renee's comment that has her on the defensive. "The Question charging to the rescue wasn't necessary. And just how did you show up when you did? Were you following me?"
Renee's reply is terse. "Dial down the paranoia there, Batwoman. I was patrolling the city. Same thing you were doing."
"Well, in the future, you should know I have this area covered."
"I'm sorry. I wasn't aware bats marked their territory." Even without being able to see her face, Kate knows Renee is rolling her eyes. She chooses to respond with only a dismissive snort. If Renee's spent any time at all interacting with Batman, she must know that's not true.
Renee resumes walking. "My place is closer," she says. "I have stuff to get that cleaned up."
Most other nights, Kate would refuse the offer and return to the Kane building and tend to the cut herself. It's not serious and she's handled much worse on her own. But tonight the pull of someone else caring for her, even for a few minutes, is difficult to resist so she follows Renee to her apartment building.
Once they're inside, Renee reaches for her belt and turns off the gas that masks her face. Kate feels herself relax a little at the sight of familiar features.
Kate notes the clothes tossed haphazardly across the furniture and catches a glimpse of dirty dishes piled in the sink as they walk past the kitchen. Kate used to harass Renee about living in chaos when they were dating, but she welcomes the comfortable familiarity of the apartment now.
Tossing a jacket off the couch and onto the floor, Renee gestures for Kate to take a seat. Renee leaves the room and Kate sits, allowing her head to fall back against the back of the couch as she removes her mask, wincing slightly at the pain as her hand bumps the cut on her cheek.
Renee is back in moments, a box of medical supplies in her hands that looks very similar to the one Kate keeps. Kate wonders briefly if they'd have made it as a couple had they met as vigilantes instead of a cop and a socialite. Renee sits on her coffee table so she’s facing Kate.
"Do you ever wonder how there always manages to be someone wandering an alleyway just waiting to be mugged even at three in the morning?" Renee asks.
"I've found vigilante life is simpler once you give up questioning the survival instinct of Gotham's citizenry," Kate replies dryly.
Renee's response is a low chuckle as she wets a cloth with antiseptic and raises her hand to Kate's face, allowing her other hand to rest lightly on Kate's knee. Renee's movements aren't gentle as she cleans Kate's cut, but Kate finds them comforting nonetheless. There's something about the sureness of Renee's movements, the steadiness of her hands that Kate's always admired. Renee never hesitates.
Kate closes her eyes. Despite the sting of the antiseptic, she can't help but lean in to Renee's touch.
"You want to tell me what's going on?" Renee asks, her voice now serious. "You were careless. You should have been able to take those guys down without a problem."
Maybe it's a combination of the late hour, lack of sleep and the warm, familiar feeling of Renee's hands against her skin but Kate no longer feels defensive. For a moment she considers telling Renee everything – the truth about her sister, her father's betrayal. For all the animosity they can muster when it suits them, Kate knows Renee would never use any of it against her. She almost opens her mouth to begin but she doesn't.
There's something achingly comfortable about this dance they do. The way they get close but never close enough, the never-ending back and forth. But Kate knows from experience that if they tip the balance too far one way or another, it all tends to go to hell. So instead of spilling her guts Kate responds with a simple, "Rough night. Needed to punch someone."
Renee understands that. Her touch becomes just slightly more gentle, barely but enough for Kate to notice, as she applies a small bandage to Kate’s cut. (In her mind, Kate's already running through the list of possible excuses for the mark to use when someone asks about it tomorrow, mentally checking off the ones she's already used.)
"I let myself get distracted," she says and knows her voice betrays her irritation with herself. Renee is right. She's tired. She's not thinking. She can't afford this.
Kate's too familiar already with how wrong this hero gig can go. She knows the sharp sting of a knife in her heart, the chill washing over her body as her life slips away from her. It’s a memory they share and Kate wonders if Renee is thinking of it too, wonders if she’s remembering holding onto Kate as Kate drew what she feared was her final breath.
Doing her best to banish those thoughts from her mind, Kate grabs her mask and pulls it back over her head, signaling her intent to leave.
"You could stay, you know. Get some sleep," Renee says. At Kate's raised eyebrow she clarifies, "On the couch."
Kate feigns disappointment. (And she's honest enough with herself to admit it's not entirely feigned.) "Up until that last bit, it sounded so tempting." The pull to accept is there but she won't, tonight. She places a hand on Renee's shoulder as she rises from the couch, lets it linger for just a moment before letting go. "Not that I needed it, but thanks for the assist anyway."
She doesn't expect Renee to grab her arm and pull her in for a kiss. It's fast and rough, an invitation maybe, definitely a reminder. Kate sees flashes of past nights, remembers the feel of Renee's lips, tongue and hands on her skin.
But those flashes, warm and inviting, are followed by memories of the pain and uncertainty of their gradual breakdown, a sharp contrast to the warmth between them now. Kate feels an almost desperate need to hold on to what they have, to make her exit before it gets any easier to stay. It's already an effort to pull away.
"Do me a favor," Renee says, her breath warm against Kate's ear as she speaks. "Don't let yourself get distracted again and call me if you need backup."
Kate only nods then she backs away and toward the window. Allowing herself a quick glance back at Renee, she opens the window and, in one fluid motion leaps onto the ledge of Renee's building, taking a deep breath of the cold early-morning air.