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Wizards in Winter

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"You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?"

--The Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

 

Wizards in Winter

 

“O to R.”

“Go ahead, O.”

“You’ve got a phone call.”

There was a silence on the line for a moment, and Barbara grinned, imagining Tim’s brows wrinkling in puzzlement--at 2am on a Saturday morning anyone who would be calling would have called Tim’s cell phone.

“Uh…which phone?”

“The big one,” Barbara responded dryly, glancing out the Clocktower window where the Bat-Signal lit the cloudless sky.  

“Oh! 10-4, O, I’m on it. Is BG coming?”

Barbara glanced at one of the many computer screens surrounding her.  Batgirl’s icon was still blinking steadily on the docks.  “Negative,” she replied, “She’s still watching for Maroni.  I‘ll send BC as soon as she finishes up with the Bowery gang.”

“Understood.”  

Barbara leaned back in her chair, tapping a few keys to pull up the security camera on the warehouse Cassandra was watching--still no movement.  She took another sip of coffee and frowned at her mug.  “Oh, and R?”  

“Yeah?”

“If it gets slow could you--”

“”--Make a Starbucks run?”

She could hear a grin in Tim’s voice on the other end of the line.  “Such a detective, Boy Wonder.”

She heard Tim snort before he responded, “I live to serve, O Great Oracle.”

“Damn straight you do, short stuff,” Barbara retorted, “Now go answer the phone.”

----

Renee rubbed her hands together briskly.   Sonya had given her a set of super soft fingerless gloves as an early Christmas present when her last pair had been damaged beyond repair chasing down Croc in the sewers.   The advantage, of course, was the dexterity.  The disadvantage, of course, was the threat of frostbite on her fingertips when the temperature was hovering around 11 degrees.  She glanced up at the sky, trying,  most likely futilely, to catch a glimpse of Batman before he snuck up on her.  Though she doubted it would be the Bat showing up--last she heard, he was still “unavailable.“  Which probably meant he was somewhere off-world with the rest of the Justice League--Steel and Supergirl had been patrolling Metropolis, Impulse and Superboy were covering Central City; whatever was going on off planet or wherever, it must be big, because it looked like all the big guns were away.  Renee just hoped the Gotham villains would continue being fairly quiet--it was 5 days till Christmas and just too damn cold.

“Detective.”

Renee jumped.  “Madre de Dios!”  She turned and glared at Robin.  “Do you have to do that?”

Robin shrugged, but she could swear he was hiding a smirk.  Renee sighed, “Are you it?” She winced, “Uh…no offense.”

“None taken,” Robin replied dryly. “Black Canary should be available shortly.  What’s the problem?”  

Renee opened her mouth to respond when Robin spoke again quickly.

“Oh, and how’s Commissioner Gordon?”

“He’s doing better.  Should be out of the hospital in a few days,” Renee replied.  Gordon had come down with a nasty case of pneumonia after he and Bullock took a dive into the river while chasing Jervis Tetch.  Bullock had come out with a badly sprained ankle; he was on desk duty for a month and hadn‘t stopped complaining since.  “And thanks.”  Robin nodded, and then glanced up.  Renee followed his gaze and saw Black Canary swinging down.  

“Morning,” Black Canary said briskly, nodding to Renee.

“Morning,” she responded, eyeing the tall blond superhero.  She’d seen her around Gotham, of course--and on TV with the JLA--but never actually met her.  And never actually got to see in person the very long and shapely legs in fishnet hose that Renee was resolutely not staring at.

“Detective, Black Canary,” Robin said, “Canary, Detective Renee Montoya.”  

Renee extended a hand and Black Canary shook it firmly.  “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem,” Canary replied.  “So what’s up?”

Renee sighed.  “Patrol fished two kids out of the Reservoir about an hour ago after reports of a disturbance in the area.  They were a bit banged up and pretty frozen, but Gotham General patched them up and discharged them.”

Black Canary raised an eyebrow and glanced at Robin, who looked equally confused.  

“Okaaay…?”

Renee grimaced, “Yeah, that’s when it started getting a little more complicated.  They said they  needed help, and after they told me what they needed help with…”  She sighed, “Well, it’s not really our area of expertise.”

“So what’s their problem?” Robin asked.

Renee snorted.  “They lost their dog.  Sort of.”  She shook her head.  “I think I better let them explain.”

---

Robin accepted the cup Montoya was handing him.  Cop coffee was worse than Bruce’s coffee, but it was strong and warm, and it was pretty hard to play the aloof and intimidating vigilante routine when said vigilante was shivering.  The two kids--probably a year or so younger than him--had opted for the safer choice of instant cocoa, and were still huddled in blankets on the couch.  Both sported some scrapes and the start of what would probably be pretty colorful bruises; they were lucky the ice hadn‘t been thicker--they might not have survived if they’d hit solid ice of the Gotham River rather then smashing through the thin crust on the Robinson Park Reservoir.  The skinny Hispanic kid had a nasty cut on his forehead that received a few stitches, and the girl had a broken pinkie finger and a long scrape on her right arm.   

“Wizards, huh?”  Canary said, shaking her head.  She was leaning against the far wall of  break-room, eyeing the two sitting on the couch. The two kids nodded.  She rubbed the bridge of her nose and sighed.  “I hate magic.”

The kids blinked and glanced at each other a little warily.  Robin leaned forward from his perch on the break room counter.  “Don’t mind her, she just had a run-in with Circe a week ago and she’s still pissed off about it.”

“You spend a day as a ground-hog and see how much you like it,”  Dinah retorted.  This made the kids’ brows even more wrinkled, and Robin shook his head.

“Never mind.  So.  You were trying to get rid of garbage?”  Robin prompted.

The older girl--Nita was how she introduced herself--nodded, and then took a sip of her cocoa before replying.  “Yeah.  There was a spill of toxic waste into one of the lakes near where we live--”

“Real nasty, too,” the boy--he’d called himself Kit--continued.  “And since we couldn’t just get rid of all the sludge, we called in a Halperx.”

“They live off of garbage and waste,” Nita explained.  “I think it’s because of the condition of their homeworld--their natural food sources are plant life that are full of heavy metals, pathogens, carcinogens or radioactive isotopes.”

“Though they have no problem eating regular garbage too,” Kit interjected with a grin.

“Hang on,” Black Canary said, “Why couldn't you just get rid of the sludge?”

“That’d be violating the Oath,” Kit responded, draining the last of his cocoa and setting in on the table next to the couch.

“And the Oath is?” Robin prompted.

“Err...” Nita glanced at Kit, biting her lip a little.  Kit looked back at her, the two of them clearly having a silent conversation--it was easy to believe they’d been partners for a while, they had the same kind of unspoken communication most of the Bat-Family did. On the other hand--they were wizards.  It was possible they did actually have some kind of telepathic communication.


They must have reached some sort of decision, because Nita nodded and turned her focus back to them.  “The Oath is the foundation of wizardry--without the Oath there is

no wizardry.  By swearing the Oath, you become a wizard--and if you violate the Oath, you will no longer be a wizard.”

Black Canary was looking at the two wizards a little skeptically; seeing her expression they shared another quick glance and then spoke in chorus:

“In Life's name and for Life's sake, I assert that I will employ the Art which is its gift in Life's service alone, rejecting all other usages. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so -- till Universe's end.”

There was a long pause after they finished reciting, and Robin glanced around to see Canary and Montoya absorbing the words.  Pretty heavy stuff for kids, he thought to himself, then grinned a little ruefully--he really didn’t have any room to talk about kids taking on adult responsibilities.  He didn’t really have any room to talk about kids making Oaths either.  He glanced over at Black Canary, who gave him a small nod.  Clearly, she believed the two as well--their conviction and sincerity when reciting the Oath was almost palpable.  

“How does that apply to toxic waste?”  Montoya asked with a raised eyebrow.

The two shrugged in concert and Kit responded, “Well--the bacteria, viruses, single-celled organisms--they’re life too.  They might not be the kind of life we want in a lake, but they’re still life.”

“We’re not allowed to make judgments about what kind of life should exist,” Nita said quietly, looking away from them and out the window, her mind obviously focused on some memory.

Kit shifted his position on the couch and then continued, “But the Halperx is a natural part of the universe and the waste in the lake was a natural food source for it, so we could bring the Halperx to consume that waste without causing any direct harm to the bacteria ourselves--and by cleaning the lake, we protected the life that had been there before the contamination.”

“Huh,”  Montoya said, her brow a little furrowed.

“Kind of like bringing wolves back to Yellowstone to keep down the elk, moose and deer populations?”  Black Canary asked.

“Yes,” Kit replied, “Restoring the balance as much as we could.”

Robin cleared his throat, “But--something went wrong?”

Nita nodded, “Yeah.  I think we forgot to factor in the sunspots--our Sun’s been going through solar flares for a week now.”

“And that threw off my calculations,” Kit interjected.

“So when we got the gate open to send it back, we knew we’d opened the wrong one as soon as the Halperx went through--there should have been…um…”  Nita wrinkled her nose, thinking, “Uh, I guess you could call it a ‘resonance.”

“But instead it was more like a frog trying to sing the Hallelujah Chorus,” Kit continued, “And as soon as it went through, we started getting sucked in too.”

“And you landed in the river?”  Canary asked.

They nodded.  “Uh…” Kit glanced at his partner and then back at them.  “Can I ask you a question?”  Robin and Canary nodded.  “Um.  You don’t seem very surprised by this.”

“Yeah,” Nita said. “We don’t really run into people who just…well…believe us.”

Robin glanced at Canary and they both shrugged.  “Not the first time,” Robin replied.  “Magic or alternate dimensions.”

“I don’t know what it’s like where you come from,” Montoya added, “But Gotham has its fair share of weird.  And this is definitely not the weirdest thing I’ve ever run into.”

Nita grinned, “You know, I’m not sure that’s comforting or not.”

Robin grinned back, “Right, so what do we need to do to find this..uh ‘Halperx’?”

“Do you have any way to track it?” Black Canary asked.

“Huh.”  Kit thought for a moment and looked at Nita.

“Well, it is going to be…uh…” Nita trailed off while she tried to figure out how to describe it.  “I guess you could say it’s going to be ‘leaking’ a little--not to mention leaving a trail of trash.”

“Leaking as in radiation?” Robin said sharply.

“Nothing dangerous,” Kit replied reassuringly, “It emits Ultraviolet light, about 369 to 371 nanometers, and will also leave behind a trail--it’s almost like a magical ‘smell’--that we can identify.”

Robin nodded.  “I can easily modify a few of our tracking devices to detect EM waves of that spectrum, but it’s going to give us a lot of false positives--we’d need to narrow it down.”

Nita looked at Kit.  “Kit, do you think you could do that thing you did with the--”

“Oh, yeah, the tracker?” Kit responded.  “If we had a map of the city, I think we could modify your devices to detect the smell--but I don’t have my laptop.”

“I think we can manage a laptop,” Robin said dryly.

---

“Madre de Dios.”  Black Canary watched the young Hispanic kid staring in awe at the Batcomputer in the satellite cave.  She supposed they were lucky he hadn’t see the main Batcomputer in the cave under the Manor--he might’ve had a heart attack.  Robin was grinning smugly, showing off various features and the two were engrossed in rapid chatter.  Dinah heard a sigh and glanced over to see Nita rolling her eyes at her partner.  Dinah grinned at her and she walked over a little closer.

“Boys and their toys,” she commented dryly.

Dinah laughed.  “Trust me, Batman’s even worse.”

Nita shook her head ruefully, “I suppose I’m just lucky Dairine--my little sister--isn’t here.  She’s a…”  She trailed off for a moment, looking a little confused, and then continued, “She’s a big fan of Batman.”

“She a wizard too?” Dinah asked.

Nita nodded and Dinah shook her head.  “Must make family dinners interesting.”

Nita snorted, “Oh, you have no idea.”  Nita blinked at one of the computer screens where Oracle had just appeared.

“Hey, O,” Dinah said, stepping closer to the computer.  The two boys broke off their conversation abruptly and Kit was staring at the image of Barbara’s Oracle mask with wide eyes.  “These are our two ‘guests’--Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez.  Guys, this is Oracle, she’s our resident tech genius and the eyes and ears of the city.”

“Aren’t you sweet,” Oracle replied.  She’d lowered the voice synthesizer a little to minimize the ’artificial’ quality of the Oracle voice, but still make her voice difficult to identify.  “So what’s the plan?”

Tim pulled up a detailed map of Gotham on the main monitor and gestured to three of the Bat-Trackers on the table.  “I think Kit and I can reconfigure these trackers to pick up the trail of the Halperx.  We’ve got three that should be able to be adapted, so we can split into three groups to widen the search.”

“Montoya took the description to dispatch so patrol’s out looking for it too, and BG should be there any minute.” Oracle replied.

“Here.”

Dinah managed to control her twitch--mostly--but the two wizards nearly jumped a foot each, turning to stare at Batgirl who had just appeared behind them.  Tim didn’t so much as bat an eye.   Dinah sighed internally. 
One of these days I’m going to put a bell on them.
  She stepped forward, and nodded to Batgirl, “BG, this is Nita and Kit, they’re the two wizards who...ah...fell into our universe.  Nita, Kit, this is Batgirl.”

Nita gamely extended a hand and Batgirl eyed it a moment before shaking firmly.  Kit was still staring.  He was managing to keep his eyes mostly above her chest, so Dinah had to give him credit for being politer than the average male teenager--but he was definitely blushing.  Nita glanced at her partner and elbowed him sharply in the ribs.  

“Uh, hi,” he said.  Batgirl’s only response was to nod and grab a bottle of water.

Dinah cleared her throat and waited for everyone to focus.  “Well, now that we’re all here--can we get started?”  She turned to Kit and Nita.  “So, Harry and Hermione--what do you need to adjust the trackers?”

She heard Tim snort, but the two wizards just looked at each other, puzzled, and then looked back at her.  “You know, like Harry Potter?”

Two pairs of uncomprehending eyes stared back.  Dinah sighed.  “Alternate universes.  Right.  Never mind.”

“Ah...we will need some supplies,” Nita said, still looking a little confused.  

Dinah nodded.  “All right, kiddo, let’s see the list.”

---

Kit shifted his weight a little and shrugged his shoulders, getting comfortable in his position on the floor.  He opened his eyes and looked across at Nita, who nodded.  He glanced down at the manual and began speaking slowly, Nita's voice joining his in a harmony forged by years of practice and partnership.  The spell began taking effect, and he could feel the powerful cadences of the Speech changing the devices in front of him.  Nita continued speaking, describing the Halperx, and Kit began telling the devices about their new purpose.  He'd just started explaining the type of 'trail' they were looking for to the trackers when he twitched slightly.

Neets, you feel that?

Yeah, it... Nita trailed off and scratched her nose.  Hang on, I need--

Yeah, me too.  Kit shivered a little, and then spoke a word in Speech that 'paused' the spell.  Nita followed suit, and immediately began scratching the top of her foot.

"Uh...is it finished?" Robin asked, looking at them curiously.

Kit shook his head, "No, we just needed to take a break--" he stopped speaking abruptly and scratched the top of his head vigorously, carefully avoiding where the bandage covered the cut on his forehead.

Robin and Black Canary glanced at each other and then back at the two young wizards.  "What's the problem?" Black Canary asked.

"Uh."  Kit looked at Nita, who was now scratching her elbow.  "I'm not sure, but the magic in your universe...it feels weird."

"It tickles," Nita said, switching to the back of her hand cautiously, maneuvering around the wrapping on her broken pinkie finger.

"Oh, man," Kit said, suddenly desperately scratching behind his ear, "No, it doesn't tickle, it itches!"  He leaned down and attacked his ankle, ignoring Robin and Canary who were watching them with raised eyebrows and the start of broad smiles.  He reached behind his shoulder and swore silently.

"Neets!" he said pleadingly.  Nita scooted over as he turned around and sighed in relief as she hit a spot right in the middle of his shoulder blades.  Robin and Canary gave up any attempt at professionalism and started laughing, with Oracle snickering in the background.  Nita glared at the two of them, and Canary shook her head.

"Sorry, kids, it's just--" She laughed again, as Kit returned the favor and scratched Nita's back.

Robin shook his head, grinning. "Is this going to be a problem?"

Kit sighed as he managed to hit an itch right behind his shoulder and Nita moved back into her position across from him.  "No, I think we can manage."

Nita nodded, "It just took us by surprise.  I think we'll be fine now."  She grinned ruefully, "Your universe is weird!"

Canary fell into a chair, giggling helplessly, and Kit started snickering along with her.  Robin snorted, "Pot.  Kettle," he said wryly, and Nita grinned back.

"All right, Neets," Kit said, "Let's try this again."

They settled back into position and Kit spoke the word to release the spell, returning to describing the trail they were looking for and persuading the trackers that they could locate that trail.  The trackers weren’t convinced—they were used to just trying to find the tracers they already had a connection with.  Kit continued to coax them, pointing out that the trail of the Halperx would be easy to find once they located a source of that particular spectrum of UV light.   He carefully described the ‘smell’ the Halperx would be emitting--something, in his mind, that reminded him of swimming in the depths of the ocean as a sperm whale, and the taste of ink from a colossal squid.   

Finally the trackers seemed to ‘understand’ what he was asking, and eagerly assured him that they would find the Halperx for him--as long as he didn’t treat them the way the Dark One did.  When Kit asked them what they meant, they thrust an image of Batman at him: ripping apart a tracker and using the parts for another project, using a tracker as a crow bar to wedge open a large concrete door, or smashing the tracker over the head of an over-sized Venus Fly-Trap.  He promised to treat them nicely, and spoke the final words of the spell, Nita matching him exactly on the last syllable.  The slight rush as the spell ‘took’ was as invigorating as always, and the trackers in front of him blurred slightly and then firmed up with a new button on the side, blinking green.

“Uh...you’re going to be able to switch them back again, right?”  Robin asked, with a slightly worried tone.

Oracle laughed, “Yeah, Batman’s a little--”

*cough*analretentive*cough*.”

Robin slowly turned to look at Black Canary.  “You do know he monitors the Caves, right?” Black Canary shrugged, and grinned unrepentantly.

“Don’t worry,” Kit reassured them, “We’ll fix them once we find the Halperx.”

“Speaking of...” Everyone turned to look at Oracle.  “We’ve got three trackers, so we should split into teams.

“Right.” Robin frowned, looking at the map of Gotham.  “All right, Kit & I will take Old Gotham, north of Sprang River.  Black Canary, you and Nita hit Central to the Finger River.  O, is Huntress free yet?”

“Negative, she’s still with Misfit and Zelda--we’re going to have to count them out for this, their mission just became a lot more complicated.  Robin, we’re going to need to coordinate with GCPD--Batgirl can pair up with Montoya to take South side to the Docks.  Hang on--”  there was a pause and the Oracle mask froze for a moment, "OK, Montoya's back at HQ re-grouping patrol."

Robin nodded, and picked up one of the trackers.  "Batgirl, Kit & I will take the Redbird and drop you off at HQ on our way up."

"Then Nita and I will take the Batmobile--" Black Canary said, straight-faced.

"Are you crazy?" Robin yelped, staring at her in disbelief.

Black Canary laughed, "Relax, kid, I was kidding.  We'll take my bike."

Robin glared at her, and Kit snickered, sharing an amused look with Nita.  Robin shook his head ruefully.  "Right.  So.  Let's go find an inter-dimensional garbage eating ultraviolet 'puppy.'

"And you thought it'd be a quiet night," Oracle said dryly.

--

"Anything?"

Nita frowned, gently running her hands over the trunk of the oak.  "No, but it was here."

"How long ago?" Black Canary asked.

"I'm not sure," Nita replied.  She turned back to Black Canary and shrugged a little.  "Sorry, trees have a much different sense of time then we do--but I'd say at least an hour ago."  

"Right, let's head back--I think there was another signal near the Reservoir."

Nita nodded and followed her out of the little grove of oaks.  They were in what Black Canary called Robinson Park, and it was beautiful, but there was something a little...off.   Canary glanced back and saw her frown.

"What's wrong?"

"It's just..." Nita trailed off, trying to find the words.  "The trees here seem a little different from the ones back home...I can't really put my finger on it."

Canary snorted.  "Probably something to do with Poison Ivy.  She's a real piece of work--big environmentalist, can communicate and control plant life--but she can take 'saving the earth' just a bit too far."

"Huh.  Weird."

"Welcome to the fun of alternate universes," Canary said dryly.

"Yeah..."  Nita shook her head.  "You know, what's strange is that sometimes I look at you or Robin...and...well, you almost look familiar." Nita sighed, "But then it's not familiar at the same time--I mean, I don't think our universe has a Gotham--but at the same time, the idea of Gotham seems familiar, and I know I’ve heard of Batman, and the Justice League, and you."

"You think your universe doesn't have a Gotham?" Black Canary asked curiously.

"Yeah," Nita said slowly, thinking.  "It's almost like my mind is a little foggy when I think about our universe--maybe it's just that yours is so different from ours...it's kind of like...Ireland."

Canary glanced back at her, confused. "Ireland?"

Nita nodded, "That's the best analogy I can think of.  I went and spent a summer in Ireland a while ago, and when I came back home, I had a little reverse culture shock.  Humans--even wizards--we're not exactly designed to jump across universes.  Kit & I have definitely done it, but there's always a period of transition--getting used to the...um...'feel' of the universe.  And then when you go back home--"

"You have to get re-adjusted to the 'feel' of your universe?"  Canary nodded.  "That makes sense, I guess.   So you think you're feeling a little 'foggy' on details because your mind is getting adjusted to our universe?"

"That's my best guess, anyway," Nita said, smiling. There was something agonizingly familiar about this universe--but at the same time, so very alien.  She couldn't help but remember what it was like to learn the feel of the 'practice' universes she'd used when she tried to find a cure for her mom.  Being able to find the 'kernel,' the heart of each universe, and then using that to change the universe.  

"Hey.  Nita."  Canary stopped walking and gripped Nita's shoulder gently, looking at her intently.  "We'll find this thing, and get you kids home.   I promise.  OK?"

"Yeah," Nita said, smiling a little.  "Yeah, I know."

"Your mom and dad know about your wizardry?  Are they going to be looking for you?"

Nita shook her head.  "My mom died a year ago, but my dad knows--and Dari's manual will update her on our status.  Huh.  Actually--"  Nita trailed off, pulling her manual out of her messenger bag.  She paged through to the listings of wizards--she hadn't thought to check what status the manual had her and Kit listed under.

"I'm sorry," Black Canary said quietly, and Nita looked up to see her looking at her with understanding.

Nita swallowed.  It never really went away--that feeling of emptiness, the hollow space in memories where she should have been, but wasn't, everything she should have seen, but wouldn't, and the future stretching out in front of her, with one person less.      "There are some things even magic can't fix," Nita said softly.

"There are some things that aren't meant to be fixed," Canary replied, equally soft.

"Yeah," Nita said, and then took a breath and let it out slowly.  She flipped the manual open to the listing of area wizards, and ran her finger down the page till she reached her entry, after Caillebert, Armina:

CALLAHAN, Juanita L.
On active status
243 E. Clinton Avenue Hempstead
NY 11575 (516) 379-6786
Assignment location: Location withheld due to possible quantum decoherence instability.  

"What's that mean?" Canary asked, after Nita read the entry out loud in a puzzled tone.

Nita glanced up at her and shook her head.  "I have absolutely no idea."

--

"See anything?"

"No."

There was another long silence, and Renee sighed internally.  Batman was not exactly verbose, but Batgirl took taciturn to a whole new level.  Since they'd started searching, Batgirl had only spoken less than a dozen words, the bare minimum needed to direct Renee to possible locations the tracking device located--none of which panned out.  They'd started at GCPD headquarters, circled around Grant Park and Cathedral Square and had just finished checking one possible lead in the Tricorner Yards--close to Commissioner Gordon's house, actually--and were now heading toward the Vauxhall Opera Shell.

"Montoya."

Renee started slightly as the radio crackled to life, and she heard Bullock's very grumpy voice.  "10-4, Harvey, go ahead."

"Got another sighting near the Courthouse, and a report of a disturbance by the Starbucks a block away--the thing didn't just eat the trash, it ate half the dumpster."

Renee shook her head, and did a quick U-Turn. "Got it.  We're a few blocks away, we'll check it out."

She clicked off the radio and placed it back in the cradle, switching lanes to head toward the courthouse.  "Maybe we'll get lucky this time, but I've got a bad feeling we're just going to be finding its trail again."

Silence from the passenger seat. 


Renee sighed, out loud this time, and kept driving.

--

"Seriously?"

"Yeah," Kit replied.  "And he goes nuts with the squirrels."

Tim laughed, "Man, so your dog talks, jumps into other universes, and makes squirrels.  That's gotta make life interesting--though the squirrel thing does make sense."

"It's definitely not boring," Kit replied, grinning back.

Tim slowed and stopped as the light ahead of him turned red.   They hadn't had much luck finding the Halperx, though they were having no trouble finding the trail of bewildered people and fallen trash cans it left behind.   Despite their lack of success, Tim was in a pretty good mood.  He and Kit had a lot in common--similar personalities, similar interests--they'd discovered that while there were definitely some differences in music and video games, there were a lot of artists or games that existed in both universes.  And Kit was a pretty level-headed guy--he had the same desire to help people that Tim shared with other teen superheroes, but he was a lot more down-to-earth than either Bart or Kon.

"Well, it's cool your family is OK with your magic, 'cause it sounds like it'd be pretty obvious Ponch is different from most dogs."

From out of the corner of his eye, he could see Kit nod and then chuckle.  "Yeah, they're good with it--in fact, the only problem is that Carmela is a little too good with it--you wouldn't believe the kind of things she watches on TV since it started picking up inter-galactic channels."

Tim laughed, and then pulled forward as the light turned green.   He was sure there were a lot of drawbacks to being a wizard, and it sounded like Kit and Nita ended up in some pretty hairy situations...but that Kit's family was supportive and cool with him being a wizard...

"Your folks don't know, do they?" Kit asked, after Tim had been quiet for a while.

"No," Tim said softly.   "My dad would completely flip out."

"That's rough.  And it gets hard hiding it."

"Yeah," Tim replied curtly.   They drove in silence for a little more, as Tim headed to do a pass around Robbinsville.   He'd meant to drop the subject, but suddenly he heard himself saying, "The hardest part is when I get hurt--my dad thinks I'm a total klutz."

"When you're anything but...and you can't even show him how good you are."

Tim glanced over at Kit, surprised that he'd summed up Tim's feelings so accurately.  "Yeah."

Kit nodded, "Before I told my folks, I'd sometimes come home late or miss dinner because Neets and I were working on a problem, and I had to pretend I just forgot.  My dad would give me this speech about being reliable and taking responsibility, and the whole time--"

"--You wanted to tell him that you were reliable, and were being responsible for things he couldn't even imagine?"  Tim finished, and Kit laughed ruefully.

"Exactly."

"I defused a bomb to save a busload of kids and my dad was riding me that I'd forgotten to take the trash out."

Kit snickered.   "I spent a week working on equations to fix a water main and my mom was after me about bombing a calculus quiz."

"I fell asleep in Biology because I'd been up all night stopping a gang war."

"I accidentally left my English homework in another galaxy."

"I delivered a baby and then had to sit through 'The Miracle of Life' the next day in Health."

"I flunked a Spanish quiz because I conjugated the verbs in Speech rather than Spanish."

Tim looked at Kit and they both started laughing.  "Welcome to the world of secret identities," Tim said wryly.
A beep caught their attention and Tim slowed as Kit pulled up the signal on the tracker.  

"Looks like it's close," Kit said, "Just around the block."

Tim frowned as he took the Redbird around the corner.  They were coming up on St. John's, and he could see dumpsters strewn all over the alley behind the church--but no sign of the Halperx.  He stopped the Redbird just before the dumpsters and he and Kit got out, Kit frowning at the tracker while Robin directed his flashlight into the alley.

"It was here," Kit said, "But it's definitely not here anymore."  He walked over to one of the dumpsters and placed a hand against it--he'd been doing that all evening, apparently able to communicate with cars and walls and other inanimate objects in some way.  Tim squatted down and eyed some of the trash lying on the concrete.  There were a few pizza boxes chomped in half, but the bite marks looked a little different than the ones they'd run across before.  

"Hey, Kit, how big is this thing supposed to be again?"

Kit took his hand off the dumpster and looked back at Tim.  "It was about five feet high and four feet long when we came through to this universe.  Why?"

Tim indicated the pizza boxes.  "Because the bite marks here are different--the diameter is significantly larger than the last one we saw in the porch swing of that house."

"Uh-oh."

Tim looked up at him, "Don't tell me--"

"It...uh...if it's found access to any amount of thulium, it might be going into a growing cycle."

Tim stared at him and Kit winced.  "How big are we talking?"

Kit swallowed.  "The adults can top a sperm whale."

Tim's mouth dropped open and Kit ran a hand worriedly through his hair.  "That's why we were so careful with the calculations!"  Kit said rapidly.  "The spell was designed to attract a very juvenile Halperx, and we made sure none of the waste it had access to had any traces of thulium.  It should have eaten through the sludge in that lake without changing size at all--we would have had a clean lake, and sent it back to its home planet with a full stomach!"

"Damn it," Tim muttered, rising and heading back to the Redbird.  "Kit, Gotham has unusually high levels of thulium right now--Joker made a mess a few weeks ago that produced large quantities and we're still cleaning it up--we've got to find this thing fast."

They got into the Redbird and Tim pulled up the communications.  "O, this is R, anything from the other teams?"

"Negative, R, everyone is still chasing trails."

"Patch me through to everyone else."

"Roger."  There was a pause and Tim glanced over at Kit. 
"Is there anything else you can do to find it?  Because we're not making any headway."

Kit opened his mouth to respond when Oracle's voice sounded in the car.  "R, everyone is patched in."

"We've got another problem," Tim said abruptly.  Next to him, Kit leaned forward.

"Neets, Gotham's got high levels of thulium."

"Oh, crap," came Nita's voice, and then Black Canary's voice followed after.  

"And that means what?"

"It means this thing may be getting a lot bigger," Tim explained.  He shook his head, "Look, I think we need to change tactics--we’ve been playing defense, we need to switch to offense."

"There may be another way," Kit said, frowning as he looked out the window.

"What?"  Tim asked, and Kit turned back to look at him.  

"Neets, do you remember that circle spell we did with Tom, Carl and Dairine?"

"Yeah," came the response, "But we don't have Tom, Carl or Dairine."

Kit grinned at Tim and pointed at the phone booth next to the church in front of them.  "Nope, but maybe we can look up some one else to help."

"What's this spell you want to do?"  That was Montoya's voice.

"It's another type of 'finding' spell," Kit explained, deciding not to mention that Ponch had been the one to give them the idea for it.  "It basically extends a circle around whatever area you define, and locates the specified object.  It's pretty much foolproof--"

"But we need at least three more wizards for it," Nita broke in.

Tim frowned. "O, what about Zatanna and Zatarra?  And Jason?"

"Negative on Zatanna and Jason," was her response, "And Fate and Tempest are unavailable too.  Zach I'm not sure about."

"Uh...he's on a date,"  that was Black Canary's contribution and Tim's eyes narrowed.  Zachary Zatarra had started seeing Spoiler a few weeks ago, after an incident where a few kids at Gotham High got their hands on some Voodoo spells that actually worked.  He and Stephanie had broken up a few months back...but he still wasn't thrilled with the idea of her seeing Zatarra.

"It's OK," Kit said, opening up his manual and grinning.  "We've got the...uh.. Wizardry Yellow Pages available."

--

"You're sure this is the place?" Dinah said skeptically, as she and Nita pulled up to the entrance to the Swallow's Sail gated community.   When they approached the guardhouse, the guard took one look at Black Canary and opened the gate immediately.  Dinah grinned at him.

"That's what the manual said," was Nita's response, a bit muffled due to the wind.  "Left on John Walker Avenue, then right at the stop sign. It's 1930 Nancy Blackett Lane."

"Got it," Dinah replied, and turned left.  She slowed down a bit as they drove further into the complex--the roads hadn't been plowed as thoroughly after the snow last week, and were still a bit slick.   They pulled up in front of a three level condo with dark blue trim, covered in lights with a large silver star blinking slowly on the front lawn--and quite a number of cars parked around it.  

"Looks like there's a party."

Nita nodded as she stepped carefully off Black Canary's bike, and the two walked up to the house.   Nita paused as she raised a hand to ring the bell, glancing at Black Canary.  Dinah grinned, "You're the wizard, kid."

"Right," Nita said dryly, and hit the bell.

A few moments passed, and they could hear the sound of music and loud chatter inside the house.  The door opened and the smell of apple cider wafted out.  A tall African-American woman with strong features and dozens of tiny waist length braids tied with small silver bells grinned at them.  

"Blessed Solstice, ladies, come on in!"  

She stepped aside and motioned for them to come inside, eyeing Dinah a little curiously--the kind of look she got when people were wondering if the outfit was a Black Canary costume or the 'real thing.'  Dinah mentally revised her assessment to African--she thought the accent sounded Kenyan, maybe Tanzanian.   She took a step forward into the warmth of the house and Nita followed hesitantly.  "Toss your coats on the red chair, we've got cider on the stove, plenty of ginger beer, and food will be out of the oven in a few minutes.  Who are you with--Shan or ZiLi?"

Dinah glanced at Nita and raised an eyebrow, "Your show, kiddo."

Nita swallowed and cleared her throat, eyeing the tall woman a little hesitantly.  "Um.  Neither, actually.  I'm on errantry and I greet you?"  The last was said a little nervously, more as a question than statement.

The woman raised her eyebrows and then grinned even more broadly.  "Well, then Dai stihó, cousin, and welcome."

"Dai," Nita said with relief.  She turned to Dinah, "Uh, this is--"

"Black Canary?" The woman asked with a smile, extending a hand to Dinah, "I figured that out, cousin.  Please, come in and get warm.  I'm Aika, and there are a few of us on active status tonight; let's get you two something warm to drink and you can tell us what is needed."

Dinah took the extended hand and shook it, following Nita and the woman inside where they were jovially greeted by a variety of people, some in rather unusual attire, one or two Dinah wasn't quite sure would qualify as people, and, bizarrely, two cats who seemed to be conversing with Nita.   Dinah shook her head inwardly as she accepted a glass of warm cider and listened to Nita explain the problem, frequently dropping into that strange language she and Kit had been speaking earlier.

---

Renee shivered and rubbed her hands together briskly.   Kneeling down in front of her, on the frozen surface of the reservoir, were two women the young wizards had 'recruited' to help out with their locator spell.  They'd introduced themselves as Denise and Kailani--a slender but muscled woman that reminded her a little of Jada Pinkett, and a tall Hawaiian woman, long black hair and a soft accent.   

What was slightly unsettling was that Renee had met Denise before--or saw, really, during a case involving Two-Face about a year ago--she was an agent with the Gotham FBI chapter.   Her partner Kai was a lawyer with the State's attorney's office--Renee had never had any cases with her, but she remembered Bullock mentioning her. Harvey had been a little smitten, even wearing an actual tie when he came to court to testify.  She grinned to herself--poor Harv would be so disappointed; it was fairly obvious the two women were partners in more than one regard.

  
"A little to the left, ipo," Kai said softly as she maneuvered a glowing string of light into a circle on the ice, trying to match the one that Denise was forming parallel to her.

"Got it, how's that?"  Kai nodded and then looked up at Renee.  "We're good."

Renee hit the button on her radio and switched to the frequency Oracle had specified.  "Oracle, this is Montoya, we're set."

---

"Ah, Black Canary?"

Dinah glanced over at Shan, the small Chinese woman that had joined her and Nita to set up their portion of the spell.  Nita was examining the equations Shan had written in the snow on the steps of the Gotham Knights Sporting Complex.  "Yeah?"

Shan cleared her throat a little nervously.  "When this is finished...ah...could I have your autograph?"  Dinah blinked, and Shan continued hurriedly. "Aika and I--it's our five year anniversary on New Year's, and I managed to get a copy of Wonder Woman's book autographed, if I could get something by you too..."

She trailed off, blushing slightly, and Dinah grinned.  "I'd be happy to."  

Shan smiled brightly and Nita looked up at them, grinning a little.  "Canary, we're ready."

Dinah tapped her communicator to let Oracle know.

---

Batgirl watched the small Indian man and his tall red-headed partner delicately placing strands of softly glowing yellow light in a circular pattern in the snow.  They were standing on the farthest end of the Tricorner Yards, their best approximation for the most southern end of Gotham.  The red-head, Nelly, scooted back and stood up.  Her partner was called Kalyanakrishnan Piyaseeli; Cassandra liked the name, the way he said it almost sounded like he was singing.   He'd told Cassandra to call him 'Krish' instead, had said that name was easier for most Americans.  Cassandra liked the other name better.

"Tilt the right one about 2 degrees, Krish,"  Nelly said, frowning at the pattern.   He did so, and she nodded, then glanced at Cassandra.  "We're finished."

Cassandra nodded and tapped open a line to Oracle.  "O.  Ready."

---

"Wow, that is so cool."

Karim nodded, gently laying down his piece of the circle in the snow.  He flashed another broad smile at Kit, "Scrolls are a lot easier to keep track of in the desert--and any time there is an update to the manual, the sands wipe it clean and start again."

Kit grinned back, still examining Karim's scroll--the Saudi Arabian version of the manual.  It was a beautiful, elaborately illustrated roll of parchment with one central page that filled up with line after line of the flowing script of the Speech.

"Besides, my people are rather fond of tradition," Karim continued dryly, "which has as many disadvantages as it does advantages."

Robin snorted at this very accurate comment from his perch on the fence blocking off the Ferris wheel.  They were almost at the edge of the beach on Amusement Mile--somewhere north across the Gotham River was Wayne Manor and the Drake home; he hoped his father would be stuck on his business trip till Sunday, because Tim planned to sleep all day tomorrow when this little adventure wrapped up.

Karim made one small change to the equations glowing on the slightly icy concrete and then stood--even with Robin balancing on top of a fence, the genial wizard was still a foot taller; he had to be at least 6'5''.  Kit peered down at Karim's work and then give Robin a thumbs up.
Robin waited for the two to find their positions in the circle, then hit his communicator.  "O, this is R, we're ready."

"10-4, R," was the response.  "We're just waiting for Bock's team, standby."  Robin jumped down from the fence and took a stance outside the circle.   Detective Mackenzie Bock was with the last team, a brother and sister set of wizards at Aparo Park, on the west bank of the Gotham River.  

"Oracle to all teams, we are a go."

Robin nodded at Kit and the young wizard gave him a tight grin in return, "All right everyone, begin the spell on my count."  Robin took a breath and one more step away from the circle to give the two space, and then continued. "On five -- four -- three -- two -- one -- go!"

Kit and Karim began speaking in the language all the wizards seemed to know, and almost immediately the overlapping circles of light on the concrete began to rise and spin into each other, like one of those puzzles with interlocking metal rings you were supposed to disentangle.  Tim could feel a pressure of some kind building up, and the glowing circles got bright and wider.  They continued to rise until they were several feet over the heads of the group, glowing brighter and brighter and widening in circumference.  In two minutes, the circles were almost 15 feet above them, and stretched out over most of the park.  Kit and Karim's chanting seemed to increase in pitch and intensity, and the glowing circles began to shift color, from yellow to green, blue, indigo, violet, back to red, orange, yellow, and then the cycle repeated, increasing in speed until Tim could barely detect the shifts in color.  

Tim frowned as he watched--there was no way the papers would miss this.  Which meant there was no way that he could avoid telling Bruce he'd invited a group of ten wizards--two from another universe--to play with magic in 'his city.'  He sighed internally--he could suddenly foresee spending a lot of time in Zogger over the next few weeks.

A loud 'pop' drew Tim's focus back to the circles, and he glanced up to see the two circles had stopped on violet and were spinning furiously, so fast he couldn't even tell there were two circles, not one.   Another pop, and abruptly the circles stopped spinning.  Tim had to blink as the light of the circles intensified and then suddenly went dark.  Inside the circle, Kit & Karim were swaying a little, clearly tired.  Kit leaned down and scuffed one of the patterns in the concrete, and both wizards stepped out of the circle.

"Did it work?" Tim asked, and Kit nodded wearily.  

"Yeah.  Give it a second--it should be drawn to whichever group it’s closest to, so hopefully this'll all be over in--"

Kit broke off abruptly at a loud noise to the left of them--it was almost like a squelch--like someone stepping into a pile of mud.  There was another noise, like a high-pitched squeal, and then Robin had to grab the fence for balance as the ground shook briefly.   In the time it took for Tim to blink his eyes, something had appeared in the darkness.  In the time it took for Tim to open his mouth and shout a warning it had charged--

--and suddenly it was on top of Kit.  Tim grabbed for a batarang, but Karim caught his arm, laughing.  One more second later, Tim saw why--the Halperx wasn't attacking Kit, instead, it was licking him with its tongue and--yes, it was wagging its tail.   If that long, fluorescent green, spiky protuberance above its hind claws was a tail.  The Halperx had definitely grown--it was about the size of a mini-van.  It looked almost like a cross between a kangaroo and a dog, with strong back legs kind of like an ostrich, but a fluorescent pink so bright it almost hurt to look at.  Its body was covered with iridescent dark grey and green snake-like scales, and its head was slightly square, with large antlers as pink as its back legs, with a long tongue the same green as its tail, which it was using to cover Kit thoroughly with a thick, puce-colored slime.

"Guys!"  Kit yelped, unsuccessfully trying to cover his head from the Halperx's enthusiastic attentions.  "A little help, please?"

---

Dinah yawned, and Renee smiled at her a little tiredly, then hurriedly raised a hand to control a yawn of her own.  Dinah grinned apologetically--they were all worn out, and she wanted nothing more than to go back to the Clocktower and crash on Barbara's couch for the rest of the weekend.  Maybe after a very long, very hot bath--her legs were two solid lengths of ice.   

She leaned back against one of the park benches and surveyed the crowd in front of her.  They were all assembled in the Wayne Botanical Park, and Aika and her partner were petting the Halperx; at least, they were scratching it behind one very large and floppy ear, and the set of brother-sister wizards (Zera Li--who was apparently the ZiLi that Aika had referred to back at the Solstice party--and her brother Palat.)  were scratching the other.  Robin and Kit were chatting with the tall Middle Eastern wizard and the red-head, some type of anthropology professor from Gotham University.  The tiny Indian man, also a professor, was talking with Nita, while Detective Bock was standing with the FBI agent and the lawyer.

She looked up at Cassandra who was watching the Halperx purr contentedly.  Cassandra glanced back at Dinah, and said simply:  "Fun."

Dinah laughed, "Well, that's one word for it."

She watched as Tim and Kit clasped hands briefly and walked over to Nita.   Nita shook the professor's hand and smiled at Kit as they walked back to the Halperx.  She glanced over briefly at Dinah and waved--they'd said their goodbyes earlier.  Dinah waved back and decided she was going to stay on the park bench--it was a lot windier in the center of the clearing where the Halperx was, and she was just too damn cold.

She watched as the assembled wizards stepped back and then raised an eyebrow as two of the cats she'd seen at Aika's place came trotting up through the crowd and calmly sat down in front of Nita and Kit.   "Montoya, do you--"

"Yeah," was the response, and she glanced up to see the detective watching the two cats doing...something to the air in front of the Halperx.  Montoya glanced back down at her.

"One of those days," she said dryly.

Dinah snorted and shook her head.  "I don't know, I think I'd take polite young wizards and their cats over Joker and Two-Face any day."

Montoya blinked, and gave her a half-smile.  "Point."

Dinah turned her attention back to the spectacle in front of them, and nonchalantly glanced sideways quickly, enough to confirm her suspicions that Montoya had been sneaking looks at her legs.  Dinah grinned inwardly.  Yup.  Still got it.

A soft light drew her attention back to the wizards, and a floating gateway that appeared in front of the Halperx, a cat on either side.   With a little prompting from the other wizards, the Halperx shuffled into the gateway and disappeared.  Kit and Nita stepped forward and turned back to wave one last time.   The assembled wizards, police and vigilantes returned the wave, and Dinah smiled, waving as well, as the kids stepped into the gateway and vanished.

---

"Oh, god, my head is going to explode."  Nita leaned back against the oak tree she was using as a seat and closed her eyes.  Across from her, Kit was leaning against a mailbox, rubbing his own head gingerly.  "Kit?"

"Yeah, Neets?"

"Next time we decide to be 'creative' in de-polluting a lake--"

"Don't?"

"You got it."

"No argument here," he said wearily.

Nita yawned and shrugged her shoulders, working out some of the cramped muscles.   As soon as they'd gotten back to their universe, they'd had to send the Halperx home.   On top of all the other wizardry they'd done tonight, the Halperx was now significantly bigger than it had been when they'd summoned it--and it took a lot more energy to send it back.   "I can't wait to go home."

"Me too," Kit said, sighing.  "As soon as I can walk again."

"Yeah," Nita replied.  She definitely wasn't up for a transport spell, so she just needed to rest enough to muster up the energy to walk home.   Suddenly, she bolted upright, eyes wide and staring at Kit.

"Kit!" she said in a strangled voice.

He opened his eyes and blinked--and then suddenly shot up as well, staring at her in shock.  "Do you--"

"Oh my god, do you--"

"Madre de Dios!"  Kit swallowed and Nita knew her face was matching the expression of utter disbelief on his.  The 'fog' that had surrounded them the entire time they were in the other universe had suddenly lifted, and the comprehension of exactly who they had spent the last few hours with had suddenly sunk in.

Nita opened her mouth to say something, but had no idea what to say.  She took a breath and suddenly she was laughing uncontrollably, Kit following in turn.  "Oh. My. God!"  Nita said, and then another implication hit her and she snickered, "Kit!  Do you realize what Dairine--"

Kit burst into laughter again, "Oh, god, Neets, she'll never forgive you!"

Nita nodded, unable to stop giggling.  She tried to take a deep breath and then was overtaken again by the laughter.

"Nita!" Kit burst out suddenly, frantically pulling out his book bag and digging in it.  

"What?" Nita replied, watching him paw through his bag.  Finally he stopped, finding whatever he was looking for, and looked back up at her, an enormous grin on her.

"You now have the perfect Christmas present for her."

"Uh...I do?” Nita asked, puzzled, then gasped in delight as Kit pulled out a batarang from his book-bag.  He handed it to her, laughing.  

"Robin gave me three of them, just in case we ran into trouble anywhere!"  He pulled a second one out and handed it to her, and then reached in and pulled a third out, admiring it.  "Merry Christmas, Nita."

"Merry Christmas, Kit," she replied smiling at the two impossible devices in her hand.  Then she looked up at him and grinned impishly.  "So.  How are we going to top this next year?"